Thursday, December 26, 2013

Summer Over the Holidays (and Logs)

Summer keeps on coming around when my parents visit, and she fits right in with the big dogs when it comes to running about, exploring, jumping, and, of course, practicing strong recalls. In fact, in order to get this shot, we had Summer sit stay so the humans could get out of the frame, and then she was called by a person standing behind the photographer. It took three or four tries to get a jumping shot this good, and she was a great sport the whole time.

And what would a group dog hike be without a photo of the daily stay? Summer's rapidly catching up in size to her cousins, and this shot shows off her awkward teenage ears nearly as well as the previous one.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Puppy Foundations: Biting

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.



My puppy is aggressive, what do I do? My puppy is biting us and nothing is working to stop him! How can I get my puppy to stop biting?

At eight weeks, puppies are typically interested in social interactions, and
they tend to explore the world with their mouths.
I field questions like these all the time from new puppy owners, particularly new Golden Retriever puppy owners. Frequently, Golden puppies go through a phase in which they become sharkmouthed little terrors, and families are often at a loss on how to eliminate this behavior quickly and safely.

Like jumping, biting is a natural, social thing puppies do. It's an attempt to interact and play with you. Puppies explore the world with their mouths, so when they nip at your hands or clothes, that's an attempt to explore you and engage in a social interaction. Sometimes, a worked up puppy will nip pretty hard and vocalize while he's doing it, which leads some new owners to worry that the puppy is aggressive or dangerous. While there are very rare cases in which puppies have neurological issues that cause unprovoked aggression, the vast majority of concerned owners simply have a puppy who gets overstimulated and mouthy.

I approach this behavior just like I do with jumping, and if you read both articles, you see the consistency in the philosophy between that one and this one. The key to getting rid of an undesired behavior like biting is understanding what motivates it, removing the reward for it, and rewarding an alternative behavior.

Understand the Motivation for the Behavior

With biting, the motivations are fairly straightforward: dogs mouth at each other while playing, and dogs explore the world with their mouths. So most mouthing isn't aggressive, and it certainly isn't related to dominance in most situations. Rather, it's an attempt to take out the urge to mouth things, and it's an attempt to initiate play with you. Getting your dog to stop doing it means understanding that so you can make sure that it doesn't get him the rewards he's seeking.

Remove the Reward for the Unwanted Behavior

The reward for biting is your attention. That means that loud noises, sudden motion, eye contact and continued interaction can all reinforce the biting. So if you're having problems with a nippy puppy, be sure you're not accidentally rewarding him by paying him more attention when he bites. A firm "no" is often recommended to stop a puppy from biting, but in my experience, it can actually be a reward since it can be mistaken for play or at least attention. So can pushing the dog away from you. Many, many dogs find a push highly reinforcing, even if you intend it as punishment. Jerking your hand away is also potentially a reward or potentially an accidental signal that you want to play.

Some trainers recommend a high pitched yelp when your puppy bites you, and I've seen that work well, since it's something that dogs sometimes do with each other to signal that a bite was unwelcome. However, humans aren't always great at speaking dog, and some pups simply misinterpret a yelp as a play noise and take it as a reward. If you yelp and your puppy gets even more energized, the yelp probably won't help.

One thing that works well to remove the reward is to freeze, become completely silent, and look up and away. The puppy is trying to get more interaction, so if you remove all interaction and energy at the moment that teeth touch skin, you can show him that biting is having the opposite effect from what he intended. He wants to play a prosocial game and interact with you; you're showing him that biting humans turns them into boring statues. Just like with other methods that use ignoring, the idea here is not just to ignore what you don't like but rather to remove the reward of your attention.

Again, like with jumping, you will typically see extinction bursts when a behavior is about to improve. The puppy may try biting harder or more excitedly for a brief period once he realizes that biting isn't getting him what he wants. That is a sign that your technique is working, and giving up during the extinction burst will simply teach the puppy that he's right to try biting harder. An extinction burst is a sign that you're about to be successful, so stick with it.

