“Mentor Dogs” and Their Role in Adoption

Reading the website descriptions for most of the puppy mill breeder dogs in DVGRR’s rescue program, you’ll likely see under “Interaction with dogs” the statement: “OK, best with a canine mentor dog.” If you aren’t sure what that means, you aren’t alone! “Mentor dog” is actually a term DVGRR began using a few years ago. We aren’t sure if other rescues/shelters use it too, but they may refer to the same concept in a different way. For example, one program uses the term “helper dog” in the same context that we use “mentor dog.”

Think of a mentor dog the way you might think of a big brother or big sister in a human family – a sibling who understands the family dynamics, can share life lessons learned along the way, and serves as a role model for appropriate behavior. (Arguably, some two-legged big brothers or sisters don’t fit this benevolent image, but we’re talking about the ones that do….!)

Faith (on left) is the quintessential mentor dog.  Here, she is welcoming her first puppy mill dog to the family - Buster #16 (07-126). Faith helped Buster make incredible progress until his untimely death in 2012. Soon, however, she was working her special form of magic on Buddy #70, another puppy mill survivor. Read Buddy's story in this post.

Faith (on left) is the quintessential mentor dog. Here, she is welcoming her first puppy mill dog to the family – Buster #16 (07-126). Faith helped Buster make incredible progress until his untimely death in 2012. Soon, however, she was working her special form of magic on Buddy #70 (12-031), another puppy mill survivor. Read Buddy’s story in this post.

 

For dogs that have not had the benefit of growing up in a typical human household, having a mentor dog accompany them through daily life can be a huge help. These under-socialized, fearful dogs (usually those that have spent years in a puppy mill or hoarding situation) have typically learned how to relate to their fellow canines, but not to those scary humans who now want to touch, pet, or handle them. Thus, having another dog around provides two key elements in the fearful dog’s adjustment to a new home.

First, the presence alone of the other dog(s) provides comfort and a sense of familiarity that helps the fearful dog better negotiate all the unfamiliar, overwhelming aspects of their new environment. Like a child holding onto a parent’s hand on a busy sidewalk, the fearful dog knows they aren’t alone but rather have a buffer against unexpected or frightening experiences. Second, by observing the mentor dog accept (and seek out) attention from humans, casually respond to household sights and sounds, and stay relaxed in new circumstances, the fearful dog (eventually) learns to do the same. As the term implies, the mentor dog thus serves as a teacher, tutor, or trail guide through life for the less confident canine student.

Yes, a fearful dog may ultimately adjust to an adoptive home on his or her own, but the process will be MUCH more successful and MUCH less stressful for all involved by having a mentor dog present. At DVGRR, we’ve seen firsthand the incredible (and often very dramatic) benefits of mentor dogs over the years; that is why we implemented the mentor dog requirement for any fearful dogs adopted through our rescue. It is our goal to maximize the chances of success for any adoption, and mentor dogs can truly make or break that success for puppy mill survivors or other fearful dogs.

Magellan (on right) has also served as a mentor for two puppy mill breeder dogs. She is shown here with her current "student," Hope #4 (12-213).

Magellan (on right) has also served as a mentor for two puppy mill breeder dogs. She is shown here with her current “student,” Hope #4 (12-213). Hope’s happy expression is indicative of how well she’s adapted to her new home — much of that credit belongs to Magellan!

Characteristics of the Mentor Dog

So what makes an ideal mentor dog? Of course, there are many variations and no actual “blueprint” to follow in knowing how well an existing family dog will fulfill this role. However, here are some typical characteristics we look for:

  • Age – young or middle-aged adults often work best as they have a maturity level themselves and generally good “life skills” under their belts. On the other hand, we know of puppies who have served quite successfully as mentor dogs, especially in cases where the original mentor dog passes away and a new “sibling” is desired. While very old dogs should not be ruled out, they are often not interactive enough with the adopted dog to be truly effective, preferring to spend their days napping or resting.
  • Gender – not really relevant; the dog’s personality and behavior is far more important than whether they are male or female!
  • Activity Level – high enough to engage the adopted dog but not so high as to be overwhelming. Some of the very shy breeder dogs do well with a dog that loves to play and can show them the pleasure in doing so – though it may take a while before the adopted dog catches on! Others may do best with a “quiet leader,” a dog that isn’t so much of a playmate as a side-by-side companion. We try to assess each dog’s preference while they are here with us at DVGRR, so we can match them with an appropriate mentor dog at the time of adoption.
  • Personality – this is the key element, of course. The ideal mentor dog is one that is outgoing and affable, well socialized to other dogs as well as people (and greatly enjoys interaction with both), experienced with lots of new situations, confident in dealing with change, and generally thought of as relaxed, laid back, and easy-going.

Naturally, many prospective mentor dogs will not fit this ideal to a “T” and that’s fine – it is simply a list of the most desirable traits we look for. The “chemistry” between two or more dogs is not something that can always be accurately predicted, so an unlikely match could turn out to be far more successful than expected!

Watching a mentor dog guide a fearful dog through life is an incredibly beautiful and amazing experience. In fact, we’ve been privileged to watch some formerly “mentored” dogs do so well in their new homes that they become the “mentors” themselves for yet another new addition to the family!

If you have more questions or aren’t sure if your current dog may serve as a good “mentor,” feel free to contact our Adoption Team (adoption@dvgrr.org) for more information.

This photo really captures the deep bond between these two Goldens, both adopted from DVGRR.  On the right is Everett (09-214), a puppy mill survivor.  At the time of his adoption, there was a second dog in the home being fostered by the adopters for a friend. She served as Everett's original mentor, but when she went back to live with her original family he needed a new canine companion. Enter Luke #4 (10-156), a super outgoing youngster who has turned into a fabulous mentor dog. Luke and Everett are now inseparable, as you can see here!

This photo really captures the deep bond between these two Goldens, both adopted from DVGRR. On the right is Everett (09-214), a puppy mill survivor. At the time of his adoption, there was a second dog in the home being fostered by the adopters for a friend. She served as Everett’s original mentor, but when she went back to live with her original family Everett needed a new canine companion. Enter Luke #4 (10-156), a super outgoing youngster who took to his new mentor dog responsibilities with amazing ease and skill. Luke and Everett are now inseparable, as you can see here!

Advertisements

“My, what big teeth you have…!”

Remember the story about Little Red Riding Hood and her inability to tell the difference between her grandmother and the wolf? That failure (especially when it came to the infamous teeth)  led to a rather “Grimm” ending for Little Red Riding Hood. (Sorry for the bad pun!)  With our more contemporary canine friends, it’s also important to distinguish between a display of teeth that is a traditional warning versus one that may convey something very different (and far less dangerous).

Recently, one of our supporters sent us this link for a cute video about a “smiling” Golden retriever:  “Funny Dog: The golden “smile-retriever”!”   Watching this, I realized it was a very good example of what is called a “submissive grin,” a behavior that is often hard to capture in a picture or video. Gracie’s owners seem to have taught her to demonstrate this behavior on cue, which makes for not only an entertaining video but an instructive one as well!

Gracie, the "smile-retriever" was adopted from a Golden Retriever rescue in California.

Gracie, the “smile-retriever” in the video, was adopted from a Golden Retriever rescue in California.

