The Hurricane Dog Training Challenge

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Hurricane season ends November 30th, and not a moment too soon. This season was particularly brutal, with three major hurricanes hitting U.S. shores in less than a month. The most impactful for us in Houston, of course, was Hurricane Harvey.

IMG_7901The storms this year, and Harvey in particular, got me thinking long term about what we all need to teach our dogs so that we are well prepared for next year’s hurricane season and the ones to follow. These aren’t quick fix tips. This is a training challenge for all of us for the next six-months ahead. What can we do now so that our dogs are best prepared if the worst happens – again?

The Hurricane Dog Training Challenge.

Potty Training. During the many long nights and days of Harvey’s deluge, I got more texts and emails about dogs not wanting to go outside to potty in the rain than any other subject. There were few easy answers at hand. We were in the middle of a crisis, all of us  including my dogs and I.

One former client posted this great photo of sod she’d purchased and put under her carport. It’s a great solution if you’d thought of it ahead of time.

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I leveraged a cue I’ve taught my dogs: “go outside go potty” to get them revved up and out the door. This rather dark video is an example from Sunday Night in the storm.

The Training Challenge: Retrain Potty training with a cue for going going out. Here’s a link to my potty training handout for your review. And here’s a link to my potty training video. Be sure to add the cue, as I did.

Crate Training. Thousands of dogs (yes thousands) ended up at the George R. Brown Convention Center shelter during and immediately after Hurricane Harvey. They, along with the other dogs at shelters around the area, were required to be under control and safely confined. Many other dogs were crated as they were rescued from flooded homes and remained in crates for long periods of time.

A disaster should not be the first time our dog has to spend time in a crate. It would be so much better if all our dogs were familiar with their crates as a safe comfortable place for transport – or to just relax (as much as is possible in a hurricane).

The Training Challenge: Teach or Review Crate Training. I used Susan Garrett’s Crate Games to teach my dogs to love their crate. Here’s my short video intro to some Crate Games concepts. And here’s the link to Susan’s excellent DVD.

Leash Walking. I’m the kind of guy who scanned the TV coverage during Hurricane Harvey looking for the dogs. Some didn’t have leashes but most did. Dogs being carried through the flood water dangling a leash. Dogs on leash swimming through the flood water. Dogs leashed up on boats floating through their neighborhood. Dogs in the baskets of helicopters with their humans – leash on collar – the other end wrapped around a tightly clenched fist.

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Our dog’s leash should be a comfort line, the symbol of the safe emotional connection between the dog and human. When or if a crisis occurs, the leash is a life line as well – an essential training tool – but also a reminder of the dog’s routine of calm self-control outside the home.

The Training Challenge: Teach our dogs to comfortably wear a harness and walk calmly and confidently on leash. This is my favorite YouTube video for leash walking. It’s by my friend and colleague Kelly Duggan.

Building Trust. I couldn’t imagine getting in a basket dangling from a helicopter. It would be a first-time-ever thing and I doubt any of us have prepared for it. I can’t imagine (as many of you have experienced first hand) coming downstairs from the second floor to get in a canoe and paddle out my front door. What is the training for that? I’ve stayed at hotels with my dogs, but never in a shelter with 10,000 other people. There are no practice sessions for this either. The idea is surreal for most of us – but each of these situations was all-too-real for a lot of folks and their dogs during Hurricane Harvey.

I’ve listed three specific things above that we can work on to prepare for next hurricane season: potty training, crate training, and leash walking. Think of these Training Challenges as a framework for the much more important overriding project of building trust between us and our dog.

Teach these core values to your dog as a way to build trust and keep communication open on a daily basis.

  • You (dog) are safe with me. Let’s create situations in which our dog can learn to look to us for direction and support in novel situations (we traditionally call this “training.”) We’ll use nonthreatening and nonviolent methods to achieve this. We’ll also be careful not to lead our dogs intentionally into danger or into situations they perceive as dangerous. We’ll comfort our dogs to help them through situations that are overwhelming, scary, or painful without concern that we are “reinforcing fear.” We aren’t.
  • Humans are reliable and consistent. We are not, but we can learn to be with our dogs. We don’t threaten and harm them in the name of training one minute and then treat and pet them the next. We reliably and regularly use reinforcement based nonviolent training techniques that encourage our dogs to think and, when in doubt, to look confidently to us for instructions. We don’t stray from this path.
  • You (dog) can relax with me. Every day, often many times a day, I sit on the floor and do nothing with my dogs. There are no cues (commands) and no expectations. We just hang out. If one of the dogs initiates play, we play. If they want to lie down, we chill. If they approach for some cuddles, I lean in and touch them.

This list is not exhaustive. I’m sure you can think of many ways you build trust between you and your dog. I really like Susan Friedman’s video about how teaching and learning can help us build trust with animals. Take a look at it and let me know if you like it too.

