Sunday, December 26, 2010

Countdown the Ten Best Expert Tips

Like seeks like, and hence all my friends are in one way or another involved with dogs. No surprise that having dinner with them is a favorite pastime that fills not just my tummy, but also soul and brain. Soul and brain cause passionate dog people never tire talking shop, and that isn’t just mentally stimulating, but also makes us more proficient. You might expect that someone like me, who proclaims expertise and advices others, already knows all there is to know about dogs, but I confess that every time I am conferencing with other brainy dog folks I walk away with a new insight, or am reminded of something that slipped my mind, but is worth paying attention to.
As much as humans love to lay claim to unique, inborn talents and boast with original, groundbreaking ideas, the best pooch-professionals, including world-renowned authorities I met and learned from, continue to learn from dogs - and their colleagues. They go to seminars even if they give them, read what others in the field have to say and observe what they are doing, exchange thoughts and ideas, test and sometimes modify them, and then pass combined wisdom along to peers and clients - thereby making the world a better one for dogs and their owners.
For year’s end, I want to share with you 10 bite size tips – some original, others I picked up at a seminar, lecture, book, article or through networking dinners with friends.
Each one is specifically chosen, because it is easy to apply, yields great benefits and yet, I hardly ever see a lay owner do it.

10. Sandwich difficult exercises between easier ones. Especially sensitive and scatter-brained dogs can feel overwhelmed when training becomes increasingly more difficult, falter under pressure or mentally check out. Start with fun stuff, and end on a high note, and your pooch will forever be keen to learn more.

9. The more you do it, the better you get. Practice behaviors that are important to you whenever you have a minute or two, and in a variety of contexts. A dog trained 20-minutes each day learns to obey 20-minutes each day.

8. Toss a treat out for your dog to find – also outside. Encourage her to find it, make it a game , a fun interaction, maybe even help her, and you become the primary reinforcement, not the treat. It keeps your dog connected to you, and if you incorporate other objects into your fun interactions, you don’t become dependent on food rewards.

7. Be boring and inattentive after you released your dog from a practice session. Traditional correction training does the opposite: praise or play follows the dismissal, and the dog learns that training is a drag, and being released is pleasurable. If you aim for voluntary compliance that is a big hurdle, cause voluntary only happens when working with you is more rewarding than not working. To be very clear, withhold attention only for a little while; locking the dog in his crate for hours on end and depriving him of social contact in the name of performance is, in my opinion, abuse.

6. Use your body consciously. Move forward if you want your dog to stay and walk away when you call your dog. Running toward a dog is your invitation to playing chase, and she’ll tear in the opposite direction. Walk away from your dog, not toward her, if you want her to follow.

5. If your dog has a, well, strong developed sense of ownership over toys, have an identical one when you venture to the dog park. If a rude pooch snatches her beloved ball, prove how good of a provider you are when you dig up the replacement. It keeps your dog’s focus on you, and possibly prevents a fight.

4. Whenever someone comes head-on towards you, politely leash-guide your dog to the side and verbally cue, we like “over”, the behavior. Consistently applied, your dog will soon mannerly move “over” on command – on and off the leash, which potentially makes a situation less confrontational for the other dog, puts cynophobic people at ease, and creates passing space for cyclists and joggers.

3. Clip a leash on your dog until you have off-leash control. Yes, even in the house. Trust me, leash-controlling until your dog settles is way more productive than playing goalie with her at the door when the bell rings. Leashing does not mean jerking and correcting – it means keeping the pooch out of trouble until desired behaviors are reliable off the leash.

2. Combine a verbal “take-it” with releasing anything you give your dog he takes with his teeth. Treats, his ball, or the tug toy. Once the cue is conditioned, your dog will only take something out of somebody’s hand when commanded to, which prevents impatient and rough grabbing and snatching.

1. My number one, must have, behavior is voluntary connection. If you have your dog’s attention, you can teach anything else in a heartbeat. If you don’t have it, nothing you do has much of an impact.
Your dog offering eye contact should precede access to anything your dog wants. Attention before he gets his food, before you open the door, before you clip on the leash – or off at the park. When your dog understands that you’re her lifeline, connecting with you becomes a habit.

When I reflect on 2010, many joyous moments flash into my mind, and most include a dog or two. It was a good year and I wish it was one for you, too. May you and yours be blessed with peace, health and prosperity in 2011.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Christmas Doggie Toy Box

All dogs should have a well-stocked toy box. Well, maybe not all. The ones that have a real job and daily mental and physical stimulation can contently live without it. However, most dogs in our society own a person who’s predominantly involved in human-only activities, which leaves the pooch on the sidelines, and that can lead to a variety of problem behaviors. Dogs that act out often do so to generate stimulation in a deprived environment, and a designated, always accessible – and that part is important, activity center counters boredom; offers mental stimulation.
Size, shape and contents of a proper toy box depend on the dog. Terrier types often like a deep basket filled with many things and a daily surprise they can dig up, for example a few special treats hidden underneath all the stuff or layered in between. Tons of stuff doesn’t mean it'll cost you tons of money. Provided your dog doesn’t swallow cloth, clean rags, holy socks or worn t-shirts, collected from friends and family, work wonderfully.
Very industrious dogs could find several stuffed Kongs in their play corner. In fact, most of their daily food ration might be served that way. I also like to put a few especially smelly treats in toilet paper rolls, fold the ends in to keep them in place and, again only if the pooch doesn’t swallow cardboard, hide them all through the house. That purposeful nose-work challenges even the busiest sniffer, and nicely tires her out.
Large, powerful dogs are often relentless chewers, so their toy box should include a variety of items that fulfill that need. Every good pet store offers advice what is delectable - and longer lasting with ambitious masticators. Bark and Fitz, and Global Pets are examples of a good pet store, and for dog’s sake, I never shop somewhere that actually sells animals, even if I could safe a coin.
Because the idea is to create self-reliant fun, anything in the box should be safe for the dog to have unsupervised. Said that, the wise owner does observe at first, and every time a novel item is added. You want to ensure that she doesn’t gulp down an antler chew, tied in two old cup towels, in one piece.
Does an always-accessible activity basket take the fun out of holiday gift giving? After all, the majority of owners include their furry family member into the Christmas Season, and we certainly belong to the majority in that regard. I say no to that question, and am sure that our dogs agree. With a little ingenuity one can find the perfect present even for the most indulged canine. I googled a bit and found a few things my pooches likely have on their Santi Paws wish list, and yours might be pleased with as well.
Nina Ottosson interactive dog toys are a hit with every dog, regardless of age, size, physical or mental abilities. You can check them out at, and many pet boutiques, locally and on line, carry a variety. Don’t snitch it to Davie and Will, but I bought a “Tornado” at they get to gently unwrap on Christmas Morn. Your dog might even make it into the brainy-dog hall of fame, but keep in mind that games are for fun first, not competition.
Or how about home-baked cookies the little darling can sniff for under the Christmas tree. I found a great recipe at I modified a little, cause I’m a health geek and white flour doesn’t enter my dogs’ tummies. Here it goes: 16 oz. raw liver finely processed – and you can substitute that with sardines or peanut butter, 1 ½ cups whole wheat flour, 8 oz. oat flakes, 3 beef bouillon cubes dissolved in app. 1 cup of warm water, 2 beaten eggs. Combine all ingredients, and for extra nutritional value I toss a handful of dried parsley in it, and add enough water to form a slightly sticky dough. Roll out on baking paper to about ½” thickness, cut out cookies in whatever shape you like, and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. You can fancy it up with bone or fire hydrant shaped cookie cutters, and you can find those at many places, for example at Our girls wish they had cat and veterinarian shaped ones, too.
Often overlooked are gifts that make the dog feel better. I found paw pads at our 12-year-old, arthritic Davie might find in her stocking this year. Our house is all matted out, but she still likes to travel with us and those pads might keep her from sliding on other people’s hard wood floors.
A gift that keeps on giving is a book. Not entirely for the dog, but indirectly because understanding canines makes you a better parent to yours. is an on-line dog bookstore and has many great reads. Too many to list here, but two of my favorite authors are Suzanne Clothier and Patricia McConnell. I also like Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, and each year, the beginning of December, I dig up my copy of “Certain Poor Shepherds”. We sit on the floor, the dogs snuggled close, with me reading the doggie Christmas story to them. Of course they don’t comprehend the words, but they understand the warmth and peace I feel when we’re all enveloped in a special kind of quality time that does not always come about during busier times of the year.
And that’s really it, isn’t it? To give of oneself to loved ones – canine or human. So, it doesn’t matter if you shop for an interactive dog game, sign your pooch up for a fun group class, buy something that makes her feel better, or order a “how to teach tricks” book for your frisky dog - and actually use it.
With that, I wish you all a Peaceful Christmas, Hanukkah and Winter Solstice.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Back Off!

The last two months I published a couple of posts that addressed resources. One is called “The Hedonic Canine”, and the other “A Lesson in Resource Control”, and you can find them in the archive under August 2010 and September 2010. I talked about our pooches being pleasure-seeking animals that understand the value of possessions. Clever the owner who teaches the new furry family member that resources never run out, but that they are also under the control of people and that one must ask nicely to gain access. Starting puppies on the right paw is the easiest way to an adult dog who’s relaxed around stuff that matters to him. But what if a second chance rescue comes with deep-seated resource insecurity? What does one do with a dog who is convinced that a human near his valuables is bad news? What does one do with a dog who says: Back Off!

