Care and management or living together in harmony
With that in mind, here are my hints:
Watch for flight from people. Like dogs it could be very subtle (looking away, turning their head, taking a step backwards). Have treats at the ready to distract your dog from greeting someone who doesn’t want to meet him. A fistful of treats at his nose may be all you need to keep him with you.
Watch for subtle signs of fight in people. The vast majority of people will not lash out at your dog, but fight can be the first response for someone afraid of a situation. Some signs of fight could be: furrowed brow, frowning or grimacing, clenched teeth, direct stare, stiff body posture, crossed arms, clenched fists.
Watch for freezing in people. Slowing their movements, not moving at all, trying to make themselves smaller, or going very stiff as your dog approaches are all signs that canines make this person uncomfortable.
Children can be tricky for dogs and vice versa. If your dog is backing away, do not let the child pet your dog. If the child is backing away, do not allow your dog to pursue her! If both are relaxed and comfortable, encourage the child to pet your pup softly between the shoulder blades or to stroke the dog’s back.
Do a 3 second greeting with people as well as dogs! Maybe it will be longer than 3 seconds, but keep the meeting short and successful if you think your dog is becoming uncomfortable, or the person you are visiting is uncomfortable
Keep your leash loose so your dog has options to move. A person may startle at your dog and you want him to have the ability to move away as quickly as possible. If the leash is taut, he may lose that option.
And lastly: If either the person or the dog starts to move away from a situation, take that as a cue that it’s time to go. The bottom line here is to trust yourself. If you are uncomfortable with a person, situation, or moment, or detect that someone else is uncomfortable, then simply move along. Often times I just smile, say hi, and give my dog a treat as we pass by a person or group of people. I try to remember that I am an ambassador for the next dog who comes along. If I am sensitive to the people and dogs we encounter, and remember that my dog doesn’t have to greet everyone we meet, then I am probably doing a good job of keeping everyone safe and happy…not to mention promoting good will towards dogs.
*Dr. Patricia McConnell has some wonderful photos in her book For The Love Of A Dog, that show the similarity between human and canine body language and facial expressions. And, one of my blogs on body language which might be helpful: https://apositiveconnection.com/2016/01/can-you-hear-me-now-or-learning-to-effectively-communicate-with-fido/.
Does your elderly dog walk into a corner and just stand there? Does she just stare into space? Does she pace in circles? Go to the hinge of the door to be let out? Not respond to her name? She might have Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), commonly referred to as doggie Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Eileen Anderson is an award winning blogger (eileenanddogs) and dog owner. She knows all about CCD as her beloved rat terrier, Cricket, had it and she was able to manage Cricket for two years with CCD. Ms. Anderson has written a book, Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, which has garnered praise from experts such as Dr. E’Lise Christensen, board certified veterinary behaviorist, and Jean Donaldson, author of Culture Clash. One of her goals, with the book and website, is to help owners diagnosis CCD early because “there is medical help for cognitive dysfunction in dogs.” She also wants to provide owners with information that will make their lives and that of their dogs more manageable. I have not read the book, yet, but her website dedicated to canine dementia is filled with valuable information about CCD, including photos, videos, a printable symptoms checklist, treatment options, suggestions on caring for a senior dog, and more.*
One of the pages I found to be the most helpful was on symptoms. Ms. Anderson lists types of symptoms as well as specific ones. (She includes pictures and a couple of videos to illustrate the symptoms.) Here is her list of types of symptoms:
Changes in social interactions
Loss of house training
Changes in activity level
Inability to learn
She goes on to list 29 specific symptoms of canine dementia, and at the bottom of the page is a link for a printable checklist of symptoms that you can take to your vet. In addition to the four listed at the beginning, here are some others to look for:
- Failing to get out of the way when someone opens a door.
- Failing to remember routines, or starting them and getting only partway through.
- Performing repetitive behaviors.
- Having trouble with eating or drinking (finding the bowls, aiming the mouth, keeping food in mouth).
- Losing appetite.
- Trembling for seemingly no reason.
- Falling off things.
- Getting trapped under or behind furniture.
- Sleeping more during the day and less at night.
Under Treatment she lists prescription drugs as well as supplements that may be helpful. Food and enrichment are discussed on the treatment page as well as on the Enrichment page. The resources page has tips from other owners as well as links to books and articles that can help you manage your dog. And, she also has a kind and sensitive page devoted to how to decide when the time has come that “you need to help your dog with dementia leave this world.”*
Watching our dogs age is never easy, but having a dog develop dementia can be especially painful. But, by diagnosing early and effectively managing it, we can provide our senior buddies with a good life for however long they have with us.
