All posts by Ric

Four steps to a perfect dog. (Part 1)

Recently I contributed to an article published by Bupa on raising the perfect family dog here is the link to the article which also contains some ideas from other dog trainers around Australia:

5 Dog Training Tips for a Great Family Dog

 

  1. Exercise.

Give your dog plenty of exercise, and you get a happier, healthier, better-behaved dog. Well-exercised dogs bark less, chew less, sleep more, and rest easier if left home alone. They are also much less likely to rummage through the trash or attack the couch cushions.

Leash walks are great, but your dog needs to run, swim, or do something else that gets his heart pumping for at least 30 minutes every day. For example: Chasing a ball or Frisbee. Swimming. Playing tug. Active play with other dogs. Off-leash romps or hikes.

Remember: A tired dog is a well-behaved dog.

 

2. Mental stimulation

Toys galore. Toys are a great way to engage your dog’s brain. Dogs have distinctly individual toy preferences, depending on the day, time, and situation. Do some detective work and find out what truly tickles your dog.

Work to eat. Biologically speaking, your dog is not supposed to have a bowl of food plunked down in front of him. He is a hunter by nature, meant to work for his keep. Mimic this by serving your dog’s food in a Kong or treat ball. Your dog will spend the first part of the day figuring out how to get at his food and the rest of it recovering from the mental effort. Perfect!

Kong stuffing for pros. Don’t just throw in a few cookies—take your Kong stuffing prowess to the next level. But start with easier Kongs and then make them tougher, so your dog succeeds while developing perseverance.

Easy stuffing = loosely packed food and pieces small enough to fall out.

Difficult stuffing = Tighter packed food, with some big pieces that take effort on your part to get into the Kong.

Stuffing tips:

  • Use a matrix (peanut butter, cream cheese, baby food) to hold in smaller bits
  • Stuff with meat and mashed potatoes and freeze
  • Stuff with cheese cubes and then microwave briefly to nicely coat the inside
  • Plug the small hole with peanut butter, then fill the cavity with broth and freeze to make a ‘Kongsicle’ (can be messy, so give it to your dog outside

A sample recipe for an advanced Kong (courtesy of Jean Donaldson):

Layer 1 (deepest): Roasted, unsalted cashews, blueberries, freeze dried liver bits.

Layer 2: Kibble, cookies or liver biscotti, cheerios, sugar-free/salt-free peanut butter, dried banana chips

Layer 3: Baby carrot stick(s), turkey and/or leftover ravioli or tortellini, dried apples, dried apricots

Pack the layers as tightly as possible. The last item in should be a dried apricot or piece of ravioli, presenting a smooth finish under the main hole.

(For more recipes, see www.kongcompany.com)

If your dog has lots of energy, give him all his food this way. And remember to clean your Kongs regularly with a bottle brush and/or in the dishwasher.

Part 2 to follow

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Choosing a dog or puppy

Looks aren’t everything.

More often than not, we choose which dog to get based on appearance—whichever breed or size or ccute puppiesolour appeals to us. I may have wanted a Jack Russell terrier ever since I fell in love with Eddie on the TV show Frasier. Or maybe I have found myself admiring a well-trained Border Collie at the dog park, thinking, “That’s the kind of dog I want.”

But as with human relationships, outward attraction alone can be a poor predictor of long-term happiness. What’s a better yardstick? Compatibility.

Finding the right match.

To get the right dog for you, first consider your life-style. Do you run five kilometres every morning or enjoy the occasional Sunday stroll? Do you want a dog that can come along when you kayak? Bush Walk? Camp, Fish? What level of training and mental exercise do you want to provide your dog with? Is competitive agility on the agenda, or would you be happier with a couch buddy?

Cute dog sticking tongue outNext, consider your personal preferences. Are you tolerant of barking or does it drive you crazy? Is shedding okay or a big no-no?

Do you find exuberance charming or exhausting? And so on.

 

Compiling a shopping list (…short hair, medium-sized, good with cats…) may strike you as too businesslike. But factoring in lifestyle and temperament compatibility drastically increases your chances of having a happy, life-long relationship with your new best friend.

Some common myths.

Certain breeds are terrible with children.

