Welcome to Canis BLOGus

Canis BLOGus – Dog blogging

Who am I

My name is Laure-Anne and I am an English-speaking expat dog specialist based in the Hague (the Netherlands).
For a detailed bio, click on About me.

What the blog is about

In a nutshell, this blog tries to spread good science about dogs, and relates tales from life in the Netherlands’ dog world.

I am on a mission: spread fact-based and thought-provoking information about dogs. I am relentlessly:

  • busting apocryphal stories, speculation, fallacies and biased tales; and
  • promoting responsible dog ownership.

I enjoy delving into technical subjects and re-surfacing with an article that every dog owner can understand. I am hoping to make specialist subjects like diseases vaccination, genetics, more accessible to a broad audience.

So what qualifies me to write about dogs? I have done A LOT OF self-study, but I also have formal qualifications (professional and academic).

What do I write about?

My specialist subjects are:

  • dog training;
  • evolution; 
  • ethology; and
  • canine first aid.

I also write about:

  • Veterinary care;
  • Dog sports;
  • Dog breeds; and
  • Dogs in society (am a bit of a philosophy nut).

To find the articles

  • Click on a category such as ‘Dog breeds’ or ‘Dogs in the news’ (list on the top-right corner), or
  • Scroll down to browse through all articles (latest on top)

Write a comment

I love comments, no matter how short, off-the-mark, or in disagreement they might be.

You can leave a comment on each article by:

  • clicking on the title for the post you want to read, and
  • completing the comments form at the bottom of the article.

Order an article

I can also write for your magazine, blog or website on demand. If you want to order an article on a canine subject of your choice,  contact me and I’ll be happy to discuss your needs.

To find out more about my dog writing services, go to my Dog writer page.

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Posted in Dog writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Responses

It’s scientifically proven that… I don’t know

Shout-out about guest post on the Sedrick Vangronsveld dog training blog
By Laure-Anne Visele, August 2014
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About the author

I am a canine behaviour therapist and dog trainer. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training dogs for OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) or helping rehabilitate them, I read and write about dog behaviour.

It’s scientifically proven…

Sedrick Vangronsveld is a Belgian colleague of mine. He is a certified dog behaviour therapist and has practiced for years alongside being a veterinary technician. Check him out if you’re in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium and need an evidenced-based and ethical approach to your dog problems.

Sedrick asked me to write a short article on his website so I tried my hands at writing in Dutch. It took a bit of grammatical polishing up, but am happy with the results.

Check it here if you want to read about one of my pet peeves: people who quote fake scientific findings to back up their claims. Oh, and it talks of getting married to your dog trainer and getting breast-fed by a she-wolf. What can be better?

Enjoy.

Laure-Anne

Posted in Dog pros: a day in the life, Dog writing | Leave a comment

Dirty secrets: my dog is not perfect

Confessions of an imperfect dog trainer
By Laure-Anne Visele, Aug 2014
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About the author

I am a dog trainer, canine behaviour therapist and budding researcher. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training dogs for OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) or helping rehabilitate them, I read and write about dog behaviour.

Business card

My dog Rodgie is my business card. If he behaves like an idiot, I look like one. We’ve had our fair share of idiot moments. At the beginning, I would roll up my sleeve to ‘fix’ the latest gem but they just kept coming.

Still, we fixed quite a few over the years:

  • A crippling can’t-leave-the-house fear of traffic. He now barks excitedly when it’s time to go.
  • Running away from small dogs (across streets and back home, no less). He now calmly checks them out and just walks a few meters away if he doesn’t like it.
  • Less than perfect toilet training. He is now flawless.
  • Crying the entire meal to get a morsel. Still a work in progress, but we’re down to a couple of whines on special pizza night.
  • Refusing to budge out the front door because something scary could be out there. We now had to teach him to wait before bolting out the door.
  • Eating horse manure. He now does a beautiful leave it: he’ll look at it, then look at me for his reward for not eating it. Part of me feels the fool and part of me feels he’s adorable.
  • Rolling over in cow dung (don’t ask me why he never ate those but horse manure is fair play). He now stops instantly if I ask him – even at a distance and even if he’d started to dive in. I’ve never managed this with another dog: generally if they’ve started, you might as well get the mop and bucket because they won’t stop until they’re good and covered.
  • etc.

So we’ve achieved a lot together since he came from the shelter. And our bond is incredible and I love that he’s a complex being.

Nasty perfectionism

IMG_6639But yeah, he is still rather… imperfect. Particularly for a dog trainer’s dog.

I remind myself of what I tell my students: “Be happy with the dog you have.” So Rodge will execute the fanciest move but has needed what feels like a hundred thousand gazillion hours of training to get off the couch reliably when we ask at a distance – it’s still a work in progress.

Here’s another one of his sins: jumping up. If am around to remind him on time, he won’t do it, but without the reminders, he’ll try whenever someone reaches in their jacket when we’re out on a walk.

It started when this guy who regularly gave him food, dangling it up. That means my dog jumped to get it, and was repeatedly rewarded for doing so. I asked the man to quit it but it looks like that guy too needs a hundred thousand gazillion hours of training to get the hint.

Behaviour change can be a huge undertaking with Rodge as he has some learning issues. I picked a dog with baggage and knew what I was getting into, but yeah, we don’t undertake a new training project lightly anymore. So I got lazy and let some imperfections slide. Frankly, after 5pm, the last thing I want is to train my own dog. I want to kick back and not think about training until the next day.

Sure his quirks make dinner invitations with colleagues embarrassing as it doesn’t make me look all that professional. But at this stage, I am thinking of the huge list of serious behaviour problems we tackled so yeah, unless I constantly do a ‘leave it,’ my dog will smell inside your handbag if you leave it on the ground. He’ll probably steal food if there is any in there too. Live with it.

Accepting beats feeling guilty

So I learnt to accept some of these imperfections. I figured it would beat feeling guilty and frustrated. He won’t be a ‘teacher’s child’ as Bina Lunzer put it, and I can live with that.

When I come clean, most people tell me this thing in Dutch: “The plumber’s pipes are always the most clogged.” My Dutch is iffy but you get the gist.

Taking it less seriously lifted a huge weight of guilt and frustration, so, paradoxically, I felt more energized to roll up my sleeves once more and tackle at least the most mortifying ones.

I was in this ‘pick-your-battles’ mindset when the most sinister problem yet started rearing its ugly head.

When you don’t feel safe at home

When I first got him, he was petrified of men. After months of hard work, he would happily trot to complete strangers hoping for a treat. At night, he was still a little jumpy, but nothing extreme. But then he gradually started slipping back.

Rodge-portrait-binsHe would get startled if my husband came back home in the dark. At first, he would come to his senses if my husband then spoke to him.

But then it degraded and he wouldn’t recognize my husband’s voice and he’d keep alarm-barking. It was like he’d forgotten who my husband was. It only happened at night, and at first very sporadically, so we decided to wait and see.

We used the usual Desensitization and Counter-conditionning, of course, hoping things would then get better. But they didn’t. We tried BAT training (look it up, it’s really interesting) but that totally backfired as we botched it up – see the screwing up bit. We even started working with SATS (Synalia Alliance Training System, really interesting stuff too) but it became clear I was making a huge mess of things.

Screwing up and getting urgent

Being so emotionally involved, I made tons of bad calls: my timing was as off and I didn’t instruct my husband properly. My husband not being a trainer, he ended up rewarding at the most inappropriate times. So, we were well on our way to creating more problems for ourselves than we were fixing.

It kept slipping slowly down this nasty slope until one night, Rodge lunged and barked when my husband tried to put on his leash to go for their nightly walk. Something had to give. Now. The problem had officially become very urgent, and I went from dull worry to a sheer panic.

We had let things slip so much that my husband could not move an inch at night without the dog getting startled and barking at him alarmingly. And then it started happening every – single – night.

Can you imagine how the atmosphere was getting at night? With my husband who’s not allowed to move in his own home for fear it would trigger another fit?

An emotional journey

I went through all the stages my clients go through:

  • I trivialized it
  • I hoped against all hope it would get better by itself
  • Because it worsened gradually, I failed to see how badly things had slipped.
  • I didn’t even consider getting help. Isn’t that insane? I hadn’t considered it a possibility.
  • It took me forever to pluck up the courage to contact a colleague for help.
  • During the consult, I was petrified they would judge me – they didn’t. They were wonderful. But still I was petrified.
  • During the consult, I was hell-bent on not believing the techniques would work. I was so scared of another disappointment I felt I had (wait for it) “tried everything.” These are the very words every single client tells me.
  • After the consult, it took me A MONTH to open up the recommendations report: I was worried that if it didn’t work, we had to contemplate the heart-wrenching next step. So I finally opened the report and immediately closed it again. It took me a few attempts before I finally read it thoroughly and converted it into a list of actions.  SEVERAL DAYS to read a report? For an urgent problem?
  • When I finally had processed the report, I half-heartedly put one recommendation into place and quickly declared it wouldn’t work as I wasn’t seeing instantaneous results.
  • After a few days of this, I had to resort to asking the behaviourist to kick my behind as I was still paralyzed. How crazy is that?
  • Now that I’ve started putting some of this stuff in motion, I feel more hopeful, my husband feels more in control, and we both feel a little bit empowered towards kicking this thing’s butt.

I was trained to help clients through these stages yet, insanely enough, I was going through them myself.

What a lesson this has been: now I know what I ask of my clients. I have always been empathetic to their struggles, but I didn’t realize how theoretical my understanding was until I got a taste of the real deal.

What now

Rodge-coloursI took him to a vet behaviourist who confirmed what I already knew: he is declining cognitively and he is a very anxious dog to start with. There’s only so much you can do with behaviour modification alone.

He is going to get the full works to see if any other physical factor is contributing to this decline, and we are going to put him on meds to take the edge off the anxiety and dampen the progress of dementia.

And of course, we ARE going to seriously roll up our sleeves and put the behaviour modification recommendations into place now that it doesn’t feel like such an uphill battle anymore.

We have turned a critical page as I have had to seek professional help for my own dog’s behaviour for the first time in my career. But at least we’re going in the right direction now, and we’re being supported by wonderful professionals.

I hope we can accompany him in the last chapter of his life with as much calm and harmony as possible, and restore some trust in our home.

Posted in Dog behaviour, Dog training, Dogs and society | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Responses

Quick and Dirty interview with Jolanta Benal

Interview with Jolanta Benal
By Laure-Anne Visele: Interview date Dec 2013. Release date August 2014
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About the author

I am a dog trainer, canine behaviour therapist and budding researcher. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then got my postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training dogs for OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) or helping rehabilitate them, I read and write about dog behaviour.

