Hello Dog Trainer? My Dog Bites Me When I Pat Him. Help!

As a dog pro, I worry that a lot of information out there about dog bites is pretty… fuzzy. Like, how many are there? How bad are they? What breeds tend to bite more? It’s fuzzy or simply unknowable, and one reason for that is that so many—the vast majority, likely—are simply not worthy of report. They fly under the radar. I don’t go to the hospital every time I stub my toe, nor do I make a report to the Department of Health detailing the minor discomfort that might result. Would a researcher or journalist be able to easily find good, solid, accurate toe-stubbing information in any database? Where and how could anyone learn more about the scourge of toe-stubbing?!

Most dogs bite with inhibited force, and do not inflict the damage that they could, given their powerful jaws and impressive enamel hardware. So like stubbed toes, most dog bites go, quite reasonably, unreported. A dog’s ability to bite with inhibited force is both typical of social carnivores and one of the ways in which dogs are safe to welcome into our homes.

Dog bites are remarkably uncommon and generally minor, considering the number of dogs kept as pets, and especially considering the opportunities we regularly give them: we touch their food and their stuff, we push them around physically like they’re our inanimate playthings, we allow children to innocently but unpleasantly prod and poke them, we misinterpret their fear as misbehaviour, and some people even scare and harm dogs on purpose in the name of training, with punitive and painful collars. But even though most dog bites are the equivalent of toe-stubs, dog bites are indeed important. Dog bites are important because they’re scary, especially to kids, because they can mean a dog will be relinquished or euthanised, and because some dog bites do cause injury. In addition, a biting dog is almost certainly unhappy, which we don’t want. We want fearless and happy dogs. For all these reasons, we should do what we reasonably can to reduce dog bites.

 My own dog Mischa, who would take all the pats you could possibly give him, and more.

My own dog Mischa, who would take all the pats you could possibly give him, and more.

We are all familiar with dogs who bite strangers (fearful types or “guard” dogs, who are aggressively scared of people they don’t know), and of dogs who bite when they are guarding their stuff, like food, bones, or their bed. But here is a surprising bit of news: a recent survey of dog bites suggested that a surprising number happen in contexts where a dog is uncomfortable being touched. “The most common context of a dog bite is related to interacting or attempting to interact with the dog (e.g., stroking, playing, handling, and restraining)”¹. Although many of these bites may be misinterpreted and the dog was actually guarding or fearful, it still comes as a surprise that patting can be… well, bite-worthy! It’s particularly surprising if you’ve only known cuddlebugs. Maybe you’re snuggled up right now to a dog who demonstrates very clearly that they love patting, hugging, and snuggling, through both body language (wagging, body relaxed, with an open-mouth smile and soft eyes) and behaviour (dog approaches, leans, sits in lap, puts head directly under hand, and so on and so on and so on and so forth.). But it’s true. Many dogs simply tolerate patting but don’t enjoy it, and many dogs find human touch to be scary or awful. And when something is scary or awful, the polite canine way for a dog to make this clear to the world is by a growl, a snarl, a snap, or an inhibited bite.

Yes, you read that right. In the dog world, the polite way to express discomfort includes a wary exit, a growl, a snap, or an inhibited bite. These dogs aren’t being bad, or dominant, or grouchy. They’re asking nicely (in dog language, that is) for us to stop handling them in a way that they find uncomfortable, unpleasant, or downright scary.

 My dog Timber. You may pet his head and neck. This is all.

My dog Timber. You may pet his head and neck. This is all.

Help to be had?

Just like a dog who bites out of fear of strangers, and just like a dog who bites to protect their food or bones, a dog who dislikes being handled can be trained so they no longer bite. And just like how we train a stranger-fearful dog to enjoy strangers (which makes the biting stop) and we train a food-bowl-guarding dog to enjoy having people approach their food (which makes the biting stop), we can train dogs to enjoy being handled. Which...guess what? Makes the biting stop.

Usually, a dog trainer will start out by asking you to refrain from touching the dog at all. This prevents the dog from feeling, and acting, threatened. Then we’ll recommend a training protocol that will change your dog’s underlying emotional state, from a feeling of this is wrong and awful to this is pleasant and predicts treats. Often, to start, a dog will be taught to pat themselves on a steady, out-held hand. This takes many many repetitions and a good plan, but in the end, the dog happily and readily pats themselves to get the treat, all the while learning that hey, this patting thing is actually pretty awesome.

Dog trainers also set our clients up for success using Pavlovian conditioning. Just as Pavlov’s dog learned to happily anticipate food upon hearing a bell, we can teach our dogs to happily anticipate treats when we give them a stroke down their backs, or give them a belly rub.

Over time, our goal is that you’ll reach a pleasant middle ground with your dog. Your dog will have learned that being touched by humans is pleasant—he’ll have changed his mind! You’ll be able to handle your dog for important veterinary procedures, toothbrushing, and grooming. But you’ll also have changed. You’ll have learned that even though your dog uses dog language to say “I’m uncomfortable”, it doesn’t mean that he loves you any less. And you’ll come to appreciate the special new relationship you have with your dog, where you are as circumspect as he needs you to be about his comfort and autonomy.

