BAD DOG?!!

Originally posted in April 2013

One of the biggest motivators for students to come in for training is a dog who is doing things we don’t like.  There are some basic ways that we can help dogs to learn not to do what we don’t want them to do, and most trainers are really good at these.  Once you understand what a trainer is driving at and why they have chosen the method they have, everything becomes much easier to follow along with.

The first thing I do when a client has a dog whose behaviour is a problem is define what the problem behaviour is.  The solution is going to depend upon what the problem is.  There is no single solution to every single problem, and the solutions I choose will depend upon the problems and the situations they occur within that are presented.

Controlling or managing the environment is often a great solution, and is usually the first thing I do in every case.  If you can control what is happening to cause the problem, then you can avoid the problem at least for a period of time.  If the problem is that the dog barks at the window, then the very first thing I am going to do is to get control over that window.  If the dog is confined to the room with the window and is barking six hours out of every eight, then why would I expect the dog to not bark at the window when I am trying to take a quiet moment?  The very first thing to do when looking at a behaviour we don’t want is to avoid the situation where the behaviour occurs.

In some cases this is a forever solution.  If a client has a dog who jumps into the front seat of the car while she is driving, then my solution is going to be traveling in a crate.  Traveling in a crate is safer for the dog in any event, but beyond that fact is that the dog is safer in a crate when traveling, so that is a permanent solution.

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Our puppy traveled to us in an airline crate and has traveled in a crate in vehicles for his whole life.

Some problems cannot be permanently solved by changing the environment for the dog.  Take jumping on people to greet.  Your dog can be kept separate from people for a period of time, but that is not a forever solution.  In this case I am going to choose to reinforce not jumping.  There is a great game you can play with jumping dogs where you have three people who come in and out of a room.  As they enter the room, as the dog approached but before he jumps, you drop a treat and then leave again.  The next person comes in and does the same thing.  You keep doing this until the dog gets the idea that the reward is going to come from below.  At that point you can switch the game up a bit and ask the dog to sit before you drop the treat.  Once the dog understands that everyone coming through the door is going to do the same thing, you can start working with a wider group of people and finally with strangers at the door.

Reinforcing for alternate behaviours (the learning theorists call this a DRA or DRO which stands for a differential reinforcement of alternate or other behaviour) is helpful if the dog is thinking about what he is doing, but not helpful if the dog is behaving badly because of fear.  Consider a dog who barks when approached by a stranger and tries to hide behind the owner.  This dog is afraid and he is not barking because he wants to greet, but because he is concerned about the stranger.  This is the kind of dog whose behaviour can be successfully changed by pairing one thing with another.  To do this, you get a stranger to appear and you give really good treats to the dog.  Then the stranger disappears and you stop treating.  The stranger reappear and you treat again.  The stranger disappears and you stop again.  You keep repeating this until the dog anticipates the treats when the stranger appears.  From there it is a matter of teaching the dog that the stranger can come closer and closer and treats will keep coming, but don’t let the stranger get so close that the dog is overwhelmed.

Good Dog Class Geoffrey and Laurie 2013-03-27
In our group classical conditioning class, the focus is on pairing the approach of a stranger with food to make a pleasant association while keeping all the dogs in the room below threshold.

This sort of pairing is called Classical Conditioning.  Classical conditioning is an effect originally noticed by Dr. Ivan Pavlov who was studying salivation in dogs.  He would ring a bell and someone would bring in a bowl of meat.  Dr. Pavlov noticed that the dogs began to salivate when the bell rang, before the meat appeared.  They formed an association between the bell and the meat.  Once you understand the effect, you can use classical conditioning in a huge variety of creative ways to teach your dog what is safe and what is dangerous.

Some behaviours are really persistent.  The dog isn’t frightened or concerned, and the dog might not be learning to do a different behaviour instead of the undesired behaviour, and you cannot avoid the problem.  In these cases, we sometimes have to pull out punishment.  Punishment is anything we do to decrease a behaviour.  Previously all the solutions were aimed at either avoiding the situation where the unwanted behaviour happened, changing the unwanted behaviour for a wanted behaviour, or changing the motivation for the unwanted behaviour.  Sometimes none of these alternatives are helpful.  In these cases we may need to consider using a punishment to change the unwanted behaviour.

Punishments come in two flavours.  It is important to understand both of these because one of them can cause more problems than the other.  The first kind of punishment is negative punishment.  That is the kind of punishment where you lose access to something that you want due to your behaviour.  When you use negative punishment the dog may lose the chance to play, or may lose the toy he was involved with or may lose access to the person or other dog he was interacting with.  For the jumping dog, you can sometimes change the situation completely by going into the bathroom every time the dog jumps on you.  You withdraw your presence every time the dog jumps up and pretty soon, if the dog cares about being with you, the jumping stops.  In most cases of negative punishment, the dog is not greatly upset or distressed.

The other form of punishment is positive punishment.  This is when you DO something unpleasant to the dog when he does something you don’t like.  Positive punishment is the one place where we see the most problems in training and the greatest misuse.  You really cannot go wrong with management of the environment, DRO or classical conditioning.  Negative punishment is difficult to create trauma with, but with positive punishment there are huge risks.  If you are too tough, you can create fear.  If you are not tough enough, you can create tolerance of bad things.  If you give it at the wrong time, you can decrease behaviours you like and want.  If you don’t give it every time that the unwanted behaviour happens, you can teach your dog to gamble that he might get to do the unwanted behaviour this time.  If the positive punisher occurs in the absence of the bad behaviour, the dog won’t learn what not to do, but rather will learn not to try new behaviours that might be better.  There is also the risk that some classical conditioning will happen in reverse to what you thought might happen; so your dog might think that the positive punisher might be related to something that is actually safe.

Taking the example of the dog who jumps up; you could use a can of compressed air to stop him from jumping up.  There are big risks with this though, and they aren’t really very obvious.  Let’s say that the dog jumps up on guests at the front door.  You come to the door prepared and the dog predictably jumps up.  You spray him with compressed air and he gets off you right away.  Your dog looks around and notices the spray can in your hand, and figures out that the spray can is the source of the air (this is an example of a classical association).  The dog learns an interesting rule.  “Don’t jump up if the person is holding a can of air.”  This means that the dog may learn to check if the guest has a can of air before he decides to jump up.  The dog hasn’t learned to do anything different, he has just learned that if the guest doesn’t have a can of compressed air, the guest is fair game.

Then there is the situation where the can of air is not at hand, but the owner wants to punish the dog for jumping up, so after the dog has jumped up, she goes to get the can and spray the dog.  In this situation, the dog, not knowing what the owner is up to, follows the owner to where the spray can is kept and then gets punished for following the owner.  If the owner is the person who applies the air, the risk is that the dog learns that the owner isn’t safe.  This kind of damage happens all the time, and again this is classical conditioning at work; the dog has learned to associate the owner with danger.  Not the desired outcome by a long shot!  The dog may also learn that the rule about jumping up is to only jump up in the absence of the owner.  Again, we have an outcome that looks good, but isn’t quite what we had hoped for.

