Saturday, September 28, 2013

A little knowledge is dangerous.

My sincerest apologies to my readers for not updating this blog for a while but I've finally decided to discuss a topic that is a particular favourite of mine.

In our local community I am sure we've all encountered, on at least one occasion, the local dog 'expert' or 'dog man'. People that have owned several dogs in their lives that by either their genuine knowledge of dogs or sheer dumb luck have been able to train them to a higher ability either walking off the lead round the streets or performing various tricks in the local park for the amusement of local dog walkers. They often have stories to tell regarding experiences they've had with their dogs or recall various incredible things they have trained their present & past dogs to perform. They are all so willing to give advice based on their own personal experiences which, on face value, can come across as useful or even helpful.

 It does beg the question of, does the method and behaviour they're describing really apply to you and your dog?

I will share a story that made me question this type of person. I was walking my GSD bitch down towards the playing field when she was roughly about 4-5 months of age and an elderly man that's stopped and spoken to me several times before, sharing stories of when he was in the police force and they all had GSD's that were so well trained and always greeting my dog and giving her a biscuit while his remarkably trained Border Collie sat patiently off his lead and waited for his que to carry on up the road.

This particular time my young, excitable puppy began scrabbling on her lead to see this man wanting her usual fuss and biscuit and he went through his usual ritual with her and then he said "I can help you with that pulling business, give us her here and I promise you she will be walking like my dog." Being excited at the prospect of having a perfectly trained dog I quickly handed her over to him and he walked away with her and called her to heel which she did quite well but when he turned to come back towards me she began to scrabble again and with that he took his walking stick and cracked her on the back hard enough for her to yelp and leap out of her skin.

With that I rushed to take my dog and exchanged a few choice words and left, I never saw him again but while the experience was an unfortunate one. It was the most vital learning I had in choosing a trainer and becoming one.

There are so many people that I see now everyday that talk to me in the local park or on the internet that come from that exact same background as this man with the Border Collie, a local expert with a little knowledge that he rigidly applied to every dog because it has 'always worked for him'. Unfortunately, people are all too easily lured into believing them and 9 times out of 10 does more harm than good to their dog.

The same can be said for those who spend lots of money (and time) completing a University course in dog training & behaviour. Most of these courses provide very little practical experience and are more theory based modules looking at the motives behind certain perspectives, ideas and movements while teaching you the scientific terminology needed to use in assignments that they would probably never have to use with real clients.

I genuinely think the theory behind having qualifications is sound but its the practicalities of them that are somewhat flawed in the most dangerous ways possible. Leaving some of these qualified students blinkered to other ideas and concepts because they are taught that 'there way is the only way'.

This field of animal management is/should be practically based, there is no getting away from that. I have seen so many people who are qualified up their eyeballs with letters after their names and spending £100's or £1000's of their own hard-earned money in gaining a qualification that, I strongly, feel are not set up properly for the real, sometimes very unpredictable world of working with dogs especially those who are aggressive.

The best thing I can advise to anyone looking to train their dog is find 3-4 local classes and, before you even think about paying money to start training with, go watch  the classes at varying levels and talk to the trainer(s) there. Please notify the trainer you're interested beforehand and ask if its OK to come and observe and ask questions. If trainers make up an excuse as to why they do not want you to come & watch then they are probably hiding something they do not want outsiders to see.

Buyers beware springs to mind!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Rescue Dog

Apologies for not posting yesterday readers, I'm making up for it with one that will apply to a great number of you all.

Anyone who has bought a dog from a rescue centre or from a poor quality home will know how rewarding it feels to give an animal a second chance at life, but, unfortunately 'baggage' comes with the territory in this situation. Some of these dogs have come from lives where they have been subject to physically and emotionally traumatic experiences that leave some, if not most of these dogs, scarred for life. It is our job as their new owner and pack leader to be able to give them the best start possible in their new home with us, so here is a rough check-list I have devised for you to get the first 3-4 weeks (the crucial weeks) of your new life together right and to make the transition as smooth as possible.

