Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

Can you relate?

comfypugI got my first and only puppy when I was sixteen years old. She was a reddish brown fluff ball of eight weeks and I promptly was smitten. My mother did not allow dogs upstairs in our bedrooms so I moved into the basement to sleep with her. When I was not in school (and I admit to skipping classes so I could sneak home and be with her) we were inseparable. I took her with me on the subway into Boston where I let her chase squirrels on the Commons and she would stop in mid chase to return to me when I called her.

I knew nothing about training dogs, at least nothing that was written in books or taught in classes. Treble grew into a handsome dog with feathers on her legs and tail and when asked what kind of a dog she was I made up a breed that matched her good looks, a ‘golden shepherd’. She knew to stay with me on walks, sit, lie down and give her paw on command and that’s about it. She greeted children with exhuberant face licking and she behaved appropriately around chickens and sheep. To this day I can say she was among the most attentive and responsive dogs I’ve lived with.

Was she an exceptional dog? Certainly to me she was but probably no more so than others. Was I a ‘natural’ at dog training? Doubtful. What we had was a positive relationship. I did not think of myself as the pack leader, nor did I see any transgressions on her part as challenges to my status as ‘alpha’. We shared the joy of walking on the beach and in the woods. I wanted her to be happy and safe but more than anything I wanted to be with her. Watching her chase a tennis ball made me smile and when I had to put her down because of spleen cancer I was inconsolable.

I learn something from every dog I live with. From Treble I learned that what mattered most was our relationship, and it was not a relationship based on dominance or a social hierarchy, it was a relationship based on what each of gained by being together. Most of us know this, we greet dogs, offering a treat or a scratch, saying ‘let’s be friends’. But it’s more challenging with a fearful dog and so we too often skip this step, moving into trying to get behaviors we need to manage the dog.

If you are working with a fearful dog the first step to take with them is establishing a positive and trusting relationship. Learn what makes the dog feel good, it may be little bits of steak handed out every time you approach, a chest rub, a squeaky toy hidden in your pocket or a run in the woods. Training and obedience will come in time and will be easier when your dog knows that good things happen when she’s with you.


It’s Not Always As It Seems

Sweet SetterMy own scared dog Sunny was rescued from a 477 hoarding site discovered after the hurricanes in 2005. The owner of the site convinced rescue groups that she ran a sanctuary for dogs. She was so convincing that close to 200 dogs were sent to her. Other supposed ‘rescuers’ turned out to work with dog fighting rings or sold dogs to research labs.

If you decide that you are unable or unwilling to keep a fearful dog be suspicious of anyone that offers to take it from you. No-kill shelters are often run by hoarders and most cannot offer dogs a decent quality of life. Out of sight may be out of mind but don’t be fooled into believing that your dog is going to a better life. No dog lover relishes the thought of euthanizing a dog but unless you know without a doubt that your dog is going to a place where it will be well cared for and have a good life, keep it in mind as an option.

I know that I would rather have my dog ‘put to sleep’ with a minimum of stress than to have him end up somewhere he will suffer. If you think any life is better than no life I encourage you to visit a few ‘no kill’ shelters or ‘sanctuaries’ where dogs live out their lives on chains, sleeping in dirt, with inadequate food and shelter, no medical care, no play time, no runs in the woods, no ball chasing, no couches to curl up on, no scratches behind the ears, just plenty of fear and misery until they die. Then you can decide whether or not to put that ‘free to a good home’ ad in the local paper.

My Theory of Cooperation

Sunny, Lucca and Teacher cooperating

Sunny, Lucca and Teacher cooperating

I’ve been thinking about coming up with my own theory of why dogs do the things they do, and I’ve come up with one! I like it too. I figure since we’ll never really know why dogs make some of the decisions they do, I’m pretty safe ranting on about it. I just might even be right.

I’m going to call it, though I’m open for more creative terms, The Theory of Cooperation. Skip the dominance stuff, it’s all about being cooperated with and being cooperative to make stuff happen. Dogs are social animals right? When things need to happen in a social group what’s the most effective way to make them happen? Drum roll please….cooperation among the members of the social group.

I am going to love playing with this idea. If someone else has already expressed it, my apologies, and applauds to you.

Instead of looking at behavioral issues with dogs as power struggles, who gets to be alpha, or pack leader, or who gets their way, try looking at the behavior as the dog’s way of either getting your cooperation (grrrrrr……please do not touch me!) or the dog’s attempt to cooperate with you (we’re walking right? ok let’s go, good thing I have this leash on my neck or you’d never get anywhere without me hauling you along!).

Maybe it’s simplistic and silly, but is it any more simplistic and silly than assuming that dogs just need to know who’s in charge in order to get stuff done?


Cute? I don't think so!

Cute? I don't think so!

