Should You Neuter Your Male Dog for BEHAVIOR Problems?

At the post-end of the day (the awkward time at most vet’s offices in between official closing hours and the act of leaving with doors locked behind us), a client walked in with a question: her 6-year old intact Dachshund was being an absolute hormonal boy in reaction to a bitch in heat somewhere. The owner suspects that the bitch had urinated in the yard, which might explain why this particular episode was more severe. The dog would stand at the front door and whine constantly. She asked what she could do about it. There are multiple answers to this, which make it no easy fix regardless of which avenue she took. Since she came into a vet clinic, the first answer would be to obviously neuter the dog. At 6 years old, any benefit he’s derived from keeping his testicles and allowing his hormones to positively affect growth and development has obviously taken its course. As intact males age, the risk of prostate enlargement (which does NOT equal cancer!) increases, which is also why older men must bend over for the doctor and ads for questionable saw palmetto-based supplements pepper the airwaves. In addition, removing his testicles has the potential to significantly reduce his drive to use them. Unfortunately, from a training and behavior point-of-view, that last point is a bit of a gray zone. Let’s look at the behavior of neutered dogs (MALES ONLY, in keeping with the spirit of the situation in question), especially considering the extremely large population from which one can sample. While veterinary clinics see a great number of these dogs on a regular basis, one drawback is that the environment is simply not suitable to making definitive statements. I would be more inclined to give weight to those from a trainer who is able to observe and work the dog either in the home environment, or in a residency program, which allows said trainer to pretty much assimilate the dog into his/her lifestyle. These people are actively working with the dog to learn appropriate behavior to be a good citizen in society, and it is the rare trainer who requires all dogs to be sterilized as a part of their program.

Neutered dogs still actively hump other dogs, objects, and can even achieve a mating tie with a bitch given the right circumstances

While humping is not always a sexual behavior, especially in a pack setting in which there is no bitch around (much less one intact, even less so one in estrus), it is certainly not a behavior people like to see. Unfortunately, as dogs are dogs, it is part of their repertoire. It establishes hierarchy, creates puppies, and in many dogs (indeed, more than one might initially think), is also pleasurable. No one likes to talk about it, of course! Neutering a dog might decrease the desire to mate, but for a 6-year old dog, that’s very questionable. A younger dog might not have had the time to mature and allow his sexual drives to come forward, so he’s not going to be aware of bitches in heat and what those smells mean. Many older dogs might have that drive diminished, but not completely disappear. And there are the rare few for whom neutering makes absolutely no difference at all, and they will STILL attempt a tie given the opportunity. The good thing is that, to paraphrase what a good friend wrote about the issue, ties with court eunuchs are much shorter in duration and produce no puppies. Neutered males still hump pillows and cushions. They can still hump other dogs. If you were unaware, there are sex toys available to dogs whose owners feel the desire to give them an “outlet” for their humping. But, in the long run, it’s just easier to correct the behavior instead of cater to it.

Neutered males can be territorial and aggressive

Good fences make good neighbors, until the dog starts in with how he thinks he should run the show. Barrier aggression due to fences, which can at first seem like territorial behavior, is actually built out of frustration from the inability to physically reach the dog on the other side of the fence—a truly territorial dog is more likely to have a resource-guarding mentality, in that the house is HIS. The yard is HIS. That toy over there is HIS. That person on the end of the leash is HIS. He is anxious that someone will try to take what is his, and it is easier to be offensive and prevent them from TAKING these things than it is to try to take it back once it’s gone.We see it in the dogs who separate spouses, do not allow even good friends to hug each other, and give warning signs of a very real impending bite should anyone reach for anything that is THEIRS, concrete or otherwise. They are the perfect Abusive Boyfriend dog. Appropriately, these are NEUTERED MALES we’re talking about, and if you think I’m only talking about the stereotypical five-pound landshark with Big Dog Syndrome, you better think again. At the vet’s office, some of the smaller landsharks can be handled with welding gloves, a muzzle, a towel and possibly a syringe full of sedating drugs. The ones about which you need to think again need a tranquilizer pill 3 hours before the appointment, and the possibility of (but attempts to otherwise avoid) using a rabies pole and a syringe full of sedating drugs. These are NEUTERED MALES. Dogs with no testosterone in their systems—it’s hard to blame the aggression on hormones when there are none present!

Neutered males slip out the door, escape the yard, otherwise get lost and risk being hit by a car

Most of the owners of intact males seem to have a decent idea of what they are dealing with. In fact, the dachshund’s owner is one of them. Without my knowing whether or not her yard is fenced and having not clued me in either way, she is adamant that the dog does not go outside without being on a leash that is attached to a person at the other end. While life on a leash is a bit of a downer that some reliable training can remedy, I have to give this lady a gold star in that she is properly confining and supervising a dog that is a high flight risk, mostly due to a lack of training to properly stay in his yard when off-leash and under supervision. (NB: I do not recommend leaving any dog outside unattended, especially, ESPECIALLY in an unfenced-yard, whether or not the dog is contained with a buried cable static fence. This is where behavior problems start, medical problems manifest unseen, and tragedies occur, most of them completely preventable and a few of the freak accident variety. Even if the yard is securely fenced beyond all reasonable attempts to escape or the dog is tied out on a chew-proof cable attached to a non-slip martingale collar, I recommend supervision of some kind.) Any dog can escape a yard provided the motivation to do so is great enough. This does not always have to be a bitch in heat; it could be an errant toy, the lure of another dog outside the yard, fencing malfunctions (including inadequate enclosure or height) or the desire to chase suburban wildlife of any size. Most dogs are also not properly trained to respect a door threshold, much less that of a gate, which sets up the classic scenario of an owner chasing a loose dog, losing the dog, posting lost pet flyers, calling vet offices and shelters around town, etc etc. And whether or not the dog actually returns home is left to chance. And of course there are many dogs that just don’t agree with the concept of secure confinement, be it in a crate, kennel, yard, or small room. These are remedied and managed on a case-by-case basis. Any dog that escapes in any manner, without reliable obedience to bring it back (although, with obedience the dog would ideally not be escaping in the first place!), is at risk of being hit by a car. Even street-proofing/boundary training is not a 100% guarantee that a dog in flight mode will respect the curb, but it can be a big help in reducing the possibility it will happen. Believe it or not, there is a population of dogs who are at great risk, if it hasn’t already happened, of being run over by none other than their OWNERS, most often right on their own property. Seriously: I’ve met a dog to whom it’s happened TWICE.

Neutered males have health problems

Because of the nature of castration, it should be common knowledge that cancer cannot form in an organ that is no longer present. Testicular cancer is slow-spreading enough anyway to have a high likelihood of detection before metastasizing, with castration as a cure. But the truth remains that intact males, as mentioned earlier, can have benign prostatic growth as they mature. WHEN this happens is somewhat subjective. I’ve assisted in appointments with 3-4 year old intact males with enlarged and non-painful prostates, and I’ve also been in appointments with elderly 8-10 year old dogs with normal-sized prostates. Perianal fistulas are also a reality with intact dogs, with some breeds more predisposed to them than others and sterilization is, unfortunately, not a guarantee of avoiding them completely. But what about other problems? I was lucky (perhaps that is the wrong word) to know one of the few neutered males with suspected prostate cancer. No diagnostics were ever done, but all the symptoms were there and his owners consistently declined aggressive treatment, choosing to keep him comfortable until he was humanely euthanized. Retrospective studies using established and reputable veterinary databases have shown a correlation between loss of reproductive hormones and various disease processes, some of them very significant (including many dreaded cancers). Does correlation equal causation in this case? Not always, but the results are consistent enough and the sample populations large enough to conclude that this is more than mere chance. Does timing of the neuter matter? There is some evidence that it may, and other evidence that it may not. These studies do not by any means follow the true scientific method in terms of data collection, have no control populations are generally conducted through surveys or records obtained said databases, and as such can be flawed to some extent. However, the fact that these results are repeatable and the numbers consistent enough to show up in paper after paper is enough to make some people reconsider the choice to neuter until later in the dog’s life, if at all.

