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.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A dog struggles to figure it out
One day, Marley showed us a limitation in his problem solving ability when he failed to come when called. He just looked at me, cocked his head and stayed exactly where he was. That’s not like him, because he has a good recall. This was definitely not a matter of him being distracted or refusing by choosing to do something else rather than responding to my cue.
His recall may not be proofed in every situation yet, but at our house, it is rock solid. If he is able to come, he will do so when told. When I say, “if he is able to come,” I mean that if he can figure out how to get to me, he will head that way immediately. This time, he literally did not know how to reach me, even though he was standing in our backyard and I was only 20 feet away.
That 20 feet was not on the ground though. I was above him on the upstairs balcony, which does not have access to the ground floor. To respond to the cue appropriately and come to me, Marley would have had to run away from me to go through the backdoor downstairs, run through the house, up the stairs, through the hallway, into the master bedroom and exit through the sliding glass door to the balcony. I suspect he was unable to figure out that there was a way to come without running directly to me.
To help him solve this problem, we broke it down into three smaller steps. My kids called him to come inside and reinforced him for that. Then my husband called him from the top of the stairs, and also gave him treats. Finally, I called him from the balcony, and this time he was able to respond to my cue and be reinforced for doing so.
It will take him additional practice to be able to do the entire recall from the backyard, into the house, up the stairs and onto the balcony, but he has progressed already. He can complete this complex recall in two steps now instead of three, and I expect that he will soon be proficient at the task which once completely befuddled him.
Has your dog ever struggled to come when called because of confusion about how to reach you?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Take two and double the fun
If you’re like most dog folks, sooner or later you may think, “As wonderful as one dog is, two would be even better!”
There are many great reasons to add another canine family member: more to love, more to be loved by, companionship for Dog One, saving a life, companionship for a child and more. There are also many reasons not to: more vet bills, more food and toys to buy, more poop to scoop, less individual attention for Dog One, more potential behavior problems…
Assuming you’ve carefully considered the pros and cons and made an educated decision to adopt another, here are some tips for a successful introduction of your new dog to your existing canine pal(s):
1. Make sure Dog One is dog-friendly. If you don’t already know that One is the life of the dog park, find a friend with a very dog-friendly dog and introduce One to Friendly in a safely fenced neutral territory. One may tell you in no uncertain terms that he’d rather be an only dog. If so, consider maintaining your one-dog status. Or, if you’re dead-set on another dog, find a good, positive trainer/behavior consultant to help you convince One of the benefits of having a canine pal. If the introduction goes well, take the next step.
2. Select the right dog. If your current dog is very assertive, adding another “top dog” could be the equivalent of holding a lit match to an open gasoline can. Look for a dog who defers to your “Boss Dog.” However, if your current dog is a Wilting Willie, an assertive new dog may take over. Willie will probably be fine with this, but you may have a hard time seeing him pushed around. If so, look for a non-assertive dog.
Size needs to be taken into account. If you have a three-pound mini-dog, there are inherent risks in adopting a large-breed dog. Even in play, big dogs can cause serious, sometimes fatal, injuries to toy-size canines. It’s not impossible to have very disparate sizes in a household, but it requires committed supervision and management.
Grooming and energy levels are still other considerations. If Woolly Bully requires daily grooming to stay mat-free, perhaps a shorthaired dog is in order. Or, if you finish brushing Woolly and are eager for more, a second Old English Sheepdog may be right up your alley.
If your current Border Collie mix is an Energizer™ bunny, another active dog might help wear her out—or you could end up with two bunnies.
3. Script your introductions. Set up your introductions in that safely fenced neutral territory. This is best done prior to your commitment to adopt Dog Two. Both of you armed with hot dogs, have a friend, hold one leashed dog at the far side of the area while you enter with the second. Watch body language; they may become alert and a little tense, or act all waggy and playful—both are acceptable responses. If one or both dogs exhibit serious aggression—lunging, frenzied barking, snarling or snapping—stop the introduction and seek professional assistance.
When the dogs notice each other, calmly feed hot dog bits, until each is focusing on the person providing the treats. Now slow the rate of hot dogs until the dogs glance at each other, then look back at you for hot dogs. If both dogs appear happy and/or reasonably relaxed in each other’s presence, drop the leashes while still at a distance and allow them to greet each other. Leash restraint can sometimes cause otherwise compatible dogs to behave aggressively. Leave the leashes on for a few moments so you can safely separate the dogs if necessary. When it is clear that they are getting along, call them back and unclip the leashes so they can play without becoming entangled (which can also cause a fight!).
At home, introduce them again in your fenced yard, and, to minimize indoor stress, don’t bring them into the house until they’ve tired themselves out playing.
4. Train and manage for success. Installation of baby gates and tethers in strategic places can help keep the peace. When dogs are still getting to know each other, separate them when you’re not home. If there are food-bowl or feeding-station issues, feed the dogs far apart, perhaps in separate rooms or crates, to avoid confrontations. Make sure there are enough toys to go around, and ample beds located in low-traffic areas.
The more dogs you care for, the more important training becomes. You can survive one ill-mannered canine, but two poorly behaved dogs—or several—will make your, and their, lives miserable. Your benevolent but firm leadership lends itself to peace in the pack. Something as simple as consistently requesting them to sit for a cookie before going out serves as a constant reminder that you’re in charge.
I have four dogs of my own; I stand squarely in the “more is better” camp. The thousands of dogs awaiting homes in shelters and rescue groups second this emotion. Think it through, make introductions carefully, train and manage well, and you’ll have another lifelong love.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Many puppies need a little help
Try crawling down a flight of stairs on all fours, and the experience may give you instant insight into why so many dogs hesitate about going down. Having your head aimed down at such a steep angle takes some getting used to. There are dogs who struggle to go up and down the stairs, but it is far more common for dogs who lack experience with them to be especially resistant to going down.
Luckily, most dogs respond well if they are taught how to negotiate stairs in an (appropriately named) step-by-step process. The key is to teach dogs how to go down one or two steps at a time, avoiding having those steps be the ones at the top of a full flight of stairs, where the view seems a bit scary to most dogs.
Ideally, begin by working with a dog in a place that has just a single step, if one is available to you. Typically, dogs are comfortable taking a single step down onto a long stretch of level ground. Using a smelly delicious food treat, you can lure a dog up the step, and immediately lure him back down. If the dog is small, you can lift him up and then lure him down the step, enticing him to step down by having him follow the treat. I prefer to lure both up and down, so the dog feels more in control of the situation. Do this several times in multiple short sessions until the dog is going up and down the step without any hesitation.
The next phase of training involves having the dog go down a few steps at a time. If you have a place with only 2-4 steps, that is ideal, but if not, you can use the bottom few steps of a flight of stairs. It’s easier with small dogs who you can lift up to the step and then lure down, but with bigger dogs, you can lure up and down if the dog is able to turn around on the step.
If the dog is too big to do that comfortably and safely, then either try to find a place with just a few steps, or work at the top of the steps, but hold a blanket or pillow to block the view of the full flight of stairs and lure down 2-4 steps at a time and then move the visual blocker and do the next few steps. Sometimes just standing below the dog on the steps is enough to block the view or reassure the dog and give him the confidence to descend one step at a time. If you have stairs with a landing in the middle, consider yourself lucky because you can do half as many steps and get the dog down on solid flat ground. That makes for a nice intermediate stage.
Once the dog is comfortable with several stairs (depending on your options, this may be 3 to 7 stairs at one time), expand the number of steps until the dog can go down an entire flight of stairs on his own.
The following video shows a small dog named Radar who recently learned to negotiate stairs with this step-by-step process.
As with any training, don’t force the dog. Work slowly within the dog’s physical and emotional comfort zone to avoid falls. Be patient, only progressing to a harder task when the dog is clearly comfortable with the current one.
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