Saturday, August 13, 2011

What do YOU expect?

I read an article recently over at Ruffly Speaking that has been percolating in my head awhile. That happens alot. I read something and it gets stuck in my head and drifts around gathering other thoughts to go along with it. Then I need to regurgitate it so I can be free again. Lucky you gets to read the result. It was about our expectations of dogs. What do we now consider a well trained dog? With the face of training having changed so much in the last few years has this affected our expectations at all? Do we expect more or less from our dogs? I thought I would go through the questions from the post and answer them here. A) Because they are great questions and B) Because I couldn't seem to get my comments to post there. (which was frustrating)

1) Is it in fact normal for dogs to endlessly tolerate everything? No. That is not normal behavior and I do think some people expect dogs to tolerate far to much. They are not stuffed animals for kids to poke and prod as they like. They are living creatures with their own language, which humans ignore far to often out of ignorance. Growling is good! It means the dog is uncomfortable so get away from it. People need to STOP punishing this behavior in dogs! I raised both of my kids with the sentence "If the dog bites you it's your fault, so leave them alone." I also used baby gates to give the dogs an area away from the kids when I felt it was needed. (and taught the dog to jump it to get away when they wanted to as well)

2) Are we insisting that dogs be perfect when they’re not in fact perfect? Where is the place for the dog who’s just plain grouchy, and it’s not a training error but personality? I think some people are expecting that perfection, yes. I think there is a place for grouchy dogs but hopefully it is in a home where the owner knows the dogs personality so they can keep them safe. Grumpy dogs don't want to be social so don't force them to be.

3) Are we doing justice to owners by implying that this new expectation of behavior is valid for all dogs? (To use a specific example, saying that we can “help” their terrier not chase cats, or “help” their chow not react to other dogs.) I think a trainers job is to explain to owners how dogs communicate and teach them why dogs do what they do so they understand their dog better. That is more helpful to the dog in the long run. Giving the dog some skills can help make living with their issues easier OR teach the owners some management skills. No, we are not doing anyone justice with a blanket statement about what we can teach all dogs. It is a case by case issue because all dogs are individuals. Every owner has certain expectations. Sometimes we as trainers need to readjust them slightly to meet with the reality of the dog they actually have.

4) Why exposure and not avoidance? That is, if you have a dog who lunges at other dogs, why is the answer to “helping” that dog (and yes, I do keep putting helping in quotes because that’s how I ALWAYS hear it used now – it’s not training, it’s “helping,” implying that the dog WANTS this help and is incomplete without this help) going out and finding 40 other dogs to expose the dog to (whether in a class or in a park or whatever) and not avoiding other dogs? Why is one right and one wrong? I think this depends on the dog and owner. Does the owner need or want to be able to walk their dog without the lunging at other dogs issue? Management with avoidance is fine if that is what the owner wants to do. I also think some owners do use avoidance. Is it right or wrong? I dunno, to bad we can't ask the dogs. I think it's referred to as helping because in many cases its a fearful reaction which is stressful. If we can teach the dog they have noting to fear then there is less stress. We want to help our dogs by not being stressed. It also isn't training as much as behavior modification. Training to me means teaching specifics like sit, down, come, and stay. Specific body positions or maybe tricks. Things that are on a verbal cue. To teach a dog not to lunge (if its fear for instance) is done by changing the emotion of the event. (but in reality it might not be fear so figuring out the "why" for the lunging can be important)

5) Do we need a revival in an understanding of “dogginess”? (A celebration of Jungian dog archetypes, if you want to get fancy-dancy?) Can we re-find the validity of the warrior dog, messenger dog, defender dog, hunting dog in our own backyards? Yes to the first part. We need to educate people in what is normal dog behavior. That is tough tho given there is SO many myths and wives tales still kicking around and moving faster these days over the internet. Not to mention the questionable trainers and slick methods for sale out there. There are no magic wands. (Sometimes it takes time to change a dogs behavior.) Some of us are TRYING hence the many blogs and websites about dog behavior. Sadly only those who want to learn more are looking for the info, and not all of the average pet owners. I can't count how many times I have heard "Well my friend said....." or "My hairdresser did this....." and "I saw it on this show......." When our car breaks down we don't ask our hairdresser to fix it, so why are we listening to them for dog behavior advice???