Neutered males lift their legs to urine-mark, almost to the point of obsession
Urine marking is a dirty habit, and I’ve written about it before. It’s disrespectful in the majority of cases, and unnecessary in others. There is simply no need for any male, intact or sterile, to feel the absolute desire to lift his leg on any given thing on which he feels needs some urine—it is downright rude. The sheer number of sterile males who go around on walks marking every tree, every bush, every corner curb until there is no urine left with which to mark (and even then the behavior still continues!) tells me that the problem lies not with the testicles so much as it does the mentality of the person holding the end of the leash. A male dog can be taught to relieve himself in one urination (or two at most) instead of multiple squirts here and there. Most dogs actually do not empty their bladders completely, and occasional marking might occur during free play time or on an off-leash walk. The key word here is occasional; it must not be obsessive. I welcome a dog that loves to explore its environment and expand some boundaries in terms of what’s out there in this big world—what I draw the line at is a dog that think its needs to own, through a drop of urine, every little thing out there. Whether or not a dog decides to lift his leg during urination is completely up to him. A fair number of castrati seem to do this, and an intriguing amount of sexually intact dogs remain squatters during their lifetime. With this said, neutering is absolute not a guarantee that your dog will never lift his leg to urine-mark objects, or even empty his bladder completely; and again, neutering is not a guaranteed “fix” for the dog that already does lift his leg during urination.

Neutered males are energetic and require exercise

A good friend of mine was in conversation with a client over whether or not the client should neuter their dog. The notion was brought up that he would “calm down” if neutered. My friend’s words were, to paraphrase, “I don’t think dogs keep their energy in their testicles.” However, it’s commonly stated that dogs DO calm down after they are surgically sterilized. My experience with vast numbers of castrati in a veterinary setting, as well as working with them in a professional capacity as a trainer, tell me otherwise. Dogs calm down because they have been physically and mentally fulfilled through exercise and stimulation. They are calm because of their confidence in appropriate choices in life, their ability to make those choices, and their respect and trust of the people around them, specifically the one with whom they live and train with most often. Bear in mind that this doesn’t mean these dogs can sit around in a zen state all day doing absolutely nothing; but that they are calm through fulfillment of simply being allowed to “be a dog,” with all the rights, responsibilities and restrictions thereof. They do not calm down because certain parts of the body have been removed. Even dogs that have had amputations, or those in wheelchairs, or even those few who live as two-legged specimens have not experienced decreased levels of energy due to missing limbs. The dogs who have undergone ear canal ablations or cataract removal surgery are actually MORE energetic, because the sources of pain, infection or inability to move freely without running into something have been removed. Dogs whose tails were docked at birth, or who had pieces of ear cartilage snipped away for cosmetic purposes do not experience a lack of energy due to those procedures. Even dogs who have had an intestinal resection and anastomosis, or even an entire spleen removed are unchanged after appropriate recovery period of cage rest and exercise restriction. People think that hyperactivity is cute, except when it gets in the way of leading what one MIGHT describe as a “normal” life. In reality, it’s not. Having boundless amounts of energy and nowhere to direct it is no way to go through life. Dogs are social creatures, and being excluded because of something that can easily be controlled through humane and effective training is very stress-inducing. It is frustrating to the dog to not be able to be with company. It is the equivalent of mental torture to have a mind that is so anxious and stressed that the dog can’t think rationally. It is our job to teach these skills to our dogs so that they can be included in a calm, safe manner. In closing, there are many reasons to neuter a dog, most of them health-related and even then, as mentioned before, some of those are coming into question more and more. Anytime someone recommends you neuter your dog for behavioral reasons, caveat emptor. With that said, there are some notable exceptions put forth by Heather Houlahan while, relating to golden retrievers as per her blog entry, go for all dogs: Any [dog] that lifts a hostile lip at a human being loses its gonads. Every. Single. Time. Any [dog] that starts fights with other dogs loses its gonads. Every. Single. Time. No [dog] gets to use its gonads before age four (bitches) or six (dogs). In other words, the dog is culled from the gene pool. These are not traits we want to pass on to future generations (unless you run with the Fila or the Ovcharka crowd, but that’s neither here nor there). Remember: “culling” does not necessarily mean euthanizing or killing the dog–and yes, there is a difference. Neutering is never a guaranteed cure for any behavioral issues. The only guarantees you do have are that:

Your dog is rendered permanently
sterile and will not reproduce

He will never develop cancer in organs he no longer has.
Do the right thing and train your dog right instead of depending on an elective surgery to do the training for you. And finally, don’t hesitate at all to neuter your dog if you feel that’s the right choice for both him and you. Don’t do it because it’s “the responsible thing.” What is more demoralizing is that sterilization is considered the height of responsible pet ownership when so many dogs are overweight (or even outright obese), lacking in canine social skills, unsocialized to living in our world, aggressive, not housetrained and/or living lives of anxiety, stress, and frustration behind suburban fences (except for the 1-2 times a year they are taken to the veterinarian). Responsibility is training, supervising and properly confining a dog so that it can live life in the fullest, healthiest manner in a society with the people to whom it is attached. And there is absolutely no reason that owners of well-trained, socialized, mentally- and physically-fulfilled intact dogs should be regarded as anything BUT responsible!

Why Punishment Fails in Effective Dog Training

When I started working in the veterinary field, I was enlightened as to the writing of a popular veterinary behaviorist in regards to puppy rearing and training, along with several tips to keep in mind when working with adult dogs.

One of these writings outlines some common scenarios in which dog owners use “punishment,” and why the “punishment” fails.

I touch on a few of these scenarios on my previous blog, Empowering Dog Owners Through Balance part III, when I go over when corrections simply have no effect, or in fact make the problem worse:

…[Y]ou are surprised by the sudden presence of a strange dog, and now yours is out at the end of his leash barking madly, and when you DO try to correct appropriately, they mean absolutely nothing to your dog. It’s as if he can’t even feel them, and this is when many people throw up their hands in disgust, proclaiming that “Correcting him doesn’t work.” Or, if you get the right dog, he feels the corrections, turns around and redirects onto YOU, a situation again which causes people to throw up their hands in disgust, proclaiming that “Corrections only made him more aggressive and now the problem is worse.

The problem with punishment as described here (even though the word “correction” is used) is that it relies on the owner to react to the dog, rather than be pro-active and use a startling correction to redirect the dog’s focus when concentration is starting to be lost: “Hey, you need to pay attention to me, because you’re going to miss something important and I’d rather set you up for success so that you can see it—but you have to be paying attention first. I’m doing all I can to motivate you to do the right thing, you’ve been rewarded in the past so you know what’s right, and now it’s time for you to learn that you need to do the right thing regardless of the situation.”

In the scenario above, you would have been further ahead to issue a correction as soon as the dog focused and locked onto the strange dog, allowing for a greater chance of success for the dog to refocus on YOU.

However, the two situations used as examples by this well-known, oft-quoted veterinary behaviorist have nothing to do with a lunging dog on the end of a leash. With that said, I can certainly say that these situations do hold a lesson or two, though not in the way the author intends.

The first example of how punishment can rightfully fail is when the owner catches the dog on the couch, yells at it and threatens it with a rolled-up newspaper, since the dog is obviously not allowed on the furniture.

Of course punishment will fail in this respect. Let’s postulate why this might be so:

  • The owner is not supervising the dog so that she could prevent the dog from getting onto the couch in the first place
  • The owner is using the negative stimulus far too long after the dog climbs onto the furniture, and now the dog doesn’t know why it’s under attack by its owner
  • The owner is yelling, which is generally a pretty good way of showing that she has no control of her emotions and to which most dogs respond with fear, whose actions and body language owners might mistake for “guilt”
  • The owner has failed to properly teach the dog to stay off furniture by giving it a chance to get up there and then immediately experience an aversive stimulus (which, remember, is NOT always a collar correction depending on the dog!)
  • The owner failed to confine the dog properly so that it could not get up on the furniture while unsupervised, leading to a success and the likelihood that the behavior will continue
  • The owner did not properly teach the dog to lay in its own place, either on a bed, a place mat or simply at the foot of the couch so that it can be with its owner, but not on the furniture
  • The owner has previously allowed the dog on the furniture, but has had a change of heart and doesn’t understand how to properly teach the dog that the furniture is now off-limits in a conducive manner

But, that’s funny.

All of these reasons begin with “The owner.”

Yet “punishment” is at fault here. “Punishment” that is administered in such a fashion that guarantees the dog will most likely not learn the lesson at hand, will create fear, and possibly even lead to a defensive aggression issue (which might then be interpreted by the owner as “dominance”–subject matter for another entry on another day!).

Yes, “punishment” fails here when done in this regard and in this context. I am in complete agreement with this veterinary behaviorist.

