Pause. . . Listen

We talk a lot about getting respect from a dog. But what about showing respect to the dog. What about having respect for the fact that when we are dealing with dogs we are dealing with an element of the animal kingdom that is far more in tune with mother nature than ourselves.

Many people do not know that wolves and dogs differ by only about 1% of their mitochondrial DNA.
That’s right, as far as DNA is concerned, your cute little Maltese is extremely close to a wolf. Their link to wolves is much closer than our link to apes, which can be demonstrated in the fact that dogs and wolves can interbreed and produce fertile offspring.

I do not mean to infer that dogs and wolves are exactly the same in every way. They’re not. All this wolf-talk is really just the backdrop for a more important discussion. Here’s some questions to start us off:

Would you as a human, walk up to a wolf and immediately start groping her face?

Would you stick your face in the face of a wolf that you do not know, make direct eye contact and start speaking to them in ways they do not understand?

Would you walk up to a wolf and stick your hand right in front of the wolf’s mouth?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then it may be time for a psychiatric evaluation. The Majority of us will answer no to these questions, which presses me to ask: Why do so many of us feel that it is ok to do these things to dogs?

The fact is that too many of the dogs out in the world, any of the actions stated in the above questions, when done by a stranger, are considered threatening, stressful, or irritating. Many dogs learn early on to tolerate such foolish human behavior, but very few actually like it.

I do have one theory as to why we treat dogs this way. I propose that it is because at some point along the line, our society began treating and viewing dogs as infants. Not children, infants.

It is well known that many people treat their own dogs this way, rolling them around in strollers, and carrying them in purses etc.. However, we as a society appear to treat other people’s dogs in very similar ways that we would treat other people babies: bending over, cooing at them, and reaching out touch them almost immediately.

Of course we wouldn’t act this way to someone’s 18 year old son, and that is precisely my point. We don’t show infants a whole lot of respect, and I believe the assumption is that they don’t really know how to communicate much anyway. Therefore we impose our own will onto them, “I want to squeeze the babies cheeks,” so I do, “I want to put my face in their face and make weird noises,” so I do. We do these activities because for some reason we enjoy them, and we rarely stop to think about how the baby feels.

This is exactly the type of behavior I see people do to dogs. We see a cute fluffy dog and we just have to touch him. Who cares whether he likes it or not right? Wrong. Dogs do know how to communicate, and they do it very clearly. Humans often just 1) don’t even give the dogs a chance to communicate before we impose our own will, or 2) just don’t seem to actually care what the communication is.

The majority of dog bite cases that I see come into my center could have easily been avoided if the human would have taken an extra second, observed the dog’s body language, and respected mother nature.

Although there are many dogs who love the contact of any human who is willing, there are at least as many who do not. If the average human would stop for just a moment when approaching a dog, they would be able to see an animal that is showing signs of apprehension, uncertainty and probably a little nervousness. In other words, the dog will show pretty clear signs that they are not ready to be approached quite yet, and certainly not ready to be touched.

There is an act that I call “asking the dog’s permission”, and I think everyone should practice it whenever they are interacting with a dog. Instead of just diving right in whenever you want to touch a dog. Practice these steps to show the dog that you respect her, and she can trust you. Here is the formula:

**These steps assume that the dog is not showing any outward displays of aggression as you approach.

1) Move towards the dog, and stop about 2-3 feet away.
2) Do nothing
3) Observe the dog.
3a) if the dog seems curious about you, sniffing the air in your direction and wagging her tail in a low, relaxed way, then allow her to approach you and sniff while keeping your hands to your self. Only pet her if she nuzzles you for affection.
3b) If the dog is ignoring, than either ignore her, or walk away, which ever you prefer. She is telling you that she is ok with your presence, but not really interested in socializing at this time.
3c) If she lowers her head, diverts her eyes in a purposeful manner, turns to the side, or tightens her lips, calmly just give her space, and back off. What she is telling you is that she is not comfortable with your proximity and she needs a little more space to feel secure.

Whatever her communication is, RESPECT IT.

Notice that none of the steps above involve sticking your hand out for the dog to smell. You can remove that one from your repertoire.

