RUFF TRANSLATING RUFF RANTS
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My wife is a dog nut. She always has been in the time that I have known her, which is lucky given my line of work, and dedication of half our house to guest pups. It doesn't seem fair that I haven't fully introduced her, so I took some time to interview her on her particular skill set and role within our business.
I am a strong advocate of crate training. Not only does it keep a dog, particularly a puppy, safe from hazards when unsupervised - but it benefits dogs when they need to stay at the vet overnight, or board someone unfamiliar. Potty training using the crate as a tool means less accidents, which helps puppies condition faster to using the bathroom outside only. Crates can be useful even in adulthood when we have guests who may have a challenging time greeting our dog friends, either because of fear, allergy, or some other condition that makes dogs greetings more complex.
Most people that I meet and work with only use a crate for when a puppy is small, and than ditch the tool when the dog is house trained well enough. Many of these dogs are "crate tolerant"- meaning that they will be crated, but could find it stressful- still make some noise, and are reluctant to enter when asked. Tolerating a crate is helpful - but what is better is having a fully crate trained dog!
Dogs that are fully crate trained are much less likely to bark or whine, even when their owners are in plain sight. Dogs that are fully trained do not rush doors or gates when being let out of their crates, and instead wait to be invited to exit. They enter the crate on command, with no resistance. Much more than that- they can often be found resting in a crate even when the door is open, or other sleeping options are available. As I write this, one of our dogs is on the couch, one is sleeping in a downstairs crate near the wood stove, and one is upstairs in the dog bedroom- a gated off area in our upstairs landing where they have beds and sleep overnight. This tells me a few things- 1. Our dogs are secure enough to rest out of sight, and know where they are allowed to do so. 2. Two of the three dogs have chosen crates or restricted smaller spaces to rest. They are comfortable and feel safe in their provided environment. While our dogs are not allowed to sleep in our bedroom (except for when it's so hot they need the air conditioning), they are not lacking in bonding with us. They are responsive, engaged, and incredibly trusting, with good recall and reliable listening skills. Many folks think that in order for their dogs to know they love them, they have to spend the majority of the time petting, cuddling, or sleeping next to their pet. While all of those things are wonderful ways to share affection with our dogs, it isn't the way in which we primarily bond.
My goal in crate training is create confidence and security in my dogs. I find that the crate also helps keep our self control training consistent. I want them to feel comfortable on their own, but not overwhelmed with the responsibility of a vast space. Rather, I want to provide a space for them where the only objective is to be calm, and quiet. We do this by super charging the crate itself with positive associations and rewards at first, and an unyielding commitment to silence being the only way puppy is allowed to exit unless they are communicating a bathroom need. Using a crate as a quiet reset can help when you are training around excitement issues such as greeting guests at the door, feeding times, visiting dogs or children. If you can create the right mindset for your dog around the crate- it can become a tool for the duration of their lives. I often times use it even when I'm doing training with my own pack, making them take turns working solo and being quietly observant in a crate. When we leave the house, our dogs, even the 7 year old, still stay crated. They are calmer this way, and it also helps us worry less that we didn't put something away that could be a mess or an accident.
Too often folks believe that dogs "outgrow" the usefulness of a crate. But when done with care, it can increase the stability of your dog, and make them more versatile from traveling, to boarding, to veterinary care. Even if you don't want to crate your dogs every time you leave, consider practicing a few times of month to keep the positive association fresh.
Even newly adopted adult dogs can be crate trained. The major thing to remember is that you have to be incremental with your crate training, and use food rewards liberally. Feed all of the meals in the crate for 3-4 months. Nothing inspires crate fondness like meals only being given there! Practice with you dog in the crate when they can see you, when they can't, and when you aren't home. A radio can help reduce stimulation and help your dog focus on a good nap. Exercise before crating practice can help associate the space with rest as well. Leave a treat as special crate-only option. Some of the favorites at our house are cow hooves, frozen pb kongs, bully sticks or pigs ears. I like to use a treat that take some time to finish, particularly one that involves chewing as it releases stress hormones. Some dogs prefer a cover, some prefer an open view. And be consistent.
When a dog feels safe, they are more reliable with commands and expected behaviors. They are less inclined to pace, to be destructive, to have accidents. The crate mindset is one that isn't automatic just because your dog has been crated- rather it's a willingness to respect the boundaries of space, and know when being asked to settle down from an emotional high for whatever reason. The benefits are vast, and it is one of the easiest things you can do to help have a happy dog home!
