When Should I Spay or Neuter My Dog?

spay-neuterOne of the trickiest questions that I get from my dog training clients has little to do with dog training, but people are asking me more and more often: “When should I spay or neuter my dog?” My answer generally boils down to “It’s complicated. Talk to your vet. Do some research.” It’s not just a coincidence that more and more people are asking this question. Recent research into the health effects of early spay neuter has reopened debate about the long-standing consensus in favor of early spay/neuter among animal professionals in the US. Some of these studies suggest that early spay and neuter can have a variety of negative impacts on our dogs’ health, but the issue is far from settled.

As a dog trainer, I’m reluctant to answer these questions for my clients. I’m not a vet, and I have no special expertise on health matters. Fortunately, I now have somewhere to send all of you who have asked me about this. Dr. Patricia McConnell has tackled the subject on her blog. I couldn’t be happier about that. Trisha has an unparalleled ability to present complicated scientific questions in an entertaining and accessible manner without sacrificing detail or complexity. Whether you want to dig into the details of the studies informing this renewed debate or just read a good summary from one of the smartest people in dogdom, check out this article for both links and analysis.

As with any health issues, discuss when you should spay or neuter your dog with your vet. I’m a huge advocate of pet owners making informed decisions for their pets. I spend a lot of time educating myself, but – in the end – I don’t have the training necessary to put everything that I read into perspective or to understand how it might apply to my individual dog. I rely on my vet to do that for me. I will only take my pets to a vet who keeps up with developments in the field and is willing to explain my pets’ health issues and options to my satisfaction. I do research so that I can ask the right questions and understand the answers, but I ultimately rely on the the trained professional who knows my dog to help me make the right decisions.

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Why Does My Dog Ignore Me?

Three Things You Must Understand to Get Your Dog to Listen to You

ignore-dogWhy does my dog ignore me?Does your dog ignore you when you call him to come or give him a command? “Why does my dog ignore me?” is one of the most common questions I hear from week 1 students in my dog obedience training classes. Some of them take being ignored as a challenge to their authority. Others get their feelings hurt and worry that their dog doesn’t love them. In reality, most people whose dogs ignore them have unwittingly trained them to do so.
Dog training comes down to one simple principle: The behavior that is rewarded gets repeated. Set your dog’s life up so that behavior you want leads to Good Things for Dogs and behavior you don’t want doesn’t, and you will have a well-behaved dog. Simple, right? It can be, but first you have to understand how to make your dog connect rewards with the right behavior. To do that, you must understand 3 key differences between our brains and dogs’ brains.

Silence is golden

Your dog thinks you talk too much. Trust me. He does. Friends and family may hang on your every word, but not your dog. Dogs have their own natural “language,”, but it doesn’t have words. Dog language is visual. They communicate volumes with their posture, their tails, their eyes, and their ears. For this reason, their first instinct when trying to figure out what we want is to watch us; not to listen to us. Our constant talking is just noise to them.

Try following this simple rule. If you tell your dog to do something 5 times and he doesn’t do it 4 of those times, stop telling him to do it. Training happens every time we interact with our dogs, whether we notice it or not. If you keep calling your dog or telling him to get off the counter and he doesn’t listen, then you are actively training him to ignore you. We need to make our words count in dog training. So what do you do if you can’t repeat a command to a dog who is ignoring you? You change your focus, which leads to our second big difference between how dogs and humans experience the world. Learn more.

Timing is everything

When we get hung up on what we can do or say to prompt our dogs to behave, we have it backwards. Remember the first principle of dog training? The behavior that is rewarded gets repeated. The consequences of a dog’s behavior determine how much of that behavior we’ll see in the future. If good things tend to follow a behavior, a dog will do more of it. If they don’t, he’ll do less of it. We create motivation by controlling what follows behavior. Once we motivate a dog to do something, putting it on cue is the easy part.

