Monthly Archives: October 2011

Normal Dog Sociability Levels

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Busting Myths About the Gentle Leader

Earlier we talked about why I use and recommend the Gentle Leader head collar. There are quite a few myths out there about it, so let’s explore those now. Some people say that it’s inhumane. They say that dogs hate it. I frequently hear that it’s dangerous, since a dog could injure his neck while wearing it. All of these statements are untrue.

Let’s start with the accusation that the Gentle Leader is inhumane. In order to be inhumane, a device must cause pain or injury or it must be frightening to the subject. The Gentle Leader does not cause pain in dogs any more than a regular horse halter hurts horses. There are no sharp prongs that dig into the dog, nor are there electric shock currents to zap him. It doe not frighten the dog with sudden jerks, jabs, sprays, or noises. It works on simple leverage, much like any of the front-attach harnesses. When a dog pulls on the Gentle Leader, he finds his head guided around in a circle so that he ends up looking back at his handler.

Next, the risk of injury. This accusation always strikes me as funny, since when my dog injured her neck and upper back, the veterinary chiropractor specifically recommended that I use a Gentle Leader on her to minimize the chance of re-injury. Layla was actually paralyzed for a short while due to 2 herniated discs, and the risk of re-injury (including becoming paralyzed again) was unknown. My vet was concerned that a standard collar or harness would put pressure on her injured discs, especially if she lunged or jerked on the leash suddenly, and didn’t want her to wear either one.

People who claim that the Gentle Leader can injure a dog usually express concern about a whiplash-type injury to the neck if the dog hits the end of the leash quickly or with great force. They say that the Gentle Leader will snap the dog’s neck. This ignores simple physics. If a dog hits the end of the leash while wearing the Gentle Leader, it will start to turn him towards you. If he has a lot of force behind his lunge, that force will flow through all of his body, turning him further towards you. This means that a dog walking to the end of the leash may just be turned slightly towards you, with his body still facing the direction he was going, while a dog lunging to the end of the leash will end up with his entire body facing you. I believe the risk of injury to actually be less with a Gentle Leader, since in a standard collar the dog would receive a harsh jerk to his sensitive throat at the end of a lunge.

Here’s the truth: the Premier company and the co-inventor of the Gentle Leader, Dr. R.K. Anderson, have investigated numerous claims of neck/whiplash injury caused by the Gentle Leader since it was first put on the market, and have never been able to confirm a single case. If the Gentle Leader was hurting dogs, we would know by now. It’s just not happening.

Lastly, we come to the claim that dogs hate the Gentle Leader. This is most often due to incorrect fit. If the back neck strap is not adjusted snugly enough, it will slide around and annoy the dog. This may also cause the nose band to be adjusted too tightly, which is restrictive and will also annoy the dog. If your dog doesn’t like his Gentle Leader, check the fit! You should only be able to fit one finger under the neck strap, and the nose band should be as loose as it can go without coming off.

I can tell you that in 8 years of professional training with thousands of dogs, I have only found 2 dogs who I felt were too upset by the Gentle Leader to use it. Both dogs were Pit Bull types, and one ended up having an infected tooth. The other one had some scars on his face and was generally wary about having his face touched, so likely had some past history of pain there.

It’s true that dogs often need to adjust to the Gentle Leader. However, in my experience, dogs don’t paw at a Gentle Leader any longer or more violently than puppies paw at their very first collar or harness. I find that this adjustment process goes incredibly quickly and is just not a problem. Simply associating the Gentle Leader with pleasant things for 1-2 days will usually do the trick.

I hope this helps to clear up all of the common misconceptions about this great training tool! Like any tool, the goal should be to only use the Gentle Leader while training, then transition away from it. Have you heard any of these myths before? What training tools have you found to be the most successful when working with your dog? I look forward to hearing from you!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Check out this short video of Dobby learning to heel. Dobby’s toy drive is much stronger than his food drive, but over time he’s learned to work for a variety of rewards. In addition, by playing the It’s Your Choice game, he’s learned to work even when there’s something he wants on the ground or a tug toy dangling next to him. As he continues to mature and gets more training under his belt, he’ll be able to work for longer periods of time with higher levels of distraction. A two-minute-long training session like this is the perfect length for a young dog.

What are your dog’s favorite rewards, and how long do you train for at a time? Tell us below!

“It’s Your Choice:” Teaching Self Control

The “It’s Your Choice” game was originally introduced to me by Susan Garrett. It’s a great game to teach self control to adult dogs and puppies.

My goal is always self rather than imposed control. This means that I don’t want to have to manage my dog forever, but rather teach him to manage himself and control his emotions.

Axel plays the It's Your Choice game with a piece of hot dog on the ground. By controlling himself, he may earn a click and a treat. Axel is available for adoption through Southern Star Miniature Pinscher Rescue.

