Creatures of Habit

Golden retriever Cali rests her head on my knee to tell me it is time to stop workingDogs love routines. Anyone who says dogs have no sense of time have clearly never lived with a dog.

Dogs know when good things are supposed to happen for them. Some dogs serve as highly accurate alarm clocks, which is why it’s possible to train service dogs to remind their humans to take their meds on time.

Cali is a wonderful alarm clock. She even has a snooze setting, and she understands that, on weekends, we get up an hour or so later. If she’s desperate to go out, she’ll deviate from the routine, but otherwise, right on schedule, she lets me know that it’s time to get up.

She also knows when I am supposed to stop working (and prepare her dinner). About 10 minutes before 5 each workday, she comes over and, very gently, pokes me with her nose. Again 10 minutes later if I haven’t gotten up from my chair. At this point, she sits right at my feet and gives me that look. Anyone who has met Cali knows what I mean.

She knows the morning routine, too, and when I am almost at “put Cali’s leash on for her walk,” she bounds off to grab a toy and do her morning dance of joy, racing from living room to dining room to living room several times — a distance of about 6 feet — with the chosen toy. She then lets me put her leash on, and we’re off.

She has a set route for her morning walk, though she allows occasional changes. When we get back, we feed the birds before I start work upstairs, and she keeps watch over the front yard and sidewalk, warning me if other dogs approach. After an hour or two of that, she lets me know it’s time for a break, and we go outside and toss the ball a few times.

Our evening routine is no less set. Dogs get some yogurt or kefir — Koala’s dietician recommends it for the probiotics — go outside, brush their teeth, get a cookie, and go to bed.

How is it, then, that Cali “forgets” the teeth-brushing step, heading straight to bed, every single evening? I have to call her in or follow her to her bed to get at those teeth. The brushing jogs her memory, though, and she promptly appears to collect her cookie. This happens whether Koala is here or not.

Koala is very good about brushing her teeth, even reminding me if it looks like I may have forgotten (I’m not sure what that looks like, but Koala knows). So, while it makes sense that the sound and scent of Koala eating her cookie might jog Cali’s memory, I’m not sure what does that in Koala’s absence. I personally do not eat a cookie after brushing my teeth, so no reminder there.

Koala, a black Lab, noses an orange treat ball in her downstairs play roomAnother routine that Koala is more strict about than Cali is the timing (and existence) of puppy lunch and snufflematting. Cali is delighted when these occur, and she occasionally does ask for the snufflemat, but she’s willing to let the matter drop if I am busy. Not Koala; her routines are very important to her, particularly if they revolve around food.

 

 

How Do I Find a Good Dog Trainer?

A prong collar
When choosing a trainer, ask what equipment they recommend.

New dog, adolescent dog, older dog who has suddenly started doing something you cannot live with … when people need a trainer, where should they turn?

First, a caveat: If an adult dog’s behavior changes suddenly — uncharacteristic aggression, for example, see your vet to rule out any underlying health issues before deciding it’s a training issue.

I can make specific recommendations locally, where I know several excellent trainers. But more generally, here’s what I would suggest:

  • Look at the trainer’s credentials. Anyone can advertise as a dog trainer. In a recent review of trainers in one area, nearly all of the websites I looked at gushed about the “trainer’s” love for animals and how they had dogs their whole lives. So what? That doesn’t make you a qualified trainer. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers has widely recognized certifications that check knowledge or (much better but far less common) check knowledge and skills. A number of small or locally focused programs teach people training skills and knowledge; the APDT website has a helpful matrix comparing these.
  • Look at professional memberships. Organizations like APDT (Association of Professional Dog trainers) and PPG (Pet Professionals Guild) require that people meet specific criteria to become professional members. While membership alone does not guarantee that the trainer has specific knowledge or skills, it does show that they care enough to learn and to jump through a few hoops more stringent than setting up a website or getting a business license.
  • Trainers who also have some education on animal behavior and psychology get bonus points, especially for complex issues like aggression or anxiety.

When you’ve identified one or more possible trainers, interview them. Ask what their training approach is and what, if any, equipment they recommend. Avoid anyone who talks about “being the alpha” or showing the dog who’s boss. If a trainer tells you to put a prong collar on your puppy, run the other way. If you’re having a specific issue, such as high prey drive or excessive anxiety, ask about their experience with that problem. If they offer classes, ask if you can watch one.

Other resources to consider:

  • Local dog training clubs — these can be wonderful or very disappointing. You might find a great selection of classes from trainers with broad-ranging experience. If there’s one where you live, it’s worth a visit.
  • Recommendations from your local humane society or pet rescue — there might even be classes onsite, and shelter trainers are likely to have experience with dogs with a wide range of issues.
  • Recommendations from friends with well-trained dogs — be careful here; your dog’s needs may be very different and your friend’s trainer might not be a good fit. But it’s certainly a place to start.

