Monday, March 16, 2015

Helping Fearful Show Dogs

Honestly, I thought I had already posted this here, but then realized that I haven't.  I probably keep shying away from it because it is a big topic to cover in a simple blog post.  I work with fearful show dogs constantly and have some solid methods and advice to offer on helping them.  This post won't cover everything, but will give you some tools to help your fearful dog or your client's fearful dog.

One thing I want to say is that I hope that people look for help because they are genuinely concerned for the well being of their dogs and want them to feel comfortable and safe, not just so that they will be successful in the show ring.  Many dogs suffer from fear and anxiety.  One of my most successful classes is my Confidence Building for Marshmallows which was designed to help fearful dogs gain confidence.  A large percentage of my dog and bird training and behavior consulting business is helpling people with fearful dogs and birds.  I see show dogs, pet dogs and dogs that do many other dog sports and activities as well.  It is our responsibility as their caretakers to find ways to help them so that they can live a life that allows them to feel safe, comfortable and trust in someone or hopefully, many people.

In addition to my client dogs, I also live with several fearful animals that have all made spectacular progress.  I have dogs that used to bark and lunge at people on the street, who would try to flee in a panic over vehicles and even parrots who would lunge at the side of the cage bars with their beaks trying to bite, all who have improved so much that you would not believe that they had those issues.  It took some time and it took work, but they got there.  On this point, there is something that I need to be very clear and honest about.  All animals are individuals and will have varying limitations.  There are a handful of dogs that I honestly do not feel will progress enough that putting them in the show ring is humane.  Imagine being terrified of people yet forced to be touched by strangers on a regular basis.  Much of the time we can modify the behavior to the point where the dog can be shown, but sometimes not and people need to be accepting of that.  It is heartbreaking to see people showing dogs that hate it, are terrified but are forced to keep doing it because there owners can't seem to accept the dog without a CH before his name.  And, don't even get me started on using those dogs in a breeding program, but I digress.  Let me just say that being structurally correct or "pretty" is NOT enough to justify putting a dog in the show ring, or in a breeding program for that matter, whose head won't allow him to be okay there.  This is an ethical responsibility we have.  We must put the animal's well being ahead of our need or desire or ego to show the dog.  Work on helping the dog, learn how to modify the behavior, but always listen to the dog and accept it if the dog you had hoped would be your next big special (or agility champion or therapy dog or obedience dog or whatever) cannot do the job you are asking of him or her.  The animal simply MUST come first.

What Not To Do
There are some things that I do not do that pretty much apply to any and all fearful animals that I work with.

  • No pressure or force.  We must allow the fearful animal to set the pace.  There is a difference between slow, steady, honest progression and pushing or forcing.  Don't do it.  You will not only slow the dog's progress, but you will damage the relationship with the animal.  Of course there are sometimes things we must do such as take them to the vet or groom them, but these are things we can condition them for.  Getting into the show ring or into some type of dog sport competition is NOT a necessity and is something that can wait until the dog can do it without being afraid.  
  • Use only methods that protect the dog's comfort level such as classical conditioning, desensitization and counter conditioning and stay away from methods that force or overwhelm such as flooding.
  • Even if things are going well, do not enter your dog in any shows until you are VERY sure that he is ready for it.  Doing so can cause major setbacks.  Depending on the level of fear, I usually have my clients attend some shows but not enter at first.  
  • Do not taking behavior modification advice from non-professionals.  Dealing with fearful dogs is not simply "dog training", it is a whole other level of behavior modification that requires a strong and in depth understanding of animal learning theory as well as applied behavior analysis.  I find it extremely frustrating to be working with a client only to have their friend or breeder or handler or someone else pressuring them that they need to just "make him do it" or "correct him" when we have a solid training plan in place.  
  • Depending on the level of fear and the specific triggers, I sometimes recommend that a fearful or shy dog only be handled by his owner.  Handing a fearful dog off to a stranger or even someone that the dog does not trust very strongly is a bad idea and again a trust breaker.
  • Do not buy into the idea that a dog is being willful, lazy, dominant, stubborn or anything else.  Believe it or not, I have had longtime breeders, I am talking about someone with decades in a breed and "in dogs" tell me that their fearful dog's behavior was a "ploy" and that she knows these dogs and they "do this".  Newsflash, no animal behaves afraid on purpose, they just don't, so get over that one.
  • Do not punish a dog for being fearful.  Fear can look like a lot of different things while still being a fearful response.  You cannot punish someone for being afraid or guess what you get?  If you guessed more fear and anxiety you're right.  Don't do it.  
  • Do not allow yourself to be pressured into entering your dog before he is ready because someone told you he "needs to get over it" or because your breeder wants the dog in the ring or because your dog is needed to build majors.  
  • Do not have other people offer food to your dog if he is afraid of them.  Many people try to force dogs by using food and when this happens you can see that the dog is trying to get the food without getting near the person.  This is dangerous and a very bad idea because it puts the dog in conflict.  Best case scenario is that the dog panics and tries to escape once the food is gone, worst case scenario is that he bites the person once the food is gone, in either case, he didn't learn anything we wanted him to learn.  Whenever I meet a dog that I know is fearful or aggressive I start out with no food.  I need to see if the dog has any interest in people, in interacting or even just "checking me out" before I start using food.  Let me be clear that we do use food, a lot of food in this training, but it doesn't come from scary strangers.
  • Do not put anything above your dog's well being or your relationship with your dog.
What You Should Do
  • Learn about canine body language.  I teach my clients to learn to read their dog's body language starting with the most relaxed and comfortable body language which is at home.  Once they can do this easily, they can learn stress signals which allows them to see the earliest shifts in comfort level.  This is critical because it allows you to monitor the dog and get him out of situations while he can still function, not after he has had a complete meltdown.
  • Use desensitization and counter conditioning to teach the dog to be comfortable with the triggers that frighten him.  More on that later.
  • Move slowly and allow the dog to set the pace.  This is the only way to get honest progress.
  • Have the goal of the dog loving the show ring, not just accepting it.  Tolerating something is different from loving or enjoying something.  We need show dogs to really like it if they are going to be successful.
  • Wait to show the dog until he is more than ready for it.
Desensitization and Counter Conditioning
Desensitization and counter conditioning is the best way to treat a dog that is shy, fearful or unsure.  Desensitization is the process of systematically exposing the dog to the "trigger", which is the thing that scares him at controlled levels so that he is aware of the trigger, but at a distance or level where he still feels comfortable.  This level of exposure is called "sub threshold".  

