Friday, June 26, 2009

How Man Creates Dog in His Own Image

This is a compilation of 3 articles I recently wrote for Psychology Today.

How Man Creates Dog in His Own Image

Dogs Have Colonized Our Subconscious

Kevin Behan writes, “Whether we know it or not, we all develop highly complex theories for [canine behavior]. Even someone who doesn’t own a dog and never even thinks about why [dogs] do what they do nonetheless develops a highly elaborate theory.”

I think this is due in part to our Disneyfication of animals, which causes us to unconsciously confer "personhood" on our dogs. But it's also the result of something very clever that the domesticated dog, and no other species, does. They read us and react, read us and react, read us and react, over and over. The other part is something exclusive to humans: we form identities that include not only our occupations, our religions, our ethnic backgrounds, etc. We identify with our pets as well.

"I'm a dog person," someone might say.

"Not me," says another, "I'm more of a cat person."

"I like horses!" or “I’m more into birds!”

And just as we need to assign identities to ourselves, we also need to assign them to our dogs. (I don't now about birds and horses, but cats already have their own identities.)

I met a woman on the street a few weeks ago while I was out with a Welsh springer spaniel named Caleb who is probably the most ebulliently social dog I've ever met. The woman had a King Charles cavalier spaniel. And as Caleb went through his bag of tricks the other dog scooted away in a wide circle, making an almost perfect arc with Caleb at the center of her radius.

The woman said, "She's just playing hard to get."

How interesting, I thought. The "dog-as-stuck-up-cheerleader" theory.

Caleb had to pee so he gave up on his attempts to conquer the little dog with love, and started sniffing for a good spot. But once his back was turned, the female immediately came zooming toward his backside for a quick butt sniff. When Caleb realized what was going on he turned around, and the other dog quickly rolled over on her side.

"See?" said the woman, proudly. "Now she's being a total slut."

Hmm. First she's hard to get, now she's too easy.

There are any number of explanations for how this exchange actually happened (and why). I suppose her explanation for the behavior is valid but I doubt it. The most common explanation would be that the female was first exhibiting an avoidance reaction, then she became submissive.

I don't see it that way. Avoidance makes sense until you realize that the female really wanted to make contact with Caleb, she just didn't know how. This is borne out by the way she came zooming in once his back was turned. And submission makes no sense at all unless you were to first change the size, shape, and structure of a dog's brain.

The human mind is designed to find reasons for things, even things that don't have reasons. And dogs don't have reasons for their behaviors; they can't. The dog's brain is designed primarily to process sensory data and emotional information in real time. It would not have been advantageous, in evolutionary terms, for dogs or wolves to take time out to "think" about their circumstances and then use reason or logic to make decisions. In the wild a logical animal is a dead animal. That's because logic is a slow, high-energy, top-heavy mental process. Even chess masters don't use logic to win matches; they rely on pattern recognition and working memory. Yet whenever we see a dog stop for a moment to make choices about which action he wants to take, or pause to "feel things out," we automatically (and mostly unconsciously) believe the dog is "thinking things through," i.e., using an innate ability to reason.

There are several "reasons" for this. One is that dogs have faces. And one of the primary social circuits in the human brain is designed to recognize not only the faces of people we know but to "intuit" what the expressions on those faces "mean." These circuits are equipped with a lot of dopamine receptors, making face recognition a kind of natural high.

When we see footage of wolves hunting, for example, our analysis of what we think is going in their minds (which probably goes back to the Darwinian idea of species having adaptive "strategies") is that the wolves are planning their attack; they've got a "game plan." We see it in their faces. Yet when we see a spider go into a hole and pull a leaf over himself to "hide" from his prey, do we believe the spider is thinking this through logically? Does it have a game plan? Of course not. And one of the reasons we don't do that is that a spider's "face" is expressionless.

Another "reason" we believe dogs use logic and reason may be that dogs don't feel themselves to be separate from us, and on a certain level we don't feel separate from them. Many pet owners report that they grieve more over the loss of a favorite pet than they do over the loss of a parent, a close friend, or a spouse. These owners say that losing the pet is like losing a part of themselves. That may be because parents, spouses, and friends have ego boundaries. Dogs don't. As a result it becomes easier for us to see our dogs as indivisible from our own thoughts, making us susceptible to the belief that they think more like we do than the size and shapes of their brains would suggest or support.

Another anomaly is that dogs are much smarter than wolves in terms of being adaptable to new environments and in terms of their social and emotional intelligence. And yet a wolf's brain is at least 25% larger than the brain of a dog the same size.

Where does the dog get its extra brain power?

