One plus one is 2, but two ones are 11.I remember being fascinated by this fact when I was about six.When I was in my early twenties and doing the family budgeting for myself and my first husband I learned that this mathematical truism has practical applications.Each of us alone needed a certain amount of money to survive but together, somehow or another pooling our assets and renting only one apartment felt like it didn’t work out as a more frugal alternative.There seemed to be so many things that we needed that I hadn’t felt the need for as a single person.Even simple things that seemed like they would cost less if we were buying for two often resulted in buying two brands of the same product.Two CAN live as cheaply as eleven.
The same is true of raising puppies.Raising one puppy takes a certain amount of time, effort and cost.It seems like you could only be doubling the effort if you get two dogs, right?Plus they will keep one another occupied when you have other things to take your attention, like your children, your spouse, your home, your car or your job, right?If only it were that simple.
I have lived in a multidog household for most of the past twenty years.John and I usually each have one dog of our own, and sometimes one or the other of us will have a second dog who is significantly older or younger.Realistically though, we try and space them out to a new dog every three to four years.We are coming up to the time when we will be considering adding a new addition in the next year or so.At various times for various reasons we have raised two dogs at the same time.
When Eco was a puppy, we were raising a service dog candidate; a standard poodle.They were merry friends who spent a lot of time bouncing around with one another.The poodle was about a month older than Eco and for the first six months or so, he ran the roost.He was faster, stronger and more developed.And then Eco overtook his speed, strength and agility, not to mention that Eco cared a lot more about who got things first, who ran the fastest and who controlled access to resources such as me.
When the poodle puppy came home, we enrolled him in puppy classes (all of our pups go to puppy classes, both our own and those of other schools).When Eco came home four weeks later, we enrolled him in different classes.Why not put both pups in the same class you might think.There are two reasons for not putting both pups in one class.The first is that the older puppy needed to start sooner than Eco.And the second is that jockeying for position that I mentioned above; in a class setting we might have had to restrain one pup while the other played in order to avoid the inevitable ganging up that can happen of these two closely aligned friends against all the other pups in the class!So already, even though John and I were raising two pups and there were two of us, and we both went to both sets of classes, we didn’t double up on the enrolment and put both puppies in the same class.
Then there is the whole issue of equipment; surely with two pups, we could get by with a little less equipment, right?Not so much.Even with a month between the two puppies, we needed full sets of collars and harnesses, leashes, bowls, crates and beds to accommodate both puppies.Furthermore, we had to pay for vet visits twice as often, and usually we find it is better to bring dogs separately to the vet; there is less confusion and we can focus with the vet on each dog as an individual.That means that not only did we have to pay for two veterinary appointments, we chose to attend the vet together, with each puppy on a different day.Considering that our vet is a fifteen-minute drive from home, that means that we had to allocate about an hour for each vet visit for each of us, and pay for an hour’s worth of gas in total to get both dogs to the vet.In a busy family with a company, that was really quite tough!
We had to allocate time to train each dog separately and again, we tried to make sure that each of us got in a training session each day with each dog.We also made time to walk each of the dogs separately each day.That made for more time into this project.John and I like to teach our dogs to trail walk, and for the most part we did that together, so we could cut down some of the doubling up on that front, but honestly we didn’t save much time, and the time that Eco (the BLACK German Shepherd) to Yarrow (the snow white Standard Poodle) swamp walking, we really wondered why we had any dogs at all!
Two baths.Two grooms.Two classes, two vet visits, two sets of everything.And eleven times the mess!We have found that when we compare raising one versus two puppies at a time, having pups one at a time allows us to get to know the puppies better and creates so much less chaos in our lives that when we can, we don’t try and raise 11 puppies at once!
Can your dog lie down and relax when you ask him to? I don’t mean does he lie down and relax of his own accord when you and he are just hanging out, but if you needed to pay at the veterinarian’s front desk, could you ask him to lie down and relax so that your hands were free to slide your card and enter your PIN? You have likely taught your dog to lie down and stay, so why is it that so few dogs I see can do this without behaving like a racehorse in the starting gate? You know what this looks like; the owner asks the dog to lie down and stay and he lies down, often on his chest with his haunches coiled underneath him ready to spring up and race off. He may even be shivering in anticipation.
The down stay is perhaps the single behaviour I could absolutely not live without. I can use a harness or head halter if I have to walk an unruly dog, so I don’t really need to teach my dogs to walk on a nice leash, and if they have a solid down stay that I can call upon from anywhere I can use that as brakes instead of a recall, but without the down stay I don’t think I could make it through my day. I use my down stay ALL the time. Let me give some examples!
We have horses. When they lived on the farm with us, I would often take Eco out to feed and water the horses. As a predator around prey species, it was easy for him to get them running when they first met him. All he had to do was rush to the gate and slip into the paddock and the horses would bolt to the other side of the paddock. This is a great way to teach a dog to chase horses because horses running away is fun for dogs. This is also a great way to teach horses to stay away from me, as I am always accompanied by a dog. But wait! Eco had a stellar down stay. We would leave the house and he would cavort around looking for a toy and when he realized we were heading to the horse paddock, he would start to race. I would call out “down” and he would drop. I would call out “stay” and he would stay, allowing me to get to the gate ahead of him. Then I would call him closer and ask him to down and stay again, and do my chores. In this way, he never learned to chase horses and the horses learned that he was safe. Eventually we were able to walk amongst our tiny herd without the horses bolting and without Eco trying to get them to run. Easy peasy!
Or consider this; when I am serving dinner to guests at the table, Friday thinks that helping would be a good idea. She is curious and likes having guests over for dinner. This past holiday season we had a dinner guest who brought her dog who ALSO likes to help serve dinner if you let him. Now we have two friendly dogs in the house, who like to play with one another and who like to follow when you move from the kitchen to the dining room. I asked both dogs to lie down and stay while I served dinner and then asked them to continue to stay while we ate. Both dogs eventually fell asleep because both dogs understand that a down stay is not going to result in an opportunity to race out of the down stay and into play right away.