A better alternative to the couch

The next example involves a dog that greets people by jumping on them. Obviously, this behavior is unacceptable, so its owners “punish” the dog by kneeing or kicking it in the chest each time it jumps on them.

If this is the only course of action they take in regards to the issue, it will most likely fail. Let’s postulate why:

  • The owners are not teaching the dog an alternative behavior that results in praise (which, although not the be-all end-all of stopping a dog from jumping, certainly is a step in the right direction)
  • The owners are completely mis-using the knee-in-the-chest concept, resulting in kicks to the dog’s chest rather than bumps, or worse, actions that send the dog flying tail-over-teacups for 5 feet, and overall exhibiting bad timing and/or inconsistency
  • The owners are not training the dog in obedience, choosing only to fix this one behavior because they perceive that he’s an otherwise “good dog” except for this one problem
  • The owners are not crating the dog when they leave, creating a logjam at the door as they attempt to go into the house and the dog attempts to come out to see them; the dog jumps on them, and the excitement level of the entire situation is entirely not conducive to behavior modification
  • The owners have not curbed jumping behavior if they bought the dog as a puppy, and what was now “cute” is now a very large annoyance, and they are frustrated at the dog’s “inability” to learn to not jump, even after months or years of such treatment

Yet again, the problem here is the “punishment,” despite the fact that this list of reasons closely resembles our previous one in that all of them start with “The owner.” I am, for the most part in this particular situation, in agreement with this veterinary behaviorist.

So, despite the fact that I am in agreement over her assessment of the use of “punishment” in these scenarios, trainers such as myself and others (many of whom are lacking in the Fancy Higher Education Letters After Our Names Having To Do With Animal Behavior department) are still vilified and thrown under the bus. Why? It all has to do with these:

“But you aren’t one of those CRUEL trainers, are you?”

The presentation of these two issues is supposed to be enough for the veterinary behaviorist in question to convince people that the use of “punishment” in any and all training scenarios is a bad idea. Surprisingly, I find myself in partial agreement with her—with the caveat that I try to limit my use of how often I invoke the broad-paintbrush argument. Of course, punishment should be limited. What I am perfectly fine applying to dogs is an appropriate, properly-timed consequence, provided it is done in a way that the dog understands what it did wrong and how to NOT do wrong again in the future.

This is the general idea of what people have in mind when it comes to making inappropriate behaviors go away: the act of the “punishment.”

Let’s make the dog pay for his transgressions. Let us show him the error of his ways. Let us just wait for him to make one little mistake, and then we’ll blast him so hard he won’t know which end is up.

This is the mindset of a frustrated owner at the end of her rope. This is the owner who, after being told time and again from trainer after trainer that she must NEVER say “No” to her dog, never give it a negative consequence for its actions other than removing incentives, using a “non-reward marker,” managing the environment to high heaven, or bringing out the dreaded water bottle/penny can/air horn/compressed air/etc, resorts to something that feels like an appropriate (if verboten) response to an undesired behavior. In short, instinctive drift.

This is why people buy “shock collars” from the store with the intent on using them as the final, last resort to fry some sense into a dog that has otherwise resisted all remedial attempts (short of those that include working under the tutelage of a competent results-based trainer to solve the problem through effective training).

This is why MOST punishment fails and MOST humane correction works. For the MOST part, the former is reactive and latter is proactive.

Now, does this mean that ALL examples of punishment and correction apply across all situations? Of course not. There are times when dogs resist attempts at correction to startle or redirect them, just as there are times when even the most skilled trainers must react to something that, possibly, has escalated so quickly that the dog must be brought back under control before continuing the lesson.

The examples are endless. My ability to come up with all of them to list here is limited.

The problem is that anytime someone judges my training based on one situation, they are sorely misguided. They do not know my dog. They don’t know the lesson at hand, nor the goal in mind. They do not know the particular issues I am working through at the moment, nor are they most likely aware of the multitudes of techniques I COULD be using to work through them OR why I picked this particular one.

Sometimes it might involve leash pressure or a correction on a training collar, which could be construed as “punishment” in the right scenario by the right person when seen at the right time. And when a lot of my training is done in public places and seen in glimpses by people driving by, of course one moment can be taken out of context. You see it all the time on dog-related sites, as people strive to pick apart a 30-second video, or even worse, a single photograph that represents a moment in time, and the details of which are known to absolutely NO ONE.

Yet this is a dog on which I receive regular compliments on how well-behaved she is out in ANY situation out in public, short of gunfire or fireworks.

Has she been “punished”? Sure. The times were few and far between, but of all that come to mind, they bear one distinguishing characteristic: they all were my fault. Perhaps it was a concept I failed to proof properly, or a crime of opportunity. Whatever they were, I reacted to the situation and afterwards, made it my responsibility to properly teach my dog better so that such concepts would not be questioned in the future, and such opportunities that invite crimes would clearly be a Poor Life Decision on the part of the dog.

Our relationship has not suffered because of this, despite the words of not only the aforementioned veterinary behaviorist, but also others and those who dub themselves “trainers” who would not have given my dog a chance to learn how to act around other dogs in a secure, controlled environment.

But, as with everything else, that’s just my take on it.

She’s Dog Aggressive, Are You Sure You Want Her?

What if the dog you’re considering might be dog aggressive?  That didn’t stop dog trainer Lynn Stockwell from adopting Clara– who turned out to be a wonderful companion.

Lynn explains:

It’s been made painfully aware to me that I haven’t updated people here as to my recent acquisitions (well, there’s one important item, the rest are just details) and activities. There pictures in here, most of which I’ve tried to resize so as to be more user-friendly to slower internet connections, so be advised if the page loads a little slower.

She’s Dog Aggressive, Are You Sure You Want Her?

Clara, a Boxer cross, came home to live with me back in March 2012, and even before she stepped foot into my apartment she was learning about life with me–or re-learning about life, in her specific case.

See, Clara was picked up as a stray not far, relatively speaking, from where I am living now. The county shelter is the main reservoir for dogs for the local veterinary technician school, and despite the repeated warnings that “She’s dog aggressive, are you SURE you want her?”, the people on the Teacher Dog Choosing Committee had enough faith to bring her to the school along with 2 other lucky pups.

At school, she spent slightly over 2 years living in a kennel environment teaching us students how to perform physical exams, perform anesthesia safely, do dental and catheterization (both intravenous and urinary) procedures, position for radiographs and locate veins for blood pulls. For anesthesia, she was a bit of a booger and needed the Heavy Drugs because of a lost bite inhibition with the main pre-med. With radiographs, she was a pro and pretty much only needed to know what was being radiographed and in what position, and there she stayed with no complaint until the picture was taken. For the venipuncture, her pipes pretty much announced themselves with neon lights, and woe to any student who had trouble locating them.

dog aggressive
Dog aggressive?

First picture I took of Clara at school

I actually fell in love with the dog before I met her. The professor announced the new crop of dogs that filled in the voids left from those adopted out, and mentioned in passing that one of them was “dog aggressive and probably a pit mix.” That was it, and I knew this dog was somehow destined to be a significant part of my life. Not that I go looking for dog aggressive dogs by any means, but her friendliness toward people more than made up for her issues with the other dogs.

Said issues originally seemed to be geared more toward other bitches, which did raise red flags as my parents’ dog is a bitch and they would have to at least peacefully co-exist with heavy supervision if this was to work out. However, her radar did ping on some of the dogs, particularly one of the major dorks who put up a bit of a “I’m all that” front. Observations over the time she was there determined that gender didn’t seem to play a role so much as the individual dog did. I had since put my name on her card as a potential adopter, and so far I hadn’t seen anything so concerning as to convince me to remove my hat from that ring.

They also seemed more fear-based than anything, out of a need for control and the “best defense is a good offense” mindset. This was work-with-able. The whole 2 years she was there, her issues were managed through the use of a popular brand of headcollar as well as mandatory social isolation from other dogs, the latter of which actually helped her to some extent. It didn’t prevent dogs from making googly-eyes and nasty faces at each other, but it kept full-on attacks to a minimum (unfortunately, it also kept positive play interactions to a minimum too, for those who actually played nice in the sandbox).

