Shark Infested Waters

Shark Infested Waters
Pamela Dennison (c) 2023

Would you willingly go into the deep ocean, not knowing how to swim? Let’s say there are known sharks in the area – would you voluntarily toss yourself off the boat, with no training, not knowing how to swim, without proper equipment for deep sea diving, no safety nets in place???

Working an aggressive or reactive dog without solid foundation skills is like tossing someone who doesn’t know how to swim, into a shark infested ocean and expecting them to make it out alive.

The greater part of all mischief in the world arises from the fact that men do not sufficiently understand their own aims. They have undertaken to build a tower, and spend no more labor on the foundation than would be necessary to erect a hut. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

These days, immersing the dog (flooding) in situations that the dog can’t handle is what’s passing for desensitization. The new cult “wisdom” going around is that teaching obedience to an aggressive or reactive dog is a VERY BAD thing and won’t help the dog to learn how to cope with his triggers. Honestly, I don’t understand the reasoning behind this.

Years ago before one of my R.E.W.A.R.D. Zone seminars, a woman called me wanting to sign up with her aggressive dog. I asked her what foundation skills her dog already knew how to do and listed what I was looking for, so we could then work on the desensitization process and not waste her time in the seminar to build them. She angrily said, “WELL, if my dog knew those I wouldn’t need you!” Then she hung up on me.

From the mouth of babes. YES, if she had taken the time to build a solid foundation, she could then have had a shot of helping her dog. Without them, she was in the deep ocean without a paddle, a life jacket or a boat.

Some people think that management is the be all and end all, that they will have to manage forever, “But isn’t that ignoring the problem? How will my dog ever learn to be calm around XYZ if I don’t expose them to XYZ?”

No, it isn’t ignoring the problem, however, in order for your dog to be calm around his triggers, you’ll need to control each and every aspect of exactly how your dog is exposed to those triggers. I also hear quite often, “I just want my dog to stop aggressing.” Well, nature abhors a vacuum, so “stopping” a behavior isn’t possible. What WILL work is filling in that void with behaviors that are incompatible (to aggressing) behaviors. That dreaded word – “obedience” is what you NEED.

So what are just a few incompatible behaviors and why do you NEED them?

Eye contact – if the dog has no connection with you and vice versa, what will they look at and react to?

Name response – if the dog doesn’t know their name in any and all situations, they won’t respond to you when it matters.

Come response – ditto

Heeling – every dog needs heeling – walking on your left and looking at you adoringly as you move in tandem – (it’s not just for competition obedience!) to get past provoking stimuli safely and calmly. Why on your left? Because if you always train one specific spot, in an emergency, you’ll be able to watch your environment while you reach down, knowing exactly where your dog is, and grab him as needed (Of course another foundation skill is to teach the dog to move into your hand, instead of away from it. Most untrained dogs will do one of two things when being “grabbed” – they’ll scoot away or bite you because hands snaking out to the collar can be seen as a threat).

Loose leash walking – I don’t want your dog to be heeling 24/7 – I want your dog to enjoy being a dog in safe places. And go back to heeling if a trigger shows up. Loose leash walking isn’t about just that – I teach the dogs to check in constantly, so there still is a connection – the dog knows you exist, even while “being a dog.”

Nose target – I use a nose target for two things – to cue the dog to look away from scary bad things AND, because I encourage my clients to play it so much, it becomes a reinforcer as well.

Going behind you – Have you noticed that when you try to block your dog away from triggers, that they just dash around you and continue to react? Teaching the dog to willingly and on cue go behind you, encourages the dog to “let Mom/Dad handle it.” I’ve used this technique for years and have seen fabulous progress (and a sigh of relief from the dog).

“Grazing” – I teach a “find it” game, where on cue, the dog will drop their head and start sniffing the ground (and then you’ll toss a handful of treats). Depending on the situation, you can then “Hansel and Gretel” the dog to safety. Sniffing the ground is a calming signal and no, we can’t “make” our dogs be calm by cueing this, however, I have seen that the dogs do in fact calm down – then you can decide where to go to safety.

“XYZ” noise means to do something else – Raise your hand if your dog goes ballistic and charges when someone rings the doorbell or knocks? Wouldn’t it be a great thing if that noise meant “go to your crate?”

The above is a very, very short list of some of the foundation skills I teach my own dogs and my clients dogs.

Please tell me, what’s wrong with teaching these (and many others)? Will they make your dog worse? Will they take away from his quality of life? Are they FORCING your dog beyond their comfort level? Are they ruining your positive relationship with your dog? Of course NOT!

What they ARE doing is putting the onus on YOU to actually help your dog; help him to see that he can learn to cope, that he CAN learn to offer alternate and incompatible behaviors that are directly in conflict with aggressing. An untrained dog is one that will aggress at the drop of a hat because he doesn’t know what to do instead*. By teaching him all kinds of behaviors, he will focus his mind and body on you, rather than the thing toward which he normally aggresses, thus building TRUST from both ends of the leash.

(*Instead can also mean DRI – Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible behaviors. I also use DRA – Differential Reinforcement of Alternate behaviors, and DRL – Differential Reinforcement of a Lower Rate of Response.” Do these sound like that apparently dirty word “Obedience?”)

Re-read the quote above from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe again…and again, until its meaning sinks in.

Part of the equation that is missing from most protocols – the HUMAN aspect. The problems you are having aren’t just about the dog – it takes two to tango. We may not want to hear it, but the relationship you have with your dog isn’t and shouldn’t be a one way street. You may be so sensitized to your dogs provoking stimuli that you hyperventilate, tense up, and yank back because YOU don’t know what to do instead either. So here you both are, with no skills, no coping mechanisms, no “how do I set my dog up to be right,” no “what should I/we do instead?” Don’t you think that you too, need to learn foundation skills? Or would you rather be tossed in the deep end?

