My First ClickerExpo; Portland, 2017

Hold on to your hats, folks, because I just got back from my very first ClickerExpo in Portland, Oregon, and it was amazing.

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In brief, here was my schedule for the four days:

Chicken Camp with Terry Ryan [one day]

ClickerExpo 2017 [3 days]

  • Dr No: How Teaching an Animal to Say “No” Can be the Right Prescription – Ken Ramirez
  • Retrieve Reboot – Hannah Branigan
  • If You Build It, They Will Come: Training a Reliable Recall – Kathy Sdao
  • The Fab Five: Concepts That Will Make Your Training Rock! – Emilie Johnson Vegh & Eva Bertilsson
  • The Rat is Never Wrong: Training With an Errorless Learning Mindset – Susan G. Friedman, PhD
  • Control is an Illusion: Stimulus Control without Frustration – Sarah Owings
  • We Just Have to Dish: Training, Science, and Nerdy Stuff – Kathy Sdao & Susan G. Friedman, PhD
  • Wanted Training Consultant (Those Good with Animals Need Not Apply) – Ken Ramirez
  • Thinking Fast & Flow – Emilie Johnson Vegh & Eva Bertilsson
  • Turn Me On…(or Not): Inspiring Other to Choose Positive Reinforcement Training – Michele Pouliot
  • Keep Your Candle Burning: Avoiding Professional Burnout – Kathy Sdao

Chicken Camp

I have been wanting to do a chicken camp for a long time, in general, but specifically with Terry Ryan.  Clicker training a chicken is known to be a good way for dog trainers to hone some timing and training skills, as chickens are very fast and far less forgiving than dogs.

Terry Ryan & I

Training a chicken is a stretch and a boost to your mechanical skills. The average chicken is faster than the average dog, giving you a chance to improve your coordination and timing. Chickens will freeze or fly away if they don’t like the way you are training them.  Unlike dogs, you will know immediately if you are taking advantage of a chicken or pushing too hard, too fast.  Chickens don’t give their trainers a second chances as often as our dogs do. – Legacy Canine

Despite the (very high) pedestal I had the idea of chicken camp on in my mind, it did not disappoint.  The chickens were so sweet and fast as anything.  We did some targeting work – teaching the chicken to peck a yellow target – and a little bit of discrimination work – I started teaching my chicken to peck the yellow target instead of a green one when they were both presented.  We also did some movement and shaping work; specifically we trained our chickens to walk through a tunnel, which I did using shaping and no luring (ie. I didn’t bribe my chicken through the tunnel with food).  My favourite part was using the yellow target to teach my chicken to play tambourine.  Such a smart girl!

 

Honestly though, the highlight of the day was just working with Terry.  She is such an excellent instructor; educational but funny, and never boring.  I swear, I could listen to her talk about paint dry and be fascinated.

ClickerExpo:

I’m not going to ramble on and on about ClickerExpo, but I do have a few thoughts to share.

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First and foremost, there is something inspiring about being in a hotel surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of positive reinforcement based, force free, clicker trainers.  The dog training world can be a controversial clash of ideologies, and, frankly, it gets exhausting.  At ClickerExpo, there is none of that.  Everyone starts from the point of science based clicker training, and goes from there.

Throughout my seminars and labs, I learned so much, and am definitely a better trainer and teacher because of it.  Some shoutouts:

Ken Ramirez is brilliant, but more importantly, he is just a fantastic speaker.  I aspire to speak that well to an audience one day.

Kathy Sdao is just hilarious and, just like Terry Ryan, can make any topic seem interesting.  Her last seminar on avoiding professional burnout was just so relatable and just made me want to go give her a hug.

Susan G. Friedman, PhD has got to be the smartest person I’ve ever seen speak.  I specifically appreciated her ability to take her brilliance and scientific understanding, and explain it in a way that made sense to those of us without a PhD.

Emilie Johnson Vegh & Eva Bertilsson are goddamn ninja clicker trainers.  Watching them work has changed how I will structure my own training with Athena immediately.  I finally understand the awe that surrounds Scandinavian clicker training.

I can’t wait for my next ClickerExpo…!

Rachael, Andre, and I at ClickerExpo.  Team When Hounds Fly!
Rachael, Andre, and I at ClickerExpo. Team When Hounds Fly!

