Saturday, March 30, 2013


Everyone wants their dogs to take treats gently and a lot of work in the early stages of dog training goes into making dogs take food gently and carefully, but what does a gentle mouth really tell us about the dog?  How a dog takes treats tells us a lot about the arousal state of the dog.  If he is calm, taking treats gently is easy for the dog.  If he is highly aroused, taking treats carefully is difficult for him.  The more highly aroused your dog is, the less able he is to exhibit self control and take treats without taking your fingers with them.

When we have dogs in our Good Dog class the staff use the rate and force with which a dog is taking treats to determine a number of things.  Is it safe to come closer?  Is the dog ready to do something operantly?  Does the dog need to leave now?  Should we give the dog more time or space to be successful?  All of these questions are answered by how the dogs take their treats.

Good Dog class is the group classical conditioning class that we offer at Dogs in the Park.  Yes, we run a class where we manipulate the variables to allow dogs to learn that they are safe in the presence of people and other dogs.  We increase the intensity of the stimuli that we offer the dogs as they are able to cope and we decrease the value of the treats as the dogs progress from reactivity or fear to calm and confident.  For those in the know, Classical Conditioning is form of learning that is usually about as exciting as watching paint dry.  What you do is to present one stimulus as the predictor of another stimulus until an association is formed.  Everyone experiences classical conditioning on a day to day basis, but most of us aren’t familiar with either the process or of how to manipulate it.  If you smell food cooking and start to salivate, then you are experiencing the outcome of classical conditioning.  You have experienced the food, and your body salivates when it smells the food in preparation for eating.

Have you wondered what a classical conditioning class looks like?  Kind of like this!  We are pairing food with the approach of a man walking towards a dog.

In the Good Dog classroom, we teach dogs that we can approach and good stuff will happen.  It is important that the good stuff happens regardless of what the dog is doing.  So if a dog is concerned about men with beards approaching, then John might approach and the owner will feed the dog his favourite food, one tiny piece at a time.  It doesn’t take long for most dogs to learn that John approaching predicts food and if they were afraid of him before, they learn to be confident about him approaching over time.  We can tell when the effect is beginning to take hold because the dogs stop taking treats with a hard frenzied mouth, and begin to take the treats softly and carefully.  One of our best measures of how aroused the dog is at any given moment is when the human bringing the dog is prompting “gentle, gentle, gentle!”  The more that the human is prompting, the less likely it is that the dog is really ready to move on to the next level.

Often, the dog will begin taking the treats more gently when the human is prompting, but rarely is it because of the cue.  More often, when the student is saying “gently” the dog is habituating to the presence of the other dogs and people in the room, and begins taking the treats gently not because of what the human is saying or doing but rather because his arousal is dropping.

So here is the key.  When the dog is taking treats gently, he is calm and relaxed.  Try this out with whatever firecracker of a dog you might know.  If you approach quietly and gently while the dog is resting, sit yourself down and calmly offer a treat under his nose, he will most likely take the treat gently.  This is a dog who is relaxed and calm.

When a dog takes a treat with care but is clearly aware of the fact that this is food, and that he wants it, then he is a smidgeon more aroused but still able to cope with his environment and follow directions.  This is where we want our dogs to be when we ask him to do work.  He is awake, alert and engaged and able to follow directions well, and nothing in the environment is a problem for him.

Dogs who take treats in a rush with a moderately hard mouth are more aroused and less able to focus on work.  They may merely be excited, but more often, they are approaching the threshold of their ability to engage in the environment is interfering with the ability to follow directions.  These dogs may be willing to do as you ask, but may appear scattered and may be unable to follow known cues and have difficulty learning new behaviours.

The truly grabby frantic hard mouth is indicative of a dog who is at or over threshold and unable to follow directions and integrate new information.  This dog is not coping with his environment well and we can use how he is taking treats as information that he should not be pressured.  This same dog is the dog you will see at the park with the owner who is trying to force his dog into a sit or a down to get his leash off. 

The final dog is the dog who won’t take treats at all.  A friend describes the natural state of the normal weight dog as perpetually hungry.  If you have a normal weight dog, why might he not take treats?  This dog is far over threshold.  He is not coping with his environment.  Perhaps he has learned somewhere that taking treats is dangerous or that the things in his environment contribute to risks to him.  This dog needs some time to learn that he is safe in his environment and that taking treats is a safe thing to do.

