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The Training of Zelda: Week One

It's been a week since Zelda came home with us, brought home on Boo's birthday. Since then, we've gotten to really know her, and have had to brush up on skills that have gone dormant. 

Things like constant supervision to prevent inappropriate chewing and housebreaking accidents. What do we do when things go wrong? Exactly what I recommend clients do- interrupt and redirect. Zelda now understands that interruption does not mean punishment is coming, and will over time learn that her wide variety of chew toys does not include wooden train tracks. DO provide your dog with a variety- sometihng squishy (I like Kongs for this), something hard (I use cow femurs), and something tasty (Greenies and yak's milk treats are what we use). Some of these chews should also be filled- Kongs are great for that and you can get cow femur sections that are filled with various tastes.

We've also been reminded of overcoming fear- last night my nine year old jumped around the corner all suited up in his Halloween costume with an extra Stormtrooper mask on, and Zelda lost it. I wasn't there, but my husband knew exactly what to do and encouraged Zelda's curiosity, overcoming her fear. Several treats later, with my son taking off his costume bit by bit, Zelda was loving the game, and when next my son leaped around the corner with a battle cry, all suited up again, Zelda just wagged her tail, still relaxed. This took only a few minutes.

Related to the fear is just learning about unfamiliar things in a home environment. Zelda has learned about stairs, and different flooring surfaces, and mirrors, and car rides- all things that she was unsure of at first, but now is fine with. She does get a little nauseous, so car rides have been short so far. She also had a vet visit with a wellness check, though that came with its own uncertainties that she overcame with help (cueing "Easy" and a few treats). She's gotten very used to her crate and really enjoys it. I made it a great spot for her, with a thick comfy bed and a soft stuffed toy in there (just in case she needed something soft after being separated from her puppies). Every time she's enclosed in there she gets high value treats and chews, and the other dogs have been confined to the same room as her for company, especially when she started barking when we left (she's good now). She's crated when we're gone, but during the night, so long as we know where she is and what she's doing around bedtime, she's allowed to be free (since the first few nights). If she's acting suspicious, she gets confined for bedtimes for her own safety (we don't want her chewing or ingesting something while we're sleeping). 

Being the children of a dog trainer has some advantages and disadvantages, and the first thing my kids wanted me to do was teach Zelda to play, because she didn't seem to know what toys are. About three or four short training sessions in, and Zelda began happily chasing balls. Actually fetching will be next, along with frisbees. 

We haven't been focused on the normal obedience commands, even though Zelda has already begun work as a demo dog and soon I'll expect her to hold her sits through class just like I asked Boo to do before she retired last year. Instead, we've been working on the foundation- respect and trust and the rules of the house. These things aren't taught in training sessions and can't often be captured on video because the training happens hundreds of times throughout the day, only lasting a few seconds to a few minutes. Every interaction is teaching Zelda something, just as every interaction you have with your own dog teaches your dog something. It's a matter of being intentional about what you're teaching. 

The more formalized training sessions we have done have been Conditioned Relaxation and Come. Leave it will be next. So if you're looking for what I consider most important, there it is. Come is very important for her as she doesn't understand it, will dash off after prey, and seems unsure of people (including us) when outside off leash, almost as if she's forgotten she's a housedog now. Combine that with some management lapses and Come easily topped the list as being the most important command to work on.

So we work while she's on her 50 foot line, and we work in fenced in areas, and gradually I increase the distance and increase the distraction. She's coming along well, and now will respond confidently in low distraction environments. You can see what it looks like with the video, but I call her, praise her all the way in, reward, and then immediately send her off again. I might call her several times in a row, or I might wait several minutes between trials. Currently, I've been calling her while she's around dogs who know Come, and then rewarding all the dogs who come. This really helped get her past the hurdle of being unsure whether she wanted to be near a human outside, especially once she realized that she consistently got goodies for coming in close. In the beginning, she grabbed her treat and ran off to eat it, and that behavior has been naturally going away as training progresses, but I will be grabbing her collar before feeding her in the next week or two to get her used to that. 