So how do we achieve this? Yes, I am a very good trainer, and so is John and so is our dinner guest, but this isn’t magic. This is the result of understanding some of the mechanics of the target behaviour and then teaching those to the dog. The first thing to understand is that with young dogs we never ever teach them that the down stay is going to result in a big explosive release. I see this over and over again, especially in dogs who are competing in agility and obedience. The handler asks for a down and stay and then at the end, they release the dog and the dog bounces up and the handler throws a party. It doesn’t take long for that dog to start to anticipate that the return of the handler is going to result in a great big hurrah and bounce, and his body needs to get ready to do that. Internally, this means that the dog learns to raise his heart rate and tense his muscles when he thinks that he is going to get up. If instead we teach the dog that he is always going to do something calm and quiet after the down stay, the dog never learns to tense up and get his heart going when the down stay is over. My goal is to teach all my dogs, and especially my young dogs to come out of their down stay calmly and quietly and in a relaxed manner.
The next aspect to understand is that when we teach the down stay, we should not teach the down stay incrementally. Teaching the dog that if they do a one second down stay they will be released sets them up to be really excited about the release at the two second mark. When I was learning to train dogs, this was how we did it. We mastered one second and moved on to two seconds. Then three, five, 7, 10, 15 and so on. By the time we had reached the pinnacle of the three minute down stay that we needed for the novice obedience test we usually had a classroom full of lunatic dogs all waiting like horses in the starting gate to leap up and race forward and play. When I think about training this way, compared to how I approach it now, I smile in recollection of the antics that often ensued and I cringe in remembrance of all the machinations we engaged in to enforce that three minute down stay. The perception was that asking the dog to lie down and stay for three minutes was incredibly difficult!
Consider the physical demands of this behaviour. I want the dog to lie down, and chill out. Relax. Not chew a bone, just wait patiently. Perhaps the world we live in today discourages us from seeing this as the easiest thing in the world to do; waiting rooms have television sets and magazines to keep us amused. And heaven forbid that we might have to wait without amusement for 20 seconds while in line at the store; there are screens and visual activities to keep us occupied there too. At home, how many of us have a television or the radio turned on from the moment we wake till the instant we drop off to sleep? How many of us have something happening in the room while we sleep? And what do we do about these distractions and busy makers? We pay to attend yoga classes or get a massage! This past year, I spent two weeks out in the bush, alone. When I came back, I visited the home a good friend who has two active kids. The day after I came out of the bush was Canada day, and she had invited family over. The house was super busy, so I decamped to the front porch to sit. One of the kids came out eventually and asked what I was doing. “Sitting” I replied. “Sitting and doing what?” she asked. “Just sitting.” Over the months since I was in the bush, I have lost that simple act of sitting and just being, but it is there in me, ready to reactivate when I choose to take the time and slow down a bit.
Our dogs are generally much better at just sitting than we are. As I write, Friday is lying on the floor in front of our wood stove. Her head is up, and she sometimes orients on me or John, or on something she hears, but generally, she is just…sitting. Incidentally, sitting doesn’t necessarily mean being in the sitting position, it means being relaxed and content with your thoughts. I have just finished my deer hunt for the year, when I go out in the bush for days on end and sit and wait for the deer to come in. This year the deer didn’t come, but I got to see many, many wild animals, just sitting. A chipmunk came and sat on my boot for about ten minutes. Just sitting and watching the world. When I shifted he was able to just move off, but while I was still, he was still too. I saw rabbits doing this and one spectacular afternoon a young bald eagle. Just sitting is a very natural activity that most mammals engage in for a good chunk of their day. Asking a dog to lie down and stay for three minutes should not be that difficult.
So what changed for my dogs? Why can they do the three minute down stay without distress now, when so many dogs struggle with this? Very simply because I START with a one hour down stay. When an 8 week old pup comes into my home, he learns sit, down and the cued take it in the first week. We work on meeting new people and other dogs, and handling and his name, but we don’t work on a lot else. Then at between 9 and 10 weeks, my puppies do their very first one hour down stay. Here is what it looks like.
We get up in the morning and I take the puppy outside to toilet. Then we come into the kitchen and I get out the pup’s breakfast and pour myself a cup of coffee. Then I sit down on the floor and ask the pup to lie down. As long as the puppy stays lying down, I feed him his breakfast one kibble at a time. If you feed a homemade diet, you would just feed a little bit of food at a time; with the rule being very, very simple. If you are lying down, I will hand you food. If you are standing up or sitting, you get nothing. I don’t keep reminding the puppy; I just wait. The first time we may not work for a whole 60 minutes; I have to judge things on if the pup needs to toilet again, but usually we work for between 45 and 60 minutes. Puppy kibble is great for this because it is smaller so there are more bites which makes for more training. After three or four days of this, my pups are pretty clear that lying down pays BIG, so they lie down a lot more often.
After a few weeks of this, I usually add a tether; I teach all my adolescent and adult dogs the same behaviour, but I use a tether for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that an adult dog might choose to get up and leave and I want to limit his choices. The second reason is that most dogs are going to have to be tethered at some point in their lives and I want to make sure that they can do this while relaxed.
Once the dog understands that lying down is going to keep me delivering treats, I start to move around; one step feed, two steps, feed and so on, until I can move out of sight. Then I add more distractions; dropping napkin or tea towel for instance. Then I make it more difficult; I want the dogs to look at distractions as a clue that they should settle in and relax for the duration, because you never know what Sue will present. What you do know is that if you get up, the floor show will stop and so will the treats.
