At a large dog event I watched with some disgust and much dismay, as people who probably really care about their dogs handled them with all I can label was “disrespect.” Dogs were being dragged around on leashes, being reprimanded and jerked for spending too much time (typically measurable in seconds) looking at or sniffing something, not responding to cues fast enough and being left standing on grooming tables while people chatted.
Most of the human behavior was rude though some could be called abusive, and troubling. I realized it was time for me to move on when I found myself watching a groomer handling a young aussie who was not sitting when asked. The dog was being very solicitous, lowering his head and ears, licking and wiggling. I watched as the groomer continued to try unsuccessfully to cue the dog into a sit. Finally she yanked on the lead securing the dog to the stand and slammed his butt down. My own social filters must have been strained because the thought bubble I put over the groomer’s head, and spoke out loud (a tad too out loud) was, “JUST DO IT!”
We know how important good relationships are in all areas of our lives, with our family, friends and pets. I assume dogs are less likely to be given up to shelters or abandoned if their owners feel positively about the relationship they have with them. Working on and repairing these relationships are a part of what many trainers strive to do. But as I watched the groomer manhandle the aussie I realized I had been hoping, for the dog’s sake, that he would just do it to spare himself the wrath I suspect both he and I could see brewing. Why he didn’t will remain a mystery and I prefer to go with the thought that he had his reasons and they were good enough for him and valid enough for the groomer to accept. Maybe he didn’t know what she was asking for, maybe he was worried about something, maybe he would have preferred to have been off the table and had not ever been given a good enough reason for sitting when asked up there. Ultimately it didn’t matter. Life for him at that moment would have been kinder if he had sat when asked.
When you think about it most of our human relationships would improve if the people in our lives did what we wanted them to. It is frequently the daily drag of feeling inconvenienced and ignored that wears away at relationships. If only they; didn’t leave dirty dishes in the sink (get on the furniture with muddy feet), put the toilet seat up or down when they were finished using it (didn’t pee on the carpet), put their smelly socks in the laundry hamper (didn’t chew up our favorite shoes), were on time (came when called), etc. It’s not that we don’t want to feel loved and cared for, but it sure would be nice if they cleaned the bathroom now and then.
As complex as relationships can be, one solution is to teach dogs what it is that their human wants them to do, and put it on cue. Put simply, they do what they are asked to do. The relationship may still require work, but a few well-trained behaviors (using positive reinforcement as the foundation of that training) might act as a tourniquet to keep it alive long enough for the dog to remain in the home where the work can be done.
This is the reasoning behind my upcoming volunteer vacation to three islands in the Caribbean; Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques. When pet owners understand how to use positive reinforcement to teach their dogs new behaviors, those dogs are likely to learn and maintain those behaviors, are less likely to end up being part of the sad statistics of homeless animals.
I returned home yesterday from a multi-day workshop on training birds at Natural Encounters in Florida. Watching and learning from the best bird trainers on the planet (and that is not hyperbole) was inspirational along with educational. One of the take-aways for me was new language to use when talking about training, any animal.
Many of the participants at the workshop were zoo keepers. People working with animals who have the potential to injure or kill them, i.e., large, wild animals, use the term “protected contact” to describe training in a setting in which the animal can’t touch you. At first glance it looks like a set-up designed with the human’s safety in mind, but it also provides the animal with the information that the human can’t get them either.
The first step we need to take when working with a fearful dog is to provide the dog with an environment in which they feel safe. How we do this depends on what is scaring the dog. Many of the dogs people contact me about are afraid of people. Unless we are able to manage the dog so they consistently feel safe in the company of people, we are not likely going to see progress in their ability to interact with us, or that progress will be painfully slow. It may be so slow that the conclusion is reached that the dog is unsalvageable. We may need to find ways to work with our dogs using “protected contact.” In the following video you will see how I created an environment in which I was able to work with a new foster dog (and yes he is now my dog) to help him learn skills while maintaining his ability to choose how much contact we had. You don’t need to watch the entire video to see how I set it up to make sure that he did not have to worry about me trying to touch him.
It will be easy to find excuses as to why providing this kind of protected contact is not possible with your dog or the dogs you work with. Those excuses will not change the reality that an animal who has to worry about their physical safety is not going to learn new behaviors as easily as one who knows they are safe and can begin to build a new repertoire of skills and behaviors.
I don’t want to come across as someone who trolls the internet looking for other people’s websites, blog posts or videos to criticize. More often I try to ignore most of it. Sometimes it lands in my lap. The link to the video included in this post was shared with me by the manufacturers of a new product designed to eliminate anxiety in dogs. I understand why they’d send it to me and I’m always happy to learn about new products to help the population of dogs I care a lot about.
