Archive for the ‘animal shelters’ Tag
Language is important. The words we use to convey ideas matter. Times change and language changes with it. It is helpful to know that when someone is describing something as fat, they mean it’s phat. There’s nothing wrong with being gay and happy, or gay and homosexual, but using the word gay as an insult, as in that’s so gay, should be discouraged, even if the kid saying it does not realize its implications.
Frequently I am asked for my opinion on trainers who I have never met or have seen working with dogs. When someone with a fearful dog is going to consult with a trainer, often a coup in itself, the skills of that trainer matter. With nothing other than a website to go on I have to make assessments as to whether or not that trainer has the ability to help a dog struggling with what may be extreme fear based behavior challenges. And helping the dog means helping the owner understand and work with the dog. I am well aware of, and share with owners, the limitations that exist with my long distance appraisals. One of the things I take into consideration is the language a trainer uses to describe the relationship between the owner and their dog.
Years ago, some of the best trainers in the world used the term pack leader to describe that relationship. But times have changed and like a poisoned cue, the term has become outdated and potentially dangerous. There can be endless debates regarding the different definitions of leadership and how we implement that leadership, however one need not have a shred of leadership ability (whatever the heck that means anyway) in regard to dogs in order to effectively look at and come up with ways to change their behavior.
A trainer who advises dog owners to act as leaders may do no harm, and even some good, when dealing with dogs who are only lacking in basic skills and manners. But once you move on to dogs who need more help in changing their emotional and behavioral responses, the leadership recommendation is often sorely lacking and frequently misleading. Owners don’t need to be better leaders, they need a better understanding of what is setting their dog up to behave the way s/he is and the steps to take in order to change that behavior. Even the parent model, or otherwise benign leader model does not give owners the skills they need to effect the changes they want to see.
Dog owners don’t need to become professional dog trainers in order to help their special needs dogs, they need information about behavior and what ends or maintains it. It’s a much simpler and safer solution than encouraging owners to come up with ways to be respected as pack leaders, which is something even dogs don’t have a definition for.
How would you justify going to a surgeon who claimed to be really good at cutting out tumors but had flunked out of classes on physiology and biology? Maybe some of their patients survived the surgery and went on to live full lives without a tumor, but what about the others? What about that nerve bundle that the surgeon nicked because they didn’t realize how important it was to walking? Or that the tests ordered prior to surgery were read incorrectly and the wrong blood type was requested? If someone was desperate and grasping at straws I could understand how they might use this surgeon. But how does that surgeon explain putting themselves out there as a professional?
At a seminar I was attending a young trainer described how she explains to potential clients how she trains dogs. It was along the lines of; All dogs are different and I do whatever works. It’s a statement I could even make about myself. I had the opportunity to watch this trainer handle a rambunctious, young, male, Labrador Retriever. She had been unable to provide a rate of reinforcement that was high enough to get the behavior she wanted from the dog. She was also unable to explain to the owners how to do this and instead the dog wore a shock collar and was subjected to repeated collar corrections in order to get him to ‘calm down’. I realized that she wasn’t doing what worked, she was doing what she could do.
I understand how challenging high energy dogs can be, but I was stunned. The foundation reward-based trainers build with a dog is finding rewards that are reinforcing enough to the dog they will repeat behaviors to get them. Sometimes this can take some exploring, but with a lab? A lab!? Labs are the poster children for food and play as reinforcers.
Unless you have the skills to teach behaviors without inflicting pain, yelling, or threatening a dog, with a level of proficiency that demonstrates knowledge of how the various types & schedules of reinforcement get behavior, you have no business, as a professional, resorting to punishment as a solution to a behavior challenge. Even if you can demonstrate that skill and knowledge you should also be able to identify the potential risks and fallout of using punishment, should you decide to use it, so you are prepared to identify them should they occur. Knowing how to punish a dog to stop behaviors is not enough, you should be well versed in all the reasons why you shouldn’t.
I have been involved in ‘rescuing’ and finding home for dogs. I have worked with shelters and on my own. I have been negligent in performing the things I am going to address in this blog post so my high horse is not quite as tall as it sounds. I acknowledge the good intentions, hard work and struggles that most people involved in animal rescue experience. I am aware of the argument that it’s better to save some, even if others suffer. I happen not to accept that this is as good as it can get. There are plenty of reasons and excuses for turning a blind eye toward the practices and outcomes of rescue operations. We can do better and making excuses isn’t the way to get there. It won’t happen overnight but we need to start kicking the bar up a notch when it comes to what we call ‘rescue’.
