Wanted: Stupid Dogs

969295_10202087230557656_1881258849_nYeah, Baby Z thinks it sounds crazy, too.  But is it really?

Think about it.  Do you really want Lassie as a dog?  I would posit that many people do not – not really.  They do not want a dog that could make them breakfast and then wash the dishes afterwards, because that dog could also manage to accomplish an awful lot of things that didn’t make them happy.

Lassie was a problem solver.  She always knew what to do when Timmy fell down the well.  But take this into the real world.  A dog that smart that can solve problems may just become one himself to anyone who doesn’t really appreciate him for who he truly is:  a dog.

Too often I am called by well meaning individuals who want me to take the dog out of their dog.  They see dogs that are trained with certain methods that would never think of doing anything they are not specifically asked to do.  They very rarely do anything on their own.  They sit and wait for their handler’s commands.  They do not act like dogs act.  Not anymore.  They call this training.  I call it robotization without the robots.  It takes any free thought away from a dog.  The dog learns not to think for himself, and often becomes a dog that could not find its way out of a paper bag.  Stupid dog.

I think this is sad.  I like dogs that can be dogs.  Yes, I want them to have certain boundaries they live by, but I don’t make them so rigorous that they can no longer behave like a dog.  I don’t live with dogs because I want to live with a being that never thinks for itself.  I live with beings who are dogs, and act like dogs, and yes, occasionally get into trouble like dogs.  Because I love dogs.  I love being surrounded by dogs who think, dogs who love, dogs who occasionally learn how to do something I wish they couldn’t do.

Dogs play, dogs chew, dogs chase, dogs bark, dogs zoom!  I allow my dogs to do all of these things because it makes them happy.  And when they are happy, I am happy.  So if you want your dog to act like a robot, be seen and not heard, be a part of the furniture (or worse – a lawn ornament), well, you might want to find a trainer who doesn’t love dogs as much as I do, because that just isn’t who they are.  But if you want them to be well behaved but thinking dogs who are capable of solving problems and being the creative, loving, and fun creatures that they naturally are, I would love to meet you.  You are my kind of person.  I will not make your dog stupid.

Am I A Monster?

Dogs 004I want to make something crystal clear:  I do not hate anyone.  There are some methods I don’t like.  I don’t like seeing dogs in a pinch collar, a shock collar, or a choke collar. I believe these methods to be harmful to the dog, and to the dog owner relationship.  I never like to see a dog that was trained with fear and punishment.  That being said, the trainers that use these techniques are regular human beings, like you and I.  How do I know this?  I was once one of these trainers.

Those of you who have known me long enough know that the face pictured above is my beloved beagle, Molly, who was trained using a shock collar.  I have no bigger regret in life than I put my baby girl through such a thing, but I did so with the best of intentions.  I had always, and will always, believe that a strong recall can save a dog’s life.  And I thought back then I couldn’t get that without the use of force.  It’s what those who taught me to train told me, and they were taught by others.  We were all in the same boat of doing things we regarded as “right” for the dog according to what we had been taught and what was common practice, but we were wrong.  Not bad people, not sociopaths, not people who would ever tolerate animal abuse (as we defined it in our ignorance).  Just people who loved our dogs, and wanted what was best for them.

I won’t even tell you I didn’t see it.  There was a part of me that had to turn a blind eye to what it was doing to my girl.  I knew no other way, and I wanted my girl to be safe off lead, and so, even though there were times my stomach tightened when I had to use the equipment, I thought it was necessary.  And I convinced myself it wasn’t hurting her.  I convinced myself it was best for her.

It was not until I spent time with several wonderful trainers who used reward based training that I truly was able to acknowledge the damage I had done to my Molly girl.  They did not judge me.  They did not berate me.  They simply showed me ways I could do it in the future without the use of painful and stressful tools.

One day I saw an advertisement for a workshop with Gail Fisher.  I admit I had no idea who she was, but my friend and mentor Maggie told me to go to the workshop.  I was a little horrified when I walked in and realized it was a clicker training workshop.  I had not anticipated that.  But Gail was fantastic, and she showed how, with good timing and lots of positive reinforcement, you could train a dog to do just about anything.  I left a convert.  I have never looked back.

But I always look forward.  I look for new information, new science, and new techniques everywhere I turn.  I have even learned from some trainers that I don’t agree with, and been able to modify their techniques to fit my own convictions.  I firmly believe you never need to cause fear or pain to a dog in order to train it.  I didn’t always believe that.  I wish I had started with Gail.  But even she used punishment and fear at one point in her career.  She is very open about it.  And I want to be very open about it.

