Author Archives: Almudena Ortiz Cue

Should I get a shelter dog or buy from a breeder?

I am having a phone conversation and this is the question that is being posed to me.  Well, I said: “I am bias to rescuing dogs versus getting a dog from a breeder.”

In my mind, the only exception to my bias is when for whatever reason a person is really keen on a particular breed that might not be easy to locate via a shelter.  However, sometimes even obscure breeds are represented by rescue groups specific to the breed, so there goes my one argument as to when I would consider getting a dog from a breeder.

Now, if we scratch the surface a little, I think a lot of folks shy away from getting a dog from a shelter or rescue group because they are afraid the dog might have a myriad of problems – be it behavioral issues or even health related ones.

I am writing this blog shortly after I finished playing with both of my lovely rescues – which are truly problem-free.  I sigh as I see them and I realize how lucky they got to being in a home and how lucky we got in having them.

I would argue that yes there are many dogs that come with some baggage. And by doggie baggage – I am talking here about poor socialization that can easily result in a dog that is afraid, anxious and resorts to displays of aggression is no picnic. So indeed, getting the “right” dog is imperative.

But what does it mean to get the “right dog”?  The “right dog” is a dog that truly matches the expectations of the new family.  A good match also involves the resources the family has.  Time and money are always considerations.  Pets are often expensive.  If the dog has health or behavioral issues the cost associated with resolving these can be high.

“Expenses” also come in the form of emotional drain.  Not everyone should adopt a dog that has behavioral or medical issues unless they are absolutely sure they are staying in for the game.  A game that might last very well for the length of the dog’s life. In other words, if someone would ask for my opinion about adopting what we call a “project” I will try hard to dissuade them.  Or at least I would try and impress on them the amount of patience, knowhow and dedication that working with a dog that had less than his fair share in life requires.

Then again, I see over and over again clients of mine that have a “project” dog and how they take to the task of helping their pup with such determination and love that urges me once again to consider revising my opinion.

While I do not agree that love conquers all, it sure helps when we are bonded to an animal. It is because of that bond that we are willing to walk through fire – sort of speak, for this dog. I toast all of these folks who are committed to staying the course in helping their dog become more well-adjusted, less anxious, and thrive.

In my personal and professional experience in working as a trainer in shelters, I can attest at the phenomenal dogs that are surrendered. These shelter dogs were just dogs. Dogs ready to go out and play, to find a warm spot on deck while taking in the view of the neighborhood while sunbathing.  I was amazed on a daily basis on their ability to learn, even those pups that had never had “formal training”.

I sure wish more people knew that shelter and rescue dogs are not necessarily broken. They are just deserving of a chance.  I would also share that I have worked with many “broken” pure bred dogs.

Dogs that, while bred, perhaps to the breed’s specifications did not receive the socialization that they should have from the breeder.  This really makes me upset.  Breeders are supposed to be professionals and as such, folks buying a pup from a breeder should get the best behavioral puppy one can muster.  Of course, there are also extraordinary breeders whom not only know their breed but that are truly doing a remarkable job in sending out their doors puppies that are well adjusted and healthy.

There are other considerations that are relevant. Most people when they get a dog form a breeder are getting a small puppy.  Just weeks old- with 8 weeks being the minimum age at which the puppy should be removed from the litter. In contrast, most people that adopt a shelter or rescue dog adopt a much older dog.

Even though there a few temperament tests out there that claim will tell the potential adopter something about the puppy’s future temperament, the results on this claim are paltry at best.   There is truly no bona fide way of knowing for certain how a young puppy will be in another completely different set of circumstances. Behavior is always context specific, change the context and now you are in unknown territory.

In the case of the adult dog, potential adopters will also see “one dog” at the shelter and then notice that the dog they selected is acting differently (sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse from their perspective) once they bring the dog home.  This process is called the honey-moon period and it can last for months as the dog continues to adjust and face novel situations.

Having said this, an adult dog past the age of two years of age and even three years of age for some of the Giant breeds has a more “stable” temperament. In other words, the adagio “what you see is what you get” is much more applicable when we are speaking of a fully mature animal.

Of course, there are advantages of getting a young puppy!  First off, can you think of anything more cute and fun than a young puppy? If the pet parent has done a good job of selecting a top notch breeder, they are off to a lot of work but an excellent start in the road to socializing this new puppy. Their efforts will determine how well adjusted their puppy turn out to be as an adult.  Yes, of course, genetics do play a part on this. But again, if the breeder is a reputable breeder who is NOT breeding fearful dogs and among other things –  then the chances of good genetics are strong.

