Positive Reinforcement Trainers Need to Talk About Stimulus Control

What is stimulus control?

The term “stimulus control” has many definitions, depending on source and context. For purposes of dog training, I am referring to the idea of a dog really understanding a cue. This means that when you give a cue, and only when you give a cue, your dog performs the cued behavior.

  • When you cue a specific behavior — which we’ll call X —  the dog does the behavior. (You say “sit,” and the dog sits.) 
  • When you cue a different behavior, the dog does not do X. (You say “down,” and the dog does not sit.) 
  • When you cue X, the dog does not do something else. (You say “sit,” and the dog does not down or anything else.) 

Why do positive reinforcement trainers need to talk about stimulus control?

Competent balanced trainers or others who routinely use some kind of punishment for wrong responses during the training process will get decent stimulus control without having to think about it much.  As they train, they reinforce correct responses, but they also punish incorrect ones. During the training process, then, the dog learns to perform the cued behavior while learning not to perform some other behavior. Stimulus control happens.

Positive reinforcement training does not involve punishing incorrect responses. Ideally, reinforcement of correct responses over time displaces incorrect responses. But, incorrect responses may persist and, since the punishment of incorrect responses is not baked into the process, it’s easy for stimulus control to remain very sloppy. I see a ton of dogs who really don’t know the difference between “sit” and “down.” When told to “down,” they sit, and then, if no reinforcement is forthcoming, they slide into a down. This problem is a pitfall of positive reinforcement training that doesn’t come up in balanced training.  (I didn’t say it’s a flaw, just a pitfall — it can happen a lot more easily in positive reinforcement regimens.)

Owners may not care about this, and if they don’t care, I don’t care. But, trainers’ dogs should know better. People trying to switch to positive reinforcement may get annoyed that their dog has a lot more mistaken responses than when the owner trained using techniques incorporating punishment. Trainers need to do better than explaining that eventually the dog will understand if we just keep reinforcing the correct response. They need to identify what is happening to maintain the incorrect responses, and how to fix it. There are ways to start building stimulus control early in skill training, but many positive reinforcement trainers don’t seem to know how to do this. Anyone charging money to help train peoples’ dogs should understand how to avoid this positive training pitfall.

Tips for Better Stimulus Control

  • Don’t add cues until the dog is doing a generally final version of the behavior.
  • If you’re teaching the basic positions using luring, teach down from a stand and get it on cue before teaching down from a sit. Repeat. Do not start with down from a sit. Almost everyone does, and their students’ dogs, forever after, do not know the difference between sit and down. You can teach this position change after the dog is very clear on down from a stand.
  • If the dog gives the incorrect response to a cue and then offers the correct behavior as a second, third or later try, do not reinforce. (If you need to reinforce something to keep the dog in the game, give a cue she will get right on the first try.)
  • If the dog gives the incorrect response to a cue, don’t immediately recue to get the correct behavior. This doesn’t teach the correct response to the cue; instead, it rewards a behavior chain and teaches the dog to ignore the intended cues. Instead, get the dog out of position, and try again.
  • If the dog keeps making the same incorrect response, go back and teach that skill again, with better cue attachment.

There’s fancier stuff for competitors and very type A owners, but following these rules will help avoid a lot of trouble.

If there’s no enthusiastic consent, it means “no.”

About a year ago, I was recapping a concept for a client when he suddenly exclaimed: “It’s like ME TOO for dogs!”

We like to pet dogs. For some of us, having soft fur to stroke is a main reason to have a dog. We grow up assuming dogs like petting and we make free of any dogs around us. We are not always aware that we are reaching out and touching the dogs near us; the behavior becomes automatic. Many dogs love being petted, and we’ve all met or maybe lived with a dog who would make a pest of itself shoving a nose under your hand.

But. Not all dogs.

As I continue working in behavior consulting, naturally, I work with a lot of dogs who show aggression toward people. Most of them are fine most of the time, but not all the time. They may become defensive around visitors, around children, around nail cuts or other specific contexts. When you start really watching their body language, you can see that they are not enjoying all petting. Some dogs enjoy no petting, but they manage to put up with it for a lifetime without ever issuing even a firm warning to knock it off.

Every one of us can understand this if we consider how we would feel about similar treatment. Even very physically affectionate spouses probably don’t want a kiss from their partner when they are mowing the lawn, talking to a customer, or feeling very sick. Some of us are much less cuddly and like to limit cuddling to private time. Very few people think it’s OK to walk up to a stranger in a bank line and hug them.

But with dogs, we touch them all the time in the doggie version of such situations. We are taught to use head pats as a training reward. If you watch most dogs in these moments, they are not enjoying the touching and want to get back to work. The touches are actually little punishments for doing the tasks we have cued. We touch dogs who we’ve just met, who don’t trust us and may be scared. We touch dogs who are actively growling at us. We touch dogs who are trying to nap or eat. It’s as if some part of our brains believe that’s why they’re there — for us to touch.

