Dog Sense 101

Terry and Trust

by Terry Thistlethwaite

Standing in line to pay the electric bill the other day, my Collie service dog, Trust, engendered the attention of a well dressed gentleman with a delightful Yorkshire accent. “He’s obviously aware of everything going on, but his full attention is on you.” he was impressed to tell me. “How do I get my dog to pay more attention to me and not get so involved with everything he smells out there when we’re on a walk? So many times I just end up dragging him and I hate to do that.” His question reminded me that so much those of us who live closely with our dogs take for granted as basic socialization and training is still very much a mystery to the average one or two dog owner. Any breeder who’s ever stepped into a show ring well knows how to get their dog’s attention, and any disabled person who’s trained their own service dog well know’s how to keep their dog interested in watching them. Similarly, those of us who own livestock could scarcely function on a day to day basis without our dogs understanding the type and degree of attention to maintain around these animals. Yet all of this is increasingly lost on a society that still maintains a basic love for dogs, but has sadly all but lost the basic understanding and communication skills which would have rendered people fully unable to survive in our great grandparent’s day.

With all of this going on, you might think we would be in a “golden age” for qualified dog trainers. Unfortunately, however, a serious shortage of qualified individuals exists, as the ignorant sadly buy into theories and methods spouted by those barely more insightful than themselves. As with so many things, the regard for what is “seen on TV” or touted by the media is overwhelming, and the uncommon quality of simple common sense is negated in favor of the glitz and glamor of second rate advice from someone who once read a book or answered a casting call. This situation is well attested to by an experience I had several years ago with the owner of a delightful little dog who hoped to learn how to garner greater attention from his owners. They called me in utter desperation saying they had “been through three well recommended and high priced trainers” and were ready to give up and relinquish the dog to Rescue. I gave them my usual response; “Would you keep this dog if the problem could be resolved, or are you just determined to have him gone?” I explained that I was not attempting to judge them in their decision, but rather did not want to waste time and effort instructing them as to how to resolve the situation if they really were not interested in doing so. They assured me that they loved the dog and would be happy to keep him, but were quite convinced that after the failure of these three highly touted “trainers”, there was nothing more to be tried.

At that I asked, “What is the biggest problem you’re having with him that, if resolved, you would keep him?” Mind that I was running a dog rescue at the time, and my primary concern was in keeping this dog in his original home. “Well, we have a lot of friends who stop in and visit, and he barks uncontrollably from the minute they knock on the door until the minute they leave.” Thinking that shouldn’t be an overwhelming task for three qualified dog trainers, I asked how each of them addressed the problem. The response eye opening to say the least.

The first trainer employed the classic “choke and jerk” method. He put a choke collar on the dog and jerked it every time the dog barked. The dog, a smart little guy with plenty of insight of his own, responded by rolling on his back and urinating. The trainer ultimately dubbed him “stupid” and gave up. The second trainer brought along a crate and stuffed the dog into it every time he barked. That brought out the dog’s teeth and warning growls every time the jail box was implemented. The second trainer was fired as the owners became concerned about the dog’s rising aggression, and he too, pronounced the dog “stupid”. The third trainer was specifically sought out because of advertising the use of “positive methods only”. The owners were at least catching on at this point that the opening of the Hippocratic oath may well be applied here: “First, do no harm!”

The “positive trainer”, however, also turned out to be a failure (although, characteristically, the “failure” was blamed on the dog). Her method was to positively teach the dog to bark for food. He barked, she rewarded him. She actually told the owners that feeding him would keep him occupied with treats and therefore quiet. Their complaint to me was that the treats were becoming expensive and the dog was becoming fat!

All of this might seem somewhat humorous, but remember the travesty here is that all three of these “trainers” came highly recommended, were paid literally THOUSANDS of dollars for their “services”, and their cumulative efforts resulted in owners resolved to turn their dog over to Rescue! Not only do we have a general public increasingly ignorant of simple dog behavior and communication, we resultantly have an entire profession eroded with inept individuals unknowingly regarded as “experts” who’s failures end up being a loss of what should have been a happy and permanent home for the dog. This is beyond inexcusable.

Thankfully, in that particular situation, I was able to convince the owners that the dog was not “a lost cause”. Agreeing to take him into my Rescue if my method failed, I talked them into trying one last time, warning that they would have to follow my instructions to the letter if they were to bring success. “Every time someone comes to the door and he begins to bark, you AND THEY need to go directly to the nearest wall, face it, and don’t move, talk, or do anything else until the dog is quiet. As soon as he stops fussing, you may go on about your activities. IF he resumes barking at any point, you must immediately return to the wall.”

“That’s it?” they asked me with obvious skepticism. I assured them that was all there was to it, and made them promise to carry it out diligently for a full four weeks before making a final determination about keeping or not keeping the dog.

Five days later they called me to report that they were already ecstatic with the results, that I was a “dog training genius”, and that the dog absolutely would remain a permanent resident in their home. My gratification, of course, was in keeping the dog both in his home, and happy in his home. My “genius” however, was lacking in that my services were unpaid while the three “idiots” walked off with thousands of dollars in their pockets! Oh well….

As for the man having the tug of war battle with his dog on the street, I would expect most of my readers would know that I advised him to carry treats and teach the dog a simple “watch me” command. Positive reinforcement absolutely has it’s place. The trick is for the human to use it in training the dog rather than visa versa — as in “Give me food, and I’ll stop barking while I eat it! ” Oy!

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9 thoughts on “Dog Sense 101

  1. Great post as always! It’s so true not many people understand dogs any more. I know myself that people today always think their dog was abused before they got it. Even the rescue groups like to say that so people will feel sorry and take the dog. Most dogs are not abused, they just need time to get adjusted or were not socialized a lot. I have a hard time socializing even my own dogs because everywhere is No Dogs allowed these days. If something happened and my dogs had to go to someone else, they’d probably think my spoiled babies had been abused! Crazy!!!!

    • So true Kristy. Too many people these days get dogs because they want stroke their ego with the idea that they “saved” something, and will ridiculously determine ANY behavior as indicitive of past “abuse”.

  2. i was told, by Princes breeder, to “just ignore the behavior you don’t want and reward the behavior you do want”. needless to say, Princes constant barking at and chasing EVERYTHING that moved only got worse with that method! i finally ended up having to put him in a down/stay for a few minutes every single time he did this and the behavior, while never completely cured, did lessen enough that we could walk without all the hassle.

    • It is always dangerous to give “general” training advice. During structured training sessions, such as teaching basic obedience, it is fully reasonable to ignore unwanted responses and reward those which are desired. When the dog is jumping on Grandma and knocking her to the ground, however, it is not the time to pretend you don’t see what’s going on.

  3. Excellent insight! I fully agree that today’s society has lost the basic ability to “read” and understan an animal’s body language. But then what do we expect when society is on a downhill course of not being able to read a person’s body language. The dominance of technology, I suspect. A sad statement for what the future holds.

    Thanks for sharing in your ususal eloquent style.

  4. Oh, yes, sistah! I Feel your pain and frustration! I had a client who put the dog into the “back room” every time the grandchildren came over. Now he Hates kids! How Difficult is it to realize that sticking him Away from the situation and Isolating him is the Best way to escalate the problem! Dogs are the Only beings that want to get close to our faces—-except maybe a tick…..And we Reward this behavior by yelling and screaming and jerking their heads off…….I Love the “facing the wall” technique, and shall “steal” this method! It is SOMEthing that even non-dog trainers can do! Bless you!!
    Toni from Oklahoma.

    • Thank you Toni! It’s epidemic, I’m sorry to say. A woman with a Sheltie who was previously solid as a rock recently told me the dog is “skittish” and “avoids people with certain body types” (large!). Hmm… Do we think this could just possibly have something to do with the enormous motorcycle goggles she insists on strapping to his poor little head every time he goes out in public?? Try as you might, you will never convince this “devout Sheltie lover” of that. You will also never convince her that he doesn’t “need” this apparatus for dealing with “sunlight”!!! Sadly, she “has read books that say Shelties are skittish”, and this is the only explanation her ego will allow her to embrace. Again I say, Oy!

  5. Some people just want attention. Look at my gaudy dog and see what a nervous wreck he is! Those are the kind of people I hate because they don’t really want any help. You can never educate them no matter how hard you try. Poor dog.

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