Saturday, March 21, 2015

HOW DO OUR DOGS TALK TO US?

This morning I am sitting in a friend’s kitchen in The Bahamas. Their dog Boss, who sleeps with me when I am here, is not feeling well.

I can tell this, not because he came up and said “Uncle Jim, I don’t feel well”, but because of his actions. Last evening he just wasn't his ebullient self. He was a little…quieter. Boss is usually pretty full of himself, and this was remarkable. At time for bed the dogs here all go out front for last call. Boss, who usually goes charging out into the yard to scare off any bad juju, was reserved. He went out and barely left the porch.

We came in and Boss went directly to his little bed. Now picture this: Boss is a 70 pound Potcake. He could sleep anywhere he wants-but he curls up into a tight little ball and crams himself into a bed at least one size too small. At the foot of my bed I have a large yellow dog crammed into a tiny circular doggie bed. And there Boss usually sleeps.

But at 2AM Boss got me up to go out. That was unusual. Then he wandered about aimlessly, finally walking back into the bedroom and curled up again.

Where he stayed. Through my getting up, shower, some early reading and writing. He was not interested in going out.

Now we are in the kitchen. He is curled up in another bed, and will not go out. His respiration is very rapid and shallow, he whines when his abdomen is palpitated, and he is just not right. So we will be calling the Vet, and likely make a Sunday trip in to have him checked.

I am sure Boss will be OK. Boss is not, however, the reason for this post. Instead, Boss’ morning is an illustration of one of our challenges in dealing with dogs. That challenge is communication.

Boss can’t tell me what is wrong. That is one of the reasons I respect Veterinarians (and Pediatricians) so much: none of their patients can tell them what is wrong. They have to observe, infer, poke, prod, and sometimes even make educated guesses.

Apart from illness we have lots of trouble with dog-human communication. It’s not usually on their part. They are sending messages all of the time. It is we who are failing to receive the information. We are missing the message. As Benjamin Hoff says in The Tao of Pooh, “Lots of people talk to animals…Not very many listen though…that’s the problem.”

Lack of listening is the single most common source of the conflicts between dogs and humans that I face in my training, my rehab work, and the court cases that I am involved in. People don’t recognize the messages their dogs are sending.

Last time in “Mind the Gap” we talked about letting dogs make choices, particularly in approaching people. We talked about sending the message that we are not threats, and respecting a dog’s space. A dog that wants to maintain space is sending a message. When we disregard that message we get stronger signals, which may lead to a bite. And then we have the audacity to blame the dog for “snapping with no warning” when the dog was clearly speaking to us. The dog was trying to communicate; we ignored it.

Lack of communication leads to all kinds of trouble between canine and human. Dogs tell humans “I am afraid”. Humans ignore the message and needlessly stress dogs. Dogs tell humans “Please get away from my person-you are a threat” and humans label the dog vicious. Dogs tell Police Officers “HEY! You are on my turf! I don’t know you and you are doing scary things!” Police Officers, with completely different agendas, answering calls for help from the people there, misjudge the message. With little knowledge of how to communicate with dogs, they react with actions more suited to threats from humans and tragedy strikes.

We are communicators. We, as humans, are storytellers. Storytelling is, according to some anthropologists, the essential quality of being human.  But animals communicate too. Our dogs may not be able to tell us about the time they went to band camp and…. But they do communicate. They tell us their needs, their feelings, their worries and concerns-all in the moment. It is up to us to listen and receive the message, and then use that communication to modify our actions.

Boss will be fine. Boss sent a clear message. I noticed – and understood – “I don’t feel well and need a bit of help here. Maybe you need to call Dr. Grant and let us talk. He has stuff that makes me feel better.” Dr. Grant checked and Boss had simply strained an old back injury. He is back to his normal self, still curling up in a bed three sizes too small.


Our dogs are speaking to us. We have the responsibility to listen. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

MIND THE GAP

If you have ever been to visit London it is extremely likely that you have used the Underground (in American terms it’s the subway).  If you have, you undoubtedly heard the disembodied voice of the Underground saying “Mind the Gap”.  Fans of Neil Gaiman recognize this as a particularly strong warning, but for the rest of us it means don’t step too close, watch your placement, and try not to fall under the train. Not a complex strategy, and a piece of advice that applies well to dogs and dog bite prevention.


Dogs are not all fluffy cuddle muffins. Some dogs need a little space. Dogs can be wary of strange people approaching them too closely right off the bat. Many times people are bitten, especially children, because they have pushed too closely to a dog that is not ready to accept them.

You see, dogs have a clear language and communicate well. But not all people speak dog. Those who don’t can fail to recognize signals that a dog is uneasy. If we are trying to impart information to another person and they are not listening we tend to raise our voices. Dogs have a bit of a different path. Their body language can express increasing levels of discomfort, but we have to recognize them as such.  How many times have you seen a person that does not speak the same language as someone else start to speak more slowly, and even louder? Slow and loud may sound clearer to the speaker, but the listener still doesn't speak the language, no matter how loud you shout.


That happens with dogs. Dogs start with their own language: body signals. Averted eyes. Tight lips. A turn of the head. Maybe a lip lick, or a yawn. They are speaking ever louder in their own language, but we just refuse to listen. We have limited is choices. Finally (and this may go quickly in our terms since dog signaling tends to be very rapid) the dog raises his voice in the only way he can: he bites, or at lest growls, barks and lunges. The human gets bitten and everyone is suddenly excited as to why the dog “just snapped”, or became “vicious”.

