Getting a dog can be such a wonderful and exciting experience but it’s also a huge responsibility too, and the pressures on us to get it right have never been greater.
The sad results of getting it wrong can be found up and down the country in our dog pounds and rescue centres, which is why Dogs Trust recently launched their campaign to ask everyone to really stop and think before committing to the lifelong care of a dog: Press Paws for Dogs Trust
No wonder. There is an awful lot to think about, for example:
- Should you get a puppy or an older dog?
- Should you go to a breeder or save a dog in a rescue centre?
- If you want to get a puppy from a breeder, how do you choose a breeder who is trustworthy?
- What size, breed and energy of dog is right for you and your family?
- What should you feed your dog? Is raw better than proprietary dog foods?
- How do you properly socialise your puppy/dog?
- Do you need a crate and, if so, what size is right and how do you crate train your dog?
- What else will you need in the way of equipment?
- What’s the best way to house train your puppy?
- How long can your dog/puppy be left alone?
- How much exercise does your dog need?
- When should you start training and what does your dog need to learn?
- Do you need insurance? How do you choose what’s best for you?
- What will happen when you go on holiday?
- How do you know when your dog is sick?
- What are your legal obligations?
- What is it all going to cost and what will happen if your circumstances change?
Not only does the list seems endless but the advice does to. Everyone, it seems, has their opinion about what you should and should not do, sometimes making it even harder to know where to start.
I’ve had dogs pretty much all my life and when I got Kodi as a pup 7 years ago, I was pretty sure I knew everything I needed to know. However, even with all my past experience, with hindsight I now know I still made a few mistakes along the way. Little wonder first time dog owners so often get themselves in a mess!
Which is why we think the idea of going to classes to learn all about getting the right dog for you, as well as discovering just what is going to be involved in taking care of him/her BEFORE you commit yourself is such a good idea: Dog Trouble Consultations – Getting A Dog
If you or someone you know is thinking about getting a dog soon, please, please make sure you/they have considered what is involved very carefully and that you take the trouble to learn everything you can first – no dog deserves to become someone’s ‘mistake’.
Strange question? On the face of it, all us animal lovers have a very clear idea in our minds about animal cruelty, and what we’d like to see done to those who commit it! We read terrible stories every day about pets that have been beaten, starved, abandoned, or deliberately tortured and we feel physically sick. How can our fellow human beings even contemplate such horrendous acts?
The definition of animal cruelty is normally given as something like; ‘the crime of causing or inflicting death or unjustifiable physical pain or suffering to any animal by an act, an omission, or wilful neglect.’ Unfortunately, this definition is broad enough to be open to wide interpretation and/or misinterpretation.
Some of the most heated debates that go on are not about how to prevent horrendous acts such as leaving a dog chained up in filthy conditions to starve, but on whether or not it is fair to keep a cat permanently indoors, or if it is OK to ‘tell your dog off’ if he does something wrong.
A good case in point is the recent row over a little racoon called Melanie who performed at the recent Pet Expo held at the Bluewater Shopping Centre the other weekend. According to critics, the racoon was being both abused and degraded, and many onlookers were shocked and angry that it was allowed at an event promoting animal welfare. The RSPCA condemned what they referred to as a “circus-style stunt” and many seemed to feel the act was not only demeaning but also implied that animals are here just for our amusement. According to her mystified owner, however, Melanie the racoon is a much-loved family pet who adores ‘performing’ her tricks, in much the same way as many dogs, like Pudsey for example, seem to enjoy dancing with their owners.
Not having actually witnessed the event, I’ve no idea who is right, but the incident does go to show how difficult it is sometimes to determine when something ceases to be a personal choice and actually becomes animal cruelty or abuse. If asking a racoon to wear a bow tie and ride a bike is wrong, isn’t it equally demeaning to use creative grooming techniques to make dogs look like pandas or to dress them up in fancy human costumes? Some would say yes, while others would disagree and insist it’s just a bit of harmless fun.
So, my question remains – what is animal cruelty? When does something cease to be a personal choice for you and your pet and actually become cruelty or abuse?
