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News: Editors
Dog Park Woes
What to do about an uncontrolled dog

This morning as I was walking with the dogs at Pt Isabel—one of the most popular off leash areas in the Bay Area—I was “approached” by a very large dog in a very threatening manner. This was a first for me, and I must say that it was frightening. The dogs and I were on the path walking back to the car, when I saw this Mastiff mix on the grassy area adjacent to the pathway—I noticed him because I know most of the early morning “shift” dogs, but he was unfamiliar so I wondered who he might be. He was a handsome dog, probably over a 100 lbs., very tall, with a brindle coat, but he was coming at us fast. His owner, a woman probably in her 30s, was calling to him by saying “heel” even though he was far from her. He didn’t pay any attention to her at all, he kept coming fast. I stopped walking, mostly concerned for Charlie who was close by my side (the other dogs were nearby but not that close), I thought the dog might be headed “for” him. I was trying to think of what I should do to protect Charlie. There was something extremely menacing about the way that dog held his body as he charged us. The woman did not change her pace at all, and simply yelled “heel” again. By the time he reached us I learned it was me, not Charlie, who had “piqued” his attention. I calmly and assertively, as I could muster, told him  “No,” and at the same time, called out to his owner, “Get your dog… Put him on a leash”, and then, when I saw that her pace had not quickened, “Run fast, get him.” By that time he had lunged up on to my shoulders, and was growling in my face.  She finally reached us, grabbed him off, and said something inane like, “I don’t know why he did that!”

I was extremely upset and told her that his behavior was totally unacceptable and he must be kept on a leash (she still hadn’t leashed him) she seemed mollified and contrite and mentioned that she was working with a trainer etc. I wish I had had my wits about me to point out that she committed two big mistakes, the first is that she never called him off, never said No or Off, Leave It or anything like that, “heel” doesn’t mean anything in such a situation, and she should have seen that. And, even more importantly, she should have run to us as soon as he did not respond to her, and certainly by the time he was “on” me.

Unfortunately, I have seen this time and time again, perhaps not in quite such a dramatic fashion as what happened this morning. But I don’t understand why if a dog is doing something wrong, is showing any aggression to a person or a dog, that some people seem loathe to rush over to leash up their dogs or say No to them. I’m sure you have seen this too, it is one thing to hold your ground when you are training your dog in recall, but in “real” life situations, what matters most is that you have control over your dog and if a dog isn’t responding to your verbal cues, then you must do everything within your power to divert him, to leash him, to remove him from the altercation.

I am curious to hear your thoughts. What would you have done/said to her? What do you think she should have done? Has something like that happened to you? I must admit that I am still rattled by this.

News: Karen B. London
Excellent Training
Watch and learn

I recently saw this video of a training session focusing on transferring a cue and I was awed by it. It’s easy to read about training in a textbook, but it’s actually rare to see textbook training. This video shows trainer Laura Monaco Torelli training her Rhodesian Ridgeback Santino. She is transferring his visual cue, which tells him to spin in a circle to the right, to the verbal cue “twist.” I thought the training was so beautiful that I want to share it. I must admit in all honesty that Laura is a friend of mine, but it is her training skills and not our friendship that has prompted me to write this post.

The video is not edited, which I like. When videos are edited, often for good reason, it’s hard to know if you are getting the full story of the training session. Watch this video to see excellent training, and see below for more on what I like so much about it.
 

Laura sets up some good training basics and sticks to them. She is very clear about her goals of transferring the cue and of ending on a good note. She works without a leash, which is always best for training (if it’s safe) since the leash won’t get in the way and because the dog has the freedom to choose where to be. She works in short sessions of one minute. Training takes a lot of mental energy for both dogs and trainers, so short sessions are best. In the breaks between sessions, she gives Santino lots of happy attention and makes it fun for him. She mixes other cues into her training session, which makes it more interesting for her dog and also assures that he is really responding to each cue rather than always doing the same behavior. She uses a high rate of reinforcement for Santino, which is so important when learning something new.

Laura uses a clear visual signal without extraneous movement. This is typical of people who train marine mammals, which is where Laura got her start with training.

Laura begins with high rates of reinforcement for Santino’s attention and his choice to wait for a cue rather than simply offering behavior and hoping that he hits on the right one. It is so critical in training for an animal to be attending to the trainer and to cues rather than just performing random behaviors, but this has to be taught and reinforced just as other actions do. I love that she reinforces him a lot for attending to her, which is the basis of all training.

She links the verbal cue with the visual cue clearly, saying the new cue “twist” before giving the visual cue of her hand motion. They must be paired in this order and linked tightly in time for the transfer to be successful.

Laura’s timing is impeccable. She clicks as Santino starts the behavior she’s looking for, whether it’s for a right spin or any of the other behaviors she cues him for during the session.

Her delivery of the treats is clean, and by that I mean that it is clearly separated in time from the clicks she gives him. It’s important not to pollute the marker (also called a bridge or a secondary reinforcer) with the food by having them overlap in time.

Great training requires great choices, and Laura makes a lot of them. Her decisions about what to reinforce are spot on. It’s easy to see that in the video, but it’s hard to make those choices in real time, many per minute, in a situation where microseconds matter. She also chooses wisely to start by warming Santino up with the original visual cue in the first one-minute session.

Early on in the second session, Laura gets to the cue to spin rather than reinforcing him a lot of times for attention. I like that progression from the previous minute because he is already deeply into training mode.

The steps she takes to fade out the hand signal are methodical and gradual. She moves from following the verbal cue “twist” with a full hand signal to a smaller and smaller one until her last cue is faded to the point of just being a slight movement with her shoulder that doesn’t even involve her hand at all.

She wisely ends at this point when the dog has either responded to the verbal cue or to just that tiniest hint of the original visual cue. Ending on a good note is a goal of all training sessions, but recognizing that moment is an art.

Laura is always thoughtful of her dog, aware of distractions such as his thirst, activity behind her that he can see through the window, and “treat dust” on the ground.

Notable in this video is that Laura obviously enjoys the training and likes being with her dog. I love that she lights up around him, and adores him. She refers to him as “handsome” multiple times. (I prefer to describe him as a “bronzed god”, but her term works, too.)

Seeing training done well, as in this video, is instructive for anyone seeking to improve training skills. Are you like me? By that I mean, does it make you want to have a training session with your dog RIGHT NOW?

 

 

 

 

Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Scent Tracking with Your Dog
Tracking showcases your dog’s most scentsational talent

When long-time tracking enthusiast Penny Kurz discovered that her mailbox had been vandalized, she took action. Harnessing up her tracking dog, Deuce, she set out to find the perpetrator.

