Good Dog: Activities & Sports
A guide dog goes the distance for her human hiking partner.
For most dogs, a hike in the mountains is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. But for Tennille, a five-year-old black Labrador from North Carolina, it’s just another day at the office. While other dogs sniff the underbrush and splash through creeks, Tennille is hard at work keeping her owner on the trail, alerting him to obstacles and watching for dangerous wildlife.
If it sounds like Tennille’s hikes are no ordinary walks in the park, it’s because she’s a guide dog and her owner is a professional long-distance hiker who also happens to be blind.
Tennille’s story begins not on a trail in the mountains, but in the California home of Tasha Laubly, a volunteer puppy raiser. Laubly socialized Tennille, taught her basic manners and then, like many a proud parent before her, selflessly sent her baby off to school. That “school” was Guide Dogs for the Blind, and it was there that Tennille would meet Trevor Thomas and the course of her life would change forever.
In 2005, Thomas, a recent law school graduate and self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, received the devastating news that a rare and incurable autoimmune condition was taking his sight. Eight months after that diagnosis, his vision had diminished to nothing.
To reclaim his independence, Thomas began long-distance hiking. Just 18 months after losing his vision, he became the first blind person to complete a solo thru-hike of the 2,190-mile-long Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine. And that was just the beginning.
Thomas began hiking trails all over the country and found that, while he could navigate the well-traveled Appalachian Trail by himself, if he wanted to take on more remote areas, having a partner was vital. When Thomas’s human hiking partner pulled out of a big hike at the last minute, he decided it was time to get a guide dog.
The search for the right dog and an organization that would work with him was arduous. While dogs have long been used to help the visually impaired regain their independence, training one for the trail was unheard of. When Thomas explained that he wanted a dog he could take on long, solo expeditions in the backcountry, most guide-dog schools balked. They were concerned that a guide dog would not be able to handle the sport’s mental and physical demands.
Then, he put in a call to Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif., and found an organization that was willing to give him and his crazy idea a chance. When the trainers introduced Thomas to high-energy and exceptionally smart Tennille, the bond was instant, which was a good thing. Tennille was the only dog they had who might be able to meet the mental and physical demands of long-distance hiking.
Training a guide dog for backcountry work was unprecedented. There were questions about how she would physically handle the rigors of the trail, whether she could adapt to the unique demands of backcountry work and how she would transition between days on the trail and life in town. When it came to taking a guide dog into the backcountry, it seemed like there were more questions than answers. But Thomas, Tennille and her trainers were willing to give it a shot.
To be Thomas’s eyes on the trail, Tennille not only needed to master all of the skills required of guide dogs in the city but also, had to learn about life in the wild. She was trained to watch for low-hanging branches (she knows how tall Thomas is) and alert him to tripping hazards. If she decides that a situation is too dangerous, she will refuse to move forward. The Lab has also been trained to handle encounters with everything from rattlesnakes to moose, and knows how to look for trail signs and other landmarks.
“I’m the luckiest person around,” Thomas muses when talking about Tennille. “In a world of extraordinary animals, she is exceptional. She is a genius.”
In the three years since they became a team, Thomas and Tennille have covered more than 6,000 miles together, tackling trails all over the United States. With Tennille’s help, Thomas has completed solo hikes on remote, unpopulated trails that were out of his reach before she came along. Having a guide dog has been a game-changer for Thomas, who says that many hikers he meets on the trail don’t realize that he’s blind.
A day on the trail for Thomas and Tennille typically involves covering 13 to 18 miles of rocky and uneven ground. The distance alone is a lot for any dog, but Tennille is also working. She knows that once her backpack (which takes the place of a traditional guide-dog harness) goes on, it’s time to do her job.
As you may expect, this is no spur-of-the-moment operation. Long before Thomas and Tennille set foot on the trail, their hikes have been planned down to the last detail. In the months leading up to a hike, a set of detailed daily instructions is painstakingly created. Thomas uses these notes to tell him things like how far it is between trail junctions and which direction he is supposed to go.
