Archive for the ‘dog whisperer’ Tag

The “Somebody Told Me” Effect

One of my goals for this blog, my Facebook pages, group, and tweets, is to try to stave off the inclination pet owners and many dog trainers have to jump on any bandwagon that comes along in regard to training dogs, or to keep throwing different sh*t against the wall and hoping something sticks. There is no shortage of advice, methods, equipment and supplements out there being touted as helping dogs. Some actually do.

I know that when I explain to someone that what they are doing with their dog is inappropriate that I may come up against the but “somebody told me” effect. If what somebody told them made sense to them, even though it was not being effective, or was in fact causing the dog’s behavior to become worse, I know that I have my work cut out for me. For many it doesn’t even matter who the somebody was. Once I hit a brick wall with a client whose dog had started biting him when he was alpha-rolled. One recommendation I made was to stop alpha-rolling the dog but apparently the advice given to him by the folks down at the corner grocery store trumped the advice he was paying me for. Not only did the original advice mesh with this fellow’s thoughts about dogs and how they should be interacted with, my advice made his behavior the problem. It was another nail in the coffin for modern dog training advice.

It’s easy to be led to believe a particular training method is appropriate because something about it resonates for us. Training is a dance we do with our dogs, we pass our energy through the leash while the dog naturally discovers the ways to integrate their behavior with ours while attaining organic reinforcement for reaching a level of communication only possible when we get in touch with both the dog’s and our true nature. The preceding statement may have created any number of different emotional responses in you. If your response was “right on sistah!” there’s a good chance you’ll be onboard with whatever else I recommend, even if what I said makes no real sense at all. But if you read that and your response was “WTH is she talking about? Sounds like a load of crap to me,” I may find it more difficult to convince you that anything I have to say is worth spending the time listening to it. Or if you are told to, “Up the rate of positive reinforcement for a desired behavior after considering both establishing and abolishing operations,” you may react to the jargon by either being impressed or frustrated because not only do you need to figure out what to do with your dog, you also need to grab a dictionary. Alpha-rolling is pretty straightforward and somebody already told you to try it.

Somebodies come in all shapes and sizes. They may even brandish degrees and certifications. Pay attention to your reaction when faced with advice that is contrary to what somebody else told you to do. When you see yourself digging in your heels to resist it out of hand or are ready to pick up a banner and rush into battle to fight for it, take a step back, a deep breath, and talk to somebody else. Being able to weigh the benefits and risks of how we train means we need more information to put on the scale.


Ducks Don’t Need Quacks Either

cartoon of surgeon with chain sawThere is a science to behavior change in animals. That most pet owners are unaware of that is not surprising. That there are dog trainers out there who are unaware of it is disastrous.

I know just enough about my car and computer to turn them on and use them, when all is going according to plan. When problems arise, even if my cursing and kicking of tires seems to provide a temporary solution, I know enough to know I should contact a professional who understands the way car engines and computers work. Put the wrong fluid in the wrong compartment, delete the wrong file, and I may be in trouble that will be expensive to fix. Use the wrong approach to training a dog and the price just might be the dog’s life.

As you might imagine I hear from many people trying to sort out how to help their fearful dogs. Yesterday I got a call from a pet owner and had there been a board monitoring the ethics of dog trainers, I would have contacted them. But there isn’t so I am left writing to writing blog posts. The dog, acknowledged as fearful by the owners (and one would assume by the trainer) had started to display increasingly aggressive behavior, including biting the owners. This is bad news. Even worse news was that I was not being contacted for training help, the owners were looking for help to rehome their dog. When I mentioned training, from the owner’s perspective, they HAD been training, and since it wasn’t helping (indeed it appeared to making matters worse) they were done with it.

I was not familiar with the trainer they were using but it didn’t take long for me to find the self-described whisperer’s website. Dog whispering ala Millan (as opposed to Paul Owen’s earlier use of the term) is akin to practicing medicine in a barber’s chair. It should be outlawed. That enough people survived bleeding cures is not enough to continue the practice. Should the patient die, the disease can always be blamed.

