10/10 on a difficult course!

This morning was one of those we-have-come-so-far walks.

Whenever we have to go around a blind corner, I call Spencer to my side, prepare a treat just in case, try to peer through fences and bushes and prepare to react if we are surprised by someone. This morning, I thought I had a good view around the first corner we encountered, but when we turned it, there was a young boy, too short to be seen through the break in the fence and bushes. I calmly asked Spencer to do a u-turn and cross, which he executed without hesitation while the boy called a friendly “Bonjour!” after us. Continue reading


Horsing around

A few months ago, we discovered a new park not too far from our house. It’s an old manor house that is falling into ruins. There are very few people there, lots of open space and a loop trail that’s exactly the right length for tiring out Spencer without him getting overtired. They keep horses and donkeys there, which provides us with a great opportunity for working on Spencer’s fears.

Even though they’re much smaller, he seems to be much more afraid of the donkeys then the horses. Probably because of this guy:

A donkey we met on a walk Continue reading

Making school less scary

One of the principles of managing reactive dogs is to help them learn to make positive associations with Scary Things. For any dog — and especially fearful dogs — it’s important to try to introduce new things and people in ways that the dogs can find the experience pleasant and even enjoyable. This means to not push the dog out of it comfort zone and to pair the new thing/person with something nice like a treat.

One error that people make is to ignore the first part of that sentence. The treat alone is not enough to make the experience pleasant for a dog that is feeling highly stressed. In fact, it is often counterproductive. Continue reading

How dog training can make all your relationships better

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve updated the blog due to family upheaval — we’re at that age where parents get seriously ill and sometimes leave us for good. I’m still not completely caught up, so in the meantime, I’d like to share this video with you from TEDxJaffa. It gives a good explanation of the dog training philosophy we espouse and how it can help you take the conflict out of ALL your relationships. I’ve told people many times that rehabilitating Spencer has been a transformational journey for me — causing me to review the kind of leader, boss, wife and even person I want to be. This short (11-minute) video will help you understand why and how that has happened.

Spencer tries Nina Ottosson's Tornado

Spencer the Tornado

One of the challenges with a Cane Corso is to keep him occupied. This working breed used to have four jobs on the farm, so he needs lots of activity. Plus, each of his skills has its “dark side” when not properly channelled:

  1. Herding — This contributes to stress when the family is not together and separation anxiety.
  2. Guarding — This entails distrust of strangers and plays a role in the genetic aspect of fear aggression.
  3. Traction — You think your dog pulls on leash? Try walking a 44 kg (~100 lb) dog designed to pull carts loaded with heavy stuff.
  4. Hunting — A strong prey drive that makes fleeing cats irresistible.

Spencer has loads of toys to keep him busy, but most of them don’t seem to be very satisfying unless we are trying to get them out of his mouth or at least sitting nearby watching him play.  Other toys are supposed to occupy him, but he’s very smart and has figured them out. He can empty a Kong in under five minutes through a clever technique that entails picking it up in his mouth and dropping it to dislodge what’s inside. Freezing Kongs to slow him down was effective in the beginning, but then he realized that the easiest thing was just to let it sit there a few hours until it melts.

So I’ve been looking for new toys to provide mental stimulation. He likes his Kong Wobbler, but he knows exactly how it works and likes chewing on it too much. So I got him a new ball that distributes food and makes a funny noise when it’s turned a certain way.

But what I’ve wanted for a really long time was a Nina Ottosson toy. My mom offered to buy him one for his 2013 Christmas present, but I couldn’t decide which to get. I wondered which level of difficulty to get — he’s smart, but he’s never had one before. Plus, it wasn’t very clear from the descriptions which ones might be well suited for a very large dog. Finally, I decided to get a hard one simply because there was a picture of a German Shepherd using it, so I figured it would be size-appropriate.

It’s the Tornado game. It consists of three bone-shaped trays stacked on a central axis around which they spin. There’s a bone-shaped cover that also spins. Each tray has fours compartments where you can put treats or food (or a little bone-shaped cover that is meant to make the game harder because it keeps the level from spinning until the dog dislodges it).

There are really detailed explanations of how to teach the dog to use it. So I started going through them one by one. At about instruction three of fifteen, Spencer pushed me aside and took over. Here’s the video proof. This is about five minutes after he saw the game for the first time.

Spencer’s critique? Super fun! To understand just how much he likes this, you need to realize that the cleaning lady is vacuuming in the room next door, and this is usually a very stressful event for him. He kept asking me to refill it and was all smiley and happy, even when I re-opened the door and he was reminded the cleaning lady was there.

Treats that make Spencer go boing

One of the things that makes people resist the concept of positive methods training is the use of treats to “pay” the dog for desired behaviors. Among other critiques, they often think this will make the dog fat. The easy answer is to remind people that they can reduce their dog’s mealtime food. However, I do have to admit that it’s a challenge to get the balance right when you have a dog that is pretty much afraid of everything. When you’re doing treat-based counter-conditioning all day every day, it’s hard, but not impossible, to manage the dog’s nutrition. In addition to the dog’s calorie intake, you also have to bear in mind that many treats sold in stores are really the equivalent of junk food and not very healthy in large quantities. Continue reading

Revising history

This blog was started before we switched to positive training methods. Since I’m afraid of propagating misinformation, I felt that it was only responsible to go back and update articles that contained misinformation and accounts of our misguided efforts to “fix” Spencer with “correction-based” training (which at the end of the day only made the situation much, much worse).

For people who are just becoming familiar with positive training through this blog, I recommend going back and perusing the articles before “Switching Horses in Midstream.” Look for text in italics with “Update February 2015”, which is where I explain what is wrong with the previous text. However, I’ve left the original text intact so people have the wrong information in context.

If I can prevent even one person from committing the tragic errors we made, then it will be more than worthwhile eating a bit of humble pie.