I think they get it from our brains. I think they literally hijack parts of our brains and use them to think with. I borrowed this idea from the philosophy of embodied embedded cognition, written and hypothesized about by Daniel Dennett, Andy Clark, Susan Hurley, and others.

Here's how I think this happens: Dogs read us and react, read us and react, read us and react, over and over. And we project our own emotions and thought processes onto their reactions, based in large part on our personal beliefs and identities. As a result, our reactions, in the moment, reinforce whatever small behavioral changes the dog exhibits in response to us in an almost continuous loop. This happens repeatedly, countless numbers of times every day, even when we're not thinking about it. And as a result, the dog begins to reflect back to us many of the same things we're unconsciously projecting onto them.

That's what they do. That's what we do.

So it makes sense that the woman with the female cavalier thought her dog was playing hard to get. It wasn't that being hard to get was part of the woman's persona. In fact, probably just the opposite. But dogs feed off our emotions. So by having an emotional issue with that specific behavior, the woman was unconsciously reinforcing it. If she hadn't had an emotional issue with it, and hadn't labeled it, she would have had more of an idea about what was really going on with her dog (she was anxious), and would have done something to help her.

The Dog as Psychotherapist

None of us are complete human beings. We all have unresolved issues. Most people are aware of the health and psychological benefits dog ownership can have. There’s plenty of research showing that owning a dog reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, etc.

There's another benefit that not many people are aware of; dogs can also be great psychotherapists if we let them.

Years ago I saw a woman in Central Park call her dog to her in a stern tone of voice. The dog had been doing something he shouldn't have; I don't remember what it was. He came to her nervously, head down.

She grabbed his snout and shouted in his face. "Do you have any idea how irresponsible you are when you do that?" she yelled at him. "Do you? What would make you even think that that kind of behavior was acceptable?"

The dog looked "guilty," which satisfied the owner momentarily.

"All right, then. But you'd better never let me catch you doing that kind of thing again."

What I took away from this encounter (other than that the owner was completely unaware that she was talking to a dog, not an unruly child) was that some of us seem to use our relationships with our dogs to work out emotional issues of our own, which we then project back on to the dog's behavior in a circular fashion.

How could a dog act "irresponsibly?" How could he have "thought" his behavior was acceptable or unacceptable?

His owner seemed certain that he felt guilty when she chided him.

But did he?

A recent study done by Alexandra Horowitz at Barnard College shows some pretty solid evidence that the "guilty look" we sometimes see in our dogs is a complete and utter figment of our own imaginations, and is actually the result of the way the dogs have been treated, not an awareness of any misdeed on their part. (Some of the dogs in the study exhibited a "guilty look" — or so their owner's imagined — even when they hadn't done anything “wrong.”)

So clearly dogs don't feel guilty, but people often imagine that they do.

Does this have anything to do with the callow supposition I made years ago, that some dog owners use their dogs as surrogates for their own emotional issues?

Yes. I still think that's true. In my first mystery novel, A Nose for Murder, Jack Field — an ex-cop turned dog trainer — describes the kind of relationship one of his training clients had with her Airedale, Ginger:

"She was using Ginger to work out emotional issues she had with her parents. It's not uncommon. The owner engages in a kind of psychodrama, with the dog playing the role of the owner's inner child and the owner in the role of a parent or authority figure."

Jack also thinks it's possible to determine a person's complete psychological profile by how they interact with their dogs:

"If Sigmund Freud had allowed his patients to talk only about their pooches, instead of free-associating about their mommies and their potty training, they would have all been cured a lot faster."

These are jokes, of course. And yet Freud said jokes are a way of telling the truth.

Our dogs love us to pieces. They also read us and our emotional lives in ways we can only imagine. I'm convinced that they know, on a purely unconscious level, what our issues are. They feel them. And it seems to me that if we can learn how to pay attention to what our dog's behaviors reflect back to us about how we feel, if we can tune in to how their actions might trigger whatever unresolved childhood issues we may have, particularly at times when we get frustrated and angry at them over minor issues, I think we could save a lot of money on therapy. Or we could just talk to our therapists about our dogs. Either way, there's something about the nature of the domesticated dog that can get to the heart of the matter like no other animal on earth.

By the way, about 4 years after I wrote the passages in my first novel I've quoted above, I found out that Kevin Behan, who originated the training methods I use and the philosophy I subscribe to, felt the same way. Here's a link to an article that's been on his website since at least 2001.

The Dog Who Helped Me Forgive My Father

Let me start by saying two things concerning my personal understanding about the nature of emotion.

The first is about memory, which is that there is virtually no difference between physical and emotional memory.

