Sniffing And The Misinformative Image

The image below (go ahead scroll down and take a look at it) is one of many, that I see, that put out a very brief and horribly incomplete idea of what walking your dog “should” be like. First let me say, images like this are not talking to canine professionals, they are talking to the general public and I find it horribly irresponsible that who ever creates images like this put such little information in them. Second how you walk your dog needs to be based off only three things. 1) Are you enjoying the walk? 2) Is your dog safe? and 3) Is the public safe? But, you see this image does not talk about either of those items, it is only concerned with one aspect of canine functions…sniffing.

With the world up in arms about how living with our dogs should be about relationships and cooperation between dog and human, this image suggest otherwise, because it is only concerned with the canine component of the relationship.

I am going to break this image apart and expand on it so that we can better understand what walking our dogs is like and hopefully bring some much needed clarity to a very basic image.

Right off the bat it says: “Let Your Dog Sniff.” Suddenly it is suggested that if you don’t let your dog sniff, then you are a bad dog owner and not giving your dog everything they need. Is that really fair?  I was out walking my dogs this morning and did not allow them to sniff because we were on a time constraint. This morning walk was for exercise but we needed to get through it so we could get to work. Sniffing would have slowed us down. Is that wrong? Not at all and no one should make anyone feel like it is.

I can’t help thinking about how many people have read this and decided not to go for a morning walk with their dogs because they wouldn’t have time to allow them to sniff, or did go for a walk but became agitated at their dog for taking to long. Both scenarios lead to a strained relationship between dog and owner, which can lead to a whole slew of other problems.

“Dogs experiences the world through their noses. Sniffing is mentally stimulating.” This is a very true statement but much like we experience the world through our eyes, we don’t need to be right on top of something, staring at it to see it. When we walk we can visually take in the scenery and our dogs are capable of doing the same thing with their nose. They can smell things in the air and while it may not be as good as getting right on top of it, it does still provide them sensory stimulation.

“This is an easy way to release energy.” Massive amounts of misinformation. Dogs that are allowed to zig-zag and forge ahead, sniffing or otherwise, actually burn far less energy than dogs that are asked to walk in a structured manner. The mental work it takes for a dog to walk beside their owner and to concentrate on a task is very draining and much more exhausting than a dog being allowed to do whatever they want.

“Whose walk is it anyway?” This is just awful. As previously stated, the dog training world has taken a turn toward cooperative and relationship building methods, which is great but this question suggests otherwise. The walk should be for both parties to bond, get exercise, fresh air and in general enjoy each other and the outdoors. The creator of this image has just made clear that the owners needs were unimportant.

I am not saying that letting your dog sniff is bad or that you should never do it, not even close, but sniffing should not be the only thing considered. So, like mentioned earlier there are three things to consider when walking your dog, or when you have them in public period.

Are you, as the owner, enjoying yourself? In any relationship if you do anything simply because it is for the other party and you find nothing in it for yourself, this can breed resentment. Consider if someone quits smoking or goes on a diet and they do it for, let’s say their spouse, they may begin to feel like they have had to change who they are for someone else. Thoughts like ‘why couldn’t they just love me for who I am?’ begin to emerge and suddenly not only do you lose motivation to change you also begin to feel resentment for the other person. Psychologists say that resentment is the most damaging thing you can have in a relationship because it is very difficult to come back from. Once you resent someone it is almost impossible to not resent them.

If you are walking your dog just for them, and in addition to that they are unpleasantly dragging you down the street or anchoring you to a tree, how long will you continue to go for daily walks like that before you quit walking all together? Well, the answer is, you wont continue and dog trainers and behaviorists already know that. The very possibility for a walk to happen hinges on whether or not the owner gets enjoyment from walking. So for this image to even say “whose walk is it anyway” completely ignores that the owner also needs to be happy, otherwise they may begin to resent their dogs and begin to dislike them in other avenues as well. Have you ever heard someone say, ‘oh my dog is to stupid for that’, or, ‘my dog could never do that’? These are the people who have had a poor experience with their dogs, have some resentment and have concluded that their dogs are incapable of cooperation. These dogs are very likely not getting out of their immediate surroundings and are likely not getting any training. Because of resentment, their owners have given up on them.

Is the dog safe? Sniffing typically leads to forging or pulling forward. Not only does this make the owner uncomfortable it can actually lead dogs into dangerous situations. They could pull so hard that the leash gets pulled from the owners hand and suddenly the dog is loose or they can pull toward an unknown dog that could result in a fight. Which leads us into our last point.

Is the public safe?  If you have an aggressive dog, allowing them to direct the walk with their sniffing is horribly irresponsible. These dogs should be kept on task and given structured exercise. Even if you are not uncomfortable, when we call into question the safety of the dog and the public that is all that should matter.

Is this to say your dog can’t sniff at all? No, of course not, there is a time and place for everything but all three things mentioned above should be considered when walking your dog.

Fear: Can You Reinfoce It or Can’t You?

Over the fourth of July weekend my Facebook page was blown up with memes and posts about it being okay for you to pet, coo at and hold your scared dog during the fireworks. It is becoming a popular notion that you can not reinforce fear because it is an emotion and emotions can not be reinforced.

On one hand you still have traditional type dog trainers advising their clients to not touch, talk to or even look at their dogs while they are scared. Some have even gone so far as to say that we should be forcing our dogs into terrifying situations to “get them over it”.

On the other hand we have the more new aged dog trainers telling us that we absolutely can not reinforce emotions, including fear so go ahead and comfort your dog.

While NO,  I would absolutely not drag my dog out into the middle of a storm or a firework display in the name of teaching them to get over it but I am going to step in here and play a bit of devil’s advocate.

I believe you can, indeed, reinforce emotions because you see, emotions are not singular events that take place all by themselves, no, rather emotions are ALWAYS paired with behaviors and since behaviors can be reinforced one could conclude then, that emotions can be reinforced.

To further strengthen my case:

In Linda Case’s book Beware The Straw Man she mentions a study done where people in two different groups read a story. Both groups had to hold a pencil in their mouths while they read it. The first group held the pencil in their teeth forcing a smile and the second group held the pencil in their pressed lips forcing a frown.

The first group, with the forced smiles felt better or more positively about the story while the second group, with the forced frowns felt more negatively about the story, drawing the conclusion that your behavior can actually alter or impact your feelings or emotions. Change the behavior you change the emotion!

This reminds me of a communications class I took some years back where we discussed complaining. The more someone complains, the more likely they are to continue having complaints. Complaining can get further validated or reinforced if you will, if people around them offer forms of agreeance such as active listening, participation in the complaint or even something as subtle as nodding. Complaining is the behavior associated with different emotions such as, frustration, depression, agitation and so on; so while no the emotion itself is not being reinforced, the behavior associated with it is. This becomes a vicious cycle where the complainer relieves their stress from their emotional state by complaining but the complaining actually keeps them in that emotional state.

Reinforcement means to increase or to make stronger. Many behaviors are self reinforcing, meaning they don’t need external approval for the behavior to continue, so we don’t even have to physically do anything reinforcing, simply allowing a dog to continue being afraid is reinforcing enough.  The dog continues to practice being afraid. If we can get the dog to produce confident behaviors in the face of scary stimulus, we could then change their emotions about the stimulus.

Lets also not forget that fear does not only present in the form of trembling, hiding or drooling but can also present as aggression. In fact MOST aggression stems from a place of fear. Should we be stroking, petting and cooing our dogs when they are a full on barking, lunging, foaming at the mouth mess because the aggression is the behavior that presented during a moment of fear? NO! As trainers we would be removing the dog from that high level of intensity and working the dog back where they could once again handle the distraction and focus on us but we would not be petting, cooing or treating in the dog’s heightened state of agitation or frustration, so why in the world is it okay when the dog is trembling and hiding? It’s behaviors associated with emotion all the same.

Now don’t misunderstand I am not saying that we should be dragging our dogs out in the middle of it, right in the moment of it’s highest intensity and make our dogs “get over it”. Not at all, a proper desensitization process can be a slow one. I am not even saying hiding is a bad thing, especially when we are talking about an event that only happens once a year, but lets acknowledge that it is indeed being reinforced in one way or another. So until you change your dog’s mind about the scary stimulus, you are reinforcing (making stronger) the behaviors associated with fear, thus strengthening the fear.

Where Does The Balance Come In?

Hate is a very strong word. Love is another strong word. Have you ever felt indifferent about something? You don’t love it, you don’t hate, it just is what it is.

Well, in dog training there are two extremes that I just can’t stand to hear about. While I wouldn’t go as far to say I hate either concept these are things that make me cringe.

The first is when I read about or see a video that shows a dog seemingly well behaved. He or she is walking perfectly by the handler or coming when called off leash from an obnoxiously long distance away and the handler is bragging that they have only had the dog in their board n’ train program for two days. Obviously we all know how this was accomplished, with an electronic collar.

Now I am going to say here that I have no real issue with electronic collars. I recognize that some dogs in some situations may, indeed, need one. I recognize that some owners will need one because they lack patience or time to get the training done and the dog remaining in his/her home hinges on the dog getting trained in a timely fashion and I recognize them to be a great tool to clean up already established behaviors. However, if your goal for your dogs training is two days, well I would have to ask you, how dog friendly do you think that training is? And, just what exactly are you doing with a dog if you need them to be perfect in two days.

If you get hired on to a new job, even if you are in the exact same position, doing the exact same thing, you are given a 90 day grace period for you to get used to the new surroundings, the new schedule and so on. So, just why exactly is it, you need your dog trained and ready for the invitationals in less than a week?

Food for thought!

The other extreme, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is when I hear trainers tell people they will need to spend a year working on any single specific behavior. Ahhhh….who in the world is realistically taking that advice? No one, that’s who!

Everyday average dog owners already have a hard enough time trying to find time for the family dog. Between working a full time job (which for most, does not include bringing the dog with them) to helping kids with homework, to preparing meals and so on. This is not meant to get the owner off the hook, not even close. It is meant to add some perspective. Asking anyone to wait a lengthy amount of time for their dog to reliably respond to a single command is simply not owner friendly training.

Our dogs tend to suffer more when the training is not owner friendly. That’s when people become frustrated and eventually lash out at their dogs leading to far harsher punishment than was ever necessary.

In order for training to be fun and effective for both parties involved (dog and owner) I like to break training down into three categories:

1) What can you live with?

I could not care less that my dogs beg at the table. This is something that I can live with and choose to not waste time worrying about “fixing”. Essentially, it is not  a priority. Maybe some day if my dogs are perfect in every other aspect of their lives, and I have nothing left to teach them I will worry about this (*insert sarcasm).

2) What can’t you live with?

I absolutely can not live with my dog reacting aggressively toward other dogs when on leash. My Doberman had a serious issue with this many years ago when I first adopted her and it was something I could not stand. Not only was it really annoying, it also posed a serious threat to her safety and others. Which brings me to my last category.

3) Does it pose a risk to the safety of the dog or others?

If your dog is presenting with a behavior that poses a risk to themselves or others then you have no choice but to care. You don’t get say that your dog door dashing doesn’t bother you so you are going to put it on your “I can live with it list.” Door dashing is a seriously dangerous behavior and should not be allowed to continue.

I do strongly suggest breaking your training down like this. Make literal, physical lists of things that could potentially pose a safety risk, things that you personally can not live with, it is a pet peeve and if the behavior does not stop the dog is gone, and finally a list of things that, you know what, really aren’t so bad, they are things you can live with.

Once you have your list make a training plan that helps you to safely, constructively, yet in a timely fashion train the behaviors on your “can’t live with” and “safety risk” lists. Getting those pesky “can live with” items out of the way can help to prioritize your training and help you to move forward smoothly because you have resolved to ignoring those “can live with” items. You can always come back to them later.

As always I recommend seeking professional guidance and remember that everyone’s lists will look differently. What concerns one may not concern another, so don’t worry about trying to make your list based off what you think others would do and base it off of what you, your dog and your family needs.

Walking Your Dog: The Joys and the Struggles

Walking Your Dog: The Joys and the Struggles

I love walking my dogs, whether they are dragging me down the street or walking pleasantly beside me. While obviously one scenario is more pleasant than the other, I take great joy walking my dogs either way.

This is not always the case for everyone else though. One question I get asked the most is, “how do I get my dog to stop pulling on the leash?” For most people being dragged down the street is unpleasant or uncomfortable but for many others it can be down right dangerous.

Out of my four dogs, only one pulls on leash while out walking. He is my 12 year old lab mix who is roughly 55-60 pounds. Years upon years ago I gave up the struggle of trying to teach him how to walk well on leash. When I adopted him I was a novice trainer and only had a few tricks up my sleeve to get the job done right (I have a lot more now) and I enjoyed long walks (we are talking hours) and I simply was not going to sacrifice those walks in order to take the time to teach him proper leash skills. This was my problem not his and being that he is 55-60 pounds and I am 160 pounds, well, simply put, I have the strength to physically control him.

Many others can not say the same. In order to even get to a point that you can walk your dogs pleasantly, let alone to the point of enjoyment, one must invest the time, energy and sometimes money. Money is a pretty easy fix. On the shelves of just about every pet retail store you will find a slew of different products all designed to help you gain control over your dog while in public, such as being on a walk. From gentle leader head halters, to easy walk front clip harness to more traditional style collars such as prong collars and choke chains. All of these devices are lumped into one category: TRAINING AIDS.

