Nothing to Fear?

Modern dog trainers have an agenda. We are almost always on the look-out, like treat-carrying heat-seeking bombs, hoping to find and eradicate anything and everything that might scare dogs.

I recently had some fear, up close and personal. A man driving behind me didn't like having to wait in line. He went from oddly belligerent to abusive. He stalked my car, yelling and outrageous, then stopped in the middle of an intersection to block traffic. Most chillingly, he circled the block and watched me fuel up before driving off in a puff of rubber. I waved an apology to the people behind me but was rattled. A few hours later and hundreds of kilometers closer to home, I stayed put in my locked car when another man, middle-aged and holding tight to his son's hand, walked by. Same thing for some laughing and joyous teens, pants slouched and shoes bright red and unlaced. I wasn't myself for a good few hours - and unlike many women faced with possibly violent men, I walked away without physical injury. But actual injury doesn't matter when it comes to fear: a switch in my brain had been flipped. Being scared sucks. And it matters. And it lasts.

If you have a dog that finds certain situations or people scary, you are their advocate. You are their emotional bubble wrap. Being scared is a welfare concern for the fearful dog, to say nothing of the safety issue if the dog expresses their fear with a bite.

Take the dog trainer's oath: nothing scary on your watch

Fear can be hard to spot. Look for cowering, glancing or moving away, a tucked tail,  ears down and back, trembling, a closed mouth, random panting, aggressive behaviour like growling or biting, and even dogs who lick their lips or nose. (Please watch the body language videos here with your kids). If you see these signs, catalogue and act.

Catalogue. What is your dog scared of? A person? A situation? A sound? Keep a running list.

Act. If your dog is mildly anxious, you can simply keep them a bit further away from the thing they're scared of in the future. Cross the street, leave the park, or put Fido in the house. Distance is the easiest way to grant relief. However, if your dog is anything more than mildly anxious, do your best to keep them wholly safe from their fears. Check your catalogue - is your dog scared of your kid's dress-the-dog-up game? Find another fun activity that both your kids and dog will love. Is your dog worried about dinner parties? Head out for supper on the town, or give them relief in the back room with a Kong, away from your mildly bacchanalian guests.

Consider also contacting a dog trainer who uses modern and safe techniques (Pavlovian conditioning should be at the top of the list). Many fears can be ameliorated through sound technique and trainers are adept at helping a dog's family come up with ways to keep everyone feeling safe.

Finally, run long and far if a trainer suggests using special collars or techniques that might hurt (and therefore further scare) your dog. Modern training methods allow us to put those tools in the museum where they belong.

 

Learn more about helping dogs with fear here and here, and about aggression here.

 

Photo: Schreiberphotography | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Why take a dog class? Well that’s as easy as one, two, three

Recently, I was out skijoring – a fantastic winter sport where a skier is attached by a bungee line to her dogs, who are harnessed and allowed to pull to their heart’s content. It was a beautiful winter's day, and I was enjoying the exercise and a spy thriller on audio-book, one of my secret vices. You would think that I’d be out skijoring every day all winter, right?

Wrong.

Pretty much the only reason I bothered to put on my rather constrictive ski boots (they’re like zippered up concrete), find all the lines and gear and put on the skijor belt (which looks very slightly like a baby’s diaper, to be honest) was because I joined something. I joined a fun race online – and what’s more, I paid to participate. And as much as I’ve enjoyed every single ski this winter, adding those meager kilometers to my score card is an embarrassingly important reason I’ve been out so much. Anyone who signs up -  and then attends -  an exercise class while blithely ignoring that dusty stationary bike will understand this phenomenon very well. So...

Modern classes focus on skills you need at home, like a polite "leave-it".

Modern classes focus on skills you need at home, like a polite "leave-it".

1. Join a class because you will actually train your dog

Unless you are a dog training fanatic, it’s hard to set aside the time to train your dog. Just as weightlifters need reps to build their lifting muscles; dogs need reps to build their "behavioural muscle". In class, you will spend a good solid hour training your dog, and in a very hard and distracting environment to boot.

2. Join a class if you have a puppy

If you have a puppy under the age of about 16-20 weeks, get thee to a well-run, safe puppy class today. Puppy classes may provide some basic obedience, but that’s always an extra. Puppy classes will help your puppy to be the safest, happiest, soundest adult dog they can be. This means socialization opportunities with the humans in class, meeting safe puppy play-mates, and more. You don’t need to believe me on this one: see the statement on puppy socialization from the dog behaviour gurus at American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. Read more about socialization here, here, and here.

