Control Issues

I’m a person who likes ORDER and ROUTINE. I balance my budget to the penny. I always go to the grocery store with a list. I read the care labels before I do the laundry. My husband and I once went to the same restaurant, on the same day of the week, every week for six months.

In other words, I’m a control freak who doesn’t tolerate change well.

As I’m sure you can imagine,  Silas and I struggled a lot in his early life. There’s some of this evident in the earlier parts of the blog, but most of it had happened before then. The dog training facility we used rolled puppies straight from puppy class to Obedience I. There were our pals from puppy class, gazing adoringly at their humans, begging for instructions. And then there was Silas, at the end of his leash, checking out everything but me. That’s how he was everywhere. When he was about a year old, we were on some trails with loose dirt over rock, and he pulled me completely off my feet. I went back to the car and cried. It wasn’t that it hurt; it was because my dog didn’t seem to even know I was outside with him.

I wasn’t “in control” of his behavior. I couldn’t even influence his behavior.

It changed everything when I realized that he constantly scanned his environment, apparently not paying me any attention, because I was the one thing out there that he could count on.

I also distinctly remember reading a passage in Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed. McDevitt brings up that old saw–you need to be more interesting than your dog’s environment in order to get your dog’s attention, and you need your dogs attention 100% of the time. Then she says that it just isn’t true:

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be interesting or rewarding to your dog. But I am relieving you of the burden of having to be the best thing in the galaxy at all times….It should be very rewarding for your dog to work with you, and I hope it always is. If it isn’t, you need to thoroughly examine your training structure and methodology. But you don’t have to take this concept to the extreme to train your dog…and you don’t have to feel like a total failure if your dog occasionally wants to act like a dog. (54)

Since then I’ve thought a lot about control. How much do we need in our relationships with our dogs? What purpose does it serve?

Silas

Force-free dog training changed the methods that we use to teach our dogs, but it hasn’t always changed the assumptions that underlie what “good dog training” looks like. I touched on this a few weeks ago when I wrote about failure. We don’t want our dogs to fail, because we still believe that failure is something bad that needs to be punished. Since we know we don’t want to punish, we feel like we can’t allow failure.

Control is on that same continuum. Traditional dog training said that your dog should be “under control” 100% of the time. Obedience trials are expressly designed to test that level of control. Will your dog stay in a cued position even when you aren’t there? Will your dog work devotedly even when there are no tangible rewards?

Perhaps ironically, positive dog trainers are often more intense about control than trainers who are willing to use punishment, because we feel like we have fewer options. I’ve seen a good bit of paranoia about dogs “self-reinforcing.” There is a real fear that our reinforcements won’t be reinforcing enough to get the behavior that we want, unless we keep the poor dog in some kind of sensory deprivation the rest of the time.

Obviously, an “out of control” dog is a problem. Dogs have sharp teeth, strong muscles, and poor judgment. Dogs need to be kept safe, from themselves and from the world, and people need to be kept safe from dogs. Also true, a dog with unlimited access to reinforcement isn’t going to make a great training partner. Why work for something you can get for free?

There is, however, a vast amount of grey area between no control and too much. Most importantly, trying to control your dog all the time is filling your world with NO, and that’s exactly what positive dog training is trying to change. Our dogs will be happy to work with us without Stockholm Syndrome. Let yourself off the hook. Sometimes it’s okay for your dog be a dog.

October Goals

We’ll be working on lots of things in October, because we’re always working on lots of things. Tricks, obedience behaviors, and sidewalk-walking will all continue apace. I’m hoping to improve Silas’s rear-end awareness, and we’re continuing our quest to have more fun.

But, we also have official goals this month.

Nineteen of them, in fact.

Dog nails that need to be cut

Yep, that’s a real-live, just-taken photograph of how horrible Silas’s nails are.

Silas hates having his nails done. Like a lot of his handling issues, we’d settled on the pragmatic–do it fast, get it done, have a party afterwards. Because Silas’s very first stress response is to stop eating, he’s tricky to counter-condition with food in the moment. But while the post-procedure party worked wonders for bath time, nail trimming was just not improving. Then, for reasons that are only reasons to an anxious dog, it started getting worse.

