Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

Picture them naked

small black dog looking up at cameraThere is an emotion attached to every behavior. Sometimes it’s a potent emotion, sometimes not so much. The potency of an emotion doesn’t change given a size difference in the body experiencing it. The size of that body might influence our emotions though.

When I first stepped into the stall where Nibbles, my current foster dog, was housed along with another chihuahua named Mother, they ran toward me barking, lunging and leaping. They were not happy to see me. I felt a dump of adrenalin and I stopped dead in my tracks. Then I laughed. “Little toughies, ” I thought. I threw out some bits of cheese and backed out of the stall. I didn’t stop working with them but I started by changing their response to my entering their space.

Nibbles is a twelve-pound dog that will run and bark at things that scare him. It doesn’t look like fear, it looks like aggression. I know Nibs, and I know that there are many things he doesn’t have experience with, and that lack of experience leads to fear, and aggression. But he remains a cute, little twelve-pound dog, and doesn’t pose much of a risk to people, it would be easy to let it slide. But I won’t. Nibbles needs to have the same skills that a bigger dog needs to be safe and a canine good citizen.

When in doubt about how to respond to a dog’s behavior imagine the dog bigger or smaller. Little dogs shouldn’t need to remain fearful and without skills because they are not as much of a threat to a person or dog’s safety, as a bigger dog might be. Bigger dogs shouldn’t be roughly handled because they can be more dangerous, they too are experiencing fear, uncertainty and insecurity. When people watch trainers using choke collars on big dogs to strangle and subdue the dog, their response is often, “What else was the trainer suppose to do, get bit?” They rarely ask, “Why was the dog put in a position which caused it to feel the need to protect itself?”

Good trainers and dog handlers manage dogs so the dogs feel safe, regardless of their size. Just because we can force small dogs into situations because we can physically overpower them without cutting off their air supply doesn’t mean we should. And just because bigger dogs seem to give us the reason to use brute force to control them, doesn’t mean we should either. Whether you picture them bigger or smaller, be sure you picture them scared.


Junk food isn’t cheaper & punishment isn’t faster

ronald mcdonald waving at camera

Creative Commons image by Jesse Thorstad

There’s an article in this weekend’s New York Times, in the Week in Review section if you care to read it. It compares the costs of fast food vs home prepared meals. There were some who argued that the challenge of getting people to stop eating fast food was the cost. Being less expensive it made sense that people would choose it, except that it isn’t less expensive. It isn’t less expensive at the outset, in the actual dollars spent to purchase the food, nor is it less expensive down the road when the cumulative effects of high fat, high sodium, low fiber begin to exact their cost to our health. The cost to us is in time and the energy required to purchase and prepare it. Some would insist that it is this lack of time in our modern day schedules that promotes trips to the drive-thru, until you look at the numbers of hours we spend watching TV, updating our Facebook status and lord knows, writing blog posts.

Quoted in the article is Dr. David Kessler former commissioner of the FDA and author of “The End of Overeating.” Dr. Kessler’s book is a must-read for anyone battling a food addiction and an important read for dog trainers as well. The first part of the book details studies done with animals to determine how behavior is affected by reinforcement. They were the studies that helped trainers understand how the delivery & quality of reinforcement impacts whether or not a behavior is repeated consistently or not. Or if the behavior is maintained. The reinforcement used in the studies was food.

Take a peek into any training chat group or forum and you will witness the continuing battle being waged about whether or not it is wise, effective, ethical or faster to use punishment to get behaviors from our dogs. Punishment by definition decreases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated, but for many trainers and pet owners punishment is used to attempt to increase behavior, that behavior being something other than the behavior they have punished the dog for performing. It’s a backward approach that works often enough for people to keep using it. Knee Fido in the chest when he jumps on you and it’s likely he’ll stop jumping and do something else. If he’s lucky that something else behavior is one you approve of or else Fido will be subjected to yet another form of punishment until, if he’s willing to keep trying (and let’s face it, dogs don’t have much choice in the matter if they want to keep being fed), he finally comes up with something that passes muster.

