Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Bucket

Once upon a time there was a tap that dripped and underneath the tap was a big bucket.  Every day, drip, drip, drip, water leaked out of the tap, and every day, drip by drip, the bucket began to fill.  The song birds in the garden would sometimes stop by, and perch on the rim of the bucket, and dip their beaks into the bucket and take a drip or a drop out of the bucket, but bit by bit, the bucket began to fill.  Once a fox happened along and took a big drink from the bucket and dropped the level down quite a bit, but overall, the bucket continued to fill. 

One day, the water reached to top of the bucket, and in turn, the bucket began to drip over the edge.  At first, the soil below became damp and a few plants began to grow there, but day by day, drip by drip, the soil became saturated and the soil became muddy and nothing was able to grow there.  As the season went on, the rains came, and the dripping bucket was eventually surrounded by a puddle.  The birds came and bathed in the puddle, and insects visited, but the puddle got bigger and bigger and bigger, and the yard became muddier and muddier and muddier. 

In the house attached to the tap lived a little boy who loved to play in the yard, and who particularly loved to play in the mud by the puddle around the bucket.  His mother was less enamoured of the little boy’s favourite practice-and she stopped allowing him to play in the yard.  This resulted in the little boy spending more time in front of the television, eating snacks and staying clean while he became less and less healthy every day.

Eventually, the water bill came in and the mother noticed that she was using a lot more water than she thought that she ought to be using so she called the utility company to come out and investigate.  Of course the plumber they sent noticed the bucket right away, tipped it over, looked at the tap and recommended that a new washer be installed in the tap in order to stop the leak.  The washer was installed, the tap stopped dripping and the bucket went along to a new career as a goal on the ground for a random version of basket ball that the little boy and his best friend to play with in the now dry yard.  The little boy sat still less often, the tv was turned off and everyone lived happily ever after. 

And what does this have to do with dog training?  A lot.

When I have a veterinarian refer a client to me for puppy class because the pup is tremendously fearful, and the client decides not to attend, then the family misses out on the support they need to help that puppy overcome his fears.  When the pup is six months old, and he begins to have big problems with anxiety, this is a dripping bucket.  The fears add up, drip by drip.  And then...they tip over to become a bigger problem.  When that same dog doesn’t get help, drip by drip the anxiety he had becomes overwhelming until he just cannot cope and bites someone.  Drip by drip.  Behaviour problems don’t usually appear over night.  They appear drip by drip until the people who live with the dog with the problem finds themselves in the middle of a giant muddy puddle. 

When this same dog ends up at the shelter, and someone there takes a shine to him, he might be placed in foster.  Let’s just say that he is placed into a foster with a family who doesn’t have the skills to recognize the problem.  Maybe this is a family who has never lived with a dog and they don’t recognize that the dog is afraid.  Drip by drip, the dog settles into the family, and is afraid, but the family doesn’t know enough to prevent the dog from being exposed to the things that frighten the dog.  One day, the fearful dog tips over into anxiety, and then tips again into aggression.  The dog is sent back to the shelter, and the staffer who took a shine to the dog protects the dog and places the dog in another family on a permanent basis.  Drip.  Drip.  Drip.

The first family, the foster family, is now turned off dogs.  The drip of fostering this dog is that they now don’t want to foster dogs, they don’t want to adopt a dog, they don’t want a puppy, and when a family member gets a service dog, they won’t visit that family member.  Drip.  Drip.  Drip.  One drip at a time, the effect of a fearful puppy who didn’t go to puppy class builds.  Now he has passed through the family of origin, to a foster family and both families suffer because of the fear that he lives with day in and day out.

The next stop on this poor dog’s journey is the family that took him on a permanent basis.  If this family is any more savvy than the foster family, they will avoid some of the things that frighten him.  But drip by drip, this effect changes the family in ways they had never anticipated.  Drip by drip, the family stops having visitors-the dog is too afraid to meet.  Drip by drip, this means that the kids cannot have friends over any more.  Drip by drip, this means that mom cannot invite her friends over for coffee.  Drip.  Drip.  Drip.  The dog has to be put away when contractors come in to work in the home.  Drip.  And still the dog lives in fear and anxiety, all day, every day.

