Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Coyotes - And the Narrow Window of Normalcy

Nova Scotia is having a bounty on coyotes this fall. Ever since the tragic death of a young musician in Cape Breton last year, our Enquirer-type media sensationalizes even normal encounters with a coyote, using words like “aggressive” and “attack”, when indeed there are no ripped pants, bite marks, or carried away children that support the rhetoric. Our government sadly gave into the paranoia of a few and acted against the advice of experts. Not only are the “aggressive” coyotes that encroach on human habitat dealt with so that people can continue to dump their garbage in the ditch, but this fall trappers are enticed with 20-bucks-a-pelt to venture into coyote habitat and kill as many as they can. 20 dollars doesn’t seem much money, but then again it buys a pack and half of smokes, almost a case of beer and who knows how many banjo strings.

The intolerance to share space and resources with anybody “other” than us, the childish need that the government takes care of every booboo, and the narrow window of “normal behavior”, is typical for our society.
According to statistics (, 26.2% of adults in the US have a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, with only 6% being a serious one. So if I get my math right, and correct me if I’m wrong cause numbers are not my forte, one fifth of the US population is diagnosed with something not that serious but are given the “not normal” label anyway.
Society also has a pretty good idea what a normal dog should be like. And like with humans, the range of behaviors a dog’s allowed to do is very narrow, and there are social pressures on every owner to conform to the cultural demands. In a nutshell, we want a politically correct Lassie who loves everyone, tolerates everything, hardly barks and never growls or chases things.
Pampered people want 100% insurance and assurance that nothing bad will ever happen. Along the way we forget to live - and don’t allow our children or dogs to live a natural life either.
We force dogs to adjust to our unrealistic expectations. Their life happens on a six-foot leash, and in a crate or on a mat. And on a six-foot they are barely allowed the freedom of half that length cause the alpha rule states that the dog has to walk behind, or beside, the all-mighty master. We forcefully make dogs a part of our sterile world of flawless skin, white teeth, big houses and organized sport. That is what Millan speaks to and that is why he is so popular. Not because he has any special talents, or even likes dogs, but because he charismatically coerces dogs to behave in a “Desperate Housewives” society.
Some dogs surrender and look good on TV, but many develop even more problems based on stress and are then banned to the back yard, or surrendered to the pound and find themselves on puppy death row.
The question is how an emotional and cognizant living being, any organism really, can remain balanced and in harmony when micromanaged into an unnatural existence? The answer is: They can’t.
According to Gordon Warme MD, in his book “Daggers in the Mind”, psychiatric symptoms are solutions to inner conflicts. They are created by the self, albeit not consciously. Dogs have many inescapable conflicts. Inescapable, because an owned dog does not have a voice or choice and relies completely on his person’s mercy. There is every reason to belief, and evidence, that dogs’ mental symptoms, which we call problem behaviors, are human created and an escape from going insane.
We now have dogs that are diagnosed with the same mental issues every fourth American is, and lucky for the pharmaceutical industry, many veterinarians are as keen as psychiatrists to prescribe a pill, rather than dealing with the root problems.
Quick fix symptom control is what the Nova Scotia NDP government did when they put a bounty on coyotes. What I'd like them to do with my tax money is investigate and pursue a more permanent solution where humans and nature can live together.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar in Guelph