3. Dog training has changed dramatically

You took a dog class in 1994 with your dog Salt-n-Pepa… how much could things have changed?

Modern classes are full of smiling dogs.

Modern classes are full of smiling dogs.

A lot. There has been a sea change in dog training – the science of animal learning has flourished, and dog’s cognitive abilities are much better understood. Classes today are faster, much more fun, and much safer. New dog training techniques put your dog’s welfare at the forefront. We get better results than the ol’ jerk-your-dog-around-on-a-collar classes did, and we use techniques that make your dog an eager, delighted participant. (To find a dog trainer who uses modern and positive techniques, check out this blog).


It's as easy as one, two three

Your life, and your dog’s life, will be better when he’s trained. A well-trained dog is welcome around your guests and in your car for running errands. He can come on hikes and run beside bikes and generally co-exist with you contentedly. And isn't furry but enjoyable companionship why you got a dog in the first place?

 

In the Manitoba/Saskatchewan Parkland and looking for classes? Check here for our next series of classes: http://store.kristibenson.com/

Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing.

An easy New Year's Resolution

Here is the easiest New Year's Resolution ever (I promise). We can do it together. Let's stop letting the phrase "Oh, but that's a working dog" go by in conversation, politely uncontested.

But wait. Some dogs do have jobs.

Give the dog the accoutrements of pet-hood for three or four months, long enough to overcome their initial fearfulness. And then simply give them the option to go back. The vast majority will readily choose comfort, safety, and companionship.

This is absolutely true. And many, many dogs would lead more enriched, healthy, and happy lives if they had a job. It's also perfectly reasonable and smart to say, with some alarm in your tone, "but that's a working dog" when a neighbour or family member tells you they are considering getting a field line Labrador Retriever or Golden Retriever, or a Border Collie of any stripe. Those dogs need an almost impossible amount of exercise to stay healthy and happy as a member of an urban family. Your neighbour (to say nothing of their future dog) would almost certainly be happier with a beautiful custom-made from the pound.

Working dogs: They still get a spot on the couch.

Some dogs are capable of and even enjoy demanding and rigorous physical work, and some are bred to find people scary enough to behave aggressively (that is, "guard"). So, what's the problem? The problem is when this capacity is used as an excuse for poor husbandry, and further, poor breeding choices. The problem is what's implied with that one word: "but".

These so-called working dogs are pets too. There is no such thing as a non-pet dog. All dogs are the same species, selectively bred by humans for thousands of years to live in close proximity to us. We created them, and it's our duty to take care of them to the best of our ability. The fact that a dog happens to chase sheep or cattle in a particularly useful fashion, or happens to pull strongly when harnessed, or happens to bark and lunge at the salesman at the garage door out of fear...these are not reasons to deny a dog a fulfilled, comfortable life.

What do "working dogs" put up with, then?

Let's not be quaint about it: the working dogs I'm talking about here live outside or in a garage, they are kept penned outside when not hunting, they live with uncomfortable, matted fur, they fight wild canines to the point of injury, they live chained up and are rarely, if ever, walked or trained. They have a bowl full of kibble but hunger for the human contact they have been bred for thousands of years to need and enjoy. Because their owners - that is, us - profit from their labour, we have learned to set aside their discomforts by creating easy, regal lies. These half-truths often have words like "loyal", "his flock", "instinct", "drive", "protective", and very often include "not a pet" in a tone that suggests that no way, no how would this dog choose to live the life of a pet.

This last bit can be pretty easily disproved, by the way. Give the dog the accoutrements of pet-hood for three or four months, long enough to overcome their initial fearfulness. And then simply give them the option to go back. Most will readily choose comfort, safety, and companionship. I know this because I have have been "into" sled dogs for more than a decade. I first met sled dogs when lived in the Arctic, which is where I learned the "but they're working dogs" rule. I managed to box them up in my brain, until (in relatively short order) they chewed holes in their boxes and made their way to a spot on my couch. Every sled dog I have met has prospered as a pet, and can still function perfectly well when harnessed up in the snow.

Sled dogs are on-the-bed dogs. Cat optional.

Sled dogs are on-the-bed dogs. Cat optional.

