Mar 242016
 

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The recent announcement that SeaWorld is ending their orca program and forging an alliance with HSUS sparked widely diverse emotional responses, from joy to despair, but most serious animal people were deeply hurt and furious.

I am not going to address the specific orca question: despite my tens of thousands of hours working with hundreds of species, I do not possess sufficient knowledge or experience with marine mammals to know whether or not orcas can thrive in captivity. This determination belongs in the hands of dedicated, knowledgeable, caring experts, and not abandoned to weekend activists, anti-animal fanatics, pre-occupied politicians, or casual animal lovers. And I am not privy to what happens at SeaWorld, so I cannot speak to the details of their care.

Nor am I going to attack those at SeaWorld for this decision.  We are all struggling to find best and most effective paths in the current world, and I do not have access to all the information they had.  I suspect it was a serious mistake for SeaWorld to become a publicly traded company, but even if they had not, no institution can long survive what SeaWorld has been facing, so they did what they believed was necessary to survive in the short term, even though doing so may well have sacrificed the future.

I want to discuss some of the broader realities and process failures that got us to this point:

It is profoundly saddening that SeaWorld has been unable to persuasively communicate the core truth that responsibly managed captivity is a great alternative in parallel with protection of wild animals. That animals can do better living with people than in the wild.  That they can be happier, healthier, and longer-lived.  That man has today claimed every inch of the planet and that the only future for most species inexorably includes human involvement. That most animals care not about the idea of freedom, but about survival, comfort, and happiness.

It is devastating that SeaWorld partnered with an organization that has shown repeatedly that it will not rest until every single animal living with man has been removed or eliminated.

It is flabbergasting that a filmmaker with no relevant knowledge, education, or experience, and a woefully lopsided, sentiment-based agenda, could produce false and misleading propaganda and raise up an army of well-meaning-but-utterly-misinformed do-gooders who—in the name of orcas—set about destroying the greatest ally orcas have ever known.

It is gravely disappointing how many excellent animal facilities have seen no choice but to die with a whimper, or hand over their soul to the devil and betray their colleagues and the truth.

It is crushing how close we are to a world in which all animals have been shoved out of our homes and lives and banished to an illusory “wild.”

It is depressing how little SeaWorld, and other animal professionals, have been able to educate the public that good animal training is not cruel, coercive, or exploitative.  That animals need, and love, to play the game, figure things out, and perform complicated behaviors.

It is unfathomable how many people embrace an agenda that they have not bothered to fully grasp, and do grievous harm to animals while passionately believing that they are helping.  How many people are certain they know best, even when they know nothing at all.

But the most frightening and saddening truth is this: science and reason surrendered to a mob of pitchfork-brandishing villagers.  Knowledge and thoughtful pursuit of truth abandoned the field to ignorance, hatred, and frenzy. However you may feel about SeaWorld, you should be very afraid of a world in which the mob can control such decisions.

Make no mistake: animals and those who love them are losing badly. Sea World’s capitulation was a grave defeat for Earth’s animals. But perhaps even worse, it was a devastating blow for mankind. Watch the responses to SeaWorld’s decision, and relentlessly you will hear people with inadequate knowledge repeat the tautological assumption—“Wild animals belong in the wild because they are wild and yearn for freedom.”  No matter how much logic and data are presented to them clearly demonstrating the fallacy of their position, they will simply repeat their impenetrable certainty.  Reason, knowledge, and discourse are little match for sentimentality, unabashed ignorance, certitude, and zealotry.

Some may not recognize the enormity of this event: SeaWorld, after all, is but one organization, and we are only talking about a few orcas. But we are not really talking about SeaWorld as a brick-and-mortar institution.  SeaWorld is an icon, a metaphor.  SeaWorld is a manifestation of the notion that enterprise, entertainment, education, and animal care can synergistically coexist. SeaWorld, until recently, generated a great deal of revenue and profit, but its managers directed a significant portion of those profits into the welfare of their animals, aiding wild animals, conducting groundbreaking research, educating the public, and generating interest and affection for marine mammals.  It is cruelly ironic that the only reason people care enough about orcas to be attacking SeaWorld is because SeaWorld brought the charismatic mammals to our focused attention, and made them into the icons we treasure so deeply.  SeaWorld was the principal global institution with the resources and commitment to stand toe-to-toe with the Animal Rights groups and say, “No! We will not capitulate to misguided sentimentality no matter how loudly you yell.”

SeaWorld was one of the last citadels protecting the ideal that animals and people can live together, and that both can be the better for it. I do not know if there is hope left, but if there is, it lies with every single person who loves animals banding together right now and saying with one voice what I wish SeaWorld had said: Enough. We will not be intimidated; we will not let you eliminate animals from our world.  We will not let you distort responsible care and love and stewardship and call them exploitation. We will not let your simplistic fanaticism crush truth. We are the true lovers of animals, the people who dedicate our lives to caring for them and learning about them. With immense devotion and immeasurable reflection and action, we have learned what is humane, what is ethical, what is best for the animals.  And while we will always welcome thoughtful, informed input into how we can do better, we shall ceaselessly strive to ensure that the animals we love always have homes in the wild and with us.