A truth no one tells you: you will hate your dog sometimes (and it’s okay)

Sometimes – more often than you’d think – when I meet with clients, it feels more like a confessional than like a lesson.  They know I train using primarily positive reinforcement, and they will look totally abashed and confess, “I just lost patience” and admit that they used to use a shock collar, or that they yelled at their dog.  Even the ones who don’t lose patience and punish their dogs will admit to things like that they wonder if they made a mistake getting a dog, that they’re in over their heads, that they just need a break and some peace and quiet.  They always look so ashamed.

Here’s the truth: it’s normal.

Here’s another truth: I do it too.

The first year with my dog, I was sure I’d made a huge mistake.  I loved her, but god she was a hard puppy.  She used to teethe on me so much that I’d bleed, and cry.  And she has barrier frustration that I’m sure I could have worked through, but at the time I didn’t know how, so I couldn’t crate her.  So she’d bite me and I’d bleed and cry and put her in her crate and she’d howl and cry and bark while I would bleed and cry and wonder why everyone else in the world seems to love puppies so much.

When she was older, probably around two, we were at the dog park and she was way too excited and over aroused, so I grabbed her for a time out to calm down, which was normal for us.  For the first time ever, in her non-thinking state of arousal, she redirected her excited play and whipped around and bit me, hard.  It didn’t break skin but it bruised, and I was shocked – I love this dog so much and I do everything for her and she bites me?  I took her home, handed her leash to my partner, and – through tears – told him, “I love this dog but I am going into the bedroom to read and I cannot even look at her for a few hours.”

Even now – she’s almost four, and I am now a professional trainer – she’ll be whining at me or being pushy, and without thinking I’ll snap “Enough, Athena.” and it’s out of my mouth only seconds before my brain goes, “Oh shit, that’s not how we handle this.” and then I feel that guilty pit of my stomach feeling like I’m the worst dog owner in the world.

Here’s the bottom line:

We all do the best we can.  Sometimes, we lose patience.  Sometimes, we just need a bubble bath and a glass of wine with the dog locked out of the bathroom.  Sometimes, we just really want to go pee alone for once (I know I’m not the only one…).  Sometimes, we just need a break.

It’s okay.  It’s normal.  And you don’t need to feel guilty about it.

The vast majority of our dogs have very happy fulfilled lives, with minimal coercion and compulsion (I’m guessing on my readership here, but I’d imagine most of you are not correcting and punishing your dogs).  Our dogs love us, and we love them.  If you make a mistake, if you lose patience, it’s okay; dogs are so forgiving.  It’s part of their charm.

So whether you have a puppy and you just can’t handle their sharky little teeth right now, or you have an older dog who is testing your patience, don’t worry.  Take a deep breath.  You didn’t make a mistake getting a dog.  We all have bad days – people and dogs – but I can’t imagine my life without them.

A photo posted by Verena Schleich (@odditvees) on

Buyer Beware

Here is a thing that’s important to me: living a lifestyle of positive reinforcement.   I think I stole that phrasing from Kathy Sdao, but it really resonates with me; a lifestyle of positive reinforcement.  It’s not just that I am a positive reinforcement trainer, it’s not that I’m exclusively positive, it’s that I am trying to live a lifestyle of positive reinforcement.

“Pure positive” or “exclusively positive reinforcement” doesn’t exist.  With dogs and in life.  Here is my commitment though: as much as possible, I live a lifestyle of positive reinforcement.

That means I try to view the glass as half full.  That means that I am as ethical and humane as possible.  That means that I follow LIMA and the Humane Hierarchy in my work.  That means that I try to treat the people in my life well, and let them know when I appreciate them.

This works well for me in my personal life.  It helps me stay stable and positive and happy, in general and as a person who suffers with mental illness.

In my working life with dogs?  It’s just science.  It isn’t opinion, it’s fact.

In dog training, the most modern, proven science has proven that force free, positive reinforcement based training is the most effective.

As an animal lover and activist, it is also the most ethical.  I don’t want to hit dogs or choke them or intimidate them.  Even if it was effective, it isn’t how I choose to interact with other creatures.

 

I'm so happy I can hurt my dog at a distance!
I’m so happy I can hurt my dog at a distance!

A problem:

Dog training is an unregulated industry.  Anyone can say they are a dog trainer, so they are.

A problem:

Thanks to popular media and scientific misconceptions, physical and emotional intimidation of dogs is viewed as a valid form of training, without concern for the behavioural fallout or ethics.

A problem:

Due to the massive amount of information on the internet, it is impossible for the average pet owner to pick and choose which sources are correct and which aren’t.