How do we fix this? Mind the gap. Don’t close with a strange dog. Even if the dog seems friendly, let the dog make the final approach to you. Stand with your body slightly turned to the side, don’t stare directly at the dog’s eyes, and let them investigate you at their own speed. Slowly extend the back of your closed hand for them to sniff. Try not to loom over them. Respect their space. Let them cross the gap to you. They will decide-or not. 

If the decide not to come to you, don't be pushy. Give the dog time. It may not be personal. Dogs have their own baggage, their own quirks, their own personalities. We all have our difference, our different level of comfort, our own customs for greeting. As an American I admit that when I first began interacting with a larger number of Europeans, future friends and friends of friends, I was unaccustomed to the hug-kiss-kiss greeting. Honestly, I still get hung up on whether it’s hug-kiss or hug-kiss-kiss.

Your dog can have the same problem. Maybe they come from a reserved owner, who says “Hi Chuck”, gives a gentle pat and then moves on. You, however, ma be “OH HELLO PUPPY YOU’RE SO CUUUUTE I JUST WANNA SQUEEZE YOU SO MUCH…” and we have a communication breakdown. Chuck is freaked, has nowhere to go, and doesn't understand that your over-the-top enthusiasm is just the way you are, not the threatening advance of a total nutjob. One of you bites the other and the situation goes south from there.



Instead of trusting in the good nature of most dogs, or just luck, mind the gap. Don’t fall under the train. Make yourself non-threatening, give out good signals, and don’t step too close too soon. Let the dog choose to close the distance to you. You and the dog will be safer for it.


Monday, December 1, 2014

FOOD GUARDING: An example of how I do it. Without the ninja moves. Or the drama.

A while back I wrote about a video that involved a dog trainer doing his magic with a yellow Labrador Retriever that had food guarding issues. During this demonstration a lot of drama was generated and displayed. The trainer menacingly invaded the dog's personal space. The dog responded in, well, dog terms-he warned the trainer. The trainer then pulled out his ninja dog trainer skills and popped the dog in the side of the neck. The dog responded again like...a dog, and bit the trainer. From there it went downhill, with the trainer seeking "calm, submissive behavior" whilst the dog tried his best to communicate-even yell-I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU WANT PLEASE TELL ME WHAT IS GOING ON I DON'T GET IT YOU ARE SCARING ME and so on because the trainer absolutely positively wasn't listening at all but was busy impressing the camera guys and....

In any case. I wrote a bit about that, and that incident has been examined by a lot of people. But I failed to do one thing: I failed to show an alternative. That didn't involve any ninja moves. And didn't involve hitting the dog. And showed a bit of how I work. And didn't involve blood (because I am not particularly brave and use protective gear instead of trying to impress people I don't know and really could care less about....but I ramble).

So here is an example. I am working with a strongly food guarding dog in a shelter situation. I am wearing protective, bite resistant leggings and gloves because I already knew (like the other trainer) that the dog was likely to bite me but was uninterested in making "good TV". It is really pretty boring, which I honestly feel is the mark of a good training session. Boring. Gentle. Measured. Peaceful.

Here is the YouTube link. Please watch and then come back for a bit of discussion.

UPDATE:  I have pulled the link. As I feared the video has been shared WITHOUT the information detailed in this blog. Someone who apparently never read the details has become offended as to how "horrible" this short encounter is. Fact is that this was part of a longer session conducted with a dog in real danger of being destroyed. This dog (like any other I work with) was not choked, struck, mishandled, or physically or mentally punished. The dog was held briefly at arm's length on his lead, all four feet on the ground, while he pulled against the leash actively trying to bite me. The second he calmed he was told "good boy" and the leash went slack. I do not believe that passive resistance against a leash, preventing a dog from hurting itself or another, is wrong. Would you release a dog trying to run into traffic while you waited for a quiet sit?  I think not. 

So back to the original post. I stand behind the events and the process of keeping a dog safe while interrupting dangerous behavior and using positive methods to reinforce the safer behavior.
 

First off, the video starts after I have had an opportunity to meet and work with Jet for a bit. We have walked, sat, gotten acquainted, but have avoided treats because I already know that is a problem. Jet is pretty well behaved in general, and there was minimal drama. Pretty boring so far. The drama begins at the very start of this piece because Jet has seen a food bowl. He gives me some static and threatening behavior, but I am not punishing him-and I am also not letting him drive me away. It is time for the old behavior patterns to become unsuccessful.

The steel bowl has some nice, delicious, high-value, soft and smelly dog food in it that Jet loves. I do have Jet on a slip lead for control, so I can immediately redirect him as he comes after me and reduce the chance of him coming up at my face. I do NOT strangle him, even when he is trying to eat my leg. The lead is only as tight as is minimally necessary to keep us both safe. I would have preferred a flat collar but his collar was loose enough to slide out of and had no holes left.

I also want you to closely watch the body language between me and Jet. I am carefully watching my stance-open, often angled. I am usually not looking directly at him, and make very little eye contact. This is not a contest. This is not "dominance". This is the beginning of a partnership that can lead to safer behavior. I already know he can bite. I want to see if he can recover and be redirected successfully.

