Large scale dog breeders: what can I do about it

Blog post about ‘Broodfokkers, aka large-scale dog breeders’ and how to detect and report them. February 2017
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. References and picture credits at the end of the post.

About author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

IMG_6639

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

 

What is a puppy mill?

A puppy mill, or puppy farm, is a dog breeder who breeds dogs on a grand scale, principally for financial gain. The living conditions of the dogs there vary from inappropriately socialized to life-threateningly crammed.

These are common problems:

  • The pups separated from their mother far too early,
  • Or the opposite, the pups arrive at your home way older than the sensitive socialisation period (ideal age of adoption = 9-10 weeks)
  • The pups arrive at your home badly ill.
  • The pups look much older or older than what is claimed on their certificate.

And this is the big one for me:

  • The pups have not been structurally socialized to life as a family dog, having only known having known their enclosure and the hands of passing visitors. Result? More often than not, you have yourself a pathologically fearful or aggressive from day 1 until  you spend hundreds of euros in behaviour therapy.

How can you tell a puppy mill from a responsible breeder?

A puppy mill isn’t always easy to spot. The breeder can be very personable, and the room in which they show the pup could seem spotless. Here are some of the possible red flags that you are most likely getting an undersocialized pup:

  • They sell dogs all year round, there is no long waiting period.
  • You can’t see where the litter is staying. The breeder gets the pup ‘in the back’ for you.
  • Mother and pups don’t live in a house, but in enclosures.
  • There is more than one litter of pups.
  • They sell more than one breed.

Is large-scale dog breeding legal?

  1. It is illegal to sell you a pup who doesn’t satisfy the ‘product characteristics’ (e.g. who is sick, who appears younger/older than what you declare, etc.).
  2. It is illegal to keep the dogs in sub-optimal husbandry conditions. The Dutch minimal requirements are not as high as I’d like to see them though. Think basics like a clean enclosure, a reasonable temperature, shelter from the rain and minimal room to move about.
  3. It is legal – but undesirable and irresponsible – to fail to socialise the pups to the family life for which he/she is sold.

A puppy mill doesn’t necessarily look that obvious. Check the red flags.

So if 3. is legal, does that mean I can do nothing about a large-scale breeder if they adhere to the minimum legal requirements? No, you can.

What can you do about large-scale dog breeders?

  • Resist the temptation to ‘save’ a pup from these breeders. By purchasing a pup from them, you are only perpetuating the problem.
  • If you decide you want a pup, contact a responsible breeder and be ready for a long wait. When we stop seeing dogs like next-day-delivery convenience products, it will no longer be commercially viable to sell them as such.
  • If you suspect your pup came from a broodfokker, call the animal protection agency (144 in The Netherlands) and report them. Even if their only infraction was on point 3 (undersocialised pups who don’t grow up in a home environment), they are considered to uphold ‘onwenselijke’ (undesirable) practices by the animal protection agency. With enough complaints, the problem becomes more visible and the agency can send inspectors.

Be the squeaky wheel!

Why does it matters to avoid large-scale breeders?

Not only for the dogs’ welfare, but also for your own sake as a ‘consumer’. You are adopting a pup as a companion to enjoy for years, and not to spend hundreds of euros on behaviour therapy or only walk it at night, right?

Illustration credits

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But his parents were champions! My dog must be perfect

What guarantees does a top-notch dog pedigree get you? Article by Canis bonus. December 2016
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Mutt or pure-bred dog?

As my old dog is nearing the end of his life, we are starting to contemplate whether we’ll go the rescue route again, or whether to go the breed route for once. So I have started a series of blog posts about breeds. For the full list, go to the first post in the series: He’s good with kids, right? He’s a Labrador – Beware of positive assumptions about dog breeds.

This present blog post encourages the reader to view a ‘spotless’ pedigree with caution.

Both my dog’s parents were working champions!

The number of times I’ve had to have this conversation… Sometimes, being a dog behaviourist is pretty much about raining on people’s parade… It’s not fun, but someone’s got to break the news. Today was no exception. I was standing in front of Ted and Lucy, the hapless owners of a fine pedigreed dog who was making their lives hell.

They were incredulous that Lex, the dog they’d flawlessly picked to the nearest ancestor, could come with behaviour problems? They’d nicely followed all the steps they thought guaranteed a ‘good dog’: they went to the local puppy school, they picked a ‘good breed’, they chose a pedigreed dog whose parents were national sheep herding champions, no less. Yet come adolescence and his rap sheet could make Tupac blanch. “How could this have happened?” they asked me, in disbelief.

My answer wasn’t going to make their day any better. The thing is, your dog’s parents being working champions does not necessarily work in your favour if you want your dog to be a family dog. Chance is they were extremely driven to be so good on the job, and had the stamina and energy to boot. Assuming these ‘qualities’ are heavily heritable, you’re in trouble if all you want from your dog is a couple of walks around the block per day – and, yes, maybe a long walk on Saturday.

Even assuming these ‘sport champion’ traits aren’t all that heritable. Then what is the point of paying through the teeth for a dog whose parents were world champions in their discipline?

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That’s like asking Nadia Comaneci to sit on the couch waiting for you all day

“But we did our research!” they said. “We didn’t choose him from conformation champions. We know these championships only select for extreme physical traits and not behaviour. We’ve really looked into this and that’s why we picked working parents for him!”

And that’s just the issue: dogs from a working line are also picked on extreme traits, only temperamental ones. Unless you’re ready to quit your job and keep your dog mentally stimulated at least 2-3 hours a day, chance is, if your dog has inherited a lot of his parents’ drive, you’re headed for trouble. That’s like buying your granny a Ferrari.

Both my dog’s parents were conformation champions!

I get this argument a lot too: people who insist I look at their dog’s pedigree to detect what could have caused his behaviour problems. When we start talking about this, my clients are often dumb-founded. They’ve fallen hook, line and sinker for the hard-sell of their breeder: “He’s got a pedigree, you see. It’s a good dog! Look, his mother is the breed photo on Wikipedia” and now I have to rain on their dream.

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Would her kids make great housemates? I’ve no idea. She sure looks pretty though

That’s like saying to your marriage counselor: “I don’t get it. My wife’s parents each won the beauty pageant for their country. Why aren’t we more compatible?” To winning a conformation, the dog must conform to the archetypal physical traits of the breed – and must carry him/herself gracefully enough for the duration of the show. It says little about whether the dog tends to guard his food fiercely, or needs five hours of exercise a day to be remotely calm. No amount of me ‘checking his pedigree’ will change that.

So pedigrees are useless?

Not so fast. A pedigree AND a responsible breeding could be your winning combination. No guarantees, mind; but less risk of headaches. A responsible breeder will look at the temperament of the sire and the dame, and later, the pup (for what little a pup’s temperament predicts his future behaviour, but that’s another kettle of fish), and will flat out refuse to give you a pup whom he considers incompatible to your life-style.

This responsible breeder will, likely, not pay so much attention to winning beauty pageants or championships, but rather on character traits the make a happy, well-adjusted family dog: tendencies for, say, stress resilience, and tolerance, and calm, and confidence, etc.

I get it: prizes look can look like a quality stamp. But when it comes to a successful match as a family dog, you’re better off going for the “companion line.” A dog whose father and mother, and many of his brothers and sisters, have been successfully placed as pets in suburban families, like yours will be.

And of course, if your dog does come from sporting or conformation champions, and things are working out, that’s fantastic. I am not saying it always goes wrong. All I am saying is prize-winning, pedigreed forebears do not guarantee ‘a good dog’.

Take it from my experience with plenty of families’ disappointment: steer clear of vanity when you research your next dog and go for the couch potato dog.

Illustration credits

No modifications were made to any of the illustrations

Posted in Dog breeds | Tagged , , , | 2 Responses

Pit Bulls: what’s the controversy about?

A rational look at the Pit Bull controversy. Article by Canis bonus. July 2017
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

He’s a Pit Bull, you can’t trust him

The High Risk Dog debates are raging in the Netherlands with the media reporting incident after incident, and the latest piece of Breed Specific Legislation due to come into effect in January 2018 (discussed here).

This article critically examines the extreme claims of both ‘camps’: the Nanny-dog and the ‘ban them all’ crowds.

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For the purpose of this article, I will be talking of ‘Bully’-types in general (powerful Bull, Mastiff and/or Terrier breeds and their crosses). This has a good overlap with the Dutch government’s list of what they consider high-risk dogs. I will zoom in on specific Pit Bulls claims at times.

