A new film looks at a young man and a dog both in need of a place to call home.
In A Stray, Adan, a young, homeless Somali immigrant played by Barkhad Abdiarhman (Captain Phillips) is paired with a homeless dog. This compelling film, written and directed by Musa Syeed, is only his second narrative feature. Syeed, clearly influenced by the neo-realism of the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, chose to center his story in a community of Muslim Somalians living in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.
In this society, Adan is on his own, unfocused and confused. Similar to many refugees, he tries to assimilate, although he’s not sure what that really means, as well as to stay in touch with his own culture and religion. Then, while on a job delivering food, he hits a stray dog, played with charming realism by Ayla, a Terrier mix.
The dog is uninjured, but then Adan, with no resources of his own, is burdened not only by a creature who needs to be cared for but also, one his religion considers unclean. Adan feels helpless in this situation, ill-equipped to know what’s best for himself or for the dog. Slowly, we see Adan growing into a kinder, more focused person, a change inspired, perhaps, by the incipient bond he forges with the dog and his efforts to do the right thing by her.
This film provides the viewer with insight into a social milieu with which most of us are entirely unfamiliar, that of refugees and their struggle to survive in American communities. Also, in a revelatory scene, into the Native American community; each group finds it difficult to understand the other’s “outsider” status. The film’s ending is influenced by a lesson an imam shares with Adan: A man was wandering in the desert and finally found water, but near the well, there was a thirsty dog. The man filled his shoe to give water to the dog before drinking some himself, and God granted the man heaven.
We spoke with the film’s writer/ director, Musa Syeed, and Ayla’s handler/ owner, Karen Radford, to find out more about what informs their work.
Bark: What inspired this film?
Musa Syeed: My wife found a stray dog shortly after we got married. We are both Muslim, and we were raised to believe that dogs are dirty—you can’t touch them and that kind of thing. Over the weeks we had the dog, I unexpectedly developed a relationship with her. She was a black Lab/ German Shepherd mix, and was such a happy puppy after my wife nursed her back to health. But we were moving to another state, so we decided to take her to the shelter. I had a connection with her, even though I had to give her up. I had this regret, and I started to look at this attitude toward dogs. It isn’t just a religious thing; there are lots of layers to it, and I wanted to make a film about that.
Bark: How did you come to incorporate the dog into the film, and as such an important character?
Musa: I wanted to write a story about a Muslim kid and a dog, like those typical classic American stories. We all grew up reading White Fang and those kinds of books, and I wanted to tell that story from a new perspective, reflecting the new America, in a way. I had that idea in the back of my mind. I also wanted to tell a story about the Minneapolis Somali community and the thematic connection between this community of refugees that’s trying to make a home for itself and a dog who also needs a home. For me, the interesting thing is how unlikely pairings such as these happen and how they find a way to connect, and to love each other in a way, despite the barriers between them. In this case, the question was, how can you love something you can’t touch? That was something I thought was an interesting challenge to show, and it is something that reflects this moment in America. There is a lot of division, and how we bridge it is what’s important to me.
Bark: How did you connect with Karen and her dog Ayla?
Musa: A local [Minneapolis] animal trainer, Debi Pool of Animal Talent Pool, has a catalog of 60 or 70 dogs, and she showed us pictures and some videos. I thought that when we did close-ups, people needed to see the dog’s eyes for that personal connection. Ayla has nice eyes, and her look was really great, her scruffy look; plus, she was the right size to fit into the bag!
Bark: Tell us more about Ayla.
Karen Radford: We adopted Ayla through Secondhand Hounds [Eden Prairie] about five years ago. She was found wandering in a ditch. We don’t know her exact mix, but we speculate Jack Russell and West Highland Terrier. True to her Terrier type, she’s excellent at hunting up vermin, and she still loves wandering in ditches. One of my hobbies is to train dogs for sports like agility and flyball. So although this is Ayla’s acting debut, she was very amenable to training.
Bark: Musa, could you tell us about directors or movies that have influenced your filmmaking?
Musa: There are neo-realism films that focus on a dog, especially Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., about an older man and a dog, although in that story, he wanted to get rid of the dog so he could commit suicide. And then there was a 2008 American film, Wendy & Lucy, about a woman who has to give up a dog in order to save herself.
I was inspired by those films, but I think that oftentimes, it’s easy to be sentimental with dogs and to use them to manipulate audiences, to tug at their hearts. I deliberately didn’t push that too hard. In some films, the dog dies or goes through some brutality, and I also didn’t want this film to be about that. I know people will see that this film is about a refugee and a dog and think that something really devastating will happen, but it doesn’t go there. I wanted to tell a story that was more lighthearted and healing for the people watching it.
Bark: Even though we know little of the main characters’ backstories, they feel multidimensional. Was much of the filming off script, or improvised?
Musa: There was some of that. When I wrote the screenplay, there were certain things I thought were simple, things a dog would just do, like barking; I didn’t realize that it’s a skill that has to be trained. So a lot was understanding what we had to prepare Ayla for and, importantly, what she was up for doing. There was a scene where she was supposed to jump and run around and she didn’t feel like it at that moment, so we had to find a way to work around her. She can’t take direction from me. It was more about respecting where she was, and trying to shape scenes to where she wanted to be.
Bark: Karen, how did you go about training Ayla for more scripted scenes —for example, when she needed to jump into the bag?
Karen: We didn’t have much time between when we were selected and when we shot the film, so we worked on the basics. For the bag-jumping, she had breakfast in her bag every morning. I have another dog, and they would have a competition to see who got to be in the bag. We made that bag really rewarding. We practiced throwing a shirt over her, having different people pick her up, having her ride with someone in a wheelchair. The challenge was that we didn’t know what would happen from day to day, or where the scenes would be filmed, so we didn’t have a chance to visit beforehand. As Musa said, we just had to work with the challenge that dogs don’t generalize. Even if I had her do a behavior at home, that didn’t mean she would do it the same way in an apartment or in a park.
