Dog Training by Osmosis

December 27, 2016

Lazing on couch

Dog Training by Osmosis

This morning, as I was making my breakfast smoothie, Bodhi and Sierra were hyper-attentive as usual. Why, you might wonder, were they so focused? Are they invested in making sure I get enough fruits and veggies? No. They’re making sure they get their fruits and veggies, or at least the slices of banana and cucumber that they know I’ll share with them. Since those two items go into the smoothie at different times, the dogs are pretty much sitting there for the duration. At some point, though, I’ll turn to them and say, “That’s it for dogs!” They then give sad little doggie sighs and pad away to lie down and wait for the next exciting event of the day.

The phrase, “That’s it for dogs!” isn’t something I ever taught my dogs. But they’re both smart, and have learned through hearing the phrase many times that it’s always followed by a big fat nothing. It’s not a phrase that had to be formally trained. One definition of osmosis is “the subtle or gradual absorption or mingling.” And so I think of this type of non-formal, lifestyle training as Training by Osmosis.

Here’s another example: In the early mornings, my husband and I take the dogs out for exercise. We do this separately, since my husband takes one dog to a local park where they can run together and I, the non-runner, take the other dog to a different park where we can hike. We switch off dogs, and it works out nicely for everyone. We live in a rural area on a small hillside away from the road, and sometimes we let the dogs run to the cars before having their leashes put on. Both dogs will typically run to the closer car. But if it’s my day with Sierra and I say, “Sierra, the other one,” she’ll immediately turn and race toward the other car. Did I ever teach her what other means? No. It’s something she picked up, probably from a combination of watching my body language and where I was looking, and repeatedly seeing me walk toward the other car after uttering that phrase.

Formal training in obedience commands is a great thing to teach. But dogs are learning all the time, for better or worse. (You put away the dog cookies on that low shelf with the broken door? Lesson learned in record time!) Right now, as I stand at the computer typing, Sierra is sitting and staring at me. It’s almost time for the dogs to be fed. I’ve just told her, “It’s early,” and so she’s walked out of the room. This is another phrase she and Bodhi have learned through osmosis—as the definition goes, subtle, gradual absorption. It’s fascinating to think about how much more dogs understand than what we give them credit for. They’re masters of observation and excellent learners, particularly when there’s something in it for them. What have your dogs learned by osmosis?

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Can You Reinforce a Dog’s Emotional State?

November 18, 2016

woman with dog

I recently received an email asking whether I had any books that addressed how to help a dog who was grieving. Since I don’t, I searched online to find an article that might be of help. What I found surprised me. Although there was solid advice, one of the recommendations in almost every article was to be careful so as not to inadvertently “reward the behavior” by giving the dog attention. Really? Hmm.Let’s see. As it happens, my best girlfriend’s mother just passed away. I will be spending the day with her today. I expect she will be sad, and that we will discuss things, and that I will comfort her, because that is what friends do. Now, of course dogs are not people and we can’t comfort them with words, but the emotions of loss and grief are the same, to whatever extent and however they are experienced by animals and people. Why in the world would we not comfort a grieving dog?

Although rewarding a dog with attention can reinforce a behavior, it does not reinforce an emotion. This reminds me of the persistent myth about reinforcing fear. Time after time I have read articles and books that warn that when a dog is afraid, the best thing to do is ignore him so as not to “reinforce the fear.” Although presenting a nervous demeanor yourself while giving your dog attention could cause him to be more nervous, sitting calmly with him and stroking him is certainly not going to cause him to become fearful more often. What it might well do is actually comfort him.

It is wonderful that we have so much advice readily available at our fingertips. But even when an “expert” advises you to do something you feel in your gut is simply not right when it comes to the emotional life of your dog, heed that instinct. You know your dog best, and rewarding with attention does not make you a reinforcer of emotion. It makes you a kind, compassionate person.

If Looks Could Kill

November 7, 2016

bully stick 3 smallerIn my canine body language seminars, I explain that a hard stare is never a good thing, whether in dogs or on a New York subway. (Trust me, I grew up in New York—It never leads to anything good.)  The problem is the emotion linked to it. A hard stare is instantly understood by dogs on the receiving end as a warning. A threat. It’s the movie trailer for the feature “If Looks Could Kill.” Depending on how the other dog responds, a stare may be met with submission, or it could trigger aggression.

