I Believe

As a professional dog behavior consultant, I often talk to people who are struggling and frustrated. They often share facts with me that make me cringe, whether it be details about the e-collar they’ve been using to shock their fearful dog every time he growls or the fact that they’ve been rubbing their anxious dog’s nose in his urine each time he marks while yelling “no” at him.

In addition to dog training, I also work closely with rescue. Dogs come into rescue who have been starved, beaten, or left on a chain. People surrender dogs for reasons that seem ridiculous to me, only to turn around and get a new puppy. Some people view their dogs as disposable.

Regardless of the details a person shares with me, I try not to judge. This is easier to say than to do some days. The 7 sentences below hang above my workspace to remind me of my principles.

I believe that there is more positive than negative in the world.

I believe that the majority of people are good and kind.

I believe that abuse, neglect, and negativity are born of fear or lack of education.

I believe that I have no right to judge others, as I don’t know what battles they may be facing.

I believe that I can help more by listening than by talking.

I believe that I can make a difference in the world, one good deed at a time.

I believe that positive energy will return to me threefold.

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Filed under Rescue, Training

Your Dog

To the person who abandoned your elderly Lab in Rochester two months ago;

I wanted to let you know what happened to your dog.

Your dog was found as a stray. I can’t imagine he ran away. His hips didn’t work so well anymore.

Your dog spent two weeks at the pound, lying in his own feces on the cold concrete. He was sad, scared, and very confused.

When it became clear that you weren’t coming for him, I took your dog home. I bathed him and took him to the vet.

I gave your dog good food, clean water, and soft beds to lie on. I gave him a new name because I didn’t know what you had called him for the last 10-15 years of his life.

I walked your dog every day. He could only go to the end of the block, but it made him so happy. He danced when he saw the leash.

When the pain meds were no longer enough, I took your dog to the vet one last time.

I held your dog on my lap, all 105 pounds of him, and stroked his head. I told him that he was a good boy. I told him that he was loved. I stayed with him as he died.

To the person who abandoned your elderly Lab 2 months ago, I wanted to let you know that your dog was a good dog. Your dog missed you. Your dog forgave you for abandoning him in his final days.

I’m not as good of a person as your dog was, but I will try to forgive you too.

I wanted to let you know that your dog had 43 days of love and compassion with me.

I wish he could have been with you during those twilight days. He had a lot of lessons to teach you still. I’m so very sorry you missed out on them.

Note: thank you to Camp Companion for covering Paddy’s vet bills and helping his final days to be spent with dignity.

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Everybody is a Genius

I hated high school. Throughout my school career, I always got excellent grades. I never caused trouble. My teachers mostly liked me. I had wonderful friends (many of whom I still keep up with today). I was miserable.

I felt bored and frustrated in class, and missed school as often as possible. I never cut school – I wasn’t going to get in trouble – but stayed home “sick” as often as I could get away with it. I was later diagnosed with a legitimate autoimmune disease, but quite honestly quite a few of my “sick days” in high school were really just “can’t stand to sit in a desk and be bored” days. I would miss whole weeks of school. I never fell behind in my schoolwork. I would spend a couple hours studying, writing papers, and filling out worksheets, then spend the rest of the day reading, surfing the internet, or playing video games. I would do anything to avoid feeling trapped in that desk, listening to the same material repeated over and over again.

Looking back at my high school career, a few bright spots stand out. Most notable were a small handful of teachers who made a profound difference.

Mr. Behrens, my sixth-grade teacher, listened to my ideas and assigned me different books to read when he found out that I’d already read the book the class was studying.

Mr. Snyder, my band teacher, wrote special passes to get me out of study hall so I could practice my flute in the tiny, echoey rooms behind his office (and looked the other way when my friends, who also had practice passes, would all cram into one little room together to play occasional cut-throat games of Scrabble).

Mrs. Dix, who came after him, kept up the practice passes and never flinched when I told her I wanted to play an incredibly complicated piece of music with 64th and 128th notes in it for competition.

Mrs. Gehrking, an A.P. English teacher, continued to expand my literary horizons with exciting and challenging work, keeping the class to a fast pace that encouraged me to attend class in order not to fall behind.

