Do you use BAT and leash skills?

Out with the girls

While I’ve been separated from our two monsters this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about my poor leash-handling skills and the need to approximate off-leash walks in our small (but busy) town when we return in August. We have a lot of training to do, and I am excited about the continued challenge of working with our leash-reactive shepherds.

We have leash laws in my town and in our parks and on trails, so it will still be rare for our dogs to experience off-leash freedom, but I want to be able to simulate the experience of off-leash walking with them, as they are both leash reactive to other dogs.

I started thinking about Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) again after reading Patricia McConnell’s recent review of Stewart’s new book, BAT 2.0. I read Stewart’s first book, but I don’t think I really let the principles of BAT sink in. (Clearly, I didn’t, because I still have two leash-reactive dogs.) I was also grateful to find this recent post from Anne at All Dogs Are Smart, which is very helpful and includes some great videos on how to teach loose-leash walking (with harnesses) as well.

I would like to apply some BAT leash-handling principles but also add a food reward. Our dogs are highly food motivated, and BAT often seems a bit too “mystical” for my taste (and I am not sure our dogs would discern any reward or positive reinforcement from some of its techniques, such as “mime pulling”).

Thanksgiving in Davidson
My husband walking Eden this past fall.

Accordingly, here’s my game plan for modified BAT:

  1. Start working each dog, individually, on 15-foot leads (I like these biothane leashes from All K-9). The “individually” part is what is going to be a pain and be time-consuming, but it’s essential to work with them separately until they both have a handle on the new regime (and until I am totally up to speed with my new leash-handling skills).
  2. Start training inside, in the basement. Graduate to the backyard and then to the front walk, on up, over the weeks, until we are ready for a full walk.
  3. Implement rewards for sticking with me (and not pulling; looking at you, Eden), coming to my side when signaled, and ignoring triggers.
  4. Teach a “leave it” cue for other dogs/people, which means “don’t look at that; look at me and wait for a treat.”
  5. Then, finally, try some walks in the real world!

Do you use BAT techniques? How do you help your reactive dog on walks?

Previously in this series of thinking about dogs off leash:

Is a (relatively) leash-less life a key to well-adjusted dogs?

Mint Springs Valley Park hike
Practicing some off-leash hiking, September 2014.

Related to my thoughts on the impeccably mannered British dog and to my dad’s practice with our dogs off leash this summer, I have started to piece together some conclusions about why European dogs have their ish together so much more than American dogs seem to, on the whole.

Some generalizations based on my limited time living in London:

  • Europeans seem to have high expectations for their dogs. They certainly dote on them, maybe even more than Americans do on the whole, but they also expect them to behave well. The (urban) European dog needs to be able to compose himself at a busy café, wait patiently outside a store, and stroll through a park without picking fights or harassing strangers.
  • Accordingly, “training” seems less formal and more about exposure to the world at large. This is also much easier to do than in America, because leash laws—even in a city as large as London—are much more relaxed here than in the States. Dogs only wear leashes occasionally and thus they have to conduct themselves appropriately in public beyond the limits of a leash.
  • All of this exposure and leash-less-ness creates dogs who are, on the whole, relaxed and well-adjusted.

Obviously, not every dog in Europe is well-adjusted. (I saw a miniature schnauzer try to bite the head off a baby Maltese in the street, but this was mainly because the schnauzer was straining at a leash and his owner was shouting, “BE NICE! BE NICE!” which was definitely ineffective and only escalated the situation.) But overall: Such polite dogs.

All of this compounded off-leash time in giant parks has created a culture of European dogs who

  1. have excellent recall;
  2. don’t have reactive outbursts to other dogs or people, in general;
  3. seem calm and self-controlled in almost every public circumstance.

This is the trifecta of good behavior that I feel like the majority of US dog owners I know (myself included) just dream of for their dogs.

And so who is to blame for maladjusted dogs acting up in public? Obviously, we humans are. These are the conclusions I’ve drawn:

  • For all of my reading, I am a sadly lazy trainer, and I have unwittingly allowed my dogs to practice reactive behavior.
  • I have bad leash-handling skills. And having two reactive German shepherds has proven to be a large stumbling block for my ability to train myself.

Leashes are very helpful and an essential safety component of the 21st-century dog’s life, but I daresay we misuse them more often than we know. I know I am at fault here and that my poor leash-handling skills are often to blame for my dogs’ reactive outbursts. I transfer a lot of tension to the lines when I see another dog, because I also get anxious.

