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Dogs, language, and intelligence

Many people insist that dogs don’t understand the words we use, and that everything sounds a lot like the “wah wah wah” sound used on Charlie Brown cartoons for the adults.  What do you think?

I started listing the words that our oldest dog understands, and this is what I came up with:

  1. Go
  2. Eat
  3. Food
  4. Hungry
  5. Water
  6. Cookie
  7. Out
  8. Thirsty
  9. Mom
  10. Dad
  11. The names of certain friends/family members (about 6 different ones)
  12. Camping
  13. No
  14. Who did that?
  15. wait
  16. stay
  17. sit
  18. bed
  19. van
  20. get in
  21. get out
  22. up
  23. get back here
  24. get it
  25. drop it
  26. give
  27. paw
  28. louder
  29. tell me
  30. shhh
  31. good
  32. bad
  33. uh uh (negative sound)
  34. come here
  35. heel

Thirty-five words/phrases isn’t a lot, and while we may have forgotten a few, that is the bulk of the words we know she recognizes.  A few she even will recognize if we spell them, like E-A-T.

To some people, her ability to understand what I’m telling her seems like a nearly miraculous event, and that she is an amazingly smart dog.  They all swear they’d love to have a dog like her, but they also don’t realize the amount of work that goes into a dog that is responsive to their “parents”.  They also don’t realize that on the canine genius scale, Red is smart, but not anywhere close to being a “genius”.

Smart dogs, especially those on the “genius” range, are a double edged sword.  If you don’t invest time and effort into not just training them but keeping them entertained, they will find a way to entertain themselves, and their human family members might not appreciate that genius at work.

This is when the really obnoxious behaviors such as destruction, excessive barking, and creative escaping comes into play.  Breeds that are known for their intelligence are often known for their abilities in those departments too.  While Red hasn’t usually been destructive or prone to excessive barking, she is known for her ability to escape from almost anything, and she does suffer from separation anxiety.  She regards it as her job to be with me, and while we try to accommodate her, she is ten years old, and in the ten years of her life, I have also lived ten years of my life.  That means she has had to be left behind, due to travel, work, and even hospital stays.

She has ripped the screen from the screen door, gone through the screens on windows, jumped out of car windows, climbed 8′ chain link fences, broken cables, chewed through cables, snapped collars, snapped off metal stakes, climbed wooden fences, and darted out doors.  I can’t leave her with just anyone, and the only person I’ve ever left her with overnight (besides a very secure boarding facility) has been my daughter.  Unfortunately, my daughter now has a toddler and a boxer and no fence, and I don’t trust Red with any of that. Not all boarding facilities are created equally either, and it’s now time to start shopping for one that can keep her, just in case, as we have relocated.

To some people, I’m excessively picky about where the dog is left.  To me, it is merely reciprocating the care and devotion she has shown me over the years, as she has accompanied me across the country, whether we were hiking a remote canyon or living in an urban situation.  Her “Colgate grin” has deterred many individuals from, shall we say “unsocial” behavior?  She’s stood watch when we were camping in remote locations, and she’s inspected many boyfriends and potential boyfriends over my single years.  (Just for the record, I did eventually learn to pay attention to her evaluation–she was ALWAYS right about which ones needed to go right now, and she also adored my husband from the moment she met him.)  For this gift she has given me, it is my duty and responsibility to make sure she is not only happy, but safe and secure, wherever she is left.

Does that mean that I prefer “stupid” dogs?  Well, in my case, I have three dogs, all with different intelligence levels.  Our “challenged child” is a feist I adopted in 2006, sight unseen.  Her real age is unknown, and it was estimated to be that she was born in 2003, although her sudden aging in the past year has me questioning that as well.  She has a much more limited vocabulary.

