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Start Where You Are

Tennis great Arthur Ashe once said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” That is a profound recommendation straight from the life-experience of someone who overcame a lot of difficulties, and accomplished things most people told him were impossible. As an African-American breaking into the world of professional tennis mid-20th century, I doubt he had dog training in mind, but it’s really applicable. Too often we can come up with so many excuses for not training, and the more we put things off the harder it is to know just where to start. We totally forget that there’s only one place we CAN start — like Mr. Ashe says: where you are!

No matter if you just got a puppy, recently adopted an adult dog, or have been living with Spot for years, there are bound to be behaviors you aren’t happy with!  Training with your dog is a wonderful bonding experience, whether the dog is an old companion or new recruit!  And don’t believe that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” line – dogs (and people) can learn at any age.  I think that saying came about as an excuse for folks who didn’t want to change their ways!  Don’t let the “if only syndrome” blind you to how easy it is to just jump in and DO something: here and now!

Start small. Pick one behavior to work on. If Spot doesn’t SIT on command, that’s an easy, basic behavior with a lot of real-life applications! If Spot also has greeting people with all four on the floor, asking him to SIT can help with that. However, Spot has to be really good at SIT and find it gets him lots of praise and attention so he’ll WANT to do it in a greeting situation!  Ask him to SIT to get his dinner; before getting on the couch/bed, to go outside/come inside, to get in the car, to get a treat, to get petted.  These are all things Spot LOVES and it’s amazing how quickly he’ll master that SIT command if it’s paired up with, “Good things, good things, good things – yeah!”  Once he’s mastered SIT, use all those same things to motivate Spot to lie DOWN!

You can pick any command or behavior problem. Don’t know how to teach Spot? Ask a friend with a well-trained dog, google it, get a book from the library, enroll in a class, or hire a professional  to teach one-on-one lessons in your own home. My recommendation is find instructions from a trainer who emphasizes POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT, because you and Spot will enjoy the training a lot more than if it’s punishment-based.  Bu the point is there are lots of opportunities that you can easily access TODAY right from your own computer and/or phone!

Lots of times I hear from clients how hard it is to find time to train.  They put it off day-to-day until suddenly the week is gone and they haven’t practiced the class lesson!  Oh, I understand  how impossibly busy our schedules can get!  It’s often very hard to re-arrange your day to add ANOTHER commitment!  The good news is you only need a few minutes at a time! Folks think they need to put aside at least a half hour, but both Spot and you will work all the better for keeping lessons short and snappy!

But that’s worse – you think – finding a lot of 3-5 minute bits of time.  Not if you’re crafty!  Look at all the times we’re WAITING during the day.  While the microwave is warming up our tea.  While the kids are looking for their shoes.  While the dishwasher/washer/dryer finishes up.  During TV commercials!  A half-hour TV program has at least 3 commercial breaks, each 2.5-4 minutes long. If you keep some treats on a shelf in the family room, those commercial breaks are a PERFECT length to work on one behavior.  You’re not giving up anything to make training time.  You’re not rescheduling your day.  You’re just starting where you are and using that time to bond with your dog instead of allowing some corporation to brainwash you into buying something you don’t need.

So, get started!  Treat training like a game, instead of boot-camp!  If you forget and sit through a commercial break or two, don’t beat yourself up!  Just laugh at how well the TV has US trained and try to catch the next one!  Start where you are physically, mentally and emotionally — and training will get easier as you learn to relax and have fun!

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Memories…

for some reason today, I’m remembering all the dogs from my extended family when I was growing up.  There weren’t that many of them.  Mine is not a large family and many of my relatives never owned a dog, but there was usually one or two at big family gatherings at the lake.  It’s kind of odd, looking  back over so many years and reviewing a child’s memories with the adult, trainer’s knowledge that I have today.

The first dog I knew really well was Sandy, my grandparent’s dog.  She was pretty small, a flop-eared, fawn-colored, short-coated dog that I remember Grandma saying was a Boxer/Cocker spaniel mix.  I remember the night the Grands got her.  They brought her over to our house to show her off — sleeping in a shoe box!  Sandy loved to chase chipmunks in the forest at our cottage.  She’d dash through the dry leaves making a terrible racket!  After many years, she finally caught up with one and grabbed it.  It died, of course, and Sandy didn’t understand why it didn’t get back up and run some more.  Funny thing, the chipmunks stayed away from the woods near the cottage after that, and Sandy never chased one again.

But I really remember Sandy because of something we did that now, in hind-trainer’s-sight, I realize was not too safe.  My Mom and Grandma always laughed and said how Sandy was “talking” to us “imitating” what we were saying.  I don’t think so.  You see, when someone would hug Sandy, and say “Awwwww….” she’d stiffen up and growl.  Not only adults, but they allowed us kids to do that, too.  Remembering, my skin crawls!  I think poor Sandy was trying her best to tell us how uncomfortable she was with that  sort of “attention!”  Looking back, I think we were really lucky she was too polite to bite!