I also have not trained Eden in loose-leash walking, at all. Pyrrha, being so shy, naturally has always wanted to stick close to me, and so I assumed I was just an awesome dog trainer and was magically teaching her how to loose-leash walk, through mind transfer or something. False. Pyrrha just had no interest in pulling. Eden, on the other hand, thinks she’s a husky. Sigh!

So, up next in my chain of pondering all of these “perfect” European dogs: How can I improve my leash-handling skills? More thoughts to come.

Freedom for the pups in Davidson. We're all so delighted to be with family. #doglife #carolinachristmas

What do you think? Are leashes (and thus humans) partly to blame for a lot of the reactive dog behavior we see stateside?

My dad’s off-leash experiments with the dogs

Dogs at summer camp
Photo from Dad; Eden in far background, waiting for the team to catch up; Pyrrha dragging her rope; my mom in the foreground.

Dad calls me every so often to give me dog updates. Unequivocally, Pyrrha and Eden are loving life with him and my mom this summer. They get tons of exercise, personal attention, and play time with Dublin (which is especially great for Pyrrha, who really depends on other dogs to teach her how to behave, and Dublin is a model canine).

He also really likes taking them to a nature preserve and letting them roam off leash. This makes me very nervous, because of all of the contingencies and because we haven’t had a lot of solid practice with off-leash recall, but he doesn’t ask my permission and only tells me about their outings after the fact. Which I am honestly OK with. I would be an anxious mess if he asked me about it beforehand.

Dad called me last week to say there was an “incident” with Pyrrha at the preserve, and I almost had a heart attack waiting for him to tell me what had happened. Did she bite a child? Did she get in a dog fight? I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

But this was the incident: Pyrrha saw a deer and took off into the woods after it. Instead of going after her, Dad said he decided to keep hiking along with Eden and Dublin, who always stick close to him, and hope that Pyrrha would figure out how to find them. He said they walked for a good while, and Pyrrha was completely out of sight. After some more time passed, he started to get concerned that she was lost for good. Just as he was about to backtrack and start hunting for her, he said he heard these pitiful whines from the forest, and Pyrrha was darting around, crying, because she couldn’t find them. When she finally made her way back to the pack, he said she was the happiest he’d ever seen her. I am not sure if she learned anything from this “incident,” but I’m relieved that nothing more dire happened.

Dad said that shortly after she rejoined the group, two big dogs who were also off-leash came into the clearing, and everyone did their greetings politely and tossed off a few play bows. No barking! No lunging! No inappropriate greetings whatsoever. Pyrrha and Eden love other dogs, but they absolutely cannot greet them on leash. They lose their minds and look like vicious monsters if I can’t divert them or increase distance. So, this was a very happy outcome to hear about. Both of our dogs really love other dogs, but you would never guess that if you saw them pass dogs on leash. I’m always happy when they get to interact in an appropriate, happy way with other dogs off leash.

More to come on some theories about off-leash life and well-adjusted dogs, particularly reflecting on my time observing dogs in Europe…

Lacuna

The anxious one
Pyrrha, dear.

Just a friendly note to say that I may be taking some time off from Doggerel. Nothing is wrong; the dogs are still alive; I am not depressed. I just feel like I need to take a breather — and I feel like I’m running out of original, thoughtful content, which is never a great feeling.

So, this is just to say: Hello, I am thankful for all of you. We are not dead; we are grateful for you and your sweet comments and wise advice.

Expectant
That ring of mud on her nose, from illicit digging.

We’ll still be online via Instagram and Twitter.

Happy 2015! Love to you and your pups. Let’s talk again soon.

Seeking indestructible dog toys

We live with two very heavy chewers, and I’m always on the hunt for indestructible dog toys.

Hard at work

Things that have held up to the shepherd chompers:

  • The black (extreme) Kong products
  • The Planet Dog ball
  • A version of the Kong Wubba that looked like a rabbit (has since died after the head was removed with near-surgical precision)
  • Nylabones

Things we’ve tried and failed with:

  • Rawhides (upset stomachs)
  • Deer antlers (upsets Pyrrha’s stomach)
  • Marrow bones (splinter so easily; also dogs lose interest quickly)
  • Anything remotely stuffed
  • Rope toys (Eden thinks the game is to rip out the threads of the rope and swallow them)

I’d like to try some more products from Planet Dog; I’ve been impressed with the strength of that ball. But I’m always looking for other suggestions!

Do you have heavy-duty chewers in your house? What products have you liked for them?