So watch again please. Look at eyes, body position, tension. Watch Jet's face, because he is using his full range of communication: ears, tail, lips, licking, showing teeth, narrowing and easing of eyes. Jet speaks DOG quite well. We are communicating. We have started down the road to recovery.

............

OK. Enough watching. You can see that the basis of this is 1) approach the target. 2) interrupt the negative behavior at the earliest chance. 3) Redirect the dog to a calmer, acceptable behavior that I can live with-generally a sit. 4) Make it so the undesirable behavior is unsuccessful - Jet cannot hurt me or drive me away. 5) Reinforce the acceptable behavior and 6) take breaks often to let Jet decompress and relax a bit whenever things get tense. Don't just keep pushing-all that does is show the dog you are a bully.

Please remember-this is a severe case and I have a lot of experience. This is not a technique for everyone-it is just one of the techniques that I use. I am WEARING SAFETY GEAR since I am NOT BITE PROOF and I am trying not to be FOOLISH. I am not trying to prove anything-I am trying to help the dog. If you try anything remotely like this you are completely on your own and I take absolutely no responsibility for you or your client or the dog or anyone else. I have no control over what you or the dog do-and there are some dogs that, due to size or other factors, will simply eat you no matter what.

And don't ever chase a dog into a corner to prove you are Billy Badboy. That is just dumb.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

DOG AGGRESSION AND THE POLICE. Not the band silly....

Dogs and cops. Cops and dogs. Owners and agencies. They seem to be coming into conflict far too often these days.

Are dog shootings rising? Are there more threats to police officers, and are they valid? Is this conflict a long-standing one that is being broadcast more because of the power of social media, blogs, and the opportunity for everyone to be heard by a large Internet audience?

To understand the potential reasons for conflict here we have to first understand what we are talking about. In my classes we often talk about aggression. What is it? Why is it? What do we do about it?

This is information that all of us, police officers included, need to better grasp to understand how we can avoid needlessly escalated conflicts between dogs and people.

So let's first look at what aggression is-and isn't.

Aggression ISN'T: Meanness. Jealousy. Anger. A disease to be treated. A pestilence to be exterminated. Aggressive dogs are not evil, hateful, or natural killers.

Aggression is simply one behavior that a dog-or any organism-can use to change or manipulate it's environment. And behavior is just something that an organism does, an action. So aggression is nothing more than one possible thing that a dog can do to change the things around it.

This may sound pretty simple, but too many people miss this and assign aggression wider and deeper emotional baggage than it deserves.

Let's start with a simple case. An organism (we'll call it George) is happily bumbling through the forest. Suddenly something scary pops up. George doesn't know what it is but it's scary. So George's best response here to make sure he lives another day to make more little Georges is to RUN AWAY.

But George was not paying attention and he wound up right up against a BIG chunk of rock and has nowhere to run. The scary thing is between him and running room.

So George tries for a second to freeze and make believe he's not there, hoping the scary thing might not notice him. But George is purple and yellow striped with orange spots, so that's not gonna work.

So George has one option (other than, he fears, being eaten): Act as big and scary as he possibly can so the scary thing decides to run away and leave George alone.

So George acts "aggressive". He makes a lot of noise, shows whatever weapons he has at his disposal (like teeth, claws, a knife in his pocket...) and acts REALLY REALLY TOUGH. His body goes through some physical changes. His blood pressure goes up, his heart beats faster, his body systems change what they are doing to give him lots of energy to let him fight (or even better RUN AWAY if he gets the opening). Meanwhile inside he is really hoping that he doesn't have to prove any of this. After all, if you fight there is a really good chance that even if you win you will get hurt. And hurt is not fun. Hurt can make George incapable of making little Georges, which is the whole point of George's existence anyhow. Fighting isn't good.

There will be one of a few outcomes here. Either George gets seriously injured, killed, or eaten, OR George scares the scary thing back enough that he gets room to run away. Or the scary thing runs away. In either case, George goes one way and the scary thing goes another, and George lives to go home, tell his buddies the story, and make more little Georges. In technical terms, George's behavior has succeeded.

So what does this have to do with your dog? Your dog is George (minus the purple and yellow stripes with orange spots I hope). Your dog sees the world in similar basic terms to everything else out there. If you are scared you can either run away, freeze and hide, or fight. And if it comes to fighting, your best bet is to look REALLY SCARY so the other thing/dog/monster/person/scary thing figures you might be too scary to fight with and exercises it's own option to run away.

So that long explanation gives us a hint at what dogs want to achieve with an aggressive display (the fancy term for all the noise and bluster that they use to try and be scarier than the scary thing). They want to either get a scary thing to run away or get the chance to run away themselves. Or, as a last option, fight.

Now, what things make George, especially if he is your dog, even want to come across a scary thing? First off, he pretty much doesn't. George is going to be happy just dealing with Mrs. George and the little Georgettes-until they are too big to mooch off him anymore. George just has a few basic needs: food, water, shelter, security, access to Mrs. George. Basic survival needs. (We talked about this a bit two posts ago).

But George will take on scary things to insure that he has these basic needs. He will, in formal terms, protect his resources. He will defend himself against perceived threats. He will try to insure his own survival and the future production of more Georges.

