If the past few weeks have taught us anything, it is that our nation as a whole could do with a lesson in reconciliation. I’m not going to dive into politics or current events here. Instead, I’m going to focus on that emotional divide between you and your dog when there is a problem.
Admittedly, I always struggle when it comes to emotions. I wasn’t raised in a family where emotions were really processed and understood. Growing up in the South, it was also considered taboo for men to discuss their emotions, and try to come to grips with them. I still struggle with my emotions, and that makes me human. We don’t know to what extent our dogs are burdened with emotions like this. It is my belief that while they do not hold grudges, but that doesn’t mean they forget about fear. Dogs are forgiving creatures, otherwise a dog wouldn’t return to the hand that beat it. But that fear can linger for a lifetime. We also have to accept our own emotional burden. I’ve had to comfort many owners who, realizing the mistakes they made, struggled to move beyond them out of guilt.
At some point, we have to admit and face our mistakes. I have never taken criticism well, very few people do. If we are to do better, however, we have to face our mistakes. Again, I’m not going to unpack some emotional baggage here. Instead, I’m going to encourage you, as an owner and advocate for your dog, to do some soul searching and see what emotions may be holding you back.
When I find myself in times of trouble, Obi-Wan comes to me…Okay, all joking aside, this isn’t the first time I’ve quoted Star Wars in this blog and it will not be the last. But there is some truth here. When we are working with our dogs, we have to keep things from clouding our judgement. The filters we unknowingly apply to every bit of information we take in is not easily set aside. Our dogs have filters, though not as complex as ours. The first big filter our dogs have are: Is this Safe or Unsafe? That is an important question. Once a bit of information passes through the Unsafe filter, it’s hard to change the dogs understanding of it. You shake a penny can when your dogs start barking at the door, and it startles your dogs. Now you simple reach for the can and they are cowering. To you, the can is harmless. To your dogs, it’s terrifying. They don’t really understand WHAT IT IS, but they do know WHAT IT DOES and how it makes them feel.
Clearing your mind is difficult, but necessary. When you are training with your dog, you need to shed your emotions and insecurities and focus on what you are working on at that moment. When you are crate training your dog, don’t think about your dog spending hours comfortably in the crate. Instead, focus on that first step towards the crate. Then the second. Then the third. Keep yourself present and focused on the task at hand, not the end of the journey.
Finally, forgive yourself…and your dog. I assure you, your dog is not doing anything out of spite, and you shouldn’t either. You should also remember that you will mistakes, but you will learn from your mistakes (hopefully) and won’t repeat them again. And if you need a pep talk, you’ve got my number.
So, this blog post is entirely about discussing my new service that I’ll be offering starting in November. While this blog serves as a sounding board of sorts for my own thoughts regarding dog training, this post will just be discussing the new service. If you are interested or want to provide some feedback, please feel free to reach out to me.
One of the biggest requests I get is how to get a dog under control when faced with other dogs. Whether your dog is super friendly on leash, or super NOT friendly, leash reactivity is the most common problem I come into. While I can commiserate (boy, can I ever commiserate…), the problem I have as a private trainer is the lack of a facility to host these kinds of classes. And if you haven’t noticed, it’s Florida outside…which isn’t exactly comfortable weather for humans to work in. For dogs, Florida heat can be deadly. But we’re getting into Fall, as much as Florida gets a Fall, and the weather is a little better for this kind of work. So, since there is a demand, I will be providing a supply.
Starting in November, I will be offering what I am tentatively calling the Concerned Canines Club, a small group class to help with leash reactivity in dogs. The goal of this class isn’t to socialize your dog. There is a lot that goes into socialization, and many of the dogs I work with are past the prime socialization window. Besides, ideal socialization involves working with dogs off leash, and I simply do not have access to a facility or place to facilitate that kind of interaction.
What is the goal of Concerned Canines Club? It is to take a few teams of dogs and handlers, and work on their on-leash skills around other dogs. I’m going to answer a few questions you probably have right now, and if I didn’t provide an answer here, just reach out to me and I’ll be happy to answer it.
How does Canine Club work?
Each owner and dog will be placed into a “club”, a group of other dogs and handlers. I will try to match everyone appropriately, while providing some variety as well, so that there is a mix of sizes, ages, and energy levels. Each club is a team unto itself, and will continue working with the other owners in their team for the duration of the class. By signing up for the class, you are also signing a social contract, agreeing to make all of the classes, as the success of all of the teams depends on everyone showing up and working together.
How often will classes be held and what will we learn?
