Imagine for a moment that you were commissioning an architect to build you a house. You want a very special house; one that will allow you to do some very special things. Imagine for a moment all the things that YOU want for your house. In my house, I would like a big woodstove, and a kitchen with great counter space, and new appliances, and an indoor/outdoor swimming pool within a greenhouse with big sliding windows so that in the summer we could have the air flow through but in the winter we could take advantage of passive solar. I want a VERY fancy house.
Now, given what I want in my house, it is going to need electricity. Imagine for a moment, that my architect, who has come highly recommended by all my friends, who has built lovely houses before, has decided that he will not work with electricians. Or electrical engineers. Or anyone in the electrical industry. And he won’t read the legal code that electricians must adhere to when they do their work. He has his own ideas about electricity and in his architectural drawings, he is going to lay out the electrical system HE wants, regardless of what might be accepted in the industry. Now, granted he has added some improvements to the way things normally work, but in other buildings that he has been involved with, there have always been hang ups during construction while the building inspector goes through and makes all the changes to what this architect has indicated on the drawings-because the architect, while he may think his methods are better, is actually doing something that a lot of dog behaviour consultants, veterinarians and trainers do that we ought not do. He is practicing outside of his area of competence.
Architects need to know some things about electricity, electrical set ups, and the electrical code. Architects have to follow guidelines when making building plans. But architects are not electricians. And here is a piece of news. I am a dog behaviour consultant. In fact, I am a Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant. I did not go to school to become a veterinarian. Or even a vet tech. I know enough about dog health to tell you when you need to go to the vet, and I know enough about dog biology and health to be able to carry on a very informed discussion with a veterinarian about a dog in our care. Here is the thing: I need an invite from the client to do so.
If I hired an architect to build a house for me, I would insist that the various professionals that I hired were able to work together. The architect needs to be able to work with the engineers, the contractors, my lawyer, and my accountant. The other professionals need to be able to work together too. The day of the one stop jack of all trades professional is gone. The same is true of the people who help you with your dog’s behaviour; they need to get along in the sandbox with your vet, your daycare, you dog walker, your groomer and your breeder. We don’t need to go out for dinner together, but we DO need to find a way to work with one another, recognizing one another’s strengths and specialties and consulting one another opening. Your vet did not study behaviour in school and likely has not trained as many dogs as I have. Your daycare is unlikely to have given very many dogs haircuts and your groomer should not be drawing blood and doing bloodwork on your dog. We each know something about the work that the other does, and we can each contribute something to your dog’s wellbeing in the other places that your dog is going, but we each have a specialty and we need to respect one another’s specializations.
So when you are working with a professional for the improvement of your dog’s quality of life, put the professionals you use in touch with one another. And beware that those who are not playing nice in the sandbox with one another may not be able to help you in every way possible. The best outcomes for dogs happen when we are all on the same team.
Several years ago, on an email list, a woman mailed in talking about how her dog had nearly died because it had climbed up a five foot tall book case and stolen some pain meds and eaten them. She was on a rant about how important it was to keep things under lock and key and how you just never knew what a dog might get into. I was the lone voice saying that she had bigger problems than the immediate veterinary emergency. Her problem, whether she recognizes it or not, is that her dogs lack impulse control.
About 60% of the dogs I see with behaviour problems have impulse control issues. They steal things off of tables and counters, they eat the pockets out of clothing, they bolt out the door, they pull on the leash-generally, what they have learned in their lives is that if they want to have something, they ought to pull harder, jump higher, try harder, act faster and they can get what they want.
One of the problems is that dogs don’t have a good sense of safe and dangerous when it comes to the important things in modern life. They don’t understand that pills could kill them, that certain mushrooms in the yard could be toxic, that chocolate at the least will cause gastric upset and at the worst will cause death. They don’t know that jumping over the wall that prevents us from falling over the cliff could be a disaster, they don’t know that running into traffic is dangerous; they just don’t understand.
For this reason, it is important to teach your dog self control. Self control means several things. The first thing it means is “just because you can see it doesn’t mean it is yours”. Think about taking a four year old to a buffet table. Just because he can see that marvellous cake with all the sweet gooey icing doesn’t mean it is his. If mom and dad are the kind of parents who want their kids to grow up to be an acceptable member of society, they help the kid to choose self control over self indulgence. And this is what we are missing in our dogs.