When it comes to your dog and conflict with others, there are a lot of fancy terms and gradations that behaviorists, trainers, and others use to classify the types of aggression. Territorial aggression, "dominance" aggression, fear aggression; the list goes on depending on who is writing it. And there are, for treatment and analysis' sake, differences in the reasons for, and treatments for, the different types of aggressive displays. He will also occasionally have social disagreements with others of his ilk, but that is secondary to actual survival. All of this distills down, in simple, functional terms to this: the ultimate reason conflict happens is that your dog perceives something, or someone, as a threat to his or her safety or resources. Badda bing.

This we can understand. This is simple. Understanding this can make us, our dogs, and those who come into contact with either of us much safer.

Now let's put this into the context of our dog in contact with a police officer tying to do his job. The officer can basically come into contact with our dog in one of two manners; our dog is out running amok in the officer's world and brings attention to his presence, or the officer has to enter into our dog's world and brings attention to his presence. Either way our dog and the officer intersect. And the problem comes when that intersection causes conflict.

The first situation is easy to prevent: KEEP YOUR DOG HOME. The second takes some planning, but is doable.

Let's start with a common occurrence. A police officer is dispatched to your home because something has happened that you need to report. The officer's mission is to come over, get some information, and leave. He is not a threat to you, your dog, or the cookies in your cabinet. Your dog, though, wasn't given the memo. He is in the front yard and sees a strange person pull up, get out with funny clothes and stuff hanging all around his middle, and maybe even wearing a hat-which you never wear (you don't look good in hats-you don't have The Gift).

So George (minus the stripes and spots) sees the stranger open the gate. The stranger is coming into George's territory-the space within which George finds food, water, safety, and a comfy bed under which he hides his favorite toy. Since these things all mean lots to George, he is nervous that the stranger is coming to take one-or more-of them away. He may become anxious. He may even decide that the stranger is going to deprive him of something. So he runs out to check what the stranger is up to. He may even bark to warn the stranger that this is George's place and George is determined to keep all his stuff. Especially the toy under his bed.

The officer-the stranger-has choices. He can be aware of George's needs and the reason for his reactions and adjust his actions accordingly. An understanding officer who has been trained to be aware and compassionate will take a few seconds to interact with George in a positive manner. He will use his body position, his voice, and his overall actions to send a clear message to George: "I am not a threat to you. I am not going to take your food, shelter, or the toy you have under your comfy bed. I, in fact, might just add to the people who are your friends and just might have a cookie or a pet or a friendly word. We can be buddies."

George may or may not have had positive interactions with other strangers, but either way George will start to turn down his reaction. George is getting good messages from the officer. The officer is not approaching directly; he is not staring into George's eyes; he is not making sudden movements. In fact, the officer is sending neutral or even deescalation signals to George,and George begins to relax. At this point the officer has responded to George's signals, things are calming down, and everyone winds up able to continue their jobs. George has made sure his stuff is secure, the officer has taken his report, and at the end George gets to go back to his bed and snuggle with his favorite toy.

This contact is ideal, and it happens all over, every day, with all kinds of dogs and owners and officers and postmen and electric company workers and situations and homes and toys.

But sometimes it isn't George. It might be George's cousin Fred. Fred is not quite as accepting as George. Maybe Fred has had some bad experiences. Maybe Fred is just not as secure in his living space as George. Maybe Fred has a few issues. Either way, Fred isn't George. Fred is determined that the officer is a threat, so Fred takes things to a higher level. Fred puts on airs and makes himself look way scarier than he really is. He barks, growls, bares his teeth, and goes to fully scary mode. Fred isn't going to admit he would really rather be in Philadelphia. Is he dangerous? Is he vicious? Probably not unless you push him. He is lacking in coping skills and doesn't know better.

In this scenario the officer is aware and recognizes that Fred is a bigger problem. So the officer takes a really revolutionary step: he has dispatch call the homeowner and asks to have Fred put away. Sure, he could probably take time and make friends, but he has other things to do today. So on a good day the owner comes out, puts Fred up, and they take care of business.

But what happens if Fred's owner doesn't answer? Or even worse, what if the officer is there on, say, a silent alarm or a disturbance call and calling ahead isn't in the books?

A well trained officer has a backup plan. Pretty much every police officer out there today carries pepper spray, what is technically called Oleoresin Capsicum spray. Or OC. And if they don't carry it they bloody well should.

OC is EXTREMELY effective in dissuading dogs. A spray of about 2 to 3 seconds directly in the face will pretty much deter any dog from closing and engaging with a person. And yet, the OC spray does not do any long term damage and the dog is fine in about 30 or 45 minutes.

The trained and sensible officer uses this information and plans ahead. He puts the spray bottle in his weak hand (so he can still get his gun in case of a real bad guy). He watches Fred, uses the body language skills he has learned to tell Fred he really isn't so scary, and uses his head to employ the other avoidance skills that he has learned. Simple things like giving Fred room and keeping something between him and Fred. Using any opportunity to separate Fred by closing gates. Worst case, if Fred does come too close, the officer uses the non-lethal OC spray and sends Fred into a safe corner of the yard. No harm, no foul.  Fred still has his resources, the officer has done his job, and everyone goes home with no new holes.

This strategy even works if a situation is more rapidly developing. Say Officer Friendly has to arrest Fred's owner. Fred is likely to take umbrage. Officer Friendly is taking his person (his resources) away. Even though Fred's person may not be the finest in the neighborhood, Fred's person has at least fed and watered Fred to some extent. Access to crummy resources is always better than no access at all. So Fred gets excited. And the owner is excited too. We as police officers are taught that the best situation is one that is not excited, but sometime we don't have that choice. But the non-lethal option is still top on the table. If the officer sprays the dog AND the owner-such is life. They will both be fine.