Proximity in time matters almost as much as order. Dogs are truly creatures of the moment. Our own brains stay busy analyzing past events and contemplating the future. Not our dogs. They live completely in the now. To communicate effectively with them, we must learn to do the same. Our feedback on their behavior must always be about what they are doing RIGHT NOW. When your dog does something, you have about 2 seconds to weigh in on it, and that’s if you’re lucky. If, for example, your dog sits when you ask him to, but then jumps up on you before you’ve had a chance to deliver a reward, you’ve lost your chance.

The hardest time to follow the rule that our feedback must always be about the dog is doing right now is when our dogs make us angry. When you displease us, we humans want to tell you about it … and tell you about it … and then make sure you really understand. A dog’s reprimands, on the other hand, stop when the offending behavior stops. If you want to make sense to your dog, you must learn to change direction on a dime. If your dog strands you at the dog park for an extra hour by refusing to come when called, for example, you’re going to be really frustrated. No matter how angry you are, you must praise and reward that dog when he finally comes. Because he associates your behavior with what he is doing right now, scolding will only make him less likely to come next time.

It all depends

I only ban one phrase in my dog training classes, “He knows this. He does it at home.” People are almost always wrong when they say this. It’s a natural thing to assume. If my dog lies down whenever I ask him to at home, but won’t do it in class, then he must be ignoring me or challenging my authority, right? Wrong.

Humans excel at abstraction and generalization. The gift of language allows us to effortlessly understand that the word “sit” applies to planting our rear ends on the ground, on the couch, on a bar stool, etc. Dogs don’t think that way. For them, everything is context specific. Just because that funny “sit” sound that you make predicts Good Things for Dogs who plant their butts at home doesn’t mean that it applies in other venues. When our dogs fail to comply with commands in new situations, it’s not defiance. They honestly don’t get it. I prefer to think of mistakes as questions. Do I have to sit when you make that noise in class? What about when the doorbell rings? What about when…Squirrel!!!

For this reason, I also like to think of training as more like exercise than like teaching commands. In weight lifting, you start with a weight that’s a bit of a struggle and lift it repeatedly until it’s easy. Then you add more weight. In dog training, we break our ultimate goal down into little pieces, start with something slightly challenging, and do repetitions until it’s easy. Then we make it a little harder. Asking my dog to sit when we’re alone in the kitchen is like asking him to lift 5 pounds. Asking him to sit when the pizza delivery guy rings the doorbell, gets everyone barking, and stands outside smelling amazing is like asking him to lift 500 pounds. You don’t get from 5 pounds to 500 pounds overnight. You have to do lots of repetitions at ever-increasing levels of difficulty to get there.

You’ll learn numerous training techniques in obedience class, but you will apply them more effectively if you remember 3 things: every word counts, timing is everything, and it all depends (on the context). Happy training!

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How to Politely Greet a Dog

Dogs, dogs everywhere!

Now that the weather is finally nice, dogs are enjoying lots of outings with their owners. And they’re all so adorable – it’s human nature to want to pet and interact with each and every one of them :-).

greet-dog

However, some dogs are bashful and need some time to feel comfortable before allowing you to touch them, and others might not want to be petted by strangers. What’s the best way to ensure a safe, fun interaction for all involved, and what are some signs that the dog might not appreciate the attention?
Here are some tips on How to Greet A Dog!

1) First, ASK the owner and WAIT to hear the complete answer.

Ask from a distance (in case the dog is scared of strangers), and WAIT to hear the answer before charging up. Often, people just assume the answer will be yes, and the question is just asked “because that’s what you should do to be polite”. Give the owner time to answer first. The answer may be “yes”, but it might also be “yes, but …” Wait to hear what’s on the other side of the “but”. The dog may have to sit to earn the opportunity to greet, or there may be other rules attached (such as “don’t pet her if she jumps”). Or, there may be other important instructions from the owner (such as “please let her approach you – it might take her a moment or two”, or “please pet her under the chin, not over the head”).

