Monday, October 29, 2012

A New Paradyme - Releasing Dominance Theory

In the beginning, I was taught the “dominance” theory by many trainers who I followed and even idolized. In those years, even though I believed what I'd been taught, looking back I realize that I never really applied that theory to my own dogs. I never did use choke chains, prong or pinch collars, mostly because I fell in love with a slip collar made out of 1/2" rope early on. Yes, a slip collar can be used in similar fashion to a choke chain and in recent years has been made popular by a famous TV dog show. What I used however was 1/2" thick not the thin braided nylon used on said TV show, much less potential for harm. Because it was rope it was soft on my hands.

Because it was a slip collar it went on easily and came off the same. But it was only there to contain a dog in it's initial training phase, not as a method of control. There were no, or very few, leash laws when I was growing up and going to college and even into the 80's and that's what I think of when I'm working with dogs. I still train as naked as possible and teach others to do the same.

Along with dominance theory are other words and practices in use then and now for "controlling" the wild animal nature of a dog that most people seem to think is real- or a product of their own fears. But again, as I look back, I never did apply this theory to my own dogs - we were friends and companions always. Even today, most of the "commands" that my dogs learn they learn by use, not by a strict regimen of training. "Leave it" is already known by Cinnamon the 4 month old puppy, as is "back it up". But I didn't train them, I just used them in appropriate circumstances. Are they "commands" or just a communication asking the dog to please do something? "Leave it" in my world means back off - not a whole lot different then "back it up" but used in a different context. Even in the late 80's, dominance and obedience were not a part of my personal world with my dogs. Princess, an Aussie I had in the middle 80's, never had a leash on her neck, ever, and yet without any training in recall or heeling would follow me everywhere. She would race beside my bicycle all the way to work, stay with me at work and then race me home.

Although I never did teach the use of tools or techniques that involved pain or heavy control, I did teach the “dominance” theory and the importance of “leading the pack”.

Dog owners and trainers often use the “dominance” theory to explain and make excuses for a variety of unwanted canine behaviors. This concept is also used to justify the use of aversive tools and techniques designed to over-power a dog with the objective of intimidating the dog into submission in order to stop those behaviors. This type of “training” works because the dog becomes afraid to move in certain manners for fear of pain or the pressure of intimidation and challenge.

Many of the trainers who use dominance theory consistently challenge the dogs they are training with threatening body postures, pokes, prods, kicks, punches and loud commanding voices.

These methods teach avoidance but do nothing to address the root cause of the behavior issue - issues which are usually only issues because humans don't like them. It’s much like doctors who treat pain with pain killers as opposed to finding out what is causing the pain and curing that.

“Dominance exercises” commonly cause fear, aggression and other unwanted behavior that result in suffering by the dog and often euthanasia. In one case, a trainer in Florida actually killed a dog while attempting to force it into submission. After muzzling the dog and sitting on it for over an hour, the dog lost consciousness and later that day, had to be euthanized due to its injuries.

Things like spitting in the dog's food to handle food aggression, peeing on the wall higher then the dog is peeing to make a dog stop marking in the house, alpha roles that don't truly exist in nature, scruff shaking so hard it causes the same internal damage as a shaken baby, hanging the dog by it's collar until it passes out or vomits and a plethora of weird and wacky means to "put a dog in it's place".

You don't see much of the weirdest of these techniques, but they often made me wonder, in those days before the Internet and easy access to information, if the main techniques of harsh obedience training, alpha roles, poking the neck and kicking the abdomen are from the same trough as spitting in the food and peeing on the wall. I've seen it all, tried it all, discarded all of it after the first use. There were techniques that I did keep around for a long time however. But again, only with my clients, never with my own dogs.

Every canine behavior blamed on “dominance” is normal in canine terms and can be explained by simple motivation and the search for reinforcement. It's quite simple, dogs want to survive and survival means going after what is considered good stuff. If you saw a $100 bill lying in the street would you not pick it up? Why then is a dog helping itself to your dinner “dominant” when they are scavengers by nature? It's not a “dominant” dog that takes your food it's a normal dog doing what comes naturally to its species. It’s not about dominance it’s about resources and the ever strong survival instinct.