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.
Training a pup to be "vacation ready" is a fun way to keep your dog included in the family! There are travels that will necessitate leaving your dog with a professional sitter or boarder, but when it's possible to choose a dog-friendly vacation spot it can be a wonderful bonding experience for you. It's also an opportunity to practice command behaviors in a new location- helping the pattern become reinforced and thus more reliable.
Each year, our family goes to Cape Cod for a few days, and we have been preparing Rio for her first ever vacation with us. Swanson is a beach pro now, but we followed the same process getting him ready the first year he went along. Some of our best memories involve this pup, a gorgeous day, and miles of bay side low tide sands!
First, we choose a very popular vacation destination, so we go on what's considered the "off season". That's a lot about us as people, we don't love large crowds or traffic. We have the benefit that our jobs are also busiest in the summer, so planning a fall vacation coincides near end of our farming season, the busiest dog boarding time, and even our roller derby season is best. The major benefit as a dog family though- is that many of the Cape Cod beaches open up to allow pups again! We stay at a campground that is pet friendly, but your dogs must go with you when you leave your campsite, so being able to take the dogs to the beach is crucial and also one of the most fun things about the trip.
Second, we don't mince words about buying all of the dog gear we need to make the trip easier. Sometimes it's not necessary to spend the money on your dog for a really cute collar etc- they don't care about fashion. But when it comes to a vacation- you need the tools. Here are our essentials for an easier trip with dogs.
1. Collapsible bowls: Easy to store, take on long trips, and fairly sturdy- we can be sure that no matter what we are up to the pups get their meals and water. This keeps them calmer and healthy while we all enjoy the travel.
2. Poop bags: Duh.
3. Wet and dry dog food: Sometimes Dogs are nervous in new locations, and rather than "waiting it out" to get them to eat, a little bribery goes a long way with some wet food mixed in. There are times when you find a training opportunity, but in this case, we all need to just focus on the relaxing and this keeps us sure that we aren't worrying about someone's anxious hunger strike.
4. Dog back packs: Yes, these are essential. We do some day trips when traveling, in towns where dogs are welcome in many shops and patios. Next up will be some tips for training with packs, but we have found them invaluable. They can carry their own small water bottles, collapsible bowls, treats, poop bags (empty or used!), and often my keys or cellphone. It helps to focus them, putting them in "work mode" while we are in busy environments, and is just practical.
5. Kongs/chewies: Sitting around a campfire is the best! It's even better when your now tired dog is able to settle down with their own treat leaving the humans to tell scary stories that don't involve a yappy over excited dog!
6. X-pens: Exercise pens, or x-pens, set up quickly, fold up fairly conveniently, and can be made sturdy by driving stakes into the ground. We use them to create a dog space on the campsite where not quite as much supervision is needed, while upholding the campground rules that the dogs are on/leash or contained. Because our dogs are very well crate trained, they transition to the x-pen easily and the open top allows for the inevitable campground guest snuggles as people pass by. And I don't have to worry about them getting tangled in a line, or taking them with me in/out of the camper 100 times while I'm getting dinner ready or putting things back from the beach. It's also great for hotel rooms, or guest houses, as it can set up in a few different configurations and act as a gate. Travel crates are another great idea, but I've found I don't love the attention that my crated pup gets when snoozing at the campsite. It gets a lot of "poooooorrrr puppppppy" responses, and while I know that's hogwash- this solution works for us and keeps me from launching into a dog-trainer tirade while trying to relax.
7. Chuck-it and Sand proof balls: If you have a high energy fetch dog, you know the value of a chuck it. Whatever your dog's preferred activity is, bring it with and modify it for the environment you are traveling in. Typical tennis balls collect too much water/beach sand/salt- so we switch the rubberized balls for vacation. Anything your dog likes to do probably has a few different varieties, so plan accordingly! Floating toys, rubberized tug toys, and extras you don't mind loosing are all great ideas.
8. Treat training bags: Practice doesn't make perfect with dogs- it makes reliability! While not my favorite accessory, more often than not you will find me with my clip on training treat bag when I take my dogs to a new location. Helping them focus is worth the fashion disaster, and it also lets me control what they eat when someone is desperate to give them a snack. Rio has food allergies, and we really limit people food hand-outs, so aside from being a great training tool- I can hand off a cookie to a stranger without offending someone offering either of them a french fry!