Then, he employs a combination of bat-like echolocation and meticulous tracking of time, speed and cadence to get close to where he needs to be. Tennille takes it from there. She knows how to look for signs and other trail markers that will keep them headed in the right direction.
Thomas is quick to say that, while he holds the leash, Tennille is the boss. In the time they have been hiking together, Tennille has learned what is important, and when she alerts him to danger, he listens. It’s this unwavering trust in one another that has allowed them to take on some of the longest and hardest trails in the country.
In the summer of 2015, Thomas and Tennille conquered one of their toughest challenges yet when they completed a thru-hike of the 600-mile-long Colorado Trail. Traversing some of the tallest mountains in the United States, the two successfully navigated the rugged route that runs between Denver and Durango, summiting 14,440-foot Mt. Elbert along the way. While Tennille excels in the cool Rocky Mountain climate, there was some concern about how she would handle Colorado’s high altitude. But, as with everything else in her life, she was unfazed.
“Ice water runs through her veins,” Thomas replies when asked how his companion is able to handle the demands of long days and tough conditions. He has yet to find a situation that she can’t manage.
As the years and miles have gone by, Tennille’s body has become accustomed to the demands of her job. While many dogs’ pads become sore during long hikes in the backcountry, Tennille’s are as tough as leather. Thomas always carries booties for her, but unless the ground is very hot, she rarely needs them.
Thomas says that getting Tennille was the best decision he’s made since losing his vision. Not only has she greatly expanded the possibilities of what he can do, but also, she has changed how others see him. She’s a powerful icebreaker when it comes to interacting with people both on and off the trail. Thomas believes that Tennille’s friendly face and wagging tail have allowed him to form deeper connections with those he meets who may not know how to engage with a blind person. These connections have been an unexpected benefit of having Tennille along.
When asked what’s up next for the duo, Thomas rattles off a long list of goals. He is constantly on the hunt for new places and different environments in which to challenge himself and Tennille. In the coming years, he hopes to return to the Appalachian Trail, this time with Tennille by his side, and dreams of doing the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hike. The canyon’s high-desert environment would present a different kind of challenge from the mountains they are used to, but Thomas feels that Tennille will be up to the job.
Thomas’s courage and tenacity are making him somewhat of a celebrity in the hiking world, but he’s quick to point out that it is his dog who should be getting the attention. “I just hold the leash,” he says. “I’d be happy to be known as the guy who’s with Tennille.”
News: Karen B. London
Skateboarding must be taught step-by-step
Nobody has entered my house this week without being told, “Hey, come take a look at this!” I have then showed them this video of Bamboo the skateboarding dog.
Most of the viewers asked, “How do you train your dog to ride a skateboard?” Doing it step-by-step is the key to success, as it is with all training tasks. Here are the steps I would suggest for teaching a dog to ride a skateboard.
1. Help your dog to be comfortable on the board. This step is critical and I recommend doing it slowly. Rushing it will slow down your eventual success. Start by reinforcing the dog for putting one paw and then two on the board while it is secured with a piece of wood or with your foot acting as a brake. If the board is adjustable, start with the board tightened so it can’t rock back and forth.
2. Get your dog used to being on the board while it is moving, starting with just a few inches and then a little bit more at a time. Only allow the board to move slowly. Ideally, you should take advantage of opportunities to reinforce the dog for having all four paws on the skateboard and for letting it move with one paw hopping along behind.
3. Reinforce your dog for pushing the board with one or both back paws. These pushes are a critical piece of having a dog propel the skateboard for any distance rather than just passively riding a board you have set in motion.
4. Gradually increase the speed and the distance that the dog covers before reinforcing him. Some dogs may not enjoy the increased speed or riding it for a longer period of time. Stay within your dog’s comfort zone.
5. Loosen the skateboard in stages so that it rocks back and forth (necessary for steering) and go through the entire process with the board at each one of these settings. You can then reinforce the dog for steering, which is accomplished by shifting his weight to one side or the other as he rides.
The dog in this video is very experienced and highly skilled, but few dogs will attain that level of success at skateboarding. Always keep in mind what your dog can comfortably do so that you don’t put him in a situation that is over his head. Stick to smooth surfaces, keep him away from roads and other dangers, and don’t send him down a hill of any kind, no matter how mild, until he is ready.
