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

WHAT’S THE POINT?

For those of you who know me well, you likely know that I don’t really enjoy repetitious drilling.  I am pretty sure that most of our animal learners don’t either.  I had a riding coach who once told me “you got the move right, why are you practicing what you already know?” and I think she had a good point.  Once you have mastered the behaviour, what exactly is the point of practicing it over and over and over again until it becomes stale and boring for your animal learner?

For me, this is one of the real challenges to training young puppies.  The early skills that you have to teach puppies are important in order to build a solid training history, but once my puppy has a solid grasp on them, I want to move on.  I DO train my puppies of course, and I encourage others to spend the time with their young naïve dogs teaching them the foundation skills that they will need too, but it is not my most fun training time.  If I could just install sit, down, touch, go to mat, stay, come when called and you control the click as a little program without doing the work I probably would so that I could get on with the stuff that is more fun.

Miniature Poodle Puppy
Teaching a young dog that click means treat and that they can control the click is an important part of foundational training, but clicking and treating hundreds of times would be tedious and is unnecessary.

Here is the problem with dogs who have been in training for a few months.  Most dogs get to the point where the foundation behaviours are known and they aren’t much fun for the dog any more!  Sit?  Got it.  Not worth the kibble any more!  This sequence is not an uncommon sight in my classrooms.  The dog has learned the behaviour, and the owner then asks for that behaviour over and over and over again.  The dog knows how to do it, and he has gotten to the point where asking for it, drilling it and repeating it leads the dog to start to mentally ask “what’s the point?”  I will point out that he is not articulating that in words, but from what I can see an awful lot of dogs don’t want to keep practicing things just because you want them to do it.  At this point in training one of two things needs to happen.  Either the trainer needs to start to move the training along, or the trainer needs to start to apply the behaviour to something that makes sense to the dog!  Both strategies are useful.

So let’s look at sit.  If you have a young dog who knows how to sit, you can start to make that more challenging to the dog right away.  It isn’t difficult.  I like to make a mental list of all the places I have asked my puppy to do this.  In the kitchen?  Yup.  The living room?  Yup.  The bathroom?  Oooohhh!  That one is trickier!  I keep adding rooms until my dog is able to sit in any room in the house.  Then I start to add in places outside.  Front yard, back yard, on the porch, the driveway, the sidewalk, the park.  When I run out of places, I add in objects.  Can you sit on a mat?  A cushion?  That one is tricky!  A boulder? A stump?  A wall?  A bale of hay or straw? In a puddle?  The technical term for this process is generalizing.  I am generalizing the dog’s ability to perform the behaviour to a wide variety of places and contexts.  You can think of this as the Green Eggs and Ham of dog training. 

There are other ways of generalizing too.  Can your pup dog the same behaviour no matter who asks for it?  When your dog is able to follow your directions in a number of venues, will he follow it for your brother?  Your daughter?  Your best friend?  Your trainer?  I am looking to train every cue such that my dog will follow that cue anytime, anywhere, for anyone, and that means getting very specific about what I am teaching.  I cannot expect my dog to follow the instructions if he doesn’t know them and if he hasn’t had the chance to follow a cue in new places and with other people, I cannot expect him to be successful.

Still though, these are just foundational behaviours, and after practicing sit here, there and everywhere, my dog is going to start asking that all important question “what’s the point?”  Why should he sit?  What if he doesn’t want to?  What if it isn’t worth a piece of kibble?  I am willing to do many things, but some of the time, I just don’t feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if you offer me money or some other incentive to do it.  the caveat is that if I think there is a good reason to do something, I will do that boring little thing, often for no reward.  This is the important point to remember when our dogs hit that point where they have mastered the foundation behaviours but those behaviours don’t have context.  When there is no point to doing the task, the dog may begin to refuse to play the game.

