Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Leave the Dog Alone

Honor your dog's "dogness."
Dogs, like humans, are social creatures. This is one of the reasons they make such great pets and companions. Domestication and breeding have cleaved our species together in ways that benefit us both, for better or worse. Our dogs want to be around us, and we want to be with them. And we are not shy in showing them so with touch, talk, and eye contact—sometimes in overpowering amounts.

Dogs enjoy being part of our family, and being close to us, yes, but they are also individuals who sometimes want time to themselves, despite what we might think. They seek us out for attention, but they also learn, when given the chance, that closeness can exist without affection being given 24/7.

Humans often misinterpret dog behavior in ways that, at best, confuse the dogs we love, and at worst drive them to send us messages we don’t tend to welcome. Because they are so forgiving and desiring of affiliation with us, our dogs continue to try to communicate with us in the only way they know how.

And often, we can’t see, don’t see, don’t want to see, don’t want to believe. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I have a simple message that can help you to interact with dogs much more effectively and safely. It costs you nothing, but may save you, or someone else, from being bitten. It will honor the dog's "dogness," too. You won’t like it, necessarily, and you may have a difficult time carrying it out. But it’s something that we humans owe to the dogs in our lives.

Leave the Dog Alone

Why do people seek out dogs as pets? There are lots of reasons, but in my experience I’ve found two reasons that transcend age, gender, class, financial status, and personality: we want a being that will love us unconditionally, and we want to be able to touch and stroke that being pretty much at will.

Luckily for both our species, dogs tend to enjoy touch and other forms of attention from us, but most humans don’t know when to stop—or why they need to! There is definitely such a thing as too much “love” when it comes to dogs.

Passive bonding
When you are hanging out with your dog, touching, stroking, talking silly, kissing him, picking him up, or playing with him, you are bonding actively with him. In and of itself, active bonding is a good thing, and we both benefit. But both dogs and people also need the absence of active bonding, too. Passive bonding is often overlooked in our relationships with our dogs because we don’t realize that they need it. Passive bonding is “the space between the notes,” the closeness without touch, the proximity to each other without any requirements or need. Are you allowing passive bonding in your relationship? Your dog needs it, and so do you.

Leave the dog alone so that he can rest, sleep, settle, and learn that touch should be earned in some way—it’s not freely abundant. Leave the dog alone so that you develop some self-control around your dog. Just because your dog “doesn’t seem to mind” you constantly petting him, or even seems to want it 24/7 does not mean you must comply with his requests. Just because your dog is close enough to touch doesn't mean you have to do it so much.

Show your love to your dog by actually meeting his needs—not just yours. Here’s a blog post on the things your dog really needs, with more on passive bonding.

Leave the Dog Home Alone 

Dogs don’t understand the concept of temporary separation until they’ve been taught, so every time you leave the house, the dog isn’t sure you will be back. There is no way to convince him that you will return except by always returning. So yes, dogs feel stress when we leave them, but we cannot ameliorate this stress by staying with them more. We must teach them how to deal with the stress of being left alone by actually leaving them a fair amount, and by not allowing our emotions to get the better of us. The best way to inoculate the puppy against separation anxiety is to leave and return, and to mix up departure and arrival times, length of time away, and actions that precede and follow an absence.

The dog needs to be left safely, of course, which may involve the use of a crate or other confinement. Don’t get all emotional about that part of it—dogs don’t generally perceive confinement like we do, and it helps greatly with structure.

You needn’t make a big deal out of your comings and goings, even though you think that’s necessary. Your dog will still love you just as much if you come in calmly, take him out calmly (or send him if he’s trained) to his potty area, and then engage with him calmly. All the high-pitched voices and exclamations are your attempt to meet your own needs, and they can confuse the dog. Keep things simple, and on a schedule as much as possible. The dog will adjust.

Many people tell me that their dog has “separation anxiety,” and usually, they are wrong. They themselves have separation anxiety. Sitting at a restaurant or movie theater and worrying about the healthy dog you left an hour ago is pointless, and likely not reciprocal—he’s probably napping by now.

Most dogs don’t have separation anxiety, but many do fall somewhere on a continuum of separation distress. Mitigate that stress by keeping your emotions in check, making your farewells and arrivals calm and consistent. (And if your dog really does have diagnosed Separation Anxiety, work with a professional, please.)

Make sure your dog is getting the proper amount of exercise, mental stimulation (including training), and having his primary needs met, and then go away. Don’t go away mad, just go away.
After all, how can he appreciate you if you never go away?

Leave the family dog alone, kids

Dog bite statistics can be alarming when you first hear them: 4.7 million dog bites occur yearly according to the CDC, with over half of those occurring to children. Actual fatalities are rare (fewer than 100 per year), and many other things kill us with more regularity. But when dogs kill, it hits us right in the gut, doesn't it?

Everyone has heard news stories of children being mauled and even killed by dogs, often by dogs that are well-known to them. Most bites to children come from their own family dogs. Why is this? Often, it’s because the adults assume too much from both the dog and the child. The family dog should not have to endure children bothering him endlessly—even when they are "being kind" to him.

