10 Commandments Of Pit Bull Ownership

10 Commandments Of Pit Bull Ownership

Pit bulls are the greatest dogs out there (not that I’m biased!).  However, there are some commandments that must be followed to responsibly own them and keep them safe.

Thou shalt not flaunt BSL and breed bans

Many politicians and communities automatically assume that the only people who would want pit bull are criminals and thugs.  So let’s help ameliorate that false theory by obeying the laws.  This starts by not moving with your pit bull into a city or HOA-run neighborhood that bans pit bulls.  Is this discrimination fair?  No, of course not.  But flaunting the laws to try to “prove” you have a good pit bull just backfires by showing that pit bull owners are indeed law-breakers.  Do the research necessary to find safe and appropriate housing where you and your pit bull can live in peace.  If you move into an area that requires muzzling or extra insurance, do it.  Fight the good fight by educating people whilst obeying the law.  Is making a point by flaunting BSL or breed bans worth endangering your dog’s life?

Thou shalt keep your pit bull on leash

Leash laws are abundant throughout most of the country, and there is a reason for this.  Dogs, being animals, often do stupid things such as run after cars or chase deer or go bounding up to other dogs and their owners.  No matter how well trained your pit bull is, I always advise keeping your dog on leash unless you are in a safely enclosed area.  Especially with a pit bull, should your dog go cheerfully chasing after wildlife or another dog, you run the risk of your dog being labeled vicious, a nuisance, dangerous, getting shot by somebody, and/or making a news headline.  Again, is it fair?  No, but it is what it is.  Don’t risk your dog’s safety.  Put them on a 100′ longline (that you are holding onto) if you cannot find an enclosed area for them to play and run.

Thou shalt not use shoddy/weak/ill-fitting equipment

Most pet stores carry super cute collars.  However, most of those super cute collars have flimsy little plastic buckles.  Unless you are NEVER planning on hooking a leash onto the collar, or having to grab that collar in an emergency, don’t buy a flimsy collar.  It is imperative that our dogs be vested out in solid, safe equipment.  Make sure all hardware is metal.  I recommend avoiding even metal snap collars.  Instead, get a nice wide metal buckle collar, or a nice martingale.  Just because you want sturdy doesn’t mean you can’t have pretty, too!  There are plenty of options for solid yet fun and attractive collars.

Wide, metal buckle collar and well-fitting harness.

This applies to harnesses, too.  I’m a huge proponent of harnesses, even for dogs who walk nicely on leash.  You just never know when your dog (dogs being impulsive creatures!) will decide to lunge after a squirrel.  I like to avoid any pressure on Inara’s trachea, so she is always walked on a harness.  There are many shoddy harnesses out there that are made poorly and/or do not fit dogs well.  You want a harness that is, of course, solidly made and will hold your dog safely.  You want one that will not hinder shoulder mobility, as many front-clip harnesses do (there are exceptions!).  Since most of our pit bulls are pretty thin-skinned and thin-furred under their armpits and bellies, it is important that the harness not chafe them.

Thou shalt invest in force-free training for your pit bull

Yay for dog school!

Pit bulls are incredibly intelligent dogs that love bonding to their people and learning new tricks.  Often, if they are not given things to do, they will entertain themselves, which never ends well!  Training classes are an excellent way to ensure you have a well-behaved dog that is appropriate to take in public and do fun things with, as well as an awesome way to bond with your dog.  Make sure you find a place that uses only force-free training methods.  If your dog has behavioral issues already, using punishment can temporarily suppress the behavior, but it may backfire in the long run when the behavior rears its ugly head again, worse than before.  Teach your dog with fun and treats – we want our dogs to WANT to work with us, not be afraid NOT to work with us.

Thou shalt not take your pit bull to doggy daycares or dog parks

Many pit bulls are great with other dogs.  However, daycares and dog parks are filled with unruly, rude dogs.  Why expose your dog to that?  And though many pit bulls won’t start a fight, many will happily join in should a scuffle ensue.  And guess whose dog gets blamed then?  The pit bull is always the easy scapegoat, whether they were responsible or not.  And on the other hand, many of us have dogs that are very well-behaved on leash but would happily start a rumble just for the sake of fun.  Which dog do you have?  Are you willing to bet your dog’s life (or another dog’s life?) that your dog won’t start/finish something?  Another thing to keep in mind is that often our dogs are really great with other dogs when they are younger, but as they begin going through sexual or social maturity, their tolerance may drop.  I remember clearly the day Inara “turned on.”  I’m lucky she didn’t kill another dog.  It’s not worth the risk.  It’s JUST. NOT. WORTH. IT.  Find a doggy friend and do playdates one-on-one in a safely enclosed area.

Thou shalt feed a good diet

Due to rampant overbreeding that is more concerned with color and head size than with health and temperament, many pit bulls these days have horrible skin issues.  Many of these can be alleviated by feeding a high-quality, single protein kibble.  I advocate for a raw diet, though I realize that is not for everybody.  Another benefit of feeding a high quality diet is that you end up feeding less of it because there are no fillers.  And do you know what feeding less food means?  Less poop!  You may also want to consider adding supplements such as fish oil, probiotics if your dog is gassy (though often a diet change can fix this), and other things to aid in joint and skin health.  Talk to your vet or local natural pet store owner about options.

Along with diet, I’m going to add in here how crucial it is to keep your pit bull at a healthy weight.  Your dog should have a nice tucked up belly, and when you look down from above them, you should see a clearly defined waist.  They should have good muscle tone.  Many people claim their fat dogs are “all muscle.”  MUSCLE DOESN’T JIGGLE, my friends.  With as prone to joint/CCL issues as our dogs are, it behooves us to keep them fit and trim and muscular.  These dogs are natural athletes – help them be so safely!

