Pushy Puppies and Prong Collars

A prong collar

A puppy I know has trouble with greetings. She’s so excited to meet people that she bounds to the door and, essentially, assaults them. That is pretty normal puppy behavior; they’re not born with perfect manners (who knew?). And people usually mean play, treats, toys … all kinds of good things. So of course puppies get excited.

There are a few possible responses to this assault. Most people do the natural (but also among the worst) thing: They exclaim at the puppy’s cuteness and pet the puppy. Hm, thinks the puppy, people love being jumped on and even gnawed on at the door.

But … most people don’t love being jumped on and gnawed on by puppies. And puppies have a tendency to grow. Larger-breed puppies might be cute when they jump on visitors as 8- or 10-week old balls of fluff, but even the people who think that is cute are less amused a few weeks later, when the 4- or 6-month old adolescent, or even the 60-lb adult engages in the same greeting.

“Managing” the situation by removing the puppy before answering the door is also a common response, though this does not teach the puppy manners and therefore requires a lifetime commitment from the humans. It’s also not great for times that people show up at the door unannounced, as delivery people, mail carriers, and relatives tend to do.

So, the puppy must learn some manners.

Cali, as a small puppy, tries to carry her large owl toy.

One slow option, with great long-term payoff, is teaching the puppy to do something else: Get a toy. Sit. Sit and offer a paw (charming!). Go to her bed or crate.

A supposedly easier option is “correcting” the puppy. Unfortunately, there are still many old-school trainers out there who use physical “corrections” (a euphemism for physical punishment), for all manner of infractions where punishment is really inappropriate. Even more horrifying, many of them apply these techniques to puppies.

So, this pushy puppy’s trainer suggested using a prong collar. She gave the whole speech about how it doesn’t hurt and is better than a choke chain. I know the speech because I used to believe it. But, a prong collar is a choke chain. Even worse, it’s a choke chain with dozens of pointy spikes designed to dig into your puppy’s neck when you pull on the leash, tightening the … choke chain. Technically, it’s a “limited-slip” collar; the chain only tightens so much, so you won’t choke the puppy to death. How comforting.

Its sole purpose is to hurt the dog (to “get her attention,” the trainer will say. Yep, if someone jerked a pointy chain tightly around my throat, that would surely get my attention …). So, yes, it hurts, unless your puppy is a thick-necked muscular breed, but even then … is that really how you want to get your best friend’s attention?

And, more to the point, it doesn’t work.

OK, yes, if you set the puppy up, have the puppy dressed in prong collar and leash when someone comes to the door (as you’ve prearranged), and the puppy jumps, and you give a perfectly timed correction, the puppy most likely won’t succeed in jumping on that visitor. If you consider that “working,” your bar for success is pretty low.

Will you keep the puppy on leash and in full prong at all times? Will you be holding the leash at all times? If so, then you are a monster and do not deserve a puppy. If not, then it’s quite likely that the puppy will still succeed in jumping on people. Often. 

So, what the puppy will learn, very quickly, is that she can get away with jumping when she’s not leashed and pronged. She’ll also learn that being leashed leads to being hurt and that being near you leads to being hurt. Those are not things you want your puppy to learn, are they? I mean, you do want to be able to hang out go for walks together that the puppy does not regard as torture. At least, I hope you do.

It also fails because it doesn’t teach her anything positive. It doesn’t teach her what you want her to do, for example (sit, get toy, etc.). It doesn’t even really teach her what you don’t want her to do because there’s too much going on for her to understand that the fact that she might jump is what triggers the “correction.” And few dog owners, especially when frazzled and dealing with puppy and visitor and who knows what else, have great timing; there’s no way you will always deliver the “correction” right at the moment she’s jumping. So the puppy might think it’s the doorbell or her barking or people reaching to pet her or any number of things that are causing the painful jerk on her neck.

What this painful “correction” might teach her is that people at the door are scary because they cause her to get hurt. She might even figure out that people at the door cause her humans to go crazy and attack her.

In either case, since the puppy cannot prevent people from coming to the door (or avoid them, if you’ve got her on a leash), she’ll do what every scared canine is hardwired to do: defend herself. That’s right. “Correcting” the puppy by hurting her — and failing to teach her what she should do — can make her behavior at the door far worse by convincing her that it’s a threat. She might growl, lunge, bark, even try to bite people once she connects their arrival with the painful leash jerk and pronged choke.

I had a trainer tell me that I had to use a prong collar on Cali to teach her to heel and not get excited about the other dogs in class. Cali was an older puppy at that point, maybe 7 or 8 months, and in full-fledged obnoxious adolescence. Even so, she was a puppy. A golden retriever puppy, for goodness’ sake! If an adult human cannot teach a puppy to behave without resorting to brute force, she shouldn’t have a puppy. (Same goes for a toddler!)

