The Importance of Genetics

One thing that’s becoming clearer to me, and I think I’m realizing is more important that I ever realized, is heredity.

We long ago disproved the idea that humans are born a blank slate, and therefore every personality quirk is from learned experience. We’ve also disproved the idea that everything humans do is caused by genes only. It’s a blend of both: nurture and nature, working hand in hand.

Somehow, though, we still say dogs are blank slates, even though it’s been proven untrue over and over. So let’s talk about that for a minute.

As an example, I’m going to use Doc, my dog that I rescued 2 years ago, and Flea, the former fighting dog stray I picked up last week (as of this writing).

As far as we can tell, Doc wasn’t abused. He was possibly put in a back yard and neglected, but it’s hard to even know that for sure. He has no abuse behavioral markers or physical markers. He “just” has separation anxiety, for which I’ve done lots of behavioral work, training, and put him on 60 mg Prozac daily.

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Doc – bottom, Flea – top

Meanwhile, Flea is a pittie who has NEVER been in a house. He’s intact, riddled with wounds, flinches when someone raises their hand/talks too loudly/makes eye contact for too long. He has lots of physical clues that indicate he’s been outdoors 27/7 since puppyhood.

Given just their experiences, it’s pretty obvious that Doc would be the winner here. Instead, it took me six months to make Doc remotely well trained. It’s taken a week to do most of that with Flea, and will probably take another week or two to get him to where Doc was at 6 months.

Doc, not a fighting dog or a bait dog, took months to lose his (severe) leash reactivity and a year to be able to play at a dog park without being obnoxious. Flea, an intact failed fighting pit bull, doesn’t have any leash reactivity and hasn’t gone to a dog park, but after a week is doing great with my dogs.

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Even at his happiest, Doc is showing the whites of his eyes

After two years of work, Doc still has stress signals most of the time, indicating generalized anxiety.

After a week worth of work, Flea’s stress signals are gone except when a rare circumstance stresses him.

Doc was only a year old when I got him.
Flea is probably three.

The difference? Genetics. Something in Doc’s genes dictate that he’s easily stressed and made anxious. It could be that he was born this way, or that something happened while his brain was developing that changed how his brain developed. Very likely, one or both of his parents would show signs of stress or anxiety.

On the other hand, something in Flea’s genes dictate that he feels secure and confident. Possibly he had a safe space to grow while his brain was developing, or dog parents that were confident and secure.

Obviously, experience matters. Flea flinches, Doc never did. That’s a learned behavior. But it matters along with genetics!

Now, having a dog that is genetically prone to stress, anxiety, aggression, etc isn’t the end of the world, and it doesn’t even mean a congenital problem. It’s just like people: kids born to alcoholics are more likely to have addiction problems. Does this mean they WILL be addicts? No, it means it’s something they are hopefully aware of, and take steps to counter. (I use this example because it’s a personal one! I’m proud to say that my dad has been in AA around 35 years.)

Lily is genetically prone to anxiety, and yet she’s now one of the most confident (*coughs*overconfident) dogs I know. When I got her, she was a basket case. Giving her new coping mechanisms, burning off energy she would otherwise put toward being anxious, and various other things has helped her shuck her anxiety and be awesome. A little too awesome, sometimes. 😉

Doc is a pretty extreme case, and being with Flea has reminded me how extreme Doc is. I’ll probably be managing him for years, if not his whole life, but that’s okay. I have the ability to do so, and he’s a great dog in addition to his crazy. We’re all a little crazy. 😉

Flea is a surprise the other way; despite his experiences, he’s happy to shuck them and bounce back to confidence. This is great, and he’ll make someone an easy – if

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A little bored, but Flea shows no stress signals

stubborn! – dog. Rehabilitating and re-homing would have been VERY difficult with Doc because of his genetics, but will be infinitely easier with Flea, because of his genetics. Woot woot!

So, when you’re having problems with your dog and the usual training isn’t working, keep in mind it could be a hereditary thing. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed or at least improved upon, just that you might need to be more persistent or find a different way of doing things. Hang in there! You can do it!

