What I’ve unintentionally trained my dogs to do

Serious sentinels

We’re always training our dogs, even when we think we aren’t.

I should repeat this line to myself daily. Dogs learn through repetition and reinforcement, and they are probably inadvertently training us more than we are training them. Because I allow myself to be inattentive and lazy, I have permitted our dogs to practice some less-than-great household habits.

Open door policy

Here are some (undesirable) things I have unintentionally trained our dogs to do (or: A Lesson in How Not to Train Your Dogs). Pyrrha and Eden have learned to:

  • Claw at the outside door because it means that Abby will come open it quickly and be grumpy about it, because we’ve scratched all the paint off and the door now looks like someone was murdered outside it, and she just can’t take it anymore 
  • Come running when they hear the sound of plastic packaging being opened
  • Expect help with a trapped/lost food toy when Abby comes in the room
  • Whine for assistance when a beloved ball is lost under the sofa for the millionth time
  • Flip out when the coat closet door is open, because that is where the leashes live
  • Flip out when a particular cabinet door is opened, because that is where the food lives
  • Bark at the neighbors because it’s super fun and makes Abby really irritated and yell-y

Just to name a few.

I’ve been thinking lately about how I need to really work on these behaviors, in a more concerted way, after watching a video from Kikopup about why letting dogs freak out about meal time is really a major step back in their training. It’s such a simple and true concept, and I’m not sure why I never thought about it before.

So, consider this my promise to myself, and to Pyrrha and Eden, that we are going to team up and start working to erode these oft-practiced behaviors with some switching up of routines, preventing these bad habits from being practiced in the first place, and teaching some incompatible behaviors with tons of positive reinforcement.

What have your dogs unintentionally learned? What have they trained you to do or expect? 

Spotted: A xolo in Berlin

Not a great photo, but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a xolo in person! This is a shot of a xoloitzcuintli running around Görlitzer Park in Berlin.

A xolo in Berlin

My youngest sister now lives in Berlin, and she confirmed my assessment of German dogs, who seem to live with the utmost freedom and decorum. Perhaps even more than London dogs, dogs in Berlin are unbelievably well behaved. They almost never wear leashes. They know how to wait to cross busy intersections without being told. They ignore other dogs and other people. I find it so astonishing and admirable, coming from a small town in the southeastern United States, where it seems that about 40% of dogs, including my own, are leash reactive. (And maybe it’s really just the leashes that are the problem…)

Anyway, I always get a little thrill when I see a rare breed in person. Have you seen any rare breeds lately? (And does anyone really know how to pronounce xoloitzcuintli?)

Review: In Defence of Dogs

In Defence of Dogs, John BradshawOur little public library in London had a small shelf of dog books, and so I was pleased to find a copy of John Bradshaw’s book In Defence of Dogs, which was not available at my library in the US.

I had previously read and enjoyed Bradshaw’s book Dog Sense, and this book might be the same book as Dog Sense, just under a UK title. Ha. It’s been so long since I’ve read Dog Sense and the material is so similar that I’m actually not sure. Even if it’s the same, it was a pleasure to re-read and to reinforce what I have already learned about the development and history of canine science.

“Dogs have been adapted, or have adapted themselves, to all kinds of roles, in a way unmatched by any other domestic animal, and such flexibility must lie at the heart of the enduring power of the human–canine relationship.”

Bradshaw’s underlying message is clear: If dog owners knew a little more dog science, dogs and people would be better off. 

There is a trend, particularly in America, to mistrust “experts” and science. Dog training originated as more of a craft than a science, and that model persists today. Anyone can call himself a dog trainer. It is not a certified profession in the same way that law or medicine are. And thus dogs suffer from this lack of a scientific standard or professional code. Because the recent decades of canine research have shown us that most of what traditional trainers have assumed about dogs is flatly wrong.

For instance, dogs are not constantly seeking to undermine us and rule the household. Dogs do not behave like captive wolves, and so the old dominance models, which were fixated on “pack leadership” and who was the “alpha” are both completely passé and damaging to our relationships with our dogs. Bradshaw, a professor of anthrozoology at the University of Bristol, uses plentiful examples from the scientific literature to make his case. He writes:

“Personally, I am delighted that the most recent scientific evidence backs up an approach to managing dogs that I am comfortable with. As a scientist as well as a dog-lover, I am dedicated to assessing the best evidence available and then deciding on the most logical approach to adopt. If wild wolf packs had turned out to be as fraught with tension as their counterparts in zoos, I would have had to agree that the dominance approach had merit. I would still have been reluctant to adopt punishment rather than reward as my philosophy for training my dog, because for me the whole point of having a dog is the companionship it brings, and for me domination and companionship do not gel. As a dog owner, I was relieved by the discrediting of the wolf-pack idea, since I could then explain to myself and, more importantly, to others why routinely punishing a dog is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive.” (Emphasis added)

And this is what I also find so pleasing: Science confirms that gentleness and respect, not dominance and punishment, is the preferable approach to relating to our dogs.