Eventually, the inevitable happens and the dog bites again.  And this time, the family decides to euthanize the dog.  DRIP.  And the family gets another dog, but their middle child, the victim of the bite, is afraid of dogs for the rest of her life.  Drip.  Drip.  Drip.  The dog has three known bites on record, the family of origin is traumatized and the foster family is traumatized and lost to the world of rescue, the family of destination is also traumatized and one person in that family will never trust dogs again.  Drip, drip, drip.  And in the end, the dog pays.  Drip.

Rescues are full of dogs like the one I describe; an amalgamation of three dogs on my case load in the past year.  The problems are sometimes resolvable.  They are often avoidable.  And when a dog like this comes into rescue, there are other dogs in the shelter who don’t have behaviour problems.  Here is another small problem-a drip.  When this dog is placed in foster a behaviourally healthy dog looses the chance to be placed.  Drip.  And when the fearful dog comes back into the shelter, that is another behaviourally healthy dog that looses a chance.  Drip.  And when the fearful dog is eventually killed because he has bitten a member of the destination family, several behaviourally healthy dogs lose their chances to live in that family.  Drip.  Drip.  Drip.

Dogs are interesting.  They co evolved with us around about the time we started living in villages.  They hang out.  They eat our leavings.  And in some cases they live closely with us.  They are frighteningly similar to us.  They have similar social behaviours, and similar developmental schedules.  Some of them live successfully and without significant stress on the periphery of our societies.  Some of them live happily and contentedly as working dogs who accompany us as guides, as searchers, as sentries.  Others live in our homes as pets.  No one way to live is the “right” way to live; dogs are able to fill all these many niches within our various social spheres.  The net effect is that when we breed and capture dogs, we create situations where the drip effect begins to hit our joint destiny.

When we indiscriminately breed dogs predisposed to behaviour problems of any kind, the drip effect results in pups like the one described above.  When we spay and neuter indiscriminately and we lose valuable genetic material, and more drips happen.  When we fail to properly socialize pups, the bucket drips over.  When we place dogs in families who are not prepared for fearful or aggressive dogs, more drips happen.  When dogs who have behaviour problems are accepted into rescues and shelters, more drips occur.  When dogs with behaviour problems are fostered out, then more drips happen.  When these dogs are placed in families, more drips occur.  When dogs are stolen off the streets and beaches and a tourist takes one such dog home, another drip falls out of the bucket that is the problem we face with dog populations today. 

I see one hope for the dogs who are currently sitting in rescues and fosters and shelters.  It is time for someone to come along and replace the washer in the tap.  That someone, or those people in fact are the consumers of pets-we don’t eat them, but we do purchase them and adopt them and take them in.  It is time for a consumer revolution that will stop the need for rescue.  When families begin to choose dogs based not on needing to help the dog, but on making a good match for both the dog and the family, we will have put a washer on the dripping tap.  This means that we as a society have to begin to make better choices about who our furry family members will be.  We need to do this on a system wide basis, but like the green movement, we have to make small local choices that will have big global effects. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Yes, in fact, I want you to lose your job.  In fact, I want me to lose my job too.  Not because I don`t like you or because I don`t like the work that I do; I probably would like you if I knew you and I love the work I do.  The problem is that our jobs are really fixer upper jobs.  The jobs I would like to see gone (and I am not actually thinking they will be gone any time soon!) are all the jobs in the industry of fixing dog problems.

If you work in a shelter or rescue, I want your job.  I want to shut all the rescues and shelters.  When your building is empty, and there are no more barking dogs looking for new homes, your job will be obsolete.  When every dog starts out in the home that he dies in, you won`t be needed any more and you can find something else to do with your days. 

If you work with families who live with dogs with behaviour problems, I want your job (and am willing to lose my job too).  I want every puppy to go to a loving family who will take great care to choose the right dog, socialize it, train it, and live and love and play and work with him.  Yes, if you are fixing dog behaviour problems, I want your job. 

If you are a dog catcher, animal control officer or humane society inspector, I want your job too.  I would like everyone who is involved with dogs to care deeply for them and to take care of them too.  Yes, if you are involved in animal control, I would like to have your job.

If you breed indiscriminately, and place without thought or consideration for the implications, I would like to have your job.  I would like there to be no more market for your services.  If you work in a pet store that sells puppies (or other pets come to think of it!), I would like you to be out of work too.

