Category Archives: Dog nerds

Setting ’em up for success

We often talk about it, setting the learner up for success…but what does it mean?

Traditionally, we think of ‘training’ as being about barking out “commands” and showing ’em who’s boss but now that we have a better understanding of animal behaviour and learning, that approach is redundant.

Behaviour is in the environment

That’s another one we say a lot: behaviour is in the environment, not in the dog. Behaviour doesn’t happen in isolation; your dog does behaviour in certain conditions. These are the Whens and Whys of behaviour.

When does your dog do a behaviour (any behaviour)?
Who’s present? What’s just happened? Where are you? What have you just done? Any and all of those things might cause or trigger behaviour.

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Why does your dog do a behaviour (any behaviour)?
What does your dog get after a behaviour? What does your dog get away from after a behaviour? Any and all of those things might be the reason he does it.

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Behaviour happens in certain conditions for certain outcomes. Dogs do behaviours that work!

Teaching our dogs involves us setting up the whens and whys so they are less likely to do unwanted behaviour and to make it easier for them to behaviours we like. That’s setting them up for success!

Your dog’s behaviour is information

Unwanted behaviour, for the most part, is normal dog behaviour. We’ve generally put our dog in a situation that makes inappropriate behaviour happen.
We haven’t set them up for success.

That means our dog’s behaviour, whether appropriate or not, is information about how well they are able for that situation. Training gives your dogs the coping skills (behaviours) needed to deal with the environmental situations we put them in.

Your dog’s behaviour in a situation, gives you information about how well you have prepared them, or not.

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Puppy Party

Follow the progress of Bonnie’s babies on our Facebook page. We have been working with these six puppies who were born while their mum was in the care of A Dog’s Life. Bonnie’s babies, and Bonnie their mum, have been in a wonderful foster home, learning about life in the human world and getting ready for going to their new families.

At about 6.5 weeks of age, they came for a puppy party with a community petcare course I was delivering. This was their first big outing, away from their home and away from their mum. A BIG challenge for such young puppies that meant a longer car journey, crate confinement, a new place, lots of new people and all new sensory overload.

No such thing as “bad” behaviour

Living with humans, for dogs, is tough. We have made arbitrary rules about what behaviour is acceptable or not. Dogs are born with a ton of in-built behaviours that humans, for the most part, don’t like. We humans have come up with all sorts of inventive and aversive means to suppress this unwanted dog behaviour under the guise of asserting that we are in charge and attempting to mould them to conform to our preferences.

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You would expect that bringing six young puppies to a school environment would cause all sorts of chaos and put them in situations that allow for lots of mischief that people find inappropriate, and we might not want them to practice.

This is where setting them up for success comes in…

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Knowing all this means it’s my responsibility to help them cope. At just over six weeks, we can’t really expect these puppies to have many skills, but we have been preparing them by bringing them on short car trips, spending some time in crate confinement, meeting lots of new people and spending time away from their mum.

Training and appropriate exposure helps to set the scene and set them up for success by adjusting the picture so each puppy is better able to choose appropriate behaviour.

Behaviours of concern: distress related behaviour while confined in their crate during the journey there such as vocalisation, attempts to escape, squabbling with siblings

Whens: in the car, longer duration of confinement, intermittent stopping and starting in rush-hour traffic

Whys: frustration at being confined, wanting to move about, wanting to move away from siblings, wanting comfort or contact with human, needing to toilet, hunger

Setting them up for success: 

  • puppies were brought to an area where they toilet before travelling
  • puppies were brought to an area where they play before travelling so they were just getting ready to sleep as we left
  • puppies were given their breakfast shortly before the opportunity to toilet
  • I set the crate up in the car before bringing them out – the crate was lined with puppy pads so it wasn’t too slippy and was absorbent
  • one of may favourite puppy hacks is to smear the walls of the inside of the crate with something really yummy and irresistible
  • then I turn on the heat in the car, play classical music and we all bask in the calm!

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Behaviours of concern: toileting every where, hiding or escaping, chewing stuff, getting in the way, being distressed in a new place and without mum

Whens: in a new place, without their mum, access to lots of space, after a period of confinement

Whys: exploration, having fun, reunite with mum, to toilet

Setting them up for success:

  • get set up before they come in
  • cordon off an area of the room securely and safely, away from the door, so people can come in and out easily without disturbing the puppies
  • set up a blanket and toys from home that will smell like mum and familiarity
  • have newspaper and puppy pads on the floor
  • lots of places to hide
  • plenty of novel objects too
  • high value chews and loaded snuffle mat to engage with as soon as they arrive, that will keep them busy while they take it all in and will help with calming
  • having more chews, food and toys available than there are puppies – this reduces competition

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Behaviours of concern: behaviour associated with feeling overwhelmed at the new place and new people

Whens: once they arrive and are brought in

Whys: it’s all new and lots of new experiences lumped one on top of another can be pretty stressful

Setting them up for success: 

  • getting everything ready before bringing the puppies in
  • allowing them plenty of time to settle and find their feet before all the new people arrive
  • giving them time to choose how and when they interact with the environment and the people
  • no luring or looming from the class attendees
  • allowing the puppies to choose

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By the time puppies had explored and chewed, toileted and played, they were ready for another nap so were pretty sleepy when everyone began to arrive, and soon nodded off.

Behaviours of concern: vocalising, biting, chewing, jumping up, making strange and hiding

Whens: all the people are present, new place and new people, just woken up

Whys: experiencing distress or startle, to escape social interaction, hungry and wanting food, to toilet or to sleep

Setting them up for success: 

  • allowing them to wake naturally
  • having food and space to toilet available immediately upon waking
  • more stuffed Kongs than puppies
  • having attendees sit back and allow puppies to choose to interact
  • no picking up the puppies
  • giving clear instruction
  • teaching attendees how to interact (rather than emphasising how not to) and providing them with new skills and awareness
  • allowing puppies to choose how and when they engage and interact

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The puppies had a great time with minimal stress for everyone. We had peaceful car journeys, they coped amazingly well with being in a new and weird environment, they were friendly and outgoing with everyone and then slept all the way home!

Bonnie’s babies are ten weeks next Thursday and will be getting their second vaccination. By the weekend they will be ready to go to their homes. If you would like to add a fantastic companion to your family, get in touch with A Dog’s Life.

 

How can you set your dog up for success?
What the behaviours you might be concerned about? What are the relevant whens and whys?
How can you prepare your dog with behaviours for coping and how can you adjust the picture so it’s easy for them to choose appropriate behaviour?

To the extreme

Reading my social media feeds this week, you would think that the only way to train a dog is NEVER with this tool or ONLY with this tool, to ONLY feed this diet because this diet KILLS dogs, to NEVER allow your dog carry out this behaviour, ONLY get dogs from this source…and so on and on.

I understand that social media, as a communication tool, facilitates this polarisation, but as professionals, surely we have responsibilities in recognising and understanding the nuances in human-dog interactions.

We espouse “science” and “evidence” bases but yet commit science- sins of absolutism and declarations of ‘fact’ and ‘proof’ based in anecdote and bias.

The bottom line is that dogs and humans have been together, in one way or another, for many tens of thousands of years (if not longer). Both humans and dogs are complex social creatures, who bring lots of variability and flexibility to the table. Dogs are super-dooper adaptable, which is a feature that has probably allowed them to develop such close and intense relationships with us.

My clients are, for the most part, regular pet owners. They have busy lives, to which their dog is an addition, and their pet must slot in. My job is to help them help their dog to do that.
In essence, what I am doing is helping them meet their pet dog’s needs, improving its welfare, so that their relationship blossoms.

Sharing extremes is likely not helpful. My responses to queries about trying or avoiding such recommendations tend to range from “maybe that’ll work” to “that might not work in this situation”.

Behaviour is such a loose and flexible phenomenon that binding it in absolutes is not helpful. Many, many factors contribute, some within our control and some without.
What works for this person, this dog, this context, on this day, may be very different for another person or dog, or another context or day.

I am not at all suggesting that rules and laws don’t apply to behaviour, but rather the application of same, in every day life, may be a greyer area altogether.

My clients need help fitting their dog and its needs into their lives. That requires compromise and discussion, rather than dictating and self-righteousness.
Social media is powerful, but can be a dangerous place for novices, who may be impressionable or naive.

Yes, lots of training-cultural norms need to be challenged and re-challenged, and I enjoy that and the accompanying learning curve, but not at the expense of discussion, preference and appreciation for variation in approach.

By opening up, rather than shutting down arguments for or against, we can debate and discuss, and learn and adapt. Absolutes and definites shut that down, scare away newbies and make dog training a dictatorship, rather than an applied science that can be molded and shaped to help pet owners and their pets.

Dying of Fright

Halloween is almost upon us, and with that, the accompanying terror experienced by so many dogs.

Because so many pet owners report that their dogs show fear to fireworks (and other sounds like thunder), it’s become somewhat normalised. That reduces proactivity , meaning that so many pets, and their people, suffer through fireworks season.

Fear is a significant stressor that affects dogs’ welfare, and may even cause the development of anxiety, panic and phobic type responses having long lasting effects.
Where anxiety and phobia develops, the dog is exposed to intense, chronic stress which is damaging, physically and emotionally.

Although helping dogs who show fearful responses to sounds, whose fear generalises, who develop anxiety, and/or who develop phobic responses, is by no means easy or straight forward, we have lots of tools that we can put in place to increase their comfort and improve their welfare.

It’s too close to Halloween, and even New Year’s Eve now, for us to help your dog learn a more relaxed response to fireworks and other loud noises, but there are lots of effective strategies that we can put in place to help them, reduce their distress, and avoid this escalating further.
(That’s why we are not discussing counterconditioning and the use of recorded sounds etc. – the best time to start that is in the summer!)

How does a fearful dog respond?

Dogs experiencing distress may show responses such as:

  • alerting to the sound, especially where the dog remains alert and on edge, even when all is quiet again
  • barking at the sound
  • wide eyes, panting, trembling, pacing
  • sitting close to you, attempting to snuggle in to you
  • looking to hide, or move away from the action in the house
  • checking doors, windows, boundaries
  • lying or sitting very still and quiet
  • …each of these may progress as the dog’s distress worsens due to not being able to escape the terror

Just as we are concerned for a dog who is showing less activity than normal, due to their normal responding being suppressed by fear, stress can also cause increases in activity.

This is often in the form of displacement behaviour including play and play related behaviour that’s often quite intense, so you might see bows, bouncing and jumping. We might also see greeting behaviour, jumping up, humping, mouthing, overly affectionate behaviour and persistently seeking attention and interaction.

Which dogs are likely to be affected?

It’s pretty normal for a dog to be aware and possibly frightened of loud, booming noises and light flashes, just as a person may be. But, where this normal response is seen, the dog will recover pretty quickly and be capable of going about their usual activities again.

  • Some types of dogs are most associated with developing noise sensitivities, so there may be some heritable component. (Sheppard & Mills, 2002)
    Many types of dogs were developed to be extra sensitive to their environment, and to be proactive if even the slightest threat is detected. We may have been selecting for the underlying components associated with various types of reactive behaviour when breeding dogs for particular functions.
  • Puppies who, in their first few months of life, didn’t receive proactive and well-rounded habituation and socialisation, especially in relation to the presentation of novelty (Fuller 1967)
  • Adolescent dogs go through fear periods during which they are more sensitive to scary situations and more likely to form long standing fear responses to these scary situations. (Dehasse 1994) (Thompson et al, 2010)
  • New dogs who might not be fully settled in their new home, so everything might be a bit overwhelming.
    And in general, dogs who are experiencing chronic stress or stressors, not necessarily related to sounds, are more likely to show signs of sound sensitivities (Daginno-Subiabre et al, 2005) (Iimura, 2007)
  • Dogs who have had a traumatic experience in relation to sounds like fireworks (Iimura, 2007)
  • Sound sensitivity and separation related behaviour may be linked, so dogs who demonstrate behaviour associated with distress at separation may be more likely to show sound sensitivity. (Sherman & Mills, 2008)
  • Dogs who show fearful responses to other sounds such as the smoke alarm (particularly the beeping when the batteries are going), thunder and storm sounds, booming or low frequency sounds, household and machinery sounds such as blenders, lawn mowers etc. (Overall et al 2001)
    And dogs who show behaviour associated with separation anxiety and other distress or panic related behaviours. (Overall et al 2001)
  • Which paw your dog prefers may even be related to the development of sound sensitivities! (Branson & Rogers, 2006)
  • Dogs who show signs of sound sensitivities should also be assessed for pain, particularly musculoskeletal pain (Lopes Fagundes et al, 2018) – another reason I emphasise talking to your vet!
  • there might even be connections between sound sensitivities and early neutering (Spain et al, 2004)

Trigger stacking is also worth noting here. A dog, who has been exposed to one loud noise in isolation, may have time to recover from it, but fireworks are generally repetitive and unpredictable.
The dog will not have had time to recover from one, before another goes off.
Because they are unpredictable, the dog can’t prepare himself so may be on edge in anticipation.