Bark: There’s a scene where Adan bathes Ayla in a bucket. Did you have to train specifically for that?
Karen: One of the challenges of that scene was that she wasn’t allowed to shake [the water coming off her is considered “unclean”]. I can’t take credit for actually teaching Ayla not to shake when wet. However, I taught her a rock solid “watch me,” which we used when she had to stand unattended in the bucket, and I taught Barkhad how to handle her when he was bathing her so she wouldn’t shake all over him. After the scene was done and Barkhad was out of range, Ayla was allowed to shake to her heart’s content.
Musa: Karen brought that bucket to the set. I have to commend her for being more than just the owner/ trainer. She helped with props and other things. It made the movie better —having someone on-set like that to collaborate was really great.
Bark: Tell us about the cultural divide over the concept of pet-keeping.
Musa: There are differences in opinion within Islamic law about the impurity of the dog, and that can often be exaggerated. It comes less from the religion itself than from cultural practices and not being exposed to dogs. Also, when immigrant families have to feed themselves, pet-keeping seems like a luxury. Besides religion, there’s a racial/cultural component. And then at the end, people have to realize that keeping the dog is harder for him than it is for other people, not just because of religion but also because of social and economic factors. So I hope that people see that there are layers to that choice, and appreciate it.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s the quickest way to present a “well-trained” dog
If your dog knows a trick, people are more likely to consider him well-trained than if he doesn’t. It doesn’t matter that it is far easier and faster to teach a dog to crawl, rollover or high-5 than it is to teach a dog to stay, come or heel. Performing the trick is often more impressive to people. There’s an erroneous assumption that dogs naturally do the standard dog obedience behaviors, but tricks seem like out-of-reach behavior that is above and beyond what typical dogs can do. It’s not true at all, but the perception of that truth is why there is great value in training your dog to do a trick.
I’ve had a few clients over the years who have needed for various reasons to convince someone that a dog is very well trained with short notice. One needed to introduce his dog to a landlord before being allowed to rent an apartment. A second was visiting her boyfriend’s parents and wanted to make a good impression. A third situation involved a family who were scheduled for a home visit as part of their adoption process and had concerns that their dog’s behavior might detract from their appeal. In each case, along with a crash course in the basics, I advised them to teach their dog a trick that they could show off. The potential renter taught his dog to beg, the girlfriend taught her dog to wave, and the couple seeking to adopt trained their dog to bow. All of them reported what I had suspected, which is that the trick did more to convince people that the dog was well-trained than the less flashy “normal” behavior.
Asking your dog to perform tricks always offers an opportunity to show him in the best light, but it’s especially useful if you don’t have enough time to make his training basics rock solid. One key time-saving strategy is to choose the trick that is most natural for your dog so he can learn it quickly. Many behaviors that are already in your dog’s normal repertoire can be turned into tricks. If your dog stretches a lot, consider “bow” as a possible trick. If he bats at things with his paw, he may be good at “high-5”. If your dog backs away from things, teach him to “back up”. Many dogs are naturals at “roll over”, “get your toy” or “spin”. If your dog already does a certain behavior, it is often possible to teach him to do it on cue in just a few quick sessions, and that is what turns it into a trick.
Teaching tricks gives you an edge when you have to get some training done in a hurry because you can choose to teach your dog whatever is easiest for him, and skip anything that poses a challenge. That’s not possible with basic obedience skills because you can hardly skip heel or stay because it doesn’t suit your dog’s natural behavior. Whether your dog naturally likes to come when called, people expect your dog to do it. Tricks are often unexpected and suggest that your dog will do whatever you ask of him. In other words, they offer evidence that your dog is well-trained.
Has your dog had the opportunity to look good by performing a trick?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Does playing after training sessions make a difference?
Many people know that going to sleep after studying helps consolidate the information and commit it to long term memory. (It works out beautifully if the subject was putting you to sleep anyway!) For dogs, a different approach may be worthwhile. Researchers conducted a study in dogs called “Playful activity post-learning improves training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)” and concluded that physiological arousal—in the form of play—following training has a positive effect on learning in dogs.
The subjects of the study were all Labrador Retrievers, which allowed the researchers to make sure that differences between breeds did not influence their results. The dogs were trained in a choice task between two objects that looked and smelled differently. Training took place in sessions of 10 trials with short breaks to walk around outside or rest in a waiting area in between each session. Dogs were considered successful at the choice task when they chose the right object eight or more times in two consecutive trials of 1O.
Once dogs reached this level of success, they either rested for 30 minutes in the presence of their guardian and one of the researchers, or they were active for 30 minutes. Specifically, that activity consisted of 10 minutes of walking on leash, then 10 minutes of off leash play (fetch with a ball or with a disc or tug, depending on the dog’s preference), then 10 more minutes of walking on leash. The dogs in each group (rest or activity) were monitored for salivary cortisol levels and heart rate to confirm that their states of physiological arousal were different. (They were.)
The following day, all of the dogs were tested again to see how many trials it took them to relearn the task. The difference between the two groups was remarkable. The dogs who walked and played after training took an average of 26 trials to relearn the task. The dogs who rested after training needed an average of 43 trials to reach that same level of success. The differences could be a result of chemical changes in the brain.
The brain is affected by chemicals that influence memory, whether those chemicals are naturally produced by the body or given as a drug. Various studies have shown that hormones and drugs that induce high arousal can have positive effects on memory if the brain is exposed to them after training.
