The Terrible Weight of Responsibility

May 9, 2019

Sad, abandoned dog in the middle of the road /high contrast imagThe voice on the other end of the phone was difficult to understand, because the woman was struggling to speak through her tears. This was technically a training call, but it was really a desperate cry for help. The caller did not live in my training area. Still, I felt so sorry for her that we spoke for quite a while. Her 3-year-old dog, a Golden Retriever, had bitten three people. Two were young teenagers. Each child needed more than 10 stitches. In one case, the dog had bolted through the front door when it had been left open; in the other, the child had gone to pet the dog. The woman has two children herself, a 20-year-old and a 9-year-old. Although she was lucky as far as the parents of the injured kids not suing, this was a grim situation and she knew it.

I know some of you are thinking, Why was a bite allowed to happen more than once? I’m guessing it had to do with less than perfect management, a hope that the first bite was an isolated incident, and the family’s love for the dog despite what had happened. The 20-year-old sleeps with the dog every night, is extremely closely bonded with him, and has told her mom that she doesn’t know how she’ll go on if the dog is euthanized.

The dog had a rough start in life: parvo as a pup, along with seizures. The family paid quite a bit to nurse him through it all. Did the illnesses leave lasting neurological damage? No one knows. We do know the dog has inflicted multiple bite wounds and caused serious injury. I did suggest getting the dog a complete veterinary workup, on the off chance that there was a physiological reason for the behavior. While I would never tell someone sight unseen to euthanize their dog, I asked how the woman would feel if, knowing what she does, the dog mauled or even killed a child. How would she live with herself? We both knew there was no way the dog could be rehomed. The family could work with a trainer, but regardless, this is a dangerous dog who would always need to be managed carefully. The other option, full-time management, would entail muzzles, crates, and constant worry and oversight. Besides the stress it would create for the dog and the family, management is seldom 100% reliable, especially when there are kids involved. At this point, the young son has no friends because no one can come to the house. This is a dog who could live another 10 years. Should the child be forced to grow up that way?

I’ve trained a lot of dogs over the last 25 years. The Golden Retrievers I’ve worked with who were aggressive tended to be intensely so. Perhaps it’s because the normal Golden temperament seems to be the sky is blue, the birds are singing…  In my experience, when dogs of this breed go wrong, they go really wrong. In this particular case, options were very limited because of the extent of the dog’s aggression, along with the family having a young child in the home. I believe the woman will end up euthanizing the dog. By the end of our conversation she had stopped crying, and said she felt better for having talked it over. My heart goes out to her and her family. It’s a terrible situation. Unfortunately, sometimes we must bear the terrible weight of responsibility in order to do the right thing for everyone involved.
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Yes, I Worry

April 25, 2019

rattlesnake in holeRecently, Sierra and I were walking along a dirt trail at our local park. We’ve had an incredibly rainy winter and this particular path has become very narrow and overgrown with tall weeds and grasses. Before the warm weather hit, I used to let my dogs run free in the area, since it’s largely uninhabited. They’ve got a great recall and love to run, so why not? But now I worry about rattlesnakes. We have lots of them around here and I’m quite sure they’re already out and about, as evidenced by the one who was lounging on my porch just a few days ago. Besides, there are signs posted all over the park to warn walkers about the venomous snakes. So, for now, my dogs are on leash whenever we’re in the danger zone.

As we passed through the possibly snake-infested area, we ran into a man I often see in the mornings. His dog was off leash and romping happily through the tall weeds. After exchanging greetings I asked, “Don’t you worry about your dog running into a rattlesnake?” His reply? “Nope. It’s never happened.” Then, for good measure he added, “You seem like you worry about everything.” Really? Hmm. Besides that being an odd comment from someone I’ve spoken to maybe once or twice, a rattlesnake bite can easily kill a dog. I know of a few dogs in the area who have died from them. Put that together with the fact that rattlesnakes are known to inhabit that particular area. Why would anyone not worry?

There are plenty of things that could pose a danger to dogs that I refrain from saying anything about, because few people appreciate unsolicited advice when it comes to their kids or dogs. But if I see something that’s potentially deadly, like it or not, I am going to say something. I’ll say it nicely and non-judgmentally, but yes, I will say it, because it just might save your dog’s life. As my husband put it so succinctly, “Only the ignorant don’t worry.” Worrying means we’re considering the possibilities and weighing potential threats, which allows us to be prepared. So, to the man who commented that I seem as though I “worry about everything,” when it comes to things that can hurt or even kill my dog, yes, I do worry. And that’s a good thing.
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Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above to be notified of new postings. Sign up for my free Training Tips Tuesdays by going to www.nicolewilde.com (click on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List). My books, seminar DVDs, and blog are at www.nicolewilde.com and you can find me on Facebook and Twitter. TRAINERS can now get personalized, one on one coaching and consulting at www.dogtrainersfriend.com.


