Monday, March 15, 2010

Chocked, Shocked and Gently Lead

The sad story of Boss, a dog who died while in the care of a boarding kennel, made the news recently. You can read details at but what apparently happened was that Boss had a choke collar on, another dog caught his paw in it and Boss suffocated.
The chain that loops around a dog’s neck is often called a “training collar”, but above sad event makes it clear that it is what it is: a tool that can cause a dog to choke to death. And many trainers and owners use it, or a variation of it, like the Illusion collar or Wade collar (
Despite its popularity, it is not even a good training tool, evidenced by the fact that most dogs still pull with it on, or pull when it’s not on, and that includes titled obedience dogs.
That the choke chain is only meant for corrections and training, and not for controlling pulling or depriving a dog of oxygen to soften him up to be pinned next, is irrelevant. What matters to the dog is not what the tool is designed to do by the manufacturer, but how his lay owner actually uses it – or rather misuses it.
Another tool that is regularly misused is the Halti and Gentle Leader; the device that goes around the dog’s nose and irritates the heck out of most of them. I find the name Gentle Leader quite ironic – what I see are dogs whose necks are twisted, who are constantly rubbing and pawing to get the thing off, and who are, by some trainers, hung and corrected with it.
Reactive behaviors almost always worsen with any type of nose-harness. The dog’s stress is increased by the uncomfortable and irritable sensation, and he is prevented from communicating freely because his, typically tense, owner at the other end of the leash manipulates his head.
The stress and conflict a dog feels often begins before the walk, because the appearance of the head halter is an associated cue that elicits both excitement and anxiety.
The worst of all tools, used for both corrections and basic training, is the shock collar. I don’t care under how many nicer sounding euphemisms (anti-bark collar, e-collar, remote training collar, precision training…) they are sold, the purpose of it is either to apply a painful shock to punish a “bad” behavior, or to elicit the wanted behavior. In either case, it is abuse, plain and simple, and in my ideal world its use would be illegal.
That an owner, or trainer, puts the device on himself before putting it on the dog means nothing. Dogs’ red blood cells have a higher sodium content than humans’ and sodium is a great electrical conductor. So just because a shock doesn’t hurt your arm, don’t conclude it won’t hurt your dog’s neck.
Worse than that, it is not just the pain that drives dogs to insanity and neuroticism, but the unpredictability of it. I challenge every person who uses a shock collar on a dog to put it on himself first, but have someone else control it. Whenever an order given in a language he doesn’t understand isn’t obeyed quickly enough: Zap. Whenever he does something the trigger person doesn’t like: Zap. I bet my best leather leash that by the end of the day the e-collar stimulated person is a basket case and won’t like the “trainer” very much; will want to get away from him as fast and far as possible.
And that’s the sad life sentence for many dogs, and it sometimes begins when they are puppies.
The Departments of Ethology and Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals in Utrecht, Netherlands did a study on shock collar training. The dogs were driven German shepherds with a high pain threshold. One group was trained with shock collars; the control group with “normal” punitive methods regularly applied in traditional dog training. The study showed that:
Shocked dogs are more stressed, and not only on the training grounds, but in general.
The shocked dogs connected the shock with the handler, even though 75% of the handlers believed that the dog did not understand who’s responsible for the zap.
So don’t kid yourself. Your dog knows that you’re the abuser.

The use of harsh, cruel or distressing equipment is justified by labeling the dog dominant, defiant and aggressive. They leave a lot of room for misapplication and abuse and dogs that have no choice, no escape, no way out, are suffering at the hands of their owner and “professional".

My advice is to be leery of anybody who guarantees a quick fix solution for complex and deep-seated problems. The use of a certain collar that suppresses the symptoms of fear, stress and occasionally yes, dominance, is not the same as rehabilitation. Even when the symptoms disappear, which is not a given, it comes at a price. A punishment, for it to be effective, has to impress the dog, and the fallout of that is that the dog will want to avoid you in the future, and that shuts the possibility for true companionship.

The only devices dogs should be trained and walked with are a flat collar, a body harness or, if one needs more physical control, the Sense-Ation harness. There is no room for misuse and misapplication even with the rookiest of dog owners. I’ve been using and recommending the Sense-Ation harness since 1997 or ’98 and it is still my favorite. You can find info at and locally in Nova Scotia at

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Greeting Rules

For someone as hung up on dominance as Cesar Millan, I was quite surprised to read that he lets the dog initiate greeting and advices the person to allow groin sniffing till the dog is done. You’d think that someone who corrects a dog for a trivial infringement like stepping ahead would pay more attention to something as major as entering one’s private realm.
True enough, regardless of species, it is always the subordinate who approaches a superior, but only after an invitation. Never does an underling invade space of someone above on her own terms.
If I’m in a crowd to watch the arrival of a visiting VIP, it is up to the VIP to set the rules for a possible interaction. She can ignore me or shake hands and chat, pass me by or invite me to tea. The VIP signals if, or if not, I may approach closer. If yes, I do so observing the correct cultural rituals, and hang around until the VIP decides that the visit is over. No VIP has the right to disrespect me, beat me up or order me around, but can completely dismiss my existence, and I presume that’s what she’d probably do with insignificant old me. A VIP is superior and knows it.

