Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Twas a Good Year

I can’t believe another year is almost over. I know, it is such cliché talk, but it’s true. Time flies. At least for us it does, perhaps because we are so busy. Although there are days I wish had more hours in it, I am thankful that everyone in our family has work; enough income to pay the bills with a little left over. In today’s world, that and health make any year a good one.
Of course, there were ups and downs. It is life. Losing our beloved Aussie Davie to cancer in March was a big blow that still sideswipes us periodically, especially when something strongly reminds us of her – a certain place, or a song that has a special meaning. Last week our favorite grocery store played Robbie William’s version of “The Things we Used to Do”, which was Davie and my Freestyle song we danced to. Happy-sad moment.
The highlight of the year was in August, when our daughter who lives 5000 km away came for a visit. We had a wonderful time exploring Cape Breton and traveling one of the most beautiful coastal highways in the world. Of course Will came along.
The remainder of the year was journeying a smooth path, spotted here and there with interesting dog-related information and products I want to share with you.
My favorite new walking tool is the Freedom Harness I discovered recently thanks to dog guru Pat Miller. I already mentioned it in my post "Tools of the Trade", and the more I use it, the more I like it. You can check it out at Wiggles, Wags and Whiskers.
Another product that really works is the Wysong Denta Treat Powder - I get mine at the Bark and Fitz in Halifax. It is an oral health- promoting supplement for canines and felines that is sprinkled on kibble. I skeptically started using it for our 10-year-old Will in September, and am amazed by the results. Her teeth are visibly cleaner, whiter and gums healthier.
The Lickety Stick caught my eye last month while shopping for dog food and training treats at Global Pets in Truro. If you picture a roll-on deodorant you get an idea how it functions, except instead of a pleasant smelling stink neutralizer it releases a natural tasty liquid the dog can lick. I can see it work nicely with polite leash manner training, but also to change a nervous dog’s mind about a hand reaching for him. Many of my consultations involve dogs that bite, and specifically hands. Dogs, it seems to me, are increasingly more suspicious of hands and I believe that is because the famous Dog Whisperer demonstrates that hands should pin and poke, not gently stroke and deliver a food treat or toy. Even though I like the Lickety Stick, I won't use it much, because it is made by PetSafe, the leading shock collar manufacturer, and that puts me in moral conflict; enough to stay away from their good products as well.
Those are the things that stuck out, but I also found a bunch of mention-worthy information. There are many websites that advance the gentle and dog friendly treatment of our hairy sidekicks, but two I especially liked: is based in the UK and has really good video clips, including one on how to desensitize a dog to a wear a muzzle, and one how to teach “drop it”.
The other,, is an international directory of, as the name implies, truly positive dog trainers. Unlike some other groups and associations that don’t always screen if everyone follows their mission statement, or are all-inclusive to begin with and accept anyone who can hold a leash regardless how aversive the method is they use, joining this one is by referral only. Yours truly made the cut, but is not yet listed because, I was told, the site is managed by volunteers and updating can be a tad slow. Understandable, but I hope they’re finding the time so that more and more dog owners can locate a truly positive dog pro in their area.
And of course there were books. There are always books. My favorite one this year was “Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg. It is actually not about dogs, but an African Grey Parrot, Alex, and Dr. Pepperberg, a scientist curious about bird brains. Alex stands for Avian Language Experiment. I loved the book because it is science-based and therefore the findings documented and verified, while at the same time it is written in a conversational and easy comprehendible style. Alex’ level of cognition astounded many, even critics, and because he was able to use English words proving what he was capable of was easier than it is for our dogs who can’t speak our language. I often wonder what they would tell us were they anatomically equipped to talk like we do, or Alex? I mean, their communication is quite clear, but still, it is not our own and we can never be 100 percent sure if what we think our dog thinks is accurate.
“The Scent of Desire” by Rachel Herz is also not about dogs, but about the sense of smell. I was surprised how intensely it impacts so many aspects of human life. How much more important must it be for dogs who have a much keener sense of smell than we do. Especially the chapter on pheromones was super interesting. It explained how they affect the selection of a genetically perfect mate to increase the chance of healthy offspring. How many female dogs are allowed to freely choose their mates these days?
A much anticipated book I just finished reading is BAT by Grisha Stewart. This one is about dogs, not bats. BAT stands for Behavior Adjustment Training, and is geared to help reactive dogs. In a nutshell, it teaches people how to use functional rewards, namely distance, to reinforce socially acceptable behaviors in the presence of a trigger. I love and apply the concept since I saw Suzanne Clothier demonstrate something very similar a few years ago. Grisha makes a reference to Suzanne Clothier and Ian Dunbar in the book’s appendix, and also to CAT – Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and Kellie Snider’s Constructional Aggression Treatment, which also uses distance as functional reinforcement, but with the distinct difference that the trigger moves, not the dog.

Here you have it: a quick review of my rather good year. Perhaps one or the other item finds itself on your wish list, and if you’re not done Christmas shopping yet, maybe you just found the perfect gift for a loved one.
I leave you with my best wishes for a Merry Christmas, or whatever it is you are celebrating this time of year, and even-keel sailing in 2012.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

All I Want for Christmas

Is a puppy dog. That was the only thing I ever wanted when I was growing up – and never got because my parents didn’t want an animal in the house. In hindsight, it was good that they so stubbornly refused to give me what I longed for most. Good for the dog, at least. My family put the “dys” into functional, and life in our house would have been very stressful for any poor pooch.
Kids grow up and eventually make their own decisions, and as soon as the time was right mine was to finally make my wish come true and get meself a dog, and then another one, and…
So, these days I am as happy as a human can be, and the only reason why I am boring you with my miserable, dogless childhood is because “a puppy” is a repetitive plea on wish lists to Santa.
Profit-driven breeders and pet stores are well aware of that, and gear up production for the Holiday Season. What parent doesn’t love to see their offspring’s face light up as bright as the tree on Christmas morn’? What parent doesn’t want to fulfill their child’s dream? Because commerce plays on that, advertises and supplies the goods, every December many a youngster is given a leash, and a whelp at end of it.
Unlike folks whose priority is the bottom line, non-profit humane societies and rescue organizations put animals first and were, in the past, by and large against adopting dogs out shortly before Christmas. Their explanation was that: a) they didn’t want the animals in their care to be a last minute, emotional-based or spontaneous acquisition that might be regretted soon after, and b) they wanted to prevent that a dog, likely already somewhat stressed by the shelter environment, won’t be more so when exposed to all the commotion that is typically part of the festivities.
That position has changed a bit in recent years. With the Iams “Home 4 the Holidays” program and alluring tagline: “What better gift can there be during the Holiday Season than to save the life of an orphan”, more and more shelters join in with the goal to adopt out as many of their charges for Christmas as possible. Sounds like a noble enough move, doesn’t it? Well, I am not so sure. I know that I might be paddling against the current here, but whenever meeting a projected quota and dogs are in the same sentence, I become worried.
Since "Home 4 the Holidays" inception in 1999, 5.7 million families worldwide found a new family member, and this year’s goal is 1.5 million, with 3.790 shelters participating. Impressive numbers indeed, and reading them automatically evokes an image in our mind of a white picket fence family and a once lonesome, sweet dog who is now, cause adopted, eagerly fetching a ball or peacefully sleeping in his doggy bed by the fireplace. Except, do we have any evidence that confirms what we see with our mental eye? Do we actually know how many dogs are still in those homes after 6 months, 1 year, or 2? Is someone checking how many live inside and call that soft cushion to sleep on their own, are supplied quality food, are loved and cared for the way they should? Maybe there are follow-ups. I don’t know. If there are, I’d be interested in those numbers as well.
Of course, statistics that show how animals make out in a home long term are important regardless when in a year they are adopted out, but more than any other season the Christmas one takes advantage of people’s open hearts and warm, albeit perhaps vulnerable, emotions. In that sense, is the Iams campaign any different than the pet store’s front window and breeder’s website home page, both littered with darling cute puppies ready to go for December 25?
I get it. It feels good to believe that every homeless person will have turkey dinner, and every lonely dog a home, but life is not a Hallmark movie, and more not always merrier. My fear is that once new year reality hits, a good number of pets invited in from the cold by people who were sad, in a temporary fuzzy-giving mood, or wanted to make Christmas especially memorable for the kids, find themselves returned like undesired presents exchanged at the local mall. Or, when the new owners realize that the pooch means time and work, might not be house trained or has separation anxiety, are exiled to a solitary life in the yard or on a chain. People might opine that any home is better than no home, but I disagree. Some dogs are better off at a shelter where friendly volunteers take the time to walk and talk to them, and perhaps even allow playtime with compatible friends.
Said all that, I am not categorically against adopting before Christmas. Any effort that places an animal in need of a home into a good one, including during the month of December, is fabulous. If a family unanimously agreed to open their door and hearts to a dog all along, if the decision to choose a homeless one was well thought through, if the expectations are realistic, and if the pooch they all fall in love with is confident enough to handle a festivity-busier-than-normal new environment, it would be senseless to leave him lingering in a shelter cell longer than he has to.
But all those criteria have to be in place, otherwise "Home 4 the Holidays" is nothing more than clever PR for Iams, with little regard for the animals. The question I am pondering over is if participating shelters, during a busy adoption drive, are able to evaluate potential owners with the same scrutiny they apply at other times. If yes, then that is wonderful, and the campaign also is, and I am all for it.
Another thing that is wonderful, and has to do with Iams, is their Local Heroes Contest that was seeking life saving success stories. The competition was open to shelters and rescue organizations across Canada, and I can proudly say that our Nova Scotia Provincial SPCA in Dartmouth won for their palliative foster care program that places old animals, and those with compromised health, in loving foster homes. What I think about human scum who ditch their old or sick pooch is another topic, but I am glad our shelter was recognized with an award for their compassionate care for animals that otherwise would likely have to be euthanized.
And also wonderful is the Hallmark movie “A Dog Named Christmas”. If you have the chance, watch it, but for dog’s sake don’t let your children talk you into a family member you don’t want for the next decade or so. Taking responsibility for a pet is an adult decision – one of the rare mature ones I can give my parents’ credit for making.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Willkommen is 10

