Category Archives: Trainer Development

Rescue Decisions: The Dog, or the Community?

The biggest problem facing American shelters and rescues in my opinion today is the choice of responsibility. Shelters and rescue can choose to side with being responsible to our community, or we can choose to be responsible towards the dogs we want to save. I do not honestly believe that we can always be responsible towards both.

Photo by Woody Hibbard

Photo by Woody Hibbard

The balance of responsibility is almost never talked about outside of the rescue world, because it’s a harsh and sometimes ugly concept. It’s not something we like to think about, but I think it’s something that we need to think and to talk about, openly and honestly. Until we can discuss the balance of responsibility, until we can ask organizations where their individual fulcrum sits and where they’ve decided to place their moral chips, it’s nearly impossible to have so many other discussions about euthanasia and live release rates and what “adoptable” looks like in their organization.

There’s a margin of error on both sides, and within that margin of error live the borderline dogs. Borderline dogs are those dogs who come into the shelter system damaged through no fault of their own. Through poor genetics, lack of socialization, or bad experiences, these dogs are just a little too hot to be pet material. Anyone who’s worked for any amount of time in shelter or rescue knows the dogs I’m talking about. These dogs do well in the hands of experienced animal handlers. We can take these dogs and make them look like stars. They’re usually dog- and cat-aggressive, or perhaps they do great with other animals but show no sociability towards people. Maybe they don’t like to be touched, or maybe they’re guarders. Maybe they don’t like men, or kids, or people who are holding things. Sometimes they have crazy drive and terrible structure. Sometimes they have stereotypies – spinning, licking, jumping. Often they’re quick to lunge and snap, quick to snark, or maybe even have a minor bite history. Maybe they’ve just never been inside, and pancake to the floor or won’t go through doorways. They come in a variety of flavors, but whatever they look like, they’re just a little bit tough without being obviously unsalvageable. They’re workable, but they’re also very likely to hurt someone in the wrong situation.

Do we – should we? – place these animals? With lots of resources, they could do really well. In fact, many blog readers probably have success stories about dogs just like those I described above who did beautifully in your home (I do too!). But, the resources that it would take to get these borderline animals to a place where the average pet owner could handle them would save fifty perfectly lovely other dogs who are dying in southern shelters today. And in my experience, most rescues never get these animals to a place where the average pet owner can adopt them. Instead, they have to wait for the above average pet owner to adopt them, and that takes months or years. That takes so many resources, or it takes unintentionally misleading adoption pleas.

The problem is that either way, you’re going to get some wrong. Occasionally, it’s not going to go well. So, which way do you err?

If your rescue errs on the side of the community, you kill some animals who were perfectly placeable. This is the side that the majority of the ER staff, vets, and trainers I know, myself included, tend to come down on, because we’ve seen the damage done when borderline dogs get placed irresponsibly. We’ve seen the bites to small children requiring plastic surgery. We’ve seen the grief when people’s pet cats or dogs are killed. We’ve seen how devastating it can be when an adopter has to send their new pet’s head off for rabies testing. So we advise that dogs with bite histories or histories of aggression, especially large or powerful breeds or those who already have a bad reputation which would be especially hurt by another poor media portrayal, be euthanized. We advise against placing dogs who we would absolutely work with if they were already in stable, loving homes, because the sad fact is that they aren’t, and that there are hundreds of lovely dogs with no behavioral issues who could use those resources out there who need help.

And I understand how hard that is, too. Because if you work in rescue, you tend to err on the side of the dogs. You’re the one who has to clean up after the world, and it hurts so much to take a hurt and broken dog who’s physically healthy on that last trip to the vet and hold them while they die. So you place them and you cross your fingers and then you feel so happy that everything worked out. And most of the time, quite honestly, it’s okay. Most of the time, things are all right, and adopters make things work, and the dog doesn’t bite anyone. And – I’ll be honest – even if the dog does horribly disfigure the neighbor kid, you’re probably not going to hear about it, because usually the adopter is too embarrassed or upset, so they don’t contact you to let you know, and you go on thinking everything worked out in the end. And you didn’t have to kill the dog. The buck was passed.