Many people have never seen a submissive grin before and it’s very easy to mistake this expression for the wrinkled lips that accompany a canine snarl.  I once introduced an adoptable dog to a family who had come to look at a different dog that wasn’t the right match for them. Mollie (the second dog shown) was fairly new to our program and I hadn’t gotten to know her that well yet myself. When she came into the exercise yard and ran up to one of the family kids with what looked like a snarl on her face I about had a heart attack. It was, in fact, just a submissive grin and once we got to know Mollie better we learned that her “grin” was a trademark characteristic of this sweet, totally gentle and loving Golden.

That experience reinforced for me how the differences between a submissive grin and a snarl can be quite subtle. However, once you are familiar with the submissive grin it’s much easier to know which is which.

Most importantly, a dog displaying a submissive grin is not a threat to humans; in fact, he or she is showing deference and – as indicated in the terminology – submission to the humans in the environment. There may be some anxiety or stress going on, but not aggression. In contrast, a snarl is definitely a dog’s way of saying “Back off…what you are doing or planning to do is making me very uncomfortable.” If not heeded, the dog’s next step may easily be a snap or bite.

There is nothing friendly about this dog's expression. Note the "hard eyes" and overall menacing demeanor. This is NOT a submissive grin! (Note: the choice of breed in this picture is in no way intended to suggest a specific predilection for aggression. I have seen this same expression on dogs of many breeds; this just happened to be the image best available to use.)

There is nothing friendly about this dog’s expression. Note the “hard eyes” and overall menacing demeanor. This is most definitely a snarl and NOT a submissive grin. Often the difference is not as easy to differentiate, however.

To me, a dog displaying a submissive grin is reminiscent of a donkey braying, as undignified as that may sound.  (Either that or the dog REALLY wants to show the dentist just how faithfully they’ve been brushing their teeth.) Kidding aside, it’s very helpful to look at the whole demeanor of the dog in addition to the teeth and mouth in order to understand what he’s “saying.”  In this article about submissive grinning, the author notes that:

When a dog smiles or grins submissively, there is usually motion in the dog, often fast-paced over-exaggerated movements, squinty eyes, and overall excitement.

In addition, the behavior is often seen as part of a greeting ritual with people (or other dogs), whereas a truly aggressive dog is typically engaged in some other kind of behavior. The same article referenced above shows a video of a dog guarding a toy, with a lot of growling and lip curling indicating his unwillingness to give it up. (As the author notes, this video is definitely not one you’d want to replicate but it is helpful to watch it.)

“To Pet or Not to Pet,” an excellent blog post from Success Just Clicks, also has some great examples of canine body language that illustrate the key variations between submissive grinning and snarling.

If you’ve ever wondered just what the terms “squinty eyes” and “hard eyes” really mean, be sure to look at the side-by-side comparison of Denver and Sally in this post. It doesn’t get much clearer than this! Also scroll down and view the photos showing dogs who are inviting petting versus those who are disinclined to be petted; these photos would be great to share with kids as well.

Kory (12-004) is another DVGRR alumni with a very distinctive submissive grin, which we first saw when she was at Golden Gateway prior to adoption. Her adoptive  mom took this picture showing her famous "grin," which has taken more than one neighbor aback until they understood her display of teeth was perfectly friendly.

Kory (12-004) is another DVGRR alumni with a very distinctive submissive grin, which we first saw when she was at Golden Gateway prior to adoption. Her adoptive mom took this picture showing her famous “grin,” which has taken more than one neighbor aback until they understood her display of teeth was perfectly friendly and totally non-threatening.

Finally, take a look at this Vetstreet article by trainer Mikkel Becker, whose tips are super helpful for dog owners of all experience levels.  Mikkel was answering a question from a puzzled reader: “My Dog Smiles When She Greets People – Is This Normal?”  The information provided in the article is similar to what we’ve already covered, but in addition to reading it you HAVE to click on the link Mikkel included as her example of a “submissive grin.” It will take you to the video of a Goldendoodle that I guarantee will put a smile on YOUR face, just as it is on his. Enjoy and let me know if your dog’s expressions are equally giggle-worthy!

When Magic Happens…

I was walking into Golden Gateway after our last Meet and Greet Day when Adoption Manager Julie Reber motioned me over. “Do you want to see magic in the works?” she asked with a sly smile. I knew she was doing an adoption match for one of our prior adopters, a woman I’d helped to adopt her first DVGRR Golden in 2007.

Julie and I walked down to the grooming room (which often doubles as an adoption room) and I peeked inside. Kathy, the adopter, was sitting in a folding chair, reading a dog record. Sitting at her feet, leaning into Kathy’s side and gazing adoringly up into her face was Dixie, a pretty, blonde four-year-old who was clearly, unequivocally, in love. A sweet but somewhat independent Golden, Dixie had not shown this kind of attentiveness at Gateway before. She and Kathy had only met twenty minutes earlier but there was no doubt this was indeed a “magical” match!

During my years with DVGRR, I’ve witnessed numerous other magical matches. While still a volunteer on the Adoption team, I attended a 2004 Meet and Greet Day when we thought one of the adopters coming would be perfect for a very timid, fearful Golden up for adoption that day.  I knew Amy very well, as she had previously adopted one of my foster dogs, in the pre-Gateway days. She was a gentle, quiet person, ideal for a dog with a timid personality. When Amy arrived, we introduced her privately (and hopefully) to the dog we’d “selected” for her and she politely spent some time getting to know her. Saying she wanted to walk around a bit, she then went outside where the other dogs were “meeting and greeting.”

I’ll always remember the sight that greeted me when I too went outside. There was Amy, kneeling in front of a 6-year-old redhead named Star, holding Star’s outstretched paw in her hand. Dog and woman were transfixed with each other, seeing nothing else around them but each other’s eyes. Amy reluctantly pulled her gaze away when I came over and smiled a bit ruefully at me. “The other dog is nice enough,” she said. “But Star is meant for me.” Indeed she was! Their life together lasted for five years until Star sadly passed away from cancer in 2009. Magic happened that day, even though it was with a different dog than we expected!

I don't have a picture of Amy and Star, but this was a very similar moment shared at a Meet and Greet in 2009. This is five-year-old Sadi meeting her future mom, Denise, for the first time. She and Star actually looked a lot alike, and they were each adored by their human family members.

I don’t have a picture of Amy and Star, but this was a very similar moment shared at a Meet and Greet in 2009. This is five-year-old Sadi meeting her future mom, Denise, for the first time. Sadi and Star actually looked a lot alike, and they were each totally adored by their adoptive families.

I have wonderful memories of other magical matches I participated in during my Adoption Manager years.  Heidi with Baron, Emmett with Susan, Lily with Brandon and Janemarie, Sammie with Kristin and Merrill, Ken with Ziggy, and many others. It’s trite to say, but it’s like something just “clicks,” like the dog looks up and says, “There you are!! I’ve been waiting for you!” Call it magic or whatever you choose…it’s pretty special when it happens.

Now, this is not to say that every successful match has to start with such a magical moment – certainly that is not the case. I’ve always said that adoption matching is part art, part science, and sometimes the “science” part plays much more of the prominent role. By that I mean that all the right factors and qualities are there for dog and family to mesh together, and while there may be a few points of uncertainty, the positives vastly outweigh any potential negatives.  Thus, a match is made, the dog goes home, and the spark is still very much there…it just builds and grows with time rather than going off like a firecracker!

