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Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Close Encounters in Dog Parks
How to handle trouble at dog parks.

The dog gave her a bad feeling even before he charged at her. Later she would say that she felt the fear in her body before it reached her mind. That can happen when a dog stiffens, stares intensely or runs right at you, and this dog did all three. Once he picked up speed, a low growl in his throat, her “bad feeling” became definable as fear. She was worried for her own safety and even more scared for her dog. The out-of-control dog’s guardian was either not paying attention or was utterly unconcerned with the terror her dog was causing. She did not react at all when she was politely implored to call her dog (“Will you please call your dog?”), and continued to do nothing when the terrified woman finally screamed, “Stop your dog and put him on a leash, PLEASE!” As the dog got closer, and with no idea what to do to prevent an attack, the frightened woman’s only thought was, I have to keep my dog safe!

Whether you consider the dog park to be an indispensable part of your daily routine or no better than a gladiator pit, chances are that if you’ve spent much time in one, you’ve had an encounter in which a dog scared or injured you or your dog. So what do you do when you find yourself in one of those potentially dangerous situations?

Answering that is a little bit like giving advice on how to respond to a mugging. Should you stand your ground? Should you fight? Should you run? Should you just hand over your wallet and jewelry? Similarly, in the case of threatening dogs, there’s no right answer for every situation, but there are guidelines that can potentially minimize the chances of physical harm.

In the case of charging dogs, understand that you may have to be the one to take action if the dog’s guardian doesn’t. Some people don’t consider their dog’s behavior to be a problem (no matter how egregious it may appear to everyone else). Others know they can’t call their dogs away from trouble and they can’t catch them, so they simply do nothing. I wish it weren’t so, but counting on the misbehaving dog’s guardian to be part of the solution will often get you nowhere. However, saying, “Will you please call your dog?” is unlikely to make the situation any worse.

Not making the situation worse is an important factor when considering what to do. When choosing among the possible ways to respond to a charging dog, it’s critical to consider both the likelihood of being effective and the risk of escalating the tension and increasing the dog’s potential for behaving aggressively.

One key strategy is to try to change the dog’s emotions from a negative state to a positive one. The easiest and fastest option is to talk to the dog in an enthusiastic, happy voice: “Oh, who’s so good, what a good boy, aren’t you a love, are you a sweet boy, what a good dog, good dog, good dog.” I know it can feel irksome to say such things to a dog who is scaring the daylights out of you, but this is not about honesty or even sincerity—it’s about trying to prevent serious trouble.

Besides gushing praise, you can say other things that may shift the dog into a better mood. This usually seems ridiculous to people unless they’ve seen it work, but dogs’ emotional states often change in response to phrases such as “Time for dinner!” “Do you want a treat?” and “Where’s your ball?” Many dogs are conditioned to react happily to one or more of these phrases, which means they have the power to diffuse a tense situation.

Similarly, most dogs have been conditioned to feel happy when they see a leash, since a leash means a walk. So, holding up a leash and saying, “Let’s go for a walk!” may change a dog who is charging in a menacing way into a dog who is just enthusiastically approaching you. None of these “happy talk” strategies carry a significant risk of making the situation any more dangerous for you or your dog. (Holding up a leash does, of course, encourage the dog to continue heading toward you, which could add some risk.)

Saying “sit” sometimes works because it’s the one cue that the vast majority of dogs know well enough to respond to in just about any context. I’ve never heard of a dog becoming more aggressive when asked to sit in this situation. Cues such as “off” or “down” are less likely to work because so few dogs are reliably responsive to them, especially when they’re highly aroused.

Toys make many dogs happy, so if you can, toss a ball or other toy in the dog’s direction, or squeak a toy if you have one. If a dog can be switched to a playful mood with a toy, the charge will naturally cease. If not, the dog will likely just ignore the toy, and you are no worse off than before you tried to engage the dog playfully.

Despite its simplicity, tossing treats is also an effective strategy. Dogs who are acting aggressively out of fear are most likely to be positively affected by the appearance of treats, but dogs who are highly aroused, frustrated or just behaving like bullies may be distracted by treats and change their behavior. Again, if they ignore the treats, there is likely no harm done. You can throw the treats behind dogs to get them to turn around, or right at them to make sure the treats are noticed. Handfuls are more likely to be effective than single treats. (Caveat: There is some risk of trouble if the worrisome dog, or any dog in the vicinity, is food-aggressive.)

Getting something in the mouth of the charging dog has protective value. Throw any object you happen to have that is not a safety hazard. Balls or other toys are best because they’re most likely to be of interest, but your hat, a scarf or a water bottle that can keep the dog’s mouth occupied may work, too. Throwing something away from you carries a low risk of trouble; if the dog is right by you and you try to place the item directly in the dog’s mouth, the risk is obviously greater.

The goal of any action should be to de-escalate the tension, not to increase it. These suggestions all aim to make the situation better, and carry very little danger of causing harm. Other strategies can also be effective, but carry more risk of intensifying the trouble.

Saying “Hey!” or “No!” abruptly in a deep voice may sometimes be effective, but it can also make some dogs more intense in their charge. Speaking in a firm way may frighten a fearful dog or be taken as confrontational by dogs who are on the offensive. Though I often hear people recommend pepper spray, I don’t. While it may stop a dog from attacking you, it also makes some dogs more aggressive. And, depending on wind direction, it can backfire and affect you or your dog.

Though I’m also not a huge fan of using citronella spray to stop a charging dog, it’s a better option than pepper spray. It will deter some dogs, but it’s far more likely to be ignored by the dogs it doesn’t stop rather than cause them to become more aggressive. Challenging the dog in any way is very risky.

Challenges include staring, yelling, making an angry face, hitting, kicking and picking up a big stick or rock and threatening the dog with it. Though they may work occasionally, all of these confrontational techniques are far too likely to make a dog more tense and more aggressive.

