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BLOG POSTS BY Nicole Wilde

Do Some Dogs Need a Heavier Hand?

Mango Likes Soccer!

It never fails—someone always says it. In a recent online discussion about a trainer known for using less-than-gentle methods, someone made a comment that sounded a lot like this: “Positive training is fine for smaller dogs and puppies, and maybe even some adults, but there are some dogs that need a heavier hand.” Really? Because that sounds an awful lot like justification for jerking, yanking, shocking, and other things done to dogs in the name of training.

I’ve heard the excuse for heavy-handedness put like this: “They’re red zone dogs” (somehow that term always makes me visualize dogs with red, flashing sirens over their heads) or something similar. The term is used to categorize dogs who are severely aggressive. Often the trainer has been brought in as last-ditch effort before the dog is euthanized. In my years of working in canine training and behavior, I’ve had many clients with what would be termed “red zone” dogs. Lest you think I don’t fully comprehend the extreme aggression the term is meant to denote, one example from my own clientele is the 140-pound Alsatian who had put a hole through his owner’s hand. The owner, a 6-foot-tall police officer, had adopted the dog as an adult. The first week, the man went to grab a toy on the carpet at the same time as the dog did. This resulted in a hole that pierced the palm, through which daylight was clearly visible. The dog was also very aggressive toward strangers, and had severe aggression toward anyone on the other side of a barrier such as a chain link fence. I’m happy to report that with a course of kind, gentle training and behavior modification, and some beautiful follow-through on the part of the clients, all lived carefully but happily ever after. I could go on about successful outcomes with dogs like the Catahoula/chow mix who multiply puncture-wounded multiple people, and how gentle methods saved the day…but you get the idea. Many other trainers could tell you the same thing...

To read the rest of this blog on the Huffington Post, click here.

Nicole Wilde is an author and behavior specialist. You can visit her website, and find her on Facebook and Twitter



What you Don’t Know about Bloat can Kill your Dog

 How much do you know about canine bloat? It’s a life-threatening condition, and yet many dog owners don’t even know it exists. Bloat is also known as GDV, or gastro dilation and volvulus. Gastro dilation refers to the dog’s stomach filling with air or food, and expanding. Volvulus, which occurs as well in many cases, is where the stomach rotates, cutting off the blood supply. As the pressure inside the stomach builds, the tissue begins to die. That also affects the heart and lungs, and many dogs will begin to have trouble breathing, develop an abnormal heart rhythm, and go into shock. This is clearly an emergency condition; a dog can die in hours, or less. One little-known fact is that even after a dog pulls through surgery, he’s not out of the woods yet. Many post-operative complications can occur; many dogs die of heart arrhythmias in the week following surgery, so careful monitoring is key.

Some early warning signs of bloat are a hard, distended abdomen, abnormal restlessness or lethargy, drooling, heavy panting, dry heaves, and pale gums. But when my soul dog Mojo bloated at the age of 14, he had abnormal warning signs. He was restless, a normal sign of trouble, but he also began to vomit white foam. No one had ever mentioned white foam in regard to bloat. I thought hmm, he wouldn’t be bringing anything at all up if it was bloat…still, my Mom radar caused me to rush him to the emergency clinic. Sure enough, it was bloat. Regardless of the traditional warning signs, if your dog is acting strangely and you believe something may be wrong—even if you just “have a feeling”—bring him in to vet. Mojo, by the way, recovered and went on to live for another six loving, tummy rub-filled months.

Although large, deep-chested dogs are the prime candidates for bloat (think Danes, Dobermans, Standard Poodles, Boxers, among others), it can happen to any dog. Years ago, it was thought that elevating a dog’s food dish would prevent bloat. Many owners of Great Danes, a bloat-prone breed, followed this advice. Unfortunately, it wasn’t true. We now know that elevating a dog’s food dish may, in fact, increase the chances of bloat. It is also now believed that feeding two meals a day rather than one can help to decrease the chances of bloat.

As bloat can be caused by great amounts of air in the stomach (among other things), food-gulping can be to blame. If your dog inhales his food, there are various ways to address the problem:

1. Feed in a bowl such as the Brake-Fast bowl that has built-in obstructions to slow your dog down. Alternately, place a large object such as a ball or toy (too big for your dog to swallow) in the middle of the bowl, and pour the food around it. It will take some time for your dog to eat around the object.

