Archive for May, 2011

A positive learning curve

A referral from Holly Hedge Animal Sanctuary had me visiting a GSD this week which had recently been re-homed via HH to an experienced couple. The GSD had been locked in a high rise flat with no social stimulation or toilet training since he was a puppy and been relinquished to HH at 16 months. His new owners had been given lots of advice by HH as to how to help settle the dog in but they ignored some of this advice and took the dog, which by the way had NO socialisation, to Brean Sands. There he did his best to ward off everything he saw in a ‘ferocious’ manner and left his new owners feeling embarrassed and relieved that the husband could hold onto the dog.

When I got there I was greeted by a beautiful young  GSD and the owners, including the husband who had taken the day off work which is highly unusual according to the wife. They seemed like kind and decent people, answered all my questions and willing to learn so we got to work immediately by teaching some basic obedience and I even managed to persuade them to use a harness instead of a collar (as this reduces the likelihood of slipping the lead therefore safer). GSD was ball orientated so this was used as the end of session prize and praise was the marker with touch as the reward/reinforcer. The owners were used to +R which made my job ten times easier!

To evaluate his reactivity though I needed to see him in action, so off to the park we went. We began practising lead walking and orientating back to the owners in place of focusing on things around him. It was a quiet park but there were triggers present; workmen, people, dogs loose and on leads, pushchairs and cars coming and going in the car park. He coped brilliantly, he stopped pulling within 5 minutes of entering the park and although he was interested at what was going on around him, he wasn’t freaking. It was a good and positive learning curve for him.

His owners initially hadn’t realised what was happening. They were saying things like “He needs to come on caravan weekends with us and be social” or “He was worse at the beach” It took a while but after explaining that he needed gradual exposure to stimuli and triggers not the flooding he experienced at the beach in order to help desensitise him it finally sunk in. They also realised he was a quick learner and that if they were consistent with the techniques I showed them and followed my advice that he would be easier to handle in time. By slightly tweaking their perception of him and helping them understand his needs as far as training was concerned, they were then able to see the things he could do instead of focusing on his bad points and his past.

The GSD needs on going socialisation help and they will have my support and guidance every step of the way. This is just the beginning. It’s a shame they didn’t listen to the advice given by HH as my job of training him is a little harder now because of this experience he had but at least he is now on the right track.

I wonder though, how many other behaviourists have had similar cases?




Can dogs tell after a long period of time which dog is their sibling even after being apart for years?

Via smell alone?

I ask because I noticed some time ago how my friends’ Bull Terrier Meg would behave oddly (for her anyway) at times by the back gate of the garden. Meg would sniff high into the air, lifting a paw up, crying and whining, sniffing avidly under the gate, pawing the gate and looking and sniffing over the wall to the adjoining driveway where my car was parked.

After a couple of non eventful visits she did it again. It took a few weeks for me to suss out the difference on the days when she acted strangely; my dogs were in the car on the days she cried and sniffed. More specifically, her sister, my sweet Jellybean was in the car. They hadn’t seen each other in 3 years. And the windows were not open in the car either.

The next visit with them in the car I took her into Meg’s garden. She was greeted happily by the other Bull Terriers in residence, her mum Ruby and Harvey. The girls seemed to behave as I would expect dogs to greet each other, excited and enthusiastic. Harvey was a little too interested in showing her his admiration so I popped her back in the car. It was the fastest I have ever seen horizontal Harvey move but I couldn’t allow that!!

My suspicions were confirmed each time I went with or without the dogs. Even different dogs did not provoke the same reaction when they were in my car, even years later. After Jellybean passed away recently it was a couple of weeks before I could bring myself to put them in the car and take them to work. I knew Meg would not react the same. I was right, even though I left the windows open Meg did not seem to be aware her friends were in the car. I knew Jellybean really had gone and that Meg had some connection to her sister, on a hormonal level, one I would doubtfully ever fully understand.


+R or not to +R

While I personally chose not to use dominance reduction techniques or alpha training in my dogs or with clients, I am not concerned if this is what you chose. Your dog, your choice. I simply believe it to be outdated and have had better, more consistent long term results using non dominance methods than I ever did with alpha. Yes I have tried alpha and dominance reduction in the past but I found it ruined my relationship with my dogs and did not feel natural.

I might have a learning disability but I am mature enough to understand that we are all entitled to our opinion. Some think theirs is the only correct one while others may prefer to sit on the fence. There are some trainers, canine professionals, organisations and individuals who dismiss all positive reinforcement (+R) trainers and indeed some +R trainers who do the same with alpha trainers. It boils down to preference, need and what’s best for the situation.

So what does that mean when applied to behaviour modification? Often when assessing a dog and its family, I’m looking for the family and dog interactions. It becomes obvious if there are mitigating circumstances within the family dynamics and their treatment of the dog and how it relates to any problem behaviour they are having. To +R or not to +R? Sometimes the owners need to say NO to their dog. Yes sometimes it’s ok to point out to a dog it has made an erroneous decision. You don’t have to spank or threaten your dog or bully it into submission. That’s not going to accomplish much more than making it afraid of you which often leads to defensive fearful behaviour. If you do say no, don’t be ashamed but also don’t forget to teach your dog positively what you want instead. The family pet sometimes gets spoiled by well meaning owners and they forget that even in this enlightened non dominance age we have to set some sort of limit to how much fun the dog can have at their expense. It’s about realistic dog training.

When asked my opinion on dominance etc I like to say this: dominance is between two consenting adults. It’s sometimes met with mixed reviews but frankly I feel that yes in context of a situation dominance may play a role but not to blanket the whole lifestyle of a particular dog.

My own view is that alpha and dominance can and is often, taken too far, often by individuals who have no idea what they are doing and abuse dogs in the process. I have seen some sickening acts performed in the name of dominance and alpha training which have led me to the conclusion of leaving alpha and dominance out of modern dog training and behaviour. +R has revolutionised the dog training industry but any trainer worth their salt will tell you that they do very occasionally use their outside voice and give corrections. We are human beings, we have moods as well as desires and you show me anyone who hasn’t felt frustrated at their dog at one time or another, whether it’s trainer error or the dog being a dog. That’s what I mean by realistic dog training, I try to ease the pressure a lot of owners feel when dealing with a problematic dog or training their puppy.