I have written (and podcasted) a lot about the importance of positive reinforcement training and the need to avoid using positive punishment for training your dog. Dr. Zazie Todd* in her blog, What is positive punishment in training?, clearly defines positive punishment:**
Punishment means something that reduces the likelihood of a behaviour happening again i.e. the behaviour goes down in frequency. And positive means that something is added.
So positive punishment means adding something after the dog did a behaviour that makes the frequency of that behaviour go down.
For example, if the dog jumps up and you knee [it] in the chest, and next time you see [that] the dog does not jump up, you have positively punished the dog jumping. You added something (the unpleasant sensation of a knee in the chest) and reduced the frequency of the behaviour.
With a correction collar such as a prong or pinch collar, you are using positive punishment by adding pain when the dog pulls against the collar or when you jerk on it to “correct” your dog’s behavior.
Some claim that this correction doesn’t hurt as it mimics a mother dog’s hold on a puppy’s neck, but frankly, I don’t buy that. A mother dog carries her pup with a soft mouth and holds it by the scruff (on the back of the neck) or around it’s body. The mother dog does not clamp down, nor does she put pressure on the front of the throat around the windpipe, which is exactly where the pressure occurs with a prong collar.
Yvette Van Veen writes about these collars and how it feels to wear one in her blog Pinch Me, A.K.A. Prong Me. She started her experiment by placing a prong collar on her forearm and pulling. She was surprised when it did not cause pain, and she thought she might have to admit that she was wrong about it being painful. But, then she moved on to the next part of her experiment, placing the prong collar on her own neck!
Carefully, I adjusted the number of links so the collar sat high up on my neck, snug but not tight. Gently I pulled on the ring where the leash attached. Again, I was legitimately surprised that spikes did not dig into my neck, and there was very little pain.
My husband entered the room, rolled his eyes at yet another “experiment”. Jokingly, he grasped the chain. Using his fingers only he tugged. “You’re coming with me!”
That is when the prong collar “bit” me. As the metal of the prong pressed against the bone of my spine, it created sharp, intense pain. I screamed – yes screamed – for him to stop. My husband blubbered, “I didn’t pull hard. It wasn’t hard at all. I just used my fingers.”
Since a friend had pointed out to her that dogs’ necks are more muscular and the pressure would be different because they walk on all fours, for the next part she got down on her hands and knees:
Head down (literally, I got down on all fours) we attached the leash to the collar. My son “walked” me around the house. He was applying FINGERTIP pressure.
It was here that the collar “bit” me for the second time. It was not painful. I think it was worse than that. The pressure from the evenly spaced links didn’t distribute evenly, the way it had on my arm. Walking on my hands and knees, the collar did not pinch. It pulled up against the front of my throat, an area that has very little muscle to afford any protection. Checking the front of my dog’s neck, it becomes quickly apparent that his muscular neck and shoulders do not offer protection to the front of his neck either.
As I crawled along the ground, and the prong dug up into my windpipe, I felt a primal urge to recoil and relieve pressure. While not quite a choking feeling, it was a gagging, gurgling, inability to swallow. My stomach seized and I felt panic. In an instinctive need for self-preservation I gasped, “Drop the leash!” Grasping at the links, my hands shaking, I immediately struggled to remove the prong collar from my neck. Having felt both the pain of prong on bone, and the pressure of a prong on my windpipe, the pressure on my windpipe was, at least to me, far worse.
As Ms Van Veen pointed out, the heavy muscles are on the back of the dog’s neck and the underside is very much like a human’s with the windpipe unprotected by thick musculature. Researchers at the University of Minnesota college of Veterinary Medicine, showed that the use of any collar increased intraocular pressure which can be particularly problematic for dogs with exisiting ocular issues. According to veterinarian Dr. Peter Tobias, choke, prong, and shock collars can irreversibly damage your dog, causing, “a whole array of problems… including lameness, skin issues, allergies, lung and heart problems, digestive issues, ear and eye conditions and thyroid gland dysfunction, to name a few.” He goes on to state that “neck injuries can cause a variety of problems including emotional trauma.”