So let's shine a light on these easy lies and see if more dogs who are bred to work can have both a job and a bed by the hearth. The next time you hear "but he's a working dog" about a dog who lives in conditions you wouldn't accept for your own dog, feel free to bring up sled dogs.  The comfiest way is to first ally yourself "I used to think that way too" and then follow this up with new information, "but recently I read an article about sled dogs. I was surprised to learn that even dogs with jobs can and should be cared for like a pet - they can still function in their working capacity". Once you put that out there (no matter how gently you say it, them's fighting words), move on quickly in the conversation. The weather is always worth discussing.  "And talking about sled dogs, it's been the perfect winter for them!"

Just plant that seed.

Top photo: Vgm© Dreamstime Stock Photos. Title is from a quote credited to Martina Navratilova: "Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people."

Mind your Ps and Cues

Teaching "life cues" to your dog

I recently visited an acquaintance who has three friendly and lovely dogs.  Most friendly dogs will run up to say hi when a person appears - they love to meet and greet.  I was told before I arrived, however, that in the apparently unlikely event that the dogs left the porch I was to stop the car, only proceeding forward when they returned to the porch.  "We get some people who drive quickly through our farmyard" I was told. "This keeps the dogs safe."

Well, paint me purple and call me Penny - what a crafty bit of dog training that is! The owner had, by chance or design, set up the arrival of a car as the cue to return to and stay on the porch.  The paycheque for this (rather onerous, at least from the dog's perspective) behaviour is simple and easy: if they stay on the porch, they're allowed to greet the humans, a reward for which friendly dogs are often willing to work.

My dogs come running when we hear a car in the distance.

My dogs come running when we hear a car in the distance.

Hold on a second.  The car is a cue? 

Usually, we think of cues as the verbal commands in old-time drudgery-laden obedience training.  Sit! Down! Heel! Unlike the hand gestures and food lures we use to get a dog into position when we're first training, cues are stylized, random (according to the dog - sit has no more meaning than pineapple or 你好), and need to be specifically taught for the dog to perform to them. Many dog owners want their dogs to sit when they say sit, and to lie down when they say down. Importantly, almost all dog owners want their dogs to come running fast and furious when they yell come. For this reason, most dog classes include a quick how-to on teaching a dog to perform on a verbal cue.  But understanding how to really use and teach cues allows you, delighted dog owner, to use them when they'll make your life easier and in cases where they can help keep your dog safe.

When to train non-standard cues.

I have trained my loose-running dogs to come to me on walks when we hear a car, since we venture close to a rural farm road.  The sound of the car is the cue to recall (this car cue keeps my dogs safe, too). However, the sky is the limit on training useful cues. See if any of these fit your needs and let your imagination run wild.

  1. The sound of the car is a cue for a car-chasing dog to come inside. Reinforcement: tug game.
  2. The sight of a person walking by outside the window is the cue to come to the couch instead of barking. Reinforcement: cookie and patting.
  3. The appearance of the leash is the cue to come near the door and sit to have a front-clip no-pull harness put on. Reinforcement: walk time.
  4. Returning with a ball is the cue to drop the ball. Reinforcement: ball toss.
  5. The sight of another person on a walk is the cue to heel for a few steps in order to pass them politely. Reinforcement: cookie.
  6. The appearance of the owner's current crush is the cue to sit and wave. Reinforcement: cookie.
  7. The sound of the garage door opening is the cue to get off the couch, run to the dog bed, and look innocent. Reinforcement: pig's ear.
  8. The question "what's that ...odor?" is the cue for your dog to nose-prod your guest. Reinforcement: praise, laughter, and patting.
  9. The sound of your phone ringing is the cue to find your phone and bark at it until you find it, too.  Reinforcement: cookie.

I assume your dog already knows how to do the behaviour in question - if not, get thee to a good dog class (or get a great book) and get training! Now, you just need some help transferring the existing cue - a verbal cue or hand signal - to the new cue and context.  

New Before Old.

A good mnemonic for how to teach your dog to respond to new cues is New Before Old, He'll Do As He's Told (this really, really, really isn't to say we should be telling our dogs what to do - we must train them with skill and love, and motivate them with food. It just rhymes, and I want you to remember it.) This means the dog must perceive the new "cue" before you dish out the known, old cue. For example, when I was training my dogs to recall when we heard a car, I would wait until I could hear the car in the distance...the "new cue".  I knew my dogs, with their superior hearing, would have already heard it, too.  I then simply called them to me - a behaviour they are all quite good at.  And I reinforced. Over time - this can take quite a few repetitions, depending on the behaviour, the context, and the dog - the dogs started to recall even before I called them.  In some cases, even before I'd heard the car (I keep reinforcing the recalls to keep them strong, of course).