You can even a shock collar on a baby puppy!
You can even use a shock collar on a baby puppy!

A reality:

Most pet owners don’t want to hurt their pets.  They want to do what is best for them.  As far as I know, people get animals because they love them, not because they are evil.  People do the best they know, when they know.  When they know better, they do better.

A reality:

Well meaning, loving, responsible dog owners get help when they need it.

A reality:

Not all dog trainers are created equal.

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This is what kills me:

It isn’t the dog owners using prong collars, or ecollars, or choke chains.  It isn’t the dog owners yelling at their dogs or pinning them or alpha rolling them.  It isn’t my clients who tell me that their dog is a good dog, just “dominant”.

It’s the “dog trainers” who teach them these things.  It’s the “dog trainers” whose only qualifications are that they are good with dogs.  It’s the “dog trainers” who talk about “balance” and “real world training” instead of science.  It’s the “dog trainers” who get away with convincing loving, responsible, well meaning dog owners to hurt, intimidate, or abuse their pets.  It’s the “dog trainers” who are so busy feeling arrogant or being right that they can’t get an education.

This industry is buyer beware.  It’s too bad, but it’s true.

Looking for a trainer?  Do your research.  Buyer, beware.

Ear Cropping and Tail Docking

I’m a sucker for strong looking dogs; Dobermans, Dogos, Danes… just beautiful.  Back when I got Athena, my Doberman, I knew next to nothing about dogs and I’m totally embarrassed to admit that I thought their pointy ears were natural; I thought they were born that way.

Doing my research before getting her, I quickly learned that wasn’t the case, and for me it was a no brainer; of course we’d leave the ears natural.  Cropping them just seemed like a lot of work and a lot of hassle, when there was no downside to leaving them natural.  That’s about as far as I thought into it.  It just wasn’t a big deal to me.

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Then, talking to the breeder, she asked us to put an extra deposit down if we weren’t going to let her do the ears, because if she didn’t do the ears and we backed out, “no one else would want her”.  While that struck me as odd, I still shrugged it off.  I just wanted my puppy.  I also asked about leaving her tail natural, but they’d already been docked and – excited to get my puppy – I didn’t want to wait for the next litter to get one with a natural tail.  So, I ended up with my Athena; natural, floppy ears, docked tail.

Bitty baby Athena
Bitty baby Athena

And then began what is, to this day, a near-daily questioning from random strangers:

  • “What’s her mix?”
  • “Why didn’t you do the ears?”
  • “She’s not pure dobe, right?”

And so on, and so forth.  I still get it multiple times a week.  And I very quickly learned, everyone has an opinion when it comes to ear cropping and tail docking.  EVERYONE.

So, let’s talk about it.

History

The history of ear cropping and tail docking seems to go back to, at least, ancient Roman times.  The ancient Romans believed that ear cropping, tail docking, and tongue clipping (?!) worked as a preventative for rabies.  While that is obviously not true, the tiny grain of truth in the thought probably had to do with the fact that working dogs who had tails and ears were more likely to get them hurt (whether in battle, or catching on something), and thus were more likely to get infections and get ill; this would have predated antibiotics.

Interestingly, in the 1700s in the UK, there was a tax on pet dogs but not on working dogs, and the way they’d distinguish between the two was that working dogs had to have their tails docked.  Thusly, having a dog with a natural tail was a sign of wealth (you could afford to keep a pet), and people could dock their dog’s tail to avoid paying the tax.

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Why is it still done?

If originally docking and cropping was done a) for working dogs, and b) to prevent rabies or infections, why is it still done?  In general, but especially for pet dogs?  We now have rabies vaccines and antibiotics, and most dogs – at least in this part of the world – are pets, not working dogs.

Well, it isn’t still done everywhere.  Here in Canada, cosmetic surgery (ear cropping and tail docking) isn’t federally mandated, but provincially; it is banned outright in PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador.  While not provincially banned, the veterinary associations in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Quebec have banned vets from performing cosmetic surgery on dogs, and in BC, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan they have banned ear cropping but not tail docking.

Many countries, including a huge portion of Europe, Australia, and Brazil have banned cosmetic surgery on dogs.

Unfortunately, here in North America it is still quite prevalent.  Which brings us back to the question of why.

Health

Some people argue that cropping ears is a health measure.  Most often you’ll hear people say that it prevents ear infections or can help dogs to hear better.