Can we trust press reports of dog attacks?

Yes and no.

Is over-reporting a thing? Yes to a certain extent, but there’s no smoke without a fire and there are many Shepherd ‘attacks’ reported too. I use quotes because minor incidents with shepherds (Belgian, German, mostly) also spill ink. At least here in the Netherlands. That, and I hope no one is using the number of reported incidents in the press as a reliable statistic.

The big question: How many severe incidents involving other breeds do not make it to the news? We don’t know. Maybe tons, maybe little. What we know? There is definitely a problem of severe dog aggression out there, that the problem doesn’t seem all that common or frequent, and that Bullies are often involved. Whether it’s a lot more often or just about the same as other breeds is still out there.

Are the Bullies involved ‘normal’ Bullies?

For each press report, I dig deeper and in 99% of the cases, the dogs were either recent rescues with an unknown history or severely abused. So not typical representatives of a breed.

The big question: Can I conclude from the press clippings alone that something in the Bullies pre-disposes them to severe aggression? No.

Is the dog involved even a Bully?

Dog professionals, veterinarians included, aren’t all that perfect at identifying an individual breed. Never mind police or hospital staff, and even less so the victim. Do I trust journalists to do their homework and double-check the breed was correctly identified? Not for a second. And don’t rely on the picture used to illustrate the incident either.

In discussing Breed Specific Legislation, the exact breed wouldn’t matter if we establish whether the dog is on the official Dutch list of high-risk breeds. That is also not a given, it turns out. There are accounts of Labradors being mislabeled as Bullies when incidents are being reported.

Having said that, as famous Pitbull detractor Alexandra Semyonova says, they’re not shape-shifters. It is relatively easy to distinguish a bully-type dog (a dog from bull-fighting ancestry) from most other breeds (except for some Labradors, who are often confused with them, as mentioned above).

The big question: Can we trust the breed stated in press clippings? Not so much.

So are the breeds on the list higher-risk?

Let’s split it into different questions:

  • Are they more likely to be involved in a severe aggression incident? Yes, from hospital and police records (assuming identification was correct), it would seem they are. Subquestion:
    • Why are they more involved in aggression incidents? Is it purely breed-specific? The answer is complicated. It’s neither 100% ‘how they’re raised’, nor 100% ‘in their blood’. The post discusses some of these influences below.
  • Could they have a genetic predisposition for uninhibited aggression? Yes, potentially partly (see below) but…
    • … What proportion of, say, Staffies, carry and express these traits to a problematic level? We don’t know. It could be 1% or 99%. Towards humans, they have a tendency for extreme friendliness. Towards other dogs, some studies report 20% of (even responsibly raised) Staffies to have a serious dog-dog aggression problem.
  • Is it due to being raised in terrible conditions? Yes, that certainly raises the risk. Hugely. Particularly when it comes to attacks on humans. An ‘out of the box’ bully tends to be extremely human-friendly. Of course, there are exceptions, but they tend to make unbelievably friendly family pets for guests and family alike.
    • What is the proportion of severe incidents where the dog was abused or severely neglected? We don’t know. But from the press clippings I’ve been collecting, a lot.
  • Are dogs on the list more likely to be owned by irresponsible owners? Yes, criminals are attracted by the breed’s bad rep and sociology stats out there show a much higher proportion of criminal records and tendencies in owners of bully breeds, particularly bully dogs who got seized for incidents.

Where’s the data?

Recently I was involved in a couple of inter-disciplinary events involving specialists from all disciplines to look at the problem of severe bite incidents. What came out? We don’t have the data, it was claimed. Sure we depend on messy multi-factorial, non-standardized, subjective data and information from criminal underground activities and from hospital records, but actually the data is out there if you know where to look. Drop me a line if you’d like a list of the research articles I’ve read.

A bunch of socio-economic factors played a huge role, but some genetic vulnerabilities did transpire.

So the summary of all that data is: top of the list in serious incidents requiring hospitalisations = rottweilers, german shepherds, ‘pit bulls’ (whatever that is, this is a conglomeration of bully breeds) and chow chows make some of the lists too. Temperament studies (take these with a pinch of salt) and my own observations (not big data) show bullies to be extremely sociable to humans (in general). As a behaviour therapist, I consider a human-aggressive bully to be abnormal and breed atypical.

Size matters

Let’s go back to something we can all agree on: there’s a difference between a Chihuahua attack and a Bully one. Sure Chihuahuas can cause severe injuries but, all things being equal, I’d much rather be attacked by a furious Chihuahua than a furious Pit Bull.

I went to a seminar hosted by the Hondenbescherming and she illustrated the point nicely: “Would you rather be hit by an SUV or by a bicycle?”

Would you rather be hit by this?

 

Or this?

Even putting genetic predisposition aside, with great breeds comes great responsibility. The more powerful the dog, the higher the standards society holds you to. On “the list” or not, I expect you to not allow your large dog to get over-excited or to run up to people and dogs who don’t know him.

Sort out that basic bit of etiquette and you’ll be rid of so many problems already.

Pit Bull legends

Here’s another bunch of things we can easily agree on: some claims about Pit Bulls are ridiculous:

  • Their jaws ‘lock’: Patently untrue. No debate.
  • They have a gazillion-pound bite pressure: Yes and no. The numbers reported are ridiculous but yes, a broad-skulled, muscular dog, can bite strongly (remember the truck vs. mini Cooper thing?). Some protection and fight-Bullies (NOT your average pet dog) are even trained for extreme bite pressure. So yeah, they potentially pack a punch.

Highly trained protection or fight dogs aren’t exactly your typical Bullies, are they? That’s like presenting Michael Phelps’ lap times as averages

So it’s all about how they’re raised?

Not so fast.

Think of the Border Collies’ eyes-stalk-chase routine (admittedly a lot less multi-factorial). I give you that extreme to remind you: no one can seriously argue that genetics have nothing to do with behaviour.

What about the typical aggression incidents Bullies are involved in? Here’s a couple of potential genetic factors:

  • They ‘turn on you in the flick of a eye’: Typical scenario: 1.5 year old dog, always been super sociable, suddenly and severely attacks another dog with no warning. What could be going on?
    • Terrier ancestry may predispose some dogs to being trigger happy on the adrenaline rush.  This adrenaline system would reach maturity at adulthood, explaining why they were fine as younger dogs.
    • The hyperfocus response, activates the dog’s predatory sequence.
    • The common theme is excitement: The dog is easily and extremely excited from various stimuli like feeling annoyed over a dog toy, over-excited play or just hyper-sensitive e high-pitched sounds or fast movement in the environment.
  • It’s like he feels no pain: That same adrenaline response may explain how hard it can be to interrupt aggression once it’s kicked in. I’ve seen enough Staffies who will let go, but I have documented many cases where the dog seemed impervious to pain. During a recent case, for example, the dog had destroyed several hedgehogs.
  • He won’t let go: A dog whose ancestors were bred to keep holding onto a bull’s nose may have higher-than-average ‘staying power.’ Then again, you could argue the same about English Bulldogs who are not on the primary list. But my point is this feature is (partly) under genetic control.

Let’s look at extreme breeding in Bullies: check this sad video of very young pups with so-called ‘gameness’. Given their age, you cannot argue that this is purely how they’re raised. They are extremely excited, do not let go despite the pain, and display extreme aggression for their age.

I am sharing the video to address idealistic claims that ‘it’s all how they’re raised’. Of course such extreme dog-dog aggression is rare in practice, and are the product of carefully selected aggressive lines.

Check this video of typical Bully pups to see the difference.

So it’s all genetics? It’s more complicated than that

There are POTENTIAL genetic influences that may explain some of the Bully attacks reported.

But, just like not every Labs love water, not every Staffy is an adrenaline junky. I know enough (even older) Staffies who are absolute angels with other dogs, no matter the provocation.

So, to what extent are these aggression predispositions represented in the average Staffie family dog? Having read my ‘He’s a Labrador. Of course he’s good with kids‘ article, you know that behaviour traits are rarely 100% heritable.

Also, genetics tend to be probabilistic, not deterministic. It only indicates that a member of a certain breed may have a higher than average chance of carrying – and and even smaller chance of expressing – the trait. The worst-case scenario is a dog who is predisposed to all-out aggression and who is under-socialised and who is abused.

So no, not all Staffies are dog-aggressive. But, growing up in a similar environment, the potential for severe dog-aggression is more present than for a Lab. How much more present? That’s the million dollar question.

