Thursday, December 5, 2013

New Blogspot blog site

Hello Friends, Clients, and Readers

After about four months in, I am still liking my new website, however, putting up posts is a pain in the you know where.

Because I like my life to be easy and uncomplicated, I decided to create a new account with blogspot. It  aligns with my website, and me - as in how I developed professionally over the last few years, and I will publish posts on an ongoing basis that are informative, current, and sometimes have a certain bite to it.

Here it is - love for you to joint me there.

Monday, September 9, 2013

New Website and a New Place for my Posts

Hello loyal readers - and all of you who peaked in every so often.

I have a new website and all new blog posts will be there from now on. Please join me.

My old website was really dated, plus I grew professionally and personally in the last 6 years like every good professional should. The new site reflects that.

One blog post is already up. It talks about a PBS Nature documentary shoot I was part of last week, and about two cautious puppies who met for the first time. There are photos as well, so go check it out, and follow me if you like. I plan to put up a few more posts till about mid. October, and after that about one a month.

This here blog site won't be deleted, so you can continue to look for information that is, albeit perhaps not always quite current, always informational - as information should be.

Thanks for all your interest and comments in the past, and really hope we'll hook up on my new site - oh, and feel free to share.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

No-Show Blog Posts, but a Full Circle Guest Post

I know, I've been silent for a while. But not slacking off. Far from it. Summer was extremely busy and what's left of it won't be any different. Not that I'm complaining - in a time when many are struggling a lot of work is easy to swallow.
The downside is that it leaves little time for writing, and hence, the no-show blog posts.
In addition, I am working on a new website. Not that the present one is not doing its job, but I evolved and technology has too, and after 6 years it is time for a new look.
So, more quietness for a while longer. But to tie you over, here is a guest post I wrote for the Full Circle Veterinary Clinic on Separation Anxiety.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lauchie, The Hoarder Collie

No, I am not talking about people who can never accumulate enough stuff, and never throw anything away, and eventually drown in junk and filth. The ones you see on reality TV; Hoarders TV exposes for ratings.
In reality, I don’t watch much reality TV: No Dog Whisperer, no “dumb-and-proud-of-it” hick show, and no crazy junk and animal hoarders in my living room - unless I need a reality check when I obsess over my home being a tad too messy. One episode convinces me that I don’t have to feel guilty about spending the afternoon in the sun joined by a glass of wine and a book when I ought to tidy up.
I am talking about canine hoarders; dogs that collect every scattered toy and whatever else they find on the ground and deem valuable, put it on their bed or in their crate, and often guard the accumulated booty against cohabitating fur animals, and sometimes also against the hairless kind.

The root of resource hoarding and guarding is resource insecurity. Always. And almost always humans are to blame: owners and breeders who either stole the dog's possession in the name of misunderstood dominance, or raised him in resource deprivation - didn’t provide what the pooch needed and thereby forced him to compete for the little that was available. In the latter case, both the dog who regularly lost out but also the one who was successful in defending his possessions can become a hoarder and aggressive guarder in the next home.

My friend Ann’s new Border collie pup Lauchie reminded me recently that even pups from a really good breeder can have quirks. Here he is.

And this is our last foster dog Reggae, also conscientiously bred, also a hoarder at a very young age.

But let’s talk about the collie – it is fresh in my mind.
Little Lauchie is from England. His first eight weeks of life were how it should be for every puppy born, and there was no reasonable expectation that he'd be unsure about anything, including resources. And yet he seems to be and collects, as Ann likes to name the behavior because it sounds a lot nicer than hoarding.
Although Lauchie isn’t aggressively guarding his stash, it is still an issue his momma wants to address. For starters, he is still just a baby and things could change as he matures, but also because he evades coming when called when he is in possession of a toy.  Or when he returns, he does so without it.
Running away with a treasure between the teeth can be a puppy thing, but Ann felt that it wasn't the fun factor of playing catch-me-if-you-can that drove the behavior, but the worry that he’d lose his bounty.
Lauchie is smart and sweet and social and shows all the behaviors of a carefully bred and raised pup. He is attentive and keen to be with his person, at the breeder the litter had everything they needed, and he has now always accessible toys aplenty. He gets to play many games, and comes just fine when he doesn’t carry something. So, why the out-of-character behavior when it comes to toys? It initially had us stumped. Funny, Ann’s dogs have a habit of making my brain hurt – and I mean that in a most affectionate way.

The best explanation we could come up with is has to do with Lauchie’s thoughtfulness. Yes, you read that right and yes I am anthropomorphizing but I don’t care. Besides, it is the best word to describe his personality that, by the way, consistently presented itself very early on. Lauchie is not slow-witted or fearful, but watches, and processes, and then acts. He has natural impulse control, and with so many dogs getting into trouble because they lack it, I wouldn’t exactly say that that is a problem, but it might mean that he lost out against his siblings who all were quicker on the draw. I think we are on to something because Lauchie is also very food driven, which corroborates that his littermates might have gotten more than their fair share in that aspect as well.

There are two ways to address hoarding: either one needs to convince the dog that resources never run out, and that it's more fun to bring toys than hoard them, or one must eliminate free access to toys completely and also control what else happens to lie around within the dog’s reach. I like the former better for following reasons: Free access to a toy box alleviates anxiety and boredom, micromanaging the dog and resources for a lifetime is a cumbersome thing to do, and common sense dictates that resource overflow is the fasted way to instill resource security.
That said, with some hoarders free resource access can make things worse, as was the case with another friend’s rescue German shepherd. She had a number of anxieties, and was overwhelmed with too many toys and bones and the task to collect all of it, was constantly searching and pacing, and permanently tense trying to guard the treasures on her bed against the other dog. Life in paradise initially made her more anxious, and taking a more structured approach to resources was necessary. She is fine now, by the way, thanks to patience and the unfailing provision of everything she needed and wanted.

Since little Lauchie is neither anxiously pacing nor aggressively defending his collections, there is no pressing need to withhold free access. Instead, Ann exploits Lauchie’s brain and love to learn and interact – traits found in many dogs not just Border collies – and teaches him to identify individual toys by name, and then bring the one she asks for in exchange for a play session. It is a game that stimulates any pooch’s mind and body, but with a hoarder the added benefit is that toys are going to be perceived in a different way: Because it directly involves the human, it puts value on the person and not just the toy. Eventually, the dog will bring specific objects to solicit interaction with his person, which will become more rewarding than playing keep-away alone.
In addition, it creates a hierarchy of toys and games, meaning that the dog will have a preference he didn’t have before. When some object are of high value, naturally all others are meh and hopefully not worthy of hoarding any longer.
Like with any behavior we want changed, new habits can take time, and until then it is important that the undesired old ones aren't rehearsed. To prevent Lauchie from running away with a toy, Ann taught him “retrieve the named toy” in the bathroom first, a very small space that didn’t give the pup any option other than to share his toy with his momma. The idea is to orchestrate rewarding experiences, and then gradually expand outward to bigger spaces.
I have no doubt that it'll do.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Sheepdog Training Not Just For Sheepdogs

It is no secret that I have an affinity for sheepdogs, particularly Australian shepherds, followed by Border collies. I ever only owned one, but know and worked with many, and as soon as I have the time – and when the time is right, we'll invite another Aussie into our home and hearts. Because I love sheepdogs, I am fascinated with things sheepdogs do, like herding.
In 2006 I participated with Davie in a herding workshop with Randy Dye in Bowden, Alberta - there is not too much info online about him, but if put Randy Dye Border collies in your search box, you’ll find a couple of blurbs. Davie and I had a ball, metaphorically, but what I found most remarkable was how much of what I learned is applicable to all dogs. That sentiment recurred a couple of months ago when I read Lorna McMasters book “Dancing with Sheepdogs”. Trust me, you don’t have to have a herding breed dog to appreciate the lessons in this book.

For starters, both Randy Dye and Lorna McMasters train without pain. McMasters says: “You build reliable obedience and behavior with patience, not force, and the dog will love to work with you.”

Lorna McMasters uses her voice – verbal commands, and that is something I also preach. One of my biggest peeves with traditional, pack leader, and e-collar trainers is that they let the tools speak for them, and the words they do use are warnings rather than information: Heel! Sit! Come! And you better, or else!
As one of a few force-free trainers who does not use a clicker, I feel validated by the author’s statement that you should use your voice to support your dog. The voice, then, becomes a feel-good trigger for your dog, and whenever you open your mouth you raise work attitude, draw your dog to you, and you can decrease momentary distress.
Like every good force-free trainer, Lorna McMaster is not permissive. She emphasizes the importance to always enforce a command once it is given, so that the dog doesn’t learn to second-guess you. But she has nothing against repeating a command, because it verbally encourages the dog to keep doing what he is doing. This, too, corroborates what I’ve teaching for quite some time. For instance, when I recall I don’t repeat the word “come”, but egg my dog on with a high-pitched “yip-yip-yip” or “quick-quick-quick”, especially with the beginner learner, and especially when the dog is presented with a huge distraction in opposite direction to where I am.
Both Lorna McMasters and Randy Dye explained that the speed and intonation the request is made matter. Drawn out words slow the dog down, and conversely rapid short words speed him up. Randy Dye taught us that the duration of the whistle cue has to correspond with the verbal one: short and sharp for directional changes, prolonged to keep the dog methodically going in the same direction.
By the way, Patricia McConnell talks at length about tonal inflection and speed in her really good book “The Other End of The Leash”. Don’t confuse that with the TV show “At the End of My Leash” that stars Brad Pattison, Canada’s answer to Cesar Millan. The former is an accredited and internationally much respected behaviorist, the other an alpha male upshot physically skilled enough to punish dogs into submission and temporary compliance.
Lorna McMasters warns to never raise your voice because it raises your energy and signals loss of control, which can cause the dog to escalate. I agree with that too. Yelling and screaming conveys anger or anxiety, and neither is favorable to learning, the relationship, or to defuse a conflict situation. That said, and contrary to common data and wisdom, my very loud and deep-toned “enough” has so far successfully broken up dogs in a tiff.