It is also worth noticing that we are reading her communication, and stopping the interaction before it has become a growl or a lunge.

The beautiful thing is, that even if she initially displayed the behaviors shown in 3b or 3c, as she sees that you consistently listen to her communication, and respect her, the more comfortable she will be with you and then may begin to want to interact socially with you. But don’t expect this to happen after one try. She needs to see that you are consistently respectful.

Likewise, just because she has let you pet her once, doesn’t mean that you can dive right in from here on out. Always ask her permission, and she will thank you for it with mutual trust and respect.

Respect

This seems to be a recurring theme around here lately. Owner after owner bringing dogs in with behavioral issues ranging from fear, to anxiety, to aggression, and the common thread that runs through almost all the cases is the apparent lack of respect between the dogs and their humans.

Note that I didn’t say “The apparent dis-respect“. There is a difference.

To me, disrespect would imply that the dog knows what it means to be respectful, and is choosing to disregard that knowledge in favor of his or her own agenda.

Lack of respect means that the humans never taught the dog what it means to be respectful to begin with. Sometimes because they didn’t know how, sometimes because they didn’t try.

So what does it mean for a dog to be respectful? For the purposes of this discussion, we can say that Respect is the adherence to well established rules and boundaries, and the appropriate response to pressure. Pressure here can mean physical pressure (leash, touch, electronic collar), social pressure (eye contact, forward body language, claiming space or yielding), or what I call achievement pressure which is the pressure we all feel when there is something which we strongly want to achieve and we have to figure out how to do it. This last one takes the form of respect building when the item or event that the dog wants to achieve is controlled by the human, such as a treat or the activity of going outside.

Think about it. Have you taught your dog what it means to be respectful? Have you established boundaries and rules? Will your dog respond appropriately to all three forms of motivating pressure?

If your dog is displaying inappropriate behavior, and you have not taken the time to teach your dog what it means to be respectful, it’s never too late to start. She might surprise you with just how well she can follow rules once she know what they are.

 

Operation: Rescue Gracie

Gracie, the black and white pit bull, with the pack after 7 days of rehabilitation

My friend Julia Taylor from Pawfect Love Pet Care found Gracie and pulled her out of the city shelter. She had been showing signs of aggression towards both humans and dogs. The shelter agreed to release Gracie pending an evaluation from me. I of course, knew I could help before I even met her as I firmly believe that 99% of dogs can become balanced with the right leadership and guidance. 

It was clear right from the start that Gracie had never truly had the opportunity to be social. She had a ton of pent up and frustrated energy, and this was to root of her aggressive behaviors.

The unfortunate reality is that most shelters are not equipped to adequately assess and rehabilitate dogs like this on their own. I commend the Buffalo City Shelter for allowing an outsider to step in and help. The other unfortunate reality is that if Julia hadn’t pulled Gracie from the shelter, she likely would have been euthanized due to her behavior.

Three pit bulls, Gracie in the middle, viciously making out with each other.

 

Gracie’s rehabilitation program with us has included obedience training, vigorous exercise, treadmill training, and pack socialization. She has been in my program for 8 days now, and she is truly a changed dog.

Gracie is currently up for adoption, if anyone is interested in her you can email me and tyler@conectwithyourk9.com and I will forward your info to Julia.

Exceptional Obedience, or Obedience With Exceptions?

One of the questions I always ask humans who bring their dogs in for an evaluation is “How is your dog’s obedience?”

Most people respond something like “Oh, she’s really obedient, she knows all the basics, sit, down she’s not so good at stay but we’re working on it.”

Of course, I naturally must probe further “How is she if there are distractions around, such as other dogs?”

“Oh, if there’s distractions forget about it! She doesn’t listen at all if theres something else she wants to do.”

Let me just start by saying that I commend anyone, who takes the time to teach and lead their dog, regardless of how successful they may actually be.

The reality however, is that if your dog doesn’t listen around distractions, or if she doesn’t listen if theres “something else she wants to do” then your dog isn’t obedient.