We know it’s wrong to hit, grab, tease and badger dogs--and responsible parents drum this into kids' heads constantly. But even when kids are taught to refrain from these actions, their attentions to the dog may still cross the line. It’s also wrong to allow your child, or any child, to ride your dog, lie on top of him, climb on him, move into his space quickly, grab toys or food from him, wake him from sleep, pet him endlessly, or pick him up when it’s not absolutely necessary. You might think it’s cute, and you might presume that the dog is OK with these behaviors because he hasn’t growled or bitten, or walked away.

But you’d likely be wrong. It’s to dogs’ credit that they tolerate a lot of crap from us, but not all dogs have the same amount of fuse. If pestered, badgered, climbed upon, picked up, laid upon, or grabbed enough, any dog can bite—even your beloved family pet. And when it happens, you don’t get to blame the dog. He was, in all likelihood, sending signal after signal and was thoroughly ignored.

In short, do not allow anyone—child or adult—to treat your dog in a manner you’d not allow towards another human. Know your dog, and protect him.

Leave the public dog alone

Everyone knows dogs who “love the world,” and pert near everything in it. These canines seem to have a permanent grin on their faces, constantly wagging tails, and the perfect acceptance of any touch we seem inclined to bestow upon them. If you don’t own one of these dogs, you have friends or acquaintances who do, and you see people at the park, on the street, in every city who do. I like to call these guys Ambassadors, because they embody so many of the qualities we seek in our pets: friendliness, joy, laid-back acceptance regardless of our faults and flaws, a desire to avoid unnecessary conflict, and a joie de vivre that we covet but cannot ever seem to clear our thoughts enough to reach.

Luckily for us, most of the millions of dogs living in homes, riding in cars, and going for walks in the community are Ambassadors in full or in part. We trust them, and they trust us. We relax with them because we value what they embody, especially the desire to avoid conflict. People call them angels, heroes, furkids. They claim, "I didn't rescue my dog--he rescued me."

Just as people differ in our personalities, dogs come sometimes with personalities that aren’t as easy to accept. Not all dogs are ambassadors, and that’s actually perfectly fine. Dogs were bred to perform tasks, and sometimes the ambassador qualities don’t fit with those tasks (guarding, for instance). Some dogs do not want to interact with people they do not know, and this is their right. Whether it's because of genetics, personal temperament, a lack of socialization as a pup, or some other factor, the dog is simply how he is, and while training and proper socialization can help pretty much every dog on the planet fit more within our parameters as constituting a good pet, training cannot erase genetics. With dogs, it’s nature AND nurture, always.

The thing is, many humans assume that every dog they encounter is naturally an Ambassador, and this can be a big problem. Assumptions about dogs and their behavior gets us into trouble sometimes. You are not entitled to interact with every dog you meet in public, regardless of your desires. In public spaces, in friends’ homes, in situations where a dog or dogs happen to be, leave the dog alone by default.

Yes, of course there are situations where it is OK to pet or interact with dogs that do not belong to you. Always ask permission from both the owner, and the dog—and listen to the answers they both provide before touching. No matter what the owner says, if the dog says "no," do not touch.

How do dogs say "no"? Some people assume that if the dog isn't snarling or trying to bite them, he likes it. But dogs are appeasers, and may try lots of things before they get to this point. These include hiding behind the owner, blatantly avoiding you; ducking the head, pulling away from you, averting the eyes, tucking tail, or taking a submissive, low posture. If you stop, crouch down, and wait for the dog to enter your space, and he does not come into it, leave him alone.

NOTE to the owners/caretakers of Dogs Who Prefer to Be Ignored By Strangers: You have a responsibility to your dog to keep him safe. This includes not just actual, physical safety, but also his perception of safety. This means that even though *you* don't perceive the "nice" man who is trying to pet him as a threat, the dog might--and it's HIS perception of the situation, not yours, not the stranger's--that matters. I know you don't want to appear unkind to people, but your dog depends on you. If you allow, or worse, encourage touch from people when your dog is sending clear signals that he is not comfortable, you are throwing your dog under the proverbial bus. How can he trust you? And at what point does he proceed from hiding behind you to biting? This can be prevented. Listen to your dog.

Building your dog's confidence is essential, and part of your job. Allowing or encouraging unwanted touch does not build confidence--it erodes it. Contact a trainer who works with dogs like this and uses an inclusive approach (lots of tools in the toolbox, several ways to tackle the problem) to help you.

And stop worrying more about what strangers will think of you or your dog, and focus on helping your dog. No one is entitled to touch your dog. It's OK, and often better, to Just Say No, smile, and walk away.

Here's a blog post I wrote about interacting with other people's dogs.

Children Are the Most at Risk When Things Go South

Read the above section again and apply it to your kids. Most dog and child interactions are perfectly safe as long as a watchful adult is present. Teach your kids to Leave the Dog Alone when:

  • The dog is unfamiliar to them
  • The dog is loose or itself unsupervised
  • The dog is sending signals that it wants to be left alone
  • By default

If you teach children that their default behavior when they encounter a dog that meets the above criteria is to Leave the Dog Alone, they will be safer.

Yes, there are situations where children are allowed, maybe even encouraged, to interact with dogs that do not live with them. But these interactions should never be assumed, and must always be permitted by an adult who knows the dog. Never assume, even if the dog is displaying “friendliness,” because most people who are not canine professionals misinterpret signals of stress or excitement for friendliness.

