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Monthly Archives: December 2011

Merry, Happy, Good….

There’s nothing like waking up on a frigid morning, listening to the “song dogs” in the distance calling their companions back to the den, having a cup of hot coffee while watching the fire dance in the stove.

You go out to the barn, and as you look up at the stars, your horse is expelling that deliciously fragrant breath into the cold morning air as you open the stall door.   It’s as joyful a thing now as it was the first day with that first horse.

You look around at junipers, pines, and cedars in the dim dawn light and think you are certainly in a wondrous place, beautiful in all four sacred directions.

Back in the house, there’s the smell of the coffee and burning sage, and the soft hello in the eyes of three good dogs who greet you again as if you had been gone for a week, and not just the time it took to deliver a hot bran mash. They have no idea when it’s Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or Solstice.  They just treat every day as new adventure, or an old one.

Our relationships with all these things – rocks, stars, trees, animals, and each other, are important and not to be taken lightly.  When we tread on the sensibilities of the earth, we lessen the future for our children.  When we get angry with a dog, we teach our children anger, perhaps against one another, too.

When things like dogs, coyotes, or the smell of horse breath don’t matter anymore, we have lessened our own place in the world – because we are all related and interdependent.  As you celebrate whatever you celebrate this time of year, make the dogs important, take time to smell an evergreen, look up at the stars…relax and understand.  Listen and you will not fear a coyote’s howl, you will hear “song dogs” sing and be glad they are not gone.  Look, and you will smell pitch and needles and see the homes of birds, and be glad that the trees have not all been chopped down.   Stand close and you will feel horse breath on your cheek and be glad that there really is an old friend still nearby if ever there is an end to oil.

Everything depends on your perspective.  No wonder they chose a stable…

Merry Christmas!

From Myth to Science

There are a lot of myths in the dog training world, and they die hard.   One myth is that it’s OK to use that positive training stuff on your Yorkshire Terrier, but if you have a Rottweiler things must be different.  What is it about some people that they cannot believe that a Yorkie is also a mammal, thus learns the same way that other mammals learn?    “Every dog is different and they require different methods,” you’ll hear the correction trainers say.  Well, yes, to a point.  There are many ways to teach a dog the same behavior, just as there are different ways to teach a child the same behavior.  But, there is never a reason to justify the application of painful or fear-inducing stimuli when you can teach a behavior without their use.

Sarah Fulcher, of Barks and Recreation in British Columbia shared this quote with her Facebook friends this morning, and I believe it wholeheartedly: “Those who force, prove they can conquer. Those who ask for and receive, demonstrate they can communicate.” – Emma Massingale  Sarah has a Husky doing agility, so she can speak to the fact that they learn just like Yorkies and Rottweilers.  That, of course, does not mean that all dogs learn as quickly as one another – some kids take longer learning their multiplication tables (does anyone still memorize those?).  But, the way they learn, through operant conditioning, is the same.

Another myth is that when you train a dog you must be its “pack leader.”  That would probably be fine, if only dogs formed packs.  Current studies indicate that they don’t.  Sure, they will form cooperative social groups left to their own devices, but it’s a non-linear hierarchy.  And, while we’re on that subject…here’s David Mech, the originator of the term “alpha,” talking about wolf packs and why his terminology no longer applies:

Another persistent myth is that dogs are trying to dominate us, so we must do all we can to see that they realize their position in the now non-existent pack.  Poppycock!  Dogs don’t want to dominate us, they just want to get what they want.  Once you realize that the dog is seeking resources, not the presidency of the household, it becomes much easier to use resources to control the dog – nicely.  Resources aren’t just food.  Resources can be anything the dog wants.   Food, toys, space, resting places, pig ears, the owner’s attention, getting out a door, are all resources.   So, if the dog is jumping on the owner for attention, instead of pushing the dog away or shouting “off” (both of which are attention!) what if the owner simply made attention contingent upon the dog remaining in a sit?   Dog jumps, owner turns away.  Dog sits, dog gets attention.  Simple – it’s just that most humans cannot commit themselves to doing it for the length of time it takes the bad habit to extinguish!

Perhaps the all time most difficult myth to eradicate is “He knows better.”  I have news for you.  In all my years of training, I have never met a dog that knows better whose owner says this.  What I meet are dogs that are just insufficiently trained whose owners don’t realize it!  The sheepish look that the dog gives you when you walk in to find the couch in tatters, or your best pair of shoes shredded to bits is called “appeasement behavior” and the dog is doing it because he realizes instantly that you are mad about something – trouble is that he doesn’t connect it with the shoe chewing, thus he will still chew shoes while you are away (it’s too dangerous to do it in front of a scowling human) and you will then think he’s being spiteful.  Vicious cycle that usually ends up in a destroyed relationship along with the destroyed shoes.  We trainers wish people would call us when the dog is 8 weeks old, rather than 8 months old, which is when the “second chewing stage” kicks in.   We could easily explain this to you and save your dog so much anxiety and confusion.

Here’s a fun myth: “My dog likes to kiss me.”  Would that it were so.  However, it’s probably just another appeasement gesture, simply designed to show deference or to indicate that the dog is not intending a threat to you.  People spend much less time learning about dog communication than dogs spend trying to learn about human communication.  Perhaps it’s because we have the gift of spoken language.  But, dogs have a spoken language and a body language.  For example, do you know when your dog is trying to tell you that it is experiencing stress?   Most people aren’t fully aware of the many stress signals that dogs use to communicate.