Just as in people, some dogs are athletic, fearless and adventurous enough that skateboarding comes fairly naturally to them. Other dogs may never reach true proficiency at it, but might enjoy doing it very slowly for brief periods. There are also dogs who are clearly not suited to this activity, and if that’s the case for your dog, there’s no need to even consider attempting to teach him to ride.
Do you have any interest in teaching your dog to ride a skateboard?
Mark Vette, an animal behaviorist from New Zealand, who made a splash a few years back by training dogs to drive cars, has taken his skills to a new height and has now successfully trained dogs to not just co-pilot, but to actually pilot planes. As with his driving “dare” he has taken on this newest challenge to promote the talents and adoptability of shelter dogs, certainly a noble cause. You have to watch this video to see how successful, he and his team of trainers, were. From what this well-edited clip shows, the dogs too seem to like getting behind the throttle and definitely soared to new heights.
The dogs went through a four-month training period, and as the final episode of Dogs Might Fly, that aired in UK on Sky-1 television, you can see just how well they performed and maneuvered the plane to even make perfect figure eights up in the air.
The three dogs were first trained on flight simulators and harnesses kept them sitting upright so they could “paw” unto the plane controls. Vette said that he was very careful that the three would-be pilot dogs were happy with what they were doing and that their welfare was his highest priority. The dogs were trained to respond to color lights. As Vette commented that, “Most importantly, this exercise has proven that shelter dogs are not secondhand goods.” He added that “They are smart and deserve a chance at life.”
He himself adopted one of the pilot dogs as the show ended (the one shown here at the controls), and I can’t imagine that the other two weren't also snatched up. Diane D., a reader drew this to our attention today, and thankful that she did.
News: Karen B. London
Accepting them is a lifelong process
Dogs learn to be comfortable with the world through experience. Some dogs take most novel things in stride while others struggle to deal with anything different. Behaviorally healthy, well-socialized dogs have an easier time handling the unexpected than dogs who had rougher starts in life or are naturally less go-with-the-flow.
Learning to cope with new experiences is a lifelong process because there are an infinite number of them. For example, few dogs have had to deal with a child doing handstands, but Marley is one of them. He is accepting, though not particularly thrilled, about this activity. Here he is as my son wanders around him while walking on his hands. (Normally I encourage my son to be thoughtful of the dog and do his handstands at a greater distance from Marley, but I needed a video . . . )
Two factors may explain Marley’s lack of reactivity. One is that Marley is generally not reactive to anything. Sure, he gets pepped up when food or a walk are in his immediate future, and when he sees his guardian or any dear friend after a long absence, he is enthusiastic, but that’s about it. He does not react to popping balloons, power tools, crowds of people, bikes, skateboards or children giving him love. The other factor is that he has been around my son doing handstands for a number of years now, and it probably seems reasonably ordinary to him.
It would be extraordinary for any dog to be relaxed when seeing a child doing handstands for the first time. I once observed an extremely well-adjusted dog startle when he experienced this, presumably for the first time. Several years ago, my son was doing a handstand by the baggage claim area in an airport. (Don’t judge. If you’ve never taken an active 8-year old on a 10-hour plane flight, you may struggle to understand why I said yes when he asked if he could do a handstand. Like dogs who have not had a chance to exercise, my son was in desperate need of some activity.)
Regrettably, I failed to notice that a drug-sniffing dog was in the area, and when the dog came near us and saw my son, that dog visibly flinched. Thankfully, my son noticed and came down from his handstand just as I was telling him to do so, AND the dog’s wise handler immediately turned the dog away from us. Once he was at a good distance from us, the handler cued the dog for a sit and a down, which I suspect was a purposeful attempt to calm him down. I can imagine the handler’s despair at thinking his dog had been taught to deal with so much—people with canes or wheelchairs, kids running around and screaming, crowds of people in all manner of dress and carrying every large or awkwardly shaped item—only to have his dog confronted by the sight of a child walking on his hands.