Unfortunately, most folks that get a new puppy barely scratch the surface when it comes to the “education” of their young keep.  So, I am left wondering:  What is the point really of purchasing a young puppy if in indeed the puppy will not be socialized properly? And now, we have a dog that came from a breeder that had tons of possibility for being a behavioral healthy (adult) dog and has instead become a “project”.

As to my client asking these good questions, I told her to think through some of these options as she also evaluates in all honesty how much time, work and effort she is able to put into bringing either a young puppy or a “project” rescue dog.  Only the new pet-parent can make the right choice but hopefully they do so more informed as to the potential challenges that each choice brings.

Frosty Paws

It feels strange writing about activities with our dogs in the snow since, at least in the Southwest high dessert, we are seeing balmy temperatures and no snow in sight. We did have an opportunity to take the dogs for a fun walk in the snow a few days ago. This walk was definitively different for Deuce.

They both love the cold temperatures and walking in the snow, but Deuce gets snow stuck between his toes, and now he is not walking. Instead he has stopped and is trying to remove the sticky snow with his mouth. For this reason, we bought him some really nice booties.

There is always the risk that a dog will not take well to a new piece of “equipment” no matter how much we think it will make them more comfortable. I always recommend folks take the time to get their dog comfortable at least and at best loving wearing whatever piece of equipment they intend to use with their dog. The process can be lengthy but it is definitively worth pursuing. Also, think about this: many times we do things to dogs (just) because we can and this can be a slippery slope.

So, to clarify, ideally we make good decision for our dogs that will keep them safe and increase the quality of their life, and as such, we help them transition into new experiences with care.

 

 

In the case of Deuce and his new pair of flashy snow boots the process was relatively easy. First, we made sure we knew how the boots needed to fit him so that he was comfortable and not lose them. Then we worked in tandem.

I fed Deuce treats and John slowly worked with the boots one foot at a time. In the process, Deuce needed a break from holding a paw up and we gave him a few seconds to just chill. I then noticed that Deuce was not so interested in the treats so I began to throw the ball at him so that he could catch it in his mouth – a favorite game of his. A few minutes later we were all ready to head out the door.

Deuce took his first steps looking more like a penguin flopping a fin than a dog but once we were outside he realized he could walk and run just fine.

We had tried other boot models that did not work for Deuce, so I found a more expensive and better design pair of winter boots. Not only did they prove to be comfortable for Deuce but we came back from our hike without losing any of them!

These boots of course could be used not only in the snow but whenever there is rough terrain should a dog be sensitive in its paws. I would also suggest using boots for a dog that has severe allergies otherwise it might be a necessity to wipe the paws after every outing.

I do warn folks that using boots on hot climate might not be a good thing. Dogs do not have sweat glands like we do. They shed heat by panting and through their paws. Please talk to your vet beforehand.

If you are looking for some good boots for your dog, check out Neopaws. www.neopaws.com

Are we making our dogs fat by using food in training?

Okay the title is a trick question.  I would argue that yes some dogs are gaining too much weight because they are given too many treats, and perhaps high caloric treats in addition to their daily meals.  A dog that is even a few pounds overweight can be considered obese so it is really important that we do not end up with a very well trained pudgy dog.  Now, there are many dogs that are trained daily and are not fat.

So what is the secret then?  Follow the guidelines below so that you can continue to use treats in training while keeping your dog’s weight in check.

First off, let me explain why reward-based trainers use food so often in training.  Food is one of those things that any living being enjoys and needs.  If your dog is not food motivated as some people claim about their dogs it could be for several reasons, among them are:

1. Your dog has some stomach or GI upset (check with your vet).

2. You are overfeed your dog. Some dogs will actually leave food behind once they are satisfied – this might be your dog.

3. Your dog is really bored with the food you provide and thus eats only enough to keep going – sad

4. The food you give your dog might not agree with him or her.  See # 1.

So, I bet you that if you have your “not so motivated by food” dog skip a couple of meals you will find that now he is more interested in food. Dogs are opportunistic feeders as well as scavengers so in essence their genetic make-up leans more towards eating when you can, rather than having two square meals because they are lucky enough to live with us.