As for docking tails, they argue it prevents injury; your dog’s tail could hit something and break, or get caught in something.

Is there any truth to it?  Looks like no.  All sources on this seem to be anecdotal, and when we look at the science, it just doesn’t back it up.

In a study of dog’s tail injuries in Great Britain, “The weighted risk of tail injuries was 0.23 per cent…approximately 500 dogs would need to be docked in order to prevent one tail injury.”

The AVMA is also very clear that they oppose both cropping and docking, and in their opposition to docking, they state that:

The essential question is not “How harmful is the procedure?”, but rather “Is there sufficient justification for performing it?” Performing a surgical procedure for cosmetic purposes (i.e., for the sake of appearance) implies the procedure is not medically indicated. Because dogs have not been shown to derive self-esteem or pride in appearance from having their tails docked (common reasons for performing cosmetic procedures on people), there is no obvious benefit to our patients in performing this procedure.

From Ear Cropping and Tail Docking: Should You or Shouldn’t You?, they also raise the point of the ear infection claim.

Research shows that at least 80 percent of dogs won’t get ear infections, “and the breeds that are most likely to get them, such as cocker spaniels and poodles, don’t get their ears docked,” Patterson-Kane says.

Aesthetics

Anyone who is being honest with themselves, given all of the above and the abundance of research on it, has to admit that this is what it boils down to: people like the look of a cropped ear and a docked tail.  What we need to consider is, is that enough?  Is the fact that people like how it looks, that it is “breed standard” enough?

Other concerns

Considering how reliant dogs are on body language, in taking away their ears and tails, we are taking away a big chunk of their ability to communicate with one another.  This can have a real impact on their ability to socialize with each other.  Their tails can also help with balance, and with spinal alignment.

It is also a concern that the procedures are painful; docking is done without anesthesia.  Cropping has a lot of aftercare, and can have side effects – including serious infection, or just plain bad results.

Lastly, and perhaps most simply, as Dr. Julie Schell puts it, “dogs just love getting their ears rubbed and petted– don’t take that away from your dog.”

The bottom line

I really think it boils down to cognitive dissonance.  People love their dogs.  No matter if their ears are cropped, tails are docked, their dogs are on prong collars, whatever – all these things I don’t agree with – people love their dogs.  I never question that.  But they like how it looks, and so people need to find a way to justify it; to manage to come to terms with the fact that they want that look and they love their dogs.

Times are changing though, slowly but surely.  I’m seeing fewer and fewer dogs with cropped ears; tails are a ways behind that, but I have confidence that that is changing too.

Here’s hoping that one day, maybe twenty years from now, floppy eared goofy dobes like mine will be the new “breed standard”.

ears and tails

 

Indulge Me, Just This Once

I try not to make this blog all about MY DOG and MY LIFE because that gets boring really quickly if you aren’t… me.

But just this once, indulge me.  Because I spent today in Trinity Bellwoods Park with Athena and my friend, the ever talented Niki Kennedy, and she spent some time tinkering with her new camera for fun.

She got some really freaking adorable shots, and I just can’t handle it.  So, just this once, indulge me: let’s all coo at how cute my dog is, okay?

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Photo by Niki Kennedy

 

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Photo by Niki Kennedy

 

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Photo by Niki Kennedy

 

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Photo by Niki Kennedy

Athena’s “jump” is getting so good! Fist in air is her cue.

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Photo by Niki Kennedy

 

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Photo by Niki Kennedy

 

Ears!!!! <3

 

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Photo by Niki Kennedy

Love of my life.

Dog Cognition

It should come as no surprise as anyone that I’m a dog training and behaviour nerd.  How do their brains work?  How do they process the world?  What do they want?  I’m obsessed.

I’ve mentioned before that I took Brian Hare’s Dog Emotion and Cognition course through Coursera, as well as buying his book, The Genius of Dogs.  I was torn about it; his studies about how dogs learn and their domestication are fascinating,  but his knowledge of training is woefully lacking and, rather than acknowledging that, he states things that are incorrect as fact; he is equal parts interesting and cringe-worthy.  I’m sure he’s a very smart man, but damn do I wish he’d stick to talking about things he’s actually educated in.  I was obviously interested in trying out his Dognition work but, frankly, given how much time I dedicate to training and dog related work, and given how torn I was about him, I was hesitant to spend the money.

Then, by chance, Emma Tecwyn, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, got in touch with us at When Hounds Fly, about her research in canine cognition.  She wanted to use our space to run some labs, and obviously I jumped at the chance to participate with Athena.

