Guard Wolves???

November 29, 2012

I was going to blog on a completely different topic today, but then a friend sent me a link to a news story that just about blew my mind. Apparently, a prison in Louisiana has hit upon a brilliant idea to help with security in the face of budget cuts: using a “wolfdog” to patrol the prison grounds. Yes, you heard that right. Oh, and it’s not their first wolfdog. They’re actually breeding them for the purpose. Is there steam coming out of your ears yet? Because there should be.

There is so much wrong with this story that it’s hard to know where to begin. For those not familiar with wolfdogs, there is no actual breed standard. Most are mixes of wolf with Alaskan Malamute or Siberian Husky, two breeds widely accepted to be closest to the wolf in looks and behavior. With wolfdogs, the higher the wolf content, the more the animal will look and act like a wolf. And wolves are skittish. They’re afraid of humans—and good for them! It helps to keep them alive in the wild. What wolfdogs are not are watchdogs or guard dogs. As I said in one of my books about wolfdogs, they’ll watch all right…from under your bed as someone walks out the front door with your stereo.

The ironic part about this story is that the dog in the photo doesn’t even appear to be a wolfdog, but a malamute mix. I’m not sure what the line, “He’s aggressive toward certain people at certain times” means exactly, but it sounds an awful lot like a description of a malamute mix with aggression problems. That’s a dog who needs behavior modification, not encouragement to become more aggressive! In fact, a second news story revealed that the dog was given up by its owners due to aggression issues, and was “spared euthanasia…and was sentenced as a life sentence as a patrol dog” at the prison instead. The Warden had asked the judge to intervene and not put Chief to sleep. While this might have been a compassionate move, the end result is not. The Warden stated, “The dogs are afraid of lighning and thunder, but have houses of their own where they can escape inclement weather.”(Know how much lightning and thunder Lousiana gets? A lot.) The bottom line is, there are breeds such as Malinois and German Shepherds that, assuming the individual dog has the proper temperament, excel at guard and protection work. I can’t think of any possible justification for using wolfdogs for this purpose instead, much less breeding them. Chief will join six other wolfdogs who are already employed at the prison for guard purposes.

There are enough misconceptions out there about wolfdogs already. Do we really need for people to believe that they’re aggressive, too? Most are not. If anything, they have fear issues. Look, a wolfdog is not going to make a great pet for the average person. They can be a lot more to handle behaviorally than a typical dog, and they require special knowledge of proper containment and much more. That people might see this news story and think Wow, that’s a great idea, let’s get a wolfdog for protection! makes me physically ill. Added to that is the issue of breeding these “wolfdogs”— when someone sees that photo and believes that malamute mix is a wolfdog, and then goes out and ends up getting what turns out to be the real thing, they’re in for a rude awakening.

I’ve seen more wolfdogs euthanized over the years than I care to remember, all because someone thought they’d make a great pet. When the owners gave up, the dog had nowhere to go. All I can say is that I truly hope the powers that be at the prison will reconsider, and go back to using dogs who are better suited to the task at hand.


Do Some Dogs Need a Heavier Hand?

November 20, 2012

It never fails—someone always says it. In an recent online discussion about a trainer known for using less-than-gentle methods, someone made a comment that sounded a lot like this: “Positive training is fine for smaller dogs and puppies, and maybe even some adults, but there are some dogs that need a heavier hand.” Really? Because that sounds an awful lot like justification for jerking, yanking, shocking, and other things done to dogs in the name of training.

I’ve heard the excuse for heavy-handedness put like this: “They’re red zone dogs” (somehow that term always makes me visualize dogs with red, flashing sirens over their heads) or something similar. The term is meant to indicate dogs who are severely aggressive, and often the trainer has been brought in as last-ditch effort before the dog is euthanized. In my years of working in canine training and behavior, I’ve worked with many of what would be termed “red zone” dogs. Lest you think I don’t fully comprehend the extreme aggresion the term is meant to denote, one example from my own clientele is the 140-pound Alsatian who had put a hole through his owner’s hand. His owner, a 6-foot-tall police officer, had adopted the dog as an adult. The first week, the man went to grab a toy on the carpet at the same time as the dog did, which resulted in the hole in the palm through which daylight was clearly visible. The dog was also very aggressive toward strangers, and had severe barrier frustration aggression. I’m happy to report that with a course of kind, gentle training and behavior modification, and some beautiful follow-through on the part of the clients, all lived carefully but happily ever after. I could go on about sucessful outcomes with dogs who multiply puncture-wounded multiple people, and how gentle methods were successful…but you get the idea. And plenty of other trainers could share similar stories.

