Dear Dog Trainers

It has been over six months since I have been paid to help other people train their dogs.  (Luckily for Moses and Alma, they’re not off the hook, and training continues at home regularly.)

Some photo ops aren't possible without a solid training foundation.

Some photo ops aren’t possible without a solid training foundation.

Working for a dog training company part-time on some evenings and weekends was part of my life for a few years, but like all good things, it had to come to an end.

To be honest, I thought I’d miss training a lot more than I do (I’m good at keeping myself busy). Actually, there are a few things in particular I don’t miss at all.

1.  The first thing I don’t miss is the self-inflicted pressure to have perfect dogs and be a perfect handler. Whether or not it was fair or completely rational, I felt as a trainer my dogs should be beaming examples of perfection. I mean, you wouldn’t necessarily want to take fashion advice from someone in mom-jeans and Crocs, would you? So why would you take training advice from someone who has been unsuccessful themselves? Of course, despite no longer being a trainer, I still have high behaviour expectations for Alma and Moses, but I do admit it’s relieving to no longer be representing an industry or business. If we happen to have an “off” day, I feel much less crappy about it. Similarly, I also care a bit less when I see someone else’s dog behaving like a maniac.

Moses and peers in the 'classroom' - sit-stay practice.

Moses and peers in the ‘classroom’ – sit-stay practice.

2.  I don’t at all miss the requests for free advice from acquaintances and coworkers. Talking about dogs is often an easy icebreaker when you don’t know someone very well, but if it comes out that you happen to train dogs when you’re not at the “real” job, the questions start coming. Initially my know-it-all nature loved this. However, I quickly noticed a frustrating and annoying pattern: no one actually applies the advice. I mean, sure, some people would sign up for a class after a good conversation, but they would be the minority. More often, I’d just get sporadic updates about an unruly dog battling the same challenges without reprieve – efforts to help completely futile. Even the most basic help, like “start by walking your dog daily” would fall on deaf ears. And it’s not like I’m going to give up a whole curriculum to near-strangers, anyway. I’m not about to hand out free access to information others pay good money for. I suppose if those cheap (or lazy) bastards really wanted to fix things, they would just enrol in a program. People definitely listen more closely if they’ve paid for your opinion.

Alma in class - also sit-stay practice

Alma in class – also sit-stay practice

3.  Lastly – and this is the big one – I do not, at all, not even one little bit, miss the politics in dog training.

Politics in the dog training community is ri-goddamn-diculous. It’s like a civil war in the overall dog community; it severs friendships, families, and business relationships.

It doesn’t matter who you’re talking about. The vitriol spewed by either camp at any given time is insane and enough to discourage the involvement of anyone with even a miniscule sense of reason or rationality. You can find more tact in the comments section of YouTube.

anchorman

It is difficult to speak of a middle ground between the two basic sides of positive reinforcement training (R+) and more coercive training (P+) (to over-simplify the distinction).

As is the case in most divisive issues, anyone attempting to create a middle ground and apply best practices from all corners of the quadrant might not successfully build any bridges at all, but instead can find themselves alone, with everyone remaining in uncompromising disagreement. Congratulations! Instead of having just one nemesis, now you have many!

operant conditioning

Which brings me to what I would like to say to ALL dog trainers:

Whether you practice positive reinforcement or coercive training, or a varying mix of the two, everyone needs to disregard egos and emotions and enlist only positive reinforcement (R+) techniques when it comes to dealing with fellow human beings.

A handy decision tree if this seems difficult.

A handy decision tree if this seems difficult.

This means your clients and potential clients. This means other pet-related businesses, from retail stores to rescue organizations. This mean other trainers.

We live in Canada – has no one learned anything from our elections process? Negative campaigns, gossip, and slander, while memorable, don’t actually prompt people to action. Negative campaigns haven’t shown to produce results in the undecided, and can risk alienating people. Positive messaging, however, has been proven to work for everyone.

There are many clichés that apply: negative messaging says more about you than it does about your target; take the high road; you catch more flies with honey; treat others the way you wish to be treated; losing ground follows from throwing mud. You’ve heard them all before. The fact is, rage-inducing or fear-mongering messages do not change minds, and often create avoidance in your intended audience. I don’t know about you, but when that crazy guy on the street corner is ranting about the End of Days, I don’t walk up to him and ask him to tell me more; I shuffle by quickly and avoid making eye contact.

"She said it was better to be kind than to be clever or good looking, I'm not clever or good looking. But I'm kind." - Derek

“She said it was better to be kind than to be clever or good looking, I’m not clever or good looking. But I’m kind.” – Derek

I truly wish more in the dog community would simply lead by example rather than create segregation and alienation.

Speak with your actions – use dogs you’ve worked with to speak to the validity of your training abilities and methods.

Rather than a correction-based trainer calling all R+ trainers “ineffective bribers”, why not just show – with real life examples and evidence – how their methods have successfully helped dogs?  Or rather than purely positive reinforcement trainers calling for the literal imprisonment of other trainers on account of animal abuse, why not just showcase how effective and safe their methods are?

[Aside: I am aware assigning labels in dog training treads in dangerous waters, and it’s essentially impossible to be extreme or absolute in any method. The terms are used here for effective communication. If you’d like a good perspective on the various dog training camps, I recommend reading The Dog Trainer Spectrum, by TheCrossOverTrainer.com.]

It boggles my mind that people think they can speak the way they do about, or to, other human beings when it comes to dog training. It’s often reactionary, emotional, and hostile. I understand that everyone gets that way from time to time; people can speak or act on an impulse when faced with something they strongly disagree with. I get that. I sometimes do that, too.

You just need to give people the benefit of the doubt (I know, how uncharacteristically optimistic and understanding of me). Even I know that sometimes people just don’t know any better or any differently.

For instance, if I see someone with their dog wandering off the sidewalk on a flexi-leash, instead of just thinking ‘my god, what a moron, control your dog!‘, I also try to acknowledge, ‘hey, any dog walk is better than no walk at all.’ Likewise, the training community could replace ‘omg look at that idiot using technique x, collar y, or company z for dog training,’ with ‘well, at least they have the foresight to seek professional help and want to make their dog’s life better.’

½ air, ½ water - technically, the glass is always full

½ air, ½ water – technically, the glass is always full

Sure, complete and total convictions in your methods and practices is admirable, if not a little impossible to execute in every facet of your life (see my post on hypocrisy here). Rigid fundamentalism at its core is, after all, unflinching, close-minded, and ultimately dangerous. A lack of empathy is a near requirement, regardless of what it’s about. Of course it is important that you and your business stand up for your principles and avoid unnecessary compromises, but it’s also crucial to acknowledge that no debate is about absolutes, and often there are indirect and subtle ways to effectively promote your perspective.

It is extremely frustrating that this Training War seeps into the rest of the pet world – affecting retail businesses, groomers, kennels, dog walkers, and rescue organizations. And the effect is damaging.

I never really understood how unwavering these convictions were until a few years ago when we were getting ASLC off the ground and this very thing caused me no end of frustration and befuddlement. We called Company X to ask if they would support the cause and host the petition, and much to my surprise, Company X immediately came back with a firm “No”. No, they would not support ASLC. Not because of the merits of ASLC or its founders – they absolutely did support the ban on a retail sale of dogs and cats and were glad to see us take on the cause. They did not want to get on board because they’d heard a rumour that Company Y was also going to be a supporter. And, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, companies X and Y train dogs differently.

This struck me as ludicrous.

"A dog is the most enthusiastic thing on the planet, if you go - do you wanna do this? It goes - definitely, that's my best thing." - Derek

“A dog is the most enthusiastic thing on the planet, if you go – do you wanna do this? It goes – definitely, that’s my best thing.” – Derek

Yes, the companies practiced business differently. But they also both strongly believed that breeding dogs and cats for sale in a pet store was categorically wrong. It did not matter, though, that the ASLC initiative is specifically focussed to one issue and purposely silent on other such matters. Simply because a perceived enemy or competitor also supported the good cause, they could not.

