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You would think, after being with darling girl Tawny for 14 years, I would have run out of mistakes to make with her by now.

You would think.

Today I stand before her, head hanging, with the realization that I have made the mistakiest mistake there is, and I have been making it for years. It is this: underestimating my dog.

How? By repeatedly telling people she is not the brightest bulb in the lighthouse; not saying she’s dumb, but she’s no border collie, knowwhatImean?

So. Totally. Wrong.

What she is, is sensitive and resilient. Picks up on every shade of mood I have and adjusts. Puts up with all my crap with a wag of the tail and and patient “when’s dinner” check-ins followed by “okay not yet, returning to nap” sighs. And sometimes, because of how I’m acting, she stops reacting altogether. Which makes her…a lot smarter than I am.

This is what she has learned/accomplished in 14 years with me:

• Gone from rocket on leash to best walker on planet

• Gone from most reactive dog on planet to completely manageable

• Gone from largely unsafe around people to completely safe

• Gone from would not go out when drizzling/could not be bathed to goes out in thunderstorms and totally bathable

• Gone from noise-phobic to who cares (before hearing loss of course)

• Stopped door dashing, jumping, mouthing, destroying my belongings, anxious when I left, snapping at people, unable to be bathed, unable to be contained, humping, stealing, guarding her bed

• As my “test subject” helped me develop all the kind techniques I use today including no less than 7 iterations of walking (along the way putting up with all manner of newbie-trainer screw-ups)

• Learned brand-new things like Trickility (Tricks + Agility) and different training techniques I experimented with over the years

• Adjusted to numerous equipment changes and experimentations

• After losing most of her hearing learned a plethora of hand signals and other new ways to communicate non-verbally

• Acted in nearly all my videos (making surprise cameos as well — big surprise that I have a video ham)

• …and more I am sure I’m forgetting.

So who’s the dimbulb for underestimating her?

Today I stand before Tawny, head hanging. But also, I stand resolved to never make that mistake again. I’ll find a new one instead. And Tawny, just like always, will give me that funny look, wag her tail and roll with it. Because she is brilliant.

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“My dog needs to learn how to behave.”

“My dog needs to learn some behaviors.”

On the surface, the previous two statements seem to be talking about the same thing. Both have a version of the word “behave” in them, so they must be closely related, right?

Actually, no. In fact, these two sentences are as far away from each other in meaning as Pluto is from Earth in light years. (Okay, maybe not quite that bad; I just wanted to say Pluto, ya know, the dog thing. Anyway, they are not closely related.)

This may seem a bit trainer-geeky, but it is soooo very important to understand the difference between behavior and Behavior (capitalization mine), whether you are teaching your dog to Sit or dealing with a problem.

Allow me to define both and explain the importance.

“behavior”

This is one of the newer ways of talking about what used to be called “commands” — Sit, Down, Come, No, Heel etc. — and also “tricks” like shake, roll over, etc. We think of “tricks” and “commands” as two different things, and we tend to teach them differently, but they are the same thing: single-event actions, generally taught with words. Say the word, the action is performed, and some type of reward is usually provided.

Anyone can teach behaviors, and any dog can learn them. I sometimes call them “circus tricks” because of the automatic/rote nature of them. To avoid confusion in this post, I will also refer to them that way here.

“Behavior”

Thisis what happens between the circus tricks, and it occupies the vast majority of your dog’s day! It is the stuff your dog does when you are not specifically telling her what to do; it’s what you are expecting or hoping she already “knows.” Though we differentiate between Good and Bad Behavior, your dog doesn’t — to her, Behavior is simply how she conducts herself in our world. Behavior is what happens after the walk but before dinner, while you are working on your computer or running the vacuum, when you are helping the kids with schoolwork, when you are fixing a snack and leaving it on the counter. While you are doing other things, your dog is Behaving.

Why it’s important to know the difference

When our dogs fail to do what we want them to do, we jump to unhelpful human conclusions. Many of us like to say our dogs are “stubborn” when they don’t perform the circus trick every time or Behave the way we’d like. Let me be clear: Dogs generally are not being “stubborn” when they don’t do what we want. There ARE reasons for their improper response — and they can be very different depending on whether it’s a behavior or Behavior.