About the interview project

This portrait is part of a series of talks with dog professionals around the world. I’ve interviewed behaviour-curious vets, certified dog walkersassistance dog trainers, and university lecturers. I have these chats to get you a fly-on-the-wall view of what goes on in the world of pet professionals and their various specializations.

About Jolanta Benal

qdtJolanta used to write and host the famous The Dog Trainer’s Quick and Dirty Tips podcast and weekly column. She has also written one of the best dog books I have ever read, and Dog knows I do my homework (Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy and Well-Behaved Pet). Jolanta is also one of New York’s most reputable behaviour trainers.

Read on for our chat about dog training in the Big Apple, the ups and downs of the trainer-vet relationships, and the role of critical thinking in dog training.

A day at the Benals’

LV: So tell me about your family life.

JB: My wife, Sarah, is a hospice physician. I could gush about her, but this is supposed to be a dog-related interview, right? [laughs]

LV: Certainly is. How about the furry side of the family?

hot dog hot cat july 17 2012

JB: Our dog Juniper turned twelve in December. He’s a giant pain in the butt. He is the king attention-seeker and he is so comical that it always works for him. He brings objects from around the house hoping we’ll trade him for a bite of what we’re eating. “Do you like this shoe? What about this squeaky toy? How about this other shoe? This plastic bag? No?” By the time we’re done eating, the floor is littered with his offerings.

He is unruly and sets a bad example for other dogs. I suppose this means I set a bad example for trainers, but the entertainment is endless.

LV: Any other animals?

JB: We’ll say “several” cats, mostly old. My dog Izzy found one of them, Stella, hiding under a park bench. Stella has never shown the slightest gratitude, either toward Izzy or toward any other dog. Juniper particularly likes our cat Button because she allows him to smell her anus.

LV: Did you adopt them all, or have you bought some of them?

JB: All our animals are adopted.

About podcasting

LV: How did you get the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast gig [a weekly podcast about dog behaviour]?

JB: It was the purest, most insane stroke of luck. My clients knew someone who worked for QDT, and knew they were looking for a dog trainer. I auditioned and got the gig.

LV: How much competition was there?

JB: [laughs] None, as far as I know. I always think “Thank goodness!” It could easily have been an intimidation-based kind of trainer.

LV: You’ve turned me onto other QDT programs as well. I really like Grammar Girl, and the Get-it-Done guy. I understand from my personal efficiency-obsessed friends that Stever Robbins [GID guy] is an absolute guru. So how does QDT get it so right when they pick their hosts?

JB: I have no idea. The woman who does Nutrition Diva  is a science-based nutrition person. No fad diets out of Monica. And the Math and Science guys are pretty good too.

LV: Don’t tempt me to subscribe to those too! I really have a bad podcast addiction.

JB: Here’s a dirty secret: I cannot listen to podcasts. I can read so much faster that I get nuts listening to someone talk about something.

dogtrainer_275x221LV: Here’s my dirty secret: I don’t listen to music. Whenever I’m on the road it’s podcasts all the way. Drives my husband and kid crazy.

So, how much work goes into writing the scripts? Please tell me you’re not ad-libbing the podcasts?

JB: [laughs] I write abjectly slowly. Each podcast takes about 6-8 hours from start to finish. Sometimes I’m really lucky with a topic, and the words just flow out.

You can write about puppy nipping off the top of your head. But I did one last week about Jean Donaldson’s bite threshold model. It was difficult to represent it in my own language because I’m so used to thinking about it in her terms.

LV: Six to eight hours of work for a five minute broadcast! It is worth it, the podcasts are excellent, but I had no idea it was so much work.

JB: And I get a lot of technological help. There’s a producer too.

LV: So, are you proud of them? Do you realize how good they are?

JB: I work hard on them and I get a lot of positive feedback. So I feel that they’re doing the job I want them to do.

About science communication

LV: I can’t believe the reliability, and breadth and depth of the podcasts (and how hilarious they are). And don’t get me started on the breath-taking reference section of your book. So how much background research goes into your writing?

JB: I read a lot and I spend a lot of time on Google Scholar.

LV: It struck me that you use peer-reviewed papers to back up what you write. Most people don’t get within a mile of research articles. It seems to intimidate them. So did you get any formal science training?

JB: No, I have no formal academic training. I took an online Harvard course on learning theory and dog behaviour a few years ago, but that’s it [and Jolanta has an impressive string of professional credentials: CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, PMCT-2]. I discovered Google Scholar a few years ago and have used it all the time since then. It’s got to the point that I have been asked to prepare and present an on-line course for raisingcanine.com about finding and assessing journal articles.

Raising canine

LV: Well you certainly have the knack of making the driest scientific concepts come to life. How have you learnt to communicate science like that?

JB: The podcast has been good for practicing saying accurate things  in a way that laypeople have no trouble understanding. And I have the gift of an editor who’s very intelligent but neither scientist nor dog person. If she gets confused, I know I need to clarify.

About writing

LV: So how did you get the book deal?

JB: The idea was always that there was eventually going to be a book if the podcast worked out.

LV: You’re so lucky! That’s a dream of mine.

JB: It was an extraordinary piece of luck. When I get tired of doing the podcast week after week, I think: it gets several hundred thousand hits a month and still a lot of the mail I get starts with ‘I am the alpha to my dog and yet he…’ Then I think I can’t give up that platform. That’s the tricky part: we need someone who’s sciencey AND a good writer.

JOlanta

LV: I enjoyed reading the book so much [it is now compulsory reading for our interns at the training school]. Your writing is colourful and conversational yet fact-based. Where in the world did you learn to write like that?

JB: It’s just how I write. I was an English major in college, and I used to work in copy editing. That makes you aware of what other people are doing wrong both grammatically and in terms of clarity and presentation.

LV: I’ve even been shamelessly using some of your catchphrases and sending links to my clients about your articles on dog behaviour issues. What impresses me the most are the analogies you make between dog behaviour and the human experience. This triggers empathy in clients as it helps them put themselves in the dog’s shoes and reframe the problem.

JB: And for emotional things, I think it’s valid. The parts of a dog’s brain that govern emotions are quite a lot like our own. When it comes to some topics, I get more nervous about anthropomorphizing because dogs so often get into trouble when we do that. If I peed on someone’s pillow, it would be anthropomorphizing for sure. “That MUST be why the dog is doing it.”

LV: [laughs] I would say that’s where the analogy breaks down for sure.

JB: So I make empathetic analogies, but I am sometimes wary of whether it’s appropriate.

LV: I guess that, the more you find out about dog behaviour, the more you realize how little you know. That makes you cautious.

JB: Oh yes. When I had a dog for a year, I knew everything. I was such an expert then. [laughs]

About dog training in New York

LV: I am curious, what does a typical week look like for you?

JB: Sunday and Monday are devoted to the struggle with my script.

Tuesday to Thursday, I usually see clients. And sometimes Saturday too. I find behaviour work emotionally taxing, so I don’t schedule more than three clients a week or I’ll be completely exhausted. If I’m seeing manners people, who just need help with their dog coming when called or whatever, I can see much more.

Other than that, I’m also some kind of a house wife: grocery shopping, picking up dry cleaning, walking the dog, and doing the cooking. My wife’s a doctor, so her hours are very long.

Jolanta training Juniper and Pasha

Jolanta training Juniper and Pasha

LV: How are things for trainers in New York? Here in The Hague, it’s only a few of us who work with dogs full-time. The market is really tough for full-time work.

JB: When I was visiting the Netherlands, I was struck by how few dogs there were compared to here.

LV: My husband wouldn’t necessarily agree there. Whenever I see a dog, I drop everything to go gush. He’s complaining it’s near-constant thing. [laughs] But I keep hearing from fellow expats how dog-friendly the Netherlands are. Dogs are welcome in restaurants, doctor’s waiting rooms, etc.

As a society, their attitude to dogs tends to be great. But when it comes to investing money in their pets’ behavioural health, the market doesn’t seem to be as mature as it is in the US. Too many people here will still abandon the pet the instant things stop working out perfectly.

JB: There are people on both ends of the spectrum here.

Some don’t even have money to spend on themselves. I do some work for Pet Help Partners from the Humane Society. It helps keep animals out of shelters through free and low cost behaviour and training advice. The dogs in that context are often, by yours or my standards, maltreated. They don’t get much exercise, they don’t get much time outside, people hit them to discipline them. A lot of those people operate out of how limited and constrained their own lives are and how little information is available to them. I can’t even send them to my podcast, because they don’t have internet at home.

And then, you have the ones who spend all kinds of money on the animal, but not necessarily appropriately: “Have this lovely designer jacket.” And there’s a fad now for shock collars. Sometimes I’ll go for a walk and I’ll see three dogs with shock collars, sometimes with a prong collar underneath!

LV: What do they use it for?

JB: I have no idea why. I always wonder why they can’t hurt their dog with just one of those devices? Why two? I would say that people aren’t so utilitarian about their dog, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that their dogs’ lives are better. People ‘accessorize with pets.’

LV: So, what’s your proudest moment?

JB: I love a lot of small moments. When I see a client really understands why it’s more helpful to be a gentle, supportive guiding force to their dogs. Why it’s helpful to become their ally rather than their master. And when I can ameliorate a dog’s conditions, reduce a dog’s fear….

"Be an ally, not a master"

“Be an ally, not a master”

LV: What is the most fun part?

JB: I love it when manners training, like recall practice, is fun. I have a thing about incorporating games into the routines. I love watching the dog come galloping joyfully instead of that awful slow, head down, gaze averted, lumbering by aversively trained dogs.

LV: This is a how-long-is-a-piece-of-string question, but how many sessions does one case require generally?

JB: A lot of people will see me just once. Sometimes it’s because things are ‘good enough’ now as far as they’re concerned. And that’s OK. But usually, we’re talking about five to six sessions, mainly because I see serious behaviour problems.

Working in a city environment, forget about D&C [Counter-Conditioning and Desensitization, a technique to help reduce dogs' reactivity to particular things]. If a dog is scared of garbage trucks here in New York, there’s no such thing as predicting when one will come.This makes behaviour modification extremely challenging. Particularly for dog-dog reactivity, because of the high dog density in New York. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for that dog is making it an indoor dog. Even with lots of anxiety medications on board, that dog can’t leave the apartment without being over threshold. I have this conversation with rural and suburban trainers, and they have no idea.

LV: What is the most problematic side of the job for you?