The bottom line is that we need as a society to do a better job of meeting the needs of the dogs we share our lives with.  Our dogs deserve to have good genetics, safe homes and good food every day.  They deserve good veterinary care, and training and education and someone who likes them and likes to do stuff with them.  They deserve to share their lives with people who care and have time for them.  And if every dog started out with his needs being met, and a plan for what will happen in the event that his family`s life goes haywire.

And in exchange for this little dream of mine?  Well, I guess I would be willing to do something other than what I now do for a living.  I just don’t see it happening any time soon. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Sometimes when I first meet with a client and their dog, I am struck by how mismatched they are.  I see small, easy going, space avoidant people with giant, pushy, intense dogs who jump all over them, or families with young children and intense predatory dogs.  I see outdoors people who partner themselves with thin coated dogs and people who prefer to stay in when it is cold with dogs who have an abundance of coat.  I see a lot of mis matches in the work that I do.  

I usually ask my clients why they chose the dog they have and I get a variety of answers.  He needed a home.  I was lonely and he was at the shelter.  He would have DIED.  I have always wanted a (insert breed).  My husband wanted an X and I wanted a Y, so we compromised and got an X/Y cross.  Perhaps the most common answer to “Why did you get this breed of dog?” is “What do you mean?” as though the question doesn’t make any sense to the listener.  Sometimes they still don’t get it when I rephrase it in different terms such as “Well, what attracts you about the Scottish Gutterhound?”

When this happens, a little vignette plays through my mind.  In my mind’s eye I see a pretty young girl, say about sixteen, running into her mother’s kitchen, breathless and excited.  “Mom, mom,” she cries, obviously excited, “Mom, LOOK what I found!” and following her, somewhat reluctantly is a man about thirty years older then her.  He is a bit dishevelled, and a cigarette is hanging unlit from his mouth.  He is looking sort of bashful and out of sorts in the “how did I get here” sort of way that I see on the faces of many of the dogs I meet.  “Mom, this is Ralph, and I found him at the bus stop”, (at this point, Ralph looks up and says something truly profound like “how d’y’do” and looks away again), “and I am going to MARRY him.”

In my little fantasy, Mom plays several roles depending on how I am feeling.  In some cases, Mom is surprised and delighted; “Oh, Honey, you always wanted to get married!” and the two of them go off to plan the wonderful day.  Sometimes she is outraged.  “You get that man out of here!  You are NOT getting married young lady.”  Sometimes she is curious and asks Ralph what he does for a living. 
Ralph doesn’t have a job.  Ralph worked at a gas station and has two kids from a previous relationship, he smokes, he drinks heavily and he mostly likes to sit on the couch and burp.  He currently lives with his mother’s basement, “until things get better”.  Our heroine is young, attractive and interested in doing things.  She likes dancing and meeting new people and her hobbies include needlework, and downhill skiing.

“Why Ralph?” asks her mother.  And here is where we can insert almost any of the responses I get from dog owners.  “I always wanted a husband.”  “He is tall.  I like tall men.”  “If I didn’t marry him, then no one would marry him, and then he would DIE.”  “THEY were going to kill him.”  “My friend brought him home, but her mom won’t let HER marry him, so now I have him.”  “I only meant to keep him for a couple of weeks until my brother got out of jail (yes, I have had a client tell me that!)”  “He just has such sad, sad eyes.”  “I was lonely.”  “When we first met, he paid a LOT of attention to me.” 

How many people think that Ralph is going to be a good mate for this young girl?  Will they grow old together, cherishing one another’s company?  Are they likely to have similar values and dreams?  Are they compatible?  Who knows.  They might be.  They might not be too.  And the sad thing is that this is almost exactly the way that many folks choose a dog.

When I ask someone why they chose the dog they want, I find that many people haven’t thought about the whole picture of the dog that they want.  They haven’t thought about the ins and outs of their breed choice.  They haven’t considered things like the compatibility of the dog to their lives.  I work with a lot of wonderful people who rise to occasion, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t easy for the dogs either.  Choosing a dog to share ten or more years of your life with is as significant as choosing a life partner, and yet people often do this with about as little forethought as the girl I describe above. 