When dogs work, they aren’t always visually connected with their human in charge. A collie has to keep his eyes on the sheep, the pooch doing dog sports on the equipment, and the hunting companion on fowl or game. Lorna McMasters believes that dogs should learn to respond to verbal commands without looking at you. Indeed, that’s when verbal commands make most sense because obviously the dog will not see your hand-signal or gesture.
I almost exclusively work with people who, all they want is a well-mannered family member they can take anywhere dogs are allowed to go. For that purpose, visual connection between dog and person is important, and I aim for eye contact the dog offers whenever she needs direction, and eye contact given when I call my dog by name to direct her. I do have one command, though, that allows Will, who sometimes just can’t shift her visual attention away from whatever in the environment holds it, to keep it, while I still get the control I am after: “Halt” means: “Don’t move and wait till I catch up with you”. Perhaps I should elaborate in my next post, or the one after.
Interestingly, Lorna McMasters also likes to catch up with the dog after a herding lesson instead of recalling him. She places the collie in a, for a collie natural, lie-down and as she approaches gives lots of repetitive verbal reminders to stay in that position plus pays attention to her breathing so that he knows that she is calm and he has done nothing wrong. Calm, not assertive, just calm and relaxed, makes a person appealing rather than repelling. Even when the dog breaks, she doesn’t discipline, but repositions and tries again. It is never about letting a dog do as he pleases, she says, but to help him understand without creating resistance, ambiguity or nervousness in relation to the handler and the work they do together.
And this surprised me: After three tries she reinforces even if the dog is still not getting it right to avoid that he becomes “stale”. Rewarding a behavior you don’t want counters positive reinforcement rules, but I think she on to something: The long-term goal of a functioning working relationship must overrule laws established in a laboratory.

Aside from using verbal commands, both Lorna McMasters and Randy Dye use their body to make their intentions clear. In the beginning, they exaggerate gestures, and as the dog becomes more skilled, they become subtler. For example, McMasters invites the rookie dog with open arms and moving backward when she recalls.
Randy Dye had an indoor arena, and at our workshop all dogs were off the leash right away. Instead of using a long line to influence the dog, he taught us how to use body movements. Always the whole body, he stressed, not just hands. Facing and blocking the dog makes him change directions, and being at his flank causes him to move out. Being at the dog’s tail, he said, only makes him run faster away from you. If the come command is ignored, he walks in as close as he must to get the dog’s visual attention, and then entices him with whatever works to follow. He doesn’t grab the collar to pull the dog away because he wants him to follow voluntarily. After the workshop, I implemented that right away with my group clients.
Lorna McMasters does use a leash and long line with dogs not yet off leash ready. I wish the general public would do that too, instead of taking the dog they adopted 24 hours prior to the dog park. A leash and a long line for managing and training purposes is a must until the relationship is established and the dog reliably responds to his person’s requests. However, and especially with puppies, I do prefer to work off the leash, especially regarding following, but it must take place in the house, and areas outside that are securely fenced-in.
McMasters says that a dog should always wait for a release command, active permission, before allowed to interact with the environment, and that he should never completely disconnect from the owner; that the person should never be excluded from the relationship the dog has with other dogs, or animals. I totally agree with that. If playing dogs don’t respond when their names are called, it is high time for a play pause.

I was also surprised by Lorna McMaster’s take on leash tension. In a time when everyone preaches to have a loose leash, she says that leash tension is not always a bad thing because it signals connection, and like voice can provide support when the dog is confused or nervous, but she stresses that it must be even tension, not jerking.
Ideally, I don’t want any information coming through the leash. Ever. Loose leash, ideally, is my tune too, but I also know that ideal isn’t always realistic. Our Will, without our doing, does perceive the leash as connection and support around unfamiliar dogs and small children, and when there is a passing bus or truck. And I must admit that I like a slight tension in the leash because then I don’t trip over it.
Even pulling a dog along McMasters doesn’t see as a problem, but again advises that it must be without a correction, and that praise and reward ought to follow as soon as the dog mentally connects with the handler again. I heard and saw that at a Suzanne Clothier seminar a few years ago. Truth is that with most dogs sooner or later a situation arises where there is no option but to pull the pooch along with you, and it is important that laypeople, my clients, understand that it is not all that bad when it happens; that they are not messing things up forever as long as they don’t discipline as they pull him away, on the leash, from a situation he can’t handle – yet.

In essence, both Randy Dye and Lorna McMasters are heavy on relationship, and controlling the dog by controlling what the dog wants: his drive, his instincts, instead of setting traps and punishing for mistakes. The sheepdog must heed to the human’s directions to access the sheep, and because sheep are important to any good sheepdog, it works. Herding is advanced obedience without the use of food treats. If you find what floats your dog’s boat, and then make access contingent on behavior, it will work for you too.
Is a punishment ever warranted? Not in my world, but both Lorna McMasters and Randy Dye do not shy away from adding something unpleasant when absolutely necessary.
Sheep are a shepherd’s livelihood. Not just that, but the human has the moral responsibility to care about the welfare of all animals, not just the dogs’. A bad herding dog is not only useless, but harmful. Lorna McMasters uses one type of correction, a whip across the nose, but only when the dog aggressively violates a sheep’s flight zone, and only when he persistently disregards commands and body pressure.
At Randy Dye’s workshop there were 17 dogs, and only one had to be corrected in the same way: an out-of-control, non-responsive Groenendael who was about to rip a sheep apart.
Personally, I prefer to manage the dog until the desired behaviors are established. Nevertheless, the sharp corrections didn’t compromise the value of Randy Dye’s workshop and Lorna McMaster’s book. One must remember that these are knowledgeable handlers who correct correctly, a skill lost on all lay owners, and many of the punitive trainers who take a six-week course somewhere and then let themselves loose on dogs with behavioral issues. Those quickly “certified” folks lack the experience, knowledge, and even general interest in dogs and behavior, and rather than sending one clear message, like McMasters and Dye do, they punish ineffectively, on an ongoing basis, or so harsh that they mess up the dogs and the relationship with their owners even more.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The 4 F Responses When a Dog Feels Threatened

In May, I discussed the 4 Ds in a position stay and Brian Hare/Vanessa Woods “The Genius of Dogs”, and I want to stick with that theme – 4-letter something then book - for this month. First, the 4 F responses available to a dog who feels threatened, and followed by my take on Lorna McMasters’ “Dancing with Sheepdogs” toward the end of June or beginning of July.

Whenever a dog perceives someone or something as a threat, to his welfare or possession, and it doesn’t matter if in reality it is or isn’t, there will be an emotional response. It is impossible for a dog, or any animal, to not feel what they feel, to willingly alter hormonal and neurochemical changes that come with the emotion, and not express it. However, what the expressions look like varies, and depends on nature, past experiences and possibility.
I like to believe that just about everyone knows two of the Fs: Fight and Flight, and I come back to them in a moment, but there are two more less understood by the average dog owner: Freeze and Flirt.

Let’s have a closer look, and let’s start with Fight, the behavior people are most concerned about and that sends many a dog to the doghouse, shelter, or veterinarian to be executed.
When a dog is ready to fight, he is confident enough to confront the threat. The intent is not always to injure or kill, especially regarding social group members, but to cause the threat to back off or not move closer – not increase the pressure.  Normally, naturally, there is a hierarchy, or ladder, of warning signals that precede a bite: a high, forward leaning and tense body – the dog doesn’t blink, the ears don’t play, direct fixation on the trigger, a puckered mouth, a high stiff or quivering tail tipped toward the head. Humans have a tendency to ignore those signals either because they aren’t bilingual and don’t comprehend them, or because they are stupid and intentionally disregard what the dog is communicating.
When they proceed with whatever they were doing, the dog in fight mode turns it up a notch and might growl, and almost every person understands that and feels compelled to do something about it.
However, the typical human responses create dilemmas.
Dilemma 1: If the person backs off, he reinforces the growl and the dog will growl in the future to keep someone at bay or keep a resource. The dog wins in people's minds, which is a big problem for their tender egos. The person doesn't like his pooch anymore and either gives up, or feels justified to do whatever it takes to stop the growl; either labels the dog aggressive and surrenders or kills him, or punishes harshly and destroys the mutually rewarding relationship he could have had.
Dilemma 2: Dogs that growl a lot, because they’re confronted a lot, become stuck in that behavior pattern. If the growl suddenly doesn’t work anymore, for example when the owner hired a mighty “whisperer” wash-up who comes equipped with tools and the skill to suppress the growl, another emotion arises: Frustration. The dog becomes more stressed, more aroused, and angrier. Anyone who believes that an emotion can be punished away is a fool, but the expression might be. Growls can successfully be quelled when the punishment is harsh enough, but the dog, still feeling threatened, resorts to the next level of aggression, albeit perhaps only directed against people or dogs seen as weaker.
A growl isn’t good, but a bite without a warning is worse.
Dilemma 3: If the person ignores the growl, persists and insists, the confident dog will bite, resulting in two big problems: It hurts, and I have yet to meet a person who will NOT retreat when the dog injures and thus reinforce the escalation of aggressive behavior.