“Deuce sniffed around the mailbox and started running what looked like a car trail to me,” says Kurz. “A car trail will hang along the curb or edge of grass along the sidewalk. When he puts his nose down into footprints, it looks different. He took me up a couple blocks, made another corner, up another street, then all of a sudden stopped. He went across the front lawn, poking his nose into the footprints, went to the front door and sat down.

“I was ready to knock on the door, say someone broke my mailbox and my dog tracked to this house,” says Kurz. “Then I looked down at Deuce. Unfortunately, you lose a little credibility when you’re standing there with a Miniature Poodle. I chickened out—if I can’t fix the mailbox, I’ll borrow a German Shepherd and go back.”

Follow the Dog
If your dog has a nose, he can track. Surely you’ve seen him do so on walks with his nose to the ground or lifted high in the air. The sport of tracking harnesses that natural ability by demonstrating the dog’s ability to follow the scent of one particular person, the tracklayer, over various kinds of terrain. Each level of competition features greater challenges—a longer, well-aged track; more turns; and multiple scent articles.

Unlike agility or obedience, where the handler gives instructions and the dog is expected to follow, in tracking the dog is in charge. He wears a harness attached to a 30-foot leash and pulls the handler down the trail. Some dogs are confident and fly down the track, whereas others are methodical and take their time. In a test, each dog receives his own track, and two judges follow the dog-handler team. Putting on a tracking test is labor-intensive and requires a lot of land, so the dog must be certified prior to entry to ensure that he has been trained to the proper level.

Three main organizations sanction tracking tests. The American Kennel Club (AKC) is probably the best known, but allows only purebred dogs. For the beginner level, or Tracking Dog (TD) title, the dog must follow a track 440 to 500 yards long with three to five turns and aged 30 minutes to two hours. At the end, he must indicate a scent article, such as a glove, to the handler. The Tracking Dog Excellent (TDX) title requires intermediate tracking skills. At the most advanced level, or Variable Surface Tracking (VST) title, the track is 600 to 800 yards long with four to eight turns, aged three to five hours, and covers three different ground surfaces, mimicking an urban environment.

To give you an idea of the degree of difficulty, AKC Field Representative Herb Morrison says the TD has a 55 to 60 percent passing rate, the TDX has a 20 percent passing rate, and the VST has a 5 percent passing rate. The rare dog who passes all three levels is a Champion Tracker (CT).

Elizabeth Falk and her five-year-old Bull Mastiff, Archie, recently made AKC history when he passed his TD. He became the first of his breed to earn his VCD (Versatile Companion Dog), which requires Novice-level titles in agility, obedience and tracking.

“One of the challenges was me trusting my dog,” says Falk, who accidentally flunked Archie at their first tracking test. “He was trying to turn, but I thought the track went straight [and] it was a deer track. Our first trial was definitely a valuable lesson.”

The World of Scent
Both the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) and Deutscher Verband der Gebrauchshundsportvereine America (DVG America) welcome purebred and mixed-breed dogs. If you choose to compete in a specific venue, you’ll want to find an instructor who can tailor your training to that organization’s tracking style. For example, AKC does not require that a dog track with precision, meaning his nose does not need to follow the track exactly as long as he stays within 30 yards of the trail and appears to be working.

On the other hand, DVG America, which offers tracking as part of its Schutzhund working dog program, requires the dog to be right on top of the trail or risk losing points. Whether you decide to track for fun or compete, the key is to be open-minded about your dog’s abilities. Carolyn Krause, author of Try Tracking!, began tracking in response to a comment by a sport writer who described Dalmatians, her chosen breed, as “stone-nosed.” Over the past 25 years, her dogs’ multiple tracking titles have clearly proven him wrong.

“If you have ever looked at grass with dew on it and saw all the trails from animals crossing,” says Krause, “that gives you an idea what the world of scent shows your dog. We can see it for just a few minutes. By simply taking your dog to different areas and trying things in the book, you can learn a lot about your dog’s personality and temperament. You don’t have to pursue a title, but you do need to make a commitment to it. You have to drive around with a “tracking eye”—oh, there’s an interesting place—and wonder if your dog could follow that. It’s amazing what your dog will show you.”

 

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Skin Deep
Looks aren’t everything, but they do play a role in communication

Dogs excel in their role as our best friends. Spooning with us on a cold night, they seem almost hyper-domesticated. If there were a gold medal for “Achieving Domestication,” dogs would win it.

Some days, however, the story is quite different: chasing squirrels, digging up newly planted flowers, eating — then throwing up — grass, romping in a mud puddle post-bath, rolling in an overripe carcass. At these moments, we’re apt to look at our four-legged companions and say, “Really? You’re domesticated?” And, of course, they are. This mixture is what makes dogs, dogs — one minute, dressed in a Superman costume and the next, shredding and eating said costume.

People often cite life experience and breed when trying to account for the ways dogs behave. Who hasn’t heard, “He’s a rescue and was probably abused — that’s why he’s shy,” or “She’s a Labrador Retriever, so she always has a ball in her mouth”? Dogs of unknown origin are described in a similar fashion, relative to their possible breed identities: “Petunia kind of looks like a Chihuahua, but she definitely has that Border Collie eye.”

According to Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT-KA and owner of Companion Animal Solutions in Seattle, Wash., when associating a dog with the “look” or “behavior” of a particular breed, it’s important to remember that “the way dogs look and their actual genetics can be very different.” That, at least, is what studies are showing. As Victoria Voith, DVM, PhD and boardcertified veterinary behaviorist at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., explains, “Mixedbreed dogs are a collage of features of their ancestors. So much so that they often don’t look like any of their immediate parents or grandparents. In fact, they may look more like other breeds.” DNA tests often reveal that dogs are not simply a cross between two purebred parents. Instead, tests come back as 25 percent of this, 12.5 percent of that and a pinch of a few others. Since a dog’s looks and his genetic code can be on very different pages — sometimes in different books altogether — attributing a dog’s behavior to its “look” can some- times be a faulty assumption.

What about purebred dogs? Do these dogs from concentrated breeding pools give clues about why dogs act as they do? The AKC and other breedcertifying organizations certainly ascribe global attributes to breeds: The Schipperke is confident and independent; Boston Terriers are friendly and lively; Chows are independent and aloof; Clumber Spaniels are gentle, loyal and affectionate.

Breed standards, however, are simply guidelines. As Denise Herman, CTC, lead trainer and founder of Empire of the Dog in NYC, says, “When you get a puppy of a particular breed, people think it’s a blank slate, but it’s really an unknown slate. Breed gives an indication of where that unknown slate may go, but not all Border Collies herd, not all Huskies pull sleds and some Chows like everyone equally. A puppy of a particular breed is an unknown slate with the possibility of those characteristics.”

