HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Every year at this time, I start preparing my clients for the holiday season, and every year, I come up against the same thing; families want to include their dogs, but they often have very unrealistic ideas about what their dogs should be doing with their families.  People want their dogs to be part of gift opening activities, however, they don’t want the dogs to take every gift from under the tree and tear it apart.  People want their dogs to be around during the holiday feast, but they don’t want him to beg at the table.  And families like to include dogs in greeting the guests at the front door.  The problem is that everyone has this idea that it is somehow or another going to all work out, without ever preparing their dog for the big day.  Incidentally, I see this in families who want to include their dogs in their weddings, funerals (yes, I had a client who wanted her dog to go to her late husband’s funeral, and called up to ask my advice on how to best include him!), birthdays and other family events.

I like to include my dogs in most of my activities too, and so people are often surprised that they may come to visit me and never see my dogs.  I am actually more likely to bring a dog to visit you than you are to see one of my dogs when you come to visit me.  I feel like saying that the reason for this is that I am a control freak, and that would not be untrue but there is a lot more to it than that.  It starts from the point that I really want my dogs to be successful.  I really, really want them to be successful.  Yes, they goof, but the vast majority of time, after people have met my dogs they say things like “wow, I wish my dogs behaved as well as that!”

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Including your dog when visiting is an art that includes actually training the dog. This dog has been taught to sit and stay in a relaxed way with his family, showing that the family has prepared the dog for a group portrait.

The way that my dogs get such a stellar reputation is simply that I train them to do what I want them to do and then I plan interactions to compliment what they know.  All my dogs know how to do a one hour down stay by the time they are 6 months, so if I have to take them somewhere, I can depend on them to lie down and stay for at least an hour.  This means that I can start taking them quiet places to visit for up to an hour at a time so long as their other needs for food, water, exercise and social contact have been met.  This can be a lot of fun.  I can go out with a friend for coffee somewhere, or I can go to someone’s home, or they can come to visit me.  In this way I teach my young dogs that there is an expectation about the down stay no matter where it happens.  The thing about this is that I don’t take my pups out with people who are going to upset my training plans.  I only take them places where I know they will be supported and successful in what I want them to learn.  If you are the type of guest who is going to tease my dog out of her down stay and into play, then she can rest in her crate while I am visiting with you.  If you have kids who might be too quick or too much fun for a puppy to resist joining in the fun with, then she can rest in her crate, where she won’t learn bad habits right off the bat.

With my older dogs, who know the drill, I will have them out while you visit, if I am confident that you are the kind of guest who knows how to mind their manners around my dogs.  I expect that my dogs are going to mind their manners around my guests, but by extension, I expect that my guests will mind their manners around my dogs.  When I am visiting with you, you are the person I am interested in, so I want to be able to spend my time focusing on you!  I don’t need to spend all my time pleading with my guests so that they are not getting my dogs unnecessarily excited, and I don’t want to spend my time with you chastising my dogs if they goof and forget their manners.  So unless and until I am very certain that my dogs cannot be tempted out of their down stays, it is most likely that they won’t be coming out of their crates or the yard if you are at my house for a short visit.

If you are visiting for more than an hour or so, I usually make some time for an activity that everyone is going to enjoy with my dogs.  If I have a new adult dog in my home, who doesn’t know the rules and doesn’t have the training to participate, you still won’t meet that dog.  It isn’t fair to the dog to be asked to behave himself when he doesn’t understand the rules.  If people are up for it, we can go for an off leash walk around the farm at a time that works out for the rest of our day.  If people don’t want to go for a walk, we sometimes go out for a game of fetch, one dog at a time.  In the event that people don’t want to go outside, then I will bring the dogs out one at a time, to do some tricks and maybe play some scent games.  What I do with my dogs and you will depend upon who you are, what your experiences are with my dog or dogs, and what the activity is for the day.

So how do you include your dog in the holidays while also making sure that your dog is going to be successful?  As always, it depends.  If I am expecting your family to my home in the mid afternoon, to stay for two nights, and participate in two formal meals, brunch, gift giving and the normal hubbub that comes along with a houseful of people who don’t normally live there, I am going to give some thought to how to set up for success.  If I am going to visit you, the process is analogous, as I will outline below.

Dog tearing up Christmas present
Gift giving is a large part of many traditions! If your dog does not already know how to automatically leave items that are not his, leaving him to his own devices during the holidays almost always results in a dog who gets into something he ought not. This may result in something funny, but it could also make someone who worked really hard on the perfect gift really upset, and rightly so! Managing expectations, using crates and leashes and teaching your dog what you expect of him is a better choice than allowing him to cause this sort of upset.

When I am expecting guests, I always make certain that my dogs get a really good run before you are expected to arrive.  For my dogs that usually means getting them out and off leash, preferably in a group of other dogs.  This is fairly easy for me; we live in the country, in a place where we have over forty trails to choose from and we know a lot of dog families so getting real exercise is not terrifically difficult for me.  If I am going to go visit someone, I always look for a walking trail on the way where I can stop for at least 40 minutes to run my dog or dogs.  I want to start out a guest experience, either as a host or as a guest with a dog who is not full of beans and silliness.