There is a difference between person-aggressive and dog-aggressive

Most of the press clippings I read concern aggression to a person. These pretty much all involved a severely abused dog, a recently adopted dog of unknown origins, or a dog raised for aggression to humans. pit_bull_restrained

I would go as far as arguing that it is harder to get a Bully to become human-aggressive, from my experience with them on the field (and most temperament studies that compared breeds). They tend to be incredibly tolerant of human clumsiness – to the point where I worry about irresponsible (pet) parenting, but that’s another story. Even fight-dogs have to have excellent bite inhibition to humans.

Having said that, beat up your dog and there is a good chance he won’t be people-friendly, like for any breed.

Rehabilitating their image

The worst thing is: the more scared society is, the more criminals want them.

Back when they were America’s sweethearts (check these posters), the baddies-du-jour were bloodhounds – who are now considered goofy. Their bad rep is pushing them to the seedier parts of society, and thus putting them at higher risk of being abused or trained for aggression.

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A Pitty being goofy

I welcome the movement to rehabilitate Pitties’ image. Take Your Pitbull and You, for example. They do excellent work. It is unfortunate that these efforts fall into blank-slate claims, but they will be beneficial nonetheless.

Taken to an extreme, the Pit Bull PR heroes could be doing more harm than good. They promote Bullies as easy family breeds, as Nanny dogs. Pushing inexperienced dog owners to buy one and trust them blindly with their kids, putting the dogs under severe stress in the process. Every dog has their breaking point, even the most tolerant family dog (as I would argue that Bullies are). The Nanny dog movement is needlessly endangering dogs and children in their attempt to rehabilitate the breed’s image.

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Pit Bull PR: The more we rehabilitate their image, the less attractive they’ll be to criminals

So all Bully owners are criminals?

Wow there. Let’s slow this right down.

Professionally, the Bully owners we see at the dog training school tend to be among the most well-informed, responsible, kind and dedicated owners. Granted, my social circle is made up of dog behaviour academics and my clients seek me out for my evidence-based approach (so not exactly your average irresponsible owner either).

But still, we don’t know what the proportion of irresponsible vs. responsible Bully owners is – if you could even define it narrowly.

One thing is for sure, the dog’s bad rep makes them more attractive among shady circles, as I’ve said many times in this post.

Responsible dog ownership

Responsible ownership is a central point of the equation, precisely because genetics play a role. I would not favour inexperienced dog owners getting a Bully as there are certain common-sense precautions to take. Many of them I would take with large dogs:

  1. Avoid situations that trigger high excitement,
  2. Socialise them religiously, particularly to dogs
  3. Give them enough mental stimulation and physical exercise
  4. Teach them to calm themselves down and
  5. Do not use violence to raise them.

Conclusion

If you feel worried about Pit Bulls, the best I have for you is look at the dog’s body language, look at the human’s body language. If your own dog is low-key and calm, imagine their dog is a Labrador and go chat with them about their breed. You’ll be amazed at how becoming more familiar with a few of them can help with your fear.

I used to have prejudices against Bully breeds and couldn’t fathom why my friends could want them, from the reputation problem alone. Then I got to know one, two, three, and countless of them and fell in love with the type. Nowadays, when I see ‘Pit Bull’ in my form, I can’t wait to hop in the car to meet the beast.

Further reading

Delise - Pit Bull

If you’re interested in the detailed history and risks of the Pit Bull, I highly recommend you read ‘the Pit Bull Placebo‘.

Bradley - Dogs bite

If you want to dig a little deeper on dog bite epidemiology, try Dog bites, but balloons and slippers are more dangerous.

This article by HugABull (perhaps biased considering the name of the website) has also done an interesting survey of the relevant literature.

Illustration credits

No modification were made to any of the illustrations.

Posted in Dog breeds | Tagged , , | 3 Responses

Of course he limps: he’s a Jack Russell. Beware of negative assumptions about dog breeds

Beware of negative claims about dog breeds – article by Canis bonus. December 2016
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post. No modifications were made.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Mutt or pure-bred dog?

As my old dog is nearing the end of his life, we are contemplating the rescue vs. breeder route. For the list of posts on this tricky question, go to the first post in the series: He’s good with kids, right? He’s a Labrador – Beware of positive assumptions about dog breeds.

The present blog talks of the other side of the medal: negative assumptions about certain breeds.

Hovawarts (and Staffies, etc.) need a hard hand

I was out on a play date with my dog and some of his friends when I got chatting to the owner of this beautiful Hovawarts. The Hovawards was perfectly behaved but seemed a bit scared. I asked the guy if he’d noticed. His ‘secret’? The Hovawarts golden rule, he told me: a hard hand. No, the dog wasn’t scared. Just ‘submissive’. He proudly listed the rules: no sniffing when on-leash, only heeling; no digging dirt; no growling; etc. His dog was a perfect… robot.

fistI knew better than to get on my high horse. It doesn’t make for productive discussions and I’d heard this particular bit of nonsense about pretty much every large breed in the book.

Along the same lines, some clients (with a Staffie) tactfully asked me if I had much experience with Staffies as the breed ‘needs a hard hand’ and they were surprised at the lack of abuse in my plan. We talked about it openly and they gave it a shot. The culture change was slow-coming but the dog could blossom into the awesome guy he is now. Without force or intimidation. Without a… hard hand.

Don’t bother letting your Beagle (or Husky, etc.) offlead. They’re stubborn

“There is no way you can teach them a recall,” I often hear Result? Tons of Beagles who will never know the joy of off-leash walking. Sure, many Beagles find a scent trail irresistible. And that’s precisely why you want to work on their recall! And, who’s to say your Beagle falls on the extreme end of that spectrum? Far too many Beagle owners don’t give the recall a fair chance because of the breed.

And how about this one? “Chihuahuas are snappy dogs.” They sure are. So would I if half the people I passed invaded my personal space, petted me or even picked me up without asking if I am OK about it.  Raise your Chihuahua like any other dog and the supposed snappiness melts like snow in the sun. How is that? Just let the dog decide if he wants to make contact with everybody and their uncle.

My point is? Be very critical of sweeping statements about temperament and breeds. Raise your dog for the individual that he is. Work on what needs work and forget about the genetic hard-hand, stubbornness and bad temper.

Watch out! That’s a German Shepherd

Breed-Specific Legislation (some dog breeds are classified as legally dangerous and thus require specific safety legislation) is a polarizing issue. The safety measures vary from prohibition from off-leash walks, compulsory muzzles, breed bans, confiscation and even euthanasia depending on the region.

BSL has been an unmitigated PR and effectiveness disaster because the issue with ‘dangerous’ breed is more complex than genetic predisposition alone. It is a tale of (epi-)genetics, developmental influences and (ir)responsible ownership. This pandora’s box is way to complex to be tackled in a few short lines. I have a shortcut for you though.

rottweiler3

RUN!!! It’s a Rottweiler!

You see a ‘bully’ breed dog like a Staffie? Check how the dog and his human are behaving. is the owner is tightening up the leash, is the dog staring or tensing up or getting agitated? Then be my guest and move on. But if they both seem relaxed and sociable, why not ask if it’s OK for the dogs to meet, and then have a chat about the breed?

The worst thing you can do is systematically tense up. It will alert your dog – and the ‘bully’ dog, and his owner. You are already priming the situation for going South – and ironically confirming your own prejudice in the process. Want a reality-based experience with these breeds? Give it a chance.

For a blog post about negative prejudices about Pit Bull specifically, please follow this link.

Of course he’s limping. He’s a Jack Russell

Jack Russell and other short-legged breeds are susceptible to patellar luxation: their knee cap moves out of place and it is excruciatingly painful. Many have learnt to kick it back into place and go through it several times a day. My problem is this: we associate this with some breeds so  much that many Jack Russell owners won’t even seek veterinary treatment. “Oh no, it’s normal. He’s not in pain. He’s a Jack Russell.”

jack-russellThe same goes for breathing difficulties with pugs or Frenchies. “They just snore when they breathe. It’s really cute” or the Chihuahua’s cherry eyes: “His eyes are protruding because he’s a Chihuahua, that’s why they’re so red.”

If your dog’s breed is predisposed to a (possibly chronic) health condition, seek veterinary treatment like you would for any other breed for that condition. Don’t assume that nothing can be done about it. You’d be surprised.

Hybrid vigour – Schmybrid vigour

Before you give up on pure-bred dogs, note that not all breeds have been selected for such morphological extremes. And watch you don’t assume crosses guarantee genetic health.