 

Food in training:  Food is considered really a TOP motivator.  There are others, of course, but in essence any thriving animal has an appetite so this is the main reason why most reward-based trainers use food when teaching new stuff.  Also, food is actually quite practical when it comes to offering a timely reward for behavior and timing is everything in training!

It is important though that when using food as a reinforcer (something your dog really wants or would work for) we keep in mind certain rules.

Rule # 1

You need to consider the amount of food used in training as part of your dog’s daily caloric intake and not in addition to.  In order to do this, you must know how much your dog is getting in treats. Use a measuring cup so that you know how many ounces are going into your training pouch before the session so at the end of the session, or outing you have an idea of how much food was dispensed.  Subtract that amount from your dog’s next meal.

Rule #2

Use your dog’s meals as part of their training chow.  There are a couple of caveats here: You cannot use your dog’s meal if you are feeding “raw” it is just too unpractical.  If you are using kibble (dry food) and your dog likes it you can use this in most trainings scenarios.  However, I would not recommend doing this if you are working on emotional issues such as fear, anxiety or aggression.   See below for more on this.  BTW, most kibble is actually not low in calories so check with your vet.

 

Besides putting in place rule #1, you can also use treats that are cut really small – the size of a pea. Some treats have only 3 calories per treat.   So, I am left thinking; why can’t we have tasty dessert with only 3 calories per bite????

Rule # 3

Choose your battles. Let me explain: If your dog has a stellar sit you do not need to pay your dog with a treat every time you ask and he sits.  Instead… you will ONLY pay for behaviors that your dog has learned well on occasion. We need to consider that when a dog has learned a behavior well- it can perform 9 out of 10 times in that setting. Now, the dog might not perform this same behavior that well in a new novel setting.  These things must be taken into consideration.  So in essence when your dog is acing behaviors just pay occasionally. NOTE: If you stop reinforcing your dog or the dog is not being reinforced in some way by the environment the behavior will cease to take place.  It will become extinct.

All things being equal when a dog is learning new stuff pay handsomely. You will pay for every correct repetition until the dog has reached proficiency in a given setting.  Also, follow #4…

Rule #4

This rule dependents on what you are working on what kind of food you’re are dolling out.  If I am working with a dog that has fear issues or aggression I am not showing up with kibble because I really want to make an impression on this dog.

Rule # 5

If a dog is not motivated to work we can’t train it. Period. It makes much more sense to work with food with a dog that is really hungry.  I suggest then, that when going to class, going for a long training session or when working on something really hard such as coming when called you do not feed your dog its meal.  Instead make sure your dog is hungry so that it is willing to work for you.  Remember: No motivation. No training.

Rule #6

Think beyond food for training. Ah, if only folks would play more with their dogs so that play could be used in training that would make me very happy.  Most people unfortunately, barely scratch the surface of playing games with their dogs that makes them both giddy which means this avenue is not available as readily as a reward in training.

However, with a little pre-thought and imagination, you can effectively use life rewards in addition to food in training.  It works like this: ANYTHING  your dog wants that is not dangerous to your dog can and should be used a reward in training.  Typical examples are: having the dog wait polity at the door without rushing out and then letting your dog out the door into the great out of doors.  Giving your dog his favorite toy that is kept out of reach, access to dog play for waiting to be released.  You get the picture, right?

Finally, a word about praise and petting. Yes, we humans love to talk and talk but guess what?  Our dogs are not really verbal.  We believe dogs get excited when we praise them because they have learned something good  (and better) is coming their way.  In essence praise is really second best to the use of food or other motivators big in your dog’s repertoire of favorite things in life. And the truth guys is that we humans think that our dogs cherish our praise because frankly we think it is all about us.   While your dog recognizes and gets excited about your praise do keep in mind that he is hoping for the cookie.

I almost lost Deuce

We are taking a nice and leisurely hike over the holidays.  Deuce and Rio had made a new friend. Suddenly I see both my dogs clearly taking a scent and off goes Deuce. Poof! Gone. Out of sight. I have boasted confidently in getting Deuce back from pretty much any distraction and this – whatever they scented was a distraction with a 99% success rate.

All it takes is for me to invite him to take the tug toy and distractions be gone. Not too long ago, we were taking another off-leash hike and apparently, a pack of coyotes were having a celebration. Both my dogs noticed this and now Deuce is dashing down the hill hoping to meet-up with his “cousins”.  I am in a state of panic at the prospect of Deuce joining them.  I call him back with the tug.