Look, we love dogs, and they love us. Dogs are pretty adept at showing affection for us, and we think we are adept at showing them we love them--but often, we are wrong. We give them too much affection and not enough structure, in general. We want to meet their needs, but we often only meet our own needs and confuse ours with theirs. We can do better, and we must.

"Do you love your dog? Or do you love loving your dog? If it's the former, you will make sure to provide your dog with what he truly needs. If it is the latter, you will do what you want and then complain about him." ~Sarah Wilson

Leaving the Dog Alone, like obedience/manners training, helps dogs deal with our often confusing world. It isn't mean, or cruel, except sometimes to our own sensibilities. It's safer for us, and ultimately for them. It honors them. Make it your default behavior until you are invited to interact, either by the owners of the dog, or the dog himself.

Enjoy the dogs in your world, definitely, but do it consciously and while meeting their needs, not just yours. They will pay you back a hundred-fold.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Fences make good neighbors…and can frustrate some dogs

Part of dog ownership is making sure your pooch gets the right amount of exercise for his age, breed, size, and temperament. Walks are necessary, and a great activity for dogs, but walks alone won’t meet most large, boisterous dogs’ needs for exercise. Since the days of opening the door and letting Rover run the neighborhood all day are over (thankfully), having a securely fenced yard can be extremely helpful for dog owners, especially when you have large (or multiple) dogs.

A fenced yard allows for dogs to move about more freely, play exuberantly, chase each other or play fetch with you, explore freely with their senses, and generally expend larger amounts of stored energy. Unlike dog parks, which harbor lots of unknown variables, your own fenced yard tends to be a safe place to run your pooch. If your dog isn’t wild about other dogs, but has lots of energy, having your own secure yard will really help you meet his needs. (I don’t care for dog parks, and here’s why.)

A secure fence also keeps other dogs, kids, and some other animals out. It can add privacy, as well as a layer of home security, too.

But many dog owners don’t understand that fenced yards have some drawbacks, and even hazards. Let’s look at a few aspects of private yards that you may not have considered.

Dogs are moving animals, for the most part. In the wild, when they are not denned up, canids move across large tracts of land regularly, hunting, scavenging, exploring. Leashes, and by extension, fences, keep dogs from moving in as large an area as they would often prefer. Since leashes and fences keep dogs and people safe, and make dog ownership available to more people, they are a necessity—so domestic dogs must learn to live less nomadic lives. And they easily can. Once they bond to us, they don’t want to be far from us, so they accept confinement as a trade-off.

Fences create barrier frustration

But barriers like fences and leashes can cause frustration in dogs who have not yet acclimated to them. Barrier frustration is common in domestic dogs, and it can cause mild to serious problems. We’ve all seen dogs who are being walked on leashes who lunge, growl, bark, snarl, and look like Cujo when they pass other dogs on a walk. This leash aggression (or leash reactivity) is the result of pent-up frustration at being restrained. A dog on the other side of a fence, especially if it is also agitated, can create the same response.

If your dog and your neighbor’s dog “run the fence” a lot, barking and getting agitated with each other, you should not sit on your patio and think, “That’s good—they are both getting exercise.” It isn’t good. Pressure is building, and that, coupled with the dog’s natural territorial tendencies, could be a recipe for disaster.

Just this week, I learned of two separate incidents from two separate dog training colleagues that happened through fences, involved serious injury, and both chilled me. In both cases, neither of the perpetrator dogs had ever had problems with other dogs besides the dogs they shared a fence with. Both were fine with people and dogs in open settings. The problem was localized to the barrier frustration, and the arousal and stress that comes with it. If you want to read about the incidents, you may do so at the end of this post*.

Just yesterday, a client whose dog I worked with years ago told me that her 2 dogs got into a pretty nasty fight while out in the yard. These are dogs who have always gotten along just fine. But they both got to chasing and barking at the neighbor’s dog on the other side of the fence, and then the larger dog turned on the smaller. This is called redirected aggression and it can be serious.

Fenced yards aren’t babysitters

I tell my students all the time: don’t leave your dogs unattended, even in your own fenced yards. My dogs are never out in the yard when we are not home, and when we are home, they are not out for more than a few minutes without my wife or me being with them. The fence is currently secure, and none of them can get out, or want to, so why am I so cautious?

My dogs are small, so I worry about hawks or other birds of prey, mostly. I also worry about my neighbor’s cats, who love to jump over the 6-foot wooden fence and come into my yard. I don’t mind cats, but my dogs do. If they were to catch a cat, or a squirrel, or a possum, they will not leave it alone if I am not there to make them. So we watch them carefully, especially after dark. Our dogs tend to be noisy when excited, as well, and no one wants to hear a dog yapping for more than a minute or so.

If I’m there, I can call them away and keep them quieter and calmer.

Dogs left alone in yards can also be subject to kids sticking fingers through the fence to agitate them. They can ingest sticks or other items that are harmful. They can bark for hours on end. They can destroy a wooden deck, a lovely garden, a gutter system, or other property out of boredom. They may go after a meter reader or landscaper, or escape the yard when he or she enters. They can ingest items that shouldn’t be ingested—including poisoned meat that your nasty neighbor throws over the fence (yes, this happens). Dogs often need more supervision that you’d expect—especially when they are younger or are new to you. Just because the neighbors aren’t complaining doesn’t mean you are in the clear, either.

