Archive | September 2013



Mika wouldn’t hold things in her mouth for more than a few seconds before I taught her force fetch.



There are two reasons why this blog is called Diary of a Dog Pusher.

The first is because I – unconsciously, compulsively – try to get others to find the joy in having a dog. The first time my mom got her little chihuahua to go through a cat tunnel, I was ecstatic. When my friends come to watch classes, and decide to get dogs themselves so they can work with this beautiful, challenging, joyful animal, I nearly faint. When somebody comes to me with a difficult dog, I love that dog and that person all the more for striving to achieve something more than the sum of the dog’s issues, for trying to really fulfill that dog’s potential. When a difficult dog goes on to accomplish something – even if it’s to be an exemplary, steady household member, that sums up why I am into dogs, and why I try to push encourage people to work with and live with dogs. 

The second reason that I am a dog pusher is because that is what training is all about. Just like your own education, training pushes out your boundaries, it extends your abilities, expands your horizons, makes you more tolerant, more capable, more accomplished. 

And with dogs, training is all about pushing. Push firmly, push gently, push inexorably, but push! If you don’t push your dog, if you let them continue on as they are, if you don’t challenge them, hold them to a higher standard, hold yourself to a high standard with them, then you are dooming that dog to a sub-par life. 

It’s possible to push too hard – like everything in life, balance is essential. But you have to push. If your dog is a biter, then you have to expand their tolerance to a point where they accept your presence and your interference with them and they no longer bite. This is done slowly, inexorably, and with full knowledge that it will work.

If you have a dog that is fearful, it’s even more important to push their boundaries. Otherwise, you are leaving that dog to be trapped by its fear. That dog will never learn what it’s capable of because you’ve never taken it out of its comfort zone. 

A lot of people seem to almost grow worshipful of their dog’s fear or aggression if they aren’t able to overcome it quickly enough, and though – like mentioned in an earlier post – it would be EXTREMELY AWESOME if everybody respected that dogs are individuals, aren’t perfect, have different temperaments and needs, and were quite capable of aggression – that’s not the world we live in. 

The goal instead has to be that your dog can be taken out in public with a reasonable assumption that dog isn’t going to eat anybody or anything, even in the case of a horrible management failure. And if your dog isn’t to that point yet, and to take your dog in public is something that you want, then that should be something that you push for (and be honest and accept that they’re not ready yet to be publicly reliable and work them in conditions where the chance of a horrible management failure is nill, like class or on lead around dog saavy people). 

After all, the less chance a dog gets to practice bad habits, the easier it is to push them beyond those bad habits. Pushing can be an uncomfortable process, but it’s worth every second when you have a dog that is capable, reliable, a joy to be around. Dogs should be enjoyable (even if they’re sometimes a challenge) so push. Push gently. Push inexorably. But push.  


Use Small Words

There are some very, very good dog trainers out there.

These are the trainers-of-trainers – they don’t take on pet people any more as they are beyond that, they are the nth degree blackbelts of dog training, the grand masters, the sensei, the research scientists of the dog world.

Some of these will drop little pearls of wisdom like gifts, hoping that other people will gather something valuable from it. Often, they are reluctant to give up their hard-won secrets, and won’t dole out any more information than that.

After puzzling for a while (and watching other people puzzle too) over one such pearl, a thought dawned on me.

Unless your audience can understand your wisdom, it’s useless.

Jargon, mystibabble, and confounding, elaborate language are the hallmarks of a lot of charlatans in the dog training business. I tell a lot of clients, if a dog trainer isn’t making sense to you, likely they don’t make sense to themselves. Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean they are smarter than you are.

A good teacher is somebody who will take the time to explain things, in depth if necessary, and quickly if necessary. It’s one of the reasons that Patricia McConnell has developed such teeny weensy handout books for clients to read – they deliver bits of information quickly, efficiently, and understandably.

That’s why some research scientists actually make such terrible instructors in college as well – they can’t be bothered to take the time to break down the information without using jargon. A lot of them have the attitude of “Well, if you don’t understand it, look it up.” which is fine to a certain extent. The job of a teacher isn’t to spoonfeed the information to students, but it is to give them enough grounding of understanding that the lecture is productive.

