Tag Archives: behavior modification

Held to a Higher Standard, part II

We humans recognize that there are constructive, or at least “legal” and acceptable ways for us to vent our aggression.  Instead of gunning the motor and ramming the car that cuts me off in traffic, I turn the air “blue” inside my car with some choice bad words.  Rather than pulling out a gun and shooting the guy who lets his Mastiff poop on my lawn (and doesn’t clean it up) I can shoot  a picture and with this evidence report him to the appropriate  authorities.  Though I might want to punch out the rude sales clerk, I can be rude in turn, or ask to speak to her manager.  We are social animals, meaning we live with others of our kind, and that means we will inevitably disagree and anger each other, sometimes to the point of violence.  All of the examples above are aggression, but we’ve ritualized physical violence into lawsuits, complaints and swearing.

Dogs have evolved a similar set of ritualized behaviors.  They’re social animals, too  — and they carry dangerous weapons (large teeth and powerful jaws) around with them all the time!   If dogs hadn’t found other ways to express and avoid violence, they’d have killed and injured each other to the point where their species wouldn’t have survived!  Dogs actually start learning this ritualization before they can see or walk.  If the puppies bite too hard on mama-dog’s nipples, she gets up and takes “dinner” with her.  Puppy teeth, those super-sharp little spikes, come in about the time puppies start wrestling with their siblings.  It has been theorized that evolution “selected” those sharp teeth (not really needed for nursing) because dogs need to learn bite inhibition.  Needle-like teeth penetrate their sibling’s fur, so they can feel a bite that is too roughly delivered! And just like mama-dog did, a sibling who feels pain will pull away from her brother and not want to play.  So dogs learn to “pull their punches” long before they develop the jaw strength and grow the adult teeth to do real damage.

There’s a whole set of ritualized warnings before the inhibited bite! We don’t give dogs enough credit! They actually very rarely make contact. They prefer to freeze with a closed mouth, wrinkle a lip, show some teeth, growl, glare sideways, give a warning snap in the general direction of what’s annoying them. People often say, “He tried to bite, but I pulled away in time.” Unlikely!  A dog’s reflexes are so much faster than ours that when they want to bite — they do. A ninja couldn’t react fast enough to avoid a snap if the dog was in earnest!  A snap that doesn’t “land” is a warn-off that even we humans should be able to notice, understand and respect.

Most dogs will bite if pushed far enough.  Fearful dogs are more likely to bite than “dominant” dogs who are sure of themselves.  However, even when a dog actually bites a human, it’s most often a warning bite where the dog inhibits the bite force. Rather than crushing bone, the snap causes a few punctures. If that bite fell on another dog’s neck it probably wouldn’t even reach the skin through the hair.  Unfortunately, we humans don’t have that protection.

I am NOT making light of a dog biting a human.  It is profoundly shocking and upsetting when one does.  Some dear friends own a lovely “all-American” dog that I’ve known from her puppyhood 9 years ago.  She was under a year old when this incident occurred and I was not as well-versed in a dog’s body language then as I am now.  Helping to clean up the kitchen at their house, I noticed Funky licking the dishes already in the dishwasher.  I yelled at her, she continued to lick.  She may have given warning signals – I think I remember a growl — but I was too ignorant of Doglish then to pay attention. Thoughtlessly, I tried to push her jaws away from a resource she regarded as hers, and she bit me.  It brought me to tears!  Upon inspection, she hadn’t even broken the skin, but the action was so unexpected and seemed so violent to me that I cried!

Believe me, if Funky had wanted to do damage, she could and would have!  She clearly inhibited her bite – meaning it as a warning, not punishment!  I consider that this incident was my fault for expecting her, a puppy, to understand what was forbidden in a human household.  I was a visitor in her house and trying to tell her what to do – which we humans rightly consider to be our right, but at times fail to TEACH the dog!  I ignored any warning signals, and she still didn’t want to really harm me.  To my knowledge, Funky has never bitten anyone else.  She is incredibly gentle with small children and babies, noticeably making allowances for their grabbing, poking and pulling behavior.  How sad if my friends had over-reacted and sent Funky to a shelter or had her euthanized for that one snap.  Unfortunately, many people might have — and many lawmakers want to require them to do so!

