Monday, May 31, 2010

Self Control Saves Lives

These days it seems that we live in an instant-gratification society. We want everything now, without having to wait for it - after all, there is not enough time in the day. Our dogs also live in an instant-gratification society. The difference is, but it can come with some heartbreaking consequences. Dogs run out doors and get hit by cars or run off never top be seen again; they trip up their human family on stairs. Squabbles break out as several dogs rush doors at once and compete for space.

Many dog owners become irrelevant as soon as that door opens, or as soon as that food dish comes out, simply because they have never taught their dogs to control their impulses around doors and pay attention to their humans at that threshold. Some simple exercises can make you more relevant in your dog's lives, and they will pay more attention to what it is you want.

Teach them that they can get what they want, by first doing what you want. It makes life a lot easier, and it does save lives.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Natural Career Path

I got a great question the other day in response to blog post ideas (well, I got several, actually, but this one seemed a good place to start). I was asked how I became a dog trainer, and what drove me to make that choice.


In many ways, it was a natural career path. I was born into a home of dogs. My parents were dog breeders, who bred very successful show and hunting Labrador Retrievers. Most of my childhood days were spent with dogs of some age group. Along with the Labs we always had some kind of "different" breed as well, like Cairn Terriers, Mini Schnauzers (the first one I grew up with was in my preteen years), Shelties, and a few mixes. I grew up going to dog shows, watching my mother training, teaching little tricks to some of the dogs. This part of my life took up my first thirteen years.

 Then, as fate would have it, some larger life changes happened. My parents divorced and that part of my life ended. We still had some of the dogs, but that part of my life was over, until a couple of years later my mother decided to get back into breeding - this time Mini Schnauzers, a breed she fell in love with from having had our very first Schnauzer. One thing led to another, and I got involved again. I started training some of the Schnauzers myself. I did some conformation showing, trick training, and then Gaci came into my life.

Gaci is a special girl, in ways that I can't even begin to explain. The day she entered my life, her mom (my beloved Moxie, RIP), left my life as well. An emergency C-section gone bad resulted in a litter without its natural mom, and without the initial colostrum required for neonatal health. This resulted in the litter getting sick with a severe respiratory virus. The litter pulled through, they were all fighters. Gaci was met with some challenges growing up, though. She had great fears of strangers, despite normal socialization. She had a keen interest in moving objects (albeit normal behaviours....not so much on vehicles though). She had serious space issues with the other dogs she lived with, and tolerated minimal inter-female interactions. She had a prey drive to gawk at. She ended up causing a few squabbles that resulted in minor injuries to other dogs. I knew I had to do something, but....what?

When it came to tricks, I was doing alright. But more serious stuff was not within my grasp at that time. So I started researching. I found clicker training, and immediately became absorbed. It was fascinating, and it was almost as though it was made for me. I picked it up quickly, and before long some of Gaci's issues were clearing up with ease (the chasing of cars while on-leash, and some of her space issues). But I wanted more. I wanted to understand why she was so fearful, and why clicker training on its own didn't *fix* it. I looked into the local trainers, and could not find anything that I felt comfortable doing with my dog, and it was clear I was not going to find what I was looking for.

So when I graduated high school, I took up university. There I spent four years immersing myself in biology and psychology, studying animal behaviour, learning, motivation, and started delving into the brain and why it is the way it is. I learned why fear isn't something you can "train out" like you would teach a trick behaviour. I learned what it is in the brain that causes a dog to experience a fear response, and how the brain changes when it does experience that response. I was learning a whole new way of looking at dogs.

While doing my degree in university, I started doing some studying on the side as well. I started developing a library of the current books in dog training and behaviour. I questioned, I researched, I wrote things down, I tested things to see what worked, what didn't, and why - and I read some more. I started looking further than just training, into lifestyles and individual personalities. I started finding out what dogs really are, what they need to be happy and stable, and why they do the things they do (to the extent we can understand it). I realized that there were other changes I needed to make with Gaci, such as diet changes, exercise modifications, and developing routines that made her life easier. I also employed her - I came up with jobs for her to do, and she thrived.

