Thursday, June 7, 2012

Misinterpreting the Need for "Firm" Training

I've been thinking about something lately that I feel needs clearing up.  It feels like I'm constantly reading about certain breeds needing a "firm" or "strict" trainer.  It seems to me that while in a way this is true, using this terminology with your average dog owner (or aspiring dog owner) is an accident waiting to happen.

Let me clear something up here: when you read that a dog needs "firm" or "strict" training, that does NOT equate ANYTHING about dominance!  There are absolutely dogs that thrive in a home that has structure, routine, and no short-cuts when it comes to what is expected (a full down, for example, instead of elbows off the ground).  However, many people see those words and think the dog needs to be "reminded" that it's supposed to "submit" or some other such nonsense.  People then go overboard on corrections, do silly things like walking before the dog through doorways, and do dangerous things like Alpha Rolling (pinning a dog down until it "submits").

Dominance based training, while scientifically proven to be less effective long term than positive reinforcement, is still running rampant, especially here in the US.  For many people, this stems only from being raised to treat a dog a certain way and ignorance of new forms of training.  It is the dog trainer's job to educate about how dogs learn and redirect people to more effective (and less dangerous) ways to teach their dogs.

The irony is, and sadly so, that in general, the dogs that require "firm" training are the ones that you'll run into the most problems if you adhere to dominance theory.  If a dog has a natural tendency to want to find short-cuts and sneak around the rules, chances are they also aren't going to take your shit (pardon my language) if you start pushing it around.  This not only means the dog won't listen to you, but it also means you run the risk of the dog going on the defensive, becoming dangerous.

I'd like to put it out there to anyone in a position to make changes in this speak, please make the effort to do so.  Dog trainers, breeders, shelter workers, or anyone who has a passion for dogs, do your best to replace things like "firm" training with "diligent" or "constant" training.  Explain that you can't take short-cuts, but you want your dog to WANT to listen because the reward is so high, not because the punishment is great for disobedience.  Expect full sits, full downs, a calm dog at the door, not a dog that doesn't do anything for fear of the consequences.

Have any other ideas for how to change the way we talk about this personality trait in dogs?  Leave a comment!

Friday, August 26, 2011

When Dog Training is Counter Intuitive

Recently my husband brought this article to my attention:

6 Well Intentioned Ways You're Ruining Your Dog -

Granted, it's posted on a comedy website, but the advice is all really sound.  It mentions things like punishing your dog after the fact (and why that "guilty" look they get isn't guilt at all), addressing submissive urination by ignoring it completely, and how coddling your dog when scared makes the situation worse, among other things.  It got me thinking about how people as a whole instinctively want to approach dogs from a primate mind frame, as opposed to a canine one.  Yes, dogs definitely (in my opinion) do have very real emotions and are incredibly intelligent.  At the end of the day, however, they are still dogs and need to be treated as such.  By learning how dogs think, and how they express themselves through body language, we can make huge strides in effectively training and socializing them.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Preparing Your Dog for the Groomer

I originally wrote this article for a pet forum.  I was approached and asked to give some tips for a thread on toy dogs, since so many of them require regular grooming.  The thing of it is, even if your dog has no hair and you do all aspects of your dog's grooming care yourself, you're still going to want to teach him or her how to behave for the whole process without traumatizing them.  The truth of the matter is, larger dogs probably need more training than small dogs, especially while young, since it will be MUCH harder to control them once they learn to throw their weight around.  It's also more imperative to employ proper positive reinforcement technique with larger dogs, since (especially if going to an actual groomer) you can't just "force" them through the process.  Obviously this isn't something you want to do anyway, but the fact of the matter is, with a small dog you can fake your way through the process if necessary, where you couldn't with a large dog.  At any rate, here's a great little guide for getting your dog used to all aspects of the process.

Hopefully it's common sense, and a given, that by getting a long coated, "people haired" dog (or double coated dog, for that matter) that you're going to need to see the groomer every 4-6 weeks. What seems to completely skip people's minds, though, is the fact that puppies aren't born knowing how to go through the stressful process. Grooming shops are noisy and active, and dogs are getting drenched in water, blown in the face with loud dryers, combed, tugged, manipulated, clipped and forced to hold still during the whole process. It's quite possible for a dog to not only become accustomed to the process, but to actually enjoy it. However, contrary to a lot of popular belief, this is NOT your groomer's job to accomplish! Your groomer sees your dog about once a month. Would your dog learn to sit if you only taught it and enforced it once every 30 days? Housebreaking? ANYTHING? No. This is why you, as the dog's owner, are responsible for making sure he or she has a successful time at the groomer. I'll break down the grooming process for you, and give some training tips on what you can do at home to make the transition into grooming a successful one.

General Atmosphere:

Shops are very noisy, busy, and filled with other dogs. Also, your dog will be crated when not actively being groomed. For groomable dogs especially, crate training is a necessity, not an option.

*Like I just said, crate train your dog. This is non negotiable. You do NOT want to put your groomer through your dog screaming at the top of its lungs trying to get out, or worse, eliminating in its kennel. This makes the process take longer (if the dog needs to be rewashed) and makes your groomer like you less as a client. There, I said it.

*Socialize, socialize, socialize. You should be doing this regardless, but letting your dog experience lots of new places, people, and other dogs will help him or her enjoy the atmosphere of the groomer as opposed to dreading it. You can always tell the well socialized dogs from the "homebodies," because socialized dogs have a BLAST and can't wait to come in the door.

*Get your dog used to loud noises. I'll go over this in more detail later on, but things like loud TV or radio, vacuums, hair dryers, etc, are all good.

Bath Time:

Most likely, your dog will be put in a tub with running water out of a spray nozzle, not a filled tub. He or she will be soaked down, possibly have his or her anal glands expressed (depending on your groomer, remember to always ask if you don't know) and soaped up. Water and shampoo will be coming in contact with every inch of your dog, including his or her face, and he or she will need to be prepared to be manhandled all over.

*You can help get your dog used to running water just by exposing him or her to it a little every day. Remember, though, work slow! If you go to fast and blast your dog in the face, you're going to make them afraid and difficult to wash. You can just set them in the tub and start the water running. You don't even need to get them wet, just get them accustomed to the sound. Maybe stand them where the water's pooling a bit, and let them explore if they're curious, and remember to praise and possibly treat for good behavior. You can even go further and get them a little wet if they seem up to it, but remember, if your dog gets wet, you will need to comb them as they dry, and after they're dry, or they will mat up. Water + No Comb Out = Matted Dog!

*Whatever you do, do NOT "play" with your dog with spraying water, like from a hose. I know it's fun and cute, but this "game" is the bane of every groomer's existence. If you teach your dog that it's fun to bite at the water, they will do that the ENTIRE time they are being bathed. With some dogs, it even develops into aggression that can be displaced at the groomer if it escalates too far. The only behavior you should encourage is nice, calm behavior, accepting of whatever odd thing you're going to ask next.

*This is the first of many instances where it's good to teach your dog to stand calmly. It's difficult when default mode for a dog is a "sit", because while the dog is technically being good, it's impossible to wash and rinse a sitting dog. Work on something of a "Stand Up" command, and tell your groomer whatever word you use. Teach your dog to stand still, then work up to standing there while you pick up and rub paws (with OUT the dog pulling away), lifting their tail, and rubbing their face. Obviously, this is going to take time, and no groomer is going to expect a puppy or new rescue to be perfect right away. However, standing still for everything is the ultimate goal.


While it's possible your dog will spend some time air drying in his or her kennel, they will ultimately be put under some sort of drying to finish off the job. They will have warm air blown on them while being brushed at the same time. This is the first part of the process where they will need to be held by their faces, and as uncomfortable as it is, they will have warm air blown directly on it. They may also have a force dryer used, which has a long hose with a nozzle on the end, similar to an attachment you might use for a vacuum.

*The most obvious thing you can work on at home is using a hairdryer. Whenever working with a human hairdryer and dogs, use the coolest setting. Even though dog dryers do heat up quite a bit, they don't get nearly as hot as we use on our own hair. They also can't tell you when it's too warm. When working with your dog, first let them sniff the dryer and let them get used to it. Then, hold it back from them (so you don't surprise them) and turn it on, with the air facing away. Work on letting them get used to the noise at first. Once they're fine with that, work on slowly introducing them to the air flow. Like the water, you want to work gradually and keep them from being surprised by it or playing with it.

*If your work with the dryer goes well, you can try introducing a brush into the mix. Depending on your dog, your groomer may use any number of brushes for drying, but the default would be a slicker brush, so a small, soft one is best for training. You don't have to brush hard, just get the dog used to the feeling while having the air on them at the same time.

*Following the blow out, your dog will be thoroughly combed. You should already be working at home at brushing and combing your dog to keep him or her mat free. It is NOT your groomer's job to de-mat your dog, and most groomers will either refuse to de-mat and opt to just shave out the area to save your dog the pain and stress (like my shop), or they will charge you up the ass per half hour it takes to de-mat your dog. If you start early combing your dog down to the skin, then he or she should be a pro in no time.

Prep Work:

These are the "bare basics" of grooming, and (in my opinion) should be included in every bath if you find yourself a good groomer (sorry Petsmart!) Your dog's nails will be clipped and possibly filed, your dog's ears will be cleaned and plucked free of hair, and your dogs pads and privates (i.e. belly & pooper) will be shaved. This work is sometimes done before the bath. This is when we start getting to the difficult work.

*Everyone always hears the same advice for nail clipping, "Get your dog used to having his or her paws handled." I think this advice is too general, though. It's one thing to rub and play with a dog's paws, it's another to hold it still well enough to cut a nail without hitting a quick. While, yes, you do need to teach your dog to have its paws handled, just petting them is only a first step, and I really don't think "playing" with them is going to be much help. Like everything else, you want to teach your dog to stand calmly while you pick up each paw, firmly hold it, and move it into a position where it's possible to cut the nails. Your dog is going to instinctively want to pull away, and this should be discouraged. While you don't want to actively fight with your dog, a good tactic is to firmly hold the paw, but let your arm give in to the dog's pulling. Pretty quickly, he or she should calm down and and give up. When they do, you'll want to praise like crazy and treat your dog to encourage the calm behavior. Some dogs pick up on this right away, and could naturally care less about nail cutting. Others take a lot of work, so hang in there, and work on the process every day!

*Getting your dog used to paw handling is also great for pretty much every other thing from here on out. Having their pads shaved is a very strange experience, but if they're already used to holding still, it's a huge step forward. This is going to be the first time your dog is exposed to a clipper, which is VERY strange. Just imagine if someone stuck some weird, buzzing instrument between your toes! Not very natural. If you have something at home that vibrates like an electric toothbrush, nail grinder, back massager, etc, it can be a great tool to help your dog with what will probably be the weirdest aspect of grooming. Like the water and hairdryer, start by just turning whatever it is on near your dog and let them get used to the noise. Over time, bring the tool close to your pup and touch it to his or her paws, back, belly, etc. Even better if you can actually spread your dog's toes on it. Remember, work slowly and only move forward if your dog is comfortable with it.