There are a lot of men in the world who treat women in the same way; as if they believe the reason there are women is so men have someone to grope.  (Not all men!) It’s exactly the same pattern.

I have come to believe that we generally shouldn’t touch dogs without their permission. Of course there are exceptions: If you are responsible for a dog’s care, you must clip on leashes, brush their hair and teeth, clip nails, and restrain them for vet care. Anyone might grab a dog about to lunge at someone or run in front of a car. All of these things can be made much more pleasant for dogs with training, but sometimes we have to touch them even when we haven’t trained them yet to accept it. But most of the touches we inflict are not necessary. I no longer assume it’s OK. I ask them if they want to be touched, and I wait for enthusiastic consent before I touch. If there’s no enthusiastic consent, I read the response as a “no, thanks,” and I take my hand away.

That’s a pretty standard piece of advice for college students and others entering into possible intimacy and concerned at how to communicate around the delicate topic of sexual consent. For many, the default was “yes means yes. No sometimes means yes. If she’s unconscious she can’t say no so it’s OK”… and so on. The clear and fair rule is that consent should be enthusiastic or it’s still a no.

So, please learn to ask a dog if he wants to be petted. Unless there is enthusiastic consent, it means no. Take your hand away and carry on.

The only dog training emergency

Years ago, an experienced colleague used to point out that “there are no dog training emergencies.” She wanted younger trainers to feel able to resist the emotional pressure clients could impose when something was going wrong with their dog. Her point was that every situation had been building for a while, and could be dealt with methodically. Clearly some situations are more urgent than others, and we could argue about this, but generally, I agree with her.

Except for one situation. There is one situation I always treat as an emergency.  And that is when a client contacts me with concerns about a puppy under about 15 weeks of age. 

Like baby humans, baby dogs pass through a series of developmental stages as they grow and mature. The most critical one for our purposes is the socialization critical period, which starts at birth, really gets going around three weeks when the eyes and ears start working, and ends around 14-15 weeks. During this period, the puppy’s brain is primed to learn the most important lessons it will ever learn: who are members of its social group, the foundations of social behavior (including control over its mouth), and how to handle new things in its world.

Puppies who do not receive appropriate, comfortable exposure to plenty of dogs and people and plenty of varied new things will forever be disadvantaged. They will never be as comfortable around people, dogs and new things as they could have been. It is a matter of degree; puppies who get some socialization will do better than those who get none. Puppies who get pleasant, non-threatening exposures will do better than those who are overwhelmed and frightened by their exposures. And all sorts of factors affect the final temperament, including genetics and other experiences the puppy has from conception on. But all else being equal, socialization is a process over which we have a lot of control, and what we do in this period can make or break, or at least strengthen or weaken, the puppies we see brought into the world.

Very unfortunately, many breeders and veterinarians and others still tell puppy buyers “don’t take him out until he’s had all his shots.” “Had all his shots” translates to the last parvovirus vaccination at about 16 weeks… just after that window has finally slammed shut. It’s a truism… because it’s true. Way more dogs die each year of lack of socialization than from parvo. No matter how hard I try to convince clients of this, some still allow themselves to be scared by their veterinarian’s warnings. I have the greatest respect and sympathy for veterinary professionals, but sometimes I want to shake some of them and ask whether they know they are literally dooming a certain percentage of their puppy clients to death by scaring these dogs’ owners out of proper socialization.

Several years ago, a new client contacted me with a 14-week-old puppy who was showing significant aggression toward strange dogs and strange people. I met him and immediately arranged to have him and his owner seen by a veterinary behaviorist, who fit him in that week (instead of making them wait the usual 2 months). He was on medication by the end of that week and our training continued for months. I believe this fast action saved his life; he’s still alive and able to ignore scary strangers and I think he’d be dead without that response, or at least locked in the house forever, lonely and dangerous.

With my last puppy, I just put her on the ground and took her a lot of places starting at 7 weeks when she came home. We avoided very high-risk surfaces. But she’s a confident, socially appropriate, and generally fearless dog to this day. I would do it again.

Most of the time, when someone contacts me about a puppy, it’s because of an incipient behavior problem: Abnormal-seeming biting, growling, or fear. I always encourage them to make an appointment as soon as possible and when I get there, the first, third and fifth thing we talk about is socialization. I prescribe socialization activities appropriate to that puppy; if she’s scared, we talk about protected exposures at a safe distance. But when people want to know about teaching obedience skills, I tell them the truth. I can teach a 14 year old dog how sit, down, and stay on cue. Heck, I can housetrain a 5-year-old dog. But I can never, ever make up the behavioral and temperament deficits that will result if you don’t take this puppy out today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and let her see dogs and people of different sizes and shapes. We never get this time back. This is an emergency. I basically hijack their perceived agenda to make sure this happens.