Fearful and aggressive dogs need competent training by educated, skilled professionals. They exist, but in the historical muddle of dog training information, they may be hard to pick out among the quacks. The topic of competency in dog training will be addressed in this webinar with Jean Donaldson. It may be too late for some dogs but it’s about time we talked about this for the rest.

Good Enough Maybe Isn’t

boy rewarding a cocker spaniel standing on a bucketDogs are remarkable. They are so adept at figuring out what we want that we are often led to believe that we know what we’re going. Enough dogs figured out how to change their behavior when faced with Cesar Millan’s alpha rolling, tssking, and neck pokes that people came to believe that they knew how to be leaders and how dogs need to be handled. As with any product or service being marketed, only the success stories are highlighted and aired, or pasted into magazine ads and stories. But don’t be fooled. For every success story there are failures. There are the people who did not lose 20 pounds in two weeks, stop smoking forever, speak a different language fluently in a month or get 45 miles to the gallon. Unfortunately when we apply the term “failures” to dogs it means either dead or subjected to a life of misery in a cage or on a chain somewhere.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs in dog training. On one hand there are the people who are so invested in the method they are using that they can’t see that any lack of success with it is likely due to flaws in the method in general. Dogs don’t live in packs, they don’t have pack leaders so why should employing a method based on being a pack leader be expected to work? But it often does work, and for this reason, in the cloud of misinformation, people put the blame on the dog or their own ability to fully manifest the energy of a true pack leader.

On the other hand we can have methods which have shown that when correctly applied change behavior in almost all the dogs they are used with. But when these methods are used improperly, usually unwittingly and innocently enough, and they don’t work, the method itself is tossed into the trash and new ones are invented. It’s a lucrative market this dog training industry with its endless supply of equipment and magic methods for changing behavior. It often goes something like this- we are able to train 8 out of 10 dogs using the subpar application of a training method, the two dogs who for one reason or another require a more perfect execution of the method become examples of why the method doesn’t always work, instead of being canaries in the coal mine indicating that there may be problems afoot with the way the training is being performed.

One of the milestones for me in my journey to help a very scared dog was when I realized that I did not have the skills necessary to train a dog with the level of fearfulness my dog was displaying. The margin for error was smaller than it was with other dogs who were willing to continue to remain engaged with me long enough for the light bulb to finally go off in their head, “Oh so this is what she wants!”

I have gotten to the point where I’m confident that I know what I’m doing based on the research I’ve done and education I’ve received in animal behavior and learning. But I also know that I can keep getting better at doing it. No doubt that one day there’s going to be a dog who will point out the flaws in my technique and I will remind myself to point the finger where it needs to be, at me, not at the dog or the method.

It’s A Shame

cocker spaniel sitting in a garden facing a wallImagine creating a website where pet owners could commiserate about their sick dogs. They could post pictures of their dogs to share with others who were also dealing with life with a sick dog. Now imagine that people were also sharing advice about illness in dogs (you don’t have to imagine it, just go online) and someone posted in response to an image with the caption “My dog has swollen lymph nodes,” this reply, “Infection can cause a dog’s nodes to swell. Try adding echinacea and golden seal to your dog’s diet for a week. If you don’t see a decrease in the size of the nodes add flax seed oil and try warm compresses.” Now imagine you are a vet reading this and know that there are other reasons a dog may have swollen lymph nodes and that in the case of some diseases waiting even a week before starting treatment can impact whether or not it is successful.

At a recent conference I presented on behavior myths and misinformation and the responsibility of bloggers to make sure they are sharing accurate information about dogs. I gave the example of the site featuring owners’ images of their dogs with placards describing their dog’s transgressions. “I eat socks, I threw up, I shredded mom’s favorite shoes, etc.” Before I continue and come across as a completely humorless, I get the joke. I even find some of the images funny, the dog with what could be called “a shit eating grin” being labeled a “poop eater” pulls a smile from me. But most of the images show dogs looking worried or distressed. It may be that they are afraid of the camera, or their owner chastising them with “what did you do?” that is causing the response. These are not images of dogs who are experiencing guilt or shame because of their actions, they are displaying what are often called “appeasement” behaviors, which in a nutshell could be described as the dog saying, “Please don’t hurt me.” Why anyone would find that funny escapes me, unless they are unaware of what they are seeing.

As luck would have it the creator of this particular website was in my session (and to her credit for choosing to attend) and we also happened to sit next to each other at breakfast the next day. We chatted and she explained that she created the site so that other people who were living with dogs who were naughty could know they were not alone. She defended herself by saying that I had used old images and that she will make suggestions to pet owners, such as telling a pet owner to see a vet if their dog is being shamed for eating chocolate. The site is also being used to find homes for dogs (which I know is suppose to help buff up one’s halo, but it’s not that clear cut for me).

She went on to talk about the dog who was the inspiration for the site, a rescue dog who when left alone was destructive and was a compulsive eater of non-food objects (pica). Her conclusion was that this dog was simply “destructive.” As a dog trainer warning bells went off in my head. The dog might be bored and having a grand time racing around the house and shredding things, or he might be anxious and stressed and performing the same behaviors. Rather than posting images of the dog looking guilty to derive solace from others experiencing similar challenges with their pets, her dog’s behavior should be addressed by a vet or trainer, or both. Gut obstructions would be a serious concern for me.

To perpetuate the misunderstanding that dogs’ brains are sophisticated enough to sort out that chewing a computer cord is appropriate payback for being left home alone all day, is irresponsible. It impacts how people think about their dog’s behavior and subsequently how they respond to that behavior. It may be comforting to know that others are living with dogs who behave inappropriately, but it would be better for the dog if the owner understood that there is an underlying issue that should be addressed for the dog’s emotional or physical well-being. Behavior doesn’t occur for no reason and in the case of our dogs it does not happen out of spite. As sophisticated as their brains are, they’re not that sophisticated. This  does not take away from how amazing dogs and their brains are. Rarely are they ever simply being “bad” for the sake of it.

My goal in pointing this out to the website’s creator was not to “shame” her into changing her ways. The website is hugely popular, a book by a major publishing house is in the works. If our conversation did not encourage her to rethink the premise of her work, at the very least I hope she finds someone to help her out with her dog in between photo shoots.

Save Your Breath

Every now and then a Cesar Millan fan will find my blog and do their darndest to convince me of the error of my ways and assessment of his. I have to give them credit for their efforts. They are right to accuse me of moderating many of their comments. I didn’t always but I decided that he has gotten enough airtime without my blog giving him more. My blog, my choice.

The arguments presented by these folks are at once amusing and stomach churning. One commenter suggested that I edify myself by visiting the websites of trainers who were open-minded and informed trainers (and who of course agreed with his methods). I got as far on one webpage to where the trainer states they used both “rewards and consequences” to train, when I had to just stop. This is akin to someone saying, “I speaks english real good.” Ummm….no you don’t. Rewards ARE consequences. I know what they are trying to say, but their inability to say it properly belies their lack of understanding of learning theory. Oh and in regard to “learning theory,” I was told I could keep my “science psycho babble.” Honestly.

There seems to be the misunderstanding among these people who call themselves trainers that anyone who actually bothers to learn about animal behavior and training, cannot provide practical advice for pet owners. They misrepresent rewards-based training as “purely positive” and that what they do is “balanced.” Again this only indicates how little the trainer understands about….well about “learning theory,” oh here I go again, muddying the waters with scientific psycho babble. Meanwhile they go on about “dog psychology.” Sorry. I give up.

One of the aspects about dog training that I love so much has been the opening up of worlds I didn’t realize existed. There’s the history of Skinner and Pavlov, the practical application of skills by Bob Bailey, the insights of trainers who I don’t even dare try to list for fear of leaving someone deserving out. I am tickled pink that I am able to rub shoulders with and learn from people with more education, skill and empathy than I can hope to attain in whatever time I have left on this planet.

I have come to terms with the fact that having a conversation about dog training with someone who quotes Cesar Millan is like trying to discuss civil rights with someone who recites passages of the bible. Don’t bother.

Stockholm Syndrome?

I was reading a post in The Crossover Trainer Blog and was struck by the implications of this comment made about her observation of Cesar Millan at his ‘Dog Psychology Center’.