Question! Is there such a thing as being too busy if someone loves every minute of it? Answer! Yes, if one forgets the dog’s birthday.
On November 15th Will turned 10, and we almost forgot. Almost because hubby remembered it late evening, and in reality we aren’t even sure if that is her exact birthday. Nobody knows cause Will was born feral. When she and the her litter were trapped in February 2002 they – the humane society people and veterinarian - estimated the pups age between 10-12 weeks, which puts whelping in November, and we chose the 15th cause it was a payday and allowed us to buy gifts, but what are the chances that we picked the correct date.
We got Will April 30th 2002. We were the 4th place she landed at, and her last chance. So, we could celebrate that day, too. A few of my friends who have rescue dogs celebrate the “got day”, not the birthday, but we don’t. I don’t know why, because I am really happy that we got Will. The extremely timid pauper pup turned into a fantastic dog. She is an easy keeper, is attentive -super attentive, heeds our requests and trusts me so completely that we can take her anywhere. She might not always agree with my choices, but she always wants to be with me, without being clingy, and without having separation anxiety, which means she can be left alone as well. The perfect companion, and confident, too. She transformed from flighty Willkommen to Willie the Conqueror.
Will is smart, subtle and sweet, and easy on the eye. Best of all, she is still active and healthy. And here we are, almost forgetting her birthday. But she didn’t mind. I mean, what could we get our diva what she doesn’t already have.
Love and affection? A lot.
Treats? Daily.
Home-cooked dinners? Yup.
Long walks? Twice a day.
Off leash outings? Regularly.
Her own photo blog post to celebrate her life? I highly doubt she cares, but here she’s got one anyway.
Happy Birthday ma Will – and hopefully there’ll be many more to come.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Every Time the Doorbell Rings

The autumn leaves that paint the Canadian Maritimes into magical colors are gone, and the beaches are void of people and bugs. Sure signs that winter is approaching; a time of year that heralds in festivities that bring friends and family together. Aside from the traditional gatherings to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, when it gets colder outside, many people’s homes become warmer, and not just because the furnace is on. It is the sharing of food and rituals that brings about a cozy and peaceful feel – only disturbed by: Your dog’s crazed barking every time the doorbell rings. Right? I know because my dogs are like your dogs. Or rather were like your dogs, because we worked on it, and now they do something other than announce that somebody is at the door.
Dogs react to the doorbell because it has become their cue that something is about to happen at the entrance point of the house. In other words, there is a relevant consequence the dog has learned that follows that specific sound: someone entering. Depending on the dog, the anticipation of the predictable event the bell, or a knock, announces triggers either anxiety or excitement. Either way, the pooch erupts in annoying barks because both emotions increase arousal and decrease impulse control. The dog, at that point, is out of his mind; he has you tuned out, which means that you won’t be able to shut him with a “no”, “come” or “sit”.
What most frustrated owners do next is catch up with the canine and body block him away from the door, which seems rather clever in theory, but in reality the human ends up playing goalie in the entrance space, and the dog is becoming more and more skilled in dodging his person. If that sounds like it would irritate the human and arouse the dog even more, you are correct. It does, and what typically happens next is the owner grabbing the collar, which also doesn’t work because it adds restraint frustration, and the dog then totally flips out.
That is often the point when the dog trainer is called in, and depending on what philosophy she follows, might diagnose dominance and advise to exile the pooch into another room or outside, or sharply correct him into shutting up.
I deal with the issue differently. I teach my dog an alternate behavior.
The cue will always be the cue, meaning that the bell will ring when someone requests entrance into your home. That is impractical, or impossible, to change. What we can alter, however, is what meaning it has for the dog.
Some people have a hunch that changing the pooch’s mind might be the solution and hang a treat basket by the door, for guests to give the dog a cookie as soon as they enter. But that is another idea that sounds good on paper, but is ineffective in real life and can increase arousal because the dog is, in addition to being excited about the person, now also excited about the expected treat. Or, if he feels queasy about the visitor, the cookie creates conflict because he still doesn’t like the stranger at the door, but wants what she holds in her hand.
My goal is the opposite. I want the whole entrance space to be dog free when I open the door to let someone in. The sound of the doorbell ringing still has relevance, and my dog can still get excited about it – and probably will cause calm-submission doesn’t magically happen just because I wish it so, but it announces that good stuff will materialize elsewhere: in the kitchen or living room, and that it comes from me, not the person at the door.
Once your dog habitually moves to another room, you can deal with the visitor in a casually calm and relaxed fashion, which brings the pulse rate down in dog and person.
Sounds like exactly what you want, doesn’t it?
The first step to achieve that is to find something that really floats your dog’s boat. For many it is a human-food stuffed Kong, and there could be a couple readymade in the freezer at all times. When the bell rings and the barking begins, walk to the door and shout out that you’ll open in a second, then happily clip a leash on your dog’s flat collar or harness – no choke or prong collar cause it is not about correcting the badness out of the dog - lead him to the freezer and hand over the Kong. With the yummy treasure between his teeth take him to his favorite mat, and perhaps loop the leash around a bannister or heavy piece of furniture to keep him put while he munches away, and then you open the door. (Separately, using yummy treats, practice down stays on the mat a lot, so that it becomes a desired spot to be not just when company arrives.) Repeat, repeat, repeat. Only doing it conditions a new behavior. Maybe you can recruit neighborhood kids to legally push the bell and run away.
Provided you have found something your dog can’t resist, and provided that you consistently follow the same routine, in no time, perhaps even before the Christmas crowd arrives, the sound of the bell will be your dog’s cue to run to the freezer and then, with his loot in his mouth, to the mat. No leash no more required.
The Kong works with most dogs, but some are more obsessed about toys. That was the case with our Aussie Davie, who loved all her humans without reserve, but was equally passionate about biting strangers. I assume that was the reason she was surrendered at the tender age of 16 weeks. For Davie it was an Airdog football that did the trick. Within weeks after she landed in our home, instead of charging the door she ran to the doggie-drawer in the kitchen where we kept her beloved toy. It came out each time the bell rang, and disappeared as soon as the visitor left. Dogs can’t bark if they have their mouths full with Kong or ball. No, let me correct that, Davie still managed to, but it was muffled and not annoyingly high-pitched, and she was happy and not aggressive, because company coming meant a quick play session with us.
Self-evident, I hope, is that the guest should ignore the dog until he is calm. Greeting should only happen if both dog and person want to, and only after the owner gives a specific release command. I like “say hello”.
And just to be clear, don’t deprive your pooch of toys and treats, but what he values most, the very special prize, only appears as the consequence of the doorbell ringing, and is always retrieved from the same place so that it, not the entrance point of your house, is where he’ll run to.
So, that is how I deal with the maddeningly barking pooch charging the door. There is another way, equally clever and dog friendly, and effective provided you have the time and opportunity to build the desired mat behavior incrementally before the dog is confronted with the big deal event: a stranger entering the house. You would first teach and practice going to the mat. I like free shaping it, which means you start reinforcing your dog’s interest in the mat, and then gradually raise the bar until he lays on the mat, and after that you gradually increase duration and distance he stays in position on the mat. I’ll put up a post up in the near future how I teach a position down stay.
Once your dog can be prompted to go to the mat – I like the word “mat”, or you could use the German word “platz” if you have a German shepherd, combine the verbal cue with the doorbell ringing. The last step is to omit the verbal cue, and the dog will go on his mat whenever the bell rings. The sound has become his conditioned cue to lay on the mat, and stay there.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Command Clarity