There is a ton of additional gear that we personally use that can be helpful, but there are also many other resources to help you get started or troubleshoot for your own trip. There are some training tenants however, that will help you wherever you go, whether it is a day trip or a longer stay!
If you are using new tools, like a back pack- PRACTICE. Don't assume that your dog will just automatically take to sleeping in a camper, or be cool with wearing shoes on the beach. Whenever we are introducing something new, we like to start with short periods of time, and use positive reinforcement through foods and verbal assurance. It's also important not to give up either. Some dogs will "melt" the first time you put them in a back pack (lay on the floor and not move), or "freeze" (stand with their legs locked looking like they are literally on ice). It's okay that this happens, it's way more about our reaction then the dog itself. If I act as though I'm torturing the dog, the dog will respond that the new tool, is in fact, evil. I also don't chase dogs for anything. Rather, persistence, patience and counter conditioning are all the tricks. For a back pack specifically- start with just laying a back pack on top of a dog and then giving a treat and verbal praise. Then, when this becomes a fun game, put the straps on and ask the dog to move around. More treats/praise! We like to do a couple of shorter walks depending on the reaction of the dog with a back pack, and then slowly start adding some essentials or weights to help them adjust. In no time flat, your pup will see the back pack as a sign that adventure awaits!
Patio eating is a regular part of most vacations, and it is definitely an acquired skill for most dogs. In general, practicing a strong sit/down/stay will serve you well whether you are getting ice cream or having a drink. Along with those commands, try training a "place" command- which is where you pick a spot marked by a hand gesture (I just point to a spot) or a mat/blanket. Giving your dog clear boundaries while out in public helps them feel calm, and gives you an easy way to correct your dog if they start to wander or pull on the leash. Along with controlling your dog in a tight space, you also want to make sure that they don't try and snag treats or upset a table. "Leave it" along with implied table manners are imperative.
You can practice this behavior on an elevated level at home pretty easily. Set up a picnic lunch in your dining area, but on a blanket on the floor. Put a plate of food in the middle, and work with your dog to maintain boundaries OFF of the floor blanket, and away from the food. I recommend beginning this practice with your dog on a leash. It's always nice to have a handle so that you can prevent an error before it happens! The most important thing here is that you dog doesn't get the food and establish a pattern. Start in a standing position, gently relocating your dog if they challenge the picnic site and using the commands I mentioned above. When the dog gets the idea, start changing your body position- go into a kneel, a sit, turn your back, etc, all while expecting the dog to hold their position OFF the blanket. It takes some time to master, but dogs get food boundaries as a natural process, so it usually happens fairly quickly.
"Look at me" is the most important behavior you can teach. Hands down, the thing I rely on most in my relationship with my dogs is that I can get their eye contact to break up their thought patterns and instinctual behaviors. I start with this behavior on a command, but try to phase out the verbal as quickly as possible. Why? I want the dog to develop a pattern of automatic check in. See something new? Dog should turn their head and look to me for what comes next. See something scary? Dog should turn to their head to look at me and realize it's probably not scary, as I'm not scared. Meet a new person or dog? Look to me to see what greeting, if any, is allowed. This takes years to make highly reliable, but in a few weeks time to you can train your dog to check in using food rewards on command. Start by using a treat, directly in front of a dog's nose and bring it up to your face. I bring it right to my nose, as the hand signal for this command will be me pointing to my nose. When the dog looks at your eyes, not the cookie, use a marker word like "Yes" and reward with food. Practice this each day, inside, outside, on walks etc. Get reliable responses first inside, with no distractions. I then like to stretch the duration of eye contact longer, Swanson can hold it for 2 minutes with distractions. If you can get a full 30 seconds in most scenarios- you probably can deal with any high level distraction that comes your way. Biologically, this is also important! Recent research shows that eye contact releases oxytocin in both the dog and the human! This is an important bonding exercise and can calm either an anxious pup, or a nervous owner.
New noises can be one of the most challenging triggers for a dog in a new environment. An easy way to help your dog with this before leaving, is to use the power of the internet! I frequently will play loud sounds off of youtube, things like trucks, horns, ocean sounds, kids screaming on a playground etc while just going about my business. The dogs go from mildly confused, to completely oblivious most of the time. Occasionally a sound will be really upsetting- and then we go back to counter conditioning. Again, we don't use "it's ok" or baby talk. Rather I ask for a sit, and eye contact, and reinforce success with verbal praise and food. And, again, repetition is the best tool for dog training. If a new noise is proving to be a challenge, it just means we have work to do- not that your dog is terminally afraid.