Truly Dangerous Dogs

April 11, 2019

cartoon bulldog aggressive pixabayYears ago, I had a client who was afraid of her own dog. Technically, the dog belonged to her husband, and whenever he was away at work, the dog stayed out in the yard because of her apprehensions. I was there to assess the dog. Now, having handled aggression cases for many years, I knew that sometimes anything from jumping up on people to grabbing things out of someone’s hands is termed “aggression.” Startling or even frightening as those things can be, they are in reality issues of dogs needing training. Then there are other dogs who truly do have aggressive tendencies, and those range on a spectrum from mild to severe. I went in with an open mind. What I found there shocked me. The dog was locked out of the house by a sliding glass door. When he spied the woman and me, the 100-plus pound mixed breed started throwing himself against the glass while frothing at the mouth. He had a wild-eyed, glazed look that said if he could get in, he would cause severe harm to both of us. The woman told me that this is the way he would behave whenever he spotted her. Even after having worked with hundreds of dogs who were seriously aggressive toward people, this was above and beyond. Of course, we discussed getting the dog a full veterinary exam including a complete blood workup, and a whole lot more, but my point is that this was a truly dangerous dog. (In case you’re wondering, we never did let him inside, and it came down to a serious talk about lifelong management if they were to keep the dog.)

Another unusual case comes to mind. A woman in her seventies had adopted a dog from a German shepherd rescue. The woman had medical issues that made her weak and unsteady on her feet. The dog was young, large, and very strong, and should never have been adopted into this home. Since the time the dog had been adopted, he had displayed disturbing behaviors that included growling and snapping at the woman as well as at her male caregiver. The dog had not threatened me in any way during our session until, standing in front of me, apropos of nothing, he placed his teeth around my wrist, and very calmly and deliberately began to bite down with gradually increasing pressure while staring hard at me. To be honest, it was chilling. I managed to snap him out of it with a perky rendition of his name followed by “sit” (I knew he knew the behavior and might automatically respond to it), which, fortunately for me, worked. Still, this was one of the few dogs in my long career that simply made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Speaking of that piloerection response, it’s there for a reason. Though we’re living in modern times, that ancient, instinctive warning system still works just fine. Its function is to keep us out of danger. It might appear as though a dog isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, and yet something feels very wrong. When that happens, I listen. Years ago I was helping a trainer friend who had been tasked with doing temperament testing on shelter dogs. As we walked through the kennels deciding which dogs to test, we passed a pen housing a rottweiler. Now, I happen to like rotties, and certainly have no prejudice against them. But this one? He wasn’t hard staring, or growling, or showing a single sign of anything that would make anyone worry. And it wasn’t that he had the usual rottie expressionless look, either. There was just something–a feeling, a vibe—that made me extremely wary of him, and I told my friend there was no way we should take him out at that time. We finished walking down the row of pens and on our way back we passed the rottie once again. With absolutely no provocation from us, as we approached, he flung himself against the bars in a way that cleary suggested a serious intent to cause harm. As with the dog who was out in the yard, this was beyond the usual barrier frustration that can happen when a dog is behind a fence or other obstruction.

There are plenty of dogs who are, to varying degrees, aggressive toward people. I have certainly helped my share of people-aggressive dogs, including some who had multiply puncture-wounded multiple people. In other words, dogs who displayed severe aggression. In the vast majority of the cases, given good owner compliance, we were able to modify the behaviors. But dogs are living beings and, just like human psychopaths, there are some who are irredeemable. The truly  dangerous ones are few and far between, and yet, they exist. That is one reason it irks me to no end when a trainer boasts that he can “fix any dog” or “resolve any behavior issue.” It doesn’t do any good to tell an owner that if they were only a stronger pack leader or had been tougher on the dog, this wouldn’t be happening. Although owners can certainly contribute to or even cause behavior problems, in some cases it simply has nothing to do with them. Of course everything should be done to help a dog with aggression issues, including calling in a qualified professional trainer who can assess the behavior and explain the options. But again, it does a disservice to owners to blame them, and it also helps no one to make sweeping generalizations about aggressive behavior because unfortunately, there really are truly dangerous dogs out there.
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Subscribe above to be notified of new postings! Sign up for free Training Tips Tuesdays by going to www.nicolewilde.com and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List. Books, seminar DVDs, and blog can be found at www.nicolewilde.com and Nicole on Facebook and Twitter. If you are local to Santa Clarita, check out Gentle Guidance Dog Training.


