Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Space Between the Notes

Most dog owners are pretty familiar with how to meet a dog’s basic needs. These include quality food, fresh water, proper shelter, proper grooming, and veterinary care. Dogs require the above primary needs to survive.

Many dog owners also understand that dogs have additional needs, as well. The ones they typically recognize are proper identification, exercise, affection, playtime, and training (house manners and obedience). These secondary needs enable dogs to not just survive, but thrive. Dogs are incredibly adaptable, and can survive without the above, but they will not be their best, or their happiest. Their humans will also be frustrated with their behavior, too, and may elect to relinquish them.

What many dog owners do not know is that dogs have additional secondary needs, also needed to thrive. These are:

· Confinement
· Structure
· Elimination of confusion
· Mental stimulation
· “Work”
· Passive bonding
· Stress reduction
· Leadership

Though all dogs benefit from the above, some need less of each, and some need more, and some need different tools to get there. Every dog has personality differences, and different breeds have different specific needs.

People are sometimes quite surprised to find that the Corgi (or German shepherd, or Dalmatian, or Lab, etc.) that they acquire in adulthood acts differently than the one they grew up with. Personalities vary within breeds, and even within individual litters. And let’s not forget the concept of “selective memory”: many people’s memories of their beloved, long-dead childhood pets are rosy and sentimental. They tend to forget the hardships (or the fact that Mom or Dad actually trained the dog) and mistakes.

That's me above, circa about 1977, with the dog we got when I was 5, a Springer spaniel named Hanna. I helped a little with her training, and she really was a friendly dog. But I'm sure my whole family whitewashes her; I can't recall a single bad thing she ever did. However, I would not own the breed again, so my whitewashed memories do not override what I've learned the last 30 years.
This "rose-colored glasses" syndrome isn't just associated with our pets, either. Neuroscientist blogger Patrick, on the blog, writes

It’s not surprising to say nostalgia is all about memories. These recollections of our past are usually important events, people we care about, and places we’ve spent time at. What is perhaps a little surprising is that nostalgia is almost always associated with positive emotions – even when the trigger for recalling a nostalgic memory is something negative. In the study I’ve linked to [link is broken] the negative memory people reported was usually a bad situation that was eventually overcome – a bad memory tempered with a good outcome and association.

Sorry for the digression, but I talk to people on a daily basis who are dealing with this syndrome. I hope to write more about "the dog you have, not the dog you wanted to have" sometime in the future.

Anyway, let’s look at each of these additional secondary needs briefly:

CONFINEMENT enables the dog to make fewer mistakes in the home when he first arrives, until training “takes.” Crates are the most effective confinement tool, but other tools can work. All dogs in a new situation need confinement when they are not being directly supervised. And contrary to what some people believe, the majority of dogs appreciate confinement, especially during that somewhat stressful acclimation period but often throughout their entire lives, more than you’d think.

STRUCTURE is what helps dogs relax and understand boundaries. It involves consistency and predictable consequences. Dogs do not need or want to be completely “free” and unstructured. The vast majority of pet dogs value structure over pure freedom. It’s a lot less scary to know exactly what’s ahead, right? A shelter dog put into a new home situation and left to his own devices can suffer a mild meltdown. I've often written and said that shelter dogs are not in shelters because of too much structure--they are often there because they never received enough. For children and pets, proper structure is a gift of love.

ELIMINATION OF CONFUSION is training, done with lots of rewards for the right behavior and clear instruction to help the dog “get it.” Set him up for success so that mistakes are fewer, and correct dispassionately if you catch him “in the act,” or, ideally, just prior. (A correction can be anything from an attention-getting "EH-EH!" to a leash "pop", always followed by redirection and reward.) Do not punish after-the-fact. Nearly all dog misbehaviors are the human’s fault. It’s not fair to be confusing. If you ever find yourself saying, “But he KNOWS better!” it’s very likely that he actually doesn’t. So show him.

MENTAL STIMULATION keeps the brain from getting bored. Many destructive behaviors stem from lack of mental stimulation. Use interactive toys (such as the I.Qube at left), daily walks with obedience thrown in, car rides and outings, nosework, and mental games like hide-n-seek or “Find It.” Dogs with jobs are happier than dogs without. And one of the coolest things about mental stimulation is that it tires dogs out as well as (or sometimes better than) physical exercise. Most pet dogs are vastly understimulated mentally.

WORK is part of your dog’s heritage. All dogs were bred for a specific purpose, even the toy breeds. (Sitting on royal laps is a vocation!) Learn your dog’s tendencies, and give him appropriate jobs to do. There are tons of dog sports or activities you can become involved in, even as an amateur, but it need not necessarily be intensive—even obedience and “fetch” can be work for “less intense” breeds and mixes. Work provides mental stimulation, too.

And do not acquire a field-bred dog or high-drive breed if you aren’t going to actually work him in the sport or job to which he was bred, or as close a variation as you can. It’s unfair.

The Belgian Malinois is a beautiful, alert, high-drive dog bred for police work. The breed excels at bitework (pictured above). It does NOT make a good pet for the average (or even above-average) household.
Active bonding
happens when you are your dog interact. When you play, cuddle, do obedience work, dog sports, or tricks, or walk your dog with purpose, that’s active bonding. You and your dog are in tandem, fulfilling each other’s needs actively and purposefully. But what about when you aren’t doing that stuff?

“Music is the space between the notes.” ~Claude Debussy

PASSIVE BONDING keeps the relationship humming. It is the space between the notes of activity. Passive bonding is watching TV/reading/knitting/working while your dog lies sleeping at your feet. It can be the dog sleeping in bed with you (if he’s earned it). It’s the dog gnawing a favorite chewy or toy while you hang out with your spouse, or even alone. For new puppy owners, passive bonding is taking place when your pup sleeps in his crate in the room with you (the sound of your breathing is comforting to him) as opposed to being crated in another room. Most dogs will fall asleep during this time, but that’s not a problem. What makes it passive bonding is that Fido is in the room with you, probably near you, maybe even touching you, but you are not actively interacting with him. Owners need self-control for this exercise (this is not “fondle time”), and some dogs are better at it than others. But all dogs can—and should—learn how to do it.

If you are constantly touching your dog, he is likely to become confused, neurotic, pushy, or even clingy, depending on his temperament. Our constant need to touch is more about what we want than what our dogs need. Ignoring the dog’s real needs increases stress and makes for an unhappy dog.

WHAT? Did I just tell you that you aren’t allowed to pet your dog? Absolutely not. That’s one of the main reasons people acquire dogs! Touch is important to both our species, but there is such a concept as “too much of a good thing.” Affection is necessary, soothing, lowers your blood pressure and releases a bonding hormone known as oxytocin, all positive things. But it should be (1) purposeful, (2) on your terms, and (3) not make up the bulk of your time with your pooch.

It's quite possible that you are, at this very moment, engaged in passive bonding with your dog as you read this; I was when I wrote it. (There's a cubby in my desk underneath my computer, and it's my terrier mix's favorite spot to be in as long as I'm working.)

STRESS REDUCTION helps your dog to feel safe in your world. The elimination of all stress is neither possible nor preferred, because in small amounts, stress aids the learning process. Without stress, we cannot grow. But our pets are subject to many types of unnecessary stress, and alleviating some of it makes a difference. Balanced training and structure are stress-relievers. Are you seeing a pattern here?

LEADERSHIP is the ultimate goal, the pinnacle, the summit. Dogs are born knowing they belong in a social group, and social groups always function more efficiently with a benevolent leader. Be the leader in your relationship with your dog, and he will be his very best. Leadership is about discipline, but not about force. Lack of leadership causes a host of behavioral problems, including many types of aggression. Want your pooch to worship you? Be a leader. Want him to “have your back”? Earn that respect by being clear, consistent, and following through.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Show Me

Last weekend I attended a dog training seminar/workshop with my two favorite dog professionals, Sarah Wilson and Brian Kilcommons. Titled “Dealing with Difficult Dogs” and put on with the help of the Longmont (Colorado) Humane Society’s amazing behavior department (headed by Aimee Sadler, a phenomenal trainer in her own right who has made Longmont’s program training and socializing shelter dogs the best in the country), the seminar used shelter dogs and focused on the husband-and-wife team’s separate strengths: Brian’s difficult dogs are pushy, confident, “dominant,” and aggressively reactive. Sarah’s specialty is with shy or timid dogs, and less-aggressive reactive dogs—what she calls “deficit dogs.” Both focus on communication and connection, and both, thank Dog, focus on helping pet owners train their own dogs.

I know many dog trainers who have great training chops. They can take just about any dog and work magic before your eyes. I’ve learned a lot from them. But when they try to explain what they do to the novice pet owner, or show owners how to get the same results, or even explain to the audience how what they do works, they often choke. They just don’t have the “people chops” to create lasting change. Brian, and especially Sarah, do. And that’s one reason I will travel long distances to see them in action whenever possible. I had seen this seminar before, last year. But I knew if I attended again it would be slightly different, and I’d learn more. I was not disappointed.

