One of the most popular games that people play with their dogs is the blame game. As a society, we love this game. If the dog is rude and overbearing with guests, then it is Dad’s fault because he plays roughly with the dog. Or if the dog attacks other dogs it is because the older dog taught the younger dog in the house to growl at strange dogs. Blame is lots of fun.
I think this is often how my clients feel when they have a dog with a problem behaviour. Blaming people for the problem just isn’t helpful. Blame doesn’t change the behaviour. Blame is what we do when we want people to take responsibility for things that we want changed. Image credit: bowie15 / 123RF Stock Photo
As a behaviour consultant, I don’t get to play the blame game. It can be interesting to know where the problem originated, and sometimes it is helpful to know when a trauma occurred or if the dog suffered an illness that prevented him from going to puppy class, but the fact is that the blame game just doesn’t work with dogs with behaviour problems. It is often said that dogs live in the now, and when it comes to specific behaviours this is really important information. The dog doesn’t pee on the bed while you are away because he is angry; he pees on the bed because his bladder is full and he doesn’t have to stand in a puddle of pee if he pees on the bed. As a behaviour consultant, I have to look at the behaviours that are problematic and instead of blaming someone for the problem, look at the variables to determine what can be changed to change the behaviour.
It can be helpful to look at a case in order to get the idea of how to look at behaviour problems without blame. If we have an adolescent Labrador named Lulu, and she is jumping up on people and knocking them over, we have a problem. If her people, Larry and Lucy come to me for help, I will ask a bunch of questions about Lulu. How many pups were in her litter? At what age did she come home from the breeder’s? Did she go to puppy class? What have Larry and Lucy tried already? When did she last go to the vet, and is she healthy? In gathering this information, I want to know things that will help me to rule out some strategies that might not work. If there were very few puppies in the litter or if she was a singleton, she is more likely to have impulse control issues. That tells me that we may be looking at teaching her impulse control exercises. If she came home before six weeks of age, this may also contribute to a lack of good impulse control. If she didn’t go to a puppy class then the chances are that Lucy and Larry may not have the skills to address the problem, and Lulu may not have had enough of the appropriate people to help her to meet people appropriately. Puppy class can help you to find the right people to meet and greet with a solid structure on how to do that. If Lucy and Larry have already tried penny shake cans, kneeing Lulu in the chest, stepping on her hind feet, and grabbing her roughly around the neck, then I know that Lulu may be conflicted about wanting to greet but not knowing how to do that properly. If Lulu went to the vet and she has an eye infection, and the jumping up got worse since the eye became infected, she may be quite agitated and uncomfortable and may not be making great decisions.
Dogs who are ill often don’t make great behavioural decisions. Getting sick is no one’s fault, and laying blame in one place or another doesn’t help. Realizing that the dog is sick and getting him help is a much better solution when changing behaviours. Image credit: edu1971 / 123RF Stock Photo
The next thing I am going to look at is what is maintaining the behaviour. Why does this behaviour keep happening? Lulu doesn’t jump up against cement walls, or the fridge door. She doesn’t jump up against the hood of the car, or her crate; she only jumps up on people. Likely, even if people do their very best not to interact with Lulu she gets something out of the behaviour. She gets attention if you make eye contact, she gets touch if you hold your arms up against your body to protect yourself and if she is confused, she resolves her confusion by jumping up and eliciting the known response when she does this; see my blog “THEY DO IT TO GET ATTENTION” at http://dogsinthepark-suenestnature.blogspot.ca/2013/06/they-do-it-to-get-attention.html.
Notice that so far, there is no blame; just facts. The first thing I am going to do from here is to define my target behaviour. With Lulu, I want her to learn to greet with all four feet on the floor. I don’t care how happy she is or how excited she is, I just want to her to keep her feet to herself when she is greeting. We can do this lots and lots of ways, but before I decide what technique or method I will choose with Lulu, I will decide what I want her to do. Given that Lulu appears to have a likelihood of impulse control issues, and Larry and Lucy have already tried to stop the unwanted behaviour by doing things that are unpleasant to the dog, I am going to start with some tactics that may not seem to have anything to do with the problem at hand. I would start by taking a week’s vacation from greeting anyone other than family members, so that Lulu stops practicing the unwanted behaviour. When the family greats Lulu, I will have them drop treats on the floor so that Lulu is doing something that she cannot do while she is jumping up. I will also have the family crouch to greet Lulu for this week so that once she has cleaned up her treats, then they aren’t setting her up to greet inappropriately. Still…no blame.
Once Lulu has had a whole week of not practicing the undesired behaviour, then I can start to teach her the skills of keeping four feet on the floor when greeting. If we are approaching her and she has her feet on the floor we can mark that behaviour and drop a treat on the floor and move away while she is eating for instance. Or we can use a delta signal to tell her to change her behaviour and then mark the undesired response and she can lose a turn. There are dozens of very elegant solutions to teaching a dog not to jump up when greeting, but the important part is to keep in mind that Larry and Lucy have already tried using an unpleasant outcome without success, so we want to avoid doing that again. I don’t blame my clients for trying tactics that I might not try, but I can avoid repeating things that didn’t work.
Ideally, Lulu would have come from a larger litter, come home at about 8 weeks, gone to a great puppy socialization class, and learned early how to greet appropriately before she was 16 weeks of age. Ideally, Larry and Lucy would have tried more effective interventions than they chose, and ideally, Lulu wouldn’t have an eye infection. None of the things that happened to Lulu are anyone’s fault but they do contribute to how we approach the behaviour now, and blaming Lucy for insisting on getting a very young puppy or blaming Larry for giving Lulu a bath and getting dirt in her eye isn’t going to change what we are dealing with in the here and now.
Prevention is always the best cure. We can make ourselves feel really great if we think we always know the right answer, but we don’t always know, and neither do my clients. As we learn more, we do better. We know now that the best way to prevent jumping up is to teach the dog to greet politely when they are young and reward for the right answer, but when we are looking at behaviour, playing the blame game just doesn’t change the behaviour of the dog we are working with in front of us. When clients come and ask for help, it is important that I recognize that they are not looking for blame; they are looking for help. They have taken responsibility for the problem and they are addressing that by coming to me for help. As long as they are coming to classes and working on their problems, then blaming from me or from the family members shouldn’t be a part of the program; it just isn’t going to help. Lucy and Larry and Lulu are tangled up in a problem and they are looking for solutions not blame. I need information, but not so that I can assign blame. I need to know things in order to formulate a solution. People tend to use blame when they think that someone isn’t taking responsibility when they ought to. If clients are in my training hall they have already taken responsiblity, and so blame just doesn’t belong there as a part of the process.
Whenever someone asks me about female dogs, I feel like I am jumping down a rabbit’s hole because often the answer is “it depends”. Picking up from the last installment on intact dogs, let’s review that male dogs are known as “dogs” and female dogs are known as “bitches” and we will use those terms in this blog to indicate which gender we are talking about. As a side note, I should mention that when I talk about a puppy, I am talking about a dog under the age of about twenty weeks. I have had clients who talk about their “puppies” who are now 12 years old!