I received one of these inquiries today, and it made me so anxious that I’m up at 1:00 in the morning writing this blog. I hope I hear back from the nice lady who so wants to do right by her 10 week old puppy.

In which I admit I am not too bright

(Note: I have added to this blog since it was originally posted, with some information that I forgot about the first time around.  The new material is mainly after the paragraphs about finding lost frisbees. It’s referred to in some of the discussion following as well.) 

I have written before about how I decided to stop doing nose work with Mellie. As I’ve moved on to working successfully with Big Barley (NW 1 under his belt, now trying to get into a NW 2 trial) and even starting Jad, I’ve had more time to process the long history of events in Mellie’s life which led to quitting. This makes a good cautionary tale, and I thought I’d share it because it might help other nose work handlers with dogs having “out of the box” difficulties (*snork*). It might help anyone having difficulties in any dog training process, because some of the take-home lessons generalize pretty big.

Mellie came out of the womb loving to tug. That’s one reason I chose her. She would, and still will, tug anything I tell her is a toy: a sock, a wristwatch strap, a wallet, a stick, a yogurt lid, a fork. And she likes to shred things that are easily shredded. To this day, she will shred open any plastic baggie that she finds, both because it might contain food (but honestly, I think she knows the empty ones are hopeless) and because they’re fun to dissect.  Early on, we liked to play “101 Things to Do With A Box.” Our version involved some shaping games, and one thing she learned was to bring me a large box, climb inside it, and close the flaps, ready to be mailed somewhere. She always loved to shred cardboard, as did Cedi, and I allowed it. It was a great outlet for Cedi (first title: Shredder Dog Excellent) and I had no problem with Mellie engaging in it too. The stuff was still recyclable, after all. Over time, she sometimes would seek out cardboard to shred – with vigor and abandon. She’d hold down the box and rip it madly with her teeth, having a grand time.

When Mellie was six months old, a friend and I joked about whose dog was smarter.  Farli was a very, very smart and well-trained adult dog with numerous performance titles and other achievements, so I was probably tempting fate with my humorous boasting.  However, in the moment, I started teaching her to find my keys.  She already had a cued retrieve of any object, so I had her retrieve my keys from a few feet away.  Then I put them further away in the same room; she brought them back and we played tug to reward her. (I have a little strap on my keys, which she could grip easily.)  Then I hid them in the same room, told her to find them and bring them; she did this; more tug. Then I had my friend restrain her while I hid them in another room, inside a dog crate.  She’d seen where I went, and when we released her to go find, she was back in about 15 seconds.  It was her first scent find, and her reward was to tug with me, using the keys.  We performed this parlor trick many times over the years, almost always ending up with a rousing game of tug-the-key-strap.

“Find it!” –> nose search –> retrieve source –> play tug!   

Mellie came out of the womb loving frisbees. Her breeder founded the Canadian Disc Dog Association and many of her relatives are disc champions of various types. She loved them from the start and was an adept catcher and fetcher within a few weeks as a roly-poly puppy. I bought a number of bite-resistant competition discs to use with her, as they lasted forever. They’re spendy, however, so I was careful not to let them get lost in the field by my house. This field was mown 2-3 times per summer, so the grass got deep between cuttings. The park dropped down a steep wooded bank to a creek, and Mellie would regularly run down there when she was thirsty for a drink. Because she has never concentrated urine well, she needed to drink often, and this meant that her Jawz discs ended up along the creek banks, functionally beyond my reach down the steep bank. So, I’d send her back.  “Go find it. Frisbee, go find it!”  And she did; we lost very few of those precious discs over the years. But at times, she didn’t want to run all the way back down into that ravine to find the disc. I don’t blame her; it wasn’t as fun as catching and fetching. She’d get frustrated, and her displacement  behavior was to start pulling grass. She’d put her head down and grab it and bite it and pull it. If I pressured her more, she’d pull more grass. I eventually worked out a way to finesse the situation, but meanwhile, I set her into a pattern, and the pattern was this:

“Find it!” —> frustration! —> displacement behavior of pulling grass frantically.  

Somewhere around this time, some brilliant trainers elsewhere were in the process of inventing Canine Nose Work. Of course, people and dogs have worked together with the power of the dog nose for probably millennia, but the nose work revolution has consisted of making it accessible for ordinary pet owners, outside of the competitive, purebred-focused rigors of obedience, tracking, or IPO. Eventually, inevitably, I got sucked in and I was sure that my brilliant, athletic, confident dog would love it.

