Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

That’s irrelevant! Or is it?

It may be the human condition, this striving to achieve relevancy in our lives, at least for some of us anyway. Fortunately for us it’s not too difficult to become relevant to the life of a dog. Some lovely evolutionary twists and turns seem to have practically written our relevance to them in their genes, and maybe theirs in ours. Alas the system can go awry and we end up with dogs that for one reason or another find us not only irrelevant but also terrifying.

In some cases due to the lack of appropriate socialization some dogs don’t find us much fun to be around, regardless of our good intentions. Others may not be frightened of us but they don’t see the point of us, unless it’s feeding time. Sometimes I joke and say that one of my dogs would love anyone she thought could open the frig, but maybe there’s more truth to the statement than I’d like to admit.

When we are helping dogs in need of homes, whether working with them at shelters or fostering them, one of our goals is to find ways to make people relevant to them. A dog that has discovered the relevancy of humans is going to be better equipped to learn to enjoy living in yet another new place, with someone new.

My border collie Finn was in 3 different shelters, that I know of. By my count we are his 7th abode. When he came to live with us at 3 years of age he was as close to an insta-pet as a re-homed dog can be. Sure we had to iron out some kinks, and I had to learn what living with a border collie can entail, but Finn sacked out on the couch with us the first night, like an old pro.

Besides whatever good handling Finn received in his migration from Tennessee to New York and finally to Vermont, he was given a gift by one of his owners. Finn was adopted by a competitive frisbee player who decided that Finn didn’t cut the mustard and brought him to a shelter, but not before he turned Finn into a frisbee catching machine. It’s not too difficult to turn a border collie into an enthusiast for one sport or another and for Finn, since frisbees don’t toss themselves, people are very relevant to him. In fact, show up at our house and Finn will greet you like an old friend, drop a frisbee at your feet and let you practice your toss. Pick up his frisbees and walk out the door and you may find yourself with a new shadow.

Becoming relevant to fearful dogs initially involves the use of food, since it may be the only thing that they can feel good about, but it doesn’t have to end there, nor should it. Turn a dog onto something, whether it’s chasing balls, playing tug, going for walks, learning clicker tricks, doing agility or nosework, and you give them something they will carry with them when they move to a new home.

Rehabbing fearful dogs is about giving them the skills to live in the world and in my opinion the most important skill is how to have fun, no matter where you go.

Tribal moments

3 dogs looking at the camera with open mouth grinsOne of the most touching moments in my life (yes it was dog related) occurred when I was out hiking with a group of neighborhood dogs. I loved watching the dogs interacting with each other, racing off after the chirp of a chipmunk and splashing in the streams we crossed. At one point I found myself alone, the dogs all out of sight, but as I rounded the corner of the trail there stood Rosie, a black & tan collie mix. She was a regular visitor to our house and a good pal of my dog at the time. Her choice to lag behind the other dogs and wait for me made me feel, and I do feel kind of silly even writing this, ‘included’. The other dogs appeared shortly after, but I’ll never forget how comforting it was to know that my presence (or lack of it) did not go unnoticed.

Teaching a dog to come on cue is perhaps one of the most important behaviors you can teach a dog, and not just for safety and practicality. When a dog has learned to come when called you have given the gift of freedom. In a sense you have opened up the world for them.

Other bloggers in this Never Shock A Puppy blog hop are going to share great ideas for developing recalls, and I’m sure I’d be redundant with my own suggestions so I thought I’d share info about another important behavior. In my world the ‘auto check-in’ is as valuable to me as a recall.

Our daily dog walk takes place on trails located amidst hundreds of acres of New England forests. We cross rocky streams, pass an abandoned apple orchard, where I’ve been finding almost perfect small Macintosh apples and bunches of tangy grapes hanging from vines tangled on the trees. We usually wind our way down through a grove of towering red pines, but some days we head uphill and visit the stone foundation of an old homestead and in the spring the dogs have a swim in the vernal pond. I’ve seen deer, coyote, porcupine, black bear, grouse, gray fox, chipmunks and even a fisher cat. The dogs have probably smelled and tracked many other species as well.

There may be 4-12 dogs on these walks, and I am less inclined to want to try to keep track of all of them when it’s easier for me, if they keep track of me! And the dogs seem quite happy to accommodate me in this system, indeed few need to be ‘taught’ to do so, they just need reinforcement for doing it.

There are dogs who for one reason or another, breed inclination or levels of distractions for example, who are not going to be safe or reliable off leash. If we’re in a place where I am concerned about a dog’s safety and need them to stick close by I keep them on a leash. I don’t want to risk having dogs tune me out because of a lot of repetitious shouting for them to come, even if I have rewards for them.

The first step that I take with any dog that will be joining me is to establish a positive relationship with the dog. A dog that is not interested in me or ignores me when I speak or move is not likely to come when I call them or care where I am. For most dogs, a few bits of chicken or some games along with happy talk and some scratches, are enough to show them that being with me is usually better than not being with me.

Dogs also learn another simple system- they do something I like, I say ‘yes!’ and they get a reward. Most dogs can practice this with cues they already know such as, ‘sit’ or ‘down’. I also create a few conditioned reinforcers while I’m at it. A few repetitions of; “Good dog!”, a hand clap, or a chest rub are followed by a treat. I am building up the ‘feel good’ value of praise and petting by associating them with something the dog values.

Dogs with no history of staying with their handlers join me on a long line. As we wander along I am on the look out for a variety of behaviors which I will mark and reward. Whenever a dog indicates that they are noticing where I am, they are rewarded. These behaviors include; the dog stopping on her on own, whether she looks at me or not, a look in my direction, and anytime a dog returns to me whether cued or not. For the food motivated dog, simply hearing the marker, ‘yes’ is enough to have them trotting back to me for their reward, which I happily provide. There are always sticks along the trail for fetching or chewing for dogs inclined to enjoy that kind of nonsense. For other dogs I acknowledge their behavior with a ‘yes!’ and then call out ‘let’s go!’ and they are off and back to their exploring.

By rewarding dogs anytime they ‘check in’ with me on their own, this behavior is repeated and strengthened. Too often owners don’t take advantage of building this behavior in their dogs. They ignore their dog when she glances in their direction or stops and waits. Puppies are easy to get this kind of behavior from because they are less inclined to be off on their own away from their owners so it’s never too early to start acknowledging and rewarding a dog for attending to the people in its life.

It’s nice to know that even though they have the world at their noses, my walking companions still keep me in their sights.

Who am I to think?

One of the striking things for me at the recent BlogPaws conference was not only the number of people willing to go out on limbs for animals (or swing from dangling fabric), but how young many of them were. When the pre-teen took the stage and shared her dream of helping animals I wanted to hug her mother. After passing the half century mark I am beginning to lose the voice in my head that whispered, and sometimes shouted-

“Who are you to think you can ______(fill in the blank)?”

There seems to be no shortage of other voices echoing that question and providing me with reasons why I shouldn’t think I can. Knowing that there are young people who not only ‘think’ they can, but ‘know’ they can, is heartening.

I am no longer surprised by how startling few voices there are to encourage people who want to step out, try new things, make a difference. I’ve wondered if some remain quiet because they do not realize the power the sound of their encouragement can have. Even a simple ‘Go for it!’ can fuel someone for the next step in the process and a ‘How can I help you?’ lets them know they’re not alone on the journey.

When I worked with rescue groups in Puerto Rico, bringing street dogs to Vermont to find homes, I would hear criticism of the practice.

“Aren’t these dogs taking homes away from local dogs?”

Good question, but no, they are not. We brought over small dogs, of which there were few to none available at our local shelter. The people who came into the shelter and adopted the 5 lb Chi mix were not going to go home with the 70 lb lab in the run next door if the Chi wasn’t there. In fact the Chi got them into the shelter and may prompt them to make future donations. No local dog was not accepted into the shelter or put down because of lack of space. Also of note was that many of the stray dogs in Puerto Rico could trace their ancestry back to a puppy mill in the United States, or they themselves were products of these mills. They had been flown to Puerto Rico and sold in a pet shop, information the people complaining about getting dogs from outside our area were unaware of.

There were people who were incredulous that someone would be asking for donations of time or money to rescue and feed dogs when there were so many children who needed help. They asked why wasn’t I focusing on helping these children?

To this my response was, “There is lots to be done to make the world a better place. No one of us is able to do it all but each of us can do something. Find what moves you and act on it.”

Many of the people who took issue to the energy I put into dog rescue, were not doing anything themselves for the children they felt I should be putting my efforts into instead. Some were, but most were not, and of these many did not appreciate the irony of their reaction. Apparently it was easier to find fault with the work that someone else was doing rather than do some of their own, for the recipients of their choice. I am not saying this with any rancor, knowing that I can be guilty of this kind of reaction as well. I remind myself that just because I may not be interested in saving a centuries old building, preserving habitat for a rare slug, or care if a particular intersection has a stop sign or blinking red light, doesn’t mean that someone else cannot feel strongly, even passionately about these issues.

I try to offer encouragement to anyone putting time and energy into making positive change in the world. It’s the least I can do, don’t you think?

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Shuddup already!

image of border collie dogBarking. There’s nothing quite as annoying as a dog that barks when he’s not suppose to. Trouble is that dogs don’t know that when we think it’s ok for them to bark, may be different from when they think it’s ok to bark, or how long to bark.

Add to the mix the fact that dogs bark for different reasons; to alert us to changes in the environment (like the dreaded UPS truck coming up the drive), to draw attention to themselves (hey I’m out here!), because they are anxious (OMG they’ve gone and are never coming back!), because they are excited (yippeee! I’m loving this game!), to get something they want (throw it! throw it!), because they’re suppose to (gotta keep making noise so they’ll know where to find this fox I’m chasing), to keep things away because they are afraid (better not take one more step in my direction buddy) and, well, just because some dogs seem to have more to say than others.

Years ago I had two delightful cocker spaniels. When people would go by the house the dogs would run out the dog door to stand in the driveway to bark at the passersby. My usual response was to rush outside to get them to be quiet. One day as I was shouting at them they both stopped, turned, and with looks on their faces that seemed to say, ‘about time you got here!’, they turned back and resumed their barking. At the moment they stopped to look at me I realized that they did not understand I was shouting AT them and not WITH them. It appeared as though they thought I had come out to join them in raising the alarm. No wonder why my ‘training’ was being ineffective in trying to get them to stop.

We often have unrealistic expectations for our dogs. These expectations are something individual owners should consider and best to think about before a dog is brought home, but most trainers are consulted after the fact, so that’s where we have to start in order to find remedies for the challenge of untimely barking. There are considerations for dealing with any behavioral problems and they apply to barking as well.

1. Assess our expectations for our dogs. Is it reasonable to expect that a dog will NEVER bark? Is it fair to prevent a dog from barking AT ALL by hurting or scaring them when they do? Are there any compromise we can make?

2. To change a behavior we have to stop giving the dog the opportunity to practice it. How can the dog be managed differently so that the barking behavior is either less likely to occur or not occur at all? Can we change their environment so that they are not constantly being exposed to stimuli that cause them to bark? Can we lower their anxiety so they don’t feel the need to bark? Do we provide them with enough exercise and opportunities to use their senses (and bark if they like) so they are relaxed at other times and less likely to have pent up energy for excessive barking?

3. We can’t teach a dog a new behavior if we’re not there to show them what it is we want from them. Even if we are there we often are not training the dog, we are just achieving a momentary break from the barking by getting them to ‘shut up!’. If we use an interrupter to stop a dog’s barking are we following it up with the information the dog needs to learn an alternate behavior?

4. Are we being consistent with our training?

I don’t expect that my dogs will never bark. When something causes them to bark I try to discover why they are barking, more often than not they have a discernible reason for it, and I’m glad to know about it (like the time they found a baby mole trapped in a dog bowl). I acknowledge that I am alerted to what is going on, thank them for the heads up and let them know they can stop. This approach has a high rate of success for routine environmental changes. My calm response to the situation seems to help.

When people come to the house or exciting new things pass by (people with dogs!) I again acknowledge to the dogs that something is worth noting, and then ask them for an alternate behavior. For most dogs it means coming to me and sitting quietly and getting rewarded for that behavior. My fearful dog Sunny is asked to go get his frisbee, so the arousing and potentially scary people are associated with something that is very positive for him. We’ve practiced this enough so that he will now bark a few times and then run and get a frisbee on his own. This is an example of using environmental cues to get a dog to perform a behavior we like.

When I board dogs that are inclined to bark at every chipmunk they see or rustling of leaves they hear, they are brought inside. This isn’t done as punishment but acknowledges the fact that for this dog the stimuli is too much for them to experience without barking. It isn’t fair for me to expect a dog like this to be outside and not bark. For Molly, a sighthound mix, watching for squirrels is sport. She’d make a great hunting dog for someone, but her talents are not appreciated by the neighbors.

When it comes to excessive barking it may pay to focus on the ‘whys’ of the behavior first and then consider ‘how’ we can change it.

This post was written in collaboration with the Never Shock A Puppy Campaign. Inspired by Be The Change the campaign is raising money for an approved shelter. You can make a donation and know that your money is going to an actual shelter doing actual rescue work (as opposed to a hoarder).

Essential training for all dogs

This is another post in my series to help newly adopted dogs. You can help by ‘liking’ Pedigree’s Facebook Fan page, and/or write a post yourself and submit it here. Pedigree is donating food to shelters for each new fan and post. You’ll get some exposure yourself when your blog is added to the Blog Hop.

There are many things that dogs need to learn, but in my opinion many owners are negligent for not teaching their dog this essential skill.

Please submit a video reply to my youtube movie showing me your dog’s mastery (or not) of this ‘must have’ skill.

Games new dogs can play

Thanks for helping homeless dogs!

This post has been created in affiliation with Pedigree and their ‘Write a Post Help a Dog’ Campaign. For every blog post written by anyone (pet blogger or otherwise!) about this campaign, Pedigree will donate a 20lb bag of their new formula dog food to a shelter. For each person who ‘likes’ their Facebook Pedigree Adoption page a of bowl of food will be donated. Visit the Pedigree Foundation Shelter Rescue Blog for more information about how you can help shelter dogs.

When you write a post it will be included in the upcoming Blog Hop. Be sure to enter the exact link to your post (not just your blog’s url) to join the Hop and so Pedigree will be able to find it easily to add to their count.

Click here to enter your link and view the entire list of entered links.
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If you don’t have a blog you can include information in a newsletter, share a link to this post with a chat group or tweet about it.

Here’s my very first vlog post! The name game is great for any dog but especially newly adopted dogs.

Walk this way

brown dog with leash

Why not?

This post is written in conjunction with the Never Shock A Puppy Campaign. This campaign was formed after the first BlogPaws conference and the Be The Change For Animals initiative was started.


Following are ideas about walking fearful dogs on leash.

1. Fit the dog with a harness which they cannot slip out of. If a scared dogs slips its harness they can be difficult, if not impossible to catch. If you have any doubts consider fitting them with a martingale collar. If you are not sure if a dog can slip its harness, use a back-up leash on a snug fitting flat collar.

2. Use a long line. You can buy a long line in a pet shop or make one yourself out of a clothesline with a clasp attached. If a fearful dog is afraid of its handler, a long line gives them more space to move away from them. Some fearful dogs may need this when being taken out to toilet.

3. If you are using food lures to get the dog to move, fade the lure as soon as possible, so that instead of luring you are rewarding the dog for taking steps forward. Targeting is great for this.

4. Notice if the dog is uncomfortable having someone walking behind them and modify where you are in relation to the dog. My own fearful dog was reluctant to move if I put pressure on the leash while I was standing in front of him. If I stood next to him and asked him to move he was able to.

5. Walk during times of the day when the dog is less likely to encounter any of its triggers. For some dogs this may mean very early morning or late night walks.

6. Mark and reward the dog anytime he walks in an appropriate way. This will vary for each dog and handlers will need to determine where the dog is at in the process of being comfortable on the leash. Toss treats on the ground if the dog is not comfortable coming close enough to take the treat from your hand.

7. Skip the flexi. Scared dogs can bolt and the flexi-leads can give them enough leash to build up some speed. When they hit the end of the line it can be pulled from the handler’s hand at which time it retracts toward the dog. Not only can this be scary for the dog it leaves no leash dragging which could be available for grabbing to gain control of the dog. Not convinced? Check out his blog post.

8. Remember that walking on a leash is like being asked to train for a marathon while holding the hand of a three year old (you’re the three year old). It’s probably not fun or very fulfilling for many dogs so look for ways to exercise your dog off leash.

9. Dogs don’t need to be on a leash to begin to learn polite leash walking skills. Reward your dog anytime they walk next to you by tossing a treat for them to find, then keep walking. When the dog catches up to you, toss another treat for her to find. Begin to increase the number of steps you take while the dog is beside you before tossing the treat. This game can also be played with the dog on a long line. Play this game enough and a leash becomes superfluous and your dog has the start of a ring-worthy ‘heel’.

10. For many dogs leashes have come to predict something scary or unpleasant. If your dog is afraid of the leash desensitize and counter condition them to it by associating positive things with the leash. You can also help by having the leash predict nothing in particular- pick up the leash and do other things besides putting it on the dog. Put the leash on the dog, give them a treat and remove the leash. Mary, on Mary’s Dog Blog has a video showing the work she’s doing with Aaron, her foster dog who is teaching her lots about fear based behaviors.

Here is more information, including videos of teaching a dog to walk politely on leash produced by Ahimsa Dog Training. Note the high rate of reinforcement the dogs receive. Most handlers do not reward a dog near enough to reinforce the behaviors they want.

Before Sunny could be allowed off-leash we worked on the cue for ‘wait’. Fearful dogs often find recalls challenging, and while they may not be able to comfortably approach a person, they may be able to ‘wait’ for their handler to catch up to them. This was one of the early behaviors Sunny learned and helped him feel more comfortable with me moving toward him. Here’s a video of how Sunny learned to ‘wait‘.

Get a home little doggies

Dogs are remarkably resilient. Anywhere you travel to in the world you will find them. In some places they sleep on beds cuddled next to adoring owners, or are kenneled until called upon to do the job they were bred for, while in other places they huddle under abandoned cars struggling to survive from one day to the next. But survive they do. Indeed they are so resilient and adaptable that we can ignore the challenges they face when their lives are are turned upside down.

Even those of us who spend our lives living with and studying dogs can lose sight of the fact that a dog who has been rehomed is experiencing what is considered to be one of the most stressful occurrences for a social animal to endure. But endure they do, most thriving and ‘learning the ropes’ of their new environment without seeming to miss a beat. However for some, the upheaval and changes are not so easily processed and tolerated.

It is for these dogs that I created the Fearful Dogs Website, where owners can learn about the most effective and humane ways to help dogs learn to become more comfortable in their world. I am far from alone when it comes to trying to help dogs have a better life. Along with the folks at Pedigree, who sponsored me to attend the recent BlogPaws West conference, and bloggers around the country, we are working to raise awareness of the plight of the millions of homeless dogs awaiting adoption.

  • Each year, more than 4 million dogs end up in shelters and breed rescue organizations. Pedigree created The PEDIGREE Adoption Drive to help shine a spotlight on the plight of these homeless dogs.
  • This year the PEDIGREE Adoption Drive is raising awareness for homeless dogs by donating a bowl of food to shelter dogs for everyone who becomes a “Fan” or “Likes” The PEDIGREE Adoption Drive on Facebook. So far more than 1  million bowls have been donated.
  • Special for BlogPaws West: For each blog that posts about the PEDIGREE® Adoption Drive through September 19, PEDIGREE® will donate a bag of their new Healthy Longevity Food for Dogs to shelters nationwide. It’s simple: Write a post, send out an email, add a blurb to a newsletter and help a dog.
  • Thursday, September 16 through Sunday, September 19, the Pedigree BlogPaws bloggers will host a Blog Hop, to help raise awareness for the “Write a post, help a dog” effort. You can make a difference.

Please set aside a few moments to write a post. Include the bullet points above.  Copy the images if you’d like.  Add whatever you’d like to help get the message out. Because this is not limited to pet bloggers, there is tremendous potential. Know bloggers in other categories that might be interested? Please share this post with them, write one of your own, and on Thursday leave a link to your post on the Life With Dogs website.

There is lots to be done to make the world a better  place. No one of us can do it all but we each can do something. Here’s how you can do a small thing and make a big difference for dogs. Please share this with other people who care.write a blog help a dog

Punishment: It’s in the amygdala of the beholder

This post is part of the Never Shock A Puppy campaign for Be The Change For  Animals

Punishment is any consequence that increases the likelihood that the behavior preceding or accompanying it, will decrease. It’s been the foundation of modern dog training for decades. Dog pulls on leash, make pulling so unpleasant that the dog stops. Dog lunges at strangers or other dogs, yank, yell at, shock or hit the dog (hard enough) and they may stop lunging at strangers. For punishment to be a training technique it must have the affect of preventing the undesired behavior from occurring in the future. If a particular punishment doesn’t work after a couple of applications, it’s not working as a training technique and amounts to what some would consider abuse or in its most benign form, nagging. Some skilled trainers understand the use, benefits and pitfalls of using punishment to train dogs. Few pet owners do. No offense to anyone out there, but it’s true.

One thing that punishment can do well is suppress behaviors. The trouble is that many dogs are punished for something that seems perfectly obvious to their handler, but is not to the dog. No behavior happen in a vacuum. A dog that is shouted at for pooping in the house, even while they are pooping, can look for all intents to understand that they are not suppose to poop on the rug, in response to being shouted at. However there are dogs who after being reprimanded by their owners for pooping inside, become reluctant to poop anywhere when their owners are present. The dog did not understand that the problem was pooping inside. Some pet owners complain about dogs that can go for an hour long walk, do nothing, and then come home and poop behind the couch. Ooops.

When working with fearful dogs, who are already sensitive to what goes on in their world, even doing something that is only mildly startling can cause problems with their rehabilitation. Punishment does not have to hurt or scare a dog in order to be effective, but it does have to be aversive enough so that the behavior is affected and herein lies the rub, it’s not always easy to know how much is enough and how much may be too much. It’s risky, and it would be one thing to take that risk if it was the only option available to us as both trainers and pet owners, but it isn’t. Not only are there alternatives to using punishment to change behaviors, more and more studies show that these alternatives can be as or more effective. Animals learn skills faster when they are rewarded for doing the right thing as opposed to being punished for doing the wrong thing.

It is not just the punishment itself that can have negative fallout when it comes to training dogs. The threat of punishment and its accompanying dread can affect how or if a dog learns new behaviors.

Practicing predictability

image of old train scheduleMy nephew and his wife asked me to take care of their shy Klee Kai Polaris while they went on vacation. I was happy to help them out and to learn more about a breed that I was not familiar with. As it happened I was also invited to attend the upcoming Blog Paws West conference in Denver under the sponsorship of Pedigree to help them get the word out about their adoption drive. This meant that I would be going away for a few days during Polaris’s stay and needed to find a kennel for her. We have several good kennels in our area and I found one with availability and although I knew the owners, I had never visited the actual kennels. So last week I stopped by for a visit.

I mentioned to the kennel operators that I knew one of their client’s shy dogs. I was told that after 3 days the dog was ‘fine’ with them and with being there, which seemed to indicate to them that the dog’s problems lie with the owner. However it makes perfect sense. Besides having good dog handling skills, the kennel staff follow a predictable schedule and routine. Dogs feel more comfortable when they can predict what is going to happen to or around them, a timid or shy dog is going to benefit from this even more. While living in a kennel is probably not much fun, it is predictable, and regardless of how comfortable and wonderful a home is, the chances are that it is unpredictable. Strangers arrive, startling noises occur, owners come and go, often with no warning. Without any way to predict when they will occur a dog continues to be surprised and scared by them, over and over again. (Or in the case of some anxiety, the predictors of a stress inducing event start the anxiety ball rolling, such as when dogs suffer from separation anxiety and their owner picks up their car keys.)

One of the ways we can help our dogs is to provide them with predictable routines that they can follow, even when unpredictable things happen. When on a leash and strangers appear I NEVER let them interact with Sunny. He can predict this and has no need to try to pull away or growl and lunge at them. Dogs can learn to perform behaviors that create predictable, positive outcomes for them. If new people come into the dog yard Sunny is encouraged to pick up a toy and someone will toss something for him. This requires training, patience and practice, but if you’ve decided to take on the job of helping a fearful dog, predictability can be your best friend.

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