Finally a bad situation can occur when the dog experiences the same or a similar bad thing when he is behaving the way we want him to behave.  Consider the dog who is lying quietly on the grass by the driveway and someone comes out of the garage with an air compressor to fill the tired.  The whooshing noise that the compressor makes sounds like the compressed air can and we have caused the dog to stop lying on the grass and minding his own business.  We have taken the single event and spread it around to the environment and taught the dog a lot of things we wish he had not learned.

Positive punishment can be a safe and effective tool, but it is tricky.  In order to use it safely, we need to follow some rules.  It must be tough enough to solve the problem quickly and efficiently.  If the positive punisher is not tough enough, you just create a situation where the dog learns to ignore the unpleasant consequence.  If the dog described above didn’t care about the air can, the jumping wouldn’t stop and he would just learn to tolerate the air can.  On the other hand, if it is too tough, that can cause both physical and emotional harm.  If you used a spray can of mace for instance, you might damage your dog’s eyes and it is quite likely he would be very frightened of spray cans, compressed air and possibly you.  There is a huge responsibility on the part of the trainer to chose the right degree of unpleasant consequence to get a good effect quickly and efficiently, but not so much that you harm or frighten the learner.

You also have a responsibility to use a punisher that is unique.  Compressed air canisters are being sold now as behaviour solutions in pet stores, but people forget that we use compressed air in a number of ways.  We use compressed air to clean our computers, we use it to fill our car tires and if you have someone in your home who uses medical oxygen, the hose might detach and hiss the way a can of air does.  Compressed air canisters are very handy for breaking up dog fights, but should not be used to teach dogs to stop doing specific behaviours.

The punishment must happen every time the behaviour happens and never happen if the behaviour is absent.  This means you cannot allow the undesired behaviour to happen unless you have the punisher at the ready and available.  You also cannot allow the punishment to happen when the behaviour hasn’t happened.  If the punishment is happening when it shouldn’t or isn’t happening when it should, the dog learns to gamble on the punishment, and every time he does the unwanted behaviour and doesn’t get punished, the absence of the punishment is in fact a reinforcer, and makes the undesired behaviour stronger.  This gambling is the route to building the strongest behaviours, which makes the mis-use of punishment potentially the best way to strengthen behaviours.

When used carefully and properly positive punishment is a fast and effective and humane way to stop unwanted behaviours.  When used improperly there are huge risks.  Why aren’t there such risks with managing the environment, DRO or classical conditioning?  Let’s look at that.  When you manage the environment you are avoiding the problem.  This means that you don’t see the problem behaviour, which just isn’t a problem!  When you use differential reinforcement of an other behaviour, then if the dog offers the unwanted behaviour, he doesn’t get anything he wants, but he does get what he wants when he does the other behaviour.  There is no risk to your relationship with the dog, to physical or emotional harm, or that he will gamble that the unwanted behaviour might be safe at a given time.  The only risk you have is that the dog may learn when rewards are available and when they are not and may try the unwanted behaviour when rewards are not available.  We can work around that by using a marker such as a click or yes, to tell the dog when he is making the choice we want him to make and then using that marker to bridge the time between the behaviour and going to get the treat.  Finally with classical conditioning, there is no risk that the dog will get injured or frightened at all; we are just treating him in the presence of a particular stimulus.  The worst thing that will happen is that he will learn that a particular stimulus will produce food.

With so many options available for training, it is important that we keep in mind the old medical adage of “first do no harm” and reach for the least harmful option first.  I would never want a doctor to not learn to do surgery, and I would not want a professional trainer who didn’t understand the use of positive punishment and how it works.  Never the less if your doctor only knows surgery, you may not get the best health care.  The same is true of trainers who only use punishment; they can cause more harm than good.  Before you reach for a positive punisher, think carefully.  Is there a better alternative?  There are times when there isn’t a better alternative, but often there is, and it is worth considering what your alternatives are and develop a training plan before you reach for something that may cause harm.

BAD DOG?!!

THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE OF DOG TRAINING

I happen to own two Swiss Army knives; both from Switzerland, although I have never been there.  One is mine and the other belonged to my late father.  For a long time I kept them carefully separate so I knew which one was which.  They are both special to me; mine was brought to me by my parents after they visited Switzerland and my father’s was given to me by my mother at his funeral.  They both have toothpicks and I haven’t lost either toothpick.  They both have two blades, a big one and a little one.  They both have a couple of screwdrivers (a Robertson and a regular flat blade one) and they both have the inevitable corkscrew which I have never ever used since I don’t drink.  They are very handy items even though they don’t come with every tool in the book.

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I LOVE my Swiss Army Knife! I almost always have it in my pocket because I use it all the time. It does have its limitations, however, it is handy for almost every job. Sadly, it doesn’t come with a clicker!

Positive reinforcement is a bit like my Swiss Army knife.  I can use my knife both for cutting string and for opening a paint can.  I can use positive reinforcement to teach a dog to stay or to come.  I can use the Swiss Army knife to pick my teeth or to clean out the groove that the little tab belongs in on the lawn mower.  I can use positive reinforcement to help a dog with thunderstorm anxiety or to jump over a jump.  Both of these tools are widely useful.  The key to being successful is having a solid understanding of how the tool works, what it does and what it doesn’t do.

The easiest way I know of understanding what positive reinforcement is would be to divide the term into its component two terms.  Positive refers to everything that the trainer adds.  So, if I were to GIVE the dog a treat, I am positive.  If I YELL at the dog, I am also being positive.  Sadly, positive has a second and not useful meaning related to behaviour.  When we say we are being positive, we might be indicating something pleasant or desirable.  In training we simply mean adding something to the interaction.  Reinforcement is anything that increases the behaviour; so when the trainer adds something, and the dog does more of whatever we are training, we see positive reinforcement in effect.  This means that if the trainer YELLS at the dog and the dog BITES more often, we are positively reinforcing biting!  That sure doesn’t sound like the positivity of feeling good or better.

In its simplest form, positive reinforcement increases desired behaviours.  If we want the dog to sit more often, we wait for the dog to sit and add something he wants.  If the dog sits, randomly, we could get right up and feed him a treat.  If this happens 3 times in an hour in the first hour, and 7 times in the second hour, and 22 times in the third hour, and 21 times in the fourth hour, and 34 times in the fifth hour, we can see a trend where over time, the dog is increasing the frequency that sitting happens because the trainer added a treat each time.  Easy peasy, right?  This works for simple skills where the dog offers the behaviour in its entirety without having to learn something unusual or unnatural and we wall it capturing because we are capturing the behaviour as is.  What about more complicated things?