All the woman could think of doing to protect her dog was to get out of the park immediately. She began moving away from the threatening dog toward the nearby gate, encouraging her own dog to move with her by telling him what a good boy he was, saying, “Let’s go for a walk!” and squeaking the toy in her hand. Not only did this affect the emotions of her own dog, it had the same impact on the charging dog, whose body relaxed the tiniest bit as he slowed down. The intense look on his face changed to a slightly calmer one. She and her dog continued to back up toward the exit. When the charging dog was almost to her, she threw the toy just past him and away from her own dog. The dog who had just scared the bejeebers out of her ran after it. As he did so, she and her dog quickly slipped through the gate and went to their car; once there, suffering the aftereffects of the panic she felt, the woman almost threw up. Her dog—who was shaking and whining—was clearly upset by the experience as well. Though the woman’s quick actions prevented physical injury, the emotional impact of their big scare was damage enough.

News: Guest Posts
You're Invited to a Canine Science conference
June 28 to 30—streaming live

SPARCS is a unique venture organized by Prescott Breeden and Patti Howard of The Pawsitive Packleader, Seattle Dog Training. From June 28-30, 2013, anyone in the world can see some of the leading canine science researchers in action—either in a conference hall in Redmond, WA, or streaming live to your living room.

SPARCS is short for the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science, which aptly summarizes the goals of the conference: (1) to promote research and education in canine science, and (2) to provide a platform for leading minds in canine science to present, discuss and debate modern behavior science.

Canine Science? Explain

If the phrase “Canine Science” gives you pause, I assure you it does not imply that dogs are meeting in the park to discuss the current issues of the day, such as:

- Owner Responses to Half Eaten Sandwiches: A Review

- Why Does the Cat Run Around at Night?: A Roundtable Discussion

- Where Are They Taking Our Poo?

Canine Science, generally speaking, is research devoted to the biology, ecology, behavior and cognition of dogs, wolves and related canids. It is a catch-all phrase that highlights the surge of research into canine minds and experiences. My article in The Bark, Dog Smart: Exploring the Canine Mind, describes this field in more detail. SPARCS brings together the following leading researchers to discuss their inquiry into the dog for a general audience:

Marc Bekoff is a long-time researcher and writer of more than 500 scientific and popular essays. In a book store? Check out one of his twenty-two books, including Minding Animals and the children’s book Animals at Play: Rules of the Game. He regularly updates a Psychology Today Blog, Animal Emotions: Do animals think and feel?

- Bekoff on dogs and their urine: Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris): tales of displaced yellow snow.

- Bekoff on play: Social play and play-soliciting by infant canids.

Ray Coppinger has published over fifty papers on dog research. His favorite publication, however, is the book Fishing Dogs, a humorous and iconoclastic look at dogs, fishermen and professors. His book, Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution, is a classic text in the field.

- Coppinger on different behavioral sequences between dogs: Degree of behavioral neoteny differentiates canid polymorphs.

- Coppinger on improving assistance dog training programs: Observations on assistance dog training and use.

Michael W. Fox wears many hats. He is a veterinarian with a Ph.D. in medicine, and he also holds a degree in animal behavior (ethology). His career encompasses extensive research into dog behavior and development as well as holistic and integrative veterinary medicine. He encourages veterinary institutions to incorporate animal behavior and welfare science into their curricula.

- I covered Fox’s 1963 paper, Developmental Abnormalities of the Canine Skull in the Dog Spies post, Where Should Dogs Put Their Tongues?

- Fox on dog development during the first month of life: The postnatal development of neocortical neurons in the dog.

Alexandra Horowitz’s current research at the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College investigates animal communication and attention, dog olfaction, inter-species play behavior, theory of mind and anthropomorphisms.* She writes regularly for The New York Times, and her best-selling book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, is essential.

- Horowitz on attention during dog-dog play: Attention to attention in domestic dog (Canis familiaris) dyadic play.

- Horowitz on the “guilty look” in dogs: Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour.

Kathryn Lord received her PhD in organismic and evolutionary biology, which of course means she studies wolf pups. Her research focuses on the evolution and development of dog and wolf behavior.

- Lord on sensory development of wolves and dogs: A Comparison of the Sensory Development of Wolves (Canis lupus lupus) and Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris).

- Lord on the meaning of dog barks: Barking and mobbing.

Adam Miklósi leads the Family Dog Project at the Department of Ethology at  Eötvös

Loránd University in Budapest, where I had the pleasure of conducting my Masters research (covered on SciAm by Jason Goldman of The Thoughtful Animal). In the last 15 years, the Family Dog Project research group has published over 100 scientific papers and organized the inaugural Canine Science Forum in 2008. His book, Dog Behavior, Evolution and Cognition is required reading in canine ethology.

- Miklósi on the building blocks of meaningful social interactions: On the utilization of social animals as a model for social robotics.

- Miklósi on other species’ use of human communicative gestures: A comparative analysis of animals’ understanding of the human pointing gesture.

Monique Udell has worked with a variety of species such as wild cats, megachiropteran bats, coyotes, foxes, mice, non-human primates and a range of companion animals including dogs, cats, and ferrets. She has a special interest in how the cognition and behavior of domestic dogs and wolves can be altered by lifetime experience.

- Udell on dog sensitivity to human behaviors: What did domestication do to dogs? A new account of dogs’ sensitivity to human actions.

  • Udell on perspective-taking in dogs: Can your dog read your mind? Understanding the causes of canine perspective taking.

Before Clive Wynne found a way to combine a childhood fascination with dogs with his day job as a psychology professor, he studied the behavior of animals ranging from pigeons to dunnarts (a mouse-sized marsupial) at universities in Britain, Germany, the USA, and Australia. Now head of the Canine Cognition and Behavior Laboratory, he is full of tales of everything from the tame foxes of Siberia to the dogs of the Moscow subway.

