It’s no secret. The general consensus among most dog training professionals today is that labels like “dominant” or “alpha” have no real place in our discussion about who our pets are and how we can best relate to them. One need only look at the long list of citations at the end of this excellent blog post, No Such Thing As Alpha Dogs by Kelsie at Dog’s Life Canine Academy to see that there are plenty of research papers, articles, and position statements out there grappling with this topic. Phrases like “myth,” fallacy,” “old hat,” “detrimental to the human-canine relationship” abound. So I don’t particularly feel a need to rehash things that have been said so well already by many many respected members of not only the dog training, the scientific, but much of the veterinary community as well. The fact that so many pet owners are still in the dark about this veritable sea change of perspective among behavioral professionals continues to startle me on a daily basis, but then again, I just take it as a sign that–like so many other progressive movements and much of the rational, science-based discourse struggling to be heard in this country right now–behavioral science is simply going to take a lot more time to get a foothold in the average layperson’s consciousness. (For a great discussion on why dominance remains such a “sticky” idea in our society, as well as a great alternative, check out Kathy Sdao’s blog “Forget About Being the Alpha in Your Pack”).
My goal for today’s post is to bring the whole discussion into sharper focus around a single individual; because it is one thing to reject the concept of dominance in a broader sense on principle, and quite another to share one’s home day in and day out with a dog like Zydeco.
There is little doubt in my mind that even just a few years ago (and even in some circles today) our boy, Mr. Z, would have been called a dominant dog. Even among those of us savvy enough to switch from labeling dogs to labeling behaviors, many of Zydeco’s behaviors still seem to fall into the dominance category anyway. For example, when barking at strangers he stands tall, leaning forward, high on his toes, staring directly at the perceived threat. With his great big adult sounding barks and all the hairs bristling down his back, he looks skunk-like, and more than a little threatening. In fact, other than the mouth pucker, he pretty much looks like what, according to the 4-H Club’s textbook definition, is typically labeled an “aggressive /dominant” dog posture.
According to this WikiHow article “How to Work With Dominant Dogs”:
Some clear signs of dominance in dogs are pushing ahead of you, barking when given a command, jumping up on people and furniture, marking their territory by urinating on objects, mouthing, chewing and guarding objects and disobeying simple commands such as “down,” or “stay.”
Okay, I’m going to go through each of these in turn….
Pushing ahead of me out doorways so he can bust outside for a quick zoom around the yard, (’cause that’s friggin’ fun to do?) Check. Barking when given a command? Check. (When I ask him to “get in his house” for food time, he tends to bark directly at me first…Wooo! Wooo! Wooo!…And then, with a jaunty little hop, immediately scampers right on in). Jumping up on people and furniture? Check. He doesn’t have much access to furniture right now confined as he is to kitchen and backyard, but he has shown zero inhibition about jumping up onto anything else I’ve asked him to (which is not always a bad thing, particularly if you want an agility or search and rescue dog). Jumping on people? Check. When greeting me or anyone he likes, he’s all puppy hellos. Very normal floppy, paws-up-for-love-and-adoration type stuff. When greeting strangers, Zydeco tends to bark intensely for the first few minutes, and then goes all hyper-puppy (but friendly). If I don’t redirect him, just like any other over-excited puppy, he can jump up more invasively, sometimes nipping arms, hands, and even tearing clothes. Okay. So, I guess, double check on that one (jumping and biting). Urinating on objects? Nope. Probably not old enough yet. Mouthing and chewing objects? Check. (But, really, he’s a five month old GSD for goodness sakes! If an object is in range, anything soft, fluffy, moving, interesting–a leaf, a towel, my feet, a toy– it’s pretty much in his mouth. Annoying, yes. Abnormal? Again, not really.) Guarding objects? Aha! This is where Zydy would definitely have the average Joe fooled. When he’s got stuff in his mouth, he growls, and it actually sounds pretty serious too, deep and gutteral–right up until the moment you realize he’s asking to play and is bringing the toy right to your lap so you’ll throw it again. Is that a guarding behavior? Coming to give up the object? Ha ha! I think not! (But every time he does this playful talking thing, I do think of all the pet owners I know who really stress out about their dogs’ growls and often try to correct them for it–a sure fire way to create a guarding problem that wasn’t there before!) Disobeying simple commands? Well, Zydy is a super quick study actually, and as long as there is no overt pressure, particularly physical pressure, on him to comply, he’s usually quite happy to do just about anything I ask. He has learned most of the basic cues like sit, come, wait, let’s go, get it, leave-it, okay, get in the car, get in your house, hop up, go place, touch, etc. very very quickly… But the one behavior he’s still a little slow on? You guessed it: down. He’ll do it, but is definitely slow to “comply.” And, yep, he does sometimes bark at me too when I ask him for it. Classic, textbook, dominance issue, right? A dog who won’t lay down and submit. (Hint: actually, what’s going on is his down cue is just not quite fluent enough yet, and I also suspect that it takes him a few extra seconds to maneuver his gangly puppy legs into position too. He’ll get it. His latency is actually improving all the time).
What else? Well, when he plays his own games, he’s all devil may care wildness, careening around full tilt boogie like a boy playing Hot Rods or Top Gun (or Transformers or whatever horrible, violent, mass-produced media movie is big with the kids these days), roughing up (and mounting) the dog beds, chomping and shaking his toys mercilessly, destroying plastic bottles with great, gleeful crunches, drowning plushies in his pool, then vigorously “mopping” the kitchen floor with them, and just causing general mayhem. But is all that really dominance? Really? Or just good old fashioned puppy high jinx?
