Assess-A-Pet animal behaviors, cont.

PLEASE NOTE: Because I am using screen captures of a website that is not my own, and also because even having this stuff on here skeeves me out, this post will stay up for 24-48 hours and be made private.


Because this was so striking to me, I wanted to show the Internets what I am seeing in the Assess-A-Pet behavior “identifications” and why they disturb me so much.

It is VERY VERY obvious to me that Sue Sternberg is afraid of dogs. Specifically, big or muscular dogs. I am not sure if she’s actually afraid of the dog per se or if she’s got a sort of PTSD after the many and inevitable failures that the testing has produced (because it’s absolutely ridiculous and impossible to say that a dog will not bite in any adoptive home) and all she sees is the possibilities for this dog to rip someone’s face off. Either way, the body posture and the wording of the descriptions is incredibly evocative.

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Thanks to my handy-dandy screen grab, you can see what I don’t think she even knows herself (these are all Sue Sternberg in the pictures).

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In this illustration we learn that “whale eye,” which every normal behaviorist in the world knows is a sign of uncertainty and tension, is in fact the dog CONTINUING TO LOOK AT YOU EVEN WHEN HE’S TURNING HIS HEAD AWAY. Wow, this dog REALLY wants to eat her, doesn’t he (or she)?

It makes no difference to her that the white in this dog’s eye is on the completely wrong side of the eye for him to be looking at her, which I guess means he wants to eat the camera person.

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OK, first, the tapetum is what make a dog’s eyes glow in certain angles of light. It’s across the whole back of the eye, so unless the dog’s eye is completely closed you can see it if you’re at the right angle. But it’s a scary word and it sure sounds scientific-y and reliable, doesn’t it?

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Such a rich subtext in this one. See how many words you can find – the dog is “denying access” (which is very different from “avoiding touch” or “is unsure how to react” or “attempts to initiate play,” any of which could be substituted if you’re talking about a dog grabbing a leash).

The shelter dog is immediately identified as NOT a pet dog. That is a clear signal, so pay attention. Shelter dogs can be destroyed without guilt because they are not pet dogs.

There’s a whole cluster of fear words, not just fear words but interpretive fear words, in the next line. See how the dog, who is a SHELTER dog and has just denied access to himself, is now climbing up the leash toward the tester’s innocent hands? Of course it’s “unsafe,” because the leash is “the only point of control” over this dangerous animal.

Looking at the hand position and leash tension in all these photos, it’s super clear that she does really believe that the leash is the only thing saving her.

At this point she seems to send the red and white dog off to be put down (I guarantee you that pretty dog up there was dead within hours of the photos being taken – look how many poor behaviors he or she illustrates), and (the next day? She’s changed clothes, so either it’s the next day or the red and white dog touched her with his anus too many times and she got “disgusted”) brings in a little fawn pit or pit mix.

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Poor little boy pit is scared to death, but his actions are being interpreted as a possessive mating attempt, especially since they’re combined with (gasp!) whale eye!

I could go through the whole site, and could take screen grabs of her book as well, and illustrate this fifty or sixty or a hundred times, but it’s all the same. Every single behavior that is not incredibly soft, submissive, and (this is key) performed by a small, non-working breed, is labeled something to be scared of and a reason to be put down.

She really has devised and written (and teaches in person) a series of tests that you can use to fail any dog you choose. She even does this herself, according to testimony from her workers – if a dog doesn’t object to having its mouth grabbed and pulled open, and she thinks the dog is dangerous, she will repeat the mouth grab as many times as it takes for the dog to object. (I just tried this with Clue, by the way, who has been trained to show her bite since she was barely weeks old – the magic number for her is six times before she starts to whine in confusion and when I let her go she buried her head in my leg. Aggressive! Denying access to herself!)

As you may be able to tell by now, I find this method, this effort, and this woman not only profoundly disturbing but the fate of dogs being put through this unsympathetic and paranoid testing just heartbreaking.

Open thread: Assess-A-Pet Shelter Assessments

As a spin-off of the last few posts, I was googling around and found this:

It’s a list of behaviors, defined, in the same way that, say, Brenda Aloff’s book has photos and defines behaviors.

The list above is Sue Sternberg’s. She’s the person who pioneered a program called “Assess-a-Pet,” which tells shelters which dogs should be put down.  All of the behaviors on that list are ones she defines as either pass or fail behaviors.

To give things away a little bit, I’ll give you a hint, because I’ve read portions of and skimmed all of her book.

The pass behaviors are:

Soft Eye


Bow (IF the tail does not go above the body)

In some circumstances the throat-showing behavior is OK. In some others it is not.

Every other behavior in the list, if offered at any time, for any duration of time, is a sign that the dog is unsafe and should probably be euthanized.

Unsafe behaviors not in that list include:

Turning away from another friendly dog

Mouthing hands without licking when given affection

Whining while trying to reach a child OR pushing a child with the nose OR trying to come between an affectionate adult and a standing child (these, specifically, are instant fails because it’s a “highly predatory behavior” that indicates that the dog wishes to cut off, bring down, and consume the child)

Please read every link over in the left-hand bar, then come back and comment here.

To lighten the mood: A dog training book that is chock-full of love

This may be one of the best obedience books ever written, and it tells virtually nothing about how to train. I read it for the first time when I was about ten and it made such a huge impression on me that I still have passages memorized. It’s basically the story of a guy with a dog and the dog was pretty well a genius, but the guy didn’t know how to train him. Every time he tried, the dog ignored him. And he never really did figure out how to train his dog; he just talked to him a lot. Constantly. In a quiet, conversational tone. He broke every rule of obedience that has been written before and since, and his dog went on to be an enormous figure in Cocker Spaniel history. His owner was not a hunter, but Prince Tom won the Cocker National Field Trial, which had never before been won by an American Cocker. He was titled to his U.D., which was the terminal degree at the time.

Who knows what details I’m leaving out – I haven’t read the book in probably twenty years – but what has stayed with me is the sense of joy that comes with just TALKING to your dog. Tom Clute’s success with Prince Tom would now be described using words like “continuous use of reinforcing bridging words” and “dog facial interpretation and mirroring” and “anticipatory behaviors” and a whole bunch of stuff that really all boils down to that they were best buds, and the dog liked hearing Clute talk and Clute liked talking to his dog.

DogRead, which is a Yahoo group I’ve been part of for several years, had Kayce Cover as the author a few months ago; she strongly believes that we should be using signals the whole time, continually, as long as the dog is performing the behavior. Sort of like Tom Clute did with his dog. She actually uses a series of g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g sounds, like “good good good good” compressed into one syllable, from the moment the dog begins the behavior until it’s done. That drove me crazy when I tried it, but there’s no question in my mind that the dogs understand the difference between “good, continue” and “good, done” words, and that they get a LOT out of just being talked to.