JB: It’s miserable when I am called too late, for a dog that lives in a tiny apartment with an extensive bite history and a baby two weeks away. I can only responsibly tell people that they have to re-home the dog right now, or euthanize it. That’s hard. Because you see the people in untenably dangerous situations. Or when the baby has just become mobile, and then gets in trouble with the dog. People love the dog and they want me to guarantee that the baby will be safe with the dog. Then they want to know if there’s a way they can adopt out the dog. And I have to say: “Well, that’s problematic.”

And this also makes me miserable: when a shelter group inappropriately re-homes a dog with a significant behaviour problem and then blames the owner…

And I see people with the euthanasia word in front of their faces. And they’re just horror-struck as they can’t believe it’s come to this. I see a fair bit of that because I get referrals from the local veterinary behaviourist. It’s so upsetting.

About vets and breeders

LV: You get referrals from the vet behaviourist! Good going.

JB: There’s a few of us in New York who get referrals from her E’Lise Christensen. There’s a whole little posse of very smart trainers here. We have good colleagues.

LV: So how do you collaborate with her?

JB: She deals with the medication side of things, and she formulates the behaviour plans. I typically refer to her in cases like a mature dog with abrupt behaviour change. Or a dog with a really generalized anxiety.

When we refer cases to each other, we keep each other in the loop. We copy each other on every communication and we often talk. I love working with her. She’s smart, she knows her science backwards and forwards, and she has the vet skills I can’t bring to the table. I always feel that, when we’re working together with a dog, the dog is getting the best behavioural care a dog can get. But it’s only the wealthiest who can afford to have both of us together.

Jolanta training dogs outside

Jolanta training dogs outside

LV: If you work together with a vet behaviourist, does it get reimbursed by insurances?

JB: Oh no. Maybe the vet behaviourist would be partly reimbursed through the pet insurance, but very few people have that. People have to pay out of pocket.

LV: So what’s your relationship with GP [General Practitioners] vets?

It’s mixed. Some refer to just me, and some refer to both me and the local force-based trainer, on the theory that different dogs need different methods. And I hate it when GP vets prescribe behaviour meds, because they’re not necessarily trained on that side of things.

What I find disappointing, is that, although the vet behaviourist will consult with the vets for free about what behavioural medication would be best for a particular case, most of them refuse to call her.

LV: And breeders?

JB: They’re not always being reality-based: “Our entire principle for breeding dogs is based on Naziism.”

LV: Yup, the old eugenics vision.

JB: How can you not notice that closing the gene pool leads to catastrophe? Wake up!

LV: And the extremes in phenotypes… But some breeders get pretty prickly. I know people who’ve received threat letters for speaking out.

Dog welfare

LV: If you had a magic wand and could convince the general public of one thing, what would it be?

JB: I would love for people to rethink their assumptions about dogs’ welfare. I feel like most dogs live a life of quiet desperation. With a bit of luck, they’ll get four short walks, and they mostly won’t get to do in terms of mental stimulation, physical exercise, or even sniffing time. They just get yanked along when they sniff too long at the same pile of leaves.

The longer I do this work, the less interested I become in precision training, and the more I want to know whether the dogs’ basic behavioural needs are met. I’ve become obsessed about things like playing with dogs, feeding dogs out of interactive toys, doing five minutes of clicker training a day, letting a dog sniff and poke around on walks . All these little things that make a difference to the dog’s quality of life.

LV: I brought the concept of enrichment from my zoology training to my dog training without a second thought. It’s only occurring to me now that this isn’t necessarily how every think. In terms of welfare, dogs are just another captive animal.

JB: Yes. There is a book called “Environmental enrichment for captive animals.” It’s mostly towards zoo and lab animals but he discusses domestic pets as well. When I started thinking of dogs as captive animals the top of my head just about blew off. It got me thinking about their behavioural needs, and how often those are not met.

If I could do one thing for all dog owners, I would invite them to think about their dog’s own species-specific behavioural needs. Not the human ideas of what a dog should want but what dogs do want from a dog’s life. I would lose so much money as a behaviour consultant if dogs had their needs met.

izzy and yogurt cups 4

Using captive animal enrichment techniques

LV: Chance had it I had to attend lots of different lectures lately, but many happened to concern undomesticated species (some rodents, parrots, ferrets, etc.) It struck me that these therapists approached all their cases by spotting the critical differences between the behaviour needs  of that species in the wild and the behaviour possibilities of the individual captive animal. In most cases, the animals were living in severely impoverished conditions. So the focus wasn’t so much psychopathology or training, like it is for dogs, but on welfare.

It’s switched on something in my brain and now I try to start each case with the ethological needs. If you sort that out, you’re halfway there.

JB: Exactly, exactly, exactly, exactly!

One of the things in this book that blew me away, was this: you can buy a hutch in a pet store that is smaller than the minimum size requirements for lab rats!

LV: It’s not so paradoxical, really. The cynical explanation is that lab cages are better designed because the research community is finally accepting that chronic stress introduces confounding factors. So their keepers profit from improving welfare.

Most pet store rabbit hutches don’t even allow rabbits to stretch to their full length. The lecturer was saying: “My first step for a rabbit with aggression, is to x-ray its spine. 99% of the times, the vertebrae have come glued together from a lifelong inability to stand.”

JB: That is a hard thing to accept. All of us who love animals cringe at the life of lab animals. And when you find out that in some respect some of these animals’ lives might be better than a pet’s…

LV: I see your point. The cognitive dissonance is huge between the quality of care that owners feel they are providing and reality.

JB: This reminds me of this case I wrote about: ‘Poor little rich dog.’ He was a tiny little shy Maltese presented to me for ‘aggression.’ His owner would bring him to these crowded shops where everyone would try to pet him. She lived across the street from Central Park, but she just parked her dog in his play pen all day with all these toys and no one to interact with him.

The idea that there was something wrong with the dog that needed to change… No! He needed to have a life that was appropriate for a dog. His aggression, as far as I was concerned, was totally appropriate.

LV: There’s that beautiful question of whether something is normal, appropriate. Is it really an aberrant reaction? Or is it an adaptive response to an aberrant environment? So what happened to poor little rich dog?

JB: I recommended that one of the ‘servants’ take him out to the park every day, and that he no longer got taken to all these shops. I never heard back.

LV: Rise van Fleet’s book, “The Human Side of Dog Training” has really helped me for these cases. It’s helped me get way more compliance and follow-through even from people with whom I find it hard to connect.

I used to get on my scientific and moral high horse but now I sneakily get them there without even mentioning the contentious points. After three sessions, they’ve flipped on their deeply held misconceptions about dogs without even realizing it. That book has revolutionized my practice.

About dog behaviour ‘experts’

LV: I loved your post on behaviour ‘experts.’ How do you deal with Joe Public assuming their gut feeling weighs as much as your expertise because they’ve “lived with dogs for twenty years?” It’s insulting to see years of studying and experience get valued so little. Imagine a paediatrician having to compete with old wives’ tales like we do all the time…

JB: I come across this too. There is no licensing to regulate training and behaviour work. So a layperson has no way of evaluating claims. I can say till am blue in the face that I read the science and that I’ve studied this and that but Joe Schmoe down the block can just say: “I have twenty years’ experience and this reward-based cookie bribing stuff is nonsense.

Or the people who call themselves “balanced trainers.” They’re reward-based up to a point, then they break out the choke chain. The assertion that “Of course, you have to let the dog know what they did wrong” sounds so plausible to people.

LV: They have human intuition on their side.

JB: They do. I have several arguments that I hope make sense to people. For example, when their dog is barking and lunging at other dogs. They’ve been told to yank on the dog’s neck and force him to sit. People tend to stay on board at least as far as: “If you know nothing else, you know the dog is not at ease. From that, it would seem to follow that if you add to the dog’s unease, you’re not being productive. But if you find a way to help the dog through the situation, you can be productive.”

LV: That’s a nice angle.

JB: I spent a lot of time thinking about this. I will say that a lot of people seem to be very happy to hear that they don’t have to yell or hurt their dogs.

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“…happy to hear they don’t have to yell at or hurt their dog”

LV: Oh absolutely. I love to see the look of relief on their face: “So you mean I don’t have to keep hurting my dog?”

So how do you cope with the “I-have- 25-years’-experience-and-this-cookie-stuff-is-bribe-and-the-dog-should-respect-you” jocks?

JB: I point out that other professionals have to keep up with the literature in their field. It’s all very well to have a doctor with twenty five years’ experience, but if he has not been reading the medical journals for the past twenty five years, you’re not going to get very good medical care.

LV: Absolutely! If tradition was all we needed, we’d still be bloodletting. So what do you call yourself? ‘Behaviourist,’ ‘trainer?’

JB: I don’t have a good answer for that. I don’t say “behaviourist” because that label is preferred by people with a doctorate degree, or vet behaviourists. And I am neither. I usually say that I am a trainer specializing in behaviour problems. What do you call yourself?

LV: I say “I am a zoologist and I deal with dogs that have behaviour problems.” No offence to dog trainers, but because the profession is unprotected, anyone can call themselves that and it shows. I don’t want my services to be associated with that of the less qualified or scrupulous trainers.

JB: I wish I had something I could call myself that make it clear I actually try to learn things.

LV: Yeah, exactly. “Am good with dogs and I grew up with them” just doesn’t cut it and it’s an insult to the profession that this could act as any kind of serious credential.

About dog cognition

[warning, it gets a little speculative and technical]

LV: I’ve often read that a dog who has destroyed the couch doesn’t know he’s the one who did it a few moments later. I wonder: could it really be that they have no sense of their own agency? That seems hard to swallow. It’s convenient, but I haven’t found any research to back this up.

JB: Let’s back up. What is “destroy” to the dog? Likely, the dog has no opinion on the couch’s aesthetic value, and can’t conceive of this object’s value is to you. But he might know “I performed x activity and now there’s fluff all over the floor.”

Existential question: "Do dogs know how much my Ikea futon costs?"

Existential question: “Do dogs know how much furniture costs?”

LV: I used to tell people this example to illustrate why it was useless to punish the dog hours after the facts, but I don’t think it’s a fair example.

JB: These are two different questions. He might “know” he did it, but he won’t know there is a link between that and the punishment. The other question is: “Is it really effective to deliver a scolding hours after the fact? Does it decrease the likelihood of the behaviour happening again?”

LV: On the contrary: the delayed punishment is likely to increase the problems, as it introduces unpredictability in the dog’s life and…

JB: … and that increases the anxiety that led to the behaviour in the first place. I think answering the question about agency doesn’t get near answering the question about responsibility and value, and the relationship the anger has to the behaviour. But this is a pretty subtle conversation to be having.

