Friday, March 7, 2008

It's Just A Dog

It's Just A Dog

I am sometimes given the answer or solution to a troublesome canine scenario with the following statement “It’s just a dog”. Meaning it is not worthy of any further consideration.

This mindset of a dog as lesser than or unequal to humans is sad. In my own experience nothing that I have ever been involved with has brought as much joy to others as my dog Mojo, notice I said to others, not just myself. The smiles and the joy Mojo conjures up in people is quite a site to see. He is one of only millions of dogs who bring untold happiness to millions of people, other than their owners, simply by existing.

This “it’s just a dog” mindset comes up in discussions about the use of pain or force when training and maintaining dogs. The dog; who some so callously toss aside like dead leaves during yard work has the ability through nothing more than existing, to cause joy.

If mistreated and abused this same dog may become a menace, however when you look closely at the numbers, some 300 million Americans and some 70 million registered dogs – now add up the yearly adversarial fatalities you get less than 20 deaths a year from dogs and less than 200 fatal attacks on humans. Those are big years by the way, it is usually less. It looks that despite all the various factors, dogs and humans are a good match.

All living creatures in our world deserve equality. Dogs are the only animal that has willingly made an alliance towards a better existence with humans. All other animals were and are subjugated to some extent.

I could go on an on about the countless stories that dot the history books about how the dog human dynamic it is not only good for both dogs and humans but it is necessary for both.

In 2007 the world saw the horrendous acts of animal cruelty played out on TV through the Michael Vick case. One of those dogs is Leo and now creating joy is his game. He works as a therapy dog, causing joy by simply existing.

There is perhaps no other aspect of life that can erase political and social differences like dogs. Of course dogs are also the subject, not the cause mind you of intense political and social differences. Being the subject of debate and being the cause of debate are two very different things. People have caused the debate over dogs. Dogs are stuck in the middle with no say at all. Just those glaringly positive numbers they produce each year.

If it is just a dog as some put it, why the worry and the concern over 20 yearly deaths, and that is a bad year by the way. Why the cause for concern over less than 200 fatalities a year?

When I interviewed Jean Donaldson (director of the Academy For Dog Trainers at the SF SPCA) for my documentary film Judging the Innocent she said “when it comes to animals with pointy teeth, it hits something primitive in us, and we do not think about it rationally, she then went on to say “the only way out of this (the troubles we face with dogs) is to think our way out of it rationally”.

Logic and rational are what we need when it comes to dogs and humans. We already get along well with dogs, though we can do better.

In a recent phone conversation with Marthina McClay founder of OUR PACK Inc. (who is now Leo’s owner) she said that she reminds her dog training students that-

“It is the responsible dog trainers and owners who are the executives of the decisions that are made on behalf of dogs” - “don’t let those who do not know about dogs make executive decisions about dogs.”

I am sure there are people out there that “work” with dogs who are not all that fond of them. There are dogs right now in a home with someone or perhaps a number of people in the home do not really like the dog, and the dog is caught up in the human condition.

It all boils down to how each person at all times in the dog’s life treat and interact with that dog. This means ALL people at ALL times. If done correctly and humanly it ensures the dog will make as many positive associations as possible to people and the world around it. This is a tall order.

There will always be a segment of society that does not like dogs or that even down right hates dogs. What these people need to keep in mind more so than the millions of dog lovers, is that dogs are innocent. They are not able to morally construct past, present and future events and conspire and transgress against humans.
Dogs either feel safe or unsafe, it is not always about what we want from our dogs, sometimes the dynamic of humans and dogs requires that the humans simply help the dog, and not judge. This is done best by understanding how they actually learn and what their limited range of expressions may mean. Dogs learn through association & consequence, that’s all folks. There is no other known form of learning that we have scientifically documented for dogs or animals in general.

When we toss dogs aside and do not respect them for who they truly are it is a reflection of our worst human qualities of selfishness, greed and ego.

It says more about the people who blame and hate dogs, than it does about the dogs who get blamed for being dogs.

In order to have a major shift towards treating dogs better in the USA, we need a shift in consciousness. We need the people who actually know and understand dog behavior to put aside petty differences and get education in abundance to the public through the infrastructure of ACC, SPCA’s, Humane Societies and Rescues. In addition these pockets of society will in turn be educated as well.

