Is Training Your Dog Unnatural?

Recently, I was working with a lovely dog. A dog who is, and I will state this for the record, perfection. Sweet, cute, and dear, with a black button nose and an ever-hopeful gaze. The kind of dog who ambles up to guests to say hello and snoozes on dog beds in Instagram-worthy poses. He’s sheer perfection. Sheer perfection, that is, until some unsuspecting human puts him on on leash and walks him by another dog. At that point…sweet gourd of holy ablutions does that dog go bananas. He’s like the Tasmanian devil of cartoon fame: a blur of fur and teeth, with feet sticking out here and there. After one of our training sessions (during which the doe-eyed Tasmanian devil is learning to walk much more sedately past other dogs), his owner looked at me and sighed. “I wish we could just let dogs live a natural life.” She shifted her treat bag on her waist and looked wistfully out across the street. “You know, allow dogs to be dogs. None of this training, none of this making them fit into our lives.”

I understand why she feels this way, of course. When you’re training a dog using a good plan and good treats, the dog is so keen to work it feels almost criminal. But although I understand, I don’t actually agree. I don’t agree that there is anything unnatural about training (and I also don’t agree that there is anything unnatural about dogs cohabiting with humans, but that’s a conversation for another day). Humans didn’t invent training to coerce dogs into living one way or the other. As long as there is no coercion involved, dogs aren’t being forced to learn. They’re simply doing what they’d be doing in a magical human-free dog world: changing their behaviour to make good things happen for dogs.

Learning (and the resulting behaviour change) isn’t something that happens solely when the humans are around, treats in one hand and leash in the other. All animals, from snails to dogs to hippos, are learning all the time. In fact, the ability to learn—to change one’s behaviour based on information received in real time from the environment, and based on how things went in previous, similar experiences—is as natural as breathing. And what’s more, and I do not say this lightly, learning is just as vital to staying alive as is breathing.

It’s pretty easy to see examples of dogs learning all around us. They learn to lay on the couch in the mid-morning to catch the sun’s rays, they learn to lay on the floor by the back door to stay cool, they learn that the fire hydrant on 3rd Street always has the most interesting smells, they learn what it means when you pick up the leash, and they learn that when the TV gets turned off it’s time to head to bed. None of these were training protocols created by humans to change dog’s behaviour, and most don’t involve reinforcement or punishment from humans, either. Instead, it’s just dogs, working their environments. I repeat: it’s dogs, working their environments to get the best deal for dogs.

Dogs also learn to avoid things, and we can see this happening in real time, too. They learn to avoid the cranky cat, they learn to stay away from the couch mid-afternoon when it’s blisteringly hot, and they learn that the best place to get away from the vacuum cleaner sound is by hiding in the basement. They learn that if they play-bite too hard with their canine brethren, there won’t be any more play for a few hours.

Humans didn’t invent learning. Animals evolved with the ability to learn so they could make the most of their lives (and of course go on to make a bunch more baby animals). If an animal didn’t learn to avoid risk, or didn’t learn to obtain the things they enjoy and need to survive, they wouldn’t last long individually or as a species. All this is to say that if we look at training from the dog’s perspective, they’re working us for food, affection, access to spaces they enjoy, and so on…just like they’d work the environment food and all the good stuff. It’s all the same to dogs.

So, not only did humans not invent learning…it’s a bit of human hubris to suggest that we are doing something different to dogs than the kind of “learning” that dogs do to fit in with the other aspects of their environments. We just saw, then codified, and now use the way that dogs happen to learn, so that both ourselves and our dogs can share a peaceable, fun, cross-species lifestyle. And if you’ve spent much time watching nature shows, you’ve probably seen how the environment “trains” animals: it ain’t always pretty. If you’re committed to training in such a way that avoids painful and scary consequences, you’re a kinder trainer than nature, and by spades.

In the words of my mentor, Jean Donaldson, when we’re training dogs we’re just surfing a system that evolution created. Training, from our dogs’ perspective, is just learning. They like it, we like it, it’s enriching, and if done well and thoughtfully, it makes our dogs’ lives better…to say nothing of our own lives. A truly sad situation is a dog who isn’t getting the feedback they need (environmental or human-orchestrated, they don’t care) to live the most fulfilled and comfortable life they can. This is what happens to many dogs who don’t get training to change their house-training habits or their recalls or their jumping up.

Training, that is, learning, isn’t unnatural. A life without learning, without challenge, and without change would be the truly unnatural thing.

Kristi Benson Comment
Philosophy Matters in Dog Training

Recently, one of the many wonderful rescues I work with posted a picture of a gorgeous dog, who was en route to her new home. As I skimmed the post, I read about this dog’s backstory, which was a bit sad: she had come from a life without a lot of enrichment or human contact, living outside without adequate shelter, and so on. But things were looking up for this particular dog, and of course I had to smile. She’d scored big with a wonderful home in another city; a family waiting eagerly for their new canine addition. But then I got to the end of the post: she’d needed some vet care and was being boarded with a dog trainer for a few days before travelling on to her final destination.

When I saw that another trainer was involved, I will admit my smile cracked a bit. As you may be aware, dog training is a wholly unregulated industry. That is, anyone can open shop, take your money, and do whatever they want to your dog. Hitting, shocking, and yelling are just the start of some of the negative and wholly unnecessary experiences that dogs may receive while being trained by a subset of dog trainers (and that is to say nothing of the trainers who are motivated by a desire to help dogs but lack formal education, skills, and experience, so end up taking handfuls of dollars from unsuspecting clients and failing to make a difference). The problem is so pervasive that my mentor, Jean Donaldson of the Academy for Dog Trainers, has created a video to raise awareness.

I went to the dog trainer’s website to see if I could find out more about their educational credentials and philosophy. Neither were listed, leaving me wondering what might happen to this dog in the few days she would be staying there. Educational credentials are important, obviously (imagine if you found out that your child’s math teacher had no training other than reading Dr. Spock). But philosophy matters too, and here’s why.

