How To: Walk on a Harness

So, here’s the problem with a blog post on teaching a dog how to walk properly without pulling: there are SO MANY ways to teach it that I could fill a whole book with different theories. If you’ve found a way and you like it and it’s working, stick with it!

In an attempt to rein in my wordy self (ahahahahahahaha!), I’m just going to talk about teaching a dog to walk on a harness.

The first thing you should know is that most harnesses are made to help a dog pull harder. The base of the neck and the chest are the strongest pulling points of a dog’s body. If they pull and the restraint is there, their instinct tells them that they’re caught and to pull harder to break free. Also, there’s a reason we used harnesses on dogs who pulled wagons (Rottweilers among others) and sleds (malamutes and huskies among others). When choosing a harness for your dog, keep in mind that most of them suck.

Wait, was that unprofessional? Probably. Ahem. Most of them are built to help your dog pull harder.

The ones that are built to keep your dog from pulling often do so by affecting their stride or pinching their shoulder blades/chest uncomfortably. If I’m going to make my dog uncomfortable anyway, I’m going to use a prong collar. Looks awful, but it’s less likely to cause joint problems later in life due to changing the way they move. (Note: neither prong collars nor harnesses are good to use with dogs dealing with aggression. In the case of a harness it can work eventually but takes forever and gives you little control in case something goes wrong, and in the case of a prong collar they sometimes work great, but can also actually increase aggression.)

So, back to a harness! My favorite ones are front-clip harnesses. Yes, the dog still hits the end and instinct says “pull,” but the more they pull the more they turn themselves around. They’re working against their own strength.

Among the front clip harnesses, I like the Easy Walk harness or the cheaper knock-offs. (If you have a small dog or one with a funky body type, pay extra to get the brand name. It has more adjustable straps and will fit better.) A lot of the instruction booklets will tell you to set them up so that the front strap sits low on the chest. Don’t do that. It affects your dog’s stride, and works just fine without affecting their stride and possibly causing those aforementioned joint problems when they age. Instead, fit it so that it’s mid-point on your dog’s chest, low enough to keep from coughing (which happens if it hits their windpipe on accident) and high enough to keep it from restricting leg movement. Also make sure your harness is snug; you don’t want it gaping and coming off somewhere.

Now, if I have a world champion puller, I’m going to start in the house. I’m going to walk to the door, put on my stuff, and then swing the door boldly open.

Did I mention the part where I braced my feet against the coming missile of my dog? No? Well, I did that even before I opened the door.

The other thing I’m going to do as I open the door is start backing up, fairly quickly. The reason for this is that by the time I notice my dog is running out the door, doing his best missile impression, it’s already too late. My brain doesn’t have enough time to tell my feet to move. So, I’m going to start backing up while I open the door, and then I’ll have about the right timing.

You’re braced, yeah? Good. Because when your dog hits the end of the leash, the harness is going to turn him back around to face you. If you timed it right, he’s going to look at you like, “What happened?” If you didn’t time it right, you’ll have to keep backing up until he finally turns and looks at you like, “Dude, you’re going the wrong way.” This’ll be about the same time that you’ve dragged him back inside. Don’t worry about it, just make a note: dog is Superman speed. Move faster.

Now my dog is facing me. I’m going to give him my best happy smile, say his name, and offer a treat. As he comes toward me to take it, I’ll step toward him. BEFORE I LET THE TREAT GO, I continue past him. He turns to stay with me. I take a step. Gasp! Now we’ve taken two steps together; one turning (him), one side by side! Now I release the treat and he eats it!

My dog shoots forward again like a 5th grade rocket. I brace and step back. He hits the end of the leash and spins to face me. “What happened?” he wonders.

“Did you spin around?” I ask brightly. “Here, Missy!” (My dog doesn’t believe in gender norms.) Missy comes to get the treat. I once again hold onto it while I step toward him and he turns to step with me. Two steps! The treat is his!

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Jenna, you forgot to close the front door.” Ha! I did not, because I’m only just now getting out of the house after I had to drag Missy back in!

Close the door. Lock it, if you so choose. Reel Missy in, step forward, and try not to hit the door when you back up, because he’s hitting the end of his leash.