I believe dog owners should be required to learn more about their body language and how to deal with and not provoke a dog into biting.  I pray that parents teach their children to recognize the warning signals a dog gives and respect those signals instead of punishing the dog for giving them! It is my fervent hope that we do not automatically assume that all dogs, in all circumstances, with all people will be calm, happy and friendly.   My point in this and yesterday’s posting is that HUMANS are the animals with the bigger brain, so shouldn’t we be gracious enough to extend to dogs the same forgiveness according to “circumstances” that we claim for ourselves?  I certainly would place a bit more of the onus for managing and dealing with those differing circumstances on the animal with the bigger brain!

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Held to a Higher Standard

I wonder how many humans have never shouted at someone else in anger, or thrown/slammed an object when frustrated? Is there anyone who’s NEVER used bad language when cut off in traffic, or hasn’t walloped the family dog when she swiped something off the table? Can you honestly say you haven’t (at least once) slapped/punched someone — or spanked a child — because your temper boiled over?

Honestly, I must admit that I’ve done all of the above! I would be VERY surprised if anyone other than Mother Theresa (and she’s dead) is innocent of those or similar expressions of fury. Though physical violence is never a good solution, psychiatrists say expressing our anger and aggravation is healthy and natural. So, I wonder why the family dog is never allowed to express hers…

Reading MINE, a Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs by Jean Donaldson has reminded me how we hold our Family Dogs to an impossibly high standard.  We demand that they direct no aggressive behavior (even ritualized) toward a human or another dog for their entire lives, regardless of circumstances!

Ms. Donaldson points out that dog-created injuries are a particularly emotional issue — a dog bite is far more likely to be taken to an emergency room than a comparable kitchen accident. She says, “One is far more likely to be struck by lightning several times…Kids are also astronomically more likely to be injured or killed by a parent or guardian” than by the family dog.  Yet, “the standard we have set for them [dogs] is one we would consider absurd for any other species of animal, including ourselves.”

Please do not think I am recommending that we allow our dogs to bite. Any biting behavior should be dealt with immediately and if the dog cannot be re-trained the owners should use a muzzle (or some other fail-safe) and/or consider euthanasia. However, there is a huge gulf between warnings: a snarl (lifted lip), growl, air-snap, corrective bite that intentionally doesn’t break skin, and the serious multiple puncture, grab-hang-on-and-shake-the-head bites of a dog that’s out of control — its own and its owners!

I’m not talking about dogs trained to attack or people who intentionally harbor dangerous animals as “protection.” Those are in another category and are in the nature of weapons, just like a trained martial-artist’s hands and feet. I am talking about the run-of-the-mill family pet that occasionally has a bad day and growls or snaps when pushed too far!  When our society was rural, we all were better acquainted with the animal kingdom.  As Ms. Donaldson says we took dog bites in stride because “Dogs were animals and animals sometimes bit.” Now, we want to sue and demand that lawmakers ban breeds, instead of legislating minimum training requirements for owner and dog.

Seems like this is such an emotional issue because we feel betrayed when the family dog snaps.  Dogs are “man’s best friends,” right?  So when they show anything less than unconditional love and acceptance of everything we shove at them, we are hurt. And not just from the teeth-marks! The pain goes deeper – we trust our dogs to be the one creature that will always “be there” for us.  So, when they aren’t – worse, if the dog hurts someone we love — there is grief, sorrow, even anguish in addition to the physical hurt.

We have to understand that dogs, just like humans, can have a bad day.  A dog that is in pain lashes out.  A dog that is tired, gets cranky. A dog that is stressed, has less self-control.  A dog that is afraid will try to protect herself.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t expect a lot of our dogs, just that we shouldn’t expect more of an animal than WE can deliver!

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And Thereby Hangs a Tail

If we see a dog, a tail should be hanging thereby! However many breeds don’t have much of one! Though there are a few, like the Australian Shepherd, born with little or no tail, almost all “bobbed” breeds get that way through human intervention. I’m not going to discuss the issues concerning pain and trauma to the dog in this post. Even if the process was totally painless — even if it does indeed save a working dog from damaging its tail (as is the excuse for many of these cosmetic changes) — I would still consider docking a dog’s tail to be cruel to the animal.

Dogs depend on their tails to communicate. No wild canine species is tail-less. Most have large, well-furred caudal appendages! A tail adds weight to carry around, and growing thick fur requires lots of good food that could be used by the brain or kidneys!. Natural selection has a way of eliminating structures that are unimportant, that do not contribute to a species survival. If the luxurious tails of wild dogs didn’t help them stay alive, the ones with smaller tails would have won the evolutionary race until dogs were naturally tail-less.

