Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Free to a Random Home of Questionable Quality

I know some of the topics I'm covering lately are on the controversial side, but I do feel they need to be discussed rather than shied away from. These are my feelings and opinions, based on my own knowledge and experiences. However, if you have thoughts, ideas, or opinions that you would like to share, I always welcome your respectful comments. 

Over and over and over again, I come across people who ask questions such as:

"With all of the homeless, needy animals out there, why do shelters charge a fee?"   
"Why don't they just give the animals away to anyone who shows an interest in taking one home?
"Wouldn't giving the animals away be better than having to kill so many?"

The obvious answer is that it costs money to care for animals and run a shelter. Even funds provided by a city or county for an animal control type of operation have limits which are surpassed by the number and needs of animals that are actually surrendered by the community. In my county, those funds do not even cover veterinary expenses. Keep in mind that the shelter's adoption fees also cover the animal's spay/neuter surgery, rabies vaccine, micro chipping, and sometimes more. If you paid for these things at the vet's office you would end up spending a lot more than the amount of that adoption fee.

That said, the issue goes far beyond shelters or rescues having a lack of funds. What if money wasn't an issue and our shelters really could afford to give away animals for free? Can someone really provide a great home even if they can't afford the animal's adoption fee?

One thing that I know without a doubt (because I grew up in poverty and am nowhere near wealthy now) is that you don't have to be rich to love or care for an animal. I've had animals all of my life and I always found ways to raise the money necessary for things like food, toys, and even basic veterinary care. Sometimes this meant giving up birthday money, going out to mow lawns or selling some of my own property but I didn't see any other option. I knew the value of an adoption fee and that I was saving a lot of money by not having to pay the vet for spaying/neutering directly. Having witnessed puppies born in my neighborhood and suffering from parvo with my own two eyes, I knew that vaccinations were never going to be an option and so I planned for them accordingly. I learned at an early age that there is no such thing as a free pet. Taking on an animal immediately meant considering whether or not I had the cash on hand to, at the very least, get it to the vet for routine care. This is not to say that I was a perfect pet owner (in other ways I was pretty ignorant) but I can say with confidence that I always did everything I could to the best of my knowledge and ability. My priorities were likely organized very differently from those of the average kid, or even the average adult.

Our newest foster dog, Sugar.
She has hypothyroidism which
was left untreated until she ended
up at the shelter as a stray
that no one came looking for. 
My point is that being able to pay an adoption fee means that you (hopefully) have at least a little extra money to devote to the care of an additional pet and family member. It means that even under the worst possible scenario, you have a little money to give that animal what it needs. Think about it this way: What happens if your pet gets hit by a car or suddenly becomes ill? Can you, at the very least, afford to take the animal to the vet and get a prognosis? Do you have a standing relationship with a vet who would work with you on payment arrangements if you can't afford expensive surgery or treatments? (Do not expect this to happen often, especially if you're not a regular client. Vet clinics are ultimately businesses that have to make a profit in order to stay afloat; they can't afford to always go out of their way for people who may or may not end up paying for services). In a worst-case scenario, can you at least afford to have your vet quickly and humanely end that animal's suffering or is it going to linger and suffer in pain while you try to figure out how to come up with the necessary funds? Is "Plan B" going to be to leave your miserably sick or injured pet right back on the shelter's door step; the very place you thought you had rescued it from?

An adoption fee is really all about being able to afford very basic care. This doesn't even address the very common situation of finding out that your pet has allergies/sensitivities and does poorly on cheap, lower-quality dog food (as many dogs do).  If the free dog you were given spends most of its life hairless and bloody from terrible skin allergies (or parasites) is it really better off? What if it starts having seizures and you can't afford to have that treated? No one thinks these things are going to happen to their pet, but they happen every day! We, out of nowhere, spent a couple of hundred dollars at the emergency vet just a few months ago because Cricket was showing terrible symptoms of bloat (look it up, not a good thing and can easily be fatal). Do you really want to be a in a situation where you and your family have to sit around and basically watch a dog suffer and die because you don't have the extra money to help your pet?

What about the issue of training? If you're a regular reader of my blog, you've probably come to realize that good trainers are often hard to find, and a little direction from a professional can go a long way. When your puppy gets older and begins to relentlessly jump on your kids is it going to end up right back at the shelter? What if the neighbor who you took free training tips from causes you to put so much fear (they may refer to it as "respect") into your dog that it becomes aggressive and impossible to handle? A training class might turn out to be absolutely necessary for you and your dog but  trainers don't usually work for free. While I have volunteered a great deal of my time it has to be acknowledged that certifications and continued education are not cheap.

All of that said, I know firsthand how hard it is to see pictures of shelter animals that desperately need homes and those of us with big hearts immediately want to reach out and rescue them. Pet lovers have a nasty habit of becoming so emotional about the plight of an animal that we can forget there is a larger picture which absolutely must be looked at. Reality is that taking in a pet that you do not have the means to care for is not really going to help once that animal becomes ill, injured, or needs an expensive type of food. Reality is that there is no government program to provide food or medical care for animals (we have enough issues related to trying to find some balance in programs like this just for humans). And let's face it; even if we had endless monetary resources, we would run out of space. Too many people who can't afford (or are unwilling) to spay and neuter ensure that we have an endless supply of animals that will need care in the future. Giving them all away as they come into a shelter isn't going to solve the problem if people can't afford (or are unwilling) to keep them.

"Rudolph" urgently needed a place
to go. Thanks to a kind-hearted foster,
he got out of the shelter, into a warm
home, and then went on to
a great forever home!
Fortunately, aside from actually adopting a pet, there are other ways to help save a life. Many organizations will allow you to apply to be a foster home, where you take a needy animal home with you and care for it until a permanent home is found. Not only does this benefit the animal by getting it out of a shelter environment, but it can give you a much better idea about whether or not adding a pet on a permanent basis is really a good idea for you. When resources are available, and depending on the resources of the organization, there are even situations in which some or all of your foster pet's financial needs will be met by the rescue or shelter. This is an ideal situation for someone who wants to help animals but can't afford the upkeep.

Another way to help is simply by sharing information on adoptable animals with others, especially those animals located at shelters that have to euthanize for space. Our shelter recently avoided what could have been a tragic situation by doing just this! So many pets were surrendered just before Christmas that it seemed impossible to avoid having to put some to sleep in order to free up kennels. But thanks to the efforts of shelter staff, volunteers, and supporters, dozens of pets were instead adopted and no one had to lose their life.

Spread the word about spaying and neutering to prevent all of those "Free to a Good Home" puppies and kittens from ultimately ending up in the shelter when the cuteness wears off or the expense becomes too great. Forget about letting your dog have puppies to teach your children "the miracle of life." Why not teach them about the miracle that is saving a life by fostering or volunteering instead?

When it comes to doing right by our animals, we have to attain a careful balance between our head and our heart. The heart tends to call the shots impulsively, but it is just as important to remain realistic as it is to remain caring and compassionate. Ultimately, education is the answer. Imagine how many lives we could save if more people realized the damage caused by people who don't spay or neuter their pets (pure bred or not). How many lives would be saved if people didn't dive into pet ownership without considering the immense responsibility involved? Think about how those animals got to the shelter to begin with and we can really start to make an impact and solve the problem of having way more animals than we have suitable homes.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Ohana" Means Family.

