Check it out! This video has been going viral, and with good reason — it’s really well done. I’m definitely not a fan of Beneful dog food, but do really appreciate the dog training involved in the advertisement, not to mention the Dog Goldberg machine. Check it out!
I identify as a harm reduction dog trainer. One of the other kinds of work I do in the world is as a director of programming for homeless and highly marginalized young people. One of the guiding principals of doing that kind of work that is considered a best practice for working these populations of youth, and one of the philosophies that makes the most sense. Although first developed to talk about drug use, it’s uses have been expanded. Guiding principals behind a harm reduction philosophy are about meeting the individual “where they are at” to prioritize a safer approach/use as apposed to a focus on abstinance, knowing that someone may not be able or ready to completely cut a “negative” behavior out of their life. I see you glazing over a little bit, I see you wondering what on earth this has to do with dogs, and that maybe I should take this over to one of the other places I blog….. stay with me, I promise this is going to get a whole lot more dog focused very very soon.
I utilize a harm reductive dog training approach, *not* to excuse poor behavior, or lack of training but as guiding principals for setting realistic training and behavior goals for my dogs, and in particular dogs who are a little more special needs, like my Charlotte. Charlotte is former street-dog and is dog/dog reactive. One of the things I love most about her is how incredibly honest she is, and how hard she works to do what I’m asking (watch me, don’t lunge etc.) even though it goes against what she believes is the needed response (get the dog before it gets me). For her, the world is mostly based on a “you will eat me if I don’t eat you first” approach where other dogs are concerned (exceptions being Mercury of course and then on a couple occasions other small very stable adjusted dogs she has been able to in controlled ways befriend).
Charlotte has made tremendous behavioral improvements in terms of her ability to tollerate seeing other dogs without reacting, or with only a minor reaction. The kind of changes she’s made since we adopted her almost two years ago are a result of the hard work and dedication Kestryl and I have put into working with her, but also a lot of the credit rests with Charlotte who is a very honest dog who works so hard to do what she knows she should – remain calm when other dogs appear down the block, or run up to us in the park. Mercury is a bombproof dog, Charlotte never will be. The moment I start to compare her to other dogs, or judge her behavior against theirs, is the moment that I begin to fail her.
A huge mental training moment happened for me when I began to conceptualize working with Charlotte using the same terms that populate my youth-work profesional life, namely a harm reduction approach. Suddenly, I had a language and framework to discuss the training philosophy that we utilize when working with Charlotte namely the knowing that she will have reactions (pun intended) that are not ideal to situations, but that we have a rubric for understanding her behavior that looks different than what is for example expected from our other dog.
With Charlotte the number one goal is always safety both physical and emotional for her (and of course others in the community), and setting her up in situations where whenever possible she will be successful — for example turning down a dog trick demo we were invited to be part of because I know that sort of public display would a) be filled with dogs b) be filled with loud noises and c) not be a lot of fun for her. It’s also about recognizing that we live in the real world. unlike some trainers I would never say I set her up to be successful 100% of the time I recognize that’s not possible. We live in NYC, in an apartment building she will be pushed over threshold by off-leash dogs running at her in the elevator, other dogs appearing on street corners etc. etc. etc. It’s in my mind about how we as her family handle those situations, how we give space for a contained not optimal reaction as we work within her abilities towards improvements. Training with a Harm Reductive approach means that we are attuned to very minor positive shifts in improved responses, we celebrate and captivate on those as apposed to simply looking at the big picture which was yes, she was hackles raised, moaning and pulling when she saw that dog in the lobby HOWEVER she wasn’t barking, snarling etc. and was able to work with me to get out of that physical area and onto the street and thus, for her, was a HUGE success
Last weekend Kestryl and I went out to the Figment art festival on Governors Island. It’s such a beautiful place an we were surrounded by all kind sof fun and innovative art. What I hadn’t anticipated, was to also be engaging with really well-done political art. Towards the end of the day we wandered upon the Pop Dogs instillation a series of HUGE popcorn machines that were overflowing with stuffed puppies!
The instillation was probably one of the best depictions and conversation starters about over-breeding, and pet over-population. I took tons of pictures and immediately started firing off texts of them fo my dog loving buddies. I love it when art is able to really capture a feeling and situation in a way that statistics can’t. There’s something about a pooling pile of puppies on the ground that had everyone – adults and children alike stopping to take a closer look, and most importantly talking about overpopulation. This is an issue I know a lot about, and still the exhibit captivated me. I’ve seen a lot of dog art in my lifetime and this was without a doubt the best depiction of this issue that I’ve seen!
Once I got home and did some research into the artist I discovered that some of the polices they seem to support: like Shanghai’s limits on one dog per household, or blanket statements about what the artist seems to believe is a poor quality of life for dogs living in NYC I am in complete opposition to. The artist makes claims that lack of adequate off-leash hours and dog runs within NYC results in a poor quality of life for dogs, suggesting that urban dogs only get a walk around the block before being confined to “postage stamp sized apartments” for exceptionally long days while their owners are out etc. etc. etc. It was disappointing to see that the messaging behind such powerful art was so simplistic as bashing NYC urban dog owners (I would counteroffer that most dog guardians I know in NYC go above and beyond to ensure that our dogs have the highest quality of life, that we actually spend more quality time together BECAUSE we don’t have a backyard to pop them into like guardians with more space), and that he relies on simplistic and outdated analysis of what constitutes quality of life – specifically access to off-leash hours and dogrun socialization. The dog park while fun for people is actually incredibly unnatural for dogs. Yes, some dogs are able to do well in that environment but to argue that access to the dog park is the benchmark for quality of life is beyond irresponsible. I can guarantee that my reactive rescue dog has a higher quality of life because we don’t try to force her into socializing with dogs and instead enrich her (and our older dog’s life) with leashed urban park outings, adventures, as well as regular trips out of the city for mini-vacations.