Classes will be held twice a week, for about 30 minutes. The goal of each class is to work on your dogs leash skills and general obedience around other dogs and people. I will be there to provide instruction and work with each team in turn. The goal is to learn how to apply what your dog already knows in situations where it is most desired.
Are there any requirements or prerequisites to joining the class?
Every dog should have completed basic or puppy obedience, ideally with me so that I know the dogs disposition and training history first hand. If you haven’t completed basic or puppy obedience, that will need to happen first so that you and your dog have the necessary skills to participate in the Concerned Canines Club. If you took obedience in the past with your dog, you’ll need to go through a training assessment which is about half an hour long and then a behavior assessment with both a decoy and live dog. Once you’ve passed those assessments, we can get you started in Concerned Canines Club.
What if my dog is aggressively reactive, or has a history of aggressive reactivity?
This class isn’t necessarily designed for all dogs with a history of aggressive reactivity. If, however, I have successfully worked with your dogs reactivity in the past, you may be able to join the Concerned Canines Club. Again, this is a case by case basis. The goal of this class isn’t necessarily to work with aggressive reactivity, but to work with general leash reactivity.
How much does the Concerned Canine Club cost?
The price is $300 for 8 sessions, two sessions a week, each session about 30 minutes. Remember, that there will be up to 3 other teams working with you and participation is key to the success of this class. The obedience and behavior assessment are $85 each if they are required. Every client will need to pay at least half the class fee in advance, and then pay the rest by the end of the 4th session.
Where will the classes be meeting?
For now, we’ll be working in public. Dog friendly parks (not dog play parks), and other public areas. The location will ideally be somewhere convenient for all of the participants.
I’m interested in joining the Concerned Canines Club, how do I get started?
You can call, text or email me, just like any other class! Once I’ve got enough clients interested, you’ll be placed into a group text. This will help keep everyone involved in scheduling and allow me to confirm and answer group questions a little easier as well.
I hope I’ve answered all of your questions and I’m excited to offer this service! Please let me know if you have any questions or are interested in joining! I am looking forward to hearing from you!
For everything, there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven – Book of Ecclesiastes 3:1
Fall is my absolutely favorite season. Besides having my two favorite holidays, it has some of my favorite colors. I feel like the days are just the right length. I like cool, crisp mornings. I like falling leaves. I’m not afraid to say that I like pumpkin spice. I like Fall. It’s a season of change.
Not everyone likes change, though. My wife, for instance, absolutely despises even the slightest change to just about anything. She is the ultimate creature of habit. As a trainer, I wouldn’t say I like change so much as I recognize the need for it. If your dog is biting people, that probably needs to change. If your terrier is chasing squirrels at the park, that probably won’t change (we can talk about that another time). Change is necessary for life. Evolution is necessary change for survival. If an animal cannot adapt to changes within it’s environment, it will become extinct. Change happens whether we like it or not.
Why am I talking about change? Well, this is going to be one of those rare blogs where I don’t talk about behavior. I want to talk about changes in my approach, both in how I am training dogs and how I am conducting classes.
Let’s talk about the changes in the training first, since that is going to be a shorter conversation ironically enough. As a trainer who specializes in behavior, I have to consider which training methods work best for the dogs I am working with. The first big change is that I will no longer be teaching “Sit”. Now, before you ask why, the answer is very simple: within the dog world, sitting is usually a behavior displayed when a dog is feeling uncomfortable. From a training point of view, “Sit” is a next to useless cue. “Down” is always preferable for big dogs, and is more comfortable for dogs in general. So, I will no longer be teaching “Sit”.
The next big change in my training methods is using the functional reinforcer more often. What is the functional reinforcer you ask? It is exactly what it sounds like. An example of a functional reinforcer would be a dog growling at you and you taking a few steps back. Now, you ask “Why would you do that? I want him to stop growling at people to begin with!” The reason we are going to acknowledge and use the functional reinforcer is that it keeps the dog in a calmer state of mind, and gives a clearer definition of the dogs threshold and tolerance for the trigger. A dog under a severe amount of stress can’t learn, and since that is what you are paying me for, that is what we are going to accomplish. This may mean using more visual barriers, shorter bursts in training or keeping a higher threshold for a longer period. But it will help, trust me!
The next big changes I want to cover in how I will be conducting my classes. After some observations of both owners and dogs, I’ve determined that this change needs to happen.
For puppy and obedience classes, there will be two sessions a week, each session being closer to 30 minutes with a 3-4 days between sessions. I’ve decided on this course because I feel like many owners need a little extra help. I feel like I’ve been spending a lot of time on the phone or texting lately; and while I have absolutely no problem with answering questions, I want to make sure that owners are getting the information they need the first time if possible. So, instead of being five 45 minute sessions, there will be ten 20-30 minute session depending on the class and what we are covering. The prices of the classes will change a little, to reflect how often I will be working with you. I feel like this method is going to help owners immensely.