This is something I learned while studying at the NATAS acting workshop in New York. (I was never a very good actor, by the way; I was always too self-conscious on camera.)

Most people think that when a method actor is preparing for a scene, he starts by thinking about an emotional event from his past, and then tries to recapture that same feeling. That's sort of true. But trying to simply recall the emotions doesn't work. Being caught up in a deep emotional state — the only kind actors find worth using — puts you in a vulnerable position, and there's a part of the psyche that tries to prevent us from being vulnerable if it can. So you can struggle and strain all you like to recall the giddy, almost tipsy delight you felt the first time a girl (or boy) you liked told you they liked you back, for example, or the despair you felt later when she (or he) told you things were over. But try as you might to recall the exact emotions, they won't come. Yet if you simply recall some of the sensory details surrounding those events — the color of her eyes, the texture of the walls, something as inconsequential as the angle of light shining off her hair — then the emotions come flooding back, to carry you away once more.

Emotional memory is not mental or abstract; it's visceral and concrete.

The second thing about emotions is that while we may categorize many different types — anger, jealousy, longing, lust, joy, etc. — they all come from the same well, meaning there is essentially only one emotion. And like white light it can be refracted into a rainbow of different emotional colors, something I also learned in acting workshop. For example, if a scene requires your character to be angry, but you're feeling more on the sad side that day, it makes no difference at all. If any kind of emotion is there you're free to use it however you want. Yes, you may feel sad before the scene starts, but once you're in it you'll be absolutely furious.

So the only difference between emotions is their "color."

Years ago I had a black-and-white English field setter named Charley. He was named after a character in a screenplay I'd just sold: The Legend of Charley Maine, about a Manhattan couple — Maggie and Charley Maine — whose youngest daughter is kidnapped by elves on Halloween night. Charley often appeared on David Letterman's NBC show, where he was known as "Charlie [sic] the Bubble-Eating Dog." And when I wasn't waiting for phone calls from NBC, or out on my own auditions, I loved spending long hours in Central Park watching Charley play with the other dogs. A favorite of ours was a young Weimeraner named Flash, a wonderfully exuberant dog.

Flash's owner and I would sometimes make small talk as our dogs played, and in the course of our casual conversations, which took place over several months, outdoors, in a relaxed setting, little tidbits emerged about a kind of love/hate relationship she had with her father. And I slowly began to understand (or I thought I did) something about the curious relationship she had with her dog; she was often red-faced with anger at Flash for doing next to nothing, yet at other times she smothered him with kisses, also for doing nothing. She had a love/hate relationship with her dog too.

So one day I asked her why she'd named him "Flash," and she told me that it had been one of her father's nicknames. Well, of course. It all made perfect sense.

As I thought about it, though, I realized that something similar had been going on with me and Charley as well. I never berated him for playing, but I did get very seriously mad at him whenever he did something I thought might put his life in danger. At such times I felt helpless and out of control, and could feel myself actually becoming my father.

What was going on?

When Charley died suddenly six months later, some answers came.

First of all, my father had passed away 22 years earlier, but I didn't cry at his funeral; I was the only dry-eyed Kelley in the church that day. And I had never cried over his death at any time after that either. And the reason, or so I told myself, was that I was still pissed off at the way he'd treated me when I was very, very young. (Let's just say he'd been overfond of corporal punishment.) But when my poor little dog Charley died, man did I cry. I sobbed for 3 days straight. I couldn't even get out of bed. And it seemed to me that there was no difference in the tears I cried for Charley in 1990 and the ones I should have cried for my father 22 years earlier. In fact the love and loss I felt for that dog, reawakened something in me about the deep nature of the love I'd actually felt for my dad following the mistakes he'd made when I was 3 or 4. Tears are tears, after all, whether we cry them for our lost parents, or while watching the end of a good production of Romeo and Juliet or seeing My Dog Skip on TV, or just because we hear some dumb song on the radio. So I ended up crying for the loss of both animals, human and canine, daddy and doggy. (I also learned that you may be able to ignore your feelings successfully for 22 years but that doesn't mean they've gone away.)

Then, as my grief began to ebb and fade, I realized I'd also somehow forgiven my dad. The burden of anger and resentment I'd carried around in my chest like a dead weight for most of my life was gone, vanished. I finally understood what a great man he was in so many ways. He fought a war, he was part of a unit of soldiers who freed the prisoners at Dachau. He could sit down at the piano and play virtually any song he'd heard for the first time, completely by ear. He was also the most popular dad in our neighborhood because he was the only grownup who'd play with the neighbor kids. Many times when the doorbell rang, and a kid stood on the other side of the screen door with a football or basketball under his arm, he wouldn't ask, "Can Lee [or Jamie or Del] come out and play?" but "Can Jack [my dad's name] come out and play?" And yes, my father made some mistakes when I was a tyke, but bless him, once he realized what he was doing he learned how to control his temper and it never happened again. I should have recognized what a difficult thing that must've been instead of staying angry at him for so long.

