Dog Training During COVID-19 Shelter-in-Place

As the planet’s humans deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, our dogs can be a big part of helping us get through social distancing, self-quarantine and isolation.  Talk about emotional support!  The CDC does not believe that humans can contract COVID-19 from domestic pets (although dogs may be able to contract the virus but remain asymptomatic and non-contagious), but you should err on the side of safety.

The lockdown also introduces challenges, especially in regard to socializing our puppies and dogs with each other while we humans must remain six feet apart.  Here are my thoughts on how to approach puppy socialization, socialization to people, and training using Zoom or other video platforms during this new (if temporary) world.

Puppy Socialization
One of my primary objectives over my dog behavior consulting career has been to encourage new owners to establish a rich socialization agenda for their puppies, including attending indoor puppy socials before full vaccination.  With shelter-in-place orders, many businesses that offer these weekly events have put them on hold.  While most socialization events are temporarily unavailable, the crucial need to socialize your puppy, starting before full vaccination and continuing through week 18, has not gone away.

Like many professionals, I have transitioned to Zoom video conferences for my behavior consultations and training sessions but am working to connect my puppy clients with each other so that they can set up brief, safe playdates for each other’s puppies.  When they are able to set up playdates in their backyards, the humans must wear masks, wash their hands before and after the playdate and then bathe their puppies when the session ends (another great lesson!)

Perhaps you can try posting on social media platforms or Craigslist to find other owner/puppy pairs in your area, and hopefully one or both of you have access to a private yard with entrance other than through the house.  Talk through your strategy before meeting, keeping a safe distance, and clean yourself (and your puppies) afterward. 

Socialization to People
In a perfect world, all puppies will meet at least 100 people of all sorts before 12 weeks of age, especially men, babies and toddlers.  But how are puppies supposed to meet those people when we can’t get closer than six feet to them ourselves?

In my experience, the most important aspect of puppies learning about people (other than their owners) is simply observing them.  For instance, I strongly recommend that before 18 weeks of age, puppies be exposed to babies and toddlers, but this does not necessarily mean physical contact between them.  Simply having your puppy observe and listen to the sounds of children playing in a playground is enough, and if you want to increase the likelihood that your puppy will build positive associations with babies and children, feed your critter her favorite treats only when children are close by. 

You will have to be creative now, because playgrounds and schools are closed.  Perhaps you can ask neighbors with children if they would like to observe the puppy for 10 minutes, and if it feels right, have the kids toss small, healthy treats to the puppy.  This does not need to be an all-day affair:  Those puppy brains are changing with every single observation, and the more positive and happier we can make these experiences, the better for all concerned.

On-going Dog Training
Here’s a secret about dog training that many people do not know:  It takes almost no time at all.  Frequent (twice per day), brief (two- to five-minute) sessions are all it takes to teach your dog, young or old, new tricks.  Now, that said, once you have taught your dog a new cue or behavior, you must use it frequently (and reward randomly) to keep the command fresh and your dog’s compliance level high.

With so many owners sheltering in place with their dogs, and with limited access to parks and beaches, this is an ideal time to otherwise stimulate your dog.  My experience is that challenging a dog with training (using their brains) can be exhausting and rewarding as chasing that Chuck-It ball (relying solely on exercise for stimulation), so with a lot of time on your hands, locked down at home, think about teaching your dog new commands and tricks.  And if you’ve been curious about clicker training but never used it, now would be a great time.

Video training
I must admit that I am missing my in-person training and behavior consultations but have been surprised at how fun and effecting these sessions are using Zoom or FaceTime.  In fact, I can see permanently incorporating this sort of training into my business once the shelter-in-place orders are lifted.

While I allocated 90 minutes for my on-site behavior consultations, my video appointments typically last 45 minutes to an hour. Once an appointment time is established, I email PDFs of my proprietary training materials for clients to print out or follow on-screen during the session. 

As with my on-site behavior consultations, after each session I email a follow-up/training plan. So far, my video consultation clients have been quite pleased with the process and several have referred other dog owners to me.

There’s nothing like a global crisis to showcase new ways of doing things!