And she did. The problem was the damned boxes. She would try to find the treats, and then the odor when we introduced it, and she would. But there were boxes.  Some boxes could be retrieved, and she automatically tried to retrieve those for a game of tug.  Also, boxes were fun to shred. I’d try to get her to refocus, not to retrieve, not to shred.  She would stop searching for odor, and she’d go into a frenzy of box destruction. It was often funny, and often frustrating for me.

OK, a lot of dogs have this issue.  A lot of dogs play with boxes, or stomp boxes, or at least just accidentally walk on the boxes which might annoy a judge or CO. And a lot of people saw my dog with boxes and decided she had one of these problems and wanted to help me fix it.

What they didn’t know, and I hadn’t fully realized, was that this wasn’t a problem of lack of odor obedience. Her odor obedience is great, always has been. I remember her searching odor at a flyball tournament and moving right past things like plastic bags containing food, the trash bag at our setup, treats loose in someone’s chair’s cupholder… only stopping when she found the birch. She could easily finish Elite level searches in mock trials. Her problem wasn’t odor obedience, or my body language, attitude, or handling skills (all can use work — none were the problem here).

It was that long ago, she’d learned that if I said “find it,” she could expect to play tug with that object.  And then she learned that when she couldn’t immediately find it, it helped her to start pulling grass frantically out of the ground. And if there wasn’t grass, but there was a box… well, she had lots of practice pulling on boxes, in exactly the same way. One paw to hold it down so she could get a really good mouthful and shred. Oh my girl. I did this to you, and I saw it so late. Even now, my eyes fill with tears when I write it down. Because of her huge heart, and her huge brain, she could stay on track if there was no obvious target for her frustration. But when there were boxes, that old pattern kicked in. And then she would be off and running with the glorious release of pulling and flinging and barking and biting! And yes, that did eclipse her odor obedience.

Understanding, finally, what happened, I’m taking her back to some occasional nose work classes, just for fun. I’ll just avoid containers. I have a dog to compete with.  Barley’s a much easier dog to handle (though a much harder dog to work in public, as he’s sensitive to strangers, dogs, and new places). It takes the pressure off Mellie, and she can enjoy just searching, doing something with me. She did two searches at the end of Jad’s class tonight and even that has helped her settle for a snooze on the sofa.

I’ve needed to apologize to every one of my dogs for something, usually more than one something, and this is near the top of the list of things I have to apologize to my beloved Mellie for.

If you’re looking for take-home lessons…


  1.  For the love of dog, don’t recycle cues you’ve used previously. I should have known better, but it just didn’t occur to me that this one had baggage. (Now that it is all written out, yes, I feel really, really stupid.) For nose work in general, if you use a day-to-day “find it” for picking up food off the kitchen floor, or even for fun find-mom games at home, I recommend that you use a brand-new cue when you start formal nose work training. It’s just safer. You can always combine them later if you’re sure it will work out. The same is probably true of recycling cues when starting any new sport. I’d err on the side of adding a new, precise, purposeful cue instead.
  2. Box problems in nose work are not always about boxes being fun. Always give some thought to whether you’re seeing a frustration/displacement behavior. Shredding stuff when frustrated is a time-honored, species-typical displacement behavior. If that’s what you’re getting, video a bunch and ask a good behavior person (not a nose work person) what they see.
  3. Even if your dog is a genius, you may still be making it too hard for them. I know I did this to Mellie at times during her life and I hope to spend the rest of her life with me making up to her for it.

She’s still a genius, though.


Mellie on the way home, 7 weeks, Vancouver airport.

Retiring Mellie

Mellie is now my oldest dog.  She turned 12 in June 2017.  Her mama lived to be 16, and she’s still in pretty good shape, despite three knee surgeries and some peculiar health issues.  Her frustration tolerance is receding a bit – that’s always been hard for her.  In theory she is still capable of actively training and competing in a sport, perhaps Rally or Nosework.  But I think we are done with that.

Our last sport was NACSW nose work.  Mellie never earned a title.  I regret this.  We had this problem with boxes.  Now, a lot of dogs have problems with boxes, but Mellie’s was worse than most.  It didn’t take much for her to quit searching for odor and start destroying the boxes.  This wasn’t an “aggressive alert” problem or a “box stomping” problem or even your basic discrimination problem.  It went farther than that.  And at every single practice match, ORT and trial we attended, someone had to try to be helpful and tell me that I “really need to work on that,” or told me they knew how to fix it — without realizing that this was probably a bit different, and worse, than whatever box problems they’d dealt with before.  I became exhausted with constantly fending off these sallies, whether they were well-intended or catty.  Mellie was frustrated, but I was really hurting.