*Ear cleaning and plucking is not only awkward, it's controversial. There is a big debate as to whether plucking a dog's ears is helpful, or even harmful in some cases. A lot of it seems to be old-school groomers vs. vets, but it's not as cut and dry as do it or don't. While at the shop where I work we try to pluck the ears as clean as possible, I personally feel that it's not necessary to get a completely clean ear, and plucking is not necessary on all dogs. Much of the time, the ear is very full of hair, and a good deal of that hair is on its way to shedding anyway. This can be a breeding ground for any number of things that cause ear infections, and I personally feel it should be plucked. However, I also don't think that stubborn hair should be plucked (i.e. hair that isn't shedding on its own) and that dogs with only a little ear hair can get away with a trim and just cleaning. It's important to do personal research to see where you stand on the issue, and to find a groomer that will follow your instruction regarding ear care. /tangent

*Regardless of whether your dogs ears will be plucked, at the very least they will be cleaned. Work on handling your dogs ears and holding them open, like you would if you were going to administer drops. You can have your dog lay down for this part, because it's easier and more stable to hold the ear open, then palm your dog's head while you do so. This holds the dog still with one hand, while your other is free to do the work you need to do. This can be one of the easiest things to work on, but one of the most ignored.

Actual Grooming:

Time for the main event! During the actual haircut, your dog will likely have a clipper run over his or her whole body (even for longer cuts, a comb guard is used) and will definitely be trimmed with scissors.

*Since by now your dog is used to standing and being handled, most of this is a breeze. Just standing for grooming really isn't a lot of work, especially for scissoring, which the dog doesn't even really feel. Mostly, you have to work on your dog's attention span. Puppies take a bit more work, because EVERYTHING under the sun distracts them. They're going to have to learn to stand still with people walking by, other dogs in the room, phones ringing, etc. This is when socializing can sometimes get in the WAY of grooming, because dogs that are attention whores can hardly contain themselves when a new person walks by. Work on your dog's standing command, and over time introduce distractions. You'll want to work on a stay in this position, and a release command when you're done. It's a lot of work, and nothing helps this process as much as experience, so over time your dog should just get used to the fact that they're stuck for awhile.

*We already covered the clipper training, but again, work with your dog with something that vibrates and makes noise to desensitize them to the sound and feeling. You'll want them to stand calmly while they do this.

*Now we're down to the last part of the whole grooming process: cutting your dog's face. This is arguably the hardest part a groomer has to learn, and a very awkward one for your dog to learn as well. Your dog is going to have to learn to have his or her head held completely still while 7in-10in shears are coming right at their face. NOT fun. This is also very dangerous, so it is vital that you work with your dog on this, maybe more than any other aspect of the whole process. The first thing you need to teach is for your dog to hold still while you hold his or her chin. This literally means you're going to have to hold the hair on his or her chin while you aim their little face at you. Obviously, this is extremely awkward for your dog, and it's natural to fight it. Like paw training, however, you need to teach them that this is a natural, unavoidable thing, and that it's a good thing, by using lots of praise and treats. If your dog doesn't really have chin hair, but will still require clipping around the head and face (like pomeranians, papillons, long haired chihuahuas, etc) you can hold on to the long hair just below their chin, on their neck, and even a bit of the skin there, too. Don't feel bad for holding your dog still! Your groomer is going to do this, anyway, so they might as well get used to it.

*After you work a bit on the face, and your dog is sitting still, take a long object like a pen and bring it close to your dog's face like a groomer would do with a long pair of shears. Make sure your dog stays still. Run the object along his or her head, face, and especially bring it close to his or her eyes, on the bridge of the nose for dogs that will need trimming in these areas. You can't blame a dog for not wanting something coming right at their face like that, but it's dangerous for them to whip their heads trying to get away from it. Teach them to be calm while all this is happening.

Talking to Your Groomer

After all is said and done, there is only so much preparation you can do before bringing your dog for a haircut. No dog is perfect, so it's important to discuss with your groomer things you've been working on, commands you use, and most importantly, areas your dog is still having trouble. As long as you're putting in an effort at home, your groomer will be more than happy to continue working with your dog and help train him or her while at the shop. It's also important for safety reasons to point out any areas where your dog is having problems so your groomer can be prepared ahead of time.

If you've come this far with your dog, you may want to consider grooming him or her yourself! This is a fantastic option, and one I'd actually encourage every dog owner to consider, even though it would mean I'd be out of a job. You may want to head to a professional groomer at first, though, so your dog can get more used to the process, and you can get tips on things you may need to work on still at home. Many groomers would be willing to help show you how to use the equipment you would need to do your dog at home, though, so if this is an option you might want to consider, think of asking your potential groomer when first deciding where to go.

Congratulations on training your dog to make it through a lifetime of grooming!

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Importance of Genetic Diversity

Purebred dog breeding is a study in genetic restriction.  The idea being, each created breed is to be held to a unifying standard of type (i.e. physical appearance), personality, and specific working ability.  When a person wants a rough collie, they have a reason for choosing a rough collie over a border collie, australian shepherd, or other herding dog.  Each breed has specifics that make them unique and worth preserving.

However, by restricting breeding to a specific gene pool, you have the elements of disaster at your fingertips if breeding isn't planned out appropriately.  When you look at the astonishing number of genetic health problems associated with purebred dogs today, small gene pools, bottle necking, and inbreeding are to blame.  When you restrict breeding to "enhance type" you're obviously going to come across bizarre mutations that can be detrimental down the road.  There's a reason we don't marry our cousins.

Unfortunately, with breeds that were established and over bred in a time when we didn't understand such things in genetics, problems are cropping up that quite possibly won't ever be able to be fixed.  Even with reputable breeders testing for and breeding against problems common in their breed, with some issues (like heart problems in cavalier king charles spaniels) it's just a band-aid that will never really get rid of the problem all together.  You can go to such breeders to reduce the risk of getting an unhealthy pet, but in the end, statistically speaking, the breed would still be doomed.
Virtually all cavaliers will be affected by Mitral Valve Disease by age 10.

The only solution for breeds that are this far gone is to bring in new genetics by outcrossing from different breeds.  This creates a panic with some breeders who are too concerned with "tradition" and "purity" to take their blinders off and see the benefits of outcrossing.  It's already been proven that with careful, insightful breeding, and a fantastic eye for dogs, you can outcross with a different breed and produce puppies in a few generations that will breed true to the original standard.  Take the Dalmation/Pointer outcross as example:

"The Dalmatian Backcross Project commenced in 1973 with the original outcross of an AKC registered Champion Pointer sire CH Shandown's Rapid Transit bred to an AKC registered Dalmatian dam Lady Godiva Dr. Robert Schaible conducted the breeding in an effort to address the Dalmatian fixed genetic defect that affects uric acid metabolism and that may lead to increased urinary uric acid, urate crystals, urinary bladder aggregate formation, stones, urinary tract obstruction and even death."

Despite the fact that the products of this outcross are dogs that are indistinguishable from purebred dalmations, breeders are still fighting their recognition into the AKC.  These dogs, and future outcrossing, would help save a breed that is on a downward slope into oblivion, but instead people fight and cling to a past that has failed the breed miserably.

Obviously, not all breeds are so far gone that outcrossing to other breeds is necessary.  Some breeds still have only minor issues that can be avoided through careful observation of lines and testing of the breeding pair.  What can we do now, though, to avoid the mistakes of the past?  Knowing what we now know about genetics, what can we do to preserve breeds for the future?

The answer is simple: stop inbreeding!  We know that by breeding close dogs we limit an already small gene pool.  Despite the fact that doing so supposedly "locks in" positive traits in a line, it's undeniable that it causes a major blow to the offspring in the genetics department.  We've learned that you want as few common ancestors in a dog's pedigree as possible and close inbreeding cuts that diversity in half.  Even without breeding dogs that are "related" in the sense that they are father/daughter, grandparent/grandchild, cousins, etc, we've found that by looking back in a pedigree, a loss of diverse ancestry causes major genetic issues down the road.  In breeds with rampant health issues, it's a certainty that if you look at the breed's history you will find areas of bottlenecking, often caused by popular stud dogs who may be ideal and high winning, but through over breeding show up in virtually every pedigreed dog.

We need to take a look at the proof these statistics have shown us and make a unanimous decision that when breeding, genetic diversity and health should come first, even before the ideal set forth by the standard.  Breeding is an art that takes time.  The idea is to create a line and improve upon it over the course of numerous generations.  There is no reason to take shortcuts on the road to this perfection if the cost is detrimental health issues down the road.  Breeders need to stop being so short sighted with breeding "perfect" show dogs or sport dogs and do something valuable for the breed as a whole.  It might take a hell of a lot longer, but it will be worth it in the end.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On Choosing a Dog Breed

All puppies are cute!  But they are not all equal.
I often hear about people looking to get a dog that don't know where to start.  It is all too common for people to gravitate towards certain breeds based on appearance alone (which is only natural) but when that is the your main goal in your search, you'll wind up all over the board in terms of temperament, activity level, and grooming requirements.  At best, you'll make your search take 20 times as long because as you research each breed, you'll come across aspects that won't fit with your lifestyle.  At worst, you'll jump the gun and get a cute dog or puppy that is completely wrong for you.

The key is to learn about TYPES of dogs, as opposed to specific breeds early on in your search. Breed selector quizes that you'll commonly find on-line on websites such as Animal Planet are pretty bogus because they condense the breeds' characteristics down to about 4 or 5 categories without taking into account specifics. Primitive breeds (such as huskies, akitas, and shiba inu) and Herding breeds (such as border collies, australian shepherds, and corgis) are all super smart, but in completely different ways.  Where Herding dogs will listen well and want to obey, Primitive dogs will learn what you want, but only obey if it's in their best interest.  Both breeds are smart, but must be handled differently.  Even when talking about Primitive breeds, Sledding breeds are still going to differ greatly from Japanese breeds, since the former are bred to work well together so are naturally friendly, but the later are more aloof and more likely to be dog aggressive. What you need to do is critically think about what you're looking for in a dog, COMPLETELY ignoring what said dog is going to look like. That is the LAST thing you tackle on the list.

The absolute best thing you can do for yourself if you're contemplating getting a dog is to critically think about your lifestyle, routine, experience, and what you feel you can handle.  The following questions are meant to give you a starting point that you can work off of to figure out what breeds will meet your needs.  Once you discover that, you can take more aesthetic things into account.

*What do you want your dog to be like around the house? Do you want a dog that's in your face and raring to go all the time, or do you want a dog that's just going to want to lay on the couch? Or do you want a dog in the middle that'll be happy to play a round of fetch but will just chill after that?

*Do you want a dog that's going to constantly follow you from room to room, or do you want your dog to give you more space?

*Do you want a dog that's going to be friendly and outgoing with everyone it meets, or do you want more of a one-person/family type dog? (I should note that you need to be careful with "one-person dogs" because a lot of them can easily turn aggressive with strangers if not properly trained and socialized.)

*How much time do you have to exercise your dog? Do you want to go for multiple daily walks/runs/trips to the dog park? Or do you want to be able to get away with only walking your dog once or twice a day?

*What sort of training do you feel you can handle? Have you owned dogs, on your own, not family pets, and what breeds are you accustomed to dealing with? Do you want a highly biddable dog, or can you handle your dog choosing when to listen? Do you want a dog that trains quickly, or can you handle a dog that will take a few repetitions to get it right? I think this is one of the most important aspects to consider, and why you should get first hand experience with a lot of dogs before getting one of your own, so you know you'll get a personality you can mesh with. It's a good idea to volunteer at a shelter for awhile so you can get more experience.

*What level of grooming can you manage? Do you want a dog that you don't have to brush often, or can you deal not only with mounds of hair, but the dedication it takes to brush and comb your dog at least once a week while not blowing coat, and multiple times a week when it is? Would you be ok (financially and time-wise) bringing your dog to the groomer if necessary? The larger the dog, and the more coat it has, the more expensive grooming is going to be.

It's my hope that people seriously consider these things before jumping in to getting a dog (no one word answers, the more detailed you get, the better).  If nothing else, doing so will give you a better understanding of what to look for, and what questions to ask about a breed when doing your research.