I didn’t use it. I decided that I wanted a relationship with my dog that was not based on scaring her or hurting her, but on teaching her. Granted, her leash manners are not perfect, and she still gets really excited about meeting people when we’re on walks. But visitors? She runs to get a toy and prances around with the toy. No jumping, no barking.

Fortunately for my puppy friend, her parents won’t be using a prong collar either. But the prong collar solution appeals to many puppy owners (and sadly, trainers) because it seems to have an immediate effect and it’s “easy.”

Yes, actual teaching takes longer. It also offers a real solution to the problem: You end up with a dog who greets people politely, offers a toy, or goes off to her own space. Isn’t that who you want to spend the next 12 or 14 years sharing your home with?

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Best Binge Buddies

Infographic shows Netflix survey results

Not without a bit of self-interest, Netflix recently published a “study” on viewers’ habits.

Not surprisingly, many people prefer watching Netflix with their pets to watching with other humans. Pets rarely hog the remote, they don’t give away the plotline, and they always let you choose the program. Pets might gobble all the binge snacks, but you still get to decide what and how much junk food to serve.

Surprises in the results? The US is only third, after India and Thailand, in terms of how many people watch with their pets. And 30 percent reported having separate profiles for solo watching vs. watching with their pets. That’s only surprising because people are actually making that distinction. Cali and I head downstairs together to watch TV. She might head off to bed before I am done watching, but it’s never the case that I say, “Oh, tonight I want to watch alone” or specifically have to invite her to join me. She’s my buddy. Evening activities are by default together… unless I am a terrible, horrible person and go out without her. Hmm, I wonder if she has a profile for watching without me

Some respondents change the show if their pets don’t seem to be enjoying it, so maybe I am wrong (or just selfish) about always getting to choose. Cali does prefer shows that have dogs in them, as long as the dogs seem happy. I’m with her on changing the channel if the dog gets hurt. She’s willing to indulge my Grey’s Anatomy addiction, though, and we both like the British baking show. She likes nature shows too.

Many viewers reconfigure their seating arrangements to accommodate their pets’ comfort, which is pretty much the story of my entire life, in front of the TV or not. Bird owners are the most attentive to their friends’ wishes, with more of them reporting that they choose shows specifically based on their pets’ preferences. I’m wondering whether that’s true of all bird owners or only those whose birds talk. Netflix does not say.

The saddest statistic is the 20 percent (!) who have to bribe their pets to watch with them … they must have really horrendous taste in TV or really uncomfortable couches. But I do relate to the 22 percent who talk to their pets about what they’re watching. As well as the one-in-three who “turn to” their pets for comfort during scary parts. If by “turn to” you mean “bury your face in the fur of,” that is!

Is your dog your TV binge buddy? Is the number of respondents who watch with their pets only 74 percent because the other 26 percent don’t have pets? How lonely …

Doggy Environmentalists

Working Dogs for Conservation logo features a dog standing in the grass

“Our conservation detection dogs are agile, portable, and endlessly trainable. They are an efficient, highly sensitive, and non-invasive way to gather high-quality data.”

The above quotation is from the website of Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), a Montana-based organization whose dog teams literally travel the globe helping to save endangered species, find and route out invasive species, and intercept contraband cargo that includes products from endangered animals.

The coolest … okay, one of many, many cool aspects of their work is that the dogs they train are the “bad” dogs who wind up in shelters because no one can handle them. No regular family or ordinary adopter, that is. The high-energy, obsessive dogs who will do anything, anything at all, for the chance to play one more game of tug or get that silly human to throw the ball. Even better, the organization reaches out to shelters and teaches staff how to recognize these high-drive dogs and connect them with organizations, like Working Dogs for Conservation — or police, military, search and rescue, or other organizations that train and work detection dogs.

WD4C offers living proof that dogs can master more than one job. The dogs — endlessly trainable, remember — are taught to detect multiple, maybe dozens, of scents. That makes them versatile partners and enables teams to work in all kinds of places. The dogs learn to detect scents underwater as well as on land. In the water, they can detect pollutants like metals or pharmaceuticals, and they can distinguish between species of fish and aquatic plants, to identify invaders. At a talk I recently attended, the research director, Megan Parker, said that the dogs could distinguish between rainbow trout and brown trout, a feat that many Montanans would find impossible. They’re currently teaching dogs to detect brucellosis, a highly bacterial infection that affects, among others, cattle, bison, and elk in Montana.

In the service dog world, I’ve heard people claim that a single dog couldn’t be trained to, say, guide a person with impaired vision and retrieve dropped items; that person would need two service dogs. I’ve heard pet owners (and, sadly, pet trainers) claim that dogs can’t learn different rules for different situations or understand tasks that are too similar. This is absurd, of course.