When I was walking all three dogs this morning, I got embarrassed by the fact that I never stop chattering to them, which must sound to people walking by like I am completely nutso. It goes “Clue, you’re getting too far ahead, slow down a little, oh, that’s excellent, that’s exactly where I want you. What a great job you just did. Ginny, stay with me, NICE job, perfect. Bronte, silly, you got all tangled. Can you move that leg? GREAT DOG. GOOD DOG. That’s just what I wanted. No, Clue, you can’t roll here, please catch up,” and they all really do know who I’m talking to, and whoever it is pays attention and the other two don’t follow the same command, and the whole time we’re briskly walking. So I guess I do believe in and follow constant bridging (and WOW do I break the rule of only using the command word once; I say it constantly as they’re performing the behavior), though I go about it in what I am sure is a totally bizarre way.

Digression: Also bizarre: Clue has nine nipples. Four on the right side, five on the other. Maybe her puppies will grow up to be left-brained. End digression.

Whenever I write a post that even touches on obedience, it takes me hours and hours and I get really nervous about it, because I am (seriously) such a BAD obedience trainer. I just cannot bring myself to get excited about a good heel; I actually think the current heel style with the dog’s head up looks crazy and completely dysfunctional – isn’t the dog supposed to be looking for danger ahead? Isn’t the dog supposed to be watching for, say, Sarlacc pits, and maybe he’s going to fall in and get digested over a period of a thousand years if his face is pressed into my belly and the only half an eye he’s got visible is focused on my chin? And the very fact that I just said that totally makes me an idiot, doesn’t it?

The answer doesn’t really matter, because I’m telling you right now I AM an idiot about obedience. I’ve never titled a dog in classical obedience; I seriously doubt I ever will. The only place that I feel I am allowed to make any comment is, seriously, on the level of “how to housebreak a puppy.” I am somewhat comforted by the fact that housebreaking is actually the foundation of your entire daily life with the dog (i.e., it’s dependent on YOU, not on the dog; you don’t ever let the dog fail and the dog will do nothing but succeed; you don’t correct the dog until you are sure the dog knows the appropriate behavior).  I can talk a little bit about the psychology of it, the behavior aspect of it, on predictability and consistency. I will talk, sniffle, and talk some more, for a really long time, about the crazy high that comes when you can take a dog who used to fight you and was terrified of everything, and you go for a long hike and the dog has as much fun as you do.

SPEAKING OF… my dog whose nine nipples should be in some kind of museum of the strange needs to go out. I’m going to send her out to the end of the leash and chatter to her the whole time – hey, I’m trusting her to watch out for Sarlacc pits.

Trainin’ hatin’

I am just rereading When Pigs Fly and am newly annoyed at this issue.

WPF is a nice, simple, clearly written book on introductory clicker training/freeshaping (and you SHOULD read it), sandwiched between two diatribes on how terrible it is that anyone ever gives a dog a signal that they are doing something wrong.

In between the rather nasty digs at the people who create dead, depressed, defeated (she actually calls them “frozen” and “zombie”) dogs by having the abusive instinct to actually tell the dog “no” are lots of examples of behaviors that are the ZOMG! “proof positive” that clicker is the only way to go – like the fact that “after years” of training her dog waits to be released from the back of her car and doesn’t just jump, or how after weeks of treats her dogs will respond to their own names and won’t do what she told another dog to do.

Here’s why this attitude drives me absolutely bonkers:

1) It ignores the fact that the entire discipline of dog training, for the last several hundred if not several thousand years, has been based on the two aspects of creating/rewarding drive and signaling to the dog that he or she just made the incorrect choice. All the obedience exercises were created because they build the vocabulary a dog needs to live a normal life in a conversation with you, not as an end in themselves, and ALL of them have been successfully taught to all breeds of dogs by working the tension between drive and “no, please.” I just don’t think ANY trainer, regardless of individual success, gets to say “The last 4000 years of dog training were all colossally wrong; aren’t you glad I’m here to save you from that.”

2) Trainers who successfully use wise and mild aversives to train will immediately dismiss anything good in this book – and there’s a lot that’s great – because they will look at their own dogs, tails whipping madly around as they complete an exercise, and say “This chick obviously doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

3) I am NOTHING special as a trainer, and within an hour of having a dog at the house it will look at me, TAIL WAGGING AND GRINNING, before it moves through a door or into or out of a car. When we have the giant crowd at the house, it’s two corgis, a Papillon mix, a dachshund/Jack Russell, a Rottie, a Catahoula, and a Malti-Poo (i.e, at least two of those are “Pigs Fly” dogs and I’d actually say more like three or four), and I can open the gate and say “OK, I want Clue and Ginny and the rest of you stay put,” or “No, not Bramble, just Sparky and Wilson,” and the right dog(s) separate from the HAPPY DANCING pack and come through the gate. Those are not miracle behaviors. They are very, very basic house manners that every breeder I know has firmly established in their SHOWY, GLEEFUL dogs.

4) I am completely, totally intimidated by the more advanced training involved in, say, forced fetch. I am not even going to FAKE trying to tell you how that’s done. But I can tell you that forced-fetch dogs are friggin’ maniacs in the field and are having the time of their lives. They’re making their own decisions, they are independent workers, they are ANYTHING BUT zombies. Forced fetching has taught them that once they pick up the bird or other animal, they cannot let it go, no matter what, no matter how much it hurts, no matter if the thing is still live and fighting. (It has nothing to do with natural retrieving instinct, by the way – it’s a learned response that they must maintain a calm, even bite at a certain pressure, even under the most unpleasant conditions. It actually has a ton in common with protection work bitework, which is how I got interested in it.) The old pointer and retriever guys (and a few remarkable women) that I’ve corresponded with – well, let’s just say that I would not want to be the one telling them they’re creating dead, depressed dogs.

The point of this is not that I am espousing one method. The point of this is that I’d be making the same list if someone was hating on clicker training.  I just plain don’t like hating. I don’t like blanket statements, I don’t like people saying that x method or y method is only done by dumb, stupid, bad trainers.

What you should do when you are training a dog is find the method YOU CAN USE RIGHT. I think that free-shaping behaviors is an amazing way to elicit phenomenal stuff. But I think that if I had to use it to teach seven dogs, only four of which are owned by me, to not run me over at the door I would go absolutely nuts. You may be able to see that as a fantastic free-shaping experience, which makes you a way better clicker trainer than me, and you should run with that. You have to find whatever method, combination of methods, or lack of method you can implement CONSISTENTLY (because a confused dog lives in a very icky world), GENTLY, ELEGANTLY (i.e., with the fewest wasted efforts or extraneous signals), and in a way that produces a happy dog.

