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Introduction

There is a myriad of things you can teach your dog and a myriad of ways to do it. What often gets lost in the equation is: why do we want to train our dogs? and what do they need to know?

Once you start thinking about it it’s pretty obvious that what they need to know and what we want them to know are not the same. What do we want for them?

For me it looks like this:
I want my dog to be safe.
I want my dog to be happy.

To be safe she needs to be able to:

  • stop when I ask her,
  • come back when called,
  • not rush into new situations (=no running out of the door, jumping out of the car), and
  • comply with medical exams.

To be happy she needs to be able to do things that she likes. For that she needs me to learn about her, observe and listen so that I can provide the opportunity to her.

Does any of that require fancy trick or obedience training?
No.

Can dogs enjoy tricks & obedience?
Probably, maybe – people are actually really divided on that one.

This blog aims to explore ways to teach dogs to be safe in a non-violent way and to investigate all the ways we can make them happy and their best possible selves. Maybe we can become our better selves in the process as well.

Of dogs and public transport

Cuteness can be a curse, especially if you’re a dog. I’m sure that all of us have been asked by strangers for permission to pet our dogs – particularly on public transport. It’s hard to say no because, let’s be honest, it is nice that other people find them cute. Moreover, I personally feel like they should be rewarded for asking (instead of just reaching out for them, as if dogs were objects…). And yet, I say no. To everyone. Even to the grandmas. Even to the children.

Because dogs can’t escape the outstretched hand in that situation.

Because dogs – just like people – have the right to choose who touches them and when.

Because even if they’re used to it, public transport is still challenging for dogs – full of sudden movements, smells and unknown objects – and I don’t want to make it harder.

What can you say to people?

Thank you for asking, we appreciate it, but…

  • my dog doesn’t like being petted by strangers1
  • this is a stressful situation for my dog, so I’d rather you didn’t2
  • my dog can’t communicate their preference clearly in this situation, so I’d rather you didn’t

a dog in a muzzle sitting between the legs of its guardian on a bus
Don’t forget your well-fitted muzzle! 🙂

How can you make travelling on public transport easier on your dog?

If they are not used to public transport:

  • get them used to it by starting with mostly empty vehicles
  • create good associations: initially take them on public transport only to get somewhere fun for them

Find a good spot for them:

  • avoid peak times if possible
  • help them find safe spaces (for example corners)
  • position yourself so that you protect them and especially their tails from being stepped on

Once you found a good spot:

  • watch out for other dogs and children
  • if they like it, pet them calmly
  • if they take treats, treat them
  • support them as much as they need, their tolerance for public transport might vary depending on how they’re feeling on a particular day
  • don’t let strangers pet them 😉

 

We need to talk about praise

I’m starting a series of shorter blog posts focused on “dog training 101” – so far I’ve planned posts about praise, rewards, equipment, and body language. If there’s anything you’d like to read about, be sure to let me know!

Let’s start with good, old-fashioned praise. It’s a really simple tool that’s always at hand, and can make a big difference in your relationship with your dog. Praising your dog means saying things like “good boy/girl”, “well done”, “yes” etc. Dogs obviously have no idea what these words mean, so the most important thing is the tone of voice you’re using (soft, pleasant or high-pitched if you’re cheering them on).

a black dog and a human in the Danube

Common misconceptions

Sadly, most of the dog owners can be divided into two groups: those who never praise their dogs and those who seem to think that praise alone is enough. Both groups are somewhat wrong – let’s take a closer look.

  1. Many people don’t praise their dogs, seemingly expecting them to just know the rules of the human world by themselves. Unfortunately, domestication did not make dogs experts on arbitrary human expectations such as stopping before a road, walking nicely on the leash or not eating food off the ground. They are uniquely interested in what we’re doing but they still need to be taught everything we want from them.
  2. Other people seem to think that praise is high-value currency in the dog world because dogs love us so much and crave our approval. Actually (as you probably noticed), once you go outside pretty much anything is more interesting than us, and that’s completely normal. But in most cases praise alone is not going to cut it.

What’s the point of praise?

Praise can be rewarding
Some dogs truly crave our approval and for them praise can be rewarding. It may also work in well-known environments (at home, in the car) where it’s easy for them to pay attention.

