Posts filed under ‘rescue’

End of the Rainbow

If you’re a dog whose had a bit of a rough start in life – what do you search for at the end of the rainbow?


(real rainbow in our real backyard yesterday)


Lots of good, healthy exercise


A best buddy to hang out with


A dog-friendly human (or two) to pester


And a warm place to nap


This looks smells pretty darn good to me!

Charlie’s come a long way from the dog whose most remarkable skills consisted of an unrestrained enthusiasm for creative elimination and the willingness to throw monumental temper tantrums.  He’s not ready to find his forever home yet, but every day he demonstrates more of the fine potential he’ll be happy to share with some lucky family.

November 3, 2009 at 4:11 am 11 comments

Sorting Things Out

My foster dog Charlie has seen astonishingly little in the year or so of he’s been on this earth.  Nearly every thing I introduce him to is, quite literally, startlingly novel to him.  So a big part of my job in rehabilitating Charlie involves exposing him to new things in ways that help him sort them out properly.

The concept of similarity is fundamental to all perception, learning, and judgment. Similarity increases when a group of things have a lot of features in common and it decreases when there are a lot of differences between them.  The ability to use the concept of same versus different to sort things into mental categories allows animals to store perceptual and conceptual information in a way that makes them more efficient at interpreting situations in an adaptive way.


What kinds of things does Charlie (or any dog, for that matter) need to be able to sort out?  Well here are just a few of the not-so-natural-to-dogs categories he needs to be able to understand:

  • Things that can be chewed and played with vs. things that absolutely must not be put into one’s mouth
  • Places it is acceptable to pee and poop vs. places it is not
  • Things that can be jumped up on vs. things that one should not jump on
  • Animals you can chase and kill vs. animals you can not
  • People you can bite  {^}  vs. those you must not  {i.e. the set comprising all of mankind}

This is not always a simple thing. Dogs don’t just perceive the world differently than we do, they also process perceptual information in different ways than we do.

Even though they share our homes and lives, our dogs live in a completely different world than we do. 

And in Charlie’s case, he’s experienced so little of the world that in many cases he appears to perceive of each new thing that you or I would tend to think of as part of a categorical set as a completely unique thing.  I suspect this is a big part of his current problem with strangers.  Charlie’s met so few people that he may see each new human he meets as a completely novel creature.  In other words, Charlie may not yet have generalized that all upright-walking, clothes-wearing, language-using, creepy-eye-contact-making, two-leggers are – generally speaking – the same kind of creature that I am.  Once I help him successfully makes this connection, I believe his snarkiness will (at least for the most part) go away.

How does a dog complete the mental gymnastics necessary to categorize his world?  It’s impossible to know but hints about what is going on inside those lovely, furry heads may be available from looking at pre-lingual human infants.  In Links Between Object Categorization and Naming  Sandra Waxman discusses how her research indicates human infants categorize.  Waxman states she believes that expectations play an important part in learning to categorize and that she believes it is best if a young creature’s expectations aren’t rigid.  Waxman says that in an ideal situation, expectations should start out being extremely fluid and that they should only become more fixed with time and experience.  

I found this point interesting as it I think i might help explain the basis of resilience  Rigid expectations have a way of disappointing you, especially when they’re not based on a broad set of experiences.  So, an animal (or human) that has a less fluid expectation system would tend to be more prone to being disappointed and shutting down and therefore be less resilient.  For example I suspect that my girl Zip is be a dog who was born with a more rigid than average expectation-generating mechanism.  Even after years of training and coaching she still shuts down more easily than any other dog I’ve lived with – including Charlie.  She’s also very stubborn and prefers rigid, predictable situations.  Zip has a vivid picture etched into her mind of  The Way Things Should Be and it is incredibly hard for her to change that picture.  And therein lies problem.  For them to function efficiently, our mental categories need to maintain some degree of fluidity and mutability.  They can’t be rigidly fixed.

Naturally resilient or not, how can you help your dog figure out which things he should sort together into one of the little boxes in his head (i.e. which are similar) versus those that go into different bins (i.e. which are not similar)? 

This is a great place to use contrast.