What can we do?

It’s not hopeless. Don’t just watch your pet suffer through Fright Night – we have some time to get planning and prepared so that you and your dog are more comfortable.

Planning

We know this is going to happen, indeed, in lots of areas it’s already happening. Let’s get a plan in place to reduce canine stress surrounding Halloween activities.

  • make sure your dog has a tag on his collar, and that his microchip details are up to date
  • stock up on HIGH value food rewards that your dog LOVES like hotdog, chicken, cheese, pate, peanut butter, roast beef, liver or whatever really gets your dog going
  • stock up on some of your dog’s favourite toys that he loves like squeakies, tugs and toys for dissection
  • check out #100daysofenrichment for tons and tons of ideas for puzzles and activities to keep your dog’s brain busy and distracted.
  • start to plan toilet breaks – how often does your dog need to go outside? what time will it be dark? is there a quieter area that you can bring them to?
  • plan how you will exercise your dog at home or in quiet areas so that they are a little more settled
  • where will you and your dog be set-up on the night? This might require a bit of planning, especially if you have family or party plans.
    Set up in a room that is well insulated from sound (surrounded by other rooms, for example) and has at least one door between the dog and the entrance/exit to the house.
  • exercise your dog on lead at and around Halloween, and make sure their collar or harness is adjusted to fit them snuggly and securely
  • Your dog will very likely be comforted by your presence so being with him or her is important.
  • Start to play the TV or music louder than usual now so that you can use it to drown out sound on the night, and your dog has some time to get used to it.

Set-up a safe bunker for your dog now! If you only use it when he’s likely to be scared, he will associate this change with feeling frightened. 

  • Make a comfortable, cosy refuge by laying some blankets over a bed, chair, table that your dog can go under, or a crate.
    There may already be a spot that your dog likes to take cover in – use that, if it’s safe!
  • Set up a bunker in places your dog chooses to hide, if safe
  • have your dog’s bed in there and his favourite toys there

Start to feed your dog a yummy stuffed toy in their bunker every day in the run up to Halloween so that you are establishing this as a nice place for them to go.

Needless to say, it is not recommended that you bring your dog to bonfire or fireworks events, or to costume parties or trick-or-treating, or even greeting trick-or-treaters at the door.

Most dogs are not comfortable wearing costumes, even though it can be super cute!

Preparation & Safety

Halloween isn’t just spooky for us!

Children and people in costumes, funny decorations, candles and reduced light, lots of forbidden and even dangerous food, excitement and doorbell activity will cause any dog to become stressed out – throw in fireworks on top of that…

If a dog is stressed out, his normal ability to cope with stress is reduced, so even though he may tolerate excitement and activity at other times, Halloween might be too much.

Special consideration needs to be given to child-dog safety at this time of year:

Other safety concerns include:

  • dangerous and inappropriate foods
  • routines out of whack so it can be difficult to keep track of everyone
  • candles
  • decorations
  • door opening and closing
  • children in costume, excited and possibly worrying to the dog

Halloween is a bit of a minefield when it comes to dog care!

The Set-Up

Fearful and spooked dogs can panic and attempt to flee, even injuring themselves in the process.

  • make sure your dog wears a collar with ID, and is chipped (make sure the chip is registered and the details are up to date)
  • check fencing, gates, boundaries etc. and it’s best to exercise and toilet your dog on lead, even in your own garden. A panicked or spooked dog will go through an “invisible” fence, over or through a boundary that they normally wouldn’t.
  • keep your dog on lead when walking, just in case he is spooked while out and about
  • have at least one closed door between your dog and the front or back doors
  • spend time with your dog in a quieter area of the house; it’s better to have children and other pets spend time elsewhere especially if they are active or noisy
  • close the windows and curtains in the house
  • play music or the TV louder to drown out some external sound.
    You can run the washing machine or dryer, or use a white noise machine or app too.
  • while inside and supervised with you, have your dog drag his lead so that he can be easily restrained if needed by stepping on the lead or grabbing it, rather than the dog

Your behaviour

You may act as a safe base for your dog, whom he uses as a reference point. This means that your presence and your behaviour may help your dog cope with distress.

  • be calm
  • don’t scold your dog – this will cause him to feel even more uncomfortable and distressed
  • talk to your dog, use a jolly voice
  • sing happy songs or listen to upbeat music – this will help you and your dog be calmer!
  • stay close to your dog – try not to come in and out too much
  • listen to your dog: if they seek contact, pet them; if they just want to stay close to you, be there; if they want to hide, let them and make sure they have a safe space
  • YOU CAN COMFORT YOUR DOG! 
  • it may be better that an adult is responsible for the dog, rather than children, for safety and so that kids are free to enjoy the festivities

Massage and touch may help your dog, and it can be relaxing for you too. But, remember, listen to your dog and it’s best to do this between booms and bangs, rather than when he’s stressed. We have more on this here.

There really isn’t a whole lot of reliable evidence that a fearful dog will cause other dogs present to respond fearfully (Iimura, 2007), although some dogs may be more impressionable than others, especially when with another dog they view as a social model.
There really isn’t evidence that a human who is behaving nervously will increase a dog’s fear either. (Dreschel & Granger 2005)
But, the research on noise sensitivities is lacking, at best, so we have much still to discover.

Keep ’em busy

With all this planning and preparation in place, you will be doing an excellent job of managing your dog’s response to scary sounds.

If we can successfully reduce the impact of the noise, we might be able to further take the edge off, by providing your dog with lots of distraction, to keep their minds busy.

  • if they can eat, practice fun training exercises using high value rewards
  • if your dog can play, play fun and active fetch, sniffing and tug games
  • have lots of stuffable toys ready with the yummiest stuff – encourage lots of chewing and lapping behaviour, which can be calming

Start practicing now! Introduce sniffing and chewing activities now, at times when it’s quiet and your dog is calm. Establish these activities as safety signals.

#100daysofenrichment has everything you need in this department!

Intersperse fun and active games, with a calming break for some chewing, and then bring the energy up again by engaging them in a game again.
Using noisy toys like squeakies might also help to drown out fireworks nose too.

Calmatives

Calmatives are generally over the counter remedies, that may or may not have a beneficial effect. I have some concerns about recommending these.

The first concern being that reliable evidence for their efficacy is lacking, and reported or anecdotal effects may be due to placebo and bias effects.

Because there is heightened awareness among professionals and pet owners, lots of these products have flooded the market, and are made very attractive to concerned dog lovers.
Using these products may cause a person to believe that they are doing all that’s required, and possibly believing that their pet is benefiting, when that might not be the case.

Such products that might be helpful, in combination with other measures might include Adaptil, Zylkene, Yucalm and lots more.

There are countless others, for which I have not seen effective and beneficial results, despite seeing their use with a range of dogs.

If you are going to implement any of these, start using them now. Don’t wait until the fireworks have started or your dog’s fear has intensified; otherwise they become predictors of distress.
They, like other context cues, might be helpful if used consistently when all is calm and quiet so that they can help to set your dog up to feel calmer.

Medication

This should not be considered a last resort, or something that must be resorted to at all, really. Consider it a first line of treatment.

Sound sensitivities cause dogs real distress and suffering, and impacts their welfare. If fireworks caused physical pain, I’m sure people and professionals would not hesitate to medicate, treat for pain and inflammation, ensuring the dog’s comfort.
Sound sensitivities cause serious emotional and behavioural damage, which has a neurological basis. We can treat the brain, and help the dog.

First port of call: talk to your vet.
Share this article from Dr Overall on drug therapy for sound sensitivities.

Be clear about your dog’s behaviour:

  • What sounds cause the fearful response? Where is your dog when this happens?
  • What does your dog do? How does your dog respond?
  • How long does it take for your dog to recover, and go back to normal?

Further treatment may be indicated in different situations:

Dog A: alerts and barks at fireworks, and maybe shows some displacement behaviours (increases in activity etc.) is probably going to be OK by implementing the measures described here

Dog B: hides, and startles but can still interact, play and eat may also be OK just by implementing the advice in this blog

Dog C: pants, paces, trembles, and may take a while to recover from this distress, is likely to need more support

Dogs B & C (and maybe Dog A) may benefit from a situational medication like Sileo, which has been developed for dogs with sound sensitivities. It offers lots of benefits in that it can be administered at home, even once the dog is experiencing distress.
Sileo helps to reduce anxiety and distress, without sedation.

Dog D: panics and looks to escape is likely to need more support

Dog E: has a disproportionately strong response to sounds is going to need more support, especially where this response has generalised to other sounds

Dog F: is on edge, even at quiet times, and startles and shows distress to a growing array of sounds will need more support

While Sileo may be an appropriate option for all these dogs, and given that we don’t have very long before Halloween, there are other medical interventions that may also help over the longer term and on a more generalised basis.

Dogs C, D, E & F may benefit from anxiolytic medication such as Benzodiazepines, which help to reduce anxiety and panic, but may also be sedative.
These may include alprazolam and diazapam. The former is likely a better option, as it is less sedative. (Horowitz, D., & Neilson, J. (2007). Canine and Feline Behaviour.) (Plumb 2008)
These can be given as situational medications so are ideal for Halloween night when there  are likely to be fireworks consistently sounding. In terms of situational medications, you might also discuss trazodone or clonidine with your vet for more on suitability for your individual dog.

Dogs D, E & F may benefit from general maintenance medication too, so as to help reduce anxiety in their day to day lives, and help limit the generalisation of their sound sensitivities. For example, clomipramine, amitriptyline. (Crowell-Davis et al, 2003) (Papich, M. G. (2007). Saunders handbook of veterinary drugs (pp. 236-238). St Louis: Saunders Elsevier.)
These anxiolytic medications will provide background relief, and then situational medication can be given when we expect the extra distress of fireworks, where indicated or appropriate.
(We don’t have sufficient time to start this medical program at this stage, as it’s likely to take several weeks to establish.)

Please discuss this with your vet, I can’t stress that enough. This is general advice only, based on medication protocols sometimes applied to dogs with sound sensitivities. Medications don’t work the same for every dog, so your vet will know the best approach and support for you and your pet as you try to find the most helpful protocol.

Some anxiolytic medications can cause paradoxical effects so talk to your vet today. This will give you some time to try the medication out, before you really need it, so that you can evaluate your pet’s response – this is especially important with certain types of medication, e.g. Benzodiazepines.

A note about ACP

ACP or Ace or Acepromazine is still commonly prescribed for sound sensitivities. This is not an appropriate medication for use for dogs with sound sensitivities.

This pre-med doesn’t have anxiolytic effects, but rather sedative effects. Indeed, it may even heighten the dog’s sensitivity to sound…so not a good choice at all.

Dr Karen Overall, again, discusses its use in this clip.

Don’t worry if your dog has been given ACP before – this medication does have its place in lots of contexts but may not be the best approach given in isolation in relation to sound sensitivities.

Medication alone is not enough

While some medical interventions and the routines described here may get your through scare-season, for there to be real and effective behaviour change, and the associated benefits to your pet’s health, you must be working through a behaviour modification program too. This can reduce the need for medication, especially over the longer term, and start to give the dog coping skills for dealing with distress, improving welfare.

This fireworks season, get planning and preparing now because our dogs don’t have to suffer just because that’s the way it’s always been. Get proactive and start today!

Of course, please get in touch should you need any further advice.

Dog (Un)Friendly

My dog comes everywhere with me, pretty much. When I got him, that was the deal. I am lucky – my dog gets to come to work with me everyday, and for the most part, I am going to doggie places, in and out of my job. If I wasn’t this lucky, I might not have a dog.