Praise is always informative
Even if it’s not intrinsically rewarding, it still contains the information to the dog that we liked something they did, which makes it a valuable training tool.

Praise is always readily available
We’re all just human and we forget treats from time to time. With praise you can let your dog know that you appreciate their effort and you can do it immediately, way before you have the time to find that piece of sausage.

Praise can improve your relationship with your dog
Last, but not least praising is fun. If you make a conscious effort to praise more, you’ll learn to see all these awesome behaviours (and stop taking them for granted). Then the “misdemeanours” will just be a few instances among many great successes.

In return, you might find your dog checking in with you more often, which – let’s be honest – is pretty rewarding to us.

Help, my dog loses control around other dogs! 

I know that walking a dog that pulls on the leash, jumps around and barks can be exhausting and frustrating. But trust me, they are not doing it to spite you. Contrary to what we like to believe, many dogs struggle with interactions with their peers, especially if they are on the leash1. In this post, we will explore the main reasons behind this problem and look at possible solutions.

At the same time, every situation is different, and this can be a tricky issue to train so it is always best to contact a competent, non-violent dog trainer who can help you personally.

Causes

In general, dogs “overreacting” to other dogs are mostly motivated either by fear or by excitement. In both cases the problem is the inappropriate level of arousal: the dog is not in control of their actions which also means they can’t listen to us then.

Just like people, dogs need to learn social skills and the experiences they make when they’re young can determine their behaviour later on2. Other contributing factors are their personality, stress levels, age and health. While you can’t change your dog’s personality or age, you can make sure that they’re healthy and not stressed out.

multiple dogs on the danube shore
Well-socialized dogs respect each other’s personal space.
© Heide Klinger/Donau Dogs

What does your dog really want?

One of the most important things to remember is that each behaviour serves a purpose and it is crucial for us to recognize what that purpose is.

  • A dog that loves playing with other dogs probably pulls on the leash (or barks or jumps) because they learned that their human will eventually give up and let them approach.
  • A dog that is fearful has probably learned that pulling, barking and jumping makes the other dogs go away.

Basically, they are trying to either decrease or increase the distance to the other dogs. They behave the way they do because it was a successful strategy and we “simply” need to teach them a different one.

Recognizing your dog’s motivation is key for further training because it will determine the reinforcement you use. In these situations typically food or play can be used to help the process along but your dog can only be efficiently rewarded with something that they want in a given situation (that is: getting closer to or further from the other dog) 3.

4 dogs, one of them on the leash
If dogs in a group know each other and have good manners, some can be on the leash (or often must if they’re with a dog walker) – they will respect the canine social etiquette and give each other space.
© Heide Klinger/Donau Dogs

The vicious circle of arousal – do not punish!

As I have mentioned above, the main issue is that your dog is too aroused to control their own actions. Regardless of their motivation, further increasing the arousal level will only make the situation worse. Shouting, jerking the leash, smacking your dog (or any other aversive action) will not make your dog calm down. What they can achieve is:

  • increase your dog’s stress level
  • make them fear you
  • destroy their trust in you
  • make them less likely to want to be close to you – which is the opposite of what you want in this situation

Aversive trainers often claim (quick!) success with their methods. But what they do is behaviour suppression, not behaviour modification. Many of these dogs either get more and more stressed out until they snap and “bite out of nowhere” (sounds familiar?) or they fall into the state of learned helplessness. 4 I can’t imagine you want any of that for yours.

multiple dogs sniffing next to each other
Having places where your dog always gets to search for treats during the walk can help your dog regulate their arousal: they add predictability and sniffing itself has a calming effect.
© Heide Klinger/Donau Dogs

Ok, so what can I do?

