Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

Creating well behaved monsters

happy black & white dog sitting on snow covered ground looking upYears ago I suggested my sister let her two min pins off leash as we headed off for a walk in the woods near her home. Ooops, my bad. I’d been walking dogs off leash since I was kid. It never occurred to me that someone’s dogs would not just go for a short walkabout on their own, but would not come home at all! I’ve learned a lot since then.

When I was younger and would head off for a walk through the woods and cranberry bogs in southern Massachusetts my mother would remind me to ‘take the dog’. This was when boogey men were rare and a mother could relax knowing that the family’s fat fox terrier was protecting her child.

Nowadays when I head out for walks with dogs, my own or other people’s pets I often carry a variety of kibble, dried liver, chunks of cheese or chicken. I’ve never found it to be a burden. Anytime a dog looks at me, comes to me, or stops and waits for me the chances are good they’ll receive a treat. I do most of my ‘training’ on these dog walks.

Because of my lifestyle and expectations for my dogs I don’t worry about getting most behaviors ‘under stimulus control’. This means-a dog only performs a behavior when asked for it. You don’t want a dog going into the obedience ring deciding to ‘sit’ or ‘down’ to take a load off when they feel like it, but in my life, it doesn’t matter. I want my dogs to; look at me, trot back to me, walk jauntily by my side, wait for me, without having to ask for those behaviors. And they do. A lot. That’s the monster part.

Most days on our walks I want to think grand thoughts, talk to myself, to come up with ideas for blog posts, but there they are, a dog or two or three walking along next to me in position for a nice loose leash, were they to have one on. To them it’s a game and they want to play it. They wander off and come racing back and look at me as though we were long lost friends. I have to shoo them away, go on, explore, sniff, be distracted! Surely there’s a chipmunk out there that needs harassing.

It’s my own damn fault and I know it. If you consistently reward a dog for a behavior the behavior gets stronger. If you reward a behavior intermittently, it becomes less likely to go away. Do the former for awhile and then switch to the later and you’ve really gone and done it. I don’t always give my dogs food when they look at me or come back to me. Sometimes I tell them what absolutely amazing dogs they are or nod and smile and give them a wave to get back to the business of sniffing out wildlife poop, and preferably NOT rolling in it.

I guess I have to live with the check-in monsters I’ve created. As for my sister’s dogs- we found them, eventually.


Can I touch you there?

It’s no secret that people like to touch dogs. We touch dogs who we don’t know and we touch dogs who don’t want to be touched. Sometimes we touch dogs and they touch us back with their teeth. Continue reading

The problem with packs

large white dog standing on hind legs and sniffing nose of a manOf all of the misconceptions about dog behavior we are faced with, the idea that dogs are ‘pack’ animals is among the ‘stickiest’.

Yes dogs are closely related to the Grey Wolf, a species which does form cohesive and lasting ‘packs’ when in the wild, packs which function to ensure the continuation of the genes of the animals in that pack. They hunt together and raise their young together. Stray or feral dogs may form groups, may scavenge together, may even have best buddies, but they do not establish packs in the same way wolves do. The process of domestication has created a unique beast, an animal far more successful than their close relative, the wolf. Dogs are social animals without a doubt, and incredible ones at that, being able to extend their sociability to include us. But this ‘based on wolf pack’ idea, although questioned, studied and disputed for years, remains.

The point of this post was not to argue against the pack paradigm, the research shows it to be erroneous, but rather to invite you to come up with other ways of describing our relationship with dogs. ‘Pack leader’ rolls off the tongue so easily, as opposed to ‘orchestrator of activities for a fluid grouping of social animals’. Even if someone’s idea of leadership includes the kinder, gentler kind, the smudge of ‘alpha’ is carried along with it for many pet owners. It becomes apparent in the manner in which owners and trainers handle and interact with dogs. Sometimes its effect is benign but often it is not and we see all manner of inappropriate behaviors in response.

