JUDGEMENT CALL

Originally posted June 2013

Humans are social animals.  For reasons that hit deep into the DNA of our species we are set up to live together in groups and to trade favours in order to get along better.  Trading favours is one way to describe an evolutionary concept called reciprocal altruism.  In other words, you scratch my back and I will scratch yours, and presumably, mutual back scratching will improve the likelihood that each of us will survive long enough to pass along our genes.  One of the most important ways that we have to trade favours is to warn one another of dangers, especially if they are avoidable.

What would you do if you observed the following:

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Image credit: waldru / 123RF Stock Photo

Would you call out?  Would you help?  If you knew a train was coming, would that impact your choice of response?  Would you be angry if someone tried to help?  Think about it.  As an adult coming across a child playing on railroad tracks, if I saw this, I would say something, especially if I knew that a train might come along.

In the past two weeks, I have three times been accused of interfering, being judgemental and being an expert without empathy.  Maybe that is a sign that people are beginning to read my blog.  Maybe I am just rude; not my intent, but I would allow for that as a possibility.  Maybe people know that they are doing things that are not a terribly good idea.  And what have I alerted on that is so horrible?  I have told people when their dogs were showing signs of stress in images.

The point has been made that the images are but a moment in time, and this is entirely true.  When a camera takes an image, it is taking a picture of that one instant in time.  Have a look at the image below, and think about what you see.  Is the child happy?  Or sad?  In the moment, there is a definite emotional event happening.  Believe it or not showing an image of a child who is sad in the moment does not mean that child has a terrible life; it means that at one instant in time, the child was unhappy and a picture was taken.

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Would you send your kid to basketball camp, if this were the type of image that was used in advertizing the camp?  Do you think your child would be interested in going to basketball camp so that he or she could feel this way too?  Image credit: duplass / 123RF Stock Photo

Now let’s think about advertizing.  If you were looking for a child’s dance class, would you want to take your child there if all the images of the children in the advertizing literature were crying?  This is a situation I face when I cruise through the websites of some of my competition.  I see page after page of accurately working dogs who universally look unhappy.  I see long series of pictures of classes full of dogs showing whale eye, pinned ears, head drops and occasionally a snarl.

I also face this day in and day out when I see family pictures of my non dog training friend’s and their dogs.  I see children hugging dogs, and people putting dogs in awkward positions, and the dogs are clearly showing signs of discomfort and distress.  In fact, a lot of the images I see are not just dogs who look sad, but dogs who are in the early sequence of getting ready to bite.

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I see this sort of image in my Facebook feed on a daily basis.  This dog is helpless and unhappy and has begun to bite the child.  Often the image is posted with a caption such as “Missy and her new puppy are bonding; aren’t they cute?”  All I can think about is “If I don’t say something, this child is going to get hurt.  I don’t want the child to get hurt.”  Image credit: tonobalaguer / 123RF Stock Photo

When I talk to people about these pictures, they regularly tell me that the dog often looked like that and was perfectly happy and that the dog never hurt anyone.  I am tired of telling people that they were darned lucky.  All too often, I get first contact with a family after the dog has bitten and often after the dog has bitten a child.  Here is a news flash; dogs don’t like being hugged or kissed.  They really don’t.  When you look at hundreds of images of dogs showing signs of stress and you know you are going to be talking to the families at some point down the road about behaviours that lead to biting, then it is incredibly frustrating to hear that you are being mean, unkind, thoughtless or misusing your education when you speak up.  For me, to see an image of a child hugging a dog, while the dog is giving whale eye, is squinting, or has pinned ears is like looking at a picture of a kid running into traffic.  It turns my stomach and makes my blood run cold.  The reason that I get so upset about these images is not that I don’t want people to have great experiences with their pets; it is because if a bite comes and I didn’t speak out, I feel like I was complicit.  It feels like I could have prevented a bite, if only people didn’t think I was attacking them.

Several of my colleagues have pointed out that I am willing to do unpleasant things to dogs from time to time in order to suppress or decrease behaviours, and that not everything we do to dogs is always wonderful and pleasant.  My colleagues; you are right.  The images I am talking about are moments in time, and they show the dogs in discomfort or distress for that moment.  I am not saying that the dog is being abused, or that the dog’s welfare is at risk; I am saying that at that moment in time, the dog is uncomfortable.  Sometimes the dog is showing me that he will bite and soon.  When people use these pictures to show their best work, it is a sad situation.  When people knowlingly put their dogs into this sort of a situation, and then take a picture of that situation, it is not fair to the dog.

So here is my problem.  I see the situation.  I comment.  Inevitably, someone takes offence that I have an opinion.  Sometimes they get angry.  Usually they are upset.  Should I comment?  I feel compelled to comment for so many reasons.  Like the Lorax, I speak for a creature who cannot speak for himself.  When I am working as a behaviour consultant, I advocate for the dog within the family.  Often when people can see the discomfort they can change what they do, and the dog’s overall welfare improves.  Not only that but the safety of the family improves.  When it works, I feel like I am contributing in a positive way to society.  When it doesn’t I feel outcaste and like a failure.  When I cannot reach the client or the family or the community and a bite happens, I feel even worse.

Don’t get me wrong; this is not all about me, but on the other hand it is.  As a society we have grown so far away from our agrarian roots that we often don’t recognize the signs of stress in our dogs.  When we recognize them, we often dismiss them as unimportant.  We put ourselves and our dogs into situations that are unpleasant and often dangerous.  We have both high and low expectations of ourselves and we translate those expectations on our dogs.  We expect that life will be hard and we put up with that.  We expect that our dogs will tolerate discomfort and put up with that too.  How is this about me?  It is about me because I have been trained to recognize the signs of stress in dogs.  Once you know what you are looking for, it is really hard not to do something when you see the signs.

When I point out a dog in distress this is not a judgement about you or who you are, or your family or your value to society or if you have a nice dog or a not nice dog.  This is not a judgement about the choices you made.  I assume, correctly more often than not, that you don’t see the signs of stress because you don’t have the training I do.  This isn’t a bad thing, it is just a thing.  When I point out that a dog is in distress, and I tell you about it, to me it is like telling you your shoelace is undone.  I want to participate in the co-operative behaviour of a society and protect you so that if I am in danger and you know about it, you will tell me.  For me, this is no more judgemental than “I noticed that you didn’t turn off the stove when you left the kitchen; shall I go check and turn it off so we don’t burn down the house?”

