Archive for November, 2013|Monthly archive page

Just Do It!

boy doing tricks with a small black dogAt a large dog event I watched with some disgust and much dismay, as people who probably really care about their dogs handled them with all I can label was “disrespect.” Dogs were being dragged around on leashes, being reprimanded and jerked for spending too much time (typically measurable in seconds) looking at or sniffing something, not responding to cues fast enough and being left standing on grooming tables while people chatted.

Most of the human behavior was rude though some could be called abusive, and troubling. I realized it was time for me to move on when I found myself watching a groomer handling a young aussie who was not sitting when asked. The dog was being very solicitous, lowering his head and ears, licking and wiggling. I watched as the groomer continued to try unsuccessfully to cue the dog into a sit. Finally she yanked on the lead securing the dog to the stand and slammed his butt down. My own social filters must have been strained because the thought bubble I put over the groomer’s head, and spoke out loud (a tad too out loud) was, “JUST DO IT!”

We know how important good relationships are in all areas of our lives, with our family, friends and pets. I assume dogs are less likely to be given up to shelters or abandoned if their owners feel positively about the relationship they have with them. Working on and repairing these relationships are a part of what many trainers strive to do. But as I watched the groomer manhandle the aussie I realized I had been hoping, for the dog’s sake, that he would just do it to spare himself the wrath I suspect both he and I could see brewing. Why he didn’t will remain a mystery and I prefer to go with the thought that he had his reasons and they were good enough for him and valid enough for the groomer to accept. Maybe he didn’t know what she was asking for, maybe he was worried about something, maybe he would have preferred to have been off the table and had not ever been given a good enough reason for sitting when asked up there. Ultimately it didn’t matter. Life for him at that moment would have been kinder if he had sat when asked.

When you think about it most of our human relationships would improve if the people in our lives did what we wanted them to. It is frequently the daily drag of feeling inconvenienced and ignored that wears away at relationships. If only they; didn’t leave dirty dishes in the sink (get on the furniture with muddy feet), put the toilet seat up or down when they were finished using it (didn’t pee on the carpet), put their smelly socks in the laundry hamper (didn’t chew up our favorite shoes), were on time (came when called), etc. It’s not that we don’t want to feel loved and cared for, but it sure would be nice if they cleaned the bathroom now and then.

As complex as relationships can be, one solution is to teach dogs what it is that their human wants them to do, and put it on cue. Put simply, they do what they are asked to do. The relationship may still require work, but a few well-trained behaviors (using positive reinforcement as the foundation of that training) might act as a tourniquet to keep it alive long enough for the dog to remain in the home where the work can be done.

This is the reasoning behind my upcoming volunteer vacation to three islands in the Caribbean; Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques. When pet owners understand how to use positive reinforcement to teach their dogs new behaviors, those dogs are likely to learn and maintain those behaviors, are less likely to end up being part of the sad statistics of homeless animals.

Use Protection

I returned home yesterday from a multi-day workshop on training birds at Natural Encounters in Florida. Watching and learning from the best bird trainers on the planet (and that is not hyperbole) was inspirational along with educational. One of the take-aways for me was new language to use when talking about training, any animal.

Many of the participants at the workshop were zoo keepers. People working with animals who have the potential to injure or kill them, i.e., large, wild animals, use the term “protected contact” to describe training in a setting in which the animal can’t touch you. At first glance it looks like a set-up designed with the human’s safety in mind, but it also provides the animal with the information that the human can’t get them either.

The first step we need to take when working with a fearful dog is to provide the dog with an environment in which they feel safe. How we do this depends on what is scaring the dog. Many of the dogs people contact me about are afraid of people. Unless we are able to manage the dog so they consistently feel safe in the company of people, we are not likely going to see progress in their ability to interact with us, or that progress will be painfully slow. It may be so slow that the conclusion is reached that the dog is unsalvageable. We may need to find ways to work with our dogs using “protected contact.” In the following video you will see how I created an environment in which I was able to work with a new foster dog (and yes he is now my dog) to help him learn skills while maintaining his ability to choose how much contact we had. You don’t need to watch the entire video to see how I set it up to make sure that he did not have to worry about me trying to touch him.

It will be easy to find excuses as to why providing this kind of protected contact is not possible with your dog or the dogs you work with. Those excuses will not change the reality that an animal who has to worry about their physical safety is not going to learn new behaviors as easily as one who knows they are safe and can begin to build a new repertoire of skills and behaviors.

History Matters

I’ll be at my vet’s office tonight running a class called “Vet Ready!” to help owners and dogs feel more comfortable coming to the clinic. Few things are as clear as how they respond to handling to give you an idea of what they have learned to expect from you. For some owners the way their dog responds is….well….history. The dog has learned that visits to the vet are not happy events. Their behavior will reflect this and both dog and owner are likely to be upset and stressed.

