The Responsible Decision

You can cry, ain’t no shame in it.
- Will Smith

Photo by Jf Brou on Unsplash

Photo by Jf Brou on Unsplash

I recently had  training session with Jake, the gorgeous, huge Malamute/Husky/Hybrid mix. Jake was very much a dog’s dog.  A beautiful boy who happened to have some slightly scary behaviors.  I was initially contacted by his new owners because of some dog-reactivity on walks, and general problems in the house.   He had a lot of money in his Piloting Piggy Bank.  There is indeed a contest to find out who is Pilot, but the cool thing is that we all want whomever is best to win.  How do you find out who is best?  By answering questions for your dog.  Each question you answer gets Piloting money from their piggy bank into yours.  Whoever has the most money wins.  

Can I jump on you?

No, Jake, you may not. ($0.25 added to your Piloting Piggy Bank or PPB).

Can I drag you on the leash?

No, Jake, you may not.  ($5.00 added my PPB).

Is this what you mean by “sit”?

Yes, Jake!  Nice job! ($.40 added to my PPB).

The more questions I answer for a dog (without resorting to pain and violence nor bribery), the more money I get in my bank.  Once I have more money in my PPB than the dog, I’m officially the Pilot!  The greater the buffer I have, the easier it is to answer a dog’s questions, so I never stop hoarding money in my bank.  Compared to my dog’s “bank accounts”, I’m rich.  So nowadays, answering their questions is easy.

Just like people, dogs have a certain amount of money in their PPBs.  Some have more than others.  For people, it’s easy to Pilot their dogs.  They accept the answer they’re given at face value…”because I said so” is good enough for them.  That’s fine and dandy.  Others dogs require a reason why.  Almost a conversation.  There is no good reason why they should accept an answer just because you gave it.  You chip away gradually at the balance in their PPB until you finally have more money than they do.

For example, my Sparta had about $1.25 in her PPB.  From the start she asked me questions, and very quickly I was able to get that money out of her bank account, making it pretty easy for me to be Pilot.  Any time I see she has any money in her account, I take it right out by answering her questions.  So think of money in the account as questions that haven’t been answered yet. She doesn’t have too many questions, and that’s fine.

My Orion, however, had a rather large bank account when I first had him…we’ll call it about $350.  I answered any and all questions he asked, and I quickly got the money out of his account and into mine.

Which dog is the “bad dog”?  Both.  Neither.  Dogs are incapable of being bad. They are asking questions.  They are trying to relate to the human world we have thrust them into.  It just happens to be easier for some dogs than for others, hence they have more money in their account.  It’s not a personal affront to you, and they aren’t trying to get back at you for anything.  It’s how they were built.

Unfortunately, Jake was having a terribly difficult time adjusting to living in a human world.  He had a lot of money in his Piloting Piggy Bank – perhaps $50,000.  Does that make him bad?  Of course not.  It just means that he is not going quietly into the night when he has a question.  He firmly believed he had better answers than just about anyone.  But the cool thing about dogs is that they’re usually willing to “discuss” these answers.  In other words, he’s willing to see if you have a better answer, but you damn well better have the better answer, or he’s sticking to his guns. (He was described to me as “stubborn”, but I believe that stubbornness is just determination in an opposite direction.)  So be it.  It’s my responsibility to keep answering Jake’s questions until I have all the money out of his Piloting Piggy Bank.

Now Jake lived with another dog, a beautiful female husky who had no money in her bank.  A sweet girl who Jake was madly in love with, and was quite willing to defend from any perceived threat; and he usually defended her with his teeth.  Snarling, growling & snapping, he was like a a mama bear defending her cub.

 

 

To top it all off, Jake, when presented with the concept of passing by another dog (or human!) on a walk, would typically determine that said entity was most definitely a threat. 

Needless to say, there was a lot to unpack there.  Also, did I mention Jake lived with two small children, roughly 8 and 10.  Thus the tragedy begins.

I worked with Jake’s owners on answering his questions.  How to spot any questions he may have on a walk, and how to answer them.  Jake saw most things as a potential threat, and decided it was better to shoot first and ask questions later.  It was up to me to help Jake have enough faith in me first, and then his owners, to trust our answers more than his own inferences.  A daunting task, but we did it.  By the end of our session, we had a lovey walk, worked on letting strangers into the house (thanks to a family friend to stopped by and was willing to be “bait” for a bit). Things looked great!

Until the text came a few weeks later.  Jake took it upon himself to answer a question that the 8-year old daughter had,

“Can I pet you while you’re eating, Jake?”.

