Tough Decisions

February 28, 2012

I recently had a lengthy telephone conversation with a woman who had a 14-year-old female Aussie mix, and a seven-year-old female Cocker mix. I know what you’re thinking—but no, the problem was not the two females fighting. These two actually get along very well, and have been together for eight years.

The problem began when the woman’s mother passed away, and she inherited an eight-year-old female Lab mix. Within the first two weeks, the new dog had attacked the 14-year old. By the end of the first month, there had been two more attacks. The woman wasn’t sure what the triggers had been, as none had been obvious scenarios like resource guarding. She had been there all three times to separate the dogs, but there were tears, punctures, and vet visits. Her gut feeling was that if left alone, the Lab mix would most definitely try to kill the 14-year-old. To further compound the problem, the new dog had begun to show aggression toward the Cocker mix as well.

The woman had originally been allowing the dogs into the same room, with the Lab mix on leash and wearing a head halter. However, she’d recently moved the Lab mix to the back yard in order to completely separate her from the other two at all times. The woman was making sure the dog received attention, yard exercise, and daily walks, but what she really wanted was to know whether behavioral training could fix the situation to the point that all the dogs could all coexist. Contrary to what you might hear from some trainers, there are some situations that are simply not fixable—whether because of the dog or the circumstances—or safe to continue with even if the dog’s behavior were somewhat modified. This dog had already shown a clear intent to cause serious harm to the 14-year-old dog, and to complicate matters, the woman had two teenagers living at home. What do you think the chances are that one of them would eventually leave the door to the yard open by accident? A dog’s life is nothing to gamble with.

It was a tough conversation, and there were tears. That the Lab mix had belonged to her mother was clearly making the woman feel guilty for even considering any option other than keeping the dog forever. I shared my opinion that surely her mother would not want to see harm come to either of the other dogs, or to see her daughter being so distressed. Then I told her a version of the two things that I say to all of my clients in this sort of situation. The first is, “Imagine that you’re living in a house with someone who has attacked you physically. Although someone is keeping him away from you, you know he’s around and that he wants to hurt and possibly even kill you. How anxious and stressed out would you feel, every single minute of every day you were at home? What would your quality of life be like?” I went on to explain that chronic stress is not only harmful to dogs mentally and emotionally, but also physically; among other things, it can cause gastric ulcers, and suppress the immune system, which opens the door for a variety of diseases. Chronic stress was the last thing this poor 14-year-old dog, who had lived in the safe haven of a loving home all of those years, needed or deserved.

The other thing I said was, “Imagine that you decide to keep this dog, and the worst happens; she kills your 14-year-old dog. How would you live with yourself, when you knew this could happen and that you could have prevented it?” I have worked with many complicated, dangerous behavioral situations over the years, but when the truth comes down to that the dog should simply not be in the home, I have found posing these two questions helpful to allow owners to come to the right decision.

The sad truth is, the woman and I both know there aren’t many options for an eight-year-old, dog-aggressive dog. On the positive side, the dog does not show aggression toward unfamiliar dogs on walks, so it’s possible that a home without another dog (or possibly even with a male dog) could be found. I know she’ll certainly try her best. My heart goes out to her and all the dogs involved, and I hope she’s able to rehome the dog. As lifelong management is not a realistic possibility, the only other option is euthanization. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made for the highest good of all, and oftentimes owners already know the truth deep down, but need to hear someone else—a professional—confirm that it’s the right choice.

(By the way, if you’re not already “Liking” me on Facebook, please visit my Nicole Wilde, Author page.)


A Startling Reaction

February 21, 2012

Remember when you were a kid and one of your friends would sneak up from behind, cover your eyes, and say, “Guess who?” My friends learned quickly not to do that to me, because my body apparently has an immediate, hard-wired response to lash out when I’m surprised. Granted, this reaction came in handy when I lived in New York and a guy in a ski mask grabbed me from behind in an attempt to mug me, but that’s another story.

Not all lashing out, however, is directed at the source of the startle-causing stimulus. When a dog is startled by a sudden noise—for example, a vacuum cleaner—the dog may not go for the source of the sound, but instead, redirect on to whatever is nearby. Unfortunately, “whatever is nearby” may be another dog or person. This scenario is often seen in dog parks and play groups, where one dog is jumped on, hip slammed, or otherwise surprised by another dog, and instead of turning around and responding to the offender, he redirects on to a nearby dog.

Whenever Sierra is startled by something in the environment, her immediate response is to attack poor, hapless Bodhi, who is inevitably standing nearby. To be fair, it’s not a full-on attack, but more of a drive-by snarking where she lunges at him, delivers an open-mouthed, inhibited bite on the level of one she’d use during rough play, and then immediately backs off. I’ve seen her do it on a few different occasions when my husband has turned on the electric coffee grinder in the morning; there’s just something about the pitch and suddenness of that sound that causes her to immediately fly at Bodhi.

Every now and then Bodhi makes a sound I have heard people call “backward sneezing”—it’s sort of a wheezy gasping that comes on suddenly, and stops within a minute or less. Sierra normally ignores it, but last week when Bodhi made the sound, Sierra was right next to him and she snarked at him. These episodes never result in a fight, as Bodhi normally just looks a bit surprised and then walks away; sometimes the snarking initiates a round of rough play.