Contrast is a valuable, and IMO, too often under-utilized tool in dog training.  Using contrast involves giving your dog a way to compare one thing to another in a way that is simple for him to figure out.  One example of this would be using a large, elevated, textured, brightly colored target when beginning to teach a dog to go out to a target on command.  Providing a lot of contrast between the target and the floor or ground it sits on makes it easier for the dog to tell the difference between target and ‘not target’.  Another example would be encouraging a dog who is afraid of halls and dark doorways to go through wide gates and french doors.  The contrast between “scary dark hole into nowhere” versus an “easy to see through open space” that the dog may not initially categorize as a “door” can provide a valuable first step in teaching him that any opening you ask him to go through is safe.

The importance of using controlled training exercises that take advantage of contrast is explained (albeit rather obtusely) in Chapter 4, Studies of Similarity by Tversky and Gati in Cognition and Categorization:

The relative weight assigned to the common and the distinctive features may differ in the two judgments because of a change in focus. In the assessment of similarity between stimuli, the subject may attend more to their common features, whereas in the assessment of differences between stimuli, the subject may attend more to their distinctive features. Stated differently, the instruction to consider similarity may lead the subject to focus primarily on the features that contribute to the similarity of the stimuli, whereas the instruction to consider difference may lead the subject to focus primarily on the features that contribute to the differences between the stimuli . Consequently, the relative weight of the common features is expected to be greater in the assessment of similarity than in the assessment of difference.

So, when we when select the right parameters, contrast is an enormously valuable tool because it lets us tell the dog whether he should focus on sameness or difference.  It can also help show him which features to focus on and which he can safely ignore.  These are vital factors in most problem solving exercises.

Using contrast well requires a bit of creativity and an open mind.  A feature that you see as providing obvious contrast may be completely insignificant to your dog.  So if your dog doesn’t respond immediately in a positive way to the contrast you’ve created – end the exercise and start over contrasting a different element.  Your job is to find out what part(s) of the problem are relevant to your dog and help him to use them to sort things out properly.    

Contrast is an enormously valuable tool – but it can be difficult to use well.  As trainers we run into problems with these kinds of exercises because categorization is a cultural thing.  And while dogs are a part of our culture, they understand and participate in it in very different ways than we do.

One area where problems arise is in the realm of perception.  Smell is vastly more important  to dogs than it is to us – vision, which most of us humans rely very heavily on, is of far less importance to them.  Further complicating matters, dogs process perceptual information differently than we do.  Things that are imperceptible to you may be glaringly obvious to your dog and vice-versa.

Another problem area lies in the fact that we tend to forget how important context is to dogs.  An otherwise unremarkable feature of an object may take on strong predictive value, and therefore be more important, in a specific context.  In another context the same feature may be completely inconspicuous to the dog.

We humans also have a strong tendency to over-think and over-complicate things.  Dogs, for the most part, simply take things as they are.  Dogs aren’t by nature introspective creatures.  Reacting after minimal cognitive processing is their natural mode of operation.  So don’t obsess about why Sparky freaked out when a bird flew overhead — just help him use contrast to sort “bird overhead” into the “not something to worry about” bin inside his head.

October 23, 2009 at 4:46 am 5 comments

Around the Web

First a thought-provoking article in the New Yorker comparing football and dog fighting by Malcolm Gladwell.  Here’s an excerpt, go here to read the rest:

In a fighting dog, the quality that is prized above all others is the willingness to persevere, even in the face of injury and pain. A dog that will not do that is labelled a “cur,” and abandoned. A dog that keeps charging at its opponent is said to possess “gameness,” and game dogs are revered.
In one way or another, plenty of organizations select for gameness. The Marine Corps does so, and so does medicine, when it puts young doctors through the exhausting rigors of residency. But those who select for gameness have a responsibility not to abuse that trust: if you have men in your charge who would jump off a cliff for you, you cannot march them to the edge of the cliff—and dogfighting fails this test. Gameness, Carl Semencic argues, in “The World of Fighting Dogs” (1984), is no more than a dog’s “desire to please an owner at any expense to itself.” The owners, Semencic goes on,

understand this desire to please on the part of the dog and capitalize on it. At any organized pit fight in which two dogs are really going at each other wholeheartedly, one can observe the owner of each dog changing his position at pit-side in order to be in sight of his dog at all times. The owner knows that seeing his master rooting him on will make a dog work all the harder to please its master.