Honestly, with my own five adopted DVGRR dogs, I’ve yet to experience a “magical moment” pre-adoption, though each Golden has brought incredible joy, happiness, and love to my life. Bailey (96-109) and Hobo (99-083) were both foster dogs that ended up staying permanently as adoptees. When I adopted Tyler (01-047), I was so ambivalent about it that I almost tried to bring her back (not one of my prouder moments!!). Morgan (01-063) had been returned from his first adoptive home and was the “office dog” for a while at Gateway so by the time he came home with me in 2007 we were like an old married couple.  And Alli (10-239)….well, I’ve always said that our relationship for the first six months together was best described (by HER) as “I am the princess and you are my lowly servant.” Now, after two-and-a-half years, we are joined at the hip and fiercely bonded, but it sure didn’t start out that way!

"Give me the treat and no one gets hurt," reads the caption on this photo of Alli in my office. Don't mess with my Alli-girl! She pretty much saw me as there to do her bidding at first. Now she's completely connected and bonded to me. (She still orders me around when she feels like it!)

“Give me the treat and no one gets hurt,” reads the caption on this photo of Alli in my office. Don’t mess with my Alli-girl! She pretty much saw me as there to do her bidding when she first came home. Now she’s completely connected and bonded to me, but no “magic” took place until six months down the line!

One More Story…

I want to end this post by writing about Jack (09-091), whose adoption day story always makes me smile. And since Jack is the featured Golden for July on the 2013 DVGRR calendar, it’s fitting that I include his magic moment too.

Jack (named Holden at the time) had been highlighted in our Golden Opportunities newsletter because he’d been with us so long – he was an exceptionally anxious young Golden who’d endured many changes in his life and not always handled them well. A couple saw his picture and story in the newsletter and the wife (Ellen) called to get more information.  She had the most soothing, calm, gentle voice and I immediately thought she’d be a good influence on the very nervous Holden. Ellen worked with Alzheimer’s patients and was very used to bringing people down from agitated states, so that gives you an idea of her personality!

From the front page of the Fall 2009 newsletter. Those are my hands cradling Holden/Jack's head (in a rare moment of calm for him at that time).

From the front page of the Fall 2009 newsletter. Those are my hands cradling Holden/Jack’s head (in a rare moment of calm for him at that time).

The couple wanted to meet him at the next Meet and Greet but Ellen wasn’t available that day so her husband Hank came without her. We had agreed that if introductions went well with Hank, Ellen would come on her own the following week to meet Holden and if that too went well, she would take him home.

Well, Holden did fine with Hank although his anxiety was clearly present to a high degree. But, Hank saw that and wasn’t turned off by it, which was certainly a positive sign. So Ellen came out a few days later to meet Holden separately, as planned. That match also went well and he seemed to take to her, although of course he was still showing a lot of anxiety and very “needy” behavior. Nonetheless, Ellen spent a lot of time with Holden and she too was undeterred, feeling that she and Hank could work with him and give him a chance at a good life.

We did the adoption paperwork and got ready to send Holden off. Now, you have to understand he was one of my favorites and I felt very protective towards him because of all he’d been through and how much understanding and patience he needed. I waited with him at Ellen’s car while she made a last minute trip to the restroom inside Gateway before getting on the road. He was standing outside the car on leash and showing super high stress and anxiety. I began seriously second-guessing my decision to approve the adoption and was sure I was making a mistake….I felt I was letting him down and didn’t know what to do.

Then Ellen came walking back across the parking lot. Holden saw her and the transformation in his whole body and demeanor was, yep, “magical.” He visibly relaxed and was clearly so relieved and happy to see her. It was if he were saying, “Oh, thank goodness, you ARE still here!” He looked at me as if to say, “You found this wonderful lady to take care of me and then I thought she went away as quickly as she came….I was so worried!”

If you have a DVGRR calendar, you've been looking at Jack's handsome face all this month. It took a long time for him to find his forever family, but when he did, it was magic!

If you have a DVGRR calendar, you’ve been looking at Jack’s handsome face all this month. It took a long time for him to find his forever family, but when he did, it was magic!

Needless to say, all my doubts and second-guessing went out the window and instead I was never so sure of a match being right as I was at that moment! Jack was very challenging for Ellen and Hank at first but they persevered and they were exactly what he needed. He has settled in wonderfully to their home and now, as Ellen described for the calendar write-up, “He’s a cuddle-bug, a comedian, and our constant, loyal companion.”

“What Would You Do?” – The Rescue Version

I spent the past three-day weekend cleaning out my basement, a long overdue and ultimately unavoidable task. At this point in my life, such an endeavor means frequent breaks to rest my back. So at one point, I thought I’d use the break time to finally watch some of the dog videos I purchased a while back.

I picked up the one called MINE, which I had ordered from www.filmmovement.com last winter. (Oh, so that’s how I got on their mailing list…..!) For some reason, maybe because of the artwork on the cover of the DVD, I thought this was a kids’ video, one I might be able to use with school presentations. I also thought it said “13 min.” on the back…just the right amount of time for a break. OK, sounds good…let’s go with this one.

The artwork on this DVD cover led me to think MINE was a film aimed at kids -- not so.

The artwork on this DVD cover led me to think MINE was a film aimed at kids — not so.

I pop it in, and soon realize this is not at all for kids. It’s a documentary describing the harrowing experiences of New Orleans residents during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, especially those with pets forced to leave them behind. It’s also not “13 min.” long, it’s more like “81 min.” long. (My eyes as well as my back must have been tired.)

Nonetheless, I keep watching. Several NOLA residents are interviewed, talking about how they left a few days’ worth of food and water for their dogs or cats, expecting to be back within that brief time frame to resume care. Other interviews detail the efforts of both professional and grassroots animal lovers to rescue the stranded pets weeks after the storm, when the city was still closed to frantic residents anxious (but unable) to retrieve their canine/feline family members.

Sad stories, sad pictures, sad times. But, I’ve seen these images before and I’m ashamed to admit, I felt a little jaded seeing them again. We all remember the terrible destruction of property, the frustration of people displaced for months or years, the scrawled notes on homes identifying those where animals had been retrieved by rescuers. I couldn’t figure out why this film had been so touted in whatever advertisement had prompted me to buy it.

Midway through, however, the focus shifted subtly but distinctly. The stories of lost pets turned into stories of moral dilemmas. Now I was watching the case studies of several dogs who were saved from Katrina, sent to shelters and rescue groups around the country, successfully adopted by new families, and then….unexpectedly identified by their original owners.

In some cases, the identification followed weeks, months, or years of persistent, determined searching by guilt-ridden owners who felt they had let their animals down (though the film is quite persuasive at showing that they truly had no choice).  One memorable scene showed a woman searching through a makeshift shelter for her elderly mother’s missing black Lab – the crates and cages spread out over a huge parking lot represented some 3,000 displaced Katrina animals. Can you imagine trying to find a black Lab among how many hundreds or thousands of other black Labs?? The daughter is overwhelmed, and understandably so.