BEFORE THE WALK:

  • learn to read canine body language, so that you can assess your dog’s emotional state, as well as the other dogs that you meet
  • train only in situations that you can control – your dog can only train when they’re not too excited
  • invest in a harness – constant pulling on the leash while wearing a collar can lead to tracheal damage; the dogs pulling and wheezing are not suffering from asthma, they just have trouble breathing.
  • eliminate as many stressors as possible from their life – have a look at your dog’s routine: do they get enough of down time? are there other things that freak them out? is their day predictable enough to feel safe? (learn more about relaxed and yet engaging walks)

DURING THE WALK:

  • remain calm – it’s easier for your dog to keep their cool if you keep yours
  • always have treats on you – if your dog is into food  you can distract them before they notice the other dog- drop the treats early enough and they might just focus on them instead of freaking out5
  • support your dog – if they are fearful help them maintain a safe distance from other dogs
  • make sure all interactions are chill and positive – if you have the “lovingly-excited” dog you don’t want to prohibit all interactions with dogs, which would be punishing. Instead, find a friend or two with calm, well-socialized dogs and hang out with them, or join a social walk organized by a competent trainer.
  • always tell your dog when they’re doing well. here is a list of behaviours you can reward:
    • slowing down
    • approaching other dogs in a bow
    • looking away
    • turning away
    • looking at you
    • sitting down
    • lying down
    • sniffing

When off-leash, dogs can communicate clearly: Leus (on the left) approaches the other dog in a curve, a little tensely. The dog sprints at her, she jumps so that they stand in opposite directions and turns her head away. Tension dissolved, the other dog gets re-called and both dogs shake themselves off.

But what if a dog off-leash approaches us?

The default is: dogs should meet only off leash. If you see someone approaching with a dog on a leash, you should leash your dog too and keep a safe distance. If you keep your dog leashed, the other dog owners should do the same for you. If they are unwilling to do so, you can resort to these two tricks:

  • You can stop the approaching dog by throwing a lot of yummy treats – make sure that they can see it, make a fuss if needed. More often than not, the dog will pause to retrieve free food and you can quickly retreat.
  • You can motivate the owner to respect your request and leash their dog/move away by telling them… that your dog has fleas or other parasites. Seriously.

When off-leash, dogs can communicate clearly: Leus (on the left) approaches the other dog in a curve, a little tensely. The dog sprints at her, she jumps so that they stand in opposite directions and turns her head away. Tension dissolved, the other dog gets re-called and both dogs shake themselves off.

Myths

Last but not least, let us look at four common myths that might be slowing your progress:

Your dog pulls because they’re dominant and trying to control the situation NOT TRUE
Quite the opposite, it’s a sign that they’re overwhelmed.

A harness will make your dog pull more (because they won’t be “corrected” [=punished] for doing so) – NOT TRUE
You really can’t do anything wrong by looking out for your dog’s health; also, the tightening collar restricts access to oxygen, which in turn increases arousal (stress) instead of decreasing it.

All dogs love playing with each otherNOT TRUE
Watching dogs play is a delight but studies of free roaming dogs have shown that adults dog rarely engage in play. Like people, dogs are individuals and vary in their sociability.

You should never pick up a small dogNOT TRUE
You should learn to evaluate when your dog needs help and when they don’t. Let them handle as many situations as they can but if it’s too much, by all means do pick them up, this way they’ll know you’re on their side.

 

Can petting make fearful behavior worse?

Many dogs seek attention, follow us around, bark, howl etc. when they’re afraid. Owners are often afraid that if they pet/comfort their dogs, the situation will get worse because they’ll be “rewarding” these behaviors. Let’s look at this from the scientific perspective.

No, petting can not make fearful behaviors worse.

Firstly, when your dog is afraid all those “bad” behaviors are symptoms of their emotional state. Fear is an emotion that tells us that we are in imminent danger and I think it is safe to assume that it is universally unpleasant[efn note]The brain parts responsible for basic feelings like fear are virtually identical in humans and other mammals. 1. As Patricia McConnell2 once wrote: “no amount of petting is going to make it worthwhile to your dog to feel panicked”.

Secondly, what you’re thinking about here is the principle of operant conditioning – that you can make a behavior more likely to occur by rewarding it.

  • The thing is, we established that these fearful behaviors are symptoms of stress. That means that the assumption that the dog behaves that way in order to get petted/get attention is false and so you cannot reinforce these behaviors with petting because petting is not what the dog is after. The dog wants to feel safe.
  • Moreover, operant conditioning is used for training voluntary behaviors and what your dog is doing during the thunderstorm is involuntary.

Another thing: refusing to comfort them may result in them looking for some other, much less desirable outlets for their anxiety such as chewing stuff…

And no, your dog will not “just get over it”.

