Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fav X-mas song and CTV dissapointment

I love classic country music, like Alberta as much as Nova Scotia, and live in the sticks, and that's why Leroy the Redneck Reindeer is my favorite Christmas song this year.

On a less lighter note, I was very disappointed with CTV's Live at 5 yesterday. The media is pretty influential; can, and in my opinion does, manipulate popular opinions and actions. You'd think they'd feel somewhat of a responsibility to report stuff that helps their viewers, and sometimes they do, but not yesterday when they profiled Pets Unlimited in Sidney and all the wonderful exotic pets people can buy there before Christmas.
Very, very disappointing that CTV hasn't clued in yet that getting a pet - any pet - as a Christmas gift is not a good idea, especially from a place - any place - that mass produces and mass sells living beings; a place that is 100% commerce driven and doesn't give a rat's tail what they sell and to whom.
Animal welfare might not be on CTV's agenda, but the thing is that an animal acquired on a whim and without diligent investigation where it came from and how it was cared for, causes heartache for people as well, when the gullible new pet owners realize after the holidays that they might have gotten more than they can handle and have to tell their kids that the lizard, bunny, puppy or kitten has to go.

My wish for 2010? Get on the bandwagon and help spread the word:
Get a pet only from a dedicated and caring breeder, or adopt a pet from a humane society or rescue group!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Santi Paws is Coming to Town

We wish you a Merry Christmas, or a Merry whatever you are celebrating this time of year.
For 2010 we wish you and yours Peace, Health and Prosperity.

There is snow on the ground where I live. The winter wonderland look was the last thing that needed to happen before Christmas; the cookies are in the house, tree all up and decorated, and the dogs’ wish list to Santi Paws went out weeks ago. I think I mentioned before that Davie and Will are brilliant, the little darlings, but they aren’t able to scribble on paper what they’d like to find in their stocking, hung with care, so I did it for them.
According to a survey conducted by Petfinder, 63 percent of dog owners give Christmas presents to their pets. We belong to the majority. Including the canine family members into the festivities feels good all around; for humans because giving is better than receiving, for dogs because they love to get stuff. Period.
Gift giving is only one aspect of the Holiday Season. There is last minute shopping and cleaning, big meals to prepare, functions to go to and company that’s coming; family gatherings sometimes with people one doesn’t really want to gather with.
All that can be exciting, but also very stressful for people – and dogs. By now, most everyone knows to safeguard the box of chocolates from the dog, and to refrain from noshing him fatty food scraps.
Helping him deal with Holiday stressors is just as important. The young, inexperienced or timid pooch could spook when a big, red Santa inflates in front of the house, or when there is a snowman with a black hat and broom in a yard where there was none before. Suddenly, his familiar turf that always looked the same, changed - and that is scary, and his natural response is to bark, lunge or bolt. The smart owner calmly increases the distance until the pooch relaxes, and then lets him observe the new things so it can be checked off as non-threatening. Offering a piece of his favorite loot, or engaging him into a familiar and fun game, further contributes to the cagey canine feeling cool again in his ‘hood, despite all the changes.
Every dog, even the friendliest people lover, can be overwhelmed when too many hands are patting, especially children’s. And because he can’t pour himself another glass of wine to calm the nerves, he might growl – or shy away, bark, chase, pant or pace.
Apropos wine, even you being a little looped with too much cheer can weird a sensitive dog out, and if you call him to come, he might not obey.
A dog often doesn’t have the option to avoid or escape, physically or mentally, all that commotion. The onus is on the owner to recognize when the pooch has had enough partying, and to provide a safe, quiet place where he can chill undisturbed.
That, and keeping the dog’s routine as much as possible, for example feeding the same food at the same time, and going for walks at the usual time, further ensures that giving presents on Christmas Morn’ isn’t the only happy event during the festive season.

I wonder what the girls gonna find under the tree this year? A Nina Ottosson interactive toy they can both play with? A ball for Davie to add to the dozen she already has? A couple of brownies from the Three Dog Bakery for Will? Extra meaty marrow bones and “accidentally” dropped pieces of low-fat roasted turkey breast, or that jazzy white collar with black sheep prints for Davie – wait, that would be a present more for me; but an extra long walk where there are a few slow squirrels, or maybe a….

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Motivations for Aggression

Because aggression is too complex an issue for one blog post, I will periodically return to it in the future to discuss different aspects. With this one, the focus is what motivates a dog to aggress.
We know that not every dog is aggressive, and the reason why some are and others not, in similar situations, is due to: mistakes made during the dog’s formidable imprinting and impressionable learning phases, which is between the ages of 3-16, or so, weeks, and/or; the dog’s present living environment, his Umwelt, and/or; neurochemical and hormonal imbalances the dog can be born with if mother dog was malnourished and stressed, or can show up at any time in a dog’s life.

When a dog aggresses, at that moment, the motivation is always to increase the distance to the trigger stimulus, or to eliminate it. In other words, whatever the dog perceives at the moment as a problem is too close, and he tries to make it/him/her disappear, in any way possible. Any way possible means: a growl on one end, or severe injury with the intent to kill on the extreme other end, or anything in between.
Here are some reasons why a dog would want to increase distance:
Fear of losing a possession. If a dog has something he values enough, or depends on for survival, he will defend it. In nature, a dog who has possession has ownership. And ownership is when something is given to him; surrendered. By the way, “rightful possession equals ownership” is a human rule also, and people that don’t obey it are called thieves. Because taking a possession away is not natural, it adds stress and confusion to fear when done forcefully, which intensifies aggressive displays. A possession can be anything, including a person or space. So be careful what you give your dog ownership over.
There are other fears that can trigger aggression, for example the fear to be hurt or harmed, or that offspring is harmed, and the fear to lose social belonging, which can be the reason a dog lashes out against a new group member.
With humans, aggression is an expression of anger; fear is expressed in avoidance and escape. Theoretically that may be so, but in reality it’s not that simple, especially regarding dogs, because they are under human control. Retreat is often prevented by the person in physical control. The dog is denied the option to flee, so he fights. If he gets attention for that - aggressive behaviors almost always changes the situation for the dog - aggression is reinforced and repeated. Any consequence maintains the aggressive behavior; it becomes operant conditioned and a functional coping skill.

Aggression to obtain a possession is not natural. As said, ownership should not be challenged. But dogs compete over resources before it becomes someone’s possession. If there is something one dog wants as much as another (dog or human), a dispute ensues and the one who ends up with the loot is the dominant one at that time.
Dominance is also when a dog controls access to something or someone he is claiming. Access control is controlling space – space around the object, subject or oneself. The dog who controls things and space feels in charge of it, and, in his mind, has the right to correct anyone who violates the rules he has set. Corrections are not intended to injure or eliminate, especially if directed against a social group member, but can nevertheless break delicate human skin. If the dog is successful and aggression keeps someone away from a resource, or out of his face, his behavior, again, is reinforced and becomes operant conditioned.
In a dog’s world, just as it is in ours, there is a distinction between familiar and unfamiliar; belonging and not belonging; in-group and strangers. A dog with a strong sense of privacy, and no leadership, will tell anybody not belonging to get lost. If prevented by barriers, such as a leash or fence, he becomes frustrated and reactive, aggressive displays intensify.

With all of the above, the intent is to increase distance to a perceived opponent or threat. With predation, it is the opposite: the intent is to decrease distance. The dog wants to catch the prey. That is why I don’t define predation as aggression, even so severe injuries and kills can result. A dog who has a strong prey drive combined with no or little bite inhibition, can bite repeatedly; slash and rip prey apart without consuming it. Orgy type kills are prey driven, and the result of pure instinct taking over.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


