Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Coming When Called - Part 1, A New Perspective

It has happened time and again to many people, they say the word "Come" and expect their dog to arrive at their feet instantly. When this doesn't happen, especially in height of excitement for your dog, can be especially disappointing to you. Let's look at it from the dogs perspective.

A gaggle of goose just perused your yard about 20 minutes ago. Having no idea they had traveled through you venture outside for the second potty break of the day. Your dog goes out the door and nose glued to the ground starts following their wondering path. As your curious pup ventures into the tall grass surrounding your property you start to grow concerned that he is no longer paying attention to your presence. "Wally come!" you protest with hopes your dog turns and comes bounding in your direction. Nothing. "WALLY come!" still nothing but you start heading out in the direction of where you last spotted him disappearing into the tall grass. As a last desperate attempt you muster your scariest, deepest, "WALLY COME!" You are greeted with silence.  You are now frustrated, your dog surely knows what come means but is being "stubborn".

Now let's put this in to perspective of a human. Have you ever tried to converse with someone who is deeply engrossed in a book, movie or video game? You start talking to them, expecting them to hear you and then surprised when you find you are repeating yourself.  "Mom....yadda yadda yadda...Mom! MOM!" Meanwhile, Mom has heard nothing. When one sense is heightened, in this case, say reading, all other senses are not as quick to respond, such as listening. Do you immediately drop what it is you are doing when your parent, spouse or significant other calls you from another room? I think a common response is, "Just a minute" or "Hold on". When our dog's nose is turned on, or they are fixated on something in the distance, or found something interesting, they are less likely to key in on any verbal cues, or come when called.

How then, does one teach a reliable recall? Let's think about it for just one minute, really think about it. What is motivating? If every, single, time, I asked you to come here, and then gave you $5.00, no matter how slow your response was, I bet I would see an increase in response time verses the "just a minute", thus strengthening your coming when called. Overtime, regardless of the distraction, when you heard the words, "Could you come here?" whether playing with friends or video games, you would quickly drop what you are doing to come earn an easy $5.00.

If humans can learn through repetition and rewards, why can't our dogs?

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Short Note on Shock Collars

There are many opinions on the topic of shock collars. These opinions are often strong and result in a great debate because the people in discussion speak so passionately about them. I think also it is so passionately discussed because of the involvement of our animals. I want to present two experiences that would defend not using the shock style training for dogs.

Both of these instances do not actual pertain to a collar being worn by the dog but the delivery of an electrical shock to the dog does happen. A quick side note, dogs who wear a shock collar do distinguish between when they are wearing it and when they are not. Therefore if the dog does not perform the behavior in the absence of a shock collar they have not adequately been trained of the expectations of them.

Instance one:
Scout, my yellow lab, was very intrigued by some cows at a farm we were visiting. He was being slightly obnoxious but harmless. Scout was engaging with the cattle from a safe distance but would duck under the electric fencing to dance about in the pasture. He would go back and forth under the fence without so much as touching it, until he got spooked. Scout was in the pasture with the cows and as he ran by them they turned in pursuit and followed him. When he heard the sound of hooves, although a distance away, he panicked and went to duck quickly out from under the fence. He did not duck low enough and was shocked by the fence right across the middle of his back. Naturally Scout cried out, expressed his anal glands, and then made a huge arc around the perimeter of the fence. Scout then proceeded to come stand behind me, looking out past my legs and growled at the cows, believing them to be the source of his pain. He stopped interacting with them and watched them wearily.

Instance two:
This was told to me by a client that comes to the vet clinic I work at. She was telling me how they have a huge fenced in area that attaches to a horse stall so that their lab can go in and out of the sun, rain, wind etc. Having put her out there a number of times, they were aware that somehow she kept escaping. Interested to find out how, they made like they were leaving, parked down the road and walked back to observe. Turns out she was ducking out underneath one of the lowest rails. They were surprised she could fit. To solve the problem they ran electric fencing along the bottom of the fence. The client told me it only took the dog 2 times of being shocked on the nose before she stopped trying to escape. Then as the client chuckled in a sheepish sort of way, told me, "Now she won't even go out into the fenced in area. She just stays in the open horse stall."

Both of the instances are examples that with punishment based training or experiences, we don't have control over what the dogs associate it with. We know it has to do with a perimeter fence, but to the lab in Instance 2, she no longer felt safe leaving the confines of the horse stall to explore the open fenced area. She only knows that harm comes to her when she does. To Scout, he believes the cows were evil and responsible for his pain. His interest and curiosity changed to uncertainty and fear.
Think of a dog who wears a shock collar 24/7. Uncertainty and fear. Never knowing when or why you will receive the shock.  A dog who wears a shock collar or trained with punishment based methods are often found to be a higher strung, anxious dog.

In both these instances there are humane ways to teach a dog to leave the cows or come when called and to teach the dog boundaries. All can be achieved without causing harm. The unfortunate part of punishment based training is that you tend to get results fast because you are suppressing a behavior instead of taking the time to teach what you want. Kids don't learn the ABC's in one sitting. It takes repetition and consistency and patience. There are a lot of parallels between dog training and raising kids. A lot can be learned by applying some of the same techniques from one to the other.

There have been a number of studies done on the effects of reward based training on dogs verses punishment based training.



Wednesday, July 3, 2013

4th of July

The 4th of July is tomorrow! With it comes family BBQs, festivities and of course fireworks. It has been noted that the 4th of July is the day when most dogs go missing. It is likely because of the loud noises associated with the day that spook dogs and they run until they can’t hear the noise anymore. It can be an especially taxing day for people who have noise phobic dogs.

While it seems like a prime opportunity to socialize your dog at a parade it can quickly turn bad. Dogs have stress thresholds like people do.  When too many stressors build up at one time, a dog may react (flight, bite, or shut down), when typically one stressor wouldn’t elicit a problem. Being July, the heat is on! Standing in the blazing sun, watching the parade while sirens wail, and surrounded by an assortment of people can definitely be some stressors for your dog. Some dogs may do just fine, but the heat alone would be reason enough to exclude your pet from this one outing.

Fireworks are now legal in Maine. Now that they are legal, people have a harder time keeping their dogs away from the threatening booms. It can be as unpredictable for the owner as for the dog as to where they are going to “pop” up.

Here are 5 things you can do to help your dog through this event.

1. Most important, be certain your dog has updated ID tags and a  proper fitting collar on. That way if your dog does bolt he has proper identification on.

2. Provide your dog with plenty of exercise earlier in the day.

3. Keep your dog inside during the fireworks, preferably with a human companion. If it is hot with an air conditioner, this will also provide some white noise to help muffle the fireworks.

4. Provide the dog with a mentally stimulating toy – a frozen kong with his favorite treat, marrow bone or bully stick.

5. Try to keep windows and curtains closed to help keep out the lights and noise.

6. Can try a Thundershirt, rescue remedy for a natural method or prescribed anxiety meds from your Veterinarian.
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