ONE LAST TRIP?

Originally posted May 2013

I am on a train to Montreal, with D’fer my service dog.  At ten, Deef is getting to be an old man.  Late last night when I was preparing to leave, John asked if I had D’fer’s rabies certificate.  I checked his pack and we were three days overdue.  Immunologically not a problem, but Via Rail specifically requested that he have his rabies certificate available.  Not an unreasonable request, although it did throw a bit of a glitch into our morning plans.  This morning we stopped into the Woodlawn Vet Clinic and they thankfully were able to squeeze him in right away.  Thanks!

Unfortunately when the vet was listening to his heart she noticed that he has a fairly significant heart murmur.  Blarg.  At ten we have noticed him slowing down, and now we have a better clue as to why.  The murmur is a big whistle between beats.  Very worrisome.  We booked another appointment for mid month to check into this, but this probably means that this is D’fer’s last big trip.

IMG_2251
One of D’fer’s firsts; the first time I incorporated him into a statue.  Not the last mind you.  D’fer has posed with statues in Ottawa, New York City, a park in New Jersey.  I think he likes it.  I have quite a collection of pictures of D’fer with statues.  Great early socialization allowed him to join in with my fun and pose for pictures with everyone from Frank Morris and Buddy, the first Seeing Eye Dog team, to Laura Secord and Sir Isaac Brock.  This was a fun first.

When you have a service dog you often confront a series of firsts and a series of lasts.  I still remember our first train trip; to New York City, travelling west out of Guelph and crossing the border where the Via Staff sat down and the Amtrack stepped up.  We had several opportunities to stop and let Deef out to pee.  What a great trip.  Going through customs on the train can be a long and sometimes arduous process as the customs officers board the train and you have to fill out paperwork.  Going into the states Deef didn’t get a second look.  Coming back, the Canadian customs agents had a million questions.  Everyone was really helpful and D’fer was just about perfect.  In my memory, he was completely perfect, but I am betting that the first train trip was pretty stressful for both of us.  The hands of time really do ease off the pressure I felt at the time.

Travelling with D’fer is successful for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, he has the genetics to support the acceptance of the unusual.  He is not reactive at all and although he is interested in things, he doesn’t startle easily.  We chose a great kennel to get him from, and he is the result of a breeding program that produces stable, well tempered dogs with excellent resilience.  The few times I have seen Deef startled, he has come back down very easily.  He is relaxed and calm in most situations, and new things don’t phase him.

The second thing that makes D’fer a joy to travel with is puppy class.  At the time that D’fer was a puppy we didn’t offer puppy classes at Dogs in the Park; I was primarily offering behaviour consulting with one obedience class to meet the needs of the students whose dogs had completed our behaviour program.  We took D’fer to Montessaurus Puppy School and he was one of the last puppies who was in the founder, Jenn Messer’s classes.  What a great experience that was.  I credit what we learned in Jenn’s class with two things; it helped us to create the perfect candidate to be my service dog, and it gave John the bug for teaching puppy classes.  John is an awesome puppy class teacher and it is in part because of the passion he developed in that class.

With genetics and a great socialization program on our side, we prepared D’fer for almost anything by providing the right training to prepare him for the situations we would face.  D’fer will toilet on grass, gravel, asphalt, and most especially sewer grates.  Once, I flew into Fredericton New Brunswick to speak for the Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers.  We got off the plane and I didn’t know when I would be able to get D’fer to a toilet, so I asked him to toilet on a sewer crate on the tarmac.  I turned towards the terminal to see all the ground crew, the other passengers and the terminal staff staring at my dog-peeing on a grate has been the source of many accolades as a trainer; people seem to be extremely impressed by that.  We also taught him things like leash walking skills, a super duper automatic leave it, how to get under tables and chairs and how to pick things up for me.  About two years went into getting D’fer ready for our first train trip, our first plane ride and our first grocery store, pharmacy and doctor visits.

20130503_111553
D’fer where he has been for almost eight years.  This is his final trip.  I just wish it was his first, even though first are not my favourite either.

 

Most of D’fer’s firsts are long gone in our past, and now we are facing a lot of lasts.  This is likely his last big trip with me.  It is also likely his last train trip.  I am pretty sure we have already had his last airplane ride.  Likely we have also taken the bus for the last time.  We have a few more grocery stores in us, and doctor’s appointments, and I am sure he has some more picnics and trips for ice cream, but yes, I think this is his last big trip.

I have trained over twenty service dogs now.  I hate the firsts.  The first time the dog sees construction, or hears the air conditioning start and stop on trains and planes can be very tough for young service dogs.  Here we sit on the Via Train, and the lights and fans have all turned off.  I can hear the diesel engines revving up.  How will my next dog deal with this?  Friday, the dog who was destined to be my service dog is rock solid in her ability to cope, but she doesn’t love working with me.  She much prefers working with John and where possible, we allow our dogs to choose the work that suits them best.  Likely I will make several trips with Friday before all is said and done and she and I will have these firsts and lasts too.

My computer died on the train today; my fan failed, and this interrupted my writing.  Deef slept most of the day on the train.  That heart murmur sits on my shoulder now.  Is it fair to have asked D’fer to come to Montreal this time?  He looks pretty comfortable.  We met our host in Dorval, and went to dinner and did a few errands.  All day, this heart murmur has been coming back to ask me questions.  Is this my last night in a hotel together?  Probably.

After a nap in the hotel room, Deef asked to go out and I followed his lead; something that I often do when we travel.  Where ever he wants to go I follow.  But now I know he has a heart murmur.  Should I do this with him?  We tracked someone through the field adjacent to the hotel.  We walked around a big industrial complex.  D’fer found a set of open steel stairs and asked to go up.  Socialization again; he loved the challenge of new surfaces as a puppy and as an old man, he still loves the physical challenge of new footings.  We had a great walk; over gravel and turf and overgrown grass, across asphalt, and to a loading dock, his stairs and as we walked, I noticed glimmers of young D’fer; he pranced and he bounced and he explored and he showed me all the funny things to see in the land around our hotel.  I remember the firsts, and recognize that these may be the last, but the in between is what is what matters the most to me right now.  I think I made the right choice to bring him this time, and I know that even if I didn’t that walk around the industrial area that surrounds the hotel was important for him, and for us.  I am worried about this, but I also appreciate that he is doing work he has loved for his whole life, and the gifts that we give one another in our rituals when we travel.