Resource guarding is a major reason why humane societies won’t adopt a dog out, even if he is great in every other way. Their unwillingness is understandable, because a possession-aggressive dog can inflict nasty injuries. There is the liability issue, but also a moral obligation to keep people safe, and for that reason most shelters’ temperament evaluation includes a food test. The dog is leashed and released to a dish with highly desirable canned food. As he gobbles it up, a person sticks a rubber hand, called an Assess-A-Hand, into the food, pets the dog, or moves the food bowl. A second person observes and evaluates the dog’s reaction on a scale from best – he’s surrendering the food, to worst – he’s attacking the person who operates the Assess-A-Hand, with a wide variety of behaviors in between: noticing the hand but not being bothered, eating faster, blocking the bowl, tension, growl but no bite, air snap, biting the hand, one bite and release, and repetitive bites.
Some shelters have zero tolerance for any level of resource guarding and proceed with euthanasia when the dog is tense, or blocks. More progressive ones, and our Metro SPCA belongs to them, recognize the problem but, depending on dog and intensity, are willing to work with him.
I am happy about that cause even though resource aggression is one of the more serious behavioral problems, it is also one that in most cases, if done right, can be permanently solved in a considerably short time.

A inherently flighty, commonly called submissive dog, surrenders a contested item or space. A confident one confronts anyone he perceives as a threat, real or imagined doesn’t matter. But just because a dog is determined to defend what he thinks is his doesn’t mean that the behavior isn’t rooted in fear. Both cautious and confident animals can have fears - the difference is how it is expressed. With resource guarding the fear is losing something important, and that is almost always based on experience. Food is a basic need every animal instinctively knows he needs for survival, and when it is taken away in the name of dominance, resource insecurity is instilled. The same happens if a dog has to compete for a limited supply of resources, which is not only food but anything he finds pleasurable and valuable. If he succeeds periodically, even just once, in keeping a rival at bay with aggressive displays, the behavior is powerfully reinforced. Aggression when in possession of a resource worked for the dog and he will do it again; aggression becomes his first line of action when someone approaches.
Whatever is considered valuable enough to defend depends on the dog. Often it is food, but it also could be a toy, bone, stick or garbage, a certain space like a crate or bed, the area where he is fed, or a sniffing spot at the dog park. You, the owner, could be regarded as possession, or any other family member, two- and four-legged ones. In fact, a dog who guards food during the Assess-A-Hand evaluation typically also defends other things, and just because one passes the test doesn’t mean that he won’t aggress when he has something that might be more important to him. That is why eliminating whatever a dog guards is not a practical solution, because he can always find something else, and you never know what it is. Unless the root of the problem is addressed, the dog remains unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

When I work with dogs, or write about them, I never add a disclaimer. Me thinks that demonstrating or advising something the lay owner can’t safely apply is a waste of time. It’d be like a Martha Stewart recipe that is too dangerous to be whipped up in your own kitchen. But never always has an exception, and mine is resource guarding, because it can lead to nasty bites when people misjudge the situation. For that reason, anyone who owns a possession aggressive dog should always, always consult with an experienced, but positive professional. Thus, the purpose for this post is not self-help advice, but hopefully prevent that things get messed up even more in the interim.
The popular response to a guarding, snarling dog is pinning and punishing him, removing the loot, or forcing him away from it. Although intuitive, all of the above is counterproductive because it confirms what the dog already feels: that he better be suspicious and worried about people around stuff he needs and wants. Even if you are assertive and strong enough to dominate your dog, success is typically temporary. The physically overpowered, but still insecure dog will retaliate sooner or later, against you or a weaker family member, and often with increased intensity.
Counterintuitive, but way more effective is to infuse resource security, because you are addressing the root of the problem. Once the fear is gone, the aggression also is.
Deprivation fosters anxiety and competition for the little that is available, so make sure that your dog lives in the land of plenty. Provide freely and offer many opportunities for him to “earn” stuff.
Once you allowed access to a resource, let him eat, chew and rest in peace. The last thing I want is someone pawing my chocolate cake I was looking forward to the whole day. Your dog feels the same.
Whenever he is unperturbed when you’re in the vicinity, add something extra yummy to what he already has. Yes, it sounds like overkill to toss a piece of cheese to a bone gnawing dog, but if you, the provider, is bringing more goods, your dog begins to anticipate your appearance happily, not suspiciously. He is changing his mind and that is what we’re after.
Another disclaimer here and why expert help is imperative. It is critical that you comprehend subtle signals; know when your dog becomes tense and his mind shifts, because you want to reinforce the desired behavior. In addition, understanding finer body language allows you to gauge distance accurately, and that will keep you safe during the retraining phase.
If you miss the point and your dog snarls or snaps, you’re in a Catch 22. If you back off, you reinforce intimidating aggression. If you encroach closer you take the conflict to the next level and that places you in danger to get bitten – and then, guaranteed, you will back off and thereby reinforce your dog for biting. My recommendation is to stay where you’re at, casually with a fluid body and relaxed breathing, until your pooch loosens up, and then you increase the distance. That way you are reinforcing relaxation with what he wants most: you getting lost. Another disclaimer. Only stay put when it is safe to do so. If your dog turns it up a notch cause you’re not leaving, calmly, while facing him, retreat. Don’t push it, and don’t worry what you are reinforcing at that moment. Your safety is priority.

Human and dog rules state that possession is 90% ownership. Once you have given your dog something, it is his. If you don’t want him to have it, control access with a leash or a well-practiced verbal “leave” command. Every dog should, and can learn to release something on command, or move on request, but that takes trust, training and is force free. Your positive dog expert can help you with that as well, and might have more ideas up his/her sleeve that changes your dog’s mind about people near his loot, and consequently his behavior - reliably and regardless how important something is to him.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Are Dogs Pack Animals?

Most everyone seems to think so, and an entire dog training methology is based on the believe that dogs live in hierarchical packs, with each aiming for alpha leadership. It is so ingrained, even with the non-dog owning public, that folks don’t realize that it is just a hypothesis, not truth. A seemingly no-brainer theory that, when questioned and investigated deeper, might actually turn out to be false.

Every species is unique in their behavior. That is how we tell them apart even if their anatomy is closely related. As such, humans and chimps are clearly different species, with a common ancestor, but only some common, primate behaviors. The same is true for dogs and wolves.
Behavioral variations happen when animals adjust to different environmental demands. Adapting to one’s Umwelt, the milieu she lives in, is evolutionary success. The big divergence regarding wolves and dogs is that dogs live on human waste, and non-captive wolves kill prey. Food seeking is a primal drive, and that makes that difference a profound one, because it means that wolves depend on one another for survival, and dogs don’t. They depend on humans.
Wolves are stronger in numbers, because they are not skilled enough to bring down large prey alone. In addition to cooperative hunting, wolves also benefit from pack support when raising their young. Wild wolves procreate only a small number of precious puppies once a year, and their survival is crucial for the species. Being cared for by a group increases the pups’ chance to reach maturity and contribute in the hunt, or procreate themselves.
The sole purpose of a pack is to thrive better as a group than an individual. That is clearly the case with wolves in their natural habitat. It takes a pack to raise a pup, and because nobody feeds them, they have to work together to kill big game for sustenance.

Dogs’, by nature, hang out where humans are. Not just the ones who claim a food bowl and leash, occupy the passenger’s seat in the car and sleep on our bed. In fact, most of our world’s dogs are feral born and strays, but still choose to live in the vicinity of humans because, since the dawn of agriculture and early settlements, that’s where their food is. Yes, occasionally one eats a rodent, but almost always when dogs kill it is either with the intent to eliminate and typically a controlled shake without a drop of blood spilled, or a hyper-aroused, out-of-control frenzied blood orgy; a rip fest that can leave many animals dead, but that are not consumed.
As a species dogs forage on what we dump, and forming a pack doesn’t make ecological sense for scavengers, especially if there is a limited supply of resources. Dogs also don’t rely on group cooperation to propel the species. As any rescue organization will attest, puppies are plentifully produced. A female dog comes into heat younger than a wolf, and more often. She can accept several suitors, even during one heat, and typically cares for her brood alone. Male dogs conveniently move on after mating; are the canine version of deadbeat dads.
Dogs don’t need a pack to thrive, but that does not mean they can’t enjoy inter-canine affiliations, or belong to a loose and transitory group when circumstances dictate or favor it, but they rarely depend on one another for survival.
Why does it matter to us if dogs are natural pack animals or not? Because it impacts their behavior and our life with them, that’s why.
Alike humans, dogs infest every corner of this planet to scavenge on waste we leave, or leftovers we kindly share. When resources are scarce, real or imagined, every other dog becomes a natural opponent. That means that dogs, inherently, drift toward competition regarding their own kind, not cooperation.
Indeed, a majority of my clients hire me because their dog aggresses against other dogs, and that interestingly is also the case with ones that were socialized properly. I pondered for some time why dogs that socially know other dogs well would proactively aggress, and came to the conclusion that it is because they have experienced dogs as resource competitors. For these dogs, more socializing in the usual way is not the solution. Quite to the contrary, it often overwhelms the dog, increases anxiety and makes matters worse.
Based on my experience, the awareness that inter-dog aggression could be the nature of the beast, not the pathology of a bad dog, makes many owners almost instantly more compassionate and patient, which allows them to approach the problem cognitively, and that leads to an improved relationship between dog and owner, which by itself can take the edge off aggression.

