We Are Our Choices

October 18, 2016

iStock Lab with woman.On the road today, I noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It said, “Trump. Clinton. We are our choices.” This struck me, not only because it wasn’t the typical declaration for one candidate or the other, but because of the meaning. Whichever candidate we support, we generally support their policies and what they stand for. But beyond that, our choice of candidate says something about us as well. We identify more with that person’s personality and characteristics—they are more like us. Okay, not in every way, and don’t worry, this is not to be a discussion of politics. But what that bumper sticker did make me think about is dog training.

What does “We are our choices” have to do with training and behavior? A lot. Just as in politics, it’s well known that there are two major schools of thought. The more traditional school is more focused on strict obedience, and leans more heavily on compulsion and corrections. Tools that are used may include choke chains, pinch collars, and shock collars. The more positive reinforcement oriented school focuses on how dogs think and learn, employs rewards such as treats, and eschews the formerly mentioned tools in favor of head halters, clickers, and more. Of course, this is an oversimplification. There are trainers in either school who are so much toward the extreme end of the curve that they give other trainers in that camp a bad name. And any tool can be used more or less harshly.

Still, we are our choices. I choose cooperation over coercion in training. I am a peaceful, loving, patient person (okay, except in L.A. traffic), and I bring that into my training. I treat my clients with the same respect and patience that I do my four-footed students. I have noticed over the years a trend: the way trainers treat dogs has a direct correlation with the way they treat people. Sure, there are some trainers who are harsher with dogs and kinder with people, but I’ve seen an awful lot more trainers who are harsh in their training methods be condescending, short-tempered, and overly authoritarian with their clients. Likewise, I’ve seen trainers who are kind, patient, and respectful toward dogs be the same way with owners. It makes sense, as it’s the way you see the behavior of those around you and how you react to it.

Regardless of where you fall on the training spectrum, what tools you use, and how you use them, your choices do say a lot about you. And so it’s true in politics, dog training, and life in general: We are our choices. Let’s try to make good ones.

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Can a Confident Dog Help a Fearful One?

October 3, 2016

Misty is a six-month-old Bichon who has been with her family since the age of seven weeks. On walks, Misty seems to be afraid of everything. She lags on leash, practically hiding behind whoever is walking her, and constantly scans the environment for potential trouble.

Buddy is a two-year-old Shepherd mix. By all accounts, he’s a great family dog; that is, until a stranger comes to visit. When the visitor first enters the home, Buddy barks and alternates between lunging toward the person and backing away as if to say, “You big scary thing, don’t make me come over there!” In short, Buddy is uncomfortable around new people, and wishes they’d just leave.

Misty and Buddy, although two very different dogs, have something in common: they’re fearful in certain situations. While it would be wonderful if we could explain to them that there’s nothing to be afraid of, we can’t. (Well, we try, but dogs are pretty much just hearing that Peanuts cartoon wah-wah-WAH-wah.) But what if we could show them instead? The easiest way to do that is by employing the help of a confident, dog-friendly dog.

Dogs learn by observation. And they most certainly learn things from each other, both good and bad. One dog, by example, can help to potty train a new dog. A dog with separation anxiety can, unfortunately, demonstrate to another dog that it’s worrisome for the owners to be gone. Since dogs observe and learn from each other, we might as well put that to good use. You might be lucky enough to have a second dog in the home who is confident. If not, think about who you know that has a confident dog who likes other dogs and people. In Misty’s case, maybe you could phone a friend and ask if she’d like to take the dogs out for a walk together. In Buddy’s case, invite the friend to bring her dog over. If your dog doesn’t know her, she can serve as the visitor. If Buddy already knows her, invite another friend to come by once the friend and her dog have settled in for at least 15 minutes.

Now imagine the new scenarios. Misty and her friend are being walked down the street together. The confident dog is happy and outgoing. Misty, normally nervous and insecure, is less so with her friend there to back her up and to show her the world isn’t such a scary place. At home, Buddy notices how his friend reacts in a friendly way to the person Buddy found frightening, and considers that maybe the person isn’t so bad after all. With careful, controlled repetition of these scenarios, Misty and Buddy will begin to gain confidence, and will eventually learn to be more confident on their own.

