Monthly Archives: June 2012

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

“Ever consider what they must think of us?  I mean, here we come back from a grocery store with the most amazing haul-chicken, pork, half a cow.  They must think we’re the greatest hunters on earth!”  — Anne Tyler

I smell what you mean.

Humans are visual animals. We rely on our eyes to gather information about the world around us. Our language of understanding relates to our vision (“I see what you mean.” “Look here, my point is that…” “I have a slightly different view of the matter.”). Large areas of our brain are devoted to processing visual information, and appearances effect everything from our personal relationships to the way we do business.

As important as vision is to us, so too is scent the primary focus for our dogs. Dogs have 220 million + scent receptors, compared to our measly 5 million. Large areas of your dog’s brain are devoted to olfaction, just as ours are devoted to vision. Our dogs have a very different way of relating to their world, one which we can only guess at. If they were to talk to us, they would likely replace our visual references with olfactory ones (“I smell what you mean.” “Sniff here, my point is that…” “I have a slightly different scent of the matter.”).

Simon ‘Kelp’ Keeping

This past weekend, Paws Abilities Dog Training hosted Jill Marie O’Brien and Kimberly Buchanan for an Introduction to K9 Nose Work seminar. Watching the dogs learn about this fun and fascinating sport was a real treat. Dogs love using their noses, and they’re extraordinarily good at doing so. Whether they were searching for a toy or treat, the dogs all exhibited incredible talent and problem solving abilities.

Dogs can sniff out drugs, explosives, and cadavers. They can alert their people to the presence of bedbugs, wood rot, or cancer. They can predict the onset of a seizure. They can find the one stick you touched amongst a giant pile of sticks or the pheasant you shot from across a field. They can track criminals, lost children, or foxes.

Using their noses is as fulfilling and enjoyable to dogs as using our eyes is to us. The joy you experience from looking at a meadow full of wildflowers or a gorgeous sunset over the lake is likewise experienced by your dog when he comes across a pile of raccoon scat or a squirrel carcass. One has only to watch the blissful expression on a dog’s face as he closes his eyes and lifts his head to sniff the wind to know how very important the sense of smell is to him.

Scent travels much like fog or mist. It falls from the source, rolling along the ground and dissipating the further away it goes. It is affected by temperature, air currents, and other objects. It bounces off surfaces and pools in low-lying areas. It may be vacuumed up along a wall or be pushed about by the wagging of a tail or the scuffing of your feet on the grass. Our dogs allow us to access the otherwise unreachable world of scent. Watching a dog work a scent back to the source tells us how the scent molecules are moving and gives us a peek into this incredible, alien world of olfaction.

There are many different scenting options available to dogs and their owners. From letting your dog explore new smells on a walk in a quiet field to teaching him to find your car keys to competing in tracking or K9 Nose Work or even training scent articles in competition obedience, we can offer our dogs many chances to use their natural abilities. Scent work can calm and focus hyper dogs or increase a timid dog’s confidence. It can give older or handicapped dogs a fulfilling job to do and reactive or aggressive dogs a safe chance to play.

Later this week we’ll explore the sport K9 Nose Work in more depth. In the meantime, what nose games do you play with your dog?

7 Things to Do With a Kong

We’ve talked before about how useful Kong toys can be to provide mental exercise, as well as some ideas on how to stuff them. Here are more ideas on how to get the most out of your dog’s Kong toys!

Photo by OakleyOriginals on flickr

  • Freeze it: Any wet or sticky food can be frozen into a Kong toy to provide a longer-lasting “Kongsicle.” Keep several prepared Kongs in the door of your freezer so you always have one ready at a moment’s notice for unexpected visitors or any other time when you might appreciate a puppy pacifier.
  • Microwave it: Mix some cheese in with some dry treats or kibble and microwave long enough to melt the cheese. Let the Kong cool before giving it to your pooch. This creates a very gooey treat that takes dogs a long time to extract.
  • Hang it from a tree: thread a rope through your dog’s Kong, and tie a knot in the rope on the small end of the Kong. Position the Kong toy with the large hole facing upwards, and fill it with your dog’s food. Throw the other end of the rope over a tree branch and hoist the Kong just high enough that your dog can easily reach it, but will need to jump up and bat at it to knock food out.
  • Scavenger hunt: stuff your dog’s meal into one or more Kongs and hide them throughout the house or yard.
  • Use it for grooming: A Kong filled with peanut butter or low fat cream cheese can give your dog something pleasant to focus on while you’re brushing him, trimming his nails, or attending to any other grooming tasks that he finds onerous.
  • Crate training: make your dog’s crate into a “magic Kong place” and you’ll create a dog who loves his crate for life!
  • Ice bucket Kongs: fill a bucket up with water or broth and one or more stuffed Kong toys, then freeze it overnight. In the morning, dump the giant ice cube into a kiddie pool or put the entire bucket in your dog’s crate. As the ice melts, your dog will discover the delicious Kong surprises inside.
These are just a few ideas of fun things to do with Kongs. Have another great idea? Please share it below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Will Butt

