Archive for October, 2013|Monthly archive page

You Have Options

I try to be careful when I start feeling like the fellow in the cartoon tapping away at a keyboard late into the night because, “Someone said something wrong on the internet.” I try to be tolerant knowing full well that I’ve written stuff or have videos that someone, for one reason or another could find fault with. Maybe you can guess where this is going. Someone has said something wrong on the internet.

There is no shortage of videos and websites providing information about how to work with fearful dogs. I tend to avoid them because even when there may be something of value in them, it is frequently contaminated by misinformation that perpetuates ideas that people have that guide them into making the wrong training choice with their dog. Stating that dogs are pack animals can seem benign unless you consider that one of the biggest challenges we face today is to get people to stop bullying their dogs based on the idea that a preponderance of misbehavior is based on the dog’s desire to be dominant, or pack leader. And if you care that the evidence about dogs out of the control of people (street or feral dogs) does not support this “pack” definition of their social relationships that’s another reason not to talk about dogs as pack animals.

When I see people using force to get behavior from dogs it makes me cringe. When I see people using force to get behaviors from scared dogs it makes me feel ill. Even when the outcome is heralded as a success (and I would encourage you to consider who is defining “success”). It is not difficult to get people to accept that the ends do not always justify the means. This is especially true for me when there are alternatives to the means being employed.

Following are three videos. The first is an advertisement for a training business. When you watch I encourage you to pay close attention to the dog’s body language. It’s not difficult in the first part of the video to understand how terrified the dog is. In the second part of the video when the dog is walking with the owner it becomes a bit more difficult, in part because of the voice-over, canned applause, and finally the choice of music, all geared to having us feel warm and fuzzy about what we are seeing. But look at the dog. Note the way the tail and ears are being held. Does the dog seem comfortable and happy? Is this really a “successful” dog.

It is not explained, nor is it clear, if this dog was trained on, or wearing an electronic collar. In trying to discern whether or not e-collars were a part of this company’s training practices it took some digging into their website to find references to them, but they’re there. Training “off-leash” is a great concept. But being “on-stim” is not the same thing. Perhaps the dog was not trained using an e-collar and was too frightened to stray far from the owner. This hardly seems like a training success to me and as far as learning goes is relying on an aversive consequence to maintain control of the dog.

The second and third videos are mine and are advertisements for my website, and without question there are trainers out there who are mechanically cleaner and more skilled than I am. So I open myself up to criticism. I created these videos because I wanted to show the process of building comfort and skills in a scared dog. Nibbles, the little dog in the videos was as resistant to being leashed as the dog in the first video. My choice is not to subject a dog to the terror of being restrained by the neck and forcing them to comply. You have that choice as well.

That a trainer is unaware of how to do this, doesn’t have the skill, or cannot show you how to do it with your dog, does not change the reality that you have options as to how you will interact with and train your dog. Pay attention to the excuses someone makes for not choosing less coercive methods for training dogs, and remember that because your dog doesn’t have a say in the matter doesn’t mean they don’t have strong feelings about it.

I’ve Got Your Mouth or Worrying About Why

face of black & white dogAt my first appointment with a new dentist after I moved to Vermont I asked if he’d like me to have my charts sent from my previous dentist. His reply was, “I don’t need them, I have your mouth.” Everything he needed to know about my teeth was in front of him.

When we begin to work with fearful dogs it’s not uncommon for us to think that we need to know the dog’s past in order to help them. It’s not that the information would be superfluous, but it likely will not change how we are going to work with the dog. We have their mouth, so to speak. Their behavior will guide us. Whether it’s an 8-week old pup or 8 year old dog who won’t come out from under the bed, our approach will be the same–help them feel safe. The same would be true of a dog growling, we don’t need to determine whether the dog is fear aggressive or aggressive and not fearful, our response to the situation will be the same–do what we need to do to end or prevent the growling without punishing the dog. We take away any perceived threat, desensitize and countercondition, and teach the dog to do something else using positive reinforcement-based training.

I have had clients spend the majority of a consult describing in great detail everything that happened to their dog. They think that something is going to inform me about the exact “fix” their dog needs in order to stop being fearful. If there was a sudden onset of the dog’s behavior it would indicate the need for a vet visit, and even with that, we’d prepare ourselves to work on any newly added fears that occurred due to pain or illness. We’d do this the same way if the dog had been displaying fearful behavior for years.

“Why” can get in the way of developing humane and effective plans for working with a dog. Decide that a dog is being aggressive because they are trying to dominate you and respond in a way to thwart this attempt and you’re likely to start brewing trouble. Knowing whether our dog was timid from birth, spent years in a cage at a puppy-mill, was tied up in a yard for most of their life, was beaten by a man with a hat and a beard may satisfy our curiosity, but it won’t change our training plan. Make sure they feel safe, DS/CC and teach them something.