Good genes provided a solid foundation.  Great socialization provided a great framework.  Everything else from our firsts to now, our lasts and our close to last is the magic that makes D’fer and me something special.  That foundation and framework allowed us to get on a train when he had never done that before and be successful our very first time out.  The foundation and framework allowed us to board a huge variety of airplanes and travel as far north as Edmonton, as far west as California, as far east as Fredericton, and as far south as Raleigh, North Carolina and be able to depend on one another every step of the way.  This heart murmur in a way is a first.  It is the first concrete indication that 10 is getting old for a Chesapeake.  This is a first I really don’t like.

Friday is supposed to step into D’fer’s shoes.  I could have brought her this time.  I thought about it.  I wonder if I should have.  These lasts are hard, but the firsts are harder in a way.  I chickened out, and now that I am in a hotel with a podcast playing and Deef asleep on the floor beside me, I can reflect that no matter how selfish it is, I appreciate this opportunity to have another trip together.  This is not a physically difficult trip, and as a last trip, it is pretty good.  I just wish we had a few more trips in us, and I hope that we will have good news when we next see the vet.

ONE LAST TRIP?

NEVER MIND “LEAVE IT.” “TAKE IT!”

Originally posted April 2013

This week I posted an image on my Facebook page of one of the dogs in our class doing an automatic leave it.  In our group classes, we store all of our treats on the floor in front of the dogs.  When a dog tries to snatch a treat out of a hand, we just close our hand around the treat and wait for him to ask more appropriately to get that treat.  The first thing we teach all of our puppies is that rude behaviour gets you nothing or a time out, and good behaviour allows you to ask for what you want and to get that.  A colleague commented that likely “it all has to do with the overall amortizing of value the dog has to the handler versus the quality of treats” and I disagreed.  Here is why.

When we train we use food in two ways.  Firstly as a currency to communicate what we want the dog to learn.  If we want the dog to learn to sit on cue then we “pay” the dog in treats every time he sits and then we increase our criterion so that we only pay when we ask the dog to do something.  This is a very simplistic situation and I think if we stop at that point in our use of food we short change ourselves and our dogs.  The second way we use food in training is as a joint goal that the dog and handler get to together.  I think of training beyond the basics as a maze that I am negotiating with my dog to get to an end goal.

Given that we use food in these two ways, we have to start out by teaching the dog that food has value and he can get it if he does something.  I use a tool that most modern trainers are familiar with as “doggy zen”.  I put the dog on a leash so he cannot leave, and then I hold out my hand with a treat on it, just under my dog’s nose, so that he could if he wanted, take it.  Most dogs will immediately try for the treat.  As soon as I see the dog try for the treat, then I close my hand around it.  The dog controls what happens; if he hesitates, I leave my hand open and if he tries to get the treat, I close my hand.  When I can leave my hand open for a count of three I say take it and put the treat in the dog’s mouth.  Some dogs actually try not to take the treat at all at this point, but I make sure they get it.  We usually start with REALLY high value treats.  Once the dog understands not to snatch things out of hands, we do this with items on floors, on tables, on chairs, and so on, until the dog understand that he must stay back in order to get what he wants.  And if you are paying attention at this point, you should notice something very significant about what I have not done.  I have NOT said “leave it”.  I feel that leave it is actually a big problem for many pets and their people.

I am going to switch tracks here and use a little story to explain why “Leave it” is a problem.  Imagine for a moment you have been given tickets to a very fancy event; say a play.  It is ultra swank.  It is an all inclusive, get dressed up, have your hair done, fancy live theater event, and part of the event is hors d’ouvres at intermission.  At intermission, you and your absolutely stunning date, who is equally spiffed up as you are, get out of your seats and go to the lobby.  In the lobby you will find penguins.  The guys dressed in the fancy black and white serving outfits, holding lovely trays of canapés, and little bits of cheese on crackers, and some delicious fish and strawberry thing.  And your date breaks into a run, bashes into the first penguin he encounters, grabs the tray with one hand, and with his free hand starts grabbing hands full of the food on the platter and shoving it into his mouth.  Implausible?

46512615 - server holding a tray of appetizers at a banquet
It is generally considered very bad form to tackle the penguin and eat all the appetizers at a fancy party! Most of us know this and help ourselves to one or two things and leave the rest for the next people who show up!

This is how I think most dogs approach food; it is so rare and valuable and so hard to get to that when they see an opportunity, they go for it.  And what does the handler do?  “Leave it.  Fluffy, leave it.  Leave it, Fluffy.  LEAVE IT!  I said LEAVE IT!”  And then Fluffy takes the item anyhow.  Why did Fluffy disregard the human’s request?  Simply because Fluffy knows that leave it is a signal that she won’t have a chance to get what she wants.  It is in effect, a no reward marker.  It says “no matter what you do, you cannot have that”.  Leave it is the cue used in the moment to moment bits of life that you encounter with your dog to tell him that he cannot have what he wants, even though he has been minding his manners all the way along.

Going back to your date, imagine for a moment that you knew what he or she did to penguins at parties.  So as you get up you remind your date to be polite.  Your date, being the cooperative person they are agrees that this time they are going to be polite to the penguins.  You remind them not to rush the penguin.  You remind your date that everyone will get a turn.  Does this sound like a date you want to spend time with?  This is the contract that I see being made more often than not with the dogs and handlers that I encounter.

Coming back to “take it,” let’s think for a moment about a service dog.  I use a service dog to navigate the world.  When I go grocery shopping he is often faced with delicious food, right at nose level, or food on the floor.  Before we ever went out into the public, I taught him that he could have anything he wanted if he asked for it nicely, although sometimes he would have to wait.  I could not go through the grocery store and identify items one by one that he could not have.  He cannot have the soup that slopped on the floor outside the deli, or the cheese that is on the shelf at nose height or the bread and baked goods that are shelved in his reach.  He cannot have the cookie that the little boy is waving as he walks by us either.  He can ask, and I might say yes, or I might say later or I might say no.  When he was a young dog, I usually said “I have something better” and gave him a tidbit that was appropriate for him.  He asked, and I wanted to make him certain that I would listen any time he asked for something.  In that moment, I was using food at the currency to teach him to ask me for things he wanted.

Over time, I would sometimes say “later” and give him a tidbit every few times.  I would also begin cuing behaviours he really liked when he asked for things.  So if my dog asked for the crouton that fell on the floor in the bulk food aisle, I might say “not now, but if you want you can carry your leash for a moment”, a behaviour he really liked doing.  And over time, he generalized that if he REALLY wanted to have something, ask and I would listen and if I could, I might give it to him.

dscf0086
One of the constant challenges of travelling with a service dog was simply that people would drop food in the train or on the plane, and my dog could not avoid either having it dropped on him or lying right next to something edible. I never had to remind D’fer not to eat things because I didn’t teach him to leave it; I taught him that nothing was available to him unless I told him he could take it!