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How socialization works: Dogs (and only dogs) can truly bond to multiple species

By Jeff Stallings

My favorite behavior book of the past year or so is John Bradshaw’s “Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet”. I recommend this book to anyone wanting to better understand their dogs’ minds, especially if you’re a bit of a science geek. Which of course I am; I could hardly put this book down.

“Dog Sense” includes the best explanation I have yet read about when, how and why socialization is important. Specifically, Bradshaw used the results of many studies to determine the mechanisms that allow puppies to become familiar with—and attached to—dogs, humans and other species.

Puppy Socialization

Early work in this field was conducted by Nobel Prize-winning biologist Konrad Lorenz in the 1930s. Lorenz discovered the process (now known as filial imprinting) whereby young animals learn the characteristics of their parents. Goslings, for example, will imprint onto the first moving object of about the right size that they encounter between twelve and sixteen hours after hatching. In the wild the chance of this first object not being the mother is remote, so imprinting is a highly-effective means for a newborn chick to become attached to its actual mother. Lorenz called this the “critical period”; we now use the term “sensitive period”, and it changes from species to species, but works the same in each.

The sensitive period in puppies runs from age three weeks until about sixteen weeks. What separates puppies from the young of every other known species is that they can imprint with multiple individuals across multiple species. Thousands of years of domestication has led to the modern dog’s unique ability to bond with not only their own species, but also with humans, cats, sheep and any other species they spend time with during those crucial first months of life. Some traditional uses of dogs exploit this flexibility. For example, sheep-guarding breeds, if raised with sheep, grow up to behave as if the flock is their family. The amazing thing is that these dogs do not at the same time lose species identity; they know they are dogs and not sheep.

To quote Bradshaw, “The domestic dog puppy’s unusual capacity for multiple socialization is the mechanism whereby we can insert ourselves into their social milieu and substitute ourselves into a role that, in the wild, would be served by their parents.” Conversely, if young pups are not familiarized with humans during this period, they will not learn to trust, love and live peacefully with humans.

In addition to this sensitive period being the time in which puppies learn to not fear humans, it also is the period in which they learn to live with and not be frightened of other aspects of our man-made world, such as cars, buses, skateboards, bicycles, loud noises, etc. Many times, the behavioral problems I work with my clients to address could have been avoided with a well-planned and concerted effort to expose their puppies to many people, many dogs, and a large range of outside stimuli during those three or so months.

“The first three or four months of life”, says Bradshaw, “are arguably the most important time in a dog’s life. Born with a powerful urge to learn about the world around them, dogs adjust during this period to whatever type of environment they find themselves born into, from the back streets of a village in Punjab to a New York high-rise. As with most animals, their default reaction to the unknown is fear. But for dogs, unlike most other animals, that fearful reaction is easily nullified by the right kind of experience.”

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Helping your fearful puppy become a more confident dog

My jumping off point for this post is a commercial for the California Academy of Sciences in which my dog Otis was recently cast, and my assertion is that it takes time (months and years) for any puppy, but especially a naturally fearful one, to mature into confidence.

First, the 45-second commercial for a new exhibit at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, about how skin (and fur, shells, feathers and other external structures) form the living interface between organisms and their environment:

California Academy of Sciences commercial, starring my dog Otis

The ad is fantastic, and I am proud that Otis was part of the production.  At eight years old, this formerly-fearful puppy aced hours of filming countless takes, surrounded by strangers, cameras, microphone booms, and other objects that would have terrified her when she was my newly-adopted 14-week puppy.  She would not even have been to calmly handle the commotion when she was four years old.  

But at eight years old, Otis has developed the wisdom to filter out stimuli that would have consumed her attention when she was younger. I do not use the term “wisdom” flippantly. What is wisdom except the learned ability to discern what is important enough to pay attention to, and what can be ignored?  The Webster’s Dictionary defines wisdom as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment that develops over time.”  My point exactly.

There’s a learning mechanism called “habituation” that is often conflated with “socialization”.  While these two processes are related, habituation specifically means the “diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus.”  Most puppies chase after every blowing leaf and are aroused by every dog they encounter, thereby learning about their world by closely observing it.  Otis was extraordinarily attuned to all dogs when she arrived in San Francisco from her rural birthplace, and fixated in fear at loud trucks and in fascination of every bird in sight. Not so any more.