Once I get that out of the way, when I get home, I make sure that I have a good supply of toys pre-stuffed to give my dogs in their crates.  Stuffing Kongs properly means knowing your dog very well, and understanding how they work on toys.  With naïve dogs, I will just put kibble and chunks of treats such as liver, sausage or cheese loosely in the Kong.  I will put the whole thing upside down in a coffee mug so things don’t fall out while stored.  With more experienced dogs, I will do the same thing, but add a plug made from sausage or cheese.  Locally we can get a product called Rollover (https://rolloverpetfood.com/product/beef-dog-food/ ) that works very well to plug a kong.  There are many brands the world over of this type of product.  With dogs who are really good at this, I will use Rollover to lock in the kibble on multiple levels; I will alternate a layer of kibble with a layer of rollover until the Kong is completely stuffed.  Kongs stuffed in this way can be dropped, thrown, or bounced and they won’t spontaneously empty.  For the truly serious Kong chewer, I will freeze these to make emptying them really difficult.  Although I mention Kongs here, there are now a wide variety of toys available to stuff.  Just make sure that you can blow through the toy so that you don’t create a vapour lock that can suck your dog’s tongue into the toy.  You can find my blog on safe toys at https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/safe-toys/ .

Once I have a well exercised dog, and a pile of stuffed toys ready, then I am ready to entertain you.  If I am travelling, I bring the toys with me.  Regardless of if I am answering the door or ringing the doorbell, that initial excitement is not part of my dog’s lives because they are in crates when it happens.  Usually they don’t have a Kong at this point.  If I am arriving at your house, my dogs are in their crates in the vehicle, and if you are arriving at my home, my dogs are usually crated for about a half an hour before you arrive. 

You may be wondering why I do it this way.  When dogs are permitted to greet every single guest every single time, they never learn to do that politely.  Imagine for a moment if your closest friend greeted you the way most dogs greet people at the door.  Imagine how you might feel for instance if your dad or your uncle were to rush the door yelling and hooting and hollering, and then leapt up at you and tackled you to the ground.  Even if the intent was benign, you would not be pleased.  When my dogs are well enough trained to lie quietly and approach gently, they can greet people at the door.  I use behaviours such as the one hour down stay (https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/the-racehorse-down-stay/ ) proofed against doors to teach my dogs what to do but I don’t allow my dogs to just greet.  Usually when I am visiting for two nights, I have a pile of things to bring in and I leave my dogs in their crates in the vehicle until I am ready to bring the rest of my things in. 

Often if you are visiting me, I will have coffee waiting, and we can sit down to visit a little, and this is when I like to bring my dogs out.  My dogs understand that people sitting around drinking coffee means that they should find a place to settle.  If I have a young or naïve dog, I will often bring him in on leash, and have treats available so that I can reward him for calm and quiet behaviour.  Once you and the dogs have had a chance to meet quietly, either by you going to them to give them treats, or they coming and sitting beside you to get a treat, then they are free to go about their day.  People have often commented when they stay with me about how my dog’s “excited” greeting is very low key.  They are obviously pleased to meet you, however they are not whining, jumping up or knocking you over.

If I am visiting, I usually bring yellow mats for my dogs (dogs see yellow and blue, so I want something that they will recognize as their own) and they do a down stay once we are in the house.  When I am visiting, my dogs are not allowed to move freely through your house without permission.  They don’t know the rules of your house, and I don’t want them to be in your way.  When I move from one place to another in the house, they follow me, either because they have been taught to do that, or because they are on leash. 

Cute little Shiba Inu dog lying on doormat at home
Go lie on your mat is one of the essential behaviours that my dogs need to know to help them be successful guest dogs and host dogs. I look at my dog’s mat as his chair at the table. I can decide where he needs to lie, and make sure that everyone knows not to disturb him there. This includes your dog in your activities without creating the kind of chaos that can occur when he doesn’t know where he should be or what he should do.

There is an exception to these rules for my dogs.  If you know my dogs really well, and you know how I want you to interact with my dogs, then I may allow them to meet you at the door.  Friday has a young friend who visits a few times a year, and when she comes to visit, Friday will circle her and smile, and she will bend over and tickle Friday all over.  They are delightful to watch because their behaviour is highly reciprocal.  I contrast this with most greetings is a dog who is so excited and who has no idea about what is expected, and a human who spends most of her effort fighting off the affections of the dog.  This is not a healthy greeting, and it doesn’t reflect what I expect of my dogs or of my guests.

Once the guest/host greeting phase is over, my dogs are usually fairly settled and behave towards my guests as they would towards John and me; they are happy and relaxed, but they don’t spend all their time overwhelming people with their exuberance.  If at any time they are struggling with what I believe is appropriate and healthy interactions, I will take them back to their crates, give them a stuffed toy to keep them amused, and then go back to visiting.

