1000 pictures

October 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m fascinated by dogs and by their behaviour and body language. I often wonder what the relationship with my dog would be like if we could ‘talk’ a little more directly to each other. I want to be more able to ‘understand’ dogs, and I want to learn how to ‘read’ the signals given by dogs.

Barbara Handelman’s Canine Behaviour: A Photo Illustrated Handbook (2008) is a pictorial guide to canine behaviour. It gives a detailed look at dog behaviours and signals. These behaviours are illustrated by many photographs, but also by texts compiled from scientific work, letters to the author by various dog behaviour experts, as well as by quotes from poetry and other literary writings about dogs. The last section provides the opportunity to try and read photos of behaviours yourself first, and then provides an answer key.

These various forms of explaining and illustrating behaviours make the book a useful resource. I did not find it an easy to use resource, though. Although the key to using the book says that related behaviours are grouped in categories with section headings, the headings to me don’t make any sense other than its alphabetical order. A lot of typos in the text I also found a bit annoying. But these are questions of use rather than of content, and the book is full of useful information, such as in the section 11 ‘Learning Theory Terminology and Methodology’, which is a good primer (or reminder) of learning theory for dog training.

The many, many photographs (1000 of them), by various photographers, are exquisite, particularly the wolf photography by Monty Sloan. They themselves make the book worth having as a resource on your bookshelf. And the pure joy with which the book’s author revels in the love of dogs, celebrating their beauty with the many photos and quotes from literary texts that intersperse the behaviour terminology sections.

Here is a photo of my two dogs. They so often looked like they were ganging up on me, and their interactions always made me wonder what was going on.

It sure looks to me like my cheeky puppy Tuhi (on the left) is trying to talk my good dog Fin (on the right) into mischief.

Thunder and lightning and other scary things

September 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

The recent Wellington thunder and hailstorms have brought it up again. That old question of what to do when your dog is scared in a thunderstorm, or by fireworks, in earthquakes, etc.

As with anything dog and dog training, there are many different approaches around. Unfortunately, many of them are based on old-fashioned myths, such as totally ignoring the animal so as to not show any weakness as the “pack leader”. Another common one is to not provide comfort in order to not reinforce the fear.

In “Calming the fearful animal”, a video clip from one of Suzanne Clothier’s Relationship Centered Training seminars, she gives a reality check on the myth that we shouldn’t comfort a scared dog because if we do we only reinforce the fear.

Yes, don’t make the fear worse by panicking or overreacting, but don’t leave them out in the cold on their own either. Don’t be scared yourself (or if you are, try to not show it to your dog). Stay calm. Provide “meaningful comfort”, as Suzanne Clothier puts it.

And, most important of all, learn to listen when a dog tells you she’s afraid, so that you can work out how to manage it (i.e. don’t put the dog in that situation), or how to build her skills to deal with the situation in the long run. Because learning how to create a safe environment for our dogs is where the real answer to the question of what to do when our dog is scared lies.

If you need ideas on how to help your dog conquer their fear, Patricia McConnell’s booklet The Cautious Canineis a great starting point. Or have a look at the articles on Thunder Phobia and Sound Sensitivities collected on her website. Quickly accessible, practical, and helpful.

Here is me with my then almost ten-year-old kelpie. Always a quite shy dog, as her cancer progressed she felt stressed or scared more easily in more and more situations. Here she came to me after the neighbour’s dog at my friend’s place started barking and set off the other two dogs in the garden. Leaning and pressing into their human’s body is one of several possible avoidance behaviours for dogs. They use various body postures and signals to avoid activity or environmental factors that make them feel stressed or fearful. Then, I think, she was also not sure about the camera staring at her. But being able to lean into me, and me just putting a hand on her, always helped Fin to recover quickly from whatever scared her. If I had walked away from her and ignored her she would have likely crawled into a corner and taken much longer to recover.

Of dogs and humans

August 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the dog training books has just seen its tenth anniversary. Here is why Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs (2002) is still worth reading. Simply, in one sentence, because there still is so much misinformation out there about dog training and dog behaviour that contributes to the problems and miscommunications between humans and dogs and this still is one of the most readable, comprehensive, and scientifically informed books about dogs, their behaviour, and their learning.

The purpose of The Other End of the Leashis to increase our understanding of human and dog behaviour and to improve the relationships between people and their dogs. In New Zealand alone, the dog population is more than 700,000; and we are quite a little country. Dogs worldwide are an extremely successful species, so this is important.

I’ve just read the book for the second time, and here are some of the points in the book that I like most. Actually I like the whole book the most, but anyway, here are some points.