There are some 70 million registered dogs in the USA, there is no reason why those of us who scientifically know about dogs and their behavior, how to best maintain dogs in our society, cannot put forth a concise educational mailer via email or snail mail to the millions of registered dog owners, which would explain how dogs learn and what the side effects of aversive training or harsh interactions may bring about behaviorally in dogs. We have the infrastructure of government in place, and their job is to get information to people. Let’s use our existing resources.

This is one way to have fewer people saying it’s just a dog, and perhaps have more people saying, “That is a dog, and it needs to be treated with respect”. When people know the truth about dogs and their intrinsic natural qualities, they can make better decisions about their dogs. Especially the people who are afraid of them.

People will catch on if given the proper information. Dogs can either cause joy or misery, simply by existing. It is up to humans to decide which side of the equation dogs will be on. Furthermore which side of the equation will the humans be on? Are we going to keep thinking that “we know dogs” even when we don’t? Or are we going to educate and elevate the consciousness?

Thomas Kuhn famously observed -
Paradigm shifts happen not when the investors in the old paradigm change their minds, but when they die.

Let’s not wait.

Monday, March 3, 2008

How Past Professions Can Help You Be A Better Dog Trainer

Many people who come into the profession of dog training have diverse backgrounds. I am no exception. I have found that over the past 8 years working with dogs, 5 of those years spent running an LLC dog training business. My past professions and personal pursuits have laid a good foundation for being a professional dog trainer.

One of the more educational jobs I held in the past was being the CFO of a digital reproduction house in Soho NYC. I held the position until August 2000, some 8 odd years. My job consisted of collecting money, making pay roll which was $10,000 dollars plus a week for the staff of roughly 26 people. In addition I was in essence the number two in charge after the owner. Quite a bit fell into my lap. If I did a poor job, we did not get paid so pressure and being responsible for other peoples general welfare through getting a pay check was with me daily.
Many times when working with a dog training client you carry the responsibility far past the consult, you become connected with the dog and the humans in the exchange. Especially if there is serious behavior modification involved.

Speaking on the phone and listening for key information while collecting debts is an art. I am sure every dog trainer who speaks with clients via telephone knows what I am speaking about. Getting pertinent information in the midst of emotions be it money or dogs is essential to doing a good job.

After 8 years of being a phone detective and chasing down an average of 5 million dollars a year, you get good at knowing when people are telling the truth or not.
The last thing you want when getting to a dog training session is key info left out about the dog and the people. Each component of the dog’s behavior and the human’s life and approach to the dog is necessary for a thorough consult.
From my time working at the digital reproduction house I am able to take my phone skills, my people skills and my managerial skills and apply them in my profession as a dog trainer. In addition running a business that only involves myself and my wife is much easier!

Prior to working at the digital reproduction house, I was a bike messenger in NYC. In fact I got the job at the digital place when I dropped off a package one day.
As a bike messenger you have to be fearless. No matter what else you take with you on the job, you have to be unafraid to ride your bike at a steady clip in the midst of NYC traffic. If you are a bad messenger you can die. Literally each day around the park where we all took breaks bike couriers told stories of someone who was hurt bad or died. So we were all very supportive of each other “out there” as we called it. It was a fraternity I am proud to have been a part of.
Fearlessness had to be combined with excellent timing, impeccable judgment, eye, hand foot and body coordination must be fine tuned. If not you could die or get very badly injured.

I’ve often said it would be good for most everyone to experience something that is interconnected with their monetary survival and their physical well being. It builds character and adds perspective to ones life. After all, if you face death each day how bad can other aspects of your life be?

Many times while working with dogs I see others who are afraid of dogs. Even owners and caretakers of dogs can be afraid of the dogs in their lives. This is not all together a bad thing, as being cautious of a dog can help you from being bitten in some circumstances.
However when working with dogs if you have a fear and the dog is actually not a threat to your well being, it causes disconnect in the approach to training and behavior modification. That trepidation bleeds over into the trainer’s ability to get the job done. I am sure this is one of the many reasons why some trainers do not take aggression cases. I do not blame trainers for not taking aggression cases, they are difficult.

