Category Archives: Brags

Opting In

We’ve all known that parent: the mom who enters her toddler in beauty pageants because she wanted to be a beauty queen when she was younger, the dad who pushes his son into organized sports to relive his glory days as the star quarterback for his home team. Whether it’s theater, academics, swimming, music, or something else, we’ve known the parent who lost sight of the child in front of them as they pursued the child they had always dreamed of having (or perhaps of being).

It’s natural to dream big and to want the best for those you love. Parents dream of their children becoming the next president or the next famous chef. They look at all of the amazing potential that their child has and they want wonderful things for them. This is normal, and to a certain degree it’s healthy.

Photo by Jesse Moore

Photo by Jesse Moore

We’ve all known great parents who followed their children’s dreams, supporting their son or daughter as they explored their own interests. Whether it’s learning about cars or about horses, we’ve known parents who followed their children on paths they never would have chosen on their own, and we’ve watched as the children thrived.

We’ve also seen this same normal, healthy desire to help their children have a better life turn dark. We’ve seen parents scream at Little League umpires or require their children to practice something so frequently and obsessively that the child’s social life or rest time is negatively impacted. Just like so much in life, balance is important.

Dogs are not children. We choose the dogs we bring into our life, and once we bring them home they stay with us unless we choose otherwise. They never grow up and move away. They eat when we feed them, sleep when and where we allow them to, and don’t leave our houses unless we permit it.

One of my favorite exercises to assign to my clients is the “perfect day” thought exercise. I ask them to tell me about their dog’s perfect day. If their dog got to decide, how would he choose to spend his day? What would he want to do? Which ten activities would he include in his perfect day? Chasing rabbits? Rolling in deer poop? Playing with other dogs? Swimming? Sunbathing? Snuggling? Eating roast beef? Digging up your lawn? If your dog got to call the shots, how would he spend his time?

It’s important to remember that dogs are individuals. Your dog is his own self. He has his own thoughts, likes, and dislikes. He’s aware of his world, and he perceives it differently than you, your other dog, or your previous dog of that breed. He is capable of making choices, and he has opinions about things. When was the last time you asked him what he lives for?

Here’s something to consider: dogs cannot opt out of relationships. They can check out, they can act out, but they cannot get out unless they act so far outside of their owner’s standards of acceptable behavior that they are euthanized or rehomed. They have the cognitive abilities of two- to five-year-old children, and like parents it is our responsibility to watch their behavior to learn what’s working and what’s not working for them in their world.

There’s a common recommendation in the agility and other dog sport worlds for young, anxious, distractible, independent, or enthusiastic dogs. Convention states that unless the dog’s owner is the center of his universe, their relationship is somehow fatally flawed. In order to become the center of his universe, owners are advised to prevent their dog from doing anything he enjoys that doesn’t include the owner.

If we follow this recommendation to its conclusion, it’s easy to see how it could be quite effective. If your adolescent dog loves to play with other dogs more than he loves agility, never allowing him to play with other dogs may indeed increase his enthusiasm for agility. If your child loves to surf the web more than she loves to play the violin, taking away her computer access may indeed make her more likely to practice her violin. If it’s the only game in town, it’s going to be better than nothing.

As a good parent, you might require your child to practice her violin for a certain amount of time before you let her log on to the web, and as a good dog owner you may ask your dog to do something for you (perhaps heel politely to the play area or sit and look at you) before you allow him to play with his doggy friends. Balance is important. But if you never allow your child to log on to the computer or never allow your dog to play with his friends out of some notion that letting them be themselves will harm your own goals, is that really the relationship you want to foster?

It’s normal for us to dream big, whether you’re gazing at a new baby human or a new baby dog. Both are full of possibilities, and it’s wonderful that we want the best for them. But in our quest to help those we love achieve greatness, let’s not lose sight of the individual in front of us. If you just pay attention, your dog will tell you what they need.

Layla told me that she didn’t enjoy agility trials but loves competing in rally obedience. Dobby told me that he would rather be petted under his chin than along his sides. Mischief frequently tells me that because she’s still young and learning about her world, she needs a moment to just sit quietly and watch the other dogs work in class or get used to the commotion of a new environment before she can focus on me. While their opinions may not always jive with my own goals for them, my respect for them as individuals is such that I am willing to listen, and to comply or to compromise, as the case may be. And our relationship deepens each time I hear them, and I get chills each time I learn more about the fascinating, wonderful, unique individual each one of them is. They’re their own selves, and there’s something absolutely amazing about that.

Your dog is her own self too, with her own opinions and passions. The choice of how you “parent” her is all yours. Please step lightly and choose wisely. Your dog may not be able to opt out, but she can opt in to a lifelong relationship with you. And that’s a beautiful, powerful thing.

Gallery

Nose Work Class Photos

This gallery contains 18 photos.

We love K9 Nose Work! Any dog (and any handler!) can participate, and the dogs think it’s the best game ever. Check out these great shots from last week’s Beginning K9 Nose Work class by Laura Caldwell. Want to start playing with … Continue reading

Squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks, oh my!

