Posts Tagged ‘Jean Donaldson’

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.


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After much delay, here is the last installment in the “dog training and behavior myths” series of posts. I’m attaching a warning and apology here: unfortunately it ended up being a long post!

16. “It’s okay to roll a dog on his back to pet him.”

Even though your intentions are good, rolling a dog on his back can actually send a very scary message to the dog. Forcing a dog into this position will very often result in defensive or fear aggression.

Another common mistake we tend to make is thinking that when a dog rolls over on his own, he always wants his belly scratched. This isn’t always the case! Dogs will roll over to signal appeasement or to create distance between themselves and a human! While our instinct is to pet the dog on his tummy when he rolls over thinking he’s signaling “please move closer,” he’s actually signaling “please move away!” Not at all a pleasant situation to be in. When dogs roll over in this way, to help build their confidence, it’s best to encourage them upright and then interact with them.

So how do you know when to pet your dog when he’s on his back? Look for relaxed muscles throughout the dog’s body, open mouths (often with tongues hanging out to the side) and general “wiggliness”- dogs tend to roll over in this way during play.  If your dog rolls over and you see any or all of these signs: tense muscles, furrowed brow, closed mouth, tucked tail- it’s best for the dog if you encourage him  to roll upright before interacting with him.

Dogs convey and understand intent very differently than we do. Even though dogs will roll over (or roll each other over) as part of play, prior to executing a rough and tumble move they’ve displayed other signals (such as play bows) to let their play partners know that what they’re doing is play. Don’t forget that a lot of what we think of as polite or comforting in our interactions with other people including facing each other during conversation, leaning in to get closer to a another person etc. all convey very different meanings to our dogs. If you happen to make a faux pas, it’s much easier explaining your intentions to another human than to your pup!

There are many sources available that discuss all aspects of dogs rolling on their backs including what it means when your dog rolls over, when it’s okay to pet your dog while he’s on his back, and the “alpha roll.” Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of the Leash discusses many of the topics in this blog and has great information on alpha rolls.  

17. “It’s best to take a dog that is fearful of other dogs to the dog park or to a dog class to get over that fear.”

Placing a dog into the situation the dog is afraid of at high intensities (including training classes if your dog is afraid of other dogs!) will most often make the situation worse. Your dog could very easily become overwhelmed to the point of shutting down, (essentially paralyzed in fear) not wanting to do anything but be near you and/or may end up biting out of fear.

Instead, speak to a trainer or veterinary behaviorist about how to desensitize and counter-condition your dog to other dogs or whatever they’re afraid of. Games such as tug of war (with rules properly in place), teaching tricks and even things as plain as working on basic cues with positive reinforcement techniques will also help to build your dogs confidence! 

For more information on fearful dogs, visit www.fearfuldogs.com and take a look at Patricia McConnell’s The Cautious Canine and Nicole Wilde’s Help For Your Fearful Canine.

 18. “You should be able to take things out of your dog’s mouth.”

Teach your dog “drop it” instead. “Drop it” and “leave it” can be life savers. Imagine looking across the lawn and seeing some sort of carcass hanging from your dog’s mouth! Wouldn’t you like to be able to just say “drop it” without having to race over there?

Trying to physically remove objects from a dog’s mouth whether they are food items, tissues, toys, socks, etc. can be very problematic at best and dangerous at worst.  You could actually inadvertently cause resource guarding through taking things away! Dogs should be taught that human hands are not a bad thing around their food bowls, around treasured toys, around favorite treats, that human hands come by their favorite things to give, not to take.

Speak to a trainer or veterinary behaviorist who can walk you through all the steps including ow to teach “drop it” by playing tug (see Dog Training and Behavior Myths Part II). Also, take a look at Jean Donaldson’s “Canine Fear, Aggression and Play” seminar handouts for preventing resource guarding and Jean Donaldson’s Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs for help if you suspect your dog may be guarding anything. 

19. “Dogs should be punished when they growl.”

