This blog is a tribute to Belle, and all the dogs who have come before and after. They are my friends, my companions, my teachers and my students. They bring me both joy and heartache, laughter and tears. There is nothing as sweet as the smell of puppy breathe, and nothing as sad as the final goodbye.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Monday, February 10, 2014

Lead or be led

"In every dog-and-handler team, without exception, there is a leader and there is a follower."
Dianna M. Young  'Think Like Your Dog' 

Monday, January 27, 2014

From Science Daily

Can walking the dogs show who's the leader of the pack?

January 23, 2014
University of Oxford
Dogs' paths during group walks could be used to determine leadership roles and through that their social ranks and personality traits, say researchers. Using high-resolution GPS harnesses, scientists tracked the movements of six dogs and their owner across 14 30-40 minute walks off the lead. The dogs' movements were measurably influenced by underlying social hierarchies and personality differences.

Credit: Zsuzsa Ákos
Vizsla dog with GPS harness.

Dogs' paths during group walks could be used to determine leadership roles and through that their social ranks and personality traits, say researchers from Oxford University, Eötvös University, Budapest and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS).

Using high-resolution GPS harnesses, scientists tracked the movements of six dogs and their owner across fourteen 30-40 minute walks off the lead. The dogs' movements were measurably influenced by underlying social hierarchies and personality differences.

'We showed that it is possible to determine the social ranking and personality traits of each dog from their GPS movement data,' said study author Dr Máté Nagy of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, formerly of Eötvös University and HAS. 'On individual walks it is hard to identify one permanent leader, but over longer timescales it soon becomes clear that some dogs are followed by peers more often than others. Overall, the collective motion of the pack is strongly influenced by an underlying social network.'
The study, published in PLOS Computational Biology, demonstrates the power of path tracking to measure social behaviour and automatically determine dogs' personalities. In future, one possible use of the technology would be to assess search and rescue dogs to see which dogs work best together. As dogs are ideal models of human behaviour, the same methods could be used to study social interactions in humans such as parents walking with their children. The study is part of the European Research Council project COLLMOT led by Professor Tamás Vicsek (Eötvös University and HAS) which aims to understand the collective motion a wide variety of different organisms in nature.
How dogs behave during walks reveals a lot about traits such as trainability, controllability, aggression, age and dominance. Dogs that consistently took the lead were more responsive to training, more controllable, older and more aggressive than the dogs that tended to follow. Dogs that led more often had higher dominance ranks in everyday situations, assessed by a dominance questionnaire.
'The dominance questionnaire tells us the pecking order of dog groups by quantifying interactions between pairs,' said Dr Enikő Kubinyi, senior author of the study from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. 'For example, the dogs that bark first and more when strangers enter the house, eat first at meals and wins fights are judged as more dominant. Conversely, dogs that lick other dogs' mouths more often are less dominant as this is a submissive display.'
Pack leadership is well-established in wolves, where packs are typically led by a single breeding pair, but there is still much debate as to whether groups of domestic dogs have a social hierarchy.
'These dogs have no breeding pair,' said Dr Kubinyi. 'However, there are dogs who take the lead more often than others. On average, an individual took the role of the leader in a given pair in about three quarters of the time. This ratio is of similar magnitude to the case of wild wolf packs with several breeding individuals. Using this qualitative data over longer time scales allows us to see the more subtle relationships that might otherwise be missed. Of course, hierarchies are likely to vary across breeds and individual groups, so we hope to use this technology on other animals in future to investigate further.'
The dogs used in this study were of the Vizsla breed, a Hungarian hunting dog known for their good-natured temperament and trainability. It is interesting to note that the leader-follower relationships were always voluntary; dogs chose who to follow and the leaders did not compel other dogs to follow them.
The technology used in the study could be applied to other dogs used for search and rescue to provide quantitative data allowing handlers to compare how different dogs work together and pick those with the highest compatibility. Each device weighs only 14 grams and further sensors such as gyroscopes could be used to determine what each animal is doing at a given time.

Story Source:
The above story is based on materials provided by University of OxfordNote: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:
  1. Zsuzsa Ákos, Róbert Beck, Máté Nagy, Tamás Vicsek, Enikő Kubinyi.Leadership and Path Characteristics during Walks Are Linked to Dominance Order and Individual Traits in DogsPLoS Computational Biology, 2014; 10 (1): e1003446 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003446

Cite This Page:
University of Oxford. "Can walking the dogs show who's the leader of the pack?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 January 2014. .