The results of this study provide further evidence that arousal following training can be beneficial, since dogs in the active group were more highly physiologically aroused than dogs in the rest group. However, I’m not convinced that the data show that play itself is the key factor that caused the difference between the two groups in the study. Perhaps the walking part of the post-training activity played a role, and it may be that any form of exercise could be beneficial following training.
I hope researchers conduct studies in the future to investigate whether it is truly the play itself that improves learning in dogs. I would love to know if playing during training (as opposed to after) enhances dogs’ learning, whether because of physiological arousal, or simply because it might be easier to learn when having fun.
Whether play is the cause of the difference between the two groups or not, I’m definitely in favor of playing with dogs after training sessions. It provides a mental break for dogs after the hard work of training. Most dogs love training, and the fun of play prevents a negative feeling about the end of a session. Both training and play can strengthen relationships between people and dogs and doing them back-to-back may be especially powerful. I often play with dogs after a training session, and if that enhances their training because of positive effects on memory, that’s another bonus.
Do you play with your dog after training sessions?
News: Guest Posts
There’s something special (and valuable!) about it
Having two dogs can be more than twice as much work as having one, and having three can require way more than three times as much effort. That pattern continues as the number of dogs increases. There’s no doubt that having a multi-dog household is a big undertaking, and yet many people can barely imagine having just one dog in their heart and home at the same time. They would miss scenes like the one to the left of an adorable dog pile.
These are the three dogs—from two different households—that my family recently hosted for a couple of days, and it was a good experience for all of us. (They live on the same street and their guardians are friends, so they know each other. Luckily, they all get along.) The companionship they gave one another during their stay with us made me happy, and not just because it took some pressure off of me to make sure that they were having fun. When I observed them together, there was a comfort in the company they provided one another that was lovely to see. I’m not saying it is better or worse than the social benefits to dogs of being around people, but it’s different.
Despite the extra work for the people, I kept thinking about the benefits for the dogs of being in a group, beyond just how nice it was for them to have a couple of buddies of the same species around. There are obviously drawbacks to having more than one dog, but some of those can be channeled positively. Having multiple dogs can provide training challenges, but it also offers opportunities to help dogs learn to attend to a person despite big distractions. While these dogs were visiting us, I made a point of doing some training sessions with the added difficulty of having other dogs around. Here is a photo of Marley and Saylor successfully holding their “stay” while Rosie (out of view) played with a toy nearby.
Performing any skill in a distracting environment is a challenge, and the presence of other dogs is often particularly hard for social dogs. With three dogs in the house, it was easy to set up situations where one dog worked on a skill while one or both other dogs were there. Rosie worked on her “spin” trick a lot during her visit. In the first video below, she practices it while the other dogs are not around. That work was to lay the groundwork for the success you can see in the second video, in which she spins when the other two dogs are present.
Walking three (or more) dogs at the same time is not always easy, but it offers opportunities, too. Each time one dog stops to sniff or for a potty break, the other dogs need to exercise patience.
It’s hard standing around when you want to keep going, but being required to do so brings benefits. Handling frustration and exhibiting self-control in such situations is beneficial to dogs. Similarly, waiting your turn when it comes to treats or dinnertime also gives dogs practice with emotional self-control, and that is an important part of maturing into a pleasant adult.
My main concern before the shared visit was making sure that Marley, who is 10 years old, had some peace and quiet from both his regular housemate Saylor, who is about a year old, and from his neighbor Rosie, who is about eight months old. Marley likes both dogs and often plays with them, but he needs more rest and snoozy time than the young pups. He opted out of some play sessions, as many older dogs often do. He would take a rest, hang out with us or chew on something while the other two played.
We also helped Marley get away if he wanted to by letting him up on our couch, but not allowing the younger dogs to bother him when he was there.
The only reason it ever felt overwhelming to have three dogs was a result of bad luck in the form of the weather. It rained all day in the middle of the visit, which meant that every time the dogs came inside, we had a dozen wet, muddy paws to deal with. I’m not going to lie—that was a big hassle. Other than that, we had a glorious time while these three little angels were visiting us.
What advantages do you appreciate about having multiple dogs?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog resource guarding is a common— and fixable—behavior.
Does your dog growl and show his teeth if you come near him while he’s chewing on a bone? Does he stiffen if you try to take a toy from him? If you walk near him while he’s eating, does he eat faster? Would you be nervous if a child approached while he had a rawhide? If you can answer no to all of these questions, take a moment to appreciate your good fortune: you have what most dog people want. If you answered any in the affirmative, your dog is exhibiting behavior that canine professionals call “resource guarding.”
Resource guarding refers to any behavior that a dog displays to convince others to stay away from something he considers valuable. Among these behaviors are the growling, tooth displaying, stiffening and frantic eating already mentioned. To that list, add glaring, snapping, barking, leaning over the resource to shield it and biting. Dogs commonly guard food, toys, treats, bones, rawhide, beds and even another dog or a person.
In most cases, resource guarding is subtle. A dog with a pig’s ear, for example, may turn his body to shield his precious treasure from anyone approaching, or he may pick it up and carry it to another room. He might put his paw on it or even give you a look that means something along the lines of “Don’t even think about it,” or “Please don’t take it away. I want it.” Few people are troubled by such mild forms of resource guarding.
Even though resource guarding can become far more serious, it’s one of my favorite behavioral problems, for several reasons. One, there are ways to prevent it in most dogs. Two, behavior-modification plans are easy to implement, clients usually buy into them and they are effective at improving the dog’s behavior. Three, many people choose to simply live with it, managing it as best they can. That may not sound very inspiring, but I consider any solution that keeps a dog at home and people safe while allowing a loving relationship between the two to flourish and grow to be a success.