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 March 24, 2016  Posted by at 11:01 pm Tagged with: , , , , ,
Jul 132015
 

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I encountered an interesting question on FB—if you were creating a quiz to test the knowledge of potential puppy homes, what are some of the questions you would include?

There were many excellent answers offered: questions about breed history, training, nutrition, exercise, management, behavior…

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I would not quiz about knowledge. One does not need to start with a great deal of knowledge to be a great owner, and all the knowledge that is required can be easily acquired. Some of the most “knowledgeable” people are among the last to whom I would give a puppy. And it is often those who have a little knowledge who are least open to learning and growing.

If you are seeking to acquire an animal from me, I want to know if you are committed, dedicated, devoted. I want to know if you will reshape your life to accommodate an animal. I want to know if you will stay up all night to comfort a frightened puppy. I want to know if 15 years from now you will sleep on the floor every night to be with your old friend. I want to know what you will do if ten years from now you are offered a great job in a location where you cannot take your dog. I want to know if you will give your time and your heart to this animal. I want to know if you are genuinely open to listening, to learning, from others, from books, from your animal; and that you will remain open and critical to new ideas and opinions and will always strive to improve and grow. I want to know if you will laugh and cry and cuddle. I want to know if you will make a fool of yourself to make him happy; if you will see his innocence even when he is destroying your favorite possession, and his beauty even when he is vomiting on your carpet. I want to know that you will try to see the world from his perspective. I want to know that you are willing and able to make the hard decisions to do what is best for your animal, even when it is not easy or is not what feels best for you. I want to know what kind of leader you are, whether you relate through intimidation, coercion, supplication, or shared trust. I want to know how you will handle the hard days, the failures, the heartbreaks. I want to know that you have genuinely thought about these issues, not to give me the best answers, but to be certain in your own heart that you are ready and open to completely sharing your life with an animal, and to wherever that path may take you.

For me, these core attributes and aptitudes are what matter—if they are in place, knowledge will easily and surely come, if not all the knowledge in the world will not help….

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 July 13, 2015  Posted by at 10:42 pm Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Jul 072015
 

RallyJustice317I was conversing with a friend recently who does not train her dogs beyond the minimum required. She does not want to diminish their individuality, to be their master, to break their spirits, to turn them into automatons. She does not even really want them to be obedient—she wants them to do what they want, not her bidding.

As we talked, it became clear to me that her idea of training is something very different from mine. She perceives it as diminishing—removing unwanted parts of a dog, while I perceive it as enriching—nurturing and developing additional facets of a dog.

Dog training is a broad catch-all term encompassing a huge range of techniques used to modify the intensity and frequency with which a dog offers certain behaviors. The goals, objectives, and methods are nearly infinite. Of course, in the strictest sense of the word dogs are always learning, so you are always training them whether you mean to or not, you only get to decide what they are learning. But for the purposes of this post, I am talking about structured intentional training, and I want to share why I train my dogs:

Let me start with a few ancillary benefits that I believe accrue from dog training but are not the core reasons I train:

  • Fun: virtually every animal I train values training sessions above almost all other activities. Better than food, better than walking, better than swimming—when I pick up the tools and take an August09005animal to go train they are giddy, ecstatic. They bounce and glow and vibrate. It is pure joy.
  • Proscription: teaching a dog what not to do makes them more pleasant to live with. Do not pee on the floor, pull on the leash, bark, take food off the counter, chew on the electric cords, etc.
  • Increased range of opportunities: the world is full of fun places that welcome well-behaved dogs. Friends’ homes, restaurants, busses, concerts; if you have taught your dog to have good manners you can take them on many adventures.
  • Skills: Sit, down, stay, wait, fetch, leave-it, all very useful for a dog to know.
  • Safety: a dog that comes when called, that does not take things off the counter, that holds a stay, and that can relax in a crate; is safer than a dog that cannot.
  • Trust and leadership: your dog learns to look to you when unsure, to rely on your guidance, to come to you for assistance.
  • Vocabulary: language and communication make it much easier to live with an animal. flintwithlamba7
  • Activities: training opens up doors to fun shared activities: agility, dock diving, tracking, carting, obedience, if you train, you and your dog can have so much fun doing so many things. You can do these things recreationally or competitively.
  • Tricks: many dogs really enjoy showing off, gathering a crowd, making people smile and laugh.
  • Fun: okay, I have fun too! I love the challenges, trying to figure out how to induce some new behavior, watching them think, reinforcing in just the right way at just the right moment. I usually end training sessions tired and glowing and happy and fulfilled.

