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There are some random (yet also connected in some ways) ideas about dogs and dog training that I wanted to try to talk about all together.

1)  I have a car; and I have a driver’s license.

This does not mean that I know how to repair my car; or that I am qualified to be a race car or stunt driver! Yet for some reason just living with a dog seems to make everyone an expert. Why is that?

We take advice from our neighbors, out vets, our friends on dog behavior and what we should do if our dog barks at the doorbell. But would we listen to our dentist, vet, lawyer on advice about open heart surgery?

For some reason the commonality of living with a dog lends itself very readily to believing ourselves as holding some level of expertise on dog behavior, often based solely on past experience. I don’t know much in caring for my car beyond the regular oil change (which I even admit sadly I’m not very good at keeping up with). Just because I have a car does not make an expert in caring for one!

Likewise, just because I’ve had one car that dropped its transmission doesn’t mean all of my future cars will! Yet we tend to believe that because our first dog let the kids climb all over her, all of our future dogs will do the same without any work on our part.

Or if I have had three cars in my lifetime and have never had one drop its transmission, but my latest car is in the shop and the mechanic tells me it’s the transmission, I wouldn’t ask him “really, are you sure? I don’t see how that could be possible since I’ve never has a car do that to me before. ” Yet these are common responses we give when presented with the fact that our dogs guard tissues, or our dogs are chewing the furniture because they are not getting any walks, etc. Just because we have never seen something in our homes, doesn’t make them any less common or a reality.

2) When people see a monkey displaying certain visual signals and I explain that what they are seeing is a fear grin, or an open-mouth threat or an affiliative lip-smack, people are excited to learn what the signals mean. Yet when it comes to dogs, everyone has their own opinion about what a tail wag means or what signals that a dog is fearful.

For some reason, we don’t think of science surrounding dogs. If we all had pet monkeys (oh please no!!!!), would there be just as much hearsay surrounding interpreting their behavior?

In the fields of animal behavior, ethology and behavioral ecology, species of animals are studied to understand their behavior (which includes how they communicate). This includes dogs! There are studies out there that examine canine social behavior, communication, learning, etc. We DO know what a dog looks like when he’s fearful just like we know when a monkey is fearful!*

3) I often have clients equate some of the techniques used in training as “just like what you’d do with a child” or that their dog is “just like a child.” Upon first glance these comments seem harmless enough, but they actually carry a lot of weight and place a lot of expectations on dogs.

The notion that a “dog has to learn that a certain behavior is not okay, just like a child” is a huge fallacy. That is NOT to say that a dog shouldn’t have to learn the rules and boundaries of life with a human. Oh no, far from it! Much like we have to learn that it is not acceptable to pursue a dog seeking some alone time when he is overwhelmed because pursuing him is rude and because he is telling us he does not wish to be near us at this moment; our dogs have to learn that if you are a full grown St. Bernard it is not acceptable for you to jump up on great-grandma because that is rude!

It IS to say however that if a dog is resource guarding his kibble, it is not okay to want him not learn not to do it, “because you wouldn’t let a child get away with something like that.”** Children learn the difference between right and wrong. Children learn guilt and remorse.

Animals absolutely have emotions; animals can feel fear, joy, anxiety, etc. Animals CANNOT feel guilt and remorse; they do not develop morals. Your dog will never do something because “he knows it’s the right thing to do,” he will never “know he’s been bad.” It will never, ever, ever happen. Ever. This is a crucial thing to understand. Our relationship with our dogs cannot reach its full potential and neither we nor our dogs can truly ever thrive in that relationship if the relationship is hampered with these fallacies.  (If you wondering: well then why does he look so guilty when I come home and find he’s peed in the kitchen, take a look at this summary of a recent study: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090611065839.htm)

Yes, our dogs are animals. They are dogs. This is a good thing! They are not creatures with human attributes clad in fur. This is something to celebrate! For someone who has devoted her entire adult life to the study of animal behavior, the idea that we get to share our lives with such a wonderful animal and that we can learn so much about animal behavior, cognition and learning theory from them is a wonderful gift! It’s a chance for us to all to let our inner Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall and Ivan Pavlov shine!  We owe it to our dogs to treat them as the magnificent animals they are and to learn as much about their reality– the reality that is founded in science– as we can.