A few weeks ago I posted about food cause many of my clients and friends recently addressed that subject. There is another recurring theme: the acquisition of a second dog. Quite a few of recent follow-up appointments, and questions I found in my inbox, dealt with if and how to integrate a canine sibling, or problems that arose as a result of the second joining the social group.
Here are some of my truths based on experience, clients’ and personal.
~ It doesn’t matter if the second dog is same or opposite gender. The most beautiful inter-canine relationships I encountered are between two females, and between an older resident male and a new female pup. The big brother syndrome played out that way can be quite endearing.
~ Ideally the dogs should have common interests, similar play behavior and energy requirements. Common ground allows for team activities and thereby team bonding.
~ Common ground does not mean same personalities. Especially two needy for attention and insecure dogs can be quite competitive for space and their owners’ love. Home life is less confrontational when a more submissive dog is teamed with a more confident one, or one laid-back dog with a bossy one.
~ Taking sides is a bad idea. Setting rules for both is a good one. That means that it doesn’t matter which dog is the dominant one. Fighting over resources, including the owner, is not allowed. All resources should be under the owner’s control, and therefore it doesn’t matter who gets fed first.
~ A confident second dog does not necessarily influence the behavior of an anxious resident dog for the better. Studies showed that social mammals are more receptive to stress signals than calm ones. If dog one is very stressed, reactive and anxious, likely dog two, even if a calm and grounded personality, gets stressed as well and the owner doubled the trouble. The human can bring out the best in a dog, and the incompatible or problem-ridden canine companion, the worst.
~ The same is true if an owner has an exuberant young dog who still needs training and hopes that an older, second dog clues him in, or tires him out. Likely the boisterous first dog will drive the newcomer nuts. It is unfair to ask a new dog to educate a youngster and it rarely works. Said that, an older and wiser resident dog can be a great helper in raising a pup who enters as the second dog. Help is the key word here – the primary teacher is always the owner.
~ A good way to introduce a second dog is going for walk together and then entering the house together. The first meeting is as casual as possible; if it’s a big deal for you, it’s a big deal for the dogs.
~ It helps if dog two comes with a dowry.
~ If there are initial squabbles over stuff, removing stuff increases competition. Better is to add stuff whenever the dogs are in the same proximity. That creates cooperation.
~ Signs that dogs are not compatible are: if there are injuries, especially ones intended to kill; if there is a lot of tension – still and stiff dogs, hard stares; if one dog changes his personality, becomes withdrawn, reactive or aggressive, or doesn’t want to interact in activities she enjoyed before; if one dog fears the other – slinks away or refuses to enter a room, a certain space, or coming to the owner; if the dogs are not seeking to be close to one another and interact with one another.

Two is company, if the company is compatible. In my home, it’s not good enough if dogs tolerate one another; they have to like one another. Imagine if you were forced to live your whole life with someone you don’t like?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Hungarian Super Dogs

There is great stuff coming from Hungary. A few years ago I read Vilmos Csanyl’s book “If Dogs Could Talk”. Csanyl is a companion dog owner, and the head of the Ethology Department at the University of Budapest. In his book he wonderfully fuses science and relationship.
His ethology research group conducts very interesting studies on behavior, canine cognizant abilities and how dogs and wolves are different.

And then there is this Hungarian group of dog owners who take chaining tricks into a cool performance to a whole new level. Last year about this time I saw a Youtube clip called “A Doggy Christmas Surprise”. You may have seen it – it’s a bunch of dogs, intact as they often are in Europe, decorating a Christmas tree. And last week someone sent me the sequel, called “A Doggy Summer” – it’s the same group of dogs having fun at the beach. Both clips are awesome, and well worth watching. If I’d be any computer savvier I would have a direct link to it from this post, but because I am not, you have to go to and type Mirror Method Dogs into the search box. Doggy Christmas is the first and Doggy Summer the third clip, and in between is one about the group and their training philosophy.
That clip is called “About Our Group” and the method called Mirror Method. They say that the dog reflects the behavior and personality of the owner, and in order to change the dog’s behavior, one has to make changes in his own first. Wise words.
The Mirror method consists of three, equally important, parts: relationship – training – natural for the dog interactions.
They use the word hierarchy and leader, but state that leadership is established without force and violence. They also talk about distance between owner and dog and I’m curious what they mean by that. They say that without that relationship first, obedience isn’t possible and I totally agree. The mindful leadership relationship is what I call the foundation necessary for learning and good behavior.
For the mechanical part, the teaching of tricks and positions, they use a clicker and treats. I am not a clicker trainer, but do believe it’s a great tool for purely mechanical learning – when the cerebral cortex in addressed, not the emotional limbic system.
The third part is to tap into the dog’s instincts; in other words create opportunities for the dog to live his nature. Living his nature doesn’t mean free for all, but structured teamwork that allows the dog to do things important to him. In the clip they showed retrieving and protection work – I love tracking, cause most dogs are interested in purposeful nose work.
I agree with one more statement the group makes: that marvelous things are possible with every dog, if the owner follows the holistic three-part philosophy of Leadership Relationship; Training and Practice and Purposeful Teamwork and Interactions.

Friday, November 20, 2009

DNA Test Results

Will and Davie’s DNA results are in. You might remember my post a while back when I announced that I sent DNA My Dog about 100 bucks to send me a DNA testing kit for both our girls. The results were emailed to me today, with the hard copies to follow.
When I sent the swaps back, I intentionally didn’t add a photo, cause I am a natural skeptic and I didn’t want to give them any hints what Davie and Will look like.
So according to DNA My Dog, Davie is a combination of:
20-36% Sheltie, 20-36% Greyhound, 20-36% Border Collie, 10-20% Australian Shepherd and less than 5% Parsons Russell Terrier.
Will is a combination of:
37-74% German Shepherd, 10-20% Min-Pin and less than 5% poodle.
The skeptic in me says: “Hm – I wonder?”
I understand that dogs are a combination of many different genes – get that. And Will could somewhat make sense, even though her mother looked a lot like a border collie.
But Davie? Greyhound? By the way, she was sold as purebred Australian Shepherd.
So, I am disappointed. Not because Australian Shepherds are my favorite breed and mine is only 10-20% one, and Will is not a classy Tervuren or even a special coydog, just an ordinary shepherd cross, but because I am not convinced that the test is accurate.
That’s another natural personality trait – if I don’t get the outcome I like I question things, including DNA evidence. So Mike suggested to send for another test kit to the US company whatever their name is, who’ve been doing it for years, just to see what they come up with. Next time I feel like wasting money, maybe I will.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Juveniles and Young Adults

Coincidentally, I heard from several friends and acquaintances recently that are struggling a bit with their juveniles. Most of them are males – go figure – and three of the same breed: German shepherd. Now, I am very fond of German shepherds, but truth is that they can be a handful once they are past the baby stage and before they reach maturity.

When a dog reaches social maturity varies with breed and gender. Aussie Davie was seriously on-the-job at 16 weeks, while our Newfy Baywolf finally got a brain around 4 years of age. Generally, females mature faster – go figure again – and smaller dogs do too, and dogs bred to do serious work also do.

Every dog can go through different developmental stages until they are adults. That includes the well-known newfound juvenile confidence and independence, but also fear periods, and that many people are not aware of. They go to puppy classes, socialize, train and practice and the pooch is progressing nicely and then, all of a sudden, the beloved and so far perfect young canine exhibits a behavior that stuns them. And if their classmates and friends’ dogs are still little perfect canines, they think that something is wrong with their dog – or them, when in fact it is quite common for dogs to regress in obedience and react to something they’ve never reacted before.
The way to deal with that is to backtrack to the last successful level and incrementally build up on that. Pushing through just leads to more fear, or more friction and frustration. The fearful dog should not be exposed to anything new when in a fear period, and the selectively hard of hearing dog should be reminded that, indeed, it is the human who has the bank account – or like my friend Laura, owner of an adolescent German Shepherd, said recently: “Keeper just needs to be reassured that the talk-to-the-paw attitude doesn’t work”.
If need be, don’t be afraid to desensitize the adolescent as if he were a pup, and to clip the leash back on to a dog who already graduated to off-leash cause he had perfect recalls. It’ll be temporary – and the more sensitive, yet casual, you are about your dog’s changes, the faster it’ll be over and he will make leaps in the right direction.

Adolescent times are not necessarily the most difficult. If there are deeper-rooted issues, they often come fully to the surface once a dog has matured.
It’s not that the problem behaviors did not exist before, but are not as seriously followed through and sometimes not that overtly expressed. A younger dog, like a teenage kid, still lacks the confidence; is on some level insecure, despite displays that can be showy and offensive. Adults are a bit more serious.

