Strange Guarding Behaviors

April 17, 2017

snarking dog house crop

When you have two or more dogs in the house, it’s not unusual for one dog to guard resources from another. Some dogs will take exception to another going near their food. Some guard chew bones or toys. Other wily canines will lie across doorways in order to control access to and from a room. And some will even try to keep that most valuable of resources—the owner—all to themselves.

Like most canine behavior specialists, I’ve come across those scenarios many times. I’ve also seen dogs guard more unusual items, like the little terrier mix who guarded bits of leaves outdoors and dust bunnies in the house. But my own dog Sierra really takes the cake. Sure, she guards the usual things from Bodhi; food, toys, and locations. But check this out: both she and Bodhi love bananas. Luckily for them, my morning oatmeal includes a banana, and I always share. Every now and then, though, after both dogs have chewed and swallowed their pieces (although Bodhi pretty much inhales his), Sierra will walk over to Bodhi and begin licking at his mouth. Is this a submissive gesture, you might wonder? Not even close. It’s a blatant attempt to get to whatever food might be left inside his mouth. If Bodhi turns his face away, she’ll persist and will sometimes even growl at him. Yes, friends, Sierra is actually guarding the food inside Bodhi’s mouth from him. How’s that for canine chutzpah? If she could figure out a way to guard the air they breathe as well, no doubt she would.

Lest you think Sierra’s strange guarding tendencies are limited to Bodhi, allow me to share this peculiar tidbit. Our local dog park has benches scattered around inside. Even though we’re out at the crack of dawn, sometimes another person will be in the park with their dog, sitting on a bench as their dog runs around. If I know the person and know the dogs play well together, I might let Sierra inside. Here’s where it gets strange. Every now and then, after greeting the dog and perhaps romping for a bit, Sierra will jump up on the bench next to the person and…ready for it?…guard the person from their own dog! Seriously. I no longer let her do this, of course, and she’s lucky no dog ever took major exception to it.

As I said, nowadays I don’t let Sierra engage in the guarding of other owners. And at home, when the issues arise between her and Bodhi, I let it be unless it’s really causing a problem. But I’m curious: beyond the usual food, treats, toys, locations and people, what strange guarding behaviors do your dogs engage in?
__________________________________________________________________________________________

Join me in Burbank, CA May 20 & 21 for seminars on Helping Fearful Dogs, Separation Anxiety, and Dog-Dog Play. Earlybird registration ends this Thursday, April 20. For more info click here. You can find my books and seminar videos here.


Cooperation or Coercion?

February 21, 2017

Nic Phantom posing

I recently ran across a Facebook post by a trainer friend. It pictured him with a client’s dog. The dog was a large mastiff, and the text read, “He and I weigh the same, so cooperation is important.” Now, clearly my friend was joking, and I know he treats dogs kindly regardless of their size. But having a background in working with wolves, it struck a chord with me.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen video of or heard about trainers jerking, kicking, or even hanging dogs in the name of trying to get them to cooperate. And how many times I’ve thought, “I’d love to see him try that with a wolf!” Actually, I wouldn’t really like to see it, as I would never want any animal subjected to the fear and stress that harsh corrections bring. But I do have to wonder how someone who always takes a “might is right” approach would work with an animal like a killer whale, or an exotic animal that could easily kill when provoked?

I co-ran a rescue center for wolves for many years, and only once was I ever bitten. It was completely my fault and was away from the context of training. At the time, almost every one of those wolves outweighed me and certainly could have injured or even killed me. And yet, I was able to work with them, socialize and train them, and earn their trust. That had nothing to do with wrestling them, pinning them to ground or showing them who was boss; it had everything to do with being able to read their body language and energy, respecting their boundaries, understanding how to use my body language so as to not stress them out or appear as a threat, and working gradually, never pushing too far too fast. Interestingly, those are exactly the qualities needed to work kindly and successfully with dogs as well, from the tiniest Chihuahua to the biggest mastiff.