While many of those are valuable, in truth I train my dogs—lots—for two fundamental reasons:

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  1. To maximize their development through education. For the same reasons I would send my child to school: I want to help them actualize their potential. The act of learning, regardless of what one is learning, increases neural development and plasticity. It increases the ability to solve problems, to be thoughtful, to mindfully assess challenges and solve them. Learning begets learning. Learning literally changes and grows their brains. Each day children wonder why they need to learn algebra, what real-world application is there for solving a quadratic equation. And while there are real world applications, the ultimate answer is that what we really want from their education is something different: we want them to become free, thoughtful, kind, effective, confident, happy, engaged, etc.
    By choosing what we work on, and how, I can develop drives, increase confidence, improve problem solving skills, alter energy levels, change reactions to various stimuli, decrease contentiousness. I can help them become the best possible version of themselves, the most content, confident, happy, relaxed, enthusiastic, intelligent, well-rounded individuals they can be.
  2. To build connection, relationship, intimacy. I want the best partnership possible. I am not sure I can explain this to someone who has not experienced it, but somewhere after a few hundred hours of shared training time, a partnership develops that simply does not come without those hours. Trust, communication, anticipation—the dance becomes delicate, fluid, nuanced. Your dog knows when to look to you for leadership, knows your subtlest cues, knows how to succeed. You trust your dog, and know how to help him. You can read his every raised eyebrow or IMG_2492tightened muscle. You are a team.

Many people have lovely dogs with little training. And many people have rich and fulfilling relationships with their dogs without ever having taught them a single formal behavior. I simply know that in my experience, good training can make great dogs even better and wonderful relationships even deeper.

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 July 7, 2015  Posted by at 5:48 pm Tagged with: , , , ,
Jun 302015
 

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I have not yet seen Max, and have no opinion about the movie, although it sounds pretty good, but perhaps a little schlocky. However, as someone who has had many Malinois over 25 years, and who works full time training animals in the film industry–I have some considered views about the issue of breeds in movies in general, and about many of the opinions expressed by those who believe Malinois are imperiled by the theatrical release:

Max, and other projects featuring Malinois, are excellent opportunities to increase awareness of a wonderful breed and the challenges that come with owning them. IMG_2100-2-Edit

  1. Popularity is as much a great thing for a breed as it is a bad thing.  It means more potential homes, more potential adopters, more opportunity to educate people. Obscure breeds struggle to maintain genetic diversity, to find enough homes, to survive.  Popularity of course also increases the number of bad breeders, and good, and increases the buffer that prevents any one bad breeder from harming the breed.  Popularity is both good and bad…
  2. Many people enjoy bolstering their own egos by going on and on about how challenging Malinois are, how only the very best and most elite trainers are capable of owning them. Stop it! Successfully owning Malinois does not make you super-human, and in fact, if you are having as many struggles as many of the authors suggest, you are probably not doing a very good job. Malinois are like high-powered sports cars—they are probably not the best daily driver for most owners, and getting the most out of them takes lots of skill, but with a modicum of thoughtfulness and willingness to adapt, most people can learn to handle them. And for people who are interested in learning and improving and doing lots with their dogs, there are few breeds more able to take them on an incredible journey through a diverse range of activities. IMG_0293-2
  3. What will hurt the breed is all the people making memes and writing about how difficult and dangerous they are—every insurance company and legislator will be eager to ban these monsters and will use your propaganda to do so. Not to mention that the general public will see us coming and be afraid, and will not want us near them or their families.
  4. If you are going to talk about the “101 Dalmatians” effect, do some research and do not simply repeat the same half-truths you heard from someone else who did no research. Over the years movies have been made starring several dog breeds, and the impact on breed numbers has been very small, or in most cases zero. Hooch did not ruin Dogues. Lassie did not ruin Collies. Dalmatian registration numbers did not climb significantly after any of the Dalmatian movies. Yes, a few people who were likely going to get dogs anyway got Dalmatians—which despite high energy and a few health and temperament issues are actually not a bad choice for many homes—and so there were a few more Dals in rescue the following few years, but fewer of some IMG_4295other breeds. There is very little actual data to support the notion that Hollywood has much of an impact on breed numbers, or that increased breed numbers are inherently a bad thing. (In fairness, Dalmations did experience a rapid rise and fall in popularity which created some real challenges, but this occurred roughly 25 years after the animated movie was released, and before the live action movie was released, which release had virtually no effect on Dalmatian numbers. )
  5. Popularity does not destroy breeds. (Labs, Goldens, Poodles have been the most popular breeds for a long time and are doing reasonably well, especially compared to the calamities people seem to believe are inevitable if a breed becomes even a little popular.  Sure there are some issues in these breeds, but the issues are largely independent from popularity.)  What hurts the breed is popularity with the “wrong” demographic. (Pits, Corsos, Presas)  “Malinois are so intense and vicious” propaganda is making the breed less popular with potentially excellent pet homes but more popular with precisely the people who will harm the breed.  Every time you assert that only a few select people can handle Malinois, you are enticing precisely those ego-driven individuals who are certain they are the exception.
  6. Breeders are the stewards of the breed. There have always been, and likely always will be, lots of people who are attracted to Malinois but are not prepared to deal with their intensity or justduck2activity level; it is up to breeders to breed good dogs and screen potential homes so that the best and most correct homes end up with Malinois.