So, after Deuce is running away from me, I call him back to take the tug to no avail. I then call him back using a verbal cue that also is quite predictable for Deuce recalling back, which is the “that’ will do” phrase I use when we are actually sheepherding (top activity for this Border collie); implying that he must stop what he is doing. Again, no Deuce.  My mind is racing as I think that I lost my dog on the first day of the year.

I decide to walk in the direction where I saw Deuce take off now with Rio next to me on a leash. After about 600ft I turn to find Deuce at the edge of a big drop and on the opposite side of where Rio and I are standing.  I realize then that if he tried to join us he can easily get injured as the drop in front of him is quite a drop and now it all becomes clear to me. Deuce was kind of trapped.

I ask him to stay put not wanting to drop into the wash in an attempt to join us on the other side, and Rio and I walk further down to find a place where we can join Deuce.  He parallels us and once we fond a drop he came rushing to us.  Perhaps more relieved than I was.

I leash him while I tell him what a good boy he is.  No, there is no point in scolding him.

With my dog back to safety, I try to put the pieces of puzzle together: Deuce takes off after something interesting. He hears me calling but now he cannot find a way to get back.

The point then and the lesson that I think people miss sometimes is that dogs can and do get lost on a regular basis. People wrongly assume that their dog will use its nose to find its way back to us.  Well, maybe.

It is also possible that Deuce was not distraught, as he never vocalized in an effort to unite with the group.

After we were all united, we continued our walk with Deuce still on leash.  He has no problem walking next to me. We get to a soft sandy wash and Rio and her new friend are gearing up for some fantastic and energized dog play.  I let Deuce off to enjoy in the game as we watch almost in full silence as these three jump & chase, and stop to catch their breath.

I learned something about dogs in general and specifically about Deuce.  Yes, yes he is a Border collie but still this boy could not find his way back to me. Sometimes we give dogs too much credit as to what they can do, when instead we need to be open to the possibility of something else preventing the dog from coming back to us – as in this incident – or just to be able to carry through with our daily requests.

One of the indispensable behaviors your dog should learn

Teaching your dog to wait without dashing out the door or jumping off the car seat is really a must-train behavior for any dog. Not only can learning this save your dog’s life, but in the process your pup is also learning some self-control. I have seen time and time again, how dogs thrive when they are taught some simple manners. And wait is really one of my top ten things I want dogs to learn well.The way I define wait means that the dog should not cross a threshold by moving forward without prior verbal release. I also like to implement another version of wait as part of my recall (come when called) training plan, but that is for another post.

I suggest you begin with a hungry dog and semi-high value treat. Perhaps some moist treats, but do not pull the meat or chicken for this.

I also suggest to practice with interior doors – not the front door or side door where your dog can just take off or run into traffic.

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Follow these steps:

  • Stand in front of your dog, your dog can be seated or standing, that is not important as far as I am concerned.
  • Make sure you are truly in front of your dog AND that you can use your body to block the door should your dog break the wait.
  • Unlock the door and have it just a tiny bit open, perhaps enough for a mouse to go thru but not your dog.
  • Tell your dog:  Fido, wait!
  • Show your dog seconds AFTER you have said wait, your hand with fingers straight up and palm facing your dog.
  • Open the door a bit more, say 1/4 of the way to a full open door.
  • Now release your dog to go through the door.
  • Give your dog a treat by mouth once outside or for more “impact and fun” throw it in front of your dog so he has to find it.
  • At this point your dog should only stay put between 1 to 2 seconds before you release him or her.  More than this and your dog will fail.

The most difficult thing to teach in most behaviors is duration. Which means for how long the dog has to do the behavior, so adding time that your dog has to stay without moving forward will be added SLOWLY and only as your dog is successful for 5 trials (tries) out of 5 at the current time criteria of 1-2 seconds.  You will add seconds one at a time until your dog can stick it for 5 seconds before you open the door any wider.

Practice with your pup with lots of internal doors- not the front door just yet.
As you see that your dog has understood the game, begin to open the door more and more- which you guessed it, makes it more of a challenge for your dog.

  • Go back to asking your dog to wait followed by your hand cue.
  • Also, be ready to body block and reset again.
  • If you are positioned correctly, you should be able to not only body block your dog but also close the door.
  • Do lower the amount of time (seconds) your dog must stay put once you begin to open the door more. We only want to increase the difficulty of the exercise by changing one criteria at the time.
  • When you are both ready for the front door:  lots of successful reps where your dog can stay put for 5 seconds, you will repeat the steps above BUT with your dog on leash.

