Welcome to Woofie's
Dominance Needs to Go the Way of the White Elephant... 21 December 2012
I think the word dominance should be removed from the vocabulary of every dog lover. It is not a word that has loving intent or promises a loving outcome. From my perspective, overcoming this word is an unending battle. It seems no one knows how to observe or communicate dog behavior without applying this attribute to it. In fact, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has made a statement opposing the application of dominance theory in behavior modification in favor of the more positive approaches of reinforcing desirable behaviors.
The most damaging consequence of dominance theory is the application of punishment-based training techniques in order to make our dogs succumb to our dominance. There are inherent and often unavoidable difficulties to applying punishment in training, which I have discussed in my own writings (When Considering Using Punishment) but which are also thoroughly outlined in the AVSAB’s position statement on the Adverse Effects of Punishment.
I know of more than a few dog guardians whose relationship has been deeply changed by employing alpha rolls and “dominance downs”. And I find myself in very good company when I read of other behavior specialists, much more experienced, knowledgeable and famous than I, who relate stories about clients whose relationships with their dogs have been damaged by practicing punishment-based techniques. Dr. Sophia Yin, veterinary behaviorist, relates such stories in her article New Study Finds Popular "Alpha Dog" Training Techniques Can Cause More Harm Than Good.
So the science is behind me, as the preceding paragraphs attest. Ultimately dog training is just an application of learning theory, which works with every organism. But, instead of citing science, perhaps it’s easier to draw on more personal contexts… How do you learn best? By encouragement or rebuke? By reinforcement or correction? Your dog wants to know.
Tails of the Leash-Reactive Dog... 7 September 2012
So I love this article. Firstly, I have a leash-reactive dog. Yes, I'm a dog trainer with a leash-reactive dog. You expected her to be perfect?!? Well, with work, Trista's become just about bulletproof but she still has her ugly moments. And no one understands it better than another guardian with a dog-reactive dog. I've dashed, hidden, cried, prayed to the gods, and everything else under the sun, just like this person. But what got me through the hard times was remembering that I am no more a perfect human than my dog is a perfect dog. She who casts the first stone...
There is a movement to put yellow ribbons on the leash of a dog who wants space. I love this idea, though I think it should be unnecessary. Why people insist on having their dogs greet every dog on the street when they clearly don't express the same social behavior with every human they pass on their walks is beyond me. All dogs should be granted their space unless both have that "come hither" look.
Not to be self-aggrandizing but... get a trainer! It doesn't have to be me! Just get any certified trainer who employs positive, relationship-building techniques to modify behavior. And don't wait til the last minute... til the month before your baby is due with your kid-phobic dog, or after you've already brought home a little canine sibling for your dog-aggressive pooch. Every day that your dog has to live with her fears is another uncomfortable day for her and an additional day that she practices the wrong behavior. As soon as you see an inkling of fear or defensiveness, pick up the phone. Nothing makes a dog trainer happier than helping bring peace to the multi-species family!
Anyway, the long and short of it is that it takes work, day in and day out... there's no magic fix. So many of my clients want a magic fix... HECK I wanted a magic fix! Instead, there will be good days and bad days. There will be countless times on the street when other ignorant owners let their dog get up in your dog's grill and scare the poop out of her. Just keep on keeping on. Love will find the way! Oh, and a healthy dose of laughter, fist-pumping, and bacon!
Territorial Behavior and the Mailman... 16 July 2012
Why does the mailman always get bitten?! Because his job is to come to the house, deliver the mail and go. So, as the dog looks out the window, he sees the mailman’s approach and barks to alert the family. Then the mailman turns and goes, and Fido thinks that it was he who affected the departure. Now imagine all the passersby, people and dogs, passing the home with no intention of entering. Again, Fido attributes their continuing on their way to his barking. He starts to get an inflated sense of guarding the home. So, when people actually do come to visit and enter the home, Fido is forced to escalate his behavior in order to drive the interloper away, maybe by biting. And so territorial behavior is born!
It is important that dogs who bark at passersby be prevented from performing the behavior when no one is at home. Otherwise they are practicing the behavior over and over again, perfecting it for the fateful day when someone dares to visit. So, when you’re not at home, close the blinds, pull the couch away from the windows, or simply close your dog off from the room with the view. And, when you are at home, call him away with a touch and ask for another behavior, getting him to think about other things.