The formula:

New cue + [wait a second or two] + Old cue = Behaviour + reinforcement

We wait a second or two after the new cue to allow the dog time to perform the behaviour, before we help with the old cue.  Over time, the dog learns that the new cue predicts the old cue, and will do the behaviour without that extra bit of help.  Keep supplying the old cue until the dog will perform the behaviour for the new cue, at least ten times in a row.

Here's another example.  I want one of my dogs to sit when I let other dogs in and out of the door. I open the door and let dogs in/out (new cue), wait a second, then say "sit", and then reinforce him when he sits.  I've l̶a̶z̶i̶l̶y̶  brilliantly left a bucket of biscuits at the door so I am always ready to reinforce. Now, when the scrum starts, he sits - and looks expectantly towards the cookie jar. It's a quirk of dog behaviour that if I had cued a sit first and then let the dogs in and out, he simply wouldn't learn to sit at the scrum. The new cue must predict - that is, come before - the old cue.

Good luck and happy tails!

Do dogs get hangry too?

The difference between aggression and predation

I recently received a distressed phone call from the owner a young Labrador retriever.  The dog was guarding bones and had snapped at a family member who tried (unwisely) to take a bone away.  The owner asked very earnestly if this was just the beginning.  Would, she wondered, the dog kill the other dog next?

According to the Oxford dictionary:

Hangry (ADJECTIVE, informal)  Bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger

I occasionally get a bit edgy if I haven't grazed in a while. Who doesn't?  This word conflates two states: one physical (hunger) and one emotional (anger). It almost sounds the way it feels.  Someone might reasonably wonder "do dogs get hangry?" when they see a dog guard a bone, chase a bunny, or growl menacingly at a person in a strange hat. Could hangry be what was going on with the bone-guarding Labrador?

Get away from me!

Dogs use their powerful jaws and impressive dentition to two ends. The first is to protect themselves and their stuff.  When you see a dog who does any of the following:

Dogs guarding food or bones will hunker down, growl, snarl, and otherwise tell you very clearly: Get Away From Me Now.

Dogs guarding food or bones will hunker down, growl, snarl, and otherwise tell you very clearly: Get Away From Me Now.

  1. stays hunkered over a food dish growling if you approach
  2. picks up a bone and walks away if you approach
  3. snarls and snaps at another dog to prevent them from getting onto a favourite bed

You are seeing a dog who is protecting his stuff.  This can certainly come off as rude, or "bad", but in fact the dog is best characterized as worried and upset. The dog has a bit of his wolfy ancestor coming out - and his wolfy ancestor would have died of starvation if he didn't keep everyone (yes even his family members) away from his food.  Imagine losing your house in a weird mortgage rule change, leaving you broke and homeless. Losing the things you need to survive is scary stuff.

Even more alarming is when a dog uses their enamel weaponry to protect themselves.  A dog who is terrified of strangers (and this is the state that a "guard dog" is in, by the way) might growl, bark, snarl, snap at, and even bite a person who comes too close.  This dog is deeply scared, and needs the help of a professional trainer to overcome their fears. Dogs behaving aggressively towards strangers deserve all our collective efforts to increase their comfort and welfare, to say nothing of keeping the public safe.

For both guarding and fear of strangers, if the dogs are forced by circumstance to bite or fight, they usually do so without grievous damage.  They are giving warnings. The warnings might be painful or scary...that's the point.  But the dog is not trying to eat the other dog, or the the hapless bone-stealing family member, or the stranger.  They just want them gone, and gone now.

Get in my belly.

Dogs hunting critters (or things that remind them of critters, like balls and Frisbees) have a totally different approach.  Get In My Belly.

Dogs hunting critters (or things that remind them of critters, like balls and Frisbees) have a totally different approach.  Get In My Belly.

The second way that dogs use their chompers is to eat. We grow crops or harvest pizza pockets from the primeval forest to get enough to eat. Dogs, being carnivores, occasionally run down small animals (or things that remind them of small animals, like balls, Frisbees, moving bike tires, and blowing plastic bags).  Sometimes, when dogs catch small animals, they will kill and consume them.  Whether or not they follow through on the killing and/or eating parts depends again on how much of the ol' wolf is showing up in their repertoire.  All wolves will kill and eat prey.  Wolves who politely refrain from getting food to eat don't pass along any of their non-death-machine genes to their pups, because they are dead. 