In my full-day seminar Working with Fearful Dogs, I show a video of a cocker spaniel named Buster. Buster has multiple fear issues, including meeting new people. In the clip, the female cocker who lives with him is secluded in another room. I work with Buster on hand targeting. He’s willing to work with me because I have super yummy treats, but his body language clearly broadcasts that he is afraid to get too close, and he simply can’t relax. After a few minutes, we let the female cocker out to join us. Viola! There is an Instant transformation as Buster, along with the other dog, jumps all over me, tail wagging, body wiggly, clearly unafraid. It’s an amazing turnaround, and demonstrates so clearly how much having a confident dog present can help a fearful one.

Does this plan work for each and every dog? Of course not. Nothing is 100% effective with every dog. But as a trainer with many years of experience, I can tell you that it does absolutely help many dogs. Think about ways you can use a confident dog to help your fearful one.

You can find all of my books, seminar DVDs, seminar schedule and blog at http://www.nicolewilde.com, and my photography/art at http://www.nicolewildephotography.com


Don’t Assume My Dog is Friendly!

July 12, 2016

It happened again. I was walking along a park trail with Bodhi, enjoying the 6 a.m. calm. That the park is largely empty at that hour is something I really enjoy. But suddenly, a man walking 3 dogs appeared, headed toward us on the path. As there was plenty of room to move over, that’s exactly what we did in hopes of avoiding them.

Upon spying us, the two cocker spaniels continued to prance along with their cockers-don’t-care attitudes, while the Lab mix acted as though Bodhi was a long lost relative who owed him money. In his over-the-top enthusiasm, the dog pulled free of the man’s grip. Flexi leash banging along behind him, he began to run toward us. Now, Bodhi is not an aggressive dog, but when I adopted him from the shelter five years ago, he was very dog reactive. I worked long and hard to teach him alternatives to lunging and barking at other dogs, and he does very well now. He’s still insecure around other dogs (which is what the behavior was really about), but now when he sees them he voluntarily places himself by my side and looks at me for further instructions. Great, right? Sure. Until despite our best efforts, another dog rushes up to Bodhi or otherwise invades his space. Then, depending on how worried he is, all bets are off and violence could ensue.

As the Lab headed toward us I called to the man, “Please grab your dog!”
“Oh,” he replied, “Don’t worry. He’s friendly!”
“Mine might not be!” I called back.
The man looked surprised, and finally managed to get the dog back on leash.

Unfortunately, this is far from a rare occurrence. I wonder, if I were walking a 200-pound black mastiff with glowing yellow eyes, how many dogs would end up wafting our way on clouds of intended friendliness. I remember when Mojo, my soul dog who passed in 2008, was alive. Walking my very tall, handsome 120-pound, mostly-black, German shepherd-Rottweiler-Malamute-wolf mix down the street, people would often cross to get out of our path, even though Mojo was not at all aggressive towards people. I do not, however, remember dogs flying toward us and people telling us not to worry.

In this particular case, the dog pulled the leash out of the man’s hand. Mistakes happen. But more frequently, it’s a case of someone walking a dog off leash and ignorantly assuming everything will be fine. And to clarify, I’m talking here about areas where dogs are meant by law to be leashed. It’s irresponsible to put your dog in the way of potential harm by assuming that other dogs are friendly, even if they look as though they are. You wouldn’t let your child run up to every stranger you pass. Why would you possibly let your dog do the same? Do everyone a favor and don’t assume my dog—or any other dog you pass—is friendly. It’s the truly friendly thing to do.
For my books, DVDs and seminar schedule please visit http://www.nicolewilde.com.

Update and Thoughts on The Tragedy of Harambe the Gorilla

May 31, 2016
gorilla L.A. Zoo

A gorilla at the L.A. Zoo — not Harambe

Chances are, you’re aware of the recent tragedy that occurred at the Cincinnati Zoo when a 4-year-old boy slipped under a railing, crawled across some wires and a moat and ended up in an enclosure with 3 gorillas. The two females were lured out by zookeepers but Harambe, a male 17-year-old western lowland gorilla (a critically endangered species) remained. The boy was in the enclosure for 10 minutes, and the decision was made by the zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team to shoot Harambe to save the boy.

Upon hearing about this I, like so many others, was incredibly saddened and angered. I blogged about it here. Response was overwhelming, as it was across all social media where conversations and articles abound. Two main contingents have emerged: those who blame the mother (in some cases calling for there to be legal action or worse), and those who blame the zoo.