Jenna

 

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The importance of genes

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Flea on top, Doc on the bottom It took several minutes to get a picture where Doc wasn’t showing stress markers. Flea never showed stress markers!

One thing that’s becoming clearer to me, and is more important that I ever realized, is heredity.

We long ago disproved the idea that humans are born a blank slate, and everything that happens to them is from learned experience. We’ve also disproved the idea that everything we do is caused by genes only. It’s a blend of both: nurture and nature, working hand in hand.

Somehow, though, we still assume dogs are blank slates, even though it’s been proven untrue over and over. So let’s talk about that for a minute.

As an example, I’m going to use Doc, my dog that I rescued 2 years ago, and Flea, the former fighting dog I picked up last week, wandering aimlessly around the neighborhood.

As far as we can tell, Doc wasn’t abused. He was possibly put in a back yard and neglected, but it’s hard to even know that for sure. He has no abuse behavioral markers or physical markers. He “just” has separation anxiety, for which I’ve done lots of behavioral work, training, and put him on 60 mg Prozac daily.

From what we can tell, Flea is a pittie who has NEVER been in a house. He’s intact, riddled with wounds and scars, flinches when someone raises their hand/talks too loudly/makes eye contact for too long. He has lots of physical clues that indicate he’s been outdoors 27/7 since puppyhood, and endured major physical abuse.

Given just their experiences, it’s pretty obvious that Doc would be the behavioral winner here. Instead, it took me six months to make Doc remotely well trained. It’s taken a week to do most of that with Flea, and will probably take another week or two to get him to where Doc was at 6 months.

Doc, not a fighting dog or a bait dog, took months to lose his leash reactivity and a year to be able to play at a dog park. Flea, an intact failed fighting pit bull, doesn’t have any leash reactivity and hasn’t gone to a dog park, but after a week is doing great with my dogs and the other dog he met.

After two years of work, Doc still has stress signals most of the time, indicating generalized anxiety.

After a week worth of work, Flea’s stress signals are gone except when a rare circumstance stresses him.

Doc was only a year old when I got him.

Flea is probably three.

The difference? Genetics. Something in Doc’s genes dictate that he’s easily stressed and made anxious. It could be that he was born this way, or that something happened while his brain was developing that changed how his brain developed. Very likely, one or both of his parents would show signs of stress or anxiety, if I ever found them.

On the other hand, something in Flea’s genes dictate that he feels secure and confident. Possibly he had a safe space to grow while his brain was developing, or dog parents that were confident and secure.

Obviously, experience matters. Flea flinches, Doc never did. Flea becomes afraid when a stranger stares at him for too long, Doc never had that issue. Flea is cautious around people, whereas Doc has always loved humans. Those are all learned behaviors, but how easily they move past it or are able to bounce back has to do with genetics.

Now, having a dog that genetically is prone to stress, anxiety, aggression, etc. isn’t the end of the world, and it doesn’t even mean a congenital problem. It’s just like people: kids born to alcoholics are more likely to have addiction problems. Does this mean they WILL be addicts? No, it means it’s something they are hopefully aware of, and take steps to counter. (I use this example because it’s a personal one! I’m a child of an alcoholic — sober 35 years! — and addiction runs rampant in my extended family. I, however, am not addicted to anything but Candy Crush.)

Lily is genetically prone to anxiety, and yet she’s now one of the most confident (*coughs*overconfident) dogs I know. When I got her, she was a basket case. Giving her new coping mechanisms, burning off energy she could put toward being anxious, and various other things has helped her shuck her anxiety and be awesome. A little too awesome, sometimes. 😉

Doc is a pretty extreme case, and being with Flea has reminded me how extreme Doc is. I’ll probably be managing him for years, if not his whole life, but that’s okay. I have the ability to do so, and he’s a great dog in spite of his crazy. We’re all a little crazy. 😉

Flea is a surprise the other way; despite his experiences, he’s happy to shuck them and come back to confidence. This is great, and he’ll make someone an easy – if stubborn! – dog. Rehabilitating and re-homing would have been VERY difficult with Doc because of his genetics, but will be infinitely easier with Flea, because of his genetics. Woot woot!