How long did it take after you brought your dog home for her to act as if you hung the moon? Did she quickly start following you around, taking your lead? How long was it before she was seeking out warm spots near you to take her naps or just sit and observe her new world? She might have even “picked you” before you even decided that you were going to take her in! At some point you became her safety net and one of the people she trusts.

Dogs are domesticated creatures that have had thousands of years to become what they are today. They are so separated from wolves at this point that it is extremely unfair to compare the actions of the two. In fact, recent research has shown that even young puppies will naturally seek guidance from the face of a human being while a wolf will not. Dogs are not just reliant on people, they are so tuned into us that they might as well be an extension of us.

Dogs do not read us as they read other dogs. Dogs know how to read us as human beings! How amazing is that? They pick up on our human emotions, the tones in our voices, even our facial expressions and body language! They are so attuned to our feelings and actions that they can detect when something “isn't right” and alert us of a seizure or panic attack. They are able to be our guide dogs or emotional support animals. Dogs care about their people even more than they care about other dogs. Just watch two pooches fight over who gets to sit in “Mom's” lap and you'll see what I mean. You are already the leader of the pack, even if you have failed to expand on your ability to communicate through training. Even better than being leader, you are loved unconditionally. Because we've developed such an amazing relationship with this animal, you already have his adoration and respect. You don't have to get on all fours or roll your dog over on its back or growl or otherwise act like a crazy person to earn that respect. (However, if you're looking to confuse and scare your dog out of its wits that would be a good start.) Fido is very smart. Fido knows you're not a canine and so he's not going to read your actions the way he would if they were coming from another canine. 

Dogs aren't merely “pack animals” at this point. In fact, do the world (or at least your dog) a favor and throw that mentality out of the window. It incites far too many negative and incorrect thoughts or interactions. Dogs are family.

Whether or not you see things this way or treat your dog this way really doesn't matter. Your dog has considered you family from the start. You may have lost your attachment to him, but he will still wag his tail excitedly and thank everything holy (which is you, for all he's concerned) upon your return. Your new baby or new hobby might be more important to you but that isn't the case with him. You will always be the most important being in the world to your dog as long as he's a part of your life; sometimes long after you leave him with someone else.

There's a quote that I keep hearing and it almost literally drives me mad: “Before you have kids, your dog is your baby. After you have kids your dog is just a dog.”

If only I could find whoever thought they were clever when they made that statement for the very first time. I understand where it's coming from but here's a reality check: Before you had kids, your dog was family. After you had kids, your dog was just neglected and/or abandoned family. Unless, of course, you don't let that happen.

There are many ways to include your dog in the family and to keep his role as a family member in perspective. In fact, if you have kids, a dog, and a busy schedule, then the following points are absolutely vital to the balance of your entire household:

  • Family members don't live outside. Dogs only thrive when they can spend time with their human family. To banish a dog to the back yard is to ask for behavioral problems that are caused by lack of stimulation, anxiety, and boredom such as excessive barking, digging, or even territorial aggression (against strangers or dogs on the other side of the fence or the other end of his chain).
  • Family members are included in the fun. Sure, there are limits to what you can and can't do with your dog, but try to plan activities that include him such as trips to the park or games in the yard. If your dog is unruly and makes this difficult to do safely then consider that...
  • Family members sometimes need further education. I can't think of a better activity for a family with a dog to share than obedience classes. Most instructors will allow well-behaved children to join in. Personally, I encourage this. Everyone in the family needs to be on the same page when it comes to teaching your dog how to be well-mannered. This is also a fantastic way to bond with the four-legged member of your clan.
  • Family members must have rules and routine. Take what you learn in obedience class and apply it consistently at home so that your dog learns exactly how to behave appropriately. No one should be hitting or screaming at the dog in an attempt to train him. If the trainer you've consulted condones this type of behavior (or any that involves causing your dog pain, fear or discomfort) then you should look for another one immediately. Pure positive reinforcement results in a healthy, safe relationship with your dog and has the added benefit of teaching your children how to properly communicate with and respect animals. 
  • Family members aren't perfect. Go ahead and acknowledge that your dog is still going to make a mistake from time to time. Maybe your child's new toy looked deceptively like a dog toy and he mangled it or he had a little too much water to drink and had an accident on the floor. Yeah, it's a pain to clean up but he's family; it happens.  

I've noticed that even among self-proclaimed dog lovers there is a disturbing amount of leniency on this issue. People tend to worry so much about insulting another person or causing conflict that they make or accept excuses from others as to why the dog “has to go.” It's as if they forget that dogs have feelings... or maybe they just don't care enough? Maybe they don't realize how incredibly hurt and confused a dog becomes when you pass the leash to someone else and walk away? Maybe this is why I prefer dogs to people; when things get inconvenient they still want to be with me. They've never walked out. You can look into your dog's eyes and know in an instant that he's never even considered living without you as an option. 

One of my favorite quotes is from the Disney movie, Lilo and Stitch:

Ohana means family.

Family means nobody gets left behind...

or forgotten.”

This is a quote to live by. If you're one of those people who claims that your dog is a member of the family, then keep it in mind when you consider giving that family member away. Contact me (or another local trainer) if you need advice on behavioral issues or how to further involve your dog as a part of the family. I'm always open to help: terri@alessoninphysics.com

If you're not one of those people and find yourself seeing your dog as “just a dog,” then maybe it really would be best to find your dog a home with a family that will treat it with the love and respect it deserves. This is the least you can do for a creature who never once stopped doing this for you. And if it comes to this, please don't simply drop him off at a shelter. Take the time to find a loving home for him yourself. There are too many dogs already living on borrowed time in our animal shelters. Adding one more means another is pushed closer to death's door. I know that in my county our shelter staff do the best they can, but unfortunately there are a lot of people out there who have decided that their dog is not a true member of the family. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Chosen One

There are understandable feelings of honor and pride attached to being the person that a timid dog decides to trust. This also applies to being the person allowed to safely interact with a dog who is normally aggressive toward those outside of his or her comfort zone. As a child, I never thought twice about these things. I was fearless (read: ignorant) around dogs who only liked "their" people but still managed to never once get bitten. I also had a knack for knowing when to run back into the house for a treat to offer a dog who wasn't too sure about human beings but was very much into the idea of a full stomach. There was even one time when, after simply petting a big fluffy stray, the dog decided instantly that we belonged together for life. He spent the entire day following me around or napping at my feet until I went home and my dad chased him away (which was not an easy task as the chow's mind had clearly been made up that I was his person and as far as I was concerned, the feeling was mutual). 

Our foster dog, Luvins, immediately
decided that Matt was her best friend.

Some people and some dogs just mesh, there's no denying that.  There are even people who typically don't have a hard time making friends with a shy or timid dog they've never met before. My significant other, Matthew, happens to be one of those people. Dogs tend to favor him above others pretty much instantly. Part of this could be that he's a calm person and was more into cats before I (and Cricket) came along. This means that he doesn't go out of his way to show affection to a dog he doesn't know, and so I guess to many canines that makes him less intimidating and more inviting. His mother confirmed that being a dog person is pretty much in his genes; there's no escaping it sometimes.

