Can You Hear Me Now?

April 23, 2014

cocked head cropA woman stands in the middle of a park calling her dog. The dog, oblivious, continues to play with his friends. The woman calls out again, this time more loudly. No response. Finally, in a fit of frustration, she screams at the dog, grabs his collar, and drags him away. What’s happened here? Did the dog really not hear his owner calling?

Although it might seem like it, little doggy earflaps did not snap into place, sealing the dog’s inner ear canals. In this case, the most likely explanation is that the dog had learned through experience that when Mom calls at the park, it means it’s time to leave. Why would he possibly respond? (If Mom were smart, she’d start by practicing calling the dog to her at the park when nothing interesting was going on, rewarding him with a quick game of tug or something else he likes, then releasing him. She’d gradually build up to more interesting situations.) In this type of scenario, the dog is actually being conditioned that the word “Come!” means, “If you return to me, you can kiss fun goodbye, because your furry butt is leaving.” We see the same type of scenario when a dog gets out of an open yard gate and is happily racing around the neighborhood, having the time of his doggy life. Why come when called? It only means going home, and possibly even being yelled at. (Never yell at your dog once he’s come to you; he did what you asked.)

Another type of seemingly “selective hearing” can happen when a dog is emotionally over threshold. For example, two dogs get into a skirmish. Adrenalin and other stress hormones flood their systems. The dogs are in “fight or flight” mode, heavily invested in the former. In that extreme state of arousal, although a dog can still physically hear, it’s not likely he’s going to pay attention. His attention, of course, is laser focused on the matter at paw. When dogs fight, owners often scream their names, but I’ve never seen one stop and turn around as if to say, “Sorry? I was a bit busy tearing into Buddy here, did you need me for something?”

While there’s not much we can do once a dog is over threshold other than getting him out of the situation as calmly as possible, conditioning can help. Instilling a rock solid recall—building from a simple come when called in the house to one outdoors with heavy distractions—takes time, but is worth every minute of effort. Monitoring your dog’s body language and behavior go a long way toward allowing you to step in and successfully call your dog to you before he gets into trouble or goes over the edge of arousal. With steady practice and good observation skills, you won’t have to wonder, Can you hear me now? You’ll know, because your dog will respond.
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Please visit http://www.nicolewilde.com for my books, DVDs, and 2014 seminar schedule. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.


Behind the Facade

April 3, 2014

here comes my girlHave you ever picked up a magazine containing ads or fashion spreads where you appreciated the beauty of the female models? While many are pretty to begin with, for every “ooh” and “aah” there are ten behind-the-scenes manipulations that produced that image, from hair and makeup to lighting, and especially post-processing. By the same token, when you admire a very well-trained dog, many days, weeks, months, and perhaps even years have gone into the finished product.

I thought about this phenomenon recently when I was at the dog park with Sierra. As many of you know, we only frequent the park when there are either no other dogs present, or perhaps one that we know well. We were standing on the “small dogs” side since the “large dogs” side was occupied by two owners and their dogs. I knew one of the women well. She’s got two German Shepherd mixes who are very sweet, but the male can be reactive and sometimes even aggressive with other dogs. The park sections are separated by a chain link fence, and he often barks and lunges at Sierra. Sierra, for her part, stands there with a “Talk to the paw!” look and seems to enjoy watching him bark himself into a lather. Because I enjoy speaking to the woman, and don’t want to have to shout over all that barking, I call Sierra to me and keep her there, away from the fence. I have heard a few people comment about how well trained she is, and watching her instantly respond to a recall away from a dog who is barking in her face—who she might not be impressed by but is certainly focused on—certainly does look impressive.

The truth is that Sierra had no recall whatsoever when I got her. Training a solid recall takes time with any dog, but with Sierra it was even more challenging. She’s got an incredibly high prey drive and a laser focus. She’ll zone in on a dog approaching from such a distance that I haven’t even spotted them yet. I can always tell when this has happened by her suddenly tense body and hard, focused eye. Now imagine trying to get a dog in that frame of mind to respond to a request to come when called. We began with no distractions, of course, and built up gradually over time. And I won’t lie; it was a lot of work.

The thing is, having a well trained dog doesn’t happen overnight. But you don’t have to drill your dog in obedience for hours a day; in fact, dogs learn better in shorter practice sessions. I’m as guilty as the next person of bemoaning the fact that I don’t have time to train my dogs, or I’m too tired after a long day, or any number of excuses. But really, if you just put in a couple of minutes here and there, and build obedience exercises into the things you do anyway—for example, practicing sits and stays during walks, or down-stays during television commercials—you might be surprised at the difference it can make.


You Say Patootie…

March 5, 2014

!dogwalkI received a phone call yesterday from a woman in need of training for her dog. She had three dogs—two males and a female—and it seems that the female was “a real Snooty Patootie Pants.” My response, after stifling a burst of laughter, was to ask her to kindly define “Snooty Patootie Pants.” I mean, it’s not exactly a standard term in the Dog Trainer’s Dictionary. I’ve heard this highly descriptive type of term before. One woman’s dog was a “nervous Narvis.” Another’s had “anger management issues.” And one caller kept going on about her dog: “He’s so selfish. It’s always all about him,” prompting me to finally ask with a laugh whether we were still talking about the dog.

These descriptions are funny and charming, but it really is important when discussing dog behavior that we have consistent definitions. This becomes especially crucial when discussing aggression issues. I can’t tell you how many owners I’ve heard describe their dogs as “aggressive,” where it meant anything from the dog being a typical nippy puppy, to being overly enthusiastic in play, to simply jumping on people. None of these constitutes aggression! Can you imagine someone returning a dog like this to the shelter and telling them the dog is aggressive? You know what happens next. (Although I would love to see the shelter worker’s face when the person told them the dog has “anger management issues.”)

While it’s true that dogs certainly have emotions, some of us tend to anthropomorphize, which can lead a discussion into muddy waters. Although the general meaning is understood when someone says a dog is “anxious,” it doesn’t really give enough information. What we really need is not an interpretation of a dog’s state of mind, but a simple recounting of what the dog does. Perhaps one anxious dog hides in a crate all day and cringes when people go to pet him. Another might run from the room when a particular sound plays on the television. As for aggressive dogs, again, what does the dog do? Is he lunging and barking when passing other dogs on a walk? Does he bite visitors at the front door? (Tip for owners: trainers really, really like to know about that last one.) A clear description of a dog’s behavior allows us to get a better picture of what’s going on so that an appropriate treatment plan can be formulated. And that way, in the end, we can help the dog—even if she is a Snooty Patootie Pants.


For Dogs, Learning is 24/7

February 25, 2014

treats please small cropHow much time do you spend each day training your dog? If you answered “30 minutes,” “An hour,” or even “Three 10-minute sessions,” you’re wrong. Oh, I believe that you’re working on specific skills during those periods—but the truth is that you’re training your dog 24 hours a day, every day.

Dogs are masters of prognostication. They might not be able to tell you the winning lottery numbers, but they sure know that when you grab that long thing with the metal clip on the end, a door will open and a walk will follow. If my dogs could speak, they’d tell you—once they got done ordering out for pizza and beer—that the television remote being clicked on means that Mom is going to be on the couch watching that strange box with the moving pictures, so we might as well go lie on our dog beds for a while. They also know that when Mom leaves with those letters and boxes in the morning she usually returns quickly, and that if Mom and Dad leave the house after 6:00 at night, there’s a good chance they won’t be home until after dark. Dogs are such excellent observers that they can even predict with great accuracy how long we’ll be away based on the type of footwear or clothing we’re wearing.

Learning also happens organically, for the simple reason that dogs learn to repeat actions that are rewarded. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat across a kitchen table from a dog owner as they’ve told me how they don’t want their dog up on their lap when they’re sitting at the table; as they’re tell me this, the dog has his paws on the lap, and they’re stroking the dog’s fur.

My own dogs, Sierra and Bodhi, have learned a fun and interesting thing. It began back when we only had Sierra. At some point she had lowered the front part of her body in a sort of bowing stretch as she was greeting me; I petted her while she was in that position, scritch-scratching from her head all the way down to her tail. She loved it, and began to repeat the behavior. Since I continued to reward it, it became her default way of greeting me in the mornings. When we got Bodhi, he learned the behavior from observing her. Of course, it was soon reinforced by being petted. Now when I wake up in the morning, I’m greeted by two bowing dogs. Ah, finally! Concrete proof that I’m the pack leader!

Just remember, even when you don’t think you’re training, your dogs are learning. What have your dogs learned without formal training?
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Check out Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com and her photography at http://www.nicolewildephotography.com.


At the Shelter: Can We Put People in the Mood to Adopt?

February 18, 2014

Elderly Lady with PetI’m one of those people whose mind always seems to translate things into how they relate to dogs. The other morning was no exception. I came across an article stating that researchers have discovered what they call the “temperature-premium” effect. According to the study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, a series of five field and lab studies were used to measure and manipulate physical warmth in conjunction with shoppers’ assessments of perceived value of products. The findings suggest that “exposure to physical warmth activates the concept of emotional warmth.” This study follows others that found a relationship between positive feelings and reduced distance from the subject, and suggests that increased temperatures also reduce people’s perceived distance from the subject.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we “trick” anyone into feeling like they should adopt a dog; the last thing anyone wants is adopter’s remorse and a return. But there’s nothing wrong with making people feel as comfortable and receptive as possible when meeting their potential new best friend. In regard to the temperature premium effect, the meet and greet rooms in shelters and rescues comes to mind. In the study, the target temperature was a few degrees above 72. That’s not a temperature that would be uncomfortable to most dogs, and it might relax people. If you run an adoption facility, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to conduct an unofficial “study” to see whether it helps? I wonder too whether we could extrapolate from the study that a higher temperature in the kennel buildings would make people feel closer to the subjects in distance, which might in turn reduce emotional distance.

We also know that music can help dogs to relax in shelter type environments, thanks to studies that have been done with classical music as well as music that is psychoacoustically designed to help dogs relax, such as the Through a Dog’s Ear series. And, we know that certain types of music are more likely to make humans relax. As a general rule, classical music is more relaxing than, say, heavy metal music—unless, of course, you’re a sixteen-year-old boy. So why not pump relaxing music into the kennels? It could relax the dogs, in turn making them more adoptable, and calm the people, putting them more at ease and hopefully in a more receptive state.

There are also other senses that can be engaged to help dogs and people to relax. Smell is a dog’s primary sense. DAP—Dog Appeasing Pheromone—is a product that mimics the pheromones emitted by a lactating female dog. Turns out they’re comforting not only to puppies, but to adults as well. (There is some debate about whether this product is effective; to me, it falls into the can’t-hurt-might-help category, and I have heard plenty of anecdotal evidence where it did work.) Using DAP in kennels could well help dogs to relax. But what about humans who don’t have the vomero-nasal organ dogs have to detect those pheromones? Well, there’s aromatherapy. What about some nice, relaxing lavender?

You get the idea. We all want to stay in environments that we enjoy longer than ones in which we’re uncomfortable. (Case in point: I have walked out of more mall stores that were playing obnoxious music than I can count.) If we’re physically comfortable and feeling pleasantly relaxed, we’re a lot more likely to be in a receptive state mentally and emotionally. Again, we’re certainly aren’t aiming to “trick” anyone into adoptions. But isn’t it worth our while to do everything we can to help people be more open to considering the dogs?
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Check out Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com and her photography at http://www.nicolewildephotography.com.


“My Dog Bit Someone–Out of Nowhere!”

February 11, 2014

aggressive dog HP blogThose are the words I heard when I picked up the telephone this morning. The caller was understandably distraught. Her 16-month-old German shepherd had bitten a visitor, a man who had not been to the home before. Fortunately, he was not seriously injured and did not press charges. But he was shaken up, as were the owners. The dog had previously shown some signs of being uncomfortable around people, but the bite was a wake-up call. Something had to be done.

The thing is, the shepherd didn’t actually bite “out of nowhere”—dogs seldom do. There are almost always warning signs. A typical scenario goes like this: a puppy is fearful of people. During group class, he hides behind his owner, and at home, he shrinks when people go to pet him. With the onset of adolescence comes a bit of confidence. Now when people go to pet the dog, he barks, growls, and makes it as clear as possible that he’d like to be left alone, thank you very much. Those who don’t heed the warning may receive an air snap, a promise of things to come.

Late adolescence into adulthood is when many dogs begin to show what many people term “aggression.” At the rescue center I used to co-run, it seemed that an inordinate number of dogs were given up right around a year-and-a-half of age. The age of dogs given to the city shelters I’ve worked and volunteered at coincide. It’s true that just as human teenagers develop selective hearing and push their boundaries, so do dogs, and some are surrendered due to a wildness having nothing to do with aggression. But this is also a very common age for dogs to begin to take the offense, to act in a way that will make the big scary thing go away. The dog may lunge and snap while on leash, or unleash a volley of severe barks at the entrance of a stranger. Now when the person advances, the dog not only does not retreat, he advances and bites in order to make the person retreat.

In most cases, even the severe ones that make the evening news, by the time a bite happens there have been plenty of warnings. Familiarizing oneself with signals such as lip licking, yawning, avoidance of eye contact, and other subtle stress indicators can not only alert us that a dog is uncomfortable, but can prompt us to remove him from a potentially volatile situation and to seek professional help. Unfortunately, in some families—particularly those with smaller dogs—a certain level of aggression is tolerated. The call to a trainer only happens once the dog has bitten someone outside of the family.

The earlier reactivity is recognized for what it is and treated, the less often it will appear that a bite came from “out of nowhere.”
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Visit http://www.nicolewilde.com for Nicole’s 2014 seminar schedule, Hit by a Flying Wolf: True Tales of Rescue, Rehabilitation and Real Life with Dogs and Wolves, and other books and seminar DVDs.


Beyond Typical Resource Guarding

January 30, 2014

bully stick 3 smallerWe’ve all heard about dogs who guard their food, or perhaps treats or toys. But there are some dogs from whom resource guarding goes beyond the norm, and seems to be an art form. Here are just a few examples:

1. Guarding people. Most dogs in this category guard their owners. At the dog park, I’ve watched dogs spend the entire time running at and fending off dogs who come anywhere in the vicinity of the owner. The owner believes he or she is doing a good thing by bringing the dog to the park for exercise and socialization. In reality, the dog is in a constant state of stressful arousal. After all, when vigilantly guarding a valued resource, who could relax? Unfortunately, some owners find this sort of behavior admirable, in a “Look, my dog is protecting me” kind of way.

I can always count on Sierra to add something strange and different to typical behavior. When I first got Sierra, I’d allow her to go greet dogs and owners in the dog park if there were only one or two inside. Here’s a typical scenario: There’s a nice Australian shepherd mix, and her owner, who is sitting on a bench. I open the gate. Sierra immediately runs up to the owner, hops up beside him, and begins her wiggly, flirtatious, pet-me routine. Fair enough. But, when the Aussie approaches Sierra guards the dog from her own owner! Needless to say, this is not something I let to continue to happen, but it certainly was interesting.

2. Guarding Other Dogs. Imagine two dogs romping happily. A third dog approaches, and suddenly a skirmish breaks out, as one of the previously romping dogs drives the interloper away. “Isn’t that nice? He’s protecting his friend,” says the owner. Not so much. If the dog could speak, he’d be saying, “Go find your own friend. This one is mine!” This dynamic isn’t uncommon when two dogs who live together come to the park, where one turns on the other to guard a valued newcomer from the housemate.

3. Guarding Locations. This isn’t all that uncommon. When there are two or more dogs in the house, often one will lie across a doorway that leads to a room or to the outdoors, in order to controlling access to the area. Before the other dog can pass, he’s got to get past the Club Canine bouncer. Some dogs will even do this with their owners. In those cases, many owners will step over their dogs, while others will get the dog out of the way by calling the dog to them. I recommend the latter, or simply teaching a “Move!” cue.

4. Guarding from Afar. This is one that sometimes goes unnoticed or is misunderstood by owners. In this case, the valued item is not even in the dog’s possession. Some dogs, for example, will stand near the kitchen table while the owners are eating, glaring at the other dog. They might well have never been fed from the table; it’s as though they’re just waiting for a tasty morsel to fall. And if it does, whose will it be? Yep.

5. Just Plain Weirdness. There are dogs who will guard their own leashes. I’ve known dogs who have resource guarded dust balls. (Good thing they don’t live at my house.) But the prize for the oddest guarding behavior goes to…Sierra! In the mornings when I make my green smoothie drink, I give them Bodhi and Sierra each a small piece of banana before it goes into the blender. Each dog will quickly eat their portion. Sierra will then walk up to Bodhi and begin to lick the remnants of banana from his lips and, if he opens up, the inside of his mouth. If he doesn’t allow it, she may growl. Yes, friends, Sierra is actually guarding the food that is in Bodhi’s mouth from him. That’s a new one on me.

Your turn: What sorts of odd things do your dogs guard?


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