As for Leave it, with the chewing accidents and because of the nature of the command, that's next on the list, as I said. However, it's not vital just yet, because interrupting her with an "Ah-ah" works just fine. She's a very "soft" dog- it only takes a mild correction to stop her in a behavior, and I expect she'll take to Leave it quickly and easily, though I'll make sure to get video of that training. 


So, that's what a week in a dog's life looks like here: lots of learning, all the time, in tiny bite sized pieces!


The Gift of Testing

I've been influenced greatly by a blog post I've referenced multiple times in various conversations, and this post goes along with it. That post is, and I encourage you to read it as well!


The Gift of Testing


This is a realm I see a lot of, both as a parent and as a dog trainer. Testing is independent of species- it’s dependent on learning and confidence. Here’s the thing I’ve learned over my years of dealing with testers (both dogs and humans): testing is an amazing opportunity for communication. I’ve also learned that many people loathe testing- very few things can get a person so very upset as being tested. 


I love testing (although admittedly not all the time). So many options open up with the creature I’m working with says “No” or “Not right now” or tests me in some other way. While yes, it takes a measure of respect for the creature to obey you, it also takes a measure of trust for the creature to test you. A creature who tests you is confident enough to have a separate sense of what they want from what you want, and is able to trust you not to overreact.


When a tester tests me, they can be saying so many things. Sometimes it’s, “I trust you not to go ballistic on me”.  Sometimes it’s “I really need to get out my frustration/over excitation/anger/impatience/etc.” They might be experimenting to find out if what I said is actually how things are, or how far they can push the limits. They might be testing their own understanding of the situation. All of this is communication, and it’s all communication based on a sense of trust that you are not going to shut them down.


That doesn’t mean the answer isn’t still no. That doesn’t mean you let them get their way for fear of breaking their trust- that only erodes trust. No boundaries means nothing to push against and see it still standing. No boundaries means polite interactions are out the window. No boundaries means no need for trust. Why trust that you’ll still be sane when they mess up if they can’t mess up? It doesn’t make sense. And oh boy, if you’re testing me in a dangerous way, that No will be firm. As firm as it needs to be to get through to you, and no firmer. And then, when the danger is past, we continue, as gentle as I can be with you while keeping you and everyone else safe. I'd always rather have mind and body working with me, not just body. If you force compliance against the other's will, you don't get true obedience. 


So absolutely, when I am being tested, I will hold firm to the rules. I may make it easier if I see the tester is having a hard day, but the rules stay the same. For instance, if I’m working a dog and the dog is having a tough time but I tell the dog to Sit, the dog had better Sit. They can’t break the Sit without consequence just because they’re having a hard time. However, I will likely ask them to Sit for less long or at an easier difficulty, and challenge them when their mental state is more resilient to the challenge. If it’s my kids and they’re having a hard day, I’m not going to change my mind on a ruling unless they have a very good argument for why I need to change my mind. “I want it” is not a good argument. However, if we’re going through the grocery store, I may pick them out a snack (my kids are NUTS when they are hungry) or shorten the trip a little if possible to help them out. Just because they woke up on the wrong side of the bed doesn’t mean they get the cool new toy they see or every sweet thing imaginable. It doesn’t mean No still doesn’t equal No. But I’ll make things easier on them if I can while maintaining the rigor of the rules.


It’s admittedly easier when dealing with a dog testing me- they don’t talk back nearly as much. Plus, the dogs who test me are not my own, so they go home with their owners after a bit. But I love that testing phase dogs go through around 9 months to 18 months or so (depending on breed and training). It’s my favorite age range to train, because I’ll out-stubborn any dog I handle. Yes, it requires a ton of patience (especially if you happen to be living with the tester in question). Yes, it can be hard and sometimes you don’t want to do it. But if you maintain the rigor of the rules without overcorrecting, you end up with a fantastic, confident companion who majorly respects you. That’s someone you can depend on throughout their adult life. Yeah, they’ll test you occasionally as adults, and yes, you’ll have to refresh training occasionally, but it’s much less than the dog who gets to run amok when they begin testing, or the dog who is shut down so hard for testing that they never question again. My own dogs hardly ever test me anymore, because at 9 and 10 years old, they’ve lived long enough to know that Sit means Sit and No means No, and they trust me to both make sense and be predictable.