This blog is a bit of a rant, and I am aware of that.  I don’t often write about how my job impacts my life, but it does.  When I go to a family picnic and I see a dog being harassed by the kids, the picnic is no longer any fun for me because I know that the dog is uncomfortable and that the only way he can avoid the discomfort is to warn and then bite those who are causing discomfort.  If I say something, then I risk that you will think that I am judging you and ruin your day.  If I don’t say something then I risk that I will be sitting in yet another appointment with a friend or a family member and have to explain to them why their dog bit their child.  Some of the time, not saying something results in the dog behaving so dangerously that the family chooses to kill the dog.  For me, the stakes are very high, and the last thing I want to do is share in the heartbreak of yet another family who got a dog because they love dogs, and end up afraid of dogs because mishandling led to a tragedy.

JUDGEMENT CALL

THE BLAME GAME

Originally posted August 2013

One of the most popular games that people play with their dogs is the blame game.  As a society, we love this game.  If the dog is rude and overbearing with guests, then it is Dad’s fault because he plays roughly with the dog.  Or if the dog attacks other dogs it is because the older dog taught the younger dog in the house to growl at strange dogs.  Blame is lots of fun.

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I think this is often how my clients feel when they have a dog with a problem behaviour.  Blaming people for the problem just isn’t helpful.  Blame doesn’t change the behaviour.  Blame is what we do when we want people to take responsibility for things that we want changed.  Image credit: bowie15 / 123RF Stock Photo

As a behaviour consultant, I don’t get to play the blame game.  It can be interesting to know where the problem originated, and sometimes it is helpful to know when a trauma occurred or if the dog suffered an illness that prevented him from going to puppy class, but the fact is that the blame game just doesn’t work with dogs with behaviour problems.  It is often said that dogs live in the now, and when it comes to specific behaviours this is really important information.  The dog doesn’t pee on the bed while you are away because he is angry; he pees on the bed because his bladder is full and he doesn’t have to stand in a puddle of pee if he pees on the bed.  As a behaviour consultant, I have to look at the behaviours that are problematic and instead of blaming someone for the problem, look at the variables to determine what can be changed to change the behaviour.

It can be helpful to look at a case in order to get the idea of how to look at behaviour problems without blame.  If we have an adolescent Labrador named Lulu, and she is jumping up on people and knocking them over, we have a problem.  If her people, Larry and Lucy come to me for help, I will ask a bunch of questions about Lulu.  How many pups were in her litter?  At what age did she come home from the breeder’s?  Did she go to puppy class?  What have Larry and Lucy tried already?  When did she last go to the vet, and is she healthy?  In gathering this information, I want to know things that will help me to rule out some strategies that might not work.  If there were very few puppies in the litter or if she was a singleton, she is more likely to have impulse control issues.  That tells me that we may be looking at teaching her impulse control exercises.  If she came home before six weeks of age, this may also contribute to a lack of good impulse control.  If she didn’t go to a puppy class then the chances are that Lucy and Larry may not have the skills to address the problem, and Lulu may not have had enough of the appropriate people to help her to meet people appropriately.  Puppy class can help you to find the right people to meet and greet with a solid structure on how to do that.  If Lucy and Larry have already tried penny shake cans, kneeing Lulu in the chest, stepping on her hind feet, and grabbing her roughly around the neck, then I know that Lulu may be conflicted about wanting to greet but not knowing how to do that properly.  If Lulu went to the vet and she has an eye infection, and the jumping up got worse since the eye became infected, she may be quite agitated and uncomfortable and may not be making great decisions.

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Dogs who are ill often don’t make great behavioural decisions.  Getting sick is no one’s fault, and laying blame in one place or another doesn’t help.  Realizing that the dog is sick and getting him help is a much better solution when changing behaviours.  Image credit: edu1971 / 123RF Stock Photo

The next thing I am going to look at is what is maintaining the behaviour.  Why does this behaviour keep happening?  Lulu doesn’t jump up against cement walls, or the fridge door.  She doesn’t jump up against the hood of the car, or her crate; she only jumps up on people.  Likely, even if people do their very best not to interact with Lulu she gets something out of the behaviour.  She gets attention if you make eye contact, she gets touch if you hold your arms up against your body to protect yourself and if she is confused, she resolves her confusion by jumping up and eliciting the known response when she does this; see my blog “THEY DO IT TO GET ATTENTION” at http://dogsinthepark-suenestnature.blogspot.ca/2013/06/they-do-it-to-get-attention.html.

Notice that so far, there is no blame; just facts.  The first thing I am going to do from here is to define my target behaviour.  With Lulu, I want her to learn to greet with all four feet on the floor.  I don’t care how happy she is or how excited she is, I just want to her to keep her feet to herself when she is greeting.  We can do this lots and lots of ways, but before I decide what technique or method I will choose with Lulu, I will decide what I want her to do.  Given that Lulu appears to have a likelihood of impulse control issues, and Larry and Lucy have already tried to stop the unwanted behaviour by doing things that are unpleasant to the dog, I am going to start with some tactics that may not seem to have anything to do with the problem at hand.  I would start by taking a week’s vacation from greeting anyone other than family members, so that Lulu stops practicing the unwanted behaviour.  When the family greats Lulu, I will have them drop treats on the floor so that Lulu is doing something that she cannot do while she is jumping up.  I will also have the family crouch to greet Lulu for this week so that once she has cleaned up her treats, then they aren’t setting her up to greet inappropriately.  Still…no blame.

Once Lulu has had a whole week of not practicing the undesired behaviour, then I can start to teach her the skills of keeping four feet on the floor when greeting.  If we are approaching her and she has her feet on the floor we can mark that behaviour and drop a treat on the floor and move away while she is eating for instance.  Or we can use a delta signal to tell her to change her behaviour and then mark the undesired response and she can lose a turn.  There are dozens of very elegant solutions to teaching a dog not to jump up when greeting, but the important part is to keep in mind that Larry and Lucy have already tried using an unpleasant outcome without success, so we want to avoid doing that again.  I don’t blame my clients for trying tactics that I might not try, but I can avoid repeating things that didn’t work.

