Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It explains the behavior of Costa Rican dogs
During a recent field trip to Costa Rica, I was as interested as my students in Ceiba trees, toucans, sloths and tree frogs, along with so many other organisms we were able to see in the tropical rain forest. When I was in town, though, my focus shifted to the local dogs.
One aspect of their behavior repeatedly caught my attention. Over and over, I saw dogs waiting just outside the doors of local businesses. Whether it was a bakery, restaurant, butcher’s shop or hair salon, dogs did not go inside. These were all stray dogs, many in need of food, but they did not charge through the doorway no matter what tempting goodies were inside. They exhibited impressively polite behavior, which is easy enough to explain.
The reason that these dogs never went inside businesses is that the behavior of the people in those businesses has consistently been favorable when the dogs stay outside and not so favorable if they attempt to enter. As soon as these dogs are old enough to wander through town, they have multiple experiences with people shooing them out of stores if they enter, and also have repeated experiences with receiving food if they wait outside. The dogs learn that waiting outside is a good strategy and that barging into a store is a bad strategy. Because the culture so strongly opposes having stray dogs enter stores, the dogs get consistent messages about what to do. The dogs are so well trained, if you want to look at it that way, because of the consistency of the responses to their behavior. There are no mixed messages.
There’s a lesson here for all of us about being consistent with our training. This sounds obvious and is well known, but even a rare departure from consistency can mess up an otherwise excellent training program. There is a huge difference between never permitting your dog to jump up on you, beg at the table or join you on the couch and almost never allowing these behaviors to happen. The difference lets your dog question whether each occasion is one of the exceptions and keeps hope alive. It can make them seem quite pushy when they are really only unsure about what the rules are.
When we are completely consistent with our dogs, training goes more smoothly and there are fewer problems. The Costa Rican people I observed simply never allow dogs to enter their stores, and the dogs learn that the only way to get food from the people is to wait patiently at the door. It’s a successful system for members of both species.
In what ways are you completely consistent with your dog, to the benefit of your training?
A romp at the dog park, a run along a trail, a walk around the neighborhood--we know how important it is to get our dogs out and about. But how often do we think about exercising our dog's brain? And really, why should we think about it at all?
Recently, I listened to an online seminar offered by Karen Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, CAAB, and board certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, that provided several answers to this question.
Dr. Overall starts out by making the interesting point that it's very likely that dogs co-evolved with humans, which was made easier because both species have similar social systems that rely on work and problem-solving. Dogs still need to problem solve but in today's world, probably don't get enough opportunities to do it, which is why we need to provide them with mental stimulation as well as physical exercise.
She then discusses some of her research and shows videos of dogs working a puzzle box designed specifically for one of her projects; she also analyzes what the dogs' performance indicates about their emotional state.
The takeaway is that stimulating a dog's brain by engaging his capacity to problem solve improves both his physical and mental health. It's also key to helping dogs with behavior problems learn new ways to respond to stress.It's science nerd nirvana, a combination of theory and practical advice (most of which comes at the end in the Q&A segment).
The seminar is titled From Leashes to Neurons: The Importance of Exercising Your Dog's Brain for Optimal Mental and Physical Health, and you'll need to register to listen in (registration is free). Get started here: http://vetvine.com/article/192/akcchf-human-animal-bond-event
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Taking the angst out of canine introductions.
“We put the new dog into our car with our other dog.”
“I held each of them by the collar and put them nose-to-nose to meet.”
“Our son brought home a stray dog and took her into the back yard with our other dogs. I guess it was too much for an eight-year-old to handle by himself.”
When it comes to dog-dog introductions, I’ve heard it all—usually because the introductions have gone badly, very badly or disastrously, which leads to families coming to see me in varying stages of distress. Some are unsure about keeping the new dog, many are scared and a few are injured. All have learned the hard way that introductions are not to be taken lightly.
People introduce dogs to one another in all kinds of suboptimal ways, including those mentioned previously. Some of the time, it goes just fine, but even so, they’re still gambling with the safety and well-being of both their dogs and themselves
Whether you are introducing a new dog into your own household, setting up a first meeting between your dog and your partner’s, or just want to go for a walk with a friend and her dog, it’s more likely that the new relationship will flourish if the first meeting goes well.
As in all aspects of behavior, knowledge is your ally. It’s important to know that there’s no standard protocol for dog-dog introductions that works best for every dog in every situation, and no introduction is risk-free. That said, there are a few general guidelines and techniques that go a long way toward making the first meeting between dogs a positive experience for everyone. (Don’t feel you have to do it alone. Line up professional help if you have reason to suspect that there will be trouble, or that one or more of the dogs isn’t good with other dogs.)
• Have new dogs meet one-on-one. Group introductions can be a bit challenging even for a well-adjusted dog. For a dog who struggles in social situations, meeting multiple dogs simultaneously can be so overwhelming that it could damage the new relationships.
• Choose the location of the meeting carefully. Off-territory is best so that neither dog feels like the other is the intruder. And conduct the initial meeting outside rather than inside. Often during meetings, a dog will urinate and then walk away, especially if he is feeling overwhelmed. That gives the other dog an opportunity to get to know the stressed dog by sniffing the urine without coming into close contact with its source. If dogs are inside where urinating is a no-no, their options are limited.
• Avoid gates, fences, doorways and other tight spaces. They tend to make dogs tense, and a tense dog is unlikely to be at his best. In general, dogs feel more relaxed and are more likely to exhibit desirable behavior when they don’t feel confined, so do your best to keep both dogs in open space and away from narrow passageways. For example, try to conduct the introduction in the middle of the yard rather than along the edges.