Being 12 now, Mellie was around  before NACSW was.  And, I didn’t leap into nose work right away.  She was a happy flyball dog, and we dabbled in other sports (rally, obedience, herding, agility, and tricks).  So Mellie had a lot of life experiences before coming to nose work.  Included in these life experiences were:

  • Learning to find my keys by scent when she was six months old, bring them to me, and play tug with them as a reward.  She learned this in four repetitions, which knocked my socks off, and has been doing this for fun and as a parlor trick ever since.
  • Learning from older sister Cedi what fun it is to shred cardboard.  Mellie is a tug monster, and cardboard will do.  There’s also the part about shredding.  Mellie is a very “high” dog, the kind who tended to want to jump up and bite your arm when you were running agility, who needed a much better handler than me to be fast and clear enough for her.
  • Learning to go find the disc she had carried down to the creek while we played.  It was hard for me to get down that slope, and those discs were expensive.  But if I pressured her too hard to get the disc (found by memory and scent, I assume, following the cues “find it” and “get it”), she started demonstrating displacement behavior — pulling grass vigorously, and eating some of it.
  • Learning flyball, where arousal could handily be dealt with by running really fast and tugging really hard.

As a result, in her mind, “find it” was to be followed by tugging.  And frustration in “finding it” could be dealt with my pulling grass.  And cardboard was for shredding.  So it’s not really a surprise that box searches, for this easily-frustrated dog, ended up being about displacing right over into a frenzy of shredding and throwing and very high arousal.  It’s not surprising that this topped odor obedience in magnetism for her.

If I’d really thought about it, I guess, I might have anticipated some of this and changed her search cue.  I think that would have helped.  But I didn’t, because nothing seemed more natural than using her already nicely honed “find” command for this new situation.  This was my fault — of course — but it ended up creating a very difficult situation.

So we quit.  It was a hard decision, but I realized that every nose work event we attended, and some classes, were excruciating.  I’d come home in tears, morose.  And while I think Mellie liked a lot of it, I don’t know that she loved it enough to justify putting me through the misery it had become.

A couple of days ago, I was working with a client dog who’s scared of things moving under her feet — the car is the worst.  I tried having her get a treat out from under the edge of a cardboard box lid, and she couldn’t — she was too frightened.  In fact she wouldn’t touch the cardboard at all.  So I got Mellie out of the car and brought her up onto the lawn and got her playing tug with the cardboard.  We played tug-shred-fetch-destroy with chunks of cardboard while my client dog chased a ball around, and gradually noticed that apparently cardboard was a lot of fun, and gradually switched to shredding her own piece of cardboard quite happily.

Mellie’s a really fine assistant, and it was wonderful to be able to use her powers for good.

My dog is in my car. He’s fine.

“I don’t want to be educated.”


I finished up my meeting with a happy client.  The young dog, who leaps on people in greeting and has bitten a couple of times, is already doing a lot better since our first meeting.  We talked about door manners and agreed to touch base in a few weeks.  Feeling pleased, I headed outside toward my car.

Then my heart sank.  A huge black pickup was parked right next to my car, blocking most of the narrow street.  A teen on a Razor scooter was blocking the driver’s door, a smaller kid was wandering around, an older lady was standing by my car holding a Chihuahua, and another woman (the middle generation) was behind the wheel of the pickup.  I smiled at the teen blocking my access and said, “I’m getting in my car.”  Staring at me, she moved a bit so I could get in.

Then it started.  I was told that my dogs should not be in the car; that they did not have water; that I should have left them at home; that they were distressed.  I explained that they were used to traveling with me. I pointed out the sign on my windshield and asked if they had read it.  Yes, I was told.  Then why, I asked, hadn’t they texted me?

“I shouldn’t have to.”  Instead, this person had called the police.  It turns out that she had read the sign on Barley’s crate explaining that he has separation anxiety and would be dead if I couldn’t bring him with me, and she had no answer for what I should do with him if I couldn’t leave him home — she changed the subject.  She claimed his panting was because he was hot and not because people were hovering around my car.  She said this was no different from leaving a child in a car and she hoped I never had access to anyone’s children.  The grandmother raged at me because they had no water.  (In fact, Mellie’s bucket was empty, though I had checked before I went inside.)  They had to get very close to the back window to see Barley’s sign or Mellie’s bucket, and they couldn’t have seen Barley’s bucket at all.  My poor dogs.

The deputy arrived.  He was very calm and quiet.  He asked me some questions.  I showed him the windows and the Vent-Lock holding the lift back open about 8″.  I showed him the Aluminet I can use if it’s hotter, and I showed him the sign on my windshield with my text number on it.  He concluded there was no problem and told me to leave while he went and talked to the complainers.