2. If you feed dry kibble, do the Kibble Toss: measure out the kibble, but instead of putting it in a dish, fling it far and wide! You can do this in your back yard or your living room. (If you have multiple dogs who fight over food, separate them first.) As a dog trainer who recommends the Kibble Toss regularly to my clients, I can tell you that dogs absolutely love it. Even picky dogs become involved in sniffing out the tasty tidbits, and a gulp-fest is avoided.

3. Feed the meal in a kibble-dispensing toy such as the Atomic Treat Ball, Kong Wobbler, or Dog Pyramid, or pack it into a Kong, using a bit of healthful wet food or other mortar. You can even freeze the Kong so it takes  longer to excavate. The added benefit is that mealtime quickly becomes “getting some of that crazy energy out” time.

The good news about bloat, as reported in a recent CNN article, is that “Twenty years ago, the survival rate was 25 percent”…but “With surgery and care, especially if treated early, about 80 percent do pretty well.” Let's all spread the word and help save a life.

Exercise Your Creativity

Let me start off by saying that neither my husband nor myself are athletes, or even what you would consider “spring chickens.” In fact, the AARP seems to have recently taken a real interest in us. (Retired? What’s that?) And yet we have two young, energetic northern breed mixes who came complete with serious exercise needs. So how do we handle it?

My husband works full-time outside the home, while my schedule is more flexible. Each morning before he leaves for work, my husband takes one of our dogs out for exercise. During non-rattlesnake season (the winter months), he’ll take either Bodhi or Sierra hiking up in the mountains behind our house. This has resulted in his four-footed personal trainers getting him in better shape than he’s been in years. As he’s navigating the trails, I have the other dog out at a local park, exploring, sniffing, and walking for a few miles. As often as possible, on the weekends we engage in “urban mushing,” which entails hitching the dogs to a one-person scooter they pull on a level dirt trail. It’s incredibly fun for the dogs and for us. Still, we’re always looking for new and creative ways to exercise our fur-kids. Since so many dogs are under-exercised (which, of course, leads to less than desirable behavior), I’d like to share a few thoughts.

We’re all multi-tasking twenty-four/seven, yada yada yada…you know the situation. But if I could wave a magic wand (we trainers all have them, you know) and give you a few days worth of what life would be like with your dogs if they had truly adequate exercise, you’d be super motivated to keep providing it. But with limited time, how can you realistically provide enough exercise? Well, most people already find the time to squeeze in a daily walk or two. For many these are “potty walks,” meaning fifteen minutes or so in the morning before and after work. The dog eliminates and the walk is over. (Tip: many dogs learn that pottying ends the walk, and it then takes them longer and longer to go. To avoid this, allow at least a few minutes of walking after your dog eliminates before turning back toward home.) Get up fifteen minutes earlier so your morning walk is now half an hour long. (If you can swing forty-five minutes or an hour, even better.) If your dog is fit and has no physical issues, add a doggy backpack. Do your research and buy one that is comfortable and fits well. Start off very light. As your dog gets accustomed to the feel and the weight, you can add a bit more weight. (Manufacturers and your vet should be able to provide guidelines.) Small water bottles make it easy to manipulate the load. Most dogs become accustomed to backpacks very quickly, and the nice thing is that you are not spending any more time than you usually would on your walk, yet there is more exertion required by your dog.

If you bicycle, you’ve got a great, fun way to provide exercise. There are a number of attachments that will allow you to fast-walk or run your dog next to your bike, including the Springer and the Walky Dog. The bicycle should be introduced carefully by allowing your dog to walk next to it first. Offer treats if necessary. Once your dog is comfortable, start with short distances, and choose dirt tracks as opposed to pavement whenever possible, as it will be easier on your dog’s joints and paw pads. The nice thing about the attachments is that they absorb shock so that if your dog pulls, you won’t get pulled off the bike. There is also “bikejoring,” where your dog is out in front of the bike pulling. Google it for details.

Another pulling sport is mushing, on snow if you get adequate coverage in your area,  and urban mushing if you’re pretty much snowless, like we are here in southern California. Your dog needn’t be a typical northern breed to participate—Labs and other breeds can pull as well. An online search will turn up instructions, discussions, and groups in your area. Strong, heavily muscled dogs can even participate in tire pulls and other weight-pulling sports.

