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!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Author of The Secret History of Kindness
When critically acclaimed author Melissa Holbrook Pierson decided to write about the joys of clicker training, she didn’t realize that her journey would lead her, first, into the dark history of dog training and later, into the more affirming laboratories of B.F. Skinner. We spoke with Pierson about her extraordinary new book, The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn (Norton, April), covering such topics as why so many prominent trainers are “crossing over” to positive reinforcement methods, why and how we can be positively (or negatively) reinforced by our own training methods, and why and how science has proven that kindness is indeed the best approach—to dog training and to life.
B: I was encouraged to learn that the use of electric shock devices has been banned in Wales, and that other parts of the UK are considering similar legislation. Why are these devices ineffective, even dangerous?
MHP: Shock collars are imprecise and flawed tools for several reasons. Pain induces fear and anxiety, which have neurological effects that impede learning. Use of shock collars is correlated with increased aggression and anxiety. Finally, it is incredibly difficult to time the shock properly, which causes confusion and often, learned helplessness.
Another undesirable outcome is the unintended associations a dog may make between the pain and what’s in the environment at the time it’s experienced. For instance, a dog can’t know that when he was zapped, it wasn’t caused by the child who happened to be riding by on a bicycle at that precise moment. The next thing you know, your dog develops a fear of children on bicycles, and eventually, bites a child riding by on a bike. People say, “It was completely out of the blue.” Not to the dog.
B: You refer to a number of trainers who “crossed over” from using punitive/coercive methods to positive reinforcement. Could you tell us about that?
MHP: I cite a very well-known trainer who describes a seminal moment in her training career, in which her own dog—with whom she did competition obedience—actually ran and hid from her when it was time to begin a training session. In that moment, she asked herself, “Why is my dog hiding from me?” Then it hit her: her dog was afraid of her.
B: So this trainer realized that she herself was a stressor—a source of fear and pain—in her own dog’s life. As you point out, this is an unfortunate but common side effect of coercive training methods.
MHP: Yes, but before we get to that, I want to clarify that it’s not a matter of people being unkind, or not loving their dogs. These people love their dogs every bit as much as anyone. But living in a culture saturated by coercion, in which so many social institutions are structured to use threat or punishment to modify behavior, can blind us to what we’re actually doing. Coercing comes naturally to many of us because that’s what we’ve always known. We then visit the same sort of treatment on our own children—among whom many of us include our dogs.
For centuries, all sorts of punitive and abusive methods have been propounded as being the “right”—indeed, the necessary—way to raise our dependents. Twenty years ago, it was practically impossible to find a book on dog training that did not instruct you in the methodology of abuse.
That’s why I give the example in my book of my own childhood dog. She was truly the soul of sweetness, with no behavioral issues to speak of. But since we didn’t know how to properly housebreak her, we took the advice of a standard “How to Raise Your Puppy” book. Now, I can hardly bear to think about what we did to this dog, who was uncomprehending and completely at our mercy. We loved her. But did we know any better? No.
B: A lot of us can empathize with that guilt. But, as Maya Angelou said, “You do your best, and when you know better, you do better.” Now we do know better; science has proven—and you go into great detail about this in your book, from many angles—that positive reinforcement is the most effective training method. Can you elaborate?
MHP: It’s more effective because it’s true. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but in every case history can provide, things become easier and better when we work with fact rather than tradition, which, for lack of an alternative, often makes things extremely difficult. When you believe the Earth is flat, you are not aware that it might be easier to head west in order to gain the east. Teaching is so much more fluid, and kinder, to both student and teacher when it follows the laws of operant conditioning as well as other discoveries in natural science. We are in a great moment, one in which neurology continues to complement Skinner’s findings in illuminating how the brain works.
B: One thing I was startled to discover in your book is that the military uses positive reinforcement to train their marine animals. Does that mean that even they no longer cling to the outdated dominant, alpha-male, punitive model?
MHP: You’ve hit on one of the most interesting paradoxes in the whole thing. Critics of positive reinforcement call us “cookie pushers” and criticize us for being too kind, too lenient. But if we just look at what works, and strip away all the value-laced judgment on technique, the fact is that in almost all cases, positive reinforcement turns out to be the most efficient, most effective method. Believe me, if the navy could find a better way to train, it would; all it cares about is what works.