Most teachers, however, stuck to the established worksheets, rote learning, and tests. They expressed frustration at my poor attendance and seemed insulted that I didn’t participate more than half-heartedly in class. When I asked to earn extra credits towards graduation for very complicated work I had done (and documented) with color genetics in dwarf hamsters, I was told that such a thing probably wasn’t possible and given empty praise by a teacher who didn’t care to look further into the issue. In 7th grade, my English teacher told me that she would have cast me in the lead role of Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” since my audition was one of the best, but decided against it due to my poor attendance (I was instead given the role of Philostrate, who has 2 lines in the entire play).

So, how does this relate to dog training? I believe that the same characteristics that make me remember certain teachers with fondness or frustration are the characteristics that shape our dogs’ training relationships with us.

When I look back at my school career, the teachers who became my favorites were those who both valued and challenged me. They never gave me challenges I couldn’t succeed at, but always pushed me slightly past my comfort zone. They paid attention to my interests and skills, and nurtured those abilities. They were honestly interested in me and in what I could do, and because of this I was willing to work much, much harder for them. Even when they gave me much more work than I was given in other classes, I didn’t mind because it was work I enjoyed and was excited to complete.

When I look at my students’ dogs, I notice the same trend. Those students who support their dogs, who play to their natural strengths, who listen to and adjust to their dogs’ individual personalities: these are the students who have happy, willing dogs. Students who challenge their dogs, setting them up for success in training but always pushing slightly, these are the students whose dogs are the most excited to work. By taking note of their dogs’ interests and inserting them into a training program, these people develop a true partnership with their pets that others can only grasp at.

Clicker training is a partnership. It can’t be done with an unwilling dog. Sometimes though, this is what ends up happening. By relying on formulaic training plans (“first you do X, then Y”) or pre-conceived notions (“all dogs love to work for hot dogs” or “all agility dogs must play tug”), we can forget to listen to what our dog is telling us. We can lose sight of what makes the dog in front of us special.

When we forget to look for brilliance, we see only mediocrity.

Every dog is an individual. Just because your last dog enjoyed working for food doesn’t mean that this one wouldn’t prefer to play. While the channel method may have worked brilliantly to teach your last dog to weave, this dog may do better with 2×2’s. Dobby was initially too frightened to follow a lure, but learned to sit and down within a week by capturing these behaviors. Layla enjoys heeling practice where I stride out and make her work hard to keep up; Dobby still goes over the top if I move this quickly. Dobby does better with very light, cheerful verbal corrections if he’s starting to make a mistake, while the same feedback would make Layla anxious (and thus, more likely to repeat the mistake).

Layla's high prey drive, which could be considered an inconvenience in conventional dog sports, makes her a phenomenal lure courser.

My parents and I didn’t know about other options, such as an alternative art school or Post Secondary education, when I was in high school, and the overworked guidance counselor certainly wasn’t concerned about looking too closely at a student who was passing all her classes. I sometimes wonder how I would be different had I had a more supportive environment where I was free to engage in self-paced study and explore my interests. Just because that may have been a good fit for me doesn’t mean that my old school should change their curriculum though. Every student is different, and my recipe for success could very well have been another student’s worst nightmare.

I’m reminded of a quote by Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Are you judging your dog by his ability to climb a tree when you could be focusing on how well he can swim? Time to change perspectives. Everybody is a genius. We just need to focus on their brilliance and help their light shine through.

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Filed under Choosing a Dog, Genetics, Rescue, Training

The Joy of the Adolescent Dog

Ah, adolescence. Dobby haz it, and some days I feel like it may be easier to just bang my head against the wall rather than take him out to train.

Don’t misunderstand me. Dobby is a phenomenal dog. He’s actually the perfect house pet, which is so much more important to me than any competition. My dogs are, first and foremost, companions, and Dobby excels at companionship. He’s quiet, house- and crate-trained, snuggly, and well-behaved inside. He listens when it counts (such as respecting the open doorway threshold while I’m bringing the 15-year-old Lab compassion case inside and not dashing out). He gets along with the other two dogs. He really is a very, very good dog.

Dobby's enthusiasm is great, but can be exhausting! Photo by Ryan Windfeldt.