At meals, my dogs will either be in their crates with their dinners, or lying quietly behind my chair.  I don’t want my dogs to learn to bother people who are eating, and I don’t want either my host or my guest to teach my dog bad manners by rewarding behaviours that I don’t like, so most often my dogs are crated through dinner.  Given that holiday feasts are often accompanied by candles and multiple courses that have to be served and cleared away, this makes things easier for everyone.  My dogs love their crates, so this is easy for us.  I feed all meals at home in crates so that I can see who is eating, and who is not, and so that I can ensure that with multiple dogs, no one eats anyone else’s food.

Often holiday visits include gifts exchanges.  If I have a dog who is really savvy about guests, I will have them do a down stay as part of the activity, however if they are not, then they spend that time in their crates.  It is a short period of time in my dog’s life, but it can make such a difference in the memories that are created at the holidays.  Consider for instance if someone has spent a lot of time and effort planning a special gift for another person and the dog completely overshadows the experience.  You want the gift giver and recipient to remember the exchange, not how the dog jumped into the picture and stole the show, or worse how the dog destroyed the gift itself because he didn’t know how to keep his paws to himself.

In between meals and gifts, I still need to meet my dog’s needs for food, training and exercise.  Often this is an opportunity to include family members in activities where they can more actively interact with my dogs.  When this is not possible, I may do a few tricks here and there.  This serves to give the dog a role in the gathering, and also to give people who may not know my dogs to interact with them in a way that I can control.  It is a win/win when the dog has a role and is appreciated for himself.

Senior man practicing tricks with dog
Tricks can be a great way to include your dog in the holiday activities, and part of the fun is that you can break almost all the rules! Normally I would not encourage a dog to put his feet on the dinner table but in this case, being at the height of the high five recipient means that the old man doesn’t need to bend down to participate! Setting clear rules for your dog when teaching the trick makes this a safe and fun activity.

All of this requires planning and training, and certainly it is not how everyone experiences holidays with their dogs.  I wrote this blog after a Facebook exchange with a colleague who was lamenting her experiences visiting with her dog.  A number of trainers chimed in with their horror stories of visiting with dogs, and I mentioned that when I had guests, often my dogs would stay in their crates.  We were all surprised to find out how many of us crated our dogs when guests arrived, and how few of our non-professional trainer friends did not.  I often see posts on social media saying things like “the dog lives here, you don’t” along with a laundry list of poor behaviours that I should expect when visiting that person’s home.  When I visit, I am not coming to be drooled on, sat, on, pestered, or hassled into play.  Yes, my dogs live here.  No, I don’t expect them to make visiting me a chore.

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

WHO IS TRAINING WHOM

Originally published June 2013

I love training dogs.  I am a pretty good dog trainer too.  Dogs fascinate me.  I could watch dogs interact over and over and over and over again for hours.  I love horses just as much but have less experience with them, and I spend hours watching them, learning about them, observing them.  Horses are just as cool as dogs and different.  As a professional trainer, I get great amounts of joy from watching my dogs and interacting with them.  Training them provides a framework and a platform for communication with them and that is extremely cool.  I love the interplay of communication between me and the dog.

One of the most interesting things to observe in dogs is when they start turning the tables and training us.  Almost every dog who has been through a training class does this.  In its simplest forms, when the puppy starts to circle and look like he is going to toilet, then we rush to the door, he is training us to rush to the door and take him out.  Training happens when behaviour changes dues to consequences.  If you were sitting and reading a book, and the puppy’s behaviour causes you to jump up and open the door, then the puppy trained you to do something in response to what he is doing.  How does this work?  In short, in order to avoid an unpleasant outcome (cleaning up a bathroom mess), the person will jump up and let the puppy out to pee.  Over time, the puppy will refine his cue.  At first, in order to get the person to jump up and open the door the puppy has to actually toilet on the floor.  Next, the puppy has to look like he is going to toilet.  Then the puppy just has to look at the person in a particular way.  Pretty soon, the puppy just has to glance at the owner and lickety split, the owner jumps up and lets the puppy out.

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The magic “fill up my bowl look” that this dog has used to train his people to fill his bowl.  Image credit: logos / 123RF Stock Photo

In the scenario above, who is training who?  Is the person taking careful note and getting the puppy out to pee, or is the puppy teaching the person to jump up and open the door?  Is the puppy’s toileting behaviour being maintained by the reinforcement of an empty bladder or is the person’s behaviour being maintained by the lack of messes on the floor?  These questions reflect the more subtle nature of training.  When you influence the behaviour of another being, your behaviour is changed in turn.

Most of us want to train our dogs to do things like sit or lie down, or come when called, and it is fascinating to learn about the two way street of communication that really makes up training.  If the dog is motivated to teach you to give him treats it is pretty easy for him to get you to do that over and over again, by offering you a behaviour you like.  So you choose the behaviour that you will get in order to make you give a treat.  The dog chooses either to give you that behaviour or to not give you that behaviour, depending in part how much he wants the item you have on offer.

In a manner this is an economic relationship.  You have something to offer.  The dog has something to offer.  You can choose to trade or not.  If your dog offers you something you don’t want, you don’t have to play.  If you don’t have something the dog wants, he may choose not to offer you anything you might be interested in.