Several countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, are now reputed to use only positive reinforcement training in their military canine programs, and in the U.S., we are moving solidly in that direction. Reliability is the sole factor driving this movement. As I say in the book, it is not sentimental foible to train without coercion. There are data proving that it works best.
The topic of the crossover trainer is a seminal example in the whole revolution toward positive reinforcement. These are individuals who were at the height of their power and careers. They had no reason to change their methods because what they were doing was “working,” so far as they knew. But something cracked open in their hearts once what I can only call empathy opened their eyes to the way their dogs’ reactions told them something was wrong.
So I think the crossover is not fundamentally crossing from one technique to another, but rather, crossing from an egocentric point of view to an empathic one, where you actually look at what the dog is expressing, and realize: “I was blind, but now I see.”
B: Your book is full of wonderful “light-bulb moments.” Can you share some examples?
MHP: Almost everyone I know who tries clicker training experiences one moment when he or she sees the dog “get” it—an undeniable expression of happiness and eagerness. It’s the learning moment, when the doors of communication open wide. And you literally get high on it. When you see someone you love happy because of something you’ve done or given, that’s something you want to replicate. Seeing them happy makes you happy. That’s what happens with a clicker and a dog. You see this transformation and you become transformed, too.
It’s hallelujah, it’s eureka, it’s everything all at once. In a way, it’s the big bang. It’s the creation of a new universe, gaining a new language. Suddenly, you’ve discovered something. Using the language of learning results in such beautiful moments.
B: Can one experience similarly joyful moments using punitive training methods? In other words, do punitive training methods employ this language of learning?
MHP: The effect on the learner, both in the moment and later, is dramatically different. First, the nature of punishment is such that it only stops a behavior; it does not give instruction on what is desired. Then, there’s its effect on the brain. Pain (or the threat thereof) triggers a response from the reactive part, the amygdala. In moments of imminent crisis, it’s where we quickly decide what to do: fight, flight or freeze. Stress hormones are released to get us to act. In moments of fear or pain, the reasoning and rational parts of the brain shut down to conserve resources. We can’t learn; we need to save ourselves. The brain of a dog cowering or feeling pain is caught in a neurochemical stress cycle. Not a condition conducive to figuring things out.
On the other hand, a dog who anticipates a reward, who tries to figure out how to get the good stuff, is fully able to engage the thinking part of his brain. All this thinking and learning makes him happy. If you remember times when learning excited you, you know the feeling. It’s the moment when you can almost feel your mind stretching to get more of that sensation of wonderment.
This is almost visible in clicker-trained dogs. They start to play, to try novel behaviors. They manifest an eagerness to learn more. This is the opposite of what happens in a moment of terror, or even milder forms of distress. Fear forecloses options. Imagine asking people to do crossword puzzles as they’re fleeing a burning building. In stressful situations, we cannot access the part of our brain that is capable of such work, and neither can dogs.
B: This leads into the notion of “learned helplessness,” which we see in dogs trained using force.
MHP: Exactly. Learned helplessness occurs when you don’t understand when or why the punishment—the literal or figurative electric shock—is coming, because it seems to be random. The safest course of action is simply to offer no behavior at all, to stand pat. This kind of freezing is sometimes mistaken for “calm submission” in dogs who have been forced to submit. But they haven’t truly learned to be calm. Rather, they’ve learned to avoid an arbitrary unpleasantness by doing nothing.
You also see this in students engaged in traditional pedagogy, which often relies on threat of punishment for misbehavior instead of reinforcement for desired behavior. Kids learn to toe the line, but they don’t do much else. I personally think it’s sad; by choosing a coercive methodology, we deprive our students of the great possibilities of exploring their brain’s farther reaches.
B: Your book reminded me how much fun positive-reinforcement training can be, both for the trainer and the trainee. And conversely, how unpleasant it can be to use punishing, coercive methods. For many of us, using punitive training methods makes us feel terrible.
MHP: That’s because, from a behaviorist perspective, reinforcers act both on the subject and the teacher. Punishment, as I learned to my astonishment, can act as a reinforcer to the person who practices it: that is one of its dangers. You can end up practicing it because it is reinforcing to you. It certainly has immediate effect, which can feel good. And as Skinner taught, what feels good ends up being repeated.