Notice that I am not suggesting that your vet is a great resource. She might be. She might not. As with nutrition, behavior and training are not areas where vets tend to get a lot of education — unless they specifically seek it out. Some do; many do not. If your vet is also a certified animal behavior expert then by all means, consult with her. Otherwise, she might not know any more about the local trainers or what would help your dog (behaviorally) than you do.

When you choose a trainer, pay close attention to your dog’s reaction as well as your gut feelings about how the first lesson(s) unfold. If your dog seems scared, don’t go back. I remember a friend telling me once that her dog ran and hid whenever the trainer came over. Clear sign that that was not the right trainer! And, obviously, if you don’t feel like you are making progress after several meetings, you might need to look for someone else. There are lots of great trainers out there, but it might take a few tries to get the right match for you, your dog, and the specific issues you need to resolve.

Scarred for Life

Golden retriever Cali eats an ice-cream cone.
Not even an ice-cream cone can erase the traumatic memory of a late dinner.

After more than 20 years of dog parenting, it finally happened. I did the unthinkable.

Dinner was late. Very late.

Sometimes dinner is a little bit late if I am out; often, dinner is extremely early because I am going to be out.

Dinner is supposed to be served between 5 and 5:30. Cali thinks it should be served earlier (and then again later) but we agree to disagree. “A little late” or “acceptably late” — acceptable to the humans, that is — is anytime up until about 7.

One evening, not long ago, I was busy with some stuff. Cali was off doing her own thing. Then, around 8 or maybe (could it really have been?) close to 8:30, I wandered into the kitchen … and noticed that I had not given Cali her dinner. I have no excuse.

When I called her, she dragged her weak, starving self into the kitchen. I apologized profusely and gave her dinner. All seemed to be, if not well, on the mend.

But.

Since then — it has been several weeks — I notice that Cali is anxious if 5 pm passes and there is no food in the bowl. She keeps a closer eye on me. She starts reminding me to stop working earlier and earlier. Then she leads me to the kitchen.

I think she’s scarred for life.

The anti-jackpot

In dog training, there’s a concept we call a jackpot. If the dog does something really wonderful, we “jackpot” them with lots and lots of treats, effusive praise (if they like that sort of thing; Cali just rolls her eyes and asks for more cookies).

Similarly, dogs might jackpot themselves, inadvertently or very intentionally. For instance, the dog who trolls the countertops … and one day discovers that she can reach something wonderful: someone’s momentarily unguarded snack, half a loaf of banana bread, the roast chicken that’s cooling on the counter.

That dog has become a counter surfer for life.

The jackpot, whether delivered by a willing human or self-administered, is highly memorable. The event that immediately preceded it becomes, by association, highly memorable. Better yet, it could happen again.

That’s why Cali tries to walk me to the Big Dipper, a local ice cream stand with free dog cones, every day. Her pleasant experiences there could happen again.

That’s why dogs return to that spot on the dog beach where they found that really cool dead fish to roll in last time … or last year. It could happen again.

That’s why, ahem, feeding the dog a piece of pizza crust just once sets you up for a lifetime of sad puppy eyes, drool on your shoes, and a dog who races to fetch a $20 bill whenever the pizza deliverer appears. (That’s what I hear, anyhow …) It could happen again.

Cali’s traumatic experience with late dinner was her anti-jackpot. It was truly, unbearably horrible, the opposite of an exciting jackpot experience. But even more memorable. And it could happen again.

 

 

Silence, Please

Profile of Cali, a golden retriever, and her silicone-wrapped tagThe Whole Dog Journal recently ran an article about everyday things that irritate dogs. I was pleased to see one of my pet peeves on the list: Jangling tags.

The constant jangling of dog tags is annoying. It’s annoying to me, and I can get away from it. Imagine how the dog feels?

I’ve used many tricks over time to eliminate the jingle-jangle:

  • Silicone or neoprene cover for one or more tags
  • Silicone edging on the tag
  • Rubber band to hold the tags together
  • Stick-on dots to separate the tags

The little covers or edging — you can order tags with the edging or buy little slip-on silicone frames for common tag sizes and shapes — are the most effective, but any of those solutions will reduce the noise. You can also now buy silicone dog tags! Next time Cali loses her tags, I’ll replace it with one of those!

Reducing the number of tags helps too, of course. Cali wears an ID tag with her phone number and her Montana dog license (she’s very proud of that one!). And that’s it.