• Don’t crowd the dogs. Like narrow spaces, having people too close can also make dogs feel uncomfortably confined. For many dogs, being crowded by people is worse than being crowded by inanimate objects and tight spaces because it puts a lot of social pressure on them. Resist the urge to lean toward them or hover over them. It’s natural to want to move toward the dogs if you perceive even the slightest sign of tension or trouble, but ironically, it can make things worse. Moving away is far more likely to lower the arousal or tension level and prevent escalation of the situation. If you see tension, use a cheerful voice to say something like, “This way,” or “Let’s go,” then clap your hands and walk away.
• Keep moving. This is a great way to help an introduction go smoothly. It not only prevents you from crowding the dogs, it also keeps their interactions with each other from developing intensity. If humans walk purposefully, dogs will often follow, allowing them to avoid greeting or interacting more closely than they’re comfortable with.
• If you can and it’s safe, drop the leashes and let them drag on the ground so you can easily take hold again if you need to. “Safe” means that the area is securely fenced and both dogs have a history of behaving appropriately around other dogs. If you can’t let go of the leashes, keep them loose to prevent tension from traveling down to the dogs. This is easier with thin, 12-foot lines, but can be done with 6-foot leashes, too.
•Model calm, relaxed behavior and remember to breathe. Our dogs respond to our emotions and behavior, so if you’re holding your breath because you’re tense, or sending out nervous energy (“Oh jeez, oh my, oh no! Yikes, I hope this goes okay!”), the dogs will pick up on that. Focus on breathing evenly, avoiding negative thoughts and keeping your own body relaxed.
• Make the meeting a food-free, toy-free experience. Many wonderful dogs are not at their best in the presence of other dogs when food or toys are around, especially if the toys are their own or the food is held by their people. Eliminate the possibility of possessiveness, which can cause problems.
• Keep the first meeting really short. By “short,” I mean just a few minutes. Many dogs find meeting new dogs fun and exciting, and if both dogs are like that, no harm is done by a short meeting. You leave them wanting more, eager to hang out again, and that’s not a problem. But if one or both dogs find meeting new dogs stressful, upsetting or tiring, a short meeting helps them avoid becoming overwhelmed, and that prevents trouble. The next time they interact, they are not truly “new” to each other, and a longer interaction is not as likely to be as detrimental. For dogs who really struggle in new social settings, a few short sessions may be indicated, but for most dogs, even one short session goes a long way toward a successful introductory experience.
• Make a new dog seem less “new.” Novelty is often exciting to dogs, and the resulting high levels of arousal can work against a smooth meeting. If you can remove some of the novelty from the situation, it helps make introductions easier and less intense. How do you take away some of the “newness”? By getting them used to the sight or smell of each other ahead of time. Then, by the time they meet, much of the novelty will have worn off.
One way to do this is to walk the dogs in the vicinity of one another without allowing them to greet. Continue to move in the same direction, keeping several feet between them, and adjust the distance as needed. Walking in the same direction (rather than facing each other head-on) and exploring smells is one of the normal ways dogs get to know one another—it’s the canine equivalent of “let’s have coffee.”
Having the dogs smell each other’s urine before they actually encounter one another is another way to get them over the “newness.” You can either lead each to a spot the other has used to urinate, or actually collect some urine from each and present it to the other. Oh, the things we do as dog people for the sake of a successful introduction!
And a successful introduction is the whole point. Proper meetings go a long way toward preventing social problems, from minor angst all the way up to and including serious fights. Whether you are adopting a new dog into your household or making the acquaintance of an occasional play buddy, following this advice will make it more likely that the dogs will become friends. That’s especially important when the goal is to have a “blind date” lead to a “together forever” happy ending.
Early tactile input pays off
As our readers know, The Bark is 100 percent in favor of adopting dogs from rescues and shelters. Giving a dog a new life in a home in which he or she is understood, loved and cared for is a giant gift, not only to the dog but also, to ourselves. It's one of those cliched win/win situations: we do something good for a dog and in the process, benefit from the unparalleled companionship that dog provides.
That being said, we also know that every day, hundreds—or more likely, thousands—of dogs are purchased from breeders for a variety of reasons. The most commonly cited reason has to do with predictability: those who buy a puppy from a breeder are looking for some degree of certainty in the adult dog's behavior, trainability and looks. Taking the wide-angle view, that notion has merit, but when it comes to individual dogs, it doesn't necessarily hold up.
I'd like to say that I'm a purist, that I've only adopted, never purchased, but that would be untrue. In my 20s, I purchased a Dalmatian from a breeder who was also a neighbor. All of the pup's littermates had been sold, and at 12 weeks, he was the last one in need of a home. The breeder had determined that he was going to exceed AKC standards in terms of height at shoulder and size of spots (I'm not kidding--she told me his spots were too big) and so decided to sell him as a companion dog. He turned out to be a great dog, one with none of the stereotypical Dalmatian behavioral quirks.
Fast forward 30 years, and I made another foray into purchasing a dog, although not from a breeder, but rather, from an acquaintance whose Siberian Husky had had a litter fathered by a Siberian mix. In that case, I was specifically looking for a Siberian mix for the very unscientific reason that on some level, I was trying to replace a much-loved dog who had died shortly before. I was guided by my heart, not my head.
In both cases, I lucked out—and believe me, the luck was definitely of the "dumb" variety.
The Dalmatian breeder bred her dogs infrequently and carefully, and the pups were well-handled and well-socialized before going to their new homes. The Siberian's people were teachers, not professional breeders. One could be critical of their decision not to spay their female and to deliberately allow her to mate, but in their raising of the puppies who were the outcome of that mating, they were stellar.
Recently, I read a posting from Stan Rawlinson, the UK's "original dog listener." In it, he talks about the impact a breeder has on a dog's adult behavior and health. Following is an excerpt that I found particularly interesting—it also explains why I'd been fortunate in the two dogs I'd purchased: in both cases, the puppies were born in the home and handled extensively from birth.
