Adventures in Herding #10: Pressure.

Today, I’m going to show you not only “nice” videos, but also messy ones. Mick gets bitey, and his sheep are stressed. This, too, is a reality of herding (and life). We – professional dog trainers – tend to only show polished videos. It’s easy to make ourselves and our dogs look good in videos, pictures, and Facebook posts.

I don’t want to be that kind of trainer. I’d rather be perceived as authentic than perfect. I’m human. I’m pragmatic. I like to experiment and problem-solve, and sometimes, I get things wrong. I strive to train my dogs with kindness, and I don’t always succeed. This week, I experimented with pressure tools (a herding stick, and a paper bag) in order to protect my sheep.

~ ~ ~

I’ve been naming Mick’s flanks outside the round pen, and seem to have resolved the problem of the sheep sticking to the fence when working them inside. Mick has started to balance and hold them to me! It feels like magic.

It’s time to face our next challenge: it usually takes a minute for things to calm down. Mick starts out with force and intensity, barreling into the sheep like a cue stick shooting into the triangle of snooker balls, sending them flying all over the place.

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I know nothing about snooker. It’s entirely possible that this metaphor makes no sense.

At a loss of where to turn in view of the mess he just made, he’ll end up chasing and gripping. He has no control over the situation that results from barreling into the sheep, and Mick is the kind of dog who struggles with a lack of control: it makes him anxious, chasey, and grippy. It takes a while until the sheep are flocking together again and calm down. When that happens, Mick will calm down as well, and start holding them nicely to me.

Susan Friedman, Unlabel Me

Once you’ve heard Susan Friedman talk about labels, you can’t just throw words like “anxious” out there. No matter how convenient it would be.

We must operationalize all the labels before we may proceed!

“Losing control”

losing control shall mean that the sheep are not sticking together like a single organism with several heads, but rather running in different directions. Think headless chickens. They are not walking or trotting, but running fast – they are fleeing from my pet predator. A single pet predator can easily control a large flock of sheep that is sticking together like a single organism, but he’s at a loss when it comes to controlling even 3 sheep who are all running into different directions. At least my pet predator is overwhelmed by that.

“Anxious”

anxious shall mean that Mick carries his tail high above his back (rather than just above his back legs. He will run (rather than trot), and he will single out a sheep, chase her down, and nip. Occasionally, he’ll start chasing one sheep, and then switch to another.

If on a lead, his tail will be high above his back, and he will pull and pant, or wiggle around my legs throwing behaviors at me while holding his head in a low, glancing up at me briefly, but not holding eye contact.

Now we may proceed.

Once the sheep move calmly and orderly, Mick will slow down, keep his teeth to himself, and lower his tail. He’ll curve around them and hold them to me. He’ll be in a thinking, working state of mind – that’s what we’re looking for in a working Border Collie.

The explosive release

It is Mick himself who causes the frantic behavior of the sheep that, in turn, makes him chase and nip. Pre-release, he’s anxious about gaining control, resulting in an explosive cue stick release. Only once the sheep have recovered from being hit by his force is he able to relax and work nicely.

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Anxious Border Collies behave like cue sticks, which results in …

 

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… unpredictable sheep running all over the place. This way lies madness!

 

We don’t want the madness. This is what we want:

 

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Confident Border Collies curve around rather than barrel into the sheep. Treated this way …

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… the sheep will behave like a single organism with multiple heads that can be pushed around while sticking together! It’s as if the sheep were trapped in one of these gigantic plastic bubble balls.  

 

This is what I’ve tried to get Mick to curve out rather than act like a cue stick:

 

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Our flawed heroine (who uses too many adjectives) believes the anxious Border Collie must be pushed and pressured onto the desired trajectory around the badass sheep. 

 

  1. insisting on a down before releasing him to the sheep (this makes things worse – it makes the release even more explosive than it would be from a standing start).
  2. Using a paper bag (inspired by the MacRae Way videos) to correct Mick for barreling in. This correction (shaking the bag) also makes things worse for Mick – it increases his anxiety rather than decreasing it.
  3. Using a herding stick to “push Mick out.” This, too, made things worse. Mick is very pressure sensitive, and me putting pressure on him with a stick pointed his way increases his anxiety. If he’s anxious, he’ll get grippy and chase.
  4. I tried all of the above in combination with using a long line to keep Mick at a distance from the sheep while I myself got closer to the sheep. (The long line idea is another trick I’ve picked up from the MacRae Way videos). The results were similar, but I had more control now than I used to when next to Mick when releasing him.
  5. No tools, and no cues, but still use a long line to keep him in one place while I get closer to the sheep. This is tricky: I need to give him space to choose a side, and then step in to push him out.

    This is tricky, but it’s working. f I step in too early or too far, Mick will change directions and barrel into the flock with full force from the other side. If I’m too slow or don’t apply enough pressure with my body, he’ll barrel into them and split them up the way he originally intended.

    It took me several tries to figure out the right timing, posture, and path to get the desired result – but I did! All of a sudden, I was getting flanks (mostly Come by ones, since that is his easier side), and things calmed down quickly: by means of taking a nice flank, Mick doesn’t split up the flock and immediately gains control of the herd. That, in turn, will give him the confidence to hold them to me rather than channel his rising anxiety into gripping and chasing. The last video in this post shows what a difference this makes.

 

Video 1:

Paper bag, and I don’t manage to correct the barreling in: a very big, bitey mess. From the release to the point where Mick is more or less able to hold the sheep to me, it takes 24 seconds.

Video 5:

Another attempt at using the paper bag. Apparently, I’m not a single trial learner! Again, Mick splits up the sheep.

Video 2:

Oh but it MUST work! I make one last paper bag attempt, and successfully correct Mick from barreling in. He is still anxious though, and it takes a while for things to calm down. The fact that I’m holding the paper bag is making things worse, not better. I’m not quite aware of this dynamic yet though.

Video 6:

I’m thinking maybe I need a more powerful tool to get this right. This whole paper back operation didn’t really go the way I wish it had. Maybe it’s just not impressive enough. What if I used a herding stick instead?

Unfortunately, the sheep aren’t in view of the camera in this video. But trust me: it was ugly. The mere presence of the stick increased Mick’s anxiety, and his anxiety increased his bitey desperation. I got the message and quickly dropped the stick – only then did he calm down.

 

Video 3:

Hrm. The paper bag wasn’t working all that well. I believed I needed to increase the pressure on Mick. I brought a broomstick into the round pen with me, and it backfired. What if the problem wasn’t a lack of pressure on Mick, but the opposite: what if I had been putting too much pressure on him? I test this theory by working without tools. What a mind-blowing difference it makes!

Video 4:

Another attempt without tools – another success! As someone who always tries to train with kindness, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me. And yet …! Looks like we humans have just as much of a hard time generalizing knowledge from one dog sport or activity to another as our dogs.

 

~ ~ ~

What did we learn today?

Mick and I do better without tools than with tools (This makes me happy – I’d much rather train without tools anyways). I’m surprised how long it took me to realize the problem was too much pressure rather than a lack of pressure.

I am starting to understand how my body posture affects Mick’s movement. I’m learning about the pressure I exert on him while he is learning about the pressure he exerts on the sheep.

Anxious Border Collies, just like anxious people, make bad choices. Just like coercing an anxious person into doing what we want them to do, trying to guide an anxious Border Collie with pressure tools only exacerbates their anxiety. Anxiety activates the limbic system: flight or fight. Mick will fight (the sheep). People will get angry (at the person putting pressure on them, or at an innocent bystander), run and hide in their idiosyncratic ways, or they’ll vote for Norbert Hofer, Donald Trump, and Brexit. “These are the days it never rains but it pours.” (1)

The currency of power

Pressure is not a magic bullet. It’s really quite straightforward, and yet, it can be hard to remember – both when it comes to people, and when it comes to dogs. The dominant narrative of our culture (dog training-wise and societal) is that (1) power is worth striving for, and (2) pressure is the currency of power.