This is why Michael Vick’s dogs weren’t euthanized. The betrayal of loyalty requires an act of social reparation.
Professional football players, too, are selected for gameness. When Kyle Turley was knocked unconscious, in that game against the Packers, he returned to practice four days later because, he said, “I didn’t want to miss a game.” Once, in the years when he was still playing, he woke up and fell into a wall as he got out of bed. “I start puking all over,” he recalled. “So I said to my wife, ‘Take me to practice.’ I didn’t want to miss practice.” The same season that he was knocked unconscious, he began to have pain in his hips. He received three cortisone shots, and kept playing. At the end of the season, he discovered that he had a herniated disk. He underwent surgery, and four months later was back at training camp. “They put me in full-contact practice from day one,” he said. “After the first day, I knew I wasn’t right. They told me, ‘You’ve had the surgery. You’re fine. You should just fight through it.’ It’s like you’re programmed. You’ve got to go without question—I’m a warrior. I can block that out of my mind.

KFOX New Mexico reports that marijuana was found in several bags of dog food.  And no, this isn’t another product recall:

A drug-sniffing dog alerted U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to the trunk of 2009 Peugeot. CBP officers opened the trunk and found large bags of dog food, but when they opened them up, marijuana was found inside.

 CBP officers removed 30 marijuana-filled bundles from the dog food. The drugs weighed 31 pounds. A drug-sniffing dog alerted U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to the trunk of 2009 Peugeot. CBP officers opened the trunk and found large bags of dog food, but when they opened them up, marijuana was found inside.


A disturbing case of animal neglect reported on LocalNews 8 an eleven-pound stray dog in St. Anthony, Idaho had nine and a half pounds of matted hair removed from its body by a local vet.

However, police in St. Anthony say the owners of the matted dog Tuesday will NOT be charged with animal cruelty.

St. Anthony Police Chief Jim Smith says the owners are not mentally capable of understanding any charges facing them.

“You pass by the house where we found the dog and it’s surprising that people even live there it’s so run-down,” said Smith.

The dog, now appropriately renamed “Matt” is reported doing well after the mat-ectomy.  St. Anthony police are looking for ways to help his owners because according to the chief of police, “the dog’s situation mirrored that of the owners.”


October 15, 2009 at 11:37 pm 12 comments

Kennel Club Photography Contest Winners

The UK’s Guardian published photos by top winners in the Kennel Club’s 2009 Photographer of the Year contest.

The winner was this photo of a Leonberger towing a boat.  Leonbergers and Newfoundlands are the only dogs allowed to compete in Newfoundland Club of America water rescue trials.  Towing a boat  is a  requirements for the Water Rescue Dog (WRD) title.


October 13, 2009 at 10:49 pm Leave a comment

Great Expectations

My foster dog Charlie passed a new milestone yesterday.  He moved into the house.

Charlie’s been living next door at the training center.  There are a couple of cozy, indoor kennels there along with safe indoor and outdoor exercise areas.  I don’t usually keep foster dogs in the kennel but Charlie spent most of his young life being held as evidence.  He missed out on most of the key early socialization experiences a healthy puppy needs.  Because he had seen so little of the world, coming into the house – or even the garage – was A Very Big Deal to him.  Every item he came across was utterly alien to him and it had to be processed.  And that kind of processing takes up a lot of a dog’s brain power.  So keeping him in the quieter, more spartan environment of the training building helped keep Charlie’s stress at a manageable level while I got him over the initial hurdles of his fear and aggression.

After a little more than a month here Charlie has discovered that he’s rather fond of Mark, Zip, Audie and I and he’s decided that he doesn’t need to attack us.  Yay! He understands that being brushed and touched won’t kill him and that it can even be pleasant.  He’s learned to walk politely on a leash; to sit to say “please”; to come when he’s called; to stop doing whatever he’s doing when I say ‘leave it’; and to accept being crated.   He hasn’t learned to do his business outside and he has absolutely no house manners whatsoever.  He’s prone to over-reacting and he still has a short fuse.

Still, I have great expectations for young Charlie.

Expectations are a vital part of the foundation of our relationships with dogs.  Unfortunately they’re also a place where we often fail them.

When you get a new pet, whether you buy a puppy or adopt an adult dog, you should assume that you will need to teach this dog everything.  If you start out expecting too much of your dog he will, of course, fail to meet your expectations.  And if, in your disappointment, you decide that your dog is stupid and untrainable – he’ll be damned to a life of frustration and boredom.

So what do I expect?  Simply that:

  • It”s my responsibility to set and enforce a fair, consistent set of rules, limits and boundaries for him to follow
  • That I need to put forth a significant effort to keep Charlie out of trouble until he learns to follow the rules
  • That I owe him the time, attention and effort necessary to bring out his best

At this point in our relationship this means that I need to micro-manage just about every moment of Charlie’s life.

