Thursday, May 30, 2013

Quite Logical

It's been my experience that dogs are logical creatures. But as another Vulcan proverb concedes, “Logic is only the beginning of wisdom” and that means that dogs make mistakes based on otherwise logical assumptions. Without question, the most common one is jumping on people. While not a mistake necessarily it is a misunderstanding between we humans and our dogs. Here's why. When dogs are puppies they're amongst the cutest things in all creation. Small, furry, helpless and given the opportunity, jumping all over us. Most puppies are encouraged to do this by us. It's harmless enthusiasm at this stage in their lives and very few dog owners discourage it, quite the contrary in fact. When I was a kid, Pepsi ran it's famously effective ad featuring grandparents unleashing a litter of Labrador Retriever puppies on their grandkids. It's the perfect illustration of the information that's changing hands quietly beneath the adorable bedlam. I'm not implying anything sinister is being sewn into this exchange, not even that it should not be allowed to happen. It's beautiful if you ask me, if only all of us were this unabashedly enthusiastic about one another. There is a very big “BUT” however. Little 2lb puppies are fuzzy and delightful but some of them grow exponentially in their first year becoming adult dogs 50-150lbs and more. Now jumping is a problem and we don't want them doing it anymore. Imagine those Lab pups jumping on those little kids one year later,...YIKES! The kids aren't laughing hysterically, they're traumatized. Things have changed for us but for our dogs, well, they haven't got the memo and if they're unaware of your sudden distaste for them leaping into your grill for sloppy, wet smooches, then it's not fair to assume they'll understand why you're sticking your knee in their chest when they do.


To assume dogs know they're doing something wrong is to both ignore the messages we've unconsciously etched in their brains when they were puppies and assume they'll grasp an abstract concept like right and wrong. What's this? No right and wrong? It's anarchy, ahhhhh!!!! Relax, it's not the apocalypse. Consider this. If I were to shake hands using my left hand you might think it's odd but you wouldn't think it's offensive. Yet in some parts of the world it's a cultural norm to wipe with the left hand only, so offering it is not advised unless you intend to offend, in other words it's “wrong”. It's right to tip your waiter but wrong to tip the person at the drive thru window (Thanks to Mr. Pink for that revelation.) Dogs are not confronted by a jury of their peers, they don't editorialize, they don't pontificate, postulate or castigate. In other words, the concept of right and wrong is a societal construct, to assume our dogs are privy to them is not,...logical. 

So now we agree it's not wrong so to speak but we still don't like it. It's potentially dangerous and we want to bring an end to it. What can we do? If our dogs learned that we liked them jumping on us they can learn that we like it even better when they greet in a sit. I had this discussion with a local family I'm working less than a week ago. They're expecting a baby in the fall and with their 18mos old Golden Murphy jumping impulsively on his mom Kelley, this problem took on a real sense of urgency. It was with great satisfaction that as I got off my soap box, Murphy's dad Ryan produced a photo of his daughter Tori welcoming Murphy, then about 12 weeks old, as he jumped on her. I knew at that moment they got what I'd been droning on about. As Murphy began showing a marked preference for greeting in a sit (praise and treats) Kelley was able to sit down with a baby doll standing in for the real thing as Murphy greeted politely in a sit. Just as he'd been encouraged to jump as a puppy, he'd been encouraged to sit as an adult dog, it was a Vulcan mind meld! Fascinating...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Dreary”,  a combination of “depressing” and “weary”. It’s how today feels, starting with a text from my sister letting me know that she and her family had come to the conclusion it was time to let their dear dog “Sammy” go. A sweet Yellow Lab that I first met as a playful puppy and who’d been around to occupy the earliest memories of my nieces and nephew. Old age had taken the usual toll, ocular clouding, loss of hearing and in the last few weeks a steady decline in mobility brought on by cancer. The family has had to wrestle with the big questions. Is my dog still happy? What's her quality of life? Answers to those questions led them to the most difficult and painful of conclusions. 

    In an interview with Sam Simon, a writer on the TV series “TAXI” a creator of the TV series “The Simpsons” and of late, creator of The Sam Simon Foundation, said that when it came to his dogs, he’d loved each one of them, he’d also had to put each of them to sleep. His criteria for knowing when that time had come involved writing down each dog’s three favorite things. When they were no longer able to enjoy any of them, it was time to let them go. That might be the best way I've heard of knowing the absolute worst thing you can know about your dog. With two geriatric dogs at home, it's something I think about every day. Of course having a criteria for such a thing isn’t like having criteria for when it’s time to clean the storm drains. Assuming your dogs are family, it’s as awful a conclusion you can arrive at and yet our relative lifespans mean we will be confronted with it at some point.

    None of this will make going to sleep tonight any easier for my sister and her family. Memories of my final moments with Reno, my ear against his chest as he slipped away, are nearly as crisp and poignant as when I first experienced them. That was three years ago and I recall there was little sleep to be had knowing we’d wake up without him in our lives. Despite the empty feeling that comes when we lose someone we love, there is also profound beauty. We emerge from nothingness  to make our entry on the corporeal plane and eventually we return to it; so too do our dogs. The details I’ll leave to your individual beliefs, what I take from it however is the complete apparent randomness with which our paths cross with one another. It defies the possibility for love and yet many of us love our dogs unconditionally as they appear to love us. Of course without this there would be no pain. That’s the bargain we make when allow ourselves to feel so deeply for them.

    Greg Proops, a comedian hewn from the same stone as George Carlin and Richard Pryor draws from ancient customs, paying homage to those who have passed as iridescent lights swirling magnificently in the night sky. Tonight, Sammy ascends to the night sky to join legions of other great dogs and while for my sister and her family, the world will be a less for her absence, the sky will be brighter for her being there. I suggested to my sister that she make Sammy a cheeseburger and have some wine on hand to toast their departed friend and family member. Tomorrow they'll wake with her alive in a lifetime of great memories and the healing will begin. Goodby Sweet Sammy.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What Do You Want?

Training is fundamentally about communication. It forms the nucleus of any such dynamic, branching out in often unexpected sometimes elegant ways like fractal geometric structures spiraling off to form into something beautiful. It can also deteriorate into a terrible mess. Like all trainers I'm working not just on inter-species communication, I'm also channeling ideas vicariously through a dog's human counterpart(s) . At it's best it's what I imagine fusion jazz must be like. A free floating exchange of information back and forth between multiple individuals each communicating in their own way, saxophone, standing bass, piano and drums. Everyone bringing an innate understanding of each other that transcends language in the traditional sense. What and how we communicate determines direction, comprehension and can have a big impact on whether the ideas that come out of training are going to take hold over the long term. 

"Tis nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so" - William Shakespeare

            So what do I want to communicate with this entry? As the title of this entry asks, "What do you want?" Answer, to shift the focus of training to addressing what we want and away from what we don't want. This could easily be brushed aside as a semantic argument but it's much more than that. Proof lies in how difficult it can sometimes be. A common scenario, "My dog loses her mind when the doorbell rings. She scratches the hell out of the door and jumps all over whoever walks in." Traditional, pack leader, dominance training punishes the bad behavior (P+) with the punishment subsiding only when the behavior itself subsides. If the net result is that the dog does not bark or jump the next time someone rings the doorbell and comes in, no punishment is inflicted  and the behavior is reinforced by it's absence (R-) This approach has been used for a very long time, it sometimes works and often creates collateral damage in the process. To make the shift away from "How do I stop this?" to what you want, "I want her to be quiet and greet calmly with her paws on the ground or better still in a sit." requires a change in the way you think about conflict and how to address it. Well framed questions can do this. Veterinarian/Behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar, speaking at a TED convention, CLICK HERE, asks how dominance training would work if you were training a bear. Answer: Not well at all. I like to pose the hypothetical question: Can a 5'-2" tall female dog owner weighing 110lbs have and train a French Mastiff weighing 150lbs? Answer: Yes, but you'd be well advised not to make it a battle of wills. To expect a dog to have an innate understanding of good and bad is to invite conflict. An understanding of good and bad is crucial in societal terms but strictly speaking, an abstract assumption in a human/animal relationship. Conversely, to communicate to a dog how great it is to do the things you want them to is responsible for amazing feats both familiar like Canine Agility CLICK HERE and less familiar, like Freestyle Dog Dancing CLICK HERE.
Screen Capture of Joyce and Kaia in the Agility Ring
             Now if dancing with your dog strikes you as silly, that's fine, it is a little silly but it would be unfair not to concede that there's a breathtaking amount of inter species communication going on and that neither dog dancing or my friend and colleague Joyce Gauthier (That's her with her dog Kaia in the agility ring) could every achieve that level of cooperation without first communicating to their dogs how much fun they're going to have and how rewarding the whole thing is going to be. What I want is for you to come over here and weave in between these upright poles. Huh? Try just one, click, treat, now two, click, treat etc.
Louie, Archie & Miles: No dogs in the kitchen rule.

            Only a fraction of dog owners will every venture into the worlds of agility or freestyle but the information that's extracted from these sports trickles down in meaningful and profound ways for far more common scenarios that unfold between regular dog owners and their canine family members. They should also prove as examples of what's possible. That's a big deal if you're feeling helpless to resolve a conflict with your dog and you're in desperate need of some perspective. The next time you're agonizing about bringing home a new couch (Ernie's going to lie down on it when we're watching Game of Thrones and get Labradoodle fur all over it.) try convincing  Ernie how great the dog bed on the floor is instead of yelling at him for being on the couch. Now if George R.R. Martin would just stop killing off all the best characters, how great would that be?