Friday, April 22, 2011

Sensible leash walking

I think losing Tashi has made me even less tolerant of unnecessary cruelty and bad dog training in action.

There is this guy who walks his two huskies in my neighborhood and stops in front of my yard just to force his dogs to watch Fozzie while they freak out and while Fozzie freaks out and I try to get him inside. The other day, I got out of my gate to walk Fozzie and Lamar and saw too late that the guy was there with his two huskies, just standing there. Then I heard one of them yelp in pain and I saw that he had it in an alpha roll. Fozzie and Lamar were of course freaking out, and all I could do was yell and beg the guy not to do that to his dogs because he was scaring them and making it worse. He apparently wasn't ready to hear that message, and told me I didn't know what I was talking about. 

So I've created a flyer, just for him, which I've put in a plastic folder attached to the outside of my fence. I seriously doubt he is going to take one, but it was gratifying to write it up in any case. In honor of Tashi, Lamar, Fozzie, those two poor huskies, and any other dog who has a little bit of trouble expressing himself constructively on walks, here's what it says:

Dog Walk Training and Management – Easy Tips for Calmer Dogs and Happier Humans

We love our dogs, but sometimes their behavior just drives us crazy. Barking and lunging on the leash, pulling like mad, ignoring us—they couldn’t be more frustrating if they tried.
The important thing to know about these behaviors is that our dogs are not trying to frustrate us—they are just trying to get what they want in the fastest way they know how. We can get better behaviors by allowing them to get what they want in exchange for doing what we want—and preventing the worst behaviors through good management.

The pitfalls of “Dominance”- based training
Most dog trainers once thought dogs misbehaved because they thought of themselves as “dominant,” and the solution to the problem behaviors was to show them that we, the humans, were dominant. This notion derived from studies of captive wolves done in the 1940s, but it turns out that these animals were poor models either for the domestic dog or for the wild wolf.

Unfounded theories of “dominance” have led to some training methods that can cause behavior problems to become more severe. 

1.   Alpha rolls. Contrary to the myths propagated by some television dog trainers, dogs do not initiate “alpha rolls” to put a subordinate dog in its place. A dog may roll over on its own to appease another dog or a human, but a dog who was truly confident would never force another dog into a roll-over. When we do so, especially when the dog is already scared or stressed about something in its environment, we just frighten the dog more and make it more likely to react negatively the next time it sees the thing it was worried about.
2.   Flooding, or forcing a dog to “just get over it.” If you were terrified of spiders, and someone put you in a room full of really big hairy ones, would you feel better about spiders? You would probably have a heart attack first. Forced exposure to stressors just makes them more stressful.
3.   Harsh physical corrections of any kind. Many problem behaviors are caused by fear and stress, which are exacerbated by harsh verbal or physical corrections.
4.   Choke collars and prong collars. Again, these cause pain, which exacerbate fear and stress, which make leash lunging worse. Try a no-pull harness instead (Easy Walk and Sensation are two brands).

These outdated methods have been replaced by simple, effective methods based on modern behavioral science and endorsed by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, and other professional societies. Following these few basic principles will help turn your times together from exercises in frustration to experiences of joy.

Set your dog up for success
If you know your dog is going to “lose it” in a certain situation, don’t expose him to that situation before he can handle it. If you do, you are just allowing him to practice the behavior of “losing it.”

Work sub-threshold
If you know your dog hates bicyclists or other dogs, don’t force him to experience these things in large doses. Instead, expose him to his triggers at levels he can handle. This may mean showing him another dog or bicycle at a distance, or for just a second or two before you walk in the other direction and go someplace safe.

Desensitize and countercondition
If your dog seems to hate other dogs or bicyclists, he most likely is reacting out of fear of these things. He lunges and barks because he wants them to go away. The way to change the behavior is to address the fear, by pairing the feared thing—in small doses—with a pleasurable thing. Find a food item that your dog really loves (cheese, lunch meats, hamburger, etc.) and give your dog tiny pieces of it as he watches the thing he fears from a distance.

Outline of leash reactivity training
Be vigilant on your walks, so you notice the other dog –or bicyclist or tall person in a big coat--before your dog starts reacting. When your dog notices the other dog—but before he gets excited about it—stop and feed your dog treats at your thigh. 

If you don’t catch it in time or that dog/bicyclist/tall guy with a beard is approaching you, then you should just “Turn and Go.” Some ways to do this:
    • Walk up on the leash. When you get to your dog’s shoulder and he looks at you, talk to him in a happy, singsongy voice as you turn with your dog and walk in the other direction, away from the dog/bicyclist/tall guy with a beard.
    • Practice at home saying his name, or some happy word you choose, and treating him when he looks at you, so you can use this on walks
    • You can also go across the street or behind a car to avoid going right past the trigger. 
    • As he gets more relaxed about his triggers from one distance, you can move closer while giving your dog those small treats. Eventually, you may be able to continue past the trigger while calmly treating and praising your dog. 
    • You can also redirect his attention when other dogs approach. Have him touch-target your hand: put your hand out next to his face, say “touch!” and when his nose touches your hand, say “Yes!” and treat. This is a good way to keep his attention focused on you and on doing something that makes him feel good, so he’s not focused on the other dog.
Once you are ready and have practiced treating your dog at a safe distance for a while, and she is starting to be calmer around other dogs, find opportunities to let your dog practice being calm around other dogs. Praise and treat her when she sees another dog and doesn’t react. Don’t push your dog too fast and go beyond his limits, though; if that does happen, go back to a safer distance until he’s ready to move on.

Reward that which you want repeated, ignore that which you want to fade
Dogs will do what you want if you provide proper motivation. If your dog is not food motivated, find something (a belly rub? A game of tug?) that does motivate him. If your dog is usually food motivated but won’t eat in a given situation, it is because he is too scared and stressed—back up and work sub-threshold. 

Kirsten Stade
Mindful Handler, Peaceful Dog
(301) 920-0679

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