When he’s in the house he is either crated, tied to me with a four-foot leash or closed up in the laundry room.  There are no exceptions.  When he’s outside he is either in one of our two fenced yards or on a leash or long line held in my hand.

Because Charlie has seen so little of the world he is amazed by everything.  And when I say everything – I mean every thing.  Puttering around the house with him tied to my waist is a like taking a walk with a charming three-year old child that speaks a different language.  He wants to – he needs to –  explore absolutely everything and I need to find creative ways to nurture and encourage him.  It’s completely maddening – and utterly delightful.

An incredible array of things capture his attention.  It can take a half hour just to walk through a room with him.  When it all gets to be a bit much and he becomes nervous or insecure I don’t console him, I pump him up.  I remind Charlie how brave he is – and then I give him a break.  All I expect from this dog right now is that he explore my house with cheerful curiosity so he can develop the confidence he needs to take the next step in becoming the dog he was born to be.

If  I maintain realistic expectations at each step of Charlie’s training and development it will keep both of us from getting frustrated.  And the successes that come from having fair expectations will eventually lead us to the great ones that will allow him to become a great dog.

October 13, 2009 at 5:36 am 7 comments

Exercising Self Control

Exercising self control – it’s more than a metaphor.

An article published in 2007 in Current Directions in Psychological Science by Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Dianne M. Tice titled The Strength Model of Self Control  illustrates some fascinating and important parallels between self control and muscle strength. 

Self control is the measure of an animal’s ability to control its emotions and desires.  The ability to override impulse to obtain a delayed reward.  Self control is important in social interaction because it allows animals to alter their behavior to follow to rules and plans and to maintain social bonds and cooperate with others.

The strength model of self control postulates that:

  •  Self control is a limited resource.  When you use some of it you temporarily deplete your stockpile.
  • When your stockpile of self control is depleted, your ability to exercise it effectively decreases.
  • Your stockpile of self control can be restored by rest, nutrition and positive emotions.
  • If you use it regularly and well, your self control gets stronger over time.
  • Other executive functions appear to draw on the same set of resources that self control relies on.

So what does this have to do with dog training?  Everything!  Exercising self control is the basis of good social behavior, and most problem dog behavior is rooted in a lack of it.

How do you help your dog learn to exercise his self control?  First remember that it’s a limited resource.  If it’s late in the day and your dog is tired,  stressed out and / or has already worked hard to exercise his self control, give him a break.  He’s operating on a short fuse.  Don’t tempt fate by lighting it.

Second, make sure he gets regular mental exercise.  Letting your dog do whatever he wants whenever he wants allows his self control to atrophy.  To keep his self control strong, you need to do some training work with him every day.  It’s also important to maintain a consistent set of rules and boundaries because once these become habits,  they draw far less on his reserves.

Third, give your dog plenty of rest and good nutrition.  A weak, tired, thirsty or hungry dog is a stressed dog and stress depletes those vital self control resources.  If your home is loud and chaotic, give the dog a quiet place to rest and recuperate.  Feed him good quality food.  If he’s working hard or under a lot of stress, feed him twice a day.  Make sure he has plenty of clean, fresh water.

How do other executive functions factor into the equation?  The authors make an important observation about how executive function cross-training can increase our powers of self control:

Targeted efforts to control behavior in one area, such as spending money or exercise, lead to improvements in unrelated areas, such as studying or household chores. And daily exercises in self-control, such as improving posture, altering verbal behavior, and using one’s nondominant hand for simple tasks, gradually produce improvements in self-control as measured by laboratory tasks.

A lot of my clients tell me that they don’t want to bother teaching their dog those silly, time-consuming rules and formal obedience exercises.  They just want Cujo to stop attacking the mailman.  Now I have research that will help me explain exactly why they need to suck it up and do this work.  Training your dog to sit and heel accurately, refrain from jumping up on people, wait to be released at the door, navigate obstacles and other seemingly unrelated tasks can help him build up the self control resources he needs to resist the temptation of the mailman’s oh-so-tempting ankles.

Vohs et al. also point out that:

Not only self-regulation, but also acts of effortful choice and volition use the same resource.

This points to one of the great, and I think previously unrecognized, strengths of the Nothing in Life is Free or NILIF  program –  because when we implement it properly, we take away many of the dog’s opportunities to make choices, leaving more resources available for executing self control.  Think of NILIF as a self control savings account.

A 2007 article in the New York Times points out the importance of another kind of exercise:

One form of training, however, has been shown to maintain and improve brain health — physical exercise. In humans, exercise improves what scientists call “executive function,” the set of abilities that allows you to select behavior that’s appropriate to the situation, inhibit inappropriate behavior and focus on the job at hand in spite of distractions.


How might exercise help the brain? In people, fitness training slows the age-related shrinkage of the frontal cortex, which is important for executive function. In rodents, exercise increases the number of capillaries in the brain, which should improve blood flow, and therefore the availability of energy, to neurons. Exercise may also help the brain by improving cardiovascular health, preventing heart attacks and strokes that can cause brain damage. Finally, exercise causes the release of growth factors, proteins that increase the number of connections between neurons, and the birth of neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region important for memory. Any of these effects might improve cognitive performance, though it’s not known which ones are most important.

Based on these articles we find that a combination of regular physical and mental exercise and self-discipline combined with rest and good nutrition can help make you – and your dog – more cooperative, less reactive and better able to resist temptation.  Based on my experience – it works.

About two and a half weeks ago ONB foster dog, Charlie arrived at our place.  The first time I met him, he shrank back and gave me the evil eye.  The first time he met my husband, he threw a tantrum.  The first time I tried to leash him up and take him out of his kennel he tried to bite me.  He snarked and snarled at any dog that came near him. I put Charlie on a strict NILIF program.  The boy works to earn every crumb of food he eats, every toss of a frisbee, every iota of attention he gets.  He has to navigate obstacles – both mental and physical – in structured exercises every day.  He eats high quality dog food and there’s always clean water in his kennel.  He gets plenty of rest and exercise and I try to make sure I don’t to overtax his resources.

Today Charlie played off leash in a fenced yard with two calm, mannerly dogs.  He watched quietly and politely while strangers operated loud power tools (a chain saw, hydraulic splitter and large diesel truck)  just outside the fence.  And today, for the first time, Charlie decided he didn’t need a formal introduction to meet a stranger.  Without a formal greeting and without encouragement, Charlie crawled into our friend Dave’s lap, kissed his face then rolled over onto his back in blissful contentment.

Charlie’s issues aren’t fixed.  He needs to live in a highly structured environment to maintain this good behavior.  I still need to regulate the amount of stress he’s exposed to to prevent melt-downs.  He’s becoming obedient but he hasn’t had time to develop a set of good manners.  But he’ll get there.  Today we saw the real dog that had been lurking under Charlie’s suspicious, snarky exterior – and he is A Very Good Dog indeed.

“Throw, please?”

September 15, 2009 at 5:46 am 4 comments

Not Good Enough

We sent our wonderful Aussie girl, Roo across the bridge almost seven years ago.  A bright, athletic and somewhat pugnacious soul, she was the perfect counterpoint to our Leonbergers.  Not long after we lost her my husband was transferred to the Twin Cities area so, while we were eager to add a new dog to our pack, we decided it would be prudent to wait until we’d settled into a new home before we started our search.

A year and a half later we moved into our home in Red Wing.  After taking a couple of months to settle in, I started surfing the websites of local rescue groups and PetFinder ads to find a suitable dog.  Since I’m an experienced professional dog trainer, I work from home and have been known to spend what some might find to be ridiculous sums of money on pet care I foolishly assumed that getting approved to adopt a dog – any dog – would be a slam dunk.

Silly me.

Here’s the score:

Two groups turned me down because my yard was not yet fenced. The fact that it was February in Minnesota and the ground was frozen to a depth of at least three feet, making fence building impossible did not sway them. Neither did the fact that I had a 50×50 foot, heated indoor area to exercise a dog in. Or receipts showing that I had already made a down payment on having not one – but two – fenced yards installed in the spring.

One group turned me down because I had lived in my current home for less than a year. They didn’t care that I’d lived in the previous one for a decade, that my husband had worked for the same company for fifteen years or that we had more than enough assets to pay off our currant mortgage if we chose to.

One group turned me down because I would not sign an agreement that specified exactly how I would feed, house and train a dog I rented ‘adopted’ from them. An agreement that gave them the right to take the dog back at any time without notice if they felt that I in any way failed to follow these explicit (and IME ridiculous) instructions.

After strike four, I decided that I was apparently not worthy to adopt a dog.  So I gave up, found a breeder and bought an adorably cute Australian Kelpie puppy.  Poor Zip. Because I failed as an adoptive home she’s forced to live in this hell hole.  Look how sad the poor girl is [hangs head in shame]:


It seems I’m in good company. Earlier this week Nathan Winograd blogged about problems he recently faced when trying to adopt a dog.  In the post he nails the all-too-common rescue elitest philosophy:

Unfortunately, too many shelters go too far with fixed, arbitrary rules—dictated by national organizations—that turn away good homes under the theory that people aren’t trustworthy, that few people are good enough, and that animals are better off dead. Since leaving the Tompkins County SPCA, I’ve seen the same attitude within rescue groups. But the motivations of rescue groups differ from those of the bureaucrat I ended up firing in Tompkins County. Rescue groups love animals, but they have been schooled by HSUS to be unreasonably—indeed, absurdly—suspicious of the public. Consequently, they make it difficult, if not downright impossible, to adopt their rescued animals.

The qualities that make a person (not a house or a fence or a dog door) a good home for a dog can’t be measured in a rigidly quantifiable way.  I’ve met wonderful pet owners who lived in urban apartments and RVs.  And I’ve met people I wouldn’t trust to properly care for a tapeworm who lived on farms or in spacious suburban estates complete with immaculate indoor/outdoor kennels and dog doors.  Being a good pet owner, like being a good parent, is a skill.  A skill developed from practice that sometimes – inevitably – includes mistakes.  The goal of shelters and rescue groups should be to make a mindful individual evaluations of each pet and each potential adopter when making these important decisions. While this takes more time than reviewing a checklist, it could allow these groups to get more pets into good homes — and isn’t that the goal?

Open-minded, individual evaluations could also provide opportunities for shelter and rescue staff to educate pet owners on husbandry skills – and to be educated on them as well (hey, contrary to what some people might want you to believe – nobody knows everything).  We need more of the kind of open-minded discussion that helps us allto  be better pet owners and less of the arrogant, closed-minded, “we know better than you” posturing that drives adopters away.

I am a rescue / foster volunteer.  And as a dog trainer I also get a lot of calls from people who want to get rid of inconvenient dogs.  I understand the frustration, the anger, and the burnout a person can feel when they’re bombarded with regular doses of weapons-grade stupidity – but the fact that some people are clueless or heartless doesn’t justify treating every pet owner and potential adopter as an animal abuser in training.

Read Nathan Winograd’s post over at the No Kill Blog (just added to our blogroll) for some fascinating and disturbing background information on the history of the “not good enough” philosophy of pet adoption.

September 13, 2009 at 7:22 pm 10 comments

I Did a Terrible Thing

I did an unspeakably terrible thing today [hangs head in abject shame].

I wore a hat.

A tan baseball cap with a dog embroidered on it to be exact. It was a cool morning (52F) and along with the warmth the cap provided, I needed something to cover my unwashed hair. I put it on without a thought and I went out to the kennel where Charlie is staying.

Charlie likes me. In fact, he seems to like me a lot. But when I walked into the room wearing that baseball cap he saw me as some kind of ungodly, depraved beast. And he reacted accordingly.

Because he’s small and in a sturdy kennel and I’ve been around a rather large number of staring, snarling, slavering beasts I reacted to his castigation by calling his name out sweetly.  He paused briefly, obviously recognizing my voice – then continued his tirade. ‘Cause, you know – I had done this terrible thing.

I took the hat off and calmly, quietly walked to the kennel door. I didn’t affect a passive or assertive posture. I was as completely neutral as I could be. When I got to the door I turned sideways and crouched down. I spoke softly to Charlie and let him decide when he was ready to approach and sniff me. In seconds he was the soft, happy, wagging teenager I know once again.

I stood up and gauged his reaction to my change in posture. Soft and welcoming. So I opened the door, went in, petted and leashed him and walked him out. When we were out of the kennel I made of show of picking up the Hat From Hell and presented it to Charlie. He stood quietly – but suspiciously – at my side and I calmly held it out to him.  He slowly stretched his nose forward, feet still locked in place, and tentatively sniffed the rim of the hat. I remained motionless and said nothing. He sniffed The Evil Thing again, then sniffed my hand.

I saw wheels inside his pretty little head click into place as Charlie realized that the hat smelled like me.  His posture softened and he grinned up at me with a look that said “Okay, I get it”.  So I put the hat, which was now just an ordinary hat, back on my head and took Charlie for a walk.

August 29, 2009 at 6:36 pm 9 comments

New Kid on the Block

Young Charlie, (aka DickHead, alias Johnny Mac) arrived here yesterday.  Charlie’s here for an extended vacation attitude adjustment after spending seven months of his young life at Operation New Beginnings in Billings, Montana. 

Charlie and his littermates were born a month or so before the dogs were seized. Their mother was either already dead or got separated from them when he and his littermates were rescued from the Kapsa property, so they grew up as a small, motherless pack.  In a perfect world they’d have been put in with an experienced, older female dog who would have whipped them into shape showed them the ropes, but as Charlie knows – we don’t live in a perfect world.

So, Charlie has a few issues. He’s snarky with other dogs and pushy and rude with people. He’s not the least bit house-trained. He’s seen very little of the world and he has a tendency to flight. He’s a poster pup for the abused, neglected dogs you read about in humane society pleas for money.

But the thing is – Charlie doesn’t know this.  He’s not aware that he probably wouldn’t have survived his first winter on this earth if he hadn’t been seized as a “feces-covered” piece of evidence.  He doesn’t have a clue that he’s the least bit different from any other dog. All he knows is that, after spending an annoyingly long, crappy day in a crate he ended up in a clean, roomy place where really interesting things happen.

Charlie isn’t a victim, he’s freakin’ brilliant. He’s a natural retriever and in a stunningly short period of time he learned to sit before I threw his toy.  In twenty-four hours he’s gone from pulling like a freight train while orbiting rapidly around me to walking comfortably on a leash.  In ten minutes he learned to wait until I released him with an “OK” to take bits of food I set on my shoe.

But it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses.  This morning he decided to try to muzzle punch and intimidate me when I went in to feed him.  Note to dog: do not, under any circumstances, try to fuck with a tired, crabby, sleep-deprived, pre-menstrual, caffiene-deficient alpha bitch in a hurry.  I took Charlie’s pushy, crappy, annoying energy – multiplied it by ten and tossed it back at him with nothing more than a vile look and threatening posture.  The little poser jumped back three feet and stared open-mouthed at me in WTF wonder.
Since then, a raised eyebrow makes him salute.
I think Charlie and I are gonna have a great time.

NESR still needs foster homes and funds to transport dogs.

August 28, 2009 at 3:35 am 5 comments

Pushing Buttons

Our friend and fellow blogger Heather Houlahan is currently in Billings, Montana evaluating the adoptability of more than 200 dogs recently released to National English Shepherd Rescue after their former owner was convicted of felony animal abuse.  As part of this work she and others are administering behavior evaluations which she describes in a heart-warming post where she writes:

We take each dog to a place she has never been before, and ask her to tell us something about herself.

We do this by challenging her with mild stresses, and giving her an opportunity to show us whether she is bothered by them, how much, and whether she thinks looking to a human is a good way of getting through that. And we see how the dog progresses in confidence as she confronts these mild challenges.

Combined with the absolutely crucial written reports from each dogs’ handler, the results of these evaluations help us sort dogs into categories depending on how much experience and dog chops a potential adopter or foster volunteer might need, as well as any special talents or qualities that the dog has to offer.

No, this is not “poke it until it bites” temperament testing. We Don’t Do That Shit.

One of the most important things we assess is the dog’s ability to recover from something it finds stressful. This capacity, while it can be built and developed, is highly intrinsic to each unique temperament. Good bounceback can take a dog far.

As I’ve posted here before, I’m not a fan of the poke it until it bites method of ‘behavioral evaluation’ either but assessing a dog’s ability to cope with stress is, IMO, the single most important factor in temperament evaluation. An ability to cope with and recover from stress is crucial to a healthy temperament.  And like most of the other traits a dog needs to survive it’s derived from a mix of nature and nurture.

Some dogs, like Harry, are blessed with a lot of bounceback or resilience. Even though Harry had a less than ideal start on life, he’s ready to leave it behind and move on. Other dogs, like my like Zip, are born with a lack of resilience. These dogs need regular coaching to develop and maintain a healthy tolerance for stress.

How did I build up Zip’s resilience? — Simple. I pushed her buttons.


The brain’s coping mechanisms are a lot like muscles. If you were born with the genes of a 90-pound weakling, you may never develop that Mr. Universe physique – but with work, you can certainly improve what you’ve got. Your coping mechanisms are also like muscles because unless you were born with the physique of an East German powerlifter you’ve got to use them — or you’ll lose them.