Then there was my Uncle’s dog, Czar.  He was a huge, black-and-white, thick-silky-haired beast with ginormous paws and a massive head.  Uncle Jim said he was part water spaniel because he liked the water.  I don’t know if this was an adult joke aimed over the heads of us kids, or if he really didn’t know.  I’m reasonably certain Czar was a Landseer Newfoundland.  He was such a good-natured dog; gentle despite his enormous size, especially with us kids, that and my memories of his build, say “Newfy” to me.

And that dog did love the water!  I remember one day when Uncle Jim and Grandma rowed out on the lake to fish.  For some reason it was just us kids left up at the cottage with Czar, and  Uncle Jim told us to keep him inside.  Yeah right!  Home-made screen door that didn’t stay shut and a dog stronger than any two of us kids.  Well, Czar got out and headed straight for the lake.  It wasn’t big, but it was no pond, either!  That dog saw the boat at the opposite shoreline and swam across to get to Uncle Jim and Grandma.  Uncle Jim made him swim all the way back beside the boat, too, dragged the soaking wet dog back up to the cottage and told us to KEEP HIM INSIDE.  You can guess what happened!  This time, Grandma insisted Czar be allowed in the boat for the return trip.  Fortunately, it was a flat-bottomed boat, but Grandma had to bail plenty because of all the water carried on board in Czar’s coat.

My immediate family didn’t get our own dog until I was finishing grade school. She was a GSD, no papers, black with tan markings. My sister named her Val. Quite small, she never topped 50 pounds, but she was one of the smartest dogs I’ve ever known. It made her easy to train — good thing, too, because from what I recall we were pretty bad at it. I remember Mom doing the then-classic, rub-the-puppy’s-nose-in-the-accident style of house-training. (Called house-BREAKING then!) We never got her to accept a collar or walk on a leash — she was too smart for us and threw a drama queen fit at each attempt. But she was a true “velcro” dog and could be trusted to stay no more than a few feet away no matter where we took her. She mostly came when called, too, and I have NO idea how we managed that one! I distinctly remember doing the number one no-no of calling her over for punishment on more than one occasion. I think that dog just loved us so much that she wasn’t happy wandering away!

By that time, Czar had been succeeded in my Uncle’s household by a GSD, with papers, named Lady.  She was very big for a bitch, almost twice the size of Val, but the two were BFFs from day one.  Like a lot of Shepherds do, they wrestled and ran and played hard accompanied by much growling and snarling.  At times, the neighbors would be concerned that a dog fight was going on in the back yard, but they really were just playing!  When the two families were together, the dogs were inseparable, except when we went swimming.  It’s kind of ironic that Uncle Jim went from Czar (who couldn’t be kept out of the water) to Lady (who couldn’t be coaxed INTO it!)  Val, loved water and would take off the end of the dock like dogs do in diving competitions now!

Now that I think of it, Val wasn’t always the perfect poster child of recall — she did do some running once we got on the farm. Not alone, though, it wasn’t until we got her a “sister” — Tana, a GSD/Husky mix.  The two of them would go off chasing things for hours. (Again, I can’t believe that the parents were rather OK with that – at least I don’t remember them trying to stop it from happening!)  It was a rude surprise, too, because Val had always been so good. Just goes to show how instinctive that pack and chase behavior is in dogs!  Because now that I think of it, there was another time Val refused to “recall” – when a black bear invaded our campsite in Alaska, and she chased him off.  Good thing it wasn’t a grizzly, or the ending might not have been happy!

Tana was a very different kettle of dog from Val.  She could be very sweet, but was  much more independent,  stubborn, and often defiant.  Now, I know enough to call her a dominant animal.  When she was still quite a small puppy, she would react to disciplining by squaring off and growling at us!  It’s no wonder she got Val to “play hooky” with her – she was the top dog!  She had a habit of grabbing a visitor’s hand in her mouth (stranger or family, it was all the same) and walking off, so the person was kind of forced to walk along until she let go. I’m astonished that we didn’t see that as not-really-playful behavior.

As I said, it’s interesting to walk down memory lane with old canine friends, knowing what I know now.  Somehow, I think we were saved from dire consequences simply because the dogs were part of the family and loved us very much.  They forgave us some really incredible blunders and our assurance of their love gave us the confidence to forge on as true leaders would, even if we were oblivious to the undercurrents and possible problems.  It worked, but I think it all worked because the DOGS made allowances for us.

 

 

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It Is Easier…Honest!

As a trainer, I’m often contacted by exasperated owners who want me to “fix” behavior issues they’re having with the family dog. They give me a long list of Buddy’s bad habits, and the frustration just pours out of them. I can tell they are really torn because they love the dog but he’s driving them to consider drastic measures on a daily basis.

I actually LOVE working on behavior problems because they’re mostly easy to fix. I’m happy when a call is about owner frustration rather than owner fear because Buddy has bitten someone. I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping dogs understand their humans and humans understand their dogs, knowing their lives will be better after we’re done. However, I always mentally cringe a bit during these calls because my quickest, most fool-proof solutions won’t be what the owner expected.

Everyone wants fast answers and quick results! Oh my, yes! But when I tell them what action is going to do it first-time, every time, they are often a bit taken-aback. That’s because MANAGEMENT is far easier than TRAINING. It is MUCH easier to take a good look at the situation and change a couple of things in the dog’s environment and/or daily schedule than it would be to teach Buddy to ignore his inborn instincts.

