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TINKER DAY! A Celebration

Posted on October 24, 2014 at 12:38 AM Comments comments (2)
It’s dark in the back yard, nearing 10 o’clock, and all hell has broken loose.  During the day, the house next to mine is used as a preschool and filled with the sounds of children playing.  At night, it is vacant, an empty highway to the wetlands beyond the alley.  Now, from behind the board fence comes a horrible hissing growl that sounds like it belongs to a 10-ft. Nile crocodile.   Tinker finds the knot hole in the fence and inhales the smell, then erupts into a frenzy of her own. 

Not a crocodile; it’s one or more of the local family of raccoons. I’m ready with treats—chicken, cheese, steak—but there’s little point to them yet.  As Tinker throws herself at the fence and starts tearing at a board with her teeth, I take her by the collar and pull her away as gently as I can.  Amazingly, she accepts this, letting me lead her a few feet away. 

“Tinker,” I say softly, “Sit.” 

She is trembling, her nostrils flaring.  She sits.  “Tinker,” I say, “Watch me.” 

She lifts her head to make eye contact, intense, reluctant.  But she does it, locks on questioningly.  Slowly, I let go of her collar.  “Tinker, wait.”   

A slight sound escapes her, a doggy %$#&^!   But she holds the Sit, staring into my eyes.  “Tinker,” I dare to say, “Down.” 

The cartoon bubble would probably read, “Are you *&#@# kidding me?”  But she sinks down.  Holds it.  Waits.  “Tinker,” I say, “Good girl.  Okay, git it!”  

She explodes toward the fence to claim her reward.  You’d think the raccoons would have had the wit to leave, but they start cussing back from the safety of the other yard.  I collect Tinker again, another round.  And another.  The raccoons finally drift into the night, the alley beyond, leaving behind odor and hope.   Tinker inhales the scent through her beloved knot hole, winding down a notch.   “Tinker,” I can risk it now, I have a chance now, “Here!” 

She leaves the fence, dashes over for a bit of cheese.  Sit.  Watch.  Git it!  Her charge to the fence is delighted, work become a game.  Here!  Git it!  After a few rounds, Here—and chicken, cheese, steak—becomes more interesting than the fading smell of the raccoons.    No critters were harmed in the making of the training session.  Tinker looks at me, her eyes shining.   She can’t come away from the raccoons once she’s on them, not yet.  The Sit-Watch-Wait-Down from ten feet away is her gift to me, a glory of growing self-control from a dog born to hunt.  

Three years ago on October 25, after months of struggling with the loss of my beloved Corgi Fox, a couple of 7-8 week old puppies were brought into the shelter by a woman who had found them abandoned at a local rest stop.  One was a nifty looking black-and-white girl with shorter legs that I guessed was a ranch dog bundle of Border collie and maybe Jack Russell.  Her sister was an odd looking white and speckled gray-faced cutie, leggier and stockier than her sis, that I speculated was the same ranch dog bundle with some Cattle Dog aka Blue Heeler thrown in.   Hmm.  Hmmm.  

Of course, being a professional dog trainer gives one all kinds of training and sporting ambitions, not to mention an ardent desire to have a dog that makes us look good in public.  The usual solution—which was my intended solution—is some cool version of Flash the Border collie.   Flash, super biddable, versatile and ready to work for a whisper and a whistle—I was going to get young Flash, train him or her up to be an agility star, a Freestyle dancing partner, a walking advertisement for my dog trainerly skill.  Flash and I were going to go everywhere together with nary a leash in sight.  Flash was going to be my constant companion, a cheerful confident brainiac of a dog adored by all, with not a behavior glitch to his or her name.  Yup.  

But Flash hadn’t shown up at the shelter yet.  These two little girls… hmmm.  Border/Jack/Heeler ranch mutt… hmmm.  That’s not a bad mix, enough herding dog to have Flash potential.   The average Cattle dog is an edgier, tougher nut than the average Border collie, but they’re smart, fast, versatile and loyal dogs and I like the breed on the whole very much.   Although Flash in theory is ideal, really, what hooks me more than anything is—I like smart dogs.  Clever, even naughty dogs that make me laugh at their antics.   The only issue I seriously didn’t want to mess with was predatory drive, because I have cats, want a mostly off-leash dog and predatory/hunt drive is so ferociously hard to modify.   That dash of what looked like Jack Russell gave me some pause.  But Cattle dog/herding ranch dog mix?  Oh, yeah. 

I ended up fostering both pups for a bit, until one of them found a home.  But I knew where my heart was falling.  That white-and-speckled gray-face girl.   Tinker, I named her, from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  I couldn’t wait for her sis to—as it turned out—go to Oregon Humane’s adoption program in Portland, so that Tinker and I could begin bonding as a pair.  

They say “love is blind,” but I don’t think so.  It’s only blind if we’re in love with our expectations at the expense of reality.   By the time Tinker was 5 months old, I was stupid in love but I also knew something wasn’t going in the hoped-for Flash Direction.   The tells were alarming to a pet owner but pretty damned funny to a behavior geek:  they’re often called “Fixed Action Patterns” or “FAPs” for short.   These are hard-wired behaviors that spring, like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully formed and loaded with no training or learning at all.  They’re—experts get fussy about what words we should use, but you’ll get the idea—innate, instinctive, often selective bred for and can be powerful as sin.    

I got the I-must-bury-the-bone business; lots of dogs do that, no problem.  But the climbing?   I never taught Tinker to get up in chairs, scamper up the steps of the cat tree or pose on the dining room table.  She wanted up, any up she could get, and she was damned good at it.   Then, there was the very strong and un-Flashlike activity cycle:  no constant, ready-for-action motion for Tinker.  Early mornings were moderately interesting, daytime for sleeping, but the real Tinker came out at night.  Her keenness was palpable:  time to work.  Oh, boy.   And her nose… oh my stars, the nose on this dog.   Combined, clever behavior detective that I am, it came out:  let’s go out at night, track with our noses and climb trees.  That’s not Flash.   That’s not herding dog.  That’s… well, I said rude words as a dread suspicion started to rise:  had I, somehow, someway, gotten myself into a Coonhound mix?  

Not exactly, it turned out.  With the encouragement of friends at the shelter, I sent off for Tinker’s DNA test.  I was still expecting some ranch herding mix like Border, Jack and Heeler, but I was also anticipating the Wild Card:  Treeing Walker Coonhound, maybe Pointer?  When the results came back two weeks later, I have to say, I was floored.   On one side, not unexpectedly—no detectable breeds at all.  My guess is, since Tinker looked so different from her sister, that that would be Mum the ranch mutt, a little of everything tossed in the canine melting pot generations ago.  So, 50% of mutt.  It was the other side—the what I’m assuming is the Stud side.   Not a mutt, oh no.  Papa was a 100% pure-bred Catahoula Leopard Dog.  

Catahoula Leopard Dog?   My Tinker?  Not a delightful stew of known ingredients with that pesky Wild Card for spice?   A combination of All (Dad) and Nothing (Mum.)   50% Catahoula, the only breed detected in the mix.   Of course in hindsight, it made total sense.  

All or Nothing, that’s my girl.   

I can only guess, but based on the daughter’s behavior, somewhere out there is or was a really good working Catahoula stud.  With the nose, the hunt drive, the eagerness to climb trees, tackle bears, blow through fences and catch feral pigs.  To go out late at night with headlamps and nerve and traipse through the piney woods in quest of raccoons.   Judging by his daughter, that Catahoula boy is or can also be a total doll, a mellow lazy lay-about.  Until the sun goes down and a switch gets thrown in some lower-down primal section of brain.  Then, I’ll bet he is or was amazing at his job.  His daughter is amazing, and that had to come from somewhere.  

There are millions of lovely, wonderful pet dogs in this country that haven’t been selectively bred—or at least not in a very long time—for any particular working purpose.   They may or may not come with a few glimmering echoes of their ancestral jobs as herders, hunters, varmint killers, fighters or pullers.  Many of them retain the flavor, sometimes a strong flavor, of what we usually refer to as breedtendencies; many others, though, have as their strongest flavor the robust starch of just good plain old-fashioned Dog.   They chew a little, pee a little, chase a ball a little, drive us crazy a little and then turn two or three years old and arrive at a routine of mutually agreeable activities that work on both leash ends.  They might enjoy this-or-that, but they can take it in small doses or leave it for a less problematic substitute without major sacrifice to their souls.    

That was my Fox:  a lovely gentleman who liked to chase and herd, but who really had no strong commitment to what he chased or herded:  squeaky toys and flocks of puppies met his needs just fine.  He passed his herding instinct test on sheep, but he was just as happy with a soccer ball.   His FAPs were real and with enough reinforcement, I suppose could have gathered enough steam to propel him on those tracks.   It was simpler, though, to nudge his tendencies into other, more convenient tracks:  squeaky hedgehogs, agility and tug toys in the living room.  Many dogs with FAPs or breed tendencies are like that—the behaviors are mild enough or wrapped in a biddable package so that we tend to regard them as part of the charm of having that breed.   They’re endearing little foibles that make our breed special and recognizable, or even give them an advantage in the dog sports of our choice: obedience, agility, recreational herding or carting or scent work.  They’re tendencies.  They’re not purpose-bred freight trains running on rails and crushing everything in their path.  

Now, there’s a simple common-sense rule in dog training: weak behaviors are easier to modify than powerful ones.  Of course they are:  it’s usually as straight-forward as picking a more preferred behavior and building it into a mighty oak via rewards.  The old unwanted behavior is avoided or managed, isolated from all hints of reinforcement nutrition until it withers in barren soil.  The desired new behavior, lavished with care, blossoms and steals all sunlight from the old.  Since weak behaviors are weak, they haven’t yet become deeply rooted by a strong reward history and it’s not hard to find bigger, bolder rewards to grow something else more appealing.  It’s why most behaviors in most puppies are easy to increase or decrease: puppy simply hasn’t been alive long enough for her little seedling behaviors to have become mighty oaks.  Nourish the good behaviors and starve out the weedy ones; done correctly, puppy’s behavior garden will flourish in all the right ways.  

Not always, though.  Some pups come not just with certain seedlings, but with a certain kind of soil.  The whole point of selective breeding is to pick the animals that express the desired behaviors most strongly.  And the easiest way biologically to get strong, reliable behaviors is to select animals that have them hard-wired into the animal’s very own internal seeking system:  they do them not because they are externally rewarded but because they are internally rewarding.   And for real world working dogs in real world jobs, the internal rewarding has to be powerful enough to overcome all other desires—often even all other fears.   A good cow dog is smart enough to avoid most kicks but also gutty enough to carry on in the face of very real risks.   If the fear of getting kicked stopped them, they couldn’t do their jobs.  Instead, nipping at the heels of something that outweighs them by a literal ton feels good to their internal seeking systems, so good that they’ll take on bulls the size of minivans with fearless gusto.  

This kind of gutsy enthusiasm is a goes-without-saying in most predators that tackle large game:  zebras don’t lie down for lions or elk for wolves.  Prey animals fight for their lives with tooth and claw, hooves and horns, and if the lions and tigers and bears couldn’t take it, they’d starve.   In that, big-game predators act like extreme sports enthusiasts:  no pain, no gain adrenaline junkies.  The act of hunting floods them with all kinds of arousing chemicals that make it possible for them to override fear, or ignore in the heat of the moment the inevitable kicks, body slams and goring.  It amounts to an addiction, in this case an addiction essential to fitness and survival.  Which is why behaviors rooted in the soil of predation can be so very, very hard to change:  there are precious few, sometimes no, external rewards that trump the adrenaline junkie buzz of the Hunting Rush.

In herding dogs, the problem was solved, or mostly solved, at the selective breeding level by co-selecting for a second trait:  biddability.  Herders not only needed Flash to be an internally-rewarded fool for rounding up stock—they also needed him to stop on a dime when asked.   The dogs that herded like crazy but kept going until the sheep were exhausted or driven over a cliff didn’t make the cut; nor did the dogs that didn’t herd at all.  It took both traits to make for an outstanding stock dog:  herd and stop at my command.   That’s what makes Flash so very alluring to a trainer:  a powerfully installed work ethic combined with a powerfully installed pre-disposition to take direction.   My darling Corgi had both on a milder, less intense scale: he was always keen to work and always willing to listen.  

Which brings me back to Tinker, who is not and never will be Flash.  She is, in many ways, the anti-Flash.  Unlike a herding dog, Tinker’s Catahoula job description goes something like this:  1) Dog, go git me a critter.  When you find it, run it up a tree.  Then stay there and yell your fool head off till I come pull you off.  2) Dog, go find me a hog.  When you find it, grab aholt and don’t let go, never mind if it kicks or hollers or bites you, you keep a grip till I git there and pull you off.  3) Dog, go track me down a critter, and don’t let nothin’ stop you.  Not briars nor bobwire nor the Devil Himself.   You git that nose down and go, girl.    