For my own purpose of thinking about my relationship with my dogs I envision myself as a camp counselor. I am responsible for their welfare, direct their daily activities, mediate social interactions and teach them how to weave pot holders. Well, we’re not quite up to potholders yet.

Contributors to the pack leader discussion for your reading pleasure.

Jean Donaldson

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists

John Bradshaw


Keeping track of dogs

old buff cocker wearing a sweaterI wish I had a dollar for every recently adopted or foster dog who goes missing. If I did I’d spend it on one of the new GPS tracking devices available to pet owners.

A day doesn’t go by without seeing notices of these lost dogs on my Facebook or twitter feeds. I’ve had it happen myself and the sinking gut feeling of knowing a dog you have been caring for and care about, is out running scared, a potential victim to cars, weather, starvation or predators, is an emotional response I can do without. My blogger friend Mel recently experienced this with her foster dog Lady. Mel’s story is a good example of the fact that things can go wrong despite any precautions or responsible steps we have taken. Lady’s adventure has a happy ending, but many similar stories do not.

People who adopt a dog, especially one with any fearfulness, often do not understand the flight risk their dog poses. Either they are not having it impressed on them by the people organizing the adoption, or they are ignoring the warning. It may be a case of bad luck and timing. A door is opened and a fearful dog, who has been looking for opportunities to escape, does. Or something startles a dog and once they’re on the run, are difficult or impossible to get control of.

Having ID on a dog is a no-brainer. If an unidentified dog is found it’s likely going to end up at an animal shelter and what happens then will vary. Some shelters will make efforts to locate the dog’s owner, while at others the dog enters the queue of dogs who will be euthanized if not claimed or adopted within a set period of time. Even ID is no guarantee that a dog will be returned to its owners, unfortunately. When my dog, who had been living with my mother ran off I visited the local ‘pound’ and found her. I would have gone there days earlier except that my mother had called the facility and been told that no dog matching her description was there. She also had up-to-date town license tags on her collar.

All my dogs have an ID tag on their collar with my name and contact information on it. Should a good Samaritan find my dog they can contact me directly, perhaps sparing my dog a stay at the shelter. An injured dog with ID is more likely to receive timely medical care because a vet can contact the owner to approve what might be costly procedures.

My fearful dog Sunny’s tag has his name as ‘Bosco’. A dog’s name should predict good things, and for most dogs this is true, but often not the case for people-shy dogs. Being spoken to by name predicts an interaction, which is scary to him. In training classes I discovered that it was difficult for people not to talk to my dog, even after I specifically asked they didn’t.

“This is Sunny, but please don’t talk to him.”

Before class was over this was bound to happen.

“Isn’t he is a pretty boy, does Sunny want a treat?” spoken by well-intentioned classmate.

So instead I tell people his name is, “Bosco, and please don’t talk to him.” He is still uneasy if strangers approach and talk to him, but if they do not use his name, he is less so. Bosco means nothing to him.

Technology will continue to improve and one day I hope that all dogs go to their new homes with a tracking device on them. In the meantime we can help our fearful dogs so that not only are they kept safe and secure, but we create a positive, trusting relationship with them so they are less inclined to run away from us should opportunity knock and leave a gate open.

Helping fearful dogs workshop

Join me in Bow New Hampshire January 21, 2012* and learn about the most effective and humane ways to work with fearful, shy, anxious and aggressive dogs. Pet owners, trainers, shelter and vet staff, foster care providers will gain valuable information to improve their fearful dog handling skills.

The 1/2 day session will include:

  • Why dogs are afraid
  • What fear/stress looks like
  • How to interact with feral or unsocialized dogs
  • How to work with fear based behaviors
  • The use of play in the rehabilitation of fearful dogs
  • Understanding the effects of reinforcement & punishment on fearful dogs
  • What is learned helplessness?
  • Myth of reinforcing fear
  • Equipment
  • Medication

In the afternoon there will be further consideration of techniques and methods for management and training including:

  • BAT
  • Counter conditioning & desensitization
  • Cueing to minimize fearful responses
  • Creating conditioned reinforcers
  • Handling puppymill or hoarding survivors

Please leave your fearful dog at home! Demo dogs will be screened prior to the presentation to determine if they are appropriate (will be comfortable) for this setting. The methods and skills you learn here today are transferable to the dogs in your home or shelter.