 

This post is a part of the "Train For Rewards Blog Party 2018", with Companion Animal Psychology.

 

1. Oxley, James Andrew et al. Contexts and consequences of dog bite incidents. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 23 , 33 – 39.

Having a Tough Dog Makes You a Better Trainer

When I was in dog trainer school, I worked diligently on my own dogs and foster dogs. My dogs are racing sled dogs, and come in a broad variety of shapes and sizes: some are short-haired, some have thicker coats, some are lanky and lean, others stocky and squat. I trained them to do basic obedience behaviours, then more complex stays, and some loose-leash walking (yes, a couple of my sled dogs, born and bred to pull, made it through that plan). I trained a retrieve with a clicker, and worked through stranger fearfulness, scrapping, and pestering (you know, the usual stuff when you live with ten or more high-energy dogs). I went on to do some fun tricks and some behaviours useful for sled dogs, like “line out” where the dog runs forward until the line is taut, and waits. It was fun and although I certainly had all the same groaning/growing pains of any new trainer, I didn’t think much of it. It was only when I had graduated and started taking paying clients that I realized that my sled dogs are, well...on the scale of how easy dogs are to train…I mean, I love them all to pieces, OK? But they are on the tougher-to-train end of the scale. They’re physical powerhouses. They’re personality powerhouses. They're charm powerhouses. They’re not...mental powerhouses.

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Each of my first ten clients were, without a doubt, the smartest ten dogs I had ever trained. I remember telling an early client that their dog should absolutely go in for some competitive obedience titles, he was just that quick. "Quick like a bunny", I marvelled, much to their delight. “Can we get that in writing?” my client asked, as she’d been struggling mightily with her young Golden retriever. Unlike my sled dogs, this dog would work for tiny tidbits of food and never seemed to get full. And the standard training plans I had in my hand? He worked through them easily, unlike my own dogs who needed things broken down into smaller and smaller steps. And this dog worked for any kind of food. I thought back to the tinned cat food I needed to use to train one of my dogs. Cat food from a tin is not the nicest substance in the world, is it? I got a glob of it stuck in my hair. The things we do for dogs.

After a while it occurred to me that, statistically speaking, it was unlikely that I had actually scored such a string of smartie-pants clients all in a row. So what was going on? Were all these dogs really super-uber-bright? Or…could the answer lay in my early experiences instead? I recalled some polite but now suspect praise from my training mentors. This behaviour is very tough for your dog, Kristi! But you stuck it out. You really stuck it out. Great work.

Hm.

Hundreds of dogs in, I now know it to be the bald truth: my dogs are a bit slow. I mean, no! They’re zippy as heck when they’re in front of a sled. They zoom when they’re pulling a bike or a skier. But in the domain of “learning basic obedience behaviours”, they’re not the gold medallists, shall we say. They move fast. But they don’t learn fast.

And I’m the luckiest trainer in the world to have had them as my tutors.

Tough dogs require a trainer to hone their skills in ways that easily motivated/smart dogs simply don’t demand. Tough dogs require all the standard training skills including good timing, good “mechanics” (how the trainer moves her hands with a lure and so on), and adherence to training protocols. But there’s more. Tough dogs often require three other skills: the trainer must understand and plan ahead for motivation; the trainer must train fast; and finally the trainer must be proficient at training in tiny increments. If you have a tough or elderly dog and you’re struggling, you may need to spend more time brushing up these skills than your neighbour across the way, who owns some variation of a herding dog. Your Herder Dog Owning Neighbour can (forgive me, but I’m just going to say it) get away with a bit more flexibility in their technique.

The Whys and Wherefores

Tough dogs often need careful attention paid to motivation. Unlike the dog in the care of your Herder Dog Owning Neighbour, tough dogs often need the human in the equation to pay attention to the dog’s state of hunger and the deliciousness of the treat. I train right before breakfast or right before supper, when my dogs are at their most eager. It matters. It really, really matters. And I can’t get away with training with cheerios, training with peas, training with kibble; none of that. My dogs are mostly in the “won’t get out of bed for less than 10,000 dollars a day” type. It’s my job as the adult biped in the situation to figure out what they will work for, and reserve it for training.

My dogs also won't work for praise or ear scratches (I laugh as I even wrote that), nor will they work for tug games or a ball toss. They look at the ball and amble away. Try harder, human they are likely thinking.

Train Fast Or Not At All

Training tough dogs means the trainer needs to pay attention to speed. I train fast, fast, fast. I zoom. I don’t stop to ponder the state of the economy. I don’t file my nails. I crank out repetition after repetition. After repetition. Then another one and another one andanotheroneandanotherone.

If I train slowly with down time between repetitions, my dogs say “you’re boring, human.” And they leave. And since it’s my job as the adult biped in the room to get the training job done, I do what I have to do: I train fast.