So Tinker’s Rules for Success seem to be:
Work independently (amazing intelligence but taking direction not important)
Look everywhere and stick your nose into everything (insatiable curiosity)
Forget listening, the humans aren’t going to be there to tell you (words not important when hunting)
“Stop” is not in my vocabulary until a human has me physically by the collar; then I’m all done (insane arousal/immediate off-switch)
Never back down from a feisty animal (any sign of fight or aggression shall be met with a like response)
If something’s in the way, climb it, knock it down or go through it (stay on task and let the chips fall…)  

Now, at this point I could point out that Tinker isn’t always in Raccoon Mode and when she’s not on a Hunting Rush, she’s chock-full of all manner of virtues.  But I won’t say it.  It’s untrue in this sense:  it completely misses the point.  Tinker’s behaviors when she is in Raccoon Mode aren’t vices.  Some of them may be inconvenient to me (and the raccoons, though my local family seems to enjoy pouring their own fuel on the fire) but they aren’t a behavior problem.  They are an expression of who-knows how many years of selective breeding to be exactly what they are:  hard-wired into her internal seeking system, a boundless Rush that lights her up like nothing else on earth.   

There’s a Pop Culture myth when it comes to our dogs that we face a choice—some would say a constant battle—between Total Domination or Dangerous Anarchy.   Which is weird, because none of our other treasured long-term relationships are framed in those terms, not if they’re healthy and vibrant and joyful.   Truly healthy relationships seem to me to float in the middle, a nurturing and fluid exchange with neither Domination nor Anarchy in play.   So I need to be crystal clear: “surrendering to” or “embracing” Tinker’s inner hunter doesn’t mean throwing up my hands, tossing out our long leash and letting her run amok at her every whim.   It means finding a balance in our choices not between Domination and Anarchy, but between Safety and Joy.  

Like us, Tinker didn’t get to pick her parents or her genes: she got dealt the hand she was dealt.  Her FAP’s and hunting behaviors aren’t a choice she made, any more than she chose to be a dog.  Brain hard-wiring is brain hard-wiring, not a lack of will or willful disobedience.   Tinker came loaded for raccoon and bear: a less appealing load in our modern world, perhaps, but no less powerful than Flash’s herding drive.  It’s not her fault she was adopted by an owner who has no practical use for her very fine talents.  I like to believe, though, that it was her good fortune to land in the lap of a guardian who is coming, however slowly, to understand and appreciate them.  

Of course, it could be like that old movie canard—you know, the one about the coal miner dad who wants his son to be a boxer, but all the kid wants to do is dance or play the violin, except in our case, the kid wants to box and I want the ballet.   At least, I thought I wanted Flash, with his nifty weave poles and nimble-footed Freestyle moves.  Maybe an obedience title instead of teeth marks in the board fence, thanks to Ms. or Mr. Raccoon snarling on the other side.  A Really Reliable Recall would be nice, or an off-leash walk in the woods that didn’t run the real and embarrassing risk of a treed bear, Tinker circling at the top of her lungs and me in hysterics trying to pull her off.    

Instead, Tinker has graciously humored me about agility.  She can uncork a gorgeous run of power and speed that takes my breath away; or she can sit on the start line and contemplate her navel with Zen-like serenity and no interest at all in moving.  I suspect she thinks Freestyle is mighty weird, but she’ll amble through it willingly enough if I keep the music to her speed—the stately theme of Jurassic Park seems to suit her and she makes a pretty good dinosaur.   The trouble is, my T-Rex doesn’t want to be fed.   She wants to hunt.   

Is there a way to take the hunting dog out of her?  Maybe, but I won’t do it, certainly not by force.   I would no more demand that than I would ask Tiger Woods to abandon golf, Adele not to sing, or my amazingly artistic nieces to give up dance and poetry.   When Tinker is on her hunting game, her whole being moves to that music.   She is powerful, headstrong, glorious, a force of nature.  She’s beautiful and alive and fierce with joy.   To take that from her for my own convenience would be to fail both her and myself as a guardian and a trainer. 

Agility and Freestyle and Obedience are and always were my gigs, my goals, not hers.   We’ll still train for them.  I’ll continue to look for ways to channel some of that ferocious hunting drive into my preferred sports, to motivate her more effectively, to get that hunt drive under some modicum of stimulus control and build a Recall that’s bear-proof.   Sometimes chasing rainbows, we don’t reach the gold but we have a hell of a good time trying; maybe a lucky penny lands in our pocket along the way.   In the end, though, when all is said and done, Tinker isn’t here to feed my ego.   She doesn’t need titles.  She doesn’t need to be Flash.  For me, Tinker needs two things and two things only.  

First, Tinker needs to be safe, and the bears and raccoons and other critters around her need to be kept safe.   Second, Tinker needs to be happy.  And that means finding opportunities—safe, creative opportunities--for her to express her preferred behaviors often enough to keep her soul fires burning.   Including her hunting behaviors.  

There are plenty of folks and I’m sure plenty of trainers who would be full of suggestions and advice of what I can do to “fix” her, to train away or suppress her hunting behaviors, to get her to “listen” to me more or “obey” me better, to turn her into something closer to the Flash of my former dreams.   The underlying assumption being that super-biddable work-a-holic Flash would be a better dog, a better performer, a better walking advertisement, and the more Tinker could be like him, the more successful we would be.    

Except, I’m not in love with my dreams, my expectations.   I’m in love with a dog, a unique individual living being, and the goal isn’t for Tinker to become my fantasy Flash.  The goal is for Tinker to be Tinker—the best Tinker she can be.   And for me to become both a better trainer and a better person, the best way I can find.  Forcing her, making her be more like my expectations gets me more of me.  I already have plenty of me.  I want her to be more of her.  

What Tinker has taught me is that if I insist on getting what I expect, what I think I want, I will never have anything bigger than the box of my own making.   Safer, certainly, with none of the surprise and possible horror of the unforeseen.  But also none of the amazing unforeseen highs, the surprises that delight, the places I would never have thought to go to on my own.  Tinker pushes me outside my own box, my own notions of what a dog should be and could be.  Most of all, Tinker brings me joy because she is, wittily, independently, some would say stubbornly, so very Tinker.  Her own dog, her own soul, her own being, shared with me.  

She cannot read this; I can only hope she knows, on some doggy level, how much I love her, all of her.  Three years gone by on a wind, from that speckled, gray-faced puppy to my big brave strapping girl.   

Okay, Tinker!  Git it! (means I love you.)  Git it!  

On Leaders, Babies and Bathwater, Part Five

Posted on August 17, 2014 at 7:37 PM Comments comments (0)
Oh boy.  In the last part, I talked about the two flavors of Strategic Following:  Following because someone has greater expertise, and Following because someone has control of desired resources.   And I sort of left us in a pickle:  taking advantage of Juvenile Following can be time sensitive and often requires a relationship; getting mileage out of the first flavor of Strategic Following typically requires that the interests be mutual or compatible and that we actually have some expertise to offer.  In dog training, this can take some finesse that a lot of perfectly wonderful pet owners don’t have and aren’t interested in acquiring.
 
When folks say they want to or think they should Be the Alpha or the Pack Leader, what they seem to mean when I get down to it is something very simple:  they want their dogs to listen to them and do what they say.  Preferably all the time, every time, and especially in situations where the dog is excited, distracted or otherwise ill-behaved.   And many people seem to believe that dogs do this naturally, or should do this naturally—all that wanting to please us and so on .A dog that doesn’t naturally want to please us is somehow bad—a bad dog.  And it’s okay, maybe even right, to punish bad people and bad dogs.  Or “correct” them so that they’ll learn to be good.  All of this leads to what I’m calling Forced Following—which the more I think about it, the more inclined I am to consider an oxymoron if ever there was one.
 
There’s a quick distinction to make here, because it’s super helpful:  most dogs are inclined to be naturally social.  I myself was not inclined to be naturally social when I was young, but I seem to have acquired a taste for it in maturity:  I like people.  I like you.  I want you to like me.  I am delighted if I can brighten someone’s day, get a smile out of them, leave them feeling better than they did before.  I also prefer to avoid conflict when I can, to play, to laugh, to have good time in my encounters with other creatures. 
 
That does not, however, mean that I want or am willing to take out your trash, wax your car or lend you money.  Or do anything or everything you say.  Cheerful, friendly, inclined to avoid conflict and reasonably tolerant doesn’t equal obedient, “submissive” or any shape of doormat.  I mean you no harm.  If I can please you in some small or large way without sacrificing my own best interests or well-being, I probably will.  I will likely be true to the nice little social conventions: hold the door if someone is carrying groceries, give up my seat to an elder, say please and thank you.  I also have boundaries.  And limits. 
 
When it comes to dogs, I think we confuse this all the time:  we mistake their willingness to be friendly, to tolerate us, to play, to greet us effusively, to mean us no harm, for a burning desire to take out our trash and ignore squirrels at our bidding.  But sociable (seeks out and enjoys friendly contact) and biddable (easily accepting of another’s direction) are not the same traits.   Most biddable dogs are highly social, but plenty of highly social dogs aren’t particularly biddable.  I have one.  Heck, I am one.
 
The second layer of confusion in the Wants to Please premise is in some ways harder to detect, since it tends to swing in a more agreeable direction: mistaking our old friend compatibility for obedience or biddability.  I see this all the time—owners and dogs fitting each other to a tee.  They get along famously, the relationship works, they adore each other.  And it’s not because the dog is especially well-behaved by any objective measure of behavior—often, the dog “listens” not one bit, has no training to speak of and has plenty of behaviors that would drive another person mad.  But the owner thinks—and more importantly, feels—that the dog is perfect.  The best dog ever.
 
But well-matched isn’t the same as obedient, biddable or recognizing the owner as Pack Leader.  If we both want to the same things, what’s to bid, obey or lead?  When dog and owner share mutual interests, no one is conceding their will to another.   My darling Corgi Fox was a dreamboat around squirrels and always responded to my, “Fox, leave it.”  Of course he did—he didn’t want to chase them in the first place.  It made me look good but confusing it with obedience or biddability is falling for an illusion.  If I tell the dog to do what he wants or to not do what he doesn’t want to do anyway, I’ll get amazing “obedience”—as long as we don’t pay attention to the funny little man behind the curtain.  If we do, the Great and Powerful Obedience Oz isn’t quite what he seems.  There’s no place like Compatibility, truly.
 
When someone comes to me seeking help for a dog, it’s always for one of three reasons.  1) The dog is losing sociability in certain situations or with certain creatures—becoming fearful or aggressive, lunging at other dogs, trying to bite the mail carrier, cowering from men.  2) The dog and owner are having compatibility breakdowns, usually expressed as the dog being “too” something—too hyper, too noisy, too rough.  3) The owner wants the dog to learn how to perform a behavior the dog doesn’t know how to do—which might be anything from walking nicely on a leash to cute tricks to becoming competitive in agility.  
 
So if you ask me as an animal sheltering professional what works in pet dogs living with people, it’s 1) sociability (being friendly to people and other animals) 2) compatibility (having similar energy levels, mutual interests, shared pleasures) and lastly 3) performance (specific behaviors the owner likes, if any).  If a dog is friendly, affectionate and responsive, we’ll be far more tolerant of little bumps in compatibility.  If the dog is in the compatibility ball-park, there won’t be too much energy or too many annoying behaviors (present or absent) to sweat over, and the behaviors we do want or don’t want will be easy to train.  Performance is for many pet owners a take-it-or-leave-it affair:  given friendliness and compatibility, nice household manners, a useful Sit and a cute shake-a-paw have been the sum total of many a beloved pet’s training to no ill-effect at all. 
 
The point is, the whole notion of Leadership rarely even comes up until there’s an issue in one or all of the above.   With most pet owners, the problem is usually the appearance of aggression or fearfulness in older (post-adolescent) dogs and the various compatibility shipwrecks of adolescence, when they realize the dog has become “too” something for their lifestyle.  Only a small percentage of dog owners who use their dogs for work (hunting, herding, search and rescue, service, etc.) or sport (agility, obedience, show, etc.) consider “performance” itself to be a real problem or even that interesting.  Really, most of us regular pet owning janes and joes don’t rush out to seminars or break into a cold sweat if our dogs forget to step in the yellow part of the agility obstacle or sit with their little rumps cocked to one side. 
 
Which takes us to the probably oxymoronic notion of Forced Following:  making someone do what we want them to do, whether they want to or not.  Typically not, obviously—if we want to do something, we usually don’t have to be forced.  What I'm calling Forced Following here means using pain, fear or the threats of pain and fear to make an animal do something or stop doing something:  the dog must obey or else.  And here it gets kind of odd. 
 
Forced Following is promoted all the time under the Be the Pack Leader banner:  all manner of physical or emotional coercion employed in the name of “training,” from electric shock to collars designed to cause discomfort to screaming, hitting, kicking, poking, shaking, rolling, etc.  These tactics are often justified as being the only way to build sure-fire, guaranteed reliability and performance in working or competition dogs.  In fact, a lot of the Be the Alpha stuff seems to trickle down from certain professional dog trainers or high-end amateur competitors in dog sports—people who, by all rights, the regular pet owner has every reason to believe know what they’re talking about.  The dogs must do what we want, they say, or else—if we don’t enforce, something worse might happen.  We’ll lose our Leader status, the dog will no longer “respect” us, no longer perform for us, and we’ll be bad, over-indulgent pet parents failing to provide our (secretly) eager to please dogs with the Alpha figurehead they need and crave. 
 
