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When Less is More

This article was published in the Summit Daily News on May 13th, 2013

                                           “When Less is More”

Charlie rests on the left end of the couch.

Before he came into our lives, Charlie was in several homes, bouncing down the rocky road of a rescue dog.  His last home was well meaning. They wanted to do nose work and agility with this young Border Collie.  Sounded great. Problem was that they did not just want to enjoy agility with their new dog they wanted a champion agility dog, and they did not understand Charlie’s temperament was not suited for that. They put enormous stress and expectations on him to perform. In four months Charlie was returned to the rescue group. He was compulsively spinning, air snapping and showing other symptoms of severe stress. And when Charlie was stressed he used his teeth on whatever or whoever happened to be near him at the moment.

When Charlie came to live with us, I asked nothing of him other than basic manners, as well as not to bite me or my other dogs. Over time (years) he has learned to trust me. It is a hard earned and sweet victory. While it would seem I did not do any training at all with this dog, I did it everyday.  It required self-restraint, letting Charlie come to me on his own terms and waiting him out without loosing my patience. While I would run my other dogs through an agility course, I never asked Charlie to do so. Believe me, asking a dog trainer not to “train” the dog can be a big challenge!

There are many times in training our dogs where less is more:

  1. Remove social pressure. Like people, many dogs are introverts by nature and do not want to be social butterflies. They like their space. They need time. They like a calm, quiet routine. They do not want to have a bunch of unknown strangers grabbing their heads. They do not want to go to the dog park. They just want to be with their human, enjoy a hike or other adventure, and chill out.
  2. Keep initial greetings short and sweet.  If two unfamiliar dogs look relaxed in the presence of the other and they are not pulling towards each other, let them meet in a controlled manner and with leashes loose. Let them have a quick nose and tail sniff then move on.  If dogs remain in close proximity for too long at that first greeting, trouble can arise. Instead, let them briefly greet and then walk in parallel to one another on neutral territory. If one or both dogs are too excited and pulling toward each other, wait until both dogs are calm BEFORE letting them greet.
  3. When asking your dog to do a task, say it once. If you repeat cues too often your dog will learn to tune you out. This includes calling their name to get their attention. If they do not respond to their name at first, make a different noise or move away from them saying, “lets go over here!”
  4. Understand threshold.  This is one of the most important concepts in working with animals and worthy of its own article (coming soon!). Briefly, threshold is the point at which an animal “looses it”. They may become over excited or extremely fearful and start lunging and barking out of control.  Most owners report that their dogs are not listening to them at this stage.  Absolutely correct! Their dogs cannot listen or pay attention because they are overwhelmed and over their threshold. Attempting to train a dog when they are over threshold is futile. If a dog is over threshold, it is essential to remove them to a place where they are further away from the trigger and can calm to the point of being able to give you their attention.

Charlie’s stress threshold is still lower than most other dogs. When there is too much noise or chaos around him, he goes to his quiet spot in the house where he feels safe. But nights when all is quiet, the rain falls outside, the fire warms us and we are reading a book on the couch, Charlie comes down. He joins us on the couch and curls up on the left end. He lets me sit by him now, and as I reach to gently pet him, his tail wags, he leans into my hand and gives a contented sigh.

Louisa Morrissey is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and a member of Victoria Stilwell’s Positively Dog Training team.

The Social Dog: the first three months

The Social Dog: the first three months.You have your new puppy. You want to do everything right. Friends have told you that you need to “socialize” her.

Socialization is an important, yet often misunderstood concept in raising puppies. In the next few articles I am going to help explain what we, as trainers mean by socialization, what type of socialization exercises are beneficial to your puppy and which can be harmful.

In a nutshell, socialization means exposing a puppy to a variety of experiences, places, animals, other dogs and people in a manner that will not frighten the puppy, but rather allow her to gain confidence in these situations.

The roots of socialization start with understanding puppy and dog developmental stages. As early as 3 weeks it is important to gently expose puppies to new textures, sounds, smells and gentle human handling. From 3 to 8 weeks, the puppies are learning how to communicate to other members of the canine community.  It is vital that they remain with their littermates and mother during this crucial stage of development. They are learning the nuances of canine language and important lessons such as “bite inhibition”.  This occurs when a pup bites her littermate or mom too hard, and the littermate or mom might yelp and move away, leaving the biting puppy alone. Since the puppy wants to be part of her family, she will learn to control the force of her bite so as not to offend any further. Bite inhibition is one of the most critical skills a dog must learn. Dogs who do not have bite inhibition, or control of their mouth, will make serious mistakes as adult canines that may lead to abandonment by their human family into a shelter, and in tragic cases, euthanasia. Puppies who are separated from their litter and mother too early, such as at 5 weeks old, will struggle in the future with understanding how to interact with other dogs and with controlling the force of their bite. Puppies must remain with their canine family until at least 8 weeks, and some experts are beginning to suggest up to 12 weeks.