In many homes, there is a tray just beside the door where family members put shoes and boots. This is meant to keep everyone from tracking dirt and strewing footwear about the house.  Extremely efficient, as far as humans are concerned!  As far as your dog is concerned, it’s a smorgasbord!  Dogs LOVE to chew; it calms them.  Puppies NEED to chew when they’re teething.  ALL dogs prefer to chew on our shoes, socks, underwear because those things smell and taste like us and so help even more with stress-relief.  It’s really a compliment, but one we can do without, thank you very much!  The easiest way to keep Buddy from illicit chewing is to put the shoes, socks and underwear in closets, cupboards and hampers.

This is where a lot of owners get upset.  They hired me to train the dog, not to train them, and I can understand their frustration.  Think of it this way — much of MANAGEMENT is nothing more than Child-proofing.  Dogs are perpetual “puppified” wolves and remain at the mental age of a two- to three-year-old child for their entire lives.  So, it makes sense that a home without children or dogs can be more “relaxed” in many ways than a home with either or both!  Besides the obvious, like hiding electrical cords and covering outlets, putting gates at stairways, etc. there are a couple of classic examples of dog-proofing that just don’t seem to occur to folks!

Several couples I know habitually ate sitting on the sofa, plates on knee or coffee table, until their children arrived.  Then they moved to the table to help choreograph meal-times and also to set an example so their kids would learn good manners.  It’s the same when we get a dog, but I’m still called in to stop Buddy from stealing food left on the coffee table when owners get up for that drink they left in the kitchen.  Sure, it’s POSSIBLE to train Buddy to stop – notice I didn’t say it was EASY – but it will take a LONG time and a LOT of consistent, daily practice for weeks if not months.  No, the easy solution is either eating at the table (like my friends did with their kids) or taking your plate with you back into the kitchen.  Is it a bit of a pain?  Yes!  Is it something we’re going to forget to do occasionally?  Yes!  But is it easier, faster and more fool-proof than trying to train Buddy in this situation?  You betcha!

Especially in this example, we’re really working against the basic fabric of doggie instinct and pack behavior.  In the wild, canines eat in a strict order – leaders first.  When the leader is finished, and the other canines are permitted to eat – the LEADER WALKS AWAY FROM THE FOOD.  To Buddy, you’ve just told him you’re finished and your plate is up for grabs, so he really doesn’t understand why you get so upset to find him scarfing the food as fast as he can.  I don’t think he’s eating fast because he “knows” he’s being bad, either.  I think it’s just how dogs eat really good stuff that somebody else might try to grab before he can eat it all.  Even if Buddy does understand that YOU think it’s bad, HE’s never going to think it is, so we’re fighting a losing battle here!

There are so many other examples like that.  Buddy drinks out of the toilet? – keep the lid shut and/or bathroom door closed.  Buddy gets into the garbage? – get a can with a lid or put the wastebasket in a cupboard/closet.  Buddy pulls papers out of the purse/book-bags sitting on the floor? – zip them up, put them on a table or hang from hooks on a wall.  Buddy chews on the mini-blinds when you’re not home? – pull them up out of his reach and/or restrict his access to those rooms.

In my experience, folks who aren’t happy with management solutions usually aren’t up for long, hard, fairly complicated, consistent training, either.  I’m a practical kind of gal.  I’m also rather lazy when you get right down to it.  If I can make a small change in my daily habits and thereby avoid destruction in my home and stress on my nerves — then that is where I’m going to put my effort.  Because it’s far less trouble than the alternative!

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Walking the Dog, part three

The first question most trainers ask when called in to eliminate Rex’s behavior problems is, “How much exercise does he get?” The vast majority of the time, Rex isn’t getting enough to even take the edge off his “joie de vivre!” It’s much more difficult for a dog to “behave” if he’s jumping out of his skin with vim-and-vigor and mentally bored to boot!  A tired dog is a good dog, but few dogs will tire themselves out. Even if Rex has the “run” of a huge fenced-in back yard, he won’t do much running around in it all by himself. Just like us, dogs need motivation; a partner to make him move.

At a minimum, most dogs need two half-hour walks daily — and that’s for the “couch potatoes!”  The really active breeds like herders and hunting dogs have been bred to WORK, literally be able to RUN for hours every day, so a walk around the block really won’t do it for them. Individual dogs within the same breed have varying needs.  Young dogs will need more exercise than they will when they’re senior citizens.  Smart dogs require a lot of stimulation so they don’t have the energy to think of things to do for their own (and never your) amusement.  Nervous or anxious dogs require the feel-good hormones that flood the body after a good workout.

In the city-and-subdivision jungles we inhabit, really the only safe way to exercise a dog — unless you have a fenced-in back yard and Rex is a fetching fiend — is to walk him on a leash.  (You could send Rex to Doggie Daycare two or three days a week, or invite a different puppy pal to come over for a play-date every day.) Unfortunately, dogs living in the same household gradually play less and less and will still need walking, especially if one is an older dog!