Ideally, Lulu would have come from a larger litter, come home at about 8 weeks, gone to a great puppy socialization class, and learned early how to greet appropriately before she was 16 weeks of age.  Ideally, Larry and Lucy would have tried more effective interventions than they chose, and ideally, Lulu wouldn’t have an eye infection.  None of the things that happened to Lulu are anyone’s fault but they do contribute to how we approach the behaviour now, and blaming Lucy for insisting on getting a very young puppy or blaming Larry for giving Lulu a bath and getting dirt in her eye isn’t going to change what we are dealing with in the here and now.

Prevention is always the best cure.  We can make ourselves feel really great if we think we always know the right answer, but we don’t always know, and neither do my clients.  As we learn more, we do better.  We know now that the best way to prevent jumping up is to teach the dog to greet politely when they are young and reward for the right answer, but when we are looking at behaviour, playing the blame game just doesn’t change the behaviour of the dog we are working with in front of us.  When clients come and ask for help, it is important that I recognize that they are not looking for blame; they are looking for help.  They have taken responsibility for the problem and they are addressing that by coming to me for help.  As long as they are coming to classes and working on their problems, then blaming from me or from the family members shouldn’t be a part of the program; it just isn’t going to help.  Lucy and Larry and Lulu are tangled up in a problem and they are looking for solutions not blame.  I need information, but not so that I can assign blame.  I need to know things in order to formulate a solution.  People tend to use blame when they think that someone isn’t taking responsibility when they ought to.  If clients are in my training hall they have already taken responsiblity, and so blame just doesn’t belong there as a part of the process.

THE BLAME GAME

KIDS AND DOGS

Originally posted July 2013, updated and edited

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.

Little girl playing with dog at home
This girl and her dog are probably just “fooling around” with some treats and tricks. In order to achieve this kind of relationship, the dog has to have great manners, and understand the training process, as does the child. With some careful set up and planning we can make this happen. Once the dog and the child both have some basics, this is what happens; the kid and the dog start to play with training. That is really how I achieved the magic I had with my dog Thurber when I was a kid.

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.   It is better to teach your dog the behaviours you want him to learn and then repeat those behaviours in class with your kids.  You can step in if you need, but generally, if the dog knows the behaviour the kid can retrain that easily and successfully.

When parents work with the school and take the dog through the work before they take the child through the work with the dog who already knows what to do, this makes it much easier for everyone.  Communication between you and the instructor about your goals in bringing your dog and your child to class can really go a long way to being successful too.  As an instructor, I want to know about your training goals and be a part of your successes.  From time to time a child appears in my classes with their parents and the parent steps back too early, and the whole experiment falls apart.  Not only is the child turned off one of the most magical activities that I was blessed to experience in my childhood, but the adult and the dog are frustrated too!

And what about the child who takes a class and is successful?  When the child and the dog move through the world together and they come up with an idea together, they can explore that with a common understanding of how to communicate about what they each need.  Then the child gets what I got as a child.  A magic relationship with another being.  That is what I wish every child could get when they come through my classroom.

KIDS AND DOGS

HOT, HOT, HOT! (THE BOYS)

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Handsome is as handsome does, and if you are going to keep your dogs intact, you have a responsibility to train and contain them so that they cannot breed indiscriminately.

Intact dogs and bitches have become a hot topic around Dogs in the Park lately.  An awful lot of the young ladies seem to have come into season all at once this past summer, and we are getting a whole lot of questions!  A few weeks ago, one of our regulars came into class and I could see that she was most likely in heat.  I pointed this out to the human learner, and she looked disappointed, and said “we are so close to Level 3.  I guess we will have to pass it when we get back.”  “Back from where?” I asked.  The human thought that we would not want her young bitch in class because she was in heat!  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As most of our “new to living with an intact dog” students do, this family had a lot of questions, and this has prompted me to write about living with, training and coping with an intact animal.

Let’s start with the boys, because in many ways, the boys are a more straightforward situation.  The correct term for a male dog is a dog, just like the correct term for an intact female dog is bitch.  If you read dog in this blog you know we are talking about a male dog and if you read bitch, we are talking about a female dog.  If a dog is neutered, altered or “fixed”, that means that a veterinarian has surgically removed the testicles.  Even in a late neuter, they don’t remove the scrotum; they just remove the testicles.  If he is intact, that means that the dog still has his testicles. 

A very few male dogs have had vasectomies.  Usually there is a reason for the owner of the dog to choose to have a vasectomy.  I had a dog that we chose to have this done for.  He was a huge military lines German Shepherd dog named Eco, and he had one testicle retained inside his body.  This happens from time to time, but due to the work we wanted him to do, we wanted to make sure that he would be as physically strong as possible, and to develop as normal a skeleton as he could, so we didn’t want to neuter him.  Also, we had read that intact male dogs have a better sense of smell (the jury is out on this fact; we are not sure if this is true or not, but there is enough evidence pointing to this that we decided we wanted to keep the remaining testicle).  Due to the fact that Eco had retained one testicle and we knew that is a strongly heritable trait, we didn’t want him to be bred, so we opted to ask our veterinarian to do a vasectomy.  For us this was a very good choice, but it did mean that although he could not sire puppies, he behaved in every other way as an intact male would.

Intact males are able to breed, and they will be much more interested in the girls when they are in heat than are neutered males, but in general, living with a well trained intact male is no different than living with a well trained neutered male.  Notice that I have qualified this with well trained.  D’fer was my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and he was trained to do work as my service dog.  He was also intact.  As is true with almost all Chessies, he was an intense, passionate guy, with an opinion on nearly everything.  We were well matched in that regard!  I have about 5 foundation behaviours that I feel are essential to success for dogs who live with me.  The first of these is the cued take it.  As I like to say, the dog controls the dog!  You can read more about my thoughts on this at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/11/12/the-dog-controls-the-dog/ .  Other behaviours include the one hour down stay and automatically sitting at the door.  The cued take it is important for intact dogs because that is what they must do when they meet a reproductively available member of the opposite sex, and that was the behaviour that mattered the most the very first time that D’fer met a female dog in heat. 

