This time we have a guest blog by one Ramona, who is one of our interns at Dogs in the Park. Thanks Ramona for your great description of helping Bella overcome her concerns about garbage trucks.
Bella, our fourth Pembroke Welsh Corgi, came to live with us in June of 2017. She was just shy of 8 weeks of age and having never had a puppy before, we went to Dogs in the Park for puppy class the second day we had her. Part of our “socialization” homework was to introduce Bella to as many different people and situations as possible. Dogs In The Park refers to this more appropriately as Systematic Environmental Exposure. She never had any issues with kids on skateboards or bikes or people wearing various costumes or uniforms. We were even able to expose her to a person on crutches with a big cast at an early age, thanks to our son’s friend who had broken a foot.
On garbage day, we took Bella outside with leash on, good treats in hand, and parked her on the sidewalk outside of our house. As the garbage truck approached, she didn’t appear very comfortable with the noise that it was making. We live near a townhouse complex and the garbage truck picks up at least 15 bins before it gets to our house. Bella stopped taking treats and tried to get back into our house. After that, garbage day was not a fun day at our house. Bella would hear the truck long before we could hear it and off she went to her “office” (our downstairs bathroom that doesn’t have any windows). The noise bothered her so much that she eventually would start shaking. The highest value treats or play with her favourite toy in the backyard didn’t work.
I chatted with Sue from Dogs in the Park and we came up with a game plan. We were going to try some desensitization! I have just completed the Applied Behaviour Analysis course with other first year interns. Desensitization is using any form of counterconditioning that reduces an inappropriate negative response to an event. Counterconditioning is the use of Pavlovian conditioning to undo the adverse effects of earlier conditioning. The sound of the garbage truck caused a fear response in Bella and I wanted to reduce or eliminate that fear! I should also mention that we live on a cul-de-sac, so the truck passes our house not once, but twice as it enters and then leaves the court.
The first step Sue suggested, was to remove Bella from the stimulus, ie. the garbage truck noise, for a number of weeks. We did this by leaving the house on Monday mornings, usually to drive children, or Bella, to appointments. On the days where we were unable to leave, I put Bella’s crate in the basement, put her in the crate, and played fairly loud music on a portable speaker to drown out any garbage truck noise. We did this for about 2 months and then remained on the main level of the house when we knew the garbage truck was coming. I continued to have music playing in the house and the first week after our intervention, none of us even noticed when the truck was in front of our house! We didn’t hear it and Bella made no attempt to retreat to her office. When we realized that the garbage truck was on our street, my former daycare child was eating some fish crackers and was also sharing them with Bella. We were pairing a good thing (fish crackers) with the noise of the truck.
Fast forward to following Mondays when we were home. Again, we didn’t realize that the truck was on our street since Bella didn’t do her usual stare at the front door and make her quick exit to the bathroom. I quickly grabbed some good treats and fed her while the garbage truck went past. She did bark at the noise but continued to take treats. Not taking treats or taking food with a sharklike grab could mean that a dog is stressed.
A large part of behaviour change is monitoring results. Our intervention seems to be going well, with a more positive response to the garbage truck noise. Having said that, I will continue to monitor Bella’s behaviour each week, as well as having music playing and great treats on hand when we are at home. Hopefully spring has now sprung and the warmer weather will soon be upon us. This means the opening of windows and being outside a lot more. I will have to see if our game plan continues to work or if I will have to take a step back when open windows let in more noise.
It’s good to know that owners don’t have to let their dog deal with events that induce fear. I am very thankful to have Dogs in the Park to help support me and the welfare of my dog!
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?
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
So, I have been the dogless wonder for almost two years now. By this I mean that I earn my living as a dog trainer, but I don’t actually have a canine partner of my own. My last two dogs were incredible partners, who died one year apart to the day. Losing those dogs, first D’fer, and then Eco was difficult, but the loss was not why I didn’t run right out to get another puppy. I have been very busy with my own growth and development and really don’t have the time right now to raise another puppy. I am also not really sure if a dog would fit well with my current lifestyle: I like to hunt and I spend long periods of time alone in the bush, canoeing and camping. I like to take car trips on weekends too. And I spend about two hours a day riding my horse. So, getting another dog right now might not be the right thing to do. But still, I consider the possibility.
