Category Archives: Social behaviours

Energy Schmenergy

At a recent agility trial I was helplessly drawn towards a group of people who were oohing and awing over a joyously friendly puppy, attached to an equally happy human. Who wouldn’t love bringing a well adjusted happy puppy out for socialization? Loads of positive reinforcement for everyone.

As I knelt down and cuddled and petted the pup, the usual puppy training talk was going on over my head. I tuned in when I heard…

“With Brutus (her other dog who was easily pushed to aggression) I really have to watch my energy! When I call them out of play that’s getting too rough, I have to use my ‘happy voice’ all the way.”

There was lots to like about that.

Monitoring play? YES! Calling them in and out of play? YES!
Using happy voice, making the experience joyful? YES!

Using your energy? Not so much.

Energy is another one of those words that comes loaded with different nuances depending on context and the user. The petroleum industry has a defined meaning for energy, but when you hear it applied to humans, super natural phenomenon and invisible forces it can get complicated.

As a person who practiced martial arts for over two decades and submitted to the healing powers of an accupressure and acupuncture, I’ve been heavily exposed to the concepts of chi and subtle energies in the physical body that can be manipulated and redirected. Can you see them or scientifically prove their existence? Not so far. Have I personally experienced healing through those methods? I have. Do I believe in their existence? Maybe.

So why am I unhappy with this person’s use of the word “energy’ when working with her dogs?

Because it makes it easy to blame people for not having the ‘right energy’ And because it’s very easy to blame yourself for not ‘projecting calm energy’ when you’re afraid and just want to get things right.
The word ‘energy ‘ is so open to interpretation and judgement. It can discourage people who are new to dogs or just facing a new challenge with their dogs because it’s so vague.

It’s easy for certain dog trainers, who purport to have control over this ‘energy’ to seem more powerful, more magical, than ordinary mortals. Watch how they ‘project their energy’, causing your usually difficult dog to follow them angelically. You, poor soul, lack that access to power. That’s why you need them. Ka Ching!

What would I prefer instead? I remember listening to the amazing Dr. Susan Friedman last summer. Specifics, Bob, she’d say. Just exactly what do you mean, in terms of observable behaviors, when you use the term “energy?” What postures, movements, speed and direction go into the basket of behaviors which you are naming as ‘energy?” Rather than asking me to project concepts like  ‘confidence, calm energy, leadership” let’s talk about what those things look like in observable body language, voice tone, breathing patterns or demeanor.

Behaviours are both learnable and teachable. But if a trainer says “you have to project your calm energy”, especially when you have a lunging and screaming dog at the end of your leash, it’s nearly impossible. Projecting ‘calm energy’ is like catching a moonbeam.

So the next time someone says, oh, you’re not projecting the right kind of energy…maybe, just for fun, ask them a few questions. Ask them what body language behaviors they are looking for. If they can’t specify the behaviors you need to teach yourself, consider moving on to someone who can.

Training dogs is learning to communicate with them. It’s about careful observation of both yourself and your dog, over time, and noticing and adjusting your communication to get the best understanding and relationship with your dog that is possible at that moment in time.

Pour your energy into that.



Questioning accepted wisdom…

A few months ago I took Zeke in for a veterinarian checkup and bloodwork. My vet is excellent. She’s confident and decisive but she still listens well and respects my decisions. One of my decisions has been to leave Zeke intact. During the appointment, my vet declared that 90 percent of behavioural issues including fear and aggression, were resolved with neutering.

Many, many people have advised me to neuter him as a step towards improving his reactivity. I have been unable to find any scientific studies to show that neutering Zeke would improve his behaviour. To the contrary, I found quite a bit of evidence to show that by neutering him I would be putting him at much higher risk for a number of significant health problems. Still, I respected the fact that my vet might have access to better professional research than me, so I asked her to please show me the research to support her claim.

Later, I remembered reading the works of Dr. Chris Zink, a veterinarian and researcher with a strong interest in agility and performance dogs. She has been a lone voice challenging the conventional wisdom that favours spaying and neutering dogs. I emailed her that evening, asking her if she knew of any strong scientific evidence that neutering fearful and aggressive dogs improved their behaviour.

A couple of weeks after my appointment, a letter arrived from my veterinarian.  She enclosed one very small and inconclusive study with her hand written note admitting that there seemed to be little evidence to support her claim.

Today, I was delighted to receive a response from Dr. Zink. She wrote,
” There is no good evidence that neutering improves behavior, and in fact there is some strong evidence that it increases aggression both to people and dogs.There is an article on my website that shows some of the initial data on this subject from a paper I hope to publish this fall…the best thing is to keep your dog intact (your vet or any veterinary surgeon can do a vasectomy if you want to be sure he is never bred) and continue your behavioral work with him”  

Thank you, Dr. Zink, for being a true scientist and questioning conventional practice.

It’s another LIFE Q

This evening I was taking tea on the front porch with Zeke when a gaggle of neighborhood kids started milling around the front sidewalk. Then the family that lives across the street came home and unloaded their toddlers and gear. I offered Zeke a favourite toy to tug; a wretched and smelly old soccer ball that he adores.