Complex behaviours can be developed through a process known as shaping.  You can think of shaping as a series of steps towards an end goal.  Heeling off leash is a behaviour that is very easily shaped.  Simply stand still and when your dog comes towards you, mark the behaviour (we use clickers, so I will just say click when I mean mark), and toss a treat away from you.  We are adding the click, and the dog keeps coming back to us after each tossed treat, which means that the behaviour of being with us is increasing, so this is still positive reinforcement.  Next, you could stand so that your right side is against a wall, and click when the dog comes into heel position, and toss the treat over your shoulder so that the dog goes behind you to get the treat.  In this way, he will begin to get closer and closer to a nice stationary heel position.  After a few reps of this, you might try taking a half step away from the wall, and continuing to click for being on your left side in heel position.  You would of course continue to toss the treat behind you to get the dog out of position, and then back in again.  When your dog is good at that, you might continue the progression by stepping further away from the wall.  Eventually your dog would be choosing to come to your left side even if you were in the middle of the room.  You could make a nice little game of this and begin walking forward one step and clicking when your dog keeps up with you, and then walking forward 2 steps and clicking for keeping up with that.  Progressively, you add more steps and then changes of directions and halts and eventually, you have very nice off leash heeling.

young hunting dog and hand with clicker
Positive reinforcement is the Swiss Army Knife of dog training. When you use a marker like a clicker to help the dog understand EXACTLY what you are teaching him, it can be a very powerful tool. Understand different aspects of positive reinforcement helps you to optimize your training.

Shaping can be applied to all sorts of tasks, from heeling to coming when called, all the way through complex things like backing away from you and spinning!  Shaping is a skill though and both you and your dog need to learn the process.  With one of my own dogs, D’fer, I had to stop using him as a demo for shaping after he learned to “shovel snow” by lining up to the handle of a snow shovel, pick up the handle and walk the shovel forward in under ten clicks!  He was really good at shaping but he gave my audiences an unrealistic expectation for how long shaping would take.

All this is very good information for building behaviours, but how about dealing with behaviours you don’t like?  Positive reinforcement can be really good for that too!  There is a procedure called Differential Reinforcement of Alternate behaviour, shortened to DRA.  It is also sometimes called DRO, with the O standing for Other behaviour.  What this means is simply that you mark or click for anything other than the behaviour you want to get rid of.  Let’s say you have a puppy who jumps up.  When he is doing ANYTHING other than jumping up, you can mark that and treat.  The fact is that most of the time the puppy is NOT jumping up, so you have lots of behaviours you can reinforce.  You can reinforce for four on the floor, running around, barking at the window, lying down, sitting, grabbing a toy, looking at the other dog, following the cat or getting on furniture.  Some of those behaviours might also be on your list of things you don’t want your pup to do, but none of them are compatible with jumping up.  This is a very flexible procedure, so you can either choose one of those things, or all of them, and either way you will decrease the jumping up behaviour.  In practice it is best to choose one behaviour and click that and only that, but at the beginning it may be best to just click for everything that isn’t jumping up to make the point that there are lots of things other than jumping up that you can click.

Another way to decrease behaviours is to reinforce the least iteration of the behaviour.  This works well for behaviours that go on and on, such as barking.  Barking can be looked at as one behaviour, or it can be looked at as a long series of behaviours.  When we look at it as a long series, it is easy to get control over it by clicking for the first few barks.  If you were to count how many barks happen before your dog just naturally stops barking, you might find for instance that he barks an average of 78 times.  I would want to get my click in before the fifth bark if possible, and initially, I would be following the click up with super duper good treats and lots of them.  I would want to make a big impression because barking is such an exciting behaviour.  I would keep doing this until I had an INCREASE in short bursts of barking.  It is much easier to get rid of barking altogether when it occurs in short bursts instead of over long duration!  Once I was in control of the barking to the extent that it only happens in short bursts, I could start clicking for single barks. 

All of these procedures have pitfalls, which is why I have a job!  I have had many students say to me “that worked for a bit, but it isn’t working any more”.  When you are using a Swiss Army Knife as your main tool, you may have to sometimes stop and change tactics in order to be successful.  Knowing that there are other blades to use when your first choice fails you is a valuable skill to develop as a trainer.  Positive reinforcement is my favourite training tool by far, and it is really useful to play with various ways to implementing it.

THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE OF DOG TRAINING

THE BARE NAKED DOG

Originally posted April 2013

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Bare Naked And Beautiful!  Photo: Melanie Wooley

Recently a competing dog training school posted pictures of their graduating class to their Facebook page.   The album featured six smiling families with their dogs in a sit and a graduation certificate and individual brags beside picture.  On five out of the six dogs, they were obviously wearing prong collars.  Interesting.  Two of the six dogs showed clear signs of distress and one dog appeared to be really frightened.  All the people were wearing big smiles and the instructor made a point that he was graduating six well trained dogs.  Hmmm.  Why do six well trained dogs all need prong collars?  And why do well trained dogs look so stressed?  Could it be that the people feel that their dogs are under control by virtue of the equipment that they wear?

Jumping back twenty years or so, I remember when the leash laws first came into Guelph.  There was a lot of publicity about dogs being leashed on a leash that was no more than two metres in length and being under control without a lot of information about what exactly under control meant.  One fine summer day, I was out in the park in a legitimate off leash area with my dog off leash.  Being a dog trainer, I was doing what I am prone to doing; I was training my dog.  I left him on a sit stay, and walked about 50 metres away.  A woman came along with her two kids and stopped dead and then began to scream at me to get my dog under control.  Fifty metres away, my dog sat panting and looking around, and this woman continued her tirade about dangerous dogs.  My leash was around my shoulders as it usually is, and my dog was relaxed and I was really confused.  At first I protested that my dog WAS under control.  This seemed to rev the woman up even more.  After several minutes of this, I called my dog and she and the children began to shriek.  My dog came and I leashed up and the woman finally relaxed a tiny amount and told me that the new law required my dog to be under control.  I had an aha moment.  By under control, she meant ON LEASH.  Under control means something entirely different to me.

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This puppy is off leash, outdoors and running, but he is STILL under control. His intense focused look is just what we expect to see in a puppy learning to come when called!

When I first started to offer dog training classes I mostly had my students using the traditional chain slip collar that we now understand can cause a lot of injuries.  I don’t use them any longer and don’t allow them on my training grounds.  The risk of injury to my students’ dogs is just too high, and I think that they really gave us a false sense of what it meant to be under control.  When control is entirely reliant on stopping bad behaviours from happening, then we aren’t actually teaching dogs to have self control; we are teaching them that if they do things we don’t want, they will get hurt.  Again, I have to reflect that as a society we have a funny way of thinking about “control”.  We spent most of our time teaching the dogs what they could not do and how badly we could hurt them if they stepped out of line.

In my introduction to dog training class, I had an activity that I did with one of my own dogs.  I dressed him up in every piece of dog training equipment I owned.  I put on a halter and a harness, a chain collar, a flat buckle collar, a martingale, a dog coat and a prong on him.  I would put him through his paces and one by one take all the equipment off.  I would point out to my audience that my dog was happy to work bare naked.  I did a lot of work with that dog and it was wonderful exciting happy work, even though I started him on a pain based system.  What I learned with that particular dog is that it is not the equipment.  It is the relationship.  Control doesn’t depend upon the collar, it is reliant on the relationship.

