Friday, February 28, 2014

The Dangers of Texting and Walking Dogs

Today I was walking a client’s dog.  This particular dog tends to bark and lunge at other dogs on walks, so we always keep a safe distance away from them.  Seeing other dogs also earns this dog treats, which means we are able to get much closer to other dogs these days than we used to.

That said, I’m not writing to discuss the nitty-gritty of walking a dog with these kinds of behaviors.  Rather, I’m writing to address the behavior of a dog handler we saw on our walk.  This woman was walking two Labrador Retrievers.  The dogs themselves were perfectly well-behaved.  They didn’t bark or lunge at us, and they walked nicely beside their handler.  The way the neighborhood is designed, I had the choice of following these dogs and their handler, or turning around and going a much longer way back to my client’s home.  Since my client’s dog and the other dogs all seemed calm, I figured I would follow the dogs and the woman at an appropriate distance, while using lots of treats – and I also mentally prepared to retreat quickly, if necessary.

What grabbed my attention as I followed these dogs, though, was the odd pattern of their walk.  Every five yards or so, the dogs and the woman came to a dead standstill for anywhere from about 10 seconds to a minute, for no apparent reason.  The dogs were not sniffing at anything when they stopped (the woman kept them away from the grass, so there wasn’t much for them to sniff), and the woman did not seem to be in any physical distress.  It happened to be rainy today, so the woman was carrying an umbrella, which made it impossible for me to see her well enough to know why she was stopping.  Her dogs paused every time they realized she had stopped, and so did I and my client’s dog (since I wanted to keep a safe distance).

After the woman halted and resumed for no apparent reason for the third time, I stopped where I was and encouraged my client’s dog to sniff around the grass at the side of the road.  I then waited until the woman had halted and resumed several times more, so that we had more than triple the distance I thought we needed, before moving forward again.

This pattern of halting and resuming continued for as long as I was behind the woman and her dogs.  After a couple of hundred yards, we got to a place where the street was wide enough for me to walk my client’s dog safely on the other side of the street.  Since my client’s dog was behaving in a calm manner, I allowed her to walk at more of a normal pace (we had been going very slowly, as you can imagine), and we soon wound up parallel to the woman and dogs.  At that point, I could see beyond the umbrella.

I was not surprised to find that the woman was looking at a cell phone in her hands, and pushing buttons on it.  Her dogs saw me and my client’s dog as we got closer, though they (thankfully) remained completely calm about it, but the woman was too busy to notice the change in their behavior.  The woman did finally interrupt her perusal of her phone to look up briefly and see what her dogs were looking at, but she then immediately went back to texting.

So why am I telling you this whole story?  To be blunt, I can imagine a lot of very different outcomes from a situation like this.  If I were a less alert handler, I might have more or less literally stumbled into this woman the first time she came to a sudden halt.  If either of her dogs had tried to attack my client’s dog, or if one of them had just wanted to say hello, they could have caused the woman to fall over.  This neighborhood also sees its share of wildlife, so they could even have been followed by a coyote or two (it’s unlikely in the daytime, but it has happened to me before at night).

Any number of things, many of them less than ideal, could have happened because this woman was (a) setting the pace of her walk entirely for her own convenience while ignoring her dogs’ needs, and (b) completely unaware that another dog and handler were following behind them for a couple of hundred yards.  I also think it’s rude to give your dog no attention on a walk.  Can you imagine how you would feel if your best friend invited you to go on a walk and then proceeded to spend the entire time on his or her phone?

Our dogs deserve our attention, as well as our respect.  They have needs, which might include a desire to slow down and spend some time sniffing a clump of grass, or to speed up a little and check out a particularly interesting fire hydrant.  When a person walks his or her dog while using a cell phone, that person “checks out” of the walk completely.  I have seen more than one person on a cell phone completely fail to notice me and my dog as we approach, and even as I call out, “Is your dog friendly?”  These people sometimes wind up unpleasantly brought back to reality when their dog hits the end of the leash, barking and lunging.  I’ve even seen a few handlers get pulled off their feet in these situations.  In short, this behavior is rude to your dog, rude to others on the street, and unsafe to boot.

Apropos this topic, I want to share a video with you that shows collaborative walking with a dog.  (Those of you who came to my session on “The Power of Choice” at ClickerExpo 2014 in Long Beach have already seen this video.)  Bear in mind that my dog had learned how to walk politely on leash before I began letting him “lead me around.”  I know my dog will return to my side and walk at my pace any time I ask, so I can give him more freedom to explore than a dog I am walking for the first time.

Most dogs have very few opportunities to explore the world, indulge their desires, or connect with their humans.  I hope you will all join me in making walks one of those opportunities.



Saturday, January 25, 2014

I haven't forgotten you!

I am just posting a quick note to let you know I have not forgotten you, and will publish a post on leashes some time next week.  This week, I am busy speaking at ClickerExpo.  I will get back to regular posts as soon as possible, so thank you for your patience!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Polite Leash Walking, Part IV: Head Harnesses

Other than leashes (which will be discussed in my next post), there is one major type of equipment I have yet to discuss: the head harness.  Head harnesses can be a highly effective tool in certain situations, but they should almost never be a tool of first resort.  In other words, I always try other equipment before I try a head harness.

There are several reasons I prefer to avoid head harnesses when possible.  For one thing, head harnesses require that the dog be conditioned in advance to tolerate the harness. (The easiest way to do this is by pairing the harness with treats, while the harness is still in your hand.  Then you can build up gradually to putting the harness on the dog, all the while using lots of tasty food.)

A dog who is not conditioned properly to a head harness may literally run away when he sees it, or spend the entire walk rubbing his head on the ground and pawing at the harness in an effort to remove it.  Even when dogs are slowly and carefully conditioned to the harness, in many cases they continue to appear uncomfortable in it.

Another issue is that head harnesses remove most of the dog’s options.  Depending on how the leash is handled, the dog may not even be able to look in the direction he wants.  This can exacerbate anxiety – although in many dogs, their behavior becomes so subdued in a head harness that the handler fails to realize the dog is profoundly uncomfortable.  What’s more, head harnesses require that the handler relearn leash skills.  Jerking the leash when a dog is in a head harness is cruel at best and dangerous at worst.

The good thing about head harnesses is that they generally provide an extremely high level of control over the dog (this is the flip side of taking away the dog’s options, of course).  They can therefore be useful in situations where the handler, or others, literally risk injury when the dog is walked on any other kind of equipment.  I sometimes use head harnesses (after first trying other equipment) in cases such as those involving dogs who can easily pull down their handlers (even when wearing a front-clip harness) or dogs who outweigh their handlers by a great margin.

I had a client here in Los Angeles with two 90-pound dogs who had to be taken on regular walks.  The owner only weighed about 100 pounds, and the dogs were literally pulling her off her feet on walks.  For that client, a head harness was the tool we wound up using until the dogs had learned to walk politely in a body harness – but again, it wasn’t the first tool we tried, and the head harness was only used as a temporary measure, due to the safety issues.

The bottom line, regardless of whether you use a collar, body harness, or head harness, is that equipment only manages a dog’s behavior.  Training is required to teach proper leash walking manners.  I’ll begin addressing that topic soon – but first (in my next post), I’ll wrap up the discussion of equipment by talking about leashes.

Copyright 2014 The Sophisticated Dog, LLC

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Pet Blogger Challenge

It's time for the Fourth Annual Pet Blogger Challenge!  Below are my answers to the questions provided.  Enjoy!

1. How long have you been blogging? Please tell us why you started blogging, and, for anyone stopping by for the first time, give us a quick description of what your blog is about.

Technically, I’ve been blogging since January 2012, when I decided to create a blog.  I started blogging mostly because I wanted to share animal-training-related tips, ideas, and thoughts, and partly because I enjoy writing.  The goal of my blog is to help people live more harmoniously with the animals in their lives.
       In case it’s not obvious from the above, my blog focuses on animal training – specifically, science-based animal training.  While my company name is “The Sophisticated Dog,” I have also trained a variety of other species, ranging from cats and rabbits to chickens and horses, and the ideas in my posts can generally be applied to more than one species.
  

2. Name one thing about your blog, or one blogging goal that you accomplished during 2013, that made you most proud.

That would be a big N/A.  I did not post at all during 2013 (D’oh!).


3. When you look at the post you wrote for last year’s Pet Blogger Challenge, or just think back over the past year, what about blogging has changed the most for you?

N/A (see above).


4. What lessons have you learned this year – from other blogs, or through your own experience – that could help us all with our own sites?

I have been following a couple of blogs this year, and I think responding to comments is critical to creating a loyal following.  I also think using humor in posts is highly effective, though that can be a tough challenge, depending on your topic and personality.

4a. If you could ask the pet blogging community for help with one challenge you’re having with your blog, what would it be?

How do I keep myself on track in terms of publishing regularly?


5. What have you found to be the best ways to bring more traffic to your blog, other than by writing great content?

Alas, I’m not yet sure what the best plans are.  Facebook seems to under-publish every post I put up that has a link to my blog, which is frustrating.  I am still figuring all of this out.  I’ll get back to you next year.



6. How much time to do you spend publicizing your blog, and do you think you should spend more or less in the coming year?

I have spent very little time publicizing my blog in the past.  I will probably spend a little more time doing it next year, but I’m also hoping people will find my blog naturally through other avenues (my conference speaking etc.).


7. How do you gauge whether or not what you’re writing is appealing to your audience?

I look for likes, plus ones (on Google Plus), etc.  I look for comments.  I have someone read most posts before I publish them, so I know there is at least one other person who agrees the post is worthwhile.  Right now, I don’t really know for sure whether or not I even have an audience, let alone one that likes what I write.

7a. How do you know when it’s time to let go of a feature or theme that you’ve been writing about for a while?

I don’t really know yet.  I try to provide a fair amount of information without being tedious about it, but I’m not sure if I succeed.  For now, I probably don’t have enough posts on any one topic to be boring, though.  
;-)


8. When you’re visiting other blogs, what inspires you to comment on a post rather than just reading and moving on?

Usually, something in the post either amused me or particularly interested me.  Sometimes I comment to ask a follow-up question.  I may also comment to indicate agreement or polite disagreement, if the post is on a controversial topic. 


9. Do you do product reviews and/or giveaways?

I do not.


10. When writer’s block strikes and you’re feeling dog-tired, how do you recharge?

I play with my dog, do a quick training session with him, or take him for a walk.  Sometimes I take a nap.  Sometimes I just put the post aside and get back to it later – though that way lies madness (for “madness” read “failing to post to my blog”).


11. Have you ever taken a break from your blog? How did that go?

I took a break for all of 2013, basically.  I felt guilty the whole time.  It was no fun!

11a. Have you ever thought about quitting your blog altogether? What makes you stay?

I thought about quitting during my “break,” but I felt guilty about a series on leash walking which I would never complete if I quit.  I also sometimes thought of other topics I really wanted to write about (though then I felt guilty about changing topics, so those topics didn’t get posted either).  The bottom line, though, is that I want to share ways to live more happily with animals.  For what it's worth, I am here now.  I just need to find the right rhythm for success.


12. What goals do you have for your blog in 2014?

My number one goal is to post regularly. Then I hope to build a following.  I’d really like to do an agony-column style “readers send in questions and I answer them” format, eventually, and for that, I need regular readers who will send in questions.

Copyright 2014, The Sophisticated Dog, LLC



Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Polite Leash Walking, Part III: Body Harnesses

Today, I would like to discuss my preferred type of walking equipment for dogs: the body harness.  Head harnesses are also available, but I will address those in a separate post.

There are a variety of body harnesses on the market.  Some, such as the Sporn body harness, use pressure around the dog’s body to punish pulling.  This pressure can cause a great deal of discomfort, and even actual pain (judging by the behavior of some dogs).  Just as I know dogs who run away from choke chains, I also know dogs who run away from Sporn harnesses.

I have also found that dogs tend to be more wary of harnesses that need to be squeezed over their heads (such as the Puppia harness).  Some dogs dislike having their feet touched, which makes step-in harnesses problematic, but dogs who don’t mind having their feet manipulated often do quite well in step-in harnesses.

Fundamentally, most body harnesses are either front-clip or back-clip harnesses.

 

Back-clip harnesses


With back-clip harnesses, the leash attaches on the dog’s back (usually between the shoulder blades, and sometimes farther down the back). Some back-clip harnesses are designed to tighten, or “cinch,” around the dog if and when he pulls (like the Sporn).  Other back-clip harnesses have fixed dimensions, so that the clip along the dog’s back does not tighten any of the straps.

I recommend against the use of cinching back-clip harnesses, but fixed-dimension back-clip harnesses can be a good choice for many dogs.  They keep leash tension out of the dog’s neck, and keep pressure away from the sensitive front of the neck (including the trachea).  The problem with back-clip harnesses is that they make it easy for a dog to “lean in and pull,” if the dog is inclined to do so, which is why front-clip harnesses are often a better choice.

 

Front-clip harnesses


In front-clip harnesses, the leash attaches in the middle of a chest.  For dogs that like to pull, front-clip harnesses are a good choice.  Front-clip harnesses use simple physics to prevent a dog from pulling.  When the dog pulls, the leash tightens.  Since the leash is attached in the middle of the chest, the tension on the leash pulls the dog off to the side, drawing the dog just a little bit out of balance.  This prevents the dog from leaning in and pulling on the leash.  With a front-clip harness, one can simply hold still and wait for the dog to stop pulling.  It may take a little while for the dog to give up (especially if he’s had a lot of success with pulling in the past), but in the meantime, you’re not playing tug-of-war with the dog as you would in a collar or a back-clip harness.

My personal favorite among the body harnesses that I’ve tried is the Freedom Harness by 2 Hounds Design.  There is no need to handle the dog’s feet while putting it on, and it’s relatively easy to put on and take off.  It has both back and front clips, and can be purchased with 2 Hounds Design’s special dual connection leash.  The back-clip strap tightens slightly, so technically it’s a cinch harness, but you can fit it so that it doesn’t create pressure even when tightened (see the martingale fitting instructions in my post on collars).  Victoria Stilwell has recently partnered with 2 Hounds Design to create a version that doesn't have the cinching effect at all, which can be seen here. The Victoria Stilwell harness is only available in a few sizes for now, though.

I have many clients here in Los Angeles who use – and love – the Freedom Harness.  Some attach the dual-connection leash to both the back and the front clips, to create a shorter leash length and give them a little more control during walks with a dog who is new to polite leash walking.  Once they have trained their dogs to walk properly on leash, however, most of my clients prefer to use one or the other of the clips, and give the dog the full length of the leash.  (I personally prefer to attach the leash to the front clip on a day-to-day basis, because oddly enough, I find it tends to get caught under the dog’s feet less often that way).


If you would like to get a harness for your dog, but are not sure what type of harness is best for your situation, consult a certified trainer in your area for advice.  (If you’re in Los Angeles, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to help.)

These puppies are rocking their Freedom Harnesses

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Polite Leash Walking, Part II: Collars

Some of you may recall that I did a post on polite leash walking a while ago.  It included a list of ten reasons to teach your dog to walk politely on leash.  Here, at long last, is the next installment in what I hope will become a short series.

As a professional dog trainer in Los Angeles, I get many calls from people who have problems walking their dogs.  Today, I would like to discuss the pros and cons of a few different types of equipment for walking dogs.  Dog walking equipment is a topic that could probably occupy an entire doctoral thesis, but I will try to keep it brief.  I welcome your questions and comments, of course.

Let’s begin by discussing collars.  There are several major types of collars – flat collars, choke collars and their variations (slip collars, choke chains, and prong collars are in this general category), and martingale collars.

If you are going to use a collar to walk your dog, stick with a flat collar if at all possible.  If you have a dog whose head and neck are roughly the same diameter, it can be a good idea to use a martingale collar, but be sure to fit it properly.  Fitting instructions for martingale collars are here.

Note that it’s best to avoid choke collars, of whatever type.  For one thing, choke collars are often fitted and used improperly.  Even when used properly, the purpose of these collars is to punish undesirable behavior by creating pain, which is far from ideal.

First, we owe it to our animals to be humane at all times.  Second, causing your pet pain during walks can have all kinds of unintended side effects.  I know dogs who run away every time the owner brings out the choke collar.  What’s more, pain, and the anticipation of pain, cause fear and stress.  As a result, the repeated use of pain in training can have unexpected consequences, such as aggressive behavior.  Here’s how this can happen:

Imagine a puppy who sees another dog and wants to go see hello.  He rushes toward the other dog, only to be jerked to a stop by his handler.  When the leash is jerked, a stab of pain goes through the puppy.  The puppy is looking at the other dog when he experiences the pain, so he associates the pain with the other dog.  "Hmm," the puppy might be thinking,* "when I saw that other dog, my neck hurt.  I wonder if the other dog made my neck hurt?"  Some dogs might even realize that the owner made the pain happen, but those dog might think, "My owner obviously doesn't like it when other dogs are nearby.  I had better keep them away by barking at them."

* Although the behavior of dogs in these situations is compatible with a thought pattern of this sort, nobody can actually know what another animal is thinking.  These "thoughts" are for illustration purposes only.

Assuming the handler continues to jerk the leash every time the puppy starts to rush towards another dog, the association will become stronger, until the puppy learns to be wary or fearful of other dogs.  It’s a very short step from fear to aggression.  (To paraphrase Yoda: Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to aggression.  Aggression leads to suffering.)

Soon, the puppy is likely to begin barking and lunging in an effort to keep "pain-creating dogs" far enough away to prevent the pain from happening – and if the handler jerks the leash when the puppy barks and lunges, the handler may inadvertently teach the puppy that it’s important to keep other dogs farther and farther away.  (In the most extreme case I’ve seen in my behavior modification work here in Los Angeles, the dog began barking and lunging when he was over a football field away from any dog – or person – that he saw.)

Bottom line: If you must use a collar, use a flat collar – and avoid jerking the leash!  I’ll talk more about proper leash handling in future entries.

Next time, I will discuss the type of equipment I prefer to use: the harness.

I like wearing my special Christmas collar.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

National Train Your Dog Month

Happy New Year!

This month is National Train Your Dog Month, and I’ve decided to make it “train your blogger month,” too.  As some of you know, I started this blog two years ago, and my posting has been sporadic (to put it mildly).  I am hoping to remedy the situation by posting regularly this month, with a variety of short posts on different training topics.  As many of you know, the key to maintaining or increasing a behavior is timely reinforcement, so any reinforcement you can offer as I go along will be most welcome.

I will leave you with one very short training thought for the day:

Every interaction with your pets is a training opportunity.  Be mindful of what behavior you reinforce in day-to-day life, because that is what you will get more of in the future.

I will expand on this idea in future posts.  In the meantime, have a wonderful day with your pets!


Los Angeles Dog Training Client Dog
Copyright 2014, The Sophisticated Dog, LLC