My time on a bike in the midst of traffic presented constant dangers. I faced a life or death situation daily, that has helped tremendously as a dog trainer. It gives me perspective. Along with my personal experience as a bike messenger combined with the education about dog behavior I received at the SFSPCA’s Academy for Dog Trainers I am very comfortable around dogs of all behaviors.

I have said for years even before I was training dogs “I am brave but I am not stupid”. I continue to follow that axiom to this day. Especially as it relates to aggressive dogs, I do not mention this for machismo. Assessing situations as safe or unsafe is part of a dog’s life, and should be part of responsible dog trainer’s skill set. Knowing when to proceed further or stick with the current criteria especially in resource guarding cases and approach phobias are critical to the plan being successful. I tested my own limits on the streets of NYC as a bike messenger; however I always take the well being of the dog and the humans in the dog’s life into consideration, and do not suggest or try anything that might endanger either. I was a cowboy on a bike, but not as a dog trainer.

In some cases where an aggressive or even a highly exuberant dog is in a home with small kids, a dog trainer must have keen awareness of potential hazards and set the home up properly with management and counsel the people in the art of humane and effective management and D&CC.

Dog training is safer than being a bike messenger, and it is much more rewarding all around, however those 5 years I spent on a bike in NYC made me physically strong and gave my mind an acute ability to look at the horizon and make nano second adjustments for my safety, much like you need when walking and working with leash reactive dogs.

I was recently asked, “Are you afraid of being bitten by dogs”. My answer was “no”. This is because dogs are predictable once you understand their actual behavior, especially if it is my dog or a dog I have been working with on in an on going behavior modification. Cab drivers, busses and especially pedestrians are extremely unpredictable. I could go about near death experiences where I came within an inch of my life, but I am still here to tell the tales so I guess I was a good bike messenger.

As dog training has many physical attributes, my practice of working out, martial arts, yoga and leading an all around healthy active life style have also all played a part in my continuing advancement as a dog trainer.

My official training and education in life is in music. I am a graduate of the Musicians Institute. For many years I taught music privately. So the dynamic of transferring skills both verbally and displaying the mechanics of a skill are firmly imbedded in my repertoire as a teacher.
In addition I have no fear of standing on stage and speaking, performing or being stared at as you have to deal with all these scenarios on many occasions as a dog trainer, stage experience comes in handy.

In my musical travels I have been fortunate to know the highs and the lows that you hear about in the music business. The highs include playing the pier in NYC (twice) to 10 thousand + people. I know the thrill of getting fan mail and receiving glowing praise from the press from all over the world.
I have performed with amazing artists such as Green Day, De La Soul – both of whom I opened for. Becoming friends with true geniuses like Jon Brion and Jeff Buckley, both of whom I am friends with (RIP Jeff). I have made records in million dollar studios that failed to see the light of day and I have been lauded for home recordings that cost a few thousand dollars. I have been broke and I have been well off. The ebb and flow of money as a musician is very similar to running a dog training business, as you have to be really savvy at spending and saving and holding steady in times of slow to no business.
I have felt the pain of rejection by my piers, the press and the audience sometimes all in the span of a day or two. In addition you can be a hero to your clients or get the blame when they are looking for a reason to be mad at the dog.

The preparation and the grind of being a musician have striking similarities to being a professional dog trainer. There is an intrinsic mechanical quality to both. What astounds me is that no one would pick up a guitar and start strumming away unless they could do it well, for fear of embarrassment or fear of breaking the guitar! However I see people holding the leash of dogs and “training” who have zero mechanics in the art of walking a dog. Yet they have a dog and feel they “know” what they are doing simply because they have a dog.

Another other parallel quality is the hustle to be known and procure clients or gigs. In both dog training and music you have to market, promote and sell yourself to some degree. Other wise you cannot do what you love effectively. In both cases you need an audience to execute your skills. Also in both cases one can be self contained and get along well, you will find many of the best musicians and the best dog trainers are solo artists at heart.

