The Heart of the Matter


The Heart of the Matter

In mid-July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released an alert to veterinarians and pet owners regarding reports of increased incidence of a heart disease called canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). This disorder is characterized by weakening of the heart muscle, which leads to a decreased ability of the heart to pump, and if untreated, to cardiac failure. The reported cases occurred…

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Excellent breakdown of the grain-free/legume controversy that has been going around. Like most of these things, I’d be really interested to follow the trail and see who started these blog posts, but haven’t had time.

and yes I’m still comfortable feeding my legume-based grain free. It has a high meat content, isn’t lamb based, and is cooked at a lower heat.

Forces at Play – Catching Your Dog on a Tug – 1TDC

Forces at Play – Catching Your Dog on a Tug – 1TDC

The SECRET to Clicker Training for Duration | Wonderpups (Hannah Branigan)

The SECRET to Clicker Training for Duration | Wonderpups (Hannah Branigan)

A journalist asked me once, “What do dogs want?” And I answered that, beside the obvious primal needs of food, water and shelter, dogs want 1) positive social interactions and 2) opportunities to make decisions on their own. Certainly too many dogs still suffer from a lack of social interaction, being tied up in backyards or kenneled by themselves until hunting season begins. But I suspect that many beloved dogs who are surrounded by love and attention suffer from a lack of freedom of choice. Of course, we can’t know for sure, we aren’t dogs, but sometimes it is useful to compare the needs of two different species, especially if they share so much and live together. As humans, being able to make choices about our lives is our most important possession. It is one of the things that we take for granted until we lose it, like water to drink and good health. Only when it is lost do we realize how precious it is. Ask prisoners about their time in confinement and they will tell you that the worst thing about it is having no autonomy. Want ice cream after dinner? Too bad, not being served. Want to stay up a little later one night and read? Sorry, lights out at 10. Most of us haven’t had that experience, but we can remember when we first had some control over our lives as teenagers. and the giddy joy of being free to make decisions on our own about what to do at any given moment in time.

It is certainly true that many companion dogs have little autonomy, and that is not always a bad thing. They go outside when their owners open the door, not having learned yet how to open doors on their own (thank heavens).  They are often on leashes, and therefore safe from being hit by car. But they are also unable to make decisions about where to turn, which way to go, and how long to spend on one spot. Their elimination behavior is controlled by us once they are house trained. Granted, gazillions of them pick up one of their numerous toys and decide when it’s play time by dropping it in our laps, and plenty of dogs have got their owners pretty well trained….

But, still, compared to feral or free-ranging dogs in other countries, some of our own companion dogs live relatively constrained lives. Granted, they often get better medical care than most people, organic food and acupuncture, but you could argue that they also lose something in the process.

Patricia McConnell, “Autonomy and Domestic Dogs


I think about this a lot.

(via streetdogmillionaires)


@streetdogmillionaires and I are certainly not the ONLY McConnell fans out there, so I hope that many (all?) of you clicked the citation link and read the whole blog entry.

But if not, I think it is valuable to include a later paragraph on what you can do to give your dog more (safe) autonomy:

are many ways dogs can have more autonomy as companions who can’t
safely run free or work sheep: Some of them are small things, like
asking a dog if he is “Ready” to do something
or not. (See discussions
about this in an earlier blog.) Leash walks can be directed by dogs as
often as by their owners
. (“Which way do you want to go?”) I think most
important to dogs is to be able to explore the out of doors off leash.
There’s nothing like a long walk in which a dog is allowed to run here,
sniff there, and be free to explore at his or her own pace to make a dog
healthy and happy. Nose games for dogs are great too: dogs get to play
to their strengths and make decisions based on their natural abilities.
I’ve seen many dogs who gained confidence and what only can be called
joie de vivre after playing nose games with their owners.” (McConnell, 2012)

Speaking only for myself, most of the time in Quiche’s life she can’t be off-leash. When there are safe spaces, it is really something to watch her explore on her own. But given that it is not always a safe option… there are other ways to let her think, and choose.

One thing I like to do is let her choose what toys, and games, she wants to use.

“Go get a toy!”

[she brings one over from her toy bucket, and by golly, we play with it – whether it’s a torn to shreds stuffie she wants to tug and murderize, or a kong that she wants plugged up with treats, or a ball for chasing.]

Even if it is the same game we played yesterday, or earlier that day. Even if it is an “indoor” toy and she wants to take it outside.

It is fun, too, to let her pick the directions we walk around the neighborhood or on the trail, and to let her spend as much time as she likes sniffing things. I can look at birds while she sniffs.

She can choose some things!

