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The gift of autonomy

Many of you may already be familiar with the work of Patricia McConnell, who's an applied animal behaviorist and a wise, generous resource for humans and dogs alike. Her books range from the highly practical (including a series of short works addressing common behavioral challenges, from leash reactivity to separation anxiety) to the provocatively theoretical.

My favorite of McConnell's books is The Other End of the Leash, which summarizes the research she and others have done into the ways that human and canid styles of communication differ and sometimes create confusion. (The short version of one common misunderstanding: primates establish authority by getting loud, canids by getting quiet. Thus yelling at a barking pup often backfires not only because he's likely to suppose that there really is something to bark about if we're barking too, but also because our vocal eruptions connote immaturity to a canine mind. Oops!)

"The Other End of the Leash" is also the title of McConnell's wonderful blog. She posts regularly there about her life with her own menagerie and her thoughts about the not-so-minor miracle of interspecies relationships, especially those between Homo sapiens and Canis familiaris. Despite her great depth of experience and expertise, "Trisha" remains charmingly humble in the face of everything there remains to learn, and thanks to her example, the adhoc community that gathers in her blog's comment section is unusually smart and gracious.

I've written elsewhere about the importance of autonomy to a fearful dog: few things give us a greater sense of safety when we're anxious than control over our bodies and our space. The ability to advance or retreat at will is especially precious. (This helps explain why many dogs are only reactive when on leash.) But Trisha reminded me in a pair of recent posts (here and here) that anxious dogs (and humans) are not the only ones who savor the freedom to choose. She and her readers have a host of great suggestions for how to "loosen the leash," how to give our dogs safe opportunities to express their preferences: to walk or to sniff? to tug or to chase? to cuddle or to curl up alone?

It's tempting sometimes when we're training to equate "well-mannered" with "perfectly obedient," to suppose that a "good" dog is one whose agenda always matches ours. But many of us love our dogs in great part because they've got minds and desires of their own. We love them for their mischievousness, humor, and imagination; we love them for the stubborn mysteries they introduce into our lives. ("How can that possibly smell good to you?") And it can be a great relief to everyone when we humans give up our "responsibility" to be forever in control.

So if you're stumped about what to give your dog for Christmas, put some choice under the tree - preferably wrapped in bright paper and topped with a chewy rope bow!

Lovely photo by 11+. More here.


Beware xylitol!!

Hikes good! Xylitol bad!All dog-oriented sites should probably post a warning about xylitol every few months. This artificial sweetener is great for humans (no aftertaste, no stomach upset), so it's showing up in more products all the time, including many of the children's medications that vets sometimes recommend. Unfortunately, however, it's extremely toxic to dogs - it can cause life-threatening hypoglycemia and liver damage even in small doses. I made the unhappy discovery last week that my husband wasn't aware of this danger, when Kili found a new pack of Orbit gum in his open backpack and ate it all. One bout of induced vomiting and a trip to the emergency clinic later, everything turned out okay, but it might have gone differently if Kili were smaller. Her sixty pounds absorbed what could have killed a twenty or thirty pound dog. So please check labels, and if you choose to keep xylitol products in your home, be vigilant about keeping them out of your dog's reach!


"Here's what's about to happen" cues

It's often wise to wait to add cues until a dog is already offering a behavior predictably (because you've consistently reinforced it). Once you have a good sense of when your dog is about to do something, you can throw in the cue and then reward your dog for "following" it.

There are two closely related reasons for using this apparently backward method. The first is that a cue means nothing to a dog until it gets associated with a behavior, and every time you repeat the cue in the absence of the behavior, you actually weaken the association. The second is that our faith in language itself has been built up over a lifetime, but our dogs don't share it. If we repeat a word to no effect, we almost can't help jumping to the conclusion that our dogs are stubborn, stupid, dominant, or all of the above - even when we know at some level that they simply don't understand what we're saying.

I could treat a cue like "sit" as a command ("do it or else!"). I could strengthen the connection between the word and the behavior by making the behavior happen, but I'd much rather not. I don't want "sit" to mean "I'm about to pull your head up by the collar with one hand and push your butt down with the other." I want the dog I'm training to associate the word with an independent choice she makes, with the muscles she engages to execute the behavior, and with the real possibility that good things will follow. The same is true of most other cues I use, cues that function as "green lights" for specific, active behaviors by the dog.