This may not be a big deal for some dogs but for others it may be. There are costs to be considered when choosing to use punishment. There are the upfront costs, the cost to the relationship between the dog and handler; the cost to the dog’s sense of safety; the cost to the dog’s willingness to engage in the dance we call training. There are the ‘down the road’ costs. Suppress a behavior and you may find other equally as distasteful behaviors cropping up in its place.

In the article the author poses the question about our behavior in regard to the consumption of ‘junk’ food-How do you change a culture? Dr. Kessler’s response was this-

“Once I look at what I’m eating and realize it’s not food, and I ask ‘what am I doing here?’ that’s the start. It’s not about whether I think it’s good for me, it’s about changing how I feel. And we change how people feel by changing the environment.”

This change will lead to healthier and less costly food consumption habits. I am going to take this and stretch it a bit. Let me rephrase his statement this way-

“Once I look at what I’m doing and realize it’s not training, and I ask ‘what am I doing here?’ that’s the start. It’s not about whether I think it’s good for the dog, it’s about changing how they feel. And we change how dogs feel by changing the environment.”*

We change their environment by removing the risk of being forced, intimidated, scared or hurt. We ensure they always feel safe and that making the right choice is easier than making the wrong one. It may not always seem easy to do, but in the long run it’s the healthiest choice to make. Fearful dogs live with more stress then is good for them, no reason to supersize it.

*Apologies to Dr. Kessler. Hope he doesn’t mind.

Nabbing Nibbles

No recall is complete if you can’t get your hands on the dog.

I am continuing to try to get footage of Nibbles as we take the journey from fearful foster dog to playful pet dog (who needs a forever home BTW). I apologize that I haven’t improved my wardrobe.

When I interact with any dog I always think about how my behavior is going to 1) affect our relationship and 2) what the dog is going to learn from it. Most of the ‘work’ I have done with Nibbles has been done on a day to day, interaction by interaction basis, as opposed to structured training sessions. My goal has been to help Nibbles feel more comfortable and safe with me. As he’s become more comfortable with me, his behavior has changed.

I held off on doing this kind of leash work with Nibbles until I saw that he was not fearful of the interaction. When I did finally get around to doing structured sessions with him he was already ahead of the game. We start off in his pen with me sitting down, then I stand up and finally work with him outside his pen. I can call Nibbles when we are outside and get a hold of his collar and put a leash on him. This is an important skill for any pet dog.


How to get ‘less adoptable’ dogs adopted

old buff cocker wearing a sweaterWhen the term ‘less adoptable’ dogs is mentioned different images come to mind. Some might think of dogs with physical disabilities or old dogs. Others might think of dogs with behavioral challenges, dogs that don’t get along with other dogs or certain members of the human race. When I think of less adoptable dogs I have to admit that almost any dog over 6 months of age comes to mind. Everyone loves puppies.

There are those of us who would rather not adopt a puppy, we have had this experience and as fun as it might have been, are happy to forgo it, thank you very much. But as a friend involved in a recent adoption event commented, “it was like a fire sale on puppies,” people almost can’t help themselves from snatching them up. This is not always a good thing. Puppies get older.

The difference between an adoptable dog and a less adoptable dog is often just one thing-skills. Give a dog a few skills and they go from being ‘one-eyed, old and not quite what I was looking for’, to, ‘OMG isn’t he clever!’. Teach a deaf dog to sit and look expectantly up at a person and they move up a peg on the adoptability scale. Teach them to ‘down’ or ‘shake hands’ and potential adopters can think they are looking at the equivalent of a doggie prodigy. These skills can help get a dog adopted, other skills can help them stay adopted.

I am aware of the limitations of time, energy and money rescue groups and shelters face and so training dogs themselves may be a limited option, but it still surprises me that more that could, don’t require that new adopters take a training class with their dogs. Some shelters include the cost of these classes in the adoption fee. A trainer friend offers a 75% discount for a private, in-home lesson, to anyone who adopts a dog from our local shelter. In five years she has had 2 takers. Whether this is due to a lack of marketing the offer to new pet owners by the shelter or simply a disinterest on the part of the owners, I don’t know. But if the shelter made training mandatory (oh the dreaded word) perhaps more would have taken her up on the offer.

