Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The education of a scent-detection dog.
Jaco pulls me hard past the cars in the driveway, slowing to run his nose across the seam of each trunk. The Prius, the Leaf, the old Mercedes, our Honda Civic covered with road dust and acorns. It’s an obsessive-compulsive habit from his early adolescence in the Czech Republic, where he had started to learn to detect explosives. I keep him moving. Someday, however, he may have to search car trunks for the scent of human remains. Because I’d like him to do that, I don’t actively discourage his vestigial nose sweeps.
Jaco is two years old, a compact sable German Shepherd with a stiff, cream-colored ruff of fur encircling his neck. He looks like a cross between a wolf, a tortoiseshell cat and Queen Victoria. I first met him outside a working-dog vendor’s kennel in North Carolina. His name was Jack then. He was 17 months old, recently flown in from the Czech Republic. Many U.S. law enforcement agencies get their detection and patrol dogs from Europe, either directly or via vendors who go over and bring back dogs they think show promise for law enforcement or for ring sports such as Schutzhund. I had decided to go the same route for my next cadaver dog.
I had never considered bringing home an adult German Shepherd before. I’d always started with fuzzy pups with milk teeth and elastic brains ready to be molded. This time, we’d get a dog who was already a bundle of muscle, with huge ivory fangs and a mind of his own. My husband, David, and I talked a long time about this unfamiliar dog-acquisition route. David asked me uneasily how a dog bred and raised for law enforcement or military work might fit into our small household and my world of volunteer search and rescue. Would the dog bond with me? With David?
Of course, I assured him breezily. Look at all the cops who have dogs they adore, and vice versa. They rarely get them as pups. I didn’t tell David that I knew some cops who greatly respected but didn’t love their dogs. And while rare, I’d seen a few cops who were afraid of their own dogs.
When the vendor brought Jaco out to meet us, he eyed me obliquely, then walked stiff-legged over to David, stood at his side and growled gently at him. David stood still and avoided making chirrupy, encouraging noises. The vendor wasn’t disturbed in the least; she approved of that wariness. That was the East German border patrol lineage coming out.
This particular dog, the vendor told me earlier via text, was “a lot of dog,” “a working fool.” Maybe too much dog for me? I needed a dog to work alongside me, not climb up the leash after me. I was a volunteer who wanted a dog to find dead people, not seek out suspects. I didn’t need a dog who considered every stranger, or my husband, as a potential bad guy.
But the qualities one looks for in any scent-detection dog, whether for law enforcement or volunteer purposes, are similar: A dog with drive. One who can hunt for scent for hours and not give up. Those qualities can be easier to find in the thousands of young German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds, and Belgian Malinois brought over each year from Europe to populate law enforcement K9 units in this country. These dogs—usually with ribs showing as a result of pacing in their kennels, being chronically underfed and then shipped long distances—arrive with the stench of kennel urine. They don’t arrive with cheery notes from their trainers. Or warning labels.
With imported “green” working dogs, it’s hard to know exactly how they were trained, what kind of health they’re in or what sort of personality they have. They all seem to have good noses (and a love of launching at a bite sleeve or a Gappay ball). We didn’t know if Jaco was housebroken or if he’d ever been in a home. We didn’t know if he was going to retain his suspicion of David.
Jaco’s early training had clearly involved bitework. When I brought out a section of rubber blast hose a few days after we brought him home, his teeth chattered with eagerness; he was trying to cap his own drive with that chatter. Then, he levitated and grabbed it, jolting me hard. He saw a jute bite sleeve at a training venue and dragged me to it, head low, gaze fixed, digging his nails into the concrete floor to get to it. The first few times I brought him into a warehouse, he was sure it was to play the bad-guy game. He glanced around quickly, ears pricked, forward on his toes, looking for a decoy skulking in a corner.
About a week after Jaco came to live with us, one of our neighbors saw him gazing at me with his enigmatic umber eyes. Leaping across species and gender boundaries, she declared, “He looks at you just like he’s a mail-order bride!” But I didn’t want Jaco for his gaze—which, by then, we were pretty sure wasn’t sociopathic—I wanted him for his nose. And I wanted that nose up and running as soon as possible.
I had spent eight years searching for the missing and dead with Solo. Only months after he died at the age of 11, we got word from the vendor that she had a good working dog prospect for me to assess. Part of me wanted a puppy, but I also wanted a dog who was sufficiently developed to allow me to see if, as an adult, he would have what I needed: the drive and mental stability to search for hours in bad conditions.
