Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Coffeeshop Dog: Etiquette

While I’m pretty confident that most readers of Puppy Tao have a really good sense of dog etiquette and thus are probably the proverbial choir I’ll preaching to in this article, I thought it might be helpful to boil down some rules of common courtesy when it comes to bringing your dog places. Perhaps some of the readers who are just starting out can head off potential trouble, and experienced people might be happy that I’ve done some of the heavy lifting in figuring out clear, diplomatic ways of phrasing some of these unwritten rules.

At this 2014 Ian Dunbar workshop, the dogs had to settle on 
their own spots, and by the second day, they were so used
to it that most of them fell asleep.

Rule 1: Never Assume.

Until you learn otherwise, always assume that strangers are incredibly afraid of dogs—even well-behaved dogs and little dogs. Everybody in a public space should have the right not to interact with a dog unless they specifically say they want to. I have seen people far too many times say “he’s friendly” and then inflict their dog on a stranger without waiting to hear how that person felt about it.

It doesn't matter if your dog is friendly. Some people simply don't like dogs, and some people are truly afraid, and we need to respect those people. This is one situation in which it is far better to ask permission than beg forgiveness. You want your dog to be an ambassador, not a damper on somebody's day.

Rule 2: Seriously, never assume!

This is almost the same as Rule 1, except it applies to dogs. For a number of reasons that I'll detail in a later article, I almost never let my dogs greet other dogs while on leash, but if your dog likes to greet on leash and can do so safely, more power to you. Just be sure to ask first. No matter how nice your dog is, it's a recipe for disaster to just let him enter another dog's space without asking the owner.

When you let your dog greet another dog without checking in with the owner, you may be creating an uncomfortable or even dangerous situation. Dogs who are too exuberant can wrap up their owners in the leash and potentially injure someone. And some dogs may seem fine to you but turn out to be reactive when confronted by another dog.

Many people are working really hard on their dogs' reactivity, and they have a right to go out in public without having strange dogs run up to their dog. You can't just let your friendly dog drag you into an unknown dog's personal space without checking with the owner. So if you want to let your dog greet another dog, be sure to get a clear OK from the other owner first.

Beagles are famous for being intense about food, but this little guy is really well-trained
and was so good at settling down that he dozed off.

Rule 3: Leave it.

One absolutely crucial skill for a dog out in the real world is "leave it." This is an issue of courtesy when it comes to a toddler holding a cookie at nose height, but it's an issue of safety too if somebody drops something that is dangerous for a dog to swallow.

If your dog is still a work in progress when it comes to a bombproof "leave it," then you need to be proactive about management by, for example, choosing a place to sit that's a little bit farther from the action while you work on the skill every day until it's rock solid.

If you overestimate your dog's training or underestimate your management and your dog does grab somebody's food, do the right thing by apologizing profusely and buying them new food.

Rule 4: Clean up.

As dog owners, it's our responsibility to leave places better than we found them. That ranges from the completely obvious, like bringing baggies, to the slightly less obvious, like making sure your coffeeshop table is spotless when you leave. Make the business owner glad that you were there. Businesses don't have to allow our dogs on their premises, and it's important to make sure that dogs and their owners aren't a nuisance.

Rule 5: You are your dog's advocate.

Your dog cannot speak, so it's up to you to speak for him.

If some things make your dog fearful or if he still has some bad habits, that doesn’t mean you need to hide in the house until he’s perfect. It is, however, up to you to head off potential problems by managing him and warning people before they wander into his space. And even if he’s pretty much perfect, it’s still your job to speak for him when he needs a voice. 

For example, if your dog is still working on his polite greetings, you have to be able to articulate that to strangers so they can either choose not to greet him or choose to help you train him—and lots of people will happily help if given clear instructions and expectations.

Or, if your dog is reactive on the leash and somebody marches up with their rambunctious puppy, you need to be able to be clearly state the issue in a friendly way.

Jax loves everybody, but that doesn't mean he should have to suffer through
inconsiderate behavior from strangers.
And even if your dog is as happy-go-lucky as they come, you still need to speak up when somebody behaves inappropriately. Just because you know your dog would never bite a kid, he still deserves not to have his ears screamed into or his whiskers pulled.

Most owners are pretty protective of their dogs and would typically not allow these kinds of things, but the social awkwardness of telling somebody to get a hold of their kid can sometimes make us delay and subject our dogs to more discomfort than is really fair.

I have had stern words for parents who let their children run up into my dogs faces without any warning. Comet and Jax absolutely love children and would give gentle kisses to kids who did that, but those parents need to know that it simply isn't safe to let a small child run at a dog's face. It's also important to me to ensure that my dogs' great temperaments don't become an excuse for carelessness on my part when it comes to having a child annoy or surprise them.

The Takeaway

Dog etiquette is mostly common sense with a dash of walking a mile in other people's shoes. It's all about being proactive to ensure that your dog is either a neutral presence or a positive contribution to everybody else's day. Some of that is training, but the bulk is being conservative about managing situations before there are problems. And if more dog owners observe good dog etiquette, more public spaces will start to welcome dogs.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Portrait Stories

A few weeks ago, I shot dozens of candids of dogs at a seminar, and some turned out really well. Ever since then, I've gotten really interested in what makes a good candid portrait of a dog.

With other people's dogs, I think the trick is to figure out a perspective on the personality in a few seconds and then to try to catch it. Maybe you anthropomorphize a bit by getting a fleeting expression and interpreting a pant as happiness or some concentration as seriousness.

With our dogs, though, I feel like I have an edge, since I know their personalities already. So it's more about catching the mood or the story. For Comet, right here, right at this moment, I want to tell a story about a dog in his middle years who's old enough to have a little more wisdom than is really possible in a dog, but young enough to have froth on his face from enjoying a romp in the woods.

Good day, good photos, great dogs.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Coffeeshop Dog: First Steps

If Puppy Tao had a mission statement, it would be to help people build positive relationships with their dogs and to spend more time having adventures together.

With that in mind, I'm kicking off The Coffeeshop Dog as a series of articles about taking your dog out with you in the real world. Real world obedience requires some specific, reliable skills on the part of both the handler and the dog, but many people don't realize how attainable and realistic those skills are and how close they might be to having a nice hour on the patio of a coffeeshop with a charming, well-behaved dog between their feet. And if you don't like hanging out in the sun and nursing a coffee as much as I do, there are dozens of other places it's appropriate and fun to bring a well-behaved dog.

If you're reading this and thinking, "Maybe, I could do that with my dog," that's exactly what I'm hoping. Just be sure to set your dog up to succeed. Remember that context is everything to dogs, so if there's any shakiness in a dog's obedience, it'll come out when you bring him to a new and exciting place. And if you're thinking "My dog could never do that," then consider the possibility that if you broke things down to manageable pieces, you could build some skills together that could make sharing a turkey panini with your dog al fresco a real possibility some day.

With that in mind, a good starting point—as it is with so many dog training goals—is exercise. A dog who's had his mind challenged and his body worked out is going to have a much easier time settling down and relaxing or even dozing off in the sun. The well-behaved dogs in that first picture are still slightly damp from the four-mile hike we went on with friends just beforehand. Even though the coffeeshop is old hat for Comet and Jax, they're still high energy dogs, and I prefer to set them up to succeed each time by exercising them well beforehand whenever it's practical.

Being outdoors and off-leash for 90 minutes means they got plenty of running to tire the body and plenty of exploring to tire the mind. I think in many ways, that mental exercise is even more helpful than the physical when it comes to calming a dog down and helping him learn to settle and pay attention. A hike is the most fun, effective way for me to do that with my dogs, but if hiking's not up your alley, just be sure to find something that provides good mental stimulation, not just physical exercise.

The second step is to practice the skills your dog needs. To be well behaved on a coffeeshop patio, a dog needs to know how to walk politely on a loose leash, how to leave it, how to settle, how to greet politely, how to refrain from greeting when asked, and how to be led into a new position with a game like "touch." The handler needs to know how to keep a connection with the dog around distractions and how to represent the dog with good etiquette. Upcoming Coffeeshop Dog articles will cover these topics in more detail, but for now, remember that the practicing needs to happen in more places than just the kitchen. Like with other skills, you can teach them someplace boring, but they need to be proofed and practiced in more and more controlled contexts before you take them someplace where they must be reliable to keep you and your dog safe.

The third step is to control as many variables as possible on your first few tries so you can set your dog up to succeed. If you have more than one dog, just take one at a time with you at first. Try to find a table out of the way so there isn't somebody eating something two feet from your dog. Maybe choose a day that's a little chilly or gray, or go early or late, so you have the patio mostly or completely to yourself. The eventual goal is to be able to go whenever you please and have a mellow, charming dog, but the first visit is when you're going to find the holes in your training, and you're going to want to be able to address them effectively and without stress. Be prepared to leave if your dog gets overwhelmed, and based on what doesn't go well, make a list of things to practice for next time.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when you're taking your dog to new places is that it is our responsibility as dog owners to be sure that our dogs don't have a negative impact on others' enjoyment of a space.  Good etiquette as a dog owner means not letting your dog greet people or other dogs without asking them first. Even if your dog is friendly and well-mannered, the other dog may be reactive, and not everybody likes dogs and wants to greet them. Good etiquette also means making sure your dog doesn't bother other people by lunging or barking. It means having your dog under a reasonable level of control at all times, and it means leaving if you don't have that control. Disruptive dogs, dogs who scare people, dogs who leave a mess, and dogs whose handlers allow them to greet without asking all result in more restrictions on dogs and their owners. Well-behaved dogs help open more spaces to more dogs. Also filed under etiquette is being sure that your dog is welcome. If you're not sure, call ahead.

One last tip to prevent disaster: don't tie your leash to a table, and if you tie it to your chair, don't get up without untying it first. If your dog moves while tied to patio furniture, he's likely to drag it or knock it over. That sound and motion can be scary, which can cause your dog to try to get away from it, and suddenly he's trying to flee a banging, scraping piece of furniture he's dragging behind him. It can cause a huge mess and traumatize or even injure the dog, so hold the leash in your hand, step on it with your foot, or secure it to something the dog cannot drag.

I've really loved finding more and more ways to integrate my dogs into my adventures out and about. We're lucky to live in an area with lots of dog-friendly areas, and it's a common sight to see people with well-behaved dogs on cafe terraces and other public spaces. I'd love to see even more dogs with even better manners, and I think it's a really realistic goal for most dogs and their owners to be able to spend these hours together, sharing a biscotti and some sunshine.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Holy Coyote!

I've been looking for the old-growth forests in Guilford's East River Preserve ever since my friends moved to Guilford and found it. It's pretty huge, so there's a ton I haven't seen. Today, I took the dogs and went looking for those old oaks and poplars but found something quite different. Yes, that's a coyote.

About 90 minutes into our hike, there was an explosion of movement and barking about fifty feet off the left side of the trail. I quickly gathered the dogs to me, quietly thanking all the work we put into reliable recalls.

The dogs both have a lot of practice around reactive dogs, and both of them seemed to think the coyote was simply a loud, angry dog, so they wrote her off as boring pretty quickly. So I put them in a sit-stay and grabbed some exposures.

Then I tried to walk up the trail with the dogs right by my side, hoping that she was simply being territorial and would stick to her area and let us leave. However, the coyote started to pace us, always keeping her distance, but definitely not leaving us alone. She barked and howled and stayed near us.

After about a quarter mile of this, she ended up ahead of us on the trail, so I made a judgement call that it might be easier to leave her territory by backtracking rather than forging through. Sure enough, after we passed the original spot where we surprised her, she stayed where she was and barked at us as we retreated.

It was a bit more excitement than old growth tulip poplars, I'll tell ya.

In retrospect, what we saw must have been defensive behavior from a mother with new pups. This is exactly the right time of year for a coyote to have young pups, and between the ratty fur on the coyote herself and the really uncharacteristic, confrontational behavior around a specific area, the simplest explanation is that she was in a den with her pups when we surprised her. Her behavior was an attempt to draw attention away from the den and drive us out of the area.

Coyotes do move their pups several times before they're mature enough to fend for themselves, so hopefully she immediately found an area farther from a main trail and relocated them right after we left. As scary as she was, I'd rather share the woods with an animal this beautiful and complicated than disrupt her or endanger her pups.

Let me end with this video of her as she warned us off. It was taken through a 400mm lens, so she's farther away than she looks. While I did stop twice to figure out which way to walk to get away from her with the least amount of confrontation, and I took pictures both times I stopped, at no time did I walk towards her or otherwise create any more disruption or confrontation than I had to. These animals are wild, even when you find them in your backyard. You risk injury to yourself when you move closer to get photos, and an animal that injures a human is typically culled by local authorities.

At the time, I didn't realize that there were probably young pups involved, so if I had unthinkingly left the trail to get closer for better pictures, I might easily have gotten too close to the den. This otherwise shy animal might have had no choice but to attack me or the dogs. And even if you don't get hurt, a human presence can significantly disrupt an animal's regular behavior, which in a situation like this could result in the death of the pups.  If there's a lesson here, it's one of respect for nature, to walk softly and carry a long lens.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Puppy Foundations: Balancing Risks in Socialization

Last week, I wrote a bit of a primer for people looking to socialize puppies. This week, I want to tackle some new information and perspectives I've come across since the last time I socialized one of my own puppies.

It's hard to figure out how to safely socialize a new puppy.
The importance of socialization is undeniable, but it can be a catch-22. During the same period that your puppy needs to be out and about meeting all kinds of people and experiencing all kinds of new stimuli, he's also most vulnerable to disease. Taking a puppy out of the house means exposing him to things like parvovirus, giardia, kennel cough, tick-borne illness, and other diseases that can result in lifelong problems or even death, so many professionals recommend waiting until a puppy has had his first series of shots before going out and about.

However, that means keeping the puppy isolated until as late as 16 weeks, well after the prime window of socialization has closed. Going to that extreme can prevent the pup from having the experiences he needs in order to be a stable, safe, obedient dog. So you have to evaluate the risks and rewards of isolating or socializing a puppy during this key period.

Some new guidance has been coming out about this conundrum. For example, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has released a position statement on socialization in which they take a pretty serious stance on the issue. Their argument is essentially that behavioral problems cause more deaths among young dogs than these illnesses and that careful socialization is worth the risk of disease. I am inclined to agree with their recommendation that puppies be enrolled in puppy class as soon as possible after they're brought home at 8-9 weeks, rather than delaying their enrollment the extra 4-6 weeks until their puppy vaccinations are complete.

These serious illnesses are horrible, and we need to take them seriously, but they are not as common as abandonments and euthanasia due to behavioral problems that stem from aggression and fear. Problems like these are dramatically lower in puppies who have been socialized carefully and who have been through early obedience classes.

That extensive discussion leaves us in search of ways to find our puppies lots and lots of varied experiences while minimizing their exposure to critical diseases. The first step is to talk to your veterinarian about which diseases may be endemic to your area. If you have a serious parvovirus problem in your area, you absolutely cannot risk exposure to areas where there might be unknown or unvaccinated dogs.

We took Jax out and about with us from the very first days we had him.
In our area, parvo isn't a major concern right now, so I would take (and have taken) my own puppy for a walk in the woods right off the bat during his first few days with us. Despite the risk of disease, it's really important to lay the foundations of good training and socialization right from the first days you have a puppy. If I see a dog I don't know, I pick my pup up and if necessary, explain to the other owner he's too young to play with dogs he doesn't know.

In other areas, the woods may present too much of a risk, but you can call around to local big box stores or home improvement stores and ask what their policy is for puppies. Some places allow dogs, and others will allow a puppy as long as he's held. Once you find some good locations, you can get out and give your puppy some positive experiences with strange people and places.

I'd avoid the pet stores at all costs, despite the fact they allow dogs. Too many careless people with unvaccinated or untrained dogs come through those stores. Once a puppy has had his shots, the pet store is a fun place to work on some training with distractions or to pick out a toy for a special occasion, but it's not a place I'd bring a young puppy.

So when you are preparing for a new puppy, include risk-managed socialization as a keystone. Puppy Kindergarten isn't just about laying the foundations for lifelong obedience. It also lowers the risk of problem behaviors down the road by helping show your puppy that the world is a safe place and that you are a reliable source of security and good things.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Puppy Foundations: Socialization Basics

It seems that more and more dog owners are hearing about the importance of socializing dogs when they're young, but until every single one hears the message, we need to keep hammering it home. There is also a ton of new research coming out all the time both about its value and about when and how to do it, so even if you're an experienced dog person, you might be surprised by some of the new guidelines we're hearing from behavioral experts. This week, I'll tackle socialization basics, but next week, I'll look at some of the new research around the timing and methodology of socialization.

In puppy classes, we help build puppies' confidence and experience by 
giving them opportunities to interact with different obstacles and surfaces.
For the purpose of this discussion, I'm defining socialization as the process of exposing a puppy to positive experiences with all kinds of different people, dogs, and situations during the crucial developmental periods of preadolescence (8-16 weeks of age). Dog trainers and behaviorists recommend it because extensive research and experience have taught us that during a crucial period when puppies are young, they tend to be more accepting of new sounds, sights, smells, and people. During this period, they are also more impressionable than older dogs, so the lessons learned stick very deeply.

Older dogs can obviously still learn to accept new and potentially scary things, but the process typically takes longer and can be more difficult, so part of laying the foundations of a lifelong relationship with a well-balanced dog is giving a puppy lots of positive, mellow experiences with the kinds of things he'll need to be comfortable with throughout his life.

That means puppies need to meet people of all kinds of shapes, sizes, dress codes, faces, voices, and behaviors. An unsocialized adult dog might be fine with his family, but outside that zone of safety, he's more likely to be fearful or overexcited around unfamiliar things like glasses, hats, or beards if he's never learned that they aren't signs of danger. New stimuli can be very intimidating to dogs, and if they react with fear, that can lead to more than just an unhappy experience. Fear and other kinds of overstimulation can cause issues ranging from common problems like an inability to focus around distractions all the way to very dangerous behaviors, like running off or even fear biting.

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about how context is king in a dog's world, and socialization can be understood as an extension of that concept. Any unfamiliar aspect of a situation can mean that the dog does not know what to do to create safety for himself. In the house, with people he knows, he has learned what he can do to feel safe, like where he can go to hide or what behaviors he can offer that get him positive attention, food, toys, and games.

But when the situation changes, even a little, the dog might not even know that the world is still safe and that humans are still going to be kind and predictable. Dogs are masterful at a lot of things, but they are not good at generalizing or inferring. As humans, we are so good at those things that we naturally take them for granted. For example, if your dog has never met a man with a beard, he may not be able to generalize that a man with a beard will behave in a similar fashion to all the men he's met without beards. To us, that's incredibly illogical. But to a dog, a man with a beard might seem like a brand new creature. It's like if you turned a corner and were confronted by a bear wearing a tuxedo.

Ella was really scared of the tunnel at first, and she wouldn't go through it
during her first exposure. So we just let her examine it during that session
and rewarded her for checking it out. When we tried again two weeks later,
we were able to build on that first experience and lure her through it with
some yummy treats. Experiences like this can help teach a dog to be more
confident around new and strange things.
That doesn't mean you can just throw a puppy into any old situation and expect him to be cool with it. The flip side of the socialization period is that it's also a period in which traumatic experiences will stick deep, so if you create a situation in which your pup is freaking out and you force him to keep confronting something he's afraid of, you can create a lifetime fear of that kind of situation. While you should be working hard to socialize your pup, you should be working equally hard to make sure that each experience is mellow and rewarding, and you never want to teach him that he can't escape a scary situation. If your pup shows signs of stress with what you're working on, respect that, even if the anxiety is totally illogical. Respect that fear, tone down the experience, and dial up the rewards.

So, for example, when a puppy sees his first adult in a ball cap, he should get a yummy treat, especially if it seemed to make him nervous. If he tries to get away from a new thing, like a trash can, even if his fear is completely unfounded, let him. Teach him that if he's upset, he'll be able to get away and then inspect the thing at his own pace, not that you'll drag him closer or force him into things. Teach him that any bravery he shows will be rewarded with calm praise and a treat or toy.

By sixteen weeks of age, a puppy should have done as much of the following as possible: met a hundred different calm, friendly people; played with a dozen different friendly, healthy, vaccinated dogs; walked on a dozen different kinds of surfaces; seen some of the local wildlife; and had a whole variety of other experiences you can come up with that mimic the kinds of things he'll run into in the life you're planning for him. Here's a printable checklist in PDF format that you can use to track your progress and make sure you haven't missed any of the common items people overlook when socializing their puppies. The checklist offers overall goals, like meeting 100 friendly strangers and walking on 15 different surfaces, and it also gives lots of specific items and a way to keep a record of how well the experience went so you know what kinds of things you may want to revisit.

One last thing: if you're reading this and your dog is older than sixteen weeks, that doesn't mean that the work of socialization is done. Maybe you didn't do everything the experts recommend before sixteen weeks, or maybe you have an adult dog with an unknown history. It doesn't matter now; socialization is a lifelong process. The early puppy window is really helpful, but every positive experience your dog has with a new thing is still socializing that dog to be more confident and stable. And if you socialized your pup by the book through week sixteen, then pat yourself on the back, but still remember that your work isn't over. You can still socialize a dog after he grows up, and early socialization isn't the only thing a dog needs. If you want a calm, confident companion dog, that's something you create opportunities to encourage wherever you can through a dog's whole life.

Sources: the St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center puppy packet, the Paws N' Effect puppy packet and class curriculum, the AVSAB position statement on socialization, Socializing Your Puppy by the ASPCA, Dr. Sophia Yin's Checklist for Socialization, "Human directed aggression in domestic dogs" by Casey et al., Puppy's First Steps by Dodman et al.