The noise can be problematic in unanticipated ways: The WDJ article describes a dog who refused to eat because the noise of the tags banging into his metal dish was so unnerving.

It’s an easy fix. To find out other irritants you can eliminate from your dog’s life, read the Whole Dog Journal article (regular readers should all be subscribers by now; it’s the best $20 you’ll ever spend on your dog!).

Pandemic Puppies Are Hitting Adolescence

Young Cali, a golden retriever, runs through a tunnel holding a tennis ball
Cali, now 8, took ages to grow up!

Wow, all those pandemic puppies people got last spring are now hitting that wonderful adolescent stage. You know, where they have boundless energy, no sense, and no memory of anything you’ve taught them?

How long does that stage last? Jana’s was about 5 months. Cali’s? closer to 2 years … Then one day something clicks into place and you have a wonderful adult dog. If you’ve done your homework, that is.

If you didn’t get training when your dog was a puppy, you might find yourself on a long waiting list now. Even if you’ve raised puppies before and know how essential early socialization and training are, the pandemic poses significant problems.

Last spring, many dog training classes were shut down. How do you go to puppy kindergarten on Zoom? Sure, you can learn to teach the pup to sit on cue and wait before bolting out the door by following online lessons, but — like human kindergartners — pups need to play with others to learn how to be a nice dog.

They also need to interact with people. All kinds of people — all ages, ethnicities, genders, sizes, shapes — and wearing all kinds of clothing, walking with different gaits (or using wheelchairs or walkers) … it’s nearly impossible to get that kind of exposure while socially distancing.

The extended work-from-home time was beneficial to housetraining and developing a close bond with a new puppy, but is that dog able to handle being left home alone?

Get creative!

It’s possible to find workarounds to some of these issues. A trainer referenced in a recent NYT article suggests hanging out in a park with a long leash (15-20 feet) and asking willing passers-by to greet your puppy.

As far as encouraging independence, crate training is always a good idea — then ensuring that the pup spends some time alone each day, crated with a fabulous treat. I like stuffed Kongs, but there are dozens of great treat toys that you can safely leave with your dog in a crate. Avoid anything that looks like the dog could chew off a small part (whether a toy or an edible, like dental chews or rawhide) and swallow it. Smear or stuff it with something irresistible. Peanut butter works for a lot of dogs.

Do this while you are at home, but also start leaving the dog home alone for short periods. Take a no-dog walk, run errands, whatever is possible where you live. Gradually extend the dog’s alone time, and don’t make a huge fuss when you return or release the dog from the crate. It shouldn’t be a big deal to leave the dog or reunite. Just part of an ordinary daily routine.

If your dog has become a wild child and you don’t know what to do, look for online training — try the APDT’s trainer search. Even if you can only get an online class or a phone consultation, professional advice might be the best way to resolve any behavioral issues before they get deeply entrenched. Please choose only a positive trainer, though, and be prepared to put in some time and effort. Changing behavior takes time (whether it’s the dog’s or the human’s — or both!).

Hats off to ‘Thoughts of Dog’

Book cover of Thoughts of Dog shows simply drawn yellow dog with stuffed elephant

Thoughts of Dog is more than a book or a calendar. It’s a peek into the mind of a loving, sweet, sometimes silly golden retriever and their human. The dog, who is nameless, has a constant companion named Sebastian (Sebastian is a stuffed elephant). Dog also has a human of course.

That human is named Matt Nelson.

And they are simply brilliant.

Nelson & dog capture the human-dog relationship perfectly. They’re poignant, laugh-out-loud funny and sardonic in turns. Always spot-on.

Nelson got started sharing his uncanny dog wisdom a couple of years ago (don’t know HOW I missed it …) with “We Rate Dogs.” You can see some examples on this blog post: 50 Times People Asked To Rate Their Dogs, And Got Hilarious Results.

Calendar page showing dog saying "Today I waited patiently while the human checked little boxes to try to change the world"I first heard of Thoughts of Dog when a friend shared a page from last year’s calendar. I immediately ordered the 2021 calendar.

Highly recommended whenever you need a lift or a laugh.

Please Leash Your Dog

Golden Cali and Lab Koala enjoy a fall hike. On leash.
Hiking on leash is fun!

On a single walk last week, Cali and I were approached by two unleashed dogs. One, a young, friendly, waggy mix, telegraphed youthful enthusiasm and friendliness and even wary Cali was happy to say hello. The second was far more territorial, larger and, to both of us, a bit scary. Neither listened to their human’s call. Nothing bad happened, but things could so easily and so quickly have gone wrong.