I ask you, as a thinking reasoning being, to try and get the concept that culture and nurture play a huge role in how a creature views it's world, what it considers reinforcement and how it responds to danger and even what it considers dangerous. A human from the depths of the Amazon jungle would NOT pick up that $100 bill. A human born and raised in Los Angeles would not eat monkey brains. Dogs have been domesticated for a very long time, they are no longer, by environment, nurture or nature, wolves, just as we are no longer aborigines living by the spear in the jungle.

At one point in my life, I realized that I was getting nowhere in trying to apply what I'd been taught about dogs by others. This was before I discovered the massive amount of information about dogs, behavior and training on the Internet. I knew, however, that I was living one way and teaching another. I stopped. There were other factors involved in that, but I stopped training completely. It was pointless unless I could figure out how to teach what I did with my own personal dogs.

For example, I no longer teach the words “obedience” or “command” to clients. Obedience is not a natural thing for a dog, it's demeaning and was born from the need to quickly train dogs during war time to be messengers. It was never meant for pet dogs. The greatest percentage of my clients just want a pet that doesn't drive them nuts with behaviors (natural to dogs) that are dangerous, annoying or intimidating. In the past I would tell them to be the pack leader and give them a set of rules to live by. Then teach the dog to obey about six commands and this was all supposed to produce a dog that could be lived with. The Canine Good Citizen test is the epitome of this philosophy. It has 10 testing points, none of which actually address how humans and dogs can live together in harmony.

Dominance theory has no place in the pet dog world. It has no place in the sporting world either, but most definitely not in the pet dog world. I believe that the interest in and use of dominance theory comes from a deeply hidden need to control things because of the fear of being eaten / mauled / hurt by a wild creature. It comes from a misunderstanding of what dogs have evolved to be, what they are capable of and how evolution has shaped them to avoid conflict because it is a non-survival behavior. I believe it comes from the need to be at the top of any pyramid no matter whether it's human, canine, feline, equine or any other species. Dominance theories abound in the training world with nearly every species being trained. Even prey animals like horses are treated with the harsh methods created by the need to dominant. It's a human need that has been anthropomorphized onto every other species out of fear.

There is a trainer here who posts the exact same ad every day on Craigs List trying to get customers. He is a "traditional" trainer. He believes that dogs should be controlled and submissive. He treats humans the same way. In his mind (and this is solely based on my knowledge of him from his writings and responses), he is the only one qualified to train your dog. In his mind, he is the best there is and has the police department as his proof - even though ( and I could be wrong on this ) the only thing he's done for the police department is snake aversion work. He also sites that he worked at a wolf sanctuary as a caretaker. I called that sanctuary and his duties were clean up and feeding of captive animals that couldn't express themselves in a natural way. Whatever he learned there - and he claims he learned alot and uses what he learns on your dogs - couldn't be the truth of a DOG, only of a captured wolf and only their responses to his maintenance duties.

So, dominance theory in a small package. Myth topped off by seeing one situation and applying it to all. The same way dominance theory came into being for all trainers.

I have figured out how to teach others the way I work with my own dogs. So we all learn how to use a dog's natural instincts - a dog's need to play and a dog's desire to learn to be with us and interacting with us no matter what that might be - and they learn faster and more reliably then "traditional" methods. Everyone enjoys themselves once they get into the spirit of play and understand that even they learned best when the learning process was a game and when the tests were a challenge and not a stressful activity of proving oneself.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Testimonial

I was first recommended to Jamie and Canine Behavior Training/Seize the Leash when, after four years, my fourteen year old dog, Guiness, began viciously attacking my four year old dog, Bailey. With three daughters in my home, I was frightened to leave the dogs unsupervised or around my girls. I reached out for help and the comments of, "Get rid of one of the dogs." fell on deaf ears.

After coming home, one evening, to a blood splattered porch and wall, Bailey's neck punctured and bleeding, I sunk to my knees and cried. My sister reminded me of the dog trainer we'd briefly met, Jamie, that may be able to help. Grief stricken and feeling helpless, I decided to call.