For Concerned Canines classes, we will be doing a similar change. Depending on what we are working on, we will meeting 2-3 times a week, for 25-30 minutes. If we are working on dog reactivity, we may be meeting only twice a week, or the third session that week might include decoys or have some obedience work. Also with Concerned Canines classes, there will be less of a focus on obedience work and more free shaping work. While the class will have less structure, it will be more effective in the long run for modifying the behavior. Finally Concerned Canines classes, I will advising that we work together for longer periods. In extreme cases, owners need to be prepared to work together for several months. The reasoning behind this is that simply you can’t schedule a behavior change. Everyone recovers from stressful and frightening things differently, at different paces. Dogs are no different.
I want to take a moment and express how much I appreciate all of you, friends, family and clients for supporting my business. For the most part, my business has grown very quickly and I couldn’t have done that without the support and patronage of everyone! It means the world to me! Thank you so much!
If you haven’t read the blog post proceeding this, then please do so!
So, continuing our discussion about anthropomorphism and it’s role within the world of dog training: I want to tackle the other side of this conversation, what emotions do dogs feel and what can we attribute to them?
I want to start with a story. I was working with a rescue, and they presented a dog that would “act calm” until he got close to someone and lunged. At first glance, it looked like overstimulation, just getting too excited and then displaying an aggressive behavior. This is called redirected aggression and is fairly common. But this case was different. After seeing the dog a few times, I determined that he was reacting fearfully to people, who he often met when he was well over threshold. The rescue told me that this dog was “sneaky” and believed he was trying to be mean and deceptive with his behavior. Going back through the training history with the rescue, I was able to determine that what they had taught the dog was to skip his bite indicators, since the rescue wasn’t acknowledging them. The dog learned that no matter how many warnings he gave, they would be ignored. So he took it to the next logical step and began lunging. When he lunged at someone, the handler would quickly rush the dog away, therefore giving the dog what he wanted. Of course, they didn’t want to believe me, especially when I said we needed to teach him how to use his indicators again. The rescue pushed back, saying that I couldn’t be right, that he was being intentionally deceptive. I tried explaining to them that they were anthropomorphizing the dog, attributing human motivations to the dogs actions, and that they should focus on the behavior instead. Needless to say, I stopped working with them.
What’s the moral of this story? Anthropomorphism, in the wrong context, can lead to disastrous things. While anthropomorphism can help us in dog training, it can hinder us. In this second part of the discussion, I want to discuss what emotions dogs feel, how we can use anthropomorphism to help us understand how dogs feel, and why we should be careful when using it.
Fear is perhaps the one thing that every animal feels. Almost every animal has a predator or a threat and feels fear. Fear is a very useful emotion, from a biological sense, as it leads to self preservation. If the gazelle wasn’t afraid of the lion, there wouldn’t be many gazelles left in the world. Fear is the great unifying emotion. Everyone understands fear. And from a dog training perspective, fear can be a great way to help you find common ground with your dog.
When I consult on a fear case, I will try to help owner find common ground with their dogs fears. Many people have a fear of snake or spiders, or something else that is ultimately misunderstood; and suddenly fear of that big dog walking down the sidewalk, or the strange man jogging down the street becomes something that the owner can relate to. Also, the fear was once a desirable trait in dogs. Thousands of years ago, when we had other predators to fear, we needed an alarm system. Dogs, with their superior hearing and sense of smell, were excellent warning against bears, wolves, tigers, other tribes. That trait remained useful for millenia, and it’s only been within the last few decades that a growling or barking dog became undesirable.
Dogs experience a range of emotions. Fear of the unknown, but also joy or happiness when playing, sadness when they lose a friend or family member, interest or apprehension. Alexandra Horowitz has written volumes on canine emotions, and I highly encourage you read to her work. Dogs definitely have emotions, but they do not have human motivations. What’s the difference?
Let’s talk about being stubborn. I’m sure many of you will be surprised to know that I am, in fact, stubborn. Quit laughing, Jennifer. I can be VERY stubborn. It’s a family trait. And I don’t mean determined or dogged, not knowing when to quit. I can be petty, and will just not do something if I’m in the wrong frame of mind. For example, if I feel like Jennifer asks me to do something with an attitude, I will purposefully ignore. I’ll make snide remarks, sulk, whatever. That is a very human thing. I know what she wants me to do, and I’m choosing not to do that.