So what exactly is going on with bitches? Let’s start with how reproduction works in dogs. Humans, all primates, bats and one shrew all have a menstrual cycle. All other mammals have an oestrus or estrus cycle; the word is spelled differently depending on where in the world you live. We are going to spell it “estrus” because that is how we commonly see it here in Canada. In a menstrual cycle, you can ONLY get pregnant on a few days that happen between your periods. In an estrous cycle, dogs can ONLY get pregnant for a few days during their heat cycle. In the simplest of explanations, in humans, be cannot get pregnant during a period, when we are producing menstrual blood, and in dogs, they can only get pregnant when they are expressing blood. This little fact has been the result of several unplanned litters in families who are new to living with an intact bitch. Because this is a dog blog, I am not going to go any further into the details around human reproduction than I have right here.
The dog heat cycle can be divided into four sections, and dogs can come into heat every 4 to 8 months, with a very few bitches only coming into heat once a year. The first phase is proestrus. Proestrus is the part of the heat cycle that starts when the bitch first exhibits a bloody discharge from her vagina, and continues until she is reproductively receptive. Often male dogs will be very interested in the bitch, but she will not be interested in their attentions, and she may even be aggressive towards them. The problem that novice owners have is that there is no visible difference between proestrus when the bitch cannot get pregnant and the next phase where she CAN get pregnant. Add to this that in a bitch’s first heat, she may not actually discharge enough blood for you to notice that she has come into heat. This is where you have to really know your dog’s body well, because a few other signs can be observed. The first of these signs is a swollen vulva.
So how do you get a good look at your bitch’s vulva? Quite simply, you make examining her down there a regular part of your health check. Check regularly from the time she comes home at 8 weeks, and from time to time, dab it with a paper towel. When she is in heat, you will usually get some clear to red discharge on the paper towel. At that point, the only responsible thing to do is to keep her on leash and away from the boys. Proestrus lasts an average of 9 days but can be over in as little as 3 days or last as long as 17 days.
Proestrus is perhaps the most difficult time for dog trainers because their bitch may be super cuddly one moment and then grumpy the next, especially towards male dogs. Sometimes, bitches in proestrus may be intolerant of other dogs altogether. And occasionally bitches will experience some cramping. Throughout this phase, continuing training is important. Putting a dog up and not training her during proestrus is not going to help her to mind her manners! Instead, it is important to patiently teach her that even though she may be extra friendly to the people or less than friendly to other dogs, or whatever variation of hormonal changes she may go through, it is important to keep learning and practicing all that she has already mastered.
When you come to class, please dress your girls in panties with a panty liner, but do come to class. For the gentlemen in the audience, you should know that pantyliners have an adhesive strip on the backside to stick to the panty. You remove the backing off the pantyliner and stick it to the panty, put the panties on your bitch, and you are good to go. Change the panty liner at least once a day or when it looks full if she has a heavy discharge. Dogs don’t usually have as significant a discharge as humans do though so you don’t usually have to change the pantyliners multiple times per day. When she is outside, or in her crate she doesn’t need to wear her panties, but when she is loose in the house or at class, she does. Make sure you take her panties off so that she can urinate and defecate. We suggest crating bitches in heat overnight so that they can groom themselves, but other than wearing panties there is nothing you really need to do to keep your house from getting covered in drips of blood. It helps to teach your young dogs to wear panties early, when they are quite young. You can buy dog panties at most pet stores, but many people just use a pair of boy’s underwear and pull the tail through the pocket. You will need to use her panties through proestrus and estrus.
Next up is estrus, which is commonly known as standing heat. Estrus is the phase of the cycle where your bitch can get pregnant and can last between 3 and 21 days, although again, the average is about 9 days. During this phase, you may notice less discharge, and many bitches appear to have no discharge at all, or it may be clear; just because you don’t see discharge, don’t assume she is no longer in heat. This is exactly when she is most likely to be fertile if she is bred. Other signs include losing hair on her belly, and her nipples may get enlarged, but just like in humans, everyone is an individual and each dog’s hormones are going to impact her a little differently than every other bitch. The biggest tell that you will have that your bitch is in the estrus phase is that she will start to flirt with the boys; turning her back on them and flagging her tail. She may mark even though she doesn’t normally. And she will be receptive to male dogs who want to breed her. When she is super receptive like this, it is essential that you keep her away from any males who could breed her, and continue to train and set good boundaries. Be aware that a fence is not a good enough boundary between a bitch in heat and an intact male; more than one litter has been conceived through a chain link fence!
During estrus we particularly want the girls in class. We don’t recommend that you do off leash recalls through milling dogs; that is a recipe for either an unplanned litter or a dog fight between two interested males, however, we do want your girls in heat in class. Use your leash, make sure that the instructor knows that your bitch is in season, put pants on your girl, and come train. It is best to ask to not be placed right beside an intact male, but other than these simple guidelines, training really isn’t any different when your bitch is in heat and when she is not. If you are careful and keep track of your bitch, and she is not covered (one of the technical terms for being bred) by an intact male, she should not get pregnant. If however you suspect she may have been impregnated by an intact male, call your vet right away for advice. They may advise you to have her spayed to ensure that there are no unwanted puppies. Keep in mind that you have to actually accompany your bitch outside when she goes to the toilet EVEN if you have a fenced yard. Many intact bitches have jumped the fence, or had an intact male come over the fence to breed. If you don’t have a fenced yard, take your girl out to toilet on leash, 100% of the time. Together proestrus and estrus lasts about 21 days from the first day of discharge, so this is a three week commitment, however, it is worth it if it prevents your dog from getting pregnant.
Following estrus, the bitch will go through diestrus. This starts the first day that a bitch would refuse a male because she is not longer fertile, and continues for 58 to 63 days if your bitch gets pregnant, and ends when the bitch welps, or 60 to 90 days if she is not pregnant.
Some bitches will go through a pseudopregnancy (the veterinary term for a false pregnancy) even if they have not been bred. If this happens, your bitch will look and behave like she is pregnant. She may begin lactating, nesting and she can even become aggressive as though she is guarding a litter. Pseudopregnancy is caused by a hormonal imbalance, however it is a relatively normal situation and will usually clear up without any medical help at all. If you think your bitch is experiencing a pseudopregnancy, but you are not sure, call your vet! Once you know, you can usually carry on with her as normal, unless she is really unsettled in which case keeping her home for a week or so should give her body a chance to settle down. If you are in doubt, call your vet for their medical opinion.
Diestrus is also the time when pyometra is most likely to occur. Pyometra is an infection of the uterus, and it can be fatal. If you have an intact bitch, it is your responsibility to keep an eye on her health on a daily basis, and this is yet another instance where being familiar with your bitch’s vulva can stand you in good stead. If your bitch is lethargic, stressed and panting, or if there is an abnormal discharge of her vulva, or if she is drinking or peeing excessively, call your vet. In fact when it comes to your dog’s health, any time you notice something out of the ordinary, call your vet! This is so important that we wrote a blog about it called “Who’re ya gonna call?” and you can read that at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/26/whore-ya-gonna-call/ . Calling when nothing is wrong is not a big deal, but not calling if your bitch has pyometra could cost her her life. If you have an intact bitch, it is very worthwhile to have a careful discussion with your vet about what the signs and symptoms of pyometra are so that you can be prepared in case of emergency.
