Archive for the ‘adoption’ Tag

Time To Raise The Bar

dog on pavement with caption training shouldn't hurtThere are few fields in which having grown up either performing a task or with the student, is enough to qualify one as a professional and justifies charging for one’s services. Unless of course we are talking about dog trainers.

I grew up reading and might be able to teach plenty of kids to read but if your kid has dyslexia it would be wiser to choose someone with an education in reading science. I’ve been driving a car since I was 15 but I hold no delusions that I could be a good race car driver because of it. I’ve been feeding myself for decades, and I’m still alive, but it doesn’t qualify me to charge people for nutritional advice.

There is a science of animal behavior. How animals learn has been studied and researched for decades. Ignoring this and continuing to train dogs based on one’s own personal system that deviates from the science, would in any other field leave one open to criticism and possibly criminal prosecution. But not so in dog training. ANYONE can call themselves a dog trainer or behaviorist, and label the criticism close-mindedness or jealousy. I’ve been training dogs since I was a toddler (what else is holding out my cracker and getting the dog to come to me to take it if not training) but it’s no reason to hire me or seek me out for advice.

Dog training is an unregulated industry with no accepted standards outside of those established by professional groups, and they vary even between groups. Before you let anyone put a hand or piece of equipment on your dog, or encourage you to do so yourself, stop. Don’t let their confidence, arrogance or even big words or concepts sway you. You may end up paying a bigger price than you thought.

Suffering the Consequences

small black dog with 3 quills in his noseI heard an interesting piece on NPR’s This American Life radio show. The topic was institutionalized, racial segregation in housing in America. During the 1960′s when people protested, often violently, against this practice a comment made by then President Nixon went something like this, if the demands were met (end policies that perpetuated segregation in housing) the protesters would be rewarded for protesting or rioting, and therefore their demands should not be met.

Knowing that consequences drive behavior we could look at that scenario and agree with President Nixon. We have to be very careful about behaviors we reinforce. Dog owners and trainers could think about the puppy shrieking to get out of her crate. Open the door and the puppy learns that shrieking gets doors open, and that’s not anything we want to encourage. When my husband worked for a youth club years back he was faulted for inviting a young girl to have a snack after she became upset, spewed a litany of swears and hid in a locker. Hadn’t he rewarded her for her bad behavior of swearing and hiding in lockers with the snack offer?

Reinforce it and you’ll likely see more of it. But there’s a piece missing, a big piece, and that’s the reality that when someone, animal or human is upset they may behave in ways we don’t like. If all we are going to rely on is the use of consequences, chiefly punishment, to change their behavior we are in effect forcing them to suffer the consequences, when a goal should be to eliminate the need for those behaviors to be performed in the first place.

If we don’t want people to riot for equal rights or treatment, and accept they should have them, then we either have to provide them with those rights, or provide a way in which they can achieve them without needing to riot. A puppy who screams and whines to be taken out of their crate could be given the opportunity to learn to feel good inside the crate with opportunities to play, rest and chew bones there. They can learn to feel safe and comfortable in their crate for longer and longer periods of time. The little girl who became upset and hid in the locker could be given the tools for expressing herself in a more socially appropriate way. She could have also stood to have had a better home life and this fact makes the use of punishment or the withholding of rewards to change her behavior seem even more inhumane to me.

We are responsible for setting up the conditions for our dogs to behave in ways that are acceptable to us and useful to them. If we can’t create ideal conditions we need to give them skills to be able to cope with less than ideal conditions. Let the consequences drive your behavior. Being able to predict that your dog is not likely to be successful means you can change the conditions to improve the chances that they will be. This will spare you from having to suffer the consequences of your dog’s inappropriate behavior.

Trust Counts

Trust is a central theme of soap operas, TV dramas and political relationships. It’s lauded as being the keystone of good marriages and partnerships. Teenagers are reminded that they will not be allowed to stay home on their own, or out late, or have the keys to the car until they can be trusted. For many people the realization that trust has been “broken” can lead to a lengthy or impossible reconciliation.

If one was inclined to look at the importance we place on trust in a marriage from a biological point of view, the risk of raising someone else’s offspring, or losing the support of a good partner to someone else, could impact the long-term success of one’s own off-spring. But mostly, when someone discovers that their partner was not “faithful,” babies aside, it feels really bad- poem-writing, sad song singing bad.

Dogs are among the few species on the planet who allow us to break trust with them, and not make us pay for it, consistently. Yell at or physically reprimand a cat and you might not see them again, or are at least likely to have to clean out the scratches you received in return. Few believe that the lions in the cage being kept under control with a whip are to be trusted to safely snuggle on the couch with their “tamer.”