People are always remarking how happy Special Dark looks. I always tell them that I work very hard to make him happy… and it’s sheer joy to do that. I understand what he is saying to me, and he understands me and my expectations of him. Yes there are plenty of boundaries and rules; he is very well-behaved– and he is very happy. Knowing Special Dark is happy makes me happy, what more could I ask for? And it’s all thanks to the science behind our relationship.

*Wondering where you can learn more about these studies? Take a look at journals such as Animal Behaviour http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00033472 or Applied Animal Behaviour Science http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/01681591. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a great page on their site dedicated to listing canine studies: http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=148&Itemid=390

**With resource guarding, we want the dog to learn that we are not a threat around his kibble and that it means great things when we come around his kibble. Speak to your trainer about how to achieve this.

When we think of play bows, we think of dog tushes held high in the air, muscles relaxed, open mouths and “play faces,” much like this image of Special Dark. The play bow is the universal doggy invitation to play. Sometimes though, it can mean more than just “I want to play with you.”

Did you know that in some instances dogs actually play bow when they’re stressed?

Remember the old fight or flight response? Well , in actuality there’s quite a bit more you can do than just run away or fight. In study of animal behavior this group of behaviors is called “the 5 f’s.”*

Besides fight and flight, an animal can also freeze, faint or fool around. All of these are adaptations animals have undergone to avoid capture by predators. More often than not, an animal will initially try to escape (flight), when there is no escape the animal may (fight).  The animal may also freeze (stop, stand still and become vigilant), faint (dogs don’t tend to do this, but as a brief aside: while I was searching for references for this blog I found an article that describes fainting as one of the 5f’s in human behavior as an acute response to phobia of blood or syringes—which I have! ! I have fainted at the site of a syringe and always need to be horizontal when having blood drawn and cannot look at needles!  I just never knew scientists were studying this phenomenon; the literature was really very interesting!).

The last F, fooling around, is what I like to call “changing the subject,” it’s essentially being silly to take away attention from the stressful thing or as an effort to cause the stressful thing to change.

Remember that one of the ways you can tell a dog is stressed if he or she exhibits behaviors out of context (the dog all of a sudden starts smelling the chair that’s been present all along; the object is suddenly oh so interesting).

In some instances, dogs will also play bow out of context to “change the subject.” You’ll see the dog perhaps raise a paw or close his mouth or the muscles in his body go tense, you might see the whites of his eyes, etc. and then all of a sudden: a play bow! He might then start to dart back and forth and play bow a few more times.

This is why it’s important to keep in my mind to remember to watch the entire body of the dog, never just rely on one behavior or one part of the body to try to interpret what you’re seeing. Just as it’s awful tempting to assume that a dog wagging his tail wants you to pet him, it’s equally tempting to think when he’s play bowing because he wants to play. He may in fact want to play, but it might be to diffuse a stressful situation. Do him a favor and lighten the mood: take a few steps back, crouch down perpendicular to him, avert your gaze, smile, etc.  get him out of the situation so he can relax and work on changing that negative association to a positive one.

The more you watch your dog and think about he’s communicating, you’ll find yourself noticing things you never picked up on before. It just takes a little practice and before you know it, you ‘ll pick up on things without even thinking about it, reading your dog’s body language will become second nature!

Are there any situations in which your dogs has “fooled around” during some level of stress? Special Dark will occasionally do this when meeting male strangers who stare at him and lean down over him. He also used to do this during brushing sessions, when he’d “had enough,” he would all of a sudden pounce on the pile of hair that was accumulating or a nearby toy (a toy he’d ignored for an entire week, but all of a sudden during a brushing session became ever so exciting!).

Can you think of some other behaviors that might mean one thing in one context and another under different circumstances? What about jumping up? Can you tell when your dog is jumping for attention or to say hi versus when he’s jumping up because he needs you to notice he needs to get out a situation? Think about the human smile or laugh: sometimes you smile or laugh when you’re happy but you might also smile when you’re nervous!

