Thursday, April 12, 2018

I never give my dog human food!!

"Oh we never feed him human food!" ... I cannot tell you how often I hear this.  It's kind of an interesting thing to hear, really, if you think about it.  What exactly does it mean when someone says this?  Usually, I hear it in the context of boasting more like "oh my dog doesn't beg because we never feed human food to him, ever, never, ever!" Sometimes I hear it with a statement of disdain if I whip out some pieces of chicken to use when high-value rewards are more beneficial for our training.  Sometimes I hear it in a bragging-type tone when their dog is in good shape as if this is the reason why.  However, there are a few myths surrounding the use of "human food" with regards to giving it to our pet dogs.

Whatever the reason this is stated, I think this phrase should be explored a bit.  Let's go over some things regarding this often heard statement ...

First, "human food" is subjective. I mean what exactly does this constitute? Food only "humans" eat like orange juice, Tootsie Rolls, Doritos, Fruit Loops or Thanksgiving turkey? I mean we wouldn't feed those things to our dogs, right?  But, really, what is "human food"?!  If we want to get into semantics all living animals (including humans) eat the same food, with a variation of some or all of the following: meat, plants, grains, veggies and fruits.  All living creatures eat some or all of those types of foods.  Dog food, while highly processed, has some type of protein in it and plant and/or grains/carbohydrates of some kind, usually rice or sweet potatoes -- which are "human foods", right?!

However, I get it. When people proudly state this to others they aren't really thinking of it in the way that I am.  I understand that they are often saying when they are eating their meal they don't feed it to their dog off of their plate.  I mean, usually, this is what they mean.  By not feeding a dog off of their plate they often feel like this will eliminate things such as: begging behaviors, food snatching and obesity.  I understand the desire to have a dog not beg or grab food or get overweight -- definitely goals most dog owners would love to achieve!

As a note, dogs don't beg because we feed them "human food".  They beg because of the associations they make during certain circumstances. Your dog would beg if you fed him any kind of food or treat or reward to him. The type of food is irrelevant.  What causes begging behaviors is the association your dog makes.  For example, if you feed your dog while you sit at the dinner table and eat your dinner then your dog will learn when mom eats I get food. Therefore, your dog will learn I shall sit next to mom while she eats and wait for food. If I wait long enough she'll give me a few pieces. This is classical conditioning at it's finest.  At the same time, if you sit on your bed and eat your lunch and sometimes feed Fido then your dog will learn to beg when you're sitting on your bed.  It's all the same.  But you could be feeding Saltine crackers or you could be feeding pieces of dog food or pieces of your sandwich.  It's all rewards to the dog. It's all teaching your dog that if/when they beg they will get fed. So, "human food" isn't really the problem.

As for food grabbing or stealing, this is usually just a self-taught behavior. It works the same way as the begging -- an association is made and a behavior is born. If your dog steals "human food" from say your countertops then your dog has self-rewarded and learned that the counters produce yummy things. This usually develops into a behavior we label as counter-surfing.  Again, as with begging, the type of food is irrelevant. Heck, some dogs steal pens or paper or even knives and take off with those and find this behavior so rewarding that they learn to counter-surf that way.  Sometimes the act of stealing is rewarding enough it itself and the dog will continue to do so.  Most stealing is self-rewarded so it becomes a pretty challenging habit to break.  I do have a lovely blog post on how to solve counter-surfing here.  Some dogs steal right out of trash cans or even worse -- right out of people's hands!  I see the last behavior commonly with small kids because they are easy targets.  These behaviors can be solved with training but again, "human food" isn't the issue here.

"Human food" as part of a meal or as a meal.  Honestly, this is the best move you could make for your dog.  "Human food" is a zillion times healthier than highly processed dog food. Without going into full diet discussion, adding some meat, yogurt, fish or eggs to your dog's food is hugely beneficial to your dog.  Healthwise, "human food" is good for your dog depending on what exactly you are using as "human food" to give to your dog as a diet or addition to the diet. Adding any food to your dog's diet can cause obesity if given the wrong amount.  Some foods, of course, are fattier than others, however, obesity is not caused by the type of food alone.  Overweight dogs, medical issues aside, are overfed plain and simple. So, if "human food" is a cause of concern for your dog's weight then you just need to research a little more on what and how much to feed to benefit your dog.  I do highly recommend the book "Raw & Natural Nutrition for Dogs" by Lew Olson if you'd like to learn more about canine diets.

Now, in relation to training ... "human food" can be highly valuable. Depending on what you're working on and where, high-value foods such as boiled chicken, freeze-dried liver, cheese and hot dogs can be a big help in a training program. I always recommend some type of "human food" for recall training and training in distractions.  Dogs aren't going to come to you off-leash in a park if you are offering Kibbles 'n Bits. Yuck. Fido would rather chase squirrels.  However, give your dog a big incentive like coming to tidbits of chicken and you'll strengthen your dog's recall really quickly!

Stacy Greer
Sunshine Dog Training & Behavior, LLC
Dallas/Ft Worth, Texas

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

I think he was abused ...