So, when you’re having problems with your dog and the usual training isn’t working, keep in mind it could be a hereditary thing. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed, just that you might need to be more persistent or find a different way of doing things. Hang in there! You can do it!

Jenna

PS: Flea is undergoing a lot of surgeries and things to solve the physical problems someone gave him. I want to rehabilitate and re-home him, but financially it’s going to be rough. If you’d like the whole story, or to help, or to donate or share so others can donate, you can find all of that and more on his gofundme account!

Training: Cash goes up the ramp!

A few times now Cash has had a hard time jumping into the car. If it’s a new, higher car he often misses, and if he’s tired — at the end of a long work day, for instance — he also misses. (Note: my vet recommended giving him bone broth. I buy it at the grocery store and give him 1/4 cup twice a day, and it has worked MIRACLES in both him and Lily!)

Lo and behold, one day a dog ramp showed up on my doorstep! My honey (seen in the last video) listened when I talked about poor Cash, and bought him a ramp. Surprise! However, I happen to know Cash is VERY afraid of anything that gives under his feet, and if it’s high it’s even worse. I decided I’d need to train him on the ramp. Most of these videos ended up on the Lily and Cash Facebook page, but I thought I’d collect them all here, too! Note that I didn’t do any training without filming it, and I tried to say during filming how long it had been since the last session. Proof that training doesn’t have to be arduous or time consuming!

(My vanity forces me to say: I don’t think I could have found a worse angle to film myself at if I’d tried!)

Note for above video: I repotted the sad strawberry plant, and it was happy! Until a squirrel tried to bury something in the pot, tore the up roots, and broke that pot, too. Damn.

In these two final videos, we didn’t want him jumping into the car because he was getting so tired so quickly, and the last thing I wanted was to make him sore! In this first video you’ll hear and see me say I grabbed his collar and pulled to get him the rest of the way in the car. From my angle I couldn’t easily wrap an arm around him to help him forward (as you’ll see afterward), and he was risking falling off. The kinder option then was to pull and get him to safety!

After this final session I didn’t use the ramp for at least two weeks, and then of course Quin wasn’t there to help bracket so he didn’t leap off the side! I used my hand on his collar for guidance and he went in, albeit hesitantly. Since then he’s used it to get up and down several times, and his confidence is back — even though I didn’t train or drill him on it again! If at some point his confidence wanes, then I’ll have him go up and down it a few times until his confidence comes back.

His gorgeous, glossy coat comes from regular washing and brushing provided by yours truly AND Nicole Hunter of Puppy Love Dog Grooming, a mobile groomer in Los Gatos! (Link is Facebook. Phone is 408-691-4200.) I trust my dogs with few people, but Cash visits her for “spa days” where she helps keep his skin happy. 🙂

Jenna

Dog park: body language

Hey, all! The other day while Doc, Lily, Cash and I were enjoying some sunshine and running in the dog park, I thought, “Hey! I could totally use this group of dogs for body language clips!” So I took a bunch of 3-10 second clips, and here we have some of them! More to come as I have time.

Both have high tails (want to engage) and relaxed spines (positive emotional state). The dog on the right also has more “bounce” to his step and tail. Bounce = play. Taking all into account, both dogs are ready to engage (high tails), but only one of them is ready to play. The other probably would like to explore, visit, and relax!

There’s so much going on here! Start with the chocolate lab: high tail = wants to engage, the tail is relaxed-ish, but the spine is very stiff (relaxed = positive emotions, stiff/still = negative emotions). I would worry, except look at his ears: pressed against the head and upward. That is a classic “Play??!?!” expression! This is a confident dog who really wants to play — probably a fast chase-me game or maybe even some wrestling. When Lily walks up and the spaniel shifts focus to her, the lab politely takes the hint that no one is playing, and leaves.

Now, Lily: medium height tail (“I want to engage, but not TOO much”), super relaxed spine (positive emotional state), lowered, relaxed head with soft, sideways relaxed ears (“I don’t want to play really, just visit). These are the signs of a dog who wants to say hi, but probably isn’t going to initiate play; just visiting.

Finally, the spaniel. From the start through the end, her tail is low. Low = do not want to engage. With the lab it’s pretty stiff, flattened against her butt, with only the tiniest sway at the tip. This is an anxiety wag. You can also see how she’s leaning away. “I don’t want to play! Don’t pounce!”

When Lily approaches without a request for play, the spaniel relaxes a little bit (the tail stops pressing so hard, and begins to swish). It’s still low, though; “My emotional state is improving because you’re not trying to make me play.” She also comes around; “Yeah, I’ll sniff you — but I don’t want to engage more than that.”

Again, there’s a remarkable amount going on here. We’re just going to look at the husky and the smaller dog in the vest getting sniffed.

Husky: high tail, relaxed spine, not a lot of bounce, head not erect: wants to engage + positive emotions = happy. Not a lot of bounce = visit, not play. Head not erect = not inviting to play, dominating, or challenging. In other words, this dog is friendly and not too forward.

Vest dog: tail down, spine stiff, retreating: doesn’t want to engage + negative emotions + escaping = fear. The entire time these dogs are sniffing him, he’s trying to say, “Stop! I don’t want to engage! I’m afraid of you!” It wouldn’t surprise me if his ears were pinched against his head, the whites of his eyes showing, and he’s heavily panting (or will be soon). Those would be stress markers.

Think you’re getting good at this? Think about what the lab and the mostly-white dog are saying, and then check the comments!

Jenna

Socialization: quality, not quantity

There’s a theory that has taken the dog training world by storm over the last ten years or so, and it’s this:

The Theory: your dog should see 100 different people a month (or is it a week? I’ve blocked it from my memory) and some similar number of dogs from 8 weeks old (earlier if the breeder can manage it) to 5 months old. If you do not do this or if you skip a week, your dog will DIE. Or something like that.

First of all, as an introvert the very thought of that many people makes me feel faint. Excuse me, I need to go lie down.

Second off, if The Theory is true, it will show itself in the dogs who have or have not been socialized to that extent. SO! Let’s look at my personal examples.

Lily was a rescue several times over; while she had several families, I know for a fact (because I know those families) that while she saw a decent number of people — kids’ friends who came over to play, the people in puppy class — she definitely didn’t see even 5 new people a week after the first week or so.

Cash I had from puppyhood, so I know exactly who he saw. First, he was with the breeder until he was 14 weeks, so he saw her and her family. (Note he was already almost out of the ‘socialization window.’) Then he was with me. We saw my family, three regular horse training clients, annnnnd… no, I’m pretty sure that’s it. Probably a person or two on walks, if I didn’t do my introvert thing and hide when someone was coming.

Doc was found wandering (several times) in residential areas and picked up by animal control. Between whoever his family was, neighbors who found him wandering, the shelter, and his new families he probably saw the most people of all my dogs. It’s a lot of people. Maybe 100 a week, but that seems excessive.

According to The Theory, all my dogs (except maybe Doc) should be hot messes, and yet they all ADORE strangers, whether those strangers are dogs or people!

The last post I wrote talked about hereditary issues. That’s another factor about whether your dog is friendly or not. Were the parents super friendly? I recently went to someone’s house where they have two dogs, brothers, both of whom are hot messes in different ways. The dogs’ parents weren’t friendly. Neither were the grandparents. I’m going to take a leap and say that probably there’s a hereditary issue there.

Finally, there’s experience. This is what I want to talk about most of all. First, I’m going to posit my working theory. It’s more complex than The Theory, and not as easy to remember. Occam’s razor wouldn’t like it, but I think it’s more accurate.

My theory: genetics and experience combine and each dog must be treated differently. Some dogs will be helped by massive socialization. Others will not, either because it will backfire or because they’re friendly regardless. In any case (and this is the main point of my theory), quality matters over quantity.

Imagine for a moment I have a timid dog or puppy, and I’m out with them. Someone approaches cooing over how cute they are and, let’s face it, I don’t disagree. They’re the cutest. My timid gal drops her tail low and wags. She might approach carefully, or maybe even not approach at all. I encourage her to go forward, knowing she’ll enjoy the pets if she just tries it. She finally does, sniffing the stranger’s feet. The stranger pets her and rubs that special spot behind her ears. She rolls over and we all go, “Awww!” She gets her belly rubbed. When the stranger stops she jumps up, all wiggles, and crawls onto my lap. Yay! Great experience! Right?

Is it? Low tail means they’re nervous and don’t want to engage. A low wag means they have anxiety in this situation — it’s the dog saying, “I’m just a puppy, please don’t hurt me! See? I’m cute!” So my dog was saying they didn’t want to engage (be petted), and were worried, but I ignored it completely and encouraged them forward. Like any small child they don’t want to disappoint, so they got petted. They learned that I’m not listening and they have no choice in the matter. Then they ran back to me for reassurance. Was that really a great experience for my dog? Maybe it ended all right, but overall I don’t think happiness is what they’re going to take away from that experience. And yet, it’s exactly what we all do! I’ve even caught myself doing it, on both ends, and I know better!

Repeat this experience 100 times a month (or was it a week? I can’t remember, I fainted), and classical conditioning takes over. See person, get anxious. Even if it’s ending well, the dog is STILL learning that we aren’t listening and it starts out stressful.

For some dogs, this won’t matter. They’re so friendly and happy-go-lucky that they’re going to find friends everywhere regardless of the situation. (Those dogs are going to like everyone even if they NEVER meet anyone during the “socialization phase.”)

But what if I have a dog who is really excitable? He knows that when he goes out HE MEETS PEOPLE! He tries to jump on every person he meets (I don’t let him), and he’s SO EXCITED he does nothing but wiggle like crazy when he sees new friends! Maybe this will work out brilliantly. Or maybe I’m over stimulating an already excited dog. Now they walk out the door and the brain turns off — THEY’RE GOING TO SEE NEW FRIENDS OMG CAN’T THINK!!1!1!!

Maybe I have a super friendly dog, but in my efforts to meet 100 people day — hang on, I’m hyperventilating — I let him say hi to the elderly gent down the street. Turns out that guy was attacked by a chihuahua when he was a toddler, and when my dog approaches (because, as previously mentioned, my puppy is the cutest puppy ever) he starts screaming and flinching backward. Now my friendly puppy thinks some people might be unpredictable and frightening, and my would-have-been-friendly puppy has trauma. Meeting people just backfired.

But what about those 100 dogs I was supposed to meet every month? In the wild, a puppy would NEVER meet that many dogs. Possibly not even in his lifetime. But hey, we’re following The Theory (and we’re apparently not worried about disease), so we do it. Some of those dogs are over-friendly and try to play, bouncing on my puppy and scaring him on accident. Others don’t want to deal with a puppy and are stiff or even snap to make him back off. (“That’s okay,” the other owner says. “They’re just working it out!” Uh, I wouldn’t let a stranger yell at one of my step kids for mistaking social cues that are above their age level. Why is it okay when dogs do it?) BUT, not all dogs snap, and some puppies play nicely. Then there’s the leash aggressive dog we don’t even get near, who is essentially screaming threats at my puppy from across the street, which is rather frightening. What’s my puppy learning? Maybe that dogs are unpredictable, and even the friendly ones might be too rough.

I’ve over-stated my point, haven’t I? But now you get the picture.

None of my dogs saw tons of people or dogs. Lily and Doc both had issues when I got them; Lily barked fearfully at men, and Doc was leash aggressive toward dogs. Lily had had a pool guy come into the yard and frighten her; I have no idea what experiences Doc had. They both saw more dogs and people than Cash did.

