How to help your dog enjoy vet visits

Does your dog get nervous when you take the familiar route to your veterinarian or dig their heels in when you try to get them into the waiting room? Have you noticed trembling, lip licking, excessive panting and drooling, avoidance of eye contact, tense body or even aggressive behaviour when your dog is subjected to veterinary handling and procedures? Your dog is not alone. Many dogs and other companion animals are less than impressed with vet visits. Some animals show only mild signs of anxiety when faced with the vet while others go into outright panic mode. It’s bad for your dog and it doesn’t have to be that way. Low stress handling and changing your dog’s negative emotions through ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning’ are methods which are becoming increasingly popular and for good reason. The potential to make life easier for your dog, yourself and veterinary staff is significant.

Signs of anxiety

What’s the problem?

If your dog suffers from fear and anxiety, it negatively affects their behaviour and can have serious implications for their health. Many behaviour problems in dogs are in fact related to fearfulness, anxiety and phobias. Apart from feeling miserable, your dog is also more likely to react aggressively if they deem necessary. Unless your dog’s fears are addressed, chances are they’ll become worse.

Manhandling animals at vet clinics has been an unfortunate but long-standing reality. Often it is considered necessary to get a certain procedure done. What may happen as a result is increased difficulty to restrain and treat your dog every time they need to see the vet. Instead of aiding with the examination, overpowering your dog may become even more of a struggle and more frightening for your dog and examination results may be compromised because of your dog’s distressed physiological state. Overall, the experience is not pleasant for anyone involved.

What can I do to help my dog?

First of all, your dog’s trust in you is paramount. It is the basis for a healthy relationship which enables you to train your dog efficiently and live with them in harmony. This is why it is best to be honest with your dog. If you do have to subject your dog to a procedure they will not enjoy, do not trick them into believing they are safe. It is better to show your dog what you are about to do – and even use a word or phrase as a heads-up (“here it comes”, “proceeeedure”) – than ambush them. For example, present the bottle with the ear drops and let your dog smell it before you administer it (if your dog runs off at the smell or the presentation of the bottle, you know where to start with your ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning’ program! – see below).

Ideally you start practising body handling and procedures when your dog is still a puppy since this is by far the best time to influence how your dog feels about things. But even if your dog is older, they can learn to willingly tolerate and even enjoy going to the vet. If your dog is not already fearful, the procedure is straight forward “conditioning”. Your dog learns that specific situations – e.g. entering the vet’s waiting room, being on the exam table, being poked and prodded etc. – predict good things, usually in the form of extremely tasty treats.

If your dog already has negative emotions towards body handling and veterinary procedures, you need to approach the conditioning process with more caution. The first goal is to make your dog feel safe in situations that have made them feel afraid before. To achieve this, the exposure to the situation has to be at a much reduced level compared to the final, real-life procedure. For example, instead of dragging your dog into the waiting room, you start walking up and down the street outside the vet office, then briefly pop into the waiting room and leave again straight away, etc. This is the ‘desensitisation’ part.

Much better results are generally achieved with the combination of “desensitisation and counter-conditioning”. Counter-conditioning means to change a particular emotion to be the opposite, usually to change a negative emotion into a positive one. With this technique, the change in emotions will normally happen faster and you will end up with a happier dog. Your dog has not only lost their fear but may even look forward to previously dreaded situations.

How do conditioning, desensitisation and counter-conditioning work?

  1. Conditioning

    Conditioning (also referred to as “classical conditioning”) creates an association in your dog’s brain between two events. What we are specifically interested in here is the creation of a positive emotional response to vet visits and everything that may include. Conditioning happens all the time, not just to our dogs but to us as well. The results of conditioning are evident when your dog starts jumping around when the door bell rings (visitors!), or when you jump into action when your dog makes retching noises (she’s going to vomit on the carpet!).Conditioning your dog to enjoy vet visits requires exposure to a variety of experiences such as various types of handling, use of instruments and machinery, smells, locations, etc. Usually, the final procedure has to be broken down into smaller components during practice to avoid overwhelming, and potentially scaring, the dog. For example, if you want your dog to be perfectly fine with having ear drops applied, practise handling their ear separately from presenting the bottle with the ear drops before bringing the two elements together. Insert as many steps as necessary (depending on what your dog will accept) until you reach the final goal. First practise the handling at home, then at your vet’s.

    For example, your first step when conditioning ear handling could be a simple ear touch:

    Person touches dog's ear, then gives a treat
    Briefly touch your dog’s ear and then give a treat. The order of events is important.

    If you repeat this often enough your dog learns that having their ear touched means they get tasty food. Work your way up in level of difficulty until your dog is perfectly fine when you lift their ear.

    For more detailed information see Vet Visits by Crosspaws.

  2. Desensitisation and Counter-Conditioning

    Desensitisation is the reduction of a negative emotional response. A negative emotion such as fear may have been installed in the dog’s brain via conditioning by frightening or unpleasant consequences following a certain trigger (e.g. car rides predict vet visits, vet visits predict pain). When using desensitisation the animal’s emotion is gradually neutralized by incremental exposure to the trigger but without ever presenting negative consequences (e.g. lots of car rides which don’t end at the vet, vet visits without examinations).Generally, it is more powerful to not just neutralise the trigger but to follow it up with something the dog really loves, such as tasty food. If this is done repeatedly until the dog shows a positive rather than negative response to the original trigger, the dog is said to have been counter-conditioned.

    The combination of desensitisation and counter-conditioning is low risk (desensitisation means the dog is never pushed over their fear threshold, so the fear doesn’t get worse) and provides the best outcome for the dog (a positive response to the previously negatively charged trigger rather than merely absence of fear).

What about my veterinarian?

Your veterinarian has an interest in giving the best possible service to their clients, so you should expect them to be more than willing to assist you and your dog. For example, ask if you could visit regularly with your dog during quiet times of the day and simply hang out in the waiting room or an empty exam room to desensitise and counter-condition your dog. Most vet staff will also be happy to stop by and give your dog a treat. If you are concerned about your vet’s handling of your dog, bring up the topic of ‘low stress handling’ techniques (see links below) and see how they respond. If your vet is dismissive of your attempts to help your dog through desensitisation and counter-conditioning or your concern about their handling of your dog, I suggest you vote with your feet. You and your dog deserve better.

 

RESOURCES

For more details on how to condition, desensitise and counter-condition your dog to veterinary procedures, see:
Vet Visits, Crosspaws

Low stress handling resources:
Implementing Low-Stress Handling in Your Practice, Ohio State University
The physiologic effects of fear, by Dr Valarie V. Tynes
Less Stressful Veterinary Visits, The Whole Dog Journal: Review of Dr Sophia Yin’s teachings on low stress handling

The story of a backyard dog

Strictly speaking, the dog in this story didn’t live in a backyard. He lived in the dark and narrow space between an old weatherboard house and the neighbour’s fence. He went to sleep in his kennel at one end of the run and to the toilet at the other. There was no grass and nothing to look at but the sky.

