My Response To Sheldon & Tristian: Debate About Ecollers

On Friday December 18th 2015 Duke Ferguson went on the air to discuss electric collars with a radio show host, Sheldon MacLeod and a trainer Sheldon hosts weekly, Tristan Flynn from Jollytails.

Tristan often speaks out against the use of electric collars (ecollars) and during this debate brought up position statements from leading Veterinary Behavior Associations.  These associations I have an enormous amount of respect for and there is no doubt that they have a place in the training community. One of the things that I truly love about behavioral scientist’s, is that from them you can learn the deepest most inter workings of behavior. Through their findings we can truly have conversations with dogs on a much deeper level because rather than learning words or phrases we can actually become fluent in doggie lingo.

For any trainer regardless of methods used, being fluent in dog is a necessity. With all of this said, Duke brings about a very important point…words on paper don’t amount to much. As the age old saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

I am not going to waste your time here with anecdotal evidence and personal experiences, rather I am going to share with you a video of a Veterinary Behaviorist, who served on the board of The American Veterinary Association of Animal Behavior,  working a dog with dog aggression. I challenge you to watch this video and not think what she is doing is quite rough. No, there is not stimulation from an electric collar but there is no doubt this dog is being yanked and jerked around by his face and neck. Suddenly the claim made by Veterinary Behavior Associations that they do not support a group of devices because of the damages done to the dogs body and mental state seems a bit ridiculous, essentially, you can jerk your dog around with a leash as long as you are doing it with the “correct” devices.

Take a look:

In this very video she discusses how she is applying a lot of Gentle Leader pressure. She dances around this dilemma by referring to the pressure as Negative Reinforcement. Interestingly though, Negative Reinforcement means to remove (-negative) something unpleasant to increase (reinforce) behavior. She knows she is applying something unpleasant to the dog yet justifies it because it’s an “emergency situation”. This would be the very claim and justification made by anyone who uses e-collars, we are not so different after all.

To further make the statements made by Veterinary Behavior Associations less credible, this very Veterinary Behaviorist, the one in the video, has an article written about the use of Gentle Leaders. The title of the article is: Are Head Collars on Dogs Dangerous or Safe? It’s All About Technique.

You can read the full article here:

That’s an interesting title. Apparently there is a correct way of using a gentle leader and if someone were to use one improperly we may see damage done to the dog. Very similar to choke, prong and e-collars, but because the word gentle is in the title of the device it is easier to look away when a dog is being treated harshly.

I want to make clear right here that I do not disagree with Dr. Sophia Yin’s approach. I believe she did what she had to given the tool at her disposal, her stature, build and strength in comparison to the dog she was working with and in the end she got some amazing results. That does not change the fact that I do see someone being rough with a dog, someone who claimed to be a proponent of positive reinforcement and “force free” methods. Her entire career was based off of diffusing stress in dogs and pushing all positive methods.

If you have not read the article yet, perhaps you wanted to wait until you were through with my letter first, I want to share two quotes, both taken from the same article above.

“If this were a person, flailing on the end of a leash attached to an apparatus on his head, he’d surely have a neck injury. But anyone who has seen a dog that goes to town playing tug-o-war knows that a dog’s neck is built differently.

Because of this neck strength, few cases of injury due to head collars have been proven or medically documented (I actually haven’t seen any). Not to say injury could not happen. However, veterinary documented injuries caused or exacerbated by choke chain corrections and electronic collars are easy to find.”

Gentle leaders are fairly new in the training community, give veterinary documented cases some time, it will happen. In fact (okay I am going to waste your time with anecdotal evidence and personal experiences) my own veterinarian asked me about different devices, said she is seeing a high number of clients not liking prong collars, but doesn’t know why when she sees more injuries due to gentle leaders. It’s not unlike banning dog breeds. Ban pit bull type dogs and we will begin to see a rise in bites from other breeds, Tristan, you said that yourself on one of the shows with Sheldon. So it stands to reason,  that if you ban a specific training tool then we will see a rise in injuries due to other devices. Banning doesn’t work, education does.

I digress, here is the second quote taken from the very same article:

“Most likely if dogs are pulling on their head collar a lot or running to the end, they may need massage or chiropractic care just the way people who work or study at a desk all day need back adjustments periodically.” 

So we went from “few cases of injury due to head collars have been proven or medically documented (I actually haven’t seen any)”, to “they may need massage or chiropractic care”. And, she compared the use of a gentle leader to sitting all day. It is just a simple fact that human doctors are fed up with us sitting all day. Studies show that the damages done due to long periods of sitting are monumental and studies are showing… irreversible.

Hey don’t take my word on it, here are some resources that back my statement:

So when a Veterinary Behaviorist or Dog Trainer puts a gentle leader on a dog and then makes matters worse by yanking him around to “redirect” him they are likely causing irreversible damage to the dog’s neck. Just because we can not see the damage does not mean it is not there.

Tristan, I don’t know if you are truly ignorant to the damages done by these devices or if you just choose to ignore it, and I can’t decide which is worse. Either you are truly ignorant, perhaps, because you spend so much time bashing other people for their techniques and methods (which based off your erroneous comment made about dogs being shocked at random, you obviously don’t understand how ecollar training works, despite all you have read) you never give your methods or tools a single thought or you know perfectly well that there are risks involved and you simply choose not educate people on that matter. And, it seems your ignorance doesn’t stop at gentle leaders; front clip harness are also beginning to gain a bad rap amongst Veterinarians (remember I said give medically documented cases time, well here you go).

Here are some articles that call into question the safety of front clip harness:

Training aids are often a necessity to help the owner control and manage their dogs through the training process and can be invaluable tools used to give the owners a sense of instant success. As we all know, we are much more likely to see fall out if owners do not feel that they are gaining the right amount of progress in a decent time frame. This is why, I do not personally, disagree with any tool but I question the morals and ethics of a trainer who will not discuss pros and cons with owners or who hide truths about devices just because they want to maintain an image.

In reference to the “we don’t put ecollars on children” retort, we also do not put apparatuses (i.e gentle leaders) around their faces to control them and gain their attention. If we are going to continually hear that argument lets really take a close look at how we treat dogs versus our children because not only do we not put apparatuses around there faces we also do not feed them from bowls on the floor, crate them when we leave the house, spay or neuter them and we do not euthanize them if they bite someone. If you think  children don’t bite people, you have never had or been around children.

I can go on for another 1,000-3,000 words on how “all positive” trainers shoot themselves in the foot with their inconsistencies on their positions of the use of corrections, but realistically in the end, as trainers we have to run our practices the best way we know how. Education should never stop and mistakes will be made but ultimately we should begin to recognize a trained dog, regardless of methods used to meet the end (aside from honest to goodness abuse) is better than an untrained dog. When behavior is still the number one reason dogs die every single year in western countries, it’s time to quit bickering and just do your job and let others do theirs.



Separation Anxiety Or Disinterested Human Syndrome?

Separation Anxiety is probably the most misdiagnosed and over diagnosed behavioral problem. Everything from following you around the house to barking when you leave to destructive behaviors are described as separation anxiety. Having a new client call me because their dog has separation anxiety raises my hackles almost as much as hearing that their dog is aggressive.

Before I get into the meat of why this fires me up I am going to tell you about two dogs that truly suffered from separation anxiety. One is a pitbull/beagle mix who belongs to my sister and one was a clients dog that I helped years ago. If you believe, right now that you are living with a dog with separation anxiety, these stories will either change your mind about what you are living with or will validate what you are living with.


Chance is a pitbull/beagle mix. He is one of the floppiest, sweetest dogs you could ever meet. He belongs to my sister, Tracy. When Tracy would leave for work she would crate Chance in a wire kennel but these rarely held him. Most days when Tracy would return home from work she would come home to find the carpet near the front door torn to pieces, trash strung about, massive property damage during his attempts to get out of his crate and so on. Chance suffered from separation anxiety and a pretty sever case.

In an attempt to help Chance through his separation anxiety Tracy put him on puppy prozac and got a plastic crate for him, hoping he wouldn’t be able to get out of this one. In a way she was right. Chance never did fully escape his plastic prison, instead one day she came home to a bloodbath, as Chance had forced his muzzle through the tiny squares that makes up the door of the plastic crates.

He was stuck like that and God only knows for how long. Tracy removed the door from the crate and took Chance, with door still attached, to the vet to have it surgically removed. The medications he was on made him extremely calm, more like catatonic while Tracy was home but when she left, his panic would take over and over ride the medications, essentially rendering them useless. He did survive the ordeal and now after years of hard work he is a well rounded dog, that can be left home alone.


Captain was a large German Shepherd I worked with many years ago. I was called to the house because Captain’s family had finally had enough. His separation anxiety was so severe, when I came to the house for my first visit I could see clear through the front door. There was a huge hole at the base of the door were Captain had chewed his way through.

Captain was a very nice dog, greeting me enthusiastically when I came into the house but I noticed right away that he had stitches all over his face and head. I asked the family if this was done at the same time he had chewed through the door. No, it wasn’t. Three weeks prior to the door incident Captain had dove through the living room window and chased his owners car down the street with glass in his face and head. The owner stopped as soon as he noticed Captain chasing him and  took him straight to the vet where he ended up with 53 stitches. Luckily no other damage was done.

So back to why it fires me up to hear new clients talk about their dog’s separation anxiety. More times than not when I probe further into the problem, the symptoms the owner lists usually consists of excessive barking, chewing, digging and the dog being very excited when the owner returns home. All of these symptoms could indeed be caused by separation anxiety if in context. The dog chews or digs near the last known exit point and will usually be paired with an excess of drool to the point of the dog being soaked. When crated the dog may drool excessively as well. I have had clients report that their dogs would be standing in a puddle of their own drool. Many dogs chew, dig and vocalize for many different reasons and I would venture to guess that most dogs are excited at their owners return.

It has gotten to the point that I have heard other trainers refer to situations like the two mentioned above as “separation distress” and leaving “anxiety” to mean those other annoying things dogs do when we leave the house, but the term separation distress is not widely accepted in the training community and by changing the meaning of separation anxiety we fall into a trap that doesn’t let us recognize that our dogs could, indeed, be suffering from a different problem…disinterested human syndrome.

Disinterested Human Syndrome

Deciding that your dog has separation anxiety may stem from genuine ignorance about this disorder. You may have read things online, you may have picked up books on the subject matter, your veterinarian may have suggested it to you but I find that once someone has resolved to the notion that their dog has separation anxiety it absolves them from any responsibility and gives them a reason to blame the disorder for their dogs misbehaviors.

Separation anxiety is very difficult to treat and is a time consuming process. With that being said why then would someone choose to believe that, that is what is going on with their dog’s behavior without exploring other options? The answer is harsh but is pretty simple. Most of the symptoms that people describe as separation anxiety can actually be attributed to understimulation or put simply, boredom. While in reality boredom is an easier problem to fix, there is no pill for it. The only prescription is walks, play, training and in general, *genuine interactions with your dog.

*Genuine interactions do not include sitting on the couch mindlessly petting your dog. You have got to really invest time and energy into your dog and your dog’s learning and well-being.

Why is this such a hard pill to swallow (pun intended)? With veterinarians, vet behaviorists and even a lot of dog trainers pushing medications as a solution, and items on the shelves of just about every pet store, selling easy solutions to your dog’s anxiety problem from thundershirts to pheromone calming sprays why then should anyone waste their time with play and training (insert sarcasm)? It’s easier to say my dog has a massive behavioral disorder than to accept that they just need more from us because the world makes it that way and we buy into it. Why? Because believing your dog has a disorder that requires medication or special devices means you don’t have to get up and do anything.

Like mentioned in previous blogs we all fall into routines and schedules that make going for a walk seem like a luxury we just don’t have time for, and for many who do walk their dogs it has become a chore, something they feel obligated to do, so they meander behind their dog rather than being an active part of the journey.  This alone can cause a slew of behavioral problems. This is where disinterested human syndrome comes in.

Anyone who has taken a class with me will have at some point heard me say “I can be sitting in the same room as my husband, yet he will be more with his xbox than he is with me”. It is funny how that works right? You are right beside someone without really acknowledging their presences and at times that is perfectly fine, necessary even. We all need our own space and our own time to just be us for a little while, but we would never accept these non-existent interactions to continue day in and day out. We would begin to feel lonely, unwanted, bored and so on. Our energy for the relationship would drain and we would only be left with resentment.

Dogs are social creatures that thrive on social interactions. They need them in order to be mentally and emotionally stable, so when they get deprived of these interactions they may begin to act out. How a dog acts out might be different from one individual to another but often times it comes in the form of chewing, digging, excessive vocalizations such as barking or whining, tail chasing and the list can go on and on. So while yes some dogs may be genuinely experiencing separation anxiety most are simply living with a disinterested human, who may be in the room with them and may be at the end of the leash but is more with their thoughts, worries, watches or cell phones. They are not living in that moment with their dog, participating in the events at hand and the harsher reality about all behavioral problems comes down to this…there is no replacement for solid training. There is no magic pill, or jacket or spray that is going to do exactly what you hoped it would do. When you need to correct a problem or when you need to get results you have to put in the time and invest your energy.

Will The Real Disorder Please Stand Up

There are dogs out there that truly do suffer from separation anxiety. This is one of the reasons we shouldn’t be watering down the real issue with mild annoyance behaviors that can be solved with exercise and training.

In all cases of separation anxiety I have seen, I treated the dogs the same and *other than the fact that Chance had already been put on medication, no dogs ever needed any special equipment or medication.

*Medications can be useful in getting your dog calm enough to get through the training process if you have a super sever case but it should not be used as an end all be all. Remember, nothing can replace solid training.

Like stated earlier separation anxiety is extremely difficult to curb/cure and is a time consuming and tedious process. It can take months even years to have total success and even still you may never get a dog that is completely rid of her separation anxiety. With that being said some of you may have opened this blog because you are indeed living with a dog who is suffering from separation anxiety and you saw that it would be discussed. For those of you who really do need help on the subject matter I am going to outline a treatment plan here:

  1. Reference The Rules Of Dog Training and Mother May I and establish your household rules. Follow them as closely as possible and rehearse them daily. Often giving our dogs a job to do can give them a sense of purpose and  relieve them of stress.
  2. Revisit your crate training. Take them back to the beginning as if they were brand new puppies. I also highly recommend you invest in Susan Garrett’s crate games dvd.
  3.  When you leave the house make sure your dog is crated or at least kept in as dog proved of a room as possible. No appliances or loose items to destroy.
  4. When in their “safe” place make sure they have access to safe yet interactive toys to help occupy them. Frozen peanut butter kongs and treat balls are always a good choice.
  5. In the beginning phases of training I highly recommend you decrease how long your dog stays at home without you. If possible take your dog to work with you or return home on lunch breaks. If neither of those options are possible hire a dog walker to come by in the middle of the day to check on your dog and to get them out for a midday walk until you begin to see some serious improvements.
  6. Teach your dog a solid stay or wait command. Stay/wait should always mean that you are coming back to get them. Ask your dog to sit or down stay, take one step back, return to your dog, reward and release. Returning to your dog is very important. NEVER call your dog to come off of a stay.  The idea is to give you a way to tell your dog that you are coming back so you must always return to your dog. Build to walking all the way to the door. Return to your dog, reward and release. Continue this process until you can get all the way out the door and even close the door behind you. Always returning to your dog. I really can’t stress that point enough.
  7. If during the stay training your dog breaks from position don’t correct them necessarily but don’t allow them to get away with it either (remember this is supposed to reduce their stress). Before they get too far give a calm eh-eh or uh-oh and return them to the spot they broke from. You should also return to the training step that you last had success and work on that for a while longer, building back up to something a bit more challenging.
  8. Work on diminishing the triggers that tell your dog that you are leaving. For a lot of us that is picking up our keys, putting on our shoes and so on. Throughout your day when you are home you can pick up and put down your keys a hundred times. Take your shoes on and off. Get rid of those signals that mean you are leaving. If possible switch up your morning routine. Essentially become unpredictable in your habits so your dog can’t begin to get themselves worked up about your departure.
  9. Make your departure and your return as non-emotional as possible. No long drawn out goodbyes. No super excited “mommies home” returns. If we can reduce the amount of emotion we have during departures and returns we can help to decrease our dog’s emotional responses as well.
  10. Physical exercise is paramount in helping your dog overcome separation anxiety. For the most part physical exercise alone will not be enough to “fix” your dog’s problem but going on a long, we’re talking 45 minutes to an hour long walk a day, preferably before you leave them, can provide some much needed physical and mental stimulation, socialization and can help tire your dog out a bit. Many dogs won’t care how tired they are, when left alone they will still act out but being tired during the training process can make things a lot easier. Joining a dog sport is another way to provide your dog with proper physical and mental exercise to help tire them out.
  11. Diet most certainly plays a role in a dogs all around well being, including mental well being. Ensure your dog is on a high quality dog food full of all of the vitamins, minerals and appropriate proteins your dog needs.

Be prepared for quite a long journey; separation anxiety is not going to be cured over night but if these things are rehearsed daily you should begin to see some pretty big improvements.

Dog Owner Vs. Dog Trainer And How To Find The Right Trainer

This is not going to be a cage match to the death or anything like that but there is a clear difference between a dog owner and a dog trainer and no not just because one gets paid to do it. Being paid to train dogs does not automatically make you a dog trainer and not being paid to train dogs does not automatically make you merely a dog owner. There is a big difference and it’s about time the distinctions be made clear.

There is no standard for someone to claim to be a dog trainer; no requirements and it’s terrifying. Someone can simply watch a television program or videos on youtube and decide that they can do it. They may have some success with their dogs and their families dogs and bam they start marketing themselves. The real scary part about this is that they never seek out any real education on the matter, they are just waiting for the next episode to give them all the information they need. This person regurgitates what they heard on the program and because, chances are, as the general public you watch the same show, it sounds familiar, it sounds right so you believe that this person must know what they are doing.

I (and my dogs) have had to bare the brunt of these people. On the day I went to pick up my German Shepherd, Vicka, and as I am taking her for literally the first walk she has ever been on in her entire year of life, a woman comes barreling down the street at us. She is across the street and half a block down when she starts yelling, “black German Shepherd, about a year old?”  As I look for an escape route I haplessly respond, “yes.”

I just picked this dog up, I have no established relationship with her and therefore no way to reassure her that I will indeed protect her. I should also mention that I chose to take this dog home because of her history of biting people.

As the woman gets closer, Vicka attempts to get out of her collar. In a desperate attempt to keep my new dog from getting loose and running off I twist my hand in her collar to make it tighter around her neck, while throwing up a stop gesture with my other hand. I try to explain to the woman that this dog is new to me, that she has a history of biting and this interaction is way too much for her, only for the woman to cut me off and practically shout at me, “ma’am if you calm down, she’ll calm down…I’m a dog trainer.”

Really? I would have never guessed. This woman couldn’t even pick up on my attempts to stop her and we are from the same species, yet somewhere out there she is advising people on how to manage and train their dogs.

This is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. I have met plenty of “dog trainers” who just seem to simply not get it.  They invade the space of dogs, make direct eye contact, speak in a shrill voice, bend forward in a frontal approach and then don’t understand why a nervous dog acts aggressively. They are quick to blame every behavioral problem on dominance, or past abuse or time spent in a shelter, without ever acknowledging their own rude behavior.

These people are quick to make excuses for their own dogs unruly behavior because they don’t actually have an understanding of why their dog is doing it or how to fix it.  This person is my definition of a dog owner not dog trainer. Dog owners do not dedicate their lives to understanding dogs, dog behavior and how their own behavior impacts dogs. That is why they seek out dog trainers.

There is no shame in being a dog owner. I am not a doctor, so when I have abdominal pain or have a persistent fever I go and see a doctor. The shame would be if I studied web m.d for a month and started running my own practice. As a paid professional to train dogs I have a duty to ensure that I am giving the general public the best up to date information that I can and I owe it to my clients and to myself to lead by example.

Not all owners are out of touch with how dogs think, feel and behave. I have had several clients that are so wonderfully capable with their dogs. They spend hours a day training, playing with and in general just hanging out with their dogs. They are so sharply attuned to their dog’s postures and gestures that it looks as though they can read their dog’s mind (while canines have a generic set of postures that generally mean the same thing, all dogs, just like humans have distinct mannerisms that are all their own).  They are the owners that are one hundred percent engrossed in class. They hang on every word ready to soak up some new piece of information that can help take their relationship to the next level. Regardless that these people do not train dogs for a living, regardless that they have full time jobs and have no interest in training someone else’s dog, these people are in fact dog trainers.

How To Find the Right Trainer

One of the biggest complaints I get from new clients is that they get conflicting information from every dog trainer they talk to. They can have ten different pieces of advice for one problem. All dog trainers are different, we are all human with different experiences that shape us into the trainers we are. As a dog owner you need to find someone who makes sense to you, then stick with that trainer. With that being said you should aim to seek someone out with certain criteria.

Your dog trainer should have a certification, degree or diploma of some kind in their area of business (dog training, animal behavior, etc). This certification should include a thorough section on dog behavior, body language, calming signals, stress signals and so on. They should have a thorough understanding of the rules listed in  my blogs The Rules Of Dog Training and Mother May I as well as practical applications of all of them. Your dog trainer should be continually enhancing their knowledge of dog behavior and training.

Education is most certainly not enough. Ask anyone who has graduated from college with a specific major and they will tell you that their degree gave them a pass to now actually learn their field of interest (dog trainers are the only group of people I know that graduate from school believing they are experts). With that being said I highly recommend you find a trainer that either has titles in the branch of training you are most interested in; if you are looking for an obedient dog be sure your trainer has titles in obedience, or has the initials KA behind their certification. Essentially, you would be looking for CPDT-KA, that stands for Certified Pet Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed.

Having titles in a respective sport or having their knowledge assessed is the only way a trainer can prove that their techniques work. It is the only time our techniques are put to the test amongst our peers. Our certifications prove that we have the education and our titles or “knowledge assessed” proves that we can apply that knowledge in practical application.

I didn’t always feel this way but after meeting a plethora of “dog trainers” whose dogs were unruly on the leash, attacked clients dogs in the middle of their class and so on, I now feel it is important to seek out a trainer who has the same passion for training their own dogs that they are trying to convince you to have training yours.

You don’t have to go with the first dog trainer you meet. Do some research and check on their credentials and referrals. Visit them a couple of times and really get to know them. Watch them work their own dogs and see if their dogs are trained to the level you would hope to have yours trained.  Make sure you are comfortable with whoever you choose. If at any point during your visits you begin to question their techniques or methods, you feel that the trainers own dogs seem unruly and out of control, or conversely their dogs seem broken down and fearful , seek a different trainer. That might mean you have to travel a bit farther or spend a little more money but believe me, it will be well worth the benefit of making sure you get a well educated and experienced trainer.

There are times when a trainer might have an unruly, out of control dog or a fearful “sad” looking dog, such as, they just obtained the dog or the dog is young and has just begun training and so on. These would be reasonable explanations but don’t be afraid to ask if you feel unsure or uncomfortable with anything.  It is also reasonable for your trainer to ask you and your dogs to respect the space of their dogs (many trainers own dogs that otherwise may have been put down due to poor behavior) but in general if you are looking to have a dog well trained on the leash, to have a reliable recall, to not jump up on strangers and so on your trainers dogs should be well capable of those things. Think of it like this, if you want your dog to come when called, the first time, every time and the trainers own dogs can not do that, the just how exactly are they going to help you reach that goal? Like I said there are reasonable explanations for why their dog can not perform a common task but be sure the explanation is sound and not just a poor excuse. In the end though you just have to choose the trainer that makes the most since to you and makes you feel most comfortable.

The Rules Of Dog Training

Often times when I hear someone arguing their point, that their way of dog training is better than anyone else’s and they are riding the fence in heavy favor of one style over another (force free or compulsion), I find that there are holes in their position. Most of the time these people are only practicing half of the rules of dog training or have a pretty severe misunderstanding of the rules.