Should You Expect Total Compliance from Your Dog at All Times?

March 28, 2019

k12(1).jpgIn a recent conversation with another dog owner, I heard this phrase: “She’s being a little s#*%!” When I asked what the woman meant, she replied that Ginger, her very mini, long-haired mix, wasn’t at all compliant when she tried to groom her around the head area. Ginger, she related with indignity, thrashed and threatened to bite! Although the woman had been a vet tech and certainly knows how to restrain dogs, the task was almost impossible. Then she mentioned the buzzing noise, and I realized she’d been using clipping shears, which make a noise that can be frightening to some dogs. In the end, she had decided to leave Ginger’s head area alone. Still, she was clearly distraught over the episode.

Part of the reason the woman was so upset is that she follows the philosophy that if a dog doesn’t allow us to do something, or disobeys a request, that he is being dominant. She believes we should be able to do anything we want to our dogs and they should, without question, let us. This is a point that’s worth considering. Does this all or nothing philosophy really serve us or our dogs?

Dogs are living beings who have fears, likes, and dislikes, just like we do. Should another person be able to do anything they like to you, in whatever way that they like, whether it scares the hell out of you or not? I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be able to handle our dogs. Of course we should. I came in from a walk just this morning with two wet, muddy dogs. Had I not been able to handle their paws and towel them off, I would have had an even messier house than usual. Certain things are non-negotiable but, even in those cases, if a dog reacts fearfully, the kinder, more productive thing to do is to use desensitization techniques to get him accustomed to the “scary thing” gradually. Besides, what if your dog isn’t complying because he’s feeling unwell, or because what you’re doing hurts? If you didn’t stop to consider that and simply pushed through, you’d never know.

I remember watching a popular television show years ago. This particular episode featured a maltipoo with very shaggy bangs that were obscuring her vision. The man had the dog up on a table and was brandishing a pair of long, pointed scissors with one hand while attempting to hold the dog still by squeezing his other hand around her throat. The dog was thrashing her head from side to side as the man darted in with the scissors here and there, attempting to make little snips. The owner looked on, clearly horrified. I too was horrified, watching with my hands half covering my eyes, afraid that the poor dog was about to be blinded. After a few snips, the man handed the scissors to the owner and then restrained the dog with both hands around the throat as the woman made a half-hearted attempt to trim the bangs. So, what did this all accomplish? The dog was scared out of her mind. And what do you think will happen the next time the owner tries this on her own?

Forcing a dog accomplishes nothing. Sure, in an emergency situation we should do whatever it takes to keep our dogs safe. But should you, without question, be able to do anything to your dog? For me, the answer is that you should be able to do the things that are necessary for your dog’s well-being, and the things that are important in your everyday life together. But, if your dog becomes frightened or reactive when you do those things, rather than becoming indignant or angry, the kinder and more productive route is to take the time and make the effort to help your dog learn that there’s nothing to be afraid of; in the long run, it will make things easier for both of you.
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Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above to be notified of new postings. You can sign up for my free Training Tips Tuesdays by going to www.nicolewilde.com and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List! You can find my books, seminar DVDs, and blog at www.nicolewilde.com and me on Facebook and Twitter. TRAINERS can now get personalized, one on one coaching and consulting from me at www.dogtrainersfriend.com.

 

 


Walk This Way

March 21, 2019

Girl walking her Beagle DogI remember a conversation I had a while back with a friend whose dog Charley, a 3-year-old Lab, is a big lug of a sweetheart. On walks, she proudly told me, Charley walks right next to her. Whether they’re on the street, at the park, or in the woods, it doesn’t matter; Charley is always right by her side. That paints a lovely picture of companionship, and from a training standpoint, it’s impressive. Clearly, she’d put in the work to teach Charley what she wanted and had worked with him so that regardless of who passed by or what happened around them, he stayed at her side. But is that level of strict obedience necessary on a constant basis when walking our dogs?

Let me contrast that with something that happened not long ago during one of our morning walks at the park. I had Bodhi with me. As we passed a man I knew, Bodhi was out at the end of the leash ahead of me. The man said good morning and then chuckled, “Who’s walking who?” Now, this is a nice man who was just trying to be funny, and no, Bodhi wasn’t actually dragging me at all. But, again, it begs the question: does your dog really need to walk next to you all the time?