The good news is that walking is really good for us, too — both as exercise and for those feel-good-after-a-workout-stress-relieving hormones!  We all know that!  The trouble is there are SO many demands on our time and the weather is not often perfect, not to mention that Rex’s leash manners leave a lot to be desired.  Just like with anything else, we have to make time to walk the dog.  Weather usually looks worse from inside the house – bundle up warmly with good boots and anything other than a thunderstorm really isn’t too bad once you get started. Most DOGS don’t mind bad weather a bit!  Some even enjoy it! But the only way for you to truly enjoy the walk with Rex is to teach him good leash manners.

The best time to teach Rex to walk nicely on leash is when he’s a puppy.  Puppies have an instinct to FOLLOW the leader (you!) and will quickly adapt to wearing a collar and having that crazy leash attached if we remain positive, and don’t scold him when he’s scared.  At first, YOU let the puppy wander about and don’t pull him after you – instead call him in a chirpy, happy voice and pretend to run away.  Most puppies will think it’s a game and gambol right after you!  Begin early enough (at 8 weeks when most puppies are adopted) and your puppy will grow up knowing that when the leash is on, he’s supposed to follow you.  HEEL and other refinements are easy to train after that.

Unfortunately, a lot of us adopt adult dogs from shelters, or have put off walking our puppy until he was in the “independent exploration” stage of development — so we now have dogs that have been practicing BAD leash manners.  Pulling, biting on the leash, running around you tangling the leash, fighting the leash like a fish hooked on a line, or sitting/lying down and refusing to move are the most common problems.  Also unfortunately, it’s not an easy matter to replace BAD habits with GOOD ones, or we’d all stick to our diets!

Sometimes a change of equipment can change the circumstances enough to give Rex a fresh start on the walking biz.  Changing over to a harness sometimes makes a dog feel his front feet are leaving the ground when he pulls, which is enough to give him pause.  For some dogs a Gentle Leader works wonders – however I caution anyone wanting to use one of these to introduce the dog to it SLOWLY with lots of praise and treats — and NEVER pull the dog around by the leash (like we do with a regular collar) when he’s wearing the head-collar!  I don’t agree with using shock collars or Slip (choke) collars or Pinch (pronged) collars because they are designed to HURT the dog and I want my dog to enjoy the walk!

If you’re sufficiently well-muscled, you can hold the dog at your side by force, but that doesn’t TEACH him to do it on his own.  Instead, try coaxing Rex to stay by your side by praising whenever he does and giving him a treat!  If he pulls or forges ahead, TURN AROUND AND GO THE OTHER WAY!  Though it may look a bit silly walking back and forth in front of your house (or in the driveway) you’re both still WALKING – it’s all exercise!  Combine this with praise and treats when Rex stays by you and eventually he’ll get the idea.

The key word here is EVENTUALLY and you need to be consistent.  If you give in and let Rex pull you along, that only reinforces the wrong behavior and undercuts the good-manners training you started.  There’re a lot of other techniques, and hiring a professional can certainly help you and Rex!  But the only way the two of you will learn to make beautiful walks together is to practice, practice, practice!

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Walking the Dog, part two

Most cities, housing communities, and government-run parks currently have leash laws. They require any dogs (and sometimes, cats, too!) in a public space to be on a leash, in their handler’s control at all times. Most ordinances specify that the leash be no more than 6 feet long. I have seen some that allow 10 feet, but those aren’t common.

Just as there are many collar and harness choices for your dog, there are also many different types of leashes. Most are variations on the standard leash which has a buckle at one end and a loop for your hand at the other. These are made in many lengths, from 3 feet on up, and come in a variety of materials from nylon or cotton to leather, woven to be flat or round like a rope. Some have an extra loop several feet above the buckle to hold when keeping the dog at your side. But they all work the same way. You buckle the one end to the dog’s collar or harness and can give him more or less freedom depending on how much length you play out.

The second most common leash has become very popular because it makes “playing out” more or less leash automatic. Usually called a Retractable Leash, the rope is coiled up in a plastic holder with a grip for your hand and a “locking” button on top within easy reach of your thumb. A heavy spring makes the leash — usually 16 feet long — recoil back into the handle when the dog comes closer to you eliminating loops of tangling cord.  In theory, the locking button allows the Retractable Leash to do the job of a standard leash by putting the brakes on the spring and fixing the leash at any length desired.

If the Retractable Leash sounds too good to be true – well I think it is! There have been many cases of dogs being hit by cars because of the locking button failed to engage — either equipment and/or operator error.  Despite manufacturer claims, locking the leash off at 6 feet doesn’t give the flexibility and training opportunities of a standard leash.  That big ole plastic grip really gets in the way, so the leash can’t be used to reinforce commands using only one hand – necessary to deal with treats and/or a clicker with the other!  The necessarily thin rope used in them can quickly wrap around the dog’s leg or neck, other dogs’ legs/necks, (or yours or another handler’s) and do damage from rope burns to lacerations before you can untangle everybody.  In addition, the springs inside (especially in those designed for the larger breeds) are of necessity very heavy-duty and if the buckle or collar loop should fail, the recoiling leash whipping back into the holder could also do damage!