Wait from the car:
When practicing in the car, the steps will be the same. Please begin to practice with your dog on leash and in a traffic-free area.  Depending on the type of car you have how you will handle the opening of the car door.  Either way make sure you can block your dog with your body or by safely closing the door to avoid escape.

The video below illustrates the training plan.  Have fun.

Ah, Too Bad And Other Lesson From The World Of Training

One of the fun things about living with more than one dog is that you get to experience their different personalities (or should I say dognalities) and in some way experience life from their unique perspective.

In my case, my dogs could not be more different.  Rio, now fully recovered from 3 months of very little mobility, is back in the full swing of things.  With that, her bigger-than-life attitude has come full force and I love it!  Yes, I love almost everything about this girl.  I owe to her many times of laughter and her reminder of the finer things in life.

One of her signature behaviors that frankly we are not so crazy about is her now set in routine of dashing out the front door (we are lucky as our place is fenced in so no worries about traffic) while exuding a sharp series of barks that I am sure my not so close neighbor would rather do without.  On top of this obnoxious yet benign behavior, is the one that follows which is the one we want to exclude from her repertoire.  Once she is out the front door and has let everyone know so, she proceeds to approach Deuce and pecks him on his face or pulls on one of his ears as in: let’s go NOW!  Let’s go and look for bunnies, harass Jack (the neighbor’s dog), or whatever goes inside her doggy brain.  Poor Deuce just takes it. Often he hesitates to come out the front door – not good.  At times, he stands still – like a brother just putting up with the antics of a younger sister. On occasion he too takes off full speed in search of an adventure.

I am a firm believer in interceding for dogs. Especially if I think one of the dogs is getting the short end of the stick as with Deuce in this instance.   I will intercede in stopping Rio from lunging and pecking Deuce when she wants him to come along. But how to go about it?  Of course, they are a myriad of ways one can tackle benign, yet unwanted behaviors such as this one. I am now armed with a plan that we began to implement while Rio was still under close watch and had to go outside on a leash.

The training went like this:  We open the front door knowing that Rio will bark and then turn around looking for Deuce. Just after she emitted the strong bark, I said “ah, too bad” which is a now a familiar term to them; a non-reward marker (NRM). A non-reward marker teaches the dog that they just lost the opportunity for a reinforcer.  In this case, of course, the reinforcer is going outside.

We proceed immediately after the NRM with bringing Rio back inside and we wait there for a couple of seconds before inviting her to try again. If she chooses to go out quietly and without orienting by looking for Deuce, she gets to proceed. If she fails and either barks or worse orients towards Deuce, I repeat the procedure.

I don’t refer to Rio as my “one-trial” dog for nothing. This girl learns fast!  It does not take but a few repetitions for her to understand the consequences of her behavior and she is now on the game.

After a few days, Rio is now clear to romp off-leash.  With absolute glee, I open the front door and to her surprise she is no longer wearing the harness that has been on her every day for the past 12 weeks, but she is not on leash either.  She takes off in high spirits only to have me go back to our simple training plan for unruly behavior.

She complies coming inside and it only takes her 4 trials before I see her running out full speed this time without looking to harass Deuce or waking up the neighborhood.

You see folks, often you think that it is the cue (or a “command” as it is also known”) that drives behavior but this could not be farther from the truth.  It is consequences for behavior that molds future behavior.

Consequences must then be given for desired as well as undesired behaviors. They need to be timely. This is why scolding a dog hours after eliminating on the carpet is not only really unfair but it does not get the job done either.  The dog cannot link “this” behavior to the consequence given even seconds later.

Consequences then must be immediate.  In addition, consequences must be consistent.  If I had been willy-nilly in returning Rio back inside after her “infraction” this would, believe it or not, make the behaviors stronger -more resistant to change because now they are in a very thin schedule of reinforcement.  In plain English:  since only on occasion they are being curtailed they become stronger responses.  And, this folks, is one of those laws of learning that can truly serve us well if we understand it and more importantly if we implement it.

This is exactly why people bet money in casinos.  Perhaps the possibility of a future “win” is what keeps people (and dogs, and cats and frankly all sentient beings) engaging in the behavior again.  It is also possible that the response goes up in frequency due to some level of frustration that keeps us coming back to repeating the behavior.