About pseudoscience

JB: That’s another thing am going to be talking about in my science presentation for Raising Canines. One of the things people hate about science is the uncertainty. Science is all about questioning your conclusions. You don’t get definitive answers and people hate that.

LV: I am passionately involved in the skeptics scene. And it gets frustrating to get back down to earth and deal with average levels of credulity again. Whether something is accurate or based on a valid argument ranks so low for most people when they’re trying to work out whether to believe something.

"Why do my dogs (and cat) do that?" Keep it simple - you can't read their mind.

“Why do my dogs (and cat) do that?” Keep it simple – you can’t read their mind.

JB: People start speculating about what’s going on in a dog’s head and invariably wonder whether the dog is doing something to spite them. And I say “Look. I’ve been living with the same person for going on twenty five years. We’re the same species. We’re the same sex. We both speak English as our native language. We have similar ethnic backgrounds. We have similar educational attainments. Nevertheless, I often have no idea what she’s thinking. So what are the odds that you know what your dog is thinking?” That sometimes penetrates.

LV: So what drives you nuts when it comes to lacking in healthy skepticism?

JB: One thing that drives me banana crackers is advocacy of “alternative medicine” on trainer lists. When I hear someone who’s working with anxious dogs recommending Rescue remedy®… It violates the principle of not doing any harm. Because you’re forcing this quackery on people and in the mean time the animal is suffering.

LV: Although the placebo by proxy effect… But what sort of a justification is that hey?

JB: I really like the Skept Vet blog for addressing these questions.

About TV trainers

LV: So how do you handle the die-hard fans of pseudo-sciencey TV trainers? I used to get caught in hot situations as these characters seem to breed that kind of strange, aggressive loyalty in their fans.

JB: Honestly, I try to stay away from it or I’ll spend a lot of time unproductively angry. It is essentially a religious attachment and therefore not amenable to rational discussion.

The one thing that I find useful, for people who haven’t thought about it a lot, is to ask them to watch with the sound off. To point out that we listen to a narrative, and that the words override what we can see.

LV: Do you think that people can detect distress signals in dogs?

JB: If they’re not being told what that something is “calm submission” they’re capable of noticing that it’s actually terror. I find it extremely difficult to watch these episodes but every so often I force myself. In such and such an episode, I’ll say “Did you notice that puddle under the dog’s hind quarters. He urinated in fright.”

LV: I am still caught off guard by perfectly rational people saying: “But it works!” And I think, “Yes, like magic and time travel do on TV. You DO realize it’s edited, right?”. But then I get told I am just being jealous. Sigh.

About dog food recalls

LV: As soon as people become vested in an idea, truth becomes less important. I have similar reservations about people who get unconditionally supportive of one fad diet or another.

JB: My idea is: dogs evolved as scavengers on the periphery of human settlements, and they are really good at getting the nutrients they need out of rubbish. But I have to confess, I feed homemade food, and I feed raw. I started out that way not because of a particular ideology, but because the person who introduced me to clicker training fed that way. But I’m so half-arsed about it. And my dog is so healthy. I just throw a bunch of vegetables and yoghurt and meat at him. And leftover pasta and Chinese food (with the sauce washed off). And his kibble in his treat toy and… I don’t care. He’s an omnivore.

But these claims that are made for raw feeding. I am sorry, but plenty of dogs have been perfectly healthy on the most revolting supermarket dog food.

Books and dogs...

Books and dogs…

LV: Am not so sure on this one. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t though. I have concerns about both BARF and commercial kibble. All these recalls are scary and I have zero trust left in the major commercial brands, never mind the minor supermarket ones. But at the same time, I can’t be bothered to do enough research into this to start putting together my dog’s balanced diet myself. Nutrition is not my specialty and I am not about to get a PhD in this just to find out what to stick in his dish. So I read the label and buy the best brand I can afford – and feed him leftovers.

JB: The recalls seem to be associated with products manufactured or sourced in China. China has is notoriously terrible for food preparation supervision. The whole meat jerky thing has been frightening. The US FDA (Food and Drugs Administration) has been attempting for years now to figure out what’s going on with meat jerkies from China. There have been several hundred deaths of dogs and cats over a decade or so. With GI [Gastro-Intestinal] problems, kidney failures, etc. They haven’t been able to identify a particular disease-causing agent or specific toxin.

I did a blog post about the jerky. I don’t think it’s a fake scandal.

LV: And how about the ash content? Wherever I look, it’s 6% at least. And that’s on the really expensive food. Am sure all that ash can’t be good.

JB: Well there’s a scientific statement if I ever heard one!

LV: [laughs] On that note, you can quote me!

Conclusion

After listening to so many of her podcasts, it was incredible to hear Jolanta’s voice ‘live’ down the telephone line. The conversation got more lively by the second as we discovered our shared passion for evidence and our common irreverence for dogma. If you live in New York do yourself and your dog a favour and book an appointment. The rest of us world citizens will have to “make-do” with her hilarious and informative podcasts.

Related reading

More about Jolanta

Posted in Dog pros: a day in the life, Dog training, Dogs and society | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Freudian slip: meet Vienna’s dog trainer Bina Lunzer

Interview with Austrian dog trainer Bina Lunzer
By Laure-Anne Visele: Interview date Dec 2013. Release date Apr 2014
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About Bina

Bina is an animal trainer in Vienna. She helps countless families solve their pets’ problems through psychoanalysis. Just kidding. I couldn’t resist the Freud thing because Bina is based in Vienna. And I guess also because psychoanalysis is not that far off what Bina does: behaviour analysis. In both cases, the patient leaves with a new take on life’s stresses, and with better coping skills.

Bina and her dogs

Bina knows a thing or two about pet problem behaviour. She has gone through years of struggle with her own dog before stumbling across behaviour analysis. The dramatic results she got with her new skills attracted so much attention that she had to quit her day-job just to keep up with demand by other pet parents who needed help.

Read on for a peak behind the curtains in Bina’s life as an author, mother, animal trainer and dog entrepreneur.

Bina’s life long love story with animals

LV: How did you get started with dogs?

BL : My first experience was a bite… And the next one too. The third bite even sent me to the emergency room. The first incident happened when I was three. I was walking with my parents in the countryside and this farm dog came out of the yard and just bit me. I’ve no idea why.

The last time was the German Shepherd of a friend of mine from kindergarten. He lived in a pen outside but my friend’s parents let him out to mow the lawn. They forgot I was visiting. I was taken to the hospital for that one. He’d already bitten four people before me, and he bit four after. They shot him dead in the end …

LV: [stunned silence]

BL : Looking back, I know these dogs weren’t properly looked after. The German Shepherd was trained thirty years ago, for schutzhund [protection work], and with methods that were thirty years out-of-date even then… Even when I was five I suspected the humans had been the problem there. I still think so.

So those were my first experiences with dogs…But I still loved them. When I was five, my mom said: “Kiddie, when will you ever learn not to like dogs?” I just said: “Am not afraid of the whole dog, just the head.”

My parents have been so fearful of dogs since the bites that they don’t understand how I can keep two ‘carnivores’, as they call them, in the same house as my daughter. But I don’t know where my deep love of animals comes from. Life without them is not worth living for me.

Bina tells all about her family (rat warning)

LV: So what’s the Lunzer family setup?

BL : I live with my husband and daughter, and our two dogs (Emil and Nello), and three rats (Kuba, Kristin and Kigali).

LV: And the rats are trained I presume?

BL : Of course! They do tricks like scent-discrimination, card tricks.

LV: Card tricks?!

BL: Yes, they can pick the aces out of a 32-card pack and flip them over. They will do these things again and again and again, and more and more enthusiastically. Rats just love to work. It was a cool shaping experience for me. And of course I’ve taught my dog, Emil, to find my keys.

LV: I’ve taught my dog that too! And also to find bank notes. Handy hey?

So, does your daughter also love dogs?

Bina and ratBL : She has my genes for that. When she was six, she started asking for a dog. I said no, so she said: “OK, then, A horse. You had a horse as a kid.” I said it was too expensive, so my daughter said: “OK, then a little brother or sister. Everyone’s allowed to have that, right?”

… So we bought a rat!

The idea was: to qualify for a dog, she had to prove she could care for a rat for two years. And she did brilliant. So we got a mini poodle (eleven months at the time of writing).

LV: Haaaaa! You still need to go through the teenage phase with the poodle and soon with your daughter.

BL : [laughs] She’s a cool kid! She really gets positive reinforcement. She does it to us. After I help her with homework, she’ll say: “Thanks mom. That was a great help!” instead of complaining.

LV: [stunned silence again]

Bina crosses over to force-free methods

LV: So how did you become a dog professional?

BL : Emil, my Pinscher, had every behaviour problem in the book. My previous dog had been so easy, that it took Emil for me to relate to people with dogs with behaviour problems. It was exhausting. I had bought him for search and rescue, but he just didn’t respond well to training. If pressured, he would run off and hide under the car.

LV: Did you get him as a pup?

BL : Yes. But he was under-socialized. His breeder had lost two litters from disease so he took hygiene very seriously. I can put myself in his place: he didn’t want to lose a litter ever again. But according to the American Veterinary Association, more dogs die from behaviour problems related to insufficient socialisation than from infection. It is tragic if your pup is the exception to the rule, but, statistically, it is the better choice to attend early puppy class.

Bina and Emil

LV: So Emil had not been socialized sufficiently?

BL : That’s right, and he had other problems too, like resource guarding. I even travelled to get help from famous trainers. But most of them recommended I just give him up. But I don’t give away family members.

So the advice the trainers gave me was to hit my dog harder. And you could never hit hard enough for them. Sometimes, I would cry all the way home, thinking: “Having an obedient dog is just not worth this. I am disgusted with what I am told to do.” So, I quit traditional training. I hated it.

LV: How long ago was that?

BL : About seven years ago.

LV: Wow, so the positive revolution is quite recent in Austria, then? Are most schools now positive?

BL : Some of these schools were already positioning themselves as positive. But they were only positive as long as the dog complied. As soon as they added distractions and the dog got it wrong, they asked you to hit your dog.

Bina’s qualifications

LV: So how did you start learning about dog behaviour? Did you follow a course?

BL : I did the Certificate in Canine Behavior Science and Technology with James O’Heare’s Companion Animal Science Institute. I only did it to help with Emil. I had been waiting so long for this: the course finally confirmed to me that force was completely unnecessary to raise a reliable dog.

CASI_logo

LV: Wow, James O’Heare! He is a giant in Behaviour Analysis [a behaviour modification approach based on the manipulation of what precedes and follows unwanted behaviour].

BL : Oh yes! I would labour over a tough point for days, in vain. Then I would ask him and he could answer in half a minute.

