COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES

FAIR IS NOT EQUAL

FAIR IS NOT EQUAL

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.

Little toddler boy, playing with his little brother at home
These brothers have different needs, abilities and interests. Treating them equally would not be fair to them! Instead if we engage them in activities that take advantage of their differences, they will both be happy and successful.

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. 

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Sometimes this is what I think people think that they are aiming for when they make absolutely everything the same for two dogs in the home. Instead of trying to make everything equal, try making everything fair by taking into account what each dog needs.

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.

Dog in cage. Isolated background. Happy black pug in iron box
Using a crate for meals can make room for you to address the needs of another dog while this dog is having his needs met. Fair is when both dogs get what they need, even when what they need may not be the same thing.

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.

FAIR IS NOT EQUAL

THE BRIDE AT THE BUS STOP

Originally posted November 2011

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.”

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This lovely bride probably didn’t just choose her husband because he was at the bus stop! She probably took some time to get to know him and chose the person she wants to marry based on criteria such as compatibility and common interests. Copyright: fotobyjuliet / 123RF Stock Photo

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.

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This is a Chinese Crested. They have very little body hair and the powder puffs have hair on their heads and feet. I love winter camping, canoeing and hunting. This dog would not be happy living in my home, and likely I would not be happy with him either. It is important to know about the breed you want and what they are like and make sure that they are compatible to your life before they come into your home. Copyright: malamooshi / 123RF Stock Photo

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.

THE BRIDE AT THE BUS STOP

JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN, DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD

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!

54380485 - border collie weaving through poles at a dog agility trial
It takes a long time for a dog to learn to weave properly and efficiently and when you want him to do so. Many dogs sort of learn to weave and they may go through the obstacle to your satisfaction, but that doesn’t mean they are truly ready to compete. This is the sort of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” situation that gets competitive trainers into a lot of trouble! Copyright: herreid / 123RF Stock Photo

 

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. 

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We cannot tell what is causing this dog to be afraid for the pinned back ears, the giant pupils and the tense paws and muzzle all point to a dog who is being exposed to something he is deeply uncomfortable with. Here is a case of just because you can, does not mean that you should make this dog get close to whatever is freaking him out! Copyright: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

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.

 

 

JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN, DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD

MICROMANAGEMENT, THE QUEEN AND MY BROTHER IN LAW

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.

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Meeting Royalty is a very carefully scripted event and for most of us, we need the help of someone like a protocol officer to guide us through the experience without any glitches. This is not real life for the vast majority of the world however, and it is a stressful and difficult way to interact because it necessitates someone else directing your every move.

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.

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This is a difficult situation, made more difficult by the fact that the dog who is on leash is pulling and thus being pulled back by the handler. If instead the dog had been taught that when she wanted to play with a friend, she should sit, and offer eye contact and then look at the other dog and look back at the handler, the situation would look much different.

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
Behaviour Common Micromanagement Strategy Alternate 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?

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This sort of interaction doesn’t happen by accident! Likely these two animals were posed for the picture, however they would not be completely relaxed in the image if the dog had been taught that he could chase the cat unless told otherwise. Dogs need immediate relevant consequences to teach them what they should do. If this were my cat and my dog, the dog would learn very quickly that every time he chased the cat, he would have a turn in his crate for a short period of time. This works especially well with young dogs. Copyright: dikaya37 / 123RF Stock Photo

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!

MICROMANAGEMENT, THE QUEEN AND MY BROTHER IN LAW

WHY I AM NOT A SUPERMODEL

 

For anyone who has been in my classroom, you likely have realized that I am not going to ever be a supermodel.  Aside from being 40 years too old, and the wrong body type, I just don’t care about clothing, hair and make up enough to bother.  Incidentally, if you are curious, it is Sue writing, not John, but he probably would not be a super model either.  Aside from being the wrong gender, and the wrong body type, he really just doesn’t care enough about clothing, hair or make up to bother either.  Which brings me to a thought about our dogs.  How many of our dogs are being asked to do jobs they just don’t care about?

Training is the way that we acquire skills and it doesn’t matter if you are a human, a dog or a dolphin, skills are important.  In theory I have the skills needed to be a supermodel; I can walk, and wear clothes and if pressed, I can sit around while someone plays with my hair and puts make up on me.  Maybe I don’t have the fine tuned strut that a model needs, but I can wear clothing, and I can walk, so what is preventing me from being a super model?  Opportunity?  Nope.  I just don’t have the patience for the work!  I would need a great deal of training and incentive to do that and you would have a very hard time convincing me that the work is relevant to my wellbeing.