My dentist did take x-rays. It would be nice to have a machine to look into a dog’s past, but don’t worry that we don’t.

An Offer They Can’t Refuse

toddler feeding treats to a cocker spaniel and small black dogWhen we meet a dog, especially a dog in a shelter or in the rehoming process somewhere, the first piece of information we need to give them is why they should engage with us. Most of us, dog lovers that we are, would never say to the dog, “Because I said so!” when it came to the reason they should pay attention to us. But in effect that’s what we often do. We approach, we pet, we clip a leash on their collar and however gently we do it, make them attend to us.

Our intentions are good. We have time constraints. We think “dogs like me.” It’s for their own good. But none of these are necessarily reason enough for a dog. Especially a stressed-out dog. Erasing first impressions is tough, if not impossible. There are some dogs who it would appear are able to hold onto that first impression for years.

We may be limited in what we can offer a dog, but fortunately for us what is usually most effective is readily available to us–food. We have to start someplace and pairing our appearance or handling of a dog with steak can create a powerful and long-lasting positive emotional response. We know we are more than just vending machines and that there are other things in life that we’ll be able to provide a dog with at different times that food will pale in comparison to– running, playing, tugging, herding, sniffing, exploring, snuggling on the couch–the list goes on, but it’s not a bad or ignoble start.

 

Does My Dog Need Prozac?*

The subject of using medications to treat dogs with fear and anxiety issues is a controversial one among pet owners and trainers, and one I frequently feel inclined to address in regard to working with fearful dogs. Drugs have been a blessing and curse for humans. They can both save and destroy lives. Deciding to give a scared dog medications is often a struggle for owners. An incomplete understanding of why they are being used is often at fault.

There is an immediate emotional response to the idea of giving a dog a medication for a behavior issue, and for some people it’s a bad response and for others it’s more neutral. There are few pet owners who thrill to the idea. That some people mis-use medications with their dogs, and by this I mean that they assume that training challenges, or the failure to provide a dog with enough stimulation and enrichment on a daily basis will be remedied with a pill, does not take away the benefit these pills can have for many dogs.

A common misunderstanding about the use of behavioral medications is that they are being used to sedate a dog, this is especially the case when a dog is fear aggressive. Owners assume that the dog will be “doped-up” and spend the rest of its life in la-la land, unable to function. People often worry about potential side-effects of medications, but have given no consideration to the impact chronic stress (which a medication might alleviate) has on their dog. And if a medication does not prove to be effective or there are negative side-effects the option always remains to stop using them. There are a different medications available, and one might work better for one dog compared to another.

colored pills spilling out of a bottle

If you step on a rusty nail and suffer a deep puncture wound, even if you develop an infection there is a chance you will survive. Antibiotic medications will likely play a role in this. If you wait too long to take the drug the infection may progress to a point where the drugs are not effective or your life can be saved, but not your leg. While we are hoping that our dog’s problems can be addressed with soap and water, a kiss and a bandage, the infection may be setting in. We know what normal, healthy dog behavior looks like. If you are unsure as to whether or not it’s time to stop hoping the problem will resolve on its own find a trainer** who understands the challenges of working with fear-based behaviors and talk to a vet or vet behaviorist to explore ways you can ensure you save the leg.

**Any trainer who recommends the use of force, coercion or punishment to help a scared dog “get over” their fear should be avoided. At no time during training should a dog be handled in ways that are designed to elicit fear in your dog.

*This is also the name of my upcoming book.

Shoring up the Foundation

targetWhen we ask a dog to do something in exchange for something they want it’s not about “no free lunches” or that dogs need to learn to work for what they want. Every organism on the planet, if they are going to be around for long already has this information. If they didn’t there would be no beaver dams, no mice caught by cats, no webs woven by spiders, no carcasses cached in trees by fisher cats, no acorns hidden away by squirrels. When we teach a dog to respond to a cue, rather then making them work for treats, or their food bowl, or an open door, we are making the world a more predictable place. The behavior of humans makes more sense to a dog when they are trained to respond to our cues.

When we use positive reinforcement to teach a dog behaviors we are infusing the whole process, all the pieces of it, from the appearance of the person to the performance of the dog, with “feel good.” We are the ones who label a particular behavior as “work” whereas for the dog it might just be sitting, fetching a ball, waiting or rounding up sheep. It’s something to do, and doing something is often better than doing nothing, especially when good outcomes are the result.

John asking Sunny to target his hand is not being used to lure Sunny closer, he had already shown he was quite happy to be that close. It was not to make him “work” for the treat. Asking Sunny to target his hand enriches the relationship between the two because the human’s behavior now has meaning instead of being a random, possibly threatening, gesture. It was a cue Sunny already had learned from me and performing behaviors to make treats happen is an enjoyable experience.

Build a vocabulary with a dog and you’ll be amazed at the conversations you can have with them.