  1. Cookie
  2. out
  3. bed
  4. house
  5. up
  6. in
  7. sit

This short list doesn’t even begin to show what she can be like.  She barks continually if she has anything moving in her line of sight.  She is losing her vision and does not see well, so everything is a “monster” approaching.  She can be as vengeful as a cat, and has been known to both urinate or defecate on a bed if she has been slighted in any way (in her eyes.)  She obeys few commands, and craves attention like a two year old.   I don’t trust her with children or strangers–she’s apt to nip with little warning.  She turns into Cujo with other dogs, to the point of slobbering and snarling as she is dragged away.  While it may sound like she’s a disaster with four legs, she is a loving dog, and she absolutely adores my husband.

Our newest “child” is Nemo, a chihuahua rescued after having been dumped on a rural road in central Mississippi.  An un-neutered male, he’s on the list of things to do, but in the meantime, he has enjoyed living with us.  He is a leg hiker, and will even pee on our bed, so he wears a diaper to prevent soiling things.  (We actually use newborn human diapers and velcro them around his mid-section to cover his penis.  It’s a no-brainer and inexpensive solution.)  We’re still working on what he understands, but there is no doubt in our mind whether he recognizes a can of dog food.  He can hear that snapping sound of the pop top and will come running, only to be disappointed if it’s NOT his food.  He recognizes containers and boxes, but we’re still working on specific words for his vocabulary.  Our initial opinion is that he ranks in the “average” range.  As a very small dog, about 5 lbs., he has “small dog syndrome.”  We just aren’t as demanding of obedience of small dogs either–something that is “cute” from a 5 lb. dog is seriously offensive from a 50 lb. dog.

Try making a list of the words and phrases that your dog understands.  Remember, puppies are like children, and still learning.  The older the dog is, the more words and phrases they will have learned to understand.  Some things will be commands, some will be words that are associated with things they either really like or really dislike.  In addition, remember it takes time for a newly adopted dog, regardless of his or her age, to adapt to your household and begin recognizing words and phrases that are used by their new family–so don’t judge too harshly if it seems that your newly adopted dog is “challenged.”

Intelligence and vocabulary also does not necessarily mean that your dog is “obedient” and willing to obey commands or perform tricks.  Some very intelligent dogs absolutely are not good at obedience work OR tricks, as they find the routine and predictable nature of this rote behavior boring.

Here’s the scale to rank your dog:

  • >10  Challenged
  • 10-30 Average
  • 30-50 Smart dog
  • 51-75 VERY smart dog
  • 76+ Genius Dog

 

The male dog and persistent leg hiking

Some male dogs, no matter how persistent you attempt to dissuade them from hiking their legs in the house, and even after neutering…insist on hiking their legs and peeing on every object and corner they come to.  There comes a point when you are beside yourself, and facing a situation where the dog is potentially to be banished from the house, even as a three pound toy dog.  What can you do?

It’s not a training solution really, but it IS a solution short of euthanasia or re-homing the dog.  It’s commonly referred to as the “male diaper” or the “belly band.”  At its most basic, its a strip of fabric that uses hook and loop fasteners to create a snug, urine-proof, leg hiking solution.  Typically, a sanitary napkin or infant diaper is used inside of the belly band to soak up the urine, although there are some models that are designed to soak it up and be washed.  Personally, I prefer the disposable solution inside of the band–it doesn’t eliminate the need for washing, but it does reduce it substantially.

How does it work?

It is really very simple.  It fastens around the dog’s mid-section, covering the penis (the diaper or napkin should be situated at the end of the sheath, where the urine will exit) and eliminates the scent marking by simply preventing its escape.  The dog isn’t even usually aware that they can no longer mark their territory, although some dogs, after realizing that they can’t mark, gradually quit trying to do so.  Depending on the dog and his insistence on hiking that leg, the absorbent layer will need changed several times a day or once a day.  The dog’s abdomen may also need wiping down, especially in the most severe cases.  For easy clean up, try using alcohol free baby wipes.  Don’t let moisture and debris build up, as that can create skin inflammation and irritation.

