Sunday, July 23, 2017

Click and Treat, But Why?

I use clicker training with the majority of my clients, or at least with their dogs- people look at me funny when I start clicking and giving out M&M’s. I love clicker training, there’s no hiding it so I won’t even try. It fits perfectly in my force-free philosophy and makes training fun and fast for everyone. There are a few exceptions to this- homes with multiple small children can mean the parents have to be extra careful and put more work into hiding the fun little noisemaker and folks who have slower reaction time due to age, physical handicap, or disease. In those cases, we tend to use a verbal reward marker, like “YES!” Let me take a step back and explain all about the clicker. The clicker utilizes the principles of classical conditioning, which is based on the work of Ivan Pavlov. Like so many scientific discoveries, Pavlov stumbled upon Classical Conditioning (CC) by accident. The Russian physiologist was studying canine salivation rates in response to meals back in the 1890’s when he realized that the dogs began to salivate when he (the person feeding them) would enter the room. He put together that some things are innate for animals- drooling is something that a dog naturally does when food is around, so that response does not need to be trained. We call these responses Unconditioned Responses (UR) and they are generally paired with an Unconditioned Stimulus (US). US are things that trigger an innate response; food makes hungry dogs drool because their body begins producing saliva to aid in chewing and digestion- dogs don’t need to learn to do that. What Pavlov accidentally did was to pair the UR with something new, something without meaning- a Neutral Stimulus (NS). Next, the can opener that he used to open the canned dog food was paired with the food enough times that the dogs began to have the same response to the can opener as the actual food. He took this farther and tried pairing the salivation with another NS- a bell. He wound up with dogs who would drool at the sound of a bell ringing. That is exactly what we do with the clicker- it starts out as this noisemaker that means nothing, but quickly becomes an indication that the dog will get a treat for doing what we want- a reward marker. Do you know why clicker training became so popular with marine and other large mammals? Because it allowed people to train and work with them without punishment. There a few problems with using coercive techniques with animals who weigh tons more than people- the people can get hurt and if uninterested, the whale simply swims away or the elephant stomps on the human who keeps hurting him. Clicker training is used with dogs, horses, chickens, and a world of animals in zoos. It allows us to work with them safely and build a healthy, strong relationship with the animal and a tool to effectively communicate.

You have questions, I know. I have the answers:

Do I always need a clicker?
Of course not, you also don’t need a pouch full of jerky, either. These are only needed for initially training a behavior or cue. Once fluent in the words we teach, you will begin to fade out the use of treats and the clicker. We then use real life rewards- toys, free play, tug, belly rubs- whatever the dog loves.

My dog doesn’t need more food, he’s already overweight.
That's fine. You can use part of your dog’s daily food as rewards during training most of the time and if you need to use more tasty treats, you can simply cut back on their regular food. Also, you won’t always need treats, over time your dog will do what you ask for petting, praise, toys, tug, fetch- whatever he likes. Lastly, we use really, really small pieces of treat in training- my rule of thumb is that the treat should be no bigger than a pea.

Does this really work?
Yes. Do you go to the door when you hear the doorbell? Do you answer your phone when it rings? Those are both examples of things that were at one point in your life, neutral stimuli but were given a new meaning; that’s all we are doing with clicker training. If you need further proof of how it works in people, check out this article on TAGTeach, which is essentially clicker training used in people, especially for young athletes to perfect form and to help those with certain developmental challenges.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Your Dog On Drugs

It's almost time for the loudest holiday in many cities- July 4th. Fireworks, firecrackers, sparklers and lots of bright lights in the evening. While many of us get to enjoy the festivities, this night can be a harrowing one for dogs who have aversions to noise. How do you cope? Well, you start by working on desensitizing way before July 2nd. You may feel your dog needs medication and you may be right, but that can be where the real frustration starts.

It seems as though we are a society more and more dependent on pharmaceutical intervention. This is a great thing much of the time- people are living longer, better lives, and doing more with illnesses that would have limited them severely in the past. The same is true for our dogs- since dogs are similar metabolically to humans in some ways, your veterinarian can prescribe similar medication (or the same at a different dose) to help with a variety of disorders and diseases. Antibiotics, anti-fungal, insulin, thyroid medication, even anti-anxiety medications can be commonly prescribed. The world of canine medication has advanced significantly and our dogs are (usually) living better lives because of it.
I want to say this: I am not inherently against medication at all. What I am cautious of is over-prescribing and inappropriately prescribed medications. I am not a veterinarian and have no legal right to prescribe or recommend medications for any dog. That is a discussion to have with your veterinarian. If your veterinarian is unsure about behavioral medications, they should get in touch with a veterinary behaviorist. Many veterinary behaviorists across the country will consult with your local veterinarian for free or for a low fee to help out if your area is under-served in that specialty. Let me be clear- medication can work wonders for dogs, but it has to be the correct medication for your dog, so ask your vet and seek out a veterinary behaviorist if necessary.