Last time this happened, I was asked: “What kind of person are you?”  The complainer literally pulled into a parking space near mine as I had just parked and was pulling the Aluminet over my car.  I explained the Aluminet would cool the car.  She told me she could break into my car, and I said, “not unless the dogs are in distress and you have called the police first.”  She was on the phone and waved it at me.  I came back out within 15 minutes, and she was still sitting near my car.  Since I assumed she had called the police, I sat there for another 15 minutes under my Aluminet.  No cops, so I stepped over to ask her if they were coming.  When she saw me approach, she slammed her car door shut and gave me the finger.

The time before that, I was told that the complainer had called the police.  It was 71 degrees and dusk.  I tried to explain that my white car wasn’t going to heat up much when there was almost no sun hitting it, and that outside temperature had less to do with interior temperature than light did.  She told me,

“I don’t want to be educated.”  She told me to stop harassing her.  The police arrived, told me there was no problem. I left.

Would you like to hear about the time before that, or the one before that?

Dogs can be fine in cars.


Here is the deal.

Mellie works with me with some of my client dogs.  She’s what we call a neutral, decoy, or helper dog.  Sometimes I let client dogs see her so I can assess their responses toward a strange dog.  Sometimes she parades around so owners can practice new skills in handling their dog’s reactions.  Sometimes she meets them so the dogs can practice their new greeting skills.

Barley has clinical separation anxiety.  True separation anxiety is a panic disorder.  These dogs panic if left alone.  They will distress-bark nonstop and try to escape, often damaging their crates or house doors in the process.  In severe cases, they will eat through doors or walls, damaging their teeth or claws in the process.  They may throw themselves through closed windows.  They may lose control of bladder or bowels.  This isn’t about dogs who are sad when you leave and excited when you get back; it’s about dogs who panic as if they are drowning.  It can be a life-threatening disorder involving a huge amount of suffering for dog and owner.  I fostered Barley for 14 months and tried to place him twice before deciding to adopt him. He’s a lovely dog, albeit somewhat high-maintenance.  Since I moved to a new house, he has regressed and really can’t be left alone.  If I do leave him, he has to be fairly heavily sedated and he’s still very stressed.  While I’m working with him to help him learn to relax when alone again, it’s slow going.  So, I bring him with me.  He’s a lot happier in his car crate.  We get by.  A couple of weeks ago, temperatures in Portland rose to record levels — it was near or over 100 for almost a week.  Since I couldn’t leave Barley home and couldn’t really bring him in the car, I cancelled everything and went to stay with friends on the coast.  This cost me money and caused some stress (not that the beach wasn’t lovely).  Please don’t tell me I’m a bad dog owner.

Because I have dogs in the car with me, I bought a white car.  White cars heat up more slowly than dark colored cars.  I bought a Vent-Lock, which enables me to open up the lift gate and lock it to prevent entry.  I have reflective windshield screens.  I have a huge Aluminet to drape over my car, with a selection of magnets and clips to hold it in place.  Aluminet is a woven aluminum shade cloth: both highly reflective and allowing air flow, it can lower interior temperatures by 15-20 degrees and is the single most effective way to control temperature inside your car.  I seek out shade when I can.  My dogs have water buckets in their crates.  I use whatever of this gear I need to keep the temperatures safe.  Yep, sometimes the temperature inside the car is 80 or 85 degrees.  This is warm, but it’s not dangerous to a healthy dog with a normal head shape.  (Overweight or brachycephalic dogs, or those with certain health issues, may be less tolerant of higher temperatures.)

I point this out to the people who stalk my car and scare my dogs, but many of them don’t care.  Those people today — if they actually cared about my dogs’ comfort and safety, they would have texted me.  I could have filled those water buckets inside of three minutes.  Instead they called the police and waited around for the chance to confront and harass me.  It could not be more obvious that they are interested in being self-righteously angry, no matter how illogical their position.  It could not be more apparent that they are not interested in “being educated.”  Facts mean nothing.  They don’t know what a heat-distressed dog looks like and they don’t care.  They read memes on Facebook with false information about how fast cars heat up and have heroic fantasies about breaking someone’s car windows.  It seems almost inevitable that my car window will be broken someday.

When Barley was a young puppy, he was chained to a tree for three months, from the ages of two to five months.  He is much more reactive on leash.  He’s (to all appearances) a Border Collie/Great Pyrenees mix.  He has some breed-normal reserve with strangers, is territorial around my house and a bit around my car, and isn’t comfortable when he feels trapped. When he’s in a crate inside my car, he is trapped.  I would like him to feel safe in there.  A lot of times, it’s the only place he can be.  When I say he would be dead if I couldn’t bring him places with me in the car, I am not exaggerating.  I was very close to euthanizing him before I adopted him, and when I decided to keep him, I knew it was going to be tough because my other male dog tormented him mercilessly.  (My younger male is now tormenting him and I have to do a lot of management and feel a lot of guilt over this.)  I rearranged my life in many ways to accommodate him.  I adore this dog, but on top of the many arrangements I have to make just to keep him in my home and life, I am now dealing with angry, irrational people like those described above about once a week.  I fear that the people staring in and hanging around will upset him and make him even more defensive.  The sign on his crate warns he may bite, and I feel this is true.  I dread the day someone breaks my window and panics him.

