Last night it was cold and the air was sharp. The slush had frozen in the shape of previous footsteps and puddles were frozen solid. I took Jethro out for last call early because I was ready for bed.

Early in the walk he was snuffling in the snow and I pulled him out of it and moved on. It was slow going because of the slipping hazard so I didn’t really notice how slowly Jethro was walking. I did notice that he wasn’t chasing scents as usual and he wasn’t increasing his gait when the going got easier. He was walking kind of strangely – just slow, careful, and not looking around.

I thought he was just tired and not really needing the walk. He wanted to get back inside as badly as I did. We plodded home, unleashed, and he hopped up on the couch. All very subdued.

A few minutes later I heard a crunching sound. I looked at Jethro and he was lying with his head on a pillow and the fragment of a bone in his mouth. Another fragment had broken off and was laying on the pillow. He knew the jig was up. I told him to Give me the bone and he opened his mouth from me to get it out. He had one end of a turkey drumstick in his mouth.

Suddenly all was made clear about his strange behaviour on the walk. He had been hiding this bone in his mouth for almost the whole walk. I can only guess that he secreted it into his mouth when he was digging in the snow with his nose. After that he kept it hidden from me. The effort of hiding it caused him to walk extra carefully and made it so his concentration had no extra energy for sniffing, marking, or generally paying attention to anything in the environment. His entire attention was on the secret prize he was carrying in his mouth.

I laughed at his subterfuge. He knows that bones off the ground are off limits. He will try to pick them up, and even carry them in his mouth a few steps if I have noticed, but they always end up in my hand and thrown away.

This time he wasn’t going to risk trying to chew it while we were on the walk. He waited until we were all the way home and safely settled inside. So funny that he chose to try to chew it up on the couch!

He is a very smart dog and not so bright all at the same time. Love him.


A guardian dog is a working dog

A guardian dog is a working dog

I have been blessed with a highly intelligent working dog who loves to learn and loves to serve. My challenge is inventing ways to take advantage of these traits in an urban neighbourhood.

From hard-won experience I have adopted a two leash system for walking Jethro, my fail-safe tethering approach. At present this system uses a chest harness and a martingale-style collar to attach him to a large belt, the kind used in construction. I have a tool pouch on the belt that carries treats, poop bags, and a tug toy. Jethro is adjusting to the harness, getting used to the pressure it puts on him when he tries to go after something.

One adaptation I have made recently is to stop listening to podcasts or talking on the phone when I take him out for a walk. I would say this change has resulted in an 80% reduction in aggressive incidents simply because I am paying more attention and taking evasive or corrective action earlier in Jethro’s arousal process. In addition, it has led me to start thinking about things I can do with Jethro to give him a greater sense of utility and purpose.

Last night the sidewalks and roads were treacherous with ice. I have to be extremely careful when my footing is bad that Jethro does not get the jump on me. I could easily take a bad fall. This time I used the harness like a handle and turned Jethro into my four-legged cane. When we had a particularly bad spot to get across I would signal him to come in close to me and take a firm grip on the harness. Then, leaning on him slightly for balance, we would walk together across the slippery surface.

What I noticed was that Jethro became very serious and focussed beside me, not sniffing or looking around, but watching the ground and moving carefully beside me. It was an incredible feeling to be working together with him! Instead of moving fearfully through the environment worried that he might take me down, we were moving together, intent on staying upright together.

When I give my dog a job he stays out of trouble. A guardian dog is a working dog.



Understanding my Guardian Dog

Understanding my Guardian Dog

Screen shot 2012-12-16 at 10.22.58 AM

Jethro is my protector. That is how he sees his job in life. He is like a bad boyfriend, who doesn’t understand who is friend and who is foe. One the one hand, I know I am safe to go for a walk anytime of the day or night. On the other hand, I have developed a high level of environmental awareness to ensure no on inadvertently steps into range of Jethro’s protective behaviour.

He is happiest near me. And he is happy to guard the house when I am away. He enjoys a bit of play, he needs it on a daily basis. But his playtime is short-lived even though it is a necessity. He will jump and chase the tug toy, and give me a bit of a wrestle, but then he is back to business.

He also enjoys his clicker training and easily has learned my limited vocabulary of tricks. He likes the intellectual challenge of figuring out what I am asking for and then demonstrating that he understands it.