So thanks, Charley. You were a great dog. I miss you.

And thanks Jack. You were a great dad. I miss you too.

Happy Father's Day, 2009.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Pushing Exercise

This is a corollary to my previous blog post, "An Open Letter to New York Dog Trainers."

How to Do the Pushing Exercise
Some dogs play tug naturally, others have to be taught how. 
That's where "The Pushing Exercise" comes in handy!  

In Natural Dog Training one of the most important and pivotal exercises we do is called “the pushing exercise,” where we hand feed a dog outdoors, encouraging the pooch to push against us while he or she eats. Kevin Behan the originator of NDT, and the nation's premiere expert on the rehabilitation of problem dogs, particularly those with severe aggression problems — created this exercise, as an outgrowth of the work he did for many years training police dogs, border patrol dogs, and detection dogs. In order to build a dog's drive to the levels needed in such work a trainer will often play tug-of-war and then push against the dog as he's tugging on the toy. This builds the dog's drive and makes him more reliable in a crunch situation.

One of the things the pushing exercise does is it creates a better emotional bond between you and your dog. But it's also amazingly effective at solving all kinds of behavioral problems, particularly those that are fear-based.


All behavior is an expression of energy, but energy always has to flow toward something. And sometimes a dog's emotional energy gets blocked by past experiences, fears, lack of confidence, etc. The pushing exercise can help a dog learn how to push past her internal resistance, her emotional barriers, and whatever other kinds of energy blocks she might be experiencing. Once she does, she'll be happier, more confident, plus a lot more obedient.

All dogs are good dogs, some just need a little push!

NOTE: This version of the exercise is designed to be used by the average dog owner, one whose dog has mild to moderate behavioral problems. Do not try this with a dog who's aggressive toward humans over food. You have to either do some preliminary work with such dogs before moving on to the pushing exercise, or leave it in the hands of an experienced professional.

At meal time, take the dog outdoors, on-lead, to a quiet spot with few distractions. Have her morning or evening meal in a bait bag (or you can use a leather nail bag from the hardware store). It’s a good idea to feed the dog only half her usual fare at her previous meal so that she’ll come into this exercise with more desire to eat than usual.

When you find a good spot, stop walking, calmly stroke her and praise her. Scruff her under the chin or scratch under her ears. Set up a warm, convivial feeling.

Take an open, loose, non-threatening stance, not directly head-on, but at a kind of 3/4 degree angle, with your legs apart so when she comes to take the food from your hand she’ll be coming at a more direct angle. You don’t want her coming in from either your right or left side—she should come straight between your legs.

With some dogs I do the exercise while seated, but keep the same loose body language.

Bend your knees slightly, but lean back from the hips in what I call the “Kramer.” But keep your shoulders rounded, not stiff. This stance will automatically encourage your dog to want to come toward you. (She might not at first, but she’ll at least have some desire to do so, much more so than if you stand close and loom over her).

Grab a handful of food from the bag. I like to use my non-dominant (left) hand for the food (I’m right handed). Also, if the dog eats kibble I usually marinate it in hot water for 20 mins. or so, until it’s nice and mushy; I also like to add some juicy chicken or bits of steak, or some tasty canned food as well. Sometimes a dog I’m working with will be eating a raw food diet. That’s fine too. I always wear a latex glove on my food hand.

Show the dog that you have a nice handful of yummy food. Praise her for showing interest in it. Then close your fingers gently across your palm (covering the food), and say, in a warm, gentle tone of voice, “Wait…” And as you can see the dog holding her energy back for a second or so, say, “Good… Ready!” in a happy tone, then open your hand and let her eat.

As she eats, put your other hand lightly against her chest, with your palm up, cupping her breast bone. Don’t push against her with this hand. Just let it sit there. If she shows nervousness about having that other hand against her chest while she’s eating, you have to take it a little slower; use that hand to scratch under her ears again, etc. You want her to feel comfortable. Let her eat while you pet her and scratch her with that hand.

Once she’s finished eating that handful of food, withdraw your other hand from her chest, dip into the bag for another handful, and start again, repeating the same sequence of words: “Wait…” She waits. “Ready? Okay!”