I probably attend 1-3 dog training seminars and workshops every year, though the number is fewer this year because of the poor economy. I will occasionally attend lecture-only seminars, but I’d love to not have to. I need to spend what little money I have for “continuing education” on workshops that give me the best bang for my buck. Going to hear a dog trainer lecture—with nary a dog in sight—is usually a waste of my time, though the better ones of these have video accompaniment showing lots of footage of the speaker “walking the walk,” and a presentation style that leaves you wanting more. The lamest ones, I’m sorry to say, are strictly Powerpoint or someone promoting his or her book. Really? I could have read the book and saved myself the travel expenses, thank you.

(Actually, the lamest presentation by a so-called dog expert I ever saw was a traditionally “hot” young woman with her “world-renowned trick dog.” She underestimated her audience, a diverse group of canine professionals, who have more skills than she did, and worse, her dog would do nothing if she wasn’t shoving treats in the dog’s face. She simply had no visible relationship with the dog. As she tried to talk in between tricks, the dog ignored her “stay” command and wandered around the room, urinating on the floor and sticking its head into people’s purses or bags, searching for food. At one point, it put its paws on a table and stole some treats that were there. The entire time this was happening, the presenter was halfheartedly asking the dog to “stay” and shrugging and smiling like it was funny.

It was excruciating to watch. She seemed like a perfectly nice person, but her shtick didn’t impress. At all. "Nice" and "hot" were not what we paid to see. Note to presenters: if the dog you bring—your supposedly well-trained dog you have a bond with and have spent years training-- won’t listen to you while you talk, the audience won’t either. Yes, crap happens, but it was obvious this woman had not prepared for her presentation, which is disrespectful to the audience.

To top it off, more than half of her presentation was self-promotion, though not of her work. I consider it an epic fail.)

Sadly, many more so-called “professionals” hold workshops and seminars around the country every year and never work a single dog, or only show their highly-trained dog in action. I understand why sometimes having multiple strange dogs to demonstrate on might not be feasible (venue won’t allow it; seminar or conference too large; shelter dogs not available; audience doesn’t expect it; time constraints; etc.). But those tend to be lame excuses. More often than not, I suspect, it is a lack of confidence on the speaker’s part that he or she can “walk the walk” in front of the audience. I personally feel that some of these speakers plan their presentations so that having dogs there is not feasible—on purpose.

Why would they do this? Why not work some dogs at your dog training seminar? For some, it’s the aforementioned anxiety. For others, it’s because they know their methods do not fit neatly into a seminar format (this is especially true for the “positive only” crowd, a large—and unfortunately—powerful group who will, to the detriment of most dogs, do just about anything to avoid dogs getting any unpleasant information), or will not “show well.” I can excuse a tiny portion of this nonsense because I do not organize seminars or workshops and realize I don’t know all the logistics. Like I said before, I do occasionally spring for presentations wherein dog trainers simply talk about training and don’t actually do any. But I am less and less inclined to do so than I was 5, or even 3, years ago.

Mostly, these days I don’t pay unless there’s going to be some play. Ideally, the speaker will work multiple dogs that he or she does not know—and it’s better still if they are not the audience members’ no-longer-green dogs. Even better, the professional will let audience members work dogs while they offer feedback. To me, the true test of a good canine and human teacher is one who can take heretofore unseen dogs and show you the process of training in a short amount of time.

This is what Brian and Sarah do. And I respect the hell out of them for it. And I pay to see them whenever possible, because not only do I always learn a little something new, I want to support their efforts to improve the quality of training dogs get. I also want to support their methodology, which combines clear instruction with appropriate feedback—both positive (lots) and negative (enough). In their hands, dogs have “light bulb moments” rather frequently. It’s a joy to watch. It’s as positive and fun as any training you’ll ever see—and it’s incredibly effective.

Bonus: Sarah has umpteen videos on YouTube of her—surprise!--training dogs that are not hers. Many can be found at her phenomenal website and forums for dog owners,, and a great many are free.

It’s time for those who make a living training dogs and people to “put up or shut up.” If your methods are superior, show me. And don’t just show me with your already-trained dog of a breed commonly owned by dog trainers. Show me with a timid Chihuahua, an adolescent Basenji, an out-of-control, pushy Shepherd mix from the shelter. My demand to be shown especially applies to trainers who believe that all dogs can be trained with one tool, or in one way, or who ignore the laws of Nature and go out of their way to completely eliminate stress for the dog.

Show me you working the dog and getting results. Show me how you’ll translate that instruction to a novice pet owner without confusing scientific terms, grandstanding regarding tools, cockiness, a holier-than-thou attitude, and the assumption that pet owners are unworthy. Show me how your way will start getting results for novice pet owners in MINUTES, not days or weeks, and without incredibly detailed rules that novice pet owners will never adhere to. Show me how you’ll make the owner exclaim, “Wow. I really CAN do this! And now I WANT to!”

Dog training is NEVER a “quick fix.” It takes time and effort to see results, though many pet owners want them to appear as if by magic. This is not reality, and it’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about fun, effective methods that are doable, start to work right away, and that inspire confidence in owners to keep at the business of training so that they can have the dog they deserve.

Because results matter. Show me.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cogitate on it

How do you gestate?

There are many ways to do it. And there are many reasons to do it.

Eric Booth, in his book The Everyday Work of Art, defines gestation as a pause to "reflect, step back from action, to allow intuition and other wordless inner processes to perform their roles" and considers it a necessary part of decision-making and what he calls "world-making." It occurs mostly under the threshold of our attention, in our subconscious.

In dog training, we would put the dog in his crate after a working session to help him calm down and "ponder" what he'd learned. It seems odd that a dog would think about what just occurred, but many trainers find that this does seem to make a difference. It also serves to make training more interesting, as the dog sees it as a chance to be out of the crate and be with his humans.

In contrast, working the dog and then letting him play all the rest of the afternoon with his doggy pals won't allow him time to gestate his new knowledge. Plus, playing with other dogs often supersedes "boring" time with humans doing exercises, so a "green" dog who has not developed a full relationship with his owner or handler will prefer the playtime to the person, thereby making said person a little less relevant.

I have had prospective clients tell me that they take their dog to daycare 3, 4, or even 5 days per week. Usually, this is a daycare that does not meet my standards, and the dogs play all day long. The dog's owners tell me that the dog doesn't seem to give two squirts about them when he's home, and he doesn't listen.

Well, who can blame him? His owners are so far removed from his life that they have become irrelevant. The same thing can happen sans doggy daycare, with owners who won't confine their dogs, ever, and allow them to do whatever they want to do save for the few minutes a day they ask the dog to sit or lie down for some reason.

Having a dog should not be about simply perfunctorily going through the motions to satisfy his needs for food, shelter, and exercise. It should be about developing a relationship, and a bond. Owners who pass off Rover to daycare too often find that being less relevant is not very much fun. (And yes, there is a case to be made for a correlation to nannies raising the children of the rich, but I decided not to go there.)

Gestation doesn't only help dogs to learn. It helps us.

Regardless of what the situation is, I can almost always see the problem much better after I have put it away and ignored it (and I mean ignored it completely) for a while. Sometimes, gestation results in a "Eureka!" moment, and I realize I've just discovered some new way to look at it, which is great fun--even if that doesn't solve the problem.

Sometimes, sleeping on it is the answer. I have also meditated on it, taken a walk on it, written on it, read on it, lain on my back and looked at the sky on it, climbed a tree on it, watched a movie on it, gone to dinner with friends on it, or listened to a favorite orchestral piece of music on it (I think the fact that a symphony or a movie score comes full circle and resolves itself has a lot to do with that working). Every now and again, a bourbon on the rocks will do it, but I drink pretty infrequently, so that's not something I go to right off.

Booth says, "Dreams (of the day or night variety) do not travel the way the crow flies; they zigzag like a butterfly. These tools of gestation go to deep places our intuition would like to tap, to worlds we know, unbeknownst to ourselves."

What about you? When you are faced with a thorny conundrum, how do you gestate? And how long does it take? Is it different depending on the issue? Do you find that skipping gestation results in a degraded solution? Has it ever not worked?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What are you laughing at?

If you had told me 10 years ago I'd own Chihuahuas, I'd have laughed at you. I now own 3, plus 2 other small mutts. All are shelter adoptees.

"Real" dog trainers don't own "frou-frou" dogs. "Real" dog trainers own Belgian Malinois, German Shepherds, Dobermans, field-bred Labs, Australian shepherds, and Border collies. And if they own toy dogs, those are not their "main" dogs, those are ones they picked up along the way (because dog trainers tend to collect dogs like kids collect rubber bracelets).

I have nothing against the above breeds, but I am a real dog trainer, and I have small dogs. And I am hooked.

For one, my dogs are incredibly portable. I can fit all five easily in crates in my van, with room to spare. Many of my trainer friends have to car shop with specific prerequisites in mind for how crates will fit.