This is a very dangerous myth. When dogs growl, they are signaling that they are uncomfortable with something. It’s a warning that if we don’t pay attention to the dog’s level of discomfort, it could escalate to a bite.  If we punish for growling the dog may feel the need to escalate right then, possibly to a bite, depending on the situation. Punishing growls could also have long-term effects- if we punish a dog for growling the next time a similar situation arises, he may not growl at all, instead he may go straight to a bite!

While we would of course prefer not to hear growls, the reality is that they are a perfectly normal means of canine communication and it’s very important for us to accept them as such. Every dog will most likely growl at something during his or her life. It’s the equivalent of us raising our voices. Who can honestly say they’ve never done that?

I’m absolutely not saying that if a dog growls, we should just shrug and say “okay, that’s normal.” What we need to do, is to find out exactly what is making the dog uncomfortable and work to change that perception of “this thing is not safe and I will now growl at it” to one where the dog sees the person, place, item, etc as safe. This can be done through desensitization and counter conditioning.

Speak to a trainer or veterinary behaviorist if your dog is growling for any reason.  Take a look at Janis Bradley’s Dog’s Bite But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous for an eye opening, informative and witty look at aggression in canines.

20. “Dogs who growl in places like a vet’s office  or grooming parlor are being difficult”

A lot of times veterinarians, their staff and groomers get to see a side of our dogs that we never see elsewhere. For some dogs the poking and prodding, need sticks, etc. are no problem, but for many dogs these are two of the scariest places to be.  Some dogs a) become so overwhelmed and shut down that they just stand, sit or flop over and can be manipulated every which way (and are usually touted as “good dogs”) while others b) squirm to get away, growl or snap when handled.

Regardless of which of these categories a dog falls into, she is not being “difficult,” “stubborn” or “dominant.” Neither “a” nor “b” are good for pup, both situations indicate fear.  

What do we do? We can do our best to desensitize and counter condition our dogs to these places, people, instruments and techniques. This will involve multiple visits when the dog is not being groomed or going in for shots, etc.  A trainer or veterinary behaviorist can help you do this.

These are just some of the myths out there concerning dog training and behavior. While they may seem trivial to us, a lot of them have very serious meaning to our dogs. These are not by any means the only myths out there: from the notion that dogs love to be hugged (another very common myth) to the notion that it’s great for dogs to be carried to the notion that when two dogs meet they should be restrained to the idea that when an off-leash dog runs up to your on-leash dog there will be no problems.

Dog training and dog behavior aren’t the only topics surrounded by myths. They persist in every field, in every aspect of life. For example, a friend of mine who is a personal trainer told me that many people believe they are doing the right thing by their bodies when they hit the sidewalk for a jog or a run (think of how many you see out there each day). Yet sidewalks are the worst surface to run or jog on because they cause shin splints!

Despite scientific (or medical, as in the example above) evidence to the contrary there are many reasons for why some of these myths have such staying power. It’s our job to be as educated as possible about what is myth and what is fact. Research and question everything you can to make educated and informed decisions concerning your dog. It’s the best way we can make sure they stay safe, healthy and happy.

If there are any myths that weren’t addressed in this series of posts and you’d like to share, please post them here!


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Here are a few more common myths surrounding dog behavior and training.

6. “A growl is always a warning, even during play.”

Dogs actually may also growl when they play bow, when they play with other dogs, when they play with their toys, etc.

Again, it’s important to look at the context of the behavior and pay attention to what the whole body is telling you, not just one specific signal. Look for signs of play: loose body movements, play bows, elf-handicapping  etc. to accompany growling.

When two dogs are playing, it can look quite scary to us with lots of teeth visible, chasing and wrestling all accompanying the growling. Look for dogs taking turns chasing each other; for wrestlers to take turns being on top; bouts of chasing, wresting, etc to be punctuated by play bows, etc. Often dogs will chase each other in a bounding, silly looking way and veer off at the last moment.

For more on what play looks like, take a look at Patricia McConnell’s “Dog Play” DVD (http://www.patriciamcconnell.com/product/dog-play-). For a bit more advanced and in-depth look, Jean Donaldson’s “Canine Fear, Aggression and Play” is a fantastic source (http://www.tawzerdogvideos.com/Jean-Donaldson.htm).