The next thing I teach dogs when I am training is that the click predicts the treat.  I increase the time between my click and my treat to about thirty seconds, but between the click and the treat, my dog and I are working TOGETHER as a team to get to the food treat.  I start by standing right beside a table of treats.  I click, reach and treat, and then repeat.  Then I take a step away from the table, and I click and we walk back together to get the treat.  Then I do two steps and so on.  With my own dogs I will often take them out on the farm and I will click, run with them to the other end of the farm, and get a treat, and then click and run back and get another treat.  I want to increase the time between the click and the treat so that when I am working in a condition where I cannot immediately treat, everything following the click is part of the reinforcement cycle.  I once as an experiment at a conference clicked my dog for a behaviour and then left the ballroom we were in, walked down a hall, across a lobby, to the elevators, waited for an elevator, went up to the 8th floor, walked down a long hall way, opened my hotel room door, took my dog off leash, went to the bathroom and when I was finished, he was sitting by the treat bin on the dresser.  He understands that clicks predict treats and treats may come much later.  This is essential (although most dogs don’t need to be able to wait that long) to teaching a dog that they can rely on me to follow through with the treat, which is the step when food stops being a currency and starts being something we are both working towards.  We are a team.  Yes, I use treats as currency but once I have established a number of behaviours I don’t use it as a currency as much as a goal my dog and I work towards together.

I will often when I am travelling and I order food, order something for my service dog.  I order things like doughnut holes at coffee shops, and sugar cookies in delis.  Over time, my dog has learned that if I pay and put the item in my pocket it is his later.  By using doggy zen and take it instead of leave it, my dog has learned to ask.  By using clickers and delaying the treat, my dog has learned to wait.  This way I can eat my meal in a restaurant and my dog can look at the fry on the floor under the table and ask me, “can I have that?” and I can say yes or no.

What I have described above is a significant part of how we work with our students and their dogs in our classroom.  In our Levels classroom, all the students put their treats out within reach of any off leash dog.  We don’t start everyone off leash, but it comes very quickly; in under a month, most dogs can work around treat bowls and because of the philosophy, the feedback we get about this is that this carries over outside of the classroom.  See the video below for an example of a typical day in our classroom.

When you start looking at more complex situations as situations where you and your dog are working together to get to a goal, then you build relationship with your dog.  Perhaps the biggest criticism I have seen of operant conditioning is that it is about manipulating your learner into doing things for you.  Certainly it is a model that will allow you to increase or decrease behaviours, but that is just the start.  We would hardly say that a child should not learn the foundations to reading and arithmetic because in the end we don’t want him to just recognize letters and numbers.  In the end we want children to be able to grow up and use what they learn in very broad contexts.  Once I have a foundation of behaviours built on a currency, then I can use those behaviours to do meaningful activities with my dog.  Regardless of what that is, if you look at the behaviours you ask your dog to do as a joint project together that has meaning for both of you, then you don’t need the food itself to get things done, and you don’t need to wave the steak under the dog’s nose get him to do something.  When you have worked carefully at teaching your dog both that he can have what he wants and that you are working with him to get it, then you have a cooperative partner instead of a dog who is scouting the world for things that he can get if he is only fast enough to get it before you utter the magic leave it words.  And THAT is the goal of teaching take it instead of leave it!

NEVER MIND “LEAVE IT.” “TAKE IT!”

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR DOG BRINGS YOU A DEAD SKUNK

Originally posted April 2013

Once upon a time, D’fer was a puppy.  He was a very happy go lucky, plucky, out of the box kind of puppy.  And he is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.  D’fer’s breeder told me that she felt that chessies are more playful than many other retrievers and in the absence of legal “stuff to do” they will make up their own games.  This has proven true over Deef’s whole life.

f012
D’fer was a very plucky puppy!

At about nine months, my beloved dog came with me on a walk with about a dozen of my clients.  I had just started to do some serious retrieves with him, and he was working hard on “bring to hand”.  We had been working mostly with retrieving bumpers, those black and white plastic things that float, but I had given him a duck to fetch and he was doing really, really well with it.  I was a very happy dog trainer on that fateful spring day.

I remember the weather well, and how I was dressed.  I was wearing my spring windbreaker, along with a pair of leather gloves.  It was a very lucky thing that I had gloves on because D’fer chose that day to try something brand spanking new related to retrieving.  He brought me a dead skunk, at the state of decomposition where it is still recognizably a skunk, but it was past bloated and gross.  Partially dehydrated, and in one piece, Deef recognized this as “a valuable item to bring to your person”.  Which he did.  The $5000 question is…”What do you do when your dog brings you a dead skunk?”

If you are wearing gloves, you take it, and then cue your dog to your left side and you throw it and send him for the skunk again.  My students were to say the least, gobsmacked.  This was NOT what they had thought I would do!  I am not sure what they were expecting, but throwing the skunk was not on the list of things they had in mind.  D’fer on the other hand was VERY impressed.  Great game.  We played fetch about six times, and then I put the skunk and my gloves in a thorn tree and carried on my walk.

There are layers of lessons in this particular five thousand dollar question.  The first layer is “if you want your dog to be a working duck retriever, when he brings you dead stuff, find a way to make it worth his while.”  I didn’t want D’fer to decide that next time, he should hide his find and maybe roll in it.  Yes, the skunk smelt bad and yes, so did D’fer, but frankly I was going to have to bathe him anyhow, so why not capitalize on his “I brought you dead stuff” behaviour?  For the cost of one pair of leather gloves, I solidified in Deef’s mind that fetching dead stuff was just exactly what I wanted.

centre wellington-20110903-00057
An activity that D’fer found interesting.  I didn’t need to get in with him to share his joy in the activity.

In fact the next time he brought me something dead, a ground hog, I used it as a heel while carrying exercise and had him drop it and do seek backs with it.  After twenty minutes or so of THAT game, we heeled out to the deadstock pit that we kept for chickens, and I had him drop it in and then do a sit stay while we buried the groundhog.  After the ground hog burial, I got out a Frisbee and threw it in the swamp for him for another ten minutes.

The next layer to learn is that retrieving and in fact most of the things I teach my dogs to do are not behaviours in isolation.  They are behaviours that are part of activities that we do jointly that have meaning for both of us.  D’fer is my service dog.  Airports, grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and city buses are not in general fun for the dog.  In fact, there is a whole lot of boring involved with the work that Deef does as a service dog, and there is not a whole lot of inherent reinforcement for doing what I need him to do.  Hours and hours and hours of heeling just isn’t fun and heeling makes up the lion’s share of what D’fer does as a service dog.  In order to make this something that he is willing to do, that he offers on a regular basis even when he doesn’t have to,

I think of the work we do together as needing meaning to both of us.  Deef has activities that he loves to do, and I integrate them into my day on a regular basis.  Deef loves meeting people he knows.  When we meet, I always make sure he gets a chance to say hi.  As a result, D’fer recognizes airports we land at, and he knows exactly who he is looking for.  When we land in New York he is looking for Cissy and Woody.  When we land in Cleveland, he is looking for Linda and Brent.  When we land at home in Toronto, he is looking for John.  The day we landed in New York and were picked up by Dennis, he was pleased to see his friend Dennis, but he was disgusted that Cissy and Woody were not there and he didn’t straighten up until we got to their house.  He travels to New York to visit Cissy and Woody, not Dennis, even though he really likes Dennis.