Unfortunately, Jake gave her a negative, and used his teeth to give it to her.  Fortunately, nothing tragic happened, but he did indeed bite her.  Does that make Jake a bad dog?  Absolutely not.  See, Jake was treating the little girl with the same amount of respect he’d give to another dog.  Especially a dog who didn’t have a lot of money in their Piloting Piggy Bank.  Remember, Jake had a high bank account.  So when he was asked a question (“Can I pet  you now?”), he gave the answer as a dog sometimes will:  with teeth.

Now let’s talk about whose fault this was.

Was it Jake’s fault?  No.  Absolutely not.  Jake was being a dog. Some dogs just make better humans than others.  That dopey but sweet Lab across the street who wanders over to your yard sometimes for ear scratches and a biscuit?  He’s a great human.  Lassie?  She was a pretty good human.  Even Sandy from “Annie” was a actually pretty good human, too. Almost like they are all half dog/half human.

 

Jake, however, totally sucked at being human.  Which is understandable, as he’s a dog. So definitely not Jake’s fault.

What about the little girl?  After all, her parents admitted that they had told her not to pet him while he was eating.  Was it her fault?

Again, no.  Children are called children because even they haven’t quite figured out how to adult.  Simply showing affection to a dog doesn’t make her wrong nor bad.  She had never abused him nor treated him with disrespect.  She wasn’t far out of line wanting to give love to her dog; she just made a poor choice in judgement (hence the term, “kid”). That’s pretty much the definition of childhood.  Poor choices made with an honest and true heart.  So not her fault.

What about the parents?  Nope.  The dog had never shown any indication of food reactivity.  They had made sure their children treated the dog with respect.

So here we are, almost through all the actors in this play, and we still haven’t found out to whom we should place the fault for this bite.

Because it’s nobody’s fault.  Sometimes something bad happens, and it’s just flat-out nobody’s fault.  And that’s okay.  Something bad happened, that’s all. Blame and fault are ridiculous concepts anyway, and something that a dog has no concept of (just another reason why we don’t deserve dogs).  Here, let’s let Will Smith explain it to you, as he does an amazing job of it here.

But there’s still a problem.  It’s nobody’s fault that the bite happened, but now what?  Fault and responsibility are two completely different things.  The parents now had to take responsibility for what had happened.  Given the choice, they chose to keep their children safe, as the learning curve on working with food reactivity can be pretty steep, as you can read about here  and here.  That meant they had to let go of Jake.

Now, I know that there will be the Teeming Millions out there who will vilify the parents for giving up Jake.  But as I’ve pointed out, it’s nobody’s fault this happened.  And the parents have a responsibility to their children to keep them safe from harm.  Children are unpredictable.  And Jake is not a great human, willing to overlook this unpredictability.  Not his fault.  Shake it as much as you want, but oil and vinegar will never properly mix.  Jake and children will never properly mix.  And it’s nobody’s fault. 

Jake’s owners tried to contact rescues to take him, but to no avail.  They were mocked and berated for wanting to rehome him.  Let’s put this into perspective though.  Yes, there are plenty of cruel, callous owners out there who have the Dog of the Year, almost like some twisted Chinese Zodiac of dogs:

-2013 was the year of the black Lab,until we got sick of him and sent him to the pound;

-2014 was the year of the Goldendoodle, until he peed on the carpet;

-2015 was the year of the Cavachon, but he had separation anxiety.

And so on.  But this wasn’t the case.  This is about a family whose children aren’t in a safe situation, through nobody’s fault.  It’s so easy to place the blame squarely on someone else’s shoulders, but there’s no blame to be had here.  The mindset of something not being your fault, and therefore not your responsibility, needs to end.  Rather than feeling empathy for the terrible situation this family was placed in, they were ridiculed and harassed.  It is so easy to sit back and judge a person rehoming a dog, but it’s imperative that we ask ourselves why they would choose to do so.  This wasn’t an easy fix for this family; this was choosing the lesser of two evils, and their first duty is to their children.

Further, it stymies the mission of shelters to judge such cases.  Sometimes it just doesn’t work out, and if a family is harassed and harangued for wanting to return a dog because it didn’t work out (after a very valiant effort) or if the situation is dangerous, why on earth would a family with children want to take the chance of adopting a dog through a shelter?

I will never state that dogs are disposable.  They are not.  However, sometimes it doesn’t work.  It’s nobody’s fault.  Nobody needs to be blamed.  But we all need to take responsibility rather than placing it upon the most convenient shoulders.  We need to take responsibility that not every dog can be saved.  That not every situation is good.  In the righteous journey towards Saving Every Dog, we’ve forgotten that we’ve destroyed quite a few wonderful human beings. Children in the house who aren’t safe around the new dog?  Well, that’s a sacrifice we’re all willing to make because it’s not our sacrifice being made.  We still get the Happily Ever After ending of placing yet another rescue into a home, regardless of the suitability of that home.  Never mind that through nobody’s fault, the dog is actually a danger, once a dog is adopted, there it shall remain, and damn the human casualties.

