Friday, November 19, 2010

My dog is a quirky bitch

What IS it with my dog an the UPS truck? While on our walk last night we were passed by many cars and trucks. The FedEx truck went by. A least two full size buses went by. A bus for the disabled went by and that's about the same size as the damned UPS truck. But those? Ignored.  She didn't even look up as they passed us by.

But the UPS truck? Dahlia couldn't wait to get over to it. We saw the first UPS truck early in the walk. As soon as she saw the guy delivering packages and saw the truck, she rushed over and sat near it, leaning forward, ears alert. She just couldn't wait until he started the darned thing up. The guy looked at her and laughed. He's the one on our usual route and he's seen her do this before. So he started up the truck.

And what does Dahlia do? "BARK BARK BARK BARK!!!!!" And she raced after it like it was the best thing ever.

We saw the second UPS truck as we were heading back to our apartment. We ended up having to walk out of our way to go over to it.

Now Dahlia got close to it and she went into "creeping" mode as she came up along side it. She moved in slow motion, her body low, her eyes focused on the truck. She looked like these dogs in her movement. That's right...what makes my dog go into border collie herding/stalking posture? THE UPS TRUCK.

My dog is so weird.

So she slinks up near it and then lays down. She's waiting for it to start up. The UPS guy is still in the truck getting his packages out and he sees my stupid dog laying there staring intently at his truck and he gets out and offers her a biscuit. A plain old regular milk bone dog biscuit. Which Dahlia takes. She won't eat them if we offer them to her. But she takes it from this guy.


She ate the biscuit. Right down. I think she was biding her time because soon he came back to the truck and when he saw her waiting and excited, he started it up and took off with great flair (as great of flair as one can in one of those lumbering vehicles).

And what did Dahlia do? "BARK BARK BARK BARK!!!!!" And she raced after it like it was the best thing ever. Again.

But best of all! THE TRUCK PULLED OVER! OMG EXCITEMENT FOR DAHLIA!!! He had more packages to deliver down the road. He rushed out and delivered them all and by the time he was back, Dahlia was ready to go. He took off flying again and...once more...

"BARK BARK BARK BARK!!!!!" And she raced after it like it was the best thing ever.

Sadly for Dahlia, he continued on his way and we had to turn toward home, but she had a huge spring in her step and raced all the way back to the apartment.

Just what is it about those UPS trucks?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why the "positive only" community is losing to Cesar Millan

I belong to a community on Facebook that is there to debunk Cesar Millan's methods.  This community currently has about 4,100 members.  This seems fairly significant.  4,100 people devoted to positive training and to getting the word out that many trainers and behaviorists do not approve of Cesar Millan's dominance-based theories and harsh punishment-based training methods.  But when you compare this to the over 820,000 people that are in the group devoted to his show and teachings you realize there's a major problem.  Even Victoria Stilwell, TV's voice for positive training, has only a little over 27,000 members in her facebook group.

Positive training is losing.  Cesar Millan is winning.  This is a huge problem and I've been wracking my brain to try to figure out why people gravitate to Cesar and are devotees of his training but will not adopt more positive training methods.  After all, to those of us who use various forms of positive training, from clicker training to lure/reward styles, it's the most logical way to train.

It's based in science.  Operant conditioning uses the four quadrants (positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment) to influence behavior.  While all of the quadrants are valid and science-based, positive trainers focus on positive reinforcement (rewarding the desired behavior) and sometimes negative punishment (removing something the dog likes when he does something that is not desired).  It is not based on outdated dominance theories or the idea that one must be the "pack leader" (there has been much evidence today that dogs do not form packs like wolves do; for some good information on that check out Raymond Coppinger's Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution).

It's dog-friendly.  Positive trainers do not use things that will cause pain to their dogs.  The use of shock collars, choke chains or prong collars is not a part of positive training.  Because the dogs are never punished in such a way, they're often more open to offering behaviors and trying new things.  A "wrong" behavior will not received a painful shock or a leash pop and so dogs become more willing to experiment to find the behavior that will gain them the reward.  When you see a dog offering behaviors willingly and with great excitement, it's a reward all its own.

Positive training is hugely rewarding for both dog and human.  When I go into training my dog I'm excited and even better, she is too.  When I mention "doggy class" she dances around the apartment with a grin on her face and attempts to herd me right out the door.  For those of us who see that "reward" when we train, we can't imagine why anyone would want to train using punishment-based methods.