Ironically, although hard stares are easily interpreted by most dogs, they are often misunderstood or missed completely by people. I was walking Sierra on leash along a park trail one day when I spied a woman walking a bull mastiff. I’d seen the dog before, and knew he could be reactive with other dogs. The trail was narrow and, to her credit, the woman moved the mastiff off the trail and had him sit so we could pass. I thanked her. But as we passed, Sierra turned her head, looked at the dog, and glared. That was it! The mastiff dragged the woman toward us, intent on dismantling Sierra piece by piece. I got between them, the woman got control of her dog, and no one was hurt. She walked off without a word, but I would bet she thought her dog was at fault. After all, Sierra and I were just passing by when her dog lunged at my poor dog, right? Wrong. Sierra’s hard stare started it all.

Many times when two dogs are fighting in the home, the owner believes one dog is causing the fights, when it’s really the other dog who is delivering the hard stares that start the episodes. You really can’t blame owners; unlike a wagging tail or a growl, a hard eye is not something we’re taught to look for. In the best case scenarios, a trainer is called who explains that it’s actually the other dog who is causing the issues, and teaches the client to be observant for this bit of body language. Hard stares are missed constantly at dog parks as well. Sadly, I’ve seen many instances where the dog who reacts to the hard stare is the one who gets punished.

Still, a hard stare is not necessarily a bad thing. Just like a growl, it serves as a warning. If heeded, it can stop an aggressive incident before it begins. For example, one dog has a bowl of food. Another dog walks over. The first dog gives a hard stare. The second dog, fully aware of what that means in the Language of Dog, backs off. Aggressive incident averted. Although hard stares are often accompanied by other telling body language such as a stiff, still body and possibly a growl, they are often missed. Hard stares are one of those subtle, sometimes fleeting pieces of canine body language that every owner should know.
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We Are Our Choices

October 18, 2016

iStock Lab with woman.On the road today, I noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It said, “Trump. Clinton. We are our choices.” This struck me, not only because it wasn’t the typical declaration for one candidate or the other, but because of the meaning. Whichever candidate we support, we generally support their policies and what they stand for. But beyond that, our choice of candidate says something about us as well. We identify more with that person’s personality and characteristics—they are more like us. Okay, not in every way, and don’t worry, this is not to be a discussion of politics. But what that bumper sticker did make me think about is dog training.

What does “We are our choices” have to do with training and behavior? A lot. Just as in politics, it’s well known that there are two major schools of thought. The more traditional school is more focused on strict obedience, and leans more heavily on compulsion and corrections. Tools that are used may include choke chains, pinch collars, and shock collars. The more positive reinforcement oriented school focuses on how dogs think and learn, employs rewards such as treats, and eschews the formerly mentioned tools in favor of head halters, clickers, and more. Of course, this is an oversimplification. There are trainers in either school who are so much toward the extreme end of the curve that they give other trainers in that camp a bad name. And any tool can be used more or less harshly.

Still, we are our choices. I choose cooperation over coercion in training. I am a peaceful, loving, patient person (okay, except in L.A. traffic), and I bring that into my training. I treat my clients with the same respect and patience that I do my four-footed students. I have noticed over the years a trend: the way trainers treat dogs has a direct correlation with the way they treat people. Sure, there are some trainers who are harsher with dogs and kinder with people, but I’ve seen an awful lot more trainers who are harsh in their training methods be condescending, short-tempered, and overly authoritarian with their clients. Likewise, I’ve seen trainers who are kind, patient, and respectful toward dogs be the same way with owners. It makes sense, as it’s the way you see the behavior of those around you and how you react to it.

Regardless of where you fall on the training spectrum, what tools you use, and how you use them, your choices do say a lot about you. And so it’s true in politics, dog training, and life in general: We are our choices. Let’s try to make good ones.

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Can a Confident Dog Help a Fearful One?

October 3, 2016

Misty is a six-month-old Bichon who has been with her family since the age of seven weeks. On walks, Misty seems to be afraid of everything. She lags on leash, practically hiding behind whoever is walking her, and constantly scans the environment for potential trouble.

Buddy is a two-year-old Shepherd mix. By all accounts, he’s a great family dog; that is, until a stranger comes to visit. When the visitor first enters the home, Buddy barks and alternates between lunging toward the person and backing away as if to say, “You big scary thing, don’t make me come over there!” In short, Buddy is uncomfortable around new people, and wishes they’d just leave.

Misty and Buddy, although two very different dogs, have something in common: they’re fearful in certain situations. While it would be wonderful if we could explain to them that there’s nothing to be afraid of, we can’t. (Well, we try, but dogs are pretty much just hearing that Peanuts cartoon wah-wah-WAH-wah.) But what if we could show them instead? The easiest way to do that is by employing the help of a confident, dog-friendly dog.