The final phase of a bitch’s cycle is anestrus and this is the period between the end of diestrus and the beginning of proestrus. During this time, your intact bitch will behave pretty much the same way that a spayed bitch would. She cannot get pregnant and she should be fairly even keeled in terms of her behaviour. This is the time when you would normally spay a bitch if you are going to do that. With the whole production of proestrus, estrus and diestrus and all the things that happen during those times, you might be asking yourself why anyone would want to live with an intact bitch at all, so here you go; I will attempt to answer that question!
To begin with, if you have a bitch who is a spectacular example of her breed, or if she is particularly talented at a sport or some specific work, then you may wish to breed her with a specific goal of producing another dog as good as or better than she is. This is by far the most common reason to keep a bitch intact. Be aware though that doing a great job as a breeder is a huge responsibility, and it may cost more than you will make off a litter. If you are very lucky, you will only lose the cost of two or three pups in your first litter (there are a lot of costs associated with breeding a litter of puppies; consider that a good friend of mine just took a week off work to drive her bitch to the stud every day for a week, and in the end the bitch did not get pregnant; can you afford to lose a week’s wages and pay gas to drive your dog out to a date every day for a week?). More likely you will be many thousands of dollars in the hole at the end of the day and you may not produce the puppy you were looking for.
More and more research is showing that bitches may benefit from going through one or more heat cycles before they are spayed. There are indications that bitches who are left intact are less likely to suffer from aggression and anxiety, and they may have fewer orthopedic issues. Notice though that I am using a lot of “may” and “less likely” and “could” statements. We don’t have all the answers to these questions yet, so each case should be carefully considered with your veterinarian, taking into account your dog’s close relatives, disease risk in your breed, confidence in your breed, aggression in your breed along with as much current research as you can find. See the resources section below for links to studies and research. Be aware too that a blog like this is based on my opinion and experience; it is no substitute for the years your vet spent in school, or the newest research that is out there, so when you are choosing when to spay your bitch, you are going to have to do some digging to decide what is best for your dog.
I would be greatly remiss if I did not share the cons to having an intact bitch. We know for certain that every heat cycle that your bitch goes through increases her chances for mammary cancer. If this is not a huge concern for the close relatives in your bitch’s pedigree, then you may not need to worry about it. But if your bitch has a close relative who had breast cancer, you may want to spay sooner rather than later. If you live in a household full of young people who are going to forget to put your dog on a leash to go out when she is in heat, or if you have intact males in the house, you may want to spay before you have to deal with an “oopps litter”. Each situation has to be considered on its own merit.
Of course, you cannot let your bitch in heat interact with any intact males. If you regularly walk in an area where she might encounter an intact male, including in your neighbourhood or at the dog park, you are going to have to keep her away from there. You absolutely cannot run her off leash! Be aware too that if you run her in wilderness areas off leash, coyotes and wolves absolutely CAN impregnate a domestic dog, so that must not happen. Don’t assume that you can stop an intact male from breeding your bitch just because you have her on leash; many males will become very aggressive if you try and stop them from breeding, and if the male is not being handled on leash, you really don’t have much of a chance of stopping him. Finally, if you have an intact male in your home, don’t be surprised if he goes off his food while she is in heat, or begins howling, or even tries to dig through a door to get to her. It is often easier to board your intact males with a friend while your bitch is in heat. It is not entirely uncommon for small time breeders to board one another’s boys while the girls are receptive.
The bottom line is that if you have a young bitch and she is in classes with us at Dogs in the Park, you don’t have to stop coming to class just because your young girl has gone into heat. Small breed bitches can come into heat as early as 20 weeks (but just to be safe, consider that this could happen even earlier!), and giant breed bitches may not come into heat until they are 18 to 24 months of age or older. You may be thinking “but that is right in the middle of when we recommend that dogs are actively in training” and you would be right. We know that bitches will come into heat unexpectedly the first time and we don’t want you to stop training just because this normal event has occurred. Note when the first day of bloody discharge has occurred, and count 21 days past that and you can keep your girl in training classes by being sensible and take care not to let her get pregnant!
When I was about twelve, I wanted to teach the family dog some tricks. The process of connecting with an animal and imparting information fascinated me as much then as it does now. We had a dog in our family named Thurber, and she was my constant companion, and I wanted to do more. My aunt had a titled Golden Retriever, and I was mesmerized by the work they did together. I asked my aunt how she trained her dog and she suggested that I use a chain collar to tell the dog when not to do something and a piece of food to tell the dog when she had done something right. That was all the coaching I ever remember getting, but it made a big impact on me. I taught that dog many tricks; most of them involving jumping over or climbing onto things.
As an obedience instructor today, I have a lot of parents asking him about getting their children involved with dog training. Indeed, dog training and children can go hand in hand, but it is the unusual and rare child who is as interested in it as I was. Most kids are looking for some early successes and don’t persevere through the early stages where the dog doesn’t know what is happening and neither does the child. This can be even more difficult when the child and the dog are in a classroom full of adults and other dogs. The pressure to succeed can often result in frustration for the parents, the kids and the dog.
How can we make this more successful for the kids? For a while we ran a family class which was a levels class just for families and their kids. Sadly, not enough families could come out to make this worth carrying on with. We would go along nicely with four or five families in class for eight or twelve weeks and then it would dwindle and get taken over by families who wanted their dogs to meet and like children but who weren’t bringing children to class. Certainly there are schools who run classes specifically for children but there aren’t too many of them.
As an animal trainer who also works with horses, I think we can learn something from what we do in the horse world. It is accepted that it is not a good idea for an untrained, inexperienced young rider to be mounted on an untrained, inexperienced young horse. Instead, we prize those rare ponies who are well suited to teaching youngsters to be confident around and on horses. We start the kids in lessons where the pony knows what to do and the kids can learn from a horse who already knows the work. When the kids are proficient on a well schooled calm and older pony, we give them a more challenging mount or more difficult work on the same horse. When they master that, we give them a bigger horse, and bigger challenges. By the time a child is about twelve, he can if he has been taught carefully and properly begin schooling younger horses and by the time a child is about fourteen he can begin to teach young horses to be ridden.
This child is being set up for a successful riding experience by pairing her with a safe pony and supervision (she is on a long line to help her to successfully control the pony). She is wearing the appropriate safety equipment. The pony is the right size for her and he is calm and well behaved. We aren’t asking her to control a large unruly and untrained horse. Ideally, this is what we would do when we pair a child with a dog in an obedience class! Image credit: davetroesh / 123RF Stock Photo
This is how I recommend that we help youngsters to work with our family dogs. When mom or dad starts the training, and teaches the dog the skills and then helps the child to master the skill with the dog who already knows what to do, then the dog and the child can develop skills together. When the child has mastered the basics, then moving forward to more complex and interesting work makes for a more successful experience for both the dog and the child.
In practice what that means in our classes is coming to class and learning to click and treat effectively. Then take the skill of clicking and treating home to your kids and help them to master that part. Even very young children can be successful with you clicking and they treating. By working WITH your kids where you click and they treat does a lot of things. It teaches the dog that the click predicts the treat. It helps with your timing. It involves the children with you and the dog in an activity. Later you can change roles and let your kids click while you treat.