Thou shalt not leave your pit bull unsupervised with children or other animals

As stated above, many pit bulls are great with other dogs.  Many, such as Inara, happily live with cats and/or other critters.  And the vast majority are fantastic with people and children.  However, it is recommended that you never leave your pit bull unsupervised with other animals, even those they happily live with.  I can tell you many a story of pit bulls who happily grew up and lived with other dogs or cats for years, until one day there was a vicious fight and people came home to massive bloodshed.  Or came home to a dead cat.  Dogs are impulsive creatures and sometimes they do stupid things, such as decide that THIS PARTICULAR PIECE OF FUZZ needs to be guarded from their housemates.  All it takes is one time to come home to a seriously injured or killed pet.  One time.

Happy family, but Inara is still always crated when I leave.

Regarding children, most of our dogs love kids.  However, many of our dogs (I’m looking at you, Inara!) don’t know their own strength, are rude, and will accidentally knock children over in their exuberance to greet them and play with them.  Also, very much like dogs, children are impulsive and often do stupid things.  They need to be monitored to ensure they are not doing things that could make your dog uncomfortable or frightened.  We cannot expect our dogs to be saints.  They are living creatures that feel fear and pain and will defend themselves.

Thou shalt always set your dog up to succeed

So often when we get a dog, we envision all the fun things we will do with them – doggy sports, festivals, outdoor eateries, parties, etc.  All the fun things!  But dogs are individuals, and just as some people are not social butterflies, neither are some dogs.  Learn about canine body language so you can see the subtle signs that your dog is uncomfortable.  Then, LISTEN TO THOSE SIGNS.  Dogs (in general) display many signals before they progress to actual biting.  The problem is that people either ignore or don’t understand those signals.  If your dog is not 100% thrilled meeting new people and being in loud places, don’t take them to a noisy festival.  If your dog is hesitant about people coming in the house, put them in a closed room with a tasty treat when guests come over.  If your dog isn’t fond of other dogs, engaging in sports that require many dogs out and moving at once isn’t fair to your dog.  None of these make your dog a bad dog.  Work with your dog, and do some training to help them learn to be more comfortable, but ALWAYS respect their needs and boundaries.

Thou shalt not deny the history of the APBT

Many people want to claim that pit bulls were only used for farm work and never bred for combat with other dogs.  But they earned their name, American PIT Bull Terrier, by pit fights with other dogs.  They were bred for tenacity and a never quit attitude.  Though pit fighting is obviously a horrid “sport,” it helped create the amazing dogs we love today.  Their compact, muscular bodies.  Their willingness to try anything.  Their tolerance of most handling.  It also means that many of them still carry those genetics that make them want to tangle with other dogs.  Just because dog aggression isn’t being actively bred FOR these days (in most cases), it’s also not actively being bred AGAINST.

Also, just a note:  Pit bulls were never called the nanny dog.  I’m not sure where this myth originated, but it doesn’t help us be good advocates for our dogs when we make up things like this.  Our dogs are awesome as is – why do we need to make up stupid, false titles for them?

Thou shalt treat your pit bull as a beloved member of the family

This one doesn’t really need an explanation, does it?  These dogs love us – let’s treat them the same way, shall we?

Just A Good Day

This is not going to be a deep and meaningful blog posting today.  Sorry (or you’re welcome, whichever!).  I just had a really good day today and wanted to share.

Started with brunch with a friend.  She came over and I cooked (scary, trust me).  I didn’t burn the house down, but more importantly, Inara was pretty damned good.  I had my friend armed with treats before she even came through the door, and having those tossed on the floor really helped Inara keep her feet on the floor where they belong.  She settled pretty quickly, which was great.

After my friend left, me, Inara & Mal just lounged around a little bit, relaxing.  The weather was gorgeous – sunny and mid-60’s.  Doors and windows were open.  Beautiful.  So all three of us just snuggled on the couch:

Lounging together on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Lounging together on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Later in the afternoon, Inara and I met up with a friend and her dog for a walk.  We tried doing some BAT with Inara and her dog, but Inara was so blase about her that we couldn’t really do anything.  Which is exactly the point!  So we said, “forget it!” and just did our walk.  We walked for two hours.  Inara was a dream.  I think she was enjoying the fresh warm air as much as I was.

Ignoring our walking buddy!
Ignoring our walking buddy!

So we walked for about two hours, at which point I was whupped.  Too much fresh air!  So we came home and I crashed on the couch after pulling Inara’s bed into the patch of sunshine on the floor for her.  But Malcolm beat her to the punch and made himself comfy before she could.

Mal getting comfy on Inara's bed.
Mal getting comfy on Inara’s bed.

Poor Inara just stood there for a couple minutes, looking dejectedly between her bed and me.  And then she very gently stepped onto the bed and Malcolm looked up, gave her a little “mrrrow” and put his head back down.  At which point I grabbed my phone to get video:

I loved this.  She was so gentle, and there isn’t a doubt in my mind that if Mal had stayed there, she would have just curled up around him.  At which point I would have died of joy overload.  Anyway, after that little flash of “awwww!”, I had ANOTHER one – Mal got back onto the bed and curled up beside Inara!

Holy cripes.  Too much cuteness.  Oxytocin overload!
Holy cripes. Too much cuteness. Oxytocin overload!

Yep, I swooned a little.  They stayed like that for over an hour.  It was really fantastic.  Mal’s been with us for about 3 months now and he’s really starting to come out of his shell, and Inara just really seems to enjoy him.

So yeah, just an all-around good day.  I hope you all had good, relaxing Sundays as well.