I feel his devotion to me, even when he attempts to attack an unsuspecting bystander. I understand his instincts now, and do a much better job protecting him from the environment and the environment from him.

It is not easy living with an 85 lb aggressive guardian. But it is worth every minute.e

Unwanted Barking

Unwanted Barking

I know that Jethro’s barking has reached an unacceptable level when it literally hurts my ears and my brain recoils at the sound. This situation evolves as a result of me allowing him too much time on his own and too much leeway to react to passersby on the corner outside our window.

I am describing incidents that happen in the house.

In my frustration I have yelled back at him, thrown things at him to distract him, and given him angry commands to “Leave It” or “Down”. He will grudgingly comply, but complain as he leaves off his attack.

In my wisdom I call him to me and give him a scratch, tell him he is a good dog, and instruct him to lay down near me. His recall is continuously improving in these situations. I increase the number of times I interact with him on a passive basis. That is, he doesn’t have to be doing anything but sleeping or relaxing on his own and I approach quietly and give him non-stimulating affection. I increase the number of times I play silly games with him at random moments, like our dancing game (through my legs forward, through my legs backward, spin, heel, sit, touch, hugs, scratches, repeat); or our word game (Touch Duckie, Touch Chicken, Touch Ball).

On our walks, instead of plugging in a podcast I have a tug toy in the treat bag. We play games of jumping and tugging on the leash, of running and leaping to grab the toy. We will even venture onto an empty field and run circles chasing the toy and playing tug. We use structures in the environment to jump up or over. We play Down and just stay for a bit, sniffing the air and watching life in the neighbourhood.

All of these interventions make a difference. Now Jethro is sleeping soundly on the couch instead of monitoring the corner. He is letting known enemy dogs go past the house without even raising his head.

Jethro keeps teaching me that feeling loved and connected is the most effective means to developing desired states of mind and behaviours. Yes. What is good for my dog is good for me.

qualitative and quantitative improvements

qualitative and quantitative improvements

Jethro is going to be approximately seven years old in February. He is now a decidedly adult dog. After several disastrous attempts to control his reactivity using aversive force, I adapted several techniques for using positive relationship building to moderate his aggressive reactions to ‘sudden environmental change’.

Our typical walking rig is made up of a heavy duty leather carpenters belt with a nice big leather tool pouch for the treats. The tool pouch has a smaller pocket at the top, and I use this to carry poop bags, and I stow the filled bags in that pocket for disposal when we get home.

A large carbiner is clipped to the leather belt. I use two 3/4″ nylon leashes to clip to the carabiner. Each leash clips onto a martingale style collar on Jethro’s neck. Yes, he wears two collars and has two leashes. I like having a fail safe system in case one of the leashes or collars fail during a lunge. The collars are generally loose on his neck, and most of the time he responds to gentle neck pressure from both collars to follow my instructions if voice or treat-luring has failed.

I like having Jethro clipped to my belt because there have been instances where he actually pulled me right over, or, got the jump on me off balance and was able to pull me along while I tried to regain my footing. The clipped leash ensures that, even in the worst case scenario, I am a dead weight that he cannot get away from. I don’t like relying on my hand strength and grip for that security. He is now used to walking with me on this rig. Even when he wants to attack something, he will now often stand with the leash slack as he barks and lunges. It is rare now that he actually goes after something in a full raging attack.

I measure qualitative improvements in our work together by our comportment and composure at the end of a walk. In the past, I would return home in tears, recovering from panic, sometimes with a hand, wrist or knee injury from taking a fall. These days, we return home as we left it, happy to be walking together, companionable, relaxed and refreshed from walking and being outdoors.

I measure quantitative improvements by the number of aggressive instances I can recall in recent days. Jethro’s scent reactivity is still a problem, and he will hit the ground with his nose and go into a full blown attack if he picks up on a coyote or raccoon scent. However, cats, squirrels, some crows, most dogs, pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders, some motorcycles, and screaming sirens will often go by noticed but not activated. If he is activated, the level of is reaction is most often in the 1-4 range, sometimes getting as high as 6 or 7 if it is a known and disliked dog. However, quantitatively speaking, improvement is also noted in the number of potential incidents that are averted because Jethro is practicing his obedience exercises with me instead of looking out at a potential target.