With this on the cards, I do lots of work to prepare my dog for inclusion in these worlds. He can settle on cue, he can be with people and work with them, but also be confined from the action and be comfortable with that. He doesn’t care about other dogs, or getting to interact with them. He travels and waits quietly in the car, in a crate, in an office or conference room. He needs to be quiet and amuse himself, and also be ready to work and demo when called upon. That’s a tough job!

It is becoming trendier and trendier to include dogs in lots of human-environments, with restaurants and cafes, dog social events, expos and doggie-days, even outdoor movie events to which you bring your dog, encouraging pet owners to participate in these traditionally human activities, with their pets.

I can see why this appeals to pet owners. We love our pets, and want to spend time with them. As society, in general, becomes less tolerant of dogs and dog owners, we want to show ’em that our dogs are special, and loved family members.
I want this for pets and their people too.

But, are we stopping long enough to ask, what our dogs might want?

Dogs are living a life that is less and less like the life dogs would choose. They are living more and more like humans; that’s a pretty boring life for a dog.
We’ve just been talking about how it’s becoming harder and harder to provide for our dogs’ behavioural needs lately – In my day…

The expectations we have for dogs are becoming harder and harder for dogs to live up to; this continues to be fueled by our social media, Disney informed impression of dogs and dog behaviour.

Not only that, but we presume that our dogs are enjoying something, when actually their signaling and behaviour might be telling a very different story.

Now, THAT is truly a tough job for dogs.

Of course there are dogs who do well at such events, but we can’t expect all pets to enjoy or even tolerate such interactions and activities. And certainly not without preparation.

Just because something is enjoyable to the two-legged species, doesn’t mean the same for the four-leggers:

  • lots of people and other dogs in, usually, smaller and/or confined spaces with lots of activity, comings and goings, activity and noise can cause dogs to experience a higher level of arousal.
    Arousal refers to the levels of stress experienced by the dog, and their behavioural coping strategies.
    Being confined on lead and/or in smaller spaces, with little opportunity to escape social pressure is likely to cause increases in arousal, leading to decreased ability to inhibit behavioural responses.
    Dogs don’t enjoy this, it can be detrimental to their health, and even stressful for their humans too – this might even present safety concerns.
  • sitting around or hanging around may be frustrating and boring for dogs – this is different to them hanging around or snuggling up next to you at home
  • lots of strange dogs, often on lead or in confined spaces, together, is not usually a good social outlet, and may facilitate inappropriate social interaction – this is NOT how “socialisation” works, or what it is
  • because we want our dogs to love this, and presume that they are enjoying themselves, they might experience inappropriate social pressure – lots of encouraging and luring, using leads or body pressure to restrain them, being unable to escape or move away from well-meaning people and dogs, hugging and confinement can make for pretty uncomfortable dogs
  • lots of food and other resources, with other dogs and people near by, can cause dogs to become more aroused, frustrated and concerned
  • children, and even well-meaning adults, might find this exciting too, causing them to act in ways that can worry dogs
  • normal dog behaviour, the stuff that dogs really enjoy, is generally in conflict with what is acceptable in human society

Dogs granted legal access to different human-centric environments in service and assistance dog capacities are very carefully selected and then go through years of training to be able to maintain their comfort and behaviour in public.

We can teach many pet dogs how to cope well with such environments, and that can be an excellent way of spending time with your dog. But, the skills required are not basic and will require time and effort.

At the same time, there are some dogs who just won’t enjoy such environments and activities, and that’s ok too.

There are lots of ways to spend time with our beloved dogs. The more we bring them into the human world, the more preparation they will need. That’s our job.

At the same time, however, we must provide for their behavioural needs by providing them with appropriate outlets for DOG behaviour.

There needs to be give and take here, and we are the primates with the big brains , so it’s up to us to choose appropriate dogs, prepare them and support them, if we wish to immerse them more and more in the human world.

 

Fat Dogs & “Food” Trainers

As dog care professionals, we are well aware that there is a bit of an epidemic in pet-health, mirroring that seen in human health, concerning overweight and obese pets.

Overweight/obesity rates in dogs may be reported in as much as 20-40% of the population, although it is likely that this varies greatly in different geographical areas.

Calorie intake is essentially the root of the issue, but this is a multi-factorial problem with everything from owners’ health & socio-economic status to their likelihood to underestimate just how overweight their pet is, all playing a role.

Just being moderately overweight can lead to all sorts of problems for dogs, resulting in severe impacts on welfare. (Lawler et al, 2005)

Me + Food = Love

One of the accusations commonly leveled against ‘food-based’ trainers is our contribution to this epidemic. And although it’s easy to reel against such sweeping statements I think we need to be careful and accept that we are in a position of responsibility.

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Work published this year in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, on cats and their owners, examined owners’ perception of their cats’ love for them during the implementation of a weigh-loss program. (Levine et al, 2016) (summary here)

Cat owners were concerned that not feeding their cats, that putting their cats on a diet and not responding to their cats’ requests/demands for food would affect their cats’ level of affection toward their owners.

This may also be reflected among dog owners, and our very own mantras may reinforce it.

We use food because it’s a quick and effective teaching tool, but we promote its use as a way of helping a dog develop more positive associations with things, places, occurrences, the behaviours we teach and owners themselves.
We might even dismiss or downplay its use in training as a contributor to a pet gaining extra weight.

We wield food rewards like magic wands and amaze pet owners with its power in our hands. But they may not be so skilled, they may not be so knowledgeable.

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What’s a “food-trainer” to do?

Do as I do, and as I say

It’s not enough to talk-the-talk, we have to walk-the-walk too so our dogs, who are so often representatives for our training skill, need to be slim and trim.

We are models for our clients, and pet owners in general.

But we are also representatives for the type of training that we do; in a world of whisperers and alpha-rollers, whether it’s right or not, using reward-based training will be linked with food and treats, and weight-gain.

I know it’s not easy, I have owned an overweight dog. And getting weight off dogs is tough, with a capital T.
There are genetic components and everyday-life components and it’s just tough.

But turn your struggle with your pet’s weight into an educational series that you can promote via your business. Your insights will help pet owners develop a better understanding of managing their pets’ weight and the empathy you will experience makes you a better counselor.

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Dogs are super efficient at burning calories

A weight management plan for your dog is difficult because dogs are so good at putting weight on and at maintaining weight.

Even though less than a kilo can be considered serious weight gain for a dog, it can be hard to stay motivated when your dog only loses (what seems like) teeny increments.

Staying in it for the long haul is difficult, especially when the big brown eyes are boring into your very soul with every mouthful you take.

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Get help! Seek out advice from your veterinary team, look for a practice that holds weight clinics, hook up with other pet owners helping their pets, set goals and then task them out into day-by-day plans.

Make connections with veterinary hospitals so that you can refer pet owners there for help, and can communicate the best way to train with or without food rewards to veterinary staff.

Education

Be empathetic to those with overweight pets – scolding or embarrassing them may turn them off, and cause them to become more reluctant to engage and participate.

Help pet owners calculate ideal calorie intake for their pets, check-in with them regularly and help keep their spirits up.

Have easy-to-use resources available in your training centre, or in your information packs so that their awareness is raised.
This is one of my favourites from University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center:

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Getting pet owners when their dog is a puppy will also allow us to target the owners of dogs that may be genetically predisposed to weight-gain, like Labradors.

We are often present or involved in discussions about neutering, which is a risk factor in weight gain (Lund, et al, 2006). Helping pet owners prepare by carefully monitoring their dogs’ calorie intake and activity levels will help in preventing weight gain.

We are also in the unique position to be able to provide pet owners with meaningful education on canine behaviour. Having a better understanding of the needs of dogs, in terms of their behaviour health, may help to reduce some pet owners’ tendencies to ‘overhumanise’ their pets which may also be a risk factor for weight gain. (Kienzle et al, 1998)

Weight Gain & Behaviour

Weight gain contributes to all sorts of physiological conditions that can affect dog behaviour.

At the simplest level, extra weight may lead to normal behaviour being impeded or becoming more difficult, affecting behavioural welfare.

Weight gain may exacerbate conditions causing pain and discomfort which can have many implications for behaviour.

A dog who is intensely motivated by access to food or shows abnormal food-related behaviour e.g. pica, may be demonstrating behaviour that suggests underlying physical illness.

Helping reduce a dog’s stress may even help in reducing stress-induced or so-called emotional eating, thereby facilitating better weight control. (McMillan, 2013)

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Exercise & Activity

Getting active will likely benefit both ends of the lead.

 

We can give pet owners skills and information so that they can enjoy getting out and about with their dogs.

Dogs who pull, have poor leash manners or are reactive are less likely to be brought out so we can help by suggesting alternative forms of exercise so as to maintain health and encourage bonding between pet and person.

If pet owners have fun with their dogs they are more likely to continue that activity, and form better bonds leading to more training success – win-win-win!IMG_2193

Training with food

Now, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater – training with food is pretty awesome, I do it everyday.

As the movies say: “with great power, comes great responsibility” and like any tool, food rewards can be used well or not so well.

Food Training Tips:

  • emphasise the use of the dog’s regular food during training, and throughout the day
  • make regular food more attractive for training without adding too many extra calories (here)
  • raise pet owners’ awareness of adjustments that will be required should training treats be used
  • make sure each training treat is teeny-tiny
  • use healthy, low-calorie treats (calories generally make food more appealing so that can be difficult for some dogs)
  • get dogs working for every piece of food – spreading out meals and making food a little harder to get can increase its value while making each meal feel bigger (a whole playlist of ideas here)
  • teach pet owners how to play with their dogs so that play, toys and interaction become valuable rewards, increase activity and have fun
  • progress training so that working for real-life rewards becomes the main reinforcement-strategy
  • instead of feeding, provide pet owners with meaningful protocols in place to comfort and manage their dogs behaviour

food bowl free zone

Think of using food as a basic, mechanical skill that pet owners can be taught, in the same way we teach them other training skills.

There’s no problem with using food rewards in training, if it’s done well and responsibly.

There are a lot of overweight dogs out there – the majority of adolescent and adult dogs I see are carrying too much weight. I want those dogs and their people to have positive training experiences, be able to use food rewards appropriately and to improve training, and to live long, healthy, happy lives – that’s why we’re in this business.

 

Beyond breed

So a couple of weeks ago, on FaceBook, this happened:

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“As a dog owner I’m absolutely delighted that signs I’ve asked for, with pictures, showing the dangerous breeds of dogs have been erected over the past week. It still amazes me that some people think these dogs are ideal family pets.” ~ Alan Tobin

A local politician in County Meath posted that comment, along with the photograph, publicly. Surely he knew the attention this would draw given the inflammatory language used.

Cue thousands of comments, derogatory posts, responses on radio and TV and back and forth on this topic.

Of course, social media responded:

Not many had heard of this guy and his FB page had a couple hundred likes (now has a couple thousand)…but now he’s being shared all over social media, all over the world (last I looked the post had been shared over 55,000 times).
He has been on national radio defending his position, he’s been on TV here and he even accepted an invitation to a rescue organisation in Meath for a photo op with a “pit bull” type dog.
He has apologised and tried to clarify that he actually meant to emphasise owners researching and considering their choice of dog carefully while celebrating the acquisition of more signs in the national press

We’re back to that social media staple, polarisation.

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Of course this is a polarising topic, as those related to dogs and their welfare tend to be. The two extremes, pro and anti, can’t be completely right or wrong all the time.

The problem is that these extreme beliefs can be easily refuted, so striking a balance is important to allow us to achieve a more accurate attitude toward these dogs.

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My ‘restricted breed’ dog, Decker, an American Staffordshire Terrier.

Public Opinion

The majority of regular people still hold the opinion, at some level, that these dogs, and dogs that look like them, are more dangerous than other dogs.
I would go so far as to say that there is poorly recognised prejudice among “dog lovers”, dog professionals and even among some of those shouting their objections in this campaign (these same people would be shocked to hear this).

People tend to categorise dogs into ‘friendly, family’ dogs and ‘scary, dangerous’ dogs (along with the people who own them).

It doesn’t matter that this may or may not be based in any truth or even knowledge, this view is reinforced by their experiences, by their presumptions and by what they read and see in media.

These people might see these dogs as status symbols, glorified by ‘thugs’ and trained to be dangerous killers.

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As is the case with any polarised topics, the other extreme similarly sees these dogs as doing no wrong, as being perfect family dogs; again, it doesn’t matter that this may or may not be based in any truth, or knowledge.

These people may also see these dogs as status symbols, glorified as poster-dogs for anti-stereotyping, second chances, rescue and “rehabilitation”.