And yet Cesar Millan has a huge following.  His marketing machine is massive (I've seen his books and cardboard cutouts everywhere from Petsmart to Borders and I've seen him on such shows as Bones and The Daily Show; he even had a cameo on South Park!).  He's won over countless people to his way of training.  Hardly a day goes by when I don't read about someone attempting to alpha roll someone else's dog or using Cesar's "shhht" on a dog they meet at the dog park.  I see him consistently quoted in dog communities and the words "calm assertive" are seen almost as often as cries for help.  More people believe in the concept of the alpha than do not.

To those of us who train using positive reinforcement methods it is inordinately frustrating to see someone with such outdated theories, so focused on dominance, and using punishment to train having such a huge following.  It makes no sense and so we find ourselves shaking our heads and getting riled up in frustration.

So where do we go wrong?  Why can't we win more people over to our "side"?  I've seen a fair amount of people who have said "Wow I'm so glad there are better ways to train...I didn't like doing that to my dog."  But I don't see that nearly as often as "But Cesar Millan's methods work!" and a complete unwillingness to entertain the idea that there are other, more dog-friendly methods out there.

One of my latest conclusions as to where we go wrong is that, as a group, positive trainers seem to be a snarky bunch.  We see red if the name Cesar or the word "dominance" comes up and instead of stating why we believe positive training is a better method of training, we attack.  I've been as guilty of this as anyone else in the community, but I've been trying to make a conscious effort to take a breath and write more on why I think positive training is such a great thing and less on why I think Cesar Millan should be ripped apart by rabid wolverines (I jest!). 

But this is sadly not true of many in the community.  I've seen countless people join dog training communities and leave because of the attitude that was given them.  They made mistakes.  We all do.  But instead of people saying "What you're doing really isn't going to work and may backfire; let me give you some really good solid methods of working on this issue" they get rude responses and accusations.  They get told that they're harming their dog for life, that they are abusive, or that they should never have gotten a dog in the first place.  No one wants to come to a community for help and essentially be chased out by this sort of attitude.  And even worse, this is not going to convert them to positive training methods.

The problem appears to be that many people in the positive training community do not know how to relate to human beings.  We use positive training with our dogs, but do not use the same concept of positive reinforcement with people.  Instead we use positive punishment (positive punishment is where an animal gets a punishment inflicted when they do something we have deemed wrong; e.g. a leash pop for not staying in heel position).  If there are better ways to train our dogs, sure there are better ways to relate to other human beings than through the use of punishment?

So here's my challenge to the community: Think before you write.  Consider your words carefully.  Instead of punishing those people who you disagree with, try to reinforce those people when they do something right.  When someone is training in a way you don't agree with or cites Cesar as their greatest influence, count to 10 and then explain in a calm, rational way why you think that positive training is a better method.

You catch more flies with honey, after all.  You may not catch them all, but you might bring more people over to our side if you use honey instead of vinegar.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Living in a backward world

Some of the most common complaints I see on message boards devoted to dog behavior and training are the following:

  1. How do I stop my dog from jumping up on people?
  2. How do I stop my dog from getting up on the couch/chair/bed?
  3. How do I stop my dog from barking?
  4. How do I stop my dog from going to the bathroom in the house?

There are others, of course, but these seem to be fairly common complaints among dog owners.  When we agreed to get a dog, I assumed I would be dealing with these issues too.  They're so common that it seems pretty much every dog has at least one of these issues, if not all four.

However, Dahlia is Dahlia and she is not other dogs.  When we first got her she wouldn't get up on the couch or the bed.  We would pat the couch or the bed and she would just lay down on the floor.  Now, as we discovered, she would get up on them when we weren't home.  I once parked a few houses away from ours, sneaked up to the back window and looked in to see what she was doing.  She was sprawled out all over our couch.  By the time I went back, got the car, and pulled into the driveway, she was laying on the rug and then raced to the door.

But get up on the couch or bed while we were at home?  No way.  She wouldn't do it.  So instead of training her to get off the couch or bed, we had to train her to get on.  We did this by coaxing her up onto the couch and bed with treats of various kinds, rewarding her for getting up and staying up.  Now, some years after we first got her, she is at home on both the couch and the bed.  She does sometimes "ask for permission."  She will stand up, come to the couch, shake her ears for attention, and then stare at us expectantly.  When we invite her onto it, up she goes.  But most of the time, if no one is sitting on the couch. she hops up and curls up without feeling the need to ask for permission.

Another thing we noticed quickly about Dahlia: When we came home she was very excited to see us, but she didn't jump up on us.  Instead she wiggled about with all four feet on the ground and sometimes rolled over for a belly rub.  We decided that her jumping up on us would be occasionally ok, so we taught her to jump up on command.  That's right: we taught our dog to jump on us.  She only does it on command and only with us.

