Archive for September, 2013|Monthly archive page

Giving My Dog A Life

lifeGiving My Dog A Life

Please feel free to “like” my latest Facebook page and post your own pictures of the good life you give your dogs. Let’s stop shaming dogs and give them a life!


Take It When You Can Get It

approach1In November Sunny will have lived with us for 8 years. He has remained wary and afraid of my husband for those 8 years. There are likely a variety of reasons for this. John is a man, dogs tend to be more afraid of men than they are of women. Early on in their relationship there were several events that scared Sunny, quite literally sh**less (it usually fell on me to clean up after those episodes). One day the metal food bowl that John was carrying dropped and chased Sunny down the stairs where he slammed into the wall before recovering and getting into his safe spot under my desk where he hid out for hours. One day during a run John tripped and fell, Sunny on a long line emptied his bladder on the spot. There was the flexi-lead debacle that I describe in my blog post Don’t Take My Lead On This One!

Another factor could be that as much of a nice guy and dog lover John is, he’s not into dog training in the same way I am. He works away from home, I work at home. By virtue of that arrangement I have had more time to work with Sunny and more inclination to do so. Tagging along with this is “I wish I knew then what I know now.” Since it has fallen on me to come up with ways to help Sunny, and early in our time together I was not up to speed on exactly what those ways should be, mistakes were made. Both Sunny and John lost the motivation to work on their relationship. Neither got enough positive reinforcement.

All relationships require positive feedback. It’s not easy to live with a dog who is afraid of you. People will converse longer with someone who offers a nod or smile, compared to someone who does not. Humans and dogs seem to share this as motivation for engagement. Live with a dog who avoids you and runs for cover when you appear and there’s not much “feel good” value to the relationship. As for the dog, well, they’re feeling fear and that’s worse than being snubbed.

For years John has been happy to go into the yard and toss frisbees for Sunny and Finn. John likes to count and see how many frisbees Finn can catch and the dogs just love the game. Gradually I’ve seen Sunny’s reaction to John’s evening return morph from what was complete concern to a mix of concern and frisbee-tossing-anticipation. This felt like an improvement.

Recently something changed. Several times during the past couple of months John has joined me and the dogs on our woods walk. Initially he came along to get the trails ready for winter skiing. He toted a chain saw or pruning shears to clear downed trees and build walkways over the streams that will ice up your skis if you break through the snow. I brought treats. Sunny preferred keeping John in sight, and his preference extended to seeing John walk away from him, rather than toward him. I doled out the treats whenever John was nearby. As the number of our walks together increased Sunny’s comfort having John on the trails with him increased as well. Off leash Sunny is able to choose his proximity to John. I even managed to convince John to toss a treat to Sunny now and then when Sunny came up behind him.

Yesterday I watched as the dance of desensitization, counterconditioning and training between the two occurred. Initially Sunny would get within 5-6 feet of John who was ahead of him on the trail. John would stop and toss a treat for him and keep walking. After eating the treat Sunny would move back to within 5-6 feet of him, and another treat would be tossed. In front of my eyes I watched Sunny decrease the distance between the two of them until he was taking treats from John’s hand. Today the same thing happened. At one point John stopped and tried to lure Sunny to his extended hand with treats, but Sunny would have nothing to do with it, but seconds later after performing the “move toward man” behavior on his own he happily took the offered treats.


By the end of the walk Sunny was able to take treats even if John was facing him.

Everything about the “picture” of the trigger (John) mattered to Sunny. I complimented John on his ability to hand out treats without scaring Sunny. He responded, “I’m not looking at him and keeping my upper body turned away from him.” Bravo! Eight years of living with my chattering on about fearful dogs was not for naught!

Some would say that it has taken 8 years for Sunny to make these gains with John but it’s as much based on the fact that it took 8 years for John to find that tossing treats while walking with Sunny was worth the effort.

P.S. Sunny missed out on positive experiences with people and novelty during the first year of his life. There is no “do-over” for the lack of whatever needs to happen during critical periods of development in a dog’s life. He has learned skills to be comfortable around people, but he will never be like a dog who had the benefits of play and enrichment with people during the first few months of their life. Sorry to break it to you if you were unaware of the importance of early puppyhood experience.

Packing Up Their Toys

boy with a small black dog bowing at himThere was a blog post going around recently that could have easily been parody as serious. It was written by a volunteer trainer at a shelter who was declaring he was never going to volunteer at an animal shelter again because of his recent experience at one. The reason for his defection? Were dogs being mistreated? Were the conditions gross and unsanitary? Were too many dogs being euthanized? Was the staff being disrespected? Nope. The reason he was never going to volunteer at an animal shelter again was because the dogs were going to be clicker trained. Apparently this was so distasteful to this trainer that he was out the door never to return.