Luckily, this pearl of wisdom actually did come from a sensei of the dog world, and this person did take the time to explain the jargon when questioned – thus demonstrating the difference between a good teacher and a charlatan in the use of language. (In fact, he even got the questioners to define the specialized terms by asking questions of them, another mark of a great teacher)

A good teacher will always do that, instead of dismissing you haughtily as an idiot because you don’t happen to get the term yet. In fact, the best teachers never make you feel like an idiot. They might correct you, they might even take you to task if you don’t do something right and they know that you can, but they will not talk down to you.


Because the information is important, and in its best form, can be taught to most anybody who is willing to learn it.

And a great teacher is willing to use small words to get there.


To be a good teacher, use small words. This also translates to teaching your dog – and right here, I was learning what to say and how to say it to Mika. I still haven’t mastered the language of herding yet.


A commenter left this comment on my post about Pit Bulls. I was going to reply to it, but I feel it deserves a whole post aaaalllll by itself.

“Jescargill- contrary to your statement rescues do not “sell” dogs. they charge an adoption fee that is used toward their organization continuing to help other dogs. One “bait dog” or other dog with medical problems can cost upwards of $3000 to treat, but you can’t ask a person to pay that to adopt the dog. Or are you just anti rescue???.”


(From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

sell (sl)

v. sold (sld), sell·ing, sells

1. To exchange or deliver for money or its equivalent.

Which means that, unless you are giving away the dog for free (gifting) or giving the dog away for a service (trading) you are, by necessity, selling the dog.

Rescues exchange dogs for money. This is selling – and I don’t have a problem with this. Second- or third-hand dogs make just fine pets, 99% of the time. But adoption organizations (I hesitate to call most of them “rescues” because most of their dogs are simply traded in dogs, either for a “model” that better fits the family’s lifestyle, the dog is too much trouble because of aggression or other behavior issues, or because they can’t afford to keep a dog around anymore.

Unless you pulled the dog from a burning building or a river, it wasn’t “rescued” from anything other than intentional euthanasia.) have to weigh the cost of taking on medically needy dogs (like the $3000 repair on a dog that was hit by a car, etc) versus their overall operating cost and adoption rate.

It’s simple economics. No matter how pure your intentions, you are always subject to economics. Because we don’t actually have a pet overpopulation problem (this effect isn’t as obvious in the south and in economically disadvantaged areas, of course), this means that you have to take into account what the public wants in a second-hand dog. The ones that you can’t “sell” are the ones that stay in shelters for 10 years or are euthanized.

Rescue organizations like Stray Rescue have rainy-day funds (the Stracks fund in this case) that they fill with donations, rather than depending on their average adoption fee. This is how they are able to reconcile the conflict between high overhead and adoption rates. This is a perfectly acceptable methodology.Other rescues choose only to take on dogs that they know they can turn over – small and fluffies, puppies, that sort of thing.

There are several in my area that use this stratagem. They adopt out a lot of dogs. Organizations that choose to take on hard-case, high overhead dogs without an emergency fund face the possibility of not being able to stay functional because of the lack of funds, or alternatively being able to adopt out very few dogs.

I guess it depends on your ethic what you decide is important – adopting out a lot of dogs, or adopting out dogs you see as “more worthy” because of their hard case. As a trainer, my ethic has always been trying to adopt out a high volume of dogs that will STAY in their homes. This would mean investing in training for these dogs and trying to work dogs that naturally will be easygoing in a home environment.
I’m a trainer that has worked with a large volume of aggressive or otherwise unsuitable dogs – mostly because myself and my master trainer are the only ones in the area that will.

I appreciate the hard-case dogs. But I know too just how rare it is for people to be willing to work it out, and how unsuited most are for the task – and for the majority of people, it’s unfair to expect that of them. They aren’t dog people; they just want a pet. I am a realist. If “rescue” wants to be effective, they need to get off their moral highground and be realistic too.

I’m sure a gearhead would be absolutely appalled that I’ve left my check engine light on for a week without following up on it (which I have), and appalled that I wash my car about . . . oh once a year. I give it good gas and change its oil and get new tires for it, though, but it’s full of stock parts and I try not to spend money on it. As a Dog Person (somebody really committed to dogs and dog ethic, training, etc), I cringe when non-dog people (read – regular pet owners) feed their dogs Purina and never take them to training.

But realistically, I’ve come to accept that my onus is to try and show people the joy of training and caring for their dog, not shame them for not being as invested in it as I am. I give a lot of small advice freely to try and improve peoples’ lives and their dogs’ lives. Dogs are much more important now than they ever have been, so the ethic is changing for the better – after all, 20 years ago nobody had inside dogs in Oklahoma.