Now, if you have a Chihuahua, pulling heavy objects is probably not going to be in your future. But there are plenty of ways to exercise smaller or less athletic dogs. Even on a normal walk, smaller dogs and those with shorter legs are working twice as hard to cover as much ground as larger dogs, so you’re already halfway there. Typical play such as chasing a ball or running off-leash in an enclosed area may be perfectly adequate to wear your dog out, but if you are unable to provide that sort of exercise (and unable to hire someone else to do it), and/or are house-bound, try the Chase N’ Pull tug toy. It resembles a fishing pole with a furred squeaky toy on the end. You get to sit in a nice, comfy chair as you cast the toy from side to side while your little fur-ball happily chases after it. Speaking of furred squeaky toys, playing tug is another nice way to burn off some of that canine energy, whether by using a plush toy made for the game, or a rope tug.

Whether your dog is large or small, young or old, training sessions are an excellent way to provide exertion. You may not think of training as exercise, but put it this way: what would make you more tired, taking a thirty-minute walk or a half hour of balancing a seriously unbalanced checkbook? (I know from experience which one would make my head explode.) Mental stimulation is tiring, so make the most of it: Training sessions, interactive toys such as Kongs that have to be unstuffed, puzzle toys such as the Nina Ottoson toys…the choices are virtually limitless nowadays, and it just takes some trial and error to find what works best with your dog.

There are so many more options for exercise than I’ve listed here, but I hope it’s given you food for thought, and motivated you to try some new things with your dog. It’s worth the effort. Being well exercised translates to better behavior, which will make you happier as well. And who knows, your personal trainer might just end up getting you both into great shape!

* The amount of exercise your dog needs depends on age, breed, health, and activity level. Consult with your vet before starting any canine exercise program.

The Challenge of Separation Anxiety

Canine behavior specialists deal with fear issues, aggression issues, and everything in between. Most would agree, however, that separation anxiety can be one of the most difficult behavior problems to solve. Not only do separation issues present in challenging ways and sometimes to a severe degree, but the success of any rehabilitation program depends largely on the commitment of the owner to make lifestyle changes as necessary, and to persevere through what may be a long-term project.

Although I have always had compassion for my training clients and what they were going through, my empathy reached new levels when we adopted Sierra. A beautiful eighteen-month-old husky-keeshond mix, Sierra had been impounded at a county shelter in the desert four times before we adopted her. She’d been brought in as a stray, and once we got her home, the reason became apparent: she had a serious case of separation anxiety, combined with the talents of Houdini. It was easy to imagine her missing her owners and then jumping the fence or digging out to go find them.

Our fencing went from six-foot chain link to eight-foot with overhangs. I patiently went through all the steps I advise my training clients to take. Some helped and some did not, as Sierra’s case was different and challenging in more ways than I can go into here. Suffice it to say that I had to become creative, to find new tools and to put together new behavior protocols. Those ideas, along with my newfound awareness of what it was like to live twenty-four seven with a dog with this issue, led me to write Don’t Leave Me! Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety. I wanted to create a comprehensive, interactive workbook that was based on the latest scientific research and sound behavioral principles, that would allow owners to customize a program for their dogs much as consult with a behavior specialist would do.  I decided to include stories from other trainers as well—the fabulous Victoria Stilwell among them—to show how real-life cases were solved. The solutions were sometimes creative, sometimes more obvious, but the stories were fascinating and even included one dog whose separation anxiety was so bad, the owner came home and found her on a third-story ledge!

My fondest hope is that the book will be helpful to people whose dogs have separation issues, not only because the dogs are suffering, but because owners are suffering as well. If you have a dog with separation anxiety, read the book, work with a trainer one on one (the Association of Pet Dog Trainers website’s Trainer Search is a good place to start), and above all, have patience. It can be a long journey, but your most powerful tool is your love for and commitment to your dog, who is, after all, worth every bit of effort.

Don’t Take Their Word for It

Picture this: you’re walking your dog at the park when you spot another dog and owner coming toward you. There’s something about the dog that gives you pause. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but that little inner voice is saying, “This is not a dog you want your dog to greet.” As you near each other, the dog strains toward yours. The owner calls out, “It’s okay, he’s friendly.” Who should you believe? The well-meaning owner, or that little voice in your head? The latter is always right.