Not unlike a vaguely suspicious spouse who realizes it might be good to know more about his mysterious mail-order bride, I did an Internet search and stumbled upon an early video of Jaco trying to find a PVC pipe filled with Semtex (a plastic explosive notoriously popular with terrorists) under one of several milk crates. I say “trying” because Jaco wasn’t very good. I could see both his sincerity and his hesitation. He was 14 months old then, with tufts of hair going every which way, like a teenager who had just fallen out of bed. Is this what you want? He kept glancing at the trainer, and then back at the three plastic crates. One had the pipe underneath. He offered a tentative down next to it. It looked as though he hadn’t bothered using his nose. He was smart enough to cue off the trainer, who kept her foot planted on the positive crate.
The video gave me pause. I had expected a bundle of muscle and drive with a superfine nose, all parts installed and in working order. I wondered if this was why Jaco had been sent to the United States.
Still, I wanted to get going. I wanted to fill that handsome sable head with new marching orders, a world of toys and treats, a rich vocabulary, and so many new people he would soon realize how wonderful humans were (even if I knew better). In my American ignorance, despite all the evidence that he was mostly goofy and playful, I wrongly assumed that he’d had a puppyhood devoid of play and stimulation. I wanted to teach him to fetch and tug, and sit, and down and heel.
Most importantly, I wanted to expose him to the entirely new range of odors he would need to recognize to start searching for the dead. Those odors are as complicated as people; forensic scientists have identified at least 480 volatile compounds emitted by human remains, and the list keeps growing.
As I prepared to institute my complex battle plan, a more experienced friend—one who had trained many more search dogs than I—stopped me and gave me advice that I hated. “Sometimes,” my friend said, “doing nothing is better than doing something.”
I’m not exactly Zen, so it took time to understand what she was saying. When her simple remark sunk in, I realized that it was the best training advice I’d ever received. Making Jaco sensitive to what I did or said, teaching him to gaze adoringly into my eyes before he moved? That was the wrong approach. The definition of “doing nothing” depends on the individual dog, but in general, it means slowing down and not tossing a dog you don’t know into a scrum of people and new situations he’s not comfortable with, flooding him instead of teaching him. It means not rushing into training that might backfire.
I backed off my ambitious initial plans. Instead, David and I cuddled Jaco. Oddly, he liked that. We taught him to get in his crate without a fuss and wait for his food rather than scrabble to get out. He learned to navigate our slippery stairs without hesitation, and to stay off the counters. He had only one accident in the house. We taught him to tolerate his nails being Dremeled without grabbing our hands in irritation. I took Jaco into tobacco warehouses and deserted office buildings, and he stopped eyeing dark corners with as much suspicion. But I didn’t invite some of my wonderful but voluble friends over to meet him, and I didn’t parade him around the farmers’ market.
I waited. We bonded. And he didn’t growl at David again. Instead, when he saw my husband, Jaco’s mouth would fall open in a delighted grin.
TEACHING OBEDIENCE TO ODOR
A month after he came to live with us, Jaco and I went to see Lucy Newton, who’s quiet and exacting. She likes dogs. And most people. Unlike me, she is settled within herself. She has a couple of decades of experience training search-and-rescue dogs, patrol dogs, human-remains detection dogs, narcotics dogs, conservation dogs. I have enough experience to have had some success, but I’ve had notable failures as well. I also had some bad habits. It wasn’t just Jaco who had things to learn.
Lucy breaks tasks down into their smallest increments, partly for the handler’s benefit, sure, but largely because it helps the dog. Her directions to me were specific and clear: Open Jaco’s crate in the car. Clip his leash to his flat collar. Clip the collar on Jaco. Don’t hurry. Gather yourself. Only then, let him leap to the ground.
A chartreuse tennis ball on a string waited on the ground where he landed. His eyes glowed, his teeth snapped and he pranced into the nearby garage, the tennis ball clenched in his jaws, its short string hanging from his mouth like the tail of a dead mouse. After four weeks of cold turkey on any toy that resembled a ball, after four weeks of bonding boredom, Jaco finally got his fix.
Lucy waited for us at the back of the large garage, standing on a platform behind a bank of eight identical plywood boxes hanging from a rail. Part of a detection-dog training system developed by K9 trainer Randy Hare, the boxes had big PVC pipes sticking out of their tops like chimneys and clear plastic covers that could be raised and lowered on their fronts. Tinny rock music blared from a radio in the corner. Jaco ignored the music. The floor was slippery. Jaco ignored that. His mouth was full of tennis ball, and he was straining at the end of his leash. He’d been ball deprived and he didn’t want it taken away from him.
Without fanfare or a single word, Lucy dropped another tennis ball on a string down one of the box’s chimneys. She made it jerk around like a psychotic puppet. The trap was set. Jaco’s eyes widened. Forget that saying about a rabbit in the mouth being worth two in the bush. So untrue. He dropped the sodden ball on the concrete, then lunged toward the herky-jerky ball in the box. I lurched along behind, trying to keep his leash loose. Lucy, a masterful puppeteer, kept the tennis ball on the string both inside the box and inside Jaco’s jaws with slow, methodical tugs. His tail wagged slowly, his eyes were slitted in ecstasy.