Whenever I hear the argument for certain dogs needing a heavier hand, I think about the wolves I’ve worked with over the years. Wolves are incredibly intelligent, and they learn very quickly. They do not, however, respond to things in the same way dogs do. An attempt to physically overpower them would not go well for the human—so how could anyone possibly work with them? Gently, and with respect. It’s done at Wolf Park all the time.

It’s true that some dogs are naturally softer than others as far as temperament, and they’re more tractable when it comes to training and behavior modification. There are also some very pushy, obnoxious dogs out there (have you met my dog Bodhi?), and yes, even aggressive and severely aggressive dogs. But when we put those dogs in a box and slap a label on it (Red Zone! Beware!), we do them a disservice. That label implies, at least to some, that desperate situations call for desperate measures. Nothing could be further from the truth. Attempting to establish dominance over the dog is the first thing many trainers attempt when working with these high-risk types. I suppose the theory is that the dog will then be biddable; after all, how can you work with a dog who might go after you? But this theory misses the point. It’s not about force to begin with—it’s about gaining the dog’s trust. Think about it: Why is the dog behaving aggressively? In the vast majority of cases, it’s because he or she does not feel comfortable, and is taking the offence to keep the big, scary thing at bay. Sure, there are also dogs who are flat-out territorial or otherwise aggressive without it being fear-based, but even then, gaining trust in a non-confrontational way goes so much further than simply establishing dominance. And let’s say the trainer can “dominate” the dog. Where does that leave the family members who have to live with the dog every day? I’ve seen way too many clients who were advised to use harsh, punitive methods on aggressive dogs, and it backfired. One of my clients had been advised by a previous trainer to put her American Bulldog on his back and sit on him whenever he became aggressive. The woman had been bitten in the face, and as a result, was seeking a better way.

I don’t care if a dog is 150 pounds or 10 pounds, and whether the issue is leash manners or biting visitors. There are no dogs who need a heavier hand—there are only trainers who need more knowledge and a lighter touch.


Doggy BFFs? Sometimes.

November 14, 2012

As any dog owner knows, people aren’t the only ones who develop lasting friendships. There’s no mistaking the excitement of a dog who spies his friend at a distance and begins, with a wagging tail and a sparkle in the eye, to pull toward the dog for a joyous greet-fest. Owners often make a point of meeting at a local park to allow their dogs to play together, or setting up private play-dates. It’s nice to have the assuredness that the dogs like each other and get along, as opposed to the hit and miss play matches that arise from random encounters. But do dogs that are long-time friends always get along? I think not, no more than human friends love each other 100% of the time.

We often don’t give credence to or think about the idea that dogs can sometimes just be having a bad day. But how could a living, physiologically complicated being not have an off day once in a while? We’ve all been through times where our dogs seemed lethargic, or disinterested, or just not themselves. At other times, we’ve noticed that they are much more active than usual, to the point that we think, Oh boy, I’d better help him get rid of some of that nervous energy before he finds a way to do it himself! And sometimes dogs are just not feeling well.

Now think about taking that dog who’s having an off day for a play date. Is he going to interact in the same way he normally does? Maybe, but very possibly not. The way the other dog tends to be a bit pushy and overpowering may be fine with your dog on any other day, but on this day, maybe not so much. So the other dog gives a hip slam, and instead of taking it as an invitation to chase as he normally does, your dog snarks at him. The question of “Where did that come from?” hangs in the air. Sure, it may be that the other dog was just having a rude moment, but again, it may be something else.