Wouldn’t you agree that as your dog’s teacher, your responsibility is to develop solid skills to further ensure success as a team?

So, what are a few skills that YOU as a handler need to master?

Breathing – long, slow inhale, hold for 1-2 seconds and a slower exhale while you consciously push your shoulders down. Your dog will pick up on the tension or relaxation of your breathing – make it count for good and not evil.

Holding the leash properly, so you don’t have to actually use the leash to control your dog. The leash is simply a safety net and shouldn’t be used as a “tool.” Yank and crank, pop and jerk, prong collars, choke collars, shock collars are used to rev police dogs up, so they DO bite. My ex Son-in-Law was a K9 Police officer – I have video, and isn’t biting precisely not what you want with your aggressive or reactive dog?

Positive Mental Imagery – Yup, I mean it. If the thoughts racing through your head are all about the fear you have and are picturing your dog aggressing, he won’t know that isn’t what you want him to do – he’ll read those thoughts and do the very behavior you’re showing him. I’m pretty positive that you think I’m crazy on this one, but I’m not. I’ve seen it work both ways hundreds of times. Think the good thoughts and your dog will do the good behaviors – think the bad thoughts and… I’ve done it myself with my dogs and can “think” them to do certain behaviors – mostly “come,” and I’ve seen my own clients “think” their dogs to do the same.

Learning to read your dogs body language – While dogs do present some threatening signals—growling, barking, lunging, teeth baring—they show even more gestures to avoid conflict. Just as people from different cultures don’t always understand each other’s manners, people have trouble interpreting the signals that dogs exhibit. Dogs do in fact have a language, and I promise you, it isn’t English. If you don’t recognize what your dog is saying, you’re missing 90% of what it takes to help your dog. And if you’re ignoring what he’s saying, well guess what? He won’t trust you to keep him safe. Side note: I’ve watched Turid Rugaas’ video “Calming Signals, What Your Dog Tells You” over 4,000 times. No lie, no exaggeration. Why would I do that? So I can read my own dogs and read my clients dogs as if they’re speaking English, thus not missing much. I can tell if a dog is going to “pop off” way before the owner can, because I put in the work.

Watching your environment – if you’re not cognizant of your environment – sounds, sights, distance, then you’re in shark infested waters. If you aren’t aware and ready to act swiftly and appropriately, and instead let triggers get too close to your dog (or vice versa) and then try to “fix” it – shark infested waters.

The above foundation skills are just a tiny sampling of what you and your dog should master. That may sound daunting, but if you focus on the journey, the learning process and your progress as a team rather than the finish line, it can be a truly rewarding experience.
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P.S. – The “obedience” behaviors you’ll teach your dog and yourself should NOT be taught in a group class!!!! That’s just flooding and will get you nowhere fast other than a quick trip to the deep ocean. The “obedience” behaviors you’ll have in place is the START of the desensitization process, not the end of it.

A great read, if I do say so myself, showing what to do and not to do, is my 18 month diary of working with my human aggressive dog Shadow. Comes in paperback and ebook formats: Click here This book is an honest book – I left in all of my mistakes (and highlighted them so you don’t make the same ones!) Before he passed away at age 13, he was able to successfully accomplish quite a bit: ARCHEX Ewe Are Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt, CGC, CD, TD, TSW, NA, NAJ and best of all became 100% reliable in 99% of life’s situations.

Disobedient? Think Again!

Disobedient? Think Again!
Pamela Dennison © September 2023

I rescued Bran in 2019. When I was looking for another Border collie, I didn’t want a super high drive one, because I didn’t know if I had the energy for one at this point in my life. So after looking for two years, I found Bran at ECHO and he’s been doing great here. A little timid at first but he’s come around nicely.

Bran is a great demo dog and a fabulous neutral dog. He quickly earned some Rally titles, Tricks titles, CGC, BCAT, HIT (Herding Instinct Tested), his CD-C and CD-CCH, a CDX-C. Bran earned multiple High in Trials and High Combined. We’ve been working on Utility. He learned each piece pretty quickly – it’s amazing how fast he learned scent discrimination! This boy is a genius! I taught him how to swim and he loves it and he’ll even tow Finn around while Finn is balancing on his boogie board!

About a year ago, he started to act a little “strange.” His interest in training gradually, oh so gradually (so slow that I didn’t notice it at first) got less and less and the slightest thing would make him shut down. At one point, his “brain fog” was so bad I took him to the Vet and had a Lyme test – he had it and once treated, that seemed to be the answer. Whew!

He had also developed noise phobia, starting with my horrible neighbor who thought it was great fun to set off M80’s, shaking my whole house so bad that I thought a bomb had gone off. I’ve been helping him with Melatonin, Ttouch and a Ttouch body wrap and he’s usually okay within a few minutes.

The last three months, he’s gone from being a rock star in training to shutting down completely. He’ll do one rep and then run away. Even with toys – one throw and he’s done, if he retrieves it at all. (I am a positive only trainer – no pops, jerks, no physical or verbal corrections and 99% of the time train without a leash).

The last few weeks, he’s really been “bad” and somehow I felt very very unhappy and stressed but I didn’t know why. I wondered if I was putting too much pressure on him or if I could change up my reinforcers, so I added in much more play, tricks, etc. Less reps, more reps, mixing up of a ton of things, thinking that it might be my training strategy, because I know he isn’t stupid or “disobedient.”

No go – shutting down even more. I know it’s going to sound weird, but when he started to refuse his “100% sure-fire OMG, I want that treat and will jump through hoops to get it” (plain rice cakes of all things), I finally really KNEW something was very wrong.