But then you see its effect in your subject. Deciding which path to take brings us to the subject of empathy. Is your goal to understand how your dog understands? The revolution in kindness will continue to grow, I think, if people simply stop and ask themselves, Would I like this done to me? I dare say very few people, projecting themselves into their dog’s mind, would actively choose to have their windpipe constricted every three minutes over learning how to walk on a loose leash. Especially if being walked on a loose leash involved treats or being released to go sniff an interesting smell.
B: How does positive reinforcement reinforce the trainer?
MHP: A great bonus of positive reinforcement is that you first have to watch and learn: your dog is called upon to tell you what she finds reinforcing. It causes us to open and embrace, rather than close down and demand. It’s a gift to both parties.
B: What are the most important things you’ve learned from clicker training and/or operant conditioning?
MHP: The most important things that clicker training can teach, finally, are about life. First, maybe, is the importance of self-control. The more I can do that, the better teacher I am, also the better human being I am. In a philosophical as well as literal way, it’s about orienting to “yes” instead of “no.” Yes is a bigger place, full of potential, full of joy. It’s a little like focusing on gratitude, on what you have as opposed to what you lack.
Clicker training leaks into all aspects of life. I can be a better friend, a better listener. It teaches compassion. It teaches the importance of recognizing that so many of the things we believe are essential are really rather arbitrary. For one, language. We realize that our language is not universal at all.
The importance of understanding the language that our beloveds speak is a crucial aspect of positive reinforcement. An ancillary gift is that it causes us to consider someone else’s desires as equal to our own. Why should my desire that my dog do this or that take precedence over her desires? In order to use this methodology successfully, you have to ask your subject: What do you want? Then stop and look and listen to find out.
I think it’s a huge privilege to have this glimpse into another species’ world. With other training methods, you don’t really get that privilege.
B: Can you share one useful training tip for those readers who might be new to the joys of clicker training?
MHP: One of the most powerful tools I found actually comes from classical, not operant, conditioning: associate your dog’s name, spoken with a specific intonation, with the receipt of something good. This simple act has allowed me to give my dog some of the freedom she craves because I’ve greatly increased the chances that she will come back to me. She understands that coming when she hears this particular sound is going to result in a pleasant outcome.
I can let my dog off leash (only, of course, in areas that I know to be as safe from man-made hazards as I can humanly determine), and it all started in the kitchen. I would say her name and give her a treat; my particular dog has informed me of the paramount value of edibles, while to another dog, a tug toy might be preferred. I could see fireworks exploding in her brain. I could practically hear her think: You mean, all I do is go to her when I hear that sound and I get a reward? Then I can go away again and have more fun? Oh boy!
This to me is the best and simplest tip. Once you’ve successfully associated the dog’s name with something good, be careful in the future to avoid pairing it with something negative or undesirable. Otherwise you get what is called a “poisoned” cue.
B: This makes me think of your wonderful statement: “It all comes down to: do you want to train with yes or with no?”
If I had to boil down the whole book to one word, it would be “yes.” Isn’t it what we all want to hear, more than anything else?
Sandra Roth and Lizzy with a showstopping performance
Dog-dancing is taken to its heights and none display this better than Sandra Roth and Lizzy at The Open European Championships in Heelwork to Music and Freestyle 2014, held in Stuttgart, Germany. “There are no compulsory movements or elements, so each team can present their individual strengths and skills,” reads Dogdance International’s preamble. “No other dog sport offers that much flexibility to ... adapt each performance to the capabilities and needs of each team member (dog as well as human).”
Sandra Roth is a ballet and jazz dancer with a passion for dogs, so moving into dog-dancing was a natural for her and turned out to be the perfect sport. As for Lizzy, her dancing companion, Roth writes in her profile that “Lizzy has been learning tricks and freestyle moves since she was a puppy. But we’ve had many problems and she was not an easy dog. So our main focus for the first 3 years was on her social behaviour and not on dog sports.”
Roth continues that Lizzy “gets more and more confident and our relationship has improved a lot. She is also starting to enjoy the attention by the audience.”