You’d think that if you saw a car with highly visible special equipment to create shade and airflow, plus an informational sign with a text number for concerned onlookers, you would assume the owner was aware of the risk of hot cars and had mitigated it, was available to deal with it.  Apparently, this is not the case.

Here is some crucial information for people who are concerned:

  • Outside temperature is not that important in causing a car to heat up.  Think about it — cars don’t get that hot at night.  It happens during the day.
  • Mostly, what makes cars heat up is light hitting them.  A car in direct sun heats up faster than one in shade.
    • The sun is stronger when you are closer to the equator.  (That is why there is ice at the poles but not at the Equator.) There is literally more energy hitting the car surface per square inch in Louisiana than in Seattle.  I live in Portland, Oregon, which is north of the 45th parallel and most of the rest of the continental US.  Portland is north of Ontario, in Canada.  The sun here is relatively weak.
    • Reflective surfaces turn away the sun instead of absorbing the light and turning it into heat.  That’s why white cars don’t heat up as much as dark ones.  It is also why Aluminet works so well; aluminum has a very high albedo (reflectivity).
  • Larger cars heat up more slowly than smaller ones.  My car is a Subaru Outback – a middling volume.
  • Airflow matters.  The farther windows are open, the slower the car will heat up.  The more windows are open, allowing air to flow through instead of getting stuck, the slower the car will heat up.  Four open windows and an open lift back allow a lot of air flow.  (Aluminet if full of holes, so it also allows a lot of airflow.)

You know that sign you’ve seen as a Facebook meme stating the temperature inside a car based on the temperature outside the car?  That’s full of hot air.  As noted, exterior temperature is not the main determinant of interior temperature.  That meme is based on a study done on a car in New Orleans in July.  The sun in New Orleans, in July, contains a lot more energy to turn into heat than sun can ever get in Portland.  And it doesn’t take into account the effect of overcast, shade from trees and buildings, shade added by the owner, or car color.

If you are hot under the collar about dogs in hot cars, please do dogs everywhere a favor.  Learn the signs of heat distress in dogs.  (Hint: If they are barking, they probably aren’t in any trouble, but would like you to go away. Dogs in heat distress will generally be pretty still and lethargic — they will look “calm.”)  Learn to assess the actual conditions.  Is there shade?  What’s your latitude?  What color is the car?  If the owner has left contact info on the car, use it.  Just because a dog is in a car doesn’t mean something is wrong.  Many dogs go in many cars and are fine.  Your concern should be actual signs of distress or a car that is actually likely to be dangerously hot because it’s closed up and in bright sun.  Your index of concern should be far higher in Arizona or Florida than in Oregon or Wisconsin.

At this point I am seriously considering buying a cargo van just so people can’t see in.  I really do not want a cargo van, but this harassment is eating a hole in my stomach.  I promise you, no one loves my dogs more than I do.  I am more knowledgeable than most about how to keep them safe.  I have spent a lot of time and money gearing up to keep them safe.  Your rage does not change that.



So what is your Border Collie NOT good at ..


I work with many herding breed dogs, and, not too surprisingly, there’s a pattern to the types of issues which crop up with these dogs.  Border collies and Aussies are very popular in the Pacific Northwest and are justly appreciated for the intelligence, trainability, owner-focus, and athleticism.  That doesn’t mean they are easy!  I think this article does a wonderful job of explaining the dichotomy.
I received kind permission to reprint this article from the Border Collie Trust GB website (http://www.bordercollietrustgb.org.uk.  Copyright Sue Kinchin.

So what is your Border Collie NOT good at ….

If you have a Border Collie you have a very special dog; a dog that is intelligent, sensitive, eager to please and very quick to learn. Sounds like the perfect pet? Yes, with our help they can make wonderful pets, but we need to remember that when we take one of these very special and complex dogs into our homes we have a responsibility to try to understand all the factors that make a Border Collie what it is. The more we can understand our Border Collies the less likely it is that we, and our collie, will encounter serious problems. Border Collies have been bred for generations in a very specific and restricted environment for a very specific task and, as a breed, are relative new-comers to life as pets. Some cope very well and others struggle. It is our duty to try to understand these beautiful, clever creatures and to help them to cope.
We can easily find books that tell us what Border Collies have been bred for. We will be warned about their sensitivity to movement and tendency to chase things and about the fact that they need to have their brains occupied, but what we are not generally asked to think about are those characteristics that are not necessary in a working sheepdog, but which make life easier for a pet dog.
Anyone who has owned Border Collies will be aware that they are generally cautious dogs. Without intensive and sensitive socialisation as puppies they are often wary of people, intolerant of unfamiliar dogs and anxious about anything new or changing. Even with intensive socialisation some retain these characteristics. Border Collies are prone to being affected by a single bad experience and have poor “bounce back” when something goes wrong for them.
They are very sensitive to reprimands, but equally crave guidance and instruction. Because they are very sensitive to movement, any fast movement that they cannot control can be very disturbing to them. No wonder so many Border Collies hate traffic. Remember though, it is this sensitivity and intelligence that we find so appealing.
So why are they like this? Why can life upset them so easily? To understand our collies fully we need not only to consider what they have been bred for,.but also what they have not been bred for.
When a shepherd is selecting dogs to breed from he is selecting for a specific task and characteristics that do not interfere with this task are likely to be ignored.
Over the generations your Collie has NOT been bred to:
Cope with noise… Collies need to have very acute hearing to hear and interpret a shepherd’s signals at a great distance, but sheep farms are generally quiet places and their sensitive hearing does not cause them problems. Urban and domestic life bombards our dogs with noise and this can cause them extreme stress. Be aware of this and if necessary protect your dog from excessive noise. Speak quietly to your Collie, he doesn’t need you to shout at him.
Cope with change… sheep farms tend to be relatively unchanging places, there are sheep, the shepherd and his family, the barn where the dog sleeps and an odd tractor or car. Sheep dogs don’t generally need to cope with change. Every time our urban collie leaves home the street outside will probably have changed (new vehicles, new people, rubbish skips etc.). Just going out for a walk, even if the dog looks forward to his walk, can generate stress and we need to be aware of this and help him cope.
Cope with the presence of strangers/visitors or groups of people… Sheep farms tend to be isolated places. It is not necessary to be at ease with people to be a good working sheep dog. In a pet home our dogs are surrounded by many strange people in the street and visitors to the home. If you get your Collie as a puppy make sure he is sensitively socialised to people at an early age. If he is older respect the fact that he may find meeting strange people stressful.
Cope with the presence of strange dogs…… apart from the familiar dogs with similar characteristics that live on the farm with them, working sheepdogs are unlikely to need to mix with other dogs. As pet owners we expect them to meet a lot of strange dogs, many with appalling “dog manners”, and often with our dog on a lead so that it does not have the option of running away. Even if your collie does not react aggressively in these situations he could well be very stressed.
Many sheepdogs will never leave their farms so traditionally they haven’t really needed to get on with other dogs or unfamiliar people. Sociability and resilience are not characteristics that have historically been important in the development of the Border Collie. Although your dog may not be directly from working stock he will still have many of the characteristics inherited from generations of working sheep dogs and equally he may not have inherited those characteristics that would make life in a pet home easier for him.
Shepherds are the experts with Border Collies and we can learn a lot from them. Yes, we’ve all heard of harsh and callous shepherds, but many value their dogs very highly, not just as working dogs, but also as members of their family. Watch a sheepdog working, it is referring back to the shepherd for guidance all the time. His impulses to chase and control movement are under very tight control. The shepherd is guiding the dog and the dog is exhibiting self-control. Ideally this is how we want our collie to be with us. If he is checking in with us to find out what do next not only is he under control and less likely to get himself into trouble, but he is also getting reassurance from us. He doesn’t have to worry; we will tell him what to do in any situation. Encourage your dog to look to you for guidance; it shouldn’t be too hard, it’s in his genesl
Watch the shepherd to, he has to keep very calm and guide his dog at all times. You just don’t see excitable shepherds, an excitable shepherd would mean an excited dog and scattered sheep! Be a calm owner. Think about this if you are considering Agility or Flyball with your Collie, a good working sheep dog is fast and has lightning reflexes, but is not in a state of over-excitement. Teach your dog calmly what you want him to do. If he understands and is enjoying what he is doing he will do his best; after all he has been bred from generations of dogs selected for their willingness to work as a team with their handler. There is no need for your dog to be roused to a hysterical state for it to perform well, and it is bad for its mental and physical health to be in such a state. If your dog shows signs of stress or gets over-excited ask yourself is this is really the best activity for him.
A final thought… when a working sheepdog is not working alongside the shepherd he is shut away in a quiet, non-stimulating place to rest and recover and to keep him out of mischief! Importantly, adrenalin levels that have probably been quite high while he is working now have a chance to return to normal. Your sensitive, alert pet Collie is being bombarded with information from his environment all the time; make sure he has plenty of opportunity to rest in a secure, non-stimulating place where he can relax.
Think Border Collies, think working sheepdogs… maximise their strengths,
understand and respect their weaknesses.