Now Silas has determined that he will not be put on the table, then only place he didn’t squirm too much for me to safely trim. It wouldn’t be too important, except that Silas spends very little time walking on concrete, so his nails grow quite quickly.

That means my big October goal is to counter-condition the process of nail clipping. I really hope it doesn’t take all month, but it may. Past attempts to work through this have always hit a plateau somewhat before actual clipping can happen.


 

I had this post largely drafted yesterday, when I heard that Dr. Sophia Yin had passed away. I’m incapable of writing a tribute that can do her justice, but this post is very much in her spirit. Dr. Yin cared deeply about how dogs and cats felt about being handled during grooming and medical procedures, and she used her position within the veterinary community to both advocate and educate on their behalf. I can’t write her an appropriate tribute; I will try to practice one instead.

Our Favorite Treats

Last week I talked about tug toys. But what about cookies!? We use play as a big training reward, but we also use a lot of cookies.

For a long time, I’ve been in allergy dog treat mode. That is, if I read the label and Silas can actually eat it, I buy it. Finally I decided that enough is enough. I’m tired of going all over town to buy Silas’s treats. I’m tired of always feeling like we’re running out of treats, because there are five open bags with two cookies left in each one. So, I’ve started keeping bulk quantities of his favorites. I keep a large variety of treats because 1) I can and 2) I need to match any protein-based treat to Silas’s rotational diet.

In reality, we use two kinds of cookies. I like training treats to be extremely small. A wise dog trainer once told me that dogs do not care how big the bite is; they care how many they get. Also, a fast-paced training session could easily use up the majority of Silas’s daily calorie allotment if I’m using big treats. That’s why so many people use their dog’s kibble to train, but that isn’t really a luxury we have. Because tiny training cookies are more of a “gulp and move on” item, I also keep some bigger snack-sized cookies. Silas gets a snack cookie when we leave him home alone, and he usually gets a few snack cookies around 5:00. His stomach seems a little better if he gets some “filler” in the afternoon.

These are what I’m keeping on hand right now:

Silas's favorite dog treats. Honest Kitchen, Ziwipeak, Cloudstar, Orijen, Smiling Dog

Small Training Cookies: 

Honest Kitchen Quickies.

Cloud Star Itty Bitty Buddy Biscuits, Peanut Butter or Cheese & Bacon flavors. (I break these in half for training.) These are not grain free, but Silas doesn’t seem to have a problem with grains.

Silas-approved kibble, usually something I’ve gotten as a sample-sized bag. Fromm Pork and Peas, Zignature Turkey (not pictured), or Pure Vita Turkey. Because Silas doesn’t get kibble, he thinks it’s pretty good stuff.

Ziwipeak Daily Dog Venison and Fish. Doubles as higher-value training treats and the occasional backup meal.

I also dehydrate turkey liver and turkey heart into small training treats. (not pictured)

Snack-Sized Cookies: 

Primal Venison Lung Puffs.

Cloud Star Grain Free Original Buddy Biscuits, Peanut Butter or Cheddar flavor.

Honest Kitchen Beams. (not pictured)

In Betweeners: 

Orijen Wild Boar freeze dried treats. These can be broken up in a limited way for training treats, but mostly I use them for tempting Silas to eat when he’s in one of his phases or for delivering tablet-style medications.

Smiling Dog Freeze Dried Pork treats are really high value for Silas. They are simultaneously too large and too apt to reduce themselves to dust, but I keep them for special situations, like training at the park.

 

What are the best treats at your house? How many do you keep on hand?

Progress Is Not Always Obvious

Silas with his bed

Wednesday afternoon, morbid curiosity drove me back into the blog archives. It isn’t a place I go often, just in case I said something that would horrify present-day me. Instead, I was left feeling the need to give my old self a serious hug.

It’s been about two years since I started the blog. Silas turned one in May of 2012, and I started the blog in August that year. I suspect, reading my first few posts and remembering some of the things that prompted them, that I started the blog out of despair.