But that isn’t the case. In cold climates, wolves and foxes curl their tail around their noses during sleep to keep warm. A tail can act as a counter-balancing rudder when making quick changes of direction. Even though domestic dogs don’t need a tail to keep warm or hunt, they still need it to COMMUNICATE.

Canines are social animals and all social animals need to share information and keep track of relationships within the group. If they could not, they would not survive long in or as a group. Their language, unlike ours, is primarily one of posture, gesture and body language. The tail is one of the most expressive body parts a dog possesses! Dogs do not wag or make other moves with their tails if they are alone, so a tail is clearly used to communicate with other animals.

My comprehension of “Doglish” is no better than an English-speaking adult trying to master a complex, unrelated language like Mandarin Chinese. Even though I can’t begin to see, let alone interpret even half of what a dog’s tail tells another dog, it tells me a lot!

Clipped beneath the belly, the dog is afraid and afraid to the point of protecting against injury. Hanging limply straight down, the dog is nervous and doubtful, especially if the tail gives a tentative wag. Clamped tight over the anus, the tail tells another dog that it is NOT welcome to sniff butt — the dog may be fearful or be a dominant dog denying an inferior into his personal space. Hanging low, but slightly curling and wagging just a bit, the dog is friendly, but wonders if you are. Held motionless, straight out, level with the spine and stiff means the dog is hunting — it might be a little furry creature or a playmate or the dog next door who has come too far into his domain. Held high over the back, with the fur fluffed out says the dog is trying to establish dominance, even if the tail is wagging it will wag stiffly from the base like a metronome. A loose, easily-moving tail making big swishy swooping wags is relaxed and pretty happy. A tail whipping from side to side, carrying the hips with it means the dog is very happy and excited and seeing someone he likes. A tail that goes around and around like a propeller says the dog has nothing else on his mind except being your friend.

Those are only the meanings I came up with right off the top of my head out of my poor, broken-Doglish patois! A canine probably would detect three or four times that many meanings besides! (Also, please note that the tail only tells part of the “tale” and with each position above, a change in ears, muzzle, body, vocalizations etc. can further shade the translation.) My point is that if I, a mere human with no caudal appendage, can get that much information from a tail, a dog without one must be handicapped much like a deaf human using sign-language would be if he lost a hand.

Take the Rottweiler, for example. They are big, smooth-muscles dogs with a sleek coat — and if not docked — a long, somewhat bushy tail! I’m sure that is why the tail is docked. Having something pretty close to a GSD’s tail looks mis-matched “hung” on the sleekly-furred rump of a Rottie. However, docked down to a couple of vertebrae, the tail cannot give the signals I described above. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Rotties are one of the most difficult dogs to “read.” We’ve taken away their means of communication. I think much of their reputation for aggression stems from humans and other dogs misunderstanding their signals. Signals that a Rottie thinks he’s sending, but doesn’t have the tail to put across.

In most breeds, tail-docking these days is really for cosmetic reasons.  Breeders couldn’t accomplish everything with genetics alone, and resorted to snipping off the bits (usually ears and tails) that didn’t match.  Yes, there were some reasons to trim vulnerable parts when dogs were out in the field all day, getting their tails ripped up by the brush, or to keep them from being chewed up in a dog-fight. To deprive a dog of his means of communicating just seems wrong to me and I wonder at the promotion of the practice by those who are advocates for a particular breed and (one presumes) the welfare of that breed. And thereby hangs another tale!

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Too Much of a Good Thing

Most dogs are food-motivated. Many to an extraordinary degree! My GSD mix, Kita, gets so excited when I get out treats that she can’t even listen to how to earn them, and I have to wait, ignoring her for a few seconds, until she calms down! And that’s when the “treats” are just pieces of her kibble. If I get out hot dogs or chicken, it’s more like a 3-minute wait!

Humans like to feed people. We celebrate holidays and special occasions with a big dinner. We serve coffee and cookies to visitors automatically. Candy is considered a special gift and now we’re even making “bouquets” out of food! Feasting and hospitality have been ingrained in our cultures for so long that it might be almost a genetic pre-disposition to shove food at those we care about — and that certainly includes our dogs!  I read in a novel by D.E. Stevenson years ago that “if people are very fond of someone, they want them to be just a little bit plump.” That’s a paraphrase, but the point is clear; we equate food and the result of eating it with affection!