And that dominant narrative isn’t necessarily wrong. At least some of the time, it provides a lens through which the world (or your dog’s behavior) makes sense. That makes it attractive. It’s simple and straightforward, which makes it convincing. Just turn on the news, and all you’ll see are examples of politicians using pressure tactics to get the upper hand. Arms races, trade wars, and literal wars are fought this way. Dogs are trained on basis of the pressure narrative, and children are raised this way.

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Screen shot, New York Times, September 18, 2019, 08:23PM

Just because the pressure narrative is one lens that tells one coherent story doesn’t mean it is the only lens telling the only coherent story though. Sometimes, the coherent story the pressure narrative tells is also plain wrong. But boy girl, it sure is tempting to believe – even in the face of contradictory evidence (see videos 1, 5, 2, and 6), and even for trainers who are already committed to minimizing the use of aversives.

(1) QUEEN & David Bowie, “Under Pressure”

The Death of a Chicken

I need to learn how to pluck a chicken.

Grit killed today. On our morning walk, she silently dove into the undergrowth – she often will; there are smells to be smelled and sticks to be found. I whistled, and she reappeared, carrying a chicken. The head, on a surprisingly long neck, swung back and forth with each of her joyful leaps; there was nothing to be done for the bird.

The chicken must have strayed too far from my neighbor’s house, and ended up in the forest. There had been no screams, no sounds of a scuffle. Death came fast and on silent paws. Grit carried the chicken like a pointer carries a pheasant; holding a full grip on its chest and back without breaking the skin.

We continued our walk, leaving the chicken behind a tree to pick it up later. I looked at my phone. 9AM. Good; I’d have time to drop off the dogs in my yard, head to my neighbor’s to apologize, pay for the chicken, and be back in time for my training appointment. I’d tell Juan Antonio, my neighbor, Grit had killed one of his chickens, and then I’d ask him how much he wanted for it. I was going to give him a chance to overcharge me if he was so inclined.

We had a good walk, the dogs and I. The morning sun filtered through the canopy of leaves. The forest vibrated with the sounds of insects and birds; I heard the one that sounds like a bicycle bell.

The death of the chicken didn’t upset me. I’d pluck it, and I’d feed it to the dogs. Maybe I’d have some of it myself. I have no fridge – a logistical challenge; we’d have to eat it soon. Juan Antonio raises chickens to sell the meat. The chicken was always going to die and be eaten.

Would I, under the same circumstances, have seen more than just a chicken in the past? I’m not sure. Today, in any case, it is just that: a chicken. The Trump administration is now targeting immigrants who are legally entitled to welfare programs, Pam Fessler told me on my weekday morning news podcast. What’s the death of a single chicken (always meant to be eaten) at the teeth of a dog in the light of the death of Jimmy Aldaoud (and so many others like him) at the hands of democracy? The US keep moving the mark of what large-scale cruelties are politically acceptable, and Europe is following suit.

chicken politics

I’m not scared of telling Juan Antonio that my dog killed his chicken. We’re just two people living on a mountain, doing the best we can. There was a time I’d have been scared of the conversation, scared of Juan Antonio, scared of what he might think of me, and my dog. Scared of potential consequences and implications. I might have obsessed about it for hours, days even. I might have self-righteously framed it to be his fault: why didn’t he take better care of his chickens? Out of fear, I might not have said a thing, and I’d have wondered if he knew it was me for days and weeks to come. I’d have avoided him in the street. We might not have eaten the chicken, either (how pointless a death it would be!): every second I’d have had to look at that chicken would have been one shameful second too many, reminding me of my failure (as you know, the lack of chickens killed at the teeth of your dog defines your worth as a person, your professional expertise as a dog trainer, and how deserving you are of love). The story I’d tell myself would be different, and the story I’d tell you wouldn’t exist since it would be a story too shameful to share.

The person I am today isn’t scared of individuals, or of conversations, or of dogs killing chickens. The things that move me deeply today are not fear. They are love and sadness, anxiety sometimes (about trivial things, but not chickens). The world is getting scarier – I appreciate that on a cognitive level – and I have become less fearful in spite of it, or because of it, or maybe just less fearful, period.

In a world that makes little sense, I want to be the kind of person who’ll tell you my dog killed your chicken, even if you’d never find out for lack of witnesses. The fact that my dog killed a chicken says little about me. The fact that I’m going to own it does. That may not be much, but it’s something: it also means I’m seeing the mark that gets moved, and I know that I’m part of the problem – as are you, and you, and you too – unless … we find a way to pay for that chicken. I don’t know how to do that, but maybe tomorrow, I will. For now, I’ll keep training dogs and telling you stories like this one, because those are two things I know how to do.

The Cheesecake Challenge, or an Experiment in Resisting Negative Reinforcement

One thing that training dogs has taught me is to better understand certain behavioral patterns in myself. Here’s an example.

I dislike unsolicited advice. I try to refrain from giving it to others, and it annoys me when it is bestowed on me by friends who (I feel) should know better.

And yet, a lot of the time, my response to unsolicited advice is to reinforce the unsolicited advisor by thanking them for their help. As a result, the friend is likely to give me more unsolicited advice in the future. The spiral of miscommunication continues.

Why on earth would I thank them for something I didn’t want? I recognized what I was doing, and I was puzzled by it – until I observed a completely unrelated behavioral pattern in dogs.

Learning to tug

Some dogs show little natural interest in playing with a tug toy. A common method of teaching them to tug is to excitedly tease and slap them with the toy and push the toy into the dog. Lots of dogs learn to tug this way.

Throughout the training process, a handler who uses this method is getting positively reinforced for teasing and slapping the dog with the toy: the dog grabbing and pulling on the toy is equivalent to me saying thank you to an unsolicited advisor. It’s a powerful positive reinforcer for the handler or the unwelcome advisor, respectively.

But what is happening from the perspective of the dog? Pause for a second before you continue reading past this paragraph. Is the dog’s tugging behavior strengthened and maintained by …

(A) positive reinforcement,
(B) positive punishment,
(C) negative reinforcement,
or (D) negative punishment?

Scroll down to see if you were right!

tugging, dog training, dog trainer, play

The answer is (C): negative reinforcement. The dog in our example doesn’t naturally care about tug toys. The trainer slapping and teasing him with the toy, trying to put it in his mouth, slapping some more while talking excitedly is irritating, confusing, intimidating or annoying to the dog. In an effort to escape the trainer’s behavior, he will sooner or later try grabbing the toy.

That very instant, the slapping, teasing and pushing stops. Wow! A moment of relief! The dog just learned that he can stop his owner’s craziness by grabbing and holding on to the toy. The better he understands his ability to influence the handler’s behavior, the sooner will he grab the toy. Eventually, he’ll start tugging as soon as the toy is presented. Voilà – the dog has learned to tug via a negative reinforcement procedure.

I assume many dogs eventually start to enjoy tugging as such, even if they initially learned by means of negative reinforcement. Some dogs, however, may never truly enjoy to play tug, and keep doing it mostly in order to not get slapped and teased with the toy.

Me? I’m like the latter kind of dog when it comes to thanking people for their unsolicited advice. I keep doing it to escape the pressure of being expected to respond.