I don’t honestly know if the testing phase in kids ever ends, but I’m guessing not. Still, the philosophy seems to hold. I don’t want my kids to blindly obey me. I want them to think about things and act intelligently. Yes, it irks me when they decide the intelligent course of action is not the same as what I think, but then I have a choice: if it’s important, I get to impress on them WHY, and if it’s not, I get to let them flex their independence. After all, I don’t want them living here forever- they have to be themselves, not whoever anyone else wants them to be! Teenagers especially need to flex that independence, as I understand it, as they decide who they are as people. This means pushing back, questioning, and testing. And this phase is important!


Testing and questioning can lead to a fantastic conversation if you’re open to it. If you’re attentive to your dog, you’ll find some times when they are more likely to question you or test you than others. Reading body language can help you figure out why. You might learn that your dog prefers waiting for you on grass, or that sitting on gravel hurts them. This isn’t something you learn if you over-correct your dog, and it costs you very little. Yeah, sometimes your dog doesn’t get to exercise their preference, but if they can depend on you to take it into account, I find they are more likely to obey even when they are asked to do something they prefer not to do (assuming it’s safe and they understand what you’re asking). A dog who questions me and tests me and embarks on this conversation with me is a fantastic training partner and my favorite kind of dog to work with, because we get to learn so much about each other and the respect grows like a weed. 


When it’s a kid questioning or testing, the conversation is exponentially more vital and intriguing, because THEY CAN USE WORDS! All you need to do is listen and explain! And here’s the kicker- a kid who’s used to their thoughts and ideas being accepted and valued by the adult will still often obey in an emergency situation, because they trust and respect you enough to understand that if you are telling them something, it’s not likely just for kicks! That listening, that attention, that value you give to them, it only aids in the growth of a adamantium bond of trust and respect between you. 


Yes, it’s hard. Yes, you’ll fail sometimes. 


Yes, it’s worth it. 


So, the next time you find yourself or your authority being questioned, I urge you to put aside your pride and don your patience. The conversation has just begun!


Growls and Bites

This is part four of a four-part series on dog bites


Each age range of child has different specifics to watch out for, so as a parent or a dog owner you have to constantly be shifting your management strategies to match the child’s development. However, all age ranges can run into some common danger zones. These are areas where the dog may feel trapped, and as we know when the fight or flight instinct kicks in, if there is no option to flee there is only one option left- and it can lead to a bite. These areas include the tops of stairways, corners of rooms, doorways, ends of hallways, under the bed, and between the couch and the coffee or end table. 

Additionally, dog owners especially should be aware of the stresses the dog is under. The more stress you are under, the more likely you are to snap- and the same is true for a dog. Every dog has a so-called “growl threshold” which is the point at which the stress is high enough to elicit a growl. They also have a “bite threshold” which is the point at which the dog will bite. These thresholds are different for every dog and may be close together or far apart (although the growl threshold is generally hit first). If the dog is under a lot of stress, they are more likely to cross their threshold, either growl, or bite. 

For instance, let’s consider the theoretical dog “Buddy”. Buddy has been well-socialized, is well cared for, and is fully integrated into the family. He does not live with kids, but he does well with them. The presence of children doesn’t bother him unless they are running and shrieking, in which case it gives him a stress level of 15 (arbitrary number simply used to make my point). Buddy has a high prey drive, and seeing rabbits and squirrels he can’t get to frustrates him, giving him 20. On this particular day, Buddy was on a walk in the spring and was constantly trying to get at various critters. He had a stress level of 20, when he went past a yard where 4 unsupervised children were running around shrieking and enjoying a game of tag. That gives him a stress level of 35 total. Now, Buddy also hates water sprayed at him, so when the sprinkler in the yard showered him unexpectedly with water, his stress level spiked to 60. 

