News: Guest Posts
It's convenient and can save you time and money
If you could train your dog at home, would you do it? Trainers around the world are betting on it! Online dog training is a hot trend. Costs vary, but when you consider the savings in travel time and gas money, convenience pays.
Need basic obedience or behavior help? Check out CyberDog or E-Training for Dogs, founded by Cheryl Asmus-Aguiar, Ph.D. Classes and webinars are available by subject.
Agility addicts often drive far away and pay big bucks to attend seminars by some of the top trainers in the world. Now many of them offer their knowledge via online videos and homework assignments. Some even welcome videos of your training session so you can get feedback from the instructor and your cyberclassmates.
Try a new dog sport, such as Treibball or K9 Nose Work; go to Wag It Games, founded by Sumac Johnson of Maine. Online classes include Rally Obedience, Sniff It, Ball Herding, Living Room Agility and Homeopathy.
For less formal learning, go to YouTube and use search terms like dog training, obedience, agility, disc, etc.One of my favorite channels is Kikopup. Instructor Emily Larlham of Sweden generously shares step-by-step training skills for practically anything you'd like to teach your dog. And it's free!
If you've taken an online course, I’d love to hear what you liked and didn’t like about it. Did you and your dog enjoy it working on your own? Did you miss the social camaraderie of a physical classroom?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Talking Training with Victoria Stilwell
Q: We get along great with our neighbors; alas, our dog seems to despise their dog, and it’s mutual. Why don’t dogs like one another, and how do we teach them to get along?
A: People ask a lot from their dogs by expecting them to be social with every dog they meet. This can put a lot of pressure on a dog—especially one who finds it hard to cope in social situations. Humans are able to choose their friends and avoid people who make them uncomfortable, but when dogs aggress at other dogs, their people often punish them for “bad behavior” and unwittingly force them into situations that make them feel more insecure.
Disharmony between neighborhood dogs is relatively common. Dogs can be very protective of their territory, and anyone encroaching on it is a potential threat. Tension over territory could be a potential reason why your dog and your neighbor’s don’t get on. I advise you not to introduce the dogs on either’s home turf. All introductions should take place on neutral territory such as a park (but not a dog park), or a street well away from where you both live.
Before the introduction, make sure your dog has learned to focus on you and is good at following your direction. Focus cues such as “watch me” must be built up in a distraction-free environment before they can be effective outside, so prior training is essential. Once your dog is responding appropriately, take her to neutral territory and have your neighbors stand with their dog a good distance away—the distance at which both dogs can see one another without reacting negatively. Ask your dog to “sit” and “watch me,” and reward her each time she complies. When a dog is using her “thinking brain,” she is less likely to become emotional and feel the need to aggress.
If both dogs are calm, steadily move them closer to each other. If at any time either dog reacts, walk off in opposite directions, back to the point at which both dogs were comfortable. When the dogs are calmly standing within 10 feet of each other, start the “follow walk,” in which one dog follows the other (it is less confrontational for the more nervous dog to follow the non-biting end of the other). The next step is to walk them parallel with one another, making sure to maintain enough distance between them to avoid either of them reacting. If the parallel walk goes well, allow the dogs to greet face to face for a couple of seconds before you and your neighbor happily walk them off in opposite directions while praising them for their good behavior.
It might be possible to do all of this in one session, or it might take many weeks to get to the point where the dogs can greet calmly. Whatever the time frame, allow them time to feel comfortable. It is also important to realize that not allowing the dogs to greet can be frustrating to them, so if both look eager to make a connection, go directly to the quick greeting. If everything goes well, the greeting period can become longer until the dogs either want to play or go their own ways. If you are in an off-leash area and the dogs are calmly standing next to each other, remove the leashes.
Good walk and play experiences on neutral ground will bring them to the point where they can play with each other on home territory. Start the play outside before you bring them inside either home, and remove all highvalue resources (food and toys) to prevent potential fights. Dogs can also be highly protective of their people, especially inside their homes; in the event your presence causes a negative reaction, allow the dogs to interact in the yard; and if this is still too volatile a place, continue working in neutral spaces.
If both dogs continue to have problems even on neutral territory, it is time to either call in a professional or take the pressure off and realize that the dogs are not meant to be friends. If this is the case, then it is better for everyone if you visit with your neighbor on your own while your dog snoozes happily at home.
News: Guest Posts
Tricks for keeping indoor pups engaged
My dog, Stella, thinks she’s made of sugar. With exposure to rain, snow or other inclement weather, she hunkers down as if she might melt. That’s why my canine companionship toolkit includes a few strategies for occupying my little busybody when the sun’s in a downstay.
We’ve done basic nosework together, but really any parent-dog team can play “search.”
You’ll want to start the game with your dog in a sit or stay. Place a toy on the floor. When you release her, she’ll go to the toy. Reward this attention with a high-value treat. Do this a few more times, eventually introducing the name of the toy with your search cue.