CEUs will be available for CPDTs.

1/2 day $77 (morning session available as 1/2 session only)-8:30am-12:30
Full day: $105- 8:30am-5:30pm

Sponsored by No Monkey Business Dog Training.

Register here.

* Bad weather date- January 28, 2012

Catch the feeling

hawk perched on brushMy 4 dogs and I had just entered the area of the trail that led up the mountain through the forest when a sound stopped me dead in my tracks. It had originated directly above me, though I was not aware of this immediately. It trailed off behind me and I turned around, there was a tightness in my chest, I was holding my breath and the part of my brain that rarely notices my heart beating registered that it was beating hard and fast. I stood there frozen for a moment during which the realization ‘hawk’, generated in one part of my brain, the part of my brain that remembers things like that, sent the message to the part of my brain that had already started preparing me to react. At the same instant the myriad possibilities of what might be causing the sound, which seemed loud and close, were also flashing through my mind.

In the woods surrounding our home I know there are bears, coyotes, foxes, skunks, possums, fisher cats, bobcats, rabbits, weasels, feral cats, deer and a variety of other birds, insects and animals. I count on the fact that all of them also know there’s a lady who regularly walks through the woods with dogs, to allay any fears I may have regarding close encounters. But it has happened. Porcupines are discovered much to my dogs’ distress and my wallet’s (a vet visit is usually required), deer have been herded by my border collie, and unfortunate feral cats have met their demise when making the wrong choice when fleeing from a dog. Over the 20+ years we’ve lived here these events have been infrequent enough that I feel comfortable continuing to walk with my dogs off leash, but I am aware there are risks. I had recently seen a story about a Yorkshire Terrier that had been caught and killed by an owl. One of the dogs walking with me weighs 12lbs, and although that would be too heavy for a hawk, I consciously made note that the hawk, soaring just over the tree-tops, was empty taloned.

Once I was reassured that there was no clear and present danger I stood for a moment, a finger on my pulse, noticing the other sensations in my body which were a response to being startled by the sound. Not long ago I had done the same thing when I was experiencing distressing interactions regarding my foster dog Nibbles. Concerned about his welfare I would wake up at night feeling dread-filled and anxious. I noticed that even my arms had sensations that were unusual, as though low voltage was being sent through them. I wasn’t concerned for my health, I realized that what I was feeling physically was directly related to my anxiety and anger with and about the situation at hand.

More and more scientists are researching and studying emotions in dogs. When it comes to fear-induced responses I encourage you to pay attention to your own responses to stress, fear and anxiety. The next time you notice a fearful dog you might actually be right if you tell them, “I feel your pain.”

Here’s a link to the adult scream of a red-tail hawk.

Raising the criteria for sacred cows

In dog training the way you get the behavior you want, really want, is by constantly raising the criteria. This means that you stop rewarding the behavior that is ‘almost’ what you want and ask for more or better from the dog. When you get it, you reward it. If you want your dog to ‘down’ you don’t settle for one of those lowered, but resting on their elbows kind of ‘downs’. That might be ok if you are shaping the behavior but you better not continue to reward it, or that’s all you’re likely to get. Expect more from those capable of doing more and reward for better.

It seems that in the world of animal rescue far too many of us are willing to settle for, and reward, not quite good enough behavior from the people performing it. Typically when I bring this up I get the routine responses of; “Well at least they’re doing something” or “It’s better than nothing” or there’s a list of reasons why ‘better’ is difficult or impossible to attain. And then there are those who chose to go on the attack with, “And what are YOU doing to help?”