So, maybe the super playfulness is mostly just puppy high jinx. When meeting dogs, however, the dominance issue gets a little more difficult to shake. When he sees a new dog, Zydy’s first reaction is to bark his fool head off, then (after calming himself–because my rule for him is that only calm dogs get to play), when released, he can alternate between highly appropriate puppy behavior and a highly annoying, extremely persistent habit of mounting, as well as what many trainers call T-ing up with head and paws over the top of the other dog’s neck and back. Needless to say, although there have been a couple moments of very nice play for him during these visits, most of the dogs we have attempted to socialize him with have spent a good amount of time snarking at him to QUIT IT! A reaction which, unfortunately, he seems to find stimulating (i.e. reinforcing), and which usually just makes him come right back for more…But I have to say, in my professional opinion, even when I’ve had to physically pull him away from the dog he is persistently accosting, even then, I still don’t think “dominance issue” so much as “impulsivity issue.” When Zydy’s got his head together, meaning, when he’s under-threshold and calm, he’s perfect. Even around dogs, he can stay focused, accept treats, lay on his relax mat, play with tug toys, and even self-regulate and settle himself down in his ex-pen…It’s only when his arousal level skyrockets, that you’d better look out, because at that point it is certainly humpty-dumpty, barky-lungy time. The good news is, impulse control can be taught. The trick is doing it gradually enough, with better set ups for mellower, more structured interactions such as more parallel walks with dogs rather than unstructured free-for-all play for now, that we don’t cause so much frustration that Zydy ends up becoming aggressive to dogs in the long run.
Similarly to when dogs say QUIT IT!, when sensing a correction, or even a flare of grumpiness from a human, it’s true he is likely to bark right back in your face or, on occasion, even leap up, teeth flashing, in what seems to be a pretty provocative way…Now, I want to stop right here and stress that I have never once felt threatened by anything Zydeco has done, and I’ve also never felt that any of the dogs or people I have introduced him to were in any danger whatsoever (besides maybe being overly pestered, jumped on and puppy nipped). As someone who works with truly aggressive dogs regularly, I honestly do trust myself to be able to tell the difference between a puppy losing control of himself and a dog ready to take another dog out at this point. However, I also definitely get a sense with Zydeco that if the relationship we had with him was more pet owner /dominance-trainer typical (i.e. more confrontational), and push came to shove, as he matured, he’d eventually make good on the promise of those pearly whites.
So, if not alpha, what the heck do we call this constellation of behaviors then? Without the easy convenience of labels, it can be hard. And if Zydeco is so over the top sometimes, how is it even possible to teach him to behave without corrections? I mean, positive reinforcement might be great for cute tricks and well mannered dogs, but doesn’t a puppy like this need a firmer hand? Well, although I do love to wax poetic as you can tell, sometimes I feel words are simply not adequate enough. Here is a video of Zydeco’s Greatest Hits so he can speak for himself. When editing I intentionally left out the more challenging stuff he does because I believe in finding success-points and building from there. What this video shows is that when set up for success, our boy absolutely can do it, and he can do it beautifully. Those “bad” behaviors in my opinion are just “growing edges,” things he does in certain circumstances, and things he can certainly learn not to do. Most importantly, those behaviors are not who he is. Check out all he has learned in just a few short weeks and then honestly tell me, if I had not told you of the barking, jumping, mounting, wildness, and nipping, would you even think to call this dog “dominant”?
So, who is Zydeco?
When I was a kindergarten teacher I have a vivid memory of watching a young boy hurl himself with all his might in a furious battle against an unlocked door clearly labeled PULL. True to his German Shepherd lineage, it is important to remember that Zydy was very likely intentionally bred to not only have a strong opposition reflex, but to actually be triggered to even greater levels of arousal by anything even remotely confrontational. Restraint? Limitations? Challenges? Danger? Bring it on. The more you hold him back, the more he’s liable to come right back atcha. Although I don’t agree at all with the use of dogs in warfare, our boy is certainly the type brave (or foolish) enough to run headlong into gunfire or explosions. Ask him to leap fifteen feet in the air into the deep end of a pool after a toy as they do in the sport of Dock Diving, and I’m sure he wouldn’t hesitate. Set him up in front of an A-frame, or dog walk, and my guess he’d clamber up in minutes just for the thrill of being up so high. I could also definitely see him excelling at Schutzund and protection work too. Being held back and teased until in a frenzy of barking, lunging, fury, then released to take down the “bad guy?” No problem there. (Whether or not Schutzund training would indeed be good for him, though, is another story).
So, taking Zydeco’s genetics into account, it makes total sense why certain intense physical behaviors like barking, biting, tugging, chasing, running, pouncing, leaping, etc. are super reinforcing for him to do. Basically, you could say, he was born to move through the world intensely, so when he gets to do that, it feels great… And what I’ve been calling his “bravery” that’s in the mix as well. If you remember, at a very early age, he had to be a survivor. Running the streets. Starving. Covered in mange. All before the age of four months old? You better believe he has good reason to overreact to certain things after that. Considering the obvious prenatal neglect he came from, plus his natural German Shepherd temperament, and the little touch of fearfulness at the heart of all that bravado, to be honest, I am amazed that he isn’t more iffy around other people or dogs. But no. He really and truly isn’t aggressive; and if we continue to handle him as we have been, he shouldn’t ever be.