So what should you look at when choosing a dog?  Knowing that it is a long commitment is a good starting point but not the whole story.  How much or little and what type of exercise is another important part of the story.  Grooming is an important consideration and not only for the coated breeds.  We boarded a dalmation in our home almost ten months ago.  We still find tiny slivers of Dalmatian hair in crevices of the couch, in blankets and on dog beds that have been laundered many, many times.  How brainy the dog is should be considered too; I often tell people that what they want is a willing dog, not a smart dog.  Smart dogs know how to figure out the dog proof garbage system.  Willing dogs are willing to leave the garbage alone.  More than anything though, I think it is important to know yourself before you find a dog to suit you.  If you know who you are and what you like to do, on a deep level, then finding a dog who will match is going to be a lot easier.  It is very important that you choose based on personality traits and not on looks, because although form does follow function, preference for looks does not always follow any such logical pattern. 

Once you have settled on an overall type of dog who will fit into your life, then you need to set out to find a source for that dog.  If you are looking for a purebred, you can easily find pools of breeders of your type of dog at conformation dog shows.  If you are looking for a mixed breed dog it is much harder, but not impossible.  The key is to get connected with people who have dogs that are similar to those you like and find out where they got their dogs.  

Many people feel strongly that they want to rescue a dog as their contribution to canine society.  If this is the route you feel you want to go, then it is essential that you have a solid knowledge of dog behaviour and an understanding not only of what you want but also of what the kennel cards at the rescue mean.  Just like the real estate term “a handy man’s dream” might mean that it comes with a fully integrated workshop, but it more likely means that the home is condemned and needs a lot of work, the kennel cards can be telling.  What does “Must go to a home with children over the age of 7” really mean?  Does it mean that the dog is highly active and too rowdy for youngsters in pre-school?  Or does it mean that in his home of origin, the dog bit a child?  How about “Needs to be a single dog”?  It could mean that the dog just doesn’t bother with other dogs and won’t enjoy another dog in his life, but it could also mean that the dog is likely to attack another dog.  Like Ralph, the dogs in the shelter come with a back story, and the kennel cards are only rough clues of what you are looking at.  And like the mother of the bride at the bus stop, I really hope you will find out as much as you can about the dog who is going to be a part of your life for the next ten to fifteen years BEFORE that dog comes home.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Imagine for a moment that every litter of puppies born was the result of a planned breeding of two healthy, stable dogs, and that the breeder had found appropriate, committed families for every puppy.  What would the impact be on the pet population situation?  What would this look like?

To begin with it would mean that every bitch bred out there would be healthy and a good representative of her type.  There is a difference between a purebred dog and a purpose bred dog.  A purebred dog has to have two parents who are also purebreds of that breed.  Thus, a Golden Retriever has both a Golden Retriever dam and a Golden Retriever sire.  A Shi Tzu has a Shi Tzu dam and a Shi Tzu sire.  To be a purebred dog, you don’t have to have healthy parents; you just have to be the offspring of two purebred dogs of the same breed.

A purpose bred dog is a healthy dog who has two healthy parents.  Suppose for a moment that you were a dairy farmer and you had a farm dog who brought in the cattle.  And suppose that this dog was female, and very talented and healthy.  You could make a great argument for finding an appropriate sire and breeding your bitch to produce more nice puppies, provided that you have homes for the pups you don’t want to keep.  Introducing more genetic variation in this way can sometimes help to keep a population healthy.  Provided that your dog is healthy and does the work you want her to do, you can often produce really nice puppies this way, who will grow into really nice adult dogs. 

An outcross like this is much more likely to produce healthy, desired adult dogs than might a breeding of two dogs who are unhealthy, even if they are of the same breed.  So if you have a German Shepherd but she is very nervous, and limps sometimes, then you don’t want to breed her at all, even if her parents are champions, and even if you really like her.  If she is not an outstanding example of her breed, she should not be bred.  Then consider what happens when a dog like this is bred to a sire who is aggressive and who also has some structural problems.  The puppies are much more likely to have behaviour and structure problems, and even if you have found homes for all of them, they are much less likely to stay in those homes for their entire lives.  You can breed nice dogs, or you can breed not nice dogs, and which you choose to do will have big impacts on the pet population as a whole.