If the situation keeps getting worse then the officer may have to resort to an impact weapon like a baton. Just like with a human target, the officer has the option to strike Fred and get him back. The officer has the unquestioned right to defend himself. However, we have to remember that the standard here is that the officer is restricted to using only the minimum force needed to accomplish the job and to protect himself.

Higher level situations are happily much rarer than the low-impact situation. Most situations never get to this point. Yet we still have to remember that Fred is only responding to the officer based on Fred's perceptions of the situation, not because he is inherently evil or mean or any of the other human categories we slap on him. Fred is acting....like a dog. Maybe a frightened dog, maybe a poorly socialized dog, maybe even an abused or mistreated dog, but a dog none the less. The violent or difficult person is a jerk. The dog is just a dog.

This is where process and practice seems to be breaking down. The officer has a job to do. Fred has his job to do. Fred only has a limited box of tools to use-his owner has not prepared him for calm and friendly interaction. And Fred is a dog. He can't go looking for classes and better tools on his own-his owner won't let him drive.

But the officer has never been provided training on just how to deal with Fred. I know myself that, to date, there is no training in the Police Academy on how to deal with dogs. Or cats, or horses, or other four legged creatures. Their training is crammed with stuff for dealing with two legged threats, but not four legs. And we have to remember that people in general have a vast array of experiences with animals in general and dogs in particular. They may have had bad experiences with dogs, just like Fred had bad experiences with people.

The average Joe may be able to make choices and take actions based on personal bad experiences, but as police officers CAN'T DO THAT. We are expected to be professionals. We are expected to be Superman. We are expected to disarm a crowd of hostile people with a glance. To arrest the worst of the bad guys with a stern talking to. To help little old ladies across the street and then get the cat out of the tree.

But we aren't currently being given the tools, a least with animals. We haven't been given the training. We are lost at sea when we run into a perceived threat from Fred, because we haven't been taught how Fred works. Or how to deal with Fred.

And a situation that should have been defused and deflected turns deadly. The poorly trained officer responds with needlessly excessive force and Fred (or even George) winds up shot.

Why? Some times the excuse is that the officer was "afraid". My answer to that: tough shit. There are lots of things that we as police have to face that are scary. As I have said before, I am not crazy about high, exposed places. Yet when my job takes me to the top of a building I have to just get over it. Big people with knives and guns are scary. But we have to deal with it. When we react based on fear that fear has to rise to the level that a well-trained, professional officer reasonably recognizes as a valid, imminent threat and that his or her only reasonable response was deadly force. Otherwise-use the tools and techniques you have been used to address the problem.

And that is where we have broken down. The tools and techniques have not been provided. Officers have not, typically, been trained to recognize the causes of aggressive displays by dogs, and have not been taught how to use the tools they already have to defuse the situations that arise. In fact, they are lacking in the training how to avoid those situations in the first place. How to use simple, low-tech, basic strategies to keep situations at a controlled level. Conflict resolution with humans is trained. Deescalation and control using less- and non-lethal tools is taught for human conflict. But we have failed to teach officers that similar, if not the same, tools and techniques work with dogs too.

What is the answer? It sounds trite and like a broken record, but training is the best answer. Training from the beginning, even before the officer hits the street the first day. Training in recognizing the basic reasons that a dog shows aggression. Some basic techniques that will help the officer keep the conflict at a low level, and a few reminders that the same tools and techniques they train and practice repeatedly with people with also work on dogs. Voice command (try yelling NO! SIT! at a threatening dog. Surprisingly often it works!). Body position and presence. Separation and control. Less- lethal force. Use the tools. And above all, USE THEIR HEADS.

And we as owners? We have responsibilities too. Let Law Enforcement know there are dogs on your property. Put up signs that say "Hi! A dog lives here! Bring cookies!" Keep your dogs contained on your property. Give your dogs an area where they can stay separate from people who approach your home legitimately. If you are expecting visitors, put your dogs up. Control them so they don't run out-so they can't run out-and surprise someone that is not properly trained. Ask to be allowed to put your dogs up if the visit is not expected. A reasonable officer should not only allow putting your dogs away, but should have the presence of mind to ask you to put your dogs away. And don't tell the officer "Oh, they don't bite". Of course they do-they are dogs. Put them away anyhow unless the officer expresses confidence that he or she can interact safely. And then still put the dogs away-accidents happen.

Above all, stress to your local police department that they need to give adequate training. They need to equip their officers to keep themselves and your dog safe. Remind them that the deployment of deadly force against a dog threatens everyone-the dog, the public, and the officer themselves. Officers have been killed by ricochets from bullets fired at dogs. So have citizens. And bystanders.

I support Police Officers. I am one. I also support dog owners. I'm one of those too. Help me help support both owners and officers. Let's work on reducing the needless loss of life. And the wasted time on the reams and reams of paperwork these situations create. Responsible manage your dogs while insisting on proper training for police. You can't expect people to do a job without the right tools. Insist that agencies provide the tools and then insist on their proper use.

End of rant for today.






Sunday, October 19, 2014

BECAUSE I JUST CAN'T LET THIS STUFF GO UNANSWERED...