Calling Zydeco dominant, simply misses all the really important things about him. For instance, you might completely miss the fact that our boy is a deeply affectionate dog, with a very strong bond to the people he loves and trusts. He greatly enjoys physical closeness, and full body, lap cuddles…Oh, and that shoulder lean he does against everyone’s legs (another on the list of dominant behaviors)? That is actually his way of saying hi. He likes to do the lean so much, I’ve begun capturing it with the clicker, and will eventually put it on cue as his go to greeting behavior instead of jumping up. His mouthing– which he can actually do with very good self-control when not over-aroused– often appears to be his way of connecting to the important humans in his life as well. In the evenings before bed, one of his favorite things to do when sleepy is to snuggle close, take my whole arm in his mouth, and just hold it and chomp gently in a very baby-like fashion. He doesn’t suck or doing anything OCDish. It’s a deeply affectionate, self-comforting gesture, like a tough guy feeling safe enough to show you his gentle side. The thought of anyone hurting or scaring Zydy to correct this expression of closeness actually brings tears to my eyes.
Calling him dominant also belittles how smart and surprisingly respectful he is. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, he has taken to clicker training like a duck to water. It is the perfect training system for him because the learning process is hands off, non-confrontational, highly rewarding, and it requires him to think. It is difficult to think and be impulsive at the same time. By asking him to slow down and puzzle things through, training in this way actually builds up the skill of self-regulation… And, guess what? He’s a master! Never in all my years of working with dogs have I met a clicker-rookie that could fast-map cues to brand new behaviors as quickly as he does. Although certainly he has his normal flitting puppy attention span moments, most of the time, when I set out to teach him something, it’s like he’s read my mind and is already five steps ahead. Every day he challenges me to think up new puzzles for him to solve, and even the more mindless things like running after a Chase-it toy he still tends to turn into an intellectual exercise instead of a purely physical one. I especially love it when he bluffs that he’s too tired to chase the toy anymore. He will even pretend to flop out in the grass with his head down like he’s exhausted. But then, when I give up on my end, and hold the toy still instead of wiggling it around, that’s when he’s up like a shot and pounces…And what do I mean by respectful? Well, it’s a two way street. When I respect him, asking him to do things like leave-it or sit instead of commanding, or worse, grabbing him, and he feels safe, he is supremely biddable. Biddable means when I cue a behavior, he usually hops to it jack rabbit quick–not because he has to– but because he wants to. Voluntary choice makes a world of difference in my book; and honestly, if you really think about it, why would a “dominant” dog choose to do anything I ask–especially if it involves stopping something or giving up something he wants, especially if he knows I’m not going to back it up with a threat? To me, when there is freedom to choose, and the dog’s choice is a wholehearted YES, that is far more powerful than anything I could achieve with a prong collar.
The dangers of calling a dog like Zydeco dominant are obvious. Once you put him on that nefarious pedestal, all that remains of the courageous and at times highly sensitive soul that he is, immediately gets reduced down to a stereotype. Instead of a complex individual full of the potential to learn, grow and change, now he’s just an unfeeling four-legged creature that needs to be brought down a peg or two to fit into the human world “for his own good.” But lets just picture for a moment what the dominance paradigm really might mean for a dog like Zydeco. Grab him when he’s naughty and steals things? Lip pinch him for nipping? Alpha roll him for acting defiant? Knee him in the chest for jumping on people? Scruff shake him for growling? Shock him for barking? Yank him by a prong collar, or helicopter him for lunging on leash? Are you kidding me? This isn’t the type of dog that will go down without a fight. He has heart. That’s what he was bred for. If mishandled in these ways, I’m certain our Zydy could eventually even earn the more damning title of “dangerous dog,” most likely after taking a chunk of whomever was on the end of the leash that day right along with him down that scary scary road where humans are not to be trusted, and you’ve always got to watch your back, teeth at the ready, because the world is not a safe or happy place to live in.
Fortunately, however, that dark reality just ain’t gonna happen for Zydeco. Not on my watch anyway, and not on his mom’s watch either. After a rough start, he drew the lucky card in life in finding people willing to bust their butts to teach him coping skills rather than correct misbehavior. As his honorary “Auntie” I intend to stay in our boy’s life, keep up his lessons, and continue to support my good friend and her family in the ongoing, and I’m sure at times exasperating adventure that will be life with Zydy full steam ahead. After spending the last three solid weeks, almost 24/7 with this boy (only two more weeks to go!), I’ve gotten to know him well. There is simply no doubt in my mind that even when he is loud and annoying as all get out, even when he’s acting a complete fool, this is one fabulous dog; and the very things about him that make him hard, are also what make him great. So, who is Zydeco really? My final answer to that is: he’s a “Z-dog.” Being a “Z-dog” has no set definition. To me it means transcending all labels; for it is only by adamantly refusing to let ourselves or anyone else make the mistake of calling him “dominant,” that Zydeco can truly reach his full potential by being allowed the space to be wholly himself.
Go to place is a basic behavior I’ve taught many many times, but I honestly never get tired of watching the light bulb moment where the dog goes: “Aha! That is what I’m being clicked for. Got it!”
Zydeco is quickly becoming one of those rapid-fire super-learners I was talking about in my previous post. He has taken to clicker training like a duck to water. This is one of those puppies that I’m convinced would respond to more invasive or forceful methods with escalating aggression. If he even senses any physical or social pressure, he comes right at ya locked and loaded… But because clicker training is so hands-off and respectful, look how thoughtful and studious he is while learning his Go Place cue. I particularly love the little jaunty twirl he adds each time before laying down. (Our boy does it with style!)