Are the issues connected? Sure, getting a pet and training it are pieces to the same puzzle; however, they are not so directly related that the positions of these training-only companies made any logical sense to me. They both ultimately want to improve the lives of pets, do they not?

Sometimes I wonder if the refusal to work with those who conduct themselves differently is a convenient excuse to avoid things that might be challenging, but then I remember to give the benefit of the doubt and think maybe just sometimes people let their piety get the best of them.

This divisive nature does a lot more harm than good. Emotional decisions are becoming a roadblock to taking action in the best interests of dogs – and of the pet community as a whole. Advocacy messages and rescue efforts are actually being harmed when the community can’t come together as a unified voice to support even simple causes they all actually agree on. Great opportunities for collaboration, promotion, and change are being refused.

How does that look to the public and to politicians when consensus cannot be reached due to unrelated issues?

Perhaps the segregation is the worst/dumbest part. Individuals and organizations decline to interact together on one thing because they disagree another. Well, you’ll never influence or educate anyone if you alienate or shame them.

If you’re trying to convince someone to abandon one training technique, or to see another within some context, you’ll never get anywhere with ridicule or avoidance. The best way to teach others – and to learn from them – is to spend time with people who see things differently than you. Otherwise, you also risk putting yourself in a bubble, and limiting your own knowledge and experience.

Bill-Nye

Bill Nye is a wise dude.

Insults don’t change minds. Leading by example does. Your training results will speak for themselves. Being a kind person who is pleasant to be around also helps a great deal. If you have common ground to converse over – rescue efforts, spay/neuter campaigns – the door opens for a bigger conversation. What happens when communication stalemates? Nothing. Exactly. So where’s the progress?

I know treating each person with respect can be a struggle from time to time – no one is more frustrated with stupidity and ignorance than yours truly – but it really comes down to representing the community in a dignified way.

Besides, I can guarantee average dog owners don’t know about the Training War that wages. Or if they do, they are more confused than ever, as companies now campaign to create suspicion around terms like “balanced”. Most clients aren’t, or don’t know to be, concerned with what philosophies a training company subscribes to as long as they can be helped with teaching their pups to walk nicely, to stop barking and chewing their stuff, and to not use the house as a bathroom – all while using a manner they’re comfortable with (whatever that may be). If they’re happy and get results, you have a client for life.

Not being an asshole definitely helps.

Not being an asshole definitely helps.

In Calgary alone there are dozens of companies offering a variety of training techniques – all competing for the same clients. Yes, competition among businesses makes sense and is ultimately good for the consumer. And as a working professional, you’re probably in it to make money just as much as you are to help dogs and dog owners (maybe more? or less? I don’t know. If I was in it for the money, I was doing it wrong). So, yes, please, go advertise that you’re the top local expert. Demonstrate why you’re better, more effective, and the best value for the price. But you can do all of this while rising above the slander and mudslinging with grace. You can make a strong business case without resorting to insults and without ostracizing others.

And if you’re going to engage in other parts of the pet community – rescue efforts, lobby campaigns – put the politics aside and do it for the animals directly. If your company demonstrates that it gives back without strings attached, you might even attract new clients and make some unexpected connections.

Remember when WWF Canada received flack for partnering with Coca Cola on environmental campaigns?

Coke & WWF

One example of apparent enemies collaborating for the greater good.

But who am I to say? I left the dog training world altogether – and not for any of the reasons described above. Any future role I might have from now on will be as a client, not an employee.

whatido

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My Audacity

Last week, Something Wagging This Way Comes wrote these two posts that really got me thinking:  Why I Don’t Train My Dog Better and 5 Reasons Why I Train My Dog.

Several months ago – maybe even years – the Husband and I found ourselves in a room with a bunch of other dog people and we were posed the question “Who is perfectly, 100% happy with their dog’s behaviour? Whose training goals are complete? Be honest.”

We kind of looked at each other, shrugged in agreement, and hesitantly raised our hands.

We were the only ones.

You could feel all eyes turn in our direction.

There are many possibilities for what the others there were thinking: (a) “what a couple of egotistical douchebags”; (b) “well they’re delusional”; (c) “liars!” or (d) “Moses isn’t that great.”  Or perhaps even (e) “these jerks just ruined a great teaching moment.”

Moses

Moses

But you know what?  Screw those guys.

(Something Wagging also has a great recent post on judging others’ and their relationships with their dogs.)

Moses is perfect.  At least he is to me.

Are there things I wish I could change about Moses?  Sure. His health history comes to mind first.  And his uncanny ability to fling drool onto your face or hair isn’t exactly endearing to everyone, either.

But I don’t really care about that.  Those are not considerations that would’ve kept my hand down.

Even if there is a little room for improvement or there are dozens more skills we could teach him, I’m not particularly preoccupied with that.  And maybe there was a time I wouldn’t have raised my hand, but that was long ago.

I like Moses for who he is and the history we’ve had with him has just made me increasingly grateful for the time we get to hang out with him, which is so much better when you’re not stressing about areas for improvement.  The focus is on what we have – not what we don’t have.  So when I raised my hand, I was being completely honest.

And that brings me to Alma.

It took us a couple of months to really get to know Alma and let her full personality come out after adopting her.  And if I was focusing on the negative, I’d mention something like her separation anxiety that she doesn’t exactly channel into the most desirable behaviours, for instance.

But that just stresses me out and I used to be very guilty of dwelling on what needed to be improved.

I took it seriously.  I took it personally.  And it took all the fun out of our relationship.

Alma

Alma

And it’s taken me a while to figure this out, but here it is:  if Moses is awesome because he’s perfect, Alma is awesome because she’s NOT.

Alma is mischievous.  Energetic (for a Newf).  Goofy.  Stubborn.  Her unfettered joy in nearly any situation is a trait anyone should admire; she makes no apologies for being herself.

There’s no point in letting myself get anxious about it or fixate on what passersby may be thinking, because her exuberance is really a key part of what makes Alma Alma.

It’s not an easy lesson to internalize, and even if you know it, it’s a whole other thing to put it into practice and let go of any spawning frustration or embarrassment in the moment.  When you spend a lot of time talking about struggles and goals, you can easily forget to talk about growth and success.  At least I did.  And that’s not fair for anyone.

No, this doesn’t mean that training stops here, but it does mean that I won’t let perceived imperfections hold us back and I won’t think about being scrutinized by other dog owners if things aren’t going perfectly.

Instead, I’m practising optimism and contentment with what we have, where we are, where we’re going, and all that both Alma and Moses have taught me.

If you were to ask me today if I was 100% happy with my dogs and their behaviour, I would definitely have the audacity to respond again – and to raise both of my hands: one for Moses, and one for Alma.

And I dare anyone to challenge me on that.

A pair of perfect dogs

A pair of perfect dogs

Graduates

Back in the fall of 2008, Moses graduated from an awesome and intensive 10 week dog training class.

As a first-time dog owner at the time, this program totally shaped the way I see dogs and our lives with them, with focus on awareness, responsibility, and safety.

Moses and his classmates

This weekend, Alma graduated from the same program.

Alma and other spring 2012 grads

Her class wrap-up – the famous Canine Olympics – was on Saturday morning, and she sure knows when it’s crunch time, because she totally delivered and was on her best behaviour!

Following in Moses’ footsteps (paw prints?), indeed.

Up against 47 competitors, she placed 4th in the stay competition – actually better than Moses did in his very first Olympic sit-stay!

But I’d say the best indicators of success are the class photos – 10 weeks prior, that would not have been possible.

And now that it’s over and I have no where to be three times per week… what are we going to do with all that time?

Hello, WordPress.  It’s been a while.