LV: The chapter he wrote about the different trends of behaviourism is a thing of beauty.

BL : He is a genius. Then I also did Tag Teach 2 [a teaching method optimizing learning efficiency through teaching in bite-size, visual chunks]. And then I did the “Clicker Trainer Switzerland/Germany/Austria.” It is similar to Kay Lawrence’s KAP.

tag_logo

Bina’s journey from office work to dog job

LV: So how did you turn pro?

BL : After I did James O’Heare’s course, people started noticing that my dog was completely focused on me, he’d stopped scavenging, came when I called, walked on a loose leash, etc. And they would ask me to help with their own dog. So I helped them out for fun. But these people then spread the word, and before I knew it, I had to set up a business.

It started with six clients, then nine, and it just grew from there, as each client told three others how fast it worked. I had to reduce my day-job hours more and more. In the end, I only had ten hours in the office, so I quit. Going professional just happened to me. It wasn’t a planned decision.

LV: What were you doing before you became a trainer?

BL : I was a process optimizer. It’s obvious when you watch my tutorials. People often remark about how different my two careers have been, but actually, I still optimize processes. Only now I optimize the processes between four- and two-legged animals, rather than computers. I still look for that precise tiny thing that will make the difference, so I don’t end up changing things that already work today.

Bina’s work with Dogs and kids and storks

LV: Tell me about your work with dogs and kids.

BL : I help dog trainers to become instructors in programs helping young families with dogs:

I coordinate these activities for the German speaking countries. Jennifer from Family Paws does the licensing.

That project is my professional baby. I am really proud of our network of German presenters. We work with the highest quality trainers you can get. Getting great trainers is also a question of safety in this case, as children are involved.

I love that I can reach completely different clients through this work than I do through the training school. It gets me people with seven-year old dogs who’d never done much training and who barked all night if he’s not allowed to sleep on the bed with them.

pregnant

Bina’s Familie mit hund project

LV: You’re saving a lot of dogs from the shelter that way, no? I know so many people who have abandoned their dog when they got a baby.

BL : We call it the ‘rehoming impulse’. Families with kids under three years old sometimes fantasize about what it would be like to not have a dog. Even dog trainers have this phase, apparently. So it’s nothing to do with how much you know about dogs, and it’s nothing to do with how severe the behaviour problems are. It is just that the small things like pushing the stroller with a dog who pulls on the leash can be exhausting.

A client called me lately to say “Thank you! My dog has just growled, but if it hadn’t been for your workshop, I would have re-homed him. Now I know how to tackle it: I’ll protect the dog to protect my kid -I will prevent future growls by setting the dog up for success.”

And we also teach parents about dogs’ body language in these workshops. It is an important safety measure in a household with a dog and a baby.

Bina’s “routine”

LV: Is there such a thing as a typical week for you? What’s that like?

BL : I give about six behaviour consults per day. It’s mainly for dogs, but I also do other pets. A couple of days per week, I go to my training grounds to give group classes. I give puppy classes, basic obedience, sports trials, object search, and that sort of thing… My classes are very solution-oriented, with themes on the recall, on relaxing, etc. I started these classes for my own sanity. So I could see normal pups and not just animals with severe behaviour problems.

LV: Don’t you catch yourself permanently screening for behaviour problems, even in normal dogs?

BL: No. I try not to raise my dogs like a teacher’s child. The mini poodle, for example, barks at other dogs. It looks arousal-based and we work on it constantly, but I won’t instantly assume it’s dog-dog aggression. I try not to approach problems until I have them. This is something my daughter taught me.

bina's poodle

Nello: Bina’s daughter’s poodle

LV: So what do you do the rest of the time?

BL : I spend one day a week on office work: bookkeeping, writing articles, preparing presentations, etc. and, at week-ends, I travel to the German countries (Switzerland, Austria, Germany) to give seminars. My most popular one is about Loose Leash Walking.

I also consult with animal trainers and other organizations. Right now, for example, I am talking with this orphanage that allows its employees to bring dogs. There is a lot of teaching potential in animal-kid interactions there. At that same institution, there is also a social worker who graduated from a university course on animal-assisted therapy. When we work together, I focus on the dog’s behaviour: body language, setting up safe situations, etc. And I also teach basic manners so the dogs can be safe around kids.

Bina and dog training in Austria

LV: Is dog training a protected profession in Austria? What kinds of trainers are offering their services?

BL : In the German-speaking countries, breed clubs charge a one-off 100 euro (or so) fee, then a yearly 30-50 euros. That entitles you to free dog training classes. The professionals then have to compete with free trainers. The difference between the free classes is not always obvious. But you do see classes with twenty loose puppies ranging from weeks-old toy dogs to adolescent giants. In contrast, we run with four pups per class.

training school

Bina’s dog training school: dog sports, object training, retrieve

I value the free puppy trainers. Lots of dogs would get no education without them. But you can’t expect them to have the same educational background as a behaviour consultant. So it’s tough starting a business where other people offer similar services for free.
Having said that, professionalization is making strides in Austria.

LV: That sounds like a tough market. So what do you call yourself? Animal trainer? Behaviourist?

BL : “Animal trainer and behaviour consultant”.

Bina’s credentials

LV: You’re having a trail-blazer of a career. Can you run me through your big milestones?

BL: I wrote two books. One is about helping nervous dogs lead a calmer life; the other one about pulling on the leash [My dog pulls]. And then of course I coordinate Dogs & Storks and the Dog & Baby Connection for the German-speaking countries.

My dog pulls

I also did a YouTube video about loose leash walking that got a bizarre amount of hits (almost 200,000) [To see the video In German or in English]. That means something like one out of ten German-speaking dog owner has seen the video!

LV: That’s an insane number!

Bina’s highs and lows

LV: What are your proudest moments?

BL : Every time I can resolve a dog’s issues with science-based training. Things like resource guarding, leash pulling, lack of cooperation, etc. I am happiest when I can improve the dog-human relationship. That is really motivating.

LV: I know the feeling! It’s really nice.

BL : That’s why we do this job.

LV: Good results, despite the fact that I get them nearly every time, always take me by surprise. I enter into it thinking: “If they listen, they listen. If they don’t, I am not going to get too invested. That’s a recipe for a burn-out.” So I am always surprised when they write back to say how much their lives improved. They follow through! It’s so nice to hear.

BL : That’s the cool thing about our job, when lots of clients appreciate our help. I bumped into this client from years ago in the supermarket, and they hugged me! They were so thankful, you’d think I removed a brain tumour.

It’s the modern way of living with dogs. We see them as family members. A dog’s behaviour problem is not just a dog problem any more. It severely affects the family’s harmony. And a dog trainer can solve that.

Bina and her dog 02

Bina and Nello

I also enjoy seeing a client realize that brutality and fear are not necessary for training a reliable dog. I love to watch them put this to practice.

LV: A lot of clients are relieved when I tell them they don’t have to keep intimidating the dog. Every one else up till that point had told them it was the only way.

BL : Yes, like when I went home from training crying. Who would enjoy going through this? Hitting my dog – who is a family member – and feeling so bad for it.

LV: What is your favourite aspect of what you do?

BL : I love everything about my job: presentations, group classes, private consultations, writing. I love that I have all these options. I also love working with animals and with people.

LV: There must be a least favorite aspect, no?

BL: I don’t like bookkeeping.

But apart from that, no. I even like more difficult customers. They challenge me. They keep my people skills sharp.

Bina’s parting words

LV: If you had a magic wand that would brainwash everybody into believing what you say for the next few seconds, what would you say?

BL: Trust is vital for reliability, so a reliable dog is one that was trained without fear. If you took a dog home as a companion, treat him like a family member and he’ll become one. If you hit him, he’ll never be a family member.

bina's pinscher

Contact Bina

Contact Canis bonus

I offer the following services:

  • (free) Book reviews: Send me a hard copy of your book for a review. My book reviews are read by many pet professionals and parents.
  • Dog training school: OhMyDog! is The Hague’s fun-packed, force-free and science-based dog training school. Small groups, great results, relaxed atmosphere and beautiful field. Lessons in English and Dutch.
  • Private training and behaviour therapy: If you are in The Hague or region, I can help you solve your dog’s behaviour problems using no force or intimidation.  In Dutch, English and French.
  • Writing services: If you are a dog professional anywhere in the world, I can re-write your landing page for better readability and search results. I also write science popularization articles about dog behaviour in English and French. I also translate technical material from French and Dutch to English.
  • Pet photography: Professional pet photography for your own pet, magazine, book or dog business.
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Pit Bulls are Dogs too, guest post by Lori Nanan

Guest post about reward-based training on pit bulls
By Lori Nanan, Mar 2013
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Intro

Lori got on my radar in Facebook, with her great pictures advocating force-free training. All pictures featured Pit Bulls carrying out all sorts of training feats. I approached Lori to ask her to write an article for Canis bonus. Enjoy!

The myth of the heavy hand

It may come as no surprise to anyone who follows Canis Bonus that pit bulls are dogs, just like poodles or pugs. It may also come as no surprise that pit bulls, or any other power breed, can be trained just like any other breed. What may be a surprise is just how many people are not aware of this or flat out disagree.

Myths about dogs in general abound and when it comes to pit bulls, it seems many people hold tight to those myths- about leadership, dominance and the need for a heavier hand.

less behaviour

These myths do no justice to any dog, who can be abused in the name of training while applying those principles. And, yes, I do believe that abuse is an appropriate way to describe what is done to dogs who are alpha-rolled (rolled onto their sides and pinned down in an attempt to “calm” them, resulting in the dog either shutting down or reacting aggressively), scruff shaken, leash corrected or physically intimidated.

I believe the use of fear or startle in training is abusive. I believe this because I have done my homework. I have worked hard to understand animal learning and behavior. I have spent hours training dog after dog without having to use force. I have developed skills and use scientifically-proven methods which allow me to do this. Even with pit bulls. Even with dogs who have had years to practice “bad” behavior. With puppies. With dogs who have zero training experience. With dogs who have previously been trained with force. Time and again, it is proven to me by dogs that it simply is unnecessary. Time and again, I am amazed at the power of reward-based training.

seek to understand

As someone who previously trained using aversives, I see the difference. From the pit bull who had been trained via shock collar to do a down-stay when people entered the house and cowered at the word “down” (we changed the cue and got a beautiful response), to the lunging, barking mixed breed who was taught a “watch me” as an alternate behavior, the power of positive reinforcement reveals itself to me daily.

