“He blew me off!”

October 30, 2012

I’ve seen it way too many times. An owner has asked a dog to do something, and the dog doesn’t do it…so the owner repeats the request more loudly. (Have I mentioned that dogs can hear a potato chip hit the carpet in the next room? The dog heard the cue the first time!) If the dog still doesn’t comply, the owner gets frustrated, or perhaps even angry. Depending on what the person feels is acceptable human behavior, the dog may then get jerked, shaken, or worse.

Why do we become so upset when dogs don’t comply with our requests? Well, for one thing, we anthropomorphize. We think, He blew me off! Or She’s just being stubborn! The truth is, dogs don’t do what we want when we want for a variety of reasons. Here are just a few possible scenarios:

1. The dog simply doesn’t know the behavior well enough, or it hasn’t been generalized. Teaching a dog how to do something, and seeing that the dog responds correctly, doesn’t mean that the dog is proficient in the behavior. If I was learning French (which I am actually trying to do!) and you taught me to say Bonjour as a “Good morning” greeting, I would then say, “Bonjour” when I saw you in the morning. But the French also use Bonjour for “Good afternoon,” and unless you taught me specifically that meaning, I would not be able to generalize the morning greeting; I would not know that was expected of me in any situation other than in the morning.

If you teach your dog “Sit” means to sit facing you, what happens when you teach loose leash walking, and want your dog to sit by your side when you stop? Often he’ll swing out and sit facing you, because that’s what he’s been taught! It’s our responsibility to teach dogs to generalize behaviors, especially when we expect the dog to do them in different contexts.

2. The dog is distracted. With all the distractions in our everyday lives—wait, was that a Facebook message coming through?—surely if anyone should understand being distracted, it’s us. A dog who normally complies with your requests may suddenly seem as though he’s developed selective hearing. But the truth is, he can’t listen because his attention is being consumed by something else entirely. So get your dog’s attention first, and then give the cue. It sounds simple, but I so often see owners giving the dog a cue over and over while the dog’s attention is focused elsewhere. Instead of asking me over and over again, “Do you need anything at the market?” while I’m trying to work at the computer, you’d do better to call my name first, wait until I answer, and then ask. (I’m thinking this may be why men and women spend so much time saying, “I did tell you that!”—the person was distracted when it was said the first time.)

3. You must build a bridge between point A to point B, and the steps on that bridge should be small ones. You can’t expect that just because you taught your dog to come when you call him from the next room, that he’ll come when he’s running around outdoors. You’ve got to build in small steps between point A and point B so he can be successful. So maybe you practice first in the house, and then practice calling your dog to come inside when he’s out in the yard. Next, you go to a local park and practice with your dog on a long line, and build up to where he’ll come from a distance off-leash. It takes time, but it’s the only way to get a solid response.

4. The dog is shut down. If a dog is so afraid that he shuts down, he is unable to respond to your request. I have unfortunately seen this happen in training classes I have observed, where the methods were harsh and the dogs were overwhelmed. Unfortunately, this lack of response was taken as insubordination rather than the sign of severe stress that it was, which in the trainer’s mind necessitated further corrections.

These are only a few of the reasons a dog may not comply. There are countless others, including that the dog may be feeling ill, or that, believe it or not, the dog simply made a mistake. It happens, just as it does with us. So next time you think, He blew me off! stop and assess the situation to see if there are mitigating circumstances.


A Solid Recall with Seconds to Spare

October 24, 2012

This morning Bodhi and I took a hike in the hillsides surrounding our local park. It was one of those lovely walks where he barely pulled on leash, even when spotting a bunch of bunnies scrambling into the brush. He paid attention when asked, and periodically basked in the happy glow that leaving his mark on any vertical surface seems to confer. As we approached the parking lot to leave, I noticed a woman we run into frequently. She was just arriving with her three dogs: an old Australian Shepherd and two young, energetic German Shepherd mixes. The Shepherds look alike, but they sure don’t act alike. One is mostly friendly around other dogs, while the other can be dog-aggressive. I’ve heard reports of attacks on dogs by this dog from multiple people who frequent the dog park. To make things worse, when both dogs are together and one becomes aggressive, pack behavior kicks in and woohoo, there’s double trouble!

The woman normally helps her Aussie out of the truck first, then goes back to the lift gate to grab the other dogs’ leashes to let them out. But this morning as she was placing the Aussie on the ground the other dogs, having spied Bodhi and I, leapt out of the vehicle and made a beeline for us. I had seconds to think as the dogs came streaking across the parking lot. I won’t print the first thing that came to mind, but it had two words and the first was “Oh…” My next thought was that I had to protect Bodhi, both physically and behaviorally. This was the dog I’d worked with for two years on what had been some pretty serious on-leash lunging and barking at other dogs when I’d first adopted him. He’d come a long way, and had finally learned that when he’s feeling worried about another dog, he can place himself by my side and we’ll walk safely past the scary thing together. Bodhi had finally made the leap to trust someone, and I had to protect him. I stepped squarely in front of him and faced the oncoming dogs.