Dog owners often contact me because their dog freaks out while tied up restaurants, or flees from garbage trucks, or refuses to walk down a certain street, or any other situation that can cause a dog to become fearful or aggressive or avoidant. My advice usually involves slowly habituating their dog to the situation, from a distance and over time, by implementing a program of desensitization and counterconditioning.  

But I sometimes have to convey that their dog does not have the temperament or tools to handle the situation at hand—at least not yet—and may never.  I encourage these folks to take the longer view, to not expect everything at once, and to consider what does make their dog happy.  That may never include being tied to a post while you go into Starbucks for your latte.

Another thing happens when a dog reaches full maturity: They learn English (or French or Spanish, or whatever language is spoken in their homes.)   Not in the sense that they can sit down to write dog blog posts, but in that they have observed humans for so long that they understand far more words and contexts than we set out to train. I never taught Otis “you stay here”, but I said it so many times when I did not load her in the truck that if I utter those words now, she happily stays in bed.  

This communication goes both ways, or at least it should.  I recommend that all dog owners “listen” to what their dogs are telling them.  If your dog cowers in fear every time you go to the dog park, the dog park might not be part of your future or hers…and that’s okay. What are alternate ways to physically and mentally stimulate your dog?  

The maturity and two-way communication that allowed Otis to effortlessly follow my direction during the film shoot, assured that she was safe under novel circumstances, evolved over the eight years we have been together, with her listening to and observing me, and me her.  (She also utterly ignores birds, even if they land a few feet from her in the backyard.) This is a point I make over and over with my clients:  Except for the most naturally calm and confident individuals, expecting too much from our dogs too early is frustrating for all concerned.

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My article in Bark Magazine about how often to reward your dog during training

I am thrilled to have my third article published in Bark Magazine, an excellent quarterly for all dog owners.

My article in the January 2019 issue is titled “Reinforcement Techniques in Dog Training”.  It’s about how using FEWER treats can help improve command compliance better than too many (or no) treats.

Reinforcement schedules is a key component in learning theory, and understanding the basics of this concept can go a long way towards improving your dog training skills.

You can read the article in its entirety on the Bark Magazine website:

https://thebark.com/content/reinforcement-techniques-dog-training

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Locally sourced: Get to know your puppy or dog before adopting

I’ll start this post by stating the obvious: I love dogs! Like anyone with an obsession for dogs, I wish every single one on the planet could have it as good as, well, as good as my mutt Otis.

I’ll likely catch flack by also stating something that’s perhaps not as obvious: You should absolutely meet your puppy or dog before adopting, which rules out flying a puppy in from another state, or adopting a dog sight-unseen from a rescue in, for instance, Taiwan.

rescue-puppy

About the Taiwanese rescues: Over the years I have received so many distraught emails from new owners that I’ve lost count. As soon as I see the breed described as “Formosan Mountain Dog”, my heart sinks. The Taiwanese rescue organizations—which it must be said, have their hearts in the right place—send photos and videos of the rescue puppy to excited potential adopters, invariably with description showcasing the dog’s excellent social skills with children, people and other dogs.

And then they meet their terrified, under-socialized puppy at the airport to discover that the he’s frightened of everything and everyone, tormented and confused after a 10-hour flight, with no context to make sense of what just happened to him. And then it’s downhill from there.

With the rescue organization across the Pacific Ocean, the new owners have no recourse. My heart bleeds for everyone involved, but especially the puppy.

Look, I understand the allure of surfing the Internet for a dog. We found Otis on Pet Finder, and fell in love with her (and a couple of her siblings) from the images in our browser. But then we drove four hours from San Francisco to meet the litter, spent several hours interacting with each available pup, decided on Otis—and then drove back to across California to get our house ready (we had been out of town for several weeks), returning the following week to bring her home.

The Taiwanese rescue dogs, in contrast, are essentially feral, most having had no contact with humans during the first 18 weeks of life, the crucial socialization period, nor exposure to buses, cars, traffic, city sounds, skateboards, and everything else a puppy needs to incorporate into their worldview to thrive in our man-made world.