There is really no excuse for training a dog by giving harsh corrections or punishing a dog with harsh physical methods. We know better nowadays. I’m not suggesting that dogs don’t need direction or that the answer is skipping through life sprinkling cookies everywhere like fairy dust. There is plenty of middle ground, and the foundation of that ground is respect for animals, whether dogs or large predators. It’s ethical, kind, and hey, you even get to keep all of your fingers.

__________________________________________________________________
You can find my books and seminar DVDs at http://www.nicolewilde.com. Join me in Burbank, CA May 20 & 21 for a fun weekend of seminars. For full schedule see http://www.nicolewilde.com.


Is No Kill No Good?

January 24, 2017

aggressive dog HP blogIt happened again. A dog that was known to have aggression issues attacked a person, severely mauling the woman. In this case the dog was in a city animal shelter, and the person attacked, Priscilla Romero, was a kennel worker with 10 years experience. Now, before you go dismissing the incident as an acceptable risk of the job, think about this: the dog, a pit bull, had a known history of aggression. Prior entries in the computerized behavioral records stated that the dog had previously bitten but did not break skin. Another entry cautioned, “Be cautious of this dog—dog will growl, bare teeth and tries to bite as I’m trying to open the kennel door to pick up empty food bowl.” Romero was rushed to the hospital in critical condition and may need numerous reconstructive surgeries.

The article goes on to describe other incidents where dogs who were known to act aggressively were offered to the public for adoption. But the problem is far from being limited to one or a network of shelters. There have been numerous incidents where dogs adopted from various shelters or rescues have bitten a person or injured or killed the other dog in the home. The “no kill” policy of some organizations, stretched beyond what “no kill” was meant to be (no euthanasia unless a dog is dangerous or seriously ill), allowed those dogs to be adopted in the first place.

I spent a lot of time in the ’90s at L.A.’s West Valley shelter, first as a volunteer and then volunteer coordinator, often spending 30-40 hours a week there. I was also an emergency hire for the East Valley shelter. And I’m the first to say that it can be difficult to judge a dog’s behavior in a kennel environment, especially since many are fearful when first impounded. These dogs are in a new environment surrounded by unfamiliar smells and sounds, not knowing what to expect, and unfamiliar people are entering their space. Showing teeth or even growling while backing away under those conditions are not, in my opinion, unforgivable sins indicating euthanasia. The dog should be given a chance to acclimate and settle in before being assessed for temperament, especially since a previous owner’s description of behavior might not be accurate. However. There are dogs who come in with known bite histories, who show aggression toward kennel or rescue workers, and who are still adopted out. Why? So the organization can proudly boast about how they’re “no kill?” Again, this is not what no kill was meant to be.

While the dog who is still up for adoption after biting, injuring or worse is awaiting a home, he is taking up the space of a perfectly nice dog, or more likely many adoptable dogs, who will be euthanized because the rescue or shelter has no space. How does that benefit dogs? And what about the dog with known aggression issues who is adopted into a home? Whose fault is it if the dog injures or even kills a person or another dog? The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of whoever knew about those issues and still made the decision to send a potential deadly weapon out into the public. If more rescues and shelters were held legally accountable, I wonder how many aggressive dogs would be adopted out.

The other issue is that dogs who are difficult to adopt out because of aggression or unstable temperament sit in shelters or rescues for months and sometimes even years, and many are miserable. There is a vast difference between a legitimate rescue keeping a dog long-term while providing physical and mental stimulation, affection and training, etc. until the dog can find a home, which is laudable, and keeping a dog who could pose a danger locked up until…what? Until the dog degenerates mentally and physically? Until he can go back out into the general public and yet again pose a danger?