From the dog’s and the handler’s point of view, it’s certainly possible to consider this bad luck. On the other hand, it was an opportunity to be exposed to yet another new experience and learn to accept it. It served as a reminder to me that no dog’s training and exposure to the world is ever complete. Every dog, even a highly trained working dog, still faces new experiences throughout his life.
Has your dog faced something so unexpected that you never thought to expose him to it on purpose?
Culture: Stories & Lit
The Power of Name-Calling
Our new Golden Retriever puppy is nearly six months old and her learning experiences are our learning experiences. Five times a day, she whimpers to go out; five times a day, we tell her Not now, Maisie. All three of us are learning what to expect from one another concerning patience.
Even though she is our fourth Golden in a long line of beloved dogs, the art of dog training and the understanding of canine behavior have exponentially increased since our last dip into dog parenting. But still, similar to child rearing, hundreds of “experts” offer completely contradictory advice: Have the baby sleep in your bed; never let the baby sleep in your bed. Let the dog sit on your lap; never let the dog sit on your lap.
During the first weeks of Maisie’s transition from being one of 10 littermates to the solo dog in our universe, she was the most adorable, cuddly, sweet-tempered puppy. Then, my husband and I began noticing unpleasant behaviors. Take away a toy or a stick and Maisie’s cute puppy face morphed into what looked like a snarl. I’m talking a display of fangs, which seemed more than mouthy puppy frolics.
Cartoon dogs bury their bones all the time, but when a real dog runs out the door, bone in mouth, and appears to be digging to China and growling if someone gets near, one worries. Our hands and arms were marked with scratches and scabs, and these made us even more cautious in approaching our new pup.
So we phoned an expert. For privacy purposes, I’ll call this person Susan. Susan responded to our SOS immediately, and arrived with an upbeat attitude—You can handle this. We can retrain Maisie—and oodles of information. Our sighs of relief must have been audible when, on her first visit, Susan modeled a cheery dominatrix and coerced Maisie into polite manners. She did this by using force. I don’t mean she used brutality; let’s just say that she out-bullied the bully, showing Maisie who was boss. Susan was not a big woman, but she knew how to square her shoulders and maximize her voice. At one point in the training session, she put a headlock on Maisie and called her “a stubborn little devil.”
We’d never used force with our other dogs and were a bit taken aback, but maybe this dog needed more discipline. Maybe we were the problem. Maybe we needed to buck up, tolerate less, use tough love. We felt badly about ourselves. How did we know what was right? We weren’t the experts, after all.
That evening, we reviewed Susan’s assessment of Maisie’s problems. It read like a profile of a kid destined for prison: hoarding/stealing, aggressiveness, dominance issues. Hoarding! My gawd, we weren’t just dealing with the ups and downs of normal puppydom, we had a delinquent dog on our hands. This was not what we had opted for. Yikes! Would Maisie be a problem dog for the rest of her life? Were we capable of training her? Did we want that responsibility? Our attitude toward Maisie quickly changed from devotion to disappointment and distress, and we considered returning her to her breeder.
Out of desperation, I suggested we try another professional. This time we chose a dog behaviorist, not a dog trainer (the difference is significant and too involved to go into here). Our second expert arrived with a bag full of dog treats and toys; a curious, attentive, non-judgmental manner; and ready praise on her lips. This may sound Disneyish, but Maisie responded immediately to her calm, patient, non-militaristic approach.
From this woman, we learned that very smart dogs like Maisie love to learn. Their puppy energy can be directed toward the playful learning of games and commands for which they earn praise and hot-dog rewards. We learned that the idea of dominant and non-dominant dogs is outdated and that dog behaviorists understand “possession aggression” as “resource guarding.” Dogs with leadership qualities, dogs who might be leaders of their packs in the wild, have an instinct to guard and bury their food because they will be responsible for helping to feed the pack. Bravo for them!
This gets me to my takeaway point: labeling others—children, dogs, ethnicities, races, genders—affects our feelings and emotions about them. What we call them and the spin we give to those names affects how we see and respond. Which sounds better to you: possession aggression or resource guarding? How about this: Your child is bossy. Your child shows leadership ability. Your child is hyperactive. Your child is energetic.