Getting any dog is a huge step and a huge responsibility. Any potential new owner needs to educate themselves about dog ownership in general, about the breeds they are considering, and about the individual. Yes, Malinois are an intense breed with attributes that make them more challenging than many other breeds, and most people should be steered to another breed. justiceleapbite2All pets require time and effort and a willingness to reshape your life, Malinois require more than most.

Of course, anyone looking at a breed should meet lots of individuals within that breed, should attend dog shows and performance events, should try babysitting, and should learn about all the peculiarities and tendencies within that breed. Almost any animal will be awful if matched with the wrong home.

Hollywood is not going to take care of our breed—they are going to keep telling interesting stories about individual animals with some good and some bad. It is up to us—the dog community—to use the opportunities provided by movies like Max to increase awareness of the breed in a good way. It is up to us to shepherd and protect this amazing, versatile, and challenging breed. It is up to us, as it always has been, to keep educating, and to keep improving the breed and placing them in the right homes…

 

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 June 30, 2015  Posted by at 8:17 pm Tagged with: , , , ,
Apr 042014
 

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Whether you acquire your dog from rescue or a breeder or some other path, you need to be unwaveringly committed to keeping that dog for the duration of its life. If you cannot be absolutely certain that you will be able to care for this dog for the next 17 years, you have no business getting a dog.

Every one of us has heard this countless times, and probably said something similar ourselves.  The problem is that while the intent—trying to get people to understand that a pet is a serious long-term commitment and not something to attempt lightly—is excellent, the specifics are often quite wrong and significantly harmful:Older-2

  1. Pretty much no honest person can genuinely make this commitment.  Who knows what bizarre twists and turns life may take.  You may end up dead, ill, homeless, whatever.  By requiring animal owners to make this eternal vow, we eliminate nearly all homes except those that are dishonest enough to pretend that they can promise the future.
  2. Millions of nice pets end up languishing in yards, kennels, and crates for years because the owners are ashamed to be derided and despised if they admit they cannot live up to this ideal.
  3. Many animals end up dumped somewhere to suffer simply because the person could not face the shame of rehoming their dog or walking into a shelter.

The real message ought to be that when you acquire an animal, you assume absolute responsibility for the welfare of that animal, whatever that means.  In most cases that will mean keeping the animal for a lifetime, but in some cases doing what is best for the animal will mean not keeping it but instead making certain that it goes somewhere else where it will be handled responsibly and with care. In some cases it may even mean stepping up and making the hard decision to euthanize a particular animal. A person’s life may change and they can no longer provide a good home for a pet, a Olderparticular pet may not fit into a particular home, a pet may be too much for an individual to handle, a pet may simply be nasty.  People should not enter into pet ownership lightly, but they also should not feel like there is no escape or they will never try.

Before I get a huge number of hostile comments, let me be absolutely clear that I am not in any way diminishing the magnitude of the responsibility of getting a pet.  I am not countenancing the casual acquisition and disposal of pets.  There are few undertaking I consider more sacred and serious than the decision to become responsible for the welfare of an animal.  And I think we absolutely should be doing everything we can as a community to encourage and increase retention, including making very certain that people understand what they are getting into.  But I do not think terrifying and shaming people is the best way to accomplish this goal.

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 April 4, 2014  Posted by at 9:26 pm Tagged with: , ,
Jan 142014
 

 

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I love wolves and wolfdogs, and have previously written several articles on this blog and elsewhere refuting the commonly asserted negatives: wolfdogs are not inherently dangerous, they can be very happy in captivity, they are not confused by their competing lineages, they can be effectively immunized, and in the right situations they can be wonderful pets. Wolfdogs are often extremely intelligent and tend to have a deep connection with their people.  They can be among the most beautiful of animals, and for those interested in improving as trainers they provide some of the best learning opportunities as their behaviors and responses tend to be very clear and direct.

Brit&ShayJan09031However, when people ask me about getting a wolfdog, in almost every case I attempt to dissuade them, and I IMG_5477wanted to share the reasons why:

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a wolfdog as a pet! But in the vast majority of cases, there is a “better” breed of dog available.  For many hundreds of years, selective breeding has been “improving” upon the characteristics of our canine companions, and for the most part has been hugely successful.  Dogs without immediate wolf heritage are generally easier to live with, more tractable, more trainable, less fearful, less destructive, easier to contain, less protective of resources, and in many other ways more adapted to normal human lifestyles. With hard work and commitment, you can accomplish many things with a wolfdog, but with the same amount of work you will generally get considerably further with a dog.  When you get any dog, you must be committed to altering your life to make the relationship succeed, but with most dogs you can expect them to accommodate and meet you more than half-way.  With a wolfdog, you will likely have to do considerably more of the accommodating…

Additionally, there are hundreds of dog breeds with a huge array of distinctive attributes.  Whatever characteristics are most important to you, there are likely a few breeds that far exceed wolfdogs.

