Category Archives: Basic Training

The Fake Service Dog: a Concerning Trend

“Do you train service dogs?” the voice on the other end of the phone asked. It’s become a more common question over the past few years, as more owners are learning that they can owner-train their own service dogs instead of buying a dog from an organization.

“Absolutely! We can help you with all of the basic training and begin doing some skills work, then connect you with a local service dog organization to assist with your final public access training. What sort of assistance skills are you hoping to teach your dog?”

“Oh, I don’t actually need my dog to do anything. I’m not really disabled. I just want to be able to take her with me to the grocery store and bring her on planes without paying the extra fees.”

There are plenty of dog-friendly places (like this Dairy Queen's patio eating area) where you can bring your well-trained pet. Stick to these locations, and don't try to pass your pet off as a service dog.

There are plenty of dog-friendly places (like this Dairy Queen’s patio eating area) where you can bring your well-trained pet. Stick to these locations, and don’t try to pass your pet off as a service dog.

“I’m sorry, but we can’t legally help you train your dog as a fake service dog. Only dogs who are trained to assist their disabled owner in day-to-day tasks are allowed into grocery stores or on planes like you described. Lying about the status of your pet dog is a serious crime, and I wouldn’t recommend that you pursue it. If you’d like some help polishing up your dog’s manners or even registering her as a therapy dog so you can volunteer at hospitals and nursing homes, we’re happy to assist with that.”

“Oh. Are you sure it’s illegal? Because my friend paid a trainer to certify her dog as a service dog, and she doesn’t have any sort of disability. My dog’s really well-behaved, and I would like to take her everywhere with me.”

And that’s the rub of it… there are unethical trainers and organizations out there that do just this, “certifying” fake service dogs so that people can bring their pets with them everywhere. If this idea appeals to you, I would strongly advise you to think twice. Lying about your dog’s status is a serious offense, and can not only result in legal troubles for you but also makes it that much harder for the people who really need their legitimate service dogs.

So, what is a service dog? Service dogs are trained animals who assist people with disabilities in their day-to-day lives. It’s not okay to ask what disability the person with a dog has, but you can legally ask that person two questions. First, you can ask them whether the dog with them is a trained service dog. If the dog isn’t, it can be asked to leave your business or workplace and has no more rights to be there than any other pet dog. If the dog is a true service dog but is disruptive or dirty to the point of posing a safety or health hazard, even a trained service dog can be asked to leave. A dog who eliminates on the grocery store floor, for example, does not have to be allowed to continue assisting his or her owner in that store. Asking a service dog and his or her handler to leave your business because you’re not comfortable with dogs, though, would not be appropriate. Service dogs are allowed to enter businesses unless and until something truly unacceptable happens.

You can also ask what tasks the dog is trained to perform for the owner. True service dogs perform trained behaviors that help their owners navigate daily life. These tasks will vary depending on the disability the person lives with, but may include retrieving items, opening doors, bracing or pulling the owner, alerting to sounds or strangers approaching, letting the owner know about that person’s impending seizures or migraines, pressing buttons, forestalling panic attacks or flashbacks, and many more. True service dogs are trained to perform these specialized skills so that their owners can enjoy more freedom and a better quality of life. If you see a service dog or a service dog in training out in public, it’s important to treat that animal much as you would treat an inanimate piece of medical equipment such as an oxygen tank or wheelchair. Don’t try to interact with or distract the dog unless you’re specifically invited to do so, and respect the right of the owner to have their medically-necessary dog with them unmolested. Give the dog space from children or other animals so that he or she can focus on his work, which is often very physically and mentally demanding for these special dogs.

But what if you truly do have a disability that would be helped with the assistance of a service dog? Can you train your pet dog to perform service tasks? It’s possible, but it depends a great deal on your dog. Many dogs simply do not have the physical structure (solid hips, elbows, eyes, heart, etc.) or mental soundness (eagerness and ability to learn; friendliness towards people of all ages and sizes and to all animals; solidness in the face of noises, traffic, crowds, food, and other distractions; and ability to focus for what may be hours at a time without getting distracted). Take an honest look at your dog or better yet, have an experienced trainer evaluate your dog for you to make sure that what you’re asking is reasonable and fair to your dog. Asking a dog who’s not cut out for service work to take on those tasks is incredibly cruel. Remember, even dogs who are specifically bred and trained for service work sometimes flunk out of their programs. If your dog was not acquired with this purpose in mind, it’s important that you honestly evaluate whether you should be asking him or her to take on this responsibility before you start.

