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Conflict can be so conflicting

 

I met with a client yesterday who spent most of our consult saying “but that’s not what the other trainer told me.”

There is a lot of conflicting information out there when it comes to dog training and dog behavior. There are at least two trainers in my geographic region who could not be more different from me in terms of our philosophies. Several times I have gone to someone’s home who has hired one of these other trainers in the past and it is obviously very confusing for the person to hear me say something which turns out to be vastly different from what the other trainer told them.

Who is right? Who is wrong?

First, where I live there are absolutely no regulations overseeing dog trainers. Anyone can be a dog trainer. Many of us who are trainers don’t agree about training procedures. We tend to use words that the average person may not understand. And we don’t all agree on the definitions of the words we do use.

No wonder our clients are confused. I try really hard never to bad mouth a trainer who has come before me. For one thing; I’m sure there are times when that trainer is the person who is called after me. I would hate for him or her to bad mouth me. Instead I try to provide information so clients can make up their own minds.

I explain why I use positive training methods and why I don’t recommend dominance based or force based training methods. I can do that without specifically slamming the other trainer.

For example, with the client I spoke with yesterday; the other trainer told the client that he needed a prong collar on the dog so the owner could do a better job of “asserting dominance” over the dog. The other trainer also slapped the dog on the nose when the dog did something the trainer did not like. The trainer told the client that by slapping the dog on the nose, he (the trainer) was mimicking how dogs communicated with each other.

I could explain to my client that what we know about dominance and how it is applied to training has changed dramatically over the years. The dog was not dominating his owner. No resources were involved. Dominance needs a resource such as a mate; food, a place to sleep. Instead the client had an 80 pound adolescent dog that was destroying furniture. The dog was bored out its mind. He wasn’t eating the table because he wanted to dominate his owner. He was eating the table because he wasn’t being walked enough and he wasn’t being given enough to do with his brain.

Likewise, smacking the dog on the nose isn’t going to help the dog learn not to eat the table. It is just going to make the dog know that his owner is scary and unpredictable. Dogs may sometimes nip each other as a warning and a mother dog certainly could grab a puppy by the snout. But, that has nothing to do with boredom. And dogs know their owners aren’t other dogs. So, even trying to mimic what dogs do to each other probably make zero sense to a dog. Plus, we aren’t fast enough. If you watch dogs interact, when they correct each other it is lightning fast. Humans will never be that fast. So, when we do correct a dog; our correction is often so far behind the behavior we are trying to correct that we end up punishing the dog for something else entirely.

Also, when dogs and wolves interact; there is always a choice when it comes to who is dominate and who is submissive. For example, if I am the dominate wolf in a group; and I see another lesser ranked wolf with a tasty bone, I might decide I would like that bone. I am not going to rush in and smack the other wolf on the nose or grab his neck and pinch him. Instead I am going to walk over in a confident manner and look at the bone. I might raise my front lips and show my canines. I could ruffle up my fur to make myself look taller. The entire point is I want to AVOID a conflict, not start one.

The wolf with the bone now has a choice. Does he want to let me have the bone? Does he want to avoid a conflict? Or, has he decided the time has come for him to take over? If the wolf with the bone wants to avoid conflict and if he has decided he can’t win a fight; he will submit. He may roll over and expose his stomach. He may just slink away and leave the bone. But, it is his CHOICE. The dominant wolf didn’t force the issue. The wolf with the bone could decide he does not want to give up the bone. He could whine; show his teeth back; try and take the bone farther away. The two wolves might engage in a lot of posturing. But, whatever happens it almost always ends without a fight. One wolf just says “fine, let’s not fight about it.” Sometimes it might end in a fight if the two wolves both decide they won’t back down. However, it is still a choice.

So, if you alpha roll a dog (force him to lay on his back and expose his neck and stomach); you are NOT behaving like a wolf. No wolf would have forced the other one on its back. Instead you are acting scary. You are not following canid protocol. You are dangerous and your dog may decide he has to bite you.