If she really gets into eating this way, or is almost there, but not quite, I’ll encourage her while she’s eating. “Oh, you want it! Come on! Come on and eat it! Push me! Push!” You have to make sure this doesn’t throw her off-balance emotionally though. It should make her want to push into harder. If her interest lags instead, ease off a little on the vocal encouragement. Another variation, once the dog is really into the game, is to move away from her as you push. This not only increases her interest in the game it has the added benefit of making her more interested in coming when called.

With some dogs it may take several days or more to get them comfortable with this. Take it very slowly. Sometimes it's beneficial with such dogs to simply not "push" it at one meal and "skip" to the next. It won't hurt a dog to fast for a meal or two. In fact holistic vets recommend that you fast your dog once a week. It's actually good for a dog's digestive system. Doing this will also reduce a dog's nervousness about eating from your hand. 

Don't go overboard, of course. And if you're working with a rescue dog who's severely underweight, let her get closer to her ideal weight before doing any fasting. Kevin Behan recommends that for some dogs you have to keep them at about 85% of their ideal body weight until their behavioral problems are resolved. (There is sound reasoning behind this idea: hunger is nature's way of curing fear.)

Over the course of a few days, as you sense your dog's increased openness to pushing, start pulling your food hand away bit by bit, while keeping the other hand in position, nice and steady against her chest. If she’s interested enough in the food, this will automatically cause her to push into you to keep eating. As she gets used to the feeling of pressure, and seems to start to like it, you can slowly build the amount of pressure she’s able to tolerate against her chest. The harder the dog pushes the more of her fear and confidence issues she’ll be getting rid of (because she's pushing past her emotional barriers).

The ultimate goal is that eventually, over the course of a week or two (maybe more, depending on the dog), you’ll have her pushing so hard that she’s up on her back legs, nearly knocking you over. But never let her feel pressure against her chest unless she’s also eating at the same time. As she begins to push harder and harder at each meal, you’ll see some incredible changes in her behavior. She’ll be calmer, more obedient, less pushy (I know!), and more centered and balanced.

That’s what always happens. You just have to see it to believe it…

Click here for a downloadable pdf file so you can have a hard copy to work from.

Click here to purchase Neil Sattin’s DVDs, the 1st volume is almost exclusively about pushing.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An Open Letter to New York Dog Trainers

This blog post is actually written for all dog owners and trainers, everywhere.

An Open Letter to NYC Dog Trainers
"I know exactly what I want to say. 
I just can't type it without fingers!" 

I'd like to introduce you to a wonderful new training technique. It can help shy dogs become confident, turn aggressive dogs into love- muffins, eliminate fear, decrease unwanted barking, make dogs happier and more playful, increase obedience, and can even help with housebreaking issues. In fact, it does all that and a lot more.

I must be joking, right? 

Nope. It's called "The Pushing Exercise" and here are just a few case histories:

Ginger: I got an e-mail from a veteran dog trainer of 35 years who started out using “pack leader” methods but switched several years ago to an “all positive” approach. She wanted to know how to get her “shy,” 11 month-old Jack Russell terrier Ginger to stop eliminating in the house. Since the little Jack wouldn’t play, I suggested that the woman spend some time on the floor every day, letting the dog jump on top of her, and that she hand feed all her dog’s meals outdoors, using what we in Natural Dog Training call the pushing exercise. Within a week the little doggie had not only stopped eliminating in the house, she was much less shy and actually began bringing her owner a toy. 

Ba’sia: Some members of an online behavior board read about the pushing exercise here on this blog, and several of them tried it, just to see what changes if any it created in their dogs. Within 4 or 5 days the owners of a Belgian shepherd named Ba’sia, whose only real behavioral problem was that she loved to chase the Frisbee but wouldn’t bring it back, began bringing it back to her owners, on her own, with no prompts. She just suddenly “felt” like doing it. 

Fancy: When Fancy, a boxer, was a puppy she was sick for several months and had to be kenneled at the vet’s office. As a result she had trouble interpreting social signals from other dogs and was getting into skirmishes a lot at the park and at the dog run. I did the pushing exercise with her for a few days, and she slowly began to learn how to play nicely with other dogs. There was one unanticipated side-effect.

Her owners called me about four days in, to ask if I’d also been working on her fear of sidewalk grates. I told them I hadn’t. In fact, I hadn’t even known about the behavior.

“Well, whatever you're doing with her is working like a charm. She’s no longer afraid of them!”