(via quichehound)

The results were quite unambiguous. In the group of untrained dogs, only 30% solved the problem and successfully got at the food during the test period. However for the group of trained dogs more than twice that number (61%) were successful. Furthermore it became quite clear that the trained dogs were more focused on the problem at hand. They spent more time working at the apparatus and less time looking at their owner or the experimenter. This means that even though the training that the dogs had experienced had nothing to do with this new test task it appears that simply having a lot of training in other areas makes the dogs better problem solvers.

Dr. Stanly Coren, “Does Training Make Your Dog Smarter?Psychology Today (29 April 2015).

Original study discussed by Dr. Coren:

Sarah Marshall-Pescini,, Paola Valsecchi, Irena Petak, Pier Attilio
Accorsi, Emanuela Prato Previde (2008). Does training make you smarter?
The effects of training on dogs’ performance (Canis familiaris) in a
problem-solving task
. Behaviourial Processes, 78, 449-454.

Sydney Veterinary Sciences studies best way to train farm dogs

Sydney Veterinary Sciences studies best way to train farm dogs

“A good dog trainer uses all the tools in their toolbox.” I see that phrase used a lot. I also see people saying “You have to train the dog you have right now.” Both of these phrases are intended to give the impression that the trainer is well versed in a variety of effective training techniques and that they have the experience and wisdom to choose the best approach to teach a given dog. But I’m going to dispute that. I think phrases like these actually mean something else – “By any means necessary.”

You see, the trainers I see using phrases like these are also the ones willing to use compulsion to make the dog do the thing they want them to do. They think it’s faster and gets the job done. Take note that I didn’t say TEACH the dog what they want them to do. Because that isn’t necessarily what this “by any means necessary” approach is all about. Trainers who are looking for the fastest and easiest way to get a dog to do something aren’t concerned with what the dog actually learns so long as they get the result they want.

“Sit!” That could mean a lot of different things depending on how it was taught. It could mean “Put your butt on the floor and you could earn a nice reward.” It could also mean “If you put your butt on the floor you will avoid your trainer getting angry and yelling at you, standing over you menacingly, pushing on your bum, or worse.” Depending on the tools you use from that toolbox, you can teach your dog any number of meanings for “sit” and, for many trainers, it doesn’t matter what the dog actually learns as long as they put their butt on the floor when they hear the command.

So I’ll go out on a limb here. When all you have is a hammer, all the world is a nail. “A good trainer uses all the tools in their toolbox”? Hardly. A good trainer shops around and finds the best tools for the job and learns to use them well. Using the best tools in the most skillful manner produces the best results. Training “by any means necessary” to get the results you want is sloppy, selfish, and just plain lazy.

Teach your dog. Don’t just get the result you want. Trust me when I tell you that the difference matters.

Llamas are timid and shy, like horses. Unless handled a lot when young, they can be hard to approach. So, while operant conditioning with a food reinforcer works splendidly with llamas, if a llama is too skittish to come close enough to a person to take the food, here’s what modern llama trainers do. They use a clicker as a signal to tell the llama that what it is doing has earned a reinforcer, but the primary or real reinforcer is the removal of a negative reinforcer, an aversive.

In effect, you say to the llama, “Will you stand still if I approach within thirty feet? Yes? Good. I’ll click my clicker and turn and go farther away.

“Now will you stand still if I approach within twenty-five feet? Yes? Good. I’ll click and go away.”

Using the click to mark the behavior of standing still, with the scary person turning and going away again as the reinforcer, one can sometimes get within touching distance in five or ten minutes. The llama, as it were, is in control. As long as it stands still, it can make you go away! So it stands still, even when the person is right next to it.

When one has touched the llama several times and then retreated, the ice is broken. This person is no longer as scary. Now it’s time for the feed bucket. The communication loop becomes “May I touch you while you stand still? Yes? Click and here’s some delicious food.” And the llama is on its way to earning positive reinforcers, including food and scratching and petting, with its splendid new behavior of standing still instead of heading for the next county.

This use of retreat, or easing back when the desired behavior occurs, is an important aspect of most of the so-called “horse whisperer” techniques. In most of these methods the trainer works with a loose horse in a confined area and proceeds in a relatively short time to transform a horse in flight to a horse calmly accepting a human. The horse, once perhaps completely wild, becomes so calm, even accepting a saddle and rider, that the total effect is magical.

Trainers who use these techniques often have superstitious explanations for what is happening; and while many have formed the habit of making some sound or motion that functions as the marker signal or the conditioned reinforcer, few are consciously aware of doing so. Nevertheless, it is not magic at work; it is the laws of operant conditioning.

Do Domestic Dogs Learn Words Based on Humans’ Referential Behaviour?

Do Domestic Dogs Learn Words Based on Humans’ Referential Behaviour?