Making my work meaningful to my service dog has shifted my perspective on training a lot.  I recognize that D’fer’s motive for doing what we do is different than mine, but he isn’t just doing it because I reinforced him for doing it.  It has meaning in and of itself for him.  Like fetching the skunk, my motive was to get a reliable retrieve of anything, anytime and anywhere.  Deef’s motive was to play a game he likes.  Distilling this down to I reinforce behaviours I like is valuable in terms of understanding the training cycle and the process of developing behaviours, but it is simplistic in its evaluation of the overall life that D’fer and I share.  Recognizing that my dog has a different motivation than I do allows me to look for things that he might be interested in and sharing those activities with him.

ready!
This is an activity that both D’fer and I enjoy! Looking for activities that are meaningful to both you and your dog is really important!

Having a relationship with a dog can be impersonal, like the kind of relationship you have with the guy who pumps your gas, or it can be deeply meaningful like the kind of relationship that you have with your spouse or it can be anything in between.  When all of your interactions are transactions the way that you have financial connection with the guy who pumps your gas, then you are missing the possibilities and potential for so much more.  When you recognize that your dog may have different motivations than you do and may have something of value to share with you, you deepen the meaning of your relationship with your dog, and you gain so much more.

Sharing in your dog’s interests, freely and with an open heart means accepting and understand something about the core of dogginess.  It means accepting that a skunk may be a great prize even if you don’t like it yourself.  It means that some of the time, you may have a dog who smells bad or who has done things that you find disgusting.  But it also means that when your dog shares things with you, you have a chance to expand your experiences, and often in a very good way.

There was the time for instance when I was staying at a friend’s house with D’fer.  I was packing to leave the next morning and Deef was at loose ends.  We have done recreational SAR with D’fer and it is perhaps the game he loves best.  At home, if I am working around the yard and he is loose, he will often come with a stick or a toy and sit beside me and “ask” me to throw it.  If I am able I often do.  If I am not able to do that, then I will just tell him not now, maybe later.  In the yard, when he is told not now, he will often go and carefully place the item some distance away from me.  Then he will come back and get back into heel position; the position that he starts in during SAR.  One day when he did this, I cued him to search, and search he did.  He had placed the item, but he likes games, and I observed him racing all over the farm.  He looked in the woodpile and he looked around the flower beds and he looked in the trash pile and he looked in the horse paddocks.  He checked both under and on top of the lawn chairs and the bar-b-que.  And then he finally after about five minutes went to where he had put the item and “found”.

The night I was packing to leave, D’fer came and brought me a toy and I told him that I couldn’t play then, but may be later.  He took his toy and disappeared into the hallway.  A moment later, he came back and sat in heel position.  I cued him to search.  He looked in my eyes with complete disgust.  He really was appalled.  He went to his bed and lay down and sighed.  A minute later, he came back and asked again.  Not taking the hint the first time, I sent him to search again.  He made a leap forward like he normally does on a search and then sat back down and looked at me.  Curious, I stepped forward and looked out of my room.  The toy was on the floor.  I went to the toy, and picked it up and Deef joined me doing a chessie joy dance.  Then he took the toy and shook it and bounded up and down the hall for a moment.  I went back to my packing.

A few minutes later, he came back without the toy and sat again beside me and made eye contact.  This time, I thought I knew the game, so I went out my door and looked in the hallway.  No toy.  I looked in the adjacent bedroom.  No toy.  I looked in the bathroom; there it was.  This time, Deef didn’t join me in my find.  He sat in the hall and watched me search.  He did what I normally do on a search.  I watch what he does.  When I found the toy I made a big deal out of it and brought it to him and THEN he did the chessie happy dance.

The third time he hid the toy, he hid it in the adjacent bedroom and he tightened up his criteria for what he wanted me to do.  The third time I found the toy and he looked disappointed.  By tuning in to him, and sharing in his game I got more out of the whole experience.  I learned that he wanted me to do something more, but I wasn’t sure what it was.  I put down the toy and he sat.  We stayed that way for perhaps a minute and then Deef did something I find quite remarkable.  He showed me what he wanted.  He sniffed the book shelf.  He looked under the bed.  He looked under the night table.  He sniffed the dresser.  And then he looked at the toy and sat back down.  So I followed suit.  I looked carefully at the bookshelf.  I looked under the bed.  I opened the closet.  I looked up high and I looked down low.  And then I “found” the toy.

We played this game seven or eight times.  Being willing to follow D’fer’s lead and play his game was an incredibly rewarding experience.  Deef has offered this game from time to time since, but not often.  I never would have had this opportunity if I had distilled the sum of our relationship down to behaviours I had reinforced and made stronger.  If I had not always looked for the deeper meaning in the work that we did together, I would have missed this experience altogether.  I would have short changed myself and I believe I would have short changed D’fer too.

20130503_111553
Traveling by public transit is pretty borng for a service dog, but sometimes it takes you to places that are really interesting for both you and your dog!

The story of the skunk in many ways epitomizes what I try and share with my students.  Yes, by all means, understand reinforcement theory and understand how learning works and teach your dog lots and lots and lots of behaviours.  More than that though seek opportunities to include your dog in your life, and share with him what you do, and then be willing to let him share with you what is important to him.  If you do this, if you are diligent in this, then when you ask your dog to do things that are difficult or boring, that may not have meaning to him, your dog will begin to look for the meaning in what you are doing together.  Not everything that your dog wants to do is yucky or disgusting; often it is the mundane. When I was touring Wall Street, D’fer caught a scent and tracked someone on concrete for over ten blocks.  By being willing to follow him, I was taken into a deli I never would have visited, I went into and immediately left a very seedy bar, and I stopped at a mailbox that would not have caught my interest.  When we got to the park on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, I was treated to the sight of boats and ferries and birds and all sorts of magic that I would have failed to notice in my effort to get the most out of visiting the financial district of New York.  By being willing to share what D’fer felt was important, when he asked for a swim in the ocean, he was willing to accept not now as a legitimate answer to his question and he was willing to continue on our journey together.  All in all there is no greater gift than a partner who will share his skunk, and all of the Atlantic Ocean with you.  My relationship with my dog is truly magic.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR DOG BRINGS YOU A DEAD SKUNK

COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES

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

Cambridge-20110501-00244
This is one of my dogs, D’fer, having his foot looked at. He had a very deep laceration and the vet needed to have a look. You can tell that he is pretty stoic by the look on his face, but he was willing to co-operate. He was wearing his muzzle not because I thought that he would bite the vet, but because I don’t want to take the chance that this could happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES

INSIDE OUT

Originally published July 2013

At the end of June, I had the great opportunity to watch the SPARCS (http://caninescience.info/) conference on the web, and heard some terrific speakers.  One of the speakers discussed the different perceptions from around the world about how people ought to live with dogs.  I want to start out by saying that I have a way I live with my dogs and it is likely different from the way that you live with your dogs and that is okay.  In fact, how I live with my dogs is actually different from the way that John, my husband lives with our dogs.  The fact is that every relationship is different and there are some great advantages to those differences.

The way that I live with my dogs is that they have time alone in their crates for eating and then they have time in their yard with each other and the rest of the time they spend with me.  If I am going out to do chores, I take a dog with me unless it would be dangerous to do so.  If I am going to have a nap, a dog accompanies me.  I use a service dog, so if I am going grocery shopping, my dog goes with me too.  In the car or the truck, my dogs are in crates for their safety.  Living on the farm, I don’t tend to walk my dogs as much as I used to, although I still do enjoy that if we have a chance to do that.  Mostly they get enough exercise accompanying me while I do things like feed the horses and check the fences and weed the garden.

Eco 062
When I go to the doctor’s office or wait at the dentist, or to a cafe D’fer waits with me. Here he is alerting to an oncoming medical event. This is how we live together, but it is not the same as how others live with their dogs. Photo: Anne Munsch

In order for my dogs to do what they do with me, they must have some skills.  This is part of what drew me to training in the first place.  When I am mixing gasoline to put in the tractor or the chain saw, I cannot be chasing a dog around if he is running too close to the road, nor can I have him sticking his nose into what I do.  I teach my dogs to come when called, to lie down and stay, to lie down at a distance, to bring things back and to follow when I walk away all in order to be able to do the stuff I want to do with them.

On the surveys that the scientist speaking at SPARCS was showing, there were some marked differences in attitudes about how dogs should live with us.  In the Caribbean for instance most people felt it was cruel for dogs to be kept indoors.  In North America, it was felt to be cruel for dogs to be left outside.  In some parts of the world, dogs are kept strictly for work.  In other places dogs are kept strictly as companions.  Some dogs live free much as raccoons and squirrels live.  Which is right?  To quote the inimitable Suzanne Clothier, ask the dog.  When you ask the dog, you do need to be ready to turn the world inside out.

14606078 - a loney dog looking at distant place on the beach
This dog is typical of the dogs you might see on vacation in the Caribbean. He is quite thin, but in good coat. He is not looking at the camera and is not attached to any one person, but likely makes his living by eating left overs at garbage sites, or at the back doors of the resorts or restaurants. If you asked him, he would likely say that his welfare is good. If he is owned by a particular person, the attitude in the Caribbean in general is that dogs should not be kept indoors. The values of the people there are different than the values of the people in much of North America. Image credit: hanhanpeggy / 123RF Stock Photo

I think that if you asked my dog D’fer, he would tell you that his life is pretty good.  Meals are predictable and he knows the ebb and flow of my schedule.  He is “helping” me to write now, by lying quietly by my chair and sleeping.  Sleeping is a good thing to do if you are a dog and nothing else of interest is happening.  He has had his breakfast, he has been out to pee after breakfast, he helped me to get my morning started and supervised me making coffee.  Until I get up and do something else, he is pretty much off duty and can do what he pleases and what pleases him seems to be sleeping next to me while I write.

 

What about the dogs who are kept strictly for work?  I am thinking here of herding dogs, some Search and Rescue Dogs, some Police and Military dogs; is it fair to them that they come out of a dog run and go to work for a period of time and then go back into their kennel?  My dog Eco would like that very much.  He is intense and he loves to work hard, but he also appreciates his unstructured down time.  He is quite happy to spend more time in the kennel or the yard than D’fer is.  He was bred from police and military lines of German Shepherds, so in a way you could say that his genetics fit that kind of a life; work hard, play hard, learn hard, and then rest hard.  He is not the kind of dog who would make a lot of people happy because of the level of intensity that he brings with him.  When he works he works hard.  When he is not working, he can be in the house with us happily, but I think he is equally happy with down time alone, provided he is getting enough work.  Enough work for Eco is about eight to ten hours a day.

6385977 - german sheepdog from rescue team
When a dog spends a good chunk of his day searching for lost people, or practicing searching for lost people, then spending a good chunk of his day resting and relaxing in a low stimulation environment is probably good for him. Instead of looking at a dog in a kennel and instantly feeling bad about the dog and how he is kept ask the dog; if he is relaxed and resting, he is probably in a good situation. If he is pacing, panting, or otherwise stressed, then that is not a good situation for him. Don’t assume that a dog in a kennel is automatically unhappy; many dogs are quite happy with kennel life. Image credit: Koljambus / 123RF Stock Photo

And how about the dogs in the Caribbean who live outside?  Is that fair to them?  The consensus was that people in that part of the world felt that it is not only fair but unfair to do otherwise to them.  They live in a hot climate, and that is an area of the world where dogs are not often used for things like herding sheep.  I imagine that if you asked them, the dog would be quite happy.  One of the really intriguing things about dogs is their level of flexibility.  They adapt to a very wide range of situations and they seem to succeed and thrive in these situations.  It does not mean that every individual will succeed in every environment, but when the environment matches the background of the dog, it can work very well.  In the Caribbean, one of the most common dogs you will see is the “Potcake” or village dog.  These dogs live on the beaches, they live in the yards of people and they scavenge for food.  When they are made into pets, they have the right kind of coat and structure to live outdoors and the perception locally is that this is the most appropriate place for them.  These dogs also have skills that allow them to be successful.  They stay close to particular parts of the community, but they don’t try and push themselves into the house.  They may attach themselves to particular people and follow them around, but they aren’t usually living within the house with people.