Especially for dogs bred to have a job, during adolescents their need to play decreases and the need to work increases. Popular belief has it that we live with the perpetual juvenile wolf, and one reason why humans and dogs seek one another is the common lifelong love of play. I dare to differ. Dogs do grow up, and with that their needs change. Misbehavior is often being a working dog without a purpose.
My herding instructor lets his border collies play around till they are seven months, then serious work begins. And please, work does not mean force and corrections, but purpose.
Meanwhile the average dog owner still takes the eighteen months old working breed every day to the dog park to play, and that is often the only activity they do together.
Play, with humans and dogs, can always be part of the interaction, but many dogs have to get out of the sandbox to become the best dog they can be – and it’s up to the owners to facilitate that.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Unpredictable Results of Corrections

I got an e-mail the other day from an owner of a reactive, mixed breed, dog. She is not a client, but visited my website a few times and wanted to share some positive feedback, which is great, cause that is what my website is meant to do – change people’s minds and approaches, and offer a few how-to tips.
The person had hired a local trainer to help her with her dog’s reactive outbursts whenever she encountered dogs on the walk, which is a common problem. The trainer’s method was to put a prong collar on the dog and apply a strong correction each time the dog flipped out. I’m not going to say who that trainer is, cause it’s not appropriate to bash a colleague, but it also doesn’t matter because that method is used by many, especially cause it is also the one Seen On TV, and has become very popular again.
As a good owner should, the person who sent the e-mail followed the “expert” advice - and saw her dog’s behavior deteriorate. Now, she is not only afraid of other dogs, but also of her person. The trainer, so the e-mail says, at that point threw in the towel, stating that some dogs are just like that – are happy alone hiding in the basement.

One of the profound differences between forceful correction training, and purely positive reinforcement, is that when you begin correction training, it is impossible to predict the outcome, and with positive reinforcement, you can always, accurately, predict the consequences.
With correction training, the handler suppresses (or tries to) expressions of fear and stress, and coerces obedience. The unanticipated results are:
The dog lashes out and aggresses – against the owner or others - or
Secondary problem behaviors develop, because fear and stress is increased - or
The existing ones intensify, which requires to correct even harder, and things spiral out of control - or
The dog avoids and tries to escape out of fear, for example hides, bucks, pulls - or
The dog becomes neurotic and develops compulsive disorders like obsessive licking or tail chasing and biting.
Some dogs shut down, deflate, and emotionless and mindlessly obey with precision, but other than that do nothing anymore. They are the ones called well behaved, obedience titled and shown as success stories; the ones the public sees. The fallout, dogs that respond in any of the other ways and are euthanized, dumped somewhere or with someone, surrendered to a shelter, or delegated to a lifelong solitary existence in the back yard, the public doesn’t see.
The person who wrote me the e-mail deals with an outcome that is all too common.
I see it dealing with dog owners. I witnessed it at an aggression seminar where a pooch, reactive to dogs but super friendly with people, at the end of two days also reacted to people.
Even the mighty Dog Whisperer is not immune to that. A beagle mix, a case in season one, was terrified of the garden hose and ran away, but tolerated being bathed in the bathtub. After Millan forced him with corrections to deal with the hose, he began to offensively aggress when bathed in the tub. The behavior changed from fleeing from one trigger, to fighting in a general sense, whenever water was involved.

When Positive Reinforcement is applied, the consequences are 100 percent predictable.
Although changing the reactive dog’s mind about a trigger stimulus can take time, and some dogs need to be managed for life, during rehabilitation following things always happen:
The dog becomes increasingly motivated to work with the owner – and
Stress and fear decreases – and
The dog is learning acceptable coping skills – and
The dog is learning to trust the owner, and once that is accomplished, she begins to feel safe at home and in novel situations - and
The dog is eager to learn - and
The relationship improves and as a result the dog’s behavior.

I commend owners that don’t give up and search for a different way after their last trainer deemed the dog incurable; after the trainer failed the dog, then blamed the dog. Such trainers keep us positive reinforcement pros in business – unfortunately, cause I would rather see all dogs treated kindly, even if I’d have to look for another job.
Whenever I do meet a correction trained “fallout”, the first step is to reestablish the relationship with the owner, cause as long as the dog doesn’t trust that her person is a refuge, she will feel alone when in conflict and express that in emotional outbursts.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

All About Food

My professional background, before dogs, was holistic therapy for humans, including nutrition, including a little dog/cat nutrition tied into the first course I took in Frankfurt/Germany. That led to me to make my own food for our first dog Cedric, which led to the founding of Baby Barks, our whole dog food business in Calgary, in 1995. Shortly after, and because I met so many dogs with so many problems, I became increasingly re-interested in behavior, and studied that to offer my clients a holistic solution to their dog problems. We cooked for hundreds of dogs of all ages and sizes, many with behavioral and physical problems, and many with allergies, and all those dogs taught us a lot.
We sold Baby Barks in 2007; I still make most of Davie and Will’s food, but rarely talk about nutrition anymore – until recently, that is. In the last few weeks the food topic comes up almost every time when I am with clients, hold a seminar or meet friends. So I thought I might as well post a "Silvia's opinion" summary for everyone to read.

In Calgary our dogs, guest dogs and foster dogs, ate what we cooked for our clients, and we measured everything; had consistent recipes. Here in Nova Scotia, I settled into the more laid back lifestyle quickly, and cook by “rule of thumb”, which is about 1/3 meat protein, including fish and eggs, 1/3 grains and 1/3 veggies and fruits.
I cook the meat, because in my opinion domestic dogs are not natural hunters, but natural human-waste eaters. And humans that cook have cooked leftovers, which makes cooked food the ancestral diet for dogs.
I cook the meat together with veggies that are nutritionally more bioavailable when cooked, for example carrots, beans and broccoli, scoop it all out and cut up finely, then cook the grains the broth, and then mix it all into a mush.
We use grains for the same reason we cook meat; it's a part of dogs' ancestral diet. Since the agricultural revolution, grains are a food stable for most humans, therefore also for domestic dogs. Grains increase serotonin uptake and are rich in calming B vitamins and magnesium. Glucose is the only energy source for the brain, is needed to produce body-own vitamin C in the liver and serves as “food” for beneficial intestinal bacteria. Grains means whole grains, not refined white flours and sugars.
After the food is cooled I add fruits and some raw veggies I put in the blender, and oils. I alternate between extra virgin olive oil, extra virgin coconut oil and flax oil. At that point I might add plain yoghurt to the dinner, kelp or brewers yeast, tumeric or cinnamon. I might also add culinary herbs while the grains cook, for example parsley, oregano, thyme or sage. In Calgary, as required, we also added medicinal herbs.
I believe that feeding a variety of food is better for most dogs, and so we use all kinds of meats and veggies and grains, except the known toxic ones, for example onions and grapes. Here in Nova Scotia we have much better access to fresh produce, plus we grow our own stuff, and all of us love to be able to eat what’s in season. Right now the girls munch a lot on spaghetti squash that grew in abundance in our garden this year.

We are fortunate that our girls are healthy and not allergic to anything, but many dogs are. In our experience, chicken is the culprit more than any other food item, followed by beef.
Chlorinated water (and antibiotics) destroys beneficial gut bacteria, and that lack of digestive help contributes to allergies. Where we live now we have fairly decent well water; in Calgary we cooked the dog food in filtered water, and that is also what our dogs found in their water dish. I always recommend to put a dog who has allergies on a probiotic supplement for at least 6-8 weeks, sometimes longer.
Many dogs are also allergic to vegetables that belong to the nightshade family, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.
We never use(d) soy, wheat or corn. Not only do they rank high on the allergen list, but a diet high in corn can lead to a serotonin deficiency, and that is correlated with aggression, obsession, learning difficulties, impulsiveness, hyperactivity and anti-social behaviors.
That was studied with people, but dogs and humans are physiologically very similar - all mammals are.
Another study with people showed that children that ate candy every day were more aggressive as adolescents and adults, including getting in trouble with the law.
Of course, it is difficult to determine if the sugar is cause or correlation. Perhaps parents that allow their children to have junk food every day also lack common sense in other areas of rearing youngsters, and that could be the cause why they misbehave.
In any case, nobody will deny that refined sugars are bad for an organism, and refined flours metabolize in the body like sugar.

There is a new book published on November 17 - The New Holistic Way for Dogs and Cats is based on the work and experience of DVM Paul McCutcheon, who might be the longest practicing holistic veterinarian in Canada. The book is authored by Susan Weinstein, who is also a member of the Mindful Leadership google group.
I haven’t read the book yet cause it’s not out yet, but can’t wait to get my copy, because it deals a lot with stress in connection with health, and my specialty is stress in connection with behavior, and because it includes nutritious recipes for dogs and people. That is brilliant, cause the main reason why many people don’t cook for their dogs is because they don’t have the time. Having recipes that are good for every family member means to simply cook one more portion for the dog, which hopefully means that many more dogs will be chowing down “real food” real soon. You can preorder the book on Chapters, I’ll get mine for free because yours truly provided a tiny bit of behavioral advice.