We can and do break the trust with our dogs routinely and there is a price. It’s bad enough to wonder if your partner is trustworthy when they call claiming another late night at the office. It’s another to wonder if the person approaching you is going to physically restrain, hurt or scare you. Being at risk physically, even if it’s done leaving no marks, is not something one forgets or puts aside easily.

The risk of losing trust with a dog is greater the shorter the relationship or the smaller the existing trust account. If we, from the moment we meet and handle a dog demonstrate that we are safe and worthy of their trust, and should we have to withdraw from the trust account we’ve built, we are less likely to lose it all. We are less likely to get bitten, or growled at by a dog and more likely to have them come when we call them. A dog’s behavior can tell us as much about our relationship with them as it tells us about them. Trust counts.

 

An Offer They Can’t Refuse

toddler feeding treats to a cocker spaniel and small black dogWhen 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.

 

Good Enough?

Scared dog at hoarding siteChildhood milestones in my life could be measured by learning how to swim. There are grainy, black and white home movies showing me leaping up, wiping the hair out of my eyes after demonstrating the newly gained skill of putting my face in the water at our lakeside cottage. I remember learning the “deadman’s float” and pretending to swim in the shallow water, my hands on the bottom of the lake as I practiced kicking my feet. When I went away to college I sought refuge in the pool swimming laps. Waiting for me at the deep end one afternoon was a young man. He had been watching me and asked if I’d like some tips to improve my strokes. I’d never had a lesson and along with enjoying the attention figured, why not?

He suggested some minor adjustments to how I held my head in the water, the position of my arms as they reached to enter the water and start the freestyle stroke, how to loosen up my hands and alter the depth of my kicks. Whenever we happened to be at the pool at the same time he coached me on subtle changes I could make to improve the efficiency of my movements. Soon I was swimming a mile and only stopping because I was tired of the routine, not because I was tired. The things he taught me made me a better swimmer and I took my new found confidence and joy in my abilities and found summer jobs as a life guard and swim instructor. I went from being good enough to being better.

It’s not unusual for us to learn how to do something just well enough to achieve some success and be happy with it. We get the job done, and that’s reinforcing. I have no plans to become a competitive swimmer and am content to go for long distance swims simply for the pleasure of it. Most of the skills I have learned are probably like my swimming skills, I get by with them enough to not see the need to put the energy into improving them. My interactions with my dogs were like that for most of my life, that is until Sunny came along and showed me that good enough was not going to cut it.

There are people involved in dog rescue, training and rehab who seem to have settled for “good enough” when it comes to how they handle dogs. They get what they need from the dogs and that’s reinforcing enough for them to not bother trying to improve on what they do. I recently watched a video of an obviously caring and compassionate rescuer using restraint and force to get a dog to let them handle her. To the casual observer it was heartwarming and the audience broke into applause and shed tears when the dog finally gave in and stopped resisting. Many would say that the ends justify the means and I did not question for a moment the good intentions of the handler. But I’m not a casual observer. No one working with fearful dogs can take the risk of remaining casual when interacting with scared dogs.

I remember reading this rescuer saying that they did not pay attention to what others said or did, they did what worked for them, and without question they were being reinforced routinely by the success they were having with dogs. But I saw someone who though “good enough” by the low standards currently upheld today in the field of dog rescue, had the potential to be amazing. All of the behaviors they were getting they could have attained without using force and restraint. A terrified dog would not have to be subjected to the additional stress and what looked to some as acquiescence in the dog, looked to me like a dog who had simply given up trying to fight anymore. A dog who was saying “uncle.” Why go there if you don’t need to?

We all know that the story continues after the camera stops rolling, the tears have been shed and the money has been donated. Plenty of dogs go on to become happy pets, but there are others for whom “good enough” wasn’t enough. Their failure will be attributed to any number of causes; the dog’s past or genetics. But when will we acknowledge that if all the people who handled the dog throughout the rescue process understood behavior, understood how animals learn, understood that good enough was not always going to cut it, more dogs could be successful pets? It’s one thing to be on the path to improving one’s skills. It’s another to refuse to even step onto it.

Plenty in Life Should Be Awesome

img_1979In order to simplify training for pet owners, and to incorporate training into daily life, eliminating the need to set aside a specific time for it many trainers recommend the Nothing In Life is Free protocol (NILF)*. It has its merits, though an unfortunate name. Tagging along with the technique is a fuzzy notion of “we’re in charge here and the sooner you figure that out the better” or something like that. There is also an unfortunate misunderstanding among many that merely making a behavior a requirement will change how a dog feels about performing it. This leads people with fearful dogs to obedience classes and to the recommendation that the person the dog most fears, does the training.

It is the case that when positive reinforcement training is used to teach behaviors that a dog is likely to feel good about performing those behaviors, but it would be an overstatement to say that they always do. In the case of NILF a dog learns that the food bowl doesn’t get put on the floor, or the door doesn’t open until they put their butt on the floor. This alone is a useful behavior for most owners, if left at that. But behavior, even with a reward, can become rote to the dog while remaining beneficial to us.