Regarding humans, strays are not connected to specific people, so no pack behavior there either. Hanging out in proximity does not make a pack - there has to be somewhat of a connection, which happens when we invite a dog into our home. The leash, house, fenced yard and crate eliminate her choices, and she becomes solely dependant on her person(s). The closest to what could be called pack belonging.
Does that mean that our canine companion needs a pack leader? Well, she certainly needs someone who explains how her world works; how she can belong, stay safe and access resources. How she can thrive through cooperation. And that someone has to be the human. The onus is on you, but an existing canine co-dweller who knows the ropes can certainly function as a great helper.
As far as humans are concerned, a dog, owned or not, is not a status-seeking opponent always vigilant for her chance to topple us, because directly, or indirectly, people supplied food since some 14.000 years, and people’s hands are able to hurt and harm. Dogs inherently know this, and that makes them, as a species, deferent to us.
If we translate pack leader into physical dominance displays and confrontational resource disputes, we create competition where there naturally isn’t one, and we run the danger that our dog becomes anxious, resentful and confrontational. Calling a human/dog group a pack, social unit, team or family is just semantics. What matters is that every owned dog has a person who educates, not dominates, so that she can thrive in the group she’s forced to live with.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement

I found an interesting article ( by Jean Donaldson that talks about the divisive opinions amongst dog professionals. Indeed, the inside joke goes that the only thing a room full of dog trainers can agree on is that everyone else doesn’t know what they are talking about.
I don’t envy lay owners who get passionate, but conflicting advice how to best raise, train and live with their dog. On one end of the spectrum are the positive reinforcement advocates, on the other positive punishment and negative reinforcement trainers who choose pain and discomfort to stop “bad” behaviors, and to elicit desired ones.

In operant conditioning, positive means to add something and punishment that the behavior decreases. In regards to dogs you see that on TV all the time. The dog growls and is pinned with the goal that pinning stops the dog from growling next time he encounters the trigger that evoked it. Sometimes it works, and often it doesn’t: the dog either growls again, which proves that pinning is pointless for this dog, or he stops growling and bites right away, because he still doesn’t feel any differently about the trigger, just his warning communication signal is oppressed.
So, behaviorally positive punishment is only positive punishment when the behavior actually disappears. If your dog still pulls despite choke collar corrections, or barks on a prong collar, you’re not effective and all you do is nag, and as an unwanted consequence your dog tunes you out.
Negative, in scientific terms, means to take something away and reinforcement that the behavior increases. It is, for example, Koehler’s famous ear pinch to convince the rookie retriever that holding a dumbbell is a good idea. Handler pinches the dog’s ear, which hurts and he opens his mouth, dumbbell is shoved in and the pinching stops. In case you’re not thinking with me, the pain ceasing is the negative and the dog holding the dumbbell on command and for longer periods of time is the increased behavior.
Ear pinching is still done today, but the negative reinforcement tool of choice these days is the shock collar, and its many nicer sounding guises like remote training device, or e-collar. In essence, the dog is fitted with the collar, the handler holds the transmitter and turns on the juice, and makes it die away when he gets immediate and precision accuracy performance. Dogs learn very quickly to come as speedily as their legs allow, or drop into a down anywhere, anytime and around distractions. Shock collar trained dogs’ performances look amazingly impressive, and many owners want that for themselves, and because of that it is a very lucrative business. Anybody can jump on the bandwagon and buy a shock collar training franchise, take a several weeks’ course, and henceforth use that nifty device to teach dogs of all sizes, and puppies, basic obedience, or jolt an unruly pooch into toeing the line.

No problem as long as the dog behaves, right? Wrong! The old adage that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is, is spot-on regarding dogs and training. The fallout punitive methods and shocks create are well documented. For example, Murray Sidman’s 1989 book, “Coercion and its Fallout”, refers to studies that showed that shocked rats will be aggressive when a second one is placed in the same box. And not ritualized status aggression or momentary dominance over a resource, but violent attacks followed through to a kill. Furthermore, punished animals did not only redirect aggressively, but were seeking opportunities to be aggressive.
A one-year-long study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that aversive and intimidating methods, including the stare down, scruff shake and pinning, do little to correct behavior, but elicit aggression in dogs.
Studies with baboons showed that corrections by a higher ranking member did not create better behaved baboons, but ones that passed on the aggression to even lower ranking monkeys.
A study with Belgian military dogs showed that they performed worse on obedience tasks if their handlers used punishments instead of rewards.
Steve White, K9 cop with 30 years experience, stated in a seminar I attended that tracking dogs have much fewer false positives when trained without punishments.
And a study done by the Departments of Ethology and Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals in Utrecht, Netherlands, showed that shock collar trained German shepherds are more stressed on the training grounds, and the park.
Those findings are congruent with my experiences and don’t surprise me a bit. Negative reinforcement gives the dog only momentary relief when the discomfort ceases, cause the shocks will happen again. They are experienced and anticipated with every training session, and by conditioning cues: the collar, the handler, the training facility, or whatever details, in the dog’s mind, predict the zaps. And that creates anxiety, which will be expressed, because not releasing pressure is biologically impossible.
Not all dogs I see who have gone through that totalitarian style of training, aggress; only some do. But I have yet to meet one who is relaxed, voluntarily attentive, motivated, keen to learn new things, placid, and generally well behaved when not under surveillance. What I see instead are dogs who have a very low stress threshold, are hyperactive, hyper alert and trigger sensitive to stimuli, and express that with barking, mounting, pacing, chasing, avoidance, and/or destructive behaviors, and if those are repressed with more of the same punishments, neurotic behaviors such as obsessive spinning or self-mutilation.
Today’s shock collar trainers claim to be dog friendly and humane, gentle even, and compare the shock with a tap on the shoulder. If that were the case, one would not get the results one can watch on video clips. No dog, no animal, obeys mindlessly and with a yes-master precision, often against his nature, unless they are driven to obtain a much-desired super reward, or to avoid and stop something very unpleasant, and my bet is with the latter.

People sell what is profitable: alcohol to teenagers, substandard food, overpriced medication to the sick, and shock collars for dogs. That is just the way it is, and I get that. Who can blame the trainers who want a piece of a popular pie, or retail stores that sell that stuff? And I certainly don’t expect lay owners to waddle through behavioral laws, studies and their results.
But I do expect influencers like veterinarians, humane societies and dog associations to take an unequivocal stand with a policy against positive punishment and negative reinforcement. Many do, for example the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. But others, who comprehend the damage intimidation, force and deliberately inflicted pain causes, or at least should, don’t and continue to support it, and that is really disappointing.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Lesson in Resource Control

Will was born feral and raised by dogs, and as Turid Rugaas once said at a seminar: “If dogs raise dogs they get it right”. True enough, Will is very dog savvy, which isn't necessarily the same as dog friendly, but you can bet that her actions are always bang-on. Even so, in public places I don’t allow her to act on her own, because humans often misinterpret a dog who teaches another a valuable lesson with attacking, and good ownership is managing dog and environment in a way that keeps everyone happy.
A different situation in my own living room. I know that Will is accurate and never harms, so when she explains something to a dog, I watch, listen and learn.

The lesson in resource control took place in 2006. At the time Will was 5, and we fostered a 3-month-old Spanish water dog we named Reggae. If you google the breed profile you’ll find out that the SWD’s place of origin is Andalusia, a beautiful region in Southern Spain, where they are predominantly used as herding dogs for sheep, cattle, goats, pigs and even geese. Now, any medium size dog able to boss goats, pigs and geese around has to be tenacious, feisty, courageous and clever, and Reggae was all of that – and very cute. She was nearly the cutest pup, but also one of the most confident ones I ever met. Despite her tender age she seriously tested the boundaries with our seasoned residence dogs, Davie and Will. And it was Will who put, a least temporarily, a stop to it.
Will doesn’t like cow hoofs. In fact, she couldn’t care less about toys and chews other than her hard-rubber red ball that flies far and bounces high, real beef marrowbones, or a chicken-stuffed Kong. So the hoof in the middle of the living room meant nothing to her – but a whole lot to Reggae.
On that particular afternoon she, a busy and easily bored pup with nothing to do, eyeballed it, which did not escape Will’s awareness. Immediately Will got up and placed herself not between Reggae and hoof, but lay down on the opposite side. I guesstimate that each dog was about 3 feet in distance to the hoof. Whenever Reggae attempted to close in, prancing stiffly with a raised body and high tail, Will warned her with a low growl and hard stare not to, and Reggae backed away. That carried on for a little while, with Reggae persisting; first confidently, but eventually lowering her posturing and becoming more fluid, lips drawn a bit and play-bowing. It still didn’t impress Will much. Finally Reggae whined and whimpered, and obnoxiously rolled around in front of the hoof, pawing into Will’s direction with a stupid grin on her face, tongue hanging out. She tried every lowly and submissive puppy behavior she had up her sleeve; wooing Will sweetly in letting her have the prized, contested cow hoof.
That convinced Will that she made the point that who has seniority ought to be treated respectfully and walked away, not wasting another second on that hoof or Reggae. Once Will surrendered the loot to her, she left her in peace to enjoy it.
Smart and dog savvy Will, unlike some owners, acted like an authentic leader, instead of a bully. Bullies take things away forcefully; high status members control access to resources. Human, and canine social rules state that possession is 90% ownership. He who violates that is called a thief. Stealing from another person is against the law, and should be against the moral law regarding dogs. Typically, owners do not manage dog and resources very well, but, in the name of alpha-ism, take away something the pooch snatched, or even was given to a couple of minutes prior. That has profound consequences: it promotes suspicion, confusion and anxiety, and confident dogs are pushed into aggressive resource guarding.