But what if you don’t have a disability? What if you just want to bring your pet with you? There are plenty of pet-friendly stores that will happily accept your well-trained companion. Check around your area, and give your business to the stores that welcome your dog. Many home improvement stores, bookstores, banks, craft stores, hobby shops, and clothing stores will allow well-behaved dogs if you ask politely. Stores and restaurants that prepare or sell food often aren’t able to be quite so welcoming due to health code policies, but many of these as well as coffee shops and bars will allow your polite pooch to accompany you where outdoor seating is available.

You can also consider training your friendly, stable adult dog to become a therapy dog. Therapy dogs do not have the same rights as service dogs, but trained teams who have passed a test and become registered with a national therapy dog organization are permitted to volunteer at hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, schools, and other places where a connection with a friendly animal can be helpful to others. Therapy visits can be hugely rewarding for dogs and their handlers, and there’s always a big need for these specially trained dogs to spread some comfort and cheer to those who could use it most.

After several more questions to see whether I would consider bending my rules for her, the caller hung up, frustrated. I wasn’t willing to say her dog was a service dog for any price, nor would I recommend anyone who might. I reiterated how unethical passing a pet dog off as a service animal was, and hoped that the caller got the message. Faking your need for a service dog is every bit as taboo as taking a handicapped parking space when you don’t need it.

Have you ever heard of someone passing their pet dog off as a service dog? Did you call them on their behavior? Please share your stories and tips in the comments section below, and consider sharing this blog post with your friends to spread the word about the fake service dog problem. Enjoy your dog in and at the places where it’s appropriate for you to do so, and be thankful that you have the independence not to need him for more specialized assistance. Pet dogs have a very important job too, and respecting your dog’s place is a great way to respect the amazing individual he is.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Phil King

Photo by Phil King

A dog owns nothing, yet is seldom dissatisfied.

-Irish Proverb

Enrichment

Enrichment is the act of changing an animal’s environment to encourage species-specific behaviors. The enrichment I provide for my pet gerbils, Wheelie McGerbilface and Silent Bob, consists of opportunities to chew, burrow, dig, climb, nest, and run. The enrichment I provide for Layla and Trout, and for every foster dog who comes through my home, also includes opportunities to chew and run, in addition to sniffing, ripping, and scavenging. These canine-specific behaviors make dogs’ lives with us better. The more opportunities you can provide for your dog to be a dog, the happier and more fulfilled your dog will be.

Photo by colorblindPICASSO on flickr.

Photo by colorblindPICASSO on flickr.

We often focus very intently on what we want of our dogs, but it’s important to remember that our dogs want things from us too. They want to feel safe from physical and emotional harm. They want to know that their physical needs for warmth, shelter, food, water, touch, and companionship will be met every day. Most of us are very good at providing these things. However, dogs also want to use their brains and bodies in ways that feel good to them, and this is where we sometimes fall short as dog owners.

The things that feel good to dogs are not necessarily things that feel good to us as primates. We like looking at things. Dogs prefer using their noses. We enjoy using our hands to explore our world. Dogs explore their worlds with their teeth and tongue. We like to create new things. Dogs love destroying stuff.

As you figure out how to enrich your dog’s life, remember to focus on the things your dog enjoys. If you’re not sure, try a few different enrichment games throughout the week and watch how your dog responds to each one. Remember that canines are social, predatory scavengers. They have a rich and nuanced language of their own, which they use to communicate with one another. They are also experts at finding (and sometimes catching) food.

The toys that dogs enjoy massage their predatory instincts. Squeaky toys sound just like the death cries of small animals. Ripping apart a plush toy mimics dissecting a furry animal’s corpse, and chasing a rope or ball activates the same part of the brain as chasing a squirrel. Tugging on a toy is much like fighting with a prey animal that’s trying to get away from your dog. Even the seemingly benign Kong has its roots in the dog’s scavenging past; the mechanics of getting peanut butter out of a Kong are strikingly similar to those of licking marrow out of a raw bone. As much as you may wish to see your pet as a furry baby, the truth is that inside every furry face lies the brain of a smart, social survivor. Your dog doesn’t want to be pampered, he wants to be engaged.