“……..He walked in with me and one could definitely sense he had an effect on the dogs. I concede he does have “something” about him that effects the dogs. “

Not sure why there is an implied apology in ‘conceding’ he has an effect on dogs. There is no doubt he does and the Orwellian irony of what it is seems lost on many, including him, with his talk about ‘unstable’ pack leaders.

Dogs, even dogs with behavioral challenges are not stupid. Many are hypervigilant and extra sensitive to anything they perceive threatens their safety. Anyone, man or beast, who comes into their environment is immediately assessed for their potential threat to the dog’s safety. Even if a particular dog was not physically restrained, alpha rolled, choked, shocked or poked (all main techniques of Mr. Millan’s ‘rehabilitation’ repertoire) they will respond to his ‘presence’ and the reaction of those dogs who have been ‘dominated’ by him. It’s not unlike sitting on a subway and having a young thug get on the car and giving you one of those, ‘I WILL kick your ass bitch’ stares. They too will have an ‘effect’ on the pack of riders.

The Stockholm Syndrome is a real and well documented psychological response to fearing for your life. One need not even be submitted to constant abuse in order to ‘give up’ trying to fight or flee. The random threats of violence are enough to keep kidnap victims sitting in cars while their abductor runs into the gas station for a cup of coffee. Some victims even fall in love with their captors. Take away a dog’s control, an easy thing to do with choke chains, muzzles, shocks and prongs, and it’s easy to get the same kind of ‘compliance’.

cesar millan taking away choice and control from a dog

What choice does this dog have?

A dog subjected to repeated acts of ‘dominance’ by their handler, acts which likely seem as random and unreasonable as those portrayed in movies by the bad guy who pistol whips the hero for looking at his shoe laces, can also be adversely effected by this treatment. That Cesar Millan repeatedly misreads signals and cues from dogs is no secret. That he, and trainers of his ilk manage to convince pet owners that their mythologies of dog ‘psychology’ are accurate and justify their abusive treatment- the more upset and needing special attention the dog, the more abused they are- is no surprise. But I will leave it to the therapists to determine if there is a form of pathology in it and our willingness to watch and pay for it.

One day when our consciousness evolves there may be a tribunal and people who abuse animals, in the name of training or rehabilitation, will be called to task for it. And seats should be saved for the TV producers who seek these people out to make a profit off of the recorded and televised abuse of dogs.

How To Help A Fearful Dog? Stop Scaring Them!

They grew up too quickly!In a blog about fearful dogs you wouldn’t think that I’d pay so much attention to this whole dominance virus that has infected the health of our relationships with our dogs, but it’s major. I run an in-home boarding business for dogs. It’s a nice set-up for the dogs and the owners that use my services are conscientious pet owners. It’s not a scene that every dog would appreciate, but for those that do, it’s not only a nice way to spend a few days, it helps them brush up on rusty social skills since most live as solo dogs.

A potential client and I had an email exchange recently about her dog. She described him as a friendly, good natured dog that had some issues with select dogs when he first meets them. He barks at them. She went on to say that she never had an ‘alpha’ dog before and was learning how to deal with it. Certainly a dog that sees other dogs and barks at them must be trying to dominate them right? Ah…no.

Confident dogs, or dogs that are intent on being the big dog on the block rarely spend a lot of time barking at other dogs, far from it. They get their point across with their bodies and their eyes. Well socialized dogs, even in situations in which they are establishing their place in the playground hierarchy, rarely even fight. It’s a beautiful thing to watch a group of socially adept dogs determine ‘who I am to you’. With looks, stances, paw & head placements, the messages are conveyed and then the games can begin.

So what difference does it make if someone mistakenly believes that their dog is trying to be ‘alpha’? It matters because our responses are usually based on what we think is going on, AND how we feel about it. The results of our responses to our dog’s behavior may or may not be what we were after, and if our responses don’t make things better, they can make what we see as a problem, worse. It is probably not far off track to assume that most of the behavior problems seen in dogs relinquished to shelters or by trainers, have been caused by inappropriate responses to their behaviors, by their owners.