I remember that we were at a tracking seminar, and another participant had brought a dog with her that she intended to have bred by a dog she was going to meet on her way home.  This is not an unusual situation in the professional dog world; when we have a promising bitch, we may take her to meet a complimentary dog when she is in heat.  She was behind a gate in the owner’s trailer, and as we walked by, D’fer suddenly stopped as though he had walked into a brick wall.  He could obviously smell that she was in heat, and he was VERY interested!  Because we had done the foundation work necessary to create the level of cued take it that I want, he did not pull or strain towards her; he stepped back and waited politely, until I told him not this time and we moved on.  The owner of the bitch in heat was much relieved, as she really did not need a litter of Basset Hound Chesapeake Bay Retriever puppies!

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When D’fer, my service dog met a basset hound in heat, he asked very nicely if I would let him meet her. This is an essential skill if you are going to keep your dogs intact.

There is a myth out there that if you have an intact male, he is going to be absolutely uncontrollable when he meets a female dog in heat.  While this may be true in the case of an untrained dog who has been encouraged to misbehave and grab whatever he wants, this is completely untrue for a well trained dog.  I feel that if you have an intact male, you have a responsibility to your dog and to the rest of society to make sure that your boy is well mannered and well trained so that he does not wander or impregnate dogs he should not.  This means investing time in the first 8 to 10 months teaching your dog that grabbing whatever he wants is not acceptable, and that he must come when called regardless of what is going on around him.

Another common myth about intact males is that they are all aggressive, and that they will fight any other male dog that they meet.  This just isn’t true!  Intermale aggression may happen, but it is far from the universal phenomenon that people often assume that it is.  I remember more than once having people explain to me that of course service dogs could not be intact because they would get into fights.  I was always amused when I asked them to look more closely at my dog and have them discover that they had been sitting right beside an intact male!  If you have ever seen a group of beach dogs in the Caribbean, or on a dump in a third world country, then you observed first hand that intact males can and DO co-exist peacefully.  The deal is pretty simple.  In the wild, males are not crowded into situations where they are going to argue a whole lot; and when conflict does arise, aggression is not usually the first choice in resolution.  Aggression is only the best choice for an individual when that individual is fairly sure that he will win.  This means that the male who is weaker, slower or less certain is most likely going to choose to retreat or otherwise acquiesce.  The stronger, faster or more confident dog doesn’t feel the need to assert himself, and thus, he doesn’t pick unnecessary fights.  Fights are really only a good idea when the outcome is uncertain; when both members of the conflict are pretty equally matched.  This is not to say that aggression between males in the wild never happens;  it means that aggression is relatively rare.  So why is it that people think that intermale aggression is so common?

There are likely a number of answers to this.  In the wild, we don’t prevent the little squabbles from happening and those little squabbles help the individuals to understand which dog is stronger and which dog doesn’t have a chance of winning a fight.  Wild dogs have more choices to retreat too.  And in the wild the intact males usually live in groups where the social structure is relatively stable with few individuals moving in or out at once.  Compare this to the situation of your average pet dog!  If he protests to another dog that he doesn’t like being that close, he will likely be chastised by a well meaning person.  This means that the dog never gets to explain to the other dog what he does or does not like.  I am not suggesting that permitting your dogs to squabble incessantly is a good idea, but they do need to be able to communicate their preferences!  Next, our homes are set up to store our books, computers and clothing; they are not set up to allow dogs to retreat from one another easily.  When I did home visits, one of the things I always looked at was if the dogs had a reasonable second way to retreat from conflict.  Rarely did I find this already in existence!  Next we often ask our dogs to accept a huge number of new dogs into their environment; we ask them to get along with every dog at the dog park, and then tolerate guest dogs to the home, not to mention all sorts of new people who have differing ideas about what acceptable behaviour might be.  If you add into the mix the sexual tension of two males who are of similar strength, speed and agility and breeding females, fights will happen.  Nevertheless, many intact dogs can and do learn to live peacefully together.  I just would not suggest taking them out to the dog park and hoping for the best.

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Squabbles can actually decrease the chance of aggression. This doesn’t mean we should encourage dogs to squabble, however, interrupting every single disagreement can actually lead to the less confident, weaker or slower dog to try taking on a dog who would win a fight.

Neutering will not usually resolve aggressive behaviours in dogs, however there are exceptions to this.  If you have two intact males, and they are starting to get scrappy, neutering ONE of them may help.  The key is which one?  This is an it depends sort of question and you should work with a behaviour professional to decide which dog should be neutered.  Neutering both dogs likely won’t solve your problem.  If you have a particularly social and studly adolescent dog, he may be the target of aggression from other dogs who are intolerant of his shenanigans, and some of the time, neutering may resolve this.  The only two behavioural benefits that have been concretely demonstrated have been marking and neutering, and in both cases, the studies did not control for the effect of training.  In my experience of living with a handful of intact males, and having trained several dozen more, I would suggest that training can overcome many of the issues that are often attributed to being intact.

So how do you live successfully with an intact male?  Here are my top six suggestions.

1.        START TRAINING EARLY

I want my intact males in training to learn to toilet on cue (avoiding the marking issue entirely if you make sure they understand how to completely empty their bladders and make all walks contingent on producing urine quickly and completely), to ask politely for every thing they want (cued take its), to come when called (even in the face of heavy distractions) and to lie down and stay for up to an hour at a time when asked.

 

2.       GET SERIOUS ABOUT SOCIALIZATION

We talk about S.E.E.ing your puppy at Dogs in the Park.  This acronym stands for systematic environmental enrichment and what it means is making sure your intact male dog has seen literally hundreds of other people, dogs, animals, floors, vehicles, and experiences, and furthermore that these exposures have all been done sub threshold.  This means having your dog relaxed at all times when exposing him to all these things.  I find that it is easiest to do this with the help of an organized puppy class, however, this is not always possible.  When it isn’t, make sure that you have a plan for how you are going to expose your pup to everything.