So, readers, what enrichment activities do you provide for your dogs? Post your favorites in the comments section below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

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The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.

-Stephen McCranie

Got a minute?

The alarm on my phone chimes as I’m putting together behavioral case notes to send to a client’s veterinarian. I switch it off, then count 15 treats into my hand. Setting my phone’s stopwatch for one minute, I grab the toenail clippers and call Layla over. As the stopwatch starts, I quietly hold out a hand. Layla eagerly places her paw into my hand, and I click with my tongue and hand her a treat, letting go of her paw as she swallows. She puts her paw back into my hand and gets another click and treat. We do this four more times, and on the seventh try I gently tap one of her toenails with the nail clipper, clicking and treating her for holding still. She gets three more clicks for offering her paw, then I calmly clip the very tip of her dewclaw for another click and treat. We end the session with four more clicks and treats for offering her paw. I stop the stopwatch on my phone. It’s been 47 seconds since the start of our session. I thank Layla, give her a release cue, and return to writing my case notes. My phone’s alarm will go off again in another hour, and it will be Trout’s turn to enjoy a short training session. I decide that I’ll work on her newest trick, yodeling on cue.

Photo by Walter Rumsby

Photo by Walter Rumsby

This sort of training session is common in my household and in my client’s homes. Setting aside five, ten, or fifteen minutes to train every day can be difficult for the busy family or professional, but it’s easy to find a minute of time to work with your dog. A lot can be accomplished in sixty seconds!

Setting an alarm to go off once an hour whenever you’re home is a great reminder to work with your dog. Decide what you’d like to work on ahead of time, then keep it short and sweet. Ideally, it’s best to choose a skill that you can reward frequently: ten to twenty treats in a minute is a good goal to shoot for. If you count the treats out ahead of time and have them ready to go, so much the better.

So, what can you train in a minute? Here are just a few skills that I commonly have my clients work on:

- Loose-leash walking: snap the leash on your dog’s collar and spend sixty seconds walking around your living room or driveway.

- Recall: toss a treat across the room, then call your dog to come, grabbing her collar when she reaches you and then feeding a treat. Repeat this game as many times as you can in a minute.

- Muzzle or Gentle Leader love: click and treat your dog for targeting the muzzle or Gentle Leader. As your dog gets the idea of the game, begin feeding the treats inside the basket of the muzzle or through the nose band of the Gentle Leader.

- Stay: click and treat your dog for holding still as you shift your weight in front of him, gradually increasing the difficulty until you can jump up and down in front of him, turn in a circle in front of him, and walk in a circle around him without him moving a muscle.

- Ears, nails, and tails, oh my: if your dog doesn’t like to be touched somewhere, spend some time teaching him that touch predicts food. Touch the offending area (or the closest area you can touch without stressing him), then reward. This is a great way to teach dogs to enjoy brushing, nail trimming, ear cleaning, toothbrushing, or any other sort of handling.

- Sits, downs, and stands: can your dog differentiate these cues? Practice your sit-down-sit-stand-down-stand progression, mixing up the signals in an unpredictable order.

- Tricks: trying to teach your dog to fetch a tissue when you sneeze, bow, spin, or sit pretty? Work on it in little bits!

- Leave it and Zen: can your dog offer eye contact while you hold a treat out to the side? Can she ignore a treat in your open palm? Can she offer hand targets while a pile of treats is sitting on the ground?

- Noise desensitization and counterconditioning: if your dog hates thunder, beeping, or other noises, you can play those noises softly on your computer, following each with a tasty treat.

- Crate games: reward your dog for running into his crate. Practice manners when the crate door is closed. Teach him that the crate is a magic food spot where wonderful things happen.

- Attention outside: click and treat your dog for checking in with you as the two of you stand near an open door with your dog on leash. As your dog gets better at this, practice in your front and back yards.

- Scary objects: if your dog hates the blender, the vacuum cleaner, or the mop, pair the offending item with treats. Start with the scary thing stationary, turned off, and far enough away that your dog can eat treats. Gradually work on getting closer, then add movement, and finally noise.