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This is just not me! I would not be happy doing this type of work. Sometimes we ask our dogs to do work that they don’t understand or like. We should ask ourselves if this is actually a good idea. Copyright: fashionstock / 123RF Stock Photo

So what about our dogs?  You will hear me say over and over again that trained dogs get to do more, and that we should be willing to teach our dogs to do different things, so why not take up whatever sport the handler wishes?  Recently, one of our instructors came to me to let me know that she had pulled out of one of our advanced classes, not because she and her dog were not learning things but rather because her dog was not enjoying the work.  “My dog is doing this to please me, but she doesn’t actually like it” was the message I got.  And good for the handler in recognizing that.

There are behaviours that I want every dog of mine to learn, regardless of how they feel about it; coming when called, not dragging me down the street, allowing the vet to examine them and lying down and staying for instance.  These are the skills that allow our dogs to live successfully with us, but they are not their job.  Have you thought about what your dog’s job might be?  Many of us come to obedience classes because that is what we are supposed to do with our dogs, and then slot them into the jobs we want them to do without much more thought than that. 

The problem with this is that many of our dogs are not actually interested in doing the work we wish them to do.  As a behaviour consultant this is a daily frustration, as the Good Dog students probably all know.  Consider what happens when we breed a dog to herd sheep 8 hours a day, and we expect that he is going to enjoy sitting on the couch day in and day out without any exercise.  What might happen?  Might that dog begin to engage in behaviours such as racing around the house and barking at traffic going by? 

Many of my students want their dogs to participate in sports such as rally or agility and for most dogs, they really get into that.  Some dogs don’t though.  Some dogs prefer things like nosework, or tracking.  When we put together our advanced classes, some of our students try and take as many of them as they can, and while we encourage everyone to give each class a try, it is really important to stay tuned in to your dog to discover which of these classes make you both happy. 

All this preamble is probably bringing you to the point of asking yourself what to do if your dog doesn’t want to do the one thing that is really important to you?  What do you do when you love agility and your dog just doesn’t like it?  Or maybe the only thing that matters to you to do with your dog is hiking and your dog just doesn’t like to go out in anything other than the ideal weather?

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Agility is a sport that many different dogs like, but even in such a middle of the road sport, there are dogs who don’t think this is fun. It is important to listen to our dog’s preferences especially as we ask them to perform more and more difficult or advanced work! Copyright: mackland / 123RF Stock Photo

The first thing I like to do is to is to try and figure out why the dog doesn’t want to engage in the behaviour.  I once had a client who purchased a husky to go and run with him.  As it turned out, we happened to have a very hot summer when he was just the right age to start running at about 18 months.  The husky learned very quickly that running gear meant that he was going to become hot and uncomfortable.  The husky was no dummy!  He learned that running was uncomfortable so he didn’t like running..  He LOVED to run, but not with the owner or on leash.  The only thing we had to do to change the activity was to choose running times when the weather was cooler.  By taking the dog’s comfort into account, we were able to teach him to like the activity.  As the old saying goes, if I had a nickel for every dog who was uncomfortable in the desired activity, I would be a whole lot richer! 

Sometimes the dog is behaviourally unsuited to the work that the owner wants to do.  Recently I saw a post on a hunting list I follow.  The person on the list wanted a dog to go duck hunting with, but his wife wanted a German Shepherd.  The person asking the question wanted to know how good German Shepherds might be at duck hunting.  As it happened, I once had a German Shepherd who was pretty decent at fetching ducks.  He enjoyed it and he was technically good at it, but there were a few problems.  Firstly, he got a LOT of water in his ears.  There is a really good reason why retrievers ALL have dropped ears!  Secondly, once he was wet, it took a long time for him to dry off and if I had asked him to retrieve in the late fall when goose hunting usually happens, he would have gotten very wet and cold and likely he would not have thought that retrieving was quite that much fun.  Even though he was good at retrieving, including in water, he much preferred to do tracking.

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This dog is big enough to pick up a goose and carry it and he has enough coat to tolerate the kind of weather in which goose hunting happens. He should also like to swim, and be tolerant of gun shots to be good at this work. In other words, this is a job for a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, but likely not for a Yorkshire Terrier! Copyright: schlag12 / 123RF Stock Photo

Sometimes something happens during training that makes the activity you want to do more difficult for your dog.  If you keep changing your mind about the behaviours you want when preparing do to an activity, the activity itself can become very frustrated.  I did this to one of my dogs early in my obedience career.  I kept changing how I was approaching training with this particular dog, and ended up just confusing the dog.  The dog got to the point where she was confused, annoyed and frustrated and just really didn’t enjoy obedience competitions.  I had a coach who noticed that I was creating frustration and we were able to work through it however, if I had persisted I might have eventually caused much more damage to the relationship I had with that dog.  We went on to have a great relationship once I straightened out my training program.