Almost any breed can be either great or problematic with children, depending on how well the dog in question has been socialized to children as a puppy.

Big dogs don’t do well in apartments.

Actually, big dogs sometimes have lower activity levels and do better in apartments than small, very active dogs. They take up more space, that’s all.

Active dogs shouldn’t live in a city.

Active dogs need active people, period. As it happens, dogs living in cities often get more exercise than dogs living in suburbs, probably because people with a yard tend to let their dogs out and hope they will self-exercise. They don’t. They stalk birds, bark at passersby, and snooze in a sunny spot, waiting for entertainment.

Be strong…

Don’t let cuteness ambush you. If you really hate barking, don’t chihuahuacompromise and get a terrier because you meet an adorable Yorkie or Chihuahua. The cuteness will wear off; the barking won’t.

 

The use of punishment in dog training.

OK so now I have your attention let me explain the differences between Punishment and Reinforcement so that you can quiz a potential dog trainer and make an informed decision on the methods they are going to employ to train your dog.

Before we go further we need to understand what we mean by Reinforcement and Punishment.

A Reinforcement is something that when implemented by the dog trainer is likely to INCREASE the chance of a behaviour being repeated.

A Punishment is something that when implemented by the dog trainer is likely to REDUCE the chance of a behaviour being repeated

It is important that you understand the two concepts explained above.

Please bear with me and follow the step by step explanation as this is vitally important when trying to understand how to train your dog. Unfortunately there are many dog trainers that really don’t understand these concepts and can totally screw up a dog and potentially turn it into a ticking time bomb.

Now consider that we can add a reinforcement or we could remove a reinforcement in just the same way as we could add a punishment or remove a punishment. Remember the definitions of reinforcement and punishment as above. At this stage we are talking about a concept and I will explain how for example whacking your dog with a rolled up newspaper fits into this in a practical way a bit later.

If we are to add a reinforcement, this is called Positive Reinforcement (R+);

If we remove a reinforcement, this is called Negative Reinforcement (R-);

If we add a punishment, this is called Positive Punishment (P+);

If we remove a punishment, this is called Negative Punishment (P-);

 

Practical applications of these concepts.

So, if a dog trainer was to give something to a dog immediately following a behaviour, for example a piece of BBQ’d chicken, it is highly likely that the dog will repeat the behaviour to get another piece of chicken. In the terms explained above this is Positive Reinforcement (R+).

In ‘old style’ dog training a dog trainer would hold a dog’s collar and push down on its rump until it sat down. In these concepts this is negative reinforcement (R-), the trainer is applying an aversive (the discomfort of pushing down on the dogs rump) and the aversive is being removed when the dog sits. The behaviour (sitting) is likely to be INCREASED to avoid the aversive.

Positive Punishment then means to add a punisher that is likely to REDUCE the undesired behaviour. Again in ‘old style or dominance based’ dog training, if a new puppy had a toileting accident in the house the owner might be instructed to shout at or even smack the puppy to stop it from repeating the behaviour (P+). The puppy is (in theory anyway) less likely repeat the behaviour to avoid the punishment

If we remove something in an effort to reduce a behaviour this is negative punishment. For example, say a dog jumps up at people entering the house because he wants attention, if the guests turn their back on the dog to ignore him, the behaviour (jumping up) is likely to reduce – we have employed negative punishment (P-). If we then link this to a Positive Reinforcer – when the dog sits he gets a treat (R+) now when visitors arrive the dog runs to great them and sits in front of them.

 

Summary

Now you understand these concepts it is easy for you to quiz a potential dog trainer and ask them what training methodology they use and in particular what ‘Training Quadrants’ do they use. If they are unable to explain in terms as I have above, please do not use them. Old style dominance trainers use phrases such as ‘holistic training methods’, ‘balanced training’, ‘techniques vary depending on the dog’, all of these imply that they use Positive Punishment in some form.

Think – do you want your dog not to do things because they are afraid of the consequences or do you want them to do things because they love you?