Prevent Resource Guarding
Dogs are often nervous about losing what they value. With that in mind, a key aspect of preventing resource guarding, including its most common form—food bowl aggression—is to teach dogs to be happy when someone approaches or reaches for their treasure, or for the bowl while they’re eating. Dogs who are happy in a particular context are a whole lot less likely to act aggressively.
Creating this positive emotional reaction is simple: teach the dog to associate the approach of a person with treats. I advise people to walk toward their dog and toss a really good treat into the bowl or near their treasure. Once the dog is used to this, the next step is to walk over, pick up the bowl or the treasure, deliver a treat (in the bowl is fine) and then return the bowl or the treasure. It’s important to do this quickly—within a few seconds at most—so the dog doesn’t feel like he’s being teased.
I suggest doing this only once or twice per session; even though the dog receives a treat, the interruption can still be irritating. (I imagine dogs in that situation feel like I do when a restaurant server refills my water glass every time I take a sip: mildly harassed.)
Many people have been advised to put their hand in the dog’s food bowl, or to pick up the bowl and hold it. Unfortunately, this strategy is far more likely to lead to food-bowl aggression than to prevent it. Such actions are irksome, so it’s no surprise that many dogs will lose their temper eventually. While some dogs will never become resourceguarders, even when provoked, others can be taught to be aggressive around their food. Some of the worst resourceguarders I’ve ever seen were taught to be that way by their well-intentioned guardians.
People accidentally teach dogs to guard their resources in other ways as well. If a dog has a bone (or food or a shoe or the remote control) and it is taken from him, he learns that he loses treasures unless he takes action. To avoid that, instead of taking something from a dog, trade him for it. Hold a treat or other desirable object right by his nose, and if he drops the contraband, give him the offered item. This teaches him that he gets paid for letting go of things rather than that he will be mugged whenever he has something valuable.
It’s very important to help dogs feel happy about releasing items and to actively avoid making it a negative experience. Trading is far better than a battle, and is very effective, especially if he’s “trading up”—getting something better than what he surrenders.
Another strategy is to have the dog drop the object, give him a treat and then give him back the item. This helps him learn that it’s worthwhile to release things. I like to teach the cue “drop it” so that if a dog gets something he shouldn’t have, I can ask him to release it before he damages it, or damages himself.
Modify Resource Guarding Behavior
Giving extra treats when a dog has something of value is a useful technique for prevention of resource guarding, but it can also be used to stop an existing behavior. (If the dog has previously bitten or threatened anyone, I advise having a behaviorist supervise this interaction.)
Start by standing outside the dog’s reaction zone and tossing high-quality treats to him. The goal is to make him happy that a person is present when he has a treasure. This change in his emotional response is what will lead to a change in his behavior. The closer you get, the more intense the situation becomes. Intensity also goes up if the dog has a more highly valued item, or if you approach, reach for or pick up the resource.
Work at each level of intensity until the dog is comfortable, and only then progress to something harder. The highest-intensity context is to approach a dog and take something that he values highly. Success can only be achieved by gradually working toward that goal and requires many steps and many repetitions over a period of weeks and months.
Live with It
Despite the challenges of sharing a home with a dog who guards resources, it’s common for people to choose to live with it. People who have a dog with this predilection know when to expect the behavior, and they simply avoid going near their dog when he has a valued item. This predictability may account for the lack of concern many have about resource guarding. Of course, predictability varies depending on the household. A single person who rarely entertains is in a very different situation than a family with five small kids who have additional children over to play nearly every day.
Years ago, the standard view was that a dog shouldn’t be approached at mealtimes or when he was chewing a bone or playing with a favorite toy, and there’s a lot of good sense in that. If people don’t bother their dogs while they are eating, and they purposely avoid going near them when they have a bone or other treasure, trouble can be averted.
Life with a dog who allows absolutely anyone to take absolutely anything away from him is pretty easy, but that’s really a lot to ask of even the dearest, sweetest dog on the planet. There are, of course, dogs who are as unlikely to guard resources as they are to calculate Schrödinger’s wave equation. But we shouldn’t assume that dogs who are lovely but perhaps not so nonchalant about being mugged are bad.
With dogs who are at risk of causing injury, it’s obviously critical to have some way to make sure that everyone is safe. People can deal with this problem by preventing situations that trigger problem behavior (particularly aggression) and with behavior modification that alters how the dog behaves when he has something of value. How important it is to train dogs not to resource guard is an individual decision; many people are highly committed to changing their dog’s resource guarding behavior, while others, not so much.
Resource guarding is both common and absolutely normal canine behavior. I’m not excusing it or saying that it’s not a problem, but like barking and chewing, it is accepted by many people as part of living with a dog—although clearly, it’s nobody’s favorite part. As is true of other undesirable behavior, though it can be changed and improved with behavior modification, tons of people choose to accept it, figuring that life is too short to demand perfection of their best friends in all contexts.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
I am crazy about the pet stroller!
As far as I’m concerned, it is the greatest invention. I originally bought one to take my senior dog Red on outings, but sadly I now have another use for my stroller. Jack, my young dog (around 4 years) recently underwent spinal surgery. He is unable to walk yet and facing a long recovery, so I take him out twice a day to relieve boredom.
If you need a stroller in your life but your dog refuses to have anything to do with it, don’t worry, because this training will help.
If your dog is unsure or even downright terrified, please do not pick him up and plop him in. That can make him more fearful, and turn this into a bigger deal than it ever needed to be.
Step 1: Set the stroller up somewhere in your house, then leave it there for your dog to investigate.
Step 2: If he’s calm, give him a treat, or play with a favorite toy near the stroller.
Step 3: If he’s nervous, back up until he’s at a distance he’s comfortable with, then play with him or give him a treat. Make sure he can see the stroller.