It’s a strange thing, if you think about it. We train dogs to sit and to lie down on cue. Those are things do naturally anyway, so it’s not a big stretch. But nowhere in dogdom do dogs purposely walk shoulder to shoulder like some four-footed militia. Remember West Side Story? I can’t help but imagine a gang of leather jacketed dogs striding ahead shoulder to shoulder singing, “When you’re a pet…” But I digress. Learning to walk by a person’s side must seem strange to dogs. Besides, the tradition began with hunting dogs and police dogs, because it was necessary for the dog to be on the left so the gun could be held in the right hand. Seems to me if you’re walking down the street nowadays with a gun in your hand, you’ve got bigger problems than which side your dog is on.

Although I don’t require my dogs to constantly walk next to me, they do it when asked, because that’s what I trained them to do. If they’re happily sniffing and exploring at the ends of their leashes and I say, “With me,” they know to immediately place themselves by my sides, Sierra on the left and Bodhi on the right, because that’s easier for me. Alternately, sometimes I ask them both to walk on the same side because we’re about to pass another dog or some other distraction. Flexibility is key. I love that my dogs can wander a bit and immerse themselves in the fascinating scents that surround them, sniffing plants and grasses and places where other dogs have been. I think how I would feel if you took me down a street of shops that had the coolest clothing, and then told me I had to walk down the sidewalk and not explore a single store. What fun would that be? The bottom line is, it’s up to you where you want your dogs to walk. But one thing is always true: the better trained your dogs are, the more freedom they can have. And that will make your walks, as well as the rest of your life with your dogs, a lot more pleasant for both of you.
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Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above to be notified of new postings. And, now you can sign up for my free Training Tips Tuesdays by going to www.nicolewilde.com and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List! You can find my books (including Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home, Help for Your Fearful Dog, and Don’t Leave Me!), seminar DVDs, and blog at www.nicolewilde.com. And, you can find me on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 


Trainers Say the Darndest Things

March 14, 2019

dog see no evil cropI went to see a new training client last week whose dog has separation anxiety. She lives in a two-story house, and whenever she goes upstairs even for a moment without the dog, he panics and barks non-stop. When she leaves the house, he howls and howls. In the course of our session, she mentioned that she had spoken with another trainer before she’d called me, and had described to him what her dog was doing. His response? “He’s being a Beyonce.” Huh? This baffled me. What does that mean, I asked? That he howls beautifully on key? No. The trainer had explained that the dog was being “a diva.” Really? I took a deep breath, bit my tongue, and rather than disparage another trainer, explained the difference between “being a diva” and experiencing serious anxiety.

A friend recently told me a story about a trainer she once had, who told her that her dog was being manipulative. What was the dog doing? Squatting to pee frequently. This, according to the trainer, was the dog’s attempt to extend walks and to get attention. Beyond the fact that this makes no sense logically, it turned out that these were the first signs that the poor dog had bladder cancer. A recommendation to see a veterinarian would have been a lot more helpful than the half-baked attention theory.

I could go on and on. And it’s not just me. Ask any professional who’s been training for years and they’ll tell you about the strange things their clients have heard from other trainers. This is no slam on trainers in general. I love trainers. Many of my friends are trainers. Hell, I write books for trainers and have mentored many along their paths. I believe trainers should support each other, not tear each other down. However. Along with the ones who mistreat dogs, the ones I take exception to are the working trainers who have no real training themselves or any real understanding of dog behavior. It might surprise you to know that in most U.S. states, no license is required to open a dog training business. There is no obligation to demonstrate proficiency. Nothing. You could hang out a shingle and start seeing clients tomorrow. (Please don’t.) And just as in any business with zero regulation, practitioners range from very experienced, ethical professionals all the way down to those who don’t even know how little they know. Even if an inexperienced trainer means well, they can endanger dogs if they’re taking on serious issues like separation anxiety or aggression.

There is actually a certifying organization called the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). Becoming certified is voluntary, but is not effortless. It requires having hundreds of hours of training under one’s belt, taking a written exam (as well as a physical hands-on test at higher levels), and providing peer and professional testimonials. The test is not easy; I know, because I took it many years ago. Does having this certification guarantee that a trainer is perfect? Of course not. But it does prove the person has a certain amount of experience and a solid knowledge of modern, positive training methods. There are also organizations whose websites feature a trainer search where you can enter your zip code to locate a trainer in your area. A few that come to mind are the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), and the Pet Professional Guild (PPG). (The CCPDT site has this feature as well.) While members are not individually grilled on their experience or training philosophy, these organizations do promote positive, gentle training.