There are a few dogs who find treats themselves very exciting.  These dogs are the exception, not the rule, but we do see them.  When I want to evaluate how aroused those dogs are, I usually use something sticky for them to lick.  Licking slows them down and allows us to use their lick rate to evaluate how aroused they are.

The take away lesson here is that prompting a dog to take treats gently may save your fingers, but it can interfere with a valuable piece of information about your dog.  Subtle cues are what help us to evaluate what the dog is able to cope with on a moment to moment basis.  When you are working with a reactive or fearful dog, this information is essential to success.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Lately I have been reading on a number of lists that good breeders are few and far between.  People are lamenting the lack of breeders who keep stable structure and temperament in mind when they breed.  I am seeing more and more finger pointing at breeders as the source of ill tempered dogs, with poor structure.  It is true that poorly bred dogs are being produced by someone, but there is a second party in the equation.  You.  The consumer.  The person who purchases the ill tempered, poorly structured puppy is in part to blame.  When consumers start to be more discriminating in their choices of breeders fewer ill tempered dogs with poor structure will be bred. 

There is a problem that relates to this premise.  The problem is that many pet buyers and in fact even many veterinarians don’t recognize a good breeder.  I mentor a number of vet students each year.  And each year at least one of these students tells me that breeders are bad.  Vets don’t get sent out to dog shows to learn about the dogs that people are carefully breeding and they don’t learn about the way that good choices are made when breeding dogs.  Your average pet owner doesn’t know how to find a great breeder and the main person they would go to ask for information is usually at least as uninformed as they are.

Baby D'fer!  He came from Amy and John Dahl of Oakhill Kennels in North Carolina.  Definately breeders who know what they are breeding and why!

Trainers are a better source of contact for good breeders, but even in the training world where we deeply care about what pup comes into our homes, many trainers are not getting their dogs from good breeders believing that they can make a bigger difference by rescuing a dog.  Never the less, trainers are more closely tied into the world of breeders than many veterinarians because we have behavioural expectations of our dogs and we know a variety of people who also have behavioural expectations of their dogs and our network can help to lead you to the right dog to fit your life.  

Possibly the best place to go to get information about good breeders is a breed club if you are looking for a purebred.  If you are looking for a mixed breed, Rally and Agility clubs are great places to look for contacts for good breeders.  The problem is, if you don’t look, you won’t find the great match to fit your life.  If you just want a dog, and you don’t care if it is a slug who lies on the couch all day, or if it is an exercise-o-holic, then you can randomly choose any dog at all.  If you have any expectations at all of the dog who will live with you, you need to find a good way of culling out the dogs who don’t fit your needs, and until consumers demand better, they are going to keep getting mediocre.  Until consumers start to get picky about the dogs they choose to live with, they are going to continue to create and support breeders who don’t breed well tempered, good structured dogs.

So how can you tell if you have a good breeder who is doing his or her best to produce great dogs?  There are some hallmarks to look for.  With a few notable exceptions, great breeders don’t live so far off the grid that the only way to find them is to pack a lunch and paddle your canoe to get to them.  Great breeders have great reputations.  At one point I was looking for a standard poodle for a service dog program.  I went to a dog show and I watched the poodles being groomed.  I introduced myself and started to talk to the people grooming the poodles and told them about the dog I wanted.  I asked them who they would recommend.  One kennel name kept coming up over and over again.  I spoke to about five different handlers and they all said the same thing;-“if you want those characteristics in a dog, this is the kennel you want”.  I went to a second different show and talked up several more people in the poodle group and asked again, and again that same kennel kept coming up.  One handler suggested another kennel and then said “but they get all their breeding stock from this other kennel.”  The kennel I had been referred to over and over again.  That kennel, Dawin, in Ontario, had exactly the kind of dog I wanted.  Had I been looking for something else, I am sure the handlers would all have recommended a different kennel.  Handlers at dog shows are the world’s best kept secret in terms of finding the dog that you want.