IMG_0181-2I generally tell people who are looking for a pet, that the first step is honest careful evaluation of their life and their expectations of where a pet will fit into that life. What experiences are they looking to share?  Will they take the pet with them in the car, participate in particular activities, or train particular behaviors?  Do they want the pet to participate in, or even help with, certain aspects of their lives? Only once you have rigorously assessed your expectations can you begin to focus on what pet will be best, BrittBunnyEarsand for most people the best dog breed–the breed with which they are likeliest to share a long and wonderful adventure–is something other than a wolfdog…

 

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 January 14, 2014  Posted by at 6:46 am
Jan 292012
 

My friend Doug and I were walking along an old logging road in the woods when we heard the faint sound of an ATV coming towards us from way off in the distance.  A few moments later, our dogs appeared to hear the sound, and visibly perked up and acted interested.  Doug asked me why. Surely, he asserted, our dogs must have heard the sound long before we did, so why were they just now reacting?

Interestingly, his question is based on a common misconception: that canine hearing is far more acute than human hearing.  My impression is that many people have learned that dogs, when compared to humans, have hugely superior olfactory sensitivity and that dogs can hear higher frequencies such as dog whistles, and have concatenated these two facts into a fallacious belief that canine auditory sensitivity is far greater than human.

Given the prevalence of this belief, I figured I would share with my readers the answer I gave:

In general dogs’ auditory sensitivity is almost identical to that of a typical human: both species generally begin to hear sounds at a volume level of around -7 dB.   And human spatial acuity is significantly superior: we can generally localize a sound to within less than one degree of accuracy, while dogs can usually localize to an area of approximately 6 degrees.  And humans can hear lower frequencies than dogs, and can generally detect low frequencies at lower volume than dogs.  Dogs can however hear frequencies considerably higher than humans—humans generally cannot detect much over 18 kHz while dogs can generally hear sounds up to around 45h kHz.

So if there is a sound of more than -7 dB in volume and a frequency between 20-45 kHz, you will not be able to hear it and your dog will, but if its frequency falls within a range that humans can hear, you and your dog will hear it at right about the same volume level…

Just in case you want to verify this with your own eyes and ears, take your dog for a walk and pay attention.  You will quickly recognize that his reactions to interesting sounds are virtually simultaneous with yours.

Here is the same information in a chart taken from Wolves by David Mech and Luigi Boitani:

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 January 29, 2012  Posted by at 11:10 pm
Jan 102012
 

A few weeks ago, I had one of the worst experiences of my life: my dog Sequel disappeared while we were hiking in the woods around our home, and he was missing for several days and nights.  Each moment he was gone was devastating, but daytime was more bearable—there was so much to be done running the search that it was easy to set aside any thoughts about him being injured or dead.  We had multiple teams searching the woods and updating the search map, people driving the roads and putting up signs, people going door-to-door, people calling all the shelters, vets, daycares, etc.  Busyness can be a real friend in times of anguish! Long after night fell and the searchers had gone, I would force myself to try to get a few hours of sleep, but how can you lie in a warm bed and fall asleep knowing that your dog may be lying somewhere near death hoping you will find him soon…

And so, instead of sleeping, during the long, dark hours agonizing about all the worst things that could be happening to my dog, I wracked my brain about what I should have done differently, what I would do differently when—if—I found him and brought him home.  And I returned time and again to the same surprising answer: nothing.

 

I love my dogs with every fiber of my being.  I love them enough that while it sometimes might make me feel better to wrap them in cocoons and cloister them away safely, I force myself to always try to make the best decision for them.  Insofar as it is possible, I try to give my dogs the lives I believe they would want, with the balance of safety and adventure that they would chose if they could fully understand the issues. Most of my dogs would absolutely prefer to run in the woods, to swim in the ocean, to wrestle and leap and herd and play, even if these things come with some risk.

Of course, judgment is required-knowledge of your dogs, their personality and fitness and training (I would stake my life on Sequel’s recall if he could have heard me, and as soon as I got on the right side of the creek where he could, he came immediately), and the area and all the hazards so you can make an informed decision about whether to keep your dogs on leash or a long line or a GPS collar or have them loose but call them back frequently. And no matter how careful you are, there will be some risk!  But for nearly 20 years we have taken many, many animals out to run, play, hike, and camp in our woods, and the tens of  thousands of hours of joy, health, enrichment,  fitness, and fun it has brought is more than worth the risks, and really the worst that has ever happened is a few scrapes, a few porcupine quills, and some lost sleep…Those are pretty excellent odds, and even if Sequel had died, I am certain I would feel the same.