But, don’t take my word for it. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has some awesome information on the subject and you can take their word for it. According to their website, “The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) is a group of veterinarians and research professionals who share an interest in understanding behavior in animals. Founded in 1976, AVSAB is committed to improving the quality of life of all animals and strengthening the bond between animals and their owners.” These people often have very advanced degrees in both veterinary medicine and behavior related fields.

To read the awesome position statements the AVSAB has put out on dominance and punishment click here.

The bottom line is; do your own research. If a trainer tells you to do something that makes you uncomfortable; then ask the trainer not to do it. That’s what happened in my client’s case. He was not comfortable with a trainer hitting his dog on the nose. So, he looked around for a different kind of trainer and found me.

Reward the good; ignore the bad

Does your dog drive you crazy sometimes? Is he constantly barking at you; pawing you; grabbing things and running around with them?

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Give  a dog or puppy something to do before it does something you don’t want it to. While this tiny pup is very cute with the big boot; it won’t be so cute when the puppy is older.

 

Dogs do many things that annoy us; and unfortunately; we trained the dog to do most of them without realizing it. Dogs are so smart; they put together what rewards them and what doesn’t reward them.

For example; you are cooking dinner and the dog is pawing at you; barking, jumping up on the counter, etc. You may respond with: “stop it;” “bad dog;” “get out of here” or you may push the dog away from you. You might give the dog something to do to make him stop bothering you. Excellent. You just taught your dog how to get you to interact with him. You gave him attention. Negative attention is still attention.

I just worked with a client whose dog has started humping her leg when she ignores it. The woman knew to ignore attention seeking behaviors; but the dog upped the game and started humping. Humping is one thing people have a hard time ignoring. This dog was not dominating the woman; he was learning. He learned that humping got the attention he didn’t get with his previous behaviors. The owner would push him away; tell him “no,” etc. Again the dog got attention.

I asked the owner to just walk away from the dog; cross into a space where the dog could not go (over a baby gate) and ignore the dog for a few minutes. I just got an email from her saying how awesome this worked. The dog figured out quickly the humping behavior not only didn’t get him any attention; but it made his owner go away. This is definitely not what he wanted to happen.

Attention seeking behaviors can be very difficult to ignore because we have done such a great job of teaching the dog they work. Barking is especially difficult because it is so annoying. The same client also had an issue with her dog barking at the back door to be let back inside. If the woman wanted to take a shower while the dog was outside; she would get out of the shower to hear a dog barking and know the neighbors had been listening to the dog bark for the entire time she was in the shower.

The dog knew barking worked. It brought the owner running to open the door and let the dog inside. We put the dog outside and it immediately started barking. I stood just inside the door; but in a position so the dog could not see me. The second the dog took a breath during a huge barking tirade; I opened the door and tossed a treat five feet from the door. The dog ran to get the treat; spent a few seconds eating and sniffing (and not barking). I threw a few more treats. I then waited and the dog began barking again; he stopped for a second; I opened the door; tossed treats. I repeated this several times and gradually went from one second of no barking to six seconds of no barking. The dog began to stand away from the door instead of rushing in and pawing at it (because the treats were falling behind it). Over time the dog will learn barking does not make the door open.

Sometimes we inadvertently train the dog to annoy us so he can get something fun to do. For example; if your dog annoys you and you get up from the couch to get him a frozen Kong; then he just learned how to get the frozen Kong. Instead; put the frozen Kong down before you sit down. The dog will learn to settle when you settle. And think about this: Do you say “good dog” when your dog gets down after he jumps on you? Most people do. The dog may learn he loves to hear “good dog” and make you happy; and the way to do that is to jump on you so he can get off and then hear “good dog.”

Instead; say “good dog” right before your dog jumps on you when he still has four feet on the floor. Ignore him or walk away from him if he does jump on you. He will soon learn “good dog” happens when four feet are on the floor.