As someone who has come to love pit bulls and the similar dogs, I have seen more abuse bestowed upon them dogs than any other type. I am aware that many other power breeds (Dobermanns, Rottweilers, German Shepherds) are subjected to more than their share of abusive techniques, but it seems to me that pit bulls inparticular are perceived as a breed needing a heavier hand. The media has certainly contributed to this and there is no shortage of people who love their dogs and still believe it.

This is problematic on a number of levels. The first being the assumptions about a dog’s behavior without a true understanding of why he is behaving the way he is. If we take a step back and think about things from a dog’s standpoint, it becomes much easier to assess certain things.

irony

Let’s take a look at pit bulls and a certain irony that I often think about. Pit bulls are generally dogs who are human-friendly. Their ancestry lends itself to that exact trait. Dogs who were bred for fighting needed to be handle-able by humans. This made for dogs who were rather malleable in human hands, and many of today’s pit bulls seem to retain the trait.

In many cases, we have exuberantly affectionate dogs (who were also bred for athleticism) who are jumpy and enthusiastic. They like to say hello by giving kisses (like many dogs do) to people on the face. A positive reinforcement trainer will help the dog learn an alternate behavior, like sitting. A balanced or force-based trainer might advise kneeing the dog in the chest. Neither dog ends up jumping, but dog #1 sits to get kisses and still loves to see you; dog #2 sits to avoid being hurt (best case), is no longer as happy to see you (middle ground) or becomes distrustful, anxious or aggressive (worst case). I don’t know about you, but I’ll take dog #1: the one who doesn’t get punished for being friendly.

involve me

Another irony for pit bulls is that the very thing people fear about them – aggression – is reinforced by these heavy handed techniques. Dogs – any dog – may become aggressive if exposed to abuse and force and discomfort or pain. So, here we have a strong dog who is trained via force, coercion, startle or shock and he reacts aggressively. Now what? In some cases the public’s perception is strengthened. Simply because a trainer gave out outdated and potentially dangerous advice, one less person may want a pit bull in their home.

stroke rats

And, again – this goes for any dog – dogs have teeth, and likes/dislikes. They have tolerance levels and thresholds. They feel stress. They feel anxiety. They feel threatened and therefore fear. The dog who uses his teeth in those situations is not bad or wrong: all beings should have the right to protect themselves.

It is our responsibility to help dogs feel that they never have to use their teeth to defend themselves. We can do this by setting our dogs up for success. We can do this by being proactive, rather than reactive. We make sure we have the right information and tools, and we are willing to learn the techniques or hire someone who can help. Sometimes keeping our dogs out of trouble can be something as simple as providing more mental stimulation (eating out of puzzle feeders instead of a dish).

generous feeder

Being reactive means that we hope our dogs won’t screw up and then punish them when they do. Like catching a dog chewing a chair leg and punishing him by hitting, yelling or grabbing him by the scruff. We can often head off those types of issues by providing appropriate chew toys. Jean Donaldson has said: “Dogs get into good chew toys the way we get into a good book.” Dogs don’t know the difference between the chair leg and the Nylabone until we teach them.

crossover

In terms of training, we can do this by meeting a dog at the level he is currently at, working and training from there and putting management in place as necessary. So we adjust our expectations. We try to see things from the dog’s point of view and start with teaching behaviors that are do-able today and build from there.

One of the primary goals of Your Pit Bull and You is to dispel myths. Conventional folk wisdom about dogs has not done our canine friends any favors. Science has come a long way since towards helping us understand our dogs. We love them. We owe it to them to meet their needs in a way that doesn’t diminish their capabilities or mythologize their intentions.

The myth that says that pit bulls need a heavier hand is one that is particularly close to our heart. Our tagline is “Animal Learning is not Breed Specific” because we know that all animals learn in the same way. By advocating for a maligned breed that we happen to love, we hope to help shape the public’s perception in a more positive direction. A direction in which more and more dogs are trained without pain.

Contact Lori

Your Pit Bull and You Facebook Page: for great posters promoting force-free training

Your Pit Bull and You website: Well-researched source of information on force-free dog training and education.

Force-free training resources in The Hague

OhMyDog!: Force-free, fun-packed and science-based dog training school in The Hague.

Canis bonus: Behaviour therapy and private training: to help you resolve behaviour problems

 

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Teenage girl takes on force-based trainers

Interview with Youtube prodigy Lucy Irvine
By Laure-Anne Visele: Interview date Nov 2013. Release date Mar 2014
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About the author

I am a dog trainer, freelance writer and behaviour therapist. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then specialized in dog behaviour problems. I co-founded OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and in my ‘spare’ time, I obsessively read and write about dog behaviour.

Behind the scenes with dog pros

This interview is part of a series of talks with dog professionals around the world. I’ve interviewed behaviour-curious vets, certified dog walkersassistance dog trainers, university lecturers, etc. I have these chats to get you a fly-on-the-wall view of what goes on in the world of pet professionals.

How I heard of Lucy

In the Summer of 2013, a seventeen-year-old girl shared the stirring story of her determination to train her dog with humane methods, despite the overwhelming influence of compulsion-based trainers in the region.

The video moved me so much that I hopped in the car to visit Lucy, its creator. Read on for our chat about modern dog training, bomb-proof dogs, and animal-assisted therapy.

There’s something about Lucy….

LV: How come you speak such perfect English? [Lucy lives in French-speaking Belgium.]

LI: I am British. But I’ve lived my whole life in Belgium.

1 Lucy & Inja

Bit by the dog bug

LV: Tell me about your passion for dogs. Is it a new thing or a life-long obsession?

LI: As a little girl, my bookshelves were packed with dog books, and my walls were plastered with dog posters. I used to cut out all the pictures off dog magazines!

LV: A bit of a dog nerd, hey?

LI: I have been called the “two-legged dog breed encyclopedia.” And I just can’t leave it if a TV show gets something wrong about dogs: “THAT’s not a German Shepherd. That’s a Malinois mix.”

[Sounds familiar, husband?]

1 lucy as baby 01

Spanish holidays? Forget Ibiza

LI: I worked at a Spanish dog shelter this summer. It’s run by two retired Brits who found a dog hanging from a tree one day. They started feeding the strays as they realized that otherwise, they would get shot or beaten up.

At some stage, the shelter owners had to survive on dog food themselves. When someone wrote about their situation in the paper, they turned into a proper shelter: Pepi’s Refugio. They still have more dogs than they can deal with, and they’re desperate for free vet care and volunteers. If you want to help out, you can donate here.

My next dog will definitely be from Pepi’s

Getting Inja

LV: Is Inja from a shelter?

LI: No. I originally wanted a shelter dog, but we thought we’d start with one less likely to have issues as he is our first dog.
We got him from a Belgian breeder, at eight weeks. The pups lived in the breeder’s home, with the family.

I’d dreamt of having a dog as long as I can remember. After years of pleading, I begged for a cat. That’s how it was settled: “We might as well get a dog then.” If there’s something my dad wants less than a dog… That was 2012. That’s when we got Inja.

pup 05

A journey through intimidation-based training

LV: What’s been your experience with the local training schools?

LI: We had lots of fun in the puppy class: he was often top student, and I was very proud. But the school handed out choke chains for the “out of control” pups, and they leash-popped dogs who pulled. The groups were also huge – sometimes more than ten pups. That’s a lot of waiting around.

When we joined the next level, this Beagle was getting jerked around on a prong collar. I couldn’t stand watching that! And they stopped using rewards from the age of six months. By then, the dogs were “supposed to listen to you out of respect”. The thing that struck me is that they completely ignored that each dog finds different things rewarding. In their opinion, if the dog doesn’t want to work for the treats, he is being stubborn.

So we moved to a school that advertised itself as science-based and force-free. But leash-popping was still going on, and they gave out e-collar instructions. It was tough to keep my mouth shut. There’s also times when we would get singled out. We’d be told everything we did was wrong, and that Inja had no ‘character’.

LV: [Having met this placid wonder that is Inja] But a bomb-proof dog is a gift! I’d kill for a dog like Inja.

1 Inja portrait DOF

LV: So how far did you go at that school? Until what level?

LI: They don’t work with formal levels, with a curriculum and exams. They did the same thing every week: heeling, stay, recall, changing position, then fetching. They also wouldn’t really advise you on specifics. They’d just ask you to ‘practice more’.

LV: Mmmmhhh, this elusive pursuit of the perfect school sounds familiar. So you do a lot of independent training then?

LI: Yes. I’ve been using the Kikopup videos a lot. Emily Larlham’s great! I even went to one of her seminars. We’ve also started playing around with agility (on tree stumps, etc.). He does a slow-motion weave. That’s typical Inja. He’ll do what you want, just in his own time.

But, after months of searching, I’ve finally found this Dutch-speaking school.

LV: But you’re in the French region. Are you going to learn a new language so you can take your dog to different school? That’s dedication for ya!

LI: Yes, I’m now learning Dutch. The trainers are friendly, the school has a proper curriculum, and there’re explicitly against leash-jerking and scolding. We’re also registered for the agility class. I think we’re going to have a blast!

Animal-assisted therapy

LV: What’s your proudest achievement with Inja?

LI: We have passed all our tests for Activ’Dog, an Animal-Assisted Therapy organisation. Activ’Dog helps isolated old people and disabled kids. They also organize bite prevention presentations in schools, teaching the kids about dog body language.

Activ’Dog only accept dogs with exceptional temperaments and obedience skills like a solid sit, not pulling on the leash, not jumping up and not snatching food. These are essential obedience skills when dealing with elderly people. They also test the dogs’ reaction to sudden sounds and movements, and to being bumped with a wheel chair. Inja was his aloof self: he just ignored it.

1 Inja therapy dog

Of course, they don’t accept shy dogs, but Inja loves interacting with people, he loves being stroked. If I noticed he was uneasy or stressed about it, I would stop without hesitation.

We’re now at the intern level, so we’ve passed all the tests and just need to build up practice hours.

Now what?

LV: So what’s the next step? Would you like to pursue dog training as a career?

LI: I’d loved to study something related, like animal behaviour. Right now, I am with the Cambridge Ethology Institute. It’s so interesting and I am actually having fun learning.

LV: If money wasn’t an issue, if you could go crazy, what would be the dream?

LI: I’d love to own my own dog training school, and give agility classes!

Parting words

One day maybe, Lucy will grow the ranks of next-generation trainers in Belgium. One thing is for sure, force-free dog training could use more advocates like her.

Keeping up with Lucy

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New photoshoot at the Ockenburgh

We went on another dog safari at the Ockenburg park in The Hague (29 and 30 Dec 2013.) We were hoping to capture classic poses for our body language presentation for the dog training school (OhMyDog!.)

As usual, we got distracted and ended up just being caught up in the dogs’ charming antics, totally forgetting about science. Enjoy!