If you are expecting my promised post about police and aggression, please hang on to your hats. That will come Tuesday. Right now, though, I have to get on my soapbox for a few minutes to address an issue that just popped up.

A friend forwarded me a post that was on the Cesar's Way blog on October 17th. I'm not going to link to that post, but I will quote some sections here to try and correct a few misstatements that need to be answered quickly.

First off, please remember-I am not just talking out of by rear end here. I deal with LOTS of "red zone" dogs (and hate that term almost as much as I hate using fake mystical crap to qualify how a good dog trainer works), many of which would eat most trainers for lunch. In fact, they have eaten someone for lunch-they have killed a person. Dogs that Cesar has never met.

But I'm not interested in playing "my dogs are badder than yours". That is juvenile and the mark of someone you and your dog should RUN FROM.

Instead, let's look at a couple statements and the behavioral realities.

1) " A red zone dog is only interested in escalating the attack and nothing else." FALSE. A dog that is in the "red zone" is a dog that is responding to something it perceives as a threat. All any organism in full attack mode is interested in, unless it is trying to kill something to eat, is making a perceived threat go away.

If the organism is looking for space, then it is only looking to get space. If it is protecting resources, it is trying to secure the resources by driving the invader away. If it is protecting its young, same thing-drive the threat away. The organism only escalates as far as is minimally necessary. Any more is a waste of energy.

In a social dispute, the organism is only interested in using the minimum force needed to solve the social dispute. After all, if all (or most) social disputes ended in one animal wounded seriously or dead the species would die out. Dog-dog aggressive display is normal and is a form of ritualized combat designed to protect the survival of the breed, not to leave bodies in its wake.

To say that a dog exhibiting an aggressive display is only "interested" in escalating an attack is scientifically just wrong. Given another way out, a dog-or pretty much anything else-is only acting to achieve long term survival. The less energy expended, the less injury received, the less risk of death, the better.

2) "You cannot stop aggression with praise and cookies." First off, someone with a true understanding of what aggression is (hint: it's one of many behaviors. Period. Read Tuesday to find out more) would realize that aggression is not a disease to be stopped. Unwarranted aggression is an undesirable behavior pattern that needs to be redirected. Redirection can definitely be accomplished by using praise and cookies. I do it every day. Interrupt the unwanted behavior-before it becomes an avalanche-and redirect the behavior to an incompatible behavior. Reinforce (with praise, cookies, etc). Rinse and repeat. So yes you can.

3) "Remember: dogs want their pack leaders (human and canine) to tell them how to behave and what they can or cannot do." Mostly wrong. Dogs are hardwired for many behaviors, and are taught in the litter many more. Dogs just want to have their five needs met (see last week). To exist in a home environment dogs need to have boundaries set-but that has nothing to do with force. That involves showing a dog the behavior that is proper and reinforcing that behavior. You don't want the dog on the sofa? Don't beat him. Instead, call him off the sofa, tell him that "Off" is good, and reinforce him sitting quietly on the floor. Or on the chair, if that's what you want. Show and tell is so easy even kindergartners can do it.

4) "Where people get in trouble, though, is in using positive reinforcement without realizing it by showing a dog affection when it is not in a calm, submissive state." OK....point for mostly right. Lots of people unwittingly positively reinforce bad behavior. For an easy example: the person who comes to me with a small dog that is snapping and snarling in their arms as they pet it and say "Oh, Fluffy won't bite. She just does this" while petting Fluffy and telling her that she is a good girl.

Wrong. Fluffy is going to bite the stuffing out of anything or anyone that comes too close because the owner has positively reinforced the animal to display this behavior. So yes, here the inappropriate application of reinforcement has produced a problem-guess that shows just how effective positive reinforcement is. It has taken what should have been a social animal and created an animal that shows behavior counter to its own needs and drives. And yes, this produces an issue that I have to fix.

But the big gap in the above statement is that the dog is not in a "calm, submissive state." Get it straight folks: submission has NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. A dog can be in a calm, relaxed state without submission entering into the situation at all.  Submission is something that occurs in dog-dog social interaction. It is part of how dogs allocate resources and access to certain things. It is not the do-all and be-all that the male dominated, hierarchical society of early behavioral sciences insisted it was. Modern research show that canid groups are more democratic and less firmly stratified than we ever suspected. And ultimately - YOUR DOG DOESN'T THINK YOU ARE A DOG (again, see next post). Your dogs don't get together at night and discuss the issue "OK. When Dad shows some weakness, we take the fridge." This is nonsense that has been dispelled by responsible research. Time to put this "dominate your dog" garbage to bed once and for all.

So back to the post: poor or incorrect information scattered among facts is a really sneaky thing. Most  of the story sounds solid, so we buy the whole farm. But we have to use critical thinking skills and examine every piece. When one understands positive reinforcement and studies the basics of behavior it leads to realizing that positive, science based training is the way to go. It ain't magic, it ain't whispering, and anyone can do it. I recognize and value the contributions Cesar has made to the popularization of dog training. I applaud anyone's efforts that get people and their dogs engaged and spending high quality time together. I only wish that people would understand the value of positive, science based methods and would discard outdated methods based on fear, force, and misunderstanding.



Tuesday, October 7, 2014

So why do we wonder when these things happen?

Just a quick blog post today. In Detroit there was a tragic and horrible attack on a man by what is described as a "pack" of dogs. The dogs involved apparently, according to the article, had escaped from home and were running at large. The dogs were described as malnourished.