Kyla: A German shepherd mix (mostly shepherd) named Kyla had a very “dominant” temperament, and one problem she had was that she could not be bribed, cajoled, or coaxed with treats away from her intense focus on squirrels. She also pulled constantly on the leash, ignored her owner’s commands, constantly got underfoot at home, was always jumping up on the bed or the couch, barked incessantly at other dogs at the dog run, and scavenged like there was no tomorrow. But Kyla slowly and gradually became a totally different dog. She now loves to obey all her commands, she no longer pulls on the leash, she still shows a strong interest in squirrels, but is easily called away, stays off the furniture, and no longer scavenges. 

Why? Because of the pushing exercise.

Caleb: A Welsh springer spaniel named Caleb, who sometimes stays with me overnight, was starting to exhibit a very severe form of resource guarding whenever other dogs were staying with me as well. At meal time he felt he had to attack any dog who came near any food, even the food in their own dinner bowl. All food was his! This was an otherwise wonderfully social dog who had a knack for making almost any other dog love him, no matter what it took. But at meal time, with other dogs around, he became a monster. So, as an experiment, I did the pushing exercise with him for 2 days, and guess what? He never showed any signs of resource guarding ever again.

Muskoka: This is a Westie who had 2 problems — leash aggression and an absolutely frantic fear of walking anywhere near 72nd Street between West End and Broadway (the location of her vet’s office). She’s now no longer leash aggressive, and is slowly getting used to walking nearer and nearer the dreaded place where she gets all her shots and examinations, and used to get her toenails clipped.

Dudley: He’s a cocker spaniel who’d had separation anxiety for seven years, and during that time had also forgotten how to play. He was so frightened of being left alone, he was found by his owners several times, trembling in a corner covered in his own excrement, his eyes practically spinning with terror and despair. It took much longer to bring this poor little guy back to normal, but one of the primary ingredients was — you guessed it — the pushing exercise!

How is it possible that one simple exercise — whose only point seems to be to teach a dog to be pushy about eating — have such diverse effects, one of which is that it actually makes dogs less pushy?

If your background is in dominance training (or being the pack leader), this exercise would make no sense to you for a lot of reasons, the main one being that by simply allowing (not to mention outright encouraging!) a dog to push into his owner to get his meals every day you would be setting up the exact opposite dynamic of what the pack leader culture believes in. You would in the clearest of terms be allowing your dog to “dominate” you. And yet the exercise makes dogs more, not less obedient. It makes them less pushy about food. It makes them more likely to stay off the furniture, come when called, and less likely to get into fights or engage in resource guarding. In other words, it makes them less “dominant.”

If your background is in the “all positive” approach, the exercise probably makes no sense to you either because from a learning theory perspective all the exercise is doing is reinforcing a specific behavior, pushing for food. And yet it makes dogs less pushy!

How is this possible?

Working for a Living
Dogs are designed to work for a living. Pet dogs no longer have the utilitarian function in our lives that they once did. They don’t have to hunt, herd, or guard our flocks for us to get their daily provender. Their expectation (learned and reinforced by their owners) is that a bowlful of food will appear in the kitchen or on the back porch 2x a day, and that’s pretty much it. Oh, sure, sometimes they might have to perform tricks to get an extra treat now and then, but for the most part all the energy they’re designed by evolution to expend on working for a living goes into, what? Playing with other dogs at the dog park? Going on long walks? Playing fetch with a Frisbee or tennis ball? Patrolling the back yard for gophers? All worthwhile pursuits, but hardly dirty-fingernails, blue-collar, working-class stuff.

If they’re lucky — and if they’re suited for such tasks — they might get a chance to do Schutzhund or go to agility trials and dance through some weave poles. But again, it's hardly the real 8-hr. day, punching the time-clock down at the elk herd type stuff, is it?

Meanwhile our species, the human animal — who also used to hunt (and gather) for a living — now expend much less of our physical energy toward putting food into our dinner bowls. Sure, some of us still farm the land and pull nets full of fish out of the sea. But the difference (or one of them) is that those of us who engage in that kind of hard, physical labor on a regular basis don’t need gym memberships. Most of the rest of us do.

Why is that? Why do we go to the gym, or the golf course, or go hiking or kayaking or play tennis or go skiing?

Because pushing feels good. Whether your thing is lifting weights, jogging on a treadmill, doing pilates, playing golf or tennis, hiking, kayaking, skiing, or going to a spin class, you’re pushing against something to get a result. And the pushing feels good.

Think about it: in a spin class you’re pushing the pedals on the bike. In tennis you’re pushing your back, leg, shoulder, and arm muscles to go after the ball so you can put the right force and spin and velocity on it to “push” it back over the net. In golf you’re using those same muscles to put enough force against that little ball to drive it (push it) down the fairway. If you’re on a treadmill you’re pushing your leg muscles to work past your own internal resistance. If you’re doing pilates you’re pushing against your core.

