Can’t We (Trainers) All Just Get Along?

August 31, 2009

“Cookie-slinging weenies!”

“Punishment trainers!”


“Jerk trainers!”

Know what these epithets have in common? For one thing, they’ve all been slung around the internet with the intention of disparaging other trainers. They also all show the ignorance of the person spewing them.

In a way, the training landscape is a lot like the political one. There are those who are far to the right and those to the far left, with the majority of folks falling somewhere in between. At one extreme end of the training spectrum there are those who use punishments like helicoptering and hanging—abuse, not training, to any ethical trainer’s mind. There are also trainers closer to this end of the spectrum who teach new behaviors by letting dogs make mistakes, then reprimanding by jerking them roughly (or some by shocking with e-collars). Far at the other end, there are trainers who use treats to train new behaviors but have no concept of how to fade those treats out, so that dogs are forever dependent on food to perform—in other words, treats are used as bribes. There are also trainers closer to this end who would have no idea what to do if, for example, an aggressive dog wasn’t responding to treats. Never mind that both of these extremes do not represent the majority of trainers; in this swamp of murky understanding, misconceptions breed.

So if not extremists, what type of trainers form the middle ground? Some consider themselves “balanced” in that rewards are used, as well as what the trainer would consider fair corrections if needed. Others call themselves “positive trainers,” which is generally used to indicate those who train with treats and primarily use positive reinforcement. I’ve seen a wide range of techniques and skill levels from both camps. I’ve also seen alarming levels of intolerance toward trainers who are different, from both sides. I have observed online people being vilified for the way others assume they train, without anyone ever having even had an actual conversation with the person, never mind seeing them work with a dog.

Regardless of where we fall on the spectrum, the vast majority of us truly care about dogs. If you believe your methods are the right way to achieve better-trained, happy fur-kids, but all you offer is hostility to those who believe otherwise, you’ll never change anyone’s mind. If you engage in a respectful dialogue, though, you never know—you both might come away with a better understanding of how “the other side” thinks and feels, and one or both of you might even learn something. It might shock you (no pun intended) to learn that I am friends with people who use pinch collars and even (albeit very infrequently) e-collars. Are these tools my personal choice? No. Does it mean that because the person uses them that he or she is a terrible person? Of course not. It’s a given that we all feel most comfortable with those who are like us. But in my opinion it takes a bigger person to have a respectful dialogue with someone who is different than to hang around only with those like him or herself, patting each other on the back and talking trash behind the backs of others.

I’ve noticed that rude, condescending comments about “those other trainers” abound online, where confrontation is limited to a screen that doesn’t talk back. I’d bet you a bagful of dog biscuits most people who post those comments wouldn’t dare make them to the person’s face. And we’ve all seen those same people posting over and over on blog sites that are obviously dedicated to a specific style of training, whether it be mostly positive or more balanced, slamming the author of the blog, or taking text out of context in order to start an argument. Why is it so hard to have a simple conversation?

Dog training is not a licensed profession, and no one knows what the future may hold. We want the public to perceive trainers in a professional light, yet many times trainers themselves show a real lack of professionalism when they speak badly of other trainers to clients and colleagues. The world has enough negativity without those who are in a profession based on a love of animals contributing more. Can’t we all just get along?


What is DAP and How Can it Help Dogs?

August 24, 2009

DAP stands for Dog Appeasing Pheromone. Products containing DAP, such as those sold under the brand name Comfort Zone, chemically mimic the pheromones given off by lactating female dogs. Those pheromones are naturally soothing to puppies. As it turns out, they tend to calm adult dogs as well.

DAP products come in three forms: a diffuser (similar to a plug-in air freshener), a spray, and a collar. When using the diffuser, it should be left plugged in constantly—and don’t worry, you won’t smell a thing. Plug it in around your dog’s sleep or resting area to keep him calm if, for example, he has separation issues. Many dogs with mild separation anxiety pace, whine, and become anxious when left alone. They may even bark incessantly or become destructive. While DAP may not help all dogs, many will become noticeably calmer with its use. Many times a program of behavior modification is called for in the case of separation anxiety, but DAP often serves as an adjunct or, in some cases, a major part of the solution. Diffusers can also be helpful in the indoor sections of shelters and boarding kennels.