Will’s access control behavior was very interesting to observe, but also surprised me. At the time I was under the impression that such dominance displays take place between two animals who want the same resource at the same time, with the same intensity. That was clearly not the case here. Will did not at all desire that hoof, but obviously recognized Reggae’s competitive and determined nature, and attempted to clarify who’s in charge when she had the chance; when Reggae was still young enough.
Both Will and Davie continued to help us with our beautiful Spaniard who we had for 7 more months. Will, in addition to teaching Reggae to say “pleeeeze”, also educated her in appropriate play behavior, while Davie showered her with attention, mothered and groomed her, and helped her through separation anxiety. Hubby Mike and I taught her the meaning of commands, self-restraint and attention – all alternatives to her aggressive displays. In the end, the cute, but problem-ridden pup became a loyal and beloved companion for a wonderful family, who continued to challenge her mind and body in a positive way.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Back to: Dog School

On their very first day of school German students receive an about foot long, colorful cardboard cone filled with candies to sweeten the entrance into a somber existence that would last, according to my parents, till the day one retires. Indeed, way back when formal learning could be a dreadful time for kids, and it was not any different for dogs. Obedience training rarely began before the pup was about 8 months old, so that the harsh treatment wouldn’t damage him for life.
For most youngsters things have changed; corporal punishment and the rather humorless approach to teaching is not trendy these days. For our rookie pooches alternatives also exist, but are not nearly as universally available, which means that it’s up to the owner to do a little investigating.
And don’t be shy about it. Dog school is not publicly funded. You are paying for group classes out of your own pocket, and that gives you the right to expect certain standards from the instructor.
Competence is obvious. Learning from someone who knows little more than you is senseless. One measure of competence is experience, but it is not the only, or even the best, gauge. Being in business for 20 years can mean ongoing learning, or doing the same thing for 20 years. Dog training has progressed greatly, and someone stuck in a method from 50 years ago might not be as qualified as someone 5 years in, but who is well versed in behavior and learning theories, and open-minded to learn more - from dogs and people.
The method used should never be ambiguous or kept a secret; revealed after you paid. Good training facilities have nothing to conceal, and you should be allowed to observe a session before you sign a no-refund contract. When there, pay attention if the trainer is positive with dogs and all humans. One who treats you and your dog kindly, but yells at her staff creates a tense atmosphere and that hinders learning. Watch what the dogs tell you. Are they relaxed, attentive and enthusiastic? Watch for open mouths and fluid bodies, and where they move – toward the handler, or out the door if given the chance.
Especially for puppies and beginners the priority should be to instill the want to learn. New owners should be given the know-how to raise a well-rounded companion in day-to-day life.

Inquire if you'll have the same instructor for the duration of the course. Although it is not unusual for one trainer to fill in for another, having 3 different instructors within 8 weeks can be confusing for owners, even if they all apply the same method. Consistency is vital for beginner learners – humans and dogs.
An expert instructor is able to accurately assess if behavior is abnormal and will point this out to you. Frankness does not mean putting a judgment label on your dog or the breed you own, belittle you, or expose your dog’s challenges as a bad example in class. I’ve seen it all, and yes, even with positive reinforcement trainers. Humiliation in people school is called bullying. If it happens in dog school, it is bullying too.
And it is a football-field-size red flag if you feel intimidated by your instructor. If you feel queasy in her presence, imagine how your dog feels. Time spend together has to feel good, because it is meant to strengthen the bond, the relationship and increase cooperation. Anything that stresses or worries you, or your dog, does the opposite and is counterproductive to the sole reason why you’re there.
If something doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right. Give up on that instructor, but never give up on your dog and training.
Said that, training does not have to happen in a facility. It is a misconception that group class participation guarantees model canine behavior for life.
Like a child who can excel in school but still be socially awkward, or inappropriate, a dog, even an obedience titled one, can be dysfunctional in real life situations.
If your dog succeeds in obedience class or dog sport, but you are still having behavioral issues, taking yet another class likely won’t do you any good. You need to deal with the problems where the problems are, and good group trainers are connected to likeminded good private trainers and will refer you.
At least, for these top technical performers more group training won’t do any harm.
But for the stressed and traumatized dog, often coming from rescue, even the friendliest, most positive and conscientious class can be too overwhelming and increase anxiety and resulting expressions, including aggression.
What those pooches need, first and foremost, is a low-key environment where they can decompress, learn to trust again and feel safe. Progressive humane societies often make it mandatory for new adopters to attend a group class, and yes, rescue dogs have a lot to learn, including basic commands, but it can’t be rushed. Success in class only happens if the dog is relaxed enough to learn.

“The Imperial Animal” writes that humans are the only species where the young don’t learn through play, and we are projecting that to our dogs as well. German kids still get their candy cone, many children look forward to recess more than study time, and dog classes intersperse command training with games and tricks to liven things up.
Ideally, there should be no dichotomy between learning and play. For best results, it should be one and the same; learning rewarding in it’s own right. A lofty goal indeed, but at least for our dogs there are facilities in every town and city that strive for exactly that. The clever owner locates one for his dog.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

What If You Are Not Calm-Assertive?

Cesar Millan, National Geographic’s famous dog trainer, is touring major Canadian cities to tell people how to become calm-assertive. I’ll bet that tickets to his events sold out in a flash, cause many people want to know exactly that. I know that, because my inbox is regularly peppered with “Dog Whisperer” lingo, like red zone, submissive, pack leader and yes, often the question: “Can you help me to become calm-assertive”? Canadian owners will be thrilled having the chance to hear the real pop-psych for dogs explain them how. If I’d ever meet Cesar Millan, I have a question of my own. What if you are NOT calm-assertive?
Even though Millan claims that everyone must, and can be calm-assertive, in reality most lay owners fall short. Someone who is by nature hesitant, softhearted, a bit unsure, cautious or sensitive, and whose body language reflected that for all her life, cannot switch suddenly and assume a different persona on a dime, even if she visualizes being some strong-minded celebrity.
And faking it for 10 or 15 years, or however long the dog lives, is just not functional – and counterproductive. Imagine you observing someone you live with acting a certain way all day long, and the moment he addresses you he becomes this mock alpha. Would that confuse you? Maybe make you a tad anxious and suspicious?
Never mind the physical aspect. Just recently I had an inquiry from a couple who were convinced that their 16-week-old pup was striving for pack leadership. They wanted my help to demote him a few pegs, cause the lady of the house was already afraid of him, and hubby not very successful. They described this pup, a giant breed who’ll eventually weigh around 150 pounds, as a born 10 on the alpha scale and wanted me to bring him down to an 8. Aside from the fact that their diagnosis was probably inaccurate, it mystifies me why they thought that would do them any good. A male adult livestock guardian dog with big teeth who’s an 8 is still a huge problem, especially if his people set the stage for, or were feeding, a confrontational relationship.

The average owner failing the corporeal aspect of the calm-assertive mantra is typical.
Corrections look so easy when applied by a professional skilled in applying corrections. Things done by experts always look easy, no matter what the field. Dog training isn’t an exception. If one practices for twenty years, one gets very good at it. A punitive dog trainer with decades of experience manhandling dogs is very proficient. That doesn’t mean that you, your grandpappy, or your 10-year-old can mimic that.
I mean, who can do the left-turn leg-thrust while jogging? How do you pin a struggling Great Dane till he capitulates if you’re 5’5”? Or lift him off the floor on his choker?
Millan, and other experienced handlers look good cause wrangling dogs is what they’ve been doing for many years. They are physically skilled to overcome any dog – and don’t mind getting bitten in the process. Chances are you do mind. In fact, for most people a bite is a deal breaker and gets the dog a one-way trip to the veterinarian.