All that said, there are some cues that let my dogs know how I'm going to behave, and others that predict the "state of the world and the things in it." Many of these I give inadvertently (e.g. putting on my coat & grabbing my keys = I'm going out) but others I use deliberately. Cues like these can be used from the start, because the power is ours to follow through on them.

A couple of useful examples:

  • "This way." I started using this many years ago without much forethought but with enough consistency that my dogs quickly caught on. I'll say it primarily in two situations. The first is when I'm walking a dog or dogs on-leash and I'm about to pass to one side of a pole, tree, or other obstacle. The second is when we're walking off-leash and arrive at a fork in the path. From the beginning, it signaled "I'm going this way," but it soon came to mean "you'd be wise to come this way, too," so you don't get stuck or lose sight of me. While Barley still likes to test the laws of physics occasionally - maybe this time the leash will pass through the tree! - she and Kili have become adept at changing course when they hear "this way." Pazzo (the dangerously handsome Kelpie-mix in the photo) absolutely loves this cue, as he seems to love all directional guidance. When the path splits, he'll look to me all a-tremble with suspense, then tear off in an ecstatic sprint when I point and deliver the magic words.
  • "Leave it." (I actually use the cue "mine," which is sometimes hard to say convincingly when I'm talking about cat poop!) While this cue should eventually prompt a dog to take action - to move away from something you don't want him to have - you can jump start your training by using it to mean "a tempting thing is about to be presented to you, but it is unavailable to you." For instance, if my dog is in a down and I say "leave it" as I set a treat on the floor (well out of reach), I am signaling that I simply will not allow my dog to get that treat unless I release her to do so. If she goes for it, I'll immediately cover it up. But if she hesitates for even a split second, I'll mark that hesitation and reinforce it with another (maybe even a better) treat.

The next time you're tackling a specific training task and wondering whether to use a cue from the beginning or add it later, ask yourself whether you're alerting your dog to something you're going to do or prompting an action on his part. The distinction can save you both some confusion.


One version of "good"

It may not be yours!


Is it okay if our dog gets on the couch?

This is one common version of a question I hear all the time: "Is it okay if... my dog walks on my right side instead of my left... sleeps in our bed... goes through doors in front of me... gives us kisses?" And while I know it can be annoying to answer questions with questions, my reply is almost always the same: "Is it okay with you?"

If I see behavior that looks potentially dangerous, I'll speak up. These are the only urgently not okay situations I encounter, and they jump immediately to the top of my management and training priorities. In just about every other case, however, it seems obvious that the people who decide what good behavior is should be the people who live with it on a daily basis.

Of course, this does create a bit of extra work for everyone. I think one reason that many trainers hold on to the dominance myth (the idea that dogs are perpetually scheming to take over our homes and the world) is that it supplies conveniently cut-and-dried answers to questions that are, in reality, wide open. The words "always" and "never" give us a false sense of strength and certainty. "You should always walk in front of your dog, you should never play tug…”

Science has exploded many of these myths, giving us the freedom to create highly personal visions of good behavior and the responsibility to see them through. Here are a few general tips to guide you in the process:

  1. Be specific. The more detailed your vision of what “good” looks like, the more easily you’ll get there. I’m currently working with a couple who do like sharing their couch with their pug but don’t like having her climb to the top of the cushions to demand their attention. Identifying that distinction enables them to communicate their desires clearly to their dog (by pointedly ignoring her when she’s perched on the back of the couch and lavishing her with rubs and praise when she moves down to the couch seat). It also lets them stop feeling guilty about letting her do what they like her to do. There are fewer “slippery slopes” when we train with clear expectations.
  2. Plan for the long term. Life is full of surprises, but the better we can anticipate what behaviors might become problematic, the better we can avoid trouble down the road. Well-established habits can be difficult to undo, and you’ll find it much easier to loosen the boundaries you’ve set than to tighten them later on. This foresight is especially important if you have a highly driven or large breed puppy - ask yourself whether the adorable thing she’s doing at ten weeks will still be adorable when she’s full grown.
  3. Be consistent. Once you decide on a boundary, hold to it. When you see those big pleading eyes (or hear that irritating bark) and you’re tempted to break your own rule, remember that your inner strength is a gift to your pup. You can’t ask him to show more self-discipline than you do.

Dogs will accept even the most arbitrary rules as long as you establish them as the “facts” of their world. Barley is the only one of our three dogs allowed to sit on the couch with us. That’s the way it has always been and always will be. (But you needn’t take pity on Kili, who lounges on her divan, or Pazzo, who favors the antique French chair passed down to us by my mother-in-law!)