I’ve yet to meet a dog that was stubborn, truly stubborn. Dogs don’t possess that kind of cognition or drive to be stubborn. They either understand what you want them to do, or they don’t. Or they feel safe doing what you want them to do, or they don’t. They are incapable of being stubborn.
They are also incapable of true deception. What do I mean by that? For example, when two dogs play, there will be “deception”. A dog will feint a dive, act “surprised”, etc. That’s because play has both a biological and social function. The biological function of play is to mimic fighting or hunting, strength the muscles, develop the reflexes, and so forth. Play serves a social function to build up bonds with other members of the family or pack, etc. During play, as in hunting and fighting, there will be what we would call deception.
Is it the same form of deception as lying to someone? No, it’s not. What’s the difference? Boy, is that a philosophical question. One could argue that a human lying to another human, at least within the context that the person lying is not doing so to save their life or health, is not performing the behavior because it fills a function. A wolf chasing a deer, feigning right to drive the deer to the wolf waiting to the left, fills a function. It deceived the deer in order to eat. Do you understand the difference?
It is helpful to explain to an owner, using things the owner is afraid of or the owner enjoys, to help the owner understand the dogs reactions. But anthropomorphism should stop there. There are arguments that anthropomorphism allows us to feel sympathy for other creatures, but I personally disagree with that idea. I don’t think that I need to relate to an animals pain or fear to understand that it is in pain or afraid.
Remember the dog I was talking about earlier? I want to talk about what I would do if I had a chance to continue working with him, with a rescue that was willing to put the time into him. First of all, we needed to teach him to use his bite indicators again. Since the dog often didn’t vocalize until he was over threshold, we would need to use body language to judge his emotional state. Whenever he was approached, if we saw tense body language, hard eyes, tight lips, I would want to stop and walk away a little. Why do I want to walk away? I want to keep the dog from biting, and body language is a bite indicator, which is what I want. I’m using the functional reinforcer of the behavior (walking away) to reinforce this behavior. Eventually, over time, the dog would learn how to slowly use his bite indicators again. Also, I would need to teach the dog how to investigate something scary in a calm fashion. Most rescues will just beeline a dog straight into a scary situation. But dogs often do not approach in a direct fashion when investigating something. They often take a circular, indirect pattern in their approach, taking the time to sniff and watch whatever it is they are investigating. In other words, I’d have to teach this dog how to be a dog again. That’s a long journey.
Wrapping up, I’m not against anthropomorphism, as long as it’s used in the right context. Finding common ground with your dog by thinking about something that frightens you is useful, helping you understand the amount of fear your dog is experiencing. Believing that your dog is being deceptive, spiteful, or stubborn is incorrect.
I hope you enjoyed these two posts, and feel free to ask any questions!
the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.
One of my favorite books as a child was The Outcast of Redwall by Brian Jacques. One of a dozen or so books in a fantasy series that featured anthropomorphic animals and their struggles. There were badger lords, mouse knights, rat bandits, and weasel cutthroats. For kids, one of the appeals of the books is how clearly it defines some of the characters. You could always trust a mouse to be honest, if cowardly. A badger was always brave, an otter playful, and a fox to be dishonest. Rarely did the author ever challenge those roles, because that wasn’t the point of the books. The point of the books was to tell a story, usually with a moral. Given the target audience, the characters needed to be a little two dimensional.
Why am I talking about anthropomorphism? I guess I’ve been having this conversation a lot lately. It’s human nature to anthropomorphize. A car that won’t start right away is being temperamental. Your hair is “acting up” when you can’t style it the way you want. We are assigning human motivations to inanimate objects.
We also do that to animals. We tell ourselves that a mule is stubborn, a cat is mean, a chicken is dumb, and my personal favorite: my dog knows he/she shouldn’t do that. I love that phrase (not really…)
Why do we anthropomorphize? Because it helps us, as humans, understand or reason with something that we don’t inherently understand. It is similar to how ancient humans would attribute natural phenomena that they didn’t understand to the workings of the gods. Anthropomorphizing is natural to humans. By putting the subject on a human level, or attributing human motivations and goals to it, we feel like we understand it better.
But that’s where the problem comes in: it doesn’t work. But WHY doesn’t it work? I’m going to keep my explanation within the scope of dog training and animal behavior, in hopes to keep as simple and on point as I can.
The first problem with anthropomorphism is that it makes an assumption about why a behavior is occurring. When a dog pees on it’s owners bed, the owner usually assumes that it was done out of spite. “Oh, the dog was mad because…” and fills in the rest. Some trainers will tell you the same thing, which we’ll address in a minute. The owner has made an assumption about WHY the dog did what it did.
