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What is that Rescue Group Telling You?

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Maddie

“She’s just a little shy.”
“This dog just needs some training.”
“Once he’s adopted he’ll be better.”
“These puppies are bonded and shouldn’t be separated.”

Rescue groups and shelters truly do amazing work to find loving homes for surrendered animals.  This article is not intended to bash or undermine their work in any way.  Most shelters and rescue groups do the best they can with the limited resources they have.  I appreciate their efforts!

If a rescue group, foster family, or shelter worker gives you advice about training or behavior, please consider the source.  Does this person have professional experience and training in behavior and dog training skills?  Just having been around alot of dogs and hearing alot of stories is not enough.  Some shelters like the Humane Society of Broward County have amazing behavior experts and trainers either on staff, working as volunteers, or working as contractors.  However, they may not be the ones working on the adoption room floor.

So what’s the harm with taking a little anecdotal advice from a well intentioned rescue worker?  Well if you are truly devoted to the animal, have LOTS of control over your environment, and have tons of resources (cash and time); there is not much risk of harm.  You are devoted and have the means and resources to make a great life for your dog.  You are my perfect client!

But when reality sets in… many adopters realize that they have lives that are not compatible with a special needs dog.  They have commitments and responsibilities and they are tired and have no time.  The really sad stories are the families with children that adopt dogs that are not a good fit.  Children do not fully understand consequences.  When your dog has a bite history, and your beautiful little girl goes for a big dog hug and gets bit on the face, that’s completely irresponsible parenting.  Children should not have access to dogs that bite unless strictly supervised, and using safety equipment when needed.

Last year, I received an email from a shelter that I support.  They wanted me to talk to a family that recently adopted 2 German Shepherd puppies… from the same litter. Click on this link to the article on why adopting more than 1 puppy from the same litter is a bad idea (unless you have super human powers).  Let me give you some insider info: I’m a dog trainer.  Training comes easy and complimentary (that’s free) to me.  I would never WILLINGLY AND OF SOUND MIND take on 2 pups at the same time.  It’s too much work.  Hey if its too much work for a dog trainer, ya think that may be a clue not to take this on?  So what was the problem with the adopters?  Well, on top of all the usual complaints about puppies, the family had a special needs child.  The shelter should have never allowed the family to take both puppies.  I’m not denying anyone the right to a dog because they have a child with special needs, but dogs have needs too.  If your dogs needs are not compatible with your family needs, you are asking for trouble.  Call me before you make a decision that you regret.  And by the way, those pups were real cute and controllable when they were adopted.  By the time they were surrendered, the pups were so big and uncontrollable, that I can’t imagine that they would be adoptable.  I have no information if they had a happy ending or if they were just another euthanasia statistic.

Sadly, this is just one story of the many stories I hear from clients that I work with, as well as potential clients that couldn’t commit the resources to manage the behavior.  Obedience training will help you communicate with your dog, but it won’t help your dog with intense fearful reactions to other dogs or people.  Fear, stress and anxiety related behaviors need to be managed with behavior modification.  Behavior modification is usually a tedious process and requires private lessons.

I will confess, that I too have adopted a dog with my heart and not my head.  Maddie’s rescue group certainly worked the emotional side of adoption (I was emotionally raw and broken hearted from the death of my beloved Liesel).  Fortunately, because I am a dog trainer, I had the resources to do the behavior modification (I didn’t charge myself).  My journey with Maddie is in its 7th year.  For some people, taking on a dog with special needs is truly wonderful.  For others, that may have taken dog behavior advice from a bad source, it could be a nightmare.

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Getting the Most From Group Classes

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Enzo, a proud recent grad

Group dog training classes are typically reasonably priced and a great opportunity to learn valuable skills.  There are so many learning opportunities and socialization opportunities involved in taking a group class.  Here are some tips to make the most of your group class experience.

*Find a class taught by a Certified Professional Dog Trainer.  There are plenty of hobbyist dog trainers giving classes.  You will be much more likely to incorporate what you learn in class into your every day life if the teacher is a professional that receives continuing education, and is up to date on the latest training methods and equipment.

*Find a class that uses positive reinforcement methods and does not allow coercive, or aversive methods in class.  The old school jerk and pull leash corrections can lead to aggression or fear aggression in some dogs.

*Make note of any prerequisites and be honest with yourself about if you meet these requirements.  For example, enrolling in my Rally class if your dog doesn’t sit or down on cue would be very frustrating for the student. 

*Follow your trainer or their company on social media.  I post tons of articles, tips, and dog friendly events on the Oh Behave Facebook page and my Twitter page.  It’s free information from reputable sources.  Why not take advantage of it?

*If the teacher and space at the facility allow for it, arrive to class a few minutes early.  It’s a great opportunity to get individual attention from the trainer if he or she is not teaching another class.  In addition, most dogs need some time to acclimate to the environment before they are ready to give you their attention and focus.

*Read your syllabus and handouts, do your homework, and come to class prepared.  Your experience in class will be frustrating if you are not using the right equipment, treats, or have not practiced.