It was the wee hours of the morning before I got a chance to walk my dogs. I had finally finished a couple of large writing projects whose deadlines had been breathing down my neck and was enjoying the warm night. The moon was nearly full, and the sky was sprinkled with stars. My dogs snuffled about in the grass and wandered about together on long, loose leashes as we walked through the park, and I took a deep breath and enjoyed the perfection of the moment.

Mischief is always on the lookout for critters. Photo by SC Studios.

Mischief is always on the lookout for critters. Photo by SC Studios.

The stillness was shattered by Mischief’s yodeling “BAROOOOO” as a young rabbit bolted right in front of her. Layla immediately swung into heel position, staring lasers at me in the hopes that I would give her permission to chase after the little bunny. Dobby yipped twice, then remembered himself and offered a sit.

Mischief, however, did not look at me, or swing into heel position, or even sit. Instead, she strained at the end of her leash, baying like a Bloodhound. Her cries echoed in the park, and I cringed, feeling guilty that my dog was being so noisy when the neighbors were trying to sleep.

Heedless to anything but the quickly disappearing rabbit, Mischief continued to yodel until I picked her up, thirty pounds of squirmy adolescent pup determined to escape the confines of her leash and give chase. Holding her firmly, I praised the other dogs and asked them to “leave it” as we walked in the opposite direction the bunny had run. Layla gave the departing rabbit one last wistful look, then huffed and bumped my pocket with her nose, hinting that good dogs should be rewarded. I handed treats to her and Dobby, and after several steps was able to set Mischief down again without her resuming her cacophonous protest. The entire incident took less than 10 seconds, and I hoped that my quick action had prevented my puppy from disturbing anyone’s slumber.

Photo by ap. on flickr

Photo by ap. on flickr

Squirrels and rabbits are one of the most difficult distractions many people deal with on walks. Dogs love to chase, and there’s something about that quickly-departing fluffy tail that makes many dogs completely out of control. The more predatory the dog, the more difficult this can be to deal with. When Layla was younger, she broke through collars and climbed me like a tree in her attempts to catch small critters, and to this day she regularly kills and consumes birds, chipmunks, and other small animals in my little fenced backyard. My clients have been pulled over and injured when their dogs decided to give chase, and many have expressed frustration that their dog doesn’t even care about food or toys when a squirrel is in sight. Some people turn to electronic collars to control their dog’s prey drive, but many others (myself included) do not believe in the use of these tools due to the potential for fallout and lack of proof that they are any more effective than reward-based training.

So, what can we do to control our dogs around rabbits, squirrels, and other small critters?

Enter Premack. The Premack Principle states that a less likely behavior can be reinforced with a more likely behavior. In plain English, that means that we can use something our dog is already likely to do (such as chasing squirrels) as a reward for something that they’re less likely to do in that same situation (such as looking at us). Here’s how it works.

In the beginning stages, we need to make sure that you can control your dog so that he only gets a chance to chase squirrels when you give him permission to do so. Keeping your dog on leash is a great way to manage this, and you can add in a front-attach harness (I use the Freedom harness for Mischief) or a head halter (such as the Gentle Leader) for more control if your dog is especially quick or powerful.

Now we need to figure out what your dog can actually offer at this stage of training. With Mischief, she has a great whiplash turn where she turns her head as soon as I say her name, so I used this. In the case of a more predatory dog, such as Layla, I had to start with accepting even a tiny head turn, sometimes just an inch in my direction. Start with what you can get.

The training is simple. Walk your dog somewhere where you will see squirrels or bunnies. When your dog sees one, stand still and wait for them to offer a behavior you like, or cue them to do whichever behavior you’ve decided on. In Mischief’s case, I say her name as soon as she sees a small critter she wants to chase.

As soon as your dog offers the behavior you’ve decided on, reward them with the opportunity to chase. In Layla’s case, turning her head an inch in my direction caused me to click my clicker and take several steps in the direction of the bunny or squirrel. For Mischief, who is still a fairly predatory dog but who is not as tightly wound as Layla, I say her name, click when she turns towards me, then run after the squirrel or bunny with her. In both dogs’ cases, I keep them on leash and allow them to chase with me holding onto the leash for safety. This may not be as satisfying to them as chasing off-leash would be, but it’s safer in an urban environment with cars and other hazards and still satisfies them enough that they are willing to work for the opportunity.

In the beginning stages, it can be very difficult for a dog to switch from their instinctive predatory behaviors to more operant learned behaviors, like looking at you. It would often take Layla several minutes to turn her head even the tiniest bit away from the critter, so I had to be very still and quiet as she worked through the problem. Be patient and wait for a behavior you like, then click and move towards the critter. If your dog is absolutely out of control, you can either back away and try this from a greater distance (such as a block or two away), or you can wait for a tiny break in their frenzy (such as when they take a breath) and click that. I prefer to back away because I don’t want my dogs practicing such over-the-top behavior, but know other trainers who have had a lot of success with the latter method as well. Do what makes the most sense for you and your dog.