To my relief, Jamie came the very next day. She stayed for a one hour, free, in-home evaluation. Although the full hour wasn't necessary. Jamie swiftly and expertly identified the problems within the first 20 minutes. First, Jamie told me Guiness was in pain, and recommended a vet visit. I didn't know it was possible to feel worse, but now I did. I felt like a horrible dog owner. How had I not noticed? After having Guiness for 13 years, you would think I would! She still ran with me, chased rabbits on our off leash runs in the desert, dug holes and jumped on the bed. Pain?! How? Why?

Jamie explained dogs do not show pain like humans. Small flashes were apparent to her expertly trained eye. In addition, to my surprise, Jamie mentioned my 13 year old dog, Lucky, and 14 year old dog Guiness had an incredible bond. I knew this, of course, but how could someone that had been in my home for less than 30 minutes see? She advised that Bailey simply didn't know her place, and identified Bailey as the one in need of training. To be honest, I did not agree or think that training classes for the dog BEING attacked could help. Plus on a limited budget, smack dab in middle of the recession, every penny counts. I found myself thinking, "Is she just trying to make money because of the free visit?" But, knowing I was out of other options (because who gets rid of their 14 year old dog) I reluctantly agreed.

A vet visit and xray proved Jamie spot on. Guiness had three slipped vertebrae in her spine that were fusing together. At her age, surgery was not an option. My matriarch of the family was given medication to ease the pain. I was told she would have to be on it for life. I would do anything to make her remaining time with me more comfortable.

We started training Bailey, or more accurately, Jamie started training me. I was fascinated when I slowly arrived at the conclusion that it is the human receiving the training, not the dog. Several times I had to put my ego away and learn to listen and accept responsibility for what I was doing incorrectly without excuses or justification. So frequently I would whine, frustrated, "Bailey just isn't getting it." Jamie would calmly walk over smiling, and seamlessly have Bailey perform the task we were given. My mouth dropped open. I was then receptive to her showing me once again how to accomplish the "trick" we were learning.

My whole life I've aimed to learn to have more patience. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think a dog trainer and a dog would teach it to me. I was also keen to listen and learn because Jamie's method of training is outdoors and based on positive reinforcement. No choke collars, no yelling, no shock collars. Simply, ask the dog for a behavior and reward when it is given. The dog begins wanting to do the behavior, this also builds trust. Wow, how dumb do I feel. But as I think about it, if you didn't know Spanish and visited Mexico how would you feel if the locals hit you with a newspaper or yelled in your face shocking you with electricity, every time you pronounced a word incorrectly? You would stop trying and shy away. I notice when I try to speak Spanish, I am encouraged and smiled at for the effort. This should translate to dogs. How would they know what we are trying to say? Encouragement. But I digress...

To my utter amazement almost immediately, the dog fights ceased. There was one more fight after training started, and that was thankfully, the end of it. Jamie made another house visit, at no charge, once Guiness was settled in, and taught me ace bandage wraps and gentle touches and massages that would soothe Guiness' pain. Jamie's kindness and love for dogs is sure and true.

My story could end here, on a happy note. Tragically, it does not.

Bailey successfully completed her 6 weeks of training! I could not have been more pleased with myself, and her. I thought "Sit, Stay, Down" was what we were to learn. I didn't think not pulling on the leash, no longer randomly barking incessantly, sitting until I give the command to release (even when I jog or run around her) and not eating food when I accidentally drop it on the ground, were in the syllabus.

