Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page


I’ve been offline for a few days. The current foster dog living with us, Nibbles, escaped from his x-pen, got on my husband’s desk and peed on the modem. Not a fan of technology our Nibbles apparently.

Nibbles was pulled from a breeder along with 20 or so other dogs, all chihuahuas or small dog mixes. He’d been placed in a foster home, escaped through a window, somehow or other traveled 30 miles north and was trapped by an animal control officer. I offered, to my husband’s & modem’s dismay, to take him on and help him learn some people skills.

Nibs is not comfortable with people and the other dogs in the house do not seem to be a draw to him. I’d like him to be less of a prisoner but until I know that he wants to be around me, I’m afraid to lose him. He’s caged in my office and several times throughout the day I feed him bit of chicken and liver. Sometimes I say his name and toss him food, other times we practice taking treats with my other hand lingering under his chin.

I’m sharing this video of Nibs learning to target my finger. I like targeting because it’s not only useful to move a dog around, or get them to come to me, I think it’s an easy exercise that helps a dog discover that my behavior means something and if he responds appropriately he’ll get a treat, in this case, a lick of cheese.


Build it, don’t break it

practice sheet for penmanship printing numbersRemember those pads of paper with the wide spacing and dotted lines running between solid ones used to teach little kids to print letters and numbers? Teaching dogs new behaviors reminds me of them. We give children those extra wide spaces to accommodate their, as yet, uncoordinated movements and make it even easier for them with a chunky, easy to grip, pencil. Then we assign them the task of practicing, and practicing, one letter at a time.

Each letter is broken down into parts. The slanted, vertical, outer lines of the capital ‘A’ need to meet nicely at the top, each side being a mirror image of the other. Seems easy enough until you watch the concentration on the face of a child committed to the task. The horizontal line that connects the two sides needs to be perfected so it does not extend beyond them. We don’t berate them for the not quite perfect ones, but rather give them another piece of paper to practice more. The best of the bunch get put up on the refrigerator for them to feel proud of.

Living with a puppy for the past month has reminded me of this progression. Tooie, my foster dog is learning, second by second, to wait quietly while his meal is prepared. Sometimes he’s sloppy and barks, but he’s sorting out that a quiet sits gets the doggie equivalent of a refrigerator door display, an upbeat ‘good boy!’ and a bit of the anxiously awaited kibble. He’s a pup and unlike my border collie Finn who at the wise age of 10 can settle in for a long wait while I prepare and feed a crowd of dogs, Tooie’s penmanship may not be perfect, so he’s rewarded for his skill appropriate attempts at the behavior.

Shy, fearful or anxious dogs can be like puppies in that they need some extra support and patience when it comes to perfecting behaviors. Helping them ‘get a grip’ on that chunky pencil so they can move on from shaky block letters to sentences written in flowing cursive, is the first step. And we help them by building their skills, not punishing them for being less than perfect.




Even if barking

Yesterday I attended a seminar with Suzanne Clothier to learn more about her Relationship Assessment Tool. It was, as expected, informative and thought provoking, but that’s not what I’m going to write about. I’ll save that for another post.

The seminar was held at the Monadnock Humane Society in Keene NH. It’s a pleasant facility with lots of outdoor space for dogs and an open, cheery entry way, which happened to also be full of cages of cats. Even for a ‘dog person’ it’s hard to see so many beautiful animals, some struggling to engage with visitors, stretching their paws out of cages, mewling and making what felt like pleading eye contact, others seemingly resigned to their lives in captivity. There were play rooms full of cats as well. Too many cats and kittens. I was told that many would be adopted but others might live there for years. But this is also not what I was planning to write about either.

Outside of the dog kennels were containers of treats (good treats in some cases, not just dry biscuits) and on the containers were the instructions- PLEASE FEED ME TREATS EVEN IF I AM BARKING. Huh? Feed them treats even if they’re barking? Won’t that just reinforce the barking behavior? I mean that’s the way it works right? Dogs repeat behaviors they get rewarded for, so giving them treats even if they’re barking means everyone who approached the cage would be teaching the dog to bark, right? Wrong!

What the good folks at the shelter understand is that dogs in shelters, and other stressful situations, are most likely behaving out of anxiety and stress. Some may be concerned about people approaching. The treats are not being used to address the behavior the dogs are displaying but rather the emotions the dogs are experiencing. Feeling a bit nervous about people? What better way for a dog to feel less concerned about people than to pair their approach with something the dog enjoys. Wanting out in a bad way and feeling frustrated and trapped? A treat may not be the perfect solution but it sure beats nothing. Some of the dogs were obviously fearful of having people approach their cages, but none so much that they couldn’t gobble up treats tossed to them. Many then sat and looked expectantly for more.