Step 4: Gradually move closer and give him a treat or play with him.
Step 5: Once he’s fine next to it, pick him up, put him in and give him a treat. If at any point he panics, stop and resume the training later, from the last point where he was still comfortable.
Step 6: Start rolling. My dogs get very irritable if I put them in the stroller, and we don’t start moving within seconds. If that’s happening with your dog, he may just want to get going already.
Step 7: Roll him out into the garden. If he’s uncomfortable or nervous being outside, repeat the first few steps, only this time outside. You may be able to breeze through once he gets used to the change in environment.
Step 8: Time to hit the streets! Start off close to home then venture further afield. Try a quiet street, the park, then a busier area, public transport perhaps.
Why so many steps?
Some dogs will love the stroller right away, but for those that need time, taking training slowly greatly increases the likelihood of success. Offering treats and favorite toys creates positive associations. You want him to see how many great things happen when he’s in the stroller.
Keeping him safe
Put a harness on your dog, and attach a leash that you hold, to prevent him jumping out in a stressful or uncomfortable situation. If I’m in the middle of a crowd, and my dog(s) seem a bit nervous, I zip the awning to enclose the stroller, creating a den they can relax in.
Pet stroller training: conclusion
Your dog may hop right in and wonder why he’s not moving, or take a bit of convincing. For dogs that need time to adjust, this pet stroller training will get you teaching your dog to ride in a stroller in no time.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The education of a scent-detection dog.
Jaco pulls me hard past the cars in the driveway, slowing to run his nose across the seam of each trunk. The Prius, the Leaf, the old Mercedes, our Honda Civic covered with road dust and acorns. It’s an obsessive-compulsive habit from his early adolescence in the Czech Republic, where he had started to learn to detect explosives. I keep him moving. Someday, however, he may have to search car trunks for the scent of human remains. Because I’d like him to do that, I don’t actively discourage his vestigial nose sweeps.
Jaco is two years old, a compact sable German Shepherd with a stiff, cream-colored ruff of fur encircling his neck. He looks like a cross between a wolf, a tortoiseshell cat and Queen Victoria. I first met him outside a working-dog vendor’s kennel in North Carolina. His name was Jack then. He was 17 months old, recently flown in from the Czech Republic. Many U.S. law enforcement agencies get their detection and patrol dogs from Europe, either directly or via vendors who go over and bring back dogs they think show promise for law enforcement or for ring sports such as Schutzhund. I had decided to go the same route for my next cadaver dog.
I had never considered bringing home an adult German Shepherd before. I’d always started with fuzzy pups with milk teeth and elastic brains ready to be molded. This time, we’d get a dog who was already a bundle of muscle, with huge ivory fangs and a mind of his own. My husband, David, and I talked a long time about this unfamiliar dog-acquisition route. David asked me uneasily how a dog bred and raised for law enforcement or military work might fit into our small household and my world of volunteer search and rescue. Would the dog bond with me? With David?
Of course, I assured him breezily. Look at all the cops who have dogs they adore, and vice versa. They rarely get them as pups. I didn’t tell David that I knew some cops who greatly respected but didn’t love their dogs. And while rare, I’d seen a few cops who were afraid of their own dogs.
When the vendor brought Jaco out to meet us, he eyed me obliquely, then walked stiff-legged over to David, stood at his side and growled gently at him. David stood still and avoided making chirrupy, encouraging noises. The vendor wasn’t disturbed in the least; she approved of that wariness. That was the East German border patrol lineage coming out.
This particular dog, the vendor told me earlier via text, was “a lot of dog,” “a working fool.” Maybe too much dog for me? I needed a dog to work alongside me, not climb up the leash after me. I was a volunteer who wanted a dog to find dead people, not seek out suspects. I didn’t need a dog who considered every stranger, or my husband, as a potential bad guy.
But the qualities one looks for in any scent-detection dog, whether for law enforcement or volunteer purposes, are similar: A dog with drive. One who can hunt for scent for hours and not give up. Those qualities can be easier to find in the thousands of young German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds, and Belgian Malinois brought over each year from Europe to populate law enforcement K9 units in this country. These dogs—usually with ribs showing as a result of pacing in their kennels, being chronically underfed and then shipped long distances—arrive with the stench of kennel urine. They don’t arrive with cheery notes from their trainers. Or warning labels.
With imported “green” working dogs, it’s hard to know exactly how they were trained, what kind of health they’re in or what sort of personality they have. They all seem to have good noses (and a love of launching at a bite sleeve or a Gappay ball). We didn’t know if Jaco was housebroken or if he’d ever been in a home. We didn’t know if he was going to retain his suspicion of David.
Jaco’s early training had clearly involved bitework. When I brought out a section of rubber blast hose a few days after we brought him home, his teeth chattered with eagerness; he was trying to cap his own drive with that chatter. Then, he levitated and grabbed it, jolting me hard. He saw a jute bite sleeve at a training venue and dragged me to it, head low, gaze fixed, digging his nails into the concrete floor to get to it. The first few times I brought him into a warehouse, he was sure it was to play the bad-guy game. He glanced around quickly, ears pricked, forward on his toes, looking for a decoy skulking in a corner.
About a week after Jaco came to live with us, one of our neighbors saw him gazing at me with his enigmatic umber eyes. Leaping across species and gender boundaries, she declared, “He looks at you just like he’s a mail-order bride!” But I didn’t want Jaco for his gaze—which, by then, we were pretty sure wasn’t sociopathic—I wanted him for his nose. And I wanted that nose up and running as soon as possible.