Impulse Control... 18 May 2012
Instilling impulse control means teaching your dog that he gets the things he wants for polite behavior, not for demanding behavior. If your dog wants to go for a walk, dancing around when he sees the leash is going to make the leash go back on the hook; sitting quietly to be leashed up is a successful way of saying please and will get the desired result. While waiting for his meal to be prepared, barking and whining will mean that the dinner bowl goes back on the shelf out of reach; sitting calmly and waiting to be released to his bowl will earn his meal.
Ideally, with impulse control exercises, you don’t want to tell your pooch what to do explicitly. That would be solving his problem for him. Instead wait for polite behavior to be offered. This way your pooch is learning how to be a polite dog every moment of the day, not just the moments that he’s receiving direct instruction from you.
Leash-Biting... 10 March 2012
Leash-biting is a dangerous game, often practiced by young adolescent dogs and especially by pit bull mixes. Tugging the leash or a rope toy harkens up prey drive, which terriers have in spades. The trick is to not get into a tug-of-war with them, at least when it comes to the leash. For dogs who get very aroused and dangerous, here are some tips:
- Use a firm “UH-UH!” right at the moment of grabbing for the leash and then copiously reinforce (verbally and with treats) when he drops the leash and offers an alternative behavior. Watch that a behavior pattern doesn’t develop of his picking up the leash only to drop it, sit, and get a treat. Instead, keep the dog engaged with performing good behaviors (like loose-leash walking) so that this pattern doesn’t take hold. It’s just a question of breaking this bad habit and forging better ones.
- Letting the dog carry a toy may satisfy his oral needs.
- For the most aggregious offenders, try using two leashes and two handlers. When the dog grabs one leash, that handler can drop the leash and the other still holds a leash, and vice versa. The game may lose its allure.
Adolescents and Arousal... 4 March 2012
It’s no mystery why so many shelter dogs fall into the category of medium- to large-breed adolescents. Adolescence is typically the age at which any species becomes rambunctious and unruly. In dogs, adolescence runs from 6 to 18 months, and the larger breeds have the potential to leave the greatest destruction in their wakes. It takes a patient, level-headed, and committed owner to weather the storm and guide their dog to realize their best self.
All adolescents need to be taught how to manage their own levels of arousal, and canine adolescents are no different. With extended amounts of play or excitement, a dog can become unruly and unmanageable – jumping on you, crashing into you, barking at you, even becoming mouthy to the point of drawing blood. Instead of allowing your dog to remain at this fevered pitch, you must help him learn to manage his arousal levels.
To teach your dog how to better master his arousal levels, interleave play with control behaviors like sit or down before releasing him back to play. When playing fetch, as your dog returns with the ball, ask for a drop, then for a sit before throwing the ball and releasing him to retrieve it. In a game of tug, ask for a drop, then a down before releasing him to take the tug toy again. Over time, these games with rules will foster more respectful play habits.
Janis Bradley Comments on Cesar Millan... 11 January 2012
I love what Janis Bradley, author of Dogs Bite, says so much that I have to pass it on...
"On his TV show, the main method Millan uses for aggression is aversives (leash jerks, kicks, snaps of the hand against the neck, and restraint, among others) applied non contingently. The aversives are non contingent because they are so frequent that they're not connected to any particular behavior on the part of the dog—the dog gets popped pretty much constantly. This results in a state called learned helplessness, which means the animal hunkers down and tries to do as little as possible. This is what Millan calls "calm submission." It's exactly the same thing you see in a rat in a Skinner box that is subjected to intermittent shocks it can do nothing to avoid. This can happen quite fast, by the way, shall we say in ten minutes? The dangers to the dog are obvious, ranging from chronic stress to exacerbating the aggression, i.e., some dogs fight back when attacked. This latter is the simplest reason that aversives are a bad idea in treating aggression. Even used technically correctly as positive punishment for specific behaviors like growling and snarling, aversives do nothing to change the underlying fear or hostility, so the best you can hope for, in the words of famed vet and behaviorist, Ian Dunbar, is "removing the ticker from the time bomb." Thus such methods substantially increase the risk to humans of getting bitten."
What a beautifully scientific analysis of Cesar's "hocus pocus". See a recent article called Talk Softly and Carry a Carrot or a Big Stick? for more on this topic...