In the following headlines I have outlined some necessary rules to help you and your dog understand and trust each other as well as provide you with some of the inside secrets a lot of dog trainers are not talking with their clients about.

When thinking of positive and negative in reference to dog training, you need to think of them, not as good or bad, but in terms of math:

Positive=Adding (+)

Negative=Subtracting or removing (-)

And the terms “reinforcement” and the dreaded “punishment”, well…take away what you think of them now and insert these definitions.

Reinforcement=to increase or make stronger, which you may have already had a really good idea.

Punishment=to decrease or lessen. Anything that decreases a behavior is a punishment. Punishment does not mean to be cruel, fear or pain inducing.

Positive Reinforcement=  To add (+) a stimulus to increase (make stronger) a behavior. Most likely all who are visiting this blog are very familiar with this. We are told that positive reinforcement is the best and sometimes the only quadrant of dog training we should be using.

Examples of positive reinforcement are: food, toys, praise, petting, moving forward on a walk etc. What this means is we add (or give) something pleasurable to our dogs to increase the likelihood that our dogs will produce a desired behavior again.

It is possible to inadvertently positively reinforce something we don’t want. Timing of reward delivery and the use of a marker is crucial in helping your dog understand precisely what it is that you liked.

Positive Punishment= To add (+) a stimulus to decrease a behavior. This is by far the most misunderstood and controversial quadrant. Instantly when we think of punishment we think of anger, aggression and domineering behaviors from human to dog, when in fact punishment simply means to decrease a behavior.

Examples of positive punishment: prong collar, electric collar, gentle leader, easy walk (no pull) harnesses, shaker cans, squirt bottles, compressed air, social pressure (staring at your dog, moving toward your dog) etc. Have you ever seen someone place a blanket over their dog’s crate to reduce the dog’s barking? This is also an example of Positive Punishment. The blanket was added (+) to decrease (punish) the barking. When I read books written by other dog trainers that deny they use positive punishment because they do not believe in leash corrections or electronic collars, I get upset because not only are they ignoring the actual science (the very basis for their argument that “purely positive”,“force free” or what has been called “science based” methods are the best way) but they are also sending a very inaccurate message to their readers and clients.

It is possible to send the wrong message to your dogs when using punishment techniques. Timing of correction and the use of a no reward marker is crucial in helping your dog understand precisely what it is that you didn’t like and once your dog discontinues the unwanted behavior you must reward a correct behavior. I always say, you can’t say “no” without saying “yes”!

Negative Reinforcement= To remove (-) a stimulus to increase a behavior.

Examples of negative reinforcement: releasing the tension of a collar-any collar-head collar, flat collar, prong collar, letting off of the static stimulation of an electronic collar, removing social pressure (taking a step back or breaking eye contact), removing the blanket from the crate and so on.

Essentially the punishment being stopped is the reinforcement. For example, if I ask my dog to sit and she doesn’t, I may take a step toward her or lean over her. This would be an example of positive punishment because I have added (+) social pressure to decrease (punish) non-compliance. Once she sits I would then take a step back, removing (negative -) social pressure to increase (reinforce) her sitting. As stated previously I never say “no” without saying “yes” so I would take this a step further and would then reward the “sit” with a tasty food reward or toy.

I have heard “force-free” trainers and animal behaviorist say that they are applying negative reinforcement, well, logically that simply can not happen without having first applied positive punishment, the two go hand in hand.

Negative Punishment= To remove (-) a stimulus to decrease a behavior.

Examples of negative punishment: removing the treat or toy, removing social interaction (turning your back),ceasing play, discontinuing walking etc.

Dogs are social creatures so for many dogs you removing something they wanted or removing yourself can send a powerful message that what they did should not be repeated. Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment are often paired together but again the use of a no-reward marker plays a crucial role in how well your dog will understand why the punishment took place.

Every dog has a different personality that is made up of her drive, motivations, fears, genetics,compulsions and so on, so in order to be a great dog trainer one must have a thorough understanding of these four quadrants and must know when and how to apply each of them.

Cue, Mark, Release, In That Order

Cue/Command= Cues or commands are the specific actions you want your dog to take. So if you ask your dog to sit you are asking them to keep their front legs vertical in front of them, to bend their knees and put their rump on the floor. Thinking of cues/commands this specifically helps to stop us from asking for something we don’t mean or combining cues.

Combining cues means  that you ask for two different commands even though you were only trying to get one action. The most common cues combined are sit-down. We mean for our dogs to only sit but our dogs hear two conflicting instructions. It is imperative that you know what you are asking and you know the criteria you are looking for. If you do not have a clear mental picture of what you would like your dog to do, you can never hope to teach it to them.
Marker words: Words or sounds that allow us to pinpoint exact behaviors so we can reward precisely the moment our dogs produced a behavior we liked or to correct a behavior we did not like. Markers give our dogs the consistent feedback they need to know when and what they did that earned a reward or a correction. There are three markers you and your  dog should understand.

A terminal marker- tells your dog that what they did was correct, that they can stop doing it, so that they may access their reward. I always use the word yes or I will use a clicker. Think for a second, if you were teaching your dog to heel and heel means your dog has to walk with their front legs, in line with your left leg and their head must be up, looking at you, at attention. You want to reward your dog for all of that precise positioning but as soon as you give them their treat they are going to drop their head to eat it, driving them out of proper positioning. Our terminal marker, yes or click, tells them that what they did was correct and that their reward is coming so they do not need to maintain position any longer. You are giving them permission to break positions so that they can access their reward. This is not a final release, so your dog should remain engaged with you and be prepared to continue working.

A duration marker- tells your dog that what they are doing is correct, to please keep doing it and that you will deliver the reward to them. Duration markers are essential for teaching stays. I always use the duration marker good.

Imagine that you are teaching stay or wait and you want your dog to remain in position while you get further and further away. Marking your dog with the duration marker, good, tells them that what they are doing is correct, that they should maintain position and that you will deliver the treat to them. This does mean that you will have to walk all the way back to your dog and should they break before you reach them, they will not be getting the reward. They must remain in position and wait for a “yes” or a formal release word.

Correctional marker- tells your dog that what they did was incorrect and that a negative consequence will be paired with an incorrect response to a command given. “No” might seem like the obvious choice but I find people tend to get emotional with this word. Typically if people are to the point of saying “no” they are going to shout it or say it through gritted teeth, so I prefer “Eh-Eh”, “Uh-Oh” or “Whoops”, and these words should be said as unemotionally as possible.

Again, take a second to imagine you are working with your dog. They have already successfully been taught to lie down, sit and to stand on command. You are now trying to get them to move from one position to the other fluidly. You ask your dog to sit, and like a rock star, they do. You now ask your dog to *“stand”. They look at you like they have never heard the word before. You say “Eh-Eh” and remove your treat. You ask them to “stand” again and this time they do it. Yay success! They learned that the correctional marker “Eh-Eh” was going to lead to the removal of a priced item and in order to get it they need to do what was asked.

*I always say the word “feet” instead of “stand”. I personally feel like “sit”, “stay”, and “stand” all sound too similar so I chose a word that would be unlike anything else to hopefully make it easier for my dogs to recognize. “Feet” is the same thing as “stand”, it just means to “get to your feet”.

I have spoken to many trainers that do not believe dogs are capable of  understanding the concept of “no”. This belief comes from two places: 1) dog owners typically tend to say no from a place of agitation, there is no consequence paired with the word once it is given and it is not said consistently enough, so there really is no way for the dog to understand just what exactly no is being said for. 2) Saying “no” does not fit in their mold of “force-free” training so they would choose to believe dogs simply can’t understand it.

Logical Argument:

If we can teach our dogs what the marker word “yes” means or what a clicker means through appropriate pairing, why then could we not teach dogs what “no” means? The pairing of consequences when a specific word is given is the same for either reward or correction.

Say yes or click the clicker and follow it with a treat, the dog begins to predict that a treat, or some other reward, will always follow that sound. They begin to pay attention to exactly what they were doing when they heard that marker. This is good because it will help them to offer those same behaviors in the future with the hope that those behaviors will equal a click/yes and a treat again.

Same thing with correctional markers. If every time you say “Eh-Eh” to your dog and it is followed by something “unpleasant” they will begin to pay attention to what exactly they did when you said “Eh-Eh” and will begin to offer those behaviors less and less in order to avoid the actual correction and to expedite their chances of getting a reward.

My husband and I like to leave our front door open on Sunday afternoons so our dogs can look out of the storm door. We call this doggie t.v. If one of our dogs bark we say “quiet”, if they continue to bark,  this leads to an “Eh-Eh” and the immediate closing of the front door. As soon as all dogs are calm we re-open the door. It didn’t take our dogs long to learn that 1) barking leads to the closing of the door and 2) they can avoid the door being closed by ceasing barking as soon as we say the word “quiet”.   

If your correctional marker is taught correctly your dog will come to realize responding to commands the first time is the best way to avoid a correction and to earn a speedy reward.

Release Word= A word that tells our dogs that they are completely done working, we no longer need their attention and they can go about their doggy business. Our marker word, yes, does act as a release word but in a way that tells our dogs to stay engaged. They may get up from a stationary position or cease performing an action, but only so that they can access their reward and continue to engage in us, while the release word tells them that they are completely done working. I always use the word “Free”.

This is all a lot to take in and we have only begun to scratch the surface.

The Four Stages of Training

  1. Learning Stage- In this stage you are showing your dog what you want from them. You will use food as a lure or shape your dog into positions such as sit, down, heel etc. In this stage you are building your foundation of trust and engagement, as well as establishing your marker words and your release word free. In the learning stage there are no corrections given for an incorrect response to a cue/command. We are encouraging our dogs to think through problems and offering assistance when needed. The use of a crate in between training sessions, play and walks can greatly reduce the amount of inappropriate behaviors your dog is able to rehearse while in the learning stage.
  1. Distraction Stage- In this stage you are taking what your dog has learned in easy situations and getting them to perform the actions in distracting environments. This is still, in essence, a learning stage. We are teaching our dogs precisely what we want from them in many different contexts and scenarios (this is the essence of socialization). We will still be marking with the word yes and rewarding consistently with food, praise and toys. In the distraction stage there are still no corrections administered for an incorrect response to a cue/command given. Instead we will ease our dogs into situations, heavily rewarding for correct responses and backing off the level of distraction when we lose our dog’s attention. Once we have regained focus from our dogs we will ease back into the last situation we previously lost our dog’s attention; still marking with yes and heavily rewarding desired behaviors. We will end our session before our dogs have the chance to lose focus again. Always end your session on a high and successful note! Again the use of crate will be necessary to prevent your dog from rehearsing unwanted behaviors.
  1. Correction Stage- Your dog has already been taught precisely what you want from them. They have had the chance to understand what you are asking in many different environments and situations. In this stage a consequence will be paired with an incorrect response to a cue given. Not all corrections are treated equal, remember our quadrants. Some dogs are soft and won’t need anything more than the removal of a priced item while other dogs are hard and will need a more serious form of correction (breed of dog has nothing to do with whether or not the dog is soft or hard).

This is the touchiest of stages. Many people are not comfortable correcting their dogs and in today’s training world there are several trainers who believe corrections are simply not necessary. In my personal and professional opinion they absolutely are but this stage can be a dangerous one. You are treading a fine line between, being certain your dog knows something, to perhaps they really do need more training. It is absolutely and positively not fair to administer a correction, any form of correction, if you haven’t provided your dog with enough training and experiences to understand what you are truly asking.

In regards to stage one and to that last statement I just made, I would like to show acknowledgement to the fact that there are exceptions to the rule. This is where balance comes in. There are are three circumstances in which a  dog may need a correction before training has taken place, 1) common but inappropriate or dangerous household behaviors (door dashing, biting etc), 2) dogs that have behaviors that are *ingrained, and 3) circumstances that the owner simply does not have access to resources that can allow for non-corrective training to take place, such as apartment dwellers having to walk their dogs. They can not wait to walk before their dog understands all of leash rules so someone might need to opt to use a correctional device in order to gain control of their dog before training is completed (remember gentle leaders and easy walk harnesses are still positive punishment).

*Let’s be clear, a behavior is not considered ingrained just because you don’t feel like working on it. An ingrained behavior means the dog can’t function around a stimuli regardless of the distance or may be behaviors that almost appear obsessive compulsive in nature. Contacting a skilled trainer is always recommended.

  1. Maintenance Stage- You will never have the opportunity to quit working with your dog. Every moment of everyday is a training opportunity and rehearsing and reinforcing good behaviors will prevent your dog from losing them or regaining old bad habits. Training/raising dogs is not a temporary act that you do for a while and when your class or program is over so is the training. Instead, training/raising dogs is a lifestyle; it is a continual journey, if you are not prepared for that journey do not get a dog. In the learning stage and distraction stage the work will seem difficult and time consuming, however, in the maintenance stage working your dog will be easy and integrated into your daily routine. It won’t feel like much work at all so don’t panic.

Meeting In The Middle

These days it seems like you have to choose sides. Whether we are discussing political affairs, law enforcement, religion vs. science or anything else happening in the world we have been pushed to choose a side; to say we either are or are not for something and it seems that all potential for logical conversations have been thrown out the window.

Dog training is no different. We are in a world where you have to choose whether you are all positive or what has become popularly known as a “force-free” trainer or you are a compulsion trainer hell bent on dominating every dog you encounter. To meet in the middle or to bring balance to dog training just doesn’t seem possible. Even Victoria Stilwell wrote a blog about dog trainers that try, and this is what she had to say on the matter:

“Every time I hear someone talk about “balanced” dog training, I can’t help but shake my head. This term has quickly become a euphemism for training that uses both positive reinforcement along with physical punishment and/or physical corrections.”

We are pushed or forced if you will, to choose what tools we utilize, what information to acknowledge and what method to use and in turn the choice to be one or the other can actually limit our ability to educate people and train their dogs.

Both sides are equally misunderstood and both sides are equally executed improperly by the hands of novice trainers and inexperienced owners. Using positive reinforcement, is not synonymous with being permissive, coddling or spoiling and to use compulsion is not synonymous with abuse, dominance, anger, fear or pain. Not only are trainers on opposing sides getting it wrong, so are the very trainers who execute either branch of training.

There are “force free” trainers that have no idea how to utilize a crate properly and do indeed refuse to offer solid discipline. I was in a conversation with one such trainer as she was telling the group that her neighbors had to build a higher fence because her (the trainer) dog kept getting over the fence to attack the neighbors dog. I was appalled as she made excuses for his behavior and even admitted to not rewarding him when he made the right choice to remove himself and go back inside and to make matters worse she forced him back out. She shared this story as though it happens to everyone. These trainers give positive reinforcement a bad name and their very lack of understanding and the mass production of these trainers from online schools and large corporate pet stores is really what is keeping people saying “see dogs do need corrections” and believing all trainers that use positive methods are a joke. Likewise on the other side of the coin there are just as many “compulsion” trainers that claim to have a clue but they really don’t. They are still using dominance theory for every single canine problem, from jumping on guests, to house training and everything in between,  and to be quite honest it’s exhausting. The number of clients I have had that told me some trainer told them that their dog laying on the couch is “dominant” is extraordinary and I can’t help but to think, really? After all of this time, this is still a popular notion? And, so popular in fact that some of these trainers will use heavy corrections and the excessive use of environmental management (i.e keeping dogs in crates or on pet cots unless they are working) because they believe this is the only way to stop their dog from “dominating” them. They know how to suppress behavior but have no real understanding of how to build a strong cooperative working relationship with their dogs.  But again, these are the trainers that give a bad name to any and all trainers that use some form of correction and it just doesn’t need to be that way.

There are countless stories from clients reporting that one way did not work for them or their dog and that is why they want to find a trainer from the opposite side. When we really stop and consider these stories, we need to realize that 1) they are equally prevalent on both sides. Whether force free or compulsion, there are an even amount of stories of the training not working for an individual and their dog. 2) The owners likely hired a trainer who lacked education and/or experience, it may not have been the technique, method or tools used, it could have just been a poor trainer, and 3) it is always a possibility that the problem did not lay with the trainer necessarily, but perhaps the owners of the dog did not follow through with the treatment plan laid out for them and that is why the training did not work.