Fearful dogs that never bit anyone in their life can be provoked into biting by a handler assuming that the dog’s behavior is a challenge or attempt to dominate the situation. Physical intimidation, promoted by National Geographic’s Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, is exactly the stuff that can make this happen. Remember that one does not need to hit or touch a dog to scare or intimidate them. I remember cringing through one episode in which a dog that was afraid of the bathtub was man-handled until it finally bit Millan. His response to this bite was along the lines of ‘good, he was just having a tantrum’. Someone like Millan who doesn’t seem to mind the occassional bite can intimidate a dog enough so that it does not learn that biting works to keep scary things away. But for most of us the prospect of being bitten makes us back off, which is what the dog has been trying to communicate all along by cowering, growling, lowering its head, rolling over, etc. Now an owner has effectively taught their dog that biting works, that the dog basically needs to shout since the owner has proved themselves hard of hearing.

The dog whose owner believed it is trying to be an ‘alpha’ dog is one of the lucky ones. This owner is not into harsh or intimidating techniques of managing her dog. But what of the other scared dogs that are not so fortunate? Many defenders of trainers like Cesar Millan will say that it’s not his fault if people do not use his training techniques appropriately (even used as directed they can have disasterous results). I disagree. He is promoting the domination of dogs and is responsible for the outcome from that. Supporters seem to be willing to give him credit when the outcome is positive but not when it isn’t. When a leader of a country says publically that AIDS is not a sexually transmitted disease (as has happened) and therefore people do not need to take the appropriate precautions to prevent contracting the disease, I believe that he is responsible for the potentially deadly results of his actions.

The results of the belief that dogs need to be dominated can be deadly, especially with fearful dogs.

Energy Wise

Pep talkWhile I agree that our own energy has an affect on our dogs, I do find the focus on an owner’s energy to be at times confusing or just plain useless when it comes to training dogs. In Cesar’s Way owners are encouraged to imitate people like Cleopatra, John Wayne and Oprah. Huh? Now while some people out there might think they know what Millan means, how does someone really know what he means? You’ve got a self-absorbed Egyptian despot, a swaggering, gun-slinging film star and Oprah!

If you have spent a lot of time with dogs and are comfortable with them, the idea that your ‘energy’ affects their behavior may not seem so foreign, but for someone who is struggling to live with a dog with aggression or fear issues, who does not have a lot of experience with dogs, channeling Cleopatra is probably not the most helpful advice. Since each of us may have a different interpretation of what a good leader looks and acts like, the recommendation to ‘be’ the leader is not only not good enough, it’s dangerous. When some leaders don’t get what they want from their followers they can feel challenged and angry. Why set dog owners up for this kind of energy?

If you are working with a fearful dog there are actual training skills and techniques that you can use to help your dog understand what you want from it. Patience is probably more important than confidence when it comes to animal training, so don’t worry too much if you don’t feel like puffing out your chest and having your brother murdered so he doesn’t compete with your for the throne. If you are moved to channel anyone consider Mary Poppins, she was on the right track with that ‘spoonful of sugar’ idea.

What’s Your Theory?

What's up?I’ve been reading a lot of dog training books lately and many trainers provide readers with the reasons their method of training dogs works or makes sense. More often than not it has something to do with wolves, pack behavior, prey drive, alpha animals, etc. Statements are made about what dogs want or need. Most of them leave an owner struggling to sort out whether they’ve got the right energy, leadership skills, or understanding of their dog’s primal nature. At least most agree that dogs are not people in fur coats. Whew, that I get.

Research into the genetics of dogs and wolves has shown that rather than descending from wolves, dogs and wolves more likely share a common ancestor. What difference does this make to a pet owner? Not much I suspect. How the trainers who have based their theories on the relationship between dogs and wolves are going to reconcile with this information remains to be seen.

It is really quite remarkable that we pay so much attention to wolf behavior when it comes to training our dogs when we haven’t been living with and training wolves for thousands of years. It’s been dogs that have shared our households, our lives and and for some of us still, our livelihoods. You’d think that we’d have enough experience living with dogs to not need to ‘go offshore’ for our training skills and techniques. But we do and the theories abound.