That accidental litter of pups between your mom’s Labrador and her neighbour’s Irish Setter isn’t necessarily genetics’ greatest draw. People seem to think of ‘hybrid vigour’ as a magic shield against genetic diseases.

Granted, some breeds’ gene pools have become so narrow that the risk of a recessive disorder is massive. But who screened the cross between your Mom’s Lab and your neighbour’s Setter? Who is to say that the combination won’t predispose some of the pups to, say, an early form of bone cancer, or hip dysplasia?

questing-beastMutts also get diseases. If you want to reduce the risks of genetic problems, your best option might be a responsible breeder, who will painstakingly screen the breeding pair for poor genetic matches.

In conclusion

I don’t have a dog in this debate: there’s a lot to be said in favour of mutts AND of purebred dogs; I don’t have shares at a veterinary clinic;  I am neither pro- nor anti-pitbull (that’s a lie, actually. I do have a soft spot for them). I just don’t want negative breed assumptions to result in the poor treatment of a real, flesh-and-blood, individual dog.

Illustration credits

No modifications were made to any of the listed illustrations:

Posted in Dog breeds | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Response

He’s good with kids, right? He’s a Labrador – Beware of positive assumptions about dog breeds

Beware of grandiose claims about dog breeds – article by Canis bonus. November 2016
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Mutt or pure-bred dog?

It breaks our heart, but we are nearing my old dog’s end, and we are tempted to look at a breed dog after a series of (successful!) rescues. Philosophically, I can’t get past the fact that the shelters are overflowing with unwanted dogs looking for a second chance, and that families still order new purebred pups. Practically, I am getting less high-horsey by the day as I consider the idea of yet another ‘project dog’.

Philosophically, I can’t get past the fact that the shelters are overflowing with unwanted dogs looking for a second chance, and that families still order new purebred pups. Practically, I am getting less high-horsey by the day.

Like most modern people, I am inhumanely busy: I have a young kid, a husband, friends, and hobbies. And, most of all, I run two companies (OhMyDog!, the dog training school and Canis bonus, the dog behaviour practice). So I could do with a low-maintenance dog – if there is such a thing. I dream of this calm but motivated, independent but cooperative, miracle of a dog. I know better, of course. No matter what, I’ll need to invest a metric ton of time and energy (and money!) before I get half the dog I dream of.

But yes. I am also contemplating going the breeder route this time round. So shoot me. I too want the Good with children dog. And now the question is: how to make the right choice? Welcome to a series of blog posts about breed dogs, starting with:

Dog breed traits: the publicity game

When you get information from a breed club, be critical of what you read. Chance is it was written by huge fans of the breed, so you’ll forgive breed clubs’ tendencies for spinning worrying imperfections into Lassie traits.

In the professional dog world, we are so familiar with this phenomenon that we have worked out shortcuts to the downsides of these rosy traits:  

  • Faithful can mean So shy of strangers he’ll hide behind a chair rather than let your guests approach him,
  • Cuddly can mean So dependent he’ll howl the hours away from the moment you leave the house,
  • Good guardian can mean So paranoid of visitors he’ll bite first and ask later,
  • Independent can mean Stubborn as a plank of wood.
That's OK, he's just being a 'good guardian'

That’s OK, he’s just being a ‘good guardian’

To every ‘good trait’, beware of the other side of the coin. Chance is you’re in for a rough landing if you expect only the rosy sides of the claims to come true.

This dog breed is Good with children

Selling a breed as Good with children is particularly intelligence-insulting, if you ask me. What precisely does it mean? Does it mean a dog who is OK’ish about:

  • being smacked in the face by little hands,
  • being startled out of his sleep,
  • having his toys snatched off him,
  • being chased and cornered,
  • being hugged even when he’s not in the mood,
  • loud shouts,
  • constant agitation,
  • fast movements

Even if you boil it down to, say, High resilience to stress or Extreme enjoyment of human company, how heritable are these traits? Calculating the heritability of individual behavioural tendencies is a devilishly complex endeavour. That, and the fact that hardly any behaviour trait is 100% genetically determined.

dog-with-child

If you’ve seen a puppy and a kid together lately, you’ll know how utopic that picture is

Knowing all this, telling me that my pup is guaranteed to be Good with children by virtue of his being a Labrador is downright dishonest. At best, you can claim that he has a greater pre-disposition to turning out to be good with children. But I get that’s a mouthful, and it doesn’t sell as much.

And now, there’s the added complication of how pre-disposed is the breed exactly? What is the chance that my individual pup happens to be the Good with children archetype of that breed?  In other words, where does my dog fall on the breed spectrum?

Where does my dog fall on the breed spectrum?

Even if being Good with children was 100% genetically determined – it isn’t – and even if that breed produces a majority of dogs who are kid-ready – we’re not there yet. How big of a majority is a majority: 51% or 99%? And where does my individual dog fall on the spectrum?

Without knowing how the Good with children trait is distributed in, say, Labradors, I still know nothing about the probability that my own pup will be ‘one of the good ones’. For all I know, 70% of the dogs of that breed are ‘kid-approved’ (and that’s generous for any trait and any breed). What of the remaining 30%? That still leaves 3 dogs out of 10 ranging from downright psychopaths or just so-so with children. Where does your pup fall? I have no idea.

normal-dis

The 70:30 ratio isn’t particularly pessimistic from what I see at the dog training school. This means that, on average, 3 Labrador pups out of 10 require quite a bit of attention to prevention and remedial training to become suitable family dogs. Not a huge deal in itself, but a far cry from all-around Good with kid label.

In conclusion

I am going to leave you with one last mind-blowing thought: when you compare a trait within different individuals of a breed, you will see a much wider distribution for that trait – i.e. much more extreme individuals – than when you compare dogs across breeds. So please exercise caution before assuming that your dog will have what you thought to be a typical, say, Labrador trait – Labradors differing so much among themselves temperamentally.

When shopping for a dog breed, be EXTREMELY wary of shiny breed claims. There are plenty of stranger-loving German Shepherds and plenty of kid-hating Labradors out there. Look at the individual dog and his individual temperament. If you want, a professional can help you choose but then again, early temperament testing have appallingly low predictive value. That’s going to be for another blog post, though.

Illustration credits

No modification were made to any of the illustrations, aside from my own.

Posted in Dog breeds | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Responses

A day in the life of a dog behaviourist in Den Haag

A day in the life of a dog behaviourist in The Hague, article by Canis bonus. November 2016
Details allowing the reader to recognize my clients, like consult dates, dog’s characteristics and training locations, were deliberately mixed up for confidentiality purposes.
Author: Laure-Anne Visele. Illustration credits at the end of the post

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

A day at the dog races

My days feel like a constant race against time. Friends think I frolic around with dogs and am lucky to have ‘turned my hobby into a job’, my parents think I need to get my head out of the books, my accountant thinks I need to charge way more, my family wants me to work way less, and my clients would like me to stay longer and work for free. What I think? I need a full-time (volunteer) secretary and a time-bending magic wand.

This is what it’s really like, you guys.

Monday

We rush to school as my kid tells me, out of the blue, mid-school run, that ‘school is starting early’. How early or why wasn’t relevant, apparently. We grab the dog and walk briskly. The (geriatric) dog, of course, has other ideas and sniffs every possible inch from here to school, unsure which one to dignify with his morning pee…

I get home and brew myself a huge cup of coffee, put up my sleeves and sigh: time for my mountain of e-mails, and then my mountain of reports. Since I’ve decided I wouldn’t work week-ends anymore, Mondays have become a tsunami of late work. I work my way through mails from clients rescheduling for the fifth time; asking in every last detail what they need to bring to class; needing to be chased a million times to FINALLY complete their registration properly; detailing their dog’s every problem in an mail but failing to complete my history form; enquiring to see if we take special-needs dog, committing to us, letting us do all the background research, then changing their mind; etc. etc. etc.

Two hours later, and I want to finally get cracking on a report that I have needed to send for ages. but I can’t, because the phone is ringing off the hook. I try to handle all the phone calls as best I can until it’s time for my dog’s big walk of the day. After the walk, I barely make it on time to a client consult: a long, sad case. I keep working on incoming calls on my way there and of course miss my exit. I am late for the client and make it to pick up my kid for school with seconds to spare. Report status? Zero progress.

Then, I get a call from the new location (we are moving fields at the dog training school) and I have to whizz past the new field – kid in tow – for some technical details.

I finally get home and have to ask my kid to entertain himself as I get to work on the dreaded report. I finally send it to the clients and with what little time we have before dinner, I decide to say ‘screw work’ and give my kid some quality time. We play some board games, do his homework, do his trumpet practice.

