The Inverse Correlation

January 29, 2013

I recently posted a statement on Facebook that received quite a few comments, and started a few interesting conversations when people shared it. Here it is: “There is an inverse correlation between trainer skill and intensity of corrections: the better the trainer, the fewer and less harsh the corrections. Trainers who use harsh physical corrections simply do not have enough experience or knowledge to do better.”

The vast majority of trainers who have access to the page I posted the statement on are what would be categorized as “positive” trainers; a title that could benefit from an actual definition if you ask me, but you get my drift. Most comments were in agreement, but the topic of corrections is a touchy one, and where the line gets drawn is a never-ending controversy. Most of us agree that there is never a need to use hanging, helicoptering, or any of the other inhumane, over-the-top types of corrections that persist to this day. And then there are many of us who refuse to use harsh jerks on choke chains or similar collars. Some trainers believe in LIMA, which stands for least invasive, minimally aversive. If a correction is absolutely necessary, that sounds about right to me. Still other trainers believe that even verbal corrections are unnecessary and too harsh. That’s fine, but even though we do our best to set things up so that no corrections are necessary, life happens, and in my opinion, dogs need information at both ends of the spectrum, just as children do. We need a way to let them know it’s okay if you do this, but it’s not okay to do that.

The other day when it was raining, I finished working and went to return my laptop to its case. The soft envelope case, which had been lying on the carpet, was wet. For a moment I was baffled. Had water come up under the carpeting somehow? I wondered as I patted my palms all over the case. Then I spied a more vertical object nearby that seemed to have a splatter of water on it. Oh! Bodhi had apparently decided he didn’t want to go outside to pee. Imagine my joy. Now, I hadn’t been there when it happened, so I couldn’t very well correct him; but had I seen him in action, you bet I wouldn’t have just ignored it. There would have been a sharp verbal “Eh-eh!” to let him know that I didn’t appreciate his leaving P-mail, even if it was, appropriately, on my laptop case. Administered properly, a verbal correction is not traumatic to the dog. It’s information, nothing more. Of course, even a verbal correction can be taken differently by dogs who are more or less sensitive, so care must be taken, depending on the individual.

I’ve meandered a bit off point. My original statement wasn’t aimed at verbal corrections, or even the type of corrections many trainers use when teaching leashwork. We can debate definitions of “punishment” and “corrections” all day long, and trainers often do. I’m talking here about harsh physical corrections. I stand by my statement that, barring a physical attack on a person or some similar emergency, harsh physical coercion is never necessary. Again, the more you know, and the more experience you gain, the less need there is to ever resort to violence.

Killer Puppies?

January 22, 2013

BulldogI recently received a call from a woman who has a four-month-old female Husky puppy. The pup had just attacked her other dog, a male 8-year-old toy poodle. My first thought was that perhaps the dogs had just been playing roughly, and that she’d mistaken rough play for aggression. It happens all the time. Upon further questioning, she said the dogs do play together sometimes, but this time, she’d walked into the yard to see the puppy grabbing the other dog around the neck and performing what I would describe as a grab and shake. The other dog was growling. There was, however, no physical damage.

Now, even at four-months, Husky puppies are not tiny. It’s feasible that one could kill a toy poodle. The situation should not be taken lightly, and I give the woman credit for seeking help. I still wonder whether the puppy was being especially obnoxious in her play style and the adult dog was just telling her to lay off. I hope so. The fact that there was no damage causes me to think that either this was indeed the scenario, or that the woman happened to arrive in the nick of time.

Whether I will find out more about this particular puppy remains to be seen (the woman is calling around, finances may be an issue), but it does make me think about dogs who act violently as pups. Many trainers have never come across one, but they are definitely out there. It’s incredibly troublesome when any animal acts aggressively toward another at such a young age. Normally we see more serious aggression issues in adolescence, when hormones surge and confidence builds, or in adulthood. At the very least, we don’t expect to see it in young puppies.

I’ve also come across puppies who were seriously aggressive toward people at four months of age and even younger. I once went to a client’s home to work with her three-and-a-half month old Golden Retriever puppy. Now, what could be cuter than that? I sat on the floor, called the dog over, and…the dog went for my face. I don’t mean the pushy, I-have-no-manners-yet type of lunging/nipping that puppies are famous for; I mean the I-really-want-to-hurt-you leap and snarl. To say I was surprised would be an understatement.

So what do we do with these puppies? If the owners are calling a trainer, that says they’re committed to working with their pup. Great. Can this type of behavior be turned around? Absolutely. Although there could certainly be a genetic component, with training, leadership, consistency, and patience, progress can be made. But really, should the dog stay in the home? That depends on the circumstances, such as whether small children or elderly people are involved. It’s always my hope that, assuming acceptable circumstances, the dog does stay. Being bounced around from home to home would only make things worse for this type of puppy—someone needs to take responsibility and address the issue early on. Truly aggressive behavior from young puppies is always surprising, but thankfully, the cases are few and far between. And hopefully if it does happen, the owner will seek professional help early on.