Small dogs are cheaper to own. Food and preventative medicine is cheaper. Dog beds, collars, leashes, and training aids are cheaper. Cheaper is good. Because when you have multiple dogs, things get expensive. And I am a cheapskate.

Smaller portions of food=smaller poops. I can take one newspaper bag on a walk with all 5 dogs and not fill it up.

Small dogs (with some notable exceptions like terriers) need less exercise. This is especially nice because I am lazy during my leisure time. Sure, I like to hike and do stuff, but I also like to do things without my dogs (which is another black mark on my dog trainer resume). And they are OK with that--they'll just nap.

Small dogs take up less space. My partner and I share a queen size bed with 4 of our dogs (the 5th is weird and prefers to sleep under the bed unless Jupiter is in retrograde on a Thursday night). They all sleep under the covers, and we still have room. Try that with 5 Malinois.

The "less space" thing is also handy around the house. It allows us to have more furniture. I never trip over sleeping dogs in the middle of the living room.

Part of the reason I don't is because small dogs get out of your way when they notice you are coming. Larger dogs that have been trained do, also, but it often takes them longer to get going, especially as they age. One of my cardinal rules when it comes to training is "never step over your dog; gently but firmly make him move." I never have to make my dogs move--they are on high alert to Get The Hell Out of the Way or get stepped on by clumsy humans.

Small dogs can get in your lap, and cuddle with you, without cutting off your air or causing your legs to fall asleep. And several of them can be in your lap at once. Your 2 Boxers both want to be in your lap at once, but there ain't much room for that.

And don't let some macho dog trainer tell you he doesn't ever cuddle with his dog. He does. Besides, most pet dog trainers are women, and we need the oxytocin dump as much as our dogs do. We don't overdo it, because we know that there is such a thing as "too much of a good thing." Petting and cuddling are an important part of having dogs, but they should not be the only part, or even the biggest part.

My dogs don't slobber. They love to eat, but they do it very neatly (and on a schedule, of course). When they lick you, it's not sloppy. My dogs never have strings of drool hanging from their mouths.

Chihuahuas are smart, and catch on quickly. I used to think they were all nasty ankle-biters, but that was before I was a trainer. Who knew they just needed rules to follow, and proper socialization, just like "real dogs"? Now I do. And I spend a fair amount of time convincing non-trainer small-dog-owners of this, so that their dogs do not become nasty ankle-biters.

Some people laugh off the idea that small dogs are every "truly" aggressive. They giggle when Poopsie the tiny Shih-tzu challenges Thor, the passing 90-lb Lab mix, snarling and lunging on the leash. "Isn't that cute?! Look, Myrtle, at the tough little guy! Give 'em hell, little guy!"

This irks me. Small-dog owners are just as liable for their dogs' behavior as large-dog owners are. Just because Poopsie is small and cute does not excuse that rude behavior, and if Thor decides to stop showing restraint, Poopsie will be in a world of hurt, or dead, and any onlookers will be horrified at the carnage. And both dog owners will share the blame: Poopsie's, for not teaching her manners on a walk, and Thor's, for not properly restraining their dog.

But Thor's owners will probably be held accountable, while Poopsie's will not. As I am a small dog owner, you'd think this would make me happy, but I'm a dog professional, so it absolutely does not. All dogs need training, period. Dog owners who refuse to train, and who keep dogs that are aggressive to people and other animals--regardless of size--are irresponsible.

Training provides dogs--a social species--with a blueprint of how to fit into human society. Without this blueprint, dogs do not thrive. Seeing toy dogs stuffed into purses and strollers annoys me in several ways, but mostly because I know that those dogs are not able to truly be dogs.

My dogs sometimes roll in stinky stuff. They have great noses and they use them. They keep squirrels out of the yard with great pride. They know lots of basic commands, including "heel," and lots of tricks--most of which they will happily do with or without treats. They frolic in the grass, get dirty after it rains, chase and fetch, and in every other way act like dogs much bigger than they. As long as conditions are safe for them to be on the ground, they are.

Sure, there are drawbacks--besides the snickers. I have to watch out for birds of prey, people's clumsy feet, crowds, large dogs. The Chihuahuas cannot run or even walk as long as I might like to, because they get tired. Their limbs are more fragile, and they don't deal well with cold weather. They can get nervous if people shriek and run towards them or try to pick them up (why anyone would assume it's OK to pick up a dog without asking and hold it up to her face I'll never know). Most people don't try that stunt with German shepherds.

(In high school and college, I had a Doberman. She was a lovely dog with a wonderful temperament, despite the fact that she was not formally trained. When I'd walk her in public, people would yank their children up and over to the opposite side of the street as we approached, even though she walked nicely at heel and paid them no mind at all. Naturally, I was offended, because I knew she'd never hurt anyone, and I wasn't wise enough to know what I now now about cynophobia. At any rate, I solved the problem by outfitting her with a bright, colorful bandanna. The change in people's reactions was almost immediate: my "vicious" dog now garnered appreciative looks and compliments, and parents actually allowed their children to approach for petting.)

They may be small, but their hearts hold as much love as any big dog's, which is really the important part. They are bona fide canine companions, albeit in smaller, more efficient, longer-living, smaller pooping, no-slobber packages that make great bedtime heating pads on cold days.

Scoff if you wish, but maybe one day you will know the joys of a good lap dog.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Letter to My Father

Dear Dad,

I wanted to write you because it's been a long time since I had, and because you like getting letters, and because I like writing them. You've been on my mind lately, more than usual.

I'd like to start with a few simple "thank yous," if that's OK. These are in no particular order.

Thank you for pursuing Mom. In today's world it would be stalking, no doubt about it. But she admits she didn't mind it (except maybe when you followed her to Europe when she went on that trip with her cousin; she said that was a bit weird). And you were 16 years her senior, and, well, her boss.

Yeah, creepy. But it ultimately brought me into the world, and I'm enjoying myself here.

Thank you for buying a house where you did. It was a stroke of genius, which I know you didn't know then. But the location is perfect, and the neighborhood that was great to grow up in, where I rode my bike and played football and threw frisbees and lost myself in the woods behind the house for hours on end really just keeps getting better. I am so glad that my brothers didn't have interest in this place when it was going to be sold. I love it here, and I always have, and it is because of you. The tree in the front yard is beyond magnificent.

Thank you for agreeing to the divorce. I know that sounds weird to say, but it really was the best thing that could have happened. While you may have had happy times for a while, by the time I left 8th grade it was all shot to hell. We all knew it. I know it wasn't easy for you to admit defeat, and I'm sure it didn't make much sense to you at the time, or afterwards. Unknowingly, you gave up your own happiness for mine and Mom's. It's what a good father does.

Because you were much older than my friend's fathers, I didn't really connect with you until I was an adult. As a child I found you stodgy, but as I grew I matured, and I paid attention.

Thank you for imbuing me with your love of literature and music. I admit that I didn't like your Big Band sound, and I thought the tapes you made for your friends where you DJ'd were dumb at the time (though they loved them). I did grow weary of hearing Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, Glenn Miller, and Anita O'Day (and I still don't enjoy that sound), but, and you might not know this, I was listening to you love it.

And in between the sounds I disliked were some serious gems. I remember being in my room studying and hearing, for the first time, the throaty awesomeness of Nina Simone. I didn't think much of it until I watched the Bridget Fonda/Gabriel Byrne remake of "Le Femme Nikita" called "Point of No Return." When the first Nina song came on, I started. I recognized it! It gave me chills.

And though I had become interested in classical music really for the first time my freshman year in college (thank you, Music Appreciation 101, J.B. Golden, and Paula Williams), I recall lying in the bathtub at home, long after that class, and hearing the strains of Ennio Morricone's spectacular score for "The Mission" coming out of the speakers in the living room, and thinking, "Wow." You were thrilled when I asked you about it, and thereafter you'd call me excitedly whenever you had other scores (or symphonies) you thought I'd like.

Thank you for not pushing me to major in something I hated just so I would be more employable; I'm convinced my English degree and Education M.Ed. have helped me way more than an MBA would have. I know you were just happy I was going to college, and later I know you were proud that I am the only one of your children to finish college at all.

Thank you for giving me a good economic sense. It has been a huge asset, and I am grateful. My brothers did not get it, and they have still not learned from their mistakes.

Speaking of that, thank you for allowing me to make mistakes, though I never made huge ones. I was conservative enough with money to make good decisions early on. I'm not rich by any monetary means, but I support myself just fine, thanks to your wisdom.

Thank you for letting us have dogs. They all taught me so much, and shaped my life immeasurably.

Your "hands-off" discipline style meant that Mom was the one wielding the switch when I needed it. Some of my friends told stories of the spankings their dads gave them, but I could say, "my dad has never laid a hand on me." I'm not angry at Mom, mind you--I am so thankful she helped me understand that behaviors had consequences, and I learned quickly. Just the thought of disappointing either of you meant that I didn't get spanked much.

Of course, the validity of spanking is now a hot topic, and I'm glad I have no children of my own causing me to have to deal with it. I was not abused. I was disciplined as necessary. There is a difference.