What we mean by “getting over something” is called habituation in scientific jargon. It is the process of getting used to something until it becomes nothing more than background noise. But this can only work if the stimulus is not intense enough 3 to make us very uncomfortable.

If the stimulus is very intense – as is the case with fireworks – exposure to it will achieve the opposite 4 and the dog will end up either properly terrified (for example: urinating, destroying stuff) or will shut down completely.

The only way of making these behaviors better is to reduce the level of fear/stress that your dog is experiencing. You can read about it in my post about fireworks’ and storm phobias.

 

Firework and storm phobias

Many dogs suffer from firework and storm phobias. Both storms and fireworks are pretty unpredictable, which makes training tricky. Dogs will sometimes do crazy things out of fear: from hiding in the bathroom, through peeing themselves, to running away – and 40-50% of those who did run away never make it back! So our first priority is reducing the amount of fear they experience.

Bear in mind that each dog is different, not all of them can be cured and not all of us have what it takes to go through a rigorous counter-conditioning program. It is vital that we are honest about what we can achieve at the given time and just strive for the best possible scenario.

A dog hiding in the wardrobe.
Many dogs prefer closed, windowless spaces for hiding, for example bathrooms and wardrobes. ©Lis Berger

1. Assess your dog

You need to recognize how stressed your dog is in the given situation1. It will determine how much work there is for you. This is a list of common signs of stress starting with the milder, more ubiquitous symptoms.

    • panting
    • pacing
    • yawning
    • drooling
    • licking (especially paws)
    • vocalizing (whining/barking)
    • attention seeking
    • shedding
    • hiding
    • shaking
    • urinating (this one can go both ways – the dog can urinate out of fear or they may be so stressed that they’re incapable of elimination)

A dog eating cottage cheese.
If your dog is not too stressed, you can give them a toy filled with their favorite food. Chewing and licking at the food can help them calm down. ©Piri Stechauer

2. Ahead of time: decrease the overall stress level

Stress is not a one-off event, it accumulates over time. That means that even if you can’t quickly cure your dog of firework phobia, they will have an easier recovery if they’re overall doing well.

If you know that fireworks will happen or that a storm is approaching you can:

Avoid doing anything that makes your dog scared or uncomfortable (car rides, restaurant visits, the vet…) but also limit high-adrenaline activities such as playing ball. It might also be wise to skip your agility class for a while. Instead go for calm walks in places where you don’t have to control your dog all the time, offer them lots of opportunities to sniff, gentle massages, take them for a swim… you know best what makes your dog go all soft and chill.

Other options include:

  • prescription medication – consult your veterinarian on whether this is an option for you
  • a pheromone collar
  • a thunder shirt
  • anxiety relieving food supplements

3. During the event: manage the situation as best you can

  • walk your dog before the fireworks begin
  • secure your dog either with a safety harness or with a combination of a harness and a collar
  • use a GPS tracker if you have one
  • if your dog has a favourite hiding spot, you can make it extra cozy for them
  • turn on music or house appliances during the fireworks – the noise from outside will be less distinct then
  • provide comfort if your dog asks for it

There is a popular belief that you shouldn’t “fuss” over your dog when they’re anxious. This is partly true – you’re not afraid of fireworks, don’t behave as if you were. But it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pet your dog or provide companionship!  However, if they do want physical contact pay attention to its form: do not pet your dog with these short, nervous pats on the head or roughhouse with them. Choose calming forms of contact instead: cuddling together, a gentle massage, slow, long strokes.

A woman cuddling with her dogs.
By all means cuddle with your dog if that’s what they need and ask for! ©Lis Berger

4. Long-term solutions: relaxation training and classic counter-conditioning

According to the study conducted by the research center HundeUni Bern the two most effective methods are relaxation training and counter-conditioning.

Relaxation training can include:

  • teaching them to associate a specific piece of rug or music with relaxation
  • introducing a conditioned relaxation cue – your dog learns to relax on cue
  • rewarding them each time they choose to settle down on their own

The usual method used in dealing with fears is classic counter-conditioning (CCC). Let me quote Jean Donaldson, one of the pioneers of modern day training methods: Counterconditioning is about changing associations. It’s called counterconditioning because the dog already has an unpleasant emotional response [CER] to the thing we’re trying to condition. So we counter that by establishing a pleasant CER2.