These are just a few ideas, and pretty much any skill can be worked on in little chunks if you’re creative. Set a goal to train your dog for sixty seconds every hour you’re home, and you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll accomplish! So, what do you plan to work on this week? Share your one-minute training goals in the comments section below!

Myth: Peeing on Your Dog

Since I’ve worked as a professional trainer for years, I’ve heard it all. Most myths about dog behavior are silly and relatively harmless. That said, there’s one myth that’s resurfaced in the past couple months which has me shaking my head in bewilderment. Multiple clients have admitted to spitting in their dog’s food, peeing on their dog’s head, or otherwise using their own or their children’s bodily fluids with the intent of putting their dog in his or her place (which is implied to be “below” the human in a rigid hierarchy).

Spit-free kibble. Photo by BuzzFarmers on flickr.

Spit-free kibble (we hope). Photo by BuzzFarmers on flickr.

It can be hard to separate scientific fact from fiction for someone for whom dog behavior is a mystery, and I can empathize with my clients’ confusion. In each case, a trusted friend, family member, or even pet professional had recommended this course of action. In each case, my client was at a loss as to how to deal with his or her dog’s problematic behavior. While I wish that these clients had contacted me first, rather than after they had tried this technique (and in most cases, other recommendations from coworkers or neighbors as well), their hope was that following this advice would save them the cost of a private consultation with a trained professional.

The old adage of “you get what you pay for” springs to mind here. Free advice can be helpful, but for serious behavioral problems where the risk of failure could mean that a person gets bitten or your dog winds up homeless or dead, the stakes are just too high. Practice makes perfect, after all, and the longer a dog has the opportunity to practice the problem behavior, the worse the prognosis becomes. My clients and I have the most success when I can begin working with them at the first sign of a problem, rather than after months or even years of them attempting to solve the problem on their own.

So, why isn’t it a good idea to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head to “show him who’s boss?”

The core idea behind this advice is to elevate the owner’s status, based on the belief that dogs adhere to a rigid dominance hierarchy. However, this myth has been disproven over and over again. Wolves do have hierarchies, but they’re based on family arrangements with the mother and father leading the pack of children. Based on this knowledge, it only makes sense to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head if that’s what you would do to your [human] toddler when he misbehaves. Good parents – and good dog owners! – know that parenting is all about providing a safe environment for growth, with lots of patience, clear rules, and love.

Knowing that wolves form family packs greatly impacts our view of their communication and dominance hierarchies. However, drawing conclusions about dog behavior based on the behavior of their closely related cousins can be as erroneous as studying human behavior by observing chimps or bonobos. Yes, we share similarities. However, we’re not the same species. Dogs and wolves evolved from the same ancestor, but it’s likely that wolves have changed greatly from what they were tens of thousands of years ago. Studies of dogs in their native environment (village dumps) show that while wolves form close family packs, dogs do not. Mothers and puppies stick together, and dogs will develop friendships with other dogs, but the close-knit pack structure is just not there. This means that even if wolves did develop rigid pack structures that required forceful dominance displays, it would be inappropriate to extrapolate those behaviors to their cousins.

Even if all of this weren’t true, there’s still a major flaw in the idea of using bodily fluids to assert one’s dominance. Sure, it grosses us out to think about someone peeing on our head or spitting in our food. But does it really have the same impact on our dogs? Frankly, dogs love bodily fluids! When Layla lifts her leg and pees on another dog’s head (which she does on a fairly regular basis), the other dog never acts grossed out. Dogs lick one another’s mouths and eat vomit on a regular basis. They use their tongues to clean their genitals and lick at other dog’s urine. Some even eat poop (and many experts believe that human fecal matter may have been the main source of nutrition for early village dogs). We may think body fluids are gross, but dogs think they’re pretty fascinating.

The bottom line is that peeing on your dog, dumping the contents of your child’s dirty diaper on your dog, or spitting in her food is unlikely to create the behavior change you want. In the best case scenario, your dog’s behavior may be slightly suppressed due to her confusion. Worst case, you could scare your dog, damaging your relationship further, or unintentionally reward her problem behavior by providing her with something she finds fascinating or delicious. Either way, true behavioral change is unlikely, and you’re far better off consulting with a trained professional. As an added bonus, just think of how much money you’ll save on dog shampoo!