Unfortunately, this means Retractable leashes despite their automatic leash-handling function aren’t ideal for “auto-pilot” walking.  The handler really needs to focus on the dog and the leash and be aware of what’s going on, ready to engage the locking mechanism or avoid a tangling situation.  In the Animal Planet documentary, GLORY HOUNDS, I noticed them being used in for Military Working Dogs on patrol overseas.  This would be a great application, as the soldier-handler’s job is to be aware of what’s going on and anticipate problems.  The recoil spring would take up slack in the leash allowing the soldier-handler to keep his other hand free, because the MWD is well-trained and the leash isn’t being used to reinforce commands.

Yes, a Retractable Leash works for military dogs because they’re already well-trained, but I don’t recommend them to my clients.  The main reason is because it’s not a training leash and can’t be used as one — because it can only be used one way.  And that brings up another BIG problem.  The number one complaint clients make is that their dog pulls on the leash.  With a Retractable Leash, the dog is REWARDED (by getting more line) whenever he pulls against the pressure of the heavy spring.  So, those leashes actually TEACH a dog to PULL!  In addition, if you attach one to a Gentle Leader or other head-collar, it creates constant pressure on the dog’s nose – totally sabotaging what the head-collar is designed to do — encourage a dog to stop pulling to RELIEVE pressure on his nose!

There’s really no substitute for a standard leash in training.  They make a good taking-out-for-a-potty-break leash if you don’t have a fenced-in yard.  After a dog has learned to walk nicely on leash, it usually doesn’t hurt to use a Retractable Leash on walks – though still not attached to a Gentle Leader or other head-collar!  However, be aware that they also violate the letter of leash laws which restrict dogs to only 6 feet or so of freedom – not 16!

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Walking the Dog, part one

A lot of dogs have less-than-perfect leash manners.  It’s not a behavior that happens naturally – there’s nothing in a dog’s DNA to prepare him for having a collar put around his neck and be tied to a human when Rex would rather be running around exploring and sniffing.  Good leash manners require training and training takes time.  With some dogs a LOT of time.  Being human, we want the “fast food” version – the quick fix!  So we look to equipment to help us out.

A lot of folks use a chain Slip Collar to walk their dog. I grew up calling this a “choke” collar; not sure if that’s what they used to be called, or if we just tagged it with a description of what it usually does. When a dog is allowed to pull against the leash, the slip collar becomes a noose cutting off the airway. It can cause permanent damage, and yet doesn’t truly provide a deterrent if your dog pulls as you walk him.  A dog’s instinctive reaction when feeling pressure (even around his neck) is to LEAN INTO the pressure.  Rex just doesn’t make the association (unless we teach him) that the pressure he’s causing by pulling against the leash is what’s making it hard to breathe.

When the Slip Collar doesn’t work, some pull out a Pinch collar.  It has pronged links that are supposed to “pinch” into his neck if Rex pulls. Most people assume that the dog will stop pulling because it will hurt, but just like with the Slip collar the dog simply becomes used to the discomfort – even of having what amounts to linked barbed wire around his neck — and forges on ahead.

Dogs don’t feel the same degree of pain that we would if those collars were used on us. Many dogs have thick fur and/or skin around their neck, and others have lots of neck muscle that they tense-up to absorb the pressure of either type collar. Most dogs that really need some help learning leash manners have a high tolerance for pain – what used to be called “hard” dogs. In addition, a dog with poor leash manners doesn’t get walked very often. So when Rex does get out, he’s so over-excited that huge quantities of adrenaline pump into his system further deadening pain reactions.  It doesn’t mean there isn’t pain, just that the dog can handle it.  In addition, any being’s tolerance for pain becomes greater and greater the more they experience.  Allow Rex to pull against one of these collars and he’ll gradually pull more and more as his nerves build up how much they can take.

If the handler decides to use one of these collars — and in my mind it’s a big “if” —  they have been designed to be use in active correction, not as a passive deterrent.  The FIRST time Rex has a Slip or Pinch collar on, and the FIRST time he forges ahead, BEFORE he can pull against it, the handler is supposed to jerk up on the leash in a forceful manner AND INFLICT PAIN.  How much pain depends on if you have a “hard” or a “soft” dog, but in either case, to use it correctly, the handler must HURT THE DOG badly enough for it to remember and not want to feel that pain again.  Supposedly, the next time the dog tried to forge ahead, the sound of the chain slipping against the links as you pull up should be enough to remind Rex of the pain and make him stay at your side.  There’s a little more to it than that, but the point I’m trying to make is that those collars are designed so the handler can actively punish the dog with pain to keep him in line.

I don’t like to use punishment- and pain-based training.  I think it destroys the bond between you and your dog.  Also, why should a dog look forward to training when it’s going to hurt – even if only sometimes?  And I really don’t like using a collar in a way that will still harm the dog and not prevent him from pulling anyway!

If you use a Slip Collar out of fear that Rex will slip out of his collar, there are other products that work better, like a Martingale Collar.  If fitted properly, a Martingale tightens right down to the skin, but doesn’t become a noose to strangle the dog.  Or use a harness.  Most dogs pull less on a harness for various reasons and it also gives the handler a lot more control than something just around the neck.  Gentle Leader head-collars are great and work very well.  However be warned they not magic – you really have to spend time teaching the dog to accept the collar and training yourself in a whole new way of walking your dog.