For example: your dog hates the vacuum cleaner. Your aim could be to have your dog calmly leave the room when you take out the vacuum cleaner instead of barking at it wildly.

  1. Start with either a recording of the vacuum cleaner or someone can start vacuuming at the other end of the flat3. Your dog decides what is too much.
  2. Pair it with something your dog loves: feed them something delicious, play their favourite game or give them a gentle  massage. Your dog should not show signs of stress!
  3. You gradually increase the intensity of the stimulus until your dog starts liking the vacuum cleaner or at least stops being freaked out by it.
  4. Once they’re not freaked out anymore, you can start working on an alternative behavior, for example resting in another room.

Counter-conditioning might seem easy but it is actually really difficult to plan and execute properly. If you want to help your dog, I’d strongly advise you to work with a competent trainer!

A dog wearing a safety harness.
A dog wearing a safety harness. ©Conny R. Centuri

A dog wearing ear protection.
There is ear protection for dogs (Mutt Muffs) but it’s only good for short periods of time and you must condition your dog to tolerate them! ©Martina Uebersax

a dog wearing a GPS tracker
A dog wearing a GPS tracker. ©Renate Helfert

Are you walking the dog or is the dog walking you?

This topic is important to me because – like so many of us – I walked Leus too much. Then I learned that she has arthritis and had to change my attitude. And then I went to a conference where I heard countless professional dog trainers talk about over-exercising and over-stimulating our dogs. During another conference that I attended there was a whole presentation dedicated to the question of our dogs’ “workload”. Here is what I learned:

Trust your dog. If your dog likes running, they will run a lot. You don’t have to plan extra activities like jogging or dog sports – just provide your dog with the right kind of environment where they can decide if they want to run like crazy or just sniff around.

dog in the bushes at dawn
I like walking Leus in the morning when the world is quiet.

Dog sports (agility, dog cross, flyball etc.) are a bit controversial, some trainers consider them unethical. They argue that dog sports satisfy our needs, not the dogs’ needs. I don’t want to make a blanket statement about all dog sports. However, be aware of the physical toll that high-speed sports can have: all these jumps and rapid turns are not necessarily good for the dogs. If you really want to do dog sports consult a veterinarian first and make sure there are no contraindications (for example German shepherds and bulldogs tend to have congenital hip problems).

Moreover, these high-energy activities also increase adrenaline production – they stress your dog. Stress in itself does not have to be bad but if your dog is already easily (over)excited, this might not be the way to go. You might end up with a very fit, very fidgety dog simply because they can’t bring their stress levels down enough to rest.

2 people walking 2 dogs in the fields
If your dog has good recall, they can enjoy off-leash privileges.

Playing ball is an example of a beloved activity that should actually be approached with caution. If you (or your dog!) insist on this activity, try re-thinking it:

  • If your dog loves chewing the ball – let them! Just make sure they don’t swallow pieces of it. Chewing also relaxes your dog so it is good if your dog does it.
  • Ask your dog for a stay and hide the ball, then let them sniff it out. It might also be a great alternative for dogs who love playing ball but should not chase after it anymore for health reasons.
  • Don’t make them fetch. Once they understand the principle they will bring the ball back to you if they want to play. I know that watching them chase and fetch is incredibly satisfying, but this is supposed to be about them, not about us.
  • If your dog loves the ball you can use it as a reward in training (for example throw it after a successful recall).

The most important thing is to give your dog choices. The dog training world is buzzing with phrases like “learner empowerment” and “initiating a training conversation”, and for a good reason: research has shown that the more dogs are allowed to make their own decisions and interact with their environment on their own terms, the more self-confident and calm they are. That does not mean that you let your dog do whatever they want all the time. But try to let them choose as much as possible. I mean honestly, does it really matter if you go left or right at that particular intersection in the park?

a park, people on benches, runners, people walking
A busy place full of joggers, people on picnics, children and other dogs can stress out your dog.
empty-ish island shore, city in the background
The less you have to control your dog, the more you can both enjoy the walk. If possible, just pick a less frequented path with fewer distractions.