These folks have titles, decades of experience, surely they must know what they’re talking about.  Except… a little critical thinking goes a long way here.
 
First, working and competition people don’t have our dogs.  They don’t have pet dogs.  Folks that seriously need dogs for serious jobs start with dogs that are purpose-bred for the destined task.  Guide Dogs for the Blind doesn’t visit my shelter and grab any old litter of whatever/ Labrador mixes to train up—they carefully breed their own lines.  The world’s greatest Agility or Schutzhund or Obedience competitors don’t select their next world champion prospect from a box in front of Wal-Mart.  They pick their pups from purpose-bred champion lines specifically for the traits they want:  biddability, toy drive, conformation, energy, ability to tolerate pressure, etc.  They start, in short, with dogs that are already highly compatible with the expected work or competition.  
 
Second, even with those purpose-bred dogs, even with World Class trainers—behavior is never 100%.  Performance is never 100%.  If it were, they would score perfectly every time they walked into a ring.  Every dog they put to the task would be brilliant every time.  Instead, even the best of the best lose more often than they win:  it wouldn’t be a competition if they didn’t.  Plenty of the dogs end up not thriving in the rarefied air and wash out, despite being careful bred or chosen.  And it’s not because the dogs and the trainers aren’t magnificent: it’s because what they’re being asked to do isn’t easy.  Every dog and every handler has skills they’re good at and skills where they could use more work; every dog and handler has strengths and weaknesses, limitations and bad hair days.  Everyone makes mistakes, in competition and in life.  Consider, say, college football coaches, many of whom could be poster men for Alphadom.   Being a fabulous Leader of the Pack isn’t enough if the opposing team has a better quarterback and an all-star offensive line. 
 
Behavioral expression—which is to say, performance—is always a stew of more than one ingredient:  how the dog feels, how motivated they and then that last pesky detail—how skilled.  One of my favorite analogies illustrates this:  if I go to take Tap Dancing lessons, it takes me no time at all to figure out who’s in charge of the class—the Instructor, duh.   He or she may be a larger than life personality, domineering, a wonderful Leader, etc.—and I’ll bet it won’t take me long at all to recognize the Instructor’s experience level, motivational style and various glowing virtues or flaws.  At the end of that 30 seconds, I will still have utterly no clue where to put my feet.  I may be bowing to the great and glorious guru of Tap, but I’ll still need to learn how to dance
 
In terms of skill in performance itself, Leadership turns out to be pretty irrelevant compared to, say, practice, repetition and experience. Where “Leadership” may count is getting through all that practice and repetition—the other two behavior ingredients: how the dog feels and how motivated they are.  It’s here that Forced Following is a curious can of worms. 
 
Of course, force can certainly work as a motivator.  Most of us will obey, or try to obey, if someone puts a gun to our heads and we have no other choice.  But this presumes that we already have the required performance skill:  if I really don’t know the code to the safe or how to speak Esperanto, screaming at me and waving the gun won’t help.  All too often, dogs end up being yelled at in a language they don’t understand for doing behaviors that are entirely natural to them and not doing behaviors that they haven’t been taught.   The equivalent of me telling you, @&^#$ &**#%! %^@! and expecting you to get it right—or else.  You and your dog may eventually figure it out—if only by doing nothing or avoiding me when I sound like that.  But there will be a toll.
 
When pet owners get seduced by the Dark Side of Forced Following, it’s almost always because they’re at the end of their tethers with behavior issues stemming from—you guessed it—breakdowns in sociability, compatibility and performance.  Desperate for relief, they hear some palatable version of the Be the Leader story and believe that they need to become more forceful, Alpha, leaderly, etc. in the Do What I Say half of the equation.  That if we stand taller, deliver our cues with greater conviction or thunder them more loudly, the dog will recognize our authority and get with our program.  Since many dogs are sensitive to our body language and tone, that can certainly, in certain situations, arrest their attention and get us some better behavior.
 
But for other dogs or dogs where the behavior stakes are higher—Tinker with a raccoon on the fence—the Do What I Say part isn’t likely to make much difference, and it’s not the part trainers themselves really rely on.  The part that counts is the second half of the equation, the timely and firm application of the Else in Or Else.  Simply, the dog is punished in some fashion.  That’s the part that does the job:  the yelling (causing fear), the choking (discomfort, fear or pain) or the electric shock (discomfort, fear or pain.)  And using punishment well turns out to be incredibly difficult—playing with discomfort, fear and pain in an animal’s brain without causing damage or setting off a cascade of icky side effects takes a very high level of skill.  The obvious problem is that these Elses aren’t friendly or likely to nourish friendliness, do nothing to foster mutual interests or compatibility, and if a dog doesn’t understand #$&^#! or know how to do #$&^#!, do #$&^#! or Else contributes little or nothing to his learning or performance.   We might get a few behaviors—or more likely the suppression of a few behaviors—here and there, but we might also make the dog worse in ways that matter more deeply.  The Do What I Say or Else of Forced Following is hard to use, likely to backfire and can utterly trash our relationships with our dogs if our timing, our choice of punishment or our technical skills are just a little bit off.   
 
Are there people who can probably pull it off?  Sure, just like there are people who can carve elaborate ice sculptures with chain saws.  Their fails—and oh boy are there fails as well as successes--involve blood, teeth marks and bad things happening to the offending dog. 
 
Which brings me back to the various dog training gurus who are either seeking or promising the training Holy Grail--instant, 100% guaranteed performance from the dogs.  It doesn’t exist, of course.  We can get 100% perfection from some dogs with some behaviors some of the time, and roughly 80-90% from most dogs with many behaviors most of the time, but we can’t get 100% from all dogs in all behaviors all of the time.  What we can get from the vast majority of our pets is improvement in the specific behaviors that matter most to us—and the start of that improvement begins with our own skill as teachers.
 
In the next section, I’m going to talk about specific, concrete things we can do to improve our skills as teachers of our dogs.  We can call it being better Leaders, though I’m not sure the term helps.   What I am sure of, though, is that there are giant piles of improvements that we can make long before we consider turning to the Elses of Forced Following.  We can take on a practice of simple, kindly things that are easy to execute, offer little danger of icky side effects and can make huge differences in your life with your dog.
 
Part 6 coming soon!

On Leaders, Babies and Bathwater, Part Four

Posted on August 7, 2014 at 6:57 PM Comments comments (0)
The second kind of Following, what I’m calling Strategic Following, is in many ways the most complex and nuanced.  I’m not blindly obeying Mum because it’s a habit I formed when I was tiny or I’m utterly dependent on her for survival.  I’m not being forced to follow by threats, pain or fear.  I’m Following because, in some way or another, it serves my best interests.  
 
Calling this “Strategic” Following is probably a mistake on my part, implying that the animal is making calculated decisions and manipulations.  They’re not, not really.  This kind of Following isn’t strategic as in Machiavellian; it’s strategic as in Darwinian.  If a behavior enhances survival and reproductive fitness, it’ll be in our behavior repertoire for use when the circumstances call for it.  The strategic or calculated part is recognizing in what situations and contexts Following will get us more bang for our fitness buck, something social animals are extraordinarily good at.  Adaptive Following might be a better term.  The thing is, the point of any behavior is to enhance fitness, or, in simpler terms, to have things come out better for the animal, not worse.  And that’s a better (more pleasure, resources or access to resources) according to the Following Dog, not the Leading Human.  Therein lies the mess.
 
Strategic Following comes in two broad flavors.  The first is simple:  Mutual Interests.  I’m Following you because we’re already going in the same direction, it’s more fun or safer or more effective to go together, I like company, I’m social and why not?  We’re both going out for pizza, let’s car pool.  You just happen to be a bit more energetic, have a better car, or care about it more, so I let you drive.  No fight or quarrel from me—I will follow your lead because you’re taking me where I already want to go.  Or, I just like you and enjoy the ride.  In this flavor, Follower/Leader may be a loose relationship that depends pretty much on a spatial or temporal dynamic:  who goes or gets there first?  Some days it might be me, some days it might be you.
 
I see this form of Following often in feral cat colonies:  one cat starts heading for the bushes and two more get up and tag along.  Why?  Maybe it got too hot on the porch and the sight of the first cat moving inspired the others to wake up.  Maybe cats Two and Three are merely curious and want to see what First Cat is checking out.  Or maybe they just like hanging out together.  It seems like a weak kind of Following—First Cat isn’t making the other cats do anything—but if the learning conditions are right, it can acquire an almost magical power. 
 
It’s simply this:  if Following First Cat reliably and predictably leads to pleasurable things—cool napping spots, fresh drinking water, a nest of fallen birds or a package of catnip mousies—First Cat will acquire Followers.   Just like a hot movie star, a well-written blog or an amusing Facebook page will acquire Followers.   It’s not the authoritative version of “Lead” we’re used to thinking about in a dog training context.  But anyone who has ever watched old news footage of thousands of hysterical teenagers greeting the arrival of the Beetles can tell you—Fandom can be an extremely intense form of Following.  Some of those sobbing children would have quite literally died for their favorite Beetle.  I can think of famous people I’ve never even met to whom I would, without hesitation, happily offer the proverbial shirt off my back, because their writings or music or science took me to places of pleasure I couldn’t reach on my own.  I Follow them not because they demand it but because I love where they take me.
 
There can be a Dark Side to this kind of Following, sure—stalking in fans, separation anxiety in dogs—but on the whole, I think the Pop Culture notion of dog training radically under-estimates how important this kind of Following is.   If I could hit the reset button, my message to pet owners might be something like this:  less Pack Leader, more Rock Star.  Or more First Cat.  If we reliably and predictably take our dogs to places, activities and resources they love, they will Follow us.  They will become our very best Fans.
 
The second flavor of Strategic Following is also based on mutual interests, but there’s a more obvious Follow/Lead dynamic for a very simple reason:  one of us is either better or more competent at something or one of us has access or control of resources that the other one wants.  If I’m hungry and you’re the one with the directions to the pizza place, I will Follow you.  If I’m the one with the good singing voice, I’ll get nudged into leading Happy Birthday at the party.  If my car has a flat and Joe knows how to fix a flat tire, I’ll gladly take his direction.  If you are the millionaire, you may acquire an entourage of flatterers currying your ego in the hopes of scoring some cash.  We do this all the time:  if we know someone is really good at something or has control of something we dearly want, we’re usually happy to let them Lead or become Followers.  Usually.  There are conditions, though, and they’re interesting.
 
In the first variation—that of greater expertise--while most of us are perfectly delighted to defer to greater skill and experience, we won’t Follow very long if it turns out that we’re mistaken.  If we grant someone the Leader position, we expect them to be able to deliver the goods.  If it turns out that they’re a crummy Leader—they don’t know where the restaurant is, they don’t know how to fix the toilet, they don’t know how to set up the tent—we will re-evaluate.
 
If there are no major social side-effects (like offending our boss or hurting our best friend’s feelings), we may simply flip on our Garmin or grab the crescent wrench or tent poles and assume the Lead ourselves.  Rarely is this because we really want to be Alpha; what we really want is dinner, a toilet that flushes and the tent up before nightfall.  If we refrain from taking over—and some of us will bite our tongues and inhibit—it’s often because being “nice” and socially accepted is more important to us than the immediate outcome.  Or because we completely lack the needed skill set and simply can’t take over.  In either case, we’ll stash the experience in our learning file:  don’t Follow that person again.  Either find another, more competent Leader or DIY.  Or, in matters of small importance or when maintaining the social component is huge, we may continue to bite our tongues and Follow—it’s called humoring, which can be gracious or grudging.  As a general rule and absent those pesky social complications, the better and more confident we are at something and the more we care about the outcome, the fussier we are about who we’ll Follow.  If we’re good at the task, our expectations will he higher: ineptitude will be painfully obvious. 
 
In the second variation—control of resources—the terms are very much the same.  If we Follow someone because they control access to desired resources, we expect them to pay up.   At least often enough, and generously enough, to make it worth our while.  If they don’t, if it turns out that they’re a stingy Leader—they never share, they never really give us what we want or they make us work too hard for too little—we will start looking for work-arounds.  Maybe we need to work for another company, find a better Boss, find an indirect way (cheating, sneaking) to get to the resources or learn to get the resources ourselves without help.   
 
The general rule here is—the more valuable the resource is and the harder it is to find, the more guff we’ll take from whomever controls it.  But very few of us will take infinite amounts of guff.  We may stomach a tyrannical Captain Bligh if he’s a good captain and leads us to glory and treasure; we may continue to stomach him if we’re under fire and he’s an excellent fighter who protects us during battle.   But if he’s a tyrant and an idiot and a lousy fighter, we will start planning our mutiny at the earliest opportunity.   
 
Of course, if he’s Captain Jolly who dishes out extra rum, we may Follow him even if he’s a bit of an idiot—until war breaks out and his idiocy puts us at real risk.  Then, we’ll probably try to be nicer about how we conduct our mutiny, since we like the poor guy—but we’ll still mutiny if we feel our lives depend on it.
 