Advocacy As I See It

Advocacy As I See It

I want to talk (write) today about what being a pit bull advocate means to me.  It wasn’t in my plans to write about this today (it’s Easter and I have things to do) but I was accused of being a bad advocate/supporting BSL and it really bothered me.  Somebody I know, and his friends that I don’t know, gleefully wrote some very cruel things about me because I had the temerity to disagree with them.  Normally I can brush off people, but this blatant malice really bothered me.  I was up way too late, and up way too early, just thinking about it.  I almost lashed out in return.  I wanted to tell them exactly what I thought.  But I didn’t, as I’m trying to be more peaceful in my life, and quite frankly, it wouldn’t have changed anything.  So instead I’m going to write a blog about what I think our jobs as pit bull advocates are.

Before I begin, I have a disclaimer.  Shouldn’t be necessary, but apparently it is – I think pit bulls are the best dogs are out there.  For me. I love them.  Period. 

I guess perhaps I should start by defining what dogs I’m talking about.  I’m talking about any dog that looks like it could be a pit bull or pit bull mix.  That’s right, I don’t care if it’s not been DNA tested and found to be 100% APBT or AmStaff.  Nothing divides pit bull people more than the definition of a pit bull.  It’s insane.  Do Lab people argue about whether dogs called Lab mixes really have Lab in them?  Do GSD people get angry when people call a dog a GSD mix?  Not that I’ve heard.  It’s reserved for pit bull people to argue about.

Our number one job is to realistic about these dogs.  Period.  Blowing smoke up people’s behinds to make them sound like magical little bunny-hugging unicorns in a compact, muscular body doesn’t do anybody any good.  Especially the dog.  Pit bulls are strong, athletic dogs that need something to do.  If you don’t provide the stimulation for them, they’ll figure it out on their own and it probably won’t be something you approve of!  Pit bulls weren’t known as “the nanny dog.”  Were pit bulls historically known for being great family dogs?  Absolutely, but they weren’t referred to as the nanny dog.  People need to stop saying that.  These dogs are phenomenal – it’s not necessary to lie about them to make them sound better.  It also may give some people the idea that it is safe leaving children alone with them.  NO dog should be left alone with children, period.

Nothing gets pit bull people more riled up than the talk of dog-dog issues within the breed.  AS WITH EVERYTHING, there are exceptions to the rule.  But pit bulls were bred for how many years to fight other dogs?  Granted, 99% of them are NOT bred for that anymore.  However, just because it isn’t being bred for, doesn’t mean it’s being actively bred against.  So you know, why not err on the side of caution and assume that your pit bull may not love all other dogs?  I firmly believe that pit bulls don’t belong in doggy daycares or dog parks.  No, your dog may never start anything, and that’s awesome!  But your dog may not back down if another dog tries to start something.  And you know what – your dog will be the one ending up in the news.  And it will make it harder for responsible pit bull owners to live in peace with their dogs.

Pit bulls are terriers/bulldogs and thus, they are more likely than the Poodle down the street to aggress at another dog and not back down.  This doesn’t make them bad!  It makes them terriers/bulldogs!

“But Liz, my dogs love each other and snuggle together and have never even looked sideways at each other.”  Rock on!  That is fantastic and I hope it stays that way forever.  I’d still separate them when you’re gone though.  Can’t tell you how many people I know/stories I’ve heard of people whose pit bulls loved each other for years, until the day they didn’t and e-vets were required and crate/rotate had to become a way of life forever after.

Dog aggression doesn’t mean that your dog will hate every dog on sight.  Most pit bulls are selective – they are okay with some dogs, heck, maybe even lots of dogs!  But some other dogs just torque them and get their panties in a bunch.  Sometimes we don’t know which dogs are going to do that, which is why it behooves us to act as if ANY dog could get our dog riled, AKA, err on the side of caution.

Are there pit bulls that love every other dog on the planet?  Sure.  Are there pit bulls that hate every other dog on the planet?  Sure.  Are the majority somewhere in between?  Yep.  So why risk it?  Why set your dog up for failure?  I’m a big fan of better safe than sorry.  Forewarned is forearmed.  Knowledge is power.  Knowing is half the battle.  All those good things.

Fair warning that here comes the other part of my pit bull advocacy that really angers people: Pit bulls aren’t the right dog for everybody. There, I said it.  Let the stoning begin.  But you know what?  Labs aren’t right for everybody.  GSD’s aren’t right for everybody.  Border Collies aren’t right for everybody.  Malinois?  Holy cripes you couldn’t PAY me to have one!  (Had to throw that one in for my Mal-owning friends!)  I can’t think of one breed of dog that IS right for everybody.  So why do some pit bull people feel that they need to convince every Joe Schmoe down the street that they need a pit bull?

Pit bulls require an owner that is going to be willing to invest some time and money.  They need training.  They need owners who won’t set them up to fail.  They don’t need owners who want a dog that they don’t have to interact with.  They aren’t for people who think dogs come fully trained out of the womb.  They aren’t for people who aren’t ready to educate themselves about possible breed tendencies, or who think “oh, I can love them into being good.”  No, you can TRAIN them into being good, but love isn’t everything when it comes to dogs.

This doesn’t mean that you need to keep your dog cloistered in your house behind closed blinds, never to see the light of day.  This means you don’t take your pit bull to dog parks.  You don’t take your pit bull to doggy daycares.  You keep your pit bull on leash when out in public.  You attend training classes with your pit bull.  You make sure your pit bull is an ambassador, out in public meeting people.  You don’t let your pit bull interact with strange dogs – instead, you set up playdates with one or two other dogs at a time that you know your dog is okay with.  And you SUPERVISE those play dates.  You separate your dogs when you’re out.

