My hot-button topics in the dog world

The more I learn about dogs, the more opinionated I seem to get. Anyone else feel that way? ūüėČ

It’s hard to keep my mouth shut sometimes. I don’t like writing combative or purposefully aggressive posts here, but I do have strong opinions.

Secret garden shepherd. #gsd #backyardliving
Secret garden shepherd.

Over the years, here is what I have come to feel most strongly about with regard to dogs. So, without starting any kind of ranting and raving session, here — simply put — are the topics that I have a hard time keeping quiet about:

  1. Inhumane breeding practices, merely to fit the sacred “breed standard.” (See: bulldogs, pugs, most brachycephalic breeds, many toy breeds, most any breed without any current working line.) The more I read, the more I am convinced that we all just need to get mixed breeds. (Says the woman with a purebred German shepherd, one of the most physically effed purebreds there is. I know, I know…)
  2. The deeply damaging use of shock collars (euphemistically termed “e-collars”) in dog training. Many of the most respected trainers, behaviorists, and dog bloggers have written about the detrimental effects of shock collars (see Patricia McConnell and Jean Donaldson, to name a few). Eileen and Dogs also has compiled helpful articles and videos on this topic. What particularly interests me about this divide in training is that the people with the most expertise, academic background, and scientific credentials are always against the use of shock collars. The people without scientific credentials always seem to be the most vociferous proponents of shock collars.
  3. Cesar Millan being respected as a “trainer.” I always cringe as soon as someone starts throwing around the words “pack leader,” “dominance,” or starts making that silly “tsk, tsk” sound and then poking their dog in the side. God forbid they follow his other tactics at home (flooding, alpha rolling, wrestling fearful dogs to the ground, etc.).
  4. People who use retractable leashes for everyday walks. As the owner of a reactive dog, I think that is all I have to say about that.
  5. Toy or tiny breeds that are not trained, simply because they are small and “cute.”¬†My Mega-E Dog recently wrote a post on this that resonated with me. I often see toy breeds get away with behavior that is simply appalling, merely because they are tiny and can be scooped up in one’s arms. They are still dogs. They still need to be trained.
  6. Breed-specific legislation. And as the owner of a frequently maligned breed, I am well aware of how silly and damaging these regulations are.

What are YOUR hot-button topics, related to dogs? And feel free to share if you disagree with some of mine! This could be a healthy way to release steam without starting an Internet war…

And, on a happier note: Trina already has a slew of approved adopters interested in her (no surprise there). Now we just have to choose the best family for her! Wish us (and the little pup) luck!

Pup links!

Red Aussie puppy. Click for source.

Great dog-related links from around the Web this week:

Dogs in the Workplace. Happy Bring Your Dog to Work day! While my office would frown on dogs in our space, I think Pyrrha would actually do pretty well here, particularly since I have a very quiet department. Did you bring your dog to work? Would you, if your office allowed it? (Pawsh magazine)

Travel 101: Prepping Your Pooch. I found this list of travel preparations from Vanessa–who recently made a cross-country move with her family and dog, Rufus–very helpful. I’m taking a 5-hour trip with Pyrrha in July to visit my parents and many of these tips were really helpful and insightful. Also: Doesn’t Rufus’ travel hammock look so cozy? Now that’s how I want to travel on my next road trip! (The Rufus Way)

No Party Zone. Do you avoid having house guests because of your reactive dog? Kristine shares some thoughts and a recent near-encounter with their future landlord. (Rescued Insanity)

Couldn’t Have Been a Lab; They Don’t Bite. Katie reflects on the dangerous precedent we set by breed stereotyping. Just because a dog is a lab doesn’t mean that it’s incapable of biting or showing aggression toward people. (Save the Pit Bull, Save the World)

Bye-bye, Cesar Millan. Animal rights advocate and professor Marc Bekoff celebrates the news that Cesar Millan’s TV show “The Dog Whisperer” is being cancelled. I for one am glad to hear it. What do you think about it? (The Hydrant)

Stay Away from “Stay” with Fearful Dogs. This is an interesting perspective from a dog trainer who believes that teaching a shy dog to “stay” could actually ratchet up their anxiety levels. Makes sense to me. I’ve been trying to teach it to Pyrrha, and it does actually make her way more nervous than other commands. Maybe we’ll get there eventually. (My Smart Puppy)