One of the biggest things I learned, and in the end I learned it from her, was acceptance. Accepting her for what she is, continue pushing forth and helping her blossom, while accepting what cannot change now, and possibly ever. It's what makes her, her, and I value her every day for it (well, somedays she does become "his dog" and not my dog, but that's more me than her....!!). And we keep working, and she is a totally different dog today than when she first started. Just at her last vet appointment, a comment my vet made gave me shivers it moved me that much. She said "I can't believe how far she has come. She used to come in like a loaded cannon, and now she is a totally different dog".  She still might not be the social butterfly and appreciate human fondling, but she's just right for where she needs to be, and there's a lot of people who are proud of her.

Gaci basically was the one who began shaping my life as a trainer, as she taught me more than I could ever know or learn from a book. Living in a house of 8-12 dogs helped me out greatly along the way, watching the dynamics and relations that go on in a mixed group of dogs. Then my own dogs....... Shimmer, my sensitive girl, has taught me even more in patience (of a different kind), and Zipper is my wise old man (from 12 weeks of age he was a wise old man) who I am endlessly grateful for his patience, skills, and kindness to all he encounters. Every dog I have worked with over those developing years, I am eternally grateful to, for helping me become who I am today.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

There Are No Bad Dogs

Continuing on from the last post, there are many behaviours, such as digging, that are considered "problem behaviours". These are often the behaviours that cause the most anger, frustration, and upset for people. These are also some of the things that people need to take their dog to training class, or to call in a private trainer, to "fix". The most popular problem behaviours reported in dogs include:
  • Digging
  • Pulling on leash
  • Barking
  • Chewing inappropriate objects
  • Being separated from you.
  • Stealing food or counter surfing
  • Protecting valuable things
  • Jumping
  • Hunting small animals
  • Mouthing clothing or body parts
  • Aggression
  • Fear
  • Rubbing in/eating dead things
  • Marking
That is not the complete list, but as you can see there are many behaviours that people consider inappropriate. However.......

These are all 100% natural, normal dog behaviours! All of the things listed above are actually things that are considered totally normal in canine society. I'm sure if dogs could talk, they would tell you there was no problem at all, except that the human got unnecessarily upset at their actions they consider absolutely normal. That's like getting mad at a friend for brushing their teeth, or holding your hand, talking on the phone, or defending him/herself and family from a robber. All natural behaviours for people.

Does this mean you have to live with these behaviours? Of course not. The entire joy of living with animals comes from having a mutually understanding relationship. But it does mean putting some effort into understand what dogs are, and what behaviours are natural to them (and why!), in the same way we expect dogs to change almost all of their normal lifestyles so that they can live in harmony with us. We ask our dogs not to pull on leash, not to bark, dig, steal food, be upset when we leave, hunt or scavenge, to protect personal items, or defend themselves when pushed to their limits. We are actually expecting a lot from our dogs, and rarely do we give them credit where it is due! The least we can give them is a little understanding, and to help them learn to adjust to the ways that humans live.

We need to realize that these things don't come naturally to dogs (much to our chagrin), and that it is our responsibility, and ours alone, to teach our dogs what it is we expect. So many dogs would keep their forever homes if this was more widely understood. The old "But he knows __________" is a classic example of how we are not understanding our dogs. We expect them to conform to our ways - so it is our job to help them, understand them, and have patience with them while they learn.

And we do not need to teach our dogs to fear us to obtain these results - we do not startle, intimidate, or cause pain to those we love when we teach them to drive a car, or to do algebra, or to bake a recipe. It is the same when it comes to our dog's behaviour. Using compassion, kindness, patience, and clear signals that dogs are able to understand will help both human and dog build a strong relationship that leaves both partners happy and fulfilled.

Within the next few posts I will cover some of the above behaviours listed, what makes them problems for people, and what makes them normal behaviours for dogs, so it becomes more clear why the onus is on us to make positive changes and have our dogs and their humans remain happy while doing it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Springtime, Gardening, and....Digging?