If your tools end up being a clicker and target stick, if they end up being choke chain and leash, if they end up being e-collar and dummy, if they end up being a BANANA AND A WASHING MACHINE, you are in a big fat pool of WIN if your dog is happy and eager and can participate in every part of your life. Don’t forget that THAT’S supposed to be the goal.

PS: While I was typing this, Clue got annoyed because Ginny was being particularly obnoxious about a toy, and she trotted over, knocked Ginny over, and stood on her chest for about 30 seconds while Ginny swore violently from the floor but did not struggle. This happens about once a week – most of the time Clue lets Ginny have a lot of leeway in her status obsession, but every once in a while Ginny crosses a boundary and Clue flattens her and stands on her. Make no mistake; Ginny does not offer her belly. Clue uses her chest and front feet to push her over. When Ginny has relaxed enough, Clue gets off and Ginny stays there for another two or three seconds before getting up and shaking off. This is the exact behavior that a whole bunch of trainers say NEVER NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS EXISTS AND IT WAS ALL A LIE AND DOGS HAVE NEVER DONE THIS. But it happens in my living room reasonably constantly. One more reason that I really don’t like big blanket statements.

Edited: After I let this sit for a while I realized it made it sound a little too much like I’m anti-clicker-training. I am NOT. I think clicker is FABULOUS. I just hate the hating.

Why bite inhibition is so important

I’ve heard a million stories of this happening, but had never experienced it myself, so I wanted to share it.

Last night I was working VERY late, sitting on the couch with the laptop in my lap. The dogs were sound asleep on various surfaces around me, dreaming of having a yard again. At about 5 AM I got up to get a drink of water and I absent-mindedly cupped my hand around the face of one of the dogs as I went past. 

It honestly doesn’t matter which dog it was; none of them are more dangerous (to me, at least) than a chipmunk. But she must have been having a very weird dream or just felt very startled, because as I pulled my hand away I realized that I had felt teeth on my palm and fingers.

It really was just that way – as I was straightening up I REALIZED that there had been teeth there. I had felt not even a tiny bit of pressure or pain; coming out of a dead sleep with a feeling that she was very threatened, she had still held her jaws rigidly open as she “bit.” 

Poor thing was absolutely HORRIFIED as she came fully awake. Such wiggling and yawning and shaking (not shivering, but shaking like she was wet – dogs do it when they are trying to recover from feeling very tense) I have rarely seen. She didn’t stop apologizing for many minutes. 

But that’s not the point, of course – if she didn’t have such an automatic and perfect bite inhibition, she could feel as bad as she wanted to feel and my hand would still have been bleeding. 

Teaching bite inhibition – and dogs do this for each other; we can do it but we don’t do it nearly as well as they do – is so crucial specifically because of moments like I had last night. When a dog has the most unprepared, most confused moments of its life, you want the muscles and nerves to choose “open,” not “closed.” 

Like I said, I’ve never had this happen before in my life, over many, many dogs, and I may never have it again. But once is all it takes. If they did not have such flawless bite inhibition, that one event wouldn’t have been a slightly amusing anecdote; it would have been a trip to the ER. 

I am very glad for my little pack; dogs in a healthy group do a great job preparing each other for moments just like this.

By the way, out of curiosity I just did the same thing – walked past the same sleeping dog, put my hands on her face.

I felt her mouth open again – this time so she could give me a big sloppy wipe with her tongue.

Dominance theory debunked? is the link everybody’s buzzing about.

I have to be honest; for me this is a little like someone posting a study that says that the sky isn’t blue. My immediate response is “Well, good for you, but you either weren’t looking at the right time or you’re colorblind.”

In fact, this study is pretty much EXACTLY like saying that the sky isn’t blue. Because it’s not, of course; the sky is clear. The harder you look scientifically at it, the further from blue it looks, so the more it’s studied the more the researchers insist that it’s anything BUT blue, and before you know it there are a million articles yelling that the sky is not blue, and people completely forget that you walk outside and look up and THERE IT IS, WHAMMO. 

As far as I can tell (I can’t access the full text so am basing this on the various media that refer to the parent article), this particular study was trying to reliably predict behavior based on an assigned dominance number. In other words, a “success” in the study would have been for dog 1 to always behave more aggressively than dog 2, or for dog 1 to show more of some specific behavior than dog 2. In fact, what the researchers observed was that, far more frequently, dogs did certain actions  according to the desire to protect resources, and also behaved according to how they had learned to act. In other words, when they looked for the sky to be blue, when they looked very closely for extremely predictable dominance “aggression” and for a specific ranking to predict specific behaviors, they didn’t find that to be the case.

To this I give a resounding “NO DUH.” That’s not an astonishing finding at all. Behavior that is motivated purely and wholly by status is not only rare, it’s dysfunctional. Think about the life situations where you’re in a very hierarchical relationship – at your work, for example, or with your kids. If I can look at your workplace and predict how aggressive your boss will be based on the fact that he’s your boss, he’s probably a giant jerk who has virtually no leadership skills. I SHOULD see a group of people motivated by producing more widgets, or by reducing taxes on widgets, or by whatever it is your company does. I should see “to maintain my position of leadership” as the motivating factor of only a tiny percentage of your or your boss’s actions. 

But that does not mean that you don’t have a boss, or that you’re not the boss yourself, or that the whole structure of boss-hood is invalid. 

In the same way, there are relatively few dogs who are more motivated by status than by food or by resources or by anything else. But that does not mean that they don’t immediately and instinctively understand those kinds of relationships or that they do not live within those structures. 

I actually like studies like this, studies that are based on actually watching dogs, as long as it stays in the study and you’re allowed to draw your own conclusions from it. I get mad when very small and specific studies like this become justifications for personal soapboxes, or where the forest is lost in favor of the trees. I’m fine as long as people don’t come into my living room and say that there’s absolutely no way that Ginny is being status-obsessed when she’s TOTALLY BEING STATUS-OBSESSED. Her face is on the poster that says status-obsessed!



