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 www.voice4dogs.com/dog-problems.html.
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.