If Buddy’s growl threshold and bite threshold are both above 60, he will be able to handle this when a child races past within reach of his leash. If his growl threshold is 45 (for instance) but his bite threshold is 90, he will growl but not bite. But if his growl threshold is 45 and his bite threshold is 55, he will growl and bite.

Now, keep in mind that this situation is stripped down and the numbers are arbitrary. No one really knows what number any given dog’s growl or bite threshold is at- it’s only a way to quantify it that makes it easier to think about. What you can know is how likely your dog is to growl (how low the growl threshold is without using any numbers), how likely your dog is to bite, how close those two likelihoods are (how close the growl and bite thresholds are, which tells you how much of a warning the growl is for your dog), and what things stress your dog out (making him more likely to growl or bite). I know that my Lab’s growl threshold is fairly low compared to her bite threshold, which is quite high. My Rott’s growl threshold is fairly high, but his bite threshold is lower, and his growl and bite thresholds are fairly close together. And I know what stresses them out, so often times I can tell if one of them is having a bad day before any growling even happens. 

Growls are warnings and should be taken seriously as such. That said, given my two dogs’ growl and bite thresholds, I take Lenny’s growling a bit more seriously than Boo’s growling. However, if you ignore all the warning signs, you’re adding more stress (because the dog realizes his communication attempts are failing) and may end up with a bite on your hands. By looking at the various stressors your dog has to deal with, you can increase his tolerance to those stressors and thus make him less likely to hit those growl and bite thresholds (because the overall stress will be diminished). Generally dogs do not bite without first and repeatedly trying to warn, so don’t ignore these warnings. 

Be aware of danger signs and take them seriously too. If you see lots of stress or aggression signals from the dog when kids are around, you need to get help for your dog. If your dog continually and reliably tries to avoid children, you need to work to decrease his stress in those situations. Any warnings of aggression (growls, snarls, snaps, or posturing) should be taken as definite danger signs, and you should seek professional help to help your dog. Dogs who are possessive of any item or who have any aggression or fear issues should not be around kids until these issues are taken care of (because management for these dogs is often a nightmare, and the risks are significant if management fails). Any unrestrained predation on other animals, especially if the dog has killed cats or other dogs, is another huge danger sign in my book. Repeated “fence-running” or lunging toward strangers or passers by is another danger sign because if the fence or tie out fails, a bite is likely to occur. And any aggression from a child toward a dog is another danger sign, because kids are the other side of the coin in this matter. Kids and dogs go hand in hand- both can be aggressive toward each other, and both need to be taught how to act around the other. Any aggression toward the other, whether from a child or a dog, is not to be tolerated if you are to have a high chance of success building a positive relationship between the two. 


Why Management Prevents Bites

This is part three of a four-part series on dog bites.


Management is key to successfully creating this strong positive relationship. Most bites (and fatalities) can be avoided with simple management. When the dog is confined, he needs to be securely confined in a place where no child can pester him and he absolutely can not break out. When not confined, the dog needs to be watched by a capable, alert adult who is actively watching all interactions. Sleeping in the same room as the child and dog does not constitute supervision, nor does an adult who is under the influence of any drug. Passively watching the interactions doesn’t work either, because the dog is forced to defend himself if he decides that enough is enough. Without proper management, the dog can learn to behave poorly around children and likewise, the kids can learn bad habits around the dog. That means both dog and child can reinforce a progressively more NEGATIVE relationship, even inadvertently. Much of the time when I confine my dogs away from my children, I’m not doing it as much for the kids’ sake as for the dogs’. While I dearly love my children, I also know them, and while they are not malicious they are young enough to still have a tendency to make interactions negative ones for the dog. Plus, a tired or angry or frustrated toddler or preschool is no playmate for a dog!

I sort of think of these positive interactions as ‘immunizations’ against the inevitable negative interactions that you as a parent or dog owner aren’t able to stop in time. The stronger your immunity, the less likely you are to get sick. The stronger the positive relationship, the less likely a little mistake is to send the dog (or kid) out of whack and the less likely a bite will be triggered. But if you go into this whole thing thinking your dog will never bite no matter what, you are less likely to be proactive and successfully manage relationships- you are less likely to successfully ‘immunize’ your dog against a bad interaction.