One of the most important things about preparing a dog for vacation is to think critically about your dog's limits. Swanson has a much longer capacity for situations where engaging with strangers is a skill, where as Rio has a much longer capacity for repeated dog greetings. We plan breaks for both dogs, and use tools like time-outs and crates to give them some space to relax. Our dog Badger is a routine focused guy, and really struggles with his schedule being thrown off, and travel in general. He can travel with us for overnights or short trips, but is much more excited to have his own personal house guest when we go away for long periods of time. We do a lot to help our dogs stretch their natural ability, but part of a good relationship with your pup is understanding their skills and limitations. Much like I am not going to Disney at peak summer vacation- Badger isn't going to handle loud trucks/campers/barking dogs for more than two days. It's not a flaw, it makes him a WONDERFUL couch potato, best sleep-in dog champion of the house, for sure. I want to challenge my dogs in training but also keep their individual personalities and skills in mind. Good dog training doesn't work around a dog, it works with it!
If there is anything more magical then sitting on a beach, at sunset, with a few critters and my wife, I haven't found it. All of the preparation and practice helps build a deeper relationship with my dogs- they don't just live at our house- they are unique contributing individuals to our family fabric. Exploring new places and seeing their excitement and wonder really has made my vacations more fun. So plan, prepare and GO!
Well, I suppose I didn't expect to wade into all of the controversial topics all at once, but here we are!
I've worked as a trainer for several years, and have worked with dogs in professional settings since I was 16. In the 16 years I have worked with hundreds of pet owners, and have noticed a very disturbing pattern. Given our current climate, I want to talk about the notion that dogs can be "racist" at no fault of their owners. Yes, I know I'm fueling the fire, but sometimes you gotta burn it down to rebuild.
Dogs are more often than not, a chaotic neutral about all types of people. Certainly they are drawn to folks, have quirks, personality traits and life experiences that shape their reactions to humans. BUT- the primary place that dogs get their information on how to react to anything- is from their human companions.
Swanson, our border collie, is probably the most adaptable and flexible dog I have ever met, other than a fellow trainer's dog, my good friend Cassie- who has an aussie named Looba. Looba makes Swanson look like an ill-behaved cartoon dog devil. To be fair to my little dude, Looba has many more years of practiced chill. As a puppy- Swanson was nervous, anxious, and a bit reactive to things. He was also loyal, pliable, work-driven and desperate for guidance. The training methodology that I use for all dogs- and all fears- is gentle but consistent leadership. We use counter conditioning (food and praise) when a dog tackles any fear- for example, Swanson used to be terrified of the electric fences on the farm after he brushed one while learning the ropes as a pup. It took months of praise and food rewards to get him to understand that he could be near to the fence without being injured, and in fact could do his herding job without ever touching the electric line. What we don't do is say in a sing-song voice "it's ok" or reward fear based behaviors. The dog's brain can not understand the nuance of your soothing- instead they hear reinforcement of their fear- justified or not. Comforting dogs means that in situations where you want them to become calmer and more reliable, you give them an alternative to a fear based behavior. So, you may ask for eye contact (and reward it) or you may walk over to the scary thing and call them to you, happily. You may confidently walk them past a construction site at a very very quick pace, all the while encouraging them (yay! let's go! walks are fun!), and then slow your pace multiple times until hanging out near all of those sounds isn't so scary. It takes practice and persistence- and given the emotional genius of dogs- you have to be rather confident and assured. Sympathy and over infantilizing can turn a moderate discomfort into full blow anxiety in a dog at warp speed. This doesn't mean we "force" dogs to do something scary, or move them too quickly through a phobia. Nor does it mean that a dog can overcome ALL of their natural distrusts of certain objects or scenarios (notably, Swanson will still lay totally flat in an elevator, and even Looba- the wonder pup I mentioned earlier won't walk over a street grate readily). Instead, we use incremental progress to help the dog re-wire their aversion, and become more comfortable (or, in dog-training slang- counter conditioning and desensitization).