That is the simplest of explanations of what might happen during a training event.  When you do a lot of training, the dog starts to initiate more and more interactions.  About five years ago, I went to do a training session with a client in a hotel room.  I arrived with coffee and the client and I, who hadn’t seen one another in several months, sat down to chat.  At first the dog hung out with us.  Then she started to get jumpy.  Then she vocalized a bit.  I ignored the dog’s behaviour.  The clients ignored the behaviour.  And after about fifteen minutes, the dog I had come to work with walked away from us, entered her crate and faced the wall.  She faced the wall for about five minutes and then she came out and sat in front of me and made eye contact and looked meaningfully at her crate.  The dog was pretty clear that if I didn’t attend to her and start training right now, she would time me out a second time.  This is a dog who understands the training game really well and she applied the rules she understood to try and get me into her game.  What she did to me was absolutely the same as what I might do to a dog who was not attending to me; she took herself and her assets and removed them from me.  When she felt she had timed me out for a long enough time, she offered me another chance to play.

I am fortunate enough to have lived with enough dogs who understand the training game that I have been trained to do a number of very complex behaviours.  The other night, D’fer came up to bed with a hockey ball in his mouth.  He lay down halfway across the room from me and dropped the ball in front of himself.  He looked at me, and pushed the ball at me.  The ball rolled to me, and I caught it.  Deef looked at me and I rolled it back to him.  He mouthed it a bit and then placed it in front of himself and rolled it to me.  I picked it up and rolled it back at him.  We repeated this seven or eight times and then he carefully placed the ball on his bed, curled up around it and went to sleep.  I am pretty sure that D’fer feels that I need to be trained from time to time and he is diligent about training me.  I got to play with the ball as long as I was willing to roll it back to him.

D’fer has taught me all sorts of behaviours and when he thinks I am misbehaving, he is prone to timing me out by taking his toys and removing himself from the situation.  And he has a very sophisticated understanding of how training works.  Today he spent some time training a young woman about training.  He went to a leave it lab with a thirteen year old girl.  He understands the leave it behaviour.  He also understands young trainers.  And he enjoys playing with the variables in order to see what happens.  This amuses D’fer more than perhaps more than anything else in his life.

Knowing the rules of training makes D’fer an interesting dog to work with.  When his learner starts to lose interest in the task at hand, he becomes more animated and interesting to the learner.  When he is playing the training game with someone who is a novice at training, he may know the behaviour they are learning about, but he doesn’t always let the person know.  He will make mistakes that he knows won’t result in a reinforcer.  If the person isn’t getting the hang of things, he will give the person a “freebie” and do the behaviour perfectly to keep them in the game.  Then he will go back to a subpar behaviour to teach the person about how to train the behaviour.  An interesting dog to play with indeed.

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Cooper teaching shaping.  He generally isn’t interested in treats.  He is mostly interested in engaging people and changing their behaviour.  His reinforcement seems to be the act of training itself.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

There is another dog I know who is interesting in a similar way.  Cooper, the Welsh Terrier who stayed with us for about two months last fall.  Cooper taught a number of veterinary students about shaping.  He really enjoyed it.  Seanna, his person, likes to Curl; that game of hurling rocks around, and sweeping ice for points.  Curling is a very social activity and Cooper often gets to go to the Curling Club with Seanna.  This past winter, Cooper figured out that the people who weren’t on the ice Curling, they could be engaged in the training game.  He will approach a person and offer them a trick.  If the person responds by giving him a treat, or engaging him in a game, he will stay with that person for quite awhile.  If the person pats him or says Good Boy, he moves on.  Over the course of the Curling season, Cooper taught most of the Curlers to give him treats when he did tricks.  Here is the interesting part; he isn’t particularly interested in the food.  He is interested in the game.  In my own kitchen I have sat down to hand feed Cooper and he disengages.  He isn’t interested in getting treats.  He is interested in the game.  By engaging in the game, you get the opportunity to engage with Cooper.

If you watch for this phenomenon, you will likely see this in your own dog.  Most dogs who live with people do this to a certain extent.  At its simplest form, the dog will teach you to open doors and fill water and food bowls.  At its most complex, it is a beautiful interplay of exchange of information and opportunity between you and your dog.  This level of engagement is a special gift, a connection and the possibility I hope for every day when I step into the classroom and help someone to teach their dog to sit.  Sit is more than just a behaviour we want to develop for the price of a couple of treats.   Sit is the opening move in a step by step journey of communication where behaviour changes in both directions.

WHO IS TRAINING WHOM

AN EDUCATED DOG GETS TO DO MORE

This week I have been reflecting that my dogs have had the opportunity to do much, much more than most dogs do.  One of my recent clients came for help to get her dog to stop lunging and barking at passersby while in the house, but she had no, zero, interest in teaching her dog to do anything else.  She didn’t want one of those “fancy trick” dogs; she wanted her dog to be his authentic self, but without barking and lunging at passersby.  She didn’t see the connection between the relationship that is built during training those tricks and the ability to cope with people passing the house.