The very function of obedience is that you can have your dog perform a task, at your command, regardless of whether they want to or not.

Yes, in an ideal world we would always be able to make the dog want to do the things we ask. But the real world doesn’t work that way. There are too many conflicting motivators such as rabbits, squirrels, other dogs, smells, noises etc. that are often way more exiting than the prospect of maybe getting a morsel of food from us, and most of us have no interest in always carrying around t-bone steaks in our pockets and purses.

The unfortunate truth is that many dogs in our society don’t actually know a single command. What they do know are a whole lot of suggestions. They view their owners cues as “If you want something that I have to offer, here’s how to get it. If you don’t want it, or if I have nothing to offer. . . . . . . . . .then no big deal.”

The very definition of a command however, is that it is a big deal! Because we are fair leaders, we as much as possible, try to reward good behavior and obedience. Yet, just because I am willing to pay the dog for their efforts, does not make the work optional.

Real world dog training teaches commands, not suggestions. A command means “you must do this.” Being a good and fair leader means “Don’t worry, I’ll make it worth your time.”

Unfortunately, the majority of dog trainers these days, don’t teach commands anymore. Dogs do what they want, when they want, and this often leads to trouble. I firmly believe that this fact is the root of 90% of the behavioral issues that dogs have. Dogs need rules, they need structure and order in their lives, and without these things, many become unbalanced.

The following clip is of Coco, a 7 month old Airdale Terrier. She started training with us 3 weeks ago, and prior to that did not have any obedience work. She is practicing the ‘place’ command, and a down-stay. No she doesn’t want to be doing it, she would rather be running around with my dog. She is learning that rules are rules, and they have to be followed. She is not unhappy, in fact her tail is wagging throughout half the video, and she is showing a tremendous amount of self control, especially for a dog her age. I am proud of the work she has done in 3 weeks, and when working with her, it is clear that she is proud of herself too.

True obedience gives the dog a sense of purpose. All of us are happier when we feel we have a function in the world.

Silly Humans

Have you ever noticed that nearly everyone in the world believes that they are an expert on what is best for your dog?

Personally and professionally, I have found that one of the toughest areas of training can be teaching good greeting behavior.

I’m not talking about the dog training part of it. It’s the people training that’s real tough.

Why is it that when we tell people to “please just ignore my dog when you come in”. That they inevitably take that statement to mean “stare at my dog who is trying to sit still, and make cooing noises while approaching him head on as if you are going to pet him, then stop just out his reach and stare some more while giving him a dissertation on why you feel bad for him because he has to stay on his dog bed.”

The dog is easy, teach him to stay on his “place”, make sure he knows that there is a clear and predictable set of rewards and consequences related to that behavior, and viola! But the humans have their own agenda.

Well. . . . I devised a solution to this conundrum several years ago that is based in the ridiculousness of human psychology.

There is one great truth known to mankind: Humans are suckers for talking dogs!

That’s right, tell the humans yourself to ignore the dogs, and you can bet that your words will fall on deaf ears. But have the dogs say it. . . . . and you’ll be cookin’ with fire.

That’s right, us Silly Humans will do anything the dog says.

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Champion Bloodlines

I was in Rochester yesterday and stopped by my dad’s studio to say hello. Some of you may not know that my dad is an incredible artist. Here he is working on a piano he was commissioned to design and paint for Steinway and Sons. Yep, I come from good stock.

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You can see more of his work HERE

Pressure

Pressure is a term that I use a lot when discussing dog training. The concept of pressure is somewhat central to my system of training and influencing dogs’ behavior, and understanding how pressure works will make anyone a better handler.

The most important to remember is that pressure motivates, and the release of pressure educates. Say that out loud, repeat it and let it sink into your memory.

Pressure motivates, release educates.

Any pressure, to be motivating, is by its nature going to be aversive. The degree of aversiveness can, of course, vary from mildly annoying, to painful. Ideally, when working with dogs, we want to be as minimally aversive as possible. Although a dog may encounter many sources of pressure throughout their lives, there are three main types of pressure that we use to influence dogs.