Those two were dogs I’d never seen before, but on our usual walking route, there are many frequent flyers. Or runners. The dogs who “always” stay in their yards … except for every single time I have walked by. The ones who growl menacingly when we approach — even where we already know to cross the street and make a wide detour. Walking in our beautiful neighborhood park, we’ve met multiple off-leash dogs, including the young golden who never fails to growl at Cali. Always off leash.

We’re often greeted by loose dogs, gamboling about in their (unfenced) front yards or “just” going from home to car or car to home. Doesn’t matter. During that 30-seconds of freedom, terrible things can happen. I live on what passes for a busy street in Missoula, and too often to count, across-the-street neighbor dogs, heading to the car, have been distracted by Cali (on leash). These dogs don’t look both ways before plunging into traffic.

It’s not only the danger to the loose dog that bothers me.

The dynamic between a leashed dog and an unleashed dog is very different from two leashed dogs meeting, though I generally try to keep my distance from unfamiliar leashed dogs as well.

When an unleashed dog approaches, the leashed dog can’t get away. Even when the approaching dog seems friendly, one of the dogs could decide there’s something unsavory about the other and the encounter can turn ugly, fast. Or maybe the leashed dog is inherently anxious — or dog aggressive. Or simply having a bad day. The owners of the unleashed dog have no way of knowing, even if they’re 100% certain that their dog is universally friendly, cheerful, and loving toward all of dogkind. And humankind. (Note: this is not possible; not even Cali is that perfect.)

Unable to escape the oncoming dog, the leashed dog’s only recourse is aggression — a growl, maybe a lunge.

But, if both dogs are leashed, either human can quickly head away. The dogs can get out of one another’s range. Ironically, with both dogs leashed, neither feels trapped by the encounter. Neither feels trapped because the encounter is avoidable.

Dogs don’t need to say hello to every dog they see. Mostly, they don’t want to either.

Cali is very specific about which dogs she wants to greet. Goldens and most Labs are ok. Anyone smaller than she is, preferably female, is ok. Doodles of all sizes, though, are out. She’s got a bizarre set of rules, true. But that’s her right. She doesn’t have to be social with anyone on four feet. By leashing your dog, you keep your dog safe and respect both dogs’ right to choose not to say hello.

When the approaching dog is attached to a human, both dogs can choose: They can stay close to Mom or head out to say hi.

The same is true when humans approach without dogs. Some dogs want to greet every human on the planet (hi, Cali!); others do not. If Cali weren’t leashed, she’d run up to every single person we encountered.

The human has choices too, when the dogs are leashed. While I choose not to let Cali get close to unfamiliar dogs, I confess to letting her greet humans who seem amenable (which means they look at her, talk to her, reach out a hand to the nose that is straining toward them). But when humans seem immune to her charms, we give them a lot of space (who’d want to meet those people anyhow?).

Please leash your dog. Cali will thank you. And your dog will be safer.

 

Treat Everyone Like a Dog

cover of Treat Everyone Like a Dog with a happy cattle dog puppy

While I do think that I’d like to come back as the dog of some of my friends and family members, this column isn’t about that. It’s actually a book review!

Karen London, a well-known (& wonderful) dog trainer’s book, to be specific: Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life. An added bonus: Patricia McConnell wrote the foreword.

It’s really a book about changing behavior, which is a topic I write about a lot in my real life, where I work for a bunch of online learning companies. Corporate training is mostly about shaping and changing behavior. Parenting is mostly about shaping and changing behavior. And dog training is pretty much about … shaping and changing behavior.

London does a brilliant job of explaining how to change specific behaviors (in dogs), why the techniques work — and how to apply them to similar situations with humans, whether those humans are your children, spouse, coworkers, friends … It sounds manipulative, but it’s no more (or less) so than the tactics we’re probably already using — and which are not working.

London talks about motivation, using positive reinforcement to motivate as well as reward, and why fear of failure can be so crippling in influencing what dogs (and people) do. Her emphasis is on positive methods of changing behavior and she draws a clear contrast between the shift to positive approaches in dog training — and the lack of a similar shift in human educational and workplace settings.

The book will teach you about things like the jackpot effect and intermittent reinforcement and why it’s so hard to change behavior when a dog (or human) is sometimes rewarded for the very behavior you’re trying to eradicate.

The book is filled with funny and familiar stories and examples. It’s got to be the best book on learning theory I have ever read. Her section on “learning styles” initially had me worried, but her take on it makes far more sense than the thoroughly debunked idea of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners! She talks about the value of short, spaced lessons, rather than trying to learn a new skill or complex material all at once — another topic I encounter over and over again in my work.