I had spent eight years searching for the missing and dead with Solo. Only months after he died at the age of 11, we got word from the vendor that she had a good working dog prospect for me to assess. Part of me wanted a puppy, but I also wanted a dog who was sufficiently developed to allow me to see if, as an adult, he would have what I needed: the drive and mental stability to search for hours in bad conditions.
Not unlike a vaguely suspicious spouse who realizes it might be good to know more about his mysterious mail-order bride, I did an Internet search and stumbled upon an early video of Jaco trying to find a PVC pipe filled with Semtex (a plastic explosive notoriously popular with terrorists) under one of several milk crates. I say “trying” because Jaco wasn’t very good. I could see both his sincerity and his hesitation. He was 14 months old then, with tufts of hair going every which way, like a teenager who had just fallen out of bed. Is this what you want? He kept glancing at the trainer, and then back at the three plastic crates. One had the pipe underneath. He offered a tentative down next to it. It looked as though he hadn’t bothered using his nose. He was smart enough to cue off the trainer, who kept her foot planted on the positive crate.
The video gave me pause. I had expected a bundle of muscle and drive with a superfine nose, all parts installed and in working order. I wondered if this was why Jaco had been sent to the United States.
Still, I wanted to get going. I wanted to fill that handsome sable head with new marching orders, a world of toys and treats, a rich vocabulary, and so many new people he would soon realize how wonderful humans were (even if I knew better). In my American ignorance, despite all the evidence that he was mostly goofy and playful, I wrongly assumed that he’d had a puppyhood devoid of play and stimulation. I wanted to teach him to fetch and tug, and sit, and down and heel.
Most importantly, I wanted to expose him to the entirely new range of odors he would need to recognize to start searching for the dead. Those odors are as complicated as people; forensic scientists have identified at least 480 volatile compounds emitted by human remains, and the list keeps growing.
As I prepared to institute my complex battle plan, a more experienced friend—one who had trained many more search dogs than I—stopped me and gave me advice that I hated. “Sometimes,” my friend said, “doing nothing is better than doing something.”
I’m not exactly Zen, so it took time to understand what she was saying. When her simple remark sunk in, I realized that it was the best training advice I’d ever received. Making Jaco sensitive to what I did or said, teaching him to gaze adoringly into my eyes before he moved? That was the wrong approach. The definition of “doing nothing” depends on the individual dog, but in general, it means slowing down and not tossing a dog you don’t know into a scrum of people and new situations he’s not comfortable with, flooding him instead of teaching him. It means not rushing into training that might backfire.
I backed off my ambitious initial plans. Instead, David and I cuddled Jaco. Oddly, he liked that. We taught him to get in his crate without a fuss and wait for his food rather than scrabble to get out. He learned to navigate our slippery stairs without hesitation, and to stay off the counters. He had only one accident in the house. We taught him to tolerate his nails being Dremeled without grabbing our hands in irritation. I took Jaco into tobacco warehouses and deserted office buildings, and he stopped eyeing dark corners with as much suspicion. But I didn’t invite some of my wonderful but voluble friends over to meet him, and I didn’t parade him around the farmers’ market.
I waited. We bonded. And he didn’t growl at David again. Instead, when he saw my husband, Jaco’s mouth would fall open in a delighted grin.
TEACHING OBEDIENCE TO ODOR
A month after he came to live with us, Jaco and I went to see Lucy Newton, who’s quiet and exacting. She likes dogs. And most people. Unlike me, she is settled within herself. She has a couple of decades of experience training search-and-rescue dogs, patrol dogs, human-remains detection dogs, narcotics dogs, conservation dogs. I have enough experience to have had some success, but I’ve had notable failures as well. I also had some bad habits. It wasn’t just Jaco who had things to learn.
Lucy breaks tasks down into their smallest increments, partly for the handler’s benefit, sure, but largely because it helps the dog. Her directions to me were specific and clear: Open Jaco’s crate in the car. Clip his leash to his flat collar. Clip the collar on Jaco. Don’t hurry. Gather yourself. Only then, let him leap to the ground.
A chartreuse tennis ball on a string waited on the ground where he landed. His eyes glowed, his teeth snapped and he pranced into the nearby garage, the tennis ball clenched in his jaws, its short string hanging from his mouth like the tail of a dead mouse. After four weeks of cold turkey on any toy that resembled a ball, after four weeks of bonding boredom, Jaco finally got his fix.
Lucy waited for us at the back of the large garage, standing on a platform behind a bank of eight identical plywood boxes hanging from a rail. Part of a detection-dog training system developed by K9 trainer Randy Hare, the boxes had big PVC pipes sticking out of their tops like chimneys and clear plastic covers that could be raised and lowered on their fronts. Tinny rock music blared from a radio in the corner. Jaco ignored the music. The floor was slippery. Jaco ignored that. His mouth was full of tennis ball, and he was straining at the end of his leash. He’d been ball deprived and he didn’t want it taken away from him.
Without fanfare or a single word, Lucy dropped another tennis ball on a string down one of the box’s chimneys. She made it jerk around like a psychotic puppet. The trap was set. Jaco’s eyes widened. Forget that saying about a rabbit in the mouth being worth two in the bush. So untrue. He dropped the sodden ball on the concrete, then lunged toward the herky-jerky ball in the box. I lurched along behind, trying to keep his leash loose. Lucy, a masterful puppeteer, kept the tennis ball on the string both inside the box and inside Jaco’s jaws with slow, methodical tugs. His tail wagged slowly, his eyes were slitted in ecstasy.
That particular box held more than a bouncing ball. Wafting from a hidden compartment was the scent of human remains. As he blissfully tugged, Jaco got constant hits of this scent. That’s why Lucy let Jaco bogey that ball. That’s how you addict a dog to a scent. It was Jaco’s first step in learning the most important concept a detection dog needs: “obedience to odor.”