During quarters when I was interning off-campus, the staff allowed me to come in on the odd weekend day to spend a few hours with Clara as kennels were cleaned and student rotated through other dogs. I was allowed to take off the headcollar and spoil her with chews during this time, as long as I kept her away from the other dogs and students. This continued after my graduation, and we finally arranged a day and time for Clara Freedom Day after a tooth extraction surgery, necessitated by an aggressive cage-chewing habit that snapped off a lower canine and effectively blunted her incisors to the resemblance of small nubbies.

I originally planned to socialize her and help her learn how to be a dog again after 2 years of being a kennel animal, but I couldn’t have been more off in my thinking. Her training began a few days later, after she had caught up on 2 years’ lost sleep from the noisy kennel environment.

This was pretty much the extent of her activity aside from regular walks and potty breaks.

Without going into detail, my “dog aggressive pit mix” passed her Canine Good Citizen test 4 months after bringing her home in March after some intensive obedience training. We were actually ready for it much earlier, but the test was being offered on a certain day, so we waited and continued to work.

See, It’s Hard To Be Dog Aggressive When…

My worries about Clara getting along with other dogs was alleviated when I found the perfect dog around which to put her: Mallory. (I also wish Zeke were around too, as I know he would have been a great teacher as well.)

See, it’s hard to be dog aggressive and put up a front when the other dog just doesn’t care. Well, in Clara’s case it was easy, which made working with the aggression all the easier because she had no REASON to be afraid, as Mallory just rolled her eyes at That Evil Step-Sister and went on with life. Constant visits have whittled away the Best Offense action, setting the stage for one of my favorite pictures of them both, just below. As we’ve progressed, Clara is now trustworthy off-leash around Mallory, and enjoys running around the unfenced yard, which is considerably more space than what we have here. Although there is no interactive play, there is the ability to parallel play–that is, play alongside each other with separate toys, no quarreling and no interaction, which is quite voluntary on the part of both dogs.

Of course, the Master at work in this picture prefers to not use a leash. She in fact gave me quite the nasty look when I suggested she put it in her mouth. That’s not a smile in those eyes!

I spent countless hours building ball drive in a dog that already had one heck of a retrieving instinct, despite having almost no retriever in her. She is an amazing jumper and can get some considerable air when going after her ball. In addition, she’s been introduced to the family farm and the vast amount of space one has to run after the ball. She has it rough, and often comes home and crashes after such days regardless of who’s around!

A happy retrieve

Flying between the trees–a lucky shot on my part!

“Er, Clara…I think we’ve been caught!”
“Yep, just…don’t…move…”

She was working off-leash shortly before passing her CGC. All things considered, not that impressive. I’ve worked a dog that could have passed the test after 3 weeks of work (from SCRATCH too, no obedience background at all!) if only I’d had him tested, and I’ve worked a dog who passed in 6 weeks. I felt it more appropriate to work both obedience and target the aggression issue as well as socialize to life on the “outside,” and combining the 3 goals meant that a 3- or 6-week CGC pass was out of the question. It was the right move for all involved.

As for how she did in a home environment after 2 years in a kennel and no knowledge of her prior background, suffice it to say that someone socialized this dog. I ran the sweeper and she fell asleep with it in the same room (well, that’s unavoidable due to my place being a studio apartment). She hardly bats an eye at the train horns going on at all hours not a quarter-mile from the house. Loud cars, music, TV, construction sights/sounds…no reaction. She passed the Home Depot test, complete with carts, screaming children, lumber equipment and aisle displays, with flying colors. We’re still working on firecrackers and gunshots, but so far things are going well. My housemates absolutely love her, she’s become a fixture around the community due to our frequent walks, and now that Ohio law has changed, the pit bull side of her (well, if there ever was one, based on looks alone) is legal!

Yes, there are some who would brand her mostly pit, but thankfully most see Boxer first

Right now we’re in the polishing phase for obedience, as I’ve slacked off considerably and there are some specific areas in which we need to work. I’m unsure at this point if I want to push more for competitive obedience, or if I want to start her in soft-mouth retrieval and eventual tracking. She’s provided me with lots of good experience, and mistakes have been made on both our parts throughout the process. She’s also very photogenic, especially since her new leather collar got here! Hopefully will be updating a little more frequently and getting back to your regular thought-provoking/critica-thinking programming, now that the cat’s out of the bag concerning this awesome girl.

Purple-on-black leather collar

A nice moment with Mallory and some special effects

Here’s Clara, enjoying the freedom of the big yard and life on the “outside” despite originally being labeled as dog aggressive.

Is Your Dog Truly Happy, or Just Out of Control?

Happy Dog

By Lynn Stockwell

If you are the type of person who, like me, spends a lot of time on video sites watching various trainers work their magic, you’ll probably notice that most of them allow comments. These comments can range from “Great job with that dog, keep up the good work” to “Why not use [other training tool], you’re being abusive” or even, my personal favorite, “That dog doesn’t look happy.”

I would like to know, here and now, what exactly is a “happy” dog and how does that come out in training from another person’s point of view?

The reason I bring up this specific type of comment (compliment?) is because usually it is followed by a few nitpicky observations about stress yawns, tongue flicks, raised paws, non-wagging tails and how they contribute to the overall abuse of the dog in question by placing him under an undue amount of stress.

I’ll lay it on the line using my not-unfamiliar wordage I chose in my last post:

Anyone who tells you that learning and proofing commands should be completely stress-free has never trained dogs to the point where you want them giving you advice on how to work YOURS.

I have a few notions of why a dog in training would not look happy. The dog is learning through mistakes and successes. Not only is the trainer attempting to set the dog up for success, but the dog might also be trying out behaviors with the trainer that have previous resulted in no consequence, or at least not ones that motivated the dog to cease the misbehaviors. The dog is learning that it must listen and follow, not call the shots and lead. (NB: Nowhere in here am I talking about “Dominance,” as any untrained and unmannered dog is accustomed to making its humans do just what it wants and when; said humans are just not aways aware they have been so well-trained!)

The unfortunate truth is that, sometimes, a dog learning new behaviors along with the idea that it must focus and listen, is that the dog’s body language changes: it is learning to concentrate, focus and learn. Its tail position may become slightly lower to the horizontal (never tucked in fear). It attempts to keep visual contact with the handler while trying to hear or even glance all that is going on around it, since it is not yet used to focusing in one place for so long (leading to a strained appearance as ears go back and eyes struggle to stay focused yet check out everything else around it). The stress the dog places upon itself is more than enough to make it yawn; of course, it is learning new rules and manners. The dog is accustomed to doing things other than focusing and learning, and the conflict between the brain that is learning and the behavior to which it is so accustomed is part of what creates the need for the dog to yawn to relieve that stress.

And, of course, the fact that the dog is learning a new behavior, or proofing one already learned, is stressful as well.

I do not consider a training session worth its salt unless I get at least one stress yawn out of the dog. If I notice more, I take into account many other factors that indicate the dog is under too much stress before deciding to back off or even stop the session.

Think of how anesthesia techs monitor their patients: keeping patients under anesthesia and observing them for signs of waking up in the middle of a procedure is a multi-pronged approach. The heart rate might remain steady, but the respirations-per-minute could increase. Respirations might stay rock-solid, but the heart rate might suddenly spike. Jaw tone is also a factor (how hard is it to open the jaws, usually more difficult the more awake the patient gets) as well as blink reflex (someone under anesthesia will have not blink when the corner of the eyelid is touched). Relying on just one of these parameters is not going to be helpful at all, and turning up the anesthetic gas on a patient just because one thing changed might be putting that patient in danger of going too deep, or it could be as simple as an unnecessary waste of gas because the patient is still sufficiently under.

In the same manner, it is counterproductive for people to nitpick for signs of “stress” in training when they all come together to make a big picture. Dogs flick their tongues without being under stress, or at least all mine have done so, and many times. Ears go back and body posture changes regularly without the dog being placed under stress by a trainer. Yawns occur in a completely relaxed dog, as well as one that is tired, keeping in mind that there is a vast difference between tired yawns and stress yawns.

After all, most dog people seem to understand that a wagging tail does not always indicate a happy dog, by observing the signals it is putting out.

Simply put, these people have nothing better to do with their time than pick apart dog behavior rather than looking at the whole picture, including what problems the dog is having in terms of behavior, what results are being achieved, and how those results appear over the long-term.

I like to use the example of my math lessons in middle school. I had switched to a new school and was a bit behind in the curriculum there. The lesson in question was fractions. I could add them easily and subtract, finding a common denominator, as long as I didn’t have to carry any tens over. The moment I had to find a way to take 3 7/8 from 8 3/8, I froze.

There were some pretty dramatic moments during those times that involved lots of tears, but through the work and patience of my parents and teachers, I learned how to subtract fractions like nobody’s business. I was a fraction-carrying MACHINE. (Not so much now, since long-term results were not really stressed in this situation, and I haven’t touched fractions for a long time other than to add up halves and quarters of pills to fill prescriptions).

But it was stressful as all get-out to get there.

Am I saying that training should involve theoretical temper-tantrums and high-running emotions on everyone’s part in order to teach the dog an obedience concept? Of course not—otherwise, we would be envisioning classes of frustrated owners, dogs feeding off that frustration, and most likely something involving chaos of some degree.

I’m just noting that all learning involves stress of some type. Too much stress pushes the dog too hard or too fast, while not enough doesn’t help teach or enforce the lesson. A good trainer will find a happy medium that produces a thinking dog during the session. As the relationship between the owner and the dog grows through regular training and socialization, I cannot imagine how anyone could see anything less than happiness in either of them.

As for trained dogs, I have absolutely no idea why they would not look happy. With what do these people take issue: the one-command performance reliability? The immediate response to commands or signals? The intense focus a dog being worked gives its handler, rather than worrying about what’s going on with the rest of the world? The knowledge that they can go out in public and behave themselves in any situation because they have confidence instilled through training? The truth that they have a deep, lasting relationship with the people that own them?

Or are these people simply spouting off a knee-jerk, conditioned response to the tool of choice the dog might be wearing, insinuating that the dog is only responding out of fear that said tool will be used to produce maximum pain and torture should the dog not comply?

What might happen to their arguments if the dog were to be shown working without any tools and showing the same results as if it was wearing them?

The “This dog doesn’t look happy” argument falls to pieces when there is no tool to villify, and people who seem to know everything about training as long as no aversives are used all of a sudden fall apart when asked to identify the dog who WAS trained with them–becuse they can’t tell. The dog is truly happy!

To these people, a “happy” dog is one that shows no self-restraint, no discipline. A “happy” dog is one that blithely makes its own decision to run off and interact with other dogs and people, sometimes to the desperation of its owner who is dragged along helplessly with no other option but to admonish “He’s friendly, he just wants to sniff and play!” A “happy” dog jumps on people because it is excited to see them. A “happy” dog might bully other dogs in an attempt to get them to play, provoking an aggressive response that might cause issues in future training. A “happy” dog, to a sadly growing portion of the population, also overweight or obese, because to these people, food is love. And love is “happy.”

If that’s the case, then by all means, call me out on having an unhappy dog. She has self-discipline, the ability to make choices that shows she knows between right and wrong, she listens to me the first time I tell her to do something (even in the face of distraction), and we have a mutual respect and trust that transcends the physical connection required by law in public places. She is healthy, conditioned, and an appropriate weight. She does not jump on people, stays off the furniture without question unless invited, carries and chews only her own toys while leaving our belongings alone, can run off-leash in the unfenced yard (no Invisible Fence necessary here!), and thoroughly enjoys her job as a therapy dog at a local hospital. All this with AND without (usually without) the training tools I’ve chosen to teach her these concepts!

If only other dogs could be as (un)happy as her!

My Dog Will Not Listen To You…Part II: Recent Events

The article about my dog not really having any desire whatsoever to listen to you was written before Thanksgiving.

On that particular day, we had significantly more guests than normal, one of which included a small child, 8 years old, and her adoptive parents, being of some distant relation to my own.

Keep in mind that Mal is the family dog and not mine. Otherwise, events would have gone quite differently. She is fine with smal children, provided they are calm and quiet around her–indeed, she teaches children how to behave properly around strange dogs.

After the large meal, I understand that the family decided to go for a walk to let things settle and get the child out of the house for a bit. Someone thought it would be a good idea for them to take Mal, and since the small child was immensely interested in dogs, I further understand that an executive decision–again, I was not involved–was made to let the child hold the leash and have the honor of walking the dog.

I still wonder who lived to regret that decision.

Parent #1 is allergic to dogs, so there are obviously none in the home. Parent #2 had a soft spot for them, with all good intentions, but no idea really how to begin working with one, especially one that’s already trained. Honestly, when I see someone telling a dog to “Siiiiiiiit, siiiiiiit, siiiiiit” when a) she’s already sitting, and b) the command is “Up” to sit up as a trick, I do a mental face-palm. It doesn’t at all write off the person’s ability to LEARN how to properly command and control a dog, but it does mean we have a few significant hurdles to cross before I would even think of handing my dog’s leash over, much less even letting said person command the dog.

However, I digress back to the disaster that was the “walk.”

This is how the story was told to me when they returned:

They were able to start walking up the street away from the house, and Mal walked somewhat nicely for them, in front with the end of the leash wrapped around the child’s wrist. Partway up toward the stop sign, she decided she was going no further. There was something, most likely mental (as the problem usually is for her) that told her You Shall Not Pass. No amount of coaxing and cajoling from the relatives could get her to move further.

So they turned around and proceeded to walk around the cul-de-sac.

About the time they arrived at the neighbor’s driveway where she goes to stay while we’re away and unable to take her with us, Mal decided to start acting out. She started jumping around and mouthing the leash, trying to coerce some unlucky fool into playing a game of Tug.

I pretty much admit fault with this habit, as I used a leash as a tug reward when I was working on building drive and focus with her when she was a new resident and in training. At one point, I thought it was a good idea. Now, I want to go back in time and give myself a good smack in the face for even thinking of it as a Good Idea. Teeth on the leash is the equivalent to teeth on human skin. Not Allowed Here.

Anyway, here’s Mal jumping about, growling and tugging on the leash, which is being held (at the very end) by an agitated 8-year old girl, whose parents are by now panicking and no doubt wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into. They’re yelling at Mal, tugging on the leash and obviously not getting through to her that this is Very Bad Behavior.

Somehow they manage to get her under control and high-tail it back to the house where, once inside, they drop the leash and breathe a collective sigh of relief.

The moral of the story is a little fuzzy here.

These were people who, as mentioned before, had good intentions, but no dog sense.

Our neighbors are people who have a decent amount of both.

Given the opportunity, Mal will go deaf at a moment’s notice when they are on the other end of the leash.

There is little, or no, relationship here. There is no motivation to listen and obey.

And when I say “motivation,” I mean not only praise, but also correction. Mal knows beyond a reasonable doubt what all her commands mean. She knows that she is rewarded for doing the right thing, though not with food. She knows that, with my family, she will be checked if she throws us the finger and tells us to buzz off when she needs to listen and obey. And I’m sure children in the presence of a sitter or daycare provider know that this is not the Mommy with whom they deal on a regular basis at home.

What shenanigans can I get away with today, and which ones will get me in trouble?

Until there is a relationship based on mutual respect and trust (with all the tools—and not just collar and leash—necessary to attain it), my dog will not listen to you.

Your Dog’s Behavior Needs More Than A Band-Aid Fix

By Lynn Stockwell —

Before I became a veterinary professional, I was pretty much convinced that the role of vets was to get to the bottom of the matter and treat the issue at hand.

A prime example of the dog that has vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Vomiting and diarrhea are not things to simply be treated. These are symptoms of a more underlying problem, and it is the vet’s job to find out why the dog is exhibiting these symptoms.

Sure, we can give Reglan, butorphanol, Cerenia, diphenoxalate, metronidazole and any other medication to make sure there won’t be anything coming out either end that isn’t supposed to. You’ll find this advice around the Internet, as people strive to stop something from happening that shouldn’t, and well-meaning advisors will simply state “Oh, give your dog [this medication].”

But wouldn’t we be further ahead to find out WHY the dog is vomiting and treat from there?

Has there been any dietary indiscretion? If not, has any significant change occurred in the dog’s routine or environment? Has the dog ingested something he was not supposed to ingest, something that might cause gastric blockage? What is the content of the vomitus? Is it true vomiting, or is the dog only regurgitating, which would indicate a completely different class of issues?

When it comes to behavior and training, a good professional will treat your dog’s issues with the same care that the veterinarian would with any medical issues.

A prime example is the common problem of pulling on the leash.

Sure, we can prescribe headcollars, no-pull harnesses, and any manner of anti-pulling devices out there to simply make the dog stop pulling on the leash.