In the case of inappropriate elimination, the first question we have to ask is if the dog is healthy. Is there a medical problem or condition that is causing the incontinence? Diabetes, UTIs, bladder infections, kidney failure, all of these can cause incontinence. These need to be ruled out first. Once they are ruled out, we move on and ask the next question: Are the dog’s needs being met?
Now, this is where most owners have a problem. They see a full food bowl, clean water, and a comfy bed by the couch as meeting the needs of the dog. While all of these things are great, dogs often need more than a roof over their head and food in their belly. High energy, working breeds require a lot of physical and mental stimulation. A half hour walk around the block while you scroll through Facebook isn’t going to cut it. So the next question we ask is what kind of enrichment is provided for the dog? What is their exercise routine like? What is the amount of owner involvement with the dog on a daily basis?
Once we’ve answered those questions, we usually have the information we need to move forward with behavior modification. But let’s say that we are on top of providing our dog the proper enrichment and exercise, we finally look at the behavior as a behavior problem. Then we consider the dog’s previous training, is the dog truly potty trained?
Feeling overwhelmed? Imagine what your dog is going through. There is no evidence that shows that dogs have a concept of “being stubborn”. Stubbornness implies that the dog fully understands your intentions and is choosing to do the opposite instead. Your spouse, your kids, your in-laws, yeah they might be stubborn. But your dog? The science doesn’t support it.
So, what do we do? Just what I said, we focus on what the behavior is and systematically eliminate the causes of the behavior. Every behavior, from peeing on the rug to lunging at people when on walks, can be understood and modified if we follow this process. As an owner, I understand that it is easier to simply say “That dog is mean” or “this dog is stubborn”, and my favorite “but he knows he shouldn’t do that!” Does he? Does he really? Or is he doing what he has been conditioned to do, even if that wasn’t what you intended? I understand that owners want results, but this is a process and it takes time.
Some “trainers” (and I’m using this word lightly here) will tell you just that: your dog is being stubborn. They’ll say lots of things about establishing dominance, and being an alpha, and other things that will either get your testosterone pumping or living in fear that Fido is going to murder you in your sleep. Then, they’ll bring in a pinch collar, or shock collar, or sometimes a good old leather strap. And they will choke, zap, or whip the dog into submission. Sometimes the problem goes away. Want to know why? Because the dog has developed learned helplessness (look it up) and is in a worst state than before. Again, the science doesn’t back up these “training” methods.
So, before you start projecting things onto your dog; before you starting saying they are stubborn, or sneaky, or whatever, keep in mind that you are most likely anthropomorphizing your dog and their behavior. You’re making an assumption, and remember what they say about when you assume? You incorrectly identify what is driving the undesirable behavior and will not be able to effectively modify it. What did you think I was going to say?
Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd. -Voltaire
It’s been a while since I’ve made a blog post. I don’t know if you noticed, but 2020 has been a little crazy. I mean, last week was March and I can’t remember what day it is. Some of you know that my wife had some minor surgery (she’s fine!) but we’ve had our plates full.
But besides the pandemic plaguing my life, I’ve been plagued by something else this year: Doubt. Which brings me to another quote:
Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.
Leave it to the Bard to say something with so much power. Maybe it was just exhaustion, or perhaps anxiety, but I’ve been racked with doubt over the last few months. I think it is, in no small part, hitting a wall with a certain case. This case not only forced me back to the proverbial drawing board but forced to reconsider my methods down to their very core. Doubt also came in while I was taking a class for one of my certifications. While I loved the class and found it incredibly informative and eye-opening, it also caused me to doubt my skills. Only recently have I begun to realize that to be successful at this, I would have to openly acknowledge my faults and recognize my shortcomings as opportunities. In this field, we are learning more every day and that I should remember that I will not always succeed, but that doesn’t mean I should stop.
Doubt is the greatest hurdle I face as a trainer, but not just in myself. You’d be surprised how many successful trainers are wracked with insecurities. I see a lot of doubt in owners, even over the smallest of things. I’ve seen some owners lose confidence over something so small as clicking a second or two late. As cheesy as it sounds, success isn’t a result but a state of mind. The first step to success is recognizing failure. By simply recognizing it, you have a greater chance of achieving the results you desire.
I feel like by writing this down, and sharing this with you, that it somehow feels like I’m making excuses for myself. I know that’s not the case, despite what my anxiety wants me to think. And it’s not the case for you either. Modifying a behavior isn’t easy, no matter what that behavior is.
So, I will endeavor to not let my doubts prevent me from doing my best, not only for myself but for you as well.