When asked where dogs should be left when no one is home, my answer is “in a crate, until they can be safely weaned out to be left alone in the house without being destructive—at a year of age or later.” There are some exceptions to this rule, but not many.

Yards don’t exercise dogs

Your dog needs exercise, but he doesn’t necessarily know how to use his time wisely. Often, he needs his human to help him exercise properly. Playing fetch, playing tug, playing with other dogs (when appropriate), and playing in ways that work the dogs muscles and heart are all positive ways to fulfill his exercise needs. He needs you to help him work off that energy in positive ways, instead of neurotic ones. Use the yard together for best results.

Also, your yard may be a great place for your dog, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of novelty, which is necessary for mental stimulation. Walks can be great for this, especially walks where you work on some training as well as allow him to explore a bit.

Yards don’t train dogs

I can’t tell you how often a dog owner tells me that they don’t need to worry about housebreaking because Rover spends most of his time in their yard. Not only does being in the yard most of the time not teach the dog how to be clean indoors, it also doesn’t teach him how to be calm indoors, or around kids, or how to behave in ways that make him a treasured family member and not a nuisance. 

Your yard doesn’t give your dog any guidance. It doesn’t make him a better companion. It doesn’t teach him right from wrong. And unless you and your family spend most of your waking hours in that yard too, it works against you because your dog will do best when he is fully integrated into the household and near his humans most of the time. If he’s never allowed to be involved in your activities, how will he learn? If you don’t want to spend all your time with the dog yelling at him to stop jumping on the kids or chewing things, train him. And training requires proximity. Don’t like dogs in the house? You probably shouldn’t have a dog.

Yards can make dog owners complacent

It’s easy to become complacent when you have a nice fenced yard. If you don’t have to take Rover for a walk every day out of necessity, how often will you actually do it? Too many people with fenced yards don’t walk their dogs enough, and may not be meeting the dog’s needs. It’s easy to think that Rover is getting enough of what he needs, when he may not be. He also may be getting into trouble that you may not notice right away. Walks give your dog much-needed mental stimulation. Don’t neglect them.

Is your dog hell on the leash? Training can fix that. It’s worth the time and effort, believe me. You and your dog will be much happier when he can walk nicely on a leash.

Doggy doors can make complacency even worse. Having access to a doggy door will not housebreak most dogs—they need to be taken out and shown where to go. After housebreaking, they may still have accidents even if they have access to the yard, especially in a large house. And for dogs who run the fence, antagonize the neighbors’ dogs, or bark for the sheer fun of it, having access to do this incredibly stimulating-but-harmful-for-everyone activity any time they want is a recipe for disaster.

Why are you such a buzzkill? Isn’t having a yard better than chaining my dog?

Absolutely! I’m just trying to offer advice that you may not have considered. There are a lot of upsides to a securely-fenced yard—more positives than negatives, if you ask me. Use your fenced yard well, and enjoy it as a tool to help you have a happy, balanced dog. Just be aware of the dangers, that’s all.
Thanks for reading.

*(WARNING: graphic descriptions ahead.) One of my colleagues received an email from a client who reported that her neighbor’s smaller dog managed to stick its nose through the fence separating their yards, and her dog, a large mix, tore the other dog’s nose clean off (the victim had to be euthanized). Apparently, the dogs had spent years at odds with each other through the fence, and the frustration built to a fever pitch.

The other colleague reported that a client of his had to euthanize his own dog because it pushed its head through a broken fence slat, and it got stuck. It began to scream in panic, and the dog on the other side ended up ripping its ears off. (This sounds crazy, but dogs in a panicked state often invite aggression from other dogs. Why? Perhaps it’s because high-pitched screaming sounds like prey. Maybe because despite what we want to believe, animals don’t have morals and whether they can feel compassion for other creatures who are suffering is still in doubt. What is not in question is that a panicked animal can easily become a victim.) The victim here was elderly and had lost too much blood to be saved.

ONE LAST NOTE: there’s a difference between possibility and probability. But downplaying the latter can easily slide into blocking out the former, so just be aware.

Monday, October 24, 2016

One-Trial Learning

Remember, if you can, learning how to ride a bike, or use roller skates, ride a skateboard, throw or hit a ball, or dance a routine as a young child.

If you grew up in the age before video, you were shown what to do by someone who had already mastered the skill. Patiently or not, that person gave you the steps to follow, and then allowed you to try. Maybe they moved your arms and legs, or maybe they just talked you through it.

You failed at first, didn’t you? You fell. The ball wobbled and landed nowhere near where you were trying to throw it. You struck out—a lot. You got the dance steps wrong, and out of sequence.

Your teacher showed you again. And you failed again. This process repeated itself, for hours, days, or weeks, leaving you frustrated and feeling as if you’d never “get it.”

Then one day as you were practicing, after a number of repetitions over the days or weeks, the activity fell into place as if you’d always known how. Once you knew it, you could never again not know it. A feeling of euphoria washed over you. Your teacher celebrated with you. Maybe you even skipped off to teach someone else.

The next time you went to learn a new skill, you knew it might take some time. You instinctively knew that you would need to practice to get better, and this knowledge boosted your self-confidence. Because what you wanted, now, more than anything, was that euphoria of getting it right. 