Relationship is what really creates a dog under control.  At Dogs in the Park, we start all of our dogs on flat buckle collars and two metre leashes, and we do the first few classes with the dogs tethered to the wall.  We recognize that we are not starting with dogs who have self control or even owner directed control.  We work towards getting the dogs off the wall as quickly as we can.  We want the dogs to be successful and the people to be successful too, so we take out the variable in the equation of the dog making the wrong choice.  We tether and work on SELF control.

Dog with ill eyes pulling leash walking at winter park
I am much more concerned about this on leash dog than I would be about the off leash puppy above. Everything about this dog tells me that he doesn’t want to be with the person on the end of the leash and that he is pretty intent on getting to where he wants to go. Being in control has nothing to do with the equipment the dog is wearing and everything to do with the amount of education that dog has, the relationship he has to the person he is working with and the situation that the people have put him into.

My dog out in the park was demonstrating self control.  He was controlling his impulse to go and run up and say hi to the kids.  He was controlling his impulse to go to the river to swim.  He was controlling his impulse to lie down.  My dog was in control of himself and he was doing what I wanted him to do; he was minding his manners and staying where I had left him.  This is the level of self control that is easy to live with.  I didn’t have to worry about this dog pulling people over; he wouldn’t dream of pulling on leash.  I didn’t have to worry about him leaving either; he knew that staying was the game at the moment.  In training, that is the goal.  A well trained dog is a dog who is happy and confident and who will mind his manners, even if he is bare naked.

Getting from the point of being tethered to the wall and learning to not take treats and to not knock people over when they come in to greet to being able to be left on a sit stay or a down stay at fifty metres does not need to be painful for the dog, but it is an important step in developing self control.  It should in fact be fun for everyone.  At home, you should be doing most of your training off leash.  The leash is a great tool but it is only a tool and it is not about great training.  It is what we use when we must, not what actually teaches the dog to do something.  What actually teaches the dog to do things is not the equipment he wears or the words that you say, but the direct outcomes of his own behaviour.

The key to getting from point A, the dog who is out of control to point B the dog who will do distance stays while his person is being screamed at is a process of steps.  Seeing the pictures of the graduating class of the other school reminded me of how important steps and stages are.  At the very beginning, I have to acknowledge that the dog does not understand what I want.  If pain is the tool we choose to explain this to the dog, then we need to be able to set the dog up to learn quickly and efficiently that there is a way to avoid pain.  The pain should be minimal and rare and the dog should understand how to not get hurt.  In the old days when I was first learning to train we would do set ups where we would set the dog up to fail so that he could learn that he would be hurt if he made the wrong choice.  I realize now, especially when I look at pictures and video from those days that my dog was often concerned about being right and worried that she would get hurt.  The picture of the graduation class brought home some pretty strong memories for me, some of which I am not entirely proud of.

Now when I look at the journey from point A to point B, I ask myself if the dog is relaxed and happy.  If the dog is relaxed, then I know that he understands what I want him to do.  I look not only at if the dog can do the skill, but also if the dog is comfortable about it.  If the dog is not comfortable I reassess what I am asking him to do.  When we start a dog in training at Dogs in the Park, they start on the wall and we ask the question; “are you comfortable enough to take treats?”  If the answer is yes, then we ask “are you comfortable enough to click and treat?”  If the answer to that is yes, then we ask “are you comfortable enough to refrain from taking treats when you should not?” and if the answer is yes, we ask the question “are you comfortable enough to offer behaviours?”  If we get a no, then we work with the client to determine what we need to do to make the dog feel safe and comfortable enough to work in our classroom.  We ask the dog.

Training is not just about skills acquisition.  It is also about the emotional state of the dog, and the relationship that the dog has with you.  When a dog feels confident about you and the work you are doing, he is eager and keen to try new things.  He doesn’t look worried or concerned.  He doesn’t look like something might go wrong at any moment.  When a dog feels confident about what he is doing he is willing to engage in things with you, and that is what partnership is about.  It is not just about skills acquisition at all; it is about everything that the dog is thinking about and experiencing including how the dog is working with you.

So I come full circle back to the graduation pictures that my competitor posted.  The people look thrilled and proud.  Half the dogs look relaxed.  The instructor describes his clients and their dogs as well trained dogs and people.  But three of the six dogs look unhappy and at least five of the six dogs are wearing devices that operate on pain.  None of the dogs is looking at his person as though that person was interesting or cool.  This is where we started at Dogs in the Park.  I am really glad we moved on to where we are now.  The pictures I post of my clients don’t show a whole lot of graduations.  We don’t graduate dogs anymore.  We celebrate when they achieve levels.  And we see a lot more happy and a lot fewer stressed dogs.  I am really proud of what we are doing here, and I hope my students are just as proud of themselves; our dogs learn skills and they also learn about partnership and relationship and trust.  And when you dog trusts that you have his back, he will do nearly anything for you.  One step at a time, towards a goal that is meaningful for both of you.  I am so glad my competition posted their pictures.  Sometimes I just need some confirmation that I am heading in the right direction.

THE BARE NAKED DOG

ANDREW’S MOM

Andrew is a nice guy who has been training with Dogs in the Park for the past couple of months.  Andrew has a wife(P) and a daughter (B) and a dog (Henry) and of course he has a Mom.  Andrew’s mom is terrific.  Really she is!  She comes over and helps P to clean the house once a week.  She babysits so that Andrew and P can have an evening out (and B can have ice cream for dinner and they can blow bubbles in the livingroom).  She brings homemade cookies, and takes the family on outings they couldn’t necessarily do without the help of a grandma to co-ordinate the logistics, and she is sensitive to not overstaying her welcome. 

There is just one small problem.  Andrew’s mom doesn’t actually understand dogs.  And Henry struggles with anxiety.  I guess that actually makes two problems, neither of which would be nearly as large a problem as the two issues coming together is.  When you have someone in your life who just doesn’t understand dogs and you have an anxious dog, things can go haywire pretty fast.  In fact, almost every family with a dog has someone who plays the role of “Andrew’s mom”.

Senior woman baking
“Andrew’s Mom” can be anyone in your life who doesn’t follow the rules with your dog. Usually “Andrew’s Mom” is someone who is kindly and well meaning but who just doesn’t understand the situation.

Andrew’s mom is the person in your dog’s life who behaves in such a way that your dog just cannot succeed.  Often the person who plays the role of Andrew’s mom really, deeply and passionately cares about dogs in general, and often about your dog in specific.  In the case of Andrew’s mom, she really loves to love on Henry.  Henry does not love being loved on quite THAT much.  He appears to feel confined when Andrew’s mom tries to hug him, and that can cause him to tremble in fear.  The harder he trembles, the more that Andrew’s mom will try and get him into her lap, to hug him, to hold him, to stroke him and even to kiss his muzzle.  Andrew’s mom is in fact the reason that Andrew brought Henry to our school.  One afternoon, Andrew’s mom came over and cornered Henry in the livingroom.  B. was down for her nap, and Andrew’s mom was in need of some cuddling, so Henry was it.  Henry had been resting and made the error of looking Andrew’s mom in the eye when he woke up.  She came over, loomed over his dog bed, crouched down, and then gathered him up in her arms for a big “grandma hug”.  Henry, being sort of sleepy, and not really happy about hugs to begin with, had finally had enough.  He squirmed to get out of the hug and when that didn’t work, air snapped four or five times just to the left of Andrew’s mom’s ear.  Needless to say, pandemonium ensued.  Andrew’s mom screeched, Henry bolted for the back room where he liked to hide during thunderstorms and P yelled at Henry.  B woke up and began to cry, and Henry lost control of his bladder.