When I first saw this dog, he was looking at me through the window. I was about to rent a small room in an old weatherboard house and my landlady immediately assured me the dog “wouldn’t be any trouble”. Two of the other students who lived there were scared of the dog and the third didn’t care. The dog was never taken out and it seemed his only social contact was feeding time when someone would toss a bowl of food into his prison. Maybe he had been part of the family once but when life changed for his people he was no longer included. Maybe he lost a large and grassy backyard when his family built their new double-storey home behind the weatherboard house. Maybe he was banished from family activities when the first baby arrived. Plans to re-home him were soon forgotten and he became invisible. Stashed away behind the weatherboard instead of his family’s new house, he was out of sight, largely unnoticed by the students who lived there over the years. Without his occasional deep and husky bark it would have been easy to forget he even existed.

It was obvious that my landlady had no attachment to the dog. To her he was a deterrent for would-be burglars, nothing more. My landlord however seemed to have some feelings for the dog and maybe even a tad of guilt. I really wanted to believe that the man once loved and cared for his dog. It simply made me feel better to imagine the dog had seen better days, but staying on friendly terms with my landlord also made it easier for me to help the dog. My request to take him for walks was accepted without hesitation and so began his new life.

It didn’t start well. In my naive urge to set this dog free, I forgot to consider what years in solitary confinement can do to an individual. I put him on a lead, walked him a kilometre or so down the road to a creek which ran through large expanses of green grass and lush vegetation and let him off. Before I could blink the dog was running back to the road and heading for home, or so I hoped. I chased after him up a hill and towards a busy intersection where I prepared myself for the worst. When I finally arrived at the house, my heart was pounding from the exercise and the worry that he might never have made it home. To top it off – when I did discover him back in his kennel – I made a rookie mistake by getting angry with him. I was angry that he gave me such a fright. I was angry that he apparently didn’t appreciate my help. I was angry that he spoiled my feel good story. Today I’m angry with myself for having been so selfish and ignorant.

It was fortunate the dog didn’t suffer from serious anxiety as I could have easily made matters worse. Although I knew that anxiety and depression were real illnesses, I still had a hard time to accept that both could not be overcome with sheer willpower. Probably even more so through personal experience in my family, I saw it as a weakness if someone could not control their negative thoughts and emotions. And as if it wasn’t bad enough to expect humans with anxiety disorders to “face their fears” or “get over it”, I thought dogs – animals who aren’t even capable of analysing their fear and anxiety – should handle their problems the same way! This attitude is still very common these days and, sadly, it often leads to increased anxiety levels and a lower quality of life for our companion dogs.

As it turned out, the dog I was trying to help with my less-than-perfect approach had no deep-seated emotional issues and very quickly started to enjoy his newfound freedom. Over the following months we became best friends. Every day when I returned home and entered my room, he was waiting for me at the window. We went for daily walks together and sometimes hung out on the property when no one else was around. As often as possible I took him to the creek where we ran around together and sat in the grass. At night we would chat through the window before bedtime. Then I had to go away.

My first departure was only temporary but leaving the dog alone for three weeks, to fall back into isolation and despair, was unthinkable. If I ever had any ill feelings towards my landlord for neglecting his dog, it didn’t matter anymore after what happened next. My suggestion to board the dog with friends of mine during my absence was only the beginning. My landlord not only agreed but was also open for me to find a permanent home for his dog. Not long after my return I moved out of the shared house. The dog went to live with my friends before we found him a forever home where he became a member of a loving family, had another dog to play with and quickly claimed a comfy beanbag as his favourite place to sleep. I missed him but I knew he was happy. And that was all that mattered.

From the day I met this dog I knew I needed to find a solution. I could not leave him there to spend the rest of his life in a prison with nothing to do and no one for company. Yet so many dogs live exactly like that. Here, amidst us, scattered around the neighbourhoods are neglected, lonely dogs sitting in barren backyards, waiting for something to happen. Some of them have already entered a state of hopelessness and depression. They are “institutionalised”. But, as you can see from this story, it is never too late to help a dog in need and give them their life back. And no matter how long they have been neglected, they don’t even hold a grudge. I sometimes wonder if we deserve them at all.

Running or power walking with your dog: Take the right path

The dog on the end of my 5-metre lead has her head buried in the long grass on the river bank. While she is busy sniffing intensely at something clearly irresistible, I watch the ducks watching us. A lycra-clad woman strides past at high speed on the bitumen footpath. The dog on the end of her lead, which is kept tight and short, is prevented from lowering his head. As he is pulled along, the dog keeps craning his neck to look back at us while the woman is busy texting on her phone. Spot the difference? I am walking a dog whereas the other woman is exercising with her dog. These are two very different activities and one cannot replace the other.

Ensure your dog is able and willing

It would be a saint who has never pulled a dog along on a lead, if only for a moment, but the fact that I met the same woman 30 minutes later on the other side of the river, still walking in the same manner with a still very uncomfortable looking dog, made me wonder: Just how many of those people I see frequently running or marching along with their dogs in tow truly consider their dog’s welfare and enjoyment? Forcing a dog to exercise with you isn’t so different from using confrontational training methods. It is about making decisions for the dog and assuming they can handle it.

Making decisions on behalf of another individual carries risks. You may have the capability to push through a challenging physical activity without compromising your health because you have direct feedback from your brain. But you cannot know how your dog is coping until you get feedback from them. Unfortunately by then it could already be too late. Dogs do not show pain and discomfort the way we do and by the time you notice something is wrong, it could be dangerously wrong.

But apart from being risky, it is also simply unfair to impose an activity on a dog without making sure they are actually ok with it. You may think it’s good for them, but as humans we have a limited capacity to decide what is or isn’t good for dogs. The best way to make good decisions for your dog is to learn about dog behaviour and welfare from reputable sources that draw from scientific research. Know your dog’s limitations and learn to read and correctly interpret their body language so you can make the right decisions at any time.

Know your dog’s fears and keep them safe

It is not just about the physical side of things. Of course not every dog is suited for fast walking or running. Breed, age and health are the usual suspects, but there’s more. An often neglected factor is your dog’s mental health. For example, if your dog is fearful of strangers, is afraid of other dogs, suffers from general anxiety or has a noise phobia, they won’t enjoy the exercise if it exposes them to any of their triggers. Worse, they may become more sensitised, making their problems worse. If your dog is not comfortable amongst crowds or in certain environments, change the time or location of your exercise regime.

Do not force your dog to “face their fears” as this will almost certainly backfire. While there is clearly the benefit of exercise on mental health, you need to be well informed to keep your dog feeling safe. Dogs who are not relaxed in specific situations need to be systematically desensitised (and ideally counter-conditioned), not thrown into the deep end. Humans may be able to handle “being pushed” as they can rationalise what is happening (although this too can go horribly wrong). A dog will simply be terrified if they are over-exposed to the things they fear. Don’t risk it. Always let your dog decide if they want to be part of a certain activity.

