Hound Advice

Dalton Cowper

Porter, Riley, Rockey, Chieftain, and their cousin Boston. 
[This article appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of The SCOOP.]

My life with dogs started twelve years ago when Chieftain came into my life. He was just 9 months old and I was his fifth home. I was new to dog ownership and soon found out that it was going to be a lot of work. He had a multitude of problems: food aggression, separation anxiety, possessiveness, leash aggression, was prone to escaping and barked incessantly at any unknown noise, to name a few. Most of his problems would not be tolerated at the apartment building I lived in, so I had to solve some of the issues very fast.

To help him overcome his problems, I first enrolled him in a training class that based its training techniques on the book, The Culture Clash, by Jean Donaldson, who professes that a reward and positive only methodology is the only way to go. Chieftain excelled at school and within a short year, the book and the six-week course had helped get him to the point where I could walk him off leash. By then he could also do some twenty tricks and was the only beagle I knew of in Toronto that could heel when walking. He still had some leash aggression but for the most part he was flourishing as a better-behaved dog.
As a result of my experiences with Chieftain, I became quite interested in dogs in general and began collecting books on dog training and behaviour. I also watched dog shows regularly, many of which were particularly useful in helping me decipher Chieftain’s body language. Dr. Stanley Coren’s show “Good Dog!” gave me the techniques to cure Chieftain’s separation anxiety and his barking at strange noises. I decided that his books would be worth reading and started to collect them. Each one gave me more insight into Chieftain and the other dogs that would come into my life.

When I started as a professional dog walker, I took Chieftain with me. He became quite social and would even share the front seat with his favourite pal, Duke. My progress with him was certainly noticeable, and I was thankful whenever I was complimented on my efforts. It wasn’t long after we had made progress that my fiancĂ©e, Beverly, and her black lab Riley moved into our apartment. Boy did things change. The dogs got on great and truly loved each other, but Chief had some issues accepting Beverly as an authority. We took measures to change that immediately.
She started to feed Chieftain more and handled him on walks. Things progressed and we managed to get him back to his old self. I used his tricks to redirect his focus when we encountered dogs on our walks, slowly with time he got more comfortable on leash. He managed to stay that way until one day he was attacked while on leash. He was not harmed physically but he was clearly more edgy when walking on leash after the incident. The problem was compounded by our own fears and our frustration only intensified as more bad experiences occurred. Not everyone controls their dog or thinks they should. It can make it difficult to limit the dog’s exposure to positive-only experiences with other dogs. Chief certainly lacked confidence on leash. I was certain he was giving off a vibe that only attracted dogs to challenge him.

Eventually we sought professional help and took him to classes that were three hours from Toronto and spread over three weekends. The instructor’s credentials were good and she came highly recommended. She was even hired as a consultant to evaluate all the pit bulls in her township after they instituted a ban on the breed. Any dog that didn’t pass the test would have to be removed. She professed to having learned her methods from another instructor who was rescuing pit bulls in California. Their idea was that one could correct the dog’s bad behaviour with the same symbolic gestures that an alpha dog would use was something new to me. Sadly, she knew little of these methods. Her attempts to reconcile my dog’s fears backfired when she muzzled him and a female bull terrier that clearly was aggressive and let them both loose. She said this would help. It didn’t! In a nutshell the terrier ate through the muzzle and was starting to attack my helpless beagle. Chief was clearly shaken and squealing in fear and pain and Beverly and I were in shock. How in the world was this supposed to help, we asked ourselves on the trip home? We decided it was not what we wanted for him. Avoiding dogs while on leash was far better than putting him or us through that again. Some time after the failed experiment, we moved to Kingston for a while and then again moved to an even smaller community. Ten years have passed and by applying methods I learned in the interim Chief has overcome his fears and we have become more confident.

The research I did into bettering Chief’s behaviour has helped me assist some twenty dogs find forever homes. The methods I have used are drawn from several experts, namely, Ian Dunbar, Jean Donaldson, Jan Fennell, Dr. Stanley Coren and Cesar Millan. Combined they have some two hundred plus years of working knowledge with dogs. And each of them started out searching for the answer to the same question: how to teach people to train their dogs well and humanely. When many of them were looking for answers, the methods of the time were likely harsh and aggressive in nature. Several of the authors stress understanding dog body language and even evolution to better understand dogs. There are many differences and many threads of commonality amongst their collective books. The fundamental thing they agree on is the humane treatment of the animals. 

The methods they employ for rewarding are all the same. They use positive touch and food motivators to reward good behaviour. They advocate for consistency, good timing and controlling resources like attention, play and food. They all advocate against chastising or dealing with a dog in a frustrated aggressive way. They all conclude that you must be calm in your approach and reward/nurture good behaviour.

I can only tell you that the techniques should be well understood before attempting them. You will have better success if you start by controlling resources and learning to understand their body language and dog behaviour. This is one reason why I advocate that people can learn something from watching “The Dog Whisperer” series. Each episode is a glimpse into Cesar Millan’s understanding of dogs and their physical language. There are few shows where owners can see dogs in action with commentary explaining what their body language is saying. Useful information to any owner, I would argue. In many episodes, owners can learn that being calm will get you farther. Persistence and calm-unwavering patience is your best weapon. But the most helpful thing people can learn is to control their dog through symbolic dominant gestures while deflecting them in return. Such gestures include resting their head on your lap, leaning on you or even subtle gestures like putting their paw on your foot. Just being aware of these gestures as an owner, you can choose to simply disallow them. Even if you are working with a positive-only training method, at the very least you will see the body language for the types of behaviours you do want to reward and ones you do not want to accidentally nurture. The severe cases in some of his episodes are clearly preceded by disclaimers of caution advising owners to seek professional help. Millan is a television personality simply because of his previous successes with people and their dogs. On the show he often is seen helping movie stars and authors with their dogs but what struck me the most was an episode where he helps an American Kennel Club Obedience judge understand her bull terrier’s body language. I would only conclude that dog ownership isn’t easy not even for an AKC obedience judge. 

I rescue dogs because I have the opportunity to give back to dogs what they have given me. Over the years we have rescued dogs from all types of circumstances. Some wasting away on short chains, others in shelters and some completely misunderstood or mistreated. Ringo was the last dog we rescued in 2009. He was on the Do Not Adopt list for both human and animal aggression. He found his way to me through a volunteer walker, just two weeks before the Toronto Humane Society was closed down pending charges of animal cruelty. It was certainly lucky for him because the dogs that accompanied his name on that Do Not Adopt were soon moved to the To Be Euthanized list and later euthanized by the OSPCA. They are all gone now. Some had been there for years in a small cage with little to no physical and mental stimulus. Ringo was very lucky indeed. He flourished here and has since gone back to live with the lady and three Labrador retrievers. I get a call from Ringo’s owner from time to time and she proudly updates me on his good nature. 

My experience with dogs has taught me that being open to receive knowledge is not always easy. I often have to set aside my own beliefs in order to expand my horizons. Since adopting Chieftain, I have come to own some seven working dogs. They assist me daily in my endeavors to make dogs comfortable and help create a healthy environment for them to thrive in. They continue to teach me things I just can’t learn from a book or television show.