With Mischief, I started taking her on walks separate from the other dogs so we could work through this problem. As soon as she saw a critter, I would stop moving and wait for her to look at me. If she looked like she was getting more wound up and was going to start yodeling, I would say her name once, which always caused her to swing her head in my direction. Regardless of whether she remembered to look at me or I had to remind her, as soon as she looked in my direction I would click and tell her “get it!,” running in the direction of the critter.

Photo by Davide Simonetti

Photo by Davide Simonetti

Like most dogs, Mischief loves this game! She understands that by working together with me she can earn the chance to do what she wants. She began offering to look at me when she saw a small critter, clearly testing the premise to see whether the rules applied in all sorts of different situations. They usually did, although in unsafe situations or with animals I didn’t want her to chase I would tell her to “leave it” and reward her for her cooperation by letting her play a chase game as I ran in the opposite direction. She didn’t like this quite as much, but was willing to work with me.

Mischief’s training just started last week, so it’s still a work in progress. That said, I can report that walks are already much more peaceful, and there hasn’t been any yodeling since the one late night incident at the park. Even better, she’s learning that paying attention to me pays off, even in really distracting situations. Instead of fighting her, I’m teaching her to cooperate and become a better partner. All of this is happening without electric shocks, verbal reprimands, or any sort of force. It’s also mostly happening without the use of food rewards (although I do give her little pieces of food after a chase game when I ask her to “leave it,” since that’s still tough for her).

At this point, I plan to continue walking Mischief separately from the other dogs until she’s a pro at the Premack game. Once she reliably chooses to look at me after spying a squirrel or rabbit, I’ll start walking her with one of my other dogs, and eventually begin walking the entire pack together again. Dobby and Layla already understand the rules of the game, so on future walks I will be able to play it with all three of them, waiting until all three dogs have offered a behavior (Layla offers to swing into heel position and hold eye contact, and Dobby offers a sit) before initiating a chase.

If I want to transfer these behaviors to off-leash hikes, I can do so by walking Mischief on a long leash for awhile. I’ll keep working on her recall, and reward recalls with the chance to chase small critters. This will eventually pay off as I’ll be able to call her off a chase if I need to, and once she’s reliable I can ditch the long leash and let her be completely free.

I’ve used this same technique to return sanity to walks for countless dogs and their people. Have you used the Premack principle in this way? How does your dog respond to little critters? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

Moving with Minnie

[Note from Sara: recently my friend and fellow Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Katie Kelly, moved with her Shih Tzu, Minnie. I was so impressed by the way that Katie supported Minnie and problem-solved to help her adjust to apartment living that I asked her to write a guest blog post about her experiences. Enjoy!]

Minnie is my little sidekick. She goes with me absolutely everywhere: to the pet store, to the park, and to visit with family and friends. She has also moved with me countless times. We’ve lived in a couple different homes in Rochester, multiple places in Winona, and at one point, maintained residence in Zumbrota as well. However, the two of us had grown accustomed to the private life of living in a house. Neither of us had ever truly experienced apartment living until recently.

Minnie and Katie

Minnie and Katie

In the first couple days of living in our new apartment, I could tell Minnie wasn’t truly comfortable. She would find her hiding places and shut down: she didn’t seek out attention, she didn’t play with her toys, and she didn’t chew on her bones. She needed some time to adjust, and then she’d return to being normal happy–go-lucky Minnie. At least that is what I thought.

Technically, dogs are not allowed at my apartment complex, but the landlord did me a favor and allowed us to take residence regardless. Because of this, I figured Minnie might be the window of opportunity: that she might provide a positive image for responsible dog owners who were looking to rent. As the only dog in the apartment building, I felt that it was important to make a good impression on the other residents as well as the landlord.

A week or so after moving, she was coming around little by little. But instead of turning into the superstar I had hoped for, she started to become the stereotypical little yappy dog. I actually set up a video camera to see how she did when I wasn’t around, and I found she would bark incessantly, finding it difficult to calm herself. Then it hit me. I had just moved this five-year-old dog, accustomed to household living, into an apartment building. While it wasn’t too much of a change for me, I soon realized that it was a drastic change for Minnie. In her mind, there were loud scary noises coming from every direction. She had no idea who was making these noises, nor what they predicted. I started to truly hear it. There was door banging, knocking, stomping feet, and conversation in the hallways. Minnie didn’t have the capability to seek out or make sense of any of these things.

We started counter conditioning. I wore my treat pouch every moment we were in the apartment. Every time there was a slight noise, I would press the clicker before Minnie had the chance to react to it and treat her with high rewards. If Minnie did react, I’d call her or lure her (depending on the severity) away from the door and started treating her until I could see her physically calming down. However, this wasn’t enough. What happened when I was gone? Surely, all our hard work would go down the drain as those loud noises would stir her up without me there to help her cope.

We tried the Thundershirt, the DAP collar, the DAP diffuser, stuffed Kongs, puzzle toys, rawhides, bully sticks, and Through a Dog’s Ear classical music. I tried in every possible way I could think of to keep her busy, and to keep her feeling secure and calm. I thought of taking her to daycare, but she is fearful of other dogs. I figured the stress of daycare would just carry over to our home environment and make things worse.

I decided to shoot around for ideas. An idol of mine, who has an incredible amount of knowledge in canine behavior, was very helpful. She had mentioned everything above, and when I told her I had exhausted those efforts, she recommended the Manners Minder. Genius!

The Manners Minder is a treat-dispensing machine. I created a colorful note outside my door that let my neighbors know that I was working on Minnie’s issues and also invited them to be a part of the solution! Alongside the note, I taped the remote control that directly dispensed the treats from the Manners Minder. Inside my apartment, on a table next to the door, was the almighty, praise-worthy, treat dispenser (as Minnie saw it). While I was at home, I could see people were already willing to send Minnie magical treats. They’d walk by (with the associated stomping, talking, and slamming doors) and press the button on the remote taped outside my door. The machine would beep letting Minnie know that treats were on the way, before dispensing them before her very eyes! This machine allowed me to go to school, and while at home, Minnie could be counter conditioned by others who made those scary noises outside the door!

People = treats! My neighbors were very generous about using Minnie's Manners Minder.

My neighbors were very generous about using Minnie’s Manners Minder.

I had to laugh because there were times where I’d check the video camera and watch her progress when I’d get home from school. Many used the remote, but there were also instances where people walked by without using it, and to my surprise Minnie still wiggled her way over to the door expecting goodies. Those loud scary noises finally started to predict good things, and she no longer felt the need to bark.

Finally, Minnie was truly able to relax and feel comfortable in her new home.

Helping People Enjoy Their Dogs

It was clear to anyone watching them that the little dog and his owner loved each other. Despite all her frustration and her ineptitude, the little dog’s owner was trying her very hardest to help him. And despite all of his anxiety and stress, the little dog was trying to work with her.

And they were failing miserably.

Photo by Rosa Money

Photo by Rosa Money

They had been failing together for five years. The owner would take her little dog to classes and agility trials and seminars. She went from one trainer to another, collecting a plethora of habits and ideas along the way. A patchwork of training methodologies and theories clung to her. She tried and tried and tried, and her dog tried his hardest too. And they failed, and they failed, and they failed again.

The little dog was on edge all the time. He tried to listen to his handler, worked his heart out for her really, and yet when it all got to be too much he couldn’t help lunging and barking. He truly couldn’t control it. The stress would spill over and he would crash and burn yet again. His owner would drag him away, raging and out of control.

When I took the dog’s leash in class and began working with him, his eyes cleared. His movements slowed and he started taking treats less frantically. He took a deep breath and shook off. I demonstrated the exercise for his owner, and when I went to hand the leash back to her, her little dog didn’t want to go. He tried to follow me away from his owner, and I saw the embarrassment and frustration and guilt cross her face in a raw and naked moment that broke my heart.

The owner had the best of intentions. The dog adored her. But the pure relief of working with someone who was clear with him, who listened to and respected him and his limits, and who was not themself on edge, was more important to him in that moment than those five years of pain and hard work that his owner had put in.

This is the challenge that professional dog trainers face.

Any trainer worth his or her salt can take a dog’s leash and help that dog. We can read your dog and adjust the exercise to perfectly suit his needs in the moment. If we’re any good, we can do this so quickly and make such minute adjustments that you won’t even realize that we’ve just split our criteria in half and upped the rate of reinforcement by 50%. You may not even be able to see the tiny changes in the amount of pressure we place on your dog, turning our body slightly to the side or moving a few steps away from a stressor. This stuff is automatic for us, because we’ve been doing it for years and we understand the dance that true training entails.

It looks like magic. And it’s meaningless, unless we can help you do it too.

The little dog’s owner was on edge and jumpy herself. She automatically tightened up on the leash and administered constant tiny little jerks on her dog’s collar (a technique she’d learned years ago) whenever she got nervous. The more she tried to control her dog in these situations, the worse he got. She took him to classes and trials constantly in the belief that if she didn’t continuously expose him, the little dog would backslide. She delivered treats quickly and imprecisely, not to mention far, far too infrequently to provide the amount of information her dog required to feel comfortable. Her dog was miserable. She was miserable. And they both loved each other, through all the misery and frustration.

This is the challenge of a professional dog trainer, then.  Not to make myself look good, but to give you the skills you need so that you can do that too. Paws Abilities’ motto is “helping people enjoy their dogs,” and that is my primary mission as a professional trainer.

So what could I do for the woman and her little dog? Frankly, I could be kind. I could be as patient with the owner as I was with her dog. I could help her change her behavior in tiny little bits. Just as a rehomed dog with a patchwork history may take months to trust a new owner, I would never expect a client who has worked with so many other trainers to change her ways all at once, or even to trust that changing her ways was the right thing to do. Instead, I could show her the possibilities and help her set manageable and realistic goals.