We went to the vet every month from March to September or October that year. One of the things that came out of that was his food allergy diagnosis, which meant that by August we were doing a tedious and emotionally draining food elimination diet. It took over a year before we were at a sustainable diet again. On our summer vacation that year, Silas erupted in hives so bad he looked like a dog-shaped cauliflower, prompting major (and thankfully unfounded) panic that he was going to have severe seasonal allergies.

At the same time, it was becoming obvious to me that he was not just afraid of a few things, he was afraid of almost everything. It took me a long time to really process that, during which time his behavior continued to deteriorate in many situations.

On top of all that, he was an adolescent male dog. He’s never had significant bad behaviors at home, but dog adolescence has its problems for everybody.

I knew we were having a rough go of things, but I don’t think I was capable of processing how miserable it all was. It’s one of the more adaptive and useful traits of the human brain. However, an inability to really assess the situation right this minute means that you can’t, by definition, see if you’re making progress or not.

A lot of those issues–the stuff that used to drive every decision that I made, every day–just quietly went away with time, and we developed patterns of behavior to mute the others, further blurring the distinctions.

I adjusted to Silas’s food issues. We have four proteins he can eat now, and I buy the same five or six kinds of “safe” treats all the time. I got used to the grosser parts of preparing a raw diet. He’s still a finicky eater at meal times, and he still has serious stomach problems, but we get by.  I also know when to watch for and how to manage his seasonal allergies, which are fairly mild but do exist.

We’ve reached a middle ground with his anxiety, thanks in no small part to his medication. He’s stopped reacting badly to neighborhood sounds, which lessened my stress levels by about 99%. I’ve learned to live with every street-facing window in the house completely blocked. I know what he can handle, what he can’t handle, and what might be a good learning experience. I’ve let go of many, many expectations.

Silas also grew up. His temperament and energy levels stabilized. The last of our “regular dog” behavioral issues around the house (like chewing on the bathroom rug) went away. We did so much training to channel his energy that he’s a really good dog at home, and there’s even some residue of it finally showing up in other environments.

On Tuesday, when we went to the park and he was happy and well-behaved, I was a little stunned. Like I said, it’s hard to tell these days what’s really improving–Silas’s behavior or our ability to mold our life around his problems. And those, of course, form a fairly complex web. For example, I manage Silas’s barking out the front windows by covering them all up, but every day that he doesn’t practice that behavior is also lessening his need to do it.

When you have a reactive dog, or an anxious dog, it’s easy to see the setbacks. I could tell write you a list right now of behaviors that I’m working to improve, from the pragmatic to the most dog-geeky. Progress, though, is so silent and so slow that it’s easy to feel like it isn’t happening at all.

Have faith, and stop to look around once in a while.

Picking a Tug Toy

As promised on Monday, here are some questions that can help you pick a better tug toy for your dog. I don’t think I’m capable of writing the “ultimate guide to tug toys,” but there are definitely some common problems that good toy selection can help you with.

First up, let me say, I am neither teaching you how to play tug with your dog nor debating if you should do so. I’m assuming that you have a dog who is a pretty good candidate and that this is a game you want to play. I strongly recommend that you make some rules to govern tug games at your house, but that’s not the point of this post.

Secondly: I will tell you that Silas thinks every toy ever invented is a tug toy. Feel free to be inventive.

Silas with a Kong Tugga

Question 1:  Does your dog spit out the toy when you ask for it? If not, you need a toy that you can physically control. You will never get a stretchy toy away from a dog who won’t let go on cue. There are lots of tactics for teaching the dog to give back the toy, but for any of the ones I’ve seen you need a toy that you have full control over. Good options will probably seem very boring to you–rope toys, fake sticks, fire hose bumpers, etc–but dogs who won’t let go already have plenty of value for the toy.

Question 2: Does your dog sometimes grab your hand instead of the toy? I said that technique was outside of my range here, but do be careful with how you are presenting the toy. It’s easy to angle the toy so that your hand is more tempting than the toy is. Also, have some rules about this. Your dog will pick it up quickly. Generally, though, you’ll want a bigger, longer toy. Give the dog lots of room to grab as far away from you as possible. Silas loves to play tug with his huge Hol-ee Roller ball, which I think would be great here.

