THE ANATOMY OF A REACTION

Originally posted in April 2013

People often talk about their dogs being reactive, but what does this mean?  What does it look like?  We throw around terms such as reactive, proactive, responsive and so on as though everyone should just “know” what that means, but often we don’t stop to think about what it really means to have a dog who is “reactive” and what we should do about it.

To begin with, let’s understand that every animal will and should startle at some things.  For some animals like my chessie, D’fer, a jet plane taking off is nothing to really bother with, and when he has been close by, this is nothing he is concerned about in the least.  He is the least reactive animal in my life at the moment.

Cute barking dog not aggressive on leash
This dog has noticed something that he is worried about. He is “reacting”, but we would only say he was reactive if his reaction was really out of line with the threat.

My horse Kayak on the other hand startles at many things.  Somethings she startles at are predictable.  She does not like motorcycles zipping by us; and when she startles, she will jump sideways and sidestep and sometimes buck a little bit.  Somethings she startles at are not at all predictable.  Rocks.  Large rocks startle Kayak.  The thing about rocks is that they don’t run around and jump out and say “boo”.  They are rocks.  But if she is walking calmly down a trail and she encounters a rock, she will often stop suddenly and stand still and if it is a particularly large rock she is prone to backing away from it.  The rock is on the horizon, and everything is going well until we reach about ten metres.  Ten metres from a large rock and she will sometimes startle.

Kayak doesn’t startle as much as some of the dogs I work with.  I was working with a dog today who over the course of an hour habituated to the room, the dogs barking in the next room, the toy dog on the floor and then he noticed my hat!  Yikes!  Hats probably eat dogs, or at least that is how he was behaving.  He didn’t just startle either, he shivered and he barked and he stared.  The dogs like this are dogs who baffle their owners because it can feel like he is busy acquiring new fears on the fly.  What I think often happens to these dogs is that they are so overwhelmed that as they become less aroused and overwhelmed, they start to notice more and more things to worry about.  Some of these dogs are highly visually reactive.  Some are highly sensitive to sounds.  I am betting that there are a number of dogs who are sensitive to smells, and I know that a lot of these dogs are also very sensitive to touch.

While I wouldn’t describe D’fer as reactive, he will notice things in his environment.  And although Kayak notices more things in her environment I wouldn’t call her reactive either.  Some of the dogs in my classes though absolutely ARE reactive; I would describe a dog who barks at leaves falling as reactive and when they don’t bounce back readily, I would consider them highly reactive.  All this brings me to “what is the anatomy of reactivity”.

15000085 - pack of stray dogs
All three dogs have noticed something. The dog in the very back is much more concerned than either of the other two. We would say that he is more reactive.

The first part of a reaction is before the reaction occurs, when the dog is calm.  With dogs who are stable and confident, this calm behaviour is when they look at the world and they are able to make accurate predictions about what is coming up.  Are all of the stimuli in the environment predictable?  Can they explore things that might be surprising?  Calm, confident dogs use this time to evaluate what they are seeing and what is happening around them, while reactive dogs might use this time to worry about things they don’t understand.  It is like they are always on a slow boil, anticipating bad things coming up.  Reactive dogs use this space between startling events to worry and think about the dangers inherent in the environment.  Most dogs fall somewhere in the middle; they don’t spend all of their time worrying about things that might go wrong, but they also don’t hang out not worrying at all either.

Once a stimulus has occurred that might be concerning, then you have one of two situations.  Either the dog is not at all worried about it and remains calm, or you have a reaction of some sort.  In the most extreme situations, you have a dog who barks and carries on and ascribes to the idea of “when in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout”.  The alternate side to this is the dog who experiences fear and shuts down.  The stimulus is frightening but his tactic is to shut down and go into that part of his brain that is related to self protection.  He may become quiet and unresponsive.  The common element to either of these reactions is that the dog is unable to follow a simple cue like sit or lie down.  When a reactive dog is presented with a stimulus and you ask him casually to do a behaviour he knows really, really well, if he is unable to do it the behaviour right away, then regardless of his apparent level of concern, he is over his threshold.

Once a dog has reacted, then the next thing to look at is what he does after the stimulus has been removed.  Does he immediately return to a calm state?  When you startle my mare Kayak, she is pretty quick to settle down; in less than five seconds she is usually back to her calm state.  D’fer is pretty unflappable and rarely startles, but if he is startled, he comes back to a calm state pretty much as soon as he recognizes whatever startled him.  Along the continuum of dogs I see on a daily basis we get everything from dogs who settle back down immediately to dogs who take hours or even days to really recover from even a mild surprise.

When working with dogs with behaviour problems it is essential that we are responsive to situations instead of being reactive.  The first step in success if having a plan.  Being proactive means preplanning everything that you have  control over.  Do you know what is on the other side of the closed door?  If not, can you check before you take your dog through it?  Do you know what the dog you see in the distance is likely to do when he greets your dog?  If not, can you avoid meeting him?  Do you know that the person you are handing your leash to will take as much care as you do in handling your dog?  If you don’t, can you ensure that you are not putting your dog into a situation where he might be at risk?

