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Love the one you're with, part one

Any excuse for a baby elephant photo...Some trainers liken themselves to plumbers. "Got a behavioral blockage?" they ask. "Let an expert sort that out for you." I prefer messier analogies (yes, messier even than plumbing): marriage counselor, dance instructor... or maybe even frustrated spider. Consider that a dog's behavior is always entangled in a web of relationships, and none of those relationships is static. As a trainer, I can spin a potentially strong new thread in the web, but I'd be foolish to think I can change its overall shape by tugging alone in my corner.

That may be too sticky a metaphor, but you get the idea. This is a post about limitations, and I want to start by confessing one of my own: I've learned from experience that I can't do good work as a trainer unless my human client already feels a deep, irrational attachment - heck, let's call it love - for his or her dog. The attachment may be frayed, and the love may be troubled, but if it's not there, I'm not going to be of much help. If the central message I hear is "Please fix this dog so that  I can love it, or anyway tolerate it," I know I need to refer the case out to someone who takes a more mechanical approach to training.

When practiced ethically, dog training (like all teaching and other transformative kinds of work) requires a base level of optimism and a certain symmetry in aims between trainers/teachers and clients/students. To that end, I try to be open about my own core aim, which is to build understanding between humans and dogs, to bring them closer together and help them ally their respective strengths.

This may sound strange coming from a trainer, but anyone who knows my dogs can tell you that I really don't give a hoot about perfect behavior, still less about perfect control. (On the contrary, perfection makes me itchy and mutinous, especially where living creatures are concerned.) I do give a big hoot about mutual understanding, trust, and affection - I think these are the best justifications we have for the limits we set around our dogs' behavior and  the limits we set around our own. To my mind, a well-trained dog is not a slavishly obedient dog, but one who happily accepts certain bounds around her freedom because they actually help her realize (through her people) many of her strong, strange, doggy desires. (Alas, in most families, goose poop and dirty socks remain tragically taboo!)

The idea that dogs should live to please us is an offshoot of the idea that they should love us unconditionally. I think both notions are garbage, and not the good stinky kind of garbage but the noxious, toxic kind. First, should and do overlap only rarely. Most of the dogs I know live for their own pleasure, and many more put clear, definite conditions on their love. To take the examples closest to hand, two of our three dogs - Kili and Pazzo - are extremely choosy about whom they trust with their mighty affections. Barley is the hussy of the group, but even she sets firm limits on acceptable human and canine conduct. More than ten years ago, when she was an adolescent heck-ion, Pete and I took her and Kili to a class with a "traditional," corrections-based trainer. Our attempts to show Barley who was boss (primarily through leash-pops) were thankfully short-lived. No human actor could have communicated puzzlement and disgust as clearly as Barley did with one sharp glance: "You do that to me again, you power-hungry oaf, and we are done ." She sends similarly unambiguous messages to any dog who dares to nip her butt.

Second, and most dangerously, the unconditional love trope shifts responsibility away from where it belongs: on human shoulders (adult human shoulders). Have you ever noticed that the creatures (of whatever species) who are supposed to love unconditionally are those with the least power to leave  a bad relationship? Small children and dogs and others who are deeply dependent often do  love in the face of neglect, mistreatment, and even horrific abuse, but this should not be any cause for celebration. On the contrary, it should remind us that the need for secure attachment among highly social animals is so strong and deep that it can override the imperatives of physical self-preservation. The only animal who should  love unconditionally (in the sense of undertaking a moral obligation) is one who has chosen to hold another animal's life and well-being in his or her care.

So we need to recognize our limits when making such a choice - after it's made, we've got to be all in. Fortunately, we can usually protect ourselves before the fact from responsibilities we know we can't wholeheartedly embrace. I, for one, should never be allowed back into a garden store or nursery. The possibility that plants are sentient fills me with shame and regret. (Roald Dahl once wrote a horrifying story about a device that records the sound of grass screaming when it's mowed...) My ficus tree could tell such tales on me! Harrowing accounts of nitrogen starvation and weeks without water. I try to take a more consistent interest, but I remain an erratic gardener and perennial black thumb.

Sad to say, that's not the worst of my derelictions! The primary inspiration for this post comes from Kili and from the ways that Peter and I failed her for many years. I've already taken too much of your time, so I'll save the full story for another day. Suffice it for now to say that we didn't really choose her, and we thought not quite consciously that this let us off the hook, absolved us of our responsibility to love her lavishly, without conditions. We were wrong.


A simple bit of training that could save your dog's life

How much would you be willing to bet that your dog will come immediately when you call her from across your living room? A hundred dollars? Twenty? Would you bet ten dollars that she’ll come when you call her in from your back yard? What if there are squirrels around? Would you bet a dime that your dog will turn on a dime after he’s bolted toward the street in pursuit of your neighbor’s cat? More to the point, would you bet your dog’s life?