I didn’t know if this was a behavior issue or a medical one, so I listened to my own advice that I give to clients: “Take your dog to the vet to rule out physical issues.”

I made an appointment today and I chatted with the vet for quite some time – he poked, prodded and did vet things. I had come in to do a full blood panel of anything and everything we could think of including thyroid. During one part of the exam, the Vet had an “aha” moment (because even he was scratching his head as to what might be wrong, but he started to see what I was seeing – head down, hind end down, not happy, listless, back roached – could be the stress of the visit or not – “off” somehow) and instead of blood work, he took three x-rays.

Turns out Bran has either a herniated disc or a collapse of the disc and what appears to be a demineralization of the disc between C2 and C3 in the neck and a bit of narrowing of the dead space between 5 and 6 in the spine. He’s on Nsaids for 10 days and then we’ll see what we see… I don’t know what the prognosis is or what the treatment might be – I’ll have to be patient (OMG, NOT one of my strong suits) but I’ll meet it head one once we know. (Looking back it makes even more sense – exercises that he use to LOVE – glove retrieve for instance, all of a sudden he wouldn’t bring it back – probably because it hurt to lower his head)

This got me to thinking how many dogs are misdiagnosed as being stubborn, stupid, disobedient, willful, yada, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah, or the ever popular “he KNOWS this behavior and he’s not doing it on purpose, so I’m going to beat him up about it” ca-ca.

So I’m going to repeat myself – if your dog has been normal and all of a sudden isn’t, (or even gradually like Bran) don’t assume he’s being disobedient – TAKE HIM TO THE VET! If you don’t get an answer with the first one, get a second opinion!

Is it Safe or is it Dangerous?

Is it Safe or Dangerous?
Pamela Dennison © 2022

Dogs learn the same way that we all do – through operant and classical conditioning. However, I feel there is another aspect that comes into play here (that is actually part of classical conditioning, but I want to further tweak it out). Dogs are very literal and take things at face value.

“Is it safe or is it dangerous?”

When you break down everything your dog might encounter into this simple statement, you may perhaps understand him a little better and look at things from his point of view and not your human point of view.

For instance, let’s say you hit your dog for jumping on people coming to the door. Are “people coming to the door” safe or dangerous? The answer is dangerous. So what might your dog then do? He will make the association that people coming to the door are dangerous, cause them pain and might (depending on his innate personality) escalate from jumping on them to biting them or may run away in fear.

Your dog runs away and when he finally comes back, you punish him. Is that safe or dangerous? The answer is dangerous. He will not understand that you punished him for running away. He will understand that you punished him for coming back to you.

Punishing a dog for having accidents in the house – no matter when (so get rid of the old outdated garbage of “catching them in the act”). Is it safe or dangerous to relieve himself around you? The answer is dangerous. So how easy will it be to take the dog out a potty walk in the future? (plus the obvious fact that if your dog is peeing or pooping and you yell at him – guess what? He’ll be running away, peeing and pooping as he goes, so now you have a bigger mess to clean up!)

It seems to be human nature to react in a punishing or negative way when your dog makes a mistake. You yell or hit him for his mistakes (dangerous), get angry or even rub his nose in his mistakes (dangerous). Yes, this is reacting to your dog, (some people actually call this “training”) but unfortunately the thing you are training is his fear response (dangerous) towards you.

If you change your mindset and really, truly look at the safe/dangerous paradigm, and act accordingly, you will be able to make better choices for your dog and thus help to create a well adjusted one. Even if something bad happens once in awhile (because life isn’t perfect), he’ll be able to bounce back quickly, because the bank you’re building up of positive experiences will far outweigh the bad ones.

Think about it also from the dog’s perspective on how he’ll relate to you if you protect him – he’ll learn to TRUST YOU TO TAKE CARE OF HIM. Then you can work on the two way trust thing – it’s a beautiful thing to behold and it doesn’t just come when you purchase or adopt a dog – you have to EARN IT.

Is Two Too Many?

Is Two Too Many?
Pamela Dennison © 2021

This article is mostly questions I would like you to ask yourself BEFORE adding in another dog. It may just save you some anguish, trips to the vet to sew up the loser and the angst of having to return the new dog.

You already have a dog and want to purchase or adopt a new one. Good for you! Please read these questions and answer them honestly and unselfishly.

Have you asked your existing dog if he/she would want a playmate?

Did you just decide on your own, without taking into consideration that your present dog might not want, need or even be good with another dog, thus wreaking havoc in your household?

When you went to purchase or adopt your new dog, did you look at the possible differences between the two dogs that might cause a problem?

The size difference?

Energy difference?

Age difference? Often an older dog is not going to take kindly to an exuberant youngster, unless they have been well socialized and used to playing with all breeds, sizes and temperaments of other dogs.

Does your present dog have any issues that might make bringing in a new dog a real problem? (such as resource guarding)

Has the potential new dog;

Been temperament tested with by the rescue group or breeder?

Have they been tested to see what their energy levels are compared to your own dog? Higher, lower, same?

What is their personality as compared to your own dog – couch potato, medium energy, bull in a china shop that knows no boundaries?

When you go to look at the second dog, I highly recommend (and do this myself), you go and meet the new dog first, without your existing dog. See if you really like the dog, and if the dog likes you. Spend at least an hour with the dog – petting, feeding, hangIng out.

Go home WITHOUT THE DOG! Think it over for at least 24 hours. Go back WITH YOUR EXISTING DOG (and all family members) this time and take a walk with both dogs – either on leash at a distance or off leash in a safe area. Hopefully either you, the breeder or rescue group are well versed in body language, so you can see if this might be a good match.