When I buy a car one of the criteria I have for choosing the make and model is how long I can expect it to last and its resale value. A good car will be a good car longer and the company that makes it gets my business. I am not likely to buy a car from a company which cannot demonstrate that their vehicles are still road worthy 5 years down the line, or from a company which sells cars with brakes that routinely fail. If I am buying a car from an individual I take it to my mechanic to check it out before I make the decision to buy it. No one is likely to tell me I am expecting too much from car manufacturers or dealers.
When a rescue group waves the banner and is cheered for the number of pets they have found homes for I wonder why they are not also sharing information on how many of those pets are still happily living in the original homes they were placed in. Or how many did not survive the ‘rescue’ process. I know the reasons they could give for not doing this, but I am going to suggest that the main reason the data isn’t shared is because no one is doing it routinely, and that we need to expect it.
If we are serious about our love for animals and respect them for their unique abilities and personalities we should be serious about adding accountability to the ‘rescue’ process. We need to put as much effort into finding out how well someone is doing their ‘job’, unpaid or otherwise, when it comes to finding homes for animals as we do when buying a car. How can we know how well our protocols are working unless we follow up and track results? Not only will we gain insight and knowledge but we’ll improve the service we are providing both the animals and the people taking them home. As trendy and politically correct ‘rescuing’ a shelter dog is there are still people who because of a bad experience with a dog, will head to the pet shop or mill breeder in the belief that they are more likely to get a ‘better’ pet out of the deal.
When we buy an unsafe car we might be killed, when an animal is rehomed inappropriately they’re the who is less likely to survive the experience.
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.
In a blog about fearful dogs you wouldn’t think that I’d pay so much attention to this whole dominance virus that has infected the health of our relationships with our dogs, but it’s major. I run an in-home boarding business for dogs. It’s a nice set-up for the dogs and the owners that use my services are conscientious pet owners. It’s not a scene that every dog would appreciate, but for those that do, it’s not only a nice way to spend a few days, it helps them brush up on rusty social skills since most live as solo dogs.
A potential client and I had an email exchange recently about her dog. She described him as a friendly, good natured dog that had some issues with select dogs when he first meets them. He barks at them. She went on to say that she never had an ‘alpha’ dog before and was learning how to deal with it. Certainly a dog that sees other dogs and barks at them must be trying to dominate them right? Ah…no.
Confident dogs, or dogs that are intent on being the big dog on the block rarely spend a lot of time barking at other dogs, far from it. They get their point across with their bodies and their eyes. Well socialized dogs, even in situations in which they are establishing their place in the playground hierarchy, rarely even fight. It’s a beautiful thing to watch a group of socially adept dogs determine ‘who I am to you’. With looks, stances, paw & head placements, the messages are conveyed and then the games can begin.
So what difference does it make if someone mistakenly believes that their dog is trying to be ‘alpha’? It matters because our responses are usually based on what we think is going on, AND how we feel about it. The results of our responses to our dog’s behavior may or may not be what we were after, and if our responses don’t make things better, they can make what we see as a problem, worse. It is probably not far off track to assume that most of the behavior problems seen in dogs relinquished to shelters or by trainers, have been caused by inappropriate responses to their behaviors, by their owners.
Fearful dogs that never bit anyone in their life can be provoked into biting by a handler assuming that the dog’s behavior is a challenge or attempt to dominate the situation. Physical intimidation, promoted by National Geographic’s Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, is exactly the stuff that can make this happen. Remember that one does not need to hit or touch a dog to scare or intimidate them. I remember cringing through one episode in which a dog that was afraid of the bathtub was man-handled until it finally bit Millan. His response to this bite was along the lines of ‘good, he was just having a tantrum’. Someone like Millan who doesn’t seem to mind the occassional bite can intimidate a dog enough so that it does not learn that biting works to keep scary things away. But for most of us the prospect of being bitten makes us back off, which is what the dog has been trying to communicate all along by cowering, growling, lowering its head, rolling over, etc. Now an owner has effectively taught their dog that biting works, that the dog basically needs to shout since the owner has proved themselves hard of hearing.
The dog whose owner believed it is trying to be an ‘alpha’ dog is one of the lucky ones. This owner is not into harsh or intimidating techniques of managing her dog. But what of the other scared dogs that are not so fortunate? Many defenders of trainers like Cesar Millan will say that it’s not his fault if people do not use his training techniques appropriately (even used as directed they can have disasterous results). I disagree. He is promoting the domination of dogs and is responsible for the outcome from that. Supporters seem to be willing to give him credit when the outcome is positive but not when it isn’t. When a leader of a country says publically that AIDS is not a sexually transmitted disease (as has happened) and therefore people do not need to take the appropriate precautions to prevent contracting the disease, I believe that he is responsible for the potentially deadly results of his actions.
The results of the belief that dogs need to be dominated can be deadly, especially with fearful dogs.
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.