Being proactive actually means more than just preplanning.  It means always thinking about the possibilities without terrifying yourself.  It means taking reasonable care to avoid situations where your dog might go over the threshold and be triggered into a reactive state, and thinking about what your actions will cause in the environment around you.  It means being observant and figuring out what you can do to keep your dog’s wellbeing in the forefront.  Often it means doing things differently than you might otherwise do.

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Wargas was an Anatolian Shepherd Dog; a flock guardian. Flock guardians are supposed to be non reactive observers who can live within a herd of sheep. He was most happy to lie on the top of a boulder and watch while his buddies played and swam in the quarry. When someone approached he calmly got up to investigate, and decided that he didn’t need to bark because he knew the person. This is what a non reactive dog should do!

I learned about being proactive as most of us do; the hard way.  I had a dog named Crow, a German Shepherd who had never been off the cow farm he had been born onto until he was 7 months of age.  Crow was not extremely timid, but he also wasn’t overtly confident, and he was quite reactive.  He did have some quirks that were very difficult to live with.  He had a total fear of new flooring.  Crow would walk calmly and confidently on cement floors, grass and asphalt.  When I first brought him home, he trotted into my cement floored porch, and over the threshold into the kitchen where the floor was linoleum and promptly back peddled with all his might.  I carried him in and put him onto the hardwood floor and he stood stock still for about ten minutes before he dropped his head and sniffed it.  We had to repeat the ordeal to get him back out again.  It took Crow a solid two weeks to decide that my home with hardwood, linoleum and two different types of carpet would not eat him.  It was really sad and if I knew then what I know now, I would have approached the situation very differently.

Trains didn’t phase Crow, but people in long coats, people on bicycles and people playing musical instruments would send him into fits of barking.  Tractors, heavy machinery, cows, elk and deer were not a problem.  The shiny police motorcycle that was parked at an agricultural fair was terrifying.  The officer in a helmet was not a problem.  Over time, I was able to title Crow in Novice Obedience, but we could only show out of doors.  After the first indoor show I entered required him to walk over a parquet floor to get to the shiny tiled floor of the fair building it was held in, I didn’t feel I could ever do that to him again.  I did show him at the National German Shepherd Specialty mind you; they hold it on a concrete pad in a hockey arena and they bring in sod to cover the ground.

The kind of pre-planning and proactive thinking I had to learn to do with Crow was not just a day to day thing; it was also a minute to minute thing.  When I walked out of my house every day, I had to think about the weather (would there be people in long coats that I would need to be aware of?), and the time of year (would we encounter a parked motorcycle?) and the time of day (would the diverse group of university students who lived in the apartment building across the street be going to the bus, wearing a variety of coats and hats?), but I also had to think about the larger picture too. Did I really want to continue training Crow in Obedience when there were so many variables that I could not control when we showed?

Even though I learned to be very proactive with Crow, I could still from time to time run into huge issues.  Things might be going along just fine and then a sudden environmental change, or “something that Crow considered different and difficult” might appear and startle him.  I realize now that when I am faced with a dog or dogs who are reactive I have a mental check list that I run through that helps me a lot with helping my dog when this sort of a situation arises.

The first thing I ask myself is “Am I safe?”  I learned this in every first aid class I ever took.  If I am not safe, then I cannot help and I am better to get out of the way.  Recently, I was in a situation where my three horses were behaving unpredictably.  The weather was really bad, there was ice falling off the trees and the horses were frightened.  Frightened horses tend to bolt and although none of my horses would intend to hurt me, three horses running in a small paddock are not safe for the people.  I was in the paddock with them when I realized I was not safe.  Recognizing that I was in a dangerous situation, I chose to leave the horses.  Yes, they were at risk, but I couldn’t help them if I got hurt, so I got out.

Once I got to safety, I could think about what to do to help.  The second step I go through when I am working with reactive animals is to ask if they are safe.  In the situation above the horses definitely were not safe, and going back into their paddock was not a good idea.  I thought about things for a moment and decided to get a bucket of grain and the horses’ halters and I leaned over the gate in the shelter they have access to, and I was able to catch two of them and tie them to a wall.  Once I was safe, I could make sure the horses were safe.

Once two of the three horses were confined, the third horse stopped running around in the ice and the rain and the wind.  Then I put a riding helmet on so I wouldn’t get hurt by falling ice (keeping myself safe), and went around the paddock to another gate(avoiding getting the first two horses excited)  and caught the third horse.  I was able to safely catch the third horse.  Once all the horses were safe, I was able to think about the next step.

The third step is to ask myself if there is something in the environment that I can change.  Our shelter is small and the two horses I had tied in there would share it once there was room to do so.  I took the third horse and put her in the barn.  Then I went back around to where the first two horses were and let them loose so that they were safe for the night.

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I have large breed dogs. If I arrived at the dog park to see these three dogs playing, I would be pro-active and choose to not release my dogs to interact. Three small breed dogs, one toy and my German Shepherd would be a recipe for reactive behaviour on the part of one or all of the dogs!

Only once I had determined that I was safe, that the animals were safe, and that I had changed the environment to make it as safe for the horses as possible could I begin to address the behaviour of these frightened animals.  When everyone was safe, I spent some time with the most frightened of the horses (the one I put indoors for the evening), grooming her and soothing her.