On top of that, my issue with bringing in dogs from other countries is that the shelters in the United States are filled to capacity with homeless dogs, where you can meet, interact with and get to know your dog before bringing him or her home. And if it does not work out for whatever reason, you can work with the shelter to re-home the dog.

We have grown accustomed to buying anything and everything off the Internet, and this makes sense for shoes, computers, furniture and books. But with shelters all across the country filled to capacity, you don’t need to resort to the Web to find your next four-footed companion.

Look closer to home, meet your dog or puppy and make sure it’s a healthy love connection.

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Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: Why your dog must feel SAFE

By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

I recently fielded a call from the owner of a one-year old male German Shepherd who said that her dog had just shown aggression towards her and that she needed to “fix” his problem, pronto. She had come home to discover that her dog had killed her peacock chicks, so she angrily chased him through her open car door and struck him with her fist, at which point he bared his teeth and growled.

“Your dog showed great restraint in not biting you”, I said. “You should be punching yourself for your aggression, not punishing your dog’s.”

fear_german_shepherd

Why did her dog have access to the chicks, allowing this to happen at all? This owner had set her dog up for failure by not maintaining a physical barrier between her birds (prey) and her dog (predator.) From the dog’s perspective, he had had quite the successful hunt!

But the greater issue here is that her enraged attack on the dog made him feel acutely unsafe and vulnerable. I asked the caller how she would feel if, for no reason, an angry, snarling person chased, cornered and pummeled her? She retorted that her actions toward the dog were “justified—he killed my chicks!”

Who knows how long before her arrival the deed had been done? Dogs live in the moment (yes, they really do), and so punishment or reward must be timed within a second or two of the behavior you want to discourage or encourage. In this case, all the dog knew was that his owner had inexplicably attacked him, which frightened him and he reacted accordingly.

Her poor dog did not feel safe.

Safety is Key
Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) is renowned for his hierarchy of needs in which he placed that for safety above the need for water, sex, shelter—and even food. Think about it: Are you going to stop for a meal while being chased by a saber-toothed tiger? No, because in that moment your need for safety (self-preservation) outweighs your need for sustenance. While Maslow focused on human psychology, this is an area of where our behavior clearly overlaps with that of dogs and other animals.

One of my mentors, behaviorist Suzanne Clothier, reminds owners that if we violate our dogs’ need for safety, we automatically infringe upon their ability to learn, to think and to perform. (Her dog behavior book “Bones Would Rain from the Sky” is one of my favorites.) In her seminars, Clothier points out that, “feeling unsafe is often at the root of failure by our dogs to respond as we think they should. Uppermost in their minds is the need to feel safe. When we push dogs into feeling unsafe, we push them out of balance.”

NOT feeling safe underlies behavior issues that owners, trainers and behaviorists face every day:

  • Separation anxiety: Fear of losing the dog’s most significant social bond (to the owner); panic-inducing for some dogs.
  • Leash aggression: Tethered to a lead that eliminates the possibility for “flight” from a scary dog or person, the dog reacts out of fear to make them go away.
  • Aggression towards men or children: Not properly socialized to them as puppies, dogs perceive these individuals as threats to their survival.

In all of these cases, we humans can rationalize how the dog’s safety is not threatened—but the dog’s emotion (fear) is very real to him.

In the case of separation anxiety, feeling unsafe can cause a dog to go “over threshold” very quickly, making it impossible for him to learn how to be alone. Once the dog’s safety is breeched by being left alone without skills to handle it, progress becomes impossible. This is why protocols for addressing separation anxiety begin with very short planned departures that increase in duration only very slowly. Ramping up the duration of absences too quickly will backfire: the dog’s fear of severed social bonds becomes overwhelming. As long as fear is the dog’s overriding emotion, alone-time duration cannot increase.

Likewise the fear of men or children is—to the dog—very real, and from his perspective, not at all baseless, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to us. My life’s work is to instill in puppy owners the importance of exposure to all sorts of people (to at least 100 individuals) before twelve weeks of age, when the socialization period ends. Yes, twelve weeks, not twelve months.

