Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dog Parks

I'm going to broach ground that may or may not offend some people. I am willing to take that chance in the hopes that maybe (just MAYBE) someone will read this and take to heart the things I am about to say.

Answer True or False as the statement applies to you:

1) – You are unable to understand (read) your dog’s body language.

2) - You are unable to read any dog’s body language.

3) - You expect your dog to behave the same way that he does at home.

4) - You are very sociable and easily distracted by conversations with other dog owners.

5) - Your dog does not ‘recall’ reliably.

6) - Your dog is terrified of other dogs.

7) - Your dog has a history of aggression toward humans.

8) - Your dog has a history of serious, damaging aggression toward other dogs.

9) - Your dog is not current on his vaccinations.

10) - You watch ‘The Dog Whisperer’ and are expecting the ‘pack’ to fix your dog.

Be honest, now :) If you answered 'True' to any of these statements, you might want to avoid Dog Parks.

I have only had Pixel for 8 weeks and I have already learned an amazing amount about dogs, dog behavior, dog parks, dog owners, etc etc. And I have to say that Dog Parks and Dog Owners are the ones that really leave impressions.

People who frequent dog parks and are also good, caring owners think about things like Who is going to be at the dog park today? Are their dogs going to be well-behaved? Are they up-to-date with their vaccines? Are they going to be with responsible humans? Can I trust these dogs?

If you are one of the people who asks these kinds of questions, it would appear you are in the minority in some dog parks. Of course it depends what time you go (off-peak times are the best times to experience dedicated, responsible owners and their well-behaved dogs), it also depends on which dog parks you go to in your city (you know your city and the reputation in different neighborhoods).

Mostly, though, your experience at the dog park comes down to the owners. Do they walk their dogs regularly; does their dog obey their human's commands; can they control their dog when it is necessary? These kinds of questions aren't a matter of opinion or a matter of different styles of owning a dog; they are ESSENTIAL to a dog's well being and health (ask anyone with a well behaved dog and they'll agree).

There is nothing more irritating than seeing an owner at the dog park frantic, running after their dog as he's playing a game of Chase with a new dog he's just met. What is going through this owner's mind? Does the owner think their dog is going to chase the other dog down and pummel him? Do they think their dog is going to catch up to the other dog and GET pummeled? Why does that thought even cross their mind? Do they understand dogs at all? Can't they read both of the dogs' body language to tell that neither dog has any ill intentions? And if not... what are they doing here? How can anyone live with an animal and know so little about it?

Also irritating is seeing punishment for no good reason. Often seeing this behavior can quickly go from mere irritating to downright infuriating. Here is the scenario:

Young man shows up at the park with an American Bulldog who we can all see is clearly still a puppy. His floppy ears and excited demeanor say it all, "I'm ready to play!" As soon as the maybe 6-8 month old dog gets sight of the group of dogs at the other end of the park, he immediately start springing toward them; straining at the end of his leash to be let go. The owner, frustrated with this excitement, yanks on the leash hard enough to send the puppy sprawling backwards adding in a harsh "NO!" This goes on for a while until the owner gets sick of trying to correct his distracted dog, and then eventually he lets the dog off the leash and away he runs! Immediately the owner yells after the dog, "NO!! Come!" So in a completely distracted, hyper state of mind this dog bolts off to play (that's why we came here right?), the owner lets him off the leash to go where his focus is, and he gets angry (oookay where's the sense in that?) Here we see one of two reactions to the dog running off. Either the owner runs after the dog, or he sulks around the dog park for a while brooding over his hyper dog. If he goes after the dog, he'll probably get close enough to lunge, reaching out to the dog just in time for the dog to see the bent over reach and he'll think the owner is ready to play and he'll dart away happily. Frustration increases, maybe some more frantic yells, and around and around we go.

It's not hard to see what this owner is doing wrong. But how many times have you yourself been guilty of this? How much do you REALLY know about your dog? If you're feeling defensive right now, chances are you know you've got some work to do. So go over there, to where he's laying down and get to know him! Play with him, walk with him, learn his mannerisms, watch how he reacts to the world around him, find out what excites him and what doesn't, take him somewhere he'll have fun and watch him at play and learn the way he communicates with other dogs!