Give your dog “sniffing time”

Dogs need the – ideally daily – opportunity to experience the outside world from a dog’s perspective. At the very least they need to explore and sniff at things and they may need time to find a good toilet spot. But to stay mentally and emotionally happy, dogs also need to be allowed to follow their natural impulses, as long as it’s safe. Be it rolling in the grass or splashing in a puddle, there are many things that are important activities for dogs but are often dismissed or disliked by us.

If your idea of “taking the dog for a walk” is to power along at a steady pace without stopping, then you are ignoring your dog’s needs. Your dog will be much happier to exercise with you if you also give them the opportunity to do their own thing. This may mean separating “walking the dog” from “exercising with the dog” and do each at different times of day. Or you could start at “sniffing speed”, during which you proceed at your dog’s pace and stop when they want to sniff or have a toilet break, before you switch gears when your dog is ready.

If you find your dog frequently wants to stop while you are running or power walking with them, don’t just drag them along. Instead, consider if your dog is really suited to be your exercise partner or if there might be some other activity you can share and that your dog is more comfortable with.

Teach your dog to keep a loose leash

Problems can also arise when your dog is so enthusiastic that they charge ahead and pull you along. It is unpleasant and the resulting lopsided running style can cause injuries over the long term for both of you. If your dog hasn’t learned to run on a loose leash and pay attention to you, they are likely to change direction or change speed without warning. I once somersaulted through the air because my dog darted right in front of me at high speed. Another time I delivered a similar shock to a dog when she suddenly slowed down causing me to accidentally step on the slack leash. Fortunately we all got away without injuries but it’s best to avoid the chance of collisions and other accidents to begin with.

Before you take your dog running, teach them loose leash walking. Then spend some short runs to practise the same at higher speed, using the same rules as for walking. Praise your dog profusely as long as they keep the leash loose (you don’t need treats here if your dog was trained well to walk on lead), give a warning when they speed up (e.g. “easy”) and stop when the leash tightens. It is a good idea to use cues, such as “let’s go”, “slow down”, “this way” to alert your dog of your intentions. If you want your dog to be your successful running partner, invest some time to develop their skills. Be fair, be a team player.

 

Increased exercise is one of the great benefits that humans get from having a dog. Those pleading canine eyes and a wiggly butt are much harder to ignore than a “note to self”. Dogs are the perfect allies to combat our sedentary way of life and help us get fitter, healthier and even more social. But if we are too focussed on our own agenda, we can easily overlook that our dogs may not be having fun at all. No matter if you take your dog for a leisurely stroll, a power walk or a run, always make sure it’s right for both of you.

 

 

RESOURCES

Running With Your Dog: How to Train Fido to Run at Your Side, by Dr Sophia Yin
Turning Your Dog Into Your Workout Partner, by Dr Karen Becker, in Huffington Post
Ready, Set, Go: Running With Your Dog, by Mikkel Becker, vetstreet
Loose Leash Walking, by Lousiana SPCA

A “good dog” is a happy dog

Good dog! Most of us have expressed our approval with a certain individual more than once in this way. Sometimes this phrase is used as reinforcement for desired behaviour and sometimes it is more of a general praise, not specifically linked to anything the dog is doing at that moment. But what exactly qualifies a dog or their behaviour as “good”? We all have our own ideas about what we like and don’t like about dogs, but it is worth putting our picture of the “ideal dog” into perspective. After all it is human ideas and expectations that will largely determine a dog’s quality of life.

The obedient dog

Traditionally, from a dog training perspective, a good dog is one that is obedient and follows his master’s every command. A good dog has no annoying habits such as excessive barking, jumping up, pulling on lead, house-soiling, chewing, digging or being aggressive towards the wrong target. Dogs with “jobs”, such as working, racing or assistance dogs, have to satisfy even stricter requirements and many don’t make the cut. In fact, a great many domestic dogs do not live up to human expectations and suffer neglect, abandonment, abuse or an untimely death.

This is not the dogs’ fault. Historically, breeding and training dogs was rarely done with the dogs’ best interests in mind. Our zealous attempt to create the perfect dog for various applications has caused substantial suffering in dogs and common behaviour problems are often of our own making. Selective breeding did not just fashion – and sometimes burden – dogs with exaggerated anatomical features, but also contributed to a range of mental and physical health issues which impact on our dogs’ behaviour. Training has its own shameful history of torturing and subjugating dogs which continues to this day – albeit under various disguises – and has to take the blame for countless fearful, aggressive and otherwise emotionally damaged dogs. Sometimes the damage – no matter if it was largely genetic, environmental or both in origin – cannot be undone through training or veterinary intervention. These dogs will never be “good” in anybody’s books. They are the losers of ruthless breeding and wild-west-style training methods. And with the law being largely silent in both industries – dog breeding and dog training – we will have to deal with preventable behaviour problems in dogs for quite a while yet.

The educated dog

What would greatly help our dogs, but also benefit us, is a shift away from the traditional notion of the “obedient dog” as a role model. Allowing dogs to freely express their personality and, to an extent, make their own decisions might just be the best way forward in the world of dog training. This does not mean that we forgo safety and let our dogs run wild. It means that we give our dogs the skills to happily live within human society without constantly having to tell them what to do. It means that we ask ourselves not just what we teach a dog but why. Too many dogs are taken through the usual rigmarole of obedience exercises at dog training schools or at home without being taught how to make use of those skills to access all the things they want in life. Although training can be beneficial for dogs in itself – think mental exercise akin to a crossword puzzle – it is usually linked to a goal. Humans mostly train dogs for the purpose of having more control over them. However, a much better and more contemporary definition of dog training would be “canine education”. Education is liberating, because it gives individuals knowledge they can use to improve their lives. If we look at it from that perspective, dog training is no longer about humans controlling dogs but about dogs learning how to control their own lives.

Modern dog training classes that aim to teach dogs “life skills” or turn them into “canine citizens” are positive signs that we have already started to change our thinking. The trend is away from militaristic drills and boot camps which aim to turn dogs into robotic obedience machines towards a more holistic and cooperative learning experience for the dog-human team. It is a persistent myth that a dominance-submission relationship is needed to create harmony between human and dog, but slowly awareness is growing that this approach is risky and unnecessarily stressful for everyone involved. Harmony does not arise from intimidation and coercion, no matter how subtle this is executed. Good behaviour does not come from stress and tension. Fear of punishment is a potential time bomb and creates a volatile individual, not a relaxed and friendly one.
Armed with this knowledge, many progressive dog trainers continually develop better and more humane educational programs for dogs and their people. It will be interesting to see how we can take this even further over the next decades or so.

The happy dog

Ultimately it is up to every dog’s guardian to decide what it is they want from their dog. However, animal welfare concerns should challenge us all to think beyond our own needs and give consideration to the dog’s needs and quality of life.

Compulsive behaviours, anxiety and aggression are signs that not all is well regarding the dog’s mental and physical health. In order to prevent these problems from developing or getting worse, we need to learn and be aware of how our own behaviour affects dog behaviour, be that through specific actions, tone of voice, body language or otherwise. What is it we do that enables, triggers, maintains or worsens a dog’s behaviour? We can all help to make the community safer and dogs and their humans happier by protecting dogs from being coerced, intimidated or hurt in the name of dog training or otherwise.

A good dog is not the one who sits in the corner too afraid to move for fear of punishment. A good dog is not the one who has stopped barking because of the obnoxious citronella collar around her neck. A good dog is not the one who doesn’t jump up anymore because his people knocked the enthusiasm out of him. A good dog is not the one who trots along listlessly because they were yanked and strangled for pulling. These are all stressed dogs and, unfortunately, there are far too many of them. It’s time that these “good dogs” of old become a dying breed. That’s why we all need to educate ourselves to create many more happy dogs – because a happy dog is a good dog.

 

 

 

A dog’s life – what’s it worth?

Every so often I hear complaints about the amount of money people spend on their dogs or other companion animals. There seems to be a moral objection to the idea that animals receive so much of our disposable income and a suggestion that the money should go towards “worthier” targets, for example less fortunate humans who suffer from poverty, disease and other hardships in this world. But is this a valid argument?

What we spend money on

There is no better tool to address emotional arguments than statistics*, so let’s start there. The numbers tell us that Australians spend around $20 billion a year on beauty products and personal care, another $20 billion on recreation and around $10 billion on gadgets. We certainly value alcohol and gambling (between $15 and $20 billion a year each) and our spending on coffee and sweets easily exceeds donations to charity. Australian households also waste a lot. A possible $8 billion of food is thrown away per annum, not counting the wastage from restaurants and other businesses. In comparison we spend approximately $5 billion a year on pets. This includes everything – food and health care, pet products and accessories, services such as grooming, boarding and training – and all pets – from dogs and cats to fish and reptiles.

It feels wrong to compare expenditure on luxury items and entertainment to the money we spend on our animal companions. But since pets are legally nothing more than property, they get bundled together with hair straighteners, golf clubs and flat screen TVs. Even then, it would make more sense to criticise our exorbitant spending on non-essential beauty and lifestyle products before we bemoan the cost of animal care or even pet pampering, whatever that may mean.

But there is something else wrong with criticizing spending money on our animal companions. It implies that those people who do not have pets or spend less money on them are more charitable than others. Clearly this is not the case. If someone puts their house up for sale to pay for their dog’s medical bills, it is highly doubtful they would have done the same to give money to charity. People spend their money whichever way they like. No matter if someone collects vintage cars, enjoys going to restaurants or loves their dog, we simply cannot draw any conclusions about how much or how little they give to charity.

Life has no price tag

It is an impossible task to estimate the value of life. We can assume that a life is most important to the individual who lives it, but it also matters to others. How much it matters is fluent. It is evident that even human life is not valued evenly across the globe and throughout history. In war-torn and poverty stricken countries a life can end quickly and without fanfare. Sometimes one life is less important than family or community and sometimes a life is sacrificed for a greater cause or goal. And while “developed” countries may rate individual life very highly, we are also willing to send young men and women into war if we deem necessary. Life has no objective value. It simply cannot be measured in monetary or even ethical terms. The value of a single life is a subjective experience and can only be qualified by the individual themselves and everyone around them.

As a society we tend to value human life above all other. This does not mean that every human being values every single human life over that of every other animal. Just ask yourself: Would you save your dog’s life over that of a sadistic psychopathic serial killer, if you ever found yourself in the unfortunate position to have to make that decision? Would you run into a burning house to save your dog, risking your own life? Neither worldly laws nor spiritual beliefs can answer these questions for us.

More than just a dog

The recent story of a young man who committed suicide after authorities killed his dog shows just how much non-human animals can mean to us. The psychological and emotional benefits of pets have been sufficiently proven but we also need to acknowledge that humans can genuinely form close bonds with members of other species. There doesn’t have to be a measurable benefit to us in order to justify spending money on our pets. It’s ok if it simply makes us happy.

Not everyone may understand the emotional attachment that is possible between species. A few years ago Dusty, a young kelpie from Queensland, tested positive for Hendra virus antibodies and was euthanized for bio-security reasons. While his distressed family pleaded for their beloved dog’s life, a nearby farmer – apparently wanting to help – offered to “replace” the kelpie. This type of thinking puts dogs on the same level as a tractor. The dog is a replaceable utility, not a unique individual whose family have come to know and love him. But every animal – dog, human or other – is unique and so are the relationships they form with others.

People who get emotionally attached and spend significant money on their dogs are sometimes accused of treating them like children. The only thing wrong with that is when the animals suffer from being anthropomorphised and subjected to unrealistic expectations by their humans. Otherwise, the kindness of people should be applauded, especially if we consider that around 250,000 abandoned, neglected and abused dogs and cats are killed each year in Australian animal shelters. Empathy does not stop at species boundaries, meaning that people who are kind to animals are also likely to be kind to humans. We can never have enough of those people!

 

Like everyone else I have my private thoughts about what type of expenses I find reasonable (not just in relation to pets) and which I classify as extravagant. But it is not for me to decide what other people should spend their money on. As a dog trainer I want to see happy, healthy dogs, so my focus is on training and behaviour as well as health care and good nutrition. Any expenses in these categories are important to not just keep the animal alive but to give them a life worth living.
However, if someone wants to express their love for their dog with a diamond studded collar, it’s entirely their business. This is no different to buying jewellery for a human loved one (except that the dog couldn’t care less of course!). Nobody really needs these items but it clearly means something to people. Before I pass – my purely personal – judgement on anyone, I try and remind myself that the big spender might also be a big philanthropist.

 

 

 

* The numbers are neither exact nor current but are meant as ballpark figures only.

RESOURCES

Australian spending habits, ASIC, MoneySmart
We’re getting more charitable, but the gambling bug still bites, Nortons, Business Advisers & Chartered Accountants
Australians are world-leading gamblers, but the house’s winnings are slipping, Business Spectator
Do Australians waste $8 billion worth of edible food each year?, ABC Fact Check
He Had The Wrong Dog In The Wrong Country And When They Killed It He Killed Himself, 3MillionDogs
Empathy and Compassion: The Awesome Sauce, Jason Powers in Huffington Post
Dusty the red kelpie – Hendra Virus, Barristers Animal Welfare Panel

 

Does your dog’s jumping up cause you to forget your manners?

Imagine you extend your hand to greet someone or attempt to hug a friend and they slap you in the face. You’d be pretty shocked and probably at a loss why your friendly overtures caused such a violent response. Or could you imagine engaging in such brutal behaviour yourself? I don’t know of any culture where this response to a sociable approach would be acceptable. There’s no problem though when it comes to human-dog greetings. It is still fairly common practise for humans to respond to a friendly dog greeting with slapping, kicking, pushing or other crass antics. From our dogs’ point of view surely this must seem worse than just violating the dog greeting etiquette. They must think we are truly mad.

Dogs need support, not sabotage

It certainly appears crazy to alienate precisely those animals that we most expect to be friendly and free of aggression. We have extremely high standards when it comes to the behaviour of pet dogs but at the same time we sabotage them at every turn. Lucky for us, dogs are immensely adaptable. The close dog-human collaboration has worked over so many tens of thousands of years not because humans are so uniquely clever but to a large extent because dogs are such amazingly successful survivors.

Jump with your dog, for joy

So here we are in the 21. century – modern, advanced, educated humans – and we still stick to those appalling methods for stopping our dogs from jumping up and licking us in the face. It is understandable that not everyone enjoys having a wet dog nose, let alone tongue, slobbering across their face and being jumped on can be very unpleasant if not dangerous. But there is absolutely no reason to respond to a friendly greeting with violence. Jumping up and licking faces are pro-social dog behaviours. You might not experience it as such, but it really is a good sign if your dog behaves that way. A reason to celebrate in fact, since it means your dog likes humans rather than being fearful of or aggressive towards them. Yay!

How to greet a dog and keep face

Our mismatched greeting ritual is an example of the culture clash* that exists between dogs and humans. The question is how can we turn our response into a more socially acceptable form for the dog and at the same time prevent ourselves from bruises and scratches, muddied jeans and slobbered faces. With a bit of effort this is very achievable. As a pre-requisite, your dog first needs a solid, reliable “sit-stay” under distraction. If you think your dog already knows how to sit, think again. Teaching your dog to put their butt on the ground is one thing. Staying in that position while you jump up and down on the couch is another. Can your dog pull that off? If so, congratulations! If not, get to work and have some fun. Ask your dog to sit, then take a step, left, right or back, and promptly reward your dog for staying in the sit position (if the dog gets up, start over). Try different distractions and increase the difficulty gradually so your dog can succeed. Jumping around on the couch is optional of course, but you want to proof your dog’s sit-stay simulating the excitement that may arise when good friends come over for a dinner party. If you need help, contact a good dog trainer** or get yourself a decent dog training book***. Once your dog is good at sit stay, practise with friends and instruct them to ask your dog to sit upon greeting. The dog’s reward could be access to the person, which is what dog was after in the first place. For example the person may crouch or bend down and pet the dog. Treats, tossing a toy, throwing a ball or whatever the dog enjoys are other options for reinforcement. If you take it step by step, you can build very reliable behaviours without being rude or violent with your dog.

The “instant solution” temptation: don’t risk it

If you are still thinking “why can’t I just whack the dog once and be done with it”, consider the ramifications. Yes, if you hurt or scare the dog enough, they might never jump up on you or another person. But imagine what the shock of being met with such force just for trying to be friendly does to your dog. They might become wary of you or people in general, they might flinch at quick hand movements, become anxious and withdrawn, maybe even aggressive. Why would you risk compromising the relationship between you and your dog and put a damper on your dog’s happiness if you can solve the problem in a cooperative and risk-free way.

Slowly but surely we learn some manners

Stepping away from tradition and breaking habits is never easy and dog training is no different. If even a veterinarian advices a client to whack her dog under the chin in response to jumping up, we have much education to do before things change for the better. The woman who received this advice and “successfully” tried it on her dog promptly passed it on to other people at the dog park. I could not help but notice that her dog was anxious and shied away from people’s outstretched hands. I have no proof that this was the result of aversive handling but, considering everything we know today about dog behaviour, it’s very possible. This type of advice given by a vet who apparently overstepped his field of expertise (no respectable dog trainer would ever give canine medical advice to a client) is not the worst example. Even in some dog training schools they still teach you anything from violently jerking the leash to a well-timed swing with a frying pan (I’m not kidding). Anything goes it seems to let our dogs know just how offended we are by their friendly greeting rituals. I think we can do better. Let’s turn the tables for once and show our dogs that we have some manners.

RESOURCES

*The Culture Clash, award winning book by Jean Donaldson, is a must read for anyone who is involved with dogs.

**Crosspaws – recommended dog training books.

***Crosspaws – How to chose a dog trainer.

The Remote Controlled Dog: Is this the Future of Dog Training?

A young woman arrived at the off-leash park with her small fluffy dog in tow and set off on a brisk march. As the dog fell behind to cautiously investigate me and my canine companion I noticed a rather large device strapped around the dog’s neck. Surely enough the woman was carrying what looked like a remote control in her hand. After a brief sniff from a safe distance the little remote controlled dog suddenly growled at us, did a big shake off and rushed after the woman. Had she just pressed the button?

The encounter was not just distressing because of a tiny dog wearing a gigantic shock collar but because the woman seemed so entirely disconnected from her dog. While she marched around the park she only rarely glimpsed over her shoulder, but even when her dog was out of sight she didn’t stop or call the dog. Periodically the dog performed a body shake and then rushed in the woman’s direction. Of course I can only speculate if and how often she pressed the button on her remote control, but this short and memorable encounter made me wonder if this woman had ever attempted to train and build a relationship with her dog. It also made me wonder if she simply walked into a store and purchased the device or if it was recommended and fitted by a dog trainer. Was it really possible that she had no doubts about using a shock collar on her dog?

“The convenience of solving dog training issues with a simple device may be tempting but it seems just as bizarre as trying to remote control a child.”

I’m afraid so. It is very possible that many people simply see nothing wrong with using such manipulative devices on their dogs. And I don’t believe at all that these people are cruel and want to hurt their dogs. Rather I think that a) they are made to believe that using shock collars and other aversive equipment is perfectly OK or even necessary and b) they want to believe it.

It is understandable that people put their trust in anyone who claims to be an expert and have their problem solved on the spot. The promises made by proponents of shock collars have the same purpose as any other promise made by businesses or politicians: to sell something. Only inquisitive minds can detect false, flawed or dangerous promises. But this requires time and effort – an investment which is often too much for people with busy lives. It is not surprising then that technology to control one’s dog is so easily accepted. The decision is made easier by the fact that no one who promotes shock collars actually uses the term “shock collar” as this would be risky in terms of marketing. And, repeated assurances that the collars are perfectly harmless help to convince even those who might have some lingering doubts.

The convenience of solving dog training issues with a simple device may be tempting but it seems just as bizarre as trying to remote control a child. Why did we ever think it was OK to use electricity to control the behaviour of our dogs? If someone claims they love their dog but at the same time reaches for shock collars and other wretched gadgets, what kind of love are we talking about? Something is missing if there is no consideration for exactly how a dog experiences the invasive treatment. It seems contradictory that we anthropomorphise dogs to the extent that we do (“she knows she shouldn’t”, “he feels guilty”, “she is stubborn”, “he steals food”), but at the same time we deny them “personhood” when it comes to their capacity to suffer at our hands.

What doesn’t help the situation – and what might be one reason for it – is that dogs largely endure us no matter what we do to them. They may very well communicate their pain, stress or discomfort, but dog body language is unfortunately poorly understood, even amongst people with long term exposure to dogs. This makes it easy to overlook possible ill effects of aversive devices such as shock collars, citronella collars, choke chains and so on. What we can’t see doesn’t trouble us.

“Our rush towards quick fixes for dog behaviour problems has encouraged an entire industry that deals with making our dogs’ lives miserable.”

Did I just mention citronella collars? Yes, I did. These scent-dispensing collars are commonly used to discourage dogs from barking. They sound harmless enough but who are we – with our poor sense of smell compared to dogs – to judge if they are harmless to dogs? For all we know, citronella could be as disgusting to a dog as cat urine sprayed in your face is to you. Of course this is exactly the idea behind the device. Only if the experience is bad enough will it stop the dog from barking, or not. The result largely depends on the dog’s motivation. Whatever it is – loneliness, boredom or an external event (e.g. noise in the neighbourhood) -, something is causing the dog to bark and if that something doesn’t go away, the spray collar may not be sufficient to suppress the barking. What it most likely will achieve though is an increase of negative emotions in the dog. Even more reason to bark.

Citronella collars may not hurt or potentially burn the skin as shock collars do, but they can be just as psychologically damaging for a dog as something considered harsh or painful. No matter what type of technology is used to torment a dog, it’s never acceptable. And this is where even educated and advanced human societies currently fail dramatically. The same societies who continuously improve animal welfare standards and even fight for animal rights have pet shops filled with torture equipment for their most beloved animal companions. Our rush towards quick fixes for dog behaviour problems has encouraged an entire industry that deals with making our dogs’ lives miserable.

“Imagine an alien planted a little buzzer in your ear and every time you laugh out loud the buzzer goes off.”

There are times when it all becomes too much and we just want to switch someone off. Remove the stress from our lives with the push of a button. But just as we have learned to live with other people we have to learn to understand and respect our dogs’ behaviour if we want to share a harmonious life with them. Trying to see things from the other person’s perspective or – in this case – trying to imagine what your dog might experience helps a lot.

Imagine an alien planted a little buzzer in your ear and every time you laugh out loud the buzzer goes off. At first you are surprised. You might shake your head, possibly thinking there was an insect trapped in your ear. After the buzzer goes off again and again you eventually make the connection between your laughter and the buzzing sound and you become confused. You might even try not to laugh anymore but what if you are out with friends having a good time? By this stage you probably hope to wake up realising it was all just a nightmare. But it continues day after day. First it drives you mad. Then a feeling of helplessness washes over you. You become depressed, frustrated and maybe aggressive. Of course if that really happened to you, you would see a doctor before you go insane. Sadly, your dog doesn’t have that option. Their only hope is you.

“We are already seeing people form strong emotional bonds with robot dogs in Japan.”*

image of robotic dog
I have no idea where we are headed but it makes me sad that there is a thriving market selling all sorts of devices that are meant to cause pain, fear and frustration in our dogs. If this is going to increase as our population keeps growing and our lives are becoming ever more frantic or if people will find the compassion within them to invest a little more time to help their best friends – who knows. As long as people who are in need of help with their dogs fall victim to the promises of quick solutions we will continue to see the fallout in form of stressed, surrendered and euthanized dogs who could have lived happy lives but never got the chance. If this is where we’re headed, my sincere hope is that more consumers will choose these instead:

RESOURCES

*Robotic pet ownership to rise in an overpopulated world, professor says.

“Force free” dog training: More than a label

Since the dog training industry has been largely ignored by government regulatory authorities, it is up to dog trainers themselves to set some standards, at least for now. Not surprisingly, the results are less than satisfactory. Dog trainers differ in their goals and values and these are not always in the best interest of their clients. While there is of course nothing wrong with promoting one’s business and setting oneself apart from the competition, the dog loving public clearly needs some reliable and unambiguous information on what it is they get for their money.

Labelling for change

Just like a patient wanting to understand a surgical procedure or a customer wanting to know the ingredients in their cereal, anyone intending to hire a dog trainer should be able to easily understand what exactly it is they are buying. The most common questions on people’s minds are “what is the result?”, “how long does it take?” and “how much does it cost?” But with growing sensitivities towards the treatment of animals and a better understanding of dog behaviour more people are turning into informed consumers rather than being easy to impress shoppers.

Unfortunately we do not hear the question “what methods do you use?” often enough but we do know people have started to pay attention to labels such as “positive”, “force free” or “reward based”. They may not know exactly what that means, but there is no reason to be cynical about it. The fact that those labels are increasingly used in the industry and that the public sees them as “qualifying” is a good thing. After all this is how change usually starts. Once there is awareness there will be questions. Soon there will be demands for evidence, for regulation and for certification. It has happened in relation to other goods and services and it will happen to dog training. In fact it has already started in some countries.

Yes, some unethical trainers label themselves “positive” and are in fact quite the opposite. As long as there is no legal protection for labelling in this industry, consumers need to be very wary and inquisitive. However, the fact that certain labels are used carelessly and seem to have no real value attached does not mean they should be avoided by those who claim them as their legitimate tags. I believe it is crucial that humane dog trainers set themselves apart from their dominance driven colleagues. We need to advertise where- and whenever we can that cooperative and scientifically supported methods work and that they come without the nasty risks and side-effects of confrontational training.

Force free training is a choice, not an outcome

While the dividing line between dog trainers generally separates those who use force and dominance from those who use rewards and cooperation, the reality can be a lot more confusing. Some trainers may not even be sure about exactly where they stand or they are reluctant to be lumped together with others. It is absolutely vital though that humane and ethical dog trainers stand as a united front to the public and in the industry. It is not helpful if we argue amongst ourselves, either because we are not clear on our own methods or because we have our own agenda. There are ways to advertise the uniqueness of one’s business without sacrificing or undermining the unifying ideals we all stand for.

Dedicated organisations who promote humane dog training such as the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) have definitions for terminology and provide training and handling guidelines. This is the kind of information that needs to be promoted widely and publicly so that everyone has a usable standard. Until we get some sort of government regulation or certification, it is in our best interest to accept the agreed-upon labelling as the best we have. There is no need to attack those labels as dishonest or misleading unless the goal is to attack the force free dog training community itself.

The meaning of force free is the avoidance of anything that could cause fear or pain (or any versions of these) in a dog. To begin with, this rules out any equipment or technique that specifically has the purpose of causing fear or pain (shock, prong and choke collars, yanking, yelling, pinching, rough handling etc.). But it also means observing the dog at all times for signs of possible stress or unease. Force free does not mean we can guarantee that a dog will have only positive emotions when we train them. Of course only the dog can truly know if they experience something as pleasant or aversive. But we can make sure we have the education and skill to minimize any possible negative impact our training might have. We can decide that we want to cooperate with a dog rather than overpower them. This is what force free means. It’s a choice of methods.

Let’s keep spreading the word

I will happily promote myself as being force free, reward based, positive, or whatever it takes to let everyone know where I stand. Furthermore, I’ll explain exactly what it is I do and how I interact with someone’s dog to achieve results. And I will continue to do so beyond the day when mandatory certification and protected labelling are introduced in the dog training industry.