When clients ask me about food, I always tell them to get the best they can afford, and to read and investigate the ingredients list, and to research the manufacturer. Even small manufacturers often get their meat meals from large renders, and that means that the meat base can be processed to death and/or contaminated.
Dogs are what they eat – and what they are able to absorb and metabolize. Although I have seen healthy and old dogs who were fed the cheapest kibble, mostly it is either to spent money on good food, or having to spent it on mounting veterinary bills.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Breed Specific Behaviors

Cesar Millan says that dogs should be regarded as species dog first, then breed, then individual. As it is often the case when it comes to Millan, I disagree. Sure, dogs have common species-specific behaviors, but because they live in a complex human society and are exposed to a diverse environment, they have almost as many different individual personalities as their owners, sometimes with strange quirks and extreme behaviors.
I also disagree with Millan that the dog’s name doesn’t matter. It does. Not because the dog intellectually knows that a certain arrangement of letters is his identity, but because a name reflects expectations and intentions the owner has, and that influences behavior.

Having said all that, there is no denying that dogs specifically bred for generations for one or the other purpose have breed specific, hardwired tendencies to live out what they were bred to do. There is a reason why shepherds and ranchers don’t own English bulldogs to round up the sheep or drive the cattle. A golden retriever is not the first choice for Schutzhund training, and Greyhounds are rarely involved in water rescue.
There is one category of dogs whose breed specific behaviors are not as obvious as such. The group I am talking about are lap dogs, bred to be very close to people to take over their fleas and lice, or to warm the bed. Nowadays most of us live in a warm house and don’t have nasty bugs on us, but the desire of lap dogs to Velcro themselves to the owner is still there. Being spatially above, on the pillow in bed or claiming higher space on the sofa, is a no-no for trainers who follow the alpha doctrine. The top dog is the dog on top in their opinion, which also goes for lap dogs.
Is the pooch being dominant? Or just displaying an instinctive behavior? It can be very confusing for layowners, especially since the revival of all that “dominance” babble.

One might think that if the person researches purebred dogs and purposes, chooses a breed that complements his own interests and a puppy that matches his personality, they’ll have a wonderful life together. Although it indeed increases the chances of a great interspecies' relationship, even the smartest owner is sometimes overwhelmed by his or her dog’s intensity, which can lead to friction, conflict and sometimes confrontation, and that creates even more problems.
Genetic drives such herding in shepherd dogs; the nose permanently to the ground in scent hounds; soliciting to be picked up and on the lap, or the protective drive in dogs bred to guard house and home is not easy to undo, and if undone forcefully, it always comes at the expense of the relationship. An unfulfilled dog is as unhappy as an unfulfilled human, and we all know that if the dog’s not happy, nobody is. The good news is that “the nature of the beast” doesn’t mean that the dog has to be unruly, obnoxious or dangerous. All ingrained behaviors can be channeled into acceptable ones. Herding the children is not the problem; nipping them is. Scenting is fine; blowing the owner off isn’t. Cuddling is why many people choose lap dogs, claiming space rudely or guarding it, is not okay. Any driven dog can use his talents to do things people like, but the onus is on the person to teach it, and that can take some effort and know-how.

There is no problem with a dog in the bed or on the pillow, or one who gets more affection than discipline. There is a problem if the dog is rude, demanding and impolite, and if that is reinforced he becomes bratty and entitled and very frustrated when ignored.
For all lap dog owners my advice is to ensure that they don’t allow the pooch to get close and personal unless he/she asked permission. A dog’s way to say please is to lower the body and tail, offer soft eye contact, doesn’t bark or whine or scratches legs trying to climb up, and waits for the invitation command, like "close" or "snuggle-up". Humans communicate clearly to other humans that a hug is wanted - or not, and we expect our conspecific members to respect that. I request no less from the dog, even if she has a hardwired desire to be on top of me. Like everything else, that is also up to the owner to teach.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Social Aspects of Fear Reactivity

Social mammals are very sensitive to fear signals of the same species. It is a necessary for survival thing, because it makes others in the group aware of potential danger and allows time to flee or fight.
Imagine how it would affect you if you’d hear someone’s scream. It right away raises the level of tension and alertness, hormonal changes take place, the heart is racing and fear sets in. You’d likely be more receptive to the scream than the calm energy of a companion you might be walking with. And that is intensified if you don't have any information what is happening; why the person screams.
Dogs are no exception. Many hear fear and stress signals of their own kind all the time – in a shelter, from neighborhood dogs, in a multi dog household or from punished dogs in a punitive training facility. In addition to being sensitive to same species' fear signals, dogs, because their lives are so intertwined with humans’ since thousands of years, are also receptive to our tensions, fears and stresses.
A dog might not be fearful genetically, but when surrounded and exposed to dogs and people that are, becomes stressed as well and, at that point, is less likely to pick up safety signals that are given by more grounded members. One has to have a very strong sense of safety and confidence to overcome that.

Studies showed that problem children do best when integrated into a group with socially apt and non-aggressive children. Not only do they learn from them, but they are also forced to change their own behavior in order to be accepted and fit in, and social acceptance is a profound need for all social animals. There is no reason to believe that this would be any different with dogs. Of course, and understandably so, neither parents of good kids, nor owners of non-aggressive dogs want the “bad” ones in their midst, and that makes integration and behavior modification more difficult.
What one can do is to expose the problem dog where relaxed dogs are, but in a distance far enough that allows him to observe without getting stressed. That instills safety and trust and then the distance can be decreased bit by bit.
What happens in reality though is often the opposite. The owner signs the dog up for a growl class where all dogs have issues and most humans are tense also, or brings him to the dog park hoping that “socializing”, or maybe even an older and meaner dog teaching him a lesson, will do the job. That leads to even more arousal, aggression, distrust, fear, stress, resistance and suspicion.
If dogs are too reactive to handle a normal class, they should also not be in any other group class or group setting. If we muzzle the dog, he is only physically safe for others, not emotionally safe within himself.
Most reactive behaviors are rooted in fear and distrust in human leadership. With second-hand dogs that could be based on life experience, and not necessarily on mistakes the present owner makes. When we drag such a dog to the dog park, into a class or aggressive seminar, with an aggressive, corrective and intimidating instructor or other reactive dogs, we hand our dog over and send following messages:
I don’t hear your fears. I don’t care that you are stressed. I can force you to do things you don’t want or can't do. I can force you to look at me and I expect you trust me even though I just completely disregarded your fear and forced you.

If you are tense and grip the leash you convey that you are also stressed. If you have the dog on a nose harness, you take away his ability to communicate and with it the last bit of control that could decrease stress.
It is important to, as our dog's leader, to lead by example – in the home and outside. When our dog reacts out of fear, it is crucial to remain calm, confident and centered. That does not mean to trivialize the problem, but it is up to the human(s) to set the stage for a different behavior, instead of letting the dog take the lead and return aggression with aggression, become tense when he does, make fast and loud noises and erratic hand movements. The dog can’t be in control if the human in charge is out if control.

Temple Grandin, in her book “Animals in Translation”, describes a study that showed that once monkeys had fears, it lingered and was contagious. Dogs that have strong and specific fears might need a long time before they feel safe. Because is lingers, and especially with rescue dogs that are newly adopted and don't have a trusted relationship with their people yet, it is important that the dog is not exposed to those triggers before it exists, he feels safe with them and has learned some coping skills. If he is exposed too soon, the fear resurfaces or intensifies.

Counter conditioning changes the association to the trigger and can work, but not always does. A dog who has a strong fear to something could have formed associations to all environmental details involved with it – the place, sounds, people, dogs, even the feel of the surface he was standing on. It doesn’t matter if a detail had something to do with the negative or traumatic experience or not. Any associated detail can trigger the fear reaction in a different context. With Will, it was any indoor training facility that shut her down.
The opposite is also true. Once an environment becomes a good and safe experience, all perceived details instill safety in different contexts. That is why it is so important that a dog feels safe with his owners.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Off-Leash Etiquette

Yesterday, I took Davie and Will for the first time to Truro's new off-leash park. A group of dog lovers advocated for off leash space for quite some time and the town finally caved, and the park opened a couple of weeks ago.

I am a huge off-leash enthusiast. Since 1995 there is rarely a day that my dogs are not off-leash. My favorites are trails in multi-use parks, beaches, mountain trails in the Rockies where we used to hike, and the wood roads where we live now. My least favorite are all-fenced-in, for dogs only spaces, which the one in Truro is.

