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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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.

 

A New Puppy!

No, I am not getting a new puppy! A good friend is getting one though, so I have been thinking about puppy prep lately. In no particular order, here are some things we talked about.

Socialization

We visited my favorite local training school, Sit Happens, so that my friend could meet her puppy-to-be’s kindergarten teacher. We watched several young puppies play in carefully supervised small groups, and talked about drop-in playtime, classes, and, in good time, a more formal manners class. Little Maisy will be very well educated. Best of all, I get to go to puppy class, and I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night with the puppy!

Food

We selected a good quality, reasonably priced food for Maisy, making sure that it was from a brand on the Whole Dog Journal’s approved list. They do all the homework of choosing quality foods, checking on the manufacturing processes, where ingredients are sourced, and whether the foods are nutritionally sound and include high-quality, identified, meat-based proteins.

Toys

I suggested getting lots of chew toys, especially ones that can hide treats. Maisy will spend a few hours at home each morning and afternoon while her family is off at work or school. She’ll need to develop a hobby, preferably one that doesn’t entail thousands of dollars in repairs and remodels to the house. So. Chew toys.

A play pen

Little Cali, age 10 weeks, shares Jana's dog bed
Cali appreciated the comfort of her big sister’s dog bed from her first day home. She never chewed on or ripped it. Not all puppies are as wise.

I lent the doting parents an ex-pen to create a safe space for Maisy when she can’t be supervised. I suggested taping heavy-duty plastic to the floor, as my friends did when our girls (Cali and Dora) were young. Whenever the humans are away or distracted, I advised putting Maisy in her safe space with some chew toys. Of course, when they are home, they will spend lots of time playing with her and cuddling her outside the pen. And rushing her outside!

Maisy also has a large crate to sleep in, complete with cozy crate pad. And a plush bed for when she’s mature enough to sleep on it, not destroy it. Cali was ready for a big-girl bed pretty quickly, and Maisy might well show similar good sense and appreciation for creature comforts.

Grooming

I advised getting the puppy used to having her teeth brushed right away. It’s best to start slowly, letting her lick some tasty chicken-flavored dog toothpaste off the brush (or a finger), then gently starting to brush. Cali loved brushing her teeth as a puppy. Now she’s reluctantly willing to do it, for a cookie.

Same goes for nail trims and brushing. Start right away but introduce it all very gradually and use lots of treats. It’s so much easier to trim a dog’s nails when she’s used to having it done. Cali doesn’t love it, but I can Dremel her nails in a few minutes with minimal fuss. I know several people who cannot touch their dogs’ nails and whose vets or groomers need at least two helpers. It shouldn’t be that traumatic. If you are fortunate enough to get your dog as a youngster, take advantage of the opportunity to introduce grooming early and painlessly.

Sleep

I advised the new puppy parents to rest up, since Maisy will demand a lot of time and energy during the first days as she settles in — and even more throughout her adolescence. I was exhausted for several weeks after getting Cali, and she was a pretty easy puppy.

It’s worth it though; Maisy will no doubt be a great addition to the family.

Teach Your Old Dog New Games

An elderly golden retriever touches a computer screen with her nose.A team of researchers at the Clever Dog Lab (oh, how I’d love to work there …) at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna suggest teaching older dogs to play brain games on touchscreen computers and tablets. Yup, Lumosity for dogs.

The researchers have some games that they developed and tested out and that they are now trying to prepare for retail sale. That’s all well and good, but the real premise of their study is that older dogs need — and benefit greatly from — mental stimulation and training. And that most dog owners (and trainers) don’t really do much training with older dogs.

While dog sports like agility might be beyond the capabilities of, say, an arthritic golden retriever (as Jana was during her last years), some dog classes can work for older dogs. Jana loved every second of her nose work classes (well, except the seconds that other dogs got to look for treats and she was not in the ring). The instructor, at the beginning of the first class, told us handlers that the dogs could bark as much as they wanted and we were not to use the ‘N’ word. (No.) Jana had found her doggy paradise.

Throughout her life and well into old age, Jana’s mind was sharp and, if a cookie-earning opportunity arose, she’d stick with the challenge until she’d earned and eaten every last crumb. We did exercises on canine fitness equipment, practiced imitation games, and worked with picture cards that Jana could choose: ball, tug toy, popsicle. (For some reason, she always went for popsicle…) I never thought of teaching her to use a computer, but I am sure she’d have mastered that as well.