Lately a lot of my novice students seem to feel that if there is something that the dog can see or sense that the dog wants, they are excused from insisting on good manners. This is akin to allowing the four year old at the buffet table to reach out and stick his fingers in that tempting icing, lick them and then repeat. Heck, the way some of my students approach this, they would be egging the child on. Go ahead sweetie…one little lick won’t hurt anything! Well it will. It will hurt that child’s chances of landing a job when he grows up, it will hurt his chances of finding a mate, it will hurt his chances of living a normal life.
Most recently, I experienced this in the company of my service dog. I had an appointment to be at a local business for a photo shoot, and there was a resident “puppy”. This puppy was somewhere between 6 and nine months old. My service dog does not love puppies, and when he is vested, his job is to take care of me, so we had arranged ahead of time to have the puppy off the premises. Needless to say, this did not work out; the dog was onsite when I arrived. I stood by the door looking through the window, and was waved in. I watched to see that the dog was removed from the room before coming in. Just as I got my coat off, the owner of the dog appeared with the dog in tow, vaguely guiding him by the collar. “He just needs to say hi,” she said. “NO!” I replied. “My dog doesn’t like puppies.” “It will just take a moment, he needs to say hello” she shot back. “NO!” I replied again; “this is a mistake. You cannot greet this dog, he is a working service dog”, I repeated, and stepped between her dog and mine. Still she persisted. “This isn’t about YOUR dog, MY dog needs to just sniff noses.” My dog was jacketed and I was in the middle of an anxiety attack to begin with, which didn’t help much, but honestly, why does she think that her dog MUST greet every dog he meets? (incidentally, a GREAT article to read about this is Suzanne Clothier’s “He just wants to say hi” http://flyingdogpress.com/content/view/42/97/ )
This attitude of allowing our dogs everything they want, when they want it and how they want it creates more behaviour problems than you might at first imagine. We don’t live in a canine utopia, where they can have every bone, chase every ball, greet every person and every dog they wish. Teaching your dog the basics of self control can be a life saving move. Teaching your dog to ask for things before grabbing them is the bare minimum for safety. Consider for instance the dog who has learned to control his impulse to eat everything within his reach. When your house guest arrives with a box of chocolates in her bag, your dog might sit and look longingly at the object of his desires, but he won’t tear apart the bag and the box, gorging himself on a sweet that might ultimately kill him.
The old saw “begin with the end in mind” is very true. When dogs are young, if we allow them to pull on leash, we are teaching them that later on, they can pull with impunity, and that means that they will be at risk of pulling whoever is on the end of the leash into traffic. It means that the dog will be at higher risk of neck, back and shoulder injuries. It means that you also will be at higher risk of neck, back and shoulder injuries. And it means that later on, you will have to retrain your dog to do something other than what you taught him to do as a youngster. The easiest way to teach a dog to keep the leash loose is to never let him move forward when it is tight. EVER. This means that when he is young and you are in a rush to get from here to there, carry him. This means that until he is really good at the exercise, don’t go more than a couple of hundred feet at a time on leash. And this means making it in his best interest to keep that leash loose. It also means that you need to know what a loose leash means. A loose leash is a leash that makes a “J” shape between the dog and the person. If it is straight, you are not giving the dog a chance to learn what a loose leash is.
Pulling is the tip of the iceberg though. Just because you have a dog doesn’t mean you should not be able to put a sandwich on the table. Far too often I see dogs who think that if they can reach it, it is theirs. Someone once sent me an email called rules of ownership for toddlers; it went something like this. If I have it, it’s mine. If I had it before and now you have it, it’s still mine. If I can see it, it’s mine. If you have it and I want it, it’s mine. And just like with toddlers, dogs often think this way. If we encourage this thinking by supporting it by allowing the dog to learn that anything he can reach is his, then we are going to create an adult dog who will climb book cases to get stuff that is not theirs. We are going to create a situation where the dog is difficult to live with, is pushy and obnoxious, and who will not leave things alone when he ought to. One of my students recently told me that she would rather avoid having anything dangerous in her house than train her dog to automatically leave things that were not his. This sounds good in theory, but on closer examination, we have a big problem. The problem is that the dog doesn’t just live in a safe little box. We take him out on the street where chocolates are dropped, and antifreeze is dripped and we have guests to our homes who leave avocado (toxic!) dip within reach, or drop raisins (also toxic) on the floor.