Again, "sub threshold" is the point where the dog is aware of the trigger, but is not worried or upset.  This is where understanding body language is important.  If your dog's behavior is changing once he becomes aware of the trigger, he may be starting to become anxious and that is when you need to start making decisions about what to do next.  This is certainly not a complete list, but here are some stress signals that would indicate that your dog is become anxious or that his arousal level is rising.  
  • Unable to eat
  • Unable to hear you
  • Unable to focus
  • Scanning the environment or hypervigilance
  • Taking food harder, harder mouth
  • Less blinking, hard eyes
  • Changes in breathing
  • Hard muscles in the face, ridges
  • Curved topline
  • Circling, spinning, trying to escape
  • Avoidance of any kind including avoiding eye contact
  • Sniffing the ground
  • Panting when it isn't warm out
  • Yawning
Most of the time when I start to go over this list with clients with fearful dogs, they start to notice that their dogs do a lot of these things.  The time to increase distance from the trigger, change the value of the food you are offering or make whatever decision is necessary is when you notice small changes in the behavior, not after the dog has come completely unglued.  Once the dog has had a full blown reaction, you are not likely to get him back.

Counter conditioning is the process of adding something that the animal likes with the presence of the trigger.  It's pretty simple, it looks like this:  >scary thing = choice for the animal + the animal's favorite thing< and >scary thing is gone = favorite thing is gone<

With show dogs we have to desensitize and counter condition to different things or multiple things depending on the dog.  I have worked with dogs that we had to desensitize and counter condition to:
  • Table
  • Judge's Exam
  • Other dogs
  • Testicle exam
  • Bite/mouth exam
  • Grooming
  • Indoor shows (buildings)
  • Grass
  • Vehicles
  • Crates
  • Men in suits
  • Hats
  • Eye contact
Here is an example of a good desensitization and counter conditioning program, however, keep in mind that each step is determined by the dog's response to the prior step.  You don't progress until the dog is ready.  

Let's say a dog is okay with the table, but doesn't like the judge's exam.  This is evidenced by moving back from judge, leaning away from judge, freezing when judge approaches, trying to jump off the table, turning to bite, etc.  For this example, let's say that the dog leans away or backs away from judge when the judge reaches to touch the dog.  Note that just strongarming and holding the dog in place forcibly is NOT okay, is extremely disrespectful and relationship damaging.  
  1. Owner puts dog on table, I approach to 1' from table, stop, owner feeds chicken, I turn and walk away.  I repeat this until the dog has zero concern with my approach.
  2. I approach table, pause, owner feeds chicken, I turn and walk away.  We do this until he is comfortable.  With each step, we repeat it until the dog shows no concern AT ALL or looks excited and anticipatory with my approach.  If at any time I approach and the dog is concerned, I back up to the last step or wherever he is comfortable and work from there.  You will be AMAZED at how quickly most dogs progress once they realize that they have some control over their safety and yes, it is safety to them.  Once they realize that you hear them and are listening, the confidence goes way up.
  3. Once he is comfortable with approach and pause, I approach, raise my hand about halfway up, pause, owner feeds, I walk away.  Note that every time I walk away is critical. It is a second reinforcer to the dog, a release of pressure.  It gives the dog a moment to process it, to think about it and it shapes his future responses and decisions.
  4. Next step would usually be raising arm higher, owner feeds, I walk away, owner stops feeding.
  5. Owner will always feed, and I will always walk away, but I am just going to type in my steps now to save space.
  6. Raise hand and reach out.
  7. Raise hand and reach out and pause.
  8. Raise hand, reach out, touch dog.
  9. Touch dog for longer duration.
  10. Pet dog down body.
  11. Then, I would progress through desensitizing and counter conditioning for the entire exam.
I have worked with dogs who in the past had been just forced to stay in position and be touched even though they were terrified and those dogs, understandably, can take longer to regain the trust.  They have lost such faith in their owners that they need time and we have to give it to them. 

Again, the key is always that you must stop or move back in the program if the dog gets worried.  If you have to go back several steps, it is usually MUCH faster to get there the next time.  

Other Things To Understand
  • Dogs do not "act" afraid if they aren't afraid.  Don't buy into thinking that the dog is just doing it.  Fearful responses are not something the dog is doing, it is something that is happening to the dog.
  • Being "in dogs" does not make someone an expert in canine behavior, behavior modification or animal learning theory.  I hear some of the most dangerous, inaccurate and inhumane advice given by people who think that they know everything about dogs because they have been showing or breeding for a long time.  Again, dealing with fearful dogs is not "dog training".
  • A dog who has a fearful episode can remain "heightened" for quite a while.  Dogs that are constantly exposed to things that cause anxiety can literally take days (or longer) to decompress from that level of anxiety.  
  • Fear is very real to the individual experiencing it, even if it may seem unreasonable to you.  For instance, I am very anxious of dental visits and plane rides.  I have never had a bad experience in a plane and have not had a bad experience at the dentist in a very long time, still, my panic attacks are uncontrollable.  Because I can choose to go to the dentist or not, to cancel an appointment, to see a dentist that allows me to stop him if I need to, I have somewhat been able to desensitize myself to it so that my fear of the dentist is much better.  However, I cannot ease myself into plane rides as easily, so that panic (of taking off) remains pretty bad.
  • No matter how well trained an animal is, if they become fearful (or otherwise emotional in some way), the reliability of the training will not be as strong.  In other words, emotional state trumps training.  I have trained dogs to lift their tail on cue, however, if they become fearful and part of their physiological response when fearful is to lower their tail, that will happen and they cannot control it as they can when they are emotionally "even".
  • Our relationship with the dog and the dogs well being comes first, always.
Relationship and Trust
It is critical to me that the dog and owner's relationship remain strong and intact and that we work to build a lot of trust.  Trust that remains, not just until the owner really wants to win, or really wants the dog in the ring, or is really feeling pressure to show the dog.  The trust comes first, always.  Our job is to protect our dogs and to advocate for them.  If the dog doesn't have an owner he can trust, he has nothing.  

Trust in you and the relationship can be damaged easier than you think.  Handing your dog off to someone he doesn't know, especially if that person uses force or physical corrections, forcing your dog to be touched when he is afraid, disappearing at a dog show when he isn't used to that are all ways to breach the trust.  

One of my biggest pet peeves is handlers or breeders saying that an owner "coddles" or "spoils" their dog and has no respect for the owner, blah, blah, blah.  What they are really saying is that they are going to do what they want to do with your dog, your dog is going to cope with it, they know your dog better than you and what the dog deems important isn't.  It is extremely rude and disrespectful to the owner of the dog and the dog himself.

I hope that this post can help people to understand the process of helping fearful show dogs.  






Friday, March 6, 2015

Being the Person I Hate

I have to write this blog post now while it is fresh in my mind, not after my relaxing two week vacation where the feeling I have now will have settled down.  This is a hard blog post to write, but I am going to do it anyway because it's important to talk about.  I try hard to train without an ego, to always put my animals first.  I encourage people to listen to their dogs and consider their well being and to not push dogs into stressful situations before they are ready.  Today, I feel like I violated my own rule and I am hating myself for it.

My Chinese Crested Zen Django is a great dog.  He came to me very fearful and extremely noise phobic.  He has come so far.  So far that he is my canine freestyle partner.  He loves freestyle whether it is in our group class or just moving around our house to music.  He is good at it and enjoys it and we are a good team, at least we are when I am holding up my end of the deal.  I didn't do that today and I let him down and let myself down.

We have been working on a freestyle routine for a while now.  Last year we submitted an "audition" which means that we aren't ready to go for a score and title, just ready to get some feedback.  He has come very far though and shines in class so I decided it was time to submit an actual performance to the challenge.  We met my friend Christine at her training facility, which is where he takes classes, to record his routine.  I thought to myself, he is ready, he can do this, he knows the routine, loves the music, knows the facility, we are good.  Well, it didn't go quite that way.

He did great a lot of the time and was his usual happy self, but not completely.  There were several things that "weirded" him out like just us being there, my friend recording, doing the routine in another part of the room, some noises outside, etc, etc.  We would get part of the way through and then he would start to slow down, disengage or just look like he wasn't having fun.  We did it over and over, sometimes using treats and randomly stopping to play, etc.  It just wasn't happening and I did what I hate other people for doing, I did what I hate witnessing and what I pride myself in being good at not doing generally...I got frustrated.  I didn't yell at my dog or correct him or "do" anything to him, still, I let him down.  He is a very sensitive dog and for a dog like Django a simple eye roll, sigh or any sign of frustration from me is devastating for him.  I did all those things.  You might be thinking, for God's sake, get over it, you didn't do anything to him, but I did, I put MY needing to get this routine taped, MY need to enter the challenge, MY need to stroke my own ego ahead of my relationship with him and that is heartbreaking to me.  I love him so much and I got irritated with him for not being perfect, for needing more time, for needing me to understand.  Now, I sit here teary eyed when I think about it and the fact that I was not able to get myself and my emotions in check and that, for a moment, I behaved as if I care more about this stupid recording than I do him.  In short, I was an asshole to my dog.  To my sweet, perfect, loving little guy who would do anything in his power he could for me.  That's just it, being perfect today was beyond his power and ability.  His emotions took over him just as mine took over me.

Worst case scenario in something like this is that we behave so horribly that we poison the activity with the dog because he learns that this thing we do together sometimes makes you mean to me.  Best case scenario is that he simply forgives me and moves on continuing to give me his best and accept my shortcomings.  I feel confident that we will be okay, but I will continue to feel bad about this for a while and I should.  I deserve it.  I wasn't awful, but I was selfish and selfishness is not something that belongs in a team activity.  My goal moving forward is to continue to keep my focus on being a great partner to my dog, to accept our setbacks, to look at "issues" as a team issue and to remember that while our best isn't always perfect, it is our best and that is more than good enough for me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Qualities of a REALLY good breeder of a show dog

When I got my first show Dachshund in the early 90's I went to some dog shows, met some dogs and breeders and found someone that I thought would be a good fit for me.  I got on the list for a male smooth standard.  Truth be told, I really wanted a longhair, but I couldn't afford one at the time.  I was young, single and self employed and I just didn't have the money for one.  At the time the internet was young, I sure didn't have a computer and so there was no long distance communicating and searching as easily as there is today.  I got my smooth and he was a fantastic dog.  I finished him easily and he was with me for nearly 14 years.  Still though, I wanted a male longhair.

Long story short, over the years I have had a few longhair girls.  I bred one litter of longhairs andgot three females and still have Ribbon, one of the puppies from that litter who is now almost 10 years old.  Still, I have always still wanted a male longhair.

In 2010, I started checking out the Aviance Dachshunds website.  I still wanted a male longhair, but the time wasn't right.  John Contoupe of Aviance Dachshunds told me at that time that when I was ready, he would send me a good puppy.  I was drawn to him because not only are his dogs beautiful, but I could see that he was extremely committed to their well being.  He views them and treats them as family members and his puppies are well socialized and exposed to a lot of different situations, environments and things before they leave his home.

I attended the 2014 Dachshund National and after yet another year of drooling over the gorgeous male longhairs, I decided it was time for me to think about a male longhair.  I wasn't really ready at that moment, but was ready to think about it.  At the time, John had a litter of four that were just about 3 1/2 months old.  He offered me one of those puppies, IF there was a nice show male available.  In short time I accepted the offer and began the torturous wait.  John let me know that it would be a while before he would know if there was an acceptable puppy for me and which one.  My mind said that time would be 4 months old.

A good breeder wants good homes for their puppies, not just good show homes.  My breeder knew that I didn't just want a show dog, but that I wanted a companion, training partner, a buddy.  

As the puppies grew older, John continued to watch them and I continued to squirm, desperate to bring my puppy home still within the critical socialization period.  But, that didn't happen because still John didn't know which puppies he would keep, who would be show quality and who would go where.  When the puppies were about 5 months old, I contacted John, frustrated and whining that I didn't want my puppy to be 6 months old when he came here.  John laid it on the line and let me know that he didn't feel it was right to place a puppy as a show prospect without really knowing what we had here.  This breeding was an outcross and he wanted to make sure.  He asked me, "You want a nice show dog right?  You really want to show this dog and you want something good, right?"  He was right, I did and he was going to make sure I got that before sending me a puppy.

A good breeder is honest about being able to determine the quality of a puppy and when.  Not only that, but they don't want inferior dogs to be exhibited in the ring, so they allow puppies that are not show quality to go into homes where they will not have to be shown, but where they will be companions and family members. Many breeders will sell inferior puppies as show puppies just to sell a puppy.  

So, I waited.  When the puppies were about 5 1/2 months old, John contacted me and told me that I would be getting Opie.  The male puppies were very similar, but Opie was the one I always wanted and so I was thrilled.  Unlike many other breeders I have worked with, John required that I sign a puppy contract.  Everything was very clear and spelled out to make sure we were in agreement.

A good breeder has a contract and all agreements spelled out in writing so that there is no question later on down the road.  Part of the contract is that if anything ever happened where I couldn't keep Opie, he is to be returned to John.  It is assumed that a good breeder will take their dogs back, but I was impressed that it was in writing.

Opie has been here a few months now and I am thrilled with him.  He has been two three shows and went reserve once and has a four point major out of the 6-9 puppy class.  I have been taking my time training and preparing Opie for the ring.  While John's two puppies each have three majors, there is no pressure on me to rush Opie.  He is happy that we are enjoying the process and taking our time.

This is, to me, one of the greatest signs of a great breeder, that he is most concerned with Opie's well being and comfort level, not obsessed with me rushing him to the ring.  He supports me taking my time with Opie, enjoying the process and journey with this dog and building a strong working relationship with him.  Because I work with so many show dog clients, I run into issues a lot where a dog is not ready and the owner sees this, but the breeder insists that the dog needs to get into the ring right away.  I have even seen owners pushed by other breeders and owners to get their unready dogs into the ring, just to build points for other people.  

Recently, while out on a neighborhood walk, Opie was attacked by a large dog, he escaped his harness and ran home in a panic.  While I am not seeing anything to indicate that Opie will have long term affects from the attack, I know that it is very possible that this may happen and that he may now have anxiety or issues around dogs, leash walks, our neighborhood, etc.  John not only supported, but actually suggested taking my time with Opie, not pressuring him and allowing him to feel comfortable.  As a behavior consultant who deals with dogs who have had single events impact their lives, I can say that this is great advice.  Many breeders would have said, "he will be fine, just get him out there", but John was concerned with Opie's well being and cares more about him feeling safe and comfortable than being pushed in any way.

I have a lot of clients who obtained their dogs from really great breeders or who are reputable and responsible breeders themselves and for those breeders, I am so grateful.  However, so many of my clients have breeders who are not supportive of their decisions and are more concerned with the dog getting into the ring than they are with the puppy being prepared and ready for the ring.  I have clients who have been blamed for their dog's temperament not turning out when in fact, the dog is just not sound.  I have had clients whose breeders insisted that the dog be shown far before the dogs are ready.  I have had clients whose breeders think that they know far more about behavior than they do and sometimes recommend outdated, inaccurate and sometimes downright dangerous behavior modification methods.

If you are looking to get a puppy, please make sure that you do your homework and find a breeder whose views are in alignment with yours.  If this dog is going to be your companion and family member first, you need to make sure that you are aware of everything that you are agreeing to and that you are comfortable with that.  If that isn't the case, keep looking.  I work with so many clients that have fantastic relationships with wonderful breeders who support the fact that the dog is a beloved pet as much as a show dog and that truly want what is best for the dog.  This is the type of breeder that I hope everyone is looking for and hoping to connect with.






Thursday, July 24, 2014

Change Directions Dogs

Today is my dog Bill's 10th birthday.  Billy the Kid is an Australian Cattle Dog that I got as a tiny, not even 6 week old puppy.  I got him from a ranch type breeder and not a good ranch breeder, I'm afraid.  When I got Bill 10 years ago, I still believed that if I had the dog from a young enough age and if I did everything right, I could mold him into just the dog I wanted him to be.


Billy's mother wasn't outgoing and his father was in a separate pen and super high energy and active over the top.  Still, I felt that if I did it all right, I could make him into my dream obedience, rally, agility dog and use him to work with reactive dog clients.  

As a puppy Bill was super focused and a blast to train.  By just a few months old he had a slew of learned behaviors under his belt.  He loved to train and work with me.  He was social and outgoing and friendly with people and seemed to love everyone.  He came to my puppy classes, was well socialized and traveled out of state with us as a young puppy.  He started in foundation agility class very early and loved it.  I was also training him for obedience and rally.  He began off leash hiking with me early on and loved that too.  He was an impressive and reliable demo dog in my classes.  He was everything I wanted him to be and we were headed in the right direction.



At about 10 months old, I began to notice changes.  My once happy-go-lucky puppy was walking around to avoid people on the trails.  This was only the beginning.  He became less comfortable with other dogs, reactive on leash with people and dogs, reactive with new things, environmental changes, novel anything.  My heart was broken, but I persisted in working with him.  Nothing scary or bad ever happened to Bill.  He wasn't abused, but is afraid of people.  He was never "hit by a man", but is fearful of new men.  This wasn't "caused", this comes from his genetics, it is just a part of who he is.

I dabbled in herding, but my focus with Bill was obedience, rally and agility.  He did great at these things, but not in a competitive environment, like a trial.  Still, I continued to work with him and entered him in fun matches, agility trials and rally trials.  One day we were at an agility trial and Billy had completed a couple of runs, but still had two or three to do.  I remember having him put away and me sitting there watching the other dogs go and feeling sick and anxious wondering if the judge's tie dyed hat would bother him and feeling panicked about whether the Boxer I saw would be in the ring just before or after him, and how he would be able to cope with being measured.  In that moment, at that trial with multiple runs to go, I calmly packed up my stuff, took my dog and went home.  I cried all the way home realizing that I would not be continuing to pursue these dreams with Bill.  It wasn't fair.  It wasn't fun for either of us.  This wasn't what I had in mind.  I told him I would never ask him to compete again and I haven't.  It is one the best and kindest decisions I have ever made in my life.  It was the right thing to do for this dog.

If you look closely you can see stress in his eyes.


Over the years I have continued to work on Billy's reactivity.  After deciding to discontinue showing him, I made the decision to discontinue neighborhood walks with him as well.  We landscaped our backyard to have a huge, ball area for Bill where my husband continues to play ball with him nightly.  We take him to parks or Point Isabel, the huge off leash dog park near our area.  He has a good, happy and fulfilled life, at least it seems that way to us.



Almost immediately after I stopped pushing so hard and pressuring so much, Bill did begin to get better.  He accepts any and all dogs that we bring here from Dachshund puppies to senior foster dogs.  He is easy peasy to live with and is the most "well behaved" dog we live with.  He has learned to make friends that come into our home easily if they are women, not as easy with men, but he accepts them and can cope.  

We work hard to listen to Bill, to continue to give him opportunities to do and learn new things and we always give him the choice to not engage or interact if that is what he requests and let me tell you that has gone a LONG way.  Instead of being my obedience, rally, agility dog he became the best teacher I could have hoped for, teaching me about fearful and reactive dogs, learning about how to help them feel better and about how important choice and listening to the dog is.  I encourage everyone to listen to your dogs.  If you really want to show or do rally or do agility, but your dog is telling you that they don't like it, or don't want to, or CAN'T do it, listen to them. It will do wonders for your relationship and your dog's well being. Today we celebrate 10 years with this magnificent beast.  Happy birthday Billy the Kid!

Billy the Kid, 10 years old.





Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Rules, Ethics and Honesty in the Dog Show World

Social media is an amazing thing.  Sites like Facebook allow us to keep in touch with friends and family, to reconnect with old friends and to share what is going on in our own lives.  This should be a positive thing, but there is also a dark side.  Facebook, forums and other social media allows people vent publicly about things that bother them or that they are upset about and the dog show world is no exception.  The comments made publicly were bad enough with the dog forums, but Facebook is a whole new territory with our Facebook pages making our feelings and opinions an open book for our friends, family, dog show competition and anyone we are "friends" with to see.  Many times people are Facebook "friends" with people that they are venting about, so it's sometimes more about saying what you want to say to someone without actually having to say it.

I am sometimes humored, sometimes astounded and sometimes horrified at the different things that I read. Most of the negative posts I see are in some way complaining about either the rules, someones personal ethics and honesty or lack thereof.  

RULES
This one is easy.  Rules are rules and you are either following them or breaking them.  If you break the rules, you risk getting caught and facing consequences for it.  The great part about the rules for dog shows is that they are written and they are specific.  If you break them and it can be proven, you may be punished for it. My personal opinion is that when it comes to dog shows it is best to follow the rules, not only because you can get yourself into trouble for not following them but also because it is just the right thing to do.  For me personally, I know the rules and I follow the rules, plain and simple.  It makes it really easy for me if someone suggests I broke a rule.  I wouldn't do it on purpose and if I did it inadvertently I would do whatever I had to in order to rectify it.

ETHICS
This one is a bit more sticky because ethics are a personal thing.  Something that one person feels is unethical may be perfectly acceptable to someone else.  I see people doing a lot of complaining about someone else being "unethical" but again, this is their personal opinion.  I have observed people complaining publicly about all of the following, just to name a few:
  • Moving a finished dog up
  • Not moving a finished dog up
  • Showing after a dog may be finished
  • Not showing after a dog may be finished
  • Committee chairs having someone show their dogs at a show where they are chairing
  • Committee chairs changing ownership of dogs so that they can be shown
  • Making negative to others about dogs at ringside
  • Commenting about others publicly on social media 
  • Breaking a major (even if for a very genuine reason)
  • Showing under a judge that you know, or that owned a dog you bred to, or that you had put you up before, or that you had lunch with two years ago, etc, etc, etc.
  • "Liking" pictures of dogs someone views as not a good dog
  • The judging, basically, disagreeing with the judging sometimes to the point of publicly insulting a judge because their dog wasn't put up
This is by no means a complete list, just some things that I have seen people complain about, usually on Facebook and rarely in person.  The thing is, these are situations in which each individual has a choice and a right to choose.  Of course most of us would probably say that it isn't nice to speak negatively about someone else's dog at ringside and that it isn't the right thing to do.  But, many of the other things are very individual and subjective.  I feel strongly that it is my right to move my finished dog up as a special if I choose to or to leave him in the classes, if I choose to.  However, I have seen people get pummeled for both of those options.  People can make a choice that they genuinely feel is the right, ethical and correct choice but it will still make some people mad.  You know that saying that "You can't please all the people all the time?" Well, that is the understatement of the century in the dog show world.  Not only can you not please everyone all the time, but some of those that are not pleased by your decisions will see your choice as a personal attack on them.  The bottom line is that you are not going to make everyone happy, so your best option is to follow your own gut and your own conscience and do what you want and what you feel is right for you and your dog.

What I find particularly frustrating is that some people will go on a social media rampage about this person or that person doing this thing or that when they do similar things themselves.  Of course, they are able to rationalize their choices and behavior, which is fine as long as they are willing to offer that same courtesy to others, unfortunately not everyone does.  They go on and on about other people and all their crimes and shortcomings and see themselves as completely justified in all their choices.  This is not a good look and not something I recommend.  Double standards are never a good thing.