Now think about, at around that same age, how you learned not to touch a hot stove.

Was there any practice involved in learning this important lesson? Not only did no one demonstrate how to avoid the stove, you were actively warned against practice for this task.

How quickly did the learning occur? If you are like most people, you only needed one repetition—just one—for this lesson to sink in.

That is what is known as “one-trial learning.” It’s behavior change that takes place extremely quickly, typically because the consequences are painful, scary, harmful, dire—or all of these.

What does this have to do with dogs?

Dogs, like most social beings, learn in many of the same ways we do: by practice, and repetition, and by consequence (reward or punishment). Every behavior has a consequence, and how the animal perceives that consequence determines whether the animal will repeat (practice) the behavior. If the consequence pleases the dog, he will practice more, and gradually improve to mastery. If the consequence is displeasing, he might attempt the behavior a few more times, then give up. If the consequence is scary, painful, or dire, he will cease the behavior—usually after one trial.

So what does that mean for us, as dog owners and teachers?

Why, when teaching their dogs new behaviors, do so many owners assume that the dog should know what to do after only one, three, or five successful repetitions? They weren’t riding a bike as well as Lance Armstrong after one attempt, but they feel like Fluffy should “get it” immediately. Or, even worse, they assume Fluffy “knows” it and is just disobeying to spite them! (This is definitely incorrect. Owners often assume knowledge on the dog's part where it does not exist. Do not fall into this trap.)

Maybe this expectation stems from our “want it now, get it now” culture.  We are an impatient species these days, and we suffer for it.

Wherever it comes from, it’s not helpful.

It took the owners of these recent Intermediate Class graduates months to get them to a place where they could "stay" this close to other dogs and be calm. It doesn't happen by accident--it takes practice.

No good training uses dire (scary, harmful, painful) consequences to teach new behaviors like sitting, coming when called, or lying down. When we want a behavior to continue, we use pleasant consequences after it occurs (or we help it to occur). Since we are not using dire consequences, we will need multiple repetitions to get the dog to a place of mastery. These multiple repetitions should happen over a period of days, weeks, even months. There is no humane way to get “one-trial learning” of a positive behavior like “come.” It takes the time it takes, with multiple reps in “easy” locations, then in different locations under different conditions, so that the dog understands.

Also: your dog enjoys those euphoria moments, too! When he gets it right and you rejoice in his success, your bond grows.

This is textbook learning theory, and there aren’t any shortcuts that work. Dog training takes patience, just like learning to throw a ball. Practice daily, reward small successes, and give it time to work, just like your parents, teachers, coaches and friends did with you.

The relationship that blossoms with your dog may surprise you.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Sense of Entitlement

Quick quiz: you are walking down the street and someone (a stranger to you) with a dog is walking towards you. The dog is calm and appears well-behaved, and both he and the owner are minding their own business. You love dogs, of course (yours is not with you at the moment). What should you do?

A: Start squealing in a high-pitched baby voice at the dog while moving towards it with your hands outstretched. If it's small enough, go right over and pick it up, then kiss it. If it’s a big dog, bend over it and kiss it.

B: Start cooing in a sing-song voice, stop, bend over and wait for the dog to get close, then try to pet it.

C: Squat down, talking sweetly to the dog, and wait until it comes to you, then let it sniff your hand, and pet it.

D: Ask the owner if you can pet the dog, and then do C.

E: None of the above. It's not your dog, and you don't have a right to pet it. Smile at the owner, say, "cute puppy!" and continue walking.

Did you choose (D)?

The correct answer is (E).

What? Did I just tell you to pretty much ignore a dog on the street, even though it's adorable and you clearly love dogs?

Sigh. I did.

Would you walk up to a stranger and pet their child on the head? Would you touch them? Would you walk up and grab someone's bike, or phone, or dress, and admire it? If the person with the dog was walking without his dog, would you stop him, touch his arm, and interact with him, just because? Why not?

Because it would be rude.

When you go to pet someone's dog, someone who has not explicitly asked you to interact with the dog, you are making an assumption, and you put the owner in a tough spot. If they refuse you, you will think them rude. Why is that?

Dogs are not public property, despite the apparent eagerness of many to be social. If you would feel hurt that someone wouldn't allow you—lover of all dogs--to pet their pup, you need to look at your assumptions--and your desires. 

Because wanting to pet that dog is your desire, your want. It's all about you. It doesn't take the dog, or his human, into account at all.

Just because your dog loves people, and just because you love dogs, that doesn't grant you the right to interact with others' dogs without explicit permission.

If their dog is sketchy around strangers, they don't want you to try and pet it (and you shouldn't want to!). Telling them, "It's ok! Dogs love me!" as you approach and as their dog clearly turns away from you (or growls or barks at you) is not OK. Continuing to approach a dog that is barking in a threatening manner, instead of backing off, is not OK.

If their dog is in training, they may be concentrating on that, and following the advice of a professional to prevent others from touching the dog (I give this advice a lot to my students).

If their dog is too social, and will jump all over you, they may be embarrassed about this and trying not to encourage it. Even the dog that is clearly straining to be petted belongs to someone who may not want him to be doing that.