As I stated previously I’m not a parent, and I’m sure that keeping eyes glued to a 4-year-old 24/7 is difficult. Eyewitnesses stated that the boy had been telling his mother he wanted to go into the enclosure, so one could argue that extra vigilance was needed. It can’t be denied that the whole tragedy would have been avoided had her eyes been on her son at that moment, but I’m guessing kids say all kinds of strange things, and seldom act on them in this kind of dramatic way. And, as many have stated, kids can slip away from parents in the blink of an eye. I’ve been shocked at the amount of vitriol that has been aimed at the mother. Regardless of whether she’s even partly to blame, I do have empathy for both her and her son.

As far as blaming the zoo, videos show Harambe, among other things, dragging the boy across water and, some say, flinging him around. In a Psychology Today online article by noted author/behaviorist Marc Bekoff, he relates the analysis of friend Jennifer Miller who had worked with gorillas. She felt that “Harambe’s hold on the child and his sheltering of the child inside his stance, are all indications of protection.” A differing opinion is held by Amanda O’Donaghue, who worked with gorillas as a zookeeper in her twenties and wrote on Facebook “I have watched this video over again, and with the silverback’s posturing, and tight lips, it’s pretty much the stuff of any keeper’s nightmares…I keep hearing that the Gorilla was trying to protect the boy. I do not find this to be true.” She also opined that “Harambe was most likely not going to separate himself from that child without seriously hurting him first (again due to mere size and strength, not malicious intent).” Clearly the zookeepers agreed with the latter. It’s easy for those who are outraged by Harambe’s death (and believe me, I’m one of them) to blame the zoo. But when dealing with exotics, especially potentially dangerous ones, split second decisions must be made. Was there any other choice? I don’t know. I have no doubt the zookeepers cared very much for Harambe and the last thing they wanted to do was to shoot him. They did so to save the boy. For those wondering why they didn’t use a tranquilizer instead, it’s because of the time the drugs can take to be effective. Having co-run a wolf rescue, I suspect it is also because using a tranquilizer on an animal who is already agitated can have the opposite of the desired effect.

So where does all of this leave us? This was undeniably a terrible tragedy for all concerned, particularly Harambe. Nothing can be done to bring him back. But if all we do is point fingers and engage in long, hateful conversations on social media, another layer of tragedy is added. The incident should spark heated discussions, yes—but productive ones, ones about what can actually be done to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. As I said in my original blog post, whether or not zoos should exist at all is a whole other topic. But since they do, for now, let’s take all of that energy that’s being put toward condemnation and come up with some solutions. Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:

  1. Have highly visible signage posted around the zoo with safety information. Ticket takers should also briefly but firmly mention the rules to visitors with young children.
  2. Have a staff member or volunteer posted at every exhibit containing a potentially dangerous animal. Give that person permission to step in and take action should they see a child (or adult) on a railing, crawling under something, or in an otherwise precarious position. This person should also have a radio to signal other staff.
  3. Anyone seen engaging in the type of behavior described above should be escorted from the zoo immediately. I don’t know whether zoos are able to fine visitors, but if they are, a hefty fine should be in place. Signage/ticket takers could warn of this as well.
  4. Making enclosures safer…this one is a no-brainer, but much easier said than done. Putting too much up in the way of bars/plexiglass/other barriers detracts from people actually being able to see the animal well (ask any photographer how they feel about plexiglass—and taking photos is a large part of the zoo experience). I have heard the suggestion of hotwire just outside the exhibit. I also read a response saying that if a child has a heart condition the shock could be dangerous. I don’t know about that, but if the latter is not true, in my opinion a shock would be the lesser of two evils when the other is being ripped apart by a wild animal.
  5. I did suggest the leash/harness combo for kids under a certain age, and by the response of mothers, I see that it might not be the right answer for everyone. But certainly more moms should be made aware of the option.

As we continue to grieve the loss of Harambe, I hope that something positive in the form of change and prevention can come from something so awful. I would love to hear others’ thoughts on what can be done to better the situation.

Zoo Gorilla Shot After Child Enters Enclosure—and How These Tragedies Can be Prevented

May 29, 2016
gorilla L.A. Zoo


(A gorilla at the L.A. Zoo–not Harambe)


My blogs are normally about dogs. As an animal lover, however, I am so angered and saddened by a recent incident at the Cincinnati Zoo that I can’t help but speak out. Piecing together various accounts, here’s what happened: A 4-year-old boy crawled through a barrier and fell into a gorilla enclosure. Zookeepers quickly moved the 2 female gorillas into another area, but the 17-year old male gorilla was still inside. An eyewitness reported that the gorilla “rushed toward the boy and led him by the arm through the water in the enclosure,” and that he, “seemed protective and only alarmed by all the screaming.” The boy was in the enclosure for 10 minutes with no injuries. The zoo president says, “while Harambe didn’t attack the child, the animal’s size and strength posed a great danger.” The zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response team felt a tranquilizer would have taken too long to take effect and so, with the boy between the gorilla’s legs, they shot Harambe dead. The boy was taken to a hospital where he was determined to have sustained non-life-threatening but serious injuries.

How did this happen in the first place? To reach the gorillas, the boy had to go under the safety rail, crawl through wires, and climb over the moat wall. According to one eyewitness, the boy’s mother was “tending to several other children” when he slipped away. Unfortunately, this is far from the first time this type of thing has happened. In 2014, a 3-year-old boy at the Little Rock Zoo “fell into” the big cat exhibit after his grandfather put him up on the railing to see the cats. A zookeeper reported seeing a yellow jaguar with its jaws around the neck of the boy. In this case, the staff used a fire extinguisher to drive the cat back, lower a ladder, and rescue the boy. The boy was treated for non-life-threatening injuries. Need more? Last year at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, a 2-year old boy fell into a cheetah exhibit. The boy’s mother was “holding him and another child” over the railing when he fell in. Fortunately, they were able to get the boy out and the cheetah seemed more curious than anything.

There have been many similar incidents at zoos over the years. I’m not a parent (unless you count my fur-kids), and I’m sure it’s difficult to keep an eye on your child 24/7. But in each of these cases, had a parent been supervising, not to mention not doing anything incredibly stupid like standing the child up on a railing or other precarious spot, these incidents would never have occurred. I spend time photographing zoo animals, and almost every time I visit I see exactly this kind of insanity.

Regardless of how you feel about whether zoos should exist, they do, and a large part of their income comes from families with children. Instead of blaming parents or zookeepers, what about coming up with a solution? Zoos should have more secure enclosures for sure, and having zoos amp up safety would be great. But since that might not happen anytime soon, here’s my idea. It has two parts: First, any family with a child that is seen up on a railing or other precarious area must be escorted out of the zoo immediately. Highly visible signage around the zoo should warn them this will happen. Second, there are harness/leash combinations that are specifically designed for children. Children of a certain age and below should be required to wear one while on zoo grounds. This would prevent this sort of tragedy from ever happening again. It would also prevent children from running into other visitors (something I have experienced quite often) and from getting lost. (Parents, I defer to you on particulars and if you don’t like this idea, I would love to hear others.)

The death of Harambe, a western lowland gorilla—a critically endangered species—could have easily been prevented. So could many other similar incidents. Let’s learn from this heartbreaking tragedy and change things so it can’t happen again.

Can Every Dog Be Rehabilitated?

May 19, 2016

aggressive dog HP blogI recently came across an article in which a dog who was known to be “nervous, growling, and didn’t like children” was sent away for training. While in the trainer’s care, the dog mauled her. According to the lawsuit, “With the pit bull still attached to her left breast, Ms. Rickles backed into a laundry room where the dog released his grip, enabling Ms. Rickles to close the door. The pit bull then broke through the door and attacked Ms. Rickles a third time, latching onto her left arm and breaking it in two places.” After this horrific incident, you might assume the dog would have been euthanized. Indeed, a Texas judge did sentence the dog to death. However, the dog’s owner pleaded for the dog’s life, and it was agreed that the dog would go to the training facility of a well-known trainer who would “take the pit bull and rehabilitate it” and not release it until it was “fully deemed a safe member of society.”

Unfortunately, the training facility allegedly released the dog into someone’s care prematurely. A woman who was visiting her friend at that home got mauled. According to the lawsuit, the dog ended up inflicting “disfiguring wounds, deep muscle and tendon lacerations.” Incidentally, the training center was the Dog Psychology Center (Cesar Millan’s facility), but how you or I feel about Cesar is not the point. The real question is, can a dog who has demonstrated severe aggression ever be rehabilitated to the point of living safely among people?

Apparently a lot of rescues seem to feel the answer is yes, judging by the number of training calls I get from people who have adopted aggressive dogs. Just last week a woman called who had adopted a Bichon who had bitten three people. Two of the bites were disclosed by the rescue organization, and the third happened to her once the dog was at her home. I’m not familiar with the rescue group and don’t know whether any behavior modification was attempted, but I have seen all too many dogs over the years who were known for having aggression issues be adopted out.

Most rescues are overcrowded, and although there are some where trainers do behavioral rehabilitation, theose are few and far between. I’m not suggesting that a dog who displays aggressive tendencies to any degree should be euthanized—far from it. I’ve personally worked with many, many aggression cases ranging from mild to severe over the years, and helped the dogs and their owners go on to live long, happy lives together. But would I knowingly adopt out a dog with serious aggression issues? Never.

Even outside of a rescue/adoption situation the real question is, can every dog be rehabilitated? My personal belief is the answer is no, no more than every violent criminal can be. Many dogs who are capable of inflicting irreparable damage live in homes and are friendly with their owners, who have learned to never allow the dog access to other people. This is called management, not training, and is often a last resort. Management is of course never 100% and things happen, but it’s often the only choice left.

If a dog causes extreme harm, such as the case with Gus, that dog should be euthanized. Period. As one of the biggest dog lovers you’ll ever meet, who also has a lot of empathy for owners, I do not say that lightly. But human safety must be the first priority. And any trainer who believes they can fix any dog no matter what has an overabundance of hubris and a serious lack of understanding of dog behavior. Let’s give dogs the benefit of the doubt where appropriate, and do everything we can to help them behave better and improve their chances of having a long, loving life. But let’s be realistic as well, for the highest good of everyone concerned.

You can view my books, seminar DVDs and more here. If you have an interest in checking out my photography/art, click here. You can also find me on Facebook & Twitter.

Do You Expect Your Dog to be Psychic?

April 13, 2016

Sierra fortune tellerMost mornings, my husband and I take our dogs hiking. Because I lug my camera with a ginormous lens in hopes of seeing coyotes, he handles both leashes. This morning, I was walking ahead on a narrow trail when they came running up behind me. A noise sounding something like, “Uh-uh!” came from my husband. As they got even closer, he finally said, “Duck!” This was my signal to participate in the Dance of the Leashes by ducking my head so they could pass without anyone getting tangled.

Naturally, this made me think about dogs and the way we communicate with them. I had no idea what that first sound my husband made meant. I had a notion that it was directed at me, but I didn’t know what specifically he wanted. Once he clarified, I understood. Now, if I asked100 dog owners whether they’re clear when they communicate with their dogs, the majority would answer yes. But would they be right?

I constantly hear owners telling their dogs to “Leave it!” when their dog is approaching or has a forbidden object. Sometimes, because of the tone of voice alone, the dog will momentarily freeze or back away. But how instructive or fair is it if the dog has never actually been taught what “Leave it” means? In case this is something you need to teach, here’s a simple way to begin. Use treats, but not the ones that make your dog do backflips—choose something he likes of so-so value. Hold one treat in in the palm of your hand, and another behind your back. Let your dog see the treat in your palm, then make a fist. As your dog sniffs (trust me, he will), keep your hand solidly in place. Once he backs off, even for a second, say, “Yes!” to mark the moment, then immediately reward with the treat from behind your back. (I recommend this rather than giving the treat in your palm because you don’t want your dog to learn that backing off something means he then gets that thing.) Within a few repetitions, most dogs learn that backing up is what earns them a treat. Once you can reliably predict that he will back up, say, “Leave it!” just as your dog backs up. With more practice, he’ll associate the words with the action.

Of course, there’s more training needed to help your dog generalize “Leave it” to other objects and situations, but think about a dog who has been trained this way versus one who has no idea what the words mean. Unfortunately, it’s far from just this one cue that we expect dogs to know. Many people talk to their dogs like they’re…well, people! They expect their furry family members to understand when they use full, wordy sentences. If the dog is especially talented, maybe he’ll pick out the pertinent words, but it sure makes things more difficult. Another common error is using the same cue, for example, “Down!” for different things such as lying down, getting down off the sofa, or not jumping on visitors.

Next time you find yourself giving your dog a cue he hasn’t been taught, or assuming he’ll understand a full sentence, ask yourself whether you expect your dog to be psychic. And then do both of you a favor by taking the necessary steps to ensure he doesn’t have to be.
_________________________________________________________________You can find my books, DVDs and more at http://www.nicolewilde.com and can find me on Facebook.
You can also check out my photography and art here

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