But wouldn’t we be further ahead to find out what is wrong with the relationship between the dog and its owner, and treat from there?

Does the dog have any other behavioral problems? What are your goals in training—what is the end result you envision? Does your dog have any health problems? What training experience, if any, has it had already?

The final questions every trainer must silently ask themselves is “What would best fit the needs of the dog in front of me? Will we reach the owner’s goals, and will the owner be capable of attaining and maintaining those goals?”

A common problem is when people turn to the veterinarian to solve behavioral issues. This is not to say that vets have absolutely no experience solving them, but unfortunately few of them have the experience and training to really treat the cause of the problems the way they do medical issues.

A while ago, one lady came into the clinic to buy some flea preventative for her dog and cat. Since she brought in her dog for a weight check to see which weight class of medication was necessary, I was able to watch it pulling against the training collar she had it on. As she was paying her bill, the poor lady asked if we carried “Gentle” Leaders, which we did. However, since I was the one helping her, I asked her if she would like to learn how to properly use the collar on which she had already spent money, especially since the headcollars in question are not drops in the bucket in terms of cost.

She consented, and the lesson started.

Keep in mind that this was close to closing time on a Saturday, about early afternoon.

I spent about 45 minutes with detailing the proper (as well as improper) use of the training collar, ways to help with obedience around the house, activities to do with the dog, and how to use appropriate praise for her dog to set it up for success. We went over proper timing of praise and corrections, and removing rewards in addition to correction (see the jumping example in the Empowering Owner Through Balance series). A grand total of about 15 minutes scattered throughout the lesson was spent working hands-on with the dog, who gave amazing results through the clear communication I, and later her owner, gave her.

We were out significantly later than any of us techs wanted, but at least I left with the satisfaction that someone’s family was hopefully on the right track to a better relationship with their dog as well as proper tool use.

The lady was pleased, and upon return a month later to buy another months’ worth of flea preventative for her pets, told me that her dog was doing very well.

(Admittedly, I do not like doing this sort of work, as there is little to no follow-up, but in the specific circumstances, I felt a lesson at least in basic walking was necessary, as well as basic dog-owner relationship advice, and we could work on other issues later as needed.)

Contrast this to the 15-minute time slot allowed for a fitting of the advertised headcollar, and then the owner is set loose with their dog to figure out how to properly use it. Fifteen minutes is far from enough time to even get to the basics of training, much less how to stop pulling. Even back in the day, when someone asked me for help with training a dog, I spent a minimum of an hour with them for that first session, with a small portion of time dedicated to working the dog to get a “feel” for what was on the end of the leash and to demonstrate to clients that I could be trusted with their dog—no pain, intimidation or fear-based techniques here!

Another client came in not too long afterwards who had had one of these appointments a while ago. Her dog was still as nutty as it was before…but it no longer pulled on the leash.

I realize that, in the long run, that’s what most people want.

But I see it as akin to what one well-known trainer calls a “well-trained” puppy. I refuse to link to the actual page itself; rather, I encourage you to read it by way of Heather Houlahan’s excellent expose of what exactly constitutes real-world puppy-raising versus that which exists in the mind of an authority that, to anyone’s knowledge, has never bred a dog nor raised a litter.

Simply put, an 8-weeks old puppy following a lure is as “well-trained” as an otherwise ill-mannered, out-of-control dog that doesn’t pull on a leash because it is wearing a headcollar or no-pull harness. (And I just mean that the dog doesn’t pull. Rarely are these dogs walking at heel, or even anywhere close to what I would call Heel.)

A pair of Boxers came in for boarding over the holidays wearing no-pull harnesses, basically taking their owners for Nantucket sleigh rides down the hallway. They jumped on people and were generally out-of-control in the waiting area, which was forgiven by the fact that they were pretty nice-looking Boxers, even if the female was of the petite variety.

The owners reassured us that they were pullers and were on the harnesses so that they would learn to stop pulling.

Never mind the jumping and lack of self-control. Anyone want to guess what it was like living with these dogs at home? I certainly have a few ideas!

A good trainer will teach you how to mend your relationship with your dog and make it so much better, not just fix behaviors one at a time while leaving the root of the issue untouched. They refuse to put band-aids on a fractured relationship in the same way a veterinarian will refuse to simply prescribe anti-emetics for a dog with profuse vomiting.

Unfortunately, there are too many well-meaning vets and even trainerettes who are quick to prescribe such band-aids. A tool will not help a relationship, whether it’s a “Gentle” Leader or a pinch collar (let it be known now that I would consider it almost unethical to send someone out the door with a pinch collar after only a 5-10 minute consultation). A medication will not stop an issue without working toward the bottom line.

A band-aid does little to fix a fracture, but it might stop the bleeding if there are any other small abrasions or cuts that happened at the same time. And in the meanwhile, you’ll probably want something to treat the incredible PAIN.

Your relationship with your dog is what’s really at work, and through balance (and a healthy dose of effort, time and commitment), it can only get better. Take off the band-aid and focus on what needs fixed: not the behaviors, but the issues behind them.

Empowering Dog Owners Through Balance, Part III

Please be sure that you have read parts I and II to this series.

The one problem people run into when attempting to correct their dogs without having been taught the hows, whys and what tools will make their lives easier, is mostly a matter of consistency and clear communication. Motivation is also a problem, as is timing (if you have read the Secrets book, these words should look mighty familiar!). Usually, by the time these people are pulling back on the dog’s collar, they are reacting to the dog’s actions and behavior, rather than being proactive and catching the dog while they still have time to refocus its attention. Admittedly, it’s easier to just go off in your own world and wait for the dog to make a mistake, and that’s fine to some extent, but you need to know when it’s more productive to set a dog up for failure and correct, rather than set up for success and reward the dog when it does the right thing. The best training tool you have besides the leash and collar, is proactivity.

It’s the same concept as defensive driving: you are the only perfect being on the road, and everyone else out there is a jerk. You just have to keep your eye out for cues that predict an idiot move one of those jerks might make, such as cutting in front of you or running the red light. Use this same knowledge and apply it to your dog to predict where its attention is going so you can use an appropriate correction to being it’s attention back to what is right: maybe your dog is oogling the duvet as it’s appetizer. Best to banish that thought BEFORE any teeth touch furniture, rather than resorting to frustration and possible over-punishment once the damage has begun. Out on walks, you see a dog off in the distance and it’s coming your way. Best to keep an eye on it and also watch your dog for signals that you’re losing his focus BEFORE you are surprised by the sudden presence of a strange dog, and now yours is out at the end of his leash barking madly, and when you DO try to correct appropriately, they mean absolutely nothing to your dog. It’s as if he can’t even feel them, and this is when many people throw up their hands in disgust, proclaiming that “Correcting him doesn’t work.” Or, if you get the right dog, he feels the corrections, turns around and redirects onto YOU, a situation again which causes people to throw up their hands in disgust, proclaiming that “Corrections only made him more aggressive and now the problem is worse.”

And these situations are indeed problems in which corrections, which have their place in dog training and behavior modification, can make a dog go wrong—but the problem is, the person issuing them didn’t know how to use them in the first place to properly refocus the dog, instead using them as punishment for a particular action or set of actions.

This is not what training is about. Even the best of trainers will tell you that they have had to react to a dog, but it is VERY rare indeed. Consider too that they have the capability, tools, skill and knowledge to get that dog back in focus and under control as quickly, humanely and effectively as possible. It’s not something every dog owner is equipped to handle, even though it is something with which they are more likely to have experience.

The key to transforming owner reaction, frustration and punishment, and inconsistently-trained dogs into satisfied, calm, confident members of society (goes for both dog and human!) is to empower them. They CAN teach their dogs using positive reinforcement and humane correction, and through those techniques, they CAN have a dog that learns to not jump again. They can have the dog that they want if only for their time and effort (and payments to the trainer who teaches them these skills). They can have the dog that heels beautifully on and off leash around distractions and no longer drags them down the street. They can have the foundation of respect and trust to call that dog off mid-chase without panicking, knowing that it will promptly turn and run back toward them regardless of what it was chasing. They can have the confidence to leave food out in plain sight and know that it will be left alone. They can have the peace of mind they want, knowing that they will be able to save thousands of dollars because the dog will not chew or ingest inappropriate items when unsupervised, necessitating emergency surgery to retrieve them the hard way.

Unfortunately, as mentioned before, some well-meaning trainers believe this means withholding information that will likely save your relationship with your dog, if not your dog’s place as a pet in your home.