The consequence of consequences

One of the important ways that dog trainers help dogs is by changing dogs’ behaviour. This seems self-evident, but the truth of the matter is that we do a bunch of other stuff, too…changing the dog’s environment, mitigating owner expectations, and so on. But changing behaviour is often a key component of our work. In order to change a dog’s behaviour, we must teach the dog new skills: dogs learn to do x, y, and z, in situations a, b, and c. We can tell that our clients’ dogs are learning because we see the evidence right before our eyes: there is behaviour change. Often (but not always), dog trainers use a type of learning known as ‘operant conditioning’ to change a dog’s behaviour. The dogs learn that “If I do x, I get y”. In real life, the end product of this training looks like:

  • If I stay sitting when the vet draws blood, I get some cheese.

  • If I come when my owner calls my name instead of dancing away, I get a biscuit.

  • If I sit at the door instead of jumping up, I get a cookie and I also get to lick my owner’s face, which I love.

Using consequences—something that comes after the behaviour happens, like the paycheque of a cheese treat—to change a dog’s behaviour is a powerful training technique. But there is more than one type of consequence that will change behaviour: there is the proverbial carrot, but there is also the proverbial stick. The following statements may also be true, for a dog trained by a trainer who uses consequences that I’m uncomfortable with.

  • If I stay sitting when the vet draws blood, the chain around my neck won’t tighten and cut off my air.

  • If I come when my owner calls my name instead of dancing away, she stops the continuous electric shock on my neck.

  • If I sit at the door instead of jumping up, I don’t get a blow to the chest.

Painful and scary consequences like electric shock, yelling, swatting, penny cans, and so on absolutely work to change a dog’s behaviour. The science is in: just as much as the carrot works to change behaviour, so does the stick. It works, and that’s why so many trainers continue to use it. All mammals will change their behaviour to avoid scary and painful experiences. However, the science is also in: scary and painful consequences are unnecessary—we can get the job done without them—and they also carry side-effects: fearfulness and even aggression. There is ever-increasing evidence of welfare and public safety risks associated with these techniques.

Philosophy matters

So if both the “getting cheese” and the “getting shocked” type of consequences work to change behaviour, and both are sadly still legal, how is a dog owner (or a dog rescue) to tell if a dog trainer uses one style or the other, or both? This is where training philosophy comes into play.

When you’re looking a dog trainer’s website, look for language about the trainer’s philosophy (see mine here, and read more about choosing a dog trainer here). Look for information that clearly states the trainer will not use shock collars, prong collars, or painful/scary techniques on your dog, or that they will use exclusively positive reinforcement and other force-free training. If there is nothing on the website about this, simply ask. Ask the three questions from the video included above. If the trainer’s reply is not clear, ask if they use tools like shock collars or prong collars. Ask if they use alpha-rolling or rely on techniques that focus on establishing leadership, which is usually code for using scary or painful consequences. If they say anything other than a resounding “no way”, keep looking.

Kristi BensonComment
Out and About Dog: How to find (or train) a dog that will go anywhere

One of the many things that makes me jealous when I look at pictures of some European cities is the acceptance of dogs, everywhere! Cafe dogs, restaurant dogs, patio dogs, and pub dogs. How nice would it be to have such access to the world with one’s pet? Happy (and envious) sigh. Some places do allow pet dogs here in Canada, of course…not restaurants but certainly patios and other kinds of stores. However, they usually come with some (quite reasonable) rules and conditions. Are you looking for a dog that can come along with you? Or perhaps you’re wondering if your own dog might both enjoy and be suitable as an out-and-about dog? Read on.

Considering a new dog?

I loved how the dogs from  Unidos Para Los Animales  were so happy to be out-and-about! Photo: Linda Green

I loved how the dogs from Unidos Para Los Animales were so happy to be out-and-about! Photo: Linda Green

If you’re ready to open your heart and home to a dog you want to bring everywhere, you might be madly googling “best breeds for x, y, z”. And of course, breed does matter! Different breeds have different needs, different hair coats, different exercise requirements, and so on. But breed isn’t everything, so there’s a caveat: every dog is an individual, and there is considerable variation even within each breed (in fact, the variation between individuals in a breed is bigger than the variation between breeds!).

That said, out-and-about dogs share a couple of characteristics: the first (and by far most important) thing is that they are friendly to people, and more specifically, they’re friendly to new people. They are comfortable with people of all sorts and types, and ideally they actually enjoy meeting new people. This comfort and enjoyment of meeting new people means that out-and-about dogs won’t find their sojourns to the local cafe to be fear-inducing. We want our dogs to get more of what they love and less of what they fear, after all!

Friendly towards people and friendly or neutral towards other dogs are useful characteristics of an out-and-about dog. Photo Linda Green.

Friendly towards people and friendly or neutral towards other dogs are useful characteristics of an out-and-about dog. Photo Linda Green.

Many breeds are friendly towards people, and within each breed there are individual lines which are more, or less, friendly. Generally, breeds who have been historically bred to be fearful of people they don’t know, and to act upon their fear with aggression, are not good candidates. This includes but is not limited to guarding breeds. In addition, many “working” dogs can be a bit anxious around people they don’t know, such as herding dogs. In Canada, both the Labrador and Golden retrievers are very popular, and they are often friendly with strangers. Depending on the quality and orientation of the breeder, these dogs can be a great choice for someone looking for a go-anywhere type of dog. Pit bull-type dogs can also be very friendly to people, and some smaller breeds are perfectly content to lap-hop.

The second consideration is that the dog shouldn’t have the kind of boundless, frenetic energy that makes them less likely to want to chill-out near a table and watch the world go by. Although some breeds are known to be generally high-energy (herders again come to mind), this is also very much a “line” question: some lines within many otherwise easy-going breeds are very energetic. So if you’re looking for a chill-out dog, take a second look. Does the breeder participate in dog shows? These dogs tend to be more relaxed. Or do they participate in sports or other competitions? Be wary! This leads up to another good point: if you’re buying a purebred puppy, make sure you have good contact with the breeder, and let them know what you’re looking for. A good breeder will screen you to make sure you’ll be a good fit, and will allow you to meet the parents. Spend some time reading about the flags for puppy mill dogs before you make the purchase, and do not go ahead if you’re concerned. Puppy mill dogs tend to have more behavioural issues, so are less likely to be good out-and-about dogs without more intensive training.