I caps those last two words not to yell at you, but because I want to make clear that they are aids, meant to help you on your training journey, not complete it. Nothing can replace solid training and depending on a tool to do all of the work for you is just not going to cut it.

The first two items in your loose leash walking training, time and energy, are the parts most people struggle with. Out on my morning walk this morning I was on the parks trail a little behind another person out walking their dog (she is who inspired this blog). I watched her several times take her phone from her pocket, type and put it back. It must have been a dozen times. Obviously she was texting. Where does this leave the dog? Well on an easy walk harness, forging forward sniffing every blade of grass. Not a single ounce of attention was paid from the owner to the dog, or the dog to the owner. They were on the same trail, attached to the same leash but they were not together.

In my training classes I like to paint a mental picture for people so they can fully appreciate why this is kind of a sad scene for me. I like to say, “I can be sitting in the same room as my husband but he is more with his xbox than he is with me.”  Now everyone needs time to themselves and you don’t need to be paying attention to your spouse, or anyone else you have a relationship with, 24 hours a day. We all need time to just be us, but if I were to go to dinner with my husband and he was on his phone or game system all night and I was essentially at the dinner table by myself, well I would be a bit upset. Sometimes you just have to be in the moment with someone.

The one thing I can say to this girls credit, at no point did she get frustrated with the dog. Maybe she was like me and enjoyed walks with her dog regardless of how badly he pulls. He wasn’t pulling as badly as I have seen other dogs so perhaps, this was not so bad to her or maybe they have made leaps and bounds in their training and this was a fine stopping point for her. Either way, if it is something that does not bother you and does not pose a threat to the dog or the public then it really doesn’t matter so long as you and the dog are happy.

It only matters if the dog, public or owner are at risk for injury, illness, or psychological trauma. However, if you are like the millions of people looking to walk with a dog that does not pull and walks generally close to you I highly recommend seeking a trainer that can help you establish four things:

1)Positioning-In order to begin walking we need to teach our dogs where to walk, most commonly know as heel position, and how to get there, to find that spot on their own. I begin by luring my dog with a treat or toy to my left side and facing the same direction. Once there I will lure them back to come position (directly in front of me) and back to heel. I reward each time they get to my left and to my front. I repeat this several times in a 2-5 minute session. You can even use leash pressure to move your dog from one position to the other and, in fact I recommend in some sessions luring and in some sessions using leash pressure.

2) Leash Pressure-This helps us to override our dog’s natural opposition reflex, the reflex that actually tells them to pull harder on the leash.  A dog’s opposition reflex is the reason so many people complain that their dogs will pull even if they are chocking themselves. Leash pressure helps us to communicate to the dog that when the leash gets tight instead of pulling harder against it, to move in the direction the leash is pulling. This will help us to move our dogs back in to the correct walking position. Properly established leash pressure also allows us to communicate with our dogs through minute tugs rather than leash pops, essentially allowing for us to use fewer, if any, corrections in our training.

3)Lure Your Dog Along-Play games with your dog in the house, back yard and front yard where you lure your dog along with you. If in the house or in a fenced yard you can even lure them along without the leash, helping to establish that they need to walk with you even if they don’t have a leash on. Slowly, over time, fade out the lure.

4)Walk Nice Toward Things-Set up games where your dog has to walk with you toward things that they want (I recommend on leash). It can be their food bowl, a toy, a pile of treats, another dog etc. The list can go on and on. Whatever your dog wants, have them walk nicely beside you in order to get it. In the back of my facility there are some woods and a creek. My German Shepherd just loves to play in the creek. In order to do so we have to walk to that creek side by side. If ever she breaks from position I immediately turn around and head back the way I came, just for a couple of paces. Once she is next to me and I have her attention we head back toward the creek. If the item is something your dog really wants more than the world you may be turning around a lot. If it is something mildly stimulating to your dog you may have to only turn around a couple of times. Practice with both levels of stimulation so your dog learns, regardless of how excited they are, all good things come through you and in order to get things they want they first have to do things you want. All four items can take a long time to establish (we’re talking months) and training collars can expedite that process but all four items should be well established long before you take your dog on an actual walk, where you are going to expect them to understand what is expected of them. Simply put, it is unfair to expect your dog to know how to walk with you and to tune out the exciting world around them if you have not put in the leg work and time to teach them just what is expected of them when outdoors, in public and on a leash.