*If space and the teacher allow it, have all adults in the family attend class.  It is best to avoid changing handlers in the middle of class, but the adults in the family should be familiar with all of the practice exercises to provide consistency at home.

*Make friends with your classmates after class.  If appropriate, making friends with other students in class is a great way to continue to socialize your dog.  Some of my students have enjoyed the company of their classmates at dog parks and other venues because they made that connection in my class.  Remember, not all dogs are appropriate for play sessions with other dogs.  Be sure to ask the owner first.

Your group class experience should be fun, informative and a great value.  Make the most of your experience.

Curse of the Good First “Baby”

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ImageSometimes I get accused of using too many human analogies when I discuss behavior, learning and motivation for pet dogs.  I avoid what is called “anthropomorphism”, that is, assigning human characteristics to animals.  However, all living things respond to positive reinforcement training.  In that arena, I find there are many similarities.

Sometimes it’s my clients that give me the good analogy.  I’d like to share with you the “curse of the good first baby” that a client shared with me.  I have seen episodes of Dr. Phil with similar parenting stories involving parental expectations and judgements, but hearing it first hand really amused me.

Sometimes we are just blessed with the perfect dog.  Perhaps a born follower, gentle, very attached to its owners…  This dog just doesn’t seem to need training.  He never jumps on guests (or is too small for that to be annoying), doesn’t run away, not destructive and is easily housetrained.  For those of us that have experienced “normal dogs”, this sounds almost too good to be true.  We have suffered the indignity of finding chewed up belongings, stinky messes, and begging our dogs to come to us in public when they get loose.  At Oh Behave, I don’t get a whole lot of phone calls from the owners of “perfect” dogs.

I get lots of phone calls in my line of work about the new dog that is just evil.  Of course, they tell me it’s a puppy, but it’s really already one and a half years old, not housebroken, destructive, still mouthy, runs out the door every time it’s open, and guests refuse to come to the house because of the jumping, mouthing, and incessant barking.  Just another day at Oh Behave Dog Training.

So I visited the home of one of these “evil” dogs and the owners tell me that they just can’t figure out what’s wrong with their dog. Their last dog never did any of the ridiculous behaviors like barking, jumping, running away, and peeing on the carpet.  I had to give them the doggie parent dose of reality: “most dogs will do what your current dog is doing unless you teach them to do something else.  There is nothing wrong with this dog, we just need to teach him what’s right.”  “Well what about our last dog?”, they ask.  I tell them how lucky they were to have had such a wonderful dog, but most people are not lucky enough to be blessed by the “perfect” dog twice in a row.

The dog mom starts to squirm & turn red.  She starts talking to me and her husband about her sister, brother in law,  and their children.  Evidently, the sister’s first child is an angel: as a toddler she was very sweet, never went through the terrible twos and slept through the night as a baby.  Apparently the sister and brother in law were pretty unforgiving and judgmental about the dog mom’s child parenting skills.  Dog mom would explain that her kids sometimes have tantrums, outbursts, trouble sitting still, and other normal, but not so desirable behaviors.  It’s normal. The judgements went on until the sister and brother in law had the second child.  Baby number two was colicky as a baby and was a terror through the terrible twos, and is still pretty much of a handful.  The sister thought she was such an amazing parent because her child was so amazing.  The sister thought my clients were bad parents because they had a child that just does normal childhood behaviors.  And so my clients had the doggie parent epiphany… even though their first dog was an angel, they basically sucked at dog training.

The good news is that training your dog is a skill that can be learned. My clients and their new dog all lived a much less stressful life by simply introducing some positive reinforcement training!  Now they think their current dog is an angel and I am happy to tell them what wonderful dog parents they have become!   They are truly great at training their dog.

Moving Out of Your Dog’s Comfort Zone

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Confidence Building Exercises

Doesn’t it feel great to take on a new and fun challenge?  I know I love getting out of my comfort zone and trying something new… especially with a little support and camaraderie from friends.

Thirteen years ago, I received a black belt rank in karate.  When I first stepped into the dojo, I knew no one there and had no idea what to expect.  I was never athletic and I was lucky to find a a school that was incredibly supportive and encouraging even with my lack of coordination and balance.  It took me ten years to work my way through the ranks.  It took some discipline to go to class after some long days at Ryder and even while I was working on my MBA.  All ten years were really rewarding and challenging and gave me great confidence.  Karate was one of the most amazing experiences of my life because it was so completely out of my comfort zone.  It made meeting each challenge just that much sweeter!

Dogs too can benefit from getting out of their comfort zones and experiencing new challenges and experiences.   Getting your dog out and about and trying new skills is very enriching.  Advanced, intermediate, and competitive activities provide opportunities to enhance your dog’s life.  By challenging your dog, he will learn to deal with frustration – some activities and skills just aren’t a piece of cake.  Face it, life isn’t a piece of cake, even for dogs.  Learning how to deal with frustrating situations and getting great rewards  for patience is a valuable skill in a dog’s life.  Dogs also gain lots confidence from being out of their comfort zone and getting rewards and enriching experiences in return.