Name-calling can reflect our basest instincts and our uncanny proclivity to project onto others exactly the aspects we dislike in ourselves. Or it can represent our better angels. We can choose. If we apply this insight to the current world stage, doesn’t it seem we have entered a time of malicious name-calling? Maybe we should consider that what we vilify in others might be something we fear in ourselves.
P.S. Maisie has won our hearts. She shows absolutely no signs of unwarranted aggression. She is the dog of our dreams.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Recently, scientist Claudia Fugazza got out of the bathtub, drained it and then watched her newest dog, Velvet, jump in and spend several minutes lying in the tub as though she were relaxing. Despite the potential mess, Fugazza had no objection to Velvet’s activity. In fact, she had decided not to inhibit Velvet from performing behaviors inspired by her own actions.
Many dogs are inhibited, however. We reach into our bag, and when the dog sniffs its interior, we say, “No!” When we sit on the couch and then they sit on the couch, we tell them to get off, and we react the same way if they start to dig in the yard after we do.
Velvet is not the only one of Fugazza’s dogs to mimic some of her actions. One night several years ago, Fugazza was surprised to hear water running in the bathroom; she thought she had turned it off. When it happened again the next night, she began to suspect that her dog Siria, who loved to drink directly from the tap, was responsible. On a subsequent night, Fugazza made sure the water was off, then kept an eye on Siria. As she watched, Siria went into the bathroom, opened the faucet with her nose and drank from the stream.
This experience inspired Fugazza to begin reading about animals’ capacity to learn new behavior by watching others —a specific form of social learning called imitation. Years ago, it was thought that dogs were not capable of social learning of this kind—that only humans could do this. As it turns out, this hypothesis about human-only aptitudes failed to stand up to solid research, as have many others.
For example, the idea that only humans used tools was disproven by Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees. As pioneering anthropologist Louis Leakey famously remarked in a telegram to Goodall, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” Similarly, it was long thought that only humans used language or experienced emotions, but these capacities have been found to exist in many species.
Now, imitation as a uniquely human trait is on the chopping block. Research into social learning (including imitation) in dogs and many other species is extremely well documented.
A paper titled Reproducing human actions and action sequences: “Do as I do!” in a dog (Topál et al. 2006) was among the earliest to demonstrate the canine ability to copy human actions. It also detailed a dog-training protocol—Do as I Do—that makes use of this natural inclination. Fugazza started using the protocol with her dog India, and loved it. From this spark of interest, she began a new chapter in her own life, changing careers to pursue research in animal cognition rather than continuing to work as a lawyer.
During my interview with Fugazza via Skype, it was easy to see her affection for dogs as well as her scientific curiosity about them. Her walls are decorated with dog paintings created by an artist friend. She got up during our conversation to let in her very old Border Collie, Snoopy, lovingly explaining that he’s not always sure what he wants to do these days. When she talks about her research and the questions she wants to address in future studies, she is animated and enthusiastic.
Fugazza’s main area of interest is social learning, and she’s one of the researchers studying this phenomenon in our best friends. The principle underlying her work is that animals who live in groups are capable of acquiring new skills through social learning. For example, there are advantages to avoiding trial and error when learning what’s edible. For dogs, it can be particularly beneficial to acquire information from humans. After all, people are the experts on many things that interest dogs, such as where to find food or other treasures and how to open various contraptions such as drawers, doors and containers.
With the knowledge that dogs are capable of social learning, and that it can be used to train them, Fugazza began to explore ways to put this aptitude to use. Her book, Do as I Do: Using Social Learning to Train Dogs (Dogwise), explains the method in detail as well as the history of its development.
The Do as I Do (DAID) method teaches dogs to copy human actions. Once a dog understands the system, the person can perform a behavior, say “Do it!” and the dog will imitate it. Fugazza’s research has demonstrated that this method is highly successful, especially when the behavior involves an interaction with an object.
In a recent study, Fugazza and her collaborators found that—when compared to dogs taught via shaping/clicker-training methods—DAID-trained dogs learned faster, were better able to generalize the performance of a new task to a new context, and were more successful at performing the task in response to a verbal cue 24 hours after the training session (Fugazza, Miklósi 2015).