One thing to seriously consider, Professor Stanley Coren a world renowned dog behaviour expert puts it this way, ‘if you use violence in your relationship with your dog you are letting it know that violence is OK, he is not likely to respond with violence to you as he knows he will not win – but what about your child, nephew, niece or the kid next door, he may just figure he can use violence against them and win. Surely it’s better never to introduce violence into the human-dog relationship’. This is why you should never ever use Positive Punishment or Negative Reinforcement to train a dog.

I practice Reward based ‘ Force Free’ dog training methods, please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or issues with your dog that I may be able to help with.

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Plants that are dangerous for dogs and common Parasites in dogs.

There are a number of plants in the common garden that can be toxic to dogs and many owners are unaware of the symptoms or the plants that cause problems.

Azaleas are very common but not many dog owners are aware that should their pet ingest the leaves or flowers it can cause vomiting and can cause depression, if eaten in large enough quantities it can be fatal.

Many flowering bulbs can be toxic to dogs. Daffodils and Narcissus can be seen in many gardens, the bulbs of both are toxic to dogs and will cause vomiting, diarrhea and may also cause dermatitis and can be fatal. Hyacinth bulbs can cause a skin allergy. Monstera Deliciosa bulbs can cause diarrhea and oral irritation and may also cause dermatitis.

Avocado can be harmful (both the fruit and pith) and can cause vomiting, diarrhea, labored breathing – can also be fatal.

Many seed kernels contain cyanide and can also be fatal to dogs for example Apricot kernels, Cherry kernels, Peach stones, even Apple seeds contain cyanide. Any of these if eaten in varying quantities can be fatal to a dog. Obviously the smaller the dog the less needs to be ingested for serious consequences to manifest.

The leaves of many common plants are also toxic, Mother-in Laws Tongue causes diarrhea and oral irritation and may also cause dermatitis. It can also cause tremors, seizures loss of balance and asphyxiation – needless to say this can be fatal. Philodendron leaves similarly can cause dermatitis, diarrhea and oral irritation. Oak tree leaves and acorns whilst not common in gardens can be common in parks, ingestion of either leaves or acorns will affect the dogs kidneys – symptoms take several days to appear and this can complicate identifying the cause. Chrysanthemum leaves whilst not often fatal can cause dermatitis. Dieffenbachia often kept as an indoor plant can cause diarrhea, oral irritation, dermatitis and can also cause tremors, seizures, loss of balance and asphyxiation – can be fatal.

These plants causing oral irritation have a very interesting mechanism: when dogs chew on the plant, a chain reaction results in the gelatinous plant material to swell, forcing raphides (needle like calcium oxalate crystals) to violently shoot out from cells. The calcium oxalate crystals then penetrate and embed themselves into the tissues of the mouth, tongue, throat and stomach causing (in most cases) immediate discomfort and aggravation as would be expected when millions of microscopic needles are lodged in ones throat and mouth!

Many vegetables can also be harmful to dogs. Onions and Garlic are highly toxic, the initial symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea and the animal will show little interest in food, they may also appear breathless. The dogs affected by onion toxicity are experiencing haemolytic anemia which is a condition where the red blood cells rupture whilst circulating. A small sized onion is sufficient to cause a fatality in a large dog. Tomato plants are also toxic and if large amounts of the plant are ingested it can cause vomiting and diarrhea, lethargy and weakness.

There are also a number of parasites that dog owners need to be aware of. Visible parasites include fleas, ticks and often ear mites, these are all easily treated with a topical treatment. An interesting fact is that fleas are the vectors or intermediate hosts for certain tapeworms – thus if your dog has a flea infestation, he also might have tapeworms!

Ringworm whilst not a parasite (it’s actually a fungal infection) is easily transferred to humans and other animals in the household, it is also easily treated with a topical treatment. Internal parasitical worms include roundworm, hookworm, tapeworm which again are easily treated. Hydatid tapeworm is easily treated unless infestation is severe. Toxoplasmosis can be contracted by the animal eating kangaroo meat that has not been cooked, despite oft repeated old wives tales it is not easily transferred to humans via infected dogs or cats or in cat faeces. Lungworm is carried by slugs and snails and is transferred by the dog eating an infected snail, it is easily treated if discovered in time.

I hope that the above has been informative.

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Aggression in dogs.