And on both sides, there is no shortage of pro and advocacy resources for the chosen position, each often as extreme as the other. But prejudice is prejudice.

The joke is only funny if the stereotype exists.
The joke is only funny if the stereotype exists.

Not only will the general population hold discriminatory attitudes toward these dogs, but also toward their owners.

Gunter, 2012

These dogs will be associated with a particular lifestyle, ‘thuggish’ and tough, with its own “pit-bull” or “dog-fighting” culture.
Breed specific legislation is often considered and even enacted, not to target specific breeds, but more so to target people thought to be associated with these dogs. (Kaspersson, 2008 reports on the rationale behind the introduction of BSL, Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, in the UK).

The satirical news site Waterford Whispers, published this story – the only way the joke works is if the public hold certain beliefs/presumptions about those who choose to own these dogs and in that regard this satire is coasting pretty close to the wire.

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Sweet Polly, who needs a new home!

The Stigma

With a strong and well reinforced campaign in media and society, painting some types of dogs in a certain way, along with their owners, it’s no wonder that pet owners might wish to compensate and manage others’ impressions of their ‘vilified’ pets (and thereby themselves also).

NCRC looks at biased media coverage of dog attacks here and here.

It’s interesting that the so-called Clifton Report is often referred to by pro-BSL/anti-pitbull organisations but this poorly researched work is terribly misleading (it is also not peer reviewed and is not a scientific study).
In his paper, Clifton only documents cases as per media reports…yes, taking all detail from media reports only. The work includes only 2200 incidents across almost 25 years (according to the CDC there are probably 10-15 times this number of serious injuries/maimings by dogs per year, for example here).
Instead this work just shows that attacks thought to involve “pit bull” dogs or involving dogs described as such are more likely to be reported by media.

Patronek et al, 2010, 2013

There are relatively few works looking at the sociological implications, or just personal effects on pet owners keeping such dogs affected by BSL.

Twining, Arlude & Patronek, 2000, examined this, publishing  Managing the Stigma of Outlaw Breeds: A Case Study of Pit Bull Owners in Society & Animals journal.

This ethnographic study looked at ways that the people they interviewed (all “pit bull” owners) coped with the stigma they experienced. They highlighted seven strategies that pet owners used to mitigate the stigma they experienced.

These same strategies may be used in support of “pit bulls” (and other maligned breeds) and will be regularly seen, in various guises, in pro-pitbull resources. So, instead of examining this at individual levels we are examining this at a broader level.

This very list of strategies has been evoked by those opposing and offended by Cllr. Tobin’s remarks. We cannot argue with the erection of these signs, it should be noted. They are posted in many other public areas around the country and have been for years as they reflect the law as it stands.
But his accompanying comments, his apparent justification and some of the reactions from the ‘pro-side’ are more concerning.

How much better off are we and our dogs as a result of using such strategies to defend them?

Are there effective strategies that can be used to help breakdown the stigma surrounding certain dogs, reduce discrimination against pet owners and ultimately improve the welfare of dogs and their owners?

1. “Passing their dogs as breeds other than pit bulls

The difficulty and inaccuracy associated with identifying pit bull dogs, or indeed many other dogs, is often cited in relation to a dog labelled in a certain way, often in the reporting of a dog attack.

When is a pit bull not a pit bull?

It seems that stories reported involving dog bites, attacks and killings are more likely to attribute aggressive/dangerous behaviour to a set number of breeds. In any given incident, these dogs may or may not be officially identified, may not have been seen, and may not be of the type described.

The KC Dog Blog discusses breed mis-identification with examples, here.

Often the first response of pro-pitbull groups/individuals to the reporting of a dog attack  will be to question any breed identification.

What is a pit bull?

A common argument that will be applied is that of the confusion associated with the term “pit bull”, which can mean something or nothing.

Hoffman et al, 2014

The term is most often and accurately applied to American Pit Bull Terriers (APBT), American Staffordshire Terrier (AmStaff) and sometimes to the Staffordshire Bull Terrier (Staffie).

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But may also be applied to lots of other dogs too including American Bully, English Bull Terrier, American Bulldog (Johnson or Scott type), various mollosser type dogs like Presa Canario, and Bandogs.
And don’t forget the seemingly endless population of dogs of mixed/unknown parentage that share “pit bull” type characteristics.

And even if we are just talking about APBTs, there are several registries, different standards and lines of dogs. APBT breeders will often say that an APBT isn’t in looks, but in breeding.

Breed labeling 

Humans love labels and categories, and squaring things away in little boxes.

Two interesting pieces of work have been published on breed identification recently, utilising both animal care professionals and DNA testing.
Each one found a significant disparity between breed identification and DNA test results. However, the most interesting part of these works is less the DNA/visual identifications (DNA identification of breed is controversial in terms of reliability) but that the subjects of the works didn’t agree with one another’s visual identification, demonstrating that visual identification of dogs is not reliable.

Voith et al, 2013

Olson et al, 2015

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Go to almost any rescue organisation site and you can pick up the patterns when it comes to breed-identification. Dogs with prick ears are GSDs, dogs that  are black and tan are Rotties, dogs with short legs are Bassets, dogs that are black are Labs, dogs that are black and white are Border Collies.

Some will even go so far as to suggest actual crosses , based on no actual knowledge of parentage. This is evidently very important to adopters, even when the dog has reached its adult size and its behaviour is described in detail. They still want to know and if they don’t know you can be sure they will give their best assumption.

I guess that makes it easier for people to make generalisations about the behaviour that they associate with a particular dog, whether accurate or not (e.g. Cockers are family dogs and so on).

This means that when a dog, of a particular appearance, carries out behaviour not associated with these stereotypes there may be surprise (e.g. it’s surprising that the Cocker bit a child) or it can just reinforce those stereotypes (e.g. it’s a pit bull and they bite kids).

unlabel me
http://behaviorworks.org/

 

Confirmation bias

If you search Google Images for “aggressive dog breeds” a lot of the old favourites are there, plus a Chihuahua puppy ‘mauling’ a teddy bear!

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When a regular person sees a media report, or an article, or a TV show depicting these dogs in relation to aggressive behaviour, biting, attacks or otherwise being scary, their beliefs about that dog, whether based in accuracy or not, are confirmed.

People expect this from these types of dogs. But, when we try to convince them that this isn’t typical or this isn’t a “pit bull” this is no competition for the looooong list of resources confirming what they thought and expected.

Pictures from here.

These are covers dated 21 years apart, the one on the left from 1987, very much a commentary on the strong anti-pit bull attitude that had developed among regular people by that time.

Both pictures serve as confirmation bias for people on either end of the extreme views on this dog aggression but I would suggest that for people not in the know, the picture on the left is always going to be more convincing.

Descriptions, associations, illustration or depictions of scary things will be more relevant and in erring on the side of caution, will be more impactful.

Because this image of a terrifying hound of hell is so well established and effective, any arguments will only serve to polarise people more and to undermine our credibility.

Advocacy & Activism

  • stop making presumptive breed identifications – even though it may be well-intentioned you are reinforcing the notion that we can just guess parentage
  • don’t label dogs unless you know parentage – just because a dog is stocky, short coated, with small eyes and a blocky head doesn’t mean it’s a “pit bull”
  • breed labelling and guessing may be detrimental to dogs in a rescue/rehome situation (Gunter et al, 2016)
  • don’t use the term “pit bull” – it’s a construct, a caricature
  • when commenting on dog-bite reporting don’t draw more speculation about breed, even though you may be trying to draw the attention away from a certain type of dog – it’s the same generalisation, it’s not helpful, it’s unsympathetic excuse-making and as such undermines our position
  • emphasise awareness of the consistent and preventable factors that are so often present in serious dog attacks such as those highlighed in a 2013 JAVMA paper indicated in 256 dog-bite related fatalities: inadequate supervision by able-bodied adults, lack of relationship with the dog, entire dogs, victim interaction, isolated dogs, prior mismanagement and abuse/neglect of the dog.

2. Denying that their (dog’s) behaviour is biologically determined

The phrase “it’s all in how they’re raised” is thrown around A LOT in relation to dog behaviour.
And it’s not true.

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ALL behaviour is a combination of genetic and environmental effects.

Just because genes might have something to do with behavioural characteristics, doesn’t mean that their inheritance is any different to genes which contribute to the development of other characteristics.

The science is pretty clear on this one. Puppies are not born clean slates.

Selective Breeding

Not only do members of a breed share physical appearance with one another, they also share behavioural characteristics too. That’s why we have breeds we associate with certain jobs like retrievers, hounds, terriers and so on.

Breeders have historically selected for individuals who demonstrate desired characteristics.

Check out these (adorable) English Setter puppies pointing:

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Check out this impressive 9 week old Border Collie, on sheep:

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Dog  behaviour will be seen at different levels: species level, breed level and individual level.

A lot of the behaviours that we have selected for in the development of different working dogs, at breed level, have come from canid-typical behaviour often summarised in Mech’s predatory sequence:

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In wild canids like wolves this sequence is intact but in domestic dogs we have exaggerated and inhibited different parts so that we have a dog capable of doing a specific job.

Can you work out which parts of the sequence each of the puppies in the above clips are demonstrating?

Complexity lies in genetic variation and the resulting differences in the expression of behaviour among individuals. Looking at the setter puppies above we can see that some are more skilled than others.

And this is further complicated because for most conformation and pet bred dogs, selection of behaviour has not been as intense or precise as that for appearance.
That means that we see versions of breed typical behaviour across individual dogs, and in terms of inheritance, behaviour is less predictable.

Svartberg (2006) found that modern selective pressures in domestic dogs, producing show and pet animals, may have a greater impact on some behavioural tendencies, than selection for the dogs’ original functions.

Nurture + Nature

So, all dogs inherit those patterns in some form or another, in varying intensities.

The purpose of selective breeding is to produce a population, a breed, that is homozygous for particular breed typical traits. This means that every time a litter is produced, the puppies inherit these desired breed traits.

But if a trait isn’t consistently selected for, or if it’s passed over or ignored, then its occurrence in that population may decrease, and variations of this trait will become more conspicuous, within that population.

Members of a breed may look more alike, than behave alike.

So, phenotypic appearance is a good and not so good indicator of behaviour, and breed specific behaviour must always be a relevant factor.

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On the other side of this argument, often the same proponents will  be pro-rescue and make arguments that all dogs can be “rehabilitated”.

How can we support both “the clean slate” and “rehabilitation” arguments outrightly?
We can’t. It’s much more complicated than that.

Do you knowTheodore, of Pibbling with Theodore? Well, I can certainly recommend him if you would like a daily doggy giggle!

This dog is a fighting-ring bust dog. On paper, looking at descriptions of his upbringing and presumed parentage, he should be a deeply troubled and hard to live with fella. But he’s not, as his owner, a dog behaviour professional, discusses here.

Even though using breed as a way of explaining and even excusing behaviour may be a practice that frustrates pit bull supporters, using ‘rescue’ as a way of explaining and excusing dog behaviour is just as unacceptable and as unhelpful.

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Aggressive behaviour

An aggression gene doesn’t exist, and we have certainly not identified anything related in dogs. That’s more because aggression isn’t really a trait or behaviour, it’s more a construct that we have devised.

Continued works with an experimental population of Silver Fur Foxes, in Russia, has shown us that aggressive and non-aggressive responses can be selected for efficiently in canids; more  here and here.
In only a few short generations a population of mostly friendly or aggressive foxes can be produced.

It is likely that tendency toward aggressive responding is highly heritable, given the adaptive significance to such behaviours.

If we have selected (intentionally or not) for heightened arousal, increased predatory aggressive responding toward other animals, increased competitive behaviour toward other dogs, increased vigilance toward people, increased sensitivity to stress and decreased arousal control it is more likely that these dogs will exhibit aggressive behaviour.

Breed standards use euphemisms for these sorts of characteristics such as “aloof”, “protective”, “courage”, and so on. It is understood, therefore, that we can and do select for such characteristics, and that some breeds will be more likely to display these than others.

All dogs show aggressive responding in some form and most will aggress in some context or other (Netto & Planta, 1997).

And aggressive behaviour, just like other behaviour, is a product of environmental stimulation. This means that the dog learns to apply aggressive responding to particular contexts (Casey et al, 2014).