Objects, scenarios- are one thing- but what about people? One of the shockingly more common things I hear in behavior assessments when I ask about a dog's aversions or fears is "I don't know why, but my dog hates black people". I have heard this exclusively by white clients. I think that this issue, not to get overly political in my dog training site- is vastly more about owners, then it is about the dog. I'm not just talking about rescue dogs whose history is unknown or *maybe* troubled. I'm talking about folks who have had their pet since the pup was small, and are flummoxed as to how their dog has ended up with this peculiar or even reactive behavior.
One very likely answer is that some of these owners are walking around with their own, deeply buried, socially conditioned responses to people and communities of color. While many, if not most, of these folks likely have friends, co-workers and community members who are members of a race other than their own- but unconsciously- what does their body and mind do when they are racially uncomfortable?
Dogs are constantly reading us. They know when we are angry, they know when we are depressed, they know when we are sad. They smell hormone changes, understand voice pitch changes, and read facial expressions. I have often helped a client fix their entire dog walking experience just by getting them to take large, deep breaths, loosen up on the death grip on their leash, and adjusting their posture. Seriously. That's the miraculous thing about dogs. They know us, in many ways, better than ourselves. They have evolved with us for thousands of years, and show us just as much about our own evolution as their own.
Consider this scenario- Fluffy is walking along in her neighborhood, accompanied by her white owner. They take a turn down a block that is primarily occupied by families of color. The owner, considers themselves to be not racist. But they stiffen, start scanning the neighborhood (an unconscious decision) and maybe there is some kind of hormonal change, a mild release of one of our stress or fear hormones. We have been taught to fear communities of color (this is not up for debate, there is a plethora of research and data that shows the long history of racism and defamation around communities of color). Fluffy doesn't know that her owner may be working really hard to override that social conditioning, or family background, or personal beliefs. Or, her owner isn't even thinking about that, because that's not part of their daily considerations, or they don't think they need to do that work. But what Fluffy does know is that the owner has changed position, and gone into a mild or moderate *alert mode*. And as they are traveling together, Fluffy must do the same, and, if their communication is unbalanced or incomplete- take it upon herself to control the situation and ease the owner's security fears by "pushing" the perceived threat away. After a few of these instances, it becomes a pattern for the dog- and the owner becomes then anxious ANY time Fluffy meets a person of color- thus reinforcing the behavior.
Not just that- but what if Fluffy and her owner pass a person of color who is afraid of dogs? There is a good deal of recent research that shows that law enforcement have disproportionately used police dogs in communities of color, and for some folks, that may translate into a very charged fear of dogs. I've worked in neighborhoods on multiple occasions as a dog walker where children would scream and cross the street with terror after an incident with law enforcement and working dogs. I have a great deal of love for dogs who have jobs, and will be talking more about this as time goes on, and am certainly not implying that there shouldn't be police dogs. But, how and when we use those dogs is important, and subject to review just as we constantly review the uses of all law enforcement tools- from speed checking devices, to tasers, to pepper spray, to guns. Or, it just may be run of the mill, "not a dog person" vibes coming off. So now Fluffy knows 2 things- 1. Her owner's vibe has changed, maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously. 2. She isn't being received in the expected way of someone welcoming a dog.
Either of these two pieces of information can be enough for Fluffy to become reactive, when otherwise she is a perfectly leash trained, happy to greet dog. Fluffy is not inherently a racist. Fluffy most likely did not develop these behaviors based on being attacked by a person of color. More likely- is that there is work to do on Fluffy's ability to "check in" with you before making decisions about how to react, and is going on her gut. The impact of our current culture and the incomplete nature of how we, as white people, address our internalized racism, have created a seemingly racist Fluffy.
One of the hardest parts about learning to work with your dog, is understanding how you accidentally, or consciously feed their actions based on your emotional response to things. When working to train your dog, keep this frame work in mind:
1. Your dog reads your emotional state probably better than even you do.
2. When your dog encounters something new, different, or unexpected, train them to give direct and sustained eye contact based on a light verbal cue such as their name, or just by looking at them. Praise the eye contact, and then maybe give an alternative command (ie: stay, sit etc) to control before a reaction.
3. Work very hard to realize that because your dog is ALWAYS looking for your cues, we have to address our underlying assumptions about new scenarios or even communities other than our own.
There are scenarios where a dog has a past that would predispose them to be vastly distrustful of a category of people. But that shouldn't be our starting place assumption. Instead, we need to be thoughtful and thorough about how our own beliefs impact a dog's reaction, and strive to be the leaders our dog's need so that they can flourish and behave around communities different than those we belong to, be it based on race, age, gender, style etc. I've included photos from our two dogs work in a nursing home- because much like I hear "my dog hates black people", I often hear "my dog hates wheelchairs"! The first cue on how to behave is coming from us. And, in our efforts to be better dog leaders- we will likely overcome more of our ingrained oppression behaviors to become better allies.