A dog who feels threatened but is not self-assured enough to confront wants to leave the scene and situation. Get out of Dodge instead of driving the threat away. Chooses Flight to Fight.
Don’t just think running away, but also stepping back, curving out, leaving a room or a certain area at the dog park – anything that increases distance to something or someone without attacking. Averting eyes, head and body are the subtle signals.
The dog who chooses non-confrontation is not sure he can successfully defend himself or a resource, or he might generally like his social encounters, but not the situation at the moment. I recently met a beautiful German shepherd believed to be aggressive with people who in reality was rather friendly and interested in interacting when given the opportunity to hang back until the new person was more familiar.
Often dogs in possession of a valued resource, like a bone, walk away with it. That is not submission; the dog does not surrender the resource, but doesn’t trust the people and/or dogs around him completely and in that context seeks a safe place. The worst thing someone could do is follow and take the resource away. The dog is non-confrontational on purpose. Don’t punish that, or he might fight next.
Fight dogs are often flight dogs who can’t flee because they are restrained or cornered.
The German shepherd I just mentioned chose Flight, but nevertheless had a bite history because some people did not give him the space to hang back, and he was confident enough to Fight when pressured. Knowing that, I allowed him the Flight option, and whenever I introduced something new, he created distance, but moments later returned and then was motivated to learn the new thing. By the end of the afternoon we had a real connection and not once did I feel I was in danger.
Don’t confront a dog in Fight or Flight mode, but instead investigate why the dog feels defensive and address that. Regarding resources, my goal always is that my dog trusts me with anything she has, and brings it to me.

Freeze is not only the muscle tension stillness before an attack, but an expression of a dog who has no options; who has resigned himself to his fate and imploded. The dog is too terrorized to move, extremely stressed with no resolution.
Sadly, lay people often misconstrue Freeze with well behaved, but the truth is that the dog is not behaving at all. He isn’t doing anything because he is afraid of the consequence when he offers a behavior. Freeze is non-behavior. Our Will was a Freeze dog: born feral, humans were completely foreign to her, and forced to live with them paralyzed her in fear. She would neither aggress nor try to get away. Will was frozen to no fault of ours, but some dogs are punished into that state, and that is abuse. You can see these dogs in training facilities: they perform, but joylessly, and they don’t behave at all unless ordered to.

Flirt is a term Barry Eaton in his book “Dominance in Dogs” uses to explain active and passive appeasement. I like both the term and the behavior. Yes, ideally we aim for a relationship and environment in which a dog never feels the need to appease, but methinks it might be elusive. In the socially complex world our dogs live in, there likely will be encounters and situations they feel uneasy about, and I want them to signal that with a lowered body and low wagging tail, exaggerated blinking, lip licking and yawning, instead of checking out or attacking.
A dog might feel a bit intimidated by a certain tone of voice, scent, body language or action and asks for assurance that he is still safe. A dog who has a resource pleads to let him keep it.  A dog who flirts seeks social connection in a submissive way.
I think Flirt is the most appropriate word for a puppy who begs a resource from an elder, and sometimes the older dog will orchestrate a situation to prompt submissive begging for educational purposes.
A good number of dogs, fosters and guests, entered our home throughout the years, but only twice, with a 4-month-old pup and a 2-year-old Aussie, Will saw the need to teach that lesson: She grabbed a toy, arbitrarily because Will does not and never did care for toys other than one red ball to play fetch with, played to keen the other dog’s interest, and then guarded it with a tense body, hard stare and growls - the fight signals she displayed to communicate that she has the confidence to follow through should a resource ever be disputed. Will would ignore the dogs' barks and intensify the aggressive signals when they tried to steal the toy, but relinquished it the moment they became obnoxiously solicitous and goofy, exaggeratedly bowed, with lips, ears and eyes drawn back - the stupid grin face. The pup, in addition, whined and rolled on her back.
I know that dominance is a loaded word, but appeasements, flirting in social contexts, signal that power is acknowledged and a friendly connection wished.

It is important to point out that Fight, Flight, Freeze and Flirt are not static behaviors, but context specific. Which of the four options a dog chooses depends on what he has learned in the past and what is possible at the moment. And it depends on the dog’s nature: genes predispose to respond in a certain way.
Even so, within a lifetime a dog will demonstrate all four. Will’s M.O. was freeze with all humans, it is flirt now, and fight with some unfamiliar dogs. Davie's was fight with unfamiliar humans, ignore and avoid - flee unfamiliar dogs, and flirt with us whenever she wanted access to a resource, or keep it.
So don’t label the dog, but the situation. If you don’t like how your dog acts, address why he feels the way he does. Address the emotional state, instead of fixating on the expressions.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"The Genius of Dogs" Book Review

I had a birthday recently. One more year to Freedom 55. Not that realistic – it’ll be more like Freedom 65, or 75, but it doesn’t matter because I love what I do: Working with dogs, reading and writing about dogs. Hence, I was delighted to find Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods’ book “The Genius of Dogs” in the parcel our daughter sent me.

Brian Hare, Ph.D., is an Evolutionary Anthropologist and Associate Professor at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, and interested in apes – the human and hairier kind, but also dogs. You can check to find out more. Vanessa Woods is an Australian scientist and journalist, and Brian Hare’s wife.

I loved the book. Loved it for its conversational tone that makes the information accessible to everyone. No science degree needed to comprehend the material.
I love the subject matter. In a nutshell: How dogs are smart; How they compare cognitively and emotionally to infants and young children; How they rely so much on humans for information. How humans and dogs work, and more importantly how we work together – the psychological convergence between us.
Like many other books about dogs, this one has a chapter on domestication, and also like many others talks about Belyaev’s foxes. I almost skipped that section exactly because I had read about it several times before, but am glad I didn’t, because Brian Hare tells the story with fascinating history attached, for example that Stalin declared geneticists enemies of the state. Our present Canadian government labels our environmental scientists and activists enemies of the state. How is your evolution coming along? Eh?
Back to dogs, or more accurately foxes. There’s a photo of one of the domesticated ones in the book I've never seen in any other dog book, and I promise you'll fall in love with the cuteness.
In the context of domestication, Brian Hare elaborates on aggression and kennel club breeding practices that, for the last 150 years or so, select for appearance more than function and temperament. Breeders fail to breed against aggression in favour of a uniformed look, and that might need a mental shift if we want peaceful dogs in our midst in the future.
And the public needs to be educated what to look for, and where, when they dog shop. At the end of the book the authors make a statement I so agree with: Good breeders don’t sell to pet stores, brokers, or online.

Although "The Genius of Dogs" is not a training manual, it talks about methods including behaviorism. Much of what it says plays into Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards”, with the difference that Kohn’s book  refers to humans, and Hare/Woods of course include dogs.
One of the issues they have with the Skinnerian model to influence behavior is that it always relies on deprivation, which I believe can negatively affect the relationship. I have given this a lot of thought lately and am not at all done thinking yet.
About the clicker the authors say: “At least for the moment, there is no scientific evidence to support the theory that clicker training facilitates faster learning in dogs”. A controversial statement for sure, and they concede that a clicker might make layowners better trainers and could have value in that.
I don’t use a clicker, so that preliminary evidence vindicates what I was thinking all along: Dogs have a natural connection with humans, pay attention, watch for and are receptive to verbal and gestural information, and that was and is always my primary method in relating with and teaching a dog – with the clicker being an option for certain dogs/people, and particular things I want to accomplish.

Brian Hare is a scientist and the book is peppered with studies that back the statements he makes. Studies he and his associates conducted, but also studies done elsewhere, for example at the Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, and you can find out more about that at
Perhaps Adam Miklosi rings a bell, and Vilmos Csanyi who wrote the book “If Dogs Could Talk” a few years ago, which I also liked a lot.

I think that we will continue to see studies that reveal how special dogs are - amazing really in their abilities and relationships they form with humans. My hope is that with that people increasingly will steer away from trainers who use the outdated wolf model to justify their forceful and punitive ways. But perhaps also the purely mechanical, operant conditioning method might be adjusted to less of a cookie-cutter, and more of an individual approach.
The end of June, there'll be a conference outside of Seattle I was seriously thinking of attending, but I live on the other ocean, and in Canada at that, and although it is not completely out of my mind yet – alone the road trip from Abbotsford/BC to Redmond/Washington is tempting - for now I’ve signed up for the life stream. I will keep you in the loop.

Coincidentally, a friend and I discussed all that recently, and before I had read “The Genius of Dogs”, on the way to a trainers’ dinner. She wondered what dog training might look like in a decade from now, and I am wondering that too, but feel quite excited about the journey. 