The first flavor of Strategic Following—the one revolving around the perception of expertise—is less commonly considered in dog training than the idea of controlling resources.  But I have to say, it worries me a bit.   See, if I had the magic machine that could ask my dog Tinker what was most important to her in her world-view, I have a nagging hunch the answer would revolve around a sun other than lil ole me.  My hunch is, it would be something like, “Sniffing.  Hunting.  Critters.  RACCOON ON THE FENCE!  Sniffing.  Sniffing.   Hunting.”   Nothing lights my Catahoula mix up like the raccoon on the fence—the intensity of it vibrates through every muscle, the dead-still focus of her point, her gaze, the explosion when she judges the moment is ripe to have a go.  It’s got the feel of something very old, very elemental.  In that raw primitive way, it’s beautiful to see.
 
It is also, of course, a complete pain in the behind in a pet dog that’s supposed to be obedient to me, not her inner predatory drummer.  So I should be the Leader, yadda yadda, except when it comes to that, we’re not even marching in the same parade.  When it comes to providing expertise in the all-important skill-set of hunting, I suck.  I suspect Tinker—who is not stupid—knows that I suck.  My nose is worthless, I’m pitifully slow, I never try to bite anything—golly, it’s like I don’t even care about getting that raccoon in my teeth for a meal.  It would be one thing for Tinker to Follow me if I was the better hunter.  But to Follow me when there’s a raccoon on the fence and the path is Don’t Hunt…?   How would she wrap her mind around that?  How could she? 
 
Telling her, “No, stop!” isn’t Leading in this context.  If we are clear on nothing else, we must be clear on that.   It’s abandoning the field, refusing to participate in what to her is the Greatest Game Ever Played.  Being a great Leader of the football team doesn’t mean pulling out sets of knitting needles and telling all the linebackers, “No, stop, don’t tackle, make baby booties.”  If we look at Strategic Following, Adaptive Following, it’s not blind.  It’s situational, contextual.  It’s Following not for the benefit of the Leader, but for the entire social group Team.  Critters that Follow the Leader down a primrose path over a cliff on the Leader’s every random whim may be marvels of obedience but there aren’t many of them around: they go splat! or starve before they reach reproductive age and pass their genes along.
 
It’s easy to be seduced by the dark side of Be the Leader with these dogs—we want so desperately for our linebackers to mend their ways, to no stop don’t and take up gentile pursuits like knitting baby booties or coming when called.  The flaw in the thinking is that many of the behaviors that I see distressing pet owners the most are entirely natural, common doggy behaviors.  Perhaps a few ticks more intense than the human is used to but normal.  The conflicts that ensue often don’t resemble a frustrated owner trying to establish “Leadership” over her dog, but a bewildered owner trying to morph an energetic, highly active social predator into a completely different animal.   And that’s not what Strategic aka Adaptive Following does.
 
When we ask our dogs to abandon behaviors that they really care about and that they’re really good at in favor of behaviors that our human sensibilities find more appealing that they don’t care about and aren’t good at… hmm.  If someone asked me to give up something I that dearly mattered to me—some talent core to my being--out of my “love” for them, I would wonder:  Do you know who I am?  Are you appreciating or connecting to me as an individual with talents and desires and needs of her own?  Dogs of course are not philosophic or conceptual about this.  Tinker is blessedly straightforward:  there’s a Raccoon on the Fence, she really cares about it, she’s really good at it and if I have nothing helpful to contribute, she’ll flip on her own Garmin and DIY.   “No” is not Leading.  It’s being a killjoy.
 
And she would be fair to ask, like many dogs if they could ask, “If you don’t like my hunting (herding/drooling/digging/shedding) why the hell did you get a Catahoula (Border collie, Mastiff, Terrier, Shepherd etc.)?”  The fact that I thought I was adopting an adorable little Australian Cattle Dog puppy is no fault of hers.  It leaves us with a challenge, but it’s not the challenge of Who’s the Boss?
 
What I need to find with Tinker—as with any successful long-term relationship--isn’t control.  It’s compatibility.   When it comes to Strategic Following, important in the design is—mutual interests, mutual goals.  Wanting the same things.  Being headed in the same direction.  Wolves and coyotes and foxes have no problems with this with each other: they are the same species and the compatibility is fundamentally shared.  They don’t tell each other, “Don’t hunt, don’t roll in stinky dead stuff, don’t dig.”  Their Strategic Following is about joining up with great hunters, tagging after the critters that know where the best stinky stuff is to roll in and learning from experts how to dig even better. 
 
To the degree that owners have or can cultivate core compatibilities with their dogs, the relationship will flow like a dance, effortlessly and easily.  To the degree that the core compatibilities are missing, or missing in extreme—well, it’s just hard.  Couch potato person with Energizer Bunny Dog is the classic bad fit; there are others.  These are folks and dogs I see at the shelter and they break my heart.  Lovely people, lovely dog, absolutely the wrong match.  If the gap between behavior reality and owner expectation isn’t too extreme, for certain training can bring dog and owner closer together and reduce tensions.  The wider the gap, though, the more work it will take to get them on the same path.  If the gap is a yawning chasm, it may be impossible, not because the dog can’t learn and the owner can’t learn, but because there’s too little positive reinforcement present in the relationship to motivate them to do the work.
 
The other trap is that we tend to work the problem from the wrong end:  we stand in our frustrated and disappointed expectations and try to drag the dog across the chasm to our side.  In wide disconnects, though, the distance is too far and the ropes of the relationship too thin to take the strain.  Good training always starts on the other end: in the behavior reality.  The dog is here.  I have to stand next to the dog, connect to that dog, that place.  Only then can we, step by step, start working our way across the gap.

In the next blog, I’m going to bounce ahead and talk about the last type of Following, Forced Following, and then return to that staple of dog trainers everywhere, encouraging Strategic Following by leveraging resources.  Until then, a couple of take-aways.
 
The good news about Juvenile Following is that very young puppies are often delighted to let us chose the direction, the path, the game itself:  they haven’t been around long enough to have developed strong preferences.  We can and should take advantage of this period to establish good habit patterns from the start.  The bad news is—most of the time, Juvenile Following fades with maturity, and if we didn’t establish the habits, we’ve missed a boat that’s not coming back for us.  And if we acquired an older dog, an adult dog from a rescue, say, the boat may be long far gone.  Not always—there are some lovely dogs that retain the puppy-like ease, or that seem to slide from Juvenile Following to Fandom with few glitches.  They are compatible with us and our human ways, and living with them is rarely a struggle.  A lot of dogs are just like that.  But it’s not a guarantee, not part-and-parcel of every dog. 
 
There are dogs that come to us, whether puppy or adult, with some potentially very powerful behaviors pre-installed.  Hunting, herding, being sensitive to sound or movement, nervous of novelty, fearful of strangers, inclined to “think” with their amazing noses or dig lunar landscapes in our gardens--we don’t teach them this stuff.  We can if it’s moderate make it better or worse by reinforcing it, or preventing repetition and practice.  Not always, though.  My darling Corgi Fox needed no practice, no repetition, no prior history to turn on like a light bulb and starting herding his first-ever seen sheep.  Tinker knows exactly how to drive a raccoon up a tree.   These “hard-wired” behaviors can usurp the Juvenile Following tendencies at a very young age because they’re supposed to:  they are what the dog or the dog’s ancestors were bred for.  And for these behaviors, Strategic Following via greater expertise is counter-indicated, so to speak.  Because for these behaviors, unless we really are taking our dogs herding, or hunting, or sledding, or to earth dog trials or lure coursing or any of the sporty versions that harness and work with these “drives” rather than against them--we can’t Lead.  We don’t know how to Lead.  We have no skills, no wisdom, no help to offer.  We stand on the sidelines going, “No, stop, don’t!”  We’re killjoys, not experts.  Worse, we’re upset, frustrated and ineffective killjoys, waving knitting needles and baby booties in the middle of a football field while our pumped-up linebackers run amok.  From a cost-benefit Strategic Following standpoint, the dogs are absolutely right to ignore us:  we have no mutual interests.  We’re not even playing the same game.
 
Does that mean we throw up our hands in despair and abandon all hope of ever getting our dogs with us?  Heck, no.  It does mean—you start with the dog you have.  In behavior reality.  Because if you want to train or teach or lead effectively, you have to know the animal, what matters in their world.
 
Tinker and I are a work-in-progress, and I have a goal for us.  When she looks at me, there’s something I want her to see.  Not a Great Leader, not the Boss, not the Alpha.  When she looks at me, I want her, on whatever level her doggy mind processes it, to know this:
 
Tinker, I feel you.  I see you.  I will always see you. 

On Leaders, Babies and Bathwater, Part Three

Posted on July 28, 2014 at 1:44 PM Comments comments (0)
In Part 2, I asserted that if we really want to understand how Leading works, we might do better to look at it from the extremely important but often over-looked other side of the coin: Following.  And it turns out that Following—the nature of Following and why we follow—is pretty darned fascinating
 
If we judge by media attention paid—to celebrities, movies stars, gold medal winners in you name it—clearly being the “Alpha” is the best position, the Apex of power and appeal, and of course all dogs and us would want to be Top Dogs.  Except… not really, certainly not always.  In fact, if we look at the nature of Following, it turns out that—given the right conditions—many of us would prefer to defer.
 
Consider this story.  Years ago, we got a flurry of calls at the shelter from deeply concerned drivers about a panicked dog running loose on the freeway nearby.  Although we’re not animal control, the situation sounded so dire that we scrambled the shelter staff, jumped into two vans and headed out.   By the time we got there, a CHP officer—bless him, he was a dog lover and incredibly expert in his handling of the situation—had positioned his patrol car behind the running dog, slowing the fortunately light traffic and gently herding the dog toward an off-ramp.  He got the dog, still running in a blind panic, heading up the off-ramp and onto an overpass as we reached the scene.  Since I was in my unmarked van, I held my dog catch pole out the window and hollered, “Humane Society!” as best I could.  The officer saw my pole, saw the marked shelter van behind me, and did something extraordinary.
 
He pulled aside and let us pass, then followed us.  Now, if ever there are men and women accustomed to taking the Lead in our society, it is Law Enforcement folks.  That’s their job—to provide Alpha-type authority in some of the most difficult situations, and they don’t generally defer to civilians.  But in this particular situation, the CHP officer sized things up and made a judicious call to step back and follow
 
Was it because he was overwhelmed by my calm assertive energy and dominant personality?  Heck, no.  It was because he judged that we had better equipment—and likely the expertise--to tackle the job at hand.  We had catch poles and dog crates; he didn’t.  Even with that, we didn’t take the lead.  He allowed us to take the lead.  His decision to follow was voluntary, and that’s huge.   (We did catch the dog safely; she recovered from her ordeal and later was successfully adopted.) 
 
As I said in Part 2, both dogs and us have core desires to 1) be safe, 2) avoid unpleasant, distressing or scary things and 3) gain access to the resources that we find most pleasurable.   Given that, whether a creature strives to Lead or opts to Follow is going to depend on—exactly that.  To the degree that Leading or Following keeps us safe, allows us to avoid nasty stuff and gets us access to what we want, we’ll do it.  But we’ll only do it if it works.  If it stops working, we’ll start looking for a new strategy.  
 
If we look at it closely, it seems that there are at least three common kinds of Following, and they’re really quite different.  There’s what I’m going to call Juvenile Following, Strategic Following and Forced Following, and they arise from different conditions and have very different flavors.
 
The simplest and most common example of Juvenile Following is found in that most universal and common of animal relationships:  Mom and offspring.  Whether baby ducks, tiger cubs, baby monkeys or us, we follow our parents (or cling to them like glue) because we’re tiny, we’re helpless, we can’t find food or stay warm or avoid getting eaten without them.  So you bet we follow.  If we didn’t, we’d die.  Mom doesn’t have to be a particularly Alpha personality either.  She’s there, the most intimately familiar figure in our universe from Day One—the source of all things both needed and pleasurable.  She is safety, she keeps the scary things away and provides our resources.  What’s not to follow?
                                                                   
And here I have to say, this always makes me howl when it comes to Pop Culture notions of dog training:  somehow, we should discipline our puppies the “Natural Way” by modeling ourselves after Ms. Mama Alpha Wolf, but heaven forbid we should use food to train.  Dogs should obey because they recognize our Alpha status, not because we “bribe” them with treats.
 
Seriously?!  The most important thing Ms. Mama Wolf does—practically her full-time job--is give her offspring, yup, you guessed it--food.  From the moment the helpless pups are born, they find her nipples for milk.   Later, she and Dad regurgitate yummy meat, bring back carcasses and teach the growing youngsters how to hunt.  The relationship is all about food.   In domestic village dogs, once the pups are weaned—once Mom stops feeding them—the relationship is pretty much over.  And I suspect that many older, more independent pups only accept parental “discipline” because 1) they grew up with it, they’re used to it and it’s become a habit, 2) they have extremely powerful pleasurable associations from being nurtured by their parents in the past to offset a few unpleasant experiences, and 3) they still need assistance in the feeding department.  When juvenile predators reach adulthood and are able to fend for themselves, Juvenile Following starts getting old (for that matter, so does Parental Leading.) 
 