The range of contexts, the intensity of stimulation required to elicit aggressive behaviour and intensity of aggressive responses may be influenced by the dog’s genetic background.

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This topic, in relation to our dogs, is one that is most often shrouded in myth, misunderstanding and inaccuracy. There is stigma surrounding canine aggression, regardless of breed.

Dogs are supposed to be our best friends, they save lives, protect us and love unconditionally. Our expectations are so high, that when they act like dogs, they fall from that pedestal.

Aggression can be studied and examined as we do any other behaviour to further our understanding without sensationalism or even disappointment.

Advocacy & Activism

Boost your understanding and promote accurate information only:

  • both biology and environment shape behaviour
  • dogs have been bred for specific functions, and that has meant selection for certain behavioural characteristics
  • as such, dogs with a blood sport history, for example, may be more likely to develop certain behavioural characteristics
  • modern selection practices may also influence behavioural tendencies (what patterns of selection are seen in a particular breed right now?)
  • an understanding of breed specific behaviour, and the dog’s line and breeding may be relevant
  • behaviour is modifiable but the resources and environmental conditions required may not be available or effective or humane
  • don’t think in terms of behaviour being fixable  (your dog isn’t a car or dishwasher that can be tweaked) – it’s much more complex than that
  • breeders have a tricky but important role here – to preserve desired breed traits while producing dogs that are safe, sound companions, to place dogs carefully to ensure the right environment in which dogs can develop
  • puppies are not clean slates and rescue dogs are not necessarily damaged goods
  • a dog being from ‘rescue’ is not an excuse for dog behaviour no more than breed is – stop it!

3. Debunking adverse media coverage

At our most cynical, we might say that media’s agenda is to draw attention so as to sell advertising space. So the goal is not one of education and balance, even though such noble claims may be made.

For a thoroughly researched history of “pit bull” dogs, and their ups and downs in public perception I highly recommend Bronwen Dickey‘s recently published book Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon.

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Dog bite stories can make a big impact, but not all dog bite stories generate equal interest or attention.

If a picture of a snarling pit bull or story of a restricted breed showing aggression is more likely to get notice, then they’re the stories that will be published.

“Pit bull” dogs are in the limelight in the information age, and this has greatly helped to propagate all sorts of myth, strongly polarising society’s attitude to them.

Words matter

We know that words have power.
“Dangerous”, “out of control”, “aggressive” and “vicious” often share sentences with the word “pit bull” or other favoured breeds, and accompany their pictures.

These sensational words have immediate and lasting connotations for readers or viewers so it’s easy to see how successful a campaign can be using such emotive language.

The tendency to believe that these dogs are dangerous is strong and attempts to make claims that they are not dangerous are unlikely to be effective.

Indeed the more we put “dangerous” and “pit bull” together, even in defense, the more we reinforce those associations.

Think of how many times Cllr. Tobin’s post was shared, I am sure by many incensed by his words. But those words have power, beyond the context in which they were shared and they influence the beliefs of regular people.

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An information cascade has been set in motion about these dogs: the more people hear about them in the context of them being dangerous (or not), the more people will believe it…

Lies and more lies

Not only will sensationalised language be used to describe these dogs and interactions with them, but also extraordinary myth.

Myths such as pit bulls have locking jaws, attack without warning and don’t feel pain are well-established.

This, as is explained, is why their attacks are so vicious, they are so hard to split from an attack and that even violence used will not make them back off.

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“Pit bulls” are dogs. They, like all domestic dogs and other mammals, are sensitive to painful stimulation via similar neurological physiology. And that’s about it on that one.

No dog, not even “pit bulls”, have been found to have a locking jaw or even alternative jaw constructions across breeds.
Jaw strength is largely determined by size and dogs with a larger, wider skull may be capable of greater bite strength. (Ellis et al, 2009)

All these dogs are strong animals and where arousal is raised, inhibitions are lowered. In a situation where aggressive responding is involved there is likely to be an increase in arousal. This may make it seem as if the biting dog has “locked” onto another individual, and is very difficult to remove.

Many training and behaviour professionals will be familiar with how most pet owners interpret dog bites as being “out of the blue” and “without warning”.
The field has produced some nice educational resources covering this, such as this from Doggone Safe.

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In general and regardless of breed, the more serious the fight, the quieter it is – lots of noise is usually seen in scuffles and as part of distance increasing signaling, when they haven’t quite committed to a full-on battle.

But this is a little more complicated than that. In dogs there are different types of attack behaviour.

The vast majority of distance increasing signaling, which may be associated with aggressive behaviour, is quiet. That’s why people don’t notice it and that’s why dogs escalate their signaling to more obvious displays e.g. growling, snarling etc.

Aggressive behaviour associated with predation is generally quiet (if you’re hunting for a meal it’s probably not a good idea to let your prey know that).

Some dog-dog aggressive behaviour involves patterns of behaviour not associated with predatory drift, a phenomenon where predatory behaviour is directed by one dog toward another.

Pit fights will have very little noise and no real signaling that we would recognise in other dog social interactions. Biting and holding, for long periods of time. This behaviour is much more likely to be related to exaggerated competitiveness which has been selected for in ‘game-bred’ dogs.

Dogs selected for and trained for fighting in this way, show specific and unusual behaviour in that context.

So-called ‘fighting dogs’ may demonstrate aggressive behaviour associated with pit fighting, predatory aggression and more usual social behaviour.
Or, as is much more likely, they don’t show pit-fighting behaviour at all.

Where selection for this behaviour is seen, it’s an exaggeration of typical terrier style – biting and holding. But, and especially where arousal is raised, any dog may bite and fight this way.

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And myth is used on the other end of the extreme views of these dogs too.

In defense of “pit bulls” they will be presented in a mythic light, as super dogs.
The “nanny dog” myth is one that is regularly shared, even though mention of this in relation to these dogs didn’t appear until the 1970’s when this dog’s reputation was already beginning to suffer.

Being “so eager to please makes them easier to train to be aggressive/dangerous” is commonly used in defense too. Dogs do what works, end of.
Some are more trainable and biddable, largely due to selection. Some are less so, but all dogs are innocently selfish (like children).

The “bait dog” myth is also a strange one as using bait is not a  common practice in traditional dog fighting and it is unlikely that any dog used in the training of fighting dogs will ever be found alive, despite a large number of dogs found and adopted carrying this label.

Either way, it’s likely that this practice has been exaggerated by the animal protection/rights movement to further demonise dog fighting and dog fighters.

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We don’t require myth to explain well understood canine behaviour.

And it is much easier to vilify a mythic creature.

Denying that these dogs are strong, that some individuals may show aggression, that some may not tolerate or be comfortable with certain situations, is non-nonsensical.

If we don’t allow them to be dogs, how can we expect anyone else to treat and view them as dogs, rather than as “killers” or “vicious”?

But the real damage that’s done is that our credibility is undermined when we share easily-refutable statements.

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Advocacy & Activism

  • share, comment on and give attention to stories grounded in accuracy rather than sensation
  • be careful with the words that you use to refute claims; rather than not dangerous what are they..?
  • making generalisations, albeit positive ones, is applying the same discrimination as is used to make negative claims
  • think carefully about the words used and statements made – are they accurate? are they easy to refute? are they evidence based?
  • promote stories that reflect real dog behaviour, rather than mythical tales of heroism, that no dog can live up to (dogs are awesome without having to save lives or love unconditionally!)
  • there may be a more parsiminous explanation than the “bait dog” or “failed fighter” line…but if you don’t know, don’t speculate
  • don’t respond to reports of dog bites by excusing the dog involved on the basis of breed, by attacking the breed identification, or placing blame on victim behaviour – it is tragic each time a person is bitten by a dog so let’s use each unfortunatel icident as an educational tool

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4. Using humour

Dog owners will be aware of many characteristics of their dog, that is in contrast with others’ views of him.

When Decker is greeting a stranger with his token enthusiasm or is ripping a toy to shreds (both of which he does on a regular basis) we joke about him being a “vicious pit bull” and so on. At work, we refer to him as the ‘guard dog’ because he is so quick to greet any visitor and bring them a ball to engage them in a game of fetch!

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Counteracting stigma is important publicly, and among ourselves.

Highlighting the humourous, clownish side of our dogs’ behaviour may be a more powerful antidote than straight-out stating that they are not <insert sensationalism here>.

This clip is a nice example:

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And although somewhat superficial, in combination with some other strategies we’ll discuss this may be an effective approach, especially given the power of social media and the instant nature with which information can be transmitted.

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Advocacy & Activism

  • share stories, pictures and clips of your dogs being like dogs (because they are dogs)
  • tell everyone about the things your dog does to make you laugh
  • use media that is in contrast with myth and sensationalism carefully – make sure it’s entertaining, that it doesn’t hit the nail on the head too closely, otherwise you might be in danger of just reinforcing the stigma you wish to break
  • make sure that your dog is portrayed appropriately, and even though we want to make sure your dog is seen as a dog, remember that our dogs have to be better than other dogs…

5. Avoiding stereotypical accessories or equipment

There isn’t a piece of equipment more stereotypically associated with aggression than dog muzzles. Restricted breeds in Ireland are in the unfortunate position of being legally required to wear a muzzle in public, regardless of their behaviour.

Not only are efforts required to de-stigmatise our dogs and their owners, but also muzzles.
Muzzling is likely to be a requirement at some point in any dog’s life so muzzle training, teaching the dog to be happy with muzzle use, is an important part of preparing any dog for life.

The Muzzle-Up project provides resources to help de-stigmatise muzzling and muzzled dogs.

Owners might avoid using spiked collars or other ‘mean’ looking equipment, and may even resort to dressing their dog in clothing or accessories that are in contrast with the public’s perception.
But appealing to either end of an extreme, may not be helping our dogs’ cause – it’s myth and caricature again.

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Do tough dogs require tough handling?

That these dogs are strong and often working animals attracts the application of some pretty harsh training equipment and methodologies, in line with the myth that dealing with a strong dog requires an even stronger training approach.

The Heavy Hand Myth:

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This might manifest in the use of aversive and even scary looking tools like choke chains and prong collars, harsh handling and manipulation and inappropriate application of shock.

All dogs learn, like all animals, in the same fundamental ways.

To suggest that some types of dogs will require harsher, firmer, <insert euphemism here> handling and treatment does not make sense, relative to our understanding of canine learning and behaviour.

And although aversive based training methodologies can be applied effectively, most will not have the expertise to do this safely and  humanely. Learning should be minimally aversive, for any and all dogs.

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Suppressing behaviour ain’t teaching…!

It is contradictory to state that these dogs are not dangerous, while at the same time promoting harsh handling applications to counter the dogs’ tougher personalities

You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too.

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Dog training gurus

TV dog trainers and social media training gurus will often claim to be supporters and proponents of these types of dogs; indeed they may be attracted to these dogs for the very reasons others are – to enhance their reputation and feed their ego.

They, like others, will choose dogs of types that are the current “difficult dog”, believing themselves to be a saviour and shining light for responsible ownership.

Cesar Millan and similar self-styled ‘gurus’ (on all sides of the dog training debate) will often discuss these dogs in a positive light, while at the same time emphasising the application of tough, strict or firm training methodologies.
And that’s cake-eating, right there.

Trainability

Many of these dogs have been selected for doing a job, being responsive to humans and are motivated easily.

By learning how to better use and control motivators, things that these dogs will readily work for (and there will often be lots of motivators), we can train more efficiently and effectively.

We are blinded by the long and effective campaign to label these dogs as being impulsively-aggressive (euphemisms like tough, hard, mean…) and can’t see them as the responsive, trainable, athletic and smart dogs they have been selected to be.

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Advocacy & Activism

  • accessories or equipment may alter the perception of a dog, in either direction toward one extreme or the other; is it helpful to have these dogs wear imposing looking spiked collars or flowery, pink or fluffy accessories?
  • find a trainer that will help you work with your dog, beyond the  stereotypical impression of your dog’s breed or type
  • we have a pretty broad science covering behaviour and learning in animals – this is what needs to be considered when training a dog of any breed
  • avoid training/behaviour professionals or any individual using these dogs as a profile and/or ego boost
  • train the dog in front of you 😉

6. Taking preventative measures

For this to be successful, owners are aware of the stigma that exists surrounding their dogs, and wish to prevent further establishment of these attitudes.

But it’s even more difficult for owners of these dogs: our dogs need to be better than all the other dogs, and we need to be better than all the other owners.