That said, it is very important to also embrace a very healthy level of awareness and respect. Despite being approachable to most dogs, Matt is not the type of person who is going to march up to an aggressive one with the assumption that they can be fast friends. Unfortunately, I have seen many people get hurt and many dogs put into bad situations by people who do just that. Sometimes they possess the mentality that literally all dogs like them or sometimes it's just a matter of them being familiar with a certain type or breed of dog and believing that they will all react the same way. Regardless of the reason, people who generalize dogs this way have a habit of producing a very tense type of situation. They will often disregard very real warnings from the owner of the dog, a qualified trainer, or even the dog itself. This means that they will often get bitten or lunged at.

Sometimes even trainers make this mistake. Just the other day I saw one on TV approach a dog who was known to show fear-based aggression toward strangers. Because he seemed calm from a distance, she thought it would be safe to approach and extend a treat from her hand. By not thinking the situation through, she really put herself and the dog in a very bad position. You see, the dog was on a leash so as far as he knew, there was nowhere to run. And even though he was comfortable taking the treat for a second, he quickly realized what was happening and panicked. Unfortunately, his realization hit him while he was in the middle of taking the food from the trainer's hand. I watched the screen nervously as his body turned tense and the trainer got badly bitten. Honestly, I would bet that this trainer noticed the tension that came right before the bite but what was she to do at that point? Jerking her hand away was probably more likely to get her bitten than continuing to extend the treat, though neither was a great option. Her lack of foresight caused the dog to feel backed into a corner and then left her with no safe way out of the confrontation. The better choice would have been to gently toss treats to the ground and remain nonchalant so that the nervous/anxious dog had plenty of time to make a decision based completely on trust rather than panic and impulse. That said, I'm sure that we've all made similar mistakes. I once made a bad judgment call when desensitizing a Schnauzer to having his feet touched. We were making so much progress that I allowed the session of treating him for allowing foot touches to go on a bit to long and as a result, got nipped.

Dogs bite for less obvious reasons too. In one of my classes I had a dog that became overstimulated very easily and when this happened while he was on the leash, he would release that pent up energy as a bite to his owner's ankle. The concept behind his reason for biting was the same as when you see two dogs in a crate biting each other because they can't break out and partake of all the excitement going on around them. All of that energy has to go somewhere and dogs like this have trouble controlling their impulses.

Patient people make for very happy dogs.
It is unfortunate that in instances like this, everyone is automatically looking for the magic answer. Sometimes they're looking for a magic person who can step in and wave a magic wand that transforms a hyperactive, reactive, or fearful dog into a calm, confident canine. Sometimes it's just a magic technique that they want to be able to use to gain instant control in otherwise out-of-control situations. In many cases, they are at their wit's end but just want to enjoy the pet that they've brought into their home. What they don't want to accept is that it takes time. What they don't want to believe in are methods that require some effort but actually take work. I've said this before and I will say it again: Patience comes from knowing that something is going to work. When people don't believe in or support what you are doing, then they quickly lose patience and look elsewhere. Instant gratification is the human way. It's too bad that for us trainers, we can't always fast forward to a sneak preview of what's to come.

I have literally stood up and demonstrated to people how to safely handle dogs like this. I've taken the leash, pulled out the appropriate treats, taught some incompatible behaviors (those that the dog cannot do while acting aggressively) and waltzed the dog around a room tail wagging; no harm to myself or anyone else. The result? Completely dismissed. I've even watched as someone else who thought they could handle the dog better stepped in, disregarded all previous instruction, and got bitten.  (Big trainer fail on my part there; more intervention was definitely called for in that situation.) Even though the methods I used to handle the dog safely and with ease were never actually practiced by others, they were set aside without a second thought. Other trainers will quickly attest to this same issue, I'm certain. When we're dealing with a dog who responds quickly, we're compared to The Dog Whisperer or Victoria Stilwell. When faced with an issue that is going to take more time and patience to address, we sometimes hear the phrase "What I need right now is The Dog Whisperer!" or "I wish I could get that lady from It's Me or the Dog!" They don't realize that in the case of the latter, the methods are the same and it would still take time. People are in love with the idea that there can be instantaneous results. Those who show real dedication and stick with positive methods however, do see the results that they hope for. Those who give up also end up giving the dog up. That's what you don't get to see on TV.

With fearful dogs, I have demonstrated that a slow and predictable approach results in a more stable and calm response than flooding the dog with the object of its anxiety. Still, some people will dismiss this as sub-par training or worse, no training at all. It is this type of mentality that creates irreparably fearful, aggressive dogs and this will only change when people take the time to stop focusing so much on the symptoms and begin to focus on the source of the problem. Yes, you want the growling or biting to stop and the shock collar does the job quickly but what have you done about the fact that your dog was afraid of you (or someone/something else)? What will you do when your dog finally hits the next level of fear, and thus, the next level of aggression? While you've found a way to force him to suppress his signs of fear, you've also given him even more reason to be afraid.

It takes very little skill level or effort to bully a dog around but when you attack a problem from a psychological level you have to expect to do some real work and real training. This work is going to happen over a period of time. It will not satisfy that part of you that desires instant control over another creature. It will not immediately wow your friends and family or turn you into a super star. Real training tackles behavioral issues at their core to create a dog who is mentally, emotionally, and physically sound. While many of us do possess a natural talent with animals, not a single one of us was ever gifted with a magic training wand that can instantly correct any and every problem. Choke chains, prong collars, and shock collars most certainly do not count.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Why I'm Thankful and Why I'm Here.

Every chapter of my life has included a dog, thank God. No chapter has been easy and to some extent, I feel like I've spent too much of the past 30 years doing nothing but clawing my way out of the trenches put in my path. At the same time, I've always had a best friend to guide me from darkness to light, and those best friends have always had four legs. From time to time a close human friend has stepped in and made life much brighter, but my canine companions have never voluntarily walked away. I am eternally grateful to them all; the ones I "owned," the ones I fostered, and the ones who belonged to other people but just happened to be around at the right time to provide a lost little girl with some much-needed comfort.

I am forever grateful to the many dogs I've had the pleasure of working with as a trainer. They have never ceased to amaze me in their intelligence and often their ability to bounce back from some of the most troubled pasts.

The truth is, I see a piece of myself in all the dogs I live and work with. I know what it's like to be afraid of what's coming next. I know what it's like to lose everything and want nothing more than to be back at home; or even to have no idea where that home is, was, or might eventually be. I know very well that deep-seeded, debilitating fears cannot be conquered in just a day and that force, screaming, abandonment and abuse take time to recover from. While dogs approach life in different (better) ways than humans, we are alike in our ability to feel pain, fear, anxiety, and in my opinion, grief. Dogs just have a much better handle on that feeling called "Joy." Sometimes I wonder if they evolved with such an inherently happy nature and resilience as a direct result of living beside us; their more complicated counterparts in life. We should be thankful that dogs are so generous when sharing all of that love and joy.