So what’s a dog owner to do after basic obedience?  As I write this, my window is open and I am enjoying the sunny 73 degree weather.  If you live in South Florida, you could not pick a better time to get out there and have some fun with your dog.  In February, Oh Behave will be offering K9 Fun Nosework and an Intermediate class so you and your dog can learn some snazzy skills and benefit from spending time with your best buddy!

A Correction by Any Other Name is Painful

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Even scolding can be frightening to some dogs

Dog Training methods have evolved in the last 20 to 30 years.  Sadly, many dog trainers and dog owners have not.  I often find trainers that refer to themselves as “positive” or “reward based”, yet they still cling to punishment based techniques they call “corrections”.

Just because a trainer uses treats in their training methods, does not make them a positive reinforcement trainer.  Positive reinforcement trainers avoid using painful, aversive or coercive methods in their training programs.  If I rang your doorbell and gave you flowers when you greeted me, you would think it was a lovely random act of kindness (assuming you like flowers).  If you answered the door and I slapped you and then handed you the flowers, kindness would probably not come to mind.  Even if the slap only stung for a brief second.

Corrections come in the form of chokes, pinches, electric currents, kicks, scary noises, knees in the stomach and many other forms of abuse.  I’ve been told that these techniques “don’t hurt the dog”.  Sometimes that is actually true.  I’ve seen many dogs on prong collars happily sit there while their owners lightly tug the leash.  The dog will totally ignore all of the commands the owner is giving.. because it doesn’t hurt.  Most dogs become somewhat desensitized to low intensity aversives.  So, what that means is that to really be effective with “corrections”, they have to really hurt, scare or be very unpleasant to the dog.  I personally do not want my dog to associate anything unpleasant with training or with being with me.

For many dogs, “corrections” actually interfere with the dog’s ability to work it out.  In fact, dogs that have been trained using corrections are less likely to work to advanced behaviors because they have associated unpleasant experiences with offering behaviors.  For example, if a dog has been corrected from breaking a down stay, he is unlikely to offer that behavior when you arrive at the rally sign that reads Sit-Down-Sit-Stand.  Positive reinforcement training involves using tools like leashes and collars to prevent undesirable behaviors, not correcting them.  Instead of jerking a prong collar to punish a dog for jumping on a human, I prefer to use the leash to prevent the dog from jumping on the human using distance.  The human is not allowed to interact with the dog until he is calm or sitting.  The dog starts to work out the association that calm behavior or sitting, brings the human closer.

The most compelling reason for dropping corrections, is that it can make a dog very fearful and can actually cause aggressive behavior.  Trust is the most important part of your relationship with your dog.  Don’t let corrections jeopardize your dog’s ability to trust you, his owner.

Practicing in a Controlled Environment

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Practice Makes Perfect

Have I ever mentioned that there is no magic wand or pill in dog training?  Managing and correcting dog behavior is all about consequences and rewards.  Dogs repeat behaviors that are rewarding.   Dogs avoid behaviors that are not rewarding.  Dogs avoid behaviors associated with pleasant things disappearing.

Many common complaints about dog behavior include: jumping up, not coming when called, excessive barking, begging at the table, stealing items, and not releasing items.  These are all normal dog behaviors, it’s just that we humans don’t like them.  The trick to stopping these behaviors is to set ourselves up for success by controlling the environment as much as possible.  For example, we would not teach “leave it” by waiting for the dog to get into antifreeze.  We would not practice recall in the middle of a busy strip mall parking lot.

Here are some ideas for setting up scenarios to practice managing undesirable behaviors

 *The tools:  Have your tools handy to prevent undesirable behavior.  Leashes, fences, and long leashes can help prevent running away and jumping up on people.

* The players:  Everyone involved needs to know the role they play in the scene.  Handlers need to hold on to leashes to prevent jumping.  The “jumpees”  may need to step away.

* The setup:  The environment for the scene needs to be setup so that there are rewards for desirable behavior and that pleasant things go away when undesirable behavior occurs.  Creativity helps in doing the setup.  Once a dog has learned the come cue (usually taught on leash), practicing recall in a boring but safe environment can be effective.  Cue the behavior “come” from a short distance.  If the dog responds, reward generously.  If the dog doesn’t respond, walk away.  The dog will learn that coming when called is usually in his best interest.

* Building the bank account:  With successful practice, your dog will associate good things with desirable behavior.  A dog can be rewarded generously every time he gives up an item, and ignored until he gives it up.  If the environment is controlled, the item to give up will be safe.  Build up the bank account by giving the item back once the dog releases it.  Practicing this behavior will set the dog up for success even when the environment is not in control.  With repeated success in safe environments, the day your dog picks up a sharp object on a walk, your dog will expect that by giving up the item, he will be rewarded generously, and may even get the item back.  With controlled practice sessions, the likelihood of compliance is greatly increased.

Remember that if you have no control over your environment, you will not be successful at controlling your dog’s behavior.

Written by dawnhanna

February 2, 2012 at 11:04 am