Dream Dog Blog

Yesterday, the sun came out, so I took Brandy and Nico for a walk in the Blue Hills Reservation. I took the video camera with me so I could get some video of them, especially Nico (who’s recovering from his panniculitis, although he’s still weak).

Being a weekday morning, I didn’t expect many people to be out and about. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. There were other cars parked along the edge of the reservation, although none in the little turn-around where we usually start our walks.

But the walk started off well, with no one else in sight. I had Brandy on a training lead (a 30′ leash), which I was letting her drag. Nico was off-leash. (Confession time: dogs are actually supposed to be leashed when on the Blue Hills Reservation lands, but lots of people let their dogs off leash. Nico is pretty reliable, and comes back to us whenever he sees someone, so he’s allowed off-leash. Whenever we see or hear anyone else about, we call him and put him back on-leash until we’re alone again.) I got some good video of them, although they were both staying closer than I expected them to so some of the shots were real close-ups and others were of the empty trail ahead of us as they were right next to me.

I taught a “Positively Perfect Patients” workshop at the Randolph Animal Hospital on March 10th.

When I was planning the workshop, one thing I hadn’t planned on was the opportunity to practice all of the skills I intended to teach – over and over again, with a dog who once had to be sedated for anything more than the most basic of vet exams.

But a couple of weeks before the workshop, our dog Nico got sick. Very sick. In less than a week, he went from feeling “Not Quite Right” to being barely able to stand, with lumps all over his neck and sides that were necrotizing (the tissue was dying) and bursting. We thought we were going to have to put him down that weekend — without a diagnosis, as every test we’d run had come back negative, or at best with only a clue or two about what was going on (”there’s inflammation in his tissues….”).

Midnight on Friday saw Paul and Nico and me down at the Animal Emergency Center in West Bridgewater, MA.

Nico has been pretty sick lately (we thought we’d have to put him to sleep a few weeks ago). It turns out he had Idiopathic Sterile Nodular Panniculitis — inflammation of the subcutaneous fat tissues, with no known cause. (The “nodular” part of the disease presented as swellings all over his neck and sides, some of which necrotized and burst.) As it’s an autoimmune disease, we suspect that a vaccination he’d had the week before he got sick overloaded his immune system and precipitated the disease.

While Nico’s much improved, he still has some times when he’s not feeling well. At this point that’s as much a result of the medication he’s on (massive doses of prednisone, which we’re now tapering off, thank goodness!) as it is the underlying disease. When he pants or acts restless, I know he’s not feeling well.

And that’s what happened Friday night. I’d let him out to pee at 10:45 that night (he needs to pee every couple of hours), and realized around 11:15 that I hadn’t gotten to sleep yet — and neither had Nico. He was panting, and was a lot more restless than usual. And his flanks seemed a bit tight, right behind the ribs.

I’ve been thinking about positive reinforcement and how learning to train dogs primarily by reinforcing the behavior I want (and ignoring or redirecting behavior I don’t want) has literally changed my life.

Becoming a positive trainer (especially for those of us who started out with traditional methods using punishments and rewards, choke collars, and the like) requires a paradigm shift. Positive training isn’t just a different way of training — it’s a different way of looking at the entire training process, at the dog/human relationship, and at the world itself.

With traditional training, the trainer tends to focus on what the dog does wrong, and then does something to correct that (a leash pop, a “No!” followed by repeating the command, physically shaping the dog into the desired position by manipulating him with hands, or whatever). Of course the dog is rewarded for doing the right thing, but the traditional training methods tend to put the trainer and the dog into conflict. “Must” and “should” and “have to” are pervasive concepts — the dog must do what I tell him to do when I tell him to do it, or there will be unpleasant consequences.

It seems that everyone has heard of Cesar Milllan, host of the popular dog training show “The Dog Whisperer” shown on the National Geographic cable TV channel. When learning that I’m a dog trainer, a new acquaintance will often exclaim that they watch Cesar Millan and just love his show! I cringe inside while I try to calmly and politely explain just why Cesar Millan is bad for the dog training profession and very bad for our dogs.

While Cesar Millan does promote some good ideas concerning our relationships with dogs (I can agree with him that exercise and leadership are paramount!), his methods of fixing problem behavior rely heavily on using punishment and “flooding” — forcing a dog to face its fears until it “submits” (which may result in “learned helplessness,” a state of depression and helplessness in an animal that appears to the untrained observer to be calm compliance). Taken even a little bit too far, some of his methods are downright abusive.

Working with a dog who behaves inconsistently -- walking well on leash one day, exploding in fury at the sight of another dog another day, for example -- can be frustrating, to say the least.

Having success one day and not another is pretty typical when dealing with complex issues such as reactivity. Many variables affect behavior, including the dog's mood, recent events, environmental stimuli, even diet.

So I advise my clients to expect this type of inconsistency, especially when working with fearful or anxious dogs.

It's important to work with the dog you have now, in this moment; not the dog you had yesterday (or last year), or the dog you think you have (or hope to have), or even the dog you expect to have in the next moment.

And that dog can change moment to moment -- for the better if you're doing things well and for the worse if your timing's off or you're not reading the dog well or external factors intrude.

Today I decided it was high time I follow my own advice, and I've been deliberately looking for training opportunities to work with my dogs.

I've been setting the timer and concentrating on work for 15 minutes (today it happens to be editing), then getting up and moving around (with a winter lay-up I'm out of shape and my back's been acting up). Then I set the timer for another 15 minutes of work, and so on.

In the past, I'd go from one 15-minute task to another as a way to help me stay focused and on-task, swapping back and forth between the day's tasks as seemed best. Today, though, I've been taking mini-breaks between those 15-minute time slots. And I've been doing mini-training during those breaks.

An oft-recommended approach to handling a multi-dog household is to reinforce the ranking hierarchy -- to feed the "alpha" dog first, the middle-ranking dog second, the low-ranking dog last; to greet or pet the "top" dog first, and so on.

But behaviorists are moving away from that technique, and most now advise reinforcing appropriate behavior without taking hierarchy into account. As scientists explore more about dog cognition and social behavior, we're discovering that dog hierarchies are a lot more fluid and complex than the straight alpha - beta - omega designations once used for wolf packs might suggest.

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