When you have mastered clicking to mark the behaviour you want, you can teach your dog to do a lot of different things; sit, down and come when called are really easy and useful behaviours to teach your dog so that your kids can participate in training. When your dog will sit when you say “sit” and you can click when sit happens, you can integrate into your training. You can start out by demonstrating the behaviour with your dog to your children. Once your child understands the activities that you want your dog to do, then you can play a variety of games with the behaviours your dog knows. Get your child to say “sit” when your dog sits, you click and your child can give the treat. This teaches your dog to follow directions from your child (very important!) and you mark when both the kid and the dog get the right answer. When your dog is following the direction from your child, you can start giving your child the clicker and you cue the behaviour for the dog. This gives you a chance to coach the timing of the click so that your child clicks at the right moment. When your child has had a chance at the cueing, the clicking and the treating separately, then they can start working on all three at once. I like getting kids to do five of the same behaviour in a row, before we start working on second and third behaviours.
Once the kids get the hang of the process with behaviours that the dog knows, then I like playing a game of call and response; I tell the kid what behaviours to use, and they ask for the behaviour from the dog and click and treat. When the dog and child are successful with five or six different behaviours in a row, then the kids are ready to start teaching new behaviours. The dog should by this time understand ten or twelve behaviours, so the dog understands the process of learning. It is really important that the kids understand that they are marking the right answer for the dog before they start trying to shape new behaviours with the dog.
I have a dozen or so throw away behaviours that I use to help people to learn to shape. Throw away behaviours are behaviours that don’t really matter a lot to me; tricks are throw aways, and if the dog doesn’t learn them exactly right it is not a big deal. Throw away behaviours are not the sorts of behaviours that the dog’s life depends upon, like come when called or lie down and stay. Lying down with your head on your paws is a great throw away behaviour for kids to play with. The child cues the dog to lie down, and then instead of clicking we just give the dog a treat; the click ends the behaviour, and we want the dog to stay lying down. Then your child can wait till your dog drops his head towards his paws, and click at that moment and then treat. If your child is sitting in front of your dog while he is lying down, then your dog will likely keep lying down. Help your child to offer the treat low between the dog’s feet to help your dog to continue lying down, and if he gets up, then help your child to recue your dog to lie down and then help your kid to continue to click only when your dog drops his head down to his paws.
Notice here that the parent needs to spend a lot of time training, supporting and coaching in order to make this successful for both the dog and the child. Training, supporting, and coaching set up your dog and your child to be successful and start to work independently. You cannot do this for either your dog or your child, but without input they are likely going to flounder especially in a busy classroom. Once your child has trained a few throw away behaviours or tricks with coaching, then it is time for the parent to step back, and supervise but not do it for the team. These first steps of training independently need to be successful to keep both your child and your dog engaged. It is also important to recognize that there is no imperative to work for a whole hour in a class-if your child and your dog are comfortable working for ten minutes and then they need a break, then let them take a break; it is not worthwhile to keep them working when they are no longer interested.
This is the sort of trick that little girls teach their dogs to do. The dog has to learn somethings first; lie down and stay for instance. If we help the dog to learn the behaviour and then teach the kids how to get the dogs to do what they know then the dog and the kids can both have a great experience!
Small successful steps lead to a long lasting bond between your dog and your child, but you also have to put the training in context. This is true for adults in training classes too; “what is the point?” is always an important question to answer. If you have been working on sit with your dog and your child, then make sure that you use that behaviour with your dog and your child in the context of their day to day activities. You could for instance start getting your dog to sit before your child puts the dog’s breakfast down. Or you could get your dog to sit before your child throws a ball or a Frisbee for your dog. It is really important to make training relevant to both your dog and your child.
Often when parents ask if we include kids in class, they forget that we are dealing with three learners in class; the adult, the dog and the child. Few training classes are really geared to meet the needs of a child learner, and dropping a child into an adult class is not fun for the child, the instructor or the dog. We cannot expect the child to learn in the way that adults do, and when we pair the child up with a dog who doesn’t understand the work either, then the adult, the child and the dog go away frustrated. It is better to teach your dog the behaviours you want him to learn and then repeat those behaviours in class with your kids. You can step in if you need, but generally, if the dog knows the behaviour the kid can retrain that easily and successfully.
When parents work with the school and take the dog through the work before they take the child through the work with the dog who already knows what to do, this makes it much easier for everyone. Communication between you and the instructor about your goals in bringing your dog and your child to class can really go a long way to being successful too. As an instructor, I want to know about your training goals and be a part of your successes. From time to time a child appears in my classes with their parents and the parent steps back too early, and the whole experiment falls apart. Not only is the child turned off one of the most magical activities that I was blessed to experience in my childhood, but the adult and the dog are frustrated too!
And what about the child who takes a class and is successful? When the child and the dog move through the world together and they come up with an idea together, they can explore that with a common understanding of how to communicate about what they each need. Then the child gets what I got as a child. A magic relationship with another being. That is what I wish every child could get when they come through my classroom.
Intact dogs and bitches have become a hot topic around Dogs in the Park lately. An awful lot of the young ladies seem to have come into season all at once this past summer, and we are getting a whole lot of questions! A few weeks ago, one of our regulars came into class and I could see that she was most likely in heat. I pointed this out to the human learner, and she looked disappointed, and said “we are so close to Level 3. I guess we will have to pass it when we get back.” “Back from where?” I asked. The human thought that we would not want her young bitch in class because she was in heat! Nothing could be further from the truth. As most of our “new to living with an intact dog” students do, this family had a lot of questions, and this has prompted me to write about living with, training and coping with an intact animal.
Let’s start with the boys, because in many ways, the boys are a more straightforward situation. The correct term for a male dog is a dog, just like the correct term for an intact female dog is bitch. If you read dog in this blog you know we are talking about a male dog and if you read bitch, we are talking about a female dog. If a dog is neutered, altered or “fixed”, that means that a veterinarian has surgically removed the testicles. Even in a late neuter, they don’t remove the scrotum; they just remove the testicles. If he is intact, that means that the dog still has his testicles.
A very few male dogs have had vasectomies. Usually there is a reason for the owner of the dog to choose to have a vasectomy. I had a dog that we chose to have this done for. He was a huge military lines German Shepherd dog named Eco, and he had one testicle retained inside his body. This happens from time to time, but due to the work we wanted him to do, we wanted to make sure that he would be as physically strong as possible, and to develop as normal a skeleton as he could, so we didn’t want to neuter him. Also, we had read that intact male dogs have a better sense of smell (the jury is out on this fact; we are not sure if this is true or not, but there is enough evidence pointing to this that we decided we wanted to keep the remaining testicle). Due to the fact that Eco had retained one testicle and we knew that is a strongly heritable trait, we didn’t want him to be bred, so we opted to ask our veterinarian to do a vasectomy. For us this was a very good choice, but it did mean that although he could not sire puppies, he behaved in every other way as an intact male would.
Intact males are able to breed, and they will be much more interested in the girls when they are in heat than are neutered males, but in general, living with a well trained intact male is no different than living with a well trained neutered male. Notice that I have qualified this with well trained. D’fer was my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and he was trained to do work as my service dog. He was also intact. As is true with almost all Chessies, he was an intense, passionate guy, with an opinion on nearly everything. We were well matched in that regard! I have about 5 foundation behaviours that I feel are essential to success for dogs who live with me. The first of these is the cued take it. As I like to say, the dog controls the dog! You can read more about my thoughts on this at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/11/12/the-dog-controls-the-dog/ . Other behaviours include the one hour down stay and automatically sitting at the door. The cued take it is important for intact dogs because that is what they must do when they meet a reproductively available member of the opposite sex, and that was the behaviour that mattered the most the very first time that D’fer met a female dog in heat.