What I love about using timely and consistent consequences are that it also helps the dog in understanding what other alternatives are acceptable or desired.  When we are consistent in applying consequences, the dog learns alternatives that will be reinforced and then… we can all move on to chasing rabbits, barking at our friend Jack and some of us can return to the cup of now-not-so-warm coffee left behind at the kitchen table.

Protocols for living with fearful dogs, part 2

As I was describing in part 1, living with fearful dogs is not an easy task.  It requires constant management of some kind, and constantly assessing how comfortable the dog is at a given moment when presented with the scary stimulus. There is so much that one can do (and I would argue should do) in order to help these dogs out, as well as to make life easier for the people involved. However, I will comment here on four really important aspects of behavior modification and management that needs to take place with the aim of teaching the dog to relax when people (if this is what scares the dog) are present in the home.

1. Predictability in how the person is introduced into the environment (the home)

2. Moving from (almost) full predictability to more realistic scenarios when it comes to approach/avoidance from the dog towards the guest, the mere presence of the guest, to a more active and thus less predictable person.

3. The dog becoming more comfortable; that is, less threatened with this particular individual to…

4. Generalization of different demographics so that the dog is now able to relax because it is not feeling threatened by a number of different people in the context of the home, and has also learned a more socially acceptable behavior to signal discomfort.

Throughout the steps above, the pet parents are learning exactly what to do, what to avoid, and to read their dog’s body language and vocalization if present, so that they can quickly make things easier for the dog.  Of course, the number one concern is always to keep the dog from feeling so threatened that it might injure someone.

I recommend folks keep their dog on a leash, and for most cases the dog must wear a head-halter.  Once the dog is comfortable with wearing one and the people have learned how to use one appropriately on the dog, this is the safest way to influence the dog’s behavior.

The more space there is between the “stranger” and the dog the better, so it makes more sense to have the dog become aware and more comfortable with the person outside the home.

In addition, the dog has learned a simple yet effective protocol by which to approach the person up close with restrain of the leash and the head-halter for a very short introduction. As the dog is successful, he is reinforced by creating more distance from the stranger and offered a high value treat. The scary person is also instructed as to what exactly to expect from the dog and what they need to do to help the dog out.

Again, what I am looking for is predictability for the dog.  Once the initial introduction has taken place we can move inside where the dog will remain at a safe distance from the visitor and on a leash.

We begin with the guest sitting down to an almost choreographed set of movements such as moving the hands, arms, legs, sitting/standing to walking. These might be all the dog can take, if this is the case, the dog can be put away in another room, in its crate with an interesting project to keep the dog not only occupied, but also relaxed.

I encourage my clients to be very diligent in not pushing the dog. They must then cut the training session short when they can tell by observing their dog that the dog (or the guest) has had enough. If this happens in the context of an actual training session with me, we give the dog or person a break, and re-assess and resume again for the duration of the training.

Once the dog and family have acquired more experience as a result of our work together, and are now more confident that the dog will be successful they can begin to work with their dog in “real” life.  Real life must however, be based on the exercises and routines that we established for the dog during the training sessions. This here is the key to success.  If we deviate too far from what the dog now considers “normal” and safe because now it is less predictable, most likely this will make the dog regress and potentially aggress.

Secondly, I would much rather the dog get five minutes of really good behavior mod. and excellent management than the folks training for the duration of the visit.  Besides, most people are really not that interested in coming to a dinner party and have to train the dog throughout the evening!  Yes, indeed I tell my clients they must get the consent of their guests prior to them arriving for dinner etc.; not only because this is fair, but because we need people to be willing and able to follow precise directions, instead of them deciding what is good for the dog.  This is a big no, no!

One of the biggest mistakes folks make is to push too hard, too soon.  Slow and well managed is always better.  Remember, the goal is to teach the dog to truly learn to relax because it is not feeling threatened, rather than the dog “keeping it together” – barely.

The most complicated aspect of teaching dogs to trust a myriad of different people and not just a few is that dogs do not generalize as we do.  So, what we need to do is to have many, many, many (I am tempted to continue writing “many”) exposures where the dog and family get to practice so that the dog learns that all sorts of people: men, women, tall, short, loud, fast moving, etc. are safe. On the bright side, over time as the dog becomes more comfortable with having people acting as people in the home, each successful incident makes the next one so much easier for the dog, and I would argue the people too.