Sunday, January 19, 2014


I came across this very well written article by Lisa Mullinax of Mullinax Dog Behavior regarding desensitizing a fearful/reactive dog. It is well worth sharing and well worth taking the time to read if you have a fearful/reactive pet.

Let me start by saying this: I have made all of these mistakes at various points in my career. Even now, I have times when something goes wrong in a training session and upon closer examination, I will spot one of these mistakes.
There’s no such thing as a perfect training or behavior modification session. I’ve been to lectures by some of the world’s best animal trainers and they have shown videos of themselves training a dog, beluga whale, or walrus and pointed out their training errors. We all make mistakes.
The difference between a good behavior modification program and a bad one is the ability to spot these mistakes and correct ourselves, rather than punish the dog.
Are you afraid of spiders? Me too. But I’m not running around and screaming because of the freakishly large spiders in South America. Why? Because they’re too far away to present a threat to me.
Distance affects reactivity. The closer you get to something you fear, the greater your level of stress. Once the stress reaches a certain level, the brain tells us to react in some way that increases our chance of survival, which can include avoidance…or aggression. The other thing the brain tells us is to stop wasting energy on non-essential functions in that moment. Like eating. Or thinking.
If your dog is exhibiting any type of avoidance or aggression in the presence of a dog, person, or other trigger, you are too close (early warning sign – your normally polite dog starts painfully ripping the treats from your hand). Anything you attempt at this level is only going to amount to temporary suppression of behavior, which is not the same as changing the underlying emotion behind the behavior.
Behavior modification happens at a distance the dog is aware of the trigger but not showing any negative reaction, often referred to as under-threshold. If your dog reacts, MOVE. Get her out of the situation and to a distance that she can give you a behavior you can reward.
So, you don’t like clickers because they seem gimmicky, and you don’t want to say “Yes!” because it sounds silly. Frankly, I don’t care what sound you use, but if you’re going to be effective, you MUST have great timing. You will never have great timing with just the treat in your pocket.
The point of a clicker (or “yes!” or a click of your tongue, or whatever) is that you have a unique sound that marks the moment of your dog’s brilliance. That sound has been consistently paired with rewards so that the moment your dog hears it, the reward centers of the brain start churning out dopamine, which feels good. So, even if you are caught digging around in the pocket of your jeans for the treat, you’ve still captured the behavior the instant it happened, increasing the chance that your dog will do it again next time.
Why not just use “good dog/boy/girl?” Well, because it’s slower but, more importantly, you probably don’t give your dog a food reward after saying it, so it doesn’t have the association needed to have that feel good effect. Worse, if you say “Good boy” before patting your dog on the head, which he hates, you could be using a marker that has a bad association.
Things can happen quickly with a reactive dog and if you don’t instantly capture that brilliant moment your dog looks at you the moment he spots a new dog, you’re going to end up rewarding the wrong thing.
People don’t hire me because they want to teach their dog to walk at a certain speed in a specific position at their side and look up at them when another dog passes by. They hire me because they want their dog to stop lunging and barking at other dogs on walks.  They want their dogs to NOT do something.
And yet, this is where I see reinforcement break down all the time – people don’t reward the dog for NOT doing bad behavior to begin with. I see so many dog owners out walking their dogs, completely oblivious to the fact that their dog is looking up at them, seeking some form of feedback. If I had just 2% more Crazy Dog Lady in me, I would roll down my car window and shout, “REWARD THAT, for Pete’s sake!!!”
What does all this have to do with being stingy? Well, if you’re only looking for perfect behavior, you’re missing opportunities to reward less-than-perfect-but-still-better-than-aggressive behaviors your dog might be displaying. I try to teach dog owners to look for two things:
                Behaviors which are incompatible with the unwanted behavior (differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior – DRI). For example, looking at you is incompatible with biting a passerby. Your dog can’t do both at the same time.
                Behaviors which are different than the unwanted behavior (differential reinforcement of other behavior - DRO). An example would be looking at another dog without barking. While your dog could bark, he’s not doing so in that moment.
Now, technically, your dog biting YOU in the leg would be incompatible with biting a passerby in the leg. That’s why an important part of behavior modification is teaching the dog a variety of behaviors we like BEFORE we head out in search of strange dogs or people.
The higher the rate of reward, the faster your dog will start to form a pleasant association to the presence of strange dogs or people. Stingy rewards result in stingy behaviors.
Your dog is doing really well watching kids in the playground across the street, giving you all sorts of good behaviors you can reward. So, you’ve decided you're ready to invite your neighbor and her three dog-loving children to your 800 square foot house for a play date to see how he does.
Dogs DO NOT need contact with the thing they fear in order for it to be a positive experience.
Dogs DO NOT need contact for socialization to occur.
Think of your favorite coworker. Do they hug you a lot? Snuggle up to you during meetings? Of course not! Positive associations can be formed without any physical contact at all.
Fifteen years ago, having a stranger feed your fearful dog was considered a good, positive approach to desensitization. However, we've discovered over the years that if a dog isn’t ready to approach a person on their own, the treat is only going to mask the fear. Once the treat is gone, the dog is now much closer to the person than they are comfortable with. Depending on the dog, they may decide the best way to get distance is to use aggressive behavior. Believe me.  I have the torn clothing to prove it.
A far better approach is to start with the fearful dog at a distance from the stranger (and contact prevented by a leash or other management tool), with the owner dispensing all the treat rewards, just as we you do with a dog that was reactive to strange dogs on walks. This way, the dog is exposed to the new person, but at a distance that is safe for both dog and people.
Three seconds. That’s the maximum amount of time I permit a dog to interact with a new dog or new person before calling them away. “1 – 2 – 3 - Rex, come!”
That’s because three seconds seems to be just about right for a dog that is uncertain when interacting, but it’s also not enough time for a person or dog to behave in a way that could trigger a reaction in the dog. A first meeting might consist of a dozen 3-second encounters, or it might consist of two. It all depends on the dog I’m working with and the person or dog at the other end of the meeting.
First meetings are important, especially in behavior modification. When things are going well, it can be tempting to keep going and “see how he does,” which is how many bites happen and fights start. Better the first meeting be a positive 3-second experience than a longer experience which only ends up reinforcing your dog's negative association to people or dogs.
You have permission to be rude. To turn your back on a perfectly nice person and walk away without a word. Why? Because every second you spend trying to explain to a well-meaning dog lover why your dog doesn’t like their dog or doesn’t want to be pet allows that person to get closer and closer.
It is better to be rude forgotten five minutes later by a stranger than to be paying their dog’s vet bills or explaining to animal control why your dog just bit someone.
Fine. You can’t be rude? Here’s one approach I teach clients which allows you to give your polite explanation, but gives your dog the distance he needs to feel safe. It also turns the sharp, pointy end toward you, just in case.