If an activity with a dog is really important to you, consider that BEFORE you get the dog and choose a dog who is going to start out with an aptitude and an interest in that activity.  There is a reason that we usually choose hounds for trailing, and herding dogs for rounding up sheep.  These dogs have been bred for a long time to do that work, and allowing the dogs to do what they were bred to do helps a lot. 

If you already have a dog and he doesn’t like doing the activity, you may want to either do less of the activity, or stop doing it altogether.  If you have a dog who does a lot of things they really like, and you only ask the dog to do something you like that the dog doesn’t some dogs might be willing to “play the game” to humour you if you don’t ask him to do the activity too often.  The key is take your canine partner into consideration, and like the trainer at our facility, choose activities that both you and your dog will enjoy.

WHY I AM NOT A SUPERMODEL

FOOD

Dogs love food.  Well, mostly dogs love food.  Food is such a contentious issue.  People don’t always like to use food in training, and often even when people do use food, they either don’t use it effectively or they struggle with a dog who doesn’t want to take treats.  In the training hall we often see people making all sorts of food errors, so it is time to write a blog about how to use food.

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Most dogs really love food and spend a lot of time thinking about it. When food isn’t working in training, there are often things we can do to help!

The first issue we see is the “switcheroo”.  The switcheroo happens when a dog hits early adolescence and growth slows down.  Most families get a young puppy and are astounded at how many calories that little perpetual motion machine can suck back.  Let’s say that a pup is 3kg when he comes home, and he is eating one scoop of dog food in total each day.  Within 6 weeks that puppy is now 10kg, and eating three scoops of dog food each day!  Skip forward another two months and the puppy is 20kg and eating five scoops a day, and then 8 weeks more and he is 30kg and eating 7 scoops a day.  This brings our pupster to about 7 and a half months of age and all of a sudden Fido stops eating.  In a panic, the average family goes out and spends a pile of money on a different bag of dog food and Fido resumes eating.  A week or so later, Fido goes on strike again, and the family spends more money on a third brand of food.  Fido resumes eating and two weeks later goes on strike.  At about this point, Fido who should be 35kg is a solid 40kg, and has become a picky eater, and the client tells me in class that Fido won’t work for food.

So what is really happening in the “switcheroo”?  Often what is happening is that Fido has stopped growing and doesn’t need 7 scoops of dog food!  When you change dog foods, novelty will get Fido to eat again, but he doesn’t really need all the extra calories, so a week or two later, he self limits his food and you worry that he isn’t eating enough.  You switch again and the novelty entices him to eat for a bit and then he hits another point where the calories are just too much and he stops eating again. 

So what happens to food training when the old “switcheroo” is at play?  Often the dog stops wanting to work for food because he is already getting far too many calories in his bowl.  The first thing that I do is check with the family to make sure that there is nothing going on that would indicate the need for a vet visit.  I do a quick visual inspection of the dog and feel his ribs to see what his body score is.  The easy way to tell what your dog’s body score is would be to first feel your dog’s ribs and then find the part of your hand that is most similar to your dog’s ribs.  Use the pictures below to determine if your dog is overweight.  If your dog is overweight, but everything else is normal; he is drinking and exercising and toileting normally, then the first thing I would do would be to feed a bit less food in his bowl.  Dogs love to eat, but they are also usually really good at self regulating when they get overweight and then they get fussy about the treats they want for training.

Usually with an adolescent dog who has had several different foods because he has become picky, we see his appetite normalize and his willingness to work for regular food return when we remove some of the calories from the bowl.  This is the easiest situation to resolve when it comes to food and training.  Once you figure out how much your dog should be eating, take the total amount for the day and divide it by three.  Feed 1/3 at breakfast, 1/3 at dinner and save 1/3 for training class.  Let’s look at my German Shepherd Eco as an example. 

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There are so many options when it comes to feeding your dog and it can be tempting to just change foods if your dog is not eating reliably. If your dog is already eating a quality diet, consider trying decreasing the quantity of food that you are putting in the bowl before changing the diet. If your dog is not on a good diet or if they have a medical issue, you should talk to your vet before changing your dog’s diet.