Combining how much dogs love food and how much we like to feed them, it’s not surprising that many dogs are overweight. There are extreme cases, like the Dachshund who was so fat his feet couldn’t touch the floor. When I was volunteering at the Humane Society, a Beagle was brought in, weighing at least twice her ideal! She’d been kept in a crate nearly 24/7 and given food every time she made noise! Those are extreme cases, but if we’re honest, most of us would have to admit that our dogs are carrying some extra poundage!

Part of it is not enough exercise. Just like us, if a dog lies around all day, it’s metabolism slows down and the fat piles on! Part of it is those labels on the dog food bag that give a recommended feeding schedule. Bear in mind that the dog food people are trying to sell MORE DOG FOOD. The companies aren’t lying — exactly — they just don’t mention that the dogs those figures are based on are walked vigorously for hours every day. Most of our pups AREN’T!   So, one step is to make sure our pups get more exercise and eat less.

If you feed a good-quality food, a dog doesn’t need very much to keep at a good weight! Kita, at optimum, is around 84 pounds. She gets 1 cup of food twice a day. She also gets additional as treats during training, so that’s maybe another 1/2 cup total. Putting a cup of food in a bowl sure doesn’t look like enough for my big beast! But if I give her more, the beast gets a bit porky around the ribs!

Keeping your dog LEAN isn’t MEAN! It goes against all our instincts, but it’s best for the dog! For a while, Kita’s weight was over 90 pounds. During that time, she blew out a knee and had to have surgery. I really wonder if she’d been 8 pounds lighter if that would have happened? I’ll never know, but I’m trying a lot harder to keep her slim since then — partly because I don’t want her to re-injure that knee, and partially because the vet said dogs who blow one knee are statistically very likely to blow out the OTHER one.

The number one cause of joint problems in dogs is that they are carrying too much poundage! It’s easy to tell if your dog is too plump! Feel the rib-cage. Can you easily feel each separate rib? If there’s a thick layer of fat, that’s not good!  Look down at your dog’s back. Is there a defined waist? There should be an hour-glass indentation after the ribs and before the hips. Look at her from the side. Does her tummy “tuck up” towards her flanks? If the answer is “No” to any of the above, she needs your help to slim down.  Of course, a Greyhound will always be slimmer than a Bulldog, but ANY breed can be too fat!

Our dogs only have us to take care of them. They are totally dependent on what and how much we feed them. If you put a big bowl of food down and let the dog eat as much as she wants — just like us – most dogs will eat more than they should!  (Labs are notorious at over-eating!) If food is left down all day, most dogs will put away a lot of extra — snacking! I strongly recommend three feedings a day for puppies up to 6 months old and two meals a day after that. Feed only a measured amount and put bowl down for 15 minutes — pick up what isn’t eaten after that. Only give the same amount at the next feeding — don’t add on what was left in the dish! It may be that the dog doesn’t need that much food at a time! Don’t let the dog fool you into thinking she’s starving. Like most of us, dogs enjoy snacking and if they don’t have anything better to do,  they’d like to eat!

Of course, it’s a balancing act — feeding just the right amount. First getting the pooch down to where she’s not wearing a pouch, then giving her enough so she doesn’t KEEP losing weight. Just don’t think that feeling ribs means she’s too skinny!  For the good health of our dogs, we need to be just a wee bit hard-hearted!  We might feel guilty, but that’s no reason to indulge the dog in a way that will harm her!  No table scraps and treats only when training!  It’s hard because we love them so much, but especially where food is concerned, our dogs can EASILY have too much of a good thing!

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Pick up the Poop

OK, fair warning!  This is going to be venting on a pet peeve, to some extent!  It’s also talking about a rather distasteful subject — feces!   But dog owners have to deal with that lovely substance as a fact of life, so here goes!

I saw a posting on FB asking if anyone could tell her what to do about her dog eating poop in the backyard.  She said she’d taken the dog to the vet and tried changing dog food.  She said she’s yelled at the dog and punished it and asked how to train away this bad habit.  She never said why the poop was left there to eat in the first place.

This goes back to my philosophy of MANAGEMENT is easier than TRAINING.  If you do a poop-patrol a couple of times a day, it’s not lying around the yard.  If it’s not lying around the yard, the dog won’t be tempted to eat it!  If the dog isn’t tempted to eat it — well there isn’t a problem, is there?  In the winter when the snow is falling and it’s difficult to find the piles, I’ve followed dogs with well-known feces-fetishes around the yard.  As they’ve sniffed ’em out, I’ve scooped ’em up!