This time I am going to talk about aggression in dogs. This is unfortunately a more common occurrence that we would all like to admit. There can be a number of reasons for the aggressive behaviour and it may also be directed in differing ways in differing circumstances.

For example a dog may be aggressive to small white fluffy dogs, or large black dogs, or men only, or as in a phone from someone today only old ladies.

What causes aggression in dogs?

If you listen to the ‘experts’ they will put forward all sorts of hypotheses as to the reasons why a dog aggresses and generally they all revolve around the dog being a creature that needs to constantly increase his stature in the pack hierarchy i.e. to constantly impose its dominance on others. These hypotheses may range from:-

  • Dogs seek a linear hierarchy and are always looking at ways to dominate anyone that they perceive a lower than them in the ‘pack’,
  • Dogs operate on a non-linear (circular or triangular) hierarchy but still try to dominate those in the pack they perceive as weaker than themselves,
  • A variable dominance relationship where at different times and over different resources the dogs will vary between dominant and subordinate,
  • A dominance relationship where either the male dog is dominant or the female dog is dominant,
  • A mixture of the above to explain a situation between dogs that doesn’t clearly fit in an otherwise defined ‘box’,

As discussed in an earlier blog these dominance theories have all been extrapolated form very early studies on captive wolf packs. This earlier research has since been discredited by a number of subsequent studies. (See Blog on Fear, reactivity and dominance in pet dogs)

One of the problems created by dominance or punishment based trainers is that they will say that as the dog is trying to assert its dominance, then to stop the behaviour, the owner or trainer simply needs to ‘show’ the dog that they are more dominant. Invariably this involves some level of punishment and (if the trainer wants to take a chance in getting their face chewed off) to ‘Alpha Roll’ the dog. This involves rolling the dog onto its back and standing over the dog in a threatening way to prove you are dominant to the dog. If you have a small dog you just may get away with it – good luck if you have a Rottweiler. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should any sane person ‘Alpha Roll’ a dog. Even if you are not bitten you are severely damaging the relationship between you and your dog.

 

What are the most common types of aggression?

There are several common reasons for dogs exhibiting dog-to-dog aggression:-

  • Resource guarding,
  • Dogs sensitive to the proximity of other dogs, i.e. a dog gets too close and the dog reacts by growling, barking, lunging or other aggressive displays,
  • Dogs that are overly boisterous to other dogs and probably have little or no dog social skills,
  • Dogs that may have a genetic disposition to fight, (some terriers for example),

These types of aggression can have a number of different causes, a dog from an abusive background with little food to eat may develop a resource guarding issue. A dog that has been attacked early on in its life may develop a proximity issue with other dogs.

One of the things that some people may try to do is to overly analyse why the aggression issue is there. The truth of the matter is – it doesn’t really matter. The dog has an aggression issue and it needs to be resolved.

The connection to the cause of the issue and the methods taken to modify the behaviour, in reality have little to do with each other. Behavioural issues are generally modified by a combination of classical and operant conditioning combined with sensible management of the environment.

Should you have a dog that exhibits aggression then rest assured it will not go away all by itself, neither will it go away if you use any negative training techniques such as punishment or dominance based training, you should contact a professional trainer that uses positive methods as soon as possible.

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Fear, reactivity and dominance in pet dogs

I thought this time I would talk about two issues that came up recently that are both related and unfortunately very common amongst old style trainers.

Fear and reactivity in pet dogs.

I received an email from someone who wanted help with their dog, a small shy nervous dog. They attended puppy training, presumably at the suggestion of their vet. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that – but this is where the wheels began to fall off. The poor puppy was overwhelmed by all the dogs there. The trainer taking the class should have suggested to move the puppy away from the group so that it could settle down, unfortunately that didn’t occur so the poor puppy simply built an incredible fear of other dogs. Step 2, in an effort to try and help their dog, the owners called out a trainer to try and help their dog get over this fear of other dogs. This trainer using absolutely old style dominance training tried to ‘cure’ this problem by exposing the dog to the exact situation that terrified it and then throwing a chain at the dogs feet to startle and frighten it some more – like that’s going to work!

This owner has now called me to try and help this poor dog that must be suffering so much fear in its, so far, very short life.