The two sides going back and forth with each other like first graders on the playground demonstrates just how little one side knows about the other, so I think it is time for the world to welcome balanced dog trainers, who know the glorious relationship positive reinforcement can bring to you and your dog as well as how giving your dog a very clear “no” can reduce your training time and bring forth harmony faster.

The Great Debate: Training Tools Part 2

There are few conversations that are as controversial as dog training tools and devices. Dog trainers go back and forth with this argument all of the time and this subject is arguably the best way to rile a group of trainers. The first thing we have to remember is that any device or tool that is physically applied to decrease behavior falls under the quadrant of positive punishment, there is no getting around that regardless of what some trainers would like you to believe. I am not implying that all corrections are treated equal but I am saying that what is traumatic for one dog, may not be traumatic for another and only the dog can decide that. When applying a correction be sure to pay attention to your dog’s response and how quickly they bounce back. Adjust your plan accordingly.

It is extremely important to note that before any correction is applied you should give your dog a command and give them the chance to comply, this of course means that you have first taught the command. If they do not comply, you must give your no reward marker “Eh-Eh”, “Uh-Oh” or “Whoops” immediately followed by your correction and the very moment your dog does do what you asked, you must heavily reward the correct choice.

Squirt Bottles: This seemingly benign training option can be great as an interrupter of unwanted behaviors. Be careful though because some dogs are so terrified of water that giving your dog a squirt could actually be traumatizing.  This is the worst thing I can do to my Doberman Pinscher, so I don’t ever squirt her.

Compressed Air: This is a small container that you can spray in your dog’s general direction, never directly at them, to interrupt poor behavior. Some even contain a calming pheromone to give this correction a little more umpf. There are pet specific brands that can be bought at your local pet store, no you cannot use keyboard spray!  In most cases I would consider this a step up from the squirt bottle but I have seen plenty of dogs not respond to it at all or be so traumatized the very site of the can sends them into a quivering mess. Once again, you will need to pay close attention to your dog’s reaction and adjust your training plan to fit their needs. For many families I have helped, cans of compressed air was a godsend, that helped to stop dogs from humping, licking, barking, chewing and so on.

Front Clip Harnesses: Designed to curb or even eliminate dogs from pulling on the leash the front clip harness is very easy for dogs to get used to wearing, in fact I have never seen a dog dislike one, but this is about where the benefits of this device ends. Front clip harnesses can prove to be useful in some dogs to curb leash pulling, however, there are several safety risks involved. Simply having the harness on, with no leash attached or pressure applied can do damage to dog’s biceps and supraspinatus tendons. The harness also works by applying pressure to the dog’s back, unlike traditional harnesses that apply pressure to the chest. Dog’s have a natural opposition reflex that causes them to push against what is pushing on them. This is why dogs will seemingly choke themselves when walking on flat collars. The pressure from the collar against the dog’s throat literally tells the dog to pull harder. Having the pressure from this harness on the back tells the dog to push back, this can cause some dogs to slow down, however, prolonged use of this device can cause some dogs to become dependant on feeling that pressure in order to walk nice, making weaning your dog off of the harness very difficult.

Head Halters: Head halters are devices made of two thin nylon strips that go around the dog’s muzzle and behind the ears. This is not a muzzle device; dog’s wearing a head halter have full use of their mouths, they can eat, play and pant normally. Head halters are designed to give owners more control of their dogs by being able to direct the dog’s head. There are many times I have seen this device be of a wonderful benefit to dogs and the families that have to live with them. I have seen Great Pyrenees walk beautifully in seconds, so much so, that small children were able to safely walk the dog. There is real wonder and “magic” in how great this device can be for some dogs. Other dogs do not have so much success. Many dogs will tear their faces open with their dew claws trying to get the device off, rub their faces on the ground and thrash wildly at the end of the leash. For most dogs there is a pretty major desensitization process that has to take place before they are comfortable wearing, let alone, working (training) with the device on. Head halters also rely on the dog’s opposition reflex, applying pressure to the back of the head causing many dogs to push back, essentially causing them to slow down. Like the front clip harnesses, if head halters are used in excess this can build a dependency to the pressure. There is also real risk for injury with the use of head halters. Dogs that thrash wildly at the end of the leash or dogs that have been given a harsh jerk from the leash while wearing the head halter (which should NEVER be done) can suffer neck injuries that can require chiropractic care.

Choke Chains: These are long chains with rings on either end. They are meant to be slipped over the dog’s head and remain loose until the trainer, owner or handler applies a correction by snapping or popping the collar with the leash. The only benefit of these collars is that the dog can’t build a dependency to pressure like front clip harnesses and head halters but that is where the benefits end. In order for the correction to be powerful enough to send any real message to the dog, it needs to be up high on the dog’s neck directly behind the ears, because the device is designed to slip over the dog’s head there is nothing keeping it where it needs to be.The collar tends to fall down to the base of the neck, where the neck is it’s strongest. Most dogs barely register a correction there. There is real risk in the dog getting an injury while wearing a choke chain. If the dog pulls excessively and the owner/handler is not skilled in giving a proper correction the dog could literally choke herself out or suffer from a collapsed trachea. NEVER leave this device on if you are not training or walking your dog. It can get caught on something and your dog could be strangled.

Prong Collar: This is a step up from choke chains. Prong collars are designed to be fitted snugly; if you can slip your prong collar over your dog’s head, it is not fitted properly. The snugness of the collar and the prongs help keep the device up high where it is meant to be. It can slip down slightly but if fitted properly, slippage will be minimal. Many dogs adjust quite easily to prong collars and their is real “magic” in how quickly and effectively these devices work, however, I caution you against allowing your dog to “self correct”. Self corrections are where the dog pulls against the device and because it gives a foreign sensation the dog will slow down. It won’t be long before your dog becomes desensitized to the sensation and will begin to pull like normal; their necks get “hard” to the collar. As with flat collars and choke chains if your dog is allowed to pull hard against this device or if they are wrenched hard by the leash with the collar on you can run the risk of causing a collapsed trachea. NEVER leave this collar on when not training or walking your dog, it can get caught on something and the dog can be strangled.

Electronic Remote Collars: This collar has the worst reputation of all of the training collars and even has a horrible and misleading nickname… “shock collar”. While yes back in the late 70’s and early 80’s these devices were horrible, giving dogs nasty shocks, and unpredictable, picking up transmissions from other devices leading to inconsistent corrections, the devices of today are actually quite safe and most certainly do not deliver an electrical shock to your dog, it does however, give a surface skin stimulation, meaning that your dog will feel a sensation on their skin. The higher end collars offer multiple settings ranging from a tone, vibration or stimulation and the stimulation can range from sensations humans can not even register to much higher. The higher settings are generally only used in extreme cases or in emergency situations, however in general training these settings are absolutely not necessary. Because a leash is never attached to this device, rather a flat collar in conjunction with this collar, the incidents of a dog becoming dependent on pressure of a collar to walk nice is greatly reduced. As with all tools there are risks when using electronic collars. The collar should NEVER be left on when not training or walking your dog. Remote collars, will cause open wounds to develop if left on more than eight hours at a time. If the collar is in the hands of someone unskilled in it’s use dogs may be given too frequent of corrections or too high of a correction that can cause dogs to go into learned helplessness. An act of literally doing nothing in order to avoid another correction. Dogs in learned helplessness will appear sad and will walk with a cautioned gate, with head and ears lowered. This is not proper training. Dogs should be happy to work and learn and should be encouraged to work through problems, not corrected into submission.

In no way am I telling owners to run out and buy a correctional device. In fact I believe the majority of training should happen without the use of any training tool to ensure communicative understanding and bonding between dog and owner, however, should you feel that you need a correctional device I would seek a trainer that can show you how to use one properly.

When considering correctional tools, we should recognize that damage is undoubtedly a possibility, regardless of what device you choose to use. Our goal should not be to hate, fear or ban any individual tool; we should be weighing the pros and cons of each tool, while considering the behavioral benefits of each tool. We should be a) pairing the correct tool with an individual dog, family and situation and b) working hard to get owners interested in training enough to not need the dependence of a tool at all. Tools can make great training aids and can even be necessary in the training process to ensure dogs do not rehearse unwanted behaviors but nothing can replace solid training.

Logical Argument:

There are two main arguments spouted by trainers that will not correct a dog for misbehaving. The first one is, ‘if marine animals can be trained for shows without the use of leash corrections or “force” than what makes us think we can’t train dogs the same way’?  For all of those people who use the training of marine animals as a reason to train dogs without any form of correction or “punishment”, I would like to give my readers a very real and serious message. Those animals are kept in tiny tanks (maybe not tiny to you but definitely tiny to that animal), they are depraved of social interaction from their pods and families, they are kept in very sterile environments with other members of their species but not their immediate families. This has, in many cases, proven to be detrimental to the safety of all animals involved, including the humans that work with them. Wolves that were studied in captivity, who lived in similar conditions had many altercations and it is proving to be the same with Orca as well. The animals are depraved of all meals unless working to help ensure compliance, which doesn’t always work and they are never given the chance to perform behaviors that are natural to them and would otherwise be very mentally stimulating (i.e hunting, migrating, mating and so on). This is such inhumane treatment it is hard to even think about. Any animal loving person in their right mind wouldn’t dare keep their dogs like this, so why compare the lives and training of marine animals to the lives and training of our dogs?

If the treatment of the animals is not enough to convince you that we should not be comparing marine animals to our dogs, let me give you more food for thought. Orca, dolphins and other marine animals do not live in our homes and neighborhoods. They do not share living space with us, our pets or our children. We don’t have to walk them, handle them or trust them with our kids, other pets visitors and so on. Our neighbors do not have to hear them, smell them or fear them. Mail carriers do not have to worry about one being loose and so on; I think you are getting the point. It is such a ludicrous comparison that I can’t believe it has stood up in the face of reason for so long.

We are in a world where we track down and kill a shark or bear that attacked a person, who, of their own volition, entered the natural habitat of that animal yet people coexisting with dogs can not choose what tools to utilize for training or containment (electric fences) for fear of being called abusive, even if all tools are utilized properly and in conjunction with proper training protocols. Ridiculous.

The second argument is, ‘you wouldn’t do that to your children’! This is usually spouted as a defensive argument against the use of prong or electronic collars. Well, we also don’t crate our children for long periods of the day, put apparatuses around their faces to control their heads, we do not feed them from bowls on the floor or euthanize them if they bite someone. The list can go on and on. While great parallels can be made between the raising of dogs and children there are some very significant differences and it is a plain and simple fact that people are simply not as forgiving of dogs’ mistakes as they would be of children’s, especially if that dog posed a risk to the safety of a child. Suddenly no one would care what training methods were put into place or even what happened to the dog so long as the child was safe. Am I saying it is right, not at all, but it is reality.

As with all of my blogs I put a strong emphasis of having cooperative relationships with our dogs. Absolutely we should be treating all of those charged in our care with the same loving respect that we would our children but every species has different rules all of their own and they should be treated and cared for in a species specific manner. As with our dogs, they need to roam with their pack, to hunt/work, and to have strong social interactions. That means we need to walk them, play with them, teach them to work for things that they want, hide toys or treats and encourage them to find them and in general be having strong, genuine interactions with our dogs. We need to make time for them and their needs. Correctional devices can make some of these things easier and more enjoyable for the human involved and when the human is enjoying themselves they are more likely to do more with their dogs.

Understanding Aggression In Dogs

I hate that word…aggression. *The word aggressive is thrown around almost as often as dominant and this speaks volumes to how far we still have to go to explaining and understanding dog behavior and training.

*It is not lost on me that I too have used the word “aggressive” in my other blogs. It can be difficult to find a word that suits what you are looking at or experiencing, but more times than not we find that the “aggression” is actually a symptom of a different problem.

Many behaviors are misunderstood as being aggressive when indeed the dog actually wants someone, person or another dog, to back up. This isn’t new, this understanding has been around for a long time, these behaviors are correctly called distance increasing behaviors because the dog actually wants to increase distance between themselves and the perceived threat. But, people still can’t help themselves, whether it is a dog playing rough or dog growling at her food bowl and everything in between the behavior is still described as aggressive.

Many dogs will demonstrate a display of aggression. Even that is hard for me to say. Displays of aggression are just that, displays. They are meant to defuse and prevent altercations. Normal, healthy dogs do not want to get into fights. On a primal level the dog understands that getting into an altercation can end up in an injury. In the natural world an injury would equal an inability to hunt and ultimately would result in the dog’s death. Most normal and healthy dogs would choose to run if that was an option.

Take my Chow Chow for instance. She will stand her ground barking putting on a nice front until someone takes a step toward her, then she tucks her tail and high tails it outta there. What she is really saying with all of that barking is ‘hey, back up I don’t want you near me and I don’t want you to get any closer.’ When the “threat” doesn’t back up but indeed comes closer she is quick to get away.

Problems only really arise when the dog feels like they are unsafe and that there is no way to escape. When they feel like flight is no longer an option  they will result to fight. This is why most people report that their dog is aggressive towards dogs when on leash but can play and interact with other dogs when off leash.

Types of “Aggression”

Barrier Frustration: Most dogs experience some form of barrier frustration. Leashes, doorways, vehicles, fences and crates are all forms of barriers and any time your dog becomes overly stimulated at one of these barriers that is called Barrier Frustration.

Most often my clients complain that their dog over reacts when on leash or when guests come to the door. These forms of barrier frustration are common and easily recognizable but when your dog runs the fence with the neighbor’s dog this is also a form of barrier frustration. While you may think it looks like play more times than not your dogs are learning that it is normal to feel frustrated when around other dogs. This will have negative consequences when your dog finally encounters another dog when outside of her yard.

Redirected Aggression: I list this one next because it often manifests when the dog is already experiencing barrier frustration. I have had countless amounts of clients come to me because their dog snapped or even bit them when they attempted to stop their dog from over reacting at a barrier.

They grabbed their dog’s collar to get them away from the door or after calling them in a hundred times, they finally go out to reprimand their dog for fence running with the neighbor’s dog, or they give a jerk with the leash while their dog is in a full, mouthing foaming frenzy barking at another dog passing on the street.

The bite is not intended for the owner, it was meant for the intruder, the threat, the irritation that is beyond their dogs grasp and now, not only did their owner stop them from doing what felt right, they are also the closest target.

Many fights between canine housemates are the result of redirected aggression stemming from barrier frustration.  Two dogs are running the fence together in a total frenzy directed at the dog on the other side of the fence when suddenly they explode into teeth clashing titans at each other. Usually no harm is caused but it can be super scary to witness.
Resource Guarding: Nothing drives me more crazy than when I ask my husband if he wants some popcorn, he tells me no and then when I sit down with my bowl he reaches in and takes a handful. While I don’t resort to violence to get my point across that I don’t like him doing that, I am certain my blood pressure raises. If I was a dog I would most certainly be described as food aggressive.

Resource guarding or object guarding is when a dog protects an item that is in their possession or that they feel is in their possession. I have seen many dogs that will guard the very floor they are standing on. Typically, however, it is a resource that is associated with survival or comfort such as food, bones or other chew items, *a person, toys and comfortable places to lay.

*A dog guarding you as a resource is not cute and is very dangerous to your housemates, human or otherwise. Please note I said ‘as a resource’. Dogs that are protection trained, have been taught when to protect in specific contexts and know a specific command that means to bite or attack is completely different.

Defensive Aggression: We all have a defense mechanism built in to us, it is called a flight or fight response. When our dogs feel threatened or are in pain they may act aggressively especially if they feel like they can not escape.

Anyone who has lived with a timid, shy or reactive dog will know exactly what this looks like. Every time you have guests over your dog scrambles around barking with their tail tucked between their legs. It is very obvious that your dog is more terrified than anything else, but that doesn’t stop them from sneaking up behind your guest as they are walking out of the house, to give them a little nip at the ankle.

Dogs that are in pain may also act aggressively. Dogs may growl or even snap at their owners if they have just come back from the vet and have either had shots done or a surgery. This is no different than if we are in pain or are excessively tired verbally snapping at a family member.

Prey/Play Aggression: Dogs are predators plain and simple. As a species they have a natural tendency to want to chase, pounce and catch small, furry and fast moving critters. Some breeds are bred with a higher propensity towards chasing while others are more tenacious and want to shake and actually kill.

This can be a hard pill to swallow. Some people don’t want to come to grips with the idea that they are living with a natural born killer. I had a woman once not want to take one of my classes because I told her a story about my Chow Chow having a high prey drive and wanting to kill my cat but through proper “leave it” training the two were able to live peacefully and once the training was proofed I never feared my Chow would ever “hunt” may cat again.

The woman became irate and demanded a different trainer. The story was supposed to demonstrate how effective my training would be if followed accordingly but that’s not how she took it. I finally got out of her what about the story upset her so badly and she said ‘how could you believe your dog was capable of such violence?’

Prey/play  aggression doesn’t have to be as extreme as your dog actually wanting to kill the family gerbil. A lot of dogs are happy just dissecting stuffed animals and shaking and tearing up rope toys.

I have had many families who have never owned dogs before come to see me because of their dogs “aggression”, when in fact the dog was simply vocalizing during play (in particular tug) in the form of growls or in order to engage the owner in a game they would throw their head and snap at the air.

Overt Aggression:  Of all of the “aggressions” listed above this is the only one that is a true and honest, albeit rare, aggression. A dog that is overtly aggressive appears to have no regard for their own well being. They are eerily comfortable with being aggressive, displaying no signs of stress or discomfort.

When a dog becomes stressed or agitated they will begin to show signs  such as raising their hackles, pinning their ears to their skulls, their pupils dilate, they may yawn or avert their gaze or even give a hard stare and a whole slew of other signals that demonstrate the dog would prefer the “threat” to back up or there will be serious consequences. *Dogs that are overtly aggressive give no such signals and they may even produce behaviors that elicit a reaction from someone (dog or human) that would lead to an altercation.

*I have had hundreds if not thousands of people report that their dog attacks out of the blue with no warning. In every case but two, the dogs did give signals the owners just didn’t know what they were looking at.

In my twelve years of training I have only met two dogs that were overtly aggressive. One was aggressive toward people and one was aggressive toward dogs. In order to explain my experiences with these two dogs I would need to write a whole book, a blog simply would not do.

I have never read any book dedicated to true honest aggression. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of literature out there labeled as such. Every book I have ever read on the subject of “aggression” (while extremely educational and intriguing) actually discussed dogs that suffered from a lack of: confidence, impulse control, proper socialization, engagement (attention) skills and in general a lack of training.

I do not discredit these authors at all. They are writing important information for the every day dog owner and anyone working with reactivity, since most “aggression” stems from one of things listed above.

The best book I have ever read on the subject of aggression would be Brenda Aloff”s book titled Aggression In Dogs but even her case studies prove that dogs are either suffering from a general lack of discipline and training or a medical condition. Regardless, it is an exceptional guide to have on hand if you are dealing with reactivity or aggression.

Ritualized Aggression

All of us have moments where we are aggressive. Many of us know that when our spouse comes home from a bad day at work and they are a little quicker to snap, that it’s not meant for us. They are vocalizing to us what they couldn’t to their boss or coworkers. For the most part, this is no reason to send them packing. We tend to understand and even forgive these moments of aggression quite easily.

Situations like this are what is called ritualized aggression. They are moments of harshness that is acceptable depending on the circumstance. If you are excessively tired or stressed or if you are in pain or ill and you act out; you might say harsh words, you might slam doors, and so on. People understand that this is not really you. Your unusual behavior is explained away and forgiven.

Why then is it so hard for us to forgive our dogs when they display moments of agitation? Please don’t misunderstand, if you have a combative dog then you need to seek help immediately and start working on your relationship quick, but if your dog has never growled at you before and suddenly she does, perhaps this is not a behavioral issue rather a medical one. There was a day that I took my Lab mix, Odin, to the vet to get his shots. That night he was laying on the couch looking particularly uncomfortable and when I sat beside him and stroked his head, he growled. At no point did I ever consider getting rid of him, nor did I ever think he was being seriously aggressive. He was uncomfortable and wanted space and he only had one way to ask for it. So I gave it to him.

No, I do not think this reinforced his “aggression” any more than letting your best friend rant and rave about something reinforces their “aggression”. What I do think this demonstrated to him, was communicative understanding and respect helping to further his trust in me.

Your dog’s moment of agitation may not be due to a medical condition, it could be due to the fact that humans are not very perceptive to dogs more subtle cues and they were forced into giving a stronger signal.

The Dogs Are Alright

A large chunk of my clients come to see me because their dog is reactive towards people or other dogs and more times than not they report that their dogs aggression started one day out of the blue. The story usually sounds like this, ‘I have had my dog since he was 6 weeks old and he has never showed any signs of aggression now he is two and suddenly he will growl at strangers when they approach him on the street’.

Dogs give a slew of signals when they are interacting with people and other dogs, it is unfortunate that people don’t see these signals. In regards to the scenario above what likely happened was, this dog gave incremental, minute signs of stress that went left unrecognized. Over time the signals got slightly stronger as the dog tried to communicate he did not like these interactions. These signals could be anything from ears held close to the head, closed mouth, averting his gaze, a deliberate act of not wanting to look at what is causing him stress. Anyone who has ever received the silent treatment will know what this looks like. As you attempt to talk to someone they walk past as if you were invisible, or sit silently and pretend that you are not there. This is not a friendly encounter, this person wants you to leave them alone.

There have been countless studies done on how well people can detect dog’s emotions through their body postures and let me tell you, it’s not good. Only people with ten plus years experience working with dogs have been shown to accurately read a dogs more subtle signs of distress. That should matter to you if you are looking for a trainer to help you with your reactive dog. And, these studies show that many dog owners will misread signs of stress or fear as signs of a happy dog. Because of that, many dogs are put into situations that they feel they have no choice but to defend themselves. What is most unfortunate is most people are still looking at the dog’s rump to give them information about how their dog feels, when they should be looking at their face. A dog’s tail wagging does not mean he is happy. Tail wags, can mean intention to interact, what that interaction will be, depends greatly on the position of the tail and how swiftly it is moving, but often the tail moving is an involuntary response to stimuli and is not our best way of judging our dogs true feelings about a situation. The face can give us far more information but all in all you should learn to read the whole dog.

This all goes back to trust. If you are continually missing or ignoring your dog’s more subtle signs of stress and you are continually putting them into situations (i.e letting strangers put their face in your dog’s face, taking them to the dog park, forcing them to say hi to other dogs when on leash and so on)that make them feel uncomfortable, their trust in you as a leader and protector will begin to deteriorate and your dog will be left feeling like they have no choice but to defend themselves. This is unfortunate since dogs only have one tool at their disposal to get their point across…their mouth.

A final note on aggression, there is this terrible notion that dogs love unconditionally. I do not deny for a second that dogs are capable of powerful emotions including love, but unconditional love just simply does not exist in any creature. Nothing in life is free and nothing in life is unconditional. This idea that dogs love unconditionally is extraordinarily dangerous for our dogs. It puts them in situations that they are expected to always like what is happening to them, whether it’s a stranger putting their face in your dog’s face or a child crawling all over them and everything in between. It denies the fact that our behavior can indeed affect our dog’s behavior so when they act out people don’t acknowledge what they did to spark an “aggressive” response, instead they decide, since dogs love unconditionally, that something must be wrong with this dog. Only when we acknowledge that dogs are indeed creatures that have an array of emotions (not just love), who have their own set of behavior patterns and rules, who need to be understood and respected, who need to be taught how to behave in our very human world and who deserve for us to treat them like the amazingly awesome, beautiful and intelligent dogs that they are and not fuzzy people, will we begin to see a decline in canine aggressive tendencies.