A good trainer will teach you how to turn a choke chain into a training collar, a shock collar into a remote training collar, or a “spiked” collar [NB: not referring to “pit bull” or LGD wolf collars here] into a pronged training collar, and change frustrated, emotional punishment into either a calm correction that helps the dog regroup and refocus. A good trainer does not always need to use food to reward the dog, but always has the option of doing so if necessary. A good trainer will teach you how to use rewards and aversives (remember, they need not always be collar corrections!) in a way that benefits the dog, rather than falsely benefiting you with tasks that feel good and sound good, but have little practical use in real-world training.

A good trainer never walks around with their “finger on the trigger,” so to speak, waiting for a dog to make a mistake so they can rain all kinds of aversives down on it.

But for many members of the general dog-owning public, they are absolutely itching to learn how to use “punishment” (to use the traditional behaviorism term) correctly. All we need to do is show them how, rather than admonish them to abandon the idea or worse, ignore their silent pleas and allow them to become frustrated enough to attempt to correct their dog in a way that is useless, counter-productive or downright abusive.

As someone more eloquent with words than I put it, “The secret to dog training is human training.”

I promised that I would reveal the non-Earth-shattering phrase uttered by the client with the problem Labrador puppy. As I was giving her information about training classes with real-world, balanced trainers (I have not yet established as a trainer at work) and explained what all she would learn with them, she sighed, looked at me and said “I would love to learn how to correct his bad behaviors.”

Provided that she continue to fulfill the dog’s needs for mental and physical stimulation, there is no reason at all this young woman should be denied this knowledge. Far from ruining her relationship with her dog, as many trainers are wont to point out, it will only further enhance it. It is my wish that she finds someone, if not myself, who will share this information with her so that her puppy can continue to grow and learn his place in this world. He’s got a lot of potential.

Empowering Dog Owners Through Balance, Part II

Continued from Part I

In stopping problem behavior, ignoring it, removing attention and simple redirection only get you so far. This isn’t to say that they DON’T work at all. Some actions are blatant attention-getters, solely for the dog’s entertainment of having the spotlight on HIM all the time.

Take the dog that grabs an item off the floor and plays Ring Around The Dining Room Table.

This is not a dog that chews these items up—he simply picks them up and runs. The delight in his eyes as his owners chase him around and under the table is unmistakable (and yes, I’ve seen that look in this dog, if not in this exact situation). One day his owners simply ignored him as he chose an item and bolted off. They didn’t give him any attention, didn’t even look his way. The game fizzled to a stop quicker than Britney Spears’ first marriage.

Of course, one could easily nip this “game” in the bud much quicker by teaching the dog to leave alone things that it is not allowed to touch, and this is part of the homework I am having this particular dog’s owners undertake.

The real problem starts when ignorance/removal of attention, and redirection results come to a screeching halt, or at least a nice long slide on an icy road with grinding anti-lock-brakes.

It’s evident when training manuals or sites say things such as, in relation to the problem of jumping on people, “…he won’t be perfect every time,” that the idea of maybe having a dog that completely learns a concept 100% is impossible. (Yes, the site actually says this. Check it out! I love how the picture does show the guy actually using his leg as an aversive, but they won’t admit that.)

So, if a dog can never learn to stop jumping on people, whatever are the odds that this same dog will learn to recall on command when called the first time, regardless of the distraction? What about the possibility that this dog might learn to walk at heel off-leash around other dogs without going off to play with them? Is it ever possible that this dog will learn to hold a sit or down even when treats are tossed his way, or other dogs walk close by? Will you ever be able to call this dog off an exciting chase, especially if the animal or toy is headed toward or across a busy street?

See where I’m going with this?

I have some neighbors who have a cute Lab mix. I can’t even remember how old she is, but she was a puppy back when Zeke was getting up there in years. Let’s say she’s 5 years old. These people are pretty consistent with everything, and their children are wonderful, intellectual beings around which to spend quality time. Every time their 60-lb dog jumps on them, they turn away until she sits. I have no doubt this is what they did when she was a growing puppy, feeling her oats in the family household and seeing what behaviors she could use to manipulate her people into giving in to her demands.

In short, they’re STILL turning around and ignoring their jumping dog 5 years later.

Ignoring has its benefits. But what these trainers conveniently forget is that a motivational aversive is what will really teach the dog to NOT do something and CHOOSE to not do it again. For some dogs, it’s the shaker can. A spray of water has its place, too. (The stag beetle that taught Mallory to “Never bother me again” most certainly did not turn around and ignore her, nor did it beg with her to not eat it, nor did it wish and pray that she might not eat it; no, it pinched her nose. And again, before she finally learned the lesson, and still remembers it to this day.) The collar correction is probably the most maligned choice, but amazingly, it’s the one toward which most people gravitate even if they have never been taught how to properly give one, time it appropriately or use the right equipment to communicate their message to the dog in the most humane and effective way possible.

I’d go so far as to label it “instinctive drift” in naïve humans engaging in canine behavior modification. They are going against what they have been taught by higher powers, that one must NEVER “punish” their dog, and reverting to what “feels right” by trying to communicate displeasure with the misbehavior. Maybe the Brelands were onto something here!

Continued in Part III

Empowering Dog Owners Through Balance, Part I

One day at work, I was the one to take a client into the room with her “new” puppy that she has had for a while already, but at 4 months, was seeing worms in the stool. A fecal float confirmed the finding, and the dog was placed on an appropriate dewormer and its vaccinations updated, especially the legally-required rabies vaccine, for which the pup was of age.

New puppy appointments usually include a lot of information, but at a maximum of 30 minutes allowed for any new puppy or new client appointment, there’s a lot that either is glossed over, or is deemed OK to wait until the next visit. This includes information such as leash training, prevention of bad habits, puppy classes (of which this clinic provides the clicker variety at another location), crate training/housebreaking, flea prevention, zoonotic parasites, heartworm prevention, microchipping, sterilization, and the importance of regular veterinary visits.

This one appointment stuck in my mind because this black Labrador puppy was at an age where he had had acquired some bad habits, one of them being to jump on anyone for any reason. This was not the “Aw, how kyoot” type of jumping—this puppy was going on 25-30 pounds and enjoyed using his weight, as well as his long nails, to get whatever he wanted and when he wanted it.

During the appointment, I discovered that the puppy responded well to a gentle knee-to-the-chest approach. This was not the traditional “knock the wind out of the dog” method that you might need for a fully-grown Newfoundland who has seriously injured people with his exuberance, nor is it the “knock the dog tail over teacups” approach I have seen demonstrated in the more redneck areas in which I’ve had opportunities to visit. No, this puppy responded to a simple bump on the chest coupled with the word “No,” to which he responded with a puzzled look and promptly sat right in front of me. I explained to the owner what I was doing and why I was doing it, as she had previously expressed concern over the jumping, and she seemed impressed that he could be taught so quickly to stop doing it. Throughout the history-gathering part of the appointment, the puppy quickly learned that jumping was not a fun thing to do anymore, and sitting garnered him more attention and praise.

It was probably the first time he had been consistently told, in a way he could understand, “Don’t.”

Imagine my (lack of) surprise when the vet came in to do the exam and give the vaccines, and the puppy reverted to prior behaviors that it had previous learned Did Not Fly with me—maybe they would work with this person.

This particular vet’s way of handling a jumping dog is to make a nasal-sounding “Ah-ah” sound and turning away, removing attention. Which, admittedly, works with softer dogs that haven’t been jumping for a long time, or have had previous training and are reverting slightly. It rarely works for a normal dog, especially a 4-month old puppy who’s feeling his oats and never been told in a way he could understand that it’s unacceptable.

This poor vet was pretty much doing this the entire time she was in the room.

As the client was paying for the appointment and leaving, she said something that really puzzled me, in this era of “positive” training, “gentle” approaches and the mindset of handling animals and children with kid gloves. It was only a few words, not anything profound, but they held a lot of emotion. You’ll get to read what she told me in a later installment. Remember, it’s not exactly earth-shattering.

When it comes to owning a dog and training it in a results-based, balanced manner, one does not have to be a disciplinarian, and I’ve been over this before. However, the problem comes when someone who desperately wants to tell their dog to “Stop that” lacks the appropriate means and knowledge to do so.