Most dogs have relatively poor self control. While it’s normal for puppies and adolescent dogs to exhibit poor emotional control, it’s amazing to me how many adult dogs have no idea how to control themselves. These dogs often become hysterical when they can’t get something they want, lunging, barking, and throwing themselves around. These dogs need the “It’s Your Choice” game.

The premise of the game is simple. It’s the dog’s choice to control himself in the presence of temptation.

This game can be started with treats (we do this in all of our Beginning Obedience classes as a “leave it” exercise), but should quickly be transferred to real life situations. I’ll discuss how I use it in real life.

Let’s say I’m walking my adolescent dog, and a squirrel darts out in front of us. As soon as he sees the squirrel, he begins straining at the leash and barking loudly. He’s clearly not controlling himself, so this is a perfect time to use the It’s Your Choice game.

The first step is to start backing away from the temptation. I already mentioned that I use a Gentle Leader headcollar when training a dog, and it’s very important here. If my dog were on a regular collar, he could continue looking at the squirrel as we backed away. If my dog’s on a Gentle Leader, I use gentle leash pressure to turn his head away from the squirrel towards me as I back up. I back up 6-10 steps, then let the leash go slack.

This is the moment of truth. It’s the dog’s choice.

If my dog makes the correct choice and offers me attention or begins playing the Look at That game (more about this in later posts), I reward him. Remember that rewards can be whatever the dog is motivated by. In some cases I may click and treat, but with most dogs I’ll click and take a step closer to the squirrel, since that’s what my dog really wants in this situation. My dog quickly learns that by offering me attention and controlling himself, he’s able to get closer to what he wants.

If my dog cannot make the correct choice, I don’t get upset. Instead, I just start another round of the It’s Your Choice game, again turning his head away from the temptation and backing up 6-10 steps. I’ll continue to do this until we get far enough away for my dog to make the choice I want.

So, does your dog have good self control? Have you ever played the It’s Your Choice game, and if so how did it go? Let us know in the comments!

Every Life Has Worth: Why Compassion Holds are Important

I want to write about an issue that’s near and dear to my heart: compassion holds.

You don’t hear much about compassion holds in the rescue community, and it makes me sad. I understand that compassion holds may be a difficult topic for some people to hear about, but I also think that they’re under-utilized by many rescues. Some rescues don’t even do them. This is a shame, since they’re a very big way to make a difference for a needy animal.

So, what is a compassion hold? In the simplest sense, it’s a way to ensure that the last days of a suffering animal’s life are filled with love, safety, and dignity. It’s a humane act.

There are two kinds of compassion hold cases: behavioral and medical. I do both.

Medical compassion holds are done in cases where an animal is not adoptable due to a severe medical problem. This could be untreatable cancer, severe wounds that the shelter or rescue deems untreatable, puppies with congenital conditions (such as severe heart murmurs or liver shunts) who will not live to adulthood, or senior dogs who don’t have long left.

15-year-old Paddy was found as a stray and never claimed. He spent 43 wonderful days with me, happy, loved, and free of pain. He adored visitors and would snoot at them hopefully for treats.

Behavioral compassion holds are in some ways much harder, as these are animals who are young and healthy, but are not adoptable due to severe behavior issues (usually aggression). These animals are not at fault. They have been damaged by people, and because of the horrible things that have been done to them or neglect they have received, they cannot safely be placed.

Whether a dog is not adoptable due to behavioral or medical issues, my stance is the same. Every life has value. No dog deserves to spend his final days afraid, alone, or in pain. This is why I do compassion holds.

When a dog comes to me for a compassion hold, they come to live with me for a period of time. For behavioral cases, this is usually one or two days. Medical cases vary, depending on how long the animal can remain happy, comfortable, and pain-free.

While in my care, the dog is given when makes him or her happy. This could be walks, massages, ball games, or just lots of quiet time to sleep and recover from a stay in a shelter. I ask the dog what he or she wants, and try to honor their individual choices. I provide a safe, supportive environment. I tell the dog over and over that he is a good dog, that I love him, and that he is safe. I talk to him quietly and touch him gently. I provide stuffed kongs, good food, and soft beds. I work with a veterinarian to provide appropriate medical care: pain meds for medical cases, anxiety meds or mild sedatives for some behavioral cases.

When the time comes for an animal to be euthanized, the veterinarian comes to my house or we meet somewhere else where the animal feels safe and comfortable. We use treats and sedatives as necessary to make the dog feel okay about the vet. I encourage the dog to climb on my lap and talk to him softly, holding him and petting him. I tell him what a good dog he is and thank him for coming to stay with me for awhile. I tell him I love him. The veterinarian is gentle as he or she injects the euthanasia solution, and the dog slips away peacefully. For some dogs, it is the first time I ever see their face without raw fear, without pain, without worry. I don’t believe that death is always the worst thing that can happen to a dog.