That particular box held more than a bouncing ball. Wafting from a hidden compartment was the scent of human remains. As he blissfully tugged, Jaco got constant hits of this scent. That’s why Lucy let Jaco bogey that ball. That’s how you addict a dog to a scent. It was Jaco’s first step in learning the most important concept a detection dog needs: “obedience to odor.”
This moment was why my friend hadn’t allowed me to teach Jaco to “watch me” or “sit” or “down” or “give” or “fetch.” Or “come,” for that matter, as important as it is. Those would come later. For a scent-detection dog, one desire should override everything else: getting to the odor, wherever it’s located. That was what Lucy was teaching Jaco with Randy Hare’s box system. Other training techniques work, too. But this particular method made Jaco’s job simple and mine even simpler: I just had to get out of his way; he could essentially teach himself. He learned that three things were connected: if he could get as close as possible to a particular odor, he’d get a ball and a fun tug.
Over the next two weeks, in two 10-minute sessions each day, I watched Jaco transform from a hesitant “Is-this-it?” dog into an obsessed “I’m-at-the-box-with-the-scent-so-giveme- my-tug-game!” dog. Lucy, occasionally a tease, would wave a tennis ball on a string in front of his face, and he’d ignore it. If it wasn’t right next to the scent, he knew the ball wouldn’t put up a fight. Lucy threw a bunch of balls onto the floor, where they lay enticingly, like sirens on a rock. Jaco, now wiser than Odysseus, ignored them. He knew those balls were a trick, that the only time he’d get a ball to fight properly was if he had his head buried inside the box that contained the scent of human remains.
Other boxes had other scents: dead squirrel, kibble, deer bone. His nose quickly rejected them to find the box that made the ball come down the chimney. Lucy put ladders and chairs and slippery cardboard in front of the bank of boxes. After worrying and thinking hard, Jaco leapt over them, then shoved them aside with his nose. And there was the plywood box containing human remains. He planted his nose there. Lucy waited several beats. So did Jaco, his head cocked, fixed, like a fox at a mousehole. At last, as he knew it would, the good tennis ball came down the chute. And Jaco got his game. I make it sound so simple. Oddly, it was.
THE GAME’S THE SAME
We took the game outside the garage, and Jaco generalized quickly. No boxes with chimneys? Never mind. They’re not part of the scent-ball-tug triumvirate. He started to find scent source in the yard, in the woods, in the warehouse, in the alley behind a large home-improvement store. He was always astonished and pleased. His head would bob up and down like one of those toy drinking birds, almost touching the source, swinging up to make sure that I was coming to reward him, bringing it down to fix his nose as close to the source as he could get. The rules never changed; the game was the same.
Of course, this didn’t happen overnight, and, like any scent-detection dog, Jaco’s a work in progress. As am I, his handler. But as Jaco learns to find the scent of human remains hung in a tree, buried in the ground, downwind, upwind, in the heat and in the rain, on short searches and long searches, I’m watching him with joy. He’s not perfect. No dog is (nor is any handler). He adores chasing insects, possibly a vestige of his past life, when he was in a kennel and bored and flies were a great distraction. But he’s learned that a live tennis ball is more fun than a fly.
He needs no command. A tennis ball on a string is waiting on the ground when he leaps out of his crate. He grabs it. We go to wherever the training search starts. I show him a second ball, he drops the first, grabs for the second and misses, and I tuck both into my pocket. This ritual betrayal is his signal to start the hunt. His eyes light up, his mouth opens and he leaps away from me. Game on. Recently, I hid training material in an acre or so of deadfall and heavy brush and mud, the kind of mess created by a flooding river. A brisk wind whipped scent through the fallen trees and debris. He’d never worked in conditions this physically challenging.
So that he couldn’t track me back, I started him in an area away from where I’d walked to plant the material. I tucked the tennis balls in my pocket and he threw his head and ran. Within a minute, he was working more than 150 feet away from me, balancing on logs at the outer edge of the pile, then working his way back in. I could see him lift his head as he found scent drifting through one side of the pile. He ran around the edge, working to get ever closer. I stood there, watching him teach himself, watching his intense focus, watching him learn a new search pattern in the jigsaw puzzle of logs and branches. I was a bit worried about this new and precarious environment. He was not.
For Jaco, the tangle of wood, wind and mud was simply in the way of the three things he wanted: Scent. Ball. Tug.
News: Guest Posts
On September 8th the vein on my forehead started throbbing. Garmin had posted a video ad on Facebook for its new Delta Smart smartphone-based dog activity tracker that includes an electronic shock feature.
“Your dog wasn’t born with manners,” Garmin wrote. The video showed pictures of a “mail carrier alarmist” Schnauzer, a “blinds shredder” Whippet, and a “counter shark” Border Collie, to set up the point that, with their new device, consumers will be able to use electric shocks to teach their dogs to behave. The video has since received hundreds of scathing comments and has been shared more than 2,000 times.