Soon you’ll have an ever-growing list of searchable goodies in your dog’s repertoire.
Up the ante by placing the toy farther away or under things. Note that the higher you place something, the less easily she’ll be able to find it with her sense of smell.
Have a friend gently hold the dog while you go hide. Then *you* can be the prize.
Will Work for Food
Even if your dog doesn’t want to go out for a hike on a soggy Saturday, you can still keep her mentally stimulated. Instead of plopping her food down in a dog bowl, use a treat dispenser, such as the Tug-a-Jug, to make mealtime into playtime. These toys are often nearly indestructible, and they keep Stella engaged for hours. Literally.
Indoor Boot Camp
From a training perspective, reading on the couch is time wasted if you don’t seize the opportunity. Use this time in all kinds of creative ways to shore up your dog’s skills—lengthening the downstays your dog can handle, for example, or practicing this triad of super-important behavior cues: come, stay and leave it.
For even more playful ideas, check out JoAnna Lou’s Indoor Fun blog post or read up on Christina Sondermann’s Indoor Agility Exercises.
What are your secrets for rainy day fun with your dog(s)?
News: Guest Posts
Handling a houseful of love
I knew I was going to be on my own navigating the new parenting world with a dog already in the house when more than once I came across the following advice: reduce the attention you give your dog by at least fifty percent. The logic: I would have less time to devote to my dog, so she should get used to it early. Say what? Stop petting the dog? Less toys for the dog? No more lavishing love on this beloved beast I *chose* to bring into my home, the one I committed to for life? No can do, parenting experts!
Still, when my son Wren came along, I needed to make changes. I've got a 60-pound Pit Bull-type dog in the house with me, and Stella can be something of a tornado when she gets excited. She skids and scrambles around on the wood floors, wedges herself between the object of my attention and me and seeks out high fives precisely at toddler-eye level when things are going her way. Here are a few of the things I've learned. It's not to say I've applied these strategies flawlessly, but it's the structure of these boundaries that have kept our household—and ALL the members in it—happy and secure.
1. Dogs + Babies Alone = No
We trust Stella. She's a good girl and can be left on the couch alone with a plate of food without eating it. That is to say, she's got great impulse control. But for both the baby's safety and for hers, we simply never leave them in the room alone together. Too much could go wrong—a yanked dog ear, a stomped baby hand, a dog tail to the eyeball.
2. Toy Management
This is a tricky one. As I wrote in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of The Bark, we did tons of training in advance to help Stella recognize her toys from Wren's. She's got this down now, and leaves his well enough alone. Wren has been a whole different issue. He makes a beeline straight for Stella when she's playing wth things, and likewise when she is eating. Despite Stella's tolerance of this (not all dogs are so gracious, nor should they be expected to be), I still protect her from Wren's prying hands by redirecting him with his own toys. He doesn't always appreciate this—so if he can't be redirected, I put a baby gate between them so Stella can play or eat in peace.
3. Breathing Room
That brings me to the next point. Sometimes, both baby and dog need space away from the constant attention of the other. This applies especially to old dogs or those with sore spots. Wren has reached a stage now where he finds Stella absolutely fascinating. He crawls behind her like the wake behind a boat. And while I find it charming, Stella sometimes may just want to sail around on her own. And that's fair enough. Baby gates, the Pack 'n Play or crib—all these serve as fine barriers between your beasties.
What are your trade secrets to happy cohabitation? Was your dog jealous when the kid(s) came along? I'd love to hear about your experiences.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
More than fun and games
You have an all-day work event, your dog walker comes down with something and your back-up help is out of town. Then you see the ad for a local dog-daycare facility: “We can help! We offer 12 hours of fun and socialization for your dog.” The message is accompanied by cute photos of pooches at play. Should you be sold?
Across the U.S., dog-daycare businesses — franchises and single-owner operations alike — are flourishing. They offer your dog what you sometimes cannot: playmates, companionship and supervision when other commitments take you away from home. Most keep hours similar to those of daycare centers for children: drop your dog off before work, pick her up afterward.
Do dog daycares provide a necessary service for both dogs and owners? Are all daycares created equal? Is dog daycare an option you should consider? The answer is a resounding “It depends.”
Marc Bekoff, PhD, a University of Colorado ethologist who has studied dogs and their wild relatives for more than four decades, gives the concept of dog daycare a thumbs-up: “I love the idea. I think they provide a great function. At the same time, daycare should not replace people spending a good deal of time with their dogs.” E’Lise Christensen, DVM, and board-certified veterinary behaviorist in New York City, agrees “For healthy, active, social dogs, daycare can be a great outlet for getting exercise and social enrichment.”
In fact, this belief is exactly what originally spurred the development of the dog daycare industry. “In the early 1990s, training professionals found there was a need for dogs to get out of the house, socialize and engage in mental stimulation and physical exercise,” explains Melinda Miller, hospital director at Smith Ridge Veterinary Center in South Salem, N.Y.