All too often, we take the word of other dog owners as to how their dogs will behave. Most owners don’t purposely deceive others, but they may not have a realistic view of their own dog’s behavior or potential for aggression. Whether at the off-leash dog park, out for a stroll, or anywhere else in public, you must be an advocate for your dog. Regardless of what anyone says, if you feel a situation is unsafe, remove your dog as quickly and calmly as possible.

Sometimes the problem doesn’t involve ignoring someone else’s opinion, but having them heed yours. Just this morning I had Bodhi, our two-months-out-of-the-shelter husky mix out for a walk at the park. There’s a group of people who walk their dogs together off-leash in the mornings, and I recognized the older man heading back to his car with his Boston Terrier. The man is very friendly, and delights in feeding treats to other people’s dogs. But Bodhi is somewhat reactive toward other dogs while on-leash, and is definitely food possessive. When the man called out to ask if he could come over and give Bodhi a treat, I said I’d rather he didn’t, since Bodhi isn’t very dog-friendly. Undeterred, the man said, “Oh, I’ll just toss one to him then.” I quickly told him not to, since his dog was off-leash and would most likely run after the treat, but it was too late—with a cavalier, “It’ll be fine!” he tossed the treat toward Bodhi. As predicted, the little Boston went racing after it. Fortunately, the treat landed a few feet from us, so when Bodhi lunged for the dog I was able to stop him.

Why didn’t the nice man listen when I told him not to toss the treat, or that Bodhi was not dog-friendly? Why do some owners say their dogs are fine with other dogs when they’re clearly not? In the end, why doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that we are guardian enough to our dogs to chance social ostracism in order to protect them. Be courteous and friendly with other dog owners, but when it comes to questionable canine behavior, don’t take their word for it.
- Nicole Wilde, author Help for Your Fearful Dog

The Perfect Storm

“I can’t believe he snapped at that dog!”

“She nipped me. She’s never done that before!”

These exclamations come from owners of dogs who had never before acted in an aggressive manner. What caused these dogs to act out in such a way? Many things can cause dogs to become reactive, of course, but in these cases, it was a convergence of circumstances—the perfect storm.

There are myriad situations and factors that cause dogs stress. A visit to the veterinarian might leave a dog feeling less than playful. Having unfamiliar visitors in the house causes many dogs to feel nervous and out of sorts. Even missing the usual morning exercise routine can leave some pooches keyed up and a bit grumpy.

Consider the specific situations where your dog might display low-level aggressive behavior. For example, your dog tends to hover over a bully stick and growl when you come near, although he will not bite. Or, your dog gets a bit territorial toward your other dog while lying on your bed or on the couch, whereas relaxing on his own bed causes no issues.

Now imagine a day where a few of those circumstances come together. You have a vet appointment at 9 a.m., so your dog misses his morning exercise. The exam is a bit stressful, so he’s out of sorts when he returns home. His morning meal has been delayed. He eats, and then two hours later, you give your dog a bully stick. A few minutes later, you think, It might be nice for me to add a dab of peanut butter to it; after all, he’s had a rough day. You go to grab for the bully stick, and fast as lightning, teeth close around your hand. Under normal circumstances, your dog would never have bitten, but these weren’t normal circumstances.

Another scenario that might involve multiple, low-level, reactivity-provoking scenarios that converge might be a dog not feeling his best, combined with chewing a coveted item in an area where he is more likely to be territorial. In this type of situation he might go after the other dog in the house, when he normally never would, had all of these factors not been in perfect alignment.

Take some time to think about what the key components of the perfect storm might be for your dog, so you can avoid one. And the next time an incident occurs where you’d never have expected that type of aggressive behavior, think about whether it might be the result of a perfect storm. If it was, it will help for you to better understand why it happened, and not to suddenly regard your trusted fur kid as unpredictable or having turned into an aggressive dog.

Practice Makes Perfect–Aggression, That Is

Sierra and I had a pleasant play date at the park this morning with a friend and her adorable Corgi. We arrived early and had the place to ourselves, as is our habit, but after thirty minutes, other dogs began to arrive. Sierra loves to play. She was soon happily racing around with an Australian Shepherd, and then wrestling with a Lab puppy. The Corgi, however, loves to get in other dogs’ faces and bark, particularly when they are engaged in play with their buddies. As you might imagine, this sometimes has the unfortunate effect of escalating the playing dogs’ arousal, somewhat like schoolyard kids chanting, “Fight! Fight!” On this occasion, the Corgi even snapped at one of the other dogs, and a fight ensued.