All this perfection doesn’t do anything for his focus when we go places, though. Training Dobby is exhausting. Half an hour with him feels like a day with Layla. Trying to keep his focus can be like trying to teach a class of kindergartners who’ve been fed Mountain Dew and Pixie Sticks to sit still, and heeling with him is like heeling with a hummingbird. I love his enthusiasm, but good god! – there’s enough enthusiasm for 10 regular dogs in there. The difference in his confidence level is unbelievable, and sometimes I need to remind myself that less than a year ago he was pancaked to the floor and would pee all over himself in fear if I even looked at him. This is not the same dog, and I’m proud of his accomplishments.

So, what’s the game plan? At this point, quite honestly, it’s to wait. I know that many of Dobby’s focus problems are just normal adolescence, and I really believe that once he matures a little bit they’re not going to be an issue any more. He just needs more time to grow up. We’re not going to start on agility, or even work all that seriously on obedience, until I have more than 10% of his attention devoted to me. It’s not that he could’t do it – he could. But I have limited time and energy, and there’s no reason to work so hard at these sports now when I can do about half the work in a year for the same results. Much as I want to get in the ring with him, I know I’ll have years and years to compete once he’s no longer distracted by every falling leaf in a five-mile radius.

That doesn’t mean he’ll get a free pass while we’re waiting for his brain to come back. In the meantime, we’ll work on weight pull and keeping playing around with Level 1 rally. We’ve also got plenty of foundation skills to master, such as a reliable “out” and targeting at a distance. I’ll start a few very simple agility skills, like a 2on-2off contact at the bottom of my steps and on a ramp, and we’ll continue to work on his dog-dog skills. Dobby’s already somewhat dog selective at a little over a year of age, and he’s plenty “gamey,” so I’ve established that his job around other dogs is to focus on me and ignore the dogs. I can see him becoming somewhat dog aggressive as he matures, which isn’t unusual for a terrier, but don’t think this will be an issue since it will be quite manageable. He’s got a very, very strong desire to “be good” and is quite soft, so he’s very easy to redirect if he does something I dislike.

The difference between Dobby and Layla is fascinating, and I love watching the two of them interact. Layla still adores him, and it’s amazing how much she enjoys spending time with her dog: snuggling on the couch, walking together, even lying next to him to eat a bully stick!

Lure coursing Layla is pure predator.

Layla is the polar opposite of Dobby in many ways. Layla is NOT the perfect house pet. Much as I adore her, I understand that most people would hate living with her. Living with Layla is like living with a wild animal. She doesn’t particularly like to be touched, so petting and snuggling are things she tolerates rather than enjoys. She does like to snuggle up on occasion (about 5 minutes a day), but it needs to be on her terms and she prefers to lie on top of me without me petting her. Besides not wanting to spend close time with me, Layla is also incredibly tricky and smart. She can open the refrigerator and the gate in the backyard. She jumps baby gates and kills (and consumes) small animals on a regular basis. If she gets out of the house or yard she doesn’t come back, and instead searches for a squirrel or other little critter to kill and eat. She barks, she steals food if the opportunity presents itself, and she views house rules more as guidelines.

On the other hand, Layla’s a dream to train. She learns new things quickly and has amazing focus. She tries her heart out for me and being in the rally ring with her is the best high I know. She loves it, and I love that she loves it. She’s been a phenomenal teacher and I wouldn’t trade her for the world.

If I could choose the perfect dog, I would blend Dobby’s wonderful companionship with Layla’s amazing focus and trainability. Since I can’t choose though, I’m glad I have the dogs I do. Both give me so much, and I could certainly have much worse. And who knows? Maybe in a year, once Dobby’s matured, I’ll have everything I want in him. If you notice a large flat area on the top of my head in the meantime, know that it’s just from banging my head against the wall. Ah, adolescence.

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Filed under Dobby, Layla, Training

Every Life Has Worth: Why Compassion Holds are so Important

Blackie was paralyzed and began having neurological issues. He spent his last two nights with me.

I’ve written before about issues concerning animal rescue, but want to write about an issue that’s near and dear to my heart: compassion holds.