*There are variations in the names for the behaviors depending on where you look, and some variation in the definitions of these terms too.

Take a look at these resources to learn about reactions to fear:

Nicole Wilde’s Working With Fearful Dogs Seminar Video

Bracha HS. Freeze, flight, fight, fright, faint: adaptationist perspectives on the acute stress response spectrum.CNS Spectr. 2004 Sep;9 (9):679-85. Review.

Also, take a look at a behavioral ecology or ethology textbook for more information on responses to fear in animals.

Consider this: This morning there was a story of the news about a Basset hound puppy found along a major highway.

I immediately thought a number of things.  1) While he was an incredibly cute puppy, why was this on the news now? It happens every single day. One week over the summer I found 5 separate stray dogs! 2) Isn’t it odd how thousands of people probably saw that news story and yet no one will be at their water cooler going on and on about how Basset puppies are so incredibly likely to be lost, abandoned or found by the highway. No one is likely to ask their friend or neighbor, “what type of dog will you be getting” and upon hearing Basset Hound give the advice “oh no, don’t get a Basset hound, she’s liable to end up on a major highway! They’re notorious for that.”

Why then do we have such an easy time generalizing certain breeds as being “dangerous?”

I’ve heard people say things like “I truly believe that dogs like German Shepherds are born nice and humans can turn them evil, but pit bulls are born evil and have to be taught to be nice.” I’ll never forget the news story a few summer ago where a dog identified simply as a pit bull was outside in his own yard while a young couple was washing their car in their yard next door. The couple set their baby in the grass in their front yard and the baby crawled over to the neighbor’s yard, and was bitten by the dog. What can you automatically pinpoint as being wrong with this story?

Why do people have such perceptions of certain breeds?  

A quick online search turn sup plenty of websites that list “the most dangerous or vicious dogs” as Akitas, Chow-Chows, Doberman Pinschers, Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, and Wolf-Dog Hybrids (oh yes, sadly this includes my beloved Special Dark). I really won’t get into why this list is the way it is or why you often hear about pit bulls on the news. For an amazingly wonderful, eye opening look into the answers to these questions (including understanding dog bites, dogs bites and kids, exploring bites that are the equivalent of a kitchen knife accident and where dog bite statistics come from) a take a look at Janis Bradley’s wonderful Dog’s Bite But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous and Darrell Huff’s How To Lie With Statistics.  

Did you know that doing internet searches on dog breed bite statistics will also reveal that St. Bernards are Pomeranians have been noted as being responsible for human fatalities?  Locally, for one year, Labrador Retrievers were tied for first place in the top 10 biting breeds for the year! Would you also be surprised to know that Dalmatians, Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, Collies and Jack Russell Terriers were also on that same top 10 list?

So what is my point here? My main point here is to re-emphasize that we need to really objectively analyze and evaluate everything we hear when it comes to our dogs, and dogs in general. Reading that a Pomeranian has killed a human or that beagles made the top biters in my area in 1998 won’t change your mind about these breeds will it? I really hope not! So why should hearing it about any breed influence our opinion about that breed without our objectively thinking about the facts (some of which are usually missing or overlooked) for that particular incident?

Much like the pit bull that makes the news for the dog bite, one lost Basset puppy makes the news.

The scores of other dog bites (and more importantly the events that led to the bite) do not make the news. The exhausted, dehydrated chow mix, shepherd mix and lab I found all together on the side of a busy road last summer and the scores of other dogs found every day don’t make the news. We should try to remember how ridiculous it would be for us to think that if one Basset puppy was found on the side of the road that all Basset puppies will end up on the side of the road or only Basset puppies will end up on the side of the road. Keep this in mind the next time you read or hear about a “vicious dog attack.”

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers has a wonderful position statement on Breed Specific Legislation http://www.apdt.com/about/ps/breed_specific_legis.aspx,. One part especially stands out for me as a trainer; as someone who has devoted her entire adult life to the study of animal behavior: “Canine temperaments are widely varied, and behavior cannot be predicted by physical features such as head shape, coat length, muscle to bone ratio, etc.  The only predictor of behavior is behavior.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The only predictor of behavior is behavior:” something crucial to keep in mind, not just when you hear a story on the news but any, and every, time you’re thinking about dogs or animals.