Then there are the truly feral dogs.  More and more often we are seeing advertisements for these dogs, rescued off the dumps in the far north, or off the streets of Asia or South America or India and transported here.  In Moscow, there is a well known population of dogs who are extremely successful at using the city to find food.  These dogs will even use the subway to get from one place to another.  This report from the Wall Street Journal shows healthy dogs in good coat who are of good weight or even slightly overweight.   Where you to ask these dogs if they were comfortable and confident about their existence, I be they would say yes, they have a good quality of life.  When we capture these dogs and take them into our homes, we often decrease their quality of life at least for a time because they don’t understand the environment that they are transported to.  The skills that are required to live on a dump or to live in the suburbs of Moscow and commute in during the day to beg food from Moscovites are not the same skills that are required to live in a home with humans in Toronto Ontario, or on a farm in the north of Scotland or a sheep station in the outback of Australia.

http://www.noob.us/miscellaneous/russian-stray-dogs-ride-the-subway/

Dogs are flexible in both their ability to cope with a huge variety of environments, and often in their ability to cope with new environments.  Many dogs make the transition from one situation to another.  This is why when dogs are abducted off the streets of a city in India and transported to a suburban home in Canada, they often make the transition, even though they may have difficulty.  The dogs who are most successful at making transitions are the dogs who have two important things going for them.  The first is a genetic “recipe” for resilience.  If the dog is overly vigilant or nervous, then the dog is not going to be able to cope with the variance of environment that he will encounter.  These dogs work out in homes that are very consistent and very careful about what they expose these dogs to.  And the second thing that successful dogs have is a successful exposure to a wide variety of people, animals, vehicles and flooring during their critical socialization period in puppyhood.  As was pointed out in the SPARCS lectures, we are learning more and more all the time about when and how this developmental period occurs.  Those dogs who get a great role of the genetic dice and a good socialization period, are great not only with the skills they need in a given environment but also in new environments.

10603520 - stray dogs on street
These healthy dogs live on the street.  They look relaxed, in good body condition and good coat and they are minding their own business.  Do they need rescuing?  Is this a bad existence for a dog?  Or is this their natural environment?  If you asked the dog, would it be less stressful for him to be on the street, or to be captured, transported and then rehabbed to become a pet?  Dogs live in as many environments as we do, and thrive in those environments.  This environment is a normal environment for a dog.  Rabies vaccination campaigns and sterilization campaigns may do them good, but catching them and homing them may actually deteriorate their welfare instead of improve it.  Image credit: supereagle / 123RF Stock Photo

When we look at how a dog is living I think we need to really look carefully at the environment from the point of view of the dog.  Is the dog in the kennel actually unhappy?  How do you know?  Is he frantically trying to escape all the time?  Is he spending all day stress panting or pacing?  Is he relaxed and resting in his kennel?  How about the dog living on the 16th floor of an apartment building?  Is he happy or unhappy?  Is he relaxed for most of his time?  Is he licking his feet all day?  Or is spending all day resting or interacting appropriately with the people he lives with?  How about the feral dogs?  Are they of good weight and good coat?  Are they any less happy than the other wildlife they share the environment with?

When we look at the many environments that dogs have successfully lived within, we will find many individuals who are perfectly happy in the most unusual circumstances, and when we ask the dog, and we look at what they are doing and how they are doing it, we often find dogs who are perfectly happy living there.  When we are looking at how dogs are kept, we need to not think about how we like to live, or even how we like to live with our dogs.  We need to think about how the dog likes to live-is he happy and well adjusted in his environment, and keep him there.

INSIDE OUT

Guest Blog-Good Dog Lola!

It has been a while since I have written a blog, and I am really missing doing them.  This time, we have a guest blog from Bojan and Amy who live with Lola.  Good Dogs are often difficult to live with not because they aren’t nice dogs, but because living with a Good Dog can present a number of challenges when it comes to navigating the universe.  Amy and Bojan work really hard with Lola to work through their challenges.  Here is there story in their own words, and hopefully that will inspire me to get back to some writing soon!  Thanks for the writing folks-it is an honour to work with you and Lola!

img_6029
Lola!

Lola is a shepherd-hound mutt, and is the first dog for both my husband and I. She used to be a street dog in Greece and was brought over to Canada by a rescue agency. When we adopted her, we had a soft spot for street dogs and had never heard of reactivity, instead imagining that all dogs loved everything! As it turns out, she loves us but loses her mind over everything else, including people waiting at transit stops, people who pick things up off the ground, people in general, other dogs who are on leash, small prey, bicyclists, skateboarders, streetcars, buses, trucks, and especially kids with sticky fingers or any fingers at all. Some of our friends have questioned how seriously we’re taking things with her and have asked us if it’s really “that bad.” We usually tell them that, if it happened to them, they wouldn’t like it very much.

 

We have a protocol for everything from how to get Lola out of our seventh-floor condo (hint: it doesn’t involve the elevator) to how to get her from each of her daycares to the car. Both of us walk her together so that one person can be on look-out duty for triggers and the other person can focus on her body language. To share with you what it’s actually like trying to keep her below threshold and not panicking (i.e. barking and lunging and terrorizing) in everyday situations, here’s a breakdown of one of our recent walks. We happened to be 15 minutes late and left our place at 6:15 a.m. instead of our usual before-6:00 a.m. departure.

 

Similar to superheroes, no reactive dog’s life is complete without an arch nemesis, so our walk began with Lola’s arch-nemesis-neighbour-dog barking at us from inside their unit as we were getting Lola into the stairwell. Lola heard it and froze but disengaged when Amy cued her onwards. Not waking up all of the neighbours on our floor = small victory!

 

As we exited the stairwell into the alleyway, there was a running truck at the other end that she fixated on, so I played Look At That twice before she would move on. A male in his 30s was waiting to cross the street about 20′ ahead of us and we waited for him to go ahead. In the next alleyway, we heard some noises which made her anxious and did our emergency Oh No Let’s Go U-turn twice just in case. Lola loves this cue and thinks it’s a fabulous game of chase so she completely forgot about the noises.

 

At the parkette, there was a person waiting for the streetcar that she started staring at and we played Look At That once. After that person got on a streetcar, another woman was walking on the sidewalk towards the streetcar stop about 30’ away. Lola had a hard time disengaging as this woman was looking at her and we played Look At That while backing up a few steps at a time and she finally broke her focus.

20160626_085844
Teaching a dog to look at you can help them to learn to look at things away from them, and then return their attention to you. The goal should never be to create a dog who stares at you, but rather to teach your dog to look away from you and then return their attention to you. This allows Lola to spend time with Bojan and Amy out in the parks around their home.

We kept moving and got to the main park where a male jogger in his 40s passed by her field of vision about 15’ away. This was an “oh shit” moment because by the time we noticed, he was already too close, approaching her directly, and neither of us were in a position where we could easily block her without causing her to panic anyways. I tried to play Look At That but it turned out Lola could not care less as she was busy sniffing for the perfect spot to poop. With that done, we went into the baseball field to get some more space. A male construction worker walked through about 30′ away and I played Look At That until he was 50’ away. We saw a few off-leash dogs in the distance which she handled well with low arousal, although we still played Look At That since she wasn’t easily disengaging on her own.