Humans handling pups from day one provide a mild stress response, which acts to improve the puppies both physically and emotionally. After that at 10 to 14 days the sense of hearing and smell develop, eyes open and the teeth begin to appear.
Their eyesight is not fully formed until seven weeks. Though they can see enough to get round from around three weeks of age. Pups that are handled regularly during the first seven/eight weeks of their life mature and grow quicker.
They are more resistant to infections and diseases, and are generally more stable. These pups handle stress better, are more exploratory, curious and learn much faster than pups that are not handled during this period.
They are also more likely to be happy around humans and are rarely aggressive. Therefore the pups born in kennels outside, and not in the home, and the ones born into puppy farms are less likely to get this vitally important tactile input.
Here's the first take-away: If you care deeply for a specific type of dog and are determined to start with a purebred puppy, it behooves you to pay careful attention to the way the breeder approaches the pups' crucial first weeks of life and the environment in which those pups are being raised. (After that, it's up to you!).
And here's the second obvious-but-true take-away: the value of handling very young puppies early and often isn't limited to purebreds —it applies to all pups of all persuasions in all situations. Hands-on breeders, shelter workers and rescue volunteers improve the odds that their smallest charges get off to a good start .
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Evidence that this technique has great promise
As the recently departed Yogi Berra famously said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Our dogs probably understand that as well as anyone can, because dogs are able to learn a new behavior by seeing a person demonstrate it. Imagine being able to teach your dog a new behavior by simply showing him the behavior and having him copy you! That fits in with many dog trainers’ goals of finding additional, better or easier ways to train our dogs.
Learning a new behavior by watching someone else perform it is a type of social learning, and for many years, people thought dogs were not capable of doing so. A natural tendency to assume that only humans are capable of various high-level processes partially explains that, but once various animals were tested, proof of social learning was undeniable. Chimpanzees were the first non-human animals tested and shown to be social learners, but dogs have been in the club for years now. Despite that, social learning has not been used extensively in dog training.
A training technique called “Do As I Do” is becoming increasingly popular, and may make social learning a more common part of dog training. This technique, which is described in detail in creator Claudia Fugazza’s book Do As I Do: Using Social Learning to Train Dogs, shows great promise as a new tool for helping our dogs learn. Dogs first learn to copy humans doing behaviors that they already know how to do when given the proper cue. An early step in the process is teaching dogs to copy a demonstrated known behavior when told, “Do It!” Once the dog has learned that “Do It” means to do what the person did, the dog can learn a new behavior with this technique. Later, a verbal or visual cue can be added so that the person does not always have to perform the behavior to let the dog know what to do.
Fugazza and Adam Miklósi (from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary) recently published a study comparing the effectiveness of two training techniques. In “Social learning in dog training: The effectiveness of the Do as I do method compared to shaping/clicker training,” they report that the Do As I Do technique is more effective for quickly teaching dogs a behavior that involves interacting with an object than Shaping/Clicker training. They chose the behavior of opening a sliding door on a cabinet because it was a novel behavior for all dogs in the study. (All dogs in the study and their guardian-trainers were experienced with the training technique used by the pair in the experiment.) More Do As I Do dogs than Clicker/Shaping Dogs learned the behavior within 30 minutes, and they learned it faster on average, too. The experiment did not find a difference between the two training methods when teaching dogs a body movement—in this case to lift the front paws off the ground.
Dogs who learned with the Do As I Do method were better able to remember the behavior and perform it in response to a verbal cue 24 hours after the original training session. In addition, they were better able to generalize their learning by performing the behavior in a new context.
The authors conclude that this new method, which relies on social learning, is more effective than using a clicker to shape a new behavior, which relies on individual learning (in this case, operant conditioning.) The dogs who learned with the Do As I Do method certainly outperformed the dogs who learned without it, but the comparison is more complex than comparing social learning to individual learning. In the traditional view of social learning, individuals learn a new behavior by observing others and without direct reinforcement. In Do As I Do dog training, dogs do learn by observation, but they are also reinforced for correct responses, meaning that their learning also involves operant conditioning. In other words, these dogs are learning with the benefit of multiple techniques. There is compelling evidence that the use of the Do As I Do technique enhances learning in dogs, but it is not completely fair to say that it is better than using operant conditioning. I think it’s more accurate to say that social learning combined with operant conditioning is more effective than operant conditioning alone.
Either way, I am excited about the Do As I Do technique of training dogs and would encourage everyone to incorporate it into their training. It’s likely that we will look back in a few years and wonder why we didn’t use dogs’ social learning abilities sooner and more often in dog training. That doesn’t mean that Do As I Do dog training will replace other methods, because as Fugazza herself writes, “We should not limit ourselves to using one single training method. The major benefits accrue from the combined use of social learning with other techniques.”
(Editor's note, for demonstations and more on this topic go here.)
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Animal trainer Teresa Miller’s canine cast is Oscar-worthy
White God, the latest film by acclaimed Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, is a tale of politics, class and society. The movie tells the story of a group of unruly canines confined to an overcrowded public shelter in Budapest who break free of their chains and storm the streets of the city, waging bloody retaliation against their human oppressors. White God draws upon Eastern Europe’s painfully recent history of government tyranny and exploitation under Communism, as well as its subsequent slide into radical ultra-conservatism, to construct a fast- paced, emotionally devastating parable about the fearsome power of a dehumanized underclass.
