Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

Putting the pieces together

jigsaw puzzle with one piece missingIt’s not unusual when trying to sort out any behavior problems in our dogs to look for the simplest explanation for what is causing the issue. We hope that if we could only remedy that, everything will fall into place. Some of the common missing pieces heralded as the reasons for a dog’s misbehavior include:

A lack of leadership

Insufficient exercise

Ignorance of the dog’s past

The handler’s incorrect ‘energy’

The dog’s lack of a ‘job’

Not enough love

Not enough discipline

Often the puzzle piece we seek is only one in the many that create the clear blue sky. It helps, but it doesn’t mean the rest of the pieces are easy to sort out. The piece we put in place may be an edge or corner piece and does help us build the outlines of the picture while we keep working on the rest. But it usually does not complete the puzzle in and of itself. And why do we expect it should? We know from our own personal experiences that making things ‘right’ in our lives usually requires more than getting up an hour earlier, joining a gym or giving up sugar.

This is not to say that addressing what may be a fundamental cause of a dog’s conflict will not have a significant effect on their overall behavior. When it does there’s an audible sigh of relief from a trainer and a few murmured hallelujahs. But the process of creating new habits and building skills in a dog requires more than just an owner asserting their dominance, projecting the right energy or loving their dog more. That it is not so simple should not be daunting or off-putting, indeed it can be one of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of living with dogs.

Realizing that we are likely the most important piece in the puzzle of our dogs’ lives should inspire us to a greater understanding of their behavior. When we learn to respect and acknowledge the many facets of our dogs’ personalities the pieces seem to fall into place.



I love choiceWhen it comes to many issues in this world, I am firmly on the side of pro-choice and self-determination. This includes the work and play I do with dogs, especially shy, fearful or anxious dogs.

Think about it. If something scares or worries you, is your anxiety lessened knowing that you have no control over your options when confronted with those things? Mine sure isn’t. During his presentation at the latest IAABC conference Dr. Frank McMillan of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary gave the example of being asked to go with a friend to a party, an experience you dread. Would you rather go knowing you could leave whenever you wanted or go and be stuck there regardless of how much you would prefer to be elsewhere? In many instances just knowing that you have the option of removing yourself from a situation makes that situation less odious at the start.

Dogs on leashes, in cages or confined areas may feel more vulnerable. Dogs that cannot escape from something that scares them may escalate their response to it and try to defend themselves. Dogs that have had the option to move away from something scary are likely to repeat that response in the future, a far safer alternative to trying to chase off or bite whatever they’d rather not have near them.

Overall our dogs’ choices are limited. They do not survive long without our care. Giving a dog a choice does not mean we allow inappropriate, dangerous behaviors. Giving a dog the option to opt-out of a situation not only may help lower their anxiety, it shows on our part, an understanding that these incredible animals are both sensitive and complex. It allows us to show the respect for the creatures we have chosen to include in our lives. I want my dogs to be as happy with that choice as I am.

Why dominance won’t die

leather clad torso with whipBefore I proceed, I have to respond to the title of this post with, “I only wish I knew.” I have some ideas, but I suspect reasons vary from trainer to trainer and pet owner to pet owner. However, as someone who has done a bit more than just dip my toes into the pool of information regarding dogs and their behavior, I am continually surprised by the perpetuation of certain myths and misinformation regarding these topics. I know I am not alone in my wonderment. Trainers, neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers also ponder the reasons and meaning of why humans cling to ideas that should have gone out of style ages ago having been shown to be based on inaccuracies, misunderstanding or outright lies.

Animal trainers know that we repeat behaviors we get rewarded for. That reward is defined by the animal ‘behaving’. So what it is about believing that dogs are primarily concerned with establishing dominance that is so rewarding to us? What is it about the excuse this belief gives us for justifying our response to them that is so rewarding to us? What is it about our response to a dog we define as trying to be dominant that is so rewarding to us? Or what is it that prevents us from changing our perception of a dog’s behavior even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary regarding dogs and the idea of ‘dominance’?