Chances are you don't have a dog for decoration, so get over there and let him be a part of your life and be a part of his - so there is one less worry on those trips to the dog park :)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Doggy Tips

Just a couple more things I've learned about rehabilitating dogs in the last few days. These tips come from a combination of reading Cesar Millan's Cesar's Way, watching the Dog Whisperer, and experiencing things that work and things that don't with Pixel.

- Never share affection with a dog that is in an unstable state of mind. This includes saying things like "It's okay", "It's alright", or touching of any kind (petting, patting the head, etc.) When you do, it reinforces the unstable state of mind. Always wait till they are not fixated on something, not practicing avoidance, and acting calm.

- When sharing affection with a dog that is being rehabilitated, always pet underneath not on top. Petting the top of a dog's head pushes them down and tells their brain to hold their head down (reinforcing low self esteem). Petting under the chin or on the neck or even on the side or belly tells their brain to lift the head, be proud, be confident (raiding their self esteem)

- When leaving the house for walks, always leave the house first; in front of the dog. And never leave the house if the dog is excited or anxious. Wait until she is calm to leave.

- When getting ready to leave for walks, avoid using an excited tone of voice ("ARE YOU READY FOR A WALK?!") This will be counter-productive to waiting until the dog is calm to leave the house.

- When out for walks if you have your dog sit at crosswalks (personal choice really), it isn't necessary to say "Come on" or "Okay" or "Let's go". Just go. Cesar explains this by saying in the wild dogs' pack leaders don't use verbal indications of what they want the pack to do, they just lead and the pack follows. Your dog will know what to do when you start walking after you've stopped, because you are the pack leader and they are your pack.

- When you are rehabilitating a dog, using Cesar's "No Touch, No Talk, No Eye Contact" works like MAGIC when the dog is in an unstable state of mind. While it is in our nature to comfort, console, reassure another person/animal in distress or afraid (by looking at them, talking to them, even hugging or petting in this case), if you do this to a dog who isn't in the right frame of mind, you are reinforcing their fear/aggression/instability.

- When training a dog to come when called in the house, only call once then if they don't come, go get them with leash in hand. Gently put the leash on and lead them where you would like them to go. Over time this will tell the dog: "I better go, because she's going to come get me anyway." Eventually you won't need the leash and the dog will just come when called.

- When training a dog to follow you or come to you outside (especially if he tends to run away from you when you release the leash), Cesar uses this simple method:
Walk with the dog on the leash in one hand. Reach a point where you drop the leash, turn around and walk the opposite direction and once you get a good distance stop and wait. The dog will then realize that he isn't running away from you, you're moving away from him. He will then come back to you. It may not happen right away, but doing this over and over will tell the dog's brain that he belongs with you because you are the pack leader!

That's all for now! Stay tuned for more tips!


Monday, June 14, 2010


When you are busy, especially with a new task, it can be difficult to find time to remember to constantly keep your life in perspective.  For me, I have designated this blog as my draft table.  Here is where I come to decompress; to reflect; to take stock and externalize my stresses, fears, hopes, and moments that stick in the spiderwebs of my memory.

The rehabilitation of a timid dog is so much more of a challenge than I would have ever expected.  Don't get me wrong, I never thought helping Pixel overcome her fears and trepidation around people would be an overnight project.  But I also didn't realize how it would become 3-steps-forward-1-step-back sort of scenario.  Let me elaborate...

When I first brought Pixel home, I borrowed a book called Inside of a Dog (shown below) from a friend of mine that was essentially about Dog Psychology.  It talks about the roots of the domesticated dogs we know of today; how they have developed; and the place they have in our modern lives.  This book taught me about the all too common mistake people make of believing that dogs are just humans in dog suits.  We 'humanize' dogs, and believe that they feel things the way we do, see the world the way we do, and experience memories and hopes, love and hate the way we do.  In fact, these are the most common reasons for problem dogs.  Human owners refuse to allow their dog to live a 'dog's life'.  They stop dogs from sniffing each others behinds because of the clear boundaries humans have set up for one another that would prevent such an uncouth first meeting with another human in this manner.  An interesting quote from the book on anthropomorphizing (seeing, talking about, and imagining dogs' behavior from a human-biased perspective, imposing our own emotions and thoughts on these furred creatures.) :