Repeat.

Now, at some point one of you is going to get smart. (I’m rooting for you, dear human reader.) Take half a dozen treats and put them all in one hand. I am assuming that you’re lazy like me, and are holding your leash in the other hand and not in both hands. If you’re not being lazy, and you’re using both hands for your leash… well, jeez, be lazy.

Now when I say Missy’s name and he comes tearing back for the treat he knows I have, I’m going to give it to him. I’m going to IMMEDIATELY thumb out another of those half dozen treats I’m holding and give him that one, too. And then I’m going to do it again. And if I’ve managed to give him three treats in less than three steps, I’m going to buy myself a donut! (No, I’m not. But you totally should.)

Now Missy remembers he’s watching his figure and decides he’d rather chase the squirrel than get a treat. As Missy shoots forward, I start walking backward again. A note, here: I’m actually walking backward. I’m not turning around and going backward, but I am actually walking backward.

“What happened?”

I have no idea, Missy! One second you were running forward, the next you were facing me!

After about ten feet of this (which will take fifteen minutes to accomplish), you’ll be cursing Missy, who will be cursing the squirrel. BUT, Missy won’t be pulling so much. In fact, he’ll start walking on… wait for it… A SLACK LEASH.

Tricks:

  1. Pull Missy all the way around so he’s facing you. I don’t care if he looks at you, but he needs to be facing you. If you pull him halfway around and he’s dancing toward you while looking at the squirrel, that’s cheating. It won’t work. I don’t know why not, but it doesn’t.
  2. BACK UP. Most often I’ll be standing telling someone, “Good, now back up.” They stop dead. I repeat, “Back up.” They stand there, looking at Missy and wondering what happened to Fido. I treat them like a distracted dog and help them by doing it for them; I grab their arm and pull them backward. “BACK UP.” We repeat this three or four or fifteen times before they realize; they haven’t been moving their feet. Move your feet.
  3. Remember treats. You don’t have to use them, but lordy, do they help. The thing is, you need to use about six times more of them than you think you do. If I can keep a dog beside me by giving them treats every half step, I do. If the dog doesn’t realize I have treats because they’re focused on the squirrel, I might actually stop walking, put the treat on their nose so they smell it when they inhale, then use it to lead their face around and give it to them. If they’re not used to getting treats, they’ll need twenty before they start realizing this is a new thing. Give them that twenty ASAP. Within the first five feet. One at at time.

Finally, Missy is beginning to walk on a slack leash, and you’re getting pretty good at backing up. You start to relax. You think, “We’ve got this!” You get a little lazy. Not in the “I’m holding my leash in one hand” way, but in the, “I’ll just stop Missy rather than turning him around and he’s still getting it.” STOP DOING THAT. That’s the wrong kind of lazy. Okay, sure, you can do that a time or two, but Missy will figure it out and take advantage. BACK. UP.

You usually only need to back up a step or two, but if in doubt, back up ten feet. Back up until your dog faces you. Then walk forward.

Check out your leash. Is Missy ahead of you? Probably. That’s not really what I’m worried about. Is the leash taut between you, or dipping like one of the Golden Gate Bridge wires? If it’s not dipping, Missy is pulling. It’s a fine line for Missy to detect “pulling hard enough to feel the pressure of the harness against me” and “pulling hard enough to feel the pressure of the harness against me.” Missy isn’t thinking about how much pressure there is. He’s thinking about that damned squirrel, or Daisy who lives on the corner and always barks at him and how this time he’ll get the jump on her. We need to make this really easy for Missy, and for us. The leash should dip between you. If it’s not, assume Missy is pulling and turn him around.

Now you’re starting to get tired. You’re barely having to pull him around (and thank god, you never realized Missy was a rhino in disguise). The leash is slack. When you back up, he turns around and faces you and keeps turning and continues on. And weird, but you’re not getting anywhere anymore, because you keep backing up and going forward and backing up and going forward and backing up…

Back up FAST. You want Missy to pivot. (Sometimes I’ll add a slight upward tug, so that my dog pivots instead of dragging their feet on the cement. I mean, ouch.) You don’t want to give Missy time to turn around, because that just becomes a fun game. Pivot. Greet. Treat. Walk forward.