Over the course of my pup’s first year, they will do a daily down stay until I can do anything and they will remain in place. Of course, along the way, I thin out the reinforcement, and with an adult dog who is very experienced, I will sometimes use activity as the reward for the down stay but ONLY if the dog is relaxed. If the dog is at all tense or distressed, I make the game easier and feed more often but don’t stop training the behaviour.
The down stay is probably the most important activity that I have to teach my young dogs, and it is the most important behaviour I use day to day with my dogs. Doing housework? The dogs are in a down stay! Watching a movie? Down stay! Dinner guests? Down stay. Bringing in the groceries? Down stay. Planting flowers in the garden? Down stay. Grooming the horses? Down stay. Playing frisbee? You got it! Down stay! I use the down stay everywhere, every day. And for my dogs it is the clue that they should settle in and relax because it is likely going to go on for at least twenty minutes. When I only need a short down stay, they are relaxed because they don’t start out with the idea that they are going to get up at any moment and race around. And when I do release my dogs from the down stay with nothing planned to do next, most of the time my dogs will take a big stretch as they would when waking form a nap and then they walk off. Racing is for racehorses. Down stay is for just sitting!
Imagine for a moment that a good friend has died. Someone you love dearly and you are close to, someone you could call at two in the morning and they would come give you gas money to get home if your wallet was stolen. Someone who has shared moments and hours and even days with you. Someone you love. In the days following your friend’s passing, you pull up pictures on your phone, and you fill the vase she gave you with flowers from your garden, and you grieve. Sometimes, you cry.
How do you feel when you go to a funeral? Do your emotions influence your behaviour? Don’t you think that your dog’s emotions might influence his? Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_kzenon’>kzenon / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
A few days later, you go to the funeral home to say your public goodbyes. There is a casket and dozens of baskets of flowers, and a picture of you and your friend, nestled in amongst so many other good warm memories shared by the community who shared your friend’s life. You are sad and there is an empty part inside of you where you used to hold your friend, and it feels like the memories aren’t enough to fill that hole. When your friend’s sister gets up to share the eulogy, she mentions you, and you start to cry.
Imagine now, that the person who is sitting beside you in the funeral home looks at you and says “Just stop it. I HATE crying. Don’t.” How does that make you feel? Sit on this reflection for a moment. How does that make you feel? Do you feel good about the person sitting beside you? Do you want to share tea and sandwiches after the service with this person? Do you want to trust your memories of your friend with this person?
Let’s rewind one paragraph now and imagine that the person beside you quietly and calmly reaches into their bag and pulls out a hankie and gently gives it to you. You reach for the hankie, and he offers you his hand to hold. With one hand, you wipe your eyes and with the other you hold hands with your friend. Deeply sad, you lean in and your seat mate puts his arm around you and holds you close. Assuming this is someone who knows you well enough for physical contact to be appropriate, how do you feel now?
I have seen hundreds of dogs in our training hall. Many of these dogs are happy, but there are a ton of dogs who come through our doors who are traumatized and fearful, and who are expressing their feelings with growls, snaps, snarls, whining and recently one poor dog who shivered and shook for an entire hour while I took a history. The thing that amazes me, day in and day out, is that these dogs keep hoping that the people they live with will see that they need help, and offer them the equivalent of a hankie and a hug.
It is well known in behaviour consulting circles that owners take a long time to seek help for their dogs. One of the biggest reasons for this is that if the behaviour problem isn’t a problem for the owner, there isn’t a lot of impetus to get help. The dog cannot dial the phone and call for help, and neither can he send me an email to describe his problems. Often the dog has been doing everything short of biting in order to get attention, but they aren’t being heard.
When people come into my training hall, they often tell me how difficult it is to live with a dog who is barking, lunging, growling, snarling, pulling, and chasing. I am often told about methods that have been tried to stop the undesired behaviour. These people really care about their dogs, but they often don’t understand that the behaviour the dogs are exhibiting means. The fact is that dogs don’t act randomly. Behaviour is always functional on some level. Consider what it might be like to behave truly randomly. If you were to randomly stop reading this paragraph, and get up out of your chair and twirl around the room and go outside and come back in and jump as high in the air as you are able and roll on the ground and pick up a pen and turn on and off your computer, how would that feel?
Random behaviour is rare. When people behave truly randomly, it is usually an indication of something being wrong with them. When I took animal behaviour in university, the professor talked about an animated Bugs Bunny toy he did an experiment with. He set the toy off a thousand times, and recorded the “behaviour” of the toy. He found that 30% of the time, the toy gave a predictable “What’s up Doc”, and then there were nine other phrases that he uttered on a variable schedule. It turned out that the chip that ran this toy was set on pretty tight parameters, which gave a specific number of repetitions within a thousand repetitions. Ironically, we know that there are two things about this toy that keep kids playing with it and drive parents nuts. From the kid’s perspective, they keep triggering the toy to get the rare and uncommon response. From the parent’s perspective they have to put up with ‘What’s up Doc” 300 out of every thousand repetitions. This random behaviour is annoying and frustrating beyond the interest of animal behaviour professors who want to figure out how often a behaviour happens, and the kid who really wants to hear Bugs say something truly novel.
The other thing about random behaviour is that it is out of context; like the Bugs toy, the last response doesn’t predict the next response. Living with someone who is truly random would be really annoying. Living with a dog who is truly random would also be really annoying. Most of the dogs we meet and live with are actually very predictable. There is an easy little experiment that helps us to understand this. Spend a half an hour watching your dog. Watching Eco right now now, sleeping on the floor beside me, I can sample every minute and say what he is doing and what he is going to do. When I get up out of my chair, he will lift his head and if I leave the room he will wake up completely and follow me. When I sit back down at my computer, he will wander around the room and check out the water bowl, the toy box and the window in the door and then he will lie down again and go back to sleep. He is very predictable and that is part of what allows me to change his behaviour. His behaviour is not random and it never happens in isolation from his environment.