Are compassion holds difficult? Of course. People often tell me that they couldn’t stand to do what I do, that it would be too painful, and I can respect that. We all help however we can. That said, I think this misses the point. Pretending that euthanasia doesn’t happen in the rescue community isn’t going to make it true. If I can bring a dog into my home so that he doesn’t have to spend his final days in a cage, I can make an enormous difference to that dog. I can hold true to my morals and make sure his life is valued and he is treated as an individual, with love and dignity. I can be humane.

The logistics of each compassion case are different. For behavioral cases, I usually have my own dogs go elsewhere for the length of the hold, both for their safety (oftentimes the dogs I take in are dog-dog aggressive) and for the peace of the dog who I’m bringing in (my dogs aren’t exactly the easiest pack to live with). If I didn’t feel comfortable having the dog in my home (and in some cases, I haven’t due to extreme aggression), I still try to do something for that dog’s final hours – perhaps a walk with two people (with the dog double-leashed), a McDonald’s cheeseburger or full jar of peanut butter in his kennel, or a bunch of paper bags to shred apart. Behavioral compassion cases aren’t something to be attempted by the average foster home with little knowledge for dog behavior or body language, and each rescue should respect that and be sure that they are placing these cases safely. That said, these dogs deserve it. They don’t deserve to be blamed for what poor breeding, no socialization, abuse, or neglect has done to them. They deserve their last few hours to be pleasant.

Medical cases are a little easier, since these dogs often don’t have behavior issues. Still, a working knowledge of basic medical care is important. I’m a certified vet tech, and this background gives me the knowledge base to assess a dog’s changing condition. If I notice a dog’s vitals weakening, I can seek medical care for him quickly so he doesn’t suffer. If a dog has a seizure, gets explosive diarrhea, or suddenly starts limping, I’m not going to panic or become upset. These cases are easier for fosters new to compassion holds to begin taking, and are a great place for a rescue who hasn’t previously offered compassion holds to start.

So, have you ever heard about compassion holds, or done one yourself? Does your local rescue do this? If you feel like a compassion hold is something you may have the ability to do, I would strongly encourage you to contact your rescue and ask. Ask if they do compassion holds, and if not, ask if they would consider starting such a program. Every life has worth. Every animal deserves safety, dignity, and compassion. No animal should spend his final moments alone, afraid, or pain.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Easy Cheese cans can provide a portable, high-value treat. The contents can also shoot across a room and onto the ceiling if punctured (such as by a dog tooth). Make sure to keep any cheese cans out of reach of your dog!

What’s the biggest mess your dog has ever made? Tell us in the comments!

The “Human Food” Myth

We frequently hear it in training class: “I won’t give my dog any human food.” Let’s explore this common misconception.

Human food, or dog treats? You decide! (Photo credit: Flickr)

There are two reasons most people abstain from feeding their dog “people food:” health and behavior. We’ll explore both.

For starters, let’s talk about behavior issues that could be caused by feeding your dog anything but commercial dog treats. Many people worry that if they start feeding their dog “human” food, the dog will begin begging or stealing food. This is a legitimate concern: these behaviors are very upsetting to many people. However, it’s frankly not a problem.

Dogs beg or steal food because they’ve been rewarded for it, pure and simple. This is a management issue. This is not an issue that is caused by your treat choice. If you never feed your dog from the table or counter, your dog will not associate the chicken you use at training class with the same stuff you cook for your family. That said, if you slip up once and sneak a piece of food to your dog during dinnertime, he’s not likely to soon forget that, and you may have a begging problem for a long time afterwards! A similar rule applies for food stealing: if your dog steals food off your counter once, he’s likely to do so again. Keep your counters clean until you know your dog has been trained well enough not to counter surf.

What about health issues? First of all, there is no such thing as “people food” and “dog food.” Food is food. There aren’t separate farms out there raising chickens for dogs to eat and chickens for people to eat. The only thing separating most dog food from most human food is the quality of the ingredients: dog food and treats often contains waste products of the human food industry.

Read the ingredient label of your dog’s favorite treats, and you will [hopefully!] see ingredients such as chicken, beef, or lamb. You may also see other ingredients like wheat flour, corn gluten meal, corn syrup, or soy protein isolate. Here’s a secret: the only difference between the chicken in your dog’s favorite treats and the chicken breasts you can buy at the grocery store is the quality and price. The chicken that goes into dog treats is usually quite poor quality, and you’ll often pay much more per pound for commercial dog treats than you would for plain chicken. As an added bonus, the plain chicken you buy at the grocery store doesn’t have all that extra junk (corn gluten meal, corn syrup, etc) mixed in with it. It’s actually healthier for your dog than the commercial treats.

