Tag Archives: understanding dogs

Saying, “Boo!” to a Dog

I remember as a child, once walking by a tied-out dog. My mother was with me; we were at a campground, as I recall.   I knew enough not to approach a tied dog, even calm and lying down as this one was, without its owner present. However, I didn’t want to just ignore him!  It seemed rude as he was watching us in a hopeful way, so I said something like, “Hey there, Boo!” and the dog thumped his tail on the ground and grinned at me, dipping his ears and looking rather goofily happy. I remember asking my mother why dogs always seemed to like being called “Boo!”  Poor woman. I probably asked crazy things like this all the time. She did her best and came up with, ” Because it sounds friendly!”

Looking back, I think she was right.  But I don’t think it was the name, “Boo” alone that sounded friendly to the dog.  I’m sure (because I still call dogs, “Boo” today along with “Sweetness” and “Babycakes”) that I used a form of exaggerated speech that is closely related to baby-talk.  Nowadays I believe it’s called Motherese or Child-directed Speech.

It has been noted by many psychologists that humans (especially women) speak to animals (especially pet dogs) in almost exactly the same way as they would speak to a small child.  It seems to be an instinctive response.  I have never had children of my own, never baby-sat very small kids, and have few friends or relatives within easy-visiting distance who had infants for me to “practice” on.  Yet, I invariably use this special form of speech to all dogs, cats, and to a lesser extent the other domestic animals, and wild creatures I encounter around my home and on walks.

This isn’t necessarily the stereotypical baby-talk where words are distorted almost beyond recognition — “Did oo hurt ooself, widdle beebee, Did oo?”  But there are some shared characteristics:  higher pitch, drawn out sounds, musical cadence, rhythmical delivery and repetition.  Think about the last time you asked your dog if she wanted to go for a walk.  I bet it sounded something like this — “Puppy wanna go for a walk?  Wanna go?  Wanna walk?”  Probably the “walk” and “go” as final words were drawn-out and had an upward swooping pitch.  And I bet your dog got very excited and happy!

Well, you, say.  That’s because Fifi understands those words.  Yep!  I believe it!  And she understands the words precisely because the delivery was designed to help others acquire language!  Of course it was evolutionarily designed to teach our own children, but when we adopted dogs into the family, they benefited from the same speech patterns that were already well-honed by thousands, if not millions of years of mothers talking to their babies.

I’m not trying to be sexist here!  A lot of guys use this sort of language instinctively, too – especially if they’ve been the caretaker of small children.  However, men seem to have a harder time with applying it to a dog.  A lot of my clients just can’t wrap their minds around the need to talk baby-talk to their puppy (or adult dog!)  Even if you’re not trying to teach the dog word recognition, they just RESPOND better to that form of talking!  If you want to get a dog excited, encourage it to come to you, or make him work harder – speak in baby-talk.  Most dogs go all soft and goofy when they hear it and will do anything for you!

Some guys seem embarrassed by it all.  I point to K9 cops and Military Working Dog handlers.  Those big tough cops and soldiers invariably praise their dogs in this very same, high-pitched, sing-song, silly way.  And the big tough police and military dogs eat it up with a spoon!  They get the very same happy grin on their faces that the tied-out dog so long ago did for me.  It is plain that this silly-talk is the reward they work so very hard for and risk their lives to receive.  Saying “Boo!” to a dog is exactly what they want from us!

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“My Dog Was Abused”

An awful lot of owners who’ve adopted an adult dog or puppy from a shelter say that. At various times, I’ve said it of my girls, both rescues. However, I’m not sure we’re always right. Not that anyone is lying, here, I just think we might be misinterpreting the situation and/or some doggie body-language.