Teaching a dog to ask if he can have something is the easiest way to ensure that he doesn’t take things he shouldn’t. If you take a treat in your hand and hold it out to the dog, and then close your hand if he takes it before he asks, and only open the hand up when he backs off the treat, you start to teach the dog that snatching doesn’t work. If you make the dog wait for a moment or two, you start to teach him that good things come to those who wait. Instead of thinking about teaching dogs to leave it, think about teaching dogs that if they back off the treat, they can get what they want when you tell them to “take it”. Once you have this working nicely in your hand, you can then move on to getting your dog to sit before he gets the thing that he wants. In small steps you can use this method to teach him first not to snatch things out of your hand, and then not to snatch things out of the hands of others and then not to take things off of chairs or the floor and then not to take things off of tables or plates. In the end, you want the dog to not take anything that you have not indicated is his. It takes about four months to achieve fluency, but this is an exercise that can and will save your dog’s life. The day that I dropped ten migraine pills out of a bottle and onto the floor, my dog backed up two steps and made eye contact with me, was the day that I figured out that an automatic “leave it” wasn’t just a party trick, it was a life skill.
Many people understand the idea of teaching their dogs to sit before they give them a meal. A good idea in theory-but I have seen this backfire. When the dog is dependent upon the person to tell them to sit and to “stay…..staay…staaay….staaaaay”, and then the person says OKAY and the dog rushes the food bowl, what you are teaching is not self control, but to be impulsive on cue. Not a particularly good idea. You are in essence teaching the dog to have an explosive start, which would be great if you were doing agility, but not so good if you want your dog to learn to have good social manners in the house. Instead, you can try a tactic of making your dog’s dinner and wait for him to sit. When he sits, say take it and THEN put down the bowl. Don’t prompt him, don’t cue him; teach him an automatic please. Once you have a basic please, you can start working on duration between the food bowl going down and the release by starting to bend down to put the bowl down BEFORE you say take it. If the dog gets up before you release, pick up the bowl and start over. Work at it until making the meal becomes the cue to the dog to back off, and wait for as long as it takes for you to make the meal, dance the tango, make soup, and when your dog is relaxed, tell him to take his dinner. This is a bit like going to a formal meal where grace is said-the guy who digs in before the blessing is seen to be a glutton and a boor. If you teach your dog to wait till told, he will be practicing self control every day. Just make sure that you don’t release your dog until you can see that he is relaxed, or you will create impulsivity on cue.
Tonight I had an interesting class with some beginner students. Every time I went to help one particular student, her dog would disengage and pay more attention to me than to her. Her explanation was interesting; she claimed that I was somehow magically more interesting to her dog than she was. My efforts to explain that actually she had actually taught the dog that greeting on the dog’s terms was what was expected seemed to fall on deaf ears. Like the dog in the shop, this handler believed that her dog should greet everyone; after all, isn’t that what we teach in puppy class? That the dog should greet two to four hundred people in his first five months? Sure! Absolutely, your puppy should meet two to four hundred people in the first five months (or better yet, in the first four months), but we don’t mean to imply that the dog should be permitted to rush everyone he sees and interact at will. Like a young child, being taught to greet politely will pay off later in big ways. Imagine your teenager, applying for his first job, greeting his future boss with the kind of full body enthusiasm people seem to think is normal in dogs!
D’fer and Laurel show self control and loose leashes at the Royal Ontario Museum
Before your dog is 16 weeks old, socialization is the single most important priority in the dog’s life, but second to that, and for the rest of his life, impulse control is the next most important item on the agenda. My service dog, who I spoke about earlier in this article, is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever. D’fer is a passionate, intense dog, who knows what he wants and is willing to work hard to get it. These traits are important in a dog bred to fetch ducks in the Chesapeake Bay in November-he wouldn’t be much good as a retriever if he were to say “sorry, no, the water is too cold today” or even “I was going to come up the rocky bank, but that dense brush got in my way.” D’fer, I am proud to say, has learned that he can have his heart’s desire-anything he wants, if he just asks nicely, by backing off what he wants, and looking at me, and sitting. He has learned the most important lesson of all. The dog controls the dog. And I control everything else.
Most of the dogs I work with live with serious anxiety and or aggression issues. Interestingly, I also live with a serious anxiety disorder. My anxiety manifests as panic, and I have a list of triggers as long as my arm. I am afraid of driving as a passenger in a car. I am afraid of teenaged girls. I am afraid of high schools. I am afraid of phoning people I don’t know. I am afraid of some crowds. I am afraid of going to Downtown Toronto. Conversely, I am NOT afraid of public speaking, sharing my vulnerabilities, taking an unpopular stand, standing up for the rights of the weak, intervening in a fist fight, or aggressive dogs. But when my anxiety is high, I reach for my old familiar strategy of panic. Like many of the dogs I work with, I have things I am anxious about and things I am not, but also like the dogs I work with, I am a one trick pony when I get triggered.