The book came with a birthday card in which my daughter wrote that I already know everything about dogs. She is wrong there: I possibly will never know all there is to know about dogs. Learning never stops. New studies will reveal new insights, and I also believe that like us, dogs are still evolving – evolving with us.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

About Food, Other Rewards and Intrinsic Reinforcement

I said it before, and I say it again: Force-free works with every dog, not just the sweet-tempered, biddable ones. But it’s gotta be done right, and that is much more than having a clicker in a hand and an endless supply of tiny-sized food pieces in a treat pouch.
Applying positive reinforcement most effectively means to know: How to use food, when to reward with food, when to reward with something else, and when it is advisable to refrain from externally adding anything at all.
I want to talk about food first.
Food is, of course, an existential need for all animals, and hence all animals are motivated by food – well, almost all. For humans, though, food is much more than simply survival. In every culture, around the world, food sharing and eating is part of ceremonial and celebratory rituals. Food has religious significance, and is an integral part whenever families and friends gather: We have romantic dinners, and fund-raising ones to help the poor and downtrodden; conferences and seminars involve food, and they advertise what is served to attract more people - to wet people’s physical as well as mental appetites.
Compare that with how food is used in a laboratory setting, the place where behavior, including positive reinforcement, was established and is still studied. Scientists prefer food exactly because most animals are highly motivated by it, and especially so when they are artificially kept a certain percentage under normal weight, when they are purposely underfed to raise motivation, when there is food scarcity, deprivation, a limited supply.
How do our companion dogs fit in that spectrum? Obviously, they are not humans. Dogs eat for the sake of eating and not to celebrate a mating or the birth of a litter. But they aren’t laboratory animals either: animals in an environment that utterly disregards everything non-scientific, including the human/dog relationship, and yet, many dogs are treated as if they were.
The daily kibble, the basic need that is our responsibility to provide when we own a dog like we nourish our children, is used, often entirely, to reinforce specific behaviors. Nothing is life is free, right? Particularly not for the family pooch.
Not just that, but like traditional trainers who recommend placing the dog in a stimulus deprived environment hours before a training session so that despite harsh corrections he still wants to work with the handler, some positive reinforcement trainers suggest not feeding the dog prior to training to raise motivation and even, like the lab rat, to keep the dog a little underweight. In the first scenario, being with a human on task is the lesser of two evils; in the second, the dog is keen to be with the human only because the human has food. Neither is the relationship I envision with my dog.

Food, including sharing some of our good-for-dogs human food, is free in our home. No strings attached because sharing gives me pleasure, and because my dogs learn that I, the mighty powerful one, have access to all these amazing assets I periodically dole out just because we belong together. Food sharing is a very bonding activity, and I get a lot of offered attention when I prepare food, and eat food, and eventually anytime and anywhere. Belonging and attention develops naturally and becomes a habit. And by the way, we never had a dog who was overweight. And this might surprise you too, also never one who was unmotivated by treats in training situations.
Here is the thing: If you like really like something, you’ll still like it even when it happens again, and again, and again.
You think a dog will only work for food if he is hungry? Just like a person might only push a hypothetical red button that spits out five-dollar bills if she actually needs small change? A rich person wouldn’t be bothered with such a dumb activity you think, and yet wealthy people sit for hours in front of slot machines, and you have dogs who have many balls in a toy box, and daily play, and still want more. When I give Will 10 pieces of chicken, does she say “Nah, thanks, I had enough” when I offer her one more? No. She says: “What can I do for you to get another piece”?
The truth is that if a dog, and person, is motivated by something she will stay motivated even if satiated with other stuff. To figure out what that is, is taking interest in the dog, and that, too, is bonding and will bring your relationship to a whole new level.
Artificially limiting resources for training and shaping purposes isn’t necessary, and can actually backfire when the dog becomes so hyper focused on food that the attention is not with the owner, or task, or body awareness, but only with food. Connecting and working with her human becomes but an activity to get done quickly in order to get food.
A dog who has to work for every morsel won’t do anything unless she’s paid in the currency she’s been taught, like the 6-month-old poodle client who’d only pay attention when she saw the treat pouch hanging off her person’s belt.
Let me be very clear: I use food to teach, and influence, and reinforce behaviors I like to see again. Food is easy to use and opens the door to learning. But when food is part of every interaction, and when dogs are deprived of what I think is their right, people and dogs become fixated and dependent on food, and worst of all, the owner becomes lazy and doesn’t explore what else their pooch is interested in, or doesn’t want to do. That’s the problem.

Reptiles in nature aren’t used to eating small pebbles of food frequently and, in scientific behavioral studies, never faired very well because they aren’t very motivated by frequent small pebbles of food. Hence, they got a reputation that they aren’t very smart - we all know the term lizard brain: other than instinct and core body functions, no one is home. Surprisingly, when scientists reinforced with the warmth of a heat lamp, something reptiles deeply care about, behaviors could be trained and lizard-brain turned out to be quite bright.
There are many things other than food our dogs care about; things they are intrinsically, by virtue of their nature, motivated by: Playing, sniffing, trailing, moving, distance, fetching, chasing, pulling, jumping – the best reinforcement for boxers, barking, and even biting – the often preferred reinforcement for Schutzhund trained German shepherds and Malinois.
The instructor at the herding clinic Davie and me participated in didn’t need food or a ball to get his collies do his bidding. They heeded their handler’s commands because otherwise they lost access to the sheep, for the moment. The opportunity to control sheep’s movements was what made them obey every whim, because controlling sheep is what floated their boat the most.
A couple of months ago we took care of a young Australian shepherd while his people were on vacation. As a typical Aussie, and after a rather short adjustment period, he was so responsive to us that I felt confident letting him off his leash. He never ran out farther than about 20 feet, checked in with me, returned, circled around me and dashed off again. This was on day three, and I was really tempted to food treat to reward such impeccable behavior, but didn’t because I didn’t have to. Re-orienting to us, his new lifeline as far as he knew, returning and circling, were all reinforcements in their own right and I didn’t need to add anything to it – anything other than giving him my full attention and erratically dodging around a bit so that he could chase and circle me some more.
However, we also practiced formal recalls and that I did reinforce with food, even though typically I like to reinforce coming when called with a game, not food, or at least food being part of a game, but because we already played movement games a lot, I used food for this particular dog and situation. I could have used a ball as well the Aussie was über-passionate about, but there were icy patches – it was winter in Canada – and I didn’t want to risk an injury.

I think you are getting my gist: Think when you work with a dog instead of following a popular template. You don’t have to “make a dog operant”. The dog is operant by virtue of being alive. When an action is intrinsic, facilitating opportunities for the dog to do what is natural is hard to top with anything added externally.
Yes, food is easy to use, but not always the most effective reinforcer, so don’t shove a treat in the dog’s mouth if he wants to sniff and mark the local piss pole.

And then there are situations in which any reinforcement that comes from you leads exactly to the behaviors that you don’t want.
I can’t count the number of young obnoxious dogs I met who are shaped to go the mat, and promptly reinforced with a click and treat, and as soon as they gobbled it up self-release and are right back to doing something obnoxious again. Going to the mat, and being pesky, forever yo-yos back and forth, and the mat itself can become part of an attention seeking game. Same thing with jumping when greeting: The dog is shaped to sit and sits, is clicked, treated and released to say hello, and as soon as she gets to the person, jumps.
Sometimes your dog simply needs to do something because you say so. Bet you thought you’d never hear that from me, and of course I am not talking about inflicting pain and punishments, but about managing with a leash until a new behavior is conditioned - or popping the pooch in the crate provided it is not perceived as aversive.
I recently had clients with a boxer puppy who at one point was wound so tight, so incapable of settling on her own, that I did just that: I gently, but manually, put her in the crate after her owners unsuccessfully tried to lure her in with food. Literally within seconds, and without any crying or scratching at the door, she was zonked out.
When a busy and energetic dog finally settles, operant conditioning laws tell you to reinforce that so that the behavior is repeated and you’ll get more settling in the future. In reality, the opposite will happen: the sleepy pooch on the mat or in her crate, sparked by your attention and the reinforcement, becomes active again, and potentially annoying. Having a safe and cushy spot to rest undisturbed when tired is reinforced, just not by us, and the wise owner leaves it like that.
One last thing: I don’t externally reinforce, no matter how good my dog’s behavior, if my goal is that certain stimuli become irrelevant, for example ducks in one of the parks we periodically visit, or the horses in our neighborhood. Reinforcing when my dog focuses on it would make the stimulus too much of a big deal, so I simply habituate.