Social play and mental stimulation are the main reasons many people choose to enroll their dogs in daycare. Mat Zucker of New York City has been taking his co-pilot Ezra to Paws in Chelsea three times a week for the last nine years. “When Ezra was a puppy, it was a great place for him to burn off energy, be social and run around. We were worried he would be bored home alone.”
Zucker makes a good point. The complex process of domestication did not shape dogs for solitary living (raise your hand if one is napping at your feet as you read this). On the other hand, dogs did not evolve to engage in all-day play sessions either.
The Social Scene
In the daycare setting, dyadic play (play between two dogs) is probably the most prevalent type. A recent study* investigating social play in adult, group-housed dogs at a boarding kennel found that of 343 social-play bouts, all but one were dyadic in nature. “This is not surprising,” notes Alexandra Horowitz, PhD, and term assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College, who has studied dog play behavior extensively.** “Dyadic play is an easier dynamic for most dogs than triadic or larger-group play. In a bigger group of players, it would be hard to have play signals in all those different directions, and a dog could certainly miss something. Because of the complexity of play, this high-paced, rambunctious activity needs a lot of coordination.”
The idea of giving dogs space to play might seem straightforward enough, but there’s more to it than simply providing square feet. Numerous factors can influence the presence, or absence, of happy frolicking. While a dog’s physical size warrants consideration when forming daycare playgroups, play style is paramount. Becky Trisko, PhD, behaviorist and owner of Unleashed in Evanston, Ill., knows this well. “A good daycare surveys play styles and groups dogs accordingly. At the same time, [it] also allows flexibility between groups throughout the day to manage personalities and excitement levels.”
When it comes to play, turning up the dial is not always better. As Miller explains, “Hyper dogs allowed to get into a frenzy and maintain that level of excitement all day can be worse in the home than they were before they went to daycare. Staff members who help dogs learn about relaxed play and recognize when dogs need time out or a change of pace and rest are helping both dog and owner.” Trisko agrees. “Owners often assume that an exhausted dog is a happy dog. But an exhausted dog could also be an irritated dog.”
In a well-run daycare, these issues are addressed by handlers who ensure that dogs engage in the congenial play their owners envision. While no formal research has been done to validate these numbers, the consensus is that an ideal handler-to-dog ratio is 1:10, or 1:15 at the outside (Christensen recommends a ratio of 1:5). If groups grow in size, so too should the level of human attention. But even with multiple human hands on deck, large dog groups can be challenging to manage. Kate Senisi, a former daycare employee, knows this firsthand. “Daycares that create multiple, smaller groups within a space, as opposed to one large group, allow for more direct supervision of the dogs. But that also means that the daycare has to provide additional staff to cover the new groups,” she says.
Done right, supervision gives dogs the variety they need within a complex environment. Though many daycares tend to highlight “all-day play,” a quick review of online daycare videos reveals dogs engaged in any number of activities. Some dogs play, some watch; others investigate something on the floor, jump on a handler, sit in a handler’s lap or lie on the floor. In other words, individual dogs have a range of interests that shift moment by moment, and good supervision can facilitate this variety.
According to Horowitz, it’s important that dogs have options and control. “Not to say that the dog is dictating the day, but that the dog has options to be social, to be with a person or by themselves. That would be the highest-quality day: a lot of things to do and being able to make choices about when and with whom to do it.”
Handlers perform a critical role in promoting fun and safety. Much like playground monitors, they pick up on individual behavioral cues — for example, noticing when a dog becomes anxious or has simply been playing for three hours straight and could use a change of pace. Fun can quickly disappear when a dog finds himself in an environment that conf licts with his own emotional state.
The often-overlooked aspect of dog daycare is, of course, learning. “An important factor to consider,” says Laura Monaco Torelli, director of training at Animal Behavior Training Concepts in Chicago, “is that dogs are always learning, even in the daycare environment.” Since most daycares do not explicitly advertise training, owners might not readily notice this aspect. But watch any dog, and you’ll find that various behaviors and emotional states are being reinforced, or not reinforced, over the course of the day by humans, other dogs or even the environment. Just as a toddler might return from preschool with his first painting of a flower and a bit of an attitude, so too might a dog return from daycare played out, but a bit jumpier and mouthier than when he went in.
Some daycares highlight their facilities’ bells and whistles: climate control, dog cams, unique flooring or even a particular type of background music. Unfortunately, many daycare websites are silent on the less flashy ethological and organizational considerations that are most relevant to those concerned about their dogs’ welfare. For example, daycares rarely describe daily play and rest schedules, handling techniques, procedures for introducing new dogs to the group, criteria that determine how dogs are grouped, handler-to-dog ratios, access to outdoor space and staff first-aid training.
