Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

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 (at least partly) 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 snakes, coyotes (who will jump a fence and grab small dogs and cats), and 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 outdoor 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? That's a perfectly fine desire if you don't own a pet 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: anecdotes are not data, firstly. Agreed! And 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.