Knowing this, and understanding that dogs are deeply emotional animals, allows us to modify problem behaviours quite easily, but there is one more piece to the puzzle. Skills are under the direct control of the outcomes. Eco standing up and following me happens because he likes the outcome of being with me. Eco barking at the door happens when he is startled and alarmed. The barking doesn’t happen because of the outcome but rather because of the input, and the input is emotional. Could I change the barking behaviour through the application of pain? Sure. But it wouldn’t change how Eco felt about people coming to the door, so treating this as a skill might be more like being at a funeral and being told sternly to stop crying. I could also change the behaviour by getting him below threshold and pairing the situation with something pleasant. The difference being how well I understand what is going into the behaviour to begin with.
A question that is often asked is if feeding the bark will make more barking. Let’s go back to the funeral example. Which would make you cry more; someone who was supportive and brought you a cup of tea and sandwiches, or someone who told you to quit it? When barking is emotionally based (which is more often than not), then removing and feeding is going to help the dog to regain his composure and improve his behaviour. When you do this often enough, you develop in the dog a pattern of barking and then seeking you out. When this happens, the dog is moving out of the emotional state and into the operant state, or the state where he can control his behaviour. Much like at a funeral, if I can get the person who is crying to have a cup of tea, they are often able to calm down and reflect more effectively, and then they can chat comfortably, often about the very thing they may be upset about.
A common tactic when dealing with dogs who are emotional is to give them something else to do. If a dog reacts to something in his environment, then in theory, if he is busy, he won’t be worried about that thing. There are two problems with this tactic. The first of them is that if the dog is upset enough, then he is not going to be terribly compliant. In these situations people start to get pushy and demanding about their dog’s behaviour and it is for exactly this reason that many people turn to aversives in their training; they are asking more than the dog is ready to give them in a given circumstance. For instance, making a dog look you in the eyes so that he stops looking for the frightening things that can creep up on him will only make things worse; he may stop looking but he won’t stop worrying. In this particular case, you rob the dog of the ability to try behaviours other than the undesired one because he is glued on the new behaviour of looking at you, and while he is looking at you, there is always the risk that his trigger will surprise him out of the corner of his eye. This is the second issue with this tactic; you may have compliance, but the dog is still worrying about what might come out and surprise him.
When I was out and about this weekend, I met a woman who told me that her friend had been to every other trainer in town. She told me that this woman was ruining her dog by feeding it when the dog is clearly misbehaving. The popular thought is that if we use food, we can only use it as a reinforcer to get more of a particular behaviour. When you put this into the context of a funeral, and what you would do if someone was upset, it becomes really clear that much behaviour is motivated by emotion and that being clear with your learner does not only mean reinforcing, or punishing behaviours or putting them on extinction. Sometimes, perhaps even often, it means addressing the underlying emotions before even thinking about the behaviours at all.
Author’s note: I wrote this blog to highlight the issues I see facing rescues who place behaviourally compromised dogs. I did receive one note from a colleague who objected to the term lesbian. Please understand that I have chosen to use this word to indicate a female couple and I do not intend to offend anyone for any reason. I and by extension, my company Dogs in the Park, support inclusivity and acceptance of the broad diversity that makes Canadian society such a wonderful place to be.
I often get calls about dogs who need new homes. Do I know of anyone who would like a dog who has killed the family cat? Would I like to take on a dog who has chronic stress colitis and is afraid of all humans except for one, all dogs, cats, cars, bicycles and who has bad hips to boot? Is there perhaps a farm that will take on the dog who has killed seven skunks over the past year, and is now moving onto larger prey? Is there anyone out there who would like the dog who has been designated a dangerous dog by the authorities because he ran down a cyclist and mauled his leg?
Every time I read an ad or get a call looking for a rehome of these dogs, I think of the title of this blog. Peruse the files on Petfinder, and you can get a sense of the dogs that are available and considered potential family pets. What exactly does “Fluffy would be best suited to a family without children or other pets” mean? Without any further information about this dog, do you want to live next door to Fluffy? Would your opinion change about living next door to Fluffy if you had a small mixed breed dog? Would your opinion change if you had two young children?
I have seen ads for dogs that blow my mind. “Needs space to run.” “Prefer a single woman owner.” “Must not live with cats.” “Suitable for a home with children over the age of 12.” When you deconstruct what these statements mean, you paint a very different picture. Like the real estate ads, “handy man’s dream” doesn’t usually translate into “home workshop in the garage outfitted with your dream tools”. A handy man’s dream usually means that significant renovations are in order and you can expect to spend every waking moment repairing plumbing, wiring, the roof, the railing on the stairs, repainting, installing drywall and so on.
So let’s deconstruct some of the more common statements. “Needs space to run.” What does that really mean? In my experience it can mean one of two things. Either the dog is a high energy animal who needs two off leash, one hour walks each day along with structure and training or the dog has really poor impulse control and whose anxiety manifests as whirling in circles.
How about “best suited to a home with a single woman”? Again, in my experience that means that the dog is not good with men or children. Do you know of anyone who lives in a world without men or children? Let’s say we find a woman willing to take this dog. What should she do if her father wants to visit? Do we expect that she will never have a relationship with a man? What should she do about the fact that her neighbours have children?
One of my favourites is “Suitable for a home with children over the age of 12”. I think this age number is somewhat arbitrary, as I have seen ages from three to 12 in the advertisements, but it does beg the question of why these ages have been selected. Is it because the dog bit an eleven year old? Is the dog predatory to toddlers? Is it just that the dog is huge? Does the advertizer think that the dog should never be exposed to children under this age? Has the advertizer thought through what it means for a dog like this to live in a suburban neighbourhood? If the home has children over the age of twelve, what might happen if they bring home a younger child as a guest? What will happen if mom has a baby?