HONESTY
I couldn't decide whether to talk about integrity or honesty here.  Integrity is really about being ethical which could include honesty, but honesty is really about truth.  Like rules, the truth is what it is, either it is true or not.  In the dog show world people can be so unbelievably untruthful that it is mind boggling.  To me dishonesty is a serious character flaw.  It isn't something I can accept or cope with in a friend and for the most part, I would choose not to be closely affiliated with people that I don't feel are honest.  And so, I don't.  I think it goes without saying that being honest is part of being ethical.  Does that mean that I have to sit at ringside and rip some dog to shreds because I'm "just being honest"?  No, it doesn't.  I think that a good option for ringside judging is that if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all until you get someplace private with someone you trust where it is appropriate and safe to vent .  In the case of saying it to the owner, if you aren't asked, don't tell.  On the flip side, if you DO ask, make sure that you are prepared to hear the answer.  Asking someone what they think and then being upset with their opinion isn't fair either.  

JUST PLAIN STUPID
Several years ago I showed a friend's dog to a big win.  The dog was nice, the judge was good and the win was honest.  Later that day, my friend was walking past a group of people who said, "Congratulations.  Isn't (insert the judge's name) getting a puppy from you?"  Uh, no, the judge didn't even have the same kind of dog and there was never any discussion of a puppy or of the judge and the dog's owner being in business together.  It was so ridiculous that it was laughable and that's how we handled it, we laughed.  What else can you do?  It was just another case of people making up their own stories and fabrications to create suspicion about the win.  No truth to it at all.  Saying "Congratulations" just before saying something snarky doesn't make the comment sting less.  My skin has gotten thicker and I try not let this stuff get to me, but I do find it sad and disheartening when I see lies, sometimes quite vicious ones spread about dogs and owners who never did anything to deserve it.  Sometimes success can make you a target and there is just no way around it.

Sadly, this behavior is not uncommon.  There are just people out there who say things that aren't true. In the case above and the times that I have been subjected to this type of behavior, I simply try to ignore.  There is no law against being dishonest, lying about people or spreading rumors.  So the best I can do is to not give it much thought, laugh it off and walk away.  Oh, and file that experience into my memory and my mind so that I can be thoughtful and careful about the people that I choose to trust, interact with and invest in.   

The just plain stupid category is one you have to just walk away from.  Of course, not everyone can do that. We are human and sometimes people need to defend themselves, fire back or say something and sometimes, it's reasonable and warranted, but, I propose that a lot of the time t's not worth it.  Sometimes it's better (and healthier) to walk away and be the better person and not feed the negativity.

In the end, we each need to decide for ourselves where we stand and who we are in terms of our ethics and honesty in the show ring and out.




Saturday, May 31, 2014

I'm entered...just kidding!

Tomorrow, my 1 year old standard wirehair Dachshund, Betty Spaghetti, is entered in her first rally trial. Guess what?  We're not going!  Yup, $33 down the drain and I feel great about it!  Honestly, I'm good.

The thing is, I haven't been working Betty that long in rally.  We started about a month and a half ago and while I am thrilled with where she is in terms of reliability and understanding, I realized that she is not quite ready to be expected to perform in an actual trial.  I took her to a park to practice the other day and she did her best, but the young fledgling birds learning to fly and freshly mowed grass were really difficult for her to work around.  When I took her to the pet store to get some stuff, she did really well, but was a little barky at a few dogs who barked at her.  She really is doing well, but I know that asking her to perform in a trial, on grass, with other dogs and people around is probably a bit much for her now, so I have decided not to go.  I think that this is the absolute right choice for my dog and I.

I talk to a lot of people who are so anxious to get their dogs into the ring, either for conformation or another dog sport and I think that is fine as long as our dogs are adequately and properly prepared.  Betty is only a year old and has only been working on rally for a month and a half, but frankly even if she was 6 years old and had been practicing rally for 5 years, if I don't think she is ready I won't put her in the ring.  I get calls all the time from people who want to start training their dogs but have already entered them in a dog show not realizing that it will take a little more time to properly prepare the dog!  A lot of people feel that minimal training is necessary for the conformation ring and then get frustrated when their dogs don't perform well. The truth is that much of the time the dog has just not been trained reliably if at all.  Two weeks before an event you entered is not when you should start training and preparing your dog for the ring.

I know that some people get agitated about pulling a dog from the conformation ring after you have entered due to a possible drop in points, but the truth is that we are our dog's advocates and we should be most concerned with our dog's well being and preparedness.

So, back to Betty!  When I started working rally with her, I had set June 1 and this trial specifically, as my goal.  We are very close, but I think we need a little more work and I am very good with that.  I will not be taking her to the rally trial tomorrow.  Instead, I will continue to practice with her.  I will attend a rally trial/dog show with her next weekend just to watch and support Roy, a bearded collie who is her training partner and just see how she does around all the dogs there.  We will continue to do our weekly rally practices adding in more locations and distractions as her skill level goes up.

If I chose to, I could show Betty tomorrow anyway, knowing that she may not be ready.  I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing as long as I am prepared to 1) not qualify, 2) not get upset about it and 3) not be upset, disappointed or frustrated with Betty.  That said, I would prefer to go in this as a team that feels as ready, prepared and fully connected as possible.

It is great to set goals and it is okay to change your mind and decide that the two weeks between close of entries and the actual event wasn't quite enough to be where you want to be.