I wish that I were the kind of fancy fancy femme who walked the dogs and looked like this 😉 Ha! In actuality I am in a skirt, but it’s covered with drool, and mud, cookie crumbs, and alge from the pond!
Someday, when I hopefully am able to do live the dream of transitioning into training as a core component of my “pays the bills career” and I need to start thinking about things like branding and logos — I would love to see my training business be fun and quirky and playing with some pinup imagery with a canine flair definitely appeals to me, which is part of what I loved about this picture– especially since that pup looks a whole lot like my Charlotte.
Wow. It’s been far too long since my last dog blog update! I didn’t intend for it to be this long between posts, but I got incredibly busy – first my birthday and then i was off to a literary conference in New Orleans, then back home to NYC and very focused on a big writing award I recieved and somewhere along the way the dog blogging fell by the wayside! yikes!
A quick update on what’s been going on – the biggest dog news is that Mercury my little old man over my birthday weekend developed two very large sudden growths in his little mouth. We rushed him to the emergency vet, and then to our vet and learned the growths had actually dislodged teeth in his mouth! He was put onto antibiotics and pain meds and we quickly scheduled surgery.
Mercury’s surgery (the fastest our vet could get him in) was the next weekend— the same weekend I was in New Orleans for the conference. I was horrified to miss his appointment even though it was my partner (who has co-parented him for 9 years) who would be taking him to and from the vet, and handling the at-home recovery right after surgery. I felt like the worst dog parent ever to not be there for him. It wasn’t until I had a series of serious sit-downs both with my family (how convenient my uncle was here for my birthday and could help as we got the news about Mercury’s surgery!) and realized that in actuality my *not* being here was probably best for Mercury. That little guy puts all his focus on taking care of me, 100% of the time and has for the past 11 years. If I had been here, his focus would ahve been on me, and not on his own healing which is what needed to happen.
In the end the surgery was significantly more involved than thought- instead of the 3-5 teeth we thought he would loose, they had to remove 16!!!! Mercury is a bit of a toothless old man now, though he’s really enjoying all the wet food. The best news of all is how quickly the little guy bounced back!!! I was worried what the recovery would look like since he is older and so small but within a week he was literally better than ever and word came back from the biopsy that the growths were benign!
There were a few moments when we first saw those growths in his little mouth that I feared this was the start of something bigger, something I’m not ready for. Mercury has been with me my entire adult life, he’s moved cross country with me, he’s seen me from crusty punk teenager trying to get by to established adult working profesional and award winning author. I know the time will come that he isn’t by my side (err ankles 😉 ) but I’m so grateful that time hasn’t come yet.
I started training dogs nearly 15 years ago and have had the opportunity to work with, take classes or seminars from and otherwise learn training techniques from a variety of trainers . Not the most popular perspective amongst some, but I believe there are numerous ways to train a dog – I believe some are better than others but I’m not the kind of trainer that prescribes to one training philosophy as though it were a religion. I believe that each trainer like each dog is an individual and as such must find their own path. With my own dogs I utilize positive reinforcement, clickers for shaping trick work. I also believe in structure and boundary setting – I want to set my dogs up to succeed and I believe that all dogs, but especially those with traumatic pasts respond best and are calmest when they love in a home with clear boundaries and routines . Just as I would like to see people move away from harsh punishment based training, I just as passionately would like to see canine guardians set and maintain more limits with their dogs.
None of us are perfect, our dogs see us at out best and our worst. This weekend my partner has been away at a conference and I came down with the flu and have barely gotten off the couch. Obviously this has not been the fun and enriching weekend I had hoped to provide them with, quite the contrary it’s been downright boring- especially for Charlotte who while not super high energy was definitely bored and looking for something to do by this morning when I finally felt well enough to slowly walk to the park and let her run and swim. I say this because life happens, we aren’t always able to provide fun days for our dogs, but that said its important to think about what we can do even when time/space/energy is limited. Teaching a new trick can be an excellent way to provide some mental stimulation and quality time together even if it’s not the most physically stimulating .
For me one of the most beautiful and special things about dogs is the ways in which they are so in tuned to us, the ways in which they respond to us. Every interaction we have with our dogs from a formal training session or an outing, to just a normal day at home our dogs are learning from us. I believe that it is our responsibility as canine guardians to think about the lessons we’re teaching our dogs everyday, especially those that come outside of formal training sessions
LOVE THIS. I’m a huge fan of Lili Chin’s canine artwork, and I especially adore the pieces that come with great and incredibly needed public service messages— like this one. I live in a high-density urban area (NYC) and have one high-needs very dog/dog reactive pup, and a little old dog who while great with other dogs is understandably not the most thrilled about being confronted with rambunctious large off leash dogs, and subsequently being bowled over. Can’t tell you how many times per week I get to have little educational conversations with other dog owners in the park and on the street about how just because their dog is friendly, doesn’t mean that mine is.