I just returned from a trip to Guelph to see world-renowned behavior expert and author Suzanne Clothier (
I am sure that the future will reveal what the purpose was, cause right now I don’t know. To be clear, I am not saying that the 4 days was totally circling the toilet bowl. I mean, listening to Suzanne Clothier and watching her work makes any dog person, and I don’t care who you are, a better one. The topics for my May 01 seminar are set, but what was discussed in Guelph ties in nicely with it, and I will share new insights and known stuff I was reminded of, with the people who’ll attend.
I had some “aha” moments, and but most of what was addressed I already apply. And surprisingly, there were points I don’t agree with, and others I still have to mull over a bit longer. That didn’t happen at Suzanne’s Victoria/BC seminar in 06. That time her word was gospel to me. It was the first and only seminar or workshop I attended where I agreed with everything said and done. Not this time.
This one was interesting, but not fabulous. I cry over the 1.200 bucks it cost me and imagine how many books and DVDs I could have bought. Holy Smokes Ontario is expensive. And so unfriendly. At least TO, the - ah – center of the universe. I will never rent a car from Budget ever again, even though they gave me a Hyundai Santa Fe, which I really liked. We are Honda people, but maybe will check into a Hyundai for our next car.
I will also not stay at the Airport Holiday Inn again. The room was nice, and the check-in person. But the check-out one was very snotty, and the airport-shuttle bus driver pointed with his head that he was ready to leave. No “I’m ready to leave, Mam”. Not even nodding. He pointed, not invitingly with his arm or hand, but his head. And I had to carry my own suitcase from the lobby to the shuttle. That guy would not be working for me for long.
The only good thing in Toronto was that I had a chance to see friends and have lunch with them – and got to meet their all-around beautiful Bouvier for the first time.
People in Guelph were friendlier. The Days Inn Hotel was great, too. The most comfortable hotel bed I slept in.
Being one of 60 or so seminar participants made me feel very uneasy. I knew about myself that I love being in front of a group of strangers much more than being part of one, but the level of discomfort I felt surprised me. As a result, I was not my usual self and experienced first-hand how insecurity inhibits performance when I had an opportunity to work with a people-shy border collie. Here I was, already tense but not afraid of the rather mild dog, ready to do what feels natural to me, but I had to follow someone else’s guidance, which made me even more rigid.
I’m already sympathetic to emotions that arise when one is asked to perform in perceived distressing situations, but having felt it, I now have an even better understanding and compassion for the dogs I work with - and their owners.
Physical discomfort creates stress as well, and that was discussed and is also on my May 01 seminar’s agenda. Suzanne Clothier swears by a product called System Saver ( The company makes the natural anti-inflammatory for horses, dogs and humans, and according to the folks in Guelph it is the best thing for arthritis related problems and geriatric animals. I ordered some for Davie, and some for Mike and I. I will keep you posted.

So, lets summarize: I had an interesting lesson in self-finding and self-improvement; I had a chance to drive a cheaper to purchase than Honda car I actually like; I got info about an affordable supplement that might help Davie’s arthritis and get rid of that twitch in my shoulder; I learned a couple of new things and remembered what I should emphasize more. I guess I got my answer what the purpose of my trip to Guelph was. Had it just not been that darn expensive.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Three of the "Seven Spiritual Laws of Success" - For Dogs

I am not a religious person, as in following a certain religious doctrine, but I do believe in something that’s bigger than me and everlasting. One of my favorite spiritual teachers is Deepak Chopra. In his book “Seven Spiritual Laws of Success” I found three that, I believe, should be remembered when we live and work with our dogs.

In the chapter “Giving and Receiving” Chopra explains that one can give someone money without relating to him; that there is a difference between care and caring. When I observe how people, including some who train with positive reinforcement, relate to their dogs, I often notice that their interactions seem automated, abrupt, rehearsed. Caring is prolonged interest in the other, and to give of oneself. Owned dogs are thirsting for that deep connection. It is not the treat that should matter most, but the genuine joy you express for a job well done, and the happy and undivided attention you give whenever you interact with your dog.
The Law of Least Effort states that nature takes the course of least action and no resistance. We know that’s true cause organisms wouldn’t survive if they’d consistently expend more energy than they take in. Dogs, like us, are nature. Chopra says that whatever increases chaos and disorder is operating against the Law of Least Effort, leads to frustration and is counterproductive to life. The key is to do less to accomplish more. In regards to dogs it can mean fewer artificially orchestrated activities to avoid over-stimulation, less overbearing and more subtle communication, and taking an interest in the dog’s natural aptitude and channeling that, so that success is achieved with less effort.

The Law of Detachment says that nature works best once we are detached from the outcome. Like, buy that lottery ticket and release it from your mind; take that course you are interested in regardless if you can use it for something or not.
Regarding dogs, it means that the highly ambitious and competitive type-A owner needs to reduce performance pressure he puts his dog under. Ribbons and titles are important for people, not dogs. That does not mean you shouldn’t pursue dog sports, or obedience, or whatever you like, but with the primary focus to bond over quality time spent together. Then your dog will want to be with you, and work with you, and success in any activity will follow, sometimes almost miraculously. Chopra describes it as maintaining serenity while being passionate about the goal. The intention is in the future, but the attention is in the present, and the presence is what matters to your dog. And if your attention is a caring, prolonged, deep, subtle and connected one, your dog will feed of your serenity, and everything will fall into place - much faster than with force.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Look At That - Look At Me