For instance, while I take my own advice and work daily with my kids and dogs on creating good relationships, something I can’t act quickly enough. Sometimes my two-year old trips and falls headfirst into a dog. The other day, my four-year old clipped a leash to Boo and led her upstairs, where he held tight to the leash as she ran down the stairs (neither one of them decided that was a good game in hindsight). The event was scary for both of them (once the reality set in) because Boo didn’t expect to be dragging a kid suddenly, and my four-year old was understandably screaming and hollering, which always stresses the very-socially-aware Boo out. These things happen- four year olds get crazy ideas in their heads and have the ability to make many of their hairbrained notions reality. Additionally, many dogs don’t fully understand leashes (and Boo is no exception) and having something clattering behind you is scary. Being dragged down a flight of stairs (even when it was your idea in the first place) is scary, once you loose your footing and are clunking along like so much dead weight. And yet, because of their very strong positive relationship, this incident between my four year old son and Boo did not negatively impact their relationship to any visible degree. When my two-year old has a clumsy moment and trips on a dog or decides a dog is a good step-stool, the dogs can handle it and they don’t get stressed out by the mistake, because they have a strong positive relationship with the little one.

One way to easily get lots of successful positive interactions in between your own kids and your own dogs (for those dog owners who are also parents) is to teach kids from a young age how to train dogs using treats (after the dog learns to take treats politely). It helps the child learn to follow directions, they get to teach something to another creature, they learn about delivering consequences, and learn about consequences from actions that way too. Also, kids tend to love power, and this gives them a healthy outlet for having power and ‘making’ another creature do something. I find that some training time between the dog and a toddler quickly tends to cut down on the toddler doing things like stepping on the dog’s paw to make him move (along with teaching the kid how to behave around dogs and managing the environment). The child also learns timing and practices coordination, and the dog learns the child is worth listening to. Of course, you have the child begin by only working on training with commands that the dog already knows, and a parent needs to be right there initially to enforce commands the dog ignores and coach the kid on the steps to follow. I like to begin kids as young as two (depending on the kid) in training the family dog. They can work on obedience skills with the dog, and older children can teach and review tricks. As the child gets older, they can participate with the dog in fun games and even dog sports. All of these activities can be very effective in creating and reinforcing a strong positive relationship between the child and the dog. 


Dogs, Bites, and Children

This is part two of a four-part series on dog bites.


As a professional in the animal world, I hear it all the time. "Oh, Fluffy would never bite anyone. She wouldn't hurt a flea!" "Rover loves my kids so much, he lets them climb all over him and jump on him." There are too many variants to get into, but animal professionals all over are probably nodding as they read this. The problem with these statements isn't that they are wrong, but that they are so widely believed that they get the dogs in question in trouble. "Why would a dog bite a child?" people wonder. After all, they are so innocent and sweet. 

Well let's explore that question. Why would a dog bite a child? The possible reasons are numerous. Dogs could be afraid of children, especially if they’ve never been around kids or have had bad experiences around kids. Secondly, dogs need to be taught the appropriate ways to act around children. Also, children, for all that we love them, can be incredibly annoying to dogs. And dogs far too often are not protected from children, and when they take matters into their own hands (teeth), we react with shock and betrayal. 

First off, let’s look further at the fear factor. Dogs who have not been exposed to children in puppyhood with happy fun experiences may become afraid of kids. That’s because when they are puppies, their brains are open to new circumstances, new situations, and new species interactions. After that window closes, it seems that unfamiliar things often get categorized immediately as “unsafe” (this is an oversimplification, and it also depends on how much socialization overall the dog has had and the overall temperament of the dog). So when a dog sees a child for the first time, he has no idea that a child is a young human- they only see something that moves, acts, talks, and looks unfamiliar, and therefore that strange creature may be unsafe. This is why sometimes a dog reacts to seeing a child for the first time with obvious fear and anxiety, and other times reacts as if they are fighting for their very life, complete with barks, snarls, growls, and snaps. Both behaviors are motivated by the same feeling- fear. And it’s not enough to simply expose your puppy to children. You need to make sure the experience is pleasant, because if the puppy gets scared or stressed out, they can still categorize kids as “unsafe” even if the reason for the fear had nothing to do with the kids but was an unfortunate coincidence. 