Gloria's beloved black Lab, Murphy Brown, was left behind when the Gloria was forced to evacuate her New Orleans home. Gloria's daughter tried her best to locate Murphy among thousands of displaced dogs. Spoiler: Gloria and Murphy's story has a happy ending. ;-)

Gloria’s beloved black Lab, Murphy Brown, was left behind when Gloria was forced to evacuate her New Orleans home. Gloria’s daughter tried her best to locate Murphy among thousands of displaced dogs. Spoiler: Gloria and Murphy’s story does have a happy ending. ;- )

Now I understood the true impact of this film – the struggle to decide whether a dog should remain with its adoptive family or be returned to the owner who lost it through no fault of his/her own, an owner who clearly sees that “of course, that dog was, and still is…MINE.”

With my longtime history as a dog owner plus my longtime involvement with rescue, I found these stories gut-wrenching and fraught with Solomon-like decision-making. Some of the shelter and rescue personnel are portrayed as having less than desirable patience with people trying to get their pets back, as can be seen at the beginning of this trailer for the film. (In the full film, the conversation goes on much longer, with the rescuer’s voice and words clearly showing her exasperation at trying to explain yet again why she can’t help.) Some owners resorted to legal intervention in their desperate efforts to reclaim their pets…and in some cases, that’s the only way they were successful.

While I cringed at the seeming lack of compassion shown towards Jesse (the man in the trailer) as well as others, I have to admit I could empathize to some degree with the rescuer’s frustration. No doubt she was among the many groups around the country that rallied and worked tirelessly and thanklessly to take in these dogs and find homes for them. Reality and practicality trumped anything else: the sheer numbers of animals precluded the ability to hold them until a former owner from hundreds of miles away “might” show up.

But what happens when that owner DOES show up? How do you reconcile the emotional attachment of the person whose dog was so tragically displaced with the newly formed bonds built between dog and adoptive family? How does a shelter or rescue approach an adoptive family and say, “Sorry, we need to take your dog back now after you’ve grown to love and cherish him?” Some of the adoptive families were portrayed a bit negatively as well, in their unwillingness to consider returning the dog. Still, I can’t (and don’t want to) imagine the anguish they must have felt at this unexpected turn of events.

Complicating the issue are the socioeconomic, racial, and age-related factors underlying the tragedy of these dually-loved pets. Many came originally from economically challenged or elderly owners in New Orleans, people who may not have shared the same dog care standards as the middle-class northern families welcoming these dogs into their posher accommodations.

Known as Max in his original home and Joey in his adoptive home, this engaging dog was caught between two families who both loved him dearly.

Known as Max in his original home and Joey in his adoptive home, this engaging dog was caught between two families who both loved him dearly.

Several people interviewed in the film commented that “Katrina was the best thing that happened to these dogs” because it led to “better” lives for them in the long run. Many displaced dogs tested heartworm positive, had lived at least partially outside, and were no doubt unaccustomed to the more pampered lifestyle they serendipitously fell into when adopted.

But, who are we to judge? It was clear to me that every original owner interviewed in the film certainly loved their dogs dearly, whether or not they followed a different pet care protocol than mine or yours. Once they located their missing dogs, was it fair to keep the dog with the new family at least partly because that family had more money, access to better vet care, or a fancier home? On the other hand, should a dog now settled into a successful new placement be uprooted once again and subjected to the stress of re-adjustment to their former life?

My truthful answer: “I don’t know.”  In many of the situations presented, I could honestly see the point of view from both sides and I simply can’t fathom the difficulty of deciding, the untenable action of devastating one person while helping another, the challenge of weighing the pros and cons of each potential outcome for a dog unwittingly caught in the middle.

The filmmaker, Geralyn Pezanoski,  sympathizes unabashedly with those who want their dogs back, and I found myself leaning that way as well.  And yet, how would I feel if one of my adopted dogs were taken away after they had already established a clear, undeniable hold on my heart? (And we all know in most cases that happens around day two or three following their arrival…) How would I feel  as a rescue professional if I had found a wonderful home for a displaced Golden, only to “undo” that happy adoption a short time later, leaving heartbreak and most likely deep anger behind?

At DVGRR, we are very clear that once a dog is surrendered, the owner has relinquished all right to reclaim the dog; the signed intake agreement spells that out very directly. In my nineteen years as a DVGRR volunteer and staff member, I can remember only two or three times when an exception was made and the dog was returned to the original owner – always after much discussion and careful determination of what was in the best interest of all involved.

These cases differed significantly from the ones depicted in MINE, however, because the dogs were still in the custody of DVGRR and had not yet been adopted to a new family. Even more significantly, the surrendering families had made a conscious decision to rehome their dog; the ill-fated owners in MINE had no such intent or plan to do the same.

Moral, legal, ethical dilemmas – MINE  turned out to be a most impactful, engrossing film indeed, one that left me thinking about it and the issues it raised long afterwards. Watch it and I guarantee you will be moved as well.

To learn more, visit  The Film Movement site’s page about MINE.  If you would like to borrow my copy of the DVD, please contact me at donna@dvgrr.org.

How to Clicker Train a Bat

A few weeks ago, I had another run-in with a bat. I had just been reassuring myself that since I’d put a new roof on my house last fall, my days of being surprised by another whooshing black critter with those delightfully spiny wings were over.  Not so, I’m afraid. There I was, relaxing on the living room sofa one March evening, when my most recent little visitor (the third or fourth in as many years) made his appearance. As usual, I first tried to convince myself it was a bird that just swooped across the ceiling. But, unfortunately I knew better.  Cue the stereotypical panic, dog locked in a bedroom, and wildly swinging broom…

OK, full disclosure….this post won’t really teach you how to clicker train a bat. (Something I’m sure you weren’t really aspiring to anyway, right?) However, Heather Hatt and I recently watched an excellent webinar on nonprofit blog writing where we learned the art of composing attention-getting headlines, so I confess I was practicing my newfound skills on this one. I hope it worked – did it??

In fairness, my reference to clicker training does have a connection to this tale of late night woe with a bat friend.  A better title for the post might have been “How to Communicate with a Bat” (or in my case, how NOT to communicate with a bat), but I suspect that wouldn’t have had the same impact or would have driven readers away, rather than hopefully enticing them in!

Clicker training, as many of you are no doubt aware, is one form of communicating with animals (most notably dolphins and dogs), and it can be an exceptionally powerful and effective one. I’ve been spending some time improving my own clicker training skills, so the advantages of this training/communication tool have been forefront in my mind.  As noted on the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website, the concept of clicker training is pretty simple:

i-Click™ Clickers sold by the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website.

i-Click™ Clickers sold by the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website.

Desirable behavior is marked by using a “clicker,” a mechanical device that makes a short, distinct “click” sound which tells the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing. [bold added]

Howcast has a great little video that also talks about the communication aspects of clicker training. I was first introduced to this technique at a seminar many years ago that I attended with some other DVGRR volunteers/staff, and I’ve been hooked on the idea ever since.