Generally, I see problems in dogs who are put on a medication that is essentially a tranquilizer to aid in anxiety. Let's look at Acepromazine, which is regularly used pre-surgery in cats and dogs and likely too often used in an effort to reduce anxiety in them. This medication has been around since the 1950's and works by blocking dopamine receptors in the brain. Dopamine is responsible for perceiving pain, pleasure, aiding in motor function and digestion. The patient's blood pressure, heart rate and temperature are all decreased on this medication. This is acceptable in surgery, since all those will be monitored the whole time anyway. The problem comes when the medication is used in an anxious dog because it tends to be the opposite of helpful. I will explain why in human terms.
You are out at a bar with a friend. Your friend goes outside to take a phone call and warns you it will take more than a few minutes, which you are kind of ok with- you don't really like being alone in this poorly lit place, but you figure you can handle a few minutes. As you sip your drink, you realize that you aren't able to move as well as you should be, your motor skills are not where they should be. Either your drink is really strong or someone has put something in your drink. You look around for your friend but suddenly the lighting seems worse and you can't see much. You try to get up and stumble off the barstool...
That is what it's like for (many) dogs on acepromazine. Imagine if you are a person who already has a very high level of stress associated with a bar and this happened to you. Would you feel better not being able to respond to what you perceive as threatening, realizing you physically cannot do what you want? It actually makes anxiety worse, but the symptoms are masked by the medication so to the untrained eye the dog looks "fine". In surgery, the drug is given IV and the dose is relatively low since it is only needed short term and the muscle relaxation is useful in that context. After all, nobody wants a twitching leg in the middle of an ACL repair! Now, acepromazine is just one example; there is a world of drugs out there and new ones are developed regularly. What I want to stress is the importance of getting the right drug for your dog, monitored by you and your veterinarian. Most of the time, a simple sedative is not the right choice for anxiety or aggression and will likely make those behaviors worse. Remember that aggression or fear is a response on the dog's part to a perceived threat, however unjustified we may see that perceived threat. The right medication may take weeks to take effect and you will also need to do some behavioral modification training with a certified trainer fluent in reward based training (adding in the stress of a physical corrections, shock, pinch or prong collars does no good). In the best case scenarios, a dog is on a medication for a period of time, goes through training which includes desensitizing, counter-conditioning, and teaching more appropriate responses to triggers and is able to be weaned down to a low dose or no medication at all. (study questioning the ineffectiveness of acepromazine not long after it was introduced into human mental health) (use of operative and pre-operative drugs)

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Fallacy of Dominance Theory; Flawed Science (part 1)

Fair warning, there are citations of peer-reviewed articles in this post and it might get a little technical. Where I can, I have linked to a copy you should be able to access to read for yourself, otherwise you may have to check out your local library or university for access to scientific journals. Enjoy!

When observing a demonstration of the skillset of a working police K9 recently, my heart sank. It wasn’t because I saw a dog being abused, but because I saw the normalizing of a training method that has been proven to cause problems. This was all before the dog was out, too. The police officer was explaining the equipment to a small crowd, including a child who seemed to be 3-5 years old. The police officer was showing all the typical tools meant to cause… well, let’s just say discomfort to be diplomatic. Prong collars and shock collars were among the mix. It was being explained to the group that these things don’t hurt the dog at all. I had to walk away for a minute, because that was ridiculous. They do cause pain, or at least discomfort, otherwise they wouldn’t work. When a dog is highly aroused, like in police or military work, they are in a part of their brain that will only respond to pain. Saying that it doesn’t hurt dogs is a flat out lie. You know what else was once common belief about (non-human) animals? That they couldn’t feel pain; that even surgery could be done without medication. We were wrong about that one, what else could we have wrong? Training an animal should never be a situation where force or pain are status quo; the belief that it's the only way to get reliable behavior is simply not true. I do understand the importance of the work of military and police dogs and I love that they have such an important place, but I have seem military working dogs from European countries who can do all the same work, without the pain. Maybe it’s time to leave the past behind and move away from a training protocol that was developed for WWI.

When dog training first started on a big scale, for the war, it was commonly believed that the only way to communicate with any animal was to use force. It worked. Dogs learned quickly what not to do. There were also many dogs deemed “too stupid” for work because they could not learn this way. This belief was further cemented by a study done in 1975 on the behaviors of captive wolves. These wolves were not a familial group, as wolves in the wild are, and they were in what was to them, a very strange environment. The researcher, Zieman, saw some pretty intense displays of aggression including the now well known “alpha roll”. The animals sustained major injuries. He proposed that there could be a multitude of reasons for these incidents including time of year, standing relationships between the wolves and status, but seemed to harp on the status part. With this, the industry continued on this path and wolves were compared-incorrectly- to our own dogs. Despite the work of other researchers explicitly demonstrating that this is not normal behavior for wild wolves (Mech 1999; Fatjo et al, 2007), this fallacy persists. During 13 summers in Canada, on Ellesmere Island, Mech never saw displays as violent as the ones observed by Zieman. He saw what is most common in all animals- subtle and not so subtle body language meant to communicate in social situations (Kerkhove 2004 p 281). In the study by Fatjo et al, similar results were found in wild wolves: “overt aggression was rarely observed in the pack included in this study and never led to open wounds in any of the wolves involved in agonistic encounters.” It seems that the most logical conclusion to be drawn is that unrelated wolves in captivity is what caused the severe fights, not simple rank determination displays (Kerkhove 2004 p 281-2). Despite these findings, too many people out there still believe the words written in a 42-year old study.

Since the theory of dominance cannot be unilaterally applied to wolves, it is not logical to apply it to modern dogs, who diverged on the evolutionary path from wolves 11,000-16,000 years ago (Freedman et al, 2014, pg 1, 5). Furthermore, there is no need for dog owners or trainers to establish themselves as the ‘alpha’ or ‘pack leader’ in an effort to prevent or stop canine aggression since most aggression is actually in defense or due to general anxiety (Herron et al 2009 p 52). Punitive displays on the part of dog owners have a correlation with increased aggression displayed by the dog, so trainers and owners may be endangering themselves and family members when attempting to train this way (Herron et al 2009 p 52, Hiby et al 2004). The theory of dominance and the belief in a rigid social structure for wolves and dogs has simply been debunked. The rules of this theory do not accurately apply to wolves or their distant relatives who now occupy our homes.

To paraphrase another trainer, have you seen a wolf “dominate” a monkey? No, because alpha based dominance is within that species. The wolf could show aggression towards a monkey I suppose, but that would not be dominance. It would be something akin to “hey, outsider, get out of here!” Would the wolf go back to his wolf buddies and say “look, I totally dominated this monkey today, now he knows I’m the boss!” The type of dominance people refer to when excusing the use of force it called Alpha Regulated Dominance. It only exists within a species. By exerting ‘dominance’ over your dog, you are attempting to do something that a logical animal would not do (see above monkey example). By doing an alpha roll, you are being irrational and mean and your dog does not understand what is happening or why; they only know you are mad as hell and they will do everything they can to not make you mad in the future. A human attempting to ‘train’ using force in the name of dominance is bullying, plain and simple. Teaching our dogs to live this way seems to me analogous with staying in an abusive relationship because that person provides you with a place to live and food to eat. We tend to believe that people deserve better; don’t our dogs also deserve better?

Some of these I have been able to link to the full text and others are just the abstract, so again check with your library or local university for scientific journal access. 

1. Zimen, E. (1975). Social Dynamics of the Wolf Pack. In W. M. Fox (Ed.), The wild canids: Their systematics, behavioral ecology and evolution (pp. 336–362). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. (This one is a book)

2. van Kerkhove, W., 2004.
 A fresh look at the wolf-pack theory of companion-animal dog social behavior. J. Appl. Anim. Welf. Sci. 7, 279-285.

3. Mech, L. D. (1999).
Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of
Zoology, 77, 1196–1203.

4. Herron et al (2009)

5. Hiby et al (2007) 
Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare

6. Fatjo et al (2007)

Ambivalent signals during agonistic interactions in a captive wolf pack

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Everybody Poops... Hopefully Not On The Rug

House training, potty training, housebreaking- whatever you call it, teaching a dog to poop and pee in the appropriate place can be harrowing. Most puppies learn early on to poop and pee away from where they sleep and eat, though not all. You may recall my post on puppy development  where you hopefully learned that very early on, puppies learn to go to the bathroom in the right place when they start leaving the den:

Transitional Period: Days 11-21

Motor and sensory skills start to develop, eyes and ears open, and they start to walk instead of crawl with trepidation. Their teeth are coming in, so they can start on soft meals (sometimes regurgitated by their momma), even though they will still be nursing for a few more weeks. Louder vocalization occurs when they are left in a new environment and since they can hear, they will initially startle at noises. At this age they also start to navigate away from their nest or den to go potty, because they can go potty without mom's help and realize that they don't want to sleep near that. Up until this point, their sweet momma has probably been eating their poop. The puppy is able to adapt to new stimuli and develops the senses through experiencing new stimuli like handling, playing with toys, experiencing new types of floor, bedding and climbing on stuff (not unlike human babies). Play fighting will begin during this time and positive reinforcement training can be used to teach them (by their mom or their humans). An interesting side note, potty training is already starting at this point and what happens here will have a lasting impact:
"From this point on, the puppies should have the possibility to leave the nest site to eliminate. Puppies who have been thwarted from doing so may become almost impossible to house train."

See that? As early as three weeks old, your puppy could be delayed in potty training if their environment is not ideal. Puppies who come from pet stores are notoriously bad at learning to potty appropriately. Due to the nature of the setup, their poop and pee tends to not get cleaned up right away and they become accustomed to it, even in their kennel. This makes potty training especially difficult because you are limited in where the puppy can be placed while you are unable to watch him. Other puppies are raised using potty pads, which can have an effect on house training. This is typically done for puppies who are born during winter in cold climates or toy breeds who could be picked up by a bird of prey when out on a potty excursion. Now, potty pads are not inherently bad and they can be really helpful for tiny breeds and folks who live in high rise apartments and condos. The problem is when a puppy generalizes the padded surface of the pad to any soft surface of the house- the bathmat, the front door mat, the dining room rug, etc. 

" bad."

Since this whole potty thing can be so frustrating, I wanted to pass along some potty training DO's and DO NOT's. 

1. DO NOT punish your dog for having an accident. It was an accident, your dog doesn't know any better, or they do not have sufficiently developed muscle control to hold it when playing/excited/very full of pee or poop. This means you should not yell, scold, or rub your dog's nose in the excrement. This is pretty rude of you and will confuse your dog. It can also lead your dog to be afraid of going potty anywhere around you and learning to hide it better when he does go in the house. You will find poop in a shoe in your closet suddenly, and your dog will be afraid of going potty around you, even outside. That makes it pretty hard to adapt appropriate potty habits. 
2. DO NOT let your dog watch you clean up the poop or pee on the rug. Admittedly, I'm not sure exactly what goes on in your dog's mind when they see you clean up, but I suspect it's something like "oh, wow! I left that there and now look at how dad is enjoying it! He's sitting on the floor, rubbing that towel on it, he must want to keep my smell forever. I will have to do this again later on, so he has more to play with!" Have another family member take the dog out to finish going potty or just sniff around while you clean, or have the dog crated or gated where he cannot see you cleaning up. 
3. DO NOT let your dog outside in the yard and assume they are doing their business out there. That is like sending a 3 year-old into the bathroom and expecting them to go potty. They might, the might not, they might flush bath toys down the toilet. It's really a toss up. If you are having trouble potty training, you need to know if your dog is going outside so you know what to expect when he comes back inside. 
4. DO NOT free feed a dog who has poop accidents in the house. Remember that if food goes in at fairly predictable times, it will come back out at predictable times. 
5. DO take into account the size of your dog. A Chihuahua and a Great Dane will see a 1200 square foot apartment as very different space, and potty problems may develop as a result. A 7-pound chihuahua may have no problem pooping on one side of the living room and sleeping on the other side. It's enough distance! The Great Dane on the other hand, may not want to poop anywhere inside that home because it is all too close to where he will sleep. 
6. DO clean up with an enzymatic cleaner, such as Nature's Miracle or Anti-Icky Poo. This actually gets rid of the proteins left behind. Using Resolve is great for us, since it smells pretty, but to dogs it smells like the poop/pee and that weird fake flowery smell, so they have no problem going there again. 
7. DO reward your dog for going potty outside. This can be praise, but a treat given outside, right after a pup goes potty where you want can go a long way in them repeating the behavior. 
8. DO label the 'going potty' with a term such as 'go potty', 'make', 'go to the bathroom', etc. It really doesn't matter what term or word you use, as long as you don't mind saying it out loud and sharing it with anyone who will care for your pup. 
9. DO keep track of when and where your dog goes potty, this way you know what to expect as a pattern develops. 
10. DO remain consistent with taking the dog out at regular intervals and taking them to a designated potty spot. This will set him up to be more likely to go outside when you take him. If you are keeping track of when and where it happens, your consistency will result in a predicable potty schedule. 

See how painless that was? The truth is, with some dogs this takes weeks to months. With a pup who has been having accidents for a long time, it will take longer to break the habit of peeing or pooping anywhere. If a dog has been going to the bathroom indoors for 4 years, it will take more than 4 days to change the habit. Consistency and patience are the key here, as well as a good carpet shampooer! Of course, if you are struggling, you should contact a certified dog trainer who can help you and your dog. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Choosing The Right Dog For You (Part 2: Breeds and Keeping the Odds in Your Favor)

I will start this post with a disclaimer- it is chock full of stereotypes and generalizations. I'm not typically a fan of stereotyping, but when considering a new pet, I think it's best to put the odds in your favor. Knowing what different breeds generally are and how they typically behave will help you to choose a new family member who will be a good fit. So many people love the idea of getting a border collie or cattle dog because they are very smart breeds; people see them do tricks, agility courses, jump to catch a frisbee, or are fascinated by their ability to move a herd of animals. Unless you have a herd of sheep, cattle, or literally hours to devote to teaching and training new behaviors, tricks, and exercises, you do not want one. Trust me. Those are two of my favorite breeds, but they require a very specific type of life and a very specific pet parent. Odds are, you are not that type. I'm sorry, I wish you were. I wish I were, but I know that I'm not at a place right now where we can be a good home to a high maintenance dog like that. We have two small children and both my husband and I work full time. We have just enough time to play tug or fetch and go for walks with our 8 year old pit mix. She is low-key and easy to please, and fits perfectly in our life now.

I am a proponent of adopting from rescues and shelters, though if you are certain you want a specific breed and you are sure you want a puppy, I think a reputable breeder is a also good direction to go. I really prefer you not buy from a pet store or from someone selling a dog online via Facebook or Craigslist, as you may be supporting irresponsible breeding or a puppy mill. It's easy to rationalize it as the puppy getting a better home with you but you are still financially supporting that industry so it's a double-edged sword.
Anyway, you have decided you want a dog, you can worry about where he/she comes from later.

First, you need to figure out what type of dog will fit in your life well. These are the same questions I ask when someone wants me to help them pick out a new puppy. Let me tell you right now, hearing my response when I look at client's answers to these questions seldom makes them happy. They are often disappointed because they had already decided on a specific breed. Sometimes, people get angry. I don't blame them. I dislike being told what I can and cannot have- after all I am an adult! Once they get past the disappointment/anger/sadness/confusion, I explain that if they are really set on a breed, they should contact a few (reputable) breeders and explain all the same information to them. The breeder may echo my advice or may say that they have the perfect pup. If the breeder has a litter where one pup is not the norm and may fit in that home, it can work perfectly. I also tell them that if they are fully committed to any dog, they will have years of happiness.
Things you need to ask yourself and answer honestly:

How many hours a day do you have to spend with a dog? 
     -You will need to commit significantly more time to a puppy than an adult dog, no matter the breed. Getting a puppy is a lot like having a newborn; the exceptions are that puppies have more hair and legally, you can lock up a puppy in a crate for a few hours at a time (doing that with your kids is frowned upon).
     -Any working breed including herding and scent/sight hounds, will need adequate mental and physical exercise to stay happy and out of trouble. A smart dog needs a job and needs to solve problems; if you don't provide that job or problem to solve, these dogs will find something to do, like how to get into the trash, the bathroom, how to open the door to the playroom and chew up all the legos, etc.
     -This is also true of any dog bred for field work- a labrador who comes from hunting lines who is not worked in some way will have trouble doing well in a house where his day is divided between looking out the window and going for two short walks a day.
     -This time does not necessarily need to be consecutive hours, but you need to have time to devote to a dog, period.
        -Even if you get an adult dog and not a puppy, you need to be prepared to sacrifice free time to be with your dog! Getting an adult dog can be like adopting a toddler or elementary-school aged child. They need a schedule, fair rules, and consistency to thrive.

How many hours a week do you work?
     -This is an extension of the first question, but time you are spending at work is generally time away from your dog. If you work 16 hour shifts, seven days a week, that only leaves eight hours when you are not working. You may need to sleep on occasion and though my dog has tried, it's hard to play fetch or tug while sleeping.
Are you physically active? Can this activity involve your dog?
     -If you are a runner, this can be wonderful physical exercise for an adult dog, as well as added security if running at dawn or dusk.
     -If you tend to bicycle, this may not be the best activity for your dog to partake in with you, are you willing to take some time away from this to be with your dog?
     -If you like to stay at home and do yoga, you can probably involve your dog from time to time, though a puppy will get bored with this quickly at first.
     -If you are physically active and strong you may be able to get a bigger dog and not get pulled down. I would not recommend a 130 pound mastiff to an 80 year old, for what should be obvious reasons.

Do you have a yard? Is it fenced?
     -You do not necessarily need a fence to have a dog, and many times people think that having a fence means they can let that dog out in the yard to play and that counts as exercise, which is wrong. Having a fence makes it easier to play outdoors without worry, though.
     -You should have space for a dog. If you do not have a yard, is there someplace you can take tour dog for walks, exercise, long-leash or off-leash play? Dogs (generally) like the outdoors- it's full of sights and sounds that change day-to-day, even by the hour, and getting out there together is really fun for your dog!

Do you live in a house, apartment, or condo/townhouse?

     - Is that apartment/townhouse pet friendly?
     -Are there breed restrictions or size restrictions?
     -If you are renting a house, are there pet restrictions?
   (you would not believe how many people do not look into this before getting a dog)
     -Is there actually room for that dog in your small apartment?

Do you have children? How old are they? 
     -A good dog and good kids can live together, with responsible parents
     -If you expect your 7-year old to be responsible for all the care of a 50 pound dog, you need to reconsider your connection with reality.
     -If you have small children, a small dog may not be the best, as they can be too in-your-face. Also, a herding breed can have trouble with small children who move quickly, unpredictably, and make squeaky noises.
     -Any training you do should involve your children, and kids should at least help with the daily routine. My kids (age 4 and 19 months) argue over who gets to feed the dog each meal and who gets to snuggle with her.

How much money do you have? 
     -I don't phrase it like this when I talk with clients, but you need to be sure you can actually afford a dog. I'm not trying to be a scrooge, but if you can't afford your current bills, you should not get a dog and add to it. If you want a companion, volunteer at your local shelter, pet-sit for friends; don't go buy a dog because you are lonely. That is selfish and only serves you; a dog is a living being whose well-being need to be considered.
     -A good 'doggie savings' plan is to put away some money each month or each paycheck- put it in a savings account in the bank and see how much you have after at leads 6 months (a year is better). Dogs are not cheap. Puppies are even less cheap, they need booster vaccines evert 3-4 weeks from the time you bring them home (depending on what the breeder did), until they are about 17 weeks of age. Plan to spend at least $100 on annual vet visits, more for heartworm prevention and flea/tick prevention. Oh yeah, then there's things like emergency visits, or at least unexpected visits between those bi-annual ones. Pet insurance can help, just buy before you have a problem or it won't be covered. Keep in mind that pet insurance is reimbursement- it's not like your own health insurance where you see the bill saying how much the company covered- you pay the vet, submit your request and get refunded by the insurance company for a portion of the bill.
     -Food- your dog needs to eat and there are enough options out there to make you dizzy. For a good food (research and ask your vet), you should plan to pay at least $45 per 40 pound bag. For a medium sized dog who eats a couple cups a day, it's not terribly expensive, but if you have a large breed like a Great Dane or Mastiff, you will go through that bag of food in just a matter of weeks.

Now that I have said all that, keep in mind that even with the stereotypical cattle dog who needs to run and play and work lots, a committed and imaginative pet owner can have a great pet (and lots of fun).

The key is to pick a dog who will fit with your family- energy level, time, and your general lifestyle, then fully commit to the dog. Keep up with medical needs, buy good food, have a good selection of toys (and play with the toys with your dog), and please teach your dog some basics like sit, down, stay, impulse control, and come. I'd prefer you use a force-free trainer, of course! 