For clarity, the steps are as follows:

  1.       Ask myself “Am I safe?”  If I am not, get myself to safety.
  2.       Ask myself if my animal is safe.  If he is not, address that issue next.
  3.       Check to see if there is any way to make a change in the environment to make it safer for the animal.
  4.    Address the behavioural needs of the animal.

So let me run through a possible situation.  You are out in the park with your dog on leash.  Your dog is reactive to other dogs and you see a loose dog on the horizon.  He is still at a distance, but he is running towards you and your dog.  What can you do?

  1. Are you safe? At the moment you notice the dog, yes.  This means without doing anything else you can go to the next step.
  2. Is your dog safe? At the moment, yes.  If he knows how to lie down between your feet, now is a time when you might ask him to do this so that he will stay safe.
  3. What can you change in the environment? If your dog will do a reliable down stay, you can put yourself between him and the dog.  You could throw hands full of treats at the approaching dog.  You could call out and see if an owner will appear.  You can even yell at the dog “You come here you bad, bad, bad dog!”  Many dogs will run away if they have heard that line in the context of being punished!  Once the dog has either left or been caught or been scared off our an owner has appeared, you can go to the final step.
  4. Address your dog’s behaviour. If he is lying down calmly because you have drilled him on this sort of situation, you can probably give him a pile of treats and then continue on your way.  If he is upset, you may need to stop and do some massage, or it could be that the best thing you can do for your reactive dog is get him home to a safe, quiet crate.

Living with dogs and other animals who are reactive can be really, really challenging.  It can be extremely difficult to predict where the next motorcycle is going to come from, or where the next giant dog is going to come from, or where the next falling leaf will occur.  With good proactive handling and a plan, you can often decrease or minimize the unpleasant consequences that occur when frightening things happen.  The more you can decrease the impact of the unpredictable situations, the easier it is to implement a successful classical conditioning program.

THE ANATOMY OF A REACTION

HE HAS A MIND OF HIS OWN!

I hear this statement all the time when people are talking about dogs who are doing things that the people don’t like. I have begun to ask “whose mind did you think he would have?” “You have a mind of our own” has become a statement that people use as a way of putting someone down for holding an opinion different from our own, or for doing things that are important to you but not to the person making the statement. Here is the thing. We each have a mind of our own! And that is a pretty good thing too. Imagine if we all had to operate from one point of view. Nothing would ever change, collaboration would not occur, and we would miss all sorts of amazing activities just because we all had exactly the same idea at the same moment.

61549135 - puppy eating food. dog eats food from bowl
This dog has an agenda. He is aware of the bowl and of the photographer, and he knows what those two things together mean; that it is time to eat. Asking him to do something that YOU want instead of what he wants in this moment is likely going to result in a contest of wills.

Part of the problem I think exists because we want our dogs to follow along and figure out exactly what it is that we have in mind like little furry mentalists. We behave as though dogs come preprogrammed with all of our quirks and preferences already installed. If I am going to get in the car, I shouldn’t have to put Fido on a leash and guide him there; he should just know that is where we are going and he should just do what we expect him to do. The problem is that Fido may not have read the memo! And Fido may have other things on his mind. Fido may be more concerned with emptying his bladder, or reading the pee mail, or he may perceive things we are unaware of that are tugging for his attention.

To start to address this issue of Fido having a mind of his own, you have to begin from the point of asking what is in it for Fido. Does Fido know what you expect and is it something that is of interest to him? I often see my clients making the mind of his own statement about things that they haven’t taken the time to properly teach, train and proof. Take leash walking for instance. Leash walking is actually a fairly difficult skill for dogs to master. We don’t walk at the right speed for most dogs, and we often don’t take into account that we may not indicate clearly when we are going to turn or stop, so if the dog gets distracted at all, he is going to goof and likely make the leash tight. Add in that unless the dog is elderly, his agenda is likely going to include things like pulling you to make you get to where he wants to go faster. If he wants to get to the park to get off leash, and he drags you down the road and gets to the park, then dragging you down the road is the most sensible way for him to get to his goal and his priority. Instead of fighting with dogs about leash manners, I suggest driving them to the place you are going to let them off leash and then work on leash manners separately. You will get a dog with better leash manners in the end with a lot less frustration along the way.

And what is in it for the dog? Walking on a loose leash may lead to the park in the end, but if it takes twenty minutes of fighting about keeping the leash loose to get you to the park, then is there actually any point? The problem with goals like getting to the park as a reward for loose leash walking is that the behaviour is too complex and of too long a duration to allow the dog to understand that it isn’t just the final forty steps of walking on a loose leash that count; it is all the steps. If you were going to be successful at making loose leash walking work for your dog, you would have to reward much shorter increments of the behaviour, which means either working on it for shorter periods of time, or perhaps not putting it into the most exciting part of the dog’s life. I think teaching loose leash walking on the way to the park is a little like trying to learn statistics at your wedding. You have bigger priorities to think about than the mean, median and mode! For you dog, trying to learn a complex behaviour such as leash walking while on the way to the park is probably more difficult than trying to learn stats at your wedding.

Happy dog walking on leash with woman at evening park during sun
Walking on a loose leash like this out in public is a complex task requiring the dog to keep pace with you and carefully attend to when you are going to stop or turn. Trying to teach it to your dog when his priority is to get to the dog park is often an exercise in frustration.

