Mastiffs and Flexis and Prongs. Oh, My!

May 30, 2012

I was hiking with Sierra around the local park trails yesterday when we spied a woman walking her dog. I’d seen this dog before—he’s hard to miss, being a bullmastiff. The handsome, brindled dog, who looks to be an adolescent, is normally walked by a man. Usually when we pass them, the man is telling the dog to knock it off because the dog has become mildly reactive toward us or another passing dog. This time, though, the dog was being walked by a woman—the wife, I presume.

At the point we encountered each other on the trail, there was no way for either of us to retreat—we had to pass each other, unless one of us wanted to do a U-turn and go way out of our way. So I stopped and waited as the woman led the bullmastiff to the side of the trail and asked him to sit. Hugging the opposite side of the path, I urged Sierra forward. As we passed, Sierra looked at the dog, and the dog became aroused. In a split second, two things became obvious: the dog intended to lunge at Sierra, and the woman did not have control of the dog. The dog was wearing a prong collar, and the woman had him on a flexible leash. Yes, a Flexi lead—with a prong collar! Although she had pressed the button that stops the lead from rolling out any further, the dog was able to drag her toward us.

At the same time the dog, all bluster and slobber, moved toward us, I inserted myself between him and Sierra. I’m not sure exactly how I ended up with my back toward the dog instead of facing him head-on and telling him to leave town, but it was the something about the combination of how we were physically situated and the vague notion that I’d be in position to kick back at the dog if needed while keeping Sierra safe. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that, as the woman was finally able to gain control of the dog and drag him off. They walked off without a word.

I see people on a regular basis who do things with dogs that leave me either scratching my head or wanting to growl rather aggressively. Still, I’ve never before seen anyone walk a dog on a pinch collar with a Flexi lead. Whether you believe pinch collars are a viable training tool or a torture device spawned by Satan, there is a right way and a wrong way to use it. Attached to the clip of a flexible lead ain’t it. We continued on our walk unscathed, but I know we’ll run into the dog again. I’m hoping for the opportunity to have a few words with whoever’s on the end of the lead before things get out of control. I’d hate to think about the potential damage to dogs—the bullmastiff or others—if things don’t change.


Creating a Resource Guarding Issue

May 22, 2012

I often get calls from people whose dogs guard food, treats, toys and, sometimes, even people. Resource guarding isn’t uncommon, and it’s understandable. If a dog has a bone in his possession and another dog comes along, chances are the first dog will do what he needs to in order to keep it. In the canine world, possession is nine tenths of the law–but in a human household, some dogs must be taught that it’s not okay to play by those rules.

Although reported resource guarding doesn’t faze me, What does surprise me is something I hear all too often. It’s especially popular with puppy owners, and goes something like this: “To teach him that we’re in charge, we’re taking his food away while he’s eating.” Really? Because if you took my pizza away while I was biting into it, it’d teach me a thing or two about you, but that you’re in charge wouldn’t be one of them. Or, there’s the ever-popular, “We take his bone away while he’s chewing it.” The responses of the dogs in these scenarios ranges from not minding, to getting a bit growly or eating more quickly or determinedly, to snapping at or biting the owners. But are the owners really teaching the dog they are in charge? Or are they imparting another lesson: When people come near my stuff, bad things happen. I say it’s the latter. These owners are actually creating a resource guarding issue where one might never have existed.

As some of you know, three of the wolfy canines from the rescue center I worked with came to live with me, and were here for ten years. Sequoia, a low content wolf/Samoyed mix, had a severe resource guarding issue toward people and other animals. The boys, Phantom and Heyoka, learned quickly to give her space when she had something she valued. As the three lived in an outdoor enclosure that no one but my husband and me had access to, there really wasn’t a reason to address the behavior. Still, I didn’t want to be in the pen one day and mistakenly place my foot where she’d buried a marrow bone. Rather than implement a step-by-step behavior protocol, I started hanging out nearby while she had something she valued. I started with things like bully sticks that she felt so-so about, and kept enough of a distance that she felt comfortable. The variables I worked with over time were distance and the value of the item. I never, ever tried to take anything away from her. The end result, which I’ll admit took many months, was that I could sit next to her and even pet her while she chewed a marrow bone—her most prized possession.

Whether the dog in question is an adult or a pup, there are many ways to address a resource guarding issue. It can be as simple as walking past at a safe distance and tossing super-yummy treats into the dog’s bowl, hand-feeding, feeding by dropping food into the dog’s bowl bit by bit as he eats, sitting on the floor with the pup and holding one end of the bully stick while he chews the other…the list goes on. Some protocols are, of course, more complicated and call for progressing in very gradual increments, along with management to keep everyone safe. Not all resource guarding issues can be blamed on the owner’s behavior. But just think about how many fewer cases there would be if we just taught our pups to trust us in the first place, and that coming near them or their stuff always means something good is going to happen. Agree? Now step away from my pizza!

The Boundaries of Tolerance

May 16, 2012

My husband and I have an arrangement where I walk one of the dogs in the morning while he takes the other running. This works out well for all of us—except when my husband has a week where he’s got to leave for work early every day. Rather than have the dogs do without exercise, I take them both to the park. There, I allow them to run around the dog park (it’s empty at that hour), do their business, and then we go for a 3-4 mile walk/hike around the perimeter and paths of the main park.