Puppy training: it matters

If you’ve carefully selected a suitable breed, found a quality breeder, and are getting ready to do things right, start looking for puppy classes and socialization opportunities. Socializing a puppy when they are very young (under 12-16 weeks) is absolutely helpful, and in fact is the most important training task you will do with your dog, ever. Socialization-age puppies are learning what is safe in their worlds. Puppies should get comfortable with different sorts and types of people, traffic, people walking by, the busy sounds of a kitchen, car trips, thunder, strollers and walkers and canes and…the list is endless! The more stuff your puppy safely meets as a puppy, the less they’ll be scared of, as an adult. So put your puppy in a puppy stroller, grab some delicious treats, and head out the door. Socializing is one extremely important way to invest in a social, friendly dog as an adult. It’s so important, in fact, that modern dog trainers urge that a lot of other training can wait! An adult dog can easily learn to sit, come when called, lay down, leave-it, and stay. Deficits in socialization are much harder to overcome, and sometimes they simply can’t be.

Puppies may not be the best choice

The best way to guarantee that you’re getting a go-anywhere kind of dog is, and this may surprise you, to simple head out and get a go-anywhere kind of dog! I’m not being facetious, I promise. Puppies are adorable, but are always a bit of a gamble. Young dogs often change dramatically when they hit social maturity at about 1-3 years of age, so there is always an element of chance with a puppy. If you want as close to a guarantee as possible (although of course there are no guarantees when we’re talking about living, thinking creatures) for a chill, friendly, adult dog, head to the pound or your local rescue and find one. A three-year old dog of any breed or mix who is relaxed, friendly to strange people, and either friendly or non-interested in other dogs is just the ticket. Once a dog is about three, what you see is really what you get. Adult dogs don’t hide who they are, especially those who are being fostered so are living in a home. (Side note: If you’re worried about adopting a dog from a kennelling situation, ask about foster-to-adopt and returns.) Unlike puppies, who can change drastically, an adult dog’s energy level and sociability…well, it is what it is. They are showing you their true colours. And as much as we’d like to feel like we can shape and mould our puppies into the perfect family member, we’ll always be working with the genetics, and socialization history, we’ve been given.

Considering a bit of polish on your current dog?

There are many great classes taught using positive reinforcement that can help prepare your dog to be out and about. Important skills will include “leave it”, which means to not advance towards some exciting thing, and instead turn to the owner for a reward. Another important skill is a “stay”, often a down-stay. A nice mat brought along to the patio will make for a comfy surface for your dog to do a down-stay on. Both leave-it and down stay are simply skills that must be taught to dogs, using a good, incremental plan, and many repetitions. They aren’t innate! And if your dog is a jumper, you’ll want to tame that beast, too. Having trained up your out-and-about dog, you’ll need to bring rewards for their good behaviour when you hit the town.

The best classes to prepare your dog to interact with the public will include general information about meeting your dog’s needs. A dog who is enriched from working on food puzzles and taking a fun scent-filled walk, and who is exercised from a long session of fetch or some dog-dog play, will be much more likely to be chill while hanging out under a table in the local café. A dog whose needs aren’t being met is much more likely to be rambunctious, and we can’t really blame them.

If you’re an out-and-about type yourself, having an out-and-about dog can be a real blessing. Patio time can be enriching and entertaining for a social dog, so it’s worth doing the training if your otherwise friendly dog is a bit bouncy. And if your dog enjoys chilling with you on the patio by whatever their combination of training and personality, I’d love to see some pictures. Nothing makes a dog trainer happier than seeing delighted dogs doing their thing.

Cover photo: Dimitar Atanasov via flickr, CC by 2.0

Kristi BensonComment
A Dog Trainer’s New Year’s Resolution: Letting Go of Old Rules

We used to have a “no fabric dog toys” rule in our home. It made sense when it was enacted: we had a couple of dogs who enjoyed fabric with too much gusto. Instead of stopping at chewing and ripping and spitting it out, they actually consumed the fabric with glee and abandon. And since fabric is not a natural foodstuff for dogs (no matter what the dogs themselves may say about it) we had a couple of scary, vet-involved incidences. Fabric toys were consigned to the “nope” list for our house, and we carried on.

Fast forward five years, and both those dogs are sadly gone. Without much thought, though, we just carried on as before, skipping the stuffie aisle at the pet store.

But recently, things changed. We got a puppy. A gorgeous, sweet, hilarious, magical puppy. Along with all her puppy magic, we got puppy smiles, puppy barks, puppy skin (how can there be so much?), puppy feet, puppy eyes, puppy breath, and of course, puppy teeth.

Those teeth.

They’re so small! How is it possible? It seems anatomically unlikely, like a mouse tooth in a carnivore’s body. But there they are, those perfect tiny, toothy, teeth. And man do puppies use their teeth with abandon. Everything must go into that mouth. I have long told my dog training clients that “puppies experience their worlds through their mouths!” and this knowledge has a new, fresh, experiential edge to it now.

To keep our clothing, shoes, cords, and furniture safe, we had to meet our puppy’s chewing needs in other ways. And we had to do it quick: she needed chew toys. Lots, and of all shapes and sizes. She showed a preference for fabric (and winter boots, but that’s another story). So we backtracked on our embargo of fabric toys and signed up for a monthly box service. Lo and behold, a bevvy of new of fabric toys now lands in our post office box every four weeks. Deciding to go ahead and buy fabric toys was a decision made out of desperation more than thoughtful personal growth, but the end point was the same: fabric toys and the detritus thereof now litters our home.

With relief we found that the puppy does indeed love the fabric toys. They function as we`d hoped: keeping puppy teeth off cords, clothes, and shoes. But we were (I’m a bit ashamed to admit) surprised and of course delighted to see that all our dogs are playing with them, not just the puppy. They rip the stuffies up, they pull out the stuffing, they get the squeakers out and kill them dead, and then they gambol and shake the tattered remains as a final stufficidal act. The toys last a few weeks, so the dogs are at the ready for the new batch, when it arrives. Where possible, we stick the stuffing back in so they can kill it again and again.