When you think tools, the things we use to direct our dogs into desired behaviors, don’t just think material leashes and collars. Tools are also commands; verbal and non-verbal cues your dog has learned to understand and will heed to.
In my career, I never met a dumb or stubborn dog. I am not kidding. I met many that are too anxious or wound up to learn‘n’listen, or fearfully avoid humans cause they experienced that they’re not always trustworthy. And I met many that seek a connection, want to pay attention, but are confused because their person isn’t making any sense. In other words, training failure happens not because the dog is a few marbles short, but because the human is unpredictable, inconsistent or imprecise, and the dog tunes him out.
Dogs are marvelous creatures. They share many of our emotions, and some of our cognizance. That part allows them to comprehend how human-specific communication signals, our words and gestures, correlate with actions and consequences. But their thinking brain isn’t as developed as ours, and that means that we have to be really clear when we teach. If we’re not, the dog quickly becomes confused and loses interest, and then gets the stupid or willful label.
First, you need to have clarity in your own mind what it is you actually want your dog to learn. My advice is to grab paper and pencil, sit yourselves down with a glass of wine – juice for the kids, and jog down what behaviors are important for you, and what corresponding cue you want to use. One word for one behavior. That is very important. What I often see is an owner who uses the same word for different actions, and expects the dog to sort out what he’s after at the moment and obey accurately. A common example is “come”, used for: return to me from a distance, but also follow me on a leash or let’s move together in one direction. Another one is “off”, used for: stop counter-surfing, stop jumping, and periodically also drop what’s in your mouth.
If you’re ambitious and want to teach many behaviors, come up with many words. Magnet your list on the refrigerator door, so that each family member can easily refer to it and training can be consistent.
If you train using a verbal/hand signal combination, don’t forget to use the hand signal or your dog might be confused. Only the brainiest pooches will respond correctly if you use either/or. All others can learn to, but you need to teach it.
Be equally clear what behavior you are after at the moment, cause that is the one you need to reinforce. That is especially important for the rookie learner and when you teach something new. For example: when you work on a position stay, reward the pooch when she is still in that position, and then release. So, if you think “duration down stay on a mat” and your dog complies, don’t call her to you and reward, because then you reinforce coming, not the duration down stay on a mat. Once your dog has mastered a word with the corresponding action, not before, you can chain several together and reward in the end. Another one is attention around distractions. If it’s attention you want, reinforce attention, regardless if your dog sits, stands or lies down. Once attention is solid, you can add whatever position you like her to be in to the mix.
Can you teach several commands concurrently? Or should one be reliable before you hop to the next? It depends on the dog. Bright and easily bored ones can benefit from being challenged with a variety, while slower learners might find it easier to proceed to a new command only after they grasped the previous one. In any case, even gifted pooches must revise old stuff periodically, but once a command/behavior combination is cemented into their memory, it can be surprisingly long lasting. Davie performed all her Rally O’ stuff after a year and more of not revising. She also remembered where the neighbor’s cat used to roam, and long after they moved still checked the spot.

When you teach, sandwich difficult tasks between easier ones, and always end on a high note. Your dog will remember that training and obeying is fun, and not a drag. And give the pooch a break. Recent studies suggest that dogs retain better if they have a resting period after the session. Like people, sleeping on in might be a good idea.
Another aspect folks are often unclear about is if it is okay to repeat a command. Unlike many of my colleagues, I find repeating acceptable, even advantageous, under certain circumstances. Ideally, a command should only be given when you have your dog’s attention, when she’s tuned in. Realistically, that doesn’t always happen, so in my world it is okay to remind the pooch what we just said, and for that matter, that we really mean it. Yes, it is allowed to crank up the firmness of your voice, but not volume. A herding dog client quizzed me on that not too long ago. He was concerned about repeating and his stern tone when he does, but felt he needed to with his young, still somewhat unripe Border collie who is sometimes slow to "down" because she wants to continue to work her sheep or turkeys. Of course, a herding dog who fails to drop on a dime moves even closer to the animals and might spook and scatter them, so it's important.
On that note, it is also okay to encourage the dog when she’s on the right track but a little nervous, uncertain and hesitant, but use your pleasant voice then, not the firm one. Let’s not forget that Chaser, the Border collie who comprehends 1022 words, needed about 40 repetitions in a row before she connected the dots.
Repeating is okay, machine-gun like orders without giving the dog time and opportunity to obey, is not. Imagine your partner asking you to do something, and releasing verbal diarrhea right after: “do it – do it – doit - doitdoitdoit…”. Annoying? You’d tune that person out real fast, right? Yeah! Back to the dog labeled dumb and stubborn. I have a 20 second rule, which means after that I’ll help my dog succeed.

When you give a command you know your dog knows - and make sure you know, don’t just assume that she understands that signal in the context you are using it - ensure that you are able to enforce it. If you can’t enforce it, don’t give it. And the person who gave the command is the one who does the enforcing. Even if you have better rapport with your dog than your teenager, hold back and don’t interfere.
Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Behavior Analysis at the University of North Texas, coined the term Spoiled Cues, which means that if you say a word but won’t get the behavior, or the dog is reinforced for a different behavior than the one you aim for, the word becomes useless as an information and guidance tool.
For example: you might say heel while the dog pulls you to the fire hydrant. From the dog’s point of view, your heel-word becomes the cue to pull. Or you yell come while she runs in the opposite direction. If that happens often enough, come will be her cue to run away, and you become more and more frustrated and impatient, and your dog senses that and wonders what’s gotten into you, and is even less likely to want to be near you. In her mind, she does exactly what she learned to do when she hears you utter one word, or the other.
Spoiling also happens if the command brings about a negative emotion. If sit on walks is only requested in the context of a worrisome trigger (dog/man/child) approaching, then on walks “sit” becomes the dog’s cue that potential trouble is ahead. The word is spoiled, because it raises suspicion and anxiety. The dog might obey when you can enforce it, but reluctantly, and when she has the chance might refuse because it feels bad.

Training is educating the dog how our words and gestures are relevant to her life. If the pupil doesn’t learn, it is the teacher who has to figure out where the problems are and adjust accordingly. Using force makes as much sense as beating knowledge into a child. Some dogs might need more repetitions than others, or progress more slowly, but with patience every one has the potential and hardware to get it. The beauty is that when that happens, you can manipulate your dog’s behavior from the distance. The mental and emotional bond is what is keeping you connected, and material tools like leash and collar are only there because the law stipulates it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tools of the Trade

When I say tools, I mean all things we use to manipulate our dogs’ actions. The obvious ones are tools that attach the dog to us, or vice versa in some cases, in a physical way: leashes, harnesses, and collars.
When I am out and about with Will, our favorite is to go au naturel: attached by nothing than the emotional bond between us. Like riding bare back how I imagine it. Like Ted and Merle, described in Ted Kerasote’s “Merle’s Door”. In reality, for many person/dog teams that is not always possible, either because owners haven’t done enough training and rely on a leash to keep the pooch out of trouble, or leash laws prohibit such freedoms.
In the olden days, what collar and leash to use was straightforward: mostly choke chain, prong or flat collar sometimes, and a six-foot leash. Done.
Nowadays, we have many choices. The traditional “you-do-or-else” devices are still available, together with the considerably new over-the-counter shock collar, but in addition we have collars in funky colors and fancy materials, collars with a loop that tightens only somewhat around the dog’s neck, and a number of harnesses with various functions. To select the right one can be an overwhelming task for a layperson.
If you're following my posts for a while you probably noticed that I don’t train with discomfort or pain, or the threat of it, and most everyone who comprehends and is committed to positive reinforcement methods agrees with me and opposes choke, shock and prong collars, like I do. A little bit a different story regarding halters that fit around the dog’s nose. They come under different brand names: Halti and Gentle Leader are probably the ones most people are familiar with, and are frequently recommended as an acceptable, dog-friendly tool by progressive trainers, humane societies and veterinarians.
In my opinion, these nose halters are anything but positive. Far from it, they irritate and agitate most pooches to no end. Dogs are stressed and anxious, forever paw their noses, or slide their head along the ground, person or furniture in an attempt to get that thing off. I recently got an email from a client who informed me that they started their spunky juvenile on the Ruff Love program, suggested by Susan Garrett, who is a renowned clicker trainer friends of mine, who I respect a lot, hold in high regard. The Gentle Leader, apparently part of it, caused the pooch to rub her face so much that is swelled in a couple of places, and they wanted to know what they could do to stop her from doing that. Perhaps you can guess what my answer was, and yes, my caring clients took it off and hopefully tossed it in the trash.
Dogs that don’t actively try to remove the nose harness might withdraw and shut down, seem depressed and lifeless. Some shake, urinate or hide as soon as they see that thing.

There are good reasons why dogs reject head halters with such intensity and persistency.
The nose is a very important and sensitive part of a dog’s body. A muzzle grab is a natural correction mom dog and superior elders give, likely because it is effective. One local trainer fitted a 10-week-old, nervous puppy with one with the explanation that it would decrease anxiety since the mother dog corrects that way. Huh? Imagine someone putting a device around a sensitive part of your body and drag you around – or string you up in the air. Would that make you less anxious?
Or allow someone to manipulate your head without telling you which way you should be turning. But be careful, cause a wrong move could leave you with a sore neck, even when you are not yanked. Yanking, though, happens a lot with dogs, which can cause spinal and soft tissue injuries. Yes, I know, the instructions explain how to use it properly, but in real life owners, and some trainers misuse it. I witnessed a high-profile one hang a dog reactive Border Collie on a Gentle Leader, and when I see dogs walked in neighborhoods and parks, I wonder who ever came up with the misnomer. A more appropriate name would have been: Nose Pawing-, Neck Twisting- or Vivacity Extinguishing Leader. Then again, euphemisms are used for anything that sounds nasty enough to make one feel bad.
In addition, the head halter allows the human to control the dog’s head. That is the whole idea behind it. Yet, that is where a lot of communication happens. Dogs use their nose to gather information, and face and head to tell “others” how they feel and what their intentions are. A pooch might want to lower or turn it to give appeasing signals to an oncoming dog or person, but is prevented to. Not being able to “speak” freely increases anxiety, especially in a dog who already might feel leery about certain stimuli. Ironically, it is often the reactive dog that is fitted with a head halter.
Because the sensation the nose halter produces comes very close to a natural correction, there is ample room to mess up your training. A perfect heel or sit, or offered attention, doesn’t change the feel and the dog might still perceive being corrected. Confusing? Yeah! In addition, a dog that’s irritated doesn’t learn very well. I am talking about the deliberate, concentrated learning that takes place in a class, and obedience practiced on walks. It’d be like you expected to focus on quantum physics in a scratchy wool sweater on naked skin.