Though Garmin has been selling e-collars for years, the Delta Smart system has caused a community of dog lovers to speak out in protest. In fact, I created a Change.org petition on Friday to ask Garmin to remove the electric shock feature from the device. As of this morning, the petition has garnered more than 5,000 signatures from across the globe. (I have not received a response from Garmin yet.)
Perhaps it was the Facebook ad that called attention to this controversial topic—it was the first time I had heard that the company sold e-collars. But it might also be because the Delta Smart system pairs electric shocks with an exciting new GPS technology for dogs. Dog guardians without training will have the ability to send electric shocks to their dogs’ necks by a mere tap on their smartphone screen. They may not be aware of the fact that using such collars can have serious repercussions.
Organizations including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the Pet Professional Guild and the UK Kennel Club have all spoken out against the use of shock collars, and countries including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria have banned the use entirely.
“Countless evidence indicates that, rather than speeding up the learning process,” wrote Susan Nilson, Niki Tudge and Angelica Steinker on behalf of the Pet Professional Guild, “electronic stimulation devices slow it down, place great stress on the animal, can result in both short-term and long-term psychology damage, and lead to fearful, anxious and/or aggressive behavior.”The IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants) also has just issued a position statement coming out, strongly, against this device, remarking that: “We believe this device has the potential to cause harm to dogs and should not be recommended by behavior consultants, trainers, or used by members of the public. This is because both Bluetooth and smartphones have the potential to introduce excessive latency. Latency is the delay between inputting something into a system, and the system’s output.” See the full IAABC statement here..
Will Garmin remove the shock feature from its new product? I’m not so naïve to think that will be an easy sell, but whether it happens or not, at least people are talking about the dangers of shock collars. With each signature to my petition, my forehead vein throbs a little less.
Learn more at on the change.org petition.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Study finds that pets are beneficial to families with autistic kids.
Animal assisted therapy has helped kids with a range of disabilities, but a new study has been looking at the effect of pet dogs on the whole family. A collaboration between researchers at the University of Lincoln and the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation has been looking at interactions between parents and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The study found that families with dogs experienced improved functioning among their ASD children and a reduction in the number of dysfunctional interactions between the parents and children.
The lead researcher, Professor Daniel Mills, says that while there's growing evidence that animal-assisted therapy can aid in the treatment of children with ASD, this is the first study to explore the effects of dog ownership. The team's work is also unique because the research looks at the effects on the family unit, as opposed to only looking at the ASD kids.
"We found a significant, positive relationship between parenting stress of the child's main caregiver and their attachment to the family dog," says Professor Mills. "This highlights the importance of the bond between the carer and their dog in the benefits they gain." The reduction in stress was not seen in families without a dog.
I can only imagine the anxiety and stress that parents of children with autism feel, but it's heartening to see the important role dogs play in our lives.
According to HABRI Executive Director Steven Feldman, "We have strong scientific evidence to show that pets can have positive effects on these quality-of-life issues. Families with an autistic child should consider pet ownership as a way to improve family harmony."
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Individual variation explains a lot
Dogs are well known to be chowhounds. The idea that they love food more than anything else is practically (excuse the expression) dogma in the fields of canine behavior and dog training. The trouble is, recent research suggests that it is not true for all dogs.
In a study called “Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food” scientists investigated whether dogs prefer treats or praise, and whether their choice can be predicted by their brains’ response to both stimuli. In one experiment, they measured the level of activation of the brain’s ventral caudate, an area known to function as a reward center, in response to items that predicted various outcomes. A toy car predicted that verbal praise was coming, a toy horse predicted that food on its way and a hairbrush was associated with nothing. Dogs were trained to make these associations with a series of 40 pairings of each object with what it predicted. The activation of the specific region of the brain was measured with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which is possible because the dogs in the study have all been trained to remain motionless while in the scanner.
The average activation of the reward center of the brain was higher in the food and praise conditions than in the neutral condition, which shows that the dogs did learn the associations between the objects and what the objects predicted. (Each dog’s responses in the brain to seeing the toy horse and NOT receiving the expected praise was also measured.) There were 15 dogs in this experiment, and most of them had a similar response in the reward center to the food or to the praise. Four showed a stronger response to praise and two showed a stronger response to food. The average response to praise and to food did not differ.
In another experiment, dogs were placed in a Y-maze and given the opportunity to choose which arm of the maze to go to. One arm led to a food bowl with treats and the other arm led to the dog’s guardian, who provided petting and praise. Each dog was tested in the Y-maze 20 times. Seven dogs in the study chose the guardian the more times than the food, and seven dogs chose the food more often. One dog chose the guardian and the food an equal number of times.