Allaying my own fears

How did I make sure it was safe for our dogs? We simply supervised the first few hours of chewing, for each dog. We watched for evidence of consumption, which is the worrisome aspect of allowing dogs to play with stuffed toys. But none of our current dogs ate the fabric or innards, so as the days ticked by without incident, we relaxed our supervision. (There are always trade-offs with allowing dogs to do pretty much anything, of course).

Lessons learned

Due to obsolete and unexamined fears of intestinal blockage, we had allowed an antiquated rule to stay active in the rule book. We were preventing our dogs from expressing normal behaviour, preventing them from having fun, and preventing them from a great and easy source of enrichment.

So, dear reader. Here’s my request. When you look at your New Year’s Resolution list, pencil in “re-examine old rules” at the bottom of the list. There are some old rules that may still be in effect at your home, and they may be no longer needed. They may, in fact, be harming your dog’s quality of life in the same way that our anti-stuffie stance was. Perhaps they were enacted due to a previous dog, or perhaps they were enacted due to outdated information provided to you from a dog training source. Here are some rules that I’d love to see more people let go of:

  • Rule: No dogs on the couch
    Why strike this rule? Dogs on the couch aren’t worrisomely height-seeking, they’re adorably comfort-seeking.

  • Rule: Dog must walk in heel.
    Why strike this rule? Dogs allowed to wander around and be dogs on walks will find walks more enriching and pleasant, and more tiring. They are not being bad, they are being the normal, interesting, and information-seeking adult organisms that we’ve bred them to be.

  • Rule: No chew toys of __________ kind.
    Why strike this rule? Learn from my mistake, here.

  • Rule: No dog play.
    Why strike this rule? If your dog has had a couple of non-injurious fights and you’re worried about mayhem, contact a dog trainer for more information. If they’re scared of other dogs, continue to protect them from other dogs.

  • Rule: No dogs through door first.
    Why strike this rule? This rule is another misinterpretation of normal dog behaviour. They aren’t being dominant, they just like going fast through doors.

  • Rule: Dog must spend hours in the backyard.
    Why strike this rule? Yet another one that is based misinformation. The truth is that most dogs prefer spending the day inside! If your dog chews or messes when left inside, get in touch with a trainer. Those issues, and a raft of others, can usually be resolved.

  • Rule: No dogs on the bed
    Why strike this rule? If you don’t want your dog on the bed, that’s absolutely fine. But if you’re worried they’ll think they’re a human or other social/status issue, that’s been debunked!

  • Rule: No sniffing on walks
    Why strike this rule? Stopping to sniff is enriching and species-appropriate. Let them sniff! Their walks will be more tiring and joyful.

  • Rule: No dog play in the house.
    Why strike this rule? If it’s safe for them to do it, you can sit back and enjoy watching their intricate communications, open-mouthed hilarity, and of course, couch zoomies. It’s the best of the best on the Dog Play Channel.

What’s on your list?

Kristi Benson Comments
How to take terrible holiday photos of your dog
This dog loves you, this Santa hat, snow, Christmas, and has a fairly romantic relationship with the camera, all things told. This is my holiday photo goal.

This dog loves you, this Santa hat, snow, Christmas, and has a fairly romantic relationship with the camera, all things told. This is my holiday photo goal.

Closed mouth, a bit of squint in the slightly hard eyes. Get ready for a lump of coal, kids. Santa ain’t happy.

Closed mouth, a bit of squint in the slightly hard eyes. Get ready for a lump of coal, kids. Santa ain’t happy.

Alright, we’ve all seen the holiday dog photos that make us cringe a bit. The dog might be wearing a Santa hat or one of those costumes that turns them into an elf, with those extra arms...the cute factor and hilarity factor are high, right? But although some of the photos bring smiles and honest joy...some? Some, not so much. And I am not talking about the lighting, although inside pictures are so tricky. And I am not talking about the framing (although why are Uncle Josh’s red longjohns hanging on the Christmas tree in the background? Please tell me there is not a ginch who stole Christmas theme going on here [oh my god I am so sorry I just wrote that I obviously need to ease up on the nog]). I’m talking about the dog.

The costume is pure cute and hilarious perfection.

Closed mouth, ears back, this dog seems to be saying “get it off me, Sheila”.

Closed mouth, ears back, this dog seems to be saying “get it off me, Sheila”.

The dog looks miserable.

You know what I’m talking about, right? The ears are down or back, or both. The mouth is closed, or open in that long-lipped way dogs use when they’re worried. Sometimes the tongue is visible, licking the nose in way ethologists call a “tongue flick” which can mean the dog is worried. The eyes (or the whole head) are staring away, glancing, awkward, or the dog may even be showing the whites of their eyes. The head may be a bit down, the body curved or hunkered, it’s all a bit—or a lot—hang-dog. This dog isn’t feeling particularly festive. The sense of “get it off me get it off me get it off me” is palpable.

This dog’s “long lip” tells me she has feels about the Mrs. Santa get up. .

This dog’s “long lip” tells me she has feels about the Mrs. Santa get up. .

So what happened? What happened to make this photo session so awkward and (from the dog’s perspective), so unpleasant? Generally, we’re looking at dogs who are uncomfortable with having stuff put on their bodies. Many dogs do indeed wear collars, harnesses, and even coats without issue. And some dogs wear costumes with absolute glee and enjoyment. But for some dogs, costumes—stuff on their heads, costumes with weird extensions, or even just anything on them other than their collar—causes discomfort or distress. And you don’t need to wait for the photos to develop to tell if your dog is in this category. When the costume comes out, do they put their ears back and head down? Do they back away? Do they paw the costume off frantically? There’s your answer.

Imagine if your roommate put something you didn’t like on your head. Maybe it smelled bad, maybe it pinched uncomfortably, or maybe you just weren’t in the mood. Then imagine they insisted you stand in their room in front of their gaming station and took a bunch of pictures. How happy would you look?

I’m perky! I’m also looking at your treats, mom.

I’m perky! I’m also looking at your treats, mom.