So how do we give context to behaviours?  Simply put, we stop rewarding them with food, play or touch.  We start to put the behaviour into other activities.  Most dogs willingly sit for dinner; that is part of the ritual and routine for many dogs, so it makes sense to them to just do it.  In fact, you can really annoy some dogs by offering them a treat before you put down the bowl.  The reward for the behaviour is to get to eat dinner, however most of the time, the dog is just thinking about what the routine might be for getting to the meal.  The same goes for dogs who are required to sit before doors open, or who have to sit before they get their leashes on.  The sit just fits into the routine, and it has meaning to the dog. 

Dog at summer
Once your dog knows how to sit, you should start asking him to do that in a wide variety of places and conditions. Just because he can sit in the kitchen doesn’t mean that he will necessarily sit on the front lawn, in the park or at the vet’s. And just because he can sit on the floor doesn’t mean that he will sit on a mat, on a chair, on a stool or on a low wall. Generalizing the behaviour means that your dog will do the behaviour anywhere, anytime and no matter who asks him to do it!

We can go one better than that though.  We can start making games for ourselves with our dogs that involve the foundation behaviours that get so boring so quickly.  Using sit as our example again, we can start asking our dog to sit before we do things together, such as fetch, search or find me (or even better, find someone else!).  The sit becomes embedded in other activities and gains meaning as part of other fun activities.  Now the dog has a reason to perform the behaviour and that makes the behaviour itself much more meaningful to the dog. 

You can kill the joy of the sit if it is the only behaviour you integrate this way however.  If you only embed the sit, it is a little like playing scrabble where you only get four letters, a, e, s, and t.  There are a very limited number of words you can spell with those four letters and if you try and play scrabble with these four letters, it is going to be a tedious and boring game.  You might choose to play that way at first in order to teach someone the concept of the game, however in the end, you will get tired of the limits set upon you by having so few letters to use.  As your dog gains more behaviours, you can start to play the same games with more “letters” or behaviours.  Now, instead of only having sit to insert into your activities, you can make the required behaviour a surprise.  You start making dinner for your dog, and before putting it down, you ask your dog to lie down, or sit, or touch your hand with his nose.  When your dog gives you the behaviour you ask for, you can give him his dinner.  In this way, behaviours become letters in the infinite game of training scrabble.

Cute little Shiba Inu dog sitting on doormat at home
When there is context to a behaviour, dogs are more willing to do the behaviour. Many dogs know that if they sit by the door, it is quite likely that someone will open the door for them. Once the dog has the context for the behaviour you need not reinforce the behaviour with a treat; the door opening is certainly a reward, however, it is also part of the communication that we share with our dogs as part of the activity, and this is all part and parcel of having a well trained dog. When he understands the behaviour in context and the behaviour is part of the formula we don’t need to reward it every single time.

You can in fact extend this game into more and more complex activities that become meaningful for you and your dog.  At Dogs in the Park, we run a games class each week for the dogs who have passed the foundation behaviours needed in order to play.  We play things such as musical chairs (integrating leash manners, sits and downs into an activity), leap frog (go to mat) and recall relays (coming when called over and through distractions).  By participating in group activities where the behaviours are applied instead of just drilled dogs become more willing and eager to perform those behaviours that have become stale and boring when you just drill them. 

It is important to note that advanced behaviours can suffer the same fate as those foundational ones; drill the agility tunnel or the perfect front in obedience for too long and your previously enthusiastic dog will start to ask “what’s the point?”  Once your dog asks that question about behaviours you have worked hard to polish, it doesn’t take long for an advanced dog to start asking that same question about more mundane behaviours too.

WHAT’S THE POINT?

MAGNETIC PERSONALITY

Every day when I go to work, I see people’s dogs who decide that I am more interesting than their handlers are.  It can be very frustrating to my clients when they are struggling with training their dog to do something and I approach and the dog will disengage from them and come to me.  It can seem like the dog just doesn’t care about what their family member might want, but really does care about what I think.  This can be incredibly frustrating for the dog owner.  Understanding what might be happening is really helpful.

I like to think of dogs as being the world’s best mathematicians.  When you get up in the morning and you ask your dog to get out of your way, and he does, but you don’t acknowledge your dog’s behaviour in any way, he takes that as a mark in the “you didn’t reward me column”.  Then you ask your dog to sit by the door before you open it, he sits and you open the door and the dog makes a mark in the “you rewarded me column”.  All day long, the dog is keeping track; you asked me to lie down while you picked up the papers off the floor…no reward, one more mark in the no reward column.  You asked me to sit to put on the leash, and then we go to on a walk…mark in the reward column.  You asked me sit for a bowl of food and I get my food…mark in the reward column.  You ask me to come away from play and stop doing fun stuff….mark in the no reward column.  At the end of the day, they add up the columns and work them out against each other and consider how many things they were asked to do that brought no consequences, how many things brought good consequences, how many things brought bad consequences, and how many things avoided unpleasant experiences.  And then there is your dog trainer.

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Sit is a behaviour that gets a lot of reinforcement so it is a really strong behaviour and your dog will most likely do what you ask if you ask him to sit!  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

I walk up to you in your very first class and your dog tries to jump on me.  Quickly, I step out of harm’s way.  One to the unpleasant consequences column.  The dog sits and I crouch down and greet.  The dog tries jumping up again.  I step away.  The dog sits and I greet.  The dog does the math and comes up with an interesting answer.  Sitting is a behaviour that gets attended to, and jumping up loses my attention.  Hmmm.  Maybe this is a trick!  Some dogs only have to try the equation once or twice to get the right answer.  Some dogs have to ask over and over and over and over again, but they keep track, and when it comes to me, they learn that the math is always adding up to the same thing.  Sitting gets attention and jumping up doesn’t.

Many weeks later, your dog has figured out a lot of things and been passed off on a variety of tasks on our chart and I walk up to you.  Your dog sits as I approach and disengages from you.  This often happens if the dog is in the middle of something that is confusing to him.  Am I magic?  No!  I don’t even really have a magnetic personality.  I just have predictable outcomes.

I hear from my clients all the time that they feel the need to be consistent.  Consistency in dog training is a bit baffling because people are already consistent.  Pay attention over the next day and figure out some of the ways you are consistent.  Which foot do you put your sock on first when you get dressed?  It will almost always be the same one.  Which hand reaches for the cupboard door?  Again, it will almost always be the same one.  When you are putting your dog’s leash on, which hand grabs the collar and which hand holds the leash clip?  Most people will consistently do these little tasks with the same hands or feet over and over again.  We are very consistent.

Where people get confused is in figuring out what consequences they want to apply to behaviours that they ask of their dogs.  And notice something about my example above.  If you go back and reread, you will notice that sit gets rewarded a lot, by a lot of different things.  At least in Canada where I live, sit is a behaviour that most dogs will readily offer even if you aren’t going to reward it, because sit is rewarded more often than almost anything else.  We are already consistent, what we need to be is more aware of our contingencies and decide what we want to do when a behaviour happens.

What makes me a more magnetic personality is in part that I have decided what contingency I want to offer for each behaviour.  If a dog jumps up, I step out of his way.  I do this reliably.  I am practiced at it.  When I see the paws lift off the ground, I don’t have to think about being consistent because I have already decided what I will do, and I do it.  If the dog sits, I greet.  I don’t have to think about that either because I have decided and I am ready to do that too.

Most dogs are really good at sit because we have chosen that particular behaviour as the “please, may I” cue.  If you have your leash in your hand and you don’t put the leash on until the dog sits, then you have taught your dog to say “Please, may I go outside with you?”  If you are standing near the door and your dog sits, you open the door in response to his “Please, may I go out in the yard?” and if you don’t let your dog out of the car until he is sitting, you have responded to his “Please, may I get out of the car?” behaviour.

How does this apply to training your dog?  Keeping in mind that the dog is a great mathematician, and he is noticing all the time what pays and what costs, you can predetermine what you are willing to pay for and what you are willing to not pay for in your daily interactions.  A not very well kept secret in the world of dog training is that every interaction is a training moment between you and the dog.  Often when I approach a new client, I may pull out my clicker and help with things like click and then treat.  The dog notices that when I click, it causes you to treat.  Many dogs must think I have some sort of magic power over you!  I click, you treat.  I click, you treat.  The math on that one approaches 100% because if you don’t treat, I prompt you to treat.  When the dog notices that I click and you treat, then when I approach, if your timing is off, or if you are clicking for random behaviours, the dog will often look at me for information; I am sure they are thinking “please, just explain this to her one more time, and then she will understand”.

Not only can I make treats come out of the dog’s human by clicking, my timing is usually better than my student’s timing.  This is normal and natural; I have been professionally training dogs and teaching clicker training for almost twenty years.  I see the thin slices of behaviour that contribute towards the end goal.  If I am helping someone to teach their dog to touch a target, I might start out clicking the dog for flicking his eyes towards the target, where the handler might only click if the dog actually touches the target.  So I am not being consistent at all; I just have a better sense of the trail of crumbs to get the dog to success.  This also means that if I am helping out, the dog gets clicked and treated more often when I am there than when the handler is alone.  This points to the need on the part of the trainer to understand what they are training and what the steps are to get their dogs to success.

So what is it that makes me magnetic to my clients dogs?  It is pretty simple really.  I have a plan for my interactions.  I know what I am going to do when the dog does something.  Believe it or not, dogs don’t actually behave randomly.  They behave in very predictable ways.  If you think they don’t, spend more time watching your dog and looking for links between events and your dog’s behaviour.

I am very aware of what the dog wants and what he wants to avoid.  If the dog is jumping up, it is usually in order to greet me; they want to get up close to my face.  If I step back, then his plan to greet me fails and he will try something else.  Knowing that he wants to greet me, I can use his desire to greet as a reward to increase the likelihood of him doing something that I like better and that is socially more appropriate.  I also know that dogs want to continue to interact with other dogs and people, that they like food, that they may enjoy chasing something, and that most of them don’t want to be hugged and a good number of them don’t enjoy being patted.  Knowing these things allows me to preplan a lot of different interactions so that I control the stuff the dog wants or wants to avoid.  Preplanning and awareness together make me very attractive to dogs.

When I want to teach a dog a new behaviour, I am aware of all the steps between not knowing the behaviour and understanding what the behaviour is and when to do it.  When I am teaching a dog to target something, I let the dog arrive at the behaviour through a series of baby steps towards that goal.  I teach the dog the pattern by capturing behaviours that happen in their entirety, such as sit or lie down, and then I manipulate the steps towards the end goal by thinking of all the little tiny amounts of behaviour that the dog does towards the end goal.  If I want a dog to target a spot on the wall with his nose, then I will start by clicking for glancing at the spot, and treat away from that spot so that he has to glance back to get me to click again.  Once the dog is glancing back towards the target reliably, then I will click for head turns towards the target and again treat away from the target so that he has to repeat head turning to get the click.  By teaching the behaviour as a series of steps I can develop very complex behaviours such as “if I am about to have a panic attack, could you please come over here and tell me about that so I can take my medications”.  Combining awareness of what the dog likes and avoids, preplanning, and divisions of steps towards an end goal helps a lot in making me magnetic towards my client’s dogs.

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Preplanning is important in training; if you are working on touch my hand with your nose, don’t change you mind half way through training and click for lying down or doing a cute trick.  What you click is what you keep in clicker training!  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

When you are training, you cannot suddenly change your mind about what the plan is.  When I am using the clicker, I stick to the plan.  I don’t click the dog for behaviours that aren’t in the plan.  This is perhaps the biggest problem people have with clicker training.  They change their mind about what they are working on in mid stream.  If you are working on targeting and the dog offers you a down, don’t click that!  That isn’t what you were working on!  When you click you give the dog a unit of information that says “that thing there is what you were working on, and that thing there is part of the end behaviour”.  If you click for glancing at a target but you were working on down earlier and he offers the down and you click it, then the dog will be confused about what it is that you are actually working on together.