Perhaps Tolstoy explained it best when he wrote:

“I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”

Organized chaos

person falling out of a raftWhite water rafting is often described as organized chaos. No matter how much we plan, no matter how many times we practice running certain rapids, every time we get into a boat with a group of people we can only be sure of the outcome we want, not the outcome we’re going to get. Not unlike life I suppose. Over the years I worked as a river guide I was often asked by guests if I got bored running the same river over and over again, and my answer was- “It’s never the same river.”

Humans, and I imagine other species as well, like to find order in their lives. We strive for it. If we can find order in our lives we can begin to predict outcomes, and we like that, often for practical reasons. Should I change the date of next weekend’s picnic from Saturday to Sunday because rain is in the forecast? We plan trips to New England in the autumn so we can marvel at the foliage turning from greens to golds and reds, something we are not likely to see in December. This desire for order and predictability seems to have extended to our relationship with the dogs in our lives. I find this inclination at best ironic since we are unable to achieve complete control and order in our own lives and at worst, disturbing given the methods we are willing to use to get that control.

I am not criticizing striving for precision in training behaviors, both to prove the complexity and abilities of our dogs, and also the skills of the trainer. It is when reasons are contrived to justify the use of pain and intimidation to achieve that precision. There are the trainers who will justify the use of these methods because they ‘save the life’ of a dog. Yet few of them seek similar methods to curb their own life threatening behaviors. How many of them have struggled for years trying to drop a few pounds, exercise more, quit drinking or smoking, to stop talking on the cell phone while driving? These behaviors have been shown to lead to increased incidences of accidents or illness which along with taking lives add a financial burden to the rest of society. It’s different when it comes to dogs they will argue. “Is it?” I have to ask.

The need to use shock collars and strangulation to control an animal’s behavior implies a failure on the part of the handler, not the animal. Why have so few bothered to ask why those darn ‘red zone’ dogs ARE red zone dogs. I will venture a guess and say it is not because they were trained using techniques that were respectful of their ability to learn without pain or coercion. Or that they were handled with kindness and consistency.

In the science of ‘chaos’ there is a phenomenon given the name of “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” Most of us would recognize this as the Butterfly Effect, the idea that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly in Rio will affect the wind currents in Washington DC months later. Anyone using a compass to plot a course knows that even .1 degree of difference in following a route will eventually send them miles away from their target. Living creatures also seem to be affected by this phenomenon. The lack of one particular nutrient in a diet can lead to conditions which may alter the quality of life which is possible for, or the viability of, an animal.

In our attempts to achieve order, control and predictability we may be losing sight of how ‘the sensitive dependence on initial conditions’ plays a role in the lives of dogs nudged off course by a lack of trust in, and fear of, their partners on the journey.

Behavioral First Aid

rest ice compression elevationOver the past 30 years I have taken numerous first aid classes to complement my work leading recreational, outdoor travel groups. One of the texts, The Outward Bound Wilderness First Aid Handbook, in its first chapter called General Principles in Wilderness Medicine, includes this statement: Anticipating and controlling the development of swelling is one of the most important aspects of treatment in wilderness medical care.

The reason this is so important is that swelling and inflammation can produce pressure on tissue, veins and organs, and affect their ability to function effectively. Entire limbs can be lost due to the lack of adequate blood flow and should lungs or brains swell a patient can die. When limited by resources to deal with a medical emergency, managing inflammation as best as possible, may save a life or limb until sophisticated medical care is available.

While attending the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants conference this weekend in Rhode Island I had the opportunity to speak with a number of skilled and inspirational trainers. One told me that when she begins her work with a reactive dog she asks the owners to avoid putting the dog in ANY situation which provokes the reactivity for 4 weeks. During that time the owners are working on basic training and obedience skills to prepare for introducing the dog to situations which include its triggers.

This approach makes sense for a variety of reasons, and is also recommended for dogs who are fearful and are not necessarily reactive. It’s like anticipating and managing the swelling in a medical emergency. Further provocation of a dog, whether their response is to become aggressive or flee, is only likely to maintain or increase the amount of ‘inflammation’. Ignoring this can begin to compound the problem, and as with physical injuries, there can come a point at which healing becomes difficulty or impossible.

We need to compare the risks with the potential benefits when choosing treatments. When dealing with behavioral challenges controlling the factors that cause irritation and inflammation is a low risk treatment with a potentially high benefit outcome.