Clicker training does take practice (and some extra coordination at times!), but it’s a fun and definitely force-free way of teaching everything from basic manners to complicated tricks and skills. For me, one of the most interesting aspects is having the clicker essentially replace speaking to, touching, or giving hand signals to an animal as the primary means of interspecies communication – at least during the initial training steps. Removing those other communication tools helps the animal focus better and more clearly understand the behavior that is desired by the trainer.  When you’re used to conducting a running conversation with your dog during the day, staying quiet while teaching is often a challenge!

So…back to the “bat battle,” where staying quiet definitely wasn’t part of my strategy. Even though I have some experience with pursuing and/or capturing wayward bats (sad, isn’t it?), the sight of one brings out the agitated, flustered side of me in about two seconds. With the front door propped open (even at the risk of letting in more critters!), I tried my darndest to maneuver the little guy towards the open air night freedom. I succeeded only in chasing him further into the house, towards the kitchen, where I then propped open the back door as well.

During the whole encounter, I kept up a constant stream of dialogue directed at the bat. In case you’ve never had the joy of one in your home, they tend to fly around frantically in short bursts, then land in some hard-to-find spot, fold their wings, and act blithely catatonic. During these interim rest periods, I’d gingerly walk around the room searching every corner, curtain, and chair rung, my entreaties escalating: “I know you’re in here. What spot did you pick this time? C’mon, show your face! Gosh darn it, where the *&$#@ are you??????”

A bat resting on a curtain before his next flying sprint. Sometimes the wings are more folded, making it harder to spot them.

A bat resting on a curtain before his next flying sprint. Sometimes the wings are more folded, making it harder to spot them.

Once flying commenced again, my dialogue ran towards the following (expressed in a high-pitched LOUD voice, close to a screech, accompanied by much broom swinging to illustrate my points): “The DOOR! It’s over there! This way! C’mon, c’mon – you know you want to go out! MOVE! Not that way, OVER HERE!”

All fruitless, of course (though I eventually succeeded in steering my bat friend out the back door, thank goodness!). Even though bats do have excellent hearing, obviously my visitor was clueless to what I was trying to communicate. And therein lies the association with clicker training.

In reflecting on the experience later, I thought of how we so often expect our dogs (much less non-domesticated animals) to understand what we want via the use of language – OUR language. Sure, dogs can learn to recognize a variety of human sounds, but our perception of them “hanging on our every word” is no doubt colored by our love of dogs’ “family member” status that we’ve cultivated in our society. I have no problem with that status (and fully subscribe to it myself), but when it comes to conveying important information from human to canine, the clicker’s advantages seem very clear. It uses sounds and associations that do not depend on species-specific language, unlike the spoken (or, in some cases, screeched) word.

If you are interested in learning more about clicker training, the Karen Pryor site is an excellent one with tons of resources. I also like “Clicker Training Lessons” by Mary Woodward, a trainer in Delaware. Mary and her associate Susan Greenholt are the owners of Greenwood Dog Training School, where I took two classes in clicker training with my adopted Golden Tyler (01-047) many years ago. I learned so much from them!

Oh, by the way, according to this article by certified dog trainer Stacy Braslau-Schneck, owner of Stacy’s Wag’N’Train in San Diego, bats really CAN be clicker trained. Stacy notes that:

…clicker training has worked on every animal attempted, from killer whales to rats. With the help of clicker training, large monkeys are taught to willingly give blood samples, bats to spread their wings for inspection, llamas to go in their trailers, and pigeons to follow laser targets and take spy photos.

As for HOW the bat training is done, no details are given. I’ll stick with dogs myself, thank you very much!

Just the Right Number of Cooks – A Rescue Collaboration

Remember the old adage, “Too many cooks spoil the broth?”  Often true, but not always. In the case of a recent transport of eleven Golden Retrievers from Arkansas to Pennsylvania, a lot of “cooks” worked superbly in tandem to whip up one heckuva successful rescue!

Here in Reinholds, PA, home of Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue (DVGRR), our first inkling of the events transpiring over 1,000 miles away in Arkansas came via a phone call from Phyl Simmons, of Memphis Area Golden Retriever Rescue (MAGRR). We’ve worked collaboratively on many occasions in the past with MAGRR so Phyl is well-acquainted with our rescue and its capabilities.

Her call was in response to a request MAGRR had just received for help with a multi-dog intake on an “asap” basis.  Phyl knew that “asap” part would be difficult for her to achieve using her foster care network and thought DVGRR might be in a better position to jump in given our on-site kennel facility and previous experience with high number intakes.

We were more than glad to help and started the figurative [tennis] ball rolling right away. Our Kennel Manager, Dennis Stauffer, got the contact info from Phyl and immediately called Dorinda Hankins, President of Harley’s Hope, Inc., a small but very determined dog rescue/sanctuary in Harrison, Arkansas. We learned that Dorinda had been working tirelessly alongside folks from Ozark Homeward Bound (another local rescue group) to provide emergency on-site care for thirty-two dogs, five horses, two cats, one pot-bellied pig, and assorted fish – all left to fend for themselves since early February when the family that owned them became embroiled in a domestic dispute and were evicted from the home.  Besides Goldens, the canine breeds represented included Labrador retrievers, Great Pyrenees, German Shepherds, and Beagles.

Starting With the Basics

Dorinda told us the conditions at the home were awful and nearly all of the dogs were very underweight, many with untreated infections and other health issues as well. Water and electric service had been turned off more than six months earlier.  The Arkansas team established three priorities: ensuring the dogs were safe, obtaining legal authority to remove them, and seeking other resources to help place them. (Neither of the small Arkansas groups was equipped to take so many animals at once, much as they would have liked to!)

Our new Arkansas friends sent us this picture showing one of the Goldens at the abandoned home where all the animals were living.

Our new Arkansas friends sent us this picture showing one of the Goldens at the abandoned home where all the animals were living.

Another photo of the Goldens in Arkansas. These pictures broke our hearts and we were so anxious to help.

Another photo of the Goldens in Arkansas. These pictures broke our hearts and we were so anxious to help.

The first priority (ensuring safety) presented some logistical challenges, but the two rescues attacked them head on. For almost two weeks, volunteers drove eighty miles roundtrip every day to bring food and water for the dogs and other animals. “We used over 800 pounds of dog food, taken mostly from Harley’s Hope and Ozark Homeward Bound, which really came close to wiping us out,” Dorinda told us. The groups also arranged for deworming, vaccinations, antibiotics, and other medical care to be administered where needed.

Working in conjunction with Boone County Sheriff Mike Moore, the two rescues successfully received legal possession of the animals on February 11, 2013. Big relief all around, but no time to rest or celebrate – the search for places to take the animals was well underway and needed to be finalized pronto!

Communication, Cooperation, and a Little Comic Relief

Dorinda acknowledges she initially thought that moving thirty-two dogs to various rescues in a short period of time would be a nearly impossible task. Happily, things fell into place far more easily than expected. Regular contact with all parties involved made a huge difference. “We could not have done it without the GREAT!!! communication from the Northeast rescues,” Dorinda noted. “They kept us updated on what we needed to do for them and what they could do for us. It was just nice to hear Dennis’s kind, calm voice at the end of the day.”