However, as with jumping, sometimes dogs are too forceful or intense for us to play statue long enough to teach them that it doesn't work. Most puppies who interacted with their litters up through eight weeks have learned enough bite inhibition that they don't bite intensely and break the skin, since their littermates have taught them how to bite softly, but you may not be able to ignore the biting of a puppy who was removed earlier or a puppy who is simply more intense than average. In these cases, you may need to non-reward your puppy by removing yourself entirely from the situation by, for example, standing up or stepping over a baby gate.

Reward an Alternative Behavior

A favorite toy can help satisfy a pup's urge to mouth and his urge to play.
You can often speed up the reduction in an unwanted behavior by teaching and rewarding a behavior that's acceptable to you and is incompatible with the unacceptable behavior. With biting, that means helping your dog learn how to interact appropriately while still taking out his urge to mouth and play.

Be sure that you have an appropriate toy at hand when you are playing with your dog. If he bites, you freeze and play statue. Once he stops mouthing for even a moment, waggle the toy. Praise him and play with him if he puts his mouth on the toy instead of you. If your timing is good, your puppy should learn that biting at toys gets him good things, but biting at skin or clothes takes away good things.

Another alternative behavior is licking. You can teach your dog to give you a kiss instead of a bite. In my family, licking is considered gross, so we tend not to teach this particular behavior, but many people like it when their dog gives them a nice kiss on the hand, so you can teach your nippy puppy to kiss instead of biting by praising him when he licks. You can even put a dab of peanut butter on your finger and only let your puppy at it when he is licking rather than biting that finger. Then you can say "kiss" when he is reliably licking instead of biting. That can give you a command for your nippy puppy that you can use rather than purely ignoring him. You can teach him that kissing leads to more positive interactions, including peanut butter, and that biting pauses or ends positive interactions.

The Takeaway

Most professional trainers have only seen one or two truly aggressive puppies in their lifetimes, and I've personally never seen one. I have, however, seen many puppies whose owners were concerned about aggression because the puppies were so growly and mouthy. So don't worry too much if you have a little landshark in the house. While it's possible for a puppy to be truly aggressive, it's extremely improbable. Instead, try to make sure that your pup is not getting accidentally rewarded for the biting with attention, sound, and eye contact. Remove all potential rewards when he bites, and give him an acceptable behavior that will allow him to gain a reward.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

No, Your Dog's Not Dominant

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.



Due to some popular TV trainers, the idea of dominance has taken on a major role in contemporary dog training conversations. The term has its origins in the 1940s, when it was used to describe the interactions of captive wolves. Some wolves seemed to rank higher in the captive pack than others, taking food first, mating preferentially, and leading the others. Some dog trainers decided to apply this philosophy to dogs, ascribing behavioral problems to the fact that the dog didn't see humans as "alphas" or "dominant" enough.

Is the dog on your bed and refusing to get off? That's because he's dominant and thinks he owns the space. Is your dog pulling you down the street on the leash? That's because he's dominant and thinks you are his follower. Does he growl when you come near his food bowl? That's because he's dominant and doesn't respect your right to bother him while he's eating.

Comet and Jax don't hold a reliable stay because they respect my
alpha status. They do it because it's been practiced and rewarded.
This philosophy often leads people to take the next step and to establish so-called dominance by taking physical action with the dog. The most common and problematic step is to engage in something called "alpha rolling" the dog. This move is intended to imitate something wild wolves supposedly do. The "alpha" wolf, in order to show he's leader, pins the other wolf to the ground by his throat. So the human, having arrived at the conclusion that his dog doesn't respect him enough, punishes him for bad behavior by pinning him to the ground by the throat. It sounds like it could work, and most of us would interpret this technique in a relatively gentle way and do it without hurting or surprising the dog too much. However, the alpha roll and other techniques like it are unequivocally a bad idea. There is never a situation in which pinning your dog to the ground by his throat is part of effective training.