Professional trainers sometimes forget that human behavior can be shaped in the same way that we shape animal behavior. If you are dealing with problematic behavior in your dog, you owe it to yourself to find a trainer who will respect you every bit as much as they wish you to respect your pet. And if you’re working as a professional trainer and cannot remember to be as kind to your human clients as you are to their dogs, frankly, you need to find another profession. The principles that shape solid animal training: shaping new behaviors through successive approximations, building solid foundational skills, adjusting our criteria based on the individual in front of us, and using a high rate of reinforcement to cement understanding, are all equally important when teaching people.

I first worked with the woman and her dog two years ago. I did not forbid her from taking her dog to classes or trials, although I gently recommended against it and commended her when she chose not to put her dog into these stressful situations. I did not yell at her when she jerked on the leash or forgot to treat her dog, but instead gave her easy suggestions to follow that were incompatible with these training mistakes. I was empathetic when she admitted that she found training frustrating and disheartening, and adjusted the exercises in the class she was in so that she would leave each class feeling joyful at the success her dog had made.  And she still failed, but less often, and her dog still blew up sometimes, but less than he used to, and he recovered from these situations much more quickly. And they both learned to relax just a little bit more, and to trust one another just a little bit more.

This woman has floated in and out of our classes several times in the last couple years. She’s done some private training with me too. Recently she contacted me with a success story, and we celebrated her achievements. She still pushes her dog too far sometimes, and sometimes she forgets how to give him the information he needs. But she tries, and her dog tries, and they love each other. They’re much further along than they were two years ago, and they’ll be further still next year.

Training a dog is easy for those of us who have done it for any length of time. Professional dog training is difficult. Finding the compassion and patience to provide a safe, nonjudgmental space in which novice handlers can learn takes real skill, empathy, and ongoing education.

Training Your Reactive Dog

We’ve discussed what reactivity is and how to manage your reactive dog. Now let’s get to the meat of the problem: what can be accomplished with training? Quite a bit, actually! Consider Layla, who used to lunge and bark at dogs, people, bikes, and even lawn ornaments. She recently earned her ARCHX title in rally obedience, which required her to walk past many unfamiliar dogs and people in a crowded, charged environment, then work off-leash and sometimes at a distance from me with focus and precision. She was able to ignore barking dogs, chattering people, and the judge following us around with a clipboard. Outside of obedience, Layla also works as a neutral dog for shelter dog evaluations and Growl classes.

This transformation didn’t take place overnight, and it required diligent training and management. However, the rewards of watching my formerly anxious and reactive dog handle situations that previously sent her into a frenzy with confidence and aplomb are well worth all the work. Learning to communicate with one another has deepened our relationship and turned our training from a dictatorship to a partnership.

Photo by Gus.

Photo by Gus.

Every reactive dog is different, but the general principles of working with a reactive dog are very similar. Here are some of the key aspects to keep in mind as you work with your dog:

1) Work with a professional. Okay, this may seem a little self-serving coming from a trainer who spends the majority of my time working with reactivity. But in all seriousness, you need to find a kind and experienced trainer who can either work with you in person or remotely (many trainers now offer Skype appointments or telephone consults). Not only will you benefit from having an extra pair of eyes devoted to your training, but working with someone who is not emotionally involved will keep you and your dog on track.

Still not convinced? Consider this: when one of my dogs started to display reactive behaviors, I hired another trainer to work with us even though this is my career. I could reel off the steps to solving a reactive behavior problem such as my dog was experiencing in my sleep, but I knew I was too close to the problem to be objective.

2) Manage stress carefully. Whether your dog becomes anxious or experiences “good stress” from over-the-top joy, stress hormones are hard on the body and may impact your dog’s ability to learn. If you know that chronic stress is influencing your dog’s behavior, consider taking a cortisol vacation.

3) Learn a new language. Dogs have a complex, nuanced vocabulary, but they don’t use verbal language like us.  The more we can learn about what their body language is saying, the less frustrated they’ll be and the easier it will become to prevent reactions. Do you know what a wagging tail, lip lick, or turn away mean?

4) Teach impulse control. Most reactive dogs have a very difficult time controlling themselves. Teaching your dog to control himself (as opposed to you physically controlling him) will give him the tools to turn his own emotional thermostat down if he starts running too hot. Games such as “it’s your choice,” off-switch games, doggy zen, and leave it are wonderful ways to increase your dog’s self control.

5) Make relaxation rewarding. Mat work, the Protocol for Relaxation, and bodywork (such as TTouch and other massage) are great for reactive dogs. Think of them as canine biofeedback. Many reactive dogs have a hard time relaxing, so help your dog learn to let go.

6) Change the association. In many cases, reactive dogs have been corrected or punished in some way for their behavior. Even if you haven’t ever scolded your dog for reactivity, this step never hurts. Changing the association deals with emotions by pairing pleasant things with the appearance of the trigger. Done correctly, this quickly results in a dog who turns and looks expectantly and happily at his handler upon spying the person or thing that used to provoke a reactive outburst. The Watch the World game is a great place to start with this.