Cash’s experiences with dogs and people were limited to those I knew well, and knew he’d have a good experience with.

I don’t have a big enough sample here to base real comparisons on, but I can tell you this: of all the dogs I’ve trained, whether they were friendly (to dogs or people) had no obvious correlation with how many people/dogs they’d seen as puppies. Whether or not they were unfriendly to people or dogs had a direct correlation to whether or not they’d had a frightening experience as puppies.

Quality over quantity: it doesn’t matter if they’ve seen 100 people or dogs, if some of those experiences were traumatic. If they only see a few people or dogs and the experiences are all great, that’s pretty confidence building!

So kick back. Invite some friends over. Take your puppy out occasionally. Think quality, so that they have a good confidence base to work from. If you want to meet 100 people a month because you have that many friends and you can know that the experiences will be good — and your puppy is down with that idea — go for it! But if you, like me, shudder at the very thought, don’t stress yourself out.

Now, excuse me. After thinking about so many people I need to go relax on my fainting couch.

Jenna

Is it the owner’s fault?

One statement I hear from responsible owners is, “I know my dog’s behavior is my fault.” It’s one I used to agree with — behavior comes from what was reinforced — but nowadays I’m re-thinking my beliefs.

First, any animal’s behavior comes from biology. My parents are amazing. They are also clinically depressed on one side and recovering alcoholic on the other. This is something that’s written into my DNA, something that has been shown over and over again to be hereditary. Are they awesome parents? Man, I have nothing but awe for my parents. I don’t think I could have done as well as they did in their situations. I always know that I’m loved, even when I’m doing crazy things like moving to NorCal with nothing but a couple grand in savings and the hope that my business will flourish. I always know that I have a safety net: my parents would take me in in a heartbeat, if something went drastically wrong, and in their role modeling so would either of my sisters. I am truly lucky.

But we don’t think of “what did this dog inherit?” when we look at dogs, quite often. Then there’s the experience factor of it: my early life experiences said “strangers are dangerous; family is safe.” (I was nearly kidnapped twice, had bullies for teachers, and in every case it was my parents who rescued me.) Today, I have a social anxiety disorder. You can’t tell in training situations, but put me in a big party and it becomes immediately obvious — without my meds, Quin (jokingly my “service human”), and/or Doc, I would be the hyperventilating, bawling mess in the corner. Personally, I’d say that if it’s anything more than hereditary, it’s the strangers’ fault.

Okay, I guess my genes predisposing me toward anxiety came from my folks. But the bit the with the strangers only made me certain my parents would protect me from strangers. My parents certainly didn’t do anything wrong in chasing down the man on the beach who’d grabbed me and was walking away, and they did everything right in sending me with an older sister and keep us in eye line as we walked (thank goodness!).

Now let’s think about your dog. Specifically, I want to think about some of the dogs who have triggered this thinking in me. Let’s look at Bobbie. (All dogs shall now be named Bob. ;-D) Bobbie was bought as a puppy from a decent, if not show, breeder. She was put into my hands as a puppy, to make sure she was socialized. We went EVERYWHERE. Orchard and Home Depot before her shots, downtown and to parks afterward. She loves other dogs. She’s TERRIFIED of humans. She’s a year and a half old now, and still dealing with this terror of humans.

Her owner is a long time client. I know for sure there has been no abuse. She hasn’t had any run ins with bad people. She HAS seen many friendly strangers, and many people who ignored her. So what causes the sheer terror?

I’ll tell you what doesn’t cause it: her owner. I can’t, in any way, shape, or form, claim this is her owner’s fault. Sure, there are things we could do that would help, that due to physical problems can’t be done. But her owner didn’t cause this fear.

“Okay,” I hear you cry. “There’s some hereditary wonkiness going on there. But what about older dogs?”