The sense of smell is another thing we theoretically all know about, but in practice we often fail to acknowledge its relevance. I don’t think there is any way we can imagine what smelling things means to dogs – it has been compared to us reading the news or scrolling social media, which may or may not be close. The fact remains that dogs engage with their environment best through their sense of smell. So let them smell. Imagine if every time you started reading a post on facebook, someone interrupted you. Not very nice, is it?

Which brings me to my last point: take your time when you walk your dog. Remember, the walk is for them, not for you. If your dog doesn’t feel like running that particular morning then let them be. You can still spend that hour outside (if they want to walk at all), just try to refrain from telling them what they should do. Dogs actually get tons of mental stimulation when they sniff and at the same time it has a calming effect (it literally slows down their heartbeat), so after an hour of intense sniffing around your neighbourhood they might be more relaxed than after playing ball.

This does require a change of attitude from walking the dog to walking with the dog. But watching them be happy is, I think, inherently rewarding to all of us and it’s really worth it.

Surviving the summer

The summer is finally here. For us it may be the time for wearing cool summer clothes and drinking spritzers outside but our dogs might be less happy about it. Firstly, they can only sweat through their paws and their main way of regulating body temperature is panting. Secondly, contrary to popular belief, dogs can also suffer sunburn – especially the ones with short coats. Owners of flat-faced1 dogs such as bulldogs, pugs or boxers must take special care of their furry friends in the summer as they already have trouble breathing under the best conditions.

Short-snouted dogs (pugs, boxers etc.) struggle with breathing at the best of times. Their owners must take special care in the summer.
Source: http://www.balancebehaviour.org

Just like us, dogs can become dehydrated, overheated or even suffer a heat stroke. Remember that very driven dogs might keep up what they are doing even if it’s not good for them (fetch fanatics, watch out!) so keep your eyes open. A dehydrated dog might have dry mouth, gums and nose as well as sunken eyes. The signs of overheating include heavy panting and drooling, dizziness, collapsing, disorientation, increased temperature, vomiting and diarrhoea.

There are two simple tests for dehydration that you can perform at home:

  1.     Gently stretch a fold of skin and let go. It should spring back to its original place immediately. If it doesn’t, something is not right.
  2.     Press a tip of your finger gently into the dog’s gums, then take it away. The spot that you pressed will be white – it should return to its natural colour within a couple of seconds. If it doesn’t, something is not right.

If your dog seems dehydrated or overheated immediately seek medical attention!

A black dog panting.

DO:

  •  provide access to fresh water at all times (that is true all year around!)
  •  make sure your dog drinks enough, if you think they might be drinking too little you can mix water into their food or add broth to their water
  •  provide a sheltered resting place at all times
  •  walk your dog as early as you can, before it gets hot
  •  make sure there is plenty of shade on your walk
  •  if you go hiking choose trails with access to water (for example passing by lakes or going along rivers) so that your dog can cool themselves down
  •  take water with you on walks and offer it frequently
  •  make sure that the muzzle is well-fitted so that they can pant properly!
  •  if you’re uncertain – check the temperature of the pavement with your hand!
  •  groom your dog – the less tangled and messy their coat, the better they can control their body temperature
  •  give medication regularly, summer is prime time for ticks ans mosquitos which transmit many dangerous diseases and parasites such as heartworm; obviously consult a veterinarian first
If you forget to take a water bowl for you dog, a plastic bag can do the trick too!
If you forget to take a water bowl for you dog, a plastic bag can do the trick too!

DON’T:

  •  leave your dog in the car (not even for a couple of minutes, cars can heat up to 40°C in 10min!)
  •  walk your dog around noon
  •  walk your dog in the sun
  •  force your dog to run any more than they want to
  •  make your dog walk on asphalt!
  •  necessarily shave them – dog hair is different from ours, some of them may never re-grow their coat properly and shaving them may actually reduce their ability to control their body temperature
Hot surfaces burn paws! If you can't press your hand on a surface comfortably for 5 seconds then it's too hot for your pet's paws!
Source: https://www.facebook.com/RedandHowling

EXTRAS:

  •  you can make your dog a paddling pool in the garden
  •  you can buy a cooling blanket for your dog; a wet towel or an ice pack can help too
  •  offer them ice cubes (or frozen broth!) and other frozen goodies (for example peanut butter, yoghurt, berries or bananas can all make for delicious frozen snack)

Why I’m not happy that Cesar Millan visits Budapest

Cesar Millan is one of the most famous dog trainers in the world. His TV program “The dog whisperer” ran on the National Geographic channel for 8 years and was only taken down after he was accused of animal cruelty. But I will not go into details about Cesar Millan and his commercial career.