 

Her favourite thing is to play chase, so we ran around with her and then did some obedience practice. We saw an off-leash dog about 30’ in the distance and started playing Look At That, during which she offered a down. We never cue the down so that she can choose to do it when she feels relaxed enough to and it gives us an indication of her stress levels. While we were focused on the dog, we didn’t notice an approaching construction worker who was about to pass us at about 15’ away. Both of us expected her to lunge and bark at him, but she stayed in her down. At one of the park entrances, we saw two familiar small black dogs coming in off-leash, wearing lights on their collars. These dogs have a habit of running up to everything while barking and Lola thinks that dogs who light up are aliens, so it was time for us to go.

 

We got up to leave, got to the sidewalk and saw a crowd of 3-4 construction workers who had just gotten out of a parked car on the other side of the street. She froze and I played Look At That, but a large dog on leash was approaching on the same sidewalk so we doubled back but were trapped by another on leash dog on the path behind us and a group of three people walking towards us on the sidewalk from the other direction. To add to that, a construction worker was walking towards us and cutting it too close for comfort. Lola was giving me a lot of eye contact so I was worried that she wouldn’t notice the person until they were too close and she wouldn’t have any other option but to freak out, so I played Oh No Let’s Go to get her to back up 5-10’ to a safer distance.

 

She handled all of this craziness like a champ and we tried to leave again once it cleared, but an off-leash dog that looked similar to her jogged towards Lola. Lola stopped on the sidewalk and perked up, wanting to greet, but the other owner called their dog back. She got to the end of her leash but wasn’t overly aroused, so I was careful to not put any extra tension on the leash. The other dog came back and they immediately started playing, as she doesn’t have any problems with dogs who are off-leash. The owner approached to leash their dog and ended up very close to Lola, who sniffed her from inches away. In this moment, I had to stifle my own panicked flight-or-fight response and just let things happen because any reaction from me would’ve made it much more likely for the whole thing to go south. The woman leashed her dog while completely ignoring Lola and walked away after Lola had a quick sniff. It was a huge success but my main feeling was definitely relief. I regained my thoughts enough to remember to give Lola a handful of cheese and lots of praise!

 

We had been trapped here long enough that the two small black barky dogs had completed a full circle around the park, and one of them approached Lola while barking, about 5’ away. Lola had voluntarily sat down since we weren’t moving and was unconcerned with the dog. My husband blocked the small dog from getting any closer and finally their owner was able to call it back. With nothing else scary remaining except for the group of construction workers at their car, Lola started to fixate on them and we played Look At That to get past them while on the other side of the street. In the home stretch, we also ran into an owner and an on-leash lab across the street, a 40sM walking towards us from 15’ away, and two people walking in front of the condo building, all of whom we were able to somehow avoid or manage. We got upstairs, closed our door behind us, and my husband and I looked at each other wondering what the #*@^$ just happened because in no way would we have guessed that she could handle even small pieces of that, nevermind all of it together.

20161218_084742
Here is Lola relaxing in the snow, getting to do the things she likes to do. One of the things that really helps a dog like Lola is to have time just being a dog and not being triggered by all the things that make her morning walk a challenge.

Let me say that I did not think taking my dog for a morning walk would be the equivalent adrenaline rush of going to a shooting range on a daily basis. It’s extremely stressful for my husband and I, but things are slowly getting better and we can only imagine how difficult and scary it is for Lola in these situations when we have a hard time just observing and guiding her.

 

On many walks since this walk, there have been similar incidents that Lola was not able to handle. We used to torture ourselves with the “Why?” question more often, asking ourselves why she was able to do this one day but not the next, but we’ve now mostly come to accept that she’s a different dog on different days and, as Sue likes to say, “It depends.”

 

 

 

Guest Blog-Good Dog Lola!

HAGRID’S DRAGON

Originally posted April 2013

Friday...Our Dragon Puppy.  She even had a dragon toy to keep her busy!
Friday…Our Dragon Puppy. She even had a dragon toy to keep her busy!

It would seem that we are the proud owners of our very own, nine week old dragon.  At least that is the joke in our house.  She is endearingly sweet, fluffy, and wickedly smart, but she is a dragon none the less.  She is particularly a dragon at 7 in the morning when I want to sleep and she wants to get up, go outside to the toilet and then come in and play.  Our dragon is Friday, our German Shepherd Puppy.

Friday was supposed to be my service dog when she outgrew being a young dragon.  D’fer, my ten year old Chesapeake Bay Retriever is getting close to retirement.  He has one bad hip and thousands of miles of travel taking me to conferences and school and meetings all over North America, and he is showing his age.  Friday the dragon is the result of several years of research and planning and more than one rejected opportunity.  Although we call her our dragon puppy it is a phase, not reality.  She won’t outgrow this behaviour without guidance and training, but like a little kid who doesn’t know what to do at a fancy party, she can wreck havoc without effort because she doesn’t yet understand the rules.

I reflect that for some of my students, they end up with dragons when they didn’t intend to.  Friday is a dragon because she makes dragon noises in the morning, she is quite sharky and bitey, and she surprises us with her tenacity and resourcefulness even at this young age.  We were quite aware that choosing a German Shepherd was going to mean that some of the time, she was going to behave in ways we didn’t like, but that in the end she has the potential to grow into a service dog, if we put the time and effort and training into her.

Similar to Hagrid in similar in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, many of my students choose dragons as pets, believing that cute trumps reality.  Many of these dogs just don’t belong in their lives.  Hagrid’s dragon in the story incubated in his fireplace in an iron pot and then hatched on his kitchen table and promptly set Hagrid’s beard on fire.  In the book the dragon caused all kinds of mischief for Hagrid, and with much regret he sent his dragon to live in Romania at a sanctuary.  The truth is that when we choose a puppy, we cannot chose based on what we hope or wish a dog will become but rather based on what the puppy has the potential to grow up to be and on how much work we are willing to put into that goal.

My clients sometimes choose dragon puppies because they just don’t know what to expect.  First time dog owners often choose dogs based on a single individual they have met, or on looks or colour.  Sometimes they choose a dragon because of a dream dog they wished they had as a child.  Sometimes they choose a dragon because a “bloke down at the pub traded him to me for a pint.”  And when they have a mismatch in their hands, it is much more difficult to get rid of the dragon than it was to get it.