This morning, I was sitting at the computer, working on a project. Both dogs were lying on the carpet near my feet. The calm quiet was suddenly interrupted by Bodhi loudly passing gas. Sierra immediately flew at him. Once I’d stopped laughing, I reflected that I’ve certainly never come across this particular canine behavior problem before. I began to imagine the question posed to an online discussion list: “Dear fellow trainers, whenever my dog passes gas, my other dog attacks him. Can you please suggest a desensitization protocol?” I’ll let you imagine the rest.

Fortunately, Sierra’s snark-attacks don’t happen all that often. I suppose that with a lot of time and effort, I could condition her that whenever something startles her, the default is to look at me. Then again, my husband and I know the things that—flatulence notwithstanding—normally set her off. We manage these situations by doing things like making sure that before the coffee grinder is turned on, Sierra is outside or Bodhi is at least far away from her. But one thing’s for sure, every time I think I’ve seen it all behaviorally, something else happens to, well… startle me.

Dessert Cookies

February 14, 2012

My husband, a talented musician and artist, recently had a day off work. He planned to do whatever needed doing around the house, and then retire to his studio to enjoy creative pursuits. I, being the ever-dutiful wife, took the opportunity to leave him in charge of the dogs, and went out for lunch and shopping with a girlfriend. (Okay, maybe the word isn’t dutiful so much as opportunistic.) I returned an hour or so past the dogs’ usual feeding time.

After greeting everyone, I checked with my husband: “Did you feed the dogs?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“Great, thanks,” I responded.
“And then,” he reported proudly, “I gave them their dessert cookies.”
“Their dessert cookies? What’s that?”
“Well, they were looking at me like they were expecting something right after they finished eating. Don’t you give them cookies right after you feed them?”

I burst into laughter and informed him that our dogs are very good trainers, and that no, they do not need, nor have I ever given them, dessert cookies!

It’s true that our dogs get an afternoon snack, which rotates on a daily basis. Some days it’s a stuffed, frozen Kong; others, a bully stick; and once or twice a week, oh happy day! It’s a marrow bone knuckle. But I always wait to give these snacks thirty minutes to an hour after they’ve eaten, and occasionally I’ll wait even longer. I do this partly because I’d like them to digest their food first, but also because I don’t want them linking the meal and the snacks together in their minds, which results in relentless petitioning for “dessert cookies.”

Our previous dogs, Mojo and Soko, had somehow trained us that after each and every time one of us did the dishes, they received cookies. I honestly can’t remember how that one started, but it became a habit in record time; who says humans don’t learn fast? Our current dogs, Sierra and Bodhi, have trained me that when I wake up in the morning and walk out of the bedroom (they don’t sleep with us), they get cuddles and tummy rubs. Sure, I’m off the hook if I have a pressing need to do something else first, or I’m in a rush, but hey, you don’t get far in this house without paying the cuddle tax. That one is probably an example of a routine we all created together, and really, it’s to our mutual delight. Although it’s not a bad thing, it is another example of something the dogs have come to expect.

These types of learned patterns are normally harmless, although they can become problematic. I frequently hear from training clients, for example, that they can’t ever sleep late because their dogs expect to be fed at a certain time in the morning, whether it’s a weekday or a weekend. These dogs are apparently completely insensitive to the fact that their owners have stayed up late the night before eating popcorn and watching reruns of It’s Me or the Dog. Well, that’s what happens when a pattern gets created! Dogs have magical, invisible watches that never seem to run slow, although I’d argue that they do often seem to run fast.

Personally, I purposely don’t feed our dogs the moment I wake up, and I don’t feed them the minute I walk through the front door, either. If you do those things, you end up with dogs who expect things on a schedule and get stressed if that schedule is not kept. Sure, there should be a loose structure, and I’m not suggesting that anyone feed their dogs three hours past the normal time. But varying feeding, walks, and other daily activities at least half an hour or so one way or the other can help to prevent the dessert cookie syndrome. I’m still laughing over that one!

Guilty as Charged?

February 7, 2012

I walked out of my office this morning to find Sierra lying on the foyer carpet. But when she saw me, she sat up and gave her version of the “guilty look;” ears pinned back, eyes squinting, corners of the mouth slightly retracted. She was cringing and looking at me as though I was about to hit her. Since I’d never raised a hand to her unless it was to pat her head or rub her tummy, I wondered what was wrong. Had something scared her? Was she unwell? Was there a poltergeist hanging over my shoulder? Then I thought, Hmm, she must have done something. I walked to the kitchen, peeked out the back door and, sure enough, there on the dog ramp lay the evidence: a tissue she’d stolen from the bedroom trash can. Clearly, the theft hadn’t occurred within the last few seconds, and maybe not even the last few minutes—and yet Sierra’s expression was clearly connected to the offensive behavior. Traditional literature suggests that a dog will only look “guilty” about something he did within seconds beforehand; I disagree.