The relative value of praise versus food in the first experiment was highly predictive of the choices that dogs made in the Y-maze experiment. Dogs whose ventral caudate showed a strong response to praise were more likely to choose their guardian over food but dogs who did not show such a strong response to praise relative to food were more likely to head for the food when given a choice.
Regrettably, the results of this study have erroneously been reported in many places as proof that dogs prefer praise and belly rubs to treats, and suggested that using treats in training is therefore unnecessary. It has been written in many places discussing this study that 13 of 15 dogs prefer praise to food, and that’s not correct. What the researchers actually wrote is that in 13 of the 15 dogs, the ventral caudate showed either roughly equal activation to food and to praise or greater activation to praise than to food.
It’s quite interesting that roughly half of the dogs chose their guardian over food. For those dogs, social interaction such as praise and belly rubs may be more effective than treats in training. However, caution is important when acting on the findings in this study because the research may overestimate the response of dogs to their guardians relative to food in situations outside the laboratory setting.
The lab may have been stressful, causing a bias in dogs towards an increased interest in their guardians when compared with food. They may have been seeking comfort from their guardians in a way that they might not be during typical training situations. The scientists do point out that these dogs have been trained to stay still in the scanner and that the lab is a familiar environment. That does not mean the dogs are as comfortable as they are at home or in other areas such as on neighborhood walks, at the park or at the training center where they attend classes. It’s important to know what dogs choose in the actual training setting before changing what reinforcement to use based on lab research.
Additionally, although dogs may value social connections over food when the social interaction is with their guardian, not all training occurs between guardian and pet. I do a lot of training with dogs who I adore, but I don’t share quite the same bond with them as they do with their own guardian. So, just because dogs may prefer affection from their guardian over food does not mean that they prefer affection from just anyone over food. Finally, in many training scenarios, dogs receive praise in addition to food during training, and that may be more effective than either one alone.
Many people swear that their dogs prefer praise and petting to treats, and others are just as certain that food wins out every time with their dogs. Perhaps the most important lesson from this study is that individual variation in preferences is huge. If you feel strongly about what matters most to dogs, there’s a good chance you’re right—when it comes to your dog, anyway.
Do you think your dog would go for food or for praise and affection if given the choice?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Important enough to be a featured story
I’ve been a dog trainer long enough (almost 20 years) to see a massive change in the perception of the field. It used to be considered more a hobby than a job, even though many of us were already making a living doing it full time. I remember someone once telling me that it was “almost as though you have a real career”. Now, dog training is recognized as serious business and as a valuable contribution to society. In fact, it’s so legit that the CIA discussed its top 10 dog training tips in a featured article alongside articles such as “The Korean War Controversy: An Intelligence Success or Failure?” and “The Spymaster’s Toolkit”.
What’s even more exciting to me than seeing how seriously the CIA takes its dog training is realizing that the CIA’s Top 10 Dog Training Tips are absolutely spot on. The first tip is “Make it fun” and the last one is “Always end on a positive”. Everything in between is just as likely to make your typical dog trainer nod, smile or click. Dogs who work for the CIA begin their training as part of civilian training programs such as Guide Dogs for the Blind or programs in which inmates in jail train puppies in basic skills.
Dogs in the CIA aim to do what other members of this agency try to do—keep people safe—though their specific job is primarily sniffing out explosives. In addition to that detection work, dogs may be involved in apprehending suspects and educating the public. The K-9 program at the CIA emphasizes training as well as lots of exercise and plenty of time to play.
It was news to me that the CIA’s methods of developing great working dogs combine consistent and positive training with making sure the dogs have happy, balanced lives. Did you already know this?
News: Guest Posts
Most dog professional feel crates are a necessity when sharing your life with a dog. Crates can be a great management tool. They are helpful with a new puppy’s house-training routine. They can be a wonderful place for your dog to safely go and relax when there are too many visitors in the home or small children are at risk of bothering him. They are often recommended to safely transport dogs in a vehicle, and they can be a nice, comfy place for your dog to take his afternoon nap.
Having said all that, you may be surprised to hear that I don’t always recommend using a crate. The reason is, as a certified separation anxiety trainer, I spend much of my time working with dogs who suffer from separation anxiety and isolation distress. These dogs’ brains process things a bit differently, and confining them to a small space can often heighten their anxiety and stress levels. Think of it like being trapped in an elevator full of people, or in a traffic jam in an underground tunnel. Even those of us without anxiety issues may become a bit nervous or uncomfortable. Now add in an actual anxiety disorder and bam!, you have a full blown panic attack.
There could be several reasons a dog is not comfortable in a crate and it’s not always due to separation anxiety. If you have rescued a dog from a shelter, he probably spent many hours confined to a small wire kennel. It’s very possible that he has a negative association with this type of enclosure and won’t find an even smaller crate a comfortable place. This can sometimes be easily overcome by using positive reinforcement training and fun games to help your new dog build a positive association with his crate. Crate Games by Susan Garrett is one example.
When working with dogs who suffer from anxiety when left home alone, confining them to a crate or other small area is often recommended by well-meaning professionals. They might suggest using an exercise pen (also known as an X-pen), a baby gate, or closing the dog in one small room. The reasoning behind these suggestions is usually to prevent potty accidents on the rug and/or destruction to the home while the human is gone. The irony is that many dogs with separation anxiety manage to cause even greater destruction or self-injury while in their confinement area or crate. This can be seen in the form of torn up bedding, bent crate wires, broken teeth or bloody gums and/or nails. Not to mention, their anxiety typically worsens now that there is a combination of “home alone” and “confined to a small area.”
I have found that many of my clients’ dogs with separation anxiety also suffer from confinement anxiety. Therefore, they actually begin to relax and show more progress when allowed to be free in all or a large portion of the home. Once we eliminate this confinement, they no longer have that feeling of being trapped, or as if the walls are closing in on them. This allows us to introduce our behavior modification program with one less hurdle in front of us. My clients are very relieved once they see their dogs begin to relax and lie down on their comfy dog bed.
Our individualized protocol keeps the dog below their stress threshold during the desensitization process, which means they are not pushed to the point of destruction or self-mutilation. This allows the dog to move about and explore their environment calmly while their guardians’ know they won’t return to a mess. Humans are usually fine forgoing the crate once they realize how calm their dog is becoming.
Please don’t get me wrong. I still believe a crate can be a wonderful thing for a dog. In fact, some dogs I work with will seek out their crate and willingly go in it several times a day. I just think it’s important for all of us, including trainers and veterinarians, to consider that this is not a “one size fits all” solution. We must be willing to consider what’s best for each individual dog and honor those needs. This should include performing a proper and safe assessment to determine if a dog is comfortable in a crate, especially when left home alone. Some dogs need us to think outside the box before placing them in one.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
A guide dog goes the distance for her human hiking partner.
For most dogs, a hike in the mountains is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. But for Tennille, a five-year-old black Labrador from North Carolina, it’s just another day at the office. While other dogs sniff the underbrush and splash through creeks, Tennille is hard at work keeping her owner on the trail, alerting him to obstacles and watching for dangerous wildlife.
If it sounds like Tennille’s hikes are no ordinary walks in the park, it’s because she’s a guide dog and her owner is a professional long-distance hiker who also happens to be blind.
Tennille’s story begins not on a trail in the mountains, but in the California home of Tasha Laubly, a volunteer puppy raiser. Laubly socialized Tennille, taught her basic manners and then, like many a proud parent before her, selflessly sent her baby off to school. That “school” was Guide Dogs for the Blind, and it was there that Tennille would meet Trevor Thomas and the course of her life would change forever.
In 2005, Thomas, a recent law school graduate and self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, received the devastating news that a rare and incurable autoimmune condition was taking his sight. Eight months after that diagnosis, his vision had diminished to nothing.
To reclaim his independence, Thomas began long-distance hiking. Just 18 months after losing his vision, he became the first blind person to complete a solo thru-hike of the 2,190-mile-long Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine. And that was just the beginning.
Thomas began hiking trails all over the country and found that, while he could navigate the well-traveled Appalachian Trail by himself, if he wanted to take on more remote areas, having a partner was vital. When Thomas’s human hiking partner pulled out of a big hike at the last minute, he decided it was time to get a guide dog.
The search for the right dog and an organization that would work with him was arduous. While dogs have long been used to help the visually impaired regain their independence, training one for the trail was unheard of. When Thomas explained that he wanted a dog he could take on long, solo expeditions in the backcountry, most guide-dog schools balked. They were concerned that a guide dog would not be able to handle the sport’s mental and physical demands.
Then, he put in a call to Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif., and found an organization that was willing to give him and his crazy idea a chance. When the trainers introduced Thomas to high-energy and exceptionally smart Tennille, the bond was instant, which was a good thing. Tennille was the only dog they had who might be able to meet the mental and physical demands of long-distance hiking.
Training a guide dog for backcountry work was unprecedented. There were questions about how she would physically handle the rigors of the trail, whether she could adapt to the unique demands of backcountry work and how she would transition between days on the trail and life in town. When it came to taking a guide dog into the backcountry, it seemed like there were more questions than answers. But Thomas, Tennille and her trainers were willing to give it a shot.
To be Thomas’s eyes on the trail, Tennille not only needed to master all of the skills required of guide dogs in the city but also, had to learn about life in the wild. She was trained to watch for low-hanging branches (she knows how tall Thomas is) and alert him to tripping hazards. If she decides that a situation is too dangerous, she will refuse to move forward. The Lab has also been trained to handle encounters with everything from rattlesnakes to moose, and knows how to look for trail signs and other landmarks.
“I’m the luckiest person around,” Thomas muses when talking about Tennille. “In a world of extraordinary animals, she is exceptional. She is a genius.”
In the three years since they became a team, Thomas and Tennille have covered more than 6,000 miles together, tackling trails all over the United States. With Tennille’s help, Thomas has completed solo hikes on remote, unpopulated trails that were out of his reach before she came along. Having a guide dog has been a game-changer for Thomas, who says that many hikers he meets on the trail don’t realize that he’s blind.
A day on the trail for Thomas and Tennille typically involves covering 13 to 18 miles of rocky and uneven ground. The distance alone is a lot for any dog, but Tennille is also working. She knows that once her backpack (which takes the place of a traditional guide-dog harness) goes on, it’s time to do her job.
As you may expect, this is no spur-of-the-moment operation. Long before Thomas and Tennille set foot on the trail, their hikes have been planned down to the last detail. In the months leading up to a hike, a set of detailed daily instructions is painstakingly created. Thomas uses these notes to tell him things like how far it is between trail junctions and which direction he is supposed to go.
Then, he employs a combination of bat-like echolocation and meticulous tracking of time, speed and cadence to get close to where he needs to be. Tennille takes it from there. She knows how to look for signs and other trail markers that will keep them headed in the right direction.
Thomas is quick to say that, while he holds the leash, Tennille is the boss. In the time they have been hiking together, Tennille has learned what is important, and when she alerts him to danger, he listens. It’s this unwavering trust in one another that has allowed them to take on some of the longest and hardest trails in the country.
In the summer of 2015, Thomas and Tennille conquered one of their toughest challenges yet when they completed a thru-hike of the 600-mile-long Colorado Trail. Traversing some of the tallest mountains in the United States, the two successfully navigated the rugged route that runs between Denver and Durango, summiting 14,440-foot Mt. Elbert along the way. While Tennille excels in the cool Rocky Mountain climate, there was some concern about how she would handle Colorado’s high altitude. But, as with everything else in her life, she was unfazed.
“Ice water runs through her veins,” Thomas replies when asked how his companion is able to handle the demands of long days and tough conditions. He has yet to find a situation that she can’t manage.
As the years and miles have gone by, Tennille’s body has become accustomed to the demands of her job. While many dogs’ pads become sore during long hikes in the backcountry, Tennille’s are as tough as leather. Thomas always carries booties for her, but unless the ground is very hot, she rarely needs them.
Thomas says that getting Tennille was the best decision he’s made since losing his vision. Not only has she greatly expanded the possibilities of what he can do, but also, she has changed how others see him. She’s a powerful icebreaker when it comes to interacting with people both on and off the trail. Thomas believes that Tennille’s friendly face and wagging tail have allowed him to form deeper connections with those he meets who may not know how to engage with a blind person. These connections have been an unexpected benefit of having Tennille along.
When asked what’s up next for the duo, Thomas rattles off a long list of goals. He is constantly on the hunt for new places and different environments in which to challenge himself and Tennille. In the coming years, he hopes to return to the Appalachian Trail, this time with Tennille by his side, and dreams of doing the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hike. The canyon’s high-desert environment would present a different kind of challenge from the mountains they are used to, but Thomas feels that Tennille will be up to the job.
Thomas’s courage and tenacity are making him somewhat of a celebrity in the hiking world, but he’s quick to point out that it is his dog who should be getting the attention. “I just hold the leash,” he says. “I’d be happy to be known as the guy who’s with Tennille.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Skateboarding must be taught step-by-step
Nobody has entered my house this week without being told, “Hey, come take a look at this!” I have then showed them this video of Bamboo the skateboarding dog.
Most of the viewers asked, “How do you train your dog to ride a skateboard?” Doing it step-by-step is the key to success, as it is with all training tasks. Here are the steps I would suggest for teaching a dog to ride a skateboard.
1. Help your dog to be comfortable on the board. This step is critical and I recommend doing it slowly. Rushing it will slow down your eventual success. Start by reinforcing the dog for putting one paw and then two on the board while it is secured with a piece of wood or with your foot acting as a brake. If the board is adjustable, start with the board tightened so it can’t rock back and forth.
2. Get your dog used to being on the board while it is moving, starting with just a few inches and then a little bit more at a time. Only allow the board to move slowly. Ideally, you should take advantage of opportunities to reinforce the dog for having all four paws on the skateboard and for letting it move with one paw hopping along behind.
3. Reinforce your dog for pushing the board with one or both back paws. These pushes are a critical piece of having a dog propel the skateboard for any distance rather than just passively riding a board you have set in motion.
4. Gradually increase the speed and the distance that the dog covers before reinforcing him. Some dogs may not enjoy the increased speed or riding it for a longer period of time. Stay within your dog’s comfort zone.