  1. Before you enter the new home with your dog take him on a nice long walk on the lead, this helps kick off the bonding process between you and the dog. Go somewhere quiet that you enjoy like a woodland or quiet country lanes somewhere and just take a nice long stroll to ensure your new pet is calm before he enters the house. 
  2. When you get to your home make sure you start off on the right foot, you enter the home before the dog does. This is all part of the integration into your pack. 
  3. Give him time to investigate, this is a huge transition for him and just give him time to adjust and settle, the long walk will help him relax. 
  4. Have a crate set up in a quiet room with his bed inside with some toys in it, the crate is only perceived as negative if you make it a negative experience for the dog. 
  5. When it comes to feeding time put it in his crate, the association of crate & food enforces the positive perception of the crate we want him to have. Shut the door of the crate while he's eating and leave him in peace. 
  6. Give him 10-15 minutes and whatever is left becomes his next meal, no extra added!
  7. Engage in a game with him of tug (but you must 'win' the toy!) or fetch in the garden with a toy. 
  8. Have some quiet time sitting on the floor fussing him while he is laid down, he does not sit on the sofa until you have taught him your rules & boundaries. 
  9. Always have him in a different room or in his crate while you are eating and have a 'no access' room where he isn't allowed. 
  10. Take him out for another on lead walk in the late evening just around the block to let him toilet and explore a little more. 
  11. He is not allowed upstairs or on the bed. 
  12. Always put him in his crate 10-15 mins before you are due to go to bed, giving him time to adjust and settle down for the night.
  13. Start a training class ASAP for controlled socialisation and basic obedience training, most of these dogs unfortunately do not come with any training so the sooner you iron out a few of the minor creases the better. 
  14. Do not let him off the lead until you have got a solid recall. 
I hope this helps. In my time as a trainer I have dealt with many rescue dogs from various backgrounds all suffering with various behavioural issues and this process from 1 - 14 I have implemented with all of them and they have become, in their own time, happy and well adjusted members of society enjoying their new lease on life.

Please bare in mind this general check-list can be used with those buying older dogs from a breeder of a good quality home who do not have the time to dedicate to their dog anymore. 

Till next time... 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Children & Dogs: the do's and don'ts

Any of us who remember the dogs we had as young children will also remember what a special time in our lives it was with many fond memories of our childhood companion, but, those who watch the news often enough will read of stories where, unlike ours, these heartfelt stories of a child and their dog didn't go to plan. Dog attacks on children are becoming more and more common as time goes on.

Whether the media's lust for making a meal out of these stories has increased over the years or parents are just becoming far too lenient with how they allow their children, especially toddlers, treat their family pets, I guess it'll be one question we will never get to the bottom of. It is down to the owners parents to educate our children correctly and put in safe measures to ensure we reduce the risk of injury when interacting SAFELY!

A study was carried out by an American Child Psychologist a few years ago now to find out why dog bites and children were clashing more and more. He found that most parents in an attempt to, rightly or wrongly, reduce the fear of their children feel around dogs would tell their child that when a dog bared his teeth that he was 'smiling' at them. A perfectly innocent way of educating a young child at first glance, but, in fact this is setting your child up to be bitten as they will not take the 'smile' for what it truly is, a final warning.

I have always said children should NEVER be left unsupervised with a dog no matter how much of a patient and affectionate temperament he has. For a baby born into the home that already owns an adult dog who is maybe not used to children I always instruct them to:

  1. Not to disturb the dog while he is sleeping or eating, a surprised dog can potentially be a dangerous dog. 
  2. Not to pull on his tail, ears, lips or try to sit on his back. If he isn't used to rough handling he is even less likely to accept it from a child. 
  3. Teach the child that because he cannot speak to tell you he's had enough that he instead has to show his teeth and that is their que to leave him in peace. 
Some dogs, especially bitches, have a strong maternal or paternal instinct so will probably sense that it is a baby and nurture them and be a lot of patient with them, if so then allow a certain degree of the above listed but always be mindful, accidents do happen.

For a family who is introducing a puppy to a family this is slightly different because you can get him used to all of the above things mentioned, but like an adult dog there is a few don'ts to abide by when having a puppy.