So maybe the best thing about WD4C is that it believes in dogs: It believes in dogs’ ability to constantly learn — the demo dog at the talk is a 12-year-old Malinois who has been working for 11+ years. He’s still learning new tasks. It believes in the hard-to-handle dogs that others write off — and saves many of them from certain death in shelters. It even believes in humans’ ability to learn about dogs, sharing training methods and research with organizations and individuals who are eager to understand how incredibly capable dogs are — and to teach them to use their noses in countless ways.

 

Finding Shortcuts

When she’s done eating, Koala picks up her bowl and takes it to Deni. But she’s come up with a new approach. If Deni is not in the kitchen, Koala first goes to find her. She then takes the bowl to Deni. This saves her having to wander around the house carrying her bowl, which is not really her favorite thing to do. It’s a shortcut.

Each of Deni’s guide dogs has found shortcuts on walking routes they do often (by which I mean, more than once). Some dogs’ shortcuts are kind of offensive to human sensibilities. (Think: drinking from the commode when the water bowl is empty.) Others, like figuring out new routes home or ways to carry multiple toys at once, are clever.

But whether you like the shortcut or not, the idea that a dog can do that is pretty amazing. Well, it would be amazing to people who don’t believe that dogs can think and problem-solve.

Koala is smart in so many ways. I love watching her roll a treat toy around. She has an orange treat ball where Deni puts her “puppy lunch,” a little bit of kibble. Koala rolls it around to get the food out. She’s strategic about how she rolls it, carefully avoiding edges it could roll off or furniture it could roll under. It’s an intelligent approach to problem solving that could be seen as a shortcut; after all, it saves her having to go find a human if the ball gets stuck under a bed.

Many people interfere with dogs’ attempts to solve problems, maybe worried that the dog will pick up something he shouldn’t (a shoe?) or just spoiling the dog by doing things for him. But that can limit the dogs’ opportunities to creatively solve a problem. If you catch yourself stepping in to help the dog, hold off for a moment. Maybe your dog will do something brilliant!

Are Doggy DNA Tests Worthwhile?

A Puli dog walks on a dirt road.
Is your dog part Puli? Probably not, no matter what the DNA panel says. Creative Commons photo by Rennender

DNA tests started out as a fun way to try to figure out a mixed-breed dog’s genetic makeup. Many people I know who’ve done them have gotten results that made me a little skeptical — high percentages of extremely rare breeds. I am not a geneticist, though, and it all seemed harmless enough.

But.

People are using — and the testing companies are marketing — these tests in two ways that could be very, very bad for dogs: to attempt to predict dogs’ future health problems and to “tailor” behavioral training. And, according to an excellent column in Nature, the tests are extremely inaccurate.

Let’s start with the problem of trying to tailor behavioral training to the supposed mix of breeds in your dog. Your dog is a unique individual. Whether purebred or mixed, each dog’s behavior is affected to some extent by genetic drives — some dogs want to herd everything; some want to chase whatever moves. It’s also enormously affected by personality and experience. Within a breed, within a litter, even, the personalities and drives can be very different.

A good trainer tailors her teaching to the individual dog, of course, but she bases her work on the dog in front of her — not on some possibly wildly inaccurate list of breed percentages. If a dog is half Lab and half German shepherd, do you reward with food half the time, since the shepherd half might not be food focused? Do you use harsher methods half the time if your dog’s ancestry might lie in a military dog line? It’s silly when you start to parse out what it might mean in day-to-day training and life. A smart dog owner will choose a trainer who uses motivational methods tailored to the dog based on her hands-on experience working with that dog.

But a far more dangerous use of these tests is in attempting to predict future illnesses. The Nature article, and these related articles in the Washington Post and the Undark website explain the problems with this in great detail. In sum:

  • The mapping of a single gene mutation to a specific disease is far from foolproof. Genes express themselves differently in different breeds, so a gene that is linked to a condition in one breed might not behave the same way in another breed. And no one really knows what happens in mixed-breed dogs.
  • Having a specific gene mutation might (or might not) increase the risk of a particular disease. Basing a decision to euthanize your dog on very imprecise data, rather than on the actual dog’s health and symptoms, is cruel.
  • People unnecessarily panic when they get the results that show gene mutations — which might be completely meaningless. They pay for — and subject their dogs to — unnecessary, stressful, and expensive tests, which generally don’t tell them anything conclusive anyhow.

The truth is, genetic testing in humans works much the same way … results are often highly inaccurate; they are not predictive; and they could cause people to panic and get unnecessary “treatment” for a disease they think they might get some day. But as an adult, you get to make that choice for yourself. Subjecting your dog to it — or killing him out of fear of what might happen — is horrible!