Unsolicited advice

Being showered with unsolicited advice from friends – whether it is dog training advice, dating advice, or life advice – feels like being slapped with a tug toy. It’s irritating. It makes me feel yucky and disrespected. If that were the only force at play here, I’d probably actively reject the advice (applying positive punishment), or ignore it (applying extinction).

The pressure to respond and the crux of kindness

However, two other strong forces come into play as well:

  • My need to respond to my friends’ messages (the equivalent of “will to please” in a dog),
  • and the belief that kindness is more important than honesty, i.e. we should not do things that may hurt our friends’ feelings (the equivalent to living by a certain rule structure we sometimes observe in herding breeds).

When a friend writes me a message, the ball is in my court, and I feel like I NEED to give the ball back to them. As long as the ball is in my court, it’s as if the slapping and teasing with the tug toy continued. Having a friend’s ball in my court is pressure – that’s why I’m having a really hard time just ignoring unsolicited advice.

So I will eventually respond – and I’ll be nice about it. I feel like I need to respond to my friend’s good intentions rather than to the effect their unsolicited advice-giving behavior has on me.

I’ll probably at least say “Thank you” or a send a smiley face or a thumbs up emoticon. While this is the weakest reinforcer available to me, it is still strong enough to maintain my friends’ unsolicited advice-giving.

The Challenge

Now that I’m aware of what has been maintaining my grateful responses to unsolicited advice, I’m going to conduct an experiment: I’ll try to change my own reaction, and find out if I can reduce unsolicited advice giving that way. At the very least, I expect to feel better when learning to respond in a way that is in line with my feelings about unsolicited advice. (The training parallel here would be giving the dog a way to opt out of playing tug.)

I’m going to start with focusing on advice given in written form, online. My alternative response to unsolicited advice will be to close the chat window instead of replying. I’m going to use a food reward for myself: I will treat myself to the world’s best cheesecake, which is sold at a local café, contingent on closing the chat window. I’ve only had this cheesecake twice because it’s fancy and expensive cheesecake, but I think about it every time I walk past the café. Starting today, for the next four weeks, I’ll have cheese cake every time I close a chat window on an unsolicited advisor. I’ll see how it goes!

How about you? Has dog training changed your understanding of your own behavioral patterns or the behavioral patterns of the humans around you? Would you like to design your own version of the cheesecake challenge? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information.

Corrugated Metal

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

Are you familiar with the trolley dilemma? It’s a thought experiment. You see a trolley moving towards five people tied to the train tracks. You know it will not be able to stop – and if it keeps going, it will kill the five people. There is a lever in front of you. If you pull it, the trolley will be redirected onto a sidetrack, and the five people tied to the main track will live. However, there is one person tied to the sidetrack. If you pull the lever, the trolley will kill that person.

What do you do?

I don’t have to think about this a lot to know what my answer would be: I would not pull the lever. It’s an easy decision. If I pulled the lever, I’d feel personally responsible for killing the person on the sidetrack (but I wouldn’t feel responsible for saving the five). As long as I did nothing, I’d feel like an innocent bystander watching a tragic situation unfold. I can live with that, but I do not want to be responsible for the death of an individual.

Interestingly, most people will choose to pull the lever in the thought experiment. Their criterion is to save the most people possible. Rationally, pulling the lever is the right thing to do because it meets that goal.

I’ve had many conversations about the trolley dilemma. People’s answers – and how they reach them – fascinate me. It always gives me pause when a good friend believes they would pull the lever without hesitation. From where I’m standing, pulling the lever looks a lot like getting involved in something it isn’t my place to get involved in. I wonder if whatever personality trait makes people want to pull the lever, and play God, is also behind our ethnocentricity, our fighting of wars, our self-righteous attempts to keep immigrants out of our country, or our denying of health services to those who can’t afford the insurance premium. If you pull the lever, you change the trajectory of others because of your own belief about what the path of these others should or shouldn’t look like. How is this different from building border walls to keep people from pursuing their journey? The one pulling the lever (or building the wall) always believes they are doing it for the greater good. I’m critical of all these things.

~~~

dog training, ethics, Guatemala

Body jolts can be a symptom of neurological deficits caused by distemper. I didn’t know that until a friend mentioned it the other day. Distemper is a viral disease that spreads through aerosol droplets, fluids and contaminated food and water. I had seen body jolts like the ones my friend described in one of the free-ranging neighborhood dogs. One of the dogs who hangs out in my street – the only one who isn’t in good shape. A black female. I took a video of her incessant body jolts and sent it to my vet. “Looks like distemper,” he said. “She probably needs to be put down.” My hand was already on the lever when I realized what I was doing.

I asked around, and found the owners of Black Dog. A dark red corrugated metal door in a corrugated metal house. I knocked, and a little boy opened the door. I caught a glimpse of their dirt floor patio, the rusty white pickup truck parked in the corner, and a cage with a blue parakeet. Black Dog (whose hind legs seemed wobbly) stumbled up to the door to see who was there.

“Is Black Dog yours?”, I asked the boy.
“Yes.” He was holding on to the doorframe with one hand and looking at me with bright brown eyes.
“She looks ill. I thought maybe I could take her to the vet.”
“Sure,” said Little Boy.
“Thank you! Are your mom or dad here so I can ask them as well?”
Little Boy ran into the corrugated metal house, and came back with Dad, a young man.
“Hi,” I said, “I’ve noticed Black Dog shows signs of moquillo. Distemper. It’s an infectious disease that could put the other neighborhood dogs at risk. I wondered if you’d let me take Black Dog to the vet.”
“Okay,” said the young man. “You can take her if you want. She was hit by a car … That’s why she’s not well. That’s all.”
“Okay,” I said. “If the vet says she also has distemper – would it be okay with you if he put her to sleep? In case we need to do it so she cannot spread the disease?” The Spanish word for “put to sleep” is “sacrificar.” Literally “to sacrifice.”
“Yes,” said Dad.
“Thank you. I’ll get a leash from my car, and then I’ll take her. I’ll let you know what the vet says.”
“Okay,” said Dad, and closed the corrugated metal door behind me and Black Dog. Black Dog strolled down the street, sniffing for food.

I got hot dog slices and a slip lead from my car, and followed her down the street. The sun was shining. Black dog was happy to pick up the hot dog slice I put on the street between us, and let me pull the lead over her head. Being incredibly gentle with her mouth, she took a second hot dog slice from my hand. I lured her to Bergziege, my car. Black Dog let me lift her into the crate without protesting much.

“You’re very good”, I told Black Dog on the way to the vet. “Let’s see what the doctor says.”

“We’re almost there.”

“You’re a good girl.”

“It’ll be okay. You don’t worry.”

The vet had no doubt it was distemper. The jolts and her wobbly gait were advanced neurological symptoms, he said, meaning the virus was affecting her nervous system.

He switched off the cheerful bubble fountain in the aquarium in his examination room. I lifted Black Dog up on the metal examination table and wrapped my arms around her.

“Hold her tightly,” said the vet. “You can talk to her.”

He injected a sedative, followed by a reddish liquid that would stop her heart, and finally saline solution to push the euthanasia drug to her heart. It was peaceful, and took a few minutes at most. I told Black Dog she was a Good Dog. That it was okay. In German this time: “Brav bist du. Es ist okay … Gleich ist es vorbei. So ist es gut.” Her neck went limp. I let her slide out of my arms and onto the table. The vet listened for her heartbeat. It had stopped.

I helped put her in a large black plastic bag, and paid 300 Quetzales. One of the staff members carried the bag to my car. In Guatemala, you need to take your dead animal home and bury her yourself.

“I’m sorry,” I told Black Dog in my car. “I am sorry, girl.”

The road to my neighborhood isn’t paved, and I could hear Black Dog in her bag slide back and forth in the crate every time I went through a pothole. Jhhhh-clunk. Jhhhh-clunk.

I stopped at the red corrugated metal door and knocked. The sun was shining, and the street was busy with farm workers on their way to the coffee fields.

Dad and Little Boy weren’t home. Grandmother opened. She had no teeth in her mouth and was hard to understand.

“Hi … I’m the girl who took Black Dog to the vet.”
“You already took her?”
“Yes. I am sorry … It was distemper. The vet had to put her to sleep …”
“He killed her?”
“Yes. I am sorry.”
“Well,” she started to close the door.

“Wait,” I said. “I have her in my car. We should bury her.”
“I don’t want to see her.”
“I am very sorry …”
“You killed her. YOU bury her.”
“Okay,” I said. “I will bury her. I am really sorry. It was moquillo. We had to to put her to sleep to keep the other neighborhood dogs safe.” “Sacrificar.” That word again. It seemed oddly appropriate.
There was a moment of silence.
“It’s a sin to take the life of an animal or a person,” said Grandmother. She was calm. She didn’t cry. She didn’t seem angry. She looked straight into my eyes and informed me of a fact. “It is a sin.”
“I am sorry,” I said, because really, what else was there to say?

We said goodby, and I left. Black Dog was dead, in my car, in a black plastic bag. I realized that I didn’t own a shovel.