So taking terrible holiday photos is pretty easy. The real question is…how can we take those great holiday photos? The ones where your dog looks delighted? If your dog does love dressing up, then simply have at it. You can tell by their perky eyes and ears, loose and waggy bodies, and open-mouth glee. The wagging tails and the resulting tail blur in the photos...pure Christmassy joy.

n.b.: not every picture where the dog looks hang-dog means the dog was feeling unhappy. Photos can catch even joyful dogs looking alarmed or alarming. So take a bunch of pictures and delete the ones that didn’t capture the real mood.

If your dog is one of the types who just doesn’t like having stuff put on them, don’t worry. There’s help. Your holiday photos are not a lost cause. Here are some easy ideas. For each of these scenarios, if you want your dog to look happy and engaged, make sure the photography session includes things they love, like food treats, ball games, or belly rubs.

Lovely use of a holiday-themed background to make the picture beautiful and holiday-esque. The dog’s face is soft and if I had to guess, something she likes is being help up and to the left.

Lovely use of a holiday-themed background to make the picture beautiful and holiday-esque. The dog’s face is soft and if I had to guess, something she likes is being help up and to the left.

Smiling mouth, soft eyes, neutral ears… this dog enjoys dress-up. We should give our dogs ever more of what they enjoy, right?

Smiling mouth, soft eyes, neutral ears… this dog enjoys dress-up. We should give our dogs ever more of what they enjoy, right?

  1. Give your dog a holiday-themed toy. Then snap to your heart’s desire as they play. You can play tug with them for a while (some hilarious “giant nose” shots can come from tug games).

  2. Make a holiday themed spot and have your dog lay, ever-so-charmingly, in it. (Don’t know how to get your dog to lay in a spot? Try this course, which will get you there in very short order). Tartan throws, wrapped presents, a tree, Rudolph and the seven dwarves, a little red sled, let your imagination run wild.

  3. Bake some holiday-themed dog cookies, then snap some pictures of your dog doing a lovely “leave-it” (this is also quick to train!). Imagine the possibilities - the dog gazing hopefully upon the entire tray of cookies! Then the empty tray, your dog laying dozing and reposing and very pleased with himself beside it. Add in some crumbs for effect.

  4. Use an app to add a Santa hat and as many other seasonal accoutrements as you see fit. You can pick the best picture on your phone and simply dress it up.

  5. If they’re comfy in a coat but not in headgear, well, it may just be time to shop for some lovely holiday-themed clothing items. Or add a nice bow to their collar!

  6. You wear the costume. Dress up like an elf, or Santa, or...I mean, don’t let me constrain you. Then hang out with your dog! Ask a helper to take the pictures, and give them some dog treats or a dog toy to attract your dog’s attention towards them and the camera.

  7. If your dog isn’t miserable but simply neutral, try treats. Lots of them. Pull out the costume and show it to your dog, then load them up with treats. Wait an hour. Then do it again. Tomorrow, try putting it on, and then giving your dog treats or even a short ball game. If this mini-protocol changes their mind, then presto! You have happy dog photos. Keep up with the treats throughout the session to keep them feeling the love—it will shine through the photos, I promise.

Tartan coat? Check. Christmas cheer? Check. Find things your dog already loves and dazzle them up.

Tartan coat? Check. Christmas cheer? Check. Find things your dog already loves and dazzle them up.

Thanks for photos: Jodi Beedell, Jackie Johnston, Emily Heitzmann, and Jean Donaldson.

Kristi BensonComment
The Spice of Life: a whole new language for dogs with attitude

There’s a little-known secret about dog trainers, and I’m about to spill it. A secret, I’ll have you know, that might make you feel a whole lot better about the furry tyke in your life.

Dog trainers…we like our dogs spicy.

Not only do we like our dogs spicy in general, we actively enjoy our dogs’ spicy antics. We take photos and share them amongst ourselves. We swap tales of spice. We marvel at our dogs’ communication styles and revel in our dogs’ hilarious and consuming self-involvement.

Well heck, you may be thinking. What is a spicy dog? Imagine for a moment the kind of dog you think a dog trainer would have. Is this imaginary dog laying obediently at the door? As still as a statue? Eyes constantly on the owner, awaiting our next uttered command with bated breath? Does this dog merge with the wallpaper when the owner is busy or bothered or beset with life’s annoyances? Does this dog walk past other dogs without a blink or a sniff, smile gently at guests but never pester or pal around?

Yeah, so…spicy is pretty much the opposite of all that. Spicy dogs feel free to use their natural dog communication skills to set boundaries with other dogs. A little snark there, a blustery bark there. Spicy dogs sometimes protect the goods in their possession. I mean, those goods are in their possession, after all. Spicy dogs push each other off the couch. Spicy dogs approach their human grand-mothers-in-law and ask for butt scratches…even though they rolled in something we’ll just call “fragrant” earlier in the day. Spicy dogs bark when they play, they hump teddy bears, they change their minds, and they eat the heads off their stuffed animals with gleeful (and I do mean gleeful) abandon. Spicy dogs feel comfortable saying no to stuff they’re uncomfortable about. Spicy dogs chase squirrels and spicy dogs dig burrows. Spicy dogs wait until they’re inside to shake off the muddy water, and really spicy dogs wait until they’re adjacent to a white wall to do it.

In short, when it comes to life from a dog’s perspective, spice is...nice. Dogs in spice-friendly homes are allowed to be dogs: as long as no-one (dog or human) is getting harmed or becoming scared, our dogs can simply be dogs.

Now, don’t take this to mean we’re living in mayhem or our dogs are running amok. Dog trainers are obsessed when it comes to making sure our dogs are exercised and enriched, so our dogs tend to do a lot of contented snoozing. We are scrupulous in ensuring that our dogs do not experience fear-evoking events, to the best of our ability. And our dogs aren’t untrained. In fact, they tend to get a lot of training. They get training because training is useful and enriching in itself, and they get training because training helps dogs experience the weird confines of life with humans with joy and ease. And of course, they get training because many spicy dogs need help overcoming fearfulness or with other behaviour issues. But just because our dogs can run to a mat and lay down on it nicely when asked, it doesn’t mean that we expect them to do it for hours on end, when their own interests and motivations say otherwise. And just because our dogs can walk politely past another dog on leash, it doesn’t mean that we don’t let them play hard and fast at other times.

