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.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Show Like a Pro! Workshop Weekend

Last weekend I hosted and co presented our Show Like a Pro! Workshop Weekend with Suzy Olsen. I had "met" Suzy online on various Facebook pages and realized that she is doing basically what I am doing in Texas. Suzy has shown dogs all over the world and is a KPA grad and I knew that she would have lots of great info. I wasn't disappointed and don't think workshop attendees were either!

On the first day, Suzy presented a lot of how to train the basics. She talked about clicker training, had attendees practice mechanical skills, discussed how to train basic behaviors, how to write training plans, how to keep dogs focused and interested in the ring and so much more.

On day two, I presented tips, tools and secrets including the use of cavalettis and other tools like platforms, body awareness and conditioning, stacking tools and more.

It was a fantastic weekend and I am hoping that Suzy and I will be able to present this in other parts of the country as I feel it was a very valuable weekend for all of us!

Here are a few photos of the weekend!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I am not anti professional handler

It has been a while since I have written, but I am feeling very inspired to write this post!  On more than a few occasions, I have had clients say to me, "I know how you feel about handlers, but...".  It seems that I may have inadvertently put out there in the universe that I am against people using professional handlers in the show ring.  That's actually not the case, let me explain.

I am not anti professional handler, however I AM pro owner handler!  I am a huge advocate for people showing their own dogs.  It actually saddens me that people who train their dogs for competitive and very challenging sports such as agility or competition obedience automatically believe that they need a professional handler for the conformation ring.  Most of these owners would never dream of allowing someone to handle their dogs in agility or obedience, yet they are easily led to believe that they must use a professional handler for conformation.  That's just not the case.  People can learn to train and handle their own dogs if that is something that they are interested in doing.

Sometimes this apprehension comes from the owner's own personal concerns or anxieties about showing their own dog.  Unfortunately, many times it comes from other people.  I have heard people at ringside, other owners and even judges tell people that they should have someone else handle their dog.  That their dog would finish more quickly or "look better" with a professional handler.  To me, that is such an incredible insult to the owner handler trying to not only finish their own dog, but engage in an activity with their dog that they might enjoy doing.  For many of us, it isn't just about finishing, it is also about the journey and the relationship with the dog.  It is about competing in a sport with your dog for the fun of it.  Everyone has to start somewhere, and I encourage people to show their own dogs if that is what they want to do.  Please exhibitors, spectators and judges, do not insult people by telling them that they make their dog look bad and should get a handler if they really want to show their own dog.  Owner handling should be encouraged in the show ring, in my opinion.  Let's not forget that everyone has to start somewhere.

The other thing that may make it seem like I have an issue with handlers is that I work with a lot of show dogs, with issues.  Many of them are shy or fearful or just unsure and it is actually BETTER for them to be with their owners.  For many dogs, being handed off to someone other than their owner can increase their anxiety.  Some people will say, "Oh, he just loves his handler" or "He is much more comfortable with his handler than with me."  This can sometimes be the case, but not always.  When the owner is claiming this but the dog's body language says otherwise, I have to go with what the dog is telling me.  Dogs are incredibly honest.  If they are fearful or worried, they will say so.  This is who and what I listen to.

I think that there are some really good professional handlers out there that treat the dogs will care, compassion and respect and those are the ones you should seek out.  I support people using a good, caring handler if that is what they choose to do, but I will continue to support and encourage owner handling as well.

The bottom line is that if someone really wants to handle their own dog, they should do it and not be pressured into using a professional if they want to do it themselves.  Dog shows should and can be a sport that people and their dogs do together as a team!