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There are two important ways of achieving this, of making sure our dogs are the representatives of safe and valuable members of society.

  1. Don’t put your dog in situations where they may be a nuisance or scare someone else. And remember, you dog just showing up can do that.
  2. Train your dog behaviours appropriate to different situations.

Both are important. A level of management (number 1.) is always relevant when living with dogs but this takes on extra significance when it involves these dogs.

If a ‘restricted breed’ dog runs toward someone, it’s considered an “incident“, even where the dog is ignoring the people or its intentions are friendly.

One of these dogs just off lead is perceived as a potential danger, whether the dog is paying any attention to anyone else or not.

It’s not fair but it’s the way it is.

That means that we are more careful, give our dogs plenty of space from people and other animals, and act responsibly at all times.

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Tug and other fun stuff

Just as with the use of equipment or accessories that might feed perceptions, pet owners may restrict their dogs’ involvement in activities that could affect the stereotype image of these types of dogs.

Activities such as tug, flirt pole, spring pole and weight pull will sometimes be more associated with ‘aggressive’ behaviour and dangerous dogs.

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As much as it’s important to reduce the use of equipment and tools (where possible) that feed those generalised and inaccurate attitudes toward these dogs, it’s also vitally important that dogs have acceptable outlets for dog behaviour.

Indeed, the key to maintaining any and all dogs’ health is to ensure that they get to do doggie things, that they get their fix.

Go back and look at Mech’s predatory sequence and pick out the bits that are most likely to be exaggerated and inhibited in your individual dog. Outlets for those exaggerations are vital.

And there are benefits beyond just providing the dog with predatory fixes. Through careful teaching of the rules of games, dogs learn better self-control, responsiveness and arousal control.

Learning to play tug, my dog is improving his bite & hold, but also learning to let go on verbal cue (only) when aroused and biting down:

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Learning to play flirt-pole he gets to chase, catch and tug a toy but is also learning to respond to me when really excited, to stop chasing when asked and to control his arousal levels:

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Advocacy & Activism

  • make sure these dogs are perceived as being more polite, safer, better trained and more responsive
  • if your dog won’t succeed at that in a given situation, don’t put him there
  • abide by the law – don’t bring your dog into areas that dogs are not permitted and always scoop the poop
  • restricted breed laws are ridiculous but they are the law – show ’em that our dogs can be awesome even in the face of nonsensical and ineffective laws
  • dog parks in Ireland are a bit of a joke and not recommended for any dog, but especially ‘restricted’ type dogs – most will not allow restricted breeds in there anyway
  • muzzle train your dog and use a Baskerville Ultra type muzzle – they are the safest and most comfortable
  • provide dogs with safe and appropriate outlets for dog behaviour – play with your dog and teach them the rules of games
  • never allow your dog be loose, unsupervised in public or out of control, ever
  • don’t hang around public spaces with your dog looking ‘intimidating’, intentionally or not
  • exercise your dog away from children’s play areas and give plenty of space between your dog and other people and animals
  • never allow your dog approach, chase or interact with other animals without consent, ever
  • acknowledge, understand and embrace your dog’s breed-traits and dog-traits and provide your dog with appropriate outlets for the expression of this behaviour
  • with that awareness prevent those traits ever becoming a nusiance or hazard to others
  • establish safe and controlled ways for your dog to meet other dogs and hangout
  • teach your dog to focus on you when other people, dogs or animals are present – you are the most important thing in his life!
  • show them that these dogs can be safe and responsive; show them.

7. Becoming breed ambassadors

Attempting to change people’s perceptions by presenting individuals of these breeds in a more positive light is a commonly resorted to strategy.
We honour these dogs, fallen military or police dogs, heroic search and rescue dogs and even some fun, lovable rogues too.

These dogs served their humans, made a difference and made us smile.

Does singling out individuals benefit the breed/type as a whole?

Care must be taken with this strategy. Just as these dogs may be presented in a more positive, functional light, there are many resources continuing to present these dogs more in line with the stereotypes.

If you choose to do bite sports and man-work or even keep your dogs conditioned then we need there to be equal effort in promoting these dogs as excellent working animals, highly trainable and above all, safe.

Wonderful ambassadors like Wallace the Pit Bull, who was a special dog, had a job in which he excelled. He had a home that channeled his energy and need to work.

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And that’s an important consideration. When we present these dogs as ambassadors, we need to do it truthfully otherwise it’s a Hollywood, movie-style presentation…
And that that sort of presentation doesn’t benefit a breed at all.

Presenting these dogs, or any dogs, in a negative light is no less harmful than presenting them in a veneered, positive light. All animals have pros and cons to living with them and these are no different.

Just as an example, Husky and Malinois supporters produce a lot of resources emphasising the need for careful consideration before adding one to your family.

Because we are trying not to sully the name of our restricted breed dogs any further, we may go too far in the other direction.

Sharing resources that present these dogs in an overly positive, saccharine-sweet light is irresponsible. No dog can be expected to be all-tolerant and all-loving – that’s not fair.

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Although resources such as this are often shared in support of these dogs, it’s not an appropriate interaction to promote. Dogs are not furniture! It also shows a lack of understanding of canine signaling, in this case discomfort signaling. This isn’t doing much to give this or any of these dogs a chance…

There is no dog that is perfect for any and all pet owners, all dogs will require some level of management to live with them safely.

“Pit bulls” and other restricted breeds are no different. These types of dogs don’t belong in every home (no more than any other dog), and they and similar dogs require careful consideration to the amount of exercise, stimulation and training that can be provided.

And above all else, every one of these dogs needs to become a breed ambassador.

Vicktory dogs, fight busts and rescue

In 2007, 51 dogs that had been bred/trained for fighting were found at a house belonging to top NFL player Michael Vick. At the property, there was ample evidence of dog fighting and Vick was charged and subsequently imprisoned. He has since returned to professional football.

For the first time, a fight-dog bust was big news, involving a well known and popular celebrity and his kennel, Bad Newz.

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Through the media, the stories of what these dogs endured spread, including detail of the abuse suffered at the hands of Vick himself. For the first time fighting dogs were painted in a sympathetic light, and not just as fighting killing machines.

Usually, dogs taken from fighting busts were held until after the investigation and court proceedings and then euthanised. But the eyes of the world were watching and interested in the plight of these dogs.

48 of the dogs were awarded to a number of different rescue organisations, including Best Friends. The dogs became known as the Vicktory dogs and most have been homed successfully (like Hector, friend of Wallace), with a small number living out their lives with a rescue organisation.

A massive investment of resources saw many of these dogs succeed and this has changed the general attitude toward fighting dogs and pit bulls. But, as appropriate as it is to make sure that individual dogs who are safe and sound get a chance, these ambassadors may also have promoted the ideal that all dogs can be and should be saved, regardless.

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When it comes to restricted breed dogs, their evaluation, training and placement must be considered more carefully. These dogs don’t get to mess up. They don’t get another chance.

By placing dogs that are not safe, that are not companion dogs, that will not be valuable additions to the community, we further damage the public’s perception of these dogs, and of rescue in general.

The vast majority of potential pet owners don’t want a project. The resources that are required to manage and modify serious behaviour issues are not available to most people.

These dogs may also take longer to place so considerations for their length of stay in a kennel environment must be taken into account in all assessments of welfare.

How many safe, friendly, and appropriate companion dogs lose out because precious resources are pumped into a troubled dog’s “rehabilitation“?

Remember,  every one of these dogs needs to become a breed ambassador.

Advocacy & Activism

  • aim to have your dog become a breed ambassador
  • and aim to become a dog-owner ambassador
  • emphasise the reality of keeping these dogs – they need investments in training, exercise, enrichment to ensure they remain happy & healthy
  • a dog’s behaviour and suitability should be evaluated on an individual basis
  • we can’t save ’em all as the resources simply don’t exist
  • promote education for pet owners and EARLY education for pets – be proactive not reactive (don’t wait for there to be problems)
  • share your dog’s training and their achievements, highlighting the work you have both put in
  • don’t consider one of these dogs unless you are willing to make sure he becomes a breed ambassador and you become a pet-owner ambassador
  • emphasise the realities of helping you and your dog become ambassadors
  • reach out to other owners, support one another and build the profile of our breeds in a realistic manner

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The damage has been done

The media scaremongering over these dogs has been very successful over the last century and a bit and social media has just accelerated the spread of an extreme picture of dog aggression and behaviour.

In researching for this piece I found it emotionally exhausting to find so many strongly anti-pit bull resources, one after another. But they are just as extreme and inaccurate as the pros – each is too easy to refute and neither are helpful.

The strategies that we use to mitigate this damage need to do a better job.

I haven’t even tackled BSL and the associated problems, dog bite stats, misconceptions and misunderstandings about dog aggression, because in this context they don’t matter.

We need to acknowledge that our dogs are physically strong, have been selected for specific working traits and that this selection may affect their behaviour.
This is about us, the pet owner and most important advocate for these dogs, being a better activist and advocate by living it, and facing the criticisms head on.

Dogs first

Behaviour exists along a continuum in breeds and across breeds. Some expressions of normal dog behaviour may be abnormal in frequency, duration or intensity and some may be appropriate for that context.

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These dogs are certainly special and in discussing them this way we are highlighting their differences.
But to protect them we must allow them to be dogs; quoting Jane Berkey, founder of Animal Farm Foundation, “different is dead“.

But not only that, their pet owners are special too. Whether you like it or not, you will be judged for owning one of these dogs and you, by virtue of the dog you have chosen, must perform to a higher standard relative to owners of other dogs.

Trying to convince others isn’t working using some of the established strategies, we need to change our behaviour if we are to change those perceptions.

It is our job, as owners and dog lovers, to show them. Show them our awesome dogs, who are safe and sound.

There are many stakeholders and many who can make a difference. We need consensus, we need a united front, we need balance. We need to show them.

What the world needs now…

(apart from love, sweet love, that is)

…is dog trainers, good dog trainers.

Dog trainers with exquisite mechanical skills and exemplary instructing skills. Dog trainers who behave professionally and who emphasise puppy and dog training.

You would think that this is what we have within our population of dog trainers. If we did, then I think we would be in a better place.

Professionalism, regulation, certification, recognition (or lack thereof)

You will commonly hear that the only thing that two dog trainers agree on is, that the third dog trainer is wrong. We hear it so often it is cliché and is largely accepted, which informs our view of our evolving industry.

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It is unlikely that professional regulation for dog trainers will be widespread any time soon. We don’t have any sort of minimum standards of anything right now, and this is difficult to establish in such a diverse and divisive atmosphere.

Because there are no standards, there are no standards.

This is not made any easier by the really, really confusing array of certifications and titles, and a stunningly large number of organisations to align with – each and every one can offer you something you just don’t get from another and so on.
Or plethora of educational institutions offering courses, seminars, webinars, books, articles, blogs, tips, clips and promising you that they, over all the others will offer you the very best.

And to add to the in-fighting among individuals, it’s present among professional bodies and organisations too, with one not recognising the achievements or certifications of another.

Developing some sort of structure is tricky because we would have to develop minimum standards in practice, but trickiest of all, there would need to be some incentive to do so.

Pressure needs to come from pet owners, but because of a history of expert advice offered and accepted by everyone from vets to groomers, from TV gurus to the random man in the park, it’s hard to see how there would sufficient motivation for the pet owning population to exert this pressure when I’m not sure many are aware or (dare I say) care about professional standards for dog trainers.

But it is getting better. It is unrecognisable compared to the so-called industry I started in and continues to grow and develop.

Dogs and dogma

Balance, in dog training, is a dirty word. The dominance of social media (I’m allowed to say the D word in this context!) means that polarisation of all things dog is becoming entrenched in our culture.

Listen, there are more than two ways to do most things and that’s the case in dog training.  We are dealing with living beings, both two and four legged, and changing environmental conditions – that’s why behaviour exists, is modifiable and is so adaptable.

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You can have a wide and varied toolbox without having to venture outside your comfort zone.

And having a comfort zone, that’s ok too. Choosing to train in a certain way doesn’t make you better or someone else worse.

In general, teaching and learning have been moving away from the application of aversive methodologies and emphasising the importance of mechanical teaching skills and careful management of the learning environment. This is good.

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But exactly how this is applied varies and therein lies the problem – the dog training world is a polarised place and the more one movement promotes their mantra, the more another movement pushes further and further away.

