Friday, February 21, 2014

The Crate Debate

Nothing like a good discussion on social media, eh?
Seriously, I like a good debate, whether online or in person. I like the mental fitness, it makes me think, drives me.
There is no shortage of topics that evoke strong, opposite polar opinions in the dog world. That is probably true for any other world, but the dog crowd is the one I am traveling in.
Neutering, diet, snoot-loop harnesses, rescue, breeders, training methods, are all contentious issues.
Add crating to that list.

Crates are widely promoted in North America, but not so much in some other countries, and banned at least in one: Sweden.
Does it surprise you that something that is such an accepted norm here is not popular, even illegal, elsewhere? Perhaps not so surprising if one sees the ugly side of a tool that makes it easy for people to neglect their dog’s needs.
A Border collie was euthanized when he was 10 months old because he was insane - compulsively had chewed half his tail off. He belonged to a busy family and was kept in his crate for most of the day and all night.
Two littermate Australian shepherds, acquired by a trainer when they were 8 weeks old for the sole purpose of competing in dog sports, were kept in separate crates unless they trained. At age 18 months both were surrendered to the humane society. Stated reason: Performed below expectation. The male became my client, nice dog, but socially inept.
Two adult dogs, very bonded who enjoyed each other’s company, played and snuggled, had free run of the house when their people were at work all day. Problems arose when they, to deal with barking at passersby, were suddenly placed in separate crates during the day, and as part of a Nothing in Life is Free protocol, also whenever the owners weren’t actively interacting with them.
Granted, above examples may be isolated cases, but others aren’t.
Dogs who, in an attempt to get out, bend wires and injure their gums, teeth, or paws.
Dogs that are so distressed that they vocalize unceasingly, soil their crate, drool excessively, or can’t be left with any comfort – a blanket, bed, or mat, because they destroy it.

Despite the ugly side, I want to state unequivocally that I do not want to see crates banned here, because I believe that when used caringly they can benefit both people and dogs. For example raising a puppy.
No doubt, house training is difficult when the pup’s space is not restricted. Of course it doesn’t have to be a crate. An ex-pen or a certain room can do, and with my puppies I also used the leash quite a bit – umbilical corded the pup to me, or attached her to a long line looped around a piece of furniture when I had to make a quick trip to another room. Obviously, the crate or any other space restricting measure only works if the pup is given ample opportunities to pee and poop outside, otherwise she learns to eliminate in her sleeping and living space. The general rule of thumb is age in months plus/minus an hour, but in reality young puppies typically have to go more often during waking hours, some every half hour or so.
A more valid reason for using a crate with a pup is for safekeeping, to prevent that she gets into something that could harm her when she can’t be closely supervised – in the house and in the car.
A pup safely in the crate buys new owners time to do people-only things. I recently had a client where this worked wonderfully: There were critical times during the day when they were busy, and because their excellent breeder had linked the crate with naps early on, it was a cue for the pup to settle. Not only did it function during the critical times, but also when the pup was too wound up and couldn’t settle anywhere else, and in addition she was quiet riding in the car, even on longer trips.
To me, napping and resting is the primary purpose of a crate - stimulation and enrichment happens outside of it. When the crate is that familiar and felt as safe retreat, it can be that for a lifetime, and that is very handy in circumstances when the dog needs a getaway place.

Even though our own puppies were only crated during the night, with the crates stationed in our bedroom, I am pro crate when it comes to pups. It is almost a must to keep the pup safe and owner sane.
A good breeder introduces the crate in a way that it doesn’t produce fear and anxiety. With luck, by the time the pup enters her new home she goes in willingly. Nevertheless, the owner should continue to combine crate time with good things.
With an adult dog, I feel differently. Going in the crate should be choice, optional, with the door open or removed, or it becomes a bad thing - a trap.
At what age does the change happen? Obviously, when the pup is reliably housetrained and trustworthy not to get into trouble or get hurt. Unfortunately, there is no general guideline when that is, it depends on the dog. During the day, three of ours were around 5 months old when they signaled that they had to go out, and fairly consistently searched the toy box for entertainment, leaving our stuff alone, but with some dogs, often retrievers, giant breeds and bullies, that can take a lot longer, up to a year, even 18 months.
At night, the crate door was closed until our pups were about a year old. When we left it open, Will continued to go in well into adulthood, but Davie was happy to kiss the crate good-bye for good. Despite our attempts to make it a positive experience, she never liked it.