  1. Don't disturb him while he sleeps, puppies need a lot of sleep when they are young just like children do. 
  2. Don't allow children to walk or train the puppy until he has learnt some manners.
  3. Don't feed the children in the same room as the puppy, children are clumsy and will drop food occasionally or if at a suitable level the puppy will attempt to steal it off their plate. 
  4. Children can rough play with the puppy by all means but be mindful that puppies have needle teeth and claws so keep an eye out for torn clothes and the odd scratch or nip. 
  5. If the puppy tries to steal a child's toy, redirect it with one of his own toys.
Let them enjoy each other's company and their commonalities: they are young and see the world as fun but just know when its time to call it quits when things get a little too excitable. 

Hope this helps!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Chasing and its consequences.

Having recently covered work ethic and what qualities are linked to it, one which seems to crop up in a lot of dog breeds with a higher working ability is the 'chase drive'. This is a completely raw and natural instinct which our domesticated pets have inherited from wolves but rather than to chase and kill we, as humans, over the years have moulded and harnessed this very primaeval urge to assist with various jobs such as: Gundogs, Hunting Hounds, Ratting Terriers, Sheepdogs and Protection Dogs.

As years have gone by and both the human and domesticated dog numbers have increased dramatically and with the introduction and improvement of modern technology, we soon found that these fur covered work assistants became a less and less popular choice to help serve their original purpose. So rather than these breeds going extinct, we bred them with the intention of selling to a large pet market. Most of these dogs are still 'working dogs' (bred to work) but rather than fulfilling their genetic purpose as a retriever, herder, hunter, ratter or guard dog they are living the lives of quite frankly, run of the mill house pets. While they may not be out on the marshes, down rat holes, sitting outside of wealthy estates or hot on the scent of their quarry they all still possess the natural instincts and urges to do that job and to chase is one of those main components and, in my opinion, can either be harnessed or extinguished. Which one you decide is down to how prepared you are to accept that one day there MAY be an 'accident'.

I was recently reading a post on a social networking site asking for help with their young dog who started chasing joggers with the intention of possibly herding them. While we can argue it is only natural for dogs to do this, even I will agree that it is BUT in a modern day society where dog 'attacks' are becoming more and more easier to prosecute for, this clearly isn't acceptable.

The amount of dog trainers and behaviourists we have now leaves no room for excuse regarding letting this behaviour get out of control and arguing it is a natural behaviour to a jury of, quite possibly, non dog lovers will give you, as an owner, no leg to stand on and will result in your dog being ordered to be put to sleep. A sad but very very real truth I am afraid. We cannot give these people any room to, rightly or wrongly, condemn our dogs to death.

Most people would say ignore the dog when he does go to chase and then praise him for when he comes back, technically speaking, this idea is flawed because the whole idea of chasing is a 'self satisfying' behaviour, he is getting a rush or kick out of doing so and no reward you give when he eventually returns from satisfying a natural instinct will make him want to get back to you any quicker or not even bother chasing anymore. The thrill is just too much fun and too great for the dog to resist without some sort of a negative consequence.

Getting back to the behaviour in question, chasing, 9 out of 10 cases 'zone out' and become heavily fixated on a stimulus to chase whether it be a toy, motor vehicles, pedal/motorbike, jogger, another dog, children, pushchair, prey animals big, small, fur or feathered alike. Showing rather striking body language such as fixated stare, dilated pupils, lowered head, total body lock up in a lowered or stalking position and breathing is usually slowed down as well before they lunge. Most attempts at recalling your dog are futile, the natural chase response overrides all rational thoughts the dog has until he has fulfilled his mission to chase and possibly take down his target.

The key, from the experience I have had with dogs that chase, is to break the focus before the dog reaches the point of engagement. In other words snap him out of it before he goes off to chase. Break the focus on the stimulus and re-direct it back onto yourself using whatever motivates or breaks the focus easily.

I personally have found spray (air or citronella) and vibrating collars (I have never found a reason to use electric on a dog because both of the previously mentioned collars work just as well.) to be the most effective tool if used correctly, in my mind, collars like this are focus breakers more than corrective tools. Due to their very nifty remote control system they are very easy to work even at long distances. The biggest error to avoid is the dog becoming 'collar conditioned' where the dog only behaves when he is wearing the collar. Most people make the error of sticking a collar on a dog just before they go out on a walk (a vibrating one for example) and adjusting the level of stimulation (ie- vibration) to the highest possible level and pressing away without actually teaching the dog where the stimulation (vibration) comes from and that it is a negative consequence to, what we perceive, as a negative action. This creates another problem rather than re-educating and resolving the original one, again discipline becomes destructive not constructive because dog does not grasp what the negative consequence is for.