In truth, you ARE supposed to think in terms of what you CAN do and WANT to do with your dog during the training process. Think in terms of “I want to enjoy walks with my dog,” or “I would really like my dog to come to me regardless of the distraction.” “I want to trust my dog around the house and not have to crate him all the time” is also a big one too. The ugly matter rears its head the moment you encounter the situation where the owner has to tell the dog “I don’t want you to do that.” No matter what dog is in training, no matter the situation, this WILL happen sometime. Even if you have the most biddable retriever whose life revolves around “Your wish is my command,” you will encounter a time when you have to tell that dog “No, don’t do that.” You can think positive for everything you’re worth, think all the “I want”’s and “My dog can”’s in the world, and you will STILL come a point where you have to draw the line and tell your dog “I don’t want” and “You can’t.”

Anyone who tells you otherwise has never trained dogs to the point where you want them giving you advice on how to work with YOURS.

The problem comes when many so-called trainers (such as the ones referenced in the previous sentence) refuse to empower these owners with the appropriate techniques and necessary tools to properly communicate to their dog that something is NOT allowed. Remember, dog owners don’t have to be disciplinarians; they just have to draw their lines and stick to their guns. The major problem is that many people don’t know how to stick to their guns in a manner that benefits both them AND the dog, and the inability (or refusal) of trainers to teach these essential skills to their clients can cause serious problems not only at the start of training, but also further down the road.

Continued in Part II

My Dog Will Not Listen To You…Yet

There was a conversation at work one day over training dogs in languages other than English. The main argument as to why veterinary professionals seem to think this is a bad idea is simply because no one else will be able to control the dog, especially the vets and techs who need to be able to tell the dog to sit or lay down.

All in all, plausible reasoning, but also highly unrealistic.

People tend to forget that dog training is based off a relationship first, and then rules and boundaries through commands and learned self-discipline, which fosters a mutual respect and trust for each other.

The truth is, no matter how well-trained a dog is with its handler, owner or family, that dog cannot be simply handed over to another party with the expectations that that dog will respond the same way. It’s common knowledge that a dog is not a robot—I’ve even written about it here that, although training can feel robotic, a dog is still a living, thinking being that still has the capability to make its own decisions. And when confronted with someone it doesn’t know, someone who does not act the same as its owner, smell the same as its owner, or even give commands in the same manner, it will most likely not respond the way it usually would with its owner.

The issue is that there is no relationship. There might be a leash and a collar, or an enclosed exam room, or a treatment cage/kennel space. There are vocal signals and the ability of the stranger to communicate displeasure, praise or comfort through tone of voice. In the veterinary environment, there is physical restraint, but there is also the virtue of the environment itself: smells, noises, equipment, people, poking and prodding, drugs and anesthetics…things that can cause most dogs to not act as they usually would, even those well-socialized. And since, in the treatment setting, the owner is rarely present, you’ve got a perfect situation for a dog that really doesn’t want to listen to obedience commands so much as it does simply not be there and respond accordingly through resistance, freezing/shutting down, or trying to ooze its way toward the last known exit.

I can hand my dog’s leash off to anyone, but I don’t make it a common practice. My dog doesn’t know that person. The praise from that person means nothing, as do the commands. The only reason my dog would obey that person is because they know the same things I do, which is the basis of the relationship between my dog and that stranger. I want it to be a responsible relationship, in which the person is leading and the dog assumes the position of follower (one might say the person is dominant and the dog is submissive—remember, they are simply states of mind, not a checklist of actions). The family dog, while not being a take-control type, is definitely one who can tell if you mean what you say and will pretty much blow you off if she feels that you really mean that little to her. I’ve worked some dogs who need given pretty dang good reasons why they should listen to you, and “food treat” doesn’t cut the mustard with them. To be quite honest, the food treat will make things worse with them, since they assume that the food is theirs and they’ll just take it, thank you very much.

It doesn’t matter in which language the dog is trained. If there is no relationship, if that person does not know the same things I do, if that person does not respond the same way to my dog as I do and know how to read her as to when to properly use praise (and of which type, too) and correction, she will not respond. That doesn’t mean she’ll never respond, it just means that she won’t respond reliably, if at all, until she’s given reason to do so. At the vet’s office, these reasons usually constitute physical and chemical restraint, which are the farthest things from a true relationship that one can get.

I like to tell the story of a dog I once walked around someone’s back yard. It was a rather large backyard, and I was given permission to walk this dog while everyone else was otherwise occupied, so it was an acceptable pastime. Honestly, the story of my walking a dog would be relatively mundane if it did not fit into the story, so here goes: this dog was a highly-trained sportdog who had learned multiple titles in Schutzhund, although he was not participating in the trial that weekend. Mace was a good fellow, a beautiful black German Shepherd who was as mellow as the sky is blue, and he walked very well on-leash. I knew the commands used to work this dog and decided that it would be nice to give him a bit of a mental workout while we were ambling around the yard.

Confidently, I said “Fuß!” and stepped off.

Mace stepped off with me, head right by my leg and heeled beautifully…for about 3 steps. I could see his expression change, as if he became bored with me, and then he promptly wandered off in another direction.

Admittedly, I should have brought him back and made him do it again. This was a dog who achieved high scores in trials, one of which was an obedience test in which the dog had to heel flawlessly next to its handler through a group, through pace changes, obey each command as though telepathically connected to his owner. He refused to heel next to me. So we walked around and I made him do a few sits and downs, at the likes of which he was a bit slow, but much more willing to respond than the heel.

Looking back on it, I was young, and the dog was probably smarter than I was at the time—I wasn’t even of legal age to consume adult beverages in the US yet, although that would be coming a week later. In reality, Mace taught me a lesson that I took to heart: I did not deserve to command that dog. I did not have, at the time, what it took to really forge a relationship with that dog in such a way that made him want to obey me, want to listen to my commands and respond to my praise. In that same vein, I do not hand my leash off to just anyone, no matter the dog on the end, but especially if it is mine. Not just anyone deserves to work my dog unless I feel they are capable of doing so. If I feel they are not, it is far kinder for me to refuse to hand them the leash than it is to confuse the dog and potentially backtrack on any training results we might have already made.

Mallory, the family dog (“mine” in the sense that I am more hers than she is mine), is extremely well-trained. She’s not titled in anything except therapy dog work. No fancy working titles, no protection training, no retrieving dumbbells over jumps (I tried, admittedly halfheartedly, since I had neither the time nor knowledge to make it really work—she thought retrieval work was the dumbest waste of time evar). But despite the lack of qualifying letters after her name, she will work for me off-leash around distractions that drive most dogs crazy.

Occasionally she goes to stay with our neighbors when things are such that she cannot go on trips with us. We get reports that she likes to take our neighbor on Nantucket sleigh rides unless he remembers to put on her training collar and give her a reason to listen to him—not through pain, but through the same knowledge I have—which builds on their already-established relationship. It can only get better.

I had to bring Mallory into work one day, as she had profuse diarrhea and I was unable to go home to let her out during the day to relieve her bursting bowels. Unfortunately, the moment I was to be taking her outside to christen the lawn with Clostridium difficile, I found myself helping with a few tumor removals to be done under local anesthetic, and I was in such a position that I couldn’t leave the patients. Thankfully, one of my fellow technicians was free and up to the task of helping my dog relieve herself appropriately.

I cringed and grimaced as I heard nails scrabble on the hallway floor, followed by the vigorous footsteps of my co-worker as she scrambled to keep up.

Yep, I could say my dog is trained…but at that moment, she may have been just another unmannered dog whose first instinct on the leash is to obey the unheard command reserved for the stereotypical sled dog scenario: “Mush!”

And this is a dog trained in plain old common English!

Doesn’t matter if it’s German, Czech, French or Hungarian. Heck, train your dog in Esperanto, or a various system of grunts (the latter of which actually does happen in the case of assistance dogs for people who might be verbally challenged). It doesn’t matter the language.

The relationship is the driving point. If it’s not there, you’ve got NOTHING on that dog except what us veterinary professionals have to work with: physical restraint (often showing up in the “pet dog training” world as headcollars and harnesses), and when the need arises, the use of prescription drugs to mellow out the dog. It’s not ideal, but when it’s all you have, take it and run.

But don’t for one minute call me an elitist who doesn’t want my dog controlled by anyone else simply because I might decide—or not—to train in another language. Because there’s a very high probability that she won’t respond to you anyway. Not immediately, anyway.

written by Lynn Stockwell (DPTrainer4)