There are many ways to handle the daily influx of bouncing dogs, and at their best, daycares do this by viewing every dog as an individual. Some daycares rely on message boards to keep track of the different canine personalities gracing their establishments. Descriptors might read: “Don’t let anyone jump on Tiger’s back. Keep Sam from being overstimulated. Keep Janet from eating rocks or poop.” But how do daycares uncover these nuances?
A behavior assessment is the first step toward getting to know each dog’s unique ethological needs. Even if a dog has been comfortable in comparable settings, there’s no foolproof way to predict how he or she will feel in a novel environment. Each daycare provides a unique stew of sights, smells, sounds, movements and management styles, and any dog could be less than thrilled with the surroundings. Even dogs described by their owners as “social butterflies” or “happy players” do not necessarily thrive in every setting. (I am reminded of a therapy-dog certification class I once observed. The behavior of two of the dogs screamed out, “Umm, may I please be excused from this experience?” Their owners were surprised by their reactions.)
Assessments can also identify dogs who are not likely to be thrilled about daycare from the get-go. For some, discomfort with other dogs could spark aggression; others might be unable to de-stress in a group setting. With this information, daycares can evaluate whether they have the staff knowhow and facility design to admit such dogs. Dog owners not only expect their dogs to be having positive experiences at daycare, they also expect them to be exposed to suitable playmates. “I like that Huey had a behavior test, because that means the other dogs also had a test,” says Beth Windler, a Minnesota dog owner and once-aweek daycare patron. For Windler, this was particularly relevant after Huey, a happy-go-lucky Basset Hound, was injured at a dog park.
The behavior assessment is just the beginning of the story. John Squires, owner and manager of Wag Club in Brooklyn, N.Y., stresses that the daycare facility has an ongoing role in habituating each dog to its setting and rewarding good behavior. He has found that, unfortunately, not all daycares prioritize such methods. Some accept dogs who are completely unsuited for a daycare environment without taking steps to help them acclimate, which could lead to a dog spending most of his time in a kennel rather than interacting with others.
It’s easy to get caught up in procedures and forget about the people. Just as a love of children does not necessarily make someone a competent firstgrade teacher, a love of dogs doesn’t automatically equip a person to manage the behaviors and personalities of a group of them. “Is a daycare just looking for warm bodies who like dogs and can stay there for eight hours a day?” asks Miller. Christensen adds, “Is the staff trained [in] the basics of dog behavior as based on science, not popular wisdom?” Staffers’ ability to recognize stress and discomfort is just as important as their understanding of the complex set of movements that make up play. Play and aggressive displays share many elements, and even to a watchful, astute eye, meanings can change quickly. According to Monaco Torelli, “Observation of canine communication is a critical variable of proactive management in daycares.”
So, is doggie daycare a necessary part of life for every dog? The answer lies largely with the individual dog. Some daycares are better than others at maximizing fun and safety and decreasing fear and stress. At the same time, dog daycare is not the only game in town. Your dog might prefer a long walk, a training class, a trip to the dog park, an open window where he can take in the passing sights and sounds, or a small playgroup. Consider what’s important to and appropriate for your dog. Also consider how you might be able to build time for these extras into your schedule.
When thinking about our dogs’ quality of life, most of us inevitably ask the question, “What should my dog be doing all day while I’m gone?” If you think the answer for your dog involves daycare, then the next question is, “Which one?” A little due diligence on your part will result in a solution that’s right for your pup.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Kong's Mark Hines on toys and training
It’s not surprising that retired sport dogs Kaya and Dakota are well behaved, polite and respond phenomenally fast to a wide variety of cues. They live with Mark Hines, behavior and training specialist for the Kong Company, who’s logged thousands of hours with them, and thousands more consulting with service dog organizations, shelters, military and law-enforcement handlers, prison programs, behaviorists, breeders, and veterinarians, to name a few. At heart, though, he’s just a guy who loves his dogs. Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Mark about using toys as a training tool.
Q: Why do you like training with toys?
A: Basically, because it’s fun! You see more desire on the dog’s part to work, more passion and willingness to perform when you train with toys.
Q: Is one type of dog more receptive than another to this method?
A: High-drive dogs tend to respond well to toys. By drive I mean high arousal, easily stimulated dogs who are willing to work and have the motivation and desire to work. Dogs with drive are dogs who are rarin’ to go. When I see drive, I see so much happiness. I know I can shape a behavior and get a beautiful response.
Q: How do you advise people to begin using toys as training aids?
A: Find a toy the dog likes and that is stimulating. Then, teach a good foundation, which includes a solid “out” so there’s no conflict over the toy. The dog can spit it out on the ground, drop it or trade it for a treat. If you are having trouble with this, try switching to a toy that the dog doesn’t want as much. You can also go up in size to a bigger toy that the dog can’t get into the back of the mouth, an area I call the “power zone.” Or, go to a harder toy that’s not as self-rewarding. For example, a Wubba with tails that flop around is harder for many dogs to give up than a toy that has no movement. If the toy is self-rewarding, the dog may not release it as easily, especially early in the training process. Once a dog has a clean “out,” any toy should be fine.