~~~

Black Dog is now buried on the edge of the coffee field behind my house. I asked two guys working in the field to help me. “Of course”, they said. They had shovels. We made a deep hole and buried Black Dog. “One gets attached to the animals, doesn’t one?”, mused one of the guys. He was wearing a white shirt which, inexplicably, was still white after hours of field work. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s true.”

~~~

Today, I pulled the lever, and I redirected the trolley. I reached into an ecological niche, and I pulled Black Dog out of it. I don’t know whether the death of Black Dog will butterflyeffect the free ranging dog population “for the better” or “for the worse” – I don’t think it is possible for us to know.

I believe there is no “right” answer to the trolley dilemma. The dilemma isn’t about doing the right thing – it’s about knowing who you are, or who you want to be. Do you get involved in something you aren’t a part of – something you can only see from your own, limited point of view – or do you not? Do you dare disturb the universe?

I do not want to be the kind of person who pulls the lever if it means harming someone. Today, I harmed Black Dog’s family by imposing my own cultural beliefs on them. (Sure, you could say I was imposing facts, medical facts, on them rather than mere opinions, and of course I was doing it for the greater good; for all the other neighborhood dogs, for the vulnerably-aged puppies down the street, or for whatever helps me sleep at night. It’s easy to justify the dogmas of our own ethnocentrism. It wasn’t my place to disrespect Grandmother’s beliefs though.

Grandmother must think I do not understand. At all. And she would be right. I do not understand what her life with Dad, and Little Boy, and Black Dog is like behind the corrugated metal door, in the corrugated metal house, in a postcolonial society. Who is she? Who are her family? What do they love, and fear, and hope for? What do people and animals mean to her? Did they love Black Dog? I don’t know. I’d like to think that they did. I, not God, took Black Dog to die, and maybe the fact that I could go out and do this – just like that! – is part of what is wrong with the world.

The most difficult moment today – the moment I needed to hold my tears back – was not the moment I held Black Dog in my arms on the sterile metal table, and felt the life slip out of her. That moment was peaceful. I am not scared of death, and I don’t think animals are, either.

The difficult moment was when I turned away from Grandmother in the door, and towards my car. “It’s a sin to take the life of a dog or a person.”

There is a power dynamic that allowed me, the white girl with the broken Spanish, to knock on a red corrugated metal door in a little corrugated metal house with a dirt floor, and take something away from a Mayan family. And I don’t mean their dog – I mean something bigger than their dog. The moment Grandmother looked into my eyes and said: “It is a sin,” I learned that I would rather be someone who respects the beliefs of others than someone who knocks on doors in this way. I would rather allow a sick dog to continue in the population, whether that entailed watching the trolley run over five others or not. I am, of course, aware that it doesn’t need to be one or the other. Maybe one day, I’ll own the grace it takes to move in this world without stepping on things.

Training Tip: What Should You Do if Your Dog Leaves a Session?

You’re in the middle of a shaping session or practicing a well-known behavior … and your dog turns around and walks away.

None of us like when that happens – but it happens to all of us, and it’s not the end of the world. What’s important is how you react.

Your gut instinct probably tells you to lure or coax your dog back and ask for one more rep. That’s understandable: as humans, we like being in control, and we feel like it should be us – and not the dog – who decides when the session ends.

Ideally, it would indeed be us: ideally, we’ll set ourselves and our dog up for success, and stop training when she would still like to keep going.

The session your dog left before you ended it? That’s not an ideal session. Almost always, the best thing you can do in this situation is end it without making a big deal out of it. Go back to the drawing board, think about why your dog may have left, and set yourself up for success the next time.

“Allowing” the dog to walk away and sniff, bark at the fence, or chase a squirrel feels counterintuitive to many trainers. I also need to consciously make the decision to stop when my dog disengages. A part of me always wants to keep going – stopping now feels like I’m giving up control of the session. Maybe the reason we as trainers are uncomfortable with this feeling is a remnant of the belief that dogs “have to” work when we ask them to, and that we mustn’t “let them get away” with leaving.

It is indeed possible to teach a dog that she “has to” work any time you ask her to. Many trainers have successfully done so for decades. It’s not necessary though – and I would argue it isn’t in line with a philosophy of empowering our dogs, of giving them choice and agency and regarding them as partners rather than subordinates.

Work doesn’t need to be an obligation, and neither does it need to be something you are begging your dog to do. It can (and should!) be a wonderful privilege; an activity your dog LOVES to share with you. When something is a privilege or a favorite activity, we don’t need to lure or coax or “make” our dogs do it.

A few days ago, Grit left our TEAM 2 practice. We were working in the yard. Someone walked past, and Grit ran to the fence and barked at them. I picked up my mat and my scent tins and my distraction bowl, went back into the house, and left her outside in the yard alone. Grit had just gotten distracted, and that’s no big deal – it’s okay to get distracted when a stranger walks by. Neither of us had expected the person to show up. By the time Grit turned around to look back at me, I was about to close the door behind me. Her chance to play and train had just ended! I still wanted to do that run-through, so after spending 10 minutes answering e-mails, I went back outside, and we started over – without either distractions or disengagement!

Doesn’t “allowing the dog to end the session” reinforce her for leaving? The answer is no – not if working with you is rewarding! If working with you is fun, your dog generally wants to keep going – even if in this one particular situation, he left for some reason or other. Making the loss of the privilege to keep working a consequence of disengagement negatively punishes the disengagement. As a result, as long as you have set yourself and your dog up for success, are using coveted reinforcers, and aren’t asking for something that is too difficult, you should see less disengagement in the future.

If you see more disengagement in the future, you have bigger problems. It seems like the end of your session feels like a reward to your dog – and that, in turn, means there is room for improvement within your training sessions. Are your reinforcers appropriate? Did you choose a training environment your dog is ready for? Could you be asking too much of your dog? Do you tend to train too long? There are lots of elements you can consider and adapt in order to change how your dog feels about training. You can learn about some of them in this quiz I made:

Quiz: Optimize Your Training Sessions

If you want to learn even more about fitting fun and well-planned training sessions into the limited amount of time you have for your dog, I’d love to see you in my upcoming FDSA class: Finding Five – Training for a Busy World. The December term starts tomorrow!

Long Line Handling & Hiking

Do you want to take your dog hiking on a long line, but can’t stand long lines? This post is for you! It’s no fun getting tangled in 50 feet of rope, and dragged all over the place! There’s a number of techniques you can use to make the long line experience more enjoyable for yourself.

Choosing the right equipment

I use a back-attachment harness with long lines. This ensures your dog won’t hurt her neck in case she ever hits the end of it at full speed. My personal favorite is Hurtta’s padded Y harness.

As for choosing the line itself, I recommend biothane. It gives you a much better grip than webbing, there is less probability of rope burn, it doesn’t soak up water when you’re hiking in the rain, it’s easy to clean, and quite indestructible. Because it’s slippery, it’s less likely to end up with tight knots that are hard to undo or get caught on obstacles.

If you use a webbing line, or if your dog is strong and tends to unexpectedly pull, wear riding gloves for additional grip and rope burn prevention. The fabric kind with little rubber dots are both cheap and effective.

Choose a long line without a handle – if you drop it and let it drag, the handle will just make your and your dog’s life miserable by constantly getting caught on obstacles. If you already have one with a handle, just cut it off.