The thing is that when you teach a dog to do “tricks “you are preparing your dog for things that might happen, for those passersby, for all of the weird and wonderful things that occur in the human world.  When I am teaching a dog new behaviours, I am not just teaching him skills although that is an important part of the equation.  I am also teaching my dog to be flexible in how he thinks and what we do together.  Training is really a joint activity; I cannot train without the dog and the dog cannot train without me.  This special relationship is what keeps me training-it is the foundation upon which everything else is based. 

My ultimate goal with my own dogs is to be able to give them enough education to be comfortable in whatever situation I might need them to be in.  In short this means that if I need my dogs to go to the emergency vet clinic where they have never ever been before, I want them to have enough experience and background to be able to confidently and happily go to the vet clinic without any hassle.  I want them to know what is expected of them and how to do what I need them to do.  I expect that they will not protest when the vet needs to look at their injury.  I expect that they will tolerate the tech restraining them, even if she has long purple dreadlocks and is wearing a surgical mask. 

Likewise, I don’t ask my dogs to do things I have not prepared them to do.  I was at the Canada Day Celebration this year and watched one lady with a pair of stunning German Shorthaired Pointers.  Both dogs were on prong collars and the woman’s bicep was HUGE.  Why?  Likely because she never ever allowed even an inch of slack in those dog’s leashes.  She held them with their necks up high for over two hours, in the heat and when one of the dogs shied away from a frightening parade act, she strongly corrected both dogs.  Neither dog was prepared for the event.  It was sad to watch.

When I was partnered with a service dog, he had to be able to tolerate and even enjoy a lot of things that regular dogs don’t have to put up with.  Stuck in security in the heat in the airport without water for two hours while they figure out what to do with a service dog? No problem.  Came off a flight delayed five hours and need to toilet?  He can pee on a sewer grate…No Problem!  Walking through downtown Montreal and we encounter a brass band walking along and they honk us?  NO PROBLEM!  Why?  Because we trained for such a wide variety of things that this was just one more thing for him to do.

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Look closely! This is one of my favourite pictures of D’fer with a statue. The giant spider is in Ottawa, and Deef is on a sit stay while we take the picture. How did we do that? Quite simply we taught him the skills necessary for sitting and staying no matter what else is happening! Photo credit: Melanie Woolley

Training for difficult events is my responsibility should I want to take my dog places.  When I visited a friend in Ottawa with my service dog, we had a grand evening playing around the statues that surround Parliament Hill.  D’fer was a great sport and tolerated and even enjoyed himself quite a bit, posing with bronze statues of all types.  This kind of an activity is the sort of thing that I do to help my dogs to learn to accept strange circumstances, and it is a lot of fun for both of us.

Every week through the summer, the advanced students in our Levels Program meet in downtown Guelph near the splash pad in front of city hall.  We practice down stays in public.  We meet people.  We greet people.  We do tricks and leash walking and we sit down and socialize for a little while with one another.  All around us we have children running and playing and the splash pad splashing and buses pulling up and stopping and one memorable time a large protest and a few hundred motorcycles.  We practice what we have learned in class out in the wider world.  These are dogs who will be able to do more.

There is a small issue to consider and if you don’t consider it, you will soon face a BIG issue.  That is taking your dog out to do more when he is under or unprepared.  Training of tricks like sit, come when called, look at me before we start doing things, lie down and wait while we set things up and even sit and stay while we take your picture are all tools that the dog needs in order to be successful at picnics, ball games and family gatherings.  If you have not taken the time to teach your dog all that he needs to know and then taught him to do all those things in a variety of places, you are going to struggle with a dog who really doesn’t understand what to do.

people with dog at the leash
This is the sort of close quarters situation where untrained dogs get into difficulty. Notice that both dogs are on very tight leashes, likely because their handlers know that there is a risk that they will become unruly. Training and handling your dog so that you don’t put him into this kind of a situation is the best way to make sure that he doesn’t get in trouble!

Learning is an interesting phenomenon.  As an experienced adult learner you likely feel like you can learn anything you need to know and apply it when needed regardless of the context.  For a young child or for a dog, learning is not that simple.  It is important that when you teach a dog a new trick you practice that trick in a number of different places and contexts.  Just because your dog can sit in the kitchen doesn’t mean he will understand to do that on the edge of a fountain or in the park or even at school.  With dogs we must teach dogs that they can use their skills in a variety of places. 

The easiest thing to do is to start out by taking your dog to new places and feeding him.  If he can take food, then try clicking and treating.  If he can take treats after a click in a new place, then try asking for a simple behaviour.  I call this going on a field trip; we go new places and practice what we have learned already.  We learn to work together in the field as it were.  Teaching a dog the rules of the game is not difficult but it is unfair to ask him to play if he doesn’t know what to do.  Step by step, little by little, teaching your dog what to do and when and then practicing together in a variety of places and contexts can be a lot of fun, and at the end of the day, you will have a dog who is more able to connect with you in order to do fun stuff than you could ever believe.  Those “fancy tricks” translate into a pretty cool relationship.

 

 

AN EDUCATED DOG GETS TO DO MORE

WHAT’S THE POINT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT’S THE POINT?