The testing companies are businesses. They make money by selling you the tests. They also make money by selling the huge amounts of data they collect on test subjects. Veterinary clinics are also businesses, which many people lose sight of. Some vets are ethical and don’t push expensive tests. Others … not so much. Vets can make money by suggesting further testing, special diets that they sell, treatment … there is a definite conflict of interest that can exploit loving pet owners’ worst fears.

So, if you’re curious about whether your pup has some Puli or Xoloitzcuintli in his past (unlikely), go ahead and do the test. Just don’t base decisions about his medical care on the results. Train, and care for, the dog in front of you — his behaviors, his quirks, and his medical symptoms.

A Helping Hand Could Keep Some Pets at Home

A golden retriever carries a box of dog biscuits
Delivering pet food could keep some dogs out of shelters (photo by Sae Hokoyama)

Not all dogs and cats who end up at shelters are unwanted. Some families abandon their pets because they cannot afford to feed them or house them or provide needed veterinary care.

An article I read recently in the New York Times suggests that the “no-kill” shelter movement might unintentionally contribute to the problem. By focusing on getting dogs and cats into new homes, the shelters might be neglecting the reasons many of those animals are in the shelter in the first place.

It might be time for some creative thinking and number-crunching. I’d guess that it costs less to feed a dog than to house him in a shelter until he can be placed in a new home. It certainly has less of an emotional cost for the dog and all the humans involved.

Whether they never should have gotten a pet in the first place, or they were doing fine until a health crisis, job loss, or other financial disaster hit, many people who love their pets find themselves short of cash at one time or another. Finding ways to keep these families intact (pets are family too!) makes more sense than sending the dogs and cats to languish (or die) in shelters.

I don’t for a minute think that that is the only reason animals end up in shelters, but it’s probably possible to make a significant dent in the problem.

Here in Missoula, an organization called Animeals (which also has a cat shelter and cat adoption, foster, and hospice care programs) addresses some of these issues throughout Montana. Animeals runs a pet-food bank and delivers food to homebound, disabled, and senior pet owners, often providing the help that allows them to keep their pets. It feeds homeless animals as well, delivering food to volunteers who feed feral cats and dogs. Animeals also has programs to help families in crisis and to assist impoverished pet owners with vet bills.

Some Meals on Wheels programs across the U.S. deliver donated pet food along with the humans’ meals. And I am sure that other cities or states have local initiatives. Check into what’s happening in your area and consider donating pet food or some of your time. It’s a relatively easy way to make a big difference.

 

The Making of a Cherry Monster

Cali with her tennis ball, in the shade of a cherry tree
Cali discovered delicious snacks under the cherry trees.

It started out innocently enough. Cali wandered over to that nice shady corner of her yard by the cherry trees. One day, she found something red that smelled delicious. She ate it. She found more of those delicious red balls and ate them, too.

I noticed and told her to cut it out. She carefully spit out the cherry pit that was in her mouth and wandered away.

If only it were that simple.

Soon Koala discovered cherries. She taught Cali that if you swallowed the pits, you could eat a whole lot more cherries, faster, even after one of the mean policemoms caught you and told you to stop.

We went from a pit spitter and a pit pooper to … well, you know.

Then Koala packed up and went back home to Florida. Cali had to figure out stealth cherry chomping on her own. She’d keep an eye on me to see if I was watching. If I was talking on the phone or (!) went inside, she’d steal over to the cherry patch and grab a few cherries. She’d still spit the pits if she felt as if she had time to dine more leisurely. But, if she saw that I’d looked her way or — worse — was walking over to ruin her snack — the gobble rate would speed up.

I chased her away from the cherries. She went back. I threatened to make her go inside. She stayed away for a few minutes but was always drawn back. I cleaned up the dropped cherries. She found more. The call of the cherries was irresistible.

She got very sneaky. She’d wander around the yard feigning nonchalance. If I didn’t react, her loops would take her closer and closer to the cherries … Or she’d head that way and glance casually over her shoulder. If I wasn’t paying attention (or she thought I wasn’t), she’d pick up the pace and head right there. If I was watching, she’d change direction, look again, react appropriately … this meandering ultimately always ended at the cherry feast.

Finally, nearly all the cherries were ripe. I picked several million one Sunday morning. A friend helped me pick most of the remaining billions of cherries one evening after work. We cleaned up the dropped cherries pretty well. Cali went into deep depression.

Now, the only cherries left are too high for me to reach, even with a ladder.  The birds and squirrels help Cali out by dropping and knocking them down.

But Cali has pretty much moved on.

She discovered the raspberries this week.

She picks the low-down ones, being careful to avoid the spiky branches. When I am out there picking, she’ll stick her nose into the bowl and try to steal the fruits of my labor. I tell her to go get her own raspberries. She does, even burrowing into the bushes to go after a particularly juicy berry.

There aren’t as many raspberries, and they have no pits, so I don’t worry as much about her eating those. But somehow, Raspberry Monster doesn’t have the same ring.