Tuesday, December 29, 2015

For the New Year: resolutions and wishes and time.

This is the time of year when people go around wishing you all sorts of things, and then expecting you to make great resolutions about what you will accomplish in the New Year. Of course, we all know most wishes and resolutions are gone as quickly as the high cirrus clouds borne on the jet stream.

Next week we will get back to the serious stuff, particularly how your dog assesses life, their environment, and how you can work within this framework to keep Fluffy secure and why bad things are bad...and how being a jerk doesn't work.

But for now, I want to pass along a few wishes and maybe a resolution or two.  Simple resolutions are more likely to stick. After all, less effort = more success.

Here are my simple resolutions to make the upcoming year more enjoyable for both of you.

Resolve to teach your dog ONE THING. It doesn't matter what. Just one thing. It may be to sit when you ask, or walk on a leash without dragging you like a mule plowing a field. You might teach Franklin to shake hands, or roll over. Teach Sassy to look at you while walking whenever she sees the neighborhood cat they hate so she learns to recover from distraction and walk calmly. Teach ONE THING.

Resolve to try ONE NEW ACTIVITY with your dog. Agility, fly ball, obedience, nose work, dancing...there are a huge number of activities that you can try with your dog. Try one. Any one. Do one thing that involves both of you. At least once.

Do something for ONE DOG that is more than forwarding sad, tragic requests on the Internet. Forwarding and networking takes up a lot of time and makes a lot of people feel better, and may actually connect people and dogs in need, but GET OFF YOUR CHAIR. Leave the computer for a few minutes and do something. Drop off a bag of food at a rescue (and donating remotely doesn't count). Take a single day and walk one dog, any dog, at a shelter. Take brownies to your Vet's office. Take cookies to Animal Control to let them know that even if they aren't perfect you appreciate the things they do right. One time in the next year get out of the house, and out of your comfort zone, and do something for ONE DOG.

Learn one new thing ABOUT your dog. Read about body language. Look up the history of dogs and humans-it goes back a long way. Watch one training video and then decide how that particular trainer is full of nonsense and YOUR DOG is better than that. Ask your Vet about one thing going on inside your dog that you don't understand. Read a blog about pets by someone you hate and use it to find your own better way.

Now for my (and Petey's) New Year's wishes for you and your companion.

I wish for you and your dog good health, physical and emotional. I wish for the bond between you to grow stronger through the year.

I wish for you and your dog to find one new challenge this year. One new adventure, one new experience. Take your dog for an ice cream cone. Take them to hike a park you have never explored. Walk or jog a dog-and-owner 5K for a cause. You both could use time off the couch.

I wish for you good surprises and joy. I wish for you adventure and quiet time together. If you have an older dog I wish for peace and comfort and ease in their last years, and a quiet, restful passing if they need to move along.

I wish you snuggles and fetching and tug toys and late night barking at invisible ghosts (they are tricky those ghosts-a dog's gotta be watching all the time!) and a few (not too many) holes dug in your yard after evil moles. I wish belly rubs and cookies and chasing of tails (you should try it-even if your tail is too short). And if you have the chance I wish you puppy breath and tiny paws on the floor and puddles and chasing butterflies.

Above all I wish for you and your dog the gift of time. We have so few years with our dogs that we need to steal a few extra moments when we can. I wish for you to find a few of those extra moments to steal, and steal them greedily. Moments not squandered on distractions. Moments on the couch and in the car and on the trail and sitting curled up. Moments looking at your dog in wonder and in real life, not just snapchats and vines and pictures on a screen. Moments interacting, not just observing. These moments are moments invested, not spent. These moments are the snips and snorts in between all the other stuff in your life. That's what we and they are here for.

I wish you wishes granted and promises kept and intentions followed up, even if just once. That one time will live on long after for both of you.

These are my best wishes for you all. Peace, pets, and good sniffs.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Understanding perceptions.

It happens suddenly some times.