The first image in the commercial for a calming coat is of a trembling, scared chihuahua used as an example of the dogs the product can help. I understand why they’d do this, but I had to work to not start getting pissed off about it. Princeton is not just feeling camera shy, Princeton is scared. I get it. We all get it. While we’re getting it, and they’re getting footage, Princeton is scared. Why is it ok to scare a dog in order to sell a product? We don’t push old ladies down a flight of stairs in order to film a commercial for a distress call product to use after they’ve fallen and can’t get up. We don’t sneeze on people to give them the flu so we can get shots of them for a nighttime flu-relief medicine. But for some reason it’s ok to put a dog in a situation that scares them so we can get the images we need, to sell something. Even if what is being sold is of value–people have been using wraps, ace bandages and tight T-shirts on dogs for years to help with anxiety–it only seems to lessen the disrespect for the victim (the real-life animal actor) slightly in my mind.
As the commercial continues a claim is made that the product works because it “simulates a mother dog holding its young.” Seriously? Have they ever seen a litter of puppies being held by their mother? I know that we live in a world in which one can say practically anything they want about dogs and be believed, but this is creepily Orwellian. The myths that dogs need pack leaders, feel shame after peeing on the rug, you should correct dogs by grabbing their muzzle because that’s what mothers do, have just been joined by “mother dogs hold their puppies.” In internet-speak my response is WTF?
I also take umbrage with the assertion that dogs who need daily medications or treatments will no longer need them if they wear the coat. Body wraps do not work for all dogs. If they do, fantastic. If they don’t, it’s better for a dog to remain on daily medications and treatments that are working. My comment (which has since been removed) on their youtube page did not question the efficacy of their product, but rather the claim as to why it worked. I mean come on, “hold its young.”
I asked them to provide me documentation regarding this assertion. I was told that it was tested and veterinarian-approved. OK, that’s great, I don’t want that test info or the names of the veterinarians who have approved it, I wanted to know where they got the information that young dogs are soothed by being held by their mothers. Bottom-line is that there is information out there that supports the use of compression for ramping down nervous systems. With a little homework they could have found it but instead resort to the all-too-common tactic of “making sh*t up about dogs.”
I notice that they didn’t use Princeton as an example of their product working its magic. Though he appears later in the commercial notice his tightly tucked tail, one of the easiest pieces of body language there is to judge how comfortable a dog is. Unless when being held by their mothers puppies also tuck their tails (I just made that sh*t up). The company sent me info about their product and my feedback to them has simply been met with repeated claims that research proves it works. My issue with their advertising is not that their product doesn’t work, but their claim regarding WHY it does.
People should stop thinking they can keep making sh*t up about dogs and it’s ok.
*Thanks to a reader for pointing out that one of the dogs has an electronic collar on. Aversives are contraindicated for anxiety.
I try to be careful when I start feeling like the fellow in the cartoon tapping away at a keyboard late into the night because, “Someone said something wrong on the internet.” I try to be tolerant knowing full well that I’ve written stuff or have videos that someone, for one reason or another could find fault with. Maybe you can guess where this is going. Someone has said something wrong on the internet.
There is no shortage of videos and websites providing information about how to work with fearful dogs. I tend to avoid them because even when there may be something of value in them, it is frequently contaminated by misinformation that perpetuates ideas that people have that guide them into making the wrong training choice with their dog. Stating that dogs are pack animals can seem benign unless you consider that one of the biggest challenges we face today is to get people to stop bullying their dogs based on the idea that a preponderance of misbehavior is based on the dog’s desire to be dominant, or pack leader. And if you care that the evidence about dogs out of the control of people (street or feral dogs) does not support this “pack” definition of their social relationships that’s another reason not to talk about dogs as pack animals.
When I see people using force to get behavior from dogs it makes me cringe. When I see people using force to get behaviors from scared dogs it makes me feel ill. Even when the outcome is heralded as a success (and I would encourage you to consider who is defining “success”). It is not difficult to get people to accept that the ends do not always justify the means. This is especially true for me when there are alternatives to the means being employed.
Following are three videos. The first is an advertisement for a training business. When you watch I encourage you to pay close attention to the dog’s body language. It’s not difficult in the first part of the video to understand how terrified the dog is. In the second part of the video when the dog is walking with the owner it becomes a bit more difficult, in part because of the voice-over, canned applause, and finally the choice of music, all geared to having us feel warm and fuzzy about what we are seeing. But look at the dog. Note the way the tail and ears are being held. Does the dog seem comfortable and happy? Is this really a “successful” dog.