Let’s look at the situation and use some psychology to analyse it.

Dogs go through several periods of intense development in their early lives. One of these developmental periods is the period of Socialisation. It is during this period that the dog learns how to behave around other dogs and humans, it learns how to interact with its environment and very importantly any negative experiences during this period can stay with the dog for a long period of time.

Fear is an emotional response to an event or situation – the response cannot be controlled. This is an extremely important point that many trainers simply ignore. Very often a dog trainer’s advice to a dog that (say) shows fear at thunder is to ignore the dog’s behaviour – or even worse take the dog out for a walk. Think about this for a moment, let’s say you are terrified of big furry spiders and one is sitting on your ceiling above your head – what is your reaction? Do you feel calm or do you want to get out of there as quickly as you can – you cannot control your emotion at that point in time. Now just say your partner (who is not terrified of spiders) just sits there and ignores the situation – or worse still, physically holds you down whilst telling you there is nothing to be frightened of – how do you feel now? Are you calmer or more terrified? This is exactly how your dog would feel if in the situation above you took them for a walk in the thunder.

Old style dominance trainers use a method called ‘flooding’ to ‘cure’ a dog of a fear. Say a dog is afraid of motorcycles an old style trainer will tie the dog to the motorcycle whilst the engine is running. The poor terrified dog cannot escape the noise so it ‘shuts down’, the term for this is ‘learned helplessness’ and means the dog has no escape so just gives in and as a result may become depressed and withdrawn. The trainer proudly exclaims he has cured to dog in a matter of minutes. John Bradshaw in his book ‘In defence of dogs’ suggests that quite the reverse happens and the dogs fear is likely to become even more deep-seated.

Since you cannot create an emotional response or reinforce one by reward, when your dog is frightened of something please comfort them. You will not be encouraging them to be afraid, as some trainers suggest, instead your dog will feel that you are protecting them and they will love you more for it.

By the way, in the case study above, due to the fear that this poor dog faces every time it goes for a walk, it now trembles uncontrollably when its lead is put on. Can you imagine the abject terror that this poor dog experiences brought about by the advice of a trainer using ‘old style’ techniques?

 

Dominance in pet dogs and the Alpha Dog myth.

The other issue that came up this week was the issue of dominance in dogs. A person had been told that their dog was trying to dominate them and had been given a whole set of things to do to establish dominance over their dog. (By the way research has shown that this menu of things to do has little or no effect in adjusting the underlying causes of the unwanted behaviour)

Let me preface what I am going to say by this statement – Dogs are not trying to dominate their human owners.

Repeat, Dogs are not trying to dominate their human owners.

This concept of dominance was originally conceived by studying a captive wolf pack in the 1940’s, there were however a number of flaws in the study. The wolves were not a related family group, in fact they had come from a number of different wolf parks and forced to live together as a pack. Needless to say in a confined area and with no ability to hunt for their own food, whenever food was present fights broke out to establish ownership of the food. This was the basis of the concept of a continuing aggressive struggle for dominance over other pack members and the ‘Alpha Wolf’ theory was born. In a huge leap this flawed research was then transferred to dogs – after all wolves are domestic dog ancestors – so they must behave the same. The scientists however put aside the fact the dogs and wolves have had over 30,000 years of divergent development.

In the 1960’s L David Mech published another paper following further study and this paper reaffirmed the dominance Alpha theory. However Mech further studied wolves in the wild – not in captive packs – and his latest work published in 1999 completely debunked the earlier held dominance Alpha theory. More and more research since then by animal behaviourists worldwide agree with Mech.

Wolves in the wild exist of a family group consisting of the mother wolf, the father wolf, several yearlings and mature wolves and a number of pups. In much the same way as a human family occasionally mum or dad exercise some authority but by and large they exist peacefully.

Observations in a sanctuary for dogs, whose behaviour was deemed to be too unpredictable to be rehomed, was undertaken. Whilst up to 20 dogs at a time were observed, at no time did the dogs organise themselves into a pack with a wolf like hierarchy (J Bradshaw In defence of dogs, 2012).