I remember that we were at a tracking seminar, and another participant had brought a dog with her that she intended to have bred by a dog she was going to meet on her way home. This is not an unusual situation in the professional dog world; when we have a promising bitch, we may take her to meet a complimentary dog when she is in heat. She was behind a gate in the owner’s trailer, and as we walked by, D’fer suddenly stopped as though he had walked into a brick wall. He could obviously smell that she was in heat, and he was VERY interested! Because we had done the foundation work necessary to create the level of cued take it that I want, he did not pull or strain towards her; he stepped back and waited politely, until I told him not this time and we moved on. The owner of the bitch in heat was much relieved, as she really did not need a litter of Basset Hound Chesapeake Bay Retriever puppies!
There is a myth out there that if you have an intact male, he is going to be absolutely uncontrollable when he meets a female dog in heat. While this may be true in the case of an untrained dog who has been encouraged to misbehave and grab whatever he wants, this is completely untrue for a well trained dog. I feel that if you have an intact male, you have a responsibility to your dog and to the rest of society to make sure that your boy is well mannered and well trained so that he does not wander or impregnate dogs he should not. This means investing time in the first 8 to 10 months teaching your dog that grabbing whatever he wants is not acceptable, and that he must come when called regardless of what is going on around him.
Another common myth about intact males is that they are all aggressive, and that they will fight any other male dog that they meet. This just isn’t true! Intermale aggression may happen, but it is far from the universal phenomenon that people often assume that it is. I remember more than once having people explain to me that of course service dogs could not be intact because they would get into fights. I was always amused when I asked them to look more closely at my dog and have them discover that they had been sitting right beside an intact male! If you have ever seen a group of beach dogs in the Caribbean, or on a dump in a third world country, then you observed first hand that intact males can and DO co-exist peacefully. The deal is pretty simple. In the wild, males are not crowded into situations where they are going to argue a whole lot; and when conflict does arise, aggression is not usually the first choice in resolution. Aggression is only the best choice for an individual when that individual is fairly sure that he will win. This means that the male who is weaker, slower or less certain is most likely going to choose to retreat or otherwise acquiesce. The stronger, faster or more confident dog doesn’t feel the need to assert himself, and thus, he doesn’t pick unnecessary fights. Fights are really only a good idea when the outcome is uncertain; when both members of the conflict are pretty equally matched. This is not to say that aggression between males in the wild never happens; it means that aggression is relatively rare. So why is it that people think that intermale aggression is so common?
There are likely a number of answers to this. In the wild, we don’t prevent the little squabbles from happening and those little squabbles help the individuals to understand which dog is stronger and which dog doesn’t have a chance of winning a fight. Wild dogs have more choices to retreat too. And in the wild the intact males usually live in groups where the social structure is relatively stable with few individuals moving in or out at once. Compare this to the situation of your average pet dog! If he protests to another dog that he doesn’t like being that close, he will likely be chastised by a well meaning person. This means that the dog never gets to explain to the other dog what he does or does not like. I am not suggesting that permitting your dogs to squabble incessantly is a good idea, but they do need to be able to communicate their preferences! Next, our homes are set up to store our books, computers and clothing; they are not set up to allow dogs to retreat from one another easily. When I did home visits, one of the things I always looked at was if the dogs had a reasonable second way to retreat from conflict. Rarely did I find this already in existence! Next we often ask our dogs to accept a huge number of new dogs into their environment; we ask them to get along with every dog at the dog park, and then tolerate guest dogs to the home, not to mention all sorts of new people who have differing ideas about what acceptable behaviour might be. If you add into the mix the sexual tension of two males who are of similar strength, speed and agility and breeding females, fights will happen. Nevertheless, many intact dogs can and do learn to live peacefully together. I just would not suggest taking them out to the dog park and hoping for the best.
Neutering will not usually resolve aggressive behaviours in dogs, however there are exceptions to this. If you have two intact males, and they are starting to get scrappy, neutering ONE of them may help. The key is which one? This is an it depends sort of question and you should work with a behaviour professional to decide which dog should be neutered. Neutering both dogs likely won’t solve your problem. If you have a particularly social and studly adolescent dog, he may be the target of aggression from other dogs who are intolerant of his shenanigans, and some of the time, neutering may resolve this. The only two behavioural benefits that have been concretely demonstrated have been marking and neutering, and in both cases, the studies did not control for the effect of training. In my experience of living with a handful of intact males, and having trained several dozen more, I would suggest that training can overcome many of the issues that are often attributed to being intact.
So how do you live successfully with an intact male? Here are my top six suggestions.
1. START TRAINING EARLY
I want my intact males in training to learn to toilet on cue (avoiding the marking issue entirely if you make sure they understand how to completely empty their bladders and make all walks contingent on producing urine quickly and completely), to ask politely for every thing they want (cued take its), to come when called (even in the face of heavy distractions) and to lie down and stay for up to an hour at a time when asked.
2.GET SERIOUS ABOUT SOCIALIZATION
We talk about S.E.E.ing your puppy at Dogs in the Park. This acronym stands for systematic environmental enrichment and what it means is making sure your intact male dog has seen literally hundreds of other people, dogs, animals, floors, vehicles, and experiences, and furthermore that these exposures have all been done sub threshold. This means having your dog relaxed at all times when exposing him to all these things. I find that it is easiest to do this with the help of an organized puppy class, however, this is not always possible. When it isn’t, make sure that you have a plan for how you are going to expose your pup to everything.
3.TEACH YOUR MALE DOG THAT LEARNING AND WORK HAPPENS EVEN IN THE PRESENCE OF A BITCH IN HEAT
This is where group classes that include intact bitches are invaluable. If you cannot find a class that includes bitches and even bitches in heat, get yourself into the confirmation world; half the dogs at every dog show are female and many of them will be in heat. Teach your boys that they still have to perform even if there is a particularly attractive girl around.
4.KEEP YOUR DOG WELL EXERCISED
If your male dog is under exercised he is going to have ants in his pants and be unable to exercise his best self control. Properly exercised means opportunities to run and run hard, on a daily basis for a young dog (use your judgement; pups under six months should not be forced to exercise the way that an adult dog will), as well as opportunities to engage with you in directed aerobic activities. Fetch is good, however, it can become an activity that will excite your dog and create stress. Better are activities such as agility, treibball, herding, or tracking. All these activities teach your dog to engage with you while he is excited.
5.INCORPORATE SELF CONTROL AS A DAILY ROUTINE INSTEAD OF AS A CUED BEHAVIOUR
Too often I see male dogs who think that they can have anything they want if they are just fast enough about taking it. I want my boys to think that they can have anything they want if only they ask. I have written about this extensively all through this blog; if the door opens, I want my dogs to go about their day without rushing the doors. This often surprises guests because they have to invite my dogs to go outside. My dogs also have to be invited to start dinner, to get on furniture and to get in the car. Self control is just part of polite manners in our house. On the other hand, our dogs have a huge toy basket of freebies; things they can take any time they want.
