RUFF TRANSLATING RUFF RANTS
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One of the positions that I've held in professional pet care is as a dog walker. It's one of my favorite all time jobs and every once and awhile I still get to dust off my sneakers and see some pups about a fire hydrant. While my own pack and our boarders go on walks with regularity, I don't work as a dog walker any more, and it really is a wonderful day when I get the chance. I'm almost always accompanied by at least 2 of my own dogs, and sometimes all 3 if the schedule is light enough. That's right, I voluntarily and enthusiastically walk at least 2 extra dogs at any given time.
Now part of this, is practical. You can't have 2 herding dogs and not figure out ways to tire them out, and there is never an exception day. Both of the pups are young, and even with daily farm chores they need substantial exercise. We can walk for 6-8 miles together and still come home and have a rowdy hour field run. The other reason that I bring my little tag-along buddies is that it the communication during a structure leash walk is an excellent foundation and relationship building exercise. The point of leashing your dog is often framed as restraining it from danger or trouble, or abiding the law. But I think that leash work is attaching yourself to a hotline that runs right to your dog. You dog senses a lot by reading your body language and position, and using a leash to emphasize the right kinds of emotions and leadership can do wonders for your training journey.
The first thing in shifting your relationship to leash walks is to take a look at your leash set-up. Are you using a harness? A flexileash? A flat collar? In my opinion there is little better than a slip lead for leash walks. There are exceptions, and like all tools- used incorrectly it is ineffective and even harmful. But when you are properly trained to use one (which is not via reading a blog), it is invaluable. Whether I am walking one dog, or 10, everyone is ideally on a slip lead. If nothing else, scrap your harness. Certain front-clip harnesses can be useful to limit pulling- but the set up itself is about overpowering your dog, rather than teaching it. A dog on a front-clip harness will most likely always need to be walked on a front clip harness, it's not teaching leash manners or an automatic heel. If you are using a back clip harness, or a flexileash (the kind that are retractable) toss them in the trash. I mean it, they are useless. These tools teach dogs to pull (we give them more room when the put pressure), are unreliable, and unsafe. I'm trying to avoid a tirade here, and many other trainers have discussed just how useless these tools are. The only time for a back clip harness is if you are teaching your dog to pull- like a sled, or they have a collapsed trachea- both are uncommon so the majority of dogs do not benefit from this. Collars should be placed very high on the neck, snug but not overly tight. The same position is used for slip leads. This position allows for very little pressure to be used to asked the dog to move, versus a low hanging collar where you end up in a tug-of-war with your dog because they can generate so much strength from that position.
The next thing in considering your leash is looking at your tension. Do you have a death grip? Is the leash so tight that you could hang clothes on it? The more tension running on that leash, the more pressure you can watch build in your dog's body language. Usually you can see the tension in a too tight leash running down a dogs back, and it may be accompanied by a lunge, stiff ears and a tail so high, it almost curves inward towards the dogs back. Take a deep breath, and get that tension off. This is where a good trainer comes in, most often. Keeping a loose leash is a delicate dance of knowing when to apply gentle and clear tension in short bursts (like shoulder tap to a friend but using a leash), regaining a dog's focus on you using eye contact, and using your own confident body language to communicate that we are traveling together.
A leash walk should be your foundation to a larger relationship conversation between you and your pet. Anxious, over excited, and well practiced pups ALL benefit from leadership that focuses on the journey and communication between handler and dog. Eye contact, basic commands,and keeping pace are all wonderful things to practice in the context of a leash walk. The feeling of peace when a pack steps in line with you is incomparable, even if it's just a pack of one person and one dog! I also avoid using a "heel" command. The expectation is that the dog is loosely at my side, and we reinforce that position, while discouraging and redirecting tension up ahead. If I'm in a leash scenario where I need any of my pups to move in front of me (a nursing home visit is a great example!), I have a command for that. In this way, I'm framing the conversation that the expectation is you stay close, loose, and at my side, and it's on command to be ahead, behind, or off further away from me. This is very different then having to ask for a loose leash! The clarity in this framework allows for many more dogs to be successful at leash walking in a way that really makes you want to walk, rather than an unpleasant chore. Recently we were visiting the nursing home when an actual full band of bagpipes came blaring into the facility, and both of the dogs we had with us remained totally calm, and quiet, which is a testament to their trust in our shared leash relationship.
Leash training doesn't happen overnight. While dogs have incredible emotional genius- they can read our mood often better than we can- the physical world is a bit more challenging. We have to think about what the dog is experiencing, when they pull or lunge on a leash. They do not necessarily grasp that the string we are holding is applying unpleasant force to our hands when they rail against it. It's more like- "YAY! squirrel!! I'm going!!"- The trick is to work within that framework. We have to send clear signals that we are going to provide a really fun, safe, exciting experience- but we as the leash-holder are going to be the ones who decide where we move, and how. So we have to work together to get the dog to rewire a bit, and think something more like "YAY! Pigeon! We're going past it! This human says we just get to walk by! I'll get to sniff all the things at a stop!". Now, I'm not a dog mind reader- but this is the closest I can explain to what I've seen over years of observation and training. But I think it's really helpful to remember that your dog doesn't actually intentionally want to drag you through the mud- they are just reacting on impulse. And our job is to help them form more impulse control, check in with us, and then we can go together to do all the fun things. When you think about it this way- of course good leash works provides SO many benefits! Teaching impulse control means that your pet can also be less likely to get into your stuff, steal your socks, meet dogs with patience, etc etc. Spend the 6 months working really, really hard to get the leash manners you want- and watch years of benefits unfold. And ask for help. There is no shame in not knowing how to teach a dog to leash walk by yourself!
