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.  

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.

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.

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.  

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.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Training Advice

Today a dog will lose his home and very likely, his life. He was adopted from a rescue organization by a well meaning family. When he began growling and exhibiting defensive body language the rescue group that placed him advised the new owners to "pin him down" and punish him. Not knowing any better the well meaning owners did so and were bitten badly in the face. The injury was significant enough for the owner to require medical attention including sutures. The dog will be returned to the rescue group who gave this dangerous, inappropriate and stupid advice and will likely either be euthanized or subjected to more inappropriate handling.

If this family had been put into the hands of a qualified trainer, they could have began a training program where instead of being punished for feeling uncomfortable, the dog was systematically desensitized and counter conditioned and actually taught to feel comfortable, relaxed and safe. Instead, his new family, people who he barely knew him proved themselves to be unsafe, untrustworthy and dangerous.  And now, everyone loses.

It would be wildly inappropriate for me to give medical or legal advice because I am not trained or credentialed to give such advice. This is no different than non-behavior experts giving out advice. Advice that can do no harm is one thing, but advice that pushes a dog to feel the need to bite and puts people at risk is not only unethical it is just plain wrong.

When my beloved Pekingese Fooey came to live with me, fresh out of the shelter, we had an "incident" in which I was playing with a ball with him.  When I went to take the ball from near him to toss it, he launched across the dog bed snarling at me guarding the toy. I got up and went and got my clicker and some treats. I started to desensitize him by shaping my taking the ball. At first I just lifted my hand and would click and treat him for no reaction. I built it up to extending my hand, then reaching it out, then touching the ball, then taking the ball and so on. Fooey never guarded anything from me every again. I am not saying it always that easy to work with a resource guarding dog, and Fooey's defensiveness could have been partly that he was not well, newly out of the shelter, didn't know me that well, etc. The point is that had I chosen to grab him, shake him and take the ball from him, what would that have taught him? Probably that I am dangerous, untrustworthy and unsafe, oh, and it would have validated his need to feel defensive.

If you have a dog that is exhibiting aggressive behavior, please do not attempt to modify this behavior on your own. Do not use methods that are confrontational, harsh or forceful, even if you have seen them done on T.V. or if your mother's neighbor's son who used to have dog one time told you to. People who are not professional, qualified, skilled or credentialed should not be recommending training techniques that put animals and people at risk. Just loving dogs, working with dogs or having lived with dogs or bred dogs does NOT make someone an expert, anymore than my having been sick makes me qualified to give medical advice.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

How To Walk Your Dog

This isn't an article about how to teach your dog to walk on a leash, but rather how to decide the best of type of walk for your particular dog. I work with clients whose dogs have all sorts of behavior problems. How and where they walk their dogs can greatly impact the dog's behavior. I have realized that most dog owners don't realize that all dog walks are not created equal. It is important to offer your dog the best type of walk for his or her personality and temperament. There are several factors that go into whether or not a particular walk is good for your dog including the amount of noise, vehicle traffic, big trucks, people, other dogs and maybe even more depending on the individual dog. A walk that constantly has your dog anxious, stressed out, over stimulated, frustrated or upset is not the best walking scenario for your dog. You can be creative in finding the best walking situation for you and your dog. Here are a few ideas to help you out...

Neighborhood walks
Basically, a neighborhood walk consists of walking your dog through a neighborhood. Most people walk in their own neighborhood while others may go to other neighborhoods that are safer, more dog friendly or for whatever reason, a better option for them. Neighborhood walks are usually a good option for dogs that need to be kept on leash and are comfortable with passing vehicles, trucks and seeing other people and dogs. For some dogs, busy neighborhoods are too much for them. If you have a dog that is sound sensitive or dog or people reactive or fearful or worried, a walk in a busy neighborhood may be too much. This is when going to another neighborhood, or perhaps considering trail walks may be a good option. In my opinion, all neighborhood walks should be done ON leash. Most neighborhoods do not allow dogs to run freely and rightfully so as it can be very scary for dogs that are on leash to be accosted by off leash dogs, even if their owners declare that they are "friendly". I do not walk my dogs in areas where we are likely to run into off leash dogs when they are kept on leash.

Depending upon where you live, good walking trails may or may not be readily available. Living in Northern California we are lucky to have many wonderful walking trails available, both on leash and off leash ones. If you have a dog that is okay with other dogs and people and has a good recall, you may like off leash trails. If your dog is not reliable at coming when called or is not good with other dogs or people, an on leash trail is probably a better choice for you. The great thing about trails is that they are generally pretty quiet in terms of traffic which can be great for sound sensitive dogs. Also, may trails have an off leash option which may be fun for your dog. Trails have lots of great sniffing and exploration opportunities for dogs as well.  However, trails can mean ticks, so do watch for that. If you want in an area where there is a high risk for rattlesnakes I recommend you keep your dog on leash.

Hiking is similar to trail walking except that you may choose to go further off the trail on a hike. Off leash hiking is great for dogs that are athletic, have lots of energy to burn and come when called. Depending on where you hike, you may find areas that have a lot less dogs and people which can be a good option for dogs that are not as comfortable with other dogs. And again, like trails, there is less traffic noise and things that can spook dogs that are sensitive to that type of thing.  Again, watch out for ticks!

Parks are sometimes overlooked as a great way to exercise dogs. Many parks have nice walking trails, grassy areas and paths to walk along. Most of the time parks do not have as many hills as trails making them a great choice for senior dogs or dogs that can handle a lot of hills or rougher terrain. They are also generally paved, so if you have a dog that you don't want to get dirty or pick up stickers they can be a great option. Walking my dogs at local parks in my neighborhood is one of my favorite ways to exercise them.

If you are lucky enough to have a dog that is a candidate for going to the beach AND an off leash, dog friendly beach in your area than go for it! It is a fantastic way to interact with and exercise your dog.

If you have a dog that is comfortable with cars, noises, people and other dogs walks in your downtown area can be a good option. Some dog friendly towns will allow dogs to come into stores with you, at coffee shops and outdoor seating restaurants so you can walk and then hang out. Downtown walks are generally not a great choice for dogs that are sound sensitive or uncomfortable with people as they are likely to run into a lot of that.

Sniffing Walks
Living with and working with a lot of scent hounds, I have found sniffing walks to be one of the best ways to exercise and burn energy on my dogs. A sniffing walk consists of taking a dog to an open area, such as a school field or a park, putting them on a long tracking line (not a retractable leash, an actual long line) and allowing the dog to simply sniff the area. The owner follows behind the dog, allowing him to go and sniff where he wants. I feel it is important during sniffing walks to allow the dog to really use his nose as he chooses. It is fine to stop and doing a little training here and there, but really use this opportunity to provide enrichment and mental stimulation to your dog and allow him to work his nose well.

Alternate Options
I frequently meet people that want to take their dogs on walks, but have dogs that are so stressed by neighborhood walks or downtown walks, that they are really not a good option for their dog. If some straightforward behavior modification does not help the dog to feel comfortable, perhaps walks are not the best way to exercise a dog.

My cattle dog Bill is reactive to sudden changes in the environment, including but not limited to people, dogs, other animals, etc. I did sufficient desensitization that he was able to go on walks, but I still felt like he was hyper vigilant and not really having a good time so we made a large ball play area in our backyard for Bill and we play ball with him every day. Playing ball in the yard, going to the park to play ball, going for car rides or visits to other places, training classes have all been excellent ways to get Bill out without putting him through the stress of walking around in our neighborhood.

My good friend has a busy Pointer that is dog and people friendly. She is a wonderful dog that has energy to spare. Taking her for leash walks is not fun for anyone as she wants and needs to run! So, she goes to local off leash areas where she can really run.

The main thing is that you find a way to walk your dog that not only offers him the exercise and enrichment that you are looking for but also is enjoyable to both of you. Of course, obey all leash laws and be respectful of people and other dogs.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

If he doesn't like it, stop doing it!

