Monday, November 30, 2009

character development

Hundreds of people have shared stories of their dogs with me over the years, and there are many whose previous dogs were obtained from shelters or found on the street. Often, these kind-hearted folk relate with conviction that their dog had been abused prior to coming to them. As evidence they point to the dogs' behaviors - aggressiveness towards children, avoidance of men or uniforms or brooms, refusal to come when the person calling is holding a leash...the list is endless. Yes, the behaviors are indicative of an emotional reaction, but can the cause be inferred? Is it realistic to assume that this dog, if adopted as a puppy and given a loving home from the start would *not* have developed antisocial behaviors? To believe that the dog is a blank slate, pure and perfect, awaiting the Hand of Man in either kindness or cruelty to instill its eventual personality is to ignore the inherent individuality of that being.

Dogs, like people, are born with innate tendencies towards weak wills or strong ones, low drive or high, curiosity or dullness, intelligence or stupidity, willingness or oppositionality...the interface of these traits with the experiences the dog has will create templates that the dog uses to deal with every subsequent patterns are established. A timid dog that is startled by a stranger's enthusiastic attention may shrink away from the next stranger. No harm was done to the dog in actuality, but within the confines of its own internal world the stranger was experienced as scary and potentially dangerous. That conviction, held as truth, is projected outward by the dog onto subsequent interactions, coloring its experience of even the gentlest touch. A dedicated owner may be able to restore confidence in the dog with time and attention and careful socialization, but if the dog were to end up in new hands, its wariness and overtly fearful manner would likely convince its new owners that it had suffered at the hand of its previous owners, when in fact its own innate character is simply being evinced.

Experience does play an enormous role in the final analysis, that's why I emphasize to my new puppy owners the necessity of controlling a puppy's experiences during the impressionable initial weeks and months. For one thing I'm not a big fan of dog parks, because owners generally are unable to honestly appraise their dog's character. When asked, invariably they assure you that their beloved Fido doesn't bite, isn't aggressive, or...oops, never did that before. Turn your unsuspecting young dog out for a run in a community dog park and if they should encounter the neighborhood Cujo they may have good reason forever afterwards to carry a chip on their shoulder with regard to other dogs. Similarly, though puppies need exposure to kids if they're to learn forbearance and reliability with children, subjecting them to the heavy-handed and insensitive behavior of just any ill-mannered child would be hugely counter-productive.

A pup needs to have happy interactions with a variety of situations, orchestrated by its owner and gauged to the pup's developmental level, if it is to grow up with a happy and confident manner. The underlying character of the dog will dictate the degree to which these efforts are successful, but the effort must be made if one wants a well-adjusted canine partner.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Anytime I have a litter coming, I begin the process of getting to know the folks who are waiting on puppies. Invariably there are several who make the statement to the effect that they want their pups as young as possible so they can begin "the bonding process." One can never know precisely what someone else means by that, but I tend to assume that what they really mean is they don't want to deprive themselves of puppy breath and lots of puddles.

Baby puppies, very young babies, don't bond in the same way that an older pup or adult does...they're a lot like baby humans who can be handed from one capable adult to another without much fuss. They're trusting. They haven't learned that there are things to be feared in the Big Bad Out There, and their worldview barely recognizes the distinction between self and other. Any female dog will do when a baby puppy is hungry, it's only when the non-mom unceremoniously snarls and snaps that baby comprehends the necessity of maintaining the distinction between mom and non-mom if he wishes to avoid injury.

When visitors come, they see the puppies tag after me everywhere and assume they're bonded to me...but they'll follow anybody. Sure, given a choice they'll follow me versus you because I'm the Food Bringer. Three times a day since their foggiest recollections, my scent, footsteps, and voice correlate with the magical appearance of lusciously tasty grub. They come running if I call them because they associate the particular way I say "here puppy, puppy!" with the gratification of warm, full bellies. But they'll follow you just as willingly once you replace me in that roll. The instincts of survival are so imperative they can't help but stick close to the one who provisions them with the necessities of life. They imprint, not bond. They are cute, sweet, funny, heart-warming little users! But are they bonded? Huh-uh. Not yet, not when they're utterly dependent. So, to say that a baby pup needs to be acquired early in order to "bond" to a human owner is misleading and perhaps a tad egoistic.