Cali sleeps on her dog bed, cradling a tennis ball with her paws.Cali is less intellectually oriented than Jana, but she does love nose work. I suspect that age is less of a factor than temperament. Cali’s not interested enough in learning (or earning treats) to really work at much. She’ll stick with a nose work search longer than she’ll work at a Kong or other food toy. And she’ll play with a tennis ball all day (and take it to bed at night). I doubt she’d enjoy computer games, though she does love TV, so I could be wrong about that.

My main takeaway from the dogs and computers study has nothing to do with whether dogs want to, need to, or should learn to use computers, though. It is all about us: Don’t give up on your older dog. Figure out what she loves about her favorite activities and adapt them for her changing physical needs. Keep challenging her and offering stimulation. It will keep her mentally fit — and keep your bond strong.

Cali and the Magic Box


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Cali’s head whips around. Her body follows her nose. She’s on the scent.

She started doing this at her second or third “nosework” class — as she ambled around, haphazardly looking for the target. Suddenly, she’d catch the scent and be off, following that now-beloved birch scent to the magic box. All she had to do was touch this box and her devoted servant (me) would start showering her with praise and treats. Really good treats. Yum.

Cali “got it” very quickly. When practicing, I have to put her in the bedroom and close the door so I can hide the magic box. She trots out eagerly, nose in the air. Within seconds, that nose whips around and she’s dancing beside the box.

The road to nosework expertise is not without bumps. At one point, Cali started bashing the box with a large, soft paw. When we switched to cardboard boxes, she thought they might make a nice snack.

Despite the minor hiccups, Cali continues to progress in her scent-detection abilities. She’s putting them to work daily. Though Jana enjoyed the concept of smell walks throughout her life, Cali had never been interested in sniffing her way through town. Now she thoroughly investigates the many (many, many, many …) places along our daily walks that other dogs have marked. I never knew it could take so long to walk around a parking lot!

She’s suddenly developed a deep interest in squirrels, too. Montana squirrels are a lot more interesting than California squirrels, apparently. Especially the one that hangs out near the veterans’ apartment building next to our apartment complex. Oh, and the one that raids our bird feeder any chance it gets, whom Cali seems to enjoy watching.

Back in “nosework” class, we’ve moved from hiding the scent in boxes to moving it around. Cali quickly grasps each new step — at least, in class. Watching her try to understand the new “rules” at home is interesting. She is a living illustration that content and context both affect learning. In plain English — don’t change everything at once. She did find the scent hidden in a plastic container this morning, as well as under the sofa and on a shelf. She’s is following her nose for sure; she can’t see where I have hidden the tin with the scent stick. She’s not very methodical in her search, but she is thorough. And she gets very excited when she finds it.

What’s great about the scent game is that we can play it all winter, indoors, with little changes, and – so far — Cali’s enthusiasm hasn’t faded a bit.

 

Koala Cleans Up

Photo by Deni Elliott

Koala is learning a skill that all dogs need: She’s learning to pick up her toys before she goes to bed.

Wow, you might be thinking, that’s amazing.

It’s really pretty simple, once you get over the ridiculous human notions that dogs “can’t” do … whatever. Frankly, I believe that the only limitation on what dogs can learn is the imagination of the humans teaching them.

So, back to Koala. Koala is the smartest dog I know. She is also an excellent people-trainer. She’s got Deni really, really well trained. For instance, even though Koala celebrated her third birthday a few weeks ago (mazal tov Koala!), she has Deni convinced that she will not be able to work, and may well keel over and die, if she does not get puppy lunch every single day. Most Labs and goldens give up their puppy lunch at around 6 months of age. It was the single most terrible experience in Jana’s long and otherwise happy life.

The next thing that Koala trained Deni to do was provide a bedtime snack, just before the nightly cuddle. This actually was fortuitous, because it made teaching Koala to clean up very easy. While possibly not as smart as Koala, Deni is no slouch. She put one and one together and got a perfect back-chaining opportunity: Deni simply had to remember to ask that Koala clean up before she would get her bedtime snack.

OK, there is another step of course. Koala had to know to get her toys and to drop them in the toy basket. Koala is a very well-educated guide dog, but for some reason, a working retrieve was not part of her university curriculum. No matter. Deni easily taught her to bring toys to her. Koala did already know to drop items on cue, so getting her to drop them into a basket was also pretty easy.

With these essential pieces in place, and the very strong motivation of her snack, it took Koala only a few days to get into the routine. The biggest obstacle, to be honest, was Deni remembering to ask Koala to clean up before providing the snack. It’s nearly always the humans who hold dogs, back, not any lack of ability on the dog’s part.

A bonus: Koala, like most smart dogs, excels at finding shortcuts. She seems to have figured out the concept and, in the interest of making snack delivery speedier, she leaves fewer toys lying around. The other day, she had only two to pick up. Chores done, on to snacks and cuddles. Seems like an all-around win!