MAGNETIC PERSONALITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAGNETIC PERSONALITY

KIDS TRAINING DOGS

Originally posted June 2013

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.

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We LOVE to include children in our classes, and it works best when the adults help to tailor the activities so that the children and the dogs are successful, such as at this socialization party.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

KIDS TRAINING DOGS

OFF LEASH WITH REACTIVE DOGS

 

Originally posted in June 2013

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

First:

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

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

Second:

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

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

Third:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OFF LEASH WITH REACTIVE DOGS

THE MILLION DOLLAR RECALL

Originally posted in June 2013

When clients come in with a dog and tell me that they want their dogs to come when called I always tell them that they are off to a good start because they have their dog at the moment.  At some point, the dog came when called.  He may have come slowly or he may have come by a very long route, but he did come back to them at some point.  The recall or come to me behaviour is probably the single most desired behaviour in pets, and the after leash manners the one that gives people the most difficulty.  When asked, fewer than one in every ten of my students can tell me how they originally taught their dogs to come when called.  When they can tell me how they taught the behaviour, I can trouble shoot the problems.  When clients cannot tell me how they taught the behaviour to begin with, often they didn’t teach the behaviour at all; they just started calling the dog and hoping for the best.  Hope for the best is not a really good way to train; results are really dicey.

How we look at the recall can be very helpful in how we teach it.  I look at the recall as a puzzle for the dog to solve.  At first, I make the puzzle really easy.  I hold the dog and have the handler feed the dog and then run away.  I get them to stand up and call their dog.  This makes the puzzle really clear to the dog and he can get the right answer really easily.  I get my students to grab their dog’s collars and then feed to help the dog to understand what the right answer is.  The puzzle starts out as “how can I get away from the person holding me and to the person who wants to touch me and feed me.”  This simple puzzle lays the foundation for the more complex puzzle of “I am rolling in dead fish, and I hear my person calling me, and there is probably a really good reason to leave what I am doing and go find my person, who I cannot see and may only be able to hear faintly.”  The steps in between are important and what I find is that most people don’t put enough recalls in the come when called bank before they try and get this upper level of behaviour.

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This behaviour is one that can be morphed into a recall fairly easily.  Coming back with a ball is a game for many dogs, and it helps to put pennies in the recall bank.  Image ID: 86327139 (S)

I also think about recalls as a bank account.  I am aiming to get a million recalls in the bank.  Every time that I call and the dog doesn’t come is a withdrawal.  In order to get a million recalls in the bank, I have to do hundreds of thousands of practice calls that WILL be successful before I do any recalls that might not work.  If I am overdrawn on my recall account, then I have undermined the work that I want to do.  Here is how I do the accounting.  If I call once, and the dog comes once, that is a penny in the recall account.  If I want a million dollar recall, then that means that I need to have 100 million successful repetitions of one call, one dog with me.  Every time I call and the dog doesn’t come, then that is a penny out of the account.  So if I call and the dog comes, five times, I have a 5 cent recall.  If I then call two times and the dog only comes once, I am down a penny, meaning I only have a 4 cent recall.  You may be thinking this is a drattedly long training process, but I have a few cards up my sleeve.

The first card is the set up card.  I say “here” and grab my dog’s collar and feed him a treat.  One cent.  I say “here” and grab my dog’s collar and feed him a treat.  Another cent.  But wait, you may be thinking.  The dog didn’t go away.  How does that make up a one cent recall?  Remember what I said to begin with about not thinking about recalls only as a come when called?  Another way to think about a recall is as an opportunity for your dog to get a treat.  When I say “here” it means that a treat is coming.  I just happened to grab your collar in between the name and the treat.  I can get in a good dozen recalls in the amount of time it takes you to read this paragraph.  I am not thinking of recalls as getting to me from a distance, but rather as the number of times that a treat has been associated with my call.  In the amount of time it took to type the last sentence, I can get in another three.  Four.  Five.  And so on and so forth.

If you are calling your dog and he isn’t coming and you call and call and call and call, and then he comes, you are down four cents of a recall, so another important aspect to consider is that if your dog isn’t coming, don’t keep calling.  This afternoon on our weekly dog walk, a client was calling her dog and he would not come.  I went to where he was gleefully rolling in a dead raccoon and he started to play keep away.  He ran straight in to my vet student volunteer who corralled him and gave him a treat.  With a weak recall, his person spent four cents on her million dollar recall, so she will have to work on recalls at home to put money back in the account.  The lesson is simple.  Don’t spend money you don’t have.  If you don’t have a strong recall, don’t call your dog, just go and get him.  Going to get your dog gives you another successful recall or penny in the bank.

A lot of my clients have emergency recall systems that they have accidentally developed just by living with their dogs.  One of my clients discovered that calling out “Good Bye Boson” her dog would come running as fast as he could.  Several of my clients have figured out that getting in the car will result in their dogs coming very quickly.  I am not entirely sure about how these tactics develop, but if it is utterly reliable, it can be very helpful in a pinch.  My advice is that as long as you don’t over use them, they can be very helpful in avoiding making excessive withdrawals.

