Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tug - Part Two

In my last post I yapped about the ills that often arise when people tug with their dogs. If not the cause for permanent hyper-arousal, mouthing, competition and even aggression, it is often a major contributor, and that statement is based on my professional experiences. For most of my career I circled in like-minded company. Neither people I learned from, nor my friends, including a few agility buffs, were tuggers. That changed a few years ago when, as a result of our move across country, I connected with a number of new colleagues who do tug - and have a wonderful cooperative relationship with their well-behaved, well-rounded canine sidekicks. Especially Adina MacRae jogged my brain and got me to rethink.
So, why is it that dogs with similar backgrounds can play the same game, with the same intensity, and some turn out better than okay, while others develop a number of nuisance behaviors problematic enough that their owners seek professional help?
A fundamental difference is that my tugging friends entertain their dogs with a variety of physically and mentally stimulating activities. Tracking and other nose games, herding, fetch, agility, learning tricks, hanging out together, going for a walk, and obedience are some of the things their dogs are, at least equally to tug, motivated by - and yours should be, too. If your pooch is fixated on the toy, and only interested in tugging, eliminate it, get him keened on a number of fun activities you do together, and then introduce the toy again. Hopefully it won’t be most sought after interaction any longer, just one of many he likes.
Another thing that all pro-tuggers have in common is that their dogs know and obey commands. The ones particularly important in relation to tug are: tug, give and settle.
“Settle” means that the dog, after you convey that you are done attending to him, is able to chill. My command word is “all-done”, not settle, and serves as general information that I am about to return to human-only stuff.
If the pooch stays aroused and scans the environment who he could pester next, don’t tug, or interrupt the game often with calmer activities, for example finding the toy you hid while he obeyed a down-stay position.
“Give” and “tug” put the game under your control, and that is a crucial, possibly the most important aspect of playing tug the right way.
“Tug” starts the interaction, and it should never start without that command.
With “give”, your dog must instantly release the toy, and not re-grab unless prompted with another “tug”. Lay-tuggers rarely have a give command that actually works, and pro-tuggers characteristically have a solid one in all kinds of situations.
The dog should never snatch for the toy unless he gets verbal permission. You should be able to dangle a leash, the toy, or a rope in front of your dog’s nose without him grabbing it, and you should be able to run without your dog hanging on to your pants legs, or even the toy you’re dragging behind you.
To recap: the word “tug” serves as a clear invitation that the game begins; “give” interrupts it and you absolutely can, in fact should, reward your dog with continued play, and “settle” or “all-done”, whatever word you like better, ends it and the dog is expected to chill and leave you, and others, in peace. Those are the rules, and my tugging colleagues have them and most of my clients, well, don’t, and that’s why they have wild dogs and my friends good dogs. That is not to say that theirs don’t get quite excited during play. There is nothing wrong with that. It is unrealistic to expect that a living, feeling being is always in the same, calm mood. That is not natural, so be prepared to hear some fierce growls coming from your little darling, but as long as tug is cooperative play and not a power struggle, the growls are happy sounds and not warnings.
If played by those rules, it doesn’t matter who ends up with the toy. No, your dog won’t transform into the alpha if he gets to keep it after you disengage, but he will be dominant, at least in that context, if the game is a competition over the toy and he always comes out on top. Dogs should be more driven to interact with you than possessing a toy, and then who wins in the end is irrelevant.
Even with rules, tug is still not my favorite, first choice activity with a dog. I like to channel his mouth in a work-oriented way – retrieve, carry things, open things, but I can also, now, appreciate its usefulness for certain dogs, in certain circumstances:
~ You can redirect a leash, sleeve, and pant-leg grabbing puppy to have an appropriate object between his teeth.
~ Agility and flyball aficionados energize their dogs with a tug toy before a run, and distract them from darting into the crowd after.
~ Tug is great to train a dog who rudely, or very exuberantly uses his arms and paws naturally, boxers come to mind, to use their mouth more.
~ It can be a great distraction for the canine worrier who reacts to environmental triggers, for example other people or dogs. The tugging dog’s focus is with you, and while the environment is still on his radar, it is not a big deal.
~ Every playful interaction with the owner increases the bond, and raises confidence and security, and thereby helps a timid and shutdown pooch come out of his shell.
If you must tug, if you can’t help yourself, at least do it right. Done wrong, you foster instinctive, competitive mouth games your dog inherently is already good at. When you bring rules into it, you teach obedience and train the thinking brain. Not from the top down, but as a collaborator. You convey that you are a wonderful playmate as long as he keeps his senses and stays responsive while excited. And that’s a good thing.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tug - Part One