The spray form is easy to use as well. Some places DAP could be sprayed include a dog’s bedding, a training room before dogs arrive, a vehicle (for dogs with car-related anxiety), on a bandana to be worn around a dog’s neck, and even on a trainer’s pants to calm nervous canine pupils. DAP collars are another option, and a good one for dogs who have generalized anxiety in a variety of environments.

There have been clinical studies which prove the efficacy of DAP, but instead of citing statistics, here is an example of how I used DAP with one of my client’s dogs: two terrier-mix brothers, roughly four months of age, had never been separated from each other—not even for a minute. These super-bonded buddies ate together, played together, and even slept crated together. As a result, removing one from the other’s presence, even for a matter of seconds, resulted in acute distress for both. One of the things I recommended at the training session was to have the pups sleep in separate crates. The crates could be adjacent to each other at first so the pups could still smell and sense each other nearby.

I returned a week later to find the entire family looking as though they hadn’t slept in a week. This turned out to be not very far from the truth! They explained that when they kept the dogs in separate crates, they whined and cried all night. I suggested a DAP diffuser in the pups’ sleeping area. When I phoned two days later to check in, the mom sounded much happier. She said that from the first night the diffuser was plugged in, although the puppies did cry and whine for five minutes or so, they soon quieted down and fell asleep. Now, DAP doesn’t always work that quickly, but in many cases it does.

DAP is not a drug, and it will not turn your dog into a canine zombie. What it will do in many cases is take the edge off a dog’s anxiety. You can find products like Comfort Zone online, and other DAP products may be available through your veterinarian. This remedy falls squarely in the won’t-hurt-may-help category, so if your dog has anxiety issues, give DAP a try.

For more information about DAP and complementary therapies, see Help for Your Fearful Dog.

*Note: Using DAP in a household with birds is not recommended.

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The Trouble with Gurus

August 20, 2009

We live in a consumer culture. We’re trained from an early age to want the new, improved, biggest and best version of products and services, from computers to cars, diets to designer dogs. We are also a celebrity culture, focused with laser-like intent on those we’ve put on pedestals whenever they do something interesting or outrageous. So it’s not a huge leap to understand why so many people follow “gurus,” fawning over their words and unquestioningly buying whatever they’re selling.

Many think of a guru as a spiritual teacher or counselor. But, as one dictionary definition states, a guru is “somebody who is prominent and influential in a specific field and sets a trend or starts a movement.” In short, a person people follow because they believe he/she knows something they don’t. While there are some in the scientific community who could be considered “gurus” of a sort, most who come to mind are more flamboyant. They have charisma, and that’s a necessary attribute. Without it, no matter how legitimate the product or information, there wouldn’t be many followers! While some really do have good information to offer, unfortunately, many self-proclaimed gurus simply recycle and repackage old, sometimes erroneous information and present it as something new. Think “The Wheel: Now Rounder and Faster!”

Television provides an excellent platform for gurus. It allows them to edit, package, and display footage in a way that conceals flaws. The finished product seems like magic! This becomes all too evident when one watches dog training shows. Viewers are presented with dogs who have developed deep-seated issues over the years such as severe aggression, and are expected to believe that through the mystical powers of The Guru, the dog is suddenly and permanently “cured.” It is both dangerous and misleading to portray behavior modification in that way. Any dog trainer worth their salt can tell you that changing a dog’s underlying feelings toward the trigger of his aggression takes time. But punishing a dog strongly enough that he’ll appear to have changed his ways makes for must-watch t.v.  After all, it’s instant gratification, and who in our modern culture doesn’t love that?

Instead of training based on sound principles such as desensitization and counterconditioning, we are often exposed to displays of jerking, kicking, alpha rolling, and worse—all “corrections” that supposedly teach the dog and halt the behavior. Of course it does stop the behavior temporarily, because the trainer is bigger and stronger, and is scaring the dog. But punishment simply suppresses behavior. The hapless owners then get to deal with the fallout after The Guru and his magical aura have left town.