Dogs learn by observation. And they most certainly learn things from each other, both good and bad. One dog, by example, can help to potty train a new dog. A dog with separation anxiety can, unfortunately, demonstrate to another dog that it’s worrisome for the owners to be gone. Since dogs observe and learn from each other, we might as well put that to good use. You might be lucky enough to have a second dog in the home who is confident. If not, think about who you know that has a confident dog who likes other dogs and people. In Misty’s case, maybe you could phone a friend and ask if she’d like to take the dogs out for a walk together. In Buddy’s case, invite the friend to bring her dog over. If your dog doesn’t know her, she can serve as the visitor. If Buddy already knows her, invite another friend to come by once the friend and her dog have settled in for at least 15 minutes.

Now imagine the new scenarios. Misty and her friend are being walked down the street together. The confident dog is happy and outgoing. Misty, normally nervous and insecure, is less so with her friend there to back her up and to show her the world isn’t such a scary place. At home, Buddy notices how his friend reacts in a friendly way to the person Buddy found frightening, and considers that maybe the person isn’t so bad after all. With careful, controlled repetition of these scenarios, Misty and Buddy will begin to gain confidence, and will eventually learn to be more confident on their own.

In my full-day seminar Working with Fearful Dogs, I show a video of a cocker spaniel named Buster. Buster has multiple fear issues, including meeting new people. In the clip, the female cocker who lives with him is secluded in another room. I work with Buster on hand targeting. He’s willing to work with me because I have super yummy treats, but his body language clearly broadcasts that he is afraid to get too close, and he simply can’t relax. After a few minutes, we let the female cocker out to join us. Viola! There is an Instant transformation as Buster, along with the other dog, jumps all over me, tail wagging, body wiggly, clearly unafraid. It’s an amazing turnaround, and demonstrates so clearly how much having a confident dog present can help a fearful one.

Does this plan work for each and every dog? Of course not. Nothing is 100% effective with every dog. But as a trainer with many years of experience, I can tell you that it does absolutely help many dogs. Think about ways you can use a confident dog to help your fearful one.

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Don’t Assume My Dog is Friendly!

July 12, 2016

It happened again. I was walking along a park trail with Bodhi, enjoying the 6 a.m. calm. That the park is largely empty at that hour is something I really enjoy. But suddenly, a man walking 3 dogs appeared, headed toward us on the path. As there was plenty of room to move over, that’s exactly what we did in hopes of avoiding them.

Upon spying us, the two cocker spaniels continued to prance along with their cockers-don’t-care attitudes, while the Lab mix acted as though Bodhi was a long lost relative who owed him money. In his over-the-top enthusiasm, the dog pulled free of the man’s grip. Flexi leash banging along behind him, he began to run toward us. Now, Bodhi is not an aggressive dog, but when I adopted him from the shelter five years ago, he was very dog reactive. I worked long and hard to teach him alternatives to lunging and barking at other dogs, and he does very well now. He’s still insecure around other dogs (which is what the behavior was really about), but now when he sees them he voluntarily places himself by my side and looks at me for further instructions. Great, right? Sure. Until despite our best efforts, another dog rushes up to Bodhi or otherwise invades his space. Then, depending on how worried he is, all bets are off and violence could ensue.

As the Lab headed toward us I called to the man, “Please grab your dog!”
“Oh,” he replied, “Don’t worry. He’s friendly!”
“Mine might not be!” I called back.
The man looked surprised, and finally managed to get the dog back on leash.

Unfortunately, this is far from a rare occurrence. I wonder, if I were walking a 200-pound black mastiff with glowing yellow eyes, how many dogs would end up wafting our way on clouds of intended friendliness. I remember when Mojo, my soul dog who passed in 2008, was alive. Walking my very tall, handsome 120-pound, mostly-black, German shepherd-Rottweiler-Malamute-wolf mix down the street, people would often cross to get out of our path, even though Mojo was not at all aggressive towards people. I do not, however, remember dogs flying toward us and people telling us not to worry.

In this particular case, the dog pulled the leash out of the man’s hand. Mistakes happen. But more frequently, it’s a case of someone walking a dog off leash and ignorantly assuming everything will be fine. And to clarify, I’m talking here about areas where dogs are meant by law to be leashed. It’s irresponsible to put your dog in the way of potential harm by assuming that other dogs are friendly, even if they look as though they are. You wouldn’t let your child run up to every stranger you pass. Why would you possibly let your dog do the same? Do everyone a favor and don’t assume my dog—or any other dog you pass—is friendly. It’s the truly friendly thing to do.
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Update and Thoughts on The Tragedy of Harambe the Gorilla

May 31, 2016
gorilla L.A. Zoo

A gorilla at the L.A. Zoo — not Harambe

Chances are, you’re aware of the recent tragedy that occurred at the Cincinnati Zoo when a 4-year-old boy slipped under a railing, crawled across some wires and a moat and ended up in an enclosure with 3 gorillas. The two females were lured out by zookeepers but Harambe, a male 17-year-old western lowland gorilla (a critically endangered species) remained. The boy was in the enclosure for 10 minutes, and the decision was made by the zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team to shoot Harambe to save the boy.

Upon hearing about this I, like so many others, was incredibly saddened and angered. I blogged about it here. Response was overwhelming, as it was across all social media where conversations and articles abound. Two main contingents have emerged: those who blame the mother (in some cases calling for there to be legal action or worse), and those who blame the zoo.

As I stated previously I’m not a parent, and I’m sure that keeping eyes glued to a 4-year-old 24/7 is difficult. Eyewitnesses stated that the boy had been telling his mother he wanted to go into the enclosure, so one could argue that extra vigilance was needed. It can’t be denied that the whole tragedy would have been avoided had her eyes been on her son at that moment, but I’m guessing kids say all kinds of strange things, and seldom act on them in this kind of dramatic way. And, as many have stated, kids can slip away from parents in the blink of an eye. I’ve been shocked at the amount of vitriol that has been aimed at the mother. Regardless of whether she’s even partly to blame, I do have empathy for both her and her son.

As far as blaming the zoo, videos show Harambe, among other things, dragging the boy across water and, some say, flinging him around. In a Psychology Today online article by noted author/behaviorist Marc Bekoff, he relates the analysis of friend Jennifer Miller who had worked with gorillas. She felt that “Harambe’s hold on the child and his sheltering of the child inside his stance, are all indications of protection.” A differing opinion is held by Amanda O’Donaghue, who worked with gorillas as a zookeeper in her twenties and wrote on Facebook “I have watched this video over again, and with the silverback’s posturing, and tight lips, it’s pretty much the stuff of any keeper’s nightmares…I keep hearing that the Gorilla was trying to protect the boy. I do not find this to be true.” She also opined that “Harambe was most likely not going to separate himself from that child without seriously hurting him first (again due to mere size and strength, not malicious intent).” Clearly the zookeepers agreed with the latter. It’s easy for those who are outraged by Harambe’s death (and believe me, I’m one of them) to blame the zoo. But when dealing with exotics, especially potentially dangerous ones, split second decisions must be made. Was there any other choice? I don’t know. I have no doubt the zookeepers cared very much for Harambe and the last thing they wanted to do was to shoot him. They did so to save the boy. For those wondering why they didn’t use a tranquilizer instead, it’s because of the time the drugs can take to be effective. Having co-run a wolf rescue, I suspect it is also because using a tranquilizer on an animal who is already agitated can have the opposite of the desired effect.

So where does all of this leave us? This was undeniably a terrible tragedy for all concerned, particularly Harambe. Nothing can be done to bring him back. But if all we do is point fingers and engage in long, hateful conversations on social media, another layer of tragedy is added. The incident should spark heated discussions, yes—but productive ones, ones about what can actually be done to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. As I said in my original blog post, whether or not zoos should exist at all is a whole other topic. But since they do, for now, let’s take all of that energy that’s being put toward condemnation and come up with some solutions. Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:

  1. Have highly visible signage posted around the zoo with safety information. Ticket takers should also briefly but firmly mention the rules to visitors with young children.
  2. Have a staff member or volunteer posted at every exhibit containing a potentially dangerous animal. Give that person permission to step in and take action should they see a child (or adult) on a railing, crawling under something, or in an otherwise precarious position. This person should also have a radio to signal other staff.
  3. Anyone seen engaging in the type of behavior described above should be escorted from the zoo immediately. I don’t know whether zoos are able to fine visitors, but if they are, a hefty fine should be in place. Signage/ticket takers could warn of this as well.
  4. Making enclosures safer…this one is a no-brainer, but much easier said than done. Putting too much up in the way of bars/plexiglass/other barriers detracts from people actually being able to see the animal well (ask any photographer how they feel about plexiglass—and taking photos is a large part of the zoo experience). I have heard the suggestion of hotwire just outside the exhibit. I also read a response saying that if a child has a heart condition the shock could be dangerous. I don’t know about that, but if the latter is not true, in my opinion a shock would be the lesser of two evils when the other is being ripped apart by a wild animal.
  5. I did suggest the leash/harness combo for kids under a certain age, and by the response of mothers, I see that it might not be the right answer for everyone. But certainly more moms should be made aware of the option.

As we continue to grieve the loss of Harambe, I hope that something positive in the form of change and prevention can come from something so awful. I would love to hear others’ thoughts on what can be done to better the situation.

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