The film’s perspective shifts between that of the four-legged rebel leader, Hagen, and his adolescent human sympathizer, Lili. While Hagen endures starvation, abuse and confinement, Lili roams the streets searching for her lost pet, whose agonies are the result of a cruel, impulsive abandonment by Lilli’s embittered father. The real culprit, though, is a “mutt tax” levied against all non-purebreds, which is so ridiculously high that Lili’s father refuses to pay it. Though the film has a fairy tale quality, it is strictly adult fare and not suitable for children. There are scenes of violence and inhumanity that may prove upsetting to any animal lover.
Still, White God is a cinematic triumph—all of the filming is live action using real dogs—hundreds of them. Atypical for this day and age, the filmmakers avoided computer generated imagery (CGI). That choice lends the film a level of reality and surrealness unlike any film before it. The complexity of the crowd scenes and action sequences has to be seen to be believed, made all the more incredible when you know the task the film’s animal trainers were faced with. The trainer for White God’ is Teresa Miller, she and the director, Kornél Mundruczó, share their thoughts on the making of the film. Mundruczó, share their thoughts on the making of the film.
TRAINER: TERESA MILLER
To cast the right dog to play Hagen, I literally researched hundreds of dogs that were available to be adopted. I started locally in California and branched further West, as Kornél had not yet seen “Hagen” in my pictures. It was important to not only find that unique dog that would stand out in a pack of 200 dogs but also a dog that had a photo double. The amount of work that the dog had to do in this film would have been nearly impossible without the help of a double. After two months of searching I finally found “Luke” and “Bodie,” two brothers that were in need of a new home. They were very young—nine months old—and had a lot of energy and playfulness which was essential to accomplish this project. We began training in December of 2012 and in February 2013, traveled to Budapest to begin working with the pack dogs, trained by Arpad Halasz. The “Hagen” dogs were 13 months old when we started filming.
I have been training animals for the film industry since 1983. I worked very closely and learned most of my trade by working with my father, Karl Lewis Miller, for more than 20 years. He is responsible for many successful animal films such as Beethoven, Babe, K-9 and the infamous dog Cujo and the white Shepherd from Samuel Fuller’s film White Dog, to name a few. He was a master at training acting dogs, not just dogs that performed.
While preparing the dogs for the film White God, many training techniques were used to safely portray the level of violence that is depicted in the film. At no time was any animal treated badly or hurt in any manner. For example: The “Hagen” dogs were always wagging their tail and they looked too sweet, so I taught them to put their tail down. I also taught them to hang their head down to look sad or mean. We used an artificial dog for the scenes of medical and dental work. I also taught him to snarl and growl at me—not because he was angry, but because I asked him to respond to me that way.
DIRECTOR: KORNÉL MUNDRUCZÓ
It was a therapeutic experience. It was like coming into contact with Mother Nature herself or even a bit of the Universe: It was the big picture. It was a shooting process where we had to adjust to them, and not the other way around. The film is an outstanding example of the singular cooperation between two species. It was also an uplifting experience because each dog that appeared in the film came to us from shelters, and after the shooting ended, they were all adopted and found new homes.
While cooperating with the dogs, we adhered to the instructions of the U.S. Guide to Animal Treatment in all cases. Each scene had to be playful and painless for the animals. In a sense, the dogs became actors and the actors became dogs.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The (Next) Love of Your Life
Whether you’re searching for your first best friend or the next one, choosing a dog to welcome into your home and heart takes some thought.
The right decision is the difference between an uneasy relationship and a match made in heaven. Many people choose a dog without much reflection, and honestly, a lot of the time, things work out fine. Sometimes, though, a combination of unfortunate choices and bad luck leads to trouble. Whether it’s an incompatibility issue or serious behavior problems, a mismatch can sure get in the way of a loving relationship and the companionship we seek from dogs.
Thoughtful consideration about the kind of dog who best suits your lifestyle will help you avoid some common mistakes: Getting a long-haired-needs-to-be-brushed-every-day dog if you never bother to comb your own hair. Adopting a committed barker if you live in an apartment. Picking an athletic dog because nothing else has made your dream of leaving your couch-potato ways behind come true.
Since some traits are more common in certain breeds than others, choosing by breed can be a good place to start. There are exceptions, but few will argue that a Dachshund is as good a backpacking companion as a Labrador Retriever, for example, or that a Sheltie and a Greyhound are equally likely to bark excessively. Many people, including me, have a particular fondness for mixed-breed dogs, but if you know you want a dog to work sheep or some other highly specific task, choosing a purebred who has been bred to perform certain behaviors has advantages.
Regardless of your personal preferences, however, a purebred dog isn’t guaranteed to have a good temperament or good health, or be compatible with you. (Mixed-breeds come without this guarantee as well.)
It’s also common to focus on the type of dog and fail to give enough consideration to the individual dog, even though that factor is so critical to everyone’s future happiness. This stage of the selection process requires careful thought as well.
Remember that what is most likely to make you happy is the dog’s behavior, not the dog’s looks. That sounds obvious, but it’s often forgotten when you meet a dog who is so eye-catching that your heart melts, followed by your brain. I know it’s hard to resist, but don’t let beauty trump good sense.
Appearances can lead you astray in other ways. It’s unwise to pick a dog because he looks like one you used to love. That brown spot shaped like a crescent moon right above his tail is not the trait that made your angel dog from childhood an angel. Ditto for the color of his eyes, the tendency for one ear to be up and the other down, or his endearingly comical leggy proportions.
The best predictor of a dog’s behavior is the parents’ behavior. This information is not always available, but if it is, pay attention! If someone tells you that you can’t meet the father because he’s aggressive, don’t even consider a puppy from a litter he sired. The mother’s behavior is just as critical, so if it’s possible to know anything about her or to meet her, take note of her actions. Ask what she (and the sire) would do if a child took her toy, or if she met a strange dog on the street, or if a strange man went in for a hug, and pay attention to the answers.