You're Being Watched!... 22 June 2011
One of the most striking differences between canis lupus and canis familiaris is the latter’s ability to read our facial expressions. As dogs have evolved at the side of humans, they have been attentive students, learning to distinguish the ripple of expressions that pass over our faces with the same fluency that they read their own brethren. With this in mind, make sure not to give your dog mixed signals. If your pooch is doing an undesirable behavior, like jumping up or pawing at you, no matter how cute he might seem to you at that moment, don’t smile while saying “no”. This is like the old saying: “Your words may say no but the rest of you is saying yes, Yes, YES!” Try to send a consistent message on all frequencies: words, tone of voice, body language, and facial expression.
See a recent New York Times article for more on this topic...
NILIF – A Training Buzz Word... 4 April 2011
The principle of NILIF (“Nothing In Life Is Free”) is that your dog needs to work for everything he deems valuable. Under NILIF, nothing should be proffered for free. He needs to learn that you are the one granting him each and every resource – food, toys, affection, access to furniture, going for walks, everything.
How strictly you adhere to NILIF depends on your dog. A dog who is pushy and demanding and disrespectful of others’ space should have a more strict NILIF structure than a dog who is polite, respectful and compliant.
Some trainers insist on an unwavering “one-size-fits-all” approach to NILIF and, I’ll admit, there are some dogs who would be unbearable without such complete compliance. But a majority of dogs and a majority of owners needn’t obey such a strict lifestyle. Don’t we live with our furry canine companions so that we can tousle their fur and rain kisses on their wet noses even when they’re not sitting politely at our feet?! I’ll admit wholeheartedly that I do!
More to the point, and of greater concern, is that if such a strict regimen is insisted upon, pooch parents are less likely to execute it consistently, and inconsistency is the devil’s workshop. Dogs trained with inconsistent structure will be less certain of their lifescape and more likely to test boundaries and make mistakes.
So, while NILIF may be appropriate for the most challenging dogs, what's more important, and most achievable, is NGGFBB ("Nothing Good Granted For Bad Behavior"). Now that's a tenet I think we can all live with!
People Food as Treats – To Do or Not To Do... 21 March 2011
So many of my clients worry that feeding their dog people food, and from their own plate no less, will encourage him to beg at the table at meal times and will cause him to turn his nose up at his own food.
I heartily disagree. It’s not what treats you’re feeding your dog and where you’re feeding them to him that will teach him to beg; it’s when you’re feeding him! It might start with him putting his paw solicitously on your knee. You think it’s cute and you give him a tasty tidbit. A soft paw in the lap becomes a more brusque pawing of your leg, then a shoveling of his head under your hand, and so on. Before you know it, you’ve got yourself a beggar.
Instead, if you teach your dog that calm, quiet, polite behavior gets appreciation and treats, then that is the behavior he will demonstrate. If he gets rich reward for lying quietly at your feet, then this is precisely what he’ll do. Imagine how hard he’ll work for such delightful delicacies as boiled chicken, cheese, hot dogs, even steak! And they are as healthy for him as they are for us.
Of course we don’t want our dogs to reject their normal dog food in favor of people food. Canine diet, whether in dry kibble form, in canned form or in a raw or home-prepared diet, needs to be specially formulated for their complete nutritional needs. If your dog is rejecting his food, there may be more at issue than the human food he’s getting as treats. Instead, he may not like his food and it would behoove you to find a more palatable (and healthy) alternative for him.
Gravitational Pull of a Distractor... 22 February 2011
Some dogs find it difficult to attend to their handlers in the company of dogs, people, or other distractions (like cats or birds). They are too transfixed by the distraction to listen to commands or tear their attention away. I call this the gravitational pull of that distractor. You need to keep a distance from the distractor where your gravitational pull is stronger than that of the distractor.
So, for instance, if there’s a dog approaching you on the sidewalk, get Fido to a distance from the dog where he can still “hear” you and respond to your commands. Ask for a behavior, like a sit or down or watch or touch – not always the same behavior or he will start doing it automatically and so he won’t have to attend to you. Then, when he’s obeyed the command, reinforce him, either by letting him meet the dog (if that was your intention) or giving him a treat and walking away.
With consistent training and practice, the gravitational pull will decrease and Fido will be able to attend to you at closer and closer distances from the distractor.