I didn't think genuine happiness for Guiness, Lucky, Bailey and my family, was part of the entire picture. Bailey and I bonded. Her energy and spark were contagious. I was laughing again, the whole house was. She was so willing to "work" and began offering behaviors, I craved to learn how to teach her more. I began saving my pennies realizing Jamie's fee is not only fair, but on the too generous side. I spoke with proud Jamie and she agreed, rally is the next step for Bailey and I. Rally is a class where the true fun begins. Superdog jumping over poles, snake-like weaving though objects, crawling up A-Frames and proudly sitting on top like she conquered Mount Everest. We enrolled. After our first few weeks of Rally, Bailey and I were playing our newest learned game of "tug." She ripped a small piece of fabric off the toy and swallowed it. This moment in my life will be burned into my memory forever. Something so simple, so stupid, ended up killing my dog. The fabric became logged in her intestine. When my husband and I took her to our vet, Dr. McMillian, two days later because she was lethargic and wouldn't eat, he gave her a quick xray to determine what the trouble was. He came into the room with a blank stare on his face and delivered the earth shattering news. He didn't think operating could save her, about 80% of her intestine were rotted and her body was shutting down. My husband says I was jumping up and down screaming. This is lost to me. We made the horrific decision to put Bailey down in April 2012.

I called Jamie, she was devastated and cried with me. The house became like a ghost town. The energy died with Bailey. The senior dogs became just that, seniors. They stopped playing. The energy apparently left them too, Guiness began to deteriorate and not even a month later I had to make the decision to put Guiness down. She passed May 2012. Now although this was more "expected" due to her age, the wounds were still raw from my recent loss and my ability to cope with losing my long time friend, was shattered. I was shattered. Lucky stopped eating and had to be put on anti-depressant medication.

Three days into this mess I called Jamie and asked her what she thought of us getting a puppy. Jamie said normally she doesn't recommend a replacement dog so soon, but in this case she did. Looking back I believe this was the moment that Jamie crossed over from trainer and into a friend. She called all her dog loving friends and adoption clinics. We visited the humane society with my family to help find a puppy that would fit best with Lucky. After all, Lucky is the new matriarch of the family.

We didn't find a puppy. We found two - sisters. Glorious, precious, wrinkly, loveliness. Half Shar-Pei, half Labrador. One outgoing and fun, golden like the color of the sun. The other hesitant but a snuggler, jet black with wide wondering eyes. The adoption volunteer asked how I felt about this breed of dog potentially living until they were 15-17, I almost cried in relief, although I do not believe that was the response she was expecting.

Jamie made another trip to the house (I live in Vail folks, this is a drive that requires a stop for snacks) and helped me introduce the puppies to Lucky. It took a grueling month and yet another trip by Jamie, for Lucky to become accustomed to all this change. The loss of her best friend of 13 years, and new puppies crawling all over her and biting her tail as it swished back and forth. Lucky now is in love. Smitten by these two, Ava and Roo, who adore her every move. Lucky has her spark back, and so does my family.

We immediately enrolled Ava and Roo in puppy class. Yes, ridiculous as it sounds. Jamie had us brush their teeth, mess with their paws, clean their ears, open their mouths to touch their tongues, rub their fur backwards, and more random things I would have never thought of. I laughed because I knew this was unusual by normal puppy training expectations. But that is why I swear by Jamie.

All the little things are so simplistic, yet so important. Not a week after, Ava was stung by a bee and her entire mouth and neck began swelling. My eldest daughter called me panicked and I left work for an emergency trip to the vet (I'm thinking, Really more dog drama?!) We arrive and after an immediate injection to stop the swelling, the vet was searching her mouth for the stinger. Dr. McMillian was able to locate and successfully remove it because Ava held perfectly still and didn't mind her mouth being probed, a bit. Dr. McMillian said,"Have you been working with her?" To which I proudly replied, "Yes." He looked at me for a beat and said, "Thank you, that was wonderful. No squirming dogs or risk of me being bitten" and he smiled.

The puppies could sit at 8 weeks. And under Jamie's guidance and watchful eye, we gradually learned: roll over, leave it, to sit in or on anything I place in front of them, go around, jump over, wait, beg, lay down, and touch. Now, at 7 months, Roo can jump through a hoola hoop!

My story does have a happy ending. My incredibly painful loss, subsequent devastation, and broken heart has lead me to a new friend, and two playful and wonderful new additions to my family, the ever spoiled Ava and Roo.