Whether you are adopting a puppy, an adolescent or an adult, never ignore the most important predictor of a dog’s behavior, which is the behavior of the dog’s parents. Information on parentage can be hard to come by, especially for adolescents and adults, but always ask about it. You may be surprised to find out that some specifics are known.
And while I think it’s prudent to consider temperament tests or other behavioral assessments, I wouldn’t accept them as gospel. A recent study of the value of such tests performed in shelters found that of the many things they measured, only fear and friendliness had any predictive value once the dog was placed in a home (Mornement et al. 2014). Clearly, temperament tests don’t come through on their promises to tell us all we want to know about dogs before adopting them (Hekman 2014). Still, we can’t pretend they’re pointless, either. Surely it’s better to do some sort of evaluation rather than play eenie-meenie-miney-mo, or choose the dog you think is better looking than the others.
It bodes well when a dog solicits play or responds to your attempts to play. A playful dog in a strange situation with an unfamiliar person has not been shut down by fear or stress, and that’s good. There are plenty of scared, stressed dogs who make wonderful pets and are loved beyond measure, but let’s face it, dogs who don’t chronically suffer from either of these negative emotions have advantages. One study showed that dogs who responded rather than ignored people’s attempts to play with them were more likely to be adopted (Protopopova and Wynne 2014). This suggests that playfulness already influences adoption, whether we consciously attend to it or not.
I’m favorably impressed by dogs who are comfortable being touched. Enjoying petting and seeking close physical contact are great signs, but not deal breakers if dogs aren’t immediately into it. When they’re in a strange environment, it’s natural for them to want to sniff around and explore a bit. However, while an instant desire for petting is not essential, later on, once they’ve calmed down, it’s a reasonable expectation.
Speaking of calming down, I pay a lot of attention to whether or not a dog is capable of doing so, and how long it takes. I have no problem with dogs who get excited. Perhaps they’ve been in a kennel for a long time and are short on exercise and social contact. Naturally, they are thrilled to greet you and run around a new place. Still, a dog who shows no signs of getting over that initial arousal and excitement within a few minutes may struggle with self-control in a lot of situations, and that’s not ideal in a pet dog.
Whether the dog leans toward being playful or toward wanting physical contact, it’s smart to choose a dog who engages with you. Exactly how they do that and what appeals to you personally are both matters of individual choice, but it’s important that they express an interest. Otherwise, you may be swimming upstream in trying to build a strong relationship and to train the dog.
I also like to evaluate a dog’s trainability by observing how quickly he learns a new behavior and how interested he is in the process. Teaching a dog to sit or lie down, to leave a piece of food on the ground, or to touch a target stick are a few great options for assessing trainability. A dog who can be trained demonstrates focus and attention, and an interest in you or in food (or perhaps both).
It’s promising when a dog recovers quickly from being startled by a loud noise, such as a book dropped on the floor. If a dog gets scared and hides for hours, that’s a problem. What you’re looking for is a dog who, though startled, takes only a moment to return to his normal emotional state. It indicates an ability to regulate his emotions and deal with the many little shocks that life brings.
Although there are a lot of things to do in order to choose a dog who is a good match for you, you also need to know what not to do: Don’t pick a dog out of pity; it’s not the best way to start a relationship. Remember, you are giving a home to one dog no matter which dog you choose, so choose the one you really want. Don’t rush into it or acquire a dog on impulse. It makes things harder on everyone if you bring a dog home when you are not ready emotionally, financially or logistically. Don’t buy from a pet store or any place that gets dogs from puppy mills. If you do, you are supporting a system that harms dogs. When there is no demand for dogs from these places, dogs will no longer be bred for them or mistreated in them.
If you are planning on welcoming a puppy rather than an adolescent or adult dog, there are a couple of extra “don’ts” to consider: Don’t pick the puppy who is off by himself in the corner while the others tumble around together. That “lone wolf” sort of puppy may be endearing and pull at your heart, but he is not exhibiting normal social behavior. The dog who does not interact will be less likely to build strong connections with you or with other dogs, and far more likely to have serious behavior problems that will distress you and your family down the road.
Similarly, resist the temptation to pick the puppy who is running over everyone and showing no self-control or respect for boundaries. Such “mack truck” puppies are likely to be that way throughout life, and it’s not a trait that’s fun to live with. Lack of impulse control can make training, relationships and daily life challenging beyond description.
There are many, many dogs out there—in shelters and rescue groups (including breed rescue), and from responsible breeders—who could be a great friend as well as a family member you can’t imagine life without. May your search lead you to one who will become your true love!
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A look at an innovative dog training program at University of Pennsylvania
A unique program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine—the Penn Vet Working Dog Center—not only trains detection dogs from puppyhood, but also, studies every aspect of their development in order to determine how to identify and train the finest detection dogs possible, dogs whose work is critical when natural and human-caused disasters hit. The center officially opened on September 11, 2012, at a former DuPont facility just south of the main campus. All of the puppies are named after dogs who served at Ground Zero and elsewhere in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We want to focus on what the nose can do,” says the center’s founder and director, Cynthia Otto, associate professor of critical care at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Otto, who had been providing medical care to detection dogs for FEMA since 1994, joined a contingent of first-responders from Pennsylvania at Ground Zero in September 2001. Initially, the dogs were deployed to search for survivors, but ended up locating the remains of victims.
After the disaster, Otto and some of her colleagues in the working-dog world took a serious look at the factors that come into play in the best detection dogs. Was it genetics? Or could a dog’s natural talents be optimized? Was it possible to identify successful detection dog candidates from shelters or rescues? If so, how? Otto, a scientist, began planning a program that would provide answers.