My childhood was a good one, Dad. It wasn't all sunshine and ponies, but it was sturdy and caring compared to the childhoods of some people I am friends with now. Knowing what I now know about how much one's childhood affects the rest of one's life, I am eternally thankful for both you and Mom. I am who I am today because of how I was raised.

Thank you for living your values, and for teaching them to me, and not hiding behind fundamentalist religion to do it. I know you couldn't afford to send me to Catholic school for 9 years, and now I know why you sacrificed and did it anyway: it wasn't because you honestly believed it was a superior education. It was because of your sister, and I can forgive you for that. You loved her in spite of her "crazy" immersion into belief.

I know now that you were agnostic, but "going with the flow" and raising your children in the church of your youth was expected of you. Trust me when I say that knowledge buoys me on a consistent basis. I wondered about it for years, until one day I got it. I had long left the church by then, but never really understood why you had believed it in the first place. You were too intellectual for it, Dad. (Yeah, I hate it when the obvious hits you right smack in the face.)

You worked hard at a job you grew to hate to provide for us. You retired, then started working again because you needed the money. You took care of the things that needed to be taken care of at the expense of doing things you wanted to do. You did the best you could, always.

None of this was lost on me. As I age, I see so much of you in me, where before I thought we had little in common. In your own quiet way, you loved me no matter what. That is the greatest gift a parent can give a child.

Thank you for the sacrifices you made, including the sacrifices to our country during the war, and the stories that came from them. Do you remember that interview I did of you for my Journalism class, the one where I told your story of bailing out of a plane and ending up in a POW camp (with a really wild twist of fate), and I didn't reveal until the end that you were my dad? I got an "A" on it, and I still have it.

Not a day goes by that I don't think of how you have affected my life and helped me along the way. (Mom did, too; she deserves a ton of credit that I will get to later.) You showed me it was good to love learning, and reading, and reciting poetry; the pleasures of a good hammock, a good fire, and a good mixed drink; the way a musical piece can lift you into another world. I had loved the beauty of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" as a symphonic/choral piece for years, and disliked ballet, but when you took me to the ballet performance, I was dumbstruck. I'll never forget it. I still do not care for ballet, but "Carmina" is one I will see again.

I'll never be able to properly thank you, Dad. There's more, but this is enough for now. It's been a philosophical day for me, as this day has been for 16 years now.

I have one more thing to tell you, Dad, besides the fact that the movie "Meet Joe Black" (and its beautiful score by Thomas Newman) makes me sob uncontrollably because Anthony Hopkins' character is not really like you but makes me think of you; besides the fact that I listen to the 2nd movement of Brahm's "Requiem" on this day every year and end up curled in a crying fetal position the rest of the day; besides the fact that Elton John's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" makes me stop the car and weep no matter where I am. As I drove home from the hospital after you quietly left, your body spent and unable to continue, I was remembering the sound of your respirator ceasing, and my aunt, Mom, and brothers crying, and the nurse leaving us to our grief. And that song came on the radio.

I love you, and I miss you more than I ever, ever thought I would. I've got so many more movies and scores and songs and books to share with you.

My life is one of happiness and promise, Dad, in many ways because of you. And I have only one real regret: I'm not sure that I told you how much I loved you before you were gone on July 26th, 1994, at the age of 72. I was 28, and we hadn't been "close" for a while. Three days before you went into the hospital complaining of stomach pains, we all gathered at Lee's and had a Father's day cookout. You gave me my birthday present, which I recall was a pair of shorts and a shirt from Sears that I might have worn when I was 15. I know I thanked you for it, and I knew secretly I'd never wear it, but how could you have known? The thought absolutely counted.

I remember parts of that day in stark detail, and the rest none at all. It was hot, of course. You and Lee probably argued. At some point I'm sure I wanted to be doing anything else. But the thing I cannot remember, and believe me, I've tried: did I tell you "I love you" that day? Did I? If not, why not? I could kick myself for not knowing that.

I'm pretty sure I told you in the hospital before your body started shutting down slowly and you went into the coma. Yes, I'm sure I did. We all thought you'd be coming home; pancreatitis is rarely fatal, the doctors all said. But the days passed, and you didn't get better; you got worse. Surely, at some point before you were no longer lucid, I told you.

I'm trying to make up for it by living my best life, and I think you'd be proud of me, still. For weeks after you died, I dreamt of you, and in every single dream I spent so much time telling you how special you were to me, and how much I appreciated you. I woke up crying every morning for weeks after your funeral.

Though I do not believe in the concept of an afterlife, in those dreams, time had reverted back to when you were alive, and you heard me.

Despite my regret, what I did in those dreams has to be enough. I love you, Dad.

"It doesn't matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was."
~Anne Sexton

Monday, July 19, 2010

Should I Get My Dog A Dog?

There is a tongue-in-cheek suggestion often given to Women Who Do Too Much (you know, the ones ferrying the kids everywhere, planning meals, shopping, working, doing laundry, and multiple other tasks while trying not to stress out).

Their friends, co-workers, and even family will jokingly suggest, "You need to get yourself a wife."

For some reason, I thought of that joke as I was writing this. Let's look at this scenario (minus the ferrying, shopping, planning, doing laundry, etc.) from the perspective of the "average" dog owner.

Many people who only have one dog often feel guilty, and worry that they are depriving their pet by not having a playmate for him. I am often asked if they should get a second dog to keep their dog company, and my answer is “it depends.”

Dogs are indeed social animals, and most enjoy the company of other dogs in addition to humans. Their innate sociability is why they make such great companions for us, and why they are relatively easy to train. But are we depriving them if we only have one in our home?

Before you rush out to get Rover a pal, ask yourself the following questions, and consult a qualified trainer if you are not sure.

Is Rover 8-9 months or older? Raising one puppy is hard enough; don’t make it harder by adding another dog before Rover is housebroken, at least somewhat trained, and bonded with you. This is one reason out of many why most canine professionals agree that adopting 2 puppies together is a bad idea. And adding a “non-puppy” may not be much better; any age dog that is new to your home will still need training and time to settle in.

Is Rover obedience trained? If he isn’t, you will have a much harder time training 2 at once. And dogs learn from other dogs, but not usually good habits. So fix Rover first, for best results. Otherwise, you may end up with twice the trouble.

Are you getting Rover a pal because you don’t spend enough time with him? This is a common mistake people make, and what you end up with is two dogs you now do not have time for. Dogs may love each others’ company, but they typically love us more, and dogs don’t raise other dogs—people do. If sociable dogs had their pick between “another dog” and “more quality time with owner,” most would pick option 2. Seriously.

Does Rover really like other dogs? This sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people have dogs who really have little interest in other dogs who rush out to get Fido a friend. Does Fido go to the dog park, or to daycare? If so, does he play well with others (as opposed to just tolerating them, or worse)? Maybe he likes certain kinds (and breeds or sizes) of dogs, but not others. Not every dog loves every other dog he meets. We don’t expect that of humans, so why do we expect it of dogs?

Being a social species does not mean that one likes every other member of the species; I'm sure you know this from, like, life (do YOU like everyone you meet? Humans are a social species...if you answered no, then why not?) You might be amazed at how many people are truly troubled that their dogs are simply nonchalant about playing with other dogs. They get very offended when they go somewhere with dogs and their dog prefers to hang out with the owners instead of running around with the other dogs. Of course, there are plenty of reasons why, but the bottom line is that those dogs, as long as they are not aggressive or overly stressed, are perfectly happy that way, and there is nothing wrong with them!

Is Rover "protective" of you? Maybe you've noticed that Rover gets "weird" when other dogs approach you in the dog park. Maybe your friend's dog was visiting once and Rover "didn't like it" when that dog would come over to you for petting or attention. Sometimes this is mild, like
pushing in between you and the other dog, as if to push the dog away from you, or trying to grab treats or toys before the other dog can take them from you. (Both of these are annoying, but if they are the extent of the possessiveness, and do not turn into growling or fighting, you can fix them fairly easily.)

But if Rover's possessiveness is stronger, such as he growls, snaps, or bites when the other dog is close; lunges at or attacks the dog when it moves into your space, or attacks the dog over resources like toys or food, Rover will need some behavioral intervention before you bring another dog home. If you can't get a handle on this problem with professional help, you shouldn't add a dog to your household, and if it is pronounced in public, you should be very cautious when taking him to off-leash spaces where you have less control.

Some dogs are fine with other dogs in public situations like dog parks and daycare, or even in homes that are not yours, but definitely will NOT tolerate another dog living in their space. Technically, it's your decision to whether you will have another dog, not your dog's--but if you are constantly having to correct and separate them, or worse, break up fights, why put yourself and the dogs through that? It's a stressful way to live for both humans and canines, and someone is going to be hurt.

If your dog blatantly tells you that he wants to be the only dog in your home, your responsibility is to him first and foremost. Ignoring his temperament in this aspect could be costly, dangerous, and emotionally devastating. Enjoy him for who he is, and if he likes other dogs in public, give him that outlet if you can do so safely.