When the dust settled, P called Andrew and Andrew called me and I got the family (minus Andrew’s mom and B) in for an appointment.  When Andrew and P relayed what happened, I could see where everything fell apart for Henry, and the bite was not unexpected.  Did I say “bite”?  Yes.  In the business we consider this to be a bite, albeit a very inhibited bite.  A number of factors stacked up to create a circumstance where a bite was very likely.  Henry was resting and relaxed.  Then he saw Andrew’s mom.  Andrew’s mom was the first stressful thing, or trigger that he noticed.  Then Andrew’s mom came closer to Henry than he was comfortable with; that was the second trigger.  I would lay good money that if I had a video of Henry in that moment, I would have seen some warning signs that would have told me that Henry was uncomfortable, but even if she noticed the signs, Andrew’s mom did not listen to his cues to tell her that he was uncomfortable.  Not being heard could be another trigger for Henry.  When Andrew’s mom loomed over Henry on his bed, that is a third trigger.  When she reached for him and hugged him, that was a fourth trigger.  When Henry tried to wiggle away but could not get loose, that would be a fifth trigger.  Five or possibly six triggers was more than enough to elicit a bite!  The video below gives you more details about trigger stacking.

In fact, Henry pulled his punches and did not do any damage to Andrew’s mom.  Henry could have landed a serious bite causing her significant harm, but instead he air snapped near her face and then retreated.  When he was hiding in his safe place, he was so distressed that he lost control over his bladder.  Andrew’s mom felt really bad, and her response a day later was telling; she interpreted his losing control over his bladder as him being submissive and regretful of his bites, and so she ramped up her attention on Henry.  In fact losing control over his bladder most likely happened because of his extreme fear. 

Almost every dog with behaviour problems that I work with has an “Andrew’s mom” in his or her life.  These people are usually kind, thoughtful and caring people, who just don’t understand the whole situation.  I have seen many extreme forms of “Andrew’s mom”, from an uncle who allowed a very aggressive dog out of her kennel and into a holiday party of thirty guests, where she mauled someone, to the toddler who follows the dog everywhere all day long and never lets the dog rest.  As a behaviour consultant Andrew’s mom is so frustrating!  What we need are strategies to address the people in our lives who intentionally or otherwise subvert our efforts at helping our anxious, aggressive, reactive or fearful dogs.

One of the easiest strategies I have for guests is to hand them a cup of tea on a saucer with a cookie on it before bringing the dog into the room.  I don’t have to tell the guest to ignore the dog because they cannot interact with the dog while holding a full cup of tea on a saucer.  As soon as you say “don’t pay attention to the dog” your guest will inevitably look at the dog and often that sets Andrew’s mom up to interact in ways that are not productive.

Traditional teacup and saucer held in elderly woman's hands.
Andrew’s mom will have a really hard time reaching out for your dog if she has a cup of tea and a saucer, with no where to put that down when the dog first enters the room. This way you need not tell the guest to ignore your dog!

Another strategy I have had great success with when working with dogs and kids is to have a structured activity such as hide and seek to play.  The game goes like this.  The dog starts out in his crate and the kids get to hide something that would be of value to the dog.  You have to teach the dog the game first, but if you have a dog who will search for things, then it is easy to implement the game.  The kids get a set amount of time to hide the item, and then they have to sit at a table or stay in a room that the dog cannot get to while the dog does the search.  When the dog brings back the item, he waits in his crate while the kids hide the items again.  The kids don’t end up being Andrew’s mom because they have to wait their turn while the dog is loose, and the dog is confined while they hide the item.  This can work very well for kids up to about the age of 7.

While walking dogs on leash, almost everyone you encounter has the potential to be Andrew’s mom.  Almost all of us have heard variations on “dogs like me” or “I don’t mind if he misbehaves” and it can be very difficult to fend off these well-meaning strangers.  One of the easiest ways I have to keep people’s hands to themselves is to muzzle your dog.  Often a muzzled dog gets to walk through the streets undisturbed where an unmuzzled dog seems to be a target for every person passing by. 

Alternatively, I have simply said to people “I am in a terrible rush, sorry, I cannot stop to talk” and walked right on by.  Some people just won’t take no for an answer though, but breaking into a run and hurrying on by can actually help.  I have also sometimes been successful with telling people that my dog is ill and we have to rush home and get his medication.  Keeping the conversation flowing is not the goal though; you have to say your piece and then move on.

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When heading off Andrew’s mom, leash manners don’t count! Putting yourself between your dog and Andrew’s mom helps a lot, as can breaking into a run and hurrying on by.

I have even had trouble with professionals being Andrew’s mom.  At the vet’s office, I have often had to advocate for my dog when the vet or the tech want to proceed more quickly than my dog was ready for.  Things are improving for sure, however, we still have times when the vet may not realize or recognize that my dog needs a little more time.  When this happens, you sometimes have to be really clear with your vet that you need to travel at the speed of dog, and slow things down a little.  Use common sense when negotiating this with your vet however; don’t do this if you are in the middle of a medical emergency.

I think it is important to recognize that Andrew’s mom is well meaning, but still set clear boundaries about what is happening with your dog.  A good behaviour modification plan includes making sure that your dog has the time and space to process what is going on, and we cannot expect our dogs to become more tolerant if they keep getting triggered.  Knowing what your dog’s triggers are and setting things up so that the people around your dog don’t set those triggers in motion are essential to the process of successfully training your dog.

ANDREW’S MOM

OWNING A GUN

Originally posted May 2013

**Please note*** Since writing this blog I have relicensed to hunt, which you may have seen reflected in some of my other writing.

 

I am a gun owner.  As a gun owner in Canada, I have to follow certain rules, and in fact, I follow even more rules than I am required to follow because I really want to make sure that I never ever allow my gun to fall into a situation where it might be used to commit a crime or to cause harm to someone.  I got my gun when I was pursuing a hunting license in order to be able to hunt food for myself.  Now that I no longer hunt, a good argument could be made that I no longer need a gun, but I might go back to hunting at some point and at that time, I would need a gun again, so in the meantime, I am a responsible gun owner who stores her gun in a manner that prevents people from getting the pieces, putting them together and firing the weapon.

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Guns must be kept in a secure lockable containment system.  Dogs with aggression issues must also be kept safely to keep everyone from harm, including the dog.  Image credit: michaklootwijk / 123RF Stock Photo

My approach to gun ownership is very much like the approach I take to living with my dogs.  John and I live with three dogs, all of whom in various ways could create havoc if they were improperly managed.  D’fer, our oldest is not terrific with puppies.  Preventing him from harming puppies is pretty straightforward.  No matter how much your puppy wants to meet my adult dog, I don’t allow that to happen.  I keep him crated, behind a fence or on a leash when a puppy is around and this keeps puppies safe.  Would he harm a puppy?  Probably.  I don’t want to find out, so I will never give him the chance.  This means that there are a very limited number of people who are permitted to handle D’fer.  I don’t just leave him with a friend, because I don’t want to risk that they might mis-understand or put him into a situation where he might make a mistake.  Deef is my responsibility, and I take that responsibility very seriously.