It’s time to understand the difference between fault and responsibility.

So next time you’re ready to blame someone for their actions, ask yourself: are you willing to take responsibility?

What are your thoughts on Jake’s situation?  Let me know in the comments below.

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

Keep calm and pilot on

 

 

Foundations – Learning to Pilot Your Dog

In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train him to be semi-human. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog.

Edward Hoagland

Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

There’s nothing I hate more than people punishing their dogs.  There is no point to it. Punishment is merely a method of retribution, and that concept would never occur to a dog.  Dog’s mostly live in the here and now.  They don’t dwell on what wrong has been done to them, or the need for retaliation.  Dog’s will address a misstep, and then move on.

Some people believe that dogs are mute - they aren’t.  They just happen to communicate in a way we sometimes overlook:  body language.  However, dogs ask questions all the time!  Usually when your dog does something “bad”, it’s because you didn’t answer their question.  ”Can I have that piece of steak on the table?”  ”Is that mailman gonna eat us?” You MUST answer their question.  Now, here’s the easy part:  dogs are binary creatures.  They ask “yes” and “no” questions.  They don’t have another option.  “Fido, wanna go for a walk?”  YesyesyesYES!  “OK Fido, where do you want to go?”  Blank stare.  *crickets chirping*   Fido can’t answer a questions that isn’t yes or no.

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Answer their questions before really bad things happen – photo Twigg Studios

Communication is the key.  Reward the behaviors you want with praise, treat or just a gentle pat on the head.  Answer “no” to the unsavory behaviors want using their form of communication: body language.

So let’s put it all together.

There are only 3 things your dog needs: Piloting, Activity and Work. Or, as we like to call it, the PAW method. Notice I did not say, coddling, kissing and affection. To work with your dog’s behavior, give your dog what they need: Piloting, Activity and Work.  After you have given your dog what they need, then you can give them what you want: love, affection, praise,…namely, the good stuff.

Love and affection:  the only reason you should have a dog.  Piloting, Activity and Work: how you manage your dog.   Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Love and affection: the only reason you should have a dog. Piloting, Activity and Work: how you manage your dog.
Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

Piloting

Why do we call it Piloting?  Well, imagine you are on a plane.  It’s just you and the pilot, and all of a sudden the pilot suddenly becomes unconscious and you have to fly the plane.  How do you feel? Terrified? Anxious? Overwhelmed? That’s how your dog feels without a “pilot” of his own. The world is a scary place, and not everything makes sense to them.

Quit frankly, my dog is scared of her own farts, and most dogs (including yours) are still trying to figure out peanut butter

Quit frankly, my dog is scared of her own farts, and most dogs (including yours) are still trying to figure out peanut butter

So, let’s say the pilot wakes up while you’re still trying to fly the plane. What do you do? You’d probably let him fly the plane again right? Same thing with your pup. If you show that you can be Pilot, and that they can trust you, they will gladly hand over the controls and let you take care of them.

Piloting starts with confidence and body language. Make sure you are holding yourself in a tall and confident manner when answering questions for your dog. If you look confident, your dog will believe you are confident.  Women tend to sit and stand in an “S” shape. We tend to cross our arms and legs, which makes us seem less intimidating more nurturing. Men tend to sit and stand in a “T” shape. They take up lots of room and spread out. Make your body more of a “T” shape to help with your confident body language. Think of it as a uniform you are putting on when you need to Pilot your dog.  Make sure to stay calm as well. Adding tension and anger to the situation will not help. If you need to, step away for a few minutes. Then come back when you are calm and ready to interact with your dog.

Confident body language helps answer those questions your dog has been asking you constantly. Your pup is always asking you “yes” and “no” questions. Can I have this treat? Can I sit on the couch? Can I have some of your dinner? And more importantly: Is the person at the door a threat? Is that garbage can a threat? Is that other dog a threat?

The absence of “no” is “yes”. If you’re not answering your dog’s questions, then you are essentially telling them “yes”. (If you’ve ever raised teenagers, you know what I’m talking about.  “You never said I couldn’t!”)