No Two Alike
While genetics get a dog started, onto genetic (developmental) factors such as environment, learning and individual life experiences make each dog who he or she is. No two dogs on the planet will have the exact same life experiences, which means no two dogs, even of the same breed, will have the exact same personality or responses to similar situations. Dogs are as unique as snowflakes!

The controversial practice of dog cloning provides a great example of the limits of behavior assessment based on genetics. In Dog, Inc., Pulitzer prize– winning investigative reporter and Bark contributor John Woestendiek explains how, after spending $20 million to clone their beloved dog Missy, Joan Hawthorne and John Sperling found Missy’s successor different from the original. “Missy was robust and completely calm. Missy wouldn’t come through my home and knock over every wine glass … They’re not at all alike,” says Hawthorne. Their genetics were the same, but personalities? Not so much. Even clones aren’t clones.

While genetics and life experiences certainly contribute to who dogs are, they’re not the entire story. The other part of the picture is in plain sight.

Breed standards specify required physical attributes pertaining to the tail, the ears and the coat, among other things. Most of these individual attributes, of course, appear across breeds and even in dogs in general. As a result, dog physical appearance — and its implications for how dogs communicate and how they are perceived — can be examined in its own right.

The famous Russian silver fox experiment is a clear reminder that the behaviors animals demonstrate can in some ways be linked to the way they look. In a few generations, foxes bred for docility and friendliness toward humans began to look quite different from those who were fearful of humans. As Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, CAAB and science advisor to the ASPCA, summarizes, “As the foxes became more tame, they began to develop a more ‘dog-like’ appearance, with piebald coats and floppy ears.”

Mixed Signals
How does this apply to dogs? Since dogs are the most physically diverse species on the planet, can we find a relationship between the way dogs look and the way they act?

The signals a dog has at its disposal may simply be a matter of basic equipment. As Zawistowski observes, “There are some things that are anatomically not possible for a dog to do, simply based on its anatomy. How can you tell if a Basset Hound has his ears up and forward? A Rottweiler can make a great lip pucker, but how on earth can a Bulldog pucker?” To be sure, the lack of overt behavioral signals does not suggest a dog is not feeling a particular emotion, or even that he might not adopt different strategies to convey them. But the implication is clear: The perception that Rottweilers are aggressive and Basset Hounds are laid-back could be a function of their physical features — and thus, the behaviors they can perform — rather than their mental processes.

With this in mind, could dogs’ physical appearance affect how they communicate? Or even, for that matter, how they’re treated by other members of their species? When a Great Dane comes across a French Bulldog, olfactory cues will reveal that the French Bulldog is, in fact, a dog, but does the Great Dane think to himself, “Hello my long-lost, thirty-times-removed cousin!” or “What the heck? You smell like a dog, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

Here to translate for the dogs is Jim Ha, PhD, CAAB, research associate professor and staff member of Companion Animal Solutions in Seattle, Wash.: “The way dogs look — their morphology — can definitely change the quality of their visual signals. Dogs who are more infantile in appearance — paedomorphic dogs like French Bulldogs, Pugs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels — are nice examples of how we are handicapping the dog’s ability to signal properly. But we also find that dogs who are not paedomorphic in appearance can have trouble signaling and communicating with one another as well. Signaling difficulty is not only associated with paedomorphic dogs.”

The changes we’ve made to dogs’ physical appearance do not necessarily make it easier for dogs to communicate with one another. Ha suggests that many aggression issues stem from misuse of signals and miscommunication between dogs.

Voith has a similar assessment: “Based on clinical experience, but not tested systematically, dogs that are fuzzy or black are often attacked by other dogs. I think that is because their social signals are not easily detectable — if at all. Subsequent to being attacked, black or fuzzy dogs become defensively aggressive towards other dogs, generally on leash.”

Herman agrees. “For any dog with a lot of fur or hair, you can’t see muscle tension, and it’s harder to read stiffness. Is a Komondor having a piloerection [raised hair along the dog’s back]? I have no idea.”

Or, take tails. Dog tails come in a spectrum of shapes and sizes. Are they important for dog-dog communication? Humans certainly take note of tails; when asked to assess dog behavior, we pay an inordinate amount of attention to the tail (possibly because we do not have one). Does a Labrador look at a Corgi and think, “Umm, excuse me, sir. I’m having a hard time understanding you. I believe you’ve misplaced your rear-end thing.” For another species commonly found lounging around our homes, tails are highly relevant. While a graduate student studying with noted ethologist John Bradshaw, Charlotte Cameron-Beaumont found that cats more readily approached, and approached in a friendly manner, a cardboard cat silhouette whose tail was in the “tail-up” position as opposed to those cat silhouettes with their tails down. Tails play an important role in cat-cat greetings (good luck, Manx).

When the dog researchers explored how dogs respond to other dogs’ tails, they pulled out the big guns: a model robot dog resembling a Labrador Retriever. Apart from its tail, the “dog” was motionless. The researchers found that when the robot dog had a long wagging tail, it was approached more than when it had a long still tail, which as you probably assumed, suggests that the tail conveys emotional state, and that wagging is more inviting than not wagging. When it came to short tails, the story changed. There was no difference between how the robot dog with a short/still and a short/wagging tail was approached. It appears that the longer tails were most effective at conveying emotional information, and since short tails are hard to read, they might not be read at all.

For Herman, the implications are obvious. “When you dock tails, it takes away part of their communication signal. It’s the dog version of Botox. Ear cropping falls in the same category. Dobermans with cropped ears ostensibly look alert to other dogs. They can’t be read [accurately] because they can’t change.” It’s difficult to derive cues and information from cropped ears. If anything, their constantly alert position could mislead other dogs.

E’Lise Christensen, DVM and boardcertified veterinary behaviorist in New York City, agrees. “I think cosmetic alteration could affect communication with other dogs. It certainly [has an impact on] assessments by owners, because they forget to look at the stump of the tail for movement and tension. Ears that are too cropped mean owners have to look for muscular movement at the skull level rather than the pinna, the outer part of the ear, where we customarily look. Flat faces make it more difficult to read small muscular movements.”

Herman suggests that taking note of a dog’s morphology can give owners a better appreciation for their dog. “It’s hard for other dogs to see that a Chow is really stiff, simply because he is [engulfed] in a ball of hair. It can be helpful for pet dog owners to recognize that what dogs have or do not have at their disposal could add confusion to dog-dog communication. This appreciation could help owners empathize with their dog, instead of blaming their dog or feeling angry for the dog’s behavior.”