Did You Check the Oil?

Imagine taking your car to a mechanic to find out what was wrong with it and having a discussion like this-

Mechanic: When did you get it?

Car owner: Six months ago?

Mechanic:  When did you notice something wasn’t right?happy brown puppy

Car owner: Not long after I got it.

Mechanic: Tell me what’s wrong.

Car owner: It doesn’t work the way it’s suppose to.

Mechanic: Does it have enough gas?

Car owner: Gas?

Mechanic: Did you check the oil?

Car owner: Oil?

Mechanic: How about transmission fluid, anti-freeze, brake fluid?

Car owner: I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

Mechanic: Ok give me the keys and I’ll have a look.

Car owner: Keys?

I confess that I fried my beloved 4Runner’s engine when I drove it with no oil. Wasn’t a light suppose to come on? Guess I could have been better about checking it in between changes. I paid for a new engine. In my defense I would add that humans have only been interacting with cars for a few hundred years, and just over 100  if you only count the time since Henry Ford brought the Model T to the public.

Imagine having a similar conversation with a trainer about your dog and admitting to being completely unaware that puppies need to meet other dogs, be exposed to the world they are expected to live in, and require exercise and training in order to develop physically, mentally and emotionally.

People have been living with dogs for thousands of years. It would seem that we have not done a very good job of sharing information about what they need in order to become good pets. If you screw up with a car you’re out transportation and some cash. Too bad for you and the car won’t know the difference.  The stakes are much higher for the dog.

Stop by my Facebook page Giving My Dog a Life and enjoy the pictures of happy pets. Post a few of your own while you’re there.

Going To The Dogs

ImageTheories abound on what dogs need in order to be happy and successful pet dogs. Happy may be subjective but successful means they remain in the home they find themselves. Some will suggest they need love, leadership, dominance, training, etc., and definitions of each will vary from person to person. But the one thing we know about dogs is that they are social animals who have been bred to include humans as part of their social network. Dogs may benefit from social interactions with other dogs, but they don’t survive for long if they don’t have positive social interactions with people.

For years I have been involved with rescue groups in Puerto Rico, including the islands of Vieques and Culebra. The stray dog population on these islands exists in numbers that could be considered epidemic. There are a variety of reasons why this is occurring and hard-working, devoted people are addressing them, specifically making spay/neuter programs and affordable health care more readily available to owners.

In May of this year I will be bringing a group of dog-enthusiasts to Puerto Rico to work with owners, shelter staff and rescue groups to share information about force-free and coercion-free training methods. It is my belief that if people have a better understanding of how to teach dogs new behaviors using modern training techniques it is easier for dogs to learn them. When a dog comes when called, waits when asked to, and can perform a silly trick or two to delight an owner, these dogs will remain in their homes. It is the lack of a positive relationship between a dog and owner that allows for the abandonment and neglect of dogs that is seen not only in Puerto Rico, but around the world.

Participants do not need to have any special skills or training to join us. People interested in learning more about modern dog training are welcome. Along with contributing to changing a culture’s view of their dogs we’ll also be exploring the islands’ unique and exquisite beaches and forests. I hope you can join me!

Let me know if you have any questions. Visit this webpage for more information.

Tipping the Scales

For dogs without fear-based challenges it may only take one introduction for the dog to feel safe with you. For others it might require a dozen, and for another hundreds. This is likely the reason many fearful dogs are able to be ok with their primary caregiver(s). There are enough repetitions of positive interactions to tip the scale in their favor. We can’t know how many reps it will take for an individual dog so just keep on adding to the total.

Today on our woods walk I watched as the scale began to tip in John’s favor. For years John rarely joined me and the dogs on our daily walks. But lately that’s changed. Initially I handed out the treats when Sunny stopped and eyed John warily. One day I started doling out handfuls of treats for John to dispense to the dogs, tossing them on the ground for Sunny. I took my chances the next week and handed him a bag of treats and watched as he increased the number of times he stopped and fed the dogs. Sunny began to spend more time close to John looking at him expectantly for treats.

man walking in the woods with 2 dogs

I’ll take that treat anytime now big guy.

The years of coaching (ok, call it nagging if you will) John on how to avoid making eye contact, leaning toward, or reaching for Sunny actually paid off as John noticed how something as simple as turning his head away from Sunny made it possible for him to take a treat from his hand. Both players were being reinforced for their behavior. Sunny got treats and John discovered that fabulous feeling of watching an animal begin to trust you.

Today I noticed that Sunny decided to sit, granted a safe distance away, and wait for John while he worked on building a log bridge over a small stream. I had continued on with the other dogs and was surprised to find the only one missing was Sunny. Even after Sunny caught up with me he returned to John three separate times.

The journey isn’t over for them but gone are the days when Sunny had to shadow us in the woods, too afraid to stay on the trail with John. Call it a milestone or a miracle.