Q: Not all dogs are interested in toys. What then?
A: Dogs can be taught to enjoy toys, even dogs who seem to be the least playful or toy-motivated. I once worked with a Beagle who was only into food, not toys. I started giving him treats every time he made a toy squeak, and it evolved into play even after I stopped using food as reinforcement.
Q: What about the dog who’s more interested in the toy than in you? How do you stimulate that interest?
A: You have to be engaging. What’s the point of trying to interact with the dog if he doesn’t even want to be with you? Be the gate to play—a clown with gadgets, toys and fun.
Q: You also use food rewards; why do you incorporate both types of reinforcement into your training?
A: Using toys as a reward instead of food is kind of like taking your child to an amusement park rather than taking him out to dinner. Which do you think your child would choose? I consider food as a way to focus the dog (especially puppies) and toys as a way to stimulate play and create drive. Sometimes toys bring out arousal and frustration, which can actually cause a dog to lose focus, so you need to balance toys and food. When working with a low-drive dog, it’s possible to do more repetitions with food than with a toy. High-drive dogs will work for a toy all day long.
Q: Can you use toys to increase a dog’s drive?
A: Yes. Movement is your friend. Show excitement, be active and animated, make an idiot of yourself. Make a toy desirable by holding onto it. Make it something that your dog finds fascinating and really, really wants. Build frustration just a little. Play hard-to-get in order to build the dog’s energy and motivation. Toys on ropes create even more drive because they move faster and are unpredictable.
Q: What would you say is the most common training mistake people make?
A: Not using markers, either a clicker or a consistent “Yes!” Don’t use the toy as a marker. Say “Yes!” or click before presenting the toy or the treat. Otherwise, the dog will only watch the toy.
Q: How much time should a dog be allowed to play with the toy as reinforcement?
A: Train with a pattern of “drive, exercise, drive.” Start with a toy in your training vest or under your arm, then ask the dog for a behavior, and as a reward, offer the toy for a few seconds to rev him up. Ask him to release the toy, then ask for another behavior and continue that way throughout the session. The toy is a reward just as a treat would be a reward. So, it’s sit, yes! toy, out! Then it goes back in the pocket for another exercise. These are not play sessions in between. In training mode, the dog is working for that toy, and he works fast because you are withholding the reward and he really wants it.
A play session at the end can serve as a jackpot for exceptionally good work, and that can be as long as you have time for. At the end of a session, I say “free dog,” which means work is over and we’re having fun.
Q: How can you use toys to help a dog learn a variety of skills?
A: Presentation matters. The dog has to take toys from all over: high, low, different positions. Be versatile. This also helps dogs learn to target. If the dog gets too near my hand and bites by mistake, the game ends immediately. Dogs can be very careful with their mouths, but not enough people require them to be.
Always have the dog come in to you—move the toy away to attract him in. This is especially true with recalls. Throw the ball behind you as the dog approaches, sometimes to one side, sometimes to the other, to keep the dog coming in with good speed and in a straight line.
Q: In addition to fun and training, do you use toys in other ways?
A: Toys are great tools to help dogs recover from something scary—a fallen jump or loud noise, for example. You can take the dog right back to a state of drive with a toy.
Q: Lots of people like to play tug with their dogs, but sometimes struggle to play it correctly. What advice do you give people about this game?
A: If you give an inch, dogs will take a mile. When playing tug with dogs, pull forward and out, not up and down or side to side. To keep the dog from creeping up the toy, keep the toy moving. Dealing with arousal is important. You need to decide when the game starts and ends.
Q: What are your favorite toys?
A: I love the Kong, of course, and the Kong on the rope is my key toy. I also love the large Goodie Bone to train good “outs.” I can hold onto both sides while the dog has it in his mouth, and it is not self-rewarding because it has no motion. To create intense drive, many agility or dock-dog trainers swear by the Wubba.
Q: What other training advice do you wish everyone would follow?
A: Train in short sessions, especially with young or inexperienced dogs. “Short” means just a few minutes, or even one minute for puppies at the very beginning. Multiple sessions throughout the day that add up to 15 minutes are better than 15 minutes all at once. Make it happen every time. It’s better to ask dogs for a behavior 50 times and have them do the behavior 50 times than to ask 100 times and have them do it 75 times. Have fun! The minute a session turns into work for you, give it up because it’s not going to go anywhere. Finally, always, always, ALWAYS end on a positive note.
News: Guest Posts
Tiger is one patient dog
Food on my dog; we've all seen it, usually by chance after a particularly frenzied mealtime. Often, it's done on purpose as a stupid pet trick. A meaty treat is carefully placed atop the dog's snout. The person tiptoes away, hand outstretched, saying, "Staaay, staaaay," until finally, either the dog or the audience can't take it anymore.