Zydeco responds best to quiet, calm, short, focused sessions like this, followed by more active play. Already he has learned the following behaviors to near fluency: Name Response, Recall, Get in Your House (crate cue), Sit, Down, Leave-it, Take-it, Touch, OKAY!, Let’s Go, Wait, and now Go Place. He now also has a default sit at gates and doorways, when he sees the leash, when he wants something, and a default settle much of the rest of the time (when he’s not playing, sleeping, or raising hell that is). He is amazing!
Once again, it has been an eventful week with the Z-man. My goal since Monday was was to prepare him for a park trip which we successfully took yesterday. To be honest I actually needed to get him out of the house in order to clear away the ex-pens, and so our housekeeper could arrive without a massive bark fest, and actually get some cleaning done. 🙂
In a valiant attempt to walk my own talk, I began thinking about this park trip six days beforehand. At the start of each training session with him in the kitchen, on the back patio, in the back yard, and then in the front yard, I went through my puppy foundation skills check list, working especially hard on: calm when harness and leash are put on, auto-eye contact, name response, joyful recalls, the “Let’s go!” cue, and of course, my ever-favorite, all-important, Relax on a Mat. For each of these exercises I used his all-time highest-value food and toy rewards to super-charge his emotional responsiveness to all cues, as well as to further cement his growing default habit of remaining connected to me. Our boy is a fast study, and for a so called “drivey” breed, he certainly blew that stereotype out of the water, acing and then generalizing Relax on a Mat just about as quickly as any dog I have ever worked with.
The whole point of all the effort is that once strong enough, these foundation behaviors will hopefully carry such a ginormous whallop of a reinforcement history behind them that Zydeco will be able to remain responsive even in increasingly more challenging situations. One of the metaphors I like best for training with positive reinforcement is “charging a battery.” Each successful repetition of cue–>behavior–>click–>YAY! (treat, toy, opportunity to do something fun, etc) actually sets the neural pathways in the brain for fast-track, consequence-based, pattern-learning in the future. This is why I truly believe that if one has to choose, it is far more beneficial to invest 30 minutes a day in training games at home–particularly with a youngster — than 30 minutes a day struggling to walk an untrained dog around the block.
Okay. Wish me luck. I’m attempting something usually impossible for me: a post in less than an hour. Lucky for me, a get to piggyback most of my thoughts on this excellent article by Laura VanArendonk Baugh called “Don’t Socialize the Dog!”
So, yeah, what she said. 🙂 Laura is simply awesome. Go ahead and be sure to read the article and come back. I’ll be right here.
Okay. I work with a lot of problem dogs. During my initial evaluations at people’s homes, I meet dogs that typically spend the majority of their first few minutes in my presence either frantically jumping on me, barking their heads off, even trying to bite me. Inevitably their often embarrassed and exasperated owners will apologetically say something along the lines of: “I’m sure he was abused”…or “I don’t think he was socialized very well.” The good news is that the greater occurance of the latter statement means that the general public is starting to become more aware of the importance of early socialization…. And this is certainly a great step forward from a number of years back when standard practice was to keep puppies in isolation for the first four months of their lives. Our understanding of the developmental stages of puppy growth and how that effects socialization has grown much more sophisticated, and that’s great. But more and more often these days, even these increasingly sophisticated, and without a doubt well meaning owners have been saying things along these lines: “We just don’t understand it. We took Fluffy to puppy classes…We took him everywhere with us and let lots of different people pet him and feed treats…We took him to shopping malls, and the beach, and the farmer’s market….We let Fluffy meet every dog he saw on the street and he seemed just fine…We took him to dog parks every day, and he seemed to be having such a great time….Why is Fluffy suddenly lunging and barking at everyone like this now? We thought we did everything right.”
It is baffling, and I do feel for people. How come they can read all the right books, go to the right classes, follow the proper recipe, and still end up with a freaked out adolescent? Well, if I could boil the most challenging behavior issues down to a single root cause, I have to say it wouldn’t be lack of socialization that’s the problem, it would be this: not preparing either yourself or your dog for the challenges of socialization in the first place.
I think in our haste to get puppies out there to see the world, it really is usually sink or swim for them and for us. If the puppy has a super stable temperament, you might get away with it, but what most often happens is either puppies are overwhelmed and end up hyper-sensitized to the things you are hoping they’ll learn to like, or they get ample opportunities to practice all sorts of wild and woolly behaviors that are just not good for them in the long run, behaviors like lunging and pulling towards every dog they see, jumping on people, barking at motorcycles, going crazy when the leash gets put on…just basically equating the outside world with loosing their little puppy minds.
As I mentioned before, puppies are learning machines. Repeat pattern of get-leash-put-on—-> WHOO HOO!!! We are off to Disneyland!… Or, see a group of children approaching, or a dog coming directly down the sidewalk at you, feeling nervous, and not being able to escape because the leash is too tight enough times, and, if the puppy is of a certain sensitive temperament, that’s it. It is really really hard to undo those first impressions once they occur.
So, what do I mean by preparing the puppy for “safe” socialization?
FOUNDATION SKILLS. FOUNDATION SKILLS. FOUNDATION SKILLS.
Take a little assessment. Can your puppy do the following things? (If not, don’t even bother heading out the door).
- Leash and harness on and off with no fuss, no leash biting, no nipping hands, just quiet, calm sitting and a happy look because leash means training time, relax time, and treats.
- Relax on a mat. Does puppy know how to anchor to a safe spot and can remain there happily for up to ten minutes at a time with mild to moderate distractions in several rooms of the house and in the yard? (Want to learn how? Buy this great book, Chill Out Fido by Nan Arthur).