Without question there are dogs that challenge our abilities and try as we might to analyze why they behave they way they do, we have to admit that we will never know. As I’ve heard one trainer put it, “People have the theories, dogs have the facts” and they aren’t talking.

The owner struggling to understand and train their dog has access to a great body of knowledge that can help them make sense of how to change their dog’s behavior or get the dog to perform certain behaviors. To me it feels like a golden age of dog training-shock collars are being shelved, the choke chains reserved for a few and you’d be hard pressed to find a trainer today who advocates the use of a rolled up newspaper for training purposes.

We will probably never stop trying to understand why dogs behave the way they do, and good for us, let’s keep that inquisitiveness alive, but for anyone working with a fearful dog, or any dog for that matter, there are some basics about how dogs learn new skills that we know (from well documented research and study) and which form the foundation of any training.

1. Dogs get better at behaviors they repeat. Don’t like a behavior? Don’t let the dog repeat it.

2. Behaviors that get rewarded will increase. Behaviors that are punished will decrease.

No need for more right now, these two will give you plenty to work with.

A good trainer will help you come up with ways to prevent your dog from practicing behaviors you don’t like, from long lines for recalls and crates for housetraining, there isn’t the need to worry about who’s the pack leader or why Rex chooses your closet as a toilet. Let’s just say that dogs don’t always come when they are called and have their reasons for pooping in places we find distasteful. A vet visit might be the surest way to find out why your dog is behaving the way it is since some behavior ‘problems’ are actually medical ones.

You don’t need a trainer to tell you what is rewarding for your dog but it is worth noting that what is a reward is determined by the receiver, not the supplier. For some dogs, as with some people, being praised is rewarding, why I might even wash the dishes again it makes my mother so happy, but I’m not likely to go to work 40 hours a week for a pat on the back and a few ‘you’re wonderfuls’. But I might enjoy my work so much that I’m willing to do it and not expect to become a millionaire from my efforts, the work is rewarding to me. Chasing a chipmunk (or car) is rewarding to many dogs, no need to toss them a treat for that behavior to get them to repeat it. A door opening can be a reward for sitting quietly in front of it, a ball tossed into a pond can be a reward for bringing it back, a piece of cheese can be a reward for coming when called (add to it the opportunity to go back and chase that chipmunk and you’ve made the recall even more rewarding).

Our imaginations seem to be limited when it comes to punishment, images of rulers smacked on wrists and bottoms spanked, have set us on a track we find hard to get off of. And of course there is the fact that punishment works quite well in changing behavior. Knee your dog in the chest often enough and hard enough and it probably will stop jumping up on you. Holding them up by their leash when they jump up (and threaten their air supply) will likely make them think twice before performing the behavior again, but there are other options for getting the same ‘no jumping’ behavior that don’t end up with a dog going from ‘happy to see you’ to wondering whether something harsh might happen in connection with approaching you. There is also the risk of other fall-out from punishment and too often this is interpreted as further ‘deviance’ on the dog’s part. No need to quibble over what constitutes punishment either, if it causes a behavior to decrease, it is by definition punishment.

Punishment does not have to hurt, be loud, or scary to be effective. Move from a sit when the door is opened, the door closes, stay in a sit and the door stays open and the invitation to go out is offered.

When working with fearful dogs it is important that any punishment used does not add to the dog’s already formed negative association with the activity or object.

It does not require a treatise on dog behavior or motivation to get your dog to perform the behaviors you’re after from them. A good trainer can offer you ideas and suggestions based on the simple concepts that dogs repeat behaviors they get rewarded for and get better at behaviors they repeat. I’m working on my own ‘theory’ of why dogs behave the way they do, but I’ll save that for another post, I’m still making it up.

Attitudes About Training

I found a copy of one of William Koehler’s training books in a local used bookstore. He was a trainer that worked in Hollywood, training dogs for films that I watched as a child. Had I known his training techniques then I probably would have cried before the dog got caught in a well or suffered some other fate that was geared to jerking the tears out of a 9 year old’s eyes.