Eco, my German Shepherd was bred for protection work and I did a certain amount of that with him.  Although he has met children, he doesn’t know them very well and he is over 45 kg.  Without trying, Eco could easily harm a child, just by running and bumping into one.  For this reason, Eco is not a dog park dog.  He is not permitted to run loose in public because I don’t want to risk that a child or even a small adult might be hurt if he ran into them.  Once again, there are a limited list of people I would leave Eco with because I don’t want to put anyone at risk.  If I left Eco with someone who didn’t clearly understand the risks of handling him, and the boundaries we have to be aware of, then I would not be behaving responsibly towards my dog or the public.

Friday knows more about kids than Eco does and she likes puppies, but she is also a large dog at about 30kg, and she is young and sometimes foolish.  She is a dog I could leave with some folks, but not with everyone.  Not everyone is set up to deal with a young, goofy adolescent dog.  She is a good girl, but she is creative, thoughtful, agile, and sometimes a little too much for your average person to deal with.

Most of the work that I do is with dogs with serious behaviour problems.  Some of these dogs are extremely dangerous.  I have worked with dogs who have mutilated people and killed other dogs.  Some of these dogs will never ever be completely safe in public and yet they live safely in people’s homes.  How does that work?  On our uniform sleeves we have the motto “It Depends…”  The answer to how does that work is “It depends”.  It depends on the problem, it depends on where the owner lives with the dog, it depends on what risks there are in the lifestyle of the owner and so on and so forth.  The bottom line when living with a dog who is dangerous in one way or another is risk analysis.

When working with dogs who are dangerous, it is important first and foremost to look at the physical premises and determine what would make the most sense when living with a dog with a problem.  A dog who is predatory towards chickens should not be asked to live loose on a farm with hens.  That would just not be safe for the hens and we would be exposing the hens to a significant avoidable risk.  That same dog might well be perfectly safe and content living in a city in an apartment, where hens are extremely rare.  I would not necessarily trust such a dog with a parrot however.

I frequently get calls from families who wish to add a dog to their home when the resident dog or cat either doesn’t like other dogs, or has caused a significant injury to another animal.  I have helped many people make this work, but one of the first things to think about is “is this a good idea?”  If it is not a good idea, then no matter how much the family might want to add another dog, that doesn’t change the fact that it is a bad idea.  A lot can be done by using crates and gates with care, and avoiding the problem, but if you have a resident animal that doesn’t like other animals, is it actually a caring move to add another animal to the home?  I would suggest it might not be a kind thing to do.  This falls under the category of just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

When a dog is dangerous to the public at large, it is our responsibility to protect the public.  There are tons of ways to keep people safe, and if your dog has ever caused harm to someone in public, be it a human or another dog, you must keep everyone safe at all times.  I would like to make it cool for dogs to wear muzzles in public.  If a muzzle will keep people safe, then why shouldn’t your dog wear one?  Keeping large boisterous dogs on leash can help a lot too.  Walking in places where other people don’t walk can really help a lot.  And finally, choosing your time to walk is important too.  I had a client who got up at three in the morning for four years to walk his dog because that was the one time that he could pretty much guarantee that his dog aggressive dog would not harm anyone else’s dog because other dogs just weren’t out at that time.

Owning a dog who has already caused harm to the public is a huge responsibility.  It is as big a responsibility as owning a gun, but because this is a thinking and feeling gun, we often forget that the dog can cause an enormous amount of damage.  Knowing how much damage a dog can do, and understanding that a dog is a thinking and feeling being requires a healthy dose of awareness, and compassion, without tipping yourself over into paranoia or soft heartedness.  When you live with dogs like this, you have to be entirely and dispassionately rational about what your dog is able to cope with, and what he should not be exposed to.  It is easy when you love a dog and you live with him to forget that he may have caused an incredible amount of damage, especially if you have not seen the action.  It is equally possible to become overly protective and never allow your dog to live a normal life at all.  The middle road can sometimes be difficult to find, and it can also sometimes be difficult to follow once you have found it.

The other issue to consider is that it is not only what YOU do with your dog but what others do too.  Consider the situation where you have a dog who has seriously injured another dog in a dog park.  Perhaps this happened when you weren’t with your dog.  Perhaps this happened before your dog lived with you.  If it happened at all, it is now your responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and this is where other people come into the equation.  Perhaps you can take your dog to the dog park when no one is there.  If you are able to see when other people show up, then you can leash up and leave.  If you are unable to see people coming, then you cannot reasonably let your dog off leash to play.  You cannot count on other people who don’t know your dog to take the kind of care that you do.  Another alternative is to find dog friends who ARE safe with your dog and meet them together to keep his skills with other dogs fluent.  All this falls apart though if you hand your dog over to a dog walker who doesn’t understand the risks.  Or if someone comes to the park and as you are leashing up, unleashes their dog to come and molest your dog.  When you cannot control who comes into contact with your dog, you really cannot take your dog into the situation.

One tragic incident happened to a client of mine many years ago.  She knew her dog was not good with strangers, but it was her family’s year to host Christmas dinner.  I suggested boarding her dog.  Not keen on that idea, she chose instead to put her dog out in their outdoor kennel while her guests were there.  An uncle, who had met the dog as a puppy decided he knew better than the owner and went out to the kennel and let the dog out.  After playing with the dog for half an hour, he let the dog into the home, where she mauled one of the other guests.  The owner appeared to be behaving responsibly, but she could not prevent her uncle from doing something that we knew would cause a problem.  It isn’t always what the owner does, but what the people around the owner do that can cause havoc.

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When you have guests, containing your dog at home may be a good idea if your dog has aggression issues, but often it is a better idea to send your dog to a professional boarding kennel where he can be safely cared for. Image credit: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

There are lots of dangerous dogs living in communities, and when everyone is brutally realistic without being paranoid or soft hearted, we can make it work.  When you own a dog who might be dangerous, it is your responsibility and no one else’s to protect society from harm caused by your dog.  As members of society, when an owner tells us that a dog is not friendly, you are not helping in any way by insisting that you know better.  You don’t.  You have no idea what the history of the dog you meet is and if the owner or handler tells you that the dog is not safe or not comfortable with being touched, then don’t press your luck; it is not worth it in any way.  Staying safe when working with dogs is like owning a gun.  You don’t leave it out where people who don’t understand it might have access, and you don’t leave it in a place where someone who might use it to commit a crime might find it.  With dogs with behaviour problems proactive handling, preplanning and organizing a plan B so that you can avoid problems is just common sense.  Kind of like living with a gun.

OWNING A GUN

WAIT A MINUTE!