I normally have a walking companion, a very tough-looking 65-year-old Columbian man I somehow met while walking many months ago. He walks every day for his health, and we’ve struck up an unlikely friendship. His attitudes reflect his culture and upbringing, and we’ve had some interesting discussions. I’m don’t mind having conversations with people whose ideas are different than mine on a variety of topics, including dogs. I have friends who hold different political views, are of different religions, and hey, some even use training tools I choose not to use (a topic that can amount to a religion for some). This man and I have chatted about ways to train dogs before, but at some point his heavy-handed philosophy just went over the top and I suggested it might be best if we stayed away from dog training as a topic of discussion.

We’ve done just that, and all’s been well—until this morning. There’s a woman we run into sometimes who raises puppies for Guide Dogs. This morning he told me he’d run into her, and saw that her newest puppy was wearing a choke chain. He told her that he thought no one used choke chains anymore (he’d misconstrued my comment that many trainers have moved away from using choke chains in favor of gentler methods). She told him the program uses them because they’re the fastest and best way to train dogs, although they are expected to transition to flat buckle collars when the puppy is older. He was keen to let me know that people do still use choke chains, and that the girl had told him you can train good leash manners without choke chains but instead of taking months, it can take five years. (Can you imagine how hard I was biting my tongue?) I politely let him finish, and then explained that there are ways to train dogs without pain that most certainly do not take five years. Suffice it to say that once this man makes up his mind about something, that’s it, there’s no argument that will sway him—he’s right and that’s that.

Now, when I have Bodhi or Sierra at the park, I don’t require them to walk right by my side (unless there’s a vehicle or dog we need to pass). I figure the park is “their time,” and they’re allowed to walk in front of me as long as they don’t pull. When I have both dogs together, though, they do tend to get into a who-can-pull-further-ahead mindset. I haven’t put effort into working on the problem since they’re almost never walking together. And the truth is, I haven’t done extensive leash work with either of them separately or together, mostly because of chronic back pain. (Somehow when you’re in pain, doing leash work with 50-pound northern breeds is not the thing you most long to do.)

It’s true that my current dogs are not as well trained as my previous dogs have been on leash. So I can see how this man thinks all I need is a choke chain and a few good corrections, and my dogs will be walking nicely by my side. I can’t argue with the fact that this may be partly true—I say partly because it would certainly take a bit more than that—but I do understand the argument. However, as I told him, just because something works doesn’t mean I’d use it on my dogs. I could hit them with a two-by-four and they’d listen, too; doesn’t mean I’d do it. I related that I’d started out training many years ago with choke chains, and then explained my reasons for choosing not to keep using them. After listening to all of this, he said there was an expression in his country; I can’t remember how it went exactly, but it amounted to something like, “A parent gives a child advice but he doesn’t take it, and then years later the child realizes the parent was right.” I asked how that applied to this situation and he said that I’d realize at some point later on he was right. Now, I’m not accustomed to arguing with people in this way because, frankly, it’s not worth my time or energy. I like this man well enough most of the time, and it’s much easier to walk 3-4 miles when you’ve got someone to chat with. So I very politely and calmly told him that he was being condescending and that it wasn’t appreciated. I reminded him that maybe this wasn’t the best topic for us to discuss. By this time, the sun had come up and it had gotten very warm out. He made a joke that maybe it had gotten so hot because of our heated argument, and we laughed, the tension broken.

To many of us, our dogs are our children. No one likes to be told how to raise their kids, human or canine. And no one likes to be told they’re wrong, whether they are or not. I’m willing to discuss pretty much anything with anyone, as long as the tone remains civil and respectful. When it’s not, you’ve hit the boundary of my tolerance. I can’t say I didn’t get a bit annoyed this morning, but I truly believe that if we can discuss things without blowing up at each other, we can learn something. And if we can’t discuss certain topics civilly, well, we can always agree to disagree and move on.

Heel? Loose Leash Walking? What Say Ye?

May 8, 2012

Back in the old days of dog training, dogs were expected to do precision heelwork. Upon hearing the command, “Heel!” the dog would walk alongside the handler in precise alignment, match the handler’s pace, and sit automatically when the handler stopped moving. I’ve taught many a dog to heel over the years, especially early on in my career. The skill can not only prove helpful on walks, but teaching it in a positive, gentle way can be a relationship-building experience for owners and their dogs. Besides, trainers should know how to get precise behaviors. But in today’s world, has heelwork become obsolete?

In my experience, today’s average dog owner could care less about a militaristic-style heel. I’ve had clients ask, “But doesn’t the dog have to be on my left side?” I explain that the custom began in the military, when the rifle being held in the right hand necessitated the dog being on the soldier’s left. Nowadays, I figure if you’re walking down the street with a rifle, you’ve got bigger problems than getting your dog to heel. The truth is, of all the clients I’ve had over the years, there was only a handful who really wanted that precision positioning. The vast majority just wanted their dog to stop dragging them down the street.