And it should get old, since the End Game—sexual maturity and reproductive success for the next generation of the genome—is at hand.  But how long a young predator stays under parental “domination” may depend more on the food supply and Mum’s willingness to keep sharing her dinner than on personality traits.  If the parents live in a resource-rich area, continue to pay the rent and set the table—and their “discipline” isn’t too annoying—slacking works pretty well.   In general, though, the cost/benefit has to play out: if the parents are easy to be around and there’s enough for everyone, we may linger even if the digs aren’t that great.  On the other hand, if the parents are tyrants, the chow better be super and the digs top notch.  If the pickings are slim, we’re out looking for our own apartments—if the parents don’t boot us out first.  Juvenile Following isn’t supposed to last forever.
 
What does this mean for our pet dogs?  Well, one of the oft-told characteristics of domestication is the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood:  in simple words, our pet dogs have been selected over thousands of years to stay puppy-ish even in maturity.   They are bred to be dependent, to look to us for what amounts to parental care:  food, warmth, shelter and protection.  They were selected precisely for their willingness to Follow—their biddability.  They were also selectively bred to be highly tolerant, low in aggression and willing to accept our nonsense because we raised them, they need us and if you bite the hand that feeds you, you get tossed out in the cold. 
 
It’s important to remember, though, that we also bred dogs for functional jobs that required more independence of thought and action, and that across all dogs “biddable” is a sliding-scale trait.  It’s also vital to remember that there’s a huge amount of Learning in the process:  a puppy that isn’t taught a habit pattern of looking to humans for pleasure and deference to their wishes isn’t going to leap out of the back yard at the age of two and bow to us as Pack Leaders just cuz.  Smart puppy owners take advantage of the Juvenile Following period to establish those good habit patterns—to teach the pup what they want and how fun it is to “please” while the pup is at his most spongy and biddable age.  Smart puppy owners also build lots and lots of joy and social connection into the relationship the pup has not just with them, but with all people, so that on those rare occasions when unpleasant or scary things occur, Puppy has lots of healthy happy padding to act as a buffer.  A well-padded dog, like a true friend, can handle the occasional rainy day or stormy moment in a relationship. 
 
But while piggy-backing training on the Juvenile Following tendencies is one of the most effective ways we have to train, it is also relationship and often age dependent.  It’s amazing to me how many people struggle to wrap their minds around this.  A young puppy might tolerant something mildly unpleasant or scary from any human; an adult dog from a human they know well.  A mature adult dog may not take the same guff from a complete stranger.   And yet, many is the time I’ve brought out a dog to go for a walk with potential adopters at the shelter—an adult, fully mature dog—and seen these lovely, well-meaning people immediately start leash correcting the dog.  Often, weirdly, these folks have some previous training experience, consider themselves “good with” dogs and when I ask them, say something like they’re trying to establish Leadership.  Alas, it’s the wrong kind of Leadership right out of the gate.
 
You and I would really, really prefer it if complete strangers didn’t go from “Hi, how are you,” to “By the way, you need to lose weight,” or for that matter, wildly French kissing us.  Only at the Oscars can Adrian Brody lay one on poor Halle Berry, and only because she was too astonished to smack him in the kisser (though if she had, who could have blamed her?)  Between strange adults, it just isn’t done—when it is done, we have an assortment of bad names and criminal chargers to go with it.  As a trainer, I don’t correct adult dogs I don’t know—or hug adult dogs I don’t know—anymore than I would spank a random child misbehaving in the super market or pinch a stranger’s behind, no matter how cute.  Although I am old enough to be most people’s Mother, I am not their mother.  If I want to take advantage of the Juvenile Following tendency in a dog, I have to first establish a relationship.  Only after we have arrived at a mutual agreement that gives me the necessary permissions will I hug the dog, let alone consider a correction. 
 
Establishing such a relationship doesn’t have to take a lot of time—it can be done very quickly if we’re skilled.  If I am skilled, a dog finds out in short order—and this should sound familiar—three amazing Things About Me:  1) I’m safe, 2) I’m not going to do or make the dog do anything unpleasant, distressing or scary and 3) I can and will give them access to the resources that they find most pleasurable—in return for certain favors.    (This assumes that the dog is socially-savvy and not burdened by baggage of fear or mistrust; if they are, it’s a longer, sometimes much longer, process.)  A dog reasonably well-versed and comfortable in the ways of humans can read me in a heartbeat, and we can build a good working relationship in a very short amount of time. 
 
Does the dog now view me as his new Pack Leader aka Mommy Figure?  I doubt it.  More likely the dog is pre-disposed by thousands of selective breeding to readily accept a social relationship with a human being and has experience practicing various Juvenile Following strategies successfully in the past.  This may incline the dog to give Juvenile Following a whirl, but it’s up to me to sell it by reinforcing the crud out of it.  Unlike Mom, or the owner, I don’t have weeks, months or years of—hopefully—pleasurable associations in the bank to draw on.  So I have a rule:  never ask the dog to give me more behavior than we have relationship.  If I’m going to ask a dog to do something difficult or slightly scary or unpleasant, it’s going to be after I’ve deposited enough funds (that would be food and fun, yes) in the training account to cover it and still be ahead.  Since I hate spending “relationship money” when I don’t have to, my first choice is always going to be—can I make this simpler, more pleasant, less scary?  Sometimes I can’t—if a shelter dog must have a vaccination or has to be taken somewhere they find stressful--I may not have good options.  In those cases, I’ll make a note to revisit that scenario later, to repair it and improve it for the future.
 
The key point here is—intimacy grants permission.   If intimacy is absent or violated, permission can be revoked.  We all have met people who, after three minutes of small talk and one dinner date, start hitting us up for favors or money or unload long-winded and tedious complaints about life.  The behaviors they express might be appropriate in other relationships, but they exceed the intimacy bank account they’ve established with us.  Some of us are more tolerant than others, but we’re rarely comfortable with it and we usually dump them at our earliest opportunity.
 
Dogs, alas, can’t always avoid the impositions of strangers, and they can’t—physically, at least—dump their owners.  They do dump us mentally and emotionally if it gets bad enough.  When we become in their eyes untrustworthy, unsafe or scary, when we pile on demands that the dogs experience as unpleasant, when we fail to provide access to the things they find pleasurable and important, Juvenile Following tendencies do what all behaviors do: start to extinguish for lack of reinforcement. 
 
Coming in the next Part:  Strategic Following

On Leaders, Babies and Bathwater, Part Two

Posted on July 24, 2014 at 7:56 PM Comments comments (0)
In this part, I said I was going to explore the other kind of leading—the kind that we really do want to use to reach success with our dogs—and… well, whoops, I lied.  That’ll be in Part 3.. or maybe Part 4.  Because before I go there, there’s some of that murky bathwater that I’d like to clear up first.  It saturates Pop Culture notions of dog behavior and dog training to the point that it’s like trying to swim in soggy, heavy clothes—it just drags us (and our dogs) down.  

Here’s the sound bite version:  Dogs descended from wolves.  Wolves form packs.  Ergo, dogs form packs.  Ergo, the “natural” way to train a dog is to model ourselves after wolves.  

Oh dear oh dear oh dear.  Yes, and the earth is flat, if I sail far enough, I will fall off the edge, unless a dragon eats me first.  Shockingly, nothing about the sound bite version turns out to be accurate, correct or true according to the best science we currently have available.  

Dogs and wolves—wolves specifically meaning the Gray Wolf, Canis lupus—are indeed closely related--they can and do interbreed and produce fertile offspring.  But according to the latest in genome studies, domestic dogs didn’t “descend” from any modern Gray Wolf subspecies alive on the planet today.  What it looks like now is that our living Gray Wolves (roughly 35 subspecies) and our domestic dogs shared a common ancestor somewhere around 10-15,000 years ago.  The ancestor of both our modern dogs and our modern wolves hasn’t been precisely identified and is probably now extinct.  But it looks like, statistically and genetically, our modern dogs are no more closely related to any modern wolf than they are to modern coyotes or jackals.  So from a strictly genetic standpoint, we could just as well claim that the “natural” way to train a dog is to model ourselves after coyotes—not nearly as glamourous, but just as close in the family tree of canids.  

As a group, canids are flexible opportunists that can adapt very quickly and very strongly to different environments, and if ever there was a canine champ in the adaptation game, it’s been domestic dogs.  The process of domestication has been thousands of years long with some very powerful selection pressures applied.  In modern times, the pressures of the Dog Fancy have given rise to what we typically think of when we hear the word “dog”—our beloved pure-bred dogs like Labradors, Poodles, Border collies and Cocker Spaniels or mixes of them.  But in truth, most dogs never funneled through a Fancy stage, and the vast majority of domestic dogs on the planet today aren’t even family pet dogs.  Something like 80% of the planet’s billions of dogs are only loosely associated or controlled by us—they’re street, village or pariah dogs, living on the fringes of our settlements and scavenging off our various forms of garbage.  These free-roaming dogs, more than modern wolves, are probably the best models we have of how “natural” domestic dogs behave.  And it’s nothing at all like wolves.  

The core of wolf society isn’t The Pack.  The core stable unit in wolf social relationships is a monogamous pair that mate, typically, for life.  Calling them the Alpha Male and the Alpha Female has fallen out of favor amongst some ethologists, who simply prefer Breeding Male and Breeding Female.  But the clearest and most direct term for them is probably Mom and Dad.  As predators that hunt large game, wolf pups take time, maturity and practice to become big enough and skilled enough to thrive as hunters.  Full maturity is usually reached around 2-3 years of age.  So, a wolf pack in the wild is typically Mom, Dad, the sub-adults born 2-3 years ago, the adolescents born 1 year ago and the current litter of pups.  Otherwise known as a Family.  And there would be no point for Junior to battle Dad for the Alpha status or Sissy to over-throw her Mum, because if they won, whom would they have to mate with?  Their own siblings?  Nope.  When Junior and Sissy reach sexual and social maturity around 2-3 years of age, they disperse to find their own (unrelated) mates and start their own families.  In wild wolves, all healthy normal animals that reach adult age go on to become Moms and Dads, or Alphas, or Leaders of the Pack, or whatever we want to call them.  It has nothing to do with personality and everything to do with staying alive long enough to reproduce. 

In contrast, the social life of free-living domestic dogs is missing virtually all of these characteristics.  Far from mating for life, Mum and Pop have fleeting “ties” with various reproductive partners, depending on their preferences and opportunities.  Dad is usually out of the picture well before the pups are even born and contributes little or nothing to the care of his offspring.  Since these dogs are essentially scavengers (very little hunting is reported), there’s no need for the pups to stay with Mom for years of life-skills schooling:  puppies of free-living street dogs typically disperse not long after weaning—as soon as they can scavenge on their own.   Sexual maturity can be reached as early as 6-9 months.  And far from forming packs, free-living dogs tend to congregate around food resources but don’t organize or form lasting bonds—for good reasons.  If you’re a wolf trying to drag down a prey animal larger than you, you want and need help from the family and you have plenty of meat to share in return for it.  If you’re a street dog trying to score a few crumbs, you don’t want or need help and sharing is the last thing on your mind.  The selection pressure of large-game hunting is gone, the need for long-term care of pups is gone, the monogamous pair bond is gone, and with it goes the “pack” of pups, juveniles and sub-adult offspring orbiting the stable suns of their bonded Mom and Dad.  

What does all of this mean when it comes to our beloved pet dogs?  Probably not very much.  What wolves would do or even what street dogs would do may be entirely irrelevant:  our pet dogs, like street dogs, or coyotes or jackals or wolves, are bright-minded, flexible creatures that adapt their behaviors to get the maximum benefits out of the environments they find themselves in.  When it comes to our pets, a core feature of their environment is dependency on us.  And, dare I say it, a form of captivity.  We, to a greater or lesser extent, restrict their choices.  We confine them in our homes, in fenced yards, on leashes, for their own safety and with nothing but love and kind intentions—and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.  It’s just, from a biological/ethological standpoint, putting a group of animals together in the fenced yard and then waxing poetic about their innate social sensibilities is, well, weird.  If the dogs can’t escape, avoid or get away from each other, their behavior is just as likely to be an artifact of circumstances (confinement) as Nature.     

Of course intelligent social animals can find ways to make just about anything work—dogs are amazing at reaching all kinds of accommodations.  But we’ll never know how many individuals would have chosen to form lasting bonds of true friendship, enjoy fleeting superficial ties or avoid each other entirely if they weren’t stuck in the same no-escape scenario together.  Given a human-arranged confinement situation or a centrally-located food supply, dogs certainly will hang out together, and they may even form social hierarchies to smooth the sting of forced proximity.  The trouble is, so does that other amazing domestic species:  domestic cats in similar situations are simply stellar at sorting themselves into colonies with complex and sophisticated social nuances.  Still, no one’s accusing cats of being “pack” animals.   

Change is always hard, and changing the Pop Culture established view of dog social systems has proven to be dreadfully hard.   After all, if we retire the old and inaccurate notion of the Pack, what model are we left with?  

Here I’m going to suggest that, once again, Science is our friend.  What’s most exciting to me in animal studies these days are the new advances in understanding the neurobiology of emotions.  To put it simply, Science is now coming around to what most of us pet owners always deeply suspected: our animal companions have feelings.  And those feelings have considerable influence on behavior.  So where once being “anthropomorphic”—projecting human feelings onto non-human creatures—was considered a serious fault, our best researchers are now allowing for more shades of gray.  To wit, there’s good anthropomorphic (which can give us insight and empathy into an animal’s world point-of-view) and there’s bad anthropomorphic (where we project human qualities that animals don’t possess on our poor pets, typically to their detriment and at our convenience.)  

