Monday, October 26, 2009

Speaking the same language

I write a lot about communication in this blog. I’m often angry at us humans for not making better use of our brains to understand our dogs and communicate more effectively with them.
I’m not angry today.
In a recent blog, Capitalizing on common phrases, I wrote about using common phrases with consistency and how doing so can aid your dog in understanding you. I also wrote, verbatim, “The problem is, we just don’t speak the same language.”
To clarify, I should write that we don’t, and we do.
Very clear statement, huh?
Here’s the deal. Humans use a highly developed vocal language to communicate. Dogs use vocalizations as well, but it’s not the same or even close to being the same language we utilize.
Both humans and dogs, however, rely heavily on body language to communicate. Like our vocal languages, the body language used by both species is very different.
For a dog, body language may well be the primary mode of communication with other species. Dogs are very, very adept at reading body language.
In fact, dogs usually catch on to our hand signals and other body language cues in their training before learning our vocal command. Eventually, they associate the hand signal with the vocal command.
To test this, I’ve gone through all of Sensi’s commands without speaking a word. I relied upon the hand signals and body language that I wasn’t even conscious of before, and it worked like a charm.
Read more about that topic by going back to my blog Hand signals.
While a dog’s body language may be entirely different from ours, their great ability to learn and read our body language coupled with the fact that some things, like our eyes, convey a nearly universal language makes body language a great tool in communicating with our dogs.
I encourage everyone to do a little experimenting with their dog.
Out of the blue, catch your dog’s eyes and smile, a big toothy smile, at him. Dogs are quick to learn that smiles on human faces are indicative of good moods and good moods equal a better possibility of good things happening to dogs.
When I smile at my dog, he smiles and wags his tail. See what happens with yours.
One of the neatest ways my dog and I can effectively communicate is when I tell him where to go.
Most of us have had the experience of pointing at something and assuming your dog will follow your pointing finger to an object or place only to watch the dog fixate on your finger or perhaps begin running around the entire house with no clue as to where you want him to go or what you want him to do.
Obviously, finger pointing is not one of those universal communications.
What about your eyes, though? Ever noticed that if you look out at the window at something, your dog comes up beside you and tries to follow where your eyes are looking?
Eyes, I believe, are universal.
Here’s a scenario that didn’t work for me until I starting using my eyes.
My husband and I have a sectional couch with an ottoman on one end, which is “our spot.” And the dog thinks it is his spot too.
To be more specific, he thinks his spot is on the ottoman between Brent and I. He is a 90 lb. pound dog, and our ottoman is not some extra-large thing. As Sensi gets comfortable and starts stretching out, our legs get pushed to the edges of the ottoman, suddenly we’re sitting on angles to accommodate him and it’s just a little ridiculous.
Especially when there’s two other very large sections of the couch sitting empty.
So, I would tell Sensi, “Get up, pal, get up.” This is a command he knows means to stand up.
And then, pointing with my finger toward the empty section of the couch, I’d say, “Go over there and lay down.”
He used to jump off the couch and lay down on the floor, sighing like a grump. And I was not asking him lay on the floor; I just wanted him to go to the large, empty space on the couch.
One day, rather than pointing, I turned my head and directed my eyes right at the open space on the couch.
I watched as he turned his head and looked at where I was looking.
Then it happened.
Standing up on the ottoman, he didn’t even bother to get down. He stepped carefully over Brent on the couch and walked right over to where I had looked and laid down.
It was that easy. All along, it was that easy.
Let this be a lesson to explore how much we can use our body language, especially our eyes, as a communication tool with our dogs.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Are certain breeds more dangerous?

On my recent blog, Culture at fault, someone recently posted this comment.

"If the most popular breeds in America are Retrievers, Shepherds, and beagles why are the majority of dog related mauling deaths blamed on pitbulls, bulldogs and the mixes?
You say: stay away from all dogs but the truth is not all dog breads are as dangerous as others. Are you are truly unaware that certain dog breeds are more likely than others to do harm to humans?"

First, let me clarify one thing. I did not say to stay away from all dogs. The point of the blog was to state that all dogs have the propensity to bite or maul and that society does nothing to prevent this, as the popular views on dog behavior and dog ownership are a world different from what science has told us about what makes a dog tick.

In short, if we knew more about canine behavior, we'd have less bites and maulings.

I tried to post a rebuttal comment on the blog, but I think it may have been too long. So, I'm going to post it here.