It’s all just semantics after all, you could be saying “yellow,”  “apple” or even something like “rotten tomato” to your dog and it wouldn’t make a difference to him as long as the words are a tip off of something pleasant.

So why does it matter then whether you say, or think, in terms of “thank you” rather than “good boy?” I think it helps us humans a great deal when we’re thinking about rules and expectations for our dogs.

Let’s say you and your dog are walking along outside and you see a neighbor you’d like to chat with, but she’s (for some strange reason) standing right beside a pile of garbage with a nice chicken bone on top of it. Because you want to talk to your neighbor and don’t want your dog picking apart the pile of trash or eating the chicken bone, you ask him for a “sit-stay.” He sits and you carry on your conversation without worry that he’ll be eating the bone or getting into other possibly dangerous or “disgusting” items. Once you’re done talking you release him and then say…? “Good boy” or “thank you?” Try to think of it this way: why is he a good boy?

Not for any grand reason. Remember, dogs aren’t mentally capable of understanding right vs. wrong in the sense of morality (despite that urge for us to think “he KNOWS IT’S WRONG,” he, in fact, does not know any such thing! Dogs don’t have morals, they aren’t mentally equipped that way, to be spiteful or deceitful— don’t you feel lucky to be part of what is quite probably one of the only species to have the ability to be deceitful?*) The only reason he is a “good boy” is because he’s done what you ask. Through some excellent team work he has been trained to react to your cues in the way you want him to.

From his point of view, he could be missing out on the greatest treasure of his life! Natural dog behavior dictates that he explore that pile of garbage! He’d pick it apart, sniffing every inch, ingesting everything edible (especially that chicken bone), possibly rolling around in it getting completely stinky and dirty. All acceptable (even preferred) behaviors for your average canine citizen. Good boy? It’s in the eye of the beholder! You’ve just asked him to ignore several canine instincts and trade them in for some strange human whim: would you sit patiently there inches from a mound of all your favorite snacks or a huge pile of money just because I asked you to? So close to something you wanted or enjoyed, yet unable to do anything about it simply because you were asked? Think of the level of restraint involved!

In your dog’s mind you asking him not to eat the chicken bone, not to roll in the smelly pile, not to root his nose in the very bottom of the pile makes no sense. For him, you are the strange one for not wanting to particpate yourself, and certainly for not wanting him to do such things. But he does these bizarre things you ask anyway. Why? Because you have worked hard on this bond, you have taught him “sit,” “stay” and “leave it,” you have worked around distractions and you have rewarded handsomely when he’s resisted difficult distractions. He now understands what you want and does what you ask because the pay-off has been high enough during training. That’s pretty amazing if you think about it!

So while we don’t want him to eat that bone because we know he could be seriously injured, we don’t want him to poke around in the pile because we’re afraid he might injure himself with whatever may be beneath all that gunk and we don’t want him rolling around in it because he’ll get dirty and track it into our living room and jump on our bed, I think it helps to think in terms of “thank you.” To thank him for not doing what comes ever so naturally to him and trading it in for our acceptable human norms.

I really think “thank you” helps us put things into perspective: how difficult a task may be to a dog who is really fighting his natural instincts by not digging in trash piles, picking things up on the street, chasing that squirrel or barking every time someone walks past our house.  I think “thank you” reminds us that they have done their best for this canine/human bargain by learning such oddities as not drinking out of the toilet, the largest water bowl in the house!

Of course as I mentioned, it’s all semantics. Do I say “good boy” to Special Dark? You bet. In fact, to be honest I think I probably say it more than “thank you.” But more often, I find myself smiling to myself when I say it; reminding myself that what I mean is “thank you Special Dark… for ignoring your natural instincts and doing what I asked you to do.”

If the situation were reversed, think of what it would take for you to change if your dog made the house rules and asked you not to eat desert ever again, decided that he didn’t want you to speak too much because he didn’t find it as pleasant as a bark, asked you not to shake hands anymore and instead use the canine form of greeting…  

Now think of how quickly you were able to teach your dog the things you’d like from him. That’s the beauty of training when it’s a partnership, and it’s really something remarkable to see in action. Try thinking about that as you work with your dog and toss in a “thank you” every once in a while to remind you of how remarkable your partnership is.  