Breaking It Down

Finally, I’ve gotten very good at breaking things down. Another dog might jump from step one to step two in a training plan without hiccups. But sometimes with my dogs I need to be able to think of step 1.5 on the fly. And occasionally, step 1.75. Sometimes even step 1.8, 1.82, and 1.83… Working with tough dogs keeps you fluid and creative. It’s a skill just like driving a manual transmission vehicle. In the beginning, there were a lot of stalls and some red-faced embarrassment. Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s smooth sailing. And at certain intersections, it’s quite zippy.

The End of the Rainbow

Having a tough dog doesn’t mean that you can’t train them to do all the standard dog stuff. And it doesn’t mean they’re stubborn, or you’re clumsy. It means only that you’ll have to buckle down a bit more than your Herder Dog Owning Neighbour, and up your training game a bit. Head to a positive-reinforcement dog training class taught by a credentialled trainer, or get some great dog-training resources like this fantastic do-it-yourself course. Now, you don’t need to tell your neighbour they have it easy, of course. Keep the neighbourly peace and all that. But if you have a tough dog and you get things done, it’s perfectly fine to feel pretty darn good about yourself. A bit chuffed up. I know I do.

 Sled dogs in their glory.

Sled dogs in their glory.

Train Your Dog to Resist Temptation in Four Easy Steps

Dogs are like turkeys in one important way: they love to gobble.

They gobble up stuff that they find on walks. They gobble up stuff that they thieve from the cupboard. And we all end up dropping stuff that our dogs consider imprudently gobble-worthy, too. Sometimes the things we drop are dangerous, like medication. Sometimes, we drop (and they gobble) something they have a criminal history with, like sunglasses, a remote control, dirty laundry... You know what I'm talking about. In the face of dogs' superior speed and imperviousness to unpalatability, it makes sense to train a dog to "leave it."

Imagine this: you'll simply say "leave it!" when you accidentally drop something forbidden. Your dog, to the surprised oohs and aahs of your family and friends, will pause and look at you (often adoringly) instead of charging over to eat, steal, shake, bury, play keep-away, or otherwise act, well, like a dog. What a useful trick, and so deliciously easy to train over just a few days.

Here's how...

Step One: Put a really good treat in a tightly closed fist and hold it out to your dog. He will likely chew, paw, and lick your hand—just ignore him. Stay as still as a statue until your dog backs off or looks away for just a single tiny split second. As soon as that happens, say "take it" and open your hand, allowing him to eat the food. Do this ten or twenty times, then move on.

Step Two: It's time to up the ante. Get ready to move fast—your dog will, and you can't let him win. Ask your dog to "Leave it!", and offer your dog a treat on an open, flat palm, about a foot from his nose. The instant he starts to move towards your hand, smoothly and quickly close your hand and lift it up and away. Your dog will see that heading towards the treat causes it to run away. Try again, and be ready to snatch it away again. After five or ten times, your dog will likely give you something new: a brief pause. (It's as though they are saying: "this isn't working. What else can I try?") As soon as you see that pause, say "take it!", and give him the treat. Repeat until your dog won't go for the treat at all. Then, hold the treat out for three seconds before he is allowed to "take it."

 

Step Three: We're starting to get closer to real life scenarios now. Cue "Leave It," and then place the treat on the floor about a foot from the dog. Cover it briskly as soon as he starts to come towards it, and then try again. After a few attempts, he'll likely go back to pausing. Reward this with a treat, now from your pocket rather than the goodie on the floor. When he's done five in a row without going for the treat, leave it down for three seconds, and then five seconds.

Step Four: Stand near your dog, and gently drop a treat. The same rules apply: be ready to cover the treat if your dog makes a break for it! Your dog is likely wise to the game now, though, and after a few thwarted attempts to zoom in he should be back to pausing politely. Reward the pause from your pocket (in fact, you'll need to continue to reward this behavior frequently. This is work, and work earns a paycheque. If you stop paying, your dog will—quite reasonably—stop working.) Once your dog has paused politely five times in a row, try dropping a couple of treats. Then more interesting forbidden stuff, like leftovers (but note that every time you up the ante, you'll need to be ready to both cover the forbidden goods and reinforce the desired behaviour. At this point, most dogs don't need more set-ups. They are ready for the real world. Have some treats with you as you head out on walks, so when you ask your dog to "leave it!" and they do, you can reinforce their politeness and keep this behaviour strong.

Final note: If you get bogged down, take a positive dog class that includes Leave It on the curriculum. Practicing all alone is no one's strong suit and the repetition and coaching in class will be a godsend. Best of luck taming your grabby gobbler!

This blog was originally published on http://4knines.com.

Kristi BensonComment
Maybe It’s Time to Take Off Those Rose-Coloured Spectacles: Loving Your Here and Now Dog

My first dog was perfect. She was sleek and black and poised and majestic. She had a big black head and tiny black ballerina twinkle toes. And she was well-trained, with no real work. She was everything. We were two hearts beating as one. She died two days before Christmas in 2009 and I have never been the same; something changed in my DNA that day.