This image has been zipping around the internet connected to a group of other ‘cute’ pet pictures. The others, kittens shredding rolls of toilet paper, cats sleeping on dogs, and the like, do have their smile appeal, but this one!?

Who is taking this picture? Mom? Dad? Grandma? Sure little Cindy Lou Who is happy, bless her heart she likes dogs, but the pup? Check out the body language on this poor thing. And we wonder why dogs bite kids.

What’s Your Theory?

What's up?I’ve been reading a lot of dog training books lately and many trainers provide readers with the reasons their method of training dogs works or makes sense. More often than not it has something to do with wolves, pack behavior, prey drive, alpha animals, etc. Statements are made about what dogs want or need. Most of them leave an owner struggling to sort out whether they’ve got the right energy, leadership skills, or understanding of their dog’s primal nature. At least most agree that dogs are not people in fur coats. Whew, that I get.

Research into the genetics of dogs and wolves has shown that rather than descending from wolves, dogs and wolves more likely share a common ancestor. What difference does this make to a pet owner? Not much I suspect. How the trainers who have based their theories on the relationship between dogs and wolves are going to reconcile with this information remains to be seen.

It is really quite remarkable that we pay so much attention to wolf behavior when it comes to training our dogs when we haven’t been living with and training wolves for thousands of years. It’s been dogs that have shared our households, our lives and and for some of us still, our livelihoods. You’d think that we’d have enough experience living with dogs to not need to ‘go offshore’ for our training skills and techniques. But we do and the theories abound.

Without question there are dogs that challenge our abilities and try as we might to analyze why they behave they way they do, we have to admit that we will never know. As I’ve heard one trainer put it, “People have the theories, dogs have the facts” and they aren’t talking.

The owner struggling to understand and train their dog has access to a great body of knowledge that can help them make sense of how to change their dog’s behavior or get the dog to perform certain behaviors. To me it feels like a golden age of dog training-shock collars are being shelved, the choke chains reserved for a few and you’d be hard pressed to find a trainer today who advocates the use of a rolled up newspaper for training purposes.

We will probably never stop trying to understand why dogs behave the way they do, and good for us, let’s keep that inquisitiveness alive, but for anyone working with a fearful dog, or any dog for that matter, there are some basics about how dogs learn new skills that we know (from well documented research and study) and which form the foundation of any training.

1. Dogs get better at behaviors they repeat. Don’t like a behavior? Don’t let the dog repeat it.

2. Behaviors that get rewarded will increase. Behaviors that are punished will decrease.

No need for more right now, these two will give you plenty to work with.

A good trainer will help you come up with ways to prevent your dog from practicing behaviors you don’t like, from long lines for recalls and crates for housetraining, there isn’t the need to worry about who’s the pack leader or why Rex chooses your closet as a toilet. Let’s just say that dogs don’t always come when they are called and have their reasons for pooping in places we find distasteful. A vet visit might be the surest way to find out why your dog is behaving the way it is since some behavior ‘problems’ are actually medical ones.

You don’t need a trainer to tell you what is rewarding for your dog but it is worth noting that what is a reward is determined by the receiver, not the supplier. For some dogs, as with some people, being praised is rewarding, why I might even wash the dishes again it makes my mother so happy, but I’m not likely to go to work 40 hours a week for a pat on the back and a few ‘you’re wonderfuls’. But I might enjoy my work so much that I’m willing to do it and not expect to become a millionaire from my efforts, the work is rewarding to me. Chasing a chipmunk (or car) is rewarding to many dogs, no need to toss them a treat for that behavior to get them to repeat it. A door opening can be a reward for sitting quietly in front of it, a ball tossed into a pond can be a reward for bringing it back, a piece of cheese can be a reward for coming when called (add to it the opportunity to go back and chase that chipmunk and you’ve made the recall even more rewarding).

Our imaginations seem to be limited when it comes to punishment, images of rulers smacked on wrists and bottoms spanked, have set us on a track we find hard to get off of. And of course there is the fact that punishment works quite well in changing behavior. Knee your dog in the chest often enough and hard enough and it probably will stop jumping up on you. Holding them up by their leash when they jump up (and threaten their air supply) will likely make them think twice before performing the behavior again, but there are other options for getting the same ‘no jumping’ behavior that don’t end up with a dog going from ‘happy to see you’ to wondering whether something harsh might happen in connection with approaching you. There is also the risk of other fall-out from punishment and too often this is interpreted as further ‘deviance’ on the dog’s part. No need to quibble over what constitutes punishment either, if it causes a behavior to decrease, it is by definition punishment.

Punishment does not have to hurt, be loud, or scary to be effective. Move from a sit when the door is opened, the door closes, stay in a sit and the door stays open and the invitation to go out is offered.

When working with fearful dogs it is important that any punishment used does not add to the dog’s already formed negative association with the activity or object.

It does not require a treatise on dog behavior or motivation to get your dog to perform the behaviors you’re after from them. A good trainer can offer you ideas and suggestions based on the simple concepts that dogs repeat behaviors they get rewarded for and get better at behaviors they repeat. I’m working on my own ‘theory’ of why dogs behave the way they do, but I’ll save that for another post, I’m still making it up.

Attitudes About Training

I found a copy of one of William Koehler’s training books in a local used bookstore. He was a trainer that worked in Hollywood, training dogs for films that I watched as a child. Had I known his training techniques then I probably would have cried before the dog got caught in a well or suffered some other fate that was geared to jerking the tears out of a 9 year old’s eyes.

The list of training aids prescribed by Mr. Koehler includes a variety of choke chains and should an owner be inclined to molly-coddle their dog, he clearly advises the use of a piece of hose or switch over a folded up newspaper. I suppose the newspaper idea caught on as the kinder corrective measure. But lest I forget, there’s the leather strap or belt, used to hit a dog, hard, and I kid you not.

Koehler’s willingness to use brute force to manage dogs is matched by his contempt for anyone that disagreed with his methods, the ‘wincers’ as he called them, a tid-bit tossing group of naive dog handlers. But as can be possible in anything, there are grains of truth and reason in his initial assertion in the book that in order to train a dog you need to get its attention. Koehler’s method of training gets a dog’s attention through a series of exercises that teach the dog that not paying attention hurts.

While training has changed over the decades, and since this is the only book of Koehler’s that I’ve read, he died in 1993, I don’t know if he, like the author of the first Monks of New Skete training book, recanted on any of his beliefs about how best to handle a dog. But what has not changed over the decades for many trainers is the attitude about the relationship people have with their dogs.

Koehler describes a dog that avoids his owner’s attempts to get a hold of him as, ‘competitive’, as opposed to say, untrained, playful, or even scared. There is no recognition that dogs may have rich and varied interests that don’t always coincide with their owner’s goals, a very different way of looking at inappropriate behaviors. A dog that is behaving aggressively because of fear is asking for something very different than a dog that is behaving aggressively and is not afraid, and your feelings about the behavior should reflect this difference. A child crying at the check-out counter at the grocery store because they can’t have a pack of bubble gum is very different from a child crying because their finger is caught in the door. Hopefully your impatience with the behavior is reserved for the former.

The beauty of using positive reinforcement when training a dog is that it does not matter why the dog is behaving aggressively, the training is not likely to make the behavior worse by scaring a fearful dog, or making an already confident angry dog more upset. It reminds me of the theme common in films, the protagonist’s motives are misunderstood, they are punished, but at the end they are redeemed, seen for the hero they truly are. If only a fearful dog’s story could be condensed into 90 minutes.

Today there are popular trainers who persist in simplifying our relationship with our dogs into that of leader and follower. All behavioral indiscretions on the part of our dogs are the result of a lack of leadership by owners or sloppy leadership, the dogs grateful when their owners step up to the plate and start taking charge. Advocates of the ‘pack leader’ theory of dog training will point to results, much the same way that William Koehler does in his training book. The ends justify the means as they say.  But does it? Getting a scared dog to behave a certain way because it is too frightened to do otherwise hardly sounds like a success to me.

In a telling clip of Cesar Millan working with a fearful American Eskimo dog, the caged dog snarls and snaps when approached, a tactic which has probably worked in the past to keep people away from it, which is the point of the behavior. A trapped dog has few choices. Unyielding to the display Cesar approaches the cage and towers over the dog who some would say ‘calms’ down, though I doubt the dog is feeling calm at all, freezing or the lack of movement does not mean that a dog is feeling good about the situation. Once leashed up and outside the cage the dog raises a paw which Cesar describes as a predatory behavior which is an indication that he needs to continue to be wary of the dog.

I don’t disagree on the latter, but paw raises have a multitude of meanings for dogs, many of which we may not fully understand, and while a paw raise may indicate predatory intentions if the dog is stalking the family cat, it is often seen as an appeasement gesture, a sign of indecision, or as Turid Rugaas would describe a ‘calming signal’. Not surprising coming from a dog that has been threatened. Just because physical force is not used on a dog, it is implied when one uses their size and body posturing to subdue them. The fact that the gun pointed at your head is not loaded probably won’t make any difference to you if you’re not aware of the fact or of the wielder’s intent. It’s probably just best to go along with their demands.

Suzanne Clothier writes about the attitudes we have regarding our dogs’ behavior and our relationship with them in her book “If A Dog’s Prayers Were Answered Bones Would Rain From the Sky”. I recommend it to anyone who has ever considered what their dog might want when it came to training time, and if you haven’t, read it anyway, it’s a beautifully written book that I can’t seem to keep a hold of, I keep giving it away.