The final part of this is that I don’t live with your dog.  I am novel, which makes me interesting to most dogs.  I never ask the dog for a behaviour without some sort of feedback to the dog that confirms or denies what I was asking for.  I am really no more consistent than anyone else, I just know what I am going to do when a behaviour occurs.  That makes me magnetic to the dog.  You can be magnetic too!

MAGNETIC PERSONALITY

OFF LEASH WITH REACTIVE DOGS

 

Originally posted in June 2013

In my last blog about walking puppies off leash (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/26/off-leash/ )I had a few comments on the Dogs in the Park Facebook page about how this made owners of reactive dogs cringe.  One respondent said that my last blog was too nuanced for beginner trainers, and could lead to people letting their dogs off leash in places where they might encounter her large strong dog reactive dog.  Let me just excerpt a couple of sentences from that blog to make certain that if you are reading about going off leash with your puppy you are clear about my intent

First:

“The pinnacle of my relationship with my dogs is being able to take them off leash and walk with them anytime, anywhere.  Being ABLE to do so is different from choosing to do so when it would not be in their best interest, but being able to do so is magic.”

In case people are not clear, being able to take my dogs off leash implies that I will take more into account than just removing the leash.  Choosing to do so when it is dangerous is not my intent.  There are a number of issues related to taking a puppy off leash, and the first of those issues is choosing to do so only when it is in your pup’s best interest.

Second:

“The more new places I can go, the better in my opinion, but I have to keep a bunch of things in mind.  I don’t want to run into other dogs, especially dogs I don’t know.  That could expose my puppy to diseases I don’t want him to catch, or to behaviours I don’t want him to experience.  I also don’t want to run into the stools of unknown dogs because I want to protect my young pup from worms.”

Again, if you are unclear, I want you to steer clear of the dogs who might be reactive or who might carry diseases or who might be upset by your off leash puppy.  If I don’t know your dog, I don’t let my youngster off leash.  I am not as worried about what my pup might do to your dog in this case, but I am worried about what your dog might teach my puppy.  If you have a reactive dog, I don’t want my puppy to learn anything from him, and so it is the responsibility of the dog owner to act in their dog’s best interest, which means not bringing my pup into a place where your dog might get upset and my pup might be frightened.

Third:

“I don’t want to run into predators either.  Hawks and owls can easily take a young small puppy.  Coyotes, wolves and bears are also a concern in some parts of Canada.  Even foxes can be a problem and will take a small dog if they stumble across it.  Water can be another natural hazard to be aware of.  About four years ago in Guelph, a young pup was playing on the ice and fell in and drowned.  Fast water, deep water, ice and hidden water are all things I keep in mind when I am taking my puppies out for their first excursions into the natural world.”

This advice could also include roads, cars, bikes, and anything else in the environment that could cause harm to my puppy.  In the last blog I was very specific about the owner’s responsibility to keep their dog safe.  Now I want to address that same issue with reactive dogs in mind.

When you live with a reactive dog, you have a huge responsibility to keep your dog below threshold.  By keeping your dog below threshold, you are taking active steps to avoid situations where your dog is not going to go off and become reactive.  If your dog is reactive to children, then please, don’t go to the local school yard or playground in the name of training your dog.  This is neither fair to your dog or to the children you are exposing him to.

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Allowing your dog to get triggered is not only unfair and unsafe to the public at large it is very unfair to your dog.  As the owner of a reactive dog it is your job to prevent this from happening by choosing your walk locations both on and off leash carefully.  The more often that your dog is triggered, the more he is going to behave this way.  Image credit: fouroaks / 123RF Stock Photo

If your dog is reactive to other dogs, then taking him through a park where other dogs run is irresponsible, even if it is against the law for those dogs to be running there.  If this sounds like I am condoning dog owners breaking the law let me assure you I am not.  I would really like everyone to follow their local leash laws, but the fact is that people ARE letting their dogs run illegally and if you walk your reactive dog into that situation, then he is going to react.  You are your dog’s advocate and he doesn’t know what the risks are when choosing your walking route.