* On Your Family Dog, Colleen Pelar and I have a two part series with Dr. Alicia Karas, of Tufts Veterinary School, on elderly dogs. Part 1 is Giving Older Dogs the Good Life, and part 2 is Knowing When It’s Time to Say Goodbye.
Also, just after publishing this blog, this link about a potential new drug to treat CCD came through my email. Let’s hope the trial goes well and we have another tool for helping our elderly dogs.
There are innumerable videos on the internet featuring animals, many of which make me cringe. But, there are terrific examples of positive reinforcement training in a variety of species, which show the incredible (and unpredictable) intelligence of a variety of animals, as well as the power of positive reinforcement training. Here is one that I found on Reisner Veterinary Services of a very smart fish who can recognize a picture of an object and match it to the object itself. Amazing!
These fish can recognise and remember shapes and objects!
Posted by ViralHog on Monday, May 28, 2018
So, you may ask, what does a smart fish have to do with family dog training? Great question! Here’s my somewhat convoluted answer:
I think that we have only just begun to see and understand the diverse intelligence of a variety of animals. I doubt that 30 years ago many people would have thought that fish had any ability to discriminate between images of no relevance to their lives, much less associate a picture of some random object with that object. And, I could be very wrong here, but I also don’t think that many zoos and aquariums were bothering to train fish to do anything at all.
With the rise of food based, positive reinforcement training, however, a whole new window into the animal mind has opened.* Why? My theory is that it is because animals feel safe. Punishment based training is not conducive to creative exploration of the world because the threat hangs over you that if you do the wrong thing, then it will hurt. If animals do not know if a new behavior will bring punishment or praise, then the world is not predictable or safe, and they may avoid trying anything novel.** When dealing with undomesticated animals it is critical to avoid punishment as these animals may completely shut down, unwilling to initiate or even try new things, too spooked to work with any trainer, or they may become aggressive. According to the Wolf Park website:
Wolves will also avoid at all costs anything that they experienced as unpleasant. So using any aversive on a wolf will have lasting consequences that will be very time consuming to overcome. If a wolf is spooked at all during a physical examination, he/she will be very difficult to handle in the future. When working with an animal that will have such reactions to aversives, it becomes critical for the staff to learn how to shape and reward any desired behavior and stay away from any punitive methods.
This applies to the family dog as well. Dogs who are punished are much more likely to be aggressive. Moreover, as I mention in my blog on The Five Freedoms, “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.”
On the other hand, if the only downside for trying something new is simply no treat, then the animal will generally give up on that behavior and try something else. As long as the new behavior is not reinforced, it will quickly fade away, without trauma to the animal. Thus, animals who are not punished for trying new things, but are rewarded instead, remain more curious and inventive. My dog Bingley, for example, picked up a clicker one day and discovered that if he put it between his front teeth, he could click it. This became a great source of fun for him. Whenever he found a clicker, and I was in my office, he would poke his head around the door and click at me. This inevitably resulted in me chasing him down the hall to give him a treat in exchange for the clicker. I doubt very seriously if he would have tried this game if he’d been punished into obedience. Since Bingley knew it was safe to try new things, he remained inquisitive, innovative, and playful, to end of his days.
I have seen the results of both adversive and positive training. Subsequently, I truly believe that for anyone, canine, lupine, piscine, hominid, etc., to be able to engage with it’s surroundings in a curious, intelligent, and robustly satisfying way, it must be safe from fear and harm. Then and only then, can it be free to become the very best version of itself.
** Blogs on punishment: Why be positive, or what’s wrong with a correction? Another blog relating to the effects of punishment: Ouch! That really hurt!, and Trauma, trust, and your dog.
Earlier this year, my lovely Zuzu was racing through a culvert pipe at our cottage in eastern Ohio. Having discovered the joy of tunnel running several months earlier, she always looked forward to this section of our private road. On this cold January afternoon, however, she didn’t pop back onto the road. Little Bear stood anxiously at the top of the bank, looking at her, then at me. Alarmed, I raced over to find my little girl with a weasel trap on her back paw, unable to move because the trap was wired to a stone. I plunged down the embankment, detached the trap from the stone and carried Zuzu up to the road. Getting her to the car, we raced to a local vet’s office.