“But Liz, doesn’t this apply to all dogs?”  It absolutely should.  We should never set our dogs up to fail, especially if a failure on your behalf impacts other owners of that breed.  But I feel that as pit bull owners, we have a higher responsibility to keep our dogs safe from themselves and others.  

Inara, poster child for dog issues, being a breed ambassador.
Inara, poster child for dog issues, being a breed ambassador.

Changing of the Vet

Inara has been going to the same vet for her entire life, since January of 2006.  We’d always been happy with her.  She wasn’t warm and fuzzy, but she and her staff were competent, inexpensive and had good hours.  They also seemed to truly enjoy Inara.  So I was devastated when in the past several weeks many of my friends had awful experiences there.  Truly awful, to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to take Inara back there.  So I was stuck with the horrible Changing of the Vet.

Finding vets SUCKS.  Everybody has their favorite, and very few people can agree on one.  You need to figure out what’s most important to  you – cheap prices, good hours, bedside manner, etc.  For me, I really wanted a vet that wouldn’t give me a hard time about doing minimal vaccinations and feeding raw.  Inexpensive would have been great as I’d been spoiled at my old vet ($12 office vet?  Oh yeah.), but I knew I was going to have to suck it up on that end.  Hours were kind of important.  As long as I could get something near the end of the day, after 3 or so, I could easily get out of work to get home.  So what was important for me was somebody who was a bit more natural and didn’t push drugs/shots/meds.

Well, I lucked out.  A few of my friends use Dr. B., who does home visits.  I was afraid I’d never be able to afford such a luxury, but she’s remarkably affordable (at least if you have only one or two animals!).  And she was wonderful.  She came with freeze-dried liver in her pockets and an assistant.  She was here for probably an hour.  She talked to me about Inara’s history, and then we spoke at length about best practices for vaccinations, food, HW/flea meds, etc.  She gave Inara a thorough checkup, at one point exclaiming how slow Inara’s heart was beating considering how worked up she was (two visitors just for HER!  She was pretty wired, LOL).  I panicked and asked if that was bad (me, panic?  Nooooo) and she laughed and said it was wonderful because it shows she’s an athlete and in good shape.  Rock on.  She gave me a couple other suggestions if I want to get Inara off her Prozac and on to something more natural.  She said her teeth are lovely, slight bit of tartar but excellent overall.  They drew blood for her heartworm test (negative!) and tested it right in my living room.  Kind of cool.

So yeah, I’m a convert.  I was fortunate and got a great vet on my first try.  Not everybody gets so lucky.  If you need to change vets, don’t be afraid to schedule an appointment without your dog, so you can “interview” your potential vet.  You’re entrusting your beloved dog’s life to this person, so it doesn’t make you crazy to want to make sure they’re the best they can be.  And hopefully your transition will go as smoothly as mine did.

Inara and Mal enjoying each other's company.  Love them.
Inara and Mal enjoying each other’s company. Love them.

Us vs. Them? Doesn’t have to be.

Many trainers who use aversives dislike force-free trainers and, quite frankly, sometimes I don’t blame them.  So I thought I’d write about why force-free trainers can be so annoying and what we could do differently.  I’m sure some of the Posi-Nazi’s will hate me for this post, but that’s okay.  I won’t lose any sleep over their hatred.  I will also cover what balanced/compulsive trainers could do to stop being so disrespectful to FFT’s.  So, let’s begin first with some definitions (as I’m using them, not official!) so we’re all on the same page:

Aversive – Something the dog finds painful/scary.  There are trainers who tout themselves as “purely positive” because they don’t use physical punishment, but they do use intimidating body language/staredowns to get dogs to obey.  I consider those aversives as well.

Balanced trainer – I consider a balanced trainer to be one who knows how to train basic obedience without aversives.  They later add in compulsion for proofing or for training higher-level skills.

Compulsion – Synonomous with aversive.

Compulsive trainer – These are the people who slap prongs and e-collars on puppies to teach even the most basic obedience skills.  You’ll often find their dogs wearing a training collar of some type 24/7 so they don’t become “collar smart.”

Force-Free Trainer (FFT) – People who choose to train without using the positive punishment quadrant; people who avoid frightening/intimidating/causing pain to the dog during training.

Posi-Nazi – Hardcore “all positive all the time” people.  Those who feel that dogs should never be denied anything in life.  Feel that you should never hurt your dog’s feelings by turning your back on them to reduce unwanted behaviors.  These are the ones who give regular FFT’s a bad name.


Now, let’s start with what FFT’s need to do/not do to stop being so annoying to non-FFT’s:

1.  FFT’s claim that aversives don’t work – Really?  If they didn’t work, nobody would use them.  Far-reaching claims like this do nothing but make FFT’s look ridiculous and uneducated.  Aversives absolutely do work, and they often work quickly which makes them attractive to a lot of people.  The problem with aversives is that they need to continue being used to maintain their efficacy.  When I was using a prong on Inara, she’d walk nicely for weeks and then start pulling again so I’d have to “pop” her again, thus buying myself a few more weeks of good behavior.  But flat-out claiming that aversives don’t work is false, and FFT’s need to stop saying that.

