When Being More Anthropomorphic Might Help

June 28, 2017

dog pain ice bagIn the field of animal behavior science, anthropomorphism—assigning human emotions or traits to animals—is mostly discouraged. That’s not to say canine behaviorists believe that dogs don’t have emotions. Of course they do. But it’s less than helpful, for example, for owners to believe that their puppy had a potty accident while left alone because he was angry at being abandoned, when it’s more likely that the pup was simply being opportunistic, having learned that when he had an accident in front of his owners, they’d make the scary, frowny face and yell. (And by the way, why do we still call it “having an accident” when it’s obviously done on purpose?)

I had a potential client call me once about training. As we chatted about her dog’s issues, she began to say things like, “He’s so selfish. All he ever thinks about is himself. It’s really rude.” She went on in this vein until I finally had to interject, “We’re still talking about the dog, right?” Although we both laughed, I still wondered.

As much as anthropomorphism can be a problem, a case could be made that perhaps we need to be more anthropomorphic when it comes to certain things. Most people now accept that dogs feel emotions. That’s one big duh to any dog lover! But what about the sorts of things we don’t normally ascribe to dogs? I’ve long wondered about dogs getting headaches, for example, but have never actually heard it discussed or seen it mentioned in studies or in behavioral literature. Any dog owner can tell you that there are some days that, just like us, their dog seems a bit “off” and they can’t quite put their finger on why. It’s not that anything extreme is happening—the dog’s not suddenly projectile vomiting green stuff along with 360-degree head rotation—but clearly something is not right. Maybe the dog seems a bit more irritable than usual, perhaps less tolerant of being handled or brushed. Maybe he’s just lethargic, not wanting to go for a walk or participate in training. Look, I get it. I suffer from frequent debilitating headaches. They’re exacerbated by stress, and by the heat. Unfortunately, here in southern California there’s plenty of intense heat during the summer months. The biochemistry of dogs and people are similar in many ways. Why wouldn’t dogs be affected by stress and headaches as well?

In a recent article in Psychology Today, Stanley Coren discussed a study done in Beijing, China. A team of investigators studied the frequency of dog bite cases seen at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital. Through statistical analysis involving a sample size of over 42,000, the researchers were able to show a strong relationship between the number of dog bites and hot temperatures. In other words, the dogs were more aggressive in hot weather. The first thing that came to my mind was, well, so am I! Aren’t you? People often become cranky in hot weather—unless you’re my husband, who only begins to get comfortable once temps hit 90 degrees. What can I say, I married a lizard. But back to studies…another one looked at regions in the U.S. and found that crime rates were higher during hotter temperatures. Again, hot equals more irritable, cranky, and violent. Makes perfect sense to me!

Headaches? Being cranky during hot weather? With people, we accept those things as common. Why not entertain the notion that dogs too can be affected? If we took these types of factors into consideration, possibly our ways of interacting with our dogs would change. Maybe during a training session when a dog who is normally very responsive simply shuts down or doesn’t want to work, we’d give him the benefit of the doubt and try another day rather than forcing the issue. Maybe dog trainers would avoid scheduling appointments to see aggressive dogs on very hot days, especially if the dog is expected to participate in activities that put the trigger in any kind of proximity. In short, maybe we ought to start thinking outside the traditional box and allow for some anthropomorphism. It just might do us and the dogs a lot of good.
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You can find my books, seminar DVDs and more at http://www.nicolewilde.com. And if you’d like to see some of my animal-related artwork, click here.

 


Does Size Matter?

May 5, 2017

bigsmalldog

A Royal Mail worker in southern London recently alleged that six-year-old Louie had bitten and drawn blood when she attempted to deliver the mail.  Three police officers arrived at the home of the Anslows, a couple in their 60s, to confiscate Louie. Armed with “a lead that would fit a Rottweiler,” the officers quickly discovered that Louie was…a Chihuahua. Louie was not seized, but instead given a “behavior order.” (Story here.)

A police investigation confirmed that two people had reported being bitten by Louie. Owner Linda Anslow’s comment was, “I think this is just stupid and everyone is being a bit silly. The dog hardly even reaches your ankle.” But is it silly? What if Louie had been a Rottweiler, biting a postal worker two others? More than likely, Louie would have been seized and possibly even euthanized. While it’s true that a Rottweiler can do a lot more harm than a Chihuahua, when it comes to laws made to protect people from dogs, should size matter?

As a canine behavior specialist, I often see small dogs who have bitten multiple people. These dogs have bitten family members, visitors, the gardener…you name it. And yet, they are still living happily in the home with no complaints against them. I suspect this is partly because, especially for men, it might be embarrassing to show up at the local Animal Control office complaining of a bite from a Chihuahua. But a bite is a bite. Even a tiny dog who bites is inflicting wounds both physical and psychological. Imagine the young child who is bitten by a dog and grows up fearing dogs. That bite has a lifelong impact. Or the elderly person with paper-thin skin that gets torn when that cute little dog sinks its fangs in and pulls. And the scenario doesn’t even have to be so dramatic. The problem is, people excuse the behavior of smaller dogs all the time. Who do you think is likely to seek professional help for their biting dog first, the Chihuahua who’s bitten seven people or the mastiff who’s bitten one? And which dog do you think is likely to have complaints against them, or end up euthanized for their behavior?