Don’t repeat ad nauseum, because heyyyy. This is working. Woot woot!

Jenna

 

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Domestication and the Dog

Okay, here’s one I’ve been wanting to talk about: domestication. I find this topic FASCINATING. And of course, it relates pretty heavily to dogs! It also ties into any theory that bases feeding, behavior, communication, social skills, or anything else on wolf/evolution type theory.

A couple of disclaimers, first:
1. I’m not a scientist. I’m pretty careful about making sure I understand stuff before I talk about it, but I may get the occasional fact wrong.
2. I COULD site references, but I’m not going to. I’m lucky just to get this written! However, much of this information can be found in the book “The Genius of Dogs” by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, and they sites millions of references. (Okay, fine, I cited some of it.)
3. Information changes. If you’re reading this a year from now, there might be details that have been proven wrong, or other things that have been discovered!

Okay, enough with that. On with the fun!

Dogs are descended from a proto-dog and started the process of becoming DOGS somewhere between 30,000 and 14,000 years ago. For comparison purposes, homo sapiens first appeared around 200,000 years ago.

This is Jenna-logic: I’m going to say that, on average, wild dogs start breeding at around a year old throughout history and humans start having babies around 15 years old. I realize this is a GROSS generalization, but let’s go with it for some very rough math.

If that’s the case, then between the proto-dog appearance and now, there have been 14-30,000 generations of dogs, while between the start of homo sapiens and now there have been about 13,333 generations of humans. Either way, there have been more generations of dogs.

feminizedskullsCheck out our early homo sapiens with modern man, here. (I swiped this off this fascinating site after searching for images that weren’t copyrighted; apologies if I screwed this up, and I will happily take it down!) On the right is how our skulls currently look. On the left, how they looked 13,000 generations ago. There’s some difference, huh? (Interestingly, the hallmarks of domestication are seen here: smaller skull and teeth, less biting power. They call it “feminization” because women’s bone structures are all those things when compared to men’s.)

 

I couldn’t find an image of a proto-dog, but if we’ve changed that much in 13,000 years, they’ve changed even more. I mean…

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They did this very cool study starting in ’59 where a Russian scientist domesticated foxes.

Here’s how they did it: they left the foxes alone. When kits were born, they’d go in and see which kits were less afraid of people. They bred those ones. Now, they didn’t spend time with these foxes. They didn’t work with them or tame them. They just appeared one day in their pens, and the babies who freaked out the least were put in one breeding group, while the ones who freaked out the most were put in another breeding group. (I’m dumbing this way down, but you can always click the link about for the details.)

It took a surprisingly tiny number of generations before the foxes were obviously different, both physically (new colors in their fur, floppy ears, smaller heads) and socially (a desire for petting, kit-behavior while playing, whining, which remained throughout life). You can’t say they’d evolved, because they’d been selectively bred, and it happened fast. One generation: wild foxes. Next generation: domesticated dogs! (…you know what I mean.)

And this is where it gets cool (and becomes Jenna-theory): dogs were ALSO selectively bred. Okay, not by people (not at first), but by pressure. The dogs who succeeded were the friendliest ones; the ones brave enough to sneak into camp and eat the trash or food left out. It wasn’t a matter of the strongest in a way that had been going on for years, but a whole new behavior being selected for. So while humans had 13,333 generations to slowly evolve (and we have obvious differences from our proto-selves), dogs had more generations and a lot more pressure to evolve into a new niche; and it wasn’t long before humans were actively helping the more domestic, friendly dogs to breed (if only by providing them with more food, because the humans liked those dogs), while discouraging dogs that weren’t friendly or were aggressive (by chasing them off or hunting them down).

Crazy, right?