The domestic dog does not have a tendency to try to dominate humans and the concept of domestic dogs needing to be shown that the human is an Alpha is totally erroneous. In fact attempting to ‘Aplha Roll’ a dog onto its back to show your dominance can lead to (and has led to) very serious dog bites – by a dog that was in fear of its life. Under no circumstances should any dog be given the ‘Alpa Roll’.

Unfortunately many dog trainers still believe that since dogs are out to dominate their owners that it is necessary to ‘show them who is boss’. This thought leads to punishment based training and uses the Alpha Dog Theory as the reason why a dog uses aggression, seeks attention, destroys things and even when they fail to return on recall. We now know that the basis of these actions are not dominance or Alpha Dog based it is up to trainers and owners to ensure that they use techniques that are effective and that do not compromise the welfare of our pets.

Whilst dogs are not trying to dominate their human owners they certainly do try to control the environment around them. For example your dog is lying on the lounge and as you go to move him he growls at you. This is not an expression of dominance it is the dogs’ way of saying ‘I’m very comfortable here and I don’t want to move’. If your dog growls as you go to take a toy/bone etc. away from him, he is not trying to exert dominance he is saying ‘this is mine and I don’t want you to have it right now’. There are a number of techniques that can be used to overcome these problems and I strongly suggest that you talk to a trainer that uses positive methods to help you fix this type of problem before it becomes a major issue.

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Why it’s important to understand how dogs learn when training them.

When training dogs it is important to understand how they see the world and how this relates to their learning. First of all we need to understand that dogs are always learning, sometimes this is good – when they are learning what we want them to do – sometimes it’s bad when they are learning something that we don’t want them to do.

Dogs learn by association. To understand this, let’s look at this from a human perspective as we also learn by association. When we meet someone for the first time we come away with an association – we either felt the interaction was positive, negative or neutral. If the association was positive, that is we enjoyed the time we were with that person, we are likely to be happy to see that person again. However if the association was negative, say they were argumentative, difficult to talk to, rude or brusque the chances are we would probably avoid that person in the future.

Back to dogs, they experience life much like this on a day-to-day, moment-by-moment basis. Dogs lack a filter for rational thought, they are however constantly forming associations around what is happening ‘right now’. They are constantly making a decision of safe, dangerous or neutral or in other words ‘good for me’, ‘bad for me’ or neutral. If the decision is based on some external stimulus that produces a pleasant result the dog is likely to remember that – for example most dogs know the procedure that their human goes through when they get the dogs food ready. The clinking of ceramic bowls always raises a dogs ears, if the clinking is of the right ceramic bowl the dog normally gets excited. I have four dogs and as soon as I start to get their dinner ready they all go to their spots ready for dinner. They understand that my specific actions always predict dinner.

OK so dogs can associate actions or sounds to predict things happening, how does this help us in training?

Let’s say we have a new puppy and we are taking him out for a walk, we see another dog and the puppy starts to get excited and bounce around and bark as he wants to go meet the other dog. Now suppose we don’t like that behaviour and we shout “No” and jerk the leash; and every time we see another dog we do the same thing – shout “No” and jerk the leash. Very soon every time we see another dog our dog is going to react – he will begin to bark, growl and lunge at the dog. Why? We have built a negative association with seeing other dogs – we have in effect taught him to fear or dislike other dogs. We can reverse this situation by using Behavioural Adjustment Training and I’ll cover that in another blog.

Remember that we said that dogs live ‘in the moment’ we can use this to our advantage to build positive associations. Say we want our dog to sit, we lure him into the sit position with a treat in our hand and as soon as his haunches hit the ground we give him the treat. Do this several times and soon the dog will automatically sit and look at you expecting the treat. He has built an association between sitting and getting a treat.

The simple basis for positive reinforcement training is to reward a dog for behaviour you like and to ignore or redirect behaviour you don’t like. However we need the correct timing to train dogs. Give him immediate feedback—let him know right away when he has done something you like. Use praise, treats, or other rewards such as throwing a ball, opening a door, or letting your dog off leash to play.

Dogs then learn how to get by in this complicated human world by making instantaneous decisions, is this safe (and then good for me) or is it dangerous (and then bad for me). Another example, say our new puppy pees on the carpet in front of us and we punish him. He hasn’t learnt the difference between inside and outside he has just learnt that it is dangerous to pee in front of us, but it is safe to pee when you aren’t there.