Reinforcement, and not some magical telepathic emotion exchange as heard on TV, creates behavior. Silent pride is a heap of crap. That said, if the humans set the stage for companionship by: being together instead of always doing together, sharing food, and unconditionally giving affection and protection, you don’t always have to use a stick or carrot, or rather a choker or cookie, to get the kind of conduct that makes living with a dog so pleasurable. Your dog will want to be with you and please you.
And you also get away with requesting something from your dog she might not be so keen on at the moment. You won’t mess up your relationship if you have, as Dr. Susan Friedman says, enough accumulated trust in your bank account.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Introducing a New Dog

Last month we had a canine houseguest. We typically don’t dog sit because we are always über-busy, and it affects Will’s routine, but the dog we were asked to care for while his people enjoyed a vacation is an Australian shepherd, and we couldn’t possible say no to having an Aussie in the house for a little while.
We know the owners well, but only met the pooch, a 2-year-old entire male, a few times, and Will never met him at all. Nevertheless, I was not too worried inviting him into our midst because I know Will, knew how savvy and conscientious the Aussie’s owners are, am experienced with dogs and, surely, anything can work for a temporary period of time with clever management.
My criterion for long-term cohabitation is different. Clever management is not good enough, not fighting isn’t good enough, even dogs just tolerating one another isn’t. In my home, for dogs to permanently live together, they have to genuinely like each other. Can you imagine living with someone you don’t like in close space and for the rest of your life?
Most people want the same I do when they play with the idea of getting another dog. They want everyone to get along and envision their dogs being companions for each other. Hence, I regularly find inquiries how to accomplish that in my inbox. People are unclear if same or opposite gender works better, if the new dog should be close in age and have an alike, or complementary disposition.
Like it is so often the case when it comes to dogs, there is no clear answer. It depends, and that is what I typically email back - and not to drum up business for myself. Who fits best really is an individual thing.
That said, there are some general aspects that increase the probability of peaceful co-existence. For example, it helps if one dog is naturally deferent. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If all dogs are equally confident, no one will back away if there is a resource dispute. Who defers doesn’t matter. I don’t buy into the common belief that the exiting dog must be the alpha – yes, I am aware that alpha is a loaded word; sometimes it is the other way around, but it is essential that the existing dog’s life is not miserable because of the interloper. I don’t mean to sound callous, but I have a “last one in, first one out” rule. My loyalty is with the pooch I have had for many years, and I know how tough it can be letting go, but re-homing is the kinder solution when dogs truly clash.
Obviously, choosing the new dog wisely makes necessary re-homing less likely. Male/male, male/female and female/female combinations can all harmonize wonderfully, but two intact males can have ongoing issues, especially when there is an intact female around who becomes a desired, yet limited resource when she is in heat. Limited resources are a big deal, and big deal things incite potential confrontational reactions. But even that can work with a savvy owner.
Compatibility is more important than gender, and also more important than age. Our 11-year-old Will is snooty and aloof with just about every adult dog, and we thought that a pup she could raise any which way she wants to would be the best match, and yet, she quite liked the Aussie house guest. Methinks because, although Will didn’t know that particularly dog, there were many behaviors that resembled our Aussie Davie’s, who was her companion for 9 years.
He was also quite respectful, yielding to her. He still lives with his mother who obviously taught him manners. And he is very human oriented because his people do a lot of fun stuff with him. He solicited play with Will for sure, but was easily appeased to play with hubby Mike and me instead when Will wasn’t in the mood. I was able to re-motivate him, and therefore he didn’t pester her.

Dogs like Will that are not all that keen on goofing around with other dogs are more common than you might think. Age can play a role, but genetics and the dog’s life experiences during the critical developmental stages are contributing factors. Singleton puppies and ones removed from their mother and littermates too soon are often socially inept and awkward with other dogs; puppies who had to fight for basic needs, food, can view other dogs as rivals and aggress over resources. They can still successfully live with the right other dog, one who isn’t relentlessly space-rude and overbearingly playful.
Conversely, dogs that had littermates, were naturally weaned, and had in general more positive contact with dogs than with humans, will be happiest in a home that includes a dog who equally enjoys the company of his own kind. Sometimes such a dog is actually needed as support for a dog who knows little or nothing how humans function.
Extremes are rare - most dogs straggle the middle having a slight preference for either dogs or humans - but they do exist, and asking questions about the dog’s past living conditions can provide valuable clues if, or if not, he’ll fit nicely into your social group.
Unfortunately such information isn’t always available. All dogs have a history, but often it is either unknown or not revealed, so in reality the only reliable tool a potential owner has is to observe how the desired add-on moves and behaves around other dogs, and how the existing dog and the newbie act around each other.
My favorite way to check that is going for a walk. Whether it is in the existing dog’s neighborhood or on neutral ground depends on the dog. If he is anxious in unknown territory, home ground is better; if he is strutting home ground as if he owned it, neutral ground is better.
Best-case scenario is when both dogs are casually aware of each other, curious without being tensely fixated or frenetically pulling. Ideally, the dogs switch between ogling each other and being interested in other things in the environment. Ideally, each dog can easily be prompted to pay attention to his/her respective handler.
Two weeks before the Aussie guest landed on our doorstep we arranged for a walk in a multiuse off-leash park both dogs were familiar with. The Aussie was aware of Will and came for a sniff, but backed off instantly when Will gave him the “too soon for intimacy” eyeball. Both dogs had no issues moving together in the same direction though, and shared an interesting sniffing spot within the first 10 minutes. Both dogs took treats from the Aussie’s person and me, loosely close in space and patiently waiting their turn. I knew they’d be getting along.

Some humane societies and rescue organizations make it obligatory that all family members, including the canine one, must meet the dog they are thinking of adopting. It is a rule I like. Personally, I would not consider adding on a dog mine hasn’t met, unless I’d have an easy-going pooch who likes everyone.
We all know that real life and ideal doesn’t always link: People don’t know what to look for; get a long-distance dog they’ve never met; inherit a dog; consciously understand that the newbie might not be the best fit but want him anyway or, as it was the case with one of my recent clients, they had always boarded their dogs with a friend when away, but their new acquisition didn’t get along with the friend’s dog. What to do in those cases?
You still want to go for a walk, but you probably have to start from a greater distance to get the casual awareness behavior you are after. Just to clarify, you don’t want complete avoidance, a fixed “watch the owner”, because when dogs ultimately live in the same household they can’t avoid each other. What you do want is a  “There’s an unfamiliar dog – oh well, not a big deal”.
If one of the dogs is deliberately and constantly looking away, or sniffing the ground, he is overwhelmed and you need to decrease pressure by increasing distance.
When you work patiently at the dog’s comfort level, eventually they will become familiar and curious about one another, and at that point you can get closer, and if both dogs stay fluid and can be prompted to reorient to the person, a brief sniff’n’greet can happen. The dogs choose where they want to sniff: head first or anogenital area, but how they do indicates who, if there is a dispute, will likely defer. Although you want to use rewards later on to convince each dog that being near the other is great news, there is no need to add treats to the initial sniff – the dogs being able to gather more information about each other is intrinsically reinforcing.
Keep the initial contact brief, and then increase the distance again, on a loose leash by encouraging the pooch with body and voice to follow. Yo-yo between sniffing and walking away, gradually increasing the time the dogs are close together.
Be animated when you walk away, but don’t use any other reinforcements when cohabitation is the goal. You want to make the best resources available when they peacefully share space, not when they are apart, thereby fostering cooperation.

With some dogs, going for a few walks is all they need to become buddies; with others, you have to meet at different places and more often before you enter home-turf together. Whenever you incorporate a new area, make the other components easier: start from a greater distance and decrease duration of sniffs, and once that new place is familiar, decrease the distance and increase duration again.
Also be aware that animation increases arousal. The dog might be loose and non-reactive when the other does “normal” things: walks, sniffs, looks, but over-reacts when he does something odd. For example, when Will made a snow angel, the Aussie boarder got all excited and was on his way to pounce on her, which without a doubt would have resulted in an argument. Because I was aware of this, I was able to prevent it by re-motivating the Aussie. So, pay attention to that until the dogs are familiar with each other’s idiosyncrasies.
The first time the dogs are together in their home, up the value of reinforcements. They should experience, once again, that the best things manifest when they are sharing space. Life for the existing dog has to stay the same or become better with the arrival of the gatecrasher. Ensure that the familiar routine is kept, that he has access to all places he had before, and that, if he is older, has opportunities to rest and sleep undisturbed. And don’t forget that owner attention is a highly valued resource, so don’t shift your gaze away when the other butts in.  All that seems commonsensical, but I have had clients who suddenly banned the older dog from the bed or a certain part of the house with the new arrival, and then wondered why his behavior changed for the worse.
If a dog is – or feels – put out with the appearance of another, anxiety, animosity and aggression builds.

Alike seeks alike and meshes well - unless they are equally jaded and confrontational. Initially less than perfect matches can still work, if the humans meet each dog’s individual needs, and that can mean a lot of extra time a day that goes to the dogs.
If, or if not, a social group harmonizes depends on the dogs, but also, perhaps more so, on the people’s level of skill and available time; the amount of effort and commitment they are comfortable making.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sunshine to Maritime Dogs

Last week the first shipment of about 100 animals coming from Palm Springs, California, arrived in Nova Scotia. 46 dogs were driven in an RV across North America, with another load expected in a couple of weeks that also includes some 50 cats. The arrangement was a cooperative effort between Animal Rescue Corps and several local rescue organizations. The arrival of the dogs was met with great fanfare - and a lot of controversy that seems to continue based on the conversations I had at the recent Dog Expo with a number of people.
Since this whole thing became public, I followed various Facebook threads, had private conversations with other trainers, met some of the dogs, talked with people who met the dogs, and talked with people that are involved with rescue organizations that were not part of the Sunshine Dogs project. Based on that, and my personal experience working with dogs for more than a decade and being loosely involved with humane societies and rescue folks for equally that long, a whole bunch of thoughts circled around in my brain, and I want to share them with you – rationally and unemotionally albeit not impartially, because we all see the world through our own filter, and I am no exception.
Let’s start with the different positions folks have taken, and no, I won’t line up who said what and where, a) because a number of people shared similar viewpoints, and b) because some of the conversations are confidential.
On one end of the opinion spectrum are people who are openly against it because they feel that we have enough dogs in need here, and already limited resources to help all of them. As one person pointed out: We are importing dogs from a population and resource wealthy area to a resource strapped and low population area.
I agree with that. There are large dogs sitting in shelters sometimes for months, like Maverick at the Colchester SPCA who is there since November, and no one looks at him, and calls for help with local rescue was largely ignored. Every rescue group here is forever fund raising and asking for donations, including covering veterinary expenses for the Sunshine to Maritime dogs. So, I am by and large opposed, but not so annoyed that I will stop supporting the organizations that were part of this event.