Many many dogs have come through my home and heart since my first dog, and I have loved them all. I’m afraid, though, that on some days, and for some of their...let’s call them quirks? There was a distinct lack of perfection in what I saw. A lack of twinkle-toes, a lack of ballerina blocky-headedness.

I’ll admit it in retrospect: I was peering through rose-coloured spectacles.

Dog trainers are very familiar with rose-coloured specs, I’ll have you know. And that's because we don't typically meet all the good dogs out there. Most dogs really are just good dogs. Most dogs are sociable, most learn basic commands even with the rather lackadaisical training we toss in their directions, and most slot in just fine with their human family. So when a dog isn’t these things? When a dog guards bones, or bites strangers, or humps the kids or jumps on guests or dumps the garbage? Those are the times a dog trainer is called in. And those are the dogs who tend to get compared with the magic last dog. In fact, a dog trainer’s heart does a tiny heave-ho when a client bemoans “my last dog…”.

 My first dog adapted to the western subarctic like a champ, after spending her first few years in the Mediterranean climate of Victoria.

My first dog adapted to the western subarctic like a champ, after spending her first few years in the Mediterranean climate of Victoria.

Because here's the thing.

My first dog was not perfect. She had occasion to pick fights with other dogs, in particular very nice dogs, for reasons which have never been that clear to me. She charged up barking and scared guests. She didn’t share, even with her dear sister Wilma, who is fluffy and really deserves to be shared with. Rose-coloured spectacles have this tendency to warp things, you see. Maybe because when we remember our old dogs, the memory has to pass through our hearts first and it gets just a tiny bit distorted along the way.

And further, my later dogs were (to a one) just as deserving of all the love and all the exploding hearts that my first dog was. Dogs aren’t moral; dogs aren’t mean. Dogs are the exact thing they are meant to be, as once-wild wolves subjected to thousands of years of selective breeding by us, by humans. They aren’t jealous or greedy or manipulative: they’re mammals. They’re social carnivores. Their behaviour is lawful and predictable and we can change it, usually, with training and knowledge. The fact that one dog happens to be guardy and another has no problem when you take away their bone in no way confers any kind of betterness prize to the latter. It just means that in the genetic and socialization lottery that produces our dogs, one has “guarding” turned on, and the other has it turned off.

 My first dog (front) after she had chased away a bear while we were camping in the Arctic. Those rose-coloured spectacles are feeling pretty rosy right now.

My first dog (front) after she had chased away a bear while we were camping in the Arctic. Those rose-coloured spectacles are feeling pretty rosy right now.

So if you’re casting your eye at your newest dog and your heart breaks even a little for your last dog, I’m going to ask you for a favour. Reach up and take off those spectacles. You can honour your last dog by remembering them as they were, with all their real quirks. And you can honour your new dog by seeing them as they are: they’re a dog, not a problem. And they probably love you, a whole big bunch. And they probably need some training, to get past whatever it is that sent you looking for dog training articles in the first place. You can train your guarding dog, your humpy dog, your jumpy dog, your dumpy dog; you can train most anything, I promise. And training, with its repetitions and cookies and regular time commitments and slow, steady progression towards a goal...training usually sets up a cascade of enjoyment, affiliation, and love on the part of us humans. Progress is intoxicating, and training is the ultimate shared journey. Soon, you’ll have a new-found and wide-eyed appreciation of your new dog. You’ll see the rock-solid sit-stay when guests arrive or the happy anticipation of treats when you pick up a previously-guarded bone. You won’t see the also-ran, and you won't feel the need to compare to your old dog.

But don’t worry: there is no economy of the heart. There's no replacement happening. There is plenty of room for both.

Kristi Benson Comment
The Santa Clause: wherein generosity is the key to a great recall

The details of the case are clear for the judge and jury. “COME!” you had bellowed, sweating and awkward, knowing that everyone else at the dog park was almost certainly watching. And what did your wee dog park delinquent do? Why, flaunted his freedom. Flouted the rules. Dare I say it?

Flounced away.

And this isn’t the first offence, if you catch my meaning. Your dog has far, far surpassed the three strikes rule.

What can we do with this cheerful criminal? Is it time to throw the book at him? Or even throw in the towel? Can a dog who seems to actually enjoy dancing away from mom at the park ever be reformed?

No need for the handcuffs, luckily. It’s simply time for the Santa Clause. Training your dog to come to you (even when freedom beckons) does require a plan, some effort, and a bit of time. But mostly? It requires generosity. You must think like Santa...with an extra heavy helping from the elves. Figure out what your dog loves best (cheese? steak? dried fish skins? cooked peas?) and use that—and a lot of it—to reinforce your dog for coming to you. Being Santa will work, over time, to teach your dog to turn on a dime and come running when they hear you calling, no matter what else is on offer.