Instead, I would like to provide an alternative, science-based explanation of what is happening in the preview that Cesar Millan did for Index. If any good training is based on setting the dogs up for success, this is clearly an example of bad training because the dogs were set up for failure.

My interpretation1:

  • Two dogs who do not know each other are forced to confront each other frontally2 in a small room full of people.
  • They are both on the leash.
  • They are sliding on the floor.
  • The handlers don’t tell the dogs what they want them to do.

In the beginning both dogs are curious and a little excited. Then you can see a change especially in the vizsla that Cesar is handling: the tail goes down, he looks away, nearly freezes, his mouth is first shut tight, then he starts panting heavily. From a dog that was excited but fine, he turns into a dog that is tense, shows clear signs of stress and uses many calming signals.

If you look at the small dog, it’s actually doing a great job of communicating his preferences, using a lot of calming signals to de-escalate the situation. He clearly attempts to walk away.

There is one more thing that I must mention. It is Cesar’s “training tool” which, according to him, “calms the brain”. BULLSHIT. It is a thin leash that forms a noose at one end. He puts it so that it circles the dog’s muzzle and is fastened where the skull and the neck meet. Even though he talks about how the dogs shouldn’t pull, once the device is placed he applies constant pressure effectively depriving the dog of oxygen. He doesn’t have to apply a lot of force because the laws of physics and nature work in his favor:

  • The smaller the area we apply pressure to, the less strength has to be applied to achieve the desired effect. Put simply the thinner the rope, the easier it is to suffocate the dog.
  • The area where the skull and the neck meet is especially vulnerable, which means that this device is also probably causing pain.

Cesar never stated what the purpose of this exercise is but let’s assume it was to stay by their handler’s side without pulling on the leash. Can dogs do that under such unfavorable circumstances? Yes, they can. BUT YOU MUST TRAIN THEM, not terrorize them.

sad dog
photo: www.pexels.com

Below you can find a small selection of signs exhibited by the vizsla in the video. If anyone is interested in a more detailed analysis that I compiled with the help of dog trainers from the Canis Pacalis network, I would be happy to send it by email:

  • in the beginning of the video the vizsla is pulling on the leash and moving
  • 00:07–00:10 the dog already starts tongue-flicking when Cesar stands very close to him and gesticulates wildly
  • 00:1700:20 when Cesar puts the device on he stands directly in front of the dog and leans over him3, you can see the tail slowing down
  • 00:3200:34 when Cesar holds the leash: the dog is barely moving anymore, the head and tail are low, the whole body seems tense, the ears lean slightly backwards, the dog tries to turn away but can’t
  • 00:5200:59 the dog is barely moving, his tail is low, his mouth is wide open, he pants heavily and his head is facing away from Cesar as much as possible. His panting and wagging speed up when Cesar touches him. When Cesar goes to the back and demonstrates pulling on the leash, the dog freezes.

Do not shout at your dog – pt. 2

Let’s recap: I was walking my dog off leash and talking on the phone. She walked onto a street. I shouted at her to come back, in response she lied down in the middle of the street. Not good. But why? The answer is of course: body language. Let’s have a look.

The human side: what was I doing?

I was standing tall, probably with my arms outstretched to some degree, leaning forward somewhat, using a loud, unpleasant tone of voice. Dogs can learn the meaning of verbal commands, but they’re hard-wired to respond to body language and it’s hard for them to overcome it.

My words meant: come back. My body and tone of voice meant: stay away. For us it is natural to interact face-to-face but dogs – given a choice – approach each other from an angle1. My body language at that moment was probably universally threatening but we, humans, are less sensitive to it as we primarily rely on speech. Have a look at how I could have improved the situation:

This is what I probably looked like – I was facing her, this shows me from the side so that you can see how I was leaning forward2:

Improvement 1 – hands by my side, not leaning forward anymore:

Improvement 2 – standing sideways:

Improvement 3 – squatting:

The canine side: what was Leus doing?