First to be relocated were the horses, pot-bellied pig, fish, and two dogs. Three of the horses were taken in by a local horse rescue and the rest of that initial group will stay permanently with a volunteer from Harley’s Hope.  After tons of phone calls, emails, and late night strategizing, plans came together for DVGRR to take the eleven Golden Retrievers, Labs 4 Rescue to take the seven Labs, and National Great Pyrenees Rescue to take the five Pyrs.  DVGRR agreed to house the five Great Pyrenees overnight until they could be picked up by the Pyr rescue folks, saving those volunteers significant travel time. (Actually, it turned out to be more than five Pyrs, but no one knew that at the time. More on that later…..!)

Again, everyone’s willingness to work collaboratively made the planning and decision-making process run far more smoothly than anticipated.

The comic relief? Well, that came in the form of “Mimi”, the pot-bellied pig. Dorinda says she’s sure the man who hauled the horses and pig from the house “thought we were a bunch of yahoos trying to load Mimi. She was not going for it at all. She knocked into the President of Ozark Homeward Bound a couple of times at full speed.” Thankfully, everyone survived – both physically and emotionally!

A Critical Ingredient – Transportation!

So now the rescues were lined up, but how to get the Goldens and Great Pyrenees  halfway across the country?? Enter Barbara Mattson,  President of the Great Pyrenees Rescue. She knew of  Jeff Sweeney, who operates Yes I Can Transport, a small animal delivery service with a solid reputation. Jeff had just gotten back from a 10,000 mile trip and had originally planned to take a week off when he got the call about helping with the Arkansas dogs. He didn’t hesitate to join the team of “cooks” and assured everyone he had the capability of handling the transport, including a vehicle that could negotiate the “twisty-windy access road leading to the property in rural Boone County” where the dogs were located.

Soon, plans were in place for the transport to depart on Saturday, February 16. Jeff’s wife, Debbie, would keep in touch with him throughout the trip and provide regular email updates to all involved regarding Jeff’s ETA and the status of his precious cargo.

In Pennsylvania, DVGRR staff began gearing up for the influx of new dogs, preparing files, kennels, and a surplus of extra TLC!

Add a Little Seasoning…

Right on schedule, Jeff and the sixteen dogs pulled into Golden Gateway on Tuesday afternoon, February 19. All four-legged passengers handled the trip like troopers, and they took their entry into DVGRR’s “half-way home” facility in stride as well.

They're here! Staff member Cindy Morgan helps unload one of our new charges from the transport vehicle.

They’re here! Staff member Cindy Morgan helps unload one of our new charges from the transport vehicle.

You can't see her, but that's staff member Inza Adams behind this little blonde pup!

You can’t see her, but that’s staff member Inza Adams behind this little blonde pup!

First order of business - potty break!

First order of business – potty break!

"Welcome, sweet girl! We are so glad to finally meet you!"

“So happy to meet you!”

Heather plants a welcome kiss on this new arrival's head.

Heather plants a welcome kiss on this pretty new arrival’s head.

Soon, we set about the task of getting to know each of these sweet Goldens better so we could start thinking about matching them with new homes. Having announced the imminent arrival of the “ARK 11” (as we dubbed them) in a mass email update, we already had adopters contacting us to express interest in adding one of these dogs to their family once ready.

All settled in with blanket, ball, and toys. Ready for a new life!

All settled in with blanket, ball, and toys. Ready for a new life!

The transport cost from Arkansas to Pennsylvania was pretty steep, as you might imagine. However, as with the rest of this story, the joint efforts of many groups (and individuals) served to make it possible. Financial support (i.e., the seasoning for the “broth”) came from both Arkansas rescue groups (who somehow found the time to solicit donations while coordinating the care of the dogs and the overall rescue operation!), Memphis Area Golden Retriever Rescue (who wanted to support the effort monetarily after referring the dogs to DVGRR), and from several VERY generous individual DVGRR donors.Given that our costs for the ARK 11 included not only their transportation but also the daily care, spay/neuter of all dogs, and other medical treatment (several were in need of extensive dental care, for example), we are incredibly grateful for this amazing support and assistance!

 A True Example of Teamwork

We’ve been delighted with the ARK 11, who are truly a group of resilient Goldens. Despite all they’ve been through, they are progressing well and made their public “debut” at DVGRR’s March 9 Meet and Greet the Goldens Day (our monthly Open House and adoption event). There was a constant flow of visitors wanting to meet them that day, and quite a few prospective adopters who succumbed to their charms.  Our Adoption Team is starting the process now of matching each Golden with a home that will continue the process of keeping them safe,  secure, and very much loved.

Kennel Manager Dennis Stauffer (and the rest of us!) enjoyed meeting our short-term Great Pyrenees guests.

Kennel Manager Dennis Stauffer (and the rest of us!) enjoyed meeting our short-term Great Pyrenees guests.

We had fun getting to know the group of Great Pyrenees too, if only for their short overnight stay at Golden Gateway. And, we are relieved that Madison, one of the adult females, timed her special “surprise” for AFTER she was safely in the care of Great Pyrenees Rescue. What surprise was that, you ask? Oh, just a litter of five puppies born on Saturday evening, February 23! Madison’s pregnancy was not obvious and therefore went undetected, so thankfully she did not deliver her pups enroute to Pennsylvania or while temporarily in the custody of DVGRR. We do wish mama and pups all the best!

New mama Madison with her five little "surprises"!

New mama Madison with her five little “surprises”!

Teamwork is so often the key to success in animal welfare situations and that was certainly the case here. Thanks to a special group of dog lovers all coming together in a pinch, none of these canine survivors will ever be neglected, forgotten, or mistreated again. We are deeply grateful to all who played a role in making this happen:

  • Memphis Area Golden Retriever Rescue
  • Harley’s Hope, Inc.
  • Ozark Homeward Bound LLC
  • National Great Pyrenees Rescue
  • Boone County Sherriff Mike Moore

In reflecting on the rescue, Dorinda Hankins noted: “At no time did we worry about anything except the animals and their needs.  Once it was over we just took a deep breath and said, now we will take inventory of what is left.”  Yes, many resources were used to make this happen, but the canine lives saved, the relationships forged, and the mutual sense of accomplishment are truly a testament to the rescue spirit. Soup’s on!

Training Tipsters – Part II

Every dog trainer worth his or her salt will acknowledge that training is not all about successes…those missteps, mistakes, and goofs that everyone experiences are what often teach us the most. When I asked Sara Braverman (whose history with DVGRR dates back to our really early days) to share her favorite tips, she was kind enough to include those that have worked and those that have not. All are most instructive, as you will see!

Three of Each – Good and Not-so-Good Tips

Tipster: Sara Braverman, DVGRR First Vice President/Volunteer/Adopter

Let’s start with three valuable training tips that have been especially helpful for my dogs.

1)  First, the “wait” command is one of the most useful ones my dogs know.  They learn to pause when a door in the house opens – and with teenagers coming and going, this is not only useful but an important safety measure! I also use this command when opening up a car door; the dogs know to wait before jumping out.  Since I often have multiple dogs with me, this is definitely another way to keep everyone safe.  I practice “wait” on walks as well, both with a 6′ lead and with the long lead I use when hiking in the woods.  I let the dogs walk out a bit ahead of me and then periodically call out “WAIT!” When the dog pauses and looks at me, I toss a treat at them.  They quickly learn that “WAIT!” means a treat will be falling from the sky and this helps them remember to listen to the command when it is truly needed.