Here are the statements I think are correct based on my own observations of my own dogs, over a lot of years of observing multiple dogs in established social structures:

– Thirty days is the minimum before you see nuanced or mature behaviors. That’s one thing that worried me about the UK study, that they were looking at a group of neutered males in a shelter situation. That’s a very artificial and high-pressure situation and if the group isn’t stable for a long period of time or doesn’t have the ability to cope in other ways (can’t get enough exercise, are competing for food, are stressed by the environment, etc.) they tend to retreat into broad, shallow behaviors or concentrate on resources over anything else. After thirty days with none of those stressors, the group dynamic changes a LOT. I’ve seen it over and over and over again with the rescues that come in; for a month or so they do the dog equivalent of yelling “DO YOU KNOW WHERE THE BUS STATION IS?” in English to someone who speaks only Russian. Lots of arm waving, lots of worry, lots of repetition of overwrought greeting behaviors. After a few weeks they learn enough of the language so they stop yelling and start speaking in the very short, minute, “sketched” behaviors of a mature social group.

– The authority dog (which is probably a better term than alpha dog or leader) is the one who makes the decisions for the group when the rubber meets the road. If you want to know who the authority dog is, watch the group when a strange sound is heard (car backfiring, etc.). There is a split-second glace of every dog in the group toward one dog; that one dog then models the behavior that the rest of the group immediately adopts. If she (in my experience it’s always a bitch, but my friend who raised working Shepherds saw it in males too; I think a lot depends on the chemistry of the social group and on who is oldest and most experienced) flicks an ear and lies back down, the group relaxes. If she bolts for the fence, they all tense and assume battle stations. 

– The authority dog usually relies on physical correction or physical touch LESS than any of the other dogs. She has no need to use it because she’s obeyed and they all defer to her. Physical and mouth touches are far more the province of the middle-rankers.

– Different dogs are motivated by different things. There are some dogs for whom status is EXTREMELY important, and some who could care less. Dogs are individuals! You can’t predict the behavior of the entire species based on any one motivation any more than you could predict human behavior based on any one motivator.

– Dogs who are unsure of their rank and their job tend to react more quickly and use their mouths more than dogs who are sure of their rank. This applies within the dog-human relationship as well. We all know that a dog who is secure in a subordinate position is generally good, but you see it in an upside-down relationship too. If you are an absent authority figure and your dog completely takes over, your dog is actually pretty likely to be happy and even well behaved. You only get really “bad” behavior when you accidentally do something in a way that the dog perceives as unacceptable or rude and the dog feels the need to correct you. The very worst and most unbalanced behavior comes when the human is inconsistent and the dog feels that his or her role is in flux or insecure. 

– What the rule is is a lot less important than just having and enforcing the rule. For example, dogs understand doors and tight spaces as being authority-charged. Doors are very meaningful. Food and resources are also very charged and very meaningful to dogs. So I have a bunch of rules surrounding door behavior and food behavior, because those are places and situations where dogs are primed to receive messages. What I don’t get hung up on is the stuff that is often recommended to tell the dog that you are “dominant.” Lots of sources will tell you to always go through the door first, or always eat first, or whatever. That honestly doesn’t matter. Your rule could be “Dog, YOU go through the door first” or “Dog, YOU eat first and without moving from this spot” or any one of a hundred variations, and you could ask for a different behavior every day. The point is that the dog sees you as the cue-giver and that they are glancing at you whenever they’re around doors or food; that’s more important than you bolting to try to make it through the door first!

– and this is maybe the most important one: Physical correction or authority-posturing correction (rolling a dog, etc.) DOES work and IS effective and is often the fastest and most efficient thing you can possibly do, because it talks to the dog in the dog’s own cue language… but it is REALLY REALLY HARD to do it right and most people do it wrong. And doing it wrong does extraordinary harm to the dog, destroys the dog-human relationship, and creates a fearful dog who uses mouth immediately and as a default. So I do not recommend it as a training tool and I never advocate those methods when I’m talking to puppy buyers and so on. And that’s why even the most dedicated authority trainers no longer recommend it or even admit that they do it.

I will admit that I do it, because it’s one of the things I can do right and can do predictably and can get results from. I don’t think that’s bragging, because most of the training-type stuff I suck at. My dogs are not straight finishers or instant sitters or anything even close to that, and you’ll never read a blog post from me about how to get a gorgeous off-leash heel. Where I am able to work with dogs is pretty much entirely on the level of language/authority/cues/timing, and after a long time and a lot of dogs I know I can roll a dog and calm it down and make it feel more secure. But the vast majority of owners can’t, and there’s nothing wrong with that, and they’re going to get a LOT better results by concentrating on positive-based predictability and by pretending that dominance theory doesn’t exist.

FINALLY: Dogs do exist in a world of status. Of COURSE they do. In fact, before this study one of the behavioral studies I most recently read was about how female dogs’ tail positions (i.e., the height of their tail carriage) corresponded with how likely they were to try to mark or overmark in response to other dogs’ marking. That’s a study that demonstrates dogs thinking in status-related ways, and it’s foolish to say that somehow the one UK study shows that dominance has been debunked. What IS true is that the community social relationship that dogs enjoy is fully as rich and layered as any society, and there are multiple and complex roles and motivators for each aspect of dog behavior. The more we learn, the more we realize that very few humans can participate in dog-thought at those deep levels, and so the majority of teaching and training should access the more foolproof reward-based motivators that dogs have and enjoy. I think that much we can all agree on.

Musings on the idea of “temperament”

Over the last 18 months, we’ve had the following dogs come into or through our household.

Rupert, Sussex Spaniel: Being rehomed because he bit a child.

Wilson, Poodle x: One day past his euthanasia date, bit everything that touched him, and he bit with intent to harm. His first day home he put a hole in my sister’s thumb that was visible for months.

Sparky, Catahoula: On his last day before euthanasia, uncontrollable, pulled, barked, attacked other dogs.

Ginny, Papillon x: Same pound as above two. Screamed and bit every human who touched her ears, tail, feet.

Bastoche, Bramble, Trixie: Littermate Dachshund/JRTs who arrived here from Tennessee at 8-10 weeks; we kept Bramble and found the other two great homes.

Each of these dogs, though very especially the four adult dogs, displayed a few, or MANY, behaviors that most people would say were the sign of a “bad temperament.”

Today, I watched Ginny clean Zuzu’s face as Zoob hugged her and buried her face in Ginny’s fur, kissing her. Later, when I was nursing Zuzu, Ginny climbed up on my lap beside Z. Zuzu reached behind her and grabbed Ginny’s tail, pulling her tail over and playing peek-a-boo with it and laughing. Ginny never moved a muscle.

Rupert is rehomed in California and is thriving.

Wilson is groomed every four weeks and tolerates every procedure beautifully. He has not so much as growled in months.

Sparky is the star of his agility class.

All of these are the proofs people give for what a “flawless temperament” their dogs have.