I spend the majority of my time with dogs, not people. My days are a systematic arrangement of total chaos. I'm up early, getting boarders outside for potty break, then I scrub floors, change bedding, prepare meals, poop scoop etc. Then we start our exercise routines, or load up the car for dog chauffeuring. I will admit that while hanging with dogs, I often will chat with them about what is going to happen next, usually in a completely conversational tone. "Well Rio, I guess we'd better do a load of dog laundry and get it on the line." "Ok Swanson, time to get playgroups started and you're going to have to be patient because fetch isn't the game right now." "Badger, you go make my coffee, will you?" But mostly, these snippets are just for me, and because I'm prone to narrating to myself anyway, embarrassingly enough. However, if I am actually trying to communicate to my dogs in a way that requires them to act, I have to change my entire tone, strip down the words, and wait.
One of the major issues almost all dog trainers will tell you about is clients repeating commands in a rapid fire way, giving no time for the dog to hear, process and translate in the information. Our instant gratification button seems to be in overdrive- "sit, sit, SIT!" we cry, while a squirmy pup bites his tail, jumps up and down and generally ignores us until the last, loud yell. But it's not the volume that is actually communicating the command to the dog more effectively- it's the silence after the exaggeration. To effectively communicate with one's dog- you have to be patient, stubborn and quiet. The more times that you repeat a command, the less impact it has. The command becomes "Down, Down, Down, Down" as opposed to "Down". But it's not just that you are changing the command to need to be given several times- it's that you're overriding the dog's ability to think clearly and focus.
In a recent training session a client commented that I must be the most patient person on the planet. This couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, I'm terribly impatient and have a tendency to impulsive. Maybe that's why I find dog training so rewarding- it forces me to not rely on those habits. When teaching a dog something new, you have to repeat a pattern multiple times, in incremental steps, and reward each step until you form a full command. You're vastly better off avoiding assigning a verbal command until the dog has completely formed the proper behavior. For an easy example, consider "sit". If you follow the same luring process as almost all trainers, you would hold a cookie above the dogs head, and push it backwards, so that the dog, following it with their nose, automatically drops their butt to the floor. Then you reward. But do not add the word "sit" at this point. Instead, practice the pattern over and over, until a simple lifting of your hand (the first cue) causes the dog to drop their butt. Body language is a dog's first language, so starting with a hand signal is vastly clearer for the dog, and furthermore- it teaches you to be quiet. Once the dogs pattern is perfected, you then can start to add the word "sit" while offering the hand motion. Over time and practice, the verbal cue takes on the meaning of the hand signal, and you can use them in combination or interchangeably. But because the dog first associated the hand signal with the food reward and clear pattern- you can just have the word "sit" rather than verbal buckshot.
This same process works for nearly every command, basic to advanced. You don't want to leave your dog without any cues, however. Using clear, consistent verbal markers is equally important. When a dog is offering me a behavior, if it's incorrect, I usually will communicate a "uh, uh" rather than a "no"- because "no" is a the word I rely on for more severe transgressions- not the learning process. At the same time- even if the command doesn't have a verbal cue yet- I will say "Yes!" in an overly enthusiastic tone when the dog has performed what I've asked- to help them understand that they have made the correct connection. Otherwise, I remain quiet, and do not repeat the dog's name multiple times. Usually, for my dogs, their name is basically synonymous for "look at me", and occasionally for "come" but my dogs usually just stop and look at me, awaiting further instruction. If they are out of sight, their name will often mean they need to return for the next command- but fortunately it seems that they almost inherently know this. But if they are within eye-sight, their name indicates there is another word, or set of words, as short as possible, that will tell them what I need next. And when I receive that eye contact, I often pause, make sure our connection is good (like testing a phone line, I want full clear lines of communication, which means sustained eye contact) and then issue the next step. It is because I create this "quiet" space in between the dog's name, and the next step that they are more likely to respond as I hope. And if they do not perform the request, I then follow up with either of the verbal corrections "no" for doing something completely opposite (like running away) or "uh, uh" like coming close but then veering off when asked to "come" completely to me.
If you are struggling to teach your dog anything at all- try this exercise. Ask for all of the basics that the dog knows already- but do it in a very intentional way. Grab some treats and do a little calibration. Begin with the most reliable command, let the dog know that there is food available as a reward- you want the dog to do these things easily. Practice each command by only saying it one time, and then wait. Use verbal cues if behavior is offered, even the incorrect one. Count to 25 AT LEAST, before issuing the command a second time, with a hand signal. If the dog can't perform anything that you think they know with this process- start teaching that command over. Seriously. Slow down and assign full meaning to that command. If they are able to do everything you expect- with no additional prompting- the command is solid and their success will boost them to try again at the new concept. Go slow, be quiet, and marvel as your dog starts to trust your word's meaning in ways you hand't seen previously. It's not magic, its just clarity. And in interspecies communication- there is nothing more important.