Crate As Training

Depending on who you ask, crates are a hot topic, so let me start off by saying I am pro-crate.

I think crates are a great way to provide safe supervision and prevent destruction when you’re not present. I know there’s a common argument about confining dogs to a small space, but provided the crate is properly sized (so the dog has room get up and to turn around), there’s nothing wrong with having them spend time in a crate while you’re away or asleep.  Likely all they’re doing while you’re away is sleeping anyway, so in my opinion there’s no harm in just changing up exactly where they sleep. Not to mention, once they’re comfortable in the crate, it’s a great thing to bring while travelling that will feel safe and familiar for them.

So, even though we’ve never used a crate with Moses, that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t, and also means – as I mentioned recently – we’re employing the crate with Alma as a firm barrier between her and… say… brown sugar.

Alma in her crate. For those curious, it's the Kong Double-Door crate in the biggest possible size: 49"L x 30.5"W x 32.25"H

But I find it kind of a misnomer when people talk about “crate training”.

What is “crate training”, anyway?

I mean, we’re using the crate to help control Alma’s anxiety-based destructive habits.  For Alma, the challenge ensues when we’ve left the house, and she’s left completely unsupervised – even more so in the instances when we take Moses out and she’s left completely alone.  Even when we’re asleep she’s fine and trustworthy in the house, so it’s clear separation anxiety that is channeled into mischievous behaviours.

But putting her in the crate doesn’t actually teach her anything about not counter-surfing or not taking her stressful energy out on the box of Kleenex.

In fact, in reality, a crate is more like an avoidance technique.

It’s just like how walking a dog super early in the morning or super late to avoid other neighbourhood dogs may result in calmer, easier dog walks, but really doesn’t teach them anything about on-leash manners when passing other dogs.  You need exposure to your challenges in order to provide training opportunities and work through them.

So if “crate training” isn’t providing any lessons to curb destructive habits, then what is it?

Well, it’s just training your dog to get used to spending time in the crate.

In order to do this, we had Alma inspect the crate and spend time in it with the doors open before having her closed in it while we were gone.  Then we begin every crate experience with positive associations: making sure she goes in by choice (not by force) and then giving her treats and a toy at the outset.  When we come home, we always wait for her to be calm and sitting down before letting her out, so she associates the crate ritual with relaxed and positive experiences.

And we’ll continuously make sure the crate is never used as a punishment or “time out” location, and that any whining there may be will just be ignored.

The most perceptive reader may notice a crate next to Alma's in the picture above. That belongs to Jasper, the Duck Tolling Retriever, who is also crate trained and spending a few days with us.

Only a couple weeks in and I’m happy to report the crate training is going famously, and she’s quite content to spend time in there while we’re at work.

And you know how I know this?

Because technology is awesome.  And really, so is the Husband, because it was all his idea.

We’ve downloaded a webcam app on our MacBooks and iPhones, so now we can put Alma in her crate, set up the laptop so she’s on camera, and we can login on our phones and check the live footage.

And looking at the  various camera feeds available, we’re by far not the only folks out there using this system to spy on our pets (don’t judge – we all know you’d peek on the other feeds too).

It’s a great way to check and ensure Alma’s calm and relaxed while we’re gone.  For example, I took Moses out for a solo walk yesterday, and it was great to check the camera and see how long it took her to relax and lay down before we headed back to the house (for the record, it was about 20 minutes).

So, yeah, there really is an app for that.

What Moses does when left home alone.

The Canine Good Behaviour-Exercise Correlation

Brace yourself. I made you something, valued reader.

I think charts and graphs are a fun way to share information.  Perhaps I have too much time on my hands.  Perhaps I need a break from the xkcd.  Whatever the case, I made you one anyway.

The inspiration for the dazzling visualization below stems from a discussion in the comments of this post by fellow blogger, The Dog Park, of whom I am a fan.  Although, admittedly my glorious Paint creation comes nowhere near the beauty of some recent graphs and charts done by According to Gus.  But I’m okay with that.

The information is simple: based on personal experience and an abundance of anecdotal evidence from others, the graph illustrates how a properly exercised dog results in a well-behaved dog.  No exceptions.

A dog who is walked regularly is less likely to engage in destructive behaviours at home, and is more likely to pay attention to you while you work on training, whether it be obedience, agility or what have you. 

Though, do note the sharp drop-off at the end.  Yes, you can over-exercise your dog.  A dehydrated, exhausted dog is not going to be interesting in sitting or coming to you any more than a dog with a severe case of cabin fever.  After a long hike on a hot day, it’s not uncommon for Moses to lay down and do no more than raise a “make me” eyebrow to any requests made of him.

The moral of the story: Walk your dog.  It will be good for both of you.

You’re welcome.

Don’t Let TV Train Your Dog

When we decided our household needed a dog – long before we actually got one – I started an All Things Dog project.  I researched breeds and breeders, read books about dogs, and started watching television shows on dogs and dog training.

Puppy Moses

And then when Puppy Moses came along, what did we do?  Obviously, we signed up for training classes and professional help.

…Or maybe it’s not so obvious.

There is a growing population of television personalities who will teach you about your dog, from He Whose Name Shall Not Be Whispered, to Some British Lady, to a Canadian with a Receding Hairline.

On the face of it, I suppose I am generally happy for a number of reasons that these people are out there doing what they do.  The increasing popularity of these dog-related “reality” shows brings an added emphasis to dog training, and I hope the result has been that more people have an interest in training and properly exercising their pets.  These shows also acknowledge that those with “problem dogs” can seek and receive help, and all of the people mentioned above emphasize that issues can be resolved, also noting that they often originate with (or at least are exacerbated by) the owners.  In addition, these TV trainers often use their increasing profiles to bring more widespread awareness to a lot of animal issues, including promoting rescue organizations and adoption, proper pet health, and drawing attention to the problem of puppy mills.  So yes, there are definite benefits.

On the other hand, there are also draw backs.

Just like I can’t expect School of Golf to teach me all I need to know to achieve a handicap under 10, these dog-related television programs should not be considered substitutes for real life, hands-on help and training.  On-course lessons with a golf pro will be time better spent improving your game than hours sitting on the couch watching the experts do their thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these shows can be highly entertaining, and I still watch them myself.  It’s a very satisfying formula:

  1. Montage of frustrated owners with “dog from hell” who have “tried everything”;
  2. Enter Guru;
  3. Guru works magic on dog;
  4. Guru works magic on owners;
  5. Owners attempt to apply learned magic to dog;
  6. Guru improves technique, assigns homework;
  7. Relative degree of success;
  8. Happy, optimistic owners;
  9. Happy dog.

Almost without exception, there’s a feel-good happy ending.

However, to take a 30 or 60 minute program as a realistic representation of any dog training process is a mistake.

The producers of these shows know the formula and they know what gets ratings and how to get the series renewed.  A lot of information about the hows and whys of what goes on is left out for both time constraints and to appeal to a broader audience; we are never given the complete picture.  Instead, we are shown the “best TV”, which emphasizes the dog’s bad behavior in the beginning, the improvements at the end, and a small, simplified version of how they got there.  Often, it’s not explicit that sometimes the Guru visits several times of the course of a week or month, and a lot of the work is done off-camera through the homework assignments the owners have been given.

Yes, when asked, each Guru emphasizes that consistent, hard work and dedication on behalf of the owner is the ultimate key to success, but all of the televised representations reinforce a “quick fix” ideal.

And this is the problem.

Despite any “seek local, professional help”-type warnings, people (likely always) will still try it at home.  This is how the holiday season a few years back ended in so many house fires; people decided they wanted to deep fry their turkeys, too.

Problems arise when dog owners take techniques or information they see on TV, apply them partially, incorrectly and sporadically without knowing why, subsequently fail or maybe even make things worse, and then assume that this counts as a legitimate training attempt.  Now they’ve “tried everything” with their dog and then become frustrated and even more despondent.