 

3.       TEACH YOUR MALE DOG THAT LEARNING AND WORK HAPPENS EVEN IN THE PRESENCE OF A BITCH IN HEAT

This is where group classes that include intact bitches are invaluable.  If you cannot find a class that includes bitches and even bitches in heat, get yourself into the confirmation world; half the dogs at every dog show are female and many of them will be in heat.  Teach your boys that they still have to perform even if there is a particularly attractive girl around.

 

4.       KEEP YOUR DOG WELL EXERCISED

If your male dog is under exercised he is going to have ants in his pants and be unable to exercise his best self control.  Properly exercised means opportunities to run and run hard, on a daily basis for a young dog (use your judgement; pups under six months should not be forced to exercise the way that an adult dog will), as well as opportunities to engage with you in directed aerobic activities.  Fetch is good, however, it can become an activity that will excite your dog and create stress.  Better are activities such as agility, treibball, herding, or tracking.  All these activities teach your dog to engage with you while he is excited.

 

5.       INCORPORATE SELF CONTROL AS A DAILY ROUTINE INSTEAD OF AS A CUED BEHAVIOUR

Too often I see male dogs who think that they can have anything they want if they are just fast enough about taking it.  I want my boys to think that they can have anything they want if only they ask.  I have written about this extensively all through this blog; if the door opens, I want my dogs to go about their day without rushing the doors.  This often surprises guests because they have to invite my dogs to go outside.  My dogs also have to be invited to start dinner, to get on furniture and to get in the car.  Self control is just part of polite manners in our house.  On the other hand, our dogs have a huge toy basket of freebies; things they can take any time they want.

 

6.       BE SENSIBLE ABOUT WHAT YOU ASK OF YOUR MALE DOGS

The last time I shared a hotel room with someone for a dogshow, she had an intact bitch.  Her bitch was not in season, so I was not worried about my intact male.  Nevertheless, he slept in a crate that night.  If she had wanted to share a room and bring her intact male, I would have declined to share a room.  I don’t ask my boys to accept every dog I know in our home, I don’t take my intact males to the dog park and when I have a bitch in heat in class with my intact males, I don’t ask them to work at distance off leash unless I am really certain that both I and the handler of the bitch have perfect control over our dogs.  When I have intact males in my classroom, I am careful about when I ask them to work beside a bitch in heat; I certainly don’t ask them to do this when they are relatively new to training.  Setting my boys up for success is a huge responsibility, and it is what I spend most of my time doing.

 

As a final word about keeping an intact male, if your dog impregnates an intact bitch, keep in mind that you are responsible for half the costs and work of the litter.  If you are going to keep an intact male, it is your job to make sure he is well enough trained and contained to ensure that an unplanned pregnancy is unlikely. 

Coming up next…the girls!  Please be patient; this blog was delayed by an injury to my thumb which meant that all my typing has been of the hunt and peck variety for the past three weeks!  I am still pretty slow on the keyboard, but I am doing my best!

HOT, HOT, HOT! (THE BOYS)

THE SALVADORE DALI CAFE

Originally Published August 2013

Imagine what it might be like to live in a completely behaviourally random world.  You go to the cafe and order a latte, and the cashier asks for your hat and coat.  As a cooperative citizen, you give it to the lady who throws it in the trash, as she calls out “NEXT” and turns her attention to the person behind you in line.  You move down the counter to pick up your latte, and the barrista, comes out from behind the counter and grabs you and begins to waltz you around the Salvador Dali cafe and throws open the door and turfs you out onto the sidewalk.  On the sidewalk, a bear in a business suit offers you a Rolex, cheap from inside his waistcoat and when you say no, he pulls out some flowers and hands them to you and approaches someone else on the street.  Still wanting a latte you go back into the store, only to find that it is now filled with pink balloons and you cannot make your way to the counter.  After much struggling, you catch the eye of the cashier and mention your latte and she says “no latte today, m’dear, only champers and cheese” and hands you a plate of candied almonds.  Nothing you do can change the maelstrom of activity you have found yourself within.  How would you feel?

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Living in our world as it is depends on understanding things like the rules of the game, that gravity controls what floats and what doesn’t and who people are.  When things stop being predictable, then it becomes very difficult to learn what to do.  Salvador Dali had a talent for showing this concept visually in a playful and interesting way, never the less, few people would want to play checkers on a board where the pieces persist in falling through the board and where time expands and contracts independently of what the players do.   Image credit: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo

When we work with dogs, they are forever looking for the way through the maze; the way to control their environment, the rules of the game.  There are lots of games you can play and learn the rules through experience, and training is one of them.  Yesterday, I worked with a lovely young terrier who is trying to figure out the rules.  When she barks, she wants attention, and as a youngster, it worked well.  She can make her person do all sorts of things by barking.  Not wanting to disturb people, her person will come in to her and pick her up, or give her treats or tell her to be quiet or point a finger at her or tell her to lie down.  Like trying to order a latte in the Salvadore Dali cafe, everything changes at every step of the game.  So how can we make training an experiential fun game for the dog?

Think about games and activities that you have learned through experience.  If someone invites you to play Scrabble and you have never played before, it might run like this.  Your opponent will give you a hint or a clue or a starting point.  Perhaps they will start by giving you a tile tray and some tiles and ask you to make some words in your tile tray without showing the words that you have found.  Then your opponent will put down some tiles and the board and explain how the scoring works.  Then it is your turn and you can take your letters and place them on the board to make a word that intersects the first word.  You do this and your opponent scores your word for you and then it is his turn again.  He makes a word that intersects a word on the board and you work out the scoring together.  Turn by turn you learn the rules of the game, what strategies work and which strategies are ineffective.  This is exactly how dogs learn when we train using operant conditioning.