While the amount of damage inflicted may vary, again, a bite is a bite is a bite. Owners need to take responsibility for their dogs’ behavior regardless of the dog’s size. Those police officers in the U.K. should have treated little Louie exactly the same as if he had been a larger sized dog. Laws do not apply only to certain breeds and not to others. Owners of small dogs with aggression issues need to take just as much responsibility for their dogs as owners of large dogs do, and others need to stop making excuses for them.
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Join me in Burbank CA May 20 & 21 and Alberta, Canada June 10 & 11. Visit http://www.nicolewilde.com for seminar info, books and DVDs.


Get Off Yer Butt and Train Your Dog!

April 24, 2017

training near post office smallWarning: This one’s likely to be a bit of a rant. Early this morning, I took both of my dogs out as usual. We frequent a nearby park that has a fenced dog park area. I usually let Sierra and Bodhi run off a bit of steam inside the dog park (it’s normally empty at that hour) before proceeding on to our walk/hike. We entered the small dog side, since a man with a dog was already on the big dog side. During our conversation over the chain link fence, I learned that Buddy, a 3-year-old Lab, didn’t show much interest in other dogs, although he tolerated them and enjoyed being at the park. What did get Buddy excited, however, was eating other dogs’ poop, sometimes straight from the “fountain” as it were. Yech. I know.

We talked about how Buddy displays this repellent habit with one female dog in particular, following her around, waiting for the big event. After a joke about taking submission to a whole other level (I couldn’t help it), my humor quickly faded as the man nonchalantly commented, “I’m going to put a shock collar on him.” “Noooo, you don’t want to do that!” was out of my mouth before I could help it. A 20-minute conversation ensued, wherein my poor dogs milled aimlessly around the park as mom tried to explain nicely to the man why a shock collar was a bad idea, despite the fact that his vet had recommended it. “Well, what else am I supposed to do?” he asked. I offered that training Buddy would help, specifically, a “Leave It” cue and perhaps attention and recall (look at me when I call your name, even if you’re about to eat something disgusting that you find yummy, and instead come to me). He said he’d worked with a trainer early on and it hadn’t worked. I suggested that perhaps he’d had the wrong trainer, or was it possible that that he hadn’t followed through?

Note that all of the above was said in a pleasant tone. Although the voice in my head was shouting, “Get off yer butt and train your dog!” the kinder, gentler part of me wanted to engage the man, not make him feel bad or cause him to shut down. To his credit, he did ask how to train the “Leave It.” Now, normally, this is where I would hand out a business card and tell the person to give me a call—but I had a suspicion that call would never come. So, I explained the first steps of training Leave It. Although the man listened politely, I wasn’t convinced that he would actually be trying it. Had my own dogs not been with me, I would have gone over and given a quick demonstration that would have hopefully encouraged him that Buddy could learn quickly—but that was not to be. We discussed the beginning steps of training a recall as well. Hey, at least he was asking.

I also explained how dogs associate things that happen together, and that if he applied the shock while Buddy was looking at another dog, he might well end up with aggression problems that were a lot worse than simple poop eating. As a last resort, I suggested that if he wasn’t going to do any training, that at the exact moment Buddy went to commit his usual feces felony, to use a verbal marker such as, “Too bad!” and then immediately put Buddy on leash and remove him from the park. He said he had left the park before, and I reminded him to use the marker word so Buddy would understand why he was losing something he found valuable. Finally, we said our goodbyes, and my dogs and I continued with our morning.

As much as I’m opposed to shock collars (with the possible exception of rattlesnake avoidance training), I do understand why people find them appealing. I mean, what could be better than an instant way out of a pesky problem? Who wants to put in the time and effort to train when there’s a fast, easy solution? Like I said, I get it. And believe me, I’m all about quick and easy in many facets of life. But when resorting to this type of punishment, there’s no consideration for the dog’s feelings or how it might adversely affect his behavior. I’d explained to the man by way of example that if I had a nail biting habit that he wanted me to stop, and he shocked me each time I did it, I’d stop immediately. But that shock would cause stress and frustration, not to mention pain, and that could easily cause other behavior problems (not to mention a reduction in my warm, fuzzy feelings toward him). Truly, I gave this conversation all I had, because I did not want to see poor Buddy shocked. The bottom line is, why take the lazy way out when it causes pain (and please, no arguments about the shock being a “tap” or anything else—that it’s painful or uncomfortable is why it works) when you can actually train your dog to do or not do what you want? Yes, it takes time. Yes, it takes patience. But let’s not take the easy or lazy way out, and get off our butts and train! Isn’t your dog worth the effort?
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Join me for seminars in Burbank, CA May 20 & 21 and Alberta, Canada June 10 & 11. See http://www.nicolewilde.com for seminar info, books and DVDs.


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?
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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.


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