Now, take another look at that wolf and that pug, above. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that their insides no longer look alike, either. I don’t think you could fit wolf insides into a pug, and if they’ve gotten smaller (or bigger, in the case of, say, a great Pyrenees) then there’s no reason they wouldn’t have changed in other ways. IN FACT, what with the selective evolution happening, their digestive systems would have changed pretty rapidly in order to continue to eat human refuse. (Not poop. Well, some poop, but I also mean trash: the discards from what we hunted, grew, etc.) Our human bodies may not have changed much and may still prefer non-processed foods, but the dogs have had a lot more generations since we started agriculture to get used to more grains and starches. (This is only sort of a Jenna-theory, as there’s a growing number of vets who are highly anti the anti-grain movement, based on health issues they’re seeing in their offices.)

Okay, so some cool things that have happened to dogs as they’ve become domesticated (things that are fact-based, not Jenna-theories):

  1. They’ve become able to read (almost all) human emotion. Think your dog understands you? Actually, they do. Crazy!
  2. They understand gestures that are human-only, like pointing. (See “The Genius of Dogs.”) They understand these AT BIRTH. This isn’t something they learn. Have you tried directing a cow via pointing? It doesn’t work so well.
  3. They smile. No, really. Not all of them, but in recent years we’ve subconsciously bred more dogs who have the ability to turn the corners of their mouths upward in a human-like smile, AND who do it appropriately.
  4. They’ve become less aggressive. When two wolf packs fight over territory, they attempt to kill each other. As in, the winners will try and chase down the losers and kill them. When two dog packs fight over territory, they stand at a distance and bark. When one pack feels it’s been out-barked, it turns and leaves. I am not making this up.
  5. Wolf packs are made up of family groups of around 4-7 animals; the parents and offspring (the so-called ‘alpha dogs’ are actually parents!). Dog packs are made up of unrelated animals all chilling together, and are typically around 7-30 members! (We don’t get many packs in first world countries, so researchers head to second and third world countries to watch this at work.)

Now, these are my Jenna-theories:

If the outsides of dogs have changed that much, down to size, shape, and skeletal structure, and we know that social cues have changed, and social structure and behavior has changed DRAMATICALLY, then it makes sense to me that probably brain structure and chemistry has changed, too. I mean, the aggression levels between dogs and wolves are on two different planets. If brain chemistry helps trigger the attack/kill versus attack/scare impulses, then the brain chemistry has to be at least a little bit different. If that’s different… well, it seems like everything is different, isn’t it? This is where some of the training theories break down. If it’s based on wolf behavior, and dogs aren’t wolves… the training techniques might work, but probably not for the reasons assumed.

Okay, I could go on forever, but I have to stop writing at some point, and it’s time for me to see a new client.

If you want more information, you can watch this video. It’s fun. πŸ˜€

 

You can also pick up a copy (in paperback, hardback, or audiobook formats) of “The Genius of Dogs” by Brian Hare and Vanessa Wood. The majority of things I talk about here are spoken of there, only with sources.

Ahh, I love this topic. Now to go do something else I love. πŸ˜€

Jenna

Training Sitting for Meals on a Food Obsessed Dog

Whenever I see a dog that wolfs their food down, I want to train them to sit for their meals. The reason for this is pretty basic: it makes them less likely to become food aggressive if they have to show self-control around food.

Last month I had a foster, Flea, who already was food aggressive with other dogs. I spent a couple of weeks making him safe, then started feeding him with my others. Then I decided he should learn to sit before his meals. He was SO meal obsessed that this wasn’t easy, but I recorded it so I could post it here! Note that while I didn’t record every meal, for the ones you missed I also didn’t make him sit. We only worked on it when the camera was on!

After this there was a lot more of the same, but I didn’t keep filming; I was tired of making sure I was decent before feeding the dogs. πŸ˜‰ But he plateaued about here, which is typical, for several days before his impatience became patience and I didn’t have to keep reminding him!

What’s Best for My Dog May Be Counter-intuitive

One of the things I struggle to explain to people is the idea of doing what’s best for your dog, rather than what’s most comfortable for your dog.

Doc is, as he so often is, my example. What feels good is to leave him loose in the house during the day while I’m gone, like I do with Cash and Lily. It feels good to cuddle with him every night. It feels good to let him sleep on my bed when Quin isn’t here (which is most nights, as we don’t live together). But is it good for him? Until recently, I’d assumed the answer was yes.