In addition to the the possible physical damage or problems that may arise from the use of choke or prong collars, the punishment that is delivered can adversely change your dog’s behavior. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a position paper on the use of punishment to modify animal behavior. They state,
Even when punishment seems mild, in order to be effective it often must elicit a strong fear response, and this fear response can generalize to things that sound or look similar to the punishment. Punishment has also been shown to elicit aggressive behavior in many species of animals.
Punishing a dog for any behavior may result in a dog who is not only more fearful, but who is more likely to be aggressive towards people, as well as show other behavioral issues. (Companion Animal Psychology). I would also contend that using force, pain, or fear to train your dog is not conducive to building a relationship that is companionable and grounded in co-operation and trust.
Instead, consider a body harness for your dog. The Whole Dog Journal rated several of the front clip no-pull harnesses this year and there are many wonderful choices out there. I have tried all three of their top rated ones and found them to be easy to use and comfortable for my dogs.
So, before you reach for the prong collar to teach your dog not to pull while on a walk, think about the unintended consequences of this force based method. Is this really the best way to treat and train your best friend?
**When talking about reinforcement and punishment there are four combinations to consider: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. Positive in these cases means adding something, negative means removing something. Reinforcement means the behavior will increase in frequency, punishment means the behavior will decrease in frequency. Thus, positive reinforcement means that adding something will make the behavior happen more often. If your dog sits, for example, and you give him a cookie when his bottom hits the ground, then he will be more likely to sit. Click here for a good graphic on this.
So this week I decided that I’d seen some great animal videos lately and wanted to share them. Since it’s October, I’m starting with the cats in the pumpkin hats:
Let me say that not only do these cats and their earnestness delight me, but the training here is all positive reinforcement. There is no way you could shock or choke an animal into this, nor would the animal be willing to try another bell or ring it multiple times if the consequence for trying something would hurt.
I love this next one because it is just a dog being a dog, and how wonderful is that?
And for the winner in Dogs Just Wanna Have Fun category:
This Bernese Mountain Dog is so wonderfully patient and really shows off the gentle nature of this breed:
I love invertebrates, and I am a sucker (pun intended) for Octupuses. Here’s a lovely summary of how amazing they are (tool using, planning, walking wonders):
And last, here is one of my favorite videos of Homo sapiens doing one of the things they do best, dance!
I hope you enjoy these, let me know some of your favorites!
The ASPCA has a poster titled, The Five Freedoms, which they describe as, “internationally accepted standards of care that assert a living being’s right to humane treatment.” They are standards which apply not only to dogs, but to every animal in our care, whether they are pets, farm animals, or working animals. The Five Freedoms are:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst by ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
- Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting place.
- Freedom from pain, injury, or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
- Freedom to express normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities, and company of the animal’s own kind.
- Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
Freedom #1 is so self evident that comment almost seems redundant, except, for the word vigor, which emphasizes the importance of providing nutrition that promotes mental and physical vitality so your dog lives longer, healthier, and happier. Not only are we to maintain the health of our animals, we need to help them thrive.
“A comfortable resting place” is the phrase that grabbed me in Freedom number 2. Shelter is only the beginning, some place that is cool in the heat, warm in the winter, comfortable to lie on, and free from disturbances is important for the mental health of all creatures. Does your pet have a safe haven that she can go to and know she will not be troubled?
Freedom number three can be a bit tricky as our dogs can be very stoic about pain. Doing a monthly health check can help you to recognize changes in your dog’s health that may require attention, and help you to establish what your dog’s baseline of good health looks like. For those of you with older dogs, Dr. Alicia Karas of Tufts University has a Comfort Diary that is an easy way to chart your dog’s health on a daily basis. You can learn more about this at Your Family Dog Podcast, Giving Older Dogs the Good Life.