We had a big win yesterday. We were walking past our neighbour, who has a gorgeous 4 year old female german shepherd. She is one of the most stable dogs I have ever met. On this day, she was in her yard and wanted to greet Jethro through the fence. Jethro approached cautiously but something in his body language inspired Bear to give him a bark and a bit of a snarl. Jethro immediately backed off and put his head to the side, giving off calming signals. They re-joined and sniffed each other briefly before we moved off. I was so proud of Jethro! He did not react to fight. Instead, he gave calming signals. She accepted them. It was an extremely successful event in Jethro’s development. He won’t do that with every dog, but he showed that he could do it with at least one dog. Yay!



what my dog companion means to me

what my dog companion means to me

Tonight I am home alone with my dog. Dear Husband has gone out for the evening. It is a cold night and it is quiet in the neighbourhood. Jethro is curled up on one of his favourite ‘look out’ chairs in the bay window. I know he is not deep asleep, although he is quietly resting. I also know that if there was a sudden change in the environment, inside or outside the house, he would be up and giving me an alert bark.

He is a shepherd, a guardian breed. He is my loyal companion, but he is more than that. It is hard to describe the depth of bond I share with him. I know that he would do everything in his power to protect me. But his connection to me goes much deeper. He knows me. He knows my preferences, my moods, and my daily routines. He knows when it is time to go out for a walk, he knows when it is time to leave me alone because I am busy. He knows how to get up on my bed in the middle of the night without waking me, and he sleeps on my bed without disturbing me throughout the night. He knows my different walking styles, from the very slow pee quick and back in we go, through a meandering walk while I talk to a friend, to a fast, no-nonsense ground eating gait to maximize our exercise and outdoor refreshment.

I suppose his knowledge of me is him just doing his job. It is his interest to know as much as he can about his flock, which, for now, is me. There is this other side, though, that is harder to qualify. It is when my feet are cold, or I am feeling lonely and he comes and curls up beside me, leaning in against me. Or, when I am busy on my laptop and he curls up beside me but giving me more space.

Patricia McConnell wrote about our human emotional bond with our dogs in For the Love of a Dog. We don’t know exactly how long we have been evolving in relationships with dogs. Somewhere in the range of 10,000 to 30,000 years. Dogs have been in the company of humans almost as long as humans have been becoming human. So our bond with dogs runs much deeper than we might assume.

Today I made a drive across town and saw two dog-related incidents, both of which pained my heart. First, I was driving west along a major road that has a boulevard running down the centre of it. To cross the road, pedestrians have to cross one direction of traffic, then cross the boulevard, and then cross the other lanes of traffic going the other way. I saw a man walking his dog, a rottweiler mix. They had already crossed my lanes of traffic and had gotten to the far side of the boulevard. The dog, instead of waiting for instruction to move forward from his handler, jumped toward the oncoming traffic. I saw the man react with anger at his dog, pointing his finger at the dog and yelling, “No!”. Even in the split second as I drove by, I saw the confusion and anxiety in the dog. What I saw was a dog happily leaping forward, to be remonstrated by his handler. I don’t think the dog had any idea that he had been near death. What I did not see was the handler taking responsibility for not giving the dog proper instruction in the first place, so the dog would know what to do when crossing the boulevard.

On my way home, in the same area, I saw a large coyote crossing the road. Once again, it had already crossed my east-bound lanes of traffic and was moving across the boulevard to cross the west-bound lanes. The coyote was a beautiful colour, but it’s coat was rough and looked matted. It was favouring it’s right rear leg, unable to put any weight on it. As I drove by, I glimpsed what looked like a flesh wound on it’s rear end. I immediately felt bad for the coyote and wished there was something I could do for it, but I knew it would be impossible and even dangerous to try to catch it.

In both these cases I noticed my

Another incident with a bone #dogs

Another incident with a bone #dogs

As usual, this is a story of my own damn fault. Jethro has a strange relationship with bones. Left to his own devices, he covets them, he believes he should be able to take them, with force, from anyone (humans and dogs). Most commonly, if I give him a bone in his crate, he will spend his time wrapping the bone in his crate blanket and then lying down beside it, watchfully guarding the package of bone in blanket. There is no question of giving him, or Skipper, a bone outside of crates. That has led to some nasty attacks.