The second thing about great breeders is that they are aware of what their dog’s faults are.  When I first got involved with dogs, I bought a breed book with all the breeds that were then recognized in Canada.  I read the whole book, cover to cover, even the breeds I knew I didn’t want.  That was perhaps one of the best exercises I could have done.  I learned a lot about dog breeds, traits and characteristics and temperament.  I learned that a correct temperament for a Kuvaz is aloof.  I learned that the correct temperament for a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is friendly.  I learned that some breeds of pointers should naturally exhibit pointing behaviour.  I also learned about which breeds I wanted to live with and which ones I did not.  I narrowed the choice down to two; the Chesapeake Bay Retriever and the German Shepherd.  And then I went to a dog show to meet the breeds.  All the chessie people told me about the drawbacks to their breed, and what I should consider when getting a chessie.  Many of them told me that I should consider them as a second dog, but get an easier dog first.  The German Shepherd people all told me that shepherds were great dogs.  Knowing what I know now, and looking back, the chessie would have been a better choice, in part because the breeders were upfront with the drawbacks to the breed.  There are a lot of drawbacks to my beloved German Shepherds and I would have been better served had I known those drawbacks up front.

The third thing I like to ask a breeder is “what are you breeding for?”  If they respond “good temperament and great structure!” I know we need to dig a little deeper.  A good temperament in a German Shepherd is not a good temperament in a Golden Retriever and vice versa.  If I am visiting a lab breeder and they tell me that they breed for a deep chest and a strong back, with a stout otter like tail, who is willing and eager to work with people and carry things around, who tolerates a high level of noise and activity without distress, and whose ancestors had good health into their early teens, then I know I am talking to someone who has thought about what it means to breed a good Labrador retriever.  If I talk to a lab breeder who tells me that they want to breed dogs with good structure and temperament, then I know I need to keep looking for another breeder.

Finally, I like to get to know the breeders I am buying from.  The last three dogs I purchased were all from training colleagues.  The first, Amy Dahl was someone I got to know well through a variety of interactions in the training world and on line.  She and I had collaborated on a couple of projects and I had consulted with her on a behaviour problem in a dog she knew.  The second was Robin Winter of Narnia Kennel who had competed against me in a number of dog shows.  I also met several dogs she had breed and I really liked them.  The third is a trainer Mel Wooley of Stahlworth Kennel who has presented at our Service Dog Seminar.  She has an incredible dog, Divah, who I really like, and when the chance came to get a Diva puppy, I jumped at the opportunity.  10 years later, I am still in touch with Amy from time to time, 6 years later I am still in touch with Robin sporadically, and 18 months later, I am in regular contact with Mel.  I would consider all my breeders to be good friends and I know that if any of my dogs had any issues, I could turn to them for help.  If you really like the dogs, but you just cannot stand the people who breed them, consider that if the paperwork doesn't come through or if the dog has a congenital issue that pops up years later, these are the same people you will have to work with.  If you cannot work with them when the going is good, you aren't likely going to be able to work with them when the going is tough.

The bottom line is that until consumers start asking for better dogs we are going to keep getting second rate animals.  If we were to treat the car industry the way we treat the dog industry we would buy cars that just fell apart and we would accept that as not only normal but as desirable.  We need to demand better minimum standards and when we do, the world of breeders will turn around.  Breeders breed what sells, and if it doesn't matter to you what dog ends up in your home, it won't matter to the breeder either.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

On Leash

I have a lot of students who struggle with leash manners with their dogs.  They expect to be able to walk along and never connect with their dogs in any kind of meaningful way.  They seem to think that marching around a city block at what amounts to a slow shuffle will fulfill their dog’s needs for exercise and mental stimulation.  Most dogs don’t agree that this is a desirable activity.  It beats sitting in the house, but it doesn’t meet the dog’s needs either for mental stimulation or for exercise. 