One of the things that I have had to learn to do in order to cope with my mental health issues is to find new ways of behaving in the face of my triggers. One thing I do is to use a service dog to provide me with more space. Sometimes I hold internal discussions with myself to calm myself, or I can take medication, and sometimes I call a friend to talk me down. The thing is, when I first started experiencing anxiety, I only had one trick; stand there and go through a panic attack with its dizziness, the increased heart rate and the shortness of breath.
This is similar to the situation for many of the dogs I see. When faced with their trigger, they only have one trick; it might be barking and lunging, or growling or showing snarl face or something else, but essentially, it is their one trick. When the trick they have for dealing with an issue is to charge and bite, this can be a very dangerous situation, and the key then is to teach the dog more “tricks”.
Now this sounds simple and it is, but there is a catch. When your arousal is high, and you are disoriented, you are always going to go back to the default behaviour that has either worked best or worked most frequently. If what has worked best or most frequently is dangerous, then as trainers we have to teach the dog to find alternate answers. This is where environmental enrichment and trick training become essential for working with difficult dogs. When we do effective environmental enrichment, and we teach a wide variety of behaviours, what we are really doing is teaching the dog to come up with new answers to old problems.
Environmental enrichment is the practice of increasing the diversity of the environment that an animal lives within. The goal is to improve the dog’s quality of life, but at the same time, we can also use environmental enrichment to help teach the dog to solve problems in different ways. Simple strategies such as putting your dog’s dinner in a paper bag and teaching your dog to find different ways to open the bag to get his dinner can help the dog to learn new ways of thinking, and new ways of thinking are what solving behaviour problems are all about. Once you have moved away from free food in a food bowl to paper bags, changing the picture again is important; we don’t want to teach the dog ONE new strategy-we want to teach the dog to problem solve.
Staying with the mealtime strategies, you can then move to a rolling tricky treat ball- (http://www.omegapaw.com/products/tricky-treat-ball.html) -which requires the dog to figure out how to roll an item to get the treats to fall out. Once he has mastered this type of toy, there are new alternatives; Kong (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQDJkW46BBk) makes one that wobbles, but doesn’t roll, requiring the dog to learn to persist in trying new strategies. Hollow rubber toys that hold biscuits but allow them to roll to the bottom help dogs to learn completely new strategies for getting food, and once your dog has mastered these, you dog is no longer a one trick food pony.
Learning to consider more than one solution to a problem can also be addressed operantly through training. Dogs who are anxious can be difficult to train, because the training process itself involves elements of failure, and failure contributes to confusion and anxiety. Confidence develops when the learner is allowed to have as many successful experiences after expressing some form of effort. Building successes can be a bit of a trick, and part of being successful as a trainer is allowing the dog many, many opportunities to guess right, when the stakes aren’t high and the arousal isn’t high either. Errorless learning happens when the dog is able to be reinforced for almost everything he does, because the scenario is set up so that he doesn’t make mistakes. There is a trick to making this work though; you must avoid just randomly reinforcing everything the dog does. You still only reinforce the thing that you are training. Errorless training can be as simple as hiding a toy in the same place every day, and then progressively moving the toy step by step away from where it was originally; you set the dog up to learn to go to that place and begin to look for the toy. For this to be errorless, you need to begin by showing the dog that you are placing the toy, and then place the toy in the same place later when the dog is not engaging in the toy. Over time you control two variables to teach the dog to look for the toy; if he is watching you place it, and how far from the original place the toy is left.
As the dog becomes more confident about his looking, you can go to reward based training to help him to understand that risks are safe to take. This is where clicker training really can help a dog; the process of free shaping is invaluable to teach the dog to try new things. Games like 101 things to do with a box can help dogs to develop the skill of being creative; essentially, you click for any interaction with a specific object, and then you progress to clicking for variations on that original interaction. If your dog chooses to sniff the box for instance, you could click that. Then you could click for two sniffs. Then you can click for three sniffs, and then for a touch, and then two touches and so on. Each time, you offer the dog the opportunity to decide for himself, what his next behaviour will be. You don’t name the behaviour because there is really no end for an anxious dog; you want him to keep trying new things.