Statistics kept on dog bites are no longer kept by the CDC; the latest report on dog bite fatalities (from the 1990s) was the last report to be produced by the CDC because of the way it was misconstrued by breed ban proponents. In fact, the cover letter attached to the report says this, verbatim: "In contrast to what has been reported in the news media, the data contained within this report CANNOT be used to infer any breed-specific risk for dog bite fatalities (e.g. neither pit bull-type dogs nor Rottweilers can be said to be more “dangerous” than any other breed based on the contents of this report). To obtain such risk information, it would be necessary to know the numbers of each breed currently residing in the United States. Such information is not available."

This is in area in which I have done a lot of research, and even interviewed one the people who led that study.

I think it is slightly unfair to say pit bulls are more dangerous than other breeds, especially based on statistics that even the CDC found unreliable enough to stop collecting data.

A Lab was responsible for the England woman who had to have the first face transplant. A Pomeranian fatally mauled an infant. Golden Retrievers and other popular breeds, like Cocker Spaniels, have failed canine good citizen tests at a greater percentage than pit bulls. German Shepherds used to be thought "more dangerous" than pit bulls and other breeds in the 1970s.

Saying that one dog breed is more dangerous than another is discrimination. Dogs are individuals too. They have inherent characteristics, which mesh with their environment and socialization to create their behavioral patterns. I know the argument here, from the anti-pit bull crowd, is that the breed is full of inherently bloodthirsty, aggressive maneaters. This is very untrue. Pit bulls, by breed standard, are supposed to be extremely human-friendly, regardless of the situation. The breed may inherently have a high prey drive or exhibit aggression toward other animals, but they are far from the only breed — big and small — to have this trait. And, it can be effectively combated with proper socialization.

What I'm trying to say with this blog is that until we start using our highly intellectual human brains to understand and utilize the vast amount of information available on canine behavior, we are putting all dogs at a disadvantage as far as bites and maulings go. Many bites and maulings could be prevented if only we humans knew more about our dogs.

Unfortunately, whenever someone tries to talk about canine behavior, we're written off as spewing crazy-talk "doggie psycho-babble."

The idea that if we just got rid of pit bulls, rottweilers and bulldogs the world would be full of rainbows again is a crock of crap, and I will stand by that.

Let's remember a couple neat facts too — aggression was successfully bred out of the English Bulldog as an inherent characteristic at the time the breed was rescued from near extinction. The Doberman was the pit bull of the 1980s, when many untrue myths about brain swelling and turning against its owners circulated. The German Shepherd got the same treatment in the 1970s. Now, because these two breeds are not the popular choice of breeds amongst shady criminals and is instead owned by responsible, regular folks, no one mentions them in breed bans anymore. And, even if we did eradicate the pit bull completely, there are breeds that have similar histories. What about the Tosa Inu, the Dogo Argentino, the Cane Corso, the Canary Dog, even the wrinkly and much-loved Shar-Pei has a fighting history. And since Mastiffs are big and scary, are we just going to eliminate them too? There goes a dozen breeds or more if we decide to do that. Also, the Rhodesian Ridgebacks were bred to hunt lions — they have a high prey drive and they are big, strong animals. Should we get rid of them? Chihuahuas are bred to exhibit aggressive tendencies. Should we mark them off the list too? Huskies and Malamutes have strong prey drives and need just as much socialization and exercise as pit bulls. Ban them too? St. Bernards have big jaws and if they bit or attacked, they could inflict nasty wounds. Other dogs are big too, with big jaws. Do we get rid of all big dogs? Where does it stop?

I do advocate the right owner for the right breed. Grandma who lives alone and has little interaction with others, people and dogs, and is unable to provide daily, strenous exercise should probably not own a pit bull, huskie, Jack Russell terrier or even a Viszla. Do your research and pick a dog that fits your lifestyle. Pit bulls and Rottweilers are not the best fit for many people.

My point is, all dogs can be dangerous in the hands of an uneducated owner. Banning breeds won't stop dog bites or fatal attacks. The best thing we can do to circumvent attacks is learn more about canine behavior. We are the more intellectual species, after all. Why is it that as a society, we just kind-of expect our dogs to learn how to live with us and we do next to nothing to learn about them? It's backwards.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Capitalizing on common phrases