People can call me opinionated, but I am not close-minded.
A little more than a year ago I published a post about the popular, and controversial, dog-human activity tug. I am against tugging, and the reasons why I explained then, and again today. Said that I, well, let’s say broadened my mind a bit on that topic. The “no tug ever” changed to “no tug, but”, and that was catalyzed by discussions I had with sublime local trainer Adina MacRae and video clips Rob Van Tassel, another superb local trainer, made and generously forwarded.
So, here is the revised post against tug, which will be followed with a pro-tug with rules post I’ll publish in a week or so.

There are two chief reasons why frustrated, sometimes desperate, dog owners ask for my help. Anxiety/fear is one, and aggression the other. The latter is typically owner-diagnosed, spoken in the same sentence as dominance, and solely based on popular media information. Thus, I always take a layperson’s behavior evaluation with a grain of salt. Reality is that most dogs aren’t hostile and ambitious challengers for the pack’s head honcho position, but misbehave because they are pumped and outta control. Both can involve the inappropriate and hurtful use of teeth, but the motivation is different. Compared to the truly aggressive dog who aims to change a situation: wants distance to or get rid of a real or perceived threat, the boisterous pooch misbehaves because he is emotionally over-aroused. Contrary to needing more space, or eliminating an opponent, he’s seeking interaction.
Whenever I meet a dog with behavioral issues, I investigate where his humans blundered. With out-of-control ones, I found a common denominator: the dog playing tug-of-war, and other contact sports, with his humans.
Many dog pros of all fields of thought and method: compulsion, positive reinforcement, and trainers that straddle the middle, warn against it. Interestingly, it is the opposite with the public. Especially male owners love rough physical contests with their dog, and sometimes it is the primary way they entertain him. Some quit when the juvenile becomes more and more brutish and unruly, but others don’t see the correlation between training the mouth and the dog using it, and are perplexed when I point it out.

Dogs love mouth games. Holding on and pulling with teeth is how a pup interacts with his littermates and buddies. It is inherent, programmed into the beast, fun. When a person initiates tug, he is teaching the pup that such peer games are okay to play with humans also. Because it is so natural, the dog learns that eagerly and quickly, and henceforth instigates it whenever he is bored, with whoever is nearest. After all, that is how he’d relate with a canine friend.
And it doesn’t have to be a rope or appropriate toy, either. He’ll tug with whatever is available: a stick he finds and shoves against a person’s legs, the ball or Frisbee he doesn’t let go of during fetch, pants, a sleeve or flowing coat, and especially the leash will do nicely. Furthermore, any person will do. Particularly the ones closest to his size, children, are targets. Children are especially rewarding for another reason: they become very animated when a dog’s teeth latch onto them, make high-pitched sounds, resist, maybe run, or flail their arms, all of which is a lot of fun for the dog and charges him up more.
The man of the house might be able to physically overpower rowdy Rover, but his child, or female partner can’t, and so Rover treats them like he would another dog of same, or weaker, size and strength. On walks, he grabs the leash and happily play-growling pulls back, which puts the person in a dilemma cause she can’t just let go of it, but when she holds on there is automatically resistance, and that’s a tug game, and that reinforces the leash grabbing. The leash, like a rope or tug toy, can become a cue that turns the dog on the moment he sees it. Eventually he is labeled bad, hyper, disobedient, aggressive and dominant - unjustly so cause often he’s none of it. He’s a dog playing fun dog games with people who invited him to do so at one point.
Said that, ongoing physical contests train and foster competitiveness, and there is a risk that some dogs, indeed, become aggressive.
Play is injury free practice for real life. Humans play sports to test their strength, and to gain or establish superiority over other humans, at least for the moment. Dogs play with other dogs to test and boost their strength and agility to increase the chance that they, if there is a dispute over a resource, come out on top. Even a dog who self-handicaps when he interacts with a physically weaker friend, might do so to practice in a safe context how to get out of a future compromising situation.
The relationship your dog has with you, and all humans in your family, should be cooperative, never competitive with daily battles to determine who is the strongest. With each physical game, your dog becomes brawnier and mouthier, and possibly permanently pumped and ready for action. Like chronically adrenalized humans, they too have the tendency to be aggressive outside of play.
In addition to aggression, tug can train inattentiveness. When the person has had enough and disengages, he leaves the dog physiologically aroused with no release. The still pumped pooch will scan the environment for another outlet and if he finds it, maybe in form of another dog, he learns that the environment fulfills his needs, and that tuning the owner out is rewarding. Roughhousing with another dog is hard to top with pretty much anything a person can offer, and next time when both are out and about, the dog’s focus is not with his human, but his surroundings. If he finds entertainment there again, owner inattention and independence quickly become a habit. Plus he always anticipates canine playtime, which not only raises arousal even more, but if it doesn’t manifest leads to frustration with barking and lunging on the leash, or the pestering of every dog in the park, oblivious to its back off signals.
One of my early teachers said something that is still stuck in my mind: “Don’t teach what you don’t want in any other context.” A tugging dog practices the use of mouth and teeth in a competitive way. Practices holding on to something that wriggles in his mouth. Is building jaw strength by not letting go. Skills he might need to survive amongst dogs, and that is debatable, but certainly not for a life in the midst of humans.

Stay tuned to Part Two, when I’ll discuss how you can not only enjoy tugging with your dog, but when it can actually be beneficial.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Changed Pack Dynamics

The only fault dogs have is that they never live as long as we would want them to. When they pass away, they take a chunk of our hearts with them and cause a kind of sorrow everyone who ever loved a dog understands, but that is incomprehensible to non-dog people.
Last week, an era ended in our family when our Australian shepherd Davie decided that her cancer-filled and arthritic body wouldn’t do any longer. I say decided, because the morning of her death I asked her if she wanted to see her brother Baywolf, our Newfy who died in 2003, and she looked at me, and then blinked with one eye the moment I finished my question. Baywolf and Davie were tight, and we often still mention his name, so both “brother” and “Baywolf” were words Davie comprehended. Although I very strongly felt his presence that day, as I do from time to time, maybe I am just imagining how it all unfolded because my emotions were in overdrive. I don’t really care. Believing that they are together again; picturing Davie happily hanging off his lip as she did when she was an obnoxious puppy, is very comforting for us, and that’s all that matters.
Davie walked into our lives suddenly and unannounced, but dreamt up and therefore somewhat expected, as a 16-week-old pup in need of a place to live because her owners were overwhelmed with her exuberant confidence. The facts that she limped when we got her, and that she was a tad reactive and wanted to bite, caused me to think that the real reason her humans were giving her up might have been that their, at the time 18-month-old son, roughed her up and she snapped in defense.
In any case, Davie was their loss and our gain and turned into a motherly, fun-loving, biddable and so obedient companion. She was easy on the eye, too. Something very special about her many people fell in love with. And she was my defining who, despite her behavioral problems, was the first of ours trained and treated completely positively. Davie didn’t even know the word “no”.

Now she’s gone. When Davie was diagnosed with late stage lymphoma a few weeks ago we realized that one of our saddest days was approaching fast. The last week of her life she would often stop on the little walks we took around our property, not because she was out of breath or fatigued, but to look around, gaze into the distance as if to absorb the place she so enjoyed. And often she startled out of a deep sleep and looked at us for a moment as if she was surprised that we were there, and methinks that her essence was transitioning and already spending time away from her body.
The day before she died she dug up her most favorite toy: the Airdog Football, and tossed it at us soliciting for play, something she hadn’t done for weeks. We played until she didn’t want to any longer, and after that she deteriorated almost by the hour. For both Mike and I, preventing suffering is priority. We believe in euthanasia, and although I was pretty sure that Davie was ready to leave her sick body, I wasn’t 100% certain, and that’s why I asked her, and she answered with a blink. I thanked her for letting me know, called Mike to leave work and the vet to come to our home, and then thought of something we could do to make her last few hours enjoyable ones. The day Baywolf died, we all shared a beer at nine in the morning. Bay loved to split a bottle of Guinness with Mike every so often – male bonding, and that’s what we did. Davie liked food and always loved to supervise us whenever we prepared some, so for two hours I sat on the living room floor with her and Will and cut up dried green tripe. Many pieces landed her way, which she was really excited about and gobbled up with gusto. Then she died so peacefully on her favorite bed; no resistance, no gasping, which is to us is another sign that her spirit said “that’ll have to do for this round”.
As a dog ages, there are many lasts. The last time she chased a squirrel, the last time she jumped easily in the car, the last time she initiated play with another dog. And there are firsts, like the first time I took Will to help me with my work, and not Davie. Then suddenly there is one last, and many firsts: The last hug and kiss; the first walk without a dog on the other side, the first time nobody hogging the bed, the first time homecoming is not greeted with crazy barks and an excitedly swinging, bobby-tailed butt.
A dog with that much presence leaves a huge void felt not just by humans, but also other animals left behind. A change in pack dynamics takes place. With pack I don’t mean the commonly understood dominance pack, but family. The fact is that we are not isolated entities occupying the same space, but a bonded social group sharing life’s journey for a while, and when one member disappears, it has an impact.
Our biggest concern was Will, who never lived without another dog and lost her steady, magnetic focal point companion she took directions from for most of her life. Not that Will doesn’t pay attention to our cues, but following another dog is natural and easier for most dogs, and even more so for her because she was feral born and not imprinted by humans. She, I am sure, still perceives some of our behaviors as strange and alien.
I tried to prepare Will by taking only her on a few consultations and she did great, even showed some of Davie’s characteristics, namely the level of obedience went up few notches. Will always listened to us nicely, but never as unquestioningly as Davie. It is not that she has to behave like her, has to fill her shoes - our dogs are allowed their identity – but the changes pleased me. Who knows, if Will keeps it up maybe we’ll take Adina MacRae’s agility foundation course together. I think we both could have fun.
Of course, despite my efforts I fully expected that Davie’s death would confuse Will, and that she’d be searching for her. Indeed, for the first couple of days Will asked to be let out often, sniffed where Davie walked and voided, and then peed small amounts at various places, perhaps to leave scent markers in case she was merely lost.
Will also became hyper vigilant to sounds and motion – not reactive, just alert and hesitant. I’ll make sure, for the next little while, that I give her more information when she is concerned about something she hears or sees. Bus, person, dog, car are all words Will knows and I can use to convey that what she senses is familiar, and by telling her what she can do about it: forward, over, behind, say hello, come, I give her a command she understands and has experienced in the past, again and again, is a roadmap to safety.
All in all, Will is coping better with the changed dynamics than we anticipated. She goes through her daily routine, didn’t fall to pieces with new events like visiting a car dealership or being left all by herself in the house for a few hours, and enjoys the things she’s always enjoyed: that is going for walks. Such are the blessings of a dog who trusts and feels secure where and with whom she lives. Neither the move across country, nor suddenly being the solo dog, had much of a lasting effect. Perhaps the fact that Will came to a rather substantial inheritance of several Original Beef Chews, a couple of tartar busters, the Nina Ottosson Tornado toy, and a few bags of Northern Biscuit cookies helped some. Plus, she now has lone rights to the back seat of the car; the preferred spot on road trips Will vacated whenever Davie told her to. Will moved without ever arguing, even as Davie became increasingly weaker. So much for the pack leader having to be the physically strongest.
I always marveled at how bonded the girls were. They played with each other, slept in close proximity, synchronized activities, and never fought, but let's face it: Davie was a bossy and controlling Aussie, and Will maybe more inhibited than we realized.
Time will tell, but I think she will be more than okay; think she will be happy with human only companionship. I mean, there isn’t really an option. One just can’t replace one dog with another, a stranger with one she was bonded with for 9 years. And Will is finicky anyway; there are only certain foods she likes, and certain people, and certain dogs, and she easily gets annoyed with goofy adolescents, so unless we come across the perfect adult match, adding a new dog won’t improve her life, or ours.

Believing that Davie is fancy-free roaming with Baywolf was only one thing that was comforting the day she died; the other that she has 12 wonderful years with us. I became acutely aware why I am doing what I am doing professionally and will continue to do it until every dog is treated kindly, humanely, compassionately. The life Davie had, every dog deserves. One either does right by a dog, or not. Black or white. There is no grey zone for the dog.

Life will go on because that is what life does, and the three of us will miss Davie but also find our groove together. I am innately someone who embraces life; consciously chooses to dissolve in my work and not in my drama. On blue days, I take inspiration from Davie who relished in every waking moment and boldly turned every novel experience into a “good time”.
I want to end this post reminiscing about one of those good times we had together. Davie was 7 and in her prime, and we spent the weekend on a ranch in Alberta learning how to control sheep. Davie had never seen sheep before, yet was inquisitively trying to figure out what our purpose was for being there, and after passively observing the instructor’s outstanding Border collie to learn more, she enthusiastically joined in and couldn’t be stopped.
Davie showed us how to live life to the fullest, and that is her ever-lasting gift, imprinted in our souls forever.