Positive exposure to babies and children is especially important because a puppy not thusly socialized may grow up to fear them. As with separation anxiety, dogs leery of children experience real fear, and the erratic movements, high voices and peculiar (pre-pubescent) odors represent a menace to survival. Any program of desensitization and counter-conditioning (to babies and children, or to anything else for that matter) must take into account the dog’s fear and the need to feel safe.

About Those Sleeping Dogs
About once a month I get a call from an owner reporting that their otherwise gentle dog had “out of the blue” bitten a family member, usually a child. The child had quickly approached and touched their sleeping dog, and the dog had “without provocation” bitten the child.

Evolution has enabled the survival of the fittest to live, reproduce and pass along superior genes. This is true of behavioral traits as well as physical traits, and one instinct that serves an animal well is to lash out with tooth and claw when abruptly awakened. Fear of perhaps being under attack translates to instantaneous retaliation, ergo, the bitten child. In such cases, people ask if I can “train out” the behavior, and I tell them no, I cannot train dogs to not feel fear when suddenly awakened. This is not about training per se, but is rather a management issue. The solution is to teach everyone in the household to verbally awaken the dog from across the room before any physical contact.

Similarly, I often hear from folks whose dog has bitten someone while tied up. “I just ran into the store for a minute and came out to discover Fluffy had bitten this nice lady who wanted only to pet her.” Think about this from your dog’s perspective: You’re tied to a parking meter, your owner—the foundation of your safety—runs out of sight (already feeling highly stressed), and then a stranger reaches towards your face. Your dog rightly feels fearful, yet his ability for “flight” has been taken off the table with the leash tied to the meter, so the only other option is “fight”, and the bite ensues.

This is another behavior that I would not attempt to “train out” (an expression I abhor) of a dog. Some dogs can handle being tied up and approached by strangers, many cannot. It is not fair to put them in that position. Solution: Don’t do this! Leave the dog at home or with a friend while you get your coffee.

Innate vs. Learned Fears
My mother was deathly afraid of snakes. She was not alone, and this is not a fear that she had to learn. Rather, fear of animals that might be poisonous is instinctual. While she might have been able to learn to tolerate being in the same room with a snake, it was never important because in our modern world, avoiding all reptiles is quite easy. But let’s say that while Mom was enjoying a glass of wine on the porch, a snake had slithered towards her. Would yelling at her or punching her arm make her feel any safer? No, she would be both afraid of the snake and perplexed by my aggression.

Old school dog trainers often invoke aversive techniques to punish a dog that is reacting out of fear, such as using shock collars on dog-reactive dogs. While this may make it look to us that the problem is solved, the fear will not subside one bit. Instead the dog will shut down due to learned helplessness. Sure, the dog may no longer react, but he is still feeling afraid and that internal conflict can be quite unhealthy in the long run.

A better option for some (but not all) fears is a program of desensitization and counter-conditioning: Exposing the dog to the source of his fear from a distance that he can handle without going “over threshold”, and moving closer each training session while providing a high-value reward for staying calm (the counter conditioning part.) The reason I say not all fears will respond to this is that some are so ingrained from a lack of exposure—for example, to other dogs during a puppy’s short socialization window when the brain is undergoing physical changes unavailable later in life—or a traumatic “one-time learning” event.

Be Your Dog’s Advocate
I have had two cases where young puppies were leashed to chairs then, frightened by a loud noise, took off running with the chair bouncing and chasing endlessly behind them. In both cases, heretofore confident puppies never fully recovered from the trauma. The event was so terrifying, and occurred during the ever-important fear imprint period, that they never felt fully safe again.

I bring up the puppy-tied-to-chair scenario to plead for owners to fully think through all experiences to which they subject their dogs and puppies. Your job is to show your puppy or dog the world, to keep them safe from things you can, and let them slowly acclimate and absorb this crazy mixed-up manmade world. Of course this is not always possible—sometimes unanticipated events occur—but we must all try to put ourselves in our dogs’ shoes and to be compassionate about their trying to make sense of the world in the only way they can: mostly through their noses, without words and sentences to express how they feel, and from about two feet off the ground.