So let’s be anthropomorphic and imagine: taking your dog to the local dog park is like us going to the obligatory yearly office party.  

When we go to our party, every individual person entering the room will likely have an agenda—but we won’t all have the same agenda.  Mostly, our personal goals will revolve around—please do laugh, it’s true—personal safety and comfort, food, sex, friendship and fun.  When we enter the party, we will, in no particular order, set out on the following missions.  

First, we’ll want to know who else is there:  who do we know, is there anyone there we’ve fought with recently or dislike that we should avoid, is there anyone there we especially enjoy and should seek out, does anyone look really weird, dangerous or drunk, and who there has something we dearly want, like the power to give us a raise, a needed recommendation or the library book we loaned them five weeks ago.  The individuals we don’t know or know only slightly may draw our fascinated attention or be summarily dismissed into a “stereotype” depending on our agendas.  Swinging singles may scope out the Young and the Beautiful for potential hot dates—or rivals for those hot dates—and ignore everyone else.  Children will gravitate toward each other but give only token notice to the old fuddy-duddies who offer no chance of fun.  Folks who come from certain cultures or learning histories may show great deference to the party’s Elders; the sulky teenagers who got dragged to the (for them) dull party, on the other hand, may not even notice anyone with gray hair.  Shy people may head for quiet corners and avoid overly boisterous individuals, while two guys wearing the same rock concert T-shirt may approach each other with friendly curiosity.   In short, we’ll sort each other out according to Known and Unknown, do a fast triage of stereotyping the Unknowns by age, gender and other appearance clues, and then start making social behavior choices to seek more information, approach, avoid or dismiss as uninteresting.  

Second and often simultaneously, we’ll start evaluating the resources available for our party pleasure or pain.  How is the food spread?  White or red wine?  Is there dancing, a karaoke machine, a swimming pool?  What is there for us to do—things we enjoy or things we hate?  As we’re sorting out the people, we’re also sorting out who’s controlling what resources—putting out the food, serving the liquor, selecting the music, etc.  Here, a new layer of complexity might be added—the elderly Grandma our teen-age football star might socially dismiss may acquire great interest in his eyes if she controls access to the food table.  The grungy bearded guy who’s Not Our Type may become our best buddy if he runs the DJ equipment and we love to dance.  The icy and elegant lady who would normally intimidate us may become worth the risk of approaching if she pulls out a deck of cards and starts a round of a game we deeply enjoy, and the office co-worker we don’t really care for may suddenly seem worthwhile when we find out that the handsome hunk we’ve been watching across the room all night is his brother.  

This benign and civilized party experience assumes that we are competent socially, on our own cultural turf and reasonably practiced with the setting and contexts.  If we’re not—if we were under-socialized as puppies or trying to navigate in a foreign country, it could be far more fraught.  If we don’t speak the language very well, not everyone likes our nationality, we’re worried about someone stealing our wallet and we’re afraid if we offend someone we’ll get arrested or beaten up, the social stress load edges a lot higher.   

What’s key in all this is that every one of us going to the party has at the core of our agendas desires to 1) be safe, 2) avoid unpleasant, distressing or scary things and 3) gain access to the resources that we find most pleasurable, be it social connections, sexual partners, yummy food or activities that we enjoy like dancing or intelligent conversation.  How we go about it, how subtly or grossly, how directly or how hard will depend on a myriad of factors, but we’ll all be in pursuit of our own happiness in some fashion.  

This is pretty much our dogs at a dog park “party.”  Every dog entering the dog park will have his or her own personal agenda depending on his or her preferences, history, age, etc.  Puppy and adolescent dogs will eagerly scope out the place for known friends or potential play partners, shy dogs will head for quiet corners and hope like heck no one bullies them, grumpy old dogs might warn the youngsters off and look for a stick to chew in peace.  Flash the ball addict will ignore everyone in his quest to find a tennis ball, like a drunkard heading for the bar; the intact males will check out all the girls and each other in case sex is a possibility.  Some overly-boisterous out-of-control adolescent will skid in like Jack Black in a frat movie yelling, “Parteeeee!” and cause a minor uproar.  Like us, all these doggy characters have core desires to 1) be safe, 2) avoid unpleasant, distressing or scary things and 3) gain access to the resources that they find most pleasurable, be it a game of chase-me, a tennis ball, the cute Dalmatian close to coming into season or not getting bullied by the bigger dogs.   

Does Pack Leadership come into this complex and quirky assemblage of individuals and individual agendas?  If so, how and what does it look like?  And here, I will assert that if we really want to understand how Leading works, we might do better to look at it from the extremely important but often over-looked other side of the coin: Following.  

Part 3 coming soon!

On Leaders, Babies and Bathwater, Part One

Posted on July 6, 2014 at 11:23 PM Comments comments (0)
Though I myself think that living in the Social Media/Information Age has its benefits, there are also some downsides.  For one thing, the danged buttons seem to be getting smaller the older I get.  For another, some deeply philosophical and complex topics—y’know, stuff like science, art, politics—are now discussed in snappy sound bites, slogans and one-minute news segments.  These days, it seems that an idea that can be sold in a line of text on an itty-bitty cell phone is going to get more “air time” than the truth, the facts or reality—the bits that are a little too complicated for a quick read.  Short-hand keeps getting shorter and buzz-words rule.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if we all understand and agree on what the short-hand and buzz words refer to.  The trouble comes when everyone adopts the buzz words without a really firm grasp of the concepts, contexts and references they point to.
 
In the world of dog training, there are some humdinger buzz words—words that can reduce professional trainers to biting each other and wails of despair.  I have learned not to hold my breath until I turn blue when I hear them—breathe, Em, breathe—but they do make me cry sometimes in a peculiar kind of panic.  So rather than hyperventilating, I thought I’d tackle a couple of them here.
 
If you have a dog and your dog needs a few more swipes of polish to become the Lassie everyone is hoping for, I’ll bet some well-intended person has suggested that you need to become your dog’s Leader.  As in, Leader of the Pack.  Or, in the other buzz word, that you need to be more Alpha.  The notion being that, if you can position yourself as the family Top Dog, your bouncing Rowdy will eagerly transform into Lassie out of sheer respect.  Be Your Dog’s Leader—the magic bullet to fix all dog behavior woes.
 
Alas… it’s a bit like saying I could solve all my financial woes if I had more money, so the solution is—ta-da!—Be a Millionaire.  That’s it, I’ll become a Millionaire!  Wow, that’s a simple answer, isn’t it?  Phew, I’m so relieved.
 
Of course I’m being silly, but that’s the trouble with sound bite solutions.  They offer a really good meal but they leave out the recipe, the ingredients and all the time and work it takes to actually cook the dish.  So here’s another of what some of my clients have taken to calling “Emily-isms”:  If the solution to your dog’s behavior is that you or your dog be or become something, look deeper.  The real solution will depend on you or your dog doing something.
 
Or, more simply, there’s difference between Be the Leader and leading.  One is a catchy feel-good concept.  The other is about concrete, specific actions.  And if we want to train our dogs successfully, we need to act.
 
Sadly, the whole notion of Leadership in dog training has taken a hit in recent years, because if we look at the actions of some of the proponents of the Be the Pack Leader school of talk, we often see a lot of scary and mean stuff:  pinning the dog to the ground, kicking them in the gut if they move ahead on leash, hissing at them like snakes or angry cats, choking or jerking or shocking at the end of various devices advertised to give you the pet owner “more control” when what they really do is give the dog more discomfort or pain.   Can these methods work?  Of course.  Punishment decreases behavior.  I can certainly get someone to follow me if I point a gun at them or make them so afraid of me that saying “no” is not an option.  I don’t know if I’d have the chutzpah to call it Leadership, though.  Or claim that they “respected” me, or call them my Best Friend after aiming a weapon at them.
 
I meet many fine pet owners who confess to me, with real shame and guilt, that they probably aren’t being good Leaders for their dogs, that they aren’t “Alpha” enough.  What they really mean is that they don’t or don’t want to do scary and mean things to their beloved pets, and they simply don’t know what other actions to take to achieve behavior success with their dogs.   Like me, they’d like to be a dog training Millionaire—who wouldn’t?  But they’re too nice to get that million by holding their dog at gunpoint and they’re starting to realize that playing the behavior lotto and hoping for the best probably isn’t going to pan out.   
 
Hence my peculiar panic and the virtual hyperventilation when I hear suggested some variation of, “Oh, dogs just need you to Be the Leader…” or “You need to be the Alpha” as a solution to a dog’s behavior problems.  I’ve been a professional dog trainer for over 12 years now, and I simply have no clue what on earth the person speaking means.   Or intends to mean.  Often the words come from some eager dog-lover trying earnestly to sound “in the know,” or connect by using pro dog trainerly type jargon that I’ll surely understand or be impressed by.  Little do they know that it just makes me feel confused and sometimes just plain stupid, because I don’t know and can only guess at what they might possibly mean by a phrase that never had much scientific basis in the first place and that’s now been turned to meaningless slush in the blender of Pop Culture.
 
I’d like to be a Leader, you bet, just like I’d be happy to be a millionaire.  If only someone tells me what I’m supposed to do.
 
Dogs are trained by operations, a series of concrete, specific actions laid out in particular and sometimes fussy order.  Leader and “Alpha” are concepts, human intellectual constructs.  And as concepts, they can be attached to whatever actions, exercises or training recipes a dog trainer likes and uses to change behavior, from eating a cracker before giving a dog his meal to using the highest setting on a shock collar.  So if I teach my dog to Sit before I open a door, I can call it Option 1:  I’m being a Leader and the dog is learning to obey my wishes because of my superior Alpha status… or I can call it Option 2:  the dog is learning to Sit when asked at the door.  Which looks exactly like Option 1 without the conceptual baggage.  It is a neat exercise that, if properly executed, results in a dog that Sits politely at the door when asked and waits for a release cue before exiting--a lovely behavior to have and likely chock full of healthy impulse control benefits, like an orange is full of vitamin C.   
 
The question is, does adding terms like Leader or Alpha contribute anything to the mechanics of the operation—the what-we-do-with-the-dog—or the end product, a dog that Sits politely at doors?  Which is the baby and which is the bathwater?  Establishing Alpha Leadership or teaching good behavior? 
 
A simple trick for deciding which is baby and which is bathwater is “divide and conquer.”  Simply, try Being a Leader as hard as you can, but don’t do any specific training operations that teach the dog the behavior.  Then, forget about Being a Leader and effectively execute the operations.  It becomes clear very quickly that our Baby is healthy, bouncing operations that result in healthy, bouncing behaviors.  Being a Leader is bathwater, and pretty murky bathwater at that.
 
Yank on a prong collar or choke chain?  Kick the dog?  Speak in a stern tone of voice?  All are frequently justified in terms of Being a Leader when really, they’re just training operations on the punishment end of the spectrum, no more.   The Leader waters have become so murky and mucky that I rarely give it much thought—I focus on producing clean healthy behavior babies with clean healthy operations and care not a whit about whether I’m a “Leader” or not.   The trouble is, we as people are really good at falling for catchy concepts, at becoming enamored with bathwater that sounds appealing.  The result is that people continue to look for training success in “Leadership” when that’s not what’s needed at all.
 
Somewhere in that murky mucky tub, there might still be a Leader baby or two worth saving.  But they’re nothing like the kind of Alpha bathwater that Pop Culture pours on.  There’s a different kind of leading that has very much to do with good, healthy training operations, and if we can save the word from drowning, we might have something useful.  In Part Two, I’m going to explore the other kind of leading—the kind that we really do want to use to reach success with our dogs.

The Absolute Real Truth About Dogs & Dog Behavior, Part 2 of 2

Posted on June 9, 2014 at 3:32 AM Comments comments (0)

In this first part of this blog, I talked a little about animal trainers vs. strictly dog trainers.  Now I’m going to turn to the academics: the people with formal academic backgrounds in science—the Ph.D.s, vet behaviorists and others officially and rigorously qualified to call themselves behaviorists by virtue of membership in a formal behavior society.  As with the animal trainers, I want to make clear—there are fools, braggarts and nutters that manage to insert themselves into high places, advanced degrees and all; anyone who has been to college has encountered at least one professor whose only apparent virtue was tenure.  The History of Science is filled with colorful, often famously arrogant characters whose main claim to fame was that they got something entirely and completely wrong.  Again, those aren’t the people we want to look to for dog training wisdom:  a Ph.D. alone does not a great behaviorist make. Thankfully, the people we’re talking about are real experts who have a lot more than just the fancy degree to offer us.  