Life’s reality is not someone blustering about with a straight backbone saying “Ssht”. It is normal for people to periodically be tense, frazzled, tired, or anxious. Dogs live in neighborhoods where they are liked by some and feared by others, and looked at even if you tell someone not to. Dogs live in our midst, and naturally experience the colorful palette of people’s personalities, and that is what they should habituate to.
So, quit stressing out if you can’t pull it off like Millan or the punitive trainer near you. Luckily, and unlike a dog who can neither choose how he is treated, nor can he express anything but what he feels, humans have alternatives.
One could, for example, be calm-cognizant. You all have a cerebral cortex, right? So, use that. Rationalize that people and dogs are individuals and learn at different paces. Learn about behavior, communication, positive reinforcement and reframing, conditioning and counter-conditioning, desensitizing and habituation….
And calm-compassionate. Compassion is a human thing, too. It's seeing the world from someone else’s point of view, and offering refuge and safety if that someone is anxious or frightened. It's releasing pressure with the overwhelmed dog, pushing a little less and progressing at the his comfort level, even if it takes time.
How about calm-confident. Cognizance combined with compassion leads to success and success builds confidence. Automatically, without the person having to pretend anything. Failure destroys confidence, so manage and orchestrate situations that set you and your dog up for success.

Static assertive, strong, and physically skilled humans don’t represent the real world. Dogs live with young and old people; physically and emotionally stronger and weaker ones; people who have good and bad days, and not with a charismatic male whose aptitude is to fearlessly overpower dogs.
Your dog understands that. So be yourself when you interact with him cause that is what you do best. But know how to manage space and control resources, how to teach without errors and how to get voluntary attention, and offer safety, and you will still be the leader in your dog’s eyes, even if you can’t knuckle-bite as effectively as Cesar Millan.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Synchronized Group Behavior and Other Stuff

The upcoming communication seminar called for me to finally organize all my dog photos – mine, and many friends and clients sent me over the years.
I was surprised how often they show dogs in the same picture doing the same thing.
Animals in a social group orient their actions to one another – one yawns, eats, stretches, lays down, barks, focuses in a certain direction, and the other(s) follow suit. It happens with dogs that cohabitate, but also ones that are just on a task together.
Real bonded group members also synchronize subconsciously, not one after the other, but at the exact same time lift a paw, speed or slow the pace, pee, open or close the mouth, change directions, tail wag or are still.
We want our dogs to have a strong sense of social belonging, so that they orient and synchronize their actions to us, and that’s why they should:
Sleep where we sleep;
Eat where and when we eat;
Be quietly in close proximity when we work on the computer or watch TV;
Be active when we initiate activity or a walk;
Be part of family outings.
The less the dog experiences those group activities, the less she will coordinate her actions to ours, and the less she will respond to us voluntarily, especially in conflict situations. Group orientation and synchronicity cannot be forced and commanded, but comes naturally when members are truly bonded and/or on task together. Next time you are out and about with your pooch, check if she follows your actions without you giving her any verbal cues.

While I was at it, and because I had a summer lull in the tide, I sorted through notes and scribbles I take whenever I read, see or hear something interesting, or when a thought or idea takes shape in my mind.
This is something I wrote down in 05, right after a herding workshop.
Things I learned:
Dogs learn by observation – even older ones.
Follow through when you say something – or don’t say it.
Find what really floats your dog’s boat and get the best responses and performances.
Sheep are smart – but not as smart as a rookie Australian shepherd.
She who controls space is in charge.

And that is from November 09. Whenever I drive to and from clients I listen to CBC Radio one. One of my favorite programs is Quirks and Quarks, and last November they had a segment on what the brain does when an organism is in fight/flight mode. We already know what the rest of the body does: stress hormones are released, the heart rate goes up, glucose is pumped into muscles, digestion and rational thinking seizes temporarily, pupils dilate and whatnot.
What scientists discovered was that in the brain, when the body is in fight/flight mode, the centers for habit are activated, which means that whatever behaviors happen at that moment can quickly become compulsive. Evolutionary that makes total sense. An animal who subconsciously “remembers” how it got itself out of a tough spot has a greater chance of survival.
What does that mean regarding dogs? Well, maybe that every time a dog feels threatened and behaves in a way humans don’t like, but gets a response that decreases his fear and anxiety, his brain memorizes what actions took the pressure off. And each time that happens, the habit of behaving “badly” is strengthened in the brain.
Another reason to manage an emotional dog’s environment in a way that keeps her below threshold, below fight/flight mode, or at least teach and ensure that the behavior she exhibits at that moment is an acceptable one, for example controlled retreat.

Last but not least, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Blockbuster, the DVD rental place, permits dogs inside. I don’t have time to watch movies very often, but this weekend I do. I like independent stuff, so I got two German ones: The White Ribbon and North Face, and a horror/thriller in English called: The Children.
Today, when we walked in, we saw a sign at the door that said not to leave dogs in the car, but to bring them inside instead, provided they are well behaved, of course. I wondered if it was just for the summer so people wouldn’t leave their pooch in the hot vehicle. But no. New policy. Blockbuster is now pet friendly. At least the one in Truro, Nova Scotia, is.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Complex Dog Communication

Communication is part of every interaction and always a continuous feedback between all parties. One organism sends out a message with the intent to get a response, which, when it comes, it will act on or answer back to, which elicits another response, and so on. Effective communication depends both on the receiver understanding the signals and then corresponding accurately.
Pretty straightforward concept to understand, isn’t it? Indeed it is, and yet many humans seem to have difficulties. There are communication gaps between neighbors and nations, genders and generations – and species, like humans and dogs. Miscommunication is common and happens easily, often unintentionally, but the consequences are profound: passing conflict situations and permanent problem behaviors. A dog who is misunderstood is tense and anxious. If your responses to his signals don’t make sense, he’ll check out; ignore you and act on his own terms. Those are typically the dogs labeled stubborn or dumb.
Methinks that the reason why humans have communication problems is because we love telling others what to do much more than listening to what they’re trying to say.
But even if someone takes an interest in learning canine communication signals, and the dog speaks clearly because he was bred conscientiously and given opportunities to learn his own language, it can still be "Greek" to the average dog owner. That is because our companion dogs live in a complex world that requires complex communication. Signals that look the same can mean different things, depending on the situation. Communication is context specific and dynamic.
Let me illustrate: Our Davie is an exclusive to her social group kinda dog. More often then not, when she averts her head, which would be interpreted by most as an appeasing, submissive signal, what she really says is that she is not granting audience and wishes to be left alone. Turning her head is a very polite, but confident, “get lost” message.
Our Newf Baywolf’s rolling on his back was also not submission, but an active and confident attempt to solicit a tummy rub.
One behavior often misinterpreted is the play bow; the front half of the dog lowered with the butt up in the air. As the term implies, it is an invitation for a romp, but can also signal the opposite: a dog wishing a pause during play if things get a little heated.
A play bow can be just a long stretch, or used by the dog to buy time to assess a novel or uncertain situation he feels conflicted about.
Marking is communication. For scent-oriented dogs, leaving small amounts of smelly body fluid at many strategically important places is imperative. Both males and females do it; neutered or not, and some girls even lift a leg. Urine marking claims real estate, but also adds familiarity to an unfamiliar place or situation and thereby relieves anxiety. A dog might pee to entice another to mark on top, so that more information about the newcomer can be gained without having to get to close to him physically - like the canine version of a phone call or Facebook message. A wolf mating couple announces their union by marking together, and bonded dogs often pee simultaneously. Not one after the other, but at the exact same time. Bonded social group members synchronize their actions.

Mounting is rarely sexual and usually also not status seeking, but the attempt to control and change a situation the dog is annoyed or concerned about. It implies anxiety about a situation without a plan to solve it. Mounting can be either be directed against the perceived problem dog, or redirected against the one who happens to be closest, much like a redirected bite.

Next time your dog yawns, try to determine the motivation. Is he a tad worried and tries to pacify you or another, or submissively seeks acceptance? A yawn after a nap likely has dual purpose; taking in more oxygen to get ready for action, and signaling the other group members to join in. But maybe your pooch is just tired, and the yawn is nothing more than an involuntary body function.

Knowing the fine nuances of your dog’s body language allows you to respond accurately, and that has a powerful effect. Your dog will feel understood and almost immediately feel less anxious and be more attentive.