When it comes right down to it, there is no “quick fix” except early, frequent and consistent leash-training.  Different types of collars, head collars and harnesses have different applications and all require an active effort at training from the handler.  I prefer to those that don’t hurt the dog.  Both Slip Collars and Pinch Collars are designed to hurt Rex and if used incorrectly will STILL hurt him, perhaps worse.

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To Tug or Not to Tug?

Yesterday, two daycare doggies, who’ve been friends since they were in puppy class together, discovered the joys of TUG! They played TUG with the un-stuffed animal toy, then with the indestructible Frisbee, then — best of all — with the soft-squeaky bone. They played standing up and lying down. Once, one lay on her back while the other TUGGED her all over the floor! Obviously enjoying this new game, they’d go to something else like wrestling or chase-me, but kept coming back to TUG! I knew immediately when they returned to TUG, because EVERY time the two would start growling!

That started me thinking. As far as I remember, whenever I’ve played TUG with a dog, or observed other dogs playing there was usually growling involved! Not of the I’m-going-to-eat-you-for-breakfast variety, but really-in-the-moment growling. In a few cases where I didn’t know the participants all that well, the determined rumbling has made me pause for evaluation! But in all cases, it soon became obvious — watching the dog’s body language — that this was just an integral part of the game! The mock-ferocity made it more fun!

Even most people playing TUG with their dogs “growl!” Not “Grrrr!” but we tend to talk while pulling, don’t we? “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! No, you can’t have it!” all said in a rough, throaty voice quite different from conversational tones. And we draw out certain words — “Iiiiiii’ve got it!” so our vocalization mimics the dog’s rumbling even more!

There are a lot of trainers who point to the growling and warn against playing TUG with a dog because it’s an aggressive game and a test of strength and you don’t want the dog knowing it’s stronger than you are. Now, there is some validity to this. I certainly wouldn’t walk up to a strange Rottie and challenge him to a Tug-o-war with his favorite toy! Also, if a client of mine suspected their dog of resource guarding, I wouldn’t recommend the game to them! But I think forbidding TUG altogether is missing the point!

The point is that TUG is a GAME! Dogs understand GAMES! Their play almost exclusively consists of mock-fighting behaviors! But they can tell if another dog wants to have-at-’em or just have some fun! Mostly they tell by body language. Even rough-and-tumble “fighting” is recognized as sport when preceded by a PLAY-BOW. That’s the silly, butt-in-the-air, elbows-on-the-ground, tail-waving pose. Before playing, especially with a new acquaintance, each dog bends down in this posture, usually wearing goofy, tongue-lolling expressions on their faces. It’s an invitation to frolic and have fun!

Old friends don’t always do the full, formal Play-bow. They give a little bob and call it good. But it’s short-hand, like saying “Sup?” instead of “Hello! What’s up with you?” When dogs play TUG, they’ve passed the preliminaries and all war-like postures and sounds are taken in good fun. You can further tell that the dogs know it’s a game BECAUSE THE LITTLE DOG OFTEN “WINS!” Yep! The bigger dog “throws” the match so it’s more fun for his friend!

There have been some studies done showing how play helps prepare the mind for learning. In a study done with dogs, the testers used TUG as the game. After playing TUG for a few minutes, the dogs learned a set lesson quicker than dogs who did not play the game. And here’s the kicker — it didn’t matter whether the dog WON or LOST the game of TUG before their lesson!  Their brain was flooded by good-feelings chemicals that helped them learn no matter what the result.

So, I think we should be aware that TUG isn’t the best game to play with certain dogs in certain circumstances. However, for the most part, if the DOG understands it’s just play, I don’t think we humans should put too much emphasis on winning and losing. The dog certainly won’t!  It’s not whether we win or lose but how we play the game — something else our dogs can teach us!

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It’s Funny Now…

Folks are always sending me videos of dogs and little kids with captions saying how “cute” and/or “hilarious” their interaction is. Most of the time reading that, I cringe, but it’s like passing an accident on the highway — I just have to look! So I hit “play.” Unfortunately, just as I suspected, most of the time I don’t find the interaction a bit funny.

The latest one today showed a toddler sitting on a couch, a plate in his lap with a sandwich on it. He was really a really cute kid! Mom was sitting on one side of him and the FD (family dog) on the other side. From the smothered laughter “voice over” Dad was the one filming.

So, both parents were in the room. It also seemed obvious to me that what would happen would be no surprise to them. From Mom’s look of happy anticipation and Dad’s chortles as they watched the little boy and FD, the parents were hoping to record something “cute” and “hilarious.” They were HOPING to have a certain set of circumstances repeated.

The FD was a large Shepherd/Lab mix or maybe a Rottie mix. I thought he was really cute, too! He was also much taller than the little boy, and probably weighed 4 times as much. The FD was calm and not making physical contact with Junior, but was focused on the sandwich with the intensity of a heat-seeking missile. If he drooled, the slime would’ve landed in the kid’s lap, if not on the sandwich!