And that’s the second “disclaimer” I need to insert, just because I encounter it occasionally on the kinds of dog training lists and Facebook debates I try to avoid:  Joe or Jane the Trainer making some snarky and ill-informed comment to the effect that the Esteemed Vet Behaviorist they don’t agree with is an Ivory-tower elitist who has never actually held a leash before, certainly not the leash of A Real Dog, a dog with serious issues or bigger than a Cocker Spaniel.  This is, can’t put it too bluntly, utter garbage.  Most vet behaviorists (around 50 or 60 in the U.S.) and the Ph.D.s who are applied animal behaviorists have hands-on practices that consist almost entirely of the toughest problems: serious aggression, fear/anxiety and phobias.  Many of them also compete at very high levels in various dog sports, run behavior departments at large shelters and handle more difficult dogs in one animal hoarding case or dog-fight bust than Joe or Jane see in a year.  And they have something that many of us mere dog trainers haven’t got: the advantages of a formal education.     

And there are real advantages.  As a dog trainer, I like to think I’m pretty well-informed.  I’ve done my best to follow the science, stay current and critical and glean the best information from the best possible sources.  I like to read, I’ve been a lifelong amateur naturalist and outdoor enthusiast.  The trouble is, except for my AA in Biology in junior college (hardly an advanced degree and very long ago) I’m largely self-taught.  And the catch of being self-taught, of not having that formal education, is that I tend to cherry-pick the bits that arrest my attention and interest (evolutionary biology, genetics and ethology) and throw up my hands at the bits that seem too difficult or that don’t strike my fancy (statistics, biochemistry and the twistier aspects of neuroscience.)   In my bird watching days, I got pretty good at shore birds and raptors, but never did get the itty-bitty warblers sorted out.  As someone who grew up in drought-ridden So. Cal, I’m infinitely more knowledgeable about desert ecology and marine life than I am about forest ecology and fresh water systems.  

So although I have acquired a pretty hefty heap of eclectic and delightful information, I also have gaps in my knowledge that you could drive a truck through.  Some of those gaps are probably more important than I realize; some of them I may not even be aware of.  Without a stern but kindly professor or a dissertation committee looming over my shoulder, there was no one to make me buckle down and get through the second chapter of the text on statistics (which left me in tears of frustration and searching for dark chocolate) or persuade me to pay more attention to those pesky Little Brown Birds.  None of this makes me a bad dog trainer or a bad bird-watcher.  It does mean, when it comes to breadth, scope and discipline of knowledge, I’m simply not on the same level as a Ph.D. behaviorist or an ornithologist.    

Which is why, since I don’t have a Ph.D. of my very own, I’m going to listen very closely to what the highly qualified academic experts in my field have to say.  We are fortunate to have some extraordinary people who have both the talent and generosity to share their knowledge with the regular dog training “troops” like me and the pet owning public, and they are very much worth listening to.   They are, or should be, the first people we turn to with our questions about dogs and dog behavior.  Not the ones we finally discover after taking the dreadful and counter-productive advice of the “dog expert” on every corner—the neighbor who criticizes everything your dog does, the lady who breeds Cockapoos in her basement, the hunting guy who trained a Lab to listen to him sometimes and someone on your Facebook page who has “been around dogs all their lives.”  These folks could, possibly and accidentally, be correct and brilliant.  But why take the risk, especially if you don’t have the knowledge base and expertise to evaluate the information you get?  Easier, and safer, for you and your dog:  if you’re seeking high quality information, head straight for the top.   

At the top is another very real and important difference between our truly academically science educated behavior folks and even very good, well-intentioned, best-selling popular “dog experts.”  The difference is a paradigm, a ground of being and relationship with one word itself:  knowledge.    

What do most of us—including “dog experts”—mean when we say we know something?  For most of us, unless we’re dealing with strict facts—the address of our favorite pizza place, the Capitol of our state or how many inches are in a foot—what most of us mean is something like:  I have personal experience in the matter, it works for me, I like it, I agree with it, I have a very strong feeling or opinion about it and I feel certain and justified in the rightness of what I’m saying.  Like, I know.  

When someone with a formal academic background in science says they know something, they don’t mean anything like the above at all.  When a Ph.D. applied animal behaviorist says, we know, what he or she means is something like: there’s been four decades of research, it’s been peer-reviewed, there’s a stack of papers and data that could fill a two-car garage, the statement has been tested and replicated forwards, backwards, upside-down and sideways and it is accurately predictive of the phenomenon in question to a very high degree of certainty under all normal tested circumstances.

These are, obviously, two extremely different uses of the term know. 

The strict usage of the Scientific Know can be both maddening and adorable; I myself also find it very telling.  Unless they’re talking about gravity, evolution or the Laws of Learning, some of my favorite behaviorists won’t admit to knowing much of anything.  And rarely will you catch them swinging out on the limb of opinion without oodles of qualifications, “We haven’t done enough research, the little bit of data that we do have suggests that maybe this might be going on possibly but we can’t really say, I have a hunch if there’s a graduate student out there who needs a research project…”  

Thundering proclamations about “I’ve been around dogs all my life, I’ve handled thousands of dogs, I know everything about that problem, I know dogs do this-or-that because of this-or-that,” are refreshingly absent.  Present with genuine humility are soft-spoken utterances like, “I don’t know,” or the charming and gracious mantra of Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.:  “It depends.”  Claims based on personal experience, passionate feelings and strong opinions are not excluded from consideration.  But they’re not regarded as having the anything like the weight of true scientific knowledge.  

This is so not how most of us operate, it’s hard for us to imagine.  So let’s try:  pretend that you live in a world where you’re not allowed to say anything about your dog, your spouse or someone in politics unless you have tested it, you have the evidence that it’s true, a dozen other people can easily replicate your tests and get the same objectively measurable results and nobody cares in the least how passionately you feel about it all.  Oh dear, we’ve all gotten rather quiet, haven’t we?   

And this leads me to one more major difference between the real academics and your garden-variety dog trainer, however good—including me.  The Ph.D.s and DVMs and certified applied animal behaviorist are accountable to a variety of people in ways that I’m just not.  They didn’t decide they were “dog trainers” and print up business cards:  they had to take and pass tests.  Somebody or bodies reviewed their academic work, their research has to meet the standards of peer review, and many of them are associated with universities, vet schools, zoos, aquariums or other institutions.  They are members of academic and professional behavior societies that have real standards in both knowledge and performance.  They have peers in the field that aren’t going to be fooled by flimflam and good marketing, and they can’t get up at a conference or in a lecture hall and talk trash about dogs and dog behavior without some very sharp people calling them out on it.  I, on the other hand, as a “mere” dog trainer, am free to say whatever ridiculous things about dogs pop into my lil ole head—no one, literally no one, is peer-reviewing me.   

And that’s why, in my humble opinion, there’s that important difference in quality of knowledge, sometimes subtle but still tangible:  our wonderful, academically trained experts in dog training and behavior are more completely educated, hold themselves to a more rigorous standard of knowledge and have been professionally vetted by others in the field, in school, in peer review and in the professional positions they hold.     

I want you as a pet owner and advocate for your own dog to have access to the best and most accurate information out there.  With books, DVDs, websites and social media all readily available, you can.  You don’t have to rely on what the guy with the love beads and the fuzzy Malamute mix has to say about wolf behavior—you can check out what L. David Mech, the senior research biologist who literally wrote the book on the subject, has to say.  You don’t have to take your groomer’s word for it that all Toy breed dogs try to bite when their nails are trimmed, you can visit the website of Sophia Yin, DVM for her thoughts and tips on the subject.  And you certainly don’t have to take the golden wisdom of me, or Joe or Jane or any other dog trainer, however experienced, passionate and sincere we seem to be, without comparing what we say and do to the advice of the most credentialed experts in the field.   We can’t be them—we’re not behaviorists or vets—but we should be playing in the same ballpark by the same rules.  If we’re not, something’s wrong.  

Do all of the experts always agree with each other?  No, of course not, not about everything.  But you aren’t likely to go wrong following their broad consensus:  if these folks pretty much all agree that something is a good practice, I’d heed their advice and give it a try.  If the consensus is that something is a bad, dangerous or unnecessary practice, I’d avoid it and move on. 

And if anyone comes at you proclaiming that they know the Absolute Real Truth About Dogs & Dog Behavior, I’d run-run-run with my dog and my wallet as far away as possible.  Expertise and wisdom are humble things, never afraid to say, “I don’t know,” without shouting or fanfare.  

This list is by no means exhaustive or all-inclusive—only a small sampling of academics, researchers and animal trainers whose offerings of knowledge are easy to access in books, DVDs or online.  There are many, many more terrifically talented trainers, researchers and seminar presenters out there, were there space to list them all.  I invite you to Google them, visit their websites, enjoy their blogs or curl up with one of their most excellent books at your leisure.  Enjoy.   
Bob Bailey, Animal Behavior Enterprises
Ian Dunbar, MRCVS, PhD, CAAB
Jean Donaldson, Academy for Dog Trainers
Karen Overall, MA, VMD, Ph.D., DACVB, CAAB
Karen Pryor, Karen Pryor Clicker Training
Kathy Sdao, MA, ACAAB
Ken Ramirez, Shedd Aquarium
L. David Mech, Ph.D., Senior research scientist, US Geological Survey
Pamela Reid, Ph.D.
Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., CAAB
Ray Coppinger, Ph.D.
Roger Abrantes, Ph.D.
Sophia Yin, DVM, MS.
Susan G. Friedman, Ph.D.

The Absolute Real Truth About Dogs & Dog Behavior, Part 1 of 2

Posted on June 7, 2014 at 3:17 PM Comments comments (2)

I’m joking, of course, but you might not know it if you don’t know me.  Those of you who do know me know that I’m kind of a geek—I like science, I like research, I like to study and I spend a fairly ridiculous amount of time on continuing education and professional development.  One of the greatest resources we dog trainerly types have is a little company called Tawzer Dog Videos.  The fine folks at Tawzer travel all over the country videotaping seminars on dog training and behavior.  These seminars—and some of them are several days and many hours long—are presented by the top experts in the field talking about everything from dog sports to sheltering issues, aggression or the cutting edge of research cognition and genetics.  Tawzer Dog Videos has a rental program rather like Netflix that allows me to partake of all these goods without breaking my budget.   Without having to spend a fortune on travel and hotel bills, I can sit in the comfort of my own home and broaden my horizons with the best of the best.
 
Now, almost all of the presenters in these videos are first rate—outstanding trainers, top competitors in their sports, deeply experienced and knowledgeable in their specialties.  And that being said, there’s still a difference in the quality of the information they present.
 
The truth is, the people with formal academic backgrounds in science—the Ph.D.s in biology, zoology, psychology, etc., the veterinary behaviorists (a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with a specialty in behavior) and the Masters of Science holders—really are on a different level.   Approaching them closely are people with long backgrounds and experience in animal training.  Not dog training, animal training—people who’ve worked across multiple species like marine mammals, exotics and wild animals in zoos and aquariums (though they often also have an academic degree as well.)  And these folks tend to come to the dog training table with a rather different approach than the stereotypical Pop Culture dog training experts, because they tend to come equipped with a couple of different paradigms.
 
In this first part of the blog, I’m going to talk about animal trainers, and I want to be clear—I’m talking about good animal trainers—the ones following best practices.  Yes, there are idiots out there in every field, but we don’t want to use them as our models.  That’s the whole point:  if you want to get the best information about how to train your dog, you want to know what the best people are saying and doing.  You and your dog deserve it.
 
On that note, it’s not unusual for a “dog expert”—whether a trainer, a groomer, a committed rescuer, a dog sports competitor or the person who’s “been around dogs all my life”--to have gotten into their avocation because they deeply, passionately love dogs.  Dogs are their heart, their chosen calling.  And they may or may not know a blessed thing about animals in general, or animal behavior, or any of the broader principles of science about learning or evolution or genetics that influence how all animals behave.  This narrowness of focus and lack of context can result, frankly, in all kinds of silliness based on a notion that dogs are special.   Dogs aren’t like other animals—they learn because they want to please us, there are no “bad dogs” and we have only to project enough Alpha leadership energy and they’ll figure out how to behave the way we want them to.  Of course, no one in their right mind would try this with my cat, but dogs are regularly twisted into Pop Culture shapes that no animal on the planet could conform to. 
 
The trouble with this is that if your only point of reference is a passion for dogs, it’s hard to see the mistakes.   A trainer who teaches puppy classes may spout utter nonsense about wolf behavior without knowing the same behavior can be seen in, oh, ostriches and lizards, a top sports competitor may have a case full of trophies and know nothing whatsoever about treating separation anxiety or noise phobias, a 20 year veteran of animal control may believe things about a “breed” that are simply impossible according to the rules of genetics and the heart-on-the-sleeve rescuer may be so convinced that there are “no bad dogs” that he completely misses signs that a dog is flat-out abnormal due to untreated medical conditions, genetic glitches or birth defects.  The result is a veritable zoo of misinformation, fallacy and goofiness that pet owners have to wade through at their peril.
 