I am thankful for the opportunity to share my experiences, stories, and thoughts with others on this blog. While I have been writing about animals for a decade now, it has taken me almost that long to realize that it is a very vital part of who I am. Teaching and learning are important to me and they also go hand in hand; you share what you know, open yourself up to others, and learn even more from their responses. Even criticism, when constructive, goes a very long way.

Four more reasons for me to be thankful:
Matthew, Luvins (new foster dog), Obi-Wan and Cricket
I believe that education is ultimately the answer to our pet overpopulation crisis as well as many other problems facing our animals today. To be blunt, ignorance is the root of most evil. People fear what they do not know. And they can't avoid mistakes if they've never been taught a better way. Why would you ever spay and neuter if you didn't know the benefits? Why would you even bother adopting an animal from a shelter if you thought that all shelter dogs had problems? How are we to stop backyard breeders and puppy mills if only a small number of us realize the full scope of the problem?

We can't change everyone, but we can give everyone a fair chance at knowing the facts, the science, the psychology, and even the different moral dilemmas surrounding animal care and training.That is why I am here and why I will continue to work hard to share what I've learned and continue to learn.

Thank you to everyone who stops by to read the blog, watch the videos, or weigh in on the latest topics. You keep me on my toes and give me plenty to think about. Keep up the great work and have a fantastic holiday with your families- humans and pets alike.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Her Highness, His Majesty; the Small Dog

In a previous post, I wrote about the misconceptions surrounding bully breeds or "hard" dogs. Today, I really want to tackle yet another stereotype that often leads to serious issues for dog owners and lovers; the one that follows our tiny dogs everywhere they go. This one is for the powder puffs, princesses, and Napoleon Bonapartes of the small dog world.

Loucee and the agility set her grandma made!
One of my absolute favorite breeds is the chihuahua and it is very hard for me to make that statement in public without at least one person reacting as if I myself dropped to the ground and bit their ankle. Chihuahuas are just one of those breeds that get a very bad rap for being nervous, temperamental, and unduly aggressive. Most people have not met a well-rounded, well-socialized chihuahua, but I assure you that they exist! In fact, when socialized and raised properly, chihuahuas can perform amazing tasks. A great example of this truth is a young chihuahua that I have worked with for the past few years named Loucee. Her repertoire of tricks and commands is impressive to say the least and Loucee even loves agility as well as therapy work. I've yet to meet another dog (of any breed or mix!) who shows as high a level of concentration when being worked with. She does hate to become bored and tires of repeating the same task over and over (as do I) but when she knows that something new is being taught she really gives her full attention until the behavior is mastered. This has led to some amazing work, such as training with flash cards and the concept of "reading."

While Loucee is a little star and a very unique pup, it is not a complete miracle that she's accomplished so much. The largest factor in her success has been a family of people completely devoted to her training and socialization. From a very young age, Loucee has gone out and about with them, being exposed to many different people and situations. While she often does this from the comfort of her stroller, we also put an emphasis on getting her out to walk amongst the public so that she did not become possessive of that space or too afraid to leave it.

If you are having issues with a smaller dog or want to prevent them, please read on for some tips on how to handle some of the most common "small dog" behavioral issues.

Possessiveness: This is a huge one. Some small dog breeds do have a tendency to become possessive or otherwise attached to just one person (or certain items), so this can be a major problem for other people in the household. It is very important to train cues such as "off" so that you can communicate to your dog to remove itself from furniture or a lap in the instant that its behavior becomes inappropriate. Only well-mannered pooches get to share the furniture or your lap. The person of choice may have to spend some time quickly but gently picking the dog up and placing it back on the floor at every instance of bad behavior, but with practice this usually does the trick.

Insecurity plays a major role when it comes to a possessive dog. It is imperative that you teach your dog appropriate ways to achieve what it wants, whether that be its favorite bone or cuddle time on your lap. If the dog knows no other way to acquire what it wants, it will resort to the growling and snapping behavior that worked before. Put special emphasis on teaching your dog to "release" its favorite items in exchange for a high-value treat. Put NO emphasis on trying to boss an insecure dog around. While it may not seem this way, your dog is very aware that you possess more physical strength. Like a small child, it will still throw a tantrum and become unruly if you've never taught it that this doesn't work or that there are much better ways to earn a reward. Routine is your best friend; train your dog with plenty of rewards (especially those that involve its favorite things) and it will forget all about more inappropriate ways of obtaining them.

Biting Guests: Small dogs can be snappy little animals! Again, this is commonly due to improper socialization and/or a general sense of insecurity. Older dogs who need socialization can greatly benefit from a group training class with an experienced trainer who uses ONLY positive reinforcement. (Beware those that claim to do this but still rely on other methods such as leash jerks or choke chains). Every interaction with people needs to be a very positive one so if the doorbell transforms your dog into a tiny version of Cujo, you have a lot of work cut out for you. Try to limit the amount of time that your dog is in "crazy" mode by calmly and quickly putting her in a comfortable place such as a crate or other room as soon as you know a guest has arrived. Even better, if you know you're going to have visitors ahead of time, put your dog away beforehand so that you can greet them in peace. Once your dog settles down and everyone is calmly seated, you can allow it to come into the room. Have your guests toss some favorite treats to the floor where your dog can see them but make sure that no one floods your pet with attention or makes too much eye contact. Nervous dogs become more nervous when the attention is placed on them. A nonchalant and calm approach is absolutely critical. If you have a dog that is far too aggressive for even this to happen safely, you will need an in-person evaluation by a qualified trainer or behaviorist who uses 100% positive methods. The last thing you want to do is bully an insecure dog into a level of fear that it cannot recover from.

Barking: Some breeds are more "barky" than others and sometimes there isn't a whole lot that you can do it about it. However, you can definitely make improvements with some work. The proper approach greatly depends on the reason for your dog's barking. If this is primarily a problem when you have guests over, see the above paragraph on biting as this should help bring the barking to a minimum as well. If you have a dog who barks at every tiny outside sound or sight, the problem will be a little more difficult to cure. I would recommend an extreme focus on socialization and training that will build confidence. Barking is another one of those problem behaviors that often appears to be the result of an overly confident dog when reality is the exact opposite. A dog in a constant state of fear/anxiety is one that will be set off at the slightest "foreign" sound or cause for alarm. Get your dog out and about more and work hard on rewarding him for quiet and calm behavior. Click and treat for appropriate responses to new things as often as you can. If your dog has no reason to be alarmed by new things, he will stop sounding the alarm as well. This is an issue that really requires you to get at the root of the problem (anxiety/insecurity) rather than putting a band-aid on the symptom (barking). A group training class could also benefit in this scenario.