Why not? First, let's address the reality of wild wolves and debunk the myth of dominance at its roots. It turns out that wolf packs in the wild do not typically engage in the physical conflicts that were observed in captive wolves. When wild wolves fight, they don't do so to establish rank; rather, they fight to the point of injury or death. In reality, nearly all pack-level interactions are all about avoiding a physical conflict by using body language and vocalization.

Don't believe me? Check out what L. David Mech, one of the originators of dominance theory, has to say about it these days. Actually, he substantially revised his wolf theories about fifteen years ago, but many dog trainers have not caught up, despite the fact that the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the largest, most reputable professional organization for pet dog trainers, has made a very clear position statement on the subject of training dogs through the lens of dominance.


Good leadership in modern, science-based dog training is all about clarity and setting your dog up to succeed. It's not about ascribing undesired behaviors to pseudo-scientific hokum about alpha dogs and then intimidating the dog through physical coercion or pain.

But, you say, I've seen that guy do it on TV and then the dog stops with the bad behavior. If it's such a bad idea, why does it seem to work? It seems to work sometimes because when you intimidate a dog that badly, one of the possible reactions is that the dog will become very still in an attempt to show he's not a threat. Rather than fighting and provoking more aggression from you, the dog decides to freeze in the hope you'll leave him alone. If your puppy nips you, and you flip him onto his back and hold him by the throat, there's a good chance he'll freeze, especially if you do it roughly. However, what you're now holding to the ground is a puppy who is terrified that you'll actually hurt him. You are not a leader; you are a bully.

Even assuming for a moment that dogs see humans as other dogs, if you went to another pack member, grabbed him by the neck, and threw him to the ground, he could, quite reasonably, assume that you were trying to murder him, and he would react accordingly. On TV, sometimes that means the dog freezes, and sometimes that means the human gets bitten rather badly. The nastiest bites are typically given by dogs who are in fear for their lives. When you pin your dog, you're asking for stitches, not obedience.

This kind of leadership philosophy creates no end of headaches for us who have to train real-world dogs with no TV cameras pointed at us. Owners come in with dogs who are alternately terrorized and energized by their owners. When you intimidate a dog who's jumping or biting, you often see the jumping or biting stop—only for as long as the dog is actually afraid. It's long enough for a TV camera to document what looks like success (though sometimes the cameras document a nasty bite instead), but if you actually have to live with the dog, what you typically end up seeing is a dog who ends up being highly energized and confused a few minutes or hours later. The dog's trust in people gets broken down, and the handler has provided little clarity for he what he actually wants.

Looking at dogs through the lens of dominance is a recipe for broken trust in many cases, and in some cases, it teaches dogs to bite humans as a last resort to fight back against what they may perceive as a physical threat. If your understanding of dominance leads you to poke, hit, kick, yell at, or pin your dog, it's leading you in exactly the wrong direction. You may get the short term appearance of calmness or a short-lived reduction in the bad behavior, but helplessness isn't the kind of calmness you want. You may teach your dog that doing that undesired thing leads you to become physical and intimidating, but is that really what you want motivating your dog's obedience? You can sometimes teach a dog not to jump by kneeing him in the chest, but is that really the kind of trainer you want to be?

Dogs really can be obnoxious sometimes. They can jump all over you, steal food, pull on the leash, and do a dozen other things that are incompatible with a happy human-dog relationship. However, they don't do these things because they think they are the lead wolf in a mixed pack of dogs and humans, and viewing their undesired behavior through the lens of dominance is a recipe for broken trust and, in some cases, a nasty bite.

So no, your dog's not dominant. Wild wolves don't establish dominance hierarchies in the first place; in the second, dogs aren't identical to wolves anyway; and lastly, your dog doesn't really see you as another dog. If your dog is doing something undesirable, that means he's not trained for that situation. It's your job to teach him, not to threaten him, and there are a lot of ways to change your dog's behavior without relying on intimidation or discomfort as your go-to response.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Snow Portraits

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.



This entry is actually being written and posted in February, but backdated, since I just stumbled across these photos from December that I apparently took on a snow day off from work and immediately forgot about. I vaguely recollect being struck by how gently the snow was settling on the dogs and how it was just cold enough that it didn't melt on their fur but just warm enough that it stuck.

