In Defense of Education

Fearfuldogs' Blog

cartoon of shrugging dog with questionsThe dog training industry may be among the few professions in which people with a lack of understanding and limited or no education are glorified, even given their own TV shows, while those who have chosen to become educated are held up for ridicule. Heaven forbid you know a few big words and have the temerity (temerity: excessive confidence or boldness; audacity) to use them. Chefs probably have a deeper and broader understanding of the science of cooking than many dog trainers have of learning.

Imagine sitting around with a group of pilots and one saying with a sneer, “I don’t know what all this wind sheer and lift is you’re all going on about, I just fly the damn plane,” and the other pilots raising their glasses in a toast and high fiving. Or a physician boasting that they’re not even sure what blood pressure is, they just take…

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When ‘getting the behavior’ isn’t the priority

NOTE: If your dog is fearful or aggressive, “sit-stay” may not be your best bet for rehabilitation, as shown in this piece by Maureen Backman, of the Muzzle Up Project.

Behavior, behavior, behavior! Sometimes, we as humans are in such a rush to get a dog’s behavior on perfectly on cue, we forget to determine whether “getting the behavior” is the …

Source: When ‘getting the behavior’ isn’t the priority

The Training Game

Caninus Adiestramiento-cognitivo Y Educación, in Spain, posted a video on their page. It reminded me that, no matter how eloquent a writer or speaker you are, it isn’t always necessary to say a lot to make a point, especially someone gives you an opportunity to simply show what it’s like to be the “dog” in a training scenario.  You can decide which “dog” you would rather be in this video of two humans being taught the same behavior in a Training Game.




What in the World to Get Fido?

What are you getting for the dogs on your holiday gift list? Here are a few suggestions that are designed for dogs whose owners appreciate their dogs’ need for comfort, safety, and fun.

How old is your dog’s bed? If you’ve ever slept on a worn out mattress, you know they become uncomfortable and they can harbor dust mites, too. WallyBeds come in all sizes and shapes, from donuts to duvets. Amazon has a selection of orthopedic dog beds if you have an older or arthritic dog who could benefit from some extra cushioning.

When Fido isn’t snoozing at night, perhaps he’s out for a walk. Safety dictates that you want him to be seen by any oncoming traffic as you walk along. The Pet’s Tech makes LED collars, leashes, and harnesses that the company claims can be seen up to 1000 feet away. Does your dog have a seat belt? If not, Kurgo has seat belts and other outdoor gear for your best buddy. Speaking of safety, if your dog does incur a slight mishap or become ill, pet insurance could be the best gift you ever gave him, even if he’d rather have roast beef in his stocking. You can get a no obligation online quote from Healthy Paws or one of many other companies that provide coverage for pets.

Do you have a dog that needs way more exercise than you can provide right now? There are some toys and games that can help provide both physical and mental stimulation, making it less likely for the dog to misbehave out of boredom. Most dogs love catching a ball, but tennis balls may wear down their teeth. Planet Dog’s Orbee is a nice alternative. Maybe your dog likes to play tug. How about a Ruff Dog Tug that’s non-toxic and made in the USA? Not a tugger? A flirt pole can provide lots of chase activity. Most working and herding breeds love these. Maybe your dog doesn’t care for chase games, but is a “foodie.” Such dogs often enjoy a Dog Treat Maze or similar food puzzle.
These are just a few suggestions. Many more interactive toys are available at Active Dog Toys.

Are you or a family member or friend wanting to give your dog a fenced play area bigger than a 6×12 kennel, but you don’t want the risks associated with shock fences? Dog fencing from Pet Playgrounds might be a great solution.

Whatever you get, just please remember to always supervise your dog when he’s playing with toys or engaged in other activities where injury could occur. Dogs like to chew, investigate, munch, and dissect things. Stay safe and have a fun holiday season whichever of the winter holidays you celebrate!

Can You Afford to Save Your Dog?

Dogs, once primarily regarded as utilitarian companions, going along with humans to hunt game or herd livestock, are increasingly regarded as family members in our modern society. We value them as friends of another species, regardless of any working skills they may or may not have. We love them, sometimes to the point of anthropomorphizing them as children. That often means that we go to extraordinary lengths to maintain them in good health, and to return them to health should they fall ill or be injured. But the cost of doing that, just as with human medical care, has been steadily rising. Pet owners may find themselves confronted with staggering fees unheard of just a few years ago.

In late 2010, my aging Foxhound, Maska, seemed to be in pretty good health. However, one morning, I awoke to the sound of retching and found some very discolored urine all over my living room floor co-mingled with equally oddly colored vomitus. My boy clearly wasn’t well, so off to the vet we went. Several hours, one exam and one ultrasound later, still no answers. A preliminary leptospirosis diagnosis quickly went by the wayside, followed by more ultrasounds and other diagnostics at Tufts, followed by an exploratory surgery. In the end, I spent $6000 just to hear the devastating news that my handsome, sweet, stoic therapy dog had adenocarcinoma of the pancreas and it had already metastasized to his liver. I hugged him and cried and let him go. A few weeks later, I decided not to “self insure” for such emergencies any longer, knowing that, had his condition been more treatable, I could easily have bankrupted myself. I bought pet insurance for my remaining dogs.