Think about what you want your dog to be doing instead of annoying you. When you find him practicing that behavior reward him for it. Believe me; your dog does sleep sometimes or lie down and rest. Find those times and give him a treat or praise him. Your dog does what gets him what he wants; which is your attention. Give him the attention for what you want him to do and life will be happier for both of you!

 

Just say ‘no’ to saying ‘no’

As a trainer, one of the top questions I receive is, “how do I teach my dog the word ‘no?’”

My response is usually, “how well did that work out with your children?” We tell children “no” often, yet they still will sometimes repeat the behavior. Your child speaks a verbal langue and is smarter than your dog. So, how can we expect an animal that does not speak a verbal language to understand something as complex as the word “no?”

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Harley decided the time is right to get into the trash.

Dogs live in a world of safe vs. unsafe. A behavior is either safe to perform or it is unsafe. Imagine you are in the kitchen when your dog sticks his head in the trashcan to go after that pork chop bone he smells. You yell “no, bad dog, get out of there,” often while raising your voice and approaching the dog in a threatening manner. The dog just learned it is unsafe to be in the trashcan while you are near it. You leave the kitchen for a few minutes and when you come back, the trash is everywhere and your dog is happily holding that pork chop bone.

Most people become angry at the dog for “disobeying” them. But, in the dog’s world he did not disobey. You told him not to get in the trash when you were around. When you left the kitchen, you made the trash safe. In the dog’s world, leaving something as tasty as a pork chop behind would mean you didn’t want it anymore. If it had been important you would have taken it with you. If you punish the dog at this point, he will not understand what he did wrong.

If you yell at your dog because he pees in the house, he doesn’t understand you are saying it is wrong to pee in the house. He just understands it is not safe to pee in front of you, so he will learn to be in a different room where you can’t see him because it will be safe to pee when you are not in the same room. And if you try taking him back and showing him a potty accident that already happened, your dog will not understand that you are punishing him for going inside the house. He will learn instead you are scary and he should run from you if you approach him when you are angry. Often dogs respond to our anger by offering submissive gestures such as lowering their heads, tucking their tails, etc. People often read these gestures as “guilt” and assume the dog knows it was wrong. Instead it is the dog’s way of trying to appease you and beg you not to hurt it.

We also get into trouble with our canine companion because we send him mixed signals. For example, if he jumps up on you when you come through the door, it is an attention seeking gesture. If you say “no”, you are giving the dog attention. You spoke to him, you most likely looked at him and you may have touched him when you pushed him away from you. To the dog this was all a win. If you truly do not want him to jump up on you, you have to ignore the dog completely. Don’t look at him or talk to him. Stand still and after several weeks of this new behavior, your dog will learn this game no longer works. When he greets you with four feet on the floor, then give him lots of praise and he will figure out this is the new way to get your attention.

What happens if your dog brings you something he shouldn’t have such as your shoe? If you get up out of your chair and chase him through the house and then try and tug the shoe out of his mouth, you just played the best dog game ever invented: run and chase and tug. Your dog just learned if he is bored and you won’t play with him, he just has to bring something out of the bedroom and you will jump up and play with him.

Instead give your dog a long-lasting chew or a puzzle toy before you sit down so he has something to do while you are relaxing.

Trying to see the world as the dog sees it rather than trying to fit the dog into a human peg will go a long way to helping you have an awesome relationship with your canine companion.

 

That time I bought a dog

I grew up in Parke County, Indiana, on a road with only four other houses. Our road was a favorite for people who no longer wanted their pets. We even found a pony one year that someone let loose in a field.

We never lacked for a dog or a cat. I never picked out a dog of my own until I was 23 and had graduated from college. I went to the Vigo County Humane Society and picked out a fluffy puppy and named her Pica (I was a journalism major and starting a career in the newspaper business).