As a trainer, behavior specialist, passionate dog lover, and someone who co-ran a rescue, I am the last person who would ever recommend euthanasia for a dog without there being a solid reason. But there has to be a balance between our compassion for dogs and common sense when it comes to dogs who are truly dangerous. Some organizations properly use the term “no kill” to mean “unless the dog is truly dangerous or ill.” It’s the misuse and misinterpretation of the term that’s problematic, along with the fact that the general public assumes that “no kill” means no dog is ever euthanized, period. So rather than having the knee-jerk reaction of “how wonderful!” when we hear that an organization is “no kill,” let’s dig deeper and consider what the term really means for that particular group, those dogs, and the safety of the general public.
___________________________________________________________________

Join me May 20 & 21 in Burbank, CA for seminars on Helping Fearful Dogs, Separation Anxiety, & Dog-Dog Play. Special discount rates for shelters and rescues. More information and registration can be found at http://www.nicolewilde.com


Dog Trainer Wars

January 5, 2017

husky attacksIf you’re not a dog trainer, you might not be aware of the divisiveness in the dog training world. (Hint: Think of our current political climate.) If you are a trainer, you no doubt know all too well what I’m talking about. This is nothing new and, sadly, this is not the first time I’ve written about it. The Training Wars have been going on for many decades, and are showing no sign of letting up.

The core issues in the ongoing debates revolve around training tools and methods. On one side, there are those who call themselves “positive trainers” and on the other, those who may term themselves “balanced trainers.” “Positive” refers to the use of positive reinforcement to teach and maintain skills, often in the form of treats, although sometimes toys and other reinforcers are used. Positive trainers use various training tools, but often eschew e-collars (a.k.a. shock collars) and many do not use choke chains or prong (a.k.a. pinch) collars. The focus is on teaching the dog what is expected, and then rewarding successful behavior. Those who call themselves “balanced trainers” may also use treats and positive reinforcement to train, or use alternate reinforcers such as praise, but are generally more willing to use punishment to enforce behaviors. Now, here’s where it gets tricky; that doesn’t mean positive trainers never use any form of punishment, or that the punishment used by balanced trainers is harsh physical punishment. Since “punishment” is defined as anything that lessens the likelihood of the behavior repeating, punishment can range from a verbal “No!” to a harsh jerk on a choke chain, and so on. The problem is, those stereotypes are invoked whenever the Training Wars commence.

Positive trainers are often painted as ineffectual, overly lax, “cookie-slinging weenies” who are afraid to even say, “No” when a dog does something wrong. On the other hand, I’ve seen Balanced trainers portrayed as shock collar-wielding monsters who don’t even teach a behavior before resorting to punishment. Neither of those caricatures is typically accurate, except perhaps at the far ends of the spectrum. I have seen trainers use treats prolifically but fail to teach rules and boundaries effectively. I’ve also seen trainers teach dogs not to take food off a table by using a shock collar, when a simple “leave it” would have sufficed. But again, most trainers fall somewhere in the middle. Most would agree that ridiculously harsh methods like helicoptering or hanging a dog have no place in dog training. Beyond that, it helps no one to sling mud when the bottom line is that most trainers are in it because we love and want to help dogs.

I recently saw a conversation on Facebook—that hotbed of civility—where training tools were being discussed. “Discussed” is a nice word for it. The post showed an image of various training tools, and inferred that all trainers should understand how all training tools worked. Well, you can imagine the riot that incited! Much dog-poo-slinging ensued. The thing is, I agree, for the most part. Although I would never put an e-collar on a dog, I do want to know that there are multiple settings and warning beeps and such, so that I can have an intelligent conversation about it if the topic comes up, rather than assuming that the trainer who uses it is someone who slaps a collar on a dog, presses a button, and causes a dog to shriek in pain. Again, it’s not a tool I would ever use or recommend, but being informed does not equal condoning.