Please don't put people in an awkward position. You would blame them if the dog bit you (or scratched you in his exuberance), when in fact it would be your fault if you invaded his space. Some dogs just are not social with strangers, and you believing yourself “good with dogs” doesn't imbue you with some magical force that makes it OK. In fact, if you are actually “good with dogs,” you’d never try to pet one you didn’t know—especially one who was clearly sending signals that he didn’t want to be petted.

(People who are “good with dogs” don’t typically announce this fact. They act in ways that dogs understand to be non-threatening. It’s not magic—it’s experience. And practice.)

I don't allow people to pet my dogs when I'm out. They don't care for attention from strangers, and often, we are in training. I never foist myself upon dogs I see in passing. I smile and compliment them, and go home to love on my dogs, because each of us knows and trusts the other. I love dogs, yes, but because I love them, I don’t have a searing need to interact with every one I see--especially uninvited. Self-control around dogs takes some practice, but you can do it.

I once entered a pet supply store with my dog, who I was training. I needed to buy something, and I wanted to work my dog around the distractions of the store while I was doing it. Everything was fine, and my dog was doing quite well, until one of the clerks spotted us. She literally started squealing and following us around the store (I started moving quickly away, on purpose) with her hands outstretched.

My dog was looking to me for help to get him away from this crazy person, and I could not shake her. I finally had to stop, put my dog in a stay behind me, and block her approach like a soccer goalie. She finally asked if she could touch him, and I said no, not rudely, but with conviction. She got her feelings hurt, sure enough (not my intention at all), and probably told her co-worker how rude I was as we left without buying anything, both of us breathing a sigh of relief upon stepping out into the sunlight.

My job was to protect my dog, and I did.

NOTE: I’m not an absolutist. Life is full of shades of gray. Many dogs love people, and want to approach them, and belong to people who are trying to socialize them, and can handle your greetings properly. Many people don’t mind if you pet their dogs. In fact, some may ask you to. Some may even become offended if you don’t touch their dogs! If you meet such people with such dogs, see option D above. And enjoy!

Otherwise, please keep moving.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Tired Dog is a Good Dog

A while back, I was on a dog-related forum and a member was talking about how she is taking her dog to a training class for the first time.  

She remarked, "It's amazing how the mental workout exhausts her."

This is something many dog owners don't realize. Mental stimulation provides a more lasting calm than physical exercise, especially for physical dogs.

Does that seem odd?

Physical exercise is, of course, necessary on a daily basis for all dogs. But there is a huge difference between allowing the dog to run pell-mell for an hour at the dog park and stimulating it mentally for as little as 20 minutes. The former often serves to ramp the dog up, while the latter helps him calm down.

Exercise is important, but it should be the right kind of exercise, and include a mental component. This can be obedience work, nosework, exploring new places on a walk (with structure--especially the "heel" command), or games like "find it" inside the house.

More exercise just creates a more physically fit dog, and one that requires even more exercise to tire. Ever started an exercise regimen? If you are out of shape, it doesn't take much to tire you. But keep at it, day after day, and soon you can walk or run or work out longer and farther without tiring. You hit a fat-burning plateau, and now you have to really bust your butt to keep losing weight or build muscle.

Over-exercise a dog, and you get a very fit dog who now requires 2 hours of running to tire instead of one. (This is especially true of the muscular breeds like pits, boxers, and other “bully”-type dogs.) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had owners tell me “I run my dog 5 miles a day, and he is never tired!” No wonder—he’s the canine equivalent of an endurance runner.

The nice thing about mental stimulation, on the other hand, is that is has no fitness plateau. 

Think about the last time you spent an hour or more studying for an exam, or muddling over a thorny mental conundrum. I’ll bet it made your brain tired. Did you sleep well after that, especially if you figured out the problem? 

(Sometimes, going to bed before you figure out the answer, and sleeping on it, will help you solve the problem—see the link at the bottom of this post.)

Having your dog complete obedience tasks every single day, and changing those up a bit, is one way to provide mental stimulation that benefits your dog in ways beyond your relationship. Do you walk your dog every day? You should—even if he has a yard to play in. Walks are mental stimulation, even if you take the same route every day.

Philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man steps in the same river twice.” The smells and sights and sounds of a walk are always different for your dog, and that’s what counts (though mixing the route up and exploring new walking places is even more fun, so try it!). Throw in some sits, stays, downs, heeling, and recalls on a walk, and you are giving your dog some nice challenges.

Do you enjoy teaching your dog tricks? It's fun for both of you, and yes, it is mentally challenging. Capitalize on the things your dog already likes to do, name them, and reward them. Voila!

For instance, if your dog likes to roll over on his back and throw his legs in the air, he is already doing "play dead." Name it and reward it! Use a treat to get him to roll all the way over, and, you guessed it: you have "roll over." Does he like to stand on his hind legs and dance? Hold a treat just slightly over his mouth and tell him "dance." Now you have a new trick! One of my dogs likes to bury her face in your armpit. Call that "are you embarrassed?" and reward it when she does it. Now you have a cute parlor trick.

These things are also fun on rainy days, or when you can't get the dog out and about for regular exercise.

One final note. After a round of mentally-challenging tasks, put your dog away (in a crate, for instance) for an hour or two, with no stimulation. This allows him to "think" about what he has learned. I call it "gestating." It's good for dogs and people. 

Make the most of your day, and your dog.