The other problem is that the Super Fans grow to consider themselves experts.  They’ve watched every episode, read a book, maybe even attended a seminar.  They grow to believe that what they’ve learned from television is good enough, and that seeking professional help from a local trainer is extraneous.

And, fine, I will concede that if you’ve got your dog where you want them behaviourally without help, that’s great, but believe me, you’re either the exception to the rule or have way lower standards.  Most often, owners have incorrectly diagnosed their dogs (perceived “aggression” or “stupidity” are personal favourites), so not only are they trying the wrong thing or worrying about the wrong behaviours, it’s an extra obstacle to get them to let go of these preconceived notions when they do seek professional help.

At the end of it all, I guess I’m just complaining about something that will never change.  Though I suppose the benefits of the popularity of the TV dog trainers probably outweigh the negatives, there will always be these significant drawbacks.  People will always mimic the actions of celebrities (Kanye’s Venetian-blind-like sunglasses? Really?), and will always try to save a buck by watching some TV instead of paying for a course (I’m still waiting for the History Channel to award me my viewer-earned Bachelor’s Degree).  And it sure is easier to sit down on the couch for an hour than to go out, interact hands-on, and be accountable to a trainer or instructor.

I get it; I just don’t like it.

In Defence of Cesar

This Sunday I had the opportunity to briefly meet and attend a seminar by the Grand Poobah of Dog Training.  The Almighty Alpha.  The Crusader of Calm-Assertive.  The King of Canine Rehabilitation.  His Highness of Hounds.  The Sultan of “Shhhht”.  The Emperor of Energy.  The Patriarch of Pack Leaders.

You get the point – who doesn’t love some hyperbole and alliteration?

I, of course, am referring to the one and only Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, who was in town on his Pack Leader Tour.

My review of the seminar is brief: the guy can entertain.  Enthusiastic and motivating are the descriptors that come to mind first.  Cesar did a good job of highlighting his notion of calm/assertive and illustrating what it means to be pack leader/guardian/resource controller for your dog.  He’s very charismatic on stage and it was interesting to see him in action live in real-time, rather than on TV.

However, and as I’m sure you know, not everyone has a postivie opinion of Mr. Millan.

Shocking, right? It shouldn’t be.

In fact, some of his critics charge Cesar with some pretty serious accusations, and I am going to take this opportunity to discuss some.

There is no such thing as Alpha, and to teach otherwise is ridiculous

Frankly, I somewhat disagree, and I think it has a lot to do with semantics.  The average person doesn’t know about canine biology or behaviour – they just know they had a dog when they were a kid and they have one now.  Domestic dogs are so commonplace that, to their detriment, the average person doesn’t feel the need to do a lot of research.  

So whether or not Cesar literally means “alpha”, the important part is what is heard when he says that. And the average layman listener doesn’t hear facts about wolves. What they think is about responsibility and leadership (I hope). Arguments about alpha and the potential responsibilities of anything like a dog parent, guardian, or “pack leader” is an industry-specific semantic debate which detracts from the pragmatic uses of such terms when it comes to our relationship with our dogs and actually trying to teach them something. People in the pet industry can get all riled up debating the specifics of these terms, but the general, TV-watching public is actually in the dark here, and I think the term might actually retain some valuable use when teaching average dog owners how to interact with their pets.

I interpret that Cesar’s main point is about leadership; “calm and assertive leadership”, as you’ve heard, and I actually don’t think there is anything wrong with that on the face of it. When the focus is relationship-building, bonding, and trust, you build a good foundation in any training regimen. And when he repeats “calm” over and over, I sincerely hope it teaches people not to be angry, but patient, when working through challenges with their dogs.

No, our dogs aren’t furry little soldiers hell bent on world domination, but they will test the boundaries of your household rules and they will not pay attention or respond to cues if you haven’t given them a good reason to trust you or focus on you.  And by “rules”, I mean things as simple as not chewing on shoes, sitting before meals, not jumping on you when you’re all dressed up, and not pulling on the leash during walks.

Basically, you can rant, rave, lecture and roll eyes when someone talks about “alpha”, or you can recognise that it has a meaning and definition that may just convey something useful – especially if you decide to take ownership of these terms rather than blacklist them. Because if it’s just the word you are opposed to, those using it can simply bait-and-switch until your fight is now against the word “guardian”, or whatever else disguises the actual meaning and action you are against.

Cesar’s methods are dangerous

Since Cesar was coming to town, our local news organizations decided to perform their due diligence and interviewed some local critics on this very issue.  One example is Ms. Kirsten Rose, who was quoted by CTV saying the following: “you know a child flipping a dog on its back is going to get nipped.”

For Ms. Rose’s sake, I certainly hope this was a sound bite taken completely out of context, because this accusation is – I’m sorry – outrageous.  Who in his or her right mind would teach a child to “alpha roll” a dog?  Any dog?  Well, hopefully no one. I mean, c’mon. When critics take arguments in that direction I have trouble taking them seriously.

It’s one thing to draw legitimate complaints, but it’s another to build up an exaggerated straw man to get a news interview.  And it’s hard to legitimately consider a position when the message isn’t logical.  A lot of people out there really like Cesar, and I suspect these kinds of messages just outright alienate rather than educate.  

Have we seen Cesar “alpha-roll” before? You bet. In fact, his latest book, Cesar’s Rules, surveyed Dog Whisperer episodes and showed that in 27% of episodes Cesar has “pinned” a dog.  So approximately 1 in 4. It’s not the end-all tool for dog whispering, but it does happen often enough. It is something he does himself, but you also don’t see him look at the camera, smile with his pearly whites, and tell us “feel free to try this at home, folks”. 

Those working with dogs in any capacity recognize that potentially getting bit can be a hazard of the job (ask the groomers about this one). Sure, measures are taken to avoid such an occurrence, but it can still happen. As Cesar said in his seminar on the weekend, a dog who bites a human is actually a dog who is “correcting” that human.  He’s not wrong, and close observation of the dog’s actions and body language are the best preventative measures. But things still happen – and they make for “good TV”, thus, if it happens you can bet we will see it on The Dog Whisperer.

And despite putting himself in varying degrees of danger from time to time, Cesar does not advocate attempting these types of techniques at home on your own.  Simple common sense dictates that if you’re dealing with a potentially dangerous dog issue, you should seek professional assistance. 

But you know what they say: common sense isn’t. I’d just have trouble blaming Rachael Ray if I burnt down my house in a horrible flambé accident, that’s all.

Cesar sets the world of dog training back several decades

This brings me to a statement made in the Calgary Herald by Barbara Walmer, head of the behavior department at the Calgary Humane Society, wherein she describes Cesar’s methods as “punishment-based”, as opposed to the training programs at the Humane Society that focus on “positive reinforcement”.  This is when the critics call Cesar “old-fashioned”, subscribing to a “traditional” form of training.

Before you get excited (more excited?), I’m not about to say Cesar doesn’t use punishment. He sure does. Sometimes. Sometimes he teaches dogs that certain actions have negative consequences. Dogs teach each other this very thing with body language, barking, growling, nipping, and even escalate to biting if the situation requires.

However, I feel that calling Cesar Millan (in particular) “punishment-based” pigeon-holes him unnecessarily.  And perhaps unfairly. 

If we look at the aforementioned Dog Whisperer episode statistics, Cesar advocates leadership in 98% of Dog Whisperer episodes, and uses positive reinforcement in 67% of episodes. (See pages 93-94 of Cesar’s Rules.)  Remember the episode with Jody, the feces-eating dog?  He redirected that behaviour by enticing her with bananas. No alpha rolls whatsoever. Cesar’s even been known to use a clicker if he thinks it’s the appropriate tool.