For me, the process of getting a dog and developing a partnership is a bit like falling in love, and I have a good model for that to follow; having been married to John for the past twenty years, I can recognize the signs. There are several stages. The first stage is the looking around stage. When John and I met, we were both in university. We each had friends and things that we did, and at some point, our interests intersected and we met. It was NOT love at first sight. It wasn’t that we didn’t get along or anything, it was just sort of neutral. I wasn’t looking to fall in love; I just wanted someone to go out with and to spend some time with. John was nice, and we got along and we started to do things together.
When I get a new dog, the first step is finding a breeder who is breeding the sort of dog who will intersect with my interests. I have a laundry list of things that the dog must be interested in. It starts with being outside. Outside is really important to me. I go outside a lot. Today I spent about 8 hours outside even though the temperature is just about freezing. When I am outside I hike, fish, camp, canoe, hunt and ride my horse. So I need a dog whose interests are going to be compatible with all those things.
Knowing what my interests are means that no matter how pretty I think that a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is, I won’t look at them; they just aren’t sturdy enough to do the kind of heavy hiking I do and they would likely find my winter activities too cold. No matter how funny I think basset hounds can be (and trust me, if you haven’t worked with a basset hound, you have no idea how funny they are!), they would not really like the canoeing I do. No matter how much I admire many of the guarding breeds such as the Rottweiler, they most likely won’t enjoy being a resident dog at a dog training school. German Shepherds can struggle with this work too, but if I choose carefully, I can likely find a good candidate, and my Chessies have all enjoyed this sort of work. Having narrowed the field to two particular breeds, I need to keep in mind that I enjoy hunting. A lot. Which means that a Chessie is a better choice for me at this point in my life.
The next stage is the stage where I am at right now. It is the get to know you stage. During this stage in my relationship with John, we went to the movies together, we went hiking, and we learned a lot about who the other person was. Somethings we tried didn’t work out so well. I never really enjoyed cocktail parties, and he used to go to a lot of them. He really didn’t like swimming. So we each had to figure out if those were things that we needed to do together, or if we could do without them. Luckily, John doesn’t need to go to cocktail parties anymore, and we have agreed that for the very most part, I can swim without him!
In the dog world, once you know what breed or type you are looking for, it is time to get busy and look for a breeder who is going to meet your needs. I will go to the dog shows, and visit breeders and meet brood bitches and sires, and eventually, find a breeder I like, who is breeding a bitch I like to a sire I like and then I will talk to them about their upcoming litters. In the event that a litter is likely, then I will eventually purchase a puppy.
After that, there is the infatuation stage, and this is the stage that prompted this blog. In this stage, everything is about being with the person you are madly, passionately, incredibly in love with. This stage is so much fun. The other person can do no wrong! You want to be together all the time. You think of nothing other than the other person. It is so exciting. This is the stage that I see the most often with people who have a dog new to them. Everything is great! Except that this puppy that people are so in love with has a number of frustrating habits. Like chewing things up. And stealing tea towels. And running around the house randomly. And not doing as asked. I won’t even tell you about John’s frustrating little habits that came to light during the infatuation stage! Luckily this stage is designed to help us to deal with these little deal breakers, and so we forgive the object of our desires and move on to the next stage.
The next stage in falling in love is where you get to really know your partner and you start to deeply appreciate them. This is the long slow process of building a life long love affair and this is the part I think is the most important part of having a deep relationship with a dog. Reflecting on this, I think it is probably the most important part of having a deep relationship with your human partner too. This is the stage where you know your partner’s quirks, and you may even have a love/hate feeling towards those quirks. Honestly, how hard is it to remember that the gate gets left opening IN to the kitchen? If only John could remember! On the other hand, if I came into the kitchen and the gate was left open the correct way, I would wonder who had been in the kitchen! During this stage with D’fer he would regularly set up toys on the top stair to chase down. He would place them “just so” and then nose them down and when they got to the bottom he would throw himself down the stairs after the toy. Interminably cute, but insanely noisy and downright dangerous! I could always tell if he was playing the game because of the suspicious silence while he set the game up and then all that banging and bumping as he ran down the stairs. I loved that he had figured out this crazy, noisy and fairly sophisticated game, but honestly…who needs all that noise?
This is the stage in training where you no longer have to set up every training scenario as though it were a complete mystery to your learner; you and your canine partner have enough of a common language that you are able to figure out where the training game is going, what the point of the exercise is and how you will apply it to your lives. If you have an Einstein of a dog, you may need merely expose him to the situation! If you have a less intellectually gifted dog, you may have to walk him through the training scenario a few times, but he will trust that you are not leading him astray; he will follow along the game trusting that you will show him the point soon enough.