We also have to be aware of our dog’s priorities when we expect them to fall into line. If your dog is too cold, or too hot, or hungry or thirsty, or tired, or feeling sick, or if he has a full bowel or bladder, he is going to be on his own agenda to fill his own needs. It is unfair to ask our dogs to follow along with our plans when we haven’t met their basic needs for food, water, shelter and health. It is worse, when our dogs are in pain! All too often I see people asking very painful dogs to do things that are just plain difficult for them because it hurts. Some of the time the people are asking their dogs to do things that are not out of the ordinary, and the pain has crept up on them. Getting up off the floor, getting in and out of a car and walking on ice or hard surfaces are all things that get dogs into trouble if they are struggling with pain. If the dog has been doing these things and now he cannot, or seems reluctant, it can seem like he or she may have suddenly have had an attack of being on their own agenda, when in fact they simply can’t do what you want them to do.

Having a mind of his own is precisely what we want from dogs and yet, we also don’t want them to be that way either. We choose highly active dogs, and then we lament that they need exercise every day, not just when it suits us. We choose dogs with thick coats and then deplore that they are slugs in the heat or that they prefer to spend all day out in the yard when the temperatures drop. Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all though is that we want to share our lives with dogs who can hear and smell things we cannot perceive. This is really convenient when we want a tracking dog to follow a scent, or a guard dog to alert us to an intruder coming towards the house, but that works out less well when the dog is aware of things he wants and we cannot perceive. I see this all the time when I see dogs coming into the training hall. Before the dog even enters the room he knows if I am onsite, and if I am, often he is very excited to see me. Before the person knows what to expect, he is pulling to greet me and he has been building up a head of steam since they turned into the parking lot. I have also seen this in my own dogs who know exactly what I have brought for them before I pull it out of my pocket! This trait of living with a being who knows more about the world than we do can be endlessly exciting or frustrating depending upon what the situation might be.

22109099 - working the sheep
If we add a dog who is bred to keep up with sheep all day to our lives we have to expect that it is most likely that such a dog would need a lot of exercise! We are going to be much happier if we meet the dog’s needs for exercise before we try and ask him to do things that we want to do. Relationships are largely a matter of negotiation to make sure that we each get what we need.

When we say “he has a mind of his own” we really have said that we are not thinking in true partnership. We are thinking about how we want something that we are not getting ,or that we have a priority that we haven’t communicated well to our dog. In order to get the most out of our relationships with our dogs, we need to start thinking about how we move through the world with our dogs instead of against them. When we are in a deep and abiding partnership with a dog, we rarely run into situations where we are not at least more or less on the same page. As often as we ask our dogs to do things that they may not really want to do, we offer them opportunities to do things that are less than important to us. Like our human partnerships, the best partnerships with our dogs are a constant game of give and take.

HE HAS A MIND OF HIS OWN!

A ROSE MIGHT SMELL AS SWEET BUT A DOG MIGHT NOT

Originally published April 2013

Naming trends in pets are fascinating.  I remember the year my friend got a puppy and spent four days trying to decide on a special and unique name for her dog.  After choosing Bailey she was shocked to go to puppy class with two other Baileys and was further surprised when her daughter went to kindergarten later that year with two little girls named Bailey.  Her efforts at a name that was really different were not successful, but offered an interesting opportunity to think about names and naming and what happens when we choose a particular name.

One of the local vets and I got to chatting one day and we both observed the same thing.  When Sam or Ranger or Rosie comes in, we don’t worry a whole lot right off the bat about the dog’s behaviour.  But when Satan, Danger, Mr. Ferocious, Ugly or Butts comes in we do.  We also worry when Muffin, Sweetie, Cuddles, and Mrs. Love Bug is on the roster.  The question is why do we worry about Dr. Evil and Fluffy?

57369353 - grey shepherd grins in the house
This dog looks pretty unhappy! If his name is Satan or Fluffy, then I am going to be more concerned than if his name is something neutral such as Frank.

When we name an animal, some of the names that we choose are associated with emotions.  When you call your dog a name that is disrespectful, you give those who interact with your dog permission to be disrespectful of him.  Imagine for a moment what it might be like to live your life with a name like “Ugly” or “Butthead”.  Even if you didn’t know what Butthead meant, the way that people behaved towards you would tell you that you were not respected.

When an animal carries the name of a political figure who is associated with a time that was painful to many (I have met several dogs named Hitler or Stalin), we tell people something profound about how we feel about our pet and what our expectation might be of that animal’s life.  What we name our pet is sometimes a reflection of our own intolerance, hatred, fear, bigotry or trauma.  Naming a dog after someone who has done something evil, is not a sign of respect for your dog, and it isn’t cool either.  If someone has named their dog after a political historical figure who is an enemy I believe it is not as difficult for them to then choose harsher methods of training and to treat their dogs in ways that are unkind.