Are you really ready for a second dog? You know he won’t be as easy as Rover was, don’t you? The law of averages says that if your first dog (or child) was easy to raise and train, the second one will be just the opposite. Are you prepared to do the work? Whether you get a young puppy or an adolescent or an adult, all dogs need to learn the rules of your home when they come into it. Prepare for a lot of work, and be thankful if it isn’t as hard as you expected.

Adding a second dog also adds costs, from food to travel plans, to how big of a car do you have, and do you have room for another crate?

Ultimately, getting a second dog is a personal decision that must not be made lightly. For most people, after training, having a second dog isn’t much harder than having one (though adding a third definitely ups the stakes). Being left alone is not as lonely for Fido  (once they have both earned the privilege to be loose in the home), and watching 2 dogs who like each other interact can be very enjoyable. Plus, you are helping a dog that needs a home. So, the positives are definitely there.

The best short answer to the titular question is this: don’t get a dog for your dog. Get a second dog for yourself when you are ready (after it has met and gets along with your dog, of course), and chances are the dogs will also benefit from the arrangement.

If you are going to take the plunge, here are some suggestions.

Try to choose a dog of the opposite sex, and if your dog is 2 or older, go younger (it doesn’t have to be a baby, though). Know your dog's personality and try to get a dog that won't clash with it. Ultimately, though, get the dog you want to have--the one you are best suited to raise and train and live with for the next 10-15 years. Consult a trainer to accompany you to the shelter or breeders' place if you are not sure; there are no guarantees, but someone with a good eye for what "getting along" looks like can be immensely helpful in this process.

Take your time and make the right decision; there's no need to rush.

Establish rules and structure right away for the new dog ('cuz your existing dog already has them in place, right?) and be prepared to feed separately for best results. Of course, the new dog needs his own crate.

NOTE: just because your Fido and new Rover got along at the shelter, don't expect pure, unfettered harmony at home--at first. Space is a dog's primary language, and when a new dog comes into an existing dog's territory, there is bound to be a little friction (especially if your house or yard are small). Let them drag leashes at the first meetup, and later in the home until you are sure they understand what's expected of them. Tight leashes promote frustration and reactivity.

In the above photo, what do you see? A happy greeting? Notice the raised tails, the raised hackles on both dogs, and the way the brown dog is hovering above the black dog. Without a dog-savvy adult nearby, this could have turned ugly. The obvious positives of the above situation: outdoors, with plenty of room to move; the dogs are not squared off, but perpendicular; the dog with the most potential for problems is dragging a leash. Just after this was taken, I called the brown dog and he turned towards me, breaking the "stalemate." The black dog was relieved and trotted off. I had a close eye on the brown dog after that; there were other dogs in the yard, and he was wary of all of them, but he was never given a chance to posture that way again due to sharp human intervention. After he calmed down, he even played a bit.

Harmony between dogs in the home is always easier with good, clear leadership. There will be less squabbling if you have made it clear that you will not put up with fighting. If you are having a problem, keep them separated for safety, and consult a trainer who will approach the problem from multiple angles if need be (not with force, and not with only treats).

Initial training is easier with fewest distractions, so any training you do should be one dog at a time for now. Crate the other dog while you work, then switch them. As they get better, use the other dog as a controlled distraction.

Having multiple dogs can be, and more often than not, is, a fantastic experience. Just don't rush into it, as it is a 15-year commitment, and make sure your dog would love the idea.

"Old age means realizing you will never own all the dogs you wanted to." ~~Joe Gores

Saturday, June 19, 2010

We have met the enemy, and He is Us

The young dog was gaunt, but I knew he’d been fed on a regular basis. Now, in our care, he ate warily but readily, as long as the food was left for him and no one was looking. His eyes darted back and forth, watching everything. He shrank back in his kennel and occasionally we would hear a low growl emanating from him when we came too close. Crouching down and looking over his head was better, but he still wouldn’t readily approach. At one point, I went and sat in the 8X10 run at the far corner, a handful of chicken pieces in my bait bag and a book in the other hand. I would sit and read out loud, and toss chicken in his direction. For the first 15 minutes he ignored it. Growling came and went. I never looked directly at him.

He eventually stuck his slender neck out and snatched some of the pieces hurriedly, fearfully. After a few agonizing minutes he finished the rest, never taking his eyes off me. When I finished the chapter, I stood up very slowly and exited, not looking back. He watched me carefully, but didn’t move a muscle, as I walked away.

After 3 days of this there hadn’t been much change. I was able to loop a leash over his head, and he would walk with me, but it was not a normal walk. He alternated hanging back and forging ahead in an attempt to free himself from the leash. When the door to the outside opened, he bolted through it and stood, shaking, on the other side. I had him out for about 20 minutes, and he never eliminated. I was able to stroke his fur on his side (he started when I touched him, but didn’t move away, so I left my hand there), but I did not try to touch his head. I spoke calmly to him, and watched as he scanned the area hawkishly, his bushy tail tucked between his trembling rear legs. A loud truck went over a bump in the road, and the dog nearly leapt out of his skin.

He looked wolfish, but it was likely German shepherd and some other lanky breeds. Had he been at his correct weight, where ribs could be felt but not seen, he’d have been beautiful. He had what we like to call “human eyes”: dark brown with rimmed irises. His coat was in decent shape, he was neutered, and I knew he’d finished his last round of vaccinations about 6 months ago.

No, Shiloh wasn't some stray we'd picked up on the side of the road.

He was adopted from the shelter as an 8-week-old pup, by a happy couple who had owned dogs before. They were middle class, no kids (yet), and far from ignorant or unprepared--at least as far as shelter personnel knew. There was no reason to believe that this puppy would live anything but a pampered life with them.

But here he was, returned 8 months later, a victim of abuse. Oh, they never laid a hand on him except to pet him (and I know this because they were horrified the shelter staff might assume they had). He was housebroken, but he didn't have much else in the way of "formal training." You might think that's why I considered him abused--refusing to train a social species that hungers for information about how to fit into our world is, well, at the very least disrespectful to dogs--but that really wasn't even on my mind as I sat with him and remembered the wife crying in the Intake waiting room.

"I'm due in 3 months. And I love him--he's very loyal and attached to me--but he is so scared and spooky, and I just can't take any chances with the baby."

Pregnant couples giving up on perfectly good dogs is nothing new in sheltering. It happens a lot, and one can blame them up one side and down the other (I mean, you've known for a while you were gonna have a kid, right?), or even have some compassion towards their predicament, lame as it sometimes sounds, but at that point, it is moot. Cultural traditions, myths, advice from well-meaning people and the glut of information online, coupled with the emotions surrounding the fact that your lives are about to change forever, put seeds of doubt into would-be parents' minds, and often there is no going back.

I didn't fault this woman for the choice she had made. Pregnant couples giving up on perfectly good dogs may not be new, but Shiloh was far from "perfectly good." He was spooky, flighty, and on edge. I couldn't imagine him around a newborn, not to mention all the preparations, and the arrival home from the hospital, and change in schedule, and family in and out after the blessed event. He barely had enough confidence to eat enough to keep his ribs from showing when it was calm and quiet at their home with no visitors or stressful events. A baby in the home would be an accident waiting to happen. I'm childfree by choice, but I know enough to know that nervous, frightened dogs don't mix well with kids, and parents don't usually have a lot of confidence in them--which perpetuates the cycle.

So if they never laid a hand on him or made him go without, how dare I claim "abuse"?

I'll tell you why: he was scared of everything, and not just at first. Shiloh was distrustful even after a period of time had passed with nothing bad happening to him. He couldn't "bounce back" from his fears easily. And while fear has an evolutionary advantage in mammals, an overabundance of fear is not better. It's far worse.

But how is his fear their fault?

Well, the genetics part isn't, at all--they didn't breed him. And though they never laid a mean hand on Shiloh, never yelled or screamed at him, never left him in the cold without food or shelter, never ignored him when they were home with him, and never neglected his veterinary care, they abused him, passively, just the same.

Because Shiloh was never socialized. By their own admission, they kept him inside with them all the time, and during the crucial socialization period that all puppies go through between 3 weeks and 16 weeks of age, when they should be learning positive things about the world, Shiloh was kept from life. They were worried he might catch a disease, so they avoided exposing him to the world. Unknowingly, they took away his ability to develop the capacity to deal with the world outside. Shiloh never went for walks, or on short trips to safe places that wouldn't overwhelm him. He hid in the bedroom when guests came, and he had never seen a child up close. He didn't get to play with other dogs; he didn't attend training classes; he didn't really get to be a dog.

Socialization is inoculation against later fearfulness, and his owners, while meaning well, denied him this vaccination.

And in doing so, they made sure Shiloh would never be normal. Some of his fear was likely hereditary, given his potential breed mix. It was a double whammy, nature and nurture in a negative capacity, and he never saw it coming.

Dogs are social creatures who develop bonds early in life to their own kind and, thanks to years of selective breeding, to humans. It's part of their genetic code to seek a social group, and to seek a place within the hierarchy of that group.

