Monthly Archives: May 2012

Going “off leash” isn’t the best goal for many dog owners

One of the things many of my clients ask for is a dog that is reliable off-leash.  It seems most of us have an idyllic vision of our dogs romping in the park, having fun, and then instantly returning to us when necessary.

Unfortunately, the reality of off-leash work rarely matches our vision. I’m not saying an off-leash recall is impossible, far from it. But, it takes a LOT of work. Even then, there is always the possibility that your dog will see or smell something that trumps coming back to you. In many locations it is actually illegal for your dog to be off leash, so be sure you know your state and local municipal codes.

The reason an off-leash recall can be so difficult is that our dogs love to run and chase things. Many of them are hard-wired to chase small animals or birds. Some dogs hit a scent and just have to follow it, no matter what we might be telling them. In order to combat this, you have to be more fun than a squirrel or a rabbit or the scent of a female dog in heat. You want your dog to know that coming back to you means LOTS of totally awesome cookies, or a big game of tug with a favorite toy. This doesn’t happen overnight. There are even great trainers who have dogs that even after years of work still don’t have a recall that is 100 percent reliable. My personal belief is that there is no recall that is 100 percent reliable. There is always going to be something, somewhere that makes your dog want to investigate or chase.

This is why I always have a talk with my clients who put down as a goal on the first day of class that they want to let their dog off leash in the park and have him or her come back to them.

Let me give you a few scenarios.

  • My dog Batman has several obedience titles. He is 8 years old and we do a lot of work together. About 80 percent of the time I am comfortable with him off-leash coming back to me. But, I have seen him run across a road right in front of an oncoming car. It happened when I let him out of my van in my own driveway. Usually Batman gets out of the van and runs to the front-door of the house, but on this day, there was a rabbit in our yard that I did not see. Batman took off after that rabbit faster than I could have imagined and no amount of me asking him to come back to me was getting through to him. He dashed across the road and barely missed getting hit by a car. I almost fainted I was so stressed and the driver of the car was so shook up he had to stop.
  • Sparkles was a dog I had before Batman. I often took her to my parent’s house when I went to visit and she and I would go hiking in the woods. But, Sparkles had some kind of sight hound in her. When she saw a deer she would just take off, no matter what I said or did. Usually she came back after she couldn’t see the deer anymore. One day she didn’t come back. I think she probably scared up another deer and then another and kept chasing them farther and farther away. For three days I looked for her. I went to all the neighbors; I drove in ever-widening circles stopping to call her name. Every morning I got up hoping she would be on the front steps. Every evening I went out one last time calling her name. On the fourth day she came back, but she was in bad shape. Some other animal, most likely a coyote had been after her. My veterinarian thought by the bite wounds that Sparkles must have gotten under a log that gave her some protection as only her lips and face had bite marks.  After a few weeks of antibiotics she was fine.
  • One of our adopters came in today to let us know that the dog he adopted was doing great, but he said she had been hit by a car last month. She was off leash and suddenly darted into traffic. The man said that always before the dog had come back when they called her, but this one time she didn’t. The dog is going to be ok, but she required some extensive medical attention.

I’m sure you’ve all seen a dog dead by the side of the road. That could have been any of the dogs I’ve written about here, it is just in these cases the dogs were lucky.

If you are still determined to play with your dog off leash, take some precautions. Make sure your dog is microchipped and is wearing a collar with ID tags. Start with very easy recalls in an enclosed area and then add distractions such as someone throwing a ball, riding a bicycle or walking a dog by. You want to add these distractions while you are still in a safe environment before you take your dog to the park. Have something your dog REALLY wants and when he or she comes back to you, give lots of praise and give them the treat or toy. Consider having your dog drag a 30 foot long line. If the dog is dragging a long leash, your chances of catching up to it are greatly improved. Watch your area for distractions that might tempt your dog and start asking your dog to come back to you before he or she sees that distraction.

Also, make sure your dog has something other than a recall that he or she is good at. I have been saved many times because Batman has a very good Down. I can yell down and he will no matter what (as long as it isn’t a rabbit or a squirrel). Some dogs will come back if you ignore them and walk away from them.

The number one thing to remember is that if your dog gets loose and you do get it back, have a HUGE party. Lots of praise, treats, tug, whatever the dog wants. No matter how mad you are at the dog, never, ever punish it for returning to you. It will just make the dog decide that coming back to you wasn’t such a good idea in the first place.

