My beautiful 10-year-old dog, Doc, gradually lost his sight over the course of last year. We can look back now and recognize when his sight started diminishing although when it was happening, we were clueless! I remember being perplexed as to why he was barking so much more. He was my daycare tester dog from the time we opened our doors in July 2004 until March 2009. He evaluated every dog that came into the daycare and was an invaluable asset. His skill at observing and responding appropriately to determine a dog’s intentions and temperament was unparalleled. He could encourage the shy dogs to open up and motivate the hyper dogs to chill out with very little movement or sound on his part. It was beautiful to watch. When he began starting every evaluation with a few barks, I started questioning my dog who had been flawless up to that point. The crowning moment was when one of his very best friends at daycare, a Shih Tzu named Malone, looked up at me and whimpered softly as he sat next to Doc. I realized that Doc unknowingly was sitting on a large portion of Malone’s long tail fur! I encouraged Doc to get up and move and Malone instantly wagged his whole body for me and then ran over to lick Doc’s face as if to say, “I know you didn’t mean it, no harm, no foul my friend!” Prior to that moment, Doc had always been exceedingly careful around the small dogs. Again, I was perplexed. Sadly, I knew I had to retire my beautiful boy from his daycare job. He was heartbroken when he didn’t accompany me everyday to daycare, but he still comes to the daycare occasionally.
We have had to make some adjustments to our life to accommodate his impairment, but much less than I would have thought. I believe it is true that the other senses become heightened when one sense becomes impaired. Doc uses his nose a lot more than he used to and follows the feel of walls and furniture to find his way around. Luckily, we also have a lot of different textures on our floors. We have hardwood flooring with large rugs, ceramic tile, linoleum and carpeting! Almost every room has a different texture for him! If he loses his bearings, he will often circle several times, lie down and start to pant. We have learned that this is our cue to guide him gently by the collar to a familiar rug or dog bed where he can reorient himself.
We have searched for toys that are durable since he really enjoys super-charged chewing (luckily only on his toys!) that also emit sounds! We have found a couple balls that he enjoys chasing after. But, his favorite game is find the treat! Every Easter, the Easter bunny hides eggs for my daughter, Kelsey to find in the front yard. Once we have found those eggs, the family enjoys hiding treats in the living room for Doc and River! We are careful to keep the treats off of surfaces we normally would not want dog noses to occupy! I’m not sure who has more fun on their Easter hunt, Kelsey or the dogs!
I appreciate the comments I have been getting from readers. One of the comments I received on the Cesar Millan article has inspired me to write today’s blog.
As our society’s perspective of the dog shifts from worker (herder, hunter, sled puller, for example) to family member, our attention to the emotional and physical needs of the dog must keep pace with those changes. We have an obligation to exercise our dogs both mentally and physically. This is where training can be so useful. To Cesar Millan’s credit, many behavior problems are a result of owner miscommunication and misunderstanding and his show does succeed in highlighting that issue. Unfortunately, many professional dog trainers continue to employ techniques that have proven to cause serious injury to the dog as well as to the bond between dog and human.
Many trainers use a mixture of new positive techniques and old force-based techniques, making it difficult to determine their true philosophy. My personal opinion is that absolutely all positive motivational methods should be thoroughly exhausted by several different trainers and a comprehensive vet examination must rule out any mental or physical cause for the behavior before any mild force-based method should be attempted under the guidance of a professional dog trainer. And under no circumstances should a force-based method be used that could potentially cause severe or irreparable physical or emotional damage.
Training is teaching, helping another to learn by instruction and practice. When we are trying to learn something new, we are most receptive when our teacher provides clear instructions in a calm, stress-free learning environment without fear of abuse if we choose the wrong answer, and huge rewards if we choose the correct answer. I know of very few instances in pet dog training where positive motivational training will fail to provide results. These rare cases can be related to medical conditions which if discovered by a veterinarian can often be treated or managed. Again, you know your dog best. The best indicator is your own gut feeling. If something doesn’t feel right, get a second opinion, or third or fourth until you feel comfortable.
When dog-related issues appear in the media, I will do my best to inform you through this blog. Recently, concerns have been expressed about the techniques used by Cesar Millan on the popular show “The Dog Whisperer”. Here are some articles on the topic; the American Humane article, the SPCA article, the New Yorker article feedback, the Esquire article. There is much debate on the topic of force-free methods vs. the use of adversives in dog training.
This is a good opportunity to discuss how to evaluate a trainer. Look for a dog trainer who employs humane training methods which do not cause physical harm, great pain, or undue distress to the dog. Dog training should be fun for both canine and human participants, so make sure that the professional you choose is approachable and encourages your active participation and questions. Former or current students are a valuable source of information. A competent trainer will encourage you to visit a group class and consult current or former clients about their experiences.
To summarize the APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) guide for selecting a trainer, during a training session a skilled and professional trainer will:
1. Explain each lesson.
2. Demonstrate each behavior.
3. Provide clear written handouts on each behavior.
4. Assist students individually with proper implementation of techniques.
Always remember to follow your instincts. If you are uncomfortable with anything your trainer suggests, speak up. A competent trainer will explain the reason for the use of a specific technique and offer alternative options as needed. Remember that your emotions travel through your leash to your dog. So if you are uncomfortable, it is likely your best friend will be uncomfortable as well.