We might judge an animal to be happy when we see an upturn of the corners of his mouth; such a "smile", however, can be misleading. On dolphins, the smile is a fixed physiological feature, immutable like the creepily painted face of a clown. Among chimpanzees, a grin is a sign of fear or submission, the farthest thing from happiness. Similarly, a human might raise her eyebrows in surprise, but the eyebrow-raising capuchin monkey is not surprised. He is evincing neither skepticism nor alarm; instead, he is signaling to nearby monkeys that he has friendly designs. By contrast, among baboons a raised brow can be a deliberate threat (lesson: be careful toward which monkey you raise your eyebrows). The onus is on us to find a way to confirm or refute these claims we make of animals....

As a result of reading this book, I try to always remember that Pixel is a dog, and has the needs and desires of a dog.  She smells the world first, then sees it, then hears it.  She experiences the world from 2.5 feet off the ground. She enjoys things like following trails of scents, investigating another dog's urine for the food they have eaten, their age, where they have been, their gender, and even whether or not they have an illness.  I have begun to see the world from a completely different point of view when I am with Pixel.  I can see the best grasses to chew on now, when walking on a new path somewhere, I can tell where the best places would be to run off the trail into some long grass where bouncing above her eyeline is the only way to give chase to another dog or animal.  I also know now the polite way to introduce yourself to a dog.  This is perhaps one of the most important thing I read in this book.

When a dog approaches another dog, they don't squeal with delight the way humans do.  They don't rush forward and thrust a hand out and pat the other dog on the head and coo and babble 'baby talk' the way humans do.  When a dog introduces herself to another dog, she approaches the dog from the side or from the rear, sniffs his behind, and allows him to do the same.  Then they move to the face and have a good sniff, and if they are mutually interested in the other dog they will either frolic companionably for a moment or they will grow bored and wander away to find the next interesting scent.  What we learn from this is that when you want to introduce yourself to a dog, you never approach the dog.  You allow the dog to come to you, and investigate you with her nose.  Let her find out what she can about you, then when she is comfortable, you can talk to her and possibly even reward her with a pet or a treat.

This brings me quite perfectly to Pixel.  Now Pixel is very shy around people.  As a stray she had minimal experience with people, and those she did have experience with were probably the people who captured her, put her in a cage and brought her to the Humane Society.  While rehabilitating Pixel into human society I have to be diligent in instructing new people around Pixel that they aren't to touch her or talk to her before she becomes comfortable around them and sniffs them first.  This is one of the hardest parts of her rehabilitation, because most people don't realize that their automatic reaction to a dog is also the most inappropriate, and telling them as much often illicits a stunned, reproachful attitude as if I'm saying to these people "You are not good enough to talk to or touch my dog."

Other difficult aspects of Pixel's rehabilitation into the human world is accepting affection (or knowing what human affection is at all), the restriction and control of food by humans, and (this may surprise some people) the concept of "play".  For Pixel, petting in any way is foreign.  A person's hand being on her can and often is uncomfortable, and she is unsure how to take it.  As she makes progress with her rehab she is learning that petting can be enjoyable and creates a bond between her and a human.  "Playing" for Pixel is restricted to running after another dog, running through woods or grasses as fast as she can, or being chased by another dog or several dogs.  Ropes, balls, and other assorted 'dog toys' for Pixel have no meaning.  They hold as much context in Pixel's view of the world as a frying pan or a computer mouse.  Our rehab on this front with Pixel comes when we bring other dogs around and show her Tug with a rope or Fetch with a ball.  Eventually she will understand that these things are good exercise and engage her mentally (what dogs consider 'fun').