As long as you are playing with your dog, having fun and loving him, he won’t mind if he is never off-leash romping in the park. Being safe is much better than a dead dog by the side of the road.

Sifting through the ever-changing world of dog trainers

One of my clients called yesterday to tell me that she was getting conflicting advice from another dog trainer. My client’s veterinarian had suggested she see a person the veterinarian called a specialist and the specialist told my client she was a behaviorist, which does sound important. But, when the specialist started giving my client advice that conflicted with what I was telling her, my client was understandably confused.

I feel bad for my client. There is so much conflicting information in the world of dog training. One old adage is that the only thing two dog trainers will agree on is what the third trainer is doing wrong. Sadly, I think that is more often true than not.

So, what is a person with a dog to do? How do you sift through all this confusion?

While this short post is overly simplistic, I hope it will help. First, let’s break the dog training world into two big groups.

1: The group that thinks dogs need a forceful hand that will dominate them and show them their place in the pack. This group may often use a punisher as a means to get the dog to comply. This group often uses words such as “dominance,” “alpha,” “leader of the pack.”

2: The group that uses a positive reward system and does not use punishment as a means to teach a dog something. This group talks about learning to read a dog’s body language, using the dog’s favorite food or toy to get the dog to work and many members of this group are quickly distancing themselves from anything that has the word “alpha” in it.

Each group has dozens (if not hundreds) of sub groups. I have belonged to both groups. Like many trainers I started off in Group 1 years ago. I believed the dog trainer who told me the choke chain was not really hurting my dog; I believed the trainer who told me the electric collar was not shocking my dog the same way it would shock me because my dog had fur around his neck; I believed the trainer who said the prong collar was humane.

Then one day I looked at my dog. He was shivering, drooling and miserable. I was trying to make him do something he didn’t want to do. The trainers around me wanted me to keep pushing the dog and MAKE him obey. My dog was terrified. Suddenly, I thought, “this is my friend, this dog loves me and has given me years of fun and yet I’m making him miserable.” Was it the task I was asking my dog to do that making him miserable or the way I was teaching him the task? I came to the conclusion that it was the way I was teaching him. As I stood on that training field, I realized I felt as miserable as my dog. As a matter of fact, I was crying.  I was hurting him, if not physically, then mentally. In that moment, I changed to Group 2. It wasn’t actually overnight, but it was on that night that the change began. I stopped charging the electric collar, I kept “forgetting” to bring my prong collar and I started going to seminars on dog behavior and training. I became a seminar junkie.

The more I learned about dog behavior the more I moved into the Group 2 camp. Here was a form of training that would never hurt my dog. My spirits lifted. My dog and I began exploring clicker training, which is in Group 2. According to the website, “Clicker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it. Desirable behavior is usually marked by using a “clicker,” a mechanical device that makes a short, distinct “click” sound which tells the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.”

My dog, Batman, could not be happier. In the years since I switched to clicker training, the bond between Batman and I has strengthened tremendously. My younger dog, Condor, only knew a few months of any kind of training from Group 1 and he just certified as a Human Remains Detection Dog.

There are many people in Group 1 who say that clickers are ok for tricks or clickers can’t be used to teach a dog everything. As a matter of fact an instructor at the Human Remains Detection seminar I was at told me Condor actually “hated” the sound of the clicker. He told me “real” working dogs had to be taught using other methods. I ignored him and kept my clicker on. Later that afternoon I sat in the shade and taught Condor to “shake” with both paws with my clicker, and all the while Condor had a big, sloppy grin on his face. The way he kept working and looking at my treat bag did not seem to be the face of a dog who “hated” the sound of a clicker.

My best advice to anyone confused by all the types of training is to do research. Find a trainer who is certified through some type of organization. Then look up that organization to see what they stand for. Some groups allow a trainer to put initials after their name for just the price of an annual fee; other groups actually have classwork and hold their members to standards. For example, I graduated from the Karen Pryor Academy, which is a six month course that requires its students to have a score of 90 or higher in order to pass and become certified.

Talk to any trainer you wish to hire. If you like the trainer, chances are you will like the training. Ask to meet the trainer’s dog and see a demo. I can tell a lot by a person by their dog and I’m sure you can too. Ask the trainer why he or she choose the type of training they believe in and what their training background includes.  Sit in on a class before you sign up with a trainer; make sure you like how he or she teaches. Look at the dogs in the class. Are they happy and working or shut down and terrified?