Freedom to express normal behavior is one of the reasons that I am a positive reinforcement trainer. With forced based methods (such as shock collars) many dogs learn not to do try new things as it hurts to do so, so they don’t do anything. This lack of behavior is not the same as good behavior, nor is it normal behavior for canines. I want you to have a dog that is well behaved, but is a curious, funny, playful, and engaged member of your family and who is not afraid to be himself or to express his enthusiasm for life and for you.*
Freedom from fear and distress. This is the freedom that makes sure all of the above happens. If your dog is fearful and distressed by the world and feeling unsafe, then she is unlikely to eat, play, engage with people or other animals, or rest comfortably. Behavioral symptoms of stress include: destructiveness, aggression, withdrawal, persistent barking or whining, restlessness and an inability to concentrate. Chronic fear and distress can also cause physical ailments such as diarrhea, constipation, skin issues, weight loss, frequent urination, and shaking or shivering, among other things. Everyone deserves to feel safe in one’s world, and to provide this for our animals is our duty and obligation as their caregivers.
But, there is another reason why we should provide humane, compassionate treatment to the animals who populate our lives. Not only is it an obligation of our stewardship, but it is something we owe to ourselves, as it makes us more fully human, ennobles us, and challenges us to treat everything and everyone we encounter with grace and dignity.
*For more on positive reinforcement training see: http://apositiveconnection.com/category/philosophy-of-training-or-why-be-positive/
Another part of Freedom #4 is the company of other animal. If you take your dog to dog parks for social opportunities, I recommend that you listen to our podcast on dog parks to provide you with some tools that will make it a great time for all involved.
While trolling around for blog ideas, I ran across this article from Dogster.com: Why is your dog eating grass? Interestingly, the author, Melvin Pena, doesn’t really give a reason why they eat grass, he just debunks common ideas about why they eat it. I have my own theory as to why dogs eat herbaceous borders, but first let’s review the myths surrounding grass consumption.
- Dogs eat grass because they have an upset tummy and grass helps them to vomit or poop. “Science offers no evidence linking eating grass with vomiting. It has shown that dogs, already nauseated before grazing, were more likely to throw up after. The same goes for the supposed laxative properties of grass.” A dog’s digestive tract is not designed to process grass, so grass actually stays in the GI tract longer than a dog’s regular diet, thus not really acting as a laxative.
- Dogs eat grass as a nutritional supplement. If you are feeding a quality food, it’s unlikely that your dog needs supplemental nutrition, but even if it did, since a dog cannot easily digest grass, it probably is not seeking it out as a vitamin supplement.* Besides, dogs are also known to eat “known to eat underwear, rubber duckies and loose change.” Last I knew, my dog was not getting vital nutrients from my grandkids bath toys! Moreover, according to an article in Psychology Today, by Dr. Stanley Coren, “Dogs that had their diet regularly supplemented by plant matter (vegetables or fruit) were no less likely to eat grass which seems to kill the idea that dogs are eating grass to make up for the absence of vegetable matter in their normal food intake.”
- Dogs eat grass because their ancestors did. This was a new theory for me! I do not recall reading anywhere that ancient wolves ate grass. But, wolves do eat grass eating animals such as deer. When they eat the prey, they generally eat all of it, including the stomach. So, if there is grass in the stomach of a wolf (ancient or modern), there’s a good chance it’s from a secondary source.
Many dogs eat grass spring, summer, and fall. Some dogs eat grass more in the spring, when it’s tender and sweeter. My own dogs don’t eat the lawn, but prefer my ornamental grasses and will graze on weeds that grow along the paths we hike. My theory as to why they become herbaceous connoisseurs is much simpler than the convoluted reasons above (and follows Aristotle’s Principle of Parsimony** that one should look for the explanation with the fewest assumptions)]. I happy to say that Dr. Coren agrees: Dogs eat grass because it tastes good. And, of course, there’s no accounting for taste! Bone appetite!
* If you are concerned that your dog needs additional nutrition, or worry that a health concern such as dry skin, itchy paws, or ear infections may be food related, please speak with your vet. And be sure to look at this monthly checklist so you can catch heath problems earlier rather than later.