Deny a human child the company of other humans during our formative years (namely, birth to puberty), and the Critical Period Hypothesis says you will get a child that will have lasting damage, including an inability to master language--a result that is not fatal to the child, but certainly increases stress and makes life way more difficult. Puppies go through critical periods of development as well. John Fuller and John Paul Scott, in their landmark study chronicled in Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog (1965), said,

Every highly social species of animal which has been studied so far has a short period early in life when primary social relationships are formed…in the case of the puppy, it looks as if a small amount of contact shortly after 3 weeks of age will produce a strong social relationship which can be duplicated only by hours or weeks of patient effort at later periods in life—if, indeed, it can be duplicated at all.

While Fuller and Scott’s study doesn’t say when the “socialization window” closes, other experts agree that it appears to be around 16 weeks of age. Again, it’s a window, so it never completely shuts. But we do know that if puppies are not handled at all by humans before 16 weeks, they will always live in a feral or semi-feral state.

Most puppies get at least some handling between birth and 16 weeks, whether it be purposeful or not. Shiloh certainly had some. But it appears that he—and many others like him, sadly—didn’t get enough. And that’s something puppy breeders, buyers and adopters can change.

Granted, when we compare the undersocialization of human children to the undersocialization of dogs, the latter seems pretty trite. But dogs are everywhere in our society, by our choice, so undersocialization cannot be brushed aside as inconsequential, since it definitely impairs their ability to adapt to our confusing, loud, emotionally-affecting world. And fearful dogs may not want to bite as their first defense, but when cornered, many will.

Refusing to train a dog to understand the rules of our world is refusing to acknowledge the dog's real needs, does nothing to help dogs, and often harms them. It's especially heartbreaking when you know training isn't difficult, time-consuming, or expensive, it need not be harsh at all (it's actually a lot of fun if done correctly).

But forget obedience training for the moment. Not exposing a puppy to what life will hold for him later, even just the basics of people with different skin tones, outfits and different voice tones; loud noises; cars; children; bicycles; and various and sundry things we take for granted every day is abuse. It's setting up for failure a creature that craves anything but social isolation. It seems inocuous, but it isn't. It seems better for the pup to isolate him from possible disease, but it isn't.

The problem with neglecting to socialize a puppy that is hard-wired for it is that once the crucial window closes, experts agree that it is partly closed for good. Yes, it is more than possible to socialize dogs past 16 weeks (it's a window, not a steel door); people do it all the time. But you can't get back all of what you lost. You can help the dog, but something will always be missing: an important piece of the puzzle that is best acquired while the dog's brain is still forming.

My friend Sarah Wilson is an author, teacher, damn good trainer, student of the human-animal bond, and a wise woman. She does her best work with what she calls "deficit dogs": dogs with decent genetics who had a bad start in life, but with the proper training and an owner who looks to the future instead of dwelling on the past, will make progress. Most make incredible progress under her tutelage, and so do the bipeds holding their leashes. (An article from Sarah with ways to help deficit dogs.)

When it's done right, it can be remarkable. The dog may make infintesimal strides forward for so long you think nothing is happening, and then, Bingo! You see a huge success. If you don't push it, more success will follow.

But it's not an easy, or quick road. Socializing and training deficit dogs is a slow process that happens in small fits and starts, and one setback (e.g. thinking the dog is ready for The Big Leagues before he has even started batting practice) like thrusting him into an unwinnable situation, can reverse all the good progress already made. It's maddening for owners and trainers, and sad for the dogs.

Many of these dogs reach a plateau after a while. They hit the ceiling of As Good As It Gets, and they may never get past it. Owners of these dogs must be prepared for that, and all along they've had to be realistic about Fluffy, realizing she'll never be the outgoing Life of the Party they wanted. But that doesn't mean the dogs don't deserve someone who will try. And many people do--because you don't train the dog you wanted to have, you train the dog that you actually have, the one sitting right in front of you, for better or worse.

Shiloh is not a true deficit dog, by my estimation (though time will tell), because he likely has hereditary fear, and no amount of training will overcome genetics. He'll probably always be a bit flighty and nervous, and never really comfortable around men or small children.

When people see his behavior, most immediately assume the abuse he suffered came in the form of a child teasing him, or a man beating him. But in truth, it's because he was never exposed to children, and the only man he knew was the husband, who is short and very soft-spoken. Though there is no way to know, my experience is that what the public wants to see as conditions arising from physical abuse (cringing, submissive urination or defecation, ducking when an arm or object is raised, avoiding eye contact, bolting for safety, or even snapping when cornered) are more often symptoms of a lack of socialization. If your dog hits the dirt every time you pick up a broom, your first instinct is to assume that someone hit him with a broom. While that is certainly possible in dog you have not lived with his whole life, what is more likely is that a broom fell when he ran into it while exploring during his "fear period,"(maybe more than once), or an adult picked up a broom and gently shooed him with it while yelling, and now he thinks brooms are agents of Lucifer. Things learned during the fear periods have lasting consequences, and even if they are not harsh, they can be perceived or "remembered" by the dog that way.

NOTE: I'm not saying that the "guilt" behaviors mentioned above never have roots in actual abuse. It's positively horrific what humans are capable of doing to animals, and shelters in more rural or depressed urban areas see the effects of abuse far too often. But we do know that a lack of socialization also causes timidity to people and objects, and when we know this, we are less likely to spout The Abuse Excuse. When we let that go, we can move forward with the dog.

So what is good socialization? Experts don't always agree on how much puppies need, but most of us agree that many puppies don't get enough. Good breeders (you know, the ones who do health checks and genetic testing to weed out congenital defects, screen buyers carefully, breed for temperament, work with rescues to take dogs back, breed 1 or maybe 2 litters a year, specialize in one or maybe 2 breeds, don't disappear after the sale, don't try to pawn off multiple pups on unsuspecting buyers, and understand genetics and their breed thoroughly) raise pups in the home and generally follow the Rule of Sevens. (Some say that's a good guideline, but may not be enough.) They don't allow pups to leave the litter before 7 weeks at the earliest, and if they keep the pups longer (some up to 12 weeks) they start crate training, housebreaking, and do even more socialization. Good breeders also encourage the new owners to continue the socialization from the day after purchase through 16 weeks and beyond, with suggestions like well-run puppy training classes, and lots of safe visiting in the community.

Dogs born in puppymills generally have little or no socialization because those producers have no interest in the final product, only the money they receive from the transaction. In spite of that, to dogs' credit, some puppymill dogs manage to turn out OK, though that in no way implies that I support anyone going that route for a pup. But if you adopt a purebred or a designer mutt from a shelter, you may be getting a puppymill dog that an unsuspecting pet store shopper could not handle--so be prepared.

It has long been common knowledge to trainers that a lack of early socialization causes problems down the road. A lack of training will cause problems, too, but the "training window" never truly closes, as dogs (like people) are always learning. Many people have adopted adolescent and adult untrained dogs from shelters and turned them into fantastically-trained, outgoing, happy dogs. It takes longer than with a new puppy, but it's more than possible.

Trying to make up for a lack of early socialization, however, is like trying to push string. It takes a lot of patience and time just to get the dog to a place where obedience training can begin. Unfortunately, this is more of a project than the "average adopter" signs up for, and though deficit dogs tend to be very attached to their owners, excessive neediness is not healthy for man or beast.

It is far preferable to set the puppy up for success, so no matter what obstacles he meets later in life, from the stresses of a new baby at home to having to be rehomed, he can acclimate to them. Well-socialized dogs are easier to train and live with, and live less stressful lives.

Shiloh was adopted eventually, by a young man who'd owned GSD before. He and I talked for a long time about the road ahead, and I really think he understood (though it is likely to be longer than he thought). We discussed how to make up for lost time, and how to go slowly, and we discussed the plans he had to make Shiloh's new life better through training and socialization. I told him that Shiloh didn't need his pity--he needed the young man's strength. I told him that his own confidence, plus guidance and structure (i.e., training), would give Shiloh confidence. I told him not to expect miracles, but to shoot for small successes every day. I told him that he couldn't change the past, but he could affect the future--and for Shiloh, a world with less stress and more chances to "be a dog" would be heaven.

Every dog deserves that.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"Uttering joyous leaves of dark green"

All my life I've been fascinated by trees. I grew up in what the U.S.D.A. Forest Service calls the Blue Ridge area of the Central Hardwood region. There are a number of pine trees (considered softwoods) in my yard and in my neighborhood, but luckily, there are quite a few hardwoods, too. Oaks are my favorite, especially Quercus rubra (Northern red oak) and Quercus alba (White oak). In one of my first blog posts, I wrote about my favorite trees, and I alluded to climbing them. 

 My love for trees began early, when I'd spend every nice day outdoors, and often alone, in the woods behind my house. There was quite a bit of undeveloped land in the neighborhood, and I'd explore it happily and safely as often as possible. My friends and I built forts from discarded branches and created walking trails in an area probably only a few acres in size, but it felt gigantic (and private) to us. Neighbors didn't mind us tramping through their "way back" backyards (they certainly never went back there), and if they did, they didn't say. 