Change happens because people learn about issues, talk about issues and eventually feel compelled to take action. Our global and hyper-connected society has never been more sensitive to human- and animal-rights issues or any sort of injustice or barbarity. There has never been a better time to talk about and fight for a better future in dog training. So, let’s continue to be vocal about what we do and why. Let’s not sacrifice a greater common goal for petty reasons.

 

RESOURCES

The Academy for Dog Trainers. Consumer Protection: Dog Trainers
The Pet Professional Guild

 

 

Walking on leash: How to be in sync with your dog

Dog walking on lead with humanWhat most people envision or hope for when walking their dog is a picture of harmony: The dog leisurely strolling along next to them, no pulling, no zigzagging, and no charging at other dogs or people. Unfortunately, adjusting to their human’s pace is something that dogs rarely do by default. To rectify this, the dog training profession has come up with a range of measures from choke chains and prong collars to various harnesses and head halters. Equipment of that type can be more or less successful in thwarting the dog’s efforts to follow their own agenda, but it doesn’t necessarily result in harmony. A better, more cooperative approach is leash training.

We don’t all walk to the same drum beat

When I was younger I had a friend with an annoying habit. Her walking pace was slower than mine, so every time I walked ahead of her she tugged at my sleeve in order to slow me down. But only seconds later I would again be a few steps ahead since my friend’s pace simply wasn’t my pace. In fact, I’m convinced that it cost me more energy to keep a slower pace than to trot along at my own natural pace, apart from the fact that the frequent tugging irritated the $@#% out of me. Of course my friend was also clearly annoyed by having to try and keep up with me all the time.

Maybe it is because of this personal experience that I sympathise with dogs on leash. If I find it so difficult to match my pace to that of another human, just how hard must it be for a dog to fall into line with one of those slow moving humans. Unless a dog is old, sick or otherwise impaired, they usually walk at a faster speed than we do. In fact they don’t walk, they trot. They are like window shoppers. Instead of moving at a consistent speed in one direction they trot from smell to smell and linger until they have collected all the info that can be found there. If they do happen to keep to a straight path, it typically involves a clear goal, for example the dog park or some other irresistible attraction.

Of course I also understand the frustration of humans when their dogs seem to ignore them in favour of smells, other dogs or whatever the environment has to offer. It’s no fun having your arm pulled out or being tripped up by your dog zooming in front of you.

The confrontational way to stop pulling

According to traditional dog training my friend used the wrong technique. Instead of nagging me with those frequent sleeve tugs, she should have grabbed me by the collar – just once – and pull it tight so violently that I’d gag and struggle for air. Apparently this rather shocking experience would have forced me to walk at my friend’s slower pace for good. Somehow I doubt she would have been a friend for much longer after that.

Causing a one-off traumatic experience is exactly the philosophy behind choke and prong collars. You are supposed to yank at your dog’s neck so hard the first time you use the collar that you will never have to yank again. One massive yank and your dog’s pulling on lead will have been solved for life. Apart from the fact that this treatment risks the dog’s health and even life, how could anyone actually want to do this to their dog? One explanation why this technique is still widely used could be the desensitisation of people to violence in dog training.

I had to witness a demonstration on the “correct technique” to use a choke chain when a former instructor of mine yanked a client’s dog around in front of the whole class. Today, under the same circumstances, I would suggest the client quickly take their dog and get as far away from that person as they can. Instead I stood silently, together with everyone else, while we were lectured on the dog’s experience. It didn’t matter that the dog yelped every time he was catapulted backwards. It wasn’t pain we were told, the dog was just surprised.

What exactly a dog feels when all of a sudden the chain around their neck tightens, digs into their throat and hurls their body back, we will never know. But I think we can make an educated guess that the experience is not pleasant. If the procedure succeeds in stopping the dog from pulling, then it must have been painful or frightening enough, so the dog will want to avoid the experience in the future. Chances are the dog will also become wary of the person holding the leash.

The practical way to stop pulling

Moving forward, there are more humane solutions these days to stop a dog from pulling. However, even harnesses and head halters rely on thwarting rather than training. Front clip harnesses which have the leash attached to a clip on the dog’s chest rather than their back, work by pulling the dog’s body sideways when the dog pulls forward. Some dogs learn to walk that way, i.e. they still pull but walk sideways at the same time, leading to an awkward gait which could cause health problems in the long term. Other harnesses tighten around the body or even the throat to prevent pulling.

Head halters are generally not readily accepted by dogs and it’s better to desensitise them to wearing this equipment (preferably in combination with counter conditioning). Otherwise the dog may forever try and get the thing off their face rather than enjoy the walk. Head halters can be dangerous if the dog still pulls or the leash suddenly stops the dog’s forward movement with a violent head turn.

Compared to choke and prong collars, these types of walking aids are clearly preferable but a thoughtful approach is required. As long as the dog seems comfortable and doesn’t suffer side-effects, harnesses and head halters can be a very good solution. It can even mean the difference between the dog being walked or not at all. Ideally, though, the use of these mechanical aids is partnered with training, so the dog doesn’t feel the need to pull anymore in the first place.

The harmonious way to stop pulling

Truly walking together in harmony requires that dog and human pay attention to each other. Neither dragging a dog nor being dragged results in a pleasant outing. It’s worth reminding ourselves that dog walking is primarily for the dog’s benefit. It’s about sniffing and investigating, taking in sights and sounds, marking here and there and having toilet breaks. These are important activities for a dog and given that many dogs spend countless hours alone in their homes, a “walk around the block” in the evening is often the only daily excursion they get.

For us humans walking the dog clearly has benefits too. It gets us outside and moving and it’s a chance to have some “us” time with our dogs. If we tune in to our dog’s activities and experiences on walks we can learn more about them and increase the bond we share. We can make our dog, as well as other dogs and people, feel safe by keeping an eye on our surroundings, moving away from situations if required and monitoring our dog’s interaction with others. Paying attention is of course also useful in preventing doggy stomach aches due to ingestion of unidentified objects.

Teaching a dog to walk at our pace means making it attractive for the dog to adjust their natural movements and slow down*. It requires time and patience. If the dog is a strong puller, it’s a good idea to start off with a harness or head halter to get a foot in the door. Otherwise the frustration levels – especially the human’s – might be too much to do any effective training. The dog must then be heavily rewarded, starting in a no distraction environment and with tasty treats, for walking within a given semi-circle next to our leg. The most important thing though is to frequently allow the dog to do all those worthwhile things on walks like visiting a tree or lifting a leg. If these are used as rewards for not pulling, everyone wins.

Another important point is not to use the leash to move the dog around. A leash is simply a safety device, nothing more. To move the dog about, we are much better off encouraging the dog verbally to come to us or with us or directing them with hand targeting**.

In another world in a parallel universe dogs may be walking and running freely without the need to be tethered to us. Unfortunately ours is a dangerous world and full of restrictions. But with some thought and effort we can make walking together a more enjoyable experience for us and the dogs. There really is no need to punish dogs for being dogs.