Words like “come” and “here” are known to trainers as “recall” cues, and there are many good reasons that a truly reliable recall is often referred to as the PhD of training. First and perhaps most importantly, the times when we need these cues most are the times when they’re least likely to work: when our dogs are off-leash and free to ignore us in favor of a wide-open and very exciting world.

It’s hard enough for a shouted “Come!” or “Here!” to compete with the attractions of other dogs, or field mice, or horse manure, but we unfortunately shoot ourselves in the proverbial foot all the time when we lose track of what those words actually mean to our dogs. We may think they refer to a behavior that a dog “knows” how to perform: return to me now. In a dog’s mind, however, they often mean trouble ahead. We’ll call our dogs inside when we need to leave, or call them at the park when we want to leash them up. When “come” so often predicts the end of good times, we shouldn’t be surprised that it sometimes sends our dogs running away.

This is why I continually encourage my students and clients to “put money in the bank” when it comes to training “come.” Training is all about channeling the power of habit, and good habits of association help create and support good habits of behavior. For every time that we associate “come” with impending confinement or boredom, there should be fifty times that we associate it with delicious treats or a new opportunity to play. The more good associations you’ve invested in your cue, the more you can spend when you need to.

That said, it’s almost inevitable that our everyday recall cues will get poisoned with some negative associations. This is where an emergency recall cue can “come” to the rescue! What follows is some of the easiest but potentially most powerful training you can do, and it’s all about creating a purely positive habit of association:

1. Choose a simple but unusual word or phrase that’s short and easy to say but not something you’d use in ordinary conversation. Foreign words can work well here, and so can silly ones. Examples include “¡Arriba!” and “Treat party!”

2. Prepare and set aside 10 - 15 small pieces of something that your dog finds incredibly delicious.

3. Use your everyday cue (like “here”) to call your dog over. This will add to your pile of good associations, since your dog is about to receive many wonderful treats for doing little or nothing!

4. Say your emergency cue: “¡Arriba!”

5. Pause briefly.

6. Deliver a treat.

7. Repeat until the treats are gone.

8. Do this once or twice a day for two weeks. Try varying your tone to include both more and less cheerful and more and less urgent repetitions of the cue. Be careful to build your intensity gradually to make sure that you don't scare your dog! Your aim is to have your dog thrill to the sound of your emergency cue no matter what tone you use.

9. After two weeks, continue to build the power of your cue by using it at random times, but only when you’re ninety-percent sure your dog will respond to it, and only when you’re prepared to reward your dog with at least five delicious treats, delivered one-by-one, with a new repetition of the cue before each treat.

10. You can train your emergency cue as much as you like; the more positive associations you load into it, the stronger it will be. To keep those associations pure and powerful, only use your emergency cue in case of emergency.

That’s it! Give it a try and see whether your dog soon makes a whiplash turn when he hears your secret phrase. You can use the same simple method to strengthen his positive response to your everyday recall cue, or to his name.

One last piece of advice regarding recall cues in general: avoid using them if you’re not willing to make at least a five-dollar bet that they’ll work, since every unsuccessful repetition weakens the cue. Only give your dog as much freedom as you’re confident she can handle, and when in doubt, go get her yourself rather than waste your most precious words.


The power and glory of "default" behaviors

In thinking about effective training, we're often seduced by the allure of the command or cue. Almost every description of a "well-behaved" dog will include the requirement that he does what he's asked to do when he's asked to do it. I don't want to argue with that criterion (or not right now), but I do want to move beyond it. The real test of "good" behavior for people as well as dogs comes when no one is asking or telling us what we should do. Do we make choices that are productive and peaceable? Not always, unless we're born angels.

Contrary to their angelic reputation, dogs get bedeviled all the time by wayward and inconvenient desires. We can either mourn this fact or accept it and work with it. It really shouldn't continue to surprise us that their desire to please us (real in some cases, a total mirage in others) gets trumped all the time by other desires: to eat fish guts, to dig to China by way of the tulip bed, to put a scare into the monsters with slick yellow skin who appear whenever it rains.

As long as my focus remains on being my dog's boss, I'll have the (rather exhausting) work of telling him what to do all the time: "Heel! Sit! Wait! Off!" I'd rather train with the aim of making him a reliable boss of himself, by reinforcing the good decisions he makes without my direction. I use the word "good" here to mean pleasing to me, but if I choose my rewards well and deliver them consistently, what pleases me will soon please my dog, too.

Changing our dogs' default settings almost inevitably involves changing our own. In this approach, training becomes less about directing and more about observing, less about firm guidance and more about encouragement. We can use various kinds of management (many of them spatial, like leashes and gates) to narrow our pups' options and artificially boost the odds that the choices they make will be good ones, but it's important that we give them enough slack to fail sometimes, or they'll never own their successes. The difference between a dog who's afraid to do wrong and one who glories in doing right is immeasurable (in both senses) and unmistakable when you see it.