Friday is a Purebred, Purpose Bred dog with a commited family who will be there for her for her whole life.  Every dog deserves this!
Purpose bred dogs MIGHT be purebreds, but they are not necessarily purebreds; they are bred intentionally dogs who are healthy and who have homes to go to.  So purebreds can be purpose breds, but purpose bred dogs don’t have to be purebreds.  In order to address the issue of the effect of indiscriminate breeding, every litter needs to be purpose bred, regardless of if it is a litter of purebreds, of mixed breeds, or of unknown heritage bred dogs.  Every litter that is indiscriminately bred contributes to the problem, and every litter of purpose bred dogs addresses it.

So let’s just imagine a perfect world where every dog was the product of a careful, well thought out breeding program.  Each person breeding a litter would also have dedicated puppy parents who were waiting to get their carefully bred dog at an age that is appropriate; about 7 to 8 weeks of age.  Each puppy family would go to a good puppy class, and each family would have reasonable expectations for their pups.  In the event of some crisis the breeder would be willing to take the purpose bred dog back.  How many of these dogs would end up in a shelter?  Probably not very many. 

This is what we should be striving for when we consider how we are going to resolve the pet population situation in North America.  At the moment in North America we are faced with some interesting situations.  In some areas, such as the one I live in, there are very few stray and unwanted dogs.  There are former research dogs looking for homes.  There are some “free to a good home” ads.  But there aren’t stray dogs living in our streets.  For the most part, in Guelph, Ontario, we don’t have a pet overpopulation problem.  In fact, we import dogs from all over the world, especially from the Southern United States and from Northern Ontario to fill our needs for rescued dogs. 

On the other hand, I hear from colleagues in the mid west and western United States that they still have many unwanted dogs who live off the land and who breed and produce pups who grow up to live in the dumpsters, or on the fringes of towns or farms.  These dogs are unvaccinated so they are a sink for diseases and they are often a nuisance to those who live close by.  These dogs are often trapped, poisoned and shot in an effort to control the population.  Some of these dogs end up in shelters and then are either killed or shipped elsewhere to meet the growing demand for “rescued” dogs.  It is important to understand that these dogs are usually very healthy, because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be able to survive.  It would not be hard to argue that some of these dogs should be permitted to live out their lives on the fringe against the day when purebred indiscriminately bred dogs need the genetic variation they could provide. 

There is a strong presence on the internet supporting rescuing dogs ahead of purchasing a purpose bred dog.  The problem is that these dogs have to come from somewhere.  Locally, it is more popular to rescue than to purchase a dog.  So we have a supply and demand problem.  In Guelph, I have met dogs who have been rescued off the beaches in the Caribbean, who have been rescued in Korea and Taiwan and Indonesia and who have been brought here to live.  Not all of these dogs do well.  In fact, many of them don’t do well at all.  And as long as rescuing is considered the better option, there needs to be a supply of these dogs. 

I would love to see rescues cease to need to exist.  I recognize that in various parts of North America there is a genuine pet overpopulation crisis.  This is not the case everywhere though.  In selected pockets, we are beating back the problem and now we have to come up with another solution.  The most common solution is to import, but that brings on its own problems too. 

We see a similar population problem when pesticides are used.  Consider a wheat field.  If you take all the grasshoppers out of the wheat field, after the toxins have washed away, you now have a wheat field that is ripe for an invasion of more plant eating insects.  In some cases, this results in a worse infestation than was originally there.  When we import dogs from other areas, we create a hole for another dog to fill, in the environment of origin.  Ultimately, this contributes to further population issues where the dog comes from because the solution doesn’t actually address the issue.

Similarly, we see local issues cropping up.  In a town half an hour north of Guelph there is a man who “rescues” two litter of puppies each year.  There is a bitch who lives in the ravine behind his house, and he feeds her and when she has a litter of puppies, he harvests the pups at about five weeks and sells them under the guise of rescuing them.  He sells the puppies to unsuspecting people, telling them that he has “rescued” the litter.  The fact that he is feeding the dam, but not providing any veterinary care is not discussed.  The fact that the pups didn’t get the early socialization that they should have had doesn’t get discussed either.  By providing food, and a whelping shelter that he has lured this dog into, he has set himself up as an empty wheat field.  When this dog eventually dies, it is quite likely that another will appear in her place, filling the niche.