The broader the line, the easier it is to hold on to it and keep yourself and your dog safe if she tries to take off. However, broader also means heavier – the smaller and lighter your dog, the thinner your line should be. I recommend a 40 to 60 feet, ⅝ inch long line for a medium sized dog. If you’re new to long lines or have a dog who tend to be all over the place, broader is always better. Don’t get more than 50 feet if you’re trying long line hiking for the first time. The longer your line, the more difficult the handling, and the less fun your experience. You can always upgrade to a longer one later!

Choose a color that’s easily visible against the ground you tend to hike on. The easier the line is visible, the easier it will be to notice and step out of any loops around your feet. That, again, helps prevent you from falling!

Safe Handling

Be a splitter, not a lumper – not just when it comes to training your dog, but also when it comes to training yourself. Practice handling your long line at home, when it isn’t attached to a dog. Once you’re fluent as far as looping it up is concerned, add the dog.

Option 1: Looping

With your dominant hand (right hand in this picture), take turns making loops to the left and right side of your non-dominant hand. The non-dominant hand creates an eye the leash runs through.

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There should NEVER be a string running over the back of your fingers: if your dog pulls, this loop will close rapidly and can break your hand!

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The pictures above are by my friend and talented photographer Isabell Grubert.

This looping technique is also ideal for storing long lines.

Option 2: Dragging

Again, you’ll create an eye for the long line with your non-dominant hand. However, rather than looping up the line, you’ll just let whatever part your dog isn’t using drag behind you. Use your dominant hand in front of the non-dominant one in order to stop your dog or slide loose parts of the long line back behind you.

Don’t get trapped in a loop!

Whenever you find yourself at the center of a C, U or O made by the leash on the ground, step or jump out of it right away. You want the line to always be an S or an I next to you, never looping around your feet. Standing inside a loop is an accident waiting to happen! Be mindful of this the first few times, and soon, stepping out will be something your body just does without requiring conscious effort.

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Step out of the loop!

Giving in to leash pressure

Just like you should have a skill or two in place before you head out on an enjoyable long line hike, so should your dog.

Teach your dog that feeling pressure on her harness is a cue to turn back towards you. This prevents pulling on the long line: every time she reaches the end, she will automatically be cued to stop and reorient rather than pull.

To teach this, gently pull on your dog’s harness, then feed near your body so she has to walk a step or two towards you in order to get her cookie. Once she offers taking a step towards you as soon as she feels the pressure on her harness, add a click: gently pull on the harness – mark as she is turning towards you – feed near your body. Gradually extend the distance between you and your dog, and repeat the exercise. Then, generalize it to the real world, and you’re ready to use it on a hike!

Here’s a short video from my recall class that shows the second step (adding the click) to the giving in to leash pressure exercise:

Feel comfortable handling your long line? Hit the trails and have fun!

What We Choose to See

For the past few days, I’ve walked past a litter of street puppies in between Antigua’s bus terminal and market. It’s very busy there, loud; there’s lots of traffic.

The first time I saw the puppies, I noticed that someone had given the mom blankets, and made a makeshift cover of a plastic tarp to give her shade.

The puppies are still tiny; their eyes aren’t open yet. Today, I walked past them again, just as an elderly man was finishing making a slightly more stable and larger shelter for them. He used an old metal cart for a roof and wooden boxes as pillars, draped with the plastic tarp and additional blankets for walls. A water bowl was chained to one of the boxes.

The man had grey hair, and lots of little wrinkles in his sun-burned face. A big smile revealed an almost toothless mouth when I greeted him. “Are they yours?”, I asked, and he proudly agreed. These dogs – the mom, who was sleeping soundly, trustfully, while he built a shelter around her, and the white dog standing next to him, looking into the distance – he considers them HIS dogs. They have no collars; they probably don’t live with him, and he probably hasn’t bought or otherwise chosen them. Their paths must have intersected – he, selling things at the market; they, looking for scraps of food. The dogs, or the man, or all three of them decided to claim each other. They are his dogs now. And he is their human. The big white dog shoved his nose under the old man’s hand while we were talking.

The man pulled back one of the blankets a bit so I could peek at the puppies. “They are sleeping,” he explained. “They can’t see yet. A few more days …!”

He probably doesn’t have much, and he probably doesn’t need much. Neither do his dogs. Life at the market is loud, and colorful, and rough sometimes, and there is love in it. Days go by like this. Weeks. Months. Years. Not a lot changes.

This image – a big, white dog shoving his nose into an old man’s hand in the middle of a bustling market – is the kind of image I choose to keep in my heart forever. I’ll remember the details: the white shirt the man is wearing, with thin blue stripes, tucked into a pair of washed-out blue jeans held up by a worn leather belt. The valleys and trenches dug into his face by the years and the sun, and his open smile – the shared happiness of two strangers as he lifts the blanket to let me peek at the three puppies and the sleeping mom. He lifts it just a bit, so he can give me the gift of a look without disturbing her. The old bottle crate cart, the roof of the makeshift shelter, must have been blue once. The paint is flaking off, and the metal bars are rusty. The grey plastic tarp that makes the roof. The red fleece blanket the mom is resting on. The sounds of a bustling market. Honking. The rumbling of tuk-tuks going over cobblestone streets under a bright blue sky. People advertising fruit, and tortillas. Motorcycle engines firing. The sun. The dust. One of my favorite places in the world.

People like our greedy Austrian ex-landlord? Sure, I’ll keep him in my memories (he makes a most excellent story, and I get better at telling it every time!), but not in my heart. The room in my heart is reserved for people like the old man and his dogs, and the smile the size of his heart.

I think that’s why I meet warm, nice, generous people wherever I go, and why I genuinely like humans. We choose what to keep in our hearts, and it defines us. It makes us either more cynical and bitter the older we get, or softer and gentler.

We choose what to see when we look at a scene, too. The scene today? If you wanted to, you could see irresponsible dog ownership, I’m sure. You could see sadness, and poverty, and dirt. The fact that you could see these other things is what makes me hesitate to share my story. I don’t want you to take this good story and make it into something bad. But you know what? I do want you to see it through my eyes. So here it is; my gift to you.

The old man put his hand on his white dog’s back. “He’s the dad,” he said.

The Lack-of-Choice Routine

We just flew from Thailand to Austria. In order to be allowed to do so, I needed an export license and a health certificate for my dogs. Getting these documents required a trip to the animal quarantine office at the cargo area of an international airport in Bangkok, where the dogs were examined by the airport vet. I knew it wasn’t going to be the kind of experience and the kind of environment dogs like Grit handle well, so I stuck to a routine I have for situations that might overwhelm her. It’s a simple and helpful routine that can be applied to all kinds of unavoidable experiences, so I thought I’d walk you through it. Maybe some of you will find it helpful for your own dogs.

Let’s get a few things out of the way:

Freedom and Agency

I’m about to talk about taking away my dog’s choices and putting her in a situation she’d rather not be in. If you know me and my dogs, you know that they usually have a great deal of freedom. In no way am I suggesting that the lack of agency I’m about to describe should be applied in everyday life! It is meant for exceptional situations – ones that you couldn’t or haven’t prepared your dog for, but have to get through.

The lack-of-choice routine is a management tool, not a training replacement.

I believe that medical and husbandry training are invaluable, as is building a positive relationship between your dog and your regular vet, and learning how to do routine procedures yourself (some vets – at least in Austria – will let you do things like read your dog’s microchip or take her temperature yourself). However, I also believe that we can’t prepare for everything, and that sometimes, a sensitive, fearful or anxious dog will be put in a situation you haven’t or couldn’t prepare them for. It’s part of life, and we have to find a way to get through it. The lack-of-choice routine helps in these situations. It’s not a replacement for training, but a management tool.

