Monthly Archives: February 2012

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Dogs are not one-dimensional and their training should not be one-dimensional. The body and mind are not separate, and if you ‘train’ one, you are affecting the other.

– Leslie McDevitt

Canine Body Language: lip licks and tongue flicks

Do you speak dog?

tongue flick

lip lick

If you notice a dog licking his lips or flicking his tongue out in a social situation, he’s likely either uncomfortable himself or responding to another dog or person’s discomfort.

Both of these are oral self-soothing behaviors, much like thumb-sucking in toddlers.

When a dog licks his lips or flicks his tongue out, he’s giving you valuable information. If you notice your dog looking at you and giving either of these signals, you can signal back to him by licking your own lips, effectively telling him, “I see that you’re unsure, and don’t intend you any harm.”

What situations cause your dog to lick his lips or flick his tongue out?

The Ticket: Why Punishment Fails

In our private training practice, people often hire me after they’ve attempted to solve a behavior issue on their own or through a coercive trainer. Most frequently, this involves the use of punishment when the dog displays the unwanted behavior, such as swatting at or alpha-rolling the dog, jerking the leash, or shocking the dog with a remote collar. Almost always, the owner reports an initial improvement in the dog’s behavior using these methods. However, after a short time, they report that the dog returned to the previous level of the unwanted behavior, or may have even gotten worse. Why does this happen, and how can we prevent it?

Photo by Mark Robinson

Punishment suppresses behavior. What this means is that it temporarily “stuns” the behavior, but does not necessarily eliminate it forever. While it is absolutely possible to use punishment to address an unwanted behavior, this is difficult in real life.

Consider the human example of a speeding ticket. Speeding tickets are meant to punish the behavior of driving too fast. But do they work? Well, sort of. Right after receiving a ticket, most people begin driving more conscientiously. However, that doesn’t mean they’ll stick to the posted speed forever. Over time, that person is likely to return to their previous habit of driving too quickly (at least until the next speeding ticket).

In order for punishment to be effective, it needs to meet several criteria. First of all, it must happen every time the unwanted behavior is displayed. Secondly, it must be associated with the unwanted behavior and not with anything else. Lastly, it must be a strong enough aversive that the subject wishes to avoid it. Punishment is also contraindicated in cases of fear or aggression, as it tends to intensify these issues.

Consider what would happen if your car’s engine simply stopped running every time you drove too fast. Would this solve the problem with people speeding on our roads? Absolutely! The punisher would happen every time the behavior was displayed (criterion #1). It would be associated with the unwanted behavior and not with anything else (criterion #2). And of course, it would be a strong enough deterrant that people would not want to risk having their car stall out on their way to their destination (criterion #3).

Is this possible for our dogs? Well, sometimes. However, it’s difficult at best, and there are some pretty big hurdles to overcome. We’ve talked about some of the dangers of punishment, such as fallout, in the past. So, what can you do? Punishment is tricky to use, and may not fix the problem behavior. We use positive reinforcement (reward-based training) to instead teach the dog what we want him to do in place of the unwanted behavior. By teaching the dog an acceptable alternative, we show him how to be successful and eliminate the unwanted behavior at the same time.

Problem behaviors are frustrating, and it can be tempting to punish your dog to get him to stop. Next time you’re tempted, consider how effective this is likely to be. What can you teach your dog to do instead? By teaching an acceptable behavior to replace the unwanted one, you can fix the problem forever instead of just temporarily stunning it.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

“My message would be simple: training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care. Everyone who has a pet should understand that basic fact. Training is a way to enhance the quality of life for our pets. It is far more than just teaching a dog to do a cute trick. Training is about teaching a dog (or any animal) how to live in our world safely.”

– Ken Ramirez, Director of Training & Behavior, Shedd Aquarium

What the Dog Heard

“He’s so stubborn. He knows how to sit; he just won’t do it unless I show him a treat.” My client glares at his bulldog puppy. The puppy gazes back at him softly, waiting for him to produce a treat. The second the owner pulls out a cookie, the puppy plops into a sit, grinning and wiggling.

Keeping my amusement to myself (what a clever pup!), I demonstrate to his owner how to reverse expectations. Showing the puppy a piece of chicken, I ask him to sit.He immediately plops down and I praise him exuberantly, but withhold the treat. Very ostentatiously, I set the chicken chunk on a nearby counter, then ask the puppy once again to sit. He stares at me, at the chicken, back at me. He remains standing. “Told you so!” the owner crows. “Bulldogs just aren’t very smart.” Ten long seconds later, the puppy’s rear end starts to lower. Before he’s fully in a sit, I click his downward movement and hand him the chicken, telling him what an intelligent pup he is. After a couple of minutes the puppy is slamming his rear enthusiastically on the ground on either a hand signal or verbal cue with no food lure. Stubborn? No, just confused about the rules.