I can also see from all the photos that I was playing around with focal length a little and trying to figure out exactly the depth of field that might make for a warm portrait on a cold day.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Puppy Temperament Testing

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.



I had the opportunity over the weekend to be the photographer for a very special gathering. A terrific litter of Goldens was being evaluated to decide which families should be matched up with which puppies.

When a responsible breeder produces a litter, that person typically has a goal for the puppies, and that's often the key distinction between a backyard breeder,which you want to avoid like the plague, and a hobby breeder, which is where you should get a purebred dog if you decide to go that route for your canine companion. A hobby breeder is somebody who has a competition dog hobby, like formal obedience, hunting, agility, or conformation showing. They produce dogs that can compete in that venue. For pet owners, that means an opportunity to get a dog who isn't being bred for profit and who has the qualities you want in a purebred.

When somebody breeds purely for profit (or just willy-nilly because they have a boy dog and a girl dog and they want more), they're probably not doing anything to protect and encourage the qualities that attract you to the breed in the first place. When somebody breeds with a goal in mind, they choose a breed that can meet that goal, and they make matches to produce dogs that can do it even better. Competing also helps prove that the dogs have the abilities that you want in your dog, like biddability, stable temperament, and the desire to retrieve.

In this case, that meant pairing up an obedience champion father and an obedience competitor mother. The resulting eight puppies were destined for obedience and family homes, so the breeding team evaluated them periodically as they grew, trying to figure out which would be the most intense personalities, which more laid back, as well as a host of other factors that they use to try to predict a pup's future personality and ability.

Today, as a last step in evaluating them, the puppies all went through the Volhard puppy test. It's not a perfect measurement of a puppy's personality, temperament, and working ability, but it's a helpful benchmark as you try to decide what puppy might best best for a family with kids, which one might be best for competition obedience, and which might be best for some other scenario.

As you can see, an umbrella is used to determine if the puppies startled at a visual stimulus, and to see how fast they recovered.

It really pushes you to ask questions about what's nature and what's nurture in a puppy's behavior and working ability.

While I found the test fascinating, I also truly enjoyed the chance to catch such a wide range of expressions on eight different gorgeous Golden puppies.

After the testing, we put the puppies in a large pen with the potential owners who were there to give their input on choices. That really gave me a chance to grab candids of the pups and to play with them myself.

While I wasn't there to pick out a puppy myself, little Blue Boy (on the right in this shot) won me over bigtime. I loved his attitude and spunk.

White Boy, though, was one of the most photogenic, making some of the silliest faces during our playtime.

After several hours of playing, meeting new people, hearing new sounds, being temperament tested, and playing around with brothers and sisters, the puppies started to crash and doze.

For me, it was a great learning day to get into the head of ethical breeders and the way they match up puppies and owners. And it's just plain fun to get on the floor with eight Golden puppies.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Things Your Dog Shouldn't Eat

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.