So, why does your dog’s stomach get upset when you give him “real” food? There are two things that are likely to upset his system: variety when he’s not used to it, and too much fat.

Imagine you never ate anything but McDonald’s cheeseburgers for an entire year. Let’s say that’s what you have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for 365 days. Then, on the 366th day, let’s say you have a nice steak and salad for dinner. What do you think your system would do? You’d probably have an upset stomach. This can happen to dogs, too. If they never eat anything but the same kibble, day in and day out for years, their systems may overreact when they get fed something different. If this sounds like your dog, it’s a simple fix: begin introducing variety in very small amounts. Once a dog is used to eating variety, upset stomachs are rare.

Too much fat can be the other culprit for an upset stomach, and this is again quite easy to avoid. I usually use whatever meat is on sale at the grocery store for training treats, making sure to select leaner cuts. I bake the meat, then rinse off any fat with cool water before cutting it up. By avoiding fatty meats (such as pork or turkey) and rinsing off extra fat, I create my own healthy training treats inexpensively. Even expensive meats, such as lamb, are often much cheaper per pound than a bag of commercial dog treats!

Do you feed your dog “people food” in training, and what are his favorite treats? Do you make home-made treats for him, or do you rely on commercial dog treats? We want to hear from you! Please comment below.

In Praise of the Gentle Leader

The Gentle Leader is a special collar that fits on a dog’s head, much like a halter on a horse. It’s one of my favorite training tools, and also one of the most misunderstood among both the general public and professional trainers.

I use the Gentle Leader for every foster dog who comes through my doors, and it’s rare for a dog not to be as comfortable wearing it as a regular flat collar within 2 days. The secret? I put the Gentle Leader on before pleasant things (mealtime, walks, playtime, Kong time, etc), and take it off when the pleasant activity is finished. I also ignore any pawing. I find that many owners unintentionally reward this pawing because they pay attention to it. My dogs are trained to stick their noses through the nose loop of the Gentle Leader as soon as I hold it out, and they do this happily because they know it means Good Things Are Going to Happen.

So, why do I like the Gentle Leader? For me, this management tool makes the training process quicker and more effective. If I can control my dog’s head, I can control my dog’s focus. I’m able to redirect him if he becomes focused on a squirrel, another dog, or a biker outside. I’m able to teach him right from the start to walk on a loose leash, not to bark, and to sit politely for greetings. There’s a reason veterinary behaviorists and well-known professional trainers use Gentle Leaders with their own and clients’ dogs. They work. They’re humane. They’re effective. They save owners time and prevent dogs from engaging in bad behavior until the dog is trained.

The Gentle Leader is a must-have for working with aggressive or reactive dogs, but I also use it in basic training with all puppies and adolescents, or with untrained or strong adults. There are so many uses! A Gentle Leader and drag-line in my house allows me to teach house manners quickly and easily.

My goal is always to train every dog to a point where he doesn’t need any equipment (including a collar or leash). I find that the Gentle Leader is a great place to start the training process, but I don’t stop there. I work with the dog and teach him to walk nicely on leash, ignore distractions, and greet people politely. Once he knows these skills, we fade the Gentle Leader and the dog instead wears a flat buckle collar on his neck. I could certainly teach these skills on that flat collar to start with, but I find that dogs just learn faster with the Gentle Leader, and it’s easy enough to fade.

In the future, we’ll discuss some of the most common myths and misconceptions surrounding the Gentle Leader, other training tools I use, and some of the training games I play using the Gentle Leader. In the meantime, please comment below with your thoughts. Have you ever used a Gentle Leader (or any other brand of head collar), and what did you think? Did your dog adjust easily to it? What other training tools have you found to be helpful?

Tame the Teenage Beast

Dealing with an adolescent dog? You’re not alone! We’ve got the ultimate survival guide to get you through the “terrible twos” and help you find that sweet inner puppy who seems to have disappeared. We’ll talk about what to expect during a normal adolescence, how to calm a hyper pup, exercise and training tips to help you maintain your sanity, and some lifesaving hints to get you through this often-frustrating stage. Help is on its way! Even if you don’t have an adolescent dog, we can help prepare you for your next one.

This talk will be held at Rochester Feed and Country Store tomorrow (October 15th) from 1-2pm. It’s open to the public, and free to attend! Donations will be collected for the Southern Star Miniature Pinscher Rescue. I hope you can join us!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

(Click the photo to make it bigger.)

Canine Body Language quiz: What’s this puppy saying? Is this good puppy socialization? Why or why not? Comment with your thoughts below!