Davie’s strong dislike being crated is not uncommon, and I want lay owners to understand that: Their dog rejecting and resisting the crate is neither abnormal, nor did they fail.
There are dogs who, regardless how many training games you play, continue to perceive a crate as aversive.  
Despite popular belief, dogs are not den animals, but whether they are or not is actually irrelevant because it is all about choice. One of the Five Freedoms that define acceptable animal welfare is Freedom to Express Normal Behaviors, and it is not normal for any animal to be caged for most of their life, and whenever they are not operant or their actions otherwise controlled. To express normal behavior is to have some autonomy over one’s movements, to find stimulation and enrichment, and choose where to hang out and relax. If that’s the crate, wonderful, but if the dog is forced in, it causes distress and creates anxiety, and Freedom from Fear and Distress is another criteria for animal welfare that is then not met. 
Anxiety doesn’t magically dissipate when the crate door opens. Initial pressure release is played out in exuberant, out-of-control jumping, mouthing and general rowdiness, but biochemically stress lingers and, if the dog is presented with her stressor regularly, accumulates. Biochemically, stress can become chronic, and cause a host of other issues. 

Karen L. Overall, in “The Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine” writes: “Dogs that do not go willingly into their crate and are happy to be in there should not be contained in crates”.
Note that you don’t always get the strong, obvious signals: The destruction, self-mutilation, unceasing howling, or soiling. Tension, being clamped up, scratching the door, appeasement signals, whining, bucking, not coming when called and moving away, are subtler ones that tell you that your dog doesn’t want to be in there.
I am well aware that that can put people who have dogs with behavioral problems in a bind. A crate is often suggested to deal with separation anxiety and dog-dog aggression, but in both cases rarely provide a solution.

A dog who has separation anxiety often soils the house, chews door and window frames, or eats through drywall, and naturally a crate prevents that. But the anxiety is still there, and that is when you get the gum lesions, broken teeth, bent wires and injured paws – and vocalizing that can get you evicted in a rental even if the dog is not destroying the apartment.
One of our foster dogs had severe separation anxiety. We are not talking about leaving the house, but leaving the room briefly. We typically tagged him along, but it was not always possible because at the time we also ran a business out of our home. Whenever we were out of his field of view, he screamed in panic and exploded in body fluids, and the only benefit the crate offered was that only the area around it had to be cleaned and not the whole room.
With two other fosters who had mild anxiety crating made it worse: Left in it, they howled and soiled, when left outside there were minor scratch marks at the door and some whining that quickly passed, but no other destruction, no soiling, no prolonged vocalization.

Resource guarding is another problem why people might use a crate, but that is also only managed, not solved. Granted, sometimes managing makes the most sense. In a multi-dog household, feeding each dog in her crate is easiest and can instill resource security for all. However, when there is serious animosity between dogs, food is typically not the only thing that triggers aggression. Anything can be contested: A toy, a stick or garbage outside, food accidentally dropped, space, and people and their attention, and what do you do then? What do you do when the dogs are outside their crates and the root of the problem has never been addressed?
In addition, the crate only prevents injuries, but the intimidation and fear continues through the crates, and causes distress in all dogs involved.  

Getting the dog used to being crated to simplify air travel or a stay at the veterinarian is another point people bring up, but the problem is that if you pop an anxious of the crate dog in daily you are not desensitizing but flooding, with the result that she becomes more sensitized rather than getting used to it.

So, what is the take-away message?
That a statement that says that crating is cruel and abusive is just as precarious as the blanket belief that it is good for all dogs.
Crating or not depends on the individual. Not the individual person, but the dog. Owners could, and with a pup should, aim for their dog to feel good in a crate, but there is no guaranty that the adult will like it, and in that case how the dog feels needs to trump. In real life, for the short term crating might be unavoidable, but the frequency and duration should be as minimal as possible, and for the long term, an alternate solution ought to be explored.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Halt, Beep-Beep and Other Useful Commands

Below are a few commands you might not learn in your basic obedience class, but I find very useful in everyday life with my dogs. 