On the other end are the people that are in favor. Some, because they feel that it doesn’t matter where animals saved come from, as long as they are saved. One person inferred that whoever makes negative comments is generally anti-global, and also against funding starving children because they live elsewhere. Hm? I’m not.
Others point out that many of the dogs that came are small ones we don’t have enough of here, and if rescue can’t supply folks who want a small dog with a small dog, they’ll look for one elsewhere, for example online. That is a valid point, but for me there is a but: Do the small dogs have the temperament Joe and Jane Frontporch are looking for? Or do they, or some, have issues that, based on my experience, the general public doesn’t have in mind when they're looking for a dog.
Some rescue dogs experienced a horrible past and need more than love to fix things. In fact, they might reject the love owners, especially ones that want a toy size, are so eager to give. Lay people generally have certain expectations and envision a pooch they can snuggle with, take on walks, to the park, on trips and when visiting friends and family. They typically don’t want a dog who is detached, nips at people, defends resources or growls when the collar comes on, reacts to other dogs and pisses in the house. I am not saying that the Palm Springs dogs all have these issues, but some, I am sure, do, because dogs who lived in a shelter for months, or in a hoarding situation where there was filth and fights over limited resources, have learned to void in the house, run or crate, and fight over resources. In addition, they can be distressed because of constant noise overstimulation, and mental/physical understimulation.
The probable consequence when people struggle with the dog they adopted is that they are less likely to get another from that rescue, or rescue period, and more likely to look for a breeder’s pup in the future. And where does the majority look? Online.
Speaking of, all dogs at one point are produced somewhere, and I argue that many in rescue originated in mill type facilities or back yards, and were purchased online or in a pet store. The general public sadly still doesn't have a clue that an ill-bred pup might be sickly and can have behavioral issues right from the start because he didn’t get what he needed during his critical developmental stages. When things don’t work out, the dog is surrendered or dumped, and eventually ends up in rescue. So indirectly, every organization that rescues makes room for more dogs produced for profit, and that is not much different than an individual purchasing a pup online or in a pet store.
Of course I am not suggesting that rescue organizations cease to exist. Dogs’ wellbeing has been my mission for many years and rescue is a big part of it. And it is never the dog’s fault - every pooch deserves a second or third chance. But what I am saying is that the answer isn’t as simple as: “Let’s all get a dog from rescue and we’ll all be happy”. There is no easy solution, no right answer, other than legislation that stipulates who can breed and sell; legislation that shuts down people that pop out litter after litter after litter and sell to anyone who hands over money, or liquor, or dope, or whatever trade-in stuff they need at the time - the kind of scum rescue often also bails out when they buy a whole litter because they pity the pups. But of course, they too, like the individual, make room for the next litter.
I argue that the best way to prevent future suffering is not getting a dog from rescue, but getting one from a conscientious breeder who cares about health and temperament, has only the number of litters they can imprint, raise and place properly, and who provides a contract with a lifetime return guaranty. Until we have that North America wide, rescue organization everywhere will be overloaded and underfunded in perpetuity.

The other thing that was discussed in several threads was that not all Sunshine to Maritime dogs that came with the first shipment are small. Some are large, and methinks we indeed have a surplus of large dogs in this province – see Maverick. Perhaps he’ll become the spokes dog for all the large dogs that are falling through the cracks.
And what’s up with getting 50 cats? Everyone seems to be against that. They will go to Prince Edward Island, and perhaps they lack cats there. But then why wouldn’t they take our cats we can’t give away here? Transport would be cheaper, too. Apparently the whole thing ate up about 15.000 bucks in transportation costs.
Perhaps the cats coming from Palm Springs are special cats – a certain size or color we don’t have anywhere in the Maritimes.
Or perhaps they were part of the deal to get the small dogs. A local blogger wrote that the small dogs  sweetened the deal for the large ones.
I don’t know. Can someone enlighten me?

The arrival of the Sunshine dogs, as I mentioned, received a lot of media attention, and several people pointed out that that is a good thing because it will raise public awareness and therefore increase the number of people who will look to rescue first when they want a dog. Again, in my opinion if or if not adoptions and support will increase long term depends largely on the experience people will have with the dog they adopted. Experiences they will talk about with friends and family.

Another point made on a Facebook thread was that rescue and foster homes should hire professional trainers, the certified ones, more often to help with problem behaviors. Emphasis on hire. That irked a number of people, according to comments on that thread and people I talked with at the Dog Expo a couple of days ago, who felt that they know as much as a trainer and therefore don't need to spent money they don't have.
Personally, I share the sentiment that trainers, like any other professional, should get paid for their service. Of course we should, and I am miffed when someone has no issues paying for every other service, except behavioral advice. However, based on my experiences, that happens more with lay people than rescue organizations. The ones that asked me for advice in the past always offered payment, which I, if it was via email or phone, refused. I respect foster homes because I know the effort they put in, and the least I can do is help out every so often. If a personal visit is needed, I accept payment they often insist on, but give a discount. Also, when I gave free seminars for foster homes and the SPCA, I always received something: Locally made crafts, homemade bread, a gift certificate for a restaurant, a bottle of local wine – all of it warmed by heart. It doesn’t always have to be money. Not for me anyway.
In addition, some rescue organizations helped me with an occasional client who needed to re-home - and some others didn’t even return my email.  Naturally, in those cases help is for free, including a personal visit. How could I expect rescue to take in a dog I was involved with, cover future food and vet care costs, and in addition also pay for my advice if they need it?
More often than not though, the rescue folks I deal with indeed know what they are doing. Of course they would. Living with many, many dogs for  many, many years makes one an expert, even if not certified. On the other paw, we professionals who specialize in dogs and behavior might know things rescue people, who have jobs, and a family and the dogs, and little time to stay current, don’t know.  

One advice I always give is to allow rescued dogs the time and space they need to find their bearings in their new environment. I mean, those Sunshine dogs’ life as they knew it, however crappy it might have been, just ended: They were uprooted, on an 8-day RV trip, bombarded with a number of new people and new hands and cameras, and then thrust into another unfamiliar environment in their foster homes. They need time to settle; they don’t need more new people, more stimulation in the name of exercise and socializing, more prodding at the vet, or yet another foster home. First and foremost rescue dogs, often shell-shocked or at least the wind taken out of their sails, have to find safety again in a new routine that is then incrementally expanded from inside the house and yard, outward.
Depending on the dog, that can take a couple of weeks, and until then, until they are settled and their true personality surfaces, they should not be adopted. How can a dog be placed in the best home possible if you don’t know much about the dog’s behavior, likes and dislikes, and potential issues. Relying on accounts from the rescue folks that brought the dogs in, or in other cases on what former owners say, is not good enough. Foster homes need to experience for themselves if the dog reportedly house trained and not at all aggressive, is indeed house trained and not at all aggressive, and then they can let him go to his hopefully forever home, and make room for more dogs that need their help.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Can Manipulation of Body and Communication Signals Change Behavior?

We love our dogs, don’t we?  We love to watch them play, love when they’re attentive - follow us literally and figuratively, when they are affectionate and soft, and some of us even love when they act doggish: zoom in wide circles, bark with excitement, dig in the snow, sniff'n'mark, drag a log out of a pond, roll in yucky stuff - well, perhaps love is too strong a word regarding the last one.
Dogs, we say, are honest and incapable of wearing a social mask, and we love that too - until they express that they feel aroused, anxious or angry. Those signals: the tension and warning stares; the barks, whines and growls; the tucked-under tail and bristled hair, we don’t love. We accept dogs’ frankness only when they “say” what we like, and aim to extinguish their not so sweet signals – either with inflicting punishment or applying reinforcement. With some dogs, either method effectively manipulates signals, but the important question is if we also successfully influence future behavior.