"In the woods" was where I started looking up. The trees were magnificent and plentiful, and my friends and I climbed as many as we could, but most in our woods were older and too tall for us to reach the branches. I often wondered what it would be like to perch myself high up in those branches, but I knew I couldn't fly and the idea that it was possible to get there was too wild to fathom. So I surveyed reverently from the ground, and in the meantime passed several phases of childhood in that shady landscape. "In the woods" was where I also had my first kiss (and several subsequent ones, but don't judge me--this was when "making out" was kissing and not much more), my first look at porn (1970's Playboys stashed under what someone must have thought was a hidden rock), typical pre-teen angst and mood swings ("I hate you and I'm running away!"), and many adventures jumping creeks, catching tadpoles and crawfish, and just hanging. I played softball and of course had school, but I never had playdates or structured activities that I can recall. You had to listen for the cowbell to know when Mom was calling you for dinner, and we were discouraged from being in the woods after dark, so our post-prandial play moved to the front yards and the nearly empty neighborhood streets until bedtime.

But the woods were the best. I used to fantasize that my folks would buy me a horse and I would build him a stable in the woods just behind the house ('cause, hey, I could built a rudimentary fort, so surely he could live in something like that, and he'd eat...leaves and sticks?), and I'd ride him through the trees along our trails. When I wasn't trawling the woods, I spent time in our own semi-wild backyard inside the fence. Grass never would grow in our yard, much to my father's consternation, because of the trees. That didn't bother me one bit, and I think he secretly was glad, because he had no intention of cutting them down--and he hated to mow. I climbed the one tree I could reach from the ground, a Southern Magnolia, to my heart's content and found great solace in being in the branches. It was my own special place, and I distinctly remember bolting up it through tears on the day I learned of my grandfather's death in 1977. (One of the first scenes in "Fried Green Tomatoes" always reminds me of that day.) The trees I love most and I grew up together, though they had a long head start. I still live in that house (yes, I moved away for a while, attended college and lived in a few other places--the usual "spreading the wings"), having bought it from my father's estate some 15 years ago. It holds much sentimental value for me, and the trees are a huge part of that. Though I always thought them huge, they are much taller now. And I still cannot fly, but yes, I have been in those topmost branches.

  In 2004, I decided that wings were not necessary to get up into trees, and I sought out treeclimbing. I found Tree Climbers International, and wouldn't you know it, it wasn't 10 minutes from my house. Founded by an arborist named Peter "Treeman" Jenkins, TCI taught recreational tree climbing, and just happened to have a "free climb" once per month. That's where they would set the ropes, help you into your harness and give you a little tutorial, and you'd be up in the branches as quick as you please. Well, if you were 10 and skinny, that is. My overweight, almost-40 self didn't do much quickly those days, so the first climb was a bit of a disappointment. I think I got about 15 feet off the ground. But I was hooked, and I was determined to make it to a branch at some point--first at the TCI grove, and then in my own yard. 

 Luckily for me, TCI offered courses to teach you how to tie the ropes and get yourself up into the canopy. The techniques they use are not harmful to the tree (no spikes), and you can go as high as a few feet below the branch where your line is set. I signed up, and after a pretty grueling 2-day intensive, I was armed with knowledge (and sore muscles--but I passed the course). I purchased my climbing equipment (standard arborists equipment with some slight variations) and set out to set static lines in the trees in my yard. People often ask, when I tell them I climb, "oh, is it like rock climbing?" When I say no, they seem disappointed. Treeclimbing with ropes is not as strenuous as rock climbing, though it can be a decent workout. And the ropes get you both up and down, not just down. It's also a "self-belay" system; you don't need another person on belay, so it can be a solitary activity. We use the same carabiners as rock climbers and cavers, but the chalk, special clothes, and special shoes (some tree climbers do it barefooted) are unneccessary. 

 Tree climbers use arborists' rope, which is different from rock-climbing rope, because it has less "give." You can't leave it in the tree all the time, because it will rot. So if you want to climb repeatedly, you set a static line in the tree in the setting you want, using a thin nylon cord that is impervious to the elements, and you haul your climbing rope up using that line. (I actually use plastic-covered clothesline; it's cheaper than zip line). Otherwise, you have to throw the line (using an arborists' throw bag) every time, and it's a skill I am only slightly good at. I set 4 lines, two each in two trees, the white oak Zemyna in my front yard, and the red oak Hannah in the back. So when I want to climb, it only takes a few moments to get my 1/2" rope into the tree and tie my climbing knots. Then I saddle up in my recreational saddle (the "Tengu" model at right), put on my helmet, hook on a water bottle, camera bag, notebook and gloves, and I go "on rope." I use locking carabiners to secure myself to the rope. 

One of the cardinal rules of tree climbing is that you never unhook from your rope while in the tree. If you obey that rule and tie your knots correctly, it's incredibly safe. The climbing technique I use is called DRT (double rope technique), and it uses a very ingenious knot called a modified Blake's hitch (the topmost knot in the photo at left) to allow the climber to ascend and descend easily. You pull yourself up using your own body weight (upper-body strength is necessary, but you mostly use your legs and your weight). I use a Prussik loop on the rope with my feet in it to literally pull the opposite end of the rope downward, which sends me upward. The Blake's hitch is scooted up by hand, and holds me in position. Eventually, I reach my destination branch, and after hanging out there a while, I decide if I want to switch branches and ascend higher, or descend. 

 Descent is simple and fun. You just grab the Blake's hitch and apply pressure on the top of it, and gravity will do the rest. A safety knot in the rope keeps me from plummeting too quickly, and if I get to going to fast, I just let go--and the knot holds. It's pretty clever. (A single rope technique, or SRT, exists too, but it is mostly used by more experienced climbers and for really, really tall--300 feet and up--trees like redwoods. SRT requires some different equipment and skills, and I never learned how to do it. DRT works fine for my trees, which are 80-100 feet tall.) It usually takes me about an hour from the time I decide to climb to when I'm on my destination branch. I usually go to a branch about 45-50 feet off the ground when I climb Hannah. Zemyna has more copious branches and a tighter canopy; when I climb her, you have to look hard for me in the summertime. (Can you see me ->?) 

 And what happens when I get there? Nothing. Blissful, quiet, cool...nothing. Being in the tree is indescribable, especially in the fall when the breezes are spectacular and the sky is so blue it almost makes you cry to look at it. You hear leaves rustling and the sound of your own breathing, birds chirping, and the creak of the branches. You can see your neighbors mowing their lawns or strolling by, and they can't see you (because they don't look). I admit that I like to call my dog and see how she'll react; she's not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, so she usually looks for me for quite a while before forgetting I exist (until I come down, and she has this relieved and puzzled expression I take to mean, "I thought I heard you calling me!"). Dusk is lovely, and climbing at night is even more thrilling. I haven't yet slept in the tree, though several companies make hammock-type apparati for doing just that. I'd like to put a semi-permanent pallet in Hannah, if I can figure out a way to do it without harming her. I have a Sky Chair that I will haul up and clip into a setting placed just for it. It's a great place to read or write or just think, which I do a lot of.
"Murmuring out of its myriad leaves, Down from its lofty top rising two hundred feet high, Out of its stalwart trunk and limbs, out of its foot-thick bark, That chant of the seasons and time, chant not of the past only, but the future." ~Walt Whitman, from Song of the Redwood Tree


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I think I'm going to be Sick

Sorry for the cop-out, but I had to cross-post this.

This bit of WTF from Raised by Wolves has just about ruined my day.

It's bad enough that the cruelty is perpetuated, but the outrage is over what happened next.


The pictures are graphic. There are only three, but that's all that is needed. Be forewarned. The second and third ones are heartbreaking.

I have had more than one person who bought a dog from a pet store tell me s/he was told it came from "a reputable breeder." Well, if in their world "reputable" means vile, shameless, heartless and only in it for the money.

Since I tend toward the positive, especially when it comes to doggy stuff, you may ask why I posted this.

It wasn't to upset anyone. It's not gratuitous. It's to educate.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"Don't Blame the Dog!"

A while back, I wrote a post about shelters and rescue groups not wanting to see the forest for the trees, and therefore were unwilling to properly screen dogs up for adoption, euthanize aggressive dogs, or admit that what they were doing was unethical, and bad for dogs.

I've been in a back-and-forth on an email list about this very subject the last few days, and it made me think of some more things to add to my diatribe.

Why are we not allowed to blame the dog, again? When dogs bite, and especially when they bite aggressively, with purpose to maim or worse, it is ALWAYS because the owners "did something wrong"?

They didn't socialize the dog when he was a puppy. They didn't train him. They overtrained him. They trained him too harshly. They trained him too wimpily. They used the wrong type of treat/training collar/leash/attitude. They fed him food with too much protein. They fed him from a stainless steel bowl, when they should have used plastic. They fed him from a plastic bowl. They fed him too much/too little/too often/not often enough. He was hungry. He was itchy. His feet hurt.