There will always be self-proclaimed gurus, and some do offer valuable information. But consumers must be thoughtful and particular about which tidbits to accept and which to discard, rather than mindlessly swallowing everything thrown at them. Some followers tend to have a fundamentalist mindset, accepting everything the guru says and does as gospel. An intelligent person should be able to sit back and question what’s really happening behind the rhetoric. To that end, it can be helpful to watch dog training shows with the sound off. It removes any verbal spin, allowing the viewer to really focus on the reactions of the dog. While the trainer might be saying, “What I just did shows the dog I’m the leader, he’s not stressed” watching the dog will tell the real story. Maybe the dog is fine with it. Or, is he offering stress responses such as lip-licking, yawning, or looking away from the trainer? Is he cowering? Has he shut down completely due to learned helplessness? Believe what you see, not what you hear.

Another pinprick in the hot air balloon of gurus is that regardless of their ability to do something well, those who need the information and support need to be able to do those things proficiently, too. Not to discount good handling skills, but so what if a guru can handle an out of control or vicious dog? The real test is whether the owner can then handle that dog. Otherwise it’s very likely the dog will lose his home or be euthanized after the guru has left. The true measure of good teaching isn’t being able to show what you know or how wonderful you are, but whether you can instill ability and confidence in others.

Here’s my suggestion: take back the power! Let’s agree to never mindlessly follow anyone, no matter how good-looking or charismatic the person may be. Let’s think for ourselves, and accept legitimate information while discarding the flashy but flawed. Let’s make good, ethical training decisions based on sound thinking, scientific studies, and treating dogs with kindness and respect. Maybe if we can shift our approach the balance of power will shift as well, and we’ll end up with trainer role models who demonstrate kindness, clear communication, and patience rather than a quick fix. After all, without followers, what’s a guru to do?

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So You Think You Know About Bloat?

August 18, 2009

*Reposted from 6/08

I thought I did. It’s the second leading cause of death among dogs, after all. I knew that a potentially fatal thing can happen when a dog’s stomach fills with gas and fluid, and that it’s often accompanied by gastric torsion—a twisting of the stomach. If the dog isn’t given emergency veterinary treatment in time, he will die. Bloat happens most often to deep-chested breeds, although the cause is still largely unknown. The warning signs include a stomach that’s bloated and hard, and dry heaving without the ability to vomit.

Well, that was the extent of my knowledge until a few short weeks ago when my own dog Mojo bloated. It was late afternoon on the Friday leading up to Memorial Day weekend. (There seems to be an unwritten rule that dog emergencies happen on holiday weekends and whenever else your vet is closed.) Mojo, my now 14 ½-year-old German shepherd/Rottie/Malamute/wolf mix, began pacing and whining. He vomited a little bit of white, foamy-looking stuff. I called the emergency vet, as my regular vet was already gone. The receptionist, after consulting with the vet on duty, told me to simply fast Mojo for twelve hours. Ten minutes later my husband came home from work and I told him what had happened, and that I was worried. As we were speaking, Mojo went outside and spewed a huge amount of that same white foam. We immediately rushed him to the nearest emergency clinic.

A tech took Mojo to the back room to be examined by the one vet on duty, who was busy trying to save another dog who was also having a very bad start to his weekend. The vet came out and told us that Mojo had bloated. I was floored—bloat had never even entered my mind. After all, he hadn’t been dry heaving; he’d actually been vomiting. But he was bloated, gastric torsion and all, and we were told that if emergency surgery was not performed immediately, he would die. The fee they quoted us was incredibly high and, as they warned, the aftercare was going to be very difficult. And he was fourteen-and-a-half. His chances of making it through the surgery were 50/50. Were we sure we wanted them to try to save him? Of course we were!

It was a very long and very difficult weekend, but thank goodness, Mojo pulled through. The first 72 hours after bloat surgery are critical, as many dogs develop heart arrhythmias during that time and die. Did I mention how long and difficult the weekend was? The following weeks involved, as promised, plenty of aftercare, but as my husband said, “He’s the Mighty Mojo Man, he’s a fighter.”