I have found teaching the command 'leave' is the easiest way of educating the dog to control his urge to chase. Start really simple with his favourite food or toy in your hand (lets use the example of food for arguments sake) and place a handful in your palm and hold it out flat in front of the dog (before this one should of placed the collar very snug and high up the dogs neck 15-20 mins before you start this exercise and taken off 20-30 mins after you've finished the exercise) and every time he attempts to stick his nose onto the end of your fingers to get the food, snatch it shut quickly and firmly say 'leave' and when he backs away open the palm up again... do this 2-3 times before you introduce one stimulation for him attempt to take treats out of your hand (either a spray or low level vibration).

At this time it is OK for the dog to look bewildered, confused or even bark because the stimulation he is feeling he cannot relate to anything he would encounter on a day to day basis. Repeat this exercise again and keep the stimulation at the same level and as soon as you say 'leave' and he backs away give him the treats that are in your hand with lots of praise and repeat sometimes with or without the collar on. In theory, he should now have been taught the 'leave' command in a way that he has a refined understanding of the command, what happens when he follows through with the command and what happens if he doesn't follow through with the command.

We then move the level of temptation up by introducing to the dog, what he perceives, as a higher value target such as: a dog he knows and would usually chase, again keep the stimulation at the same level. Start with him on the lead sitting next to you and get the other dog to run around in front of him and ask him to 'leave', if he exhibits any of the body language I had mentioned earlier than you give him a small amount of stimulation and once his focus breaks take him away from the target and praise him with whatever motivates him the most whether it be food, toy or verbal/physical feedback. Repeat until you can say 'leave' and he will make no attempt to engage in a chase. Again, sometimes back up with stimulation and sometimes give him the opportunity to make the right decision based on what he has previously been educated to do, not using the stimulation constantly as well does also eliminate the possibility of a collar conditioned dog.

Gradually move the level of level up to targets which give a stronger reaction and require more attention from your dog, if the stimulation has to be increased then only do so marginally, again, just enough to break his focus.

I would strongly advise that all of the levels you are going to try and push to dog to work in is done in a replicated and sterile environment first where error is perfectly acceptable and inevitable at first.

Just remember in the back of your minds what consequences can come of having a dog who chases in our modern day society.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Work Ethic?

For those of you who are avid fans of working dogs whether it be: Obedience, Working Trials, Schutzhund or Field Trials. I, like all of you, have learnt over time to spot and appreciate a dogs work ethic (or lack of it as the case may unfortunately be). But has one ever sat down and thought, quite simply.

What is work ethic? That 'little something extra' that we cannot describe but we know that its what makes the difference between a dog trained to work and a 'working dog'.

This division is not purely down to our ability to admire a dogs work ethic, in fact, it runs much deeper than that. A 'working dog' is a dog that has descended from generations of dogs that were also admired for their strong work ethic and were bred from because of this particular quality. In contrast to the show dog which is bred, most of the time, for its top quality construction. The working dog is bred for its top quality work ethic.

So, going back to the original question. What is work ethic? Is it just one thing that makes up the entirety of a dogs working ability or is it a string of components that when combined correctly produce that illusive working quality. Allow me to make a list of various qualities that are generally seen in dogs we perceive as having a good work ethic that apply to different breeds and sports across the board:

  • Speed
  • Bravery
  • Enquisitivenss 
  • Detirmination
  • Intelligence
  • A refined sense of independence
  • A 'level head'
  • Motivated by food reward
  • Motivated by toy reward
  • Motivated by verbal/physical praise
  • Biddability 
  • Sensitivity to their handler
  • Strong natural ability to tug, chase, retrieve and protect
  • The ability to handle pressure & discipline if given deservedly
Regardless of what sport you are involved with or which breed you work, can you say there is one of those qualities you notice outright and is consistently produced or is it a well balanced mixture of many, if not all of, the qualities listed? 