At one point the little boy picked up the sandwich and the FD leaned in closer. I thought, “oh, no!” but the child calmly pushed the dog’s head away and put the sandwich back on his plate. The FD allowed his head to be pushed away, but remained fixated on the food, leaning even closer, if possible.  It seemed like the house rule was he couldn’t touch anything on the kid’s plate.

All the while, the child hardly looked at the FD. He kept looking at Mom and Dad wondering why they were staring at him and laughing. After about 45 seconds, Junior picked up the sandwich to take a bite — and “presto-change-o” it was gone! The FD slipped in and inhaled it right out of the kid’s hand and mouth. The child looked at his empty hand while the parents howled and guffawed.

It’s obvious that these parents love both child and FD very much, and wanted to record this “fun” interaction between them to preserve the fond memory. It’s also obvious that the child has no fear of the dog, nor really resented having his lunch stolen, and that the FD is probably pretty gentle around the boy. However, it was equally obvious to me that those parents have no idea what they are teaching the dog, let alone the child.

Sure, it might look cute and funny now, but by allowing a dog to steal food from a child, you are teaching the dog that he is above that child in the pecking order. As a dominant animal, he will feel free to take food (or anything else) any time he wants, expecting the subordinate “pup” will let it go. What happens when Junior decides to take something back? The FD would very probably give Junior a “correction” as any dominant dog has the right to do! And dogs commonly correct their puppies with a nip to the face.

Unfortunately, puppies have thick, loose skin covered with fur to prevent that nip from drawing blood. Children do not have that protection — from either physical or psychological harm. The parents wouldn’t be laughing if the dear old FD decided to chastise that uppity youngster, and Junior had to be taken to the ER for stitches! “What happened? We don’t understand! FD was always so sweet with Junior!” The dog would be blamed and for something that wasn’t really his fault!  For something that was, in fact, the fault of the parents!

I’m sure the parents are not endangering their child deliberately!  They probably haven’t had a lot of training experience or know much about dog psychology.  But they wouldn’t let another child hover over Junior and take his lunch away, would they?  So, why is it alright when the FD does it?  Because it’s “cute?”

On this particular video the typed caption said something like “maybe the kid will eat his lunch faster from now on — the dog was patient for so long!” Is that really what you want a child to learn from the situation? That’s not a solution! The dog should never be allowed to hover over ANYONE — no matter what the person’s age — while they’re eating. A child should be protected from a pushy dog and Junior should learn to move somewhere out of a dog’s reach — like the table or a high counter!

If the dog was taught to respect any two-legger’s personal space, this incident wouldn’t have been filmed. The parents wouldn’t have their “cute” and “hilarious” memory.  But they wouldn’t be in danger of creating memories of a very different kind, either.

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The Dog is Watching!

Dogs are the only animals (except other humans, of course) that readily follow a pointing finger to an object. This seems so simple, but it’s fairly mind-blowing! Our closest “cousins,” Chimpanzees (sharing over 98% of our DNA) don’t do it. Dolphins and Elephants, who show a lot of evidence that they are self-aware, don’t do it. Other DOMESTICATED animals like Cats and Horses don’t do it. What is most surprising of all is that WOLVES, so genetically close to our domestic dogs, don’t do it! But even homeless dogs-in-the-street can follow the human finger that points the way to a scrap of food.

There have been a number of scientific studies that have documented the domestic dog’s uniqueness in this area. Recently I saw a TV report on one study investigating the behavior gap between Canis Lupus and Canis Familiaris. The theory was that wolves behave differently from dogs because they are not brought up with humans from infancy and so are unfamiliar with our gestures, etc. So, this study raised a bunch of wolf cubs as if they were dogs so that they would have the same amount of exposure to people as the domestic dogs also used as subjects. Both dogs and wolves used in the study were all adult.

There were a number of tests and games played with all the subjects, but one was the “pointing test.” Two humans and a canine subject were placed in a small room with no windows or other distractions. One human handled the canine subject on a leash-and-collar, keeping it at one end of the room. At the other end, the second human, the Tester, had two identical plastic pails and a piece of meat.

The Tester rubbed the meat around the bottom of each pail, so BOTH would carry the food scent. That way the canine wouldn’t be able to make a choice using their extremely sensitive sense of smell. Then while the Handler covered the canine’s eyes, the Tester placed the piece of meat in one pail at random and placed both pails on the ground next to her, an arm’s length away. The canine’s eyes were uncovered and the Tester POINTED briefly at the pail with the meat in it. Then the canine was released to investigate the pails.

Almost invariably the dog went first to the pail the Tester had pointed out. Almost invariably the wolf chose the other pail. I believe that even after multiple repetitions of the same test with the same subject, the wolves were not any more likely to choose the pail the Tester pointed at than the one she did not. It wasn’t mentioned on the TV program, but I wouldn’t be surprised that the few dogs who at first didn’t follow the point, WERE more likely to follow it after repeated tests.

The study showed that not only will dogs follow our pointing fingers, but they watch us very carefully ALL THE TIME, and take cues from our body language. Dogs even MIMIC humans, learning to do tricks simply by imitating what we do. If the Tester leaned to one side, the dog-subject shifted its weight in that direction. The Tester was able to get the dog-subject to bark by barking at it, to raise a paw by waving a hand, etc.

