Monthly Archives: June 2019

Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?

Today I am angry.

Two people called me within a 24-hour period about issues with their dogs. One person is on the verge of returning his dog to its original rescue, where it would most likely have to be euthanized due to aggression issues and the other person already returned her dog to a shelter after being told by a trainer the dog was dangerous. That dog also may not make it out of the shelter as now someone has gone on record saying it is dangerous.

Both of these people did the right things: they reached out to trainers and even to a person who calls herself a behaviorist for help with the dogs. Unfortunately, the information and actions from these trainers was extremely outdated and not based on best practices as outlined by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists.

What we know about how behavior works; how animals interact with their environment and what roles ethology plays in behavior has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. We know wolves don’t live in packs the way we thought they once did and that the term “alpha” does not accurately reflect how wild wolves live. Plus we know domestic dogs are not wolves and to try and even compare them isn’t reflective of the dog’s behavior. Yet, lots of people still think their dog is the “alpha” who is trying to dominate them because a trainer told them that was the case.

Countries are banning the use of shock collars and prong collars because they have been shown to cause serious behavior issues. Sadly, the United States is not one of those countries. You can walk into any pet store and buy a collar that will shock your dog; a choke chain that can easily strangle it or a prong collar that will pinch its neck. In my area the trainers who use these devices have big billboards and lots of clients.

Let me tell you about these two dogs.

Case #1. A 2-year-old Labrador adopted from a lab rescue. The dog has always been a little fearful of strangers, but was great with his family. The family immediately took the dog to obedience school and did both Levels I and II of a well-known school. The obedience school was great; but it did not address the dog’s fear issues and the dog started growling at people who entered the home. On walks the dog shakes when approached by strangers and will hide behind whomever is walking it.

The family consulted their veterinarian (which is awesome); but the vet recommended a person who calls herself a behaviorist (which anyone can do) but she certainly isn’t certified through anywhere. But, she sounds impressive on paper. She told them that the issue was the dog was allowed on the furniture and they were playing tug with the dog. She advised them to stop both immediately stating the dog was learning to be dominant by being on the furniture and that playing tug was making the dog more aggressive. She also told them to start the dog on Prozac. She provided no follow up and other than the advice on not being on the furniture or playing tug; she gave the owners no other information on how to work with their fearful dog.

The owners stopped playing tug (which everyone, including the dog had previously enjoyed) and stopped letting the dog on the couch, which everyone had also enjoyed. Neither of these issues ever involved the people the dog was fearful of, which was strangers.

The dog did not get better and started to become worse and nipped a person in the family’s home.

They contacted a second trainer who advised them to put the dog in a prong collar and teach the dog a down/stay. When guests visited, the people were told to make their dog stay and if it didn’t they should heavily correct it by jerking up on the prong collar repeatedly until the dog went back into a down. The trainer has an impressive website that guarantees results. There are lots of amazing looking photos of obedient dogs doing nothing but remaining still.

Three days ago the 14-year-old daughter was working with the dog and asked it for a stay, when it broke the stay she corrected it with the prong collar and the dog launched at her and tried to grab her arm. The family was obviously upset as the dog had previously been “overall sweet” with the family.

The family called the rescue they got the dog from two years ago and said they wanted to return it. The rescue asked me to go and see the dog, which is how I came into the picture.

Case #2: A couple went to a local shelter and adopted a dog that was wiggly in the kennel and beloved of the staff. The first night they had it the dog jumped onto their bed and snuggled between them, often waking in the night to gently lick their fingers.

The couple had previously had a dog that bit their neighbor requiring extensive medical treatment for the neighbor. They wanted to make sure they started off on the right foot with this dog. So, the day after they adopted the dog, they took it to a trainer who advertised a temperament testing service so people could get a better idea of whether their dog was “safe” or not.

The dog became nervous when they got to the training facility and backed away from the first person it met and gave a soft growl. The head trainer then came in and took the dog outside and tied it to a fence. She backed up and then ran toward the dog waving her arms and yelling. The dog lunged forward to the end of its leash barking. The woman did this two more times. By the third time, the dog was lunging, barking, growling and showing all of its teeth at the woman. The trainer told the couple the dog would bite and that she would be happy to “prove” it to the couple by putting on a bite suit and letting the dog attack her on the next approach. The trainer said she wouldn’t even go near the dog now without a bite suit and told the owners they would have to untie the dog from the fence. When they untied the dog it jumped on them and licked their faces. The dog was wiggly with them.

The trainer told them the dog was dangerous and aggressive and because it showed this behavior it was not something they could fix. She said the dog was a liability and they should return it immediately and then she tried to sell them one of her puppies that she was training.

This trainer’s website sound impressive. She has a long list of accomplishments in the military and police world with dogs and service dogs.