The second part of this is trickier. I think yes we have need for some of the breeds to retain their original design and job description. However, we can't regulate who owns those working breeds and that's why they end up in inappropriate homes so often. So do we water down all breeds to make dogs easier for the average owner to own for that reason? I dunno. When I mentioned (years ago on an e-mail list back when those were popular) changing akitas so they weren't so tough on other dogs (aggressive to other dogs is written IN their breed standard) I was told if I wanted a Golden Retriever temperament I should get a GR. But does out society have a place for dogs who want to kill other dogs on sight? Shouldn't we breed away from that? Is there any reason to keep that particular trait? Would it really change the breed for the negative to take that one thing out of the breed? You would be surprised at how many people say don't change the breed. (I am not one of them for the record hence the reason Jack is probably my last akita after almost 20 years in the breed.) Sadly many people tend to choose dogs based on looks and don't look for a dog that fits their lifestyle. Maybe we need a new search engine for dog adopters. Example: Do you want a couch potato or hiking companion?
What is a well trained dog to me? That is easier. I think depends on what you want to live with. For me it is some of the following:
No jumping on visitors.
No yanking me around on leash when walking.
One that can be in public and be calm.
No darting through the door. 
Coming when called.
Leaving something alone when I tell them to.
Staying when told to.
House and crate trained.

Those are things I prefer my dogs to do to make my life easier. But I also expect my dogs to act like dogs. If they are meeting a strange dog and they get snarky because the other dog gets in their face to quick that is ok. They are being a normal dog. If Jack chases a bike down his fence and barks that is ok. He is being a dog. If they don't do something the first time I ask, that is ok too. They are dogs! They don't always jump to our whim just because we want them to! Motivation is key and distractions come into play.

What defines "well trained" is a matter of personal opinion. I know there are other trainers who don't think my dogs are well trained because I don't compete in traditional obedience to show off those specific skills. Jack doesn't know a proper heel position for instance. Yet I can walk him without being dragged down the road. To me he is well trained, to others not so much.

Here is another question: When is well trained a detriment? Is there such a thing? For example, the photo above is Jenny and her friend Prudence from a beach walk earlier this evening. Walking on the beach is a new thing for me and Jenny. I have walked my dogs off leash in the past sporadically. It is usually somewhere private and only with other dogs I know are good in groups. I am very careful for my dogs safety. It has been awhile since Jenny has had this sort of off leash outing however. It was very apparent because once the leash was unhooked she heeled along with me alot. It took encouragement and lots of running by of Prudence before she would venture away from me at all. It made me a little sad that she wouldn't run and play like a normal dog. But it is my fault for taking her for walks and reinforcing her heeling so much. It has become her default position. The good news is that she will get the hang of running away with practice. (How ironic of a sentence is that?) By the end of the outing she was wading in the scary ocean (why is the water chasing me??) and sniffing lots of seaweed.

So what is your defination of a well trained dog? Do you think our expectations of dog behavior has changed over the years? Is the average owner to intolerant as a whole of normal dog behavior? What do you see?


Ruth said...

I totally agree that there needs to be effort put into breeding reasonably good natured/tempermented dogs of all breeds, but I also think there needs to be a line drawn. If I want an Akita (or in my case a Tibetan Mastiff) I want an Akita, not a Golden in an Akita coat (we actually seriously considered getting an Akita when we were trying to decide what kind of dog we wanted. Totally my kind of dog, but totally not one that my SIL could manage for example, she's got a GSD and he's perfect for her).

When we got our Tibetan Mastiff pup we got him knowing that this was a dog who'd likely never be happy at the local dog park, and would possubly never be an off leash dog. His breeder has done an awesome job at picking sweet tempered dogs to breed while otherwise mantainimg the standards required. He honestly loves strangers of all sorts, canine or human, and yet is pure guard dog at the site of a new person aproaching the driveway (till we tell him its ok, then he turns into a wiggly, kissy nut). And thats damn near perfect as far as I'm concerned. I can walk him around the local petstore and have him solicting pats from everyone around, and still not be a Golden incognito.

As for the rest of it I already posted over there, not repeating it!

Marie said...

Who says a socially appropriate dog equals a GR temperment? I don't expect Jack to be ok with all other dogs but I don't think not wanting akitas to be out for blood with other dogs is to much to ask. Where is that line exactly?

P.S. I totally looked into Tibetian Mastiffs a few years ago. I am also drawn to them. I think as I age tho I'm starting to prefer smaller less hairy dogs. I'm lazy and I know it. :-)

Ruth said...

They are big and furry, pup's 7 1/2 months old, and just over a week ago weighed in at 80lbs, and measured 26.5" at the shoulder, and he's not done! If you, or anyone else, wants to consider a TM I highly recmmend Suzie @ Himalaya Tibetan Mastiffs in VA (you can fnd her website by googlng just that). Not sure she's going to be breeding again any time soon, but she'll happily point you to a reliable breeder who is, as well as make sure you know what you're geting into. Our pup is one of her's, she's blunt, but honest!

I don't know where the line is, I expect it would vary from breed to breed, our pup's an effective example of a good spot for it though.