When a dog is distressed about the head halter, he is conflicted about the walk as well, and by extension you. Maybe he waited all day for you to come home, and then he’s fitted with that thing that feels so unpleasant, and the entire walk becomes a punishment.
Fact is that most dogs hate the Gentle Leader, even when introduced to it carefully. They want to avoid it - and the hand that puts it on. Not good. Dogs should always have a positive association to a human hand, especially when it's close to where the teeth are.
In my line of work I meet many dogs that bite the hand that feeds them, and that is not normal. Observations with feral and stray dogs showed that they don't attack the ones they are bonded with or belong to. Let's not forget that dogs don't have hands, so the only way they relate to hands is how they experience them, like a child would relate to a dog's mouth - and dogs in general, depending on if she was licked or bitten. I am not saying that the Gentle Leader causes dogs to bite, but if hands, on a daily basis or several times a day, poke, jerk, pin, knuckle bite, scruff and/or force a contraption around the pooch's nose that feels so unpleasant, he wants it to stop. The bite, then, is defence, not dominance.
Fact is that some dogs reject a head halter more than a prong collar. Not that I am for prong collars. I don’t like any tool that leaves room for Joe and Jane Frontporch to mess up the pooch and the relationship they ought to have with him, and the prong collar does that - but also the head halter, no matter what brand. If it isn’t perceived as gentle by the dog, it isn’t gentle, and it annoys me that pros who are opposed to other forms of aversive tools continue to promote them.

When me and my Will venture somewhere that requires her to be leashed, I put on her blue body harness and clip on her heart studded, red six-foot soft Italian leather leash I bought in a boutique in Banff, Alberta. Will is a diva and walks in style, but I like the lightness of both. If we can’t go au naturel, I at least want a feel to it as close as possible.
If your dog is really overpowering you, check out body, not nose, harnesses that control the dog from the front. The Sense-Ation harness comes to mind, or the Freedom Harness I just discovered thanks to dog guru Pat Miller, and that I really like. For everyone else, a comfy flat collar or normal body harness, and a light leash kept loose is best, because you prevent restraint anxiety, keep your relationship intact, enhance learning, have physical control, and obey the law.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Temperament Testing

Last month I wrote a post about what I look for in a breeder. This one discusses the natural follow-up question: What do I look for in a dog?
Well, exterior matters. Yes, I am that shallow, but honestly, who can claim that visual attraction doesn’t make it easier to clean up poop and barf or muddy paw prints on the duvet cover, dish out money for stuff the poochini absolutely must have, and go for a walky in pouring rain, freezing temperatures or in the middle of the night. Puppies are so darn cute on purpose. It’s a calculated move so that we fall in love, and care for them even when they’re baaaaad.
Personally, I prefer longer hair to shorter, and medium size dogs to giants and minis. Said that, there are exceptions: I have a great affinity for Newfs and Saints, and shorthaired heelers and Catahoulas – that is because I like the mottled and merled look.
As far as I am concerned, it is okay to value the facade, cause beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Dogs I find irresistibly gorgeous others snub, so in the end every look will find its lover.
Enough superficial talk. Truth is that more than looks, temperament matters. The funny thing is that I like sweet-natured and super friendly pooches, ones that are a bit on the shy, timid and submissive side, and ones that have a certain confident edge. The sweet ones because they are so easy to live with, the shy ones draw out my nurturing instinct, and the ones with attitude I like, hm, difficult to articulate why cause I don’t really know. I just do.
When I look for a pup for meself, I don’t assess consciously because I, blink, know when it’s the right one. That is the best explanation I can give. For layfolk, breeders, humane societies and rescue groups, testing for temperament is a great way to gain valuable information that can increase the odds that a pup finds her best possible human match.

The most common temp. test for puppies is probably the Volhard Aptitude Test. You can Google that if you like, but frankly I don’t like it much. Testing happens when the puppies are 49 days old because they are: “neurologically complete and not yet tainted by learning”. I have no problem with evaluating puppies at 7 weeks of age, but the reason Volhard gives doesn’t make sense to me. Does she mean that a puppy, regardless of breed, prior to the precise 49th day of life, is only governed by his genetic make-up, and only from day 50 onward will experience affect him? Maybe I am slow thinker, but I am not getting it.
What bothers me more though is Volhard’s emphasis to test for dominance and submission. For starters, dogs are innately deferent to humans, but aside from that, do you really believe that rolling a 7-week-old pup on his back, or lifting his front end off the ground, will provide predictable information if he’ll aggressively challenge you sometime in the future? Think about it: here is a pup suddenly separated from his mom and littermates (Volhard recommends that the pups are tested one at a time, and that both tester and testing area are unfamiliar), finds himself in a new setting and is handled by a complete stranger, and if he struggles when coerced on his back or lifted, he gets the “dominant” label. What you are really measuring is anxiety and fear, not dominance. The puppy who is most insecure might panic and do everything to get away, including bite.
According to experts, dominance toward dogs can’t accurately be determined at that age either. Mech, the ultimate authority on wolves, couldn’t in wolf pubs, and “The Domestic Dog” states that the relationship amongst dog littermates is highly unstable until they are about 11 weeks old. In studies, they found that today’s top pup is often tomorrow’s bottom one.
Another part of Volhard’s aptitude test I dislike is squeezing the webbing between the puppy’s toes to check for touch sensitivity and pain threshold to determine what kind of training is required. If you’ve followed my writings for a while, you may have noticed that I am one of those imbalanced, close-minded people who promote only one kind of training – motivational positive reinforcement. But for a balanced trainer who applies every method and uses every tool, including a variety of aversive ones, how a pup responds to pressure and pain is important information, cause a “dominant” dog who resists coercive handling AND is unimpressed and undeterred by an unpleasant consequence can present a challenge for these people. Since I don’t train with force and pain, testing what it takes to make a puppy whimper is not needed. In fact, the last thing I want is that the first learning experience (on day 49) a pup has in association with a stranger is tainted.

I don’t follow Volhard’s recommendations, but like her I evaluate each puppy separately. Testing doesn’t have to take place in an unfamiliar space, and I request the human caregiver to be present, because a very important trait I am checking for is social bonding and willingness to seek information from a human. Owner attention is the foundation of all training. Because I am a brand new person, I don’t expect the wee baby to instantly connect with me (although some do), follow me, or even “work for me” and retrieve a crumbled piece of paper I tossed, but he should connect with the caregiver: offer eye contact, check in, and follow the person he is familiar with – periodically, and especially when in conflict and confused.
A puppy that curiously investigates me right away, and only rarely checks in with the caregiver, indicates confidence. Conversely, one who is reluctant to approach me and seeks refuge with the familiar person is cautious. Neither is necessarily problematic. Unlike the word dominance that raises a red flag in people, confidence simply means that the pup is more outgoing and less prone to be fearful. Since most behavioral issues are rooted in fear and anxiety, and not dominance, confidence isn’t a bad thing. Caution isn’t either, but it means that the pup’s exposure to new situations needs to be done carefully, that’s all.
More troublesome is a pup who is neither curious in me, nor in the caregiver, but panics right away and wants to flee. That was the case with one in the last litter I assessed. She couldn’t be consoled or redirected, just wanted to get out of dodge. Furthermore, when we took her back to her littermates and mom, she didn’t seek closeness with them either, but stayed a distance away – hiding. That pup I was worried about, but I can tell you that she was adopted into the best possibly family.
Once a pup trusts me, I check what motivates him. Finding out what floats his boat is important info for motivational trainers, and owners who wanna be the alpha, cause whoever controls the resources is boss. Making access to whatever the dog wants contingent on behavior is the most effective and humane way to train, and the fasted route to authentic companionship with the human in the lead.
Anything is possible with a pup that is curious, motivated, eager to connect with his human and seeking information from her, so that is really all I need to know. But I also handle the pup - his body, head, face, ears, feet and tail, and if he rolls on his back voluntarily I will make note of that. There is nothing wrong with a dog that is authentically submissive, but I don’t force it. I do lean slightly over the pup though, because a) I am a natural leaner anyway, and b) most people are and will lean over a puppy. Handling and leaning lets me know if there is a problem zone that warrants extra attention, and maybe desensitizing or counterconditioning.
Because I check for motivation, I come equipped with food and toys. Once I found something the puppy really, really likes, I withhold it to assess frustration level, inhibition, determination and self-control.
Lastly, but most importantly, I always get the caregiver’s observations. They are with the puppies daily, and should be aware if one is particularly sound or motion sensitive, often seeks distance from others, or regularly possess over food and other stuff.