Though each response has a reasonable point to make, they seem to miss the point I’m trying to get at which is-we can do better but not until we raise the criteria for what constitutes a successful ‘rescue’. As it stands now simply getting a dog out of a shelter or out of an abusive situation and into a home is ‘good enough’ and heaven forbid anyone is evaluated for the way they do it. In my opinion it’s like rewarding one of those, almost but not quite, ‘downs’. It may be good enough for you but it won’t stand up to the scrutiny of those who make it their business to assess those sorts of things. Or are called in to try to help pick up the pieces of a broken dog.

cartoon of very scared womanAfter watching this video of beagles being rescued from a laboratory in Spain, and which was suppose to bring tears to my eyes, I found myself feeling more angry and upset, then joyful. These are special needs dogs. Their development has been compromised by confinement and the lack of exposure to novelty. ‘Freeing’ them to a life beyond a cage is a worthwhile goal, but exposing them to things which people think they should enjoy, without acknowledging or understanding that the very ‘freedom’ we subject them to, is scary, is not good enough. Sure it feels good to the handlers to be the ones lifting the latches, and I don’t want to take that away from people, but it shouldn’t be the main goal of ‘rescue’ and I suspect that if we all did some soul searching we’d admit that ‘saving’ animals makes us feel good and is a prime motivator behind our behavior.

Some take that response to an unhealthy end and become hoarders with rooms, cages and kennels full of animals they’ve ‘saved’ but who live lives of neglect and inadequate care both physically and emotionally. Others seem to behave like impulse shoppers, going into situations and ‘saving’ animals and then moving on to the next ‘rescue’ without ever taking their previous purchase out of the box. If the ‘rescue’ is a high visibility one, or can become one, this is often enough to start generating the income in the form of donations, for their ‘almost good enough’ behavior to continue.

The risks of handling dogs as they are being handled in this video are real. Almost everything about the experience is novel, and potentially scary to the dogs. This means that anything associated with the experience has the potential to be scary to the dog in the future. This type of conditioning is so effective that people trying to sell you things use it all the time. Cars are associated with the feelings one has when looking at scantily clad women or powerful appearing men. Cigarettes and soft drinks conjure up images and the associated feelings of freedom and fun. Think about how the smell of those cinnamon rolls baking at the airport food court or mall make you ‘feel’. It doesn’t matter if the texture of grass on a dog’s feet actually hurts them or not, if stepping on grass is associated with being scared, by whatever might have scared them, you can end up with a dog who is reluctant to step on grass because it recreates the feeling of being afraid. The same is true in regard to getting into a vehicle, getting out of a crate, or experiencing any of the myriad sights, sounds and scents a dog may have been exposed to at the same time they were experiencing fear. It doesn’t matter if any harm befell the dog or not. The physical and emotional responses of fear are enough proof to a dog that being afraid is warranted.

Trainers are often called on to help solve problem behaviors in dogs, and there may not be any obvious reasons or causes for the dog’s behavior. Dogs who won’t get in cars, or step outside their houses. There are dogs who no matter how long they are outside come inside and pee behind the couch.

Why are we so reluctant to demand more and better from the people ‘saving’ animals? It’s like settling for ‘fast food’ as a nourishing meal. There will always be those dogs who will be able to thrive despite the challenges they face, but there will be plenty more who because of inappropriate handling, often when they needed good handling the most, who will never find peace and comfort in the lives we can give them. Can we admit that most people looking to adopt pets are not prepared to deal effectively with compromised dogs? Are we ready or willing to look at how transporting dogs might be affecting their future behavior? Can we accept that not all dogs will become happy, confident pets given the time and resources available to their care?

It’s difficult to see the ways animals are abused and disrespected and not want to do something to change it. It’s this response in people that makes me like them the most. I’m all for doing something, I’d just like to see the ‘something’ that many are doing, was as good as it could be. The ability to assess a developmentally challenged or fearful dog’s needs and abilities should be on the ‘to do’ list of anyone involved in rescue. We’d all feel better for it.