 

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Here’s the study in brief:

During this session, your dog will participate in a study exploring dogs’ learning and reasoning abilities.  We investigate a dog’s learning in a variety of contexts including dogs’ physical problem solving abilities (eg. how to get a treat out of a puzzle) and their understanding of social information (eh. following a pointing gesture or learning from a demonstration).  Our research takes the form of short, interactive games that are designed to be fun and engaging to dogs.  We record dogs’ actions when interacting with people, toys and puzzles, and the choices they make, to learn more about their understanding of the world.

Cool side note: she’s done these same tests with toddlers and monkeys, on top of dogs!

Athena participated for two tests.  It was adorable; the whole thing lasted roughly 40 minutes and, if you haven’t heard, dobermans are basically velcro dogs, incredibly attached to their humans.  So between each repetition of the puzzle games, she’d swing around to me, head butt me, then go back to work; very obvious she’s used to working with me and only me.  Half endearing, half embarrassing.

The first test was a box that she had to turn a wheel to dispense a treat.

Athena canine cognition
A still from Emma’s video footage, thanks to her study and U of T.

She figured it out pretty quickly.  It was really cool to watch.  I’m honestly not sure that she is “smart” versus used to interacting with objects and problem solving thanks to our nearly four years of training,  but she had a good time with it.

The second test was a set up with two cups, and a tube that would dispense a treat into one of them.

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A still from Emma’s video footage, thanks to her study and U of T.

To be honest, I was shocked by how hard a time she had with this.  MY DOG IS PERFECT OBVIOUSLY but I legitimately thought she’d figure this out quickly.  She quickly got five straight wrong, then figured it out and got five straight right.

Here’s why this surprised me: in Brian’s course, we learned that dogs are socially intelligent, meaning they figure out things like pointing and eye contact even when “smarter” creatures (like chimps) don’t.  I assumed she’d view the tube as a “point” to the correct cup, but she just didn’t.  This concept was beyond her.

Here’s a cool thing though!  At the end of her turn, I had them drop a cup in the other cup – the one on the right – after she’d guessed left five times in a row from figuring it out.  And she immediately went right.  So whether she can figure it out without the tube or whether she had figured the game out, the interesting thing, to me at least, is that she definitely wasn’t guessing.  Smart girl.

This is all amazing to me, as a behaviour nerd.  But I get it – some of you aren’t.  You just want to take care of your dogs.  But let me tell you: dogs love puzzles.  A lot.

So whether your dog is a working-dog-doberman, a super-smart-poodle, or an adorably-squishy-pug, here are some of my favourite puzzle toys for dogs, for day-to-day fun or for rainy days:

    1. The KONG Wobbler.  I don’t feed Athena from a bowl.  This keeps her busy for more time, so I can get stuff done, and keeps her and her brain moving.
    2. The Buster Activity Mat.  I just got this for Athena – and several of the “extra” puzzles last week.  It is my new favourite puzzle toy, and she goes crazy for it.  I cannot recommend this highly enough.12317676_699940566815306_1435953572_n
    3. Dog Puzzle Toy  I like this one in that it is wood, so very natural and more durable than plastic toys; however, Athena figured it out in about five minutes flat and has been bored by it ever since.
    4. West Paw Design Toppl Toy is basically my favourite toy ever.  Not that complicated but SUPER durable.  I will stuff this with anything freezable (read: peanut butter, ground beef, cottage cheese, wet dog food) and it takes Athena a good half hour to get through.
    5. Basically anything by Outward Hound is great; the only downside being they are all plastic.  If you have a dog who is a chewer, like mine, she’ll destroy them in ten seconds flat, versus any of the above.

Here’s to smart puppies!

A Year in Review

Today, Facebook reminded me that it was a year ago today that I officially launched this site.  Looking back on it, I can hardly believe it.  All at once, it both feels like I’ve been doing this forever, and at the same time like I can’t believe a whole year has passed already.

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If I don’t think about it too hard, it just feels like normal life.  When I stop to consider though, man, has it ever been a crazy year.

One year ago today, I was just walking dogs full time.  One year ago today, I hadn’t even started at The Karen Pryor Academy.  One year ago today, Athena had full use of all four of her legs.

