The Magic Harness

Cali, aged about 4 months, shows off her new red Sense-ation harness.
Cali got her first Sense-ation harness when she was only a few months old.

Lots of dogs have poor leash manners. This is partly the fault of their humans (not enough training or the wrong kind of training). But it’s also partly just how dogs are.

They are eager to explore. To check out interesting smells. To meet fascinating people. To chase smaller animals. Also they lead pretty dull lives, mostly inside, often alone. Going for a walk is stimulating and fun. So they pull.

There are a couple of problems with this. One is that it’s annoying for the human and makes walks with the dog a chore, rather than a pleasure. If you don’t think that walking your dog is one of life’s greatest pleasures, a) I feel very sorry for you and b) please read Dog Walks Man.

The other problem is that, since most dogs’ leashes are attached to a collar, when the dog pulls, she puts a lot of pressure on her throat. Some dogs have thick, muscular necks and don’t really feel it. But for many dogs, the pressure could cause damage.

Luckily, there is an easy solution. It’s not 100 percent guaranteed to work, but with many dogs, the results are close to miraculous.

What is this magical cure? A chest-fastening harness.

A standard harness with the leash hooking into a ring on the dog’s back will not help. It will actually enable the dog to pull harder (no throat pressure).

But something about a chest-fastening harness inhibits most dogs from pulling. I tried it with a friend’s 6-month-old puppy just this week, and the change was instantaneous.

Several brands are available, and they all fit a little differently. Some are a little complicated to put on, at least initially. The best thing to do is go to a large pet store and try a few on the dog.

Note: Don’t confuse chest-fastening harnesses with the halter-type deals that go over a dog’s nose. Dogs hate those. And if either the dog or the human pulls or jerks too hard, the dog can seriously injure her back or neck. I do not recommend those at all.

That’s not always possible. I’ve had great luck with the Balance harness (also rated #1 by the Whole Dog Journal) and the Sense-ation harness, which is easier to find. I dislike the Easy Walk because even if I’ve adjusted it correctly, it loosens up and slips around on the dog. I either haven’t tried or I’m neutral on several other brands.

What are you waiting for? You could be enjoying a walk with your dog!

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Drug Dogs Forced into Early Retirement

Hundreds of drug-detection dogs are taking early retirement, their jobs disappearing as marijuana legalization makes their skill set obsolete. It’s not the dogs’ fault; the blame lies with human myopia.

A police dog wears a star-shaped badge.

Dogs can be taught to identify pretty much any scent, even scents that humans cannot detect. The dogs who sniff out cancer or flag diabetics whose blood sugar is dropping, for example, are responding to scents that humans cannot smell.

Dogs can also be taught to reliably distinguish scents and alert to more than one scent. And they can of course be taught to respond to each scent with a unique behavior — a bark, sitting, lying down, spinning in a circle. It really doesn’t matter what; the dog can learn it.

But the humans. Oh, the humans.

There are the trainers who take the “easy” path of teaching their canine pupils to give the same alert to any contraband. Easier to teach. Easier for the handler to remember. But it makes the dog’s skills useless when you no longer want her to alert to marijuana.

There are the humans — trainers, handlers, lawyers, judges — who do not believe that dogs can discriminate the scent of meth from the scent of marijuana. Or who do not believe that dogs can reliably signal which one they’ve detected.

For these reasons, many drug-detection dogs who’ve served faithfully and honorably are being pushed out of their jobs. In places where marijuana is now legal, basing an arrest on the dog’s say-so is too risky. Defendants can argue that the dog alerted to a legal substance.

Many detection-dog trainers are have already stated training dogs on other forms of contraband but not marijuana. And new recruits,  who’ve graduated with this newfangled curriculum, are stepping up to take the retiring dogs’ jobs. Even so, there are sure to be younger dogs caught unprepared as the job market shifts, new grads whose skills are outdated before they’ve had a chance to shine. The thousands of humans forced to adjust when their jobs vanished will understand how tough this can be.

The retirees’ future is not bleak, however. Most of these dogs are headed into a cushier retirement than many people can look forward to. Many of them have years of experience under their vests and deserve to enjoy their golden years. And who knows? Some may pivot to new careers. I hear there’s growing demand for conservation dogs



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?