Give me a dog, a grown up dog that's got a heart and soul looking back at me when I make eye contact. One who has seen a few things, been around a bit, can think for itself and chooses to be my partner. I love meeting adult dogs; sometimes there's an instant liking, an attraction of chemistry not unlike the way interactions with certain total strangers can seem like becoming reacquainted with an old friend. Dogs are what they are, they don't hide behind facades, and they evaluate me even more thoroughly than I can possibly scrutinize them...because they cheat, they have built in chromatography! Their noses enable them to know my emotional state even if I don't; they know my health, my status, probably what I ate for dinner last night. I can exchange a bond of trust with a dog in an instant, and that dog will remember me even if I don't come 'round again for a year. Those bonds, the recognition of a kindred soul that is revealed when we are real and open to such exchanges, outlast the moment, and sustain us in the lonely interludes when it seems there is no one and no thing that we can count on.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Salon Talk

It's been a week since I made an entry, so don't let the length of this post daunt you...I'm just making up for lost time.

I stopped off for a haircut on my way home last night, and as usually happens in situations where some sort of conversation is appropriate, we chatted about pets. She has an Olde English Bulldogge and several cats, so it gives us some common ground. Around about the time she was scissoring my bangs, she picked up a thread from a previous conversation.

As it happens, she is a newlywed, and during previous haircuts I had learned that her dog Jazz was afraid of her new husband, John. From other things she had said, the impression I had was of a somewhat shy or timid dog. Last night she told me that they had figured out why Jazz kept her distance from the new Man of the House. Their theory was that Jazz felt guilty for misbehaving while home alone during the day, and so because the husband is the first one home in the evening, she avoids him out of a sense of guilt. “You can just see it in her face, she knows she’s done wrong,” my hairdresser said, adding “it’s like she knows she’s going to get into trouble but just can’t help herself.”

I asked more about the situation, because I’ve heard the same song umpteen versions over the years. The upshot of the story is that they expect Jazz to leave the cats’ food alone, to stay off the furniture and to basically lie around and touch nothing during the hours they’re both away at work. Upon returning home, John would find dog hair on the couch (was he absolutely sure it wasn’t cat hair?) and empty cat food dishes (and he’s absolutely sure the cats didn’t eat it all?) and would scold Jazz for being “bad.”

Little wonder Jazz didn’t offer an enthusiastic welcome for John!

That crouched posture, head held low, tail tucked, eyes rolling up in supplication is so often presumed to be guilt that owners find themselves saying “what did you do!?!” the instant they see the signs. A quick look around will reveal something…a loaf of bread knocked off the counter, a plant wilted in the middle of the room with the contents of its pot strewn about and ground into the carpet. In my hairdresser’s scenario, that would probably be sufficient evidence that Jazz “knew” she’d done wrong and anticipated punishment.

But wait. Take the last half of that sentence and play the tape backwards. A dog can certainly anticipate, as anyone who has ever walked a dog knows when you take the leash off the peg on the wall. So the hairdresser is partly right, Jazz no doubt does anticipate punishment. But how did that come to be? If you have ever come home, found something amiss, and punished the dog, then the next time something is amiss the dog will anticipate punishment. But does two and two equal four in a dog’s world? In other words does the dog’s anticipation of punishment imply that they also experience what we humans understand to be guilt as it derives from a sense of wrongdoing or responsibility? Or is this a more complex equation?

In my opinion, this is an example of conditioned response, a sort of inadvertent training. Think of the dog’s perspective. Sometime around 2:00 PM the dog got bored or hungry and chased the cat. The cat jumped on the counter, knocked the loaf of bread off, and in hot pursuit of the cat the dog stepped on the bread, ripping the bag open. After the Dog and cat tired of that game, they wandered back into the kitchen, discovered the bread, dragged the bag by one edge spilling the contents in Hansel & Gretel fashion from room to room, then partied their way back along the bread crumb trail. They had a grand afternoon!

Tired from the antics, Dog is dreaming happy dreams when it hears the familiar car engine sound, the footsteps of the beloved coming up the walk, and the click of the key in the door. Oh joy! Life is good again! Big bounding leap takes the dog to the door, where instead of a hug and reunion celebration, the dog gets a brusque shove-off because Owner, who flipped on a light and got a look at the place, is working up a good steam. Dog, still in greeting mode, is puzzled, then wary, then downright terrified as Owner’s mood dissolves into outright fury.