You don’t hear much about compassion holds in the rescue community, and it makes me sad. I understand that compassion holds may be a difficult topic for some people to hear about, but I also think that they’re under-utilized by many rescues. Some rescues don’t even do them. This is a shame, since they’re a very big way to make a difference for a needy animal.

So, what is a compassion hold? In the simplest sense, it’s a way to ensure that the last days of a suffering animal’s life are filled with love, safety, and dignity. It’s a humane act.

There are two kinds of compassion hold cases: behavioral and medical. I do both.

Medical compassion holds are done in cases where an animal is not adoptable due to a severe medical problem. This could be untreatable cancer, severe wounds that the shelter or rescue deems untreatable, puppies with congenital conditions (such as severe heart murmurs or liver shunts) who will not live to adulthood, or senior dogs who don’t have long left.

Henry was fearful, reactive, and a resource guarder. He was also sweet and earnest. He had spent most of his life tied to a radiator in a NYC apartment.

Behavioral compassion holds are in some ways much harder, as these are animals who are young and healthy, but are not adoptable due to severe behavior issues (usually aggression). These animals are not at fault. They have been damaged by people, and because of the horrible things that have been done to them, they cannot safely be placed.

Whether a dog is not adoptable due to behavioral or medical issues, my stance is the same. Every life has value. No dog deserves to spend his final days afraid, alone, or in pain. This is why I do compassion holds.

When a dog comes to me for a compassion hold, they come to live with me for a period of time. For behavioral cases, this is usually one or two days. Medical cases vary, depending on how long the animal can remain happy, comfortable, and pain-free.

While in my care, the dog is given when makes him or her happy. This could be walks, massages, ball games, or just lots of quiet time to sleep and recover from a stay in a shelter. In the most heartbreaking behavioral cases, sometimes this is little to no interaction with me, as the dog may find every human frightening. Regardless, I ask the dog what he or she wants, and try to honor their individual choices. I provide a safe, supportive environment. I tell the dog over and over that he is a good dog, that I love him, and that he is safe. I talk to him quietly and touch him gently. I provide stuffed kongs, good food, and soft beds. I work with a veterinarian to provide appropriate medical care: pain meds for medical cases, anxiety meds or mild sedatives for some behavioral cases.

When the time comes for an animal to be euthanized, the veterinarian comes to my house or we meet somewhere else where the animal feels safe and comfortable. We use treats and sedatives as necessary to make the dog feel okay about the vet. I encourage the dog to climb on my lap and talk to him softly, holding him and petting him. I tell him what a good dog he is and thank him for coming to stay with me for awhile. I tell him I love him. The veterinarian is gentle as she injects the euthanasia solution, and the dog slips away peacefully. For some dogs, it is the first time I ever see their face without raw fear, without pain, without worry. I don’t believe that death is always the worst thing that can happen to a dog.

Are compassion holds difficult? Of course. People often tell me that they couldn’t stand to do what I do, that it would be too painful, and I can respect that. We all help however we can. That said, I think this misses the point. Pretending that euthanasia doesn’t happen in the rescue community isn’t going to make it true. If I can bring a dog into my home so that he doesn’t have to spend his final days in a cage, I can make an enormous difference to that dog. I can hold true to my morals and make sure his life is valued and he is treated as an individual, with love and dignity. I can be humane.

Perrin broke my heart, and would still live with me today if I could have made it work. I'm sorry the system failed you, little girl. You were so loved.

The logistics of each compassion case are different. For behavioral cases, I usually have my own dogs go elsewhere for the length of the hold, both for their safety (oftentimes the dogs I take in are dog-dog aggressive) and for the peace of the dog who I’m bringing in (my dogs aren’t exactly the easiest pack to live with). In severe cases, I may utilize a basket muzzle or leash for my own safety when the dog isn’t in an ex-pen or crate. I know that I have the knowledge to read a seriously aggressive dog well enough to keep myself safe. If I didn’t feel comfortable having such a dog in my home (and in some cases, I haven’t), I would still try to do something for that dog’s final hours – perhaps a walk with two people (with the dog double-leashed), a McDonald’s cheeseburger or full jar of peanut butter in his kennel, or a bunch of paper bags to shred apart. Behavioral compassion cases aren’t something to be attempted by the average foster home with little knowledge for dog behavior or body language, and each rescue should respect that and be sure that they are placing these cases safely. That said, these dogs deserve it. They don’t deserve to be blamed for what poor breeding, no socialization, abuse, or neglect has done to them.

Medical cases are a little easier, since these dogs often don’t have behavior issues (although sometimes they may be cranky due to pain or other physical issues). Still, a working knowledge of basic medical care is important. I’m a certified vet tech, and this background gives me the knowledge base to assess a dog’s changing condition. If I notice a dog’s vitals weakening, I can seek medical care for him quickly so he doesn’t suffer. If a dog has a seizure, gets explosive diarrhea, or suddenly starts limping, I’m not going to panic or become upset. These cases are easier for fosters new to compassion holds to begin taking, and are a great place for a rescue who hasn’t previously offered compassion holds to start.

So, have you ever heard about compassion holds, or done one yourself? Does your local rescue do this? If you feel like a compassion hold is something you may have the ability to do, I would strongly encourage you to contact your rescue and ask. Ask if they do compassion holds, and if not, ask if they would consider starting such a program. Every life has worth. Every animal deserves safety, dignity, and compassion. No animal should spend his final moments alone, afraid, or pain.

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Filed under Anxiety, Other Dogs, Rescue

What the Dog Heard: On Discovering Words of Power & the Power of Words

“He’s so stubborn. He knows how to sit; he just won’t do it unless I show him a treat.” My client glares at his bulldog puppy. The puppy gazes back at him softly, waiting for him to produce a treat. The second the owner pulls out a cookie, the puppy plops into a sit, grinning and wiggling.

Keeping my amusement to myself (what a clever pup!), I demonstrate to his owner how to reverse expectations. Showing the puppy a piece of chicken, I ask him to sit.He immediately plops down and I praise him exuberantly, but withhold the treat. Very ostentatiously, I set the chicken chunk on a nearby counter, then ask the puppy once again to sit. He stares at me, at the chicken, back at me. He remains standing. “Told you so!” the owner crows. “Bulldogs just aren’t very smart.” Ten long seconds later, the puppy’s rear end starts to lower. Before he’s fully in a sit, I click his downward movement and hand him the chicken, telling him what an intelligent pup he is. After a couple of minutes the puppy is slamming his rear enthusiastically on the ground on either a hand signal or verbal cue with no food lure. Stubborn? No, just confused about the rules.

I can understand my client’s need to label his puppy as stubborn and stupid. Last winter, I adopted a broken dog. I had been looking for a dog for a while. However, I hadn’t been looking for this particular dog.

Shortly after adoption, Dobby was a study in stress signals.

Dobby started off as one of a long line of foster dogs. A neophobic bull breed mix from the local pound, he was adorable but was most certainly not the future competition prospect I had in mind. He was hand shy, terrified of doorways, and so overwhelmed with his change in circumstances that he skipped every other meal. Trying to use a food lure or hand target resulted in him hitting the ground and trying to become one with the floor. Guests to my home caused him to growl and back up quickly, eyes wide and tail glued to his belly button.

Layla had different ideas about him. She fell in love, sleeping curled up around this dog and spontaneously inviting him to play on a daily basis. For a highly dog-selective bitch who typically barely tolerates fosters, this was so out of character that I sat up and took notice. After two months of
her embarrassing love affair, I gave in. The adoption paperwork was signed, and I found myself the proud owner of a dog who flattened to the floor and peed all over himself if I so much as looked at him cross-eyed.

I joked with my friends that I was just attracted to “broken” dogs. My other dogs have also been less-than-perfect when they came to live with me. I tried not to feel resentful that my plans for a competitive sports dog were being pushed back several years. It was worth it to see Layla so blissfully happy.

That’s when it hit me. I may not be calling my new dog stubborn or stupid, but labeling him as a “broken” dog was just as damning.

Words have power. It’s easy to forget this. In fact, our culture refutes this truth on a daily basis. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a lie that we tell ourselves from the time we’re little. It feels good to think that we’re immune to the power of suggestion. We’re stronger than that. We know how to look at facts and think rationally. How well we fool ourselves.