Hibbard reminds us that the issue at hand can be twofold. “If you can’t see the ears, that’s one problem. But if you can see the ears but the dog uses them wrong, that’s another problem.”

It’s All About Us
No dog story is complete without the human element. Could morphology play a role in the way dogs and humans interact? Dogs excel at being in sync with us, whether on the agility course or when they’re trying to figure out if we’re going into the bathroom versus the kitchen (a.k.a. Mecca). But sometimes, dogs are out of sync, which gives rise to television programs like Animal Planet’s Bad Dog.

Training, life experience, genetics and psychological disorders are the common suspects for “out-of-sync” behavior, but how a dog looks — or rather, sees — is often overlooked. In 2003, professor Paul McGreevy, DVM and researcher at the University of Sydney, and his colleagues discovered that, contrary to popular belief, all canine eyes are not the same. Shortnosed dogs have what is called an area centralis, which allows them to focus more clearly on the world in front of them, like humans, while long-nosed dogs have a visual streak, which enables better peripheral vision. There’s a physiological reason why a long-nosed dog would take off after something way in the periphery while you and a shortnosed dog continue to sit on a park bench wondering what the long-nosed dog saw.

It stands to reason that these differences would not only affect how dogs see the world around them, but also how they attend to us humans, and that’s exactly what we find. Dogs are quite adept at following our pointing gestures, but brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds, with their more forward-facing eyes, follow these gestures better than dolichocephalic (long-nosed) breeds. In turn, this sense of being seen and responded to accordingly (or not) may affect how we perceive and relate to dogs.

Undoubtedly, dogs are a composite of their genes and individual life experiences. But the physical features that they come with, or that we give them via docking and breeding, can contribute to how they interact with others and are perceived by dogs and humans alike. When thinking about why your dog behaves the way he does, it can be helpful to be superficial and look at what’s right in front of you.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Boost Your Dog IQ
Managing expectations about your dog’s behavior makes for a good relationship

We live in a fast-paced, results-oriented society, one in which technology advances at warp speed and solutions to many of our everyday problems are often just a mouse-click away. Our increasingly hectic lifestyles mean that we waste very little time getting our needs met. This is fine if we’re ordering a couch and decide that blue tapestry is more to our liking than vintage brown leather. Chances are good that we’ll get just what we ordered. The same is often true when buying a car, a boat or the latest status toy. For the most part, we get what we want, and we get it without much effort.

Living with inanimate objects is very different from sharing a home with a four-legged best friend, however. Dogs, as we are learning from a wealth of newly published research, display sensitivity, emotion and advanced cognitive skills; they also have an understanding of fairness, and perhaps most importantly, they have the capacity to form intense social relationships with humans, other dogs and even other species. In my 15-plus years of scientifically studying and training dogs as well as treating their life-threatening behavioral problems, I have yet to see a pre-packaged dog, one who comes out of the box perfectly behaved and needing only food, water and a leash. It just doesn’t happen that way. Nor should it.

Relationship Building
When we bring a new dog into our life, we enter into an interpersonal relationship that entails a responsibility on our part. As a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, my goal is to help clients foster relationships based on trust, understanding and friendship.

What does it mean to enter into a relationship with a dog? Among other things, it means that:

  • We see our dogs for who they are, which is based on thousands of years of evolutionary history. Dogs are not furry little people. They have their own heritage. Whenever possible, look at your surroundings through your dog’s eyes. If you were removed from the only world you knew and placed in an unfamiliar environment — like a puppy separated from her littermates or a dog rescued from the streets — chances are you might feel a little unsure, anxious and perhaps even fearful. It’s not unreasonable to expect that our new dog might feel that way, too. In some situations, a careful dose of anthropomorphism can be useful.
  • We cut our new dog some slack. Ike isn’t peeing on the leg of your brandnew baby grand piano because he’s mad at you. Perhaps instead, he’s feeling anxious about being left home alone, or maybe he’s just not fully housetrained yet; even adult rescues often need housetraining help. A new puppy or adult dog should never be given free rein of the house right from the start. It’s a recipe for disaster.
  • We learn to communicate with our dog in a way that she can understand. This is what good dog training is all about. If I were put in a room with a group of Spanish-speaking people, I wouldn’t be able to converse with them because I’ve never learned to speak Spanish. However, I have the ability to learn that language; with some training, people can learn to speak “dog,” too. Trainer Bob Bailey once said that “training is a mechanical skill.” It can be learned and refined with time and practice.

    As an academically trained ethologist, I also believe that a big part of learning how to communicate with our dogs involves developing keen observational skills. Spend some time quietly watching your dog and learning about her personality. Does she take on new tasks with joie de vivre, or does she tend toward a more laid-back, wait-and-see approach? Respecting who your dog is and what she needs to feel safe and understood fosters trust and builds lasting partnerships.

  • We connect with a trainer who understands how animals learn; emphasizes modern, positive-reinforcement– based training methods; and is involved in continuing education. A good trainer focuses on teaching the dog what you want her to do and rewarding desirable behaviors rather than catching the dog doing something wrong and punishing bad behaviors. A growing body of literature suggests that punishment- or dominance-based training methods do more harm than good by creating fear and anxiety in some dogs .* Hea lthy relat ionships — whether between two people or between a person and dog — are built on fairness and respect, not fear.

Expectation Pitfalls
Having realistic expectations for your dog at each stage of her life and training is important to forming and maintaining a healthy bond. Even if you’ve already made a good deal of progress toward your goals, be mindful of the pitfalls. The road to relationship-building is littered with unrealistic expectations. Following are some of the more common.

  • One training class will teach your dog everything she needs to know. A single class is just a warm-up, one that needs to be followed with more classes or in-home training. Dog training builds upon previously learned skills; expectations are gradually raised as the dog becomes increasingly successful at performing the trainer’s requests. Training should be fun for everyone (dog and human). If you’re asking your dog to do something and she’s unable to follow through, you may simply be asking too much of her too soon — she’s not ready for that level, she may be stressed or she may be having a bad day. We humans have bad days, and nothing says our dogs can’t have bad days, too. If this happens, take a break and reassess the training plan. Never take it out on the dog.
  • Once your dog learns a behavior, you never need to reinforce it. I once met a couple walking their rambunctious young Labrador in the woods and asked if they did any training with their “wild child.” The man replied, “Yes, we took her to puppy class, but she forgot everything that she learned.” Just like your own workout program, when it comes to dog training, “use it or lose it” prevails. Don’t blame the dog if she can’t remember something you taught her last year but haven’t practiced since then. u
  • At home with no distractions, your dog comes when called, so she’ll do the same thing at the dog park, even if she’s engaged in a game of chase with her best dog friend. No, she won’t. This simple reality often throws people. I hear things like “Peaches is usually so good about coming, except when she’s at the dog park or there are other dogs around. Then, she doesn’t seem to care.” Training Peaches to come to you (or to reliably perform other behaviors) when there is nothing else interesting nearby is one thing; training her to come when she’s running full-out at the dog park is almost akin to teaching another behavior entirely. You need to train and re-train in each environment in which you expect your dog to perform the behavior.