It is important to understand that free for all reinforcement will make anxiety worse. Many people have noticed that parental and teacher approval often backfires, and approval in the form of rewarding behaviour can backfire in dogs too. When support for the looser in a contest in the form of approval is offered, it can create conflict in the child. The child knows he has lost the game and hears from the teacher or parent that he has done a great job. Confidence is dependent upon success, but only on actual success. The power of success can be boosted by recognition, but approval for errors is very damaging. So if a dog is anxious, cuing and prompting and then rewarding behaviours can create a similar sort of conflict within the dog. He may be doing the actions you ask for, but his emotional state is still anxious. This is where classical conditioning can come in handy.
If you know what your dog’s triggers are, you can start to tease apart the criteria that he can and cannot cope with. If your dog is anxious about other dogs for instance, the first thing to do is to figure out how far away from the other dogs your dog has to be in order to be calm. Don’t mistake the absence of behaviour found in the shut down dog for calmness. Being shut down is the result of being overwhelmed, and being overwhelmed is unfair to a stressed animal. It is what I go through when I have to drive in a car with a reckless driver; I may not look stressed, but I certainly am. To get an idea of what it is like to be completely shut down think about what it might be like to be in a bank during a robbery. When a gunman shows up and threatens you, you don’t show your stress; the obvious person will be the target. When you are overwhelmed, you will behave as normally as you possibly can, and hope not to be noticed. When a dog is overwhelmed, he may appear normal but in fact be very upset. You have to look for the subtle signs, the sweaty paws, the rapid eye blink rate, the jerky movements, to tell you that your dog is over his ability to cope well. A very effective way to determine if your dog is close to or above threshold is to offer him treats. If he takes treats normally, ask if he can do a simple behaviour he knows well; if he can, he is not yet at threshold. If he takes treats roughly, he is really close to his threshold for tolerance. If he refuses the treats, he is likely over threshold. And if you find that he has an upset stomach or diarrhoea, you can be certain that he was far over threshold even if he wasn’t showing you other signs
You can also figure out other aspects of your dog’s triggers. If dogs seem to trigger your dog, is it all dogs? Is it only black or white dogs? Is it only small or large dogs? And if you can eliminate the dogs from your dog’s life that concern him, you can begin to present the dogs who are a problem at a low enough threshold that he can begin to integrate those dogs into his repertoire. The mechanics of classical conditioning are very simple-you present the stimulus (in this case a triggering dog) at a low enough intensity (either far enough away, or not moving or otherwise not triggering for your dog) and you pair that with the opportunity to do something he really, really likes. Most often food is used for classical conditioning because you don’t have to take it away from the dog, you don’t have to worry about it going missing, and you do have to feed your dog anyhow. If you have two dogs who live in the same house who don’t like one another, you can feed them separated by a barrier where they can see one another, but cannot interact. If the dogs begin to snarl or growl at each other, you are working too closely, and classical conditioning can only happen when the stimulus is presented at a low enough threshold that the dog isn’t already triggered.
I am often asked if comforting an anxious dog will make them more anxious. It won’t. Consider going to a funeral; mostly likely you were upset and possibly crying. Alleviating a bad emotion comes by decreasing stressors, by having support from loved ones and by being in an environment where you can express your emotions in safety. You won’t feel any better if the funeral director told you to hold it together, and act happy. There is no reason to believe that this is any different for dogs. If you have a dog who is anxious and upset by something, and seeks support and calm by getting into your lap, then let him. If he finds comfort by leaving, then allow him to go. Do what you can to alleviate anxiety in the short term, and you will teach your dog that you are trustworthy and that you will help him to determine the best and safest thing to do in a crunch.
I often see new trainers create conflict in their dogs by setting the dog up to fail, and then rewarding the dog’s effort. Some students are so keen to have their dog succeed that they reward EVERY behaviour that the dog offers. Rewarding every behaviour can be a good first step in a dog who is really shut down, when we want to teach the dog that offering behaviours is acceptable, but when you want to teach the dog a particular behaviour, waffling between reinforcing variety and reinforcing a particular behaviour, you end up confusing the dog, and this means that although you are “rewarding” the dog, you are creating confusion instead of success and that is the sort of thing that makes a one trick pony dog more uncertain and less successful. Another way that my students set their dogs up to fail is to recognize that the dog is over threshold and take him far into the territory of fear and anxiety. Or some of the time, they recognize that the dog is in distress and make the dog face his fears anyways. None of these tactics sets the dog up to learn more than their one trick in the face of danger. As trainers what we need to learn is to set our dog up to learn new tactics, using what we know about triggers, thresholds, operant and classical conditioning, and remembering what it feels like when we ourselves experience anxiety.