7) Finally, teach your dog what to do instead. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you don’t want your dog to react like he used to, make sure you teach him some alternate behaviors that he can use in those situations. Whether you use hand targeting, a Whiplash Turn, the Look at That game, Emergency U-Turns, or attentive heeling, having an easy behavior or two that your dog can perform to earn a reward can make the difference between success or failure in a tough situation.

If you live in Minnesota, consider contacting us for private training or signing up for an Agility Unleashed, Focus & Control, or Growl class to address your dog’s reactive behavior. Too far away to work with us? Look for a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in your area.

If you’ve worked with a reactive dog, which of these principles did you find the most helpful? Is there anything you think I’ve missed? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

Is it really disobedience?

It was our seventh rally run of the day. Layla and I waited patiently at the start line, her eyes bright as she gazed up at me. When the judge gave us the okay to start, we began the course, my dog’s tail keeping time with the beat of my feet.

Photo by Robin Sallie

Photo by Robin Sallie

 

When we hit the third sign, I asked Layla to stay in a sit as I left her, and she popped into a stand. I asked again, and she went into a down. We circled away from the sign, then came back and she held her sit-stay as I walked away.

I had already noticed that Layla was striding short in her right rear leg earlier in the day, especially when she first came out of her crate. I had a friend watch one of our runs, and she noticed the same thing. She also wondered whether Layla’s left hip could be sore.

It was clear that Layla wanted to keep working. We had two runs left, both in our favorite class, Level 3. Not knowing whether she was sore from an old neck injury or something new, I decided to scratch those runs.

Because of our history and relationship, it was very clear to me that my dog wasn’t disobeying in the ring, but rather communicating. Sadly, this is not always the case, and I see many dogs who are corrected for “disobedience” when they are really trying to tell something to their people.

Remember, your dog cannot tell you where or why it hurts. He can’t choose which sports or activities he participates in. That’s on you, and it’s on you to make sure that your dog both enjoys and can physically do anything you ask of him.

If you use any compulsive training, you need to ask yourself very seriously whether pain or discomfort could be contributing to your dog’s behavior before you correct him. If you use motivational training, you better be damn sure that your dog isn’t hurting himself in his efforts to earn whatever reward he loves so much. Much like Layla will push through pain for the joy of working with me in rally obedience (and for the lamb lung she gets to eat after she’s done!), many dogs will ignore their physical discomfort in order to get a treat, toy, play session, or other valued reward.

Physical limitations can cause a whole host of problems that masquerade as behavior or training issues. Two of my rally students have discovered that their large dogs had hip issues after I pressed them to see their vet. One of these dogs would sit more slowly and reluctantly the longer he worked, and the other tended to “puppy sit” to one side rather than sitting straight. Had we approached either of these issues as a training problem and started drilling sits, we would have been causing unnecessary pain to these lovely, willing dogs. Putting these wonderful dogs into conflict by asking them to do something that was uncomfortable over and over would have been cruel, but knowing that they could have pain issues allows us to focus on working with them in such a way that we build their muscles and make the tasks we wish them to complete doable for their physical limitations.

Outside of the sports community, many behavior problems are caused by pain. Recently, I worked with clients whose elderly dog had begun growling at their toddler. The dog was clearly in conflict, eager to interact with the child but concerned about being hurt. The child would crawl on the dog, and he would turn away, lick his lips, and eventually growl. Once the parents took their dog to the vet for pain medication and started providing him with a safe place to get away from the toddler when he was sore, he stopped growling. He wasn’t aggressive, just arthritic. Growling was the only way he could communicate how very much it hurt him when the toddler climbed onto his inflamed joints.

When I consult with pet or performance dog owners, I frequently ask that they see their vet before further appointments. A cracked tooth, thyroid disorder, ear infection, or back pain can and will cause changes to behavior, and all the training in the world will do nothing if the physical problem isn’t addressed. I see a much greater number of allergies or GI issues with my anxious and reactive dog clients than with the dogs I see in regular training classes (and if you’re a researcher who could help quantify this, please contact me – I’d love to work with you!). Physical stress causes behavior changes: just think of the last time you were sick or hurt.

We need to be our dogs’ advocates. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt. Dogs are rarely lazy or disobedient or stubborn, but are frequently unmotivated, unable, or unsure about the task in front of them. Don’t be afraid to seek a second or even third opinion, either. Many of my own and clients’ dogs have been diagnosed only after seeing a specialist or sports vet who had more experience with the problem. Vets are only human, and no vet will get every diagnosis right every time. If you think something’s going on with your dog, keep pushing until you get an answer. You’d want those you love to do the same for you.

Have you ever had a physical problem masquerade as a behavior or training issue? How did you discover what was truly driving your dog’s “problem” behavior? Please share your stories in the comments below!