I have worked with a number of clients who look at the million dollar price tag and ask “isn’t there a cheaper recipe?”  In the right hands, yes, there is.  In the wrong hands, on a dog who is not confident, or in the wrong environment, you will actually overdraw your account, and the risk is not really worth the result.  I have many clients who have read on the net, or even gone out and purchased a shock collar in the hopes of getting a fast and reliable result, and have made their recall problems worse.  In the interest of honesty, I will share that thousands of dogs are taught to come when called, happily, and reliably on a shock collar.  When the trainer knows what they are doing.  When the trainer doesn’t know what he is doing, the results are not only not reliable, but are often the opposite of what you may have wanted.  Properly executed a shock collar trained recall is a very fast and very reliable method.  Improperly trained you can end up teaching your dog to associate the shock with something other than his own behaviour of leaving you.  It is much easier and safer for pet dogs to be taught the long way round, and it can be every bit as reliable.  I see far too many dogs whose owners have tried this and who have regretted the choice, but in the interest of honesty, you should know that the people who train this way are not lying and they are not necessarily killing their relationship with their dogs-but you may not be able to replicate their methods and there is a huge risk involved of making your recall worse not better.

Once I have a dog who understands the two parts of the recall; that the cue “here” means that there is something he wants available as soon as he is close enough for you to grab his collar, and that it is a puzzle to figure out how to get to you so you can grab him, then it is a matter of setting up as many millions of scenarios that make this happen as possible.  One of my clients had a beagle and their dog was notorious for not coming when called.  When we turned the puzzle around and sent her out to find someone, suddenly, very suddenly, she became the worlds fastest recall beagle.  Every night for an hour, the family would go for a walk in two groups.  Half the family would head out in one direction in their local park and the other half of the family would set out in the other direction.  A few minutes into the walk, the first group would send their dog out to find the second group.  When she found them, they would catch her and feed her, and then send her out to find the first group.  Turning the game on it’s head and making it about finding, not coming and we had the most reliable recall I have ever seen on a hound.  After playing this for several months, the family stopped sending the dog and started calling her.  Familiar with the game of being sent, it was a small step for the dog to learn to come when called, reliably and quickly.

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THIS is what a dog coming quickly to you looks like.  Your goal is to frame the game into a fun activity for your dog, so that your dog comes when called even when he might have something that he is really interested in doing!  Image ID: 37362458 (S)

Many dogs avoid being caught at the end of walks because they know that the fun is coming to an end.  Like a child at a playground, they realize that if they don’t come close enough to be caught, they can keep playing.  The key to solving this recall issue is to put more pennies in the bank during the walk and release the dog to play again.  The more often that you do this, the more reliable your recall becomes, recognizing that you have to pay handsomely at the end with a treat or toy the dog really likes to make the final recall the most, not least valuable to the dog.  Calling your dog to you in mid walk just to prove you can, might also backfire though.  If you call you must have a reason for doing so.  Many dogs do significantly better if you call, leash up, do some training and then let them go and have more fun for a while.  They see the point in coming to you when you call if you are going to spend some energy attending to them, than if you simply give them a treat and send them along.

There are significant breed differences in recalls.  I have always found my German Shepherds learn to come when called and maintain the behaviour more readily than my Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.  None the less the principle is still the same.  Don’t sabotage your training by spending recalls you don’t have in the bank.  If there is any doubt about your dog coming when called, then go get him.  The recall is so important to most of my clients that it pays to pay attention to how you teach it and make sure you don’t sabotage it.  The more recalls you have in the bank, the more reliable your recall is and the more pleasant it is to call your dog.  It is also more pleasant for your dog to be called to you, because he has enough recalls in his account to understand that coming when called pays off more often than not, and it is quite likely that you will pay well for his attention.

THE MILLION DOLLAR RECALL

STUNTS

Originally posted May 2013

I have been seeing a lot of people lately engaging in what I would refer to as stunts.  One of these stunts is sometimes marketed as “reality” training, where dogs are left on a down stay outside of a store while the owner goes in.  The dogs are unattended and un-tethered.  These dogs are really clear that a down stay is a down stay is a down stay, but let’s think about this.  Is this really a good idea?  I have dogs who could do this if I asked them to do so, and in fact, I have done this in times past.  Learn and grow I always say.  I learned and I grew, and now, I don’t do it unless there is an emergency.  I cannot think what that emergency might be, but I will never say never.  I will just say that I would have to be pretty convinced that an out of sight, public down stay might be necessary.

Is the dog under control?  Yes.  The dog understands that he must not move.  In the world of protection work for instance, the goal is to train to this level and the dog understands that if he moves, bad things will happen.  This looks like a great idea and it is a wonderful piece of theater.  I remember revelling in my earlier days as a trainer, doing stunts like this.  Then I grew a little bit and I started to realize that doing this is pretty darned disrespectful of my dog.  The dog may be under control, but there is no plan “B” for what will happen if the dog is startled or spooked out of his stay.  What will happen to the dog if he is stung by a bee, spooks and runs into the street?  What might happen is that the dog could be hit by a car.  Worse, someone might swerve to miss the dog, and hit a child.  Control is not the only element that should be taken into consideration.