No, thanks, he said, I’d rather watch. I could see him winding up a bit so I knew I had to work through that little “Don’t wanna, don’t hafta” moment a bit farther away from the distraction. Just inside the front door, I got down on the floor and slapped the toy on the floor (something I learned from SG, when she worked Swagger through those moments as a tiny puppy) Darned if he didn’t TUG with real enthusiasm!

We slowly worked our way back out onto the porch, still tugging. Then, for a change I tossed the ball for him. Now he’s relaxing out there, watching the view. (It’s quieter though)
A HUGE life Q for us. And it’s something I am very, very grateful for, today.

Order in the House!

When I started hanging out with dog trainers, most of whom had many more years of owning and training dogs than I did, I learned about the ‘pack’ theories. Terms like alpha, rank, bitches rule, and so on.

So when I said I wanted to get a second dog I was told to…

1. Get a male, because my female would get along with him or at least dominate him and he would accept that because ‘bitches rule’
2. Let my female ‘discipline’ the puppy. Don’t interfere.
3. Let other ‘well socialized’ older dogs ‘teach him manners’ particularly as he entered adolescence.

And so I did. My female Schip ‘disciplined’ the heck out of the pup…
My friends’ older dogs had their turn ‘disciplining’ him as well.

I probably wouldn’t have had any reason to reconsider this wisdom had he not shown increasing reactivity and fear that developed into aggression.

That’s when I was faced with some difficult choices and decided to
find a way to train other than the “show him who’s boss” model.

Meanwhile, my two dogs fought and while no blood was ever drawn, I was very concerned about the safety of my schip. But why did they fight? I had followed those directions and allowed my female to discipline my pup. What had happened to ‘bitches rule?’ Why wasn’t he accepting that? Why was their relationship still so unresolved?

As I continued to explore the world of science based dog training, I came to doubt the validity of this pack theory.

While I do accept that some animals are more confident than others, I no longer think in terms of pack order, or alpha or bitches rule.

Positive reinforcement animal trainers know that leadership is established, not by force, but by making it clear who controls resources.

Who should control all resources? The humans.

I began to view all dog fights as fights over resources. And I didn’t want either dog controlling resources. Only me. (Alright, my husband can control the resources too)

My plan of action had two parts. First, I managed them better to minimize their opportunities to resource guard anything. For example, many of the fights would occur when they were both close to me and vying for my attention, or when I returned from an outing where I had just taken one of them. Learning to read the subtle and not so subtle signs of them jockeying for position, sometimes allowed me to head off a problem before it escalated.

Secondly, when one of my dogs shows signs of warning the other off, with a look or body language, such as circling, herding, nudging, I will use a Susan Garrett collar grab and hold still just for a couple of seconds. I don’t need much more now because I’ve been working on this for a while. Earlier, I would immediately kennel the offender. I always tried to do this with silence and with firmness, not force. When the altercations were more fierce, I sometimes had to grab him around the back hips and drag him off. Still, I tried not to get angry, even though it was frightening; lots of noise and flashing teeth!

The proof of any method is in its success, and I have seen a marked decrease in arguments between my dogs since I’ve stopped allowing either of them to resource guard.

Neither dog gets any special rights over the other; not because they were here first, nor a girl nor because they have the bossiest nature. It’s actually a lot simpler for me. I don’t have to think about a lot of special rules and conditions. Humans control resources. Dogs don’t. Ever.

Here’s a link to one article that talks about leadership from the ‘resource controller’ viewpoint.

Bark bark

In the past, I would give Zeke lots of time to sniff a new environment before getting to work. Today, my plan was to work with his arousal levels more, by warming him up with quicker, let’s just chase me kinds of activities, then move on to some of the other games. He was not easily engaged. That may be because he’s used to being allowed to self-reinforce by sniffing etc.

Wendy came in to set up for her lesson. He barked from the crate, but did settle quite quickly.

I left him for a time, while I walked Kaylah and he alarm barked whenever she walked in his direction, but again, he settled fairly well.

Not a bad day, overall.

Plan of Action…

When dealing with dog training issues, Susan Garrett says “Don’t just stand there, do SOMETHING!” Look at what you have, describe what you want and make a plan to get there. So here we go!

What I have now is a fearful dog that barks and lunges at people, especially when they surprise him, or move quickly.

What I want is a dog that doesn’t bark and lunge at people. Dare I dream? I REALLY want a dog that accepts my friends into my house and interacts appropriately with people. (permitting pats, showing friendly behviour, playing fetch or tug)

So here’s the Plan of Action.
I will invite people over, and play Crate and Recallers games with Zeke. Gradually I will work him closer and closer to them.
We started today! I invited my friend Sharon over, who loves Zeke, God bless her. Zeke was crated in the TV room, the farthest point possible away from the living room table where I plied her with Turkish coffee.

He alarm barked for what FELT like a long time, but was probably just a few minutes. Then he curled up and slept.

I started with crate games. When I let him out for IYC, he turned back to me me. That’s when I knew he’d be ok. We played more crate games, RZ and hand touches. He ran around the crates with me, tail wagging. He wouldn’t tug though, not even with his most desirable playground ball.

I put him away after a few minutes, then played again, this time closer to her.

Suddenly, about 15 feet away, he looked around the kitchen island, caught sight of her and lost it. I said nothing but just put him in the crate. Second time, some minutes later, we were at the opposite side of the island; he again lunged and woofed, but with less intensity this time. Back in the crate.
Third time lucky, he worked within sight of her. He was showing stress though. I remembered to give him some “back away from scary person” breaks, but in retrospect I don’t think I gave him enough of those.

I called it a great day and put him in the crate. My husband was chatting with Sharon while I got Zeke’s dinner ready and fed him. I took him out to potty, and when I brought him in, on lead but without the Halti, he was noticeably more relaxed. Meanwhile, S and W had moved to sitting at the kitchen island making her closer and more visible to Zeke. No outbursts, although he did lock eyes once for a tad longer than I’d have liked.

Overall, I am extremely pleased with his first session.
Next session, I will repeat everything, but try it with the crate a bit closer to her.

Go Wilson!

Today, we played off our city lot and inside the agility training room at DogSmart in Vancouver. I’m applying the ‘keep him busy’ strategy, so right out of the car we played Crate Games and then I did some quick running back and forth with him, calling him this way and that and trying to fit a ‘go pee’ in there somewhere too.

Once inside, he was calmer than last week but not as interested in my tugging games as I’d have liked. He was more interested in the agility equipment. We started off with a few crate games as usual, and then I tried a tug game, but he was unmoved even though I persisted, running about and generally acting goofy. So I crated him again and flipped through the file cards I’ve made of Recallers games. I selected simpler ones with high food rewards and brought him out again. He worked well.

As I was seated on the pause table, playing nose touch a person came into the room. He alerted and woofed and I took off running to the end of the room. He was on leash of course, so there was no risk of him making a bad choice!
A few minutes later they returned but his reaction was more muted and we were able to continue playing nose touches.

We ended on a high note, with him enthusiastically tugging Wilson the basketball. Wilson is his highest value toy; $.99 at the local SA.

Hey…maybe Wilson will give us a sponsorship! D’ja think?

Bite me 2.0

Well, nothing like an arousing game for a hyperarousable pup. A game where I hold a toy, then reach down to push him backwards while I run like heck forward. His eyes take on the “I’m possessed by a demon” look. After a couple of sessions, he started to drop his muzzle to grab at my sleeve when I reached down to his chest. I was so busy trying to get my part of the game right; deliver the reward accurately and run without tripping over the rug that it took a while to notice he was snatching pieces of my arm.

By slowing down, reducing the size of my movements and not running as far, I was able to reduce his excitement level to where he stopped the biting. When I saw even a small a muzzle movement towards my arm I didn’t reward, just reset back to play. It’s a fantastic way to help him learn self control and help me learn to read and manipulate his arousal levels better.

Games and more games…

I dislike playing games; that alone is enough to make me avoid office Christmas parties. But Susan Garrett’s philosophy that “work is play and play is work” is working its magic and I am slowly changing. Learning and practicing Crate Games (which I do in some form or another many times a day) has made me realize that by making everything a game, with clear rules, rewards and consequences, training can be both fun AND productive for me and my dogs.

Today I took my dogs out to a horse barn, which I had rented for an hour.
I set up the kennels and played versions of Crate games and Control Unleashed games, interlacing them with the heeling, recalls, drops, and jumps. It helped them get used to the new environment which is filled with fascinating and irresistable smells. I alternated the dogs, and both had good ‘think’ time, in between their sessions.

I’ve signed up for Susan Garrett’s online course “Recallers 3.0 and I am looking forward to learning more about how to create and play games with my dogs.

Tugging 101

So it turns out that being a good tugger takes practice. My dogs tell me that I’ve been a rather poor tugger. They would take the toy in their mouths and I would yank, pull it back or move it from side to side and all around while uttering encouraging sounds like “Git it”. I thought I was making it more exciting, but my tug partners lost interest.

So, think. Why do dogs tug? It’s about pulling prey apart, of course. Long yummy strings of intestines, chunks of furry skin, strips of bloody flesh! Mmmmmmmm. Hungry yet?

So, no more yanking, flaunting or swinging the dog around like a Jack Russell on a rope. That’s a terrier thing, for goodness sake. I grab hold of the Purple Wubba and stand my ground.

Ah, much better. Zeke plants his feet, draws back and pulls hard and steady, eyes fixed on me. Now, he’s happy! Releasing his grip on the Wubba’s three legs, he chooses one and pulls back. Why? Hmmmm, thinner strands of flesh would be easier to strip away…

Feeling even the lightest release or ‘give’, he immediately goes for the extra twist and yank. BOOM, it’s his. Shake, shake, shake, he drops it. Looks up at me, let’s play again!