This moment was why my friend hadn’t allowed me to teach Jaco to “watch me” or “sit” or “down” or “give” or “fetch.” Or “come,” for that matter, as important as it is. Those would come later. For a scent-detection dog, one desire should override everything else: getting to the odor, wherever it’s located. That was what Lucy was teaching Jaco with Randy Hare’s box system. Other training techniques work, too. But this particular method made Jaco’s job simple and mine even simpler: I just had to get out of his way; he could essentially teach himself. He learned that three things were connected: if he could get as close as possible to a particular odor, he’d get a ball and a fun tug.
Over the next two weeks, in two 10-minute sessions each day, I watched Jaco transform from a hesitant “Is-this-it?” dog into an obsessed “I’m-at-the-box-with-the-scent-so-giveme- my-tug-game!” dog. Lucy, occasionally a tease, would wave a tennis ball on a string in front of his face, and he’d ignore it. If it wasn’t right next to the scent, he knew the ball wouldn’t put up a fight. Lucy threw a bunch of balls onto the floor, where they lay enticingly, like sirens on a rock. Jaco, now wiser than Odysseus, ignored them. He knew those balls were a trick, that the only time he’d get a ball to fight properly was if he had his head buried inside the box that contained the scent of human remains.
Other boxes had other scents: dead squirrel, kibble, deer bone. His nose quickly rejected them to find the box that made the ball come down the chimney. Lucy put ladders and chairs and slippery cardboard in front of the bank of boxes. After worrying and thinking hard, Jaco leapt over them, then shoved them aside with his nose. And there was the plywood box containing human remains. He planted his nose there. Lucy waited several beats. So did Jaco, his head cocked, fixed, like a fox at a mousehole. At last, as he knew it would, the good tennis ball came down the chute. And Jaco got his game. I make it sound so simple. Oddly, it was.
THE GAME’S THE SAME
We took the game outside the garage, and Jaco generalized quickly. No boxes with chimneys? Never mind. They’re not part of the scent-ball-tug triumvirate. He started to find scent source in the yard, in the woods, in the warehouse, in the alley behind a large home-improvement store. He was always astonished and pleased. His head would bob up and down like one of those toy drinking birds, almost touching the source, swinging up to make sure that I was coming to reward him, bringing it down to fix his nose as close to the source as he could get. The rules never changed; the game was the same.
Of course, this didn’t happen overnight, and, like any scent-detection dog, Jaco’s a work in progress. As am I, his handler. But as Jaco learns to find the scent of human remains hung in a tree, buried in the ground, downwind, upwind, in the heat and in the rain, on short searches and long searches, I’m watching him with joy. He’s not perfect. No dog is (nor is any handler). He adores chasing insects, possibly a vestige of his past life, when he was in a kennel and bored and flies were a great distraction. But he’s learned that a live tennis ball is more fun than a fly.
He needs no command. A tennis ball on a string is waiting on the ground when he leaps out of his crate. He grabs it. We go to wherever the training search starts. I show him a second ball, he drops the first, grabs for the second and misses, and I tuck both into my pocket. This ritual betrayal is his signal to start the hunt. His eyes light up, his mouth opens and he leaps away from me. Game on. Recently, I hid training material in an acre or so of deadfall and heavy brush and mud, the kind of mess created by a flooding river. A brisk wind whipped scent through the fallen trees and debris. He’d never worked in conditions this physically challenging.
So that he couldn’t track me back, I started him in an area away from where I’d walked to plant the material. I tucked the tennis balls in my pocket and he threw his head and ran. Within a minute, he was working more than 150 feet away from me, balancing on logs at the outer edge of the pile, then working his way back in. I could see him lift his head as he found scent drifting through one side of the pile. He ran around the edge, working to get ever closer. I stood there, watching him teach himself, watching his intense focus, watching him learn a new search pattern in the jigsaw puzzle of logs and branches. I was a bit worried about this new and precarious environment. He was not.
For Jaco, the tangle of wood, wind and mud was simply in the way of the three things he wanted: Scent. Ball. Tug.
News: Guest Posts
On September 8th the vein on my forehead started throbbing. Garmin had posted a video ad on Facebook for its new Delta Smart smartphone-based dog activity tracker that includes an electronic shock feature.
“Your dog wasn’t born with manners,” Garmin wrote. The video showed pictures of a “mail carrier alarmist” Schnauzer, a “blinds shredder” Whippet, and a “counter shark” Border Collie, to set up the point that, with their new device, consumers will be able to use electric shocks to teach their dogs to behave. The video has since received hundreds of scathing comments and has been shared more than 2,000 times.
Though Garmin has been selling e-collars for years, the Delta Smart system has caused a community of dog lovers to speak out in protest. In fact, I created a Change.org petition on Friday to ask Garmin to remove the electric shock feature from the device. As of this morning, the petition has garnered more than 5,000 signatures from across the globe. (I have not received a response from Garmin yet.)
Perhaps it was the Facebook ad that called attention to this controversial topic—it was the first time I had heard that the company sold e-collars. But it might also be because the Delta Smart system pairs electric shocks with an exciting new GPS technology for dogs. Dog guardians without training will have the ability to send electric shocks to their dogs’ necks by a mere tap on their smartphone screen. They may not be aware of the fact that using such collars can have serious repercussions.
Organizations including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the Pet Professional Guild and the UK Kennel Club have all spoken out against the use of shock collars, and countries including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria have banned the use entirely.