From 7 to 16 weeks the puppies are learning about the ancient relationship they have with another species…humans and our foreign world. This is a time when the puppies’ minds are the most open and impressionable. Even as early as 4 weeks of age, it is good for puppies to be gently and kindly handled by human hands for a short time each day. As they grow to 7 weeks, exposure to the big wide world of people, places, other dogs, new smells, sights and sounds becomes even more important. Here is where well meaning people often err. The exposure to all of these new things must be done in a highly supervised manner where the puppy is not frightened. Because also at this time, between 8 to 11 weeks, is what is called the “fear imprint” period. During this stage of development, anything that frightens a puppy can have a lasting effect. . If your puppy is showing signs of stress such as peeing, running away or shutting down, remove her from the situation. Fear does not help with socialization! Fear is the source of the majority of aggression in adult dogs. Dog parks are not recommended for socialization of puppies. They may pick up a disease and they may encounter an over assertive or aggressive dog that will frighten them. Rather, carefully select the adults, children and other dogs that will interact with your puppy.

Things to do at this time to help your puppy can include: fun, social visits to the vet’s office for treats (but not procedures unless necessary), touching her feet and toes, getting her accustomed to gentle grooming, making the bathtub a fun game, wearing different hats around, wearing big coats or backpacks, letting your puppy learn that other people mean good things such as games or food, having your puppy around calm, patient adult dogs who will tolerate puppy antics, but give gentle discipline for overstepping the boundaries of canine etiquette. Bring your puppy to new places, new environments, but always keep an eye on her stress level.  Individual dogs vary. What is no big deal for one puppy might be very frightening for another.  In short, keep it fun, secure and positive for these first three puppy months.

Catching Up!

Well, time flies when you are having fun! It has been far too long since I have written, but here are a few updates on our programs, and a taste of the season to come:

Starting last spring, we began traveling to Aspen every other weekend or so as Louisa began to teach at the Aspen Animal Shelter. She feels very fortunate to be able to offer her training and consulting services to the Aspen area and looks forward to meeting more of the community. We had the most fortunate opportunity to buy 35 acres of dog heaven near Glenwood Springs and we are starting to build a modest cabin on our land, which we have named “Rancho Cielo”… translated to “Sky Ranch” or “Heaven Ranch”. If you are in Aspen, check out our class schedules page to find the dates when Louisa will be over there next.

Louisa continues to be a trainer in the Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training family of  the most awesome trainers around the world, hand selected by Victoria Stilwell herself. Following the Dog Bite Prevention conference recently held right here in Denver Colorado, she played host to the first trainer’s retreat right here in Summit County, introducing her family of trainers, including Victoria herself, to the breath taking scenery…. and cold north wind… of our “back yard”.

New class offerings include our “Puppy Basics” and “Welcome Home” packages of private lessons and our “Howliday Manners Refresher” classes for the fall. Over the past few years of teaching, we have noticed that these topics seem to keep reoccurring as topics requested in private lessons, so now we have designed packages to specifically address the needs of those of you bringing a puppy home for the first time, adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue or just trying to survive the holidays with your dog (and visitors and their dogs!) Again, check our our Class Schedules page for more details.

Good news for those of you following Brandy’s story, she is now in her forever home as the adored and loved single dog with a loving and gentle human who dotes on her. Her story has a happy ending, and we hope that all shelter and rescue dogs find happy endings like hers.

On personal notes, Louisa received a total hip replacement this past fall. Of course, she didn’t realize that major surgery can slow a person down and had a couple of frustrating months of feeling very tired and not very productive. However, thanks to the love and care from her family and of course the dogs, she is looking forward to being cleared to start skiing again in a couple of weeks and ready to start the skijoring season soon…once we get more snow!

Speaking of which, our schedule of skijor workshops around the state is now posted on our Class Schedules page and we hope to see many of you  out on the trails.

Just to get in the mood…here is a re-posting of our McClure Pass video…snow will come soon…and we will be out there soon….have a look and enjoy.

Skijoring on McClure Pass


Update on Brandy

Brandy is now out of the shelter and in a loving foster home.  She is blossoming into the dog we know she can be. Her profile will soon be posted on Western Border Collie Rescue’s Dogs for adoption page. Thank you all for all of your kind words and well wishes and shared prayers for all of the dog in shelters everywhere. May we all continue the work to help these dogs find their forever homes…and also to support each other.

Western Border Collie Rescue has a wonderful poem by an unknown author on their success stories page.  I want to share it with all of you:

I asked for strength that I might rear him perfectly;
I was given weakness that I might feed him more treats.
I asked for good health that I might rest easy;
I was given a “special needs” dog that I might know nurturing.
I asked for an obedient dog that I might feel proud;
I was given stubbornness that I might feel humble.
I asked for compliance that I might feel masterful;
I was given a clown that I might laugh.
I asked for a companion that I might not feel lonely;
I was given a best friend that I would feel loved.
I got nothing I asked for,
But everything I need.
— Unknown

An evening prayer for the dog in the shelter

Tonight I go to sleep with my dogs. My long legged lurcher (an adopted rescue) is roaching against the pillows. The new little fellow (another adopted rescue) is contentedly asleep in his crate in the closet.  My older girl Lucy lies on the dog bed by my side, tennis ball still in sight of sleeping eyes. My boy Linus spoons against me. Time for bed. The quiet, contented sighs of dogs who feel safe and loved…. secure and at peace.  As my eyes begin to close, I picture a dog in a shelter I have been working with.