Tug!

Question 3: Does your dog clamp down firmly enough on the toy? Some dogs who aren’t really that excited about tugging will just let go of the toy when you pull. That’s a different problem. But it’s also easy to get a toy that’s just challenging or unpleasant for them to hold. The jute toy that I showed on Monday was a lot more fun for Silas before the jute got prickly. I’ve seen a lot of tug toys lately that are going to be too large for most dogs to get a good grip on. If you aren’t getting a solid bite down, try to find something your dog will enjoy having in his mouth. A softer toy that isn’t overly large will probably serve you better. Which leads to:

Question 4: What size toy do you need? There are several angles to this one. A lot of our favorite tug toys are for smaller dogs, because we just don’t have a lot of space. A four foot fleece rope means that Silas backs into the furniture and scares himself. That said, not all smaller toys can handle the force generated by a larger dog. If you have a small dog, a longer toy is easier on your back and can keep you from looming over the dog while you play. A larger dog may get too much leverage with a long toy. Sometimes you need a toy you can hide in your pocket, while sometimes a big toy can help your dog’s attention.

Question 5: Is your dog going to destroy the toy, or play thirty minutes of keep away, if he gets it away from you? You’ll want to address that behavior no matter what (playing tug on leash is a good place to start), but in the meantime look for a toy with a good handle. You want to keep a good grip on the toy. Also, see question one about picking a boring toy.

Silas playing tug

Most importantly, Question 6: What does your dog love? Toys that you can waggle on the floor for maximum pouncing? Toys that are good for fetch afterwards? Fuzzy things? Are noises awesome, or terrifying? Beyond a certain point, that’s all that matters.

Five Things We Couldn’t Do Before

Today’s trip to the park was nothing short of miraculous. At least five things happened that would never have happened this time last year.

1. Voluntary checking in. What happened to Mr. I Can’t Look At You I Have To Constantly Scan For Danger?!

Autumnal Equinox at the park

2. Sniffing a tree. No, wait, that one has always happened. How about continuing to calmly sniff the tree even after a strange man (in a hat!) walked up out of the bushes? Not the trail. The bushes.

Autumnal Equinox at the park

3. Eating some cookies.

Autumnal Equinox at the park

4. Loose-leash walking. He’s always had terrible leash manners at this park, because there’s no clearly defined trail.

Autumnal Equinox at the park

5. Sitting down, hanging out, watching the cars go by. (!!!)

Autumnal Equinox at the park

 

A very good day.

Our Favorite Tug Toys

Last week one of my commenters mentioned being overwhelmed by picking a tug toy for her dog. There are lots of choices out there. Today I’m going to talk about our favorites. Later in the week I’ll be posting some things to consider as you look for your own.

Silas, let me just say, is an equal opportunity tugger, as you’ll see from his bizarre collection of favorites.

(Not pictured: packing tape, preferably just pulled off a box; twisted up bits of brown paper bag; and real sticks, which I only allow in park emergencies.)

I rummaged through our collection and pulled these out as the best of the best:

Best dog tug toys

I thought I would be able to number these. It turns out that I’m not that patient. So, working roughly from top to bottom, left to right:

1. Salty Dog Canvas Raspberry

2 and 3. J.W. Pets Hol-ee Roller, big and little I don’t think these are officially a tug toy, but they’re great for it. I can see them being especially awesome if your dog tends to get your fingers instead of his toy. You’ll notice that we have lots of toys in two different sizes. 30 pound dogs apparently aren’t a marketing niche, so we usually have to pick between too big and too little.

4. Salty Dog Canvas Orbee

5. A random rope toy. This used to have rubber chewy parts on it. I untied the toy years ago and got rid of the rubber bits,  and then used this nice length of skinny rope to teach Silas his “out” cue.