Kathy Sdao in her book Plenty in Life is Free encourages owners to look for behaviors to reinforce, rather than require behaviors be performed to earn a reward. It’s a beautiful system and once you get in the habit of it, it hardly feels like “training” at all. Instead it’s an ongoing conversation with your pet, “Hey that is awesome, I like it when you do that, have a bit of cheese.” One day you notice that your dog is performing that behavior with more frequency and you no longer need to block them from rushing out the door because they sit and wait for you to tell them how fabulous they are, and if you happen to have a bit of cheese, that would be nice too.

This is a great technique to apply to your interactions with any dog, but especially a fearful dog. Not only does the dog learn to repeat the behaviors you like, life changes for them. Most of our fearful dogs are very good at feeling scared, anxious and worried. By finding ways to provide them with rewards frequently throughout the day you can help them to develop what in a person might be considered, hopeful anticipation for life ahead. Help your fearful dog learn that plenty in life is awesome.

*Also called Learn To Earn, which removes some of the “I’m the boss around here,” sensibility of the practice.

Attach Away!

teenage boy lying on the ground w a dog lying on himThere is no shortage of things said or believed about dogs to make me, and others, cringe. Though I can understand “why” people believe the things they do, it doesn’t change the fact that I wish they didn’t. I understand why people would think the earth was flat, the sun revolved around us and because dogs are closely related to wolves they live in packs and follow a leader. Superficially these might make sense, but let’s not linger on the surface.

A reoccurring message that I am surprised to hear from trainers or people involved in rescue is that when providing foster care for a dog one must be careful not to let the dog form a strong attachment to the foster caregiver. Despite the fact that I have no idea how one would define what this meant for a dog, or how it would be implemented, the reasoning used to come to the conclusion seems shabby. It’s a sticky idea though, I wrote about it back in 2010 in the blog post BOND! and still find it in blogs and articles written today.

The conclusion seems to be that dogs who have been rehomed and institutionalized and suffer from behavior challenges, including separation anxiety, do so because they formed strong attachments with a previous owner, and had to move on. Really? I’m not going to argue that dogs don’t feel heart broken when they lose someone they loved and felt safe with, I’m going with the hypothesis that they do, but that this translates into separation anxiety or like a spurned lover they’d decide “never to love again” makes for great poetry, but not necessarily a manual for how to manage dogs. Is being rehomed more stressful because you lose a loved-one or because you are unprepared to find solace in the arms of someone else? What skills are gained having lived life on the sidelines while others bonded around you, or no bonding occurred at all?

I am not aware of any studies indicating that dogs who had formed strong bonds with a previous owner are more likely to develop behavioral challenges when they are rehomed. There are studies indicating that shelter dogs who are comfortable with people, are handled by a previously unknown person during their first 3 days at a shelter have lower cortisol levels than dogs who are not handled. Cortisol levels are indications of stress. Having positive associations with humans in the past would seem an important condition to see this effect.

What foster dogs need are skills and experience learning that humans predict good things to come. They need the skills pet dogs need so as to avoid being punished. As much a I think that my dogs would be unhappy about me not being in their lives I am also certain that should they (most of them anyway) find themselves in a new home they would quickly discover who can open the refrigerator or toss frisbees. I am not insulted by this, I find it comforting. This ability is likely to contribute to them experiencing lower stress levels overall. Lower stress is good. Stress can trigger mental disorders.

I am not suggesting that being repeatedly institutionalized and rehomed is good for the soul, but it’s more likely this experience, and not the attachments formed that destabilize a dog. Moving is one of the more stressful events a social animal can experience. If you want to help a foster dog navigate the maze of rehoming teach them how to; come when called, get off, or not get on in the first place, the couch, walk nicely on a leash, greet guests calmly, snooze contentedly in a crate, and how to play with people. There are plenty of other fish in the metaphorical sea when you have the right bait.

Surviving Adoption

small black dog being held by a man at an animal shelterRay Coppinger studies the world’s population of free-ranging dogs. These are the domesticated dog (as opposed to wild dogs) who are not under the reproductive control of humans. There are millions of them and they represent over 80% of the world’s population of dogs. He has looked at how dogs end up living as pets.

The most common thing that happens is that dogs adopt people. Travel in any developing country and you’re likely to see a puppy or young dog trailing behind a person, often a child. The pup survives on the scraps or offerings of the person they choose to be with. If the food or other necessity such as water or shelter is available on a regular basis, and provides an advantage over not sticking around the person, the dog has found a home.