7.  “If a dog walks ahead of you on a walk or goes out of the door ahead of you, he is being dominant.”

Without getting into a lengthy discussion of dominance, you guessed it, this one’s another myth. These behaviors have nothing to do with dominance. Dogs just want to get out there to explore. They’re following their noses to get to the source of all those interesting, meaningful smells… smells that we can’t even smell, the same smells that they can already smell from far away!

There is no reason that a dog should be walking behind or beside you all the time.  She can be a polite walker and still wander ahead, to the side or wherever she wants to be. Remember that a walk where dogs are allowed to sniff provides a lot of the mental stimulation that they need.  

8. “Your dog should not sleep on your bed because this teaches the dog to be aggressive towards their owners.”

There is no evidence to suggest that there is a relationship between dogs sleeping on your bed with you and aggression directed towards their humans.

For more information on myths 7 and 8, see Jean Donaldson’s The Culture Clash and

Goodloe, Linda P; Borchelt, Peter L.  Companion dog temperament traits. 
Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.  1998  Vol.1(4): 303-338 (available at: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/978989331-53455308/content~content=a783706513~db=all~order=page)

9. “Dogs that don’t do what we ask are stubborn.”

They’re really not stubborn, they just either a) don’t know what you want them to do or b) he isn’t motivated.

Often, we think our dogs know a cue when they really don’t.

On the third trail of very first day that we day teach a cue, we may think “oh he’s got it!” He might, but it could be that he’s guessing because the behavior has worked in the past! It takes time to learn something new. Think back to your school days, how long did it take you to master calculus? What about something you had to commit to memory, like the periodic table of elements or lines from “Romeo and Juliet?”

Now, let’s say we’re convinced we’ve taught him to come: on day 1 we say “Fido, come,” day 2 we say “Fido, over here” and on day 3 ”Fido.” Which one of these is your verbal cue? Be consistent!

Once we have a cue that he’s responding to consistently, does he know that it means the same thing in the kitchen, in the living room and at the dog park with 50 other dogs? If we do 50 “sits” in the living room where the dog is in front of us, often we expect that the dog will automatically understand sit when we call them while standing 20 feet away from our dogs playing in the dog park! It’s all different to them initially- you didn’t have to complete an exercise in calculus the day after you learned how to add and subtract, right? We have to teach them it does indeed mean the same thing in all locations.

Is there a hand signal? Are there other body cues (are your arms out, are you bent down)? How does he know what to follow and when? Be very consistent about what you say and be aware of what signals your body is sending at the same time. Remember it’s much easier for dogs to understand our body language than our words so if you’re body says something at the same time as your voice does, your dog responds to the visual information and tunes out the verbal information.

If he isn’t motivated it could mean a few things. If it’s still during the training phase, are you using great treats? Good treats are deemed “great” by your pup, not us. Did you fade the treats out so that the anticipation for a treat remains? During your training, did you call your dog to come to you when you were angry for him destroying your flowers such that he is now afraid to come? You want your pup to keep on thinking that cues are fun, responding to cues should start to become reflexive to you pup.  Even so, there are some things I still like to reward for, at least on occasion. 

10. “As long as someone tells you ‘it’s okay’ when their dog meets yours, it really is okay.”

For me, this usually raises a red flag right away.

Remember, you should always, always be looking at what the other dog’s body language is telling you before you allow the greeting to take place. A signal that you are able to read as a warning from the approaching dog, the owner may say “oh, he’s just excited,” etc. You’d be surprised at how many people will say this when their dogs have their hackles up, are making direct eye contact and growling!

The other point here is that when someone tells you their dog is “great with other dogs,” they probably are. But dogs are no different than humans- they don’t have to like everyone.  And they won’t like everyone. And that’s okay.

I never ask anything about the dog. If everything goes well as we get closer, the only thing I ask is if the owner is okay with our dogs meeting. If we are walking along and someone calls “it’s okay, he’s friendly” and I get the feeling he’s really not, I just smile politely but keep going.

It’s our job to always be on alert to interpret what other dogs are saying to our dogs, it’s the best way to keep them safe.

Part III, the final installment of Dog Training and Behavior Myths, will be coming soon!

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