And Roth adds that, “Other than dancing we also do some obedience training, we do Treibball, scent work, lunging, dog scootering and whatever is fun for both of us.”
Don’t you agree that their performance takes your breath away? And by the time Lizzy is doing her front-leg-crossover, I couldn’t stop the tears, this was oh so lovely.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
I love it when my clients know the equine set
When I pull up to a new client’s house and see a barn with horses, a rush of optimism washes over me. The same feeling arises if at any point I learn that they have experience with these large animals. People who have worked with horses often do very well when working with dogs, and there are a number of reasons for that.
They realize that you can’t force a horse to do something. They are simply too big to be pushed around physically. Having developed other ways to influence a horse’s behavior, they don’t tend to try a coercive approach with dogs either.
They probably have a lot of patience and are willing to put in the time. Horses are high maintenance, so people who have cared for them are often the type of people who are willing to put time and effort into other animals, including their dogs.
People who are skilled with horses have become so over time with great effort. They realize that training an animal is not intuitive—that you actually have to learn how to do it. It’s commonly thought that training a dog should be natural for people, even automatic in a sense, but people don’t expect to be a natural with horses. Horse people know they need to learn how to work with them, and they carry that attitude over to dogs.
Many people who work with horses know that it is essential to treat each horse as the individual that it is. Understanding that each animal has a different personality is relatively common in all fields involving animals, but I find it to be nearly universal among horse people. They are almost guaranteed to understand this fact of life about their dogs.
Because they are prey animals, it is easy to understand and accept that many horses are fearful to some extent, but people don’t often realize that dogs are fearful, too. Yet, in my experience 80 percent of the aggressive dogs I work with are primarily behaving aggressively because of fear, and that fear must be changed before their behavior will change. Many fearful dogs bark, lunge or bite rather than act shy and skittish or show obvious signs of flight that are easy to associate with fear. The fact that they are scared sometimes goes unrecognized. People who know horses are often more likely to realize that a dog is fearful and be open to treatment options that focus on that.
I’m always looking for reasons to have hope about every dog I work with, and when their guardians are horse people, it’s so easy to be optimistic!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
This may not be obvious to your dog
“Brought home my first Christmas tree about 25 seconds ago. The dog peed on it about 23 seconds ago. So. Joy to the world and season's greetings and all that.” My friend’s Facebook post describes a situation many of us have faced.
Though Christmas trees are decorations to us, their purpose is far from clear to most dogs. Anxiety has always been a part of my experience when I bring a dog to visit people around Christmas. I encourage anyone whose dog is going to be around these evergreen signs of the season to assume that dogs might view the tree differently than people and act accordingly, if you want your tree to be free of dog pee. (And who doesn’t want that?)
Management and prevention are useful tools when trying to prevent this behavior issue, so do what you can to keep your dog from going over to the tree when you’re not looking. Use gates or other equipment to block your dog’s access. If that’s not possible, supervise him when that room is available to him so he can’t sneak up on the tree while you’re baking, wrapping gifts or panicking over a recent credit card statement. This takes discipline and commitment on your part because this time of year is busy for most of us. Keeping your dog on a leash inside can keep him from wandering over to the tree, too.
No matter how well your dog is housetrained or how many years it’s been since he had an accident, assume nothing when a tree is indoors, especially if it is your dog’s first experience with one. A dog who pees on a Christmas tree is confused rather than acting out. Give your dog some help by letting him know that you still want him to eliminate outside. Take him out often on walks and in the yard, and reinforce him with great treats for eliminating in the right places. Know the signs that your dog has to go. Be alert to any indications that he may be about to eliminate such as sniffing or circling. Spend quiet time with him near the tree massaging him or letting him chew on a Kong or other chew treat so he considers the tree part of his living space. Dogs are less likely to eliminate in areas where they hang out or where they sleep.
If your dog knows “leave it,” practice it with many objects in the house that are off limits, including the tree. Reinforce him with treats, play or toys for correct responses to this cue. If he sniffs the tree or goes near it, reinforce him for being near it but not peeing on it. Teaching him to do something specific near the tree such as “sit” or “lie down” gives him a go-to behavior to do in that area other than lifting his leg. If he develops a strong reinforcement history with a behavior other than peeing on the tree, he will be less likely to pee on it.
