Ode to the dog

I think I may have written the world’s first-ever positive reinforcement dog training poem. Published by Pedadoggy for the first time. Enjoy!

Ode to the dog

 

Isn’t it a little treat

To have a dog rest at your feet.

Deeply gives a contented sigh

And so past the hours fly.

 

But all is not right with this pure scene

For how do these two make a team?

One so tall and standing on twos

The other takes great joy in smelling poohs.

 

To really understand this anomaly

Let us review the family tree.

Visit scenes from long ago

Before human beings grains did grow.

 

So cast your mind to years have gone

When camp fires through thick forests shone.

Safety, warmth, water and food

Were priorities of the human brood.

 

But in that dark lives wolf – big and scary,

Fiercely proud and extremely hairy.

Who made the first move by that camp fire,

Who overcame fear with their bold desire?

 

As the humans camped and sang and clapped

Fed and laughed and took their naps.

Wolf was curious and could smell their cooking

Stole some pieces when they weren’t looking.

 

So was it man who threw a spare bone

Without following it swiftly with a stone?

For with this creature he could connect

As its priority was to defend and protect.

 

Or was it wolf in a moment of need

Traded fear in return for some feed.

Learnt to hang out with the human pack

No teeth bared in exchange for a snack.

 

 

Perhaps one day a hand leant out to touch

Standing still was wolf, it wasn’t too much

For following quickly was the prize of a bone

Isn’t this a place you’d want to call home?

 

Now generations of wolves and human kind

have passed since that first meeting of minds.

Today with humans dogs do stay

Eat and sleep, run and play.

 

Around us the dog’s shape takes many forms

And between the two a new bond has been born.

Whether labrador, malamute, pekinese or poodle

Staffy, whippet or even cavoodle.

 

They’re part of the family, a member of the house

Except for the time when they bring in a mouse.

Man’s best friend became their name in time

And so these two creatures live lives intertwined.

 

So next time your doggy is pulling on the leash

Be kind to them when manners you teach.

For inside them still lives the wolf who is strong

And to punish them at all is so very wrong.

 

Remember the campfire and what it did show

That food helped the wolf learn new things and grow.

Let them catch flies and chase smells that allure

As their happiness will be yours too for sure.

 

 

 

 

Written by Grazia Pecoraro

Sydney, Australia

 

Advertisements

Fish need friends too (and why dog punishment does more harm than good)

Please indulge me in telling you a story about a goldfish called Wiggle and why this made me think about our lack of knowledge in understanding what animals, including our dogs, think and feel.

I never picked that Wiggle would out-survive his / her, let’s go with her, three finned siblings. A few days after I got them, our cheap water pump had sucked in two fish, killing one and maiming the other. Its entire tail had become shredded and all that was left was a little stump. I quickly realised that apart from being a beautiful fan, the tail helps the fish swim and, importantly, balance when reaching for and sucking in food floating on top of the water.

With no rudder, this little fish moved her whole abdomen from side to side to move through the water, the movement earning her the name of “Wiggle”. To help her eat, I’d crush the granules else she’d end up chasing a piece of food, too big to get in her mouth, around the pond.

Wiggle’s tail has now grown back but sadly in the last few weeks, one of her other siblings was found dead and a wily Grey Heron or Kookaburra had eaten the other right through the bird mesh on top of the pond.

My little fighter was alone and clearly scared after the bird experience, just hanging out under the rock and refusing to come out, not even bothering with the food I put out. When I went to the aquarium to purchase a few more friends, they only had one left in their tank with no new stock due for a while. I decided to bring the last fish home as it was alone and Wiggle was alone, so I would be solving two problems at once.

This is where my story gets interesting in terms of observing animal behaviour. I put the new fish in its bag of aquarium water to float in the pond so the temperature would assimilate, then started slowly letting pond water into the bag so the new fish wouldn’t go into shock from a rapid change.