If you’re one of the dogs’ owners, feel free to download it from the gallery below. Please leave the copyright notice and do not distribute. If you’d like an unmarked copy for further distribution, contact me for details.

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Dog photoshoot at the Ockenburg

Photoshoot from this morning’s (10 December 2013) communal dog walk at the gorgeous Ockenburg park in The Hague. It had been faaaar too long since I went on a dog safari.

I love the Ockenburg, especially with the fallen leaves. If you live near The Hague, check it (and my other green secrets!) out.

I try to go as often as I can to get Rodgie, my dog, to enjoy canine company. Getting your dog to frolic around with four-legged mates works miracles for a calm demeanour. Please try to give him these long canine group walks as often as you can, yes?

Now that admonition time is over, enjoy the pictures of his friends: Makker, Diesel, Kay,…

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High-performance agility with force-free methods: meet Canine Nation’s Eric Brad

Interview with agility dog handler, radio personality and author Eric Brad
By Laure-Anne Visele, out November 2013
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About Eric Brad

Meet Eric: dog agility trainer-cum-podcaster-cum-author who dedicates pen and microphone to spreading his message of logic and rationality through the dog training world.

Eric and Tiramisu

Eric is based on Vancouver Island (Canada), where he lives with his wife, Petra, and their dogs Rizzo and Tiramisu.

Eric and I have a lot in common: dual careers in IT and dogs, a science-based blog on dog behaviour, and a passion for logic and science.

About the interview

L-A: Your dog career has piqued my interest, so I had to give you a turn on the hot seat!

I have been chatting with a series of unique dog pros so my readers can peak behind the scenes of working with dogs. As my blog aims at challenging misconceptions about dogs, it’s always good to speak to fellow science-based people.

EB: That’s an aim we share!

About the cross-over story

L-A: Let’s start with your cross-over story [when a person switches from force-based to force-free dog training methods]. The process is always fascinating.

EB: I wrote about it in perhaps more poetic prose in my very first post in Life as a human [a progressive human interest magazine].

We had trained our first dogs, two collies and a Groenendael, with more traditional force-based methods. They were probably bored out of their minds. They acted out some, and nipped a few guests, but, by and large, they were quite good-natured.

And then we had Vince – a Tervuren. If he was misbehaving, he wouldn’t stop when we’d ask him. He would give us the cold stare when we tapped him on the snout, instead of the ‘I am sorry look’ we were expecting. And it kept escalating, until we were doing scruff shakes and alpha rolls [disciplining the dog by rolling him over onto its back and pinning it down. A technique popular with pack theory trainers, and laced with dangerous consequences. An all-round bad idea.]

Vince

He had also started to growl us away from his bowl when he was eating [resource guarding]. It got so bad at some point that we couldn’t get within 10 feet of his bowl. After a week of that, my wife said “I can’t do this any more. We either return him to the breeder or we re-home him.”

I called the agility instructor my wife had been working with and he said: “Read Jean Donaldson’s Culture Clash“.

L-A: Wow, you got lucky!

EB: Yes! With my IT background, Culture Clash appealed to my sense of logic and reasoning.

It completely reset my view of dog behaviour, and it drove me into reading more on learning theory:

  • Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog”;
  • Pamela Reid’s “Excel-Erated Learning”;
  • Bailey’s and Burch’s “How dogs learn”; and
  • etc.

We immediately began applying the “Nothing in Life is For Free” program [The dog doesn't get food, attention, affection unless it has 'earned' it by behaving politely or performing to expectations. The technique is falling out of favour with purely positive trainers, but proponents argue that it brings consistency and predictability to the dog's life.]. We quickly modified the technique. It tends to be a little proscribed and a little too much on the negative punishment side for us [negative punishment = you don't give the dog a reward he has come to expect, unless he stops 'misbehaving'].

Vince passed away three years ago and, right up to the moment he died, we never completely repaired the trust between us. It must have been quite traumatic for him when he was small: he would still occasionally go into defensive postures with me. And I had to deal with that knowing what I know now. So he taught us many lessons – not always positive.

Shortly after the change of course with Vince, we got our Tiramisu as a pup. Tiramisu is my little science experiment! We have raised her from scratch with clicker training and behaviour science.

Tiramisu and Eric

By the time she was six months old, she mastered thirty different trained behaviours. Seeing just what you could accomplish by educating your dog instead of reacting to ‘inappropriate behaviour’ really reinforced behaviour science for me. Her achievements opened me up to possibilities I wouldn’t ever have had dreamed of. It has reset my thinking on what dogs are capable of.

About writing

L-A: And when you gained all these insights, you started sharing them on your blog.

As a fellow blogger, I struggle to keep my posts short and catchy. Readers don’t have time for large chunks of text and big words, so it’s a balancing act between keeping it compelling without oversimplifying the science. What are your writing demons?

EB: I am trying to move away from the cheerleading stuff. The articles that seem to get the most traction are the ones backhanding traditional trainers (Like: “Selling snake oil…” and “Blunt force trauma canine reality“.) But I want to talk about what’s right about science-based training, not what’s wrong with other approaches.

L-A: I hear you: now I write a controversial title to draw people in, and then hopefully get some subtle points in there.

EB: Yes! I’ve been quite diabolical, creating a title that sounds like the article is about something else. For example,“All the dogs you can manage” sounds like it talks of multi-dog households, but it’s really Yodaism for “All the dogs – You can manage”, meaning “Every dog can be managed”.

I try to introduce a topic from a perspective that people haven’t considered before.

L-A: You are also writing a series of books.

EB: Yes, I am working on the third one.

Each book groups my blog posts by theme so the topics can be read in a logical flow, rather than chronologically as they were written:

  1. “Dogs: as they are” talks of physiology and ethology. It showcases what animal we’re dealing with and what dogs’ natural tendencies are;
  2. “Teaching dogs: effective learning” focuses on how to communicate with dogs to get the best results; and
  3. The book I am writing now focuses on the human-dog relationship and on our emotional response to each other. It’s about what happens when things go off the rails. It’s about the dynamics behind that.

There will probably be five more after that!

[They are available at Dogwise.]

Eric sees “Dogs, as they are”

L-A: I have read your first one with great pleasure ["Dogs as they are" is reviewed here.] The series could become a classic piece of work.

EB: Your lips to God’s ears!

But the truth is, I am not doing it for fame and fortune. I feel I’ve contributed something if just one person’s life became easier as a result of reading my work.

Someone came up to me the other day and thanked me profusely for my articles on hypothyroidism [hypothyroidism = shortage in the production of thyroid hormones, affecting the sufferer's behaviour in more severe cases.]

About physical conditions and behaviour

L-A: About hypothyroidism, well done on your dog qualifying in the runs after a long period of ill health. You must be relieved!

EB: Yes. She was diagnosed about 18 months ago. At the time, we thought we’d never play and show agility again. But sure enough, she’s come back!

From one day to the next she started acting alert, nervous, or worried. She would shut down immediately and want off the agility course if she heard a sudden sound, for example.

We initially had her tested for T4 concentrations – the classic test for hypothyroidism – and the test came back negative. She also wasn’t displaying any of the classic signs: dull coat, lethargy and weight gain. So our vet concluded that it probably wasn’t the thyroid.

We insisted that the blood pannel got sent to Dr. Jean Dodds’ Hemopet lab in the States. The results showed Tiramisu’s T3 concentrations were drastically low. As T3 clears the cortisol [the 'stress hormone'] from the system and as cortisol inhibits serotonin binding [serotonin = biological correlate for a sense of well-being], our dog was physically unable to experience a feeling of well-being. She was in a constant state of stress! So we got her on the recommended dose of thyroid supplements and we saw changes in only two days!

I learnt a lot from Dr Jean Dodds’ book “Canine Thyroid Epidemic.“ It covers not only physical symptoms, but also behavioural ones. The book warns that classic symptoms [dull coat, lethargy and weight gain] only occur when hormone concentration is already down to 30-40%!

Early diagnosis is difficult, as the early behavioural signs mimic other behavioural problems. Yet, we elected not to treat this as a behaviour problem from day one. We could have used desensitization and counterconditioning  but, as she wasn’t clearing cortisol from her system, this would have made her worse.

[Note: the hypothyroidism diagnosis continues to be controversial in the veterinary-behaviourist communities. Please contact a specialist for advice if you suspect your dog is a sufferer.]

That period reinforced our standard operating procedure in the face of a sudden behaviour change: go and see the vet immediately and find the physical cause.

L-A: Good advice, but difficult to apply here in the Netherlands for three reasons:

  1. Vets can get irritated at specialist trainers’ presumption that they know what specific physiological tests are relevant for each case;
  2. Many local vets still recommend dominance and obedience in the face of 99% of behaviour problems; and
  3. Blood tests can be prohibitively expensive for most dog owners here.

EB: We have the same response in Canada. The vet just went: “She looks fine. Why do you want a blood panel?” When we insisted, we got the “OK, but-you’re-just-throwing-your-money-away” eye roll. When the results came back, suddenly, we were very smart dog owners.

We need to be advocates for our dogs. If you know something’s wrong, use the internet, or books, or whatever you can to get the vet on board. And only when you’ve eliminated every possible physical thing do you address it as a behaviour problem.

Here’s another example: a friend’s dog started to perform poorly in agility and started to get ratty with other dogs. It took A YEAR AND A HALF to find a hairline fracture on the dog’s front leg! It was living in constant pain but, being a Tervuren, it wouldn’t limp or whine. So it came out as aggression towards other dogs. So the owner took the dog off agility for a year to let it heal up. Now all the behaviour problems have disappeared.

L-A: It’s scary how much luck we sometimes need to stumble across a physical diagnosis underlying a behaviour problem.

On ‘misbehaviour’

EB: It’s not luck. When our dog’s behaviour changed suddenly, we used a process of elimination to find the physical cause. Dogs don’t misbehave because it’s intrinsically reinforcing to misbehave. There has to be a reason.

L-A: Dogs often do ‘misbehave’ because it’s intrinsically reinforcing. Of course what constitutes ‘misbehaving’ is in the eye of the beholder, but animals – including humans – are driven to act to gain the most rewarding outcome in any given situation.

EB: Sure, there has to be some reinforcing property of behaviour for a dog to perform it.

This lady had a rat terrier mix who wouldn’t come back when she called it [see my article on the recall to teach your dog to come back to you.] She would get angrier and angrier. I asked her: “Based on your physical demeanour and tone of voice, would you come to you right now?” So she re-taught the recall gradually by reinforcing every successful recall. Two weeks later, the problem was mainly resolved.