Likewise, at this stage of training, your dog may tell you no and instead of making him do as you ask, you can trust that he will do his best and if he is refusing, he is refusing with good reason. You may find your canine partner starts to offer “suggestions” of activities too, and you are tuned in enough that you can follow along with these ideas and see where they go. I remember many years ago meeting Attila Szkukalek and his amazing dog Fly. Attila and Fly are famous for their Gladiator routine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0RjKJfuPbE )amongst others, and we were talking about how he had trained various moves. Attila related about how Fly herself had “suggested” one of the moves in the routine. He felt the idea would work, so he took the idea and did that part of the routine in the manner that Fly had demonstrated it to him. This level of understanding, trust and communication are the kind of “love” that I value deeply as part of my training relationship with my dogs.
As this stage of love grows, my dogs age, and with age comes the realization that dogs never live as long as we do. Towards the end of his life, D’fer would anticipate my actions so accurately, and then offer me such funny ideas that I felt like he was reading my mind! He would make me laugh when I was most in need. He would give me the answer when my creativity could not come up with a solution on its own. At that point in our relationship I came to realize that there is nothing more important than true love, and in the end, he taught me how to love better than I could have learned in nearly any other way. He forgave my errors, he supported me when I needed it, he filled in the blanks when I didn’t know what to do. When I reflect on all I have learned over the years, I have come to the realization that my human loves are a good template for how to love a dog, but also that a dog’s love will ultimately help me to love my human friends and family even better.
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.
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!
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.
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!
I feel like “Fair is not Equal” has begin to replace “It depends” as my motto at work these days. I have a number of cases these days where people want to give perfectly equal treatment to two dogs in the house. On the surface of it, the idea of treating everyone the same way seems like a good idea; after all you would not want to be excluded from a party because you are the only woman, or the only tall person, or the only dog trainer in a group! That would not be fair at all. The problem is that when you try and give equal treatment to two people with very different needs.
When we have a baby and an older child, we often see people around us try and give equal treatment to both children. If grandma comes to visit and she brings a toy for the baby, then she will most likely bring a toy for the older child too. This sounds fair, right? If you have two dogs and you bring home one special chew bone, and give it to your favourite dog, the other dog is likely going to be pretty upset about missing out. This in fact is likely a quick way to a dog fight! When we try and make fair equal, we can actually get into trouble though.
Consider for instance what the older child might think if grandma arrived with two rattles both designed for a child of about 6 months of age. If the older child is two, he may or may not care, but if he is 5, he is going to care a lot. The same is very true of our dogs. If you have a puppy and a middle aged dog, the pup is going to be interested in very different things than is the middle aged dog. This is the situation that prompted my blog today.
I have a client who has a 7 year old retriever with degenerative disc disease. Her 7 year old has been her constant companion for his whole life and they have done all sorts of cool things together; from hiking in Northern Ontario to sports classes locally, and road trips across Canada, to quiet family dinners with her aging parents, my client has taken this dog on every possible dog adventure his heart could wish for. Now that he is suffering from back pain though, he isn’t allowed to do as many things as he used to do. The one thing that they still do together is sit on the floor with her head on her lap while she grades her high school student’s homework. Every night after dinner, she sits down with a pile of paper on one side, and her special buddy on the other. They have done this ritual for the past seven years, from September till June, at least five nights a week. Recently though, this client has been missing some of the training activities she did with her 7 year old, so she brought a new puppy into the family.
This particular lady wants to be fair to both dogs, but sometimes she gets fair confused with equal. The first way she got confused was when she signed her puppy up for puppy class. She felt guilty that her older dog wasn’t going to training too, so she signed him up for a class as well. The problem was that she didn’t have time to devote to two sets of classes, so some of the time she missed class with her older dog and then she felt bad about spending money on a class she didn’t attend. Not only that but her older dog was often stiff and painful after his class, which really wasn’t fair to him at all.
The next place she got confused was leash walking her puppy. Young pups don’t actually know how to walk on leash. When she brought her youngster out for a leash walk with her older dog, he just got all tangled up and annoying! No one was happy; not the lady, not the puppy and definitely not the older dog.