While I find ideas like the Yellow Dog Project admirable, we're still trying to teach people not to leave their dogs in the car on hot summer days while they shop at the mall, so it's going to be a while before this becomes common knowledge.  In the meantime, you're still stuck with trying to explain to someone what the ribbon means.  Better to give your explanations over your shoulder or not at all.
If your dog is reacting in a way you don't like, he's telling you something.  He's telling you that the environment or situation you have him in is too much, that he doesn't know how to handle it.  LISTEN to what his behavior is telling you, then stop putting him in those situations where he feels the need to either escape or defend himself.  That's not training.  Training is about preparing your dog for those situations, teaching him behaviors that help him cope.  If he's relying on escape or aggression, that means he is not prepared. 
It is your job as his owner, his guardian, his leader, his hairless ape, or whatever you choose to call yourself, it is your responsibility to keep him safe.  When he reacts with fear or aggression, that means that you set him up to fail.  I say this not to make you feel guilty, but to encourage you to listen to your dog.  If you don't, he's going to resort to instinctive behaviors designed to keep him safe. 
I could probably go on, but these are the most common mistakes I see.  And it's not at all uncommon to find these mistakes made among those who claim force-free methods didn’t work on their dog.
My hope is that this article will help you recognize the common mistakes we all make – not to make you feel bad, but to help you make the adjustments necessary for success.  I've had to re-evaluate and make adjustments many times over the course of my career, and no doubt I will have to do it many more times. 

© 2013 Lisa Mullinax.  All rights reserved.