She stopped when I called her and turned towards me, then she lied down even though I told her to come back. Why would she do that?!

First and foremost, we must throw out of the window the misconception that dogs do things to spite us. Then we can proceed to the actual explanation.

We already established that my body language was threatening – the message “I’m scary” that my body was sending was stronger than the verbal message “come here”. Leus lied down in an attempt to appease me and avoid conflict.

Calming signals

This brings us to the so-called calming signals – a term developed by the Norwegian trainer Turid Rugaas3. She made three important observations that changed the dog training world forever:

  1. Dogs have a rich body language that they actively use to prevent conflicts.
  2. They primarily learn this language from other dogs but humans help them with this process.
  3. Some of the body language can be used by humans too.

Lying down, as Leus did, is one of these calming signals. These are the main signals that Turid Rugaas describes in her book:

  • turning the head away/looking away
  • “softening” the eyes (kind of like squinting or slowly blinking)
  • tongue flicks (the tongue comes out and touches the muzzle or the tip of the nose quickly)
  • longer licks around the muzzle
  • sitting down
  • moving slowly
  • moving in a curve/curving
  • stopping
  • lying down
  • sniffing
  • yawning
  • turning away
  • play bow
  • peeing
  • splitting (dividing other dogs)
  • tail wagging

Some of these behaviours can also signal distress: if you are on a crowded bus or in a vet’s waiting room you might see a lot of dogs that are panting, yawning or licking themselves. Obviously, these are just fragments of the body language – dogs can also yawn when they’re sleepy, pant when they are thirsty or wag their tail when they are happy. It is important to evaluate these signals in the context of the given situation. But please, stop shouting at your dog already.

Why train by positive reinforcement?

This is the short answer: because positive reinforcement is a humane, science-based method of training animals that focuses on rewarding desirable behaviours. It is safe for everyone to use and it strengthens the bond between you and your animal.

  • It is humane and safe because it does not involve punishment (be it verbal or physical). Animals have different levels of sensitivity and even though many dogs tolerate punishment, for others it may be a trigger to bark, bite or hide, ultimately escalating the situation instead of solving the problem. Therefore, using punishment is not safe. Secondly, punishment damages the bond between you and your animal, teaching the animal that they cannot trust you or even should fear you. (I also think that punishment is plain wrong and useless but it’s a matter for a different post).
  • It is science-based because it mostly uses the principles of classical conditioning and operant conditioning that have been well documented over the last hundred years. There has also been research into positive reinforcement itself that showed that animals trained by this method learned faster and retained the new skills much longer than classically trained animals.
  • It is a method because once you learn the principles you can yourself train your animal. Of course what you train them to do and how long it will take depends on many factors (the animal’s age, experiences and predispositions, your skills, the amount of time you’re willing to invest…)  but you definitely do not need to be a ‘dog whisperer’ to use it to your advantage.

Positive reinforcement…

  • is not a quick fix. Like all successful training methods positive reinforcement requires us to think about our goals, plan ahead and manage the animal’s environment so that we can set them up for success. Most problems consist of multiple “bad behaviours” and each of them has to be fixed individually. (For example problematic greeting behaviour may involve barking, lunging and uncontrolled running. All separate issues for training.).
  • does not mean that you have to use treats (or any other kind of reward) all the time. Yes, initially you treat each time. But once a behaviour is stable (reliable) you can gradually wean the animal off treats and only reward them from time to time. Unless it’s something that is really hard for them. Speaking of which, why are we so opposed to rewarding our dogs? No one ever asks when they can stop punishing their dogs… Without delving deep I’d like to make an argument for treating our dogs lavishly: most of the things we ask them to do are contrary to their instincts and obeying all our requests is hard work. In my opinion hard work deserves pay. Full stop.
  • does not equal permissiveness. The difference between positive reinforcement based training and “traditional” training is how we react to the unwanted behaviours. Where a ctraditional trainer might opt for correction1/punishment, the positive trainer opts for telling the dog what they want (instead of what they do not want)2because really, just expecting them to “know better” is plain unfair. Example: your dog wanders off the sidewalk. Instead of yelling/jerking the leash, one way would be to teach your dog the cue “sidewalk” and reward them for getting back onto the sidewalk.
  • Not everything can (or must) be trained.