Your dog may not perform a circus trick/behavior reliably because:

• there have not been enough repetitions,

• rewards haven’t been consistently provided,

• there is too much else going on around the dog (ie distractions),

• the teaching technique isn’t sound (eg punishing your dog for not Coming will make him less likely to Come).

In this instance, cleaning up and committing to your teaching procedure should get your dog performing reliably (80-90% for most things; dogs aren’t robots!).

Your dog may not Behave because:

• he’s scared,

• he’s overstimulated,

• he’s confused,

• he’s learned bad things happen to him under these circumstances,

• it’s a new place/person/thing,

• he’s being bullied by another dog,

• it’s night,

• it’s day,

• it’s noisy,

• he smells something funny,

• his brain is tired,

• he’s sick,

• something hurts,

• he doesn’t trust you,

• he doesn’t feel protected,

• he’s learned how to get what he wants without doing it,

• he sees no benefit to doing it,

• Behaving a different way benefits him more,

• he is expected to Behave though no one has taught him how to Behave.*

In this instance, as you can see, it’s a wee bit more complicated. Which is why it’s fascinating for me and other pros, but so frustrating for many POGs!

Behavior is internal. It comes from within, not without. It isn’t created with a word. Behavior is impacted by personality, life experience, environment, nutrition, breed(s), etc. etc. It is where DogJoy can happen, where the true connection/bond between human and dog is formed and where understanding, communication and mutual respect blossom.

To impact Behavior, you need to understand your dog on a deeper level. To create Good Behavior, you have to understand Dog Behavior in general, and your dog’s Behavior in particular. If you take the time to do that, both of you will be richly rewarded.

For some good places to start learning about dog Behavior, visit my Recommended Reading page.

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*For the record, despite thousands of years of domestication, dogs still have no clue how to operate in our world, and since they don’t have ESP or a chip in their heads that is preprogrammed before they arrive in your home, they need us to supply the missing information in a way they can understand and properly process.

If your dog has it, you may be making huge handling mistakes

Smart. Sensitive. Insecure. Three little words that, when put together, can make or break the quality of life you have with your dog.

Do these words describe your dog or one you know? Then please, please read and share.

There are many common mistakes POGs make with their precious pups, but I would argue these three words cause them to make some of the biggest and most damaging ones.

I have seen dogs returned, rehomed, punished relentlessly and destroyed because of these three words. I have seen dogs make horrific mistakes because of these three words.

I desperately hope POGs will take this message deep into their hearts and take a hard look at how they are relating to their dogs so not one more tragedy happens.

Why this is important

Since the beginning of my career, I have been fascinated by behavior and have concentrated on solving tough behavior problems.

Any experienced trainer worth his/her salt is very cognizant of how important it is to notice patterns while working with the hundreds of dogs s/he sees. Studies/Research can only get you so far; at a certain point, you have to add data you’ve collected through your own experiences to flesh out your abilities.

The Troublesome Temperament Trio is one big pattern I’ve identified that contributes mightily to behavior problems, big and small.

I realized that virtually all the dogs with the worst problems were really sharp brainwise, that is they quickly processed all the information they got — no matter the quality of the information.

Also, I realized that they were taking in a lot of information because they were also very sensitive. So they were noticing everything about the situation they were in. Everything. Every. Little. Detail. And quickly processing it, and trying to make sense of it so they could solve their problem, whatever it might be.

Now, those two qualities, smart and sensitive, can be a great combination — say you have a border collie herding sheep, or a search-and-rescue dog, or an agility champ, or a service/assistance dog. Smart dogs can be challenging to train, but the rewards for both dogs and humans can be tremendous.

However, dogs with those two qualities can also turn into disasters if misunderstood/mishandled. Not just problems, but unsafe, unpredictable timebombs with hair-trigger detonators.

The main determinant of the outcome, in my experience, is the final word in the trio: insecurity.

The smart, sensitive dog that is confident (secure), when faced with a confusing situation (Hey all that information that just blew through my processor doesn’t make sense), will work to figure it out, look for more information/guidance to figure it out, and will generally hold himself together while doing so.

But the smart, sensitive dog that is unsure/nervous/anxious/fearful (insecure) will be quickly overwhelmed by the situation, his anxiety level rising to the point where he can’t process any more information, resulting in all manner of unacceptable results like unresponsiveness, frustration barking, snapping, biting, destruction, running away and more.

