I changed my mind.

So I called my veterinarian this morning and said, “I changed my mind.” I’m not going to get M’Ocean neutered — not yet, anyway. Here’s my reasoning (and I maintain the right to change my mind AGAIN).

M’Ocean doesn’t go around marking or humping pillows or blankets. He does sometimes get overly excited around other dogs, where it seems like he would like to hump them. Recently when a sweet playful spayed german shepherd came running over to him and dived directly underneath him, he wrapped his arms around her and started humping. It wasn’t a dog fight, but she was pinned and it scared her. He let her go, he didn’t hurt her, but I guess that was the event that made me think, I want to make training easier.

And unfortunately, neutering might not make training easier. At least, not for my dog. I see plenty of neutered dogs who get very excited when they see other dogs. Learning how to play, especially when you’re the biggest strongest dog on the playground, takes time. He does best in a large group, and this pretty dog diving into his arms was a pretty big challenge! But M’Ocean is increasingly showing self control around distractions.

My guess is that testosterone levels will naturally decrease as he hits five years old and 6. Maybe we’ve already been through the worst of his hormones.

When M’Ocean was 11 months old, an older intact dog at a dog Canine Musical Freestyle event jumped over the ring gates, landed on M’Oceans neck, sent him flying and left him with a shoulder injury that took a few months and about $1000 to heal. Yeah, I still am upset about it, because the event organizers seemed to blame M’Ocean, as though it happened because he was intact. But the dog’s owner told me her dog is “an asshole,” and he had a history of repeated bad behavior. So, unprovoked attacks happen to neutered dogs too. And now M’Ocean is 3 and he is 90 lbs of confident, socially experienced, mature, ballsy dog. A dog, maybe even a coyote, would think carefully before jumping a dog that looks like M’Ocean does now.

So I’m thinking, if I’m going to have to keep on training him and being wary of coyotes ANYWAY, if neutering isn’t a guaranteed resolution of the typical behavior challenges I face in owning a large imposing looking working dog, then I might as well focus on training and see how far I can get with that. I will re-evaluate in the fall.

Keeping his natural hormones for just a few extra months, while he is still building muscle and bone in agility, that has some health advantages. It’s a lot of responsibility, but if I can handle and manage him safely, there are some real health benefits, protections for his bones, brains and muscle, associated with keeping him intact a bit longer. He is becoming more “conscious,” more of a real “thinking” dog every month. There are other options, such as chemical (temporary) castration, or a vasectomy. I have time to do some research. He’s a LARGE dog to be running in agility. He needs to be in peak physical condition. So, about that neutering? Not yet. I changed my mind.

Off Leash Freedom!

How do you wind up with an adult dog who comes when called? There are lot of pieces to that puzzle. A lot of it is practice, practice, practice! But some of the pieces might be genetic. Some dogs have a natural urge to hunt, which can be a tremendous asset, as long as they are hunting for the things you want them to hunt for! But what if they take off after deer or chase cars or squirrels?

It’s important to prevent dogs from rehearsing behaviors that you don’t like. Some trainers use shock collars to stop dogs from chasing the wrong thing. I resist doing that, most especially with young dogs, because shock experiences can undermine a dog’s confidence and drive. It can leave them second guessing themselves and reluctant to experiment — an essential part of successful problem-solving. I don’t want my dogs to be afraid of trying something new.

The head halter to off leash progression in this video, (“Increments of Freedom” with Whole Dog Camp lead trainer Jenny Ruth Yasi) https://youtu.be/SU1XjbmgccI should be just one small part of your larger games-based recall training plans. This isn’t about coming when called, but it’s about understanding and using your leash and training gear as conditioned reinforcers, as well as cues. The head halter to off leash progression rewards dogs with one little increment of freedom at a time, around gradually increasing distractions! Dogs can understand that they aren’t just working for cookies, but they are working for something MUCH more interesting: freedom! Head halters and long lines set dogs up to succeed in trading responsiveness for privileges.

Rewarding with privileges — rather than giving privileges before the dog is ready and then punishment because the dogs makes mistakes — is a more fair way of working with your dog. It’s not fair to expect dogs to perform successfully off-leash if they can’t even perform successfully ON leash. I hope we all can become more awareness of when we are giving a dog a privilege and when we are taking a privilege away, and how that may influence behavior. When dogs understand that they aren’t just working for hot dog, but they are working for what they REALLY want, this leads to happier, less frustrated and more robustly confident dogs. Thanks for leaving me any questions or comments, here or on youtube!

Resource Guarding, part one

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Picture the behavior you want to see.

“Resource guarding” is aggression that occurs around a dog’s possessions. The possession might be a food dish, dog bone, a soft space on the couch, or it could even be YOU. It’s the opposite of what we want, which is  a relaxed attitude, a dog who isn’t worried about anything.

IMG_0124IMG_0192Resource guarding is the dog saying “Stay away!” It might mean stay away from my bone, my pups, my corner of the room, my human. It’s one of the most common behavioral problems I see, but fortunately one that is highly responsive to training.

First off: Why do dogs do this? Like almost all aggression, resource guarding typically starts as insecurity, and a lack of confidence, a dog who can’t predict what’s going to happen with a resource. Over time this can develop into aggression. Some dogs might be genetically more prone to this. I saw a puppy once that was scary aggressive, resource guarding at 16 weeks, and I was told euthanized by 6 months. Something was wrong with that pup.  But that is very rare. Far more typically, resource guarding is triggered by the environment, regardless of genetics.  Resource guarding is almost always a learned behavior. The dog has learned to act aggressively, because it allows them to control access to limited valuable resources.

IMG_0251This is why trying to pick up and control all potential triggers often fails.  You can’t eliminate every possible resource in the environment. When you limit some resources, you’re making every other resource in the environment seem more important,   MORE valuable, and this has potential to escalate things a  dog may choose to guard. We will never be “done” with our mission to  prevent development of resource guarding in all of our dogs. Behavioral health requires a  sense of  resource security throughout the lifespan.

When you’ve  flooded your environment with other resources,  the stinky spot on the rug doesn’t stand out so much. Space is an important resource. Six dogs,  24 tennis balls, half acre, half an hour. Begin with balls just laying there, don’t throw them right off the bat! Give beginner dogs several sessions to not worry so much about balls.  Let the balls just lay there. Ignore the balls, let them do what they want. Add more balls.  I’ve seen dogs learn how to relax, again and again, in a resource flooded environment. They sometimes collect maybe six tennis balls, plus two bones and a rag, but then  settle down and feel foolish because none of the other dogs cares a bit about what they’ve got. All the dogs have all the balls and chews they need. What does this tell you about the world?! I don’t know, but maybe something!

These ideas are not a prescription, but  reflective of experiences I’ve had with dogs who  stayed with me. As an old friend used to say to me when talking about bee keeping, “you need to think like a bee!” The same thing is true regarding resource guarding in dogs. We have to think of how we would feel if someone came and took our iphone out of our hands! IMG_9288