Halt means: Don’t continue to move in the direction you are going, but stand still and stay there till I get to you.
Halt is different from, and in addition to, stay: It always comes from motion, whereas stay is to maintain a certain position.
The purpose? For some dogs shifting their attention completely away from a stimulus, and walking away to return to the owner, is difficult.
Yes, in an ideal world you would have a 100% recall before letting the pooch off the leash, but realistically 100% anything in life is rare. Let's not forget that we intentionally bred and breed dogs that require that they, although still mentally connected to the handler, hold steady and keep their eyes on the job. 
And we have fearful dogs who, like us, won't want to turn their back on what is worrisome. Humans are compelled to maintain visual control over what makes them queasy - unless they trust the person they are with absolutely.
Halt allows your dog to keep looking, but it freezes him in place until you can regain physical control.
This is how you'd train it:
During a leash walk, and as usual begin where there are no distractions, periodically stop and halt your dog. Reinforce when he stands still, and continue the walk with a let’s go.
Once your dog has linked halt with stop moving, say it when he is a little ahead of you, and reinforce generously when you catch up. Gradually, practice in more distracting areas, and also increase the distance your dog is in front.
Halt becomes solid if it precedes any kind of fun, including long leash or off leash freedom. Please note that your dog doesn't have to sit or make eye contact, because we use the command exactly when he is too focused on something in the environment to be able to shift his focus.
Don’t forget to rehearse at the dog park, sometimes releasing back into play, sometimes clipping the leash on and inviting your dog to play with you, sometimes bringing food out and sometimes throwing a ball. Make the consequence of halting and waiting till you get there always rewarding, and it will become a cue that reliably stops your dog in his tracks whenever you need him to.

Beep-Beep - like a truck - means: Back up 
How to train it:
Gently and playfully - you want to be loose and casual not challenging and forceful - walk into your dog’s space. If he trusts you and feels safe, he’ll likely back up slightly. Name that behavior and reinforce it. You’ll be surprised how quickly your dog catches on, and then, with a continued beep-beep-beep… incrementally back him up farther and farther: across the room, the training hall, a field.
That works for most dogs, but if yours doesn’t give you an inch, or becomes scared and evades dispiritedly, only approach to the point where he's still relaxed, toss a treat straight behind him, and add the cue as he moves to get it. Let him experience first that the verbal beep-beep is fun, and then you’ll be able to get closer and closer, and he’ll eventually back up as you walk in.
Another hurdle, fairly common these days, might be that your dog sits as a default when you walk toward him, and firmly holds it. You might have to undo that first and reinforce standing for a bit before you can teach backing up.
To direct your dog away when you enter with your hands full of groceries or the baby in your arms.
For children to cue the dog away from their body.
An alternate behavior to jumping – the attention seeking dog gets interaction, but it is structured and cued by you, and he gets to move, which makes beep-beep intrinsically rewarding.
It can jog a dog’s memory when an adult/child/crawling toddler encroaches in his space and he is mentally stuck what to do, or when the fearful dog is too close to a person, loses courage and tenses up. Ensure that your dog always has room to back away.
I recently had a case in which one of three dogs in the home perceived the other two as resource competitors and defended whatever he deemed important at the moment. For safety reasons, whenever the treats came out all dogs were leash managed, except when I taught beep-beep. The leashes could come off because the dogs were rewarded for increasing distance to each other, and learned that backing away was more fun than butting in, which relaxed the resource insecure dog.
Beep-Beep is yet another cue I can use to help my dog when she’s in conflict, and one to direct her into an appropriate action without increasing arousal or anxiety.
You can even engage in a back and forth beep-beep dance where you'd back up your dog, and then you back up and he follows you. It can help you teach leash manners because most dogs follow closer when their human walks backward. Whenever your dog enthusiastically follows and is mentally connected, do a 180 and likely he'll walk right beside you for a few steps, then switch and walk backward again to maintain his attention, gradually increasing the steps you walk normally.
Plus, a well-rehearsed beep-beep dance can function as an emergency turn and walk away from a trigger your dog might overreact to.

There are a couple more commands we use in day-to-day life I want to share with you: Forward, Over and Behind Me.

Forward means: Put your pretend blinders on and keep going straight ahead. I use it on trails, when Will is off the leash and when she encounters a situation she doesn’t quite know what to do with. I am not talking about fear or tension, but more like a “now what?” situation. For Will, that could be a crowd of dogs, or several people off their bicycles chatting. Forward tells her: Ignore and move on.
We also use forward as a directional to help our dogs locate a toy when we play hide and seek games, and to get them moving when they stop on a narrow path, or tell them to go ahead of us on stairs.
We taught the cue by capturing the behavior on walks, tossing a treat to get them to move straight ahead, and also by softly bumping into their back end on narrow trails to move them along – and reinforcing it when they did.

Over means: step to the side to let other trail users pass. I taught it by naming the behavior when guiding the dogs over on the leash, or whenever they naturally curved out to avoid something they weren't so sure about. 

Behind means: get right behind me and follow. Like forward, well rehearsed it can help you move your dog through crowds when he's a little uneasy, but we mostly use it to get ours past mud puddles. I train it with a treat behind my back and an animated duck-style gait, both tempting my dogs to file up right behind me. Periodically, I release the treat, and gradually navigate around more, and different, obstacles.

