Monthly Archives: March 2012

Littermate Syndrome

Getting two dogs at the same time seems like a great idea. Dogs are social animals, and a dog who will be alone all day can easily turn to destructive behavior or become anxious. Two puppies can entertain each other and keep each other company. So, what’s the problem with bringing home two puppies at once?

Professional trainers like myself recommend against getting bringing home two puppies. While this sounds like a good plan in theory, in practice it often causes quite a bit of heartache and trouble.

In addition to the problems one might expect with bringing home siblings such as double food and vet costs and double the potty training work, we need to focus on how the puppies will develop. Puppies’ brains continue developing until they hit sexual maturity (and even a bit beyond that), and there’s some convincing research out there that bringing two puppies home at the same time prevents one of the puppies from reaching his or her full potential.

Luckily for us, this topic has been researched extensively by someone who knows all about creating behaviorally sound puppies: guide dog organizations. One of the biggest problems that guide dog organizations run into is that puppy raisers are hard to come by. Puppy raisers are families who agree to raise future guide dog puppies, socializing them and teaching them basic obedience. This isn’t an easy job, and the emotional impact of giving up their puppies after a year of bonding and hard work means that many families are reluctant to repeat the experience.

In order to maximize the use of their volunteer puppy raisers, one guide dog organization decided to try an experiment. Willing homes were given not one, but two puppies to raise, thereby doubling the number of puppies the guide dog organization could work with. Puppies born to these organizations are tested before being placed and are tracked throughout their growth and development. What the organization found was startling. Placing two puppies in the same household always caused one puppy to become temperamentally unsuitable for work, even when both puppies started off as perfect candidates.

When two puppies are placed together, they learn to rely on each other. One of the puppies always becomes shy, even when both puppies started off as bold and outgoing. This is a huge problem, since it means that the shy puppy never reaches his or her potential. In fact, this was such a major issue that the guide dog experiment was quickly halted, and to this day guide dog organizations only place one puppy at a time in puppy raisers’ homes, even when the homes are highly experienced.

In addition to one puppy becoming shy, there are other behavioral implications for two puppies who are adopted at the same time. Oftentimes even the “bold” puppy turns out to be quite nervous and uncertain when separated from his or her littermate. Furthermore, the puppies frequently become incredibly co-dependent, exhibiting heartbreaking anxiety when separated from one another. They often fail to bond to their human family as strongly as they otherwise would, or sometimes at all. At social maturity, these puppies may begin fighting with one another, sometimes quite severely.

Even puppies who are not related can exhibit littermate syndrome when placed together. Professional trainers recommend against getting two puppies within six months of one another, because the risks are just too high. This doesn’t even take into consideration the other practical considerations, such as the increased costs of vet care, food, supplies, and training; the extra work of training and caring for two dogs; or the time requirements of two active puppies.

Can littermate syndrome be prevented? Theoretically, yes, however it’s so difficult as to be nearly impossible in practice. Remember, even experienced guide dog puppy raisers aren’t expected to be able to prevent this issue from developing. At a bare minimum, the two puppies would need to be crated and cared for separately, including separate walks, training classes, and playtime with their owners. The puppies need to have more one-on-one time with their new owners than they have with each other, effectively doubling the work and negating any of the possible benefits (i.e. companionship) that they were adopted together for in the first place.

The bottom line is that puppies do best when brought home separately. If you want multiple dogs, consider purchasing or adopting adult dogs who are already done developing instead.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Shalise's old man, Dexter.

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

-The Velveteen Rabbit

Teaching “go to your bed” (step two)

This is Trout’s second training session on “go to your bed.”

At this point, she’s offering to go to her bed and lie down, so I can begin working on adding distractions so that she understands that she should stay on her bed until she’s released. Later in the session I also begin to add the cue.

(Trout is available for adoption through Secondhand Hounds. Her name on the website there is Lucy Lue.)

Teaching “go to your bed”

This is baby Trout’s first training session and first time seeing the mat.

Step 1: Hold your dog’s bed and wait for your dog to show interest in it. As soon as she does, set it on the ground. Click the second she glances towards it and toss the treat on the bed.

Step 2: Click and treat rapidly, tossing treats on the bed. After multiple clicks and treats, give the dog her release cue (I use the word “break” here) and pick the bed up.

Step 3: Wait quietly for the dog to show interest in her bed. As soon as she does, put the bed back down and begin clicking and treating rapidly for interactions again. Repeat this step several times.

Step 4: Once the dog is reliably going towards her bed, toss a treat off the bed to get her to move off of it rather than picking the bed up. Wait quietly for her to move back to her bed, then begin clicking and treating rapidly again.

Step 5: Vary your position in relation to the bed each time you toss a treat to move the dog off of her bed.

Step 6: Once the dog is reliably going to her bed, wait for her to offer a sit or down before you start clicking and treating.

That’s it for our first lesson! At this point, we want the dog to view her bed as a Magic Food Place where she can go to make good stuff happen. Later on, we’ll teach her to go to her bed on cue and to lie down and stay there until she’s released.

By introducing the bed in this manner, the dog becomes conditioned to view her bed as a wonderful place. This will make “go to your bed” a much stronger and more reliable behavior later on, because the very act of going to her bed will make her feel happy.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Arousal, even if it’s ‘happy arousal,’ can easily turn to stress.

– Leslie McDevitt

Responsible Rescues

We posted before about how to find a responsible breeder. Purchasing a responsibly bred puppy or adult dog from a good breeder can be a wonderful way to get a dog, but it’s certainly not the only way. Many responsible shelters and rescue organizations provide wonderful family companions or dog sports prospects.

Unfortunately, rescues and shelters have a serious public image problem in many areas, in part due to irresponsible organizations. Just as not all breeders are ethical or responsible, some rescue organizations also fall short. Organizations who adopt out animals with serious health or behavioral issues without regard to the implications for the adopters or community unfairly tarnish the reputation of all rescues agencies. Here’s how to find a responsible rescue.

Firstly and most importantly, look for a rescue that focuses on making good matches between animals and adopters. Rescues who emotionally blackmail good people into taking problem animals through the use of sob stories, threats (“this dog will die Thursday if no one takes him”), or bending the truth are irresponsible, end of story. Responsible rescues focus on the good qualities of their available animals. Instead of four paragraphs on how Blackie was horribly abused by his previous owners, a responsible rescue may briefly mention that he had a less-than-ideal past, then use those four paragraphs to feature all of Blackie’s wonderful traits and to describe the perfect home for him. If a rescue euthanizes animals after a certain period of time, the responsible rescue may mention that fact in the animal’s bio, but will also include other information that will help that animal meet a good match. As a potential adopter, expect the responsible rescue to ask you about your lifestyle, past pet ownership, and expectations in order to suggest appropriate dogs that would fit your needs.

Responsible rescues don’t make excuses for their animals. This is a hard one, but it’s oh-so-necessary to make good lifelong matches. An irresponsible rescue will often blame the environment, the surrenderers, the phase of the moon… anything to avoid admitting that an animal in their care has serious issues. Responsible rescues evaluate the animal in front of them and are realistic about the placement potential of that animal, even when hard choices need to be made. Instead of relying on staff and volunteers’ impressions about an animal, responsible rescues evaluate dogs using a set behavioral evaluation such as ASPCA’s SAFER, Assess-a-Pet, the Blue Dog Eval, or another formal evaluation. Formal evaluations for all dogs allow rescues to make the best placement decisions by providing more information on a dog’s likes and dislikes, personality, and response to various interactions. Evaluations used to be used only to make euthanasia decisions, but today’s evals focus less on the “adoptability” of a given animal and more on determining what the best home for that animal looks like so that rescues can better match pets with the right adopters.

This does, however, bring us to another point. Responsible rescues do not place every animal. There’s a growing movement for shelters and rescues to become “no kill,” but this phrase can be misleading. Responsible no kill organizations still euthanize animals with health or behavioral issues that make them a poor fit for placement. Not every animal is placeable. Some responsible organizations get around this problem by being very selective about which animals they take into their programs, thus leaving less adoptable animals to be taken in and euthanized by other organizations. However, even selective organizations will occasionally run into animals who are not suitable candidates for placement (either because the animal was a stray with no known history or because the surrendering owner was less than truthful). Responsible rescues care as much about the safety of the adopter and the community as they do about animals, and don’t place dangerous animals (such as animals with bite histories or histories of killing other animals).