Use your body language to answer these questions. If your dog is staring at a treat on the floor and then at you, he’s asking if he can have it. If you do not want your dog to have it yet, answer his question by walking in between him and the treat, facing him.  Imagine your dog is a lot taller, and you are trying to push him back from the treat using your stomach.  Remember, you are only answering one question, “Can I have the treat?”.  The body language you are using is telling him “no”.  As soon as he’s no longer engaged with the treat (i.e., staring at it or moving towards it),  remove your strong body language.  Take a step back.  He may ask the same question again immediately:  give him the same answer, (“no”) using your body language again, always removing your body language when he is no longer engaged with the treat, and adding it back when he does become engaged again.  Think of it as a giant game of Hot & Cold.

Now, if you want him to have the treat, just don’t say no. If you decide you want him to have it, you can just remove your body language from the situation.  You are no longer telling him “no”.   Remember, the absence of “no” is “yes”.

This is the same method you would use when answering the door. The question is “Is the person at the door a threat?”  Let your pup know that the answer is “no”, by making sure you are answering the door and not your dog. Pretend the door is the treat you had on the floor previously.  You are answering your dog’s question: “Need help with the door?”.  The answer is “no”.  Simply back them away from the door to give yourself some personal space (hint: you don’t need to back them up across the house, a few feet away from the door should do it!).  Now, nail them to that spot with your finger and your eyeballs (aka, the “Mom Look”), and back towards the door.  If they follow you, simply back them up again.  Wash, rinse, repeat, until you have a calmer situation to answer the door.

Calm can take a few tries.  Don't worry - you'll get there.

Calm can take a few tries. Don’t worry – you’ll get there.

The more you show your dog that you are capable of being in control and the Pilot, the more your dog will be able to relax and actually be a dog. He’ll look to you for guidance instead of feeling as though he needs to protect you and your family from every garbage can, dog and plastic bag in the neighborhood.

Activity

The second thing that is needed is Activity. Dogs, like wolves, need activity daily. Walking on a daily basis gives them their sense of roaming that they would get if they were in a wolf pack. Each day a wolf pack hikes miles to and from a hunt. Your pup has this same instinct. It’s important that they get activity every day, and the amount they often require is a lot more than you think.

Some ways to enhance your Activity time is to invest in a backpack for your pup. You can find them on Amazon and it’s a great way to make your dog feel like they have a “job”. Don’t place any more than 3% of their body weight (at max! – start very small) in the pack and make sure it’s something that won’t hurt them.  For example, water bottles tend to slap them in the ribs with every step.  I prefer bags of beans, rice or coffee grounds.

Although you’ll be going the same distance, it will feel a little longer to your pup, which is always a good thing!

Fetch and playtime outside and at a dog park are great additional ways to get in activity. But the walk is so very important because it gives you an opportunity to work on your Piloting and it helps them with their roaming instinct, even if it is just in your neighborhood.

Work

The third part of the PAW Method is Work. Your pup needs mental work daily. Think of it this way, if you drive the same route home every day it becomes monotonous and easy for you. However, if there is a ton of traffic on that same route, you’re a lot more tired when you get home because there was a lot more mental work that went into that drive home. Your pup needs to feel that mentally tired. Otherwise, they’re bored. And boredom leads to finding things to keep them busy. And that leads to your grandmother’s quilt being torn up.

Stress is a good thing.  I want them to have a lot of stress in their life, because when you eliminate that stress, you get confidence.  Think of the confidence boost you get when you complete a project, or finish a crossword.  Benevolent stress = self-confidence.

An easy way to get some mental work in for your pup is to use an enrichment feeder. Such as a Kong Wobbler or Busy Buddy Twist N Feed. These feeders make your dog think about how to get the food out as opposed to just waiting for you to poor it out of a bag, which is dull, boring and EASY. By making them work for their food, it adds some mental work into their day and doesn’t add anytime to yours as you are going to feed them anyways.

Other things you can do for some mental work are playing “find it” games. To start, show your dog a treat, then put it down on the other end of the room in plain sight. When you release your dog repeat the phrase “find it” over and over until they get to the treat and then praise like crazy. Then move on to hiding the treat so it’s behind something, repeat “find it” and praise again. Then move on to using one of their favorite toys.  This is a good way to get some more mental work in.

Remember, your dog is family.  Sometimes family really sucks.

Okay, hopefully not THIS bad

Okay, hopefully not THIS bad

…but we can’t expect our relationships with our pets to be all sunshine and lollipops.  Sometimes we need to answer questions.  Sometimes it feels like they will never be housebroken (the dog, not the family).  But that’s why we Pilot our dogs.  That’s why we set them up for success with plenty of Activity and Work.  To make those moments less and less frequent.  And no, your dog isn’t perfect (mine sure aren’t), but we work together perfectly, understanding each others’ flaws, and not just loving each other in spite of them, but embracing them as part of who they are.

Keep calm and pilot on

 

Kerry Stack
Danika Migliore
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio