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.

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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.

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.

But he was wagging his tail!

A lot of people believe that if a dog is wagging his tail, he is friendly and approachable.  This is flatly incorrect and it gets a lot of people bitten.

As with any other body language, we must look at how the dog is wagging and at the rest of his body to get a better idea of his mood.  Different tail wags can indicate friendliness, happiness, uncertainty, fear, and threat.

This topic has been well covered elsewhere, but I wanted to share a marvelous bit of video a friend took of one of her dogs.  This little Jack Russell (her name is No. 5, as you can hear one of her owners saying in the video) is ferociously resource guarding a trash can.  As you can see, her owner is easily able to call her off of her little guarding project to distract her before removing the interesting item from the trash.  It’s amusing that this dog is willing to (apparently) lay down her life to protect her access to the empty gummy bears bag, but the reason I am posting this is for her body language.  The guarding is unmistakeable, but look at that tail!  Wagging madly the whole time!  (It’s wagging high, stiff and fast, which is a typical “threat” wag.)

Enjoy.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-2qcuAccnA

 

A hierarchy of needs

My clients are good dog owners.  Their older dog is delightful: Healthy, happy, friendly and easy going.  The dogs get walks every day, play in the house and in the yard, attention and affection, clear rules clearly enforced, a good diet, and good vet care.  But the younger dog is not so happy.  He’s inclined to charge the front door aggressively, reacts with agitation and barking to dogs he sees on walks, and has lunged and nipped at people who approached to greet him.  My clients note that while he seems excited to go for a walk, his tail is tucked for most of the walk and he has never, not once since they adopted him over a year ago, urinated while out on a walk.  When he gets home, he rushes into the backyard to relieve himself.  But, they have worked hard to socialize him by taking him out, hanging out at cafes, and taking him to dog parks (until he got too aggressive there).  What’s going on?

Those who have studied psychology will have bumped into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Here’s a link to the Wikipedia article:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs

Now, I have never formally studied psychology, so I’m simplifying here and trying to avoid a level of detail I am not really qualified to discuss!

Maslow proposed that all people have universal needs, and that these needs must be met for an individual to grow and develop and eventually reach a state he called “self-actualization.” (If that phrase sounds familiar, this is where it came from.)  The hierarchy is represented in pyramid form, with the most basic needs at the bottom.  Here is Wikipedia’s graphic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs#/media/File:MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg):

First and most basic needs are physiological: Food, water, shelter.  If these needs are not met, the person is forced to disregard the “higher” needs to make sure these basic physiological needs are met.  Next: Safety.  If the person has enough food and water, then safety is next; avoiding steep cliffs, angry mobs, and saber-tooth cats all rise in importance. For modern humans, financial security and some kind of safety net against dire happenings are parts of this level.  A sense of love and social belonging is next.  This is a real human need, but a person cannot afford to attend to it unless safe and fed.  Above this are esteem — the need to be esteemed and respected both by self and others.  At the very top, self-actualization is the need to fulfill one’s potential.  A lot of people never have a chance to make this journey because their lives are consumed with meeting basic needs such as food, safety, or some degree of financial security.

The Maslow hierarchy is widely accepted and used as a model of understanding people and helping them improve their lives.

What I’ve noticed is that we can apply a similar concept to dogs, and a lot of the problems my clients have with their dogs is that they are focusing on the higher levels without taking care of more fundamental needs.  Now, it would probably be a strain to try to wedge dog needs and experiences into the human-termed Maslow hierarchy, but it’s pretty easy to see similarities, especially at the base the pyramid.

That’s one way of looking at what’s gone wrong with my clients’ dog.  They have done a great job of meeting many of his needs.  He has food, water, shelter, security in his living situation, and good physical health.  They love him, he receives affection and play, and he has a good dog friend as well.  But what he does not have is a basic sense of physical safety.

The tucked tail is familiar — it tells us he is afraid on those walks.  The inability to eliminate on walks tells the same story; he’s just too vulnerable out there to stop and let down his guard while he pees or poops.  The increasing pattern through adolescence of defensive aggression suggests he has not been able to escape intrusion on his space by dogs or people.  While no one is out there beating him with a 2×4 or holding a gun to his head in exchange for his wallet… he feels about that scared when he is out and about.

His people had the information in front of them, but they know themselves to be good dog owners, and they also believe they have been doing the right thing by getting him out and socializing him.  This belief has obscured clear vision.  Once we identified what is actually happening, they could see it.  This (really charming) dog is now feeling better with greatly reduced walks and some basic training in coping skills.

I see this a lot: The dog is super well taken care of, but is scared.  And failure to meet this one primal need, for basic physical safety, is blocking everything else.  The owner says “he knows how to sit! He knows watch me! But he won’t do it when there’s another dog across the street!”  That’s because a socially cooperative activity like following a command is always going to take second place to trying to ensure monsters don’t kill you and eat you.  (Yes, we know intellectually that the chihuahua behind the fence is not actually going to kill and eat our fearful 80 lb Shepherd mix, but our Shepherd mix may still feel that way.)  Until we meet that need for a feeling of safety, there will be no easy response to obedience cues.

This brings us to one of the major flaws of some of the popular “dog psychology” dogmas.  The most damaging is this:  “If my dog recognizes me as pack leader, everything else will fall into place.  He won’t disobey or misbehave, because he knows I’m in charge.”  Listen — a wolf attacked by a bear, or a human, is going to fight, regardless of whether he is or is not an alpha, or lives in a pack with an alpha wolf, or respects that alpha wolf or is in constant conflict with that alpha wolf.  Social structure is not going to prevent him from engaging a direct external threat to his bodily safety.  Likewise, no matter how much your dog respects and trusts you, if someone is hitting him with a baseball bat, he’s probably going to fight back at some point.  And from your dog’s point of view, if he is afraid of men in parkas, he’s going to try to threaten men in parkas to make them go away because that’s a simply more fundamental need, in that moment, than obeying you, his questionable “pack leader.”

And here’s another situation where a hierarchy of needs can get us into trouble.  Food!  The need for food is even more basic than the need for safety.  Thus, a dog will put herself into danger to get food.  If she’s starving, she’s going to try breaking into a yard with a nasty yard dog patrolling to see if she can steal some of its food.  But since dogs are scavengers, they act as if they are always pretty desperately hungry, and that means even a happily plump dog will creep up to a scary stranger for an offered treat.  The imperative to obtain food overcomes the requirement to stay out of reach of those scary hands.  This is why I never want a scared dog offered treats by strangers; the dog will probably take the treats, but it will still be scared, and if the slightest little thing goes wrong, the dog is now close enough to bite.  (Slightest little thing could be the person talking or standing up, or worse, reaching for the pup’s head to pet “because now we’re friends.”)  It’s much easier to understand how this happens so often if we refer to a hierarchy of needs.

One final example of how disregarding this type of hierarchy gets us in trouble.  It’s this:  “Fluffy is very scared in the shelter, but all she needs is some love and she will blossom.”  I will leave it to readers to work out the flaw.

In the past, I’ve seen a proposed hierarchy of needs for dogs.  I can’t find it right now.  It would take some study to validate one for dogs.  But, the Maslow hierarchy can still provide some insight into knotty behavior problems.  Hope it helps.

 

The Internal Locus of Control

A few months ago, I saw a client who had a shy agility dog.  The client was a little stuck on application of Control Unleashed principles and I helped her get unstuck.  She’s making progress.  It was not a particularly dramatic case.  But I’ll always remember that consultation for what *I* learned.

This client is a psychologist who works at a prison.  As we discussed the training of impulse control, I shared with her my mantra:  I want the dog to control the dog.  She then told me about working with prisoners who were preparing to be released.  Many of these men (in the prison where my client works) have been in prison for a lot of their lives, and do not know how to handle the less structured environments on the outside.  They have to figure out when, where, and what to eat; they must appear for official meetings on their own, with no one coming to collect them at the appointed time; they must find a job and show up on time, repeatedly, on their own.  Even those determined to stay out of trouble have difficulty with this.  These gentleman tend to perceive their problems as being caused by others and themselves as powerless to change their situations.  My client told me she is working to build an internal locus of control in these prisoners, rather than letting them rely on the external locus of control (authority, constant rule enforcement) in the prison environment. Returning soldiers often struggle with the same issues, making their reentry even more challenging.

Ka-ching!  This, I realized, was exactly what I have been trying to teach my clients to teach their dogs for years.  Now I had a handy new vocabulary to help the owners understand.

I teach almost every client how to teach their dog better impulse control.  We start with some simple Zen exercises.  In these exercises, we’re asking the dog to choose to sit still and look at the owner (or handler) to earn a treat, rather than staring at or licking a hand holding food.  The key here is to say nothing.  We make it easy for the dog to figure out the right answer, and reward him for each successful response.

Owners are often puzzled.  “My dog already knows Watch Me” they say.  “We learned Leave It” in class.  Why are we doing this?

The answer is the internal locus of control.  The dog has learned (to some degree) to follow a command.  Some dogs are very good at this, indeed, and it’s easy to see why the owner may be miffed at the insinuation that he’s failed to train the dog or that the dog is anything other than brilliant.  But — as I immediately explain — this isn’t a failure of previous training or learning ability.  It’s a whole new skill.

Yes, dogs need to learn how to follow at least a few critical commands.  Every dog should understand Come, Stay, and Leave It.  Those are lifesavers.  But there are many other behaviors I hope dogs learn to perform automatically.  Automatically means “cued by the environment or the context.”  If your leash is attached, that should be the cue to walk nearby and keep the leash loose without the owner having to command it.  If you are greeting a person, that should be a cue to sit and hold the sit for the duration of the greeting, without being told “off!” “down!” or even “sit.”  For behavior modification purposes, I’m often trying to teach a dog to look briefly at the trigger and then back at the handler… without being told.  The difference is the internal locus of control.  It gives the dog power to control his own agitated responses.  It gives the owner a break from having to helicopter around the dog and constantly cue the desired behavior.  It is peaceful and calming.

Some dogs do this on their own.  Some need help.  That is what I do.