In my experience, adult dogs – even sensitive and insecure ones – are generally able to handle short periods of discomfort without being traumatized by them, and without developing new behavioral problems because of them – as long as you, the human on the other end of the leash, handle these potentially scary experiences wisely. Once a dog’s personality is fully developed, it is pretty resilient. That is to say: it is hard to change it. It takes longer to increase an adult dog’s confidence than to increase a puppy’s confidence, for example. The upside of this is that it also takes longer to decrease an adult dog’s confidence than, say, an adolescent dog’s confidence.

Have a plan that helps you feel in charge! Know what to expect! Have helpers if you need them!

I made sure I knew in advance what the airport environment would be like, and what would happen there: it would be in a busy cargo area; there would likely be other people with dogs and cats, crammed together in a small waiting room; and I would probably have to wait for a long time. The vet would read the microchip, take the temperature, and check the skin and fur for ticks and fleas. Knowing these things in advance helped me prepare for them.

I had a helper come so he could stay at the car with the dogs while I was gone, and leave the engine and AC running. I would leave the dogs in the car, bring their EU pet passports and paperwork into the office and let the vet know that I would get my dogs – one after the other – when it was our turn. That way, we didn’t have to sit in a crowded waiting room amongst cats and dogs for an hour or two. I informed the vet that I would bring in the first dog, then take her back to the car and bring the second dog, then take her back to the car as well, and return to pick up the export licence and pay.

Lay your plan out to whoever you are talking to before you get your dog. If you sound like you know what you’re doing, people tend to agree with it, even if your approach is unusual or uncommon. For example, don’t ask if you can leave your dog in the car until it’s your turn – just be friendly, and state that you are going to get your dog from the car when it is her turn. That’s just the way it is going to be, not something up for discussion. Having all the paperwork ready helps, too: you don’t want to take up any more of the staff’s time than necessary. They are probably busy and stressed out, and looking forward to the end of their work day! Don’t make it harder than it already is.

Do something for your dog that relaxes both of you!

Before leaving for the airport, Grit and Game got a good off-leash walk and swim. They got to run and play and sniff to their hearts’ content, followed by breakfast. I added Zylkene to Grit’s breakfast. I don’t know if it makes a difference for her, but it does for me: it makes me feel like I’m helping her get through the day and taking good care of her, which in turn helps me feel relaxed and confident about our plans for the day.

If necessary, do something for yourself!

If you tend to get nervous in situations that are stressful for your dog, take something that helps you relax yourself! Nervosity is contagious. If you are freaking out, a sensitive dog will likely get nervous too – even if she would have been fine otherwise. By ensuring you yourself will be okay, you are also helping your dog.

Don’t give your dog the chance to make bad choices!

That’s a big one – maybe THE biggest factor.

In training, I set up scenarios in which I can give Grit the freedom to make the right choice herself. When we work on her confidence around strangers, I make sure to not set her up to fail. I try to have sessions where Grit’s reaction looks completely normal to an observer. A good session of working on confidence is one a bystander wouldn’t recognize as such, like this example of walking in a residential street.

I want Grit to learn to choose to walk away when she is uncomfortable. I have seen way too many fear-aggressive Malinois, and I try to be proactive about teaching Grit the opposite reaction. I suspect that genetically, Malinois are a breed that is more likely to choose “fight” over “flight” or “freeze” when they feel threatened. If they are worked over threshold, fear aggression is a common result. This leads to a vicious cycle where the “dangerous dog” is severely punished in order to get rid of the “fight” response and get a “freeze” response instead. A dog who “freezes” when scared is probably safer than a dog who “fights” (bites) when feeling threatened, but I don’t think that dog is a happy dog. Personally, I want neither fight nor freeze. I would like my dog to not be in situations where she feels like she needs to do any of these things at all, but if she does get into these situations – and sometimes, life happens and she will! – I want Grit to be able to walk away in order to increase the distance to a scary stimulus rather than attack it. My strategy is practicing in situations where she is able to make the right choice, and avoiding opportunities for her to make the wrong choice. I want walking away from instead of towards a scary stimulus to become a habit she doesn’t have to think about.

Sometimes – like when I needed the export license from the animal quarantine office – I need to put Grit in a situation where she, given a choice, would probably choose badly. I don’t doubt that if scared and cornered, she’d resort to biting the person she felt threatened by. And why not? It’s a natural reaction, and in her breed, probably one that has been – on purpose or as a by-product of other breeding goals – selected for.

I make sure that Grit will not be able to choose in situations where I don’t trust her choice-making, and I use contextual cues that let her know from the moment we get out of the car that this is a situation where I am in charge, and I am not asking her opinion. This happens rarely – my dogs have a lot of freedom in their lives, and their opinion matters almost always to me. But there are situations where I take away the choice, and I’m very clear about it.

If Grit felt threatened and bit, it would be a reflexive, emotional reaction – one that just happened rather than a conscious choice on her part. A classical reaction. However, operant learning can still occur. If the person being bitten or growled at withdrew their hand, or jumped back – and most people will, of course! – biting or growling would be negatively reinforced. We cannot reinforce an emotion, but an action based on an emotion can be reinforced by its consequence. Fear is an emotion. Biting is an action often based in fear. Withdrawing the hand is a direct consequence of the dog’s bite/growl – and it’s a consequence a dog who would like the scary thing to go away will get relief from. Negative reinforcement is likely to happen.

When Grit has choice and agency (which is most of the time), she wears a collar, a harness, or nothing at all. When she doesn’t have choice, she wears a head halter. It is very easy to guide a dog in a head halter wherever you want them to go. It lets you turn their head where you want to turn it, so you even control what they look at and see. I use a lead with a snap on both ends for situations like this, because I’ve seen dogs get out of head halters. One end will be on the head halter, and one end will be attached to a harness or collar. Grit will wear a Baskerville Ultra muzzle over her head halter. I like this muzzle best because it’s sturdy, I can feed through it, and it fits most dogs (unless they have long noses like collies or sighthounds) well. Grit knows that when she is wearing both a halter and a muzzle, I am not asking her opinion.

I hold the leash close to Grit’s head. She can’t really walk or sniff where she wants, and it’s clear that I expect her to walk next to me, which she does.

When we got into the waiting room, the vet was just finishing up with another client. I sat down, and Grit climbed in my lap. She does this when she feels insecure, and I encourage it. I believe it’s a good thing when our dogs turn to us for safety.

When it was our turn, I led Grit to where the vet wanted her, told the vet I was going to hold Grit for her, and then secured her. There’s no science behind the way I hold her – this is just what I’ve found to work well for holding dogs still. I kneel down, and wrap my left arm around the dog’s breast and neck, and use it to hold her head against my body. My right arm goes over her back and under her belly, holding her body against my body. Now the vet could check out her skin and fur, take her temperature, and if she had wanted, she could also have taken a closer look at Grit’s eyes or ears. Grit knows being held this way. She doesn’t struggle – she knows there is only one option: hold still. We were done quickly, I thanked the vet, told her I would return Grit to the car and then come back, and then we left. She shook off the stress, and happily jumped back into her car crate to continue with her day.