A few years ago scientists conducted an experiment in which people were asked to carry a pencil between their lips for a few minutes several times a day. Carrying a pencil, of course, resembles a smile. Scientists knew that hormones and neurochemicals dictate behavior, but what they wanted to find out was if it happens the other way around: If molding the body affects brain chemicals. Indeed, there were measurable changes in the test subjects, so it seems to be the case.
Since humans and dogs are physiologically similar, the notion to use that information to help dogs is apparent: If we manually flatten raised hair, move ears forward, lift the tail, could we increase a dog’s feel-good neurochemicals and make him relaxed, confident and proud? This is what one renowned trainer, who cited the above study at a seminar, proposed, albeit with a question mark because she wasn’t quite convinced. Neither was I, and there is scientific evidence that shows that although behavior seems to influence brain chemistry, it does not change brain circuitry, and that is an important distinction.
When a person smiles spontaneously, because they feel joyful or experience something funny or inspiring, the brain’s emotional center in the limbic system fires up. In comparison, when a person is prompted to smile, for example a politician for a photo op during an election campaign, neurons in the cerebral cortex, the thinking part of the brain, light up. There are muscles in the face that are not under voluntary control, and are only involved when the smile is genuine, emotional. To an onlooker, a smiling person might be regarded as happy and affable, but that doesn't mean it is real.
Likewise, I believe that a dog's submissive display isn't necessarily real either, and I have observational evidence that backs it up. One dog in particular sticks out: A juvenile Labrador retriever named Abby who, for a few months, joined a loosely formed walking group I belonged to in Calgary.
Abby, when she arrived, greeted each of our dogs, at any given day 10-15 of them, in a very groveling fashion. She did it every time anew, and every time was promptly growled at by just about every dog while she was still on her back, and after that, after they let her get up, everyone happily roamed together for the remainder of the walk.
Our dogs’ growls upset Abby’s owner. She felt that since her dog so exaggeratedly submitted, ours shouldn’t be so offensively aggressive, and wanted them disciplined. Discipline, she shared with us, they implemented from day one as outlined in the training guide they followed: The Monks of New Skete’s “The Art of Raising a Puppy”. Although we were a little stumped by our dogs as well, we didn’t intervene because they were typically quite appropriate, even with newcomers. We, as a group, speculated that perhaps they knew more than we humans did.
As it turned out, we and our dogs were correct. As Abby matured, a different personality surfaced. No more groveling, no more submission, but high arousal, attacking and bullying dogs, and offensively barking at people. Eventually, Abby got into so much trouble that they stopped coming.
The original version of “The Art….” advises the alpha roll, the forceful putting a pup on her back, and I wondered then if Abby’s initial submission was feigned, and our dog savvy dogs, perceptive of subtleties in body language, saw it for what it was: Learned and superficial rather than felt deference.

People can manipulate crude body language, but not the finer expressions that reflect a dog’s emotional state: facial muscle tension, dilated pupils, an open or closed mouth with retracted or puckered commissures. Most people have difficulties comprehending dog communication when it is loud and clear, never mind subtleties. Dog savvy dogs, however, know - and perhaps smell, the emotional state and intent and decide, based on that, how they want to greet, or if. Manipulating a dog, including turning one around so the other can sniff butt and genitals, without understanding what is going on, leaves a lot of room for mistakes.

Trainers who use negative reinforcement instead of physical molding to extinguish undesired expressions do pay attention to those finer signals. They orchestrate situations in which the dog is exposed to the problematic trigger close enough that the trigger is indeed perceived as problematic. As long as the dog responds with unwanted signals, neither handler nor trigger do anything, but as soon as she gives appeasement, curious or friendly signals, the trigger releases the pressure by increasing the distance. Whatever is reinforced is repeated, and trainers who use negative reinforcement to treat reactivity claim that when practiced enough, the operant conditioned friendly expressions will lead to an authentically friendly dog. Again, I have doubts, and again, studies as well as real life experience seem to substantiate them.
In an experiment, human test subjects were instructed to move their facial muscles to mirror a specific emotion: anger or happiness. Like the pencil between the lips study, the scientists wanted to see if consciously invoking an expression would lead to the corresponding emotion, and indeed the participants reported that they felt respectively angry or happy. So at first glance, deliberately producing body signals appears to bring about the feeling, but closer investigation and evidence from electrophysiological recordings revealed that the artificial smiley and angry faces created different brain wave patterns than those generated by real smiles and real anger. The brain just can’t be fooled.
In addition, the test subjects were not happy or angry at any particular thing, which is of course the case when we work with dogs who react to very specific and real stimuli: mainly other dogs and/or strangers.
I encountered dogs who were shaped with negative reinforcement, and from a distance indeed didn’t snarl any longer but displayed sociable signals, one even play bowed, but reacted when the distance decreased and pressure became overwhelming. The one that play bowed attacked when she was within teeth range. Had she changed her mind about dogs? Obviously not.
Like body molding, shaped friendliness void of the emotion behind it is mock friendliness, and mock friendliness puts people in a false sense of security. There is a real risk that the dog becomes more dangerous. Like punishing the growl, we suppress the dog’s natural warning vocabulary when we reinforce the ones we like better. Before you had an aggressive dog who signaled it and you could take action; after punishment and shaping for sociability, you have one who doesn’t and the attack comes unannounced. Furthermore, people typically approach closer when they see friendly body signals, and in that case you want to be certain that your dog IS friendly, and not just acts friendly.

Yes, we have accounts that insecure people feel stronger when they consciously walk tall and with conviction, and anxious ones who become more centered in stressful situations when they practice relaxed breathing, but don’t forget that when people fake it till they make it they do that voluntarily, without external manipulation and shaping.
Even then, an assertion such as: “I carried a pencil between my lips for a few weeks and permanently lost my fear of spiders” sounds ludicrous. I am sure phobic folks wish a cure was so easy.
In my opinion, if we want honesty from the dog, anything emotional must come freely from the dog, and not be shaped, prompted or manipulated. If a dog feels afraid or angry, reflected in his body signals, I respect that. It is preposterous human arrogance to decide for the dog what signals she should give. That doesn’t mean I ignore problem behaviors, but that I try to change the underlying issues instead of expressions. If I am successful, the signals I don’t like will disappear automatically and authentically.

Many owners want what I want: a canine companion who feels relaxed, curious and confident, content and happy. You get that not with manually lifting the tail, but when you facilitate opportunities for the dog to succeed.
During a tracking workshop, our German shepherd friend Fin found the hidden person and was overjoyed. No food reward was needed to motivate him to do it again.
Will once successfully snatched a ball from her nemesis Gracie. She carried it in a way that it hung out of her mouth for all to see. Will never carried a ball that way before or after.
Our Aussie Davie snubbed all her dog friends at the park after a herding workshop. Even before I told the group what we had been up to, they commented that she was different.
Our Newf Baywolf hightailed and pranced after he finally dislodged a big branch he was working on for a good 10 minutes.
No fake signals in any of these dogs, but expressed, authentic joy – pride, there is no better word to describe it.
So, can we manipulate the signals a dog gives? Absolutely.
Should we? My answer is no.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rescue Chi in Defensive Mode

Aggression is a major reason why dogs are surrendered to rescue organizations and humane societies, who then must decide what to do with the pooch.
A Chihuahua named Loco is one of those dogs. His rescue people decided to work with him, to make him safe and adoptable, and asked for my advice. I thought it perfect blog post fodder.
Watch this video Loco's foster parent made: 
Loco is described as guarding his crate, and although he reportedly also guards food and toys, I’d say that he is defending the safety the crate represents, rather than possessively guarding the object. He doesn’t want people near him because he doesn’t trust them.
How trainers work with a dog like Loco depends on their philosophy and skill level. Any of the things below are done to dogs – it all depends in whose hands they are lucky, or unlucky, enough to fall in.

1. Euthanasia. Nowadays, thanks to the popular No-Kill movement, fewer aggressive dogs are killed and more get a second chance.

2. Hands-on force.
Toys are easy to overpower, so why not put on heavy leather gloves and forcefully take Loco's resource away until he understands that all things belong to people and stops objecting?
Couldn’t we just pin him until he submits?
Although we don’t know for sure, chances are that it is exactly that kind of treatment that caused Loco’s aggression in the first place. A dog forced and overpowered doesn’t get used to being manhandled and losing his valuables, but becomes increasingly more suspicious and defensive. If he only succeeded once with the aggressive displays and the person he felt threatened by backed off, aggression was powerfully reinforced and became his default mechanism for keeping people away.

3. One could use a shock collar and zap the expressions out of him.
Shock collars, banned in some countries, are commonly used in North America. There are, in fact, shock collar franchises. Why are they popular? Because they can be effective. A shock impresses the dog and often suppresses the undesired expressions pretty much right away. That impresses the owners: they don’t see how their dog feels anymore and are happy. It's a lucrative business. But make no mistake: the underlying emotion does not magically vanish. How anybody believes that a shock makes a dog feel better about people, dogs, or whatever the triggers are, is delusional.
If you can stomach watching shock-trained dog video clips, you see robotic, mechanical obedience and behavior: dogs that won’t do anything but what they’re told, and are eerily non-responsive regardless what situation they're put in. No behaviors offered; dog’s spirit left the building.

4. Rewarding the dog for appropriate, friendlier behavior.
That is a more humane approach, popular with force-free trainers, and the one the foster home chose with Loco. The reward is distance, so moving away, as soon as the dog stops his aggressive displays. You see that clearly in the clip. The concept behind it is that if you functionally reinforce the desired behavior, the dog will do more of it, and in time become friendlier and more trusting because people don’t steal and hurt anymore. It sounds logical, but is not how I work with aggressive dogs and here is why: What is happening here, in operant conditioning terms, is negative reinforcement: something unpleasant is applied, and when the dog shows the behavior we are after the pressure is released. The problem is that the person is still “something unpleasant”, which means we might be changing the dog’s expressions by reinforcing the more preferable ones, but we are not changing how the dog feels about people any time soon, and as long as people put pressure on the dog. Humans, from Loco’s point of view, are still bad news, and the only thing he learns is to do certain things to make them go away. I'll elaborate in my next post why I don't like manipulation of communication and body signals.
In addition Loco was clearly overwhelmed with that exercise and "practiced" aggression for a period of time before he finally walked away. It is not a conscious process, but brain pathways are strengthened every time neurons fire. Behaviors that are well established, that are done over and over again, have very strong neural pathways. When we work with dogs, we want to do everything possible not to strengthen the aggressive pathways further.
There are some real physiological things happening when a dog is anxious, afraid or angry. Adrenalin level rises, and when that happens a lot a dog can become chronically hormone imbalanced, and we want to avoid that too.