A good working dog must have a good natural work ethic to be a promising candidate to train but it is also down to the handler and how he encourages and nurtures this ethic for it to grow and blossom into our idea of the perfect working dog. Issuing poorly timed, unjustified and too much discipline will cause this ethic to self destruct rather than be constructed into something useful. 

Does this mean that a  good work ethic relies equally on both a sound genetic base as well as a nurturing handler?

Food for thought eh?

Until next time... 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Discipline vs Abuse: where does one begin and the other end?

In the modern world of dog training, discipline is something that comes under severe scrutiny in a society which sees positive reinforcement and non-punishment based training methods as the only way forward.

Pre-1980's dog training saw a time where today's values and ideas of dog training were very much in the minority and discipline, like with children and adults, was seen as a vital aspect of the dog's learning process whether it be a sharp tug on a check chain, a rolled up newspaper on the rear or a raised, yet, firm voice. It believed in teaching the dog what was right with purely verbal praise and maybe the odd treat and then showing them there was quite disagreeable consequences to, what we perceive as, negative actions. The degree of consequence relied heavily on the severity of the action exhibited and how quickly the handler wanted to extinguish the possibility of this action being exhibited again.

The police dog trainers & handlers of old relied heavily on 'the crack', a simple clout across the head with the lead handle or your hand to either shock the dog out of its bad behaviour or give quick yet firm 'discipline' for a fickle attempt to refuse to complete an exercise or follow instruction. Much the same as the cane with school children.

The fine line between intentional and suitable discipline and abuse has been argued for years. Most modern day dog trainers would argue that discipline is an out-dated method of educating an animal as complexed and intelligent as a dog and would much rather purely reinforce the positive actions a dog exhibits to slowly decrease the possibility of error, ultimately labelling any type of method that causes negative feeling in your dog as abuse. This requires time and correct judgement on your part regarding reward value and placement to be able to use this method to its most effective. I have seen several cases where this has worked well but can be time consuming not to mention costly depending on which reward motivates your dog the most. (I wonder how many of you would consider using multiple slices of fillet steak to reward a dog on a regular basis for good behaviour?)

If I was to give my perspective on this debate I would say discipline becomes abuse when the handlers intentions become purely based on our own self empowerment rather than intending to educate our dog. Discipline is carried out with the intention of being constructive and educational, guiding our dogs to follow the behaviour we want and preventing them from finding alternative routes or behaviours we see as undesirable. Intending to teach our dogs that negative actions are quickly followed with a negative reaction, again, the severity of the reaction given is purely based on the severity of the action exhibited. Also by how quickly the handler wants to extinguish the behaviour and avoid escalation. It can also be argued that discipline also becomes abuse when it is issued out when one begins teaching a new behaviour. Meaning that the dog is being punished for something he does not yet understand rather than teaching him what rewards he will definitely get when the exercise is carried out correctly first then slowly incorporating discipline once the dog understands the behaviour but rather than comply attempts to experiment because he has generalised the idea of an action with getting a reward. It is then that we can apply a suitable amount of discipline to educate them.

When discipline is issued it should just enough to make the dog exhibit a somewhat submissive attitude which, in turn, makes him easier to teach as he has directed his focus onto you and wanting to try hard to get it right in a greater attempt to follow the route you are guiding him onto to exhibit the correct behaviour.

Any alternative views on this discussion are, as always, encouraged.

Happy reading!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Puppy Perfection (after)

Apologies for the late posting but, as promised, after covering what to do BEFORE you buy your 'perfect puppy' we shall now discuss what to do AFTER you buy your perfect puppy. Please accept there may be a few things that I may of missed out accidentally but I hope to of covered everything for you all:

  1. When you bring your puppy home, especially after a long and rather tiresome car journey, let him rest in your established 'den' whether it be a crate, puppy pen or kennel. Leave some toys and maybe a handful of kibble or meaty treats in his bed with him to make the experience all the more positive when he wakes up.It is inevitable that he may begin to 'demand' to be let out once he wakes up but DO NOT bow down to his wishes. Let him learn to occupy himself. Treat it like his own 'den' not as solitary confinement.
  2. Once YOU are ready to let him out from his crate... let him explore, do not forget he has gone through a huge transition from the comfort of his own maternal pack to a new emotional/surrogate pack for which he has no real commonalities with at all. Humans & dogs are very different in respects to their physical and emotional/mental state of being. 
  3. Engage in a game with him of either fetch or tug. Do not listen to the misconceptions of tug creating aggressive/dominant tendancies as long as he is taught 'leave it' efficiently (Something I am sure to cover in a later posting, if my poor memory serves its purpose!) then you will not have any of these issues. By awarding him the tug article and making him release when you ask to, you are creating a relationship based on mutual respect of eachothers needs and boundaries. Possession is 9/10th's of the law in the canine world so make sure you crack this one early! 
  4. Do not let him follow you EVERYWHERE around the house, have a room(s) that he is forbidden to go into unless INVITED by you. This will enforce the idea of boundaries/limitations. Get him used to being left on his own from an early stage even with you in the home to prevent separation anxiety developing. Leave him in his crate, pen or kennel for 10-30 mins at random intervals throughout the day. Again, if one demands attention, you ignore it... he will learn to occupy himself soon enough but please be patient it is tedious I know. 
  5. 10-20 mins after he has a big drink or meal take him outside and once he relieves himself you give a command & praise such as 'toilet, potty, go pee, wee wee, go leak' and the same after his meals. Give him every opportunity to succeed at messing in the garden and lessen his chances dramatically of failing. He may have the odd accident, this is forgiveable. DO NOT RUB HIS NOSE IT, this is out-dated and teaches them nothing. He will soon learn to hold it in and give his own unique signal to wanting to go to the toilet. Excuse messing in the crate during the night, he will soon learn to avoid it due to his clean nature. 
  6. If he steals a sock, kitchen cloth, childs toy, shoe/slipper etc avoid scolding at all costs encourage him to bring it back to you or replace it with  one of his own toys. He will soon learn through swapping he gets a more desirable reward. 
  7. Do not work your life around the puppy. The whole idea of having a dog is through a time in your life where it is convenient to do so and slots in suitably to your life. He will soon learn your routine very quickly. 
  8. When guests come round please instruct them to not 'touch, talk or make eye contact' with the puppy till he has calmed, naturally he will be rather excited at the prospects of new guests visting. This tells the puppy that guests do not mean instant attention, they are like my leaders who will give me attention when they see fit, once he is calm call him over and engage in a game with him with plenty of praise to make it easy to distinguish giving attention to settling down. If your puppy happens to be in his crate/pen/kennel when guests come round and he barks ignore him till he is quiet and then let him out to investigate and then the same 'no touch, talk & eye contact' rule still applies. 
  9. It would be in your best interests regarding socialization that you take the puppy out in the car with you a few times, gently break him in regarding how long the journey is. Start with a quick trip round the block a few times, always crated in the boot if possible. Carry him into a few shops when running errands and let people fuss him. (It is advised that one does this preferably after their first vaccination.)
  10. Get him used to loud noises, drop a few pans, books, turn the tv up loud suddenly. As many loud and surprising noises as possible. Most puppies from responsible breeders will already be semi-prepared for this sort of thing. 
  11. Teach him his name. Make it extremely positive when he comes to you and always say his name when he does so with either food/toy reward and lots of fuss. 
  12. Do not let puppies climb stairs, most can climb up very easily but climbing back down proves to be more testing. To avoid a tumble and potential injury please put a baby gate up at the base. 
  13. When feeding I would strongly suggest sitting in the kitchen on a stool or on the floor with the food bowl in your hands and constantly stroke the puppy while he is eating and put your hand in his bowl, this will prevent any future problems regarding food possession.
  14. Get him used to wearing a collar & lead ASAP, buy a very cheap puppy collar and lead from a pet stop and let him wear it around the house. Having a foreign object round his neck will cause slight confusion and discomfort but he will soon get used to it. 
  15. When it comes to bedtime put him in his crate/pen or kennel 20 mins before you're due to go to bed giving him time to settle down for the night after letting him outside for his final toileting till the next morning. Give him a few treats and a toy or 2 in his 'den' to make him a little more comfortable and put the radio on low volume, turn the light off and leave him to it. 
I hope this is most of what needs to be covered to provide you with an essential guide. I will look forward to hearing any of your suggestions for my next post if I do not come up with one beforehand. 

Bye for now!