Photo by Dianne Morey

Monday, April 14, 2014

Fearful Dogs and Trigger Stacking

Zen Django is my 3 year old Chinese Crested.  I adopted him when he was just under two years old, knowing that he was fearful and shy.  He has come a long way and is my canine freestyle partner.  He is great with other dogs and people and despite his debilitating sound sensitivity has learned to cope very well in the world around him.  He used to dart around and panic on walks, but can now walk happily and confidently.  Our walks have gotten much better and just last week I noticed that he ignored both a guy using a loud saw and a lawnmower running.  Those are both huge improvements for him because in the past, both would have sent him reeling.

I just got back from a neighborhood walk with Django.  The first half of the walk was awesome and I was thinking to myself how great he is doing and how amazing it is to see him to relaxed and comfortable.  Just over 1/2 way through our walk, Django's worst nightmare appeared...a Fed Ex truck.  The noise of large trucks with their hydraulic screeches and random booms, as well as construction equipment are extremely scary for him.  I noticed it before he did and so I stopped heading in that direction and knelt down next to him.  I held the leash so that he was close to me and didn't have room to dart around just petted him and told him he would be okay.  After the truck was gone we continued with our walk.  After the truck passed he was no longer panicked, but was no longer relaxed and comfortable.  From the time we saw the truck, he became more reactive to cars which hadn't been bothering him before, as well as other sounds, even the sound of the leash attachment clinking with his harness.  He was still able to eat food, respond to me and walk, but he was walking faster and his movement was more jerky.  He was just clearly now "on edge". Unfortunately, we saw another large loud truck and again I had to comfort him until it passed.

There are two things about this that I wanted to discuss.  The first thing is "trigger stacking".  Trigger stacking is when there are more than one trigger in the environment and each one creates a layer of anxiety that lowers the dogs threshold for coping.  For Django, while he is much more comfortable going out of the house, there is a still a level of elevation in his normal emotional state when we go out.  Not enough for him to be bothered by vehicles or saws, but if he is exposed to something scary, like a Fed Ex truck, things he normally could cope with become more challenging and scary.  I realize that every time I take him out there is a possibility of us seeing a truck, however, I feel that because we usually don't see one, it is worth it for him to continue to be out in the world going on leash walks which he really enjoys.

Trigger stacking is something I see often in show dogs that are fearful or reactive.  They may be worried about one piece of the dog show experience, such as the judge or other dogs or the table, or they may be worried about many of those things.  If they are worried about several of these things, there is definitely trigger stacking happening because each trigger is breaking down the dog's ability to cope.  This is why it is so important why we deal with EVERY issue that a dog has with being shown before throwing him into a situation where he will be forced to deal with things that scare him.

Dogs, just like all other animals, including humans cannot help it when they are afraid of something. I have a fear of flying.  I have never been hurt in a plane and I can reason with myself that I will be okay, still, I have a panic attack every time I fly.  It isn't fun.  I would stop feeling that way if I could, but I can't.  It is the same for dogs.  There is no animal that will act fearful if they can help it.  If a dog is acting afraid, it is because he is afraid.  Dogs are incredibly honest that way.  I have actually had breeders tell me that "in their breed" dogs will "act afraid" so that they won't have to do things or to manipulate us, which of course is ridiculous and not at all true.  It is truly scary that people who have such a distorted view of how dog's behave have such a strong influence not only on a breed in general but also in people who buy their puppies who will listen to that and actually believe it.  But, I digress...

The other point I wanted to make of this story is that you may have noticed that I comforted Django when he was afraid.  There are still people who mistakenly believe that if you comfort a fearful dog you will "reinforce their fear".  Fear is an emotion, not a behavior, so it doesn't work that way.  If I was getting robbed at gunpoint and someone came up and started handing my $100 bills, do you think I would be more afraid the next time because I was reinforced for being afraid?  No, because at the time, I was not "learning" in that way, I was just trying to stay alive.  Any learning I would be doing would likely be "classically conditioned", meaning that it was learned from associations, not consequences, like reinforcement.  So, I could learn to be afraid of going to that same location because I had been robbed there, or I could even develop a negative association to a type of car that happened to be sitting nearby or to the shoes I was wearing that day because my brain happened to have made an association between those two things - that scary event and my shoes that I had on that day.  But, I wouldn't be more afraid because I was reinforced during the robbery.

This is all important to think about when dealing with a fearful or reactive dog.  I want Django to be comfortable with walks and I hope that one day I can get him to be okay with loud trucks, although I am not sure he ever will.  What I see now is that he is "better" than he was.  He still becomes very obviously afraid, but he doesn't completely panic to the point of trying to escape me like he used to.  Protecting him and comforting him has helped.  What would never, ever help him is what I see many people do when their dog is having an anxiety attack which is physically correct them.  Many owners view this as an intentional behavior of the dog acting up, but these fearful responses are not something the dog is doing as much as they are something scary that is happening to the dog.  Another important thing to think about because correcting a dog for being afraid is extremely relationship damaging.  It breaches the trust between the dog and owner which is never a good thing.