- Wynne on anthropomorphism: What are animals? Why anthropomorphism is still not a scientific approach to behavior.

- Wynne on the relationship between companion dogs and children: The other side of the bond: Domestic dogs’ human-like behaviors.

 

So, What’s This Conference About?

The SPARCS conference investigates dogs from three angles: “Origins in the Wild,” “Social Behavior and Emotions” and finally “Cognition and Development.”

Origins in the wild

“It is widely accepted that dogs are descended from wolves, but that is about the only uncontroversial fact about the origins of dogs…. I have come to a new proposal for the origin of dogs.” Clive Wynne

“In my presentation I shall talk about the emotional lives of nonhuman animals (animals) – beastly passions – and how they very much care about how we treat them.” Marc Bekoff

“The modern wolf and the modern dog diverged into their present forms, sometime, somewhere, and somehow. We should discuss those when, where, and how questions.” Ray Coppinger

Social Behavior and Emotions

“I shall also talk about why play has evolved – what it is “good for” and why it is very important that we come to terms with the details of what animals do when they play.” Marc Bekoff

“So the basic question is: What makes a dog skillful for living in the anthropogenic [human] environment, and whether we can claim that there is a parallel between some of the behavioral skills of dogs and those of humans?” Ádám Miklósi

“Dogs are socially and emotionally promiscuous and, given the right conditions, can form attachments to members of many other species.” Clive Wynne

Cognition and Development

“How the dog’s brain and behavior develop is integral to our understanding of critical and sensitive periods in helping facilitate a strong social bond and in enhance learning/trainability, emotional stability and stress & disease resistance.” Michael W. Fox

“[W]e must be careful not to forget the true diversity of the domestic dog population, or assume that the sum is more representative than its parts. Indeed, it is at the fringes of the species where we often discover examples of amazing cognitive feats, or hidden canine capacities unveiled by unique environmental or experiential contexts.” Monique Udell

“First, I aim to highlight and examine the attributions we unthinkingly make to dogs. Second, I use findings about the biology and cognition of dogs to create a better picture of the dog’s experience: the umwelt, or point of view.” Alexandra Horowitz

What About My Living Room?

Because SPARCS aims to make continuing education accessible, the conference will be broadcast live and free of charge: “As long as you have a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone, everyone will be able to watch our broadcast from anywhere in the world.”**

SPARCS plans to be a yearly conference, so keep it on your radar!

SPARCS Information

Ticket, Live Stream and Schedule

on Social Media

SPARCS on Facebook

SPARCS on Twitter

SPARCS #sparcs2013

 

All photos courtesy of SPARCS

 

  • I manage the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, Columbia University. If you live in NYC, we are always looking for more dogs and their people to join our studies! Sign up here, and we’ll be in touch!

 

** SPARCS adds, “Donations are absolutely optional however graciously appreciated.  If you watched our event online and enjoyed it, consider donating to SPARCS.”

 

Related:

Dog Smart: Exploring the Canine Mind at The Bark

Talking dogs: Welcome to the 3rd Canine Science Forum at Dog Spies

Inside the 3rd Canine Science Forum at Dog Spies

This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.

 

About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She wriites a behavior column for The Bark. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

 

News: Guest Posts
The data is in: Adopt this dog

Erica Feuerbacher smiles when she talks, and why shouldn’t she? As a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida with the Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab, she spends a lot of time with dogs (or at least dogs in the form of data). Through her research, she meets many, many, many dogs, some of whom live in animal shelters. This is the story of her latest research and a special subject named Raleigh.

What do you want from me?

Feuerbacher’s research investigates dog preference for different types of human social interactions, or simply put: What do dogs want from us, and under what conditions do they want it? For example, your dog might happily hang out with someone doling out hotdogs, but is your dog also likely to spend time with someone offering petting only and no hotdogs?

In Feuerbacher’s latest study, shelter dogs and owned dogs were put to the test to see whether they chose petting or food. Because dogs, being dogs, often prefer food when readily available, the researchers ran an experiment with multiple sessions where food became more and more scarce.

Feuerbacher wondered, “If food’s not available, will dogs shift their preference to the person who’s offering petting, hang out with nobody at all or continue to hang out with the person who had been giving out food but has stopped?”

During a 1-minute pre-exposure period, dogs learned that one experimenter gave out food while another gave out petting. Then, dogs had 5 minutes to spend time with whomever they chose, and they could move back and forth freely.

Petting or Food?

Many shelter dogs and all owned dogs had an initial preference for the person giving out food. But in sessions where food was not available, many shelter dogs spent time with the person offering petting. When food again became available, dogs almost always went back to the person with food.

Some of the shelter dogs initially showed a preference for the person doing the petting, not the person giving out food (although, eventually, they all opted for food). As you might imagine, dogs in animal shelters are frequently deprived of human interaction, so it isn’t all that surprising that shelter dogs would opt to spend time with people when given the chance. Alternatively, owned dogs initially went for the food person and stayed with the food person, even when food became more scarce. Owned dogs have ready access to petting from their loving owners (raise your hand if you are petting a dog right now), but food is not always available.

Raleigh

Raleigh, a mutt who had been picked up as a stray, was game for any interaction with humans. As the graph shows, when food was available (triangle), Raleigh was all over it, but when food stopped, Raleigh was all about the petting (circle) — he was quick to say, “bye bye food person,” and “hello petting person!” And when food came back into circulation, he was more than happy to accept.

“He’s a food type of guy, but he’s also a petting type of guy” Feuerbacher explains. In the session where dogs were exposed to continuous petting but food was doled out at 15-second intervals, Raleigh approached the food person. He waited about 8 seconds, and when he didn’t receive any food, he then went to the petting person, where he remained for the rest of the session. His social behavior was much more extensive than a lot of dogs.”