Here is an all too familiar scene:

A puppy or young dog is being trained for the show ring and decides that he is not comfortable with a part of the exam. He goes to a handling class and resists having his bite examined. The well meaning, but not trained in behavior instructor advises that the dog must get over this and attempts to check the bite again. This time the dog, having already communicated his discomfort the first time, resists further and growls this time. The instructor insists that they must do this and get through it and that he shouldn't "get away" with that. They attempt again and the dog snaps. Insisting that they must "end on a good note", they push further. At this point, sometimes the dog gives up, giving them the false impression that he is now fine with it. Other times the anxiety increases until it is made clear that the dog needs a break and someone has enough sense to back off and approach things differently. And, sometimes, no one listens or advocates for the dog and the dogs escalates his defense to a bite. He is then labeled all sorts of things from unsound to aggressive to spoiled to manipulative. Who did this end it on a good note for? Do we really believe that forcing, pressuring and intimidating a dog to cope with something he is uncomfortable with makes him truly okay with what was being done? Do you think that this dog will be better the next time someone checks his bite?  No, usually not, in fact frequently, his anxiety about it starts earlier the next time around.

I have worked with dogs that were pushed in this way for the entire exam, for the bite exam, testicle exam and even for just being touched. Force never makes someone comfortable and relaxed about something. I have seen dogs at shows clearly communicating discomfort with something only to then have people do that very thing over and over and over to make him "get over it". This does not help the dog learn to feel more comfortable, it teaches the dog to not feel safe and trusting of his owner.

I have seen situations like this impact dogs in a very big way, even to the point of ruining a dog's show career or causing owners to spend months trying to teach the dog to be comfortable with the exam again. I have seen people put the work in to turn it around and others decide that it isn't worth it. It is important to remember that every single event in an animal's life matters and is filed into their mind and becomes a part of their life and learning history. All experiences count and ones that are particularly good or particularly bad can count even more.

If it isn't bad enough that we have now created a potentially big problem with the dog's perception of the exam and the show ring, but many times the relationship between the dog and owner has suffered because the owner allowed this to happen. In other words, in the dog's eyes, the owner did not keep him safe.

I have seen so many variations of this scenario that it would make your head spin. What makes me really sad is that many times the owners felt uncomfortable with what was happening but didn't have the courage to step in and protect their dog from further force and pressure.

You may be wondering what the right thing to do is. What if the dog doesn't want you to do something? Shouldn't you "make him"? How do you deal with this. The answer is that if you want the dog to TRULY feel comfortable and relaxed with anything you must desensitize and counter condition him to whatever it is that he is not comfortable with. Sometimes the dog is fearful, other times he is more defensive or frustrated and many times they simply are not prepared and don't know what to do. We can train them to be comfortable with this so that they don't mind and hopefully even enjoy having it done.

We start off by introducing the trigger at a very low intensity level and pairing or just following that exposure with something of very high value to the dog, usually food. The intensity level can be upped or lowered by changing the closeness of it, the length of exposure to it, etc. The exposure is always followed by removal of trigger at first so that the dog has a release of pressure very frequently. Handling it this way does several things, 1) it allows the dog to actually become comfortable with the trigger so he is okay and not just coping or holding it together like a pressure cooker waiting to blow, 2) it respects the comfort level of the dog and takes his well being into account, 3) because you are teaching the dog to actually be relaxed and comfortable he will look relaxed and comfortable which is much more "showy" than a dog who is doing something out of fear and the inability to escape, 4) it makes the entire show experience a good experience, 5) it preserves and supports the relationship between the dog and owner. Forcing a dog to do something he is not okay with, especially if he is worried about it is extremely relationship damaging. You are your dog's advocate, you are responsible for making sure he feels safe, comfortable and free from harm.

The process takes as long as it takes. While there is a basic formula for the process, how quickly you can proceed depends on many factors including the individual dog, his learning history, his genetics, the skill level of the owner and many other things. Some dogs progress extremely quickly and confidence grows quickly as they learn that they have some control over their bodies and safety.  Others, particularly those that have had a bad experience that taught them not to trust, can take longer, but they all can learn to feel better about things.

I strongly encourage people to begin to look for answers that not only get you results but that also make things better for the dog. I don't want dogs to just "knock it off", I want them to actually feel okay, comfortable, relaxed and enjoy the showing experience so that they have fun, are more successful and are more competitive.