"Okay!" Upon hearing the magical release word, the dog shows off shark-like reflexes in pursuit of his prey. He tilts back his head, flicks up the treat, and snatches it out of the air. Well, you ain't seen nothin' yet till you view "Food On My Dog," the blog. The star, Tiger, has the patience of a saint as her owner balances everything from bacon strips to steak fries on her head. You'd think that the sheer weirdness of taking a simple, common trick to such an extreme would be the X factor, but no, it's the bemused expression on Tiger's face—the quivery anticipation that whatever's on her head will soon be hers—that will compell you to scroll through every single shot.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The source of a lifetime of learning
As I write this, I have just come back from a day at the 2011 World Herding Dog Trials in northern England. I was in the UK once many years ago, watching the International Sheepdog Trials. I was just getting started with sheepdogs and had not yet begun to work as a behaviorist. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot, and I hope to learn a lot more in the future. But the lessons I’ve been taught by herding dogs are as timeless as they are valuable, and are a fitting subject for my last regular column for The Bark.
Rewind the video to 1981, and imagine a dog and a sheep, nose to nose. Kate, a tiny, all-black Border Collie, and Number 437, a fluffy, white Cheviot sheep, are having a discussion about where the ewe should go next. This is where it all started for me: watching a Border Collie face-off with a sheep who had no intention of backing up.
Still in school, searching for a topic for a senior honors thesis at the University of Madison, I tumbled into the world of sheepherding much like Alice fell down the rabbit hole. Dr. Jeffrey Baylis, the professor who later became my dissertation advisor, suggested that I investigate a “natural form” of communication between humans and other animals rather than communication with dolphins as I had initially suggested.
Days later, I stood in a field a few miles north of Madison and watched Kate streak away from trainer/handler Jack Knox toward a flock of sheep on a far hill. As is so often true for each of us, I didn’t know that this one brief moment would change my life. All I was aware of at the time was the way my heart swelled as I watched the little dog run in a wide, sweeping circle up an emerald-green hill, stopping behind a cloud of wooly white sheep. I thought I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. Thirty years later, I haven’t changed my mind.
It was sheepdogs who got me started in dog training and behavior, and sheepdogs who continue to inspire and instruct me. Herding may be a relatively rare activity — it’s hard to raise a flock of sheep in downtown Chicago — but its lessons are relevant to anyone who loves dogs. I offer them here in the hope that, in some way, they will mean as much to you as they have to me.
First, and perhaps too obvious to mention, dogs need clarity. Since we don’t share a common language, that’s not always easy. Heaven knows, it’s hard enough for two humans to communicate clearly, much less individuals of different species. Here’s an example from the world of sheepdogs of the challenges we face. Years ago, I had nothing but trouble when I was learning to work with a dog to split off (or “shed”) some sheep from the main group. It’s hard enough to develop the finesse required to separate a couple of sheep from the flock, but you also have to let your dog know which group he is required to move away. Time after time, I’d “tell” Luke to drive away one group and like clockwork, he would focus on the other. I’d be left standing open-mouthed, thinking, No, no! Not THAT one, the other one! How could he get it wrong? I’d use a crystal-clear sweeping arm movement, look directly at the group I wanted him to move and say “That one.” And Luke would make a 180-degree turn and drive away the other group.
It took someone who knew dogs far better than I to sort it out. “Where are your feet pointing?” he asked, after watching me unsuccessfully attempt to shed off some sheep at a clinic. “My feet? Do I have feet? I’m too busy with my eyes, my head and my arm to think about my feet.” Agility handlers around the world are smiling here, having learned, as I finally did, that dogs will most reliably go in the direction your feet are pointing, not where your arm or face directs. Sure enough, although I’d been pointing and looking toward the chosen group, my feet had been pointing the other way. To Luke, it was obvious which group I wanted; I can only imagine his frustration when he followed my instructions and then learned that, somehow, he hadn’t done what I wanted in spite of my “clear communication.”
Examples of inadvertent miscommunication between a person and a dog are endless. I have a litany of my own, which prevents any smugness I might be tempted to feel as I watch clients confuse their dogs. This issue of clarity of communication is surely the most basic and critical aspect of a good and respectful relationship. It is not a simple one, involving as it does many aspects of behavior — from understanding canine ethology, being able to “read” dogs, knowing how to use operant and classical conditioning and teaching dogs how to behave in an alien society.