Polarisation is not getting us anywhere, as the same arguments are rehashed again and again on the various stages, most of them via social media.

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Despite our emphasis on un-labelling animal behaviour, we sure spend a lot of time trying to define more and more specific boxes into which we can squeeze our training.

“Positive”, “force-free”, “traditional”, “balanced”, “humane”, “welfare-friendly”, “working dog trainer”, “show dog trainer”, “crossover trainer”…

We are trying to stand out from the ‘others’ with whom we don’t agree, and in doing so pigeon hole our training, skill and knowledge.

Dog training can often be hostile. Social media, which has become an important part of dog trainer culture, makes this hostility more impactful. Clinging to a ‘side’ is negatively reinforced and that’s pretty powerful.

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When we are starting out, we want to belong. We need the support, and we might not have the confidence to stand out or pull against the tide. It’s easy to be sucked in and to find comfort there.

That brings us to an interesting point of contention – we might be quick to apply these more modern approaches to teaching to our canine students but not so generous when dealing with fellow two-leggers.

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Want behaviour change? You first!

Well, as we say in dog training, you get the behaviours you reinforce, not the ones you want. Behaviour is behaviour is behaviour and regardless of what label you are aligned with, we are technicians and facilitators of behaviour change, so we shouldn’t be finding this so hard, right?!

Science & practice

Something pretty cool has happened in the last couple of decades that has really accelerated our practice but also the trainer wars – dogs have become a popular subject of scientific study. Every week papers are published of scientific merit and we get to drool over them, working out the best ways to apply this new knowledge.

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To do this requires a thorough understanding of the principles of behaviour and behaviour change.

We have a whole science of behaviour to call on, and although we still have lots to learn we have a good understanding of lots of areas of natural animal behaviour and how animals learn.

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No modern dog trainer can function ethically, competently, effectively without this bread and butter.

Walk before you can run

We all want to sell our wares; it’s an industry after all, and each of us needs to eat and make a living. To do this each trainer is trying to get their unique selling point to the forefront.

In our evolving industry, with our competing educational and certifying bodies abound, there is an influx of courses and seminars and webinars and fads and trends boasting the latest methodology, or more advanced techniques and in some cases, information that will never be applied (realistically or correctly) by most dog trainers.

And as excited as I am about new discoveries and new ideas, I am just as concerned about the loss of focus on the very foundation that’s our bread and butter.

All the sexy stuff is great but to become a really great dog trainer, one of those ones that the world really needs, requires a simply excellent mastery of those foundations.

Becoming better

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  • learn how to capture behaviour – how to arrange prompts to get behaviour without causing frustration or loss of interest
  • learn how to shape behaviour, without relying on extinction – be a better observer, be a better setter of criteria
  • develop exquisite timing
  • learn how to handle food rewards – how to get them from you to the dog, how to position them to promote learning
  • learn about motivation and how reinforcement functions
  • learn how to lure so that you get behaviour quickly, and can fade those lures quickly
  • learn how to fade prompts, without losing integrity or quality of behaviour
  • learn how to manipulate the learning environment so that you can progress and generalise learning
  • increase your ROR, and when you have increased it, increase it some more
  • build desired behaviours rather than break down unwanted ones
  • learn how to supervise dog-dog interactions
  • learn how to expose puppies to different experiences to best facilitate their behavioural development
  • train your dog, and live what you preach
  • develop the gift of foresight so that you can predict and prevent – be proactive, not reactive
  • learn how to safely organise teaching so that every one is safe
  • learn about muzzling, and barriers and proper management
  • become an amazing definer of criteria – don’t settle for good enough
  • plan your training, split criteria and be adaptable
  • forget about the sexy stuff, forget about aggression and biting and reactivity – get really good at training behaviours, and I mean really good
  • and once you have aced all that with dogs, start working with other species like prey animals who don’t like you, or predatory animals who can hurt you – dogs are forgiving and hide a multitude of our sins
  • develop skills in applying this to humans too

This list is the tip of the iceberg, and I haven’t even mentioned the people-training stuff, professional & business stuff or the rest of the dog stuff.
(Can you add to this list?)

But if you get really really really really good at this stuff, the other stuff falls into place and all that advanced, pie-in-the-sky information fits right in, is beneficial and enjoyable, rather than overwhelming.

What the world doesn’t need more of…

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We don’t need more egos who feature in their own videos more than dogs or dog training do.

We don’t need more dog whisperers, listeners, psychologists, experts, specialists.

We don’t need more gurus with massive social media followings, who can’t seem to demonstrate these basic skills with other people and their pets (as in, being a dog trainer).

We don’t need more rehabilitators, or aggression specialists, or reactive dog fixers.

We don’t need more organisations, or certifications or titles.

(Can you add to this list?)

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Be a critical thinker, challenge what you are told and what you believe. Don’t get sucked in.

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Above all else, what the world needs now are more great dog trainers.

Get out there and train, teach people, show off your skills, have fun with your dog and be a great dog trainer, making that difference.

Somewhere in between

Balance filling in a polarisation sandwich

Dog training is a pretty dynamic and certainly dogmatic field, even more so with the popularity of social media and the speed with which information spreads.

With such strong views it is no surprise that attitudes to everything from education to ethics, and from techniques to terminology are often extreme and polarised. Balance truly is a dirty word in dog training…

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…or wrong, for that matter!

A vocation and a career

Dog trainers often enter this area, first in hobby form or perhaps via working with their own pet and slowly will (hopefully) build on knowledge and skill to help develop a career.

But this area is not quite a profession just yet – our field is unregulated, with no minimum standards of education, experience, skill or knowledge.

The transition from passion to every-day-job can be difficult for others (and ourselves) to appreciate, leading to lots of less comfortable attitudes toward our work.

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You say black, I say white

Just recently, this piece was published on a blog known for its pretty direct tone: Why being a dog trainer f***ing sucks and in response to that, several pieces on why being a dog trainer doesn’t suck…
And around and around we go.

(Please be warned, that the above linked piece contains some pretty strong language.)

The truth will set you free

Like any job, dog training will have ups and downs and those swings will come in cycles. It’s not always brilliant and it’s not always awful.

But we’re not in dog training for the big bucks and instead reap a range of other rewards.

Now, this isn’t a rant or a moan – we don’t work down coal mines or in third world conditions, but because AniEd spends a lot of its time, not only training dogs, also supporting new and developing dog trainers our concerns lie in building a professional industry, recognised and respected.

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It is misleading to tell, especially new, dog trainers that all is rosy, and that you should always love your job, the dogs, the people. This is unrealistic for any area.
But it’s not always helpful to vent and rant either so middle-ground must be achieved.

Why is it so tough?

Well, truth be told, it’s not much tougher than lots of other jobs out there, especially those where you deal with lots of human clients.

But, when you come into this field, your expectations can be a little high – it’s supposed to be a vocation, right? So that might set you up for a little bit of a crash & burn.

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Challenges that dog trainers might face:

  • You might think you’re in the wrong place…
    I don’t think there’s anyone out there who says to themselves that they would like to work with people, “so I’m going to become a dog trainer”.
    But dog trainer is a misnomer – a whole lot of our work involves people-training.

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It’s really “people” trainer…

Might help to:

– seek education in becoming a great people-trainer, emphasise this as part of your developing skill set

 

  •  You spend a lot of time working alone, and much of your daily social contact is with dogs and clients. 
    It’s probably what you thought you wanted, but after a while it can become really lonely. And it can be particularly difficult if you have some emotional turmoil or you’re feeling a bit delicate – being alone with your thoughts can push you a little over the edge.

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…or so you thought…

 

Might help to:

– engage in non-work related social activities regularly
– maybe even develop a new, non-job-like hobby
– generate a good support structure, someone you can call and have a chat with when you feel the loneliness creeping in
– develop an excellent support network among colleagues too

 

  • Your friends and family probably don’t get your job.
    Because dog training is seen as a vocation and as something that “anyone can do“, it can be difficult for others close to you to truly understand that there may be complexities and difficulties.
    But because of this attitude to our field, we have often put quite a bit of effort into talking-up dog training as a career so it can be uncomfortable to admit that sometimes it’s not what you had hoped for.

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Might help to:

– be top of your game by reading, practicing, learning and developing
– realistically describe your job and its demands to non-doggie people
– promote our profession, by behaving in a professional manner

 

  • It’s a passion AND a job
    Your hobby, passion and love becoming your career certainly sounds great but…
    This makes it hard to break away – your day job is dogs but so is your spare time.
    We often work largely from home and in other peoples’ homes so don’t have that threshold to cross and leave it all behind.

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Really…?

Might help to:

– learn to compartmentalise
– hang out with your own dogs – you will really appreciate them!
– assign working hours, and don’t respond to job-stuff outside those hours
– develop very clear policies about client interactions, and establish those boundaries from the start

 

  • You got into this because you love dogs. 
    Dogs are pretty awesome. But sometimes they can, like anything, try your patience – it’s OK to concede that. You are human and a dog trainer.
    What’s more, when many pet owners come to us it’s because their dog is causing them a big problem. It’s hard to empathise with them when you know that their behaviour is a major part of the problem, and they continue to vilify their dog.
    That can inform your attitude to the human end of the leash.

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Might help to:

– concentrate on behaviour – don’t take it personally, it’s just behaviour…even the human behaviour
– learn to empathise – a misguided pet owner is you x number of years ago
– at the same time though, learn to draw that line

 

  • Whether you like it or not, you are a people trainer.
    It’s not just that humans pay the bills, it’s so much more than that. The welfare of the dog depends on your ability to communicate, instruct, counsel and teach that human.
    One of the biggest frustrations is that people have seriously inflated expectations of dogs. This is reinforced by media coverage and by other dog-people.
    Sharing stories about miraculous acts of canine kindness, promoting dogs as loving you more than they do themselves and attributing super-natural powers to dogs in terms of their abilities to save and support contributes to this. Dogs are awesome with out all that.
    Unrealistic expectations lead to disappointment, which leads to poor motivation, leading to temptation to reach for quick fixes. That can feel pretty thankless sometimes.

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Might help to:

– promote realistic, grounded education on all things dog
– help them to reframe their attitude
– facilitate dogs being dogs, and help pet owners appreciate that
– continue to develop excellent counselling skills

 

  • Dog training is simple, but it’s not easy (~ Bob Bailey)
    Dog training involves mechanical skill that takes lots and lots and lots of practice, instructing and feedback to learn.
    Pet owners are typically unskilled and we have the challenge of teaching them to teach their dogs. We might have been working on developing our skill level over years and years and even thousands of dogs.
    Not only are we teaching the dog new behaviours, but the human too.

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Might help to:

– be a really good do-er, before you become a teacher
– seek education in the mechanics – prioritise this because only from an in-depth understanding can you teach this to non-skilled pet owners
– apply dog training mechanics to teaching pet owners: provide feedback, split criteria and create a collaborative learning environment, that is conducive to learning

 

  • Good dog trainers are educated and invested.
    The dog trainers who are going to truly advance our industry toward becoming a respected, regulated, standard-filled profession are educated, with both academic and experiential credentials. We learn about the appliance of science, how animals learn, how natural behaviour is shaped, how genetics interact with health and behaviour, how to construct meaningful training plans and how to teach both ends of the leash – and that’s just for starters.
    We are living in the most exciting time that dog training has seen – in the last decade-ish, science has begun to really dig canine science and we get to reap the rewards of all this investigation.
    The financial, time, emotional and physical commitments to our continued education will be pretty huge.
    This is not a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants operation, or at least it shouldn’t be.
    It is understandable, then, that when people belittle our efforts by not respecting our work, it’s going to hurt.

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Might help to:

– promote professional conduct
– continue to invest in your education
– make sure your training does the talking

 

  • We only have ourselves to blame. 
    It can sometimes seem easy to blame pet owners. But this is the same blame that they might put on their dogs, frustrating us.
    We have to be able to take on the responsibility for the human learning, just as the learning-human is taking on responsibility for their dog learning.
    At the same time, and this is the tricky bit, we also have to know when we have done all we can do, step away and move on.
    This is the hardest part.