Ken Ramirez - head trainer at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium - called this ‘the balance of reinforcement’. He set up a scale summing up the punishing and reinforcing properties of a behaviour. To get the animal to behave in the way you want, you have to add things to the reinforcement side.

L-A: That’s a nice model. It is less black-and-white than the Skinner quadrant. It introduces the notion of trade-offs and gradations.

EB: I frequently talk of “competing reinforcers” in agility. If you’re practicing in a barn with horse manure , it’s like Disneyland for a rat terrier. So you need to be more interesting than horse poo. Bring their favourite treat and give it frequently: make it roast beef or ham or cheese. Make it easier for them to get cheese than to indulge in the horse poo.

L-A: That’s what I tell my clients too – Only my problem is rabbit poo. Ah, dogs, those scatological specialists… – “Make unwanted behaviour boring and hard-work, and make desired behaviour rewarding and easy.”

EB: Focus plays a part too. We teach our agility students to re-engage the dog when he is distracted with three behaviours so simple the dogs can’t believe they’re being rewarded for it: nose touch, look at me and sit. This draws the dog’s focus back to you and beats yanking the leash and saying ‘no’, which only makes it unpleasant.

And we can’t control what a dog will find rewarding. Rizzo, our youngest dog, enjoys tracking so much he didn’t want to stop to get rewarded. He just wanted to keep tracking! Tiramisu gets rewarded by… variety. If I ask her to do the same thing too many times, she gets bored. So I need to throw random cues at her for known behaviours during training. When she has done what I cued, she’ll happily go back to the new behaviour we were working on.

L-A: She was born for free-shaping [allowing the dog to offer spontaneous behaviour and reinforcing the ones you like!]

EB: Big time. I have something of a problem with her because if I don’t find something to mark quickly, she will offer a flurry of the usual behaviours and then I’ll get the paw: spin, zoom, bow, back up,… Then it’s: “Screw you, I am off.” I have five seconds to figure out how to help her or she’s done.

But I am always thinking of competing reinforcers. People take their dogs to a dog park with all these interesting smells. Then they expect the dog to come to them immediately. Why?

L-A: People tell me “Because my dog should listen out of respect.” I am unsure dogs have the cognitive ability to grasp, and act upon, an abstract notion like respect.

EB: Jaak Panksepp’s research [pioneer in the field of affective neuroscience, and discoverer of the hilarious lab rat tickle] supports claims that they lack this ability.

Besides, even if dogs could grasp respect, how would they have grasped what we humans consider respectful? [Interesting question opening up the theme of domestication and co-evolution with humans. Research into why dogs are one of the few animals to understand human pointing gestures explore the subject. A search for "Hare and Tomasello" in Google Scholar will suck you down the old intellectual rabbit hole on this topic.]

Even among humans, the same behaviour (i.e. looking in the eyes) can be interpreted as friendly by most Westerners, and disrespectful by some native Canadian tribes. [Eric's point is this: If miscommunication arises between individuals of the same species, imagine the potential for it between different species.]

About agility

EB: So, as a Belgian, you must know Belgian shepherds?

L-A: I have lived with a Tervuren and a Groenendael, actually. But they were too much like Ferraris for me. My heart goes to lethargic dogs, the kind you have to regularly poke to make sure they’re still alive.

EB: My two Groenendaels are sprawled out like rugs right now. Belgians can switch it on or off. But as soon as you say we’re going for a walk they’re 100 miles an hour.

Eric and Rizzo in full sprawl mode

L-A: So how did you start agility?

EB: My wife thought that agility might help Vince with his behaviour problems. She thought it would let him blow off some steam. We didn’t realize agility and behaviour problems had nothing to do with each other. But we continued with agility even after we had turned our training around.

For me, agility has been like a science experiment. I wanted to know what would happen if I applied this behaviour science stuff to it. I didn’t care whether I got championships or not.

We started following classes in a local group but some of the things we were being taught were out of synch with what we knew about learning theory. In the end, we kind of got asked to leave! We were asking too many questions… The funny thing is that, after that, other people approached us. People who were also asked to leave similar groups. We called ourselves ‘The Scallywaggs” because we’d been kicked out of every decent agility class on Vancouver Island! We formed a training group without an instructor: we called it peer coaching.

Scallywaggs: Vince and Eric

My wife also started the ‘puppy pirates’ classes because some people asked her to train their puppies when they saw the performance of my wife’s dogs and their relationship with her.

We use clicker training, and we make sure that the animal is not set up for failure. If the dog misses a jump, keep going and fix it next time. Don’t give the dog any indication that they’ve done something incorrect. So don’t punish your dog for making the effort, pay him for making the effort.

When you hit a snag, we always say “Be a splitter, not a lumper.” Good trainers break it down and fix it.

L-A: I have the feeling that the dog’s welfare comes second to performance in many dog sports. Is that justified in your experience?

EB: There’s a problem, absolutely.

This is a typical practice in agility: handlers put themselves in the way of the dog at the last moment to stop it in its tracks and redirect it. I call this ‘projectile agility.’ The dog just ricochets through the whole sequence.

Tiramisu clearing a jump

With agility we are engaging the dog’s predatory instinct. So I am convinced that blocking them is frustrating and aversive. And I definitely see signs of stress in the dogs as it happens. As Patricia McConnell said in “For the love of a dog” [Reviewed here]: “Once you see that stuff, you can’t unsee it.” So I have a lot of difficulty watching some handlers go about agility in that way.

This last-minute blocking makes it impossible for the dog to predict the next move. Imagine that you’re driving and your passenger only tells you where to turn at the last moment. You’d either stop cooperating, or you’d slow down. So either people are shutting their dogs down or they’re slowing them down. Either way there is no emphasis on what the dog is learning.

To us the goal is not to ‘get’ the dog to go over the jump. We want the dog to ‘choose’ to go over the jump! We even slow our students down on the agility course to make sure the dog is really making the decision because it knows it will be paid for it instead of just being carried away by their handler’s momentum.

Here’s a video illustrating that choice (Rizzo was about 16 months old then).

And that blocking technique doesn’t just bring about emotional stress either. Many dogs end up with cruciate ligament injuries as they have to twist themselves mid-air to correct their course and therefore land awkwardly. I wonder if people realize their dog won’t even be able to play three years down the line. I think some realize and don’t even mind, thinking: “I’ll just get another dog.”

That said, there are a few handlers whom I enjoy watching very much. It’s not like we’re the only ones who’ve worked this out. They are dancing with their dog and enjoying every moment. I hope that more people will come to the same conclusion.

L-A: And how is your dog doing in agility?

EB: She has just gotten her second and third championship titles! She completed thirteen runs in one weekend with flying colours. But the championships are secondary to me. What counts is that she was happy, comfortable and full of fun again after her health issues. She gave us barking and playful behaviour, showing she loved agility again.

L-A: Would you say that – like-for-like – you get better agility performance using science-based methods?

EB: Well, I am in the game for personal best. So when I finish a run I just look at my time and whether I qualified, not anybody else’s results. We have won Agility Association of Canada and the North American Dog Agility Council championship titles without doing all that other stuff. So I know that I can get to the same level of performance they do, but with a happy dog.

And our dogs (my wife’s, my mother-in-law’s and the other Scallywaggs’) continue to run fast and happy even as they age, when we often see traditionally handled dogs retiring early and the handler just ‘getting a new one’.

L-A: ‘Getting a new one’… That is what makes me uncomfortable with dog sports. Objectifying the dog for the sake of performance.

EB: To us, it’s about the dogs. We do agility because we have Belgians. We don’t have Belgians so we can do agility.

Tiramisu loves agility: I can see the smile on her face. I can see it in her eyes. She’s a nine year old dog that’s still running more than six yards a second. That tells you she really wants it.

This is a video of Tiramisu in  August 2013:

Podcast

L-A: So tell me about the podcast: Canine Nation.

EB: A friend of mine loves to read my articles but never finds the time. She suggested I create a podcast so she could listen to them in the car. So I started reading the articles so people can listen to the podcast wherever convenient. I’ve been doing this three years.

We’ve had 20,000 downloads now. That’s about 3,000 a month. It’s worked out really well!

Contact Eric

 

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New book review out: Feeling Outnumbered?

Book review: Karen B. London’s and Patricia B. McConnell’s “Feeling Outnumbered? How to manage and enjoy your multi-dog household”
By Laure-Anne Visele, written Oct 2013
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Book review

This article is part of my collection of book reviews.

AUTHORS: Karen B. London & Patricia B. McConnell

PUBLISHING YEAR: 2001

SUMMARY: Step-by-step guide to dealing with common behaviour problems in multi-dog households

AUDIENCE: Owners

REVIEW: 

In the behaviourist’s caseload, multi-dog households often come hand in hand with fiendishly complex behaviour dynamics. I bought the book hoping for a miracle toolkit, but that hope was hopelessly naive. How could anyone cram the behaviourist’s Holy Grail in fifty pages? Instead of addressing complex behaviour problems, the book focuses on simpler, but relevant, training and self-control issues.

Drs. London and McConnell’s book centers around three basic principles:

  1. Train each dog one by one, then gradually ‘proof’ the skill with more dogs present;
  2. Focus on self-control, manners and prevention; and
  3. Manage/restraint if you cannot supervise.

The book describes the industry’s best practices to deal with front door rowdiness, meal time, the ‘leave it’, introducing the new guy, pulling on the leash, etc. with a group of dogs. With a couple of rare (and mild) exceptions, the authors exhort the reader to adopt an exclusively positive approach to dog training.

Added plus point: the authors show intellectual integrity around the controversial pack theory – they tread lightly and avoid speculation.

A couple of chapters give insiders’ tips even a single-dog owner could use (e.g. body blocks instead of yelling, what to do in a dog fight, etc.) .

Interesting angle for the pros: the authors use compelling turns of phrase to sell the usual ‘hard-to-swallow’ advice like the importance of management and of starting slow. I for one am certainly going to try this formulation on my clients, to see if it helps overcome the usual resistance.

On a couple of occasions, the advice appears to stem from a desire for revenge, rather than from pure didactic motivation (e.g. ignore your dog for up to 1/2 day after a fight). But I am really knit-picking here.

All in all, pick up this book to help you with problem prevention if you are considering a multi-dog household. The book is of limited value to the professional, in my view (contains no revolutionary new insights). Still, I am glad I have read it. It reassures me that I haven’t been missing this magic formula all these years: dog training, for multi- or single-dog households, continues to be about patience and timing.

Your comments

Have you read this book? What did you think? Would you recommend it? Have you read a similar one that you’d recommend to Canis bonus readers?

Further reading

Dogs and society

Dog training and behaviour

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