Perhaps it was the “To get to him you’re going to have to get through me” look on my face, or the “Don’t even think about it” energy I was radiating, but as the dogs reached us, they looked as though they were suddenly having second thoughts. The insecure one hung back just a bit as the other one began to warily circle around me to reach Bodhi. As I turned with him, a quick glance back at Bodhi confirmed that although he was alert, he was also reasonably calm. He wasn’t barking; he wasn’t even lunging. Just then, the owner called the dogs. To her credit, she used a high, happy voice. And guess what? The two immediately stopped what they were doing, turned toward her, and ran back across the parking lot. I finally remembered to breathe.
“I’m so sorry!” she called out as they reached her.
“That’s okay, just grab their leashes,” I told her, in what I hoped was a calm voice. Despite my decisive action, I could feel the adrenalin flooding my nervous system. I was all too aware of just how bad things could have been, and knew that in all likelihood I would have been trying to separate three dogs by myself, at least for the first ten to twenty seconds.
Once the woman had grabbed the leashes, I said, “Good recall!”
She responded with a laugh. “Yeah, I didn’t think that would really work, but it did!”

It’s scenarios like that one, that I wish every dog owner could see. Those precious moments that make the difference between an interesting story and a tragedy are the answer to the questions, “Why do I have to practice calling my dog to me so many times?” and, “What happens if I don’t have food with me?” The bottom line is, the recall must be practiced in a variety of situations, with distractions eventually added, to the point that the dog responds instantaneously—in other words, it becomes a conditioned reflex. And let’s not be stingy with rewarding the dog when he does come! It’s ironic that so many owners want to know when they can stop using treats, but I’ve yet to hear one say, “When can I stop jerking my dog?” Even worse than not rewarding is what many owners do when their dog breaks free; they call the dog to them, and when the dog complies, he gets scolded. The person doesn’t realize that because dogs learn by association, the dog is being verbally punished for coming when called.

This morning, I was glad to see that the dogs received praise for returning. Bodhi, for his part, received a shower of hot dogs for staying calm and being such a good boy. Again, practicing the recall isn’t just important; it’s crucial, regardless of whether a dog is reactive or not.

They’re Dogs!

October 17, 2012

A while back at our local dog park, a German Shepherd mix was running the length of the chain link fence that separated the areas designated for smaller and larger dogs. A small dog on the other side raced back and forth with the Shepherd. They seemed to be having a fine time. No one was getting snarky, no one was upset, and in fact, the Shepherd wasn’t making any sound at all. Then I noticed he was wearing a shock collar. I asked the woman why, and she said, “Because he barks when he plays.”
After recovering from my own moment of shock, I said, “..and?”
“And,” she responded, “it bothers people.”
After a brief discussion where I explained that it’s natural for dogs to bark when they play, just as it’s natural for kids to scream and yell when they play—not to mention that if people come to a dog park they ought to expect to hear dogs barking—she seemed willing to consider that her dog might not need the collar after all.

Sierra and I normally visit this dog park before it gets crowded, and then take a hike around the surrounding area. Unfortunately, this morning a severe headache precluded me from being able to do any strenuous walking, so we stayed in the dog park longer than we usually would. I knew the usual early-bird dogs and people there, so I wasn’t too concerned about Sierra getting into trouble. She got along fine with the three dogs, all of whom were a bit smaller than her. Then a sweet mixed breed about her own size entered the park. She’d met the dog before and they’d gotten along fine. When the dog entered, the three smaller dogs rushed up to greet her. I allowed Sierra to as well. Everything was fine until one of the smaller dogs got between Sierra and the new dog. She snarked at him. Yes, I know, snark isn’t exactly a technical term, but I think you can visualize what I mean. Teeth were shown, a sound was made, and had there been a dog-to-human translator handy, it would have read, “I like you well enough, but for now, kindly stay out of my way.” The owner of the small dog became concerned, but because I could see that the small dog understood Sierra’s communication and responded by backing away, I wasn’t worried. I was glad the woman hadn’t made a move toward the dogs, because sometimes a stiff-bodied, barely breathing, stressed out human can turn a small canine “discussion” into something much worse.

I’m not saying snarkiness is a good thing, and I’m not excusing it, either. But I think that many times our own stress levels spike very quickly when we see what is, to dogs, normal communication. It makes sense for us to have a primal fear response to seeing those long, curved teeth. An internal alarm bell rings: Danger! Run away! To dogs, teeth can mean danger too, of course; but it’s interpreted in a quick, intuitive flash that takes in the entire context and situation as well as the actual body language. I’m guessing this primal fear we seem to have (some of us more than others, depending on how much time we’ve spent around dogs) is the reason so many people freeze up when they see two dogs get into a fight. Even if one of the dogs is theirs and the dog is clearly in danger, it’s as though the person is rooted in place.

Thankfully, the vast majority of canine communication is understood more clearly by other dogs than it is by the average dog owner. And while we should always be advocates and protectors for our dogs, and remain ever vigilant, sometimes it’s good too to remember that they’re dogs, and their behavior must be interpreted in the canine context, not the human one.