His litany of reasons for this decision included many of the old faithful, and incorrect I will add, missives regarding why force-free training and the use of food in training kills dogs. They included:

Force-free trainers sit around flipping through magazines waiting for good behaviors to reinforce while a dog gobbles down the food off the counter, chews the leg off the dining table and pees on the Oriental. 

Dogs in shelters are there because their owners, patient saints each and every one of them is, never told a dog “NO!” or yanked on their leash. Never having been reprimanded the dog has become uncontrollable and dumped at a shelter. 

Dogs in shelters are there because force-free trainers advised the aforementioned saints not to prevent or interrupt their dog’s inappropriate behavior, but instead to grab a magazine and wait for an appropriate behavior to reinforce with the bits of filet mignon they are schlepping about in a treat pouch. That studies of dogs left at shelters have shown that upwards of 94% of pet owners never even consulted with a trainer about their dog’s inappropriate behavior is insignificant. Of the 6% (or less) of the pet owners who did contact a trainer all were handed a clicker and treat pouch (and a magazine) and instructed on how to create a dog they will want to dump at a shelter. 

As I read I kept waiting for “SURPRISE! only kidding.” I am not going to walk away from shelter dogs for similar reasons that boys walk away from their sports team, because someone (who never knows as much as they do) decided to let girls play. Or quitting the typing pool because your typewriter is being replaced with a computer. This guy was leaving because the shelter management decided to introduce a training method that is less stressful to dogs. Full stop. Period. It’s like the fellow at a hearing about our local nuclear power plant declaring that he’s, “Lived next to the plant for 30 years and he’s ok.” But what about the spent fuel rods sitting in a pool on the property sir? Any suggestions as to what to do with them? Or someone boasting they’ve been smoking a pack a day since they were 15 and didn’t get cancer and see this as enough reason to keep on smoking and recommend Marlboros to friends.

I admit I only read the post once, glanced through the comments, shook my head and left the page. The requisite “all dogs learn differently” myth was tossed out as further evidence that one dare not attempt to use force-free methods with them. I’m assuming that this is because dogs, unlike any other organism on the planet, NEED to be trained using aversives. There were the head spinning, tail chasing comments about how trainers who advocate positive reinforcement also use punishment by depriving dogs of food treats when they don’t do the right thing, justifying the use of any number of collars designed to hurt or impede oxygen intake, or whatever form of positive punishment they prefer. Terms like “balanced” were used to describe trainers who I’m assuming do not have the mechanical skills in place to put behaviors on dogs using primarily positive reinforcement, tipping the scales to unbalanced in favor of force-free.

For those of you unfamiliar with the world of force-free dog trainers, allow me to share this with you. Many of us spend hundreds to thousands of dollars a year on continuing education. We study with some of the world’s best animal trainers. We practice the mechanical skills of training with some of the great names in animal behavior. Do you honestly think that trainers who can teach a multi-behavior chain to a chicken, hamster, fish, horse, lion or dolphin can’t teach a dog to walk nicely on leash, sit on a mat when people come into the house, watch quietly as other dogs go by, without using positive punishment? When “balanced” trainers choose to call us “treat dispensers” I want to channel Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men and shout, “Show me some goddamn respect!”

If you want to pack up your toys and go home because the 21st century of animal training has arrived on your doorstep, go. You have as much to lose as the dogs you claim to care so deeply about.

Fostering Success: Do No Harm

black dog playing with a plastic food toy

Food toys are a great way to show a dog a good time

The most important role a foster caregiver can play in the life of a dog in transition is to ensure that the dog, at the very minimum, does not develop new fears, concerns or reasons to distrust people.

Every dog in the rescue system would have a unique tale to tell, were they able to do so. Some will have had enough positive experiences with people that they are able to withstand a few minor bumps and bruises and not be worse for it. There will be others whose background with people is spotty. Some people have been kind and gentle with them, obviously some have cared enough to get the dog into a foster home. But other people have been less than kind. This lack of kindness may have manifested in neglect, in other cases abuse. When these dogs roll the dice they may not be expecting lucky sevens. They may be disproportionally prepared for the worst. A foster home should prove to these dogs that their luck has changed, that betting on people being good to them is worth the risk. And there are the dogs who despite everyone’s good intentions remain wary and unsure.

What might constitute too much pressure or punishment for one dog, may not for another. It’s best not to assume that any pressure put on a dog to engage socially or any punishment, even if only a raised voice, is tolerable for a dog. Behavior that might be ok with a dog you have developed a positive relationship, may not be with a dog newly introduced to your home. This is true for dog/dog relationships. Fear is unfortunately easy to install in animals and nearly impossible to remove. This is true of all kinds of fears; other dogs, people, cars, storms, etc. And you are not seeing the dog at their best. As addressed in my previous post Fostering Success, these dogs are stressed and stress can negatively impact them in a variety of ways.