Music is an art and a science. Dog training is an art and a science. Both require very good eye hand coordination and an understanding of the principals of a theory. Music has a harmonic theory known as music theory and dog training has the theory of animal learning. Musicians who are “hacks” are people who fudge through the music and barley get by, or perhaps have an abundance of charm so they get away with it. In dog training there are also “hacks”. The major difference is if you half ass a song no on gets hurt, if you fudge through dog training with your “charm” you can cause a great deal of harm and stress for both the dog and the humans in the dogs life. In both music and dog training one needs to work on their “chops”, IE: mechanics and theory in combination. In dog training you really have to leave out the emotions and the drama and get down to the theory, music is not that easy. In music you have to hold the emotions at times but not too much, and if the music is all science it might be boring – too mechanical. It is that human element that makes the notes alive.
In dog training that human element can get in the way, especially if that means trying to figure out what the dog is “thinking”. In dog training you can go all science and no emotion and get great results. In fact it is highly suggested from some of the best trainers and behaviorists out there, to stay the course of the dog’s assessment and use the science, be humane at all costs, however, keep your heart free of too much emotion. That has to be saved for when you are through with working with the dog and the clients and you are at home reflecting.

Many times in music especially while in the studio, a musician has to be connected to the emotion of the song yet slightly disconnected so the technical execution is correct, yet retains the human quality needed for the track. This is especially hard for singers; (yes I am a singer), so I know that delicate balance first hand. Dog training has this same delicate balance of disconnect and connection to your subject, IE: the dog.

If anyone reading this has experienced a dog owner who cannot get past the emotions involved with their dog, you know how hard it is to make any progress in the training or behavior modification. In music it is the same thing actually, a lot of the emotion that you see or hear on records is acting. Not that the people do not have a connection to the song, or are insincere etc…but they need a certain amount of disconnect so they can execute the material, and concentrate on the mechanics.

An aspect of being a world class musician is mastering the art of listening to many sounds at once. This is especially true when mixing a recording. A person must learn to differentiate not only different instruments but also different frequencies. The following is a story from a few months ago where my hearing expertise came in very handy while with my own dogs.

One day as I was about to unlock my front door and let my male dog Mojo in the house after his walk, however I heard a sniff. I was not sure if it was Mojo or not as it sounded like it came from the other side of the door. I was busy with the keys and so forth so it was hard to tell.
It was a faint sniff, and with the traffic, the wind, the other ambient sounds, I was not sure exactly where this sniff came from.
I turned to Mojo and he was sitting in expectance of the door opening. I leaned down a little further towards the door and I heard another sniff.
I had left my female dog Keyshia behind a pressurized gate and an Xpen on her side of the house while I was out walking Mojo. So I wondered how she could have gotten over the barriers. Pits are great escape artists, so I knew it was possible somehow.

I tossed some treats away from the front porch and Mojo dutifully took his 6 feet of leash freedom and went for the goodies. I cracked the front door ever so slightly to see Keyshia’s little black snout. I issued some quick jolly talk and praise “good girl” and shut the door.
I put Mojo in the back yard and went in to see how Keyshia got around the barriers.
If I had just opened the door there would have been a nasty dog scuffle. Perhaps Keyshia would have even got loose in the front yard? I would not have been able to get her as I had Mojo on leash. They get along on leash, but under these circumstances who knows? Also traffic is moderate on our street so that was also a potential hazard. It would have been a nightmare to say the least. Mojo and Keyshia do not get along inside, and that is all Mojo’s deal, Keyshia loves pretty much all dogs, once she warms to them. Imagine if I had gone in and let Mojo off his leash only to find Keyshia was upstairs or around the corner it would have been a nasty dog fight indeed. I shudder to think.

Had I not had the ability and the mindset to listen to many frequencies/sounds at the same time from countless hours in front of speakers listening critically, to be aware of anomalies in my audio spectrum I might be writing a different story about now Xpens and gates are not always as safe as we think, or how management fails at some point. I am really thankful for my ears! You never know what skill might get you out of a dog jam.

The next time you are looking to be a better dog trainer or get some new inspiration perhaps something form your past might be the key to taking your skills to the next level. Doing things to improve your eye-hand coordination, breathing etc, can be very helpful in dog training, after all dog training is a mechanical skill based on timing and recognizing behavior.

The difference between knowledge and wisdom is doing. –
Dan Millman – Author of The Way of The Peaceful Warrior.