Ebon’s Training History. A sweet post charting the evolution of training for a dog over the course of his life. It’s interesting to think about how our dogs change with us as we grow up. (Musings of a Biologist and Dog Lover)

Lessons Learned from Dogs: Morgan and Kuster. Tales and Tails is doing a really sweet series on what she’s learned from her four dogs. Here are the stories from the two more difficult dogs of her pack, the German shepherds. Very heartwarming and well written. (Tales and Tails)

Innovative Ideas: Helping the Homeless and Shelter Dogs. Discussion of a program in San Francisco that would pair homeless youth with shelter dogs. Sounds like a really great idea; looking forward to hearing more about it. (The Bark blog)

Animal Love. Just some pretty, dreamy photos of animals collected by one of my favorite lifestyle/design bloggers. (Miss Moss)

Superdog Lova. Great, playful photographs of this high-energy spaniel. Very sweet. (Ulicam)

Review: In a Dog’s Heart

In a Dog's Heart.

Jennifer Arnold is the founder of Canine Assistants, a non-profit that trains and assigns therapy dogs for a variety of different uses. In a Dog’s Heart is her second book and was published in October 2011.

I hesitate to write a review here, because I found this book somewhat disappointing. Arnold is clearly a wonderful woman with a huge heart and lots of hands-on experience with dogs. She certainly knows a lot more than I do.

My reservation is that as a book,¬†In a Dog’s Heart was not a successful project. It is essentially one woman’s collected ramblings about why she loves dogs. That is all well and good in itself, but it is not compelling or interesting. Perhaps it could have been reworked into something more memoir-like, resembling Caroline Knapp’s sweet book Pack of Two. Instead, Arnold’s book doesn’t seem to have any grounding frame of reference or context to give it much-needed structure.

I did appreciate Arnold’s thorough critique of Cesar Millan and the incredible damage he has done to dog training in America today. I enjoyed the heart-warming stories about the therapy dogs she’s trained, worked with, and assigned to people in need. However, I felt dismayed to read her hearty recommendation of dog food made by companies like Purina and Hill’s Science Diet, long known for creating chemically-laden refuse that is patently terrible for dogs. I also thought it was kind of silly that she believed so strongly in puppy temperament testing, something we’ve known for a while is not any reliable indicator of an adult dog’s temperament.

The book’s lack of organization–or a discernible¬†point–is a crippling element. The chapters are haphazardly arranged and filled with all sorts of random thoughts. I almost felt like she just sat down with a legal pad and just wrote down all of the things she knew about dogs and then decided to structure her book that way. Essentially, I’m not sure what this book was trying to accomplish. Is it a behavioral guide? Is it a training manual? Is it a memoir? I don’t think it really knew either.

Arnold is very well-meaning and has done so much good for so many people and dogs. For that, she should be praised and applauded. But this book? Not a keeper.

Review: Surviving Your Dog’s Adolescence

Surviving Your Dog's Adolescence.

Carol Lea Benjamin is a name you will see a lot in dog books, especially in dog books written in the late 1980s or in the early 1990s. She was a big name trainer at the time. Benjamin has now retired from dog training, but she still writes a blog and works with her own dogs. I was excited to find her book Surviving Your Dog’s Adolescence, because it sounded like an interesting and relevant focus on a particularly trying time in a dog’s life. I also thought it might be pertinent for us, since we’re aiming to adopt a young adult dog.

After having read this brief and snappy little book, however, I found myself confused by the book’s subtitle, which says it’s “A Positive Training Program.” This was surprising to me, because the book relies heavily on physical punishments and lots of “leash pops” to get your teenage dog in line. Not much of Benjamin’s recommendations fit with the guidelines of positive reinforcement trainers like Pat Miller, Patricia McConnell, or Karen Pryor.

Rather, Benjamin’s book focuses primarily on the outmoded and damaging concepts of dominance and “alpha” leadership models. Her book assumes that your job as a trainer is to never let your dog get the upper hand, something which he is continually trying to do, because he’s like a wolf. This line of thinking, as we now well know, is false and based on inappropriately applied research, but it’s a philosophy that is still extremely prevalent among modern American dog owners (thanks to the damage done by popular trainers like Cesar Millan).

This book was published in 1993, so I can’t really fault Benjamin for not knowing this at the time. She was clearly doing what she thought was best for the dogs. Compared to other training manuals, this book isn’t nearly as harsh as some of the others I have read, and Benjamin does have some good overall advice for people with adolescent dogs. It’s just not a book that I would necessarily recommend to anyone as a training manual.

Review: Bones Would Rain from the Sky

Bones Would Rain from the Sky, by Suzanne Clothier

Suzanne Clothier is a dog trainer, but Bones Would Rain from the Sky is not a dog-training manual. Rather, this book is Clothier’s lovely and heartfelt guide about how to have a more intimate relationship with your dog.

The book’s title and premise of “deepening our relationships with dogs” sounds hokey, but Clothier does provide some very practical and hands-on advice about communicating and living with canines. Her stories are insightful and her calm, holistic approach to training is refreshing to read. She doesn’t get hung up on doing the exact right thing; she doesn’t seem to fret about all of the things we might be missing. Instead, the constant mantra of this book is to slow down, listen, and try to understand your dog a little bit better.

I was most struck my Clothier’s gentle and extremely humble tone. I’ve found that dog trainers, like most self-proclaimed “experts,” almost never admit to making mistakes. So many dog trainers would never share their errors with you–or even admit that they were capable of making mistakes (cough, cough, Cesar Millan). It’s easy to think that these great dog trainers don’t ever mess up. Clothier is quick to point out that this is not the case. She graciously shares the times she lost her temper with foster dogs or made a hasty decision based on incorrect information. Rather than diminishing her credibility as a trainer, these disclosures strengthened my trust in Clothier as a wise dog parent.

Overall, I really enjoyed this thorough and philosophical approach to human-canine relationships. I would recommend this book to people who were already solid in their knowledge of positive training techniques and didn’t really need a step-by-step training manual. I think it would be a fantastic addition to the more knowledgeable dog parent’s repertoire of canine reading.

Clothier is a graceful and wise trainer and caretaker and her dogs are very lucky animals. I hope that I will be able to eventually exude the same peace and confidence with my future dogs.

Thoughts about Cesar Millan

Cesar's Way, by Cesar Millan and Melissa Jo Peltier

Self-proclaimed “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan is arguably America’s most well-known dog trainer, thanks in large part to his TV show, “The Dog Whisperer,” on the National Geographic Channel. I have watched his show many times myself, interested in seeing how this well-known man was purportedly rehabilitating problem dogs.

When I started my project of researching dogs, many people told me that I should read Cesar Millan’s books and watch his show. I see dog owners making that “pssh” sound and poking their dogs in the side like Millan does on his show. The general dog-owning public seems very fond of Millan and his methods.

But I’ll be honest. Based on what I had seen from his show, I was reluctant to read his books. This is because I didn’t really see Millan as a trainer. I couldn’t divine what his actual training techniques were, apart from physical corrections and murky statements about “calm, assertive energy.”

Having started my dog research among other positive training books, I quickly realized that Millan is not held in high regard among behaviorists and positive trainers. The more I watched his show, the more I realized that they were right. Millan, while well intentioned, advocates negative reinforcement and physical punishment techniques to an untrained general public.

I decided to read Cesar’s Way because I felt that I should at least read what he had to say before I completely dismissed him. My friend Liz gave me a copy of his book. I read it quickly, as it was not difficult to get through.

On the whole, I was impressed with Millan’s rags-to-riches story. He came to America as an undocumented immigrant and worked his way up from a car washer to a dog trainer. He got his big break when he was picked up by Jada Pinkett Smith, who sought his help in rehabilitating the family rottweilers. It is a nice story and as the reader, you are pulling for him to succeed and beat the odds. He certainly did.

The one other thing I liked about this book was Millan’s emphasis on exercise. Americans themselves don’t exercise nearly enough, and so it’s a no-brainer that our dogs probably aren’t getting any exercise, either. Cesar’s Way devotes a whole chapter to the importance of “The Walk” and the daily communion with your dog outdoors. I am a huge proponent of this idea and the notion of walking your dog being a time of companionship and communication certainly resonated with me.

Cesar Millan and Tony Cardenas at the League of CA Cities 2010 Conference & CA Latino Caucus
Source: Flickr, user gocardenas

But my admiration for Millan’s training recommendations ended there.

One of my main issues with Millan’s philosophy is that he is constantly comparing dogs in America to dogs in Mexico. Dogs in Mexico roamed free in packs, leash-less, without any training. I don’t deny that that sounds like an ideal life for any dog, but that kind of lifestyle is simply not feasible for canines in 21st-century America. We have leash laws. Dogs need to be neutered. They need to be trained how to walk on streets and greet people in public. Millan’s Dog Psychology Center in California is a nice idea, but it is thoroughly unhelpful to anyone who doesn’t live with a roaming pack of 30 dogs (which I imagine is most people). It’s nice that he’s able to make the dogs get along in a massive pack, but that is not how those dogs will be living on a daily basis when they get back home. Trying to make American dogs into Mexican dogs is not the solution. But that is what it seems that Millan keeps trying to do.

My second issue with Millan is his unabashed use and promotion of negative reinforcement training and physical punishments. In Cesar’s Way, he acknowledges that he is unpopular among positive trainers for his reliance on these dated methods, but he insists that they are effective. He even devotes a section of the book that recommends doing an “alpha roll” on a dominant dog, which absolutely floored me. I thought this medieval form of punishment had disappeared in the dark ages of dog training, but apparently not. This is one of the real dangers of Millan’s popularity, in my opinion. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, famed veterinarian and writer, had this to say about Cesar Millan:

Cesar Millan’s methods are based on flooding and punishment. The results, though immediate, will be only transitory. His methods are misguided, outmoded, in some cases dangerous, and often inhumane. You would not want to be a dog under his sphere of influence. The sad thing is that the public does not recognize the error of his ways. My college thinks it is a travesty. We’ve written to National Geographic Channel and told them they have put dog training back 20 years.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the Behavioral Clinic at Tufts University, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

Another issue I have with Millan is his reliance on the old-fashioned paradigm of dominance and pack mentality. Millan would have us believe that our dogs are out to get us and always looking for an opportunity to usurp us. I simply don’t believe this is true, and I’m not the only one. Cognitive researcher and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin wrote directly about how Millan’s techniques are outdated and simply wrong in her book Animals Make Us Human. Dogs do not live in packs, Grandin points out, and it’s a misinformed way to think about a dog’s social unit. Rather, like wolves, dogs live in families where parents care for the pups in a partnership. Treating dogs like they are obsessed with dominance is a grave injustice to our canine companions. For more on this, I highly recommend an article published in 2006 in the New York Times by author Mark Derr, “Pack of Lies.”

The good thing I will say about Millan is that he has been successful in raising awareness of how we have failed our dogs in training and teaching. The bad thing is that the methods he advocates are archaic, cruel, and generally unhelpful to most people. But don’t just take my word for it: See a collection of qualified opinions about how we need to move away from this “Dog Whisperer” at the website Beyond Cesar Millan.

What do you think about Cesar Millan? Is he awesome? Overrated? Misunderstood?

Review: The Dog Whisperer

The Dog Whisperer, by Paul Owens

No, it’s not Cesar Millan. This is Paul Owens, who called himself “The Dog Whisperer” five years before Millan’s show appeared on the National Geographic Channel. Liz (Bo‘s mom) lent me this book and said that she’d read it before she brought Bo home.

Paul Owens wants to be the yogi for your dog training. He’s a positive reinforcement trainer who believes very strongly in Eastern principles of breathing, meditation, and holistic health treatments. I thought it was certainly an interesting approach to dog training. Aside from his breathing exercises, though, Owens doesn’t offer a lot of new information in the way of positive training. I agreed with most of what he said, but I think I’d be more inclined to rely on Pat Miller‘s straightforward and helpful training guide for my own dog.

One thing that Owens does talk a lot about is that you should never speak soothingly to or try to comfort a frightened dog. A lot of dog training books tell you this. But is it actually true? Can trying to comfort your frightened dog actually reinforce her fear? Patricia McConnell, my all-things-dog hero, wrote an insightful article on her blog, “You Can’t Reinforce Fear: Dogs and Thunderstorms,” about this very issue. I tend to trust McConnell’s word on this one. She has a Ph.D. and is an applied animal behaviorist and she has the science to back up her experience. Even though Owens is also qualified, I’m inclined to listen to McConnell on this one. I highly recommend her article and its follow-up companion on the issue to anyone who’s received this advice before.

I did enjoy Owens’ section on what we feed our dogs. Dog food is something I’ve been doing a considerable amount of research about. It’s not something that I know about and I was astounded at how complex the dog food industry can be. There are a lot of different opinions floating around about what to feed our dogs, but the general consensus is that most brands of widely available dog food are absolutely terrible. I’ve really enjoyed the content on this extremely helpful website, Dog Food Advisor. I’ve already been researching the different types of kibble that I’d feed my dog and it’s been an extremely helpful place to start.