Two very different motivations.

A dog who has guarded bones from people is likely to guard more bones from more people (or from dogs... or from cats they have befriended).  A dog who is so scared of a stranger that they behave aggressively is likely to be equally scared of a similar stranger.  In both cases, the dog is saying just one thing:  Go.  Get away from me.  Give me space.

A dog who has chased down small animals is likely to do so again, given the opportunity.  In this case, the dog is saying just one thing:  Come. Get in my belly. Pass the salt; pull out the best china; it's time to dine. 

So although a scared, aggressive dog and a hungry, predatory dog are both using their teeth, their behaviour is due to very different motivations.  And while a particular dog might be both aggressive towards strangers and also predatory towards small animals, these behaviours and emotions don't overlap.  They don't predict each other, any more than me feeling hungry predicts me being scared of my tarragon braised cabbage (it was bland, not fearsome). And me feeling scared of the momma grizzly I met once while hiking doesn't predict me biting gloriously into said grizzly after rubbing her with a mango-chipotle spice mix.

It's frightening and upsetting to us humans when dogs use their teeth, no matter if they're scared or hungry.  Luckily, qualified dog trainers can help in both scenarios, so there is no need for either you or your dog to suffer.  Grab a pizza pocket off your pizza pocket tree, find a good trainer, and get to work.

 

For more information on working with scared dogs, see my previous blog posts here and here. For more thoughts on natural dog behaviours that are hold-overs from their wolfy ancestors, see this blog post.

 

Camera Shy to Camera Guy

Helping an anxious dog to overcome their fears

Every person has felt the unpleasant, sickly edge of fear at some point in their lives - and no one wants their dog to feel that way.  Unfortunately, a dog who is feeling mildly scared or anxious can look pretty innocuous.  He might pant even though it is not overly warm, flick his tongue or lick his nose, hunch over, or glance (or even move) away.  Have you seen your dog do this?  If so, read on.  You can help. 

Note: If your dog is really scared of something - hides, stops moving altogether, or acts aggressively - please contact a good, positive trainer, as the procedure described below is quite technical. In the case of moderate or serious fears, mistakes can make your dog's fear even worse. 

Mischa (back, heading away) shows me how he feels about the camera by leaving during a recall.  Normally, he has the fastest recall of the crew.  Once I had figured out that it was the camera, I put it away until I could train him.

Mischa (back, heading away) shows me how he feels about the camera by leaving during a recall.  Normally, he has the fastest recall of the crew.  Once I had figured out that it was the camera, I put it away until I could train him.

Mischa is a sled dog who recently became scared of having his picture taken.  This could be a really easy fix, you might be saying.  Just put the camera away when he's around. Presto chango.  And you'd be right - locking away my camera forevermore would have kept him feeling safe.  But he is (like everyone's dog, I would argue) a perfect-looking creature who deserves to be the subject of numerous poorly-executed photographical attempts.  In sum: I really wanted to take his picture.  So I trained him to love the camera using the power of Pavlovian conditioning. 

How did you change a scared dog's mind?

You might remember Pavlov from any introduction to psychology in school. He was the scientist who found out that you could train a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell by consistently following the bell with food.  We're co-opting Pavlov's approach, but instead of the bell we'll aim to make Mischa salivate - in other words, anticipate hopefully - when he sees the camera.

First, I separated the camera into its constituent parts: lens cap, lens, and body. (Later, I would even separate out the sound of the shutter release).  I put the lens cap into my pocket along with a baggie of really good dog treats.  Then, I went into stealth mode. When Mischa was least expecting it, I showed him the lens cap, let him sniff for two or three seconds, and then rained down ten or twenty treats, one at a time. 

  • Important Part One: Mischa did not know it was coming.
  • Important Part Two: Mischa saw the camera lens first, for 2-3 seconds. I stood as still as a statue during this part.
  • Important Part Three: After he'd seen the camera lens, I then gave him food. Lots of food. Lots.
  • Important Part Four: He never saw the camera without then getting food.  No pictures, period.

To make sure I got Important Part One right (Mischa did not know it was coming), I also showed him random non-camera items in the same way - approaching, putting my hand in my pocket, and pulling it out.  I showed him a small metal owl statue.  I showed him a tape measure.  I showed him a spoon.  None of those resulted in treats.  I wanted it to be really clear in his mind:  the lens cap?  THAT meant treats.  Everything else, like me walking up to him with my hand in my pocket?  That was meaningless.

