Neighbourhood walks can get boring fast, and are often difficult for dogs!
Here are five alternatives to keep your dog happy
You don’t have to do the same old walk every day, and in fact it’s probably better that you don’t!
What fun activities do you enjoy with your pet?
Do you hate crowds?
I hate crowds. I hated them before covid, and one of the saving graces of this past year has been the complete lack of them. They make me feel too hot, nauseous, anxious and like I need to escape. Malls around Christmastime are my own personal hell.
In dog training, flooding is a procedure where a learner is exposed to an inescapable stimulus to which they have a learned negative response, to the extent that it causes an emotional response. The goal is for the dog to learn to stop being fearful or aggressive.
Let me tell you, I have tried flooding on myself. I went to concert after concert, not “giving into fear”, forcing myself to “have a good time”. The result is that I started getting flu like symptoms about 4 hours before a concert. It happened so many times (and cost me enough money) that I just stopped buying tickets. As it turns out, without the careful management of a trained mental health professional (and in nonhuman learners), flooding is extremely risky.
So where do we see flooding in dog training?
The first example that comes to mind is crate training. “Let them cry it out”. Many of us have been told to pop a puppy in a crate, close the door and let them fight and panic and scream themselves into silence. Eventually they learn the crate cannot be escaped.
We also see it in some methods to resolve aggression and reactivity, where the dog is put in a scenario they find unsafe, like a busy park or shop, and not allowed to get away from their triggers. Frequently this is accompanied by punishing any reactions to the problematic triggers, like people or other dogs.
One of the risks of flooding in animal training is that it decreases behaviour, resulting in learned helplessness. The dogs just learn to give up, and they can experience emotional shutdown. Humans who have experienced emotional shutdown report it as traumatizing and life limiting.
Suppressing behaviour using punishment is risky. Without resolving the root cause of that behaviour and teaching safe alternatives, dogs can develop a hair trigger or escalate to more dangerous behaviour in order to feel safe.
Because dogs cannot be talked down, understand reasoned discussion or unpack their emotions, their fear can compound on itself, becoming worse.
And while human patients can consent to a flooding procedure, dogs cannot.
But then how do we teach animals to cope with things they find scary or threatening?
We have two great tools: counterconditioning (CC) and desensitization (DS).
Counterconditioning is learning a new emotional response to an already known stimuli. We might offer a dog cheese every time he hears the doorbell or sees the garbage man, thus making those things less scary and more wonderful harbingers of cheese.
Desensitization is a process of repeated low-level exposures that decreases the learner’s emotional response to a stimulus. We might walk our dog 100 meters away from the dog park where they are able to see the other dogs but don’t feel the need to bark or lunge. Over time we can decrease the distance as they become more comfortable.
The key difference between flooding and desensitization is that in DS we keep the stimuli to a level where it does not illicit an emotional response.
There are dozens of different strategies and games that use counterconditioning and desensitization safely to change behaviour. The characteristic of all of them is that if the dog overreacts or shows signs of fear, anxiety, or heightened stress we back off and reassess instead of pushing through.
I was eventually able to start buying concert tickets again, but it is still a rare thing for me to do.
If you see a dog trainer purposefully putting a dog into a situation that they find stressful or scary, or will illicit an aggressive or reactive response, run. We have better tools.
There can be a lot of discussion about what makes a responsible breeder, but one thing pretty much everyone can agree on is health testing. It’s important.
But it can also be SO confusing if you’re new to it!
Health testing is the process of evaluating dogs for heritable diseases and conditions. Every breed of dog has some health concerns that should be tracked, and breeders should be making educated decisions about which dogs to breed and which pairings to make to minimize the risk of passing on those genes. Health testing breeding stock is the #1 prerequisite for being a responsible breeder.
How do you know what tests your breeder should be doing?
Check the “parent club” website. The parent club is the governing body for your breed in your country. There is a Canadian club for every Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) registered breed. Each club recommends certain tests for their breed. Some recommend more than others; it can vary greatly breed to breed. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals also lists recommended tests by breed. Most breeds are looking at cardiac, hips, elbows and eyes. Many will do more, some will do less.
If a breeder is not doing the minimum testing as laid out by their breed club for every breeding dog, do not walk, run.
How do you know if a breeder has done the testing?
The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals website lists dogs that have been tested through them. You can search for dogs from the kennel in question and see what tests have been done, and the results. There is a minimum age for some tests, and dogs who are not old enough to be properly tested should not be bred.
It can be confusing to look at all the abbreviations (CEA, PRA, DM, LEMP, the list goes on!) but take the time to full read up on your chosen breed’s club website is well worth the effort.
And talk to the breeder you are considering! Good breeders are going to be enthusiastic about educating you about the health of their breed, and want to be transparent about their testing procedures.
A note about things that can’t be tested for:
Not all health tests are guarantees, and not all health problems have a test.
While a dog can be definitively clear of Progressive Retinal Atrophy for example, there are other diseases where there are multiple genetic markers involved, and possible environmental factors as well.
Epilepsy is a good example of this, we have yet to develop a way of truly tracking and preventing it.
Behavioural problems like separation anxiety, sound sensitivity or obsessive compulsive disorder cannot be tested for, but breeders should still be taking steps to avoid producing dogs with mental health problems.
At the end of the day, no one can predict everything and sometimes shit happens. Breeding dogs can be a complex juggling act, and issues can arise through no fault of anyone’s. It is how breeders prevent the preventable and respond to unforeseen issues when they do arrive that makes them responsible.
You can be a responsible puppy buyer and set yourself up for the best chance at a happy, health puppy by researching your breed’s health before choosing a breeder, and doing your due diligence in vetting that breeder’s health testing!