Well if that wasn’t the darndest cutest thing I ever saw. Wiggle spotted the new fish in the see-through plastic bag and started hovering around, tapping her nose against the bag. The new fish (now called “Dregs” by my husband as it was the last picking from the shop) faced Wiggle, slowly finning in the bag of water.

There they swam for the around half hour it took for the temperature and chemical assimilation to complete. Nose to nose and Wiggle never swam away. When I finally let Dregs out the bag into the pond, she went off to explore her new home, Wiggle swimming right alongside, fins touching. They have not been physically apart since or very far away from each other.

Look, I know I can’t put human emotions onto fish but there was something there that wasn’t just about survival instincts of eating or taking shelter. You could say that there is strength in numbers as schools of fish avoiding a predator clearly show. But from what I saw, Wiggle wanted to be with her new sibling. Physical proximity and body contact were a priority. Immediately afterwards, Wiggle started swimming around the pond again rather than just bunkering under the rock and became very excited again when food was put out.

If fish can experience (not joy or sadness, grief or loneliness, I won’t go that far) a grade of emotional pain and pleasure such as Wiggle had, where does that leave our dogs who have far larger brains and capacity for feeling, and particularly, when we consciously or otherwise inflict punishment on them? Whether that’s jerking the lead when they pull, shouting at them, leaving them alone for hours on end without providing any exercise or stimulation, or in some of the more extreme cases, using shock collars or plain outright cruelty of which the Internet unfortunately contains an abundance of examples.

Wiggle has reminded me that there is a lot we don’t know about animals. So aren’t we better of working to positive outcomes as we don’t yet understand the impact of punishment properly? I’m not a scientist, zoologist or a veterinary behaviourist and can’t pretend to understand the science of animal feelings, but I am a dog trainer that wants to get the best outcome for all dogs – for them to feel safe, loved and happy because the humans they live with are consistent, predictable and have their best interests at heart.

When “come” means “run”! 3 ways to make your recall meaningful.

In the twilight of the last few evenings while taking Zac out to stretch his legs I’ve bumped into a lovely 12-month old Kelpie X, Flash, and his owner. I know the dog’s name is Flash because it gets called a lot across the oval. Everybody knows his name, except apparently for Flash himself.

The owner loves his dog, there’s no doubt about that, but is exasperated by the fact that he won’t come when called or bring the Frisbee back that has been thrown.

Personally, I think that two of the hardest things to teach your dog is to come when called or to walk on a loose lead. I say this not to make people give up teaching this – but to realise that these behaviours are a lot harder to teach than a sit or a down and therefore require a different approach.

When your dog is off lead your intrinsic value as their guardian, friend and feeder immediately diminishes. There’s interesting things to sniff, other dogs to meet up with and hey, the mere freedom of being able to run around acting a little bit silly just because they can. So the human standing there shouting their name or to come suddenly is as appealing as if you were to offer them a lemon to eat.

I’ve included some links to longer articles below, but my top 3 tips for making a recall (come when called) meaningful and which you dog responds to are:

  • Start without distraction. Start in your hallway our your house. Practice without distraction. Slowly graduate to busier areas (where you are able to safely – or get a long piece of rope if you are concerned about the dog running away) and only graduate to the dog park when they are ready to move to the next level by consistently coming back.
  • Make it rewarding. Really make it worth your dog’s while to come back to you. E.g. practice close to dinner time when the dog is more likely to be hungry and work for treats – high value treats and food that’s only received when training, not kibble – than sniff or play which could be far more rewarding.
  • Don’t punish / always reward. No matter how frustrated you are, do not shout or show any disappointment or anger in your body language. Even the smallest come should be rewarded initially. Let them know when they’re moving in the right direction. I’ve seen dogs checking in with their humans and this goes unnoticed and unrewarded. I’d run away too!

Here are some other articles, with more insights about teaching a reliable recall:

And remember, no matter how hard it gets, keep it positive people!