The couple was not comfortable with what the trainer did, but because of her impressive website and due to their past experience with a dog that bit, they took the dog back to the shelter. The staff was astounded to hear what the trainer had said. They said the dog had been introduced to children, lots of strangers and all kinds of people and had always been happy and wiggly.

After returning the dog the couple worried about whether they had done the right thing and somehow found my name and called me.

We are a litigious society. If a dog is returned to a rescue or a shelter with a bite history or a label of “aggression” that shelter or rescue has to assess its liability risk if they adopt that dog back out again. Both of these dogs are now at serious risk of euthanasia simply because their owners, who thought they were being proactive, went to trainers who provided bad advice.

The first family has spent more than $3,000 on training in two years. They are reluctant to spend more; especially on me since I was up front and said all of my advice would be completely opposite of what they had been told by the previous two trainers. The family is concerned their dog will bite someone and they will be sued. It is a legitimate concern. They wanted me to guarantee that I could help the dog and make him “safe.” I cannot do that. There is no guarantee a dog won’t bite, especially a dog that has been practicing a behavior for two years and one in which the behavior is escalating.

The problem with both cases is no one addressed what was causing the issue in the first place. Both dogs were fearful. New people and strange environments made them nervous. They were not being “dominant” or “bad.” They were scared and the only way for them to communicate that fear was to growl or bite. Both dogs probably started life offering lesser stress signals such as yawning or lip licking, but over time most likely learned people didn’t listen to those very well, but people did listen to growling or biting. Over time the dog will start with those behaviors because they work for the dog.

So, let’s think of this in a different way.

snakeImagine you are a person who is afraid of snakes. Not just a little afraid, but so afraid you almost can’t breathe if you see a snake. If you see a snake, you want to rush forward and kill it before it can hurt you. You come to me for help because now you are afraid to go outside because there could be a snake out there.

I put you in a chair and I bring in a big snake. If you try and get out of the chair I punch you. I continue to punch you until you remain seated in the chair while the snake comes into the room. Later when the snake is gone, I put you back in the chair and I approach you and you jump up and punch me before I even get close to you.

Or I tie you to a fence and I pick up a snake and I run toward you yelling and waving the snake. You can’t get away because you are tied to the fence. You think you could be about to be killed by this scary snake. So, you rush forward and scream back at me and say you will punch me if I get too close to you.

You threatened me with bodily harm. Are you a bad person?

To help dogs with serious anxiety, stress or fear issues, we have to deal with the cause of that issue, not the reaction to the issue.

What if you were in a huge room with lots of exits and I brought in a tiny snake. If you left the room, then I would leave with the snake and come back with a drawing of a snake instead. If you stayed in the room I would give you $50. I would continue to give you $50 every time you looked in the general direction of the snake. If the snake was too scary or overwhelming you could leave the room via one of the exits. Over time you would realize that you had choices. You weren’t being forced to deal with the snake and the snake was very small. You were also getting rewarded for just glancing at the snake. If you chose to come closer to the snake on your own, you would get rewarded again. If you didn’t come closer to the snake that would be ok as well. We have lots of time to work with the snake. Or maybe I would suggest you go to a psychiatrist. Maybe your fear of snakes is so bad that you might need medication or we would need to find a different way for you to overcome your fear of snakes. But, we would go slow and find the best way for you to get over that fear of snakes.

Here is some information from the AVSAB’s Position Statement on Punishment: “AVSAB’s position is that punishment1 (e.g. choke chains, pinch collars, and electronic collars) should not be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems. This is due to the potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals. AVSAB recommends that training should focus on reinforcing desired behaviors, removing the reinforcer for inappropriate behaviors, and addressing the emotional state and environmental conditions driving the undesirable behavior.”

Here is some information from the AVSAB Position Statement on Dominance: “AVSAB is concerned with the recent re-emergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs and other animals into submission as a means of preventing and correcting behavior problems. For decades, some traditional animal training has relied on dominance theory and has assumed that animals misbehave primarily because they are striving for higher rank. This idea often leads trainers to believe that force or coercion must be used to modify these undesirable behaviors. In the last several decades, our understanding of dominance theory and of the behavior of domesticated animals and their wild counterparts has grown considerably, leading to updated views. To understand how and whether to apply dominance theory to behavior in animals, it’s imperative that one first has a basic understanding of the principles.

“Even in the relatively few cases where aggression is related to rank, applying animal social theory and mimicking how animals would respond can pose a problem. First, it can cause one to use punishment, which may suppress aggression without addressing the underlying cause. Because fear and anxiety are common causes of aggression and other behavior problems, including those that mimic resource guarding, the use of punishment can directly exacerbate the problem by increasing the animal’s fear or anxiety.”