We are, arguably, in the golden era of dog adoration on the internet. You can’t scroll through any feed, or page, likely without a mention of the internet slang created around the culture of dogs- be it “doggo”, “pupper”, or many of the other commonplace terms- even entire legitimate news sources have jumped on- dedicating resources to explain the phenomenon.
I love this whole scene, in theory. I unabashedly think that dogs are a miracle of evolution. Not just that, but in a culture increasingly infatuated with dogs, I’m selfishly guaranteed job security. Boarding them at our farm, training them, getting to spend time with as many as I possibly can is nothing short of a dream. But still, I worry we aren’t doing our best to actually love dogs. They are funny, adorable, boundlessly affectionate, and full of personality. But they are also living, breathing creatures with needs and requirements to lead a complete life.
That sounds straight forward enough, but unfortunately, I think the practice of loving dogs has a long way to go. I work with a lot of families who adopt a pup without realizing that their lives are going to have to drastically adjust. And I’m not just talking about potty training.
Loving a dog means that when it’s pouring raining, you put those rain boots on and still go for a nice long walk (or pay a walker to do it for you!).
Loving a dog means that even though it would be easier to ignore the bold behavior like barking at a window, you take the time to move them away and work on retraining.
Loving a dog means that even though you hate it, you poop scoop the yard regularly, replace trashed bedding for the 800th time, call out from work for vet appointments etc.
It’s really not just about routine care where I think the greatest breakdown lies, but the routine care is as good a place to start as any. Exercise is a critical part of routine care and usually the first thing to be cast aside. Even dogs who receive excellent routine care, often are neglected when it comes to our most precious resources- time and focused attention. We come home tired, we have a million obligations, finances- etc. And here is a cold wet nose, a wiggling tail, and a critter that has been just waiting for your return. We can’t just repay that devotion with a quick pat and kibble in a bowl. We have agreed that we are going to give this animal more- a rewarding life experience with the richness that give us just by existing. Recently, Jon Katz tackled the emotional neglect of pet dogs in a beautiful piece that really resonated with me.
It used to be simpler, our relationship (I'm not talking about veterinary care or even training methodoolgy) with canines. We had them for specific tasks, and they were bred with those ideal traits in mind. Culture in the states has moved very far away from a partnership with animals- notably dogs, and having an agricultural business has emphasized this in a lot of ways for me. It feels like dogs have moved from a co-worker and partner to a helpless infant and funny accessory. This sells them short of their full potential, and more than that- it turns a relationship that benefited us both into something that now needs modern reforming. Of course, many folks still use their dogs as tools for a variety of jobs (myself included) but it has become more of an exception than the norm.
I worry that our love of dogs smacks of superficiality. We don’t make time to put in the work it takes to thoughtfully train a dog, and we also don’t acknowledge that there are limitations on each dog’s skill set. Not every dog is going to wear goggles and clear birds off a runway, and I’ve found that sometimes that translates to folks not taking the time to train them at all-- even on basics like leash manners or simple commands. So the relationship becomes this circle of resentment about dog’s behavior, and an over emphasis on the parts of the dog that seem to jive best- like letting the dog sleep in one’s bed. Now, I’m not saying it’s always wrong for a dog to sleep in your bed, but if you can’t stand your dog except when it involves cuddling, that’s kind of an unbalanced relationship to have, don’t ya think?
I would love to see the celebration of dogs go beyond internet admiration, but not further into the anthropomorphizing of canines. I want to see more spaces where families bring their dogs with them. And when those families bring pups, they need to focus on helping them reach their potential and fulfillment through constructive training and clear rules. I want more patios with dogs hanging out with their owners and stores that are dog friendly. I understand and respect that there are folks who are fearful of dogs, or have some kind of allergies. But I still think there is a lot of space in current life to make more room for those of us who have dogs to be able to do a bit more with them. Of course those ‘public space’ dogs also have to know how to ‘do public’. Even I can’t stand a ceaseless barking, jumping, or lunging pup. It’s a skill or a set of skills to be able to bring your dog with you.
Some dogs won’t have the skills right away to jump into public- but there is so much you can do at home to bring those dogs further from ‘accessory’ status into full fledged family member. Funny tricks, fetch, games, all of these things are worth your time. Run with your dog, even if it’s messy and both you get tired after 15 minutes. Go for an evening walk even if you don’t get very far because leash manners are a work in progress. Get that pupper a new tug toy and go nuts. Spend time with that cuddle monster building a relationship. Make “doggo” a term of endearment for a buddy who gets to be more than the ultimate source of mess and chaos.
You can still love the memes and silly videos--click that thumbs up for all it’s worth- but then turn, look at your pup, and ask yourself- How Can I Love You Better, Doggo? I promise it’s worth it, and more than that- it’s upholding the commitment made when that dog came home. We owe them that, if for nothing else, than for the hours of joy they provide to the internet.