I never, ever, ever adopt a new dog without first doing the above steps, because I’m not a big fan of having dog fights in my tiny home. I’m kind of into harmony. After Emma passed away it took me two years to find just the right dog to fit into my household with my two shelties. I wanted another Border collie and of course, I had a list of the qualities and traits I was looking for. I met some dogs, but they weren’t right for me or my little ones. Too intense and my gang was afraid of that kind of behavior.

So, you met the dog once, then twice (with your dog) and even if it’s a good match, GO HOME WITHOUT THE NEW DOG. Wait 24 hours. Then if it still feels right all around, by all means go back and get the dog. If you have *any* reservations or think, “well, they’ll learn to like each other,” then you’re fooling yourself and it will end in a disaster.

Don’t succumb to the high pressure rescue groups that tell you there are people waiting for this dog and if you don’t take it now, it will go to someone else. Great! Let it go. This is a living, breathing, feeling, thinking being, not some used car.

You’ll also want to really think about who else is in your household. Kids, especially young ones, might not too well with large bull in a china shop kind of dog. Same with elderly people. Do you have cats? Chickens, livestock? Does the potential new dog have a strong prey drive? That kind of dog may not be the right dog for you.

No harm, no foul
There are times when you think the second dog will fit in fine and oops, it doesn’t. Please don’t feel the need to keep the dog at all costs. IT’S OKAY to bring the dog back. REALLY. I give you permission. Be unselfish enough to realize that another home might be best for this particular dog and give them that chance for a better life.

Ten Myths of Positive Training Dispelled


Ten Myths of Positive Training Dispelled
Pamela Dennison (c) 2002 (excerpt from my book “You Can Train Your Dog; Mastering the Art & Science of Modern Dog Training”

Why do myths, such as the ones that follow, spring up out of nowhere? Primarily due to the general lack of understanding of how classical and operant conditioning work, and its use in modern training. Here are my favorite responses to these misconceptions. It’s hard to change old habits and old mind-sets; however, you’ll see that modern training isn’t so difficult after all. Going against the “old school” way may be difficult at times, but will be worth it in the end when you achieve a wonderful relationship with your well-mannered dog.

Myth #1: The Clicker Is a Fad or Gimmick
Marker training has been used for many decades in marine mammals, wild life and exotic animals as well as by competition and pet dog trainers. It is not new, and certainly not a fad. Using conditioned reinforcers (such as a clicker) is a training method based on sound, scientifically proven psychological principles, as discussed in Chapter 1. Skinner and others have conducted extensive research on the effectiveness of conditioned reinforcers in training with stable, unwavering results.

As with anything, if you use the clicker or positive training improperly, it won’t work. Put your car into neutral gear and it won’t move forward when you step on the gas pedal. Give your dog a treat for barking, “to shut him up,” and he’ll continue to bark.
I’ve seen ill-informed trainers use the clicker as a recall signal, as a sound with no meaning (in other words, no reward follows the sound), or just randomly, with no thought of what they were actually reinforcing. Use it incorrectly (marking the wrong behavior) and you can easily create confusion, fear, and avoidance.

Myth #2: The Principles Are Too Difficult to Learn and to Understand
This is absolutely not true. Although positive training involves a lot of technical information, you don’t have to be thoroughly versed or enmeshed to understand how it all works.
However, be warned that it’s easy to become a “behavior junkie,” because learning how dogs learn is fascinating. Many people come to me saying, “I just want a dog that doesn’t jump or pull,” and then become so mesmerized by the process that they stay to learn more.

Without understanding at least some of the science behind the method I teach, it’s easy to fall back into the punishment mode of training, especially when frustrated by your dog’s behavior or perceived lack of progress.

Once you know the “whys” of behavior, it’s then quite easy to fix problem behaviors—and better yet, to stop them before they start.

Additional fallacies you may hear from tradition-based trainers:
Myth #3: Positive Reinforcement Takes Too Long
Actually, positive methods have been proven to speed up learning. In the beginning stages, it seems to take longer only because you may have to wait a whole five or ten seconds (!) for the dog to think, rather than forcing the dog into position.

However, once you and your dog catch on, clicker training leads to faster results. Why? Because dogs usually catch on faster than we humans do. Creating an environment where the dog feels safe enough to learn and yes, maybe make a mistake along the way is the cornerstone of modern dog training. Dogs quickly learn to perform desired behaviors in order to make you click so they can get paid! In this age of more things to do in less time, “faster” is a real asset. However, when building a relationship, it takes as long as it takes. You can’t rush a bond—with dogs or with other people. In addition, behaviors learned through positive reinforcement and positive associations tend to be lifelong. You certainly can’t build rapport and trust using punishment.

We all make choices in our lives. Sometimes we choose incorrectly. That is called a mistake. Dogs and people trained using positive methods sometimes make the wrong choices, as do dogs and people trained using punishment methods. At times, we all make the wrong choices—humans and dogs—because none of us is perfect. Did you get beaten the last time you goofed? If your dog makes a mistake, lighten up!

Many years ago I had a student that came to me with her adorable puppy and a very bratty 10-year old son. He was obnoxious toward his mother as well as to me. While he was taking the pup for a potty walk, I asked the mom what was up with her son. She explained that there was a great age difference between this boy and the next oldest sibling and that he was acting this way for attention.
I recommended that she treat him just as she would her puppy. If he was obnoxious, she was to turn around and leave the room. If he was appropriate, she was to reinforce him in any way that made sense to a 10-year old boy. The following week, he was a model of decorum, and it turned out he was really very bright and nice. During a break, when he was out of the room, I asked her, “Wow! What a difference! What did you do?” Her reply, “I did exactly what you told me to do and he is now correcting himself and apologizes if he forgets and talks back.”