P.S. I have, as of this very day, been invited to apprentice under Jamie to learn to teach people, and their dogs her magical ways. If I can help just one person, or just one dog, it will mean the world to me. To be able to pay it forward, and return the favor that one great lady, who dedicated her life and livelihood to helping others, has done for me.





Monday, October 8, 2012

Training Methods and Definitions Again


I love this article "Dog Whispering In the 21st Century". But even it can be simplified so that those who refuse to read can understand. It's not really a problem of whether or not people are intelligent enough to understand, it's that they refuse to read.../listen to a long discussion that really only pertains to the trainers themselves.

What it boils down to is definitions and goals. Each trainers definitions are slightly or completely different in regards to "loaded" words. But that doesn't really matter if you just look at the motivations behind the "training" WHY does this person train dogs, what result is he striving for in each dog - control or relationship or something in between. EVen control can be broken down into "human control" or "self control by the dog". And relationship in the same way - master/slave or partners.

What it really means to an owner: Is each trainer ethical enough to tell you exactly what tools and methods are being used and what the expected result will be and can you ethically and with integrity accept that.

Asking questions and truly finding out the above for each trainer interviewed is what we should be pushing on dog owners. Most people are not willing to hurt their dogs (subject again to definition of what hurt is), but they also want a quick resolution to their dogs issues. If we, as R+ trainers can show that the time necessary is close to being the same as the force trainers, then there is no contest :)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The process of learning

Learning is a process of connecting the dots - “If I do this then I get that.” Learning creates behavior. Behavior is an expression of energy and energy comes from emotion. Emotion comes from the aniticipation of consequence which brings us full circle back to learning.

There is a cycle to all life's activities, purposes and processes. You can affect life at any point in that cycle. If you teach a dog something new, you affect his behavior and his emotions. Teaching involves presenting new consequences (for the purpose of humans, information can be considered a consequence).

Suppression of any point on a cycle of action, especially if it suppresses a larger cycle of life behavior, destroys learning, creates only fear or apathic emotions and reduces the energy output to nearly zero.

Remember this when next you decide to "punish". The only consequence that is learned during punishment is pain. Pain being defined as a warning that if this activity is continued there may be death. The expression of pain by the body is an evolved mechanism in all life on planet Earth that signifies imminent death.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Rehabilitation & Canine Psychology

What does it mean to rehabilitate a dog?


There are two definitions in the dictionary that apply to canine rehabilitation.
1) to restore to a condition of good health, ability to work, or the like.
2) to reestablish the good reputation of (a person, one's character or name, etc.).

Both of these definitions imply that when you rehabilitate a dog, what you are doing is returning that dog to a natural state - good health, the ability to work, to be a dog and do dog things - and to restore that dog's reputation with the humans who live or interact with that dog.

The words rehabilitation and psychology are all the rage these days due to TV's influence on dog training and behavior consulting. So let's look at what psychology actually is as well.

Psychology is defined as:
1) the science of the mind or of mental states and processes.
2) the science of human and animal behavior, sometimes concerned with the methods through which behavior can be modified

So, if you are claiming that you use canine psychology to rehabilitate a dog, what you should be doing by definition, is using the science of mental states, emotions, how they affect behavior and the actual normal behavior of a canine to bring the dog back to a natural state.  

Sounds good.  But what is the natural state of a dog?  Is it, like decades of trainers and behaviorists have stated - like a wolf? If so, what is the natural mental and behaviorial state of a wolf?  Is it what we've seen on TV - pack structure with dominant, aggressive, alpha canids who rule the group with an iron fist making sure all other members are submissive and don't move until given permission?  

Despite the arguments for and against alpha dominance and aggressive leadership, and whether or not dogs should be treated the same as wolves, dogs are domesticated. This is their evolved natural habitat - here with us. It’s an arrangement that we take for granted, but it’s far from ordinary. Having dogs as our companions and helpers is and was one of the most extraordinary things that ever happened. If our ancestors hadn’t teamed up with their ancestors, we simply wouldn’t be living the way we do.