*There is some debate about whether certain species of non-human primates, some birds and a few other species are capable of deceit. In any case, none of the few possible species in question are canids.

Not exactly, but a backyard can indeed be a hindrance rather than a blessing.

Numerous shelters, rescues and breeders prefer you have one, some even won’t adopt to you if you don’t have a yard and you often hear the proud statement from your friends and neighbors:  “I have a huge yard for my dog.” The idea is that dogs should be happy running and romping and playing all day in the yard. But do they? And is this enough?

The answer to both of those questions is no. If you leave your dog outside in the yard for hours at end, what is he usually doing? Probably running around a bit, smelling things here and there, peeing on a few things, occasionally alerting to a sound or sight. But what is he doing the majority of time? Most likely just laying down looking around, or even sleeping. While looking around is in fact stimulating to dogs, imagine sitting on your deck for hours on end, day after day for years looking at more or less the same scene. Yes, you will enjoy the sunrise or sunset or people watching, but what are you most likely doing after a while? Daydreaming, picking up a good book or maybe thinking about what to have for dinner. And chances are this is all within the first hour, never mind after a year or two!

The biggest concern with yards is that people often assume that their dogs get all the exercise they need when they have a yard. One of the things that makes me cringe is when I ask how often and how long people walk their dogs and they answer “we don’t have to walk, we have a huge yard for her to play in.” If you ‘re reading this and thinking “this is nonsense, of course my dog is active and happy in the yard,” I invite you to conduct your own behavior study: Simply let your dog outside as you normally do for a period of time and during that time, record what he’s doing and for how long. You’re establishing is known as a time budget for your dog in the backyard. You’ll be able to see just how much time your dog actually spends playing and exercising in your yard. I’m willing to be it’s not at all as much time as you thought. I’m willing to be bet it’s quite a bit less than 50% of his time in the yard! As I mentioned above, what you’re likely to discover is that your dog is mostly just sitting or lying around!

Also as I mentioned above, while it can absolutely be stimulating to sit about and take in the sights, sounds and, of course, the smells in a setting, NOVEL settings are actually the most potent for this. Sitting down at a park bench you only visit once in a while can wear your dog out more than a walk in some instances! This type of sensory and mental stimulation is in fact crucial to a dog’s health. However, in fact if left alone for long periods of time, day after day in the yard, dogs can become reactive in this area. They can start guarding the yard from other dogs and even people. Usually these are the dogs you see barking at any movement along the perimeter of their yards.

So what should you do to avoid your backyard becoming a crutch?

1)      WALK your dog! No matter how great your yard might be, it’s important to get your dog out for walks along varied paths. Not only will this really get her moving, but it will give her a chance to take in novel sensory stimulation, which is fabulous enrichment.

2)      Don’t leave your dog unattended in the yard. For one thing, unfortunately in this day and age you have to worry about things such as your dog getting into something poisonous, sometimes this might even be something someone maliciously threw over your fence. It’s also not uncommon for dogs to be taken right out of backyards. You never know when your dog might dig a hole or find a gap in your fence. If you’re not there to see, you’re not there to call your dog to come back…

3)      Make your backyard a fabulous playground that both you and your dog can enjoy together! Simply by having time in your backyard become slightly rarer, its value will increase. As much as I love chocolate ice cream, if I had it every day, I would eventually not be quite as eager to eat it each time! Remember the economics principle: scarcity creates demand.  When you do go out together, play games together. You can play tug. You can practice some training cues. You could play find it by hiding toys or treats all over your yard. You can hide things in your dog’s digging pit and have her dig them up. You can teach her a an outdoor trick like how to point at squirrels, circle a tree, weave between trees, carry empty trash bags for you so you can collect leaves, or my personal favorite, if you have a dog who marks you can put kicking on cue and call it “wipe your paws.”

The possibilities are endless, as are the rewards for both you and your dog!