When the study ended, Feuerbacher kept an eye on Raleigh at the animal shelter. When he still hadn’t been adopted after 2 months, Raleigh joined the ranks as a foster dog in Feuerbacher’s home, where he now spends his time with three other dogs doing doggie things like waiting for food, snuggling on the couch and frolicking with his foster siblings. But he is also waiting for a home.

Adopt Raleigh

Raleigh is available for adoption through Phoenix Animal Rescue in Gainesville, Florida.

Raleigh, of course, has a Facebook page.

You can meet Raleigh this Saturday, May 18, 2013 at PetsMart in Gainesville, Florida.

Feuerbacher has good reason to smile when she talks about Raleigh: “I liked that he liked food because that helps with training. But I also liked that when food wasn’t available, he was really social. Everything he did was gentle. I just thought he was a really neat dog.”

 

Reference

Feuerbacher, E. N. & Wynne, C. D. L. Dogs’ preference for different types of human social interaction in a concurrent choice test. (In prep)

 

Images copyright E. Feuerbacher

This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.

 

About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She wriites a behavior column for The Bark. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

 

News: Karen B. London
For the Love of a Dog
My book club adored it
A pile of the book at the meeting of our book club

This month, my book club read Patricia McConnell’s For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, and it received thumbs up from the whole group. Only about half the members of our group have dogs themselves, but we all have emotions and that’s what the book is about. I first read the book years ago, and I was thrilled to find that I enjoyed it again and that it has stood the test of time.

The book is full of entertaining stories, science, practical advice and a lot of humor. It was a pleasure to read about so many different emotions and their manifestations on both the faces and in the brains of dogs and of people. I also had fun reading about specific dogs I met while working for Trisha, especially her own dogs, who I knew very well and still miss.

Over the eight years since the book was published, it has become increasingly accepted that animals other than humans, including dogs, have a rich emotional life. Fewer people than before reject the idea that dogs have a broad range of emotions. Because of that happy change, the logical arguments in the book about similar expressions of emotion in dogs and humans as well as similar brain structure and activity serve to affirm what readers already know rather than to convince them of what was once considered controversial.

If you’ve read, For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, what do you think of it?

News: Karen B. London
Celebrating Success
A great day begins with great behavior
Marley deserves a high five!

It was not even 7:30 in the morning and Marley had already made me proud twice since we rolled out of bed. To a person not familiar with dogs, his behavior might not seem notable, but most people who have ever lived with dogs will understand why I felt like celebrating.

The first praiseworthy moment was during our morning run. Marley noticed the herd of deer before I did, and responded by becoming a little more excited and bouncy than usual. His energetic behavior just made me think he was having a bout of the spring sillies until about 30 seconds later when I realized that there were eight deer who had completely frozen at the sight of him. Eager to avoid a problem, I began talking to Marley in a happy voice, “Good boy, Marley, what a good dog you are, good boy, good boy, good boy,” and sped up a bit to move beyond the deer faster. Though he kept glancing back at the deer, Marley stayed with me, and calmed down quickly. Preventing dogs from chasing deer is always a goal of mine, and I was thrilled with the way Marley handled the situation.

Twenty minutes later, we were back home and Marley had the opportunity to exhibit great behavior again. I was walking to the kitchen table carrying a bowl of oatmeal when I slipped on a wet spot on our tile. I’m not naming names, but a certain dog had drooled all over the floor after drinking from his bowl. I managed to catch myself before I fell, but the bowl flew out of my hands, and despite a bobbled attempt, I could not catch it. The oatmeal and the bowl hit the ground, but luckily, the oatmeal landed on the easy-to-clean wood floor, and the bowl bounced on the wood, then onto the rug, and did not break. (How lucky can you get?) Marley started to head to the oatmeal, but stopped when I said, “Leave it.” Yay! I rushed to get him a stuffed Kong from the freezer, which served the dual purpose of reinforcing him for his excellent response to my cue and keeping him occupied while I cleaned up the mess.

So, before breakfast, this dog had resisted the temptation to chase deer and had responded to the cue “leave it” in a real life situation. I knew it was going to be a great day!

What has your dog done lately that has you celebrating?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
9 Ways to Improve your Relationship with your Dog

Whether they occur within a species or between them, relationships are much the same in what they require to grow and flourish, and books about improving your relationship with a partner, child or friend offer very similar advice. The ideas that follow could also apply to other close bonds, but in this case, they refer specifically to improving your relationship with your dog.  

1. Spend time together. A relationship is about being with one another and sharing experiences, so time spent together strengthens it, especially if you spend that time in enjoyable ways.

2. Communicate clearly. Misunderstandings and confusion are the enemies of good relationships, so be as clear as you can when you communicate with your dog. Be consistent with your training signals. Since dogs tend to learn visual signals faster than vocal cues, use the former when possible. Dogs pay attention to what we do more than to what we say, which means that we should attend to what we do when we communicate with them. You’ll feel closer when there’s greater understanding between you.

3. Put a little love into their food. The way to many a dog’s heart is through the stomach, and preparing healthy, tasty food for your dog shows you care. You can choose to cook for your dog or simply focus on providing the best nutrition in the most delicious way possible.

4. Train your dog. Well-trained dogs are allowed greater freedom. If they come when called, they get to spend more time off leash. If they don’t go for the food on the table, they can stay nearby during meals. Training also reduces frustration because when you ask your dog to do something he’s been taught to do, he knows what you want.

5. Be playful. There’s a reason I called my last book Play Together, Stay Together. Scientists have observed that across a variety of species, parents who play with their children have the closest relationships with them, and this also seems true in relationships between people and dogs. Playing games and having fun strengthen your bond.

6. Remain calm. Losing your temper, yelling or freaking out in any way upsets everyone in the vicinity of the emotional storm, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with them. No matter what’s going on, exude a sense of tranquility so your dog can count on you to keep your cool.