Although I don’t believe that 49-day-old puppies are uncorrupted by experiences during the imprinting period, what older dogs learned based on their interactions with people and dogs are much more deep-seated. A dog can have learned to be suspicious, guarded, aloof, reactive, fake-submissive or aggressive when those behaviors were reinforced. In addition, there are a variety of physical issues that influence behavior, but that evaluators might not be aware of or pay any attention to. The dog could be hungry, wormy, itchy, sore, or hormonally imbalanced. For example, progesterone has a calming, sedative effect, and a female shortly after being spayed can be more aggressive due to the progesterone drop.
So, a temp. test done with a stray or surrendered older dog might not reveal his authentic personality and true potential. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to assess anyway, and most shelters do, because it reveals tendencies and extreme expressions. Most shelters adopted Volhard, Emily Weiss, or Sue Sternberg’s way of testing.
Like the Puppy Aptitude test, Volhard emphasizes dominance and recommends putting a dog in a down position and then rolling him on his back. Although it’s not funny, her conclusion that “if he bites he is not the dog for you” made me grin. Who’da thought! She also says that if he runs away he is also not a dog for you. He is supposed to lick your face when you sit beside him and forgive you.
I also dislike Emily Weiss’ SAFER test. It is short, sets dogs up to fail, and some are euthanized for objecting having the webbing between their toes squeezed. Darn dogs who dare to struggle when pain is applied.
Emily Weiss, like Sue Sternberg, assesses for resource guarding. Sue Sternberg developed that test, and the Assess-A-Hand, a rubber, real looking hand on a stick that is used to push the food bowl away, or the dog’s face away from the food, or to pet the dog across his back while he eats. In other words, first the dog is offered high value food he typically doesn’t get, and then is taunted with the hand to evaluate how he reacts. That the pooch perhaps experienced neglect and hunger, had to fight to survive, and might be anxious because he is aware that other dogs, potential resource competitors, are in the vicinity, is typically not taken into account if he growls, snaps or bites the hand.
You might have guessed, I dislike that test as well. Aside from the fact that it sets dogs up to fail, passing it isn’t a clear indication that he would not defend resources other than food. He could not be hungry or not liking the food, he might be too stressed to eat or senses the tester’s confidence, doesn’t feel good, or is generally not that food motivated. Once in a home and moved from his favorite resting spot, or approached when he has a yummy bone dug from the compost, or confronted by a child and real hand, he could react. And the opposite often also is the case: a dog who growled in the shelter stops aggressing once he is relaxed in a home and experiences resource security; trusts that food is always available and not contested.
Said that, I do like to get an idea how a dog feels about resources, but add food to the bowl while the dog eats, instead of pushing him away. A person approaching is enough for an insecure dog to become tense, and that is really all I need to know: is my dog fearful to lose a resource when a person approaches, and if yes, I need to address it on that level – from the point of fear and insecurity, not dominance. By adding food, I at least won't make matters worse and confirm to him once more that people near his loot is bad news.
The point with any test is to determine as accurately as possible how a dog behaves in normal, every day life situations. That is really all one can do because one can never test for every possible eventuality. Regarding food, real life is casually talking and using the space where the dog eats, because the family getting ready in the morning while the pooch has his breakfast in the kitchen resembles what happens in many homes. Common sense dictates that other than that, a dog should be left to eat in peace. Supervising, and educating children when, and when not to pat the dog, is the parents’ job and part of good dog ownership.

Like with the pup, when I evaluate an older dog I want to know his level of interest in humans, and his willingness to follow them mentally. Is the dog curious about me? Offers eye contact and connects with his caregiver? If yes, is he clingy? Does he switch attention between me, and his familiar person? Or is he avoiding and ignoring us, fixating on the environment?
Like with the pup, I want to find out what motivates him, and then I withhold access to see to what length he goes to gain access. Does he back away a tad, look at me and submissively solicit? Is he pushy – if yes does he back off when I walk into his space? Is he persistent? Or does he lose interest quickly and walk away? Does he offer obedience behaviors he has in his repertoire? Does he look at the caregiver for information?
I handle the dog as much as I can safely, and without causing pain try to find something that annoys him, to find out to what length he goes to make me stop. And like leaning over a puppy because most people do that, I check how my adult feels when I grab his collar, cause most people will do that, too. That is real life.
And I try to rile him up to see what it takes for him to settle.
Again, like with the puppy, the best evaluation comes from the people who interact daily with the pooch. Ideally, there should be a log kept for each shelter dog, and every person who interacts with that dog should make entries right afterward.
How dogs act can depend on the person they are interacting with. Some behave differently with assertive humans or good handlers; know the difference between experts and rookies. A variety of people noting their experiences gives clearer information how the dog will act with someone who is less skilled, and writing it down might show a pattern of behaviors easily missed with just oral communication.
The goal of any testing is to find the perfect match between dog and the people he’s going to live with for the next decade or more. Because most people in North America live in urban and suburban settings, that is where shelter staff and volunteers should walk and observe.
How does the dog use his senses? Sniffs, listens, watches? Is he connecting to the handler around environmental distractions? Voluntarily, or with prompting? What do I have to do to get his attention when: there is a dog, cyclist, child playing?
Does the dog want to chase things in motion? If yes, can I redirect him? What does it take?
Is my dog easily startled, or trigger reactive - to dogs, kids, men? How? Avoiding, lunging, barking? What is the distance and time before my dog relaxes again?

When I test I keep each dog’s unique genetic make-up and individual past experiences in mind, and always aim to contribute to his welfare, instead of adding to his stress. I don’t want my puppy to learn that unfamiliar humans mean pressure and discomfort, and I don’t want to increase a shelter dog’s anxiety by provoking him until I get an unwanted reaction. Increased stress, decreased trust, and negative associations to a training type facility where assessments often take place, or people that do them, add extra hurdles the well-meaning family that adopts the pooch has to overcome.
How valuable of a future behavior predictor is a temperament test? Definitely not conclusive, because behavior is always dictated by a combination of nature, nurture and present environment – some say predominantly present environment, which of course is dynamic.
So, the purpose really is to find out if the dog is likely going to be a safe and enjoyable companion for his humans and society at large, and if there are issues, what it would likely take to modify them. It is not, and can’t be, a guaranty for life that the dog, in every conceivable situation, will never cause problems.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Summer Fun and Training Games

Splish-Splash, we had a blast. Literally, cause we vacationed on Cape Breton Island this summer. In case you don’t know, Cape Breton, according to the Travel and Leisure Magazine, is the number one island in North America, and third in the world right behind Santorini in Greece, and Bali. Lucky us, we live only a 3-hour car trip away and can visit anytime we want. The mag’s accolades reminded us that we should, and decided to book a chalet at the Cabot Shores Wilderness Resort – and we were wowed. Our Red Chalet had ocean view and access, location allowed day-tripping in every direction, their seafood chowder was the best I ever had, and it gets better yet: Cabot Shores is dog friendly. Really dog friendly, not just dog accommodating, and that is priority for us because we never travel without our canine sidekick Will. Even the owners’ dog Cosmo was dog friendly.
Time flies when it’s good is an old adage, and now we’re back, summer is over, and I am hard at work like most people. But unlike many, I don’t perceive the daily trot as a drag. I’ll let you in on a secret: I love work more than vacation, and wish it could be like that for everyone. Humans have choices, and the power to at least aim for daily happiness. Dogs don’t. Their welfare is at our mercy, and therefore it is our duty to make choices that make their life rewarding, purposeful, and free of fear and anxiety. How to train is a big part of that, and I am not just talking about cute tricks, but obedience commands. Things that every dog should know.
I said it before and say it again: positive is not permissive. I like an obedient dog as much as the next person, but force and stern structure is against my nature, so when a friend introduced me to an “Obedience & Games” class in the late 90s I was hooked, and so was Davie, and I embraced playful methods ever since.
Coming when called was perhaps the first behavior taught in a fun way on a large scale. Logically, because it is crucial that a dog reliably returns on command, and that is most likely to happen when he actually wants to do that. Today, fun reliable recall classes are super popular and have sprouted up everywhere.
Next in importance are polite leash manners. Not pulling towards something the dog wants to investigate, just like returning to his person when there’s something interesting out there, isn’t natural. That is why it needs to be taught, and just like the recall, walking on a loose leash is also most reliable if the pooch actually wants to be next to his person. Make yourself attractive by changing directions often and abruptly, and playfully pitch your voice and clap your hands to entice your dog to follow. When he’s caught up and is happily attentive, reinforce - ideally with continuation of the game. Your dog will quickly learn that the best place to be is no more than 3-4 feet away from you.
In my world, communication doesn’t come through a leash in form of a correction, but through the person. By using voice and body, the pooch learns to pay attention to the owner, instead of relying on the leash. Once mastered, you’ll get the same desirable behavior on and off, because neither you, nor your dog, are leash dependent. Plus, the dog doesn’t form a negative association to it, and so it never triggers anxiety and resistance. That is especially important if your dog is a tad nervous about certain stimuli in the environment already. If he is worried about the “dangerous” man or child, and doesn’t trust the leash on top of that, chances are much higher that he will freak out and react in panic. Compare that to a dog where the leash is perceived as neutral, or better yet the cue for feeling safe and having controlled fun.
A game that forces you to get, and keep, your dog’s attention with verbal and hands-off non-verbal communication is balancing a golf ball on a spoon in your leash hand. Of course, the slightest tug causes the ball to bounce off. When that happened in class, it typically incited minor chaos cause every dog wanted to chase, which embarrassed the person who started it all by using the leash for communication, and she learned quickly to use her voice and body instead. At home, you can set up your own obstacle course to navigate, or booby trap our walking area with delightful distractions, for example with a ham sandwich.
Dog trainers are in reality teachers for humans. Think about it, a trainer typically sees the pooch an hour a week over the span of 8 weeks, the average course length. That means he is with the trainer for 8 hours and his person for 1.344, cause the person is also present during the 8 hours training class. Your guess who should do the educating. The owner just needs to know how.
One aspect that people have difficulty comprehending and remembering is that dogs, especially rookies, are context specific, which means that they perform an action only the way they learned it. To hone that in, I played “speed-sit” in my beginner class.
Sit is often the first position a dog learns, and is typically taught with the pooch sitting facing the person. As soon as I was certain that all dogs got it and connected the verbal command with butt on the ground, I asked the owners to see how many repetitions they could pack in a 2-minute span. So, the person gave the command, dog sat, and the moment he did person walked a couple of steps backwards, which naturally got the pooch up again, to be commanded right away back into a sit, and so on. As an incentive, there was a treat to be had for the winning sitter’s human, except I rarely got to hand it over because most people concentrated so intensely on winning that they forgot to count. Which was fine, because I didn’t really care how many times a dog sat in 2 minutes. What I was after was to teach that even if a dog hears the same word many times in a row, and correctly performs the corresponding behavior, he doesn’t necessarily understand the meaning of the word. To demonstrate that, right after the speed-sit was over I took each dog’s leash, asked the owner to turn around so that the dog was facing her back, and command the pooch once more into a sit. To everyone’s surprise, most dogs didn’t - because they knew sit in only one context: facing the person. Lesson learned: If you want your dog to listen to you anytime, anywhere and when you change positions, you need to teach it.