There are more myths about dogs, but suffice to say that we need to stop believing them all, and take a serious look at what science actually tells us about our dogs.  There are canine cognition studies being undertaken at many major universities across the country, such as Harvard, Barnard College, University of Florida, and Duke University.   My dog, Sioux, has participated in several of the Harvard studies, one of which asks whether dogs have a sense of fairness.  (My guess is that they do.)

People always seem to think they know more about dogs than they know.  If people really knew dogs the way they think they do, then the “top ten predictable behaviors which owners consider problems yet rarely do any preventive training for” as delineated in Jean Donaldson’s “The Culture Clash” would not keep happening.  The first step to better understanding of our canine companions is humility – learn about the myths and stop believing them!  Instead, learn about dog body language, operant conditioning, and ethical dog training.  It’ll make your dog way happier than mythical mumbo jumbo does!

What Do We Have to Do?

I recently conducted an experiment that I suspected would go badly, and that some of my trainer friends suspected would go badly – and it did.  I didn’t test any new training equipment, and I didn’t test any new method of teaching dogs to do a particular behavior.  What I did was invite humans to a workshop on how to find the best dog for their particular lifestyle.   There was absolutely no financial incentive for me to hold this workshop.  In fact, the proceeds, had there been any, were destined as a donation for one of the local shelters in my area that is building a new state of the art shelter, Cape Ann Animal Aid, and that fact was openly disclosed in public service announcements about the workshop.

Given that it’s holiday time, I really didn’t expect a large crowd, but since I know that some families will NOT heed the advice we trainers often give about the inappropriateness of bringing a puppy home for Christmas, or giving a puppy to someone else as a gift without the person’s knowledge, you would think that a few hardy souls would decide that they could learn a bit before signing on the bottom line.  Nope.  The one attendee was a loyal client of mine, who got her dog from a local rescue organization, attended multiple classes, and ended up with a great dog already suited to her lifestyle.  Still, I gave the complete workshop for her (never let it be said that my clients don’t get their money’s worth) and she actually reported to me that she learned a lot, even though she’s not a first time pet owner by any means.    I did this knowing in my heart that if I built it they still would not come, and that left me puzzling about why.  So, I’m appealing to those newbies in the dog owning world who see this blog post to tell me.

What do we trainers have to do to get the word out to you BEFORE you make errors that are so easily prevented?  What do we have to do to get you to understand that you are not “rescuing” anything when you buy a puppy at a pet store, and that you could, instead, be damning a breeding female to a lifetime living in a cage, only to be dumped at the shelter when her breeding days are over?  Is that a system you really want to perpetuate when we could have provided you with a referral to a reputable breeder, no matter what breed you were interested in?

What do we have to do to keep you from buying that beautiful Australian Shepherd when you have three children under the age of 8 who will become the unintended victims of his desire to herd and gather, and who will use a well placed poke or nip to enforce his rules because you are too busy with the kids to train him, or you just thought he’d “grow out of it?”

What do we have to do to keep you from purchasing a “teacup” or that “somethingdoodle” from an Internet puppy mill, and then becoming heartbroken when you find that miniaturizing dogs, or inappropriate random breeding can sometime lead to devastating health issues that can result in huge vet bills after your 72 hour “health guarantee” expires (reputable breeders *always* provide a lifetime guarantee).

What do we have to do to dissuade you from getting that livestock guardian breed when you don’t have sheep, but you do have kids, whose friends may be viewed as “intruders” by the dog, even if he’s the most affectionate dog on the planet with your family?

What do we have to do to stop you from getting a bully breed that is banned from some cities and towns, or apartments, or by insurance companies, before your lifestyle is stable enough (to insure that he won’t be looking for a home in six months or a year when your situation changes so that he won’t end up with the hundreds of others in “open admission” shelters across the country waiting for homes that there simply aren’t enough of)?

What do we have to do to get you to bring your new puppy to class at age ten weeks instead of ten months when they suddenly become doggy teenagers and you can’t take the barking, chewing, digging, or nipping for another minute?

What do we have to do to prevent you from paying through the nose for a “designer dog” whose breeder didn’t bother to show the parents, work the parents, or even have them tested for genetic disorders so that YOUR puppy would have a reasonable chance at a healthy long life and that he would be able to fulfill the dreams you have for him even if the dream is to have a great companion dog?

What do we have to do to get you to DEMAND clearances on your puppy’s parents from OFA, CERF, PennHip, Optigen?

What do we have to do to prevent you from choosing a behaviorally unsound shelter dog because you felt badly for it cowering in the back of its run?

What do we have to do to convince you to call a professional for advice *BEFORE* you shop for your next puppy or dog?

What do we have to do to get you to ask us before you bring home a male Boxer from unknown lines to live with your little male Jack Russell terrier and then they don’t get along when the Boxer matures and turns out to be dog aggressive?

What do we have to do to get you to read the advice in the “What’s Good About ’em, What’s Bad About ’em” pages, rather than in the notoriously awful dog breed info sites that are populated by ads for large scale breeders of puppies that are nothing more than livestock to them?  After all, you still don’t have to take our advice when we give it, but we certainly could save you one heck of a lot of heartache in a lot of cases if you do.  You might even learn about a new breed that you didn’t know about before that would be perfect for your family!  Maybe a Lagotto Romagnolo or a Flat Coated Retriever.   Maybe just a Big Fluffy Dog.

Sadly, John and Jane Q. Public, I invited you to my party and you didn’t come.   What do we trainers have to do to get you to accept our invitations?  We care about your dogs more than you know, and our hearts bleed daily for the ones that ended up, through no fault of their own, in the wrong home.  What do we have to do to help you get the best dog for your lifestyle, so that he or she has a “forever home” with you?