When you're just a few months old, "waiting" is usually not high on your priority list! Nonetheless, Sara's puppy Rudy will learn the "wait" command from a young age to keep him safe and mannerly.

When you’re just a few months old, “waiting” is usually not high on your priority list! Nonetheless, Sara’s puppy Rudy will learn the “wait” command from a young age to keep him safe and mannerly.

2) For young energetic dogs and untrained foster dogs, nothing beats a round of “puppy push-ups” at opportune times. When a dog is doing that “bored little kid thing” of wandering around the house, messing with the other dogs and cats, mouthing inappropriate items, and so on, I call them to me and we do a quick but intense session of  sit/down/sit/down/sit/down…i.e., puppy push-ups! I’ll do a few other commands, then a second session of puppy push-ups.  This usually serves to focus their minds and burn off some of the excess physical energy. Soon they are ready to go find a dog bone and settle down to relax – at least for a while!

A few rounds of puppy push-ups and young Rudy is ready for a nap. He worshipped his big brother Ruddy, who sadly left for Rainbow Bridge not long after this picture was taken.

A few rounds of puppy push-ups and young Rudy is ready for a nap. He worshipped his big brother Ruddy, who sadly left for Rainbow Bridge not long after this picture was taken.

3) It’s a simple concept, but one of the most important things people should remember is that we can reward a dog best by listening to him and understanding what he values. Just like with humans, what is rewarding for one dog may not be rewarding for another dog. Once we figure out what works for each canine family member, our interactions can become SO much more successful.  The dog feels “heard” and gets a reward that is meaningful.  We too feel “heard” and have fun training.  Win-win.

Now for my mistakes. Wow, I have made so many along the way, but learned a great deal in doing so.

1) One of the biggest that comes to mind was my long-ago use of a prong collar.  I was pregnant and had two young, strong Goldens who both pulled on lead. Later, walking with the baby in a Snugli or stroller, I still needed the dogs to walk without pulling so hard.  At the time, choke collars were typically recommended by trainers and books.  The prong collar had just come on the market and was being touted as the more “humane” device, because it didn’t put pressure against the dog’s trachea – it distributed even pressure around the dog’s entire neck instead. So I bought one and it did indeed keep my dog from pulling as hard.  However, it also taught my eager, dog-friendly boy that if he pulled to say hi to a dog friend, he received a correction on his neck (and one that was not so “humane” after all).  He soon started to become dog reactive (i.e., to lunge, bark, and growl at other dogs on leash), which could have escalated to a huge problem. I opted to get rid of the prong collar and never used one again….ever.

2) Another mistake that comes to mind is not fully understanding the importance of continuing to socialize dogs.  I know now that this is an ongoing process throughout the dog’s life – we don’t just teach our pups to be brave and then cross it off our list.  Rather, we need to keep introducing dogs to new and novel experiences –people, places, situations, other dogs – and showing them that the world is a good and safe place.

3) Lastly, the reactive dog lessons….so many!  I have fostered and adopted several reactive dogs and made many mistakes with the first ones.  For example, I used to get very tense when I saw another dog approaching, knowing that MY dog was going to make a fool of both of us.  My solution? I tightened the leash, scolded him for bad behavior, and took fewer walks.  Nope, didn’t help.

Jack is Sara's current reactive dog. He's come SO far and taught her SO much along the way.

Jack is Sara’s current reactive dog. He’s come SO far and taught her SO much along the way.

Since then, I have learned the power of a loose leash (even when a voice in your head is saying “uh-oh”) and how well a happy, chirpy tone can calm an anxious dog.  I have learned the importance of timing with treats and praise and the need to walk a reactive dog every day. I have learned to use my body to physically block my dog’s line of vision between him and the other “scary” dog. I have learned to set aside my pride and not worry about observers judging me upon seeing my dog’s fearful, yet seemingly aggressive, behavior.  Instead, I have learned to ask people for their help. I explain the problem and enlist them and their dog in helping me desensitize mine.

I now find it such a thrill to work with a reactive dog – to show him that there is a better way to react, and no reason to be afraid.    My dog knows I am to be trusted and that I will keep them safe, as well as reward them for calmer behavior.  I feel joy at having lessened the burden of their worries and find that we all look forward to outings now.

Note:  Sara’s article on our website, “Thoughts from a ‘Reactive’ Dog,” contains more of her great insights on this topic. Well worth a read!

The opportunity for great socialization with other dogs is one way to stave off reactive issues later in life. Here's young Rudy learning play manners from his other Golden brother, sweet Gus.

The opportunity for early socialization with other dogs is one way to stave off reactive issues later in life. Here’s young Rudy learning good play manners from his other Golden brother, sweet Gus.

Learning and Unlearning

Tipster: Donna Baker, DVGRR Education and Community Awareness Manager

Conventional wisdom would suggest that “learning” is a good thing and “unlearning” is a problematic thing, right? Well….not always. For my own foray into this post, I’ll talk about times when just the opposite is true. Of course, I’ll use my favorite canine subject to illustrate my points…13.5 year old Alli (10-239), who currently shares my life, home, and sofa, and owns my heart.

Alli sofa

Taken last night after dinner, this picture shows Alli in her favorite repose on the sofa. At a few months shy of 14, she’s earned the right to stretch out and relax wherever and whenever she so desires (which is most of the time). Keep this “usual” pose in mind when viewing the next picture of her a little further down…

Variable Reinforcement

Canine learning is of course a very complex subject, one that trainers, behaviorists, and pet owners can spend many years studying and shaping. One aspect you’ve probably heard about, however, is the concept of “variable reinforcement,” especially as it pertains to dogs learning new behaviors.  The related concept is “continuous reinforcement.” Both of these concepts are key elements of positive, reward-based training techniques.

Essentially, when you start teaching your dog a new behavior, you’ll get the best results by rewarding each and every time the dog performs the behavior.  Dog sits, dog gets a treat. Dog sits again, dog gets a second treat. Dog sits a third time, dog gets a third treat.  Receiving the treat (or any other kind of positive reinforcement) helps the dog learn what behavior is desired and what earns him or her the reward. This is continuous reinforcement.

Eventually, of course, you want to get to the point where treats aren’t as necessary to still elicit the behavior.  If you just stopped giving treats/other reinforcement “cold turkey,” your dog would probably decide very quickly he’s no longer interested in sitting on command. What’s in it for him?? BUT, if you start using variable reinforcement, i.e., sometimes giving the reward and sometimes not, the dog maintains interest in the activity because he knows the chance to earn the treat is still there….just not every time.  And – important point here – the fact that the treat does not come every time actually increases the strength of the behavior.

[You’ve probably heard the analogy of variable reinforcement being akin to the psychological appeal of slot machines – and that is indeed a great way of looking at it! Here’s one writer’s take on the candy machine versus the slot machine concept. ]

So what’s the downside here? Well, just as you can use variable reinforcement to intentionally strengthen the likelihood of a dog performing a desired behavior, you can also use it to unintentionally strengthen an undesired behavior. And here’s where Ms. Alli comes in…or really where her errant owner comes in (me).