Why it works

The lack-of-choice routine has been working well for Grit in situations like this. She is able to go right back to everyday business – sleeping, hiking, working, playing, eating … as soon as the stressful situation is over. I assume this is because (1), we have a relationship based on trust, and (2), Grit knows to follow my lead any time she is wearing a halter and muzzle and being led on a short leash. Her job in this situation isn’t to figure out how to get out of it or solve it, obsess about it or panic over it, and she accepts this fact. Would she rather be somewhere else? For sure. Does it stress her out completely and ruin her day (or her week, month, or life)? No. It enables her to get through an uncomfortable experience with my help, and then move on with her life – a life filled with freedom, agency, and choice.

Your management tools are most helpful if they themselves don’t increase your dog’s stress level even more! Practice in relaxed, everyday situations!

If I only ever used the head halter, muzzle and my way of securing Grit in scary situations, she’d start feeling stressed as soon as she saw me get these tools or touched her this was. I make sure to use them in everyday life as well. For example, we’ll occasionally go for a nice off-leash walk with the muzzle on, and I’ll briefly hold my dogs like I do at the vet office during personal play or cuddle sessions. Grit has also learned to be comfortable in a head halter away from scary situations, and long before I ever used these tools in scary places. I’ll sometimes use it to get from A to B in everyday life.

Here’s a demo video. In the first clip, you’ll see it’s no big deal for Grit to wear the muzzle and happily run off leash. She feels about the muzzle like I feel about my glasses: I forget that I even wear them. She is also used to being led on a head halter and short leash (clip 2), and to wear a muzzle as well as a halter (note that I’d put the muzzle and halter on a little more tightly in real-life situations). I do not ask her to put her nose in the muzzle or into the halter – this would be like asking her consent to be handled in potentially uncomfortable ways. In the situations I want to use these tools, I’d be lying to her if I pretended that she had a choice about it.

The final clip shows me holding Grit in the way described above. She isn’t a hundred percent comfortable here – her tail is a little too low, and her wag, front leg lift and facial expression a little too appeasing for my taste. I’ve used this way of holding her twice in the last week – once the day before we flew from Thailand to Austria, and once the other day in Austria, when I got her health certificate for the next leg of our trip. He reaction here tells me that we need to do more practice sessions in fun and relaxing contexts in order for her to feel better about it again! In any case, you can see how I can move her head this way, and lift her up in case the vet needed to examine her belly.

What is your favorite way of getting your dog through an uncomfortable situation you haven’t been able to prepare her for?

The Lady and the Doorknob.

Tonight, I’m going to tell you a story: the story of the lady and the doorknob.

My friends from Bangkok have a housekeeper. When she first arrived at their place a few years ago, they showed her around, and eventually asked her to get something from the kitchen. There was a door between the kitchen and the living room. A white wooden door, with a silver door knob. It looked just like this:

DoorKnob

She walked up to the door while my friends remained sitting. She just stood there and looked at it. Seconds passed. They felt like hours. The door wasn’t locked. All she needed to do was turn the knob.

She couldn’t open the door. She didn’t try, either. She helplessly stood in front of it until my friend got up and opened it for her.

My friends’ housekeeper grew up in Myanmar. In case you don’t know a lot about Myanmar – it is one of Thailand’s neighboring countries, and it used to be under military rule until 2016. Between 1962 and 2010, the military regime was considered one of the world’s most repressive and abusive ones. Its history is one of genocide, child labor, and censorship.

Long story short: it wasn’t a good place to live if you belonged to certain ethnic minorities. Many people fled to Thailand. The woman who now works for my friends was one of them. My friends have been her first and so far only employers – she works for them full time.

Why did the woman not know how to open the door?

I’ve met her twice. She’s nice, and a few years younger than I. In the few years that she’s been here, she has learned both Thai and English. She grew up in an indigenous community, in a place without electricity or running water. She made her way through her own country, across the border, and to Bangkok. She has learned to do the household the way my friends want her to, do the shopping, and take care of their seven dogs. She’s now making enough money to send some to her family back home every month. She seems happy to me. I like her. And, boy, do I respect her! Growing up without access to education and managing to emigrate, secure a job, learn two new languages, and adapt to a completely different way of life in an 8-million metropolis, and all of this when she was probably no older than 16 … I know few people who would be able to do this successfully. It shows tremendous resourcefulness, intelligence, and guts.

Why did the woman not know how to open the door?

My friend told this story as a funny anecdote illustrating a cultural divide. Is it funny, though? Not really – especially not when it is used to justify the inequality of opportunities on the basis of perceived differences in intelligence. Intelligence had nothing to do with the fact that the woman couldn’t open the door. She had simply never seen a doorknob. There probably were no doorknobs in the community she grew up in. Maybe there were no doors, either. I don’t know. I do know, however, that she went on to open all kinds of doors for herself – literally and figuratively. She lacked the experience of doorknobs, and she lacked the concept that the mechanics of unfamiliar doors can be figured out by trying different things. We take this concept for granted – but it’s neither innate nor obvious. It is a learned behavior based on our experience with a large variety of doors.

Why am I talking about the lady and the doorknob on a dog training blog? Because if you are a professional dog trainer, chances are you meet the lady who has never seen a doorknob on a regular basis. She’s your client who’s in over her head. You know, the full-time working single mom who got a working-line German Shepherd to keep her kids company. The first-time dog owner who bought a Border Collie on Craigslist and thought he’d be happy with a leashed walk around the block twice a day. The student who didn’t buy one, but two Pomeranian puppies from the pet store because they were cute.

As professional dog trainers, we tend to complain about the lady and the doorknob, or ridicule her. We feel self-righteous and superior. We use her story to connect to our colleagues, and we leave out the part where she crosses a border in the middle of the night, in the pouring rain, and the part where she learns not one, but two new languages, and the part where she finds work and makes a living for herself. Instead, we reduce her to someone who doesn’t know what to do with a doorknob, and say she should have stayed in Myanmar.

“He doesn’t even know how to hold a leash!”, we say. “She got a Ferrari, and she doesn’t know how to drive a Volkswagen.” “He has no connection with the dog. He has no idea what connection even means.” “When this dog is an adolescent, they’re going to rehome it. It’s probably going to end up with me.”

These are pretty horrible things to say about someone in relation to someone or something s/he cares about. I know I’ve said at least one of them myself in the past, and I’m not proud of it. It’s not okay to tell these people’s stories as if they were all about doorknobs. The stories themselves are ambiguous. We can make the protagonist a hero or a bumbling idiot, and in the dog training community, it is common to do the latter.

And it is not okay. We don’t need to tell the story so the protagonist is the hero, either. We can just keep the story to ourselves, teach the protagonists (after all, that’s what they are paying us good money for), and let their success speak for itself. Everyone who wants to can learn to turn doorknobs. Let’s not be jerks about it.

Responsibility, Recalls, and Risk Taking

Letting dogs off leash (or not) seems to be the new raw vs. kibble debate. Recalls and off leash reliability are among my favorite things to teach. So clearly, I have an opinion here as well, and I’d like to share it with you. Note that I’m talking about my opinion here, not about The One and Only Right Way to Do Things. I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all answer to whether off-leash privileges are a good or bad idea, but I do think there are three factors that can help you make your own decision: your responsibility towards other dogs and people, your responsibility towards your own dog’s safety, and how you, as an individual, feel about the risks of being off leash. Maybe teasing apart these factors will make it easier to understand why other people may come to a different decision than you.