I am seeing other stunts around town too.  Today I saw a small dog being led around the downtown core by a toddler who was maybe three or four years old.  Cute?  Yes.  Safe?  No.  The child doesn’t understand the risks of leading the dog and the dog doesn’t understand traffic and if the dog spooks and runs into traffic, then not only is the dog dead, but so is the kid.  This is a stunt, and mom may have thought that she was amusing both the kid and the dog, but it just wasn’t a good idea.

And then there are the dogs I am seeing off leash, with joggers and cyclists in the city.  These dogs are really the victims of stunts, because they are often being run through traffic.  As a runner in traffic, you are at risk but at least your body is usually taller than the hoods of most cars.  Your dog is not, and if the driver doesn’t realize that there is a dog loose in traffic, then he is are real risk for being hit by a vehicle.

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Fun?  You bet!  Safe?  No!  This is a recipe for disaster.  Image credit: sonyae / 123RF Stock Photo

Not all stunts are set up on purpose.  A colleague of mine lives on a corner lot in a beautiful neighbourhood.  She has a service dog who is completely reliable.  One day, the dog was let out to toilet and the family went back in the house for a few moments.  A couple of minutes later, they looked out and the dog was out of sight.  They called and she reappeared and came in the house.  Not a big deal, until you find out that a neighbour observed a car slow down and someone get out and try and coax the dog out of her own yard and into a car.  When you cannot observe your dog directly, you are depending that everyone around you is kind and honest and not intending to do harm to your dog, and sadly, that just isn’t the case some of the time.

Another stunt I regularly see happens in barns with horses.  I am a recreational rider, and I often see dogs in barns, off leash, just doing their thing.  On the surface, this doesn’t look like a stunt, but in a dog who doesn’t live with horses, and horses who don’t live with the dog, this sort of stunt can result in danger to both the horse and the dog.  Worse, if you are mounted and coming back into the barn yard and your horse is faced with a loose dog she doesn’t know, you risk that the horse will spook, the rider may fall and the dog may get injured by the horse, or the horse by the dog.  No one wins in this sort of a situation.

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If this was my pony and your dog, I would be really annoyed.  Even when the horses and the dogs know one another, supervision makes for safer interactions.  Image credit: virgonira / 123RF Stock Photo

Every day I see stunts around me in the name of training.  Doing an off leash heeling routine in a public square away from traffic is one thing, but doing the same thing through traffic is another.  Doing a sit stay by a statue (something I have been doing with D’fer for many years) when I am right there is relatively safe; leaving that dog at the statue while I go out of sight is grand standing and doesn’t respect my dog.

When you have a dog in modern society, you have to take into account a number of really important things.  The dog is incapable of understanding the risks of the environment he lives in.  A hundred and fifty years ago, putting your dog out to toilet was not a big deal.  Horses could hurt a dog, but there were many more horses and the dogs learned early how to behave around them.  Dogs who didn’t learn, learned the ultimate lesson and were killed.  It was a slower time and there were fewer people interested in stealing or harming a dog.  You knew more of your neighbours and people didn’t show up randomly in your neighbourhood as often as we see now.

So what can you do in public with your dog?  In traffic, please keep your dog on a leash.  Walking your dog off leash just isn’t safe and it is a stunt that could cost your dog his life.  If you need to go into a store, tie your dog and ask him to stay.  Yes, my dog CAN stay out of sight for a very long time (I once left a dog on a down stay in the training room to answer a phone call and came back forty minutes later to find him snoozing on the floor where I left him!), but I have no need to risk my dog’s life to prove that fact.  Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.  If you want to take a picture of your dog in public, by all means use your stay to the level you have trained it, but don’t leave the vicinity and hope for the best.

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In an urban environment where traffic and dogs and people share space, a leash is a must no matter how well your dog is trained.  Image credit: vvoennyy / 123RF Stock Photo

If you want to introduce your dog to horses, make sure that one person is controlling the horse and one person is controlling the dog while you train your dog to do things that are safe around your horse.  If your dog is frightened of your horse, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  If you want to spend time with your dog and your horse together, orchestrate what you want them both to be doing.  When I am grooming my horse if my dogs are around, I will put out a mat or send the dog to a bale of hay to lie down while I am grooming.  If I am riding, I will have a spot for my dog to do a down stay in the event that I am in an arena or riding ring where it is safe for my dog to be.  If I want my dog to heel with me, I will teach both my horse and my dog to work together instead of hoping that they will both figure it out.

The bottom line is that we are responsible for both what happens because of our dogs and what happens to our dogs and it doesn’t matter if we are there to observe the activity or not.  If you leave your dog on a down stay out of sight and a child comes up and teases your dog and your dog bites the child, you are responsible.  If you are crossing the street and your dog is off leash and he darts between the cars and is hit, that is also your responsibility.  An important lesson to consider is that it need not be your fault in order to be your responsibility.

STUNTS

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.

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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