6.BE SENSIBLE ABOUT WHAT YOU ASK OF YOUR MALE DOGS
The last time I shared a hotel room with someone for a dogshow, she had an intact bitch. Her bitch was not in season, so I was not worried about my intact male. Nevertheless, he slept in a crate that night. If she had wanted to share a room and bring her intact male, I would have declined to share a room. I don’t ask my boys to accept every dog I know in our home, I don’t take my intact males to the dog park and when I have a bitch in heat in class with my intact males, I don’t ask them to work at distance off leash unless I am really certain that both I and the handler of the bitch have perfect control over our dogs. When I have intact males in my classroom, I am careful about when I ask them to work beside a bitch in heat; I certainly don’t ask them to do this when they are relatively new to training. Setting my boys up for success is a huge responsibility, and it is what I spend most of my time doing.
As a final word about keeping an intact male, if your dog impregnates an intact bitch, keep in mind that you are responsible for half the costs and work of the litter. If you are going to keep an intact male, it is your job to make sure he is well enough trained and contained to ensure that an unplanned pregnancy is unlikely.
Coming up next…the girls! Please be patient; this blog was delayed by an injury to my thumb which meant that all my typing has been of the hunt and peck variety for the past three weeks! I am still pretty slow on the keyboard, but I am doing my best!
Imagine what it might be like to live in a completely behaviourally random world. You go to the cafe and order a latte, and the cashier asks for your hat and coat. As a cooperative citizen, you give it to the lady who throws it in the trash, as she calls out “NEXT” and turns her attention to the person behind you in line. You move down the counter to pick up your latte, and the barrista, comes out from behind the counter and grabs you and begins to waltz you around the Salvador Dali cafe and throws open the door and turfs you out onto the sidewalk. On the sidewalk, a bear in a business suit offers you a Rolex, cheap from inside his waistcoat and when you say no, he pulls out some flowers and hands them to you and approaches someone else on the street. Still wanting a latte you go back into the store, only to find that it is now filled with pink balloons and you cannot make your way to the counter. After much struggling, you catch the eye of the cashier and mention your latte and she says “no latte today, m’dear, only champers and cheese” and hands you a plate of candied almonds. Nothing you do can change the maelstrom of activity you have found yourself within. How would you feel?
Living in our world as it is depends on understanding things like the rules of the game, that gravity controls what floats and what doesn’t and who people are. When things stop being predictable, then it becomes very difficult to learn what to do. Salvador Dali had a talent for showing this concept visually in a playful and interesting way, never the less, few people would want to play checkers on a board where the pieces persist in falling through the board and where time expands and contracts independently of what the players do. Image credit: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo
When we work with dogs, they are forever looking for the way through the maze; the way to control their environment, the rules of the game. There are lots of games you can play and learn the rules through experience, and training is one of them. Yesterday, I worked with a lovely young terrier who is trying to figure out the rules. When she barks, she wants attention, and as a youngster, it worked well. She can make her person do all sorts of things by barking. Not wanting to disturb people, her person will come in to her and pick her up, or give her treats or tell her to be quiet or point a finger at her or tell her to lie down. Like trying to order a latte in the Salvadore Dali cafe, everything changes at every step of the game. So how can we make training an experiential fun game for the dog?
Think about games and activities that you have learned through experience. If someone invites you to play Scrabble and you have never played before, it might run like this. Your opponent will give you a hint or a clue or a starting point. Perhaps they will start by giving you a tile tray and some tiles and ask you to make some words in your tile tray without showing the words that you have found. Then your opponent will put down some tiles and the board and explain how the scoring works. Then it is your turn and you can take your letters and place them on the board to make a word that intersects the first word. You do this and your opponent scores your word for you and then it is his turn again. He makes a word that intersects a word on the board and you work out the scoring together. Turn by turn you learn the rules of the game, what strategies work and which strategies are ineffective. This is exactly how dogs learn when we train using operant conditioning.
Coming back to my terrier friend (she really is a friendly dog who is just trying to make sense of her world), what we set up for training was a contingency that allowed her to learn some rules through experience. The first thing we did was use a tether to limit where she could go; we set up a playing area so to speak. Then we clicked and treated to remind her that the game was starting and give her some information about the game and how it would work. Then we used four basic rules; if she was quiet, her person would stand close to her and wait. If she was barking, her person would take one step back for each bark, until he got to the far end of the room. After barking started, if she were quiet, her person would come back one step at a time. If she lay down, her person would click and treat. At first, she didn’t know the rules so she did a lot of different things to see what would happen.
When she barked, her person would step back. This frustrated her and so she barked louder. When her person was about twenty steps back, she stopped barking and he stepped forward. Then she barked again and he stepped back. For about five minutes, she learned how her behaviour affected the behaviour of her partner. Then abruptly, she lay down. Her partner came in and fed her a treat. And she barked. He backed up. She stopped barking and stood up. He stepped closer. She lay down, he gave her a treat. A very simple, but very predictable game, in which she controlled the behaviour of her partner.
This is how I think the best training works. The trainer decides on the game for the day. The trainer decides on what the contingencies are. Then the trainer allows the dog to work out the contingencies. The dog gets to decide if he wants to play or not and if the trainer has done his job well he has set up rules that make sense to the dog and the dog wants to play. In order to do this we have to understand some things about the game and about the dog we are working with.
If I have a dog who LOVES liver, but doesn’t love cheese, then it doesn’t matter what I want the dog to do, cheese is not going to help him to learn the rules of the game. Likewise if the penalty is something the dog doesn’t care about, then using that as a penalty isn’t going to work. If in the scenario that I presented above the dog was afraid of the handler and barking made him go away, the dog would learn that barking resulted in something he wanted and he would do more barking. I see this all the time in training. The person thinks that their dog should like something, and they offer it as a reward, and the dog when working out the rules figures out that he will get something he doesn’t want to have if he does a particular behaviour. This isn’t about the dog not wanting to play your game; this is about the dog not wanting what you have to offer.
Sometimes the task we are asking the dog to do is of no interest to him. If we ask a herding dog to go sit in a boat and retrieve ducks, no amount of liver is going to make that as fun for him as taking him out to herd sheep. In the best training the activities we do with our dogs are of interest to the dog. That said, there are always parts of the game that we might not enjoy; I hate setting up the board in Scrabble, but if I don’t do that part, I cannot do the part that I like doing. Manners are an example of activities that your dog must do in order to get to do things he likes better. Behaviours like greeting with four on the floor, taking treats gently, and keeping quiet are all behaviours that the dog must learn in order to be able to do things like playing agility, herding sheep or retrieving ducks. Teaching good manners allows us to do more fun things with our dogs later and also allows us to establish that the dog doesn’t live in a random world where nothing he does affects the world he lives within.