Muzzle training. Just a brief note about this. Many of our dogs have a history of biting. Dogs under unique and extreme stress (think Hurricane) are more likely to bite. Let’s continue to build and maintain muzzle training – or start teaching it if we haven’t already. Here’s my favorite muzzle training video by Chirag Patel.

Take The Hurricane Prep Dog Training Challenge. In Houston we’ve had three 500-year floods in the past three years. I don’t think we can say whew I hope that never happens again anymore. It probably will. I hope not, of course. But, the odds don’t seem to be in our favor.

So over the next six months, from now until the beginning of next hurricane season in June, will you join me as we get our dogs ready? Start now. Let me know how you’re coming along. Post your progress on social media with the hashtag #michaelsdogs so I can see it. You can also email me. I love getting video and photos.

I’ll do the same. I’m teaching my dogs all these skills as well and will post regularly to Facebook www.facebook.com/michaelsdogs and Instagram. I’ll try to get more active on Twitter too. Follow along online and look for the #michaelsdogs hashtag.

Let’s do this together. Even if the worst doesn’t happen again (fingers crossed) – we still get a stronger more enjoyable relationship with out dogs out of the deal. And really, how cool is that?

 

Seeing it From Your Dog’s Point of View

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Phenomenology is one of my favorite geek words. It’s the study of subjective experiences, how another individual perceives the world from his or her point of view. It’s also the philosophical study of other being’s awareness of self. Think about that for a moment, and then let your thoughts wander to your dog. Think just for a moment, but not too long. Pretty soon you’ll circle back and realize all we can really know is our own experience of self and the world around us. I don’t want us to get that far, though.

DSC00587Those of us who love dogs have all contemplated phenomenology. Chances are you’ve looked at your dog and wondered what is he thinking or how does he feel about this or that or does he love (specifically, does he love me)? We humans are natural storytellers from as far back as our cave drawing days. We try to answer those questions about our dogs and sometimes not too well. We think we know what they know or what they feel and we tell it like we see it. Maybe we’re right, but chances are we’re not. That’s the thing about phenomenology. How do we know for sure what what another being’s (our dog’s) private experience is?

Short answer: We can’t. Slightly longer answer: Of course we can try. We should try.

You don’t have to know me very long to know my personal point of  view on “training” dogs. Teaching and learning are keys to opening a door between two beings – us and our dog – thinking, feeling, living beings. What better way is there to learn who our dog is than by pushing that door wide open? Let’s be present and aware of what our dog is doing and how he responds to what we do. We know from experience (and the great work of behavior scientists) that dogs learn from the feedback we provide them. And yes, we are learning from the feedback they are providing us (their understanding or misunderstanding of us is evident in their behavior). So, here we are, Dogs and humans in a steady exchange of information – learning the world as the other perceives it. We could call it a phenomenological approach to dog training.

As long as we’re geeking out let’s talk about the philosopher Martin Buber. He brought us the ideal of the I-Thou relationship between two beings. These are genuine connections in which the individuals see or strive to see who the other really is and how the other sees his or her existence. It’s a short hop to phenomenology and what Psychologist Carl Rogers referred to as a phenomenological approach to counseling and teaching (see, I didn’t make it up). At the root of all this, of course, is empathy.

Let’s get back to our dogs. We can start to experience how our dogs feel and think by watching how our they interact with their world. We just need to stop – stop and be with them – stop and notice them quietly. Stop talking for a moment. Set aside all those commands and ideas of what he should or shouldn’t be doing. Just watch. Who is your dog? What is important to him? Given the chance, how does he begin interacting with you? This takes a fair bit of patience sometimes (not always). It also requires that we dig a bit into our own empathy reserves. Can you imagine? Can you relate? Give phenomenology a test drive – see the world as your dog might – imagine yourself as your dog imagines himself (whoa).

I forgot to mention something else about Martin Buber and the whole I-Thou thing. We go into this process humbly. Neither being is above the other. That was a big deal for Dr. Rogers in counseling and teaching, too. We meet our dog on equal ground – just two living, thinking animals in a common space and time. Cesar Milan and the other “show ’em who’s boss” trainers are spinning at the thought of this. But, give it a go. It might do you and your dog both some good. What’s it like being you? What must it be like for your dog to be him? Open mind. Open heart. I-Thou.

How different is it now to think about training? Could we take a phenomenological approach – we and our dogs meeting on a level playing field – learning together – from each other – interested in each other – equally? As equals. Heresy? Nonsense. It’s thrilling. Fun even.

Hello dog, I’m bipedal and take great pleasure from things I see and here. Dog: quadruped – enjoys smells that to him are like symphonies and Cezanne’s.

Human: speaks but also has facial expressions and other non-verbal communication.

Dog: communicates nonverbally but also vocalizes.

Predator: Dog – check. Human – check.

Emotions, including joy, fear, anger, sadness, and excitement: Human – check. Dog – check.