My client knew that puppies need to eat more often than do adult dogs, and she wanted to be fair, so when she fed the puppy, her adult dog always got a meal too. He got his normal two meals a day, plus a little extra at lunch time. Her adult dog gained a few pounds, and that was hard on his joints, which meant an extra trip for him to the vet, and extra medication for pain.
Perhaps the least fair thing that this nice lady did for her two dogs was let the puppy have free run of the house with her older dog. She just didn’t feel good about her puppy being in his crate much of the time. The puppy took to harassing the older dog, which resulted in a grouchy adult dog, and an overtired, overstimulated puppy. The last straw came when school started in September though; on her first day sitting on the floor grading papers with her nice sedate adult dog, her cup of tea and her whirling dervish of a puppy. Within minutes her neatly organized evening came apart at the seams with papers strewn all over the room, her adult dog snarling at the puppy, and a hot cup of tea all over the floor.
When we met, my client said to me “I don’t remember puppyhood being so much work with my older dog!” The thing to reflect on with a case such as this is that at the time she didn’t have another dog to compare to, so instead of trying to give her first dog exactly everything that she gave to another dog, she just gave him what he needed. Fair, is rarely if ever equal.
So how did we resolve this? We acknowledged that fair is not equal and she stopped trying to give everything to the puppy that she gave to her adult and vice versa. Her adult dog does not need an extra class or a daily extra meal. Her puppy does not need a leash walk, or freedom of the house just yet. Once we stopped doing things that weren’t good for each of the dogs, we could really look at what each dog needed.
In the first few months, puppies need a lot of extra attention, training and structure. It isn’t forever, but it is important. We stopped all leash walking and added in two ten minute training sessions each day. Instead of wrestling a young strong dog on leash around the block with one hand, while trying to encourage her older, sedate and slightly painful older dog to keep up, all the while trying to avoid the inevitable tangling of the leash, she returned to her fifteen minute strolls around the block with her old friend. Her young dog benefited from the extra training sessions and her older dog got the time and attention that he needed from his normal routine. Not equal, but fair.
To address the lunchtime habit, we moved the older dog’s walk from first thing in the morning to lunch time, so that the puppy could have quiet alone time in the house with her lunch, while the older dog got what he needed. This helped to take weight off sensibly, and avoided the issue of the older dog mooching around the pup’s food bowl. Fair is not equal but each dog can get what they need when their needs are properly addressed.
Finally, we addressed the issue of the pup having free run of the house with an ex-pen in the living room. This allowed my client to have time with both dogs in the room, but without trashing her student’s assignments, spilling tea or harassing the older dog. Over time she will be able to give the younger dog more and more freedom as long as she is minding her manners. These few changes took the household from equal but completely unfair to not equal, but much more fair.
I think it is easier to identify when fair is not equal when we are talking about medical issues. My client was really trying hard to make things both equal and fair, but each dog had different needs. When her older dog was sore from gaining weight and being too physical, she didn’t feel the need to bring the younger dog to the vet for medication; that obviously would be neither fair nor equal. Likewise, she did not feel that she needed to revaccinate her older dog; her older dog was not due for vaccines for another 18 months, so just her puppy got vaccinated. When it comes to medical issues, we are much more clear about fair and equal and we do what is fair. When it comes to the rest of our dog’s lives, we are much more muddled. We try and do the things that we do with one dog with both, even if it would not be fair. To be fair, we have to take in the needs of the individual instead of the activities that we do with one or the other dog.
Sometimes when I first meet with a client and their dog, I am struck by how mismatched they are. I see small, easy going, space avoidant people with giant, pushy, intense dogs who jump all over them, or families with young children and intense predatory dogs. I see outdoors people who partner themselves with thin coated dogs and people who prefer to stay in when it is cold with dogs who have an abundance of coat. I see a lot of mis matches in the work that I do.
I usually ask my clients why they chose the dog they have and I get a variety of answers. He needed a home. I was lonely and he was at the shelter. He would have DIED. I have always wanted a (insert breed). My husband wanted an X and I wanted a Y, so we compromised and got an X/Y cross. Perhaps the most common answer to “Why did you get this breed of dog?” is “What do you mean?” as though the question doesn’t make any sense to the listener. Sometimes they still don’t get it when I rephrase it in different terms such as “Well, what attracts you about the Scottish Gutterhound?”