7. Learn more about canine behavior, especially body language and facial expressions that indicate stress. When you can identify the signs that your dog is anxious or scared, it will be easier for you to protect or remove your dog from situations that make him uncomfortable. If your dog can count on you to keep him safe, the trust between you will be better and so, therefore, will your relationship. There are a number of excellent books and DVDs on this subject; look for the works of Patricia McConnell; Suzanne Hetts, Daniel Estep and David Grant; and Barbara Handelman.

8. Pay attention to your dog’s likes and dislikes. Knowing your dog’s preferences, favorite games and foods means that you can give him what he really wants and be the source of all things wonderful. Similarly, keep track of what your dog can’t stand. A good starting place is to know the things that most dogs find unpleasant: head pats, citrus or strong floral scents, loud noises, being stared at, being dressed up in clothes that impede their ability to move and being hugged.

9. Touch your dog. There is strong evidence that physical contact such as grooming and petting lowers stress in shelter dogs, which is measured by reductions in both heart rate and the stress hormone cortisol as well as by an increase in the anti-stress hormone oxytocin. This has led researchers to believe that physical contact plays a role in enhancing the bond between people and dogs. Focusing on your relationship with your dog is arguably the most important aspect of living with a friend of the canine persuasion. After all, it’s not a desire to help the economy by spending money at the vet and the groomer or to ensure that our clothes are covered in fur that drives us to have dogs. Rather, we love dogs as friends and as family members, and being with them enhances our life in unique ways. It’s all about the relationship, which is worth improving no matter how magnificent it is already. 

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How to Become a Dog Trainer
Following your passion into a profession

You want to become a dog trainer because you love dogs, right? Makes sense, but before you take the plunge into the career of your dreams, ask yourself this very important question: how do you feel about people?

 

Most of dog training entails teaching people. Sure, you could land a job training service dogs or dogs living in shelters, but the vast majority of dog trainers earn a living by teaching classes and private lessons for pet-dog guardians. And the success of a dog’s training program depends upon the human’s compliance with that program.

 

There are many, many wonderful clients who put everything they have into training and rehabilitating their dogs. They do their homework. They are eager to hone their skills. They treat their dogs with kindness. But there are also clients who will challenge you at every level of your being, who will question your expertise, fail to do their homework and then complain that their dog is not improving, and disappear when they recognize how much work is involved. A word of advice: As a person who loves dogs, you can, and will, go the distance for the good of the dog, but at a certain point — sooner rather than later, if you want to avoid burnout — you just have to let it go.

 

Still interested? Great! Read on. There are many routes one might take to gain the skills and experience required to train other people’s dogs. Many trainers are self-taught, relying on books, videos and personal experience for their education. Others learn by apprenticing with an established trainer. Seminars and workshops provide an education for a lot of trainers. And still others choose a more formal route by attending an academy for dog trainers. The best trainers explore all paths and recognize that the journey never ends.

 

What follows is a seven-part lesson plan to guide you in your pursuit of training dogs for a living. In no way comprehensive, it’s an overview of some of the possibilities that await you. Where you go from here is limited only by your imagination!

 

Lesson One: Train thyself

When people catch the training bug — often as a result of working with their own difficult dog or taking an inspiring group class — their first step down the path to becoming a professional trainer is to study the many books, articles and DVDs on the subject of animal behavior and training.

 

Sarah Owings, owner of Bridges Dog Training in Los Angeles, Calif., says, “Before KPA [Karen Pryor Academy], I was simply an autodidact — totally self-taught animal person devouring books and videos. Like many dog trainers before me, however, my main teacher was Zoë and before her Annie and before her Rocky and Rufus and…”

 

In order to work effectively with dogs, you need to know how to read and understand canine body language. Every training library should begin with Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide, by Brenda Aloff. Other must-reads include Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor; Culture Clash, by Jean Donaldson; Excel-Erated Learning, by Pamela Reid; The Other End of the Leash, by Patricia McConnell; and Complete Idiot’s Guide to Positive Dog Training, by Pamela Dennison.

 

Of course, self-education can take you only so far. At a certain point, you need to learn hands-on skills from someone with more experience.

 

Lesson Two: Get your hands dirty

Perhaps the most frequently traveled path to becoming a professional dog trainer, and one that seems to follow naturally after reaching the limits of educating oneself, is the apprentice/ mentor relationship, which can take many different forms. Some dog-training academies include formal apprenticeships as part of their programs. Some trainers offer internships through their own businesses. And sometimes, an informal apprenticeship grows out of a trainer/client relationship.

 

Jill Dextrase, co-owner of Sit Happens!, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, met her mentor when she enrolled her own problem dog in a group class at the local humane society. After apprenticing for several years with the instructor, Jill took over her mentor’s business and now teaches classes and private lessons out of her own facility. Volunteering at an animal shelter is another excellent way to gain hands-on experience with a wide variety of dogs. Many shelters now have training programs in which volunteers are instructed how to train the shelter dogs so that they become more adoptable. This can be as simple as teaching a dog to wait at doorways or as complex as behavior modification for reactive or fearful dogs. If your local shelter doesn’t have a training program, volunteering to establish one, once you’re qualified, is a terrific way to gain client referrals from the shelter staff and other volunteers.

 

Lesson Three : Get schooled

There are more dog-trainer schools out there than you can shake a stick at — and many of them deserve to have a stick shaken at them! Be diligent when researching schools; many proclaim themselves to be “positive” and “humane” while continuing to promote techniques and equipment that are quite the opposite.

 

Until recently, there were two biggies in the arena of positive-reinforcement training academies: the Karen Pryor Academy and the Academy for Dog Trainers at the San Francisco SPCA. But in 2009, the SF/SPCA Academy closed its doors.

 

Jean Donaldson, founder and former director of the SF/SPCA Academy, recently announced the details of her new Academy for Dog Trainers, which will take the form of lectures and training demonstrations on CD, as well as self-assessment tools and virtual classrooms. Students work at their own pace with their own dogs in their own homes. Graduation requirements include an online final written exam and submission of a video of the student training with specific criteria. Jean hopes to establish a mentor program for graduates of her academy (academyfordogtrainers.com).