 

 

* In case a dog moves slower than their handler, the human needs to slow down too. Unless the dog is old, disabled or injured, a dog can be encouraged verbally or with treats to pick up pace. However it’s important to be mindful about possible reasons the dog is unable or unwilling to walk or walk faster. These can be physical health reasons or even fear or anxiety. A vet check should be considered and – if this does not result in anything – a veterinary behaviourist or good dog trainer may be able to help.

** Hand targeting is a useful behaviour where the dog aims for and touches the outstretched hand of their handler.

 

RESOURCES

Loose Leash Walking by Lousiana SPCA
Loose Leash Walking in 30 days by Bina Lunzer

The language of fear and loathing in dog training

Human language is powerful. It enables us to express what we think and feel but it can also influence how we think and feel. Language can be wielded by people to shape opinions and it can serve to reiterate and confirm cultural norms and beliefs. Throughout history we have used language to discriminate against people based on their race, gender, religion or customs but we are also continuously adapting our language to reflect progress and changes in our societal values and sensitivities.
At present we are experiencing a change in the language related to dogs and dog training in parallel with a more informed and humane treatment of dogs and other non-human animals.
Word associated with dominance

How we talk about dogs

The language of dog training has traditionally, and not surprisingly, been full of human-centric terminology. Dogs are expected to follow commands, be obedient and loyal, understand discipline and authority and respect their masters. Normal dog behaviours such as barking, chasing, chewing, digging or jumping up are considered behaviour problems that need to be fixed, commonly via some sort of punishment. Good dogs know right from wrong and want to please their owners.

After observing wolf packs we decided that dogs are pack animals and therefore needed a leader which fitted nicely with the human notion of social status and rank. A dog owner is meant to adopt the position of the alpha dog and assert their dominance over the dog. The dog must rank lower in the hierarchy and know their place. Manoeuvres such as alpha rolls, muzzle grabs or scruff shakes should be employed to force the dog into submission as they are considered natural wolf behaviours.

In addition to being subordinates, dogs occupy an even lower status of course: they are property. To classify a dog as property endorses the view that dogs are tradable and replaceable goods. We breed them, buy them, sell them, treat or mistreat them and kill them as we please.

Much of the traditional language in relation to dogs is still around in the 21st century but it feels increasingly awkward and out of date. The dominance lingo never made much sense to begin with and it is not how most people want to treat their dogs these days. This change in perspective is a logical result of our ever growing knowledge of the nature, needs, and emotions of dogs as well as the general abandonment of force in teaching. We have been gradually shifting our thinking to include more of the dog’s point of view.

The language of change

Every “rights movement” has its own story of language. At first, certain words are identified as offensive, for example as racist or sexist, and then they are banished from the general vocabulary. How big a role can language play in generating change? Does the way we talk about our dogs influence how we view them and subsequently how we treat them? If so, adjusting our language and dropping the jargon relating to dominance and ownership may help accelerate the spread of modern dog training.

We are already hearing less about dogs having to respect their owners and more about the need for people to respect their dogs. Overall, we are seeing a move away from confrontation and towards cooperation – something we humans are actually quite good at, even if that’s hard to believe sometimes.

The signs of advanced methods and attitudes in dog training are everywhere. People are learning more about dog body language and how to notice signs of discomfort or stress. Dogs are given space and children are taught how to behave around dogs. Positive reinforcement is fast becoming the preferred training method and is replacing the disciplinarian corrections. Commands are being changed to cues, obedience is giving way to life skills and dog owners are more often referred to as dog parents or dog guardians. Dominance first morphed into leadership and now leadership is falling out of favour too. The maxim Nothing in Life is Free is yielding to Plenty in Life is Free.

It seems we are starting to treat dogs as those best friends we always claimed they were. We are dropping force and intimidation from the tool bag of dog training and replacing it with science and compassion. We are finally letting dogs be dogs instead of moulding them into our concept of a human-dog social hierarchy. There is increasing acceptance that we share our lives with members of a different species who have a right not to be humanized. And all of this is reflected in how we talk about dogs.

How dog trainers talk about dog trainers

There is another aspect to language in dog training and it’s ugly. It shows a deep chasm in today’s dog training industry. First, there is the direct combat between dog trainers of different camps, which is mostly played out on social media with its usual share of vitriol, and then there’s the far more dangerous war of words directed at the public. Potential clients and anyone interested in dog training are the real victims when dog trainers talk about each other and themselves.

Apart from the name calling and sledging of the competition, it is the warped, confused and pseudo-scientific gibberish that is mostly concerning. It is facilitated by an industry that lacks requirements for formal education and accountability. You don’t need a piece of paper to be a dog trainer. All you need is clever language to convince your clients that you are a dog training guru. As long as your clients see results, you are in business. Since the dogs you train – with whatever methods – can’t speak up, your only problems may arise from the occasional knowledgeable or concerned client who dares to ask the right questions. Long term, however, you should be worried about a tightening of animal welfare laws and mandatory licensing for dog trainers. It’s already happening in other countries, so it’s best to be prepared.

The biggest disservice to the public is done by trainers who make unsubstantiated and misleading claims about their own and other trainers’ methods. A layperson may be able to look beyond language which aims to insult or ridicule other trainers, but they may not have the knowledge to detect false or worrying statements in relation to training methods and results. Dog training is a science. If a dog trainer is not able to talk expertly and clearly about the scientific principles behind training, they are not credible. Throwing some technical jargon around which a client can’t verify or boasting with decades of experience (doing what exactly?), has nothing to do with proving one’s expertise and up-to-date credentials. Making nasty comments about the motivations, character or ethical values of other trainers is also not helping.

Speak clearly, change your tune or fade out

The fact is that many dog trainers have been using whatever methods they want to successfully* train dogs for decades. The debate is not about what works or what doesn’t work. It’s about what works with using the most dog-friendly and risk-free approach, in other words employing the least invasive training methods with the minimum risk of causing detrimental outcomes. And that is where many dog trainers fail their clients, either intentionally or because they don’t know any better: they simply aren’t upfront about exactly what will be done to the dog to achieve results and how this may affect the dog and their humans in the short and long term. Of course if the only objective of dog training is to get the dog to do or not to do something, regardless of potential risks for dogs and people, then any methods are equally valid. The choice remains ours, at least for now.

Fortunately more and more dog trainers are joining the ranks of an educated, scientifically literate, humane and progressive community. It is echoed in how we talk about dogs and dog training but also in the increasingly acrimonious language amongst dog trainers. Every societal change inevitably creates resistance. For some people change can be inconvenient or even frightening. It may challenge their long held beliefs or even their livelihoods. But progress is a necessary and inevitable element of our society and no amount of kicking and screaming can stop it. You can either hop on board or you will be left behind. The choice is yours, for now.

 

 

* The term “successfully” here is used strictly as a measure of satisfying the trainer’s objectives, not as an evaluation of the quality of training