Take your dog on holiday – top tips for choosing pet friendly accommodation

Are you planning your summer holiday? The increasing acceptance of dogs as companions rather than just objects of human ownership means that an increasing amount of holiday rental properties are recognising their place in families and allowing dogs to stay over too.

Although there are a number of web sites around for pet-friendly accommodation, the one I use most regularly is http://www.stayz.com.au as it’s very flexible – you can add a filter of ‘pets allowed’ for the specific regions, towns or properties you are searching for. In the last few years I have noticed a definite increase in the amount of properties that are allowing dogs as guests.

The vast majority of these are really lovely places to stay at and not run-down do-me-uppers that people have, to use a clichéd saying, ‘let go to the dogs’.

So how do you choose a property that will suit both your and your dog’s needs? Some handy tips include:

  • Choose a place for you firstly – one that you like the look of and will be happy spending your hard-earned money on as a holiday rental. Do you want to be near the beach or stay on a farm? Do you like modern or quaint? What other non-negotiables are on your list, such as having a barbeque area, open fire or spa bath?
  • Think about the needs of your dog. If they are likely to want to chase every kangaroo they see or be frightened of cows and other animals, then perhaps a farm stay in the country isn’t the right choice.
  • Are dogs allowed inside? Some places (usually in the minority) don’t allow dogs inside but it’s worth checking. Your dog is going to be in a new environment and forcing them to stay outside may cause them stress if they are used to being with you.
  • Fencing around the property is important, even if you are going to be keeping your dog inside with you. It’s handy for those night time toilet breaks to let them out for a sniff or just to let them explore new smells while you unpack the car or are relaxing with your book.
  • Check what facilities are provided for dogs. Some places are very well stocked and provide dog bowls, beds and toys. A lot of places don’t allow dogs on furniture or beds, so make sure you know what to bring to make them comfortable during their stay.

While going away with your dog is a great way to spend quality time with them, remember that going into a new environment can be a bit stressful for them. Over the years I have learned to help Zac adjust by:

  • Letting him have a good sniff and wee outside before coming into the house the first time.
  • Putting his bed and blanket in a protected corner of the lounge that is not in the middle of the pathway and showing him where to lie down with a treat.
  • Taking him for an accompanied walk through the place to familiarise him with the layout. I notice he’ll follow me around for the first little while then eventually settle down. Sometimes a game of fetch or something energetic will help him divest the little bit of tension into a positive activity.

Respect the rules of the property such as not allowing dogs on furniture or cleaning up the brown piles on the grass so others can benefit from bringing their dogs there in future. Happy holidaying with your dog!

My dog lead became electrified

Fight or flight. These are two automatic reactions that unite us with our dogs as base animal responses during times of intense stress. Just recently Zac and I had exactly the same reaction as two unleashed dogs ran full-pelt towards us. We both froze. Looking back on it now, I certainly could have done better in transmitting more positive energy down the lead.

It happened during a rare break in the late-winter rain and with sunshine clearing the way for a feeling of the spring that was on the doorstep, the Staffy and I headed into the bush for a walk. Ambling along a straight stretch of fire trail with Zac on lead, I saw first an offlead dog, then two horses, one being ridden by a woman with one being lead, then a man on foot and another dog, turn the corner around 100 metres ahead of us.

The minute the two Belgian Sheepdogs saw Zac they started running, gathering their legs underneath them like cheetahs. Time stood still as they bolted towards us, their whole bodies directed forward like arrows. The lady on the horse was shouting and the man was yelling at them but they did not even blink.

It’s really hard to tell what a dog’s intention is when it’s barreling towards you like that. Is it friendly or enthusiastic, are they paired up to attack or to seek out fun with another companion? Anticipatory electricity travelled up and down my dog lead from both ends, it was almost palpable.

When they finally reached us, I came to out of my frightened stupor and looked down at Zac. The bum sniff was in process already (slow reaction of the human being) and Zac was changing his posture from watchful wariness to don’t-mess-with-me and was stiffening up, hackles rising and tail stiff.