Cali’s New Job

When Cali was a very small puppy, she tried to move in on Jana’s turf, to steal her job! Young Cali had her heart set on delivering the paper, but that didn’t go so well. Cali decided that she was just going to be a puppy of leisure.

But every so often, she’d check out what was out there.

She usually wasn’t interested in the jobs that were available. Picking up her dish doesn’t pay well enough. Putting her toys away is boring. And besides, she’s just going to get them out again in the morning.

She’s willing to work as a dishwasher pretty often, despite the dull vegetarian menu, but the hours are irregular and the pay is inconsistent.

She does like her gig work as a greeter, but again, it’s unpredictable and the pay is inconsistent. Some visitors play with her; others ignore her. Some don’t even come inside to admire the toy she has brought to show them. The really mean ones just ring the bell and disappear. Who does that?

Yes, for many years, the job market was tight. But things are looking up.

Finally, Cali has a new job that she loves. It’s predictable, the hours are the same every day, and the pay is great. Thanks to the new fence that nice man from Western Montana Patio built for her, she can safely get the paper.

Yep, back to her first job. Or attempt at a job. Jana had that one locked up for a while, then Cali was too depressed to work … then there was no paper for about a year.

When she first moved to her new yard, she immediately saw a problem:  There was a house blocking the paper delivery area, and the front yard opened right onto a busy street. She wasn’t going to risk her life for a job!

At last, the stars have aligned: There’s a paper to get and it’s safe for her to work.

With the new fence, all is well. She goes out into the back yard first thing to take care of business, then she’s ready for work. She bounds through the house and out the front door, tracks down that paper (the weekend carrier doesn’t have the best aim …), wrestles with it a bit, and delivers a slightly damaged plastic-wrapped bundle. With a little encouragement, she’ll even place it in the bossy human’s hand, but she really thinks that dropping it on the living room rug should be sufficient. Lazy human!

Still, the human comes through with decent pay. A liver treat! Best of all, her workday is done with plenty of day left to play, roll in the grass, and sleep on the human’s bed.

Cali thrusts a slightly rumpled newspaper at her human.
Here you go!

It’s About Time

A miniature Schnauzer with uncropped ears.
Keep your paws off my ears!

A breeder in Pennsylvania could face prison time and large fines if she’s convicted of the eight counts of felony animal cruelty she’s been charged with. This a year after earlier charges resulted in her being placed under “supervision.” The supervision was not sufficient to stop her from continuing her cruel practice — cropping the ears of puppies without any anesthesia or even antibiotics.

I find ear cropping and tail docking reprehensible. I know all the devotees of breeds where this is standard practice are going to howl in protest. Go ahead. It’s a vile, cruel practice. But if you insist on doing it, the very minimum you must do is have a veterinarian perform the procedure on puppies who have been anesthetized and who will receive proper follow-up care, including antibiotics and analgesics. To force puppies to endure this barbaric procedure without pain meds is unspeakably cruel.

Four of the counts against this monster are for torture. Torture. I’m pleasantly surprised that the state of Pennsylvania has such strong laws to protect these puppies — and that the laws are being enforced, at least in this case. I wish the rest of the country would follow suit. (According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Pennsylvania updated its cruelty laws in 2017.)

What’s even more nauseating is the outcry among breeders and “dog fancy” folks in support of the breeder — including the American Kennel Club.

Breed standards can change to eliminate requirements for cosmetic surgery. Allowing show dogs to retain their ears and tails does not interfere with their so-called genetic purity; it merely requires the humans who torture and profit from them to alter their ideas on what the dogs should look like. Many breeds’ appearance has changed drastically over the years due to selective breeding, and people have accepted and even embraced the changes. There’s no reason a show poodle can’t have a tail or a Schnauzer shouldn’t have ears. Whatever the historic justification for cropping and docking, it’s not relevant in the show ring or typical pet home. Owners and breeders of working dogs who may feel that the alterations serve a useful purpose can make that argument — and have a vet do the procedures. Nothing justifies the cruelty of unnecessary surgery on puppies who are “’crying and screaming’ without anesthesia while their ears were cut,” as described in a Washington Post article.

I hope this woman spends the rest of her miserable, cruel life in prison where she cannot hurt any more puppies.

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.