by Dani Weinberg

Dogs & Their People

Albuquerque, NM

If you're like me, you're probably happy to forget your early years of dog training. I blush at some of the silly ideas and beliefs I had in the Dark Ages. But when I work with a beginning student, it all comes back to me. Why, they have the same silly ideas and beliefs that I had! Embarrassing as it is to remember my own ignorance, I'm grateful for those memories because they help me help my students today. So, here comes a nice deep breath and I will reveal some of my ideas from the Dark Ages.

1. If you own two dogs that you love, you should breed them to each other so that you'll have more of these wonderful dogs. Never mind that you know nothing about their genetic background because they were born in someone's barn. Our two wonderful dogs, Joe and Lily, produced a litter of seven German Shepherds. We kept two of them. One developed severe hip dysplasia at 11 months, endured a total hip replacement at 10 years, then died two years later after a protracted case of pancreatic cancer. Her littermate and their mother both died of hemangiosarcoma at the age of 10. It's no wonder that I'm now an ardent proponent of letting the professionals do the breeding. I now believe that the only good reason to breed dogs is to contribute to improving the overall quality of that breed.

2. If you live in the country, your dogs should run free so that they can be "free spirits" in their "natural" environment. I did not know that country dogs have a life span of about 3 years and that they most often die violently, hit by trucks and farm vehicles. I also did not understand that dogs are a highly domesticated species so far from a "natural" canid state that it's laughable. A few years ago, I was privileged to attend a workshop at Wolf Park, the wolf research facility in Indiana. After three days immersed in wolf behavior, I returned home and was greeted at the door by my two German Shepherds. That moment provided me with the greatest single learning of the workshop: dogs are not wolves. Dogs have been selected and bred for their neotenous characteristics their cuteness of physical appearance (wide eyes, for example) and their playfulness and curiosity. These neotenous animals, retaining juvenile characteristics into adulthood, are also very dependent on their human caretakers contrary to the "Homeward Bound" movie myth. My free-ranging country dogs used to take off after deer, cross the highway to snack on a roadkill, bathe in odoriferous who-knows-what, and sometimes drag home half a rotted cow carcass they had found. One day, our neighbor, a sheep rancher, visited and told us that some dogs had been harrassing his livestock. With a friendly smile, he informed us that he would shoot any dog he found on his property. The next day, our yard was fenced. I have since become an expert on containing dogs.

3. Anyway, dog crates are prisons, and you wouldn't want to put your "best friend" in a cage, would you? Like so many dog owners, I was anthropomorphizing. I didn't know that dogs are den animals. I never thought about the occasional medical need to confine an ill or recuperating dog. And I never considered the safety issues of dogs riding loose in cars.

4. But why would you ever need to take a dog anywhere away from home except maybe to the vet's for annual shots? What happens when a friend visits with her young children? Or when the family goes on a camping vacation with their dogs? I didn't know about the possible tragic consequences of a bite by a dog that had never known anything but his own family, within his own four walls. I never thought about the needs dogs have for an enriched living environment and the mental stimulation that comes from experiencing the world in all its novelty.

5. A dog that shows aggression must be immediately and severely punished. When my 4-month-old German Shepherd lunged at a larger dog in obedience class, during the standard block heeling exercise with which we started each class meeting, the instructor screamed at her. I was told to do an Alpha Roll immediately, to "let her know who's boss," and that evening Honey exchanged her buckle for a prong collar. I did everything wrong with Honey. Instead of managing her unwanted behavior and training alternative behaviors that were acceptable, I simply avoided taking her anywhere. Not knowing that there were trainers and behaviorists who could help me, I tried to "protect" her from the real world for her whole life. We took our walks only late at night, when no one else was likely to be out with their dogs. We hiked only in the most remote areas. If I did happen to see another dog (and I was so watchful, wherever we went), I tensed and tightened my grip on the leash, giving her solid support for her fearful aggression. It was only during the final two years of her life that I learned about desensitization and positive reinforcement and began to "train" friends who visited to give her treats.