Imagine you’re walking along on the street when all of a sudden someone yells “No!” What is your reaction? If you’re like most people, you’ll startle. You’ll stop in your tracks and probably start to look around to see what’s going on. Were you stepping off the curb? Did they want you to stop? Were you going the wrong way? What in the world could be happening?

What will you do next? Most likely you’ll stop where you are and try to figure out what could be happening. You’ll look around, but will that tell you what to do? Or what not to do? No, not in the least.

This is the situation your dog finds herself in every time you say “No!” Think of how often this occurs in your house. She may try to jump up on someone and you say “no!” She may try to take something that doesn’t belong to her. Maybe she’s darting out the front door. Maybe you asked her to “stay” and she’s walking away. 

Why not provide more useful information? Think of what behavior you might like in place those that make you say “no!” Instead of saying “no” when she jumps, why not ask her to “sit” instead? Or teach her to go lie down somewhere when visitors come? If she tries to pick up a sock that doesn’t belong to her, why not ask her to “leave it” instead? If she darts out the door, make sure she has a solid recall, teach her the “wait” cue instead. If she gets up to walk away from a “stay” go back and practice “stay” until she understands she’s not supposed to get up until you come back to release her.  Tell your dog exactly what you need from her, don’t leave her to do the guess work.

Often saying “no” may startle your dog, but it won’t tell her what you need instead. She’ll be left to her devices to decide. Imagine if you’re out in the garden and you see her grab a tomato off the vine, if you say “no!” she may leave it there, but now what? She may pick up a pepper instead, or a different tomato or she may simply pause and then keep running with it. Is it her fault? No! You haven’t told her what you want! Now imagine that same dog picking up a tomato. How would the situation be different if she knew the “leave it” cue and you asked her to do so and then handed her a ball instead and said “take it?” Would this be easier on both human and canine?

Think of how many times a day you say “no” to your dog. What could you substitute in place of “no” to communicate more clearly with your dog? Try to count how many times you use “no” in your house, make a list of when you do it and come up with things you could say instead. For every time you say “no” there is something else you could say or another activity you could redirect your dog to. Start implementing these things and do a new count. Both your frustration level and that of your dog’s will be much lower!

We can maybe afford to use “no” once or twice every few years for those rare emergencies when we simply can’t think of anything else, but there’s no other need really. You should work through training exercises so that the first things that pop into your mind (even in an emergency) are “leave it,” “sit,” “down,” “come,” etc. Both you and your dog should be used to this! If you are out and out about and your dog leans down to pick up a chicken bone and you say “no!” in horror, you haven’t practiced “leave it” enough! It should be just as reflexive to you when you say it as it should be reflexive to your dog to do it.

Think of it this way: how many times a day so you say “no” to another human when you want them to do something for you? If they reach for a cup of coffee to hand you but you wanted tea, would you say “no!?” Or something more like “could I have tea instead?” If they go right and you want them to go left, wouldn’t you say “go left” instead of saying “no!” Think about how much more useful information in the form of directions we give other human beings. Shouldn’t we do the same for our dogs?

I challenge all of you to rid your home of the word “no” in the next year! Once you start, you’ll begin noticing how many times people around say it to their dogs and how much non-information it actually carries.

For some really fantastic takes on the uses of “no” and what a poor form of communication this word really is, as well as other ways we’re sometimes ineffective in communicating with our dogs, take a look at Ian Dunbar demonstrating with a fellow human at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHNV_og7AG4&feature=player_embedded  or the same video can be seen on the Dog Star Daily website with many other fabulous videos at http://www.dogstardaily.com/dogstars/videos/training/newest?filter0=31. And of course, my favorite example is from Jean Donaldson’s The Culture Clash (pages  95 to 97) for her fabulous Planet Gorn analogy.

It starts with advocating when you’re picking out a puppy from a breeder, a shelter or recue group; and continues through the rest of your dog’s life. You might not think certain circumstances would require you to advocate for your dog, but if you think about it every situation is an opportunity to be a voice for your dog. You’re the only one who can give your dog a voice, so make sure you never let an opportunity go by where you can.