Consider the first impression you will make with a dog. Will you be snapping on a leash and pressuring them to follow you with no other incentive other than because you say so? Will you be touching them or putting your face close to theirs without knowing if that is what they feel comfortable with? Are you immediately bringing them into your home and ordering them around; come here, get off of that, leave that alone, go this way? Do you have a pocket full of treats or a squeaky toy at the ready?

If you hold outdated beliefs about dogs and how they relate and interact with other dogs and people, it’s time for an upgrade. Dogs do not need pack leaders, they do not behave in ways to gain domination over the household. They do what works for them, like every other organism on the planet. If their behavior does not work for us, it’s up to us to teach them what does. If you are unfamiliar with the risks of using force, coercion and punishment when training dogs, it’s time you became familiar with those risks. If you do not know how to use positive reinforcement to teach dogs new behaviors you might want to brush up on those skills before you take on a dog whose life may be depending on that you do.


Fostering Success

sheepGiving a dog an interim home while they are in the rescue system is a kind and generous act. Few who do it seem to realize how important the role they play is. It goes beyond providing a safe and comfortable place for a dog to reside while a permanent home is sought for them.

Though they are not pack animals, dogs are social animals. For social animals one of the most stressful events they can experience is the loss of their familiar social network, i.e., moving. Even if a dog appears to be happy and outgoing when they arrive in a foster home, we should assume that their level of stress is higher than it would be otherwise. Many dogs are able to cope with this and settle in with little trouble as they navigate their new surroundings and the expectations put on them by people and other dogs. But foster caregivers would be wise to consider how stress and relocation can impact a dog’s current and future behavior. Stress alone does not cause disease or inappropriate behavior, but it can contribute to the equation that produces it.

A dog who in their former life never put a tooth on a person or other dog, even though the opportunity existed, is less likely to do so in a new home than a dog with a history of biting, but add a healthy (unhealthy?) dose of stress and the odds that we’ll see this behavior increases. Within the shelter and rescue system people will look at a dog’s “bite history.” In many cases there are no opportunities for a dog to make an appeal once they have bitten a person or pet.

“But your honor he pulled on my ear and I have a raging infection in there!”

“She sat on me!”

“I was being threatened by another dog and the woman grabbed my collar.”

“I was eating that bone.”

“It was small, fluffy and ran right under my nose so I grabbed it.”

Foster caregivers have the responsibility to ensure that at the very minimum they do not add to the list of things that upset a dog, or provoke a behavioral response everyone will regret. One of the privileges I have is consulting with rescue groups pulling dogs out of shelters where many are euthanized. I see the important role that foster caregivers play. In some cases they literally save a dog’s life by providing a place for the dog to go when its time is up at an open-door shelter. This blog is one in a series which I will write addressing how foster caregivers can move a dog in transition away from the edge of the cliff, and avoid pushing them off, as they begin their journey to safety.

Alternatives to Alpha

Alternatives to Alpha

When we know better we do better. It’s about time that more people knew better. More voices are helping to get the better information out there. If you still think that dogs need pack leaders, and that you must use dominance in order to live happily with your dog, this free webinar is worth every second. 

Can you let go of out-dated ideas that you may be hanging on to?

Wasting a Good System

boy and dog looking for fish off a pierEvery organism on the planet needs to behave in particular ways in order to survive. For some the behavior is more complex, for others it might be moving in one direction with their mouth (or whatever it is they have that allows nutrients in) open. Even microscopic organisms will change their behavior based on whether or not they are reinforced for a particular behavior. They may be limited to simply changing direction, but nonetheless, they will if a behavior is not reinforcing. There is a beautiful flow of experimental behavior that allows single or multi-celled organism to discover which behaviors work for them. The definition of what works is will vary between different organisms and may even vary for a particular organism depending on other conditions; the time of day or what they may have had or not had for breakfast, for example. Guiding these behaviors is a built-in reward system.

That we have taken away the need for our dogs to perform certain behaviors, specifically foraging or hunting, does not mean that we have taken away the reward system in place to ensure that these and other behaviors continue to be performed. Some people like to say that dogs need jobs or need to work, and I suspect some will say that I am splitting hairs when I choose to avoid using these terms in relation to my dogs’ behavior, and no doubt were my border collie able to talk we’d have some lively discussions about it, but I don’t think of asking my dogs to perform certain behaviors in exchange for a treat or toss of a frisbee in terms of them needing a job or requiring that they earn their living. Instead I prefer to think about not letting the perfectly good reward system in their brain go to waste.