- Name response and eye contact. Does the puppy have a solid reinforcement history (a minimum of 1,000 treats for looking at you, responding to his name, coming when called)?
- Basic leash walking. (Does not have to be perfect heeling!) Puppy can follow you happily on a loose leash when you change direction, and is non-fussy when you ask him to move in a different direction sometimes than he wants to go.
- A pre-trained Let’s Go! U-turn Cue (particularly important for excitable or reactive puppies). This is how you get them away from startling or arousing things without struggle.
- Focus. Can puppy stay focused, and respond to his name and Let’s go! all around your front yard or driveway?
- Is puppy relaxed and calm in the house majority of the time? (Other than regular puppy goofies)? Eating well? Sleeping soundly? Playful?
- (Human skill) A good understanding on your part of puppy’s all time highest value food and toy rewards. You’ll need to take these out with you everywhere you go for the next six months at least.
- (Human skill) A healthy respect for your puppy’s ability to handle proximity to people or other dogs. At what distance can he or she be around new people or other dogs and still remain responsive to you?
- (Human skill) An understanding of stress signs. Do you really know if your puppy is actually having a good time or not? Calm is not always enough. (Want to learn more about how to identify and mitigate your dog’s stress? Read this.)
If you answer yes to these things, then great! You are ready to head out for short outings to mellow places to meet friendly people, or just watch them at a distance. Here is a nice example of what that can look like when you’ve done your homework. This is a client’s dog, Ghilly, practicing Relax on a Mat on a busy street. Note: it took six weeks of foundation work to teach her how to do this. In puppy class she lunged non-stop and screamed like a banshee, so we nixed that idea early.
And here’s another good one–also a Bridges Homeschooler puppy client:
If you answered no. My advise is, put socialization on a back burner. Go back to your kitchen. Get a nice, big baggie of really good treats and get to work. (Don’t have a clicker trainer near you to learn from? Check out Cyber Dog Online!) The clock is ticking, but if you want a puppy that can not only be polite in public, but actually feel SAFE with you in public, these foundation skills are the cornerstones you need.
Our little Zydeco is an especially reactive puppy, and his life has been a bit tumultuous to say the least. He currently gets so aroused outside of the house he attacks the leash, and tends to bark explosively at all people. Although he is just hitting four months old, and there is some urgency to get him some exposure to new things fairly quickly, I’ve opted to err on the side of caution and wait. He’s been with us for only a week. He trusts me now, and seems to understand that I am the source of pretty awesome stuff like canned cat food, deli meats, and great fuzzy toys. He has successfully met several new people here too, as well as two new dogs. He is very brave, and constantly exploring and learning. He’s had a ton of new experiences in the last week actually–but none of them outside the house. Best of all, he’s been relaxed and successful through just about all of it…and that is the point of it all anyway.
Now that he and I seem to be grooving on each other, and there is some trust there, his training has begun in earnest. My goal is to take him on a short outing next Saturday to a very quiet park, maybe early in the morning. He is a sharp cookie. His foundation skills already coming along nicely. My hope is that during our adventure he can relax, stay focused, eat lots of yummies, play, and have as much goofy fun there as he does here. I will keep ya posted!
Hiya blogsters! I’ll be getting to the “Safety Before Socialization” post soon as promised, but just wanted to interject something here. My goal is to hopefully write shorter, somewhat less meticulous, but more frequent posts from now on. So, if I’m a little rambly, or less than grammatical, so be it. You’ll all have to forgive me.
Today I was mentioning to my morning client about this whole puppy board and train situation, and he innocently asked something along the lines of: “So, how does that type of training work? Do you allocate a couple hours per day?” Of course, I understood what he meant. For regular training clients I do charge an hourly rate, and then I’m out the door. Job done. But in this situation, with a real live pup scampering around, it’s 24/7, Baby! Other than the little stinker’s total collapse /crash out time which usually starts at 11:00AM, and goes until 4:00PM, there is no off switch. No time clock. No punch card at the end of the day. No predictable put your feet up and pour a glass of wine time (unless I want to start drinking in the middle of the day that is–hmmm…not a bad idea really :)). Puppies are non-stop learning machines! And when they are not learning, they are sleeping—that all important downtime I keep talking about which is probably when their little super-developing neurons are busy processing all that learning they are doing the rest of the time.
Anyway, so much has happened with Zydeco since his arrival, honestly it feels impossible to document everything fast enough. It’s getting a little frustrating because any time something cool happens, or a breakthrough training moment, or just good baseline footage where it doesn’t go all that well, I’ve usually got my pajamas, or underwear on, and by the time I’ve run my fingers through my hair and the camera’s on, the moment has passed. Training sessions for Zydeco are happening basically every waking moment he is in observation-and-treat-tossing range, and all of this is mostly done completely on the fly. There are canisters of treats all around the house, I’ve got a pouch of treats on my hip just about all the time, clicker always on the belt loop, fridge stocked with everyone’s daily rations dolled out the night before in advance (because, don’t forget I’m reinforcing the other two dogs for acceptable behaviors around the puppy too)….Oh, my kingdom for a small documentary film crew that could magically follow Zydeco around, catch it all in stunning HD, add the great soundtrack! … And of course do it all without upsetting him…Oh well, a girl can dream.
Just for posterity, though, I’d like to list a few gems that happened this morning (many of them before 7:00AM, and I am not even a morning person for goodness sakes! ). Most of it not caught on film, because frankly I just couldn’t get organized in my pre-caffeined, bleary-eyed state.