Wherever you find a potential trainer, ask a lot of questions beyond just pricing and availability. I cannot tell you how few people who call for training actually ask about training techniques. If someone were coming to train my dog, I’d sure want to know their training philosophy and whether they use tools I’m comfortable with. Some of this information may be on the person’s website, but if not, don’t be shy to ask. If a trainer is working with you in person and you’re not comfortable with something he does, say something. Just because someone is a “professional” does not mean they know your dog better than you do. If your dog appears scared or uncomfortable, or is becoming reactive with the trainer, that person is doing something wrong. Positive, gentle training does not push a dog past his comfort zone, and you should be comfortable as well.

Years ago one of my training clients told me about a group class she attended where the trainer taught the dogs the meaning of “no” by whacking them over the nose with a piece of rubber hose while shouting, “No!” The woman was appalled. She told the trainer in front of the entire class that she would never do that to her dog. She then took her dog and left. That woman is a hero. Standing up to a professional of any kind can be uncomfortable, and peer pressure makes it even harder. But whatever the scenario, if a trainer advises something that clearly doesn’t seem right, or does something with your dog that doesn’t sit right with you or your dog, just say, “Sorry, I’m not comfortable with you working with my dog.” Because hey, trainers aren’t the only ones who can say the darndest things.
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Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above to be notified of new posts. And, now you can sign up for my free Training Tips Tuesdays by going to www.nicolewilde.com and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List! You can find my books (including Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home, Help for Your Fearful Dog, and Don’t Leave Me!), seminar DVDs, and blog at www.nicolewilde.com. And, you can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.

 


“It Hasn’t Happened Yet”

March 7, 2019

grapes pixabay smallAt a recent training appointment, my client and I were discussing her dog’s issues when I noticed a dish of hard candies sitting on the coffee table. “Is that dish always left there?” I asked. She said yes. I asked whether she was concerned that her dog might eat the candy. She looked surprised. “It hasn’t happened yet,” she responded. Then I noticed a dish of grapes sitting on another low table across the room. “What about the grapes? Are they always there?” When she once again answered in the affirmative, I mentioned that grapes can actually cause kidney failure and death in dogs. Also, that it might not go well for the dog if he got hold of the hard candy. Why take chances?

A man I see regularly at the local dog park seems to have a similar laissez faire attitude. His large, unneutered, six-year-old male dog had been pestering an adolescent male at the park week after week. The younger dog would run and sit between his owner’s legs facing out, and when the older dog came by to harass him, the youngster would show teeth, lunge, and snap. I mentioned to the owner of the older dog that sooner or later the dogs were going to get into a fight. His response? A shrug and an unconcerned, “It hasn’t happened yet.”

I’m sorry, but I will never understand this philosophy. When the woman with the too-tempting dish of grapes said, “It hasn’t happened yet,” my response was to bring up her very young granddaughter, who visited often. “So,” I said, “if you keep a loaded gun on the coffee table whenever she comes by, and a few visits pass and she hasn’t shown any interest in it, should you leave it there? I mean, nothing has happened yet, right?” She quickly got the point, and the grapes and candies vanished. To her credit, when I’d initially mentioned the dangers to her dog, she’d responded, “That was pretty stupid of me, huh?” (Actually, this is a kind, intelligent woman. The dog was adopted not that long ago, and for whatever reason, she hadn’t reevaluated the environment.)

Look, none of us are perfect. We’re all guilty of being lax in our management or good habits now and then. But when it comes to our dogs’ well-being, we have to consider the worst case scenario. No doubt some of my training clients think I’m the Harbinger of Doom. Especially when it comes to owners of young puppies, I seem to be constantly warning them about this or that terrible fate that could befall their young furball. And that’s okay. I’d rather be overly cautious than have a tragedy on our hands. Risk-taking is fine if we’re the ones who will be affected by it. If we want to go bungee jumping, or ski an insanely high slope, that’s our choice. If things go wrong, we’re the ones who will suffer. But it’s simply not okay for our dogs to pay the price because we’re willing to play fast and loose with their safety. So, will I ever stop warning people about the harm that can come to their dogs if serious risks are taken? I think you know the answer. “It hasn’t happened yet.”
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Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above and be notified of new posts. You can also sign up for my free Training Tips Tuesdays by going to www.nicolewilde.com and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List. You can find my books (including Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home, Help for Your Fearful Dog, and Don’t Leave Me!), seminar DVDs, and blog at www.nicolewilde.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.

 


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