If you are keen to learn more, and are in Nova Scotia, mark September 18 and 19 on your calendar. Adina MacRae and I will be talking about body language and dog play. It is an one-day, people-only event. In the morning we will be at Happy Hounds on Barrington to analyze a bunch of photos and video footage - all our own material, which means we know the context. In the afternoon we’re all heading to Seaview Park for guided field observation. Because of the field trip, we want a small group and space is very limited to 20 people each day.
For more info and to register, email:

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What to Say to Keep Strangers at Bay

Summer was my Newfoundland dog Baywolf’s favorite time of the year. Not for the reason that we took him swimming more often, but because we’d encounter many more humans on the trails and beaches. Baywolf loved summer cause, as a good Newf is supposed to, he loved people, especially young ones. He was the big, hairy, muddy-pawed embodiment of the word gregarious.
In my line of work, dogs who happily socialize with just anybody are the exception. Many of my clients’ dogs are a tad xenophobic; cautious of strangers and timid at best, reactively lunging at worst. What was a pleasurable season for us, creates real problems for the owner of an unsure of people pooch. When school’s out for the summer, and tourists are flocking streets and parks, it can be a real struggle to keep the shy dog at a safe distance away from touchy-feely humans eager to pat, hug or kiss him. It is this time of year, every year, when dog owners ask me what to say to keep people at bay.
Most have already figured out that the terms “aggressive” and “biting” are not part of an ideal explanation. Firstly, some people are not deterred and do approach closer, often assuringly stating that they “know dogs” and don’t mind to get nipped, and secondly, one very quickly gets a reputation of owning a dangerous dog – a label nobody needs who simply enjoys her canine’s companionship on a walk or hike.
Equally ineffective is saying the pooch is shy and fearful. Those are magnet words for folks to close in, maybe with a cookie in an outstretched hand, to “prove” to the pooch that they are a friendly primate. Typically the scaredy dog goes all limbic at that point, barking and bucking on the leash, at which point the “nice” person walks away shaking her head in disbelief why anybody would own a dog that out of control.
I think it was Sue Sternberg, the rescue queen, who recommended telling overzealous greeters that the dog has ringworm. I have never tried it, but am sure it works. People fear nothing more than catching something, and I can visualize how quickly they’d pull their hand and child away from a dog who’s a pesty critter carrier. Even though it probably is very successful, I find it a bit offensive.
My goal is to not only convey to my dogs that I protect them, so that they don’t have take matters into their own paws, but also to use every opportunity to kindly educate the public, especially children, about respecting space and proper socializing.
Unlike our affable Baywolf, the dogs I own now, Davie and Will, don’t care for anyone else but us, and a few selected friends.
When someone asks if she can pet, I praise her for asking first, and follow with a “no” and the explanation that the dogs are being trained to walk politely and attentively on a loose leash. And I demonstrate that with pacing back and forth a bit, the girls happily performing a heel. I never encountered anybody who disrespects a dog in training. Adults usually move on, and children often ask if they can help. The answer to that is yes – by keeping a, comfortable for my dogs, distance while observing us. That way, the kids are on my dogs' radar but they don’t feel threatened and will acclimatize to them, and the children feel good when I compliment them how great of a trainer helper they are. Plus they learn that there is more to do with a dog than hands-on touching and stroking.
A variation of that is asking if they want to see a trick. Teach your dog a bunch of cute behaviors you generously reward him for. Once he loves to perform to elicit your attention and interaction, or a food reward or toy, cue the tricks in the presence of strangers. People he meets on walks, even if they stop, are put in a really positive context. They become part of a game, an associated cue that precedes a known, fun activity. Often, to be able to observe the tricks better, the person backs up a little, and that is doubly reinforcing for the insecure dog. Not only does he get to perform and is rewarded, but the maybe worrisome stranger increases the distance, and that is extra payoff for his calm, non-reactive behavior.

When people ask appropriately if they can approach my dogs, I invest time and effort to create a positive situation even when the answer is no. If someone has the audacity to touch them without asking, and in my experience adults do that more than children, my good manners fly in the ditch. In no uncertain terms, with a stern voice and face, I tell them to back off. And I do not see the need to offer any explanation. I mean, would they give me details why I couldn’t hug their child I never met before?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pinning and Alpha Rolling

The belief that forcing a dog on his side or back, and holding him down till he stops struggling, is how a person must communicate dominance is as persistent as the view that nose halters, such as the Gentle Leader, is a humane walking tool.
I can understand why the layowner would think that. After all, it is on TV every week. And even though there is a disclaimer warning NOT to repeat pinning at home, it is portrait as the natural way dogs correct each other; something a dog might even desire cause it relaxes him.
What I don’t get is that professionals still apply and advise this. Trainers and rescue people teaching dog owners how to physically overpower someone weaker are my big peeve. I recently had two consultations where a trainer, and a shelter staff, had demonstrated and recommended alpha rolling to their clients; in one case it was part of the puppy class curriculum, in the other the dog was mislabeled dominant. In both cases the attempts backfired and the pooches’ behaviors worsened.

Proponents justify that aggressive treatment with the explanation that it is the way mother dog corrects her pups. Steve White (, who was a keynote speaker at the recent CAPPDT conference in Calgary, disputes that. He said that he’d give $100.00, probably US$, not that it matters much, to the first person who forwards video footage of exactly that: a mother dog pinning her puppy. Steve White said the challenge went out years ago and he still has his 100 bucks. Maybe not that much longer, cause a trainer from Ontario, John Wade (, claims to have such footage, although I couldn’t find it on his website.
I agree with Steve White, and many other trainers, behaviorists and ethologists, that pinning is not the natural way dogs correct dogs who belong to their social group and/or they like and have an affable relationship with. A decent mother dog walks away when her offspring is annoying, or gives them a dirty look, or might give a warning growl and flash her pearly whites, or muzzle corrects. The same, minus the walking away, is true for seasoned dogs who remind rookies to toe the line and cool it a bit.
People that look into nature to find a behavioral model to emulate often forget to also look at the intention “nature” has when it acts one way or another - and the consequences it elicits.
In my opinion, pinning is always antagonistic. The pinner is either stressed, or socially abnormal, or doesn’t give a rat’s tail about a future relationship. Doesn’t care about the dog he pins. A dog pinning another does not intend to be friends with that dog, but wants him to stay out of his face for good.
If we pin and force a dog on his back, and hold him down till he stops struggling, that is the message we are conveying; that our relationship is a competitive and confrontational one, and that he better be aware of that and wary of us. That is the stage we are setting, not the dog.
Let’s not forget that in most cases mother dogs and her pups are together for about 8 weeks or so, feral dogs a bit longer, but rarely for life. We share ours with the dog for some 10-14 years. A companionable bond is much more important for us than mother dog.
So what if someone has footage that shows a mother dog pinning her pup. Without investigating what happens next and what the long-term consequences are, it is meaningless as a template how we should act.
We should understand the effectiveness of a method before we embrace it, shouldn’t we?
Did the pinner successfully change unwanted behaviors, or did she just get the pup out of her face for the moment? Was the pup more polite towards other dogs, or just her? How did he turn out as an adolescent and adult? Again, towards her and other dogs. Did the pinning result in a polite and well-mannered adult? Or an anxious, or offensively aggressive one?
Our Newf Baywolf was the most amiable of dogs, but pinned one dog in his 9 years of almost daily off-leash outings. For a period of 4 months or so, Bay nailed my friend’s pup Rudy every time we met, preemptively and leaving him alone for the remainder of the walk. When Rudy was 18 months, he attacked Baywolf over a sniffing spot.
And that brings up another aspect where dogs and humans differ. A dog who pins has no recourse when the pinnee retaliates. Neither mom dog, nor the one in the park, has the option to boot the dog who resisted to the nearest shelter, back to the breeder, or the veterinarian’s euthanasia table. But that’s exactly what people do when the alpha rolled dog returns aggression and bites. And that is also what many trainers advise when what they taught ended up in the ditch.

Most socially normal dogs don’t pin another. And if they do, the purpose is mostly self-preservation. The dog in the park who pins aims to stop the other from doing what he is doing to HIM. Rarely does it matter to the pinner if the unruly pooch pesters any other dog. We expect our dog to be well-mannered with everybody.
So, keep all that in mind when you have the urge to alpha roll your pup or newly adopted dog. And if you pin to punish your dog cause he acted badly against another, it’s like slapping the 10-year-old cause he slapped the 8-year-old to teach him that it’s wrong to slap weaker people.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Reflections on Calgary

I am back at work after a fantastic 12-day vacation in Calgary. The highlight for sure was quality time spent with our daughter Yana, especially the trip to my most favorite of all places traveled: World Heritage site Waterton, AB. The weather was great, sunny and warm – a perfect “I wish I could bottle” day.
I did a LOT of shopping - for me, Yana and Mike and the girls.
My friend Doris, who owns Pet Life and Country Paws in Cochrane AB, has an awesome and affordable selection of perfectly sized, nutritious training treats and I stocked up on that.
I found fermented yak milk chews from Nepal at my friend Holly’s natural Tailblazer pet store, and this very funny Australian Shepherd license plate I bought at my friends Kim and Paula's “Hairy Barkers” store.
Both were at the CAPPDT tradeshow. I also bought a book there Steve White recommended, and I will blog about that after I read it.
I like Steve White. He is such an entertaining speaker; approachable and positive, and proves that even police dogs can be trained without pain and intimidation. I attended his communication and chaining sessions on one day, and his tracking workshop the next and really liked that one. His tracking, or trailing, method is completely different than Frans Baars, who was our instructor in Canmore AB a few years ago. I liked his method, too, and gave it a whole chapter in my book, but will explore Steve White’s some more this fall when my planned structured nose work workshop takes place in the HRM.

The CAPPDT conference was well attended, about 200 people and many young and beginner trainers. Some of the more seasoned association members are expressing their excitement about upcoming shock-collar seminars in their area; there appears to be a bit of a philosophical rift within the organization, so I was glad to see so many new trainers interested in a less balanced, and more positive approach to dog training. I’m curious to see the line-up of speakers for next year’s conference in TO, although I don’t plan to attend that one.