Why am I writing this? If you’re not in the rescue or shelter community, you’re probably horrified about the Sophie’s choice of the idea right now. If you are, you’re already aware of it, although you may not have thought of it so starkly before. Honestly, I’ve had a lot of tough cases over the last few months, blog readers, on both sides of the fence. I work with rescues who are doing everything they can to advocate for their dogs, and I admire the hell out of their commitment to their charges. However, I’ve also had a handful of cases where adopters have had to make tough choices about dogs that, in my humble opinion, should never have been placed in their homes or their communities, and in some of those cases children were injured. In one case, a beloved pet died. The dog in question was placed with a known history of aggression towards other animals. Shame on the shelter for passing on the responsibility to their adopter. You can guess which side of the moral debate that particular organization lands on.

Regardless of whether you work in shelter or rescue or not, you can make a difference. Make sure that your donations are going to support organizations whose missions support your beliefs. Even better, support organizations who work to keep animals in their original homes through programs that provide training, veterinary, and educational support to needy communities.

The sad fact of rescue is that sometimes we get it wrong. Behavior is not always predictable, and we’re left making educated guesses about what any animal in our care will do in the future. With that in mind, those of us in the rescue and sheltering community have an important responsibility to both the community we live in and the animals we’ve sworn to help. It’s a balancing act that can seem daunting at times, and each of us must decide at which point on the scale we wish to place our fulcrum. Where will you err? In favor of your community, or in favor of the dog? If you err, who’s going to pay the price?

Why I’m Not a “Force Free” Trainer

Force free. It sounds great, doesn’t it? Of course dog training should be force free! Yet when a recent client asked if I was a force free trainer, I said I wasn’t. My client was taken aback, as many of my blog readers probably are. Let me explain.

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I have several issues with the idea of labeling the training that Paws Abilities offers as “force free.” My biggest problem with the label is that it says nothing about what we actually do. Focusing on negatives like this is one of the biggest advertising gimmicks of all time. “No corn, wheat, or soy!” the dog food package proclaims. Yet, reading the label shows that there’s enough barley, rice, and oatmeal in the food that dogs who have issues with carbs are still going to react negatively. “Sugar free – No Sugar Crash!” the 5-hour Energy drink shouts, saying nothing about how your body might react to the caffeine crash later in the day.

Focus on negatives like this is meant to make you think poorly of competitor’s products or services. When you see the label that says “no by-products” on the dog food package, you start thinking that maybe by-products are bad for your dog, and wondering why other dog food companies would use them. When you see “force free” on a dog trainer’s website, your mental image of a trainer shoving or jerking a dog around makes you feel relieved that at least this trainer doesn’t do that.

What the focus on negatives doesn’t tell you is what the trainer actually does. While I don’t use or recommend choke, prong, or electronic collars, that doesn’t tell you a single thing about what I will do to your dog. Can I solve the behavioral issues you’re experiencing with your pet? How quickly and effectively will I do so? These are probably the bigger questions on your mind, and knowing what tools I do or don’t use isn’t going to tell you a whole hell of a lot about how effective I am. There are good and bad trainers of all training methodologies, and more has to do with the trainer’s experience than with the methods they use.

Which brings me to the second reason I don’t consider myself or my other instructors force free. The dog decides what “force” means, and we can’t always know that until we try a given training intervention. Is it considered forceful to stand on a dog’s leash so that he has enough leash to comfortably sit, stand, or lie down, but not enough to jump up on a stranger? Is it forceful to use body blocks to keep my dog from lunging at a passing bike? Is it forceful to fit a dog with a Gentle Leader or front-attach harness so that when he pulls on his leash he ends up facing his handler? I can’t tell you, and neither can anyone else. Each of these training methods is one that I frequently use, and each of them produces different results for different dogs. For some dogs, these methods might be considered forceful. A soft dog who’s very sensitive to spacial pressure might be really uncomfortable when her handler body blocks her, for example. For that dog, we may have to adjust the handler’s technique (perhaps having her handler lean towards her instead of actually stepping in front of her, for example). But we can’t know until we look at the dog’s response.

I’ve watched as a friend’s dog was happily and quickly recalled using low-level shocks from an electronic collar. While the tool isn’t one I use or recommend, in this dog’s case I didn’t see any body language that told me that the dog was uncomfortable or stressed by the use of force. Rather, the dog understood what the sensation on his neck meant, knew how to turn it off, and had a great relationship with his handler. I didn’t consider the interaction forceful and was not uncomfortable with anything I observed, even though the training tool was not one that I typically like seeing used.

On the other hand, I’ve watched a trainer shape a dog to “bang” the teeter totter using a clicker and treats at a seminar and felt highly uncomfortable. The dog was on a leash but was not being physically guided in any way. Still, she couldn’t go more than 6′ away from the teeter totter, and was clearly uncomfortable with the amount of pressure placed on her by the trainer. The dog’s body was low and she was licking her lips and turning her head away from the trainer. Even though I often use clickers and treats to train dogs, I was very uncomfortable with the interaction and didn’t feel like the dog was enjoying the training or building a good relationship with the well-known presenter at all.

The force free training movement would have you believe that the first trainer is evil because of her use of an e-collar, while the second trainer is good because she was using a clicker and treats. However, I bet if we asked the two dogs which was happier with the training they were experiencing, we’d get very different answers. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to start using an e-collar anytime soon (I’m not), or that I don’t think clickers and treats are good training tools (I do). But we have to ask the dog, and the mark of a good trainer has a lot less to do about what tools are in their repertoire as it does with how they modify their techniques based on the animal in front of them. Dogs are individuals, and cookie-cutter techniques don’t work any better for them than they do for the owners at the other end of the leash. The more dogs a trainer has worked with, the better that trainer will be able to change his or her methods to suit the individual that they’re working with at the moment – and the happier and less stressed the dog will be with the training.

I still get it wrong sometimes. Everyone will. I yelp loudly when a puppy nips me, then watch as that puppy shrinks away and realize that I’ve been too forceful. Next time I’ll need to make less noise. I clap my hands and cheer, offering a tug toy as the dog I’m working with gets into heel position, then feel my heart sink as the dog lags behind me. Next time I’ll need to praise and pet quietly, handing the dog a small piece of hot dog. I back an excited adolescent dog away from the dog he’s lunging and barking at, and watch as he continues to carry on. Next time I’ll need to body block him with a quick verbal “I don’t THINK so,” and be ready to reward him when he quiets down. The important thing in each interaction is that I modify my response to the dog to better work for that individual animal.

I’m not force free. I make mistakes in how I handle dogs. But I strive to be fair, kind, and respectful. I’m not force free. But I am helpful, effective, and a trainer who prefers reward-based methods. And doesn’t that tell you a lot more than focusing on what I’m not?

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Weeks Two and Three

Last week, we covered formerly feral puppy Chowder’s first week in our home. By the end of the first week, Chowder was snuggling with us in the evening and enjoying regular play sessions with our dog Trout. He would still run away when approached and flinch if we reached towards him. His crate was his safe haven, and he ran to it whenever he needed a bit of space – a behavior that made it easy to move him from one location to another without having to handle him, as we could carry the crate with Chowder inside wherever we needed him to go. Chowder would still freeze if handled or held, but he was beginning to cautiously investigate his world.

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When Chowder first arrived at our home, we’d noticed some odd hairless spots on his legs and feet, and over the next few days these lesions began to crack and bleed. Soon new spots appeared, and a trip to the vet was in order. When I arrived at the vet clinic, the tech attempted to take Chowder into the back room. I firmly but politely refused, and instead stayed present for the entire skin scraping procedure, feeding Chowder bits of hot dog and cheese. He wasn’t able to eat while being restrained as he was too scared, but quickly returned to munching on bits of treat after the procedure was finished. We played some sniffing games where I scattered treats on his bedding for him to find, and these increased his comfort level and confidence noticeably.

This vet visit brought up an important point about fearful dogs. You are your dog’s advocate. It’s always okay to stand up for what’s best for your individual dog. I knew that had the vet tech taken Chowder to the back room, she would have reached into his crate to pull him out (gently, because she was a kind person who loved animals, but still in a way that would frighten Chowder). While he would comply with this, it would break the compact we’d formed with him where his crate was his safe, private place and no one would ever remove him from it. Since Chowder wasn’t likely to come out of his crate on his own and we needed to handle him, we instead took his plastic crate apart and removed the top half of the crate. While still stressful, this allowed Chowder to remain safely planted on his dog bed with four walls around him, and minimized the amount of handling he had to endure.

Chowder’s skin scraping was negative, so he returned to the vet clinic a few days later for a second visit so that he could be seen by a veterinarian. This time he remembered the sniffing games he had played before and cautiously came out of his crate on his own to search for treats which I scattered all over the floor. We repeated the skin scraping, which was again negative, and also ruled out most strains of ringworm by looking at his skin under a woods lamp. Since he wasn’t itchy but his lesions were getting worse, the vet decided to start him on an antibiotic to see whether the spots might be caused by a bacterial infection. Luckily, this turned out to be the case, and the swollen spots on Chowder’s legs and feet stopped bleeding and became less inflamed. By the time the course of antibiotics was over, Chowder was growing new fur over the spots and looked much better!

During the next couple weeks, Chowder continued to accompany me to training classes three times a week, where helpful students tossed him treats. My nose work students were especially kind, and a different student stayed after their own dog’s class each week to take Chowder through the last of the three nose work classes I taught on Friday evenings. Nose work is one of the best confidence builders for shy and fearful dogs. On the first week of his class, Chowder was reluctant to move more than a couple steps away from his safe spot near his crate and was too worried to put his head into a cardboard box in order to eat treats. We placed the boxes near his safe spot and put food on the outside of them, and Chowder sniffed his way over to eat the chunks of chicken and hot dog. By the second week, he was able to eat treats out of shallow boxes, and we started to see him perk up as soon as the boxes were in sight.

I noticed that, while Chowder was making strides in bravery, he continued to have a very difficult time recovering after something startled him. This was a problem, because at this point in his limited experience with people, everything startled him. If someone reached towards him too quickly or a noise spooked him, Chowder often hid and remained jumpy for hours. He would stop taking treats and shut down.

I consulted with a veterinarian friend of mine, and she agreed that the potential risks of using anxiety medication for Chowder were much lower than the risks to his developing brain and body from such constant stress. She recommended that we try a very small dosage of a common anxiety medication, alprazolam, which I already had on hand for one of my own dogs and which has been safely used in human children.

The results were beyond our wildest dreams. While the drug didn’t make Chowder brave, it did help him recover quickly (within 2-5 minutes, instead of hours) from startling events. After making sure he reacted well to it at home in a quiet environment, we used two doses of the drug: once while he was in an ex-pen during a training class and once when I brought him to a friend’s home for game night. After just these two doses, I noticed that Chowder’s ability to recover from stressors even without the medication was greatly improved. Because he’d had success in these situations, he had learned that he could handle them. We discontinued the medication, and he has continued to make lovely progress without it. While my veterinarian friend was quick to point out that these results aren’t typical, she also theorized that perhaps because the medication was used so early in Chowder’s behavioral modification and before he’d had many scary experiences, it was much more successful than it may have been had we waited months or even years to try it, as many people do. Just as doctors often recommend taking pain meds at the first sign of discomfort after surgery in order to keep on top of the pain, getting on top of Chowder’s anxiety and offering him help right away made a big difference in preventing his fear and anxiety from spiraling.

Along with all of these successes out in the world, Chowder also had a very exciting thing happen at home: he finally got to meet Layla. Because Layla is dog aggressive, we waited for two weeks before the two dogs met without a baby gate between them. The meeting went well, and the two dogs were able to hang out in close proximity without fireworks. We didn’t yet allow them to interact beyond casual sniffs as they passed by each other and made sure that there weren’t any valuable resources (such as knuckle bones) that Layla might guard. Chowder’s body language with Layla was beautiful – respectful and friendly without being fearful. On the few occasions when Layla felt uncomfortable and snarked at him, Chowder responded appropriately by backing off but was not frightened. His dog skills really were suburb for a tiny puppy!

At the end of his third week with us, Chowder had developed the ability to calm down and recover quickly if something scared him. He continued to learn new things (“high five” was his favorite trick!) and explore his environment. He had also made several dog friends and eaten treats from over fifty people. He was learning that we would respect his choices and that he could investigate his world when he was ready to do so. Even more importantly, Chowder was learning that he had the power to influence the behavior of those around him. If he moved away, people would back off and give him space. If he sat, people would hand him treats. His confidence was growing every bit as fast as his body (which doubled in size in the space of three weeks, from seven to fifteen pounds).