So no. I am not anti-rescue.I am, however, against the moralizing, finger-wagging, and holier-than-thou attitudes of rescues whose priorities are hard-case dogs and their sad narrative without ever considering the human equation. Randy Grim’s Stray Rescue is a beautiful example of an organization that considers both. It’s possible – but raging against reality and shaming tactics – “Are you just anti-rescue???” won’t accomplish a damned thing other than make me reject every rescue that engages in those tactics – and deprive them of a potentially valuable resource in my training.

I’ll just work with the crappy hard-case dogs they foist off on inappropriate people after they come home.

At least the regular “average pet owner” adopters will listen because they don’t have a giant ego plugging their ears.

Deferred Suffering


Two dogs enjoying some offleash time – oh wait, they’re both wearing ecollars! They can’t be enjoying themselves, can they?!

I am a balanced trainer.

I’ve got a lot of tools in my bag-o-tricks, including my voice, my hands, my feet, my hips, my eyes, my body posture, niblets of treats, the ghost and promise of treat niblets, sticks to point to things, sticks to swing in front of a dog’s nose, coyote tails, squeaky toys, rattly cans, listerine, vinegar, leashes, harnesses to teach pulling, pinch collars, martingales, electronic collars, doggy life vests and crates.

Every moment in a dog’s life is “training” because all training is learning.

A good example of why I am a balanced trainer is because of an incident when Dax was a puppy.

Some backstory: Dax was a TERRIBLE puppy. I almost returned him a couple of times because he would bark. Incessantly. He enjoyed being sprayed in the mouth with listerine. It was maddening.

Dax also liked to steal food off the counters as soon as he was old enough to do it. We would do formal leave-its, setups, self control exercises, rattle cans, the works trying to get him to stop, but this being Dax – Patron Saint of Persistence, none of this curbed his hunger for counter food (pizza in particular, I think he ate an entire half pizza once).

Until one day when we demonstrated to Dax that we are, in fact, evil Magicians. This of course happened after he had behaved himself for a while and we thought we had the counter surfing taken care of, and had grown somewhat careless for a moment.

There was a pan of chicken breasts cooking on top of the glass top stove when Dax decided he wanted to sample this.

A quick yip! and out came a black streak straight to his crate. He had burned his nose on the pan in his investigation  of possible chicken theft.

And Dax never tried to steal a piece of food off the counter again (and this has been the case more than a year later)

After that, it was fairly easy – he would choose to ignore the food on the counter and come to me instead – and would get some treat niblets in exchange to let him know he made the right choice. But he made that choice, and his experiences gave him the right sort of data to make that choice. “Sometimes, stealing food really SUCKS. How’s about I not-do-that and get some treats instead” from a possible consequence to a predictable bonus.

A lot of people snub and ridicule balanced trainers that will use corrections or setups to have a dog learn to Not Do something.

But that pan of chicken taught Dax better than all of my previous self-control exercises did. And Dax’s quality of life improved significantly at that point – he could have greater freedom of the house, he could be trusted to take care of himself more, we could trust him better in public and visiting because we knew he had learned a lesson – food on countertops (and it was then easy to expand this to tables and in fact developed a default leave it with him) was Not To Be Touched.

That’s the real reason that I’m a balanced trainer. I want dogs to learn quickly how to conduct themselves well in public and at home. I want their owners to trust their dog, and to have a dog that is both reliable and relaxed because the rules have been established.

Some lessons in my life have been painful. Some lessons for dogs might be too. But I would far rather have a quick, perhaps painful lesson followed by a lifetime of mcuh greater freedom, trust, responsibility, and enjoyment than a lifetime filled by constant re-hashings, slow lessons, half-effective counterconditioning for instinctive drive based behaviors, and stress. Stress both on the part of the dog that lives in perpetual uncertainty because it doesn’t understand a lesson (because dogs will Not Do something they understand is Not To Do, the only reason they break that is because they’ve found wiggle room or something isn’t clear in the rules of their existence) and stress on the part of the owner who quickly builds up resentments, frustration, and generally learns not to like their misbehaving dog on a very personal level.

What results may be that your training doesn’t cause suffering to your dog, but your dog suffers. You’re simply deferring that suffering, spreading it out. Your dog’s overall welfare is poorer than it would have been had you simply addressed their problematic behavior, rectified it, and moved on past the problem.