The Dangers of Too Much Freedom... 9 February 2011
People frequently complain about the issues that arise from a pup who has not yet learned proper house manners. Perhaps you’re familiar with them… potty accidents in the house, chewing on shoes and pillows, jumping up on the furniture and counters. What this tells me is that the dog is being granted too much freedom without appropriate supervision.
My motto is: The more freedom a young dog gets now, the less he’ll get in the future; the less he gets now, the more he’ll get in the future.
Your young pooch is developing habit. Whether that habit will be chewing on the family heirlooms or chewing quietly on his toys is entirely up to you. If you decide to leave him to his own devices before he’s developed the right habits and he develops a taste for wood furniture, then that will be a habit that’ll need to be broken before you will feel compelled to leave him free in the house. Instead, if, in your absence, you keep him confined with only appropriate items available to him and then, when you are around, you supervise him closely to make sure he stays on the right path, then he will develop habits that you’ll be able to trust for all the years that follow.
The choice is up to you. Don’t make your dog suffer a lifetime of limitation for the sake of the short-term gratification you feel by giving him his freedom before he’s ready!
Time-Outs... 3 February 2011
When your dog is practicing an undesirable behavior, like nipping at heels or being barky, mark with a no reward marker (“uh uh!”). If the behavior continues, then say “Too bad!”, and grab your pup’s leash and take him to a door, putting him on the other side of the door from you with the leash threaded through the door to your side. (Alternatively, you can tie the leash to a door handle and walk away from him, if that’s easier. Or you can leave the room yourself, closing the door behind you, and only returning when he’s quiet.) The time-out shouldn’t be long, only 15 to 30 seconds, just long enough for your pooch to miss your companionship but not so long that he gets distracted with another activity. Let him back in and interact again; see if the behavior is being inhibited. If not, repeat the time-out. Do not let him back in if he’s barking or otherwise complaining.
An important note: Make sure that, when putting your dog into the time-out, you do not touch him but instead just grab the leash to usher him away. Physical contact with the dog will be construed as reinforcement of the behavior.
The Dominance Myth and Misnomer... 2 November 2010
The term dominance has developed into a catch-all for characterizing just about every undesirable behavior our dogs practice – from jumping on people in greeting to barking for attention and lunging at other dogs on the street. It has become our excuse for behavior that is really just that of a poorly trained dog.
This wrestling that we’re doing with the question of dominance is perhaps the single greatest threat to our relationships with our dogs. And the things we do in the name of asserting our dominance mar the loving fabric we have woven together with them.
Because dominant behavior is so rarely the underlying cause of behavior problems, we should challenge ourselves to leave the word dominance out of our vocabulary entirely, and instead compel ourselves to identify the true root issues. Our relationships with our dogs would undoubtedly be the better for it.
Coppinger on Pack Behavior... 22 August 2010
“Pack behaviors, like all behavior, are epigenetic – above the genes. They are a result of behaviors learned during the critical period. Pack behavior is just one of many social options available to wolves. If dogs don’t develop pack social behavior during their critical period, there is no sense in trying to simulate pack leadership after that social window closes. Pack behaviors are much more complicated than just hierarchies of social status. They are learned through social play and care-soliciting behaviors during the juvenile period. A trainer who pretends to be the alpha leader of a wolf pack – say, by turning a dog over onto its back and getting down and growling at its throat – is intimidating the dog, no doubt. But to a dog, the message is not what the trainer thinks it is. Teaching and learning are seldom facilitated by intimidation. A dog doesn’t learn how to sit from a trainer who intimidates it, simply because the coercion diverts the dog’s attention away from the task and toward its social status. An alpha wolf is not trying to teach a pack member anything, especially to sit. The fact that so many believe the wolf-pack homology, and use it in training a dog, is really a testament to how little is understood about canine behavioral development.” (by Ray and Lorna Coppinger in Dogs – A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution, p. 110, Scribner 2001)
The Canine Tap-Out... 10 August 2010
Dogs sometimes roll over on their backs in an evasive maneuver, referred to as a “tap out”, to avoid certain handling. The term “tap out” comes from wrestling jargon for the flat-handed tap a wrestler might do on the mat to signify he wants to quit the match. In dogs, though it may look like a request for a belly rub, it is really a form of passive resistance, or passive submission, given in response to something that is being done. The maneuver often happens when you’re trying to put on a leash or manipulate a collar, harness or head collar – your dog is trying to turn off your collar-grabbing behavior, for instance. To persist may only drive him to escalate his protest because, from his perspective, his wishes are not being heard. As a result, he may protest with a growl or even a snap.