So the first thing animal trainers have is a context:  animals are animals, and it doesn’t shock them or upset them when dogs (animals) behave like dogs (animals) instead of fantasy wolves, little furry people or heavily edited canine movie stars.  They also tend not to get sidetracked by irrelevancies—they don’t worry about whether the rhinoceros wants to please them or if the sea lion is being spiteful because she was left alone at lunchtime.  They do tend to be far more sensitive to how their students feel—when you’re working with critters that will scratch, bite, kick, gore or otherwise hurt you when it moves them, it tends to engender respect for their emotional states—you pay very close attention to their level of stress, fearfulness and all attendant body language signals.   It pays royally to learn the ethogram of the species you’re working with—that catalog of observable behaviors and body language postures that tells you the difference between an animal that loves your reinforcers and is happily working and an animal that is freaking out and contemplating a go at your throat.  Animal behavior is complicated, not all animals are easy to read and mistakes do happen.  But no animal trainer worth their salt steps into a pen with a potentially dangerous critter—or one that could hurt itself if it panics--without having done their homework and learned what to pay close attention to. 
 
This is in contrast, alas, to the uncounted numbers of “experienced pet owners” and self-appointed dog experts who don’t know, can’t read or simply ignore the most basic signs of stress in our beloved pet dogs—displacement sniffing, look-aways, lip licks and paw raises being a few commonly missed items on the dog ethogram.  The saddest of these are the parents who ignore the growls of the family dog because Fido doesn’t actually bite the child—until the day he finally does.  A growl means, “I don’t like this, I’m getting really stressed, frightened or angry, please stop.”  Not something a good animal trainer would ever ignore, and certainly the bite would come as no surprise to them if they did.
 
To the folks with solid backgrounds in animal training, a lot of popular dog training practices look simply ridiculous.  Common failings include using poor reinforcers, poor delivery, bad timing, working too fast or too slow, being inconsistent, unclear, stressing the dog out (which blocks learning) and expecting brilliant behavior after three repetitions in the kitchen instead of the thousands of reps in multiple locations and contexts it takes to craft a truly reliable response.   This isn’t to say that little Fifi can’t be housetrained and learn to come when called unless you’ve spent years training seals or lemurs—of course she can.  Thanks to domestication and centuries of genetic selection, dogs are probably the easiest animal on the planet to train, which is why we get away with so much nonsense.  Little Fifi is one sharp cookie and likely to figure out what you want eventually—or how to get around you if she can’t.  But bad information and bad practices make it slower and harder on her, and you, than it needs to be.
 
Of course, most dog trainers don’t have experience with exotics or marine mammals—I certainly don’t.  Curiously, we can have an advantage in one respect:  there are a lot more dogs than grizzly bears to train, they’re readily accessible and I can rack up hands-on experience with hundreds and thousands of dogs in far less time than it would take me to find that many sea lions.  There are also a lot more dog trainers working and researching and developing their art and science.  What’s cool about this is that a healthy cross-flow is underway:  dog trainers and animal trainers are talking to each other now, sharing ideas and learning from each other’s best practices.  Once the notion that dogs are somehow different from other animals is driven to the wasteland where it belongs, the walls come tumbling down, and a technique that works fabulously in zoos with a cranky hippo that doesn’t like to pick up his feet may be just the ticket for a cranky Rottweiler with nail-trimming issues—or visa versa.
 
Learning more and understanding more about animals and animal behavior in general is a wonderful and I think necessary foundation for learning about and understanding dogs and their behavior.  Trainers who have a background in or who have taken the time and effort to educate themselves about animals in general are less likely to give you outdated, inaccurate information about wolf behavior, make broad sweeping statements about breeds or suggest that your cat isn’t marvelously trainable.  They’re also less likely to give you sound-bite, cookie cutter answers to complex behavior questions, attribute every problem to one-size-fits-all answers like “dominance” or ignore how your dog feels during a training session. 
 
Most of all, as we’ll see in the next section, they won’t say stuff or do stuff that flies in the face of what the best of the best are saying or doing—stuff that just isn’t true to the science of animal behavior and in keeping with the best knowledge and best practices we’ve currently got.
 
Coming in Part 2:  Academia and why it matters.

On the joy of training your dog

Posted on March 31, 2014 at 5:19 PM Comments comments (0)
As the Behavior Program Coordinator at the Siskiyou Humane Society, it's been my privilege over the years to meet many very fine young people, and be a mentor for some of them.  I remember (would I could forget) myself as a teenager, a troubled bundle of awkwardness, lack of confidence, desire to fit in and passion to become my own person.  I remember those few adults who took the time to give me something of themselves, who listened to me, who I felt "understood" me, and how valuable they were in my life.  I can only be myself--and golly, am I no guru.  Still, I always hope and wish that the young people I interact with can come away with something meaningful and helpful to them.  We never know, of course--all those horses led to water, but the drinking is up to them.

I always think, though, that if there was a magic button I could press that would allow me to give these youngsters a gift, it would be this:

To know that they are powerful.  That their behavior matters and counts profoundly.  That their choices and actions make a difference--to their quality of life, to the people around them and ultimately to the world.   And that taking responsibility for our own actions and results isn't about getting blamed or feeling guilty or accepting some social "trip" laid on us--it's about spreading our own wings into who we are and taking our power into our own hands.  

There's an old truism in the world of dog training:  Every handler gets the dog that they deserve.  Or, every dog is a reflection of the handler.  It's one of those ditties that I've heard many times and I always heard it with a little twinge of discomfort:  true as it may be, it sounds perilously close to wagging a scolding finger and blaming pet owners for not training their dogs "the right way."  But then something happened and it opened my eyes to seeing these truisms in a new, vastly more empowering light.

I videotaped one of my training sessions with Tinker and watched it.   Uh, oh boy, uh-oh.

See, I may be a professional dog trainer with your dog, but I'm really only a pet owner with my dog.  When I come to your house or teach a group class, I'm on the clock, so to speak.  I'm focused on one thing and one thing only--you and your dog and providing the best training services possible.  I'm not multi-tasking on my computer, calling a friend on my cell phone or deciding it's time for a sandwich and I need to put the laundry in the dryer.  I wouldn't dream of stopping in the middle of a group class to smell the roses, repair an agility jump or ponder what I'm having for dinner tonight.   And I'm usually pretty good about not deciding I'd rather rub your dog's tummy and laugh at her goofy antics than train.

With my own dog, though... its all on video.  Tinker is a marvel of flashes of brilliance followed by lack of focus; over-excitement and laziness; little gems of technical perfection mixed with gobs of sloppiness, checking out the flowers and deciding the heck with training, let's go sniff and get a belly rub.  She is in fact exactly a refection of me: trying to do too many things at once, easily distracted by shiny objects and a sudden urge for pizza, too tired at the end of a long day to be sharp and inclined to throw up her hands at the boring or tricky bits that need real work.  Well, they say every dog is a reflection of her handler.  I just had no idea it would be so darned literal.

What's cool about all this is the other old truism: knowledge is power.  And the truth is, I don't need to do a lot to become a better trainer for my own dog--just like you don't have to do as much as you might think to get really useful improvements in your dog's behavior.  We just need to remember:  our behavior matters.  Our actions count.  And sometimes the difference between a truly well-trained dog and a dog driving you nuts isn't hard or complicated:  it's you taking back your own power.  It's taking a deep breath, turning off the cell phone, and giving the dog a few short minutes of our undivided attention when we can be fresh and focused and fully engaged.  It's the joy of communicating and learning and teaching and meeting another mind across the gulf of our differences, human and canine, not all at once but in gems of baby-steps that build, one at a time, to something wonderful and true.

The beauty of group classes is that we get to do these things together, to support and empower each other in the process, and to practice in a setting where dogs can learn lessons they need  most:  how to listen and perform around other people and other dogs.

I hope you'll join us in 2014 for a season of training joy and fun.








On Spring, Love, Dogs and Volcanos

Posted on March 23, 2014 at 10:01 PM Comments comments (0)
Oh, it's so good to be back!  As many of you know, last summer a detached retina put me on somewhat limited training duty.  Four eye surgeries later, my vision is a working sensory array again, and I'm super excited to be getting ready for the new training season.  I'm also stoked to be able to offer a brand-new course that I think everyone will enjoy and benefit from:  You vs. the Volcano: Reaching Behavior Success with Your High Energy Dog (more on that in a moment.)

Most of all, I'm grateful--to my family, my friends, my co-workers at Siskiyou Humane and all my wonderful dog training clients who were so patient and understanding during a difficult time for me.   The support I received--endless rides to doctors when I couldn't drive myself, assistance with chores I couldn't tackle and tolerance for my crankiness--was extraordinary and beyond my words to express the appreciation it's due.  Thank you.

During that period, I tried to make the best use of my down-time by--well, golly, big surprise--studying everything I could about dogs.  And training, and neuroscience, and behavior.  I read books, watched endless DVD's and enrolled in online classes.  Since I was restricted in where I could go and what I could do, I didn't get to do everything I wanted to do with my own dog (though really, do we ever?)  Tinker, bless her heart, spent most of the winter training in the living room, getting limited walks out in the rest of the world, and unfortunately learning to be a bit reactive to all the things that made ME reactive with my poor eyesight.  She also kept me company without complaint, and made me laugh endlessly with both her genius and her clownishness.  Most of all, she made me think.

Not everyone has a relationship with their dog that reaches into a heart of intimacy that transcends words.  Not everyone would choose to, and that's okay.  For those of us who do find ourselves in That Place with the dog or dogs in our lives, finding ways to communicate and train that are respectful, ethical and loving goes beyond a gooey heart-warming idea and becomes an imperative.  We're aware, or should always be aware, that there is another being on the end of our leash whose entire quality of life is dependent on us.  Tinker had no choice about all those missed walks and hikes.  I couldn't see well, so she got to train in the living room and the few safe places we could access.

I am deeply and profoundly and stupidly in love with my Catahoula mix girl.  And yet, I never want to forget that, no matter how strongly I feel about her, she is her own animal:  a creature that has her own feelings, her own agenda, her own desires, and in Tinker's case, her own strong opinions about what she likes, doesn't like and wants to do or not do.  Yes, she's "just a dog."  But in my own experience of the heart, my spiritual world view,  all beings count.  They are beautiful.  They are individuals.  They are their own animals, not an extension of human needs and desires.  And they have needs.

All dogs don't all need the same things.  There are many, many lovely and gracious pet dogs that don't seem to need very much:  physical comfort, a walk around the block and kindness from a person who cares from them satisfies them entirely.  Then there are the other dogs.  Dogs like Tinker, that come into our lives not as easily-satisfied blank slates prepared to adapt to our old routines, but bursting with ideas of their own.  Tinker, my Queen of the Fixed Motor Pattern--call them instincts or drives or whatever used-to-be-scientific term that is currently out of favor--who ate the bark off a tree in my backyard trying to reach a raccoon, climbs like a cat, sniffs like a bloodhound and jumps like a deer--or a bull exiting a china shop.  Her curiosity about the world around her is insatiable.  Her need to know, to explore, to solve problems and "kill" all squeaky toys is as important to her as the air that she breathes.   

Every week at the shelter we receive dogs of all kinds with the same fundamental problem:  they were their own animals, and it somehow went unrecognized.  They weren't like the "last dog," the old and perfect dog.  They had too much energy.  They didn't listen or stay in the yard.  They needed things and wanted things of their own--things as important to them as the air that they breathed.  And they were never given, for whatever reasons, the skills needed to cope with the inevitable disappointments of life:  how to wait, to control their impulses, to listen in the face of distracting temptations and earn what they wanted by being calm and keeping their heads in the game.  Also every week it seems that I speak to wonderful, lovely and committed pet parents who are at their wits' end trying to get their high energy, high drive, highly "opinionated" dog to be--some other kind of dog.  It isn't that they didn't train or try to train the dog--they did exactly what worked perfectly well with their last dog.  It's just not working.  And it's not going to, for a few simple reasons.

As a dog trainer, of course I'm big on training--we all like to think we can teach a new behavior and presto! the dog will be a marvel of Lassiehood.  But if there's one thing I've learned from working with hundreds of shelter dogs, it's this:  training on top of unmet needs is like trying to put a cork in a volcano. 

If the dog isn't healthy, if the dog is an emotional wreck of fear and anxiety, if the dog hasn't had any exercise for weeks or has been exhausted by a few frightening nights lost in the woods, they can't focus, or think, or learn.  Like a child sent to school on an empty belly, they have other more immediate concerns that need to be addressed.  Just trying to jam "better behavior" on top of existing problems is a lot of work, not much return--and likely to blow up in our faces.  To be successful with these dogs, we have to address their underlying needs first.

Please be clear that "addressing needs" doesn't mean "catering to every whim."
We can't always have what we want when we want it, not us, not our dogs--of course, we can't.   Life isn't perfect.  It does, though, have to be good enough.  If it's not good enough, behavior will inevitable suffer.  And no amount of training will help if it's not aimed at the Real Problem.

You vs. the Volcano: Reaching Behavior Success with Your High Energy Dog is a course for anyone or everyone who has a dog like my Tinker.  A dog with a lot of energy and a lot of behavior that's important to them--but that may not be working for you.  It's a course about problem solving, about finding compromises, about draining the "juice" out of the Volcano so that you have a dog you can work with and live with.  It's about getting those underlying needs--which often aren't what we expect them to be--met, or even using them as motivators in a kind of training judo to get exactly the behavior you want.

It's about seeing your dog clearly, appreciating him for the amazing individual animal thathe is--and making it work for both of youby taking actions that are truly effective.

Whether you are considering the course as a Working Team with your dog, attend as an auditor or just come to the opening lecture session, I hope you will join us!



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