I suggested we leave the park and instead walk around the larger outer maze of pathways. As we strolled, my friend asked whether I thought her dog’s behavior would improve with time. He’s two now, and I told her that simply exposing him to the other dogs in an unstructured environment over and over would probably result in the opposite of what she’s hoping for—he’ll get better at what he’s doing, given that he’s getting so much practice.

There are many owners who don’t realize that aggressive behavior is not something that can be fixed simply through habituation. I know, because I see them at the dog park. Some of the dogs are even muzzled! The owners obviously realize the dogs are aggressive, but they figure as long as the dog can’t actually hurt another dog, it’s fine. What’s not so fine is that the muzzled dog is left defenseless if another dog attacks; because he feels vulnerable, he may actually take the offense; and besides, a muzzled dog can still cause some damage.

I told my friend that she’d be better off sticking to walks, and skipping the off-leash park entirely. She asked if there was any other alternative. I told her that if she absolutely insisted on taking him to off-leash dog parks, she needs to first instill a rock solid attention cue, where anytime she calls his name he looks at her, regardless of distractions. A reliable recall is also crucial. In a large enough park, at least with those skills in place she could keep him away from potential problems. Working on the barking issue is another must, and a solid “leave it” wouldn’t hurt, either. Still, the dog should not be off-leash around other dogs at this point.

Most canine aggression starts off fairly mild, and worsens over time. Dogs who start out by growling or hard staring may begin to air snap and lunge, and eventually, make contact. Giving them an arena to practice and get better at those behaviors is irresponsible; the wiser course is to admit there’s a problem and work through the steps to fix it, preferably with professional assistance.

Environmental Cues

In the late 1970s, I was living in Brooklyn, New York. Most weekends I could be found at a rock club called L’Amours, which featured local bands. Between sets, customers would mingle and have a few drinks. Each time a band was about to play, the management would broadcast a song that began, “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends, we’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside.” As soon as the song began, people would start moving toward the stage, angling for a prime viewing spot. There weren’t any signs posted that said, “When you hear that song by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, run to the stage!” We had simply become conditioned through the repetitive pairing of the song with the beginning of the next set.

How does this relate to dog training? For your dog, your life together is the “show that never ends,” with subtle environmental signals being broadcast all day long. A leash being brought out means a walk is imminent; the doorbell ringing signals that visitors are present. While environmental signals happen all the time, they can also be used deliberately to your advantage.

Environmental cues mean that the instructions to do something come from the environment, rather than directly from you. Here’s an example of how to put them to use: When visitors ring the doorbell, dogs typically bark and run to the door. Most owners, however, prefer that their dogs move away from the door, thank you very much! A “Go to your place” cue, meaning your dog should go to a mat or bed placed away from the door and down-stay until further notice, should first be taught. Once your dog has learned that, begin pairing it with the environmental cue—in this case, the doorbell. Ring the doorbell, then immediately follow it with the verbal cue and/or hand signal you’ve taught for “Go to your place.” Bell, cue, place. Bell, cue, place. With practice, your dog will begin to anticipate that the sound of the doorbell means you’re going to tell him to go to his place, and he won’t wait for your cue—he’ll just go to his bed whenever the doorbell rings.

Environmental cues can be used to solve a variety of behavior problems. If you have a dog who grabs things off the kitchen counter, even when you’re standing right there, you could teach her that your placing something on the counter is her cue to go lie down. Again, the order of events would be placing an item on the counter, followed by your cue to go lie down. Very soon your dog would lie down each time you placed something on the kitchen counter.

Think about the behaviors you’d like your dog to stop doing, and what you’d like him to do instead. Perhaps you’d like him to lie down when your family is eating a meal; in that case, placing the plates on the table could be his cue to go lie on his bed. The possibilities are unlimited. How will you make use of environmental cues?

Should Dog Trainers Offer Guarantees?

When I was a kid growing up in New York, I had a friend who hated her nose. Her parents eventually agreed to allow her to have a rhinoplasty—a “nose job.” After careful research and consultations with various plastic surgeons, they settled on one who guaranteed that if they didn’t like the results, he would modify it again, free of charge. Armed with this assurance, they moved forward. As it turned out, my friend did not like the results. In fact, she hated them. As promised, the second surgery was performed free of charge. Unfortunately, it yielded results no better than the first. My friend was not any closer to having the straight, narrow nose she’d envisioned, and although I would never have said so, it now looked downright odd. It took a third surgery, performed by another surgeon, to get it right.