While I know that these behaviors can eventually become infuriating, it is also extremely important that you not use the "Napoleon complex" excuse to avoid real training. There is no quick fix if your dog has already been inadvertently taught or encouraged to behave obnoxiously. The easiest way to handle these issues is to prevent them in the first place. From an early age, dogs of all sizes need socialization and small dogs need to specifically experience socialization that does not involve being held or coddled the entire time. Smaller dogs need all the training that a larger dog does so that you can effectively communicate ways for it to achieve what it wants before it ever resorts to nervous growling, biting, or barking. Their smaller size (and awareness of vulnerability) makes them far more likely to progress to displaying aggressive behaviors when they feel threatened. Small dogs should go on walks frequently and be exposed to positive experiences throughout their entire lives just like any other dog, so that they can be happy, healthy, and comfortable. 

All of that said, there is no reason that you shouldn't still pamper your little princess or otherwise spoil your pup rotten. Dress them up in cute clothes, buy them adorable tiny toys (while laughing at all of us out here with bigger dogs who can't find an indestructible dog toy to save our lives) and take them wherever you go. Portable pups are often an amazing convenience and make absolutely fantastic companions as long as you remember to incorporate consistent socialization and training! Your dog, vet, family, and groomer will all thank you for taking the time to nurture a well-adjusted, well-mannered, and even stylish pet.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Shelter Workers are Not Broken

All of the animals pictured in this post are from the Daviess County Animal Shelter. If you are interested in one (or the many others that they have available) please contact them via email at: dcacanimals@yahoo.com or call 270-685-8275. You may also visit their Petfinder page by following this link.

I have always been under the impression that you should stand up for what you believe in. Unfortunately, that seems to be rare around here and it tends to make people shy away from you. No one wants to rock the boat even for the greater good and then some of the people who do make waves tend to do so inappropriately and for their own glory/entertainment (which makes it harder for those of us who actually have a point to be heard). I'm not afraid to make waves but I do try to present myself in the most civil manner possible in hopes that my message stays clear. I am open minded and understanding. Being a dog trainer (having to work with people just as often as dogs) has taught me that most people do not want to cause harm; they just lack the education on proper methods or ideals. Being a human being has taught me that it is very difficult to find acceptance unless you're willing to compromise at least a few feelings and beliefs here and there. I am unwilling to do this and while it has led to some opposition, I can say that I've been able to help a very significant number of people with their pets over the years. My goal has always been to help animals and I firmly believe that the best way to accomplish this is to educate others. Somewhere within me there is an Educator Muscle that I am forced to flex when faced with certain types of situations where I see a false belief perpetuated. This is especially true when that false belief is also harmful.

Not long ago, as I was browsing the Facebook page of a local no-kill facility, I ran across a comment from a gentleman who stated that he was at first going to support our local shelter but didn't believe in their policies because they are not a no-kill facility. He decided to support the no-kill facility instead. The last part made sense to me completely. If you prefer to support a rescue or shelter with a no-kill policy, I can understand and respect that decision completely. After all, they need support to keep going and it would be nice to have lots of no kill facilities to take some of the pressure off of our county/city run shelters. However, when someone makes that type of decision based on a belief that the "kill shelter" has some control over their "kill policy" my Educator Muscle stars spazzing out. In response to this gentleman I explained that he was doing a great thing in supporting the no-kill facility and that both facilities were doing their very best; no one wants to see an animal euthanized or without a home. I explained that the problem both types of facilities face is exactly the same: irresponsible breeding. I advised that this was the reason both types of places must exist. Apparently, I stepped on someone's toes. My comment was immediately deleted by a member of the no-kill group and I was banned from posting/commenting ever again. As a person who has spent a large amount of my spare time volunteering with, raising money for, and generally supporting this group, I was obviously upset.

What I had hoped to share with my comment, and what I want to share here, is that most kill shelter staff/volunteers (and certainly the ones in my town of Owensboro, KY) want the same thing that other animal lovers want. Their desire is for all animals to make it out of there alive. They want all of them to have a home forever. They want you to get your pets spayed and neutered and vetted when necessary. Our shelter workers and volunteers do not want to euthanize ("put down") your pet. Unfortunately, they do not have the luxury of turning your animal away at the door. Because they are operated by the county, they have to take your pet. Even though the county does not pay for your injured cat to be treated at the vet or for your senior dog's much needed medications, they have to take your pet. And even when you drop off your perfectly healthy (previously happy) dog, you've pushed some other poor animal closer to death's door because the shelter has to take your pet. Being funded by a city or county does not mean that a shelter has an endless amount of space or other resources.

There is a pattern here. People drop their dogs/cats/bunnies/etc. off at a kill shelter knowing that the end could be euthanasia. Our shelter workers labor tirelessly trying to get some other person's animal to safety in order to avoid such a sad end. When the shelter becomes too full, time runs out, and no one adopts this animal, a shelter worker is there to say goodbye in the place of the owner who should have been. Somehow in all of this tragedy, that shelter worker and the facility itself are labeled as the "bad" guys? As far as I'm concerned, these are the people who take the fall for those who aren't caring, responsible or able enough to do it themselves. Shelter staff and volunteers do not have the luxury of turning your pet away and telling you that there is a waiting list. They can't adjust the number of animals they take in based on the resources they have available the way other types of facilities can. They must adjust the number of animals at hand to accommodate a community of people too busy, impatient, or heartless to accept and manage the responsibility of their own pet.

Yes, there are sometimes legitimate reasons for a person to part ways with an animal. I just wish that more people took on the responsibility of finding that animal a home themselves if need be. And if for some reason you find yourself having to make use of the kill shelter because the no-kills are full and you don't have time to find safety for your own pet yourself, try not to pass judgment in the future. In fact, be grateful that someone was there to do all the leg work for you. Someone was there to say goodbye to your pet in the event that no one wanted to adopt him. Do not say "I couldn't do that job, I could never kill an animal" without understanding the full magnitude of the situation. To me, this statement has always implied that it takes an especially heartless person to work or volunteer at a kill shelter when that is absolutely not the case. Real love and dedication for animals is exemplified by these people who sacrifice their own feelings of sadness and anger to fight for the lives of our pets in our community.They do have a very difficult job and deserve to be acknowledged, defended, and supported rather than looked down upon. All rescues and shelters have a niche in this country and quite frankly, they all need each other. They all need us. I hope that some day things change in my own community so that false beliefs are dispelled and people like myself are respected for trying to support anyone who attempts to do right by our animals. We should all be in this together.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

How do you train a "hard" dog?

One of the many canine-related misconceptions that I wish I could obliterate in one fell swoop is this: There are hard dogs and there are soft dogs. These terms are often used to imply that with one type of dog (the soft ones), you can get away with gentler training methods while with the other type (hard dogs) you must use a different and harsher set of rules.

Have you ever wondered how animal trainers manage to convince massive marine mammals to perform? Here's a hint: They don't make prong collars in "Killer Whale" sizes. The same ideals that I share in this blog and practice on a daily basis with my own pets (positive reinforcement, operant conditioning/clicker training) are used to train animals of all species, sizes, and propensities to eat you. It annoys me to no end when I read a fly-by-night trainer announce that positive methods are nothing but bribery or an ever-growing fad. They preach about their outdated methods and ideals that I could have explained even as a very young child. You know, the same things we picked up from the Discovery Channel's documentaries about wolves in the wild? Things that we know much more about in present time than we did back then. Outdated information that in part, has led both us and the bully breeds to the dismal place where we find ourselves today.