In my experience, a lot of dogs indulge in coprophagia — the scientific name for eating feces.  I’ve seen some ads that say, “10% of dogs” do it, but I think it’s higher than that.  Some are really addicts and eat it hot, frozen, their own or other dogs.  Some (like my Kita) really only indulge when it’s frosty “pupsicles” that other dogs have left.  Some only do it at home, some only when away from home, and I’ve never seen an explanation that covers all the bases.

Dogs often raid the cat litterbox because a cat’s digestive system isn’t very efficient and their poop has a lot of real “food” value, as disgusting as sounds to us.  Most dogs LOVE to eat herbivore scat, though I’m not sure what food value it has for canines!  I have to stay on high alert when walking dogs around the fields because they ALL seem to head straight for those piles of bunny or deer droppings!  Dr. Patricia McConnell has a sheep farm and says she knows visitors have an idealized pastoral fantasy of their dog running free through the fields in the sunshine, chasing butterflies, but that the reality is they’re out in the pasture scarfing down sheep poop.

Some folks say it could be a dietary deficiency.  Some folks say it’s an attempt to keep the area clean.  Some folks say the dog wants to take on the scent of the alpha dog who’s marked territory, or to pacify themselves when they are stressed, or because they’re bored, or somehow gotten in the habit of doing it.

When it gets right down to cases, I think dogs eat poop — of whatever variety — because they LIKE it.  If that’s the reason, you’ll have a hard time training them  out of the habit!  I’ve heard that feeding a dog pineapple makes the poop “taste bad” (you mean it doesn’t already?) so the dog won’t like it so much.  There’s also commercial products with the enzymes from pineapple to sprinkle on their food to accomplish the same result.  But that only works if ALL the dogs that do their duty in that yard eat their pineapple.

I saw an episode of IT’S ME OR THE DOG where Victoria Stillwell tried to help a family with three pugs kick this problem.  She wasn’t entirely successful.  In that case, the dogs had progressed to where they would almost eat it as it was coming out of another dog’s behind.  But most dogs aren’t that bad.  So, I maintain that it’s easier — and cheaper — and cleaner all around to just pick up the poop!

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Use What You Have!

Still spinning off Arthur Ashe’s quote: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” It’s just so apt for dog-training that I can’t resist!

Dog training doesn’t require any special equipment! Except for a collar, you can use just what’s around the house! Even to train leash-manners, you don’t have to go to the store! The leash can just be a piece of clothesline or old belt! Of course, the real thing with a clip is easier to put on and take off, but as far as practical function, you just need a hunk of rope!

A collar, leash, and some treats and you’re good to go!  And the best treats I’ve ever found for training aren’t some in some expensive pet-store package —  regular ole hot dogs and white meat chicken!  Dogs are meat-eaters and there’s nothing that says, “YUM!” in your dog’s book like that meaty flavor.  I almost said “real meat” but not sure hot dogs apply.  However, they’re as “healthy” as most processed dog snacks and dogs LOVE THEM!  I usually reserve the chicken for small dogs.  Not that they don’t like hot dogs, but too much salt can overload those little ones really fast!

[NOTE:  Dogs don’t have taste buds for salt because, as wild carnivores, they got enough from their diet of meat.  A dog’s system isn’t designed to get rid of salt (because they don’t sweat) as easily as humans, so they can get “salt poisoning” – an electrolyte imbalance – easier than we can.  Big dogs because of their size, don’t usually run into problems with a tiny bits of hot dog during training, but Toy breeds and puppies don’t have much body mass!  So I use chicken just to be on the safe side.]

You don’t have to worry about this “feeding people food” making the dog beg at the table, either.  Unless you teach a dog NOT to beg at the table, they mostly all do, anyway!  If you never feed scraps from the table or counter, a dog won’t really expect to get hot dogs and chicken when the family is eating.  They’ll try to fool you by begging, on the off-chance that they can sucker you into it, but they recognize dinner time as different from training time!

I always pull out the good stuff to teach new behaviors or when working someplace new or with new distractions, so the dog is really motivated!  However, reviewing learned behaviors, especially in familiar places won’t need anything special.  Most of the dogs I know are very happy to work for a piece of their kibble, if nothing else is offered.

Your dog isn’t food motivated?   I’ve had a lot of clients tell me that.  Never believe them until I’ve tried hot dogs and chicken!  Most dogs are food motivated, but it might take a little experimentation to find what they really like.  It might be hot dogs or chicken or bacon or peanut butter (ou can put a bit on a spoon to let them lick a reward) or Cheerios or frozen peas!  However for those dogs who are really PLAY motivated, the chance to chase their ball or Frisbee can literally make them sit up and roll over!  If your dog loves squeaky toys, then a crackley container from bottled water usually gets ‘em going just about as well !

Interested in some of those “dog sports” but don’t want to invest in equipment before finding out if your dog is good at/enjoys it?  Be creative!  The first step in training a Dock-diving dog is to teach them confidence in the water – so start with a kiddie pool and work up!  Dogs that have great fetching and catching skills are great at fly-ball; if you’ve got one of those, bounce a ball off a wall to train catching  accuracy.  Play hide and seek – asking your dog to find you and/or his favorite toy to see if you’ve got a dog that might be good at tracking!  I knew Kita would LOVE agility long before buying jumps and dog-walks!  At the park, I encouraged her to walk along a seat on a bleacher, and she didn’t want to get down!  She learned the tire jump with a hula-hoop!  A blanket-over-table “tunnel” showed me she had no fear of enclosed spaces!

You wouldn’t think that a life spent training for and working in theater would transfer well to dog-training!  However, those of us in community theaters – especially the education departments of same – learn how to “make due and make it marvelous!”  with what we HAVE because there’s never enough money for what we’d really WANT!  This attitude and way of looking at things really helps in the dog world, too!  Instead of wishing to be in a different time or place, or waiting to start until we have everything needed, I’ve learned to DO what I can, with what I have, right where I am at the moment!  Otherwise I might never get started at all!

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Walking the Dog, part four

So tomorrow I’ll pick up another theme — I promise — but I just can’t leave this subject without discussing a “variation” on the basic dog walk that seems to be getting all too popular. I’m talking about folks letting their dogs run free, off-leash.  I mostly see this at the nearby county parks.  I understand how it is awfully tempting to give Rex that extra freedom.  First off, most dogs obviously LOVE to romp around a large space with grass and bushes and scent trails from all sorts of wild-life to explore!  Plus, Rex gets MORE exercise running about off-leash than he possibly could on-leash, right?  (And, of course, un-clipping his lead neatly side-steps any problems with poor leash manners!)

There are OTHER problems with letting Rex roam off-leash, though.  1) First off, it’s against the law!   It violates the leash laws current in most communities. In addition, all the parks around here POST at the entrance “The Rules” and always include dogs are to remain on trails and on leash!  If we ignore that, then why should folks obey the “no firearms” or “no alcohol” rules?  2)  It puts your dog in danger from following a scent or chasing an animal until he’s lost, runs across a road, or encounters an animal that will fight back.  3) It puts your dog and others in potential danger when they meet off leash.

Leash laws have been passed to make sure that handlers have control of their dogs at all times.  Unless Rex has a rock-solid, bomb-proof RECALL he is OUT of your control the second you un-clip the lead from his collar.  Most of our dogs will come when called inside, in their own yard, probably around the neighborhood – all familiar, rather hum-drum spaces.  When Rex goes to the PARK! – it’s a whole new ballgame!  Unless you’ve frequently trained in new spaces– practicing the Recall where Rex will have 20 million scents and sights and sounds that (I’m sorry) are far more interesting than you are — and unless he’s been 100% consistent in coming when called in those new places, then you cannot be sure he will obey at the PARK!

Certain breeds of dogs – mostly the hounds, sight or scent, should NEVER be off-leash except in a fenced-in area.  Their instincts are far too strong to CHASE!  Shelters get loads of Beagles, Harriers, and other Hound-mixes because the dog was off following some little critter and couldn’t find his way home before being picked up by animal control.  Other breeds like Huskies are also poor risks for the same reason – their prey drive just takes over!  And you can’t play down the danger cars pose to dogs running free. Even if you’re on a trail that seems far away from the roads – what about the parking lot?  If a dog scares up a bunny or deer it could take off in a straight line that might encounter a car far more quickly than you’d think.  I’m not willing to take that risk!

But, to me, the main reason to keep Rex on a leash at the park is that there are sure to be lots of other owners and dogs around, and you don’t know them (the person OR dog) or how they will react.   Nor do you know, with certainty, how Rex will react to those other dogs and people!   Most folks I encounter with off-leash dogs shout out, “Oh, my dog’s friendly!” as if this covers all possible contingencies!  Think about it, folks!  Just because YOUR dog is friendly doesn’t mean that all other dogs and people will be friendly towards your dog!

And allow me to take such “friendly” claims with a grain of salt!  To be on the safe side, I’ve taken to responding, “Oh?  Mine isn’t!” when they say that. This is not really true – Kita gets along very well with other dogs if I introduce her slowly — but that response is the only one I’ve found that will make other owners call their dogs back and put them on leash with no discussion.  Unfortunately, this might be giving Kita an underserved reputation.  Still, Kita, being big, black and a GSD is going to be the bad guy no matter what happens, so I’d rather nip possible problems in the bud.

To be frank, I’ve considered carrying mace or pepper spray to keep dogs at a distance just in case they don’t obey their owner – or if they run up with no owner in sight!  That happens a lot!  Not just in the park, but also when I’m walking in the new, fashionable neighborhoods that prohibit fencing!  Walking Kita and a boarding Spaniel and having a Rottie and a Pittie rush out to defend their territory – with only an 11-year-old boy to try and restrain them — is not an experience I’m eager to have repeated.

I’d much rather see folks “bending” the 6-foot limit part of the leash law and put Rex on a long-line.  Of course, you can buy a 30-foot lead at the pet-supply store, but you can make one much cheaper with a package of clothesline and a clip from the hardware store.  This would give Rex a lot more freedom, but allow you a “back-up plan” if he fails the Recall Review at an awkward moment!

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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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Known by the Nose

It’s common knowledge that a dog’s sense of smell is much better than a human’s. The scent receptors in a dog’s nose would almost fill a sheet of typing paper while ours fit on a postage stamp. I’ve heard estimations that a dog’s scenting ability is anywhere from a few thousands to a million times better than that of  homo sapiens.

It seems like scientists could be a bit more precise than that! After all that’s quite a range of possibilities! I’m sure one of the reasons it’s so big is that not all dogs have the same ability. Shorter-snouted dogs are less gifted in the number of receptors whereas long-nosed dogs like Beagles and German Shepherds have more. The Sultan of Smelling is, of course, the Bloodhound that has been bred for centuries to track and trail.

Just what does does that mean, anyway? — that dogs smell “better” than humans? Surely it’s not all about how many sensors, but how they are used. Scientists have discovered the percentage of a dog’s brain used to interpret scent information is about 40 times bigger than ours. So, while our brains are designed to interpret and store visual data, a dog’s is used mainly to process information from the nose.

A dog’s vision is quite poor, not seeing details, but mostly perceiving shapes. That’s why dogs will bark at familiar people who are wearing a different hat, or big bulky coat or have a backpack slung on their back. The outline is different than the remembered outline, so the dog treats the person as a stranger. It’s only after the dog catches the person’s scent that recognition sets in. Toss a treat to a dog, and if it falls to the ground, the dog obviously stops LOOKING for it and starts SMELLING it out. Walking our dogs is often a start-and-stop experience as we wait for them to read the “pee-mail!” Clearly all dogs depend far more heavily on the information their nose “knows” than people do.

Our memories are full of pictures and anchored by language. Dogs, who do not have language as we do, and for whom vision is a lesser sense, must have memories made up of smells. Think about that for a moment — remembering a place you’ve been by the aromas there. Not a visual map of landmarks, but a grid of odors, a puzzle of perfumes, reeks, tangs, whiffs and fragrances. I can’t begin to conceptualize it. I imagine someone with Synesthesia, who might “see” smells as colors or hear numbers as musical pitches might find it a bit easier to visualize.

See, even our language reflects how the human brain thinks: “visualize” because that is how our brains process information. In our “mind’s eye!” Do dogs think with a sort of mental nose?

I find it fascinating that such a familiar, well-know, well-loved animal that lives in my home with me can be so alien. Not “alien” in a creepy, scary, inferior way, but a mind-blowingly interesting and awe-inspiring way. So different from us, and yet we presume to “know” what a dog is thinking!

How can we think that we really understand what is going on in a dog’s mind? It seems we’re only guessing according to our human-visual bias. We’re really imagining what another human might be thinking in the same circumstances.  Unless we really know what our dog’s nose knows, those guesses won’t be very accurate.

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Food overcomes Fear

My big, bad GSD mix, Kita, is afraid of the refrigerator.  Not all refrigerators.  She’s terrified of the one in our current home, a bit wary of a friend’s fridge, extremely nervous around one in a cottage we visit, and I don’t remember her showing any reaction at all to the appliance in our old house.  Kita doesn’t go to see anybody else, so my sample is limited, but it seems that the ice-maker is what sets her off.