Coming back to my terrier friend (she really is a friendly dog who is just trying to make sense of her world), what we set up for training was a contingency that allowed her to learn some rules through experience.  The first thing we did was use a tether to limit where she could go; we set up a playing area so to speak.  Then we clicked and treated to remind her that the game was starting and give her some information about the game and how it would work.  Then we used four basic rules; if she was quiet, her person would stand close to her and wait.  If she was barking, her person would take one step back for each bark, until he got to the far end of the room.  After barking started, if she were quiet, her person would come back one step at a time.  If she lay down, her person would click and treat.  At first, she didn’t know the rules so she did a lot of different things to see what would happen.

When she barked, her person would step back.  This frustrated her and so she barked louder.  When her person was about twenty steps back, she stopped barking and he stepped forward.  Then she barked again and he stepped back.  For about five minutes, she learned how her behaviour affected the behaviour of her partner.  Then abruptly, she lay down.  Her partner came in and fed her a treat.  And she barked.  He backed up.  She stopped barking and stood up.  He stepped closer.  She lay down, he gave her a treat.  A very simple, but very predictable game, in which she controlled the behaviour of her partner.

This is how I think the best training works.  The trainer decides on the game for the day.  The trainer decides on what the contingencies are.  Then the trainer allows the dog to work out the contingencies.  The dog gets to decide if he wants to play or not and if the trainer has done his job well he has set up rules that make sense to the dog and the dog wants to play.  In order to do this we have to understand some things about the game and about the dog we are working with.

If I have a dog who LOVES liver, but doesn’t love cheese, then it doesn’t matter what I want the dog to do, cheese is not going to help him to learn the rules of the game.  Likewise if the penalty is something the dog doesn’t care about, then using that as a penalty isn’t going to work.  If in the scenario that I presented above the dog was afraid of the handler and barking made him go away, the dog would learn that barking resulted in something he wanted and he would do more barking.  I see this all the time in training.  The person thinks that their dog should like something, and they offer it as a reward, and the dog when working out the rules figures out that he will get something he doesn’t want to have if he does a particular behaviour.  This isn’t about the dog not wanting to play your game; this is about the dog not wanting what you have to offer.

Sometimes the task we are asking the dog to do is of no interest to him.  If we ask a herding dog to go sit in a boat and retrieve ducks, no amount of liver is going to make that as fun for him as taking him out to herd sheep.  In the best training the activities we do with our dogs are of interest to the dog.  That said, there are always parts of the game that we might not enjoy; I hate setting up the board in Scrabble, but if I don’t do that part, I cannot do the part that I like doing.  Manners are an example of activities that your dog must do in order to get to do things he likes better.  Behaviours like greeting with four on the floor, taking treats gently, and keeping quiet are all behaviours that the dog must learn in order to be able to do things like playing agility, herding sheep or retrieving ducks.  Teaching good manners allows us to do more fun things with our dogs later and also allows us to establish that the dog doesn’t live in a random world where nothing he does affects the world he lives within.

Luring is a tool that I often see in the training game that can be quickly and dangerously misused.  Imagine if in my Salvador Dali coffee shop, the cashier kept holding out that latte that I wanted, but I could only get it by following her around.  I might tolerate a lot of Rolex selling bears and pink balloons to get my lattte, but I probably wouldn’t enjoy the experience a whole lot more.  Luring should be only used with caution and with respect for the dog.  When a novice trainer discovers that he can make the dog sit by holding the lure over the dog’s head, it is a short and dangerous step to using the lure to get the dog to do things he might consider otherwise risky.  Consider the dog who is not confident about getting onto a piece of agility equipment.  The trainer puts the lure on the equipment, and the dog is then in a conundrum; he can get the treat, but he isn’t learning to control his environment any longer.  He is conflicted because he wants the treat, but he has to do something that he considers dangerous to get that treat.  He doesn’t learn to play the game as much as he learns to balance the conflict between what he wants and what he doesn’t want to do.  Luring is even more dangerous when it is used to get the dog to interact with people or dogs he isn’t sure of, because he may at that point become aggressive.  Luring, properly used tells the dog how to position his body, but that is all it should be used for.  If the dog is concerned in any way about what you want him to do, pairing the thing he is concerned about to the thing he wants is a much safer bet than making his interaction the contingency that results in a treat.

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Luring is a tool that can lead the dog into the Salvador Dali Cafe.  It is best used to help the dog understand how his body ought to be positioned, but if it is abused and used to coerce the dog to do things that are uncomfortable or risky, then the dog loses control over how he interacts with the world and then he can end up in situations that don’t make sense to him or that actually put him at risk.  In general, targeting can achieve the same results, with fewer risks.  Image credit: simsonne100 / 123RF Stock Photo

As soon as worry comes into the game, then it is not fun anymore.  Then it is time to play a different game; a game that will allow the learner to figure out that he is safe and that the world is a good place to interact with.  When the dog is worried the game should simply be “see that scary thing?  It produces treats”  This game is great when it is played with the frightening thing far enough away that the dog can cope with his fear.  Only when fear dissolves can you switch back to a game of “if you interact with the thing you are worried about, you will get a treat”.

When we think about training as a game, we can set up a series of rules and outcomes that the dog can be successful at.  Teaching dogs to be confident is contingent on the dog being repeatedly successful.  If the dog is successful over and over again, the dog starts to think that he can do many more things than he used to be able to do.  Perhaps the worst thing we can do to our dogs is create a random world where they cannot control what they live with.  Overwhelming dogs with repeated conflicts or failures results in a dog who lacks confidence and who doesn’t want to participate in training games.  If your dog feels like he is living in the Salvador Dali coffee shop, don’t be surprised if he stops participating in the training game, or if he becomes tense or fearful or anxious.  Just writing about the Salvador Dali cafe is difficult because none of it makes sense and there is no control over the outcomes.  When there is no control over your world, learning is inefficient and upsetting and pretty soon you have a dog who just doesn’t want to participate any more.