At a seminar I taught a while back, the hosts pulled me aside beforehand and whispered that a few people had signed up that I might not want there. They weren’t sure what to do. Should they let them in? I asked what the problem was, and they said the registrants were from a local “balanced trainers” group. I couldn’t understand what the problem was. After all, they’d paid to be there, so they must have at least somewhat of an open mind–unless there was a bag of tomatoes I’d missed. Who knows, I might change someone’s mind about something, or at least plant a seed. Or, maybe something they said might cause me to understand a bit more about a different view. The point is, just like politics, if we have knee-jerk reactions when others have different policies than we do, and simply demonize them without making any effort to understand, the climate is never going to change. Have you ever seen someone change their mind about a training method or tool because they were being berated or bullied? Me, either. But I have seen trainers gradually change their methods by being shown the success of other ways, or because someone was willing to talk with them without speaking down to them, and they were willing to listen. At the very least, we can agree to disagree.

Look, we all have our own beliefs. Training methods are a hot-button topic because we love dogs and don’t want to see them suffer. We also don’t want to see training be ineffectual, which can also cause problems. But just as a country being divided doesn’t help its citizens and in fact hurts them, the Great Divide in dog training does the same to dogs. It’s not that we all need to use the same tools and methods; that’s never going to happen. But the vitriol, name-calling and general animosity seriously need to stop. It’s enough, already. Discussions can be had with open minds and, at the very least, with a lot more respect. Yes, even on the faceless internet. The divide in dog training is, in a way, a microcosm of the larger world, and both worlds could use a lot more tolerance and understanding right about now.
_________________________________________________________________
You can find my books, seminar DVDs and seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com. And you can check out my artwork at http://www.photomagicalart.com.


Dog Training by Osmosis

December 27, 2016

Lazing on couch

Dog Training by Osmosis

This morning, as I was making my breakfast smoothie, Bodhi and Sierra were hyper-attentive as usual. Why, you might wonder, were they so focused? Are they invested in making sure I get enough fruits and veggies? No. They’re making sure they get their fruits and veggies, or at least the slices of banana and cucumber that they know I’ll share with them. Since those two items go into the smoothie at different times, the dogs are pretty much sitting there for the duration. At some point, though, I’ll turn to them and say, “That’s it for dogs!” They then give sad little doggie sighs and pad away to lie down and wait for the next exciting event of the day.

The phrase, “That’s it for dogs!” isn’t something I ever taught my dogs. But they’re both smart, and have learned through hearing the phrase many times that it’s always followed by a big fat nothing. It’s not a phrase that had to be formally trained. One definition of osmosis is “the subtle or gradual absorption or mingling.” And so I think of this type of non-formal, lifestyle training as Training by Osmosis.

Here’s another example: In the early mornings, my husband and I take the dogs out for exercise. We do this separately, since my husband takes one dog to a local park where they can run together and I, the non-runner, take the other dog to a different park where we can hike. We switch off dogs, and it works out nicely for everyone. We live in a rural area on a small hillside away from the road, and sometimes we let the dogs run to the cars before having their leashes put on. Both dogs will typically run to the closer car. But if it’s my day with Sierra and I say, “Sierra, the other one,” she’ll immediately turn and race toward the other car. Did I ever teach her what other means? No. It’s something she picked up, probably from a combination of watching my body language and where I was looking, and repeatedly seeing me walk toward the other car after uttering that phrase.

Formal training in obedience commands is a great thing to teach. But dogs are learning all the time, for better or worse. (You put away the dog cookies on that low shelf with the broken door? Lesson learned in record time!) Right now, as I stand at the computer typing, Sierra is sitting and staring at me. It’s almost time for the dogs to be fed. I’ve just told her, “It’s early,” and so she’s walked out of the room. This is another phrase she and Bodhi have learned through osmosis—as the definition goes, subtle, gradual absorption. It’s fascinating to think about how much more dogs understand than what we give them credit for. They’re masters of observation and excellent learners, particularly when there’s something in it for them. What have your dogs learned by osmosis?
__________________________________________________________________

You can find my books, seminar DVDs and more at www.nicolewilde.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter, and see my artwork at www.photomagicalart.com.

 

 


Can You Reinforce a Dog’s Emotional State?