Like any training method, DAID has both advantages and limitations. Though some see it as a challenge to their own longtime training methods, Fugazza considers it a supplement rather than a replacement. In order to learn what “Do it!” means, dogs must be able to perform a number of behaviors learned via other methods, shaping/clicker among them. She also emphasizes that while DAID can reduce the time it takes to train a dog to perform certain tasks, it’s not useful for teaching dogs to walk on a leash or to come when called.
Among its advantages is its focus on the human/canine relationship, and many dogs seem to benefit from this way of learning. Another interesting aspect of the DAID paradigm is the view it provides of dogs’ cognitive processes. What Fugazza finds most interesting is that it allows an investigation of the way the observer (the dog) represents the action of the demonstrator (the person). In other words, it allows her to see what is in the dog’s head when he observes the action of the demonstrator. Studying how dogs learn through imitation has implications for our understanding of dogs’ minds as well as their behavior.
One study involved the action of opening a drawer. The people performed the action with their hands, but dogs’ use of either paw or nose was considered successful. (Researchers were looking for what they call “functional imitation,” which takes into account the differences between dog and human anatomy.) One of the dogs did not imitate the behavior, which was surprising because this dog had previously had a lot of success with DAID training. The guardian said she thought her dog would do it if she herself demonstrated by opening the drawer with her mouth, which she did. The dog then immediately copied her action, and did it correctly. Since most dogs opened the drawer by mouth after observing a human do it by hand, this exception provides insight into individual differences in dogs’ mental representations of actions.
Currently, Fugazza is researching the length of time that dogs can remember behavior shown by a human demonstrator, and this is the area in which she has been most surprised by dogs’ abilities. Specifically, she was amazed to find that dogs can remember actions they observed after a 24-hour delay but did not ever perform during the learning session. Her research into time delays suggests that dogs’ mental representations of the actions demonstrated are long-lasting (Fugazza et al. 2015).
It’s exciting when science meets practical experience, and when love and understanding of dogs connect with a desire to improve our interactions and relationships with them. Claudia Fugazza, who has experience in both the world of science and dog training, has seen firsthand how different these fields can be.
In the scientific arena, there has been (and continues to be) extreme skepticism about work with canines in the area of imitation. Fugazza welcomes the criticism, which she says forces her and her colleagues to do even better, more conclusive research. The intense scrutiny has improved their work and allowed them to design and carry out the very cleanest and best studies possible.
She has had the opposite reaction from the dog-training world—hardly any skepticism at all—probably because dog lovers believe that dogs are amazing and have incredible untapped potential. Additionally, dog trainers, who typically are open to new styles of training and always looking for novel ways to work with dogs, are finding the DAID approach to be quite useful.
That’s no surprise, because the method takes advantage of social learning, which comes naturally to dogs. What is thrilling is that it opens up a world that millions of dog trainers and dog guardians have fantasized about for years. We can show dogs—literally show them—what we want them to do!
Prompting Investigation for Animal Cruelty
Our colleague, Mark Derr’s “Dog’s Best Friend” blog looks at an alarming program from Cesar 911 (National Geographic Wild). Seems as if the controversy surrounding Cesar Millan lives on, but this time his total disregard of how his misguided and irresponsible “beliefs” about animal behavior and dog training have resulted in other animals being harmed. It is truly unconscionable that National Geographic, that purports to be a family oriented network, would allow this animal abuse to happen and then to actually televise it. Trying to get a dog to be a “friend” to pet pigs by leashing them together and then the dog running amuck injuring the pigs certainly should not be considered to be suitable or entertaining programming. As for Millan, as dog lovers should be aware of by now, just about every animal behaviorist and veterinarians worldwide have denounced his methods and teachings. National Geographic needs to hear from us about this latest abusive behavior. There is a Change petition that is being circulated.
LATEST NEWS: Cesar Millan is now being investigated for possible animal abuse on this matter.
Here is Mark Derr's post:
[Note: The video clip of the Cesar 911 episode to which this posting refers appears to have been removed from public viewing on YouTube. A partial clip and commentary can be found here(link is external).]