I frequently hear groups cheering about how many dogs they’ve adopted out but none shouting out the numbers of those animals that are still in the original home 2-3 years later. Judging by the number of times some dogs go through the system I’d guess that a note-worthy number of dogs are not. Dogs who are unsuccessful in their adoptive homes continue to drain the resources of the rescue system. Then there are the dogs who end up being passed on to another home, despite any clause in a contract requiring the dog be returned to the shelter where the adoption originated, the dogs who end up dead because of behavioral issues, the dogs who are never seen again after fleeing not long after adoption and the dogs relegated to a life on chain because of unresolved behavior issues.

Here’s my dream-large rescue groups, shelters and humane organizations change the culture of dog adoptions and make it fun and sexy to be required to attend a training class as a condition of adoption. Dog trainers are some of the most caring and giving professionals on the planet. I can’t think of one who I have met who wouldn’t support making it financially available to new pet owners to attend their classes in obedience, agility, nosework, rally, manners, tricks, CGC, you name it. Getting ‘less adoptable’ dogs into homes is just the first step. Keeping them there is the next.

This post originally appeared on the Dancing Dog Blog for Petfinder’s Adopt A Less Adoptable Pet Week.

Selling Dr. Doolittle

dr. doolittle rex harrisonA question was posed on a dog training forum about how we, as dog trainers, could teach the general public to be more critically minded when it came to choosing trainers. My immediate response was tinged with disbelief, how do dog trainers teach people critical thinking skills? Why should that be what we are spending our efforts on? Face it, most people come to us to help them get their dogs to stop barking at the neighbors, not how to sharpen their analytical skills. I understand the point of the question, but the answer, in my mind is not how to get pet owners to think about dog training, but to get them to buy what we’re selling. It is after all the American way isn’t it. And we’re not just trying to sell ice to Eskimos (or Native Alaskans) and we are selling more than just a way of life, we are selling a life, a life of freedom, respect and fun for dogs.

It is we my friends, all of you intimidation/force/coercion-free, reward based, positive reinforcement, often unbalanced trainers who, along with Paul Owens are the true Dog Whisperers. But we are also the Dog Singers, Crooners, Poets & Artists. We are the Dr. Doolittles of the world offering English as a second language classes to dogs and Berlitz courses on ‘dog speak’ to people.

We do not offer ‘secrets to training dogs’ or ‘guaranteed instant success’ to pet owners, we offer something more, we offer them the opportunity to become their dog’s best friend. To become the most special, anticipated, and loved person in someone’s world. Not content to only teach their dog to come when called, but to come with so much joy and enthusiasm that the owner’s brain will be flooded with so much oxytocin they won’t know what hit them. We won’t just show them how to get their dog to sit until told they can move, but to have their dogs wagging their tails eagerly awaiting ANY request made of them.

If someone can convince us we need to buy ‘quilted toilet paper’ there is no doubt in my mind that we can convince people that training without fear is the best way to go. And there will be no clean-up needed afterward.

Hanging on to a sinking ship

a ship sinking in the oceanLearning about the most effective and humane ways to work with fearful dogs has given me plenty of opportunities to ponder why people behave the way they do. I am not the first to wonder why it is so difficult for people to give up- or even less- question why they continue to believe the things they do when evidence mounts against them. I am also not the first dog trainer to be confronted with the death grip people have on using force or punishment-centric techniques to train dogs, when routinely new studies and research come out proving that it’s time to let go.

For the past several months I have had foster dogs. I have also been responsible for finding and choosing their new owners. This means I have to read and interpret answers to questions on an application form. I haven’t had a lot of them but I have been both surprised and disappointed to read the answers responding to how new owners would deal with challenging behaviors. Some people lack experience, they are not sure how to deal with some of the behaviors they are asked about. This is neither surprising nor disappointing, and is less of a concern than the others with lots of experience and describe the ‘old school’ methods of changing behavior; scold the dog for peeing in the house, yank on the dog for growling, to name a couple of the red flag responses.