THE SALVADORE DALI CAFE

TRAVEL AT THE SPEED OF DOG

Many years ago, I had two clients in class.  One very energetic bouncy happy lady had a very energetic bouncy happy border collie.  The other very quiet laidback low key lady had a very quiet laid back low key Malamute.  When it came time to teach the dogs to come when called, the very energetic bouncy happy lady handed me her dog’s leash, I held the dog by the collar and she jumped up and down and up and down and made squeaky enticing noises and ran away and called her dog.  Her very energetic very bouncy happy dog raced joyously to her and promptly bounced her to the ground where the two of them had a very energetic, very bouncy happy love fest.  Next, the very quiet laidback low key lady handed me her dog’s leash and I held her dog by the collar as she ambled slowly away and stopped half way to the end of our training field to tie her shoe lace.  She got up and slowly continued to the end of the field where she turned and calmly asked the dog to come.  I released the dog’s collar and he very slowly, very quietly and calmly ambled towards her, stopping once to sit down and scratch, and then to sniff and go pee, and then he wandered off towards the other dogs in the class waiting for their turn at the exercise.

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If I want to teach THIS dog to come to me without bouncing me to the ground, I will need to ask him to come in such a way that I don’t cause him to come so quickly that he cannot stop without hitting me. This is just one aspect of what I need to do in order to be successful when I am training a dog. Copyright: bigandt / 123RF Stock Photo

Week after week, I coached these two trainers on how to get better recalls.  Relax a bit I told the very energetic bouncy happy lady, and he won’t knock you over when he gets to you.  Get a little more excited and interesting for your dog I coached the quiet laidback low key lady, so that your dog is a little more excited to get to you.  The more I coached them, the more extreme each of these ladies seemed to get.  The very bouncy lady got bouncier, and the quiet lady got calmer and even more reserved.  One day in exacerbation, I had them trade dogs and each dog had a much better recall.  Of course over time, each of the handlers DID improve however the bouncy lady was still bouncy and the quiet lady was still quiet.  Luckily they each had dogs to suit their own temperaments!

This scenario really highlights something I see in my classes though.  We have to give the dogs what they need in order to learn.  We can only teach the dogs what they have the foundations to understand and we must present the material we want them to learn in such a way that they will be successful in their activities.  If we don’t we won’t be successful in our training.  In short, we have to travel at the speed of dog.

When I see dogs struggling in class I start out by asking myself if the dog has all the information he needs in order to learn the task.  If we are teaching a dog to go away from us for instance, and we start by asking the dog to move out 20 metres, and the dog doesn’t know how to go two metres away from us on cue, then we are very unlikely to be able to build a solid, happy and energetic go out.  We need to understand the mechanics of what we are working on (coming when called usually works better when the person is a longer not shorter distance from the dog for instance), what motivates the dog, and what the dog already knows in order to be successful.  I have taught the long distance go out a number of different ways, all depending on which dog I am working with.  The point is that I have to travel at the speed of dog in each and every instance. 

Another thing I need to consider when I am teaching dogs is what their own way is of moving through the world.  I tend to be a fairly intense, high energy handler.  I do best with confident, pushy dogs who enjoy my big personality, but as a professional dog trainer, I have to train calm quiet dogs, timid dogs, energetic silly dogs and dogs who just defy classification.  In other words I have to be flexible in the way that I interact with dogs. 

I also have to be flexible in my behaviour when I am teaching different exercises.  When I am teaching a dog to perform a self control exercise such as the down stay, it is better to start out by being low key and neutral.  When I want to teach a dog to come to me from a distance, it generally pays better to be a little bit exciting, unless of course you are working with a dog like my student had who was charging her and knocking her over. 

Another aspect to travelling at the speed of dog is the rate at which we give the dog information.  Ideally we want the dog to offer enough iterations of the behaviour that he can get sufficient rewards to tell him what it is that we want.  We have to set up the dog so that he gets the right answer quickly and efficiently and if he has not received a reward recently we cannot be surprised when he disengages from the activity and does his own thing. 

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This dog is engaged in his own activity, so you would need to be very aware of how much information you need to give him, how fast that information came, and not overusing his name to nag him. Copyright: chalabala / 123RF Stock Photo

Not only do we have to give the dog enough information to know when he is right, but we also have to give him cues in a timely manner.  I have watched many students say the dog’s name and then wait and wait and wait before giving the dog the cue to the behaviour that will earn a reward.  The only thing this achieves is a dog learning that in the training context, he should disregard his name!  If your dog is engaged, you likely don’t need to use his name at all.  You can learn more about how to effectively use your dog’s name at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/13/your-dogs-name-an-operating-manual/ .  Similar to this issue is when you have a dog who has performed a behaviour, and the handler delays the next cue for a very long time.  This leaves the dog hanging so that he doesn’t quite know what is coming up next, and if he is not eagerly engaged in the activity to begin with, he will just wander off to do his own thing.

Travelling at the speed of dog requires us as trainers to be aware of a number of variables and factor them all in when we are working with our dogs.  If the dog we are working with tends to be excitable, we need to tone down.  If that same dog needs to perform that behaviour with exuberance, then we can bring our own enthusiasm up a bit and help them to express the appropriate amount of energy for the given activity.  We need to avoid overwhelming the dog with too much or too little information.  Developing the ability to juggle all these factors can feel very overwhelming for many of us, however then they are all in balance, the dog travels along through the training game along side of us and learns effectively and efficiently. 

TRAVEL AT THE SPEED OF DOG

KNOW BETTER DO BETTER

It is really hard to look back at videos of my training from the 80’s!  I really didn’t know what I was doing.  I just didn’t know.  I was using a lot of aversives, and I wasn’t always fair to my dog.  I didn’t recognize when my dog was upset or distressed and I often set her up to fail.  It really wasn’t particularly nice or fair to my dog.  None the less, from time to time, I go back and watch those videos because at the end of the day, I loved that dog, and I never meant her any harm.  I just didn’t know.

Recently someone posted this video to Facebook, and John came across it in his feed.  The person posting stated that she thought that this was a fun and funny video.  What do you think?

https://www.facebook.com/animalkindstories/videos/1771763479525960/?hc_ref=ARTaGhDlLUr2QZ8npvGoQZwHWrAwUAJynasI41UnbIJV-UGtgj_DZ-dg8F3mhP-K1C8

John watched the video and posted that the dog was obviously either in pain or deeply distressed and that this was not funny.  If you go into the comments, you will see that the back story on this dog is that he was severely arthritic and his owner would take him to swim in Lake Erie in the summer, but in the winter someone volunteered the use of their indoor pool.  Possibly heartwarming, but certainly not funny.  The problem is that most people thought the video was funny. 