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Might help to: 

– have support from colleagues with whom you can discuss cases, outcomes, ideas
– help people and their pets to the best of your ability
– work within your skill, competence level and remit
– know when to quit, when you have done all you can do (you’re not a magician)
– have an outlet for venting BUT please be careful with ranting and moaning – this can very quickly overwhelm you and inform your feelings and behaviour

 

  • I hate to say it, but other trainers can make life miserable. 
    Without consistent standards and a lack of professionalism, business and personal conduct can sometimes leave a lot to be desired.
    This might manifest in bitching (pun intended), snarky comments made publicly, social media interactions, bad-mouthing, stealing clients, copying or misrepresenting ideas, logos, policies etc.Social media, as wonderful a tool as it can be, can also be a curse. It has encouraged almost religious following and the rise of gurus, with egos to match.
    The boasting and bragging on social media can become tiresome and further raise expectations of this job – there is often a gap between reality-reality and social-media-reality.

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Might help to:

– get off the computer!
– let your training do the talking
– don’t engage in trainer-bashing
– have supports and outlets outside of social media
– critically evaluate EVERYTHING
– choose your mentor wisely and avoid the hollow gurus
– allow for balance and don’t dismiss another trainer too easily – you can probably learn something from most trainers

 

  • Behavioural health is just as important as physical health.
    This industry is young, and as of yet not well understood by many, even those in other related industries.
    Spotting a dog who is in physical pain may be easier for others to spot and appreciate; somewhat invisible behavioural suffering is a harder sell.
    Most of our starter dog trainers, don’t earn from their new career right away. Instead they supplement their earnings from within or outside of the animal care industry. Many will develop the dog walking, pet sitting, boarding sides of their businesses first, adding training as it grows.
    Even though nobody would deny the importance of early and continued education for children, it’s not a given for puppies and dogs.

Might help to:

– forge great relationships with veterinary staff, groomers, pet shops and other stakeholders
– promote proper socialisation practices for puppies
– engage with breeders and rescue organisations, and other sources for dogs

Training is about relationships

Developing positive attitudes and relationships is our most important function.
We do that via the dog-pet owner relationship, via the pet owner-trainer relationship, via the dog-trainer relationship, via the dog-society relationship, via trainer-trainer relationships and via trainers-society relationships. No pressure then!

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We must take care with the ease with which we can facilitate more confrontational relationships with people (pet owners and professionals alike).
Outlets such as this and this, are understandably borne out of frustration and funny, but how helpful are they, really?

I love my job

When I say that I am not exaggerating, I truly love my job.

But some days I am exhausted, frustrated, feel helpless and it’s OK to acknowledge that.
Identifying that helps me to reframe and work out where I need to make changes.

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I really do!

 

When you lack that clarity, you can’t see the wood for the trees, you need help. Compassion fatigue and burnout have been highlighted in animal care of late, and dog training and behaviour work bare all the hallmarks, making us susceptible too.
If your mental health is suffering, you are helping nobody. Ask for help. Always ask for help.

More on compassion fatigue and mental health here and here.

Everything is a choice, but is choice everything?

References to choice, and emphasis on giving the dog choices are pretty common in dog training right now – empowering the learners through choice is where it’s at but how do we actually do that, and how does it actually help?

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Yay! for Choice

Lots of choice sounds wonderful – our culture is particularly enamoured with choice, studies have shown that animals find having options rewarding and offering a choice of bedding, substrates, foods and other conditions improves the welfare of lab animals – that’s three for three, right?

Well, it’s a little more complicated than that…

Training reduces choice

Dogs make choices all the time and training is really about increasing the probability that they will choose the behaviours that we prefer…

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I even say it regularly: “manage the dog’s environment so that he chooses the desired behaviour…!” What I am saying here sounds lovely, but if we examine this closely I am limiting the dog’s choices.

In reward based, welfare-friendly training (or whatever label), the sort that we do, we recommend:

  • teaching new behaviours in a low distraction environment so there are fewer options
  •  use HIGH value rewards so those other options are less appealing
  • put environmental management in place to prevent the dog carrying out undesired behaviours – limit the dog’s access to other reinforcers

Behaviour is predictable

Well, certainly the probability that a particular behaviour will occur in a specific situation is pretty predictable – reinforcers strengthen behaviour (more likely to occur) and punishers weaken behaviour (less likely to occur).

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Dogs will be more likely to choose behaviours that are reinforced, that are reinforced pretty rapidly and that are reinforced with high value reinforcers.

When you make reinforcers available in training you are tipping the scale in your favour that the dog will choose the option you would like him to.

(It happens if you use punishers too, but the dog is choosing which behaviours to avoid…)

A trained dog has more choice

Once a behaviour has been reliably reinforced (strengthened) the dog is more likely to carry that one out over others – that’s right, the dog is more likely to choose our choice over one of his own.

We train dogs not to be so much dog, so that we can live with them.

Choice interferes with training

Let’s face it, we probably don’t want dogs to get to choose their own behaviours, most of the time – normal dog behaviours range from destructive to disgusting to downright dangerous.

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Decker gives my hairbrush the Am Staff treatment

Your dog’s choices are very likely to interfere with training, especially where acceptable outlets for all that management have not been provided.

Getting to chase small furries, digging, rolling in poop, chewing things, barking, and ripping stuff up are all behaviours that dogs find intrinsically rewarding.
This means these behaviours are strongly reinforcing, so even if you offer a trained alternative – these behaviours are worthy competitors.

Not all choices were created equal

Dogs are not robots, they are responsive to the world around them so always have choices. They just might not always choose the options that you present.

Dogs do what works – they will choose reinforcing behaviour, over and over (that’s what makes it reinforcing!).

It can be pretty difficult to offer our dogs open choice in everyday life, even if we think that’s what we are striving for – giving them access to a large range of options may not be safe or possible.

We might be better aiming to offer them more limited choices, narrowing down their options. This is largely what management and training do.

Even though your dog might very much like the idea of having more open choice in terms of the behaviours he gets to carry out, having more and more choice is not always helpful.

The Paradox of Choice

Having choice and not being clear on which option is best may cause a dog to exhibit conflicted behaviour, presumably experiencing a level of stress in trying to cope with the choice.

Providing choice, and balancing that with providing both predictability and control will reduce any distress. Giving choice must be done with care.

When is choice important?

Choice is especially important when it comes to things we do to dogs, that they might not like, that they might find uncomfortable or scary.

Dogs choose which behaviour they, as individuals, find rewarding. The learner chooses the reinforcement.

And that might mean that they choose to stick with a behaviour because it gains them access to things they like, or choose a behaviour that allows them relief from a situation.

Either way, it’s our job to listen to him. Knowing that he can leave, knowing that he can just take a moment and knowing that he can gain a little relief helps boost a dog’s confidence and comfort in an interaction.

Decker doesn’t like parasite-treatment application:

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About 5 1/2  minutes in, Decker says he has enough:

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Bueno learns to feel safer

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Shiloh chooses to approach…or not

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Simon chooses to take a break and observe…

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This along with helping to make the situation a more rewarding option with things he likes will help the dog learn to love the interaction and find it more enjoyable.
We can offer those two options in most interactions with our dogs.

How is choice helping?

The pet-dog-contract doesn’t have choice built in and as much as our dogs love us, they didn’t choose to come live with us, they didn’t choose their lifestyle and certainly have not made any informed choices about how they get to live day-to-day.

Dogs are super tolerant of human behaviour and human choices, thrust upon them. We have selectively bred dogs to be this tolerant and compliant and therefore, we assume that our pets like what we like and that they like what we do to them.

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Having choice might not be a reinforcer in and of itself. This is a hard thing to test – we would need measurements of the behaviour with access to individual reinforcers Vs access to a choice of reinforcers. And even then, the variables may loom large.

Whether something is reinforcing or not is retrospective; we need to review our work and see if behaviour was strengthened or not, and contingent on the reinforcement.

EileenAndDogs asks “Is it a choice of behaviours? Or is it a choice of consequences?” in her choice challenge.

Maybe the dog having choice is more a desired quality of reinforcers or perhaps it’s having a more classical or even cognitive effect on learning.
I have certainly observed in dogs that if they get to choose to participate in a particular experience it may be a pleasant (and reinforcing) experience, whereas when they are lured, forced or coerced into that same experience it appears to be aversive.

In this clip Molly, who is highly distractable (we’re working on it!) is choosing between distractions (which are anything and all things) and focus.

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And in this clip (later on in our program), we add a little more complexity to focus work by waiting for eye contact and a loose lead to gain access to distractions, and then when she’s ready, more eye contact to come back in and play flirt pole:

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We are not asking her to do anything. She chooses when to tune in and out.
Allowing her to look away again may be reinforcing if we had set it up so that we traded focus for access to distractions; but her choice allows her to remove herself from social pressure, allows her to feel safer through vigilance, reduces frustration and probably helps her feel better about the training set-up.
If anything it might be reinforcing (strengthening) looking away and checking out EVERYTHING.

Every dog needs a fish bowl

It’s not a question of either offering all the choices or no choices at all – it’s about what choices we can offer our dogs, and what they get to choose between.

Just any old choice isn’t necessarily better than no choice at all. The choices must be meaningful to the individual – that is, they have chosen them.

And I, as the human, am responsible for the potential effects of those choices. That means, that as much as possible I must know how this will pan out, regardless of which option is chosen.

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You, the human, are free to choose on behalf of your dog so take heed…

If a dog is constantly being put in situations where they must choose between their safety and danger, this isn’t good. (Remember the dog gets to decide if they feel safe.)
We need to step back, work at the dog’s pace and build through progress more gradually.

Giving dogs a say

A reasonable level of choice is good, with conditions – that we keep the dog safe, that the choices we offer don’t lead to deterioration in training or behavioural health and that they are actually chosen by our dogs.

  • learn to read canine signaling so that you can ‘listen’ to them
  • think like a dog so that you understand which natural behaviour they might need outlets for
  • observe – what does your dog do with his ‘free’ time?
    There may be clues there as to what sort of behaviours he chooses to engage in.
    Look for repetitions as this means something is reinforcing that behaviour. Can we use it (control it) for training and/or allow him more free access to it?

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Less is more

You might not need or provide all of these, but try to find one safe, appropriate way to give your dog a choice each day.

  • Provide a choice of beds, bedding, bed-positions, access to beds.
    This may be especially important where your dog is exposed to different temperatures and conditions over the day, so a bed in the sun and in the shade is a good idea, for example.
  • Bring him to a safe environment that allows him to choose activities – bring him to a fenced area, or have him on a long line and allow him to do doggie things such as sniffing, rolling, chasing, playing, hanging out, digging, doing dog-stuff.
    This is a great opportunity to observe (just watch him, don’t interact) your dog to see what he really likes to do – HINT – he will be doing it!
  • Allow him to choose the route on exercise, allow him to set the pace, allow him to stop and sniff.
    Stand in the middle of a safe area and just let him be a dog. Don’t encourage any specific behaviour, let him choose how to spend this time.
  • Wait for him to choose what game to play, which toy to use, and provide options to allow him to end the game, switch activities or just take a break.
    Allow him to keep the toy, leave the door open, provide a bed to rest in or a chew to work on.
  • Offer lots of enrichment options – how would your dog like to earn his meal today? Which behaviours would your dog like to engage in?
  • Be imaginative with food reward options in training.
    Not only which foods, but how he might like to be rewarded – catch the treat, search for the treat, chase the treat and so on.
  • Allow your dog to say that he would rather not interact that way, right now – allow him to choose space over contact.
    Pet, groom, or handle the dog on the side closest to your body so that it’s easier for him to move away if and when he wishes.
    In interactions, wait for the dog to approach. Interact for a 3-count, withdraw and ask your dog if he wants to continue.
    Avoid physical manipulation, intimidation, social pressure, and ‘corrections’.
  • Improve the value of reinforcers that you do control so that your dog chooses them over all the other stuff. Use functional rewards – the things that your dog already does behaviours to gain access to.
    Work on boosting the value of food rewards, ideally your dog’s regular food.
  • Teach your dog to be a good human-trainer so that he knows that behaviours he chooses will result you allowing him access to the things he likes.
  • Use management carefully to help your dog choose more acceptable behaviours.
    Reinforce choices that you like, with functional rewards where possible.
    Use more powerful reinforcers to train more acceptable behaviours to replace those you don’t like.
  • If you manage (reduce choice), look to ways that you can provide your dog with acceptable outlets for those behaviours you are preventing (limiting).

Choose choice

Adding some choice carefully is a good thing. Watch carefully for the choices your dog makes – what do those choices tell you about how he experiences the world?

They are always telling us something, we just need to learn to listen.

How do you provide choice for your dog? How does it help?