Certainly, there are a lot of dogs in shelters that have come from bad situations. Volunteering at the Humane Society of West Michigan for several years, I’ve seen dogs taken from puppy mills and homes by legal action. Certainly any animal picked up as a stray has had a hard time. Many dogs surrendered by their owners are not in top condition. Certainly, all of these dogs have been abused in some sense of the word. However, most times, they were neglected – ignored and/or given insufficient food or exercise — rather than beaten, berated, or forced to fight.

Some people would say that putting a dog in a shelter, in itself, constitutes abuse, but I think when we say a dog has been “abused” most of us mean the active kind. A hungry dog or one who hasn’t had proper shelter reacts differently than a dog that’s been thrashed or crushed with harsh language. After inquiring into particulars, barring a known case history of physical abuse, most folks are assuming their dog has been mistreated because of two things:   1) the dog ducks away when we try to pet her, and/or 2) she shies away from people.

Rather than abuse, I would diagnose insufficient socialization as the most likely cause of the second problem.   Despite the eager, everybody-is-my-best-friend stereotype we expect of all dogs, a lot of them are naturally shy and not very outgoing – just like a lot of people.  If those dogs are not actively and systematically introduced to all sorts of other dogs, situations and humans in the critical development period (7-16 weeks) they will remain wary at best and grow fearful at worst!  In a sense, the puppy’s original owner did misuse her, but it wasn’t intentionally cruel and not what we really mean when we say “abuse.”

Reaching out a hand to pet a dog and having it duck away from our caress hurts our feelings.  If we think the dog is acting that way because it was harmed, then we don’t feel so bad.  The dog isn’t rejecting US, just reacting to something ANOTHER — bad — person did to it.  If the dog was beaten, we can understand and forgive her for not welcoming us because it’s nothing personal.  And it ISN’T an insult or a rejection – even though most dogs who duck away do not have a history of beatings.

To a dog, height is everything.  Dr. Patricia McConnell says, to us height is a symbol of power but to a dog it’s the real thing itself.  So, any adult dog trying to put his paw or leg on top of another dog is making a very big, loud statement of domination!  (Unless there’s been an exchange of play-bows, and even then another dog might have trouble trusting that sort of “play” from a new acquaintance.)  Starting out, we’re so much taller than dogs that a shy, un-socialized individual is already a bit leery of us.  Then the dog is made even more uncomfortable with the human penchant for patting pups on the head.  They duck away because they don’t know us and we didn’t make any play-bow, so they are reluctant to trust that we mean them no harm.

Yep!  That’s all I’ve come to believe the ducking away from a petting hand means.  I can’t believe that 9 out of 10 dogs have been physically abused, and that’s about the percentage that I see avoid a patting hand – even a well-known hand!  (Kita still ducks away from my hand reaching towards her half the time!) And why do we EXPECT a dog to LIKE that, anyway?  Think about it.  Would you like it if some stranger patted you on the head – or even a friend?  When you were a child and adults did that to you, did you enjoy it?  Didn’t you try to duck away?

When two humans meet, the polite thing to do is face that person directly, make eye contact and extend a hand in greeting.  To a dog, that’s just plain rude if not antagonistic.  Facing head-on and staring is what an attacking dog would do.  Reaching out a paw, without a play-bow, is not usually friendly.  I try to greet dogs by standing in profile to them, glancing at them sideways and holding a hand (palm up) loosely at my side to allow the dog to make the first contact — to come and sniff if they choose.  The first time I pet a dog, I reach to the side of her face and bring my fingers under her chin to stoke the cheek, neck or chest.  It seems like they would be more protective of these vulnerable areas, but most dogs accept this approach and noticeably relax to enjoy the caress.

I am not denying that far too many dogs have been treated badly by humans, and that many have indeed been physically battered and berated.  However, most dogs, even ones who’ve lived their entire lives with loving families are never going to like – or even readily accept — a human hand descending from far above to land on their head.  And, I see no reason to expect them to do so!  They can’t intuitively guess at our benevolent intentions when our body language is telling a different story!

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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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Start Where You Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Memories…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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It Is Easier…Honest!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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