“Alpha” Stands for Abuse

Golden retriever rolls happily in the grass
This is the only kind of rolling I want my dogs to experience.

A few weeks ago, I saw someone essentially “alpha roll” her dog.

This week, I saw Patricia McConnell’s review of a book by the same folks who initially “popularized” the alpha roll, the Monks of New Skete. I don’t know what the Monks suggest in their new book, but I am confident that it is bad for dogs.

It’s well past time for this abuse to stop. We know enough about dogs to put to rest the notion that they “need” a strong leader who keeps them in check using force.

The alpha roll, for those fortunate enough never to have encountered it, is an abusive technique presented by incompetent, ignorant individuals who call themselves dog trainers. It’s based on the thoroughly debunked idea that dogs’ “packs” need to be ruled by an “alpha” who demonstrates “leadership” by beating up on other members of the pack. And that if you, the human, do not repeatedly enforce your “leadership,” the dog (any dog) will try to take over.

All of the elements of this belief are pure hogwash. But those beliefs have led to many cruel practices, including the alpha roll as discipline. Basically, if your dog does something you don’t like, you are supposed to punish him and reinforce your “leadership” by grabbing him and throwing him onto his back (rolling him if he’s too big for you to flip easily) and holding him down as you yell at him, shake him by the scruff, do both, or perform whatever other “disciplinary” tactics the abusive “trainer” has taught you.

So, the alpha roll I saw went like this: I was walking down a busy street. A woman was walking her smallish terrierish dog. Another person walking a larger Labish dog went by. I am not sure whether the dogs only sniffed at each other or whether one or both vocalized. Whatever the small terrier did was unacceptable to the woman who grabbed him, flipped him over, shook him, and yelled, “No! Bad! No!” several times.

Why?

What did she think she was teaching him?

Who knows what she thought she was teaching him. What she was teaching him was that she, his human protector, was crazy and unpredictable. That walking down the street with her, simply being a dog, was dangerous. That she might attack him out of the blue for no reason.

I was silently rooting for the dog to bite her in the face. A major downside of the alpha roll is that the person doing it is often ideally positioned for a really nasty (and richly deserved) face bite. That so few dogs snap and deliver the “discipline” that the people deserve is an enormous testament to dogs’ self-restraint and their long-suffering and forgiving natures — not to the effectiveness of the “discipline.”

The alpha myth is based on incorrect assumptions about wolves. See Alexandra Horowitz’s explanation in this link for more information, but in short, people who observed the behavior of captive wolves extrapolated from the behavior between males all kinds of nonsense about dogs. For openers, captive wolf behavior is nothing like wild wolf behavior, so the observation that, in captive groups made up of unrelated wolves thrown together by humans, males jockeyed for control — including fighting with other males — says nothing about wolf pack dynamics. Natural wolf packs are families. The so-called alpha pair are the parents or grandparents of the other pack members. True alpha wolves rarely use physical discipline, but the alpha pair does lead the pack and teach their offspring how to behave.

And even if natural wolf packs did behave as alpha theorists described— so what? That little terrier mix getting abused on the sidewalk has less in common with a wolf than you and I have with the average chimpanzee. Do we discipline children and rule workplace hierarchies based on the way chimps treat their troupe-mates? I certainly hope not! Thanks to thousands of years of partnership leading to domestication of dogs, and also thanks to generations of human-influenced genetic changes, dog behavior is very, very different from wolf behavior. And dog-dog behavior is, and should be, different from dog-human behavior.

Dog behavior is relationship-based; dogs are very social. That is about the only element of the dog pack mythology that is true. Humans are also social. Social animals have rules, whether formal or informal, that govern their interactions. Some involve status differences and even hierarchies. But leadership is about navigating and negotiating these relationships and differences and influencing the behavior of those with lower status or who are dependent on the leader in some way. There are lots of ways to lead. Sure, force is an option. But as anyone who’s survived an autocratic parent or boss knows, it is not terribly effective, it destroys relationships, and it is far from the only way to “lead.” In fact, I do not consider force or autocracy to be leadership.

McConnell’s blog offers alternative visions of leadership. I agree with her; our leadership of our dogs should be about building a relationship, letting the dog know he can count on us and trust us. It’s also about letting dogs think for themselves and making it safe for them to make mistakes sometimes. That is the polar opposite of what “being the alpha” accomplishes.

Please don’t buy into the alpha myths; instead, buy any (or all) books by McConnell and other positive, progressive trainers who treat dogs as the thinking, caring, sensitive beings they are.