Above all, don’t get suckered in by words that sound impressive, but don’t mean much. For example, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has this to say about the word “behaviorist.” – “Behaviorist: This term is not attached to any specific qualification or level of schooling unless preceded by “veterinary” or “applied animal.” This term is not attached to any specific qualification or level of schooling. It can be used by anyone including someone with no formal education in companion animal behavior.”

 Whatever you do, don’t despair. Training your dog is important and it is worth finding the right person, even if the search can get confusing.

Condor certified as a human remains detection dog

Two years of training paid off this weekend when I certified my dog Condor as a Human Remains Detection dog. Condor and I are members of a volunteer search unit called Midwest Search Dogs. Events such as 9-11 and the Oklahoma City bombing made people much more aware of search dogs than they were in the past, but search and recovery is nothing new. In World War I, the Germans trained some dogs to go out and indicate whether a person lying in a battlefield was alive or dead so medical personnel would not have to risk their lives evacuating a dead soldier.

Most search units are volunteer organizations. The dog handler has to bear all of the expense of owning the dog, training it and all the travel expense of going to any area he or she is called out to search. Training a search dog is not for the faint of heart. On average it generally takes two years to get a dog to the point where he or she is ready to certify. Most units train twice a week, plus if your unit gets called out, you may have to leave work on a moment’s notice. Lots of people like the idea of being in a search unit, but few people join units once they find out how much work is involved.

Some people do join with thoughts of glory. But the reality of many search units is that you will spend your days searching, but never finding. I have been on two official searches as what is called a “ground pounder.” My job was to walk an area and help the dog handlers and to be another pair of eyes looking for a lost person. On one search it was in the mid-80s and humid and I hiked in rough terrain for hours, getting eaten up by bugs, covered in ticks and finding nothing but a snake and two turtles. In the other search the weather was in the 20s, the terrain was again rough and I fell down a hill, sliding on my butt the entire way down.  

Searching and not finding is still extremely important as you help eliminate areas, but the only glory at the end of the day is your own satisfaction of knowing you did a good job.

On the plus side, you meet some extraordinary people and you form a bond with your dog that is like no other. If you are working a dog that is searching for something, you have to know that dog. You have to know what it means if he turns his head, slows down, speeds up, changes the way he breaths, moves his tail, etc.

Most units in the Midwest have dogs that track or trail, air scent or find human remains. Tracking dogs follow a scent until they find the person the scent belongs to or until they lose the scent. Air scenting dogs are sent out into an area and asked to locate any human scent other than the scent of the people who are walking with the dog. Human remains dogs are asked to go out in an area and see if they can locate a body. Certain geographical areas such as mountains require specialized search dogs such as those than can do wilderness or avalanches. Some dogs and handlers specialize in working rubble, such as what would be left behind in a disaster. Areas with lots of water require a dog that can find a body under water.

While many dogs on search units are purebred dogs bred for their abilities to search, there are a significant number of rescued dogs. And one common theme you will find in the rescued dogs is that they were almost always dogs that were on euthanasia lists, or dogs that had been returned to a shelter numerous times. That’s because the dogs that excel at SAR want to be busy and have a job, meaning they are not the kind of dog that just wants to sit at home and lay on the couch with you. One of the dogs I met this weekend was from a shelter. Her handler was her fifth owner and the shelter had said that if it didn’t work out this time, she would be euthanized. When I met her she was a very happy dog and she certified as a tracking dog this weekend. One of my teammates has one of the most amazing dogs I’ve ever seen and it had been traded around several times before she got the dog because the dog was considered a “bad” dog. I met several people this past week who had both German shepherds and Belgian Malinois that were from rescues.

If you are looking for a dog to do some serious work with such as competitive obedience, agility, SAR, etc. look for the dogs in the shelter that volunteers are having problems with. Or ask the shelter staff if there are any dogs that love to play so much that no one wants to take them out because all the dog wants to do is play tug or fetch. Those are the dogs you would want if you want to be competitive or serious about what you are doing. You want to find a dog that is smart and has something he loves so much that he will work for it. For Condor that is a tennis ball. He will search as long as it takes in order to win the reward of me throwing his tennis ball for him. For other dogs it is a flying disc or a tasty morsel of food.

If you decide you want to explore search and rescue, do a Google search for units in your area. Look for a unit that requires its members to certify through a nationally accredited organization and a unit that believes in positive training methods. The people in the unit will be people you will be spending a huge amount of time with, so it is also important to find a group in which you fit in personality wise. There are a number of Yahoo groups that discuss SAR.