Luring is a tool that I often see in the training game that can be quickly and dangerously misused. Imagine if in my Salvador Dali coffee shop, the cashier kept holding out that latte that I wanted, but I could only get it by following her around. I might tolerate a lot of Rolex selling bears and pink balloons to get my lattte, but I probably wouldn’t enjoy the experience a whole lot more. Luring should be only used with caution and with respect for the dog. When a novice trainer discovers that he can make the dog sit by holding the lure over the dog’s head, it is a short and dangerous step to using the lure to get the dog to do things he might consider otherwise risky. Consider the dog who is not confident about getting onto a piece of agility equipment. The trainer puts the lure on the equipment, and the dog is then in a conundrum; he can get the treat, but he isn’t learning to control his environment any longer. He is conflicted because he wants the treat, but he has to do something that he considers dangerous to get that treat. He doesn’t learn to play the game as much as he learns to balance the conflict between what he wants and what he doesn’t want to do. Luring is even more dangerous when it is used to get the dog to interact with people or dogs he isn’t sure of, because he may at that point become aggressive. Luring, properly used tells the dog how to position his body, but that is all it should be used for. If the dog is concerned in any way about what you want him to do, pairing the thing he is concerned about to the thing he wants is a much safer bet than making his interaction the contingency that results in a treat.
Luring is a tool that can lead the dog into the Salvador Dali Cafe. It is best used to help the dog understand how his body ought to be positioned, but if it is abused and used to coerce the dog to do things that are uncomfortable or risky, then the dog loses control over how he interacts with the world and then he can end up in situations that don’t make sense to him or that actually put him at risk. In general, targeting can achieve the same results, with fewer risks. Image credit: simsonne100 / 123RF Stock Photo
As soon as worry comes into the game, then it is not fun anymore. Then it is time to play a different game; a game that will allow the learner to figure out that he is safe and that the world is a good place to interact with. When the dog is worried the game should simply be “see that scary thing? It produces treats” This game is great when it is played with the frightening thing far enough away that the dog can cope with his fear. Only when fear dissolves can you switch back to a game of “if you interact with the thing you are worried about, you will get a treat”.
When we think about training as a game, we can set up a series of rules and outcomes that the dog can be successful at. Teaching dogs to be confident is contingent on the dog being repeatedly successful. If the dog is successful over and over again, the dog starts to think that he can do many more things than he used to be able to do. Perhaps the worst thing we can do to our dogs is create a random world where they cannot control what they live with. Overwhelming dogs with repeated conflicts or failures results in a dog who lacks confidence and who doesn’t want to participate in training games. If your dog feels like he is living in the Salvador Dali coffee shop, don’t be surprised if he stops participating in the training game, or if he becomes tense or fearful or anxious. Just writing about the Salvador Dali cafe is difficult because none of it makes sense and there is no control over the outcomes. When there is no control over your world, learning is inefficient and upsetting and pretty soon you have a dog who just doesn’t want to participate any more.
At the end of June, I had the great opportunity to watch the SPARCS (http://caninescience.info/) conference on the web, and heard some terrific speakers. One of the speakers discussed the different perceptions from around the world about how people ought to live with dogs. I want to start out by saying that I have a way I live with my dogs and it is likely different from the way that you live with your dogs and that is okay. In fact, how I live with my dogs is actually different from the way that John, my husband lives with our dogs. The fact is that every relationship is different and there are some great advantages to those differences.
The way that I live with my dogs is that they have time alone in their crates for eating and then they have time in their yard with each other and the rest of the time they spend with me. If I am going out to do chores, I take a dog with me unless it would be dangerous to do so. If I am going to have a nap, a dog accompanies me. I use a service dog, so if I am going grocery shopping, my dog goes with me too. In the car or the truck, my dogs are in crates for their safety. Living on the farm, I don’t tend to walk my dogs as much as I used to, although I still do enjoy that if we have a chance to do that. Mostly they get enough exercise accompanying me while I do things like feed the horses and check the fences and weed the garden.
In order for my dogs to do what they do with me, they must have some skills. This is part of what drew me to training in the first place. When I am mixing gasoline to put in the tractor or the chain saw, I cannot be chasing a dog around if he is running too close to the road, nor can I have him sticking his nose into what I do. I teach my dogs to come when called, to lie down and stay, to lie down at a distance, to bring things back and to follow when I walk away all in order to be able to do the stuff I want to do with them.
On the surveys that the scientist speaking at SPARCS was showing, there were some marked differences in attitudes about how dogs should live with us. In the Caribbean for instance most people felt it was cruel for dogs to be kept indoors. In North America, it was felt to be cruel for dogs to be left outside. In some parts of the world, dogs are kept strictly for work. In other places dogs are kept strictly as companions. Some dogs live free much as raccoons and squirrels live. Which is right? To quote the inimitable Suzanne Clothier, ask the dog. When you ask the dog, you do need to be ready to turn the world inside out.
I think that if you asked my dog D’fer, he would tell you that his life is pretty good. Meals are predictable and he knows the ebb and flow of my schedule. He is “helping” me to write now, by lying quietly by my chair and sleeping. Sleeping is a good thing to do if you are a dog and nothing else of interest is happening. He has had his breakfast, he has been out to pee after breakfast, he helped me to get my morning started and supervised me making coffee. Until I get up and do something else, he is pretty much off duty and can do what he pleases and what pleases him seems to be sleeping next to me while I write.
What about the dogs who are kept strictly for work? I am thinking here of herding dogs, some Search and Rescue Dogs, some Police and Military dogs; is it fair to them that they come out of a dog run and go to work for a period of time and then go back into their kennel? My dog Eco would like that very much. He is intense and he loves to work hard, but he also appreciates his unstructured down time. He is quite happy to spend more time in the kennel or the yard than D’fer is. He was bred from police and military lines of German Shepherds, so in a way you could say that his genetics fit that kind of a life; work hard, play hard, learn hard, and then rest hard. He is not the kind of dog who would make a lot of people happy because of the level of intensity that he brings with him. When he works he works hard. When he is not working, he can be in the house with us happily, but I think he is equally happy with down time alone, provided he is getting enough work. Enough work for Eco is about eight to ten hours a day.
And how about the dogs in the Caribbean who live outside? Is that fair to them? The consensus was that people in that part of the world felt that it is not only fair but unfair to do otherwise to them. They live in a hot climate, and that is an area of the world where dogs are not often used for things like herding sheep. I imagine that if you asked them, the dog would be quite happy. One of the really intriguing things about dogs is their level of flexibility. They adapt to a very wide range of situations and they seem to succeed and thrive in these situations. It does not mean that every individual will succeed in every environment, but when the environment matches the background of the dog, it can work very well. In the Caribbean, one of the most common dogs you will see is the “Potcake” or village dog. These dogs live on the beaches, they live in the yards of people and they scavenge for food. When they are made into pets, they have the right kind of coat and structure to live outdoors and the perception locally is that this is the most appropriate place for them. These dogs also have skills that allow them to be successful. They stay close to particular parts of the community, but they don’t try and push themselves into the house. They may attach themselves to particular people and follow them around, but they aren’t usually living within the house with people.
Then there are the truly feral dogs. More and more often we are seeing advertisements for these dogs, rescued off the dumps in the far north, or off the streets of Asia or South America or India and transported here. In Moscow, there is a well known population of dogs who are extremely successful at using the city to find food. These dogs will even use the subway to get from one place to another. This report from the Wall Street Journal shows healthy dogs in good coat who are of good weight or even slightly overweight. Where you to ask these dogs if they were comfortable and confident about their existence, I be they would say yes, they have a good quality of life. When we capture these dogs and take them into our homes, we often decrease their quality of life at least for a time because they don’t understand the environment that they are transported to. The skills that are required to live on a dump or to live in the suburbs of Moscow and commute in during the day to beg food from Moscovites are not the same skills that are required to live in a home with humans in Toronto Ontario, or on a farm in the north of Scotland or a sheep station in the outback of Australia.