Also don’t forget to remove the diaper before taking your newly house-safe buddy outside again.  Always reward him for taking care of his business outside too.

Inside, you no longer have to worry about urine drenching your furniture or carpets, and your buddy can now walk through the house without causing problems.  It also makes him a much more welcome guest when you visit, so don’t forget to include belly bands in his travel bag, along with the appropriate absorbent liners!

Sometimes, we have to accept that we aren’t all going to have the perfect dog, but that doesn’t mean his habit is going to force him out of the house.  Everyone will soon come to love the belly band!

Our recent rescue, a male chihuahua, was insistent on marking every object over 2″ high.  Obviously, this was not endearing him to me.  We ordered belly bands! These are available from a variety of companies, and hand crafted ones with cute fabric can be purchased inexpensively from sellers on Ebay too.  With there arrival, our little guy went from a perpetual state of disgrace to once again being cute.  (And we may now know why someone had abandoned him too.)

Get at least two, so that you have one to wear when the other one is being laundered.  They should last several years with proper care, but a wider wardrobe may be desired.  Seasonal fabrics will also help make the belly band more of a fashion accessory than a sign of disgraceful leg hiking as well.

A strange fascination

Today, I saw an entirely new side of my dog.  She discovered a baby toy.

That’s right.  It was a baby toy, I’m not sure what it was called, but when you drop a ball through the tubes, lights flash and tones play, depending on where it comes out.  The same lights and sounds play when it is activated by movement.

This toy is designed for very young babies, but it is rather large, probably about 12″ in diameter.  For Red Dog at 65 lbs., it’s substantially sized, even if it’s not “dog proof”.  (It’s made of hard plastic.)  She was fascinated by it, and quite mystified by how it worked.  It outweighed the “cookie” concept even.  She wanted that toy, and she wanted it to light up and play music.

For thirty minutes, she laid enthralled or followed it around the room.  If we moved it out of her sight, she had to find it.  She almost didn’t want to leave because of the fascinating toy she had just discovered.

I’ve never seen her fascinated by a toy to that degree.  She is old–few toys catch her interest at all, let alone catch and hold it for so long.  I’m not sure what she thought of it, but she did learn that touching it with her nose or paw would activate it.

Now the question is…why has this particular toy fascinated her?  What intrigues her about the toy?  Is it the lights or the sounds?  I know the sound fascinates her, if I hid the toy and it made a sound, she would be practically beside herself trying to find the toy.

In a puppy, this play behavior and intense curiosity is nearly the norm.  But, this is an aging dog, she is going on ten, and hasn’t shown interest in toys since she was about four years old.  Why the sudden interest in this particular toy?

For a human baby, this toy is supposed to intrigue and fascinate with the sounds and lights.  I haven’t seen the human baby that it was bought for playing with it, but I can see where it would interest most babies.  I don’t understand why it has brought out the puppyish curiosity in an aging dog though, and if I could figure it out…I might know a lot more about canine psychology.  In the meantime, though, what does this information do for our relationship?

It makes me realize that even though she is old and set in her ways, she still craves mental stimulation and new experiences, just like humans do.  It goes hand in hand with her curiosity about other unfamiliar things encountered on our excursions, and her intense desire to participate and be with me when I am doing things…just in case something interesting happens.  It reminds me that just like sticking an older human in a room with nothing to do…it isn’t healthy.  We need to remember to provide even our aging pets with things to keep their minds active and interested, be it new experiences or repeating those that they love.

In the meantime, we will have to pay another visit and see if her interest in this toy continues.

The electronic bark collar-a solution to a problem

The electronic bark collar was never something I anticipated using myself.  I had never owned a dog with a nuisance barking habit before.  Sissy, our feist, is not a young dog, but upon moving into a location where she could SEE things moving (she is losing her sight, so she does not see well)  meant she had to bark her alarm.  Unfortunately, not only does she have a shrill bark, but her alarm period is about 15 minutes.  Between the sights and sounds to cause her alarm and the period of her alarm barking…she barked non stop virtually all day long.