The second lesson is best illustrated by yet another mistake I made, albeit a more amusing one. At least, it’s amusing now — not so much then. Picture a blue-sky autumn day and a festival of all things Scottish outside of Milwaukee. My friend, Nancy Rafetto, and I had been asked to do a herding/ retrieving demonstration for the Milwaukee Highland Games. It was great fun for everyone: people enjoyed watching the dogs and Nancy and I got to teach under-the-radar science by illustrating the genetic predispositions of different breeds. Her Golden Retriever returned any objects that she threw but play-bowed to the sheep, while my Border Collie, ignoring the balls, collected the sheep and returned them to me. First, we’d work each dog separately; then we’d throw a ball into the middle of the flock, send out both dogs simultaneously, and watch the retriever barrel through the sheep to retrieve the object and the herding dog gather the flock together again. At least, that was the plan. We’d done it before in a variety of environments and it was always a crowd-pleaser.
However, this time, I violated a basic rule of working with animals: be prepared. I had forgotten my whistle, which allows us to communicate with dogs when they are a good distance away and is far better than using vocal commands in a noisy environment. I remembered my whistle on our way to the festival, but thought, Oh, it’ll be fine. Famous last words in behavior and training, hey? It probably would have been fine, since Luke was well trained to verbal signals, but just before I sent him to gather the flock, a marching band struck up right behind us. I couldn’t hear myself think, much less communicate with Luke. The sheep were about 100 yards away, and I paused; they were enclosed by a tall, dense hedge, and I thought they would stay on the field until the band took a breath and Luke could hear my signals.
To my abject horror and the obvious amusement of the crowd, the sheep melted into and through the hedge like cartoon animals moving through a solid wall into another dimension. Nancy was left to entertain the crowd while I ran across the field, pushed through the hedge with Luke and looked desperately for my sheep in what was now a suburban neighborhood complete with sidewalks; multicolored, one-story houses; and two-car garages. We finally found the sheep on the porch of a blue ranch-style house. We pursued them into and out of the garage (I swear I heard someone say “Marge, I think there are sheep in our driveway”) and eventually drove them back through the hedge. The crowd had given up by then, and Nancy and I tucked our tails and drove home. We were not asked back the next year.
Not everyone has been as foolish as I, but it is universally true that one of the most important differences between professionals and the general public is the level of preparation. People experienced in the world of dogs think ahead: They think about where the new dog will sleep at night and are ready with X-pens or crates. They have treats by the door for dogs who are fearful of strangers. If they have a puppy, they have a toy in their pocket so they are always ready to divert the pup’s attention from the slippers to something more appropriate. They close the door to the guest room to prevent accidents, and are ready to neutralize urine smells if they find a puddle. It becomes second nature to always have something available to reinforce good behavior and, if possible, to prevent problems from happening in the first place.
The third lesson from sheepdogs comes from a friend, who was on the U.S. National Team for the 2011 World Sheepdog Trials. Peg Anderson had taken her two dogs, Silk and Spot, to England early enough to be able to practice for several days on the hills with local sheep. Although she lives on what I consider to be the perfect farm, with a large, open field ideal for competition practice, she and her dogs needed time to adjust to the new conditions of an unfamiliar country. For the first time in their lives, Peg’s dogs were doing exactly what they had been bred for. Not just herding sheep any which way, but gathering a large flock of sheep scattered like polka dots on a green hill that rose up so high it hurt your neck to look at the top. The dog streams up and up and up like water in reverse, coalescing the sheep into a unified group at the top. Then the entire flock flows down the hill like a wooly white ribbon.
There’s something about the scope of it all that takes your breath away, and apparently it had a profound effect on one of her dogs as well. Peg reported that Spot gained confidence and enthusiasm every day he was there. Like my Willie, Spot didn’t like the pressure that Midwestern sheep and tight spaces often put on a dog, but the f lighty sheep on the big, open hills of northern England brought out the best in him. He came home with more confidence than ever, and has retained it ever since.
The lesson here is not that we should feel guilty if we can’t go to England to work our Border Collies, or arrange for our Chesapeake Bay Retrievers to break ice to retrieve ducks. It is, however, a cautionary note with two parts: One, dog breeds were created not for looks but for behavior, and we need to do a better job of matching a dog’s needs with the environment in which he or she will ultimately live. Two, all dogs, no matter how pure or eclectic their breeding, are individuals. Spot blossomed on the big hills of northern England, but Peg’s other dog, Silk, changed little. She may have enjoyed her time across the pond, but it didn’t affect her like it did Spot. Two Border Collies, two individuals.
Understanding both aspects of canine behavior — breed-related predispositions and unique individual natures — should perhaps be common sense, but in my experience, common sense isn’t actually very, well, common. “No,” I’d say to far too many clients, “please don’t get a German Shorthaired Pointer for your elderly parents who live in downtown San Francisco,” and “Yes, I know that Labradors are generally friendly, social dogs, but your Labrador is a bit shy and sound-sensitive and will not enjoy flyball, no matter how hard you try.”
The final lesson is perhaps the most important of all.