When this type of thing happens, owners often worry that the dogs aren’t going to get along anymore. But if it’s been an established, friendly relationship, and the dogs normally play well together, it may just be a signal to watch the snarky dog’s behavior at home carefully, and perhaps to take him in for a veterinary exam. Or, he might just be having an off day, and the dogs will go back to acting like doggy BFFs the next time they meet. After all, we all know that long-time friendships can weather a few bad days.


Dog Training and the Game of “21”

November 6, 2012

Have you ever played the card game 21, also known as Blackjack? Once you’ve been dealt a hand, you get to decide whether to stick with what you’ve got, or to push your luck by trading in a few cards for better ones in the hopes of totalling 21 exactly. If you stick, you’re safe but it may or may not be close enough to the goal, depending on what the other players have. If you trade, you risk going over 21, which essentially blows any chance of winning. Dog training can be like 21. When you’re teaching new behaviors, you want the dog to “get it” but not let things get to the point where he becomes bored or distracted. Even more importantly, with behavior modification, if you push things too far too fast, you risk having to go back to square one, or worse.

Those were the thoughts that went through my mind as I walked Sierra and Bodhi around the park. Yes, I said Sierra and Bodhi. As some of you know, our normal routine is for my husband to go running with one of the dogs, and for me to take the other to our local park for some hiking and training. But my husband’s work schedule has been erratic lately, and I didn’t want the dogs to have to go for days on end without exercise. I figured it would also be an opportunity to work on their behavior issues when walking together—and believe me, they’ve got some.

Thanks to all the work Bodhi and I have put in on his dog-dog reactivity, he’s doing just great when we pass other dogs. At the first sign of his feeling stressed, even with Sierra there, he’ll place himself by my side and look at me. I haven’t done the same amount of work with Sierra, because she was never dog-reactive; she does, however, get very snarky with Bodhi when we pass other dogs—she figures they’re hers. Actually, she figures pretty much everything is hers, but that’s a whole other story. We’ve also worked on her paying attention to me as we pass other dogs, as she has a tendency to go into a stalk-walk that worries approaching dogs, not to mention their owners.

We often follow a narrow trail that veers off the main park path. It winds through the mountains, and you find yourself surrounded by sage, rosemary, cotton-tailed rabbits and coyotes. You truly feel like you’re out of the city. I love it. The only problem comes when leaving the trail, as it ends with a steep decline that runs adjacent to two homes where dogs live, and there’s not much wiggle room. I’ve taught each of my dogs separately that when we reach the top of the decline, their job is to walk by my side. Besides the potential dog-behind-fence problem, I just don’t put sliding butt-first down a hill high on the list of treatments for my lower back issues.

This morning, Bodhi, Sierra and I wound around the trail and reached the beginning of the decline. Both dogs walked with me, one on either side as I’d taught them, but I could tell by the amount of pressure they were taking treats with that they were already aroused. They knew what was coming. I didn’t hear barking, but just as we reached the bottom of the hill, it became glaringly apparent that not one, but both dogs were out in their yards. As we passed the first one, a large, barking German Shepherd, Sierra managed to do a three things in the space of maybe a second: she locked eyes with the dog, lunged toward him, and turned in a flash to snark at poor Bodhi, who had dutifully placed himself next to me. I quickly rewarded Bodhi and got Sierra under control and walking by my other side.

We reached the second yard. Sierra began to snark at Bodhi again but thought the better of it, which I’m betting had more to do with my verbal correction of a moment ago combined with the jerk on her body harness as a result of her lunging and me pulling her back, than it did with any sudden attack of conscience. Either way, she managed to restrain herself while walking past the barking black Lab. Now we were just past the two houses, and Sierra and Bodhi were both paying attention to me. I had them sit, and rewarded them with hot dogs. My initial reaction was Great, let’s blow this taco stand!, but then I thought, Hmm, why not turn a stressful situation into a training opportunity? (Okay, in my head it sounded a lot less eloquent, and a lot more like Crap, we’d better practice.) So, much to the surprise of the dogs behind their fences, we proceeded to walk back past them again. They barked slightly less vehemently than the first time, and Sierra and Bodhi did great. We practiced it twice. Success! I decided not to push my hand any further. Oh, believe me, we’ll be working on it on plenty of other days. But sometimes, like this morning, sticking with what you’ve got is plenty.


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