In Millan’s world, dogs are allowed to dismiss all those rules and he calls it leadership.
In my world, and as a mindful leader, I observe those rules. I decide who my dogs can greet and for how long. If my dog wants to say hello to a stranger, she communicates that to me with eye contact. I then check with the stranger if interaction is wished, and if yes, I give my dog a release command and she can go and greet.
Greeting should always be under command control. Once permitted, groin sniffing should be allowed also, but in reality dogs that feel very comfortable meeting people often don’t sniff there because they don’t need the extra information to feel safe. The need to groin sniff indicates a bit of uncertainty.
With dogs that are conflicted about a stranger; switch between feeling curious and insecure, NOT greeting should be the default behavior. In fact, ideally strangers should be irrelevant, inconsequential for every dog.
As long as a stranger has a meaning, the dog is compelled to check him out. Especially if the owner doesn’t take action and offer clarity and guidance, she’ll approach and sniff, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she is friendly or relaxed. Decreased distance to the person increases the conflict a fearful dog is already in, and that increases the potential for aggression.
It is like someone with a fear of heights who’s brave enough to climb a ladder but freezes halfway up. The stranger handing a treat out won’t make it any better. Quite the opposite: the food-motivated dog has even more conflict now, because she wants the treat, but not the hand that holds it.
But even if a dog is bombproof friendly, the same greeting-by-permission-only rule should apply. Unbelievable but true, there are humans that don’t like even the sweetest of dogs in their personal space and might act erratically or aggressively, and then the dog counter reacts, maybe just with anxious barking, but sadly in our society it doesn’t take much for a dog to get a “dangerous” or “attack” label. For her own protection, a dog should never greet a person, or dog, on her own terms.

We are a: lots of affection, a good amount of exercise and no discipline family, but that doesn’t mean that we tolerate being imposed upon. Our dogs communicate with a moment’s hesitation, lowered body and lowered wagging tail that they want to interact with us – and wait for the invitation we signal with a nod. And that has less to do with dominance and submission, but with being polite and respecting personal space. I don’t like to be bowled over by any other family member and expect nothing less from Davie and Will. Polite signaling that intimate cuddling or play is desired is a good habit to have, and good habits are best practiced at home.

The more of a behavioral issue, the more rules and rituals ought to be observed. They become less important if the dog is confident, obedient and well behaved.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Dog Brindi

Brindi’s sentencing is coming up next week, and although I am not involved anymore, it is difficult to ignore. So, here is another post, in case you are not bored of it yet. What I don’t want to do is to rehash what has been said in the past numerous times. If you want to read Brindi’s story from two points of view check out, and

I want to talk about Brindi from a professional and rational point of view.
I met her once, at the SPCA sometime last year, when I was asked to assess her.
Back then, and I haven't seen her since, I found that she was well cared for and not stressed, which surprised me cause many dogs cooped up for months are, but Brindi wasn't.
I also found her to be very responsive to my assistant and me. I was able to handle her, put a new harness on her, she offered lots of attention and eye contact and refused to play a rough housing game I initiated (for assessment purposes - I am against rough housing with dogs), so was not at all confrontational and competitive with people, even in a playful way.
I requested, for assessment purposes, to be able to take Brindi out of her run to the fenced back area (which was granted immediately) to see how Brindi reacts to the other dogs in their runs we had to pass by, and she did not react, but also did not look at them, which indicates that she was somewhat nervous but able to contain herself, likely because by then other dogs and situation were familiar to her.
I had my own dogs with me for further evaluation. At that point my assistant handled Brindi inside the fenced area, and I handled my dogs outside, so we played it safe but at the same time were able to get a fairly true account what the issues are. Brindi was alert when she first saw my dogs, but was easily redirected by my assistant and shifted her attention from my dogs to her, and willingly followed her, walking away from my dogs.
Then they came nose to nose, with only the fence in between, and had some polite and fluid-bodied sniffing. Brindi was also able to share treats, with her and my dogs all in a sit position, which indicates that she is also not competitive with other dogs.
She did react as soon as we walked away with lunging and barking, so there is clearly a problem with dogs in motion, and possibly also dogs that are unfamiliar to her, and it likely originated somewhere in the past when she was chained. Restraint frustration can lead to erratic lunging, barking and a possible attack when there is opportunity (dog gets out of a collar, leash or tie-out breaks, there's a hole in the fence or the gate open, or whatever). Many dogs that are/were chained or left unattended in a fenced yard or dog run are reactive, and that is why I am dead-set against it.

Based on all of the above, that is what I believe Brindi needs in the future:
To Live.
To belong to someone cause she is people oriented and willing to take her cues and guidance from a person.
To be managed properly. That does not mean a muzzle and fenced back yard. Although both can function as extra safety guards, as long as Brindi is able to fence run or chase a dog because she got away, the behaviors that got her into trouble will continue. In addition, even with a muzzle and fence she can still intimidate people and dogs, and potentially, inadvertently injure a person knocking her/him over.
Managing means being in the house with the owner and leash walks on a collar and harness for better control (so two leashes), and to not be off the leash or unsupervised in a fenced yard or dog run.
To desensitize her to the problem stimuli – other dogs in motion, and dogs that appear suddenly. That triggered the reaction in the past and during my assessment and that appears to be Brindi’s only issue. That, in many cases, is doable but can take time and effort. That is why managing her conscientiously until suddenly appearing and moving dogs are irrelevant in Brindi’s mind is paramount.
To shape a default stress coping behavior - I'd choose walking away.
Brindi lived in how many places already? Provided Brindi is released, I wish for her to find a stable and permanent place to put her food bowl down and hang her leash up. Not one who'll kennel her a few months into the relationship to go on vacation or something. That is tough - Mike and I haven't had a vacation without the dogs since 1999 when we got Davie.
The million-dollar question is if Francesca Rogier is able to do all that? That’s what the judge has to decide next Tuesday and I concur with Joan Sinden – a difficult task and I am glad I don’t have to do it.
I will say that much though. If Brindi were my dog, and there would be someone who could give her all she needs, I’d choose that to euthanasia. And trust me, I love my dogs. Ask hubby Mike. You could offer to pay my mortgage and you wouldn’t have a chance at them.
But if you love them, and if there is no other way for them to be happy, set them free.