So what happened? These are the same exact dogs, just a year later. Did they have bad temperaments and now have good temperaments? That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Or look at my lovely, lovely Bronte. She never put a foot wrong, never put a TOE wrong, from the day she arrived here until the day she went to Kate’s house. She was the most instinctively polite, beautifully behaved dog I’ve ever seen. Every command was learned instantly. If I put her in a settle-stay, she wouldn’t move for hours. Everyone adored her. But she worried incessantly. She was pretty convinced that she must be at least a little at fault whenever there was a big conflict, and with six (very loud) humans and between three and (good Lord, I had to count on my fingers) eight other dogs around at all times, with dogs coming and going constantly, there were a lot of conflicts for her to blame herself for. I would never say that she was a sad dog, or a shy dog, and she ADORED people and other dogs, but she always had at least one ear on whatever chaos was whirling through the house. She was happiest when we went up to Maine, where everything is quiet and we all sleep late and the kids scream outside and not inside. She was at her absolute best when we went tracking Clue in the woods when Clue was lost – she was confident, pushy, totally focused. It was a side of her I’d never seen before.

When she went to Kate’s house, Kate e-mailed me the next day and said “Wow, she’s so mellow. Nothing bothers her.” I about fell over. Bronte is many things, but mellow? But it was the truth. And Bronte has gone on to be happier and happier and happier by the day –  she’s a confident and masterful brood bitch, she doesn’t take crap from anyone, she frisks around the farm and flaunts her freedom to the dogs who are in their pen. 

So does Bronte have an easy-going temperament or not?

I think the inescapable conclusion is that “temperament” is a completely fluid and changeable thing. There are some aspects that are closer to “personality” that I think DO hold true. A dog who is “soft” will always be soft. But that dog will not always be shy or reactive or, conversely, obedient and respectful. A dog who is “hard” – with a ton of drive and independence – will always be hard, but can be a bonded, tolerant, confident dog or an utter nightmare. But asking whether or not a dog has a “good temperament” is probably going to tell you more about the owner or the situation or the training than about the dog.

This is coming closer and closer to home for me as I can now actually consider breeding Clue. Clue is, if I haven’t already harped on it enough, what I’d consider my ideal dog in terms of personality – she is gleeful, hard-driving, exuberant, endlessly forgiving, and very very smart. And she has an outrun you wouldn’t believe. But I know that she’s the ideal fit IN OUR HOUSE. In another home, with an owner who is less exacting, she might be one of those dogs that get described as obnoxious, dominant, “up” all the time, leash-puller, ignores commands except when she feels like it, hard-headed jerk who runs away all the time. So when a stud dog is described (by others, of course) as a big jerk, what does that mean? Is this a dog I want to avoid like the plague or a dog I want to move mountains to breed to? If he is disobedient, is he mentally ill or just high-drive and I’d adore him? If one is described as a big mush-ball, undemanding, super obedient, would that dog – or the offspring of that dog – be a cowering mess in our loud, noisy, chaotic household?

This is why people end up buying their own stud dogs! Sigh. 

Anyway, I’m going to go grab my reactive child-aggressive toy dog and sling her over my shoulder so she can keep my neck warm while I type. She’s pink right now, which somehow makes her extra cozy :).

Oh, and now I feel like an idiot (stuff I didn’t know about wolves); also puppy socialization

I was talking to Kate yesterday about boy dogs and how much they change. I told her that in my experience a whole bunch of what you do with male dogs is invest, invest, invest in exposing them to different situations and training them and socializing them, and you almost feel foolish doing it because boy puppies are typically SO relaxed and happy and sweet and loving. You don’t feel the urgency to make them integrate quite as much as you feel it for the young females, who seem to be born looking for opportunities to climb socially. 

However, that investment of intense and deliberate socialization makes sense when the boys hit 18 months to two years old, when they suddenly realize that they’re not Gund animals and some major decisions start to be made in their brains. 

I’m very willing to admit that the biggest mistake I’ve ever made with a dog was not investing in a young male who was THE SWEETEST puppy on the entire earth. We were living very rurally at the time and puppy K was over an hour away. It was one of those situations where I meant to do it, and then meant to do it a few months later, and meant to do it a while after that… you get the picture. He was so instinctively and naturally obedient, never put a foot wrong, so I never had to solve any problems and so the urgency to find a trainer was low. He grew up very happy in our house but with very little deliberate outside experience. I showed him (with a handler) but being on the show grounds is certainly not the same thing as attending playgroup every week. 

When he was 18 months old, he decided that kids, especially boys, were scary, and he desired muchly to avoid them. If they came to our fence or our window he’d bark in a panicked way. I HAD kids, for heaven’s sakes, but I didn’t have boys. And I hadn’t made exposing him to many different boys a priority. He didn’t do anything that I thought was dangerous, but boys completely stressed him out. 

I didn’t, at that point, have the experience with training or the experience with behaviorists that I have now. If he were my dog today, I think I could have addressed the problem. But at that time we felt that the best way for him to have a happy life was to be placed elsewhere–we did, and he had a WONDERFUL life, and he never had to deal with those scary young male humans. 

As part of that experience, and in the years since, I’ve talked to many other breeders about males growing up in the group, and they said that they had noticed exactly what I did. Their first boy, or first and second boy, they had no issues with, because they were just like every other dog owner with their first dogs and they did all the puppy K and the training and brought the dog everywhere and so on just because it was so much fun to have this lovely new dog. It was when they had their second generation, or their pack was getting big enough that adding another dog was not such a novelty, so they just trained house manners themselves and raised their sweet boy within their existing pack, that they would see difficulties (or at least issues they had to address deliberately in a way that they had not had to when the dog was a baby puppy) once the dog hit somewhere between one and two years.

My Dane mentor (not that boy’s breeder) said that she thought it was something about pack structure, that the dog’s brain is primed to take on more responsibilities at that age, and so they were no longer content to just go with the flow; they wanted to control their surroundings. So my dog probably always felt a little weird around boys, but he didn’t bark at them until he turned two. Other dogs become more dog-reactive at that age. Others make more dominant moves. It’s a well-known age for the breeds with a legacy of dog-on-dog fighting to suddenly stop tolerating other dogs. And so on.

It’s something I had filed away in my brain, into the ever-increasing “So THAT’S why it’s so vital to go to puppy K and playgroup and socialize puppies, even when you’re a perfectly good trainer yourself and could teach all those skills at home” heading. The conversation I had with Kate made me curious to see if I could in fact connect that behavior change to pack dynamics, so I have been looking at wolf pack behavior and age and expectations and so on.

And WOW. I feel like a dope. We dog breeders like to throw around a lot of wolf “facts” that we think apply to dogs, but the reality is much different (and MUCH more fascinating). Forgive me if what I am typing is a “no duh; we’ve known this for years” set of facts, but it was not what I had always heard.

Wolf packs aren’t a bunch of adult wolves and one of them has puppies every year. Wolf packs are an adult pair and their SUB-mature puppies. A pack starts with a male and female, they breed, puppies are born that year. Those puppies become yearlings and more puppies are born. In the third year, the first-year puppies (who are now around two) disperse from the pack and wander until they find other-gender wanderers and begin their own pack.

The reason wolves create packs isn’t so they can bring down bigger game. In fact, the bigger the pack the less food each wolf gets. The reason wolves create packs is so that the ones who do the vast majority of the killing–the parents–can share extra calories with their kids. Packs are puppy-growing machines, not killing machines.

Wolves in the wild don’t begin to breed until they are well into their second or third year. First estrus tends to be right before age 2. Males don’t begin producing viable sperm until around the same age. So the time that they are dispersing is actually right around the time that they are becoming sexually mature.

In other words, you know how we’ve been told that all bitches cycle at once and have false pregnancies so in the pack a subordinate female can nurse the puppies? Yeah, not so much. The adult mom dog, who produces puppies each year from age two or three to age eight or so, may have a sexually mature daughter still in the pack, but that daughter is on her way out; within a few months she will leave. If prey is extremely (even unnaturally) abundant, as it was when the wolf packs were first reintroduced into Yellowstone, some packs will have sexually mature daughters raise litters (so the pack has two litters for the year). Under more normal circumstances, the daughters may have their first heat cycle while still in the pack, but they are prevented from breeding with their father or brothers and they leave very soon thereafter. 

And you know how we’ve been told that the males grow up and depose their father? Very rare, and only when the dad is showing signs that he’s really ill or sexually impotent. Most of the time the 2-year-old males just leave. They may come back later, and a pack may fragment at that point because his father is getting very elderly, but nobody kills the old male wolf. He (or an elderly female who used to be the lead female) will just hang around in the pack until they die of natural (as natural as freezing in the wintertime or starving because their teeth aren’t good anymore) causes.

Reading about the wolves was an aha moment for me in a couple of ways:

One, it was VERY instructive that the wolf bitches don’t come into heat until so late. I’ve never had a bitch come in before she was 13 months, and 15 is pretty standard. I’ve often wondered if it was the raw diet that was pushing them to go later, and if wolves don’t come in for the first time until so late it’s interesting to think about what we should be defining as “normal.”

Second, no wonder dogs have such a dramatic brain shift at age 18 months to 2 years! That’s the age when they would normally leave their birth pack and go begin their own, when they would move from being subordinate in their parental pack to being dominant in their own. It’s when their brains shift from information gathering to putting that information into practice, from being controlled to controlling. And, of course, it’s when the first litter comes, which can dramatically change things in everybody’s lives.

I am not sure why I’ve seen the difference so much more dramatically in the dogs than in the bitches. It could be my particular breed at that point (Danes) and it’s not the case in all of them. It could be that the boys have an extra dose of tolerance or are extra willing to be easy-going as puppies and adolescents because that’s what helps you get along in a pack where your mom and dad tell you what to do all the time. And it’s not that I didn’t see the bitches change–it’s that with them it seemed more gradual and more a reflection of their personalities all along rather than a flip from “I’ll tolerate anything” to “Maybe I won’t anymore.”

And this is one more instance of my good friends who have been breeding forever and a day being very wise. Even though they’re in their third decade of breeding and could teach a puppy K class with their eyes shut, every keeper puppy goes to puppy K, goes to playgroup, goes to handling class, is exposed to everything they can think of. Several of them trade puppies back and forth so the puppies are exposed to new families or grow up with different breeds before coming back home to mature and be shown. They take full advantage of every opportunity to have the puppies exposed to every weird, new, different, or unusual thing, surface, noise, animal, or person. 

While I’m on the topic, this breeder has an absolutely AWESOME puppy program. I don’t know her personally but I know someone who got a puppy from her and that puppy was FREAKISHLY confident. Not dominant or obnoxious, but able to handle any situation happily. You can see what she does here. The daily woods walks are especially wonderful. When and if I’m lucky enough to have a Cardi litter here, I’m going to try to implement something as close to this as I can.

Confusing practice with practitioner (and vice versa): Dog training

In several areas of my life, coincidentally, people are discussing training and teaching (of dogs, children, grad students, you name it). It’s been very interesting to me and I’ve been thinking a lot about how brains take in and process and then remember information. 

There’s a great temptation, in dog training, to make big sweeping statements that are not exactly motivated by love. How many times have you heard that clicker training is “just bribing the dog” or that using a leash correction is “jerk and puke” training? How about “there’s no such thing as alpha” or “dominance downs are abusive” or, from the other camp, “I’ve never seen a truly reliable dog that was trained with food” or “fruity reward trainers are ruining this sport!”

As should be obvious to anyone who has read this blog longer than a day, I don’t exactly like sweeping statements. They drive me nuts, in fact. And these are no different. 

One of the first huge mistakes that people make when they think about or talk about dog training is confusing PRACTICE with PRACTITIONER. 

For example, there are (a lot of) trainers who do use food to create a dog who can’t think beyond the next cheese flake. Bad practitioner. Does that mean that reward-based training is an invalid process? No, of course not–reward-based training is not only extremely well described scientifically, it’s the predominant method used to elicit some very complex and self-motivated actions on some of the best-trained dogs in the world.

Conversely, there are (a lot of) trainers who use physical corrections in a way that is ineffective and bordering on abusive. Some cross even that line in a horrible way. Bad, bad practitioners. But does that mean that using physical signals to indicate to a dog when he or she is doing something wrong is invalid? I would argue no. Dogs communicate between themselves using physical touch; they understand it, perhaps even more easily than working for food. And wise touch-based training is by far the dominant method used to create incredibly confident and effective dogs in a huge range of disciplines. 

It’s common to criticise a method by criticising a practitioner. For example, there’s a study of behavioral problems that has a good dose of science and a HEAVY dose of biased interpretation. The study showed that people who were bringing their dogs to UPenn’s dog behavior center had used a bunch of aversive methods and those methods had not succeeded. Now before you even BEGIN to interpret those results you have to look at the sample population–people who were having such serious issues with their dogs that they had escalated way beyond their trainer, probably beyond multiple trainers, beyond their regular vet, all the way to a teaching university’s behavior center. We have a behavior center here, too, at Tufts, and the dogs that end up there are not just digging in the trash. These are the ones that are going to be euthanized if the behavior center doesn’t fix them. So there’s a huge bias in the sample right away. Second, the questions asked whether these techniques had been tried and whether any of them had prompted the dog to respond “aggressively” (there’s that word I hate again). The only thing I find shocking in that study is the fact that only 25% of the dogs that had had aversives applied tried to bite back–these are the very hardest cases and still over 75% of them had never reacted badly to being confronted.  

What the UPenn study says to me is exactly how difficult it is to apply some of these techniques when you are not a very, very savvy trainer. It’s also a picture of owners who have major communication problems with their dogs, who have very little idea how to effectively ask the dog to do anything (or they would not be having such giant issues with their dogs), desperately trying everything they can think of and (almost certainly) doing the aversive exercises just as incorrectly as they had been doing other stuff. The study described a PRACTITIONER problem. It did not establish whether or not the theory or practice is invalid. 

It’s also tempting to latch on to a particular philosophy or method because you are fooled by the OTHER practitioner problem–one who is really amazingly good at it. If you go to a Pryor clicker-train seminar or look at Parson’s Click to Calm, you can come away from that feeling like this is the ONLY way ANY HUMAN should EVER  train any dog for the REST of EXISTENCE. Or you can watch Cesar Millan and conclude that physical touch and submission are the key to all that is holy. But you need to step back from that and realize a couple of things.

First, the truly brilliant trainers are not just using one method. They THINK they are; they’ll write passionately about how they are. But if you watch a fabulous clicker trainer, he or she is also adept at using body language, energy, timing, and physical cues. They are actually telling the dog to do something with their entire body, and with the energy “aura” that surrounds exciting, naturally dominant people. I don’t mean this in any New Age-y way. Look at what happens when a dominant NFL player stands next to an interviewer. The person holding the microphone naturally leans backward, while the player stands completely relaxed and upright. It’s not the height difference–it’s the energy. If the same NFL player was in a bridge engineering conference, unless he himself was an engineer, he’d probably be leaning back slightly while the 90-pound guy in glasses and a pocket protector stood relaxed and confident. Someone in complete command of a situation, with confidence and expectation of success, can literally push you–or any dog–around just by moving their body. For a dog, that is as much a physical signal as reaching out and yanking a collar is.

Similarly, an incredibly dog-savvy physical trainer, like Cesar is, is NOT just using physical cues. He is (probably just as unconsciously as the clicker trainers are using physical cues) extremely good at timing potent rewards. Dogs ADORE Cesar, and usually want to be in his lap at every second. So when he relaxes, which is what he does when they behave well, they feel all warm and googly inside because they can feel that from him. He controls his body very well, and is always aware of where every part of him is; he is always centered and calm. So both negative and positive attention from him are instantly felt and instantly interpreted by the dog, and positive attention is like the stinkiest cheese-and-salmon pate he could hand them. 

Similarly, training methods often work really well even when they have completely different motivations (as described by the humans) behind them. Dogs who display anti-dog behaviors while on leash but are perfectly friendly when off-leash have usually been (inadvertently) trained to lunge and roar by a human who tightens up the leash every time they see another dog coming. The normal clicker training solution to this problem is to focus the dog on you while quickly dispensing treats, so the dog does not go after another dog. The classic physical-correction solution is a quick leash correction every time the dog looks at the other dog. Proponents of both methods will tell you that they are TOTALLY different, couldn’t be more different, that the other method is crazy, etc. But the fact is that both methods get the leash tension off the dog’s neck and so the dog’s drive is radically reduced. The dog goes from being told to attack other dogs to being told that it’s less attractive to attack other dogs than it is to stay focused on the handler. Both methods are reducing drive by ensuring a loose leash; both are demotivating the forward movement.  The window dressing is honestly a lot less important than just getting the leash loose.

The second truth you have to realize is that you are probably not a brilliant trainer. Most of us aren’t. So the key is figuring out which method, or combination of methods, allow you to come the closest to being a good trainer, and are the least dangerous in terms of wrecking your dog. For different people that will be VERY different things. You may be a person who is brilliant at popping those treats in but always fail at timing corrections; you may be a person who is terrible at timing treats but knows how to deliver a sane and non-painful physical signal.

I’m always willing to admit that I am a CRAPPY behavior or classic obedience trainer. I don’t hear the angels sing when I get a perfect heel. A crooked front doesn’t look all that different from a straight one, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t have the motivation or the skills to achieve the kind of perfection that others find easy and natural. But I think I’m pretty decent at making dogs happy, fixing neurotic or badly behaved dogs, and keeping a calm and functional pack. So I tend to glom on to methods that are based on using pack dynamics to make dogs feel normal, on methods that are big on consistency, on methods that lower the energy in the room rather than heighten it. An owner who wants to create the world’s fastest flyball dog (which is no less legitimate than my goal of creating a constant environment of calm) might use completely different tools. 

If you look at the whole canon of dog training, the books and lectures and gurus tend to basically fall into one of three groups, with a lot of overlap. I want to explore the practice and the good/bad practitioners of each.


This is the granddaddy of training and is still practiced by a huge number of trainers. Basically, the dog is corrected for doing something wrong and is praised for doing something right. Sometimes the praise takes the form of cheese or another food reward. Sometimes it takes the form of nothing at all–in other words, the absence of correction is the reward.

Best-case practitioner: Creates a very secure, confident dog with great consistency of behavior because the dog has clear signals about exactly how it is expected to behave at all times. Excellent physical trainers never hurt dogs; they give aversive cues that are signals but not painful. 

Worst-case practitioner: Abuses dogs, causing pain or physical damage in the name of punishing an unwanted behavior.

Critics of this theory say that it’s useless to punish behavior, that the dog becomes joyless and afraid, that the methods don’t work. When presented with a joyful, eager dog who is freaking out with happiness because he gets to go retrieve, and then is told that the trainer uses an ear pinch to proof retrieves, these critics say that the retrieve would be even better (somehow) if no aversives had ever been used. Proponets of the methods argue that dogs who are never given any signal that means “no” often become frustrated and frantic because they don’t know when or where to stop. They point out that self-rewarding behaviors (like digging, barking, chewing, running away) are often so pleasurable to the dog that no amount of reward will overcome their lure. 


This is “mother knows best” or “be the pack leader” training. Various pack-language-based signals are given to the dog to indicate that it is lower in status than the handler and therefore should not behave in certain ways. This is usually focused on preventing poor behavior like jumping, mounting, rushing the door, using punishment bites on humans, etc.

Best-case practitioner: Because you’re talking to the dog in a language that is very natural to the dog, this can get amazing results almost immediately. The dog becomes much more secure and behaviors cease on their own once the dog doesn’t feel that it needs to control the actions of the household. This is the method that can look like miracle-working, and with the best practitioners it really does work miracles.

Worst-case practitioner: Gets his face ripped off because he confronts a dog without having control of the situation. This is BY FAR the most difficult method to do correctly. If you don’t “speak dog” you can do FAR more harm than good with these techniques. Difficult to teach–people who do this well are very instinctive in their timing and movements.

Critics of this method tend to say that there’s no such thing as the “alpha dog” and that dominance is a fluid thing in a dog pack. They say that pack ranking cannot be scientifically proven. They’re right… and wrong. Pack dynamics do shift, and the dog who is best suited to a particular task often takes the lead on that task. For example, in our pack Bronte was “alarm giver” and scout, and she was definitely in charge of those pack functions, even though she was nowhere even close to in charge of the whole pack. And it’s correct that dominance is difficult to pin down scientifically; designing an experiment to prove it would be extremely difficult. However, anyone who has watched dogs for any length of time knows that dominance is real, and that status-seeking is something that is extremely important to dogs in a pack. We know that dogs physically punish other dogs for bad behavior, and that even when puppies are weeks old they are sorting out who is in charge in the litter. I always wonder if behaviorists who insist that there’s no validity to dominance theory have ever been around a pack of dogs for any length of time.

So the question is not whether these techniques work… the question is whether your’re enough of a dog to implement them in a way the dog understands.

REWARD-BASED (operant conditioning, luring, postive reinforcement, etc.)

This theory says that dogs, like the rest of us, like to work for a paycheck. If they are given a small reward for a behavior, they will repeat that behavior. If they are given no reward for a behavior, the behavior will gradually extinguish. 

Best-case practitioner: Someone who has taught the dog not that sit = treat, but that it is a good thing to experiment with and offer many behaviors because one will be rewarded. This method can produce amazing creativity and self-motivation on the part of the dog. It tends to rev up energy levels, which is why it has come to the fore in an incredible way in agility training. If you present one of these dogs with a jump, he will be eager to go investigate it and will immediately offer the handler multiple behaviors (touching it, standing on it, moving it, straddling it, jumping over it) that the handler can selectively reward and thereby shape the behavior the dog always offers when presented with that object or a similar one. It’s a method that truly encourages dogs to think. 

Worst-case practitioner: I suppose the absolute worst case is someone I heard about who just pointed the clicker at the dog and clicked when the dog was doing something wrong (!) but I think the more common misapplication of this technique is to create a dog who stands there looking at the owner waiting for cheese. A second, unfortunately common, set of mistakes creates a dog who is horribly behaved unless and until he is distracted by a human pez dispenser of treats. As soon as the cheese is gone the dog is back to its out of control ways.

Critics of this method usually call it “bribing” the dog, or say that dogs should behave just for love, or that food creates too much excitement, or that there’s no way a treat-trained dog will be consistent. A healthy subset call it fruity or “new,” with heavy sarcasm, the implication being that “real” trainers, those in the trenches, don’t use these methods. However, there’s really no other method that is as effective in encouraging the dog to offer behaviors. If you want to train your dog to jump up on the arm of a chair and then stand on his hind legs, how are you going to do that with physical correction? How are you going to use “mother knows best” to train a dog to fetch a hot dog but not eat it? It’s telling that some of the most flashy and complex behaviors seen in dogdom are the direct result of positive conditioning training.

It should be obvious that I don’t think that any one training method is the “right” one. In fact, I encourage puppy buyers to read the whole spectrum, from Monks of New Skete and Barbara Woodehouse all the way to Donaldson and Pryor. What I want them to do is find the passages in each book where they say “Hey, I’ve seen that happen–that’s exactly right!” and highlight them. If they’ve seen it happen, it’s likely that they can replicate it successfully. So maybe they’ll choose to pop treats for walking on a loose lead but physically correct for jumping on counters; maybe the exact opposite. What matters is whether they can make it happen, consistently and predictably, and whether they are aware of what they are doing and understand what their dog is thinking and feeling.

Where this intersects with human learning is simple–and I do mean simple. Humans learn best when they are presented with information in SMALL, REHEARSABLE bits in their OWN LANGUAGE. What this means is if I say to you (and I’m totally making this up), “The intersection of the etymology and Miller’s heuristic here is characteristic of late 20th-century Akkadian scholars.” that means NOTHING to you. But If I say “Oh, yeah, see how Miller wants you to look everything up in a dictionary, even if you already know it? That’s the way virtually all the early-Babylon experts who are alive today want you to work, because they were all trained by the same guy at Harvard who was an absolute nut about word origins and was convinced that nobody was smart enough to just remember them.”

One uses virtually no words you instinctively know; one gives the exact same information but uses words you DO know. One gives you four facts in one sentence (a large bit) and one gives you the facts spread out in digestible units (lots of small bits). A good teacher will now stop and make sure that there are no questions, and will usually call on someone to repeat back to her what was just said, ensuring that the student really did understand it (the unit of information was rehearsable). 

Dog brains are no different. They learn the same way. You can’t teach “Stay off my legs unless I invite you or I am wearing jeans” in one session. You break it down into small bits (“paws down” “paws up”). You rehearse each discrete bit as close to exactly the same way as you did before, until you are absolutely sure the dog understands it no matter what room you’re in or how excited they are. You use the dog’s own language (don’t teach “paws down” before you teach the dog that moving his or her body in a deliberate way is something they need to learn how to do). This last part is more important than you know–many dogs really do think that their body ends at their neck and you have a long period of just teaching them to pay attention to where their feet are and where their butt is before you can ask for ANY behavior. THEN you can start associating jeans with paws up, or white pants with paws down. And so on. 

Whatever method or training philosophy allows you to predictably and coherently and consistently teach the dog in small repeatable bits in its own language, that’s the one you need to use. Don’t listen to the haters; hating never did anyone any good. Listen to your dog and do what works.

A blog that should be added to your reading list

Hooray! Suzanne Clothier re-did the Flying Dog Press website and has a blog:

I love Suzanne’s writing and recommend it highly to all puppy people and those who want to learn more about dogs. What I enjoy perhaps the most about her is that she is led by watching her dogs, rather than by forcing a pre-set philosophy of motivation on the dogs. Her excellent comment on how foolish it is to insist that all agility dogs tug (rather than saying “tug is a GREAT motivator, but of course every dog loves something different”) is an exemplar of this instinct. 

I’m working on a longer post on training methodologies in general, but if I can distill it to a very short statement it’s “Use what works for you and for your dog.” So I appreciate this wherever I find it. Clothier is also living with eleven dogs and a couple of calves (yes) in one house, so she is putting her money where her mouth is in terms of field-testing her training methods.