For example, if you see Mel uptown with a board-and-train dog, she will likely say, “yes, but… he has to sit first, and be released to go say hi”. We have noticed that most people only hear the “yes”, and as she is trying to get the dog to sit, the person charges up and starts petting. It’s a frustrating situation for the person trying to train the dog, and confusing for the dog who is trying to learn the rules.

ask-first

2) If the owner says yes, then ASK the dog.

Be polite – the dog will be much more likely to want to interact with you.

  • Rule 1: Do not stick your hand in a dog’s face so he can sniff you. He could smell you long before you got that close. Sticking your hand out can be considered a threatening gesture for a fearful dog, and it’s just not necessary. Everybody does it, but dogs do not appreciate it. And we’ve seen people get bitten that way. Instead, stand where you are, with your hands at your side, and let the dog come to you.
  • Rule 2: If the dog does not come to you, accept that. Instead, talk to the owner about her dog. Ask his name, what his breed is, or what his favorite activity is. Perhaps with some time the dog will approach you, but if he doesn’t, he is giving you useful information – he is telling you he is not interested in interacting right now. Be polite, respect the dog’s desire for distance, and don’t push the issue.
  • Rule 3: Pay attention to the dog’s body language. Learn to read canine communication — their body language will tell you if they are comfortable or not. Signs of stress can include tongue flicks, yawning, and turning away. Also, be aware that a wagging tail does not always indicate friendliness. Here is a great video on canine body language — watch it and learn how to read what dogs are telling you!

3) If the owner says no, please respect that.

And don’t get offended, or say something passive-aggressive about how if the dog can’t be petted it shouldn’t be out and about. Dogs are not public property. You have no more of a “right” to go up and pet any dog in public than you do to hug someone’s child. There are many valid reasons an owner may say no:

  • The dog may be shy and learning to be comfortable in public, and trying to pet the dog might scare him and set back his behavior modification program.
  • The dog may be a service dog doing his job, or a service dog in training, and should not be distracted.
  • The dog may be in training, learning to ignore the distractions around him (including friendly strangers).
  • The dog may not feel well, and may not be in the mood for interactions with strangers.
  • The dog may be tolerant of touching by strangers, but might simply not enjoy it.

4) When the dog approaches you, pet him on the chin or chest – not on top of the head.

Use proper dog-greeting etiquette! Most dogs aren’t comfortable with hands reaching over their heads. It’s the way humans tend to pet, but it’s not the way dogs would prefer to be petted. If you do it anyway because you forgot and the dog pulls his head away, don’t do it again – instead, try reaching under the chin and then working around towards the ears or to the chest. Also, don’t loom over the dog – they can find that scary. Bend at the knees, not at the waist.

not-greet-dog

5) Follow the 5-second rule.

Pet the dog for 5 seconds, and then stop. WAIT and see if he asks for more. If not – respect that. Some dogs want only a small amount of touching from strangers, and then they’re done – if they retreat, they’re telling you they don’t want more petting at the moment. Don’t walk after the dog to pet him more – wait until he approaches you again. If he does not, see #2 above.

If you follow the rules above, you can help dogs feel at ease, and you will also greatly reduce the chance of a bite. As a bonus, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many dogs choose to approach you for petting, and at how many owners say “wow, Fido doesn’t approach many people – he must really like you!”

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5 Keys to Choosing a Dog Board and Train Program

dogs-on-puzzleDog board and train or “dog training bootcamp” programs can offer the fastest path to a well-trained dog,
They can also be a tremendous waste of money.
These 5 questions can help you choose a dog board and train program that delivers great results.

Is the dog trainer right for you?

Becoming a dog trainer requires no license or special degree. Anyone can hang out a shingle, so do your homework. Interview at least 3 trainers. No single criterion guarantees a dog trainer’s skill, but look for trainers who have proven themselves against an objective standard. Start your search with trainers certified by independent bodies like the IAABC or CCPDT. Membership in professional organizations like the APDT and titling dogs in competition also demonstrate commitment to the craft.