3 Puppy Life Hacks

Recently, I started fostering again after a one-year hiatus. While I’ve fostered over one hundred dogs, this was the first foster I’ve had since moving in with my boyfriend and his brother. Both guys commented on some of the choices I made for Alex the foster puppy. While these choices seem like common sense to most trainers, many pet owners neglect them to their puppy’s detriment. So, here’s a list of my three favorite life hacks for puppy raising.

alex wobbler

1. If you love it, put a leash on it. Would you allow your toddler to roam about your house unsupervised? If not, then why would you give that freedom to a puppy?

ears

Even in our fenced-in yard, Alex wore a leash.

Puppies learn about their environment through exploration. Lacking opposable thumbs, most of this exploration is done with their mouth. In addition, until your puppy has learned where you want him to toilet, he’ll do so whenever and wherever the urge hits him.

Keeping your puppy on a leash gives you the chance to supervise him and help him make good choices. When I could watch him, Alex dragged his leash. If I couldn’t watch him, he was tethered to me (I hooked the handle of the leash to my belt loop with a simple carabiner) or to a sturdy piece of furniture. Had I had Alex longer, he would have gradually earned off-leash privileges when I knew he was empty (right after a toilet trip outside) and when he was consistently able to make good choices about what to chew on.

2. Throw out the food bowl. Alex ate about five cups of puppy food a day. He got some of this food from puzzle toys such as Kongs, the Kong Wobbler, and the Magic Mushroom. These toys kept him entertained when I couldn’t supervise him, such as when I showered, as well as keeping him happy in his crate when I had to leave. They also provided important mental enrichment for his developing brain. The only time he ate out of a food bowl was if I was practicing food bowl approaches.

puppy zen

Alex demonstrates puppy zen with several pieces of his kibble.

The food that didn’t get delivered in puzzle toys was hand-fed to Alex throughout the day for making good choices. I carried a bait bag with two to three cups of his food in it whenever Alex was out of his crate. Any time he sat, lay down, chewed on puppy toys, or pottied outside, he received several kibbles. He also received a lot of food during short (thirty to sixty second) training sessions a couple times an hour. We worked on leash manners in my driveway. Alex learned about hand targets, focusing on me, stay, puppy zen, and leave it. With his age and natural intelligence, he quickly picked up on this basic obedience, all while eating his daily food ration.

3. Socialize, socialize, socialize. Puppyhood is a lot of fun. It’s also a very short window of time in which lots of important experiences will shape who your dog becomes as an adult. By the time you bring a puppy home at 8 to 10 weeks, you have less than a month before the first socialization window closes forever. It’s much harder to socialize an adult dog than a puppy, and even harder to help a dog overcome bad experiences from this time.

play1

Playtime with friendly adult dogs is one important part of socializing your new pup!

Remember that socialization refers to positive experiences with new things. At four months, Alex was a bit past his primary socialization window, and this showed in his tendency to be suspicious of anything new or different. He needed a little bit of time to hang back and observe when he encountered anything new. A few times, he growled softly and hid behind me, telling me that we needed to start further away from the new thing. That said, he was still young enough that he quickly gained confidence and became curious in new situations with a little time to habituate. He never refused treats in these situations and explored within a few minutes.

During his week with me, Alex met close to sixty new people. Most of them fed him treats. Many of them were men with facial hair. He met different ages, including children, as well as different ethnicities. He met old dogs and young dogs, playful dogs and crotchety dogs. He rode in the car both crated and wearing a seat belt. He met kittens, nice cats, and a mean cat. He met chickens. He was crated at dog classes in four different facilities. He got to try nose work. He had his toenails trimmed and his teeth brushed. He saw flapping plastic bags, all sorts of vehicles, bikes, a hose, a balloon, and even power tools from a distance. He worked for treats and toys, learning about tug and fetch. He napped in several new locations and played in several more.

Alex has been adopted, and I hope his new family will continue teaching him how to be the good dog he wants to be. If you have a new puppy, he or she wants the same thing. Help your puppy succeed using the tips above in addition to enrolling in a good puppy kindergarten class, and you’ll be well on your way!