Sunday, March 30, 2014

Reader Question: Why does my puppy become a total maniac between dinner and bedtime?

Readers and clients pretty frequently send me questions by e-mail, and I try to answer all of them. Today, it dawned on me that people often think their problem is unique or strange or somehow caused by a mistake that they're making with their dog. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't, but either way, I've decided to make it a regular thing on Puppy Tao to go back to a question I've answered for somebody and expand it into a full post. That way, when people have these kinds of problems, they can realize they're not alone and maybe find answers more quickly.

I'm editing some wording and details in the original message and my response for the sake of anonymity and clarity, but this and all the Reader Question articles will be based on real people's questions and the real answers I gave them. So, without further ado, the first Reader Question!
Hi Brian, 
Is it unusual for a puppy to have two distinct personalities during the day? 
He is sweet as can be from rising until about 2.  Then he starts to get wound up and is a total maniac by 5 until bedtime.  Leaping, biting, not listening.  We've tried walks, rousing play, fetch, field trips, just about everything we can think of.  The only thing that pacifies him is constantly feeding him a kong.  I'm about ready to call it quits. 
Getting Too Old For This

Just like the puppy in this Reader Question, Tubbs would get a bit wild
in the early evening, right at the time his handler was able to attend puppy
class! With steady rewarding of Tubbs' good choices, nonrewarding of wild
behavior, and a ton of patience, Tubbs and his handler made great progress.
Dear Getting Too Old For This,

What you describe is really normal, and it's a stage that lots of puppies go through. Some puppies just pass out when they get overtired, but some become horrible devil monsters instead. I've had some of both in my own dogs. It's so common for pups to get confused, bratty, and wound up at exactly that time of day, so it's not caused by anything you're doing wrong. It's like a toddler who melts down with a massive tantrum because it's bedtime, but he also can't keep his eyes open.

Tuckering him out and training his brain earlier in the day can sometimes shorten the duration of the crazy behavior later because he won't have the physical and mental energy to sustain it, but that doesn't always work to eliminate it entirely. So start with being sure you have ample training, problem solving, and physical exercise earlier in the day when he's more manageable.

When he's still being bratty after 5, the crate is your friend. So is lowering your training expectations for that time. Work on the complicated stuff earlier in the day and plan on that 5-to-bedtime slot for just managing him and carefully nonrewarding the insane behavior and rewarding any good behavior you get. You can also give yourself a break by putting him in the crate with his kong when it's just too frustrating. You should always try to get at least a little bit of a positive interaction from him if you have the energy, rather than just putting him away when he's crazy, but don't feel like you have to fight your way through every single minute of this time slot every single day.

What I would not do is any kind of collar or verbal corrections when he's being a nut job like this. I wouldn't in general, but this would be a particularly bad time for them. He's already got too much energy and a thoroughly confused puppy brain. Anything energetic or interactive will probably just ratchet up the behavior, so withdrawing your attention and nonrewarding him will show him that being bratty makes humans super boring. Also, be sure that if you do crate and kong him, don't do it right after he does something like bark or nip. There's a chance he'll find it really rewarding to go into his crate with a yummy kong, so you don't want to teach him that he can have that if he's a brat.

It'll take a bunch of repetition because he's worked himself into such a tizzy, so you probably won't see much improvement in the first week, but he should learn and also mature his way out of this relatively quickly.

Keep up the good work!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What Do You Value?

If you haven't ever made a Wordle, it's a neat way to visualize text. It takes your text and lays it out, giving "greater prominence to words that appear more frequently." You can take text from your blog, or your training articles, or any other text you have on hand, and paste it into Wordle. I find it's a great way to step back and look at what I really value. It's not a perfect measurement of your principles, but it does help you zoom in on some of the words—and occasionally the values—that permeate your thinking.

This is a Wordle of all the Puppy Tao dog training entries:

I'm pretty happy with what I'm seeing, since I have a practice-and-reward mindset, and those are words that dominate my writing. Seeing words like practice, and fun take such prominence is reaffirming too. I think, though, that I should emphasize marking nearly as much as I emphasize rewarding, and I clearly don't.

Blogger also offers a similar tool if you label your posts with keywords. It ranks your keywords by frequency. I've chosen to have mine displayed on the righthand side of the site by order and by size according to their frequency, and clicking a label word will bring up all entries associated with that word, like "dog training," "Comet," "birds," "puppy foundations," etc. Given that this is the 19th dog training post on Puppy Tao and the 244th post overall, I think it's helpful to have a way to navigate things by topic and to see what themes have dominated my thinking and posting.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

How to Find a Red Golden Retriever

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

I can see some of the Google terms and site referrals that lead people here to and Puppy Tao, and probably the most consistent searches that bring people here are variations on the question of where to find a red Golden Retriever.

I get that Comet and Jax are good looking, and I get that dark gold is a spectacular color on a retriever (though be prepared for a lot of "is that a setter?" when you're out and about), but if that kind of search brought you too this article, please indulge me with a moment to lecture you on the wisdom of shopping for a dog by color. Some of this applies only to Golden Retrievers, since color fads have negatively affected the breed, but a good deal of it applies to buying other kinds of dogs too, so stick with me, especially if you're new to the world of purebred dogs, competition dogs, the health issues of Golden Retrievers, and the struggle to find a dog bred for solid health and temperament.

Like all purebred dogs, Goldens have a breed standard, a sort of roadmap of characteristics that define the look and purpose of the dog. A well-bred dog should exemplify its standard. For Goldens, that means the characteristic gold coat, the athleticism of a working retriever, and a number of other specific qualities. You can read the standard itself to get an idea of the degree of specificity with which it defines the breed.

Goldens can come a huge range of colors,
but color shouldn't drive a breeding program.
When it comes to color, the Golden standard says they should be a "rich, lustrous golden of various shades," and it says that a "predominant body color which is either extremely pale or extremely dark is undesirable." What that means is that while Goldens are supposed to be gold (not white or red), there's a substantial range of colors that are all equally acceptable.

However, there are lots of people who use color as a marketing tactic to sell more puppies, and whether they're advertising red puppies, white ones, or the current fad, cream or creme Goldens, breeding for specific colors means, by definition, the breeder is putting other qualities farther down the list of priorities. It's fine to have a color preference as a buyer. It's not fine to breed for a color extreme as a breeder. So when you find a breeder who seems to advertising primarily by color or who's breeding for color extremes, that should be a red flag. In fact, I have yet to see a reputable breeder who advertises by color, and I've known and researched a ton of Golden Retriever breeders. All of the ethical breeders talk about the difficulty of making a perfect matchup for health, longevity, temperament, structure, and working ability, so trying to produce a litter that was more red or more white would involve major compromises in much more important priorities.

As a side note, did you know that English Golden Retrievers come in all shades too? Unethical breeders will sometimes conflate English, European, and light-colored Goldens as if they're all the same thing, but in England and the rest of Europe, good breeders focus just as hard on health as the good ones do on this side of the pond, and they end up with a similar range of colors. I'll be writing an article in the future on exactly why some English Goldens are lighter than their American counterparts, but suffice it so say for now that if you end up at a breeder's website and it seems to indicate that all English dogs are cream-colored, and the breeder advertises their dogs by color, you should run the other way. "Cream" has been a successful marketing term among uneducated puppy buyers for several years, and some profiteers have jumped on the bandwagon. You don't want a puppy from somebody breeding purely for profit.

Bad breeders can just buy the two lightest or darkest dogs they can find and then breed them. It's not hard to make puppies, and all puppies are adorable. And since the majority of serious health and temperament issues don't show up in the first few months of life, they can breed the pup, sell him to you, and wash their hands of you when the puppy develops hip dysplasia, ichthyosis, neurotic behavior, pigmentary uveitis, or any other of a host of health issues that show up far less often in carefully bred dogs.

I thought I preferred light dogs, but then I met Gus.
I would encourage anybody who's searching for a Golden puppy to search for health first and then to think about color only after you've identified a reputable breeder you want to work with. When I first started looking for my own dog in 2001, I really preferred the lighter gold dogs like Summer, but I was led by somebody rather wiser than I to a litter of dogs who had full health clearances as recommended by the Golden Retriever Club of America. The best dog for me from that litter was as dark gold as a Golden can still be while still meeting the standard. I discovered then that my favorite color of Golden is the color of the living, breathing companion I have by my side.

So please, if you came here because you're searching for "where to buy a red Golden" or "red Goldens in Connecticut" or some other color-driven pursuit, take a second and reconsider your priorities. It's totally fine to prefer one color—though I'll always make the case that your beloved dog's color will become your favorite—but either way, don't be led astray by people marketing "American Reds" or "English Creams." You'll tend to find that they're not doing all the health testing that is recommended by the GRCA, and even if they were, you don't want a puppy that came from a breeding designed to produce a particular shade of gold. It's hard enough to find a Golden from a great breeding in the first place. Once you find a great breeder, it's fine to express your color preference to that person when you're trying to match up the perfect puppy for your family, but even then, I hope you'll decide to look for the pup whose temperament best matches your plans and just enjoy whatever shade of gold you end up with.

Comet and Jax, by the way, are only coincidentally dark. Comet came from a large litter with a big range of colors, and he was the best personality match (high energy and people focused), and only happened to be one of the darker pups. His sister Zuzu is pretty light, and his brother Magic is even darker than he is. Jax was from a smaller litter, and he was the best match for us out of four dark gold puppies. When the time comes for us to look for another Golden, I'll happily take the lightest dog around if he's the best fit and enjoy the contrast, or I'll take the darkest and continue to enjoy the fact that nobody can tell my dogs apart until they get to know them.

You can read more about finding a breeder and what health tests are recommended by visiting the GRCA's page on finding a reputable breeder.

A Summer Hike in Winter's Last Days

I'm not quite tired of making seasonal puns with Summer's name, but I might be at some point, and then how will I title entries about her? I guess we'll find out.

Some family was up in Boston for the weekend, and as the dogs and humans made their way back home, my parents and I found some time for a hike with our three dogs.

Summer's recall is coming along beautifully, particularly since she's barely over seven months old. When Comet and Jax started realizing that she was getting cookies for her recalls, they started volunteering their own, despite not being called themselves.

Of course, we had to do our daily stay with the three dogs. It's tradition, right?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Relationship Between Punishment and Aggression

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

I recently stumbled across this article: "What makes an aggressive dog, and how you can spot one." It's not the best piece of science journalism, since the substance of the article gives you basically no information about how to "spot" an aggressive dog. However, it does summarize the findings of this study: "Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors." Since everything but the abstract of that study is behind a paywall, it's nice to have an article summarize some of the findings.

I'm not one to take one study as gospel, particularly a study that's based on surveying dog owners rather than on direct research, but it does confirm a number of things that are found throughout the contemporary literature on dog behavior. The article and study have a number of really interesting things to say about dog aggression that are worth reading about, including a lack of correlation between breed and aggression, as well as a finding of significantly less aggression in dogs who've been through puppy classes. However, for right now, I want to use it to highlight the relationship between punishment and aggressive behavior.

This study, like several before it, found yet another strong correlation between dogs who are trained with aversives and dogs who show aggressive behavior. Contemporary dog trainers push owners to avoid yelling, hitting, leash corrections, e-collars, and other dog training tools that involve pain, discomfort, or intimidation, not just because we love dogs and those things aren't nice. We also push people to avoid those things because we see the very real consequences when dogs sometimes become reactive and aggressive. There are many causes of aggression in dogs, and obviously not all dogs trained with aversive tools become aggressive, but there is abundant research demonstrating an increased risk of aggression when dogs are trained with intimidation, discomfort, or pain.

I can't tell you how often I have to encourage a client not to yank up on the leash and yell "no" when their dog stares at another dog and then barks. They want him to stop it—and fair enough, he ought to—so they punish him for it by using a stern voice (intimidation) and a tug on the collar (an unpleasant sensation). However, while some dogs might learn to stop the behavior when subjected to leash and voice corrections, the handler isn't really addressing the fact that the dog is nervous, energized, or possibly even afraid when he's barking. In fact, more often than not, the behavior actually becomes worse, because the dog is barking out of a kind of anxiety, and the owner is showing the dog he is absolutely right to be anxious. After all, if you're anxious already, wouldn't it make you more anxious if somebody yanked on your neck and yelled at you?

Samson wanted to pull and whine and bark, but instead of telling him
not to by making it unpleasant, we taught him that he could look to his
owner as the source of good things.
Instead, we work on building a relationship where you learn to catch the dog when he looks back up at you, and you reward him. He begins to learn that if he gets nervous, he can look at you, and you'll do something calm and nice. You work to create a positive feedback loop so your dog learns that you are a source of safety and trustworthiness. Over time, through repetition and reinforcement, this becomes a habit that runs deep enough to overcome nearly any situation.

As trainers, we have to get out of the habit of doing things that are uncomfortable, intimidating, or even painful to dogs. I've said before that it's not sporting to punish a dog in that manner for misbehaving when it's often a lack of understanding of context that makes the dog misbehave, but it goes beyond the fact that it's not fair. It's also counterproductive and even dangerous, and it stands to reason that the more you rely on intimidation and discomfort, the more you run the risk of creating fear, aggression, and other truly serious problems.

So while it might seem to make sense to be "old school" and use collar corrections, prongs, chokes, e-collars, and rolled up newspapers to punish behaviors you don't like, the more research that's done, the more we learn how counterproductive or even dangerous those tools are. Modern trainers don't just recommend dog-friendly training because we're froofy hippies who think dogs are people. In fact, many of us used those more old-fashioned methods back when they were the best tools we knew of at the time.

But we know better now, and we have methods available to us that are kinder and carry lower risks of side effects like aggression or a reduced trust. This study is just one in a long line that confirms that intimidating a dog or using discomfort to shape behavior can double—yes, double in this study—a dog's chances of showing aggressive behavior towards strangers, and triple a dog's chances of showing aggressive behavior towards a family member. This study does not prove that these punishments cause aggression, but they underscore the concern in a growing body of scientific literature that dogs who are punished in this fashion are more likely to develop reactive and aggressive behaviors than dogs who are trained through more progressive, dog-friendly means.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Golden Retriever Lifetime Study

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

The Morris Animal Foundation has undertaken a huge longitudinal study in order to search for causes of—and potentially treatments for— the most common cause of death in adult dogs: cancer. They believe that by studying cancer in Golden Retrievers, they can shed light on all canine cancer and potentially human cancer as well.

They're trying to get 3,000 Golden Retrievers registered, and they're already a third of the way there. Here's what helping out entails:
  • Your Golden needs to be under the age of two at the time of registration.
  • You need to have at least a three-generation pedigree for your dog.
  • You need to be willing to stay in the study for your dog's entire life.
  • You and your vet need to fill out yearly questionnaires about your dog's health and lifestyle.
  • You need to take your dog to the vet annually for blood, urine, feces, hair, and toenail samples.
  • You need to microchip your dog (a good idea anyway).
  • If your dog gets a tumor, you need to allow samples to be collected from it.

Gus was in the prime of his life when he was diagnosed with lymphoma,
only three months after this picture was taken.
Comet and Jax were too old to register when this was first announced, or we'd be in it ourselves. We lost Gus at six years old to canine lymphoma, one of the three leading cancers that kill healthy adult dogs. We also lost my childhood dog, Chess, to cancer at seven years old. My hope is that this study will at least take us a big step farther into understanding why these cancers are so common in dogs and in Goldens in particular, and it might even help us move forward on treatments.

So please, please sign up your healthy Golden if he or she isn't two years old yet. I would like to live to see a day in which cancer becomes a chronic or even curable illness rather than a life-threatening or life-ending one, and we're going to get there faster if we all pitch in.

The main page for the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study is here. More information on what participation entails can be found here.