The final category that baffles me is “I want to find a nice farm that would like to take on my problem dog.” People don’t seem to realize that farming is a business. If I raise crops, I don’t want that dog to be racing through the fields and messing up the growth of my grains. If I raise chickens, I don’t want a predatory dog who might kill the chickens. If I am raising pigs or milking cows, I cannot have a dog in the barns, so where is that dog going to be while I am working in the barn? I think people have a largely detached view of what it means to be a farmer in today’s world. Farming is a world of heavy machinery, of powerful tools like chain saws and post holers. In the egg, pork and milk industry, strict biohazard controls are implemented to keep pathogens out of the barns where the animals are housed and handled. Farmers have no more time, and possibly less time than someone running a machine shop to deal with a problem dog.
While I am attracted to the idea that there is a home for every dog, you just have to find it, I see the evidence on a day to day basis that this may not be true. How many childless, lesbian couples who live far enough away from civilization that a dog placed with these kind ladies would never again meet their problems do you know? I have to say that I don’t know any. In some cases, there just isn’t a place for these dogs, which brings me to the point of what I want to say. If you cannot live with your problem dog, can you ethically send that dog along to someone else? The humane society is not a magic place where magic people live who magically want to take your problem dog and fix him. Rescues are often started by people who are trying to address this issue of making better matches for dogs, but they also not equipped with any sort of magical population of people well prepared to meet the needs of the dogs with problems. There are a few trainers I know who take on these problem dogs, but they are limited in the number of dogs they can take; they often have ten to twelve dogs already, so they may not be able to take your dog on. There are sanctuaries; places where dogs are housed for the duration of their lives. Some sanctuaries are better than others, and some of them are much worse.
Many behaviour problems can be helped. We have loads of tools now to help dogs with a wide variety of problems. I would like to stop dogs from being surrendered to shelters and rescues. I would like people to start looking at the problem dogs that live with them and help them in their first homes. There will never be a day when there aren’t dogs who are in need, but many, many of these dogs could be best helped in the homes they start with.
At Dogs in the Park, we encourage everyone to use the local trail systems to responsibly exercise their dogs OFF LEASH. Why you might ask? For a whole pile of reasons! To begin with, off leash exercise is much more effective at burning off energy for dogs as it allows them to move in ways that are normal and natural; fast at first, and then slow; suddenly stopping to sniff and taking off again in a hurry, on no one’s agenda other than their own. And what about the opportunity to play? Play cannot happen when you are constrained by a line that limits where you can go and what you can do! Off leash exercise, in a trained dog is a joy to behold and energizing to experience, but you do have a responsibility to be aware of the risks before you start.
The first risk to consider of course is the environment. Is it a safe environment for your dog to be in? When trail walking you should know your terrain and you should avoid areas that may be difficult for your dog. Some of these things include (but are not limited to!) cliffs (yes, I have watched a dog run right over a cliff and although he was not injured, he could well have been), water (heavily coated breeds are especially at risk of drowning if they are waterlogged), heat, cold and toxic plants are all things to consider when choosing where you walk your dog.
Next, you should consider your dog’s age and training. Young dogs, under 16 weeks rarely stray; they are busy staying with the group and keeping up. This is the very best time to train your dog to come when called and to follow where you lead; in fact I wrote a whole blog on that at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/26/off-leash/. Older dogs need to prove to me that they will come when called, and that only happens when I have trained the dogs to do that.
Thirdly, you need to consider the traffic risks that you will encounter. No one would intentionally allow their dogs to rush into the road and get hit by a moving vehicle, but there are other sorts of traffic to consider; you need to think about off road traffic such as snow mobiles and ATVs. Often, these vehicles are the ones that break the trails we use when we are walking our dogs. This means that we need to keep in mind the risks we face when we are out on the trails, especially when there are corners and intersections. I never recommend wearing ear phones when out on the trails because you never know when you might be faced with an oncoming moving vehicle.
Wildlife often follow regular travel lines, much as motor vehicles do, and you should get to know the habits of the animals that you may encounter. Locally, I am aware of the game trails left by deer, coyotes and raccoons; the three species of wildlife I would prefer my dogs did not interact with. All three of these animals leave clear marks on the ground where they have been. It makes my walk much more interesting to keep an eye out for new trails and see how often established trails are being used. When I know that wildlife is especially abundant, I may chose that location to leash up and do some on leash training in the middle of my walk; this makes the wildlife itself the cue to the dog that some training fun is about to happen, and that can lead to a dog who comes to me instead of chases after a scent when they encounter a wild animal. THAT is worth its weight in gold!
Perhaps the final thing I want to consider when I am choosing a trail is the other trail users on that particular trail. Often I will explore a trail without my dog before walking with him. This gives me a chance to find out what the culture is of a particular trail. Is it inhabited mostly by serious hikers wearing packs and carrying binoculars? Are they birders? Then I won’t bring my dogs along and interrupt their fun! Is it mostly full of families with toddlers? Again, then it is not my first choice for walking. Is there a known aggressive dog who regularly walks there? If I hear about this, then I will avoid the area.
My ideal walking trail is one where dog walkers are common, and there is little to no poison ivy (few people realize that the oil on poison ivy can transfer to them via their dog’s coats). It will have polite walkers who pick up after their dogs, and who don’t litter. I like trails with some variety in terrain, and that have some water for the dogs to use to cool off. I like trails that have a parking area away from the main road, but not too far away as those often have poor driveways with lots of potholes.
As a final word, I would like to mention what I keep an eye out for when I see other dog walkers. If the other walkers leash up their dogs, I leash up mine. There is nothing worse than having a dog who needs to be on leash harassed by someone’s off leash dog who “just wants to say hi”. It is a small thing, but if you encounter an on leash dog, either down your dog or dogs, so that they can pass by, or leash up and avoid any issues. If the other dogs are off leash, I will determine if their dogs are friendly by observing their behaviour. Friendly dogs approach in a loose arc or S pattern, and they are frisking along moving sort of like a Rocking Horse, with their front end up and then their back end up. Unfriendly dogs often move in straight flat lines, often very quickly. Sometimes it is too late to do anything by the time that I recognize that the other dogs are on their way, but often I can intervene by getting my dogs to lie down and stay and then stepping in between the oncoming dog and passively splitting the interaction. If that is not safe, I will try tricks such as throwing food at the oncoming dog, and calling to their owner for help. In a pinch, throwing my car keys down between the unknown dogs and my dogs can interrupt a dog rushing in. Always though, I want to make sure that my dogs are in a down position where I know that I can take steps to protect their best interests.
I had lunch with a colleague the other day and we got to talking about attending to behaviours, applied behaviour analysis and reinforcing with attention. She works with children and I work with dogs. How often do we hear parents, teachers and other adults talking about children misbehaving because it gets them attention? We hear the same thing in the field of dog training. “He is just doing it to get your attention” is a statement I often hear from my clients when their dog is doing something fairly benign that will result in a mild unpleasant consequence.
Learners never work to get an unpleasant consequence, but if the unpleasant consequence is not a bad as being uncertain then the known unpleasant consequence may increase the likelihood of a bad behaviour happening. Image credit: Cole123RF / 123RF Stock Photo
If you misconstrue the attention issue, you can completely miss what is happening when you are training. To begin with, it is important to understand that no learner will work for the opportunity to have an unpleasant consequence. It is also important to understand that just like reinforcers can be arranged on a hierarchy, so can punishers. For D’fer, throwing a bumper into the water is better than throwing a Frisbee on dry land which is better than a piece of liver which is better than kibble. There is a hierarchy of what is important to him. Likewise, getting a dirty look is less annoying than being yelled at which is less annoying than losing a turn and being put in your crate which is less annoying than being shocked with a shock collar. Perhaps the most annoying punishment for many learners, both children and dogs, is uncertainty. In the hierarchy of punishers, uncertainty can be as unpleasant or more unpleasant than electric shock.
Reinforcers have a hierarchy; out of these five things, each dog will have a most favourite, a next most favourite, a third most favourite, a fourth most favourite and a least favourite option. Punishers or aversive stimulus work the same way. If the choice is between going to your room or being uncertain about the outcome, many children will choose going to their room, as evidenced by their behaviour. Dogs faced with a squirt of water in the face or uncertainty will also often choose the least unpleasant option, and choose to have water sprayed in their faces by doing the behaivour that will result on the known outcome. Image credit: kentoh / 123RF Stock Photo
Behaviour analysis is a tool that helps us to understand how we change behaviour, and it works when applied to any learner, human or non human. Consider the scenario of a young child who is told “If you spit at your sister, I will send you to your room”. This leaves a huge window of uncertainty. The question in the child’s mind is “If I don’t spit at my sister, what will happen?” In an anxious child, the uncertainty builds and builds and builds and builds until being sent to one’s room is a relief. When there is an unpleasant consequence to a behaviour, the learner needs to know what the consequence is for the other or desired behaviour. If instead of framing the contingencies for a child in terms of “if you do X, this bad thing, Y, will happen” you frame the contingency in terms of “if you don’t do X, this good thing, Z, will happen” you allow the learner to make a better choice. Now you can say to the child “if you don’t spit on your sister, we will have ice cream.” For children who are deeply affected by uncertainty, the second statement can be very helpful.
What about dogs? Dogs are not able to understand complex language (if/then statements for instance) so we cannot outline outcomes and contingencies. Dogs learn by experimentation and experience. How often a client has come in and said “but he knows that I will spray water at him if he jumps on the counters!” In this case you have several forces at play on the behaviour. Jumping on the counters sometimes results in a treat; even the chance to smell the roast you put there the night before can be a potent reinforcement. The spray bottle is contingent on your timing and ability to guard the counter, so the dog is gambling that you won’t be able to get the spray bottle in time to prevent him from jumping on the counter. Not only that, but let’s say that for this dog, being sprayed with water is annoying, but not VERY annoying. And there is no clear picture of what will happen if he stays away from the counter. So much uncertainty and the dog has a dilemma; jumping on the counter may alleviate the uncertainty of what will happen if he doesn’t jump on the counter. In this case, simply marking when the dog is close to the counter but not jumping up and then treating him away from the counter, you remove the uncertainty.
Extinction, the process of changing behaviour by waiting till the behaviour ends is a very sound practice when done well, but can completely backfire if you don’t understand the mechanics, or if you set up contingencies where there are uncertainties. When a dog is howling in his crate for instance, and you want to wait him out, the fact is that you can only wait so long before you must let him out to toilet him. If the first time you set up the dog to wait him out, you wait an hour, but you have to leave the house and you need to toilet the dog before you leave, so you let him out, then what you have done in effect is reinforced one hour’s worth of howling. If the next time you try, you wait 90 minutes, and then your roommate lets him out because she just cannot stand it any longer, then you have taught the dog to try even harder, and that if he doesn’t try for long enough the door won’t open. The next time you try you may be able to wait for two hours and in effect, you teach the dog to howl for longer instead of getting rid of the howling altogether. The dog is left in an uncertain state of mind; what will happen if he barks? He might get out. What will happen if he doesn’t bark? No one has explained that. In order for extinction to work, you have to set up two contingencies; what will happen if the target behaviour happens, and what will happen if the target behaviour doesn’t happen. If there is only one contingency, then there is uncertainty about the other contingency, and if there is uncertainty and then the first contingency doesn’t play out, then you have created a situation where the behaviour won’t change and the dog will remain uncertain.
With a dog who has practiced barking for a very long time, you may need to look for a loophole in the behaviour in order to be able to change it. Waiting this little fellow out may take longer than you can do. Image credit: reddogs / 123RF Stock Photo
With behaviours such as the dog howling in the crate, few people have the where withal to sit out a dog who will howl for hours on end, and reward the lack of howling. Luckily there is a loophole in this particular behaviour, and we can use that to our advantage. In fact, most behaviours have loopholes if we look carefully. The loophole that is relevant to crate barking is that a dog cannot bark without inhaling at some point. When the dog inhales, we have a little tiny hole of silence, and we can mark that and reinforce. There is another loophole too; if we reinforce barking very early in the sequence, we can teach the dog that it doesn’t take much barking to get the treat. By interrupting the barking early and often with a reinforcer, we actually weaken the behaviour. In effect, what we do is remove the uncertainty of the situation for the dog. When people try and use extinction, and then they don’t follow all the way through, the uncertainty problem arises and then the dog doesn’t know where he sits and the behaviour gets worse instead of better.
When you are working with learners who have undesired behaviours, looking for the loopholes can really help you out. The child who spits at his sister has to turn his head in order to aim. If you mark that head turn by calling the child’s name and reward him for controlling the spit, then you are reinforcing something other than spitting, even though it was the behaviour that happens just before spitting happens. Do that often enough and the uncertainty of what happens if he doesn’t spit goes away. Over time, the need to mark and reinforce the desired behaviour also goes away. You don’t actually need to reward good behaviour forever; it eventually falls into a bigger context of self reinforcing cycles where not spitting makes the learner’s sister more pleasant to him. Looking for loopholes allows you to choose an alternative that doesn’t leave the learner in an uncertain state.
When we have behaviours happening that we don’t like, then we need to think about a number of things when we try and get ahead of those behaviours. The first is to define what behaviour we do want. Saying that we want the child to refrain from spitting or hitting leaves the door wide open for a child who is creative to find other ways of being socially unacceptable. Maybe that child will try kicking, or biting instead. Looking for the loophole like head turning, gives us a definable behaviour we can mark and reinforce. The same is true of the dog who was want to refrain from jumping on guests or climbing on counters. Defining what we don’t want can be a helpful starting point, but it won’t really move us forward in terms of developing a good training plan. Stating the problem in terms of what we DO want is a really important starting point.
The next point in making a training plan to change behaviour is that if the behaviour must be stopped immediately, and you are going to choose to use an aversive, the aversive must be strong enough to work in the first three tries or you are not actually making a change. In human learners, telling the learner the possible outcome without telling them what the outcome might be if they choose to do something other than the undesired target behaviour sets up uncertainty and uncertainty may be more punishing than the consequence that is offered. If you are inconsistent about your contingencies in your canine learners the same is true. The canine learner determines that some of the time a bad thing happens and some of the time nothing happens, but has no information about what will happen when they make a different choice.
Finally if you are going to actually use extinction, you have to go all the way or not bother at all. If you have taught your dog that barking opens doors, then you are likely going to get more barking before you get less. If you change the rule the dog will need to learn this by experience and the first thing he is going to try is not going to be silence. Let’s say that you have a determined barker. If they bark for forty five minutes and then you get frustrated and open the door, you have just set the bar for the next time you try extinction. In really determined cases, you might be waiting for hours. If this is the case, it is easy to argue that it is more humane to either reinforce shorter spells of barking, or use a very significant aversive with a solid plan for when the dog isn’t barking so that he can identify the desired behaviour.
Uncertainty is perhaps the most aversive thing I see used in training, regardless of the species, and I see it in the world of positive reinforcement from time to time. I have seen it in dogs who are being offered as many choices as they could possibly think up to get a click and treat. Without parameters, some dogs stop thinking about the next step and start to throw behaviours out like confetti. This can be especially true of dogs who have been inconsistently trained in the past. I am working with a dog right now who has been through a number of different training systems; we know he worked with a balanced trainer at one point, and he has been clicker trained for about a year now. When we are shaping he is sometimes really anxious. Recently, we use a mild aversive when he got too aroused and started throwing himself around and grabbing his leash. He had a sudden lightbulb moment; don’t do THAT! When he understood both what was going to get clicked and what was going to result in the aversive stimulus, he was able to settle down and think. If a learner understands the outcome for both the target behaviour and the alternative, then he can make a choice. But if one of his choices is uncertain, then he may choose the behaviour you don’t want in order to control what happens to him, because certainty is more reinforcing than uncertainty.
It has been a while since I have written a blog, and I am really missing doing them. This time, we have a guest blog from Bojan and Amy who live with Lola. Good Dogs are often difficult to live with not because they aren’t nice dogs, but because living with a Good Dog can present a number of challenges when it comes to navigating the universe. Amy and Bojan work really hard with Lola to work through their challenges. Here is there story in their own words, and hopefully that will inspire me to get back to some writing soon! Thanks for the writing folks-it is an honour to work with you and Lola!
Lola is a shepherd-hound mutt, and is the first dog for both my husband and I. She used to be a street dog in Greece and was brought over to Canada by a rescue agency. When we adopted her, we had a soft spot for street dogs and had never heard of reactivity, instead imagining that all dogs loved everything! As it turns out, she loves us but loses her mind over everything else, including people waiting at transit stops, people who pick things up off the ground, people in general, other dogs who are on leash, small prey, bicyclists, skateboarders, streetcars, buses, trucks, and especially kids with sticky fingers or any fingers at all. Some of our friends have questioned how seriously we’re taking things with her and have asked us if it’s really “that bad.” We usually tell them that, if it happened to them, they wouldn’t like it very much.