Contrary to popular beliefs, stress is not an inherently negative or unnatural force. Stress is a natural – and necessary – part of every animal’s life.  The key to dealing with stress successfully doesn’t lie in avoiding or ignoring it, it lies in developing the strength to cope with it when you need to and taking a break to recover from it when you can.  

The tool I use to help my genetically timid, non-resilient dog increase her ability to cope with stress is regular exposure to moderately stressful things. Like choosing the right barbell in a weightlifting regime, the stressor can’t be so intense that the dog can’t deal with it or so mild that she immediately adapts to it.  And like a good exercise regime, this work should also continue for the rest of the dog’s life.

Every day I look for ways to push Zip’s buttons. We recently bought a small and rather nondescript table for our deck. The first time she saw it on our deck, Zip decided this table was a thing of great evil. This provided me with an excellent training opportunity. Zip has an enormous obnoxious amount of desire to fetch. It’s what she lives for. So I brought a toy out to the deck and teased her with it a bit. After I whetted her appetite for the toy I casually tossed it toward the table of great evil. Zip took two steps toward the toy then stopped and looked at me as if to say; “Are you freakin’ kidding me? There is NO way I can go one step nearer that thing!”

It was exactly the reaction I was looking for. Zip wasn’t paralyzed in terror, but she most certainly was not comfortable with approaching the table. So I picked up the toy and tossed it again, this time making sure it landed just a bit farther away from the thing of great evil.  Zip summed up her courage and slunk over toward the toy. She darted in, grabbed it and raced back to me. Party time! I praised my brave girl and tossed the toy again to reward her – this time in the direction opposite the thing of great evil.

Her courage was stoked by success so I repeated the exercise, this time throwing the toy so that it landed a little closer to the table. While her approach was still tentative she was visibly more confident this time. Another reward toss – and we repeat the process again. I continue until my girl cheerfully runs past the table  – which has now faded comfortably into the background.

Important things to keep in mind as you work through this process are:

  • Encourage flexibility by letting the dog choose how to approach the stressful situation. Don’t put the dog on a leash and drag her toward it. Instead, set up a situation where making some approach to the object results in a reward or a release of pressure and let her decide how to achieve it.
  • Keep the dog’s mind and body active. Idle paws are the devil’s tools! If your dog is not fully engaged in the exercise those extra mental resources will be shuttled to her fear responses where they’ll just work against you.
  • Increase the difficulty of the exercise in steps.  The dog’s response will tell you how big to make these steps.
  • Give the dog a short break to shake off the stress after each step. If she has a hard time shaking it off, make the next step smaller and easier. If she rebounds immediately, make it bigger and/or more difficult.
  • The last bit of the work you do will be the piece your dog will remember the best so it is very important to end the exercise on a successful note. Even if it is only a small success.
  • Don’t overdo it. Your goal should be to see an improvement in your dog’s confidence, not to desensitize her in a single session. Once her confidence is aroused – end the session and give your dog a break to process what she just learned. This should be a time for calm, quiet reflection not rambunctious play.

A dog that is frightened of loud things, strange things – even mysteriously afraid of some everyday things – doesn’t necessarily come from an abusive background.  She may just not have inherited a healthy dose of courage and resilience.  It’s easy to mistake this lack of resilience for a “history of abuse”.  And whether a dog has been abused or not, we do her a disservice when we try to shield her from the kinds of stresses she needs to be exposed to to learn healthy coping skills.

Once you ascribe your dog’s fearful behavior to abuse you run the risk of ignoring the other factors that might be involved.  Things like poorly developed resilience, health problems, neglect or a genetically fearful temperament. Things you might be able to change if you aren’t blind to them.  As Julia McDonough wrote, the “abuse excuse” keeps far too many people from giving their dogs the help they really need. 

Convinced that their dog has suffered enough hardship, they decide to “make up” to the dog for his past torment at the hands of lesser humans. This is poisonous, as the overindulgence of a dog is the main reason he fails in a home.

Heather and the other volunteers at Operation New Beginningsdidn’t indulge Harry in an effort to try to make up for the bad start he had in life. They simply took him out of that unhealthy place and gave him opportunities to discover the strong, resilient core inside him. The core that’s ready to take Harry on to the next step in his life.

If you’d like to help the Montana English Shepherds, consider making a donation to support Spay Montana – this wonderful group mustered resources this weekend to spay and neuter over 150 of the dogs.

August 3, 2009 at 3:19 am 8 comments

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