The problem here was…well, as plain as the nose on her face. The initial surgeon lacked the skills to perform the job correctly. This begs the question, what good is a guarantee of further services if the provider is not skilled enough to get it right the first time? Let’s say a dog training company guarantees results. They even go so far as to state that they will fix your dog’s problems in one session; if not, they will keep coming back until the problem is resolved. Is this a good bargain, especially if the first session is very expensive? Doesn’t the very premise of this “quick fix” structure belie a lack of understanding of the time required to change certain canine behaviors, especially ones that are intense or have been ingrained?

Keep in mind that we're talking about private lessons here, not group classes. Sure, there are basic skills that can be taught quickly and minor behavior issues that can be resolved in one session. But in most cases, trainers promising immediate results for major problems like aggression are using punitive methods. That instant cure may look like a miracle, but there is fallout from the use of punishment—it only suppresses behavior, rather than addressing the underlying problem. And, the owner may not get the same results when attempting to do what the trainer did; people have been known to be bitten that way. Besides, do you really want to treat your dog harshly, and potentially even lose his trust? Of course not.

If you were having a plumber fix your sink, it would be reasonable to expect a guarantee that the problem would be fixed within a specific time frame, at a specified cost. But when dealing with dogs and humans, behavior cannot be guaranteed. Should a dog who has an excellent, rock-solid recall, for example, be expected to come to you immediately when called 100% of the time? No. Dogs aren’t robots. Should you expect the dog to comply a very high percentage of that time? Sure. But perhaps one day Buddy isn’t feeling well, or there’s an unusually intense distraction in the area. Real life happens, regardless of how much work we put in and how well we train.

Then there’s the human end of the behavior equation, which can be guaranteed even less than the dog’s. Once a trainer has completed a training session, it’s up to the owner to continue to practice. We all know how hectic life gets, and sometimes in that multitasking frenzy, things fall through the cracks. Trainers returning for follow-up visits have heard, “I didn’t have time to practice with my dog” more times than we’d like to count. But again, there goes the guarantee. We must also account for handler error on the part of the owner, who is, after all, learning new skills along with the dog. If the person doesn’t lure the dog with the food treat in the correct manner to achieve a sit or down, or doesn’t properly manage the dog who jumps on visitors, it negates the chance for the skill to be taught or the problem to be solved, no matter how good a job the trainer did.

The truth is, finding a trainer who is experienced, personable, and uses positive, gentle methods is more important than a guarantee of a quick fix. Any ethical trainer will strive to work with you until your dog’s problems are solved, no price gauging involved. If you cooperate with the trainer and put in the time and effort to practice with your dog in a kind, consistent manner, not only will new skills be learned and behavior problems solved, but you will also be strengthening the bond between you. And that’s a guarantee.

Be Careful What You Reward

It’s no secret that dogs do what works. If a dog receives a treat or other valuable reward each time he lies quietly on his bed, he’s likely to lie there more often. Most dog owners would agree, “that which is rewarded is likely to occur more frequently.” And yet, as a trainer, I often see owners inadvertently rewarding dogs for the very behaviors they want to diminish.

One common scenario occurs when an owner attempts to redirect a dog. Let’s say the dog is chewing at the fringes of a rug. The owner interrupts with a sharp, “No!” or a clap of the hands. The dog, startled, stops momentarily. Of course, if the dog is not redirected to another activity, he is likely to resume chewing. Many owners, at this point, offer an alternate chew item to keep the dog busy—a good tactic! However, if the item is offered directly after the dog stops chewing the rug, many dogs will piece together that chewing on the rug earns a great, yummy chewie! The solution is to add an intermediary step. Interrupt the chewing, then stand at least a few feet away and call your dog to you. When he comes, ask him to perform a simple behavior he already knows, such as sit or lie down. When he complies, reward him with praise and the chew item. You’ve now rewarded your dog for the sit or the down, not for chewing on the rug.