I like the advice of Paul Owens ("the original Dog Whisperer") that we take regular "training vacations." By this he doesn't actually mean that we give up training, only that we give up telling our dogs directly what to do - for a day, a week, or more - and simply note and reward anything and everything they do on their own that we happen to like. Kathy Sdao's SMART x 50 approach (See, Mark, and Reward Training) is very similar in spirit and effect. Try it out!


Dogs are sometimes Bombaloo, too

Illustration by Yumi Heo. Click through to find the book.My sister, Megan, is a wise and talented teacher of small children. She takes her inspiration from myriad sources, including her favorite picture books. Some years ago, she was describing to me a third-grade student she loved who had good intentions but less than perfect self-control. (I know, pretty shocking in an eight-year-old, right?) I was following Megan's story just fine until she made offhand reference to "the Bombaloo Bunker."

As reluctant as I was to expose my ignorance, I had to ask. "What's a Bombaloo and where does it bunk?"

"Oh, sorry!" Megan said. "There's a great book I read with the kids back at the beginning of the year..."

Sometimes I'm Bombaloo by Rachel Vail is a great book. It's a silly and serious book about tantrums and flying underwear, told from the perspective of a little girl, Katie, who's usually quite sweet and a pleasure to be around. But once in a while, when things don't go her way, she goes totally Bombaloo. She kicks and screams and makes horrible faces. She won't listen to anyone, not even herself. She can't. Only a spell of quiet can break the spell of her anger. Afterward, she says, "I'm sorry and a little frightened. It's scary, being Bombaloo. My mother knows that. She hugs me and helps me clean up."

Megan had taken a cue from Katie and set up a Bombaloo Bunker for her students, a sheltered spot in one corner of the classroom. If someone was acting out and seemed to be having a hard time "coming back" to herself or himself, Megan would ask, "Are you Bombaloo? I think it might be good for you to take some quiet time to think." Before long, kids would often remove themselves to the Bunker without being asked. When they felt overwhelmed, they had a refuge.

The practice of "time-outs" is well-established with kids and dogs, but it's usually framed as a punishment. I've framed it that way myself in the past. Time-outs have been an indispensable tool for living more or less harmoniously with Pazzo, our highly excitable and easily overwhelmed kelpie mix. He spends them in our bathroom. I used to wonder whether it was a problem that when I say "Time out!" Pazzo usually responds enthusiastically, happily high-tailing it to his quiet place. It couldn't be much of a punishment, I thought. And it isn't. The Bombaloo Bathroom hasn't extinguished Pazzo's capacity for nutty and sometimes punky behavior, but it has made it much more manageable and less likely to escalate. He's almost always calmer when he comes out (I'll ask him for a sit and wait first); he's a little better able to handle himself and all the challenges life throws his way.

There have even been a couple of occasions when I've gone in there instead of Pazzo. It's cool and quiet, and a dim light filters in through the leaves of the camelia tree outside the window. I take a deep breath and then exhale my own inner Bombaloo.



Frustrated? Try pretending your dog is a cat.

Seriously. It's a great way to give you both a break.

If you're reading this, you're probably partial to dogs. Me too. There's no other animal with whom we share such a long, intimate history, and there's no question in my mind that "love" is the right name for what many of us discover across the species divide. The irony, though, is that we sometimes ask more from dogs than we'd ever dream of asking from other humans, let alone from cats or parrots or snakes. We saddle dogs with an enormous burden of expectation when we imagine them all as Dalai Lamas in waiting. Sainthood is a lousy bargain - there's nowhere to go but down. Every time I hear how selfless dogs are supposed to be, my heart aches for all the selfish failures out there, all the pups whose halos have gotten seriously dented or smashed. (You can find many of them at your local shelter.)

Cats don't wear halos. Very few of them will deign even to wear hats. When I taught a workshop in marker training to a group of "cattery" volunteers at the Oregon Humane Society, I told them honestly that I thought they had a terrific advantage over dog trainers: their vision isn't obscured by mythologies of altruism and dominance. The idea that a cat should do something "because I said so" or "because she loves me" is clearly ludicrous. To worry whether my cat "truly respects me" is a recipe for disappointment and possibly for farce. If I want to train a cat (or a chicken, or a rhinoceros), I need to narrow my focus to "simple" questions about behavior and consequences. And if I want to cultivate the warmth of regard that a cat is certainly capable of (I can't speak as confidently of chickens or rhinos), I'd be wise to rely on the power of positive consequences to shape her behavior in a direction I find pleasing.

When a cat chooses to enthrone herself on the back of a couch, no one panics at the thought that her Machiavellian impulses have suddenly been unleashed. We know that they were never leashed to begin with. She likes what she likes: a soft perch and an open view of her queendom. In turn, we can like it, lump it, or offer her a choice alternative.

The fact that most dogs do care more than most cats about what humans feel and think should be celebrated but never taken for granted. They, too, like what they like, and it's often very easy to supply.