When training dogs we need to remember a few simple things:

  • They decide instantly if something is safe (good) or dangerous (bad)
  • Given a choice they will always do what is safe (good)
  • Their attention span is in fractions of a second – timing is critical
  • Dogs do not understand the concept of right and wrong – they just do what’s safe (and works based on past experience)

Dogs do what is safe and what works. That’s all.

Remember dogs are dogs not people they do not come pre-programmed with a series of commands and the ability to toilet outside from birth. They have to be trained to do what we want them to do. It is easier and much more fun to use positive methods to train dogs and please remember nothing your dog does can be interpreted as trying to dominate you.

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Where did dogs come from and how were they domesticated? (Part 4)

Up until Victorian times dogs were typed according to the jobs they did, herding dogs, hunting dogs, baiting dogs, ratters and so on. They weren’t given any special status other than that they needed to be good at their job or they were simply ‘disposed of’. The dog owners were certainly not concerned about what their dogs looked like only that they did the job.

However the Victorian era saw a rise in what we could call the leisure classes, the industrial revolution suddenly produced an emerging middle class that had time and money on their hands. The Victorian era saw the landed gentry ‘make over’ their homes and gardens in ways to express their new wealth. Everything had to look just right. Once the houses and gardens were done eyes were turned to their livestock, horses, cows, pigs and sheep all were bred and re-bred until they consistently got an animal with the features they desired.

In 1860 a combination of British and French troops stormed the Forbidden City in Peking and during the ensuing confusion a “Lion Dog” was taken and later given to Queen Victoria as a gift. This Lion Dog is what we now know as the Pekinese. Other Pekinese dogs were smuggled out of China and brought to England. These dogs were bred for the Chinese royal family and were regarded as sacred, even seeing one of these dogs was seen as such a crime that the perpetrator would be put to death. After the Manchu dynasty was overthrown the Pekinese almost became extinct in China.

These small unusual looking dogs created a social whirlwind in court circles in England, Queen Victoria was immediately smitten and became an avid fan of these dogs. At the time of her death she had five of them.

In late Victorian England it became fashionable and a display of one’s status and wealth to have a dog as a pet – that is a dog that, unlike a working dog, did not need to do anything to earn its keep other than to look good. This started the ‘makeover’ of dogs.

If someone wanted a dog with a curly tail they simply mated two dogs with curly tails until they got a dog that consistently produced puppies with curly tails. Want a small dog, mate two small dogs together until you consistently get a small dog.

Once this fashion for different looking dogs had started, there needed to be some way of comparing dog to dog to determine which was the better animal. Dog shows (or Dog Fancies) had been run in pubs and village halls for many years and the results were published in ‘The Field’ magazine. The editor of the magazine, John Henry Walsh, wanted to develop a way that dog could be compared to dog to determine a factual basis for judges to decide the ‘best’ one. As a result he published the first breed standard, called at the time a ‘Model’, for a Springer Spaniel – this was based on a dog called Major that had just won a competition in Birmingham.

Baron Tweedmouth, Dudley Marjoribanks was a keen hunter and wanted to develop a unique retriever to recover shot birds from lakes and rivers. He commenced a breeding program in 1868 by crossing a number of different breeds until he accomplished his goal of what was originally called the Yellow Retriever. In 1910 an infamous Lord of the Realm commented that they were all the colour of a Golden Guinea, from that time on they became known as the Golden Retriever and all Golden Retrievers today can trace their ancestry back to the dogs of Baron Tweedmouth.

I hope you enjoyed this four part précis of the rise of the domestic dog. If there are any subjects you would like me to cover in future blogs please let me know.

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Where did dogs come from and how were they domesticated? (Part 3)

In part two we looked a two hypotheses on how wolves turned into domesticated wolf/dogs.

Of the two proposed it seems likely that as wolves started living closer and closer to human settlements natural selection ended up in producing a wolf that was less and less fearful of humans. An experiment in Russia that commenced in 1959 adds weight to this as a possible answer.