6:30AM. Zydeco’s usually gentle mouthing on my hands and arms suddenly got real. Okay, now I get why this behavior is a problem for people! OUCH! Up until this morning I’ve been trying out a very low-key, least rewarding response to our boy’s little oral fixations, holding very still and making my arms super boring. This was working fine till now, but these bites I just could not tolerate, or really allow him to continue to do in good conscience. So there I was in my PJs with gleeful shark teeth flashing at me. What to do? Hmmm, first thought that came to mind was: tether him and get out of range… which then of course quickly sparked a small temper tantrum about being restrained. No worries. We got through it. I kept all my fingers and toes. Z. experienced the hard truth that a chew proof tether really is chew proof. Lesson learned. Lets get puppy redirected more quickly next time onto something else to nosh like a marrow bone BEFORE he’s suddenly locked and loaded on my arms as his new favored playthings…and maybe a little more ex-pen time in the wee early hours of the morning.
6:40AM (Still no coffee yet!!). Tried to walk away to get the pot on, but had made the mistake of un-clipping the tether because I thought Z. was over the tantrum at that point. Ha ha! Clever boy! Tricked me. Now it was time for attack the feet! Yeeeouch! Okay. Okay. Nothing like needle teeth on bare feet first thing in the morning on 5 hours of sleep! 🙂 So now he had officially reached what I call “You are lucky I love you” status. I decided before I lost patience, it was time for a little crate practice. In ya go, buddy. Here is a handful of treats and a nice bone to keep ya company. But in his crate, Z. was not having it. He began scrabbling at the door, shrieked for about 5 minutes, then settled in a hopeless slump, sighing dejectedly, as if all the world were minutes from the end and all was hopeless.
6:50 Finally! I now had my darn cup of coffee in my hand at least, and all feet and hands safe….but what I didn’t have was a very good association going on with that crate. Z. was clearly not enjoying any of the high value marrow bones or treats I had put in there to sweeten the pain of confinement, a sure sign that in spite of his apparent calm state at that point, he was stressed. But at least he was quiet, so I let him out. This time he stayed mellow. No more foot attacks.
7:30AM While chopping deli turkey for morning clients, I randomly began tossing pieces in the back of the crate with the door open. I was happy to see he would still go in on his own, but I did not put any pressure on him to stay, or try to close the door. However, if he did stay, he got more deli turkey. (The new meat item had greatly improved his mood I noticed.)
7:45AM Surprise surprise. Guess what I had now? A relaxed puppy curled in his crate with the door open–all on his own. YAY! Breakthough! This I did at least manage to snap a few photos of.
8:00AM Excellent interactions with Maya (which I supervise so that I can click and treat all good choices): curving around her instead of body slamming–CLICK! Rising up to almost mount her, then hopping down–CLICK! Running full tilt boogie right at her, but then swerving at the last minute (the daredevil!)—CLICK! Sniffing noses, then going off about his business–CLICK! Responding to a warning snarl by play bowing and then shaking off—CLICK! By golly he’s learning to be a real dog! This session I managed to catch, but the jiggly, handheld camera footage is certainly less than elegant. Oh well. Somewhere in a later post I’ll show where he was with this a few days ago. The improvement is huge! Maya is actually tolerating him now because he no longer tries to use her as a personal trampoline.
8:15 Five minutes of a fantastic, quite joyful retrieve game with a paper bag crushed into a ball tossed back and forth across the kitchen floor. Excellent enthusiasm. Brought the item right to me each time. No keep away. No mistrust. Never once tried to eat the bag! Impressive! He’s a natural!
(Caught the Paper Bag Retrieve Game on video the next day for your viewing pleasure)
8:20AM Worked through a brief barking fit as mom came downstairs. Look at That and the “Hi Zydeco” greeting game (more on that later), plus deli turkey was very effective. In minutes he was happily taking treats from her and they were enjoying a tug game together. I was able to leave the house with him hanging out with his new “auntie” supervising. YAY! Appropriate socialization in action! One more person to add to his family crew!
WHEWEE! So, that was the morning. Can you see why I’m having trouble keeping up?
Safety Before Obedience
When I first announced Zydeco’s impending arrival to friends on Facebook, an excited colleague asked: “So, what training tasks are you going to focus on first?”
Hmmm…Great question because it got me thinking. Puppies are exciting, each one an adorable illusion of a “blank slate” supposedly to be written on at will (he he). There is also a lot of pressure to get on the ball and Get Things Right right away with puppies, because they grow darned fast and can slip into challenging habits so quickly. I also know that my five weeks with the Z-man are going to go by really fast. But when you’ve been living with a mostly mellow, eager to please, sweet-natured adult dog, a dog long past her puppy years like I have, it is easy to forget just how the heck all that great training happened in the first place. Quite frankly, apart from her dog issues, Zoë was a strangely easy puppy. No separation distress. No destructive chewing. Hardly any barking. Sweet and gentle with all humans. Quickly bonded to us. She was so easy and low energy in fact that I finally decided there must be something wrong with her. After some veterinary advocacy on my part, at last it was discovered that the reason she was so mellow was in part due to an under-active thyroid. But the point is this: I am first in line to extoll clients right and left about the importance of good management and how important it is to do this and to do that full time for their puppies right away ….But true confessions, I myself have never really had to work that hard with my own puppy–at least not with regards to regular puppy stuff anyway. So, now with Zydeco in the house, it is really my turn to walk the talk, because this little boy is a whole nuther kettle of fish entirely.