Otto decided to break with the practice of most detection-dog programs—including those of the military and many law enforcement agencies—which wait until dogs are a year old before beginning their detection training. Instead, she wanted to give puppies an overall “liberal arts” experience that included obedience, agility, searching, direction and control, drive building, impulse control, socialization, play, fitness, and husbandry. Then, she would study their development during that crucial first year, gather evidence of what worked and what didn’t, and use that information to guide the development (and identification) of even better detection dogs.
Another unusual feature of the center is that, rather than being kenneled, the dogs live in foster homes. Such a system requires a great deal of organization; after several years of fund-raising and searching for a location, Otto hired three full-time employees to manage operations, direct the dogs’ training and coordinate the many volunteers who would be required. Then, she and her staff set about finding puppies whose pedigrees indicated that they had the drive and temperament to become exemplary detection dogs.
Ronnie, a black sable German Shepherd, is one of the dogs who spent his first year at the new Penn Vet Working Dog Center. As a puppy, he was fostered by Cathy Von Elm and lived with her and Auggie, Von Elm’s Cardigan Welsh Corgi, in their Center City Philadelphia home. Evenings and weekends were spent doing typical puppy things: playing with Auggie, tossing giant fleece bones in the air, filching ice from Von Elm’s glass, going to the country on weekends. Every weekday morning, however, on her way to work, Von Elm dropped Ronnie off at “school”—the Penn Vet center; in the evening, on her way home, she picked him up.
Ronnie came from breeder Julie Stade, whom Otto had met in 2012 at a national breeders’ conference, where Otto was giving a seminar. Stade, who’s based in Kansas and is known for her work with Doberman Pinschers, had recently made a foray into breeding German Shepherds and was awaiting her first litter. The parents came from impressive lines of Czech dogs, and Stade was interested in donating one of the puppies to the center.
Her timing was excellent: Otto was looking for just the right German Shepherd to add to her class of puppies. She wanted a namesake for another Ronnie—a Czech German Shepherd whose handler, David Lee, had been a longtime detection-work colleague before his retirement from the Philadelphia police force. (Lee had introduced Otto to Annemarie DeAngelo, a retired New Jersey State Trooper and founder of their canine program, who became the center’s director of training.)
In November 2012, Stade’s dog Burana whelped; Ronnie was the fifth of nine males. As she does with every new litter, Stade conducted what she calls “the matching game”: figuring out which dog is best suited for a prospective owner. “It’s my favorite part of the process,” she says. Stade observes the puppies’ behavior from birth and presents them with challenges, such as a variety of loud noises, to see how they respond—who gives up, who perseveres, who looks to a human to solve the problem, who whines.
After she’d narrowed down the choice to three dogs, Stade and her husband took Burana and the puppies to a park that was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from their farm, an adventure they hoped would help her make the final decision. “I had the brilliant idea of putting them in the back of a horse trailer,” she says ruefully.
Stade rode in the back with the dogs and all of their equipment, but she quickly discovered that without a horse’s weight, the trailer and everything inside bounced. “It was a far more extreme test than I ever would have done intentionally. I never want to put puppies in a situation where they question or doubt themselves.”
Ronnie, still unnamed, was identified only by his yellow collar. While his red-collared and blue-collared brothers reacted to the sounds and movement by becoming angry or anxious, Ronnie took in his surroundings and then promptly curled up and drifted off to sleep. Ronnie wasn’t just an intrepid traveler—he seemed to be unflappable.
In late January 2013, the time came for Ronnie to leave Stade’s farm for his life in Philadelphia. By then, however, the cold weather made it risky to ship him in a plane’s cargo hold. The center needed a volunteer to carry Ronnie on the flight. But there was another complication: Stade likes to keep her puppies well fed just before placement so they have some extra padding to help them adjust to the stress of their new surroundings.
“Ronnie was really fat,” she confesses. In fact, he was eight weeks old and weighed 29 pounds. Would he even fit under the seat of a plane? There was only one solution. David Lee, now a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security, was unlikely to be challenged if there were difficulties during the flight. He volunteered to fly to Kansas and bring Ronnie to Philadelphia.
Lee recalled seeing the Buddha-shaped Ronnie for the first time: “He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed … just a ball of fire.” While playing tug with Ronnie, Lee instantly fell for his charms, but wondered what he’d be like on the plane. Lee had yet to discover that Ronnie didn’t just resemble Buddha—he possessed his enlightened detachment, too. On the flight, Ronnie didn’t flinch, whine or bark. He just sat on Lee’s lap. When Lee put Ronnie on the adjacent seat, he looked around, lay down and slept.
After arriving in Philadelphia, Lee was able to spend some time with Ronnie. He took him everywhere—to a warehouse, to the beach, down stairs. “Nothing fazed him,” Lee remembers. “He was a great dog even then.”
Trained for Excellence
School is a full-time affair at the Working Dog Center. After being dropped off each weekday morning before 9 am, the puppies spend the day at the center until their foster families pick them up sometime between 5 and 7 pm. The dogs are trained on-site, and their daily training regimens are tracked on a master board. All areas must be covered in a predetermined rotation, but obedience training takes place every day, if only while the dogs are being taken outdoors.
In addition to several indoor training areas, the center has a dedicated outdoor agility course and a rubble pile. They use a nearby vacant warehouse for search training. Regular field trips expose the dogs to as many different environments as possible. Destinations include local warehouses, airport terminals, the Philadelphia subways and the rubble pile, which is in New Jersey.
Dogs are grouped according to age so those with a similar skill level can go through a particular training scenario together, but they’re never held back because of their age. Each dog has to master basic scenarios before moving on to those that are more complex. Depending on how many staff members are available, the dogs go through two or three scenarios per day.