Wanting and seeking good things / pleasure: Humans and dogs – check and check.

Avoiding pain and other crummy stuff: Yup. Both of us.

It’s a bit ironic that the dog trainer’s hero, Dr. Burrhus Frederick Skinner, frequently disagreed with and publicly debated Carl Rogers. Skinner is the one who showed us how to influence another being’s behavior by providing or withholding reinforcement. Folks back in the day (most especially Rogers) thought the approach was sterile and non-feeling. The irony here is that it’s exactly this approach that fuels communication with our dogs in the real world. It takes little more than a few minutes to realize that what we call training sessions are actually conversations. We are showing our dogs how we’d like to live with them, reinforcing their behavior. But aren’t they too showing us what they want and need? Don’t they reinforce our behavior? Let’s meet, dog and human, and work this out. I-Thou, indeed.

And what about that question of love I so deftly left behind? Phenomenology. Seeing the world as you see it. Understanding the idea of another being’s self as you understand yourself. Does my dog love (specifically me)? Can we know for sure? I’ll save us both the disappointment of the short answer. My hope is that the longer answer, the real answer, lays out on that level playing field, the place where we teach and learn with our dogs, equally engaged and connected if only in the moment. Love and hope, they are so closely related. Maybe it’s best if we keep both always at hand, inextricably bound to our own sense of self, and our own perception of the world. Let those help us tell the story of our dog, and the love and hope we trust he must also feel.

Dogs are Good

Back in graduate school for becoming a counselor we had to write a position paper that addressed a pivotal question. Are people inherently good or are we flawed, destined by our very nature to ill will, crime, and other malfeasance? We then had to explore how the answer to that one question would likely shape our approaches to being a counselor and our techniques with our clients. It turns out I didn’t become a counselor. Still, the question resonates with me to this day, and it applies to our work with dogs.

Houston-Dog-Trainer-Stewie-CuddleAre our dogs, all dogs, inherently good? Or is their nature flawed, dooming them to misbehavior and conflict with us humans? I’ll skip to the end here. People: good. Dogs: also good.

But let me explain this thinking a bit further.  I’m not talking about good versus evil. In the movies dogs are cast as moral icons. For a lot of people that image is comforting, dogs as spiritual exemplars. That’s a shame, though, and a disservice to dogs who are natural thinking and feeling beings. Like all beings (even human beings) they make choices – they choose behaviors that keep them safe and serve their needs. We like many of the choices our dogs make (and we call them good choices). Some we don’t. But none of that has any bearing on the goodness of dogs, born of dogs into our human world. It’s not up to us to assign any higher value to them. The dog is what he is and that’s enough. Good enough.

Dogs think (and learn). They feel. They perceive. They communicate. They engage their bodies with the world around them in work, play, and rest. All good.

So much of the time, the problem with dogs is ours. It begins in our own heads. We have this idea of good and we try, despite evidence of our folly, to plaster it onto our dogs. Good dogs, we say, think just like us. They jockey for power and adulation, like us. They fall victim to brooding over emotions like us. They see the world like us and understand words (sentences) like us. Their bodies are to be tempered, controlled, as we try (and fail) to control our bodies. It’s how we think of our dogs all too often. All wrong.

There are volumes written about the nature of dogs. I won’t do them justice here. But when we think about the real goodness of dogs, as they are not as we press them to be, then we begin to honor one of the world’s most amazing animals. They think and feel. There is new evidence emerging even now about how vibrant our dogs’ mental and emotional lives might actually be. They take in the world through all their senses, but most especially their noses. It’s a rich perception of the environment we can’t even begin to fully imagine with our ocular and auditory brains. They interact with other species, not just other dogs, with a rich vocabulary of body movements and facial expressions (we’d serve ourselves well to learn this language of dogs). And, they are physical, beautifully physical, athletic, elegantly so – and also calm at times, even languid, eager to cuddle and pleasing to touch.

How can we think of engaging these animals with anything other than deep admiration and respect? Exploring the goodness of dogs always leads back to this. They’re cool. There is so much to them. And the more we look the more we notice how much more there is. Our ideas of good dog and bad dog pale when we begin to see what they really are. And, so our choices are naturally shaped by the goodness at hand.

We teach dogs kindly in a way that honors their intelligence and emotional lives. This is how the question of goodness leads us to how we approach dogs and the techniques we use in teaching and communicating. Shame on us who impose our own damaged view of the world on to them. More shame if that view leads us to hurt them as perhaps we are hurting. We humans are stuck in a constant loop of need, to feel good, to feel in control, to achieve and flaunt. Not so our dogs. Better to take a breath and notice who they are than to put that on them. Listen by watching. Take in how they take in the world. Get lost in their motion, the subtle move of their eyes and ears. Be the quiet primate and move with equal measure of subtlety to a common ground.

The person and the dog, it is the stuff of stories, no dramatic embellishment needed. Here’s to finding our own human goodness, better still shared with another.