    In puppy class, I start teaching “come” away from distractions. I let the pups play with one another, then after a minute or two, I put a tasty treat right in front of the dog’s nose and say the dog’s name, followed by the command (“Sasha, come!”) in a happy, upbeat voice while luring the dog a few feet away from her playmate. She gets the treat, and then I release her with an “okay,” which means she can go back and play some more. It’s a proverbial win-win.

    I had an occasion to put this training to use a couple of years ago when my one-year-old Doberman, Jimmy, was visiting a dog park near my house. Two dogs had started fighting, which quickly drew the attention of other dogs nearby. What started out as a fight between two quickly evolved into a fight among many. Nervous, I looked for Jimmy and noticed that he was gearing up to join the fray. My heart pounding in my throat, I tried hard to keep my voice happy as I called “Jimmy, come!” To my surprise, he turned away from the melee and ran full-speed toward me. Phew! That was close!

  • A well-trained dog responds to our directives 100 percent of the time. Nope, that’s not the case. When I tell people this, some are surprised and others are relieved. Dogs are living beings; sometimes they just aren’t going to do what we ask even if they know how to do it. A realistic response rate is roughly 80 percent, and this comes after a good bit of time has been invested in training.
  • All dogs like dog parks. Again, nope. Some people love large parties, and they find meeting and mingling with a group of total strangers exhilarating; for others, the experience is fraught with anxiety. Some of us (yours truly included) prefer small, intimate gatherings with a few close friends. Dogs are the same. Don’t force your dog to go to a dog park or daycare facility if she doesn’t like being there. If you do, you may inadvertently set the stage for future behavioral problems. Special Considerations for Puppies Puppies are like sponges, soaking up information about their world. So it’s important that their guardians learn to communicate with them in a humane and effective way right from the start. Through my business, About Dogs LLC, I offer a special “Puppy Head Start” lesson for clients who are waiting for a well-run group puppy class to start but in the meantime are going crazy because they don’t know how to handle their new pint-sized wrecking ball. Here are a few of the concerns that I often address through Puppy Head Start:
  • Just because your St. Bernard puppy is jumping on the children when they run, biting and mouthing hands, and eating shoes, it doesn’t mean she’s going to grow up to be Cujo. I get frantic calls, sometimes well after office hours, from people who are convinced that they have an aggressive puppy. In some cases they do, but more often than not, they and their families need to learn how to manage a puppy (and how to manage the children around the puppy), provide appropriate outlets for natural behaviors like chewing, and create an environment of predictability and structure in which desirable behaviors produce salient rewards for the new dog. As a result, “good behaviors” are reinforced and become more common.
  • Unfortunately, some dog books foster unrealistic expectations. For example, people might think, “Why isn’t my puppy housetrained in seven days like the book says?” In my experience, there is no set time line for housetraining puppies. Yes, we all want it to go as fast and as smoothly as possible, but it doesn’t always happen that way, even if we are being extra vigilant. It took my Labrador, Marty, whom we brought home at eight weeks, only a month to learn this, but my Doberman puppy, Acorn, was seven months old before she consistently signaled to go outside. And it was entirely my fault. Acorn would play with Marty for hours, having so much fun that she would take a quick potty break on her dog bed before resuming play. Shame on me! I was so caught up in the dogs’ fun that I sometimes forgot I needed to be working on housetraining too. I couldn’t blame Acorn for my own oversight.

    I now have a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy, Tango. He’s 11 months old, and it’s been six weeks since he’s had an accident in the house; plus, he’s scratching at the back door when he needs to go outside. I think (fingers crossed) that he’s finally housetrained. Smaller dogs often take longer than larger dogs to figure this out, and some breeds can be more challenging than others. But with patience and attention on your part, they can all learn.

  • There is no excuse for getting rough with your puppy or dog. Alpha rolls (forcing a dog on her back), scruff shakes (picking a puppy up by the back of her neck and shaking her) or muzzle grabs (cupping your hand around the dog’s muzzle in an attempt to discourage mouthing) are never acceptable. The only thing they potentially teach your puppy is to be fearful of you, which can pave the way for future aggression.

    Friendships between people are based on realistic expectations of who the other is (and is not), and it’s the same with our dogs. When a new dog enters our life, we can choose to create a deep, lasting friendship with that animal, or to let things drift into irritation and remoteness. The type of relationship we develop depends on our capacity to understand and meet our dog’s needs, based on realistic expectations of what is possible. Relationships are like a dance, and when that dance works, the relationship grows and endures, and enriches our lives in many priceless ways.

*Blackwell, E., et al. 2008. The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 3 (5): 207–217; Herron, M. E., et al. 2009. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117: 47–54.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Door Darting
How to deal with dashing dogs
The Dastardly Door-Darter

There he goes again, (expletive deleted)!” Sounds like the unhappy human companion of a door-darter— a dog who slips through an open door every chance he gets. This is frustrating for the human and dangerous for the dog, who romps around having a marvelous time just beyond his owner’s reach, or worse, takes off at a dead run for parts unknown.

Why would a well-loved dog who has ample food, water, toys and human attention choose to escape? Because it’s fun. The outside world can be endlessly reinforcing for a dog. If you have an “investigate-and-sniff-everything-onwalks” kind of dog, you know that from experience. The door-darter has also learned that dashing outside is a great way to get his couch-potato human to play with him — which is also very reinforcing. Finally, if you’ve ever made the mistake of being angry at your dog when you finally got your hands on him, you’ve taught him that being captured makes good stuff go away (he doesn’t get to play anymore) and makes bad stuff happen (you yell at him).

Making good stuff go away is the definition of “negative punishment” and making bad stuff happen is “positive punishment.” Basically, he’s punished twice, and neither punishment is associated with the act of dashing out the door! Rather, both are connected with you catching him, which will make it even harder to retrieve him the next time he gets loose.

So, what do you do if you live with a door-darter?

First, get him back. Easier said than done, you may say. An accomplished door-darter is often an accomplished keep-away player as well. Don’t chase him; you’ll just be playing his game. Play a different game. Grab a squeaky toy, take it outside and squeak. It may be counterintuitive, but when he looks, run away from him, still squeaking. If he chases you, let him grab one end of the toy. Play tug, trade him for a treat, then squeak and play some more. Let him follow you, playing tug-thesqueaky, into your fenced yard, then close the gate (or into your garage or house, if you don’t have a fence). Play more squeaky with him.

If he loves car rides, run to your car and say, “Wanna go for a ride?” Open the door and when he jumps in, take him for a ride! Chasing tennis balls or flying discs? Fetching sticks? Walkies? Whatever he loves, offer it.

Once you’ve corralled your cavorting canine, the part about punishment bears repeating: no matter how upset you are, don’t yell at him! Don’t even reprimand him calmly. And don’t take him back inside immediately — that’s punishment, too. Stay outside and play a while. I promise, if you punish him or march him sternly back into the house, he’ll be harder to catch the next time. Instead, happily and genuinely reinforce him with whatever he loves best.

Don’t let it happen. Management is vital for dog-keeping generally and successful behavior modification specifically. It keeps your door-darter safe and you sane. If you can’t fence in your entire yard, perhaps you can fence a small area outside the door(s). If you can’t put up a physical fence, install a barrier outside the door(s) — a small area with a self-closing gate, so that if he dashes out, he’s still contained. Don’t even think “underground shock fence”— determined dogs will run through those as easily as through open doors.

Baby gates or exercise pens inside can block your dog’s access to escape. Insist that everyone — family and guests alike — makes sure he’s behind the barrier before they go out the door or greet a visitor.

Increasing your dog’s level of aerobic exercise is another way to reduce the darting. If you keep your canine pal busy and tired, he’ll be less inclined to look for opportunities to make a break for it.

Train, train, train. Teach your dog to wait at doors until he’s given the release cue. With your dog sitting beside you at a door that opens outward, tell him to “Wait.” Reach toward the doorknob. If he doesn’t move, click your clicker or use a verbal marker and give him a tasty treat. Repeat, moving your hand closer toward the doorknob in small increments, clicking and treating each time he remains seated.

If he gets up, say “Oops!” have him sit, then try again. If he gets up several times in a row, you’re asking too much of him; go back to moving your hand only a few inches toward the knob, and advance more slowly.

When he’ll stay sitting, touch the knob. Click/treat. Jiggle the knob. Click/treat. Repeat, clicking and treating each time, then open the door a crack. If your dog doesn’t move, click and treat. If he gets up, say “Oops!” and close the door. You’re teaching him that getting up closes the door; if he wants the opportunity to go out, he must wait.

Gradually open the door in one or two-inch increments. Any time he gets up, “Oops!”/close the door/try again. Do several repetitions at each step. When you can open the door all the way, take one step through, stop, turn around and face your dog. Wait a few seconds, click, then return and treat.

When he’s solid with you walking out the door, occasionally invite him to go out ahead of, with or after you, by using a release cue such as “free.” Other times, walk through the door and close it, leaving him inside. Once the door closes, he’s free to get up and move around. You can give your release cue through the closed door, or simply leave him to figure out it’s okay once you’re gone. He will figure it out.

Finally, teach everyone who interacts with him how to ask for the “Wait” at the door. The more consistent everyone is at reinforcing the sit-and-wait, the more reliable your dog will be at waiting, and the less likely he’ll be to dart out that door. Thus, the safer he’ll be and the more easily you’ll breathe. And that’s a winning combination.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Behavior: Training Two Puppies at Once
Doubling Up: Are Two Puppies a Good Idea?

Question: We have a five-month-old Lab and a six-month-old Golden Retriever. My husband and I thought it would be great to get two puppies so that each of our kids (ages three and five) could have one to care for and train. It’s a nightmare! The dogs only pay attention to each other, their training is nonexistent, and we are so overwhelmed and exhausted that we wish we had only gotten one. Is there anything we can do to make the situation better?

Answer: It’s a huge temptation to get two puppies—who wouldn’t want double the cuteness and double the fun?—and you succumbed, as have so many others before you. Take heart: The problems you describe are common in households with two puppies, and you can make the situation better.

The most important step is to spend time alone with each puppy daily. Besides helping you build a strong relationship with each of the dogs, this will also accustom them to being separated. Use this one-on-one time to work on training. The pups need to be trained individually before you try to work with them as a pair, because they are going to distract one another when they’re together.

The time you spend alone with each puppy shouldn’t be all work—engage them in other activities as well. Playing, going on walks, or taking a class together are all ways you can spend valuable time with each dog. Another benefit is that you can focus on doing what that dog enjoys most. Perhaps one loves nothing more than to have you practice canine massage on him, while the other dog’s favorite activity is running and jumping in the creek.

It is wise to let them be individuals; living in the same house does not mean that they necessarily have identical personalities or that they have the same needs. On the flip side, the fact that one dog dislikes riding in the car doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun for the other dog. No matter how similar they are, treat them as individuals. The more you do, the more likely it is that they will have a strong bond with you, and the easier it will be for you to get their attention.

Don’t expect your children to lessen the workload of having dogs. Even mature children with the best of intentions need lots of supervision when helping care for or train dogs. The amount of guidance required means that when they pitch in, it may be even more work for you. The adults have to commit to the full responsibility of the time and effort involved in raising two dogs.

Finally, the voice in your heart that keeps repeating the wish that you had only gotten one dog deserves to be respected. I truly believe that when you adopt a dog, it is your responsibility to do what is best for that dog. In an environment where the people are overwhelmed, the dogs are out of control, and everyone is exhausted and unhappy, it is fair to consider a change of environment. If, after trying the suggestions included here, life is still not at all what you had hoped for, consider rehoming one of the dogs.

I recently took care of a client’s puppy for a weekend so she and her family could see how they would feel with only one puppy in their home, a home that also includes two small children. The trial showed them that one puppy was enough and two were too many. They decided to place the dog I cared for in one of the several households who wanted her. Now, two happy homes each have one lovely puppy, instead of one feeling crazed by the stress and chaos of two puppies. Returning a puppy to a breeder, placing her with a rescue group or finding her a new home is not a decision to be made lightly, but in some cases, it can lead to a happy ending all around.

 

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Countering Counter-Surfing
Troubled by Temptation

Q. During the holidays, my dog discovered the joys of entertaining—from cookies and hors d’oeuvres on the coffee table, she graduated to leaping onto the counter for other delectables while we were busy entertaining our guests in another room. She never did this before! How do I train her out of this newly acquired habit without resorting to kenneling her when we’re home? Other than this, she’s a great hostess.