  • McConnell takes the viewpoint of an ethologist — observing, understanding, and respecting the innate signals in animals’ behaviour — and invites us to practice reading our dogs and honing our observational skills. While we are at it, she suggests, why not focus our attention on ourselves as part of becoming conscious of the differences between the behaviour of two species at work: canids and primates. The “contrast and compare” descriptions between humans and dogs are real eye-openers, at times real funny, but often times also real tragic.
  • The power of learning to manage the space around our dogs in order to guide or control their behaviour.
  • The concept of pressure: about how to use space and develop a sense of how close you need to get to another animal to begin to influence its behaviour. We often are way too much in the face of our dogs when training them and it is amazing just how much many dogs manage to put up with. But some can’t, and it would be good for us to become more like a good herding dog and know when to take the pressure off.
  • The power of paying attention and becoming consistent with the words we use to communicate with our dogs and with our visual signals to them.
  • The many passionate anecdotes that are absolute fantastic exemplifications of what McConnell describes. They make the book both a training manual and theoretical book about dog behaviour.
  • The encouragement to find a coach for your dog training and dog handling. It’s a sport and like any sport not all of it is intuitive, so why not get a “personal trainer”.
  • And, finally, if a bit unrelated, I love the cover photo, and am intrigued by it. A human in shoes and coat. And you can only see the shoes and the coat and a bit of the hand holding the leash. At the other end of the leash a black-and-white dog, mid-air, cheeky look straight into the camera. How? The only info about the photograph is that it is by Elliot Erwitt/Magnum Photos. I want to know more about the dog in the air. It just makes me go “God, how much I love dogs”.

I love how books always take you to other books. I must go and check out Elliott Erwitt’s several photographic books about dogs. There is To the Dogs(1992), Dog Dogs (1998), or Woof: I Love Dogs(2002). The tag line on Erwitt’s homepage (elliotterwitt.com) is “for life-like snaps”, and it looks like he really is fascinated with the lives of dogs.

Oh, and by the way, this book is also a great read if you are not that much into dogs, but are generally interested in animal behaviour and human-animal interrelations. There is, for example, also a lot about primate behaviour and research.

Just read and enjoy :)

At Home Beach, North Stradbroke Island. A doggie paradise off-leash beach. Though this one had to wait while her owners were playing at the beach.

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More things:
Elliott Erwitt — official website
New Zealand Survey Reveals a Nation of Pet Owners and Animal Lovers

Friends, not slaves (John Bradshaw)

August 15, 2012 § 4 Comments

“[…] dogs are expected to be much better controlled than they used to be. There has never been a shortage of experts telling owners how to take charge of their dogs. When I took on my second dog, a Labrador/Airedale terrier cross named Ivan, I was determined that he would be better behaved than Alexis. I decided I ought to find out something about training but was then shocked to discover the approach adopted by the trainers of the day, such as Barbara Woodhouse, who seemed to see the dog as something that needed to be dominated at all times. This simply didn’t make sense to me—the whole point of having dogs as pets was for them to become friends, not slaves.”
— From John Bradshaw, 2010,
Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behaviour Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet.

John Bradshaw is writing about dog training in the 1980s. But this idea of our pet dogs needing to be dominated at all times, because they are lurking in the corners of our houses waiting for our weak moments just to jump in and dominate us, is still one of the ideas governing a lot of dog training today. Just look at the still popular Cesar Millan. Or take for example Jan Fennell, self-proclaimed dog listener, who insists (and I mean really insists) that we must absolutely be the pack leaders with our dogs. Otherwise they’ll take over. All her protocols are geared towards so-called pack leadership. Her technique is based on ‘communicating’ with our dogs according to wolf pack principles. No mentioning that dogs are not wolves, nor have been domesticated from wolves by humans. Also no mentioning that we humans are usually not all that good at communicating within an extremely complex communication system of another species. ‘Dog language’ consists of visual, vocal, olfactory and probably many other signals. Most of us are not skilled ethologists, and we struggle understanding our dog’s body language most of the time, let alone ‘speaking’ it ourselves.

Whether Jan Fennell promotes a scientifically outdated model of dog behaviour matters, because the old “dominance” model of dog behaviour more often than not goes together with using (physical) punishment methods in training. Fennell does not promote physical punishment at all, but her work still supports a misunderstood idea of dominance. That kind of thinking will have consequences in how we behave towards our pet dogs. If nothing else, it makes us misunderstand so much of what our dogs are actually signalling — to their owners, to other humans, and to other dogs — and what they are trying to tell us. After reading her books I felt brainwashed. You must do this. You absolutely must not do that. Never. Trying to be with, let alone train, my puppy became a constant test of my “dog leadership” skills. But I’m not a dog. This approach of basing dog training on dominance is a shame. In Fennell’s case it’s a shame because the starting point of her method—how to train dogs and communicate with them in such a way so that they want to be with us and work with us—is so important.

Oh, and by the way, Alexis, Bradshaw’s dog mentioned in the quote above, was a Labrador/Jack Russell cross, and, in the author’s own words, a roamer, interested in the opposite sex. Bradshaw dedicated his book to Alexis, a “Real Dog”. One that had more freedoms than most dogs have today in our often overly controlled world, increasingly fearful of all animals and characterised by a stronger and stronger urge to control all things “nature”.

Writing about this quote from John Bradshaw’s book Dog Sense reminded me of a dog I saw on North Stradbroke Island many years back. It was a little black Staffie x, mangy and with a jandal threaded through his collar. He looked so sad and you could feel it so strongly, the image still sticks with me today. Back then I made a memory sketch of him.

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