While many folks regret that summer is over for another year, the good times continue for me and Will. And it can be the same for you, or at least for your dog. That reliable obedience doesn’t have to be a struggle is an easy choice to make. And command games don’t have to be reserved for group classes. You can have fun everyday and anywhere. It sharpens your dog’s command responses, and strengthens your relationship with one another. Teaching tricks is good, and some trainers use that to liven up the class, but imagine if your dog would love doing behaviors that matter most in day-to-day life as much as performing tricks; if he’d enjoy being on the leash more than being off. It’s the canine equivalent of me loving work more than vacation. Your reward: a reliably obedient, and at the same time happy to be with you, pawed companion.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Got Puppy on your Mind?

Okay, I admitted it to myself. I have puppy on my mind. No, not a specific pup. And not now. After a few months observing almost 10-year-old Will, we are certain that as far as she is concerned we have enough dog. She doesn’t enjoy the prolonged companionship of an adult one, and puppies go on her nerves. Will wants to be our only canine sidekick for a while, and what Will wants, Will gets. It’s always been that way.
While hubby Mike and our daughter Yana look before they leap – me not so much, although I am getting better at it. Life taught me that acting on impulse sometimes creates little fires that require extinguishing. Although in the end things always seem to turn out just the way they’re meant to, could I turn back time I might have made a few different choices. Moving forward, especially with something that affects me for a decade or more, I try to make decisions more rationally than emotionally – or at least equally as rationally. And that means that when the time is right, and we fall head over heels for a pup like we did with Davie, we’ll have a pup and not before.
My friend Ann recently remarked, while we were planning a heist to abduct a blue merle mini Aussie we met at the September 03 Mutt Show in Windsor, that no matter how many dachshunde she’d have, she still needed an Australian shepherd. I share that sentiment wholeheartedly. So an Aussie we’re aiming for, Mike and I, and although she is a future aspiration, it doesn’t hurt looking around some now, right? Keeping in the loop what’s out there.

While the public at large is bombarded with all kinds of dog-related info, some factual and much fictitious, what to look for in a breeder is trickling at best.
Recently, clients of mine asked for my help in rehoming their young dog. Nice humans with the best intentions to do things right. They investigated food and the dog was vetted. He lived inside, was crate trained and never chained. He had toys and social inclusion, playtime, walks and training and was loved. Nice dog too - friendly, motivated, obedient, attentive and smart. He also wanted to do things right. Great people. Great dog. So why the need to rehome? Because dog and humans were totally mismatched. The people wanted a low-key companion that more or less hangs out with them. The dog is a Border collie under a year old from working stock. What kind of breeder sells a Border collie to people that would be a wonderful home for an older golden retriever? One who only cares about the bottom line. That kind. Of course, when my clients contacted him with their concerns, before they hired me, he wasn’t available to offer any help.
Would you buy a puppy from someone who advertises: "Sell my puppies to anyone who opens their wallet. No references or qualifications needed. I do not care where my puppies end up, or how they are treated, so don’t bother calling me after you handed over the moolah."
I am sure if you were to survey the general public if dog breeders should breed for health and temperament, or looks and to make money, the majority would choose the former. It’s a no-brainer. In reality, and that’s the problem, unscrupulous breeders don’t advertise that they like money more than dogs, and so the majority has trouble distinguishing good from bad ones.

Health is straightforward. Either the pup’s bloodline has been screened and cleared of common congenital diseases, or it hasn’t, and a good breeder offers that information.
Temperament is a bit more vague. The above-mentioned Border collie has a wonderful, very breed-typical personality. High drive and high brain, intense stimulation seeking, determination, endurance, strength, or even a heightened awareness to motion, sounds and smells, or acting independently, aren’t in themselves bad attributes. They are only troublesome when such a dog ends up with incompatible humans.
There is one huge red flag though. Aggression. The kind where mother dog is indiscriminately reactive and tries to attack everybody and anybody who walks by or enters the property, has a bite history, needs to be muzzled when vet checked, can’t be walked in the neighborhood, go on a trail hike, or partake in activities like dog sports. It is a huge red flag if the puppy’s potential new owners cannot interact with mom dog because it is too dangerous, or if they don’t see her because she is put away in the kennel, crate or yard. If aggression is hereditary or not is debatable. Regardless, if the pups’ social imprinting period happens with an asocial mother, and in a place that breeds a dog who’s behavior isn’t sound, I walk away.

We have a breeder in mind for our next Aussie girl. Their dogs are fabulous. They excel in conformation, agility, obedience and Rally O’, but are foremost companions and go for walks, to beaches and dog parks. They are friendly and approachable. The breeders love their dogs, and don’t give them away when they age and become less “useful”. The seniors get to live where they always lived, and get to do things they still love and can do.
If you are like me and want a companion who lives in the house, where do you think the pups should be raised? Yup, in the house. Not the barn, kennel, garage or basement, but underfoot where people live, come and go, where the doorbell rings and where there are normal household sounds, like a vacuum cleaner. In the house, but not only the in house. I also want my pup, during her most impressionable first few weeks of life, to experience that there is an outside world; want her to experience what a collar, a leash and car-ride feels like. Of course, our fav local Aussie breeders take care of that as well. Their pups are also well started on potty and crate training.
Although we hope that when we are ready that they have a litter planned not too far in the future – they don’t have puppies all the time which is another sign of a good breeder, and trust us with one of their precious babies, I also love googling breeders for fun. I can pretty much tell on the home page if I like someone or not. The good ones' sites are more informative and less commercial, and make it clear right away that just because someone can afford a pup doesn’t mean they get one of theirs. Good breeders specify, right on their site, that potential buyers need to qualify, and have a link to a form anyone interested can fill out. The form typically has a section for references.
Good breeders often don’t have puppies readily available, but put approved homes on a waiting list. They provide a contract with a health and behavioral guaranty, are always willing to answer questions before and after the purchase, and in case the owner isn’t able to care for the dog any longer will take the pooch back – in fact stipulate that the dog must be returned to them.

One question I never ask right away is the price of the puppy. Not that I am rich and money doesn’t matter, but it is the least important aspect. Good breeding and money doesn’t rule each other out, but greed rules out good breeding.
Good breeders’ priority is the welfare of every single dog they own and produce. They have more expenses because they care, and typically deserve every penny they are asking. Bad breeders priority is the bottom line, and they don’t give a rat’s tail about what happens to their puppies. Let me be clear, every puppy has the right to live and a life, and many born in dubious places turn into wonderful companions, but some don't, or it is a long uphill path peppered with financial, emotional and mental hurdles – and possible heartaches.
I wish I could say that the mismatched Border collie is an isolated case, but it isn’t. Many of the people I see have problems with their dogs that began when they chose the wrong one for their lifestyle and the breeder didn’t attempt to educate and steer them to a different breed. Or they ended up with a pup who, because of deliberate mistakes made in breeding and rearing, lands on their doorsteps with issues. Wouldn’t it be great if more and more people would support good, knowledgeable and conscientious breeders with their hard-earned dollars? Doesn’t everyone – the dogs, the owners and the breeders, deserve that?

In some countries, breeding is strictly regulated. There are laws and inspectors that protect dogs and potential owners. Not the case anywhere here in North America. Here it is buyer beware.
To help the layperson separate wheat from chaff, I am offering a new, very affordable, service. You can find details on my webpage
Look for: Got Puppy on your Mind?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Intraspecific Competition

A major reason why owners ask for professional help is because their pooch is aggressive toward other dogs. The reason, and that might surprise you, is often not because they lacked socialization, but exactly the opposite. Dogs react to dogs because they know them.
Intraspecific competition occurs when individuals of one species live in the same environment and require the same resources for survival. That is, of course, the case with dogs. Despite breed variations, they are all dogs occupying the same ecological niche in our midst; relying on the same doggie must-haves - material goods like food, water, bones and toys, but also something less tangible, but of paramount importance all the same: A safe (from the dog’s point of view) place to live.
A 3-year feral dog study in Italy revealed many interesting behaviors that counter popular belief. One is that they guard and fight over possessions. Granted, guarding food, a bone or toy is something we can observe with our owned dogs, but that doesn’t mean it’s natural. It didn’t seem to be with these feral ones, because the only time they acted aggressively was when their home resting area was intruded on. Not the much larger roaming range, or nearby community garbage dump feeding site, just where they hung out and slept. Safe chilling space was what mattered most, not stuff in it, and it was only defended against other dogs, not humans. The observations suggest that dogs have an intrinsic, normal awareness that same species outsiders jeopardize the safe home base, and that gives us food for thought regarding our dogs.
When we invite a new pooch into our home, we expect the existing canine dweller to be as welcoming as we are and are miffed when he is less thrilled. We might be able to deal with a little bossiness, or sulky retreat, but not with growling, lunging and snapping. Out of our own fear we assign labels not only to his actions, but his personality. The expressions become who he is: aggressive, dominant, pathological. With a disapproving undertone we judge, incognizant that his behavior might be stemming from the innate feeling that the interloper is endangering his security.
Our incomprehension how the dog feels is surprising. After all, we too have a strong sense of territory, our safe space within the home boundary. When was the last time you invited a stranger for dinner and handed him the house keys afterwards? We have such an unwillingness to give up something we already own that behavioral economists have a term for it: loss aversion. People go ape when they whiff competition. Real or imagined, our survival instinct kicks in and we feel threatened. It is not any different with dogs, except when we call the cops, bang our chests, or fetch the shotgun they, lacking opposable thumbs and human language, lunge, bark or bite.
The Italian feral dogs’ “get lost” signals were highly ritualized: barking and charging only, no violent attacks and nobody got hurt. With our owned dogs we can see more intense expressions, and that doesn’t surprise me. For starters, the feral ones were successful with their displays and the intruders hit the road. So they never had to turn it up a notch.
Also, there was security in the group they belonged to. What I mean is that they cooperatively drove outsiders away. That working together is often amiss in our dogs’ realities. They are corrected and punished by the ruling pack-alpha for being “not nice”, or they are on their own when everyone else it at work.
If the person fails to provide a secure home base, the dog can develop a heightened sensitivity to anything new. Novel encounters already can be problematic for dogs, because they, by nature, thrive on predictability and routine – that is why we must socialize wisely, a topic for another post - but it can turn into a real issue if one feels insecure at the very same place that should be a refuge. He becomes inflexible and rigid, can never fully relax and always is under the surface agitated. Any novel encounter, any sound, jeopardizes predictability in his mind, and with it the little bit of safety he feels when nothing happens. He overreacts with seemingly out of context and out of control intensity.

It is not unusual for rescue dogs, having experienced losses, to become more competitive as they become more bonded in a new home. Living the good life, they increasingly have more to lose. At the same time, the residence dog might have his nose out of joint already with the arrival of the interloper, and if the rookie gets all the attention, or is a brute who hogs resources or pushily butts in, animosity builds quickly.
Whenever life worsens for a dog with the appearance of another; whenever he experiences physical pain or loses a possession, and keep in mind that social inclusion is a most valued one, the already natural sense that members of his own kind spell trouble is confirmed. The pooch develops an existential fear he associates with one dog in particular, or dogs in general, and the stage for future interdog aggression is set. One incident can have a long-lasting impact. And it doesn’t matter if the other dog just happened to be there, if it is correlation. In the dog’s mind it is cause and effect.
Our behavior influences our dog’s. We have the power to make things worse, but fortunately also better. If we want friendliness, including on home turf, we have to turn competition into cooperation, and the first impression is crucial because it lays the foundation for the relationship. To prevent an antagonistic one, the dogs should be on a loose leash and introduced keeping a distance that ensures that each one feels comfortable. They’re the ones who should choose when to move closer. Allow them to communicate freely, which means don’t manipulate their body, don’t correct their actions, and don’t force the relationship.
Powerlessness over one’s actions causes frustration and anxiety; choice and information decrease both. Proceeding at the dog’s comfort level is choice. Explaining to the dog how his world works in a way he understands is information. In the context of intraspecific competition it is, for example, making it clear to each dog whose turn for social attention and interaction, a much desired resource dogs often compete over, it is. Addressing the one you’re about to interact with by name, turning your body toward him, and then focusing only on him teaches that he doesn’t need to compete, and all others that butting in is pointless. When you’re about to disengage, tell him that with a trained word (Off-Switch post August 12/2010), and then switch your attention to the next dog. Yo-yo back and forth, so that no pooch feels left out and gets frustrated. Forget about superficial dominance rituals, like who should be fed first. It is fairness, and understanding what each dog needs to feel secure in his home, and then providing it, that eliminates competition.

Collaborating with humans is natural for dogs, cause they practiced it since some 14.000 years. Even so, I have witnessed competition directed at people, but it is not normal. Rather, it is learned. It is an artificially instilled anxiety when humans, in the name of misunderstood dominance, forcefully take things from a dog.
Dogs are inherently deferent to humans, and resources dogs and people have a common interest in, namely space and people food, are automatically under human control. I admit, with some dogs it doesn’t seem that way, but to clarify that we indeed are the ones with the bank account and big brain is rather easy and doesn’t require any force. Stuff that’s not important for people they shouldn't artificially challenge. Honestly, do you really want the bowl of Kibbles and Bits? Then why are you taking it away?
Dogs are inherently deferent to humans, but not so to dogs. All stuff is potentially up for grabs and contestable. In addition, other than being potential rivals, dogs are rather irrelevant for pooches that are cared for by humans. And what is irrelevant can be eliminated. I bet a bag of dried green tripe that when an old and feeble dog is attacked by one he lived with for many years that their relationship was always undermined by antagonism and suppressed anger.
If we want harmonious cohabitation, we have to make dogs relevant to each other. And keep in mind that competition doesn’t have to be played out aggressively. You can have a dog that withdraws, shuts down and gives up without a fight. The anxiety, albeit expressed in, for human criteria, more acceptable ways, is nevertheless felt and very real.
Task activities, like walks and games, make dogs relevant to one another and foster cooperation. Together is one key word, and rewarding is the other. Remember, life has to be better because the other dog is near.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dogs and their Teeth

Bite inhibition refers to the degree of pressure a dog applies when she wraps her teeth around someone. Evidently that is über-important, because having mouth control, or lacking it, makes the difference between no teeth marks, a slight bruise, or injury.
The common belief is that bite inhibition is set in young puppy hood, and although it is true that littermates stop playing, and elders reprimand when the little brute is rough with her teeth, it doesn’t mean that from then on, for her whole life, in every situation, the level with which she bites is invariable.
I argue that bite inhibition isn’t a constant, and only partly determined by early experiences. The other two factors are inherent disposition and intent.
By disposition I mean that cautious born dogs are naturally more careful what they do with their teeth than confident ones hardwired to taking risks.
By intent I mean that mouth pressure is very much under the dog’s deliberate control. For instance, a bite directed at someone - person, dog or cat - the dog has no social bond with, or is not dependent on, can be less inhibited because there is no need to keep that someone around, or alive. Let me give you an example.
Not long ago a client called me because her 95-pound pooch injured a person quite seriously. The victim was the owner’s business associate and not a complete stranger to the dog, but also not someone who appeared to be of any relevance. The owner purposely tried to instill a neutral association to people in general, and had asked everyone but close friends and family to follow the Dog Whisperer’s advice: no touch, no talk, no eye contact. The expectation was that the pooch would learn to perceive humans at large as irrelevant encounters and leave them alone. That approach was only somewhat successful because he remained alert, and occasionally barked and growled at one person or another, but never bit until the aforementioned business partner raised his arm; inadvertently, talking with his hands to add clarity to something he verbally explained. In a flash, the dog lunged up and inflicting a wound that required a good number of stitches.
I confess that, unlike some trainers, I do mind when a dog bites me. I feel just like the next person: it’s not pleasant and can put me out of working order for a while, and because I am tad obsessed with my work that is a big deal. Knowing the level of damage that dog had caused, I requested that he be leash-managed (not leash-corrected) and muzzled when I arrived for our appointment in the client’s home. When I entered, he seemed under physical control, but was hyperacutely aware of my presence and growled at my every move. “Seemed under physical control” might give you a hint what happened next. The owner, annoyed with his dog's behavior, yanked on the leash, which riled him up more and he lunged forward, and the person lost control. At the same time the ill-fitted muzzle came off. I spare you the details how I felt when the dog charged in my direction, but thankfully I wasn’t emotionally unstable for long cause he was more interested in sniffing my backpack on the floor than getting rid of me.
The panicked, and at the same time angered by his dog’s resistance and disobedience, owner caught up quickly and, before I had a chance to tell him to let his pooch sniff, grabbed him by his collar to pull him away, and he, objecting to that interruption, swung around and seized his arm - but didn’t clamp down. Not even a tooth mark. He didn’t injure on purpose, because the owner is a social group member and important for his survival. He means something, and the business partner didn’t and could, from the dog’s point of view, be harmed. Inhibition with one, but not the other, is intent rather than something born with or acquired as a pup.
Deliberate reserve was also the case with an owner-surrendered German shepherd I once assessed at a humane society. Calm and relaxed when I entered his run, his mood shifted instantly when I reached for his collar to clip the leash on. He jumped, took hold of my leash arm and tensely held a position of: paws on my chest, arm in his mouth, while directly staring at me. Although there was very little pressure, it was unmistakably a warning for me to stop what I was doing, and he did not release until I lured him back to the ground with a treat in my other hand. Why he didn’t bite harder still mystifies me, but perhaps he never had to make a stronger, clearer point because people heeded to his subtlety. Despite the lack of injury he was, in my opinion, a dangerous dog.
The argument that it is the degree of damage that distinguishes a safe dog from one who isn’t doesn’t fly with me. A dog who warns a lot is a risk. Of course, one who only bites once but sends his target to the hospital or vet clinic is more hazardous, but in a society that finds growling unacceptable, a dog who only intimidates or gets into minor scraps, but all the time, isn’t tolerated. There is more. Dogs that attack often typically have a heightened sensitivity, a strong startle reflex, and an overreaction to a wide variety of stimuli. Easily set off, they can be a challenge for the layowner. When pressured, the arousal level goes up, bite inhibition down, and a more serious bite incident might be just around the corner. The realistic outcome for a biting dog, regardless of inhibition, often is euthanasia - or worse a lonely life in a run somewhere, being physically abused, or being passed on from place to place to place.
I haven’t met a dog yet who hasn’t got any control over his mouth to a certain degree. A naturally hard dog can be gentle when it matters, and a soft biter can clamp down hard when overwhelmed with a situation. Anytime a dog’s teeth connect with a human or inflict injury to another dog, the owner should seek professional help, but not with the goal to learn how to punish harder than the dog can bite, but how to create the kind of environment that makes her feel like she doesn’t have to.
Aggression is never the cause, but always the symptom. The symptom that something in the dog’s life isn’t working for her. To investigate what it is that isn’t working, and to find solutions how it works better, is my idea of professional help. The dog trainer’s role should be to coach owners how to create an environment that is harmonious and rewarding for every member in the social group. Yup, that takes effort. It is much easier to hand the pooch over to someone who “fixes” the symptoms, like we might bring the car to the mechanic or laptop to the computer geek, than to address and change the cause(s) for aggression. Fortunately for dogs more people than you might think are up for the task. Sometimes we hold owners to a low standard – and we shouldn’t. I expect a lot from my clients, and am rarely disappointed. When they have the “tools” - in quotation marks because I am talking about a philosophy and lifestyle choice rather than certain kinds of collars, they apply and implement them.
Although every dog has the potential to bite, and will in a perfect storm situation, a safe (in the dog’s mind) environment, combined with specific training that teaches her alternate to biting behaviors when she’s charged up, communication between dog and owner that works, and savvy management, are the best insurance that she won’t become a liability.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Totally Wound Up

I read a lot. If you could peek into our home you’d see books everywhere, in every room of the house, including bathroom one, two and three. Plus I have a book in the car’s glove compartment just in case I arrive at my destination a few minutes early. If you’d call my behavior obsessive, you would be correct cause one identifying aspect of obsession is that the more you do it, the more you need to do it, and that certainly is true for me and reading.
Dogs can be obsessive too. A veterinarian friend and I discussed that once, and he said that dogs can’t be OCD, compulsive obsessive, because they miss the compulsive preoccupation of thinking impeding thoughts, but they can be obsessed with a certain action they repeat over and over again, to the point of exhaustion or self-mutilation.
Some dogs are neurotic because they have very poor welfare and endlessly spin, lick, or chew their own leg or tail. Humans drive dogs to insanity when they use them as breeding machines or completely neglect them, treat them erratically or cruelly punish.
Some dogs are wound up because they live with incompatible, albeit well-meaning people. They are task specialists with an intense drive to act on what they were selectively bred for. The Border collie comes to mind, who, in the wrong home and in lieu of sheep, fixates on a replacement activity, for example a ball, light flickers or shadows, and gets stuck in a behavior, like chasing or zoning in.
There is nothing wrong with a dog that’s super motivated, but the difference is that he is able to relax once his needs are fulfilled, compared to the obsessed one who remains zoned in, strung out and is chronically overwrought and antsy.
Dogs that are out-of-control wingy are a reality in my world. Not in my home thankfully, but many of my clients’ dogs are wound tight and spring loaded, and typically because they are anxious, overly stimulated, or not at all. The expressions are many: incessant barking, whining, destructiveness, excessive water consumption, restless pacing and panting, and pushy attention seeking. Another sign that a dog is too pumped is a hard mouth. With increased arousal level, the inhibition decreases, including bite inhibition.
Such a dog can be very taxing on people’s nerves - and irritating for other dogs as well, who either become anxious themselves, or attempt to control and correct the “crazy” one to change the situation.

Thanks to a popular TV show, under-stimulation is often blamed as the reason for unruliness, and thus many a frustrated owner cranks the physical exercise regime up in hopes it tuckers the pooch out. It’s true that if no purposeful activity is provided; if the working dog isn’t given a job, he is forever bored and stimulation seeking - and a nuisance, but just as frequently, in fact more often, the opposite is the root for obnoxious behaviors, including the inappropriate use of mouth and teeth.
Both “Stress in Dogs” by Martina Scholz and Clarissa von Reinhardt, and “Control Unleashed” by Leslie McDevitt, state that overly stimulated dogs are more reactive than under-stimulated ones, and based on my own experiences, I concur.
Unceasing exposure to sounds, sights or smells, always being patted, hugged or stroked, or constantly doing something, including fun stuff, is not natural. In “Shadow Syndromes”, John J. Ratey, M.D., explains that almost any excess – physical, mental or social, can overwhelm the cerebral cortex and drive an animal into the limbic, the emotional and reactive realm. And a survey conducted in Germany found that the less a dog rests, the lower his stress threshold. In other words, the more active, the more trigger reactive.
Over-stimulation often happens in a shelter environment, but also in the dog’s home or daycare, the off-leash park or training facility. The contemporary canine reflects our society in many ways, including that like us some rarely have a moment of silence, and that creates trouble especially with the ones that are by nature sensory sensitive to sound, motion and touch. Many dogs belonging to the herding group fall into that category, but also ones that arouse with hands-on-body, often young Labradors and boxers. They can wind up real fast, and if stimulation is perpetual never completely relax, startle easily and overreact with barking, charging and nipping to any unexpected trigger - even just a plastic bag dancing in the wind. For some dogs, life in an urban or suburban setting in itself can be too overwhelming.
Exercising an already overly stimulated dog more is circling the toilet bowl. Chances are that restlessness worsens, and on top, like with a human athlete, the dog builds more physical stamina. That means that unless he is pushed to exhaustion, every day, which can require a considerable amount of time and effort for some dogs and is therefore unrealistic for many owners, he will become physically more capable, not more tired.
If your dog only behaves cause he’s exhausted, his manners won’t last long and vanish altogether if time constraints or physical limitations prevent you from running him till his tongue hangs to the ground. Your well-intended efforts might backfire and the pooch will endlessly demand more of the same, and if he gets it, become more addicted and more demanding. Plus, there is a risk that he develops a chronically heightened state of sensory awareness and reactivity to environmental stimuli.
The Catch 22 is that if you’d eliminate the activity your dog is obsessed with cold turkey, without replacing it with something else, he’ll go bonkers, and likely you with him.
So what is the solution? Incrementally swapping mindless exercise with mental stimulation is one. Fun and positive obedience training - and I emphasize force-free cause pressure drives frustration and that's counterproductive to relaxation - learning tricks, interactive toys that compels the pooch to use his noggin to get his food, and yes, prolonged walks interspersed with calming nose games, obedience and, like walks with a friend, quiet time to commute with nature and enjoy each others company in stillness.

Annoying behaviors aren’t always obsessions, and not all obsessions are bad. My reading one enhances my life. It’s an asset because I learn a lot and don’t drive anybody batty. A dog’s can be an asset too, like a Border collie’s herding addiction that helps the human shepherd. But in an average pet home high drive and sensory sensitivity can be problematic. It has nothing to do with a dog being bad or dominant, but causes owners to lose their cool nevertheless. And a very driven dog’s needs are typically not solved with a meaningful walk, tricks or a few obedience commands alone. Dog sports, like Disc, Agility, Freestyle Dance, or the new sport from Germany called Treibball (here's a link for a great youtube clip + you can google Treibball to find more) can be very satisfying, structured activities. Structure is crucial, because not only will your dog have a sense that he is working, but he also knows that he is working for you, that you control the drive. For example: throw a ball or Frisbee, but not a stick, because sticks can be found everywhere and allow nonstop pestering by pushing it against a person’s leg.
Provide a variety of activities so that the pooch isn’t fixated on just one and, also crucial, teach an off-switch command that conveys that the interaction is over for now.

Unfortunately there isn’t a one-fits-all guideline, and finding the golden balance between mental and physical stimulation, orchestrated tasks and opportunities to rest, can take some dabbling. But it is worth it, cause in the end you can have a dog who is busy but still focused and centered, and best of all, able to chill out – alone and with you.