 

The Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) also offers the convenience of distance learning, but combines it with four weekend workshops with the instructor and fellow classmates. KPA instructors are extremely well regarded in the industry and are located across the U.S. and internationally; students may choose the instructor they want to work with. The curriculum is entirely online and includes training exercises and interim tests. One unique feature of the KPA curriculum is the requirement to train an animal of a species other than canine. Graduation requirements include an online final exam and inperson teaching and training assessments. Passing all three assessments earns graduates the right to put “KPA CTP” (Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner) after their names. Certification can be revoked at any time if a graduate does not continue to meet the quality standards of the Karen Pryor Academy (karenpryoracademy.com).

 

When you’re ready to take your skills, as well as your understanding of the science behind how animals learn, to the highest point possible, then you’re ready to take Bob Bailey’s Operant Conditioning and Behavior Analysis Workshops (a.k.a. “Chicken Camps”). Bob teaches four levels of these eminent workshops; unfortunately for those of us in the U.S., he now teaches them only in Borlänge, Sweden (houseof- learning.se).

 

There is no substitute for learning from Bob, but if Sweden is out of the question for you, you can learn to train chickens (which sharpens mechanical skills like nothing else can) with Terry Ryan at Legacy Canine in Sequim, Wash. (legacycanine.com)

 

Lesson Four: Get out there

Conferences, seminars and workshops are fantastic sources of knowledge as well as great networking opportunities. From one- or two-hour evening seminars to weeklong conferences, there are enough educational events across the country to keep a trainer learning, meeting and greeting all year long.

 

The biggest get-togethers for dog trainers — and anyone interested in dog training — are ClickerExpo (clicker expo.com) and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference (apdt.com). ClickerExpo is held twice each year at various locations across the country and features three days of speakers as well as hands-on “learning labs” (yes, you can bring your well-behaved dog!). The APDT conference takes place annually in a different city, lasts five days and features many of the top trainers and researchers in the field.

 

There are also numerous smaller workshops and seminars held all over the world every month of the year. Positively Trained and PuppyWorks are two companies that organize and host educational events for professional as well as amateur trainers. The Yahoo! list “DogSeminars” is a great resource for finding seminars in your area.

 

Lesson Five: Make your own path

And then there are the approximately bazillion other routes one might take to become a professional dog trainer. Laura Monaco Torelli, Director of Training at Animal Behavior Training Concepts in Chicago, Ill., began her career with marine mammals in Ken Ramirez’s trainer program at the Shedd Aquarium and went on to work with zoo animals before becoming a dog trainer. Kristen VanNess, owner of A-Frame of Mind Dog Training in Granville, Ohio, learned to train dogs first as a 4-H club member, which led her to become more involved in dog projects as a 4-H advisor and eventually to co-found a 4-H kid-and-dog camp, Ohio 4-H Teen Dog Experience.

 

Lesson Six: Get credentialed

It’s a commonly lamented fact that anyone, at any time, can hang out a shingle declaring him- or herself a dog trainer, with nothing more invested in their services than a business card — and even that isn’t essential. But while it’s true that there is no government regulation of dog trainers in the United States, there are a number of organizations through which you can earn credentials. The most common is the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, which offers the Certified Professional Dog Trainer — Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) certification (ccpdt.org). Earning a CPDT-KA isn’t a cakewalk, but you’ll learn a lot along the way and your clients will understand that you are committed to a high level of learning.

 

Lesson Seven: Get in business

So, you’ve chosen your path, you’ve learned all there is to learn about training dogs (yeah, right!), and now you’re wondering, “How do I start, let alone run, a business?” Fortunately, Veronica Boutelle, former director of the SF/ SPCA Behavior and Training Department and author of How to Run a Dog Business, recognized a need among dog trainers, and founded dogTEC, providing business consulting services to dog professionals (dogtec.org).

 

It’s a beautiful thing when a career and a passion come together. If training dogs professionally interests you but you’re not sure about making the transition from whatever you’re doing now, take just one simple step toward your goal, and then take another: Read a book. Watch a DVD. Complete a class. If the bug catches you, you’ll know it, and you won’t be able to stop the momentum. And whatever you do, even after you’ve been training dogs for 30 years, don’t stop learning and improving your training skills. You can never know too much about dogs, and the world and its dogs need as many great trainers as they can get. 

News: Karen B. London
Heads on Tables
Does it happen in your house?

I remember as a child hearing my mom say, “Karen, Karen, sweet and able, get your elbows off the table, this is not a horse’s stable.” I thought the rhyme was entertaining and my mom thought it was effective. I soon learned that I was not allowed to rest my elbows on the table. Similarly, I teach tall dogs that they are not allowed to have their heads on the table.

We were dogsitting a large dog named Bear whose height made it easy for him to rest his head on our dining room table. After photographing him at the table, I used the cue “leave it” to let him know that the table was off limits to him. I reinforced him with a chew toy for choosing to back away from the table and thereafter reinforced him for resisting the urge to put his head there again. He seemed familiar with the rule already, so I suspected that he had the same rule at home. We avoided leaving food on the table so that there was less temptation, but he followed our guidelines agreeably.

Though I don’t want dogs to put their heads on our table, I can’t deny that they look awfully endearing when they do so. Do you let your dogs rest their heads on the table, and if not, has it been challenging or straightforward to teach them that this behavior is not allowed?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Q&A with Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz
Perfect Family Dog Training
Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz

Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, 52, who trained dogs for the late senator Edward M. Kennedy and trained first dog Bo (known to her as Charlie) before he went to live in the White House, died Jan. 12 in Virginia. According to The Washington Post, she had been leading dog training classes days before her death. After being admitted to the hospital, for reasons that were not stated in the obituary, she went into a coma and died of respiratory distress.