When this happens, a little vignette plays through my mind. In my mind’s eye I see a pretty young girl, say about sixteen, running into her mother’s kitchen, breathless and excited. “Mom, mom,” she cries, obviously excited, “Mom, LOOK what I found!” and following her, somewhat reluctantly is a man about thirty years older then her. He is a bit dishevelled, and a cigarette is hanging unlit from his mouth. He is looking sort of bashful and out of sorts in the “how did I get here” sort of way that I see on the faces of many of the dogs I meet. “Mom, this is Ralph, and I found him at the bus stop”, (at this point, Ralph looks up and says something truly profound like “how d’y’do” and looks away again), “and I am going to MARRY him.”
In my little fantasy, Mom plays several roles depending on how I am feeling. In some cases, Mom is surprised and delighted; “Oh, Honey, you always wanted to get married!” and the two of them go off to plan the wonderful day. Sometimes she is outraged. “You get that man out of here! You are NOT getting married young lady.” Sometimes she is curious and asks Ralph what he does for a living.
Ralph doesn’t have a job. Ralph worked at a gas station and has two kids from a previous relationship, he smokes, he drinks heavily and he mostly likes to sit on the couch and burp. He currently lives with his mother’s basement, “until things get better”. Our heroine is young, attractive and interested in doing things. She likes dancing and meeting new people and her hobbies include needlework, and downhill skiing.
“Why Ralph?” asks her mother. And here is where we can insert almost any of the responses I get from dog owners. “I always wanted a husband.” “He is tall. I like tall men.” “If I didn’t marry him, then no one would marry him, and then he would DIE.” “THEY were going to kill him.” “My friend brought him home, but her mom won’t let HER marry him, so now I have him.” “I only meant to keep him for a couple of weeks until my brother got out of jail (yes, I have had a client tell me that!)” “He just has such sad, sad eyes.” “I was lonely.” “When we first met, he paid a LOT of attention to me.”
How many people think that Ralph is going to be a good mate for this young girl? Will they grow old together, cherishing one another’s company? Are they likely to have similar values and dreams? Are they compatible? Who knows. They might be. They might not be too. And the sad thing is that this is almost exactly the way that many folks choose a dog.
When I ask someone why they chose the dog they want, I find that many people haven’t thought about the whole picture of the dog that they want. They haven’t thought about the ins and outs of their breed choice. They haven’t considered things like the compatibility of the dog to their lives. I work with a lot of wonderful people who rise to occasion, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t easy for the dogs either. Choosing a dog to share ten or more years of your life with is as significant as choosing a life partner, and yet people often do this with about as little forethought as the girl I describe above.
So what should you look at when choosing a dog? Knowing that it is a long commitment is a good starting point but not the whole story. How much or little and what type of exercise is another important part of the story. Grooming is an important consideration and not only for the coated breeds. We boarded a dalmation in our home almost ten months ago. We still find tiny slivers of Dalmatian hair in crevices of the couch, in blankets and on dog beds that have been laundered many, many times. How brainy the dog is should be considered too; I often tell people that what they want is a willing dog, not a smart dog. Smart dogs know how to figure out the dog proof garbage system. Willing dogs are willing to leave the garbage alone. More than anything though, I think it is important to know yourself before you find a dog to suit you. If you know who you are and what you like to do, on a deep level, then finding a dog who will match is going to be a lot easier. It is very important that you choose based on personality traits and not on looks, because although form does follow function, preference for looks does not always follow any such logical pattern.
Once you have settled on an overall type of dog who will fit into your life, then you need to set out to find a source for that dog. If you are looking for a purebred, you can easily find pools of breeders of your type of dog at conformation dog shows. If you are looking for a mixed breed dog it is much harder, but not impossible. The key is to get connected with people who have dogs that are similar to those you like and find out where they got their dogs.
Many people feel strongly that they want to rescue a dog as their contribution to canine society. If this is the route you feel you want to go, then it is essential that you have a solid knowledge of dog behaviour and an understanding not only of what you want but also of what the kennel cards at the rescue mean. Just like the real estate term “a handy man’s dream” might mean that it comes with a fully integrated workshop, but it more likely means that the home is condemned and needs a lot of work, the kennel cards can be telling. What does “Must go to a home with children over the age of 7” really mean? Does it mean that the dog is highly active and too rowdy for youngsters in pre-school? Or does it mean that in his home of origin, the dog bit a child? How about “Needs to be a single dog”? It could mean that the dog just doesn’t bother with other dogs and won’t enjoy another dog in his life, but it could also mean that the dog is likely to attack another dog. Like Ralph, the dogs in the shelter come with a back story, and the kennel cards are only rough clues of what you are looking at. And like the mother of the bride at the bus stop, I really hope you will find out as much as you can about the dog who is going to be a part of your life for the next ten to fifteen years BEFORE that dog comes home.