2.  FFT’s claim that anybody who uses aversives is abusing their dog and ruining their relationship – False again, sort of.  When it comes to compulsive trainers, those who slap prongs and e-collars on puppies to train even basic behaviors, yes, I consider that abusive.  You are punishing your dog for not being able to read your mind.  Often the dogs of compulsive trainers look truly miserable – sure they’re doing an attention heel and obeying commands, but you can tell they certainly aren’t comfortable doing it.  On the other hand,  many of the balanced trainers I know have dogs that are lovely to watch and obviously adore their owners.  When I used aversives, Inara and I still had a good relationship and she only looked miserable if I gave her an unfair correction (when she should have come up the leash at me – I’m so fortunate she’s good-tempered!).  If she had “earned” a correction, she took it and shrugged it off, didn’t blink an eye.  When FFT’s claim that dogs trained with aversives are miserable all the time and don’t trust their owners, all balanced/compulsive trainers need to do is show their dog being happy and we’ve been proven wrong.  Far-reaching claims, like #1 above, don’t work.

3.  FFT’s say our methods are “science-based” and compulsion is not – False.  Compulsion is Positive Punishment (P+), hence, one of the four quadrants.  What does this make it?  Science-based.  All of the four quadrants are based on science.  Just because it is a quadrant that FFT’s choose not to use does not make it any less scientifically proven as a way of teaching.  Now, perhaps when FFT’s say “science-based” they really mean to say, “peer-reviewed studies have shown that using compulsion often has fall-out associated with it and training without compulsion has been shown to be more efficient as the learning is more permanent.”  Granted, it’s a bit wordy, but it’s much more true than saying, “science-based.”

4.  FFT’s claim that all dogs trained with force are shutdown – Not true.  Are some?  Oh absolutely without a doubt.  But many are not.  So much of it depends on the dog’s temperament.  If you have an already soft dog to begin with and then you add physical corrections, you’ve got a good chance of shutting your dog down.  But if you have a “harder” dog (temperamentally speaking), those dogs are able to take the corrections and shrug them off without any lasting issues.

5.  FFT’s can just be flat-out insulting – I’m thinking about times where we are pointing out body language of a dog to somebody else: “Oh my god, how could they NOT see that the dog is miserable?  Even a blind person can tell that at a glance.”  You know what, not everybody is trained in body language.  Should they be?  In my perfect world, absolutely.  But being rude about it isn’t going to make the person want to listen to you.  They’re going to shut you out.  Maybe try loaning them a book, or a video.  Offer them a discount to a body language seminar.

Now, on the other hand, there are a few things that balanced/compulsive trainers could quit doing that would help mend this giant rift between the training camps.

1.  Stop calling us “cookie pushers” – Believe it or not, I very rarely have treats on me when I’m out and about with Inara.  Why?  Because the beauty of FFT is that dogs learn to do things for the joy of it, and because they get life rewards.  I absolutely have no issue using huge amounts of treats when training a new behavior or doing counterconditioning, or when in a situation I know can rapidly turn into a good training session, but I don’t want to always be carrying treats and a clicker!  Sometimes you want to travel light and NOT have an odor of lamb/turkey/beef/tripe hovering around you!  Treats can be minimized once a behavior is learned.  If an FFT is a “cookie pusher” 24/7, then they haven’t learned about variable reinforcement schedules and need to do some more reading/learning.

2.  Stop saying that our dogs are not reliable at behaviors – Is your dog perfect 100% of the time?  Hell, are YOU?  Of course not.  Neither are our dogs.  However, our dogs can be trained to be just as reliable in behaviors as your dogs trained with aversives.  What you will find though is that often our priorities are different and we train for what is important to US.  So just because Inara doesn’t have a flawless recall doesn’t mean it’s because I haven’t used aversives.  It means that I’ve been lazy in teaching her a flawless recall!

3.  “I don’t have time to train without force.”  – Do you know how often we hear that?  Do you know how ridiculous that is?  Using a clicker and treats to train new behaviors is so fast and easy if you know what you’re doing!  Do you need to proof them and continue training after it is initially learned?  Of course you do, just as you do when using force.

4.  “Dogs need to know who’s in charge.”  – Sure they do!  And you know what?  I’m the one in the household with opposable thumbs that can open up the fridge.  *wink*  What’s that saying?  “Dogs are selfish creatures and I control their things”?  It’s true.  Who decides when Inara eats?  I do.  Who decides when Inara goes outside?  I do.  Who decides where we go on walks?  I do.  Who decides who gets the best spot on the couch?  I do.  Who decides which toys are out and available?  I do.  But I certainly don’t have to use force to teach her those things.

5.  “Their dogs have no rules.”  – I cannot say this enough – POSITIVE DOES NOT EQUAL PERMISSIVE.  This kind of melds with number 4 about being in charge.  Just because I choose not to use force with my dog doesn’t mean she’s running rampant through the neighborhood, preparing to overthrow the city and start a mass revolt of dogs.  Just sayin’.

Why did I write this blog?  Because FFT’s need to remember that positive reinforcement works on PEOPLE as well as dogs.  I have many friends who are balanced trainers that I can have perfectly civil training discussions with – “Oh, you trained it that like that?  Interesting.  Here’s how I would try it.”  I actually love those discussions!  I try not to berate and belittle those who use aversives.  We are all at different points in our training and we all do what we are comfortable doing and what we see working.  The best way FFT’s can spread the word about force-free training is by using our own dogs as examples.  Get them out there competing.  Get them out there just being good dogs on walks.  Trust me, people notice.  Have civil discussions with balanced trainers, see where they’re coming from without judging them.  Perhaps even, god forbid, compliment their dog’s happiness/obedience!  Maybe if we all learned to talk to each other without derision and without overly sweeping generalizations (and yes, balanced trainers – this goes both ways) we’d get a lot further and you know what?  The dogs would benefit.  We all want the same thing – happy, healthy, well-trained dogs.  Let’s remember that.