Compounding this bad reaction is the human, who doesn’t realize what’s going on and, thinking the dog is “misbehaving,” turns to corrections or other inappropriate reactions that only serve to make the dog more anxious, which escalates the unacceptable behavior, which increases the bad reactions, which makes the dog more anxious, and — well, you get the idea. Simply put, it ain’t gonna end well.

How to go from ‘insecure’ to ‘secure’

The first step is changing our attitude toward the dog suffering from TTT. We have to get rid of our anger/frustration as well as our commitment to correction, neither of which will help us reach a solution. Learning to treat our dogs like friends who need help rather than a “bad” dog will create the trusting bond needed to create the long-term fix.

That fix is contained in this additional, extremely important word: socialization.

Allow me to define it so the connection is clear.

Socialization is PROPER exposure to all types of environments so dogs know what each is and what to do with it, so they are not afraid of it.

It means giving the dog all the information he needs so he doesn’t have to figure it out on his own. When he knows what to do in any given situation, his confidence rises.

If you don’t provide this information, your dog will eventually figure it out himself, but not always in the way you approve of. He may find, for example, that barking incessantly at people who make him nervous gets them to go away. Or he may find that snapping works.

He may find the best way to get your attention is to take something of yours and run off with it. Or jumping on you, maybe grabbing your arm or clothes.

If you yell at him or smack him for things like that, you erode his trust, making him more nervous about his situation. Which leads to a more inappropriate behavior the next time the same or a similar situation arises.

Security is important to good mental health for people. Is it any wonder that it is also important to our dogs?

If you have a dog with TTT, start working on her confidence today!

How? Click here for an excellent article from Partnership for Animal Welfare: http://www.paw-rescue.org/PAW/PETTIPS/DogTip_Shy.php

This morning, Tawny wandered out of the back yard through an open gate. It was closed when I checked. The landscapers scrambling around beoootifying my itsy yard must have opened it in between check and release. I saw movement out my side window that alerted me something was up.

Tawny got out.

Any of you who have a reactive dog know the gut punch those words can deliver. Tawny reacted to everything — people (worse with males), dogs, cats — with lunging, snapping, snarling etc. aka full display.

The male workers were right there. My stupid neighbors let their cats roam. Disaster???

Ahhhh, no. As I kicked off my slippers to head for the back, I saw Tawny walk up to a worker, tail wagging happily, and he bent over and stroked her on the head (previous snapping trigger). By the time I got to the back door, he had ushered her back into the yard and closed the gate. Tawny sniffed, squatted and peed, then saw me, wagged and looked like she was saying “Hey Ma, what are you doing out here?”

I smiled, I laughed, and I realized I had actually expected her to act that way. Because we have done our work. And it worked. Oh, what a feeling.
We have done our work. Have you?

This comes a little too late for me to call this a Christmas Wish, so instead I am labeling it a New Year’s Wish.

What is this Wish? Those of you who know me well may guess it’s that everyone finally stops blaming all dog problems on dominance issues (good guess — that one is always at or near the top).

However, I’m on a different soapbox at the moment, and this Wish comes courtesy of an ad in the coupon section of my local paper.

It features an adorable little girl facing a big fluffy dog, noses nearly touching. The girl’s hands are on the dog’s throat, her eyes are closed, and she looks like she is about to kiss him. The ad suggests this is a good way to celebrate the holidays with this member of the family.

So my Wish is this: I hope to never see another ad, photo or video like this.

I am not going to get into whether or not this dog is safe or comfortable in this particular photo (he doesn’t look happy, but not knowing what was going on when it was taken, I won’t comment further).

What I must get into is that this type of photo shows exactly what a child should NEVER EVER EVER do to a dog. This company is clearly ignorant of the potential disaster of the act itself and the irresponsibility of encouraging such behavior. I am going to contact them privately.

But I’ve also got to address this publicly and strongly so it reaches as many people as possible. This is an unsafe situation. Children should NEVER have their face that close to a dog’s. I don’t care if they’ve known the dog for 2 seconds or for all their lives. I don’t care if the dog is as sweet as honey and wouldn’t hurt a fly. NEVER. EVER. DO. THIS.

