Einstein Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Tonk!

It’s time for me to be honest, friends. I have a problem. It started out innocently enough, but it is something that has been worsening over the past 5+ years, and I can’t seem to get it under control. It has become an obsession of inappropriate proportions. When I’m not in close proximity to it, I talk about it, and when I’m not talking about it, I’m thinking about it. It can be incredibly embarrassing, and is interfering with some of my relationships. Most of you probably know what I’m talking about…

I’m obsessed with my dog.

Seriously though. I think Tonka is the bomb-dot-com, and I’m not afraid to let everyone know all the reasons why! Forget the ‘My child is an honors student’ bumper stickers… my dog is WAY smarter than your honors student! But whereas my bragging has always been very much subjective (or so I’m told…) I have finally found a verified tactic to support all of my obnoxious claims: that’s where Dognition comes in!

Dognition is a website designed by specialized canine scientists to evaluate your dog’s personality and intelligence. By putting your pup through his paces in the form of interactive games, Dognition intends to give you further insight into the intricacies of your dog’s preferences and learning style. More than that, the results of these games can be graphically compared to other Dognition dogs, as a whole or based on specifics such as gender, breed, or size. Dognition claims that this is a fun way to learn more about your pet while increasing your bond and relationship. Even more importantly, they believe what sets them apart is their example of ‘citizen science’ – their research can be conducted by everyone, not just people with Ph.D.s! This allows collaboration with dogs and owners all around the world, achieving a much quicker, broader (not to mention more natural and humane) understanding about dogs than what researchers would be able to do on their own.

Picture 3

Of course, I couldn’t wait to get started with Tonka… After inputting his various physical statistics, as well as uploading a picture, we were ready to get started with their basic survey. This included questions about Tonka’s typical behavior and preferences. Some of the questions were pretty straightforward and logical as to their purpose (Does your dog typically get along with other dogs?) whereas others were a little more curious (Does your dog typically tangle his leash on your walks?) I was expecting that the completion of this survey would result in an initial baseline evaluation, but it did not.

Picture 8

Nevertheless, the next step was to begin the series of games! They were broken up into 5 categories with various time estimates: Empathy, Communication, Cunning, Memory, and Reasoning.

Picture 10

Each section suggested using a quiet room, free from distractions and other pets, as well as treats and a (human) partner. While it was fun to complete this with J, I would say that for a dog as perfect as Tonka (I told you, addiction is a disease. I can’t help it!) it probably isn’t necessary to have extra help. Some of the games also required miscellaneous household items, such as cups or sticky notes.

We only had time to complete the first three sections, and we had mixed reviews. It was fun to give Tonka some dedicated focus, and I can guarantee that he relished the one-on-one time. It was also nice to be able to see just how awesome he is (there I go again)… but seriously, I think any dog owner would be proud while watching their pup navigate their way through the games. The results seem to attempt to put a positive spin on any behavior, in order to help owners see the best in their pups.

My only frustration mostly resulted in the fact that there really wasn’t much feedback after each section was completed. While it was nice to see what Tonka’s results were, there wasn’t much explanation as to how the statistical data we reported resulted in their evaluations or why they came to those conclusions. The first two sections were very straight forward: for Empathy, Tonka scored high on the side of bonded, as opposed to individualistic, and for Communication, he scored high on the side of collaborative as opposed to self-reliant.

DSC_0016

Then we came to the Cunning portion. Essentially, the dogs were required, through a various set of circumstances, to stay in a sit while in the presence of a tasty treat. They were NOT to take the treat, even when we looked away or turned our backs or did a number of other designated behaviors, until they were given a release. Tonka, of course (guys, I seriously can’t control it) aced it every time… not ONCE did he go for the treat without my consent. However, even after I input this information, they told me that on a scale from trustworthy to wily, he scored directly in the middle. I still can’t figure out how with his perfect score, they came to that conclusion! I trust him more than I trust my husband KIDDING… but seriously.

My few concerns were answered willingly and warmly by a Dognition representative. She acknowledged that the team at Dognition works daily to make improvements as they receive new feedback from satisfied and interested customers. One of the things at the top of their priority list is just what I mentioned: giving additional feedback following each section of the assessment. If Dognition is this awesome as a start-up, just imagine what it will become as it grows and develops in the future!

This was a fun way to spend an evening with two of my favorite guys, and I think that Dognition is on to something great. One of my favorite things about Dognition as a company are their philanthropic efforts toward shelter animals. The Dognition Shelter Program aims to spotlight dogs who may be more commonly overlooked, perhaps due to special restrictions or other ‘less-desirable’ qualities. By quantitatively evaluating and recognizing these dogs for their other unique and appealing traits, the DSP has demonstrated incredible success in finding homes for them. What a great way to give the dogs some fun attention and enrichment, while providing an individualized resume for prospective adopters!

DognitionCollage

Dognition has various options of enrollment, including a one-time fee ($19), monthly charges, or a yearly membership. If you are interested (and who wouldn’t be?!) Dognition has generously offered our readers 25% off of the yearly membership. All you have to do is enter this code: Tonka20

Let me know what you think! Have you tried, or even heard of Dognition before? If so, where do your dogs stand against the rest of the pack?

Which Dogs are Best with Children?

That question was intended to be ironic… and also to hopefully entice those curious internet searching parents to learn just why they should never trust ANY type of dog to be better or worse with children. It is up to them as responsible dog owners to manage dogs who have healthy interactions with their kiddoes. Don’t believe me? Below I will share the scientific fact behind my position.

If you’ve been following along with us for very long, you probably know that we think the folks at  Animal Farm Foundation are just about the best thing since bully sticks and peanut butter kongs… and if you’re new, you can check out some proof of our admiration, here, here and here! The biggest goal of AFF is to spread the knowledge that dogs should be judged based on their individual qualities, as opposed to breed labels or statistics. Their latest infographics (shown and explained below) share the science behind why an individual approach is not only more fair, but actually also more successful!

aff_infographic_final-011

(All of the images in this post are courtesy of Animal Farm Foundation.)

aff_infographic_final-021

Did you know that while 50 out of 20,000 (0.25%) of a dog’s genes determine physical appearance, those genes are entirely separate from the genes that influence brain development and function? Therefore, it is scientifically proven that there is NO link between appearance and behavior. And yet our politicians continue to make giant, life-changing assumptions based on that less-than-one-percent. Don’t judge my dog by his cover! Just because a dog looks like a pit bull, does not actually confirm that they have any genetic ties to a staffordshire terrier (think boxer x lab, as just one prime example).

aff_infographic_final-031

aff_infographic_final-041

One reason any vet worth their weight in Acana dog food might suggest that a mixed-breed dog has better odds than a purebred of staying healthy for its lifetime, is because in a closed gene pool (see above) all of the genes are concentrated… the good, the bad, and the hairless (sorry, Chinese Cresteds). Did you know that most purebred dogs originated from only a handful of foundation sires and bitches, which was sometimes as few as 5? Talk about inbreeding! A 1994 Time magazine article on the effects of overbreeding reported that as many as 25% of the 20 million purebred dogs in the US are afflicted with a serious genetic problem. In the world of agriculture and animal breeding, this trend of improved health in mixed-breed animals is called hybrid vigor. By mixing two or more separate gene pools, overtime the recessive genes that carry health and other genetic problems are minimized. All of this contributes to the conversation about individualism in dogs, because a physical appearance really can only tell us so much.

aff_infographic_final-051

aff_infographic_final-061

“Wait, so AFF is telling us that identical twins have identical DNA, but even dogs in the same litter have different DNA? Well, I’ve met identical twins whose attitudes and personalities were nothing alike! I guess it would be crazy to assume that dogs who look similar would have similar behavior…”

Even when dogs are 100% purebred, we cannot predict their behavior. Even in the case of cloned pets (genetically identical animals) scientific evaluation of these animals still shows differences in their personalities and behavior. This is because the behavior of all dogs (or any being!) are not just influenced by genetics and breeding, but also by many outside factors including training, management, environment, and socialization.
Animal Farm Foundation infographic 7

Not only does physical appearance have little to do with behavior, but scientific studies from AFF peers have proven that attempts at visual breed identification by animal welfare professionals (vets, scientists, shelter workers) are incorrect more than 75% of the time. Even worse, those incorrect evaluations are not even the same across the board… those assigning the breed titles cannot even agree! This is because our personal experiences play a large role in the comparisons we draw between a dog’s appearance and their breed of origin.

Animal Farm Foundation infographic 8

This is an interesting way to look at it. Tonka is the offspring of two purebred dogs, and the rest of his 12-pup litter looked very similar to my boy. Any guesses as to the parents’ breeds? (Seriously, would love it if you’d guess in the comments below!) Spoiler alert…

DSC_0143

If I had a dollar for every person that literally ARGUED with me that my dog was at least part black lab, I would be able to take more than one reader out to dinner. Nevertheless, the facts remain that Tonka’s father was a brindle boxer (deep chest, athletic body) and his mother was a golden retriever (long snout, expressive almond eyes, floppy ears)… where did the rest of him come from? I’d like to think that much of his behavior comes from a very conscientious upbringing by me, and thanks to the research from Animal Farm Foundation, I can be confident that this may largely be the truth.

Animal Farm Foundation says it best when they say that: “The only way we can accurately determine what a dog’s needs are is to look at the individual dog in front us for the answers. In other words, we can’t judge a book by its cover (even if that cover looks like other ones we’ve seen before!)”

http://animalfarmfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/aff_infographic_final-091.jpg

AFF: “Treating all dogs as individuals means that we let go of biased thinking, recognizing each dog for who they really are, not who we assume they are based on looks, labels, or past experiences. In doing so, we set all dogs free of the baggage and consequences caused by our assumptions, prejudices, and discrimination.” Hmmm. That sounds kind of like the way most of us agree we should evaluate the people in our communities. From a genetic standpoint alone, why should dogs be any different?

Animal Farm Foundation infographic 10

 

So maybe (hopefully!!) you already new and totally agree with all of the facts shared above. But more importantly, do you understand why they are so important?

It matters to families and communities…

Regardless of ‘breed’ or ‘type’ of dog, false expectations (positive or negative!) can be dangerous or unfair to the animal, and to the families they love. For example, if we assume that every lab is going to be naturally comfortable around children and have an affinity for water, we might not take the time to set the individual dog up for success through careful introduction and training. This may create a dog that has fear or anxiety issues. You can turn this around in the other direction by recognizing the truth behind confirmation bias… In any situation in life, if we approach with negativity and trepidation, we oftentimes set ourselves up for failure, and unintentionally cause the very events we are anticipating. No breed description should be considered a fool-proof road map of a dog’s preferences, personality, or ability. These qualities are heavily influenced by environment and management. If we approach each dog as an individual, and let the animal tell us more than we assume based on their appearance, we are much more likely to wind up with a dog that is a happy member of our families, and of our society.

It matters to those in the animal welfare industries…

As rescuers, shelter workers, and animal advocates, it is always in our best interest to be as honest as possible with potential adopters, volunteers, and the general public at large. By labeling dogs without factual knowledge of their true backgrounds, we are unintentionally being dishonest, and may be setting the dogs up for failure. Instead of meeting an adopter who wants a Golden Retriever, and providing them with dogs that match that physical description, we need to start advocating for “types” of dog. Maybe to the average dog owner, a Golden Retriever fills them with ideas of a dog who will happily play fetch and join the family on hikes, while snuggling in their childrens’ beds at night. Perhaps your shelter has 3 dogs that match this description, but who may or may not look like a Golden Retriever. In this case, you are providing the family with a variety of dog types, all of whom are more likely to be compatible with their lifestyle long-term, and giving many of your rescue or shelter residents an opportunity at a proper home. At the same time, you are doing your part to not reinforce stereotypes or set up false expectations. No breed description entitles an adopter the guarantee that a dog will act a certain way, or have specific preferences… only each individual dog can tell us that!

Additionally, these preferences, personality traits, and abilities, have a large propensity for change over time. If we assumed that a dog’s genetic composition determines their personality traits (Georgia), we would have never taken the opportunity to improve her associations with other animals… we would have assumed that her preferences were intact and not subject to change. This refutes the common pit bull advocacy statement that ‘it’s all in how they’re raised,‘ because it is in fact, more in how they are managed, that matters most. If we assumed that all dog behaviors were set by their genetics or their early life experiences, we would never give cruelty or neglect victims a chance, and everyone searching for a new family member would be getting their dogs from breeders. And that would be a huge problem!

It matters to politicians and law makers…

Once and for all, it is time to put an end to laws passed on the flawed idea that you can determine how a dog will act based on how they look or their breed label. Rather than punishing all dogs and their owners based on the negative or criminal actions of a few, let’s start legislating and enforcing responsible dog ownership laws for owners of all dog breeds and types. In this way, we hold all owners equally accountable, and thereby truly create safer communities. Dogs should be labeled based on their actions or behavior, not on their breeds or physical traits. No one, human or animal, deserves to be persecuted (or even killed!) based on stereotypes.

The AFM5 Moral of the Story:

The world of animal rescue and advocacy is a huge one, and perhaps because of that, it is constantly evolving. That is a great thing for the animals, because it means that we are always being presented with new tools to improve our understanding, and become more competent at finding homes for unwanted pups, cats, rabbits, horses, etc. We have all been guilty of unintentionally spreading misinformation a time or two. What matters is that you take the time to educate yourself as thoroughly as possible, and keep your own missions and morals at the forefront of your mind. Let’s make sure that when we are well-intentioned in advocating for our animals, that we are doing more GOOD than harm.

 

AFF CITATIONS:

The Dog and It’s Genome by Elaine Ostrander

Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog by Scott and Fuller

National Geographic

Kristopher J. Irizarry, PhD

Janis Bradley, The Relevance of Breed in Selecting a Companion Dog

Dr. Victoria Voith

AFF ABSTRACTS:

Brachycephalic traits

Morphological traits

Brain development genes

Cranial facial development and here

Canine skull development

“Is (S)He friendly?”

(Disclaimer: This topic was first discussed here, at Doggerel. All inspiration for this post goes to them, but the thoughts and opinions expressed here are our own.)

Whenever we are out walking the dogs, or just out in public with them in general, we are often approached by people who ask us this question: “Is he/she friendly?”

walk2

I should start with the positive. I certainly appreciate the respect of checking in with the owner, as opposed to rushing up to a dog hands-first. I recognize that this is the average-person’s way of asking for permission before they begin interacting with the dog. I should also say that at least in our area, we do not see a ton of breed discrimination. While I know other people have opposite experiences, I do not think that the majority of the times this question has been posed to us, it had anything to do with our dogs breeding or physical characteristics. And that is awesome!

photo

On to the negative… what in the heck is my response supposed to be to such a question?! Of course, my dogs are polite, well-adjusted members of the canine society. They are certainly not mean or aggressive. The problem with such a question, is that the speaker is typically looking for a brief yes or no answer, and unfortunately for most dogs and their responsible owners, that is not a satisfying option. What does “friendly” mean to you?

In that small window of time when they are quickly advancing on my dog(s), potentially with a child or other animal in their immediate vicinity, how am I supposed to get across to them the specifics of my dog(s)’ personality(s)?

DSC_0006

For example, Gaige is incredibly friendly, to a fault. So much so, that if not properly exercised and managed, she may accidentally enthusiastically knock over your small child. She may also cover it in kisses… is that something you are comfortable with? In more dramatic scenarios, she may overwhelm another dog and instigate it, oblivious to its warning signs. So while she is not at all aggressive with other dogs, she is not a dog I feel comfortable allowing to greet another dog on-leash, face-to-face without a slow introduction. So how would you answer that question with Gaige at the end of your leash?

DSC_0017

As for Tonka, he loves people of all kinds. He will sit quietly and obediently for your child to visit. He is generally great with other dogs, but has had some bad experiences and can be a bit guarded or grumpy with new dogs, especially males, and especially when on-leash. However, I certainly don’t want to label him as being “un-friendly,” because that isn’t him at all!

DSC_0006

Finally there is Georgia. Most of you know that she isn’t consistent in her reactions to other dogs, so it is easy to ask handlers of strange dogs to keep their distance. But again, I do not necessarily want her to be labeled as “un-friendly” just because she takes a little time to warm up. Further, she is as sweet as can be with people, and will happily lean up against you for a rub or snuggle. However, new people sometimes make her nervous. While I have never seen her act inappropriately with strangers, I never want to put my dogs in an uncomfortable position just because I believe that they will not react negatively. Conversely, when overexcited, Georgia may try to jump. As comfortable as some people say they may be with this behavior, it is not behavior that I want to condone or reward in my dogs. Just because she is “friendly” does not necessarily mean I want someone running up to her and loving all over her when she is jumping on them.

Aside from the difficulty in defining the term ‘friendly,’ as well as striving to quickly sum up the behaviors and preferences of our dogs’ interactions, it is important to note that this question is essentially asking for a guarantee as to your pets’ predicted reaction. NEWSFLASH: whether or not my dog is ‘friendly,’ that is not permission for you to advance and throw caution to the wind, with the assurance that this dog will react appropriately to your every action. It is important for us to remember that just because we have a thorough understanding of canine body language and appropriate behavior around dogs, does not mean that everyone does. So how do we quickly sum up the appropriate ways to approach our dogs, without sounding like a crazy dog person, or making our dogs look bad? Add into the mix that I am often walking multiple dogs at once, and you can understand why this question makes me bristle.

DSC_0159

Fellow dog owners, do you get this question? If so, do you have a kind and succinct response to it? What do you prefer to be asked before someone approaches your dog?

Balance

For all of us, there are those sayings that when we hear them in ‘real life’ (meaning, the reality of what we imagined adult life would be like…) we instantly think of the person who commonly spoke them. In those moments, they offer a unique perspective on not only life, but on living, as they tie together the innocent perspective and cherished memories of our past, with the sometimes harsh realities of our present. My mother-in-law is well known for reminding all of her (many!) little ducklings to ‘trust in providence.’ My father would always say cheesy things like, ‘the family that dines together, shines together,’ when we were busy teenagers, and ‘anybody can kill a bug, but only God can make a bug,‘ as he would carry the offending intruders outside to safety. But the one morsel of wisdom that sticks most in my mind comes from my own mother, who incessantly preached that ‘life is a balance.’ I don’t think I learned the truth to that until much later in life. And if I’m being honest, I’m still learning what it means to balance the hectic Mondays and the Saturdays on the porch, the winning smiles and the lonely tears, the ice cream sundaes and the kale salads. But my favorite quote, for many years, has remained:

“To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake, it is necessary to stand out in the cold.”

 

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that I’ve been so quiet over here in my little corner of the web for the past few weeks. Thanks for being patient and understanding and allowing me to be quiet. Life has gotten really busy and confusing for me, and I’m still trying to work it all out. Rest assured, all is well with all members of the AFM5 family! But the reality is that in life, you are often influenced and surrounded and pulled and pushed by more than just those whom you care about most, and by more than just those who care about you! The hard part for me, is finding a balance between compliments and criticism, between working for more and being satisfied with what you have, and between being content with who you are and wanting to improve yourself. Life is hard! But it is a good hard when I am surrounded and supported by my pups and my family and my friends (virtual and literal!) and my amazing husband.

I know this is all a bit ambiguous and open-ended, and in some ways that is a deliberate, purposeful choice. Maybe by being vague, you will be more able to apply my struggles to your own life? Nevertheless, one thing I have learned, is that I am not myself without this special space. When I write, as much as the words jumble in my head, the rest of the environment gets kind of quiet. There is no pressure to communicate quickly, no set amount of time in which I have to express myself clearly, and no guidelines that limit my authenticity. I am able to slowly and conscientiously select the unique combination of words that puts genuine color and movement and music and texture to the thoughts and feelings and experiences that jumble inside my head and heart. And if I’m really lucky, it may spark something inside of someone else.

So while the frequency of my posts may diminish for a little while, I’m making a conscious decision to share as I work through this challenge and change. It’s a daily struggle and a daily choice. The format and content of this space may change somewhat, but it will still be here. Stick with me, and I promise that I will be back to your regularly scheduled programming. Quality over quantity, and all of that. It’s so easy to continually push until tomorrow, but I don’t want to look back and see what I’ve missed. I want to enjoy the now… snowflakes and sunshine both included.

With all of that being said, I want some input from my friends and readers. How do you bring balance to your life? Are you able to juggle it all, and if so, please share your secret! If not, how do you decide which balls to drop, and at what point do you remind yourself to restructure and prioritize? Thanks in advance for sharing your wisdom and honesty.

xoxo

S

How is it that my dogs never seem to have an issue with balance in their lives? If only they could share their secrets!

How is it that my dogs never seem to have an issue with balance in their lives? If only they could share their secrets!

More and More Every Day…

I would hope that by now, it is pretty evident that I absolutely adore my dogs. I take great pride in them, as well as in the way I care for them. In fact, I think the greatest compliment anyone has ever given me, is when they say; “Man, if there is a life after this, I want to come back as one of your dogs!” While I love pretty much everything about these four-legged fur balls with whom I share my life, there are just some moments that my heart swells with pride and affection. I bet you can relate…

DSC_0027

1) When they are content or joyful

Especially when I think about where Georgia and Gaige probably came from, it makes me incredibly happy when I see our pups enjoying their lives to the fullest. Whether that is when they are in hot pursuit of an animal in our open fields, or slumbering all cuddled together under our down comforter, I feel so great knowing that their lives are better because of me. I live for moments when I can bring them sheer and unbridled joy… ears-a-flying, tongue-a-slobbering, head-hangin-outa-the-window-style.

 

 

DSC_0071

2) When they depend on me

While I would never wish fear or anxiety on my dogs, I feel invincible when they come to me for guidance or reassurance. These dogs, with their powerful muscles and athletic limbs, turn to me when they need assurance that the world is a safe place. Whether it is a visit to the vet or when I have to tend to a wound, their trust in me is steadfast and pure. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it, but it means the world to me.

 

 

DSC_0003

Partners in crime

Partners in crime

3) When other people are lovin’ up on them

Of course I think my dogs are the greatest. Don’t we all? But those moments when someone else stops to recognize all of the heart and courage and beauty that they bring to this world? I think that’s kinda what dog ownership is all about. Whether it’s a stranger on the street, all of you friends here, or the people that mean the most in my life, when I see the bonds my dogs share with others, it reaffirms all of the pride I have in them. And if it’s someone fragile that they are bonding with? Fo’ gedaboutit. My wild, exhuberant dogs seem to have this switch… put them around a child or someone elderly, and they become like little lambs, gentle and sweet, cuddley and quiet. Try to tell me that they don’t understand us. I dare you.

 

 

248362_10151581724112427_840642529_n

4) When they’re all together

If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, you may remember that it took us months to acclimatize the dogs to the point where they could coexist in the house. Georgia came to us a bundle of nerves, with little trust for anyone around her, human or animal. She even thought the cat was out to get her! The poor girl just had no confidence in herself or anything in her environment. But to see our pack now, you would never know that we had ever experienced any issues. These dogs have a strong yet intricate bond that ties them together. You see it in the way they move through the house, and the way they all snuggle in bed together, sharing their space and their favorite people. It’s in the way they play tug of war, growling and barking and enjoying all that it means to be a carefree pup. It’s even in the way they guard the house, communicating silently as each takes their post at a window until an intruder approaches. One of the three sounds the alarm, and the troops come running for backup. They’ve learned to respect one another’s space, but they’ve also become dependent upon each other. Take one away, and the others pout and whine. Our dogs are true friends. I don’t know if they do it because they know it is what I expect of them, or if it is because they have a need for the kinship of other dogs, but I do know that I love it.

 

photo

5) When we’re snuggling

Morning snuggles with the dogs are my favorite. Part. Of my day. Paws down! While we don’t usually allow the dogs to sleep through the night in our bed, once J is out of the house, they know that the dog bed rules go with him. One by one, they leap into the bed as delicately as is possible for 3 dogs with a combined weight of almost 250 pounds! They creep quietly along the mattress, careful not to disturb me, in case I might decide to kick them out. Sleepily I smile to myself, loving that their favorite place on earth is just wherever I am. Each selects their perfect spot, snuggled right up against me, but still somehow in contact with the others. We rest peacefully together, until I make the first stirs… maybe a yawn or stretch, or an arm reaching toward the night stand for my phone. Then all bets are off… they leap from their positions, shake off their slumbers, and grab for a toy. They know that once I’m up, fun begins, and they can’t wait to get their days started!

 

"If I don't look at her, she can't make me come inside..."

“If I don’t look at her, she can’t make me come inside…”

6) When they’re being naughty

Believe it or not, J told me early on that one of the things he had first loved about me was the way I treated my dog. He said that I was strict with him, and he admired my sense of discipline. At the same time, I was affectionate and spoiled him rotten when he was good. I think it’s safe to say that this is exactly how I approach my relationship with our dogs to this day. I hold high standards for their obedience, and think that discipline and structure are a vital part of their lives. At the same time, I think that if our dogs could speak, they would happily tell you that there are no dogs on this planet more loved and well cared for.

With all of that being said, there are some times that I just can’t get over how adorable they are when they’re bad. 95% of the time, our dogs are so focused on their ‘jobs’ and are incredibly eager to please us. But there are those moments where their instincts take over. They seem to forget all about any of the manners that they’ve learned, and take exceptional delight in the fact that they are dogs!

With Gaige, it happens when she is outdoors and doesn’t want to come inside (see photographic evidence, above). You can call and call and call her, but she pretends she hasn’t heard. She will trot slowly over to the furthest point of the yard, and plop herself down, staring at you in defiance. You will try throwing bits of hot dogs to her, shaking the treat bag, and bouncing around like a crazy person. All to no avail. Then when you’ve lost your patience, and decide to risk the late-night or early-morning walk in your bare feet, crazy hair, tee shirt, and underwear, she waits like a panther. You will stomp yourself over to her, muttering under your breath, and just when you think you are in arms’ reach of her collar, she will tuck her tail up under herself, and dash around the yard in sheer ecstasy, proud of her quick and conniving ways. If you can stay mad at her when she does this, you are a much tougher person than I!

 

941154_10151603094872427_1000489176_n

7) When they are there for me

Tonka, especially, seems to have some sort of wire to my heart. Not only does he know when I am happy or sad, but he often seems to be aware of it before I am. He will come to me with an expression to match my own. If I am hurting, he will cuddle up as close as possible, and stare deep into my eyes. I swear he is trying to speak to me. But when I’m excited about something, he bounces around my feet, grabbing the nearest toy to celebrate with me. Talk about selflessness… this pup has it in spades.

 

One of my favorite pictures in the whole, wide, world.

One of my favorite pictures in the whole, wide, world.

8) When I think about the past

Mainly, it’s when I write posts like this. I think about all of the adventures I’ve shared with these dogs. And even the lows. These dogs have been there for me through everything, displaying a loyalty not rivaled by even my closest friends. They were all brought into my life for different reasons, and I wouldn’t be who I am without each of them.

Dogs and Dominance

428494_574166335949741_2079187082_n

This graphic pretty much says it all, so I will try not to muddy up their message with excessive wordiness. However, I think it is important to convey that dominance is one of the most misused and misunderstood terms in the worlds of dog training and behavior.

Just as most individuals who are educated in dog behavior can recognize that displays of ‘aggression’ in dogs are often based in fear, the mentality that we must utilize dominance to train our dogs was also originally rooted in fear. After a study of wolves in captive that originated in the 1940’s, it was suggested that if owners did not ‘establish dominance’ then their dogs would physically harm them. However, these early wolf studies were seriously flawed, in a variety of ways. First, the animals were held in captivity, in small enclosures, which is obviously far from their natural environment. Further, the wolves came from varying packs, which created a group structure that was volatile and unnatural. According to one biologist, these studies would be relative to evaluations of human behavior carried out in concentration camps.

Furthermore, while scientists agree that dogs have evolved from wolves, observations of free-roaming dogs have shown them to be scavengers as opposed to predators. They often exist in solitary groups, as structured pack-life does not prove to be beneficial to them when it comes to sharing resources. Rather, they may form loose groups that fluctuate as animals come and go frequently and with random duration (hmmm, sounds kind of like life in a human home, doesn’t it?).

Most importantly, aggression in dogs rarely comes from issues with dominance. Rather, we see aggression in dogs due to any combination of factors that may include lack of proper and early socialization, pain or illness, mismanagement including lack of training and use of aversive methods, traumatic experiences, or genetic predisposition (poor breeding). Most commonly, we will see aggression in a dog that has a lack of confidence such as fear or anxiety. This lack of confidence may come from any of the above situations, but it is obvious that it would only be exacerbated by an owner or handler that manages their dog through intimidation or force, thereby damaging the dog’s confidence even further. Unfortunately, those who believe in a dominance hierarchy when it comes to training our dogs, feel that the best way to utilize this phenomenon is through the use of force.

The behaviors we see in our dogs, whether positive or negative, are a result of the dog having found what ‘works’ for them. For example, a dog will jump up on a person not because they are being dominant, but because it is a natural greeting, where they are then rewarded by what they perceive to be attention and play-time… if you wave your hands at a jumping dog and ‘bark’ back at them, this mimics play and gives the dog attention. However, by ignoring the behavior, you are not providing any reward, which will cause the dog to eventually extinguish the behavior. If you can also teach the dog the proper way to greet people, and reward them for it, you are going even further as a responsible owner.

Our dogs recognize us as being different from other dogs. While we can gather clues from dog behavior by watching the way they interact with one another, the relationship we share with our dogs is so unique… after all, isn’t that one thing that we love most about it?

From personal experience, most of you know that Georgia came to us a nervous and fearful dog. She did not interact well with other dogs or with new people. However, by creating a structured environment for her, as well as slowly introducing her to situations where she could gain confidence at low thresholds of exposure, she has become a confident dog that thrives on the companionship of adults, children, dogs, and cats. I shudder to think what may have become of her if I had taken popular advice of utilizing force-based training or even just eradicated her exposure to other animals. Georgia is one of my greatest accomplishments, and her presence in our home is a favorite part of our lives. We are so glad that we did not fall victim to the myths of dominance, and we hope that you can say the same!

Catching Flies…

As pit bull advocates, we often find ourselves in a position where we need to stand up for the dogs we have come to know, and thereby, come to love. In fact, this can be true for many things in life. When we have a passion for something, be it political stances, social policies, child welfare, or religion, we are occasionally thrown into situations where our loyalty is tested. In what circumstances are we willing to defend that which we believe in?

It is important to me that people judge my dogs as individuals.

It is important to me that people judge my dogs as individuals.