The irony of the champion bred vs. backyard bred

I hesitate to write this post, lest anyone think I’m championing lackadaisical backyard breeders or puppy mills. Not at ALL. This is just a weird, little personal observation…

When it comes to purebred dogs, sometimes the haphazardly bred turn out healthier than the ones from ribbon-winning breeders.

Our dogs are a case in point.

Ready to rumble
Pyrrha, February 2013.

Pyrrha came from a terrible place — this neglectful man who had a dozen shepherds in tiny cages outdoors — but she is the picture of health. She’s never had a serious health concern (knock on wood), her skin and coat are shiny and robust, and she has a better, stronger build (no exaggerated back lines or hocks). Plus, her teeth look much better than Eden’s, despite the fact that they are on the same diet and that Pyrrha is a full two years her senior.

Dogs in May
Eden, May 2014.

Eden, on the other hand, was a very expensive puppy from West German lines. (Her papers are completely in German.) Her parents are both titled schutzhund champions. And health wise, she’s been a huge pain. Thankfully, there’s nothing seriously wrong with her (yet), but she is the reason we spend a small fortune at the vet on a regular basis. Her skin is bad and she’s constantly itchy. Her teeth are already showing signs of wear and tear. Her back hocks are sadly sloped.

I mentioned this little observation to one of the vet techs, when we were back in with Eden, and she laughed and said she had the same experience. She rescues Boston terriers, and her terriers from puppy mills and backyard breeders have been quite healthy. But her most recent acquisition, an expensive puppy from a supposedly good breeder, has been a complete genetic disaster.

So. Conclusion? If you want a purebred, do your research and find a really excellent, thoughtful breeder. But also acknowledge that purebreds are just a gamble. Don’t give money to the horrible human beings who churn out puppies in miserable conditions, but also don’t think that a well-bred purebred is going to be perfectly healthy. The odds are somewhat against them.

Wednesday afternoon

We love our ladies, regardless of their issues. But my big conclusion is: Get a mixed-breed dog. This would definitely be my next move, as much as I love our purebred ladies.

What do you think? Am I totally insane? Anyone else have a similar experience with purebreds from disparate backgrounds?

A behavior of Pyrrha’s that I’m not sure how to interpret or solve

With bated breath #ears #beggars #gsdlife #germanshepherds #twinmotives

So. Here’s the behavior, which has more or less been happening since we adopted Eden:

When I come home during the day to let them outside, Pyrrha freaks out and redirects her excitement in the form of aggression toward Eden. Pyrrha growls at her, nips at Eden’s neck, and generally just fusses and sasses (barking, growling) in Eden’s face until they get outside. And even once they are outside, Pyrrha continues this general antsy, aggressive behavior for a minute or so until she can control herself. Eden, the poor thing, is usually a bit afraid to venture out into the yard until Pyrrha calms down, and I don’t blame her. I, too, dislike being chomped on the neck without good cause.

Fights are not necessarily started, but Pyrrha will body-slam Eden for a minute or more until she seems to regain her right mind. The more I try to physically intervene, the more ramped up Pyrrha seems to get. My tactic so far has been to let Pyrrha out into the yard first, let her chill a bit, and then let Eden out. This works most of the time, but I acknowledge it’s not getting at the root of the issue, because Pyrrha still reacts this way every time I come home.

My bigger questions are: What is causing this behavior? What does it mean?

My simplest guess is that Pyrrha is just REALLY excited when I come home, and she doesn’t know how to properly handle this emotion, and so she expresses it in excitable aggression toward the closest target (e.g., Eden). Notably, she does not practice this behavior if Guion is the one to let them out (presumably because she’s not that excited when Guion comes home).

I want to figure out how to get Pyrrha to a place where she doesn’t feel like she has to react this way but being mystified to the cause leaves me with few solid, workable ideas.

So, my trusty, intelligent readers: How do you interpret Pyrrha’s behavior? What would you do if it were your dogs?

Creating a safe home for dogs and children

In some ways, this is a continuation of my hypothetical dread post about Pyrrha’s phobia of children. Many thanks to everyone for your kind comments, advice, and anecdotes. You are the best.

A toddler and a floofy-looking terrier mix

I feel that there are three types of dogs, when it comes to interacting with children: (1) dogs who inherently adore children, (2) dogs who tolerate children, and (3) dogs who are afraid of (dislike) children.

The most important caveat of these types, however, is that ALL dogs, regardless of type, can be provoked to bite or to otherwise harm a child. It can be hard for many people to believe this about their beloved family dogs, but it’s a vital fact to remember for those who keep children and dogs under the same roof.