In the course of telling some of my dog training clients about the experience, I was shocked to realize how little people actually know about bloat. Most I spoke to hadn’t even heard of it. I am now on a mission to inform as many of my clients (as well as dog owners I encounter) about bloat, including the common warning signs, as well as the not-so-common ones.

If you’d like to research bloat for yourself, here are some links to get you started:

Mojo is laying at my feet as I finish typing this. He seems very happy to be at home where he surely must know how lucky and how loved he is.

*This blog first appeared in June ’08 on but I felt the subject was important enough to repost it here. Since then, Mojo has passed on, but he lived to be just shy of his 15th birthday. I miss him every day, and hope the information presented here will help your dogs to live long, healthy lives.

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Seven Soothers for Storm Phobic Dogs

August 17, 2009

I recently taught a seminar in St. Petersburg, Florida. A friend told me St. Pete is the “lightning capital” of the country, and it’s not hard to believe. While I was there the weather forecast seemed to perpetually predict storms. Many dogs are thunderstorm phobic, and unfortunately, repeated exposure to storms does not allay the fear nor cure the phobia.

Many owners attempt to desensitize their dogs with CDs of recorded thunderstorms, and some are successful. But a storm is composed of many factors besides sound, and many dogs still tremble and worse when the thunder begins to roar. With that in mind, I’d like to share some ideas and products that may help.

1.  Allow your dog to take shelter. Your dog might feel safest in his crate, or he may seek refuge in the bathroom. Many dogs hunker down near the toilet or even in the bathtub, possibly because those spots are grounded via the plumbing. My boy Mojo preferred the bathtub during storms.

2.  Some people think it’s a bad idea to comfort dogs when they’re afraid. Others believe it helps. According to one study, neither comforting a storm phobic dog nor ignoring him had an effect either way. However, having another dog present did allow the frightened dog’s stress hormones to return to normal levels faster.Every dog is different, and reassuring a dog is a far cry from coddling him. While you shouldn’t scare your dog further by using a nervous tone of voice or mannerisms, if he feels better with you sitting by him, laying a comforting hand on him, or speaking in a soothing voice, do so. If you can round up another dog for company, even better.

3.  Many dogs feel more secure when swaddled—or as I like to think of it, wrapped up like a giant doggie burrito. An easy way to accomplish this is with a t-shirt. Make sure it fits your dog snugly, then gather the material at the top with a rubber band, avoiding placing the knot directly over the spine. You can also try a product such as the Anxiety Wrap or the Thundershirt. Whichever product you use, be sure to repeatedly place it on your dog and pair it with something he likes ahead of time so the wrap is not only associated with storms.

4.  Playing soothing music before your dog becomes frightened can help him to maintain his composure, or to at least be less nervous when the storm hits. The “Through a Dog’s Ear” CDs are psychoacoustically engineered to encourage a relaxation response from dogs, and are well worth a try. If you prefer to use music you already have on hand, choose simple classical music over, say, heavy metal. Introduce your dog to the music during relaxed periods far in advance of when it’s actually needed.

5.  The change in barometric pressure that accompanies thunderstorms can cause some dogs, especially long-haired ones, to become uncomfortable. That’s due to the static electricity being picked up in the coat. The Storm Defender cape guards against this phenomenon. As with the other solutions, acclimate the dog in a positive manner ahead of time.

6.  Melotonin is a natural hormone that regulates the biological clock. It’s not a sedative, but it can leave your dog feeling more relaxed about what’s happening in the environment. Doctors Nicholas Dodman and Linda Aronson have demonstrated good results when melotonin was administered to thunderstorm phobic dogs.

7.  If despite your best attempts at intervention your dog is still severely stressed during storms, speak with your veterinarian about a short-term sedative such as diazepam. Avoid acepromazine, as it can sedate the body but leave the mind spinning in fear.

If you’d like more in-depth explanations and information, refer to “Help for Your Fearful Dog.” In the meantime, these suggestions should provide a good start, and I hope they help your dog to be more comfortable when the next storm rolls in.

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