At the other end of the spectrum, naming your dog something that downplays who he is or might be can backfire too.  I was once pinned against someone’s refrigerator a hundred pounds of dog named Muffin had a long list of people he had bitten and he was employed as the resident guard dog in a junkyard.  His owners only sought help for him after he bit one of their adult children.  It was chilling how they introduced this dog.  They wanted people to think he was harmless so that when burglars tried to break into the junkyard, they would not expect to be attacked by Muffin.  They had taught this dog to be perfectly still when approached but to never tolerate anyone touching him and to chase anyone running away from him.  This was a very frightening dog, and the owners thought it was funny to tell visitors to their business that they need not fear Muffin…unless they misbehaved.  This twisted name and expectation lead to a number of really difficult issues, and amongst them was the owner’s perception of the dog as essentially harmless.

We have three dogs.  D’fer is a silly name, and it is a play on Dee For Dog.  D’fer Dawg.  It is silly but not disrespectful.  A bit like my husband’s nickname for me; Boo.  It is silly and reflects a playful part of our relationship.  When we first started to work together, he stopped calling me Boo for a while because he didn’t want our students to think less of me; he was sensitive to the issues that surround how people are perceived.  D’fer’s registered name is Deifenbaker’s Pride of Oakhill, so his nick name fits too; we often call him Deef.  Prime Minister Deifenbaker was a pretty serious dude, but no one would consider him to have been the center of a genocide, so even if we called him by his full name, we would be respectful of him.

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D’fer was a silly name, but it didn’t make anyone worry about how he might behave. Usually he was a pretty silly dog too! This is one of my favourite pictures of my silly dog when he was very elderly.

Our second dog is named Eco.  His registered name is Amicus Eco Von Narnia.  Narnia is the name of the kennel he was born at and we used the latin Amicus because we wanted him to be friendly and Eco is the Greek for home.  Eco is his call name, and again, it is a strong name that is not frightening or belittling.

Our third dog, Friday is named for a fictional character from a book by the same name.  The character is a strong, sensitive and caring woman who can take care of herself.  We were careful to choose a name that would be respectful of who we hoped she would turn out to be.

Dr. Marty Becker, the vet who is on Good Morning America for many years, says that asking the client why they chose the name for their pet is one of the first questions he asks in his initial consults.  He feels it gives really good information about what expectations people have for their pets.  I have found this to be very true.  When I have a client who comes in with a dog named Doug, and ask, and they tell me that their kids have not turned the movie “UP” off in the past six months and they wanted a dog who was going to be a good friend, maybe a little scattered, who would do things with the family, then I know I am working with people who are on the right track with their goals and aspirations for their family pets.  When I meet a family with a dog name Alpha from the same movie, I worry a little and ask more questions to find out if they have expectations that are in line with the dog they have and the life they want to live.

There are a few names that are neither belittling or disrespectful that I suggest people would avoid.  Long ago I knew a family who had a beautiful Golden Retriever named Fire.  Fire was well trained, and moved as fast as a lick of flame out in the field.  Fire’s name wasn’t a problem until he got lost one night while the family was staying in at a relatives.  It just isn’t a great idea to go running through a strange neighbourhood calling “Fire! Fire!”

A ROSE MIGHT SMELL AS SWEET BUT A DOG MIGHT NOT

DRIVING A FERRARI LIKE A TRACTOR

NOTE:  I began this blog about 7 years ago when I first sustained my head injury, and I never finished it.  I have a number of these in the queue, as you may notice if you read about Eco or D’fer who have since died.

I recently purchased a car.  It is a smaller SUV and I really like it.  I can put all my camping gear in it, and it is easy on gas and John and I can now each get to and from work without re-arranging our schedules to an overwhelming extent.  I could have purchased a sports car, but it would not do what I needed it to do; take me camping.  And I could have purchased a tractor, but it also would not do what I needed it to do; get me to and from work in a timely manner.  I chose a car that would suit my needs.  Dogs are a bit like cars in that different dogs have different traits. 

Red 1962 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder
A Ferrari would not be my first choice for ploughing a field or pulling something out of a ditch. If I wanted a vehicle that was highly responsive, very fast and pretty flashy, it would be a good choice.

I like fast, drivey, intense dogs.  I also like my lawn tractor.  You cannot treat a lawn tractor like a fast drivey dog, and you cannot treat a drivey dog like a lawn tractor.  I meet a lot of people in my line of work who greatly admire my big, black, fast, responsive dog and who would like one just like him.  Or they think they would like one just like him.  The problem is that they want to drive this dog the way they would drive a tractor. 

Drivey dogs, or dogs who are intensely passionate about doing things can be a lot of fun.  They can be exciting to watch as they race through their routines, pushing towards their own excellence in whatever discipline they excel in.  My dog excels at the protection phase of Schutzhund (sadly, I do not have the same skill or drive as he does or we would be competing!), and when the sleeve comes out a whole new gear sets in.  One of my staff describes it as similar to driving a tractor from across the lawn, which is what prompted this blog.

When you work with Eco, he is always looking for the next cue, the next piece of information, the next job.  He is almost one step ahead of me, and we have worked together for almost five years now.  When someone who is new to him works with him, they really have to be on their toes, because if you work slowly and methodically with him, he quickly looses interest and goes off to do his own thing.  Usually what he does under his own steam is to bark at the handler, bark at another dog, run around the room and search for Frisbees or Tugs or generally cause general mayhem.  With an experienced handler, he is quick and responsive, engaged and lively and a whole lot of fun.  Eco is a Ferrari when it comes to handling.  Fast, responsive and likely to get you in trouble if you aren’t paying attention.