So in just one week of using positive methods, she was able to teach her son to behave properly, when for the last ten years, all the yelling yielded were impolite behaviors.

Myth #4: In Training, a Dog Should Never Be Given a Choice
Clicker trainers set up the situation so that their dogs make the desired choices. Dogs always have behavioral choices, even when they’re trained with aversive consequences (corrections and/or punishment). To think they don’t is an illusion.

I’ve seen dogs make mistakes regardless of whether they’re trained using punishment or positive reinforcement. I’ve also seen people make mistakes—sometimes the same ones over and over again.
And if they do make a mistake – so what? No one is perfect!

Myth #5: You Must Always Have the Clicker with You
Although most modern trainers would probably admit to having clickers stashed everywhere (I personally found 15 clickers in my pocketbook the last time I cleaned it out), they’re not necessary every time you work with your dog.

The clicker is used mostly when teaching a new behavior in the beginning stages. You can phase it out once the behavior is well learned. Thus, it is very important to make sure that certain words become secondary reinforcers. (A secondary reinforcer is something that the dog has to be taught to like) I use the words “yes” and “that’s right” as my “click words.” Sometimes it just isn’t logical or practical to be holding food, clicker, toys, and the leash. Use these words not as praise, but as a marker signal followed by a reward, just as you would reward after a click.

Myth #6: Clicker-Trained Dogs Won’t Work Without Food
I could counter that by saying that punishment-trained dogs won’t work without punishment—like the above, it’s just not true. In the beginning stages of training, I recommend that you use food liberally. Many times, the dogs have no real positive connection with training or their owners, and food helps to jump-start those connections.

However, a good positive/clicker trainer learns how to go from continuous to variable schedules of reinforcement and to use other types of reinforcers, such as verbal markers, praise or toys. If you’re still using the clicker, then the behavior isn’t learned enough yet to phase it out. And that’s okay – all things in due time!

Food is sometimes easier to deliver and doesn’t take much thought—get a behavior right, get a cookie. But if you use only food as reinforcement, the naysayers will be right—your dog will work only for food. Using other types of reinforcers, such as petting, play, or silly games, takes more thought and planning, but the benefits are enormous.

Myth #7: Force Works Better
Although a dog’s desire to avoid pain is strong, the desire to gain pleasant consequences is stronger. Think about the last time you got a speeding ticket—did it stop you from speeding? Much of your dog’s behavior is based on what’s more reinforcing for him do to. So you want to create pleasing behaviors for both of you!

Let’s say you’re stopped by the police each time you’re not speeding and are rewarded with $100. Every day for a week, you’re stopped two or three times per day and handed $100. Then the police go to a random schedule of reinforcement. Now you get stopped only one or two times per day and only three or five times per week. Sometimes you get verbally praised, sometimes you’re handed dinner tickets to your favorite restaurant, and sometimes you get the $100.

Once in a while you get pulled over and handed $1,000. Would you ever speed again? I sure wouldn’t. I would take that money and run out and buy a van with cruise control because I wouldn’t want to miss the chance of possibly getting the rewards! In the same respect, once a dog has learned something (good or bad), he tends to repeat that behavior over and over. Behaviors learned through force tend to fall apart when the dog is under stress. But behaviors learned in pleasant circumstances with positive consequences are less likely to fail under pressure.

Myth #8: Positive Training Isn’t Effective with Barking or Aggression
Dogs trained using a clicker can be easily taught alternate behaviors to replace the unwanted ones. Trainers using positive principles often devise very creative ways to change undesirable behaviors such as barking and aggression. I’ve personally used positive training to solve a large number of serious behavioral and aggression problems.

I’ve seen dogs barking in crates. I’ve seen their owners come up to the crate, kick it, yell at the dog, take the dog out of the crate when they can’t stand it anymore or it becomes embarrassing, and otherwise reinforce the dog for barking in the crate.

I’ve seen owners put collars on their dogs that deliver an electric shock or a spray of citronella to get them to stop barking. After a few zaps with the shock collar or some sprays with the citronella collar, they hang the collar on the crate and say, “See? The dog is now not barking.” True, but take the collar away and the dog starts barking again because now the threat of punishment is no longer there. And the dog hasn’t learned anything constructive, such as being quiet in the crate.
If you don’t give your dog a job that you approve of, he will become self-employed—and I promise you, you won’t like his choice of employment.

Aggression can often be easily (although not necessarily quickly) corrected by using positive methods. You can’t answer aggression with aggression and expect the dog to become friendly. Doing that would be the same as if someone was yelling or hitting you because you were afraid, and then expected you to go out and be the life of the party.

Myth #9: You Must Be Dominant to Your Dog
There are still arguments going on in the dog training world about the word and intent of “dominance.” There are almost as many definitions of it as there are dog trainers. Yes, there are “dominant” dogs, just as there are “dominant” people. I think the real problem is that in our society we tend to think of the word “dominant” as being punitive, violent, scheming and coercive.

I feel the use of the word dominant clouds our perception of how to train dogs. What we are really trying to accomplish is compassionate leadership. Leadership between humans and dogs is about boundaries and acceptable behaviors for dogs living with humans. Adding compassionate understanding in training clarifies the roles in our relationship. The human, as leader, guides the dog, sets boundaries and teaches what is acceptable–with compassion–for the dog’s long term well-being.

The behaviors we feel we cannot live with are usually natural canine behaviors; such as marking of territory, jumping on those they’re happy to see, extensive barking to announce intruders. These behaviors are not attempts to subvert our leadership or organize a “coup.” Really. Your dog isn’t awake all night scheming how to take over your shared small world. Qualifying those behaviors as “dominant” is a misuse of the word and leads humans to believe there is intent from the dog where none exists.

I already stated (in Chapter One) that “positive doesn’t equal permissiveness,” and that “I never use physical or verbal punishment on my dogs. I don’t rule by force and my dogs don’t rule the roost.” Being a leader for your dog is really about showing them the ropes, teaching them the rules–with compassion and being consistent with your expectations and cues.

I am sure you have experienced the following scenario; you ask your dog to do something, such as heeling and he completely blows you off. And yet when your instructor takes the leash and has a few treats, your dog acts like he has been trained for the Crufts Obedience Invitational. You get your dog back and he goes right back to ignoring you. Your dog isn’t stubborn, stupid or acting “dominant” over you. Your instructor probably has a clearer picture in her mind of what she wants the dog to do, is very clear in her cues, and your dog is reading, understanding and complying.

Dominance has been attributed to many dog behaviors, most of which actually indicate an untrained or stressed dog, not a dominant one. Licking, jumping up in greeting, pulling on the leash, getting up on the couch, a dog with separation anxiety that destroys the house in his terror of being left alone, peeing in the house, ripping up pillows, going out of doorways first, sitting on your foot, nudging your hand for petting, barking, biting the leash, and the list can go on and on. I know a woman who was told (by her vet of all people!) that when she came home from work and her dog started licking his legs (creating lick granulomas) that he was acting dominantly toward her. None of these behaviors are about your dog showing “dominance” over you; they are all indicative of either an untrained dog or stress behaviors, and sometimes both.

Myth #10: TV shows are real life
Lately there are a ton of horrific and downright abusive “reality” shows on TV about dog training. Please just remember that television is all about entertainment, (and ratings and money from advertisers) and have little to do with reality. Just like the police, lawyer and doctor shows, they all have little to do with real life or consequences. You wouldn’t go into a courtroom thinking you have learned all you need to know about the law from Law and Order or perform surgery because you watch House.

No one can train a dog or solve serious behavioral problems in 30 minutes—it’s just not possible. TV shows rarely have follow-up episodes to see how the so-called “cured” dogs are faring. There is an enormous amount of editing involved, and with the real amount of time spent with the dog and problems that ensue are not shown, plus tons of crucial information left unsaid and unaddressed. If your dog is having behavioral problems, please seek out a professional trainer, making sure you check references and certifications first.

Pop Quiz
If your dog is barking incessantly and you yell at the dog, what is your dog learning to do?
If your dog jumps on someone and you yank him down by the collar, what is your dog really learning?

Summary
Positive training is based on proven scientific principles.
Positive training does not take longer than punishment based training, and is, in fact, often faster and more effective
Dogs always have choices in how they behave, regardless of the consequences and the training method.
Positive training is the only reliable way to deal with aggression.

“SHUT UP!!!” And Why it Doesn’t Work, a.k.a. The Great Barking Experiment

My gang

“SHUT UP!!!” And Why it Doesn’t Work, a.k.a. The Great Barking Experiment
Pamela Dennison © 2021

I have Shelties. Need I say more? Shetland Sheepdogs, in case you were ignorant of this fact, bark at the footfall of a squirrel from three days ago. My dogs were (past tense) actually pretty quiet on the whole, until Emma in her dotage, would bark for no reason (especially in the van). Being dutiful dogs, Finn and Dreamer decided very quickly to follow her lead. They adored her and would follow her around, so much so that I used to call them the swan and her cygnets. (See the front cover of my Maxwell Award winning book “You Can Train Your Dog; Mastering the Art & Science of Modern Dog Training.”) So why not bark with their swan?

I wasn’t paying attention to my dog trainer persona and decided (not a conscience decision really, just a “not paying attention to what I was doing”) for YEARS to follow my human self and started yelling at them to shut up. Which of course didn’t stop them from barking, and in fact, escalated the barking, which escalated me yelling and turning purple and increased the barking into other areas of our lives.

Slow forward to yesterday. Why I never thought of this I’ll never know, but here it is. The real reason why dogs bark.

Think about it. When we teach a dog to sit, we lure the dog and say sit *when* the dog is doing it, right? We pair the word *with* the actual sit and by naming it correctly (at the exact moment it happens), we facilitate learning. The same goes with any new verb we are teaching, although if it’s an instant behavior like sit, down and stand, I name it right away. Anything more complex and I name it once the dog has learned the task. Because we don’t want to name a substandard behavior, right? For instance, if my dog is walking next to me but not looking at me and not in perfect heel position, I’m *not* going to name it “heel.” I would only name it once it’s flawless.

Aren’t we really NAMING the action of barking, the words “SHUT UP?” Of course we are! The dog doesn’t know what these words mean – they mean nothing unless we pair them with a behavior. Think about it! Remember how you trained the basic cues? Sit happens, you say “sit.” Barking happens, you say “shut up.”

Get it? Sound familiar?

Tune in next week!

Do Your Research, But…

Do Your Research, But…
© 2019, Pamela Dennison

I’ll keep this relatively short.

True story…sigh…
A family was looking for a trainer for their 7 month old puppy, to help fix typical nipping and jumping problem. They asked around and got a referral to a trainer, who by her website (I personally checked it out after guessing correctly who it was), was pretending to be a positive trainer. All fluff and none of it true.

Within 15 minutes, they left in tears. The puppy had jumped on the trainer, (typical puppy stuff), whereupon she kneed the pup in the chest, proceeded to kick her, then hang her up in the air, off her feet, while on a choke collar and then dragged her across the floor. The pup defecated in fear, bit her own tongue, blood raining from her mouth.

They called me later that day and when describing the incident, she broke down. Her kids had been crying all day, the dog was freaked out, wouldn’t eat or drink, hiding from them and choking. I highly recommended that they take the pup to the vet to make sure there wasn’t any lasting damage – broken ribs, bruising and the like. I explained that our industry is not regulated – anyone can say “I’m a dog trainer” and hang their shingle out to an unsuspecting populace, and I suggested that they write out the entire incident and give a copy to their Veterinarian and the organization that this “trainer” belongs to.

We made an appointment for the next day – my first lesson is without the dog – and I wanted to make sure that her whole family came so they could overcome their trauma too.

Fast forward to the first lesson with the dog. It took pup awhile to come into my training building – she was terrified and hung back at the door, trying to shrink into the floor or get back outside through osmosis. After about 10 minutes we were able to get her all the way in the room and then I rewarded her by letting her go back outside.

The second time in, she entered without too much hesitation. She saw me sitting in my chair and started to pull toward me, wagging frantically, head down in what I perceived as a very nervous, scared way. I wanted to make sure there was no pressure on her neck, no reminder of the trauma she had already been through, so I told the owner to drop the leash. As the pup came closer, I sat there quietly and just presented some calming signals – squinting, head turn, blinking, lip licking. Pup instantly slowed down in a calm way, not in a groveling way, sniffed me and walked away. We both repeated that a few times and each time pup reacted appropriately, calming down and relaxing sooner each time, learning to trust me.

No fuss, no muss, no violence.

I won’t go into more detail, but suffice it to say, it may take a little longer for her to overcome that horrific experience, but I’m pretty sure she’ll be just fine.

So, why the title of this post? These people thought they were doing the right thing. Two people had recommended this so called trainer, and without actually personally checking her out and watching a class or two, they trusted the referrals and went through hell.

Getting referrals is a wonderful thing, however, I would highly urge you to also observe the trainer before signing up. Very often one can’t really tell what kind of methods a trainer uses without actually seeing it in person. Punishment based trainers are not going to tell you that they use kicking, choking, and hanging on their website and the only way you’ll know for sure is to observe them in action. If they won’t let you observe, then don’t go there. Not all trainers are exactly alike. There is a full range of fabulous, great, mediocre and downright horrific.

Get referrals, get recommendations BUT go one step further and check out the trainer IN PERSON.

Leading a Life of Quiet Desperation

Leading a Life of Quiet Desperation
© 2019 Pamela S. Dennison

Lately I’ve been thinking how the average pet dog lives their life. In my classes, I talk quite a bit about dog body language and how important it is that we learn it to the best of our flawed human ability. After all, we expect them to learn our language and I feel that it is only fair to learn their’s.

So many people who own dogs have no idea that dog’s even have a language beyond tail wagging, (which is more often than not mis-read) so here are our dogs, trying everything in their power to communicate with us and we’re not paying attention. Can you imagine how that must feel to them? To try and try and try to let you know they’re uncomfortable, scared, nervous, anxious and no one is listening? Or getting punished when they try to explain in the only way they know how, and living in an environment that doesn’t respect whatsoever their needs.

I firmly believe that most of the behavior problems we see are a result of that lack of understanding of canine body language or worse, the misinterpretation of it. With all of the verbs I teach people to train, I consider learning their body language is 90% of what it takes to train a dog properly and humanely.

We bring this completely different species into our homes, who have completely different behavior and social patterns, and yet we don’t take the time to learn how to truly care for them. We have a preconceived notion of what and who dogs are – the Lassie syndrome if you will. We are blinded by our ignorance and our dog’s suffer the consequences. So now we have even more complex problems – our dogs don’t know what is expected of them and here comes “Tom, Dick or Harry Dog Trainer” inflicting all sorts of bizarre and harmful punishment on our dogs…and we let them because “Tom, Dick and Harry” insist that helicoptering, alpha rolling, kicking, shocking and other tools of torture is how one is supposed to “train” dogs. And yet again, the dog pays the penalty for our ignorance. We continually put them into situations they can’t handle and punish them for being afraid. They try to tell us they are afraid and we punish them even more.

Before you get upset, I know first hand that “we don’t know what we don’t know,” or as my mom always said, “You’re not born knowing how to balance your check book,” however, there is a thing called “critical thinking,” which means:

noun: critical thinking
the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.
2. Critical thinking means making reasoned judgments that are logical and well-thought out. It is a way of thinking in which you don’t simply accept all arguments and conclusions you are exposed to but rather have an attitude involving questioning such arguments and conclusions.

Without such critical thinking skills and the understanding of body language and how dogs learn (and it ain’t from punishment from humans), those are the dogs that live in quiet desperation. Or not so quiet if the punishment doled out creates an aggressive or reactive dog.

We punish our dogs for being dogs. The dogs with whom we share our lives today, have been essentially “manufactured” by us. WE made them bark, WE made them scavenge, WE made them resource guard, WE made them reliant on us, and WE don’t actually like any of it.

We view training and social interactions as bonuses to be given if and when we have the time. No one places the same importance on those as they do providing food, water and shelter.

In spite of our blunders, our dogs do try so hard to make sense of the life we gave them, and as Henry David Thoreau said, ““The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

From Psychology Today, an excerpt from Iddo Landau, Ph.D., “The line of thought seems to go more or less like this: “the mass of people who lead lives of quiet desperation probably do so because they are afraid to be who they are.”

And so our dogs can also be afraid to be who they are and no one should live such a life. Educate yourself! There are plenty of wonderful resources out there. If you aren’t sure if a source is valid, please feel free to contact me to show you how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Holidays and Dogs…not perfect together!