Have you ever brought home a fearful puppy? What did you do to socialize your new charge and build his or her confidence? What would you do differently if you could do it all over again? Please comment with your tips, tricks, and stories!

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Week One

Last week, I covered fearful puppy Chowder’s first three days in our home. After three days, Chowder was reliably taking food from our hands, enjoying regular play sessions with our dog Trout, and beginning to play with us.

Chowder’s overall ability to cope with life in our home took a great turn for the better after the first 72 hours. He continued to be a champ at using his potty pads and settling in his crate, and we were able to use his crate to move him from one area to another. He would run into his crate as we approached, and we could then shut the crate door and move the crate wherever we needed him.

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Because of this, we were able to expand his world from our kitchen and bedroom to include my office downstairs. Our house has a relatively open floor plan, so we used an ex-pen to gate off the downstairs living room (which has white carpet) and a baby gate to close off access to the steps. Chowder could then run around my office and the adjoining room, which were both set up with water, toys, and potty pads.

Once Chowder could hang out with me while I worked, I began doing hourly training sessions with him. The clicker was an important tool in shaping his brave behaviors. Each hour, I would spend sixty seconds clicking and treating for brave behaviors. Whenever he took a step towards me, I clicked and tossed a treat away. This provided him with double rewards: not only did he get a treat, but he also got to move further away from me, which made him feel more comfortable. I wanted to be sure not to put too much social pressure on him, and this game allowed him to approach to a distance that felt comfortable without the conflict of moving into my space to eat.

Over the next week, Chowder learned the hand target game and quickly came to enjoy following my hand all over to earn clicks and treats. On his fourth evening with us, we discovered that he really liked popcorn. He began offering sits, which I clicked and rewarded with a small piece of popcorn. Within a couple minutes, he was offering to sit on a verbal cue with confidence.

One interesting behavior pattern that we noticed with Chowder was his differing level of confidence throughout the day. He was consistently timid and fearful in the mornings, and grew in confidence as the day progressed. By evening, he was much more likely to approach us and allow us to touch him, but would then regress overnight. We took advantage of his bravery in the evening by letting him snuggle in bed with us each night before he went into his crate to sleep. We set his crate up on the bed with the door open, and let him choose to come to us. Popcorn and cuddles became nightly themes, and by the fifth night in our house he actually fell asleep on our bed in between us.

We began having Chowder wear a body harness, which we put on each morning with lots of patience and food. Handling was still difficult and putting the harness on frightened Chowder, but he recovered quickly and we felt that the benefits of the harness outweighed the potential damage done to our relationship in putting it on. Had Chowder been too scared to eat while having the harness put on, we wouldn’t have done this. We attached a dragline to this harness and began allowing Chowder to spend short periods of time loose in the house when we knew he was empty (having just used a potty pad). Layla was confined when Chowder was loose, since the two dogs were still not ready to be loose together. Chowder loved these periods of freedom to run around with Trout and cautiously explore the house.

During this first week, I began bringing Chowder to the classes I was teaching. I set him up in an ex-pen in a corner with access to his crate and potty pads. A sign on the ex-pen told students, “Hi! My name is Chowder and I’m shy. Please don’t try to pet me, but you can feed me treats. Thanks for helping!” My students were wonderful at tossing treats into Chowder’s area when they were nearby, and he would cautiously come out of his crate after they moved away to eat. He watched the other dogs in class avidly, wagging his tail whenever he saw a new dog.

By the end of his first week with us, Chowder had made some remarkable progress from the near-feral puppy we initially brought home. He’d fallen asleep in bed, was accepting gentle petting in the evenings, and knew a couple trained behaviors which he could use to interact with people in positive ways. He was still quite timid and would run away if approached or if we reached for him, but he was on his way!

Next week, I’ll talk about Chowder’s second and third weeks in our home. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever brought a fearful animal home? How did you go about socializing him or her?

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: the First Three Days

My current foster puppy, Chowder, was found living in a culvert with his mom and three brothers as an eight-week-old puppy. This is his story.

My first view of Chowder and his siblings told me a lot about their socialization history. Huddled against one another at the back of their crate, they attempted to block out the rest of the world during their intake at the rescue’s headquarters. When lifted out of the crate for vetting and photos, the puppies froze still with fear. As is typical of young puppies, who tend to freeze rather than resorting to fight or flight when they’re incredibly overwhelmed, all four pups were compliant for vetting but uninterested in treats or in interaction with the kind rescuers who were caring for them. When back in the crate, two of the puppies started to take offered treats. Chowder and his brother Flapjack continued to refuse, huddled behind their braver siblings.

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The first 72 hours with a fearful dog or puppy can make or break that animal’s relationship with his human caretakers, and I kept that fact in mind as I brought little Chowder home. I wanted to make his first impressions of our home and of his new foster family as positive as possible. It takes an average of three days for cortisol levels (a common stress hormone) to return to baseline after a stressful event, and I knew that Chowder’s transport from Oklahoma to Minnesota, as well as his subsequent separation from his mom and brothers, hadn’t been easy on him.

We set Chowder up behind a baby gate in our kitchen, with his crate, potty pads, water, and toys. I spent the first evening with him sitting on the floor, reading a book and ignoring him. He huddled in the safety of his crate, watching everything with wide eyes. The only time he became more comfortable was when he spied either of our two dogs, Trout and Layla. Upon seeing another dog, his tail came out from between his legs and wagged slightly, and he would come out of his crate briefly to sniff noses through the gate. He felt safer in the presence of dogs than people.

Chowder ran into his crate every time he saw a person, but soon became comfortable enough to venture out of his crate when we weren’t around. He quickly caught on to using his potty pads. He also loved the toys we left out for him, and would bring them back into his crate. He amassed quite a hoard of toys in the first couple days, preferring soft stuffed animals that he could cuddle with.

All of his meals came from our hands. He became comfortable with my boyfriend, Matt, before he became comfortable with me. He would tentatively approach us as we sat with our backs to him, nibbling on food and treats that we held flat on our palms. If we reached towards him, he still darted away into the safety of his crate, but he was fast becoming comfortable with the idea that people provided food and other good stuff to eat.

Knowing that other dogs helped Chowder to feel more comfortable, we began allowing him to have playdates with our younger dog, Trout. Chowder loved Trout, who tolerated his rough puppy play and biting with mostly good grace. The two dogs enjoyed wrestling. Chowder also seemed more comfortable with Matt and me when Trout was around, and was more likely to allow us to gently scratch his itchy skin in the middle of a play session. We continued to keep Chowder separate from our older dog, Layla, who required longer introductions as she could be aggressive towards unfamiliar dogs. Layla and Chowder were both given treats for polite, social behavior towards one another on opposite sides of the baby gate, and Layla quickly began to offer sniffing noses with the puppy to earn a food reward.

On the second evening at our house, we plugged in a DAP diffuser for Chowder. The results on both his and Layla’s behavior were noticeable. While not as remarkable as drug therapy, Chowder’s recover from stressful events became much faster under the influence of DAP. Instead of taking an hour for him to recover from hearing a loud noise or from a sudden movement near him, it took mere minutes for him to choose to venture forth from the safety of his crate.

Making sure that Chowder felt safe and that he was given opportunities to choose rather than being forced into interactions were the most important themes of his first three days (and indeed, these themes have continued throughout our foster time with him). By allowing him choice, Chowder learned that he could be brave and that retreat when he became overwhelmed was always an option. He started to play with us – little tug and pounce games at first from within the safety of his crate. By day three, he was willing to come out of his crate briefly to grab a rabbit-fur tug toy, which he would pull back into his crate and tug on as we held onto the other end. He also enjoyed a grabbing and shredding game that he and Matt invented with pieces of toilet paper. His confidence increased, and he started to move more like a puppy and less like a wild animal. We still had a long way to go, but by the end of the first three days Chowder was showing some promising progress.

Next week, we’ll discuss what we did with Chowder in his first week at our home. This special little guy is still looking for a forever home of his own and is available for adoption! For now, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever brought home a fearful animal? What did you do during that animal’s first few days to help him or her feel safe?

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

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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