What is it about humans that we see funny in animals that are in distress?  I think the problem is simply that we don’t know!  We don’t recognize distress and then when it is pointed out to us, we often feel judged and disrespected.  This is just what happened when John pointed out that this dog was uncomfortable.  He was met with a strong volley of “Well, that is just your opinion” and “you just cannot see the light side of anything!”  There was a mismatch between what his educated eye saw and what his friends were seeing in the video.  They saw something amusing and John saw something deeply disturbing.  Without the backstory, neither side was seeing the whole story, but there is another sad part to the story too.

The other sad pat was simply that John has a lot of education in dog behaviour, and his friends do not.  They felt that John’s understanding of what he was seeing was no more valid than their own.  There is a popular point of view these days that an uneducated opinion is just as valid as one that comes with years of education and experience.  Remember where this blog started; it is hard for me to watch myself training thirty years ago because now that I know better, I can see how badly I did!  It can be really hard to forgive myself for the things I did in the name of training that were outright harmful, but if I am honest with myself, I didn’t know.  Just like these folks just didn’t know. 

So what can we learn from this?  I think the very first thing to learn is that we should always be striving to learn more and change what we know with more information.  Be humble.  It is actually okay to be wrong, because when we know better, we do better.  It is okay for me to say “yes, I probably injured my dog by using a choke chain” and “no I wasn’t always fair in my expectations” not because I am okay with having caused harm to my dog but because I know better now, and not only do I do better, but I help others to do better too.  The advice to forgive yourself is sound because it allows you to move forward and do better, but if you just wallow in the understanding that you have caused harm, you never get to take joy in the process of progressing; you are always stuck in regret.  I know now that joy is a much more productive emotion than regret, especially when it comes to training my dog.

Next, now that you know that many of the videos of dogs that are presented are actually videos of dogs in distress, you can start to speak up and help others to know better too.  At the very least, don’t like those videos and don’t share them.  I think of liking these videos as vicarious abuse.  We may not be actively abusing an animal, but we are contributing to the culture of acceptance of abuse, and it is time that we stop this.  Sharing with an educational intention is good, IF you think you can be effective.  That is why I have included the links that I have in this blog; so that you can see what I am talking about and you can help others to learn about what a distressed dog might look like. 

Here are some links to some videos that I have found that people often think are funny.  The first video is one of a dog attacking his foot.  What do you think might be wrong with this video?  Watch it, and then read below to find out why I don’t think this is funny.

 

There is a lot to be concerned about in this video. The first thing to recognize is that the dog doesn’t have control over the situation.  His hind foot may be twitching or scratching and he does not recognize that as his own foot.  The next thing that deeply concerns me is that there are kids and an adult laughing on the laugh track; this situation is dangerous because the dog is actually biting his own foot and if he were to be interrupted or restrained, I would be very concerned that someone could be injured.  Not only do I see a dog who is anxious and conflicted and exhibiting a very abnormal behaviour, mom and the kids could be at risk.  Just not very funny to me!

How about this one?

The duration of this behaviour alone is concerning!  When dogs spend this much time barking and spinning in circles, it is absolutely not a normal behaviour, and yet, I have seen people suggest this is fun or funny.  This dog likely has a form of Canine Compulsive Disorder and cannot choose to stop engaging in the behaviour.  You can tell he is distressed by the sound of his barking, but also by the rate of his breathing. 

Here is a final video of something that a dog is doing that is unusual and that has attracted some online attention.  Some folks find this sort of thing very interesting, and some just think it is funny.  

 

 

This case is one where the dog is exhibiting a very unusual behaviour and that interferes with its ability to engage in normal social activity and self care such as grooming or eating. You can see the dog lip licking which is a behaviour that comes along with internal conflict. The dog is clearly not behaving normally, and expending a lot of energy doing something that is not good for him. It just isn’t funny. If you want to help dogs, laughing at this sort of thing or encouraging others to laugh just isn’t very kind.

I value education. I feel that my many years of experience and education count for a lot, and I think that gives my observations much more weight than simple opinion. According to Wikipedia, an opinion is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement that is not conclusive. My observations are founded on the science of ethology or the study of animal behaviour. When I observe a dog slowly blinking and not moving, I know that the dog is either in pain or in distress. My observations are how I make my living. When I have a dog in my classroom that is stuck, and not moving, I know that the dog is in distress and my job is to alleviate that stress. When I see a video like the one of the husky, I can recognize that the dog is in pain. The dog may be in the pool therapeutically, and I can feel good about that once I have the back story, but I can never ever feel good about the distress that I observe the dog experiencing and I know that the dog is experiencing distress because of the education that I have to do my job.

It is important to ask questions.  I saw a thread about a year ago that included a comment from a woman lamenting how some sheep were distressed by the herding dog that was moving.  Quite innocently, because I know little about sheep, I asked how did she know that the sheep were distressed?  I got a complete earful about how this person felt that keeping sheep at all was cruel, and got no information about what she was seeing that made her feel that the sheep were distressed.  On both the questioning side and the answering side of the equation, we need to interact respectfully.  Instead of starting from the point of defensiveness, if you know how to identify when a dog is in distress share that information, humbly and with a great deal of care.  Help the viewers of the behaviours learn to recognize when what they see is an animal in distress. 

If you don’t know what a behaviour means, ask that too!  Many people from all over the world have reached out to me to ask what a particular behaviour means and I am always happy to either explain what they are seeing or to refer them to a resource that will help them to learn more.  If you actually want to know more and do better, you always have to be willing to learn and that means being willing to ask questions and change how you look at things. 

I don’t know a single person who is sharing these videos who is actually cruel or who wants to cause harm to the animals that are distressed in these types of videos but as we learn more, we can begin to make the world a better place for our animal friends.  The best trainers I know have always encouraged my learning by reminding me that when we know more, we can do better.  It is still hard though to watch my own errors from the time when I didn’t know as much.

KNOW BETTER DO BETTER