It didn’t stop when we were walking on leash either.  If anything, it was worse.  She was definitely a nuisance barker, and we had to do something fast, as our current location is temporary and no one welcomes a nuisance barker.  We didn’t want to be in a situation where we couldn’t live with our beloved little Sissy.

Uncertain, I found a very cheap anti-bark collar on Ebay, direct from…you guessed it…China or Hong Kong.  I bought it, spending less than $10 including shipping.  I wasn’t anticipating a quality collar, and I got about what I had anticipated receiving.  It’s not reliable and doesn’t go off with each barking session.

But…

It worked.  She doesn’t bark in extended periods of time anymore.  There is a warning tone that she actually pays attention to, unlike our attempts to shut her up.  Maybe the reason she pays attention to that warning tone is because on occasion, it is followed up with a jolt.  We can’t adjust the jolt or make it consistently respond, but it is often enough that we know it’s getting her attention.  Yes, I feel guilty when she yips in pain in response to the jolt, but I also know that she continues to bark even when my hand was holding her mouth closed–she was the most devout barker I had ever seen.  She needed serious correction to get her attention.

The cheap battery that came with the collar lasted about a month, and who knows how much of a charge it had in it.  We bought a replacement battery from Radio Shack that set us back nearly $20–far more than the original and collar had cost, even with shipping.  Replacing the collar and battery was necessary however, as a few days with a nearly dead battery had Sissy nearly to her previous level of barking.  Obviously, the collar is going to be a part of her attire for an extended period of time.

What else has it done?  She’s become a bigger pleasure to take with us, as she doesn’t wear out her welcome with continual barking immediately.  She behaves better, since she’s not focused on producing that steady stream of yaps.  She gets to go with us, rather than having to always stay home because of her incessant barking habit.  Other people may not LOVE her like we do, but she sure is much more likable to them now.

We may make a transition to a standard electronic correction collar, so that we can eventually teach her to respond to our verbal commands to hush, rather than merely responding to that electronic tone.  In addition to the barking, using an electronic correction collar may be more effective at curbing her aggression towards other dogs, a life long problem since she’s got security issues, and feels that other dogs may be going to “steal” our attention and affection.

Do I anticipate ever being able to let Red and Sissy hang out together again?  No, I don’t think there is a collar in the world with enough of a non-fatal zap ability that I’d feel safe letting them together again.  Red is aging and more cranky with age, and Sissy’s attempts to gain the throne as “Empress of the Universe” don’t go over well with her, resulting in progressively more severe response from Red at each attempt.  Since the last event resulted in serious injury to Sissy, who has more determination than intelligence when selecting her opponents, we’ve deemed it necessary to maintain our “separate but equal” policy in our lives.  The two dogs are never allowed to be together, even on leash, without a physical barrier or distance between them.  We’re relieved that the aggression from both of them has become a rare event, which makes for a peaceful life for all of us, as the days when the spats occurred with a crate between them were nerve wracking for all of us.

Consulting with trainers, animal communicators and even the veterinarian didn’t offer solutions.  I was told repeatedly that one of the dogs needed to be re-homed, a solution that wasn’t acceptable.  After five years together, it was like being told to give up one of your children!  Instead, we have opted for this separate but equal policy, putting Red outside for Sissy to have some time loose in the house, even if Sissy vastly prefers to hang out in her crate with its bed and nice safe door.  Red largely ignores Sissy, even turning her head away as she passes by her crate, as a result of frequent challenges in the past that always resulted in Red being “in trouble” while Sissy appeared to be the victim of bullying–until the day Sissy got caught doing her little trick!  Red’s turning of the head is so incredibly melodramatic that it is actually funny, but she is pointedly avoiding looking at Sissy, as though that means that she will not be challenged and therefore get in trouble for aggravating the other dog.