6. A homemade braided fleece tug.

7. (Onto the second row now) Jute Bite Stick with Handle. Silas was mad for this, until the jute started to get a little hairy. Now he’s more so-so. But if you have a dog who seriously bites down, you should give this one a try. Sturdy with a great handle.

8. Another random rope toy; I believe this one is Pet Co’s Organic Cotton line. Looks boring to you; Silas loves it.

9. West Paw Hurley. This one is the large size. We also have the small one, buried in a park bag somewhere. Silas is only okay with the small one because he has excellent mouth placement on the toy. If you have a big, indiscriminate dog, even the bigger one might be a little short. I like these because they have just enough flex.

10 and 11. Kong Wubbas.  A classic for a reason. I can’t remember if our big one is the Large or the X-large. It’s almost too big for Silas to hold. The little one is tiny, and he adores it.

12. Flea Toy, a gift from my mom. I’ve seen these in stores, but I don’t know the brand name to look it up online. I can put Flea Toy on the ground and waggle his legs, and Silas just goes crazy. It’s held up to this surprisingly well, but Silas isn’t that hard on his toys.

13. The Udder Tug. There are not words for how much Silas loves this thing. It’s probably his favorite toy in this pile. Warning: these are recycled from the dairy industry, and they will smell exactly like a cow barn for quite a while. Strongly. But it’s a great toy.

14. This is some kind of real fur (sorry, my vegan friends) on a wee little tug toy. I’m 97% sure I bought it from Clean Run, but now I don’t see it on their site.

15. Kong Tugga Wubba. This one is Tugga Wubba 2.0. I bought the bigger one this time, hoping it would hold up better, but it hasn’t really. It’s also a little too big. I’d say get the small size for dogs Silas’s size and under and save the big one for dogs over 40 pounds.

16 and 17. Tiny Kong plushies. These are really pushing the boundary of tug toy. Silas’s favorite toy on the entire planet was a little beaver from a hide-a-toy. When I went to buy a new version of the hide-a-toy, and thus secure two backup beavers, it had been remodeled to include squeakers. Squeakers meant we couldn’t use them in obedience class. I bought these (with removable squeakers) instead. These are seriously only about two inches long, but they’ve held up pretty well. Silas has a preference for the frog, probably because he has legs to pull on.

18. West Paw Bumi. Another toy that we have in multiple sizes. This is the larger one, which is (again) really a little big for Silas. I’m not sure where the smaller one has gotten off to.

 

What’s your dog’s favorite toy?

 

The Missing Piece of Our Training

I never made September goals. Even if I don’t always post my monthly goals here, I’ve usually made them.

September has been a big blank, though.

It’s not that we aren’t doing anything. We’re working on Silas’s retrieveI’ve been doing some foot target shaping. We’ve been walking our tiny sidewalk walk.

Still, I want something else, and I’ve been struggling to articulate it.

I’ve been putting off making my goals, waiting for this missing piece to click in. For two weeks, my mind has been spinning and whirling, but not really getting anywhere.

Today I realized that I’m not dealing with an intellectual problem. It’s not that I can’t prioritize my training plan. It’s not that I need to review another book before I decide what to do, or ask more advice from my more experienced friends.

The missing piece?

FUN

We’ve gone from one issue to the next this summer. While we’re in a good place now, it’s been a slog from time to time. We had the car thing, and while I was distracted by that I let some of Silas’s old-reliable indoor behaviors go to pot, and then as I started to get those in order his stomach problems flared up. It’s easy to think about a dog like Silas as just a collection of problems to be solved, but that really destroys all of the good stuff in your life. You can’t have a great relationship with a collection of problems. You can only have a great relationship with an individual.

So, finally, my real goals: to have some fun with my dog, and to focus on the joy in our relationship. That may look like dog training–Silas loves dog training–but it may not, and either is great.

Find Your Joy

Product Review: Salty Dog Canvas Toys

I don’t review a lot of products here anymore. We have a pretty comprehensive collection of well-made, long-lasting toys. Silas doesn’t eat a lot of new foods. I try my best not to buy him things just to buy them.

At the beginning of August I ran across an entire new toy company, though, and I couldn’t resist.