The first day I met Mr. Z, watching my movements carefully as he hid between my friend’s legs, barking fiercely, then lunging forward to snatch at my treat pouch, I knew he was the puppy for whom all the puppy (and reactive dog books) have been written. Nipping, jumping, mouthing, crying, barking, chewing, boundless playfulness, drive, pestering, pouncing, harassing other dogs, difficulty taking no for an answer, difficulty settling down, howling in his crate when left alone–if it is a behavior typical youngsters are supposed to do, our boy would certainly be one do it with five times the zeal, and ten times the tenacity. So, anyway, long story short, amid all the preparations this past week, I’ve been taking the FB question pretty seriously actually. What should my first priorities with the Z-man be anyway? Sit? Stay? Come? Doggie Zen? Leave-it? No biting!? Go to crate? Name Game? Leash walking? Targeting? 101 Things With a Box?….Then what about the plethora of different approaches? Which will be the right fit for him? Emma Parson’s Click to Calm, Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed: The Puppy Program, Grisha Stewart’s Give a Puppy a Choice…and what about Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels which I’ve always wanted to try, or Ken and Debbie Martin’s fabulous Puppy Start Right book? On the plus side, it is truly great how many excellent, force-free approaches there are available to dog and puppy owners nowadays. The down side, however, is it can be almost paralyzing–even for a professional trainer–to know where to start! But while I’ve been contemplating my options, one phrase just keeps popping into my mind like the refrain of a song that you can’t stop humming, a statement I learned from my good friend, mentor, and amazing trainer, Nan Arthur: SAFETY BEFORE OBEDIENCE
As I summarized in my first, introductory post, What are Z-dogs?, Zydeco is a certainly a brave boy, but he has had a rough start in life. Trusting humans, particularly men, is pretty shaky for him at times. Case in point, one night a few weeks back my friend told me Zydeco was so frightened by the surprise arrival of a handyman, he backed himself under a bench, barking frantically, and then defecated. So, although he may look like a little punk sometimes, with hair bristling down his back, his tail up, mouth puckered, all swagger and bravado, his surprisingly big dog voice ringing in our ears, there’s real fear underneath. Bringing a puppy like this into a whole new living situation, with new people, and into a home shared by an equally scared, and sometimes scary, anti-social adult dog is not a thing that can or should ever be done without great mindfulness. I knew that even with all my experience as a trainer, this was not a situation where I could even remotely get away with playing it by ear and hoping for the best. The moment I committed to caring for Zydeco, I also then became fully committed to doing whatever it took to ensure that both Z-dogs (and our ever patient housemate-dog Maya too) would not only be safe living together, but they would, to the best of my abilities, also hopefully be able to feel safe under the same roof most of the time as well.
The next question to ask then is this: what does safety actually mean in dog terms?
Sometimes it is easier to define something by first looking at its opposite. Things that definitely make dogs feel unsafe are: direct invasions on personal space, sudden environmental changes, strange or startling noises (and smells), changes in routine, and of course, any or all perceived invasions of territory, threats to resources, or threats of bodily harm, and I knew that by bringing the puppy into our home I’d be subjecting Zoë to most of these types of triggering stimuli all at once. As for the puppy, he was going to have to navigate a new routine, new people, new yard, new noises, new dogs, new smells–all kinds of stuff. When envisioning the management logistics, my main goal was to minimize the impact of these stressors as much as possible, and to immediately begin building positive associations right from the get go. It was also crucial to have multiple barriers between dogs at all times, as well as several levels of safety protocols in place ahead of time to ensure that the two of them would never get a chance to meet face to face until I was certain they were ready. Leaving one or the other of them in a crate or in a back room while the other one ran loose simply wasn’t going to cut it. I didn’t even want them touching noses through bars because I knew that the absolute worst scenario of all would be a set up where one dog encroached upon the other in a condensed territory like a crate, plus feeling trapped at the same time. Yikes! I have always fought like a momma bear for my Zoë’s comfort as best I could. But above all, the last thing I wanted was for Zydeco to have so many volatile encounters with Zoë, he became even more reactive to dogs as a result.
So what does this level of basic management for safety in a reactive dog household look like in human terms?
In a word: inconvenience. Number one, we humans just had to bite the bullet and temporarily give up a huge amount of living space to accommodate the necessary buffer zones between dogs, as well as allow for enough space for puppy romping. Luckily our house is big enough that even with doubled up ex-pens dividing living room from kitchen, puppy toys everywhere, and all the extra crates and dog beds, we have managed to fit it all in with minimal crunch. We are also lucky that front and back yards are both fully fenced but separate from each other. After the first day, I also had to add in visual screens for Zoë’s sake by covering the ex-pen barriers with blankets. Basically it looks like Fort Knox around here right now, and yeah, it’s a drag having to maze through multiple gates to get from living room to kitchen, particularly when I keep forgetting my phone all the way out of reach on one side or the other, or someone knocks at the door, but honestly, sitting here right now, perched in my temporary downstairs kitchen office (set up specifically to be near the puppy), surrounded by 1/4 gage wire fences covered with blankets, a contented, snoring puppy at my feet, a peaceful, snoring Pit bull in her crate just a few feet away on her side, whewee! I have to say, heck yeah, it is worth it. The ex-pens let us all relax and learn to co-exist more gradually. They keep puppy out of trouble and ensure the older dogs get their space. Whoever you are that invented ex-pens, I’d like to kiss you right now! 🙂
So, what are some practical things that do help a dog feel safe? Oh, yes, let me count the ways.
- A predictable routine–basic needs for good nutrition, clean water, undisturbed 12-14 hours of sleep, and potty breaks will be met without fail.