I was able to visit with a few canine friends as well, all seniors now. Ramona’s heeler cross Rudy, and Reri’s chow cross Rufus, were overjoyed to see me – and proved that dogs do have long-term memory. Laura’s amazing rescue Lab Bailey is still around at age 13 ½ and I met her new dog Keeper, a 2 ½ year-old German shepherd, who is so goofy and friendly and treated me like an old friend.
Ramona and I spent 5 hours walking her 6 dogs in Bowmont Park, which is a multiuse large area in Calgary’s northwest, along the Bow River. It used to be all off-leash, unofficially anyway, but now only a small, fenced-in space adjacent to the parking lot remains. Calgary officials boast that they have the most designated off-leash parks in Canada, but the fact is that leash freedom on the beautiful trails disappeared, including access to the Bow River where dogs liked to cool off and swim. Of the 139 off-leash parks, most are the typical squares of boring dusty land that are so common in North America.
Bill Bruce, the Director for Animal Services and Bylaws in Calgary, was a guest speaker at the conference. I didn’t see him and chose a marketing session instead, but did listen to an interview clip with him on CBC radio one. Apparently the reported dog bite incidents dramatically dropped in Calgary, and Bill Bruce contributes that to their “Responsible Dog Owner” program that took the place of the “Animal Control” program. In reality it means quick-issued dangerous dog labels and heavy fines, both of which entices owners to take managing their dogs seriously.
The bite levels dropped even though Calgary does not have a breed ban bylaw. I’d be interested to find out how that compares to, let say Toronto, who does have one.

So, I really, really enjoyed being back in Alberta, but am also happy to be here in Nova Scotia. Davie, Will and I are grateful to have Shubie, Point Pleasant and Long Lake parks, the many wonderful beaches, and woodlots in our neighborhood we can enjoy restraint free, just like Bowmont Park used to be.
Of course the prerequisite for off-leash fun is a reliable recall. Before I left I announced a couple of posts on that topic. The first will be up by week's end.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Proper Pooch Potty Training Tips

Spring is the natural season when females of any species have youngins on their minds, and because nowadays most females of the human kind do not procreate each year anew, many acquire an animal baby in stead. It is the primal, subconscious longing for renewal. A new pooch can satisfy that need and make the female content - temporarily, until baby Rover piddles in unwanted places. Hygienic humans dislike nothing more than dogs that potty on the rug. Growling maybe, but the fact is that for many people the failure to house train is a deal breaker.
The good news is that dogs are clean also, and rather not pee and poop where they live. The bad news is that what living space is defined as, is not so obvious to dogs.
The distinction between inside and out is a no-brainer for a person. The dog only knows where he sleeps and eats, and considers all other areas as potential voiding places. He has no idea that all 2500 square feet of your home, minus the itty-bitty water closet room, is regarded urine-free zone by you. You have to teach him that.
Back to the good news, teaching it is easy if you do it right from the start. And by the way, below tips are not just for the wee pups, but work with dogs any age.
Take your pup out often; after each nap and playtime, after he eats or drinks, whenever he sniffs, seems restless or scratches the floor. The major mistake owners make at that point is to let the pooch in the yard on his own. Everything fascinates and distracts a puppy, and even an older dog in a new environment: sounds, smells, birds and butterflies. A bumbling bee can sidetrack him from the task at paw, and when he marches back into the house his bladder is still full. With the environmental stimuli gone, and his life boring again, he remembers and promptly empties its contents on the carpet. And because it feels good and he gets your attention, potty in the house is doubly reinforced.
Taking the pup out on a leash, and withholding all attention, allows you to control his outside fun. As soon as he’s voided, unclip him and play, or let him investigate, and you are teaching him that business comes first, and the faster he does it, the sooner the good times begin.
The second big mistake people make is failure to clean an accident up to the satisfaction of the dog’s nose. Any residual odor, and remember that even the dullest dog’s sense of smell is much better than yours, is like a Ladies sign for you in a restaurant: the socially acceptable place to eliminate. It attracts and invites her to pee, and she might go even if she doesn’t really have to yet, like we might passing the washroom on the way to the bar – “since I’m here I might as well…”
Another thing with residual smell is that its fading entices the dog to freshen it up, so that she won’t forget where the designated “inside” pee place is. That explains why you can have a few days, even a couple of weeks, accident free and then find a puddle again.
There are fantastic enzymatic cleaners available that get the stink out, but in addition use all accident spots and play with your dog, or feed her there; snuggle or nap. That way you add extra clarification that that particular area is also for living, not eliminating.

Difficult to potty train dogs should always get a veterinary check to ensure that there are no physical causes. Aside from that, dogs have accidents because they are stressed, learned to get attention that way, don’t know any better, or really have to go and nobody is there to take them out.
Delays in house training can happen if the pup’s been trained on paper, or was forced to live in a “dirty” environment; forced to pee and crap in her crate, for example. Be patient and remember that someone, maybe the breeder, has imprinted your pup during her impressionable first few weeks of life to pee IN THE HOUSE. Moving the paper incrementally closer and closer to the door, and then outside, can speed things up.
Potty training without tension and punishments is crucial, cause dogs that are stressed, anxious, or confused are even more likely to void inappropriately. Your frustration and anger might be understandable, but is counterproductive, cause if your dog learns that peeing when you are close by, or she’s on the leash, is not safe, she’ll try her best not to do it. That spoils a future “quickly get it done with” in pouring rain or when you’re rushed leaving for work.
That was the case with two of our foster dogs who likely were punished for an accident at one point, with the lasting effect that they refused to void in the vicinity of a human. One was a male Newf, and believe me, big Newf – big accidents; the other a female heeler cross who didn’t pee for two days; didn’t have an accident. It beats me where she stored it all. Kailey eventually did chance it on the leash outside; with the Newf it took me 2 ½ hours to create a safe association between urinating and humans. I sat in a lawn chair reading a book, Balou, who had a full bladder cause he drank a lot after a long walk, on a six-foot leash beside me. Eventually he had no choice but to pee, for which he got cuddled, and praised and was allowed back into the house where he wanted to be.

That’s the cool thing about humans. We have the more convoluted frontal lobe and can find brainy and positive solutions for almost any problem behavior. Speaking of, I will be away for a couple of weeks – PD in Calgary; conferencing with other brainy dog experts, and having a little vacation. So, no new posts till the middle of June, and then, my dear readers, I want to chat about the really reliable recall – now that summer and hiking season is approaching.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Begging Allowed

Every dog I ever met loves people food. Even the ones that already get home-cooked food, like our two, still want what hubby Mike and I have.
Imagine mouthwatering cooking aromas permeating the living space every day. Imagine having a dog’s superb sense of smell, much better than yours. And then imagine that all you ever get is a bowl of kibble once a day.
Dogs want people food cause people food is more appealing to the nose and taste buds, and if you think that dogs don’t taste, you should watch Will spit out vegetables she detests – broccoli, carrots, tomatoes. She loves green beans.
People food smells and tastes better than kibble, but that is only one reason why dogs try to manipulate us in parting with some of Sunday’s roast.

Dogs understand that sharing food is a sign of social acceptance and inclusion, and that, next to basic physical needs and emotional safety, is most important for them.
Human rituals almost always include eating together, because it creates kinship, and kin lends a helping hand if need be, and that enhances survival during hard times. Wolves feast together on killed prey. The whole purpose of a social group is to be strong in numbers. Sharing resources guarantees both the health of the individual and the pack.
Bonded dogs share toys, a water dish, interesting sniffing spots and even food if there is enough of it. Sharing a resource with a subordinate is a sign of high status, and the attempt to manipulate someone into sharing a possession is an act in submission.
Ergo, begging for table scraps is not challenging for alpha status, but a subordinate understanding that he does not control the food, and asking the one who does to share.

When I cook dinner, I invite my dogs to join me in the kitchen. Actually, I put it on command – say “lets cook”, thereby ordering them to join me. I could also practice the “come” command, or “lets-go” and have them follow me.
And then they beg according to the rules I laid out for them. After all, I’m the boss. And the rules are:
Don’t stare at the food, but connect to me with prolonged, soft eye contact;
Don’t corral me, but keep at least a five feet distance;
Don’t bark, whine, pace or tense, but remain in a relaxed down-stay;
Take the tidbits I’m giving you softly and don’t fight over food I am tossing.
From my point of view, and I bet my dogs’ as well, begging means:
Dog is showing interest in what I am doing;
Dog is connected to me and attentive;
Dog is motivated by something I have control over.
Those are key ingredients for many behaviors I want in day-to-day life. Attention, connection and motivation I need for a reliable recall, obedience around distractions, and self-restraint in anticipation of a reward. Why wouldn’t I take every opportunity to practice that, and especially take advantage of opportunities that allow me to combine domestic duties with training.
I cook, or eat, several times per day – and my dogs practice self-control around a high valued resource several times per day. They also practice to tolerate each other’s presence, and that of an occasional canine guest, around stuff they really want. And I don’t have to scrape away extra time out of my busy schedule to train manners in staged, artificially orchestrated situations.
If your dog joins you in the kitchen, don’t punish him for offering attention and then demand it two hours later in the training class.