What’s now commonly referred to as “loose leash walking” works well for most dog owners. Rather than maintaining a precise position, the dog is expected to walk within an area defined by an imaginary circle by the owner’s side. When done correctly, the dog is neither pulling nor lagging. I prefer loose leash walking for my own dogs, and teach it on both sides (what’s the chances you’ll only ever want your dog to be on that one side?). I also think it’s important, though, that if I’m walking Sierra, for example, and need her to be right by my side—say, we’re on a narrow path at the park and a work truck drives by—that I can say, “With me!” and she’ll place herself immediately in position. Heel position has also been useful in my work with Bodhi’s dog reactivity. I’ve taught him over time that it’s fine to walk ahead of me (and no, that does not mean he thinks I’ve handed over the keys to the kingdom) as long as he doesn’t pull. But I’ve also taught him that if he sees a dog who makes him feel nervous, he need only walk by my side to get guidance and treats. He now voluntarily puts himself into position when he feels overwhelmed by an oncoming dog.

The bottom line is that the better trained your dog, the more freedom you can allow. But there’s overkill, too—I don’t understand owners whose idea of a leisurely walk is to have their dog constantly maintain heel position without being allowed to sniff the grass or investigate enticing scents. Moderation is a good thing, and having your dog trained to at least do loose leash walking means that you can decide when you want him next to you, and when to give the release cue to go and sniff.

What do you think? Other than in obedience competitions or sports such as Freestyle, do you think heel still has a place with modern pet owners? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


May 1, 2012

I’ve often called the profusion of birds, squirrels, and other critters outside our windows Dog TV. It’s free, it’s fun, and it keeps Sierra and Bodhi entertained. When I recently heard about a new 24/7 cable channel for dogs that’s actually called DOGTV, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it could be a great thing for dogs who don’t have access to a window on nature; on the other, it could be yet another gimmick to part dog owners with their hard-earned cash. But when I learned that Dr. Nicholas Dodman was the lead scientist on the project, I became interested in finding out more.

We all know that dogs can watch television and, as it turns out, the new plasma and LCD screens make it even easier for them to enjoy. DOGTV takes it one step further by designing all visual and auditory aspects of the programming specifically for dogs. The colors look different than on normal t.v. shows because they have been enhanced based on the colors that dogs can see, and specific attention has been paid to contrast, brightness, and frame rate. Potentially disturbing auditory frequencies have been eliminated, and sounds that dogs should find interesting have been inserted at appropriate times.

DOGTV rotates continually through three phases: The Stimulation phase includes fast movements and sounds such as people playing with a ball, and dogs running and playing, and is meant to “encourage the dog’s playfulness even when home alone.” The Relaxation phase is just the opposite, and pairs serene scenes such as beautiful landscapes with acoustically designed music to encourage rest and relieve stress. The last phase, Exposure, is designed to habituate dogs to such things as busy streets, vacuum cleaners, and other everyday stimuli to which they may need to become accustomed.

The website states that DOGTV was created to reduce the stress level of home alone dogs. It’s easy to imagine it would do just that for many dogs, above and beyond the old “leave the television on for the dog” strategy. I do have a few concerns, the first of which involves the Exposure phases. If a dog has a mild anxiety issue, such as being nervous on crowded streets due to a lack of early socialization, he might well become habituated by seeing and hearing the city scenes over and over. That could be very helpful, and might even save owners some time and effort in exposing young puppies to various stimuli. But if a dog has a serious fear issue—let’s say of those same crowded, noisy streets—where the fear level is beyond a simple habituation fix, those scenes could frighten the dog. It would be wonderful if the programming were customizable to accommodate individual dog’s issues, and who knows, perhaps that will be something the producers will offer in the future. I also wonder about the Stimulation phase—will it be so stimulating for some dogs that they will begin to bark at the screen, thereby causing a nuisance periodically throughout the day? Hopefully not, but it is something to take into account when considering whether the programming is right for an individual dog.

Although owners are instructed to watch with the dog the first time in order to get the dog used to the programming, it would be helpful to include a suggestion that DOGTV be left on regularly at intervals when the owner is at home as well, so that it doesn’t become a discriminatory signal that the owner is away. And although the FAQ states that “DOGTV’s relaxing sounds, special music and fun visuals, provide the perfect company for dogs so that they never have to feel alone again,” I hope owners of dogs with serious separation issues realize that the issue is not likely to be fixed by this solution alone. A disclaimer that for dogs with serious separation anxiety, DOGTV should be used as part of or in conjunction with a behavior modification program would be helpful. (And yes, this is the part where I plug my book Don’t Leave Me: Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety, which does have those protocols and more. And should DOGTV prove to be successful, I will gladly add it as a resource in the next edition.)

While DOGTV may not be the answer for dogs who are reactive or barky when seeing other dogs, or those who have serious fear issues about subjects shown in the Exposure sections, it seems to be well grounded in science. It’s also a very clever idea, and is well designed. Whether it’s used simply to prevent boredom or as part of a behavior modification program, I believe DOGTV does have the potential to make life less stressful for many home alone dogs, as well as those in shelter environments. I look forward to hearing the results of the research that will surely be forthcoming.

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