So, instead of insisting on continuing, help your dog gain more ease with what you’re trying to do. If it’s a concern about collar grabs, teach him “gotcha”. If he consistently taps out when you’re putting the harness or head collar on, teach him a “get dressed” exercise to have him put the equipment on himself. Read Laura's article on the Newark Examiner for more on these techniques.
Using the Environment to Your Advantage... 19 June 2010
Food is not the only agent of rewarding or reinforcing a behavior. When on a walk, often the surrounding environment is even more interesting than food. To a dog intent on moving things, nothing will be more rewarding than being allowed to chase a napkin being carried by the wind! If your pooch wants to greet a dog or sniff a tree, don’t allow her to pull towards it; instead ask her to perform a behavior, like a sit, down, touch, shake, anything. Insist on the behavior. If she does it, then say, “OK, go [say hi/sniff/etc!]”. If not, then “Too bad!”, and turn away. You are the master of the environment and can grant or deny its access. Remember: Don’t always ask for the same behavior, like a sit, for instance. Then your pup will be able to simply tune you out and default to that position. Instead require her to really attend to you by making different requests each time.
Canine Flu in Hoboken... 7 June 2010
There have been several confirmed cases of dog flu reported in Hoboken. To be safe, avoid meeting other dogs for the next few weeks, either on the street or at dog parks. Keep an eye out for symptoms that are similar to kennel cough, runny nose with dis-charge, and high fever. At the first sign of symptoms in your dog, see the vet.
Toys are More Fun!... 5 June 2010
I remember fondly how, when I was a child, my father could make a forkful of broccoli or green beans a entertaining mouthful by transforming it into a plane coming in for a landing on my tongue-tarmac. What child hasn’t fallen for this old chestnut of a parenting trick and enjoyed it despite themselves?!
Well, I’ve noticed it can work with dogs, too! I’ve seen more than a few dogs who, though not particularly turned on by their kibble, will suddenly eat with renewed vigor when their food is distributed in a puzzle like the Tricky Treat ball (by Omega Paw). My own dog will overlook nuggets of food strewn on the floor and opt instead to toil over her food-stuffed ball, though the food is exactly the same!
The trick is to spend time teaching the dog how to access the food from the toy first, employing particularly tasty treats to jump-start his motivation to work. Once your dog has mastered the toy and is enjoying the challenge, then you can stuff with less valuable tidbits, like his normal kibble.
Little Dogs Get No Respect!... 27 May 2010
I remember watching in sadness as a client of mine yanked and dragged his darling toy poodle from one place to another with no regard for the dog’s autonomy or personal space. If this were the only time I'd seen such an injustice, then so be it, but I witness such things nearly daily. Just two nights ago I watched a kindly maltese be dragged hither and thither at Ralph's Italian Ice!
And so I've come by the axiom: All little dog owners should be required to own a big dog first. Except under the most dire of circumstances, such as when a dog wanders too close to traffic and needs to be pulled abruptly out of harm’s way, no one would dream of manhandling a rottie or shepherd the way they might a little lhasa. We invite big dogs to join us, to follow us, to move with us. With little dogs, we force more than we invite.
Let’s not marginalize our best friends, no matter how small they might be. If you find that you and your pooch are not like-minded in the ways you spend your time together, that you need to use your leash to keep your dog beside you, then training can teach your dog all of the reasons why being by your side should be his favorite thing!
The Use of Treats in Training... 20 May 2010
When employing positive training, we use treats to reinforce, or reward, a target behavior. My clients often wonder how long they will have to keep giving treats – will they be committed to giving treats forever?! The answer is emphatically NO! Treats are an incentive for the dog to learn a challenging, new behavior. Once the behavior has been established, you reinforce intermittently, sometimes rewarding, sometimes not. Over time, the act of performing the behavior itself becomes reinforcing because of its happy history. So, for example, when we teach a dog to sit and give him a treat for doing so, we are utilizing consequential learning -- being reinforced as a consequence to performing a behavior. However, over time, the act of offering a sit itself becomes reinforcing because of the happy history attached to it. This is why training is so beneficial: a dog not only learns to be a well-behaved family member but also learns to enjoy being a well-behaved family member!