In 2009, Alexandra Horowitz published a study aimed at determining whether a dog’s “guilty look” was associated with something the dog had actually done, or if it might instead be a result of the owner’s reaction. Trials went as follows: A treat was placed in a room, and the owner would tell the dog to “leave it.” The owner then left the room. While the owner was absent, Horowitz would give the dog some of the forbidden treat. In some trials, when the owners returned, they were told the dog had left the treat alone; in others, they were told the dog had eaten the treat. Here’s the tricky part: what the owners were told was sometimes untrue.

Horowitz found that the “guilty look” (which should really be termed the “I hope you’re not going to punish me” look) had little to do with whether the dog had actually eaten the treat or not. Predictably, dogs looked most guilty when owners admonished them. But interestingly, dogs who had not eaten the treat but were still scolded by their misinformed owners looked even more guilty than the dogs who had eaten it! I haven’t read Horowitz’s thoughts on why that might be, but I would imagine that a dog who hasn’t done anything wrong might be more surprised by an owner suddenly scolding him for no reason he could fathom, than a dog who’s actually committed a doggy misdemeanor.

Just as the truly guilty dogs in Horowitz’s study most likely associated the owner’s scolding with having eaten the treat, dogs associate events that happen within a short time frame. When a dog sits on cue we offer a treat immediately, rather than sauntering back into the room 10 minutes later with the reward. We advise owners who return home to find potty accidents not to punish their dogs, since the event probably happened much earlier and the dog won’t associate the punishment with the behavior. Now, I’m not suggesting we punish dogs after the fact; but I do believe that rather than feeling the complex emotion of guilt, there are dogs who are simply capable of putting two and two together.

Sierra’s brain is so finely wired that she could not only put two and two together, but finish by giving you the square root. During the early days with Bodhi, there were times when we’d come home to find Sierra looking guilty. I knew she wasn’t destructive—she’d never touched a thing, and we’d had her for a few months before we’d brought him home. But from time to time Bodhi would do something that ranked pretty high on the Doggy Destructo scale, and Sierra knew we would not be pleased. The time he ate the couch comes immediately to mind. I can imagine poor Sierra standing by helplessly as Bodhi tore into the cushions. As pieces of foam wafted through the air, I’m sure she was frantically, telepathically pleading with him to stop. And he kept right on going.

Even with all we know about dogs physiologically and behaviorally, there’s still so much we don’t fully understand about how they process thought, what they’re mentally capable of, and their complex emotional life. I don’t think it’s that unusual for a dog to show the “guilty look” long after the fact. But it is fascinating to me that one dog can look guilty over another’s actions. Although I’ve never seen a study on the subject, it would make for some very interesting research.






Correcting Trainers

February 1, 2012

I just read an email that greatly upset me. No, it wasn’t about cruel treatment of a dog; it was about cruel treatment of a person.

This person is an aspiring dog trainer. To follow her passion, she paid a great sum of money to attend a school where students learned about canine body language and behavior and were also taught a variety of tools and methods, from clicker training and positive reinforcement to pinch collars and even e-collars.

You should know that this is a crossover trainer who was originally using collar corrections, and wants to get into a more “positive” style of training. Although she did attend that school, she chose not to use e-collars. But she is now feeling demonized when attempting to have any discussion online that mentions e-collars at all (again, not because she wants to use them, just to have a better understanding). I don’t doubt what she is saying, as I have seen that very thing happen. Not only that, but she is also encountering people on other lists who are making her feel guilty for suggesting even a verbal correction. That’s just plain wrong.

I don’t care what your training philosophy is or where you stand in your experience or education; there is no reason to treat other people that way. Maybe instead of asking where we fall on the spectrum of correcting dogs, we ought to question our methods and severity in correcting humans. It’s all too easy in the online arena, where people are faceless, to be petty, snarky, condescending, and even cruel. It’s easy to forget that we’re all just doing the best we can. I truly try not to be judgmental, in and out of the dog training world, and I admit that I sometimes fail. But I honestly don’t understand why we can’t discuss tools and methodology in a civil tone. If you’re trying to change someone’s mind, you’re not going to do it by making them feel bad about themselves. People are more likely to leave than listen when you try to have a conversation from a pedestal.

I know this smacks of Rodney King’s “Can’t we all just get along,” but that is exactly what I’m saying. I was so pleased to see a recent online discussion where the dreaded hot topic of e-collars (no pun intended) was discussed more civilly than I have seen before. Am I glad because now we can all start using e-collars? No. I’m glad because the people who use them deserve as much respect and opportunity to explain their reasoning as do those who use other methods. If you’re a moderator and don’t want a tool discussed on your list, that’s your prerogative; make a rule and that’s that. But if you allow the discussion, it ought to be respectful on both sides. How else are we going to learn from each other? I’d hate to think about a new trainer joining an organization and stepping into the middle of a flame-war rather than finding encouragement and support.

Back to the person who emailed me. She’s new to the business, and was feeling totally demoralized and lost. That shouldn’t happen to anyone. We experienced, successful trainers, regardless of where we fall on the correction/tool spectrum, are the ones who should be setting an example. Newcomers should be able to join our profession and participate in discussions without fear of judgement or ridicule. It can only be “positive” for them, for us, and for the future of our profession.

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