If you still have questions about getting a new pup, feel free to contact me and I can do my best to help you out.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Why We (Usually) Can't Use Sex To Motivate Dogs

I really just used that title because it made me giggle, though it is true. I could tell you a story about working on a pig farm and a discussion on power tools and breeding pigs, but I'll leave it to your imagination (nobody was hurt).
I'm going to let you in on yet another dog trainer secret. I keep doing this because I really want what's best for your dog; you being educated is really great for your dog. Us dog trainers have a pretty good handle on motivators and how to use them to teach dogs. Really good dog trainers even know what motivates their human clients!

First, some basics about motivators. Every living thing has motivators- things that provide a reason or stimulus to do something. There are three basic elements of life that are important to all animals (even people): food, sex, and fear. There are pros and cons to each one:

Food: fast, fun, easy, allows quick learning in different situations, BUT you do have to learn how to fade out the food rewards and still have a strong behavior.
Sex: very motivating, fun, BUT it is not ideal for achieving quick learning, quick repetitions AND it requires another animal.
Fear: Changes behavior quickly, BUT the animal tends to over-generalize and have trouble learning distinctions when in a fearful state. Studies have also shown lingering effects of punishment based techniques (see resources).

It should come to no surprise to you to hear that I prefer to use food as a primary motivator and reinforcer in training, at least initially. I always teach my clients about fading food rewards, which you can read about in another post coming soon. To train your own dog, you have to understand what motivates him. Food is a solid motivator for all animals since they need it to survive. The only times a dog doesn't want food are when he is already full or is over-threshold and is going into fight/flight mode. When initially training a new behavior or cue, food is a wonderful way to keep your dog engaged, get quick repetitions (as long as you keep treats small), and keep the training enjoyable for you both.
Some dogs are differently motivated from the start; my buddy Darwin loves nothing in life more than his frisbee:
Catching a frisbee: 

Holding a frisbee: 

 Even when the snow is up to his belly: 

I have known dogs who like attention more than food, or the reward of running with another dog more than food. Motivators will not only vary by dog, but by situation. When a dog is in high-energy exercise like running an agility course, he may not want to stop to eat a treat (it's physiological), but will gladly play tug or fetch with his handler for a minute. It keeps him excited for the agility course and is a reward- perfect motivation! When a dog is in his home with minimal distractions, his own dry food or petting and attention from his humans may be sufficient to drive him. In class, with other dogs, smells and sounds, his humans will likely need a more tasty treat to keep their dog engaged and motivated while learning. When a dog is overstimulated and stressed, food will not be high on their priority list. If they are fight/flight mode, digestion is shut down and they will not stop if you toss a steak in front of them. Humans are the same way- if you are trying to escape a burning building, you probably will not stop to grab a slice of pizza from the fridge because food is literally the last thing on your mind. A good trainer will know this and actually wants to keep a dog from feeling this stressed while training, and in every day life. I'm not saying dogs have to have perfect lives where everything is handed to them, but the things that really upset them and make them freeze, growl, bark, bite- those should really be removed and reintroduced properly (read: gradually with the help of a certified trainer). A dog who is scared is not going to learn anything good; I know I keep saying this but only because it's so true. We want the best schools for our kids because it's the best environment, right? Free of undue stress, filled with teachers who want them to succeed, even if they learn differently than other students, right? Why not get the best for your dog? If you are enlisting the help of a trainer who lets your dog get into that stressful state time and time again, especially if they are adding in any coercive method, they are not really helping your dog. They are scaring or hurting your dog, no matter how it is sugar-coated or how many different ways they come up with to describe a shock, choke, or prong collar, it's still something that is meant to be uncomfortable to dogs. For more on reinforcers check out my post from a little while back.

Want to know more about motivators and why they make a difference to dogs? Check out the resources I read for this article!


Excel-Erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them, By Pamela Reid

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Like a Pack of Wild Dogs

Actually, the dog on your sofa or floor is not a wild dog or a wolf and has not been for somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 years. That isn't to say that today's dogs are not pack animals- they are in fact, quite well suited to live in a family group.
I prefer the term family instead of pack, because when we start tossing around the word 'pack', somebody inevitably feels the need to talk about a 'pack leader'. Then they tend to jump to the need to "establish dominance" or "assert dominance". The problem with those terms is that the come from observations on captive wolves from the 1940's. There are a few fallacies here, so I'll briefly put it in human terms to highlight the important ones.
Think about how human behavior was understood in the 1940's, how well understood were human psychological issues and human development compared to today? (Take a look here) They were starting to turn away from old traditions that we would pretty much consider barbaric or torturous today and look into science- starting. 
Now, if we didn't even understand our own brains, how could we assume to understand those of dogs, especially wolves who were in a situation very different from a family/pack in the wild? How could we assume to think that those wolves in captivity, living in what was quite different from a wild pack of wolves and were thousands of years different genetically from our own dogs, could be accurately compared to our pets at home? We were wrong. It's ok though, everyone makes mistakes, right?
The problem is that these beliefs are still haunting us and our dogs today. It's right under our noses at the vet clinic or the groomer who roughly handles dogs in an effort to be efficient, though they do have the dog's best interest at heart. We even see it in the hands of some dog trainers, who believe that coercion is the best way to train a dog.
It is true that wolves and dogs are social animals, just like people are social animals. It's true that there is a need for some balance within any social group of animals, it's just not as serious and intense as the 'alpha' folks would have you believe. The fact is that even in packs of wolves or in groups of animals put together in captivity (as long as they are grouped well), there shouldn't be frequent violent displays or pain inflicted regularly. In groups of wolves, just as many familial groups of animals, there is a general acceptance of those in the family and a general (at least initial) apprehension towards outsiders. Simply from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense to be suspect of someone new wandering into your pack- if they are a good fit personality-wise, it's still another mouth to feed. This could explain some of the more severe aggressive displays we observe at times, but there's more.
Within all social groups, there needs to be communication for everyone to get along. Good communication includes signals on what is ok and not ok, what the animal intends to do, and even random movements at times (after all, animals are not machines!) Good communication is clear, precise and effectively gets the message across, right?
Right, it gets the message across with minimal effort on the part of the animal(s) communicating. Now, this is where those who believe in alpha rolls and other threat displays are put in a funny place. As a pack animal, living in the wild, why would a wolf use any more energy than necessary in a social situation? They don't; it wouldn't make sense. Energy is conserved and used when necessary, not just to prove they are bog and strong. They use exactly what the situation dictates, so in the wild and even in domesticated dogs, you will see a lot more subtle forms of communication in the majority of situations. Using something dramatic is usually not necessary, except in an extreme circumstance; so using an alpha roll or a shock on a dog who simply did not know that he wasn't supposed to pull on leash is certainly an overreaction. Redirecting with a u-turn for pulling is a lot easier and less dramatic. Using an alpha roll on a dog who is just confused will only confuse it more and can lead to fear-based aggression.
Dogs and wolves do utilize a hierarchy in social settings, but it is more fluid than many humans tend to think; many aspects of behavior are situational and are not the only way differences are sorted out.
So many trainers out there use more forceful (or intentionally painful and life-threatening) techniques in a misguided effort to dissuade dogs from trying to establish 'dominance' over us. This is another one that baffles me. Again in human terms, how many of us out there really want to be a president or world leader, or even a mayor? I can't tell you exact numbers, but I guarantee that every person you see walking down the street wants to be in charge of every other person walking down the street. We are not all built that way. Dogs are the same, wolves are the same, all animals are the same- we don't all want to be in charge. Most of the time when I see a dog that another trainer describes as 'dominant', it's either an adolescent who simply does not have manners or a grasp on basic cues or a dog who is so terrified that it is reacting defensively to everything as if it's a threat. With both, the problem can be solved with simply teaching basic cues, impulse control and by the human(s) being consistent in their expectations and training. This can all be done without inflicting pain, by the way.
Since we are not dogs and we can't possibly perceive everything as a dog does, we should not go around tossing in phrases like 'dominance', 'pack leader', or 'alpha' because we only know them in human terms, not canine. This and our ignorance to much of the subtle body language of dogs and wolves put us in a dangerous place when we try treating our dogs like wolves. Worse, it puts our dogs in dangerous situations when they are treated like something they are not- they are not wolves and they are not humans; simply dogs. Let's learn more about them and treat them accordingly, doesn't the pup keeping your feet warm deserve that?

Aggression in Dogs; Practical Management, Prevention & Behavior Modification by Brenda Aloff Pages 30-33 (NOVA documentary on canine understanding of people, compared to other animals; differences between dogs and wolves (short Documentary on the fallacies of punishment training and "alpha" fallacies) (NIH study on Clinical Psychology in the United States between 1940 and 2010)