So, you may be looking at your own spicy dog, unconvinced. You may still think that dog trainers’ dogs are much more nicey and much less spicy. I’ve asked some colleagues of mine to weigh in to show you that you don’t have to hide your chortling, gleeful enjoyment of your spicy dog any longer. These colleagues, made up of the cream of the crop of dedicated, brainy, and trainy types, have submitted their own examples of spicy canines to both show you how outrageously full of personality they are and to invite you to revel in the spice of your own dog. In the spirit of we rate dogs, every spicy dog will receive a chilli rating, as well. Click on each picture and hover over them to read more spice-tales than you can shake a jalapeno tree at.

Kristi Benson Comments
Yes, I'm Angry About That Training Advice

A while ago I saw a dog training guide that recommended that someone put a shock collar on their puppy and then hold down the shock button (that is, the button that causes a painful electric current to run through a dog’s neck), while simultaneously pushing on the puppy’s back end until the puppy sat. Once the puppy sat, the button on the shock collar should be released, according to this dog training guide, which was given to real actual people with a real actual puppy. This guide wasn’t from the Byzantine era, either, where toga-wearing and torture was de rigueur. It was from this year.

This is what a Mischa looks like when a Mischa sits.

This is what a Mischa looks like when a Mischa sits.

To train a dog to sit, I coach my clients thus. You hold a delectable morsel of food on your dog’s nose, something which your dog will love, something which will make your dog so happy and gleeful and delighted to be around you that their face will show the open-mouthed joy, the sparkling eyes, that very essence of happy dog. With this food, you lure your dog’s nose up and back in a bit of an arc. Most dogs will follow this arc, they’ll follow the morsel of food with their special doggie noses, and settle their back ends onto the ground. After a few repetitions, the lure is “faded”, although the reinforcement of the treat-after-sitting continues…and presto, you have a sitting dog.

Both ways of training use consequences, which is a useful bit of dog training jargon that means “something that comes after the dog behaves, and which influences their behaviour.” Consequences matter, as you’re always telling your eye-rolling teens. And you’re right: consequences matter, and for dog training too.

The treat way? This way uses the release of the treat as the consequence, right into the dog’s smiling mouth. That treat is like the paycheque that keeps you heading back to the office, day after day. That treat is like the slice of pizza, that keeps you heading back to the refrigerator, for that one last slice (just one more) before bed. That treat means your dog is more likely to sit in the future. This bit o’ training is known as positive reinforcement, and is the go-to technique for modern dog trainers.

So, that other way? The way that those poor puppy owners were sold whole cloth (the guide included recalls too, trained with continuous electric shock, and who knows what else)? The way those poor puppy owners were sold as required to train their puppy to sit? In that way, the pup earns “relief from pain”. That puppy will learn that if he sits, the painful shock will end. At some point, the puppy will learn that he can avoid the shock by sitting when he hears the cue (until of course, the owner wants to train the dog to do something else).

However, just like the need for positive reinforcement continues forever (you don’t keep going in to the office after the company goes belly up and the paycheques stop, and dogs, using the very same logic, don’t keep doing the work of sitting unless there’s a reason), the need for electric shock or the looming threat of it continues forever, too. The “relief-from-pain” type of learning is known by the unfortunately obfuscating label of negative reinforcement, but don’t let the R word there fool you. The thing that motivates the dog is the painful experience.

So if credentialed dog trainers are good at using positive reinforcement, which we really, really are, and if positive reinforcement has a surfeit of evidence about its usefulness and safety, which it really, really does, then why would someone be getting the advice to continuously shock their puppy in order to train him to sit? And if credentialed dog trainers are good at using positive reinforcement, which we really, really are, and if shock collar training has a surfeit of evidence about its danger and negative, potentially life-long side-effects, which it really, really does, then why would someone be getting the advice to continuously shock their puppy in order to train him to sit?

This is why I’m angry today. If anyone, at any point, tells you that a shock collar is a required part of training, they’re trying to sell you a bill of goods. And if anyone told you before today that a shock collar is a required part of training, and they sold you that bill of goods, then you can get angry too. Some days, for some stuff, it’s the only way to feel.

Kristi Benson Comments
Take This Easy Quiz: Is That Retriever Puppy The Right Choice For You?

Let’s imagine a family who has made the call to bring a new puppy into their lives. Many people who are in the market for a puppy are drawn to the beautiful and lovely Labrador and Golden retrievers, and for good reason. They can be such great pets. Maybe Mom had a Lab when she was a kid, or their neighbour has a sweet Golden now. The dogs’ beauty, friendly nature, and chill personality make them a perfect fit for the family, they decide. (In fact, Labrador and Golden retrievers are number one and number three on the most popular dog list, according to the Canadian Kennel Club.) Once a decision is made, the family searches diligently for a breeder nearby, and (much to their delight) finds a couple of promising options within a day’s drive. A few calls later and presto—a litter of puppies is found, available in a few weeks! Out comes the chequebook and puppy is soon snuggling in the backseat with the family’s oldest daughter.

All is perfection, all is lovely, all is well.

Oh hold on. All is well... until a month or two later, when things start to change. When the puppy starts to show some alarming tendencies. There’s the energy. I mean, does this thing ever get tired? And the mouthing. Everyone in the family has bruises and the oldest daughter now refuses to interact or even allow the puppy in her room. The puppy has started to guard tennis balls...for real, with actual teeth involved. And he’s running around the kitchen ad naseum, and jumping up on everyone, and nipping clothes and nipping hands. Holy moly who is this beast? When will the neighbour’s lovely Golden show up? When will the perfect Lab of those rosy childhood memories appear? Call the dog trainer! What is wrong with this dog?

Diagnosis: This family may have unknowingly bought a field-line dog.