Talkin’ Dogs in the Big Easy

October 10, 2012

I’m writing this entry on a flight home from New Orleans. I spent Saturday and Sunday teaching seminars on helping fearful dogs, separation anxiety, and dog-dog play. It was gratifying to see how many trainers, shelter and rescue workers, owners, and others turned out. A woman in the front row confided during a break that she wasn’t planning on becoming a trainer, and that her own dogs didn’t suffer from those issues–she simply wanted to learn more. I love that! I met some wonderful local trainers and rescue groups, and even a poultry vet!

My husband flew out to join me on Sunday night, and we spent Monday and Tuesday exploring the town. Our fabulous host, Lori Haeuser of the Louisiana SPCA, showed us the sights on Monday (this woman could easily be a professional tour guide!), including a tour of the shelter. The size and scope of the operation is impressive, as are the many caring employees and volunteers. The facility is well designed, right down to the individualized ventilation systems to keep disease from spreading from room to room. I also got to pay a visit to my friend and long-time rescue partner Tia Torres’ new site for Villalobos Rescue Center. If you’ve watched her show Pit Bulls and Parolees, you’ve seen what that trash-filled warehouse looked like initially. It was great to check out what she and her crew have done with the place, and to see the dogs looking so happy and healthy.

On Tuesday, my husband and I explored the city. We wandered around the French Quarter, walked along the river, and had beignets and coffee at Cafe Du Monde. (If you’re not familiar with beignets, just think pastry and confectioner’s sugar–lots of it.) It was an all-too-brief but wonderful visit to a unique city. The weather was wonderful, the Saints won (wow, that’s one city that takes their football seriously!), and we were treated to a variety of Cajun and Zydeco music along the way.

I was thinking on the flight home that whenever I announce an upcoming seminar, there are always a few people who say they wish they could go, but either they’ve got conflicting plans or the distance is too far. So I wanted to share a couple of resources, whether it’s my seminars or those of other presenters you’re interested in seeing:

Tawzer Dog, LLC has been filming seminars for many years, and sells DVDs of those presentations. Their website is searchable by topic or speaker. Trainers can get an amazing education through those offerings, and there’s also plenty of useful information for shelter and rescue groups, owners, dog enthusiasts, and really, any type of canine professional.

Dog Seminars Directory is the place to find a comprehensive listing of upcoming seminars. You can search the site by location or speaker, and sign up to be notified of events in your area.

Various groups offer webinars, so check around online. I’ll be doing one through dog i-box at the end of October.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the APDT conference, which allows attendees to see plenty of great speakers in one convenient location. There are always wonderful presentations, fascinating topics, endless opportunities to network, and pack-an-extra-bag shopping at the trade show. You can still sign up last-minute for this year’s conference.

Lastly, if there’s a speaker you want to see but they never seem to come to your neck of the woods, consider hosting them yourself!

As my year of traveling comes to a close, I can’t help but reflect on how much I love teaching dog behavior seminars. I’m grateful that so many of you put forth the time and effort to attend, and it’s especially gratifying to know that the information will be taken out into the communities and will benefit many dogs and people. It’s been wonderful to meet so many of you in person, and I look forward to meeting more of you next year. You can find my 2013 schedule here.

Less is More

October 2, 2012

Have you ever had a friend you like, who tends toward the talkative? Part of your brain eventually goes on automatic pilot, and while it’s off creating a list for your next supermarket run, it snags on a pertinent word. What’s that you just said about the discounted dog treats? you ask, as your brain snaps back into engagement mode. I often think dogs filter our speech in the same way. So many of us chat to our dogs constantly, and even when giving verbal cues, say things like, “Come on, Buddy, come here now, come on!” And we wonder why dogs just don’t get us sometimes.

I always try to include some training in my early morning walks with my dogs. One of the things Sierra and I practice is that on my verbal cue, she’s to stop what she’s doing—which includes the wolf impression she loves to do as she stalks approaching dogs—and sit in front of me, eyes on me. She’s doing well, as is Bodhi, whose job is, on my cue, to walk by my side and pass other dogs without lunging or barking. As someone who’s naturally chatty, I often make non-training-related, friendly comments to Bodhi and Sierra that I’m certain make no sense to them whatsoever (I’m pretty sure they roll their eyes at each other when I’m not looking). But at the park, I’m doing my best to stop speaking to them, unless I’m giving a specific verbal cue . I’ve curbed the Okay, you can go pee on that phrase that I use with Bodhi quite often, and the Not everyone wants to say hello to you that follows Sierra’s encounters with certain passersby. As a result, my dogs have been paying more attention to the words that do come out of my mouth.

The other morning, as a result of the Jeep being out of commission, my husband and I ended up walking the dogs together. Each time I said something to him, the dogs immediately turned and focused on me. It was a nice surprise, and showed me just how far the “less is more” linguistic strategy has taken us. I don’t recommend that anyone try to curb their love or enthusiasm for their dogs, but reducing your chatter and keeping it to verbal cues your dogs already know, at least out in public, is an experiment worth trying.

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