At Dogs in the Park we run a drop in gym style program where students can come to more than 15 classes a week with their dog and learn about dog training.  When they have passed enough basic exercises, advanced classes open up to them.  When dogs come to training classes we always tell people to practice their skills regularly and often.  What we intend is that you will learn skills in the classroom that you will then take out and practice in the rest of your world.  If for instance, your dog has learned to sit at school in the classroom, we expect that you will practice at home, in your yard, at the park and on the street.  What we don’t expect is that students will attend all of our classes each week, although we have had students try and do so.

The problem with going to school every day is that the dog never gets a chance to experience something important called latent learning.  Latent learning is the kind of learning that happens when you are not paying attention.  Latent learning is the kind of learning that creates eureka moments for you.  One of the greatest learning moments of my life came about when I was struggling with a pamphlet to advertise my previous business.  I had been struggling off and on with my printer, the software and my computer to try and figure out how to make a double sided colour pamphlet using just the tools I had.  I tried all sorts of things and nothing was satisfying my vision.  Eventually, as we all do, I gave up the struggle with my problem and went to bed.  At about four in the morning I sat bolt upright in bed with the solution.  I rushed down to my home office and tried out my idea and then spent the next four hours printing exactly what I wanted.  Let’s examine the steps that led to my moment of clarity.

French bulldog sleep in bed
If you have ever been advised to “sleep on it” when trying to solve a problem, you were being told to use latent learning to your advantage. Dogs do this too!

The first step was getting a sense of what I wanted to do; I defined the problem.  This is a bit like when your dog is first exposed to a behaviour in class.  The dogs get a sense of the problem and they sort out what it is that you are driving at.  Sometimes this phase of learning can go along for a very long time.  For some dogs and for some people they need to probe the question for a long time to discover what it is that they are driving at.  There comes a point though, when probing the problem just needs to stop in order for the learner to reflect and make the connections between the pieces of the puzzle.

The next step is trying out solutions.  With my problem I tried changing the settings on my printer, and changing the format of my document.  This is the same stage of learning that dogs go through when they try out variations on their idea of what you are driving at with training.  This is the stage where the dog may try not doing the behaviour to see what the outcome is.  As a trainer this can be a very frustrating stage to go through and we can make life a lot harder on our dogs by endlessly drilling at this point.  Most dogs, like me, need to have the chance to give their ideas a try and fiddle a bit but then they are better off to take the time to back off and think about the issue for a bit.  Trainers benefit too because when they reflect on the issues they are working through they may come up with novel solutions and better ways of explaining what they want to their dogs. 

After fiddling for a bit, I went through a very annoying phase.  I would have been better to have gone on and done something different after I had fiddled with it, but being that I am stubborn and try really hard, I decided I would try even harder.  I see some of my students going through this phase when they attend a daily levels class but don’t go away and think about what they are teaching their dogs.  They don’t go away and think about alternatives.  They don’t leave the behaviour alone and let the dog think about the work they are doing.  Like me, they just push and try harder and they frustrate themselves, their instructors and most of all their dogs.

When you get stuck in this phase of learning something, you start trying things that normally you would not try.  I once caught myself picking up my printer with the intention of dropping it to see if that would prompt it to print.  In case you are wondering, dropping the printer won’t make it print.  If you have ever been frustrated by a print job that just won’t work, you have probably also been tempted to shake up the printer a bit.  It just won’t work.  The equivalent to that in dog training is when the trainer abandons the lesson in favour of the result.  I watched one student of mine lift the dog onto a piece of equipment and then reward him, over and over again during this phase.  The dog learned that being on the equipment predicted treats, but he didn’t learn how to use his body to get onto the equipment, so in the end, the dog didn’t learn what the trainer had set out to teach him. 

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This dog looks like he is asking a question! Maybe his question is “what are you driving at?” This is a common question during training!

The “leave it alone and let the dog think” method of problem solving usually gets you better results.  Allowing the dog to have some time between when you first explain the behaviour to them and when you next ask them to offer the behaviour can yield some surprising results.  Often the dog needs a chance, just like I did with my print job to just let the training percolate a bit.  If you allow the dog to have the time and space to think about what they are doing, you can end up with faster more effective learning.

I should be clear though; latent learning won’t work if you don’t lay a good foundation and revisit the exercises from time to time, but if you just hammer away at the problem for days on end, you never give your dog the chance to just think about it.  So often I have watched a dog come along very quickly after they have had a few days off, if they have had a good solid exposure to the things you are teaching first.  If they don’t have a solid exposure, then they don’t make those leaps.  Latent learning is especially important for the intermediate and advanced dogs; they have a lot of education and learning under their belts and to deny them the chance to use that experience to support what they are learning by reflecting is really unfair.

So how do you know that you have done enough foundation work and you just need to leave it alone?  To begin with, this is most applicable in training of more complex, chained behaviours.  If you have been doing your foundational work with sit, down, stay, target with the nose, target with the paw and so on, then when you start putting together chains you may notice that your dog slows down a bit in his learning.  Work on something for ten minutes and then give it a break.  Work on something that the dog is already really good at for a few minutes.  Then come back to what you were working on to begin with.  Just this little break may allow your dog to regroup and be more successful.  If that doesn’t happen, leave the whole thing for a couple of days.  Come back to it when you and your dog are fresh again.  If you still aren’t successful, leave the whole thing for a couple of days and then come back to it again with fresh eyes and a fresh start.

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Teaching a dog to jump onto an obstacle to do a trick can be broken down into a number of steps. In this image we can see one person helping the dog to balance while the other person holds a toy for the dog to focus on. Helping the dog learn the parts of the behaviour gives him the foundation to hold a stand stay on the object later on. The dog will put the parts of the behaviour together over time.

In the days between when you introduce an exercise, and when you reintroduce the exercise, review in your own mind to make sure you haven’t skipped steps or become so focused on the goal of the exercise that you haven’t reinforced the foundational work sufficiently that it will make sense to the dog.  The time you take away from the training session will benefit you too!  It gives you a chance to reflect on and analyse your training, to form questions to ask your dog when you get back to it.  Down time is really important to good training for both you and your dog.

The one caveat about using latent learning is that there is probably an optimal time for each learner to leave the learning alone, and that time is probably different from individual to individual.  If you wait too long between sessions, you risk that the learner will forget the foundations you have worked on.  My general plan is to make a mental map that will allow me to help the dog find the way through the process of obtaining the skills towards an end behaviour.  It might look something like this:

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This is how I think of teaching a compound behaviour to a dog. I like to think about all the foundation behaviours, and then about grouping them into chunks and finally putting them all together. This is of course a very simplified version of the process for scent discrimination with a retrieve!

When you make a map of where you want to go in training, it is easier to see where you are going and where you are going wrong.  I might teach the Foundation Behaviours months before I work on the next level of training.  I might review the Foundation Behaviours in the weeks ahead of working on the next level.  Then I might introduce the “Two Steps to Glue Together” as two different behaviours and work on that for a few days.  Then I might leave it alone for a couple of days or even a week.  Then I might go back and see how the dog is doing with that second step.  If he is not getting the behaviours, then I might review the Foundation Behaviours again and try the next level behaviours a second time.  Then I might let it sit for a while again.  When the dog is able to give m the second level of behaviours easily, then I might introduce the end behaviour.  At this point in training some dogs get the idea right away and some of them need to try it a few times before they get it and a good number of dogs need to let the idea sit for a week or two.  I just keep revisiting success and then come back to the more difficult step or stage later until the dog puts the pieces together.