Start easy: call your dog from across the room. Do this a few times a day, for a week. Then practice in the backyard, but only after your dog has finished sniffing around. Again, do this a few times a day for a week. For the next week's practice, stay in the backyard, but call your dog to you mid-sniff (soon after the door closes). Then practice close to the end of your walk, then at the start of the walk, then at the park but with no other dogs, and so on, and so forth.

  1. Addendum 1 of the Santa Clause: always be generous, every single time you call. Organize yourself so you have a baggie of steak in the fridge, ready to grab for walk time.
  2. Addendum 2 of the Santa Clause: every time you call your dog to you, make sure he comes over. You can happy talk, crouch, clap, make funny sounds, dance, whatever it takes, but get your dog to you!

You may also want to pick a whole new cue. Your dog has likely heard “come” as often as a Christmas shopper has heard a panflute rendition of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker: too many.¹ “Come” has lost its meaning. 

Interestingly, you’re not technically being generous by reinforcing recalls. You’re simply paying for services rendered. Recalls away from fun and exciting stuff are work to a dog. You’ll get what you pay for, and trust me, when you’re at the park you want a three-piece-of-steak recall, not a single-kibble recall. And further, consider this: if you snap on the leash after calling your dog to you, with no food treat at all? Well, that would be like you heading to the office just to see your boss rip up your paycheque. Over and over.

If you stick with a plan and be as generous as Santa, you will likely find your dog hopping, skipping, and jumping back to you when they hear you call. And no-one will have to know they’re a reform school graduate, I promise.

1. Note: according to addendum 14 of the Santa Clause, there is no such thing as too much Nutcracker.

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

Kristi BensonComment
Dogs Aren't Mean

My dad was visiting a few weeks ago to help with some electrical and plumbing work on the farm (we call this Bensonning). Unsurprisingly, we talked about dogs quite a bit...mine is a dog-laden existence, after all. But something really caught my attention this time around: I heard him say the word mean over and over. He used it to describe doggy communication ("that dog sounds mean"), doggy personalities ("it was a mean dog"), and doggy behaviour ("he was being mean").

This interested me greatly, because dogs aren't mean. Ever.

The word mean, according to Random House Unabridged (the dictionary behind www.dictionary.com), conjures up some remarkable negativity: offensive, selfish, or unaccommodating; nasty; malicious; small-minded or ignoble; penurious, stingy, or miserly. Or how about inferior in grade, quality, or character.

Well. Ouch.

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Dog cognition research has rightfully exploded in recent years, and is showing that dogs have complex cognitive abilities and interesting, alright frankly fascinating, brains. They're not "dumber wolves", as we used to think. But here's the important bit: they're not people, either. And if you look at all those words in that definition? Those are words that describe people, not pets.

A mean-sounding growl?

One of my dogs guards his bed from other dogs. When he's snuggled in, if another dog comes too close, he growls. "That's a mean growl" my dad said, moving away uncomfortably. But the growl is just a bit of doggy communication, saying "please, old chap, could you promenade a bit further to the left? Ta." There is certainly a time and place to ensure dogs feel comfortable when being approached. But this isn't, in my opinion, one of those times. My dogs have the glorious freedom to express minor grievances with each other in a species-typical way, as long as no one is getting hurt or scared. Is a dog who is using standard communication techniques and asking other dogs to give him room being ignoble? Or malicious?

My dad also said the M word when my dogs were playing. They play vociferously, and their play includes loud and proud play growling. Now, my regular readers will know that play is something I love to drone on about, so won't be surprised that my dogs play to their heart's content, in the style and manner they please, as long as there is consent. So if play growling, just like play fighting, is a normal part of healthy play, is it ...penurious? Or nasty?

A mean dog?

My dad also talked about another dog he'd met. A mean dog. I asked for details, and found that this dog was nice to the owner, but growled, snarled, and ran and hid if anyone new came around. My dad's description was pretty much "meaner than a junk-yard dog". My dad leaves this dog alone, which is smart, as aggression is a dog's way of asking for space. But is the motivation of this dog something selfish? How about small-minded? No, this dog is, through some sad recipe of nature and nurture, terrified of people he doesn't know. I repeat: dogs who are aggressive towards strangers are scared. Panicked. Terrified. They need help and they need care.

A whole new meaning

So I asked my dad to chop his "mean" category into two really different halves. On the one side goes dog play and normal, run-of-the-mill dog communication with other dogs. If no dogs are getting hurt, and no dogs are getting scared? (And no oldies are getting pestered by youthful exuberance, I'll add). Well then: we brought domesticated social predators into our homes. Let's pull out the popcorn and watch them act like domesticated social predators!

On the other side there are dogs who are aggressive and fearful. Here, we have dogs who bite when they're being patted, dogs who growl when kids hug them, and dogs who bark or bite, or maybe run away, from new people. While they're being no more mean than dogs who are play-growling, we really shouldn't let these dogs continue to experience this fear. Scared dogs need help, for their own welfare and ours.

