17 September 2012

From a whisper to a bite - Pushing a dog too far

Many, many years ago before I knew any different I thought Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, understood dogs.  I used to watch the Dog Whisperer and even bought his book - Be the Pack Leader...Fast forward several years, university studies, many read books about dog behaviour and training, lots of dog seminars, and dog training courses and I realise I was duped. If you're still a fan of Cesar, read on...

National Geographic is screening the last ever series of the Dog Whisperer and the trailers are now hitting TV screens.  One of these is a trailer showing Holly – a Labrador Retriever – who is showing resource guarding around food.  This trailer has already caused quite a stir (no doubt what the TV producers wanted) and has been blogged about very eloquently and succinctly by Nicole Wilde on her blog Wilde About Dogs. Nicole is a great dog trainer and author, her methods are humane and her books are easy to read, practical and grounded in fact and the science behind reward based training methods.

There’s no doubt that Cesar has great communication skills but they’re definitely not with dogs – he often seems to be blind to what dogs are very clearly communicating to him. The video trailer shows Cesar working with Holly to ‘cure’ her of her food guarding…the result?  Extremely uncomfortable and upsetting viewing and a bite to Cesar himself.  One more dog with a bite history…one more dog labelled as dangerous due to out-dated, ill-informed and downright unnecessary training methods.

After 20+ years of working in the PR/media/marketing world, I should know better.  TV programmes are edited a certain way, journalistic bias does exist and in TV land it’s all about ratings.  With the Dog Whisperer programmes, strip away the veneer, editing, emotive music and voice overs and what I’m now left with is a bitter taste in my mouth and tears in my eyes when I see his ‘rehabilitation’ methods in action.  

What amazes me most is that Cesar is heard saying “I didn’t see that coming.”  Really?  I think most pet dog owners could see how upset the dog was and that a bite WAS likely to happen.  Rather than give Holly the space she was asking for, Cesar continued to posture, intimidate, threaten and invade her space.  Any other person would have backed off.  Holly was so clearly showing every warning sign and communication signal in a dog’s repertoire to say ‘leave me alone’… ‘I’m uncomfortable’ … until - in Cesar’s eyes and without warning – she had no choice left but to bite.

Fear, intimidation, coercion and the causing of pain have no place in dog training – ever.  When Cesar says a dog is ‘calm submissive,’ it is really Dog Whisperer code for a dog that has shut down and cannot function.  Cesar often uses flooding techniques when he’s working with reactive/problem dogs.  He continually exposes them to the very thing they are afraid of, with no let out until, in his words, ‘they’re calm submissive.’  I’m pretty sure if you trapped me in a room with my worst fear, with no escape route, and kept exposing me to more and more of the very thing I’m afraid of, I too would become ‘calm submissive’.  I would shut down both mentally and physically to block it out.

In Holly’s video he’s dealing with food guarding.  Let’s look at a human analogy…I like my food, I don’t mind sharing it (most of the time) if I’m asked.  However, if I’d just ordered my favourite pizza, taken a bite and then the waiter came and whipped it away, I’d be a tad confused and somewhat miffed.  If he brought it back and say, I had another few bites, then he took it away again – with no warning – I’d start to feel a little angry (and be making a mental note never to go that pizza restaurant again). I’d probably be trying to ask him why, or covering my plate/holding onto it whenever he walked by.  If this scenario was repeated over and over again during the course of the evening, I would reach the end of my tether and make a scene, or resort to physical abuse as a last resort.  So why would a dog react differently?

Holly's food guarding issues could have been dealt with through a behaviour modification programme, using counter conditioning and desensitisation techniques.  It may not make for the most exciting TV viewing but it would certainly not push Holly over her threshold to bite and, given time, it would make approaches to her food bowl non-threatening and therefore eventually eliminate the need to act aggressively.

If there’s any time that the ‘please don’t try these techniques at home’ warning is needed, it’s with this show.  These techniques won’t make the problem go away. They may seem to work but more often than not they will just suppress the unwanted behaviour, and another unwanted behaviour will take its place.

There are plenty of organisations within the UK that have qualified dog trainers and behaviour experts who can help with training and behaviour problems.  If you have a problem with your dog and you’re not sure what to do, please don’t try to ‘fix it’ yourself.  Both the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers have accredited behaviour counsellors and trainers who can help.

Addendum - Slow motion break down of the video

Watching the video footage of Holly's 'rehabilitation' in real time is upsetting enough but watching it in slow motion, even more so.  So, you may ask, why am I sharing slow motion footage?  Well if there was ever any doubt in your mind about the techniques being used or what Holly was communicating to Cesar, this slowed down video with captions cannot leave you with any doubt.

If you have a dog with a behaviour issue such as food or resource guarding I implore you not to follow misguided advice or attempt to 'cure it' using techniques you've seen on the TV.  Please contact a qualified and accredited dog trainer or behaviour counsellor.

14 September 2012

Chasing down the black dog

I've been amazed at the response my blog post 'My Metaphorical and Actual Black Dog' has received across all the different social media channels.  It really has proven that there is no divide or discrimination when it comes to living with depression.

I wrote the piece at a time when I was feeling particularly low and teary.  Like many people, my life is busy and at times it seems like it's one big merry-go-round that just doesn't slow down and keeps on getting faster and faster whilst both the world around me and the accompanying sounds become somewhat scarier and darker.

Although my black dog hasn't reared its head for a good number of years, it has - not so gently - been nudging away at my psyche over the last 6 months or so. By now, I recognise the warning signs and know many of the trigger points.  However, that still hasn't stopped me from 'soldiering on' for the last few months. (How typically British and 'stoic' eh? We really are sometimes our own worst enemies).

No more hiding behind a mask
Tears are often a blink away. Anything can set me off.  Most of the time I just blink them away, put on a mask and don't allow them to flow.  If it's not tears, irrational feelings of anger may take their place.  My fuse seems to have shortened and my tolerance levels dropped to sub zero. I'm beginning to get bouts of fatigue. Add to that the never ending questioning of my own abilities and it is very clear - I need to seek help.

So, in practising what I preach, I've picked up the phone and made an appointment with my doctor.  I'm fed up with putting on an act that everything is fine  - it's just downright exhausting.  I believe I need medication and that the chemicals in my brain have just become unbalanced again. Just like faulty wiring or a computer virus, they will not magically right themselves without intervention.

I've been following SANE's 'thought of the day' on facebook  and Twitter and these daily thoughts have really brought it home to me that my metaphorical black dog is now very much with me again. (You can see an example of a 'thought of the day' by clicking here). The thoughts are a series of illustrations which show how the black dog can manifest itself.

I'm trying to be extra kind to myself. I've ditched the glasses of wine on an evening (as much as I love a glass of chilled vino, it is a depressant and I need to do all I can to help myself) and I'm trying not to put too much pressure on myself.  

I don't want to take time off work and as I'm also building up a dog training business - it's just not feasible. I also want to make sure I continue to do well in my university studies (I'm in the final year of a foundation degree), so off to the doctor's I will go next week.

In the time being, I'll give my real life black dog, Jasper, a big cuddle and remind myself that help is on its way.

13 September 2012

Sniffing out a greyt weekend

Greyhounds may be sight hounds but they also have a great ability that they share with every other dog - their nose and sense of smell.

Practising the box drill on day 2. Photo courtesy of Tony Cruse
Mina's eyesight is beginning to deteriorate. She has had several major eye operations over the last few years and has the beginnings of cataracts and I want to make sure that when/if her eyesight fails that we can still do fun things together and this is what led me to the first UK Sirius Sniffers Seminar, organised by the Oxfordshire Animal Behaviour Centre with the founder of Sirius Sniffers - Kelly Gorman Dunbar being the trainer.

Whereas humans rely on sight more than smell, and even though sight hounds predominantly hunt by sight, the dog's sense of smell is perhaps the most important of their senses. Every dog has from the smallest Chihuahua to the largest Deerhound has a great nose for smells - around 10,000 to 100,000 times better than the human sense of smell.  Dogs have twice as many functioning olfactory receptors than us mere humans, meaning they can distinguish between odours that may smell identical to us, as well as sniffing out odours we can't even detect with our distinctly sub-standard noses (when compared to a dog's nose)!

Sirius Sniffers aims to make nose work accessible to pet dogs.  I'm not particularly competitive (remember, I'm not competing in agility with Mina) and I just want to have fun times with my dogs without the stress that competition would put me under. The Sirius Sniffers approach seemed ideal for my needs and it also meant that I got to meet Kelly along with the chance to catch up with lots of other doggy friends over the course of the weekend.

Day 1 - Mina is introduced to nose work - Sirius Sniffer's style

During day 1 the dogs were introduced to the idea of nose work, by using their favourite food or toy (primary reinforcer) and then hiding it in a cardboard box. Cardboard boxes were used as (a) they're easy to get hold of and (b) they contain the scent/odour quite well.

It did take Mina a while to relax and suss out what she was supposed to do. However, with Kelly's guidance and encouragement and with the fact that Mina can self-reward/reinforce by finding and eating the food in the box, it made it much more fun for her (the box contained my homemade liver cake).

Day 2 - Box drills and a hidden search

We started the day with a box drill where the boxes were lined up against a wall and the food hidden in one of the boxes.  Mina was walked up and down the line, on lead, with a chance to stop when she found the scent.  We were instructed to make sure we gave our dogs space and if they were investigating a box but it didn't contain the scent/food to keep moving or move around in an arc to encourage the dog to move.

We ended the day by being divided into groups with 3 dogs per group and each dog being set a different task - appropriate to their age, breed and ability.  The group Mina was in had a lovely 6 month old Vizsla puppy and a Corgi who was (I think) around 4-5 years old.

Mina's task was to find the food bag which was hidden in one of the boxes.  It was a blind search for both me and Mina.  The group set up the boxes and hid the food without either me or Mina in sight.

I loved the whole seminar - it really opened my eyes (or should that be made me flare my nostrils?) to the fun that can be had with nose work.  It really is great for any dog - it can help increase a dog's independence and confidence and can certainly help with reactive dogs providing focus and an alternative, acceptable behaviour outlet.

Mina and her 'fans' Photo courtesy of Claire Goyer
I'm pretty sure Mina enjoyed the weekend.  We had some 'greyt' 1 on 1 time and she won over a whole new group of fans, who obligingly provided her with attention and cuddles.

I can't wait to start trying out nose work with Stevie and Jasper too and looking at how I can factor it into some of my training classes.

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