Archive for July, 2012|Monthly archive page

Breed Specific Legislation & Alpha Dog Myths

2 small dogs looking at cameraAs smart as we humans consider ourselves to be, we can be remarkably short-sighted or inconsiderate of the effects of our beliefs or actions. Antibiotics have saved countless lives and I consider myself among the lucky in history to have lived in an age during which we have access to them. But we have also learned that unless we use them judiciously, the fall out of resistant bacteria is very real and can be deadly. Yet for many, including, surprisingly, doctors, they continue to be misused.

When I meet trainers or dogs owners who believe that dogs need to be dominated in order to be appropriate pets I rarely doubt that they enjoy having dogs in their lives. However the perpetuation of the myth that dogs need to be ‘shown their place’ in the household pack hierarchy may have had serious consequences for breeds of dogs some trainers and advocates have specifically targeted for image improvement. This impact goes beyond the routine effect on a dog who has been ‘dominated’ displaying increased fear and aggression. That alone should be enough to reconsider the practice.

Touting the concept that dogs are inclined to seek a higher status in their relationships with people, including displaying aggression to do it, is scary. Growling, used by dogs to indicate that they want to maintain or increase their personal space, which may include food, locations or toys, is upsetting enough that many pet owners and trainers will punish a dog for it. It scares us. It scares us even more if we believe that it is a rung on the ladder up to domination. ‘Nip it in the bud’ is the tactic employed by many, and can have unintended consequences. Stopping growling does not necessarily stop the preference the dog has for being left alone, anymore than if I was punished for asking the fellow standing next to me on the subway to stop touching me, means I welcome his behavior because I’m afraid to speak up about it.

As sophisticated as humans are we are still ‘animals’ and have retained many of the responses that kept us alive long enough to evolve and achieve our own level of global domination (germs and cockroaches aside). We are as concerned about being attacked as the next fellow mortal regardless of how many limbs they use to walk, or whether they swim or fly. When we incorporated the myth that status seeking in dogs is a powerful enough desire that they are willing to attack and kill humans to get it, red lights started flashing in the parts of our brains that respond to immediate threats which affect our survival. This unfortunately has led to less use of the parts of our brains that are capable of critical thinking.

There is plenty of information, provided by biologists, ethologists, behaviorists, and writers, far more skilled than I, to include the research done on both wolves and dogs which indicates that both animals interact within a system that promotes cooperation far more than it does conflict, especially conflict which might lead to grievous bodily harm, in this post. I welcome readers to include links to that information in comments. My goal for this post is not to address that, but rather to suggest that when you convince people that dogs need an ‘alpha’ or ‘pack leader’ in order to be a safe, ‘balanced’ pet you instill a level of fear in people about dogs which may have led to the increase in breed specific legislation and heightened laws regarding which dogs communities feel safe having in them.

I have rarely doubted that trainers like Cesar Millan and others who follow his ‘premises’ about the relationship between people and dogs, like and love dogs, but the unintended consequences of maintaining the ‘alpha’ and pack leader paradigm, including practices and handling techniques which can increase aggression, may be proving to be deadly to the very dogs they claim to care about.

Sunny & Seaglass

seaglassStrolling a beach who can help but be pleased to find a piece of sanded smooth seaglass?  With the sharp edges worn down to safety they are tiny treasures used to make jewelry. Bathrooms around the world contain baskets of the stuff gathered during vacations and holidays. Even with their shiny surface blurred by abrasion we rarely resist the urge to put a piece in our pocket.

As I pick up stones to toss into the lake for my dogs I set aside ones rounded to lozenge-shaped smoothness. My childhood friends and I would covet these kinds of rocks, sharing them with special friends the way teenagers now share friendship bracelets or rings. What is it about these stones that, even as an adult, I find irresistible? Why is something that was once irregular with sharp edges, more appealing now that it has been tumbled and had those edges refined?

Sunny is my seaglass. Once he might have been considered by many to be a broken shard, without Black & white dog looking quizzicalworth, destined for the trash heap. But with his edges smoothed he’s one of my most valued treasures. A rare piece of red or blue glass that has put in its time tumbling in the sand and ended up all the more beautiful for it.

Small, White Dogs

small white dog

image: commons.wikimedia.org

At the vet with Finn, who was having his second chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma, I chatted with one of the techs, who was also a dog walker. She mentioned a client’s German Shepherd, I said how I always wanted one, but so many seem to have behavioral problems. Her reply was that for her the worst were small, white dogs, because they are ‘spoiled’.

She’d been bitten twice by small, white dogs so I could understand that she’d come to the conclusion that small, white dogs could be problematic. But because they are ‘spoiled’? I wondered how many pet owners ‘spoil’ their dogs by letting them bite people?

When I think of ‘spoiled’ dog behavior I think of the dog who gets muddy paw prints on your pants when they jump up to greet you. Or the dog who drools in your lap while you’re eating because they’ve been fed at the table. Most of the behaviors I associate with having been ‘spoiled’ may be annoying or unwanted, but they’re not necessarily dangerous, especially when performed by a small dog.

It’s not unusual to hear someone comment that their dog ‘thinks he’s a big dog’ because of the intensity and ferocity of their display of aggression, either toward people or other dogs. No doubt there are dogs who don’t do the math when they are faced with someone who outweighs them by double digits. I suspect terriers are like this by design. The others are likely well aware of the imbalance and are doing their best to make up for it.

Few people or dogs will continue to approach or attempt to interact with a large dog who is expressing their desire that they be left alone. Small dogs are not as fortunate. Videos by the hundreds can be found of small dogs snarling and lunging at people and the camera. People think it’s funny, but it’s no laughing matter. Dogs end up dead because of this behavior.

One of the behaviors associated with a fear based response is ‘freezing’. A small dog who has been overwhelmed by someone may offer no resistance. This can look like tolerance or compliance to the uneducated eye. Since the dog was ‘ok’ with being handled in the past, they are handled again in the future. If fleeing isn’t an option, and freezing didn’t get the point across, they may become aggressive. Some will bite. To ‘spoil’ the dog at this point, and move them away from what is bothering them or tossing them a few treats, might improve the situation.

When we experience aggression in dogs, whatever their size, we can feel fear and anger. If we justify our response by blaming the dog for it we step on a slippery slope, especially if that response is devoid of understanding of what might have provoked the behavior we are seeing. If a dog behaves aggressively toward you and you are inclined to blame the dog or the owner for it, take a step back, both literally and figuratively, and consider how your actions are contributing to the problem. It takes two to tango.

Annie Finds Her Bliss

buff colored cocker spaniel in the water next to a pierYears ago I attended seminars and conferences for small business owners. The inevitable inspirational speaker would invariably talk about how if you do what you love you will be successful.

Last week Annie discovered fish. She has spent hours every day watching for and stalking fish. Of all my dogs she was the one most tentative around water. After nine years Annie seems to have gotten in touch with her inner spaniel. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so happy and engaged. From a dog who used to daintily walk in shallow water she’s now leaping off the dock to pounce on fish.

Help your dog find something that rocks their world. There’s no telling what hidden talents might be waiting to emerge.

Ooops. My Bad.

Give me a break.

Cut me some slack.

We learn from our mistakes.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

4 dogs down on the floor looking at the camera

Four dogs practicing doing something that probably makes no sense to them.

Despite the fact that our language is littered with phrases that attempt to make us feel ok about making mistakes, or to request that others be less critical of us when we do, we sure as heck do not seem to have incorporated this magnanimity into our lives or culture. Even our dogs are subject to our lack of tolerance for ‘errors’.

When we are afraid to make ‘mistakes’ we become limited in our abilities to learn, improve or innovate. How many of us refuse to try to do something for fear of looking ‘foolish’ or being ridiculed? Few of us are ‘naturals’ at all the activities we may attempt to perform. I rarely participated in team sports when I was growing up because I didn’t think I was ‘good’ enough yet every summer I learned a host of new skills as I played with friends.

I could walk on stilts, jump on a pogo stick, swirl a mean hula hoop, swim, dive, and run. We showed off to each other, shouted to our parents to ‘LOOK AT ME!’ ‘WATCH THIS MOM!’ even as we stumbled or belly flopped. We were cheered on regardless and this encouragement gave us the incentive to keep trying, to screw up our courage and try a back flip, to show how fast we could run barefooted on a dirt road and ride our bikes with our hands at our sides.

Any new skill requires a certain amount of ‘rewiring’ of the brain. Our muscles need to memorize new movements, and dexterity improves with repetition. Even behaviors such as loose leash walking require a dog learn a new way of moving. Sure they already ‘know’ how to walk slowly, but just think how challenging it would be for you to go out and train for a marathon while being forced to hold the hand of a three year old. Old patterns and habits are hard to break.

When your dog’s behavior isn’t quite perfect, instead of finding fault, throw them a bone and help them do better next time.

NOTE: I will be offering a seminar on working with fearful dogs in Santa Cruz, CA on September 9, 2012. Contact me for details.

Training Treat

Earlier this week I had a two vet visit day. Two different dogs, two different vets. While waiting in the exam room in both clinics I helped myself to some of the treats available on a counter (good treats at that, not just biscuits). I tossed them around the room encouraging dogs to ‘go find it’. I often use the isolated, quiet time to work on different ‘tricks’ with my dogs. It gives both of us something else to think about.

As it turned out Finn the border collie had gained seven pounds since our visit 3 months ago! The vet was not concerned and only suggested he lose 2 of those additional pounds. To see me in the exam room you wouldn’t be surprised that he’d gained weight, with all the treats that were flying around. The main contributor to Finn’s extra pounds was more likely caused by a change in his food. Since our last visit I’d had a nutritionist come up with a diet for him and I’d need to cut back on it. This is something I am more than happy to do. Not only do I think it is healthier for a dog to be at a good weight, it saves me money on food. Nothing wrong with that.

Both the vet and tech were very good about distracting and rewarding Finn while he was palpated, prodded and poked. At one point the tech asked me, “Do you give him treats like this at home?” Her meaning being, “Are you always handing out so many treats?” There wasn’t time for a proper response so I left it at, “No, unless I’m trying to teach them something.” The fact of the matter is that with four dogs I am usually always trying to teach one or the other something.

I’m a training opportunist, rarely setting aside time solely for training, but incorporating it into our day. At some point a behavior should be ‘trained’ and treats no longer needed, and for the most part that is the case. Do I ‘need’ to have food on me to get behaviors from my dogs. Nope. There are dozens of times a day I ask my dogs for behaviors and only reward them with either my thanks or nothing- come, sit, wait, shove over, off the couch, leave it- all happen without being followed by a food reward, or even the chance of one, countless times.

The resistance to using rewards to train dogs remains strong. I often hear a hint of pride in an owner’s voice when they tell me that they don’t use food to train their dog. We all need to continue to work on behaviors we want to become proficient at. I doubt you’d hear a concert pianist say about a piece of music, “Oh I know that one, I don’t practice it anymore.” There’s always room for improvement and one way to get it is to reward it. My dogs may never learn that going to the vet is a treat, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a few when they’re there.

Reality Bites

black dog swimming with yellow ball in his mouth

During Sunny’s 7th summer at the lake he finally started swimming out after balls.

A trainer friend shared feedback with me that she got from clients who have read my book, A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog. Some were disheartened by how long it took for Sunny to show progress in dealing with the fear based challenges in his life. This was certainly not my intention, to cause people to lose heart in regard to their dogs. But anyone living with a dog with ‘issues’ is either in it for however long it takes, or they’re not. I make no judgement about people who chose not to be. I understand their decision.

Every dog is different. Some, like Sunny, will spend their entire life having to cope with deficits acquired early in their development. This includes development that occurred in the womb. We can manage these dogs to lower stress and anxiety and help them learn appropriate skills for dealing with things or situations that scare them. In many cases we will see increased resiliency and an ability to tolerate more variety. Most animals can continue to learn throughout their life, which means we should never ‘give up’ trying to teach them when we decide to take on the challenge of helping a fearful dog.

Finding support to help you with your dog can be tricky. I have been surprised to discover that people who I would think would know better, and in my opinion should know better, don’t. Fear based behaviors are treated as though they are bad choices a dog is consciously making. I have been blamed for Sunny’s behavior by people who should have an understanding of dog growth and development and how early experiences, or the lack of them, can have a devastating and long lasting impact on the animal.

I hope that for every person living with a fearful dog who reads my book and finds the slow, plodding progress disheartening, there are people who find hope.

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