Like most Goldens, Alli has the “nose nudge” down to a science. Actually in her case, it’s more like a “whole upper body nudge.”  I’ve never captured in it in a picture but she’ll come over to where I’m sitting, climb halfway up so her front legs are on my lap, tilt her head and neck, raise one dainty but lethal paw, and swipe at me…HARD.  Multiple times if necessary. Sound familiar?? I call it her “pushy broad” routine and I’ve yet to figure out what it always means. Clearly there are times when it means, “Mom, bathroom emergency!” but more often it’s Alli-speak for “I’m bored – pay attention to me,” “I’d like a cookie, please,” “Are you going to stare at that computer screen ALL night?” or “Ah-hem, you forgot to make my Kong again!” It can be cute, but honestly, it’s pretty annoying most of the time.

Trouble is, sometimes I turn away and ignore the behavior (if I’m really busy and sure it’s not related to a potty break), but other times I give in, get up, and resignedly deliver the cookie or the Kong or that attention she wants.  Hmmmm….sure sounds like variable reinforcement, doesn’t it? Indeed it is, and what I’m unfortunately doing is ensuring that Alli’s “pushy broad” behavior (one I would prefer to see diminish) will instead continue as a major part of her communication repertoire.  And why not? She’s learned that probably 60% of the time that paw swipe works, courtesy of her lowly human servant’s lack of consistency. So in this case, “learning” is not necessarily a good thing! Still sounding familiar???

I call this picture “Alli bread face” and it cracks me up every time I see it. Alli LOVES bread of all kinds and I’d just finished sharing a soft, warm roll with her in the kitchen. You know, “two pieces for me, one piece for you, one piece for me, two pieces for you…” Then I took the rest into the living room for mom ALONE to enjoy on the sofa. Alli rarely pays attention to my living room snack (see previous photo), but this time –having just been successful in the kitchen with her all-time favorite food – she gave me her best “…and three pieces for me, right??” hopeful look. Nope, I didn’t cave!

I call this picture “Alli bread face” and it cracks me up every time I see it because she is not usually this animated late at night. Alli LOVES bread of all kinds and I’d just finished sharing a soft, warm roll with her in the kitchen. You know, “two pieces for me, one piece for you, one piece for me, two pieces for you…” Then I took the rest into the living room for mom ALONE to enjoy on the sofa. Alli rarely pays attention to my living room snack (see previous photo), but this time –having just been successful in the kitchen with her all-time favorite food – she gave me her best “…and three pieces for me, right??” hopeful look. Nope, I didn’t cave!

Here is another basic but very useful article about variable reinforcement from one of my favorite authors, Kathy Sdao: “Dogs as Gamblers”    As Kathy notes, “This type of unpredictable reward in return for a relatively low-cost behavioral investment can create intensely persistent habits.” Just be sure the habits are ones you want to encourage in your dog!

Counter Conditioning

Now that I’ve shared one of my training foibles, let me talk about one of my successes. Alli (and Morgan before her) have taught me a lot about how to use “unlearning” in a positive way. By working though some of Alli and Morgan’s behavior challenges, I’ve become a big fan of “counter conditioning” as a training technique. I didn’t fully understand this term or the process behind it at first, and find that many other dog owners, both novice and more experienced, lack full comprehension as well.

In reality, the concept is quite simple – it essentially involves changing the dog’s negative association to something into a positive (or at least neutral) association. Here is a great definition from WebMD:

To “condition” means to teach, and to “counter” means to change. So counterconditioning just means to re-teach the pet to have a pleasant feeling and reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked. We do this by associating the feared thing with something good so that it predicts good things for the animal. As soon as the dog or cat sees the thing, we give him a delicious treat to create a pleasant emotional reaction. Over many repetitions, the animal learns that whenever that thing appears, good things happen! Eventually, the process produces a neutral or positive emotional reaction to the sight of the previously feared or disliked person, animal, event, place or object.

So you can see why I think of this as “unlearning,” in that the dog is “unlearning” the previously negative or fearful association to whatever it is we are trying to counter condition. Seen in this context, “unlearning” becomes a desirable outcome.

With Alli, I’ve used this technique to help her gain a higher comfort level with grooming. When Alli first came into DVGRR’s program, she was very leery of being touched in certain places and needed to be muzzled for her pre-adoption grooming.  After she became “Alli Baker,” I was determined to make grooming less of an unpleasant, upsetting experience for her. Ideally, I wanted grooming to be something she enjoyed, but decided I would be happy with simply getting her to tolerate it more comfortably.

I now have Alli groomed every few months by my colleague Heather Hatt and we’ve made very good progress – no muzzle is needed and only rarely does Alli object to Heather touching, brushing, or trimming her. We’ve used a variety of techniques to help achieve this improvement, but in my opinion counter conditioning has been the most essential factor.

To counter condition my feisty old lady to grooming, I’ve taught her that getting up on the grooming table and being brushed or trimmed means she will be allowed to lick peanut butter off of a spoon.  Not just once, but multiple times during the session!  This is a super special treat for her, so it serves to not only distract her from what Heather might be doing, but more importantly, show her that “good things happen” when she is on the grooming table.

Here's Alli getting to lick the peanut butter spoon during her most recent grooming session with Heather.

Here’s Alli getting to lick the peanut butter spoon during her most recent grooming session with Heather.

I’ve also used other high value treats (“high value” meaning something extra yummy that isn’t on the usual daily menu), such as the Lickety Stik® product that dispenses meat-flavored liquid, for our counter conditioning purposes.* Oh, and during our last grooming session, I remembered there was half a left-over bagel in the Gateway kitchen so I used little pieces of bagel in addition to peanut butter.  (Remember, this is a dog who will do anything for bread!!)

*Note: The Lickety Stik® is a nifty product that has many potential uses in training. We are presently out of them in our store but more will be coming in soon.

A little better shot of Heather trimming Alli's ear while I feed my girl her peanut butter. I don't think Alli really wanted her picture taken here!

A little better shot of Heather trimming Alli’s ear while I feed my girl her peanut butter. I don’t think Alli really wanted her picture taken here!

Now, I can’t say that Alli really loves or looks forward to grooming (in fact, she tends to give Heather the cold shoulder for a few days after one of her “spa” appointments), BUT  it is definitely a less stressful and more positive experience for her than it used to be. (Which, of course, means it’s also less stressful and more positive for me! )

Here are some videos I found that help illustrate the technique of counter conditioning:

Handling and Grooming Counter Conditioning – McKenzie Lesson 1:  On the long side but very well done and instructive. This trainer is using a much more intensive and step-by-step process than I have with Alli, with excellent results.

Jean Donaldson gets conditioned emotional response when fitting Gentle Leader:  Great video showing how this well-known trainer gets a dog to see the Gentle Leader as something highly desirable as opposed to something to avoid.

Pit Bull vs. vacuum cleaner:  There are some things I might do differently in this video, but it shows how the trainer is getting the dog to associate the scary vacuum cleaner with yummy treats, thereby making it much less scary.

You can see that if done correctly and well, counter conditioning may take a lot of patience and time – it’s not usually a “quick fix” but it’s well worth putting in that time to see the change in your dog!  For more detailed reading on counter conditioning, I like this article by Jolanta Benal, otherwise known as the Quick and Dirty Dog Trainer. She is one of my favorites.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this two-part post on training tips and I’d love to hear some of yours. Happy training!