Point in example – Dax was a terrible puppy. I hated him as a puppy.

But now I’d attack somebody with my TEETH if they tried to take him from me.

We went through (what felt like) a long period of learning – establishing rules of conduct, rules of behavior, appropriate behavior in multiple settings and contexts. Sometimes we still have brief lessons on these things, but largely he has learned them.

And especially for the vast majority of people with pets, they’re not willing to struggle through the martyrdom of living with a four legged terrorist in their house so they can ascribe to a moral position that using corrections on a dog is Innately Wrong. So if they had a Daxpuppy, he would’ve been out the door within a month.

And that’s a fucking shame. Because nobody is better than the Daxman – as much work as I put into him, he’s given me back out the work tenfold.


(And for those who think that counterconditioning dogs against drive or aggression isn’t slow, they should try it. I have. It is. It works great as an additional exercise, but to me shouldn’t be your sole recourse.)

And hat tips to master trainers who have tackled this subject before with much more skill, eloquence, and tenacity than I’m capable of:

There are more, but I’m too brain dead to remember them. Poke around a bit – you’ll find them.


When I was a little girl, my dad would speak to me about the dangers of narrative thinking.

(Of course, my frequent response was to stare blankly, think “I’m like . . . 9, dad, I can’t read Godel Escher Bach yet, nor understand this conversation. Can I go outside and play?”)

But I guess it sank in anyway.

Narrative thinking can be dangerous, because it’s creative – and sometimes not in a good way. It’s creative in the way that a creationist is creative – ad hoc explanations of phenomenon and trying very  hard to fit reality into a hypothesis that a person has already proven correct to themselves.

As we all know, science is all about disproving hypotheses and trying to come up with a better idea of how the world works by cutting away ideas that are incorrect. It’s carving – not painting. Narrative thinking is the opposite of this.

But it’s integral to human process – we were built to understand the world through narrative. Just like pareidolia, human brains try to find shapes in events, in data, to try and make a picture. Thus, science is a way of checking this process, of balancing it – to match our impulse to create a story with the deep need to make sure it’s true.

The problem arises when you allow yourself to think narratively without using science.

Dog training is both an art and a science, and uses narrative thinking extensively – just like in the beginning parts of your research – to try and grasp the scope of a dog’s history, and at that point, science steps in and you try to eliminate things that are unlikely.

And a shape that a huge number of rescues and pet owners has found in the clouds is the story that their rescue dogs have been abused. And it’s not based on a misunderstanding between neglect and abuse – no, the story is that these dogs were physically traumatized.

This assumption has the potential to explain all sorts of things to people – why their dog doesn’t like men, why their dog bites them when they try to clip its nails, why their dog tries to fight every other dog it sees.

“The rescue thought she was abused” they’ll beg, the dog lunging and slavering at the dog next to it in class.

“He was a bait dog.” They’ll explain as their dog snaps at them for trying to put a collar on.

And ultimately I have to step back and ask them, very somberly “What evidence, outside of your dog’s behavior, do you have that your dog was abused?”

And a lot of them stop, and think, and realise that the rescue they got the dog is the only place they heard this story.

(Not to say dogs aren’t abused – I’ve worked with several that have legitimate evidence of abuse – a dog that was set on fire and treated for his burns comes to mind)

The reason that this is so dangerous is because the real reasons for dogs behaving badly quite often – as sussed out from dozens of other clients – are not abuse.

A dog that reacts badly to somebody putting on a collar is likely a dog that has little tolerance for being handled. Likely, they’ll try to razor you up for touching their feet, their backs, or anyplace where they are slightly uncomfortable. Dogs that use their mouths to establish boundaries of behavior with people learn very quickly that they can push that boundary back where the people will do nothing the dog decides they don’t like – if they bite.

It’s a different hypothesis than one of abuse, but one that’s more likely – the symptom of not allowing a person to touch is often caused by the disease of not ever having had to accept that touch, much as this post indicates:

And more importantly, without the empathetic heart-pulling of an abuse story, you no longer perceive the biting as “understandable” or “acceptable, given the circumstances”. You instead see it as a challenge that your dog must overcome.

A dog that doesn’t like men might have been abused by a men or males, but more likely  that dog grew up in a household only full of women. This is a problem of socialization, not abuse. To that dog, men 1) smell wrong, 2) look wrong 3) sound wrong – therefore, to that dog, men ARE WRONG and NOT TO BE TRUSTED.
This is probably the same reaction that you would have if somebody walked through a store with skin that was bright blue.