“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.”

Milan Kundera

It’s Not Broken

Our society has an unhealthy preoccupation with breaking things. We housebreak puppies, break horses, break in new shoes, and sometimes accidentally break the spirits of those who depend on us. This attitude is so deep-seated that many of us don’t even realize when we’re focusing on the negative. However, are the risks really worth the rewards? At what cost do we focus on the bad stuff in our lives?

Photo by William Stern

Our dog profile for training class asks some basic questions that help students define their goals and instructors better help the students. This profile also enables us to offer more one-on-one help to students whose dogs may not be appropriate for class due to fear or aggression issues. The information the profile gathers is pretty basic: the dog’s age and breed, response to new people or dogs, past history of bites (if any), and the owner’s goals for class.

The information gathered with this profile is very telling, however. Students are first asked what they love about their dog. This field is often left blank, or perhaps one or two small details are filled in. The following question, which asks what the student most wants their dog to learn, is not so briefly answered. In fact, this field is usually full of negatives: don’t, shouldn’t, can’t. People want to break their dogs’ bad habits, and they want it done now.

It’s easy to slip into the trap of focusing on what we don’t want. But what if we tried something new? What if, instead, we started paying attention to the positive?

Psychologists tell us that mental imagery is powerful stuff. Positive thinking can influence your sports game, your marriage, and yes, even your dog. This is because the practice of positive imagery actually stimulates the neural pathways necessary for the behavior you’re focusing on. Dancers who imagine themselves performing a move perfectly over and over again will find that move easier next time they try it. Couples who are asked to focus on two or three traits that they like about one another each day have happier marriages. And owners who focus on what they want their dog to do have better dogs.

This is what clicker training is all about, and it’s a pretty wonderful way to live your life too.

This isn’t to say that we can’t define behaviors we want to change. I don’t want my dogs barking or peeing on the floor any more than the next person. But instead of getting angry when they do these things, I define what I want them to do instead, and start focusing on that. If I want my dog to pee outside, I watch her closely so that she can’t sneak off and urinate upstairs, and reward her every time she pees outside. If I want my do to be quiet when I’m talking on the phone, I reward quiet behavior every time I take a phone call.

Focusing on the positive is liberating. There’s no longer any need to become angry about imagined slights. There’s no need to become frustrated when things don’t go your way. Focus on what you want to happen, and figure out the path to get there. Whether you’re training your dog to come when you call, your roommates to take the garbage out when they fill it up, or your body to perform a perfect golf swing, it can be done by focusing on what’s going right.

So enough with breaking things. Our dogs, friends, family, and lives are not broken. They’re just in need of some guidance.

Which positive things are you going to focus on this week?

Taming the Canine Tarzan

Earlier this week, we wrote about “canine Tarzans,” those dogs who lack the necessary social skills to relate to other dogs calmly and politely. Often mistaken by their owners as innocent victims, these dogs are at risk from their own species due to their pushy and downright obnoxious behavior.

Photo by Dave Walker

Just as you may feel justified in kneeing a strange man in the groin if he tried to kiss you in an elevator, most well-socialized adult dogs feel that the use of teeth is perfectly reasonable when faced with canine Tarzans. Even if another dog doesn’t decide to tell your canine Tarzan off quite so plainly, it’s a rare dog who actually enjoys being pounced on or barked at by an unfamiliar pooch.

If you have a canine Tarzan, you know that you don’t have a bad dog. You have a good dog. You just have a very excited dog. Still, it’s your responsibility to help your dog learn to fit politely into canine society. Here’s how.

Just as human children don’t come into this world understanding how to sit quietly or use their manners, neither do dogs. It’s completely unfair to become frustrated with your dog for rude behavior, or worse yet to punish him for it.

That said, it’s important not to mistake positive training with permissiveness. Letting your dog mug other dogs in excitement is downright irresponsible (not to mention rude to the other dog and that dog’s owner).  Just as with any training problem, the solution here is a combination of clever management and teaching your dog what you want him to do.

Management refers to controlling your dog’s environment to prevent him from making poor choices. This could include keeping your dog on a leash to prevent him from plowing into or jumping all over every dog he passes on a walk, using a Gentle Leader to prevent him from pulling you all over the place, or covering your windows so that he can’t bark at passing dogs during the day while you’re gone.

Remember, “practice makes perfect.” If you allow your dog to engage in the behavior you’re trying to solve, you’re never going to be able to completely fix it. This is why my golden rule for canine Tarzans is absolutely set in stone: excited dogs don’t get to say hi. Period, end of story. If your dog cannot control himself, he cannot under any circumstances greet or interact with other dogs.

Following this simple rule will actually solve much of the canine Tarzan’s problem. As he learns that other dogs are off limits (at least temporarily), the sight of them becomes less exciting. His arousal level lowers, and he can start to learn how to control himself.

Helping your dog learn self control is one of the best gifts that a responsible owner can bestow on their furry best friend. I teach my dogs a variety of impulse control exercises, including automatic check-ins, the “It’s Your Choice” game, doggy zen, and various leave it exercises. All of these are easy to teach using positive reinforcement, so if you’re not sure how, look up your nearest Certified Professional Dog Trainer and get some quality guidance.

Once my canine Tarzan has learned to control himself, including learning how to walk nicely on a leash and to touch base with me when he sees something that interests him, it’s time to start teaching him some appropriate social skills.

I often start this by “parallel walking,” where two leashed dogs walk in the same direction as one another. We ensure that there’s enough space in between the two dogs that both can walk calmly and accept treats from their owners with soft mouths. Over time, as the dogs exhibit calm and relaxed behavior, they’re moved closer to one another, until eventually they are walking side by side. Low key introductions like this are key for recovering Tarzans. If either dog becomes too excited, the handlers just veer away from one another slightly, giving the excited dog more distance until he can calm himself again. Dogs are smart, and they quickly figure out that calm behavior brings their friend closer while excited behavior makes the other dog go away.

Once your recovering Tarzan can walk calmly side-by-side with other dogs and greet them politely on a leash, it’s time for him to learn appropriate off-leash manners. I often start this in a small space, with the recovering Tarzan dog dragging a light line attached to a harness. Large spaces can be problematic as your dog is probably faster than you, and may be too difficult to catch if needed. Larger spaces can also encourage out-of-control chases, where a pack of dogs gain up on a single runner.

After a calm and relaxed side-by-side walk with two or three other friendly adult dogs, I’ll allow the recovering Tarzan to interact freely with his new friends in the enclosed space. Let the other dogs off leash, and drop your Tarzan’s line. I provide lots of verbal feedback to Tarzan, praising him calmly for polite doggy choices. If he becomes too pushy or rude, I allow the other dogs to tell him off appropriately (this often involves lots of scary noise, but a well-socialized dog won’t actually injure him). If he responds nicely to their correction, I praise him for making a good choice and allow him to continue interacting. If he doesn’t respond by backing off, or if the other dog is not comfortable telling him off, I quietly remove him from the play area until he can calm himself down.

These initial off-leash play sessions are incredibly valuable for teaching a canine Tarzan how to interact appropriately with his own species. Make sure to keep them short (most of my initial sessions last about 3-5 minutes). Remember that self control is difficult for your dog, and the longer he has to control himself the more likely he is to make a mistake. End on success, with lots of treats and praise for being so polite to his new doggy friends!

If you have a canine Tarzan, it can be helpful to get an expert in canine body language to observe you and your dog. Some dogs just like to wrestle, and as long as they only do so with other dogs who have similar play styles (and can control themselves around dogs who do not wish to be body-slammed), this is not a problem.

Later we’ll write about how to help young dogs grow up with appropriate social skills, so that your excitable puppy doesn’t become a canine Tarzan. In the meantime, what questions do you have about dog-dog sociability? Have you ever had a “canine Tarzan” of your own, and if so, how did you handle your dog’s inappropriate behavior? Please share your questions and stories in the comments section!