Think about your daily interactions with your dog. Are there things you usually say during certain situations?
There probably are.
For instance, do you tell your dog to be good while you’re gone before you walk out the door to work every morning? Do you ask your dog if he’s hungry before dinner time?
Becoming aware of the vocabulary you already use with your dog is one big step toward improving the communication between you and your dog.
I have a lot words and phrases that I use with Sensi that, nearly seven years later, Sensi has learned to understand without me having put in any active training to teach him.
Here’s a few —
“Let’s go” for any sort of forward motion when I desire that he be moving with me.
“Be good, we’ll be home later,” for when he is left at home alone.
“Breakfast?” and “Dinner?” for obvious situations.
“Go potty” for urination.
“Lay down over there” for when we want him to move to a different section of the couch, eye-contact and some hand gestures are also part of this one.
“Other side” for when I want him to switch the side of his body he is laying on — this is especially handy for and grew out of ear cleaning.
“Get back” for when I want him to take a few steps back from an area.
If you use the same phrases with consistency in the same situations, your dog will make associations with those phrases over time. For instance, when you say “Dinner” your dog knows food will be put in his bowl.
Or, when you say “Go potty” your dog will know you want him to relieve himself.
Be sure to make the distinction that this is not training. You cannot say phrases to a dog and expect him to react just how you had planned, nor should you punish a dog for not reacting how you thought it should.
If you want the dog to take exactly three steps back each time you say “Get back” then you need to do some active training to teach the dog exactly that.
So then, what is the purpose of recognizing and re-using the same phrases with your dog?
If your dog has a set of expectations that go along with a phrase which is commonly used by you, that’s a good thing. It’s communication.
Our dogs, I believe, want to communicate with us and try to communicate with us just as much as we try to communicate with them. The problem is, we just don’t speak the same language.
But, dogs are perfectly capable of making associations between our vocal phrases and situations. In fact, they’re always making those associations.
I’m just advocating that we help them make those associations by becoming aware of phrases we commonly use and using them with consistency in the same situations.
It’s a bit like giving them a road map to navigate around our households with, and who doesn’t want to know where they’re going?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Should helper dogs be allowed everywhere?

We have a dog in our newsroom, a Golden Retriever and Labrador mix named Norton. He was trained by Paws with a Cause to help one of our reporters who uses a wheelchair.
Norton is great. He helps pull his human, Jerry, in the wheelchair and picks up pencils and papers Jerry drops. If Jerry were to fall, Norton not only is trained to help him get up, but he’s also trained to seek out another human and lead them back to Jerry.
Norton’s training was a process that went on for probably about three years. The puppy stages were spent with a foster family who had instructions on socialization and general training and then highly experienced trainers worked with him daily for about a year. After he began living with Jerry, the training continued for perhaps another a year or so.
As a helper dog, Norton is legally allowed to go everywhere Jerry goes. And generally speaking, I’m OK with that.
I know Jerry and I know the types of places Norton goes to with him — auditoriums where Jerry gives speeches, on various assignments Jerry gets here at work and to family functions, etc. That's all fine and dandy in my book.
I think, though, that we tend to forget these helper dogs are still dogs. They’re still on the lookout for a treat, a squirrel still catches their eye — even if they don’t chase it, and they still like to chew on a good bone. I could go on and on.
Back in the summer, I wrote a blog about a dog parade that was led by bagpipers. It struck me that this is the level of discord we humans have with dogs — that we would actually place the most loud, siren-like, ear-piercing noise a foot in front of a large group of dogs.
Remember learning that dogs’ hearing and smelling abilities are crazy-better than ours? That also means their ears and nose are far more sensitive than ours.
And if you stand a foot away from a bagpiper going full-tilt, I bet your ears are going to be feeling incredibly sensitive. Just imagine what a poor dog would be going through.
Some of the dogs in the parade looked so nervous and on-edge. Can you blame them?
This brings me to the point of this blog.
A co-worker shared with me that she spotted a helper dog, a mastiff, in the pit area of a rock and roll concert at The Palace a while back. The dog was limping as he pulled around his owner and looked uncomfortable, surrounded by a wall of human bodies and just feet from some of the loudest sounds we humans create.
A staunch advocate for the underdog, my co-worker confronted the dog’s owner, who seemed to shrug off all her concerns as, “The dog is fine, he’s already been to 22 concerts this summer.”
Twenty-two concerts? I don’t think we humans instituted helper dogs to help their owners navigate a mosh pit at AC/DC. For goodness’ sake, this person couldn’t even have taken a seat further away from the stage to save the poor dog’s ears? Can you just imagine how quickly this dog will be going deaf?
This I would classify as borderline animal abuse or extremely irresponsible and uncaring ownership, at the least.
My problems don’t stop there. My co-worker found out this dog is not a certified therapy dog.
Believe it or not, a lack of certification does not take away any of the legal privileges given to a helper dog. And while the dog certainly had training, here’s another issue I have — there are no mandatory certifications or educational requirements for a person to call themselves a professional dog trainer.
Anyone can call themselves a pro. This means we allow anyone-who-calls-themselves-a-professional-dog-trainer to train helper dogs to go anywhere-humans-are-allowed.
Even mosh pits.
What a world we live in.