November 18, 2016

woman with dog

I recently received an email asking whether I had any books that addressed how to help a dog who was grieving. Since I don’t, I searched online to find an article that might be of help. What I found surprised me. Although there was solid advice, one of the recommendations in almost every article was to be careful so as not to inadvertently “reward the behavior” by giving the dog attention. Really? Hmm.Let’s see. As it happens, my best girlfriend’s mother just passed away. I will be spending the day with her today. I expect she will be sad, and that we will discuss things, and that I will comfort her, because that is what friends do. Now, of course dogs are not people and we can’t comfort them with words, but the emotions of loss and grief are the same, to whatever extent and however they are experienced by animals and people. Why in the world would we not comfort a grieving dog?

Although rewarding a dog with attention can reinforce a behavior, it does not reinforce an emotion. This reminds me of the persistent myth about reinforcing fear. Time after time I have read articles and books that warn that when a dog is afraid, the best thing to do is ignore him so as not to “reinforce the fear.” Although presenting a nervous demeanor yourself while giving your dog attention could cause him to be more nervous, sitting calmly with him and stroking him is certainly not going to cause him to become fearful more often. What it might well do is actually comfort him.

It is wonderful that we have so much advice readily available at our fingertips. But even when an “expert” advises you to do something you feel in your gut is simply not right when it comes to the emotional life of your dog, heed that instinct. You know your dog best, and rewarding with attention does not make you a reinforcer of emotion. It makes you a kind, compassionate person.


If Looks Could Kill

November 7, 2016

bully stick 3 smallerIn my canine body language seminars, I explain that a hard stare is never a good thing, whether in dogs or on a New York subway. (Trust me, I grew up in New York—It never leads to anything good.)  The problem is the emotion linked to it. A hard stare is instantly understood by dogs on the receiving end as a warning. A threat. It’s the movie trailer for the feature “If Looks Could Kill.” Depending on how the other dog responds, a stare may be met with submission, or it could trigger aggression.

Ironically, although hard stares are easily interpreted by most dogs, they are often misunderstood or missed completely by people. I was walking Sierra on leash along a park trail one day when I spied a woman walking a bull mastiff. I’d seen the dog before, and knew he could be reactive with other dogs. The trail was narrow and, to her credit, the woman moved the mastiff off the trail and had him sit so we could pass. I thanked her. But as we passed, Sierra turned her head, looked at the dog, and glared. That was it! The mastiff dragged the woman toward us, intent on dismantling Sierra piece by piece. I got between them, the woman got control of her dog, and no one was hurt. She walked off without a word, but I would bet she thought her dog was at fault. After all, Sierra and I were just passing by when her dog lunged at my poor dog, right? Wrong. Sierra’s hard stare started it all.

Many times when two dogs are fighting in the home, the owner believes one dog is causing the fights, when it’s really the other dog who is delivering the hard stares that start the episodes. You really can’t blame owners; unlike a wagging tail or a growl, a hard eye is not something we’re taught to look for. In the best case scenarios, a trainer is called who explains that it’s actually the other dog who is causing the issues, and teaches the client to be observant for this bit of body language. Hard stares are missed constantly at dog parks as well. Sadly, I’ve seen many instances where the dog who reacts to the hard stare is the one who gets punished.

Still, a hard stare is not necessarily a bad thing. Just like a growl, it serves as a warning. If heeded, it can stop an aggressive incident before it begins. For example, one dog has a bowl of food. Another dog walks over. The first dog gives a hard stare. The second dog, fully aware of what that means in the Language of Dog, backs off. Aggressive incident averted. Although hard stares are often accompanied by other telling body language such as a stiff, still body and possibly a growl, they are often missed. Hard stares are one of those subtle, sometimes fleeting pieces of canine body language that every owner should know.
____________________________________________________________________
You can find my books and seminar DVDs at http://www.nicolewilde.com, and my art
   at http://www.photomagicalart.com.


%d bloggers like this: