Tag Archives: communication

Sooo proud of Spencer

I haven’t had a lot of time to post in recent months because work and life have been so busy. I hope to share some posts about the highlights of recent months because Spencer has been going through some really interesting developmental phases.

Today, though, I just want to say how proud I am of his performance on today’s walk. Between the weather, my heavy workload and Greg’s knee sprain, Spencer hasn’t has as many — or as long — walks as he would like recently. So this morning, I pretty much let him decide where he wanted to go. As you can see from this map, it was pretty long. But I can’t figure out how to measure the distance. I couldn’t even figure out how to get Google to let me show it as a single itinerary. For some reason, I had to put three itineraries together. This seems needlessly clunky. But I digress.

At one point in our walk (just above the letter A on the right-hand side) we passed through a major intersection at rush hour on market morning. There were people coming from all directions, waiting to cross busy roads and coming off buses in hordes. There were other dogs on leashes, baby carriages and all sorts of potentially threatening things and people.

And Spencer dealt with it all with perfect calm. He stayed by my side, observed, executed my directions, and oriented towards me for reassurance whenever he was unsure if he should be worried or not. It took us about 15 minutes to navigate a safe route through the crowd that wouldn’t put him in a difficult push and push him over threshold, but we managed.

I’m sure it helped that this was towards the end of our walk, and he has expended all hiss nervous energy. At the beginning of the walk when he was chomping at the bit, I doubt it would have been quite so easy, but this shows how much progress he has made thanks to counter-conditioning, BAT and our learning how to communicate with one another. (And Irène had a lot to do with our progress, so if you’re looking for a trainer in Paris, consider her.)


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.

She started it!

This article is a true story, told from Spencer’s perspective, followed by some commentary from me.

Kristen has been showing me that the world isn’t as scary as I thought. Strangers, barking dogs and buses with terrifying hydraulic brakes all make liver, chicken and cheese appear. And the closer they are, the more goodies I get! I’m still not comfortable getting too close to people I don’t know, but if Kristen shields me, I can now let people walk right past us on a narrow sidewalk, and most of the time we can walk by people, although I’ll keep my eye on them, just to be sure.

I’m also learning that I don’t need to worry about other dogs (but I’m not always convinced). A lot of times, we just walk by them, and Kristen gives me a treat so I don’t get tense. The thing is, a lot of dogs bark at me for no reason. Sometimes a dog across the street starts straining at its leash and barking aggressively when I haven’t even looked at it. Kristen says it’s because my size and my muzzle make them nervous, but it’s unfair. I don’t bark at them! If I strained at my leash like that and barked for no reason, people would say I was a mean dog. When little dogs do it, no one seems to think twice about it.

Anyway, Kristen is teaching me not to freeze when I see another dog, and it does seem to limit the frequency of them being aggressive. This morning, I got to meet a nice little dog. We were cutting through the “park” in the middle of a bunch of apartment buildings, and two women were chatting with their small dogs next to them. Kristen and I started to move away, but one of the dogs was off-leash and came trotting over to say hi.

I was a little nervous, but he seemed friendly, so I didn’t mind sitting down when Kristen asked. Sitting is a way to let the other dog know that I don’t mind him coming closer. At the last minute, I did get a little overexcited and jumped towards him, which I’m not supposed to do, but he didn’t seem to mind and then we were able to great each other calmly. And then he started playing with me! I was happy.

His mistress came over and said something to Kristen, but she was moving slowly and calmly and didn’t come too close, so I didn’t mind. Kristen asked me to move away from them, and I tried, but the other little dog kept following us because he wanted to play. Finally, he disengaged and trotted away. The woman turned away.

Suddenly, my new friend came running over again after checking in with the other little dog. And then, for no reason, the woman veered towards us and charged while yelling angrily! I didn’t know why she was being so aggressive, but I was scared and lunged back and started barking, “Go away! What did I do to you? Back off!”

She backed off, and my new friend left too. I realized Kristen didn’t seem worried and was asking me calmly to come back to her. I stopped barking and turned to her. We moved a few feet away and then she told me that she understood I had been scared but was glad that I had stopped barking and lunging. Because she wasn’t worried, I calmed down right away, and we didn’t have any problems for the rest of the walk.

There are a couple of points that I’d like to stress from this story:

  • If you’re going to have your dog off-leash, please make sure that s/he comes when called.
  • There is a reason my dog is muzzled and leashed and that we move away from you. Please respect our space.
  • If your dog does come over to us, remember that since my dog is muzzled and leash, there’s very little harm he can do to yours. At this point, best just to let the dogs be unless you actually see your dog being in some mortal danger.
  • Calling your dog back in an angry voice isn’t compelling. When your mother called you in a stern voice, did you think, “Yippee! Can’t wait to go find out what Mom wants!”? Or did you drag your feet trying to delay the confrontation as much as possible? If you want your dog to always come back, practice calling him or her in a happy voice and rewarding him with a treat for obeying. We’ve done this with Spencer, and he’ll now even stop barking at something in the yard and come running into the house because he knows that coming back in is the more enjoyable option.
  • It is entirely possible that the woman in this story thinks that Spencer lunged at her “out of the blue”. After all, she’d been near him for several minutes, and he’d been calm (even surprisingly relaxed). But, in fact, he had reacted to a perceived menace. She knew she was yelling at her own dog, but Spencer didn’t. From his perspective, she was threatening him, and he didn’t have to think twice before his self-protection instincts kicked in.
  • Finally, the leash holder’s reaction can make a world of difference. If I had yelled at Spencer angrily, it just would have fed his tension. It’s an incredibly hard exercise in Zen, but learning to gently reel the dog in makes a huge difference in the duration of episodes and in the dog’s ability to recover quickly. I can’t tell you how hard this has been to learn. The good news is that it serves me in my relations with other human beings too. I think this is the lesson of “turning the other cheek”; you can either contribute to the vicious circle as emotions spiral out of control, or you can try to short circuit it.

Pleased to meet me, or is that just a bone in your pocket?

For human beings, few dog behaviors are as embarrassing as their dog inappropriately humping. Spencer does this often when he meets other males, which I’ve always understood it to be a dominance ritual. Most people tend to think it’s sexual (and we know at least one presumably homophobic dog owner who doesn’t seem to appreciate that his dog doesn’t “stand up for himself” when Spencer jumps on his back). However, an article that I’ve just stumbled on (thanks to Scientific America’s “28 Santa-Approved Dog Science Articles”) suggests some other reasons for this behavior that make more sense in the wider of context of who Spencer seems to be:

  1. As bizarre as it might seem to us, humping might be one way a dog says “Like me, like me”. Kind of like that drunk guy at the cocktail party who is just trying waaaaay too hard. This seems likely in some cases with Spencer, like when he jumps on poor Gus, a much smaller Bassett Hound who seems to adore Spencer since he has known him most of his life.
  2. Overexcitement. Spencer doesn’t really do this, although sometimes when he’s really happy, he gets a fleeting puppy “boner”. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.)
  3. Humping is apparently a displacement behavior for conflicted feelings and anxiety. This sounds spot on for Spencer, whose reaction to a new dog can usually be summarized as freezing in fear until the dog passes and then running into the dog’s wake to soak up its odor (often accompanied by whining). He seems to want to be social, but to be terrified by the possible contact.
  4. Self-soothing. Self-explanatory. Not Spencer’s thing.
  5. Dominance. It may be a dominance ritual. but maybe we had that one wrong, like so many things we believed about canine dominance for decades.

Read the full article “Lessons from the Schoolyard: Why Do Dogs Hump?” on the Buzz, Hoot, Roar blog.

Getting past the lizard — the science of positive training

When you search the internet for information about dog training, you can find everything and its opposite. This makes it really hard for well-meaning dog owners to find out how to raise their dog well, even with professional help (since there are no licensing requirements, anyone can declare him or herself an expert dog trainer). Unfortunately, too many vets have scant training in animal behavior; their knowledge is, after all, in anatomy, not behavior. The fact that even our vets aren’t up to speed on the latest science about animal behavior makes it even harder for dog owners to understand how to be good leaders/parents/owners or whatever word you prefer.