After dinner and putting kiddo to bed, I check my accounts ‘really quickly’. Sure enough, some clients still haven’t paid and their bill which is now a month overdue.

Tuesday

Tuesdays and Thursdays are short-consult days. I whizz in and out of consults the whole day and barely have time to catch a breath. I try to get through my e-mails early in the morning, very quickly (one hour, max), get the kid to school, walk the dog, and and start the morning consults run. With a bit of luck, I’ll get to bee-line past the Turkish Pizza joint to grab my favorite lunch: veggie Turkish Pizza. I’ve discovered it this year and now can’t live without it! My favorite, if you’re interested, is Pizza City in Scheveningen. Tell them I said hi!

After my Turkish Pizza delight, I rush back home to grab the dog (and my skateboard) so we can work on a couple of desensitisation cases. Tons of dogs are reactive to skateboards, so my modest skating skills come in handy. But sure enough it’s pouring it down with rain, and the client’s dog is uninterested in my skateboarding antics. Honestly! My own dog looks at us from the car, bemused and happy not to get rained on. Then it’s off to my last consult: a dog who used to react really badly to other dogs. After a couple of appointments with fake (stuffed) dogs, today’s my first live dog presentation. Thankfully, my old guy is used to it and he runs through the motion quite happily. The session is going great, the client’s dog has made HUGE progress. Yes! Great way to end the day.

Wednesday

Wednesdays are training school – aka octopus days. I would need eight arms to barely keep up with a smidgin of what needs to be done (all at the same time, you understand). I tend to sort out the schools’ logistics, staff management, client relations, administration and financial stuff ahead of tonight’s lessons; this whilst filtering a barrage of phone calls. Every single week, I hope to have some time for my kid on his half day off school. Every single week, I have to tell him: “Mamma is so sorry, darling. Mama has no time right now”. Thankfully, he’s more than happy to play with his little friends instead of me, but oh the guilt.

As winter approaches, I also have to endlessly find solutions to our darkness problem. For some reason, the students are either blinded by our flood lights, or find it too dark. The last attempt was no success. We burnt off a bit of the window sill paint with our flood light. Argh… So, after a day of running around like a maniac, I barely have time to pack, load, assemble, plug in, unplug, disassemble, unload and unpack my FOURTEEN flood lights every week. It’s gotten to the stage where I can’t even say the word ‘light’ without getting a nervous twitch. I c.a.n.n.o.t. wait until we’re at the new location – which has flood lights pre-installed!

At the training school, it’s the usual merry-go-round of briefing the staff – which feels like herding cats at times – checking some lessons, and giving some lessons, and trying to sort out whatever administrative/logistic problem needs sorting out on the field. I then generally get dragged by the team to the local pub because I am “too stressed” (yathink?)

There’s a bunch of post-school admin stuff to be done (logging presences, payments, solving the problems that popped up this week, registering payments, and writing homework). I know how heavy tomorrow will be, so I decide to do this ‘tiny’ admin job when I get home, at 11pm… Come 3am and I’m finally done. When will I learn there is no such thing as a small job?

Thursday

On Thursday, the day has finally arrived! I am psyched! Finally a whole day when all my consults are at cycling distance of my house and each other. I am going to use my brand new e-bike for work! I’ve been wanting to do this for weeks but something always gets in the way. Today, after I’ve prepared everything on my lovely new bike and am ready to go, I notice that it’s STILL not charging my mobile, which means I still can’t use Google Maps on it, which means I have to dump the bike at the local repairman (again!), jump in my car, SMS all my clients that I’ll be late, and finally be on my way.

When you have no sense of direction and you never drive the same route twice, trust me, Google Map is no luxury. Turns out Google Map sucks the living life out of my phone’s battery and I can’t cycle ten minutes without a charger. Argh!

This Thursday, for some dark and unknown reason, the dark God of Transportation has it in for me: bike-disaster day turns into car-disaster day as, when I turn my key to start the car, on my way to my last client of the day, the car won’t start! So it’s back to my last client’s house waiting for the roadside assistance for what feels like two years. Ah well, that leaves me time to finish working on yet another report. Other good news: no battery in the car = no way of charging my phone = I can’t be called and distracted away from my report. Silver lining and all that.

Friday

Friday is my vet clinic day. I give express behaviour evaluation consults there. The time pressure is insane: you want to make the right behavioural diagnosis but you only have 30 minutes to do so. I NEVER manage to stick to the 30 minute window. I tend to emerge one hour later with a solid strategy and dog owners with a fresh dose of courage and motivation. To keep their momentum going and make sure they follow-up, I need to send them a ‘short’ report ‘quickly’. There are only two problems with that: ‘short’ is not in my vocabulary, and there’s no such thing as a ‘quick job’ for me.

I love my Friday consults. I love the feeling that I have colleagues (it can get lonely to nomadically move from one client appointment to the other) and I love the short lines of communications with medical staff. It means we form a multi-disciplinary therapeutic team and we can take effective decisions quickly.

But yeah, the time pressure is enormous, and I tend to get pretty severe cases there. This week was no different: I got a very large dog with a severe bite history and a well-established aggression problem (towards other dogs), who is starting to show overt aggression to the family’s other dog, who happens to be… teacup-sized. The only ethical recommendation is strict safety measures and the quickest re-homing possible of the small dog, and a referral to a specialist centre for the big one. I hate breaking bad news to clients. Sometimes they hope you have a miracle solution for them. And sometimes we do. But not this time.

Even though I try to keep Fridays for clinic work, I often have to fit in urgent consults. This week, I squeezed in an owner-directed aggression case – always something that makes it on top of my waiting list. When am going to process the report is anyone’s guess as I am going to stick to my resolution not to work week-ends. When I get to the client’s house, all tired and stressed out from my rushed week, I am welcomed by a haven of peace. I am instantly in love with their house, the clients, the dog. We hit it off and we have a great consult.

A nice way to end the week!

At the week-end

At the week-end, I try not to accept work-related commitment, but that’s not always possible. This week-end, I went to an all-day seminar, so it meant getting up at insane o’clock in the morning, as of course it was nowhere near where I live. Then there’s still the notes to process (if you don’t do it immediately after the seminar, you don’t do it ever). And I still need to find the time to do my mailboxes (the school’s and the practice’s), and the two companies’ administration. Oh, that and a gazillion reports. But I am determined: I will-not-work week-ends…

What a week

This week, as usual, I see the two extremes of my job:

Meh: Clients trying to guilt-trip me to get a discount whilst I bravely resist, forcing myself to remember that I barely clear minimum wage some months. Clients pretty much telling me that their dogs ate their homework, yet demanding progress. Clients ‘yes butting’ their way through every-single-suggestion I make. Clients wanting a robot more than a dog, who push and push and push as long as the – by now terrified – dog doesn’t comply. Clients calling me several times a day to ‘ask a quick question’. And then the worst: the client whose every single issue was resolved ahead of time and, who, without as much as a thank you, blames me for not resolving long-established problems they had never mentioned.

Wow: Dogs showing miracle, beat-the-odds, night-and-day progress. Clients who walk through fire and back to get their dog better, and have heeded every recommendation. And of course, I get to be with my favorite creatures in the world all day: dogs. And then, there’s one of the main perks of my jobs: the intellectual challenges. I’ve been doing this job for over seven years, but I still get really interesting cases. The dogs who don’t respond to the usual go-to approaches. I love/hate these head-scratching moments. They are enriching, but it means more time to dig into the literature and confer with colleagues.

So it’s a hard grind, but it’s exhilarating to work on the cutting edge of dog behaviour issues.

Posted in Dogs and society | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

There’s a time for dog training and a time for dog management

The art of management in dog training, article by Canis bonus. November 2016
Author: Laure-Anne Visele. Illustration credits at the end of the post

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Dog training’s sensible little brother: management

For some dark and unknown reason, I cannot get my clients excited about the dirty M-word: Management. The second I broach the management topic, their eyes glaze over.

I am guessing it has something to do with the fact that the name is not exactly grabby – nor descriptive, come to think of it.

But first things first: the title was inspired by something dog training communicator Nando Brown always says: ‘there’s a time for training and a time for management’

Let me explain what it means in dog training: pre-empting and managing problem situations to stop the habit from becoming more entrenched – and to keep everyone safe. You do this either in parallel with training (the equivalent of palliative care coupled with therapy), or on its own (palliative care alone).  It means keeping the dog out of trouble.

Patient: 'Doctor it hurts when I touch there' Doctor: 'Don't touch there'

Patient: ‘Doctor it hurts when I touch there’
Doctor: ‘Don’t touch there’

When I draft training plans for my clients, management is an integral part of it. That’s when I see that look in their face. The “Doctor, it hurts when I touch here.” replied with “Then don’t touch here” look.

It can seem like a cop-out, I agree. I can see the person’s face thinking: “How much did I pay for this expert advice? I could have come up with that myself. That’s not solving anything”

The thing is, it is solving a lot: it is like treating a drug addict. You start by removing the trigger. Training has no chance to work unless it is coupled by its less glamorous brother Management.

Management as dog behaviour First Aid

I wish I could tell you that you can stop accommodate for your dog’s behaviour problems the second I walk into your living room. But that would be a lie. As you start the training process, there will be an interim period where you’ll have to be even MORE mindful of keeping the dog out of trouble.

This interim period can last from a few days to the dog’s life-time, depending on the problem. Quick fixes are rare in this line of work, particularly for me as I am a third-line consultant (behaviour therapists, trainers and vets refer to me, so I get the cases that have resisted first-line therapy).

The idea of first aid is that we “stop the bleeding”. Remember my definition of Management? We at least stop the dog from developing an even more profound habit (the bleeding) and we keep every one safe. First Aid.

Avoiding problem encounters with the trigger is behavioural first aid: it stops the bleeding

Avoiding problem encounters with the trigger is behavioural first aid: it stops the bleeding

Allowing the dog to practice the bad habit during a behaviour modification project is like playing “one step forward three steps backwards.” It’s an all-round bad idea: it’s bad for you and it’s bad for my success rates (yup, applied behaviourists also have KPI’s).

Management won’t give your dog stellar coping skills – that’s what the behaviour modification part is for – but it will also stop the dog’s current coping strategies from getting even more extreme, and even harder to reverse.

So when I come to someone’s house, the first point of order is to find ways to keep the dog from practicing being an idiot. Allow me to make a striking analogy in human psychiatry: it’s like leaving a sharp object at the disposal of a self-harm patient; or letting an anorexic girl visit ‘diet faster’ forums. The road to recovery will be bumpy, and the patient will be tempted to fall back during tough times. The last thing you want, for the prognosis – and to avoid further injury – is to give the patient opportunities to engage in their destructive coping strategy.

Example management tools in dog training

Management tools can be anything: food-dispensing toys, leashes, baby gates, muzzles or plain old distraction.

Take my own dog. He is on Prednisone and, sadly, will be life-long (he has a terminal liver disease). This is making him restless at certain times of the day. Instead of letting him drive us up the wall with his pacing and whining, I give him his bone to chew just before his witching hour. It hasn’t solved the problem, but it takes the edge off and it stops this from becoming a vicious circle – and ruining my evenings.

You also have the doorbell routine for exuberant greeters. Stick a note on your door saying you’ll be a minute because you’re putting the dog away. Then each time the doorbell goes, let that become a signal for the dog that you’re about to send him to his ‘room’ (e.g. in the kitchen, behind a baby gate) with a bunch of treats tossed on the ground to keep him distracted from mauling your guests as they come in (I share tons of ‘slow-cooking’ suggestions here if you’re after ideas that will keep your dog busy). We’ll be working on training this in parallel, but when your guests are visiting, I would argue, is NOT a good time for training. You’ll be stressed, irritated and distracted. You want to pay attention to the guests, not the dog. So we’ll teach the dog to greet guests like a gentleman but in the mean time, don’t let the dog practice appalling manners between sessions.

We also advise management to puppy owners at our dog training school (OhMyDog, Den Haag), exhorting them to ‘puppy-proof’ their house as the parents of any toddler would. It beats (ineffectively) shouting ‘no’ every two minutes because the dog has, again, gotten hold of your favourite shoes. Just tidy your shoes away, for the love of Dog, and keep anything remotely chewable away from these shark teeth if you’re not actively supervising.

So when does the dog get trained?

The idea is NOT to solely rely on management. If you crate the dog each time the doorbell goes, the dog never gets to learn to greet people politely. You’ll need to be disciplined enough to invest at least some time in training in a real-life problem situation, even if you have smooth management strategies in place.

When you’re in a situation when you’re having to say ‘no’ again and again, it’s a sign the dog has not been trained to cope with this situation. That’s the time to ask yourself this question: “Is this a time for training, or a time for management?

A time for training is a time when you can control the situation (including the guests, the other dog, whatever is setting your dog off). You could, for example, go through your training protocol with a few of your guests if they don’t mind. If the guest is the queen of England (or your mother-in-law, of if you’re having your kid’s birthday party), it’s a time for management. Same for the infamous “It’s OK, I’m good with dogs” guests who never do as you ask.

If you're going to have to shout 'no' every two seconds. Chance is this is a time for management.

If you’re going to have to shout ‘no’ every two seconds. Chance is this is a time for management.

Management in dog training: pick your battles

The idea of management boils down to picking your battles. You want to keep yourself sane by not having to micromanage the dog’s every move (Training) all the time, but you still need a healthy training:management ratio to get a well-behaved dog. The more Training sessions you can organise, the quicker you’ll stop needing Management.

Tip: There’s no law against inviting your friends over to play ‘stimulus guests’ and role-play the doorbell routine with them, even if it’s just for two minutes. I understand paying them in wine for their time is a winning strategy.

tight-rope

Deciding when to manage and when to train is a balancing act

Like many things in dog behaviour, Management is a balancing act that you’ll learn to finely tune.

Illustration credits

Posted in Dog training | Tagged , , | 2 Responses

Food in dog training? He should work out of respect

The whys and hows of using food in dog training, article by Canis bonus. November 2016
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.
Clients’ names and other recognizable features have been changed to respect their privacy.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Using food in dog training

I was packing up my laptop after a seminar I gave when a students lurked behind. He had a burning question, I could tell, and he didn’t dare ask it. Finally, he approached me and said: “I don’t want to use food for training my dog…” I looked at him, intrigued. “He should just listen,” he continued.

So I put my things away, sat down and listened to his story.

His dog barked all the time, he explained, so he just said ‘tsss!’ to get the dog to shut up. He’d never needed food for this, he pointed out. “Have the ‘tsss’ helped?” I asked. “Most of the time,” he said. “Sometimes, when he’s really wound up, I give him a little finger jab on his side to snap him out of it.” And there it was… The nasty cycle of punishment. Either it’s so mild that the dog gets used to it, or it is so nasty it becomes unethical. It starts with the ‘tsss’, escalates to the jab, and,  before you know it, the dog becomes terrified of the owner’s hands for fear he’s in for another ‘alpha-roll.’ An alpha roll is a sad throwback from Neanderthalean dog training times when you were told to pin your dog to the ground to show him who’s boss. Believe it or not, I still see traumatized dogs in my dog behaviour therapy practice who were raised like this at the PUPPY school, LAST YEAR! Thankfully, you can now report these schools to the Dutch animal protection agency (call 144 if you’re based in The Netherlands. They’re lovely!).

A few years ago, I would have ranted and railed at my student. But I hear these stories daily. I also don’t think the blame is with the dog’s owner, but with the dog professionals (books, celebrities, or next-door trainers) who keep promoting such over-simplistic methods.

The nasty ‘should’ of dog training

Violence aside, things tend to start going wrong the second they think their dog “should” be like this, that or the other.

My student, it turns out, had expected Lassie but got Santa’s Little Helper (the Simpsons’ dog). He feels he should have Lassie, but I see he does have Santa’s Little Helper. Who do you think will get better results? The should or the does guy?

santas-little-helper

He wanted Lassie, he got Santa’s Little Helper

He’s not alone: most dogs aren’t all that obsessed about pleasing us. Staying out of trouble and getting treats is where it’s at. Most dogs are utter lemons for the most basic things: very very very slow students. For some of them, we need to break the sit down to its components before the dog gets it. Most of them need quite a bit of supervision before they finally get it into their heads that no, the food on the coffee table is not for self-service.

The truth is: polite and relaxed family dogs don’t come out of the box. You’ll need to shape them into the best family dog your dog can be. Nearly every dog has minor issues. None of them is perfect from the start. You can look at your neighbour’s dog with envy, but I can guarantee he isn’t perfect behind closed doors.

Stop training for the dog you should have and start raising the dog you do have.

“The problem with ‘shoulds’ is,” I told him, “that you’re not engaging with reality. The instant you say ‘should’, you know you are fantasizing. Stop training for the dog you should have and start raising the dog you do have: an opportunist whose #1 priority is to get nice stuff like food, walks, or play. So enough flank jabbing. Let’s put your dog’s opportunism to good use.”

So why use food to train dogs, why not play, petting, praise?

Nothing is wrong with petting as a reward if the dog sees it as a reward. But we see most dogs back away when their owners pet them as a reward. In our experience, food is the highest motivator for dogs. And it’s plain easier than alternatives:

  • I can time the start/end of the reward better than with, say, a game of Frisbee. I want to be able to reward every other second on occasion, and a game of Frisbee just doesn’t lend itself to that.
  • Most dogs find food intrinsically rewarding, whereas praise tends to pale in comparison.

Why give food so often in dog training?

At our own training school (OhMyDog, Den Haag), we recommend students bring A HUNDRED AND FIFTY small pieces of food with them as a bare minimum. Turning up with a couple of Frolics won’t cut it. Some of our clients are shocked by how often we reward the dog during tougher exercises. Nando Brown, a fellow trainer, has a brilliant saying for this: “It’s not gold, people.”

The reason we reward often is we ‘shape’ good behaviour: we reward tiny approximations towards our goal. For a challenging exercise, the dog might not know what we want, so we play a game of warmer-colder to help them along the way. Example: I am teaching a dog to stay calm in the presence of another dog. At the start, I might have to reward every single time he looks at the other dog.

But won’t the dogs get obese?

No.

Let’s switch things around here: let’s stop giving dogs food just like that, for free, in a dish, and let’s have play and work for it. Every morning, you put his daily allowance in a container, then give him a small breakfast (in a food dispensing toy). Then, use the food from the container to give him his training rewards throughout the day. If he has some left over in the evening, you can always give it to him in a food dispensing toy.

Result? You have rewarded the dog a million times today, using food, and he had to burn calories getting it – oh, and ‘cognitively feeding’ as we call it, is also nature’s best anxiolytic.

obese

Dog food quality over quantity: When you reward the dog, don’t give him a whole Frolic. Don’t even give him a quarter of a Frolic. Give him a millionth of a Frolic. Just enough that he gets a satisfying taste. What counts isn’t how much you give but how you give it. Give it in a way that builds up suspense, that is playful, that will keep him on his toes about the next morsel. Some of my personal favorites:

  • I slam the treat on the ground, covering it up with my hand, then removing my hand
  • I toss the treat, sending it rolling, encouraging the dog to chase after it
  • I toss it high up in the air, leaving the dog perplexed for a second, then excited and happy when he hears the treat land.
  • I toss it in the dog’s mouth, letting him catch it in the air

But really, there are millions of ways. Just use your imagination. If you’re interested in cognitive feeding, I wrote tons of ideas for you here.

Some problems with using food in dog training

  • If your dog is getting too excited about the food, give him tiny morsels of less delicious food.
  • If your dog gets aggressive about food, contact a local behaviour therapist. Here is some help in choosing a good one. If you are in The Hague or region, get in touch with me.
  • If your dog isn’t that interested in food, try smellier, stickier and more fun. You can also pretend you are eating the food. That works… a treat (excuse the pun).

So how do I wean off the dog?

You can get less generous with the treats for stuff he can do with his eyes closed. For things he still finds challenging, make treat delivery extremely fun. Reward the dog every time he behaves well in a situation that he finds tricky. Every – time. Every time your serial puller doesn’t pull during a walk: treat. Every time he looks at another dog and stays calm: treat. You get the gist. If he starts to find this dead easy, then start treating less generously, and less often.

And that, my friends, is how you get a dog who wants to train, enjoys your company, trusts you, doesn’t get obese and, isn’t scared of your hand!

Illustration credits

 

Posted in Dog behaviour | 1 Response

“He won’t do anything.” How to keep dogs away from your reactive dog

How to keep dogs away from your reactive dog, article by Canis bonus. October 2016
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.
Client names and recognizable features were changed for this post

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

The dog who is scared of dogs

As I rung the doorbell, I knew I was in for a difficult consult. Mrs. E. was having problems with her adolescent German Shepherd, Tod, who wanted to murder every dog that crossed his path. We had a behaviour modification, management, risk management plan in place. That second one was the trickiest: management. It means avoiding the dog getting worse, ‘stopping the bleeding’. What was needed was strategies to avoid stressful encounters with other dogs. Not easy for Mrs. E., who lived in one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

population-density

The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated nations in the world. Good luck creating space for your reactive dog.

When I asked Mrs. E. how management had gone, her face crumbled. She’d carefully avoided other dogs for weeks, until yesterday when there was another incident. Another German Shepherd (off-leash and out of control, surely enough), had harassed Tod, who lunged and growled at him. Tod hadn’t caused any damage thanks to our safety measures. Also, our training work had paid off so he was already a lot less intense.

But Mrs. E. was upset. Days of training down the drain (every stressful encounter with the problem trigger is a setback in behaviour modification), and, once again, she had been made to feel an over-protective, ignorant dog owner for the crime of asking other dogs to respect her own dog’s space.

Once again, she’d heard the tired old litany from the other owner: “It’s OK he won’t do anything. He just wants to play.” and then the aggravating “You have to let them work it out.” This time, she lost her temper, then left the scene embarrassed. “What does it take for people to understand that my dog needs space?”, she asked me.

The dog who loves other dogs too much

That same day, I had another consult with a German Shepherd: Max. To say that Max was exuberant was an understatement. He got into everyone and everything’s personal space and would not take no for an answer. His main problem was not aggression, but impulse control.

During the consult, his owner told me of an incident she’d had in the park yesterday. You can see it coming, can’t you? Yup, Max and Tod had met.

Max had got “attacked” “out of the blue,” she explained. “Why can’t people keep their aggressive dogs away from the park?” She was hoping I’d be on her side as she went on: “I got shouted at, for my dog basically saying hello! If that woman wasn’t so hysterical about it, there wouldn’t have been an issue in the first place.”

I explained the predicament of owning a reactive dog. I explained that dog behaviour problems were not all down to a bad education, reminding her of her own predicament with Max. And I explained about why keeping distance was important. This is what I explained:

Why do reactive dogs need space? It’s not what you think

The obvious answer is to reduce the risk of an incident, for safety’s sake. But this is only part of the answer. And not the meatiest one at that.

The main reason is that behaviour modification cannot take hold otherwise. We treat reactivity by changing the patient’s expectations about other dogs. We want the patient to experience spotting another dog without feeling worried that the other dog will get in his face. We then use techniques to decrease the personal space he needs, so he becomes comfortable closer and closer to other dogs.

foxtrot

Letting your dog be reactive to other dogs whilst working on Behaviour Modification is like being caught in a constant Fox Trot: 1 step forward, 4 steps backward

Doing behaviour modification with your dog takes the patience of a saint: you have to fight tooth and nail for every inch of progress. Each time your dog has an episode, you reset the clock back. The only way for a dog to get better is for 99% of his encounters to happen at such a distance that he notices the other dog, but does not mind.

You can imagine how upsetting it is to throw weeks of progress down the drain, simply because people don’t respect your personal space.

Fair point: that dog has special needs and is asking the public to adapt. Fair point: It’s an inconvenience for you because you have to leash up your happy-go-lucky dog. But the sooner that high maintenance dog recovers, the less likely it is your own dog develops a problem with other dogs – from his many encounters with aggressive dogs. That, and plain old empathy for another person’s predicament should motivate you enough to give these dogs space, no?

Owner of sociable dog: how you can help owners of reactive dogs

One simple rule: if a dog is on leash, ALWAYS ask before you let your dog approach him or her. That simple. Just as if your own dog was a kid. You would never let your kid approach a dog without asking, right? (please tell me that you wouldn’t!) It’s the same with your dog.

Yes even in an off leash park. Yes even if your dog “won’t do anything”. It’s not about your own dog, but the other dog. And please oh please don’t argue education methods with them. They have enough on their plate.

Like different human cultures, dogs have their own greeting etiquette. Bounding up to each other isn't part of it.

Like different human cultures, dogs have their own greeting etiquette. Bounding up to each other isn’t part of it.

Not every dog is well-socialized to other dogs, on the contrary. Like-for-like, dogs tend to have more affinity to humans than to other dogs, did you know that? They don’t come out of the box loving every other dog. It takes careful socialisation and/or lucky genetics to get a dog there. In my estimation, 75% of dogs are wary of unfamiliar dogs. SEVENTY FIVE PERCENT. That is a huge number.

A normal greeting between two unfamiliar dogs should go something like this:

  1. They spot each other? They don’t look each other straight in the eyes and look away a lot.
  2. They approach each other? They follow an indirect path, stopping to smell the ground all the time, slowly. Definitely not bounding towards the other dog.
  3. They are close? They mark one last stop to check if the other dog is comfortable being approached further.
  4. Only then do they carefully sniff each other’s smelly bits.

They get even more funny about space when a precious resource like, drumroll, you, is involved.

Your bouncy, happy-go-lucky dog, bounding up to an on-leash dog is the one in the wrong. He’s not “not doing anything.” He is doing plenty. He’s breaching canine etiquette and being extremely rude.

Owner of reactive dogs: How can you steer clear of other dogs

Here are some tips:

  • Walk at times when the park is less frequented. In The Netherlands, a great time is around 6pm (thank goodness for early diners).
  • Find spots that are less frequented anyways.
  • Go to areas with strictly enforced on-leash laws.
  • Have your dog wear a vest that says: ‘Dog in training, please give space’. Some additional tips:
    • Steer clear of more explicit warnings like ‘I bite’, as it might land you in legal hot water. This might be considered to be an admission of guilt should your dog be involved in a scuffle.
    • Make sure the letters are visible from a distance, or you’ll end up with people up to you with their dog to read it…
keep-your-dog-away

Stand tall, put your hand up, and just calmly say: “Keep your dog away”

  • Get your dog used to wearing a muzzle. The Hannibal Lecter look does wonders for guaranteeing personal space. Please follow a recognized protocol for this (try Ken Ramirez’ or Sophia Yin’s).
  • Stand firm and call calmly: “Keep your dog away” when you see an off-leash dog approach. Keep repeating it until the person has leashed their dogs. Do not say anything else, do not answer their questions, do not get into a discussion. Just keep saying it. There’ll always be time to explain and chat once the danger is averted and both dogs are on-leash. If they’re still approaching, say that your dog is sick or contagious if you don’t mind a white lie for a good cause.

Bouncy and shy dogs: Can’t we all live together in peace?

Before you judge the other dog owner and get irritated, try to remember their own context. If you’ve never had a reactive dog, you might be baffled at the idea that another dog may be dog-shy, but believe me, your own dog will NOT charm the reactivity out of them. Put yourself in the shoes of the other owner, who is instructed by their dog’s behaviour therapist to keep their dog away from other dogs, but still needs to let their dog out. They do their best by keeping them on leash, but there is not much more they can do than that.

In the world of dog education as in many other worlds: remember the other person’s context before you get irritated. They have good reasons for having the beliefs and attitudes that they have. And irritation will only make things worse.

Illustration credits

  • Population density: Creator:Junuxx. Downloaded on 10 September 2016 from Wikipedia. License: CC BY-SA 3.0 [no modification]
  • Foxtrot:  Artist: F. J. A. Forster; Uploaded by Hamburger Time. Downloaded on 10 September 2016 from Wikipedia. License: Public Domain [no modification]
  • Japan etiquette: Uploaded by Bundesarchiv. Downloaded on 10 September 2016 from Wikipedia. License: CC BY-SA 3.0 de [no modification]
  • Hand up: Photographer: RegioTV. Downloaded on 10 September 2016 from Pixabay. License: CC0 Public Domain [no modification]
Posted in Dog behaviour | 2 Responses

“You are rewarding your dog’s fear” – the small prints

Article by The Hague dog trainer Laure-Anne Visele about rewarding dog fear, published in October 2016
Illustration credits at the end of the post

About the author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Annoying dog training stereotypes

Being a dog behaviourist, I hear my fair share of received wisdom on dog behaviour. Note how people will share this ‘knowledge’ with you with complete confidence. They watch National Geographic and have had dogs all their life, after all… I have tackled the ones I hear the most through previous blog posts:

One was missing from the inglorious list, though: “Do not reassure your dog. It rewards fear.”

Let’s dress down that little pearl of received wisdom, shall we?

A street dog with a heavy past

My dog has a heavy past. After we adopted him, we had to re-acquaint him to many situations like street noises and other dogs. I have pro-active strategies to mitigate the risk of relapses. Working with fearful dogs day in day out, I am all too familiar with how persistent a beast fear can be, rearing its ugly head after months of no incident.

My strategy is this: if I spot something that might startle him – like a horse – I’ll say our code word for “It’s a friend”. All he has to do then is look at the ‘friend’ and I’ll cheerily say ‘yes’ then toss him a treat away from the horse. He’ll look at the horse again and get the treat again. We keep playing this game until the horse has passed us. He hasn’t been scared of horses in years but we’ve kept playing the game. The fun thing is sometimes he’ll play it even if I hadn’t said the code word. So he’ll put himself in my line of sight then look at the horse then me, as if saying: “Dude, I am LOOKING at the horse. What are you waiting for?” This game is all the more practical that he’ll systematically walk close to me – to play the game – if our paths are crossed by something fast like a bike.

Street dogs can come with a heavy past

Street dogs can come with a heavy past

The picture got more complicated when he was diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction – Alzheimer’s equivalent for dogs. Occasionally, he’ll ‘forget’ that he’s not scared of cyclists and will give a perfunctory bark. He won’t run away in a panic the way he used to but this agitation is annoying. So sometimes I’ll miss it and he’ll be barking at the bike already. What I do then is call him to me (to stop the barking), then wait for him to watch the bike again. I’ll say ‘yes’ when he glances at the bike but JUST before he barks. He comes to his senses again then and just plays the game.

Not rewarding fear but rewarding self-control: When people see me do that, they invariably tell me I am ‘rewarding his fear’… On the contrary. What might not be obvious to the untrained eye is this: I am rewarding looking at the bike and staying quiet.

The small prints: I might be rewarding the agitated barking (NOT the fear, mind, the barking), if I did not wait for him to first look at the bike silently before rewarding him. If you play that game, you have to get the timing right.

Denying your dog protection

Here is another common scenario in the park: I often see a bunch of dog people chatting and laughing on the side of the path as their dogs are ‘playing’ together. More often than not, one of the dogs is being harassed by the rest as the owners benevolently look on. The small dog starts off happy enough then gets a little scared. So he tries to create distance but the dogs give chase. After running and running for a while the small dog, out of desperation, now tries to find shelter under the park bench or behind human legs.

And this is where it happens: the dog – clearly in distressed – gets ignored or laughed at and people keep on keeping on with their merry chat. When sometimes, just sometimes, one person is sensible enough to pick him up and walk away, the owners of the bully dogs shower them with a barrage of the same old misguided advice by the well-meaning but misinformed masses: “They weren’t doing anything, they were just playing. He’ll never fend for himself if you always pick him up. Let them sort it out. You are” wait for it… “rewarding his fear.”

Well-meaning but misinformed masses are not a good source of dog behaviour advice

Well-meaning but misinformed masses are not a good source of dog behaviour advice

Not rewarding fear but giving shelter: I am not suggesting picking up your dog at the smallest sign of stress but if your dog is clearly in distress, do the right thing and help him: pick him up. Failing to do this promotes fear. Let him fend for himself too often and he will develop fear aggression, growling and barking at any and every dog. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather my dog deferred to me when in trouble.

The smallprints:

  • When I talk of helping your dog, I mean doing so smoothly and calmly, not snatching him in a panic and running out of the park shouting and screaming. Of course that would promote fear.
  • When I say dogs in the park ‘harass’ each other, I am not talking of situations when all dogs are clearly enjoying themselves. Watch two energetic Boxers play and you’ll think they’re at each other’s throats when they’re  just having a laugh.

You can’t reward fear in dogs

You’ll sometimes hear dog professionals usher that phrase: “You can’t reward fear.”  What they mean is that emotions can be visualised on a spectrum of very unpleasant to very pleasant. If the dog is experiencing something unpleasant (fear), the theory goes, giving him something pleasant (food) will counter that and mitigate the fear. This is true in theory, but there are small prints.

The small prints:

  • You could encourage your dog to ‘act‘ fearful ( rather than ‘be‘ fearful) if you shower him with food and attention every time he acts forlorn.
  • Your dog might be feeling so fearful that giving him food at the time could add to his stress.

Conclusion

There are valid caveats like do not be hysterical when you protect your dog, do not OVER-protect the dog and do not reward attention-seeking, needy behaviour. But technically, no, there is no such thing as ‘rewarding fear’ and you are making things worse by letting your dog ‘sort it out’.

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