Cesar uses a variety of techniques, acknowledging that one thing isn’t going to work on every dog or for every owner. It’s case-by-case, and he uses the method he deems necessary for that particular dog and environment.  His latest publication also does a good job of detailing how he prefers to take a “balanced approach”, redirecting and interrupting undesired behaviour and rewarding good behaviour.  And his most-used interruption?  The “shhht”, of course, is found in 57% of Dog Whisperer episodes.

For Cesar, reward doesn’t simply mean providing dog treats, either. Especially considering the case of severely stressed or focused dogs, where the nose and appetite are not engaged and a treat – no matter how delicious – will not be enough to get the dog’s attention. Instead, rewards can be in the form of food certainly, but Cesar also uses affection (petting, massage), toys, activities the dog enjoys (play time), or even something as simple as reduced pressure in terms of a more relaxed body language (taking away something they don’t like or that is uncomfortable – “negative reward (R-)” for those in-the-know).

In fact, one of the best things I took from his seminar here was the sentiment “be the cookie”.  Allow me to explain.  Upon spending time exercising and working with your dog, you are building a bond of leadership, trust, respect, and affection.  As your dog bonds with you, time spent with you (working, walking, and just hanging out or receiving affection) becomes a reward in itself.  So the idea is to “be the cookie”, or become the reward ourselves.

So no, I suppose I am not one of those “postive-only” people. In fact, I hazard a guess that while “positive trainers” proudly tout that label and use food treats or clickers regularly, I sincerely doubt they’ve never used any form of punishment – ever.  

Confession time:  I work with my dog using both punishment and reward.  And by punishment I don’t mean brutal beatings or alpha rolls.  I mean a stern verbal “No!” or increased body pressure or ignoring them.  And yes, a leash correction on a martingale collar – though I admit I don’t remember the last time I needed to use one, because they are just not required anymore. Those are punishments because my dog doesn’t like them. And by reward I don’t mean treats (usually); I mean praise in the form of petting or massage most of the time, and occassionally toys and play time, as well.

Perpetuating a dictomy of “punishment” vs. “positive” is unhelpful to the average, confused dog owner who just wants to train his or her dog to come when called, and is devisive and determintal to the training community as a whole, in my opinion.   Are there awful people out there who punish and hurt their dogs? Sure. And they should be reported and punished themselves.  But I don’t see Cesar Millan beating dogs or sticking up for those who do.

Cesar puts dogs in extremely stressful situations

Often cited examples for this argument are the episodes of the Great Dane who was afraid of shiny floors and the St. Bernard who was afraid of going up the stairs. Both dogs had pretty serious phobias, and Cesar was called in to help them get over it.

So what did he do?  Well, effectively he performed exposure therapy on the dogs; he forced them to face their fears.  Did he make them do something they didn’t want to? Yep. Left to their own devices, both dogs would have avoided those obstacles indefinitely, maintaining – or possibly even escalating – their phobia.  Instead, Cesar lead the Dane onto the kitchen floor and the St. Bernard up the stairs. Did they want to go? Nope. They both exhibited many signs of anxiety, and put on the breaks.  But you know what?  It was something like 12 minutes of exposure to stairs and the St. Bernard learned that going up and down the stairs was not a fatal enterprise, and was able to do it on his own without any hesitation.  Problem solved.  Similar results for the Great Dane.  Sure, there was some short-term stress, but the elimination of a phobia and the long-term benefit makes it worth it for both the dog and the owners (in my humble opinion).

This is where the subject of “flooding” comes in.  Flooding is overwhelming the dog with that which it is afraid of, causing undue stress and physical and psychological harm in the process  Instead of flooding, the appropriate technique is to gradually build up exposure to the fear.  Did Cesar use flooding with the Dane and the St. Bernard – pushing them too far too fast?  Many say yes.  Because both of these dogs discussed – yes, while very stressed – overcame their fears in a short amount of time and did not “shut down” (the St. Bernard was going up and down the stairs on his own, stress-free after 12 minutes), I would say neither of these dogs in particular were flooded.  Cesar forced the Great Dane to face its fear of the shiny floor, and once the Dane realised the sky would not fall, the dog was fine. 

Is there a danger that the exact same exercise could flood a different dog?  Absolutely.  Which is why you seek professional help if your dog has a phobia to work through, and who can gauge the appropriate technique to try.

The “don’t try this at home” warning at the beginning of each episode of The Dog Whisperer is telling of both the dangers posed to the people and the dogs when using these methods

That this is a legitimate criticism – posed by many, actually – is both hilarious and ridiculous.  Even minivan commercials have disclaimers about professional drivers on closed courses, so the existence of a TV warning is indicative of nothing but the thoroughness of Cesar’s legal team and the litigiousness of the American public.  I mean, does Windex really need to tell us not to spray it in the eyes?  Does the chainsaw really need to warn you not to stop the chain with your hand?  But you just know that if they didn’t, someone would try to sue for crazy damages from a freak accident/moment of severe stupidity.

And while Cesar is definitely trying to reduce the amount of times he’s named as a defendant because someone thought they could “dog whisper” to a reactive canine, the effect of Cesar’s warning should also be to encourage people to consult a professional when seeking help with their dogs.  

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: common sense isn’t.  It’s hard to blame one person for the stupid actions of others – especially those he’s never even met. 

That’s not to say some have inappropriately or incorrectly interpreted or copied the Dog Whisperer; there are all kinds out there.  And I’m sure Cesar himself would be mortified to see them.

Cesar is “aggressive”

I’m sure you could take a screen shot of every televised dog trainer and put an outrageous caption on it.  I won’t, but check out this Victoria Stilwell clip “Socializing Stains”, where I see leash tension and corrections, physical force, and body pressure all being used – in addition to treats.  Some of those images could also be taken out of context and plastered online.  (I’m just sayin’ – I’m a Victoria Stilwell fan, too, and wish Animal Planet in Canada aired her show.)

Cesar’s version of leadership is all about being calm, deliberate, and confident.  It is not about being physically dominant, intimidating, or aggressive towards dogs, and Cesar emphasizes a calm state of mind whenever possible – keeping yourself from getting nervous, anxious, or angry when working with your dog, and sending the clearest message possible about our rules and expectations of our dogs. This is not bad advice.

The Positive Impact for Pooches

And while I’ve just spent some time defending Cesar (and doubtlessly enraging people), if you’re still with me I’d now like to fill even more space pointing out the aspects of his philosophy and methodology that should be viewed as positive by any dog lover.  Because while fans of the Dog Whisperer believe he does great things for dogs and the dog community, I think there are specific aspects of his work that anyone can and should appreciate.  And I think the “two camp” training dichotomy specifically neglects these points that benefit the dog owning community as a whole.  There are some bonuses to the success of The Dog Whisperer.

1.  He focuses on the people; Cesar draws attention to the human source of a lot of dog behaviours and insecurities.  As he says in every episode, he rehabilitates dogs and trains people. This is accurate and obvious. Anyone with experience helping people with their dogs knows success is directly related to the dedication of the human owners, both in terms of time and mental commitments, as well as their consistency.

2.  He emphasizes that dogs are dogs, not furry little humans. Dogs are animals we’ve brought into our homes, and to treat them as such – as they actually are – is to respect them for what they actually are. As we all know, this is forgotten or ignored by many dog owners, often to the detriment of their canine companions.

3.  Not only are dogs dogs, Cesar also points out that breed is not a good way to characterize or stereotype any individual dog.  He speaks out against the bad, inaccurate reputations of breeds such as Rottweilers and pitbulls, and argues against breed-specific legislation since it is misguided and ineffective.  He is completely correct and is a champion of pitbulls (and to read more on why BSL is wrong and ineffective, check this out: To Ban the Breed?).

4.  He emphasizes the importance of exercise.  This is key, since so many urban dogs are both under-exercised and overweight.  All dogs, regardless of breed, need to be walked daily.  As dog owners, this is our responsibility. 