The Department of Ethology in Budapest Hungary,
conducts very interesting dog behavior research projects for quite a few years now. Those are real scientific studies done by real behavioral scientists, and although their focus is the family dog, they also study wolves, as control groups, to find out if and how dogs and wolves behaviorally differ. One profound distinction they discovered is that it is natural for dogs to look humans in the eye, and for wolves it isn’t.
It is wonderful to get a scientific confirmation for what many of us positive dog pros knew all along: It is normal for dogs to offer and receive eye contact.
Dogs are domesticated, which means that humans are an accepted part of dogs’ natural environment. And that is true even for the ones not reared by humans - the Budapest scientists studied that as well. People and dogs, cause we shared the same environment for such a long time, evolved together and there are quite a few social similarities. The way we use our eyes it one of them. We can try to kill someone with a laser look, but mostly we pay polite attention to the one we interact with.
So, eye contact is not something people should have to teach dogs. But alas, thanks to the still popular misperception that a dog looking at a person challenges for alpha status, in reality many dogs neither offer that natural form of communication, nor are they able to accept it. Dogs with problem behaviors always get worse as soon as someone looks at them; as soon as they feel paid attention to.
And that’s a shame, cause offered eye contact equals attention, and who wouldn’t want that. A dog encouraged to speak with her eyes willingly connects to the owner to ask for permission or help, which gives the owner control and the dog a copout during a conflict situation. That is what we should foster.
A dog who always averts her eyes is afraid because she was corrected in the past for looking, and one who appears aloof likely has unlearned to look because it was ignored. If the person does not acknowledge eye connection, the dog learns to look to the environment for informational cues.
In both cases it is up to the person to re-teach what should be natural; that “talking” with the eyes is desired and asking for help an option.
Initially you can prompt your dog by saying her name, or even using a treat lure you hold between your eyes. Your dog’s eyes will follow the lure, and she’ll automatically look at you, which you then reward with the treat. Incrementally move your fingers away from your eyes. Most dog quickly understand that it is eye contact you are after, and once she does ask for offered, the emphasis is on offered, connection before you give access to any resource she wants, including her food, a walk, being let outside, allowed off the leash and so on.
Eye contact is attention, and attention will become a default behavior and with it off-leash obedience is much more reliable. Although some dogs signal with a twitch of an ear that they’re with you, prolonged eye contact is an unambiguous sign of deep connection. Once your dog has learned that eye contact is a successful way to communicate with you, she will also do it when he is nervous of something. Eye contact becomes a signal for you to take action before she reactively lunges and barks. Eye contact as a coping skill decreases stress and fear, and the resulting unwanted emotional outbursts.
Every dog should be desensitized to accept eye contact from strangers, cause strangers will look at your dog even if you tell them not to. The advice some trainers give to tell all strangers to ignore your pit bull at the end of your leash is not realistic. Especially the fearful of canine teeth person will look - guaranteed. And if you have a cute, but shy dog, people will look also trying to make friends. It’s difficult enough to get them not to pat uninvited.
Needless to say, never, ever punish your dog when she looks at you. Not even if she gives you the hairy eyeball. If your dog throws you a hard, intimidating warning look you have a deeper-seated relationship issue that you won’t solve by confrontationally staring her down.

My goal with my dogs is for them to signal with their eyes when they want something, when they are worried or confused about something, and that they heard me.
When your dog looks at you, you have her attention, and only if you have her attention giving her a command makes any sense. If your dog is not paying attention, she has you tuned out and is unlikely able to obey.
From now on, encourage, acknowledge and reinforce eye contact. Especially when presented with stimuli. To withhold the environment from a dog is as unrealistic as telling every person not to look at her. Dogs, people, cats, cars and squirrels do exist, and it is normal for every species to observe cohabitants. The important goal is to have a dog who periodically and voluntarily checks in with you, the owner, her lifeline. So “look at that” is okay, but “look at me” is what should be reinforced with a game, or a treat, or a whole lot of loving attention. Then maybe some day you, like us, will rarely use the come command anymore, cause your dog is “with you” the matter what, and you know she is cause she looks at you.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Aggression and Stress Seminar - May 01

Why are so many good dogs behaving badly?
Because even though they don't share human's worries, for example how to pay the monthly bills, many are stressed.
In fact, almost all problem behaviors are rooted in fear and stress.
Find out why the modern dog is so emotional; the expressions of a dog gone limbic, including aggression, resource guarding and separation anxiety, and what you can do to make things better.
We will discuss hormones, nutrition and brain chemicals that affect behavior.
And we will discuss dominance aggression and predation to round things up. Dominance does exist, but is generally misunderstood and not addressed correctly. Becoming the even brawnier and bossier animal is not a functional solution to deal with a dog who has an attitude.

Get the inside scoop and expert advice on May 01. It's an all day, 9-5, event.
Lunch will be served and is included in the fee.
Location: Fetch Inc. - 80 Joseph Zatzman Drive, Dartmouth.
Space is limited and filling up fast. Hope to see you there.