A champion of positive-reinforcement training methods, many of which she detailed in her book, The Love That Dog Training Program, Sylvia-Stasiewicz will be missed by all of those who have been touched by her message of loving and respecting dogs, and teaching them as we would our children.

Bark interviewed Sylvia-Stasiewicz shortly before she died. That interview, which appears below and will appear in shorter form in our February issue, was apparently her last. Dawn’s family has requested that tax-deductible contributions be made to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) Foundation to further her work in researching, developing and promoting best practices in positive reinforcement dog training. Dawn’s mentor and APDT Founder, Dr. Ian Dunbar, is presiding over the fund.

Details on a memorial and opportunities to pay tribute can be found at lovethatdogbook.com.

We spoke with Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz in December to talk about her book, The Love That Dog Training Program (written with Larry Kay), which was also one of our best picks in 2010. She has trained—employing positive reinforcement techniques—many dogs in the Virginia/DC area, including those of the late Senator Kennedy, as well as preparing Bo for his White House posting.

One thing I notice by reading the very many dog memoirs that have become so popular is that few people who write those books train their dogs, which is shocking to me. So could you tell us why it is important to train your dog?

Since most of The Bark’s readers already care well for their dogs, I’m probably singing (or howling) to the choir, so my thoughts will reinforce your readers’ own. Training opens up communication; it’s a language that helps our dog understand us, and vice versa. With any valued companion, good communication bonds us, helps us socialize in the world together, opens up a lifetime of experiences and possibilities. The danger of not communicating includes safety to others and to our dog. If (God forbid) we become physically unable to care for our dog and our dog needs to be rehomed, untrained dogs have a much higher rate of being euthanized. I believe we have a moral obligation to train our dogs.

Why doesn’t aversive training (like Cesar Millan’s methods) work? Could you make a case for positive reinforcement? Why does it take more time than traditional methods?

Both methods will train a dog, but there are dangers and disadvantages in using aversive techniques that outweigh its benefits. Focusing on a dog’s mistakes means he must figure out by trial and error what behaviors won’t get him punished—dogs aren’t good at that kind of reasoning. Failure-oriented training also diminishes a dog’s spirit, typically leaving him fearful. Aversive methods are dangerous because they suppress problems that can flare up without warning—often triggered by an exuberant child, innocent dog or helpful friend. Children should never copy a grownup’s aversive methods, because there is no guarantee that the dog will regard the child with the same authority as an adult. Aversive methods grew out of unscientific, trial and error attempts to dominate, control and coerce a dog, and were based on the naïve and mistaken myth that dog pack psychology required an alpha bully boss—my, how far we’ve come. My book discusses the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior’s position paper against aversive methods and the Michael Vick dog-fighting case (the 47 dogs that a federal court ruled were beyond redemption and were scheduled to be euthanized, but are now being rehabilitated only with positive reinforcement methods by Best Friends Animal Society).

Positive reinforcement methods take longer in the beginning. But once your dog catches on that training is a fun time to be with you—a pack leader that directs play and gives good rewards, while ignoring most mistakes—he will be motivated to learn and feel like a spirited genius.

Could you explain the concepts of positive versus negative?

In behavioral psychology, positive means to give something (a reward or a punishment) and negative means to take away something (not give a reward or punishment). It’s like the carrot and the stick: giving a carrot is a positive reward; hitting with a stick is positive punishment; not giving a carrot is a negative reward; not giving a stick is negative punishment. These charts will help explain it.

As you noted, “good leaders don’t have to act like bullies to command respect.” How difficult is this concept to teach to your clients?

Most people get it, especially when they’re given a choice and see demonstrations. Dogs love to follow leaders who provide food, shelter and safety; leaders they see as benevolent and fair. Good pack leaders provide social experiences and lots of fun.

What are your top three goals in training the perfect family dog?

My top three are socialization, real-life rewards and hand-feeding.

Socialization starts by introducing the human world to your dog in a way that she can understand. Your dog needs to have the secure feeling that being around people and other dogs is a pleasant and safe experience that can also be fun and rewarding. When a dog believes that that is life’s reality, everything else falls into place.

Real Life Rewards means that your dog sits for everything. She sits before eating, getting a treat or playing with a toy, before walking through a door, greeting another dog, to get in and out of places and distracting situations. She learns that “sit” happens before something good, so “sit” becomes her way of asking “please.” For the real life rewards system to gain consistency, all family members need to be involved.

Hand-feeding teaches your dog that all good things come from you. Start hand-feeding on day one (unless your adopted dog has food aggression and may bite you). Hand-feeding will teach your dog to be calm when someone reaches into his bowl. Hand-feed in different parts of your house and your dog will learn that your rules apply everywhere. Hand-feeding also helps diminish guarding of food, toys and contraband; it also teaches bite inhibition.

In training Bo Obama, how did you also train the President and his family in the proper ways to keep the training up? Do you still do any brush-up training with Bo?

In training any family, we always work with the whole family, including the extended family, so that everyone learns the same language to communicate with the dog. There’s always brushing up and fine-tuning to do. Training never ends, it just gets easier.

What was the hardest thing you had to train Bo Obama to do? I would think that a “substitution trade” was extremely difficult.

Actually, substitution trades with Bo were a piece of cake (not literally). With most dogs, substitution trades are easy if you anticipate and have valuable things to trade ready (I like stuffed Kongs). Be prepared—not a day goes by when I have a dog in for training and I’m preparing for situations that may come up.

Why do you recommend a five-week training program?

Five weeks give you the basics for everything you’ll need to know without being too overwhelming for dog owners. Since positive reinforcement makes training fun and playful, most dogs aren’t overwhelmed with learning new skills—it’s dog owners’ follow-through that I’ve designed the program to help. It takes about 30 days to make a new habit or undo an old habit, and five weeks is just over that threshold. In those five weeks you will get to know your dog, “read” his posture and learn to anticipate his next moves. Some owners and dogs may learn a little slower, while others a little faster.