She was followed by a succession of animals; all from animal shelters. I got a border collie from the Mount Vernon Humane Society; another border from a rescue that had pets at a PetsMart on Washington Street in Indianapolis. I adopted Batman from the Humane Society of Indianapolis as well as a few cats from that facility.

While I had always adopted pets, I didn’t get into animal welfare seriously until around 2010. Then I was really on the bandwagon: Adopt Don’t Shop. Spay and Neuter. Dogs die when you don’t adopt.

And yet, in December of 2008 I bought a puppy. Even my Mom was incredulous and read me the riot act. I remained in animal welfare and even become more of an advocate for shelters and shelter pets. And yet I had this dog that I bought. When I was first offered a job at the Humane Society of Indianapolis, I brought up the subject in my interview because I wanted to be transparent and I wanted to show I was not ashamed of what I had done.

To top it off, I had a purchased male dog that I didn’t neuter until he was four years old. I was always thankful that Condor had really long fur so when I had him at the shelter no one could tell he wasn’t neutered.

I ended up walking a line between the world of working/sport dog people and animal welfare people. Having Condor helped me bridge this fairly wide chasm. I tried to help both sides of the line take a breath and see the gray and not just the black and white.

Animal welfare people often take a dim view of purchasing a pet and a dimmer view of having unaltered pets. I know several animal welfare organizations that have a hard and fast rule that they will not adopt a pet to any household with an unaltered animal in it. I had to go to bat for an adopter once because she had world-class border collies that she bred, but she wanted a rescued dog for a pet for her son. The shelter was set on not allowing her to adopt because her breeding dogs were unaltered.

I know sport dog people who think dogs in rescues and shelters are there because they have some type of serious behavior or medical issue that caused them to be given up. Also, many sport/working dog lovers don’t want dogs that have been spayed or neutered. So often they bypass dogs in rescue or shelters for that reason.

Condor taught me you have to see both sides and understand each other to have a meaningful dialogue.

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Batman carrying a bite sleeve that was almost as big as he was.

So, why did I buy a dog? At the time I was into a dog sport called Schutzhund. I was using Batman, who was 40 pounds on his best day. Schutzhund is a sport built around larger dogs. They don’t change the jump height of obstacles if you have a smaller dog. Batman had the heart and soul of a Schutzhund dog, but jumping a meter-high jump carrying a dumbbell was just too much for him. If I really wanted to be serious about this sport I knew I needed a bigger dog. This is a sport dominated by German shepherds; so at trials we would often encounter other shepherd owners.

One day the Schutzhund club I belonged to hosted a trial and a man showed up with several dogs including two 12-week old puppies. The man was there to get some titles on the mother of the two pups. The mother dog was super sweet and did well at the event. I also watched several videos of the father of these puppies doing Schutzhund in Colorado.

It was a two-day event and it is hard to resist something as cute and fuzzy as a 12-week old shepherd puppy. But, I was adamant I would not be buying a dog.

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Condor as a puppy. How could I resist this fluff ball?

Because the female had not titled at all until this trial, the puppies were less expensive than many working line German shepherds would normally be. People in the club kept telling me I should consider getting one of the pups. They had awesome pedigrees. I met the mother and she was great. The pups were both great temperaments and loved fetch. The father of the pups was fairly well ranked in Schutzhund and the pedigrees of both parents were impressive.

I finally decided to seriously consider getting one of the pups. Luckily, the club members were thinking with their heads and not their hearts and suggested a couple of simple tests to see the individual personalities of the pups. It turned out the black fuzzy teddy bear puppy I had fallen in love with was not very confident when it was dark. On a long walk he stayed between my feet and wouldn’t explore. The sable pup was more confident. He would go into the grass and explore, but come right back and check in with me. The sable puppy also had an automatic fetch. Whatever I threw, he went to get it and brought it right back. And he wouldn’t stop.

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Condor running through the woods on a search

And that’s how I came to buy Condor. It is something I will never regret. I soon gave up Schutzhund however as Condor and I both decided it wasn’t our thing. We moved into the world of search and rescue and found our home. Condor certified several times in human remains detection with the Indiana Department of Homeland Security and through Law Enforcement Training Specialists. I have no idea how many searches we have been on, but it was a lot. And Condor had some finds over the years. He was an amazing dog. I knew nothing about Search and Rescue before I got into it with Condor. Now I know countless people who devote their lives to a job that pays nothing, requires you spend a lot of your own money, requires countless hours of training each week and at times puts you in situations where the police are wearing bullet proof vests and you are wearing a bright orange shirt that says K9 Handler.

I have gotten to work with numerous police organizations and a few fire departments. I have a tremendous respect for law enforcement. I feel so bad for them now as all anyone hears about are the few unfortunate incidents in which a police officer made a bad call. But, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that the vast majority of police officers are simply amazing. The police I worked for were always kind, patient, grateful and loved working with us. On Condor’s last search, we had to cross a railroad trestle and Condor fell between some slats. I was panicked thinking he was stuck and a train could come along and hit him. One of the officers with me assured me that if Condor had truly been stuck he would have made sure no trains came down that track until he was freed. All of the police officers I worked with would have protected me and my dog; I have no doubt about that.

Condor also gave me a family. My teammates at Midwest Search Dogs are more than people I train with. They are a family. My teammates helped me move two years ago when I divorced. Like any family, we don’t always agree with each other and we all have individual personalities, but cross one of us and you have the entire team to deal with. My search brothers and sisters have my back and I have theirs. When I was deployed on a search one of my teammates (and often more than one) would be with me helping  keep me and my dog safe and helping me by allowing me to just handle the dog while my teammate took care of navigation, note taking, safety, etc.

SAR isn’t easy and over the last seven years I’ve thought about quitting a lot. I don’t mind

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SAR is rain or shine, snow or sleet. Condor LOVED this weather.

the searches and the training, but I have serious test anxiety and the certification process is terrifying for me. I’m also one of the oldest people on our team and I am definitely the most out of shape. Training is physically difficult for me. After you fall down a hill a few times you have to wonder if you are just insane to keep going. When it is 10 degrees with a 20mph wind you really have to wonder if you are insane. Our team trains all year no matter the weather. The only time we call off training is it would be dangerous for the dogs.

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Condor lived for tug and a toss of his ball.

Condor on the other hand loved every minute of training and all of the searches. He lived for his ball and he knew that there was always a good chance he would find something that resulted in me throwing that ball when we were working. He climbed ladders, he swam rivers, and he jumped on shifting debris. He crawled through the smoking ruins of a home. He worked no matter what; including when he was dying. He went on a search one week before he died. We were out for a couple of hours and he worked as he always did despite the fact that there were tumors I didn’t know about growing inside of him.

On Thanksgiving Day, one of those tumors burst filling his belly with blood and I made the difficult decision to relieve him of his pain and set him free; even though I did not want him to go.

Condor taught me not to be so black and white.

I do have several things though to clear up before some of the people on both sides of the fence start yelling at me.

One: I do NOT condone buying a pet from any pet store. The vast majority of those dogs are from puppy mills (I don’t care what the pet store tells you). The parents of those dogs lead horrible lives. You did not “rescue” your dog from a pet store. You bought that dog and condemned his parents to breeding more puppies. I also do not condone buying puppies for some person who had a boy dog and a girl dog and decided to let them have puppies. I do not understand paying $1,000 or more for some made up breed like a chiwennie. You can go to any animal shelter and find a made up breed for a lot less.