Holidays and Dogs…not perfect together!
Pamela Dennison (c) 2018

The Holidays are drawing near again and during the mad rush, please don’t forget about the safety of your dogs.

Crowds
If you have large crowds coming to your house, keep your dog(s) safe in a separate room. Get them a nice kong stuffed with something frozen and gooey or a beef marrow bone. Why? Because many of your guests may not be dog savvy, causing undue stress to your dog. If you are serving alcohol, definitely put your dogs away! People that have had too much alcohol should not mix with animals! Their judgement may impaired and they may act inappropriately toward your dog, causing stress and perhaps a bite.

When I have non-dog people at my house, my dogs are crated in my van. Less stress for them and I have the wonderful excuse to go outside periodically to walk them. If you are bringing your dog to someone else’s house, make sure you bring the comforts of home with you; plenty of water from a source your dog is used to, bedding, crate, toys, towels, food, bowls and a blanket to cover the bed. Use the same rules as you would at home – lots of downtime, alone time with you, exercise and good chew toys.

If you have company coming for many days, you may want to consider boarding them, or at the very least, spending quality, quiet time alone with your dog(s).

In either case, make sure your dog has his tags and for added measure, feel free to microchip your dog! Guests can inadvertently let your dog out and finding him again will be easier if he has identification on him.

Food
Even if you have only a few people over, keep on eye on the food! Don’t be in such a rush that you allow your dog the opportunity to steal food. I’ve heard stories of dogs counter surfing and eating the turkey that was set on the counter to “rest” before slicing.

More obvious, but still needs mentioning, a few foods that are often around at holiday time and are deadly for dogs; chocolate, grapes and raisins. Too much turkey causes diarrhea. Oh and watch out for recipes or items that have xylitol in them – xylitol is very deadly. And don’t forget to secure the garbage can!

Make sure you have ipecac or 3% Hydrogen Peroxide on hand and if you think your dog has eaten any of these things, make them vomit right away and keep an eye on them carefully.

Tree and ornaments
A very simple solution with an indoor tree, ornaments, presents and tinsel is to put an “X pen” (aka exercise pen) around the tree. You don’t want your dog marking the tree or eating the tinsel (tinsel can be deadly).

If you think ahead and plan appropriately, the holidays can be fun and safe for you and your dogs.

Asking the Owner is Great, But How About Asking the Dog?

Asking the Owner is Great, But How About Asking the Dog?
Pamela Dennison (c) 2017

Although people actually asking permission to pet your dog from a safe distance is verrry slowwwly on the rise (people are still racing up to strange dogs, still getting bit, still causing trauma to the dog, still thinking dogs are public property…sigh…), there is one part, equally important, that continues to be missed.

Asking the DOG!

True stories:
You ask to pet someone else’s dog. They say “yes, you may.” You walk right up to the dog, reach down and over the dog’s head with arm outstretched…and whammo! Instant dog bite.

I had this happen at my business about a month ago: A stranger walked in to inquire about dog training. She saw the cute Pug across the room and without an invitation, made a beeline for the dog. Dog was scared and started growling. I instantly stepped in between and the stranger started to walk around me to get to the dog. I had to hold the stranger by the shoulders to stop her. I asked her what she was doing. Her response, “I want to pet the dog.” I told her to look at the dog, “does it look like that dog wants to be pet?” (in the meantime the dog is still growling). Her reply, “But I want to pet the dog.” I told her “It’s not about what YOU want, it’s about if the dog wants you to approach and pet.” She wasn’t all that happy about me physically blocking her from getting to the dog, but finally backed off.

Even with the most innocent “ask and receive permission from the owner,” did you ever think to ASK the dog? Obviously we can’t “ask” the dog like we just did their owner, but if you’re observant and get out of your own internal wish to pet that dog come hell or high water, you can actually ask the dog.

When I’m petting a strange dog (after getting permission, although I have to say, I rarely ask to pet someone else’s dog, preferring to admire from a distance – yes even with my own clients dogs), I do NOT just walk up to it and thrust my hand in it’s face. I squat down sideways, look away, yawn, lick my lips, keep my hands to myself, and wait….I watch out of the corner of my eye to see if and how the dog approaches. If the dog comes up nicely (no head down, tail not tucked, not too timidly, no overt calming signals, etc.), I still wait…if the dog sniffs me, great. I still wait…(a dog sniffing you is NOT an invitation to pet it). If the dog inserts it’s face under my arm or hand with a typical “pet me” motion, then I do a few soft strokes on the chest and then take my hand away and wait…if the dog walks away, I let him move away – he’s allowed to have his own opinion about how and how much he’s willing to be touched. If the dog stays with me, I’ll pet a little more, then take my hand away again and wait… I give the dog an “out” so that if they want more petting, they can have it and if they don’t, I don’t pressure them to accept it.

There have been some dogs that when I approach sideways, tell me from many feet away that I’m too close. I don’t pressure the dog – I simply walk away. After all, we all have our own comfort zone, where we will allow, or not allow certain people to come into or stay out of it. It’s only fair to respect dogs for the same thing.

Take a look at the photo above. This dog isn’t all that thrilled about being pet on the head – you can see his head ducking and he’s licking his lips. If you aren’t aware of dog body language and you approach a dog inappropriately, be aware that you may be inviting a bite.

Educate yourself! THE best resource is Turid Rugaas and her book and DVD on Calming Signals. (www.dogwise.com) Get them both and be sure to watch the DVD a minimum of 12 times. I’ve watched it over 2,000 times. No lie.

This is a link to a fabulous article, that may help you put it all into more perspective – from the dog’s point of view. http://www.drandyroark.com/dog-not-petting-zoo/