- A safe space to retreat to–either a cozy crate, or favorite couch, bed, quiet room, or sunny spot
- Well-practiced, pre-trained rituals in place that soothe instead of amp the dog up–e.g. go to crate when the doorbell rings, relax on a mat before walks, eye contact before released to a toy, etc.
- Safe outcomes–no force, fear, or threat of pain or discomfort in relation to people–EVER. No exceptions.
- Good associations the dog can predict and count on–especially when startling things happen, when training time begins, when the dog’s name is called, when an unpleasant husbandry procedure has to happen, when a new person appears in the doorway, etc.
- Complete absence of all deliberate coercion, discipline, or pressure—e.g. letting dogs warm to new people in their own time, not getting hung up on power struggles with the dog, no verbal or physical corrections when dog makes a mistake, no sweating the “small stuff” such as house-soiling accidents, barking, digging, chewing, stealing food–in other words–what dogs do.
- Clear and dependable patterns of reinforcement. If a dog expects a paycheck for, say, going to his mat instead of jumping on a guest, or coming when called away from a squirrel or another dog, it is important to continue to reward those good choices throughout the dog’s lifetime.
- Especially for puppies…the undivided attention of a human being almost 24/7 for the first several months (except when practicing being alone for short periods), a sleeping place close to family, plenty of things to chew, interesting things and fun places to explore, safe people and dogs to meet, or maybe just look at from a far, puzzles to figure out, lots of low-stimulation / downtime for growing, an emotionally safe space to learn, and lots and lots and lots of reinforcement for every little thing done right.
Zydeco has been with us for three days now. I had to take most of the week off. We had to rearrange our entire household into maze land. My husband and I both have lost a fair amount of sleep. We’ve given up all semblance of having an orderly household. Most nights I’ve been much too tired to cook, so we’ve begun to resort to pizza delivery and take out. Zoë has needed some extra support (which I’ll discuss later), but she’s figuring it out. Zydeco I’m proud to say is BLOSSOMING! He is playful, responsive, sweet, super smart, a little evil–all a puppy should be.
Stay tuned for part two! Safety Before Socialization
This blog is mostly dedicated to two specific Z-dogs in my life: my own heart-dog, Zoë, and a fiesty little tike named Zydeco that we have welcomed into our home for the next five weeks. Integrating a reactive puppy into a reactive dog household is no easy feat. As a professional trainer with two full grown and pretty well-trained dogs of my own, it’s been awhile since I’ve had to actually “walk the talk” when it comes to full puppy management; add in the complexity of our Zoë’s total lack of tolerance for most dogs besides her housemate Maya, and the management challenges increase ten-fold. I’m hoping that by documenting the daily ins and outs of all we learn during Zydeco’s stay, I will be able to enrich the journey of dogs and their humans everywhere.
As one of my training idols, Kay Laurence, once said: “all dogs are reactive dogs.” Similarly, a Z-dog could be any dog. Z-dogs are the master teachers among us. They are the ones giving out hard won doctorate degrees in being better human beings. Not sure if I’ll ever really get that thesis turned in on time, but after seven life-changing years with Zoë, and just a few eventful days with Zydeco, I definitely feel I am working my way through the practicum hours necessary for a combined Ph.D. in patience, problem solving, and soul-stretching for sure.
Meet Zydeco the Brave, a feisty, extremely lovable, crazy-smart, four-month-old German Shepherd-mix. He was found running in the street by my good friend’s daughter-in-law, starving, terrified, barking at every person he saw. In just a few short weeks my friend and her family have done an amazing job restoring this little boy to health and beginning the process of remedial puppy-hood. I have offered to take him him while my friend is traveling in the hopes of giving Zydeco the best possible chance at overcoming some of his early life-challenges and behavioral habits. Until now, Zydeco has clearly not been dealt an easy hand. For a dog so young, his survival strategies so far have included fierce, defensive, knee-jerk barking at strangers, stealing and resource guarding food, and intense, oddly mature behaviors around other dogs such as persistent mounting and escalations when told to buzz off by the adults instead of more developmentally typical, “Oops! Sorry I am just a puppy!” appeasement responses. However, in just a few short weeks he has already accomplished a lot, taking a leap of faith with humans again, bravely adapting himself into not just one, but now two different households. He is not an easy boy, but quickly wins the hearts of all who earn his trust. While he is here, I am certain he will have more to teach us than we have to teach him.
This is Zoë. Like Zydeco, she also was found wandering the streets at four months of age. For the past 7 years she has been my constant companion and a life-changing learning partner. Zoë is the reason I became a professional dog trainer in the first place. Her survival strategies when she first came to us were a little different than Zydeco’s. Her go-to behavior with people and most overwhelming situations was usually frantic appeasement to the point of grovelling, and if that didn’t work to relieve the social pressure, she mostly tended to shut down. Sometimes it got so extreme, she would look catatonic. With most strange dogs, however, she slipped quickly into a kind of Tasmanian-devil whirlwind, defensive mode. After years of hard work on both our parts, she has certainly come a long way, but she has never fully been able to accept other new dogs in her personal space to this day. A few years ago I gave up on my dream of “fixing” Zoë’s dog aggression and instead decided to focus on seeing to it that she has the happiest, most enriched life possible. Watching her blossom from shy, easily-stressed Wallflower into the delightful girl she is today has been an unfolding joy. Although Zydeco is the inspiration for this blog, and is a ridiculously endearing and exciting puppy, Zoë will forever be my heart dog; and I fully realize that asking her to accept this interloper into her inner sanctum–even temporarily– and to share me with him is a lot to ask.