Latent learning can feel like a giant leap of faith.  It can feel like you are not really training at all, but with advanced dogs, it can really make the whole training process easier.  With my advanced students in our drop in classes, I often recommend that they attend one or two advanced skills classes each week and then one or two regular levels classes each week.  By training this way they can ping pong around the more difficult behaviours and let the power of latent learning work for them.  Wait a minute.  Let the dog think.  Reflect on your work.  Are there holes to fill?  Pecking away at the problem with breaks of days between is often the most effective way to train, and it is a whole lot more fun than getting to the point where you want to drop the printer or get frustrated with your dog.

 

WAIT A MINUTE!

COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES

This is my blog on the mystery, mastery and amazement of muzzles.  I love muzzles.  Each one of my dogs has always had their own muzzle and when we go to the vet, we almost always have our own muzzle with us.  In fact the last time I was at the emergency vet I didn’t have time to grab a muzzle and the vet was completely surprised.  Do my dogs NEED the muzzles?  To be completely honest, I don’t know.  I would never ask my vet to find out the hard way!  My veterinarian spent many years after high school amassing a huge amount of knowledge to be the best animal doctor he could be, and I don’t think it is the vet’s job to avoid being bitten; it is his job to give my dog the best medical care possible, and my part in the deal is to make his job as easy as possible.

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This is one of my dogs, D’fer, having his foot looked at. He had a very deep laceration and the vet needed to have a look. You can tell that he is pretty stoic by the look on his face, but he was willing to co-operate. He was wearing his muzzle not because I thought that he would bite the vet, but because I don’t want to take the chance that this could happen.

A muzzle has even saved one of my dog’s lives once.  When Bear was about 14 he got sick; he was so sick that we booked an appointment to euthanize him.  We took him into the vet’s office and the vet needed to listen to his heart.  The key to getting a good listen to a dog’s heart is to prevent him from panting, and when dogs are distressed, they often pant heavily.  After about ten minutes of trying to hold Bear’s mouth shut, and he getting more and more wound up, the vet said “I am sorry, but I cannot hear your dog’s heart today but I don’t think we need to put him to sleep.  If only I could hear his heart, I could help him.  I asked why we didn’t just put a muzzle on him and the vet’s jaw dropped.  He thought that since I was a dog trainer, I would be very offended if he suggested that.  Just the opposite.  I pulled Bear’s muzzle out of my pocket and put it on.  He stopped panting and in fact relaxed a bit because we were doing something he was familiar with.  His heart was healthy and we were able to get a simple blood test that told us that he had Lyme disease.  With treatment, he lived another 18 months.

The fact is that although my dogs are all trained to accept all sorts of handling and frightening situations, if they are really truly and deeply afraid or in pain, they might bite.  Muzzles prevent bites, plain and simple.  My vet is an intelligent, well educated professional and his job is to help my dog to stay healthy, and to resolve health problems when my dog gets sick.  My vet’s job is not to put himself at risk of getting bitten.

I regularly work with dogs with serious behaviour problems including aggression.  I have had more than one student come to class with a dangerously aggressive dog who has already injured someone and be reluctant to muzzle their dog.  More than once a client has said to me “you are the dog trainer, don’t you know how to handle the dog without a muzzle?”  The expectation seems to be that I have some magic that will protect me when handling a dangerous dog.  I am good, but I am not magic! 

Close up of a dog muzzled
This is a groomer’s muzzle. They are inexpensive, easy to obtain, and easy to fit. When teaching a dog to wear a muzzle, this kind of a muzzle can really help your dog to learn that wearing a muzzle is fun because it is easy to give treats through it.

When I worked a service dog, I often had to travel.  When I was on an airplane or a train, I always carried a cloth groomer’s muzzle in my briefcase.  More than once my briefcase was searched and the agent would find the muzzle and ask me what it was for.  In the event of an accident where I needed to be evacuated, I wanted to be prepared that I could muzzle my dog if transport might be difficult.  I always try and plan for every contingency possible and one of those contingencies is that I might need to be carried out of an airplane on a stretcher, and my dog might need to be lifted up by someone he didn’t know.  A muzzle makes that much safer for the rescuer, which makes it much more likely that my dog would be saved in an emergency.

So how do I get my dogs accustomed to muzzles?  I start early for sure!  When my puppies are very young, I will sometimes feed them out of a coffee cup to teach them that they can take treats out of a confined space.  Then I move on to yoghurt containers as they grow, and smear peanut butter or some other soft gooey food item on the bottom.  When my dogs start seeing a yoghurt container as an opportunity to get their faces into something yummy, I cut a small hole in the bottom of the yoghurt container, and duct tape an elastic to make a head strap on the wide mouth.  I smear something in the bottom, and when the puppy is licking away, I slip the elastic strap over his head.  The elastic should be fairly loose to start with.  And then it is a quick step to shoving treats in the front of the muzzle.  Puppies think this sort of a handling game is lots of fun.  If the puppy fusses about the elastic or the yoghurt container, I just don’t pop the head strap over his head until the pup is really confident about the whole thing, and try again in a few days. 

Once the puppy, or sometimes the older dog, is happy about having the loose elastic strap around his head, and is not bothering the yoghurt container, then I switch to a regular muzzle.  My favourite brand of muzzle is still the jafco (https://www.jafcomuzzles.com/ ), but I also use a groomer’s muzzle for training; they are easier to carry in my pocket and they are the type of muzzle that the veterinarian will likely have.  I put the muzzle on loosely, and feed through the front.  I keep doing this until the puppy or dog is happy about the procedure.  From there it is fairly easy to get a puppy to accept the head strap being tightened.  In my experience, dogs accept the jafco very easily, and once I can tighten the head strap, I make sure that my dog has lots of chances to engage in fun activities such as playing with friends while wearing his muzzle. 

Once my dogs understand how to wear a muzzle and once they are relaxed and happy about going for a walk while wearing one, the key is to keep that skill fluent.  You have to practice regularly.  In my house, we sometimes have happy muzzle day on Mondays.  Happy muzzle day is the day that you get to play muzzle games, or go for an off leash walk, or play with your friends while wearing your muzzle.

simple muzzle training
Here is my handout outlining how to get a dog started on muzzle training.

Muzzles are a little bit like shoes for babies.  Babies don’t like wearing shoes.  They don’t enjoy having their feet confined.  Dogs and puppies don’t like having their faces confined either!  If you take the time to properly train your dog to wear a muzzle, then your dog is not going to fuss when he needs to do so.  Additionally, puppies who are taught to wear a muzzle properly rarely mind wearing a head halter unless you put a lot of pressure on the leash when using the head halter.  That is a topic for a whole other blog though!

COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES