For Dogs, Learning is 24/7

February 25, 2014

treats please small cropHow much time do you spend each day training your dog? If you answered “30 minutes,” “An hour,” or even “Three 10-minute sessions,” you’re wrong. Oh, I believe that you’re working on specific skills during those periods—but the truth is that you’re training your dog 24 hours a day, every day.

Dogs are masters of prognostication. They might not be able to tell you the winning lottery numbers, but they sure know that when you grab that long thing with the metal clip on the end, a door will open and a walk will follow. If my dogs could speak, they’d tell you—once they got done ordering out for pizza and beer—that the television remote being clicked on means that Mom is going to be on the couch watching that strange box with the moving pictures, so we might as well go lie on our dog beds for a while. They also know that when Mom leaves with those letters and boxes in the morning she usually returns quickly, and that if Mom and Dad leave the house after 6:00 at night, there’s a good chance they won’t be home until after dark. Dogs are such excellent observers that they can even predict with great accuracy how long we’ll be away based on the type of footwear or clothing we’re wearing.

Learning also happens organically, for the simple reason that dogs learn to repeat actions that are rewarded. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat across a kitchen table from a dog owner as they’ve told me how they don’t want their dog up on their lap when they’re sitting at the table; as they’re tell me this, the dog has his paws on the lap, and they’re stroking the dog’s fur.

My own dogs, Sierra and Bodhi, have learned a fun and interesting thing. It began back when we only had Sierra. At some point she had lowered the front part of her body in a sort of bowing stretch as she was greeting me; I petted her while she was in that position, scritch-scratching from her head all the way down to her tail. She loved it, and began to repeat the behavior. Since I continued to reward it, it became her default way of greeting me in the mornings. When we got Bodhi, he learned the behavior from observing her. Of course, it was soon reinforced by being petted. Now when I wake up in the morning, I’m greeted by two bowing dogs. Ah, finally! Concrete proof that I’m the pack leader!

Just remember, even when you don’t think you’re training, your dogs are learning. What have your dogs learned without formal training?
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Check out Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com and her photography at http://www.nicolewildephotography.com.


At the Shelter: Can We Put People in the Mood to Adopt?

February 18, 2014

Elderly Lady with PetI’m one of those people whose mind always seems to translate things into how they relate to dogs. The other morning was no exception. I came across an article stating that researchers have discovered what they call the “temperature-premium” effect. According to the study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, a series of five field and lab studies were used to measure and manipulate physical warmth in conjunction with shoppers’ assessments of perceived value of products. The findings suggest that “exposure to physical warmth activates the concept of emotional warmth.” This study follows others that found a relationship between positive feelings and reduced distance from the subject, and suggests that increased temperatures also reduce people’s perceived distance from the subject.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we “trick” anyone into feeling like they should adopt a dog; the last thing anyone wants is adopter’s remorse and a return. But there’s nothing wrong with making people feel as comfortable and receptive as possible when meeting their potential new best friend. In regard to the temperature premium effect, the meet and greet rooms in shelters and rescues comes to mind. In the study, the target temperature was a few degrees above 72. That’s not a temperature that would be uncomfortable to most dogs, and it might relax people. If you run an adoption facility, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to conduct an unofficial “study” to see whether it helps? I wonder too whether we could extrapolate from the study that a higher temperature in the kennel buildings would make people feel closer to the subjects in distance, which might in turn reduce emotional distance.

We also know that music can help dogs to relax in shelter type environments, thanks to studies that have been done with classical music as well as music that is psychoacoustically designed to help dogs relax, such as the Through a Dog’s Ear series. And, we know that certain types of music are more likely to make humans relax. As a general rule, classical music is more relaxing than, say, heavy metal music—unless, of course, you’re a sixteen-year-old boy. So why not pump relaxing music into the kennels? It could relax the dogs, in turn making them more adoptable, and calm the people, putting them more at ease and hopefully in a more receptive state.

There are also other senses that can be engaged to help dogs and people to relax. Smell is a dog’s primary sense. DAP—Dog Appeasing Pheromone—is a product that mimics the pheromones emitted by a lactating female dog. Turns out they’re comforting not only to puppies, but to adults as well. (There is some debate about whether this product is effective; to me, it falls into the can’t-hurt-might-help category, and I have heard plenty of anecdotal evidence where it did work.) Using DAP in kennels could well help dogs to relax. But what about humans who don’t have the vomero-nasal organ dogs have to detect those pheromones? Well, there’s aromatherapy. What about some nice, relaxing lavender?

You get the idea. We all want to stay in environments that we enjoy longer than ones in which we’re uncomfortable. (Case in point: I have walked out of more mall stores that were playing obnoxious music than I can count.) If we’re physically comfortable and feeling pleasantly relaxed, we’re a lot more likely to be in a receptive state mentally and emotionally. Again, we’re certainly aren’t aiming to “trick” anyone into adoptions. But isn’t it worth our while to do everything we can to help people be more open to considering the dogs?
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Check out Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com and her photography at http://www.nicolewildephotography.com.


“My Dog Bit Someone–Out of Nowhere!”

February 11, 2014

aggressive dog HP blogThose are the words I heard when I picked up the telephone this morning. The caller was understandably distraught. Her 16-month-old German shepherd had bitten a visitor, a man who had not been to the home before. Fortunately, he was not seriously injured and did not press charges. But he was shaken up, as were the owners. The dog had previously shown some signs of being uncomfortable around people, but the bite was a wake-up call. Something had to be done.

The thing is, the shepherd didn’t actually bite “out of nowhere”—dogs seldom do. There are almost always warning signs. A typical scenario goes like this: a puppy is fearful of people. During group class, he hides behind his owner, and at home, he shrinks when people go to pet him. With the onset of adolescence comes a bit of confidence. Now when people go to pet the dog, he barks, growls, and makes it as clear as possible that he’d like to be left alone, thank you very much. Those who don’t heed the warning may receive an air snap, a promise of things to come.

Late adolescence into adulthood is when many dogs begin to show what many people term “aggression.” At the rescue center I used to co-run, it seemed that an inordinate number of dogs were given up right around a year-and-a-half of age. The age of dogs given to the city shelters I’ve worked and volunteered at coincide. It’s true that just as human teenagers develop selective hearing and push their boundaries, so do dogs, and some are surrendered due to a wildness having nothing to do with aggression. But this is also a very common age for dogs to begin to take the offense, to act in a way that will make the big scary thing go away. The dog may lunge and snap while on leash, or unleash a volley of severe barks at the entrance of a stranger. Now when the person advances, the dog not only does not retreat, he advances and bites in order to make the person retreat.

In most cases, even the severe ones that make the evening news, by the time a bite happens there have been plenty of warnings. Familiarizing oneself with signals such as lip licking, yawning, avoidance of eye contact, and other subtle stress indicators can not only alert us that a dog is uncomfortable, but can prompt us to remove him from a potentially volatile situation and to seek professional help. Unfortunately, in some families—particularly those with smaller dogs—a certain level of aggression is tolerated. The call to a trainer only happens once the dog has bitten someone outside of the family.

The earlier reactivity is recognized for what it is and treated, the less often it will appear that a bite came from “out of nowhere.”
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Visit http://www.nicolewilde.com for Nicole’s 2014 seminar schedule, Hit by a Flying Wolf: True Tales of Rescue, Rehabilitation and Real Life with Dogs and Wolves, and other books and seminar DVDs.