I believe the refrigerator in our old home was the first Kita had ever encountered, since all her reactions pointed to never having been inside a house before coming to live with me.  That model was very basic, no ice-maker or anything high-tech like that. Then we moved to this house.  The refrigerator had an ice-maker, but it wasn’t hooked up to a water line until I had that done nearly 6 months after we moved in.  Kita didn’t seem to pay any attention to the fridge at all, until it started making ice.  This is speculation, because I don’t remember any huge traumatic incident, but I’m willing to bet that Kita was walking past it when some ice dropped in the bin, and that startled her.

The noise is quite loud and in our galley-style kitchen Kita must walk right past the refrigerator to go outside.  At first, I noticed that she trotted through the kitchen, but wasn’t nervous at other times.  Soon, Kita began to anticipate ice-dropping by reacting with “airplane ears” and panting to the gurgles and burbles of the ice-maker.   The cottage refrigerator that also makes her very nervous has the same system and makes many of the same noises, whereas the high-tech, well-insulated appliance (delivering ice to the door) in my friends’ home is very quiet.  Kita began avoiding the cottage kitchen, but would pass the quiet fridge with no more than a few doubtful looks.

At first, Kita’s antics to avoid the dreaded Refrigerator Monsters seemed funny and not a serious problem.  Would that I knew then what I know now!  A dog’s phobias and fears, if left unaddressed, deepen and worsen with time.  Now, after many years of the fear settling in, Kita goes through a ritual every time she must pass our refrigerator:  hesitating, looking at it, taking one step, then looking again, backing up a step, putting out a front  paw, making a couple of bobbles in the direction she wants to go as if she’s revving up her courage, and at last trotting past — fast!  If something (even the cat) is blocking her “only possible” path along the cabinets on the far side of the kitchen, she can’t bring herself to take the plunge.  If someone steps in the way as she’s trotting through, Kita puts on the brakes, skids and is obviously terrified.

I know she’s panicking in that situation because she will refuse to take a treat. That is a bench-mark used almost universally by dog trainers to test a dog’s stress level.  A dog that is able to accept and eat a treat, while it may be showing signs of extreme nervousness, is not experiencing a traumatic level of anxiety.  Kita won’t even touch a treat held under her nose until she is in her safe zone — which is apparently off the kitchen’s tile floor and onto the carpet of a room on either side.

Kita used to eat her dinner in the middle of the kitchen, not right next to the fridge, but within a few feet.  Gradually, she needed her bowl placed further and further away until it was actually on the carpet.  Then darkness began exacerbating the fear.  Soon, Kita absolutely refused to pass through the kitchen if a light wasn’t on.  I could kick myself now, but it wasn’t until she’d reached that point that I realized what a problem had developed.

Here’s the interesting thing — if anyone stands at the opposite end of the kitchen WITH A TREAT — Kita will trot through without her whole “ritual.”  One quick look to make sure the Refrigerator Monster is in its corner and she goes!  This is another universal in dog training — a dog accepts anything that brings or is connected with food. Food can be used to overcome Fear.

It’s also axiomatic that the higher the food’s “value” (in the dog’s eyes) the more fear the dog is willing to overcome for it!  A dog will do a lot more for a bite of steak, or gravy than for her kibble.  Most dogs will even be willing to put up with a bit of nervousness for just their usual boring bowl, as long as we don’t ask too much at one time.

Especially when a dog has reached the level of panic that Kita experiences, progress is very slow.  I’m using both her dinner and special treats to encourage Kita to overcome her fears.  We are gradually moving her food bowl closer, so she is now eating with the bowl on the tile.   Each day, I move the bowl to a different place — sometimes closer, sometimes backing away a bit from the Refrigerator Monster.  Sometimes in her “only possible” safe path, sometimes on the other side in the scary zone!  If I have a special treat, like some broccoli scraps (go figure, the dog loves cooked broccoli!) she must come in the kitchen to get them!  Kita hasn’t accepted food with all four feet on the kitchen tile, yet, but we’re getting there.

Today, for the first time, Kita pushed a bowl she was licking along the tile until it was in front of the refrigerator.  She knew what she was doing and gave the boxy beast some doubtful looks!  But she kept on licking until every bit of gravy was gone.  It’s going to take some time, but she’s on her way!

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