The real truth is that labels are incredibly powerful. One need look no further than the “Pit Bull problem” to see how this plays out. Two similar bite incidents happen on the same day. Both involve damage to a young child’s face by the resident dog. One involves a Labrador Retriever, one an American Pit Bull Terrier. The incident with the Lab is reported in two local papers. The incident with the Pit Bull is picked up by the Associated Press and winds up sparking debate on multiple national news shows about the need for Breed Specific Legislation. Label the biting dog with a different breed, and the headlines become so much less sexy. Pit Bulls are not Labradors, and Labs are not Pits. However, the “Pit Bull” label has come to mean something entirely different to the general public and the media than it does to those of us who work with these dogs on a regular basis. Dogs are profiled based on the size of their head and the mass of their muscles rather than being approached as individuals.

By calling my dog broken, even jokingly, I was damaging our prospects before we even started. Any time we label something, we create mental associations. When I think of the word broken, I think of having to repair something, of possibly not being able to fix it. Word associations pop up in my mind: discarded, unusable, neglected, thrown out, useless. These mental images were being attached, however unconsciously, to my new dog. Realizing this, I decided to try an experiment. I had already begun a desensitization and counter-conditioning program with Dobby, taking him to quiet places and rewarding him lavishly for brave behavior. I was working within his comfort zone and patiently encouraging him to explore the world. I changed absolutely nothing about this training plan. The only detail I altered was how I described him. Instead of speaking about Dobby as broken, rescued, neophobic, or terrified, I invented new labels. Clicking and feeding him a food reward for walking through a doorway without crouching, I cooed to him about what a “big, brave boy” he was. When he finally started to offer sits, I praised him as “SUCH a clever boy!” Over and over, the little dog heard, “Dobby’s clever.” “Dobby’s brave.” “Dobby’s a good dog.”

I expected results. I’d been seeing progress already, and I figured this small change could only improve things. After four months, if my little dog was still so terrified that it impacted his quality of life, I would talk to my veterinarian about a referral to a board certified veterinary behaviorist to get him further help.

Layla and her dog curl up together.

This proved unnecessary. Suddenly, my “neophobic pound puppy” was playing tug like a Schutzhund dog and jumping up on strangers in friendly greeting. He would go into the backyard with a ball in his mouth to run and run, tail up and eyes sparkling. He bounced around me as I worked in the garden, and pranced past the bikes, joggers, and baseball players in the park as if they were only so much scenery. He passed the “appearance and grooming” test in the Canine Good Citizen exam, sitting calmly by my side as a complete stranger handled his ears and paws, then ran a brush down his back.

Each day he became braver, and suddenly I had my competition prospect. Here was a dog with a great work ethic, drive to spare, and the intense desire to work cooperatively with me. Here was a dog who, while still unsure about new things, was willing to trust that I would keep him safe and to try his very best each time I asked it. The only difference? A few small words. The power of suggestion.

This can be a powerful tool for our clients. I believe this small shift in thinking spells the difference between those teams who succeed with behavior modification and those who never get things figured out.

How often do trainers hear that a pushy, anxious dog is “dominant?” The dominance myth has such incredible power that one can see the change in a client in an instant. As my clients describe their “dominant” dog to me, I watch as their faces change. Their eyes harden, the muscles around their lips tighten up, and they become tense. They glare at their dog. Their bodies unconsciously prepare for battle. If the dog is on a leash, the owner tightens up on it. Other labels cause similar observable results: dogs are stubborn, stupid, manipulative, guilty, aggressive, reactive. Owners excuse poor behavior by saying that the dog was abused, neglected, or rescued, or that the breed is “always like this.”

It’s amazing what words can do. When an owner labels their dog, we need to focus first on changing their perceptions. Problems can crop up here. The first thing that springs from most trainers’ lips when trying to advise an owner who’s doing something wrong is a phrase beginning with a negative (“Don’t….”).