Protocols for living with fearful dogs, part 1

Living with a dog that is afraid, especially of people, is very hard.  It is very hard for the people, and of course, a living hell for the dog. While every case is unique, there are certain things people can do to make everyone’s life better.

I am working with a couple who have a dog that is quite uncertain of everyone with the exception of a few people who he has learned to trust.  These folks go through the same issues that most people with fearful dogs have to go through.  They report to me that they cannot have anyone come over for dinner, let alone out of town visitors.  When they walk the dog, their dog will lunge at a passerby regardless of if the person is ignoring the dog, or walking with another dog, etc.  If approached, this dog will lung towards the person.

Screen Shot 2017-11-17 at 9.57.52 PMMost dogs that are afraid of people are also more afraid when the space is reduced in size, such as the inside of homes. From their perspective, it is hard to get some much-needed distance from the person. Add to that the inherent unpredictability of people moving in the home; be it to get some water from the kitchen sink, move to the living room for an after-dinner chat or simply visiting the powder room. These are things that people do inside their home and things most visitors will do while at the home.  So, if the dog is very concerned about the presence of the person, now throw in a monkey wrench into the mix with the unpredictability of movements from a stranger and you have a recipe for disaster.

In addition, the duration of the visit, will most likely overwhelm the dog and now he is incapable of “keeping it together.”  This is what living with a fearful dog looks like a lot of the times.

My answer to the many scary situations like the one above is to teach both the dog and the family protocols that will give everyone predictability.  I cannot say enough how important predictability is for dogs that are afraid of strangers. My first goal then, is to have the dog relax – to let its guard down sort of speak, under very predictable circumstances. Yes, indeed, following up with the protocols as if someone’s life depended on them is at the crux of keeping everyone safe, and the possibility for the dog to be able to learn new alternatives to the fear induced behaviors.

Normally these new “alternative” and more socially acceptable behaviors are taught to the dog without the presence of scary individuals.  Yes, many times I too have to make sure the dog is comfortable with me, my voice and moving before I can teach the dog appropriate alternatives. As both parties become more confident with their new repertoire, it is time to bring it to the road.  Stay tuned as I dive into more specifics of protocols for fearful dogs next time.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Does your dog dig it?

I just came from visiting with a family whose dog decided to take a paw at landscaping design.

The dog was thrilled with the results; the owner not so much.

As I explained to them, unfortunately for us digging comes naturally to dogs. It is part of their ancient wiring that frankly as all natural behaviors, does poorly with our “requests” to stop digging and much better with management.

Most of us do not spend time with our dogs outdoors so that we are able to redirect when they get into mischief, from our perspective and engaging in natural habits from their perspective.

Teaching your dog where you want him to eliminate, areas to avoid such as flower beds and the like will go a long way before he decides what goes on in your piece of heaven.  How many of us take the time to inspect our fencing for possible sensible areas of escape, for example?

So, the expectation then is for our dog to understand exactly what he can and cannot do in the backyard.

There is also another aspect of how our dog’s brain is wired that does not help us much with this situation. Thus, we need to help our dog in order to help ourselves.

You see, dogs are not good generalizers.  Meaning that they do not understand that the rules that apply when you are present also apply when you are gone. When you are present with them in the backyard you are most likely re-directing your dog to “appropriate back yard etiquette.” If you are not, well please do not blame the dog when he begins to dig, makes holes at the fence line or chews your expensive pool furniture.

Ah!  Talking about pools.  Most dogs will NOT, I repeat, will not be able to jump out of your pool. Unless once again, you have taken the time to teach your dog how to use the steps to get out.  So please you need to treat the safety of your dog around the pool as you would with a small child.

Some of the strategies that I discussed with my clients are meant to give them some immediate relief.

First off, if your dog digs your flower beds begin with putting an actual barrier that is not offensive to you and effective in keeping your dog out.  Once that is in place, we need to find a way to satiated the dog’s instinct for digging.  So here is my solution for my client and for you.

Build your lovely dog a handsome digging area that he cannot resist.  You can go all fancy with having someone build your dog a sandbox or you can go low tech and buy a kiddy pool.  Either way, the idea is for the container to be large enough for your dog to get in.  Fill with enough sand that you can hide your dog’s daily chow (if it is dry kibble) so that he has to hunt for each morsel of food while exercising his given right of digging.  If you do not feed dry food to your dog (first off, congratulations are in order!)  you can hide tasty treats in there and even chew bones for your dog to go find.