I think I can do this.  When do I move to the next step?

Once it was perfectly, patently obvious that Mischa loved the lens cap (he saw it and jumped up, wagging, drooling, searching for his food, eyes jumping from my face to my pocket), I moved on to the lens.  He caught on, and came to love the lens.  Then I tried the fully assembled camera itself.  This took much longer than I had expected - weeks of few-times-per-week training.  You can almost certainly guess why. Mischa had seen a camera before, and it worried him.  So we carried on slowly, and I was careful to never raise the camera to my eye or take a picture, not yet.  I just showed him the camera, let him sniff and investigate, then fed him.

How much do I feed him when I show him the item?

Lots.  Or as they say in Manitoba: Really Lots.

Note: Trying to move quickly when dealing with a fearful dog is never productive - two brash steps forward, five fearful steps back.  Going at the dog's pace, however tortoiselike, is paradoxically faster. A couple of times I tried to rabbit ahead, and Mischa told me so by turning tail and leaving.  I knew to drop back immediately to an easier step.

OK.  He loves the camera. What next?

Early pictures were not about focus,  framing or composition (to be frank, later shots weren't either.  I'm just better at Pavlovian conditioning).  They were about putting everything together - camera, pose, sound - for just a brief moment, and then giving Mischa food right afterwards.  His smiling, soft face indicates clearly that he's enjoying this process immensely. I'm not moving too fast here.

Early pictures were not about focus,  framing or composition (to be frank, later shots weren't either.  I'm just better at Pavlovian conditioning).  They were about putting everything together - camera, pose, sound - for just a brief moment, and then giving Mischa food right afterwards.  His smiling, soft face indicates clearly that he's enjoying this process immensely. I'm not moving too fast here.

Next came the sound of the shutter release.  When he was least expecting it, I pressed the shutter release on the camera, hidden artfully away from his sight.  I waited the requisite two seconds, and then poured out the food. I did this when I was working away at my desk, or chopping onions, or reading a book. The element of surprise is vital here.  Mischa needed to know the sound of the camera, and nothing else, predicted that food was coming. 

The sound of the shutter release? Why?

When we are helping dogs to overcome fears, it's wise to separate the scary thing into chunks the dog can handle - think lens cap, lens, camera body.  It's even better if the chunks can tickle only one sense at a time: the smell of a stranger.  The sight of a hot-air balloon.  The sound of a shutter release. Since I had found Mischa to be more fearful than I had originally guessed, I also separated out, and trained him to love, me crouching into the photographer's pose by following it with a snack.  I also pretended to take a picture, with no camera present. This predicted snacks, too.

Final step: Do the math

Once I had him loving everything separately, I started doing some math.  Add the camera pose to the camera.  Add the camera to the sound of the shutter release.  We stayed on each step until Mischa was obviously in love: looking from my face to my pockets, drooling with anticipation. Each step took days or weeks. 

Finally, I was able to start taking photographs - at first, just one every couple of days, then more often.  I continued, and continue to this day, to give him a treat every time. Cost: a small treat. Benefit: inoculation against the fear cropping up again.

I'm now free to snap as many pictures as I want. And with a face like that, well, that's Really Lots.

Hopeful smile and perky ears tell you everything you need to know: Camera Guy.

Hopeful smile and perky ears tell you everything you need to know: Camera Guy.

Do no-pull harnesses work? Ask a sled dog or two.

Note: this blog is being published as part of the Harness The Love campaign.

I recommend front-clip harnesses all the time.  "These special harnesses cut pulling immediately, and most dogs find them extremely comfortable" I say sincerely.  Many dogs in my class do eventually show up in one of these harnesses.  Their owners look thankful and appear to be healing, at long last, from the repetitive stress injuries to their shoulders.  The dogs also seem well-socialized and exercised - all sniffled out.

Often, though, I see a raised eyebrow.  "You think that bit o' cloth will stop our dog from pulling?"  Why yes, yes I do.  But you don't have to believe me: let's ask a sled dog or two.

Really? Sled dogs?