In my opinion, off leash activities in natural areas are important not only for dogs but also for children.  The child who has never set foot in a natural area is much poorer for the lack.  As a former outdoor educator, I am keenly tuned in to what happens when we isolate ourselves from nature, and the results of children being isolated from nature are huge.  This is also true for dogs.  So what do you do when you have a reactive dog who is unable to get out to walk off leash in the natural world?

The first thing is to get out a map, or open up Google Earth and take a close look at your neighbourhood.  What is the closest green area on the map?  In many suburban environments, you will now find causeways between housing developments that allow water to run off naturally.  These green spaces are often un-used and available to bring your reactive dog to for exercise and stimulation.  The areas under hydro allowances are also often available.  Then there areas of crown or state land that are open to the public but little used.  When you look at Google Earth, you will find green in very unexpected places.  One of the most common places that I find green in urban areas is abutting industrial basins.

Once you have looked at the map, go visit without your dog.  Really.  This is the important preplanning that you must do to avoid the puppies I am sending out to do normal off leash walking.  When you go, spend time looking for evidence of other humans in the area.  Yes, there are stray dogs and that is a risk, but you can often find areas in very urban settings where there is green space available to walk along, where few people go.  You are looking for things like fresh litter (the semi decayed and crushed water bottle that is half covered in mud is not recent; the whole shiny chip bag that has been stepped upon is), footprints, bike tire prints, pawprints, and crushed vegetation.  If you are finding a lot of fresh evidence mark that location as a possible, but not likely place.  If you actually meet people there, then cross that location off the map.  Visit several places, and if you find one where there is no evidence of people, you have scored a walking area.  If you have found some places with some evidence of people walking there, visit a few times and see if you can determine when you can avoid people.

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This is an excellent site for working with a reactive dog.  I can see if there are other people or dogs in the distance and take steps to avoid problems while allowing my dog the opportunity to walk in a very normal way.  If I am concerned about my dog biting, I will muzzle him even if I don’t expect to meet anyone.  Muzzling is more preplanning you can do to help your dog have a successful off leash experience.  Preplanning is all about making sure that if it could go wrong, it doesn’t.  I teach all dogs including non reactive dogs to wear a muzzle.  In this case, Eco was wearing a muzzle because he was on our reactive dog walk where all the dogs wear muzzles as a safety precaution.  I also teach a rock solid down at a distance so that I can put the brakes on if I need to do so.    Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

This link leads to the map of where I hold my reactive dog walks.  http://tinyurl.com/jvpuy8e . Over the four years I have been walking there with dogs with behaviour problems I have never met a person or dog there, and yet it is right in a neighbourhood full of hundreds of people who could walk there if they wanted to do so.  If you look at the “A” marked on the map, that is where Dogs in the Park is, so this is a short three minute walk from the training hall.  I visited this location every Sunday for three weeks before moving my walk there; I wanted to be certain that I would not run into people with my crew of reactive dogs.  Preplanning pays off.

Not only must you preplan where you are going to take your dog, but you must preplan what you are going to do.  If you are the owner of a reactive dog, you have a responsibility to always attend to that dogs’ behaviour.  If you are not able to attend to him at all times, then you may not be able to work with your dog off leash.  While walking your reactive dog off leash, you need to be aware that on public property, anyone could show up at any time and you need to be aware of what is happening around you and be ready to call your dog back to you and leave if it is no longer in your dog’s best interest to have him off leash.  Keep in mind this isn’t about your right to do this activity; this is all about your responsibility to YOUR dog.  Being responsible to YOUR dog keeps my dog safe.  This is not an activity to do with your kids, or when you have a head ache; this is an activity to do when you can give your whole attention to what you are doing.

