Dog Training: Crap and Criticism

Smarter than we think

While running my dog Roxy, I had squatted down in knee-high grass to inspect a small flower. Unbeknownst to me, Roxy was hunched over right behind me producing the goods. A sleek Chevy pickup slowed and the driver called out “Will you two pick up after each other?” and it dawned on me what it looked like.

We learn a lot about each other as our dogs drag us around on the end of a 2 meter leather thong, but you know what? Our dogs are learning more. Their simple postures, scratching, and “pee-mail” conveys unspoken volumes of time-integrated information. Cuddles had a vet visit; Sargent is getting nutrient supplements; Addy is a week out from coming into heat; Dooly is having serious hip dysplasia pain and is secreting cortisol in his pee; Jumbo is his usual dominant testosterone king; some new late-castrated stranger is really tall and can pee 24 inches up the hydrant. All this with a silent sniff.

We bipeds miss out on a lot. This week I watched a prim and proper lady following a sketchy and ugly hyperactive cur. She eventually leaned over to do the reverse bag dog pile pick-up routine in the grass. Just then she leaped back screaming and shaking her hand. I ran over assuming she had been bitten by a snake or spider. Nope, a simple case of fingernails going through the bag into warm dog shit. Her disgust was compounded by having me as an observer. I tried to mollify her with two statements: It is just digested grains and meat protein to which she hissed “it was gross”. Then I offered changing a baby’s diaper is worse to which she replied curtly “You don’t understand, my dog IS my baby”. I hope she didn’t hear me mutter “I’m seeing the resemblance now”.

All of us dog owners think we know best and are free to be critical of the way others are raising and training (or not) their dogs. I know the risk of this self-referential piety but I will indulge anyway. Dogs live in a world of cost-benefits. I have seen dogs look at a fresh Brie wedge on a low coffee table, glance up at their master across the room, do the math and figure “What the hell, it will be gone before he reaches me!” and with a slobbery sideways bite, lift it with a plate-rattling giveaway. It is all swallow and drop his ears at the shout and storming approach. Just 30 seconds later it is over and the last cheesy smear is being tongued off his whiskers as he surveils the room for other tidbits. Totally worth the scolding.

Likewise, dogs that act out may get the “soliloquy treatment”. It goes like this:

Dog: “Grrrr . . . .”

Master: “Oh Harley! You know we have talked about uncalled for growling because it is simply not who you are! You are a cuddle king who likes to eat kibble in bed and watch movies with me! I want you to show kindness to strangers and be your best self possible”

Me: “Does Harley really understand your complex affirmation of his hairy self?”

Dog: “Grrrrsnnnggggg — RARGH, RARGGHHH!!!!”

Master: “Oh Harley, skookums, apologize to the nice man and show him you are really friendly! I just don’t know what to do with you. Are you having a bad day? Here, have a treat to chase that mean old behavior away”

Dog: [gulping kibble, baring teeth and lunging]

Me: “Umm. . . if that is ‘friendly’, I would kind of like to see what ‘mad’ looks like. Have you got a good grip on that leash?”

Master: “ HIARAWA (shorthand for the oft-blurted “He is a Rescue and was abused”), we are working on his behaviors.”

Me: “Yeah, keep giving him kibble for trying to bite people and maybe he will just friendly up nicely. Where is the abuse in this training scheme? He is on his way to a mauling and court-ordered euthanasia.”

Have you noticed that abused rescue dogs are everywhere! You don’t need to ask the owners either, they, like new vegans or LDS missionaries, will stuff this fact into the first three sentences of a conversation, followed by a pause for you to complement their largess. My dog should suffer from guilt for having had a loving supportive upbringing when most other dogs live with PTSD. Somewhere out there, there is a very very busy dog-abusing factory turning out these most desirable of all pets. Maybe buyers of abused dogs are the same people who pay extra for pre-ripped and stained “distressed” blue jeans. I simply don’t understand it. Certainly, there is a special halo reserved for the Canine rescue Mother Teresas out there but I remain dubious that so many dogs were abused as puppies, brought to shelters, and adopted by saintly and long-enduring owners who can’t straighten them out. The abuse claim is just too convenient as a get-out-of-jail excuse for poor training, socialization, and corrective reinforcement. If new owners can’t pull the dog into suitable behavior, they should not own a problem-riddled rescue. It is like giving a razor blade to a monkey — eventually something bad is going to happen. Yet, the desire to be a hero is powerful and people keep jumping off the dog-training cliff attempting to fly. Only those with the bat-wing suits manage it.

Common dog-walking trails and fields are actually good places to meet interesting people and the dogs provide the perfectly safe topic of starter discussion. The ultimate ice-breaker without the necessity of alcohol, though the two are not mutually exclusive. One gentleman at the local Tim Hortons has a lightly trimmed Standard Poodle that, on command, sits steady for five minutes awaiting his master’s return with coffee, heels without leash, and behaves impeccably. I was impressed and told him so. Smart dog, excellent training, good teamwork. The dog was a secure and admirable product of training work. Unfortunately, the handler was an insufferable peck-sniff. Oh well, I tried.

My own Labrador is docile, and well enough behaved and does all the fetch work that comes naturally to the breed. In light of what dogs trained for seeing eye work, bomb detection squads, and police service do, she is in elementary school and her failure to do higher level work is my failing. She will, however, stop mid-fetch and sit if the ball enters the street, doesn’t leap out of a car until bidden, never gets on furniture, and shows no aggression to anything. I am proud of those attributes. A gray area presented itself with a 3-year old’s ice cream cone shoved in her nose so she gently bit the entire scoop of ice cream off the cone as neatly as any brix. The child’s incredulous wail confused her and she dropped the sphere of goodness on the ground in a quandary. I bought the kid another cone.