Not too long ago, I trained a service dog for a lady.  This dog, a black lab, was a tractor of a dog.  She likes working a lot.  She is keen and willing, but not terrifically fast.  She drove me a bit nuts because she doesn’t drive much like a sports car.  She handles a lot more like a tractor.  She does the job, promptly, efficiently and carefully, but she is not the least interested in speed or manoeuvrability.  On the other hand, this dog is perfectly suited to the work that the lady needed her to do.

All too often I see people who are attracted to the Ferrari type of dog, but who are really better equipped to drive the tractor type of dog.  So what happens?  Much of the time, the Ferrari dog ends up being frustrated because his needs are not being met.  And often the people are equally frustrated because the dog is doing much more than they expected he would do.

90333638 - a belgian malinois sheepdog lying in the grass he does not move
Everything about this Malinois says “I am on my toes and ready to go”. The Malinois is a Ferrari type of dog and that is why they are often used in sports like protection, agility and herding.

 

Consider a client I met with recently.  They had seen a demo with a Malinois in it.  The Malinois they met was a stable, easy going dog, or so they thought.  They watched this dog do agility, protection, obedience, tracking and sheep herding.  They heard about how this dog was trained to do other sports too such as Rally and treibball.  They got to know the dog for about five minutes after a show, and they were smitten.  They went right out and found a Malinois breeder who would sell them a dog and ship it across the country.  By the time that I saw the family, they had a terrible mess on their hands!

Their Malinois was nothing like the one they had met at the show.  Where the dog they met showed an extraordinary amount of self control, their dog seemed to be all over the map, snatching treats and toys any time he could and snapping at the heels of people passing on the side walk.  The Malinois they met was relaxed and chill after his demo, lying on the floor at his owner’s feet, happily observing the world around him.  In the two hour appointment we had to assess this dog’s behaviour, he rarely stopped moving and was often just racing around the training hall at full speed. 

“What is wrong with him?” I was asked.  “Nothing” I replied after taking a full history.  And indeed this was a very normal, untrained, barely socialized, under exercised and under stimulated high drive Ferrari of a dog!  This family would have been very happy with a tractor of a Labrador.  Yes, labs can come in a Ferrari version, and yes, Malinois can come in tractor versions, but the normal state of affairs for these two breeds is that Malinois are very active and driven dogs and Labs are active, but not so active that you cannot live with them and usually they are much more willing to follow along and do whatever it is that your family is into doing.

So, what do you do if you find yourself with a Ferrari of a dog when your life is all about tractors?  First and foremost, recognize that the dog doesn’t have a choice about the genes he was born with.  Some of us are hardwired to be out of doors and active more often than not.  Some of us are hardwired to be less active and may not enjoy the outdoor life nearly as much.  Some of us are wired one way and want to be something else, and this is kind of what it is like to live with a Ferrari when you are more of a tractor type.  I would love to be the kind of person who enjoys going to cocktail parties in a dress and heels, and although I can pull it off, I don’t really enjoy myself.

The first thing to do is to recognize that you live with a Ferrari.  Or if you are a Ferrari type of trainer, and have a tractor, recognize that too.  There is no amount of motivating that is going to make your mastiff as responsive as a border collie, and there is no amount of relaxation that is going make your Doberman enjoy watching the world slide on by your window for more than a short period of time.  Recognizing who your dog is, is the first step to making the most out of his innate talents. 

The next step is recognizing that you may have to compromise on your dreams.  My client with the Malinois was looking for a family pet.  They wanted a dog who would be happy in the house, getting daily leash walks, and hanging out while the family barbequed in the back yard.  They had no idea how much work went into training a dog like the one they met to do all the things he did.  Once they recognized that their dog was not a tractor, they needed to step up and make some changes in order to meet his needs.  Something that is important to recognize is that your dog did not ask to live in your home.  Once you have chosen the dog, you cannot get upset that he is anything other than what he is. 

The changes my clients had to make included teaching their dog that other dogs and people were safe.  This was a fairly long job, that would have been easier if they had done so when he was young.  Next they had to add a skills training session into their dog’s life every day.  It didn’t take long, but it was an every day activity.  Then they had to start exercising him properly and for an active herding breed, this is a pretty big task.  We started out by running him on trails while dragging a long line.  As he gained skills like coming when called, and making friends, we added him to our walking group and the starting going out on regular hikes with “doggy friends”. 

This particular Ferrrari was really lucky.  As it turned out, the teen aged daughter in the family caught the training bug, and she began to take him to regular training classes twice a week.  Then she tried out an agility class with a colleague of mine.  Then she went to a herding weekend.  From there, she got serious!  For a Ferrari type of dog, this was exactly what he needed.  Although he was always somewhat suspicious of new people and other dogs, he lived a very normal life, and the family was happy with him in the end and I would say he was pretty happy with them too.

Livestock guarding dog
This Kangal or Anatolian Shepherd Dog is a good example of a tractor. He can and sometimes does run fast, but he was bred to pretty low key. His job is to hang out with the sheep, day and night (these are a short haired breed of meat sheep). Unlike a Ferrari type of herding dog that races around and moves the sheep, he blends in with the herd, and is only fierce and active if a predator or thief is threatening the flock. Mostly, he just hangs out, and that makes him a really poor choice for sports that require a dog to follow your directions quickly.