If you are going to buy a dog from a breeder; do your research. Only buy from a breeder who stands behind his or her breed. A good breeder only breeds to put something back into the bloodline, not to make money. A good breeder will have breeding records that show their dogs are free from whatever ailments might be common to that breed. A good breeder will have dogs that are house pets and not living in a kennel in the barn or the back yard. A good breeder will allow you to meet the parents of your puppy. A good breeder will not meet you in the parking lot of McDonalds and give you a puppy once you hand over some cash. A good breeder often is active in breed rescue for their breed as well. A good breeder makes sure you will be the right owner for that puppy rather than a person willing to pay a fee. Two of my favorite German shepherd breeders have a long questionnaire that you have to fill out to even be on the list for one of their litters. You have to wait for them to find the right pup for you. A good breeder will take your puppy back, no matter what, if something doesn’t work out. A good breeder will ask you for progress reports and want to keep in contact with you. A good breeder will have a limited number of litters and ensure the females are not bred every heat cycle. One of my favorite breeders neutered her breeding male after one of her litters produced a puppy with a serious issue even though there was no true science to say if the parents could have produced that issue. She didn’t even want to take that chance.

Second: Can you find a working dog through a rescue? Absolutely. I know several police and fire departments that scout shelters for dogs. A friend of mine just adopted a dog for the Indy Mega Adoption Event who turns out to be a natural in several sports. I am seeing promise in Skywalker in terms of search and rescue training.

Third: in regards to spaying or neutering; I am absolutely for the spaying and neutering of shelter pets. Yes, there are responsible people like me who can have unaltered dogs without ever allowing them to breed. However, the vast majority of people who adopt don’t realize what it takes to keep dogs from succumbing to the call of nature. I also think science is changing and showing us that there are consequences in terms of long-term health especially in cases of pediatric spaying and neutering. So, sport and working dog people who responsibly choose not to s/n are not the enemy.

Thank you Condor for showing me a path. Walking the path without you is going to be very lonely.

 

 

My dogs are not perfect

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. My dogs are not perfect. As a matter of fact, many of the great trainers I know have dogs with behaviors some people might consider annoying.

I often use my own dogs as examples when I try to help people decide what is most important in terms of their dog’s manners.

A client emailed about her dog chewing up DVD cases while she was gone, plus the dog jumped on people who came to visit.

The dog is around a year old and very energetic. He is also easily bored and needs more than exercise to keep him busy. He needs to find things to do. Hence, chewing up DVDs when he was alone and bored. He also loves people and is a big dog. So, when he jumps up on people, he is large enough to push someone over.

I told her how I solved these issues since I have an 11-month old constantly bored 65 pound adolescent dog – He is never left alone and when company comes over he is not at the door.

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Sometimes a crate can be an awesome management tool as long as the dog loves the crate and is given adequate exercise and mental stimulation.

Instead of training a different behavior I choose to manage my dog’s behavior in situations such as this.

My client emailed back. “Clearly, if YOU are crating your dogs, we need to return to putting him in his crate. Also, if you as a dog trainer are keeping your dog on a leash or separate from guests, clearly we novices need to be doing something similar!”

I was quick to point out that just because I did this, it didn’t mean she had to follow my lead. I was just providing a management solution vs. a training solution.

If I left Skywalker loose in the house while I was gone, I would come home to a destroyed home. He is a busy boy. I wanted an intelligent, high-energy dog in order to do search and rescue. I did not want a couch potato. Sky gets lots of daily exercise and he spends several hours each day loose in the house under my supervision (and he still manages to destroy things when I’m not watching closely enough).

In terms of jumping up, I could train my dog to be more polite at the door. It just isn’t a priority for me. I have lots of things I want to work on with my dogs. In order not to be overwhelmed I choose the behaviors most important to me and work on those. For the rest, I find a way to manage the behavior. Instead of working with four dogs on polite door behaviors, I either meet someone outside my door (like the pizza delivery person) or I put my dogs up before I let anyone inside the house. I can then choose to allow dogs to greet visitors later if I want to.

However, if a client wants her dog at the door happily greeting visitors, then I can teach the client what to do.

I always try and give my clients more than one option. I want them to have one or two training options and at least one management option.

If you find yourself having a conversation with a dog trainer and you feel overwhelmed don’t hesitate to ask for management as well as training tools.