Today, a friend shared a user-friendly article on interpersonal neurobiology and what it teaches us about how to raise children, but many of the conclusions are applicable for animals, although to a different extent. Actually, many of the conclusions are also applicable to our spouses, co-workers etc. I strongly recommend everyone to read it, think about it, re-read and keep re-reading it.

Some of the really top-level messages of the article:

  • We are Borg, but in a good way. Although we like to think of ourselves as individuals, we are actually part of a collective. Our “mirror neurons” allow us to experience what others are feeling and doing in much the same way we would if we were doing those things ourselves.
  • Our brains are interconnected. The way we act and react to one another can actually change the way the other’s brain is wired, especially in the critical phases of development in early childhood (and puppyhood, in the case of dogs).
  • Our reptilian brain is reactive; our cortex can learn. This is where the science is really critical to help people’s attitudes about “discipline” and “teaching” to evolve. The reptilian brain is designed to ensure survival. This is where the Fight or Flight instinct is housed. But stress can create permanent cues that trigger these basic survival responses, even when the stimulus is benign. In people, a well-known example is post-traumatic stress disorder. In dogs, aggressiveness and other reactive behaviors fall into this category. The problem with domination and discipline-based approaches is that they depend on one reptilian brain dominating the other and they thus perpetuate the cycle (which is why abused children often abuse their own, among other things). The key to resolving these problem behaviors is to reassure the reptilian brain and to allow it to hand control back to the cortex. This can only be done by a trainer/teacher/parent using a cortex-level response and being a safe haven for the reptilian brain.

This is why the training methods we use with Spencer entail a lot of treat-giving around things and people he considers scary, regardless of what his behavior is. A purely behavioralist response would be to only distribute treats if the desired behavior is demonstrated first. The interpersonal neurobiological approach says that the first thing to do is make the trigger less scary so that the reptilian brain doesn’t feel a need to react and cedes control of the dog’s response to the cortex. Only then is the dog ready to learn more appropriate behaviors.

The next step of this process is for the animal to understand that you will always protect it. I noticed almost right away that the day we were attacked by a Chihuahua was a turning point for Spencer. I was convinced then and am even more convinced having seen this scientific information that it was because I actually shielded him with my body. This was a clear signal that I would protect him no matter what. Increasingly, he turns to look at me when he is uncertain about something, and if he’s really unsure, he scoots back to my side.

This feeling of safety allows his brain to continue functioning at the cortex level, even when confronted with something or someone that makes him uneasy. This allows him to learn the things I try to teach him at these times and it also allows him to make decisions according to the routines he has acquired through learning rather than having panic trigger his reptilian instincts.

A final aspect of the article that has parallels in positive dog training has to do with mindfulness. One of the techniques we use to help keep Spencer operating at cortex level is called “Look at That”. Simply put, you call the dog’s attention to scary things before he sees them on his own; by doing so, you pair the external trigger with the emotions you communicate. Depending on your tone of voice, the dog either receives the message “stranger/unworried tone” or “stranger/happy tone” (using a worried tone would be counterproductive). For this to work, though, it is really helpful if the dog already sees you as a safe haven.

In closing, I’d like to point out something unrelated to dog training that struck me as I was reading the article: how much science once again underscores some of the central tenets of many major religions. If responding to aggressiveness with a cortex-driven response isn’t an example of turning the other cheek and loving thy enemy, I don’t know what is. Mindfulness of course has a direct parallel in Buddhism, but also in other religions.

House arrest

Spencer is sad. Now that he has become adventurous, his ideal schedule would probably be an hour of walking followed by an hour-long nap, followed by an hour of walking, and so on throughout the day, with the only interruptions being food.
But that’s not happening at the moment. He has a wound — probably an infected tick bite. It’s not terribly serious, but it’s located on his shoulder in a place where all his harnesses rub and rip off the scab. (Too much information, I know.) Continue reading

Wanna bet?

As any of our dedicated readers have seen, we do our best to stay out of trouble. We avoid situations that look like they have unfavorable outcomes and have worked really hard to get Spencer to the point where he sees someone come around a corner or towards him and veers away. (He did that twice this morning before I even saw the person come around the corner!)

So it is very frustrating when people and events seem to conspire against us. However, I have noticed that a common denominator in many of these cases is that people have much less control over their dogs than they think they do. Continue reading