Sled dogs have been bred to pull.  They love pulling.  They scream joyously from the rooftops when it's time to pull.  I run a micro-rescue which places competitive racing dogs in pet homes, so I'm lucky enough to meet quite a few of these special dogs.  And even though I am a professional dog trainer, I do not spend the sometimes-considerable time needed to train these dogs to walk on a loose leash or heel.  They're learning a suite of other skills which are much more important.  Our rescue simply asks our adopters to purchase a front-clip no-pull harness, and let the dogs have all the time they need on walks to just be a dog.  In almost every case, these harnesses work perfectly well to turn a slavering sleddie into a handle-able hound.  The proof really is in the pudding. 

How does it work?

Front-clip harnesses change the point of leverage.  When the dog pulls, the harness simply turns the dog to the side.  Mushing harnesses, which are designed to get the most horsepower from a dog as is safely possible, have a close-fitting comfortable collar and an attachment on the back.  It follows that a leash attached to a collar or a harness with a back attachment actually invite pulling in many dogs.  Yes, that's right: back-clip harnesses can awaken the inner sled dog in even the most fine-boned Chihuahua.  Is that what you want?

The question do front-clip anti-pull harnesses actually work? can be answered by the brave dog owners who bring a sled dog into their homes.  According to new sled dog mom Emmy Neufeld (responsible for the wonderful picture of bandana-wearing Mr. Handsome Oyster, above right).

If it wasn't for the no-pull harness I would have had a really hard time, especially with my back.  There were days I could hardly walk ...but I have always been in control. Now we walk ...most days with a lot of slack in the leash.

Learn more about front-clip harnesses here, and please spread the word about these fantastic, safe, and sometimes even life-saving pieces of equipment!  Then pop a front-clip harness on your dog, grab a treat bag, and head out into your neighbourhood to enjoy a nice stroll.  An amble.  A saunter.  A breath of fresh air.

Correct without corrections

"Doesn't he need to know that it's wrong?"

A student in my dog classes recently asked me this, about a dog making a house-training error.  I commiserated and repeated the usual how-to, but it got me pondering the idea of corrections.  Generally, "corrections" in pet dog training involve telling the dog he got it wrong by using something like a collar jerk, a yell or stern word, or a button pressed on a shock collar remote. 

I used to think the same thing, by the way.  How can you train a dog what not to do, without correcting their obvious errors?  Showing them the right way would only go so far.  It made the idea of training solely with treats seem like a folly. 

Let's imagine...

Imagine you are going to visit a newly-found cousin back in the mother country - quaint farms on green hillsides, cobbled lanes, delicious food.  You elect to stay in a small hotel near the town named for your great-great-grandma, but are alarmed - truly, alarmed - to discover there is a rather substantial difference in bathroom etiquette.  The porcelain bowl you have used your whole life is, in this country, habitat for expensive goldfish pets.  You learn from the wild gesticulations of your grey-haired host that you must use what rather strongly resemble lawnchairs.  Outside.  On the lawn.  

After holding on for far too long, you decide you simply must comply with local customs.  You head out the front door single-mindedly.  The host, recognizing you as a foreigner and having dealt with many others with similar reservations, appears after a delicately appropriate interval to thank you profusely.  He offers you a complimentary glass of wine from their cellar, and you start to feel that maybe, just maybe, you can handle this situation after all. 

A few days of this routine and you even start to question (as did many people when bathrooms moved inside) how hygienic it is to do those functions next door to both the kitchen and bedroom.   In addition, your host continues to have a small gift handy at just the right time - a coupon for the local spa, a discounted room upgrade.  You log on to your travel site and gratefully give the hotel a five-star rating. 

But alas, you flub.  Your cousin keeps you up late one night with photo albums and a bottle of a rather potent berry-flavoured liquor.  Without thinking, you make use of the goldfish bowl.  In the morning, your misstep is noted by the maid and the hotel owner hustles you to his office.  He's very sorry, but you will need to pay to replace the goldfish's preferred aquatic plants.  In fact, the relatively hefty fine has already been applied to your credit card.  (And let's be honest.  Despite the sternest of warnings you give yourself, there are three more charges over the time you are there.  You are only human.)

On the last day of your visit you realize, a bit to your surprise, that you now happily participate in a totally new normal.  You are completely trained.  Your behaviour has profoundly changed.  At no point did the hotel owner bully you, use harsh language, scare you, or strike you - in fact, some of those actions would give you cause to head to the local police station.  At the very least, they would have drastically changed what you said about the hotel in your review. 

This is how a dog's behaviour changes, too.  The rules change, and they adapt.  They are rewarded for new behaviours, and those behaviours happen more often.  Sometimes, they get dinged with a time-out (think credit card fine) if they flub.  With consistency, they easily learn how to be correct, without any of the standard corrections. 