The vet had left for the day, so they couldn’t x-ray her paw, or give me any pain meds or antibiotics, but they did get the trap off of her paw. So, after calling my regular vet, Zuzu and I headed to the emergency clinic in Canton to get an X-ray and any additional treatment she might need. At the clinic her X-ray showed that there were no broken, crushed, or dislocated bones. She had a soft tissue injury and was bleeding a bit from the wound. I asked for an antibiotic and some pain meds for her and inquired about the likelihood of Tetanus. Surprisingly, while dogs can get tetanus, it is relatively rare in canines. The vet told me that a horse would already be incubating tetanus, a person would want to be sure that his tetanus shot was up to date, but dogs, since it is rare for them to have it, do not have a vaccine for tetanus and the best thing for me to do was to keep a close eye on her.
Interestingly, this month in The Whole Dog Journal (WDJ), there is an article, Wounded in Action, on determining when an injury is worth a visit to the vet, and there is a sidebar about tetanus written by an emergency room veterinarian with suggestions about how you can protect your dog from developing tetanus.* She recommends:
- First and foremost, you should clean any wound thoroughly and with care. (She suggests avoiding alcohol as well as hydrogen peroxide to clean a wound.)
- Bites and puncture wounds are at a special risk of developing tetanus; bring these to your vet!
- Next, monitor your dog carefully after he sustains any open wound. If you notice stiffness at the site of the injury, do not wait to have your dog seen by a veterinarian. The more quickly tetanus is detected and treated, the better your dog’s prognosis will be.
Having dogs that I let run in fields and woods, play in streams, and swim in lakes and ponds, means that over the course of their lives we will likely have puncture wounds, cuts, scrapes and other injuries that come from living a dog’s life. I have a policy that any puncture wound gets a vet visit, and that when in doubt, it is better to be safe than sorry. As the WDJ article states:
Wounds can seem misleadingly slight, belying significant tissue trauma beneath. Hopefully, your visit with the veterinarian will be a quick evaluation, wound cleaning, and some prescription medications. If not, though, the sooner a wound is evaluated, the better the chances for healing and recovery.
*Tetanus results from the bacteria Clostridium tetani being introduced into the body via a wound. C. tetani, is present in some soils and the problem lies with any object, not just rusty ones, pushing the bacteria into an anaerobic situation. The bacteria produces a toxin that binds to nervous system tissue causing painful muscle contractions, stiffness, or rigidity close to the infection site. Dogs may develop stiffness in their faces so that they look as if they are grinning and their eyes bulge, and those pups with generalized tetanus cannot walk. They require extensive nursing and recover may take weeks or even months.
New clients will often ask me if I offer agility classes, or other specialty training classes. I don’t offer them for a variety of reasons, including that I don’t have the staff or facility for it. But the primary reason is because the vast majority of dogs will never pursue canine activities such as agility or search and rescue work, but will spend their lives as family dogs. Moreover, if you can’t succeed at being the family dog, you will not be pursuing any extra curricular activities.
So what does it mean to be a family dog? I define it using this example:
I live in a small village in central Ohio. We have a local ice cream parlor called Whit’s and everyone in our village of ~2700 likes to walk to Whit’s on a summer evening to get ice cream and hang out on the wide sidewalk visiting with friends and neighbors. Kids play, bikes glide by, and dogs wait patiently for their puppy sundaes. Norman Rockwell would be proud!
In the midst of this idyllic scenario, owners are asking their dogs to walk to town (nicely, without pulling), and negotiate adults, kids, bikes, other dogs, fallen ice cream, trash cans, trees, tables and chairs on the sidewalk, aromas from the restaurants, outdoor seating for several restaurants, strollers, scooters, runners, etc., without misbehaving, and often without rewards for this amazing skill set.
The skills necessary for a family dog to succeed in public with his owners are amazing, but remarkably achievable, with positive reinforcement family dog training. In my classes and private lessons, I focus on a couple of objectives that are likely to give you the well mannered dog you desire. First and foremost, I focus on teaching your dog to check in with you. A dog who looks at you is more likely to follow instructions than a dog who is watching a squirrel, or focused on a child eating an ice cream cone. Think of it this way, if you have a teenager who is busy texting, how likely is she to hear what you are saying? I estimate you have a 2-3% chance of her hearing and responding correctly to your request while she is focused on the phone. If, however, she looks up from the phone, your chances for comprehension increase to 30-40%, if you’re lucky. Unfortunately, compliance hovers at a shaky 5 % at best.**
Therefore, I work with owners to develop several ways in which they can get their dogs to turn from distractions and check in. One thing I have written about is the class rule: If another dog barks, your dog gets a treat. This is an excellent way to teach your dog that checking in with you is a great idea. If the sound of another dog barking becomes a cue for your dog to look at you, then you will have a much better chance of preventing him from joining in the bark fest, and of keeping his attention when other distractions arise.
The other major objective is impulse control, which is, in essence, the heart of all training. Impulse control starts with sit. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of sit! This is why I use Dr. Sopia Yin’s Learn to Earn Program, wherein sit is equal to please. Anything your pup wants must be preceded by a sit. For example, in order for the dinner bowl to be put on the floor, your dog must be sitting. If he breaks the sit before the bowl is placed, then the bowl does get put down. It took my gluttonous Bernese Mountain dog about 3 attempts to put the bowl down for him to learn to hold his sit. Teaching your dog that sit is the key to all things wonderful, will also help him to learn that sit should be his default behavior. Then, when he is unsure of what is expected of him, he will likely sit and wait for further instructions.
Family dogs are not just the bread and butter of my business, they are the canines I love best. To see a family dog walking happily alongside his people, waiting patiently for his puppy sundae, or leaning contentedly against the leg of the person he adores, is pure joy for me, and the reason I have geared my training, blogging, and podcasting to helping families love living with dogs.
*See also: Love the dog you’re with
**I have no idea if these numbers concerning texting teenagers are accurate. They are my estimations and are used simply to illustrate the point that attention is essential to effective communication between individuals, whether you are the same or different species. I will leave it to the reader to define species in this context…
Dogs just wanna have fun, but in their pursuit of play, some dogs are overly exuberant with toys. Stuffing is removed in a microsecond, limbs are severed, and “indestructible” toys are demolished in record time. So, what is an owner to do? Are there toys out there that will actually withstand the rigors of a dedicated destroyer?
Recently, I was in Granville’s Village Pet Market* and as I was checking out, asked whether a particular toy floated. That led to a discussion of toys and their durability. According to the helpful staff, there are three companies that make durable toys. I have not used them with my dogs yet, but the ones recommended have been tested, unofficially, by the Granville vet staff’s vigorous chewers.
Planet Dog. The toy I asked about was a rubber ball on a nylon rope. According to the packaging, the toy is a 5/5 on the “Chew-O-Meter” which equates with “extremely durable”. We have not played with our ball yet, so I can’t verify whether or not this is actually extremely durable, but I have been assured that they are tough, and other Planet Dog balls we bought have lasted through multiple dogs. Moreover, “Planet Dog took the top two spots of the most indestructible toys in the industry…” in the Whole Dog Journal’s rating of balls for “Fetching and beyond.”
If your dog isn’t crazy for fetch, there are a lot of Planet Dog toys that may appeal to your pup. They even have a page on their website about How to choose the right toy for your dog. Check out the variety of toys they offer and I am sure you will find one that suits your beast. Moreover, they state: “Our products are 100% guaranteed. If you are not satisfied for any reason with our products, rest easy. We will make it right.” Nice.
West Paw Design. The “Jive Zogoflex” ball is guaranteed tough. It has an interesting shape with curves and valleys that make it easier for a dog to grab, but also make for interesting bounces when tossed.** It comes in three sizes, can be thrown with a “standard ball-thrower,” is dishwasher safe and recyclable. It is also a 5/5.
My dogs have not used this ball, but have used the Bumi Tug Toy. It is durable, and for dogs who live for tug, I would give this a try. The only caveat: because it stretches, it is not as durable and is rated 3/5.
West Paw also makes food distribution toys, bones, and flying discs that are rated from 3-5, so be sure to get one that is the right durability for your dog. They also guarantee ” the performance of every product we design and manufacture here in Bozeman, Montana (that’s all of them). We want you to love West Paw’s products. If you don’t, we’ll make it right.” That helps make spending $15 on a ball worth a try.
Spot. Play Strong S Bone. This 12 ” bone is apparently a favorite amongst the dog staff at the vet’s office. Designed with chewing in mind, it also floats and is hollow so that treats can be added. This is the long S-shaped bone, (which if you ask me is just begging for a game of fetch..) but the Play Strong toys also come in shorter (4.5″, 5.5″, and 6.5″), straight bones, and balls.
I hope that one of these toys will work for your vigorous chewer and provide your dog with hours of fun. Let me know if they work for you, or if they don’t! And, don’t hesitate to let me know what you have found satisfies your dog’s need to chew and play.
*As I have mentioned in previous posts, we have two wonderful pet supply stores here in Granville, The Village Pet Market, and Bath and Biscuits. Both offer terrific food as well as toys, collars, leashes, etc. Bath and Biscuits also offers grooming as well as a place for you to bathe your dog. They are well worth your patronage.
**Interesting bounces mimic the ways in which prey animals try to throw off a predator by moving erratically when being chased. Unpredicatible movement is intriguing, fascinating, and dare I say, addictive to some dogs.
Anxiety is something that everyone experiences at one time or another, to one degree or another. Perhaps when you had to give an oral book report in front of your 6th grade class, or your first presentation to a new boss, or when you were waiting for a loved one to get out of surgery. Often times, others don’t even know you are anxious as you devote every resource to making yourself appear fine (at least outwardly), while praying that no one asks you to something as unreasonable as multiply 6 times 8.
You may have tells, such as biting your lip, twirling your hair, pacing, or tapping your foot, that people may or may not recognize as symptoms of stress or anxiety. When I was a kid, my mother, assuming I was bored rather than anxious, would tell me to “Stop figeting!” My sister on the other hand, would get quiet and withdrawn, earning her the title of the “Good Kid.”
I have written (and podcasted*) about stress signals and the importance of recognizing your dog’s particular behaviors that indicate he is not comfortable. Learning to read your dog and understanding the way in which he communicates his discomfort is the first step in helping him with his anxieties or fears. But, that is just the beginning. What do you do when you see Rover is uncomfortable with the situation?
The first thing I recommend is physical distance. For example, if your dog is uncomfortable with large dogs and you see a great hulking beast headed your way, don’t insist that your dog meet his fears head on. Instead, add enough distance so that your dog can watch Sasquatch go by without overreacting. Give him lots of tasty treats as the dog goes by so that he is focused on you, rather than his fears.** This teaches him that the presence of dogs means I should look to my person for assistance. Moreover, because good things now happen to him when scary dogs come by, he will begin to look forward with anticipation (rather than fear) to big dogs.
I am frequently asked if I am rewarding the dog’s fear by giving him treats when he is scared. My question in return is: When you are scared, does it help to have someone comfort you, offer you something else to focus on and give you a reason to not be so afraid? With our dogs, we are trying to change their emotional responses from fear to anticipation. When we offer them treats, the chewing and eating helps to not only distract them from the menace, but it also makes them happy. And, it is very very hard to be both happy and afraid at the same time.
So, what do you do when a big dog appears out of nowhere, and you have no room to move away? This is where you need to give your dog mental distance from the situation. Take a fistful of treats (yes, an actual fistful, this is no time to skimp!), and put your hand right at your dog’s nose! (Your hand needs to be touching his nose, not 6 inches in front of it.) This should get your dog’s attention and now you pick up the pace and move as quickly as possible away from the situation, all the while keeping the treats right at your dog’s nose. When you get a reasonable distance from the distraction, give your dog 3-4 of the treats in your hand, tell him he’s good boy, and resume your walk.
If you really cannot move your dog away from the problem, try to position yourself in front of your dog, blocking (or at least partially blocking) his view of the dog. Stay calm and keep the treats close to his head, feeding him one at a time as the other dog moves away. As soon as you can add physical distance, do so, treating him as needed to keep his focus on you.
Keep in mind that it is far better to get your dog away from a situation that will cause him anxiety, fear, or to overreact, than it is to try and force him to deal with his fears in an unexpected and distressing situation. By adding physical distance before he reacts, or using food to lure him or encourage him to focus on you and forgetting the scary thing over there, you will be teaching him skills that will make his life (and yours) easier.
If, however, your dog is consistently overreactive to a particular thing, such as other dogs or people, or he seems to be getting worse, then consider hiring a positive reinforcement trainer who is experienced with fearful dogs. Using a controlled setting that allows him to learn, without being overwhelmed by his anxieties will help Fido get over his fears, as well as boost his confidence. When your dog can negotiate difficulties without fear, stress, or anxiety, then he will see that the world is a happy and safe place to be.
*In pretty much every podcast Colleen Pelar and I discuss stress signals in dogs, so it is hard to make a specific recommendation for which one to listen to. Thus, I heartily recommend that you start at the beginning, listen to every one, subscribe, and write a wonderful review on iTunes. But, that’s just a suggestion…
**If your dog will not take any treats, then you are probably too close to the thing which scares him and you need to add some more distance.
And, alternatively, if your dog is toy rather than food motivated, have a tug toy or squeaky toy in your pocket to use as a distraction when the scary thing comes by. There’s nothing like a good game of tug to keep your mind off that which scares you.
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.
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.
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.