So why are we surprised? We have the classic setup for disaster: lack of adequate nourishment and a group of dogs running at large. If we in this country could just get the idea of proper and humane care down we would be able to avoid so many of these incidents.

We need to address these cases by looking at what my British friends call the Five Freedoms or Five Needs. They are not rights, but expectations of the human caretakers. The Five Freedoms are:

1) The need to be provided a suitable environment.
2) The need to be provided a suitable (and sufficient) diet.
3) The need to be able to exhibit normal behavior patterns.
4) The need to be housed with, or apart from, other animals.
5) The need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury, and disease.

Pretty simple, eh? No worry about giving rights, or legislating owner vs guardian. Just insisting that humans be responsible for providing the things that animals need to be healthy and properly cared for.

I will bet that the Detroit case reveals several of these needs were not up to speed. And it all comes down to a failure of the human. I hope that responsibility can be properly placed on the human who had a duty to care for these animals.

My sympathy and best wishes go out to the victim Steve and his family, and I hope that he can recover to best level that medicine can provide.

Article link here: Detroit man attacked by pack of dogs.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A DOG DIED TODAY. Because of a trainer.

Or trainers. I can't clearly put this in any one person's lap.

Let's back up and see where we are. First off, I am not going to identify the trainer(s), the dog, or the family. My purpose is not to belittle or attack anyone. Instead I want this to be a learning experience for other trainers and a warning to owners.

The dog was.....let's call it (not as a thing "it", but as a "I'm not telling you any more details 'it'") Stat-as in short for the statistic he/she/her/him/it became. Stat was a dog rescued from a municipal animal control facility by a foster family. Stat was initially a friendly, accepting dog. Needed a bit of socialization, but a generally good dog that needed a home and a few manners.

Stat was with the foster family for a bit, then on to what should have been Stat's forever home. Sadly, about 8 months later, there was a serious change in the new family's situation and Stat came back to the fosters. Stat was a little bit put off, but then settled back in to the foster home.

Stat was an exuberant dog that the fosters felt needed a bit of structure, a few manners, to make Stat more permanently adoptable. So they looked online, searched the area, and found what looked like a reputable trainer. There was a cool website. There were testimonials. There were nice pictures. There was a list of things the person(s) involved had done that sounded good. There were no certifications, but the owners never knew there were such things for dog trainers.

So they called and sent Stat off for "residential training". The stay was supposed to be two weeks. The trainer called, and two weeks turned into two months to "fix some issues" that had come up.

The follow up instructions were essentially "here is your dog, here is an electronic collar. If Stat misbehaves just use the collar. If Stat gives you any problem, turn the collar up."

The fosters told me that the first thing they notice when Stat came home was the dead look. Stat's eyes just didn't seem to sparkle any more. Stat was more responsive and minded well, but something wasn't right. Stat wasn't as much fun.

Stat still gave them a few problems. Now Stat had become visibly reactive to dogs, animals, and humans. Stat barked and lunged. Sit and down were fine, but walks were becoming an ordeal. The wife, a small framed woman, was concerned she couldn't hold Stat if something "went wrong".

So they called in other trainers. A total of five, including the first one. And their answer was always "if there are any problems, just turn up the collar." All five were full on e-collar trainers, and not one of them proposed any other possible solution.

The family began blaming themselves. Stat was an absolute love in the house with them, but if anyone entered the house or even came into the yard Stat became more and more visibly agitated. Walking became an impossibility due to the reactivity and increasingly aggressive displays. One day the male foster parent was walking Stat when a person passed in the other direction. The man had placed Stat on his right as the oncomer passed to the left for security, but Stat lunged across the foster and tried to bite the passerby, nicking him slightly.

At this point the fosters called a friend who runs a local rescue. They were looking for professional help that could solve their problems,not make them worse. The rescue person had them call straight away.

I was in Texas on three different cases. I spoke to them, told them I would try and help, and arranged to meet them when I got back. The three Texas cases bled into a case in New York city, but today I finally connected and met Stat.

I started by discussing the issues with the fosters out in the front yard. In order to try and not make Stat anxious with a strange person in the house (something they identified as particularly an issue-they had not been able to have company in some time) Stat came out to meet me. I kept my body position neutral, angled, voice soft, not meeting eyes. I let Stat come and close the distance between us. I extended a closed hand out to sniff, with a tiny piece of treat between two knuckles so Stat could sniff and get a reward. And he bit me. Hard. In the hand. Full engagement, top and bottom, with moderate force.

And that was just the first bite. Four more times Stat bit me. All except the one to the pants leg from behind were full Level 4 bites, full engagement, not as much strength as possible but definitely not holding much back.

No, I am not in the hospital. Remember how I have preached about protective gear? Today it was the difference between a rough day and a crisis. Kevlar gloves, a Kevlar sleeve, and the Kevlar combo pants that I developed with a manufacturer (more on that later...for now we return to Stat.).

Every time Stat engaged I saw the warnings but they were subtle and fast. Zero to ninety in less than a second. Each time I was relatively neutral, not challenging, and trying to make friends. And every time, right after the bite, Stat sat there chattering teeth and drooling.

Stat was afraid. Mortally afraid. Not cowering, but sitting and chattering, waiting for the hammer to drop and for pain to arrive.