As for barking and house training issues?  Dahlia rarely barks.  If someone knocks at the door she gets up to go see what's going on without a sound.  If they ring the doorbell, she'll let out one woof and then go investigate.  We've never sought to teach her to bark more.  She also came with no house training issues.  Obviously we're not going to teach her that!

So it's a backward world here with Dahlia, the dog like no other.  When we first got her someone said "Are you sure she's a real dog?  Are you sure she's not a robot in a dog suit?"  Sometimes we wonder...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dahlia: A different kind of "bait" dog

Last night while out on our walk, we were just getting to the end of the street when this pit bull comes around the corner. He's off leash, no collar. He freezes. I freeze. I have no idea if he's dog or people friendly, but I don't want to leave him if I can catch him and try to find out where he belongs. It is, after all, going down to 29 degrees at night and this dog is slender and has a really short coat.

So finally he breaks the freeze and comes over slowly to greet Dahlia. Who is happy to see him of course.

They sniff. He's friendly and greets well. Dahlia decides it's "PLAY TIME OMG!!" and jumps at him. He jumps back at her. She jumps and play bows. And he play bows and takes off at a dead run away from us.

OH NOES!! My dog is always so calm and NOW she decides to play? And the dog takes her invitation and is off like a shot. He's gone in like 2 seconds flat. Down two blocks and around the corner. *smacks forehead*

I decide to go after him, hoping he'll stop and maybe I can catch up to him. While he and Dahlia were playing and sniffing I was trying to reach around and unhook her collar so I could put it on HIM. Obviously no luck there.

So I'm heading down the street in the direction the dog went when I come across his owner. She's out with collar and leash looking for him. Apparently Artie, the dog in question, leapt a baby gate while the door was open and got out. She didn't think he could jump the gate and her older dog, an Australian Shepherd mix never jumps the gate. Artie is a pit bull though and one thing I'm finding out about pit bulls: They are SMART dogs with an overabundance of curiosity. So he out he went before she could stop him.

I stop to chat with the owner for a moment and let her know which direction he has now gone in. She couldn't believe he ran not 10 feet away from her and she didn't even see him. But he's that fast. He really is. I'm always amazed at the speed pit bulls can run at.

She says "He always comes back when this happens." I'm thinking "Maybe it's time for a better baby gate?"

And then, lo and behold, he does indeed come racing back. She calls to him, he comes to us. And while he's stopped and again greeting and sniffing Dahlia, she manages to reach out and get the collar (with leash attached) around his neck. Artie is now safe.

Dahlia, rescuer of pit bulls*, has done her civic duty for the day and we were able to head home.

*this would be about the 5th or 6th time that she's played "bait" to catch someone's loose, friendly pit bull or pit mix. She's pretty darned good at it!

Wordless Wednesday


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

On loving your vet and knowing your vet loves your dog!

Most dogs hate the vet.  At least, this is what we're led to believe.  And sitting in the vet's office, seeing the dogs shaking in their carriers, hiding behind chairs, and generally looking miserable, I can believe it.

Which is why I'm always so thankful that Dahlia can walk into the vet's office so calmly.  Granted, she usually hesitates at the door, but she often does when I'm struggling with a heavy door with one hand and trying to get her to go through.  She doesn't like the movement.  I think she's worried it's going to close on her.

We had to visit the vet last week as Dahlia has developed a lump between her shoulder blades.  First she was taken back for weighing and while she hesitates because she wants to stick with her mother, she went back easily enough.  The vet tech returned her to me and said "What a sweetie!"

The vet came in shortly thereafter and squatted down to talk to Dahlia.  She petted her for a moment and said "What a nice girl she is!" and then finally found the lump.  Dahlia stood there, patiently allowing her to move it around, feel around it, and generally check it out.  A fine needle aspirate was suggested and off she went to the back for that.

The vet returned with her and told me she was fantastic.  "She took it like a pro!"  She showed no fear, no stress, no worry, and happily accepted her ear scritches afterward.

While standing in the office paying for the visit and lab work, one of the techs came up to pet Dahlia, told me what a pretty and nice dog she was.  She asked if she could offer her a treat.  I acquiesced and she fed her a few small treats.  As she was doing it, she said "Wow she takes them so gently!"

I imagine that vets and vet techs often see animals at their worst: when they're in pain, sick, or just generally stressed.  Everyone in the office was completely enamored of Dahlia and it was so nice to leave there knowing everyone cares about her and thinks she's a wonderful dog.

She is, really.  Some of it is her personality, some of it is her training, but much of it, I think, is how secure she feels in her home.

The diganosis, by the way?  Benign, though removal has been recommended.  We may or may not pursue the removal aspect.  At this point, we're waiting to see if anything happens to it and waiting until we're done with our current agility class before taking it more seriously.