There’s a lot of great information packed into this book. I suggest reading and digesting it chapter by chapter — and trying out some of the strategies on your dog (or your kid!). You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Hanukkah Dogs!

Golden Cali rests her chin on black Lab Koala's back with unlit Hanukkah candles in the background
Is it time for Hanukkah cookies yet?

Cali and Koala love Hanukkah, after discovering their Jewish-dog cores this year.

It all started last year. We were on a road trip during Hanukkah. I found a creative solution to celebrating without setting fire to our hotel room and being evicted into the winter night: a little advent box for Hanukkah,A blue box with a hanukka candelabra, showing a picture of a flame for each night and two open drawers with dog treats inside

Each night, we’d open the tiny cardboard drawer, eat the treats that were inside, and turn the drawer around to show the lit candle image.

I saved the box, and this year, I filled the drawers with dog treats, offering a different treat each night. This provided something easy and fun for Hanukkah without having to actually buy gifts.

Deni and I called the dogs over each evening and lit the candles. I said the blessings in Hebrew. Then we gave the girls their nightly treat.

By day 4, they’d really caught on.

We did a mid-day app-powered candle-lighting with friends in Israel. As the family in Israel lit their candles and (it was only noon in Montana, so we weren’t actually lighting yet) sang the blessings, Koala woke from her nap, raced upstairs, and sat next to me, wearing an expectant look. Seconds later, Cali emerged from the bedroom, shaking off sleep, and joined Koala.

Blessings finished, I chatted with my friends for a few minutes. The dogs sat. And waited.

I finally caught on — they were waiting for their treats!

They eagerly assembled later in the day for the real lighting, with cookies.

It had taken only 4 repetitions of blessing, then cookie, for the girls to learn that all they had to do was show up while the human was mumbling something unintelligible and they’d get a surprise treat. Why does it take so many more repetitions (like, 100) for them to learn to … say … put a toy in the basket to get a treat?

All good things, even Hanukkah, come to an end. Koala looked devastated as she watched me carry the Hanukkah box down to the basement. Don’t worry, girls; we’ll save the magic treat box for next year. Happy Hanukkah! 

Dogs & Consent

All in?

Have you ever picked up a small dog or a puppy? (Of course you have!)

Did you ask for their consent first?

The first time I really thought about dogs consenting was when I read Gregory Berns’ How Dogs Love Us. He was very careful to ensure that all the dogs participating in his MRI studies did so voluntarily. They were not restrained and were free to walk away at any time.

But that was for a specific research project. How do dogs consent (or not) in daily life?

It’s a problem for leashed dogs, and an even bigger problem for dogs who are small and often carried by their humans. They can’t escape.

A recent blog post by Patricia McConnell, “I’m Little And Adorable. Don’t Make Me Bite You.” describes the problem — and some potential solutions — very nicely.

To summarize, it is terrifying for many dogs, especially small ones, when humans loom over them, put their faces up close, or, especially, snatch them up with no warning and lift them into the air. A dog who is being held cannot escape unwanted petting or kissing. A dog who is leashed often can’t either.

As dog-respecting humans, we should:

  • Not pet dogs we don’t know
  • Never pick up dogs we don’t know
  • “Ask” if a dog wants to be petted by proffering a hand and letting the dog approach us
  • Only pet dogs who approach or otherwise solicit a pet
  • Not allow strangers to pet our dogs unless the dogs indicate willingness (Cali does this by dragging me over to a person, any person, and wagging her tail while furiously batting her long blond lashes at them)
  • Not allow children to handle dogs roughly, play with them unsupervised, pick them up, or otherwise treat them as they treat inanimate dolls
  • Not allow others to pick up our dogs
  • “Ask” our dogs before picking them up

We should also follow some of McConnell’s tips for teaching dogs a cue to warn them if we want to pick them up — and check with them for consent. Some people use a cue word, a gesture, or both. Some dogs learn to offer a cue that they are willing to be picked up. The dog’s body language might offer some information, too. If they duck, back off, or otherwise try to avoid us when we’re picking them up … we should pay attention. And yes, some dogs love being held, sitting on laps, and constant cuddling. But a dog who loves sitting you your lap while you read doesn’t necessarily want to be carried around. And the dogs will generally let us know when they want cuddling — and when they do not.

Why does this matter? It’s a matter of respect and kindness.

Also, the key reason many small dogs bite or nip is fear. If they are frightened and cannot escape, we leave them few options. The teeth are usually a last resort but, well, we’re ultimately responsible for backing them into that corner. Even the ones who don’t bit might become anxious, avoid contact with people, and generally suffer.

Little dogs and of course puppies can be irresistible. But before indulging our desire to cuddle them, let’s all ask for their consent first!