A trainer’s ability to work with you is at least as important as his skill with dogs. You should feel comfortable with your trainer’s communication style, training methods, and background. Spend some time thinking about your training goals and whether the trainer can meet them. Is his background in training family pets or working dogs? How often does he work with dogs and families with issues like yours? Does the training involve the use tools or methods that you might find too rough? Read more on choosing a trainer from APDT.

Does the board and train program match your lifestyle?

Dogs-and-Children1-150x150A good dog board and train program starts with well-defined goals. The trainer should spend some time learning about your dog and your family and then provide you a custom written training agreement. If the trainer seems to have a “one-size-fits-all” approach, seems impatient with your questions, or fails to provide a written agreement find someone else.

Make sure that your dog will learn how to behave in his actual environment. When trainers take dogs into their own homes, they can easily integrate dogs into their daily lives so that they constantly practice the skills they need at home. Some kennel-based programs have brilliant strategies for simulating real life scenarios and will be thrilled to explain them to you. Others drill commands in a single training room. The latter programs seldom teach the skills dogs need to be good family members.

Does the trainer train you?

This is the most important question you can ask when choosing a dog board and train program. You and your dog both need training. Training a dog is not an event. It’s a process that requires life-long practice. Many trainers promise to send your dog home trained for life; no work required on your part. It sounds too good to be true, and it is. Dog training doesn’t work that way. Training happens every time you interact with your dog. Programs that promise otherwise are dog training’s equivalent of the “skinny pills” sold on late night TV that promise massive weight loss without diet or exercise changes.

I like to think of it like dancing. Prior to our wedding, my wife and I took a dance class so that we could impress on the dance floor.   We found that when either of us made a mistake learning a new step, we both got completely stuck. The instructors, however, could grab either of us and teach us the steps instantly. They saw our mistakes coming and could effortlessly guide us into avoiding them.

Dog training works the same way. In obedience class, neither the dog nor the handler has any idea what to do. Even when one partner gets it right, the other’s mistake can confuse you both. A good trainer can teach your dog behaviors much more quickly than you can. Your dog, to continue our dance analogy, comes home from board and train knowing all the steps. To make the training last, you – his partner – must know both the steps and how to lead. You get the advantage of learning with a skilled partner, but you still need to learn. Successful board and train programs provide that follow-up instruction.

Is the board and train environment right for your dog?

AllRestBrookville-150x150Go see the facility. Make sure that your dog will be well cared for. Reputable trainers will welcome you to see where your dog will stay. Many facilities have set times for tours or require appointments to accommodate busy training schedules, so ask in advance.

Things to look for and ask about include sanitation, fencing security, ventilation, and quality of sleeping areas. For kennel-based programs, make sure that they are properly licensed and follow industry best practices. In both home and kennel-based programs, dogs should have comfortable places to sleep. They should get at least an hour a day of exercise other than training. They should be outside of a kennel or crate environment at least 6 hours each day. Play with other dogs should be closely supervised. There should be staff on the premises to watch over the dogs overnight.

Is there a guarantee?

This is a tricky question. As discussed above, your consistent enforcement of your dog’s new rules will have a tremendous impact on his behavior. For that reason, the codes of conduct of the premier animal behavior professional and certifying organizations – the APDT, IAABC and the CCPDT– actually prohibit guaranteeing specific long term results from training.

Good trainers stand behind their work in ways that acknowledge the fluid nature of dog behavior. They have a process to back up their promises. In our dog board and train program in Cincinnati, for example, the entire process is structured around a written agreement that spells out training goals. We promise to meet those goals and keep owners updated on our progress. When the dog goes home, we go with him and make sure that he can perform as well in his home as he did in ours. We come back twice more in the next few weeks to make sure the training sticks for both dogs and humans. If a dog cannot perform what we promised, we do more training until we get it right.

If a trainer’s guarantee sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The most ambitious guarantees often come from the “skinny pill” trainers discussed above. Make sure that you understand exactly how your trainer handles problems. Ask for examples. If he says that it never happens or can’t give you an example, his “guarantee” may be an empty promise.

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