Category Archives: Preventing Behavior Problems

At what cost?

As a professional trainer, I hear a lot of disturbing stories. One local trainer routinely advises owners of reactive dogs to briefly hang their dogs from prong collars when the dogs lunge and bark. The same facility told one of my clients to pull her nervous dog’s ear or pinch his flank if he stopped paying attention. Another recent client was advised by one of her friends on Facebook to step in front of her aggressive dog whenever the dog began growling at anyone and then to stare the dog down (which, not surprisingly, resulted in a pretty severe bite to her leg).

Photo by Marie Carter

Photo by Marie Carter

With all of these disturbing stories, a common thread runs through. The owners really love their dogs, and were simply following the advice that had been given to them. In many cases, these people were desperate to fix a serious problem. These weren’t acts of abuse – they were honest attempts to fix a problem by people who cared enough about their dogs to try something instead of just getting rid of their pet.

The world is rife with dog training advice. Everybody’s an expert! When an old acquaintance of mine asked her Facebook friends how to solve puppy nipping, she received lots of replies almost instantly. Flick the puppy’s nose. Use Tabasco sauce. Use a squirt bottle. Hold the puppy’s mouth shut if she nips. The more I read, the more I cringed. It’s really true that you get what you pay for, and free advice from your friends, coworkers, and neighbors could do more harm than good.

But what do you do if your trainer tells you to do something that doesn’t feel right? How can you decide which advice to follow and which could do more harm than good?

On the first week of any Beginning training class I teach, I tell my students two things. They are the experts on their dogs. And their dogs are counting on them to protect them.

Remember this. You are the expert on your dog. Not your trainer, or your vet, or your groomer. Not me. You. And your dog is counting on you to look out for him.

If someone tells you to do something to your dog that makes you uncomfortable, you are always within your rights to say no. I love it when my students tell me that they’d like to modify an exercise! It lets me know that the student is committed to doing what’s right for the dog in front of them at that moment, and that’s a beautiful thing.

When determining what’s right for your dog, a little critical reasoning can go a long way. If the trainer at your dog’s daycare tells you to use a shaker can (a soda can full of pennies) anytime your dog lunges or barks on leash, don’t just accept that advice on blind faith. Instead, think through the behavioral contingencies. In the best case scenario, what will my dog learn (that lunging and barking makes something unpleasant happen so she should be quiet instead)? In the worst case scenario, what will my dog learn (that the appearance of triggers which already make her upset cause her owner to do something very unpleasant – thus making her more sensitive to the appearance of those triggers in the future)? Ask yourself whether you’re comfortable with the risks posed by the training advice. If your dog becomes more frantic and reactive at the appearance of triggers after you use the shaker can, are you prepared to put in the extra time solving the problem you made worse? If you’re not willing to accept the worse-case scenario, is there a different training option you might try instead?

The bottom line is that the world is full of people who will give you free advice on how to live with, handle, manage, and train your dog. Just remember that you get what you pay for. There are lots of people out there who do truly horrible things to dogs in the name of training, and because dogs largely put up with it these methods are touted as effective without thought to the potential fallout, including physical damage and the very real strain that aversive techniques put on your relationship with your dog. Sure, free advice might solve your dog’s behavioral problem. But at what cost?

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

2015/01/img_0911.jpg

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

Housetraining Tips: Should you use potty pads?

Potty pads can be extraordinarily useful for dogs with special needs. However, their use can also cause a host of unintended problems. So, should you use potty pads to housetrain your dog? Here are the pros and cons of these housetraining tools.

Foster puppy Chowder (available for adoption through Secondhand Hounds!) started off on potty pads as we addressed his fear issues.

Foster puppy Chowder (available for adoption through Secondhand Hounds!) started off on potty pads as we addressed his fear issues.

Pros:

  1. Potty pads are great for dogs with medical issues. They can be placed over the bedding of dogs with incontinence issues or used for dogs recovering from surgery who can’t walk far enough to toilet outside. Our own dog, Trout, uses potty pads when we need to leave her for more than four hours, as she’s unable to hold her bladder longer than that due to an autoimmune condition.
  2. Potty pads are excellent initial choices for timid or fearful dogs. When I foster a dog who’s considered a “flight risk” (a dog who would run away if they got off their leash and wouldn’t approach any person to be caught), I start them on potty pads while we build up trust. Placing potty pads in half of a room, with the dog’s food, water, and crate on the other half, allows the dog the freedom to toilet as they need to without the potential trauma of being leashed or handled by a person. I can then devote all of my training time with that dog to trust-building exercises such as hand feeding them, reading to them, and clicker training games. Once the dog becomes comfortable with me and is okay on a leash, it’s important to switch them to outdoor potty training to continue their socialization and build up positive potty habits.

Cons:

  1. Potty pads teach dogs to toilet on square, absorbent surfaces. This can cause dogs to make potty training “mistakes” on your rugs, bath mats, dog beds, or blankets – all of which resemble the substrate your dog has developed a preference for. If you want to use an indoor toileting option for your dog long-term, consider investing in a doggy litter box instead. The special litter doesn’t resemble anything in your home, which makes where your dog is supposed to toilet a much more black-and-white choice – and your training much easier!
  2. Using indoor housetraining options limits socialization. Puppies need to go to the bathroom all the time – every hour if they’re quiet, and sometimes as often as every 10-15 minutes when they’re playing. All of this makes for lots of great socialization during potty trips outdoors. Puppies who are trained to eliminate in their home are often deprived of this frequent exposure to life outside their house, and are at a much higher risk of developing issues such as fear or reactivity due to these socialization deficits. Unless there’s a legitimate behavioral or medical reason why your puppy should not be taken outdoors, make sure your puppy is getting exposed to the sights, sounds, and scents of the world outside your home multiple times every day, regardless of what sort of housetraining option you decide on.
  3. Potty pads encourage laziness. Training your dog to go potty outside requires effort on your part. You have to go out with your dog and most people correctly remember to give their dogs treats for going potty outdoors. Not so with potty pads! Dogs don’t “self train” on these, but many people expect them to. You still need to put the work into bringing your puppy to the pad and giving him a food reward for eliminating in the right location if you use potty pads, or you’ll end up with an incompletely housetrained dog.

So, there you have it! Unless your dog is highly fearful or has a medical issue, potty pads are a training tool you can probably skip. They add an unnecessary step to housetraining for most normally developing puppies and adopted dogs, and are likely to cause more housetraining “mistakes” as your dog struggles to differentiate between the potty training pad and your household rugs. I don’t personally use potty pads except for in the cases I mentioned above, and try to move dogs away from them as quickly as possible.

Have you ever used potty pads with your puppies or adult dogs? What were your experiences with this training tool?

The Dangers of Playing with Laser Lights

Howie* was an adorable little teddy bear of a dog. He wiggled as I sunk my hand into his plush, soft, curly fur. A delightful Cavachon, Howie adored people and loved to meet new friends. He sat beside me on the sofa, leaning into my touch. The room was dark other than a single lamp, the curtains not just drawn but clipped shut. Howie’s foster caregivers told me about his obsessions as we sat in the dim room, being careful not to move and throw shadows on the floor. I took notes, pausing occasionally to pet the little dog.

Howie was surrendered to the rescue when his self-injurious behavior became too much for his owners to handle. He was housetrained, friendly to people, and a delight with children. When he arrived at his foster caregiver’s home, he sported an oozing, open wound on his muzzle and nose. Howie was obsessed with lights, and would do anything to try to catch one… including harming himself.

Photo by Chris Dixon

Photo by Chris Dixon

Howie’s obsession started out, as most do, innocently enough. As a young dog with lots of energy, Howie’s owners found that he enjoyed chasing a laser light. They used the light to exercise him at least twice a day and he chased after it delightedly, racing throughout their living room. They sent him up and down stairs after the elusive light, onto the sofa and under the table, around and around until he was tired out. It seemed like the perfect exercise solution on cold Minnesota days when none of them wanted to go outside.

Howie soon began to play the light game even when his owners weren’t using the laser. He stalked shadows and light patterns on the floor, staring intently as he crept forward until he was close enough to pounce. He loved the reflections off his owner’s watch crystals and from the prism in the window. Outside, he was entranced by the movement of the shadows from sunlight shining through the leaves of a tree or birds flying overhead. He no longer sniffed on walks, but instead searched constantly for the next light.

During laser play sessions, Howie’s intensity began to concern his owners. He bit at the carpet where the laser had been and slammed into walls. They threw away the laser and attempted to dissuade him from these dangerous behaviors by putting him in his crate whenever he did them. He persisted, chasing lights and shadows in their home. Soon, Howie was spending the majority of his time in his crate, with a blanket thrown over the top to block out any light.

When he was loose, Howie damaged his owner’s home. He tore chunks out of the carpet and bit at the walls. He broke a front tooth attacking the wall and chipped several others. Soon, he had an open wound on his muzzle that wouldn’t heal from slamming himself into the floor, walls, and furniture in his attempt to catch the lights and shadows that taunted him. Howie’s owners had a new baby, and they were concerned that his behavior put their child at risk. They surrendered him to rescue.

While extreme, Howie’s story isn’t unusual. Light and shadow chasing are some of the most common obsessions found in dogs. All breeds can develop these issues, but those who were bred for strong gazes, such as herding breeds and Pointers, seem to be especially at risk.

Light obsession most frequently develops after owners use a laser pointer to exercise their dog. Unlike toys or treats, lights cannot be caught. This is incredibly frustrating for many dogs, who never “win” the game. Even after you put the light away, many dogs continue to search for the elusive light. Shadow and light chasing behavior can develop soon afterwards.

For this reason, I highly recommend against using a laser light to exercise any dog. It’s impossible to know which dogs will develop issues until they happen, and it’s just not worth the risk. If you do decide to persist in using a laser for exercise, consider having the laser eventually lead your dog to a small pile of treats as you end the game so that he “wins” something. However, complete avoidance of the game is preferable.

If your dog begins to show light or shadow chasing behavior, know that the sooner you intervene, the better the prognosis becomes. Howie’s case was extreme in large part because it had been going on for so long: nearly five years by the time he was surrendered to rescue. Early intervention greatly increases the likelihood that you can help your dog.

If your dog begins chasing lights and shadows, the first thing to do is to increase his physical and mental exercise. Oftentimes this intervention alone can be enough in the early stages. My dog Trout showed this behavior as a young dog, and will occasionally still stare at the wall near lamps if she hasn’t received enough exercise. Whenever your dog begins to obsess, redirect him to an appropriate activity. Trout is usually redirected by physically getting in between her and the wall, then calmly moving her away from the area. Avoid making a big deal over the behavior – both reinforcement in the form of treats or excessive attention, or punishment in the form of any aversive can make this behavior worse. In fact, stress can be a huge factor in many obsessive behaviors, so any intervention that includes aversive consequences for obsessing (such as using an electronic collar or swatting your dog) can greatly increase the chances that your dog will obsess.

If your dog’s obsession has been going on for a long period of time or is so severe that you’re unable to easily interrupt it, it’s worthwhile to discuss medication options with your veterinarian.

Howie’s foster family did just that, starting him on fluoxetine (the generic for Prozac) at the advice of the rescue’s veterinarian. They also began a steady behavioral modification regimen of appropriate exercise, training, and management. Howie wore a Calming Cap when he went on walks to block his ability to search for lights, and was rewarded handsomely for learning several new tricks. His foster family was gradually able to open the curtains, first on cloudy days, then at night, and finally on sunny days. They worked hard with him for months and months, helping him to cope with his former obsession.

Sadly, Howie’s story does not end well. After months of hard and loving work by his foster family, the injury on his muzzle had healed over. He was taken into the vet clinic for dental surgery to repair his damaged front teeth, and stopped breathing during the operation. The veterinarian was unable to revive him.

While Howie’s story was sad, there is a silver lining. He had several months of peace with his foster family, finally free of the light-chasing obsession that had so overpowered his life for so many years. He discovered the joys of using his nose and began to love the sport of nose work. He snuggled and got brushed, and got a chance to wriggle around in the grass and sleep in a bed. He was loved.

If you currently use a laser light to exercise your dog, I urge you to reconsider. While Howie’s story was extreme, it’s not uncommon. I work with obsessive dogs much like Howie regularly. Most of these cases could have been avoided with some minor changes to the dog’s routine. There are better ways to exercise and stimulate your dog. Save your laser light for powerpoint presentations, and you could save your dog from a lifetime of obsession. It’s a fair trade, and Howie would approve.

*Howie’s name and identifying details were changed at the request of his foster family.

4 Tips for Socializing a Sick Puppy

I could tell something wasn’t right with foster pup Cranberry minutes after bringing him home. As he coughed and wheezed, my mind instantly turned to socialization.

Socialization is a bit of an emergency with any puppy, but even more so if your puppy is ill. Cranberry’s cough and runny nose severely limited the number of places he could safely be taken, and since he didn’t feel well it was important to keep socialization sessions very short so as not to tax his limited energy reserved or already-stressed immune system.

cranberrysleep

The early experiences a puppy has, both good and bad, shape who that puppy becomes. Along with your puppy’s genetic package, socialization experiences form your pup’s opinions about new people, places, sounds, sights, and other animals. The socialization window – that magical period of time when puppies are especially open to new experiences – begins to close around twelve weeks, and is over by sixteen weeks for the majority of puppies. While socialization needs to continue through adolescence and into adulthood, negative experiences or a lack of socialization during the first critical months of a dog’s life will forever change or stunt the development of that puppy’s brain. At eight weeks of age, simply waiting for Cranberry to recover before beginning the socialization process wasn’t an option.

So, how can an ill puppy be socialized?

No paws on the ground: With a taxed immune system, Cranberry was more vulnerable to infectious diseases – not to mention potentially contagious to other dogs. This meant that it was important not to expose him to areas where other dogs had or would walk. Whenever we went on socialization field trips, Cranberry experienced the world from the safety of my arms. He was not set down anywhere away from home until he had been on antibiotics for a week, was no longer showing signs of illness, and was current on vaccinations.

Think outside the pet store: Lots of businesses are happy to welcome a clean and friendly puppy in his owner’s arms. Furthermore, the employees at book shops, craft and hobby stores, and hardware retailers are much less likely to spread puppy germs on their hands or clothing. And of course, airborne infections can still spread even to or from a pup in arms, so pet stores are simply not safe options for most ill puppies. Luckily, employees at our local banks and business offices where quite happy to snuggle eight-week-old Cranberry and feed him treats.

Park it: While it was much too cold in Minnesota for southern-bred Cranberry in the early days, he was quite happy to watch the world go by from the heated comfort of my car. Bring your pup on field trips to the local grocery store and pet shop parking lots. Parking garages can also provide wonderful socialization opportunities in the form of new people, smells, staircases, traffic, and even elevators.

Socialize outside the species: This one requires a bit of checking with your vet, however most common puppy diseases are not contagious to other species. In addition to introducing your puppy to lots and lots of new people, consider letting him meet friendly pets of a variety of species. Cranberry met my gerbils at home and also sniffed cats, guinea pigs, turtles, finches, and even some curious koi as large as him who came to the top of the aquarium to touch noses. Dog-dog socialization beyond interactions with my two adult females had to wait until he had recovered, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be learning lots about how to relate to other animals in the meantime.

1010147_10155035006560001_7249262806007038995_nI’m happy to report that Cranberry’s cough and runny nose have resolved, and his energy level is now that of a typical playful puppy. He’s well enough to receive his next needed vaccine at this point, and will soon be joining me at training classes and playgroups to catch up on his dog-dog socialization. Some thoughtful socialization in the meantime has kept him on track with the developmental needs of any puppy, and I’m proud of the friendly, affectionate little ten-week-old he’s become. As long as his future adopters* commit to attending puppy classes with him and continuing his positive experiences with others into adulthood, I expect he’s going to mature into a lovely, solid dog who will be a joy for years to come. And isn’t that the point?

Have you ever had a puppy become ill? How did you handle that pup’s socialization needs while he or she recovered? Please share your stories and tips in the comments section below

*Cranberry is currently available for adoption and looking for a wonderful home! If you live in the Minnesota area and are interested in adding this charming boy to your life, you can apply to adopt him through the rescue’s website here.

Enrichment

Enrichment is the act of changing an animal’s environment to encourage species-specific behaviors. The enrichment I provide for my pet gerbils, Wheelie McGerbilface and Silent Bob, consists of opportunities to chew, burrow, dig, climb, nest, and run. The enrichment I provide for Layla and Trout, and for every foster dog who comes through my home, also includes opportunities to chew and run, in addition to sniffing, ripping, and scavenging. These canine-specific behaviors make dogs’ lives with us better. The more opportunities you can provide for your dog to be a dog, the happier and more fulfilled your dog will be.

Photo by colorblindPICASSO on flickr.

Photo by colorblindPICASSO on flickr.

We often focus very intently on what we want of our dogs, but it’s important to remember that our dogs want things from us too. They want to feel safe from physical and emotional harm. They want to know that their physical needs for warmth, shelter, food, water, touch, and companionship will be met every day. Most of us are very good at providing these things. However, dogs also want to use their brains and bodies in ways that feel good to them, and this is where we sometimes fall short as dog owners.

The things that feel good to dogs are not necessarily things that feel good to us as primates. We like looking at things. Dogs prefer using their noses. We enjoy using our hands to explore our world. Dogs explore their worlds with their teeth and tongue. We like to create new things. Dogs love destroying stuff.

As you figure out how to enrich your dog’s life, remember to focus on the things your dog enjoys. If you’re not sure, try a few different enrichment games throughout the week and watch how your dog responds to each one. Remember that canines are social, predatory scavengers. They have a rich and nuanced language of their own, which they use to communicate with one another. They are also experts at finding (and sometimes catching) food.

The toys that dogs enjoy massage their predatory instincts. Squeaky toys sound just like the death cries of small animals. Ripping apart a plush toy mimics dissecting a furry animal’s corpse, and chasing a rope or ball activates the same part of the brain as chasing a squirrel. Tugging on a toy is much like fighting with a prey animal that’s trying to get away from your dog. Even the seemingly benign Kong has its roots in the dog’s scavenging past; the mechanics of getting peanut butter out of a Kong are strikingly similar to those of licking marrow out of a raw bone. As much as you may wish to see your pet as a furry baby, the truth is that inside every furry face lies the brain of a smart, social survivor. Your dog doesn’t want to be pampered, he wants to be engaged.

So, readers, what enrichment activities do you provide for your dogs? Post your favorites in the comments section below!

Myth: Peeing on Your Dog

Since I’ve worked as a professional trainer for years, I’ve heard it all. Most myths about dog behavior are silly and relatively harmless. That said, there’s one myth that’s resurfaced in the past couple months which has me shaking my head in bewilderment. Multiple clients have admitted to spitting in their dog’s food, peeing on their dog’s head, or otherwise using their own or their children’s bodily fluids with the intent of putting their dog in his or her place (which is implied to be “below” the human in a rigid hierarchy).

Spit-free kibble. Photo by BuzzFarmers on flickr.

Spit-free kibble (we hope). Photo by BuzzFarmers on flickr.

It can be hard to separate scientific fact from fiction for someone for whom dog behavior is a mystery, and I can empathize with my clients’ confusion. In each case, a trusted friend, family member, or even pet professional had recommended this course of action. In each case, my client was at a loss as to how to deal with his or her dog’s problematic behavior. While I wish that these clients had contacted me first, rather than after they had tried this technique (and in most cases, other recommendations from coworkers or neighbors as well), their hope was that following this advice would save them the cost of a private consultation with a trained professional.

The old adage of “you get what you pay for” springs to mind here. Free advice can be helpful, but for serious behavioral problems where the risk of failure could mean that a person gets bitten or your dog winds up homeless or dead, the stakes are just too high. Practice makes perfect, after all, and the longer a dog has the opportunity to practice the problem behavior, the worse the prognosis becomes. My clients and I have the most success when I can begin working with them at the first sign of a problem, rather than after months or even years of them attempting to solve the problem on their own.

So, why isn’t it a good idea to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head to “show him who’s boss?”

The core idea behind this advice is to elevate the owner’s status, based on the belief that dogs adhere to a rigid dominance hierarchy. However, this myth has been disproven over and over again. Wolves do have hierarchies, but they’re based on family arrangements with the mother and father leading the pack of children. Based on this knowledge, it only makes sense to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head if that’s what you would do to your [human] toddler when he misbehaves. Good parents – and good dog owners! – know that parenting is all about providing a safe environment for growth, with lots of patience, clear rules, and love.

Knowing that wolves form family packs greatly impacts our view of their communication and dominance hierarchies. However, drawing conclusions about dog behavior based on the behavior of their closely related cousins can be as erroneous as studying human behavior by observing chimps or bonobos. Yes, we share similarities. However, we’re not the same species. Dogs and wolves evolved from the same ancestor, but it’s likely that wolves have changed greatly from what they were tens of thousands of years ago. Studies of dogs in their native environment (village dumps) show that while wolves form close family packs, dogs do not. Mothers and puppies stick together, and dogs will develop friendships with other dogs, but the close-knit pack structure is just not there. This means that even if wolves did develop rigid pack structures that required forceful dominance displays, it would be inappropriate to extrapolate those behaviors to their cousins.

Even if all of this weren’t true, there’s still a major flaw in the idea of using bodily fluids to assert one’s dominance. Sure, it grosses us out to think about someone peeing on our head or spitting in our food. But does it really have the same impact on our dogs? Frankly, dogs love bodily fluids! When Layla lifts her leg and pees on another dog’s head (which she does on a fairly regular basis), the other dog never acts grossed out. Dogs lick one another’s mouths and eat vomit on a regular basis. They use their tongues to clean their genitals and lick at other dog’s urine. Some even eat poop (and many experts believe that human fecal matter may have been the main source of nutrition for early village dogs). We may think body fluids are gross, but dogs think they’re pretty fascinating.

The bottom line is that peeing on your dog, dumping the contents of your child’s dirty diaper on your dog, or spitting in her food is unlikely to create the behavior change you want. In the best case scenario, your dog’s behavior may be slightly suppressed due to her confusion. Worst case, you could scare your dog, damaging your relationship further, or unintentionally reward her problem behavior by providing her with something she finds fascinating or delicious. Either way, true behavioral change is unlikely, and you’re far better off consulting with a trained professional. As an added bonus, just think of how much money you’ll save on dog shampoo!