I have no trouble believing that study. My GSD-mix, Kita, learned how to BOW on cue when I bowed to her! One of my client dogs learned how to “Gimme 10” when I held my hands (I almost said paws) facing out to him at chest height! The word cues meant nothing to them, so they must have been watching me carefully and tried their “best guess!” and approximated my posture. Like any training technique, I imagine the more a particular dog-subject is exposed to this method, the more readily they will be able to mimic!

I’ve seen other studies that show dogs watch us very carefully, indeed, and even pay attention to the direction we’re LOOKING, and IF we’re looking! A Tester sat in a chair with a piece of meat on the floor in front of her. As long as her eyes stayed open, the dog sitting opposite didn’t touch the meat. But mere SECONDS after she closed her eyes, the dog scarfed it up!  In tests similar to the “point” test described above, a dog could follow the direction the Tester’s EYES looked to find the food. One cue I give to dogs when they are learning the DOWN cue is to stand very still and LOOK at the ground in front of them when they are trying to remember what that cue word means. In each instance the dog must be watching very closely to notice such a small thing as the movement of our eyes!

All these studies show that dogs are uniquely sensitive to what we DO and how we behave. Just today, Kita and I were walking in a snowy park. Two cross-country skiers approached us on the trail. Kita has never seen skiers before, and she is inclined to be nervous of new things! I consciously slowed my breathing, calmly told her to heel, moved to the side of the trail, and exchanged friendly greetings with the skiers. I did my best to show her by example that these new strangely-moving folks were not dangerous. It seemed to work. She stayed at my side, and didn’t bark.

There’s an old training maxim that what we feel travels right down the leash, however it doesn’t mean there’s some sort of psychic electricity sparking from us to them! Yes, how tightly we hold the leash makes a difference and tells our dogs much about our state of mind. Still, the saying is just a reminder that our dogs are ALWAYS watching us, looking for clues to and cues about how they should behave.

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Being Too Polite

OK, so yesterday I was talking about being sure our doggies learn manners at home — and today I’m saying there’s such a thing as being TOO polite? So what gives?  Well, I’m not talking about our DOGS being too polite around us, but that sometimes WE’RE the ones who inadvertently go overboard with human-courtesy towards them.

I’ve done this myself — giving a dog the same treat-others-as-I-would-like-to-be-treated respect and found the dog misunderstands. The difficulty arises because human gestures of common courtesy don’t have the same cultural equivalent in dog society. In fact, much of our graciousness towards others, in a dog’s eyes, looks like the way a subordinate defers to a superior.

Here’s a specific example. Kita, my GSD mix, used to sleep on my bed almost every night. It was nice — nothing like a 90 lb. furry “hot water bottle” to snuggle up with, especially in the Wintertime! If I had to use the facilities in the middle of the night, Kita was usually snoring so peacefully that I hated to make her get up too!  So, I’d carefully extract myself from under the blankets without disturbing her, if possible.

This is the same consideration I show towards any human bed-mate (and the cats, too, come to think of it…) I never heard any of them complain if I accidentally bumped them. Imagine my surprise when I was a little less careful than usual one night one night, and Kita turned on me showing teeth and growling!

You see, in being soooo careful not to disturb Kita, I had treated her as if she was the “top dog.” – as if it was her bed and she was letting me share it. So, when I disturbed her, Kita gave me a warning that if I didn’t shape up, the privilege would be revoked; all perfectly natural from a dog’s point of view and in the context of dog society. Kita didn’t know that I was being “polite” and “considerate” because that is not how a dog would behave in that situation.

Obviously, I couldn’t let Kita continue in her mistaken beliefs, even if it was my fault that she held them. I made myself very tall, with a “big” stance, and ordered her off the bed (she already knew the command, “Off!”) and did not let her back on for several nights. Always after that, Kita could “request” bed-room (she would lay her head on the mattress and look at me.) If I wanted to allow her on the bed, I asked her to sit and then gave her the OK to come up. But sometimes I said, “No!” and made it stick.

There’s many ways we can be “too polite” to maintain a good leadership position in our dog’s eyes. When the dog cuts us off in a doorway, and we back off and let him go first. When the dog prances in front of us because he wants attention and we give ‘way and walk around him. When we’re eating some jerky and the dog nudges our hand, and we give him the last bite. When the dog jumps up in our favorite spot on the sofa and we move to another chair or sit on the floor. In Dog-land, it’s the BIG DOG (i.e. the leader) who gets to go through tight spaces first, who walks around other dogs, who gets the first choice of food, the best sleeping place, and the highest spot. If we always give our dogs these things, we can’t wonder that they feel like the King!

Dr. Bruce Fogle has a saying: “A dog doesn’t expect to be treated like a human. A dog expects a human to act like a dog.” Because of that night-time incident with Kita and many others, I’ve really taken his wisdom to heart and it’s become the foundation of my training methods. I find it much more efficient and effective to interpret everything I do from a dog’s perspective, because I know they see me as a kind of socially-inept canine. That way, I’m not working against doggie DNA and instinct, I’m working with it.

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