One of the big challenges fearful dogs face is their handler’s inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that every behavior has an emotion attached to it. We are always addressing the emotion when we handle or train dogs. Sometimes we use their enjoyment and excitement for a reward to get them to perform behaviors, withholding rewards until we get or improve behavior. Sometimes we see that the behavior is driven by fear and use rewards to change how the dog feels realizing that when the fear subsides the behavior attached to it is going to change as well. And importantly, for the handling and training of any dog, understanding we are also causing emotional responses to certain behaviors. How we behave with dogs, whether we shout, yank, hit, ignore, shock, praise or reward, affects how they feel about particular behaviors, not to mention how they feel about us.



Fast food thinking about dogs

Tis the season for bad advice. It seems no matter where I turn-blog posts, website, forums, chats- someone is putting ‘don’t comfort your dog when they are scared’ messages out. The last I read, provided by someone who by choice or certification, is identified as a ‘behaviorist’, was a list of tips for dealing with fireworks and storm phobias included; no cooing or baby talk because it will only be telling the dog that they are right to be afraid. Really? Where I come from the way we let someone know that they are right to be afraid is to shriek, “LOOK OUT IT’S GOING TO KILL YOU!”

I suppose if we’ve paired cooing and baby talk with enough negative experiences then it might reaffirm a dog’s concern. I imagine the scene from a bad crime drama in which the killer calmly looks at his victim, knife glinting in his hands and says, “Don’t be afraid, it won’t hurt…..for long.” Hopefully we have not done this, and instead our cooing and baby talk has been used to get a tail wag and to let our dogs know who is “the cutest, fluffiest, most handsomest, doggie on the planet.”

And let’s face it, if you’re really terrified no amount of, ‘don’t worry darling it’s going to be alright’, is likely to help. Often we seem to be either unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge how scared our dogs are. So why, if comforting a dog may not help do I get my knickers in twist when someone advises against it? Because sometimes comforting helps, because if you believe that being kind and gentle with a scared dog is going to reinforce their fear you might take that line of thought, as many do, and assume that making a dog deal, on their own, with what scares them, is the thing to do. And it is not. But more importantly it’s because it’s wrong. And it doesn’t take much deep thinking to see why that is.

It would appear that when it comes to dogs we have adopted a ‘fast food’ way of thinking. All it takes is for someone to assert that; dogs need leaders, that they live in the moment (This one tickles me particularly because it implies that every moment in a dog’s life their brain is a clean slate, that what they experienced yesterday had no effect on them in which case I wonder-how do they remember their name?), that they will try to dominate their owners if given the chance, that their noses should be rubbed in their poop, that a smack with a rolled-up newspaper is an appropriate thing to do-for whatever reason, that every single dog on the planet must be spayed or neutered, that breed is destiny, and you shouldn’t comfort scared creatures.

The next time you read something about dogs and how to handle or train them, after you’ve bitten through the crunchy sugar coating, take some time to mull the information over. You may find that that first bite leaves you with a toothache.

Beware the message

hands of drowning person reaching above water

Don't help them, you'll only reinforce their fear of water!

When I read many of the blogs, forums or other posts regarding dog training I get the impression that the writer is well intentioned but the information they are sharing is either wrong or misleading.

Words are loaded. They come with meanings we may agree with, or don’t. I have a list of words I hate. Or at least strongly dislike. I dislike them, and try to avoid using them because unless they are clearly defined they are open to interpretation by the reader. Words like; pack leader, coddle and alpha. We should be specific as to what we mean by the use of words. Someone’s- calm, assertive leader, may be my- bully who doesn’t know how to read dogs. Telling someone not to ‘coddle’ their dog may be interpreted as- don’t protect your dog from things that scare them- advice that can be very, very dangerous. Alpha, well, alpha just needs to go away.

I have had to bite my tongue on a forum in which someone with a fearful dog is being told to ‘wait for non-fearful behavior and then reward it’. We know that dogs repeat behavior they are rewarded for but seriously, this is how dog trainers are working with fear-based behaviors? Imagine telling a parent to drop their kid who is afraid of the water into the deep end where they’ll be over their head and only come to their aid when they start offering non-drowning behaviors. If they do pull the kid out right away they will only be reinforcing their fear of water. Huh?

Why are dogs afraid to begin with? There may be underlying medical conditions that need to be addressed. They may not have been exposed to the things that scare them either when they needed to be exposed in order to develop the ability to deal with them appropriately, or how they needed to be exposed to feel safe around them. Bottomline is the dog doesn’t have the skills to deal with the situation. Waiting for them to develop those skills while they are terrified makes no sense.

Dogs are not choosing to be afraid and they are also not choosing their response to their terror. All of the ‘nothing in life is free’, or ‘earn to learn’ training techniques fall on deaf ears when one is dealing with the more immediate concern of saving one’s life.