Here’s why:

1. Dogs are not robots, and any dog can have a bad day.

2. If kids are allowed to do that to their own dogs, they might think it’s okay to do it to all dogs. They will never learn the proper way to approach a dog.

The usual scenario

I’ve trained hundreds of dogs since 2004, and I have been in my share of homes where a dog has clocked a kid in the face, resulting in a bruise, scrape, tear or bite. The parents were shocked — shocked! — that their Sparky would do such a thing. And saddened to think they now may need to re-home Sparky (though who they think would take Sparky after he has bitten a kid in the face is beyond me).

The story I usually end up with involves one or more of these facts: the dog was “okay/fine” with baby until baby started crawling/walking; the dog has rarely/never been around a baby/toddler; the dog is “good” with older kids and/or adults so they assumed he’d be fine with baby/toddler; the baby/toddler was allowed to do anything to the dog; the baby/toddler was at times unsupervised with the dog; the dog is nervous/hyper; the dog was chewing his bone/sleeping/cornered when it happened; the baby/toddler stepped/fell on him; etc.

So in essence, the causes of the incident the adults never saw coming were 1) POGs never taught manners to their child or raised the tolerance level of their dog and 2) Dog took it as long as he could, waiting for help, then finally took care of it himself, in his own way.

If you ever have taken a basics group class from me, you would have attended one entire lesson devoted to this topic: how to prevent handling problems, and why the human-dog greeting sequence is inappropriate at just about every level from the dog’s perspective. In this lesson, you would have learned exactly how to approach these situations so you minimize your chances of having something bad happen.

If you had told me you were expecting or had a new baby, I would have sent you my Baby/Toddler Prep Sheet so you could put things in place immediately to avoid/fix problems like this.

Start creating a safe environment TODAY

You can and should make changes NOW to start reducing the chances of injury. The last thing anyone should do is allow/encourage kids to hug, kiss, stare at or otherwise bother a dog around the head. I don’t care how cute it looks. It’s not worth the risk! Stitches, skin grafts, blood, bruises and scars are not cute.

Also important is that the adults get better at reading dog body language so you know when there could be trouble brewing. (Hint: If the dog looks uncomfortable, s/he probably is uncomfortable.) If you see uncomfortable or hear a growl, immediately direct your dog away with a bright Come, Leave it, Move, etc. DO NOT use a sharp tone, punish or correct your dog — this is not the time to fix it (if you do, you will make the problem worse!!). This is the time for safety, so if the dog doesn’t respond, calmly walk toward him/her and gently shoo him/her away. Then call in a kind trainer/Dog Life Skills Instructor to help you fix it.

For a proper way for toddlers to interact with dogs, and also how to prepare your dog if you have a baby on the way or in your arms, download my Baby Prep Sheet.

For more information on how to read dog body language, get my ebooklet Read Body Language!

Have a safe day!
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“If our goal is a happier, more peaceful world in the future, only education will bring change.” — The Dalai Lama

Don’t tell me you don’t have time to teach your dog how to behave! If you have five minutes to spare, you have time to help your dog learn DogLife Skills (aka “training” which is such a yesterday word).

I am a big fan of short, fun sessions with lots of repetitions and lots of rewards; it leaves everyone feeling great and wanting more! Is there any better way to get your dog to love doing things for you?
Weave them into your day whenever you have a few minutes (while microwaving something, waiting for a phone call, commercial breaks, etc.).

Still unsure? Here’s a short list to get you thinking:

WHAT YOU CAN DO IN FIVE MINUTES

• Practice sits, downs, waits, comes, or just about any other behavior

• Conduct a rapid-fire workout: randomly call out instructions (sit, come, etc.) in a playful excited tone, and as soon as your dog does it, call out another. Rain treats down after three in a row, then do another rapid sequence. See how many in a row he can follow. If he gets lost, laugh and start again!

• Five one-minute stays, two two-minute stays, or one five-minute stay

• Socialize by introducing one new object, sound or being (human or otherwise) to your dog or pup in the proper way (i.e. let him sniff/investigate; praise forward movement, not retreats; if he’s freaked out move him away till he calms; stay by him in a relaxed stance to comfort and calm).

• Pick up and put down your dog’s leash over and over so you can get him to calm down before a walk (and by the way, it would really help if you stop saying “Want to go for a WALK?? HUH??” which is what’s jacking him up in the first place!).