The list of training aids prescribed by Mr. Koehler includes a variety of choke chains and should an owner be inclined to molly-coddle their dog, he clearly advises the use of a piece of hose or switch over a folded up newspaper. I suppose the newspaper idea caught on as the kinder corrective measure. But lest I forget, there’s the leather strap or belt, used to hit a dog, hard, and I kid you not.

Koehler’s willingness to use brute force to manage dogs is matched by his contempt for anyone that disagreed with his methods, the ‘wincers’ as he called them, a tid-bit tossing group of naive dog handlers. But as can be possible in anything, there are grains of truth and reason in his initial assertion in the book that in order to train a dog you need to get its attention. Koehler’s method of training gets a dog’s attention through a series of exercises that teach the dog that not paying attention hurts.

While training has changed over the decades, and since this is the only book of Koehler’s that I’ve read, he died in 1993, I don’t know if he, like the author of the first Monks of New Skete training book, recanted on any of his beliefs about how best to handle a dog. But what has not changed over the decades for many trainers is the attitude about the relationship people have with their dogs.

Koehler describes a dog that avoids his owner’s attempts to get a hold of him as, ‘competitive’, as opposed to say, untrained, playful, or even scared. There is no recognition that dogs may have rich and varied interests that don’t always coincide with their owner’s goals, a very different way of looking at inappropriate behaviors. A dog that is behaving aggressively because of fear is asking for something very different than a dog that is behaving aggressively and is not afraid, and your feelings about the behavior should reflect this difference. A child crying at the check-out counter at the grocery store because they can’t have a pack of bubble gum is very different from a child crying because their finger is caught in the door. Hopefully your impatience with the behavior is reserved for the former.

The beauty of using positive reinforcement when training a dog is that it does not matter why the dog is behaving aggressively, the training is not likely to make the behavior worse by scaring a fearful dog, or making an already confident angry dog more upset. It reminds me of the theme common in films, the protagonist’s motives are misunderstood, they are punished, but at the end they are redeemed, seen for the hero they truly are. If only a fearful dog’s story could be condensed into 90 minutes.

Today there are popular trainers who persist in simplifying our relationship with our dogs into that of leader and follower. All behavioral indiscretions on the part of our dogs are the result of a lack of leadership by owners or sloppy leadership, the dogs grateful when their owners step up to the plate and start taking charge. Advocates of the ‘pack leader’ theory of dog training will point to results, much the same way that William Koehler does in his training book. The ends justify the means as they say.  But does it? Getting a scared dog to behave a certain way because it is too frightened to do otherwise hardly sounds like a success to me.

In a telling clip of Cesar Millan working with a fearful American Eskimo dog, the caged dog snarls and snaps when approached, a tactic which has probably worked in the past to keep people away from it, which is the point of the behavior. A trapped dog has few choices. Unyielding to the display Cesar approaches the cage and towers over the dog who some would say ‘calms’ down, though I doubt the dog is feeling calm at all, freezing or the lack of movement does not mean that a dog is feeling good about the situation. Once leashed up and outside the cage the dog raises a paw which Cesar describes as a predatory behavior which is an indication that he needs to continue to be wary of the dog.

I don’t disagree on the latter, but paw raises have a multitude of meanings for dogs, many of which we may not fully understand, and while a paw raise may indicate predatory intentions if the dog is stalking the family cat, it is often seen as an appeasement gesture, a sign of indecision, or as Turid Rugaas would describe a ‘calming signal’. Not surprising coming from a dog that has been threatened. Just because physical force is not used on a dog, it is implied when one uses their size and body posturing to subdue them. The fact that the gun pointed at your head is not loaded probably won’t make any difference to you if you’re not aware of the fact or of the wielder’s intent. It’s probably just best to go along with their demands.

Suzanne Clothier writes about the attitudes we have regarding our dogs’ behavior and our relationship with them in her book “If A Dog’s Prayers Were Answered Bones Would Rain From the Sky”. I recommend it to anyone who has ever considered what their dog might want when it came to training time, and if you haven’t, read it anyway, it’s a beautifully written book that I can’t seem to keep a hold of, I keep giving it away.


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