My Crossover Process

I’ve been asked to write about my training philosophy and how I came to adopt my force-free ways. This wasn’t an easy blog for me to write as, quite frankly, I’m horrified and appalled at some of the “training” I subjected Inara to. Honestly, I really deliberated about whether to even admit to the techniques I used. I spoke with some close friends and told them how nauseous and upset I was getting just thinking about them, and they gave me some great advice and encouragement.

A lot of force-free trainers I know have always been force-free, which is really wonderful and I envy them and thrill for their dogs. Unfortunately, I haven’t always been force-free. Though I’m not proud of that fact, and I marvel that Inara has come so far DESPITE what I did to her in the name of training, I think that my experience with aversives really allows me to see/understand why people use them and provide quality discussion, above and beyond, “it’s mean.”

I got Inara when she was 8 weeks old. Her mom, Sophie, had been confiscated from a fight ring when she was pregnant. So already there’s a good guess that Sophie wasn’t bred to a dog-friendly pit bull in the hopes of good-tempered, friendly puppies. These were puppies who were going to be used for fighting/breeding. Inara showed a propensity towards lack of concern for other dogs’ pain at an early age (9 weeks or so) when she grabbed her brother by the ear and made him scream. She didn’t let go until I wedged my thumb into her mouth and pried her little jaws open. Alright, bit concerning, but I was prepared. I’d read a ton and knew I could “socialize” it out of her. *insert eye rolling here*

I enrolled Inara in Petsmart’s Puppy Class when she was maybe 15 weeks old. It was all positive reinforcement techniques, mainly using luring. Inara did just fine and even found a playmate that we had over a few times – a young yellow Lab named Sadie. The two played together beautifully and appropriately. I was thrilled as I knew I was winning the battle against dog aggression.

After the Petsmart class, I enrolled her in a class at the Animal Protective League. Again, all positive reinforcement training. Inara excelled and we had a great time together. After that was over, I signed her up for a flyball class. She was super fast and I knew she could be an asset to a team. Her training was going so well – she was at the point where she could go over the jumps, hit the box and come back over the jumps to me. Just flying. Until the day she flew past me before I could snag her harness and ran over to the tiny Min Pin who’d been talking smack to her the entire class. Inara grabbed the Min Pin and put her entire head in her mouth. Fortunately she dropped her immediately and shockingly, the Min Pin didn’t even have a scratch. She had a slobbery head but she was uninjured. What a terrifying wakeup call. Inara was about 7 months old and could have just killed another dog with a little pressure of her jaws. We switched to private flyball lessons while I reconsidered my tactics.

The timing over the next few years is hazy, but here’s the general progression as best I remember it.

I thought I needed to up the ante and I obviously had a potential issue on my hands, so I thought I needed to find some training that was a bit firmer. The Dog Whisperer was one of my favorite shows at the time, so I knew I needed somebody to show me how to be a pack leader. Somehow I found a local trainer, M., who had a strong training history and trained with Cesar’s methods. Perfect. I took Inara for an “evaluation” and found out that she thought she was above me in the pack and that’s why she wasn’t perfect. So I signed on for lessons with M. He required a prong collar for Inara, so I dutifully bought one and carefully and properly fitted it. He then showed me the “technique” he wanted me to do. If Inara took one step in front of me at any point, or if she looked at another dog, I was to give her three level 10 corrections, while saying no with each one, as I did a u-turn. So it worked out that because I was turning while correcting and saying no, Inara would catch back up and be in heel position usually in time for the final yank/no. He said that when she yelped, it was because of surprise, not pain, even though I was putting my body weight into these corrections. I didn’t realize at the time just how asinine that was. Then, also during the first lesson, we worked on stays outside a local pet store. A rather busy one. He had me actually leaving Inara in a sit stay outside the door of the store while I went around the corner. With a parking lot right there. He was probably 20 feet away from her watching. Again, looking back, I shudder. But I did one more session with M. We did the same thing as last time, but this time, when Inara saw M., she hit the ground. He said, “good, she respects me!” Even back then in all my stupidity, I knew something was off, so I quit going to M. I didn’t tell him why because I was too chicken – I just didn’t schedule another appointment.

That turned me off to prong collars for quite a while. I briefly picked up a clicker but Inara ran the first time I clicked it, so I gave up on it. So no clickers, no prong collars. What next? How about an e-collar? Sure! I knew lots of people who used them and they had great dogs. So I needed one. While waiting on it to arrive, I started hunting for a good trainer to show me how to use it. First I contacted S.M.S., a national franchise who trains only with e-collars. The “trainer” knew he was coming out to help me with dog aggression, so what happens? He pulls up, opens his car door, and out bounds two off-leash dogs that come running right up to me and Inara. Oddly, I didn’t send him away. I invited him inside and he started doing his spiel. He strapped one of the special S.M.S. e-collars on Inara and promptly showed me how to make her cower do a recall. Once again, he was thrilled that my dog was hitting the floor – “look how quickly she’s getting it!” Instead of booting him out for being an idiot, I let him finish his spiel and then choked when he mentioned pricing. Negative, ghostrider.

I got a recommendation for a trainer in Michigan who did a lot with e-collars so I made a weekend trip. We had a really great trip and Inara was very responsive to the collar, which was on level 8 out of 120. I was thrilled. I’d found my “cure”! I left that weekend feeling confident, but got home and lost my confidence. I worked with it for a few weeks, but I realized that I was uncomfortable doing so without guidance. And then I thought, “if I’m not comfortable using this without ‘adult supervision,’ why am I using it on my dog?” So I dumped the e-collar.

I still was leery of the prong from my experience with M., so I thought I’d try a slip collar. I tried both nylon and choke, in case it made a difference. I not only used it to pop her when she forged, but if she started reacting to another dog, I lifted her up off her front feet until she stopped barking. That’s right, I hung my dog. It worked momentarily, but then she’d be worse next time. I couldn’t keep doing it, so I lost the slip collar.

So I went back to the prong. This time it seemed to be helping. And by “helping,” I mean that Inara would have a hellacious reaction (snarling and lunging at other dogs) for about 30 seconds and then I’d punish her into quiet. Her pulling on walks was minimal because she’d get a swift, heavy correction if she pulled. I had what looked like a fairly obedient dog.

While all of this was going on, I also tried alpha rolling Inara and pinning her down until she stopped reacting to dogs. I tried swinging my leash in a pinwheel in front of me so that if she forged while heeling she’d get smacked in the nose. I was very well-rounded in my techniques. *insert rolling eyes*

I honestly don’t know at one point I said, “I can no longer do this to my dog.” When she was good, she was very good, but when she was bad, she was VERY bad. Something had to give. I went to a seminar with Brenda Aloff (who is pretty darned fabulous) and she helped me see that positive reinforcement COULD actually work with Inara. She wasn’t a special snowflake, not an exception to the rule. Just like every other animal on the planet, she responded to all four quadrants of learning, not just positive punishment. After I got home from working Inara with Brenda, I searched for positive reinforcement trainers in my area. I came across Ginger Alpine of Fortunate Fido.

Ginger, without any exaggeration, is the absolute best thing to ever happen to Inara and I and our relationship. She is my goddess of a dog trainer. She showed me how quickly the clicker can be used to teach behaviors. Inara was a genius! And best of all – she was finally enjoying training, as was I. We’ve been taking classes and private lessons with Ginger for about three years now. Through those lessons, I’ve learned how powerful positive reinforcement can be. I learned it’s not all touchy-feely – there are still rules. There are still expectations. There are still “punishments.” But they are more creative and effective now that I don’t resort to pain and fear. Inara has truly blossomed in the three years that I’ve been working with Ginger. My dog who used to not be able to be within probably 500 feet of another dog without lashing out can now compete in close quarters with other dogs. She is now sometimes (sometimes! She’s not perfect yet!) able to be the calm dog for reactive dogs to be around, which completely warms my heart. We are truly a team now and I get told that we just look happy together and work well together. She happily works on a flat collar during competitions, and a harness for basic walks. Though she passed her therapy dog test once before, we’re going to take it again so she can start working with people in an official manner.

I am astounded that I have such a solid dog after everything I put Inara through. She should have bitten me so many times throughout our past for the things I was doing to her. But never once did she redirect, or even look at me in anything less than a sad way. I truly get nauseous and horrified when I think about what I subjected her to. My heart breaks when I realize, “she’s come so far in three years – imagine how far she could have come since I got her at 8 weeks old???” There truly aren’t words to convey my regret. I still apologize to her, even though I know she’s moved on and forgiven me. But I haven’t forgiven myself. Three years, and I still can’t forgive myself. I mean seriously – who can hang their dog and sleep peacefully at night? I was able to, and that sickens me.

Do I think this blog is going to change anybody’s mind about using force/pain/fear in training? No. People will come to force-free training when they are ready for it. But maybe it’ll put a doubt in somebody’s mind. Do I judge those who use aversives? 99% of the time, no. The only ones I judge are those who are incapable of even putting a basic foundation on a dog without pain and fear, or who slap training collars (prongs or e-collars) on puppies less than 6 months old who don’t even know better.

This was long, and painful for me to relive and write. I ask that you not judge me for my actions towards my dog in the past, but look at how we work now, how we’ve grown and become partners in training, not adversaries.

If you have a story you’d like to share, please do so in the comments. If you’re not comfortable sharing it in the comments, then just post a comment asking me to contact you – your email address is visible to me and I will email you. If you have questions, please ask.

Love and respect your dogs, my friends. They tolerate so much from us and ask for so little in return.

Inara, the poster dog for force-free training.
Inara, the poster dog for force-free training.

Nosework and Flea-pocalypse

Hello to both my faithful long-time readers and any new readers who may be popping in!  Welcome!

So Inara’s nosework has been going fabulously.  We transitioned away from sniffing out food and are now sniffing out a plastic container with clove oil scent in it.  I was a little nervous that Inara may have trouble with the transition, but nope!  She acted like she’s been finding clove oil her whole life!  This girl is just blowing my mind!  I’m going to have her assessed to see if she has the potential to become an actual detection dog.  Not sure what I’d want her to detect though – bombs?  Drugs?  Bedbugs???

I’m having a hard time finding places to hide the scent in my living room now, so I think it’s time for us to move on to other rooms/locations.  My only issue is that I can’t put out a row of boxes for her to sniff down because she’ll do the beautiful search, but when she finds the right box she pounces on it and I don’t want her to learn that behavior.  She’s “normal” in class, but at home she goes into search and destroy mode, LOL.

Now, Flea-pocoalypse.  *grrrrr*  Apparently I came home from somebody’s house 2 weekends ago with some hitchhikers.  Biting hitchhikers.  Last week I saw just a couple on Inara so I did the routine of:

  1. Bathe both girls in Chagrin Valley Soap’s Cedar & Lavendar Dog Shampoo.
  2. Wash all bedding – mine and Inara’s.
  3. Vacuum everything well.

In the past that has been sufficient.  But this time was different.  The fleas disappeared for a couple days, lulling me into a false sense of security.  In actuality, what they were doing was GATHERING REINFORCEMENTS.  They came back with a vengeance.  Inara was scratching.  The Piss was scratching.  I was scratching.  And I was angry.  I don’t get fleas.  My animals are clean, my house is clean.  I’m not one of THOSE PEOPLE who has fleas.

So I did some research and took Tuesday off work to wage war on the house and yard:

  1. Pretty much any piece of fabric that was small enough to fit into the washing machine was washed that day in hot water, with lots of Borax.
  2. Area rugs and throw rugs were intensely vacuumed or washed and then pulled.  They won’t be put back down until I’m sure the little nasties are gone.
  3. The Dyson has a flea collar in its canister to kill anything that gets sucked up.
  4. Both girls have Revolution on them.  Yes, it killed me to do this and I deliberated and stressed over it.  I don’t like putting that poison on them, but I knew these fleas were different and needed the big guns.  They’ll get another dose next month.
  5. The house was Vacuumed, with a capital V.  I spent about 45 minutes on just the couch, and then spent a ridiculous amount of time Vacuuming (still with a capital V) the rest of the house, getting every nook and cranny with the attachments.
  6. I mopped with a mixture of white vinegar and water.
  7. I treated the yard with Seven Dust.
  8. I closed the windows and turned the AC on as fleas need a certain humidity and temperature to hatch.  Not sure if my little window unit can reduce the humidity and temp enough, but it’s worth a try.
  9. The girls (and I, I’m embarrassed to admit) are getting spritzed thrice daily with a 50/50 mixture of water and organic apple cider vinegar (ACV).  Inara also gets spritzed on her legs and belly before she goes out, every single time.
  10. I’m vacuuming every single day and doing laundry every two days.

I’m exhausted.  Every time I see a black speck I go all Rambo-like and fly at it to snatch it and kill it if it’s a flea.  I stare obsessively at Inara, watching for any nasties.  If I have a normal itch I get all paranoid.  I DREAM about fleas.  So fingers crossed that my suburban warfare was effective and they disappear.

One of my new fave pics of the pupper
One of my new fave pics of the pupper

The Calling

Inara has finally received The Call.  After all the sports/games/STUFF we’ve tried, we have found THE ONE.  The One that she has a natural talent for.  Nay, not just a talent, but a PRONOUNCED talent.  What is her calling?


The girl is apparently part Bloodhound.  When I give her the command to “search” she glues her nose to the floor and works it, occasionally lifting up for an air sniff, but mostly going for the ground sniff method.  We started a 4 week Nosework class last week, so we’ve had two classes so far.  And due to a wedding this past weekend we didn’t practice at all in between our classes, yet she still rocked it.  Right now she’s still sniffing for hidden treats, but next week we’re introducing a new scent for the dogs to find.  I hope she can transition her searching behavior to a non-food item.

This past week our instructor, Katie, lined up six boxes and put a container with treats in one.  The dog had to sniff down the line and find the one with treats.  Inara was crated so she didn’t see which box the treats in.  When I told her to “search” she went to the first box and sniffed each box until she found the one with treats and pawed at it, got her treats, and then continued sniffing down the rest of the boxes to make sure they were empty.  And just as cool?  She’s totally ignoring the other dogs when she’s working the line of boxes.

I’ve got a couple vids from our informal practice at home this evening.  This was our first time trying nosework at home.  These two vids our Inara’s last two searches, so she had done maybe 6 or 7 before these.  I was having her sit in the dining room while I hid the container with treats, and then I would call her to heel and give the cue to search.  This first one was apparently way too easy for her:

For her last search, I hid the container up off the ground so she had to work a bit harder.  You can see her look to me for guidance at one point, so I didn’t point or anything, I just encouraged her again to search, and she did!

Hives, Prozac and Sharks

Heheheh, this title should get some odd hits coming in!  LOL

1.  Hives – Inara has never had hives before but for some reason broke out in them this week.  Fortunately they are confined to her back, just behind her withers (do dogs have withers or is that just a horse term?), so they aren’t hindering her breathing in any way.  That confined location makes me think something touched her that caused a reaction, but for the life of me I cannot think what has changed.  I gave her a couple Benadryl (please always consult your vet before giving meds to your dog) and they’ve mostly gone done.  She still has a couple small ones but I really don’t want to give her more Benadryl as it made her feel not so good.  Even stranger, I’ve had a few other friends across the country say that over the past couple weeks their dogs have also broken out in hives.  What’s going on???

2.  Prozac – Not for Inara this time.  For the cat.  She has always been crazy but her level of miserable-ness has increased exponentially over the past few weeks for some reason.  She growls out the window at anybody that dares to walk by the house.  She skulks around.  And best yet, she’s attacking Inara.  Not just a swat, but full-fledged yowling, swinging paws and chasing Inara through the house.  Kind of funny until you realize that at some point Inara may get tired of this and whip around and nail her.  So Prozac it is.  We’re on day three.  I really hope it works.  I don’t want to think about what to do if it doesn’t.

3.  Sharks – Okay, not really, but sort of.  I ordered something for Inara called a shark line leash.  It’s like super strong fishing wire attached to a small toggle handle, with a light snap at the end.  It’s to help us transition to off-leash work.  Because it’s so light, she won’t realize that she is still on leash, but should she decide to act like an ass (my dog?  NEVER!) I still have control over her.  A lot of friends recommended it to me so I’m kind of excited.  I think it may be exactly what we need to get over our training hump.  Here’s a link: http://www.jjdog.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=CTGY&Category_Code=3CATSharkLinesSHAL

Finally, a friend of mine has been having some issues with her pit bull, Toby, and has started a blog to chronicle his training.  Today she posted that instead of pushing him further when he’d already had a great day, she STOPPED.  That was such a hard lesson for me to learn, so it made me thrilled to see that she got it so quickly!  So please visit her blog and give her some love!