Also recently I had a session with a new client. She has an 8 year old dog, Bob, who has had problems with people all his life. She adopted Bob when he was 1, and has dealt with his human fear aggression since. To date, he goes for walks early in the morning when no one is about, and no one comes over to the house unless he’s outside. (Talk about a hiccup in your social life.)

Whatever happened to him before he was 1 was certainly not her fault. After she got him, she hired two different trainers to help. One helped somewhat with his commands, but eventually Bob became too reactive even with that person and was banned from lessons. The other suggested putting him down. That was 7-8 years ago. I could say it was the owner’s fault for not taking him out more, but really, after two trainers ditching her, I’d say she’d done her due diligence!

When I met up with her for the first time last week, she kept saying, “I know it’s my fault…” But is it? He already had problems before he met her. She worked with two separate trainers with two very different styles, and both had given up on him. What more is she expected to do?

Let’s let go of this idea that everything is the owner’s fault. Sure, sometimes things you’re doing might exacerbate a situation, but here’s another thought: a dog is no more a blank slate than a human baby is. I came into this world with all sorts of possibilities in my DNA, and my experiences then shaped that into what I am today.

We all do the best we can with the information we have. Yes, owners should take responsibility for their role in their dog’s behavior — but I don’t believe they should take ALL responsibility for their dog’s behavior. On a more spiritual level, I believe all living creatures come into this life to learn something and to teach those around them. Anyone saying an owner is to blame is taking away that dog’s spirit, as well.

So, sure. A year ago, Lily wouldn’t come until I yelled, “Lily! Get over here!” That was my fault because I never reinforced it until then, and she knew that. But her general stubbornness? That was all her — and something I loved about her. There was no ‘fault’ in how stubborn she was; that was part of her personality, and as much as it drove me crazy, it was one of the things that cracked me up. I have to give props to her for that amount of tenacity! (Note: she’s still with me, still stubborn, but now she doesn’t come because she’s almost deaf. Fair ‘nough!)

Cash, at two years old, had anxiety. Do I take responsibilty for that? Actually, yes. I created the harsh experiences that gave it to him. I ALSO take responsibility for removing it, over years, after I realized what I’d done.

Doc howls in my car when I leave. Do I take responsbility for that? He had severe seperation anxiety when he came to me; that was not my fault. It’s much less now than it was then. Could I have done more? Maybe. But in my life and within my abilities, I have done all I could. In a perfect world, that would be more. In a realisitic world, I think we’ve done well. He’s no longer forcing his way through the car windows, eating the chairs, or breaking out of crates. Do I take responsibility when he jumps my 7 foot fence? Today, yes; I know he can and will if he isn’t properly exercised. I know what causes it AND how to fix it. But the first time? Heck no. I didn’t even know he COULD jump a fence that high! And even today, if I didn’t know what caused it or how to fix it? I don’t think I could take responsibility for that, either. I could take responisbility for not figuring it out, but I can’t take responsibility for not fixing it.

So — should owners take responsibility for their dogs behavior? Yes and no. It may not be your fault, but it is certainly our responsibility to try and make things safe, figure it out, and maybe — if it’s within our capabilities — make it better.

Notice to all new clients: you don’t have to tell me it’s your fault. If you’ve called for help (whether from me, another vet, or any other trainer), you’re doing the right thing. Don’t rob your dog of his or her own place in this world, and the things they need to learn and teach. Don’t ignore hereditary behavior, even if we know less about it in dogs than people. The owner’s only “fault” is pretending like there isn’t a problem. If you see it, and you take steps, you’re on the right path. Hang in there. We may not create a problem, but the awesome thing about being human is: when we’re ready, we can help fix it.

Jenna

Possessiveness

Sometimes people ask me, “Are your dogs perfect?” And my honest answer is: no. In large part, this is because there are things I just don’t care enough about to put in the training time. But another large part is that nothing stays the same, including dogs.

For instance: I think Lily’s losing her hearing. For a long while I thought she was just being stubborn when I called her to come, but now I’m not so sure. I’m not tuning up her recall because, well, what if she can’t hear me? So her recall is failing and until I know one way or the other, I’m just not going to worry about it.

Another for instance, and the point of this particular post: Doc got possessive. I’ve had him for a year and a half now, which means any issues he’s still dealing with probably don’t have to do with him being a rescue, they have to do with him and me. (Note: this is a rough rule of thumb, with a lot of exceptions.)

He’s never shown signs of possessiveness before, but about six months ago he started getting possessive of bones with Lily. He tried some growls and snaps, and he got in big trouble for it (poked by me and chased off, his bone given to Lily), then rewarded for tolerating her (praise and pets when he had his bone and he wasn’t being a bully to her while she was wandering around/sniffing it, etc.). The praise worked better than the poking with him, so I used that a lot more once I noticed, and he got over his issue in a couple of weeks.

Skip to six weeks (or so) ago, and he’s trying to be possessive of ME, with Cash. Mostly when we were snuggling or I was petting him, and Cash would come up to say, “Me too!” Doc would growl and try to nose Cash away, and went as far as snapping at him a time or two. Because I was standing right there, I’d push Doc away (to the other end of the couch, or chase him off a few feet if I were standing), then pay attention to Cash, THEN call Doc back over and love on him, too. Again, when Cash came up and I could see Doc wasn’t happy about it – turning his face away, ears pinching along his head, whites of the eyes showing – I would praise Doc for tolerating it. After a week or two, that went away as well.

Skip to two weeks ago, and it’s popped up again: this time being possessive first over Patience (my sometimes-helper and the dog trainer in the East Bay I refer people to), then Margo (my assistant) and finally Quin (my honey). In each and every case we did the same thing: push Doc away, love on Cash, bring Doc in and love on him. We also added a couple of things:

For Patience, since she’s also a dog trainer, I asked her to start making Doc calm down and think. One thing I’ve noticed about Doc is the more wound up he gets, the less he thinks overall. Now, it’s normal for a dog’s brain to turn off when they’re super wound up (with either excitement or aggression or anything else), but his brain turns off even when he’s not wound up, if he’s spent a lot of time wound up. Things that wind him up: not exercising enough, some of my playful boarders, fetch, the wild peacocks, squirrels. It’s a full time job keeping him centered! Getting a wound up dog to pause so they can think again (and guiding them gently but firmly through what to do until they CAN think) is key. So I asked Patience to get him thinking around her, adding in little brain-working things like sitting and calming down at doors before he goes out to play, sitting to get petted, things like that. That calmed him so his possessiveness also dropped.

I asked Margo (who does some minor training for me, but firmly insists she’s not a dog trainer!) to use a squirt bottle if he got possessive of her. It’s a good consequence: not emotionally very powerful, certainly not painful, just distracting and annoying.

With Quin, we put Doc in time out when he got possessive, in an x-pen in the house. After twenty minutes (which I judged to be enough time for his brain to wander off his possessiveness), he re-joined us. He was put in time out a couple of times before he got the point!

In all instances, when he became tolerant of Cash or wasn’t possessive, he got rewarded with lots of love and pets. Ex: I petted Cash, Doc watched but didn’t come over to push Cash away, so after a minute – before he lost his patience – I turned and loved on Doc. Repeat ad nauseum! For every time he got busted for naughtiness, I want at least five rewards. If I’m busting him too much, that’s my signal that I’m asking too much of him. I need to reward BEFORE he puts himself in trouble, so he knows what it is I’m looking for, not just what I don’t like.

It took a couple of weeks for him to cycle through everyone and figure out no one was going to let him get away with it. I’m still praising and loving on him when other dogs butt into “our” space to get pets, just to reinforce his good behavior.

During his possessive phase, I used different techniques for different people, depending on how he reacts to the people in question and what they were more comfortable with/capable of, and what worked best for him.

No dog is ever perfect. Even when a dog trainer owns them, even if I spent all my time making them perfect to everyone’s standards, living animals are always changing! I wouldn’t have it any other way. 😉

Jenna