For me, I believe loyalty to be one of my best qualities, and this is something that I am very proud of. I am a devoted friend, wife, sister, daughter, and pet owner, sometimes to a fault. I am not a fighter, I am certainly not intimidating or imposing, I don’t have a celebrity status to influence those around me… but because I enjoy writing and am always honing my abilities, I carefully choose my words as my greatest defense against those that try to tear down the people and things I care most about. At the same time, it is important to me to maintain a gentle approach. I am a firm believer in the old saying that ‘you catch more flies with honey, than you do with vinegar’. Because of this, even when faced with someone who disagrees with me, I try my best to remain calm, yet assertive, and to avoid accusations. I do not believe that anyone is going to absorb what you say, if you are offending them while you are saying it!

With all of that being said, I learned a valuable lesson last week that I would like to share with all of you.

Our friend J. over at Peace, Love, & Fostering shared this post on their facebook page last week. If you are interested in dog training, as well as the changes in perception our society is making in regards to dogs and dog ownership, it is certainly worth the time spent reading it. I would be interested in your honest, respectful, perspectives. (If you plan to do so, I would appreciate it if you would read it before you read the rest of this post, so as not to be influenced by my opinions!)

My reaction to this post was multi-faceted. I read it and felt such a strong relation to many of the points the writer introduced. She shared many important thoughts that are, in my opinion, so necessary to convey to well-meaning animal lovers. At its most elementary, the piece was about the science behind force-free dog training, why it is more effective, and how many of those who claim to love dogs and advocate for them, are really just muddying the waters when it comes to what is best for the dog, and conveying that to the public.

For those of you that do not know, force-free training is essentially just that: an approach to dog training that enhances your relationship with your dog, avoiding physical manipulation or intimidation, while reinforcing behaviors through positive association.
 
IMG_1092

What upset me so much was not the content, but the writer’s approach. In my perspective, she has this incredible opportunity to convey a point. She is obviously intelligent and talented as a writer, and please understand that I respect her for this. She put a lot of effort into this article, as was evident by her extensive source list. She has a unique perspective on the subject, which could produce positive waves of change in the worlds of dog training and ownership. However (and perhaps, BECAUSE of how valid her argument is) I absolutely shudder at her approach and tone. She continually criticizes and downright ridicules anyone with a different perspective than the one she feels is ‘right’… even if their perspective just comes from a naive and uniformed lack of knowledge or understanding. She is essentially condemning anyone that utilizes force or tools of punishment in an attempt to produce changes in a dog’s behavior. While I absolutely agree that there are better ways to train our dogs, and that our dogs DESERVE a better approach, my question remains: What dog owner would *ever* went to take advice from someone so condescending? And, with such a valid argument and the unique opportunity of a vast audience, shouldn’t that be her goal? I respect her perspective, but I worry that those who may be on the fence and considering a transition to force-free training, will read her article and be so turned-off that they refuse to remain open-minded. To me, her approach simply was making the rest of us who are proponents of force-free training look like judgmental wackos!

In one particular selection, she criticizes those that support forceful training: “but they seem thoroughly intent on attacking anybody who suggests otherwise”… which is exactly what her article does. It attacks anyone that disagrees with, or misunderstands, force-free training. If she believes that a forceful approach is ineffective with dogs, why does she employ such force when communicating with her own kind??

My stance is this: Whether the topic is politics, racism, poverty, etc… If the point of a diatribe is to truly bring about change in the uninformed or ignorant masses, why would you ever take a position of judgmental arrogance? You are not going to change any minds with that approach, and are then effectively just talking to hear yourself speak, or to hear others who already agree with your position, compliment you for it. Whether or not your argument is valid, if you take a judgemental and aggressive approach, the intended audience will never be open to receiving it in the manner in which it was presented.

At the same time, I found myself wondering if perhaps the writer’s purpose was not primarily to evoke a change in readers’ perspectives, but instead to garner attention and inspire conversation. And if in fact that was her goal, perhaps that is not all bad. If she can get the attention of the masses, perhaps some of them will be more willing to listen to the more moderate, respectful arguments that support and share her same perspectives.

Furthermore, there is something to be said for blogging, in that it is an emotional release for writers. Sometimes we have something on our hearts, and we need to express it. Occasionally we need to open up the floodgates, and let the words organize our thoughts and our hearts, without censoring every emotion or editing every accusation. While I believe that when our blogging has a purpose, we have a responsibility to put that goal first at all times, I also know that sometimes we need to write what is on our hearts, as it comes to us.

The bottom line is that when we blog for advocacy, regardless of the subject, we hit a strange paradox: while our blogs serve as an opportunity for self-expression and self-discovery, I believe that we also have a responsibility as advocates for the cause. Certainly, some of us more than others (we will get there someday!), are standing under a spotlight as the poster children for our causes. All we can do is keep our missions in mind, and hope that our words are received in the way that we intend them… I have certainly made mistakes and omissions in things that I have written, but I am sure to stay open-minded, while processing all of the feedback I receive.

I am genuinely interested in hearing you reactions to this article! I would appreciate it if you would all stay respectful, but I do want to know… did you agree with the writer’s opinions? What about her approach? What was your initial reaction, and how did that compare with your perspective once you’d read my own? As advocates for pit bulls, how do you think we can best approach those that don’t understand our dogs? I value your opinions!

Hang in there... it's almost Friday!

Hang in there… it’s almost Friday!

Doggy Daycare

I have been debating whether or not, and then how, to go about writing this post for a few weeks now. I want to express a special thanks to my friend Juliana at Peace, Love and Fostering for her encouragement on the subject.

Some of you long-time readers may be aware that a big part of the reason I decided to quit my job last fall was to begin fostering. I wanted to take on a dog that perhaps wasn’t a huge challenge, but who would have some special behavioral and training needs that might require more time and attention than the average foster. Now that Georgia has become an amazingly confident and secure member of our family, I have found myself to be a bit bored without a career and unfulfilled without clear goals.

247645_10150198534607427_7504807_n

A key challenge in the job search, is our location. I graduated from Penn State University in 2011 with a degree in Animal Sciences, and was very proud to complete this in only three years. My plan was to pursue a career in pharmaceutical sales for animal products. I was blessed with a few appealing job offers in various locations throughout the country, but life had other plans for me… I met Jonathan, who would be moving back home to the Pittsburgh, PA area to work for his family’s business. This location has proven to severely limit my career search. We are just far enough outside of the city that for me to commute that distance would require a fairly high salary, in order to justify the time spent away from our home, the fuel, and the wear and tear on my vehicle, to name a few.

While it has become clear that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find an actual career in this area in the animal industry, I made the decision to at least find a job that could keep me busy and allow me to be around animals. With my extensive management experience, I began looking for a job managing a doggy-daycare facility. Unfortunately, in this job climate, eve management jobs proved to be difficult to find. However, many places offered the opportunity for advancement, and so I decided to interview for an entry-level position at a well-known doggy-daycare chain. While I had anticipated my interview here with excitement, I was so upset and disappointed with my experiences that I felt the need to share those events with all of you, in an honest way.

When I first entered their facility, I was greeted by a reception area that was visually pleasing and welcoming. It was beautifully decorated and appointed, and conveyed a sense of the rugged outdoors with a log cabin design.  Soft, natural lighting, large windows, bright photos, and cheerful music brought a ‘homey’ feel to the space. With large screen televisions and marketing posters, it was clear that no expenses were spared in the design of this area. As I waited for the employee who would be conducting my interview, I watched owners bring in their dogs, and got to interact with a few of them. I felt extremely confident that this was the type of job I was meant to have! What dog lover wouldn’t love coming to work in an environment like this??

Fast forward to my tour of the rest of the facility. As I crossed from the reception area into the back of the building, I was greeted by dogs barking at such a loud volume, that the employee conducting the tour had to yell to be heard. The ceilings were quite high, and this area was dimly lit by fluorescent bulbs. It gave a dark, dingy feel to the environment. The dogs (up to 100 at any given time) were housed in metal cages, with one of those PVC/nylon beds that sat up off of the floor, and a blanket or two. The walls were a thick concrete, and very little natural light came into this half of the building.

Once our tour of the kennels was complete, the manager began to discuss with me their philosophies. I was barely able to veil my cringing when she dropped words like; “Ceasar,” “dominance,” and “discipline”. While I became quickly aware that their philosophies were so obviously not in line with my own, I was still prepared to give them a chance. Perhaps when I got out to the play yard, what I saw would be different than the words she conveyed. She then went on to explain that dogs were separated by size (not play style or age) into designated play areas, and that each play yard would hold up to 75 dogs at a time. While they preferred two employees to supervise at this number, they only required one. For the record, each play yard had an indoor and an outdoor area, each of which was only visible from that location. This meant that if the supervisor was indoors, they could not see the dogs that had chosen to go to the outdoor space, and vice versa. Each supervisor was required to carry a squirt bottle full of water, which was used to ‘discipline’ the dogs. She claimed that the water bottles were never to be squirted more than 3 times in an hour, and were used to break up fights, discourage rough play, and quell ‘dominant’ behavior. Ugh. Although one of the ‘claims to fame’ on their website, is that they don’t charge you for play time like most boarding kennels, she also made it clear that we were not to play with the dogs, pet them, or give them any attention, as this could lead to fights. Conversely, she told me to be sure to treat all of the dogs like I would my own…

DSC_0034

It was now time for me to go out into the play yard, where approximately 50 dogs were congregating. I was told to make a lap around the perimeter of the play area, in order to ‘establish dominance’. Of course, this made little sense to me, but as I was being evaluated, I did as I was told. I then watched in frustration as the ‘Assistant Manger’ (second in command for the whole facility) sprayed the dogs in the face so many times within an hour that I lost count, for transgressions that ran the gammet from barking to bumping into her to nipping to humping. Of course, with that many dogs in the space, even this aggressive form of punishment was used ineffectively, as she was rarely able to correct the dogs while they were in the act, and would then spray them in punishment after they had already stopped. As I spoke with her, she told me that she had only been working there for 6 months, and had already been promoted to this position. In addition, she had never had or been given any training in animal behavior, aside from the same diatribe I’d heard during the aforementioned interview with the manager.

In all (3) of the play yards I entered, I gently pointed out that there was no fresh water, as the bowls were empty, and so it was then filled by the assistant manager. Wouldn’t something such as competition for meager necessities contribute to fighting? Furthermore, in the same play yards I saw dogs that were seniors, arthritic and hard of hearing, being jostled around by juvenile great danes and lab mixes who were tumbling and wrestling.

I will say that the majority (though certainly not all) of the dogs I saw, seemed reasonably content. Some even seemed to enjoy the chaos, in a frantic sort of way. But the most traumatizing to me throughout my experiences that day, was yet to come.

According to corporate policy, for a dog to be admitted to the doggy day care program at this facility, they must go through an ‘interview’ process. I imagined this to be something similar to the behavior evaluations we hear about in shelters across the country. This particular facility even had a whole room designated for such a purpose! Their website claims that before new dogs enter the play yard, they are introduced to two congenial dogs one-on-one. However, the manager at this particular location told me that they found this to be too ‘time-consuming’ and a ‘waste of time’ and so they just didn’t do it. At all.

I watched as a dog who was there for his first day, whose owner had been told that he would receive an ‘interview,’ was introduced. And by introduced, I mean he was propelled into an environment that even our Wonderdog Tonka would probably not have been physically able to handle well. This dog was a male german shepherd, probably right around one year old. He was brought up to the gate of the largest and most crowded play area, on a leash. I then watched as one worker physically pulled him into the play area from the end of the leash, while the leash/collar combo tightened in a noose around his neck. Another worker was literally pushing him from behind, to the point that his haunches were up underneath him. The employees regarded this situation without concern, as if it were a daily occurrence… forcing a dog into an uncomfortable situation was obviously not out of the norm.

This dog very clearly wanted nothing to do with the play area… why, you might ask? Perhaps it had something to do with the 40+ dogs swarming around his face, biting and barking and displaying all manner of inappropriate and overbearing greeting behavior. As this poor dog was physically forced into an uncomfortable and intimidating environment, no attempt was made to reassure him, or even to encourage the other dogs to back off of the new visitor. It was almost as if these people had no ideas about body language or dog behavior… oh wait. Maybe it’s because they don’t. They had no training in dog behavior or body language, and had been instructed this way by their own supervisors.

To me, it is only a matter of time, if repeatedly exposed to uncomfortable situations such as this, before this dog becomes reactive and aggressive towards other dogs. And I can’t say that I would blame him in the slightest. But you can bet that some of the employees probably would… and who knows what forms of correction punishment they would consider reasonable. Who knows if his breed would get brought into the equation should something happen that was altogether preventable…

As though the issues with the facility, philosophies, and protocol itself were not enough, the way they treated their employees is not conducive to a pleasant working environment. And you can bet that dissatisfied employees are going to be more likely to take their frustrations out on the dogs, or at the very least, not fulfill their job requirements thoroughly. As an interviewer, I was kept there for 3 hours without pay. I was required to scrub kennels with a toothbrush and cold water while being ‘supervised’ by yet another assistant manager who was clearly barely out of high school, as she gossiped with another employee. I was told that call-offs for any reason could result in termination, unless accompanied by not a Doctor’s excuse, but an emergency room excuse. Being even three minutes late would earn a demerit, regardless of the circumstances, three of which would result in termination. All employees were required to work nights, mornings, weekends, and holidays, and it was made clear to me that requests for time off were not guaranteed. Scheduling was never consistent, and so it was not likely that you could rely on a regular weekly schedule, nor guaranteed that any employee would hit a set minimum of hours. On top of all of this, there were no benefits offered to employees, and the rate of pay was between $8 and $9 per hour. Yes, it was the same for someone with a GED and dog experience limited to pet ownership, as it was for someone with a college diploma and advanced dog handling and training experience. The bottom line is, I worry about the quality of the employees that would accept a position in such an environment.

They were surprised when I turned down the job offer (of course I cited the commute, and not all of these reasons I have shared here) but hopefully all of you readers are not.

I do not know exactly why I am choosing to share this story with you. It certainly is not to garner sympathy for my job search. While I would love to get a job that will enable me to feel like a more productive member of my family, and of society as a whole, I am lucky to be married to a man that works incredibly hard to provide for us and supports me in all of my dreams and goals… even when they are less than profitable. It is not to bash a specific chain of doggy-daycares, either. If it were, I would have shared their name, which I will not be doing. I guess what I hope we all can learn from this, is that we need to be cautious when we entrust the care of our animals to others. I can only imagine that the owners of the dogs I supervised have no idea what they are putting their animals through. So often, dog owners misunderstand their animals; a wagging tail doesn’t always mean a happy dog, and neither does boisterous barking or panting. To me, it is the job of places such as this to be the voice for the dogs, and aid in the communication between pet and owner.

If you are a frequenter of a doggy daycare or dog park, please be sure you are not confusing your dog’s body language as excitement, when in fact it is nervous energy. At the same time, I spent a few hours at another, independently owned, doggy daycare in the same week, and my experience there was vastly different. So I want to know; have our readers had better experiences in dog parks and doggy day cares? Have you had some that are worse? I want to hear about it!

Throughout college, Tonka was a frequenter of dog parks like this one

Throughout college, Tonka was a frequenter of dog parks like this one

Enough Leash to Hang Yourself

Alright ladies and gentlemen! Let’s dig right in… you sent us your behavior and training questions, and we are going to get started on answering them.

The first thing I noticed about your questions, is that everyone was asking me how to get their dogs to stop doing this, or quit doing that. When analyzing a dog’s behavior, their are two important approaches:

1) Always look to yourself first. You are the ‘leader,’ and therefore if there is a misunderstanding, you should absolve the responsibility. Dogs are practical creatures, and so they repeat what works. They do not choose to be stubborn or vindictive… because those things don’t serve them! If they are not repeating the behavior you seek, it is either because you have not clearly communicated what you desire, or your reward is not enticing enough!

2) Focus on reinforcing the behavior that you do want, as opposed to discouraging what you don’t. Everyone asked us, “How do I get my dog to stop doing ____?” The only way to discourage a behavior you don’t want, aside from being forceful (which, remember, we will never advocate!) is to ignore it. While ignoring the behavior and thereby removing attention can be an effective technique, it is not as instantaneous and does require repetition. If we instead focus on reinforcing the behavior that we do want, it becomes increasingly clear to the dog what behavior earns them the reward that they desire.  Remember, dogs are practical creatures… they will repeat what works!

Pulling on the Leash

A few of you shared with us that you have problems with leash-walking your dogs without lots of pulling. Let me first admit; we too, struggle with this! For us, the biggest issue is lack of practice. We are lucky enough to live on a large piece of property, which means that we have the space and safety to be able to do lots of off-leash walking. This has made us a bit lazy when it comes to practicing our leashed manners. However, by following the protocol below, we are able to do a quick refresher course anytime we head out where leashes are required, and then enjoy our time, free from strained shoulders and stressed joints.

If your dog does a lot of pulling, your first instinct is probably to ask, “How do I get my dog to stop pulling on-leash?” If you refer to the points above, you know you should re-phrase that question as, “How do I get my dog to walk calmly by my side?” In my experience, a combination of techniques works best.

Dressing the Part: Proper Equipment

First, I would start out with the proper equipment. For our stronger pullers (ahem, Gaige and Georgia), this means Freedom No-Pull Harnesses, made by Wiggles, Wags, and Whiskers (a division of 2 Hounds Designs). These harnesses offer the ability to put pressure on the dog’s chest when they pull forward, and reward them by releasing the pressure when they stop pulling. What sets the FNP apart, is that it boasts dual-point leash tethering, with loops positioned both between the shoulder blades and also on the chest. This allows you to have mild, medium, or strong control over your dog, as well as the versatility of a leash that is 6 feet in length, or quickly changed to only 3 feet. Furthermore, it gives you more control in social situations. Perhaps most importantly, it is designed to control your dog, while refraining from putting any additional pressure on their throat, back or joints.

Gia models her custom WW&W harness!

Gia models her custom WW&W harness!

Release Some Energy

Once you are satisfied with your walking equipment, you can focus on the training. Start out with a dog who has been sufficiently exercised. Either allow your dog some off-leash time to release some energy, or give them the opportunity to work on a brain puzzle (see previous enrichment post, here, for inspiration) before you head out on your walk. If you are trying to re-train your dog to walk calmly on-leash, you want to make sure that they have been properly exercised so that you are not working against their pent-up energy. Moreover, if your dog is especially reactive outdoors, be it to people, other dogs, or squirrels, first begin in a less-arousing environment, such as the backyard, or even your own house.

Turn Around

Begin by heading down the driveway (or sidewalk, or where ever you usually walk). As soon as your dog begins to pull, turn them in the opposite direction, back towards where you started (the house, the car, whatever). Call their name (animatedly) when you do this. “Fido, come!” This is as much an exercise with recall as it is leash-walking! Most likely, he will be confused, and wonder why he isn’t able to continue his walk. When he comes to your side, give him a treat, and keep walking toward the starting point. Once he has stopped pulling, turn back so that you both are again headed in the direction of the ‘adventure’. Basically, consider that continuing on the walk is the dog’s “reward,” so they should only be allowed to continue on the adventure if they are walking appropriately. For a little while, you may feel like you are constantly turning in circles, but this should not last for more than a few minutes.

Reward, Reward, Reward!

Simultaneously, keep lots of treats on hand. This is the most important part! Whenever your dog is walking appropriately beside you, reward them with the treats, given right at your side. Make sure to also praise them with your voice! This should be a fun experience, so that it doesn’t seem like pulling = freedom and smells and adventure, and being beside you = boring and being yelled at.

Baby Steps

Once your dog’s pulling starts to lessen, but is not quite eliminated (you can see the light bulb flickering!) use a ‘sit’ or ‘down’ instead of turning around (or even just a stop by your side, if those skills aren’t yet in your pup’s repertoire). At this point, think of the sit as a reminder for mild forward pressure on the leash, and the turn around as a correction for outright pulling. Would you ground your child for forgetting to clean their room the first time you asked? No, you would first remind them, and then punish them if they continued to ignore the requests. Training your dog works the same way! The punishment should suit the crime, and should be given in increments of severity. We are taking baby steps to get to the point where you will be able to simply say your dog’s name to remind them to come back to your side.

photo

Let your dog be a dog!

While different people have different opinions about this, I believe that you should also give your dog times when they are not required to walk right by your side. You can use whatever cue works for you (“okay” or “release” etc) but it is nice to allow them some structured time to sniff around a bit while walking. Remember that your walks need to be safe and controlled, but walking should also be enjoyable and enriching for your pup. It is important, however, that this time be on your terms, and not your dog’s! This will allow your dog to learn that they will be rewarded for their good behavior by being given some time to cut loose and just be a dog!

In my opinion, a dog that is a leash puller will, to some extent, always harbor that vice. This is especially true in our case, where are dogs do not go on leash every day (or even every week!) so they are not practicing it as often. You may find that your dog will need to be refreshed and reminded of the walking expectations from time to time.

I hope these tips help some of you! Please understand that we can only go so far in giving training advice remotely. So much of dog training (remember from yesterday’s post!) is individualized. The greatest tool you can using when training your dog is your dog’s own communication signals such as body language. Without being right there to see exactly what issues you are facing, there is only so much we can do, but I hope that this at least gives you somewhere to start. I’d love to hear from you if you have some suggestions that I’ve missed, or if you’ve tried these tips successfully!

 

Make a Tail Wag

You may remember that we asked last week for a few suggestions on some posts… and boy, did you guys deliver! Some of you had some questions about our pups specifically, while others were looking for some tips on training and behavior.

I want to preface these training posts by reminding you that I DO NOT by any means consider myself to be a professional. Because of that, I want to start by talking about some important terms in regards to dog behavior and training, as well as what you should be looking for in a dog trainer or obedience instructor. Whether you have come across some challenges, simply want the reinforcement to make sure you are taking the right approach to manners, or are interested in pursuing advanced training such as agility, it is important to choose a trainer that suits your needs (and your pup’s!)

However, even if you are not looking for a trainer to aid you in your training adventures, these points still exist as guidelines for what I consider to be the best approach an owner could take to training! More importantly, they are my ‘bible’ when it comes to my own approach with my own dogs. If you are interested in the training advice I will be offering, these methods are the backbone to all of the specifics.

IMG_1107

Training Methods

I strongly believe in force-free training. In fact, that is the only type of training that I tolerate with any animal. You may have previously heard this referred to as ‘positive reinforcement’ training, which is actually not accurately inter-changeable, but nor is it always incorrect.

There are four basic types of training methods, that any professional trainer should be able to use correctly.

1) Positive Reinforcement

2) Negative Reinforcement

3) Positive Punishment

4) Negative Punishment

What do those terms mean to you? If you take them at face-value, then you are probably not correct.

First, we must define the term reinforcement, which is simply something that results in the continuation of a previously displayed behavior. It does not necessarily mean a “reward” or something that the dog enjoys, but it is something that increases the likelihood that the behavior will be displayed.

Positive reinforcement (1) simply means that you are ‘adding’ something to the training equation, in order to elicit the desired response. An easy example of this would be that when your dog is lying down quietly on her bed, you could offer her a treat. Yes, this is a positive experience for the dog, but that is just coincidental… for example, dog fighters often use positive reinforcement, by adding aggressive dogs to the scenario, which will increase the likelihood that fighting will occur. (Positive Reinforcement: Adding something to continue the behavior)

Conversely, negative reinforcement (2) training does not automatically refer to abuse or aggression. It simply means that something is being subtracted from the equation. So, for example, if a dog is wearing a gentle lead halter, the behavior of walking by your side is being reinforced, because the pressure is removed when they do so. (Negative Reinforcement: Subtracting something to continue the behavior)

Then, there is training that revolves around punishment. However, this also does not mean that the experience is automatically unpleasant. It simply means that you respond to your dog’s unwanted behavior by doing something which causes your dog to decrease that act.

An example of positive punishment (3) (applying something that will decrease the behavior) would be the utilization of a shock collar. When the dog barks, the collar shocks the animal, and he therefore associates barking with pain… which is supposed to decrease the barking (at least, when the dog has the collar on, right!?) No promises that your dog won’t try to run from you, or even become aggressive, when you attempt to place the collar on them, however… (Positive Punishment: Adding something to decrease the behavior)

A quick example of negative punishment (4) would be that when your dog jumps on you, you turn your back to her, which is meant to result in her no longer jumping. You have removed attention for a decrease in her unwanted behavior. (Negative Punishment: Taking something away to discourage the behavior)

*It is important to note that the terms ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ have nothing to do with the dog’s perception of the training experience, but with whether you are adding something or taking it away. Similarly, reinforcement is not always enjoyable (though it can be) and punishment is not always painful or unpleasant (though it can be).

Quick chart:

What it means What it does not (necessarily) mean
Reinforcement Results in continuation of behavior does not = a reward
Punishment Results in extermination of behavior does not = pain or aggression
Positive Adding something does not = enjoyable
Negative Taking something away does not = painful or unpleasant

DSC_0029

Force-Free Training

Force-free training is a separate category entirely, which refers to the approach the owner takes in all training endeavors. It is training that refrains from using fear, intimidation, or force to manipulate the dog, physically or mentally. An emphasis is placed on the dog’s body language, as well as communication, and the human-animal bond.

Most often, those that believe in forceful training methods believe that animals have no emotions. While many of us may recognize that animals do not experience quite the range of emotions as humans (although, I understand, this is debatable!) we recognize that fear, excitement, loneliness, and loyalty are traits that animals can exhibit. If we look at animals as being devoid of emotion, we begin to look at them as mere machines, able to bend at our will and whim… and you can see why it may become easy for some people to inflict pain in order to effect their desired, and oftentimes more immediate, outcome.

The approach I bring to dog training comes from extensive experience with horse training. While we would use mild tools such as bits and spurs to communicate with our horses, these are only used as an extension of our arms and legs. However, less admirable riders and trainers would continue to advance to more cruel and severe tools when their horses did not respond in a way that they were seeking. There is a big difference between spurs with little rounded rubber ends, and spurs with sharp, jagged rowels. Personally, if my horses did not respond accordingly to my requests, I would first look to myself, rather than simply resorting to more severe tools … obviously I was not communicating my requests clearly. I learned early in life that animal training is pretty similar, regardless of species. Unfortunately, the humans involved are also similar, and when they lack in communication skills and understanding of behavior, they quickly resort to physical brutality and emotional intimidation…. AKA, they become big bullies!

IMG_0046

Do you want your dog to listen to you because they trust you, and know that you will reward them for their positive behavior? Or would you rather that your dog listens to you because they are fearful and intimidated? To most of us, it is obvious that we want our dogs to be happy and content. However, there is more to it than that. Fearful dogs are often more erratic and unstable than those with an established relationship of confidence in their owner. It has been shown that forceful training methods lead to aggressive animals. A confident dog that has built a good relationship with their handler will often look to the handler when faced with an uncertain setting, whereas a dog that is fearful will take that situation into their own hands, and make a choice to either fight or flee. In many cases (such as an animal that is in a kennel or leashed) the dog may not have the option to flee, and by training him to be afraid of you, you have therefore shown him that his only option is to fight. Your goal should be to make yourself the happiest and most exciting part of your dog’s life, while remaining a consistent and safe place for them. If you can achieve that, I can guarantee that there isn’t much your dogs wouldn’t do for you!

DSC_0023

Trainers that we would advocate would never support shock, choke, or pinch collars, or other devices that utilize pain. When faced with negative behaviors, they will usually ignore them, or remove something that the dog considers to be pleasant. They focus most on rewarding and reinforcing positive behaviors. Typically, trainers that advocate force-free training use lots of food for reinforcement, but the most skilled trainers will also reward the dogs with other things, such as play-time, toys, attention and cuddles. It is important to find out what works best for each individual dog! In our household, Tonka is all about attention, while Gaige responds best to play time, and of course, Gia is always interested in snacks. If I only used the same reward for all three of our dogs, our communication skills and advancement with training would most likely plateau.

DSC_0057

Individualized Approach

Along those lines, it is important that your trainer evaluate you and your dog individually, and formulate an approach that works best for your team. I have a frustration with trainers that try to take the same cookie-cutter approach with every dog. Even if the trainer is knowledgeable enough to only employ force-free training methods, it’s not enough if they expect the same exact training process to work for every dog… or, for that matter, every owner! Always be open-minded enough to take queues from your dog… watch their body language closely, embrace the communication signs they offer to you, and go from there. Use what works best for the two (or more!) of you, as a team. If you are paying someone good money for training tips, then they owe you an individualized approach… otherwise, you could get all of your information from this blog a book! Seriously though, your pup will thank you for it, and you will get a lot more knowledge for your money.

Real-Life Training

Finally, it is vital that your dog trainer understand that a dog requires consistency in training. This means that rather than just set ‘training sessions’ every few days at home, and/or once a week at their facility, they should help you set up your life so that it is one constant training session! Your dog should learn that rewards for good behavior can come at any time, not just when on a leash, at their center, or focused on the treat in your hand. This way, they learn to remain focused on you at all times. Examples of this would be teaching your dog to sit before being let outside, leashed, or given their dinner, or rewarding them when they choose to lay quietly on their bed, as opposed to begging for food or pestering guests. Play-time can be a great way to work in training, while exercising and engaging your pet… make them sit quietly before you throw that ball! For most of us, our initial goal with our dogs is to teach them to be happy members of our family, as opposed to teaching them parlor tricks.
photo-1

********************************************************

While this list has not been all-inclusive, by any means, it should give you a good guideline when seeking an appropriate dog trainer… who, remember, you are essentially paying to instruct yourself as the owner! However, please remember that these are the guidelines I try to hold myself to when working with my pets, so even if you aren’t seeking a trainer at this time, they may still apply to you!

In summary, you should look for these qualities in your dog trainer (even if that trainer is you!):

1) They are knowledgeable (and certified, if you are paying them as a professional trainer). They can use the below terms correctly:

-Positive Reinforcement: Adding a stimulus to reward a behavior (giving a treat)

-Negative Reinforcement: Removing something in order to encourage the behavior to continue (pressure on a gentle leader releases when dog is in proper position)

-Positive Punishment: Adding something to discourage a behavior (shock collar that hurts the dog when he barks)

-Negative Punishment: Taking something away to decrease a behavior (turning away when your dog jumps on you)

2) They believe only in force-free training methods. They will use food as a reward, but not as the only reward, and will never resort to inflicting pain or intimidation tactics. They will emphasize the building of your relationship with your dog, so that the dog develops confidence in you as a capable, fair, and loving leader, and begins to look to you in new situations, as opposed to being aggressive or reactive.

3) They look to the dog, utilizing his body language and communication signals, and teach you how to be aware of the same. While they are methodical, they may take a slightly different approach to training each dog, so as to find a method that will be most rewarding for all involved. They do not have a blanket approach that is hard-and-fast with all dogs and owners, because they understand that all dogs are different.

4) They teach you how to encourage good behavior in your dog every day and in every scenario, not just to elicit parlor tricks during specific training sessions. This is because they will understand the importance of a dog that is eager to learn and obey at any time.

Now that we’ve shared with you our foundation for training, tune in tomorrow for answers to some specific reader questions!