I think that it can be harder for a tractor caught in a Ferrari world.  I rarely see this kind of client in my behaviour practice and when I have spoke to these clients about their experiences most often, they tell me that they feel silly that they cannot motivate their dogs to do the things they enjoy.  Sometimes they tell me that when their tractor turned two, they went out in search of a Ferrari to keep them busy in the training world while their tractor was content to snooze his life away on the back porch.  Many tractor type dogs love a great walk, and they can for a very short period of time look exactly like a Ferrari, but for the very most part, they live and breath to rest.  What breeds might typically be thought of as tractors?  Many of the short faced breeds like the English Bulldog, the Pug and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.  A lot of the mastiffs, and the livestock guardians are too.  Yes, they can have short periods of time where they run and race, but they aren’t tuned in to go off like a firecracker and stay focused and dedicated to a job over time.  Those dogs are often the herding dogs, some of the retrievers, many of the pointers and some of the working breeds.

The take away is to know what you are looking for in a dog, and whatever dog comes into your life, to recognize what sort of personality he is, and meet his needs, whatever they might be.

 

DRIVING A FERRARI LIKE A TRACTOR

THE CIRCUS IS COMING TO TOWN

I was listening to an audio book recently that was written in the late 1800s, and in one scene, the kids of the town got all excited because of the colourful handbills that appeared advertising a circus coming to town.  Now, I am not keen on circuses, however in that era they were rare and exciting events, and when the handbills started to appear, the information spread throughout the town like a wild fire.  Everyone talked about it for days.  The first clue that a circus might be coming in fact happened long before the handbills were posted.  The first hint of a circus was when a character from another town arrived in town and mentioned that he had seen the circus several days earlier packing up to get on rail cars in a distant town.  The rumour mill went wild!  Next came a letter from a friend in a town a little closer talking ab out plans to attend the circus that was coming to their town.  In fact all through the book that was not about circuses at all were mentions here and there, whispers, rumours and hints about the circus coming to town.  This was such an exciting event for the characters in the book, that it was mentioned over and over again, and there was an escalating tension that the circus was coming to town!

Circus show Snow Queen
In years gone by, the circus was an amazing and unusual spectacle. When the circus came to your town, you might write a letter to tell someone up the tracks that the circus was coming. These rumours allowed people to prepare for a big upcoming event.

When I walk into my training school, I am super sensitive to the expressions on the dog’s faces.  There is Fido, looking regal if a little worried in puppy class.  Is someone going to grab him and scare him?   He is a little worried about strange men and sometimes John the Puppy Guy is a little scary to him.  And Fluffy.  Fluffy is a happy go luck soul who is never phased by anything.  She is loose and floppy all over and you could pick her up and open her mouth and look in her ears and she would still be loose and floppy and happy all over.  I see Ralph.  Ralph is an instructor favourite; he is mischievous and silly and always looking for an opportunity to pull a prank like untying shoelaces or finding the ONLY treat left in your pocket…from the outside in.  I see the dogs and their facial expressions are sort of like the rumours of the circus coming to town.  I don’t need Fido or Fluffy or Ralph to be extreme to know how they are going to react. I hear the rumours and I know a little bit about what is coming up without having to go into more detail.

Contrast this with my students.  Fido’s family is constantly surprised that Fido is afraid.  Fido cannot give them a rumour of how he feels.  Fido has to hire a neon sign, send them emails and then get a brass band before his family recognizes the signs.  By the time that Fido’s family is aware of his fear, he is over threshold and may have peed on the rug.  They don’t hear the rumours of what Fido has to say, so they cannot respond to what he needs in time to head off a problem. 

I have been working professionally with dogs for over 25 years, and at first, I didn’t hear the rumours either.  In fact, I could be downright cruel in my insistence that my canine partner was “fine”.  The fact is that the majority of dogs I knew were more like Fluffy than like Fido.  They never put up handbills announcing that the circus was in town because they didn’t need to.  They weren’t that concerned about things.  They weren’t going to produce a circus at any moment.  Fluffy doesn’t give off a whole lot of subtle signals because for the most part, Fluffy is happy go lucky and either doesn’t care about the things that concern Fido.

And what about Ralph?  Ralph’s people are just plain fed up!  Yesterday Ralph climbed on the dining room table, grabbed a plastic bottle of ketchup, and ran through the house with it.  No one noticed him initially, but eventually he punctured the bottle and left dots of ketchup on the rugs throughout the house everywhere that he dropped the bottle.  He settled down in an upstairs bedroom and completely decimated the bottle, leaving bits of plastic all over the room, accented with streaks of ketchup on the bed, the desk, the chair, the dresser, up two walls and on the door.  Ralph finished his handiwork with pawprints in ketchup down the hall and into the bathroom.

15427431 - naughty playful puppy dog after biting a pillow tired of hard work
Sometimes puppies will destroy things when they are unsupervised and sometimes they do that when the are distressed. Close supervision and careful attention to the dog’s behaviour will help you to better understand when he is struggling so that you can help him to find a better outlet than the upstairs couch cushions.