We are out, or at home, with our Wookie-like companion (yes, this is Star wars release week), and everything is going swimmingly well. People are greeting the Wookie, our Wook is happy and loving the attention, getting pats from strangers...and suddenly Wook gives someone the look and backs away. We don't see a problem. We get defensive and tell Wookie to go say hello, and Wook responds by backing away more, and maybe even growling or raising a lip to show just the hint of teeth. We get upset. Maybe we even scold Wook, and amid profuse showers of apologies we retreat, internally (or otherwise) cursing our stupid dog that chose that moment to go all Cujo. We don't get it, and we might assume the worst-our dog has suddenly developed "aggression problems."

What is going on here? Has the Wookie "snapped?"

Are we doomed?

The incident makes more sense if we understand that animals assess and classify everything they encounter into one of two default states: safe or unsafe.

Our pets, all animals (ourselves included), are constantly evaluating their environment, scanning for threats. It is not something we have developed as "sophisticated" organisms: this evaluation is a survival mechanism that goes back into what we call the reptilian brain, that part of us that is trying to keep us from being eaten. Dogs have this too. They are, no matter how brilliant and secure, constantly checking for survival cues. Threats may be learned or automatically recognized. The onrushing charge of a bigger animal makes hardwired sense. Dogs understand and avoid this threat. We also recognize big issue threats like this pretty well.

Some threats, or perceived threats, are less obvious. Our dogs have a fine sense of position and body language. Their hearing is different, with a far wider range than ours. Their sense of smell is phenomenal. They pick up cues the we miss. I have said before that I believe dogs think we are their “slow” relatives. Our dogs, while evaluating the environment, are constantly evaluating people too. They are calculating safe versus unsafe.

Cues, subtle and not so much, couple with socialization and training to form the basis for their decisions of how to act or react. We, as good owners, have taught them a lot of different things. We have taught them manners and guided their development as welcome additions to the social scene. We have nurtured their positive interactions with people and dogs, and given them clear but generous boundaries within which they are safe and secure.

But sometimes our Wookie picks up cues that we miss. We may never know just what they are: it could be the scent of something that lingers around a person. It could be small movements that don’t add up for Wookie. It may be pheromones that we cannot possibly detect. After all, dogs can detect chemical imbalances like a pending seizure. We only consciously pick up a tiny fraction of those cues, but have you ever met someone who just gave you the willies? That. Exactly. Our best buddy the Wook has picked up…something.

Just because there is something strange in the air, Wookie doesn’t get a free pass to be a jerk. We do demand a certain level of civility. No lunging, snapping, or acting like a wild thing towards people. We can, though, pay attention to the Wookie’s actions, and reactions, and we can respect Wook’s space. Remember that we talked about “Minding the gap” several posts back? If not, take a second and go check out that post here.

Minding the gap and respecting our buddy’s space is critical when dear Wookie shows that something is off. Forcing contact and the invasion of Wookie’s personal space doesn’t accomplish anything other than stressing him out-and maybe setting him up for future problems.

If you place your Wookie in a social situation and he tries to tell you he is uncomfortable, respect that. First, as Douglas Adams said, “DON’T PANIC!”. Don’t allow Wookie to respond with force, but allow Wookie to maintain his space.  Redirect him into a safe, quiet behavior and respect his reaction. Be a buffer between Wookie and the person he is reacting to. Ask them to give Wook his space. Tell them it’s not personal, but don’t push the issue. Remember when Wookie is calm to reinforce that response. He may well relax enough to reevaluate his perception of the person and decide to solicit contact after he sees your reaction is stable and calm.

We must remember always that our perceptions and our companions’ perceptions can be profoundly different. Acknowledge this, respect this, and pay attention.

Personally, if my dog reacts badly to a particular person, I tend to believe the dog.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

We are always looking backwards.

The late and sorely missed comedian Mitch Hedburg had a way of boiling things down to the their elements. One of my favorite of his shticks was about a guy that showed Mitch a picture of himself when he was younger. Mitch's response was "Every picture of you is a picture of you when you were younger."

After the laugh you think a minute: yep, every picture is a picture of you when you were younger. Pictures snap moments in time, but they are always moments that are gone. No one has ever gotten a picture of their older self. We don't get to look ahead, which is probably a good thing for the most part.

Yet we are asked to predict, to look ahead, all the time with animals. We administer a rank of tests that we then try to present our results as predictive of what any specific dog will or won't do in the future. We try to guess which dog will fit better in which family, or who is a better prospect for what project or program.