When you’re choosing your canine companion, asking as many questions on the dog’s background as you can not only helps determine if this is the right fit for you, but can save you a lot of heartache and medical bills in the future (for information on breeders and what to ask them see the July 11th 2010 Special Paws blog post).

Similarly, ask rescues and shelters what background information they have on the pup you’re interested in. Ask them what behaviors they’ve observed with animals that make them say “no cats” in the dog’s new home, or similarly “no kids.” Ask them how they came to have the dog, what they know about his behavior and how they know it. What type of training (if any) have they been doing with the dog? Have any canine behavior professionals been working with the dog? Have volunteers have been working with the dog? If so, how often? Has the dog been through any other shelters or rescues that they know of? Asking these questions will give you an insight into things such as whether a dog has a high prey drive, if he is afraid of anything, how many times the dog may have been adopted and returned (and the reasons for the return) as well as possibly if one organization may not have been willing to adopt this dog out but another was. You’ll want to make sure you try to find out as much of this information as possible.  

What about once you’ve gotten your dog home? Looking for a trainer? Make sure to ask what their training philosophies are. How did they get their experience? Are they continuing their education and if so, how? Ask them to list some of their favorite canine behavior experts or favorite books. Do they match yours? (For more information in choosing a trainer, see my July 25, 2009 post below.)

What about a groomer? Ask them if they’ll let you watch while they groom. Look to see if they ever leave a dog unattended on a grooming table. Are they paying attention to the dog and what they’re doing 100% of time? Is the groomer on the cell phone while a dog is on the table? How are they handling the dogs? Do they recognize the signs that a dog is tense, anxious or fearful? How do they react when they see these signs?

A doggie day care? Who watches the dogs when they’re in their playgroups? What kind of training do the owners and staff have on running a daycare and on canine behavior? You can also ask them if they are continuing their education and if so how. Ask them to list some of their favorite canine behavior experts or favorite books. You can ask them what they’d do in a specific situation: say if one dog isn’t responding appropriately when another dog lets him know he doesn’t want to play anymore. Are they giving a time out or using some other method? If they’re giving a time out, are they doing so for 30 seconds, 5 minutes or an hour? And how do they get the time out? Look around for things you don’t want used on your dog such as spray bottles.

A dog walker? Do they give private walks or group walks? Do they have their own employees or are they using contractors? Do they leave you a report after every walk? Do they let you know before the walk is over if a dog hasn’t eliminated so you can tell them what you’d like them to do (keep walking a bit or just take the dog home)? Do they let you meet the management as well as your walker prior to the start of the service? Do they give you ample notice if your regular walker will be out?

How about if you’re looking for a vet? Do their views on vaccine titers match yours? What about behavior advice? Ask them what types of trainers and behaviorists they refer their clients too. Do they have a clear preference of one philosophy over another? Do these match yours? Are they insisting they roll the puppy on her back to see if your puppy is “dominant,” etc.? Do they offer you behavior advice or diagnosis or do they instead give you the name of a trainer or trainers in the area? Are you able to go in the exam room with your dog? Will they let you restrain your dog if the circumstances warrant it or do they insist on doing it themselves? If they want to be the ones doing it, ask how they’ll hold your dog and how they’ll get ahold of your dog.

Anytime anyone will be alone for any period of time with your dog or handling your dog (whether you’re there or not), it’s your duty to ask questions.  Whatever service you’re looking into, before signing up make sure you sit down and jot down a list of questions that you’d like answered in order for you to feel comfortable about your dog in a given situation. The questions above are just a tiny fraction of the questions you could/should ask in each scenario. If you’re not sure why you’d want to ask some of the particular questions I have chosen, carefully research the services and the different answers you’re likely to get in each industry. Then before you ask the questions, you’ll know what types of answers you yourself would like to hear. If during the time you’re asking questions anything makes you uncomfortable, don’t feel bad about leaving and looking for someone else.

Sometimes it only takes one thing to change how a dog view’s a situation (from neutral to unsafe or neutral to great, for example), asking questions is one way for you to influence how your dog sees his world.

Our dogs can’t ask questions or speak up for themselves, so it’s up to us to make sure they are always safe– and not just in good, but great hands.

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