Other times, the puppy has great experiences with kids but is not taught how to act around children. This can still lead to a bite later in life. For instance, a herding breed likely will try to herd children around, possibly by nipping, if not taught to behave otherwise and well supervised. A dog who loves to roughhouse isn’t going to instinctively know that children are fragile and their skin can break easily. They also don’t know that a playful bite that accidentally breaks skin is still classified as a bite. A dog with a high prey drive may stop thinking when faced with a group of rowdy children who are running and shrieking like maniacs- and if he forgets himself and bites a child, that child might squeal like prey and add fuel to the fire. There is a known phenomenon called “predatory drift” in which a dog starts off playing (usually with another dog) but then gets over-aroused and triggered such that the play takes a predatory turn. Lots of self control and learning to calm down after excitement can help keep everyone safe while playing, while encouraging wild out-of-control play can actually increase the chances of a bite. Dogs need to be taught to play calm, gentle games with children and never to roughhouse with them. They need to be exposed to a wide variety of children to practice good manner and gentle behavior, and they need help to build up the self control NOT to join in a good game of tag (dogs may tag with their teeth, depending on the dog). They need to learn and practice different play skills and self control during play and learn that playing with children is different than playing with other dogs. 

Then there is the well-mannered, well-socialized, fully integrated into the family, well-cared-for, well-trained and obedient dog largely considered “safe”. What would make him bite a child? Well, how would you feel if you had to put up with someone else’s youngsters crawling all over you, giving you no break, and pulling on various parts of your body? Kids can be so obnoxious around dogs, and it is our responsibility- parents and dog owners both- to teach them how to behave around dogs. We also need to focus on creating as many positive experiences as we can between dogs and the kids they interact with, because you are far more likely to tolerate annoyances from someone with whom you have a strong positive relationship, and the same is true for dogs. Even when they are free of malice, kids ignore personal bubbles (which is a huge no-no in the dog world), climb on dogs, pinch them, pull their hair, step on them, trip over them, jump on them, ride them, pull ears and tails, squeal in their ears, lay on them, accidentally hurt them, and stick their fingers in their eyes, noses, ears, etc. All of these things add up and create many tiny bad experiences for the dog, thus creating a progressively worse relationship between the dog and the child. There was a case I remember clearly several years ago of a boy around 7 years old or so who was bitten by their well-mannered dog. Just prior to the bite, he had spent many minutes repeatedly sticking a pencil into the poor dog’s rear. Finally, the dog had had enough and told the child exactly what he thought of that game- and ended up with a bite record. 

That brings me to my last reason why dogs bite. They are too often poorly supervised, especially if they are considered “safe”. We need to pay attention to what is going on between the child and the dog if we are to create a positive relationship such that when accidents inevitably happen the dog doesn’t decide that’s the last straw. Teach kids to respect the dog and the dog’s space (personal space, crate, and bed). Teach kids to treat dogs gently (and not to pull hair, ears, and tails or stick fingers in eyes, ears, noses, etc). Pay attention to warning signs when they appear- looking at your kid or your dog with rose colored glasses only makes a bite more likely to happen. Learning basic body language helps you communicate with your dog so you know when they are okay with what is going on and when they are feeling stressed or afraid or angry. Teaching kids these skills so they can read dogs they interact with accurately can also help keep the kids safe. There’s good reason why professionals urge parents never to leave a kid and dog together unattended. But just being there is not enough- you need to be alert and proactive. Don’t wait for a child to power-slam a dog before intervening- act before the child gets away with it. That way when you inevitably miss something (and we’re human, so you will miss something) your dog has trust and a strong positive relationship to draw upon and so will more than likely tolerate the mistake.