We have gotten pretty good. There are tools such as SAFER, Assess-a-Pet, and MatchUp, and others that are scattered all over. Each of these tests is used by owners and trainers and shelters to try and predict the behavior of a pet and whether that pet will or won't succeed in X situation. Sadly, some groups and shelters use these tests to determine, on a single trial, whether an animal lives or dies.

I use tests too. We all do. My difference is that I use the tests, generally, as diagnostic tools. I am called in when the dog has become a problem. My job is to find the problem (which may or may not be the problem described by the owner) and try to assemble a program that just might bring things back into a sustainable state. The big aims, of course are 1) try to keep people from being hurt, 2) try to keep the dog from being hurt, and 3) try and keep the family unit together-or if not, help them evaluate options.

Now don't get excited. None of us are "pure". I also work with a few programs where we select dogs that have varying problems and try to bring them up to "adoptable" status. So yes, I am guilty of trying to predict future behavior. We have to try and select dogs that show the ability to be kept in somewhat close quarters and are at least somewhat focused on human social contact. Sometimes we are dead on-and sometimes not so much. When we are on the "not so much" path, that is where we have to reach into that creative tool box (remember last post?) and look for solutions.

The point of this ramble is that we, as trainers and behavior consultants, have to remember the use and function of behavioral testing and evaluations. These, just like the pictures we have on our phones and on our walls, are snippets of time, locking in forever the situation at a specific moment. They don't give us a look at our futures selves. Yes, we can look at these pictures and get an idea where we have come from, something that helps us to make decisions in the future. But they are all in the past. Prediction, be it from a detailed scientifically rigorous test or from gazing into a darkened mirror, is inexact and mostly peering through the fog. The same goes for our clients. We get an imperfect idea of what their past is, and can capture an image in the moment, but our testing and evaluating is still peering through the fog. We need to remember to approach these tools as they are, and build from the information conveyed rather than accept an evaluation as a final, unwavering truth.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Don't be a cover band: The Dog Trainer as a Creative Professional.

For a number of reasons, most that have nothing to do with dogs, I have been reading quite a lot about people in creative fields and the challenges they face. Articles about process and design catch my eye, and "How they work" bits demand a click - even when they are sunk among other clear click-bait articles. Maybe I'm trying out new methods of being productive, and maybe...I'm just finding more productive looking ways of goofing off.

In either case, the whole idea of creative professional struck a chord, and it finally dawned on me why: we as dog trainers and behavior consultants are creative professionals!

As you scratch your head, wondering what we could possibly be creating when we work with a dog that growls at strangers, think about your job a moment. You are presented with a dog that needs training or, in my case, has developed behavior that is undesirable or even dangerous to the dog and to the humans involved. You look in your tool box and you find what you hope is the right wrench to fix the loose wing nut, and truck on your way. Case done, move along.

This strategy works for most situations, and there are plenty of trainers who operate adequately doing just that. After all, how much brain power and creative muse does it take to teach the average dog to walk on a leash? Most trainers have a "system" that they apply across the board. Many trainers have a nice set of nesting boxes that contain their sets of responses to the usual problems, and most times that works just fine. People and dogs are better off, lives are put back on track, and all is well in Pleasant Valley for the weekend.

But. That is not always what happens. There are plenty of dogs and people that don't fit big box training. Their special problem just doesn't quite match the program. Sure, a particular trainer may have a bunch of glowing reports from clients: "Oh, the trainer at Doggies R Friends did such a wonderful job teaching Flitzie how to sit and not poop her crate-I was at my wits end. Thanks to Progressive All-Around Animal Training Inc. International for their help." But what happens when little Flitzie needs more than a cookie-sit and some regular walkies to get her on track?

What happens is that owners often bounce around from trainer to trainer, never quite finding the right box to cram Flitzie into. And that is where the owner has to look for a trainer or behavior consultant that has become a creative professional.

To begin, according to much of the material that I have been reading, a creative professional (or at least a good one) is constantly looking for the hook, the particular angle that suits the client's needs. They are constantly recognizing differences, not just repeating successful similarities. If a client wants a template, a canned instant product, they can just Google it online and do it themselves. Instead, a good creative professional is looking outside regular templates. Not everyone is Coke, or Starbucks, or whatever. In the design world people like Aaron Draplin deliberately push beyond templates. Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative, puts it succinctly: "Cover bands don't change the world: don't be a cover band."