• Let your dog munch on some of his dinner, held in your hand, while you gently handle ears, touch feet, etc. When food is gone stop touching.

• Sprinkle treats around your dog when he is eating at his food bowl, and when he is chewing a bone or other chewie. Do it as you walk by: call him name cheerfully, sprinkle, keep walking. Hear a growl? Don’t sprinkle — walk away, wait a minute, walk back BUT stay farther away this time. No growl? Go ahead and sprinkle treats. That’s the distance to work for now. 

• Give your dog one more potty opportunity before bedtime.

• Do a Follow Me jog through your house. Wave a treat at your dog, say LET’S GO and take off! When your dog catches up to you, say GOOD and drop a treat. As he grabs it, take off again, saying LET’S GO etc. Great walking practice AND great exercise!

• Charge up a marker word (eg GOOD/YES/YEP/YAY) to start communicating simply and efficiently. (How? EASY: Say word, treat; say word, treat; say word, treat; repeat, repeat!)

• See, mark vocally (GOOD/YES/YEP/YAY) and reward as many behaviors as you can (including “doing nothing” — aka being good).

• When frustration bubbles up, give yourself a time out so you can cool off and not bring anger into the teaching process.

• Let your dog calm down and try again.

• Let yourself calm down and try again.

There’s lots lots lots more you can do — What can you add to this list?

And hey — if you can do all these things and more in five minutes, think of what you could accomplish in 10 minutes!!

Don’t have time to teach, huh? Think again! You’re done reading, now get going. Time’s a-wasting!

Whether you are teaching your dog new behaviors or trying to fix problems, your positive/rewards-based trainer will often say to ignore the behaviors you don’t want.

While this makes sense for some things — barking at you for attention, for example — many other behaviors will be unaffected by ignoring and can cause many a frustrated POG to conclude positive methods don’t work, and the only way s/he can get the desired result is to resort to correction and punishment.

Truth is, you can ignore countersurfing all day long and you won’t stop it because the reward for it is usually not attention, but rather getting some good stuff off the counter. (I say usually — I had a doodle in group class who had actually figured out a great way to get his POG’s attention was to jump on the empty counter. Every time he did that, the POG would rush into the kitchen shouting “Hey!” The dog would get down immediately, but would go right back up when the POG left the room. Dang smart doodles!)
There are many other examples like countersurfing where the dog’s payoff is not attention, thereby rendering ignoring useless in most cases.

What I usually tell clients is ignore the behavior BUT ALSO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Well, that certainly makes no sense on the surface, does it? You can’t do something and not do something at the same time.

That’s not what I mean. But that’s often what my clients hear. And that may point to the real problem here: The word “ignore” is a poor choice to use when describing for our clients what we need them to do.

So I am calling myself out–time to step up, take responsibility and fix it!

Introducing: Low Energy Interruptions (LEI)
Before I went to the dogs, I spent close to 20 years in the writing, editing and publishing fields. Not surprisingly, I am very fussy about word choice. (See my Words Matter! document for suggestions on how to replace out-of-date training vocabulary.) So I am prepared to take a swing at redefining the “ignore” method of behavior modification.

In most cases, what I am really talking about is not ignoring the unwanted behaviors but rather interrupting them — with as little energy as possible. Pair that action with rewarding the desired behaviors with a lot of energy, and the dog now has clear communication: the desired behavior benefits the dog more, and the pragmatic dog will choose that behavior over the one that benefits him less.

Most of us tend to ignore our dogs when they are behaving themselves, but then give tons of attention whenever we see a “bad” behavior — we talk, yell, snap the leash, grab the collar, etc. (i.e. gasoline, meet match). This is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing! (My book, Reverse Dog Training, grew out of this observation.) We need to reverse course completely — emphasis on “right” behavior, well rewarded — to get the results we want.

I want to replace “ignore” with Low Energy Interruption (LEI). I believe it better conveys the idea that you do need to do something, but that something needs to be minimal. A minor course correction, if you will, on the way to the behavior that will be clearly more desirable for the dog because of the difference in energy (reward/benefit) it produces.

Example time! #1 Jumping
I have dealt with a LOT of jumping, including that of my own dog, a pogo-stick bouncer as well as a pile-driver (36 pounds launched right at my chest) who hasn’t jumped on anyone for a very long time (she’s been with me since 2004 and stopped jumping altogether within the first year).