Responsible rescues work within their means. There will always be more animals in need, and it’s easy for kind-hearted rescuers to become overwhelmed.  A responsible rescue understands that they can do the greatest good by sometimes saying no. Many hoarders began as rescuers who just couldn’t resist the pull to help “one more.” A responsible foster home or shelter only takes in the number of animals they can provide adequete physical and emotional care to. This includes adequete veterinary care (including spaying or neutering every animal before adoption), meeting basic hygiene standards, and basic physical needs. However, it also includes much more.

This is because responsible rescues improve the animals in their care. Dogs who deteriorate physically or behaviorally while in the care of a rescue are not being done any favors. Dogs live in the moment, and a dog who spends months or even years in a small cage at a facility with little or no human interaction is being tortured, plain and simple. This is every bit as abusive as hitting an animal, yet some rescuers still bury their heads in the sand and refuse to see how psychologically inhumane they are being to the dog, who sinks into depression or resorts to stereotypical behavior in response. A responsible rescue cares for both the physical and emotional needs of the animals in their care, providing ongoing enrichment and training to better prepare dogs in their care for success in their new adoptive home. A dog from a responsible rescue or shelter becomes more adoptable the longer he stays with the organization, due to the training and enrichment he receives while in that agency’s care.

Finally, responsible rescues follow up. Expect the responsible rescue to touch base with you and make sure things are going well with your new pet. The responsible rescue supports adopters through behavior counseling, providing resources, and putting a plan in place for adoptions that don’t work out. Most rescues will take back animals who don’t work out in their new homes, and those who are unable to do so provide other resources for their adopters. Just like responsible breeders, responsible rescues often microchip their animals so that they will be notified if the animal ends up abandoned or is found as a stray.

So, how can you find a responsible rescue? Just like with breeders, the first step is to ask around. Ask friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers where they got their dogs, and whether they would recommend the organization their dog came from. Check with vets, trainers, and other dog professionals to see which organizations they consistantly see nice dogs who are matched to appropriate homes coming from. If you’re looking for a specific breed, see whether the breed club runs a rescue (most do, and most responsible breeders are also involved with rescue work within their breed). Check out for adoptable animals who meet your criteria, then talk to a representative for that organization to get more information on the agency in general and the specifc dog you’re interested in. Ask about the organization’s policies with aggressive animals, whether they place dogs with bite histories, what sort of enrichment they provide (including, for shelters, whether they’re familiar with the Open Paw program), what sort of adopter support they provide, and what their adoption policies are. Expect the rescue to ask you lots of questions too! Go with an organization that gives you a good feeling.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love my adopted dogs. Some of the very best dogs I’ve worked with (both family pets and sports dogs) have been from rescue organizations, and I regularly foster for several area rescues. I truly believe that rescue is a great way to find wonderful life-long companions. There are many reasons why great dogs end up in shelters through no fault of their own (unforeseen life changes, owner’s medical problems, foreclosures, stray animals who were never claimed). The idea that shelter and rescue dogs are “damaged goods” is completely false. Rescue dogs are often just waiting for the chance to slip into a forever home where they can shine!

Have you ever adopted a dog from a shelter? If so, do you think the organization was responsible? Why or why not? If you rescue dogs, how do you ensure that you’re doing right by the dogs and the adopters? Please share your thoughts and comments below!

Bad dog! Solving problem behaviors.

We wrote earlier this week about how easy it can be to accidentally reward your dog for bad behavior. So, how can you avoid this common training mistake? Let’s talk about how to fix behavior problems.

Photo by Jordi Espel

It’s important to pay attention to what’s rewarding your dog’s behavior. If you notice a behavior increasing, pay attention to what happens right after your dog performs that behavior. If your dog dances into the living room with your dirty underpants in his mouth and you cry out and give chase, what did your dog just learn? (Stealing underwear is a great way to start a fun chase game!) If your dog lunges at the end of his leash and you say his name to get his attention, what did he just learn? (Lunging at the end of the leash works to get my owner’s attention!)

Now, there are some other factors to take into consideration here. If your dog is displaying an unwanted behavior, there are three possible reasons why. Either you haven’t taught your dog what you want him to do in that situation, your dog’s needs aren’t being sufficiently met, or the rewards for that unwanted behavior are more powerful than the rewards for not doing it.

In most cases, dogs display unwanted behaviors because we haven’t taught them what we want them to do in a given situation. It’s normal behavior for dogs to dig, bark, chew things up, urinate, defecate, mark, hump, jump up, lick, roll in stinky stuff, and steal food. With the possible exception of humping and rolling in filth, we don’t mind when our dogs do any of these behaviors, as long as they do so when and where we wish. However, until a dog has learned where and when it’s appropriate to engage in these behaviors, it’s not fair to blame him for doing what comes naturally.

It’s completely unfair to blame your dog for engaging  in a natural behavior if you haven’t shown him what to do instead. Oftentimes people will punish their dog for doing something “wrong,” but forget to reward him when he gets it right. Consider this: there are probably hundreds of horrible behaviors your dog could do at any given time, and only one or two behaviors you’d like him to do. Instead of having to tell him “no” for each of those horrible things, why not just teach him what the correct option is right from the start? For example, if your dog chews up the table leg and you tell him no, he’s learned not to chew on the table leg. He still hasn’t learned that he can’t chew on the carpet, the stairs, the sofa, or the kids. If you instead make sure to reward him every single time he chews on his puppy toys and make his chew toys especially tempting by occasionally stuffing them with food or treats, he’ll quickly develop a preference for his own toys and will stop chewing on the furniture altogether.

Sometimes dogs engage in unwanted behaviors because their needs are not being sufficiently met, and if that’s the case, you need to address your dog’s needs if you want his behavior to change. A dog who lunges and barks at people or other dogs because he’s insecure needs to have his safety issues addressed before the lunging and barking will disappear. A bored dog who barks or destroys your property needs to be provided with physical and mental exercise before his destructive behavior can be resolved. Make sure your dog’s physical, social, and emotional needs are being met, and you can prevent most behavior issues before they start.

If you’ve taught your dog what you want her to do in a given situation and provided lots of reinforcement for doing so, and if you’re sure that all of her needs are being met, it’s likely that the rewards for performing the problem behavior are more powerful than the rewards you’ve provided for the alternate behavior. This is often the case with instinctive behaviors, such as predatory chasing, sniffing/scent tracking, or digging. Some behaviors just plain feel good to dogs, and a self-reinforcing behavior such as chasing squirrels or nipping at moving feet can be a difficult problem to resolve. In these cases, it’s important to manage your dog to prevent her from rehearsing the unwanted behavior (remember, “practice makes perfect!”) and work at strengthening her response to other behaviors you can use to interrupt the naughty one, such as come and leave it.

Finally, consider whether you can utilize the naughty behavior as a reward in training in order to harness its power. If your dog can walk on a loose leash, perhaps he can earn the chance to pee on the fire hydrant. If your dog can turn and look at you, perhaps she can earn the chance to chase that squirrel (on leash, with you holding the other end of the leash for safety). If your dog loves to bark and howl, perhaps you can put being noisy on cue and give her permission to let loose after she’s been especially well behaved. This is called the Premack principle and is an incredibly powerful training concept.

There is no magic cure for problem behaviors, but there is a simple formula that will resolve must issues.

1. Manage your dog to prevent the bad behavior (remember, practice makes perfect!)

2. Figure out why your dog is engaging in the bad behavior and resolve any underlying issues that may be contributing.

3. Decide what you want your dog to do instead, and train this.

If you’re struggling with a behavior problem, whether it’s a dog who can’t be potty trained or a serious issue such as fear or aggression, there’s no shame in consulting with a professional. Talk to a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and get their help in putting together a plan to fix your dog’s problem. Getting the benefit of a professional’s experience and education can be a godsend to struggling owners, not to mention the benefits of getting an extra set of eyes to look at the problem.

So, does your dog have any major issues you’d like help resolving? Which of the three reasons above do you think is contributing the most? What have you tried so far, and did it work? Please share your stories in the comments!