By permitting my “girls” to be in proximity when I cook or eat, I communicate that we belong together. So, it’s not really begging, but including - communion building. And because I control the snacks, I score extra leadership points.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dog Behavior and the Personal Filter

The actions of others, dogs, people or whatever species, is always evaluated through one’s own filter; one’s personal emotions and experiences.
We assess our dogs’ actions based on fear and insecurity or confidence, social pressures and popular trends, knowledge or the lack of it, and expectations – regardless if they are realistic or not.
Take begging, for example. A person concerned about losing his cherished status bans the pooch from the kitchen, because he believes that whenever she eyeballs the aroma-rich people food she is contemplating to challenge for it aggressively. Others, like me, see it as an offered attention behavior, and that of an animal that feels subordinate, not equal or even superior. I’ll discuss that topic some more in my next post and you’ll see what I mean.
Not coming when called can be interpreted as:
She didn’t hear me;
She is too distracted and has tuned me out;
She is defiant;
She is overwhelmed by a stimulus and out-of-her mind startled or afraid;
She is dominant, aggressive and red-zone;
We haven’t trained the come command yet, or need more practice;
I am calling with a harsh voice that makes her nervous;
I corrected her in the past for coming and she is nervous;
I spoiled the command by not enforcing it in the past, with the result that she learned that there is an option, or is operant conditioned to NOT coming.
What I say and my body language are not cohesive and she is confused.
The filtering depends on the personality of the human, not the dog. The dog simply acts based on any of the above reasons. The problem is that as soon as we label the dog instead of the action, we see only the label: stubborn, aggressive or dumb. The risk is that once a dog is labeled as such, it becomes her identity and people generalize it to all her behaviors. And with it they give themselves justification to apply punitive consequences. After all, the dog deserves it, right?
That impacts the relationship, and not in good way, and problem behaviors often escalate.

The personal filter has an especially profound influence when it comes to aggression.
If we fear teeth, then growling has a much deeper impact than if we are confident that we have things under control, or if we are knowledgeable enough to understand that a growl is a natural part of dogs’ communication and a warning – intended to avoid injury, not cause it.
Someone who was bitten by a German shepherd will be more frightened by a German shepherd’s growl than that of a golden retriever, even if the retriever is very tense and still. Society fears pit bulls and loves Labradors, and so we act differently around a pit bull, which can instill suspicion or nervousness in her, which increases the likelihood for her to react. In addition, the breed society hates becomes an attractive one for people that hate society. Thugs see the world through their filter also; raise and keep their dogs according to it.
Again, that has nothing to do with the dog, and everything to do with human character.
It is not the dog’s problem, nor is he capable to change how we feel. The onus is on the person. Even Millan got that figured out when he says that he trains people – yet he continues to correct the dog.
I get it. Some people are more emotional and less informed than others. That is normal, and it is difficult to ignore how one feels about something or someone.
Difficult perhaps, but not impossible. It really doesn’t take hyper-rational brainpower to evaluate a dog’s behavior factually, just some willingness to learn and a little self-awareness. And it is well worth it cause clearing the view allows falling in love with the dog again, and settling ones subjective fears and insecurities. That makes for much more successful problem behavior solving, and that opens the door to an authentic companion relationship; a partnership between two species sharing a life together for a while. And that is what dogs deserve – and their humans.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Carpe Diem

Seize The Day – is a motto I live by, or try to anyway. Davie and Will, like all dogs, are masters in living in the NOW, but even though they demonstrate daily how it’s done, sometimes I get entangled in life’s many trivial things. And then something happens that catapults me back on the trail that matters.
Yesterday morning I received an early call from my friend Susan Weinstein’s partner Jan. She told me that Susan had passed away.

Susan Weinstein was a friend for a very short time. She contacted me about a year ago from her home in Ontario, because she needed to clarify a few things about dog behavior for a book she co-authored - “The New Holistic Way for Dogs and Cats” (I wrote a post about in January). We discovered right away that we have a lot in common – the way we feel about dogs, the human/dog relationship and how dogs deserve to be treated. Our friendship began almost instantly. Susan joined my clients’ exclusive google group and occasionally commented on my blog posts, and she came for a short visit in October. Susan lived in Ontario, but loved Nova Scotia very much and had visited often in the past.
Her book was published in November last year, and shortly afterwards she was diagnosed with lymphoma. Susan truly believed in natural, holistic healing and chose that route to deal with her own sickness, but sadly lost her battle yesterday. I am so glad Susan, Jan and I scraped away some time that wasn’t really there when I was in Guelph last month, and met for lunch.

Yesterday morning, Mike left for a short vacation in Calgary. We walked hand in hand till he had to board his flight. Then I took Davie and Will to Point Pleasant Park and breathed the fresh air a little more consciously, and almost hoped to feel raindrops. I made a point to really connect to my dogs. I tried extra hard to make every minute count during a follow-up session at Long Lake with a client. I paused to enjoy the dandelion carpet in our driveway before unloading the car, and the leftover supper tasted deliciously. Things I should be doing every day, I did yesterday. I seized the day.

Susan, I should tell you to rest in peace, but I know that you, like I, believed in reincarnation. You also told me you want to write more, continue to advocate for dogs. My feeling is you might not want to rest too long, but get back at it in another life. So, I’ll say “So Long, Dear Friend”.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Dogs Correcting Dogs

Follow that thought process with me, will you? Imagine one of your relatives adopted a two-year-old, uncoordinated toddler three times your size who gets a kick out of pulling your hair or ears, and likes nothing more than to use you as a trampoline. The new parents, who never asked if it was okay for them to visit, don’t interfere cause he’s just such an adorable young child. How would you feel? And what would you do?
That was the position a recent client’s dog found himself in when he, a small-medium size adult, was expected to accept, and be nice to, his new canine cousin - a klutzy puppy of a very exuberant and much larger breed.
The older dog was overwhelmed, growled and snapped without prevail, from an increasingly farther distance, was subsequently labeled aggressive and that’s when I was called to help.

Turid Rugaas, the amazing and world-renowned Norwegian behavior expert, said at a seminar I attended, that if dogs raise dogs they get it right. And that is true in a world where dogs are similar in size, not stressed and anxious, not manipulated by people, and where litters always stay together for 10-12 weeks amidst a bunch of older dogs, so that in the end everyone is fluent in doggish; speak the same “language”.
That world exists with feral dogs, the ones not owned by humans.
The dogs we live with in our homes and communities come in all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Not all have good dog-communication skills and their humans have I different expectations, knowledge and tolerance levels - and dogs raising dogs becomes much more complicated.

I am all for allowing an older dog to correct a puppy or rude juvenile. In fact, in my opinion ideally every puppy socializing class should include a couple of older dogs that mingle during free play to split, or correct a pup that’s out of line. But it takes a special dog who is able to do that right.
For starters, he has to like the puppies and dogs he is with – the ones he cohabitates with in an intimate social group, and the ones he is presented with regularly or occasionally at day care, the training facility or dog park. Being confronted with incompatible dog(s), yet expected to control and educate, creates stress.
If a dog feels overwhelmed by others in his proximity, the intent changes. An appropriate dog-dog correction is meant to teach rude Rover manners. If the corrector is anxious beyond momentary annoyance, the motivation switches from teaching a lesson to wanting to get rid of the dog – in distance or altogether. That’s not something I want my dog to have an opportunity to practice. Every dog has the right to personal space, but that doesn’t mean that I want him to take matters into his own paws. If a dog experiences that he can control his environment successfully with aggression, that is what he will do in the future.
If the perceived opponent doesn’t back off, the corrector is ineffective and that increases frustration. He might turn it up a notch and a fight could ensue.
And some dogs are hard to impress. That boisterous pup mentioned in the beginning of this post accidentally had his tail stepped on, for a few seconds before the person realized why he was squealing. It really must have hurt. Yet, the moment the foot was off the tail he was right back to his bouncy little self. It’d be difficult for a dog to correct a pup who shrugs off pain like that. It’ll be difficult for the owner also to bring about a lasting effect using corrections, and I hope he will opt for positive reinforcement training.

There is more to dogs correcting properly than the popular belief that they’ll work it out just because they belong to the same species. The correcting dog has to know when to correct and with what intensity. A pup corrected too harshly will become fearful and/or aggressive. And if the adult is too lenient he’s as ineffective as an old nag. The corrector has to be able to adjust corrections to each pup and situation. It is a big job and dogs that can do it good, without getting stressed themselves, are not many. If there is one who’s skilled, my advice is to trust him in his judgment and execution, even if the pup he corrects yelps.
Still, always observe both the corrector and correctee. A correction is warranted when the pup or adolescent is space rude, or too aroused and out of control. A correction is successful when the corrected dog backs off and calms down, but is still interested to interact and approaches in a more polite, self-restrained fashion. If the pup fearfully stays away for good, or continues to pester, it is time for the humans to take charge in a way that is in the interest of both dogs. That can mean to leash the obnoxious one, create distance, remove one dog or the other, and create a bonding, cooperative relationship if the dogs are expected to live in the same environment.
Adult dogs can be great helpers, but the responsibility to create a stress-free environment and raise a well-behaved pooch is always the person's. It is false to assume that dogs, just by virtue of being dogs, wish to interfere or even like to be around their own kind. Some have great social skills with other dogs, and some are edgy and intolerant and prefer human companionship.
Dogs often don’t get corrections right, and humans typically mess it up even more. That’s why my advice always is to manage and redirect instead - and to keep an astute eye on dog-dog interactions and interfere when necessary.