No popcorn time for those dogs, I counselled my father sagely. For those dogs, it's time to act. And maybe one day, one day, when plutonium unicorns fly through the sky on rainbows made of cotton candy, my dad may actually listen to what I—a professional dog trainer—have to say about dogs.

Plumbing and electrical fix-its are neverending on a farm though, you know. And while we're Bensonning, my dad's a captive audience. I'll wear him down.

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Photos: Schnauzer photo: Zhouzheng | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images; Chow-chow photo: Yurriy | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

 

Kristi Benson Comment
Self-Help for Humans is Good For Dogs

Have you ever heard of the phrase cognitive dissonance? It’s a bit of a tricky concept, but worthwhile to dive into, because it has important ramifications for our dogs’ welfare. Cognitive dissonance is part of what is happening when someone goes out of their way to convince themselves that they are right, even when it is remarkably clear to most everyone else that they are absolutely wrong.

Ever hear phrases like “smoking is actually good for me!”? Yeah. That.

Here’s the thing though: it is something that we all do. All of us, including me and you. In fact, it's just part of being a normal human. I think an example is the best way to to explain.

Say you and I both live in houses made of banana peels. My parents and grandparents all lived in banana peel houses, as did yours. It's just what people do. But one day you show me an article from the House Building Safety Department saying that banana peel houses are actually bad. They rot and become toxic, kids and adults alike can slip on them and fall, they smell bad, and they look terrible.  They are a huge waste of any family’s money. The article is well-researched and has tables and charts, financial projections, injury statistics, you name it. Banana peel houses are bad news. We both look at the references to the article and spend time at the library, alarmed. Over and over and over we read the same bland messaging. Banana peel houses are not good.

So. We are both typical humans. What do we do? Do we pick up the phone to call in a bulldozer to raze our current homes, and line up a construction crew to build something safer? I mean, that would be the most rational move. Like anyone else, we want to protect our families and ourselves.

But alas. Alack. Do we pick the rational course, here? Nope.

Instead (and this is very predictable, I’m afraid) we head over to our social media accounts. “HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT THIS TERRIBLE AND WRONG ARTICLE?” we scream in all-caps. Our friends and family members all join in from their own banana peel houses. “Conspiracy! Big Timber is trying to slay the banana peel house building industry! It’s our tradition! How dare they!” We search for, and find, a lot of websites supporting the value of banana peel houses. Sure, these websites might look a bit funky and be pretty light on actual references or facts, but who cares? As soon as we get a few people on board with our tirade, we immediately feel better. We feel so much better, in fact, that both of us head to the banana plantation. We get a new truckload of banana peels and plan to build new additions on our houses. And we pay for five-year memberships in the Banana Peel House 4-Evah Association.

This “rallying the troops” behaviour is remarkably predictable. And I hope you’ll agree: predictably silly.  

So, if this doesn’t make any sense at all, why do we do it? Aren’t we supposed to be rational? The answer lays in a funny quirk of our human brains, and here’s where the cognitive dissonance thing comes in.

Our brains really dislike having conflicting bits of information: this is what “dissonance” means. When we take in new information that conflicts with previously-known stuff, our brains have a choice. Go with the new info? Or stick with the old? Usually, our brains stick with old, and the reason is mental and physical self-preservation. And generally, this process works just fine! It keeps us healthy and sane. But it doesn’t always work, and it can make us make some real doozy mistakes. In the case of the banana peel house situation, our brains sort of run a computer program, that looks like this:

Good people protect their families by building good houses.
Banana Peel houses are good houses.
I am a good person.
THEREFORE I build banana peel houses.

So a new bit of information comes up: hey, brain! This article says banana peel houses are unsafe and unsanitary. What’s a brain to do? It will run this program to test it out:

Good people protect their families by building good houses.
Banana peel houses are bad houses.
I build banana peel houses.
THEREFORE I am a bad person.

And you can guess what happens next. The brain says well either the statement banana peel houses are bad is wrong, or the statement I am a good person is wrong. They can’t both be right. So...out the window goes the new information. We are not bad people. We want to protect ourselves and our families, and our investment in our houses, and our friends and neighbours who come to visit, and heck even the kid down the street who bikes to school and might slip on a banana peel. It’s clear that we are not bad people. So in order to maintain a cognitive peace, our brains filter out information that doesn’t fit—and this happens without conscious input, so we can’t simply resolve to stop thinking this way.

Back to dogs and their welfare. This process happens all the time with new information about dogs. Here are a few examples from my own learning curve about dog behaviour:

Good people treat their dogs well.
Separating dog fights by yelling, manhandling, and grabbing collars is the safest, fastest, and most humane way to do it.
I am a good person.
Good people treat their dogs well.
Choke chains are safe and effective, and the only way to prevent a dog from pulling.
I am a good person.

But guess what? That’s not the best way to separate a fight. And choke chains are simply not the best way to prevent pulling. In actuality, manhandling and choke chains both harm dogs. So my brain, when I originally heard contrary information, said “well Kristi is a good person who doesn’t harm dogs. So that new information must be wrong. The only other option is that Kristi has harmed the dogs in her life, and good heavens, well, that’s just too much to bear. Lock that thought away forever.”