Your Responsibility Towards Others

I’m coming at this from a European perspective. Being socialized in a society that defaults to giving dogs a lot of freedom, seeing dogs off leash is very normal to me – I don’t see it as something inherently good or bad. I feel privileged to have lived in one of the world’s most dog-friendly cities, and this privilege goes hand in hand with a great deal of responsibility I feel I have as a dog owner: the responsibility to ensure we keep the city as dog friendly as it is (and make other cities more dog friendly) by making sure I, in my role as a dog owner, respect the rights, choices, and feelings of other dog owners as well as of people who don’t have a dog and people who are scared of dogs. This responsibility includes things like always carrying a poop bag and picking up after my dog, and it also includes …

… never letting my off-leash dog run up to a dog who is on leash. It doesn’t matter whether my own dog is friendly or not – what matters is that the other person has a right to walk his dog in peace. On-leash always trumps off-leash. If I am not sure that my dog’s recall is reliable around other dogs, she won’t be off leash in places where I might meet other dogs. I don’t want my dog’s lack of a recall to be someone else’s problem.

… never letting my dog run up to a stranger. Other people have a right to walk without being approached by my dog. It doesn’t matter whether my dog likes people or not. My responsibility is towards the other person, who might be scared of dogs. I need to ensure they can feel safe in the space they share with my dog. When I meet someone else on a walk, I will call my dog, and keep her by my side, at a distance from the other person, until we have passed them. If I can’t recall my dog away from people, she won’t be off leash in a place where we might encounter other people.

Your Dog’s Quality of Life

Does your dog have to be off leash in order to be truly happy? In my opinion – again, that’s an opinion, and entirely subjective: no. Off leash hiking is one of many ways to keep your dog happy and healthy, but neither is it the only way nor is it the best way for every dog/human team. Not all dogs will learn a reliable recall. Not all dogs will be safe off leash. Not all owners will be comfortable with their dog being off leash. All of this is okay! It’s not better or worse than giving your dog off-leash privileges – it just means that you have chosen a different way to ensure your dog has a happy, healthy life.

Let’s get back to the owner’s comfort level for a second. Your opinion counts, too! If it stresses you out to let your dog run free in an unfenced area, don’t do it! Do something else with your dog instead – something you both enjoy. Whether that’s hiking on a long line or a leash, or something completely different.

Risk Taking vs. Our Dogs’ Safety

This is probably the most tricky one of the factors, because we’re basing our decision on our subjective perception of safety. What we perceive as being safe or dangerous varies widely from one person to the next. I think that’s the reason people often get into fights about off-leash hiking: we have a tendency to believe we are making a rational decision, even when we are truly making an emotional one. If you perceive being off leash as horrifyingly dangerous to a dog, you want to speak up to help someone else’s dog stay safe.

It’s okay to make a decision based on your subjective perception of safety – there is nothing wrong with it. Sometimes, the way we feel about something is all we have to base our decisions on. However, I think it’s important that we acknowledge that it is just that: subjective. It’s not “the right” or “one true” decision – it’s just a decision that feels right for you as an individual.

I have done things that other people would consider dangerous: I’ve backpacked in so-called developing countries. I’ve walked home through dark streets at night by myself. I’ve ridden a bikes and motorcycles without a helmet. All these things are based on my subjective perception of safety vs. danger, joy vs. risk, and I’m aware of it. I’m aware of the subjectivity because I have friends who do these things very differently. I have friends who always wear bike helmets, and friends who would never leave the socially and politically (supposedly) stable country they grew up in, and friends who will call a cab instead of walking home alone at night. At the same time, I don’t do some things these friends might do: I don’t ride rollercoasters, for example. They scare me. They feel dangerous to me. Based on my subjective feeling about them, I choose to stay away.

The difference between these examples and the off leash debate is that in the former case, we’re only putting ourselves at risk, and in the latter case, we’re also putting someone else – the dog – at risk. That’s why it’s easier to accept the former examples than the latter ones. A better parallel might be allowing your child to ride a horse or ski or go out (hoping that they won’t drink and drive). In these cases, your decision puts someone else at risk rather than yourself: your child. We feel more emotional about the choices adults make for their pets or their children than we feel about the choices they make for themselves. If someone else makes a different choice for their pet or child than you do for yours, it’s easy to feel provoked. I think this might stem from a subconscious fear that we can, in fact, not know what is truly “best”: all we have is subjective opinions. We need our own choice to be the right one, but there is no right choice. And we really don’t like it when someone forces us to acknowledge that by choosing differently.

Can we at least integrate some objective information in our off-leash/on-leash decision making? Yes, of course. We can collect information about the environment (who are we likely to meet there? Are there foxtails, ticks, snakes, bears, coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats? Are there other dogs or other people? Cars?). And we can try and assess our dog’s recall around various distractions as objectively as possible. We can test his reliability on a long line, for example. Both these things will allow us to make a slightly more objective decision about whether we want our dog to be off leash here or not. Still, I believe these two factors – environment and reliability – have actually a much smaller impact on a person’s choice than their emotions surrounding off-leash freedom. It’s also hard to measure how dangerous foxtails, ticks, snakes, bears, coyotes, mountain lions, or bobcats really are. Some people would never walk a dog during foxtail seasons, while others will choose a trail where it’s less likely to come across foxtails. Replace foxtail with any other potentially dangerous environmental factor. The same rules apply. I respect both decisions – and really, I believe we all should. There is no right or wrong answer here. It’s okay that people make different choices for themselves and their dogs (and their children), just like it’s okay that some people ride roller coasters, and others don’t. Off leash hiking isn’t risk free – but neither is driving a car, or running agility.

The Choices I Make for My Own Dogs

My dogs get to hike off leash a lot, but not because I believe they necessarily need it. I think they enjoy it very much, but I think it would be equally possible to replace our hikes with some other activity that fulfills their need to run, sniff, and explore. Nature walks are probably my favorite thing in the world. I’d do it without a dog, too, but it’s more fun with a dog (or two, or three, or four). I could do it on leash, but again – for me, it’s more fun when I see my dogs running towards me with lolling tongues, leaping over creeks and fallen trees with shining eyes. It’s part of that particular hiking experience I seek. If I walk with a dog who isn’t reliable off leash, they will stay on leash or on a long line. But my ideal way to spend my time off doesn’t require leashes. I love feeling like my dogs and I are on this adventure together, my arms swinging freely by my side, my dogs moving their bodies, yet choosing to stay close to me. It gives me a feeling of freedom and peace that I crave and haven’t found anywhere else. For the person I am, the cumulative joy my dogs and I get from these hikes make up for the dangers they come with. I, the human, may need these walks more than my dogs do, and I’m okay with that. The fact that I love training is the reason I have the breeds I do, but the fact that I love hiking is the reason I have dogs in the first place. If I had to choose between giving up walks or giving up training, I’d give up training. I could live without training, but I’d really, really miss our walks. My dogs, I’m sure, could be equally happy either way, as long as we kept doing stuff together.