It is small, as they typically are, and when we arrived we found a pile of poop in the parking lot and an out-of-control dog greeting us by the gate, which is also not unusual because parks like that are considered a free-for-all by some people who take a dog there who really needs a bit more work before he/she should be let off the leash.
This particular dog was held back by his collar when we entered, but released as soon as we closed the gate behind us, and charged right into my girls' face, tense and tiptoed. We tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, ignoring him, but he followed us, didn't recall and continued to body block and lean stiffly over my dogs' shoulder, who by then gave fearful signals. All the while his owner tried to convince me that his dog is not aggressive, and only got control back after I got cranky and told him (the dog) to get lost.
Whenever someone offers the information that his dog is NOT aggressive you can be pretty sure that he has knowledge that the dog actually is. People who have friendly dogs say that their dog is friendly, not NOT aggressive.
But I give the owner the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he really does believe his dog is not aggressive because there isn't a blood bath.

So that was the not so good stuff that happens in every dog park. After that it got better. We met a lady who put her dog on the leash when she saw us cause her pooch is afraid of other dogs and runs, thereby eliciting a chase that frightens him even more.
Then there was a nice elderly couple whose adopted hound mix was in an off leash park for the first time. This dog was also scared when she saw us, so the female owner called her to come, and the dog did and was rewarded with a treat for it. She then also put her on leash and kept her on until they found a perfect little playmate she wasn't scared of - a young cockerpoo, who tried to play with Will also, but Will, still a bit stressed from the first encounter with the pushy, tense dog, barked him away, which got her leashed as a result.
Off-leash means that dogs can be off leash, not that they have to be, and it was really great to see that so many people understood that and alternated between having their dogs on and off, depending on the situation.

I wish that everybody would have a clue about behavior before they let their dogs run free; especially understand their own dog.
I recently witnessed an encounter between a young German shepherd and, what looked like, a Lab mix. They sniff-danced and began to play, but their interaction quickly turned into an intense chase and grab.
Often dog-to-dog rough play quickly changes into aggression if one dog gets the upper hand; the stronger one is no longer considered a peer, but an opponent. We see the same in sports. As soon as one team is better, the other often initiates aggression, or cheats, to turn things around.
When one dog aggresses, the other usually loses interest and stops playing to avoid injuries. The problem is that by then the aggressor might be too aroused to stop, especially the young male dog. That is likely what happened with the shep/Lab encounter. The shep's owner was right there, quickly got control over her dog and leashed him to create distance, except the Lab mix, still off the leash, followed for more interaction. Yet, it was the Lab owner, who had no control over his dog, who blamed the shepherd, labeled him aggressive and gave the owner a dirty look.
Scenarios like the above usually play out with dogs that are of similar personality, and there is rarely just one dog at fault. It takes two to tango and not always is the one who expresses emotions overtly the instigator.

Good off-leash etiquette is to recognize when the dog is obnoxious and to step in. Off leash simply means that dogs are allowed to enjoy themselves without leash restraint. It does not mean that they can enjoy themselves at other dogs' expense. Some dogs love to play, and some to sniff and others want to play with their owners. If you see a dog on a leash in the off-leash park, it is a good idea to leash yours also, unless you have a solid "leave" command.
Play is play when it can easily be interrupted by distractions, which means that as long as the dog truly plays, she should be responsive to the owner. If she isn’t, she is too wound up and needs a time out.

Davie and Will did a lot of sniffing and marking yesterday at the new park. There is an open section where we played ball and also practiced down stays, which I realized during the tracking workshop needs practicing. So, all in all we had a good time and will be back periodically.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

More About Fear

The consensus, even with many positive trainers, is to ignore the dog when she is fearful to avoid that we reinforce the emotion. That never made sense to me. Most people I know have a fear, or several, and know that when confronted with it the emotion won't disappear just because the person next to them ignores it. Quite the contrary, they feel left alone and lose trust and become resentful. But if they find understanding and help, they might be able to work through a fear and eventually lose it. It's not any different with dogs - in fact, dogs rely even more on our help, because they are not cognitive enough to talk themselves out of a fearful emotion. Humans have an intellect that theoretically can overrule emotion and we know how good that works. And dogs don’t even have that.

Fear is the expectation of danger or pain based on past experiences and associations. The reasons why dogs have fears are plenty: genetic propensity to be overly sensitive, lack of or improper imprinting, mistakes made during the early learning phase, correction training, being attacked and so on. A dog can be fearful of many things that seem irrational to us. A quick reminder: most phobias people have are also irrational to the ones that don’t have them. You know that the nice neighbor with the cookie won't hurt your dog, but in her mind the fear is very real.
When a dog is presented with a fear trigger she has to do something. Doing nothing is biologically impossible. Naturally, she has following options: fight or flee. Which one it is depends on the dog's disposition and what got results in the past. So, it's partly inherent and partly learned.
In my opinion, to avoid and escape a worrisome situation is the preferred choice for most dogs, but because of training, owner control and leash restraints, a dog who might want to flee is often denied that and learns to offensively bark and lunge instead; fight, because flight was prevented by the human.
In addition, people who don’t comprehend the dog’s fear, or don’t care, make the mistake to force their dog closer to the trigger, or allow the trigger to approach closer. That increases fear and reactivity and decreases trust, and next time the same or similar trigger shows up, she reacts from an even greater distance.

To accomplish the opposite, decrease fear and increase trust, acknowledge when your dog gives fear signals like lip licking, lowered body and tail, folded back ears and eye contact. If you ignore your dog when she looks to you, and at you, for help, she is forced to take matters into her own paws. As a mindful leader, it is your job to help your dog out. If she can't rely on you, what is she suppose to do but to react the way dogs do and humans rarely like.
So, reciprocate eye contact and then take action. Signaling discomfort with eye contact should be a default behavior your dog uses as an alternative to freaking out, and she will choose that if she learns that you do something that is in her best interest. One way is to increase the distance to whatever worries her. Curving, or backing up a few steps is often enough. It is not an erratic flight, but a controlled retreat.

Bruce Fogle, DMV, in his book "The Dogs’ Mind", states that some control over a situation is the single best way to decrease stress - for all mammals. Interestingly Cesar Millan refers to Fogle and his book as one of the sources he has learned from. Obviously he either skipped that part or didn't comprehend it, cause he doesn't not allow a fearful and stressed dog any control.
Responding to eye contact and guidance into safety gives the dog a coping skill and through it, some control.
Dogs should also be allowed to look at whatever worries them, instead of being coerced to only “watch” the owner. It takes a lot of trust in someone before I could surrender myself and look away from something or someone I fear. That kind of trust can never be earned with coercion and punishment.
And a dog should always have control over his head movements; speak freely so to say. Dogs communicate mostly with their head and facial expressions. That is why any type of halter that goes around the dog’s nose is a counterproductive walking tool for fearful dogs.

There are a variety of behaviors a dog can learn and be guided into that will decrease fear and instill safety again. For example: retreating into a crate or safe place in the house, sniffing for a tossed treat, touch and target – sometimes even the trigger. Any cooperative interaction where dog and owner do something together in a task-oriented and positive way increases the bond. And any time the dog is successful in signaling fear and getting a response that helps her deal with it, she'll gain confidence, which further decreases fear. The owner, and by association the space owner and dog occupy and interact in, becomes safe. The owner is a leader the dog can rely on, not an erratic (from the dog’s point of view) punisher, or a stressed and helpless bystander.

Another way to help is to proactively informing the dog with known cue words what is going on in the environment. Will is afraid of buses, and if Mike or I hear one approaching, we say “bus”, and Will has time to move behind us. When I hear a jogger or dog come from behind, I’ll inform my girls of that also. That increases their trust in me cause they have learned that I am aware of things and they can let their guard down.

Acknowledging fear and guiding the dog calmly and confidently has nothing to do with being emotional. I am not suggesting fawning over and pitying a dog. There is nothing worse than an emotional dog teamed with an emotional owner; one who is fearful herself, or tenses up or becomes frustrated or angry whenever there is a potential conflict. Then the owner becomes a classical conditioned stress trigger for the dog, and command words, such as sit, the cue that signals that there is trouble. And the dog will react.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

DNA Test

An old friend I had the pleasure to work with at the Cochrane Humane Society in Alberta sent me an e-mail the other day to tell me that she has sent her dogs' DNA in to find out what kind of mutts they are. She had it done through a Canadian company, who AARCS, which stands for Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society, teamed up with as part of their fund raising.
That got me all excited, cause getting my girls DNA tested is on my mind since a couple of years. I am really curious to know what components Will is made out of, but I'll also get one done for Davie. She was sold as a purebred Aussie, but we always suspected a tad of border collie in her, and Mike and I teasingly call her the perfect Bossie.
What kept me so far from taking action is that each test is around a hundred bucks US, cause the only dog DNA testing company I knew about is in the States.
The Canadian company,, is considerably cheaper and they support rescue, so there are no more excuses.

I wonder if any of the NS rescue people could team up with the company also? I think it's a great idea. The Cochrane Humane Society, while I volunteered there, was connected with a pet identification company. It was mandatory for people who adopted a dog or cat to also purchase a tag that fits around the collar and a portion of the money was donated back to the society. I didn't like it, cause many adopters argued, rightfully so, that their indoor cats wouldn't wear a collar, or their dog would be microchipped, and were miffed that they had to dish out extra money for something they'd likely never use.
But I can see that many dog parents would get a test done to find out their dog's heritage. Then all our mutts could walk around with their own little designer dog label, now reserved only for the expensive and intentionally bred crosses. We'd have a Shusky, a Shlab or a Sheeler, a Labam or Catlab, or a Bossie or Borlab or Rolab or Berv.

I wonder if affordable and mainstreamed DNA testing might also open the door for lawsuits owners could file when their dog gets the legislative boot out of a province or county just because he has a square head and bulky body. Shouldn't the onus be on the lawmakers to DNA-proof that a dog indeed has pit bull genes, before they seize and euthanize? Not that I'm in favor of banning any breed, but it baffles me that "the law" gets away with going by looks only. Discriminating for looks instead of behavior is such a prejudice and racist thing to do and so typically human.

DNA testing is affordable, easy and supports rescue and I'll contact the company next week for two test kits. I'll let you all know if Will is indeed a "Border"line Nervy Tervy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mindful Leadership Google Group

I have created a Mindful Leadership google group: Voice 4 Dogs.
It was planned for quite some time - I wanted a place where all my clients can go to discuss their dog(s), get advice, have questions answered, connect to and communicate with other dog owners who want the best relationship they can have with their dog.
We purely positive and mindful dog people are still a minority, and some might feel they need to defend how they relate and train their dog(s), so the group could also be somewhat of a support group, especially for confused by all the conflicting training info members.

The reason why it took so long between planning and action is because I am really busy, but also because I was divided between running it as an open group for everyone interested, or a closed one reserved only for people who attended one of my seminars or group classes, bought my book, or had a private consultation.

To open the door for anybody was really tempting, cause it might have influenced a few correction owners to quit punitive methods. But then I thought the opposite might happen: Millan and Koehler followers trying to convince us that our dogs will surely becomes the alpha if we don't punish "bad behavior" and "dominance". Not that I am trying to avoid such discussions in general. Hubby Mike can attest that I am always in the mood for a heated debate. But I'll reserve that for future blogs that might attract opposing voices. For the group I wanted a different purpose - one that adds value to my clients - and me, cause we all learn from one another. And the best teachers when it comes to dog behavior are our dogs.

Reserving membership to dog owners and trainers who connected with me in one of the above ways also allows us to begin discussions at a certain level, cause you all have already an idea what Mindful Leadership is all about - and you are already very caring dog owners.

I have sent a bunch of personal invitations out, but I don't have everyone's e-mail address. Partly my fault cause I am not all that organized when it comes to secretarial stuff. Partly because I never had your e-mail address. If you are a client and have not received an invitation and would like to join the group, please e-mail me at Let me know which seminar you attended, or where you purchased my book Dump Dog, and I will e-mail you an invitation.

I am looking forward to some great discussions in the future.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Over-Arousal and Fear Anxiety

Hubby Mike and I took a couple of days off and went on a short road trip to explore a part of Nova Scotia, the Eastern Shore, we haven't been yet. Of course Will and Davie came along.
As seasoned travelers, both dipped their paws in the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean and left pee-mail in each and every province except Newfoundland/Labrador, they were perfect. I think their highlights were when we shared our smoked eel we bought at Krauch's in Tangier - it was the best smoked eel I had in some 20 years or so - and the couple of hours we spent hiking in Taylor Head Provincial Park - one of the nicest parks and beaches we found yet.

Whenever we travel, we print a list of dog friendly accommodations that are along our route. And typically we discover a place where we really want to stay - and it's usually not on our list. That never stops us from asking anyway if we can get a room with our two dogs, and more often than not the answer is yes, especially at the end of the season. We stayed at a nice place in Quebec, a wonderful Bed and Breakfast in Lunenburg, and were lucky again this time. Mike and I fell head over heels in love with Sherbrook and were able to book a room at the St. Mary Lodge, located just a couple of blocks from the Historic Village, which is a dog friendly museum, by the way. That was our highlight of the trip.

Unfortunately, Davie wasn't as thrilled. In fact, she was downright panicked and all she wanted to do was to leave the room as soon as we entered it. She hyperventilated and broke her down-stay a couple of times to stand in front of the closed door, staring at it.

Many of my clients dog's problem behaviors are rooted in stress due to fear and/or over- arousal. Dogs that freak out are not responding to known commands, lose owner attention, won't take treats and appear inconsolable. The dog is "out-of-her-mind" and the logical solution is to guide her back into it. And the only way to do that is to calm her. Not the calm-submissive state Cesar Millan talks about; the artificial one he coerces with correction and intimidation, but an authentic state of offered and worry-free, tranquil relaxation. My way to guide a dog into it is to have her lie down, and then sit beside her, having a hand on her body, or softly stroke, or touch her in a way she finds familiar and relaxing. Anything else, in my opinion, increases the arousal or anxiety and is thereby counterproductive.
I can only guess why Davie was so unnerved. But she was able to lie on request. Instead of commanding a stay and walking away again, I followed my own advice and she relaxed quickly and feel asleep, and was able to manage the room after that.

Davie's panic was momentary, but many of the dogs I meet are in a chronic state of hyper-arousal. One of the reasons is too much daily activity and not enough rest. Again, I am not suggesting a dog always has to be calm-submissive. There is nothing wrong with excited, goofy and exuberant happiness at times, but it is harmful to be permanently stressed.

Milan Kundera writes: "To sit with a dog on a hillside... is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring - it was peace."
We humans always have to do something; be active and productive and we drag our dogs into the same lifestyle - with the same results that they are restless and fidgety and unable to relax on a hillside, commute with nature and calmly observe in a naturally relaxed state of mind.
When the dog is too charged up, owners either try to redirect into calm behaviors by practicing tricks or structured sniffing, or they correct into submission.
I find both methods not very effective. With the former the dog is still stimulated - even low key stimulation is stimulation; the latter does not lead to authentic relaxation. Anything forced is never real and healthy.

The stressed dog, regardless if it is temporarily and chronically, due to too much exercise and activities or too much exposure to environmental triggers, has to be given plenty opportunities to rest and do nothing. In some cases, that has to be guided by the owner in the beginning, in the same way I guided Davie back into feeling safe.
Intersperse walking, training and activities with sitting on the hillside with your dog, or on the beach, or on the carpet in your home, and do nothing but enjoy each other's company. If your dog is too antsy to do that, so much more the reason to practice it. Make it a daily training exercise and use yummy rewards (at first) when your dog settles beside you and relaxes. Reward the emotion, not the action.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Red Flags that Indicate that the Breeder Might Not be a Good One.

Typically, places where people look for their next canine companion is on-line, pet stores, newspapers and bargain finders, humane societies, rescue groups, dog magazines and dog shows.

I won't discuss rescue dogs here - that's a topic for another post another time.

And I'm not going to talk about dogs sold in pet-stores, or advertised in newspapers and bargain finders, because NOBODY should get a dog through those venues - ever. Period! And that also includes dogs advertised on Kijiji. With the rare exception of a responsible owner forced by circumstances to find a new home for the pooch. But most dogs advertised and sold there come from irresponsible back yard breeders, or are mass produced and brokered and, in my ideal world, that would be against the law.

Getting a pup from a conscientious breeder pays off, cause mistakes made during the pup's crucial imprinting and impressionable period has to be made up by the owner. That can be costly, time consuming, frustrating and sometimes heart breaking. Many people believe that purchasing a CKC or AKC registered puppy is a guaranty that he/she was carefully bred and raised. That is not so, and it can be difficult for laypeople to tell the difference between good and bad breeders.
Here are red flags I found browsing through dog magazine ads, googling websites and visiting breeders, that might point to a large-scale, uncaring and breeding-for-money operation.

Has several breeds, or switches between breeds depending which one is most popular at the time.