So my brain protected my self-regard and my memory of how I treated my dogs. But in doing so, it wasn’t really all that helpful for the welfare of the dogs currently in my life, even though it felt like it was. Now don’t get me wrong, this process is always running in the background making good decisions, too. A lot of the information I read about dogs is truly and worrisomely wrong, and harmful. So a quick comparison against my existing knowledge base allows me to filter out a lot of junk, too. But when the information came from a good, trusted, welfare-oriented and science-based source, and just happened to conflict with my old ideas? That’s the problem.

So here is my request. Let’s all take a page from the self-help movement, and practise forgiveness: forgiveness of our past selves. The next time you feel your back coming up and hear yourself saying “but, but, but”, take a step back. Or the next time you hear that something you are doing with your dogs might be harmful, take a step back. Or the next time you hear that there is simply just a better way, take a step back. Absorb the information, and question it, and if it conflicts with what you’ve been doing in the past but otherwise is legitimate and sound, try forgiving yourself as the way forward. That’s right: forgive yesterday’s you. You are a good person, you were a good person; you are, and were, operating with the best information at your fingertips. You loved your dog and your dog loved you. Doing things better now doesn’t make the you from yesterday a bad person: it just makes current you a better person. Say a heartfelt apology to both your dog and yourself and move on. Get that new and gentle no-pull harness, head to an all-positive dog class, and heck, snuggle with your dog on the couch if you want to. Put those banana peels into the idea compost where they belong.

Kristi Benson Comments
The Case of the Disappearing Doughnut: What to do with a counter-surfing dog

Do you have a dog who waits until you’re gone and then raids your kitchen, immediately and systematically, in a series of counter-top skirmishes? Nothing on the counter is safe: utensils, dirty dishes, whole loaves of bread, that cheese platter Aunt Tara brought to your birthday, a dish of gummy bears, the chips...and, for the love of Mike the dip, too. When you get home from work, your counter is clean and the dog bed littered with detritus. Fido is snoozing, delighted with his efforts, powdered sugar on his snout.

If this sounds familiar...there is good news, and there is bad news.

The good news first. If your dog is a counter-surfer, it really, really doesn’t mean he’s anxious, dominant, or angry at you for leaving; it doesn’t mean that he’s under-exercised, or over-exercised, or has thyroid issues, or has some deep-seated behavioural problem. It means he’s a dog, and has learned a behaviour by being rewarded for it.

Which is the bad news.

OK, OK, hold on. Let me back up a bit. To understand counter-surfing, we have to understand how dogs learn basic behaviours, including obedience behaviours like sit and come. When we train a dog to sit, for example, we get the dog into a sitting position and then give him a treat. Then, every time he sits, we give him a treat. After a while, our dog is very eager to sit. We keep him at the ready to sit whenever we want by giving him reinforcement (like delicious treats), which works in the same way that a paycheque does: it pays the dog for doing the work of sitting.

So just like how dogs will learn that they get a treat for sitting, a dog who counter-surfs has gotten a treat—all that delicious and fun stuff on the counter—for hopping up on the counter. The behaviour “getting up on the counter” goes up in frequency, as do all reinforced behaviours.

So dogs who hop up on the counter are not being bad any more than a dog who sits to get a cookie is being bad. They have just learned to do a behaviour in order to get a reward. And that’s a bit sad, I guess, because reinforced behaviours are like strong habits: tough to break. But grasp firmly to your britches. That’s not even the really sad part. The really sad part, my chips-and-dipless friends, is the cue. Just as the cue for “sit now to get a treat” is the word sit, the cue for “surf the counter now to get a smorgasbord of goodness” is my owner is gone. Let me explain.

The cue is you leaving the room

Although your dog will sit all the time when you have just trained him to sit, in that ever-eager-and-hopeful way that dogs have, in time she’ll figure out when she seems to get a treat for sitting—usually this is when you say the word “sit”, as a cue. And she’ll figure out when she won’t get a treat for sitting, too, and she’ll gradually stop sitting in those contexts.

So although it feels like a dog is being a titch Machiavellian when he waits for you to leave before starting the counter-party, he’s just learned that there is a cue for Counter Party. And that cue is Owner Gone. This feels calculating, but it's not. No-one suggests that I am a bad person or an angry person when I walk to the fridge and open it and take out some food and eat it. My “walking to fridge” behaviour has been rewarded with food over and over and over. Dogs approaching, acquiring, and eating a food item isn’t anything different.

What can I do about my counter-surfing dog?

That’s all good and fine, you may say. Thanks for the lesson on learning theory. Now what can I do about it? The answer is both simple, and painfully annoying, I’m afraid. You’ll have to keep your counters clean. Forevermore. Now sure, it will help if you make sure your dog has enough cardio-type exercise, and if she has a lot of fun food toys to drain some of her pent-up desire to scavenge. But that probably won’t be the whole answer. I’m afraid you’ll just have to get into the habit of keeping your counters perfectly tidy of stuff that a dog might take to eat or chew.