The food control is our latest attempt at rehabilitation.  For Pixel getting food was as complicated as foraging for it, scrounging up scraps from human garbage, etc.  Because Trust is pivotal in Pixel's integration into human society, she needs to trust us enough to be able to take food from us, and know that only through us she can get access to food.  This will be instrumental in showing Pixel that the human world is nothing to fear.  How we do this is very important.  To understand food in the dog's world you have to likewise understand that how most people feed dogs is incorrect.  Think, if you will, about wolves in the wild (where domestic dogs originated).  Wolves hunt every day, they run, they follow scents, and when they are exhausted after such a hunt they are rewarded with food.  Dogs are similar in that they require physical exercise before they are in the right state of mind to eat.  Dogs, like wolves, are ingrained with a survival instinct in regards to food.  They eat when food is available, and they eat as much as they can because they don't know when they may eat again.  This instinct is so strong that when offered food on a nonstop basis, the dog will continually eat (simulating, for a human owner, that the dog's appetite is insatiable and they must, by our standards, by VERY hungry).  Left unchecked, this can create pretty serious overweight dogs.

To wrap things up here (because this is exhaustively long!) I am going to share a number of very useful things I have learned so far about dogs and about Pixel specifically.

- To overcome something a dog is afraid of, bring them to a calm state of mind by telling them to sit.  Only after they are no longer nervous and sitting calmly does a dog overcome their fear

- When correcting your dog, never use their name.  A dog's name is, for them, associated with 'positive' only.  So when you correct them using their name ("Butch, no!"), you are confusing them and the correction will be useless.

- When training your dog to act in the way you would like him to act, ONLY reward and praise when they are doing what you want them to be doing.

- Never 'comfort' or 'reassure' a dog that is afraid or exhibiting aggressive behavior.  "It's okay" and "Don't worry" are human statements meant to reassure the human mind.  The tone is that of praise, and what you are doing when saying these things to your dog is that it is okay to be afraid or aggressive.  In the instance of fear, ignore the fear.  In the instance of aggression, correct the behavior.

- When correcting a dog never use physical violence.  Hitting your dog is not correction, it is abuse.  To get the same effect, use what Cesar Millan calls the 'bite simulation'.  Make a 'mouth' with your open hand; fingers splayed.  Gently tap this 'mouth' on the back of your dog's neck.  This simulates an alpha dog's bite, or a mother dog's bite.  It will both distract and correct your dog without the use of violence.

- When leaving the house to go on walks, never let your dog go out in front of you.  This makes your dog think they are the dominant member of your 'pack'.

- When walking with your dog on a leash, never let your dog choose where to go.  Hold the leash next to you so that she is walking beside you, and when you want to, 'allow' her to sniff or investigate something.  This will establish your position as a dominant member of your pack and will make walking off-leash easier later.

- When walking with your dog off-leash, allow him to explore the world around him, but command him to come back to you on occasion and 'check in'.  Simply calling him to you, and praising him when he comes will establish the hierarchy in your 'pack'

- Walking your dog around the block so that she can 'do her business' is not exercise.  Throwing a ball around for her is also not exercise.  Likewise, being limited to the backyard is not exercise.  Your dog needs proper exercise for her breed in order to feel that she has done her job.  Do your homework about what sort of exercise is right for your dog (e.g. Retrievers need to retrieve, greyhounds need to run, collies need to herd, etc.)

- Don't fall into the trap of classifying your dog's behavior as a victim of their breed.  Cesar Millan teaches that dogs are ANIMALS then DOGS then BREEDS then NAMES.  This means that dogs are dogs are dogs, no matter what breed they are.  Dalmatians do not behave a specific way because of their breed, they behave the way they were raised to behave.  Cesar makes sure to differentiate between 'problem' breeds and 'powerful' breeds.  There is no such thing as a 'problem breed'.  Problems occur when an owner doesn't understand or meet the needs of their dog.  'Powerful breeds' however are very real.  Pit bulls are the classic example.  They are a strong dog both in will and in physical strength.  But their behavior is formed by the way they are raised, not by their physical form.  Again, do your homework and don't use the fallacy that your dog is the way he is because of his breed.

There are a lot more things I've learned, and as I continue to learn interesting, useful things I'll try and share them here!

Thanks for reading and I hope you are enjoying your four-legged friend as much as I'm enjoying mine!

For more information about your dog and her life with you, I recommend Cesar's book Cesar's Way (shown left).