I’m curious to hear from you on this one. How did you decide what kind of food to feed your dog? Did you ever make any changes? Since I don’t know if I’d try a raw diet right away, is there a particular brand that you would recommend?

On showing grace to other dog owners

An early pit bull/boxer with his strange raccoon/koala friend. But I'm withholding judgment! And it's pretty cute. Source: ywgrossman.com

I have a natural tendency to be judgmental. It’s a terrible personality trait but one that I am well aware of.

After these months of casual research, I now somehow feel qualified to project my judgment onto other dog people.

For instance, there is a macho man who I often see walking around town with his pack of three huge, intact male pit bulls. My first instinct when I saw him was to cringe and to fear for the well-being of those dogs. The area in which he lived, the breed of dog, and the manner in which he carried himself all made me instantly anxious. I thought this for a while and mentioned this man and his ferocious-looking pack to my friend Liz (Bo’s mama). Liz is wise and gracious and she said, instead: “But he’s out walking them. And that’s more than most dog owners do.”

I was humbled and I realized this was true. At least these dogs are not chained to a tree somewhere. He seems very devoted to walking them around town. And even though this might be because they contribute to his manly, somewhat scary image, he’s just a man out walking his dogs.

And then there is the homeless man who begs on the downtown mall in my city. He keeps an American bulldog/pit mix on a big rope while he asks for money from passersby. I was anxious about the man and felt that it was irresponsible for him to keep a dog when it was evident that he wasn’t able to keep himself very well. But this dog always appears very healthy, alert, and calm–despite what must be a stressful life on the streets. He has a human with him, and so he’s happy.

And then there are the people who swear that Cesar Millan is the greatest dog trainer alive. Those people I also try not to judge.

Because at the end of the day, what’s the point? Casting stones never really helped anyone. We’re all just trying to do the best we can by our dogs.

“And all day long we talked about mercy…” — Joanna Newsom

Review: The Power of Positive Dog Training

The Power of Positive Dog Training, by Pat Miller

This was the first dog book I picked up in my year-long quest to learn about dogs and I am so glad it was.

After doing some preliminary online research on dog training, Pat Miller’s now classic treatise of positive reinforcement training kept getting a lot of buzz. Thankfully, my local library had a copy and I picked it up soon after reading yet another rave review of the book.

Miller’s basic mantra is that all animals repeat behaviors that are rewarded and avoid behaviors that are not. Punishment rarely achieves desired objectives when it comes to training an animal. Dogs seek to repeat behaviors that are positively reinforced. Quite simply, this is the entire belief system behind Miller’s training paradigm. Capture the behavior you want and then reward it. Attach a verbal cue after a few repetitions and Sparky is throwing sits at you right and left.

Even though I don’t yet have a dog of my own, I’ve spent a lot of time with dogs and trained my childhood Australian Shepherd from scratch back when I was a kid. I wish I’d had this book with me then! And I wish I had been more confident to confront my parents about their punishment/dominance-oriented methods of behavior control. Dogs don’t learn like humans. They don’t readily associate punishment with past behavior. This is why Miller stresses, again and again, the need to turn every desired behavior into an opportunity for positive reinforcement.

I took tons of notes while I was reading this book. I’m planning on putting Miller’s weekly training regimens into practice once we get our dog. She provides step-by-step instructions for teaching your dog each behavior and consistently provides advice for the dogs who aren’t perfectly mirroring these behaviors. I want to give a copy of this book to everyone in my life who has a dog or who is thinking about a dog.

One of the primary reasons I loved this book is that Miller has practical and scientific justification for her methods. Her techniques work and she explains why they do. Even though I like watching “The Dog Whisperer,” Cesar Millan isn’t very helpful to your average dog owner. He’s able to calm that psychotic Rottweiler with his “calm, assertive energy,” but what does that really mean for you on a daily basis? Miller is anything but esoteric. She gives you concrete, definite explanations for her methods, which in turn gives her readers a hearty dose of confidence.

My parents are talking about getting a dog once all of my siblings are out of the house. When the time comes, I’ll be mailing them a copy of this book!

For more information about Pat Miller and her programs, visit her excellent website, Peaceable Paws.