Let’s start out by looking at an on leash dog walk from the dog’s perspective.  To begin with, the two leggers go far too slow and far too consistently.  They go one methodical step at a time, piece by piece around the neighbourhood.  They never break out into a joyous bound, or stop suddenly to sniff the important stuff.  I imagine that if the dog were to operate the walk, you would leave your front door like a freight train running free down a mountain and then you would come to a crashing halt about two driveways down.  After a brief pause to check the pee mail, the dog would choose to zig and zag through the obstacles of the local yards, vaulting over obstacles and changing directions on a whim.  Imagine for a moment the most whimsical tour of your neighbourhood, where you are permitted the joy of looking into your neighbour’s trash bins, of hurdling the decorative fences and of stopping suddenly when the need arises.  You would pee at least four times, and you might defecate too.  Probably on the least weedy lawn along your route.  In short, a dog walk would be a dog “bounce, change direction, explore, go to the toilet, bounce again, run around, see things major event”.

I think most dogs start out every walk in the hope that we, the dog walking people, will someday “get it”.  Instead, every day, the people try and fit this free joyous spirit into a slow march of straight lines, scheduled stops and complete lack of interaction with the environment.  Walking the dog becomes a chore that we have to convince ourselves to do, for several reasons.  Firstly, few dogs naturally match our pace and few people are any good at matching their dog’s pace.  Secondly, people rarely do a good job of teaching the dog what we expect.  We are still delighted when the dog learns to sit at corners, but forget that corners and street crossing only makes up a very small part of the walk.  When the rest of the walk is made up of a constant tug of war between you and the dog, fighting over the pace and direction, this is not a pleasant recreational activity and it is no wonder that few people enjoy walking their dogs even though most folks feel they must for some reason do so.

In order to meet your dog’s needs for exercise and mental stimulation there is nothing that will beat an off leash walk in a country setting.  I well recognize that my friends in downtown Toronto and New York City do not have this luxury, but if I were to develop the optimal situation for my canine friends, it would be to give each and every one of them a half an hour to an hour off leash, walking with me, in a safe rural setting.  This does not mean that the dog will go out and run sheep or chase horses either; this means that you and your dog will travel for an hour or so, on foot, together or in the company of other people and dogs, and the dogs are permitted to bolt ahead and fall back, to sniff and to leap and return and check in with you.  To do this means that you must start early-preferably before sixteen weeks when the dog begins to be more independent and it means that you must teach the dog to check in regularly with you.  There are rare exceptions, but the majority of dogs can learn to do this and it is very mentally good for them to do so.

Dogs do need to learn to walk nicely on leash, and I teach that there are three rules for leash walking. 

1.     Putting the leash on is a commitment from the human to pay attention to what they are doing.  This includes paying attention to the dog, to the environment, to the world around you, to the dogs in your environment and being present at all times.  This does not happen if you walk and talk on your cell.  Or if you stop and engage with the neighbours. 

2.     A tight leash is a brake.  If the leash goes tight, then you must stop.  The difference between good brakes and bad brakes is how much tension you must feel before you stop.  In general, if the leash is not hanging directly below your hand, then it is too tight.

3.     Walk with direction and purpose.  There is nothing more annoying than accompanying someone who is wandering around and the dog knows this.  If you are walking purposefully, and you have a direction to go and a reason for going there, the dog will go with you quite happily.  On the other hand if you wander along, with no particular reason for going where you are going, the dog is going to go somewhere meaningful for him.  For most dogs, this means that going around the block is annoying.  You start out, you turn right, you turn right, you turn right, you turn right and you are back home again.  What fun is that?  There is no point for most dogs!  If on the other hand, you go out to the potty place, allow your dog to toilet, and then walk purposefully to the corner, stop, check in with your dog and then cross the street to the park where he can go off leash, then your dog is likely going to be willing to do that politely and in a controlled connected manner.

Yes, he is a service dog, but the rules still apply; the leash is loose so we can move forward!

Opps!  The leash got tight so we will need to stop!

When you walk your dog on leash, you have to have some sort of system to come to an agreement about what that walk will look like.  If you follow the rules above, and provide some appropriate off leash walking opportunities, then you can have pleasant outings together.  There ARE other systems, but the bottom line remains the same; you must commit to something if you are going to walk on a loose leash with your dog.

If you have been battling a pulling or lunging dog, you should know that it will take time to teach him to walk nicely on leash, and obliterating 100% of errors is unrealistic.  Saying that your dog will never ever pull on leash or lunge is like saying that you will never take a wrong turn in traffic or make a spelling mistake.  We are not perfect, but if we can be present with our dogs when we walk with them, then we can achieve great things together.