Physical Pressure is probably the most natural for people to think about. Examples of physical pressure are: leash pressure, guiding with hands, or even electronic pressure. I would even consider the pressure from and unpleasant noise, or smell to be a physical pressure.

Social Pressure is often undervalued. Social pressure can be strong eye contact, stern voice, and assertive/forward body language. The most practical use of social pressure that I find, is using eye contact and body language to move a dog and claim space. Because you are creating space, some may call this spacial pressure. Among horsemen, this technique is often referred to as yielding. Social pressure is likely to be the most primal form of pressure. Nearly all animals who live within social groups use this as a part of their dominance rituals.

Achievement Pressuremay be a made-up term, I’m not sure. I use this term to refer to the type of pressure we all feel when there is something that we strongly want to achieve, and we have to figure out how. This is the type of pressure associated with positive reinforcement training. Of all the types of pressure, for the average dog this is likely to be the least stressful or aversive. Although for an extremely driven dog, achievement pressure can actually create a significant amount of stress.
Not all positive reinforcement training will involve achievement pressure however. Capturing, or the technique of waiting until a dog naturally offers a behavior and then marking it with a reward, will not involve achievement pressure because in most cases the dog did not know that there was something to achieve, and was not trying to figure it out. (If she were trying to figure it out we would more likely call that free shaping.)
Unfortunately, it is un likely that anyone would be able to adequately train a dog using only capturing techniques, so understanding how achievement pressure works, and how it can be stressful is still important, even for the “reward-only” dog trainer.

Again I must re-state, this is not intended to be a scientific, or exhaustive definition of pressure. It is meant to be functional, for the purpose of further discussion of my training techniques and philosophies.

There will definitely be more to come on this topic, so check back soon!

Practice Makes Perfect

I commonly preach to my clients on the benefits of regularly practicing obedience exercises with their dogs that require self control.

“Self control,” I say, “is like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets. If you don’t use it, it goes into atrophy.”

I of course, only based this piece of advice on my own experience as a professional trainer, having trained thousands of dogs. I certainly had no scientific evidence to back me up, but I preach this like a religion. This simple idea is the reason behind why I instruct my trainers who conduct classes here to put so much emphasis on the down-stay position, or a simple place command. These two exercises are the cornerstones of self control in the dog training world.

Lobo, holding a down-stay at the WNY Home and Garden Show

One of my trainers, Amber, with 3 of our clients dogs holding a down-stay, and 1 in a place command at a local StarBucks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recently however, science stepped into my corner. The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology recently released a study titled: “Building self-control strength: Practicing self-control leads to improved self-control performance”, confirming what I had learned through experience.

Quite simply, the study found that Self-control performance may be improved by the regular practice of small acts of self-control. Ninety-two adults’ self-control capacity was assessed using the stop signal paradigm before they started practicing self-control and again at the end of 2 weeks. Participants who practiced self-control exhibited significant improvement in stop signal performance relative to those who practiced tasks that did not require self-control. Participants who did not practice self-control believed that the tasks should improved self-control, engaged in tasks that were effortful and made self-control salient, but did not actually require self-control. Supplemental analyses suggested that only practicing self-control built self-control capacity.

In the dog world, controlled walking, or heeling, is another primary self control task. The average dog’s natural pace is much faster than a human’s, and there are many super cool things out in the world that the dog wants to check out. This usually leads to the dog dragging her owner around on the leash. Teaching a dog to walk politely on a leash, fundamentally requires 2 things:

1) A general awareness of the handlers position

2) Self Control

 

 

K9 Connection trainers Amber and Josh practicing controlled pack walking with 8 dog at once.

 

 

Your dog wants to go in front of you, of course she does, every inch of her body is telling her to move faster than you. Her ability then to slow down and walk at your pace, is directly related to her capacity for self control. By taking your dog for two controlled walks a day, you can greatly increase her ability to utilize self control in all aspects of her life.

 

 

 

 

An Interesting Perspective on Canine Aggression

The staff here at K9 Connection, including myself, recently completed a workshop in canine socialization which had it’s main focus on understanding the causes and dimensions of inter-canine aggression.