I know trainers that use aversive techniques can be terrific people who love dogs.  And, for their sake, and for the sake of the dogs that they work with, I hope they love to learn, and will be open to new ideas.  And when they see that dogs can be trained without fear, pain, and intimidation, I hope that they will give up the traditional training methods and opt for methods that are fun and rewarding to the dog.  Positive reward training works, but it doesn’t make me a better person than someone who uses punishment.  It just means I have seen the power of positive reinforcement, and the damage that can be done when fear is used to motivate.  I know because I have been there.  I wish I hadn’t damaged my Molly in my learning process.  But she, being a beagle, has forgiven me, and loves me with all her heart.


Reliable Recall: Some Rules to Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called


Coming when called is perhaps the most important thing your dog can learn.  It can mean the difference between being lost forever, getting into a road and hit, or just generally making you pull your hair out with worry.

There are a few rules you need to keep in mind when you teach your dog to come when called.

  1. He needs a reason. He may not need one later, but he needs one now.  So don’t expect him to come and then not reward him with something positive.
  2. Treat it as if it were as important as it actually is!  When your dog comes to you, throw a party!  Don’t just say “Good boy” in a dull voice.  Be enthusiastic, and give him some noms.
  3. Don’t ever punish him for coming to you, no matter how long it takes!  If you greet him with anger or frustration he will be reluctant to come to you the next time you call.  And don’t do something he doesn’t like.  Don’t call him and put him in the bathtub.  Don’t call him away from play (not now, anyway).  If he needs a bath, then call him, play with him for five minutes, and then it’s bath time.
  4. Practice every day.  Don’t just hope it will be there when you need it.  Practice it at whatever difficulty he is successful at, and then build up.

This is an important command.  Take time to train your dog, and have fun with it!

Beating a Dead Zebra – Final Note

angry chiThe apparent success of punishment can be convincing.  Punishing will often result in an end to a behavior.  It may also result in the temporary suppression of a behavior.  At least, as long as the one doling out the punishment is present.  Dog pees on the floor, and his owner rubs his nose in it.  Next time the dog needs to pee he slips behind the couch.

Dog growls or shows aggression.  Punishment happens.  Dog no longer shows signs of aggression.  But is the underlying emotional cause gone?  Absolutely not!  Punishment of these warning signs often leads to dogs that bite “without warning”.  We humans, in our infinite wisdom, are notorious for punishing out the warnings our dogs give prior to biting.  It doesn’t change the anxiety that leads to the aggression, it just changes the dog’s decision to warn us about our transgressions.

Aggression begets aggression.  That is a fact, and it often occurs on both sides of the equation.  We punish something we don’t like, get a result, and next time it happens we punish again, often with harsher punishment than before.  We feel a sense of satisfaction from the suppression of the unwanted behavior.  Because of this we are rewarded for punishing.  Basic behaviorism tells us that any behavior that is reinforced will grow stronger.  It is a hard pill to swallow, but it happens all the time when we use punishment.

Aggression also can lead to more aggression from our dogs.  Because we are now perceived as a threat to them because of our perceived erratic and violent behavior, they must defend themselves.  If we set up an adversarial relationship with them we should not be surprised when that is what we end up with.

Crossing Over

I thought it wise to take a break from my current series to explain something about my training methods for those of you who have known me for a long time.  I am what they call a “crossover trainer”.  What that means is that I once used methods and tools I no longer use.

You see, there are really two schools of dog training.  One I refer to as traditional. These are dog trainers that learned from dog trainers that learned from dog trainers and they have been pretty much using variations of the same methods for nearly a century.  They support these methods because they often see instant results with them.  They are sincere in their thinking that these methods are the best and most proven methods.  But the issue is, by the time the problems that these methods cause rear their ugly heads, the trainer is often out of the picture, or, if he knows nothing about the science at all, the trainer does not associate the problem behaviors with his (or her) training methodology.  These are not bad people, they do care about the dogs.  But their methods are problematic.  I used to be one of those trainers.  Until I met the other kind of trainer.

The second variety of trainer is one who studies the science of behavior and designs methods around the science rather just doing it a certain way because that is how it has always been done.  We have come a long way from the traditional methods, to the benefit of our four legged companions.  This is the reason you will see me writing articles that may discourage the use of techniques and equipment that I once embraced.  You see, I have discovered, that just because it works sometimes, and just because that is the way it has been done since the beginning, doesn’t make it right.  We used to put leaches on sick people to make them better.  Science prevailed there, so please, let it prevail here.

And if ever you have any questions about anything I write, or (gasp!) don’t believe me, please let me know and I am happy to send you the names of people with PhDs and DVMs who have done the research.

Another note about traditional methods and your DVM.  Most vets do not specialize in behavior, but some do.  Those that do not specialize in behavior may have no more knowledge than the traditional trainer does about what methods are and are not helpful.  So when I refer to DVMs in regard to behavioral expertise, it is those that have studied behavior, not those who haven’t.

So I hope that clears some things up for you.  And if you are one of those people who I worked with before and would like to hear about the new stuff please let me know!  If you are still in the area I will give you a session or two to see if we can’t cross you and your dog over, too!