Who’s the Dog?

This past weekend, we had the privilege of attending a dog behaviour seminar with Sam Malatesta of Who’s the Dog. Toronto Humane Society graciously provided their premises for the event.

Of course, it was not so much about dog behaviour as a challenge for us as companions to do some serious self-reflection…

Show me your dog and I’ll tell you what manner of man you are.

Shiba Inu and Pit Bull

I went into the seminar with 13 years of experience with shiba inus – a Japanese spitz breed known for being as primitive as they come. Shibas are used for hunting small game in rural Japan and they are extremely independent and intelligent. They are wild primitive dogs. Not your average Golden Retriever, and definitely not for the average North American family, no matter how folks might head to the pet store after watching Hachiko.

My regret is that my older girl was subjected to endless commands to “sit” and “down”; my only training to deal with a first dog was the breeder’s advice to not let her be the boss. She has turned out to be a beautiful dog in spite of me. I truly hope she has forgotten the stupid alpha rolls. My 7 year old puppy mill rescue essentially learned from her – in a split second and without all the tedious repetitions – and was more fortunate in that we worked with his natural inclinations to please.

Oh, by the way, that little puppy that’s play-bowing its gigantic opponent is a sesame shiba inu… ;o)

Sam’s work over the past 25 years has been to develop methods that will allow us to give our dogs freedom and confidence. We earn their respect and they totally trust us.

In the seminar, Sam talked about earning trust and respect, being the solid rock on which the dog could absolutely depend, leading by example, knowing the dog’s limits and having the self-discipline to help the dog work within those limits then move beyond them, never allowing the dog to fail and never demeaning the dog.

He pointed out that dogs are basically predators; that is, killers, and they are territorial pack animals. But what we want is a companion, a servant and worker, and a dog that is social.

How do we achieve this with a puppy or an older dog, perhaps one from a shelter?

This is where his Whelping Box model comes in. The “weeks” that he refers to below are really metaphorical segments in the growth of a dog.

In week 1 in a whelping box, the puppies gravitate towards their mother for food and affection. They may spend 15 – 20 minutes at a time with her. In the behavioural world, where we are dealing with the first segment of interacting with a dog, we create a controlled environment – a house, backyard – with no other dogs and no other people, and the only command the puppies need to learn is “come”.

In week 2 (or segment 2, which can last longer than a week if necessary), we introduce socialization. There is some environmental change. The new dog may be taken out to the driveway or the front of the house to meet a safe and stationary person. Time for the interaction increases to 20 – 25 minutes. From a training point of view, a dog learns “heel” and “sit” (my shibas never learned “heel”…oh, well, they are wild after all. They learned Iditarod mushing.)

In week or segment 3, puppies start to play. This builds spirit and can lead to dominance. They start to establish territory. From a training point of view, a dog learns “stay” and how to respect space.

In week or segment 4, puppies are still attached to mom for food and affection. In a defensive situation, the mother steps in front of the puppies. Weaning begins, and a secondary care-giver takes over feeding. At this point, exercises focus on socialization with commands including “heel”, “sit”, “stay”, “down” and recall. Training may now introduce direct human contact and indirect interaction with a stationary dog.

In week or segment 5, there are more environmental changes. The mother is gone for a longer period. The puppies begin to fight for space. They develop full-blown prey drive. Training now involves a sidewalk situation with a milling crowd and integration with other dogs in play situations.

In week or segment 6, we have puppies that are completely weaned. They have the courage to face the real world and can be integrated into the home.

So, we must not default to a scientific approach where we only apply corrective stimuli; the onus on us is to know the dog in our heart and soul and be aware of his/her needs. If a dog mistrusts us, it is because of our betrayal.

Sam worked through exercises where dogs and their companions were dealing with anxiety, obsession, separation and possession. They walked it out. It was amazing to see the dogs calm down from a heightened state; their human companions, sometimes not so much…

Especially important for me was his advice that old dogs don’t need to be trained; they just need to feel safe. We had a lovely old dog in the class who was losing her sight. She barked constantly unless she was in the safe haven of her carrier, even though she had German shepherds and pit bulls milling around her. Her companion learned how to teach her to use her senses of hearing and smell so that they could connect.

We all get to be old…if we’re lucky.

Sam spent some time talking about successful no-kill rescues with whom he’d worked, such as Midwest Boston Terrier Association. He talked about some of the programs that were in place in successful no-kill rescue organizations and he had a few suggestions for Toronto Humane Society.

  • Evaluate volunteers and foster homes. These people are tremendous assets to a shelter. They also need consistent standards.
  • On intake, look at the personality of the potential adopter, how the animal will react to the transfer, and how long the decompression period needs to be and what needs to happen for the animal to stabilize.
  • Consider aftercare. Not just a 72-hour hotline for adopted animals, but an ongoing problem solving service.
  • Implement an anti-surrender program, to provide problem-solving and support for families so that they can keep their animal.
  • Customer service!
  • Make the animals visible. Highlight the activities that go on in the dog-walking yards. Provide video presentations about the animals (not the organization – who cares about that?) Make it easy to do a comprehensive computer lookup to find out who’s available for adoption. Make animals available for viewing in public areas. Have ambassador volunteers interacting in public areas with the animals.
  • Low-cost spay/neuter clinic, of course!
  • Reduced-cost training facilities.

Concentrate on how we help the animals, how we bring people in and how we keep them coming back.

Sam made a good point when he asked what the community is getting back for its adoption fees and donations. Rehabilitation costs money but doing it and getting the word out could reap benefits in terms of goodwill and donations. Euthanasia will not. It’s the old story that when you get something right, you benefit from word of mouth. The flip side is also true.

Oh yes, he also talked about euthanasia and animal evaluation. Sam is in line with us on no-kill; out of something like 1600 GSDs that he has bred over his lifetime, only 2 have been euthanized and they were dire behavioural cases. He is adamantly against SAFER testing and told us his demonstration dogs, who are absolutely superb, would not pass it.


3 responses to “Who’s the Dog?

  1. Dear Jan,
    Thank you very much for coming this weekend and then writing about it. I am very glad that you enjoyed it. I look forward to the next one!
    – Souha

  2. doug enjoyed it very much too ; it was a good opportunity for him to get the big picture (which you succinctly outline here) – as he took up the training 2 months in when I broke my leg. Sam’s philosophy, if you don’t get some indepth understanding, can seem controversial and people often fasten onto to elements without understanding the bigger concepts. I know that we have seem HUGE positive changes in our dogs; like you, with the best of intentions, I had done so much WRONG to my poor dogs based on flawed training premises.

    I also concur with your last paragraph; unfortunately it is often the people who need to hear and internalize these things that think they are above them.

    The THS is in a very fragile position right now; the decisions made in the next while will dictate (in my view) whether it will survive or fall. As Sam says, those pushing for their own viewpoints should be VERY aware that the people of Toronto are watching and waiting and need some positive feelings and feedback.

  3. Article aside, that “massive dog” that the shiba inu is facing, its the argentine dogo.

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