I can understand my client’s need to label his puppy as stubborn and stupid. Last winter, I adopted a broken dog. I had been looking for a dog for a while. However, I hadn’t been looking for this particular dog.

Dobby started off as one of a long line of foster dogs. A neophobic mixed breed from the local pound, he was adorable but was most certainly not the future competition prospect I had in mind. He was hand shy, terrified of doorways, and so overwhelmed with his change in circumstances that he skipped every other meal. Trying to use a food lure or hand target resulted in him hitting the ground and trying to become one with the floor. Guests to my home caused him to growl and back up quickly, eyes wide and tail glued to his belly button.

My other dog, Layla, had different ideas about him. She fell in love, sleeping curled up around this dog and spontaneously inviting him to play on a daily basis. Since she’s typically highly dog-selective and only tolerates fosters, this was so out of character that I sat up and took notice. After two months of her embarrassing love affair, I gave in. The adoption paperwork was signed, and I found myself the proud owner of a dog who flattened to the floor and peed all over himself if I so much as looked at him cross-eyed.

I joked with my friends that I was just attracted to “broken” dogs. My other dogs have also been less-than-perfect when they came to live with me. I tried not to feel resentful that my plans for a competitive sports dog were being pushed back several years. It was worth it to see Layla so blissfully happy.

That’s when it hit me. I may not be calling my new dog stubborn or stupid, but labeling him as a “broken” dog was just as damning.

Words have power. It’s easy to forget this. In fact, our culture refutes this truth on a daily basis. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a lie that we tell ourselves from the time we’re little. It feels good to think that we’re immune to the power of suggestion. We’re stronger than that. We know how to look at facts and think rationally. How well we fool ourselves.

The real truth is that labels are incredibly powerful. One need look no further than the “Pit Bull problem” to see how this plays out. Two similar bite incidents happen on the same day. Both involve damage to a young child’s face by the resident dog. One involves a Labrador Retriever, one an American Pit Bull Terrier. The incident with the Lab is reported in two local papers. The incident with the Pit Bull is picked up by the Associated Press and winds up sparking debate on multiple national news shows about the need for Breed Specific Legislation. Label the biting dog with a different breed, and the headlines become so much less sexy. Pit Bulls are not Labradors, and Labs are not Pits. However, the “Pit Bull” label has come to mean something entirely different to the general public and the media than it does to those of us who work with these dogs on a regular basis. Dogs are profiled based on the size of their head and the mass of their muscles rather than being approached as individuals.

By calling my dog broken, even jokingly, I was damaging our prospects before we even started. Any time we label something, we create mental associations. When I think of the word broken, I think of having to repair something, of possibly not being able to fix it. Word associations pop up in my mind: discarded, unusable, neglected, thrown out, useless. These mental images were being attached, however unconsciously, to my new dog.

Realizing this, I decided to try an experiment. I had already begun a desensitization and counter-conditioning program with Dobby, taking him to quiet places and rewarding him lavishly for brave behavior. I was working within his comfort zone and patiently encouraging him to explore the world. I changed absolutely nothing about this training plan. The only detail I altered was how I described him. Instead of speaking about Dobby as broken, rescued, neophobic, or terrified, I invented new labels. Clicking and feeding him a food reward for walking through a doorway without crouching, I cooed to him about what a “big, brave boy” he was. When he finally started to offer sits, I praised him as “SUCH a clever boy!” Over and over, the little dog heard, “Dobby’s clever.” “Dobby’s brave.” “Dobby’s a good dog.”

I expected results. I’d been seeing progress already, and I figured this small change could only improve things. After four months, if my little dog was still so terrified that it impacted his quality of life, I would talk to my veterinarian about a referral to a board certified veterinary behaviorist to get him further help.

This proved unnecessary. Suddenly, my “neophobic pound puppy” was playing tug like a Schutzhund dog and jumping up on strangers in friendly greeting. He would go into the backyard with a ball in his mouth to run and run, tail up and eyes sparkling. He bounced around me as I worked in the garden, and pranced past the bikes, joggers, and baseball players in the park as if they were only so much scenery. He passed the “appearance and grooming” test in the Canine Good Citizen exam, sitting calmly by my side as a complete stranger handled his ears and paws, then ran a brush down his back.

Each day he became braver, and suddenly I had my competition prospect. Here was a dog with a great work ethic, drive to spare, and the intense desire to work cooperatively with me. Here was a dog who, while still unsure about new things, was willing to trust that I would keep him safe and to try his very best each time I asked it. The only difference? A few small words. The power of suggestion.

It’s true that dogs couldn’t care less about words. Words are as foreign a concept to your dog as scent is to you. However, dogs live in a human world. In our world, words have incredible power. Mental imagery allows us to practice dealing successfully (or not!) with a given situation repeatedly before that situation ever arises. Labels create subconscious associations that influence our behavior, which in turn shapes our dogs’ behavior.

Simple changes can produce big results. My new dog is brave, clever, and willing. He’s even earned his very first APDT Rally Obedience title and was able to walk through the busy trial site, with crowds of unfamiliar people and dogs, with his ears and tail up. My client’s Bulldog puppy is stubborn no more. On graduation night of Beginning Obedience class, he proudly showed off his dog’s new trick repertoire: shake, wave, high five, and yes, sit on cue with no cookie in sight. As his classmates applauded, a fellow student expressed doubt that her dog would ever become so well behaved. My client’s answer? “My dog made it easy: he’s really smart.”

Dogs are incredibly gifted at reading intent in our tone, posture, and movement. Just because they don’t know the literal meaning of each word doesn’t mean they aren’t influenced by language. Stop for a minute and consider this: what have you been saying to yourself… and what has your dog heard?

Responsible Breeders

While I support dog rescue, and some of the very nicest dogs I’ve met have been from shelters and rescues, I understand that some people may prefer to go to a breeder to get their next pet. There is a legitimate need for healthy, friendly pet companions, and there are thousands of breeders out there who claim to produce such. So, how can you be sure that the breeder you choose is responsible?

Photo credit: xanboozled on flickr

There are several things I look for when screening breeders. First, and most importantly, I want to find a breeder who cares about the dogs she produces. What steps does the breeder take to make sure her puppies never end up abandoned in a shelter? Does the breeder require that she be notified before you rehome the puppy, or that puppies be returned to her? Does she microchip the puppies before placing them? Can she tell you where every one of the previous puppies she’s placed are right now? Bottom line: if the breeder doesn’t know what’s happened to her puppies after they’ve gone to their new homes, I do not consider her responsible.

If someone is going to bring new lives into a country where 4 million dogs die every year, she needs to make absolutely sure her puppies are not among those filling up our shelters and rescues. In fact, she will likely sell the majority of her puppies on a limited registration (for purebred dogs) or even a spay/neuter contract, to ensure that they are not being indiscriminately bred. Some breeders even have their puppies spayed or neutered at 8 weeks before placing them.

A responsible breeder cares more about health and temperament than about physical appearance. There are genetic issues that affect every breed of dog, and responsible breeders screen for these. Even mixed breeds should be screened for issues common to the parent breeds. Understand that this is not the same as “vet checked,” but rather a more thorough screening of the dog’s hips, elbows, heart, thyroid, vision, hearing, etc. Research your chosen breed or mix to find out which tests your breeder should be doing, and ask to see the results for the parents. Avoid breeders who breed for extremes, such as exceptionally large or small dogs, flat faces, long backs, or wrinkly skin, as these extremes are known to cause multiple health issues down the road.

Temperament is equally important. Many behavioral issues, such as resource guarding, dog- or human-aggression, fear, and noise phobias (to name a few) have a strong genetic basis. A dog’s baseline level of drive (how focused and motivated a dog is) and energy level are also largely determined by genes. If you would not be absolutely thrilled to live with either of your chosen puppy’s parents, strongly reconsider purchasing that puppy. The breeder should be happy to introduce you to the puppy’s mother and to tell you all about the father. Parents who have been shown, whether in conformation (for purebreds) or dog sports such as obedience or agility, are great as that tells you that the breeder is serious about working with and evaluating her breeding stock.

A good breeder socializes her puppies. She handles them all over their bodies. She provides environmental enrichment with different climbing and play surfaces, different toys, and different sounds. She has lots of visitors handle her puppies, and exposes them to crates and car rides. She encourages (or even requires!) puppy classes, and keeps the puppies until they’re at least 8 weeks old so that they don’t miss out on important social development from their mom and littermates.

Finally, a good breeder wants to make sure that you’re going to be a good match for her puppy. To that end, expect her to interview you. She should tell you about the positive and negative aspects of living with your chosen breed or mix. If your potential breeder offers to meet you in a McDonald’s parking lot or lets you order the puppy off a website with your credit card, run away!

So, where can you find this good breeder? Ask around! Ask your vet, your trainer, your groomer, and your dog walker. If you’re interested in a purebred, ask the local breed club and attend shows to meet good breeders and their dogs. Check out email lists and online forums devoted to your chosen breed or mix. Check with rescues who work with the breed or mix you’re interested in: many of the best breeders are also very involved with rescue, and rescues can also tell you who to avoid.

Have you ever purchased a dog from a breeder? If so, do you feel your breeder was responsible? Why or why not? If you breed dogs, how do you ensure that you’re producing the best puppies possible? Please share your thoughts and comments below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts.
Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts.
Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me…
Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.

