Monthly Archives: October 2012

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Steve Baker

“Don’t worry about rewarding a scared dog who is behaving ‘inappropriately’. You wouldn’t wait for someone who was drowning to stop screaming before you pulled them out of the water.”

Debbie Jacobs

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.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Mark Stradling

Truly great teaching happens when it comes from a place that does not require fast results or instant gratification. Instead, when we start to understand that the highest quality dog training we can offer is made of understanding, and patience mixed with genuine love, then we begin to understand what it is supposed to be to have a dog.

-Zak George

Remembering R.K.

On October 18th, the world lost a bright light. Dr. R.K. Anderson was a mentor and an inspiration. Always ready with a smile and a kind word, R. K. was as compassionate with people as he was with animals. His legacy could fill pages.

R.K. will be deeply missed. I first met him 8 or 9 years ago through the Minnesota Trainer’s Roundtable group. In 2008, we were both award winners at the APDT conference in Louisville, KY. I’m so incredibly grateful to have had the chance to know him, and for his contributions to the humane training of dogs.

More information:
R.K. Anderson, no one stood as tall in veterinary medicine
Animal Behaviorist, inventor Robert Anderson, dies at 90
ABRI Online

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

“The satisfaction that washes over us as we watch our pets sleep is the ancient reminder that when all is well in their world, all is well in ours.”

– Meg Daley Olmert

Canine Body Language: turning away

What does it mean when your dog turns away from you? Is he blowing you off or maybe expressing his guilt when he refuses to meet your eyes?

Possibly. But more likely, one of you is a little stressed.

Sharri turns her head away and blinks, uncomfortable with the camera pointed at her.

Turning away is one way that many dogs try to diffuse tense situations. They may do this to lower their own stress level or in an attempt to soothe a person or another dog. Nothing makes me more sad than to watch a dog turn his back on his owner and sniff in an effort to calm her down, only to get collar popped or reprimanded for ignoring her.

Duke (Lab cross) turns and looks away as Brewster jumps on him and stares. This communicates his discomfort with the younger dog’s rude behavior.

Does your dog use look-aways or turn away from you in certain situations? What circumstances are most likely to provoke this response?


[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

This image was created by the amazingly talented Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings. Check out her blog for video clips of all of these animals! (Thanks to Lili for letting me help with this project. It was a lot of fun to work with you again!)

How to Use a Prong Collar

The behavioral progression of my neighbor’s dog has been as predictable as it is sad. A large, muscular Coonhound mix who probably tips the scales at 80 pounds, he’s a gorgeous and imposing animal. He’s also become a somewhat scary one over time.

The first time I saw this dog, I was struck by his enthusiasm. Outgoing and exuberant, he seemed to believe that every person and dog he met was his new best friend. His owner struggled to walk him, flopping along in his wake like a dingy being towed by a speedboat.

Several months after I first noticed him, I took note of a new development in the excitable hound’s life: he was walking politely by his owner’s side. Excited on her behalf, I met her eyes and smiled as I drove past. My smile faltered as I noticed a shiny circle of inward-facing prongs around her dog’s neck. Her tool of choice, and the reason for her newfound training success? A prong collar.

Photo by flickr user greenkozi

Prong collars have been around for a long time, and they can be effective devices to stop dogs from pulling. The tool works through positive punishment and negative reinforcement. When the dog pulls, the collar applies uncomfortable or painful pressure around his neck, which decreases the likelihood of him pulling on leash in the future. When he stops pulling, the pressure is released, which reinforces him for keeping a loose leash.

Many proponents of reward-based training despise the use of prong collars. They argue that tools that cause pain should never be used in the name of training, and I agree. They also warn of the risks of physical injury from the inward-facing prongs. This is true in rare cases: I have worked with dogs who had scabs on their necks from these collars. However, the risk of physical injury is quite low under the guidance of a skilled trainer, especially one who is using a well-made device. (Cheaper devices are more likely to have sharp edges that can injure a dog or unstable links that can pop open, releasing the dog at inopportune times.)

I’m not too worried about the risk of physical injuries from prong collars. However, I worry greatly about a much bigger risk that these tools present: that of psychological issues.

Remember that dogs learn by associating two things that happen closely together in time. Take my neighbor’s dog, the exuberant hound. This powerful adolescent dog adored people and dogs, and frequently lunged towards them in playful (if somewhat rude) greeting.

Once his owner switched him to a prong collar, this dog began to make some dangerous associations. Every time he met a new person or dog, he would lunge towards them and promptly feel the pressure of the prong collar around his neck. He quickly grew to associate the sight of new people and dogs with this unpleasant consequence, and I’m sure you can guess the rest of the story.

No longer is my neighbor’s hound a friendly and gregarious goofball. Instead, he lunges silently at the end of his leash when people or dogs pass by, eyes hard and tail held stiffly over his back. He is a bite waiting to happen, and he is not alone.

Every week, I work with dogs just like this hound. These dogs have made the wrong associations, deciding that people or other dogs predict awful things. Their owners are frustrated and embarrassed by their behavior, and often escalate their corrections, popping the leash, smacking their dog, or yelling loudly when the dog reacts at someone. Sadly, these escalated displays only serve to reinforce the dog’s suspicions: bad things happen when unfamiliar people or dogs are around.

Do all dogs who wear prong collars make these dangerous associations? Absolutely not! It is possible to train a dog with a prong collar and never have any problems. However, the risk is there. 

It is also possible to train a dog just as easily and effectively without the use of this tool. There are many other humane tools that can give a small person control of a large dog without the use of pain (or the resulting fallout of punishment). In fact, our training facility does not allow the use of prong collars in any of our classes, as we feel that better options exist.

So, what’s your thought on the use of prong collars in training? Are you for or against these tools? Do you have any personal experience with their use, and if so, what was it? Please share your opinions in the comments section below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

In dog training, jerk is a noun, not a verb.

Dr. Dennis Fetko

Getting Rid of the Growl

The little dog had been in our training center for 15 minutes before he noticed the giant painting of a dog hanging on the wall. His eyes widened as he took a step towards it, growling. “Pssht!” his owner hissed, snapping her fingers at him. He jerked in surprise, then sat down and licked his lips. He didn’t growl again, but continued to stare at the painting, trembling slightly, paw raised.

Photo by Sini Merikallio

Dogs growl for a variety of reasons. Fear, insecurity, guarding behavior, offensive aggression, and play can all elicit growls, although to an expert these growls are each unique in their tone and pitch. Outside of play, growling serves as a warning that all is not well in the dog’s world. Something is off, and our dog is doing us the courtesy of sharing that information.

“Why did you just snap at your dog?” I asked the little dog’s owner.

“I want him to know that I won’t tolerate that behavior,” she replied.

It’s human nature to respond negatively to a dog’s growl. Growling is an undesirable behavior, and can oftentimes be a precursor to a bite. However, as I explained to the little dog’s owner, it’s important to suppress your urge to correct your dog for growling. Thank your dog for growling, and remove or redirect him from the situation that’s provoking a growl. It’s better than the alternative.

Growling serves as a warning signal. It tells you that your dog is unhappy or uncomfortable. Something is wrong. Think of it as an early warning system.

Punishing a dog for growling takes away your early warning system. Dogs who are punished for growling oftentimes learn not to growl. However, getting rid of the growl doesn’t fix the underlying cause for growling, which leaves us with a dog who is just as upset as before, but now has no way to express that discomfort except for escalating his display. The growl may be gone, but now you’ve created a dog who will bite “without warning.”

All dogs warn. If your dog doesn’t warn before he bites, it’s either because you’re missing his precursor signals or because he no longer feels safe displaying them. Either way, the fault here lies at the other end of the leash.

Dogs who go straight to biting without displaying lots and lots of precursors are much more difficult to treat. I would much rather work with a dog who stiffens up, displays whale eyes, hard stares me, curls his lip, growls, freezes, then… finally.. bites, than a dog who goes straight from a freeze to a bite. It will be much easier to keep the situation safe with the first dog. The latter case is much riskier.

If your dog growls, he believes he has a valid reason to do so. The little dog was understandably worried by what he perceived as a giant dog, frozen and staring at him (both confrontational and potentially aggressive behaviors) across the room. His owner would have done better to acknowledge his fear, using treats to reward him for looking at, and later on investigating, the frightening painting (and she will in the future, as she now has the tools to better deal with situations that make him uncomfortable). His growl was merely a symptom of his insecurity in this situation. Treating the underlying cause will make the symptom disappear far more effectively than suppressing it.

What situations cause your dog to growl? How have you addressed those situations? Please share your stories in the comments!