When I was a kid my mother, having traveled to Florida, brought me home a baby alligator. The person who sold her the alligator told her that we should feed it bread. That my mother didn’t have an understanding of the needs of alligators is obvious, that the person selling her the alligator didn’t care is obvious as well. Martin the alligator (named after my brother) didn’t survive for long in his bathtub by the radiator. People also adopt dogs. One of the required conditions for any animal that is adopted by people is that they are able to survive the adoption process. Dogs for the most part, unlike alligators, have been overwhelmingly success at this.

Fearful dogs frequently do not survive the adoption process. Their needs are misunderstood, and even the most compassionate of people may not be able to meet them. The people responsible for finding homes for dogs with fear based behavior challenges need to be able to either give a dog the skills they will need to be successful as pets, or find someone who can.

Is the pet shop owner, knowing that the majority of baby alligators they are selling to tourists to bring home to their kids will not be cared for appropriately, behaving in an ethical way? If the pet shop owner is unaware of the needs of baby alligators should they be in the business of selling them? What is our responsibility for the dogs we either adopt out or bring home to live with us as pets? How can we increase the chances that a dog will not only survive the adoption process but thrive in it?

 

Sh*t happens

photo of bathroomIt’s true, sh*t happens and when it does it’s good to know about it. It’s like those fast food restaurants with the sign in the bathroom that says ‘Please let us know if this restroom does not meet our high standards for cleanliness’. If sh*t happens and you don’t know about it, how can you clean it up?

In the industry of animal rescue, and find fault with my use of the term ‘industry’ if you like, there is a lot of sh*t going on that doesn’t make it into the reports and stories created to provide PR and donations for the group doing the rescue.

I catch sh*t from people who insist that getting a dog into a home and out of a shelter is worth doing, whether there has been adequate evaluation of the dog’s and future owner’s needs and skills or not. Some will say that the odds are better for the animal, 100% chance of dying in a shelter vs. some unknown percent chance of suffering in a home, or wherever they end up. But make no mistake in plenty of cases they die anyway. They may suffer emotionally and physically while being passed from home to home or shelter to shelter. They may be forced to live a life of confinement or isolation. They may be ‘adopted’ by dog traffickers who sell dogs to labs or fight rings. If the dog is intact they may be used for breeding. They may end up as part of a hoarder’s collection and receive inadequate care. In a surprisingly high number of cases they may flee from their home and never be recovered.

How many shelters and rescue groups have statistics regarding how many animals are still in their original home, with contented owners, a year after being adopted? And if they don’t have them, why not? How can we raise our pompoms and cheer for dogs being placed in homes if those placements are ultimately unsuccessful? How can a group learn to improve their assessment of dogs and potential owners unless they can see the results of their current practices and procedures? I already know all of the excuses for not doing this kind of follow-up, time and money being high on the list. But I just don’t buy them. If we seriously want to declare ourselves ‘animal advocates’ then the ‘out of sight out of mind’ rationale doesn’t hold water.

If we are committed to the animals in our care we can find ways to ensure that we are doing the best we can for them. But we’ll never know how to do that until we are willing to expand our vision to include the ‘big picture’ and not just the snapshot ‘feel good’ moment of adoption.

Off-topic on Adoption

I am straying from the fearful dog theme for just a moment. I have been looking at a lot of shelter and rescue websites. Some are fabulous, many are the obvious and well-intentioned efforts of people who are website novices, too many feature auto-music that starts blaring as the site loads (how can you expect someone at work to sneak a look if they’re likely to be caught out by the refrains of ‘Rescue me!’ blasting from their computer) but design flaws aside, the most egregious flaw is the tone of the content I found often enough to prompt me to write about it.

One site warns that if they deem you ‘GOOD ENOUGH’ they may adopt one of their dogs to you. Another contained a list of 25 reasons why you should NOT call them, the personal pet peeves list of the author which included the lame excuses people give when getting rid of a dog. Having volunteered at our local shelter for years I was exposed to the attitude that many rescue and shelter staff have toward the general pet-owning public and that is that they are the genetic equivalent of a combination of Mike Vick and Elmer Fudd. If they are not outright villains, they are buffoons who don’t know why their dog keeps having puppies.

Doing rescue or working in a shelter is a tough job and I’m grateful that someone is willing to do the hard physical and emotional work of helping homeless animals. But maligning the very population, that being the general population, of people that you hope are going to reach into their pockets to make a donation or open the doors of their home and heart to an animal, is not a good strategy for success.

We know that there are bad pet owners out there, but it’s unfortunate to use the same broad brush to paint all owners because of them.

**It has gotten even weirder! I found one site that will adopt to single people or married couples, but not unmarried couples. They want to ensure that there is stability and commitment for and to the dogs. I suppose that means gay men or women who can’t marry, can’t get a dog. Haven’t these folks ever seen the stats? Married people get divorced, single people lose their jobs and need to move. I’m turned off just by the policy itself.

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