Here are a few of my favourite moments from the past year:

  • My life changing trip to the Middle East.  I had been before, but it was prior to my working with dogs.  Being there, and seeing the conditions in rescues, gave me a real appreciation for how lucky our pets are in North America.  It gave me real motivation to create change.  It helped me find a sense of purpose.
  • My awesome interview with the CBSA.  Meeting Paul and his drug-detecting dog Sawyer was one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do.  It was my first experience with a dog trained in scent detection, and with a true working dog.  Hiding hash in my car and watching her sniff it out was amazing in the truest sense of the word.
  • All my hard work finally paying off, and becoming a dog trainer, full  time.  The past few years are the first time in my life that I really knew what I wanted, knew what direction I was headed, and worked my ass off and did it.
  • Being lucky enough to have friends to write articles for me and let me share their work when I was up to my eyeballs in school and work.

I  don’t want to ramble on and on, but it hit me today, seeing that reminder on Facebook, how lucky I have been to have so many people supporting me and cheering me on, and reading my work that I pour my heart into.  I am so thankful.  It’s been a hell of a year.

Athena & I
Athena & I

BSL is Bullshit

If there were fewer humans in the world, there would consequently be fewer opportunities for vicious attacks by humans; terrorism, murder, whatever.  Right?  So the solution is that we should castrate people we deem will be bad parents; or, perhaps, the mentally ill.  Good thing I don’t want children to begin with.

I mean, you can’t fault the logic.  It’s definitely true.  But does that make it reasonable?

In Canadian legislation, apparently the answer is yes.

Wait, let’s back up and swap some words.

“[T]here are now fewer pit bulls in Ontario and, consequently, fewer opportunities for a vicious attack by a pit bull.”

That is a direct quote, in a personal email to me from Premier Kathleen Wynne, when I emailed her asking her about Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) and the Dog Owners Liability Act (DOLA).

Anecdotally, in my work with dogs, I have only been seriously bitten once.  It was my own fault, and also, not a pit bull.  The most recent dog bite to someone I know personally was a pug, not a pit bull.

Wait, let’s back up again.  What is a pit bull?

Yeah — I’ll let you know now: “Wait, back up, what?” is going to happen a lot in the post.  Want to know why?  Because BSL is confusing, and doesn’t make any sense.

“pit bull” includes,

(a) a pit bull terrier,

(b) a Staffordshire bull terrier,

(c) an American Staffordshire terrier,

(d) an American pit bull terrier,

(e) a dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar to those of dogs referred to in any of clauses (a) to (d); (“pit-bull”)

– from the Dog Owners’ Liability Act (DOLA), Ontario

Let’s play a game, called “guess who is a pit bull?” — I’m going to post a few photos, you tell me if you think pit bull or not pit bull:

Onus of proof, pit bulls
(10) If it is alleged in any proceeding under this section that a dog is a pit bull, the onus of proving that the dog is not a pit bull lies on the owner of the dog. 2005, c. 2, s. 1 (13). – DOLA,  Ontario

“I can’t think of a single law that is based on DNA testing and there are some very interesting reason for that.  One of those reasons is cost.  At about $80 a pop, it would cost Prince George’s County, Maryland, about $75,000 ANNUALLY just to do the genetic testing.  I think the second reason is more interesting—it’s specifically noted in the terms and conditions of the DNA testing company that it’s NOT to be used for that exact purpose.”, says Adrianne Lefkowitz, of the Maryland Dog Federation

“Maybe,” I thought, while working on research for this article, “there is something I don’t know here.  Maybe BSL is working in some way I am unaware of.”  I decided to ask around to experts in various fields in animal welfare.

I reached out to Bruce Rooney, Executive Director of the Ottawa Humane Society, to ask him what he thought about the subject.  “The OHS does not support BSL.  We think it is ineffective and unfair – as it targets breeds rather than individual dogs which may be problematic.”

But hang on; Kathleen Wynne told me that “Ontario sets high standards for responsible dog ownership to keep families safe and secure.”

And yet, Bruce Rooney claims, “It was mainly a Toronto problem that this government imposed on the whole province. They made no provision for enforcement.  The City of Ottawa has indicated that they are not enforcing it, unless the dog poses a risk to the community.” [emphasis is my own]

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A rescue I met at the Doberman Rescue fundraiser with an anti-BSL group; she was apparently rescued from a crack house. She loves to swim.

Let me tell you this – again, this one is anecdotal: I know multiple “pit bulls”, be it American Pit Bull Terriers, English Bull Terriers (who seem like a legal gray area), and Staffordshire Terriers.  They are definitely pit bulls, born and bred.  Their vet paperwork?  It does not say pit bull on it.  Because vets know that BSL is bullshit, so they lie.  I have met so many “wink wink boxer lab” mixes.