Maybe Dog is smacked. Maybe Owner shoves dog outdoors and banishes it. Some sort of negative experience is inflicted on Dog. Now, Dog’s bread bowl bash was hours earlier, and it doesn’t connect its actions with the Owner’s reaction. It does, however, see the bread and shredded wrapper strewn everywhere, because dogs notice *everything.* So, while it doesn’t associate its own actions with the human reaction, it *does* associate the mess with the pain of punishment. So, fast-forward to another time Dog knocks something over. It doesn’t feel guilty for doing so, but when that chain of events goes off again (car pulls in, owner walks to door, key opens lock, stuff is strewn about on the floor) then Dog, remembering last time and wanting to save his skin, goes into an all-out attempt to convince Owner that it shouldn’t be punished. That’s what the cringing, slinking, eye-rolling is about…it’s appeasement behavior meant to defuse the situation and avert the Wrath of God. Not guilt, fear.

What about times when Dog acts “guilty” but didn’t actually do anything? Those with multiple-dog households can identify with that concept from watching what happens when you’re angry with one dog. The others, instantly recognizing the body language, avert their eyes, crouch, slink, do their best to disappear into the carpet. They didn’t do a thing, they are simply responding to their instinctive desire to keep the Alpha off their back! Yet, looking at them, it’s the same performance John saw in Jazz and inferred guilt. So, what happened with John and Jazz? If you come home a time or two and find mess or destruction, you’re going to anticipate finding mess and destruction each time you come home. How do you feel as you drive home? Tense? Irritable? What does that do to your breathing? Your posture? If you walk in the door with the angry presumption that something is wrong, your dog will know it before you even get inside. Your entire body is like a radio transmitter, emitting vibes at a frequency your dog reads loud and clear.

I did it just now…I got up to go to the kitchen and the poodle hopped out of his bed to follow (it’s nearly dinner time; he’s hopeful). I stopped a few steps away from the kitchen door (I forget what I’m doing half the time, and have to stop and reconnoiter). The poodle froze in place, head hunkered, afraid to move. I was standing with my hands on my hips, as I often do when I first spot a little “present” that the poodle is inclined to leave for me on my favorite carpets. There was no “present” and the poodle hadn’t done anything…but he sure looked guilty!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Motivation - "carrots"

“Dumb dog!” Most dog owners, including myself, have said such things in exasperation. But when I’m not vexed by something my four-legged friends have done, I know the phrase isn’t fair – dogs’ inability to speak doesn’t reflect on their I.Q.
Sure, some dogs aren’t quite as quick or as willing to learn as others. And some make more effort to communicate than others. But what we call stupidity is usually just a symptom of lack of understanding or motivation. Why should your dog bother to comply with, or even try to understand, your commandst if you meet its every need or perceived wish just ‘cause that furry face is so darned cute? Honestly, would you get up and go to work every morning if your paycheck arrived no matter what?
How do you motivate a dog whose life is one of indulgence and ease? Your dog has a roof overhead, bed for lounging, food in the bowl, and treats on demand. Grocery store aisles and entire specialty stores offer treats, toys, premium foods and designer clothes to tempt doting owners precisely because humans naturally express their love by lavishing attention and gifts on the family pet. How can your Fido behave like Lassie or Eddie when he thinks his purpose in life is to be petted, played with, and loved?
Dog training is not about dominance or a battle of wills (although both come into play at times); it’s accomplished by establishing a common vocabulary, or currency if you will. That vocabulary has meaning or the currency has value only if you can get this across to your dog: I have what you want- your “paycheck”—and you can have it if you do what I ask of you. Pretty straightforward. The paycheck might be a food treat or a game of fetch, anything that your dog is ballistic about. If you’re serious about achieving results, restrict the dog’s treats or special toys to these training sessions.
Be clear in your own mind what you expect from the dog. Be specific, and be confident. Rather than “My dog is out of control” think “I want my dog to walk calmly on leash” or “my dog should sit to greet strangers.” Clarity of expectation will aid clarity of communication. Reinforcing the behavior – “paying” your dog -- will cement the cause and effect in your dog’s mind. Dog walks calmly, or sits patiently, dog gets treat or other reward. Good behavior is repeated because the dog wants the paycheck. Consistent application of this principle and association of a command word, with repetition produces a mannerly dog that responds promptly and consistently.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Let's *Really* Talk