This is about as intimidating as he ever looks...
When it comes to dogs, why are we so quick to assume that bigger, "badder" breeds must be treated more harshly? Is it simply because we can? Does it make some people feel better about themselves to see fear in the eyes of a doberman, pit bull or rottweiler? I honestly think that with some individuals, that is incredibly true. After all, the media is constantly fueling this line of thinking even if that isn't their intention. You see a small-statured person on TV amongst a gang of big, beefy pit bulls and assume that he (the human) must be one tough little guy. The image of the "hard dog" is so incredibly instilled into our minds that our focus almost immediately goes away from the actual dogs (their body language, their outward signs of communication, especially when those signs are scary) and toward respecting the human being who manages to work with (or in some cases just wrestle) them. Somewhere in the back of our minds we naturally think that it takes a special or "brave" person to train or work with a bully breed.

One factor that only helps contribute to this mentality is the difficulty in raising many of these types of dogs. Not because they are more aggressive but because they are often higher energy than other dogs! On top of that, their larger size makes it harder to rein that energy in and prevent, for example, being knocked over in a slobbery fit of happiness (which must be absolutely terrifying, I'm sure...). In fact, "it can knock you/your children over" is a popular excuse for going straight to harsher training methods without second thought to anything else. With some people it's almost as if they can't wait for their pit bull puppy to grow into his 394 lb., six-inch-thick metal prong collar so that they can really show him who rules the roost. (Afterward, they must promptly parade him around the neighborhood to show everyone else who rules the roost as well.)

Buck, a very sweet bully.
Some of you are probably thinking of the many, many "dangerous" breeds that you see on TV or read about in the newspaper; dogs that have exhibited the most violent and aggressive of behavior. How do you "positively train" a dog out of that?  It must first be acknowledged that most of those dogs were created by the very mentality I have described in this post thus far. I would have to say that without the twisted images perpetuated by our peers and the media, the problems facing "bully breeds" would not be problems today. The fact is, if these images of bully breeds as dangerous fighting dogs were removed from our minds forever, we would have fewer pitties, dobies, and rotties in the situations they are in today. Imagine if there was no stigma attached to owning one of these dogs. What if, all of a sudden, they had the same standing as a poodle in the eyes of the public? There would be no more reason to put heavy chains on their necks or parade them around as trophies (or worse, actually subject them to fighting). There would be no reason to give high praise to someone who manages to bully one into submission rather than train it the way you train any other animal, be it squirrel or Siberian tiger. The fear in the hearts of the public would be erased with the result being the elimination of so much fear-induced abuse and persecution. The fear in the hearts of these dogs would no longer exist to lead to aggressive behavior.

I stand firm by the notion that you cannot permanently or adequately fix fear by way of terror. You can make yourself scary enough to the dog to temporarily stifle the signs but that is not a cure. The actual answer to full on aggressive and dangerous behavior greatly depends on the dog, its background, genetics and often other aspects of the situation. It is unfortunately neither quick nor easy and sometimes, especially once a dog has been driven too far or when genetics are heavily at play (even when it comes genetics, they can work against you with any breed), it may not even be possible.

The often-unnoticed exchange that happens between human and dog before a bite happens is almost always very similar to this:
  • Human does something that causes fear in the dog (such as yelling, or cornering the dog; anything that makes the dog feel that it is in danger - and this can greatly depend on the dog's background and past experiences-).
  • Dog cowers ("I'm afraid.")
  • Human doesn't stop, redirect the behavior, or otherwise acknowledge any signal the dog is giving.
  • Dog growls ("I'm really afraid and don't know how to make this experience stop, but hopefully this will work.")
  • Human gets ticked off at this show of defiance or dominance and continues, believing that backing down will make the dog think that he is the boss instead of the human.
  • Dog shows teeth ("I am terrified, there is nowhere for me to run, and if need be I will fight back to prevent being hurt by you.")
  • Human doesn't stop, human gets bitten, dog gets in major trouble.
The above example applies to ANY breed of dog. It is also a very generic example and takes a surprisingly large number of forms. For instance, the human can be two years old and merely pulling the dog's tail. That same dog may not be experienced with children or may just be very fearful when they move a certain way which causes it to defend itself with a bite. Another variable to keep in mind is that your dog might react aggressively when it does have room to run away because, in the past, it has been chased down until backed into a corner. It is not uncommon for an aggressive dog to go straight to biting a person when it has learned that cowering, growling, and showing its teeth never works and still leads to being painfully abused. Aggressive dogs must be handled with an understanding of the reasons behind their behavior (which vary). They must be taught using proper methods to communicate appropriately and without signs of aggression. If you have an aggressive dog, please consult a trainer with a solid background of positive reinforcement. Do not assume that only someone using "hard methods" can help you. Sadly, there are many dog trainers out there who claim to specialize in bully breeds and aggression when all they know are the fear-based techniques that they've seen on TV. Smoke and mirrors techniques will not fix this type of behavior and will eventually contribute to the problem. This doesn't matter if your dog is a pit bull or a yorkie.

My point is: There is no such thing as a hard dog or a soft dog and certainly NO reason to believe that you have to be more rough with one than you do another. There are dogs that are afraid, dogs that incite some subconscious fear in us, dogs that have not been properly trained/socialized, and dogs that have not been properly cared for. All dogs require a very consistent owner who possesses the power of clear communication and they need to have this before irreparable damage is done.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Video Lesson: Tricks, Clicks, and Treats!

Learn the basics of training with a clicker and how to teach your dog three fun tricks: Spin, Take a Bow, and Bang!

**Quick disclaimer: Some bull terriers become obsessive "spinners." If your dog has shown signs of this, please skip teaching the "spin" cue or otherwise encouraging it.**

Friday, October 28, 2011

Book Review: Awkward Family Pet Photos

Anyone who truly knows me knows that while I love to laugh it's not uncommon for me to be way too serious about life. This means that it often takes something really funny to generate a giggle. In my defense, I find it incredibly hard to do normal, everyday things while laughing (such as drive a car, walk, or form a coherent thought) so I'm sure I've developed this "seriousness" as a survival technique.

At any rate, I would like to present a book that is guaranteed to crack you up: Awkward Family Pet Photos by Mike Bender and Doug Chernack. Within its pages you will find a plethora of different species just begging to bring you joy at their own expense. Whether you're a dog, cat, parrot, or opossum lover (yes, I said opossum) you will find a variety of pictures to entertain you and brighten your day. If a good, hearty, full-on laugh is what you're searching for you'll quickly find that here.

Be sure to read all the captions, too. Sometimes they really bring the hilarity of the photo home. From a cat named Wormser who made me contemplate the true meaning of love (and parasites) to a family photo that provoked the question, "Why can't I have a capybara??" this is a great pick-me-up and conversation starter. The book is officially released on November 1st or can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com by following this link.

For a chance to win a free copy of the book, keep your eyes on our Facebook page!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Art of Turning the Other Cheek

Few phrases cause a dog owner to lose faith in a trainer's abilities faster than "Ignore the behavior." Your dog is jumping incessantly or barking constantly and you're told that the best thing to do is nothing at all? How is that ever going to work? It goes against everything we stand for and has the added disadvantage (to the dog trainer at least) of coming off as the absolute weakest and most unhelpful "answer" that could ever be offered. Ever.