Bo, who acted as my surrogate dog before we got Pyrrha, was the definition of Type 1. He worshiped children! On the pedestrian mall, he wanted to greet every child he saw, especially the small ones, probably because they were the ones most likely covered with food remnants. He is also a golden retriever, a breed famous for its adoration of all humans, regardless of degree of knowledge. I feel that most stable dogs are Type 2, which is nice. Many dogs can coexist peacefully in a home with children, even if they aren’t naturally magnetized toward them. Eden, from my best observations, is Type 2. She’s interested in children and wants to greet them. Eden doesn’t show any fear of children but neither is she naturally attracted to them (any more than she is to other strangers). Pyrrha, sadly, is Type 3, as are many dogs whose fears span a wide range of beings/things.

Boy with a Boston terrier.Despite these categories, I feel that many parents (especially those of young children) treat ALL dogs as if they were Type 1 (i.e., naturally in love with children). And even if the dogs are Type 1, I see many parents abusing the tolerance of their dogs by letting their children manhandle the dog, hurt them, stress them out, threaten them, etc.

I am often appalled by the photos that circulate on social media of “cute” baby/dog photos, often with the dogs showing extreme calming signals and distress with totally unaware infants draped over them. Such photo ops are downright dangerous. They are NOT adorable, under any circumstances. Even in these vintage photos in this post, only the first dog (that scruffy, cute terrier-looking pup) seems happy to be with a child; his mouth is open and relaxed. The Boston terrier with the boy has a hard mouth and does not look pleased, and the mix on his hind legs with the girl (below) would clearly rather be doing something else. Dogs and Babies has a great post of appropriate child/dog photos; you’ll notice that they are very different from the most popular ones circulating on Pinterest, which tend to treat dogs as props.

Two very charming faces

If and when we have children, here are some basic guidelines we plan on observing.

  1. Supervise, supervise, supervise! I’d never leave a small child unattended with any dog. Ever. Dog bites can happen in the blink of an eye, and that is not a risk I’m ever willing to take.
  2. Watch for stress signals/calming signals in the dog and take action to remedy the situation. Does the dog dislike the fact that the baby is crawling in its direction? Remove the dog to a place where it feels calm, or vice versa, redirect the baby.
  3. Create havens for dogs to retreat to. For us, these are the dogs’ crates. Our dogs like their crates and we treat them as sacred space. Kids won’t be allowed to tease or poke at dogs while in crates, and the dogs will always have free access to their crates when they need a break.
  4. Be alert for resource guarding scenarios, in which the dog may feel compelled to guard its food or toys from a curious child. Never let a child approach or touch a dog while the dog is eating.
  5. Never put the dog in a compromising situation. Even if my dog tolerates a baby pulling its ears or climbing on its back,
  6. Look for ways to create positive interactions. Pair baby interactions with positive associations for your dog. A wonderfully simple way to do this is food. Babies are messy eaters, and dogs generally love this about them. As an another example, my friend Catherine has an adorable video of her toddler playing fetch with their lab/shepherd mix, Ava. Her daughter, who recently learned to walk, was playing a rudimentary game of fetch with Ava; she’d pick up a ball and throw it, and Ava would politely pick it up and drop it at the child’s feet. Ava was clearly not stressed about the interaction, and it was a great example of a dog and very young child interacting in a way that was safe and fun for both parties.

These are just some ideas. And perhaps another reason I’m not jumping at the gun to procreate is that all of this sounds exhausting. I’m not surprised that parents of young kids who also have dogs just don’t have the time or energy to do these things. It takes a lot of work. And dogs naturally become neglected when a baby enters the household. It’s a sad reality, but there it is.

Importantly, I am not a parent yet, but my husband and I have plans to have children at some point in the future. I am thankful to be aware of these resources now, before we have kids. Furthermore, this research informs the way that I help kids interact with my dogs and help my dogs interact with kids. Supervision is so key, and there seems to be so little of it in dog/child relations. The dogs will always be an important part of our family, and I think it’s only fair to them to treat them with dignity and respect — and in so doing, you are protecting the safety of children. It’s a win-win!

Do you have kids in your home? How do your dogs interact with children? What are some of your success stories?

Resources for Parents Raising Kids and Dogs

My biggest fear

I feel like I can say this here and be heard with compassion and understanding, even though I still feel afraid to say it.

I want to tell you my biggest fear, the potential moment that causes me the most dread and anticipated heartache.