Salty Dog Canvas is a small Canadian company. The owner learned industrial sewing making boat sails and awnings, then got sucked into the world of dog sports. Now she makes amazing dog toys, entirely from North American components.

I bought two of them:

Salty Dog Canvas toys

(Yes, my photo backdrop is covered in dog hair.)

I love these toys. Both of the ones I bought are a Planet Dog toy attached to a bungee handle. I am a big fan of Planet Dog. Alas, we play all of our fetch indoors, which means that rubber balls either bounce into or roll under something they shouldn’t. Attach that same ball to a bungee handle, though, and it can’t roll under the sofa.

The more tug we play, the more sold I am on the bungee tug. When you have a smaller dog and slippery floors, it’s easy for you to do all of the tugging work, while the dog just holds on and slides around. A tug toy with some stretch not only offers you some shock absorption, but it also guarantees that the dog does his share. You really want that pull back in order to get the strength and balance benefits of playing tug. If you have a larger dog, I suspect that the same dynamic works the opposite way. Unlike some wimpier toys we’ve tried, these have a good, strong stretch.

I should also mention that the nylon handles on these are much more comfortable to hold than our other toys. This is a high quality fabric, with none of those scratchy nylon edges.

I wouldn’t leave these around for the dog to access unsupervised. These particular Planet Dog toys are not rated for extensive chewing, although Salty Dog does use some of their stronger toys in other models, and any determined dog could cut through the nylon handle. I have to be particularly careful with the  raspberry model, because Silas thinks the berries would be a lot more awesome without the handle. That said, they’re showing zero wear so far from vigorous tug games.

For those crunchers out there, Salty Dog also makes great faux-fur pockets for water bottles on a similar stretch handle. In fact, no matter what your dog is obsessed with (tennis balls, squeakers, braided fleece), Salty Dog probably makes a toy they would like. For good or for ill, that includes a small number of real fur toys.

I bought our Raspberry and Orbee toys at a small retail store in Canada, but the website does ship to the US.

Bottom line: a big hit.

Positive/Negative

Dog training based in corrections uses a lot of punishment to stop “bad” behavior. You ask the dog to sit, and he doesn’t sit? Punishment time. The goal is to decrease the behavior of not sitting when asked. (Very old-fashioned training will also use the cessation of punishment as a reinforcement, like releasing an ear pinch when the dog does the desired behavior, but that’s beyond my scope here.)

We “positive” trainers think of ourselves as doing something else. We don’t issue leash corrections, we give cookies! We celebrate when the dog gets it right!

But, do we?

In my clicker-based obedience classes, all of the student questions were still quite negative. “How can I get my dog to stop counter surfing?” “I don’t want my dog to jump up. What do I do?” “I need my dog to stop pulling on the leash!”

Speaking from the behavioral science perspective, you cannot reward your way to stopping a behavior. A reward, by definition, increases behavior. Punishment is what decreases behavior.

As long as you think of your dog’s behaviors as something that need to be stopped, you are living in a punishment-based world. It’s possible that you can live in this world without actually using a lot of punishment. You can stop counter surfing with a baby gate. You can stop jumping by turning away from the dog. You can stop leash pulling with a front-clip harness. At the end of the day, though, you’re like a tourist getting by with gestures because you don’t speak the language. You might get the point across, but nobody is going to enjoy it. (Let’s be clear: sometimes management of a behavior is important for the dog’s safety, in which case, manage away.)

To be a really, truly, positive dog trainer, you have to think about things in positive ways. 

The statement cannot be “I don’t want this behavior”; it absolutely must be “I do want this behavior.”

Quite simply, reinforcement increases behavior. If you want to use reinforcement, you have to be focused on a behavior that needs to increase.

It’s all very easy and logical on paper. It’s harder to do in practice, when your dog is doing something that is driving you around the bend. Looking for what we do want also goes against the natural human tendency. As a species, we’re fantastic problem solvers, which means that we do tend to dwell on things that need to be “fixed.” Shifting your mindset will open up a million training possibilities, though, including solutions for all of those “bad” behaviors. It’s worth the work.