For added benefit go outside and document your dog’s amazing capacity to find by sniffing, pawing and the like the last morsel of food. Make your own entertainment.  Do keep in mind that for this to work you must first remove the possibility of your dog digging where he began to dig- your flower beds.

Lastly, make it a habit of spending time with your dog outside so that you can teach him what is acceptable and what is not.  If you spend time playing with your dog most likely your dog will begin to associate the place where the activity takes place with you as the place where fetch takes place and have less of an inclination for mischief and decoration.

Now, if you tell me that your dog is being destructive because it spends oodles amount of time outside because you are gone all day… well then you have bigger fish to fry.  We cannot truly and fairly expect our dogs to not behave for such long periods of time without us providing acceptable outlets.

Trouble in Paradise part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s post on same household dog fights.  As I mentioned on that post, having to manage and live with dogs that are injuring one another is not a picnic.  It can be very stressful for the dogs as well as the people. Also, depending on the severity and frequency of the fights, one needs to consider the imminent danger to people. I once consulted with a young couple that had a baby and two of their four dogs were getting into bad fights.  One of the things that made this case so complicated is that the husband did not want to do much in the way of managing the dogs or training and refused to let go of the dog that was causing the injuries.  The wife was mortified to learn that the chances of their child being in between two fighting dogs once he started crawling was definitively a possibility. Of course, this sounds like an extreme case when it comes to someone getting seriously hurt; not all cases are like this.

To begin with, I suggest that dogs are taught to be comfortable wearing basket muzzles so that when they are not being closely supervised and in proximity of each other at least they will not hurt one another.  The idea is to get the dog comfortable with wearing the muzzle, and not simply plop the muzzle on and be done with it. It goes without saying that people must be very diligent in making sure that the dogs are wearing the muzzles.  I know that it’s really hard to be on top of everything all the time, but the reality is that this is what it takes to have dogs that are fighting regain an ability to co-exist peacefully.

Both dogs need to also learn some basic obedience so that they can reliably go to their crate or a bed when asked to do so. They must also learn to take turns going in and out of any door or exiting the car. Since these are amongst the typical situations where dog fights take place.

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If the fights have been a result of either one of the dogs guarding an object be it a toy, food, snack, they should not be allowed to have any of these items together.  If what they guard is a location such as a bed or a person, things change a bit here, but in essence the same rule applies.

Once these measures are put in place, dogs need to be taught that in fact, their nemesis actually produces really good stuff for them!  One can achieve this by the careful orchestration of presenting valuable resources only when the other dog is present.  Again, really careful management must be in place.  I would argue that while doable to do it with only one person, it is always best to have one handler per dog.

Now, if one of the dogs is the one that is constantly harassing the other, intimidating or controlling the other dog’s movements we must then also be super proactive in teaching the bully that any intimidation will result in social isolation. This protocol works wonders when again folks have been taught what to look for and are willing and able to follow up implementing the protocol every single time the dog engages in any intimidating behaviors towards the less fortunate dog.

Please forget the nonsense of “supporting the alpha” advice that is still given by many veterinarians and dog trainers that have not looked into the scientific literature regarding social dominance. Moreover, how does one know which one is the “alpha”?  As some of my clients have attested they are confused as to which dog is the alpha as they try to implement rules and protocols that require they support the alpha.  I cannot say this loud enough!  Not only will these measures not work, but most likely they will continue to make the life of one of the dogs (the one that folks consider the subordinate) a living hell.  How unfair is this?

When it comes to behavior we must think critically.  Rarely is behavior simple in its expression. Dogs are one of the most sophisticated species when it comes to their social relations. For us to imply that we can delve into the intricacies of their complex social relationships with simplistic advice- such as being the leader and supporting the alpha, is really a rotten proposition.

If you have dogs that are fighting in your home, consider carefully all your options. I disagree that love is all that dogs need in order to resolve this issues.  Sure, love is nice but they need understanding of who they are as a species and as individuals.  They need our care and for us to be true advocates so that they can remain safe and thrive in the household.

Re-homing is a good option when the family realizes they do not have what it takes to tackle all what it will take to make the dogs be in good terms again. And if an appropriate alternative is found – which is really not that easy.  On occasion euthanasia, might be a consideration. In my professional opinion, all possibilities need to be explored with good judgement as well as honesty as one- size- fits- all approach is not really a consideration.