At Dogs in the Park, we have two mottos. The first is “It Depends..” It is on all of the staff uniforms to remind people that the answer to dog training questions are dependent upon many variables. The second is less commonly said, but almost all of my students will eventually hear me say “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. I was reminded of this by one of my staff the other day. She had been challenged by a colleague at school to train a dog to do a trick. The problem is that the trick required the dog to roll back onto his very arthritic and dysplastic hips. My staffer replied “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should,” and she is right. She COULD teach the dog to do the trick, but she shouldn’t because it will cause the dog more injury than not.
I have an exercise I used to do when I ran my fun-gility workshops. Fun-gility is informal agility. I would get out all the cavellettis (small light jumps for teaching dogs to take off and land smoothly; they are about four inches high), and place them as close together as they can go. There is about four inches between each jump. Then I ask all the humans to walk through the twelve or so jumps. People with really big feet slide their feet in sideways, and people with little feet slip in between the jumps toe first. One very athletic man in the last workshop danced through them like a ballerina on point, pronking up and down in the manner of a gazelle. Once everyone has walked through these, I challenge everyone to go through as fast as they can. The only person to every run through these successfully was the man I just mentioned-but he said afterwards it was really difficult and uncomfortable.
Next I spread the jumps out so that each is one of my foot lengths wide. Everyone expresses relief at the ease at which they can place their feet. When they run through though, they are once again frustrated by the lack of room to solve the problem of where to put their feet. Some people just take two jumps at once and then congratulate themselves on coming up with such a neat solution. At this point I ask them; “Would it be okay if your dog chose to do two jumps at once if that was easier for him?” Most folks who have been through the exercise reply that yes, it would be okay with them if the dog solved his problem that way. If I were to ask someone who is serious about agility though, the answer might be different-the person might decide that the dog must take each obstacle one at a time, regardless of how uncomfortable that might be for the dog. That brings back the statement of “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should”. Just because I can make the dog take jumps at an uncomfortable striding, doesn’t mean I should.
I come across this situation when I work with dogs with behaviour problems. I have had clients with dogs who are noise sensitive. I prefer to resolve problems like this by working below threshold, so that the dog is not being set off repeatedly. When the dog gets to relax a little, they often become bolder and more willing to accept some noises they weren’t previously. Recently, I was at a community event and I saw a little dog sitting terrified under her person’s chair. I approached the person and told her that I thought her dog was afraid of the noise of the crowd, and the owner replied that yes, she was, but the dog had to accept that this was part of life and must get over her fears, and so she was brought out to as many noisy events as possible. I bit my tongue but what I wanted to say was “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” When it is my client who is doing this though, I try and help them to understand that just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should!
I think we need to consider this carefully when we work with dogs and other animals. We CAN make a dog go out in public when he is afraid to do so, but should we? We CAN make a horse jump over a fence when he is physically uncomfortable, but should we? We CAN make a child stand up in front of a group of people and recite Evangeline…but should we? As trainers and teachers, we hold a very powerful position, and Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should applies to our jobs on a daily basis. Just because we can make a student take a risk we are comfortable with when training our own dogs doesn’t mean we should make our students do so too. Part of what we need to teach when helping people to train their dogs, is that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
Keeping “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” in mind when you are training your dog can really help you to do two things. The first thing it helps with planning your training. Many of us have asked our dogs to participate in sports they don’t really have the skills to succeed in. Often the dogs “fake it till they make it” and we feel like we are able to do the sport even if we haven’t trained for it. This is the classic case of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. Better by far to teach your dog to do the skills and then participate in the activity.
The second thing that “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” helps with is acknowledging what the dog is struggling with. If the dog is shy, let him leave when he has had enough. If the dog is bold, don’t put him in situations where he is going to take risks that are dangerous to his health and wellbeing. If the client lacks confidence, I don’t put them in situations where they are going not going to succeed. Setting up for success means a lot more than just setting up to get the right answer, it also means taking into account that sometimes, the dog cannot or the human cannot do something and allowing them not to do that thing, all the while balancing that they need to be challenged sufficiently to continue to move forward.
Recently a number of Good Dog clients have started my program after having gotten only so far with obedience classes with us or other schools, and there seems to be a trend in why their training is not working for them. Micromanagement is how we describe what is happening when people tell the dog about every single thing that they are supposed to do. They often have a spectacular leave it, but only when they tell the dog. The dog will wait nicely at the door, but bolt on through if you haven’t specified that this is one of the times that the dog must wait. The dog is more than willing to get off or stay off furniture if he is told, but in the absence of information, he is right up there and on the couch.
Humans are a species that gather information verbally. We listen to details like “don’t get on the couch” and store that information for later use. If we are told “don’t get on the couch” every time we go to get on the couch, most of us store that information and don’t do that behaviour. Dogs are a little different. Although dogs readily learn “if I get on the couch in the presence of the human I will be told to get off” they don’t seem to generalize that information to “never get on the couch”. I suspect that this is a reflection of a few things, including how we train them.
The first thing that this reflects is that dogs don’t have language in the same way we do. Yes, they have communication, where they are able to send units of information to another individual who can receive and interpret them accurately. Think about the last time you saw two dogs interacting; if one dog wanted to play, how can he convey that information to the other dog? Dogs have a whole lot of gestural communication including (but not limited to!) play bows, play faces, head tilts, paw lifts and tail wags. The receiving dog will either accept the invitation, and a play session will start (full of rich gestures that convey all sorts of information between the players) or turn it down and we can tell which choice the recipient made based on the behaviours we see. None of this information conveys anything like “later on, when you go home, please don’t touch my toys that I left behind the couch”. Canine communication is immediate. It happens in the moment and it pertains to the moment. Even wolf communication involved in hunting runs more along the lines of “let’s go hunting”, “okay”, “I hear caribou over this way”, “I will flank the herd”. The last guess may in fact be more than they actually convey in their gestures, but it makes for a better story to illustrate the point!
Next we should consider that when we train our dogs we teach them to attend to what happens next. Sit when I am making you dinner? Then I put your dinner within your reach to eat. Jump up on me? Then you can have a quick trip to your crate. Harass the other dog while he is trying to rest? Then you can have a turn out in the yard on your own. Lie down nicely in front of the cookie cupboard? Then you can have a cookie. On and on, both formally and informally we teach our dogs to pay attention to immediate outcomes. Practically this is the most efficient way to teach dogs what they should and should not do.
Dogs do learn what your habits are of course, but most often those habits come with predictable immediate outcomes. Dogs learn for instance that every day at 3pm the school bus passes by and the kids arrive home and when the kids arrive home, you almost always get to play ball. Some dogs will anticipate this sort of activity by bringing the ball to the children as they come in the door. This most likely evolves when the ball is handy and the kids are available and the dog puts two and two together, not because the dogs are preplanning the equipment needed to make the activity work better. Over time and with repetition, dogs can develop sophisticated routines that look like preplanning but there is little concrete evidence that dogs are preplanning in the way that we do.
So what does this have to do with the Queen? Or my brother in law? Or my students who are struggling with micromanagement? Simply this. If you were invited to the UK to visit the Queen, you would have a meeting with a very nice person who would explain what was going to happen, what you were supposed to do and what you were not permitted to do. When you arrived at the Queen’s “house” (castle, palace or what have you), there would most likely be a nice person to point you in the right direction and prompt your every step. Stand here. Turn that way when I signal you that her Majesty is coming. When you first see Her Majesty do this. When you are greeted say that. When she turns away from you, do this. If she hands you something take it like this. Don’t touch her. Don’t initiate conversation. Answer in this way. Every little detail is preplanned and organized so that you know exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it. And if you goof, then it is most likely that someone will help you out and make a suggestion about what you should do instead.
This is how many of my clients treat their dogs. The client behaves like the Queen’s protocol officer! They walk up to a door and say “sit”. Dutifully, the dog sits. They open the door and the dog, not getting another immediate prompt drags them through the door and into the training hall. There is a dropped treat in front of the dog, and the client says “leave it” so the dog quite politely does, but when there is a treat the person doesn’t notice, the dog snarfs it up before the client even has a chance to do anything! How often I have been greeted by an otherwise normal human being chanting “be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice” as though saying these two words fast enough and for long enough will ensure that the dog will “be nice”. Invariably the human effort at being the protocol officer fails and the dog greets me by launching himself at me like a canine cannonball.
I would argue that if you were taking your dog to somewhere truly different and out of the ordinary, you might want to be the protocol officer. So if you have to take your dog to say a ballet recital, you might possibly want to play protocol officer. But UNLESS you are asking your dog to do something truly difficult, such as meeting a world leader, your dog needs to be able to just fit in. This is where visiting my brother-in-law comes in.
My brother-in-law is a nice guy. He likes to sit out on his front porch with a cup of coffee and the newspaper on a Sunday morning. He likes to go cycling. He is pretty approachable, and will invite you in for a beer if you walk by on a Saturday afternoon while he is puttering in the garage. He doesn’t own a crown, or a thrown, and he doesn’t care if you turn your back on him when you are in his presence. He goes to work Monday to Friday, he enjoys his family, he is the master of the bar-b-que. In short, he is a pretty laid back typical Canadian guy. And if you visit him, there is no protocol officer to tell you where to stand, what to do or not do, how to dress and what to say. No one will micromanage your behaviour when you visit my brother-in-law.
This doesn’t mean that there are not expectations for your behaviour while in my brother-in-law’s home. He would prefer you didn’t break his stuff, and please don’t eat all his food all at once. Please don’t take his things away when you leave, and please do take off your shoes when you come in the house. The thing is that his expectations for your behaviour are common enough that you don’t need someone to explain what to do at every step.
Commonly Micromanaged Behaviours and Their Alternatives
Common Micromanagement Strategy
Dog snatches any edible item within reach
Teach the dog to leave things on cue and tell the dog to leave it
Teach the dog that he must automatically leave any edible items he finds UNLESS you tell him to take it
Dog jumps on guests
Teach the dog to cease jumping up on cue and tell the dog to stop jumping
Teach the dog that a guest approaching means that he should sit or lie down
Dog bolts out the door
Teach the dog to sit on cue and tell the dog to sit when you see the door opening
Teach the dog that an opening door means that he should sit
Dog is more engaged with other dogs or people when he sees them than he is with the handler
Teach the dog to make eye contact on cue and ask for eye contact
Teach the dog to make eye contact with you and then look at the dog or person he wants to greet and then re engage with you
Dog barks at passersby
Teach the dog to “hush” on cue and then tell the dog to “hush” when he is barking
Teach the dog that passersby do not need to be barked at
Dog chases the cat in the house
Teach the dog a solid leave it on cue and then tell the dog to leave it when he is chasing the cat
Teach the dog that chasing the cat is not permitted at all, ever
Dog grabs the toy before you can throw it
Teach the dog to leave it on cue and then tell the dog not to touch the toy until you have thrown it
Teach the dog that you will throw the toy when he is calm and not touching you, or even when he is sitting and making eye contact
The problem I see with many of the dogs who come through my door at the training hall is that the human partner in the team seems to think that day to day interactions need to be handled like a visit to the Queen. I see people telling their dogs to sit at the door all the time. And to leave the treats that are within reach. And not to jump on people as they approach. The problem with this strategy is that if you aren’t there to micromanage the dog, the dog will do just as he pleases. If you don’t tell him to sit at the door, he might barge right on through. And if you don’t tell him to leave the treats on the floor, he will just dart out to take them. If you don’t prevent him from jumping on guests, then he will greet impolitely and possibly with disastrous consequences! None of this is what the human wants, but the only solution they have tried is to remind, remind, remind, remind and then remind again.
What if instead of reminding we took what we know about how dogs use information and taught them an expected behaviour. What if we taught the dog that the door itself was the prompt to sit and wait? Or if instead of teaching your dog to leave a treat when told, we just taught him to keep his nose out of treats that you haven’t told him belong to him? What if we taught him that a person reaching out to say hi means that he should sit or lie down? What if we looked at training as if we were preparing someone from a different country to visit my brother-in-law?
Turning the training paradigm around so that we are no longer teaching the dog to do as he is told, but instead to know what the conventions are is a very easy way to resolve a lot of problems. To do this, you must spend some time thinking about how to accomplish making the trigger to the behaviour the cue to the alternate behaviour, and some of the time it means providing a consequence such as going to your crate or losing a turn at play to stop the undesired behaviour. It usually takes a little longer, but in the end, you have an adult dog who knows what to do, when to do it and doesn’t need a protocol officer to micromanage all of his behaviours!