When you look for a person to help you with a behavior issue with your pet ask the person what types of training methods they use and why. If they use the words “dominance” or “alpha” consider walking (or running) away. Trainers should be able to tell you why they use a training method, who backs up that method and what scientific underlying principles apply to the training method.

I encourage anyone looking for a trainer to read (and reread) both AVSAB position statements and use that information to ask questions.




Is your dog stubborn?

“My dog is stubborn.”

“My dog knows ‘sit’ but he only does it when he wants to.”

‘My dog doesn’t listen.”

These are all common sentences I get from clients. They want clear communication with their dog, and they are not achieving that so it must be the dog’s fault.

What we think of as stubborn or a dog that is mad at us is often a dog that just has no idea what we want. We may think our instructions are clear. But, if the creature we are speaking to doesn’t understand the instructions, then it appears the creature is uncooperative.

Let me share my experience at the office of an eye surgeon. I have a macular hole in my right eye. This is a small break in the macula. The macula provides the sharp, central vision we need for reading, driving, and seeing fine detail. To correct this issue, surgery is needed in which a gas bubble is inserted in my eye to stabilize the hole.

I’m already stressed just being there. The thought of surgery is scary and thinking about someone cutting into my eye and inserting a gas bubble is causing me much angst.

The eye technician had to do many tests before I met with the specialist. I am certain this woman went home and complained about how uncooperative I was and how I could not follow even the simplest of instructions. I am sure she said, “she knew what I was asking her to do, she just didn’t do it.” Sounds familiar right?

She also most likely called me angry as I ended up saying something to her in a harsh voice, which is totally not like me. I am generally very cooperative and eager to please. I want people to like me.

How did this happen?

I was already stressed walking into the room. My brain was going a hundred miles an hour thinking of all the “what ifs.” I was having difficulty processing the instructions for the tests because I was having difficulty keeping my focus and not thinking “what if.” There were a lot of tests requiring precise instructions in order to do them correctly. I am an A student. I want to ace any test. But I wasn’t sure what the scoring was or what the tests were showing, so I had no idea if I was doing the tests correctly or if they were showing something bad about my eyesight. What if I was going blind?

The longer this went on, the more difficult it was for me to process the information and to understand the nuances of the technician’s language.

My right eye can’t see well at all right now and it stresses me. She was trying to find out exactly what I could see by showing me lines of letters. I couldn’t see the letters clearly enough to tell what they were. I explained that when I had been to my own eye doctor a few weeks ago I had to get to the second largest line, but instead of starting there, she went up from the bottom and I kept having to say I couldn’t make out the letters clearly. Every line was “what about this line?” Finally, she said “are you sure you can’t make out anything on this line?” I wanted to please her, so I squinted hard and said “maybe an A.” She said, “good can you read anything else on that line?” I was encouraged by the “good”, so I ventured “L.”

“I’ll take it,” she replied.

I let out a huge sigh. I got it right. She was pleased with my performance.

Then she said again, “I’ll take it.” Now I’m confused. The second time she said, “I’ll take it”, her voice sounded harsh. I perceived her as unhappy with me. What had I done wrong? She reached her hand toward me, which made me flinch back and said “I’ll take it” in very enunciated language as if maybe I just was not understanding her. Then she said, “I’ll take the glasses.” I was using what could be described as opera glasses to look at the lines on the screen. The device covered one eye, so the exposed eye was what was taking the test. When she said “I’ll take it” she meant she wanted me to give her the glasses.

I could tell by her body langue that she was super irritated with me, which stressed me out even more. She gave me back the device and did another test with it. She asked me to flip down a tab on the side. Her only instructions were “see the tab on the side? Flip it down.”

I did that. It turns out there were two ways I could have flipped it down; to either the right or the left. I chose right. She said, “Flip it down so it covers the eye hole.” Yikes, I was doing everything wrong. I thought I understood what she was asking me to do, but I clearly wasn’t.

Finally, we got to the questions portion of the testing. I thought I would surely do better on this.

Question one: When did you have your Lasik surgery?

Answer: I am not 100 percent sure, 8 to 10 years ago.

Question: You don’t know when you had the surgery?

Answer: no.

Question Who did the surgery?

Answer: I can’t remember.

Question: you have no idea who did your surgery?

Answer: No, I only met them once.

What my brain is doing: Oh my God. I can’t remember. By her tone she is implying I should remember, and other people remember so I must be stupid. Am I stupid? Do I have a memory issue? Am I going blind and having a memory issue?

Question: Did you bring you reading glasses?

Answer: no

Question: You did not bring your reading glasses?

Answer: I followed every instruction I was given. My instructions were to bring my photo ID, my insurance card and my sunglasses. I was not asked to bring my glasses.