“Let’s go!” I called out in my happiest voice, “all good, let’s go” using the catchcry that means good things in Zac’s vocabulary. He started walking towards me and in that moment, the dog’s focus changed as well – immediately losing interest and running back to their owners.

Having my dog on lead on my end certainly gave me the upper hand here. As we continued our walk, I reflected on how I could have handled that differently:

  • Getting out of my freeze quicker and putting on my happy voice before the dogs got to us. Keep the whole thing positive and light.
  • Really focus on being relaxed while watching the initial interaction, rather than anticipating the worse and unconsciously channeling this stress back down the lead.
  • Rather than standing still and waiting for them to come to us I wonder what would have happened if we came to them by walking slowly forward, changing the dynamics from pursue to greeting perhaps.

This is what I love about dog training. And life in general really. Every day gives you a chance to learn and try something different.

I barked up the wrong tree

If I had a tail, I would have returned home from the dog park this week with it tucked firmly between my legs. Let me share the lessons learned from an awfully awkward encounter with you.

I was exercising Zac by throwing a stick for him in a quiet part of the park, taking advantage of a break in the rain. Soon I was joined by a lady with an older German Shepherd Dog and then a man with a beautiful red Border Collie, which for the purpose of this story we’ll call, say, Rover. I closely monitored Zac’s body language because he can be dog reactive but all was well – the GSD was just standing at a distance more interested in the ball she was carrying and Rover, while, attempting some herding behaviour around Zac, kept a good distance and Zac was relaxed while he lay down chewing on his stick.

The lady and man struck up a conversation behind me, talking about their dogs while I kept throwing the stick and keeping an eye on my dog’s body language.

The man was saying things like: “I tried to take him to agility but he was badly behaved and would run off into the creek”; “I could tell he wasn’t really wanted there”; “he can be quite unmanageable” and “he is intimidated by some other dogs, particularly large females”. It went on and on all the while him not taking any action to monitor his dog or protect it in any way from the others that had joined us by then including a large, female Labrador and a Jack Russell.

I then also noticed that while this dog was watching Zac, his mouth was open. Not in a hot, panting way, but in a fixed angle and within a minute I saw him yawn three times – a sure sign in body language that the dog is stressed or uncomfortable.

With the owner still banging on about the dog and this is the point – it was all about the dog and the mistakes he was making – I felt myself walking over. I just couldn’t help myself.

“Your dog’s body language is showing to me that he is stressed around other dogs,” I said. The man agreed with me, repeating what he’d told the other person that he’s intimidated by older females. I then launched into my view that he should bring treats to the park, cut out dinner and make the calorie intake at the park around him doing good recalls and being rewarded for calm around other dogs. Take responsibility for his dog’s wellbeing in other words.

But before I could finish and step off my soap box, a whirling dervlish of teeth and growls broke out at the side of the park. The Jack Russell had clearly not kept his distance from Zac and entered his uncomfortable proximity zone, tried to jump on him or tried to take his stick. Either way, Zac had reacted.

I rapidly made chase after Zac, only after a few attempts managing to grab him and put him back on lead. There was a lot of teeth baring and growling, most of it hot air but not pretty or pleasant to hear or see.

Let me be clear here. This was my fault. I had taken my eyes off Zac when I was responsible for being in control of him when he was off lead, the condition of using off lead parks. While he’d been calm around the other dogs because they didn’t come into his personal space, while I’d been delivering my sermon about good behaviour I didn’t notice that the variables around my own dog’s calm had changed. The Jack Russell had broken into Zac’s personal space bubble.

Oh dog trainer heal thyself.

The life lessons I was reminded about the hard way from this experience:

  • Don’t offer advice, no matter how well intended, unless it’s asked for.
  • Remember to weed thy own patch before tending to those of others.
  • Don’t make any assumptions about anything while your dog is off lead.
  • And lastly, always love your dog, no matter how much they embarrass you!