Ralph is a bit like Dennis the Menace.  Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.  He is not intentionally getting into trouble, but his communications are so subtle that his family doesn’t notice that he needs something in time to head off disaster.  He is curious and engaged in his world and he has no idea that his behaviour is unwanted or unsafe.  The interesting thing is that some of his behaviour, like racing through the house or not settling are rooted in confusion, a lack of training or anxiety.  Ralph is unable to ask to go out, so even though he had a good start at toilet training and only toileting outside, his people didn’t notice the rumours of his need, so he had to look somewhere else to go.  His first efforts included peeing in front of the family on the rug, but that made the people angry and that frightened Ralph.  Ralph bolted because he was frightened, and learned two things.  First, he learned not to pee in front of the family and second, he learned that when he was uncertain, anxious or upset, running would relieve that feeling.  Some running leads to more running and pretty soon, Ralph was running through the house all the time. 

Ralph also learned some other lessons inadvertently.  He learned for instance that there are many fun games for puppies if you don’t shout loudly when you are playing.  He learned that being in the same room as his family meant that he wasn’t allowed to do these fun things.  Things like getting on the dining room table.  Ralph learned that he doesn’t need to spread rumours because he can take care of things himself and do all the fun stuff he wants if he doesn’t communicate too much.

In all three cases, the family will have a better relationship with their puppy if they learn a little bit about their dog’s body language.  In Fido’s case, he will be less fearful.  In Fluffy’s case, the family will become more aware of the big things because they are not usually big things for Fluffy.  Taking her needs into account will give them an even bigger world to explore together.  And in Ralph’s case life will just be a whole lot less chaotic.

Almost everyone recognizes the brass bands and circuses of their dog’s communication.  The dog who barks and lunges wants space.  The dog who cringes and cowers is afraid.  The dog who bounces through life like a rocking horse come to life is happy and relaxed.  But what about the rumours?  What about the quieter signals?  What do they look like?

Freezing is a signal that most of us see but don’t see.  It is a rumour so it is easy to disregard.  Your dog sees something and he pauses, or freezes and most of the time, once he identifies what it is that he is looking at, he moves right on.  The freeze is like a decision point.  It is a point where the dog identifies something as relevant, but not necessarily as important.  When we see this happening, we should take note.  Fido freezes a lot because his world is pretty scary.  Fluffy freezes rarely because she is much more confident, so when she freezes we should take note that something fairly important may be going on for her.  Ralph freezes rarely because he doesn’t often stop to look at things; his response when the other two puppies would freeze is usually to bolt without thinking. 

Yawning tibetan mastiff puppy embracing sleeping tabby kitten an
This puppy is yawning and looking away. He might be tired, but more likely he is fed up with what was most likely a long photo shoot to get him into position with the kitten. Yawning is a way that dogs have to show us that they are a little concerned, but it also happens when they are tired. Just like us!

Yawning and shaking off as though wet when they are dry are two other subtle signals that dogs use to show us that they are overwhelmed in one way or another.  These are more of the rumour type of signals; they can fade into the background when you aren’t paying close attention.  Fido does this a lot and it often gets disregarded because his people often think he might be tired.  The dad in Fido’s family explained the shake off as Fido being dusty!  Fluffy only yawns when she is tired or shakes off when she is wet.  And Ralph is such a busy boy that his family hasn’t noticed him doing either behaviour.  It is hard to observe a dog who is conspicuously absent.

One thing that we are often frustrated with as instructors is when a client says to us “but he does that all the time” when we try and share what we know about what dogs are saying through their behaviour.  When you cannot read the rumours, you may not realize how often your dog is in distress.  When we point this out to you, we don’t do that because we dislike you or your dog; we do so because we recognize that your dog is upset and we want to help.  Dog body language is a long study; we will never be as good at reading it as the dogs are, but there are many good resources.  A favourite is Barbara Handelman’s Canine Behaviour A Photo Illustrated Guide.  You can find it at https://www.dogwise.com/canine-behavior-a-photo-illustrated-handbook/ .  I helped to edit that, so I know that the images and text are well laid out and well explained.  Another good resource is The Language of Dog DVD.  You can also find that on Dogwise at https://www.dogwise.com/the-language-of-dogs-understanding-canine-body-language-and-other-communication-signals-dvd-set/

In the story that started me thinking about this blog, the message that a circus was coming to town started out as a whisper, a rumour.  Then it was talked about a little bit.  In the end, it was a big hairy deal.  The handbills were printed and everyone went down to the train station to see the arrival.  The whole town talked about the circus and a brass band was on hand to make sure that everyone knew that the circus had arrived.  It is well worth spending some time learning more about what your dog is “saying” since he is going to be talking to you through his behaviour for the rest of his life.  When we hear the whispers of what your dog wants to say to you, instead of depending upon the brass band level of message, we can often avert the circuses that ensue when the dog feels he needs to get the message across immediately.  Your dog should not need a brass band to tell you when he is afraid, distressed or upset, and both your life and his will be much easier when you can address his issues quickly and efficiently because you heard the first rumours of what he is experiencing.

 

THE CIRCUS IS COMING TO TOWN

THE BARE NAKED DOG

Originally posted April 2013

echo5june2011-6
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.

19204095 - running beagle puppy with his master on the walk
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