I originally wrote up this list for my mom to print out and put on the refrigerator since she hadn't had a dog in so long and wanted to be super safe with Summer, so I figured I'd clean it up and post it as a corollary to the Thanksgiving safety article. It includes common foods that are fine for people but toxic to dogs, common toxins found around the house, and some other common ingestion issues that cause trips to the veterinary ER.
  • Chocolate. Theobromine is a chemical found in chocolate, and it's toxic to dogs. Its toxicity is relative to the dose, and the darker the chocolate, the more theobromine it has, so small amounts of milk chocolate are generally harmless to dogs. However, in dark chocolate or in baking chocolate, the concentrations are much higher and a smaller amount of chocolate can be harmful.
  • Grapes and raisins. The mechanism of toxicity isn't known, and not all dogs seem to be susceptible, but it has been confirmed repeatedly that some dogs can experience acute renal failure after just a few grapes or raisins.
  • Macadamia nuts. As with grapes, the mechanism for this toxicity isn't known, and it appears to vary greatly from dog to dog, but it's a confirmed problem. Symptoms include vomiting, lethargy, and shaking. Most dogs survive macadamia poisoning, but it's obviously best not to gamble.
  • Antifreeze. Obviously, antifreeze is poisonous, but what's not obvious is that it's sweet tasting. Many dogs will lick it up spilled antifreeze if, for example, it leaks out of your car onto the driveway. Very small amounts of antifreeze can be fatal.
  • Some household plants. I don't have space for the whole list, but you can look up your plants on the ASPCA's list of toxic household plants to be sure you don't have anything dangerous in reach of your dog.
  • Onions. Onions contain a chemical (thiosulfate) that can cause anemia in dogs. As with theobromine in chocolate, the danger is dosage-dependent, so a little bit of onion shouldn't cause a problem. However, you do want to keep your dog from eating large amounts of onions.
  • Garlic. Garlic also contains thiosulfate, but many dogs happily eat garlic, and many dog foods contain it, so it's not something I worry about. Nonetheless, it may technically be toxic.
  • Avocado. There is some debate surrounding the toxicity of avocados. The pits are definitely toxic to many mammals, as are the leaves of the plant, and the meat of at least some varieties are toxic to dogs. If you want to do your research on what varieties of avocado are safe, go for it, but don't just give avocado willy-nilly to your pup.
  • Salt. Dogs' kidneys are generally more sensitive to damage than ours, so be careful that your dog doesn't get a chance to ingest large amounts of salt. Play-doh contains quite a bit of salt, so keep an eye on your dog if he eats a bunch of it.
  • Caffeine. Dogs can be very sensitive to caffeine, so be sure your dog doesn't get a chance to ingest anything with a significant quantity of caffeine in it.
  • Alcohol. It's obvious that alcohol isn't for dogs, but what's not obvious is that many dogs like the taste of beer and of some sweet liquors and will drink them if they're spilled or if glasses are left within reach. A relatively small amount of alcohol can be dangerous for dogs, so don't play around. And no, it's not funny when a dog drinks beer and staggers around.
  • Xylitol. Xylitol is an artificial sweetener found in some human foods and is frequently the sweetener in sugar-free chewing gums. It is very poisonous to dogs, so a dog who ingests a pack of chewing gum needs to go straight to the vet ER.
  • Corn cobs. Corn is sweet, and the cobs frequently still have some butter and salt on them when we finish with them and throw them away. A dog can easily break off big chunks and swallow them, and they are a common cause of intestinal obstructions in dogs.
  • Human pharmaceuticals. Human and canine physiology are quite similar, and many medicines that work for us are also used for dogs—typically in smaller doses since their bodies are smaller. But even medicines that might be safe for a dog in the right dosage are almost certainly an overdose if he swallows even one or two human pills. Also, some human meds have sweet buffered coatings that may tempt a dog if the pills are left in his reach. Lastly, there are some human medicines that are toxic to dogs even in tiny quantities. The lesson here is to keep all human meds out of the reach of your dog and never to give a dog human medicine unless it is specifically cleared by your dog's vet.
  • Fat. Fat is, obviously, an important part of a dog's diet. Dogs need lots of good fats. However, a large quantity of fat ingested quickly can cause diarrhea or vomiting, and if a dog gets too much fat in a short period of time, he can develop a condition called pancreatitis. Acute, severe pancreatitis can be fatal if left untreated. Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include vomiting, diarrhea, distended abdomen, hunching up, lethargy, and fever. If your dog eats a large amount of fat and seems to be feeling ill afterwards, call your vet sooner rather than later.
  • Cooked bone. We don't feed our dogs a raw diet, but many people who do give their dogs raw bones as part of the feeding protocol. Dogs seem to be able to break up and properly digest raw bones—though there are some precautions raw feeders take that you'll want to read about if you go in that direction with your dogs. However, cooked bones are another matter entirely. A bone that's been heated will splinter when it's chewed, and those splinters can perforate a dog's gastrointestinal tract if they're swallowed. They also can cause obstructions. Both of those problems can be fatal, so keep cooked bones away from your dog, and call the vet right away if your dog gets into any cooked bones.