So, biggest fear: I am afraid that if and when we have children, we won’t be able to keep Pyrrha.

I can barely even write about this without wanting to cry, but it’s been weighing on my mind and heart lately — even though I still think we’re a few years away from having children.

Pyrrha is extremely afraid of children, especially small ones. This has been a long-standing phobia of hers. The first family that adopted her returned her to the rescue after just a few days because of her extreme fear of their small children, which had the potential to slide into aggression. Without my intervention, I think she could have bitten several children, and she has already nipped my cousin, which I saw as a serious warning (it was not playful). She is overly interested in toddlers, and not in a sweet way, but in a way that makes me extremely nervous, so much so that she is always crated behind a closed door if there are small kids afoot. I cannot trust her in any environment in which children are loose. Kids themselves are unpredictable, but her behavior around them is not encouraging. She is able to coexist in a room with calm, quiet kids over the age of 8 or 9, so long as they don’t try to interact with her, but that seems to be her limit.

I adopted Pyrrha heart-first, not thinking very rationally that we’d probably have children one day and that her phobia of them could pose a problem. I wasn’t even thinking about the future when I saw her; all I saw was a sweet, shy, beautiful dog who needed a home, and I said YES and didn’t think anymore about it.

Regal

Practically, I am thankful that we have great resources, in our trainer and in her connections to behaviorists, who could help us navigate the perils of simultaneous child- and dog-rearing. I think Pyrrha could learn how to adapt to a home with noisy, scary little humans, but she wouldn’t be happy in such a home — and we’d have to really limit her life and interactions with the family to keep a child safe. And I don’t know if I could live with myself, seeing her so removed from our lives. Naturally, this is all very subjective and hypothetical, but I don’t think I’m overstating my fears — or hers, for that matter.

If I’m honest with myself, Pyrrha is one of the main reasons I haven’t wanted to have children. Because I know how unhappy they would make her.

The thought of having to give Pyrrha to someone else, to a stranger, KILLS me, as much as I’d feel if I had to give my own child to a stranger. Furthermore, the thought of surrendering her back to her rescue, who would slap a shock collar on her as soon as they could, makes me want to pull a Beloved. Yes, really. (English majors will get this reference? It’s too dark/sad to explain…)

Obviously, I’m not going to make any decisions about her future before we have children. Who knows? Maybe the miraculous will happen, and she’ll be able to coexist in a household with small kids. I don’t even want or expect her to like children, because I don’t think that will ever be possible; I’d just want her to feel happy and secure and have the wherewithal to remove herself from stressful situations. Naturally, we’d protect Pyrrha AND our potential child. But part of me wonders if it would be possible to do both simultaneously, as I’m not sure Pyrrha would ever be happy in a home with small children.

I don’t think I’m looking for any answers, necessarily, but I’m always happy to hear counsel. This makes me heart feel so heavy.

Working on their relationship

The progress of a fearful dog can often seem imperceptible. For me, one of the primary ways I am able to detect progress with Pyrrha’s myriad fears is by hearing guests say, “Wow, Pyrrha seems so much calmer/more interested in me/less anxious.” Without this external confirmation, I am often incapable of noticing her improvements on my own.

Guion and P

She has never been a fan of Guion. In many ways, she still doesn’t totally trust him. She brings a lot of baggage to the table, but I also think his personality is just one that she’ll never totally warm up to. He is expressive, animated, and loud, many of the traits that Pyrrha abhors in people, especially if they happen to be male. Pyrrha has warmed up to a few men in a noticeable way (my father and my brother-in-law), but their personality types are quieter and they seem to engage with her in a way that she wants.

Guion and P

However, since adding Eden to the household, we’ve both noticed a small shift in Pyrrha’s comfort level with Guion. She boldly begs from him whenever he is eating — a behavior that our trainer said to allow, because Pyrrha is expressing bravery by approaching Guion — and lately, she’s even been seeking attention from him.

Guion and P

He told me that the other day, when I wasn’t home, she came up to greet him, sniff him over, and lean on him for pets. This sounds like such a small, insignificant thing, but in the Pyrrha/Guion relationship complex, it’s huge! It’s doubly so because I wasn’t home; my presence is usually a prerequisite for any voluntary interaction between them.

Inter-species communication #germanshepherd #doglife

After two years together, they are still working on their relationship, but I am proud of them both. And always happy to observe progress, however slight.

If you have a spouse/partner, do your dogs interact differently with the two of you? In what ways?