 

A. Well, Here’s an example of what not to do. One of my clients, fed up with her dog stealing food when her back was turned, placed “scat mats” (electrified mats) on the kitchen counters. On his first encounter with the mats, her dog received such a jolt that he squealed and ran out of the kitchen. The scat mats seemed to have done the trick, and the lady was pleased with the result. The “success” was short-lived, however. The only entrance to the backyard was through the kitchen, and when it was time for the dog to go outside, he flatly refused to go anywhere near the kitchen area. not surprisingly, he also began to have accidents inside the home. a counter- surfing issue had turned into major anxiety, and it was some time before the dog would walk through the kitchen to go to the backyard.

 

Put yourself in your dog’s paws. The next time you’re hungry, place your favorite food on the table and see if you can resist taking a bite. even people who have difficulty controlling themselves expect their dogs to resist temptation when food is placed right in front of them.

 

In order to set up your dog for success while ensuring her safety, it is much more realistic to use a mixture of management and training techniques. Dogs are opportunists and the more successful they are at getting food from kitchen counters or the table, the more they will try. Blocking access by using baby gates or putting your dog in another room if you have company is one way to ensure she doesn’t have an opportunity to surf and thus, reward herself for this activity. If this isn’t an option, try tethering her to you so she is with you at all times.

 

If you’re working in the kitchen and are unable to use a baby gate, draw an imaginary line along the floor and teach her to stay behind that line. (a reliable sit-stay cue needs to be taught first so that she understands what is expected of her.) If she strays, gently block her with your body until she retreats behind the line again. reward her at intervals while she stays behind the line and she will see the area as a positive place to be.

 

As counter-surfing happens mostly when no one’s around (dogs are smart!), you can try going hi-tech with a special two-way radio collar that allows your dog to hear your voice right next to her ear even when you’re in another room.* Put some food on the counter and then walk away to a place where you can see the food. Pick up a magazine or pretend to be doing something else so she thinks your attention is off her. Wait for her to go up to the counter, and just before she jumps up, ask her to “leave it.” If she backs away, praise her. Start this exercise using low-value food before making it more difficult with the yummy stuff. This technique might cause a little confusion at first, but your dog will soon learn that the “all-seeing eye” is everywhere, even if you aren’t in the immediate vicinity.

 

While you are entertaining, you can also provide your dog with something else to focus on by giving her an interactive toy such as a treat ball or a Kong filled with food. This will most likely tire her out while filling her up, quenching any desire to seek out food—leaving your dog satisfied and your food safe!

 

*The Hear now Two-Way radio Collar is one option; it’s not easy to find, however. an online search will sometimes turn up a source.

News: Karen B. London
I’m Not Judgmental About Dogs’ Behavior
Do people think I am?

On a day that I had gone for a run, and not yet had a chance to shower I saw the woman who cuts my hair, looking chic and well-styled as always. We said our hellos and then I burst out with, “I swear my hair hardly ever looks like this! The cut you just gave me is great and I’ve been able to make it look really nice, but today I went for a run and then threw it into a ponytail and rushed here!” Always kind, she smiled and was very gracious about my weird behavior. I wondered out loud to my friend whether this poor woman is used to people acting this way when they see her.

My friend said, “I’ll bet people feel the same way when they see you and their dog is not being a saint. I replied, “I’m not judging dogs’ behavior when I see them!” And it’s true. I understand that dogs can get very excited when out and about and that what I see may not be their typical behavior. And my friend asked me, “But do you really think the woman who cuts your hair is going around judging people for not having perfect hair?”

I gave this a lot of thought and realized that people often want to show me what their dog can do—a new trick, not jumping up to greet me, an impressive down-stay or anything else the dog can do well. They are so proud when the dog does just what they want, and I love to applaud these successes with them. I’m well aware that it means a lot to people to show me the best in their dog. I just hadn’t thought about the other side of the coin—when the dog goofs in front of me by jumping up, pulling on the leash, barking or any other imperfect behavior. I tend to focus on celebrating what the dog is doing right rather than becoming worked up about other behavior. After all, it’s not like I’ve ever had a dog whose behavior was consistently perfect.

Have you had the experience of your dog acting up in front of just the person you want them to show off for? Have you had your dog make you proud, too?

Wellness: Healthy Living
Challenges and Rewards of Living With a Deaf Dog

There’s a brief moment in Mike Nichols’ iconic 1967 movie, The Graduate, that helps me imagine what life is like for my 15-year-old Corgi, Edgar, who has lost most of his hearing. Early in the film, Benjamin Braddock, the eponymous graduate, enters a pool party given by his parents in his honor, wearing full SCUBA gear. Wellmeaning faces from his past float up in succession, each one with advice about what he should do with his life, but, while he can see their mouths moving and read their facial expressions, all he can hear inside the diving mask is the sound of his own breathing.

Every now and then, I look Edgar straight in the eye and say, as helpfully as I possibly can, “Plastics.” That is the advice given to Benjamin by the soonto- be-cuckolded Mr. Robinson about a possible career path. No one ever laughs at my jokes, so Edgar’s blank look is not new, but it makes me feel as though I am still communicating with him even though he cannot hear.

It might seem petty to worry about a little deafness when Edgar is in otherwise perfect health. But I realized that his deafness was a barrier to our bond, and that I felt as estranged from him as he undoubtedly did from me. He had never come when he was called, so that was nothing new. But suddenly he looked away when I said the various trigger words — “Let’s go for a walk,” “Do you want a treat?” “Do you want to ride in the car?” — that used to cause him to cock his head from side to side in a manner that made it clear we were communicating. Suddenly, he was silent during birthday parties, when in the past, his exuberant baritone rang out above all the other voices during the Happy Birthday song.

Dogs’ hearing mechanism is basically the same as that of humans, and they experience hearing loss for many of the same reasons: they can be congenitally deaf (deaf since birth), or they can acquire deafness due to having dirt, wax, ear mites or other foreign bodies in the ear; an infection or inflammation of the ear canal; trauma to the head; noise trauma; exposure to certain antibiotics or other drugs; or old age. I do not know when or why Edgar lost his hearing; part of it was undoubtedly just normal aging process. But he also had an ongoing skin infection that extended into his ears, which I treated with antibiotics, either of which can cause hearing loss. His hearing seemed to have deteriorated overnight, but most likely, it was a gradual process that I didn’t notice until he exhibited some of the more obvious symptoms: pacing around looking for his people, suffering obvious distress at being left alone, exhibiting a pronounced startle response at being touched while he was asleep.