With truly challenging dogs and their problems, we can't be cover bands. We have to develop skills centered around problem recognition and solving. We must look deeper than whether Flitzie sits. We can't just say "You have to be the ALPHA" in an Arnold voice and hope everything will be fine. In the more challenging cases we have to look for the real problem, not just the issues the owner presents. We have to develop new ways of looking and asking questions. Sometimes we have to develop new answers for those questions. Sometimes we have to go beyond just new answers for old questions, but look for new questions. Although the statement is trite and worn, "if we always do what we have always done we will get what we have always gotten" is really true.

So what do we as trainers do when we run into these new issues? What about old issues that just don't respond as they always have? What do we do with that one dog that just didn't read the instruction book?

We become creative professionals.

We learn new looking. We constantly adapt. We push beyond the templates.  We dig deep in our toolboxes, and if we don't have the right tool we make one.

Making and creating are not just things that people with brush and pen and chisel and screen full of code do. Creating is not restricted to pouring over the sketches of a new product. Creating and making apply to our field, to our interactions with both dog and owner. There are times when the old ways and our comfortable habits are just not enough. We have to draw out new fonts, customize our User Interface, or even come up with a brand new operating system for a client population of one.

This is not wishful thinking. This is the future. This is our responsibility, our duty to our clients two and four legged. We may not be able to save all the animals in the world, but for one dog we can change the whole world.

Cover bands don't change the world. Don't be a cover band. Change someones world.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Frightened dog? Unadoptable? Not with this Angel.

In the absence of a recent post (mostly a mixture of sloth and being horribly tied up with my Master's Degree work-more on that later) I wanted to pass along the following article from The Dodo.com about one of my patients.

Angel is one of the dogs that my friends at Pit Sisters Rescue in Jacksonville, FL have been able to step in and save. Angel was fearful and withdrawn. Once she built some trust with me her real nature came to the fore: a loving, social and welcoming dog that needed someone to trust. Pit Sisters has stepped up for many dogs like Angel, and I have been honored to assist their mission. I am also very pleased that Pit Sisters has taken command of the TAILS (Training Animals and Inmates Life Skills) program here in north Florida. The animals in TAILS come from Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services and are dogs that are somewhat challenged in their life skills, challenges that have made them less likely to be adopted. Now, with the TAILS program, these dogs are learning manners and good behavior from inmates using positive reinforcement techniques. This training not only makes the dogs more adoptable, but the inmates learn patience, empathy, and skills they can use to make better life choices in the future.

So pending my next regular post, here is a success story. The original story can be found here

Pit Sisters is here:  Pit sisters Rescue

Dog So Scared At Shelter She Can’t Stop Shaking

By Christian Cotroneo

It was almost as if Angel could smell the despair.
Within moments of being dumped at a Florida animal shelter, she began shivering uncontrollably. Cowering and shaking, she was paralyzed by terror, unable even to lift her head.
In the video, the cries and barking in the background are deafening. This is what a dog looks like who just had everything in the world taken away from her. Only a year-and-a-half old, the latest resident at Putnam County Animal Control.
The video, posted on Facebook, was viewed more than a million times.
Among those viewers? Jen Deane, who runs animal welfare group Pit Sisters, sees Angels every day.
"I saw the video and immediately called about getting her rescued," Deane told The Dodo.
But had the world already sunk Angel? Was she beyond saving? When it comes to screening dogs, the group often relies on a canine aggression expert. When that expert paid Angel a visit at the shelter, she, well, exhibited very much the opposite of canine aggression.

"He absolutely loved her," Deane recalled. 
So Pit Sisters pulled Angel out of the shelter and found her a foster home, where she lived with other dogs. 
"She came out of her shell pretty quick once she was out of that shelter," Deane says.
And certainly, in just a short time with the organization, made her mark.

"We still keep in touch with her mom, who absolutely adores Angel. She's a very spoiled little girl right now."
Pit Sisters rescues countless dogs from shelters and dire situations across the country.