And guess what?  You get to keep your five-star rating then, too.

PoTAYto PoTAHto

Yesterday evening, a brilliant orange-pink sunset shone through the trembling aspen stands that frame our pastures and gardens.  I managed to steal a glimpse between swatting the fierce evening mosquitoes and digging a bit frantically into one of our long rows of potato plants.  I was pulling up some All Reds - red skinned and red fleshed, delicate in flavour, and certainly worth growing ten billion pounds. 

You know, for our family of two.

You might laugh outright, or you might laugh in commiseration - depending on whether or not you have a garden.  Everyone I know, no matter how small their garden, grows too many potatoes... every year.  (And do not get me started on the dreaded zucchini).  Thinking about our annual overindulgence in the starchy-tuber-of-all-things-delicious, I asked myself, "why do we do this every year?  We're relatively smart humans with giant brains and the capacity to plan.  Weeding a billion potato plants is ghastly, takes time from stuff I actually like to do, and harvesting and storing them is a huge waste of energy.  Why, brain? Why?"  But of course, I get a kick out of looking at the neat rows of potatoes, and an almost embarrassing sense of pride when I catalogue the crates tucked into our root cellar in the fall. 

My thinking, of course, turned to dogs.  Many a client has asked me blandly why does my dog do that?  Usually the behaviour is something which, long ago, helped the dog's canid ancestors make it through another day in the rather brutal wilderness.  Sometimes the behaviour has become a bit odd, perhaps as a result of the genetic tinkering - domestication - humans have carried out for the last few thousand years.  The dog might bury, or "cache," food or strange and wonderfully inedible items.  The dog might ferociously guard food or strange and wonderfully inedible items (Kleenex, anyone?).

Some behaviours that dogs have inherited – either in the normal form or in a modified form – from their ancestors

Fearfulness

Food guarding

Dislike of being handled

Sound sensitivity

Chasing small animals

Predation

Tugging

Herding

Retrieving

“Romance”

 

My own ancestors were, by all accounts, peasant stock.  We faced periods with no food, as starvation has plagued humanity for all but the most recent decades.  Even now, plentiful food is only found in some parts of the world.  I quite naturally enjoy growing too much food and storing it just in case, an instinct which would have served my great-great-great¹² grandmother very well.

So I'll say potayto, and my dog, digging nearby and burying one of many dead frogs she'll never ever eat, says potahto. 

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

...so help me, dog.

Giving a dog medication can be unpleasant, for both the owner and the dog.  If taking his daily dose makes your dog upset, please give him a head's up that it is coming.  Here's how, and why. 

One of my dogs needs medication, twice a day.  He isn't as hungry as he used to be, which the medication helps to address.  Unfortunately, his lack of appetite means I can't just hide the pill in a bit of tasty food.  So I have to "pill" him - that is, I have to open his mouth and pop the pill in.  Luckily for me, we've worked on this in the past and although he finds the procedure to be a bit unpleasant, he doesn't find it horrible. (If your dog needs to be pilled this way and finds the procedure to be scary or awful, please contact a good, positive trainer.  They can help make this chore much easier, more pleasant for your pup, and safer for you.)

I always make sure to give him something he does like and want right after I pill him - I scratch his head, neck and back for a few minutes.  He has learned to anticipate the scratches, and over time, this could even make him enjoy being pilled.  If he were hungry, I would give him food afterwards, since food is almost always better than patting from a dog's perspective.  But then again if he were hungry, I would not have to pill him in this way in the first place.

When it is time to give him his pills, and before I start to head towards him, I always say "Sorry, pill time."  Why would I do this?  It feels counter-intuitive.  Wouldn't it be best to wait until the last possible moment, keeping the pills hidden in my hand... and then when he is not expecting it, get the job done?  Isn't the warning just prolonging his discomfort?

But here is where our intuition may be failing us.  I say "sorry" so that he does know what to expect.  I am telling him that this time,  but only this time, I'm coming over for doctoring.  My hope is that every other time I approach him, he will be able to say "ah, mom is coming but I know it's OK, no pills, because I didn't hear that phrase."  

I love it that when I approach my dogs, it sets their tails a-thumping.  I'll do whatever I can to protect the thump-thump-thump.  I want to make sure that if there is anything that simply can't be avoided and is a bit unpleasant for my dog, I tell them the truth.