“Countless evidence indicates that, rather than speeding up the learning process,” wrote Susan Nilson, Niki Tudge and Angelica Steinker on behalf of the Pet Professional Guild, “electronic stimulation devices slow it down, place great stress on the animal, can result in both short-term and long-term psychology damage, and lead to fearful, anxious and/or aggressive behavior.”The IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants) also has just issued a position statement coming out, strongly, against this device, remarking that: “We believe this device has the potential to cause harm to dogs and should not be recommended by behavior consultants, trainers, or used by members of the public. This is because both Bluetooth and smartphones have the potential to introduce excessive latency. Latency is the delay between inputting something into a system, and the system’s output.” See the full IAABC statement here..
Will Garmin remove the shock feature from its new product? I’m not so naïve to think that will be an easy sell, but whether it happens or not, at least people are talking about the dangers of shock collars. With each signature to my petition, my forehead vein throbs a little less.
Learn more at on the change.org petition.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Study finds that pets are beneficial to families with autistic kids.
Animal assisted therapy has helped kids with a range of disabilities, but a new study has been looking at the effect of pet dogs on the whole family. A collaboration between researchers at the University of Lincoln and the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation has been looking at interactions between parents and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The study found that families with dogs experienced improved functioning among their ASD children and a reduction in the number of dysfunctional interactions between the parents and children.
The lead researcher, Professor Daniel Mills, says that while there's growing evidence that animal-assisted therapy can aid in the treatment of children with ASD, this is the first study to explore the effects of dog ownership. The team's work is also unique because the research looks at the effects on the family unit, as opposed to only looking at the ASD kids.
"We found a significant, positive relationship between parenting stress of the child's main caregiver and their attachment to the family dog," says Professor Mills. "This highlights the importance of the bond between the carer and their dog in the benefits they gain." The reduction in stress was not seen in families without a dog.
I can only imagine the anxiety and stress that parents of children with autism feel, but it's heartening to see the important role dogs play in our lives.
According to HABRI Executive Director Steven Feldman, "We have strong scientific evidence to show that pets can have positive effects on these quality-of-life issues. Families with an autistic child should consider pet ownership as a way to improve family harmony."
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Individual variation explains a lot
Dogs are well known to be chowhounds. The idea that they love food more than anything else is practically (excuse the expression) dogma in the fields of canine behavior and dog training. The trouble is, recent research suggests that it is not true for all dogs.
In a study called “Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food” scientists investigated whether dogs prefer treats or praise, and whether their choice can be predicted by their brains’ response to both stimuli. In one experiment, they measured the level of activation of the brain’s ventral caudate, an area known to function as a reward center, in response to items that predicted various outcomes. A toy car predicted that verbal praise was coming, a toy horse predicted that food on its way and a hairbrush was associated with nothing. Dogs were trained to make these associations with a series of 40 pairings of each object with what it predicted. The activation of the specific region of the brain was measured with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which is possible because the dogs in the study have all been trained to remain motionless while in the scanner.
The average activation of the reward center of the brain was higher in the food and praise conditions than in the neutral condition, which shows that the dogs did learn the associations between the objects and what the objects predicted. (Each dog’s responses in the brain to seeing the toy horse and NOT receiving the expected praise was also measured.) There were 15 dogs in this experiment, and most of them had a similar response in the reward center to the food or to the praise. Four showed a stronger response to praise and two showed a stronger response to food. The average response to praise and to food did not differ.
In another experiment, dogs were placed in a Y-maze and given the opportunity to choose which arm of the maze to go to. One arm led to a food bowl with treats and the other arm led to the dog’s guardian, who provided petting and praise. Each dog was tested in the Y-maze 20 times. Seven dogs in the study chose the guardian the more times than the food, and seven dogs chose the food more often. One dog chose the guardian and the food an equal number of times.
The relative value of praise versus food in the first experiment was highly predictive of the choices that dogs made in the Y-maze experiment. Dogs whose ventral caudate showed a strong response to praise were more likely to choose their guardian over food but dogs who did not show such a strong response to praise relative to food were more likely to head for the food when given a choice.
Regrettably, the results of this study have erroneously been reported in many places as proof that dogs prefer praise and belly rubs to treats, and suggested that using treats in training is therefore unnecessary. It has been written in many places discussing this study that 13 of 15 dogs prefer praise to food, and that’s not correct. What the researchers actually wrote is that in 13 of the 15 dogs, the ventral caudate showed either roughly equal activation to food and to praise or greater activation to praise than to food.
It’s quite interesting that roughly half of the dogs chose their guardian over food. For those dogs, social interaction such as praise and belly rubs may be more effective than treats in training. However, caution is important when acting on the findings in this study because the research may overestimate the response of dogs to their guardians relative to food in situations outside the laboratory setting.
The lab may have been stressful, causing a bias in dogs towards an increased interest in their guardians when compared with food. They may have been seeking comfort from their guardians in a way that they might not be during typical training situations. The scientists do point out that these dogs have been trained to stay still in the scanner and that the lab is a familiar environment. That does not mean the dogs are as comfortable as they are at home or in other areas such as on neighborhood walks, at the park or at the training center where they attend classes. It’s important to know what dogs choose in the actual training setting before changing what reinforcement to use based on lab research.
Additionally, although dogs may value social connections over food when the social interaction is with their guardian, not all training occurs between guardian and pet. I do a lot of training with dogs who I adore, but I don’t share quite the same bond with them as they do with their own guardian. So, just because dogs may prefer affection from their guardian over food does not mean that they prefer affection from just anyone over food. Finally, in many training scenarios, dogs receive praise in addition to food during training, and that may be more effective than either one alone.
Many people swear that their dogs prefer praise and petting to treats, and others are just as certain that food wins out every time with their dogs. Perhaps the most important lesson from this study is that individual variation in preferences is huge. If you feel strongly about what matters most to dogs, there’s a good chance you’re right—when it comes to your dog, anyway.
Do you think your dog would go for food or for praise and affection if given the choice?
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