They crated him too much. They didn't crate enough. They let their kids tease him. They didn't let their kids interact with him enough to make him understand the kids were "in charge." They should never have gotten a dog because they had kids. Didn't they know Fido doesn't like kids?

The people worked too much, and were gone all the time. They didn't work enough, and were home all the time. They petted the dog too much. They didn't pet him enough. They paid too much attention to him. They didn't pay any attention to him. They tied him up. They didn't tie him up.

They named him a silly name. They didn't take him to the vet. They neutered him too early/too late/not at all. He wasn't vaccinated. He was over-vaccinated. They fed him Ol' Roy. They fed him top-of-the-line food, but it was crap because it wasn't raw food. They fed him raw food when he should have been eating kibble.

They dared to walk into the kitchen one day, nowhere near the dog's food bowl or toys, or the actual dog, and the dog launched himself across the floor and leapt up and went for the face of the teenage girl, and latched on, shaking back and forth, knocking her backward, and would not release despite her father beating him with a chair. He would not release until the hold on his collar made it hard for him to breathe, and he opened his mouth to get more air, and he was propelled backward. After the father shoved him across the kitchen and bent over his daughter--who had never done anything to the dog but interact normally with him--to try to stop the bleeding from the gash, the dog came back for more and the father had to cover his bleeding daughter's body and take several slashing bites to the back and arms before someone mercifully leashed the dog and threw him in his crate.

I KNEW I had left out something from the previous list of wrongs committed by this stupid, clueless, never-should-have-owned a dog family: walking into the kitchen!!

People are so dumb, right? How dare that girl walk into her own kitchen. She should have known better.

My brilliant, inspiring, and astute friend Sarah Wilson is, among other things, an author, trainer, teacher, lecturer, student of the human/animal bond, and wise sage when it comes to dogs and people. Her definition for serious aggression is the most succinct way I've ever come across to express it.

"When normal life events cause offensive aggression with little or no warning, that dog is not a pet." ~Sarah Wilson

So, when a dog bites without warning over normal life events, whose fault is it?

It's not an easy question to answer, but I will not lay blame at the feet of the teenage girl walking into the kitchen.

Perhaps the family was inconsistent with this dog, and he was truly confused as to who was the leader in the home. Perhaps he absolutely believed he was ruler, and she had no right to cross "his" property without permission. Perhaps any number of things from the above laundry list of "sins" dog trainers often bemoan were happening in the house.

Maybe he had a brain tumor, or some other medical issue that contributed to his vicious, unprovoked attack. If they had just taken him to the vet and had a full blood workup done, the vet might have found something. Neurological disease? Cancer? Thyroid imbalance? These can all contribute to aggression.

And perhaps, just perhaps, the dog was genetically wired wrong. Maybe it's the breeder's fault? Mother Nature? Zeus? Charles Darwin?

Does the picture above make you think, "Awww! How sweet!" or does it make you cringe?

A popular book amongst a subset of dog trainers (those who call themselves "positive" or "all positive") is Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog! Originally published in 1984 (I believe), it is a slim volume from a dolphin trainer-turned-dog-trainer that points out some of the misconceptions about dogs and behavior. It was the first book I remember reading that specifically exhorted dog owners to blame themselves for their dog's issues, not the dog. Other authors have done this, too--and for good reason. Most of our dogs' behavioral "problems" are indeed our fault. We are lousy communicators with species other than our own (and not even so great with our own, right?)

We get frustrated and angry at our dogs over things we should have trained them not to do. Dogs do not have morals or ethics, they simply have behaviors. Some of those are acceptable to us, and some are not. Training is about instilling the behaviors we want and teaching the dog to abstain from the behaviors we do not like. Since many of these "bad" behaviors are normal for dogs, it can be challenging sometimes.

Certainly, we cannot expect the dog to learn our language--we must learn his, and speak it to him.

When we fail to do this, problems can result, aggression among them.

So we must hang our heads in shame as a species for our arrogance at thinking the dog "knew better." After we flog ourselves, we need to get on with the business of being better communicators with our dogs. Modern dog training is about building relationships based on trust, and it allows humans and dogs to coexist quite peacefully the vast majority of the time.

But training cannot override everything. It cannot trump DNA or disease. When it squares off with genetics or medical issues, training by itself often does not come out victorious.

That is why blaming the dog is sometimes necessary, and when serious aggression is on the table, the dog must often pay with his life.

I know what it feels like to love a dog or two. And I know what it feels like to grow attached to dogs one does not own. I have been in the animal sheltering world for more than 10 years now, and working with animals for almost 30 years. I've loved and been attached to many dogs in my life.

I know what it is like to have to euthanize a dog I love who is no longer safe. The pain and heartache is overwhelming. Euthanasia of a beloved animal is never easy, but when the animal is in obvious pain, or simply no longer has a quality of life, at least we can clearly see the need to humanely end that life (and so can everyone else).

Euthanasia of aggressive animals is less clear-cut, so much so that I've had clients tell me their own trusted vet would not do perform the procedure on their dog after its aggression had reached unsafe levels. To the vet, the dog looked healthy. But the vet didn't have to live with what the dog had become. He or she did not have to walk around on eggshells in his or her own home because the family pet could "go off" at any given moment. Vets, like doctors, are taught to do everything possible to save lives, not destroy them.

Is the pain of euthanasia worse when one is made to feel guilty for it?

How do you think it feels to the family of the dog who attacked the teenage girl to be told by their vet that euthanasia is not appropriate for this dog, that they must have done something to provoke the dog, and that putting this dog down would not be fair to the dog? Perhaps the maimed young woman should be the one to, oh, I don't know, maybe take the "healthy" dog to an obedience class after she heals and get him the training he never got. Her scar(let letter)s could be an abject lesson for all to see: see what a lack of training gets you?

Until one has lived with a truly aggressive dog, has lived with the fear that the dog might hurt a family member or a friend or a stranger, or might escape the yard and maul a child, it is hard to imagine what it feels like. It's something that keeps decent people awake at night.

And from the often-grim insides of a rescue or shelter, teeming with unwanted animals that have, through no fault of their own, been cast off, treated poorly, abused, or simply neglected, the thought that the dog deserves another chance is not as uncommon as you would think.

After all, it's not his fault, right?

When it comes down to it, a homeless dog with a known bite history is a huge liability for anyone with which it has contact. Good shelters and rescue groups know this, and will not put up for adoption animals with known bite histories.

(NOTE: ANY dog with a bite history is a liability. But my main beef is with groups housing and adopting out homeless aggressive dogs, NOT owners who have such a dog and are trying to manage the situation while keeping the dog. That is still an issue, one based on personal choice that should never be taken lightly, but there is a difference.)

Fault is not the issue here--knowledge is. And knowledge can be a painful thing.

Good shelters understand that people deserve better than a pat, facile, "It's not his fault."

Some shelters and rescues who ignore this dictum and believe all dogs are salvageable claim to give "full disclosure" to adopters about the dog's history. They say that "some people want to adopt these damaged dogs, so we should let them." They think that disclosure will shield them from a lawsuit, but it won't.

And it wouldn't matter if it did. If the known biter bites again, more lives will be changed forever. The damage will be done.

Is it POSSIBLE to adopt out known biters and have them managed safely so that they never bite again? I suppose it could be. Is it ethical? I do not believe so. Is it kind? No. Are most adopters equipped to deal with this sort of dog for the rest of its life? No. Should they have to? No.

Some of these "rescuers" decide that Fierce Fido isn't safe for the average Joe, but he would be fine for a dog trainer to adopt and work with. How many of us do you think there are walking into shelters on a regular basis, looking for such a liability-er, project? Very few--we already have multiple dogs.

Doing something unethical and quite possibly dangerous "because some people want to" is not a recipe for a successful enterprise. And, here's a shocker--MOST people do NOT want it. They don't want to own an aggressive dog, they don't want to live next to an aggressive dog, and they don't want aggressive dogs in their neighborhoods.

So these "save 'em all" rescue groups are endangering the majority to make themselves (and the mysterious "people who want to") feel better. Since it's never the dog's fault, they think what they are doing is humane. But what they are really doing is eroding the rights of dog owners, little by little. They are creating a culture of fear with dogs, so that children are growing up afraid of dogs--a fate that should not be visited on anyone, much less a child. These groups are turning people away from adoption (or dog ownership in general) in tiny little increments, which affects all animals in shelters. It has been said that only 10% of the animals in people's homes came from shelters. Do we want that number to decrease even more?

(And that leads us down another slippery path towards the "Abuse Excuse" and its ramifications.)

The truth is that some dogs are just not pet material. And until shelters and rescues get their emotions pushed aside for just a minute and realize how their inaction with aggressive dogs ripples out community-wide in mostly negative ways, they will continue to blame the owners, the breeders, the pet store proprietor, the puppymiller, and Jesus, Joseph and Mary for the dog's aggression.

It may not usually be the dog's fault, but it is all our problem.