Remember that if your dog does pee on the tree, he probably didn’t realize it was a faux pas. The tree may even have been peed on in the great outdoors before you brought it home, and that can make it extra confusing for the canine set. Clean it with an enzymatic cleaner to take away the odor so that it won’t smell like a bathroom to him.
Hopefully, your dog will not decorate your tree this year (or your heirloom tree skirt, your favorite ornaments or any of the presents.) That will make it easier to mean it when you say, “Joy to the world and season's greetings and all that.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Advice for navigating this stage of life
I was woken up this morning at 4:45 a.m. by a puppy who needed to go out. The high-pitched sounds indicating her distress were impossible to ignore, and both my husband and I shot awake with uncharacteristic haste. The puppy took care of business immediately when I took her outside, and then came back in to finish the night.
I’m convinced she was ready to start the day, but we are having no part of teaching her that she can wake us up to play or to feed her breakfast whenever the mood strikes her. (I’m concerned enough about teaching her that whining and yelping will make us get out of bed, but since she really had to go and we are still working on house training, I’m choosing to let that go for now.)
It’s a tricky balance with puppies to take them out in the morning when they need to eliminate without teaching them that they control when the fun begins each day. Here are some guidelines for navigating this challenging stage.
1. DO take them out when they need to go, no matter how early it is. Housetraining should definitely be the top priority, which means that your sleep, regrettably, is a distant second.
>2. If possible, DO take your puppy out before she is frantic. The sooner you respond to her cues that she is ready to eliminate, the less you risk teaching her that screeching is the way to get you out of bed. (This morning, we failed to do this, but we had success on other days.)
3. Do NOT make the outing fun. If it is exciting in any way, you will increase her motivation to act like a rooster and crow at first light. That is not good for you or your relationship with your best-friend-in-training. Be dull and matter-of-fact. Leave your personality in bed where it belongs at this early hour. Keep your dog on leash so she can’t frolic joyfully all over the yard and have fun while you try to collect her again. Use treats to reinforce her for urinating or defecating outside to keep housetraining moving along, but don’t have a party over it. If your puppy really wants to go outside to potty, the relief of emptying her bladder along with a good treat is enough. (If you are having serious trouble with housetraining and your puppy rarely eliminates outside, then you should make a really big deal of her success. For the typical puppy who does get this right most mornings, you can be low key about it).
4. Do NOT do anything but take your puppy outside for a bathroom break. The day has not begun yet, so don’t be tempted to feed the puppy or play with her. That just makes the puppy more eager for you to haul yourself out of bed at an ungodly hour. Once she goes, wait a minute or two before you bring her back to her bed or crate. The brief wait prevents you from accidentally teaching her that urinating or defecating results in you bringing her back inside immediately. Dogs who learn this tend to hold it as long as they can until they are ready to return to the house. That may not be such a big deal with a puppy-sized bladder, but once she’s older, you may end up staying outside far too long in freezing weather or when you’re going to be late to work.
One of the biggest challenges in raising a young puppy is dealing with those early wake ups. It’s an important training period because you are working on both housetraining and morning etiquette. In other words, you are teaching your puppy that you only get up for a potty break, and that nothing really fun happens until you (not the puppy!) are ready to face the day.
If you are currently in the stage of puppy raising that involves early mornings, I wish you longer nights in the not-too-distant future and a well-behaved dog for years to come!
News: Guest Posts
In honor of national guide dog month, I'm reprinting excerpts of an interview I did several years ago with seven experienced blind people who've used guide dogs most of their lives. Here they compare problem solving strategies between 36 dogs representing six breeds. Compared to my usual posts, it's a lengthy conversation, but if you've lived with a Lab, Golden, German Shepherd, Aussie, Border Collie, Flat Coat, Poodle or hybrid of these breeds, you'll be fascinated by the comments.
“Because we can’t see, we don’t know the particulars of what we’re commanding our dogs to do. The dog has to stand up to us, to get it through to us that something is there that we don’t know about, then find a way to get us out of a dangerous situation. A dog that isn’t comfortable holding his ground isn’t suited to the job.”