One of her likeable traits is an inability to lie. If she slinks into the den with ears down, tail between her legs and those guilty squinty eyes, I can be sure she had committed some household violation and is awaiting her come-uppance. I will go ahead and gratify her with a light scold on spec. Sure enough, there will be a vomit pile, puddle of urine, or a discarded cracker exhumed from under the sofa.

I learned five dogs ago that physical pain (e.g. a shock collar) is not really necessary for most training but I do play some mind games. Early on, (week 18 or later) when some clear infraction has been committed (food off a coffee table is a good one) I will roll the pup on his side, firmly grip neck or muzzle and growl while smacking a magazine on the ground around them without hitting them. I know it is a traumatic 10 seconds for them and they might leak a little urine. I stalk away and they follow in contrition and then the punishment is over. This only needs to happen once or twice and thereafter, all that is required is a tiny growl to put them on their side; they KNOW. The severity is lessened and lessened until a mere body stance is all that is required for submission and re-consideration of their most recent action. I got this from watching wolves at a kill site. Quick, sharp communications that were instantly released, even between related pack members. No jeopardy to the bond but a message is sent. A dominance hierarchy is maintained. I also use a long cord on a pulley to convince pup that I am seemingly omnipotent and capable of enforcing sit and stay commands at a distance. Thankfully, dogs don’t understand physics very well.

The first rule of dog training is to be smarter than the dog. I can hold my own against a Labrador retriever but I am clearly not smarter than a Sheltie, Heeler, or German shepherd, more persistent than a Jack Russell, or more patient than a bulldog, so I don’t try.

Consistency is my second big training axiom. Dogs seem to dislike unpredictability more than almost anything. They want to know where they stand in the world, who is boss, what follows what and when food, sleep and work are to happen. They love a schedule. While humans crave novelty, surprise, uniqueness, dogs not so much. I mean, they eat the same kibble for months on end and greet that bowl with excitement and fervor every morning. The term “wolf down” your food makes sense. They don’t eat for pleasure, rather, they eat for satiation and to meet needs. One never sees a dog slowly relishing its food, rather, it is “get it all down quickly”. I come from a large family. I can relate.

Ultimately, being a benevolent dictator with your dog is one of the most reassuring things you can do. They are reassured knowing who is in charge and what their relative place is. I never ask my dog to do anything, I quietly tell her in the shortest one or two word commands possible what is expected. No long sentences, no raised voices. The once or twice a year when a risky situation appears (cliff, car, porcupine, skunk), I might shout a command and she turns herself inside out to obey. Most commands work fine at a whisper. At a long distance, I simply used a series of mouth whistles, usually starting with a blast meaning “Sit!” then, hand signals to follow for directions or come back.

My wife wants to collect the funny things that happen (and yappen) at the dog trails and parks and make a Larson-esque comic strip but frankly, many situations are just too sad to be very funny and joking about peoples dogs is like ridiculing their children — there is no percentage in it. In fact, the paragraph 6 of this essay about abused rescue dogs is likely to earn me some hate mail for my opinion.

There are many ways to dog train with clickers, treats, whistles, hand signals, and what they share is they tap into a dog’s frame of reference and associative learning (Pavlov was right!). If people would simply read some canine behavior literature to understand the why behind dog behaviors it would save a ton of grief and eventual abuse (psychological, physical, surgical, legal, verbal) and ultimately some unnecessary dog euthanasia. Life would be much easier if owners would learn to see situations from the dog’s perspective of drive, fears, understanding, status, threat, and control, and if they would stop putting so much projected human rationale into their dog’s behaviors.

It doesn’t seem like dogs waste their time worrying about global warming, mortgages, wrinkles, or changing snow tires. They are free to focus on us, their litter mates, and will sit for hours staring longingly at us for a clue as to what is next. Every sigh, pheromone, sob, stretch, yawn, laugh, shout, illness or flatulence is registered and they try to make sense of it. Our posture, speed of movement, stress-eating, or throwing clothes all contain information. Unfortunately, what dogs surmise is often wrong. Then they go nervously chew up one your socks out of anxiety.

Really now, Ole Gunner is NOT scooting his butt across the carpet to deliberately leave a skid mark, rather, he probably has an itchy rear end from worms or irritated anal scent glands, neither of which he can reach with paw or mouth. Princess is probably afraid of thunder and lightning because her owner changes her behavior in preparation for a storm. Sammy probably barks at the phone because every time it rings a teenager screams (a human bark) “Its for me!” and dashed toward it. And in a house full of women, even a normal dog might learn aggressiveness and man-hating when a strange man smelling like he rolled in an Old Spice rag knocks after dark on weekends. Then when he enters, the whole social atmosphere of the women changes with some running to their bedrooms for cover, others, fixing their hair, and others quickly picking up dirty laundry from the floor in preparation for engaging the “intruder” who is actually one of their dates coming to make off with one of his pack members. Hmmm . . . better bite him!

Sometimes, however, our pooches seem to have mind-reading properties. If I simply think about a hike, hunt, walk, or vet visit, my dog seems to intuit. Almost certainly it is an association of how I carry my body, what shoes I wear, the vet record file I thumb through, a leash, or a directness of my stride that tips them off. But rarely is it clear how they know whether to cling to my side for inclusion on an outing or hide in the bedroom with hopes of avoiding the vet.

Their super powers might be a lesson to us to be more mindful, pay closer attention, and take our worm medicine regularly to avoid carpet scooting behaviors.



Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.

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Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.