Friday, November 13, 2015

You Keep Saying That Word...

Your dog sits. You go to give him a treat and he stands up to get it. You think you rewarded him for sitting.

Your dog doesn’t come when you call him. When he finally wanders over, you are angry and pop him with your hand, or shake him by the collar. You think you punished him for not coming.

You come home to find poop on the rug. You yell at, or spank the dog. You think you are punishing him for pooping in the house.

You send your dog out in the fenced yard to potty. He walks 25 feet away and pees and poops. You call him and he runs in, and you give him a treat. You think you rewarded him for pottying outside.

You walk in the room to find your puppy chewing your shoes. You yell “NO!” really loudly, and when you do, he looks up in surprise at the sound. You say nothing. You think you corrected him and he now knows not to chew your shoe.

You are walking your dog and he sees another dog, or a person. He starts to bark and whine, or growl. You shorten the leash and pet him soothingly. “It’s OK, Fido. That dog is friendly!” He keeps barking and straining at the leash, and you keep petting. You think you are comforting your dog.

You sit down to watch TV or read, and your dog barks at you, paws at you, or pesters you for attention. You stop what you are doing and respond to him by grabbing his favorite toy and throwing it for him to fetch. You think you are meeting the dog’s need for play appropriately.

You tell your dog to sit, or stay, or lie down. He gets up and walks off. You do nothing. You think “he wasn’t interested, and that’s OK.” You think it doesn’t matter that he ignored you.

You tell your dog to sit, or stay, come, or lie down. He doesn’t. You pull out a treat to entice him. You think you are rewarding the behavior itself.

You don’t want the dog on the bed, but your husband doesn’t care either way, and doesn’t make him get down when he jumps on it. You think your dog understands that it’s not OK to get on the bed.

All of these common scenarios play out in homes everywhere on a daily basis. Dogs do something, and people respond in ways they feel are appropriate. But as time passes, the dog’s behavior worsens. The owners think they are doing everything right, and cannot understand why Fido isn’t trained.

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” ~Cool Hand Luke

What people need to understand that dogs don’t just “know” how to behave the way we expect. They must be taught, the same way you were taught to tie your shoes or eat with utensils. No one would expect a 4-year-old to know how to ride a bicycle without training wheels and a helpful adult. But every day, dog owners expect their puppies and dogs to read their minds and know what is expected of them.

I think this discord results from our idea of what dogs are capable of knowing. They fit so well socially into our lives and homes that we assume they already know the rules. But the only rules they know instinctively that pertain to living with humans are the ones that bond them to us, not the ones governing proper home behavior. It’s instinctual for dogs to eat anything (or try to) that is in front of them, to chew things, to poop and pee when the need arises, to chase things that move, to bark at novel things or beings, to protect their territory, to seek out things that are fun, and avoid things that are uncomfortable. Some of these things they are born knowing how to do. Others they learn before they leave the mother dog and littermates.

If you want them to do other things instead of these, you need to show them what you want, clearly, using well-timed, appropriate rewards and corrections. You need to prevent them being able to practice the behaviors they know and love that you don’t love. The job of this education is yours. It doesn’t happen by accident.

When your dog sits, then gets up and gets a treat, he thinks that “sit” means “put your bottom down, then get up.” Is that what you meant?

When your dog ignores your call and you get mad when he finally arrives, your dog thinks that “Come!” means “Avoid the human, because she’s a little crazy.”

When your dog poops in the house and you punish him after-the fact, your dog thinks “don’t be in the same room with a pile of poop if a human is coming. Better hide!”

When you treat your dog after he comes back in the house after a potty break, your dog learns that coming in the house is good. He doesn’t learn to only potty outside.

When you yell at the puppy who is chewing your shoes, and he looks up and you do nothing, he learns that chewing shoes is fun and paying attention to humans gets you... nothing.

When your dog is stressed or upset and vocalizing, and you pet him, he thinks, “My human must like it when I do this. I’ll do it some more!”*

When you respond to your dog’s obnoxious attempts to get your attention, you teach him that he needs only to demand something, and he will get it.

When you allow your dog to ignore a command, he learns that he can ignore you.

When you produce a treat (to entice a behavior) after the dog has ignored your command, your dog learns to ignore you until he sees “the goods.”

When you allow your husband to let the dog remain on the bed, your dog learns that he can get on the bed. “Occasionally” and “sometimes” are meaningless words to dogs.

“What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.” ~Daniel Heath

Be clear. Be concise. Be a communicator. Don’t make your dog guess about behaviors that really matter. Do you know of any meaningful, lasting relationships that thrive without clear communication? I don't.

All behaviors matter. Help your dog succeed. If you won’t do it, who will?

FINAL NOTE: You, presumably, are a human being. You make mistakes. Dogs are exceedingly open to changing their ways if you want to make changes. Don't beat yourself up if every "you" in the above post actually applies to you. It doesn't have to. I am not beating you up, and you shouldn't beat you up, either. 

Now you know better, so you can do better. Take a deep breath, and get started.

*This doesn't necessarily pertain to situations in which a dog is truly in a panic, such as during a thunderstorm or fireworks. Sometimes, hands calmly on a dog can calm them. But this is rarely the case with a dog barking at people, dogs, or objects.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Having Second Thoughts

Our brains process tens of thousands of separate thoughts per day, about 70,000, to be more precise. In the span of 1 minute, people generally have between 35 and 48 distinct thoughts.