So thank you, Dogs, for teaching us once again, how to be better versions of ourselves- we owe you an endless debt of gratitude for your lessons on compassion and change. Thankfully, you take debt payments in the form of dried liver and a nice long walk.
I've decided to start this blog off with a bang, and wade with caution into the sacred phrase "adopt don't shop". First, I should mention that I have owned 2 rescues in my adult life, LOVE mixed breed pups, and would get a rescue again. My first rescue, Harper, was a severe abuse case and taught me more about life and dogs then could be adequately described. In addition, my Aussie, Rio is a "rehome"- her owner couldn't provide a breed-appropriate life for her (girl needs more hobbies then a high school senior applying for the ivy league). There is absolutely wonderful value in finding good homes for pups in shelters or other programs.
All of that being said- adult rescue dogs are not for everyone. At the very minimum, adult rescue dogs have had their routine pretty abruptly disrupted and are confused as to the new environment(s) and its rules. Many new owners are confused as to how to navigate a dog who is sincerely just lost as to how they got in their current scenario.
In my experience, it takes roughly 3 weeks for a dog's behaviors to fully develop in any given environment with a predictable regularity. So that means, that the wonderful "puppy moon" phase after adoption often accidentally sets up new homes with too lax of rules, and unreasonable expectations of the recently added dog. More often than not, when I get into a behavior assessment with a client, I hear the tell-tale phrases of "she was so quiet at the adoption clinic" or "the foster family had her for a week and never mentioned that she eats shoes". etc. I could never fault a foster family for not catching EVERY potential behavior pattern- there are too many variables! And I also see the value in having adoption clinics- but when we look to these places (which are the right thing to do for many potential dog owners) we have to take into consideration that we are in no way getting a full behavior picture or even fully developed understanding of the personality of the dog. More often though, adoption from rescues is based on aesthetic preferences- and that snowballs into just picking a dog that doesn't necessarily match your home life.
The most prevalent example I have seen recently is a plethora of hound-dog mix pups being shipped up to our upstate NY community from rescues in the south. Hounds are wonderful pups, little scent geniuses, and often very affectionate. But they often tend present challenges in training- specifically around recall, avoiding some snack thievery, and working on not becoming overly vocal. All of these challenges are often addressed readily with a good trainer. BUT often times the new families with these dogs did not anticipate the challenges associated with the type of pup they adopted- and instead focused on impossibly soft and floppy ears. Hound-mixes can also be a bit stubborn, and can require a lot of consistency in practice to build reliable results with commands. They are eager to make you happy- but also pretty independent. None of things are automatically a flaw in any of these dogs, just an observation that both the type and temperament of an individual dog is often not a great match for a busy family with kids. Their new friend is probably friendly as the day is long- but is going to require a substantial investment in time and energy to help them reach their training expectations. And some families are just not prepared for that amount of investment. It would be easy to yell "Don't get a dog if you don't want to do the work!" and I have, privately, in my car, many, many times. There are absolutely circumstances where this is the appropriate assessment. BUT- I think more often than that, it's much more nuanced. For example, a well meaning family could just be following the dominant narrative around rescue culture which is "this dog was abused, I will save it" and that, is unfortunately, not really the whole picture of a dog's backstory- or of the ability of any owner to meet a dog's individual needs. Many times a dog has had a relatively normal life, and then found itself within a shelter or rescue- and its fearful behaviors are actually just being completely confused. If we jump to adopt based on this narrative instead of looking at the individual, or if we treat that dog as if it has severe abuse history- we can accidentally even create behavior problems.
We hear all the time that we should "save a life" in rescues, and this is definitely a worthy cause. But if everyone in the household is going to have their needs met, and we are going to start off on the right foot- we need to be a lot more careful about placing dogs. We also need to help new families prepare for a long adjustment period by starting them off right with clear rules and boundaries, as well as making sure the match is likely to be a good fit based on energy level, any known breed information, and the type of household looking for a new family member. Loving a dog isn't just about cuddling, it's about helping them learn to trust us, and to follow our guidance over their natural instincts in a variety of ways. It's an amazing experience to cross the species line in relationship building, but it's not easily or quickly done!