 

Please understand, I am not advocating recklessness: I am amazed at how often I watch people let their dogs out of a car in a parking lot and then pay no attention, or whose dogs are left unattended in homes full of hazards, or whose dogs are meeting groups of large, intense dogs while the owner is 100 feet away. Vigilance and mindful awareness are almost always to be advised with animals…

 

My dog is at risk in a moving car. He is at risk fetching a stick or a ball or wearing a collar. He is at risk at home that my house could catch fire. He is at risk on a dogwalk, or running in a field that might have a mole-hole. He is at risk chewing on a toy or meeting other dogs at a park. He is at risk that some lunatic will put poison on a sidewalk. Heck, I knew a dog recently who was run over while walking on leash in town… The risks from wildlife to a healthy, medium-sized dog in most areas are statistically very, very low. (of course if you live in an area in which risks are greater, you would need to behave accordingly!)

There are undoubtedly a few dogs that die from wildlife encounters each year in this country, or that get lost while out playing in the woods, or slip and fall down a cliff, but there are millions and millions of dogs that die each year obese and bored and with their bodies, minds, and spirits atrophied.  And while you can never perfectly protect your pets from risk, you absolutely can save them from boredom.

Being a good dog owner is not about avoiding risk-it is about balancing risk with richness.  Life is full of adventures, opportunities, and experiences that make our dogs’ lives wonderful, but we must not be so afraid that we avoid them.  I certainly cannot tell anyone else how to find their perfect balance point, but I can say that for me and my dogs, we would rather be injured or die living a rich full life than sit safely at home growing old.

 

One last happy thought: pursuing a full and rich life, will often have the magical side-effect of also maximizing health and longevity.  Our dogs spend their lives sprinting and swimming and leaping and playing as hard as possible, and they virtually all live well into their teens. Flint, our Belgian/Border Colli mix, lies at my feet as I write this, 18 years old. And I can hardly remember a day in his life that he did not fling himself into the unknown with utter abandon and sometimes crazy disregard for any potential risk…

I could probably write more about this topic, but Sequel wants to go for a hike now—back into the same woods, to his favorite swimming hole, and to the meadow to play a fast game of chase with Fig. We may die while playing our favorite games, but first, for sure, we are going to live…

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 January 10, 2012  Posted by at 10:13 am
Jan 062012
 

­I am asked about Cesar Millan fairly regularly, generally by novice dog owners who are curious as to whether I recommend his show and techniques. This is a reasonable question since Cesar Millan is perhaps the most recognizable and influential dog trainer ever: millions of people watch his show and listen to his advice on how to address behavioral issues with their dogs.  Yet many of the most respected experts in the field consider his techniques to be harmful to dogs, ineffective, and destructive to relationships.

So, what is the truth?  There is no single right answer about how to train animals. We all have opinions, and most of us are certain we know the best way and everyone else is wrong! Most trainers are very good in some areas and less good in other areas. And we all have different goals–one trainer may be much better at helping you achieve a particular objective while another trainer may be much better at something else.

I do not know Millan, and can only comment on what I have observed on television. People are entitled to like Millan’s methods–many people do! And it would be hard to fault his business and marketing savvy… I am not judging anyone’s opinion, merely sharing mine:

I think Cesar Millan is a first-rate bully and a fifth rate trainer. While he does some things well, and offers some excellent advice, in aggregate I do not like what he does to most of the animals with which I have seen him work. He is uninformed, unimaginative, cruel, and absurdly coercive.  The fact that his bullying sometimes works at least temporarily does not make it less offensive.  In my opinion he has hurt far, far more dogs and relationships than he has helped, and of the ones that he has helped, I suspect the recidivism rate is extremely high. He has set dog training back decades. He is dangerously irresponsible. (For example, one person taking 30 dogs off leash to a dogpark ought to be a felony in my opinion)

Let me start with what I like about Millan’s message: exercise, calmness, and leadership.  I absolutely agree that a huge portion of the behavioral issues people see in their dogs can be ameliorated through increased exercise and mental stimulation.  Canids evolved to spend a large portion of their lives active and challenged, and sticking them in a room all day with rich foods and little exercise leads to many problems.  I also agree that canids thrive in an environment with clear boundaries and a calm and strong leader.  This allows them to be relaxed and confident and know how to behave. I also recognize that many average pet homes want a dog that is as “shut-down” as possible: they do not want a happy, curious, and confident pet, they want a pet that just lies quietly in the corner, and Cesar’s techniques are in many instances an effective path to that end.

Now to the negatives about Millan’s techniques:

  1. Impatient: Millan often takes little time to get to know the dog, or to teach it what is desired, or to build a relationship, he simply grabs the dog, puts it into the situation where it is known to have problems, and then corrects it for failure. In most cases, good training is just the opposite of this. You find situations in which the dog can succeed, and then you gradually increase the difficulty of the situation while rewarding the dog for success at each step. Good training is often almost invisible.
  2. Correction first: Millan often hits, chokes, kicks, drags, and electrocutes dogs that do not yet know what is being asked of them as part of a systematic routine of intimidation. There are several steps that should occur before correction: it is very rarely effective to correct or punish a dog that does not yet understand what you are asking.  In many instances Millan could work the dog a little further away from a particular stimulus and teach the dog how to succeed and then get closer, but instead he rushes up, lets the dog fail, and then corrects the heck out of it. This may create good TV drama, but it is patently not in the dog’s best interests.
  3. Micromanaging: Millan often keeps the dogs on such a short leash (literally and figuratively) that they do not learn accountability.  They do not learn to make the right choices and respect the rules, they simply learn to give up and shut down. They learn to do and try nothing because they will get attacked if they move.  Good training allows dogs to feel empowered and instructed; to clearly understand what behaviors are not allowed, and be responsible for making the right choices.
  4. Confrontation: Millan routinely creates confrontation where it does not naturally exist.  This was a popular notion in the 50s—you cannot really train a dog until you have shown it that you are the boss by kicking its butt, so you should make this happen—set up the dog to fail without any training, just so that you can induce a confrontation that you can then win and make sure the dog knows you are stronger, bigger, and tougher. Good trainers absolutely may do this with some animals, but it is fairly rare, and Millan seems to want to go there with almost every dog.
  5. Unimaginative: Millan sometimes uses different tools, but his basic range of techniques is very narrow.  So when he happens to get a dog that needs those techniques he will be very effective, when he happens to get a dog that needs something different he will be very destructive. I would have the same problem if he were purely positive and gave treats for everything—one technique does not work across the board. Good trainers are fabulous problem solvers. They come up with brilliant ways to induce behaviors, change attitudes, and mold responses. They have a remarkable range of techniques that they use to work with different dogs. They can be very positive when needed, very harsh when needed, supportive, quiet, loud, calm, exuberant, etc.
  6. Cruel: Millan chokes dogs till they pass out and he electrocutes them repeatedly until they are biting and terrified. The American Humane Association who monitors animal use on set has requested that Nat. Geo not air some Dog Whisperer episodes because the treatment of the animals is so inhumane. Good training is never cruel.
  7. Archaic / Uneducated:  Millan’s training is essentially exactly what one would have seen in 1950.  But then, what educational background does Millan have?  How many of the relevant books has he read?  Has he made any real effort to learn what others know so that he can improve? Or is he just reinventing unrefined and simplistic dog training? We have learned so much in the last 50 years that it is hard to imagine someone who would not integrate some of that learning into their training. Good trainers avail themselves of available knowledge and science and continually improve. Even the best trainers in the world often attend each others seminars, but I have never seen Cesar…
  8. Isolation:  I am not a huge fan of competition with animals, but occasionally it can be useful to objectively assess how your techniques are working.  Entering an obedience trial, or agility or Schutzhund or whatever, lets you gauge your performance against your peers.  Cesar not only does not compete, he has never, so far as I know, tried any canine competition so he could see where he stands.
  9. Indifference to canine attitude: Millan sacrifices attitude for quick superficial results, and I believe that is very counterproductive. Watch any of the dogs he works, and you will rarely see truly happy dogs, confident dogs, secure, trusting dogs. Good trainers focus on attitude and character—training rules and specific behaviors is essentially trivial. Once you have taught a dog how to learn, how to take cues, how to relax, it is easy to teach specific behaviors.

Adding all of this together, I find Millan’s relationship with the dogs unappealing—I do not see trust, respect, confidence, and adoration, I see subservience, temerity, and learned helplessness.

Millan fans sometimes suggest that those who dislike Millan must be softies who reject notions of control and discipline.  It is absolutely true that some people who dislike Millan do so because they dislike any sort of correction.  However, there are also many, many excellent trainers who do believe in appropriate corrections but who revile Millan’s techniques. Virtually all good trainers impose rules, boundaries, and limits.  Some excellent trainers even use strong corrections when they are appropriate. Go to any canine competition (obedience, French Ring, agility, herding, etc.) and ask around, you will generally find the top people with the best trained and most obedient dogs dislike Millan’s methods, while hordes of novices with unruly dogs are devotees.  Some of the most accomplished trainers in the world dislike his methods, and I assure you their dogs are not disobedient or disrespectful.

I do not understand why many people equate control with intimidation.  Abusive parents who beat or terrorize their children may achieve “control.” So do reasonable parents who set and explain clear boundaries, teach and reward desired behaviors, earn respect and trust, and effectively utilize punishment when necessary.  These good parents or dog trainers absolutely may use intimidation when it is the best option, but it is not the foundation of their relationship—it is not where they start or how they interact most of the time. (I vividly remember the few times my father seriously intimidated me, and they were hugely effective in large part because they were not frequent!)