Sometimes people reward dogs for unwanted behavior without even realizing it. More than a few times, I’ve listened to an owner complain that she doesn’t want her dog jumping on her or putting his paws on her. As I’m listening, the dog has both front paws placed on her lap, and she’s absently stroking him! Petting is rewarding. So is lifting a small dog into your lap when he paws at you. For that matter, so is any type of attention. For example, your dog jumps on you. You look at him, and tell him sternly to stop. Perhaps you even push him away. The problem is that you’ve just rewarded him with your attention—looking at or talking to a dog is giving attention. Pushing or shoving, for many dogs, is even more rewarding—it’s a great game! A better solution is the complete removal of attention: Turn to the side, fold your arms, and absolutely ignore the dog until he either sits (don’t cue him; if he knows sit he’ll probably do it on his own) or has four paws on the floor. Give him a few seconds, and then turn and offer calm praise and petting.

A particular type of attention that is rewarding to dogs, but most people don’t consider, are smiling or laughing. When our dog Mojo was a puppy, he had a habit of belching. Seeing this adorable fur-ball belch sent my husband and I into helpless gales of laughter. Apparently this made an impression on Mojo, who, when he became a 120-pound dog, thought it was the height of cuteness to put his face right up to one of ours and release a huge belch. Not so cute.

Whenever your dog is engaged in an unwanted behavior, think about how he’s getting rewarded for it. If the reward is coming from you, it’s time for a bit of human behavior modification. You can give your dog plenty of affection, treats, and play; just be careful what you reward!

Is Punishment Really a Quick Fix?

I’ve just gotten off the phone with a distressed dog owner. His year-old beagle has recently taken to barking at other dogs and people on walks, and has a long-standing habit of barking in the yard when left alone. After a bit of discussion, the man divulged that the dog had been wearing a shock collar night and day for the last two weeks. This suggestion came courtesy of the clerk at his local chain pet supply store who sold him the collar. The kindly, soft-spoken owner was not comfortable shocking his dog, and cringed each time he heard the beagle yelp in surprise and pain. I was able to convince him during our phone conversation to remove the collar, and we set up an in-person session to help him address the dog’s issues in a gentle, humane way.

I haven’t yet met a person who wants to cause their dog pain. And yet many owners turn to shock collars (also known as electronic collars or e-collars) and other “quick fix” methods such as harsh jerking with a choke chain or prong collar to stop unwanted behaviors. Some make these choices because they simply don’t know what else to do, and a solution is needed—yesterday! Others, like my caller, have received advice from a well-meaning layperson, or even a professional dog trainer or veterinarian who is either unfamiliar with other methods or chooses not to use them.

The problems with using punishments such as electric shock, jerking, slapping, and kicking are many. First, although the correction may appear to instantly solve the problem, it simply suppresses the behavior. Let’s say we’re friends. We like and trust each other, and enjoy spending time together. However, I have a habit of biting my fingernails, which you find incredibly annoying; so annoying, in fact, that you decide to take decisive action. The next time I bite my nails, whack! You slap me hard across the face. It stops me in my tracks! But what else did that instant fix accomplish? For one thing, I’m now beginning to suspect that you can’t be trusted. I’m not sure why you slapped me (I wasn’t even aware I was biting my nails at the time), and, as far as I can tell, you might reach out and strike me again at any time. Let’s say you repeat this punishment another time or two. Now I most definitely distrust you! Although you’re nice to me at other times, I no longer feel the same affection for you as I once did, and I certainly no longer look upon you as someone who will keep me safe if trouble arises. My safe harbor has turned into a scary, unpredictable place.

Putting the emotional aspect aside for a moment, lets examine whether the punishment actually solved the problem. Although the slap stopped me at the moment I was engaging in the unwanted behavior, the issue of what caused me to chew at my nails in the first place remains. The continuing existence of that unresolved original problem increases the likelihood that I will continue the behavior, albeit possibly only when you’re absent. Perhaps underlying the nail chewing is a case of nerves and stress caused by something in my environment, or a lack of ease or familiarity with certain types of people or situations I’m now encountering. Your slapping raised my stress levels. I didn’t dare retaliate physically, but my suppressed frustration and anger may end up being taken out on someone I perceive as weaker. With dogs, this dynamic is often seen when the man of the family uses harsh physical coercion or punishment with the dog, who in turn begins snapping at the wife or children.