Quanah, back to playing after his $4000 bowel resection
Just a few years later, my sweet Hound mix, Quanah, made me glad I had done so. He decided to ingest a foreign object, precipitating a bowel resection surgery. This time, insurance picked up the tab for 80% of the cost.

Healthy Paws Pet Insurance and Foundation.

It didn’t really hit me just how valuable a lesson my boy’s final days were until a colleague, Ettel Edshteyn, of Poodles to Pit Bulls Clicker Training, Inc., in Astoria, N.Y. went through a similar experience with her dog, Prynne.

Prynne at the beach pre-injury

It’s suspected that a normally innocuous dog treat may have become lodged in the tiny dog’s esophagus, causing tears to occur requiring surgery and some complex medical care to repair. The cost was approximately $20,000.00 to save the dog’s life. Ettel did not have insurance, so is bearing the cost herself and allowing me to use Prynne’s story as a cautionary tale – we should all assess risk ahead of time. How much would we, or could we, spend to save the life of the dog we love?

Prynne and Ettel at the hospital during treatment

For about fifteen years, I directed a non-profit program that gave small grants to help senior citizens with veterinary expenses that they could no longer afford. There are quite a few such charitable programs for persons of all ages and their pets, but many of them often run low on funds. (Something to think about, since this post is being written on Giving Tuesday). Some of the charities require individuals to first file an application with Care Credit, which is a health care credit card company, before they will consider a request for assistance.

I hope these stories will make people think about the potential cost of their pet’s physical and behavioral health, and make some plans for how to meet such costs, so they never have to have their hearts broken for lack of funds.

Stories of your own experiences with cost of care issues is welcome in the comments section. Please, no bashing of health care facilities or practitioners. Most are doing the best they can to keep prices reasonable and provide the best care they can.

The Myth of the Off Leash Dog

One of the first things students ask trainers to help them with is training their dog to reliably come when called. They dream of hikes, walks on beaches, treks across meadows, trail rides on horseback, all in the company of an adoring dog that wants to walk with them anywhere they want to go, and is guaranteed to never stray. News flash – dogs have their own agenda sometimes. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have great times with a dog, unfettered by leash or long line, but what it does mean is that, as that dog’s caretaker, neither you nor anyone else can assure a 100% certain level of trustworthiness in another animal with a functioning brain.

So, why am I telling you this? Well, for one thing, this is a blog about dog behavior, and a really basic premise every dog owner and trainer needs to understand is that no one can guarantee behavior. The reason this is so very important is because there are unscrupulous, uneducated, or ill-informed people who will try to convince you that you can have “an off leash dog” by purchasing a piece of equipment, or adopting a particular training method, that will guarantee such a result. Most of the people who promise guarantees, sadly, use coercive, rather than positively reinforcing, methods. One downside with those methods is that dogs may form associations the trainer didn’t intend, including wariness of the handler, or learned helplessness. Studies show that effective positive training can get reliability equal to that of punitive methods, and with fewer side effects. One study* by Rooney and Cowan at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom showed “Dogs whose owners reported using more rewards tended to perform better in a novel training task. Ability at this novel task was also higher in dogs belonging to owners who were seen to be more playful and who employed a patient approach to training.” But again, regardless of method (even though I am admittedly biased toward positive reinforcement), no method can guarantee that your dog will come to you when called 100% of the time.

Using a combination of classical conditioning and positive reinforcement, I’ve trained “reliable”  recalls on many dogs, as have my students. My go to methods include protocols made popular by folks such as Leslie Nelson, Pippa Mattinson, and Pamela Dennison, all fabulous trainers. However, I don’t rely on any dog’s stellar obedience when it comes to its life. The world is full of perils, and the “insurance policy” of being in a remote area, within a fenced yard, or on a leash or long line can help prevent disaster. So, I urge people to be very selective about the areas where they allow off leash activity, and I suggest that they heavily reinforce, and be eternally grateful for, each time their dog returns to them on cue, always mindful that the dog can always make a mistake or another choice if no barrier or leash is present.

No dog, no matter how well trained, or by what method, is an automaton.  Therefore, just as we are never 100% safe in this world, neither are our dogs. The off leash fun that so many dog owners dream of must be tempered by the knowledge that no matter how reliable a dog’s recall is, there could always be a “first time” that proves disastrous. I’m a really good trainer of recalls. My dogs are very reliable.  I’ve successfully called my Australian Shepherd off running prey, and my hound mix willingly leaves his doggy playmates when I whistle for him. Even so, while I’m not particularly risk averse in other aspects of my life, this is one area where I employ caution to a fault. Whenever I allow my dogs to be off leash, I try to insure that they are far from roads or other hazards, and I am acutely aware that it is my responsibility to protect them, no matter how reliable they normally are. Weighed against their lives, doesn’t it make sense to train AND protect?

*Rooney, N.J., & Cowan , S. J. (2011). Training methods and owner-dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132(3-4), 169-177.

Dog Behavior Sites of Interest

Professional Organizations

Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians
American Association of Zookeepers
American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
Animal Behavior Management Alliance
Animal Behavior Society
Association of Animal Behavior Professionals
Pet Professional Accreditation Board
Pet Professional Guild
Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians

Educational Opportunities in Animal Behavior

ABS Guide to Programs in Animal Behavior
AVMA Accredited Colleges of Veterinary Medicine
AVMA Accredited Programs of Veterinary Technology
Academy for Dog Trainers
Behavior Works
Companion Animal Sciences Institute