Adesdum. If I said that in a crowd of people, some might recognize it as Latin for “come here” but most would pass by without a clue. If I were in Latvia and spoke in English, I wouldn’t expect many to understand my native tongue. But in either situation, if I were to make eye contact and motion towards myself with my arm, at least some people would comply by approaching me. The words themselves have no inherent meaning. Meaning is ascribed after contextual clues cement the connection between the sound (word) and the object or action.

The key to training our dogs is to help them make that connection by establishing two-way communication. I’m always confounded by how many people think dogs should understand us without having been taught the meaning of the words. Dogs are remarkable students – they notice everything. It’s astounding what they learn, as much in spite of us as because of us. If we say “sit… sit… SIT!” before wrestling the dog into some semblance of that position, the dog, understandably, thinks the procedure is to listen to “sit… sit… SIT!” just prior to being strangled and shoved. No fun for either of you. Why not teach it that a single word, “Sit,” means put your butt on the ground?

One of the biggest impediments to clear communication with our canine companions is anthropomorphism - the projection of human characteristics onto our dogs. Accept that this creature you love is not a fur-person. Dogs are wondrous, beguiling, bewildering Others whose companionship we often take for granted, but whose wolfish DNA co-evolved alongside us, enabling them to understand our gestures, facial expressions, moods, voice tone. They occupy a separate world, overlapping our own but with rules, motivations, and goals that differ from ours. Find what motivates your dog, and you hold the key to a dog that will do back-flips (literally) to please you.

Remarkable things can happen if an owner is equipped with some basic understanding. A handful of key concepts can improve any human/dog relationship with minimal effort; regardless of breed or age, most dogs can be obedient & trustworthy canine citizens.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Know what you mean, say what you mean, mean what you say

“It’s me, I know it is.” I hear this lament frequently during private lessons, and I always smile and nod. Yes, problems with dog training invariably result from owner miscues, poor timing, and inattentiveness. But if this is you, you’ve got plenty of company. Good dog trainers aren’t born, they’re developed - like great scientists or artists or business execs, they’ve spent countless hours engrossed in their subject.

If you know what you want from your dog, you’ll get it. Success is as much about attitude as it is about technique, although flaws in either will sully the outcome. Communicating with your dog is so crucial to achieving any training goal that it bears repeating (and repeating). Grossly oversimplified, if you know what you expect from your dog, your dog will know it. No, it’s not a matter of aiming intense mental “vibes” towards your dog, or creating a “happy environment” so he’ll “want to" please you. It’s a matter of knowing what you expect, and being a leader. Dogs discern hierarchy, and if you don’t occupy the top tier, your dog will know and will behave accordingly. When a person tells me they’re not afraid of my dogs but my dogs tell me otherwise, I believe the dogs. Dogs don’t lie. People do, and they can fool themselves into believing their circumlocutions are truth.

My students usually don’t realize they’re deceiving themselves. When Student A comes for a lesson with Zeus, her love for him is obvious. His disrespect for her is even more obvious. He’s seven months old, puffed up with his own high opinion of himself which his adoring family’s doting attention reinforces, and exacerbated by lack of clear boundaries. When he behaves rudely (every two minutes or so) Student A engages in a conversation with him (“Mommy’s gonna hafta get after you, you bold boy you. Why won’t you listen to Mommy?”), which he attends to not at all unless she waves a cookie, at which point he treats her like a vending machine. She thinks she wants an attentive, compliant dog, but her body language and behavior says otherwise; so, Zeus gives her what she asks of him, which is a spoiled child-surrogate.

What we want and what we think we want are often vastly different. We want our dogs to know what they should do when we really haven’t decided for ourselves what a “good dog” acts like.

When Student B's dog Kitty jumped up on me, I asked if she’s allowed; Student B said, “Well, sometimes.” Sometimes doesn’t cut it for dogs. If you allow it, fine. If you don’t, don’t. Not once, not sometimes. Clarity, consistency, correction, praise - the vocabulary of training.