This negativity affects our clients. The majority of people will try very hard to take a trainer’s advice. They will remind themselves over and over, “don’t say no” or “don’t pop the leash.” And what’s happening each time they issue an internal reminder? They’re mentally practicing that forbidden behavior, getting better and better at it. The more they remind themselves to stop, the more they picture the prohibited behavior in their minds. That mental imagery becomes reality. They can’t stop themselves from popping the leash or telling their dog no because they’ve practiced that negative behavior so many times in their mind. It’s firmly entrenched in their behavioral repertoire. We need to reframe the situation for them if we want to help them succeed.

As positive trainers, most of us find it easy to be kind to the dog. Unfortunately, not every positive trainer is as patient and reinforcing to the
other end of the leash. Try this simple experiment. Next time a client tells you that their dog is stubborn; prove to that person that their dog is
willing. Say it just as many times as the person repeats their assertion. Each time the client tells me, “He’s just so stubborn!” I counter with “he’s so eager to learn” or “he’s trying so hard to figure out what you want.” Sincerity is important here. If the rate of reinforcement is too low and the dog could care less about the person holding onto his leash handle, fix that first. Telling your client that his dog is cooperative while Fido lunges and barks at the cute Poodle across the room is a great way to drive business away. Give a concrete suggestion: “I want you to click and treat eight times in the next minute.” Shape success in your student just as you do with the other end of the leash. The laws of learning apply to all organisms, and humans are no exception.

It’s true that dogs couldn’t care less about words. Words are as foreign a concept to your dog as scent is to you. However, dogs live in a human world. In our world, words have incredible power. Mental imagery allows us to practice dealing successfully (or not!) with a given situation repeatedly before that situation ever arises. Labels create subconscious associations that influence our behavior, which in turn shapes our dogs’ behavior.

Simple changes can produce big results. My new dog is brave, clever, and willing. He recently started foundation agility classes, where he’s excelling, and qualified twice at his very first APDT Rally Obedience show. My client’s Bulldog puppy is stubborn no more. On graduation night of Beginning Obedience class, he proudly showed off his dog’s new trick repertoire: shake, wave, high five, and yes, sit on cue with no cookie in sight. As his classmates applauded, a fellow student expressed doubt that her dog would ever become so well behaved. My client’s answer? “My dog made it easy: he’s really smart.”

Dogs are incredibly gifted at reading intent in our tone, posture, and movement. Just because they don’t know the literal meaning of each word doesn’t mean they aren’t influenced by language. Stop for a minute and consider this: what have you been saying to yourself… and
what has your dog heard?

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Filed under Choosing a Dog, Dobby, Rescue, Training

In the Jungle

Disclaimer: I’m not a neurologist or any sort of scientist, and won’t even begin to claim that I understand how the brain works. This post is a vast oversimplification based on the little bit of information I believe I might know. YMMV.

People often comment on how "happy" Layla is when she's stressed. She may look excited on the surface, but that's not the case. Check out the dilated pupils here for a better indication of her internal state.

Oftentimes in our Focus & Control or Reactive dog classes, students will complain that they are frustrated. They want their dogs to relax, and they’re annoyed that the dog can’t just settle down. I see this in private training lessons as well. “He KNOWS better,” the client says (glaring at their dog). Never mind the fact that the dog may have been practicing the previous, unwanted, behavior for months or even years and I’ve only been working with them for a few weeks. People don’t understand why their dog can’t just be better already.

I get it. I have a reactive dog, and I feel the same frustration with her. In fact, Layla and I will be going to the University of MN next month to ask Dr. Duxbury about some possible medication changes. Behavior problems are frustrating and difficult. There are no magic cures.

It’s helpful to understand a little bit about the physiology of learning when trying to understand why our dogs can take so long to “rehabilitate” in the case of a behavior problem.

Learning creates physical changes in the brain. These changes are semi-permanent, but new learning can “override” previous learning.

One good analagy is to think of the brain as a rainforest (thanks to Dr. Karen Overall for this idea). When you learn something, you are creating a path through the rainforest, beating back all the brush as you go. The more you practice the new skill or behavior you’ve learned, the more times you travel down that same path. At first, the path is very overgrown and it takes real effort to walk along it. This is the acquisition part of a new behavior. Once you’ve practiced that behavior over and over again (traveled down that path over and over again), it becomes easier. You don’t have to expend as much energy to reach your destination (perform that behavior). This is why learning new skills tires our dogs out so much. Thinking is hard work! It can be very difficult to form a new path and usually requires multiple repetitions.