Scars

Layla was two years old when she was attacked. The other dog, owned by a friend of mine, was safely muzzled but was an impressive 60 pounds larger than little Layla. We were attempting to introduce Layla, who had wonderful social skills, to my friend’s dog, and the introduction went sour. Layla rolled over, exposing her belly, and the other dog muzzle-punched her on her abdomen. Had she not been muzzled, I hesitate to think of what could have happened. Layla screamed, likely a combination of pain and fear, and ran away, triggering the other dog to chase her. We were unable to catch either dog for what felt like forever, but was probably less than a minute.

Photo by SC Studios

Photo by SC Studios

After the attack, I took Layla home. She crawled under the covers of my bed and trembled. Her abdomen and the insides of her thighs were bruised and sore. After that day, she became very reactive towards other dogs, lunging and barking from even very great distances. She was especially reactive around large dogs and dogs that resembled my friend’s dog.

And I blamed myself.

Every week, I work with clients who are trying to help their reactive dogs. Each one of them has a unique story. There has been some past trauma, or there hasn’t. They know what precipitated the reactivity, or their dog has always been like this, or the issue developed so gradually over time that they didn’t realize what was happening at first. They failed to protect their dog, or someone else failed to protect their dog, or they didn’t know enough to prevent this issue. They didn’t understand how to choose a breeder or a rescue. They didn’t realize that their zoomy dog was actually stressed. They didn’t realize that their anxious dog needed medication to address a real physical problem.

Every story is different, but through each of them runs a unique thread: “this is my fault.” In each case, these owners feel guilty that they didn’t do more or know more or take a different action. In each case, they wonder whether things would be different, if only…

And they blame themselves.

There’s a quote that I have hanging up on my work station by Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

I think it is absolutely normal for us to feel guilty about what has happened. Remember that guilt comes from a place of compassion: we love our dog and want the best for them. It’s also okay to let it go. We do the best we can in the moment, and as we learn, we do better.

Our imperfections are part of what make us special, and sometimes scars (whether real or emotional) are simply another way to show the world that we survived adversity. I feel guilty that I didn’t protect Layla that evening when she was attacked. But that incident was one of the many forks in the road that led us on an amazing journey we have taken together.

Had Layla not become reactive, she may not ever have had the chance to teach me how to listen to a dog. The lessons of connection, empathy, respect, humility, and compassion that come from working through these issues were painful and hard-won, but they have since served me in helping hundreds of other dogs and their owners who were just starting down the same path.

Layla had to learn too: she had to learn to trust me, to communicate her needs in a way I could understand, and to control her own impulses and emotions. I can’t ask her (and don’t want to anthropomorphize), but I’m pretty sure she found the journey every bit as rocky and frustrating as I did.

We all wish that we could do better by our dogs. I doubt they wish that they could do better by us. They may wish that we would walk just a little longer, or share our sandwich crust, or back off when they lick their lips and turn away. But their wants and needs are in the moment. We could do well to emulate that.

Do the best you can with your dog. Give him or her the happiest life you can with the tools you have. Give your dog the benefit of the doubt, and be as kind as possible. But when you’re tired and frustrated, give yourself the benefit of the doubt too. It’s okay to be imperfect. Enjoy your unique journey together, and let the scars of your mistakes become a roadmap to the paths you’ll explore with one another.

Missing Layla: the dangers of xylitol poisoning

Even with Dobby and Mischief asleep next to me, my house feels empty today. It’s easy to take what you have for granted until it’s not there, and today I’m missing Layla like crazy. I’m lucky that this isn’t a permanent loss, but only a temporary one. Layla is spending the weekend at the emergency vet clinic, and the house is empty without her.

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Layla was lucky. Last night, she got into a pack of gum containing xylitol, an artificial sweetener. Had I not caught her eating the pack and recognized the danger, things may have turned out very differently. My house might have been empty forever. Just the thought of losing her feels like a physical blow.

Xylitol is an artifical sweetener frequently used in sugarfree gum, candies, and baked goods. It has some oral health benefits for people and is frequently used as a sugar substitute for people who cannot have real sugar. It’s also highly toxic to dogs.

Even a small bit of xylitol can cause dangerous drops in blood sugar. The first symptoms of xylitol poisoning are oftentimes vomiting, glazed eyes, weakness, lethargy or depression, and ataxia (balance issues). These can be followed by seizures and coma. Larger doses can lead to hypokalemia (decreased potassium) and liver failure.

As soon as I found Layla eating the gum, I gave her hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting. While my other two dogs both threw up, Layla didn’t, and was rushed to the e-vet where they were finally able to get her to vomit about 45 minutes after she ate the gum. By that time she was feeling poorly enough to be cooperative with several strangers handling her, inserting a catheter and taking blood.

As of this afternoon, Layla’s prognosis is good. Her glucose and liver values are great, and she’s being kept on fluids and continually monitored. If she continues to do well, she can come home Sunday evening or Monday morning.