Search training, part of which involves finding a volunteer in an empty barrel on the agility course, is probably the most fun to watch—it’s like a really elaborate game of hide-and-seek. Or, one of the puppies might be let loose inside the empty warehouse to find a tug toy. The reward in either case is a well-earned game of tug and a wagging tail. “It’s a game, making it fun for them,” says Training Director DeAngelo.
Regardless of the setup, logistics matter. The dogs need to be transported to training destinations in crates, but the center’s cargo van cannot carry them all, so staff vehicles usually join the caravan. Each puppy also needs his or her own handler during training. Many of the handlers are volunteers or interns, and every attempt is made to pair a dog with the same handler as often as possible. In addition to the director of training, the center has two full-time and three part-time trainers. The part-time trainers have dedicated areas of expertise: agility, obedience and reactivity. When they’re not training, the dogs rest in their crates or are taken for walks, often to Penn’s main campus, where they play and socialize with students.
Otto estimates the costs of raising and training each dog to be $36,000. Penn’s vet school provides their health care, and various companies donate food and other supplies (foster families incur no expenses). In Ronnie’s case, the Wawa convenience store chain made a donation to the center to support his care. Such contributions are crucial, as the center depends entirely on donations for its operating budget.
Perhaps the most challenging fields for a detection dog are law enforcement and search and rescue (SAR). A major difference is that there are periods of inactivity in SAR work, but law-enforcement dogs work almost daily. “Ronnie can do anything,” declares Otto, and that seems to be the consensus of opinion among those who’ve come in contact with him. “He’s an awesome work dog,” says DeAngelo. David Lee goes further: “I’d love to be his handler. He’s the most laid-back dog I have ever worked with. The only thing that I would fear is if he did something that bored him. As long as it’s fun, that dog will work for days. He’s just that good.”
Initially, Otto was hesitant about placing the center’s dogs in law enforcement because that would require training them in bite work, a key component of criminal apprehension. Introducing an aggressive behavior has to be done carefully to avoid having it affect the dog’s personality. Nevertheless, when the police department of Philadelphia’s mass transit authority, known as SEPTA, announced that it was expanding its canine unit, Otto carefully considered the opportunity.
Ronnie had the chance to prove himself at SEPTA’s 2013 Iron Dog Challenge, an annual fundraiser in which teams of working dogs and their handlers compete in a specially designed course of more than 25 challenges, which include having the dog jump through a window, demonstrate nonreactivity to a gun shot, be carried uphill and placed over a barrier, complete a low crawl, and criminal apprehension. For Ronnie to compete, he had to be trained to bite on command.
Fortunately, one of the center’s volunteers is Bob Dougherty, a certified law enforcement canine trainer who is also a member of the Cheltenham, Penn., police K9 unit. Dougherty worked with Ronnie over several months of accelerated training that included more directed searching and tracking and the subtle work of teaching the bite-on-command behavior.
According to Dougherty, the key is to manage stress so that the dog never feels a pressure to perform, and training remains a game. Dougherty’s goal is to find a balance between achieving results from the dog and maintaining the dog’s happiness, so that the next time, the dog is even more eager to practice biting. “Ronnie is such an easy dog to work with,” says Dougherty. “All the foundation work was done so well. It wasn’t difficult at all.”
Although Ronnie didn’t place at the Iron Dog competition, he did well enough against the more than two dozen teams of certified working dogs and handlers that SEPTA officials took notice. Since 2005, SEPTA had been rescuing dogs from shelters and training them to be canine officers. In January 2014, Ronnie and one of his classmates became the first dogs SEPTA purchased. With the help of a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the group paid $8,000 for him.
Ronnie now lives with his handler, Officer Javier Class. Class is new to the canine unit, but has been around dogs all his life and always knew he wanted a canine partner. Nevertheless, when he met Ronnie, he was taken aback by the Shepherd’s size. Ronnie weighs100 pounds, and Class says it occurred to him that he might not be able to handle the dog. Class’s moment of doubt quickly disappeared as he and Ronnie bonded.
The two fulfill the principle of opposites attracting: whereas Class has plenty of patience, Ronnie is so eager to work that SEPTA’s head trainer, Officer Dave Parke, has instituted what he calls the “30-second rule”: he has to explain every new concept in 30 seconds so that Ronnie can get to work. Otherwise, the dog barks impatiently. When Ronnie is home with Class, his wife and two children, however, he’s a different dog. Class attributes this to the home environment that Von Elm and Auggie gave Ronnie in his first year.
Ronnie will almost certainly spend the rest of his life with Class and his family, even after he grows too old for active duty (something that’s difficult to imagine today). Barring injury or illness, Ronnie will work until he’s nine or 10, which is about the point at which dogs begin to lose their stamina for the rigors of scent work. For now, Ronnie’s most definitely on the job, and when he’s not, he spends a lot of time with his new best friend, Class’s six-year-old daughter. Their favorite game? Hide-and-seek, of course.
Experts give their views
I listened in on a webinar today held by the good people of the Animal Behavior Associates—it was their June CAAB (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists) Chat, the general topic was Pet Behavior Wellness. Similar to a veterinarian wellness exam, but with the main focus on a dog’s behavior. Participants were Suzanne Hetts, PhD, Dan Estep, PhD and guest “chatter” Nancy Williams, MA, RVT, ACAAB. Questions that they addressed included:
- What is behavioral wellness and why should we be interested in it?
- What does it mean to have a behaviorally healthy pet and how do you get one?
- How do behaviorally healthy pets act? What are the criteria for behavioral health?
- Is behavior wellness simply the absence of behavioral problems or something more?
- Does simply meeting an animal’s behavioral and physical needs put it in good behavioral health or is good behavioral health something more?
As professional behaviorists they all were frustrated that oftentimes clients came to them for behavioral consultation as the “last resort” instead of being proactive about their dog’s behavioral health. Being proactive about this can reap benefits similar to preventive medicine. They discussed the characteristics of behaviorally sound and healthy dogs, and referenced a test you can take, see how your dog’s behavioral health measures up.
Among the list of behavioral needs that should be provided to our dogs besides the basic ones of food, care and shelter, are providing a dog with the “ability to control some aspects of the environment, opportunities for mental stimulation, and for pleasant social contact.”
When the discussion turned to how to fulfill those particular needs, much to my surprise, they brought up the controversial topic of retractable leashes. None of these veteran trainers had started out as fans of those devices because so few people seem to employ them properly, but all three are now advocates for their wise and limited use, again, something that surprised me. But that turn in the discussion definitely sparked my interest to learn more. They talked about how all dogs aren’t good candidates for dog parks or doggie day care, but the retractable leash was offered as an alternative to giving a dog both the mental stimulation and some control over their environment. As we know, dogs prefer to walk ahead of us, something that is really impossible at the end of a standard six-foot leash and the resulting pulling on the shorter leash can make a pleasant outing into an uncomfortable walk for those on both ends of the leash. These experts spelled out the characteristics of beneficial leash walks which can be obtained by use of retractable leashes: they "allow for ample sniffing, physical exercise, ability to control their own experience, and lack of restraint and pulling against something." The three of them agreed that using retractable leashes does not mean that a dog will learn to pull harder on a standard leash, or that a dog will think she is in charge because she is able to walk ahead of you. Dogs basically like to forge ahead of us, playing “scout” perhaps, and those who can do so with the flexibility provided by a retractable leash, usually, according to these trainers, do not venture that far ahead or pull to get even further ahead.
But they cautioned that these leashes are also not appropriate in many cases and many dog people do not have the skill to use them properly. Retractables should not be used on city streets, in confined areas, or on dogs who can be aggressive to other dogs or people, by kids, with people with physical disabilities, when walking more than one dog or when walking a dog for training and not for exercise. For many of us a trainer will need to show you how best to use one.
I have never been a fan of these leashes, having had a horrible experience with a woman who did not know how to use one and almost hogtied me when her pup tried to play with my dog, her leash quickly wound around my knees and cut into the back of my legs, she didn’t have the sense to just drop the leash! But then again, that woman should never have used such a leash without proper direction. What Hetts, Estep and Williams had to say about this, made me question my ingrained negative perspective on retractables. But I know that this is really hot button issue, so am curious to hear your opinion.
You can purchase a recorded copy of the CAAB webinar for a small fee if this topic interests you (the retractable leash part is towards the end of the hour and a half long webinar) and sign up for free their monthly chats, they are always interesting and informative.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Surprises when bringing a dog to school
Besides veterinarians and zookeepers, not many professions related to animals are well known. That’s why I was so happy for the opportunity to represent my field and share what I do as a canine behaviorist and dog trainer with elementary school kids.
I was granted special permission to bring a dog as one of the requested “visual aids” for a career day presentation at my son’s school. The best part was the mutual enjoyment between Marley and the students. He clearly loved every second of the attention, and they were quite enamored with him. It was pretty blissful all around, but in truth, I expected that. He’s a social dog who loves attention, and any group of kids is likely to enjoy spending time with a nice dog while at school.
There were ways in which I was caught off guard, though. I was pleasantly surprised by how much most of the children knew about dog behavior. It seemed to be common knowledge that when dogs wag their tails to the right, they are especially happy. The kids were aware that they should not stare at dogs or hug them and that a dog who goes stiff should be considered unapproachable. Most of the kids knew about using clickers and treats to train dogs, and several brought up the issue of dogs being left-pawed or right-pawed.
Additionally, the students surprised me by asking high-quality questions, including the following:
Is this fun for Marley or stressful?
Do all of the dogs you work with stop being aggressive?
How do you decide which trick will be easiest to teach a certain dog?
How can you tell when Marley has learned enough and he should get to go to recess?
Why is it easier to train dogs than to train cats?
What are scientists trying to learn about dogs right now?
Another surprise is one that perhaps I should have anticipated, but thoroughly failed to do so. I had assumed we would be in a classroom like all of the other presenters. Instead we were out in the courtyard. That means that various classes were walking through to spend time in the school garden and that there were (Oh my!) squirrels running around a few times during the course of the event. Naturally, this was potentially distracting for Marley and very exciting, but he rolled with it. He stayed focused on me and also on the kids in the group.
Marley got a chance to perform some of his best tricks, along with displaying the good manners that come from a mastery of basic obedience and lots of practice being in a variety of situations. When given each appropriate cue, Marley responded by sitting, lying down, coming when called, heeling and waiting at doors. He also showed off his lovely “Leave It” by not eating a treat or biscuit that was on the ground until he was given permission to do so. The tricks he did included “High-5”, “Sit Pretty”, “Rollover”, “Crawl”, “Spin” and “Unwind” (spinning in the opposite direction.)
The kids were most impressed by his tricks, but I was particularly proud of what nobody else probably even noticed—Marley was unreactive to distractions, remained focused on me, and was gentle as he visited all the children, letting each one have a moment to meet him. As a professional, I know that this generally polite behavior is actually more worthy of admiration than responding well to specific cues.
It’s not easy to remain calm in a new place no matter what happens—school bells ringing, children running, squirrels appearing and a breeze wafting in smells from the cafeteria. Of course, as a professional I also know that not every dog is capable of behaving well in such a stimulating environment. I would never bring a dog to an elementary school unless I was completely confident he could act appropriately no matter what.
Marley’s behavior was exemplary, so he definitely deserved to end each presentation by showing off his newest trick, which is “Take a Bow.” Good dog!
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