Some of these thoughts will germinate into great ideas. Some will simply help us get through the day. Most will bounce off around our brains and fade into nothingness, never to be acted upon, or even remembered seconds later.

Most of these thoughts seem disparate and disjointed as we think them, and many of them are. It seems like we cannot control our thoughts most of the time, at least not unless we try pretty hard. But science has shown us that we can control them. Then why don’t many of us even try?

We think the way we do most often out of habit. But habits can be broken, and changed. It’s easy to fall into patterns of thought, and eventually to believe our thoughts are true, even when they may not be. Then, we surround ourselves with like-minded people, read only like-minded websites, watch like-minded TV, read like-minded books. We can change our thoughts, but most of us choose not to. It’s comfortable to be in that cocoon, thinking you are right about pretty much everything. People don’t like to have their beliefs questioned, and often get defensive when they are. Asking them to voluntarily change their thinking, to question what they’ve always known, usually gets one rebuffed--soundly.

But I want to challenge you to do just that. Because voluntarily changing how you think can change your world, and could possibly change the world. Being able to open your mind to the possibility that there could be more than one answer to some of the biggest questions of life will strain your brain, and make you smarter and more empathetic.

Critical Thinking:  the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

Here is the challenge I make to you. It’s very, very difficult to control the initial, immediate thought you have when you meet a new person, or hear of an emotional event, or experience something out of your comfort zone. That initial thought springs up unbidden, and generally mirrors past thoughts on like events or people. Those initial thoughts are very difficult to control.

But the thought that immediately follows that one? Oh, that one you can change. And you should.

Let me give you an example. You are perusing Facebook and see a story about a skinny dog that was tied outside of a shelter during the night, and was found the next morning cold and wet by the shelter staff, who took the dog in and are now caring for it.

You love animals. You are incensed by this wanton act of cruelty. Your first thought is, “How could anyone leave a dog tied up in the rain, tossed away like trash?”

If you don’t try to change your next thoughts, they will sound an awful lot like the first one. And what good does that do you? Or the dog?

Try stopping the cavalcade of negative thoughts about this situation and attempt to see it from another perspective. After you acknowledge your anger and frustration, have a different thought.

Here are some possibilities:

“At least they left him at a shelter, instead of dumping him along the side of the road.”

“Maybe they had been evicted and were at the end of their rope, and had nowhere else to turn.”

“Maybe he bit their child, and they were scared of him.”

“Maybe he is very sick, and they panicked.”

“Maybe they actually loved him very much.”

Wait, WHAT? Do you think that I think that tying a dog to a shelter fence in the rain is a good way of showing love?

I do not.

Why, then, would I ask you to even entertain that thought, ridiculous as it sounds?

Because it could actually be true. Yes. It could.

Regardless of whether it is actually true (because, let’s face it, you will likely never know much more about this situation that this story tells you), you believing it could be true does no one any harm.

That’s right. It could be true. Why not acknowledge that, instead of just jumping right to the negativity and anger at the Whole Human Race? Having some empathy for the dog’s previous owners empowers you to act differently. You can still feel sadness for the dog’s plight, and thankfulness for the shelter staff rescuing him. You can still be angry if you want to, but why not direct that anger in a positive way? Be angry that there are no low-cost veterinary clinics in your area, or that people have misconceptions about shelters and what kinds of dogs can be found there for adoption. Be angry that existing laws don’t do enough to keep animals safer. Then, do something positive with that anger.

Assuming the worst of people in every situation doesn’t improve anyone. And the media and social media serve up tons of stories designed to evoke anger, disgust, and negativity. Sure, there are some news outlets that try to counter this trend with feel-good journalism, and that’s a welcome sight. But the negative stories always outweigh the positive. Why? Because our brains are hardwired to pay more attention to the negative.

When you start to change your Second Thought, you begin to strengthen your empathy muscle. Anger can indeed drive us, but empathy can drive us to more positive change. Be angry at systems and bureaucracies and gridlock and partisanship. Heck, be angry at some individuals, if you must. But try to stretch your brain around the idea that most everyone is doing the best they can with what they have in that moment. You are free to disagree with their choices. You are free to place blame, even.

But what if you first acknowledge that you don’t have all the facts, and that, in and of itself, should stop you from continuing your initial train of thought.

I’m not telling you that you must always think the best of people. People often make crappy decisions; rotten ones, even. People act stupidly, and selfishly. I’m not telling you that positive thinking can erase all the bad in the world, because it can’t.

What I am saying is that you can hold opposing thoughts in your head about people and situations without your brain exploding. You can alter your initial perception of events and the people involved, and you should at least try. What will it hurt?

Instead of believing that bad things happen because people are evil, or stupid, or ignorant, why not blame the situation? The person who just cut you off in traffic could be a sociopath, but what is more likely is that he or she is dealing with a situation (about which you know zilch) that caused him to act that way, in that moment. Have you never driven recklessly? Does the fact that you have, even just once, make you stupid?

What if just 10% of the population tried this? What do you think would happen? Maybe the course of events might not change, but could the aftermath?

Start a trend. Change your Second Thought.

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”  ~William James