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This is our off leash reactive dog walk called the Good Dog Walk.  All of the dogs have behaviour problems of one sort or another.  Everyone is paying attention to the dogs in order to assure that we can prevent any problems from happening.  If you are unable to attend to your dog, then don’t take him out!  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

If the area is not fenced and you think your dog might bolt, then dragging a long line is a great idea.  30 metres of long line dragging will allow you to catch your dog at any time, but allow the line to drag.  Don’t try and hold onto it.  Use a piece of bright tape to make off 10, 20 and 25 metres, so that you can see when your dog is getting far enough away that you should take action.  Call first and if he does not come, step on the line.  I like to call dogs when they are at about twenty metres and stop them by stepping on the line at 25 metres if they haven’t come.  This teaches the dog not to stray, but doesn’t interfere with his normal and natural behaviour.

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Long lines are great tools to help your dog to stay close to you while he is learning to work off leash.  Notice that this dog is calm and under control?  This is the behaviour you want before letting your dog go and explore.  If your dog is straining at the leash and staring at things, then wait till he is calm and relaxed before starting out.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

Just what do I want the dog to do?  Pretty much whatever he wants.  If he wants to sniff around, let him.  If he wants to lie in a puddle, allow that too.  This may be the first time that your reactive dog can just choose to do what makes him happy.  Most of the time when we are working with reactive dogs we are micromanaging what they are doing to avoid them going over threshold.  You see another dog in the distance?  You ask the reactive dog to look at you and not engage in the other dog, and then ask him to sit or lie down.  Every action that your dog does may have been micromanaged, possibly for years.  This level of micromanagement may keep your dog from going over threshold, but it sure doesn’t help him to be relaxed and confident and that is part of what being off leash gives us.

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Although you want to have control over the situation, off leash walks should be an opportunity for your reactive dog to do things he wants to do; picking things up, sniffing and looking where he wants to look are all things that he cannot do when you are micromanaging a walk on a leash.  Micromanagement makes reactivity worse, not better.  If your reactive dog has dog friends, taking them for walks together is even better because your dog will learn through social facilitation what is safe and what is dangerous.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

The other thing that you must do is move.  Your dog should get ahead of you, engage in the environment and then lag behind.  You should encourage checking in, but you should also be checking what interests your dog.  There is a huge difference between the conversation that you have when you have a reactive dog and you are orchestrating every little motion, and the conversation you have when you go over to look at the raccoon fur that is snagged on a branch that your dog has found.  Developing a two way conversation with your reactive dog can go a long way to helping him to relax and enjoy himself.  In my opinion, this is an essential step in success with a reactive dog.

In truly urban environments it can be very difficult to find a truly natural safe environment to explore with your dog.  I have had good success with these dogs in taking them to places like blind alleys and allowing them to explore the local dumpster on a long line.  The opportunity to be in a place where they are not going to be startled and be able to just smell things and explore things and toilet when they want to do so is essential to good mental health for all of us, and when we cannot get to a rural place, sometimes we have to compromise.  Always we have to keep in mind our responsibility to keep our reactive dogs below threshold, not only because of the risk to others, but because every time that a reactive dog goes off, it is a penny in the bank account of anxiety and frustration, which only leads to more reactivity.

As a final word, I would like to mention that walking your reactive dog down the street on leash, through the triggers that will set him off is at best a fool’s errand that will never result in the relaxed companion you are aiming for.  So where do you walk?  If you have a vehicle, my best place for leash walking is a grocery store parking lot.  You will see few other dogs, it is a large area where you can see people approaching and there are loads of places you can duck into in order to avoid triggers.  Walking your reactive dog should be an exercise in developing confidence and relaxation for both you and your dog, and if you are constantly hyper vigilant to the things that might set your dog off, you are never going to teach him to accept his triggers; at best you are going to teach him to trust that you are his best early warning system.  At worst you are going to teach him that hyper vigilance is the normal state of being.

OFF LEASH WITH REACTIVE DOGS