The workshop leader Chad Mackin (founder of the Pack to Basics program, and board member of the International Association of Canine Professionals) outlined a model of aggression that he termed the “Layered Stress Model of Aggression.”

Although it may be argued that standing alone this model does not represent a complete understanding of the causes of aggression, I believe that it does supply a very practical vantage point that every dog owner can benefit from.

The Layered Stress Model essentially says:

  1. Every dog has a pre-determined stress threshold, beyond which they can potentially become dangerous.
  2. The stress threshold itself is generally unchangeable.
  3. Various factors in a dog’s life can add “layers” of stress, each of which brings the dog closer to their threshold point.
  4. Layers of stress can be diminished or eliminated by: a) removing the stressor, or b) changing the dog’s response to that stressor through counter-conditioning.
  5. The more “layers ” of stress we remove, the less likely any one specific event is to push the dog beyond the threshold point and result in aggressive behavior.

This model is very practical if we begin to look at the behavior of an individual dog.

Lets take an example of “Snarly” the terrier.

Snarly has a history of being very reactive when company come over to the house. He is fine as long as people are sitting down and behaving relatively calmly. However, if someone gets up to use the bathroom or makes a sudden movement, Snarly will get up and lunge at the guest potentially biting.

The action of someone getting up or making a sudden movement is for Snarly a specific stressor that pushes him beyond his threshold, thus putting him in the danger zone. While it is appropriate to work with this specific context by desensitizing Snarly to peoples movements and counter-conditioning him to respond differently. It can be of great importance to also look at other areas of Snarly’s life and work to remove or reduce any layers of stress possible.

To be more clear, lets give numerical values to stress. Lets say that Snarly’s threshold is 150 units on the stress scale. What this means is that if his stress level goes beyond 150, he is likely to snap.

Now lets look at various things in Snarly’s life. Snarly lives with very inconstant humans, who don’t always give clear commands that he understands, but rather tend to speak to him in full sentences that he has to decipher. The confusion adds a relatively constant stress level of 20 to Snarly’s daily life. Snarly also does not get regular physical exercise, and often has pent up energy which leaves him feeling a little “edgy”, this pent up energy adds another 30 to Snarly’s stress level. Snarly also is getting older now and is developing some arthritis in his joints, this discomfort ads another 30 to his stress level.

So before guests have even arrived, Snarly is living with a stress level of 80. This medium level level of stress may not be visibly apparent to his owners, but it is there regardless.

Now arrive the guests, and having strangers in the house adds 40 more stress points. And finally, quick moments by those guests add 50 more stress points. We suddenly find poor Snarly’s stress level at 170! Well beyond his threshold and he snaps.

If you are like me, you can relate to Snarly’s situation. When I have a bad day, it typically is compiled of lots of small stressful events that continue to build. Eventually one small thing, something that normally is very tolerable, puts me over the edge, and I snap.

So, if we really truly want to help snarly, we need to look at the whole picture. Lets add constant consistent obedience training and clear human leadership to Snarly’s life. This brings stress of living with humans down to 5. Let’s also add consistent structured exercise to Snarly’s daily routine in the form of controlled walks, and playtime with his humans in the back yard (not by himself). This eliminates the stress caused by the edgy feeling of pent up energy. We also take Snarly to the veterinarian and add a supplement to his diet to help with his arthritis, thus reducing the discomfort. Bringing the stress from that condition down to a 10.

Now we have reduced Snarly’s daily stress level to down to 15. See where I’m going here?

Company then arrives, adding 40, somebody makes a sudden movement adding 50, we still are only at an overall stress level of 105! Suddenly Snarly isn’t biting people anymore.

Of course, dogs are creatures of habit, so unless we started making this changes very early in Snarly’s biting career, it is likely that he has developed a conditioned response to people moving around. However, since we have removed enough stress, counter-condition this behavior and teaching Snarly to lay calmly in his his bed is now a breeze, since he is well below his threshold of stress, and thus perfectly capable of coping with those actions.

 

Pack to Basics

Are you excited? Because we are!

T-minus 2 days to Chad Mackin an his Pack to Basics workshop!

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