At the end of a session I spend some time with her in her kennel. I hear the barking and whining of the other dogs that make her alert her head and ears.  I can see how no matter how well things are arranged for her, she is still surprised and alerted by the passing of another dog. She is dog reactive. We make good strides but there are still challenges for her.  Each day  after I work with her and bring her to the gate of the kennel, she hesitates, then quietly follows me in through the gate. She has come far with her training. She loves to learn. She has done a brilliant job today. She lets me brush her. We play a game of search for the tennis ball under the blanket on her bed. Then it is time to go. I close the gate and secure the lock. She sits and watches me as I go. I am haunted.

Tonight I say a prayer for her, and for all of the dogs sleeping (or not sleeping) in shelters near and far.

May a person with realism,  vision and acceptance walk past your gate.

May they see that the jumping dog in front of them is desperate to say hello.

May they realize that with a bit of training, you can learn polite greeting manners.

May they understand that you are not perfect, but that you can be trained to be a good dog.

May they understand if you are shy and overwhelmed, and see that with love, encouragement and confidence you will come out of your shell. May they understand this may take quite a few months.

May they see that the thunder and bluff is just that; and with training that teaches you in a peaceful way to get the distance you want from whatever “monster” that scares you , you will learn to resolve your conflicts with the world constructively and gain confidence.

May they understand you are curious and inquisitive and need to explore the world, but also you will need clear boundaries and kind but constant guidance.

And may they decide to make a life commitment to you. For who you are. The brilliant, the challenging, the aloof, the goofy, the exhuberant, the serious, the silly, the reserved, the obnoxious, the funny, the athletic, the laid back, the complex and beautiful;  the real dog that makes you the completely unique you.

Divorce is not an option in adopting. This is not fast food or Disneyland. This is real dog, real relationship and real commitment.

May you feel the touch of a kind hand and hear a gentle word.

May you take a car ride to your forever home.

When you mess up, may you be forgiven.

May your new family understand that it can take months and sometimes years of training, guidance and learning to help you be the best you can become. May they make that commitment to you.

May they accept you for the dog that you are in spite of all of the training. And may they smile at your imperfections as much as your achievements.

May they protect you, nurture you, give you exercise and adventures together.

And may you someday fall asleep  on the bed, sighing in deep contentment, peace and security,  spooned against your forever friend.

This I pray for you my friend, and for all dogs. This I pray.

Sleep in peace and we will both dream and pray for your forever home.



Love and Understanding: Max’s story

By now, most readers are aware of the tragic bite incident that happened to Channel 9 newswoman Kyle Dyer.  While the bite seemed to happen “out of no where”, a series of events in this dog’s life, combined with misunderstanding (or non understanding) of dog communication, played a major role in this split second bite.  What can we learn from this event in order to prevent future tragedies?

I am sure Max’s owner loves him. However, part of love is making good decisions for our pets that do not understand the rules and nuances of our human world. This includes getting them vaccinated for rabies and licensed, if required by local ordinances. This also includes being honest with our selves about whether or not our dogs have 100% recall with high distractions.  If we do not know for sure that we have 100% recall, we should not let our dogs off leash in areas where wild life or other equally desirable distractions may be present. Max began  his journey with a visit to the local open space park. He was off leash and chased a coyote onto a lake.  They both fell through the ice. The coyote drown. Max swam for his life and was rescued; scared, exhausted and traumatized.

Max’s owner loves his dog and is very excited that his wonderful dog Max will be featured on the Channel 9 news the next morning.  Max, however, is still very tired, still probably quite distressed and his cortisol (stress hormone) levels are still quite high. Max’s owner does not know about cortisol, stress and their relation to aggression and does not understand how stressed Max still is from this experience. So Max makes the journey to the studio.

Imagine Max, picking up on the nervous, excited energy of the humans around him, now in the studio with bright lights against darkness, cameras moving in and out of the light and darkness, people he does not know close to him, touching him, and in his space. His owner is jerking and popping on his leash. At the very least, Max is very confused. At worse, his stress level is rising to the point where he is over his threshold. Max tries to calm himself down with yawning. He tries to communicate that he is very uncomfortable with the situation. He pants, his respiration rate is high, he licks his lips repeatedly, roles his eyes, his body is tense and vigilant.

Someone he does not know approaches from behind. This woman also loves dogs and all animals passionately and has been a wonderful advocate for their cause. She is moved by his story and in the moment, leans over to kiss him. Max growls. He is saying he wants space. The woman does not hear him and comes closer. Max’s owner does not understand anything his dog is trying to communicate.  Max resorts to his last alternative and bites.

Max’s next journey is to a ten-day quarantine in a kennel, away from his home and the people and routine he knows. He is still there.

Love is important, but understanding is crucial. Learn to understand your dog’s body language. When they are saying they are nervous, remove them from that situation to a quiet, safe place. Make decisions for them that keep them safe. Be not only their best friend, but also their interpreter, protector, and advocate. And when a dog asks for space and peace, let us all grant them their simple requests.