It is not explained, nor is it clear, if this dog was trained on, or wearing an electronic collar. In trying to discern whether or not e-collars were a part of this company’s training practices it took some digging into their website to find references to them, but they’re there. Training “off-leash” is a great concept. But being “on-stim” is not the same thing. Perhaps the dog was not trained using an e-collar and was too frightened to stray far from the owner. This hardly seems like a training success to me and as far as learning goes is relying on an aversive consequence to maintain control of the dog.
The second and third videos are mine and are advertisements for my website, and without question there are trainers out there who are mechanically cleaner and more skilled than I am. So I open myself up to criticism. I created these videos because I wanted to show the process of building comfort and skills in a scared dog. Nibbles, the little dog in the videos was as resistant to being leashed as the dog in the first video. My choice is not to subject a dog to the terror of being restrained by the neck and forcing them to comply. You have that choice as well.
That a trainer is unaware of how to do this, doesn’t have the skill, or cannot show you how to do it with your dog, does not change the reality that you have options as to how you will interact with and train your dog. Pay attention to the excuses someone makes for not choosing less coercive methods for training dogs, and remember that because your dog doesn’t have a say in the matter doesn’t mean they don’t have strong feelings about it.
At my first appointment with a new dentist after I moved to Vermont I asked if he’d like me to have my charts sent from my previous dentist. His reply was, “I don’t need them, I have your mouth.” Everything he needed to know about my teeth was in front of him.
When we begin to work with fearful dogs it’s not uncommon for us to think that we need to know the dog’s past in order to help them. It’s not that the information would be superfluous, but it likely will not change how we are going to work with the dog. We have their mouth, so to speak. Their behavior will guide us. Whether it’s an 8-week old pup or 8 year old dog who won’t come out from under the bed, our approach will be the same–help them feel safe. The same would be true of a dog growling, we don’t need to determine whether the dog is fear aggressive or aggressive and not fearful, our response to the situation will be the same–do what we need to do to end or prevent the growling without punishing the dog. We take away any perceived threat, desensitize and countercondition, and teach the dog to do something else using positive reinforcement-based training.
I have had clients spend the majority of a consult describing in great detail everything that happened to their dog. They think that something is going to inform me about the exact “fix” their dog needs in order to stop being fearful. If there was a sudden onset of the dog’s behavior it would indicate the need for a vet visit, and even with that, we’d prepare ourselves to work on any newly added fears that occurred due to pain or illness. We’d do this the same way if the dog had been displaying fearful behavior for years.
“Why” can get in the way of developing humane and effective plans for working with a dog. Decide that a dog is being aggressive because they are trying to dominate you and respond in a way to thwart this attempt and you’re likely to start brewing trouble. Knowing whether our dog was timid from birth, spent years in a cage at a puppy-mill, was tied up in a yard for most of their life, was beaten by a man with a hat and a beard may satisfy our curiosity, but it won’t change our training plan. Make sure they feel safe, DS/CC and teach them something.
My dentist did take x-rays. It would be nice to have a machine to look into a dog’s past, but don’t worry that we don’t.
When we meet a dog, especially a dog in a shelter or in the rehoming process somewhere, the first piece of information we need to give them is why they should engage with us. Most of us, dog lovers that we are, would never say to the dog, “Because I said so!” when it came to the reason they should pay attention to us. But in effect that’s what we often do. We approach, we pet, we clip a leash on their collar and however gently we do it, make them attend to us.
Our intentions are good. We have time constraints. We think “dogs like me.” It’s for their own good. But none of these are necessarily reason enough for a dog. Especially a stressed-out dog. Erasing first impressions is tough, if not impossible. There are some dogs who it would appear are able to hold onto that first impression for years.
We may be limited in what we can offer a dog, but fortunately for us what is usually most effective is readily available to us–food. We have to start someplace and pairing our appearance or handling of a dog with steak can create a powerful and long-lasting positive emotional response. We know we are more than just vending machines and that there are other things in life that we’ll be able to provide a dog with at different times that food will pale in comparison to– running, playing, tugging, herding, sniffing, exploring, snuggling on the couch–the list goes on, but it’s not a bad or ignoble start.
The subject of using medications to treat dogs with fear and anxiety issues is a controversial one among pet owners and trainers, and one I frequently feel inclined to address in regard to working with fearful dogs. Drugs have been a blessing and curse for humans. They can both save and destroy lives. Deciding to give a scared dog medications is often a struggle for owners. An incomplete understanding of why they are being used is often at fault.