You may think “But, you’re just assuming that abuse isn’t the right answer to why my dog is behaving badly! Your hypothesis isn’t any more legitimate than mine!”

And honestly, with a lot of rescue dogs, it’s absolutely impossible to establish what exactly happened to them in the past. But we can use a little bit of logic to determine what is more likely.

There were 550 cases of animal cruelty (Abuse and neglect) in the US. (  NOTE: I’m not entirely sure of the veracity of this source, but it wasn’t immediately apparent it’s run by animal rights people or that it’s patently false. I wish I had a better source for statistics, however.)

As horrible as those 550 cases were, compare them to the approximately 377 instances of violent crime per every 100,000 people that year. (

Granted, this may be a matter of the difference in state law as interpreting abuse as well as conviction rates, but even assuming that number should be doubled, that still means that actual animal abuse is not that common. You’re much more likely to get punched in the face.

That aside, there’s also the matter of the data that I and other trainers have gathered over years of practice (which, by God if that data was written down and quantified, such a happy person I would be) in that dogs that have come in with obvious signs of abuse have not shown these particular bad behaviors, and that many, many more dogs who have been accounted for their entire lives have.

Just like in identifying a pathogen, if you put a pathogen in (abuse) and the symptoms do not appear (aggression to a particular demographic) in some cases, but you put a different pathogen in (being unsocialized) and the symptoms do appear (aggression to a particular demographic) then you can infer that the cause of aggression to a particular demographic is probably being under socialized to that demographic.

And when you can repeat that many, many times, with many, many dogs – well, then you have a hypothesis that hasn’t been disproven yet. Then you have science.

This of course is a very simplistic explanation – when you’re talking about any kind of animal behavior, you have to expect that there are going to be dozens of confounding factors, and exceptions, and changes to the paradigm are going to have to happen.

And that’s another reason why the abuse excuse is such a poor one.

You cannot break the complex inner workings of an animal’s mind down to a simple story – he is aggressive because he was abused. That’s part of the reason why it’s so important to work with a trainer in cases of bad behavior or aggression in dogs – because we’ve got the data to help you narrow your hypothesis down, and a good trainer is willing to look at each case with a critical eye to try and find the best solution for your dog, even if it’s a little-used or unique solution.

And the best trainer is never going to let the “Why” stand in the way of the “How” in terms of helping you live with your dog peacefully.

After all, who wants their past to keep them from accomplishing something in the future? So make sure not to make your dog’s past stand in their way either.


“Please help me, I don’t know what to feel about this”

There’s a reason they call them bitches

My dog the hussy

Sometimes, I like to watch my dogs to get an idea of what they’re thinking.

Mika is a hussy.

She’s the kind of dog to stick her tail in male dog’s faces (even though she’s fixed) and drag them all around town with a come-hither flash of her blue eyes.

The only dogs that have ever been able to resist her are Dax (probably because she raised him from a pup) and Audie, my friend’s dignified, glorious English Shepherd.

Every other dog is game.

Recently she’s set her sights on poor Phoenix, and he’s toast. Total toast. Phoenix is a sensitive, earnest, humble fellow who loves to please, get his feelings hurt, but works really hard to help others (hence why he’s a service dog in training).

He’s been making quiet overtures at her for weeks, so when she finally accepted, it was all lovey-dovey for a couple of days – they’d lay on the floor and jaw-wrestle, flirt, and run and play tug . . .

And then Mika decided she wanted to fuck with him (because he’s a pushover).

First, he’d come up to her and try to initiate play, or give her little kisses, and she’d growl and snap. Then, she’d start actively pushing him off spots, claiming them for her own or simply making him move just to make him move. She wouldn’t even lay there after he was gone.

She’s stare until he gave up a chewey. And then she wouldn’t take it.

The next day, she’s upped the ante, and totally ignored him. Walked off if he came up to her. Snubbed him gloriously. He was heartbroken, and took up laying on a piece of floor someplace and staring forlornly at her.

Then today, she’s back to playing with him, kissing him, laying really close. Phoenix is, of course, totally bewildered at this point, but grateful for the attention.

I think my dog is an abusive woman.

I may have to have a talk with her. I’m an MRA fer chrissakes!

I guess there’s a reason they call them bitches.