You are Not Your Actions

January 15, 2013

Nic n Phantom pen smallA trainer asked me recently about a dog’s puzzling behavior. The five-month-old herding breed would growl when being picked up or handled. That wasn’t the puzzling part—we’ve all seen that! The thing that confused her was that after she’d held the dog, with him growling, growling more intensely, and finally stopping, she’d released him…and he laid down right next to her.

I can see how that might seem confusing. After all, the dog wanted nothing more than to get away when he was in your arms, so why didn’t he go running once he regained his freedom? The answer might not have been obvious, but it is simple: the dog liked you—he just didn’t like the things you were doing to him.

I remember many years ago hearing someone (I believe it was Sue Sternberg) say that the two situations in which a dog normally becomes aggressive are when you try to make him do something he doesn’t want to do, and when you try to stop him from doing something he does want to do. I have always found that to be true. Think about it: your dog doesn’t want to get into the car, so you try to load him in, and he growls. Or, your dog really wants to get to a piece of food lying on the floor. You stop him, and he turns and snaps at you.

During the years that I worked with wolves and wolfdogs at a sanctuary, I handled many of the residents. I was never bitten while trying to force one of them to do something they didn’t want to do, mainly because I never tried. Sure, we had to get wolves into crates to go to the vet’s office or to move to another enclosure, but it was done carefully and with planning, and happily, without bodily harm to anyone. I spent a lot of time sitting in the dirt, waiting for the fearful ones to feel comfortable enough to approach, and eventually, petting and stroking them calmly to the extent that they would accept it. Forcing them to be handled would have been counterintuitive and counterproductive.

It’s a different situation with dogs, since some handling will surely be necessary throughout their lives. There will be inevitably be times we have to do things they might not like. Gradual desensitization beforehand can help to prevent the type of scenario described with the herding pup. But there’s something more: just as we differentiate between not liking a person and not liking something they’ve done, dogs seem to do the same. Sure, an unfamiliar dog might not ever trust you if your introduction is at a grooming salon where he’s terrified as you clip his nails. In the trainer’s case, she’d probably established enough of a relationship with the dog before picking him up that he rebounded nicely. With our own dogs, these wonderful, loving creatures seem to make the same kind of differentiation we do; they might not love everything we do, but they love us and continue to want to be our loyal companions. And for that, we should be profoundly grateful.

Oh No’s and Photos

January 8, 2013

I’ve been down these last few weeks with whatever it seems everybody else has right now. As a friend who had it recently said, “You feel like a steaming pile of dog poo.” That about sums it up. And so, being sick for the past few weeks has prevented me from being able to take the dogs out in the mornings—you know it’s been bad if I’m skipping their walks! Thankfully, my husband has been filling in.

My husband came back from the first walk remarking, “Wow, I can see all the work you’ve done with Bodhi! When we passed other dogs, he put himself by my side and looked at me. No more lunging or barking!” That was great to hear. But then he went on to relay that each time they passed another dog, Sierra snapped and snarked at Bodhi. Noooo! That’s how we started out way back when. Actually, it was worse than that, because back then she’d actually attack him, he’d retaliate, and I’d be left trying to separate the two of them while simultaneously untangling leashes and keeping my fingers intact. Nowadays Bodhi doesn’t retaliate, and just tries to stay out of Sierra’s way. While that’s an improvement, Sierra’s behavior is still dismaying. Of course, it doesn’t help that my husband refuses to take treats and do some training (yes, I know—what kind of trainer am I that I can’t train my husband?!), so apparently I’m going to need to do more work with Sierra before things really carry over.

On a happier note, I finally got a “real” camera – a digital SLR. I look forward to learning, because right now my level of technical expertise is…well, as I told a friend recently, I don’t know an f stop from a bus stop. But I’m going to learn. In the meantime, there are always the auto modes and hopefully a bit of an intuitive feel for what makes a good shot. It’s been interesting to capture action shots and see the lightning-fast body language and facial expressions that are easy to miss with the naked eye. And as for portraits, they’re made easier by the fact that my subjects aren’t exactly hard on the eyes. I look forward to experimenting with action shots, portraits, and more once I can get out and about to some scenic places.

In the meantime, here are a few shots taken around here.

Canon Bodhi snarl at Sierra play crop smallCanon jawspar Sierra gapes crop small
Canon Sierra ramp portrait smaller eyesCanon closeup ramp sly small

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