I had an email this week asking me how I manage to control my dogs' digging in the yard, since I have terriers. I had to think about this, because I've never had to "control" my dog's digging, and we don't have any digging problems at home. The Schnauzers love to dig at the beach, you will often find Gaci digging up an animal's nest on a hike, and well, the typical way you'll see one of the Schnauzers in wintertime when they hear the mice digging paths under the snow is......above. So I clearly have dogs that love to dig! Why is it, then, that they don't dig in unwanted ways?

The biggest reason comes down to boredom and lack of exercise. Dogs who dig are generally dogs who don't have anything else to do. Dogs (those prone to digging) will often dig if they are not getting enough exercise. An underexercised dog will try to find ways to use up that extra energy, and digging is a great energy burner. Dogs that do not getting regular training, and toys to keep their minds busy, may find that digging is a great game to play.

Next, a more obvious reason (generally works in sync with the first reason above), is that they are unsupervised! Dogs who are supervised don't get the chance to dig holes, as you are there to witness and interrupt. Dogs who are placed outside in backyards, or on tie-outs, and left unsupervised for great lengths of time, will find something to do with their time, and can become successful landscapers in a short period of time. If you are not supervising your dog, you can't teach it about digging behaviour.

Digging is a totally natural behaviour for dogs. For some dogs (like terriers), it comes naturally and can be quite enjoyable. But like anything, you can teach a time and place for digging, you can teach incompatible behaviours for digging, and keep your gardens and grass intact. If it works for your home situation, you can build an appopriate "sandbox" that your dog is allowed to dig in. Teach your dog to dig in that one spot, and help out by hiding favorite toys and treats in there for Fido to dig up and enjoy. If you find Fido digging in your garden, interrupt his behaviour and rush over to the digging area you have created and encourage digging there. Reward for proper digging (hidden toys will be rewarding on its own as well). You can also take your dog to the beach or somewhere where digging may be allowable, to allow them that natural outlet.

For those who can't work with a solution that allows a dog to dig, the solutions are simple (but not always easy!). First, make sure your dog gets enough exercise for its energy level daily. Digging dogs tend to be higher-energy dogs, so it may include an hour or more of hard running, fetch, chase games, etc daily. Make sure you have puzzle toys that give your dog the chance to work at them (Kongs, Tug-a-Jugs, and Tricky Treat Ball are all great ones, but you can find many other types) and use up some of that energy. Make sure to always supervise your dog while it is outdoors - if you leave it unsupervised and it digs a whole or re-structures your flower bed, it's not the dog's fault. If you are watching your dog, you can control what it is doing. If your dog is digging to find a cool spot in the summer, ensure there is adequate shade and water for the pup to cool down. Consider offering a kiddie pool of water as another way to cool Fido down.

Digging is one of those utterly natural canine behaviours that we humans all too often label as "problems". Next time I will touch on the issue of "problem" behaviours and what it really means - to person and to dog.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Open for Business!

Courteous Canine is officially open for business! It's been a long wait, and in some ways came so quickly, but I am so happy to finally be starting on the path of what I hope will be a life-long career. There's still lots to do, and much more work to be done, but step by step we are getting there. I've had so many people help me out along the way, I can't begin to name everyone but I hope you all know who you are. I don't know what I would have done without all of you. I only hope I can someday, in some way, repay you for all the support I've received throughout.

I can't wait to bring some fresh training ideas to my community, and get involved with all there is to offer the public in terms of everything dog - raising awareness, education, teaching people to build or re-build relationships with their dogs, help dogs find their forever homes, and increase the number of happy, well-adjusted dogs that surround us every day.

I know my own trio has been super patient with me, and helping me at some of the most troublesome times in developing the business. There's nothing like the support of the ones who drive my career choices, with their wiggles of happiness and the humor with which they brighten up every day. If I could spend hours and hours running with them through fields and forests I would do it, to repay them for all they give me day in and day out.

On another note, we have our first agility trial of the year coming up next week. Gaci is my only entrant for that trial, but here's to getting our first Q's (we hope!) for my little spitfire!