There’s also the problem of association. Going back to the shock collar, imagine that the dog sees another dog on the street, barks, and receives a shock. Because dogs associate things that happen within seconds of each other (remember Pavlov’s dog?), the dog soon begins to associate what he’s seeing at the time of the shock—in this case, other dogs—with the experience of pain. The result is apt to be a dog who nervously scans the environment, apprehensive of the pain that will accompany the appearance of another dog. That dog may soon begin to take the offense, lunging and barking at other dogs—and the cycle begins again.

Association can happen unbeknownst to us, as well. For example, the dog who barks in the yard when no one is home may be barking at passersby. If he receives a shock each time, the pairing is creating a negative association with people—a bigger issue than the original problem of nuisance barking!

There are other reasons why harsh punishment is inadvisable, from dangerously malfunctioning equipment to poor timing on the handler’s part causing unwanted associations. The bottom line is this: There is no earthly reason to use harsh punishment-based methods to fix behavior problems, when there are gentle, positive methods that work. These techniques work just as well—and often better—and do not create behavioral or emotional fallout. If you change the dog’s underlying emotion to the point that he views other dogs and people as a positive thing, the dog’s behavior will change and the problem will truly be solved. It may take a bit more patience and effort to implement a behavior modification program versus choosing a quick fix, but it’s well worth it. In doing so you will solve the real problem once and for all, and receive a pretty wonderful reward yourself—your dog’s ongoing trust and affection.

Extinction: Bad for Dinosaurs, Good for Canine Behavior

The dictionary offers a few definitions for the word “extinction.” The first is, “the death or ceasing to exist of all members of a species or family of organisms.” That describes what happened to our hapless prehistoric friends. The one that applies to canine behavior is, “the decreasing or dying out of a behavioral response created by conditioning because of a lack of reinforcement.”

Forget the technical jargon—let’s use a real life example. You have a dog who jumps on visitors. This elicits a different response depending on the person. Your grandmother waves her hands while exclaiming, “Shoo! Off!” Your next-door neighbor, a mom of three, looks your dog in the eye, smiles, and says, “Come on now, you know better than that.” Your girlfriend pets your dog as his paws rest on her waist. And your brother shoves your dog down while saying, “Get down!” Depending on the dog, each and every one of those responses can be rewarding.

Dogs jump on us to get our attention. Attention means looking at a dog, talking to a dog, or interacting with a dog. Each of the examples above involves at least one of those things. Grandma probably won’t fare well because dogs are easily excited by arm waving (this is why many dogs who nip at children become even more nippy when children respond by flailing about). Your neighbor rewarded your dog by looking at him, smiling, and talking to him. Petting the dog while he’s jumping is an obvious reward. And your brother’s shoving at the dog’s chest can be reinforcing too, assuming the dog likes to roughhouse. So now we have “a behavioral response created by conditioning.” In other words, that which has been rewarded—the jumping—is more likely to happen again.

Extinction in this case means the jumping will stop because the dog no longer receives a reward when he jumps. So how do you apply the extinction principle? By ignoring your dog. The next time your dog jumps, remove the very thing he wants—your attention. Turn to the side, fold your arms, and refrain from looking at or talking to him. If your dog has learned that sitting earns all sorts of good things, he may offer a sit. At the least, unless he’s levitating (which is beyond the scope of this article!), he’ll eventually have four paws on the ground. Once he does, after a few seconds, turn and calmly offer some calm attention. The jumping behavior will soon extinguish because it’s not being rewarded, and at the same time, your dog will learn that sitting or four-on-the-floor earns your attention.

Something that should be mentioned is the “extinction burst.” If a bid for attention has been successful in the past, and now fails, a dog may up the ante before giving up. It’s like the child who seeks his mother’s attention while she’s on the phone. “Mom?” Nothing. Louder: “Mom?” Still nothing. If the mother continues to ignore the child, before giving up, he may increase the intensity of his attempt, for example, by screaming and/or pulling at her clothing. If the tantrum is ignored, the child will give up. Likewise, a dog who is no longer rewarded for jumping may, before ceasing the behavior, increase its intensity by jumping more frantically and/or mouthing at the person. If the person continues to ignore the behavior, it will stop.

Extinction is not the solution for every dog, nor every behavior. There are dogs who jump and mouth so aggressively that ignoring them is simply not an option. And if a dog is engaging in an unwanted behavior—chewing the garden hose for example—ignoring him is not going to accomplish anything. Extinction is, however, a good solution for attention-seeking behaviors, so don’t ignore it!



April 22, 2014

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