This preparation for families looking to adopt shouldn't just be on the shoulders of already over-taxed rescues, either. It's up to all of us in the dog professionals world to facilitate a new dialog around rescue and adoption, and provide more thorough tools for those going this route.
So with that in mind- here are a couple of things I have found helpful in counseling those looking for a dog, and in those first few critical weeks.
1. GO SLOW. You've made the decision to get a dog, great! Now, slow down. You don't need to rush down to an adoption clinic today and pick the first dog who kisses your face. Yes, I know there are many dog/human love stories that start this way- but there are also enough horror stories that caution is the better advice. Research types of dogs you think may be a good fit for you. Breed info will be inconsistent or incomplete with your new rescue possibly- but it's good to have an idea of what traits you are looking for, because in the event you do have some more info- it can help make an informed decision. It also can help you sort out what traits you are looking for so that when you meet a dog, you can place those traits even if they aren't breed related! Read A LOT of profiles on petfinder, make lists, and really think about how much time you have to give to a dog's energy needs. Some folks will change for their dog, they will take more walks, etc- but others can't/won't. Be honest with yourself, first!
2. Meet the dog more than once. If you go to an adoption clinic and find a dog you think is a good match, I suggest 2 subsequent visits a few days apart. Ideally, meet with the dog at the shelter or foster home, and then have the dog brought to your home. Seeing how a dog behaves in different environments will give you a lot of information about whether or not this is a good new member of your household. Especially if this is your first dog, emphasize the slowing down!
3. Figure out your house rules ahead of time! I have a lot of house rules I recommend and will gladly share in a later post, but regardless of what you decide- decide it before pup comes home and then stick to it! Is pup allowed on the furniture? Where will pup eat their meals? What will their routine be? What commands are the most important to teach first? Is pup allowed in the whole house? Yard? Map out what the rules are AND STICK TO THEM. Have I mentioned sticking to them? STICK TO THE RULES.
Dogs have a really hard time with "sometimes"- if you are consistent, so are they--with practice!
4. Consider a "foster to adopt" or trial placement. Some rescues I have worked with recently do a three week trial period before the dog is eligible to be adopted. I LOVE THIS. It gives so much more time for a dog to adjust and the household residents to really get a sense of whether the dog's needs match their household, or whether adaptations can be made on either end.
5. Hire a good trainer. There are a myriad of issues that can be avoided with the help and support of a good trainer. The families and individuals I have helped from adoption day through 6 weeks of training are much more likely to be fulfilled with their new family member at a much more rapid pace. Also, having a new dog is wonderful, but it can also be pretty stressful. A good trainer will serve as support in the adjustment period, help you assess what is pretty normal dog behavior, vs something we need to address quickly. And it's also another set of hands to be kind and patient when Fido is still nervous peeing every time a guest arrives. Even if you have had a lifetime of dogs, you can always learn something new, or benefit from a professional perspective. I'm not lobbying this for my own job security- I just have seen SO MANY families go through the pain of re-training when if I had gotten there 2 months earlier, we could have avoided the undesired pattern.
6. Crate Train. Again, I recommend you get a good trainer if you aren't familiar with the process, and will be giving tips for crate training down the line. But the single most important start you can give your new pup is give them a safe, calm place to adjust to their new surroundings. Even an even keeled, well mannered dog will benefit from having a spot to call "theirs". The benefits of crate training include avoiding separation anxiety, or helping to resolve it, helping a dog to have a "settle" command, giving the dog a safe space to observe other pets, children, family members etc, giving the dog an alternative to destructive behaviors... the list goes on and on. Dogs should go willingly when requested, and shouldn't be manhandled into too-small crates. Appropriate sizing and proper positive crate training are essential to using this tool properly- and like all tools- can be used completely wrong. Check out "Crate Games" by Susan Garrett for some excellent ways to help get your dog properly crate trained!
Adopting a dog can be a wonderful way to add a valuable member to your family, but it isn't as easy as picking out a cute pup on the internet. We need to be thoughtful and thorough about matching dogs with potential owners, so that the dog's needs are thoroughly met, and the new home can get to the joyful business of loving our most loyal companions.
Welcome to a new feature at Ruff Translating- Ruff Rants! Here is where I will post tips, tricks, pet peeves (literally), progress of training clients, questions etc! It will be updated as often as I can, so check back or follow! There will be pup pictures and videos, too!