Perhaps the best place to observe the dichotomy between dominance based training and cooperation based training is in training any wild animal.  Work with a tiger, a grizzly bear, a pack of wolves, an orca, or even a raccoon or squirrel, and you quickly discover that these schools of thought are NOT the same.  Dominance based trainers exert a clear and absolute dominance every moment of interacting—it is imperative that the animal understands that humans have absolute power and should never be challenged.  Non-dominance trainers exert a clear and absolute cooperation every moment—it is imperative that the animal understands that humans are their friends and are not going to challenge them or hurt them. While a single trainer may utilize both attitudes at different times, if you switch back and forth with these animals, you have a VERY short career—suddenly showing weakness to a wild animal that has been dominated, or suddenly showing dominance to a wild animal used to cooperation generally elicits extremely undesirable results… Each attitude can be powerfully effective, but they are essentially different in far more than language. (I think it is important to concede that even many of the most cooperative trainers do have a line that cannot be crossed.  A point at which dominance training does come into play.  A point at which they say, “You have no choice here, you must do what I say.”  The critical distinction is that they strive to help the animal avoid crossing that line, rather than regularly luring the animal across that line so that they can have an “opportunity” to dominate and intimidate some more…)

If your primary method of control is intimidation, the animals you train learn that intimidation and power are tools to get what you want.  Sooner or later these animals may well decide to try to get what they want using intimidation.  This is what happens eventually to most animal bullies in the wild, and is extremely dangerous.  So I elect to use cooperation and leadership so that they learn that I am a powerful and benevolent leader who will help them get what they want in the world.  I outsmart them by making sure that their success coincides with my desires until they reflexively and habitually do what I ask. I am smarter, but not stronger or faster, so it makes sense to use my intellectual advantage rather than bluffing about a physical advantage.

There is a genuine distinction between a leader who is revered and idolized and a leader who is feared, and I personally believe that being revered leads to better working, more reliable, happier, healthier dogs, but I rarely see this occur on Millan’s show.  I see bullying and intimidation instead of leading and teaching.

It makes me profoundly sad to think that such a bully is out there working with dogs every day, but far worse is that so many people do not see his techniques for what they are.  That millions of people still see intimidation and cruelty as viable leadership techniques makes me sad indeed.

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 January 6, 2012  Posted by at 9:15 am
Nov 222011
 

This past week our Mal-n-Collie “Flint” turned 18, and several people asked me a question that we hear fairly often, so I thought I would address it here: what are we doing that is allowing our dogs to consistently exceed, or at least push the upper limits of, the expected lifespan for their breed?

Of course, the answer is that I do not know—we do many things, and without conducting a careful study it is impossible to know which of these things are significantly contributing to our pets’ longevity. But here, in roughly descending order of importance, are the things I believe are most important:

 

Low stress: this is perhaps the single most important ingredient in keeping your dog young.  Nearly every time I spend time around other people and their dogs, I can feel my anxiety climbing—so many unclear rules, so much correcting, nagging, yelling.  So many conflicting requirements, or vague paths to success that change depending on circumstance or mood. Be mindful of your dogs stress level.  Use good management techniques to avoid stress.

Exercise: not walking on leash, or running for a minute around an agility course, but real exercise.  Exercise that gets their heart rate to 80% or more of max for prolonged periods several times each week.  Exercise that pushes their muscles nearly to the point of failure repeatedly. Sprinting up sand dunes, swimming hard, pulling weights, tugging for all they are worth, work their hearts and lungs and large muscles and small muscles and…

Weight: study after study has demonstrated that calorie restriction is one of the greatest prolongers of life, health, and comfort. Honestly, I get so frustrated when people say their dogs are fat because they love them too much to feed them less.  Grow up and quit feeding your dog too much. Keep them lean and they will live years longer and be more comfortable.

Diet: we feed a very carefully planned natural diet with minimal grains.

Minimal vaccinations: not only are multiple vaccinations implicated in many ailments, but also the adjuvants contained in most vaccinations are detrimental to health.  This is not to say that you should not vaccinate, but you should utilize the fewest number of vaccinations that is likely to provide adequate protection in your circumstances.

Minimal toxins: we are very mindful of toxins.  We live way out in the woods away from urban poisons, our dogs drink well-water, we use almost no herbicides or other toxins on our property, we almost never put topical flea or tick treatments on our dogs, we feed from inert bowls, we use least-harmful cleaning products and do not let our pets near them.

Diverse Enrichment: have you ever noticed that some people as they age just get bored and lethargic and sit in their comfortable chair waiting to die, while other people are still active and engaged?  And the lethargic people generally wither away, while the engaged people stay younger longer…  A similar phenomenon seems to occur in animals.  I often go over peoples’ homes and their dogs are lying in the same spot, going on the same walk, essentially experiencing the same day over and over and over.  Sure, they are still eager to go for a walk or get dinner, but there is very little novelty or excitement. Give your dogs new experiences, new treats, fun games.  Give them challenges to overcome and puzzles to solve. Maintaining neural plasticity protects youthfulness.

Joy: being happy is a powerful energizer.  Play with your dogs, wrestle with them, have them chase you.  Laugh and smile and be happy together.

Temperature/climate: in general it seems that dogs who spend most or all of their time outdoors age more quickly. So I would suggest keeping them inside, particularly when the temperature or weather deviates more than a little bit from ideal.

I genuinely believe that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to life.  However, for the most part, pursuit of either results in an increase in both.  So give your pets low-stress, healthy, rich, and happy lives, and they will live the longest they can…

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 November 22, 2011  Posted by at 7:14 am