Sometimes a sheep will face off with a dog: head to head, eye to eye, just inches between them. She will put her head down so far that her nose is almost touching the dog’s muzzle, and then feint forward. Insecure dogs panic and charge, causing the sheep to scatter like deer or, worse, to fight the dog in a nasty contest between sharp teeth and an anvil-like skull. In sheepherding circles, we call that a “wreck,” because rarely does any good come of it. But the best dogs, the great dogs, stand motionless, never flicking an ear or withdrawing an inch. It may take one second or it may take 20, but eventually, the ewe will sense the dog’s commitment, and turn her nose, twitch her ears and back away.
These dogs are models for those of us enmeshed in the controversies surrounding how best to raise and train our four-legged best friends. Those who believe that dogs deserve to be treated with respect and understanding need to stand firm, quiet and confident in our commitment. If I were queen and could change one thing right now in the dog world, it would be to give people the confidence they need to be openminded and not over-reactive to challenges, while standing strong for what they believe is right.
Like great sheepdogs, those of us who believe in knowledge and respect need to be calm but confident, patient but resolute. One by one, day by day, the naysayers of the training world will turn their heads and find their way into the fold.
With gratitude and thanks to the editors and readers of Bark magazine, I say, “That’ll do, friends, that’ll do.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Most dog trainers love the process of teaching dogs new skills as much as they love the results. That’s why so many of us have dogs who are better than a résumé at showing what we can do. Our dogs sit, lie down, heel, stay and come on cue; wait patiently at the house or car door until told to proceed; or back away from food on the floor rather than scarf it up. The love of training also means that dog trainers are particularly inclined to teach their dogs tricks.
Many people consider dog tricks completely frivolous, or at least think that time spent training dogs to do them could be better invested in teaching useful skills. But if people realized the practical value of tricks, they might be willing to engage their dogs in learning a few. Many tricks offer more than just charming performance opportunities; here are eight that fall in that category.
Crawl. I used to ask my dog to do this when I lived on a farm in Wisconsin and he got muddy walking through the fields. Depending on the season, I would have him crawl through snow or over grass to clean up a bit before we went inside.
Shake. I ask dogs to present a paw on cue when cutting their nails, or at the vet to make a blood draw easier. It’s also useful for checking for pad injuries or just toweling off wet paws after a walk.
Belly up. This cue tells dogs to lie on their backs with their legs in the air. Most often, I ask a dog to do this to get a belly rub, but it can also help a vet perform an examination more easily.
Beg. This is another way to get a dog to expose the belly, and I like to ask a dog to beg when I need to pull off burrs or seeds. If a dog’s balance is good, “beg” can also be a way to position a dog for a quick brush of the belly fur.
What? This is a cue to cock the head, which makes photos of dogs especially endearing no matter what position they’re in. The less time you spend trying to get dogs into specific poses, the more likely they are to have a nice expression on their face.
Bow. Having a dog perform a play bow on cue is more than just a cute trick; it can also help dogs who are a bit awkward or nervous around other dogs. The play bow is a social signal that means “What follows is playful in nature,” and performing one near other dogs can mean that social interactions start off on the right paw, easing tensions caused by confusing or unexpected behavior.
Up. I use this as a cue to jump or step onto something; it’s a great way to get big dogs to stand on the vet’s scale. It is even more useful when combined with a solid stay, but that’s not always essential.
Dry off. This cue, which tells dogs to shake their whole body, is a way to have dogs shake off excess water before coming inside after a walk in the rain or a bath.
Being able to ask a dog to perform a behavior makes many situations less anxiety provoking. If our dogs need to perform a certain behavior, either for medical reasons or to further that fruitless, endless pursuit of cleanliness, it’s better to be able to communicate what we want than to physically manipulate them. Even if we have their best interests in mind, our dogs have no way of knowing that. Rather than grab them, lift them or push them around—however gently—it’s advantageous just to be able to tell them what we want and have them do it on their own. Tricks involve dogs putting their bodies (or at least parts of them!) in all sorts of positions, and that variety of movement and behavior is what gives tricks their practical value.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The APDT is celebrating with free events for January
Now that the new year has started, it's time to reflect on this past year and set resolutions. Naturally some of my goals are always dog-related.
I've started hiking with my dogs, and plan on taking up snowshoeing for the winter, so one of my goals in 2012 is to strengthen my crew's recall. I'm also hoping that my puppy, Remy, will be ready to compete in his first agility trial by the end of next year.
For those with a similar mindset, January happens to be National Train Your Dog Month. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers started the event in 2010 to promote the importance and benefits of socializing and training dogs. January was selected because of the many pets adopted during the winter holidays. So many dogs are abandoned because of behavioral problems that could have been prevented with socialization and positive training.
To help new pet parents start off on the right foot, throughout January, the APDT is offering free webinars and Facebook chats with pet training and behavior professionals. Topics include Adopting a Dog, Breed Discrimination Laws, Housetraining, and Dog Safety for Kids. A full schedule is available on the event's web site.
In honor of National Train Your Dog Month, do you have any training related resolutions for 2012?
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