I always start by telling clients what doesn’t work — coincidentally all the things people think will work — including saying “No,” “Off” or “Down”; asking for a Sit after a jump; turning your back; or any rough stuff like pushing, kneeing, stepping on leash, etc.

Invariably, the client asks, “What do I do then, just ignore it?”

While the best situation is preventing the jumping altogether so it extinguishes, for most POGs it’s not realistic because they are not watching their dogs constantly, so mistakes and “bad” behavior will happen. And since we humans tend to be reactive rather than proactive, we often will react without even thinking, whether we intend to or not. Reacting in a big way will confuse the dog and cause him to try it again, so we need a different reaction. A small one.

Enter LEI. This is how I do it:
1- Dog jumps.
2- I look up and away (think snobby), and take one step forward/toward the jump (LEI).
3- I wait to see if the dog gets down. If not, I help him by rotating a hip slightly to slide him off but maintain my position (LEI). Note I DO NOT turn away.
4- Dog gets down.
5- I look at him and say “Hi, buddy! How are you? Are you a good dog?”
6- Usually, the dog jumps again at that point.
7- Repeat steps 2-5 till he doesn’t jump when I talk to him. Then:
8- Immediately say GOOD and squat/bend down to his level to love on him for making the right choice.

(If he starts to get jumpy at this point, simply go back to step 2.)

Using this technique allows the dog to clearly see the difference in payoff to him between jumping and not jumping. Obviously, “four on the floor” (all feet on the ground) is the better choice, i.e. the one he should want to repeat, because it gets him tons of what he wants (attention).

This can work even for attention-seeking situations where you could ignore the dog, like barking. Barking drives me nuts, and usually it goes on way too long, well beyond my maximum patience level. I want to interrupt that barking so I can create and reward quiet. Yelling uses too much energy and gets us so frustrated that if he does finally shut up we can’t reward him because we don’t even want to see him at that moment!

Example Time! #2 Barking
Before I give you this one, I must state that barking is a complicated issue because there are many reasons why dogs bark! Ask yourself “What is he getting out of it?” before deciding how to deal with it.

Here is one real-life example of how I used LEI for barking:

A rescued adult beagle mix was carrying on loudly and relentlessly at the feet of his POG at every feeding until the bowl was on the ground. This soft-spoken woman got so frustrated she would scream at the dog thusly: “SHUUUUUT UUUUUUP!” Since I was standing there in her kitchen, this obviously was not working. I asked if I could try dealing with it my way, and 10 minutes later, he was quiet during the feeding prep.

Here are the steps I followed in this case (NOTE: every dog is different, and there are many small adjustments that can be made here to more effectively communicate with each dog):
1- Put bowl and food on counter. (Have some food already in the bowl.)
2- Dog starts barking.
3- Look up and away, silently count to 10.
4- Dog keeps barking.
5- Make a slight, quick LEI movement (in this case, I turned my head and upper body one way, then the other, took about a second)
6- Dog stops barking for a second to figure out what I’m doing.
7- IMMEDIATELY SAY ‘GOOD’ AND HAND HIM A PIECE OF FOOD.
8- Dog starts barking.
9- Look up and away, silently count to 15.
10- If dog pauses for even a second, IMMEDIATELY SAY ‘GOOD’ AND HAND HIM A PIECE OF FOOD. If not, repeat steps 5-9 until he starts pausing on his own. Then:
11- When he is quiet, say GOOD and pick up the bowl.
12- If he stays quiet, keep saying GOOD and lower the bowl towards the floor. EVERY TIME HE BARKS, PUT THE BOWL BACK ON THE COUNTER AND LOOK AWAY TILL HE STOPS.
13- Repeat 11 and 12 until you have the bowl on the floor.
14- Repeat, repeat, repeat! until he is quiet from start to finish.

Because there was such a clear difference between benefit for barking (no food) and quiet (here comes food!) PLUS it had the assistance of an LEI (to limit frustration and barking time), the change came quickly. Over time, the support would be peeled away so the end result would be the normal procedure of pouring the food and placing it on the floor while the dog quietly watches.

I hope this new term and its explanation helps POGs everywhere to fix problems quickly, with minimal frustration and maximum joy!

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