"How do I  change a flat tire?"
"Just ignore it."

"How do I reformat my computer?"
"Ignore it..."

This response makes absolutely no sense when referring to inanimate objects. However, that changes completely once you introduce even the smallest amount of brain power. For example:

"How do I get my crazy neighbor to stop asking to borrow my stuff?"
"Ignore him..."

See?? Rude.
Admittedly, for that last one you could end up coming off pretty rude but I guarantee that if you were consistent it would be the answer to your problem. If you ignored your neighbor completely, never giving in to lending out your possessions, he would eventually stop asking for them. (Unless there were more serious issues at play in which case a restraining order might be the way to go). Thankfully, when it comes to dogs you don't even have to worry about being considered rude. Rude is practically their native language!

Of course, the real issue at hand has little to do with politeness. It's about whether or not this really works in dog training the way that all of these wussy trainers (like myself) claim. You can be honest with me; some of you probably suspect that we run to the "ignore it" response when we have no idea what the real answer might be. It's ok.  I forgive you...but only if you continue reading.

Without getting overly technical I want to make it very clear that the basis behind ignoring an unwanted attention-demanding behavior is preventing that behavior from being reinforced. I covered this quite a bit in the Screaming Child in the Grocery Store post, where I described that even a reaction that we perceive as "bad" (such as raising your knee when your dog tries to jump on you) can actually encourage the behavior to be repeated. Physical contact of almost any form is often appreciated by most dogs, especially when the alternative is being completely ignored. Yes, this is still true even if you take on an angry tone/demeanor.

You can be sure you've won the
battle of wills when you see
this face.
That being said, I have found that it often helps even more to emphasize the fact that you are not going to give in to an inappropriate request for attention. Actively ignoring unwanted behavior can help speed up the training process and make you feel a little more like you're actually doing something. Instead of just standing in one spot ignoring your dog, you can spice things up a bit by walking right past him. No eye contact, no physical contact whatsoever. Just go about your business as if your dog does not exist. You may not be able to walk through him and it will probably be tough as he tries his best to get a response, but pretend there is no dog. He may touch you but don't touch back.Talk about one confused pooch! This can work faster because your dog will soon recognize (unless you give in) that you're going about everyday things and nothing he does is earning him the reward that he used to receive. Until, of course, you spot him calming down and keeping all four feet on the floor like a good boy. In which case, he can have a quick dose of praise and maybe even a tasty treat. Don't forget to "mark" the desired behavior immediately by saying "Yes!" or clicking (only if you are familiar with the concept of clicker training; if not, please learn about it before trying to implement it. I will have a clicker post soon). You may have to be a bit nonchalant with the marker at first to prevent him from getting too excited to contain himself again. This will get easier as he figures out what does and doesn't work. Be prepared for him to initially put extra effort into the old way of doing things until he learns that there is a new and better way.

Another common example of attention-seeking behavior is barking/whining in the crate. While there are some dogs who have true separation anxiety and/or need a little more tweaking to their training plan, the issue almost always comes down to accidental reward in this situation. If you've ever yelled at your dog while he was whining in his crate or entered his room to tell him to be quiet you have contributed to the problem and reinforced his behavior. Yes, the yelling was in anger but to your dog, it was an abrasive yet shiny ray of hope. Actively ignoring a dog who is whining in the crate means going about business as usual until it's time for him to come back out. Do not go out of your way to be silent when your dog has been put in the crate or else you'll be tip-toeing around every moment that he has to be there. Make the crate positive by feeding meals and treats there. It can also help to practice crating him in short sessions during the day and certainly helps if he has been given plenty of opportunities to potty, plenty of exercise, and a comfortable bed.

For anyone dwelling in an apartment, this can be a terrible experience as you worry whether or not your neighbors are going to complain about the noise. My best advice is to try to get on good terms with your neighbors, explain the situation, and dress your dog up in cute clothes when he's out and about. No one wants to evict a well-dressed dog. In all seriousness, even if it takes a while to fix the problem this way, it will be much faster than if you accidentally reward your pet for being noisy.

The typical response to this type of advice is "It doesn't work on my dog." If you feel this way please ake a moment to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Is this really an attention-seeking behavior? (If it is jumping up on people or barking while in the crate then your answer is yes.)
  2. Have you eliminated all forms of possible reinforcement of the undesired behavior? (Think about this one very carefully; if your dog wants attention of any kind then even angry attention from you counts as reinforcement!)
  3. Have you considered that any reinforcement basically starts the entire process over? (If you were consistent for a week but slipped up twice the following week, then you have not implemented this training technique properly.)
  4. Are you actively ignoring behavior as described earlier?
Your alternative is usually to use aversive techniques; those that involve pain or other physical discomfort such as bark/shock collars, to achieve your goal. They are usually the answer from other types of trainers who honestly don't know what a true psychological, educated response to your question is. They know exactly how to solve your problem the "human" way (not to be confused with humane). Their answer is going to sound effective right from the start, like a hammer to a nail. When faced with this situation, please remember what was stated before; that adding any amount of intelligence changes the game completely. You're not dealing with hammers and nails or a flat tire. You have a living, breathing, feeling, thinking creature in your care who is fully capable of learning from someone who will take the time to clearly communicate. This is a fact that should be acknowledged and respected.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Real dogs. Real training.

Just in case you were wondering
who's behind our music...
The first "lesson" video is going to premier within the next week so keep an eye out for that. I realize that many people learn best from seeing how something is done rather than just reading. If you have any suggestions for lessons that you'd like to see illustrated on video just let me know! In addition to this, I am going to start answering your questions via video as that enables me to be a little more detailed (and slightly less boring) than I can be in a short paragraph. :)

For now, I just wanted to take a moment to discuss what the video series is all about.

If you prefer full screen/HD quality you can follow this link to our YouTube channel.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Quick Tips on Stay & Training in Motion

Before I go back to attempting to get the most out of a three day weekend (in preparation for an upcoming work trip) there are a couple of things I want to cover. (Sorry for the short post this week but next week will feature an extra special Tricks and Treats post to make up for it. :)

First off, as someone with pet costume photo/judging experience, I know how many of you struggle with dogs who will not sit still for good photos, let alone photos in costume! Some of my proudest (and most relieving) moments in training came from seeing one my students in line for costume pictures when I was the one on the other end of the camera. I always knew that those particular dogs were going to be easy to photograph because they knew how to properly "stay" when told. I've added a "Teaching Stay" link to the Quick Reference page of this blog to help you get on the right track if your dog just doesn't seem to understand the basic concept. The technique described requires a calm and quiet approach, nothing fancy or difficult at all. It is imperative that you follow the advice of adding difficulty gradually (and always make sure to revert back to "easy" stays from time to time so your dog doesn't think it's always going to get harder). Once your dog is reliable with the command you should practice briefly and lightly touching your dog while he/she is in the "stay" position before marking the behavior (saying "Yes!") and rewarding. This will help tremendously when it comes to putting a costume on him (especially something simple like a hat) or even examining him for health or grooming purposes. There will be much more to come on the stay command so if you're looking for something more in depth, just stay tuned.