I said the above in a much harsher tone than I would normally use. I snapped at this woman. I immediately gave a weak smile toward her and dipped my head down. I wanted her to know I didn’t want to hurt her or take this argument further. I needed her to just back off a bit.

It was now time for the eye drops to dilate my eyes. Have you seen the movie A Clockwork Orange? There is a scene where a man has his eyes forced open and must watch horrible things. He can’t close his eyes. Her fingers were like that. My head was pushed back in a head rest and she had her fingers vice gripping my eyes open and dropping eye drops in. She got a second bottle and did more drops and as soon as the second liquid hit my right eye I jumped and took a deep breath because it hurt.

“That second one may sting” she said as she walked away.

If two people speaking a common language can’t even understand each other, think about what your dog must be experiencing if you are asking him to do something he really doesn’t understand or doesn’t understand in the context you are asking the question.

You ask the dog to sit, he doesn’t do it, so you ask him again as if maybe he just wasn’t understanding you the first time. Like the technician questioning me again every time I answered no when she thought I should be saying yes. That was frustrating and it is frustrating for your dog as he understands he got something wrong by your body language and voice. He isn’t being willfully disobedient. He is not sitting because he didn’t process the information in the way you think he did. Maybe you haven’t explained the question as clearly as you think you did or maybe there is so much going on around you, the dog isn’t able to hear your question the same way he might when nothing else is going on around you.

If your dog walks away from you or snaps or growls at you. He is not being a bad dog. He is being a very frustrated or very scared dog. If you keep scaring or frustrating him, he won’t get better, he will get worse. Instead, take a step (or 10) back and find out where your dog can work with you again. Can you make the problem easier for the dog to understand?

Often people say, “he knew he was wrong because he immediately came back and licked my face.” This is often an appeasing type of gesture. The same ones I gave to the technician: a smile and loose body language. It is the dog’s polite way of saying he doesn’t want this to escalate, but he needs you to know that this is all very stressful and to please stop doing whatever it is.

Then what if you punish the dog by doing something that hurts or scares him such as yelling at him, hitting him or pushing him? Kind of like me getting the scary eye drops I didn’t know where going to hurt. At that point I was done trying to please this woman or take her stupid tests. I wanted out of there.

Instead she left me in a time out. She said the dilation would take about 10 minutes and then the doctor would be in to see me. I tried a weak smile as she left, and she looked back and said, “you have to close your eyes for the dilation to really work” and shut the door.

I am now in a room with my eyes shut freaking out over the last half hour of stressors. I could certainly use something to occupy my mind. Maybe some music? Or someone periodically coming in to ask how I am doing. Was there a time limit I was supposed to keep my eyes closed and how do I know when it is up if I can’t see a clock?

By the time the eye doctor entered the room, I had to use all my will power not to either bolt out the door or burst into tears.

And he asks me AGAIN who did my Lasik surgery and when it was. I STILL don’t know the answer. And it turns out to have absolutely nothing to do with my macular hole. He told me that was just bad luck and old age.

He takes as bunch of equipment and puts it close into my face and starts calling out numbers to another technician sitting in a corner and she starts inputting those numbers. I don’t know what the numbers mean. Are they good numbers or bad numbers? I am practically shaking by the time he is done and says, “well other than the hole, your eyes are healthy.”

By the time we get to the point of setting up a surgery I am so ready to leave that I practically run out the door.

I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to work with those people again. They gave me no incentive to cooperate. Their questions were not clear (to me) and I repeatedly was exposed to pain or uncertainty.

That same day I worked with a dog that had a very hard time concentrating. I was trying to see if he could target my hand. He did great at first until he suddenly started backing away from me every time, I presented my hand. The more I worked with him, the farther he backed away. No matter how I asked the question “do you want to touch my hand?” he said, “this makes me nervous.”

I learned the dog had gone through repeated medical treatments in which the owner had used treats to get the dog to come into stressful situations.

I immediately stopped asking the dog to target my hand. Instead I tossed out a toy and rewarded him if he looked at the toy, then rewarded him for stepping closer to the toy and then touching the toy. In less than 5 minutes he was repeatedly touching his nose to the toy. So, he understood  we were playing a game and what the rules were, but he was telling me he did not trust the outcome of the game when I wanted him to touch my hand. He had already learned that some body positions meant something scary was about to happen to him.

The next time you think, “my dog is bad” or “my dog is stubborn” consider finding a new way to ask the dog the question you think he is not answering correctly. Are you sure he understood the question? Did a lot of stressful things happen to him that day? Is there a lot going on in the environment around you? You may be 100 percent sure the dog understood what you meant but if you get the wrong answer, the dog is most likely answering the question he thought you asked.