Today my 15lb dog Nibbles got a bit of wood stuck in his teeth. It wasn’t dangerous but it was annoying. Initially I wasn’t sure what he had in his mouth and thought that it was a bit of food that he’d easily dislodge. But when he began to paw at his muzzle and become more upset I thought I better have a look.

Years ago I had a dog get a stick stuck between his teeth on the roof of his mouth. When I saw him his fur was tinged pink from the blood his pawing to get it out had caused. I didn’t know this at the time and feared he’d been in a fight with a critter. Off we went to the vet. Because he was not comfortable with me handling his muzzle and looking into his mouth he resisted my efforts and I called the small piece of wood the vet removed his $40 root canal (this was back in the days when a vet visit and sedation only cost $40!). Had I been able to get a better look into his mouth I could have popped it out myself.

Nibbles came to me a dog afraid of being handled by people but I have put time and energy into changing this. He let me run my fingers along the sides of his teeth to find out what the problem was. I was able to flick the splinter out from between his teeth and with a few licks he’d spit it out. I didn’t have time to teach Nibbles to let me do this, but our history of gentle handling and my efforts to teach him what to do instead of using force and restraint paid off. This video by Chirag Patel shows how simple it can be to create a positive history of handling with your dog. If you are fostering a dog consider working on both restraint and restraint-free handling with your charges. Show them that their bad history will not repeat itself.

Because Why?

I don’t want to come across as someone who trolls the internet looking for other people’s websites, blog posts or videos to criticize. More often I try to ignore most of it. Sometimes it lands in my lap. The link to the video included in this post was shared with me by the manufacturers of a new product designed to eliminate anxiety in dogs. I understand why they’d send it to me and I’m always happy to learn about new products to help the population of dogs I care a lot about.

The first image in the commercial for a calming coat is of a trembling, scared chihuahua used as an example of the dogs the product can help. I understand why they’d do this, but I had to work to not start getting pissed off about it. Princeton is not just feeling camera shy, Princeton is scared. I get it. We all get it. While we’re getting it, and they’re getting footage, Princeton is scared. Why is it ok to scare a dog in order to sell a product? We don’t push old ladies down a  flight of stairs in order to film a commercial for a distress call product to use after they’ve fallen and can’t get up. We don’t sneeze on people to give them the flu so we can get shots of them for a nighttime flu-relief medicine. But for some reason it’s ok to put a dog in a situation that scares them so we can get the images we need, to sell something. Even if what is being sold is of value–people have been using wraps, ace bandages and tight T-shirts on dogs for years to help with anxiety–it only seems to lessen the disrespect for the victim (the real-life animal actor) slightly in my mind.

As the commercial continues a claim is made that the product works because it “simulates a mother dog holding its young.” Seriously? Have they ever seen a litter of puppies being held by their mother? I know that we live in a world in which one can say practically anything they want about dogs and be believed, but this is creepily Orwellian. The myths that dogs need pack leaders, feel shame after peeing on the rug, you should correct dogs by grabbing their muzzle because that’s what mothers do, have just been joined by “mother dogs hold their puppies.” In internet-speak my response is WTF?

I also take umbrage with the assertion that dogs who need daily medications or treatments will no longer need them if they wear the coat. Body wraps do not work for all dogs. If they do, fantastic. If they don’t, it’s better for a dog to remain on daily medications and treatments that are working. My comment (which has since been removed) on their youtube page did not question the efficacy of their product, but rather the claim as to why it worked. I mean come on, “hold its young.”

I asked them to provide me documentation regarding this assertion. I was told that it was tested and veterinarian-approved. OK, that’s great, I don’t want that test info or the names of the veterinarians who have approved it, I wanted to know where they got the information that young dogs are soothed by being held by their mothers. Bottom-line is that there is information out there that supports the use of compression for ramping down nervous systems. With a little homework they could have found it but instead resort to the all-too-common tactic of “making sh*t up about dogs.”

I notice that they didn’t use Princeton as an example of their product working its magic. Though he appears later in the commercial notice his tightly tucked tail, one of the easiest pieces of body language there is to judge how comfortable a dog is. Unless when being held by their mothers puppies also tuck their tails (I just made that sh*t up). The company sent me info about their product and my feedback to them has simply been met with repeated claims that research proves it works. My issue with their advertising is not that their product doesn’t work, but their claim regarding WHY it does.

People should stop thinking they can keep making sh*t  up about dogs and it’s ok.

*Thanks to a reader for pointing out that one of the dogs has an electronic collar on. Aversives are contraindicated for anxiety.