Spaying and neutering isn’t addressing the issue adequately-we are still seeing dogs being indiscriminately bred.  Spay/neuter and release programs hold promise of keeping active niches full so that new dogs don’t enter them and produce even more unwanted puppies.  Limiting access to resources such as food and shelter is another effective method of population control that is not nearly often enough thought of; if food and shelter are limited, pups won’t be produced.  Coming back to my imaginary scenario, it is easy to see that if every pup was purposefully bred, was carefully placed and if every family getting a dog was realistic and dedicated, we wouldn’t have a pet overpopulation problem anywhere.  And it is time we started to peck away at that problem.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

I am not JUST a Dog Trainer

      For the past dozen years or so I have made my living helping people to train their dogs.  Over the years I have probably been a thousand kitchens, sitting down with my clients and helping them to find a middle ground they can live with in the company of their difficult dogs.  I have carved out a niche meeting dogs with problems that range from serious aggression, to grieving for a lost family member, and most of my job surrounds figuring out what the dog needs and addressing that within the family he lives with.  Sometimes my job is a little different though.

About ten years ago I had a client who called me when the family dog began attacking her.  When I went into the home, I found a very bizarre situation.  The husband was emotionally abusing the wife, and had come up with a unique way to do so.  He taught the dog to attack the woman on cue and then blamed her for getting the dog angry.  It took me quite some time to figure out what was happening in that case.  One day I dropped by and the husband was not home.  I spoke to the woman alone for the first time, and made her aware of some of the community resources available to her.  Shortly after, the family discontinued seeing me.  This is not uncommon especially when there is domestic violence involved. 

About eight or nine months after our last appointment, I went to my mailbox and got a letter out.  In a small blue envelope on a simple sheet of stationary, I read the following:

Dear Sue,
Thank you for the time you spent working with me and Micah.  We have left Darius and moved away, and we are safe now.  I wouldn’t have been able to leave without the support you gave us.*

The letter was not signed, but I recognized the names of the dog and the husband.  I realized something at that moment.  I am not JUST a dog trainer.  I am a person in our community who helps people, sometimes in unexpected ways.  In this case, I was lucky enough to know what to do when I had the chance to talk to this lady alone.

This was the first time that I encountered something that I have since encountered many times in my career.  I am a lot more than JUST a dog trainer.  I am called in to do dog training, but one of the true joys of what I do is that I often get to be a whole lot more than JUST a dog trainer.  In fact, dog training can be the tip of the iceberg in terms of my day to day activities.  I have been the butler, answering the door in the course of my job.  It wasn’t intentional; we were working on teaching the dog to cope with the door bell ringing and one of my volunteers turned out to be a real guest.  I have signed for packages and answered the phone.  I have held the baby, and swept the floor.  I have called 911 and reported an emergency and I have closed the gate behind me when I am finished. 

As a professional, my business card says that I work with families to overcome behaviour problems in their dogs.  My training is in behaviour modification, in ethology and in consulting skills.  As a behaviour consultant, I need a whole set of skills that we don’t talk much about or train for.  We don’t talk for instance about needing to be able to recognize when domestic abuse is occurring and we often don’t talk about what to do about it if we do see it.  We don’t talk about how to talk to owners about euthanasia when their dog is too dangerous to live with, and yet, we are sometimes faced with the need to do so.  And when pets die, we sometimes have to speak to the children of the families about death even if we haven’t had the training to do so.  In the course of my day to day activities I have had to assess a dog and determine if he needs to go to the vet, teach my clients about basic husbandry and help them to learn about things like cutting nails and stripping a terrier.  I have visited people who are unable to leave their homes, sometimes as the only person they see in a given day when I come to walk or train their dog.

I am glad that I am more than JUST a dog trainer.  In the course of my day I get to work with interesting people and do interesting things.  Things I didn’t expect when I started this job.  If I have learned one thing it is “be willing to do the unexpected”.  Doing the mundane unexpected things I have done at work has kept it interesting, exciting and surprising each and every day.  Dog training is not actually an animal job; it is a people job.  What I get back is more than just the money I earn helping people with their dogs, but also respect and acceptance and participation in a wider social construct.  Dog training is the kind of job that allows me to be a part of my community in a way that is meaningful and wonderful.