Field line, you ask, baffled. Field line? What does this mean? Our imaginary family may be surprised to find out that there is not just one type of Lab or Golden. Sure, some Labs and Goldens (from so-called “show lines”) are bred to be at least somewhat aligned with the perfect pet of their dreams, although all dogs are more effort than one would expect based on rosy and faded remembrances. But those particular Labs and Goldens bred for either hunting or dog sports, known as “field-line” dogs? Those dogs are a completely different dealio. They can have the energy of a caff’ed-up border collie with the patience of a toddler on sucrose, the brain of a Nobel prize winner with the personality of a complicated teen T-rex.

My spidey senses are tingling. Are yours?

My spidey senses are tingling. Are yours?

In other words, many are not good at being chill, low-key family pets. At all.

n.b.: this also applies to some spaniels and other sporting breeds, where there are different lines bred for vastly different purposes - in my area, the dividing lines are hunting dogs vs. pet dogs, so I'll write about that.

So, if you’re currently in the market for a new puppy and have decided on a Lab or a Golden, I’ve made an easy quiz to help you figure out if the litter down the lane might be a good pet candidate Lab or Golden, or a field-line dog (and yes, I recognize that not all dogs fit neatly into these categories, no matter their breeding. But it makes for a more fun quiz, doesn't it?). To take the quiz, grab a piece of paper and jot “FIELD” and “PET” at the top of two columns. Answer each question below, and then tally up your responses at the end.

Question One. When you met the breeder, what were they wearing?

IF they wore neutral clothes, such as jeans and a t-shirt, add no point to either column. Continue detecting.

IF there was any plaid or camo at all and/or a shotgun across the arm; and/or some squinting wisely into the sun as they talk about pointing, flushing, retrieving; or even a single down-filled vest, then add two points to the “FIELD” column on your page.

EXTRA SEVEN POINTS in the “FIELD” column if there was any chewing on a blade of grass.

IF there were polyester skirts and low heels, add 2.25 points to the “PET” column.

SUBTRACT TWELVE POINTS from both columns if they wore no clothes, and twelve more if you didn’t, either. What the hell is going on here?

Question Two. What is the name of the breeder’s kennel?

IF the name includes words like Championship Show Dogs, add 42 points to the PET column.

IF the name include words such as “Working Dogs”, “Hunting Dogs”, “Not Really Pet Material Here”, “GunDog”, or similar, add 42.8 points to the “FIELD” column on your page.

NO POINTS to either column if any of the name invites you to think about the craggy coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Question Three: When you met the sire and dam, what were they like?

IF they were tired and muddy from a ten mile sprint next to the owner’s camo-coloured quad on forested back-country roads, their exquisitely muscled frames taller and more lithe than you expected, but they still managed to circle you, barking and excited and jumping, for at least 5 minutes...add 782 points to the FIELD column on your page.

My spidey senses are tingling again. Compact and well-muscled dogs are often sporty spices.

My spidey senses are tingling again. Compact and well-muscled dogs are often sporty spices.

IF they clomped up to you waggling happily and milled around, getting pats for a minute or two before going back to their obviously well-worn beds to loll about or chew contentedly on their stuffed toys, add 782.4 points to the PET column.

BONUS FIFTY POINTS to the PET column for each minute it took the breeder to get the dam and sire to wake up from the couch, yawning and stretching languorously, before they padded up to meet you.

Question Four: When you ask the seller “is this puppy bred for hunting or for a particular dog sport”, how do they answer?

IF they say yes, add two billionty points to the FIELD column on your page.

IF they say no, add two points and four smiley faces to the PET column.

Question Five: When you ask to meet the sire and dam, did the breeder prevaricate and say they weren’t available or you're not welcome to for reasons x, y, or z?

If yes, put this silly quiz aside and call another breeder. This is a dangerous sign that you’ve reached a puppy mill. Read this blog about how to identify puppy mill sellers, and beware: these people are very convincing. Good breeders of pet dogs will be in no hurry to sell a puppy, and will work to ensure that every dog they sell is going to a well-matched home.

Question Six: The wall of photographs the breeder has in their home, what does it contain?

IF there are oodles of pictures of their blocky-head dogs festooned with show ribbons, standing with exquisite coiffure—both human and dog—add two million points to the PET column on your page.

IF there is a single pheasant or any other bird from the subfamily Tetraoninae in any of the photos, add 24.6 x 52 +2 points to the FIELD column.

IF there are photos of the dogs, yellow eyes staring preternaturally bright, caught mid-jump in some odd dog sport you’ve never heard of (is it pronounced TRAY-ball? or TREE-ball?), add your birthyear in points to the FIELD column.

Now add things up now: how does your potential puppy look? Demon or delight?

OK, this looks promising!

OK, this looks promising!

Alright, the fun is over (at least until you pick up your puppy). I hope I have convinced you that retrievers from pet or show lines can be a very different beast than those bred to perform with a hunter or in field trials, and that despite how attractive it feels and sounds to say “I got a field line Lab”, the bloom is usually off that particular rose pretty quickly. Puppies will generally inherit a lot from their parents, at least in broad terms: size, energy level, looks, and behaviour. So please take some time to look at more than the beautiful puppy pictures on the breeder’s website, and get an idea of what you’re getting into before you sign on the dotted line. And ask questions, direct questions, like “how much cardio exercise a day will this dog need?” and “for what purpose did you breed these dogs?” If the breeder isn’t participating in either dog shows or sports/trials, you can usually get some sense of what the puppy will be like based on meeting the sire and dam. Are they the type of dogs you want as a pet?

If it’s a family pet you want, the kind who hangs on the couch, happily wags along on strolls in the park, enjoys dog classes and dog parks and dog walks with a steady smile, you may do best if you stay away from a field-line dog. If you can’t provide a few hours of cardio exercise and training a day, you may do best if you stay away from a field-line dog. It’s unfair to your family, absolutely, but let’s face the rather rotten truth: it can also be deeply unfair to the dog. They have a million volts of stored up gogojuice and nowhere to release it. It often leaks out anyways, via destructive and unwanted behaviour, further damaging these dogs' relationships with their human matter how well-meaning the bipeds are.