**Also know as Ockham’s Razor.
Pinch or prong collars, choke chains, and shock collars are not tools that I use or advocate to train your dog.* But, what about electronic fences to keep your dog in the yard? Aren’t those humane, easy to use, and give your dog the freedom he desires to romp and play safely in the yard? Maybe, maybe not…
Let me say at the onset that I do understand why owners put in electronic containment systems. They are less expensive than regular fencing, promise to keep your dog in the yard and safe, and some neighborhoods will not allow regular fencing. If you live on a busy road, you may feel an even stronger need to keep your dog in the yard. I get it. But, the problem with electric fences is that there are unintended consequences that can affect the health and well being of your best friend.
Eileen Anderson is a dog trainer and author. She has a blog called eileenanddogs, where she has written extensively about electronic collars and fences, including this one: Electronic Pet Fences: What you need to know. In this particular blog, she details some of the risks and consequences owners should be aware of when considering this form of containment.**
The first thing she discusses is the “warm and fuzzy language” that manufacturers tend to use to describe the system and how it works. She quotes this from one of the manuals:
[The] wireless fence pet containment system is a revolutionary concept that provides the safest, simplest form of pet containment ever. Plug in the transmitter somewhere inconspicuous in your home. The transmitter emits a 17.5 kHz radio signal around your home. Your pet wears a lightweight receiver collar that “listens” for the signal. While the collar is receiving the signal your dog is free to run and play in your yard. When he approaches the boundary of the signal area he receives a warning beep. If your dog does not return he receives a static correction which is startling but not harmful. With a little simple training your dog will quickly learn his boundaries.
Hey, you might say, this sounds great and how harmful can a small “static” correction be? Well, here is the same passage without the euphemisms and “using complete descriptions of the processes involved” :
[The] electronic fence system uses a shock collar connected to a radio transmitter with the goal of keeping your dog inside a chosen area. Electric shock has been used in laboratory experiments for decades for behavioral studies to put animals in a state of stress or fear and is also linked to increased aggression. Plug in the transmitter in your house. The transmitter emits a 17.5 kHz radio signal. Your pet wears a shock collar that will be triggered by a change in the signal. The collar must be fastened tightly on the dog’s neck so that the probes will poke through the dog’s fur and press firmly into his skin. Even when not generating a shock, the collar is likely to be quite uncomfortable. While the collar is receiving the standard signal your dog is safe from shock. When he approaches the boundary of the signal area he receives a warning beep. If your dog does not return, or goes through the boundary, he receives a shock to his neck that can range from a tingle to very painful, depending on the setting you choose.
That is not quite as innocuous as the manufacturer wants you to believe. Moreover, it is important to understand exactly what a shock is and how it is likely perceived by your dog. Shocks are sudden, painful, likely scary, and probably unlike anything your dog has ever experienced. They have been the industry standard in psychology studies as the means to produce fear and pain in an animal and put it under stress. The shocks received from an electronic fence collar may also be a factor in increasing aggression in dogs. (See: Can Aggression in Dogs Be Elicited Through the Use of Electronic Pet Containment Systems? by Richard Polsky.) In the conclusion to this article in which he looks closely at 5 individual cases of aggression towards humans from dogs being contained by electronic systems, Mr. Polsky states:
…manufacturers need to acknowledge the ricks involved and make consumers aware that the systems are not foolproof and that some dogs could attack a person as a result of receiving electric shock.
Even if your dog does not become aggressive towards people, there is no guarantee that your dog is learning what you think he is! He may be learning that the shock is associated, not with the boundary of the yard, but with whatever was holding his attention when he was shocked. For example, if your dog was trying to greet another dog when he received a shock, he might well associate the presence of dogs with shocks. As a result Fido is now leary of dogs, barks more when they approach, and/or becomes fearful or aggressive towards them as they now signify pain and discomfort. Or alternatively, if you have multiple dogs on the system, they might associate their yard mate with the shock and become aggressive towards one another. Or your children, the mailman, UPS person, meter reader, etc., may be the object of your dog’s aversion if he has paired their presence with pain and distress.
Another concern is that the system may keep your dog on your property, but it does nothing to protect your dog from anything coming into the yard, including other dogs, kids, balls, or coyotes. As Ms. Anderson states, “The electronic fence offers your dog zero protection over being teased, harassed, or stolen by humans, attacked by other animals, or ingesting or interacting with anything inappropriate that someone tosses into your yard.”
Once more, what happens if a distraction (think squirrel) is so great that your dog blasts through the electronic fence? It is unlikely that he will go back through the fence, or that he will sit quietly by the side of it, waiting patiently for your return. What if he panics and keeps running? What if someone wants to help and tries to drag your dog back through the shock? Your dog has no way to come home and may well protest being exposed to another shock. What if your dog is hit by a car when he bolts or panics?
Ms. Anderson describes other equally disquieting, but not uncommon, scenarios associated with electronic fences, such as malfunctioning collars, your liability, and will your dog really have the freedom of movement as promised, or will he be too afraid of being shocked to even move around the yard? Her article is well worth a read, especially if you are considering this sort of containment system. Be aware not only of the promises, but the risks and unintended consequences of using force and pain to keep your dog “safely” at home.
*See: Choke, Prong, and Shock Collars Can Irreversibly Damage Your Dog, by Dr. Peter Tobias, DVM
**Other articles detailing the problems with shock collars and electronic containment systems:
The Problem with Shock, by Angelica Skeinker, Dog Sport Magazine
The Unintended Consequences of Shock Collars, Green Acres Kennel
Electronic training collars present welfare risk to pet dogs, University of Lincoln, Science Daily
Here is my blog on the effects of trauma and punishment on your dog: Trauma, trust, and your dog.
And on a more positive note: Here is an article about boundary training that may be of interest to those who do not want to use an electronic system but need to keep the dog in the yard: How to Clicker Train Your Dog to Stay in the Yard.
I have posted blogs on various toys, books, foods, and management and training aids that I like, but I decided that this week I would write about things I have encountered lately, or that I have re-discovered, that I would recommend.
I have mentioned The Education of Will, by Patricia McConnell previously, but I wanted to recommend it to anyone who has experienced trauma, or has a dog who was traumatized. Her compelling memoir sheds realistic light on how pervasive trauma can be and how challenging it is to overcome. But, mostly it is a tale of hope and compassion and well worth the read.
The book I am currently reading is The Dawn of the Dog, The Genesis of a Natural Species, by Janice Koler-Matznick. It is a well researched look at the origin of dogs. She takes on the status quo ideas of domestication and challenges them with reasons why dogs are not just sub-species of wolves. I have not finished the book, but I am impressed by her extensive research and, I am becoming increasingly convinced that man did not create dog, but, as one reviewer put it: “dog existed as a unique, naturally evolved species distinct from today’s wolves long before any association with humans.”* For anyone curious about the origin of dog, and who wants an eminently readable book, I highly recommend it.
Dean Koonz is a prolific author and often includes dogs in his books. I found an old copy of Dragon Tears and really enjoyed the role of the golden retriever mix in this book. He has delightful insight into the mind of dogs and how they see/smell and interpret the world. He also wrote an endearing (tissue alert!) book about his dog Trixie called A Big Little Life that I loved and find myself reflecting on years after I read it.
For those interested in the world of dog shows, I found tucked in the back of one of my shelves, Dog Eat Dog, by Jane and Michael Stern. Published in 1997, it is a bit dated, but the essence of dog shows and what it takes to have a champion remains true. It’s a quick read and has a good index of dog show terms. For a really entertaining look at the world of dog shows, nothing beats Best in Show, directed by Christopher Guest and starring a delightful potpourri of Hollywood actors.
Uncommon Goods has a wonderful line of “Bad Dog” products. My favorites are the tumblers, especially the Bad Dog Tumblers, and the Bad Dog Best in Show Tumblers. They also have free, downloadable Bad Dog Birthday cards. The images are a fun and are an all too real portrayal of our canine companions at their best…or worse!
The current treat of choice for my dogs is lamb lung. High in protein, low in fat, they are easy to break into small pieces and are a great addition to any Kong! I buy them in the 12-oz, headed-out-on-the-Oregon-trail size, though they are also available in a more reasonable 5-oz size. They are not wet or gooey (I think they are dehydrated), but they since they break into small pieces they are great for training treats and I have yet to find a dog that doesn’t adore them.
And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our podcast, Your Family Dog, featuring Colleen Pelar and me talking about all things canine. Our goal is to help families love living with dogs. Colleen’s gentle humor, compassion, and deep knowledge of dogs makes every episode a learning experience for me, and I hope for you as well. We cover a broad range of topics, from behavior problems, to dog sports, caring for your elderly dog, making happy dogs happier, managing vet visits, literary dogs, and so much more! With over 40 episodes, there is a topic of interest for every dog lover. Find us on iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher. If you like us, please leave us a review. And, if you have a question or comment, please let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call and leave a message at 614-349-1661.
*Dr. Michael Fox, from the back cover of the book.
Yesterday marked a year since my most beloved dog, Mr. Bingley, passed away. He had soft tissue histiocytic sarcoma, a nasty, aggressive cancer unfortunately associated with Flat-coated Retrievers, and the time had come for me to make sure he didn’t suffer.* He had been officially diagnosed 9 months earlier and had responded well to treatment, but this cancer is relentless. When the chemo no longer worked, I was determined to make the most of his time left with me. For three months we played, swam, tossed a
million tennis balls, and had a wonderful photo session with Gary Chisolm. Despite his illness, Bingley seemed invincible.
But finally, over the course of about 5 days, Bing began slowing down and detaching from the world. He had raging fevers for three nights. When he stopped eating completely and would take just a small amount of water (this was a dog who use to put his entire head into the water bowl to drink with great gusto), I knew the time was imminent. Our wonderful oncology vet, Dr. Erin Malone, gently confirmed that he just wasn’t the same dog they all remembered and his cancer was getting the best of him. They prepped him and then allowed me to spend some time with him outside. He laid down on the cool concrete and rested his head in my hand for the last time. I felt as if my living heart was being ripped from my chest.
Now, I am fully aware that this was my dog, and not my child or my husband, but there is something unique about the human-dog bond that elevates it to something more than pet ownership. Bingley was my best buddy, my faithful, fun, and loving companion for over 10 years. I lost more than my dog on July 6, 2016, I lost a best friend, and the sting of that loss is pervasive. I still reach for the soft fur on his ears, listen for his breathing next to my bed, wait for the feel of a wet tennis ball dropped by my feet (or next to my head to wake me up…), and search for the soft and sweet look on his face that said, “All is well Mom. Let’s go play.”
I have Zuzu now, and I adore her. She is sweet, earnest, and special. She has qualities that Bingley didn’t have (such as not barking at the door), and I wouldn’t trade her for anything. This eases my grief for Bingley, but it doesn’t repair it, nor does she replace him. My husband told me recently of a study of people who remarried and had a family after the death of a spouse. Though happy in their new lives, most said there wasn’t a day that went by that they didn’t think about and intensely miss their first spouse. That is not to say that they weren’t happy, it’s just that when you lose someone that significant, there is a lasting residual effect. For anyone who has loved and lost a dog, you know there is no reason that this cannot apply, in a similar way, to your canine buddy. Every dog can hold a special place in your heart, but if you are lucky, there will be a dog that is your champion, your all-star, your unbeatable best friend who not only loves you unconditionally, but lights up your world like a lighthouse on a stormy night, pointing you towards a safe harbor and a warm place to rest your heart.
*If you have to consider euthanasia for your pet, it might be helpful for you to listen to Colleen Pelar’s and my podcast with Dr. Alicia Karas: Knowing When It’s Time to Say Goodbye
Blog Posts by Category
- Training or “Why, Why, WHY?”
- Behavior or “What the heck?”
- Informational or Doggie Demographics
- Care and management or living together in harmony
- Philosophy of training or “Why be positive?”
- Toy Box or stuff that doesn’t fit neatly elsewhere
- Emotional Support, Therapy, and Service Animals: What’s the difference? March 19, 2018
- The Year of the Dog February 27, 2018
- Tweets from my dog. February 13, 2018
- Toys for Tough Chewers February 2, 2018
- A few close friends… January 24, 2018