The fosters and I talked quite a long while. The fosters were dedicated, but were out of their depth. Stat was great with them, but was terrified of others, and instead of reverting to the fly part of fight or fly, Stat had learned that there was no fly option. Stat had been treated with aversive methods so often in the past where anyone could be a threat at any time. Threats never had a consistent look to Stat-they were anyone not the fosters. A passing pedestrian. A friendly stranger. Next possibly a child with no awareness-or no manners.

The fosters and I had a long, hard talk. I kept trying to softly make contact. Stat would take treats easily, confidently, sitting looking like the world's most friendly dog. And then suddenly the storm hit and there was a strong, dedicated bite. Again.

Stat was clearly dangerous. Stat had lost the ability to cope without violence-or had that ability purged under fire. Stat had been taken from a personable dog that just needed a bit of guidance to a dog into whom violence had been burned. I am usually very slow to recommend death as an option for a dog with even severe behavior problems, but in this case it was up front and center.

After talking over all the options the fosters decided, and I concurred, that Stat was a danger with a limited prognosis of recovery. Stat had been broken. The only reasonable option was to put Stat down. The fosters contacted the local Vet and Stat was taken by the people Stat trusted and could safely interact with to the Vet's office to be escorted on to another life. At least this procedure was done gently, respectfully, and every measure was taken so that Stat did not die in fear.

Could Stat have been saved? In a perfect world, I would give a solid--maybe. Stat had been mistreated enough that extensive behavior work over a long period of time would have been required.  The rehabilitator in Stat's case would have had to be truly skilled, patient, and willing to risk injury on a daily basis for an unknown period of time. With no guarantee of success, or of even moderation of the problem biting.

Could Stat have gone to a sanctuary somewhere? Maybe. Given funds, resources, and a proper place with room. Stat still would have had to be isolated, kept in a kennel, limited in contact with others, maybe forever. I don't see that as a positive quality of life for a social creature that deserves a permanent loving home. (To give an example, I have personally seen one such facility where a dog was kept for years. The dog was truly dangerous, had no chance of recovery, and the keepers had to maintain the dog in a kennel with absolutely no direct human or dog contact. They drugged the dog every three months so they could clean the large kennel run, wash the dog, trim its nails, and give it any needed medications. Otherwise they could only shove food and water under the kennel bars. That is NOT the way I think a dog should live.).

Can I absolutely state that any one of the previous five trainers caused this? No, I can't point a clear finger. All five were force/aversive based trainers. Obviously none of them were the right trainer. None of them seem to have understood the principles of using scientifically valid methods. I am not going to share who they were. That is not my place.

I will warn owners of a couple concerns. When picking a trainer make sure that they are willing to discuss their training methods and give you clear reasons why they choose a particular tool, especially if it is even remotely aversive. A trainer should not have any "secret techniques" or things that they cannot or will not do in front of you. They should have more than a single set of tools in their toolbox of training techniques. If their answer to problems is just "Turn it Up" then RUN. The other direction. And above all, if they do anything that makes you remotely uncomfortable, find someone else.

SIDE NOTE: PROTECTIVE GEAR.

I mention above that Stat bit me hard several times. That happens sometimes, and I am never happy about it. Most often it shows that I have messed up. Bite scars are not medals of honor.

That is why I use protective gear. Folks have asked me what I use, so here is the current kit.

The first part of my arsenal is a pair of pants that Andrew Kater and the folks at ACES (Animal Care Equipment and Services) developed for me. They are a mix of Kevlar and magic (or some other fabric, I'm not sure which) that go on over your regular pants and look for all the world like a pair of rain pants. They aren't scary or look like a bite suit for training protection dogs. They have an elastic waist with built in belt and zips to get over your boots. They even have pockets.

Here they are:
Obviously the 4 legged model is cuter.

Now here is a look at the bite to my leg that would have been a serious Level 4 had the pants not taken the punishment: 

As you can see there was only a little abrasion and minor scratching through the pants, but no puncture. You feel all the pressure since they are not padded. The bite hurts, but the teeth don't come through. I am not saying that these will stop everything and anything, but they certainly do work. They come in a couple sizes and are comfortable to wear. They are no where near as hot or bulky as a full set of bite gear. And you would NOT want to use these for protection dog training as they are NOT designed for that. But for protection while training or evaluating dogs in comfort and safety, I'm happy. 

The pants can be ordered from www.animal-care.com, Animal Care Equipment and Services. They are $98.50 a pair. They don't seem to have been added to the online catalog yet, but just call and speak to Chama Gomez at 1-800-338-2237 ext 101. Ask her for my pants. Unworn. 

In the above photo I am also wearing the Kevlar lined leather gloves that ACES sells. This model is called the Humaniac Deluxe Duty Gloves. They are tight (which I want so I can manipulate dog, lead, and tools) and are thin enough that you can feel what you are doing. They are $45.00 a pair and come in sizes. My fairly big hands take a large.

The sleeve you can see poking out from under my jacket above are made by BiteBuster and can be purchased from their website at bitebuster.com or through ACES. They fit over your hands and forearms, with a double layer over the palm of your hand giving even more protection-and a thumb loop so they can't pull back and leave your wrist exposed. They are called the Armadillo Arm Sleeves and run between $25 and $30 depending on size.

And disclosure: neither of these fine folks have paid me for this. They did give me samples to work with because I won't support something that doesn't work for me personally.