Why does this matter for our dogs? Once you’ve learned a behavior, that neural pathway becomes very strong. That path is very easy to go down. In Layla’s case, she becomes very anxious in social situations and in the presence of food. These issues have been ongoing since I brought her home at 16 weeks, which means she’s had five years to travel down those pathways. While both issues have improved, neither has been solved.

A truly relaxed Layla. She's smiling, just as in the previous picture, but can you see the difference in the rest of her body?

Her anxiety in social situations manifests as silliness. She wiggles around, grins, and becomes more active (largely, I believe, because wiggling and acting silly means that strangers won’t touch her, since they can’t catch her to get a hand on her). Her pupils dilate and she height-seeks, often performing the infamous “double ovary punch” where she vaults off the stranger’s body. She’s actually quite calm and sweet when she’s comfortable, but few people have ever seen this true side of Layla.

Layla’s food issues have both improved and regressed. Initially, she was a very severe resource guarder. She would leave a food bowl or valuable chewy to bite someone from several feet away, breaking skin. I’m very proud to say that she no longer guards food from people. However, her anxiety in the presence of potential food has increased. If there’s the possibility that she may be given a treat, she obsesses over it. She offers every behavior she can think of, flipping through them as quickly as she can, but is too anxious to pay attention to what behavior she was offering when she was given the treat. This means that she can no longer play shaping games, because she’s too anxious to think clearly. Her pupils also dilate in this situation. If there is food sitting out on the counter, she will pace, whine, and tremble until I put it away or give it to her. I’ve actually increased her daily food ration and allowed her to gain a little weight just to see if this made a difference (it didn’t).

The problem with replacing a well-established behavior with a new behavior is that you’re providing the dog with a choice of two paths. On the one hand, they can go down that familiar path that’s so easy to travel (the old behavior). On the other, they can try to whack their way through the rainforest and form a new pathway. If you were given a choice of going somewhere quickly on either the interstate or on a deer trail through the forest, which would you choose? Layla’s height-seeking and wiggly behavior in social situations is like the interstate – it’s a wide, easy to travel path that’s familiar to her.

At some point in learning, our behaviors even become somewhat automatic and are no longer under conscious control (think about the first time you learned to drive a stick shift VS doing it after you’ve driven one for years – many of those behaviors have become automatic). Layla doesn’t conciously make the decision to act silly and spastic. It’s just what she reverts to in this situation. Training has not been able to overcome this issue with her, because she’s not in a state where she can learn. She may be able to follow cues to sit and stay briefly, but at some point all of that pent up anxiety is going to explode out, and she’s probably going to height-seek and wiggle worse than ever. Trying to control a behavior that’s motivated by anxiety through training alone is like bottling up vinegar and baking soda. If it can’t fizz freely, it’s going to eventually explode.

So, how can we change behavior if the old neural pathways are so firmly established? We need to make it worth the dog’s while to invest in opening a new path, and we need to prevent the dog from going down that old path. In the case of a behavior that’s motivated by anxiety, we also need to treat the underlying cause (usually by altering the brain chemistry with medication such as SSRIs or TCAs). Just like a path through the rainforest, over time the old pathway is going to become a little overgrown and harder to travel down as the dog stops using it. At the same time, the new pathway will become easier and easier to go down until it’s become the path of choice, and the one the dog travels down automatically. That’s not to say the dog might not ever wander down the old path again – it will always be there (this is where spontaneous recovery of previous behaviors can come in to play). We just need to make it the less accessible option.

Can we fix behavior problems? Absolutely! However, how long it takes will depend largely on how good we are at preventing the dog from going down that old pathway, how well established that path was, and how attractive we’re making the new path (hint: use the dog’s top reinforcers and be incredibly generous). Behavior mod isn’t always a quick fix, but change is possible. Support your dog, and be patient as you forge that path together through the jungle. I know that Layla tries her hardest for me, and I can do no less for her, ovary bruises or no.

Now to explore some new paths together…

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Filed under Anxiety, Layla, Training