Wild Silver Foxes have always been farmed for their pelts in Russia due to them being exceptionally good in keeping people warm when used in outer clothing. The problem was that as wild foxes they are particularly aggressive and very difficult to handle.

In 1959 a Russian geneticist Dmitry Belyaev was tasked with the job of making the Wild Silver Foxes tamer and therefore easier to handle.

Belyaev considered that if tamer foxes were selected and only allowed to breed with other tamer foxes that after a number of generations one may end up with a tamer Silver Fox. The method of selection was relatively simple, a gloved hand was presented to the fox in the cage, if it showed any aggression (i.e. it attacked and bit at the gloved hand) it was immediately excluded from the breeding program.

This simple method of selection was continued for generation after generation of Silver Foxes with only the tamest foxes being allowed to breed. An amazing discovery ensued, after only eight generations tamer foxes were being bred. This experiment continues to this day.

In the last few years adaptations have been made to the breeding program to determine if the aggression is in fact being bred out of the foxes (nature) or if they are simply learning to be less aggressive by their parents (nurture). To try and answer this question the researches transplanted embryos from tame foxes into aggressive foxes and vice versa. The tame foxes with the aggressive embryos implanted produced pups that were aggressive and the aggressive foxes with the tame embryos implanted produced tame pups. The researchers were able to determine with a level of confidence that aggression and tameness are therefore as a result of ‘nature’ not ‘nurture’.

What has happened as the program continued came as more of a surprise. As the foxes became tamer so their physical appearance began to change, instead of being a single dark colour they began to develop white patches, their tails began to be held a little higher and some foxes developed floppy ears. They were able to determine, that the gene that held the code for the coat colour was along the same genetic thread that held the code for the adrenaline response – which in tamer foxes was significantly reduced.

It seems that when you select for tameness a whole lot of other stuff comes along for ‘free’ – changes to physical characteristics.

We know that many ancient cultures consider the dog to have mystical, almost magical abilities. Consider that if in just eight generations in captivity Wild Silver Foxes can be tamed, what must our human ancestors have believed a wolf to be capable of – in seeing a wild wolf change, almost in front of their eyes, (certainly within a single human generation), into a tamer animal that stayed around the camp and posed little or no threat, unlike its wild cousins that lived beyond the camp.

Part 4 looks at the rise of the domestic dog and how it developed into many breeds.

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Where did dogs come from and how were they domesticated? (Part 2)

In part 1 we ended with the two hypotheses in the evolution of dogs_-

  • Humans ‘adopted’ orphaned wolf cubs which were subsequently tamed
  • that wolves as scavengers were likely to live near human settlements stealing from campsites,

If we look at the adoption of orphaned cubs, this is a possible and likely explanation, there is evidence that even today in hunter gatherer society’s wild animal cubs are taken and brought up within the clan. Evidence suggests however that for a wolf cub to be tamed in this way it needs to be removed from its mother at between 13 and 21 days and fed and weaned by its human ‘owner’. We could ask if an early hunter gatherer society would have the time to bring up a wolf cub from such an early age.

The hypothesis that wolves as scavengers lived near human settlements tends to be a bit more persuasive. Professor Raymond Coppinger suggests that wild wolves have a ‘flight distance’ and that wolves that had a closer flight distance would have had access to more food from the created garbage of our hunter gatherers. These dogs would have then bred, creating dogs with an even closer ‘flight distance’. If we extrapolate that over a number of generations we just might have a wolf/dog that felt unthreatened by humans and began to live closer and closer to our settlements.

Humans began to live in villages around 15,000 years ago, this fits closely with the emergence of the ‘Protodog’ around 14,000 years ago. The protodog’s physical characteristics are a smaller brain, smaller teeth and a physique around two-thirds the size of a wolf. Coppinger hypothesises that these characteristics evolved due to the dogs being scavengers – they did not need the brain capacity of a wolf to make hunting decisions, they needed smaller teeth as they did not need to bring down large animals and by being two-thirds the size needed less food to survive.

Of the two hypotheses the later seems to be the more likely, that the wolf over a number of years slowly turned itself into the dog.

Part 3 looks at the Russian experiment that seems to add weight to this theory

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