Why is Michael Phelps the best swimmer in the world? His physical gifts are part of it, but there are other swimmers with his height, his reach. Why does he consistently perform better? Why do some football teams always seem to come from behind in the final minutes to win a big game while other teams tend to fade in the clutch? The kind of athletes who come through, when others can't, usually do so because they’re good at pushing past their own internal resistance, past that internal voice that says to the rest of us, “I can’t do this.”

Do dogs have such an inner voice?

Not exactly. But if the dogs I described in the case histories I cited above could talk they might very well say things like this:

“I can’t hold my bladder muscles until I get outside the house!”

“I can’t bring the Frisbee back to my owners!”

“I can’t walk on sidewalk grates!”

“I can’t control myself when I see other dogs eating!”

“I can’t obey commands or not chase squirrels or not be dominant!”

“I can’t walk down 72nd Street!”

“I can’t be left alone in the apartment!”

Well, my little doggies, the truth is, “Yes, you can!”

You just have to learn how to push past your own internal resistance. You just need to have someone with a nice big pouch of food, take you outdoors, and teach you how to push for your dinner. You don’t have to push very hard at first. You don’t even have to push at all if you don’t want to. But slowly and gradually, the more you learn how hard you can push, and how good it feels to push that hard, and then even a little harder, and a little harder after that, you’ll start to realize that you can do anything.

And guess who’s the one teaching you that wonderful lesson?

That’s right. It’s the person who loves you. He or she is the one who’s like Michael Phelps’ trainer, or Tom Brady or Joe Montana, the one person who knows you can do it. That you can come from behind, you can get out of the hole you’re in, and prevail! That you are a strong doggie with a wonderful, wild heritage. And that you can do anything.

All you need is a little push…

(To see videos of me doing "The Pushing Exercise" go here: videos.)

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Natural Dog Training Revolution

This seems to be year that the Natural Dog Training revolution finally takes off. Neil Sattin has produced two great Natural Dog Training DVDs (available soon). As most of you know I now have a blog on PsychologyToday online. And the best news of all (at least so far -- there's more to come!), Kevin Behan has re-vamped his website and is now writing a mind-blowing blog there on canine behavior. It's very innovative, very in-depth stuff.

Here are the links:

Pass it on!

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Saturday, June 6, 2009

"Wait..." and "Okay!"

Here are a few of the many ways you can teach these "commands" to your puppy. 

“Wait…” and “Okay!”
Two of the most important words for new dog owners are “Wait…” followed by “Okay!” They set up a particular dynamic for puppies of learning to pay attention and focus on you when their instincts and developmental urges are telling them to do something else. The act of waiting momentarily, just for a second or so, is then rewarded by being given access either to the thing they originally wanted (or wanted to do), or to something even better. As these two simple words became part of your dog’s daily vocabulary, the word “Okay!” on its own takes on a huge importance in terms of how your dog relates to you and how quickly he or she obeys.

Most owners of young puppies teach their pups to wait for their dinner. They put the bowl down, tell the pup, “Wait…” and then when the pup shows the ability to hold his urges back for a fraction of a second or so, they’ll say, “Okay!” and let the pup run to the bowl and eat, praising him as he does. (Praise is also very important.)

That’s the essential dynamic to using these signals with your dog. But there are other ways to do it. (And this has nothing to do with being the pack leader; the reason you want your pups to learn these words is not so that they will see you as a mythical animal that doesn’t exist in nature, but as a gateway to what’s good and fun and happy in their lives.)

When it’s time to go for a walk, have your dog wait at the front door before you open it. And once the dog shows an ability to control his urge to scratch at the door, or pull on the leash, or to just stop whining or wiggling, say “Okay!” and immediately open the door and let him go through. The more he learns to hold still a bit longer each time, the more you can stretch out from just a fraction of a second to about 5 seconds, which is about the maximum amount of time I recommend.

You can do the same thing at the dog run when you get to the front gate. Or, if you take your dog to the park, have her wait before you unleash him. Say, “Wait…” and allow her to settle for a fraction of a second or so, then say, “Okay!” and release her.

Many people also do this when waiting for a light while standing on a street corner. That’s not a bad idea, but it’s not as important as this next scenario. This is one situation where using these two words really starts to pay off big with a young puppy.

Your pup sees another dog coming toward him on the street. He gets excited. He wants to get to his new friend as quickly as possible. You hold him back, saying, “Wait…” Then as soon as he shows any signs of holding back his energy, even if it’s just the tiniest amount, you say, “Okay, say hello!” and let him make contact with the other doggie. 