Side note: there’s no guarantee that even the chillest of show-line parents will produce a chill pup. Genetics just don’t work that way. So if you feel very strongly about having a particular kind of adult dog in your home, head to the local rescue or shelter and find a three-year old+ adult who fits the bill. Once dogs are about three years old, they mostly are who they are: they’re dog friendly or not, they’re kid-friendly or not, they’re energetic or not. It’s as close to a guarantee as you can reasonably get with a dog, in particular if you see them in a foster home. Still worried? Ask about foster-to-adopt and return policies.

Finally, if you have, and of course love, a dog you now realize is likely a field-line dog (or just acts like it), take heart. And take a deep breath. Get thee to a good dog class, join up with an agility club, hire a dog walker, pull out the tug toy and the tennis ball, and get ready for the ride. Your last New Year’s resolution list included dusting off the jogging shoes and there’s no time like the present. These dogs need a lot to do. A lot of exercise, and a lot of brain work, and a lot of training help for the issues that sometimes come along for the ride. They need a lot to do, and they need a lot of you: time, energy, and experience. You may as well dive in. And remind yourself over and over and over until it’s simply part of your story: they aren’t bad. They aren’t wrong. They’re just, due to their particular mash-up of genes and history, a rather...interesting fit with a modern family. They’re already working very, very hard to fit in with you, so you'll need to return the favour: you’ll have to make concessions, too.

Selecting a puppy or dog for your family is the start of a very long and hopefully wonderful relationship. It's your right and responsibility, as a family about to welcome a dog into your midst, to ask questions and find a good match...just as it's the right and responsibility of the breeder to do the same. Fingers crossed for lots of joyful moments in your future!



Bottom/cover photo: By from Tiverton, UK (Coming 5th at first dog show) [CC BY-SA 2.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons

Cover photo also includes: Fertographer, Temele, and VGM, all © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images



Kristi Benson Comment
Cause or Symptom? How Dog Trainers Choose a Treatment Plan

I was recently at a seminar with vet behaviourist Daniel Mills, who said something poignant: to help dogs, “we need to recognize the difference between symptomatic treatment and causal treatment”. Symptoms that cause dog owners to call in a trainer include barking and biting; marking and mouthing; jumping, guarding, growling, fighting, chewing, and of course, using the new white living room carpet as a...waste receptacle, instead of the great outdoors. The causes for these behaviours are a bit trickier to identify, because unlike behavioural symptoms, causes aren’t visible right before our eyes. But to the best of our knowledge, many dog “issues” are caused by two things: by dogs just acting like dogs on the one hand, and by fearfulness on the other. Sometimes we can treat the symptoms, like taking a cough suppressant while you wait for your immune system to tackle the virus on its own time. But sometimes we really must push up our sleeves and look past the symptoms, to the root cause.

Symptomatic Treatment: Fine for lots of dog stuff

In many cases when someone calls a dog trainer with a problem dog, we can simply treat the symptoms. If a dog is jumping up because they’re social, dog-ish, and friendly...we can simply train a dog to do something else, instead. We can train a sit-stay, for example. We don’t need to treat the cause of the behaviour, which is “normal, social, energetic dog”. I shudder to imagine how we’d treat that cause, anyways… who wants a non-social, unfriendly dog?  

And after a veterinary check for any medical issues, we can usually treat pottying inside as a symptom, too. Dog owners often feel like their dogs are urinating on the carpet out of some complex motivation, like jealousy. So they’re usually relieved (the owners, that is...the dogs are already good at relieving themselves) to learn that we can simply re-train the dog to empty outside instead. Voila: symptom treated. No need to delve deep, no need for a 30-page questionnaire, no need for hand-wringing and psycho-analytic analysis of what is essentially normal urinary habits.

The In-Between

Of course dogs are complex biological machines, so it's not always black and white. Sometimes, dogs who are destructive or more active than the owner wishes—so have the symptoms of destructive chewing and so on—can be treated by a simple increase in their exercise and enrichment regimens. We're treating the symptom of chewing and the cause of doggy boredom and over-zealousness. If they’re tired from working on a good food toy, and snoozy after some cardio-pumping exercise, they aren’t destructive anymore. (Note: For some dogs, alone-time destructiveness is a symptom of a panic attack, and that needs to be treated differently.)

Causal Treatment: Better when dealing with fear

Sometimes, though, we can’t treat the symptoms quite so neatly. If a dog barks ferociously and bites guests, we need to dig a bit deeper. Training a sit-stay at the door, which works so nicely for the friendly jumping greeter, probably won’t work. We need to pay attention to the cause here, don’t we? Generally, these dogs are feeling threatened and fearful. If we treat the fearfulness by keeping the dog safely away from strangers to start, and then creating positive and lovely associations between the strangers and something the dog enjoys like good food, then we’ll start to chip away at the underlying cause of the behaviour. The barking and biting are symptoms, and the cause is the underlying emotional state: threatened and fearful.

A dog who breaks into the basement during a thunderstorm similarly won’t be helped by an increase in exercise and enrichment. A solid training plan that teaches her to go upstairs instead of into the basement won’t help either. The symptom of breaking into the basement isn’t very treatable, on its own. Instead, this is another time when we have to tunnel down to the cause: this dog is scared of the thunderstorm. We need to treat the fear to the best of our ability, usually with a combination of training, provision of a safe space, and medication. Once the fearfulness abates, the symptom of breaking into the basement will go away by itself, as the dog just isn’t motivated to escape anymore.

How to Tell Which is Which

If you’re struggling with your dog right now and can’t figure out how to change, there are a few things you can do. The easiest and the quickest is to hire a good trainer. A good trainer can quickly identify the best treatment plan and have you skipping merrily on your way to resolution. You can also ask yourself: is my dog’s body language telling me she’s feeling threatened or scared (see body language help here)? If so, then protect your dog from whatever it is that scares her and get help. If your dog is joyful, silly, or wholly dog but his behaviour is at odds with what you’d like to live with, then knuckle down and do some training. Check out my online course to help with jumping and pestering, head to your local dog class for help, or for those with broader goals, this online class is fantastic. And if your training plan isn’t helping, your dog has multiple issues, or your dog is fearful beyond just a mild anxiety, talk to your vet. They can help, too.


Photos:  Andronov | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images and Saspartout | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Kristi BensonComment