There is an immediate emotional response to the idea of giving a dog a medication for a behavior issue, and for some people it’s a bad response and for others it’s more neutral. There are few pet owners who thrill to the idea. That some people mis-use medications with their dogs, and by this I mean that they assume that training challenges, or the failure to provide a dog with enough stimulation and enrichment on a daily basis will be remedied with a pill, does not take away the benefit these pills can have for many dogs.
A common misunderstanding about the use of behavioral medications is that they are being used to sedate a dog, this is especially the case when a dog is fear aggressive. Owners assume that the dog will be “doped-up” and spend the rest of its life in la-la land, unable to function. People often worry about potential side-effects of medications, but have given no consideration to the impact chronic stress (which a medication might alleviate) has on their dog. And if a medication does not prove to be effective or there are negative side-effects the option always remains to stop using them. There are a different medications available, and one might work better for one dog compared to another.
If you step on a rusty nail and suffer a deep puncture wound, even if you develop an infection there is a chance you will survive. Antibiotic medications will likely play a role in this. If you wait too long to take the drug the infection may progress to a point where the drugs are not effective or your life can be saved, but not your leg. While we are hoping that our dog’s problems can be addressed with soap and water, a kiss and a bandage, the infection may be setting in. We know what normal, healthy dog behavior looks like. If you are unsure as to whether or not it’s time to stop hoping the problem will resolve on its own find a trainer** who understands the challenges of working with fear-based behaviors and talk to a vet or vet behaviorist to explore ways you can ensure you save the leg.
**Any trainer who recommends the use of force, coercion or punishment to help a scared dog “get over” their fear should be avoided. At no time during training should a dog be handled in ways that are designed to elicit fear in your dog.
*This is also the name of my upcoming book.
When we ask a dog to do something in exchange for something they want it’s not about “no free lunches” or that dogs need to learn to work for what they want. Every organism on the planet, if they are going to be around for long already has this information. If they didn’t there would be no beaver dams, no mice caught by cats, no webs woven by spiders, no carcasses cached in trees by fisher cats, no acorns hidden away by squirrels. When we teach a dog to respond to a cue, rather then making them work for treats, or their food bowl, or an open door, we are making the world a more predictable place. The behavior of humans makes more sense to a dog when they are trained to respond to our cues.
When we use positive reinforcement to teach a dog behaviors we are infusing the whole process, all the pieces of it, from the appearance of the person to the performance of the dog, with “feel good.” We are the ones who label a particular behavior as “work” whereas for the dog it might just be sitting, fetching a ball, waiting or rounding up sheep. It’s something to do, and doing something is often better than doing nothing, especially when good outcomes are the result.
John asking Sunny to target his hand is not being used to lure Sunny closer, he had already shown he was quite happy to be that close. It was not to make him “work” for the treat. Asking Sunny to target his hand enriches the relationship between the two because the human’s behavior now has meaning instead of being a random, possibly threatening, gesture. It was a cue Sunny already had learned from me and performing behaviors to make treats happen is an enjoyable experience.
Build a vocabulary with a dog and you’ll be amazed at the conversations you can have with them.
Imagine taking your car to a mechanic to find out what was wrong with it and having a discussion like this-
Mechanic: When did you get it?
Car owner: Six months ago?
Car owner: Not long after I got it.
Mechanic: Tell me what’s wrong.
Car owner: It doesn’t work the way it’s suppose to.
Mechanic: Does it have enough gas?
Car owner: Gas?
Mechanic: Did you check the oil?
Car owner: Oil?
Mechanic: How about transmission fluid, anti-freeze, brake fluid?
Car owner: I’m not sure what you’re talking about.
Mechanic: Ok give me the keys and I’ll have a look.
Car owner: Keys?
I confess that I fried my beloved 4Runner’s engine when I drove it with no oil. Wasn’t a light suppose to come on? Guess I could have been better about checking it in between changes. I paid for a new engine. In my defense I would add that humans have only been interacting with cars for a few hundred years, and just over 100 if you only count the time since Henry Ford brought the Model T to the public.
Imagine having a similar conversation with a trainer about your dog and admitting to being completely unaware that puppies need to meet other dogs, be exposed to the world they are expected to live in, and require exercise and training in order to develop physically, mentally and emotionally.
People have been living with dogs for thousands of years. It would seem that we have not done a very good job of sharing information about what they need in order to become good pets. If you screw up with a car you’re out transportation and some cash. Too bad for you and the car won’t know the difference. The stakes are much higher for the dog.
Stop by my Facebook page Giving My Dog a Life and enjoy the pictures of happy pets. Post a few of your own while you’re there.