As always, we’d love to know your thoughts and hear your comments
Positive reinforcement is a good thing and all punishment is wrong, right? Eh, well no, positive punishment is out, but negative punishment is OK. In fact, negative punishment goes hand in hand with positive reinforcement, but not with negative reinforcement. Confused? Who isn’t?
Many years ago when I trained as a teacher I remember being taught that all these terms are part of what is known as operant conditioning, which is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments and is nothing new. In fact operant conditioning was first described in the 1950′s by a psychologist called B.F. Skinner.
So what is all the hype about? Well, in simple terms, positive means to add something and negative means to take something away. So, for example:
- Giving a dog praise, food, or even a game, for doing something we want is positive reinforcement.
- Using a deterrent such as a leash pop or a verbal command eg ‘no’ when a dog does something we don’t want is positive punishment.
- Turning our back and ignoring a dog that is jumping up is negative punishment because we are taking away our attention/affection until he stops the unwanted behaviour.
- Removing something the dog doesn’t like once he complies with your request is negative reinforcement. For example, using physical manipulation to make a dog sit by putting pressure on his rear end, which is removed as soon as he does so.
Actually, I think it’s a pity these expressions have become so commonplace in the dog training world because, apart from totally confusing some people, they also serve to fuel endless debates between opposing camps and methodologies, with one side seen as too soft and bribing their dogs with treats (the so-called PR+ group) and the other seen as over-punitive or even cruel (the so-called pack leader group).
It’s not like we really need to know these terms either is it? After all, before we buy our kids a treat for doing well on a test, or nag them until they tidy their bedrooms, we don’t have to stop and think if we are using positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement, do we? In theory, we’d probably all say we prefer rewards to punishments but, in practice, most of us have probably used all these techniques at one time or another, depending on the circumstances.
Of course, so far as our dogs are concerned, any action on our part – positive or negative – also needs to be immediate. A child might understand he’s getting an ice cream because he scored 10 out of 10 on a spelling test last week, but a dog will not associate a new toy with the fact he came back when he was called in the park yesterday or that he’s been shut out in the garden as a punishment for chewing up your best shoe while you were shopping!
Currently, schools tend to focus almost exclusively on positive reinforcement so, if a child is misbehaving, the other children will be rewarded with praise, gold stars etc in the hope the ‘naughty’ child will want to receive those positive things too and therefore ‘fall into line’. I know some teachers who worry that this just encourages a ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude and who would prefer a more balanced approach. All in all, I find I have to agree with them. Too much of anything is usually a mistake and a balanced, well-adjusted child, or dog, is more likely to result from a calm and balanced approach. At times, we all have to do things that we don’t want to, just because ‘those are the rules’. Why should this be any different for our kids, or our dogs?
The other day I was trying to make a mental list of all the human words and expressions my GSD, Kodi, recognises. It was impressively long and made me wish I was half as good at understanding some other human languages as he is at understanding words spoken by another species!
When our previous two dogs were both still under a year old, we were out walking across some fields one day when we met a guy hunting rabbits with an air rifle. Our pups started to rush over to say ‘hello’ when the guy suddenly raised his gun and yelled out, ‘call them off or I’ll shoot them!” Now, in the split second my husband and I both panicked as we wondered if their recall training was going to be good enough, we also remembered that we had just recently been doing some long distance ‘down’ training.
We both yelled, ‘down’ and to our total delight and relief both pups dropped down on their stomachs, still some way from the ‘idiot’ with the air gun. We dashed over, grabbed the pups and beat a hasty retreat, never more grateful for taking the time to do some regular training every day! Of course, I have no idea whether the guy was bluffing or not, but it’s definitely not something I would have wanted to find out the hard way!
I think one of the most useful expressions I’ve taught Kodi is, ‘with me’. This means that when he is off leash, and given the command, he is required to stay behind me. He doesn’t have to walk to heel so he can stop off and sniff etc but he’s not allowed to run on ahead. This is particularly useful if I am walking somewhere slightly unfamiliar and/or am not sure what or who might be round the next corner because it gives me time to spot a potential problem, turn around and put him back on his leash before he has a chance to react or over-react!
If you asked him, he would probably say the most useful words or expressions he recognises are, ‘go swim’, ‘OK’ and ‘cheese’ – although I don’t actually remember teaching him that one!
What’s the most useful or amusing word or phrase you’ve taught your dog or cat?
We all know a dog relies on his sense of smell to interpret the world, in much the same way as most of us rely on our sight. In fact, when a dog sniffs a human or another dog, he is not just registering a smell, but taking in a whole mass of information about that dog or human including if they are male or female, what they last ate, where they have been, what they have touched, and even what mood they are in.
This is why it is so important to ensure that your dog learns to use his sense of smell properly rather than becoming too reliant on sight and hearing and why, for example, we are encouraged to allow a dog to smell us before we try to talk to or pet him.
However, as with most things, it’s important for dogs to practise using their noses regularly. Luckily there are lots of great ways you can incorporate nose activities into your daily routine, both to ensure your dog keeps in shape and also to allow you both to have a lot of fun!
Here are just a few ideas you might want to try with your own dog:
Have him wait in one room while you hide a few treats in another room, or maybe around your garden, then let him ‘go find’. You might want to start off with just one treat and gradually work up to hiding several as he gets better at the game. Be sure to choose treats he really loves and ideally with a strong smell.
Hide a treat under one of several old cups or pots and get your dog to sniff each one and ‘choose’ the one with the treat under it. You can also do this just by hiding a treat in one of your hands and, to make it more fun, ask your dog to nuzzle or paw the fist hiding the treat.
When you are out walking, try ‘accidentally’ dropping a treat, toy or even a piece of clothing like a glove. Walk on a bit further and then stop and ask your dog to ‘go find’, sending him back down the route you walked to recover the lost item. Initially, you will need to walk back with him and encourage him by pointing but he will soon get the hang of it, especially if he gets a treat or game as a reward for his find.
Try holding your dog back when you throw a favourite toy – maybe into some longer grass – and then send him to find it. As he gets better at the game, you can gradually increase the time before releasing him as well as throwing the toy further or into more dense cover.
If there are two of you, you can try a game of hide and seek where one person stays with the dog while the other goes and hides – it can be useful to tell the other person where you are going to be, just in case! After an agreed time, ‘send’ the dog to find the person who is hiding. This can be great fun both at home and out in, say, the woods. However, if you do play this game outside, please make sure you are in a safe location for your dog to be running around. You might want to consider getting him a harness and long line so that he can track the missing person while you are still holding onto him. You can teach him the concept of tracking by starting out with very short tracks for him to follow – Starting your dog in tracking.
If you and your dog enjoy any particular scent games, especially anything not already mentioned above, please do get in touch and tell us about them.
When it comes to our dogs, it seems to me that there is an awful lot of confusion in people’s minds about the difference between punishment and discipline and that, quite often, both are seen as cruel and wrong.
When I was training to be a teacher many years ago, I was taught that effective discipline not only helps teach children to control their behaviour, it also shows them how to act according to their ideas of what is right and wrong. For example, they learn not to steal because they think it is wrong to steal, rather than because they are afraid of getting caught. In other words, to discipline means to instruct a person to follow a particular code of conduct and to learn a respect for authority, whereas punishment normally just means making someone ‘pay’ for what they did wrong.
Now, if there is one thing I really hate, it’s people treating dogs as if they are children. That’s not to say that I don’t understand why dog owners love their dogs as much as they might love their children, it’s just that the kind of love and care a child needs is so different to the needs of a dog, it makes no sense to me. With regards to human morality this also holds true. However hard you try, you are not going to teach your dog the kind of moral standards you might wish to teach your children but, does this mean that all discipline is irrelevant to a dog?
Well, no because, while a dog cannot and should not be expected to share our moral standards, he does have his own species-specific code of behaviour and, from a very early age, he learns from his mother that breaking it, or being disrespectful towards her, will result in some serious doggy discipline. If we want him to grow up to be a well-balanced and well-behaved dog, surely we owe it to him to continue to enforce this discipline just as we would do for our children?