Why punishment could be deadly

A Pedadoggy reader gave me the loan of a really great book that was produced after the devastating 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand, called Quake Dogs. The heart-warming photos and stories cover the inspirational working dogs that tirelessly sniffed the rubble to try to find survivors, as well as the many pets, most of who were home alone at the time, when the earth rumbled, shook and tore open.

These dogs were lucky to escape with their lives but almost all have been left with psychological scars that remain with them from that day.

I was very troubled about one story however. It wasn’t the earthquake that very nearly killed this dog, but poor advice from a dog trainer. Prior to the first quake in 2010, a one-year old collie called Adam “had severe separation anxiety disorder and would chew everything available when Dan (the owner) left him. He chewed CDs, the stairwell, the carpet and an entire couch. Nothing Dan did seemed to stop Adam’s behaviour, so he asked a dog trainer for advice.”

Great call by the owner – get an expert in to help. But check out what the trainer recommended for a dog that clearly needed support. “The trainer told Dan that while he was physically looking after the dogs (Adam and Tara) very well, he was treating them like children instead of dogs.”

The advice allegedly given was for him to eat before his dogs, enter doorways before them and to keep them behind them on their leads when out walking. Unfortunately typical advice for someone following outdated methods of dog training that advocate for dominance and punishment.

The near-fatal call, however, was: “Most importantly, Tara and Adam were absolutely not, to sleep on Dan’s bed or even in his room.”

It’s reported in the story that the owner went to bed that night, only allowing Tara into the room and closing the door on poor Adam. Just after 4am that morning the house began to shake. When Dan finally managed to shout for Adam in the dark after the shaking stopped, the dog didn’t come. A bookshelf had fallen over blocking the stairs and as the owner started having visions of the dog being crushed underneath, Adam finally came to him. Poor pup, can you imagine, he was probably petrified. Apparently the dog now sleeps in the room again and has stopped chewing the furniture.

You’ll see that I often refer to the unintended consequences, of which there will always be some, of punishment of any type. This example very nearly took a dog’s life. Without knowing the history of the dog and owner, I can’t comment on exactly what I would have recommended. However, shutting the dog out and walking through doorways first would not feature on my list of advice.

That’s why I advocate for positive because a different approach to helping Adam, I am certain, would have had a far better outcome for his physical and mental health and wellbeing in the longer term.

Just because you get advice doesn’t mean it’s always good. Ask for and choose positive.

 

 

Quotes taken from and attributed to: Quake Dogs, Random House, 2013. All proceeds to HUHA Rescuing dogs around New Zealand.

 

Put yourself in your dog’s, erm, paws

If they could choose, this is what I believe most dogs’ perfect day would look like:

  • Roam the bush or park freely, sniffing at everything that takes their fancy with no boundaries.
  • Chase the annoying cat from next door and put it in its place for good. No questions asked.
  • Hunt down and catch a rabbit and eat it fresh, crunching into the bones and not sharing with anyone.
  • Take a wizz on the new flowerbed that the council has just planted, just because they can.
  • Enthusiastically greet every human they meet by jumping up and bowling them over so they can be licked repeatedly in the face.

Yet… we expect a lot from our dogs in 2014. They need to guard and keep our homes safe, but not bark when home alone. They need to have personality and be cute, but they may not jump up on people or chase children. They may not be fussy or ungrateful about the food we choose to feed them, but may not scavenge from the kitchen bin or beg at the dining room table.

So many conflicting rules! And then there’s the matter that they neither speak English nor understand the social constructs of the society we live in.

So next time you ask your dog to sit contentedly next to you for an hour at a café while you catch up with friends over a cappuccino, calmly greet visitors at the door or walk on a loose lead while ignoring the multitude of smells that are wafting through their nostrils and other more exciting options for them, think about what they are sacrificing to be your companion animal.

I don’t think we give our dogs enough credit for what they are giving up to be called “good” or “nice”. Or reward them enough when they do.

Just saying.