I began my search for Friday about eighteen months before she came home, contacting friends and colleagues and learning about upcoming breedings of Labrador Retrievers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and German Shepherds, with Shepherds being lowest on my list.  I didn’t find any chessie breedings I was interested in; I was looking for a very particular dog.  I have a hard time imagining myself working a German Shepherd in public; German Shepherds have always been my sports dogs; the dogs I goof around with and compete with, but not the dogs who have alerted me to oncoming anxiety.  When a German Shepherd litter was available to look at that I was interested in, I went to see, and found what I was looking for; a puppy who is willing to do things my way, who is interested in the world but not spending all of her time exploring it on her own, who is confident and outgoing, but not so over engaged with people that she cannot cope with being in public and not being able to greet everyone she meets.  The upside to what I found was that she fit the traits that I wanted.  The down side is that she also has some dragonish traits to work through.

As a professional trainer, I recognize her dragon traits and I am prepared to live with them and train through them.  I don’t expect her to outgrow her dragon traits; I expect to have to teach her and show her what it is that I want.  My clients often end up with dragon puppies and hope their dragons will outgrow this phase without any work from the family at all.  There is a great tag line that my friends at Urban Dog made into a poster that goes like this.  Dogs don’t grow out of behaviour problems, they grow into them.  Hagrid’s baby dragon set his beard on fire but as an adult, that dragon would have seriously hurt or killed someone.  Or from Hermione’s perspective, worse, he would have been expelled from school.

When you have a dragon, it is important that you are clear about what traits make him into a dragon and which of those traits you can live with, which ones you cannot and which ones of the ones you cannot you are able to change.  If I had not been so picky about the dog I chose when I chose Friday, I might have had a dragon with traits I would not want or could not live with.  By spending time and effort in making a good choice, I have a dragon I can live with.

I have a big advantage over many of my clients though.  When I think “DOG” I think about the many different dogs that I know, and I understand that they have a wide range of temperaments and innate traits.  Some of my clients have lived for many years with a dog who was very well loved, but extreme in some way or another.  These dogs are dogs who may be extremely confident, or they may be very nervous.  Perhaps they are impulsive, or have a behaviour quirk such as sensitive feet that make it difficult to cut their nails.  The dogs you know inform the picture you have of the dragon you see.  If you are accustomed to seeing dogs who spin and bark in their runs because all of the dogs you see are in an overcrowded shelter, then your expectation is that all dogs will behave this way.  The same is true if the only dogs you know are calm and easy to handle.

When clients bring me dogs who are dragons, they often identify problems that are different from what I see as the most important issue.  I have a client who has a lovely dog who has a very rough play style.  This dog is actually quite normal in his play; he is just fast and rough.  This client had shelties in her past, and was surprised when her retriever played in a way that she had not seen in her shelties.  On the other hand, she had not ever considered it a problem that her dog would not allow her near his food bowl; that was an acceptable behaviour to her because all of her previous dragons had also behaved this way.  The resource guarding was a much more serious behaviour problem that could get the dog in a lot more trouble, but in her experience, it was an acceptable and normal behaviour.

Many of my clients expect dogs to exhibit dragon behaviours.  This weekend I spoke with a lady and her daughter, who had been bitten by a family member’s dog.  Mom considered the bite justified because he was a very protective dog.  I think if we were to translate this into a people centric scenario, then we would have a different picture.  Imagine visiting a friend’s house and her teen aged son appeared out of the basement with a sword and began threatening you.  Would you be okay with that?  Would you excuse the behaviour as the son being protective of the house?  Would you be upset if he sliced open your daughter, or would you excuse his behaviour as protective?  Most of us would view the young man’s behaviour as outrageous and dangerous and if it happened too often, the police and child services would be called out and measures would be taken to prevent this behaviour from continuing.

Dogs and humans have lived together for over fourteen thousand years, and for perhaps as long as 30 thousand years.  In general, we have worked out ways to live with one another.  Village dogs, the true ancestor of the modern dog, hung out like squirrels do, in our yards.  They came close to us, but in general we didn’t touch them or handle them.  We still see them from time to time when they are rescued off beaches and resorts.  They often struggle as pets, not because they are dragons in their native habitat, but because our homes aren’t their native habitat.  If you want a dog who cuddles in bed with you, who will accept all new people, and who never resource guards, then it is quite likely that these dogs will turn out to be dragons in your home.  Yes, there are some who make stellar pets and some who compete in dog sports with great success, but there are more who live in people’s homes not meeting the needs of the family and not having their needs met.  It is not just the family that has difficulty when a dog is a dragon; often the dogs are not enjoying themselves either.

Being a normal dog in one scenario can translate into being a dragon in another.  Herding dogs can also be dragons.  I had an elderly client who was given a border collie puppy because she spoke so frequently of the border collies she had lived with as a girl on a farm in the UK.  As an apartment dweller, who loved to visit with friends and neighbours and who had a bad hip, she was not prepared to deal with the needs of an active young border collie.  This dog developed into a barking, whirling dragon who knocked people over; not at all the calm, well exercised working herding dogs of her youth.

Any dog can be a dragon.  Retrievers who fetch everything are often shoe dragons, and terriers who dig are garden dragons.  I have known mastiffs, Saint Bernards and Newfoundlanders who are slime dragons from all their drool.  German Shepherds and labs can be hair dragons.  There are down sides to every type of breed, and if you are willing to live with the dragon side of the dog you have, that is wonderful for both of you.  The important thing is to know what dragon traits your dog has, and work with those traits where possible.  Hagrid’s dragon ended up in a dragon sanctuary where he could “be with his own kind”.  The sad fact is that too many dog end up in shelters, rescues and yes, permanent sanctuaries because the family was unprepared to deal with the dragon traits that come with the particular dog they live with.  Before you get a dog, make sure you choose the right dragon.  And if like Hagrid, you live in a wooden hut (in the books at least!), perhaps a dragon is not the pet for you.

Friday is no longer a dragon...most of the time!  As one of the stars of our demo team, she did jump into the audience to visit a friend though!  Slightly dragonish behaviour!
Friday is no longer a dragon…most of the time! As one of the stars of our demo team, she did jump into the audience to visit a friend though! Slightly dragonish behaviour!

Our dragon, Friday, learned alternatives to most of her dragon behaviours.  She no longer makes dragon noises at seven in the morning.  She is well exercised, goes to training classes several times a week and has lots of human and doggy friends.  She is excelling at rally, obedience, Treibball and as John’s hiking companion.  Friday is a competent service dog, but she doesn’t love the work the way D’fer did, so we are once again, looking for another service dog for me.  Sometimes, the intended plan for a dragon doesn’t correspond to the traits they bring along with them, so having a fall back plan is always a good idea.  You cannot ship every dog to a sanctuary in Romania where he will be happy with his own kind.

HAGRID’S DRAGON