Bradshaw also reviews the history of the domestication of the dog, dog training myths, and the perils of the purebred dog, among other topics.

Darwin's sketch of a submissive dog.
Darwin’s sketch of a submissive dog.

It’s a compelling and eminently readable book, and his chapters debunking the dominance myth should be required reading for all dog owners. I was pleased to refresh my memory of many of these studies, and In Defence of Dogs profoundly renewed my interest in canine science and general advocacy.

Have you read John Bradshaw before? 

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:

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…

The intrigue of the impeccably mannered London dog

Camden and Regent's Park area
This vicious, vicious guard dog at a pub in our neighborhood.

As I mentioned, we are living in London for the summer and the girls are enjoying summer camp at my parents’ house. (I don’t think they’re going to want to come home with us in August. They like it there more than their normal life with us, I think.)

Deprived of my two misbehaving monsters, I have become unaccountably dog crazy here in London, and I am particularly intrigued by the observation that 90%* of these city dogs are unbelievably well behaved. Like, stunning composure.

Field notes on the London dog

  • They spend a lot of time off leash in the giant, gorgeous parks. Most amazingly, to me, the vast majority of them exhibit almost NO interest in other people. I kept waiting, desperately, for an unmanned dog to come running up to me, seeking pets, but
  • Despite all this off-leash time in parks, I have yet to see a dog fight. I am sure they occur, but partly because the dogs get to be off leash, all of that leash tension is absent.
  • They exhibit a great degree of patience. Tethering dogs outside stores seems like common behavior here, and the dogs are amazingly self-controlled and quiet while they wait for their people. They also continue to show no interest in people walking past them (again, to my personal/selfish chagrin).
  • They are very quiet. Much like their British owners, I suppose, these London dogs have assumed that stiff upper lip and seem to always be full of decorum and composure.
  • Popular breeds, according to wholly anecdotal observation: Long-haired chihuahuas, border terriers, Jack Russell terriers, English cocker spaniels, long-haired dachshunds, French bulldogs, and miniature schnauzers. (I have seen exactly two Alsatians, both long-haired, and they were so beautiful I kind of wanted to cry. The trend for long-haired dogs seems quite pronounced here.)

I saw a French bulldog on the Tube the other day. His owner deposited him under her seat and he just put his head down and didn’t move for 15 minutes, until she told him it was time to get off. A marvel!

While walking in Hyde Park, this whippet and border terrier, below, were tearing around and playing with each other. They were so engaged that they actually collided with my husband’s legs but didn’t give him a moment’s thought.

Hyde Park and Kensington

(I have also never seen a whippet off leash before, in an unfenced area, so this was interesting. He did seem to be wearing some kind of shock collar, however.)

Along with making me miss my boorish American dogs, I continue to be enchanted by these London pups and their good manners. I keep wishing that we could have raised Pyrrha and Eden here, but I’m sure it has as much to do with the place as it does with the standards society sets for dog owners. For example: In London, you best have a well-behaved dog if you want to bring it out in public, else it disrupts the sanctity and composure of the urban space and brings shame on your good name. In America, caution to the wind! Let dogs be dogs. And don’t let anyone tell you what to do; land of the free, home of the brave, et hoc genus omne.

(*The sole example of a badly behaved dog I have seen was a leash-reactive miniature schnauzer outside our local pharmacy. He was straining on his leash, aggressively, toward a little cockapoo, and his middle-aged owner was yelling, “NICE! NICE! BE NICE!” Which was somewhat sadly/hilariously ineffective, of course. She let the schnauzer rush up to the cockapoo and in a split second, he tried to snap at the cockapoo’s face. She jerked him back on the leash and yelled, “BAD BOY! NOT NICE!” And they continued on their way. So, not every  London dog/dog owner is perfect.)

Hyde Park and Kensington

Have you observed dogs in other countries? What do you think? Are there cultural standards for dog raising? Is there any chance Pyrrha and Eden could one day be as polite as an English dog?

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?