Layla was lucky. She was lucky that I recognized the danger soon enough to get her treated before she began showing serious symptoms. She was lucky to have a great veterinary team ready to help her. She was lucky that I have enough in savings to cover her treatment and hospitalization so that she could get the care she needs. She was lucky that she’s otherwise strong and healthy.

Not every dog is as lucky as Layla.The number of cases of xylitol toxicity continues to climb each year as this ingredient becomes more common as a sugar substitute. Many dogs don’t make it. Poisoning from other common human foods, including chocolate, grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, and onions are also sadly too common.

It’s empty in my house today, but it won’t be forever. Layla was lucky, and she will be coming home. Please make sure to keep toxic substances out of reach of your pets so that you, too, can continue to enjoy the company of your best friend for many years to come.

The Myth of the “Normal” Dog

Layla has always hated to be touched. Even as a tiny puppy, she would wiggle and jump around in social situations, moving so much that people couldn’t get their hands on her. If she was restrained, she would snarl ferociously and throw her body about, biting repeatedly in a panic until she was let go. This made veterinary exams and procedures grueling. Petting was out of the question, and anyone stupid enough to try hugging or kissing her was likely to get their face bitten.

With repeated conditioning (pairing touch with rewards), Layla has learned to tolerate handling of all kinds. I can pet her, hug her, and even kiss her without worrying about being bitten. She no longer needs to be sedated for basic procedures like toenail trimming or ear cleaning, and even allows me to give her shots or express her anal glands when necessary. She stands perfectly still at the vet clinic for blood draws, resting her chin in my hands while I gently grasp her collar.

Layla tolerates touch, but she does not enjoy it. Like many people with autism or other sensory processing disorders, she appears to be highly sensitive to touches that most dogs would not even notice. Light pressure and casual touches always prompt stress signals, even though she no longer reacts violently to them.

Layla. Photo by SC Studios.

Deep pressure, on the other hand, appears to be very enjoyable to her. Even as a tiny puppy, Layla would crawl under the covers. In fact, this seemed to be the only way that she could truly relax. She can often be found burrowed underneath a blanket, dog bed, or couch cushion. She enjoys wearing coats and her Thundershirt. She also appears to love it when I slide my hand underneath her side as she’s lying down and gently press upward or scratch her, as she will lean into the pressure. Just as weighted vests and blankets appear to help children with autism “dial down” their nervous systems, Layla appears to benefit from any sort of even, steady pressure.

Owning a dog like Layla can be frustrating. Imagine having a pet who never wants to be petted! It can feel like a personal insult when your beloved dog moves away from you every time you stroke or touch her. When I decided to bring another dog into my life, I told all of my friends and family that this time around, I wanted a “normal” dog.

The idea of the “normal” dog is an appealing one to anyone who deals with behavior problems. It’s also unrealistic and unfair. There is no such thing as “normal.” Normalcy is a lie that we tell ourselves, and it causes so much harm. Think of all of your friends and family. Who’s the most “normal” of all of them? Who’s the most “abnormal?”

Normalcy is a mental construct that we build in our minds based on our culture and our individual past history, but it’s also an unachievable standard. There is no such thing as a “normal” dog, just as there’s no such thing as a “normal” person.

Many of the behaviors that we consider abnormal are in truth entirely sane responses to the artificial and unnatural environment that we expect our dogs (and ourselves!) to cope with on a daily basis. Layla’s aversion to touch is an entirely normal response for her unique nervous system. Another one of my dogs, Dobby, seeks out touch and relaxes the most when he can snuggle up with me or with another dog. The way that he desires and is reassured by touch is entirely normal for his nervous system.

In this same vein, separation anxiety is an entirely normal response for a social animal that is kept in isolation for long hours without being taught coping skills. Leash reactivity is an entirely normal response for a dog who desires more distance from people or animals that concern her. When we look at each dog’s genetic make-up, past history, and current environment, we can begin understanding why that dog behaves in the way that he or she does. We can move past the idea of normal or abnormal behavior.

Judging your dog against other dogs you have owned, other dogs of the same breed, or what you know of dogs in general does her an incredible disservice. She is an individual, and comparing her to some ideal dog prevents you from celebrating her as an individual. Just as each of your friends and family members is special and unique, so too is your dog. What charms or delights you about your dog? What makes you laugh? What makes you proud? Is it worth it to shove a square peg into a round hole if doing so will damage the peg?

Words have power, and I think we need to be incredibly careful how we use them. Saying that you want a “normal” dog implies that your current dog is somehow less than ideal, and primes your brain to accept nothing less than your idea of perfection: a standard that no real dog will ever be able to meet.

Layla does not fit into our society’s concept of a “normal” pet dog. She doesn’t want to be touched, she opens gates and refrigerator doors, and she kills and eats any small critter she finds. That’s okay! She’s a fascinating individual, and I feel incredibly honored to know her. The relationship that we’ve built based on her uniqueness is special, and will never be replicated with any other dog. The more I listen to what she “tells” me, the more I learn about that wonderful spark that makes her who she is.