Dogs are flexible in both their ability to cope with a huge variety of environments, and often in their ability to cope with new environments. Many dogs make the transition from one situation to another. This is why when dogs are abducted off the streets of a city in India and transported to a suburban home in Canada, they often make the transition, even though they may have difficulty. The dogs who are most successful at making transitions are the dogs who have two important things going for them. The first is a genetic “recipe” for resilience. If the dog is overly vigilant or nervous, then the dog is not going to be able to cope with the variance of environment that he will encounter. These dogs work out in homes that are very consistent and very careful about what they expose these dogs to. And the second thing that successful dogs have is a successful exposure to a wide variety of people, animals, vehicles and flooring during their critical socialization period in puppyhood. As was pointed out in the SPARCS lectures, we are learning more and more all the time about when and how this developmental period occurs. Those dogs who get a great role of the genetic dice and a good socialization period, are great not only with the skills they need in a given environment but also in new environments.
These healthy dogs live on the street. They look relaxed, in good body condition and good coat and they are minding their own business. Do they need rescuing? Is this a bad existence for a dog? Or is this their natural environment? If you asked the dog, would it be less stressful for him to be on the street, or to be captured, transported and then rehabbed to become a pet? Dogs live in as many environments as we do, and thrive in those environments. This environment is a normal environment for a dog. Rabies vaccination campaigns and sterilization campaigns may do them good, but catching them and homing them may actually deteriorate their welfare instead of improve it. Image credit: supereagle / 123RF Stock Photo
When we look at how a dog is living I think we need to really look carefully at the environment from the point of view of the dog. Is the dog in the kennel actually unhappy? How do you know? Is he frantically trying to escape all the time? Is he spending all day stress panting or pacing? Is he relaxed and resting in his kennel? How about the dog living on the 16th floor of an apartment building? Is he happy or unhappy? Is he relaxed for most of his time? Is he licking his feet all day? Or is spending all day resting or interacting appropriately with the people he lives with? How about the feral dogs? Are they of good weight and good coat? Are they any less happy than the other wildlife they share the environment with?
When we look at the many environments that dogs have successfully lived within, we will find many individuals who are perfectly happy in the most unusual circumstances, and when we ask the dog, and we look at what they are doing and how they are doing it, we often find dogs who are perfectly happy living there. When we are looking at how dogs are kept, we need to not think about how we like to live, or even how we like to live with our dogs. We need to think about how the dog likes to live-is he happy and well adjusted in his environment, and keep him there.
Many years ago, I had two clients in class. One very energetic bouncy happy lady had a very energetic bouncy happy border collie. The other very quiet laidback low key lady had a very quiet laid back low key Malamute. When it came time to teach the dogs to come when called, the very energetic bouncy happy lady handed me her dog’s leash, I held the dog by the collar and she jumped up and down and up and down and made squeaky enticing noises and ran away and called her dog. Her very energetic very bouncy happy dog raced joyously to her and promptly bounced her to the ground where the two of them had a very energetic, very bouncy happy love fest. Next, the very quiet laidback low key lady handed me her dog’s leash and I held her dog by the collar as she ambled slowly away and stopped half way to the end of our training field to tie her shoe lace. She got up and slowly continued to the end of the field where she turned and calmly asked the dog to come. I released the dog’s collar and he very slowly, very quietly and calmly ambled towards her, stopping once to sit down and scratch, and then to sniff and go pee, and then he wandered off towards the other dogs in the class waiting for their turn at the exercise.
Week after week, I coached these two trainers on how to get better recalls. Relax a bit I told the very energetic bouncy happy lady, and he won’t knock you over when he gets to you. Get a little more excited and interesting for your dog I coached the quiet laidback low key lady, so that your dog is a little more excited to get to you. The more I coached them, the more extreme each of these ladies seemed to get. The very bouncy lady got bouncier, and the quiet lady got calmer and even more reserved. One day in exacerbation, I had them trade dogs and each dog had a much better recall. Of course over time, each of the handlers DID improve however the bouncy lady was still bouncy and the quiet lady was still quiet. Luckily they each had dogs to suit their own temperaments!
This scenario really highlights something I see in my classes though. We have to give the dogs what they need in order to learn. We can only teach the dogs what they have the foundations to understand and we must present the material we want them to learn in such a way that they will be successful in their activities. If we don’t we won’t be successful in our training. In short, we have to travel at the speed of dog.
When I see dogs struggling in class I start out by asking myself if the dog has all the information he needs in order to learn the task. If we are teaching a dog to go away from us for instance, and we start by asking the dog to move out 20 metres, and the dog doesn’t know how to go two metres away from us on cue, then we are very unlikely to be able to build a solid, happy and energetic go out. We need to understand the mechanics of what we are working on (coming when called usually works better when the person is a longer not shorter distance from the dog for instance), what motivates the dog, and what the dog already knows in order to be successful. I have taught the long distance go out a number of different ways, all depending on which dog I am working with. The point is that I have to travel at the speed of dog in each and every instance.
Another thing I need to consider when I am teaching dogs is what their own way is of moving through the world. I tend to be a fairly intense, high energy handler. I do best with confident, pushy dogs who enjoy my big personality, but as a professional dog trainer, I have to train calm quiet dogs, timid dogs, energetic silly dogs and dogs who just defy classification. In other words I have to be flexible in the way that I interact with dogs.
I also have to be flexible in my behaviour when I am teaching different exercises. When I am teaching a dog to perform a self control exercise such as the down stay, it is better to start out by being low key and neutral. When I want to teach a dog to come to me from a distance, it generally pays better to be a little bit exciting, unless of course you are working with a dog like my student had who was charging her and knocking her over.
Another aspect to travelling at the speed of dog is the rate at which we give the dog information. Ideally we want the dog to offer enough iterations of the behaviour that he can get sufficient rewards to tell him what it is that we want. We have to set up the dog so that he gets the right answer quickly and efficiently and if he has not received a reward recently we cannot be surprised when he disengages from the activity and does his own thing.
Not only do we have to give the dog enough information to know when he is right, but we also have to give him cues in a timely manner. I have watched many students say the dog’s name and then wait and wait and wait before giving the dog the cue to the behaviour that will earn a reward. The only thing this achieves is a dog learning that in the training context, he should disregard his name! If your dog is engaged, you likely don’t need to use his name at all. You can learn more about how to effectively use your dog’s name at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/13/your-dogs-name-an-operating-manual/ . Similar to this issue is when you have a dog who has performed a behaviour, and the handler delays the next cue for a very long time. This leaves the dog hanging so that he doesn’t quite know what is coming up next, and if he is not eagerly engaged in the activity to begin with, he will just wander off to do his own thing.
Travelling at the speed of dog requires us as trainers to be aware of a number of variables and factor them all in when we are working with our dogs. If the dog we are working with tends to be excitable, we need to tone down. If that same dog needs to perform that behaviour with exuberance, then we can bring our own enthusiasm up a bit and help them to express the appropriate amount of energy for the given activity. We need to avoid overwhelming the dog with too much or too little information. Developing the ability to juggle all these factors can feel very overwhelming for many of us, however then they are all in balance, the dog travels along through the training game along side of us and learns effectively and efficiently.