5.  Cesar will help any dog – any size, any age, any breed. The large-scale acknowledgement that any dog with any “problem” can be helped, and at any stage of life, is great for people who may believe it’s too late for them and their dog.  To encourage these types of cases to seek professional assistance can both salvage a relationship and help keep a dog from being surrendered to a rescue organization – or worse.

6.  In addition to giving optimism to previously hopeless cases, the popularity of the Dog Whisperer has also created a new mainstream interest in seeking training and being a more conscious dog owner. Dogs (or perhaps dog owners) do need training to help them become well-behaved members of our families and representatives of the pet community.

7.  He talks about giving dogs jobs. The variety of dog breeds out there is a result of our selective breeding over the centuries to create dogs best suited certain jobs. Even if it’s just a daily walk, Cesar emphasizes the importance of giving every dog a job to perform to fulfill both his or her physical needs and instincts.  If you spend time training for activities such as agility, tracking, herding, or drafting with your dog, all the better.

8.  He promotes responsible spaying and neutering.  This issue is self-explanatory considering the populations of rescue dogs out there and the number of domestic dogs euthanized each year in Canada and the US.

9.  He promotes rescue organizations, and a proper, thorough consideration of breed, temperament, and energy levels before adding a new dog to the family.  He also deters fans from buying animals from pet stores and other potential puppy mill sources.

10.  He promotes better pet nutrition.  In fact, his current tour is sponsored by Red Moon Custom Petfood, a brand that is grain-, rice-, gluten-, wheat-, and soy-free.  To bring a more main-stream focus on proper pet nutrition for both dogs and cats is great!

So, in conclusion, yes, I’ll say it: On the whole, I’m a Cesar fan. 

While I loathe the idea that anyone can watch the Dog Whisperer and think they can train their dog, I do like the attention it has given to more conscious and responsible dog ownership and training.  If the weekend Dog Whisperer marathons on National Geographic can prompt more people to get training (of any kind) for their canine companions, great! 

I think Cesar’s fame is beneficial to both dogs and owners alike.  And I also think may of his opponents have built up a straw-man version of Cesar to critique, and don’t take a thorough look before crying wolf in many respects.  Or they take a one-dimension take on a season one episode and don’t give the man any opportunity to learn and grow – as everyone does throughout their careers.  

I’m not convinced by those reciting the same old complaints, or those who go so far as to incite physical harm on the guy; though I doubt they are at all swayed by what I’ve just written, either.  But I know angry vitriol doesn’t often change minds or attract people to a position, so I’d really like to see less dichotomy on the issue.

But, really, if I can spur thought-provoking debate, I’m happy.

NILIF

“Nothing in life is free.”  NILIF.

Sounds like a rather cynical – albeit accurate – worldview, doesn’t it?

And while that may be one instance of the phrase, another is actually a dog training philosophy: when it comes to our relationship with the dog, nothing in life is free.

When first considering the concept, I realised that it’s a principle I’d often been employing without using that specific term.  My dog has to wait patiently for his food.  He has to perfectly execute a long-distance sit-stay to receive praise.  He has to be calm to receive affection.  He has to sit nicely at the door while I get ready before we go for a walk.  He has to be calm and obedient and walk nicely before he gets free “go play” time.

No, things are certainly not free for my dog, but I really don’t think he’s that distressed about it.  (Admittedly, the cats are governed by something much closer to EILIF – everything in life is free – and I suspect implementing otherwise would result in a revolt of epic proportions.)

At the base of it, NILIF is all about setting clear rules, guidelines, and expectations, and then following through with them.  Happily, my dog caught on quickly as a puppy, and very well knows that he’s going to do a sit-stay in the kitchen for a few minutes while we prepare his food and before he can eat.

Of course, provided my dog thinks about things the same way, he might be of the opinion that nothing in life is free for me, either; I don’t get the good behaviour out of him that I prefer unless I have consistently proved that I will make it worth his while.  So perhaps nothing in life is free for either of us and it’s a symbiotic give and take.

And the same may also be true with respect to undesired behaviour.  If my dog acts like a jerk, he will not get away with it – it will not be free.  Say, for example, he breaks a sit-stay.  I will then replace him and usually restart the clock if I’m going for a specific duration.  As far as my dog is concerned, this is a bad consequence, because he’s already shown me he’d rather be doing something else.  On the other hand, say I am practising recall with him, and fail to give praise when he comes into me – then maybe he will determine that the next time he’s not going to come when I call because I failed on my end of the bargain in the past.

Neither good nor bad behaviour is free for either of us: the good is earned and rewarded, and the bad comes with a negative follow-up of some sort.

The general principle NILIF works around is that we’re asking the dog to do something that is not rewarding in itself (i.e. a sit-stay), but then we follow up with offering something with a higher value as a reward (i.e. praise, food, play time, or even just more favourable body language).[1]

For those in the know, this is similar to the Premack Principle, which is the idea that we’re withholding access to something the dog views as inherently good in order to get the dog to follow our commands.  My dog learns that when I begin to prepare his food, that’s a cue for him to sit politely and calmly in the kitchen, rather than get in my way and try to get to the food as soon as possible.  He gets what he wants because of me, not in spite of me.  In return, I get desired behaviour.

Of course, even though NILIF fans stress it’s a “way of life” and not a training technique, I think we can all see the immediate benefits it will provide when it is applied to training.  And, like anyone discussing dog training and behaviour, there are critics.

Those opposed to NILIF simply say it’s cruel: it doesn’t allow a dog to just “be a dog”, because we are controlling every aspect.  Nothing is free for the dog to do or determine on its own.  They suggest this is stressful for the dog and basically creates a prisoner with Stockholm syndrome.

I disagree with the critics and agree with Kelly Gorman Dunbar’s response:

…NILIF makes life extremely predictable and controlled, which a dog’s mind craves and understands; that’s why it works so well. And while it’s true that a NILIF dog doesn’t have free control over his life (really, what pet dog does?) it does afford the dog clarity of consequences and consistency in the form of control over access to resources via his behavior; and that’s the point really.

As for the idea that NILIF causes stress, well, not all stress is bad. I’m not of the mindset that stress should be avoided at all costs. Just abuse. Some amount of stress is not only good, but also unavoidable in life. Ultimately, clarity and consistency actually reduce stress and makes a dog’s life easier, so it’s better than an environment of no rules, unpredictability, and lack of clear communication that many dogs live with due to human foible.

No form of training to fluency is stress-free. The truth is most science-based or so-called “positive trainers” (how I hate that term!) do use some degree of withholding in order to manipulate the dog’s environment, but mainly by using life rewards over food to enhance training and proof distractions. Most dogs still get free belly rubs and runs in the park too.[2]

On the Stockholm comment, I would also argue that NILIF does not make you the jailor and your dog the prisoner.  Leader and follower, perhaps.  Aside from my previous note that it does seem to involve compromise on both halves, NILIF teaches dogs to look to us for the things they want and need:  food, exercise, affection, play.  This is not unrealistic or cruel, because as a dog owner, you actually are in charge of all of these things, among many others.  Bringing your dog’s attention to this fact is not a bad thing.

Say, on a walk, your canine sees other dogs having play time in a park across the street.  Perhaps in a non-NILIF household where the dog has not been taught expectations, the dog would just make a beeline across the road enthusiastically, exercising its desire to go play.  Dangerous?  Absolutely.  And not just because of the road, but also because the owner isn’t given the opportunity to assess the other dogs and their owners, and make a safe call about the situation.

Using the same hypothetical in a NILIF context, it is possible that your dog will see the others playing and then check in with you, their leader, first, before simply bolting across the street.  The dog knows play time comes from the owner, and may fully expect to have to walk over there calmly and practice some patience before being allowed to play.  The owner is also given the opportunity to control the dog across the roadway, and assess the dog’s future playmates and the environment generally.

After exercising a NILIF-type routine, the dog will learn that the things he or she wants (and could previously have taken for “free”) come from you, the leader and guardian.

Of course, it is important to note that anything taken to the extreme is dangerous, and it is possible that someone could take a skewed, fundamentalist view of NILIF and turn it into a restrictive policy that borders on abuse.  The same can be said about almost anything, but it’s important to include these disclaimers even if just to give pause.  NILIF does not intend to create dictator-like dog owners who have an iron fist gripping all of the resources, but rather a benevolent leader who has the means to look out for the dog’s best interests and is able to draw out favourable behaviours in all sorts of situations.  You can implement NILIF and still shower your dog with affection, treats, toys, and playtime.  It’s all about balance.  The added NILIF element – that the dog has to do some work first – can ensure your dog is not spoiled and unruly.

And as the benevolent leader, it’s up to you to make sure the dog knows where the expectations lie, and never withhold necessary resources that are essential to your dog’s health and wellbeing.  Yes, a calm sit-stay is perfectly acceptable before allowing your dog to eat, but as the owner you have to be realistic.  If you are just starting out, perhaps all you will get is one minute (or less) of patience from your dog as he stares hungrily at his food.  Consider that a starting point for the both of you to build from, and don’t starve your dog because he can’t hold his stay indefinitely.

Returning again to Ms. Dunbar, who I think says it best:

I think what’s important is to keep in mind the dog’s physical and mental well being and to train as kindly and clearly as possible while still efficiently getting the job done; because good training is what keeps dogs happy, safe, and in their homes and that is the ultimate goal.[3]

The starting point for Moses’ solid sit-stay was ensuring him that he’d be adequately praised for a job well done.

[1] http://www.dogstardaily.com/blogs/nilif-nasty
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Flexi-Leash Fury

Flexi-Leash Fury

Visualize for a moment with me, now will you?

I am walking my dog down a familiar suburban sidewalk.  On the horizon I spot an oncoming pedestrian.  Like any alert dog owner, I scan for the silhouette of a dog, just to prepare for any possible meetings, greetings, or altercations.  I see nothing and proceed as normal.

Then, as the figure approaches, I notice something in her hand.  It appears that she’s holding something – about the size of your averaged paperback – by its handle.  Ahh, the all too familiar flexi-leash.  Since her accompanying dog is not readily noticed, I scan once again for her canine companion until I spot him:  a small Scottish Terrier who is a good 20 feet away from his owner, sniffing and marking his way along the neighbourhood lawns.  He is far ahead of her as she marches down the sidewalk towards me completely oblivious and unprepared.

As we get closer, Mr. Scottish Terrier finally notices us approaching and is not okay with our presence.  Barking and lunging ensue.  My usual recourse for interactions such as these is to pull over to the grass with my dog on the inside and calmly keep going, paying no mind to the temper tantrum that is occurring on the sidewalk.  I give the other owner a wide berth, allowing him or her to take as much control over the reacting dog as is possible.  We have worked on this a lot and happily Moses rarely perks an ear to these types of encounters any more.

However, in this particular case, that is not an option.  With his owner as the pivot point, the terrier now has a 20 foot radius to patrol as we pass by, necessitating our move onto the curb among parked cars and close to residential traffic to keep out of the little mongrel’s way.  The terrier proceeds to bark and lunge at the end of his leash, and even gains a few extra feet of leash since his owner is too slow on the brake.  I can hear the flexi-leash click as it either becomes totally extended or the brake mechanism has broken.  With the long distance from his owner to gain momentum, this 20 lb little dog is actually able to nearly pull his average-sized middle-aged female owner over with his efforts to get closer to us.  She tries backing on to someone’s lawn in a weak effort pull him out of our way, since she cannot reel him in without any slack in the line.

Once we pass and are safely back on the sidewalk, it takes everything in my power not to shout back to her “lose the flexi-leash!”

Sure, there really are several problems working in tandem here: a less than stellar dog owner, poorly trained dog, and a crappy, but all too common, piece of equipment.  My target here is the ever-infuriating flexi-leash.

Nothing during the course of an average dog walk irritates me more than encounters similar to the above.  Or seeing any dog at any time being walked on a flexi-leash for that matter.  As a motorist or pedestrian it is far too common a sight to see a dog walking along, or even crossing the street, 20 feet ahead of or behind its owner.  The safety concerns seem obvious, yet stores keep selling these leashes, and people keep buying them.  Yes, I immediately and harshly judge the flexi-leash user.  And not just because incidents like the aforementioned are frequent and put a damper on my own dog walks, but because there are legitimate reasons why the flexi-leash should never be considered a useful tool to the responsible dog owner.

Quite frankly, flexi-leashes are an abomination, and their popularity is based on completely false and irrational myths believed by naïve buyers.  Despite by-laws in many municipalities setting the maximum appropriate leash length at 6 feet/2 metres (e.g. Calgary, Alberta), these little devices are as popular as ever.

The ads will tell you that these retractable leashes give your dog more “freedom” while you maintain control.  This is very simply false.  Any added distance between you and your dog means less control.  Just ask the owner of the Scottish Terrier from the story above; she had no control over her dog whatsoever, and the look on her face at the time suggested to me that she was quite aware of it.  Was it enough to prompt her to ditch the flexi-leash for a sensible 6 foot one?  Well, unfortunately probably not, but there’s no accounting for common sense.

And all too often we see the unbalanced, under-exercised little lap dog yapping away at the end of the flexi-leash.  But how about when it’s the other way around?  Now imagine that a calm, friendly dog is on the end, still 20 feet away from its owner, and going in for a greeting with an unfamiliar dog – and said greeting just happens to turn south for one of a myriad of possible reasons.  The owner of the dog has no immediate recourse to protect their dog from the aggressor when the altercation is going down so far away.  A dog truly intent on harming another can and will do so in a split second.  Now imagine both dogs are on flexi-leashes and neither owner is able to respond quickly enough.  Mon Dieu!

Your dog’s health and safety is your number one responsibility as a dog owner, so how is it that the flexi-leash keeps slipping through the cracks?  The flexi-leash poses a safety risk to your dog, and that’s all there is to it.  Your dog can encounter any number of things during a walk (other dogs, other people, bikes, vehicles, porcupines, skunks, etc.), and when they are 20 or more feet away you are less likely to be able to anticipate it, prevent it, or help them quickly in a serious situation.  Yes, people actually have stood helplessly by while their dog – at the end of a flexi-leash – wandered onto the road and got hit by a car.

In addition to being a hazard to your dog, the flexi-leash also poses hazards to the human user, including tripping and tangling which are obvious risks associated with that much lead.  More serious hazards actually include reported cases of abrasions, rope burn, and even finger amputations (for those who believe a visualization of these hazards is helpful, visit http://www.flexiusa.com/operation/safety-advice.php ).  The flexi-leash comes with a bonafide owner’s manual when purchased, with the least of precautions being that they’re only to be used with obedient, well-mannered dogs.  Experience, of course, shows us that is rarely the case.

Some actually suggest that having a dog on a flexi-leash has made the need for teaching them to “heel” or “come” unnecessary.  Opting to forego some basic obedience because of sheer ignorance, stupidity, or indifference?  Really?

And while we’re at it, no, allowing your dog to zig-zag around does not “give her more exercise” or let her “enjoy” the walk more.  Are you truly so lazy that you are looking for shortcuts and cannot take your dog on a proper daily walk?

Flexi-leashes also do not prevent your dog from pulling, as many claim; they just mask the problem.  Put the same dog on a proper leash, and the owner will complain of pulling – why?  Because the dog always pulls.  When using a flexi-leash, the dog actually learns to pull, since they must pull forward to get more lead.  Additionally, flexi-leashes self-retract when not locked, so there is always tension on the leash.  Because the reel of the leash is the only part that monitors the tension and slack, the owner is oblivious.  But all you have to do is look:  no slack in the line means the leash is tight; tension means the dog is pulling.  Just because you can’t feel it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

And, finally, for those who will inevitably respond that the flexi-leash is a great tool for training your dog at a distance, I pose this question: if your dog isn’t perfectly behaved at the end of a 6 foot leash, how can you expect them to be just as good from 20 feet away?  If you properly practice building up distance when training, making slow, gradual increases in distance will ensure you’ll never need to make use of a long-line or flexi-leash.  Your dog will learn to pay attention and respond from 5, 10, even 50 or more feet way.  From a training perspective, the ever-tight flexi-leash also does not provide any method to send our dogs clear messages or follow-up.  Sure, from a distance we expect our verbal commands to do the work, but if they are spot-on and built up gradually, a flexi-leash should never be required.  Controlling our urge to push our dogs too far too fast will make the seemingly most legitimate use of the flexi-leash obsolete altogether.

The bottom line:  the flexi-leash is an awful contraption that should never be used.  The use of a flexi-leash simply signifies to me an untrained dog accompanied by an uneducated owner.  And fewer things are more infuriating than that.

Dog Owning 101

Dog Ownership 101: The Basics
The things I wish all dog owners knew, or knew to consider.

1.  What type of dog is best for you?

Granted, it might be too late, but this is something that should be given huge consideration for someone getting a (or another) dog.

Becoming a dog owner is not just adding a cute, furry addition to your daily routine; dogs are a commitment of your time and money, and becoming a good dog owner requires a life-style change.  Different breeds have different needs and will provide you with different challenges, and you have to be very honest about what will be best for both you and your dog.  Sure, Australian Shepherds are darn cute, but do you actually have 2-3 hours per day (every day, for the next 12-15 years) to dedicate to providing your dog with the physical and mental stimulation it needs?

Make a frank assessment of your lifestyle and what kind of companion you’re looking for.  In addition to how cute the dog is, consider energy levels, size, type of coat (shedding), etc.  Great Danes make very cute puppies, but shelters and rescue organizations frequently see them surrendered once they are full grown and the previous owner decided they couldn’t handle a dog that size.  But with a little foresight, these and similar situations are entirely preventable.  Do your research; know what you’re getting yourself into.

2.  Where to get your dog from?

I am not going to go into detail, and I honestly don’t think I should have to in any event, because information concerning the horrors of puppy mills abound.  Everyone considering a puppy should do their best to ensure their money is not funding these organizations.  Yes, puppies sold in pet stores are often from puppy mills.  Stay away.

Also beware of the notorious “backyard breeder”.  These are breeders who are trying to turn a profit, and who treat the dogs akin to livestock.  They do not pay attention to breeding lines, hereditary diseases, or cases of inbreeding, and often have one female giving birth to multiple litters per year.  Watch out.

And if you are seeking a dog from a breeder, do your homework and ask lots of questions.  A good breeder will ask you lots of questions, too.  Make a visit to see the puppies and any other dogs they may have in advance and check out the living conditions.  If you’re not comfortable, don’t support them.

If you want to rescue a dog, research is again very important – both into your potential new dog, and into the organization itself.  Have a lengthy conversation with the people at the organization who have spent the most time with the dog you have in mind, since they should be able to give you good insights about your chosen dog.  And remember, when adopting a rescue – whether adult or puppy – you may be also adopting a variety of potential mental or physical problems (also possible when getting a dog from a breeder, too, of course), so ensure you are prepared (mentally, physically, financially) to deal with what may arise.

3.  Exercise!

First, lets be clear on what I mean by “exercise”:  I mean a proper WALK.  I do not mean running around the backyard, playing fetch, or going to an off-leash park.  I mean walking with your dog heeled next to you.  The other aforementioned activities are play-time perks you dog can certainly enjoy after his or her daily walk.

A proper dog walk is important for several reasons.  Some are:

a)  Physical exercise.  Obviously.  Many pet dogs are overweight, and lack of physical exercise is half the problem (being over-fed would be the other).  Our dogs need exercise to build muscle and be physically fit, just like we do.  At minimum, your dog needs an hour walk per day.  Every day.  For his or her entire life.  This is a responsibility you agreed to when you decided to get a dog.

b)  Release of pent-up energy.  In addition to the physical health benefits of walking, there are mental benefits as well.  Dogs that have pent-up energy from lack of physical and mental stimulation tend to take it out at home, and chewing and digging are great indicators of this – they’re just trying to keep themselves busy.  A daily walk will help alleviate boredom and keeps them mentally and physically engaged.

c)  Bonding.  An hour or more of walking per day is a great opportunity to build a bond with your dog.  With them heeled next to you, they have to pay attention to you when you turn, stop, and change pace.  Their attention is focused on you, and they look to you for leadership.  This can actually improve other aspects of your relationship with your dog, such as their obedience to commands and rules and your other expectations of them.

d)  Socialization.  Getting your dog out daily to see, and possibly meet, people and other dogs along the way is a great way to ensure they’re polite when greeting new people and other dogs.  Getting out regularly to new locations and on different routes also helps them to be relaxed and confident in all sorts of situations.  Our dogs are our companions, so the more places we can take them with us, the better.

e)  Gives your dog a job.  While dogs are believed to have been domesticated since as early as 10,000 BCE, dogs have only been urban, household pets for the last 100 years or so, a trend that developed as a status symbol, together with the modern kennel club institutions.  All breeds of dogs were engineered for one type of job or another: herding, hunting, drafting, tracking, guarding, etc.  And yes, even Fido, as he sleeps on your couch, has instincts associated with his intended “job”.  So even if you’re not able to take your dog to herding trials or tracking classes, at the very least his or her job can be to walk nicely next to you for an hour or two per day.  It’s not asking a lot, and they are receiving a much more luxurious lifestyle than the working dog of centuries past as it is.

4.  Training

All I am simply going to say here is: train your dog! I am going to try to remain uncontroversial here and avoid commenting on the different schools of thought, but the importance of training your dog in general is huge.  All dog owners represent the whole dog owning community when they’re out in public (which should be daily, if you’re exercising your dog regularly), so just as it’s important to pick up after them, it’s also important to ensure you don’t have a crazy furry monster at the end of your leash.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that there’s probably not one style of training that will work for every single dog and every single owner, so it’s important to look into local training organizations and pick one you agree with and think will work for both you and your dog.  And once you’ve picked it, for the love of Zeus, try it!  Give it 100% for the duration of the class.  Do what your trainer tells you, and if you don’t see drastic results immediately, be patient and consistent and practice at home.  While one method probably won’t work for everyone, no method will work unless you actually give it an honest effort.  Because, yes, what they say is true and it’s more like people training anyway.

I’d also like to take this moment to say that training isn’t a one-time fix for anything.  Just because you signed up for a 6 week course, doesn’t mean you can throw it all out after the class is over and will have the perfect dog for life.  Training, and maintaining rules and boundaries, continues throughout the lifetime of your dog, and is just another responsibility you accepted upon getting a dog.

5.  Diet

If you can purchase your dog’s food at the grocery store, simply put, you’re probably feeding them garbage.  Information on the perils of feeding cheap, poor-quality dog food can easily be found once one looks for it, so I invite you to do so.  There have been lots of pet food recalls in the recent years among those “grocery store brands”, and as a responsible dog owner, it’s up to you to educate yourself on what exactly is in that kibble and what it means for your dog.

A dog fed a proper, healthy diet has fewer medical issues, a healthier body weight, and a longer life-span.  Look into raw diets or quality dried foods that aren’t full of grains and unnecessary ingredients.  Your dog will like them better and be healthier for it.

And that’s it: the very basics of dog ownership as I see it.  While there is really a lot more to it than that, these are the big-picture concerns, which, if addressed, would lead to more fulfilled dogs and happier owners alike.