5. My goal, when I work with a defensive dog, is to change his emotional response to the trigger: from it being perceived as potential trouble to it announcing something wonderful. If done successfully, the nasty expressions will simply, authentically, disappear.
This is what I wrote Loco's foster person: Think away from operant conditioning - what, or what not, you are reinforcing. Don’t see the aggressive expressions as negative behavior that needs to be quelled, but the emotional state the dog is in. We might not like it, but he can’t help it.
To instill trust in people, walk toward the crate, toss Loco the best treat, and walk away. Treat and retreat, without any strings attached. He gets it just because a person is approaching. No pressure: You don’t hang around the crate, you don't look at him, and there is no demand for him to do a certain thing.
Most dogs quickly begin to anticipate the appearance of the trigger, in Loco’s case the human, excitedly because they associate it with something good.
Once Loco begins to trust, the person gradually gets closer and stays close for longer, and looks at him for longer. The next step is expanding, using the same approach, to all problem zones, and then incorporating different people.
You want to orchestrate many opportunities for Loco to experience that humans are, with 100% predictability, non-threatening. Emotional safety cancels the need to act defensively, but safety has to be felt: it can neither be taught with reason, nor forced with compulsion.

The wonderful people who are working with Loco are giving this try and promised to keep me in loop. I will update you.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Dog Parks and Dog Play

Morning glory is to slurp a whipped cream topped latte while heading to my favorite dog park. Although I like wearing the halo of an amazing dog owner because I allow mine to express her dogness unrestricted by a leash, the truth is that my reasons for visiting such places are self-serving: I love watching dogs, mine and others.
Proof that I am not the only person who does is the popularity of off-leash parks. Owners galore point to the many benefits, the exercise and real quality time spent with other dogs and people, when they push their municipal leaders to designate a space for dogs to run free.
True, dog parks are good for the human and canine mind and body, but bliss turns into nightmare when a dog is injured or killed by another. That happened recently in Calgary – a city and its off-leash parks very familiar to me. Here are the details:
I don’t want to get deep into the pit bull debate, because I want to discuss dog parks and dog play, but let me say that I am against banning certain breeds. What I am also against, though, is that anybody can sell or buy any dog they wish, without required to know even the basics in dog behavior, communication and management, or care about their welfare. I’d like to see legislation that addresses that so that powerful dogs don’t continue to end up with people ill equipped to keep them and society safe.
Based on my experience, many pits are owned by the wrong people. I am not talking about just gangstas, but young males who get a tremendous ego boost when they adorn themselves with a macho-reputation dog and the looks that go with it; and even young and middle-age females who argue that “bullies” are but victims of media hype and deny that they, like any other breed, come with specific characteristics.
Pits were traditionally bred to have a heightened awareness of dogs, confront them, and follow through with an attack. Not all pit bulls attack dogs, but when they do they are serious about it, like the ones in that article who ripped a Pomeranian apart, and severely injured a powerful livestock guardian breed dog, a great Pyrenees.
The pit owner claims that his dog was provoked:
I don’t care if he was or wasn’t. A dog who does such damage shouldn’t live.
The owner says that his dog would never hurt anybody. Evidently, that is not the case.
Such attacks result in trauma for all involved: The humans who witness their dog being harmed, the dogs that are injured, but also the attacker who is seized and forced to deal with a totally unfamiliar environment, and might lose his life.

Fortunately, attacks like that are rare, and they can happen anywhere, not just in off-leash parks. I never witnessed a dog seriously injured or killed, but I often do encounter socially inept dogs who shouldn’t mix freely with others: dogs timid and overwhelmed, or out of control wound up. In almost all cases the owners are oblivious bystanders.
A dog park, contrary to popular belief, is the worst place to establish social skills. Dogs who don’t have them get worse, and dogs who have to deal with dogs who don’t have them become irritated or fearful.
Social skills and obedience must be in place before off leash in the big distraction dog park is introduced. That means that the pooch is acclimated to a variety of park users, including children, feels fairly comfortable around them, and acts appropriately, including with small dogs. Multi-use trail parks don't have a small dog area sectioned off, but even in parks that do I see large and tiny ones mingle. So, there is no other way around it: Before a dog is allowed free reign, he must be all-around socially appropriate and owner responsive. Neither segregation nor a muzzle can replace that. Last summer I witnessed a muzzled greyhound relentlessly hunting down a toy-size dog. He couldn’t physically harm, but the little one was terrorized nevertheless. None of the other dogs at the park acted that way, so eeny meeny miny moe – which is the dog who should go? Hint, not the toy.
A dog who might do serious damage should not be in an off-leash park, leashed or not, muzzled or not. Sometimes an owner has no pre-existing knowledge of that level of aggression, but sometimes they do and expose their dog to others anyway.
An off-leash park is also the wrong setting for the scared dog. He will be overwhelmed when his need for personal space and time to observe and process what is going on aren't heeded, and chances are that he’ll become increasingly more sensitized, nervous and reactive, instead of more “socialized”.
A dog who is not dangerous but inappropriate and frightens most other dogs should be on the leash.
New owners of a rescue dog should not visit an off-leash park until they know more about the dog’s social skills, and until a certain amount of attachment has taken place.
Key to a successful park outing is that the dog switches his attention between person and the environment, because then it is more likely than not that he will respond to a command, including come when called. I admit, I didn’t always observe that rule. Our Newf Baywolf was so friendly with everyone that a reliable recall seemed unnecessary, but that was 15 years ago and since I learned a thing or two: even the friendliest dog can irritate another who wants to be left alone.
Now I call my dogs back when I see:
Another dog on the leash
A number of small dogs chasing each other
Rowdy dogs interacting
A dog who gives fear signals toward mine
A dog who irritates mine
Any unusual encounter, for example a child making snow angels, or a grossly overweight and snorting pug wiggling along.
In addition, my dogs have an emergency sit, which means that I can place them into a stationary position and walk away to deal with oncoming trouble myself if need be.
Oh, and don’t rely on the other person’s account of their dog’s emotion, intention and behavior. Recently, when trailing one of my favorite parks with a friend and her dogs, we encountered a dog on the leash who stiffly stared – the hard locked and loaded look – at my friend’s juvenile. When the owner sensed my hesitation, she assured us that her dog “just wants to play”. I told my friend to recall and leash her dogs.

Off-leash means that dogs can enjoy physical freedom.
Off-leash does not mean that every dog enjoys interacting with all other dogs. Many, especially mature adults, are quite content to mind their own business, play with a familiar canine buddy, sniff around, or have fun with their person.
When dogs do interact with one another, owners should keep an astute eye on their dog to ensure that play does not escalate in something more serious. Boisterous, competitive play can quickly change into aggression if one dog gets the upper hand. We see that in sports: As soon as one team is winning, the other initiates aggression or cheats to turn things around.
When one dog aggresses, the other might lose interest and stop the interaction to avoid an injury, but by that time the aggressor can be too pumped to break it off. You can see that scenario played out typically between almost equal or similar, often same gender, dogs. Here is a clip that illustrates that nicely.
Pay attention how the owner dealt with the situation: he was there; he was plugged in and understood his dogs; he split when he needed to in a calm and directive way, without force and corrections, and without taking sides. When the dogs were relaxed again, he praised them. Take note folks – this is how it’s done.

In play, everyone is a willing participant, and authentic play is beautiful to watch.
Canine buddies, so dogs that are familiar with each other, often joyfully play, and unfamiliar dogs can become instant friends when they are young or share the same play style.
Two is company and three a crowd seems to be true for dogs as well: often the best play sessions happen between two dogs attentive to each other, and things can get a little weird if a third one wants to join in.
In normal play, there are little pauses that prevent that the interaction becomes too heated, and then the dogs pick it up again, each one seeking to continue.
A trademark of true play is a loose and fluid body. Tension and hard-eyed staring can be part of a chase invitation between friends, with the staring dog characteristically the one who runs to be chased. Play tension is brief and combined with a “play face” – pulled back lips and an open mouth, contrary to prolonged tension with a clamped up, puckered mouth when a dog feels conflicted.
Tension when dogs first see each other is a sign of nervousness or aggression, not play.
During play, all signals and expressions that are part of a dog’s behavioral repertoire can be used, including bites in the neck/throat area. But again the body is loose, the mouth wide open, tongue visible and teeth covered. The bites are inhibited, and both dogs voluntarily stay in the game.
Here are two puppies playing – ignore the humans babbling in the background.
Normal play is reciprocal: dogs switch between chaser and chasee, and positions - sometimes one dog is on top, then the other.
Sometimes a more powerful dog will even level the field for his buddy, for example lie down or roll on his back.
When dogs truly play, they are still peripherally aware of stimuli around them. They can be interrupted by distractions, including the owner calling, and won't startle and overreact when a dog or person moves into their space. If your dog has you so tuned out that he doesn’t respond to his name anymore, he is too wound and fixated. Interfere.

The responsibility for a conflict free park lies solely with the humans. If we are responsible as a group, we will keep off-leash privileges, and if not, well – I’d certainly hate to lose the opportunity to watch my dog enjoy unrestricted fun. Self-regulation, in combination with legislation and education, might be the measures that prevent that, and prevent breed bans along the way.