Most colors and patterns available; Year round puppies; All sizes.
Looking for that special pet = selling pitch - all dogs are special.
Good with kids = selling pitch - great family dogs are not born. Some breeds are genetically more predisposed to love people, including young ones, but the most important aspects are proper imprinting, gentle socializing and teaching pups and kids to be respectful and comfortable with one another. Good breeders know that.

Red Flag kennel names: for bully breeds, anything that has Bad, Raging, Gang, or alike in it. Good breeders of "bullies" do everything they can to avoid adding to the negative perception the media and public already have regarding pit bull type dogs.

Kennel names and ads that contain the words smallest, tiniest, largest or giant. Good breeders breed for temperament, not size. Trends and a certain look feed an attention seeking society; people who own a dog to show off with him/her. Not the type of person I would want for my pup, were I a breeder.

Champion Blood Lines. That is not a red flag, but also not a guaranty that the pooch is sound and healthy. It simply means that the breeder showed in conformation and enough judges decided that the pooch represented the breed standard (looks, gait and other superficial stuff) more than the other dogs competing.

Working stock; field dogs; excellent protectors of house and home and any indication that the dogs are bred for purpose other than companionship. That is also not a red flag, except when the breeder sells these driven dogs as pet companions to anyone who opens his/her wallet. For the average family who is looking for a balanced, middle-of-the-road dog, the ones bred to work are often too much to handle. It's the dog who suffers the most.

Popularity of a breed always has unscrupulous people jumping on the band wagon.
A rare breed often comes with a bunch of health problems due to a small gene pool.

CHEAP and REASONABLE PRICED. It costs money to breed and raise a dog the proper way. Good breeders don't sell their pups at bargain prices or on a payment plan.
Sadly, even some savvy and wealthy people are reluctant to spend more money for a dog when they feel they can get the same breed cheaper elsewhere. Our Australian Shepherd Davie was sold for $100.00 as a purebred, without tattoo or chip, no papers and delivered to a city 300 km away. I'd say that Davie's first owners are above average intelligent, highly successful people, yet they thought they could get a purebred dog from a good breeder delivered for 100 bucks.

If I were to shop for a pup I'd:
Shop local or travel to see the kennel in person;
Meet the pup's parents;
Get a breeder's contract with a warranty on health and temperament;
Be prepared to be on a waiting list;
Be prepared to be interrogated by the breeder;
In turn, want all my questions to be answered;
Am willing to spend money.

Good breeders:
Demand that their offspring is returned to them if the owner can't care for him/her any longer;
Some are involved in pure breed rescue, or have a couple of rescued dog themselves;
Can provide references - and ask for them;
Never sell to pet stores or through Kijiji;
Socialize gently without over-stimulating the pups and keep them long enough to learn valuable lessons from litter mates and older dogs. The ideal age for a pup to join a new home and family is, in my opinion, at 10-12 weeks of age.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Impressions from the Halifax Dog Show

I attended the Halifax Kennel Club Dog Show the Labour Day weekend and had a great time - largely due to the fact that I was surrounded by wonderful people. My friend Joan already blogged about the show and also added a bunch of great photos you can check out.
I didn't take any pics and don't want to repeat what Joan said, but want to share what I reflected on each day on my hour-long drive home.

On Saturday, three perfect specimen of my favorite breed, Australian shepherds, were a couple of tables away from us and I was happy for the eye candy. Although the dogs were part of the event and competed in Rally O', they needed to move. Someone (stupid) complained cause there were a couple of food vendors in close proximity. I wonder what the person who had an issue with it expected to find at a dog show? The next day the Aussies were out of my sight and I had to do with all the other dogs that walked up and down the aisles and passed the food vendors. It ended up not being too bad because one was a huge drooly, hairy Newf and the owner/handler was nice enough to stop for a bit so I could get my cuddles in.

I was busy selling my book and mittens, but thanks to Ann and Heather who did a great job manning my table, I was able to watch some of the events. One was part of an obedience trial and I watched a German shepherd, a Labrador and a Sheltie compete. The Sheltie was fantastic and I thought to myself that somehow, to make things fair for all other breeds, there should be a handicap applied whenever they compete. Both the Lab and shepherd ran enthusiastically away to get the dumbbell and got slower and slower as they got closer to the owner/handler on the way back. If one of my dogs would do that, I'd look myself in the mirror and ask why she hesitates to return to me.

I also watched some Rally O', the much kinder way of obedience, and again a Sheltie excelled, but also a miniature schnauzer and that was great cause many people do not train their schnauzers to that level. And he or she, like the Sheltie, was really focused, happy and upbeat in the ring. No hesitation to be near their person with these two.

At my table, and close to it, there were great conversations with breeders, dog owners and people looking for a dog - or not looking for one, like one young lady who loves dogs but chooses to live without one because of the lifestyle she enjoys. I wish everyone would give that much thought before they get a canine companion. A family who stopped by was just as conscientious. Even though their son, who appeared very mature and well behaved, really, really wants a dog, they aren't rushing in it but invest a lot of time researching the right dog and breed for them.

We talked to wonderful breeders who have a small number of dogs, keep the puppies until they are 12-weeks old and have a thorough questionnaire potential buyers have to fill out.
We also talked to ones who have so many dogs and litters that they pee in the house and on dog beds and I wonder if they tell their buyers that a dog who learns to pee and poop in the house is more difficult to train to go outside.
One other breeder was proud of the fact that the outside runs she keeps her dogs in are in the shade. I get it. Breeders of large dogs can't have all of them in the house, but I do hope that her criteria for choosing her puppies' new family is a little higher than a dog run out of the sun.

Throughout the three days I periodically played with the idea what kind of dog I would get were I interested in a dog right now, which I am not. My friend Joan wants a black standard Poodle. I always came back to the gorgeous Saluki I saw several times. And the Saluki pup was just as wonderful. The Salukis were my favorites - and the most beautiful Chinese Crested I ever saw. She wasn't hairless or a powderpuff, but had hair half of her body, which I didn't know existed. I'm glad I learned something new at the dog show.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Intonation Matters

Intonation Matters

Autistic author and animal advocate Temple Grandin explains in her book “Animals in Translation”, that as a child she was only able to pick up the tone of a spoken word to understand its meaning. She, and many others, believes that our dogs, too, are more receptive to how we say something than what we say.
Behaviorist, ethologist and author Dr. Patricia McConnell extensively researched that subject with a variety of mammals and elaborates on it in her book “The Other End of the Leash”. In it she explains that fast, high-pitched sounds, convey motion, excitement and stress, while drawn out, lower sounds signal calm and stationary.

Many of clients ask me how much intonation affects behavior. In my opinion and experience it can be very influential, but using the right tone can be a bit of an art, because it always depends on dog and situation.

A high-pitched and fast sound signals excitement, stress but also play arousal. Used with a come command, it can entice a dog to return faster cause he thinks there is a party going on where you’re at. That really worked for our confident Newf Baywolf, who was always keen to be where the action is. The same approach sent easily aroused Davie over the top; she started to bark and yip and jump. Davie never needs to be cheered on; a grounded, normal tone works best for her. Non-trusting and fearful feral-born Will, who perceived the excited recall as me being stressed, became even more suspicious and increased the distance to me. Instead of coming, she avoided me. For Will, the soft-spoken words instill the safety she needs to approach.

Think intonation when your dog runs away and chases something. The last thing you want is to use is a panicky and repetitive come, or stay, or stop, or NO, cause then you’re egging your pooch on to run faster still – away from you.

Lower toned and drawn out sounds signal calm and stationary. I use that intonation when I want my dogs to hold a position. Lower and sharp sounds I use if I want them to “knock it off”. It conveys that I mean it – that I tell them, rather than ask them.

Sometimes I encounter owners who use a regimental command tone all the time, for every request and for every dog, even the fearful and sensitive one, the one who gives clear appeasement and submissive signals.
Nowhere in nature is a regimental tone the way social members communicate with one another. Even in the military it is used only at work. Privately the communication is casual and strict rituals are not observed. So, lose that tone of voice with your dog, and especially if you invite him to join you for a walk, or you ask him to come. Your dog won’t want to be with you if you sound intimidating. You can use a regimental tone when you want to stop him in his tracks, but as soon as he shifts his focus back to you be your sweet and encouragingly self, so your dog can tell the difference when you are happy with him, and when you’re not.

Intonation is one of the reasons why many dogs respond better to a lower male voice, than a higher female voice. Another one is, by the way, because males maneuver space more confidently.
A dog who responds better to the male owner than he female is either afraid, or feels safer with the man. Which one it is becomes clear when one observes if the dog chooses voluntarily, without leash and choke collar, to be near the person, or if he’d avoid the person if he could.