Why and when do you advocate hand-feeding a dog?

As I discussed before, start hand-feeding on Day One. Hand-feeding is powerful because it puts you in charge of a resource (food) that the dog can’t live without, and since you “own” the food, your dog will view the relationship with you as the dominant and benevolent force. We’re reaching inside the dog’s primal survival mind to teach her that it’s okay for hands to be in her dog bowl and she appreciates what you provide. If a dog bites during hand-feeding, then be cautious; my book’s chapter on behavior problems will help. Be aware that given the wrong circumstances any dog will bite, so hand-feeding gives you an advantage in preventing and correcting this safety issue.

And what about tethering—when your dog is tied to you? Why do you think this is effective strategy? Can it work with older dogs, not just puppies?

Tethering brings you and your dog together. You become deeply aware of each other as you share each other’s world. It’s a bonding experience; you both take responsibility for anticipating each other’s moves. It’s almost like you become your dog’s muse: you inspire him. On my recent talk in Seattle, I had the hotel dog tethered to me during the whole presentation, and the dog volunteered all kinds of behaviors: sits, giving attention, looking for what’s next—he got lots of praise and some rewards.

In formal heel work, what is the best way to train a dog who is a forward-motion, pull-at-all-cost dog—like our German Wirehaired Pointer—to walk somewhat at your side? I noticed that Bo still hasn’t seemed to master this, at least in the press video I have seen.

In the Barbara Walters Thanksgiving TV Special with President and Mrs. Obama, it was apparent that Bo was well-behaved and prepared for the event, as we should all be with our dogs when meeting visitors. Perhaps your German Wirehaired Pointer needs to walk more often to help [her] understand how to walk on a leash. If we’re training only while we need to take a walk, we’re not going to teach effectively. Tethering and leash walk training can include many turns, stops and starts, variable pace and standing as still as a tree to keep your dog focused on you. Most dogs get excited in moments, and that’s part of their beauty and joy, so we need to prepare.

What’s the Slot Machine and Jackpot psychology in training?

Dogs love gambling as much as humans love casinos. Guessing and working for an uncertain payoff is a game. Positive reinforcement’s beauty is about working to win the game. Once your dog learns a skill, begin withdrawing treats for doing that skill correctly—that’s the slot machine—and now your dog will try harder to win the game he used to win all the time. When his skill improves, such as lying down more quickly on cue, then reward him with extra treats—that’s the jackpot. But don’t start using gambling psychology when teaching a new skill until your dog performs consistently what you’re asking; otherwise the rewards will just seem too random and frustrating.

What do you think are the hardest things for people to learn about dog training?

Dog training doesn’t have to be mean, ugly or painful. Patience and positive reinforcement should be enough to get training started successfully.

Most behavior problems are created by humans. For example, since dogs don’t generalize well, we need to be consistent when showing a hand signal. We need to gradually generalize our cues to new locations—starting by simply taking one step to the side, then gradually building up variety. We reward our dog for “bad” behavior by rewarding it accidentally, such as petting a dog when we want her to stop barking.

Comparing our dog’s progress against other dogs’ abilities will make our dog lose an unfair game. Every dog learns at his own rate. My program gives building blocks and suggested time frames. If your dog goes faster or slower, that’s all good. Patience is a virtue. Slow and steady wins the race.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Five Running Games to Play with Your Dog
Dog Play

Just as the iconic image of the Great Dad shows him playing catch with his kids, the iconic image of the Great Dog Guardian would show a person running around with a dog. A few minutes—or even a few steps—are all you need, so don’t resist these easy ways to add joy to your dog’s day.

1. Chase. This game is simple: You run and your dog chases you. Clap or make a “smooch” sound to get your dog’s attention, and then run away from him. When he’s within a few feet of you, turn and reinforce him with a treat, a toy or the start of another chase. Stopping before he reaches you prevents the chase game from turning into the “nip the human on the back of the leg” game. (Don’t play the “chase the dog” game—it will teach him to run away when you approach and ruin his recall.)

2. On Your Mark, Get Set, Go. Combine a little trick work and self-control practice with running. Teach your dog to lie down when you say “On your mark,” do a play bow to the cue “Get set” and start running when you say “Go.” Très cute.

3. Fartlek. Runners worldwide use fartlek training to increase their speed. The word, which means “speed play” in Swedish, refers to the practice of interspersing short bursts of speed within a training run. To play with your dog fartlek style, surge ahead and run few paces, past several houses or even down the block. Chances are your dog will happily follow your lead. (And yes, even serious runners think it’s a funny word.)

4. Hard to Get. This short keep-away game can jump-start a play session. Squeak, bounce or wave a toy around to get your dog’s attention as you run away from him. Just make sure you don’t tease him by playing keep-away too long. The excitement created by a moment of playing hard to get can start another game, but going on too long without giving your dog access to the toy can result in frustration or anger rather than playfulness.
 
5. Crazy Owner. People who are unpredictable in their movements are fascinating to dogs. With that in mind, use the “crazy owner” game to get and keep your dog’s attention. Hold a bunch of yummy treats to lure your dog to your side and then start moving away from him. Change speed and direction often so he never knows what you are going to do next. For example, run five steps, turn and jog slowly for 10, then execute a quick reverse and sprint in the opposite direction. Offer him praise and treats every time he’s right by your side, and keep moving like a crazy person to maintain his interest.

Many people love to play with their dogs. Still more want to play with their dogs but think their dogs aren’t playful, or that they only like to play with other dogs. Certainly, some dogs are more naturally playful or more toy-motivated than others. Yet, I’ve found that time and again, the majority of dogs who are described as “not playful” by the people who know them best actually do love to play, as long as the games are based on running and chasing. Give them a try!
 

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