Does this seem too taxing or downright silly? An analogy may help here. Imagine a friend who tells you “my dog sits whenever I say sit. I want him to stop sitting when I say sit, so I’m giving him a treat each time he sits when I say sit.” There is a logical flaw in this protocol, you say gently. Urgently.

But leaving food out on your counter and expecting your dog to stop counter-surfing is the exact same thing.

Here is what has worked for me (I have a professional counter surfer. Or two. Or ten.):

  1. I place any food up onto a shelf which has been designated for that purpose, and which isn’t reachable by dogs. We are in the habit of putting food on that shelf: hot food from the oven that needs to cool, a plate of cookies, you name it.
  2. We think ahead and thaw food in the fridge, not on the counter. Or if we don’t think ahead, thawing food goes on that special shelf.
  3. I buy about twenty wooden spoons and silicone stirrers/flippers at a time. These are expendable. That way when one gets chewed up (and we live in a ridiculously tiny farmhouse with ten large dogs, so I’ll be frank: this happens with some frequency) I don’t feel angry or upset, I just laugh a bit, toss it, and pull out a new one. It’s more fun when they’re different colours and shapes. “Something new and shiny for my kitchen!”
  4. I close off the kitchen when none of those options will work. We have a giant expandable baby gate thing and just shut the dogs out when we’re in the “just ate thanksgiving dinner and can’t move to clean up all the fooooooood” zone.

Counter-surfing is annoying and frustrating, but it’s not diabolical or indicative of stress. It’s just a behaviour that dogs do; a behaviour that they’ve learned to do. So don’t fret, just make a plan. And there is a tiny silver lining here, my counter-surfed comrades: it’s actually kind of nice having tidy counters! Just don't forget to wipe up those little footprints. You missed one, there, out of hot sauce. Or is that jam. Cranberry sauce? Beet pickle juice. 

  Photo: Chalabala | ©     Dreamstime Stock Photos     &     Stock Free Images
Kristi BensonComment
Bonding with a Problem Dog

Of course I love my easy dogs. They are bright, fun to train, and sociable. They don’t make me sad, they don’t make me mad, they snuggle in when I’m watching a movie and they seem to have an inborn understanding of how to look cute for the camera. They’re just plum dreamy.

But I love my problem dogs, too. It’s not quite the same as with my easy dogs...it’s certainly not better or stronger, but it is not worse or lesser, either. After working with a number of problem dogs on my own and with my dog training clients, I’ve come to understand that working through some problems with a problem dog can cement a wonderful, unique relationship that is every bit as worthwhile.

Over the years, my own problem dogs have been fearful of strangers, tricky to housetrain (a falsely tidy statement if there ever was one), and scrappy as heck. And my clients' dogs have been every imaginable combination of fighty, bitey, scared, or out of control. In almost every case, though, we’ve worked through a plan, moderated our expectations, trained like crazy, and come out on the other side. My own Timber can now pass Datson in the doorway without immediately brawling. Sitka regularly uses the great big toilet outdoors. Datson doesn’t jump up and bite our friends’ backs; Mischa doesn’t chase the cat; Sugar…ok, Sugar still buries mittens under my pillow but come on that’s just plain cute. My clients’ dogs can sit on the couch and enjoy being patted, they can meet strangers without cowering or snarling, they can be approached when they have a bone, and, well, I don’t want to brag but there are fewer Grandmas being jumped on in a one hundred mile radius than there was five years ago.

For some of my clients with problem dogs, it was not immediately clear that a bond would, or even could, form. In some cases the problem dog arrived as a beautiful bouncy puppy, and it is almost impossible not to love a puppy. But when adult behaviour pops up, and adult behaviour sometimes includes aggression or fearfulness, there can be a sense of loss (where did my beautiful puppy go?) on top everything else (I'm not sure I like this dog. I might even be a bit scared of him).

But despite all this—despite the snarling, the messes, the apologies to friends and Grandmas alike—after the training starts, a bond usually forms. It’s not immediate. It is forged, bit by bit, by stuffing Kongs and training “sit” even in really hard places and tracking successes on a scrap piece of paper and watching carefully for a thump-thump-thumping tail and putting up baby gates and setting up careful introductions and all this stuff we do to train problem dogs. The bond grows slowly like a stalagmite but in the end, when you look at your dog happily approaching previously-feared guests or showing off a trick for a previously-feared youngster or bounding towards you instead of scrapping at the dog park, you realize, much to your surprise, that it’s stalagmite strong.

It’s not always true that you “get the dog you need”. I didn’t need a scrapper, and my clients certainly don’t need or deserve dogs who are aggressive or fearful. But we do have the dog in front of us. And most of the time, with some elbow grease and time, a special bond can grow. It’s not better that the bond you’ll have with your easy dogs, it’s not worse, but it is a beautiful thing.

Kristi Benson Comments