Dogs exist in amazing numbers around the world. There are many dogs that are loosely attached to people and are in continuous contact within the greater population of dogs. Exploring the behavior of these village dogs gives us not only the dynamics of how dogs earn a living, but also suggests how they evolved and adapted to civilization. It also provides an insight into dog behavior.

Behavioral ecologists look at the results of an animal’s motions. The animal hunts for food. Hunting for food has a cost, which can be measured in many ways, including the expenditures of time and energy. The big question for the behavioral ecologist is, how do animals capture enough energy to accomplish all of their biological requirements?

This behavior, as studied by the ecologist, ethologist and behaviorist, is what a dog should be rehabilitated to if you are strict to the definitions of rehabilitation and psychology.  But we are human and we wish our dogs to live with us, not as part of a village.  So what would you study to find out the "natural" behavior of dogs in response to a human world?

While dominance theory and dog pack dynamics are interesting areas of study, the argument of whether they apply to us and our domesticated dogs, is actually a moot point.

"All human suffering is the result of believing in lies. To become aware of this is the first thing we must do." don Miguel Ruiz


A lie is an alteration in the time, the place, the form or the details of the event itself. In dog training, there are many lies, or if you wish, misinformation. Each one is designed to promote a specific method of "training" your dog. That method is part and parcel to the attitude and emotional balance of the humans who promote it. The quick resolution is one of the most prevalent. "Show" the dog who's boss in whatever fashion gets the point across fast and you have a well behaved dog. There are two lies here 1) that the dog is now well behaved and 2) that dogs respond to an aggressive display with subservience and good behavior. What you really have is a dog who is terrified that that method is going to be used again. Every fight or flight instinct is in constant restimulation, which means the physical, emotional and hormonal structure of the dog is contantly out of balance.

So, creating a dog who is in a constant state of stress - suffering - is the result of believing a lie. What is the lie? The lie is that dogs are wolves and that wolves are aggressive and constantly seeking to be dominant and alpha.

"Dogs do not cause dogfights; people do". "It's not the dog, it's the human". "Be calm and assertive and your dog will be calm and submissive". All these and more are espoused as the "natural" way to rehabilitate a dog. The only communication needed, say these types of trainers, is energy. And yet, what you see these trainers doing is a form of communication that says "I don't care what you want, what you think, what your emotions are - you will do what I say or I will hurt you". Shock collars, prong and pinch collars, nearly wire thin slip leads, choke chains, dressage whips, pokes, pinches, kicks and prods are the methods used by those who relagate communication to the trash heap of "New Age Alien Abductees who came back from the Mother Ship with the uncanny ability to read your dog's mind".

Just as dogs are not humans, humans are not dogs.  You cannot be your dog's pack leader - you are not a dog. Contrary to common belief, dogs know that they are dogs and not human. They also know that we are human and not dogs. It is us humans who frequently get confused on these matters.  Even the terms dominance and submission have more to do with primate behavior then canine.

Since we are human, we are not expected by our dogs to act like dogs. We must communicate with them in a way that they can understand, but that does not mean that we should try to act like them. Not only would we be poor imitators, but however well we pretend, we would still be human, and our dogs will always know what we are.

Because our dogs live in our very complex human world, it is necessary for us to assume real leadership and teach them our rules. We must provide for them not just in terms of food and shelter, but also in terms of their health and safety. But in order to do all this, we must be able to communicate with our dogs.

This is the missing factor in all the dominance based training - communication.  If dogs acted only out of a desire to be dominant and alpha over all pack members no matter what the species, or even as I have seen on TV - over objects and spaces - there would be no need for the complex and subtle communication signals that dogs display.

However, most of the schools for dog training in this country totally neglect "communication" as part of their curriculum.  Some of them cover the generalities and some of the "calming signals" made popular by Turid Rugaas, but none of them educate about how to actually communicate with a dog.  None of them teach the subtle combinations of signals, none of them teach you how to actually be an observer and see what the natural state of a dog is.  

Training or rehabilitating a dog is not just a matter of asserting human will, training and rehabilitation require a human to learn to express himself accurately, communicate aptly and observe a dog's reaction to it all in order to gauge the effectiveness of what is being communicated.