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Realistic expectations: The semantics of “fixing” your dog

By Jeff Stallings

Animal behavior science has advanced a great deal in recent decades. We now understand more about canine cognitive development than ever, thanks to researchers such as Alexandra Horowitz, John Bradshaw and Brian Hare. New discoveries into how puppies develop and dogs think have brought about proven methods for behavior modification. What we humans have not achieved is an instant “fix” for undesirable behaviors—in people or in dogs. (Adult humans who have spent years in therapy to rectify troublesome childhoods will attest to this.)

I receive emails and phone calls daily from dog owners seeking to remedy problem behaviors. These sometimes-desperate pleas for help, and the compassion behind them, speak to the devotion and love people feel for their companion animals. The quandary for dog trainers and behaviorists comes when owners speak in terms of fixing problem behaviors, in the same way one might repair something mechanical, such the cracked screen of an iPhone.robot_dog

The term fix implies the dog is broken. A more constructive way of thinking is that the dog, being a dog, has a utterly different way of experiencing the world than you and is behaving in unacceptable ways due to genetics, early socialization (or the lack thereof), prior training (ditto), or traumatic events, otherwise known as single event learning.

Most people have reasonable expectations, but words are powerful. A red flag goes up when I see the word fix in an email (unless of course it’s used as a euphemism for neuter.) While inventive management solutions can produce immediate results—for instance, removing window access for a dog who goes ballistic at passersby—behavior modification takes time, persistence and patience.

I don’t mean to come across as pessimistic about prospects for changing unwanted behaviors. Quite the opposite: a combination of tools, training and (sometimes) medications, can usually help to make life more bearable for our dogs and for us, but we need to get away from speaking in terms of fixing a problem behavior, as if we can push a button to make our dog with separation anxiety, for instance, suddenly not be terrified of being alone. Speaking and thinking in terms of gradual, effectual change takes the pressure off you and your dog.

Sometimes the behaviors that we think of as abnormal—the dog who freaks out when left alone—are anything but. Dogs are a social species, and being alone is not a natural state. We must teach our charges that being alone is a good thing, and the sooner we begin teaching these life lessons, the better. In my 12-step “new puppy” program, the process of teaching your puppy to be alone clocks in at number three.

With so many compassionate people adopting rescues, some dogs are bound to arrive in new homes with separation anxiety, leash reactivity, resource guarding or other undesirable behaviors. Many of these behaviors are instinctual, so the challenge becomes altering the dog’s intrinsic impulses to better fit into our manmade world, a process that takes time. For instance, resource guarding of food is a normal offshoot of an animal wanting to protect that which is rightly theirs: If you kill a rabbit, you want to eat the rabbit, so keeping others from eating your rabbit advances your chances for survival.

You might be able to fix a dog guarding his food with a jolt of electricity, but you run the risk of his becoming even more agitated or worse: If he happens to be looking at your child when he receives a shock, he could become fearful of and aggressive towards children. Resource guarding is better addressed by clearly demonstrating to the dog that humans control resources, that plenty is available, and that he’s always going to be well-fed, so no need to growl, lunge or bite. You’d probably introduce better management as well, such as isolating your dog at mealtime.

Certain devices can, in fact, hasten behavior changes, but these must be used correctly and in tandem with positive training methods. Because they promote immediate control over a dog’s attention and focus, I often employ head collars in training programs to address leash reactivity. But this “quick fix” is paired with positive reinforcement by rewarding the dog for not reacting once the trigger (other dogs, usually) is no longer present.

Celebrity dog trainers on television have contributed to the idea that dogs can be fixed overnight. In a fifteen-minute segment, right before our eyes, with seemingly magical powers, the host rehabilitates a dog, transforming him from dangerously aggressive to sweet as pie. What people fail to realize is how little footage is cherry picked and how much ends up on the cutting room floor. This does real dog trainers operating in the real world—who do not have the luxury of a video editor—a great disservice because it implies that behavior modification is fast and easy.

I encourage you to approach the process of behavior modification with optimism and an open mind. But remember that you and your dog are in this for the long haul, and be realistic about the time and effort it will take both of you, as a team, to figure out what’s possible, focusing on all the positive aspects of your relationship while realistically figuring out how to make it even better.

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