"I think he was abused ..." is one of the most common phrases I hear before or after a dog exhibits a behavior and said dog has been adopted and has an unknown or clear history.  While there are different types of abuse for dogs, most people are referring to physical abuse when they make this statement.

I need to let you in on a secret, most likely your dog wasn't physically abused. You may actually be saying, "ok, but does it really matter?"  Actually, yes, it does.  I find that most dog owners who think their dog was physically abused are either far too soft on them, don't implement proper rules and boundaries, and/or coddle the dog a lot.  Some people do all or some of those things when they think this is true and the problem is that it affects the dog dramatically.  It can affect the dog's behavior and ability to learn and develop.

First, yes, sometimes this is the case. There are definite cases of abuse. I'm not saying this is never the case ... but ... it's not usually the case when I'm seeing dogs that are labeled as such.  Also, when the dog is labeled as possibly being a victim of abuse they usually are referring to physical abuse.

The most common answer to behaviors that dogs exhibit and people associate with physical abuse is actually a lack of exposure and socialization. Dogs that are afraid of men, sounds, objects, places -- those don't necessarily mean they have been abused, but rather they have not been properly socialized and/or exposed properly to these things.

Also, genetics play a huge role in behavior. I think we often overlook this incredibly important fact. Two insanely insecure and scaredy-cat dogs that have offspring aren't going to produce confident and happy-go-lucky pups. Genetics, they can be a real bitch at times!

I like to explain this to people because there is a stigma around their dogs when they think one thing or another is a "reason for" something.  The truth is that we just need to work with the dog. These "she was abused" labels are a huge reason people start to anthropomorphize their dog — put human traits on something that isn't human.  This is where things get muddy with dog behavior ... when we can't see the forest for the trees. 

The best thing to do is find out what your dog's behavior is like right now. Is he shy? Fearful? Anxious? Aggressive? Aloof? Once you find this out then we just go from there. The protocol to help the dog through any of this is the same no matter why the dog is the way that it is.  

I use Classical Conditioning and Desensitization for most cases like this as well as Operant Conditioning.  We basically change the dog's current emotional response to something and make it a different, usually, more appropriate and acceptable response.  This usually means something like a dog that's afraid of a broom is taught that brooms are ok. We pair good things with the sight of the broom, starting at a distance where the broom doesn't cause too much stress. We go at the rate the dog is comfortable working and while we are making steady progress, so as not to see any regression, if possible.  Then it just goes from there. (If this is similar to something your dog needs help with please locate a trainer near you.)

Stay tuned for my blog post that will cover what to do with an under-socialized adult dog.


Stacy Greer
Sunshine Dog Training & Behavior, LLC

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Boundaries & Freedom

I get a lot of emails about dogs that are destroying things in the home or aren't "listening" or grabbing things while the family eats ... many things that could be solved with some solid boundary-setting and training.

As humans we feel really guilty confining our dogs to a crate or an area away from us, especially when we are home with them.  Actually, most commonly when we are home with them. I often hear: "Why would I have a dog that I can't have out with me at all times, what's the point?!"  My answer: "This isn't forever. But you need to get some major boundaries and training in place before that can happen."

Many households do have dogs that are totally fine being left un-confined and do not get into any trouble.  However, I do feel all dogs should be able to be confined at times, as there may be situations where this is absolutely necessary.  See my blog post "The most important thing to teach Fido" about this specific topic.

Back to boundaries and freedom ... Think of dogs like children. When raising children you cannot allow them to run amuck with no rules or boundaries and then expect them to listen and follow rules, right? I mean why would they? No one ever set any boundaries and suddenly you want compliance?  Likely going to have some backlash from that.  Dogs do the same thing but in different ways, eh-hem, since they are obviously a different species. A dog's lack of putting in boundaries, training and rules might look like destroying your things, grabbing things off counters, running out the front door, not doing what you ask when you ask, barking ... several things show as a result of lack of training and boundary-setting.

When I hear of dogs that "don't listen" or "get into trouble a lot" (get into trash, stealing things, grabbing things off counters, pestering while humans have mealtime, potty troubles, etc.) then I immediately see a common trend. The trend is these dogs have a lack of clear boundaries and little to no training in place (and sadly sometimes the wrong type of training  leash jerks, not teaching alternate behaviors, lots of punishments for poor behavior, etc.). Often this is a dog that isn't crated or confined, management isn't in place and/or the dog is allowed too much freedom with little to no rules along with that ... and to top all that off often they have only be told what not to do, as opposed to trained what to do instead.
Read: "No! Get off! Stop jumping!" Trainer brain: "So what has the dog been trained to do instead of jump? What do you want him to do instead so he can make that choice?"

Confinement isn't punishment, and isn't intended to be.  This isn't boundary training if it's used as I'm-mad-at-you-and-I-failed-at-management-so-now-you-have-to-be-tossed-into-your-crate!  Boundary training, when done properly, yields great results while also helping your dog learn to be confined and remain calm and relaxed while doing so.