BSL is an ethical failure. BSL is a public safety failure. – http://stopbsl.org/

The American Temperament Test Society, Inc. have thousands of dogs temperament tested.  Some statistics that illuminate how unfair the pit bull ban is:

  • American Pit Bull Terrier: out of 870 tested, 86.8% passed the test
  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier: out of 129 tested, 90.7% passed the test

But, ruh roh –

  • Shetland Sheepdog: out of 502 tested, 68.3% passed the test
  • Pembrooke Welsh Corgi: out of 207 tested, 78.7% passed the test

Where is the Corgi ban?!

Failure on any part of the test is recognized when a dog shows:

  • Unprovoked aggression
  • Panic without recovery
  • Strong avoidance
I'm going to attack you... just as soon as I am done napping.
I’m going to attack you… just as soon as I am done napping.

It is shockingly apparent, a decade into BSL in Ontario, that it isn’t working.  And everyone knows it isn’t working.  In fact, regardless of BSL (as it wasn’t a banned breed), I reported my dog bite to Toronto Animal Services, and nothing happened.

Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) - Toronto Humane Society
Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) – Toronto Humane Society

If BSL isn’t the solution, what is?

“The solution – if a “solution” is required – is to focus on individual dogs that are a risk – stiff fines, temperament testing, muzzle-orders,  and to educate children about being around dogs, and what to do if they feel threatened.”, says Bruce Rooney, of the OHS.

Given all of this, why has BSL not been repealed?

“Politicians do not want to look like they are soft on crime or public safety. When it comes to BSL that is already in place, it is much easier for a politician to do nothing than to repeal.”, states Adrianne Lefkowitz.

Me being smothered in kisses by Scarlett, a pit bull belonging to a classmate of mine from KPA
Me being smothered in kisses by Scarlett, a pit bull belonging to a classmate of mine from KPA

What can we do to get BSL repealed?

A photo posted by Verena Schleich (@odditvees) on

  • And, you can spread the word.  Let people know that BSL doesn’t work, isn’t fair, and that pit bulls are adorable and lovable.  (Okay, okay.  That last is just my opinion.  But that doesn’t make it wrong!)

An Open Letter to National Geographic

natgeo

I grew up loving National Geographic; back then, a magazine, not a TV channel.  As kids, we got the National Geographic Kids magazine every month – my grandma always got us a subscription.  As I got older, I got into the adult magazines – half thanks to my lifelong obsession with animals, and half because a little part of me always thought I’d grow up to be Indiana Jones (I still haven’t lost hope entirely on that one, though nearing thirty maybe I need to get a bit realistic…)

When I became an adult, still with my passion for animals and adventure, and with a love of writing, I toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist, with the goal of writing for National Geographic – I envisioned myself in the rain forest, or war torn areas, or even the arctic.  I even collected old copies of National Geographic – in fact, I’m pretty sure in my dad’s basement somewhere we still have some magazines from the 1800s that I found at a used book sale one time.

All of this to say that those magazines meant a lot to me – they allowed my adventurous, nerd self to thrive; they opened my eyes to creatures I’d never heard of and  cultures I’d never experience.  And, they were always scientifically interesting and factual.

Then I grew up, and became a dog trainer.  Have you guessed yet where I’m going with this?

Cesar Millan. (Photo credit: National Geographic Channels / Evelyn Hockstein)
Cesar Millan. (Photo credit: National Geographic Channels / Evelyn Hockstein)

You know who that guy is, right?  Probably the most famous dog trainer there is – the one and only Cesar Millan.  TV star of Leader of the Pack, Dog Whisperer, and Cesar911, Cesar takes on “red zone” (read: behavioural issues) dogs and fixes them.  On TV!

Here’s the thing: I get it.  Really.  I am sure his show makes a ton of money, and let’s face it: thrashing, snarling, snapping dogs make great TV.  But a trainer who makes dogs thrash, snarl, and snap does not make a good trainer.

What I do, on the other hand?  If I’m working on behaviour modification with a dog who is dog reactive, and I’m doing my job well, there won’t be a single bark or growl in a training session.  And let’s face it: that doesn’t make good TV.