“In hearing, as in most other things, dogs are very adaptive and good at compensating,” says Colette Williams of the University of California, Davis, Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. Williams has been an electro- diagnostician at UCD for 29 years. Among many other tests that she conducts, she assesses animals for hearing loss using brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) technology. Many seeking her expertise are breeders, who use BAER to identify congenital deafness in their puppies.

If a puppy is found to be bilaterally deaf (deaf in both ears), breeders have a difficult decision to make: euthanize that puppy or let it go as a pet. Those who favor euthanasia point out that many deaf dogs end up in shelters because of the challenges in training them. Also, deaf dogs often get hit by cars, and they can be snappy when they are startled when sleeping, which gives the breed a bad name.

Colette Williams has tested thousands of dogs and has owned two deaf dogs of her own. One of her dogs, a bilaterally deaf-from-birth Dalmatian, learned hand signals that Williams and her son made up. “The key was consistency, and rewarding him with treats,” she says. “I had a hearing dog at the time, and he was harder to train than the deaf dog.” Hearing dogs often aid a deaf dog, Williams points out. They give social cues and can help with training. Williams trained the hearing dog to wake the deaf dog so she didn’t have to worry about the deaf dog biting her young son if he touched the dog while he was sleeping.

Deaf dogs can be marvelously adaptable and inventive. “Dogs are good at using their other senses,” says Williams. “My deaf dog knew where every cat in the neighborhood was. When we walked, he would scan from side to side, taking in everything.”

Like Edgar has had to do, Williams’ deaf dog accepted his condition and got on with life. “Dogs don’t have the self-pity that a lot of people have,” she says.

Seattle-area dog trainer Diane Rich, who has worked with numerous deaf dogs over the past 25 years, points out the importance of developing other modes of communication regardless of whether your dog is deaf or has tip-top hearing. She teaches people to use a combination of body language, hand signals and auditory cues. That way, if the dog loses hearing in old age, he won’t feel quite as isolated. “People want to keep up communication with an older dog,” says Rich. “It takes a lot of patience. You have to learn how to communicate differently, not just verbally.” She also recommends teaching all puppies a “watch” command in addition to the usual commands. Hold some alluring food near the dog’s nose and slowly bring it to your eye level, maintaining eye contact with the dog. Say “Watch” or “Look.” Work on “fading the lure,” and eventually, you’ll be able to just point to your eye and have the dog’s full attention. “Dogs use an array of body language already,” says Rich. “People need to be able to use their own body language to communicate with their dog.”

While many people teach their dogs American Sign Language, any hand signal will do, as long as you’re consistent. “There’s no ceiling to how many words or signs a dog can learn,” says Rich. “They can learn as long as they have a pulse and you have motivation and patience. If you make training fun, they’re going to love learning, and it’s going to cement your bond.” She points out that it’s not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks: sometimes it’s easier to train older dogs because they have longer attention spans.

Further, she recommends taking a matter-of-fact approach to your deaf dog’s disability. “Dogs aren’t saddled with ego,” she says. “If we pity them, we can create a situation where the dog may either shut down or act out because they think they did something wrong to make us feel bad. If you act like the disability isn’t a big deal, dogs will respond like it’s not a big deal.”

And so Edgar and I continue together into (in my case) middle age and (in his case) senescence. Taking care of him is a lot of work, but the truth is that I am no bargain either. He is very accepting of the ways in which I am not perfect, and, in turn, I am accepting of his increasing physical limitations. Every day, we practice the hand signals we learned in puppy class 15 years ago, which he still remembers: come, sit, stay, down, good boy. I smile a lot and pat him while giving the “thumbs up” sign when he does something well. I continue to tell him my jokes and he continues to give me a blank look, just like he always has. On every birthday, I bark and howl and yelp when people sing the Happy Birthday song, in honor of the joy his “singing” has given me over the years.

Though he requires a lot of extra care for all his special needs, it is care I am happy to provide in gratitude for the happiness he has brought me. In short, even though he has lost his hearing, arthritis has slowed him down, he sleeps most of the day and cannot participate fully in all of our old antics, he is still my best friend, and encroaching old age will never change that. Because — as every creaky, long-in-the-tooth, middle-aged woman and failing, deaf, 15-year old dog know — love is blind.

The BAER Test

BAER (brainstem auditory evoked response) is a diagnostic test for hearing whereby a dog is fitted with a sound source in the form of earphones with foam inserts that extend into the ear. The device emits a sound and the response is detected by tiny electrodes that have been placed at specific sites on the dog’s head and shoulders. The BAER detects electrical activity in the cochlea of the ear as well as in the auditory pathways of the brain, much like an EKG detects electrical activity in the heart. The resulting waveform definitively shows the extent and degree of a dog’s hearing loss and is used to evaluate a dog’s hearing status. The procedure is painless, but occasionally dogs will object to wearing earphones and being lightly restrained; in extreme cases they are muzzled or sedated, though this is rarely necessary. Results are available on the spot.

While curious pet owners sometimes seek confirmation of a hunch that their dog is deaf, BAER testing is used routinely by breeders, primarily those whose breeds are susceptible to congenital deafness. Coat-color-related deafness is associated with some white-coated and merle breeds, such as Dalmatians and Australian Shepherds. (To find out which breeds are most affected, see Louisiana State University’s Dr. George M. Strain’s comprehensive list.)

Inside the ear, the organ of Corti includes a layer of cells, the stria vascularis. The job of these cells is to secrete a factor that keeps hair cells healthy within the ear. If the stria vascularis cells are not pigmented, they are defective and lead to hair cell death within a puppy’s first few weeks, resulting in deafness. Unfortunately, this takes place in the inner ear and is, therefore, not visible to the eye; often, it is not obvious that a puppy is deaf. Deaf puppies may play harder than their littermates (because they cannot hear the yelps they inflict); also they may be hard to wake, or be seen to be following cues from the other puppies. Hunches must be confirmed with BAER testing.

Those who train working dogs also utilize BAER testing. These dogs need to be able to hear in both ears in order to localize the source of a sound. A dog can be unilaterally deaf (deaf in one ear), so that he can still hear but cannot tell where the sound is coming from. Others whose dogs experience chronic ear infections may seek BAER testing to find out how much hearing loss their dog might have experienced as a result of infection. BAER testing is also used to aid in the diagnosis of more serious medical conditions, such as vestibular (inner ear) disease or brain tumors.

BAER testing can be done only at one of the centers that specialize in the test. (Click here for a list of BAER testing sites.) However, BAER testing is occasionally available at “health clinics” at major dog shows.

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