We often do follow boundary training with puppies because we know if we let a puppy run around on it's own it will usually potty somewhere or chew something inappropriate.  However, with adult dogs we don't think in this manner as we often assume adult dogs shouldn't be doing these types of behaviors.  Afterall, they are adult dogs! So, we end up getting frustrated and labeling instead of manageing and training. "Fido is so bad! He just steals my socks all the time!"  "Fluffy is about to find a new place to live! I'm so done with her taking my kids toys!"  "Fido is getting on my last nerve with his destructive behavior when I'm gone!" 

The truth is that a lot of problem behaviors can be solved with a simple plan of boundary setting, impulse control exercises and training.

So what does that look like?!
Boundaries  Dog is crated or put in x-pen/safe confinement area when she cannot be supervised or you are busy.
  • Need to do a thousand things around the house but worried Fido will get into things? Put him in his crate. 
  • Need to shower but don't trust Fluffy while you're out of sight for that long? Put her in her confinement area.
  • Fido annoyingly bothers you while you eat, or worse, grabs food from your plate! Put him in is crate while you eat.
  • Fluffy is destructive when you leave the house, even if just one magazine (or an entire window covering!).  Crate instead!
  • Fido is running crazy around the living room and won't settle down, driving you crazy.  Crate him. Give him a "chill out time".  
Boundaries are really a type of management. (Read my blog post on management in dog training here.)  While boundaries don't train your dog to stop doing unwanted behaviors, they prevent them from happening which is actually a huge part of successful training. Every time a dog gets to do an unwanted behavior that behavior is being reinforced. Those behaviors are fun for the dog, therefore, they will do it again (this is the definition of reinforcement and it happens whether we reinforce it or they do it themselves!).

Training  This must go hand-in-hand with boundary setting. If you aren't training and you're only confining your dog to get him out of our hair then you're not really doing much boundary setting.  You're likely frustrated when that's happening and that becomes a slippery slope.
  • Train Fluffy what to do while you are cooking dinner instead of being a crazy pup jumping or counter-surfing or whatever is going on.  This can alleviate the need to crate her and allow her to hang out, while she makes good choices.   This is where I find mat training to be the best thing ever. Train your dog to lie on a mat while you are busy around the kitchen, eating at the table or making food.
  • Train Fido to wait to go out the door by sitting then going out when given permission. This is a great impulse control exercise that helps alleviate door-darting and also has the dog wait to do as asked instead of making choices on his own [that could be dangerous]. 
  • Train Fido to make good choices.  This could mean a lot of things. The best course of action is to hire a trainer that comes into your home so that you can address your dog's specific needs.
Training is really a critical part of owning a dog. Sure, I say that because I'm a trainer and would never own an un-trained dog, but .... it's absolutely true. Trained dogs are easier to live with. This doesn't even have to mean advanced level training. Training can involve things as simple as just sitting at the door before going out to coming when called or as advanced as you want to go  like agility, advanced obedience, Canine Good Citizen, therapy dog training, etc.  Training possibilities are endless.  But home manners and basics are a must, in my professional and personal opinion, if you want to live peacefully with your dog.

Stacy Greer
Sunshine Dog Training & Behavior, LLC

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

"Can my dog sleep with me?"

You have no idea the sigh of relief clients get when I tell them that yes, their dog can sleep in bed with them. Yeah, it's pretty sad how the myth has been tossed around for decades, actually a lot longer than that, that if you're dog sleeps in your bed or sits on your couch or heaven, forbid the back of the couch ... that he's going to "not know his place in the pack".  Baloney. Hogwash. Rubbish. Bullshit.

If you want your dog to sleep in your bed, these are the rules I suggest my clients have in place:
1) the dog is comfortable with being moved manually (if you go to move the dog)
2) better yet, the dog moves when you ask her to (learns a cue to move over)
3) learns a cue to get off the bed completely when asked (I teach my dogs "off" for this cue)
4) dog doesn't growl/snap/bite/lunge (yikes!) when you get into the bed (or your partner gets into the bed)
5) doesn't pee on the bed (yeah, seriously!)
6) doesn't cause relationship issues with whomever you share the bed with (haha, ok this is on you!)

Those are my rules for bed sleeping. If your dog violates rule #4 this is the biggest issue for no-bed.  This is also a totally different situation on your hands. If your dog does this you need to hire a pro to come in and help. This is a form of resource guarding. They are either guarding the bed, the space or sometimes the human in the bed if a partner comes to the bed and this sets the dog off.  But do note, this is not dominance or anything related to that in the least.  If this does apply to your dog, until you can get some help you should have your dog sleep in a crate or another secure room or area that is not close to the bed.

Oh and for puppy owners -- they should be fully potty trained and totally reliable to sleep all night long before sleeping in bed with you. If your puppy can sleep all night in the bed and not wake to potty or get up and wander, then have at it!

So, if you want to snuggle in bed with your pooch(es) then go for it. I love sleeping with my dogs. They warm me up in the winter and snuggle with me in the mornings before I have to officially get out of bed to start the day.

Stacy Greer
Sunshine Dog Training & Behavior, LLC