~ Shel Silverstein


I’m often asked what I think of Cesar Milan, the trainer from the popular television show “The Dog Whisperer” on National Geographic. This topic has created more controversy within and outside of the dog training profession than almost any other topic in years, with multiple professional organizations speaking out against Mr. Milan and his methods, and thousands of experienced dog trainers protesting against his show.

While I vehemently disagree with some of the methods Mr. Milan uses, I also have to acknowledge that he’s done some good for dogs. By bringing dog training to television, Cesar has encouraged many owners who previously lived with poorly behaved dogs to seek professional help. Educating owners that dog behavior problems are usually fixable with the help of an experienced trainer has brought relief to the families of many anxious, aggressive, and fearful dogs, not to mention the dogs themselves.

I agree with Mr. Milan that dogs need exercise, that they need to have rules and structure in their day-to-day lives, and that owners often need to stop feeling badly about a dog’s past and instead focus on the present and future. These are all important topics, and I commend him for discussing them. I also appreciate his positive portrayals of the Pit Bull breed, as the majority of these dogs are lovely, affectionate, playful pets…. nothing like the blood-thirsty monsters often portrayed by the media.

All that said, I strongly advise my clients against attempting any of the techniques they see on the Dog Whisperer show. The “don’t try this at home” warnings on the screen are there for a reason, and much of what Cesar Milan does is potentially harmful for both ends of the leash. Here’s the thing: in addition to his impressive presense and his experience handling dogs, Mr. Milan has the support of a full staff of cameramen and television crewmembers, the magic of the editing room, and absolutely no problem being bitten – none of which tends to apply to the average pet owner.

Much of Mr. Milan’s training theory is based on outdated research done on captive wolf packs, and while status may play a role in some dogs’ behavior issues, the idea that acting like an “alpha” wolf will fix any problem is simplistic and dangerous. The use of punishment and the outdated dominance theory is likely to cause a host of other issues. Clicker training is effective, kind, and produces great results. By managing your dog, setting clear rules and expectations, providing for his needs, and teaching him what he should do in any given situation, you can resolve even difficult issues. Even better, these techniques can be tried at home, no warnings necessary!

Carbon-Copy Dogs

Oftentimes, people will call or email me before signing up for class to ask if I have experience with their specific breed. Training dogs professionally for 8 years and working in the shelter and rescue world for 10, there are very few breeds I don’t have direct experience with. It’s true that knowing a dog’s breed can be helpful in training him. However, I think we oftentimes do dogs a huge disservice by focusing on their breed rather than on them as individuals.

Photo credit: emdot on flickr

Genetics absolutely influence behavior. We know that compulsive behaviors, fear, shyness, reactivity, resource guarding, and dog aggression often appear in certain lines of dogs. In fact, genetics are so important that I advise puppy owners to run away from any breeder who won’t let them meet a puppy’s mother. Furthermore, if mom or dad exhibit any behavioral traits you do not want in your new puppy (perhaps mom is shy, and you have 3 young children, for example), it’s better not to get a puppy from that breeding. Genetics are important.

All that said, genetic predispositions do not create identical dogs. If you have a sibling, do you look and act just like them? Are you an exact replica of your mom or dad? It’s easy to see how ludicrous this idea becomes when we look at human examples. Dogs are no different.

Clients often tell me, “my last [insert breed here] was never like this,” as if stunned that their new puppy isn’t following in their previous dog’s pawsteps. I’ve written before about the myth that certain breeds need to be “shown who’s boss,” and there’s nothing more likely to get my dander up than hearing this harmful lie perpetuated. How would you like it if your school teachers had judged you based on an older sibling’s personality?

I frequently get asked what “kind” of dog my two are. People are impressed by my dogs’ intelligence or abilities, and so want to know where they can get a dog like that. Sometimes I’ll tell them that my dogs are Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dogs, a breed I made up because I hear this question so often. In reality, both of my dogs are mixed breeds, likely descended from a long line of mixes. They may have had a purebred grandparent or great-grandparent, but they’re not anything particular. They’re just dogs. I have no desire to know what breeds may have contributed to their gene pool, because the point is irrelevant. They’re great pets and fun performance dogs. Why should I care who their great-great grandmother was?

It’s time to stop focusing on breeds and start looking at our dogs as individuals. Sure, many Border Collies may tend to be good at agility. But if your Border Collie would prefer to walk in the woods or nap on the couch, there’s nothing wrong with her. Many Bassett Hounds are calm, sedate companions, but if your Bassett loves to play tug and run around with you, there’s no reason you can’t get an OTCH with him or compete in agility.

The take-home message is that dogs, like people, are unique. Choose a dog based on characteristics you want, such as size, energy level, grooming needs, structure, and sociability. However, once you have that dog or puppy in your home, take the time to get to know him. Figure out what he likes and dislikes, and work with him based on the information you’ve discovered. Let him tell you who he is. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find out.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

We need to listen to our dogs more.

– Turid Rugaas