It helps if you do this as a pre-arranged set up with the other dog’s owner, but I often teach clients how improvise with the dogs we see coming toward us on the streets of New York. This can end up being a bit hit-and-miss, but if you can hold your dog back while signaling to the other dog’s owner that you’re training your dog to learn how to say hello, they’ll often be happy to help you out.

(There’s a second part to this exercise, described below.)*

The fact is, most dogs know what “Okay!” means, even if their owners have never done any of these exercises in a formal way. The owner grabs the leash. The dog wags his tail, acts excited. “You ready to go for a walk?” The dog jumps around, the owner puts the leash on, and says, “Okay, let’s go!” Or they meet another dog on the street, and without doing the formal exercise I described above (or below), once it’s time to move on the owner will say, “Okay!” and the dog is ready to go.

After your dog learns the “Wait…”—“Okay!” dynamic a funny thing starts to happen. The word “Okay”—just said on its own—begins to have tremendous power to change your dog’s state of mind under a lot of different circumstances.

I had a training session years ago with a producer at CNN. She had two dogs, one was a female mixed-breed, about a year old,who had been traumatized by the move from Atlanta, and then had a scary incident in Central Park where she ran away, and was lost for several hours.

I took Fred with me to the session. The producer’s other dog, a male corgi, was older, and had a bit of an aggressive attitude toward most other dogs, especially intact males. But because the younger dog was new to the city, and because Freddie had such a calming effect on a lot of the dogs he met (and because he was usually able to deflect any aggression situation with a dog like the corgi), I brought him with me, something I ordinarily wouldn’t have done.

We left the corgi at home and spent some time walking through Central Park where the younger dog got to feel Freddie’s calming effects. We also did a few playful exercises designed to reacquaint the young doggie with the concept of having fun in a somewhat natural setting. It was a good first step for her.

It was a hot August night, so when we got back to the owner’s apartment on Lexington Avenue, Freddie was very thirsty. The problem was that the only way for him to get to the water bowl was to go past the corgi, who didn’t want to let him. “Uh, uh. My water bowl!”

Normally Freddie wouldn’t have made an issue out of it. He would’ve just let the corgi have his way. But he was really, really thirsty. So after trying to find an alternate route (it was a small apartment), he tried going straight toward the corgi.

The corgi growled and did a lunge and jump back maneuver at Fred. Fred looked around the room to see if hed missed seeing another way around him, but he was trapped.

I was ready to step in and pull Freddie back when the two corgi really lunged at Fred
’s neck, and Freddie dodged him, but his teeth came out. He got ready to defend himself.

Cut to: Five seconds later. The fight had been averted. I led Freddie around to the water bowl, let him drink while the corgi stood panting and watching us. As Freddie drank I said to the owner, “Did you notice what I said to stop the fight?”

She shook her head. “I don’t remember what it was, I just remember it thought it was very odd.”

“But that one word stopped the fight, right?”

“Yes, clearly,” she said, a little miffed. “So what was it?”


“Wait. You said, 'Okay?' How did that stop the fight?”

“Because most dogs have a strong positive feeling associated with that word. It sort of means: ‘what we were doing is over, now we’re going to do something fun.’ That’s what stopped the fight.”

My reason for explaining it to her this way was to show that it's possible to change an unwanted behavior by using something other than punishment or scolding, which is what she’d been doing with the corgi, and which either she or the female dog’s previous owners had done with her.

The reason for telling the story here is to illustrate how powerful the word “Okay!” can be, even with dogs who haven’t done the exercises I recommend. In fact, any time I sense a bit too much tension building up at the dog run (and this is almost always with dogs I don’t even know), I’ll say, “Okay! Good dogs!
” and it almost always changes the emotional dynamic between the dogs who were in conflict. It can be quite comical, too. One second the dogs are ready to attack one another, then they hear a stranger say, “Okay!” and the next thing they know they’re all shaking themselves to get rid of that excess tension.

One word of caution, though. If you’re expecting a pizza, and you put your dog in a down/stay while you answer the door, don’t say to the pizza guy, “Okay, what do I owe you?” Your dog may come running! Try to say, “All right, what do I owe you?” instead.
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The 2nd part of the exercise is that when you feel it’s time to end your pup’s friendly encounter with another dog on the street, you say to her, “Okay, say bye-bye!” in that same happy tone of voice, and walk away at a brisk, playful pace. Do that enough times and the word “Okay!” will soon be enough to make the pup instantly stop trying to mount or mouth or wrestle with the other dog, and you’ll both be on your merry way.