What Cesar does essentially, is constantly put dogs over threshold.  He deliberately forces dogs into situations that they are uncomfortable with.  His theory, I think, is that it forces the dogs to work through their issues.  The reality is that, when a dog is over threshold, the dog isn’t in a headspace where they are able to learn.  Let’s use the analogy of someone who is scared of swimming – a good trainer might get the person comfortable around the pool, then with their feet in the pool, then in the shallow end, etc.  Cesar would throw them in the deep and hold them there until they stop fighting.  Would that make you less scared of swimming?  Or more?  But again, if it were on TV, which is more exciting?  Someone thrashing and crying in the deep end, or someone sipping a cocktail with their feet in the water?

In my view, if I threw someone in the deep and held them down, I am traumatizing that person, and likely making their fear worse, not better.

Let’s talk about dog behaviour for a second.  If my dog is scared or nervous, they’re going to try to communicate that to me.  The first ways as subtle; whale eyes, or displacement behaviours – that is to say, my dog doing a normal behaviour (yawning, shaking off) when there is no reason to (they aren’t tired, aren’t wet).  If that doesn’t fix the situation, they’ll perhaps avoid eye contact, or back away from whatever is scaring them.  If I still don’t remove them from the situation, they may try to communicate their fear by growling and showing teeth, and if that doesn’t work, they may air snap.  If that still doesn’t work, they will resort to biting.

So let’s imagine I am walking down the street with a dog, and another dog is coming toward us, and my dog is scared of other dogs.  My dog freezes and tries to back away.  If I allow us to back away, my dog learns “good, mom understands when I am communicating that I’m uncomfortable.”  If I keep trying to drag her toward the other dog, she will think, “Hm, backing away isn’t getting my point across.  How can I be more clear?”, and perhaps she’ll growl.  Now here’s a problem: next time we encounter that same situation, my dog will skip the backing away step.  She has learned that that doesn’t work, so she’ll jump straight to growling, and escalate from there.

Let’s watch a video together:

Do you catch it?  Those first few subtle cues that this is too much for this dog?  The pinned ears back, and the tightening of the lips?  That is a dog who is trying to communicate I don’t like this and instead of saying understood, let’s make this easier for you, Cesar keeps pushing.  Even still, the dog doesn’t bite yet.  She backs away, snarls, air snaps and shows teeth – still, not clear enough for Cesar, so he keeps going.  Ultimately, the dog resorts to biting.  And what does Cesar say?

“I didn’t see that coming.”

Really?  Because I did.  About a mile away.  And if I were that owner?  I’d be livid.  Here you are, claiming to be an expert, and you pushed my dog to bite – which shows extreme stress in my dog (bad) and makes her more likely to bite again (also bad).

And then Cesar clings to the idea of making this dog submissive; he is alpha, and he is dominant.  The problem? That’s not a real thing.

Finally, the very presumption that our dogs would even consider we humans to be members of their canine pack is simply ludicrous. -Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, CDBC

And a dog, like the one in the above clip, backed into a corner by a scary man?  She has no “flight” option, so she has to fight.  And when she does fight and he hits her?  And she backs away, stressed and panting?  Welcome to a concept called Learned Helplessness.  It isn’t a good thing.

When we engage in such behaviors toward our dogs, we are not telling the dog we are “boss,” instead we are telling the dog we are dangerous creatures to be avoided or fought off. There is no “dominance” in these scenarios—only terror and the instinct to defend oneself against attack. – APDT

Alright, I fell down the rabbit hole of dog behaviour and training for a second there, so let’s get back on track: National Geographic.

I get that it is good TV.  I get that it is profitable.

But given that the RSPCA has deemed his methods cruel, despite the fact that we have scientific proof that his methods are ineffective and unscientific, given that he has been sued multiple times, why is National Geographic still airing his show?  Dog training may not be a regulated industry here, but if it were, Cesar would not be qualified. Because it is a regulated industry in Germany, and he failed their test.Why has National Geographic not cut ties with him?  Is it ethical that they, typically viewed at scientific and educational, are putting this shit out there for the whole world to see?

I expected better of them.  I think a lot of us did.

Jump to 3:35 in this video regarding the RSPCA and Cesar’s methods.

So, come on National Geographic.  Live up to your 128 year reputation to “inspire, illuminate, teach”; because you do those things.  I am living proof.  But Cesar isn’t inspiring, and he isn’t teaching anything that is worth learning.  You are better than this.

Best,

Dog Trainers Everywhere

 

Cesar is a “charming, one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior.” – Mark Derr