Monday, February 3, 2014

All-Done and Later: The Dog's Off Switch and Not Now Signals

Imagine someone you like, a friend or your partner, invites you to do something together. While you are at it, suddenly and without a word, s/he disengages and walks away. Would you be: Confused? Frustrated? Conflicted? Worried? Follow to draw out why s/he has left? What will happen next? Maybe coax him or her to continue with the pleasurable interaction you enjoyed moments ago?
That scenario is exactly what many dogs are confronted with. The human invites the dog, by calling her name or any other understood start-up signal, to a mutual activity. Unless it involves force and pain, the dog is likely excited about spending quality time with her person, and then, at one point and without announcement, the human decides to end it: He stops throwing the ball, withdraws attention and eye contact, disconnects mentally and perhaps walks away, leaving the dog clueless what will happen next.
Like it would with you, that generates frustration and confusion, and like you, the dog wants to continue what felt good, and might paw her person, nose jab or mouth, whine or bark, or brashly shove herself in between if her person is attending to another dog, or child, or hugging his partner. Any of these behaviors typically prompts a reaction, and in that context any kind of attention is reinforcing, and that means that the dog will paw, bark, mouth… again to get attention and re-ignite an interaction.

Dogs who act like that often get the dominant label, but wrongly so; Demanding attention, even rudely, has nothing to do with dominance, but everything with what the dog has learned works to get attention.
Ignoring the dog is an option and often the advice trainers give, but in reality many owners find it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore a persistent dog's inappropriate attention getting behaviors and expressions of increasing frustration that result when the attention isn't manifesting. 
An important piece of information, a specific cue that announces that you are about to disengage and that no more reinforcements are going to be coming from you until further notice, can help. I use a verbal all-done, followed with a hand signal, and I completely ignore my dog thereafter.

Here's the hitch: A cue is only useful when it's known, and until then the dog will likely display the above-mentioned undesired behaviors because she is still frustrated and confused, and still wants to continue the activity. If she is determined enough, most owners will still respond, so we’re back at square one.
To prevent that, I initially sandwich one thing in between telling my dog that I am about to end the interaction and ignoring her: I direct her to the toy box I spiked with treats, or a filled Kong, or something else yummy or novel, prior. My goal is to make self-entertainment attractive after the all-done, the signal that provides clarity that I am going to do human only stuff for some time. If successful, chances are that looking for stimulation in the toy box eventually becomes a self-directed behavior.
Once your dog knows all-done and moseys on instead of pestering you, use it in various contexts. Naturally, she might not always choose the toy box, but sometimes just hang out nearby, or when you end an interaction outside, sniff or play with a stick, and that’s okay too.

The off switch cue is the opposite to name attention, the dog’s on switch. Binary information makes the world comprehensible for your dog, and thus lowers frustration and arousal and its undesired expressions.
You are not disconnecting without an explanation, leaving a social companion in a mental vacuum and confused about you, but rather you are giving your dog the same courtesy you’d give a human partner. Thus, teaching all-done is important for your relationship.
And it comes handy in a training class between exercises: With your dog in signaled disengagement, you can pay attention to the instructor. Of course you could also command a mat stay, but I like to allow my dog to do as she pleases within the 6-foot leash range. With all-done she can stand, move a bit, or sniff - just not bug me.

A related informational cue I use daily is later.
I like to be the one who ends an interaction, but my dogs can surely solicit for one. When bored, or when they think it’s time for us to play or go for a walk, they saunter in, or make eye contact, wag their tail and maybe bow or stretch. Looking for attention from a group member is normal social behavior, not dominance, and I don’t want to ignore it because that too triggers frustration and messes with the relationship I want with my dog. Especially soft and polite behaviors I want to reinforce, but I also respond to a bark or whine cause a dog snubbed when she needs something will in all likelihood turn the volume up till she is heard.
However, realistically I don’t always have time to jump into action right away: I might be expecting a phone call, or am in a train of thought, or answering an email, or trapped in a book’s chapter.
Later, followed with a non-verbal “in five” hand signal – you know, the spread five fingers and palm out one – communicates that “I am unavailable at the moment, but feel free to check back in a little while”. With later I acknowledge my dog and connect while buying time for me. By giving clear information I, again, avoid that my dog becomes frustrated.
In the beginning, later might only give you a couple of seconds before your dog checks back, and you might have to, much like the beginning stages of all-done, guide her into an alternate action to help her understand, but with practice, and unless something is urgent, eventually later can mean you get to do your own thing for another ½ hour or so.
When the dog solicits again, you can give another later or oblige, which is what I usually do cause seriously, if I don’t have a few minutes to spend with my dog, and especially after she’s been so patient, why have a dog in the first place.