Some blind handlers argue that there are marked differences in each breed’s approach to guide work, while others think that the traits that make good guides neutralize the larger behaviors that characterize each breed.
One blind handler who has worked with a German Shepherd for 10 years, a Lab for seven, two different Golden Retrievers for 15 years, and now has two years’ experience under his belt working with a Golden-Lab cross says that there are some physical characteristics that are different among breeds, such as the gait and how the dog feels through the harness. “Even so, the dog’s unique personality, combined with the person’s — how they work together and what they expect of each other — that’s where the differences are.”
“It’s a 50-50 relationship,” says a handler who’s worked with one Lab, two mixed-breed Labs and two Goldens, and now is partnered with a Lab-Poodle cross. “Neither one of us is in total control at any given time. Both of our lives depend on what the other one does. Neither of us may be able to make a safe street crossing alone, but together we do it gracefully."
“How my dogs dealt with obstacles isn’t, in my opinion, a function of breed-specific differences,” says a seasoned 25-year guide dog user who has partnered with an Airedale, a Border Collie mix, an Australian Shepherd and, briefly, a Siberian Husky. “My Airedale, as I recall him, was quick to generalize about the concept "obstacle” but wasn’t particularly good at scoping out his environment and making decisions in advance.” The Aussie and the Border Collie mix seemed to generalize quickly.
“The Border Collie mix had very high head carriage and was by far the very best dog I've worked when it came to overhead hazards,” he said. “The Aussie has been harder to teach naturally occurring overheads like tree limbs, but whether that's a breed thing or a result of their tendency to work with their heads a little low, I'm not sure.”
Another woman who has worked with two Shepherd guides and one Lab-Golden cross said, “In my opinion, you might say that the retrievers’ style provides more information about the specifics ofthe environment, but the Shepherds’ style makes for more efficient travel. My Shepherds, in comparison to my retriever, both typically looked farther ahead as they guided. They corrected for upcoming obstacles from a distance and our travel path was typically a smooth line. Sudden turns or stops happened only in response to an obstacle that unexpectedly crossed our intended path. My retriever cross clearly does not take the same approach. In general, this dog will stop and show me the obstacle, and he will almost always seek prompting from me on which way to go next.”
Another typical difference between dogs, explains a blind handler is their approach to routes.“Personally I find that my retrievers enjoyed familiar routes. In comparison, my Shepherd gets bored with routine, so you have to get creative with routes and mix things up,” she says.
She adds that retrievers are looking to please the handler, as if asking, “Did I do what you wanted, am I making you happy?” whereas her shepherds have been motivated by doing the job and solving the problems. “With Shepherds, it’s not so much about what pleases me as it is about pleasing themselves,” she says.
A guide dog handler who has worked with three Labs, a Lab mix, a Golden Retriever and a German Shepherd explained, “If I were to generalize,” she says, “I’d say my Labs often worked up to an obstacle before deciding what to do about it, while my shepherd would decide in advance what to do, perhaps starting the turn more gradually as we approached the barrier. My Golden would stop to show me before trying to work it out.”
Eight guide dogs and 34 years later, a handler contemplated her experiences with four Labs, two Goldens, one Shepherd, and one Flat-coat Retriever. “My Flat-coat solved problems by coming to a full stop. Sometimes he would just stand there and I could feel his head moving. People said that he looked like he was weighing all the possibilities. Then he would make his decision. And in nine years of partnership he never made a mistake.”
One woman got her first German Shepherd in 1996 after working with three Labs. She says she had to learn the body language that was unique to the Shepherd. “At first I thought when my Shepherd would insist on going a certain way and I wanted to go another that she was being stubborn or willful. I soon discovered that if I acknowledged her for what she was showing me, and then asked her to go the direction I wanted to go, she was totally fine with that. My second Shepherd is the same way.”
Regardless of genealogy, each dog takes a unique approach to problem solving. “I noticed that the Aussie I’m working with now had a very strong preference for traveling on one or another side of a street when we walked home from work,” explained his handler. “Eventually, I figured out the preference stemmed from whether it was or had recently been raining. One side of the street was commercial, the other had lots of trees with branches that hung low when wet.”
“My Goldens were much more attuned to my reactions to things. If I did hit a branch, I needed only to flinch and they both acted as if they had been corrected. I would describe my Labrador as being solid, but she had the attitude that things would move for her or she would move them. She was careful, generally, but also had no compunction about moving me through some tight gaps. It wasn’t always pretty, but she would get you where you needed to go safely and with enthusiasm.”
Person and dog work as a team, each contributing to a relationship built on trust that begins during class, then deepens and broadens over time. Says a guide dog user with 35 years of experience, “I think developing trust is incumbent on the person. That’s who sets the tone of the partnership so that the dog learns to be, in essence, not just a guide, but responsible for the person’s safety.”
A blind woman who has traveled with guides since 1968 said, “My assumption is that my dog is acting to keep us safe until he proves to be distracted or is putting his agenda ahead of mine. Sure, if that sudden plunge proves to be because my Lab dove for a French fry, the appropriate correction needs to be made. Extra work to minimize that behavior may be called for, but ‘follow your dog’ has to be the first response if we are going to learn to trust and read each other. My safety depends on my ability to read their reactions and go with it and figure out the ‘whys’ later.”
“Working a guide dog is like dancing,” she explains. “And being responsive to my partner’s moves is how it works best for me. I've had had two very large Labs both with a lot of initiative. They seldom asked for my input, made quick swift movements and expected I would be able to keep up and go with them. They were more likely to try to interpose their bodies between me and muscle me out of the way or into safety. My Golden, and my small Lab were likely to be cautious and refuse to leave the curb until they determined that a car they watched was not going to move toward us.”
One man described all his dogs as having been keen observers.“They’ve all had similar complex personalities,” he says. “They enjoyed their work and have been more than willing to guide and do things such as squeeze into small spaces and stay for hours, only because I have asked them to.”
A thirty year guide dog veteran summed it up. "I've owned plenty of dogs as pets, but my relationship with the half dozen guide dogs I've worked with was different: All of my guide dogs seemed to own me rather than the other way around.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Stay Loose: Dogs’ impressive ability to cope with novelty
Dakota had previously struggled with behavioral issues, but this time, he really went bananas. When the cell phone began to vibrate on the table, he panicked, which is why he jumped through the window, shattering it and scaring a couple of kids riding by on their bikes. Luckily, his guardian was able to calm him down, and his injuries were minor. Is he a bad dog? No, the situation was just more than he could handle. It would be unfair to call his response “bad,” though it was certainly undesirable. Oh, and Dakota isn’t a dog, technically speaking. He’s a wolf hybrid, and like most such animals, reacts strongly to anything new—a sound, a person, an object or a situation. The difficulty that a majority of wolf hybrids have with novelty is one of the reasons I caution people against having them as pets.
Dogs are different; their tendency to respond more easily to new things is one of the many reasons they make great pets. Their ability to take “new” in stride is part of what makes dogs who they are. Perhaps best of all, they easily form new social bonds throughout their lives, which is why many of us are able to have loving, close relationships with dogs whose first home was not with us.
Most dogs are able—even expected— to face new situations without blinking (and, for that matter, without barking). Think of what we typically ask dogs to contend with. Many are placed with new people in a new home at the age of seven to 10 weeks. Some stay in that home, but others are rehomed, in some cases multiple times. Even dogs who stay with the same family will face much that is new.
They might be taken out in a canoe, or spend the night in a kennel while the floors are being refinished; eat a different kind of food; endure a loud party; welcome a new dog or a new baby or a cat to their household; move to a new home, a new town, from the city to a rural area, or vice versa. They may have to stay with a dog sitter, greet a new dog walker, accept regular rearranging of the furniture or a change in routine when their guardians start working in an office instead of from home. Even if the household remains steady, dogs generally meet new dogs as well as new people, and go many new places throughout their lives.
When facing unexpected craziness in my own life, I tend to say, “No worries! I’m a mom. I’m nothing if not flexible,” but dogs have a far stronger claim to that characteristic. The range of situations, objects and social partners that most dogs take in stride is enormous. Though we tend to take it for granted, their ability to roll with whatever situation they find themselves in is really amazing, and far from typical in the animal world.
Of course, things don’t always go smoothly. Some dogs freak out when they walk on snow for the first time, or when the baby cries in the middle of the night. Many dogs struggle to deal with “newness” of one sort or another, or perhaps anything new. Even dogs who appear to accommodate it may find it stressful. Though dogs tend to handle novelty better than most other species, there is still considerable variation in individual reactions.
Their responses depend on personality and experience, both of which contribute to how they react to stress and how they solve problems, and also to how distressing they find the new thing. A dog may bark, cower or hide. A few will growl or lunge; the occasional dog will bite. Some seek comfort from their guardians; whine, freeze up or approach tentatively; head for their crate; or retrieve a comforting toy. Similarly, responses to a positive novelty can run the gamut from leaping and spinning, sniffing, grabbing, jumping, whining, or barking to offering a behavior that has been reinforced in the past, or a tail wagging that’s vigorous enough to cause a mini tornado of fur. Behavior has a genetic component; dogs are genetically predisposed to be flexible and adaptable. Yet, genetics do more than account for differences among species. They also explain various behavioral differences among breeds and individuals, including disparities in dogs’ ability to cope with changes in their environment. As in other aspects of canine behavior, this ability also varies. That’s why certain traits such as gregariousness, shyness, curiosity and fearfulness can actually run in lines of dogs.
So, some dogs come into this world with greater potential for enjoying newness, or at least successfully coping with it. Still, full development of this potential requires the right kind of experiences at the right age.
In order for dogs to maximize their ability to respond well to the unfamiliar, frequent and positive exposure to a variety of people, places and situations early on is essential. Without those opportunities, they may not be able to manage the unexpected as adults.
Puppies who encounter grass, cats, concrete, elevators, paper airplanes, toys, kids, blankets, music, oven timers, men and women, stairs, other dogs, people with canes, rugs, bells, hair dryers, fish tanks, mirrors, and a wide variety of other elements of their world are far more likely to develop into adult dogs able to handle them, as well as other novel things, later in life.
Socialization, or exposure to potential social partners, has received particular emphasis from behaviorists and trainers. Socialization is the process of becoming aware of the social world and learning how to behave within it. For dogs, it involves making sure that puppies have positive experiences with other dogs and people at the age during which they are most receptive to being influenced by those exposures.
Even brief encounters in the first few months of dogs’ lives can have a large impact on their future behavior. Absent these opportunities, no amount of contact later in life can make up for the deficiency. Dogs whose worlds were limited during puppyhood are rarely as comfortable around new things, including potential social partners, as those whose early months were rich in experiences.
That is why dogs raised in severely impoverished environments—tied up outside or used as breeding dogs in a puppy mill, for example—struggle to adjust to what most would consider a “normal” environment once they are liberated. In many cases, the problems they face are less a result of the bad things that happened to them and more about the good things that did not happen. For such dogs, anything new poses a serious challenge, and it can take them months, if not years, to improve. And in the end, it is unlikely that they will ever be able to deal with novelty as easily as dogs with more generous upbringings.
However, even well-adjusted, flexible, happy dogs can be shaken by traumatic incidents. Such events will affect some more than others, but no dog is immune to the effects of something extremely scary or upsetting.
A study of pet dogs who survived the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami and the nuclear disaster that followed them showed that these dogs had issues and behavior consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Compared with a control group of dogs who were not involved in the disaster, these traumatized dogs had a harder time learning new skills in training sessions, as well as greater difficulty connecting with new people (caregivers in their rehabilitation program).
Dogs can also be negatively affected by less harrowing, but still aversive, experiences. They may struggle when meeting new dogs who resemble one who attacked them when they were young, develop a reluctance to go to the park after being caught in a thunderstorm there or become uncharacteristically terrified of strangers as a result of being home alone during a burglary. On the other hand, many dogs do more than just accept new things in their lives; they sometimes actually prefer them. In a recent study, dogs were offered three toys—two familiar and one novel—and chose the new toy first in nearly 80 percent of the trials, indicating a preference for the new item over the well known.
Dogs’ ability to handle a great majority of what we present them with impresses me both in an intellectual, scientific way and in a “Wow! Gee whiz!” way. One of the great joys of working with dogs is that they regularly amaze me, making my own life seem ever new—in a good way.
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