6. Don't start training a dog until it's at least 6 months old. "Let it be a dog!" they used to say. "Being a dog" apparently meant being wild, undisciplined, and out of control. It meant nipping the heels of children, stealing the turkey off the kitchen counter, destroying the owner's possessions, digging up the flower beds, chasing the cat, barking at passersby, jumping on visitors and mounting their legs, and eating the kitty litter. "Training" apparently meant something awful, cruel, painful, repressive, and spirit-breaking. And there was some truth in that description. In the Dark Ages, most training methods were too harsh for anything but a hard, touch-insensitive police-dog-in-training not the methods to which you'd want to subject your pet. This image of training comes out of our culture's ideas about education in general. We think of school as "work" and recess as "play." After we graduate, we carry that same image with us into adulthood where we make a sharp distinction between work and play, between office and home, between public (where restraints are in force) and private (where we can relax and be ourselves). When I started clicker training Ruby, my first all-clicker puppy, when she was seven weeks old, I was amazed at her insatiability for learning. She never wanted to stop working. Then, a friend suggested that maybe Ruby didn't think of training as work but as play. By the time she was 6 months old, she not only knew all the Novice and some of the advanced competition obedience exercises but, much more important, she knew how to learn.

7. Once you've taught a dog to heel on leash, off-leash heeling comes naturally. I had taken Lily through several obedience classes, and my instructors were encouraging me to show her at the local obedience trial. No one ever told me that you had to teach a dog to heel off leash as well as on. My instructors were exhibitors themselves, and maybe they thought this was too obvious to have to tell their students. On the day of the trial, I was most worried about her Recall, but that was beautiful. What wasn't beautiful was her off-leash heeling. She lagged so far behind me, with her ears flat against her head and her tail between her legs, that the judge asked me if I beat her. Was he serious or joking? I have no idea. I was so mortified that I just wanted to get out of that ring as quickly as possible. It was several years before I even thought about showing a dog again. Ironically, I now do all my early training off leash, and I do everything I can to keep the leash out of the hands of my students. I now believe that, once you've trained a dog to heel off leash, working on leash is much easier. After all, it isn't the leash that teaches a dog to heel. On the contrary, a leash in the hands of an inexperienced or inept trainer is a hindrance.

8. If you just give the right command, the dog will do what you ask. I still have students who ask me what command to use for such-and-such behavior as if dogs knew English! I now know that most dogs respond much better to visual than to verbal cues. I also appreciate how context-dependent dogs are. A friend of mine was in the Novice ring, and the judge instructed her to "finish." In the stress of the moment, she forgot herself. Instead of giving her usual "Around" command to her dog, she said "Finish." And the dog went smartly to Heel position! My friend still blushes at the memory, but I find it not at all surprising. After all, every good Novice-trained dog knows that that what we do after coming to Front is move into Heel position. My husband tells me that I'm going about this dog-training business backwards. Why not just teach the dogs English first, and then tell them what you want them to do!

9. Dogs work in order to please their owners. That's why we didn't use food in training in the Dark Ages. We didn't want our dogs to "work for the food." When my students ask me about this, I ask them if they'd stay at their jobs for only pats on the back and no paychecks. I used to give my dogs treats only at bedtime and for doing nothing. I thought this was an expression of my love for them. I wanted to believe that they were expressing their love for me by performing without the payoffs that really counted for them. Nowadays, I view training less as a mutual love fest and more as a dialogue, a form of communication, in which each of us gets satisfaction though the satisfaction may differ in form. (I much prefer white chocolate macadamia nut cookies to freeze-dried liver.)

10. If you give your dog "people food," it will never again be satisfied with dog food. Here's another culture-bound distinction we used to make that enabled us to differentiate between "people" and "animals" (as if people were not animals). Most people forget that, before there was "dog food," people fed their dogs a portion of their own meals. This is still true in parts of Europe, even among "civilized" and well-educated pet owners. I suspect that what we really meant to say was: don't feed your dog when he begs at the dinner table. In our training, back in the Dark Ages, we not only refrained from giving our dogs food, but, if we ever did dispense treats, they were always large, hard, and crunchy guaranteed to interrupt the flow of learning. And the treats were given well after the behavior we were working on was completed and the dog was doing something entirely different. It is true that, if you give a dog a treat while she is leaping in the air out of a Sit, she will not understand that it's the Sit you are rewarding.

********************************************* But even in my Dark Ages days of ignorance, I did learn something that I don't ever want to forget: that I love my dogs with a passion, regardless of flaws, faults, or diseases. When I anthropomorphized my dogs as being "stubborn," "ornery," or "deceitful," I was really talking about myself as an inept trainer. I know that my students feel the same love for their dogs. My job is to guide them towards a better understanding of who their dogs really are. To me, the most touching moment in a beginners' class is the first minute of the first night with dogs. I watch each owner (or couple or family) come in, a little hesitantly, with their dog. Both dog and human pause at the threshold and look around the room warily. Who are these other dogs (people)? Will I like them? Will they like me? The love that people feel for their dogs is so wondrous that it's often enough to see them through major behavior, training, and medical problems. It's this love that motivates me to want to help in any way I can. And, remembering my own Dark Ages, I can be more empathetic.

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