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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 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 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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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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Dogs Look to Us, Too!

Yesterday I wrote about a scientific study I’d seen on TV where wolves and dogs were tested. The wolves had been socialized with people from babyhood, raised as if they were dogs. The dogs were a variety of domestic breeds. All animals were adults when given the series of tests. The results showed that dogs, unlike their close cousins, are adept at reading human body language; will follow pointing signals and try to mimic a human’s posture and/or activity.

This study was not an assessment of the raw INTELLIGENCE of either dogs or wolves. It was investigating their ability and willingness to read the social cues of a different animal — humans. It turns out that dogs somehow gained an inborn skill to “read” humans during domestication. And it is a skill that other domestic animals don’t share!

Alone of all the creatures on earth, dogs watch us for social cues and correctly interpret much of our body language; not only where we point but where we are LOOKING. In addition, this study shows that domestic dogs actively SEEK our help. Dogs look to us to tell them what to do.

The experiment was simple. A piece of meat was put in a wire cage so the canines couldn’t reach it directly. The meat was attached to one end of a strap, the other end of the strap stuck outside the wire cage. Both wolves and dogs easily figured out that to get the meat, they just had to pull on the strap. So far, wolves 1 v. dogs 1.

Next, the strap with meat attached was fastened so that pulling on the strap didn’t pull the meat within reach — and here’s where the big difference in dogs and wolves surfaced! Wolves would pull on the strap with teeth and dig at it with paws. When it stayed put, the wolf would pace around the cage and try to come at it from different angles. Wolves kept trying to figure out the problem on their own.

In contrast, the dogs also tried what had worked before — pulling/digging at the strap to get the meat. However, when the dogs didn’t get the result they expected and wanted, they only tried a few other solutions and for a very short period of time. Instead of trying to solve the problem on their own, the dogs would LOOK TO THE HUMAN in the room with them.

Was the dog asking for instructions or asking for the human to get the meat for him? The test wasn’t designed to tell us that, but it was OBVIOUS the dog wanted the human to do SOMETHING about that meat! The dog would look at the human and then at the meat and back again!

I’ve seen this a lot in my business. I keep the outside dog toys (frisbee, balls, etc.) in a box on top of a big wire crate in my mudroom. All the boarders and daycare dogs have seen me put the toys away in the box. It is out of reach of even the tallest dog and most dogs don’t want to jump up on top of a wire crate, even if their manners are that bad. Every toy-driven dog that visits will let me know in no uncertain terms that they want me to get the ball or frisbee by looking fixedly at the box, then when I look at them looking, they turn their gaze on me before looking back at the box.

The study clearly showed that wolves have better problem-solving abilities than dogs. However this is again, not really a test of sheer intelligence. The dogs might have the ABILITY to solve problems just as much as their wild ancestors, but have learned not to keep trying if a human is around to help them. The study didn’t mention if these tests were ever given in the ABSENCE of human onlookers or what the results were if they had been. I wonder if the dogs would have continued to try longer if nobody was there to help them?

Dogs are not inclined to spend effort on strategies that don’t pay off quickly. Instead, dogs are experts at following the path that gets them what they want as fast as possible. So, it would not be surprising to me to discover that the dogs would work when alone, but give up sooner if there was a human around to do the hard work for them! Dogs not only watch us, but look to us to make their lives easier!

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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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