Dogs and Dominance

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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.
 
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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!

Let’s Play a Game…

It’s called; What’s in My Hand?

It’s no secret that being a pet photographer (like, a legitimate one. Not like what we try to do on here!) is no easy task. You can’t exactly just request that the animal look patiently into the camera with devotion! That’s why most of us who have a passion for pets and an interest in photography, have to have some tricks up our sleeves. We learn what elicits adorable expression from our pets, and we use it to our advantage!

We’ve talked on here a bit about what our dogs Favorite Things are. Our most devoted readers might know that each of our dogs is MOST motivated by a specific type of item, which is different for each of them!

So, in this series of pictures, we want you to guess, based on the pups’ expressions, what is in the hand of the photographer! (That would be me) Items used include food, toys, or just plain, old-fashioned attention.

There might be something special in it for you 😉 Bonus points if you can tell the black dogs apart!

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Hey, Get Outta My Way!

From a reader: “I would like some suggestions with our having a dog that herds me down the hall or is always right under my feet. I am always telling her , “I can’t walk when you are walking on my shoes”. Thanks!”

This is a great topic! I think it is so important for our dogs to respect our space, as much for their safety as for our own! Remember, we want to approach issues with our pups by asking “What behavior do I want to see?” as opposed to “How do I make him stop doing this?” There are two commands that I think work really well for these types of issues.

Go Lay Down

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This is a cue that we use any time our dogs are under feet or being little pests (who, them? never!) and also if they are begging. It works especially well when I am cooking or cleaning, and need to do something without the dogs ‘helping’ me every step of the way. We have dog beds in many of the rooms they frequent (our bedroom, the living room, and the basement). We began by simply rewarding the pups with treats and praise anytime they chose to lay on their beds themselves. “Good lay down!” Then, we would start at short distances. Say that we were sitting on the couch, and the dogs wanted to join us, but we wanted some human-only cuddle time… we would point to their beds and say “Go lay down!” If they didn’t quite grasp it right away, we would lead them to their beds, and put them into a ‘down’. Of course, they would receive treats for responding appropriately. Then we worked on their stay. If the dogs tried to get up before we released them, we would repeat the process all over, and ask them to ‘stay’. Of course, this cue works best if your dogs have already mastered some other basic commands, but I think that even if they don’t specifically know ‘stay’ they can still figure this out pretty quickly. We slowly but surely would increase the distance from where they were underfoot, to where we wanted them (the bed), always being sure to praise and reward them for understanding our requests.

Back up!

"Am I doing it right, Mom?"

“Am I doing it right, Mom?”

This is one of my favorite ‘tricks’ our dogs know… first, because it is adorable, and second, because it is also incredibly useful! We ask our dogs to back up when they are underfoot in the kitchen, but also for example, if we need to get in or out of the car, move safely through a doorway, or if we are throwing a toy and don’t want them jumping up at us. I am always surprised that more people don’t teach this trick, because it comes in so handy in a variety of circumstances.

To start, you can have your dog sitting, standing, or laying down, but they should be focused and facing you. Walk directly towards them, into their space, and say ‘back up’. You should also use a hand signal, such as pointing over their heads, or waving your hands towards them, palms up. (Note: You should not be scaring or startling them to move, but you want to invade their space just enough so that their natural inclination is to scoot backwards.) Once they take even a few steps straight backward (not turning around or to the side) give them a treat. Clicker-training works really well in an instance such as this, because you can instantly reward them so that they associate the specific behavior with the praise. Repeat this successfully three times, so that each time you say ‘back up,’ step into their space and signal, they are moving backwards. Once they seem to understand your request, you should start making the verbal and hand signal without moving your feet. It may take a few minutes, but try to refrain from moving your feet… give your pup a chance to use their brain to figure out what they have to do to earn that treat! As always, use their body language to determine how quickly you proceed… every dog learns at their own pace, so if your pup requires a little bit more assistance, that’s ok! Just try to get to the point where they are offering behaviors on their own, rather than needing you to walk them through each and every step.

Tonka is the master of this command… while laying down, he will scoot backward, then crawl forward, scoot backward, etc etc. It is a crowd-pleaser 😉

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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.
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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!

Guilty Pleasures

Today I want to talk about our dirty little secrets… as dog owners, dog lovers, dog bloggers, etc. Those things that we all probably share, but rarely admit to others!

I should start by defining myself as a dog owner. While I only practice force-free training methods (so, no intimidation or physical manipulation tactics) I am a strict mama to my pups. I believe that structure brings comfort to our dogs; if they are sure of what is expected of them, they will be happier and more confident. Therefore, I enforce and am a bit of a disciplinarian when it comes to following the rules. At the same time, I adore my dogs as members of my family, and certainly spoil them when appropriate. When they do make the right decisions and respond appropriately to my requests, they are rewarded handsomely. With all of that being said, there are times when I can’t help but smile when certain rules are broken from time to time.

1) Furniture is off-limits

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Guilty faces?

Guilty faces?

Our dogs know that they are not allowed on the bed. We live on a farm, and so for the dogs to be 100% free from dirt and dust and germies, they would need to be bathed daily. There is no way that I have time for that kind of commitment, so it is easier to require that they not jump up on furniture or bedding. Also, Jonathan has been known to be a bit of a Nazi stickler when it comes to having a clean house, and dirty dogs on furniture just makes a lot more work for me! Not to mention that the three pups weigh approximately 250 pounds cumulatively! That doesn’t leave much room for their two-legged companions 😉 Nevertheless, inviting them up for an occasional morning snuggle just warms my heart. Gaige, especially, will jump up on the bed and immediately pancake herself onto the mattress… knowing that the sooner she is settled, the more likely that she will be allowed to stay for a while! Tonka, on the other hand, is the classic burrower and expert snuggler. He will scoot his nose under the blankets, crawl under, spin around, and fit himself perfectly against your body, in the ultimate of spooning positions!

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2) People Food is for people

Some of you may know that my major in college was Animal Sciences. I chose to focus on companion animal behavior and nutrition, and so I can be a real stickler about maintaining a high-quality diet for our pups. All of our dogs (especially the Georgia-ones) are food-motivated, so we are working diligently to curb begging. Foster Dad doesn’t always comply 😉 I have to admit, that there is nothing like the wafting smells of a succulent pot roast bathing in the crock pot for the day. I can’t imagine the temptation those poor dogs must feel! So while I would never make people-food a regular addition to their diet, on special occasions, I love to reward our pups with food that truly makes their mouths water. Their waggly tails, prancing feet, and sparkling eyes are all the thanks I need! (And the slobbery kisses are just a little something extra)

3) No Kisses (except from Jonathan!)

Speaking of slobbery kisses, I am not a fan of regular unsolicited licking from dogs. I am a lady, after all! Unless I make my intentions explicitly known, I do not appreciate wet kisses. However, when I’ve had an especially stressful or difficult day, I can’t help but enjoy a few direct expressions of affection from our pups. Nothing says ‘I’m hungry’You taste good‘Feed me’ ‘I love you!’ like a big, wet tongue across your cheek 😉

Breaking a few rules here...

Breaking a few rules here…

4) Four on the Floor

Along the lines of unwarranted expressions of emotions, we have worked especially hard to curb jumping, especially from Miss Gia. Because of that, I am careful to never allow her to jump up… I would not want to ever confuse her about what is expected or appropriate. However, Tonka (perfect pooch that he is) has never been much of a jumper, and so I will occasionally pat my chest, and motion for him to give me a ‘hug’. Stinky breath wafting into my face, heavy paws resting on my shoulders, and his full weight leaning against my body… nothing better!

5) Clean dogs = Happy owners

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On the rare occasions that Jonathan will ask if I want to go on a date, it is not uncommon for me to request a location that will enable the pups to be our chaperones. One of my favorite ways to spend my time, is taking the dogs somewhere where we can all be active. Living in Pennsylvania, which is most often overcast and muddy, these outdoor excursions usually include some combination of dirt, water, and/or mud… but usually all three! As I said before, we both enjoy the coziness of a clean and orderly house, so allowing the three dogs to go swimming or roll around in an open field is not a regular occurrence. Gaige, especially, seems to be an expert mud-hunter. However, the unbridled joy and happiness they seem to express from such occasions is more than worthy of the extra elbow-grease I will then have to put into cleaning them, the vehicles, and the house after the fact. While the above statement is true, it is also true in our case that happy dogs = happy owners, and dirty dogs = happy dogs. I think that is what cleaning products and car seat protectors were made for, after all!

Photo courtesy of Richmond Hill K9 Klub

Photo courtesy of Richmond Hill K9 Klub

Some things that are never okay: rolling in poo, getting in the trash, doggie french kisses, waking us up by jumping on the bed, chewing the sofa, etc.

 

What are the dirty little secrets, or guilty pleasures, that you share with your pets? Have I missed any? Go ahead, you know the first step to recovery is admittance of your flaws!

ConGRADulations!!

Ok, so I first need to start out by saying thank you. Really, what did I do to deserve such kind, caring readers? You all had such considerate and wise things to share with me after my post yesterday, and it was appreciated more than you know. I really needed to feel some support, and I was given that and more! It also showed me just how invested so many people have become in Georgia’s journey, and it is so nice to know that we have an army of people behind us. I owe you all a favor! xoxo
As if the excitement of yesterday’s post wasn’t enough, I need to share with all of you another big announcement… there is a graduate in the house!!

DSC_0001Miss Gia graduated from obedience school this week! Yay! She has always been a well-mannered dog, but we thought that taking her to a structured environment for training, would help increase her comfort level around other dogs, and also teach her parents (!) a thing or two 😉 It certainly served its purpose, and was an activity we have looked forward to every Wednesday night for the past 8 weeks.

Part of the graduation ceremony was a fun ‘competition’. I may be a bit biased, but Georgia was quick to show her talents with each event. She did the most ‘sits’ in one minute, and was also most willing to respond to our cues, even when only signaled or only spoken! What a good girl. Are you surprised? We weren’t.

The funniest moment of class, was when they had us walk our dogs with the leash in only one hand, and in the same hand, we carried a small margarita glass full of alcohol water. This was to show how well our dogs walked on their leashes, without pulling. Georgia did very well with this… that is, until the end, when she did a full SHAKE, which of course caused me to end up covered in water! Silly girl.

My favorite part of class was at the end. One of Georgia’s classmates was a beautiful young boxer named Rose. Rose’s family consisted of a mother & father, two young boys, and their little sister. The family was so kind and wonderful, but they had heard a lot of negative things about pit bulls. Apparently, Georgia was the talk of their dinner table each night after class! Although the oldest boy usually accompanied Rose and his mother to class, because it was graduation night, the whole family came. As we walked in, we heard the younger boy ask, “Mom, is that the dog you always talk about?” The mother had told us a few times how Georgia had completely changed her perceptions about pit bulls, and that she was just the sweetest and most loving dog. We tend to agree. 😉

The little girl was sitting off by herself, watching Georgia closely, yet cautiously. When we came to a break in the class, I introduced myself and asked what her name was. She softly told me her name was Grace, and we started to talk a bit back and forth. I eventually asked her if she wanted to meet our dog, Georgia. She was a bit hesitant, and so I told her how much she LOVES kids, especially our nephews, who are about her age. She came over, slowly at first… and well, I think I’ll just let the next few pictures speak for themselves 🙂

Can you spot a blurry tail?

Can you spot a blurry tail?

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Pittie kisses

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Tummy rub!

I believe that this is when she started asking Jonathan what those 'things' on her tummy were for ;)

I believe that this is when she started asking Jonathan what those ‘things’ on her tummy were for 😉

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Maybe pictures don’t quite do justice to the moments they shared together, but the whole class got kind of quiet, and watched the two with soft smiles. There’s nothing quite as sweet as children and dogs.

Hope everyone has a great weekend! Not only did I sign up for company to stay with us, but we will also be watching two puppies for a friend! We will be busy, to say the least 😉 I am excited for puppy breath and puppy tummies and puppy noises!! A few of my favorite things.

The Nose Knows!

Last week I told you that we had begun taking Georgia to obedience classes at Ringer’s Pet Dog Training. We have been having a great time enhancing our bond with her! We wanted to also bring you some information about a fun new way to interact with your dogs, while simultaneously enriching and exercising their minds & bodies. It is called Canine Nosework, and it is the new up-and-coming sport in dog training and competition.

Look at that sniffer!

Look at that sniffer!

Canine Nosework is regulated by the National Association of Canine Scent Work. Essentially, dogs use their natural abilities of scent identification and retrieval to find essential oil scents of birch, anise, and clove. They are then trained for proper searching and alerting techniques to communicate these findings with their handlers. The dogs start small, by first searching in boxes, and will then advance to searching in a large room, and even on vehicles!

While these training techniques were first employed in teaching search-and-rescue dogs, as well as dogs used for bomb and drug-detection, all dogs possess a natural ability to ‘hunt’… just think about the last time your pup’s favorite toy slipped beneath the couch or behind the desk! Your dog will really enjoy pursuing the scents, and it proves to be a wonderful way to exhaust them. You may remember that in a recent post, we spoke about some ways to enrich our dogs. Nose work is an ideal way to enrich your animal. Sure, they will exert themselves physically, but the exercise provided for their brains will be immeasurable! You will have one tired pup on your hands for a few days after a Nose Work class.

Unlike some other canine sports, where certain breeds excel, almost any dog will do well with scent work. Whether your dog is a Purebred or mixed breed, and regardless of size or age, you will both enjoy these classes immensely. Furthermore, it is a great exercise for dogs who are reactive or mildly aggressive with other dogs, as only on dog works at a time. You will probably notice your dog’s comfort level increase around other pups, as they learn that fun times happen in their presence, without pressure to interact face-to-face. These exercises are a great way to build confidence in your dog!

Our dogs love to 'hunt' in the bushes...

Our dogs love to ‘hunt’ in the bushes…

These classes are available at Ringer’s in Tarentum, PA, but most local obedience schools offer them. If this turns out to be something at which your dog really excels, there are even competitions and trials held nationwide and year-round. Have you ever heard of, or tried, a scent class? Do you think you might? Share your thoughts with us below!

Warming Up

I wish I could say that I am referring to the weather here in Pennsylvania, but in reality, there is still a lot of this…

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and this…

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and this…

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Which has all resulted in a lot of this…

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and this…

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and this…

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Wait… what?!

If you are very observant, you may notice that the last photo shows three… count them, THREE, pups all cuddled together indoors. If you are even more observant, you may have recognized that such a photo has never graced the pages of our humble blog! What must this mean??

The frigid temperatures have kept us largely indoors. Because of that, the dogs have been extra cuddley, and needed even more attention than usual. You may remember that while Georgia has been integrated with Tonka, the male, indoors for a while now, we have closely monitored her indoor interactions with our female, never letting them off-leash inside, unless closely monitored or behind respective baby gates. The nasty weather has relegated us indoors, and forced me to focus on proceeding with their integration. While working with them off-leash this past week, Gaige and Georgia both finally decided to break down their barriers… with a BANG! Not only were they interacting indoors, but they were playing, cuddling, wrestling, and even sharing toys! We could not be more impressed or surprised by this sudden transformation.

Every pittie's favorite game: bitey-face

Every pittie’s favorite game: bitey-face

The swiftness of their friendship had us scratching our heads a bit, so we were cautious to take things slowly at first… they still were never together while unsupervised, and still required some direction from the two-leggeds. However, after a solid week of playing and cuddling and learning one another’s limits, with no arguments in sight, we think it is safe to say that they are total BFFs.

All four of our "dogs" waiting (patiently?) to go outside.

All four of our “dogs” waiting (patiently?) to go outside.

You can check out a funny video of the girls here. This was the very day, the very minute, that they decided that playtime was a better option than being constantly separated. Therefore, you can hear the surprise (anxiety?) in my voice. Please ignore my excessive verbal input, but enjoy their friendship. They are now absolutely inseparable… can anyone imagine how this has Georgia’s foster parents feeling?! Ugh… let’s just say, the idea of giving up our baby girl gets more bittersweet with each passing day!