5. Loosen the skateboard in stages so that it rocks back and forth (necessary for steering) and go through the entire process with the board at each one of these settings. You can then reinforce the dog for steering, which is accomplished by shifting his weight to one side or the other as he rides.
The dog in this video is very experienced and highly skilled, but few dogs will attain that level of success at skateboarding. Always keep in mind what your dog can comfortably do so that you don’t put him in a situation that is over his head. Stick to smooth surfaces, keep him away from roads and other dangers, and don’t send him down a hill of any kind, no matter how mild, until he is ready.
Just as in people, some dogs are athletic, fearless and adventurous enough that skateboarding comes fairly naturally to them. Other dogs may never reach true proficiency at it, but might enjoy doing it very slowly for brief periods. There are also dogs who are clearly not suited to this activity, and if that’s the case for your dog, there’s no need to even consider attempting to teach him to ride.
Do you have any interest in teaching your dog to ride a skateboard?
Mark Vette, an animal behaviorist from New Zealand, who made a splash a few years back by training dogs to drive cars, has taken his skills to a new height and has now successfully trained dogs to not just co-pilot, but to actually pilot planes. As with his driving “dare” he has taken on this newest challenge to promote the talents and adoptability of shelter dogs, certainly a noble cause. You have to watch this video to see how successful, he and his team of trainers, were. From what this well-edited clip shows, the dogs too seem to like getting behind the throttle and definitely soared to new heights.
The dogs went through a four-month training period, and as the final episode of Dogs Might Fly, that aired in UK on Sky-1 television, you can see just how well they performed and maneuvered the plane to even make perfect figure eights up in the air.
The three dogs were first trained on flight simulators and harnesses kept them sitting upright so they could “paw” unto the plane controls. Vette said that he was very careful that the three would-be pilot dogs were happy with what they were doing and that their welfare was his highest priority. The dogs were trained to respond to color lights. As Vette commented that, “Most importantly, this exercise has proven that shelter dogs are not secondhand goods.” He added that “They are smart and deserve a chance at life.”
He himself adopted one of the pilot dogs as the show ended (the one shown here at the controls), and I can’t imagine that the other two weren't also snatched up. Diane D., a reader drew this to our attention today, and thankful that she did.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Accepting them is a lifelong process
Dogs learn to be comfortable with the world through experience. Some dogs take most novel things in stride while others struggle to deal with anything different. Behaviorally healthy, well-socialized dogs have an easier time handling the unexpected than dogs who had rougher starts in life or are naturally less go-with-the-flow.
Learning to cope with new experiences is a lifelong process because there are an infinite number of them. For example, few dogs have had to deal with a child doing handstands, but Marley is one of them. He is accepting, though not particularly thrilled, about this activity. Here he is as my son wanders around him while walking on his hands. (Normally I encourage my son to be thoughtful of the dog and do his handstands at a greater distance from Marley, but I needed a video . . . )
Two factors may explain Marley’s lack of reactivity. One is that Marley is generally not reactive to anything. Sure, he gets pepped up when food or a walk are in his immediate future, and when he sees his guardian or any dear friend after a long absence, he is enthusiastic, but that’s about it. He does not react to popping balloons, power tools, crowds of people, bikes, skateboards or children giving him love. The other factor is that he has been around my son doing handstands for a number of years now, and it probably seems reasonably ordinary to him.
It would be extraordinary for any dog to be relaxed when seeing a child doing handstands for the first time. I once observed an extremely well-adjusted dog startle when he experienced this, presumably for the first time. Several years ago, my son was doing a handstand by the baggage claim area in an airport. (Don’t judge. If you’ve never taken an active 8-year old on a 10-hour plane flight, you may struggle to understand why I said yes when he asked if he could do a handstand. Like dogs who have not had a chance to exercise, my son was in desperate need of some activity.)
Regrettably, I failed to notice that a drug-sniffing dog was in the area, and when the dog came near us and saw my son, that dog visibly flinched. Thankfully, my son noticed and came down from his handstand just as I was telling him to do so, AND the dog’s wise handler immediately turned the dog away from us. Once he was at a good distance from us, the handler cued the dog for a sit and a down, which I suspect was a purposeful attempt to calm him down. I can imagine the handler’s despair at thinking his dog had been taught to deal with so much—people with canes or wheelchairs, kids running around and screaming, crowds of people in all manner of dress and carrying every large or awkwardly shaped item—only to have his dog confronted by the sight of a child walking on his hands.
From the dog’s and the handler’s point of view, it’s certainly possible to consider this bad luck. On the other hand, it was an opportunity to be exposed to yet another new experience and learn to accept it. It served as a reminder to me that no dog’s training and exposure to the world is ever complete. Every dog, even a highly trained working dog, still faces new experiences throughout his life.
Has your dog faced something so unexpected that you never thought to expose him to it on purpose?
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