Tackling Sissy’s barking problem has given us greater peace.  We’re happier, she seems less stressed now that she’s no longer spending so much time barking (and being told to PLEASE SHUT UP NOW!)  We enjoy her presence more, which means she gets more attention.  She’s more welcome at group events, where previously she would end up banished to her crate often and early, so that people could carry on a conversation without having to shout over a barking dog.  Other people pay attention to her too, which means she feels more valued and validated.  I’m thrilled, because for a change, I’m not the “bad guy.”  She does not perceive me as punishing her, so there is none of the blame game happening.  That’s great for our relationship too!  Happy families are families that enjoy each other’s company…and we’re a happy family again.

Electronic anti-bark collars aren’t always a solution.  I’ve seen them fail miserably in the past, hence my lack of enthusiasm for them.  I would have thought that this collar’s lack of reliable performance would have made it ineffective, but in reality, it’s almost as though it has made it MORE effective for some reason.  (Don’t ask me to explain the psychological quirks of Sissy–she’s a hard nut to crack!)

We knew the first day that she was paying attention to the collar, although at first she wasn’t sure what on earth that pain was all about.  It took several days before she began associating the warning tone, the pain, and the act of barking at all.  We have to consistently USE the collar too.  In addition, the prongs for the shock delivery must contact the skin or there will be no effect at all.

In tough cases like Sissy, that shock was an important attention getting device, even more so than a deterrent for the behavior.  In traditional methods for “hushing” her, the problem was we couldn’t get her attention long enough for her to respond to a command.  The shock definitely gets her attention!  I anticipate the collar being a long term addition to our routine, as it will likely take up to a year to determine if she’s been broken of the barking habit.  She may require it permanently as an accessory–she IS a feist!

Unfortunately, many dogs such as Sissy end up in dog pounds and rescues around the country for the same reason–nuisance barking.  Not all cases of nuisance barking are caused by neglect or lack of training either.  Some dogs just feel a  need to announce everything they see and hear and smell via a bark (or two or three or a dozen.)  I had tried a lot of the traditional ways to deter her, and the only method that ever even worked to hush her was to simply isolate her so that she could not see anything that worried her.  Part of her barking may be due to her poor vision and approaching blindness–even if I’m just carrying something, I appear to be a “monster” when I walk towards her, causing her to bark in absolute panic until I speak to her.  At the same time, I suspect this barking issue is part of the reason that she was in four homes (that I know of–it might have been more) before I adopted her as an adult dog on death row.  (Sissy has some other issues, like a deep seated resentment of being corrected that she will retaliate for in a very cat-like fashion.)  In our previous home, she couldn’t see anything to alarm her and therefore didn’t bark.  Here, that’s not the case, just as it wasn’t the case when we had her camping, on walks, etc. in the past.  Now, we have come up with a workable approach that I wish I had employed long ago.

Don’t give up on your dog because of barking.  Keep looking for solutions, whether its traditional training, medication, an electronic collar, or whatever…there is something that will work, I’m sure of it!  Do check to make sure that they can hear (deaf dogs sometimes don’t hear themselves very well) and there is no reason for the barking.  Make sure they have enough attention, and aren’t barking just to get that brief moment of “shut up” as more attention than being ignored.  Most dogs only bark outside–by bringing them indoors, you are going to at least stop aggravating your neighbors, an important step in maintaining peace in the  neighborhood.  Sometimes, it’s the neighbors that are causing the barking too–with teasing, other pets, noises, odors, etc.  Years ago, I had one neighbor that turned out to be the reason behind a middle-0f-every-Saturday-night barking frenzy from a labrador I had–he was drunk and serenading the dog, who was going nuts trying to get at him as a potential threat to our home.  The solution?  Every Saturday night, he had to stay indoors and was walked on leash if he insisted on going out.  Peace returned to the neighborhood, and our serenading neighbor had to find a new audience with smaller teeth!