Next, is the announcement of a new series of video segments called "Training in Motion." Some lessons are much easier to understand when they are demonstrated and some people just learn better that way in general. Not to mention, Training in Motion is going to open up the door for unique opportunities to make the blog more interactive. I am extremely excited about this and hope to have our first full segment posted very soon. Please take a moment to view the Training in Motion teaser below!

Thanks for reading and remember to stop in next week for a really fun blog post! As always, don't forget to suggest our page to others on Facebook. :)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Where Do Puppies Come From?

Hancock County Animal Shelter
I'm not a huge fan of writing on thin lines and slippery slopes but I won't hesitate when I know that the message is important. The purpose of this post is not to attempt to tell you where to get your next dog and it is not to make you feel guilty about any choices from the past. However, if you do end up feeling some guilt, know that I'm right there with you as a human being who has made uneducated choices myself. We are born knowing almost nothing and unfortunately, the fairest and most concise answers hardly ever lie on the surface.

Daviess County Animal Shelter
There is a particular line (or any of its variations) that makes me cringe every time I hear it: "I've been breeding [type of dog] for 287 years, I know what I'm doing!" For some reason there are people in the world who think that it takes a lot of knowledge to put two dogs together and convince them to procreate. While the mechanics can get complex, I'm sure that just keeping unaltered dogs together eventually accomplishes this goal. At any rate, the person who supervises this effort is dubbed a breeder. Depending on your standards, they may or may not be a good one. When making up your mind as to whether or not a potential breeder is worth supporting, consider these things:

  •  Does the breeder sell to pet stores? Would you buy a puppy from a pet store yourself knowing that in such an environment they don't receive the socialization, interaction, and care that is vital to them growing into a well adjusted adult dog? Pet store puppies spend most of their time in a small kennel so close to their own mess that they lose the instinct that would normally keep them from wanting to defecate or urinate near their sleeping place. Pet store puppies can hang around like this for months, well past the window of time when it is easiest (not to mention, critical) to socialize them with many other dogs/people and prevent serious problems such as extreme fear and aggression. Why would a breeder want to subject his/her pups to this?
  • How old are the puppies before the breeder will let them go to new homes? This is a HUGE red flag. When working in a large chain pet store there were far too many instances when I saw people come in with tiny puppies who were way too young to be away from their mothers. I'm talking about puppies who were 4-5 weeks old and very obviously ill. Puppies should be with their mothers and siblings for at least seven weeks; many recommend eight.  Again, this is vital to their development and makes a huge difference in how they grow up. During this time they learn valuable life lessons such as bite inhibition.
  • Does the breeder seem a little too focused on how big/small the dog might get? The significance of this question really varies on the breed that you're looking for, but generally someone who wants either the biggest dog or the smallest dog in the world is not really looking out for the best interests of the dog/breed itself. For example, "teacup" is not a real or recognized size as far as breed standards go. If someone is trying to sell you a teacup variety of any pet, go the other direction fast. Health issues run rampant in dogs from one extreme or the other. Yes, some breeds are meant to be small (or large) but please become accustomed with the actual standard for your breed of choice. There are limits to each end of the spectrum.
  • Registration isn't everything! Owning a registered dog can be an attractive idea, but it is important to know that just because your dog is registered does not mean that it is ready for the show ring. "Backyard breeders" are notorious for producing dogs of poor quality as they do not know how (or have any desire) to breed dogs that will maintain or improve the breed as a whole. Even if you have no interest in showing your dog (most of us just want a loyal pet) it is important to note that this type of careless breeding often leads to terrible and costly health issues for your pet. A responsible breeder will do whatever it takes to keep his/her breeding lines healthy and free of disease. In addition to this, please know that it isn't as simple as "CKC is bad" or "AKC is good." Unfortunately, it is extremely common for backyard breeders to register their dogs with either organization.
  • Breeding for profit: A responsible breeder often spends more money than they make or is lucky just to break even. If there is any indication that your potential breeder is in it for the money, you should probably look elsewhere.
  • Health Testing? I've mentioned health issues in pure-bred puppies already so I want to point out that there are ways that a responsible breeder avoids these. Their breeding stock should be health tested (not just a checkup with the vet but rigorous and specific health testing; especially when it comes to problems common with a breed such as hip issues in German Shepherds). The breeder should be very up front about this and most reputable breeders will proudly provide proof. 
  • Environment: This should be a no-brainer but often by the time you get to the breeder's home and see the puppies it's very difficult to walk away. However, if conditions are not sanitary and/or you see unhealthy animals on the premises do you really want to go through with supporting such an operation? A good breeder will often allow you to visit his/her home well before the puppies are ready to go to their new home so this is a great time to walk away with a level head if need be.
  • What about designer breeds? I've had about zero luck convincing most people that doodles and 'chons (designer dogs) are not real breeds so let me just put it this way: They have been around forever. A designer puppy is created when two (usually small and fluffy) dogs are allowed to have puppies together. The results are either mind-numbingly cute (because all puppies are cute) or so ugly that they're still incredibly cute. You have two options: 1) Go pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars for one and support someone who probably really believes that they've created a brand new breed in a matter of months or 2) Go to a local shelter or rescue and adopt one for less than what it would cost you to have a new puppy fully vetted yourself. I'm a big fan of mutts but not so much a fan of people who purposely create them for profit.
  • Puppy Mills: Puppy mills usually supply pet stores with a steady of stream of pure-bred (or designer type) dogs. Their dogs are bred as often as possible with little to no consideration given to health, cleanliness, or overall quality of life. If you stay mindful of the cautions  listed above (specifically, no pet store puppy purchases) you'll have successfully avoided buying a puppy from a mill. 
Shelter Dogs come in all shapes, ages, sizes, and breeds. Purebred dogs end up in shelters all across the country for reasons as simple as "it got too big" or "I had to move." Unless you are looking for a show dog or one with lineage specific to some other particular task, you can find what you want in a shelter or rescue. If you find yourself trying to decide between an irresponsible breeder and a shelter/rescue, please keep in mind that most of the dogs in that shelter started off with a breeder like this. Many of those animals never make it out alive.

Owensboro Humane Society
I may have been a little less mellow about this subject than I intended to be but that is prone to happen when I speak about a mistake that I have personal experience with. When I was a teenager, my parents bought me a little Shih Tzu puppy from a backyard breeder and most of the red flags were there. She came home too early (and grew up to be neurotically clingy). She was a terrible, albeit adorable, specimen of her breed (one of the jokes I made to friends was that her eyes had three settings: out, super out, and "almost in"). Of course, she was also the light of my life and my best friend for well over a decade. No one acquires a dog like that with ill intentions, it happens before we learn better. That's the case with most mistakes in pet care; we are fed so many terrible "answers." Most of us receive our information in bits and pieces and usually only half of it contains even a fraction of truth. In order to change this, weed out the myths, and begin to make a difference, we must share what we've learned from actual experiences and from digging deep.