People who are not sure how to respond, but are still interested in a dog who requires they know how to respond, are usually open to suggestions. The others folks often less so. I recently turned down an application for a dog in my care. Instead of beating around the bush and figuring out a way to let them down gently (and not in a completely forthright way) I decided to lay my cards on the table-I am not comfortable adopting a dog to anyone who chooses to use training techniques employed by Cesar Millan, as this person had mentioned they would do in their application. For force/coercion-free trainers this will seem like a no-brainer, but for others, the routine use of punishment to change behavior does not have the same implications. For me those implications include an underlying misunderstanding of dogs and why they behave the way they do. This lack of knowledge becomes more important the more challenging a dog’s behavior is likely to be, as is the case with fearful dogs.

But there are some things that no matter how nicely you try to say them, are going to be upsetting. “It’s me, not you, but I don’t love you anymore and I’m leaving,” is one example. “I’m sorry but I will not adopt a dog to anyone who uses CM training techniques,” is another. Nonetheless I do try to say things nicely. I learn as much by the response I get as I do from the original answers. It’s one thing to think that something is true and hang on to it so tenaciously that blood starts to ooze from your fingernails scraping the skin, and it’s another to be able to loosen your grip and reach out and consider something new and potentially exciting, eye opening and effective.

You can always go back to your sinking ship when it comes to training dogs, but be sure you have tested the waters of force-free training before you do.

Sorry you’ve been disconnected

You would think that after cohabitating for 15,000 years, give or take a few thousand, that humans would be better at understanding their dogs. For as much as we claim to love them and marvel at their abilities, we sure don’t know what they are talking about much of the time.

At a conference I was attending a speaker on the uses of social media used this video clip of an interaction between two dogs to illustrate his point that even dogs can be deceptive.

It was funny to watch but I began debating with myself, should I say something or just keep my mouth shut? I didn’t want to be rude, or worse seem humorless, but the idea that the dog was trying to ‘fool’ the other dog into thinking he was dead was too much of a stretch for me. Dogs often offer behaviors similar to this, though usually with less dramatic flair, as an appeasement gesture. It doesn’t have to mean that the dog was afraid, or concerned, but it’s a behavior pattern that is common in dogs. I probably would have kept my mouth shut except for two reasons, we were at a conference for pet bloggers and the speaker asked for comments or questions.

Despite the fact that I am comfortable presenting information in front of a large audience, the thought of standing up and making an unrehearsed statement had my heart pounding and my mouth dry. But I had a third reason compelling me to speak. Earlier in the day we had been shown another video of dogs. This time it was a marketing video for a chain of doggie day cares.

As much respect as I had for the founder, overcoming tragedy and adversity to start a thriving business, I was dumbfounded by the video. In it a dog is introduced to a day care facility by other dogs. Voice-overs for the dogs express how much fun the dogs have while they’re there. The problem was that the actual behaviors of the dogs did not indicate that they were having fun at all. Perhaps dogs do have a great time but in the video I was seeing dogs visibly uncomfortable being filmed, tails were down, ears were lowered, backing away from the camera. The audience chuckled and applauded. I got up and left. Why would professionals in the animal care industry use footage of uncomfortable animals to illustrate how happy they were? It would be like making a porn film with one of the actors yawning throughout.

This was not an isolated event. All manner of professionals in the dog training and care industry are defining dog behavior and have it wrong: dogs offering appeasement behaviors are labeled as feeling ‘guilty’; fearful, snarling dogs are called ‘dominant’; confused, untrained dogs are labeled ‘stubborn’. For many dogs being misunderstood is not the end of the world, heck sometimes I feel as though no one understands me, but for fearful dogs, being misunderstood can mean the difference between being life and death. There is a disconnect between dogs and humans, one that often seems greater than the connection between us.

Nibbles update

Nibbles the chi-x who was confiscated from a home breeder, along with approximately 25 other dogs, continues to feel more comfortable with me. Along with counter conditioning, desensitization and training, I am big fan of going for walks in the woods with dogs. They appear to love it, and once I determine that my relationship with a dog is positive and I am relevant to the dog, I prefer to have them off leash.

Nibbles is still not completely comfortable having a harness put on him but I decided that the short amount of time it took, and the level of his discomfort was low enough, that is was worth the trade-off: Don’t wear a harness and long line and don’t come for a walk or wear the harness and line and get to come. I am hoping that by pairing the harness with going on walks, which he enjoys, it will begin to change how he experiences the process of having it put on. The harness will come to predict good things.

I do actually shut up and talk more to myself than to the dogs than this video would lead you to believe. I also do not play the ‘I’m going to get you’ game with Nibbles, even though at one point I say it. I do play it with my own dogs who are not afraid to approach me and have fun with it. Habits are hard to break. I don’t want to have interactions with Nibbles which give him more opportunities to run away from me, he’s already very good at that! When it is possible for me to call Nibbles and have him sit and let me get a hold of his collar, I probably would play chase games with him. It often seems as though he is trying to get me to play that way with him now.

Nibbles has been joining us routinely on our woods walks during the past week. He’s a confident, spunky, little dog who is proving to be a good companion on the trail. Little dogs don’t get much cuter than this and did I mention that he needs a forever home?

Sunny’s story

Sunny was not the first fearful dog I’d interacted with but he was the first I decided to keep. The extent of his fearfulness propelled me on the path to discover the most effective and humane ways to work with fearful, shy and anxious dogs.

FYI, Tammy and William Hanson were found 3 years after fleeing their home in AR. They were hoarding dogs in Vermont, where Sunny and I live.

Losing ground with fearful dogs

woman waving from high rocksAs a member of an online group which addresses fearful dogs I routinely see questions by others about what to do when their dog ‘regresses’. Your dog is doing great and then suddenly, seemingly with no cause, they revert to an old behavior you have struggled with replacing. Look around and you’ll see shattered dreams and dashed hopes scattered all around.

Imagine watching a toddler who after getting the hang of taking a few steps plops down on their diapered behind and hearing her parents groan, “Darn it, I thought for sure she knew how to walk.” If they can get past their disappointment and see her through childhood let’s hope each skinned knee isn’t met with the same concern.

Change is a process. Humans can be an impatient bunch. We want stuff fast and we want it our way. Not being satisfied with baby steps we can push too hard and topple the kid over. Walk goddammit!

Learning never ends. Unless it’s an indication of conditions which hinder the ability to walk in general, it’s not the falling on your butt that’s the problem. The problem is not wanting to get up and try again. Dogs can appear to ‘regress’ and still be moving in the right direction. We humans have a saying- ‘shit happens’ which implies that sometimes things don’t go as planned or as hoped for, but that’s the way life is. Learning to step around the stinky piles, or scrape off your shoe and move on are skills that are developed as much as any other.

Behavior will change as conditions change. It may not be obvious to us, but when we see changes in our dog’s behavior there are usually other things going on. During a seminar the fabulous trainer Ken Ramirez shared a story of working with dolphins at Shedd Aquarium. Dolphins that were usually willing to approach the side of the pool and interact with him, refused. They hung back, unwilling to go near him, even for the offered fish rewards. Ken is no novice to training and began to try to sort out what might be different on this day that would cause the reaction he was seeing. Were they sick? Was there something in the environment spooking them? Was he behaving differently? Finally he figured out that he had changed his shoes and the pair he was wearing had a line of lighter colored material around the sole. That was enough to cause concern among these observant and intelligent animals.

Something which might seem inconsequential or even silly to us, may not be to your dog. Respect their decision to choose a different response and even if you never figure out what is causing it, try to, or at least acknowledge that your dog does have a reason for their behavior and your lack of insight or understanding about what it is does not indicate a shortcoming on their part!

If you handle a fearful dog with kindness and respect, helping them maintain a feeling of safety and building skills, the chances are good that if she does slide down the slope a bit she will have to skills to regain the ground that seems like it was lost. The view from the summit is still glorious however long it takes to get there.