When I got Eco at 7 and a half weeks of age he ate a whopping 2/3 cup of kibble each day.  Total.  By the time he was 12 weeks he was eating 1 ½ cups, and at 16 weeks he was eating 2 ½ cups.  His intake steadily increased over the weeks and months until at 7 months he was about 40kg and was eating a total of 12 cups a day divided into four meals, and he was a lean, mean fast moving doggy machine.  I remember thinking at this age that I sure hoped he would slow down soon as I was going to go broke feeding this dog!  Predictably at about 8 months he started to skip a meal.  That meant that all of a sudden, he went from eating 12 cups a day reliably to eating 9.  Whew!  That was cheaper!  I started to feed three meals a day, but instead of feeding three cups per meal, I fed 2 cups per day and kept 3 cups aside for training.  At about ten months of age, Eco started to pretty reliably skip one of his three meals each day, so I took another three cups of food out of his daily ration, which brought us down to a much more reasonable 6 cups per day, and divided that into three, making 2 cups per serving, Eco went to two regular meals and two cups set aside for school.  By the time Eco was four he was normally eating about 4 cups of food a day, and just got a few treats in class.  Mostly in class at four, he would work for play.

The next thing I have seen in class is the dog who will only work for ultra high value treats.  A number of things can be at play there.  The first of them is that when the dog is very stressed or overwhelmed, he cannot eat.  This should not be a surprise; the same happens to people too.  Consider what it might be like to be in a car accident and then have someone offer you a nice dinner.  Most of us would find that situation too stressful to allow us to enjoy eating.  The same thing can happen when the dog is extremely excited, and that is also true for us.  Most of us don’t feel like eating when we are engaged in something like riding a rollercoaster.

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Both of these ladies are really excited. One of them is happy about her excitement and the other lady is a little more concerned. Neither of these ladies would probably want to eat a sandwich if I were to offer them one, because when you are really excited, you are not really interested in food!

Other things can contribute to dogs only wanting to take high value treats too.  When your dog comes to class overweight, they are going to be really picky about what they will take as treats.  Similarly, if he comes to class right after eating a large meal, he will be willing to take dessert class treats, but not lower value treats.  One thing that people often try is to completely deprive their dogs before class.  This can backfire too; often dogs who have been deprived enough can be so deeply focused on any food at all that they cannot even think.  It is far better to feed more sensibly, and come to class with a dog who is neither overweight nor completely deprived. 

Dogs definitely have preferences, and there is a lot of value to knowing what your dogs prefers.  I have worked with dogs who do not like liver and making a dog take a treat he doesn’t want works against you as a trainer, even if it is a treat you want your dog to like or if it is a treat you think your dog will like.  I have also worked with dogs who like really unusual things like cooked squash, raw celery or blueberries.  When I have a dog with strong preferences, I often rank the treats.  When I know for instance that a dog likes liver best, and then rollover and then cheese and then bread and finally kibble.  I will sometimes take some time to teach the dog to take lower value treats.  Working in a low distraction environment I will offer the dog his lowest value item.  If he takes the treat, I reward him with the next value treat.  In this case, I will offer kibble.  If the dog takes a piece of kibble, then he gets a piece of bread.  I then offer the dog another piece of kibble.  Most dogs will look longingly at the bread.  Hold out.  If the dog takes the kibble, he gets another treat but THIS time, he gets the next level up; so I would feed him some cheese.  Next I will offer him another piece of kibble.  He will likely look out for another piece of cheese.  Hold out.  When he takes his kibble, he will get the next thing on his list; in this case the rollover.  Then offer more kibble again.  When the dog takes the kibble he gets his top value treat; in this case the liver.  I keep working with the dog offer kibble to get a better reward.  I keep working on this until the dog will willingly take a low value treat regardless of the situation, in the hopes of getting a better treat.

Perhaps the most common error I see in the training hall is reinforcing every single behaviour without any differential between good iterations and not so good iterations.  If you ask your dog to sit and he lies down, and you give him a treat because he did SOMETHING, anything, you are in fact teaching him that trying random behaviours is really valuable, but it doesn’t teach your dog that when you say sit, you mean sit, or when you say down, you mean down.  You can actually use treats very constructively to teach your dog the difference between a really, really valuable behaviour such as a fast, accurate sit, when you ask the first time, and a slow reluctant sloppy sit.  To teach the difference between a fast snappy sit and a slow casual sit, you can simply choose to reward the best sits to reward with the favourite treat, and then reward the sloppy undesired sits with a low value treat.  Dogs can learn really quickly that a good sit gets a good treat, and a poor sit gets a less preferred treat.

 

Dogs also need to learn about self control around food before you start training.  If your dog thinks that if he can see the treat, he can have the treat, then he is going to have a harder time learning to get the treats by doing something to earn them.  I like to start all training by teaching the dog to control himself around food (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/11/12/the-dog-controls-the-dog/ ).  Once your dog has learned not to snatch treats as soon as he sees them, you can start to use your treats much more effectively.

As with many tools, treats are a good servant but a poor master.  When used well, food is perhaps the best way that you can teach a dog.  When used poorly you can teach your dog all sorts of bad habits. 

FOOD