On March 7, staff writer Christian Cotroneo reported for The Dodo, the website devoted to “the love of animals” on Cesar Millan’s “worst dog-training idea, ever,” that is, a particularly demented plan to reform a pig-killing French bulldog by giving him a “positivememory” with pigs upon which he can build a less lethal relationship with all other life forms. Millan, the self-proclaimed dog whisperer who has attained cult status by showing hapless dog owners how to become “pack leaders” by giving their animals “discipline” before “affection,” has raised the hackles of serious animal behaviorists and dog trainers even before his program first aired on the National Geographic channel in 2003. Since then he has become a one-man conglomerate, with spin-off television programs, a magazine, best-selling books, and a hugely successful website.
But all along, he has had his critics, including me, as most readers of this blog know. In 2006, I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times criticizing Millan’s approach to training and his antiquated view of dominance hierarchies. Other critiques have followed, including a number of essays by my fellow Psychology Today blogger Marc Bekoff and protests from the leading animal behaviorists in the country. Criticism of Millan routinely draws vitriolic, sometimes threatening, responses from his followers.
The current controversy surrounding Milllan focuses on an episode from his new program Cesar 911, in which he addresses problem cases. The clip was posted on You Tube on February 25 and has raised a ruckus in social media said Cotroneo in his response to the show. (A noted above, the clips have largely been removed from public view.) In the episode, Millan puts a pig-killing French bulldog into a fenced training area stocked with pigs with the intent that he will learn not to attack but to love pigs. While on a long line—an extended lead—held by Millan, the dog seems fine, but when his human companion unlooses him on Millan’s order, Simon turns demonic. He rips one pig’s ear. He escapes Millan’s desperate lunges—“I’ve got it,” the dog whisperer says at one point. At another, as Millan tumbles to the ground gasping for air, he mutters, “This is teaching.”
But what is taught and what is learned? Certainly the best learning outcome would be for National Geographic to take a stand for dogs, pigs, and other animals and remove Cesar Millan from the air until he reforms his act.
Used with permission of Mark Derr.
We just read a wonderful story about another inventive and humane way to save shelter dogs and to showcase their many charms and talents. This story is from the Brazil Open tennis tournament being held in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Shelter dogs Frida, Costela, Mel and Isabelle, all sporting orange bandannas, wowed the onlookers by their ball “handling” abilities. In their previous life these four ball-dogs were street dogs in Brazil largest city. But now, as trained by Andrea Beckert, from the Association of Animal Wellbeing, they are retrieving the out-of-bounds tennis balls, and bringing them back, joyfully, to their trainer and, at times, to the players.
As Beckert noted—she trained them for months before this appearance—they were hoping to make the animals more confident and playful to “win” attention and hopefully new homes. “These are dogs that were mistreated. We have to make them adapt, feel the environment, the court, the noise of the balls and the noise of the people. Some are doing well, others are still a little scared,” she related. The basic commands that the dogs learned were ‘pick the ball,’ ‘let it go,’ ‘stay’ and ‘come.’”
All four still live in the shelter, said Marli Scaramella, the organizer of the ball-dog program, “The idea is to show people that a well-fed and well-treated animal can be very happy. We have more than 1,000 dogs in our care,” she said. Let’s hope this worked and will inspire other sporting events in other countries.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Easy Circus Trick
Spin Left and Right: Start with your dog facing you in a stand. Lure her in a circle, rewarding her at 3, 6 and 9. At 12, switch direction and repeat. If she doesn’t follow your lure, analyze her performance and add motivation right before she begins to lose focus. If she shows a preference for one direction over the other, do a few extra reps on her weaker side each time you practice. The spin is not only an essential part of more advanced tricks, it also helps a dog quickly habituate to distractions and is a great warm-up exercise.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Littermate syndrome has potential downsides.
The email described a familiar scenario: “We were planning to adopt one puppy, but the breeder said that raising two sisters would be easier. After we brought the girls home at nine weeks, their behavior became increasingly out of control. My husband and I could not get their attention for more than a second or two—it was as if we weren’t even in the same room. And then they started displaying alarming fearfulness of people and other dogs.” I made an appointment for a home visit so I could meet the family and the puppies.