We have a protocol for everything from how to get Lola out of our seventh-floor condo (hint: it doesn’t involve the elevator) to how to get her from each of her daycares to the car. Both of us walk her together so that one person can be on look-out duty for triggers and the other person can focus on her body language. To share with you what it’s actually like trying to keep her below threshold and not panicking (i.e. barking and lunging and terrorizing) in everyday situations, here’s a breakdown of one of our recent walks. We happened to be 15 minutes late and left our place at 6:15 a.m. instead of our usual before-6:00 a.m. departure.
Similar to superheroes, no reactive dog’s life is complete without an arch nemesis, so our walk began with Lola’s arch-nemesis-neighbour-dog barking at us from inside their unit as we were getting Lola into the stairwell. Lola heard it and froze but disengaged when Amy cued her onwards. Not waking up all of the neighbours on our floor = small victory!
As we exited the stairwell into the alleyway, there was a running truck at the other end that she fixated on, so I played Look At That twice before she would move on. A male in his 30s was waiting to cross the street about 20′ ahead of us and we waited for him to go ahead. In the next alleyway, we heard some noises which made her anxious and did our emergency Oh No Let’s Go U-turn twice just in case. Lola loves this cue and thinks it’s a fabulous game of chase so she completely forgot about the noises.
At the parkette, there was a person waiting for the streetcar that she started staring at and we played Look At That once. After that person got on a streetcar, another woman was walking on the sidewalk towards the streetcar stop about 30’ away. Lola had a hard time disengaging as this woman was looking at her and we played Look At That while backing up a few steps at a time and she finally broke her focus.
We kept moving and got to the main park where a male jogger in his 40s passed by her field of vision about 15’ away. This was an “oh shit” moment because by the time we noticed, he was already too close, approaching her directly, and neither of us were in a position where we could easily block her without causing her to panic anyways. I tried to play Look At That but it turned out Lola could not care less as she was busy sniffing for the perfect spot to poop. With that done, we went into the baseball field to get some more space. A male construction worker walked through about 30′ away and I played Look At That until he was 50’ away. We saw a few off-leash dogs in the distance which she handled well with low arousal, although we still played Look At That since she wasn’t easily disengaging on her own.
Her favourite thing is to play chase, so we ran around with her and then did some obedience practice. We saw an off-leash dog about 30’ in the distance and started playing Look At That, during which she offered a down. We never cue the down so that she can choose to do it when she feels relaxed enough to and it gives us an indication of her stress levels. While we were focused on the dog, we didn’t notice an approaching construction worker who was about to pass us at about 15’ away. Both of us expected her to lunge and bark at him, but she stayed in her down. At one of the park entrances, we saw two familiar small black dogs coming in off-leash, wearing lights on their collars. These dogs have a habit of running up to everything while barking and Lola thinks that dogs who light up are aliens, so it was time for us to go.
We got up to leave, got to the sidewalk and saw a crowd of 3-4 construction workers who had just gotten out of a parked car on the other side of the street. She froze and I played Look At That, but a large dog on leash was approaching on the same sidewalk so we doubled back but were trapped by another on leash dog on the path behind us and a group of three people walking towards us on the sidewalk from the other direction. To add to that, a construction worker was walking towards us and cutting it too close for comfort. Lola was giving me a lot of eye contact so I was worried that she wouldn’t notice the person until they were too close and she wouldn’t have any other option but to freak out, so I played Oh No Let’s Go to get her to back up 5-10’ to a safer distance.
She handled all of this craziness like a champ and we tried to leave again once it cleared, but an off-leash dog that looked similar to her jogged towards Lola. Lola stopped on the sidewalk and perked up, wanting to greet, but the other owner called their dog back. She got to the end of her leash but wasn’t overly aroused, so I was careful to not put any extra tension on the leash. The other dog came back and they immediately started playing, as she doesn’t have any problems with dogs who are off-leash. The owner approached to leash their dog and ended up very close to Lola, who sniffed her from inches away. In this moment, I had to stifle my own panicked flight-or-fight response and just let things happen because any reaction from me would’ve made it much more likely for the whole thing to go south. The woman leashed her dog while completely ignoring Lola and walked away after Lola had a quick sniff. It was a huge success but my main feeling was definitely relief. I regained my thoughts enough to remember to give Lola a handful of cheese and lots of praise!
We had been trapped here long enough that the two small black barky dogs had completed a full circle around the park, and one of them approached Lola while barking, about 5’ away. Lola had voluntarily sat down since we weren’t moving and was unconcerned with the dog. My husband blocked the small dog from getting any closer and finally their owner was able to call it back. With nothing else scary remaining except for the group of construction workers at their car, Lola started to fixate on them and we played Look At That to get past them while on the other side of the street. In the home stretch, we also ran into an owner and an on-leash lab across the street, a 40sM walking towards us from 15’ away, and two people walking in front of the condo building, all of whom we were able to somehow avoid or manage. We got upstairs, closed our door behind us, and my husband and I looked at each other wondering what the #*@^$ just happened because in no way would we have guessed that she could handle even small pieces of that, nevermind all of it together.
Let me say that I did not think taking my dog for a morning walk would be the equivalent adrenaline rush of going to a shooting range on a daily basis. It’s extremely stressful for my husband and I, but things are slowly getting better and we can only imagine how difficult and scary it is for Lola in these situations when we have a hard time just observing and guiding her.
On many walks since this walk, there have been similar incidents that Lola was not able to handle. We used to torture ourselves with the “Why?” question more often, asking ourselves why she was able to do this one day but not the next, but we’ve now mostly come to accept that she’s a different dog on different days and, as Sue likes to say, “It depends.”