You see, he’s gotten possessive of me. Well, that’s not quite accurate; he’s always been possessive. Not just of me, either, but of any person currently getting his attention. So if Margo is petting him and Lily comes to get petted too, he tries to body block Lily away. If he and I are cuddling and Cash comes up to get petted, Doc will give him sideways white-eyes (stress) and occasionally even growl.

I’ve tried various things to dissuade him of this possessive notion. I’ve tried making him leave when he gets possessive. I’ve tried rewarding him when he’s tolerant. I’ve tried distracting him. I’ve tried making him leave for a moment, then calling him back to pet and love on everyone. Some things haven’t worked at all, others with varying degrees of success.

There’s also his separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is hard to beat, because it requires draining energy (so it doesn’t further fuel the anxiety), providing a predictable framework, and time. Doc’s separation anxiety is pretty low these days, in the sense that he doesn’t destroy things or harm himself anymore, there’s little to no barking, and he seems fine while I’m gone (says my Furbo, a camera just for dogs). It’s still definitely noticeable; when I’m getting ready to go he stands at the door, showing two major stress signals (white eyes, pinched ears) and unhappiness signs (low tail held tight to his body) as well as some of the more minor signs of stress (licking his lips) and unhappiness (dancing forward and back, tail tucked, as if he’s trying to escape when I walk toward the door).

We probably would have proceeded like this for the foreseeable future if his possessiveness hadn’t combined with pain. First, he got T-boned at the dog park several times, and played so hard he had scratch marks from the other dog’s teeth all over his body. I didn’t realize how roughed up he’d gotten, or I would have stepped in. But I didn’t see it, didn’t step in, and he was hurting. Later that day, when the dog I was fostering thumped into him a few times while they were running, then tried to take his toy (something he’s not normally possessive over), he bit the other dog.

The very next day he skinned the pads of his paws (mostly the front two) taking a header down an asphalt road. (Note: it may seem like a good idea to play fetch on the hill one block over to wear your dog out, but when they overshoot the ball and come tearing back down the asphalt to get it, you’ll realize it really, really was not a good idea.) That afternoon, while sitting in Quin’s lap, so painful he could barely walk, Lily decided she wanted Quin’s attention. Doc was worried about his feet and feeling possessive, she refused to leave them alone, and before I really thought about it, he’d bitten her on the nose.

Were there reasons for his outburst? Obviously. He was in a huge amount of pain. He wasn’t feeling well. He was worried she’d touch his feet. He wanted Dad Time. The reasons, however, don’t matter: he’d still bitten. Clearly, something had to change.

The first thing I did was not-so-quietly freak out. Like most owners in similar situations, I felt betrayed. It doesn’t matter that feeling betrayed doesn’t make sense, it’s the feeling most often reported. I spent a day unable to even look at him. I talked to Quin about all the what-ifs. What if I couldn’t fix it? What if he did it again? What if he became unpredictable? (Quin talked me down.)

The second thing I did was start thinking. Since he wasn’t going to be out of pain any time soon, I didn’t want him biting my dogs again, and I had boarders coming, I decided to get him muzzle trained. (I was going to video this process, which is usually slow and extensive, but he took to the muzzle like he was born to it. Weirdo. *laughs*) This was my short-term safety solution.

Finally, I knew I needed a long-term solution. I can’t do anything to keep him out of pain, especially as accident-prone as he is, but if I know it could be a problem then having him muzzle trained would help. The possessiveness, however, had to go.

At first I felt like it was impossible. I’d already tried everything, I didn’t know what to do. It’s kind of funny, given I’m a dog trainer, that this is often my first go-to. I have to stop and think, “What would I tell a client?” As soon as I phrased it that way, I knew the steps to take.

First, crating when unsupervised. This was already happening, since I didn’t trust him. For safety reasons, I wasn’t about to leave the muzzle on him when I wasn’t home, so he needed to be separate from Cash and Lily.

Second, we had to break the obsession on “his” people. I told him he couldn’t sleep on my bed, and moved the dog beds out of the room. I crated him at night. I told him he couldn’t snuggle with me on the couch, but could lay at my feet and I would foot-pet him, and he could hang out in the dog bed beside the couch and I would pet him. (I still went to him for pets and snuggles occasionally; the point was to create some space, not to give him the cold shoulder.)

I set up an x-pen for him for when I was gone, so he was separated from Cash and Lily but had a little extra room to stretch out. I loaded it with his bed and toys, and I put it right beside the couch where we snuggled and he’d been getting petted, so that it was a loved space.

Third and last, once his feet healed I started making it a point to take him for long walks and running again, which we hadn’t really done since he got sick months ago. He’s finally back to normal weight and energy, though, and we needed to burn that energy off.

The result? The possessiveness lessened dramatically. He still gets the occasional side-long look if we’re snuggling and another dog comes up to be petted, but now I can remind him to behave and he settles. (I say, “You’re fine, goober,” or I shift his head so he can’t see/isn’t looking or, at worst, tell him he has to get down. When he doesn’t look side-long I break off petting the other dog to coo over him and his tolerance.)

Here’s the thing I didn’t expect: he got happier overall. In part, no doubt, because I’m walking him more. But not entirely; the night I let him sleep on my bed, he was under more stress the next day. The few days I didn’t put him in his xpen when I left, he was a great deal more stressed until I started again. I’ve gone back and forth now, because I can’t quite believe it. For a few days I’ll leave him out and let him decide when we cuddle, and then I’ll pen him and I’ll decide when we cuddle. Each time, he grows calmer, less stressed, and more tolerant and content when I limit his freedom.

I can come up with all number of theories as to why this might be happening, but let’s face it: this blog post is long enough. πŸ˜‰ The important thing is that he’s happier. It makes no sense, and that doesn’t matter.

Here’s the hard part: Although he’s happier, I feel guilty. I think, “But surely he’d like to stay out with Cash and Lily! Move around more, play with toys, etc!” The thing is, he isn’t happier staying out with Cash and Lily. He’s happier with limits on what he can do.

Maybe it’s like me and meditation. I hate doing it, but it does help my thoughts calm down in the long term. πŸ˜‰

So, what are you doing or not doing that might make your dog happier? Could it be something that goes against what you expect, but is true nonetheless? For myself, I have to remember: this is the reality. I can argue with it, but it’s quicker if I accept it and move forward.

Jenna

 

How to train a dog when you’re exhausted

In a word: don’t.

See, here’s the thing: we all get tired. Last night I got about 2.5 hours of sleep. (Yay insomnia!) (You know that’s sarcasm, right? No one says yay about insomnia.) My dogs would like to go for a walk, and they aren’t in heavy training. But I’m tweaking Doc’s leash manners a bit (specifically around cats) and it means I have to pay attention. On 2.5 hours of sleep, I’m not going to be attentive, nor am I going to be patient — another key to good training.

If I take Doc walking today I’ll either ignore his staring at cats, which will set us back in training, or I’ll over-react and be frustrated and tired and he’ll be upset, too. If I skip the day his training will pause, but it won’t backslide.

The other reason for me to take the day off? I need a day off. My mood affects my dogs’ moods, and not just in the way I treat them (as seen above). Cool fact: dogs can smell the chemical change in our brains as our moods shift. So if my mood is permanently depressed, they’re going to assume that’s my normal. If my mood is usually one thing and then it tanks, they’re going to notice the change. Sometimes it makes dogs sweet and cuddly. Other times dogs start testing, just in case we need them to take over. All of that is also going to affect my life, as well as theirs. Suddenly my exhaustion is causing my dogs to frustrating me, and I’m too tired to deal with it well. The best thing I can do? Get some rest, which probably means — don’t go training.

But let’s circle back a second. Why else should I stop training for the day? I won’t hurt the dogs and their training if I take 1-2 days off a week, and I need it.

Our society is great at pushing people to keep going. That relaxing or taking time for self-care is shameful. But here’s the thing: we do best when we care for ourselves. Even if it wasn’t good for my dogs in all those peripheral ways, I still need to take care of myself. Me, then my dogs, then my clients.

So I’m gonna go now. I need a nap.

Jenna

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 β€œjust” 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. πŸ˜‰

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. πŸ˜‰

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

 

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 β€œjust” 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. πŸ˜‰

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. πŸ˜‰

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!