Many dog behaviorists, trainers, breeders and shelters discourage adopting siblings. Anecdotal evidence suggests that behavioral issues may arise during key development periods because the two puppies’ deep bond impedes their individual ability to absorb and grasp the nuances of human and canine communication. Since fear is the canine’s default reaction to odd or unfamiliar stimuli, this muddled understanding of the world around them can lead to impaired coping mechanisms later on.
Of course, many factors influence behavior, and not all siblings raised together will exhibit this problem, which is called “littermate syndrome”; it’s a risk, not a foregone conclusion.
Dunbar points out that raising littermates necessitates training two puppies, which is particularly challenging when they’re essentially wearing blinders to all but each other. “It’s more than twice the work; it’s exponential. The two combine to produce levels of energy that we can barely measure. Tension develops in training and compliance as they squeeze the owner out of the relationship. They’re always living with an enormous distraction: each other.”
The Tie That Binds
Wilde believes the problems are rooted in hyper-attachment, which leads to hindered social development and communication issues. “People assume that having two same-age pups who play together and interact constantly covers their dog-dog socialization needs, but they in fact don’t learn how other [dogs] play and have no idea about social skills with other puppies, adolescents or adult dogs. Perhaps one puppy is a bit of a bully, which his littermate puts up with, but his rude behavior might not be tolerated by a new dog in a new setting.”
During my appointment with the family, we determined that the best course was to rehome one of the 12-week-old siblings. Dunbar agrees that it’s often best to separate littermates, especially if symptoms appear early, so that each has a chance to develop normally as an individual. This is obviously a burdensome decision for the overwhelmed owner to make, a sort of canine Sophie’s Choice, so he recommends that potential new owners meet both puppies and determine which to take home.
Dunbar, too, is adamant that one of the key lessons a puppy must master is how to be content with being alone, which is all but impossible with two siblings. “Once we’ve done that, yes, he can live with other dogs and have free run of the house. But if you don’t teach puppies early on how to be alone, and especially with siblings who have always been together, it will be catastrophic when one dies.” Dunbar encourages multiple dog households— “I always like having three dogs”—but the timing, temperament and age that each enters the home is paramount.
Most people have never heard of littermate syndrome, finding out about it while researching their dogs’ problematic behaviors. Increasingly, however, trainers and behavior professionals recognize that the cons of adopting siblings far outweigh the pros. “The only advantage I can think of is a short-term gain of the puppies being less lonely in the first month of life,” says Dunbar. “Everything else is a loss.”
Exceptions and Hope
Myriad factors affect dog behavior, including genetics, early life experiences and owner engagement. As University of California, Davis, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Melissa Bain points out, “Two fearful littermates very well may be genetically predisposed to fear.” Bain is less inclined to apply the term syndrome to the set of symptoms. “It makes you think all littermates have problems, which is not the case.” She also emphasizes that the level of owner involvement is key, saying, “The symptoms escalate when the owners treat them as one dog with eight legs.” When conflict ensues between the pair, Bain believes it’s due to the dogs being similar in size, age and gender. “This uniformity makes it difficult for the siblings to delineate a hierarchy,” she said.
After one of the siblings had been rehomed, I received an email from the owner describing how the remaining puppy began to thrive under a remedial socialization program. “Dora has blossomed in the last three months into a delightful household companion, and she continues to improve. She now approaches people out of curiosity. We know she would still be fearful had we not separated the two before it got any worse. Dora has become more confident with all kinds of dogs, and successfully completed a group obedience class.”
While siblings blessed with extraordinary genes and socialization-forward owners may avoid littermate syndrome, the consensus among canine professionals is that it’s not worth the risk. Most would encourage new owners to adopt a single puppy who suits their lifestyle and to focus on the training and socialization that strengthens the interspecies bond unique to humans and dogs. Once your puppy is a dog, by all means, get a second, since the two will be at completely different stages, and the older one may very well emerge as a great life teacher to the younger.
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