I use my voice intentionally; let my dogs know when I am really happy with them, when they should move faster, or stay still, or knock it off. Usually I talk to them in a normal calm, grounded and neutral tone – the one I use with members of my own species. Understanding intonation can be a great asset to add clarity and help a dog succeed in training and every day life. Inadvertent mistakes can add an extra hurdle and make problem behaviors worse, or delay training success.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cesar Millan's Rule: No Talk - No Look - No Touch

No talk? Ha! Not in my house. Just this morning I was complimented by a neighbor we met on our walk on how super attentive Davie is. I gave her a "leave" command when she focused on the neighbor's Cocker spaniel, and she instantly shifted her focus back to me cause it's practiced to a default, and then I kept her attention by being chatty and telling her how sweet and brilliant she is and she was totally glued to me, prancing beside me in a perfect heel and with perfect attention. We looked fantastic and I keep my reputation for another day. And, by the way, Davie was off-leash, like she usually is in our neighborhood.
I talk to my dogs - all the time. Dogs have receptive human language skills, and why one would deny them the opportunity to learn what we mean when we open our mouth beats me. Both our girls know many words and respond to the ones that are really relevant to them even when they are part of a sentence. And that is not unique. Many of my friends and clients who treat their dogs like we do report the same.
The downside is that our dogs are paying attention when we talk all the time and respond when they hear a word they know. When I casually ask Mike if he wants to "go" for a leisurely stroll around the block, Davie and Will erupt in noisy, excited barks. Maybe that's why Millan doesn't talk to dogs? The association to certain words takes them out of the calm-submissive state.

No look? Not happening in my house either. The opposite happens. Eye contact is the very first thing I teach a new dog, and is also what I emphasize with my clients. Suzanne Clothier, author of the book "If Bones would Rain from the Sky", says that offered and prolonged eye contact is a sign of deep connection and I agree.
When Davie and Will offer eye contact, or respond to their name with eye contact, I know that I have their attention and can follow up with a command. If they offer it in a new situation, it is a signal that they are unsure and I can take action to make them feel relaxed and safe again. And if they see a squirrel and make eye contact, they are asking permission to chase - eye contact as the canine way of saying "please" or "I want".
Accepting eye contact from strangers is an important thing every dog should learn. Especially dogs that fear people; are insecure around them. They become more reactive when they feel paid attention to. Paying attention to a dog by looking at him is exactly what people do. Especially people that fear dogs. Millan can tell his visitors at his compound not to look at the dogs, but in real life, if you walk your Amstaff or Rottie down the street, people will look. You can bet on that. What you gonna do? Yell nonstop "don't look at my dog"? Not functional, which means that every dog should be desensitized to accept eye contact.

No touch! That also doesn't happen in my house. Anybody who knows us and our dogs knows that they live in paradise. The price they pay is to have my hands in their hair, and being hugged and kissed.
Having said that, Millan does have a point with the no-touch rule. Many dogs become hyper-aroused when touched, especially with fast and repetitive patting. In that state they are squirmy, grabby and mouthy. Often I meet clients with an already charged up juvenile, and hands-on patting or pushing, or even stroking, causes her to go over the top.
Some people can't keep their hands off a dog who's sleeping. I know, they are super cute when asleep, but everyone has the need to chill undisturbed. If constantly interrupted, the dog becomes over-stimulated and again overly charged up. Just because your dog wants to lay beside you doesn't mean she wants your hands all over her all the time.
I frequently recommend to back off a little with the touching and give the pooch some space.
And definitely hands-off as far as strangers go. I have a strict rule: unless my dogs want to be touched by someone we meet on the walk or park, and they clearly indicate that, which almost never happens, I don't allow anybody to touch my dogs - like I wouldn't allow just anybody to hug my child.

Monday, August 24, 2009


I met with clients recently who own a wonderful adolescent boy dog. Wonderful, but misunderstood. I won't say what breed, but it's one who often gets a bad rep and it's not a bully type. Anyway, the owners are great. The type of people who are interested in their dog and treat him like a family member. Like most of my clients and dog owning friends who have, or aim to have, that kind of a relationship with their pooch, the female owner anthropomorphized while we were chatting, but then instantly hesitated and explained herself to me - almost apologetically.

Anthropomorphism is a no-no for many in the dog-pro circuit. Followers of the hierarchical pack philosophy already see the root of all behavior problems in the humanization of dogs, and people belonging to the science oriented group don’t believe that there is a place for anthropomorphism in science. World-renowned ethologist Roger Abrantes referred to it as “the crime of anthropomorphism”. I am guilty as charged. And receive periodically smiles usually reserved for small children, or a belittling sneer, typically from people without experience, but who took some science courses, maybe have a diploma or degree, and point that out during the first two minutes of a conversation.

Anthropomorphism, according to the dictionary, is: the attribution of a human form, human characteristics, or human behavior to nonhuman things such as deities in mythology and animals in children’s stories.

Dogs don’t have human form. But even that is debatable, or why else would dog mags hold dog/owner look-alike contests?

Human characteristics? You betcha. Dogs and people have much in common. Both species need mental and physical stimulation, thrive on social belonging, want to feel safe, like to play, are motivated to get stuff they like and avoid stuff they don't like, and synchronize their actions to the group’s. Both are, by nature, manipulative opportunists, except dogs are the way cuter ones.

Dogs also have a brain. And one that performs beyond simple mammalian survival tasks. Prestigious Harvard University Extension School offers a course named: The Cognitive Dog. Psychologist Paul Bloom states, “that for psychologists, dogs may be the next chimpanzees”. What’s good enough for Harvard, is good enough for me.

Dogs are more similar to us than different. Many humans are emotionally closer to dogs than to our genetic next of kin: apes. There is no harm in humanizing dogs as long, and that’s key, one also understands how dogs and humans differ. It is great that good science made it to dogs. I understand the Laws of Behavior and apply operant conditioning, but also translate what a dog might say could he communicate in a human language and have a great time putting English explanations to their actions. I gaga over dogs but am not a touchy-feely pushover, unaware of their species-specific needs and limitations.

In my world, science, leadership stuff and anthropomorphism are all inclusive. It, and analogies to human behaviors, adds clarity for my clients and often makes them more compassionate. They fall in love with their dog again. A little humor eases their tension, which in turn takes the edge of their dog’s.

Anthropomorphism can contribute to a harmonious, functioning dog/human relationship; the unique adventure of two species sharing a life together as companions. Let’s not reserve it just for cartoon characters and Disney movies.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Since the resurrection of the dominance ideology a few years ago, I hear dog owners use the terms alpha and pack leader all the time. The question is if, or if not, dogs need a leader. It is disputed by some behavior-purists, but in my opinion, they do.

But not because they are status seeking little demons the moment they invade our homes and hearts, but because they inherently know, as a species, that we have the power to provide, keep them safe, or harm and hurt them if we so choose. Humans, since domestication some 12.000 years or so ago, were dogs’ lifeline. Even non-owned "Village Dogs", a term coined by Dr. Raymond Coppinger that describes dogs that live in the periphery of human settlements in every region on this planet, live on human waste around garbage dumps. Dogs, as a species, flourish because they hang out with people.

When a pup or rescue dog moves into the midst of humans; his new family he knows nothing about, he seeks a couple of things - social acceptance and the feeling of safety. He needs to find out how he will get that, and all the other stuff he wants like roasted chicken, bones and toys, and a cushy place to rest. And that's where the humans come in. Only the people who are members of his intimate social group can explain how his world works from now on. The world he's thrown into. Not every dog needs to belong to people, but once they do because we chose to buy or adopt one, they rely on those very people for provision and protection. And that's leadership.

Studies proved that humans and dogs and other mammals learn best when taught without coercion. Completely without force and punishments. And that's Mindful Leadership. Teaching the dog what he needs to know to fit in, while at the same time decreasing fear and stress - the cause of most problem behaviors.

For people to be Mindful Leaders they need to understand how dogs communicate, what they are motivated by, what stresses them out, and how to teach in a way the dog can comprehend. In future posts I want to chat about all that, and sometimes also other dog related topics that occupy my mind. I am studying and working with dogs professionally since 1995. I want to share with you the finer nuances of body language and behavior - for dogs' sake, so that as many as possible live a life free of fears. As a nice side-effect, a content and emotionally balanced dog is typically a well-behaved one, which makes the owners happy as well - and society at large.