Monthly Archives: January 2012



“Let ‘em do it. They’ll only do it once.”

This is what my grandfather (a very matter-of-fact WWII veteran sort of man) would announce when my cousins and I would attempt to do something stupid, such as stick a butter knife in a light socket, and our parents would attempt to intervene.

Harsh? Maybe. But also true. Sure, referring directly to the light socket situation, “once” would be the case due to the death that most likely follows. But consider something a bit lighter (Ha! … pun), such as pulling a heavy item off a high shelf. The result, a knock in the head or a deafening crash, would probably cause a child to avoid the situation in the future. Lesson learned.

Now imagine a child going for that same heavy item on the shelf but this time a parent interrupts. “No, no, Honey.” And when the child turns to said parent and is given a little piece of candy. “Good baby.”

Will the child try to pull the item down again in the future?

This is an issue I’ve been struggling with ever since Nala leapt into my life on four excited paws. How far can positive reinforcement go? At what point does a dog need to understand consequences? Does a dog need to understand consequences? If so, how severe should those consequences be?

We went to classes at Petsmart (See “Click”) and they were great. The trainer was beyond awesome, Nala learned a great deal, and it was a great bonding experience (a much needed bonus for us). It was well worth the money and time. While at these classes, I learned that Nala is somewhat treat-motivated… she is a dog after all. But I have also learned that things such as squirrels and deer are much more important.  This is not true for every dog, of course. Each dog comes with its own personality, energy level, and priorities.

Nala’s priorities are as follows:

  1. Other dogs
  2. Critters and animals of any kind (this includes birds)
  3. People (this does not include me – I’m old news)
  4. Running / playing outside
  5. Food

There are more after these. I’m on there somewhere down the list. But these are the five most important things in her life as I have observed thus far.

Most dog books will tell you that the treat thing is not a forever solution. It’s a good way to show a dog initially what it needs to do when a specific command is given. Beyond this, the treat should gradually be replaced with praise. This makes great sense for Nala, who is much more excited about someone offering energized sounds, belly rubs, and play than a lousy treat. And this is what I have been doing. She responds well. She knows come and is good at it. The other day, she even stopped and returned to me when she was on her way to greet a distant biker (they are very tempting to chase since they move so fast).


Over Christmas when a rather large herd of whitetail deer ran through an open field where we also happened to be walking, Nala was a gonner. No amount of “come” or “stay” was going to work when there were leaping deer in the distance, begging for company.

Twenty minutes later she sailed out of the woods a little scraped up, wild-eyed, open-mouthed and happy as hell.

So what do you do when your dog has a priority list like Nala’s? Keep it on a leash always? Pray? Or is there another possibility? A more dramatic approach?

What about shock collars?

Innotek is one of the most highly respected brands of collars, including invisible fence. This image is from their website

There is a website, a personal one, but still, it exists and is managed / written by a professional dog trainer, titled “The Truth About Shock Collars.” It is in support of the devices, if used properly. Shock collars are also sold by Petsmart and Petco, which one might consider a statement of support, or at least the lack of statement in opposition.

It is a scary thought for most pet parents, that is for anyone who loves his/her dog, to shock the little buddy in the neck for making a wrong move. The same is true for bark collars and invisible fences. In addition, some people cannot fathom spanking a child, even a little bit. But then some of those same people change their mind when they catch their child using a purple Sharpie on the living room wall. And that same pet parent so worried about his/her dog’s pain receptors being overloaded, might change his/her mind when the dog dashes through traffic. Now the issue is beyond convenience. The dog could get hurt, or worse, when not obeying a command.

One of the few statements found on-line against shock collars (including invisible fences) is by PETA (surprise). (Note: I do not dislike PETA, it’s just easy to make fun of them.) But even this statement by this well-known organization is a warning of the most extreme situations, issues with malfunctioning collars and generally people who shouldn’t be using them in the first place, and in some cases shouldn’t own a dog. Perhaps they aren’t as controversial as this dog owner previously thought.

I have seen shock collars used a great deal and I have used them myself. And this experience has made clear how easily these “training collars” can be misused. My father always said that if you are angry, you shouldn’t be holding the remote. And anyone who has owned a high-energy dog knows how easy it is to become enraged. This is where the line of cruelty can be crossed. In addition, someone who knows too little about dogs and how reinforcement works could do more damage than good with a sensitive dog and an zap collar.

Nala, if corrected too strongly at the wrong time can shut down. She is a high-energy dog, but she is also more sensitive than some other dogs. As mentioned before, dogs are individuals regarding the level of correction needed, not unlike children. For example, when I accidently shut Nala’s tail in the car door a month ago (yes, I still feel like a jerk), it took her days to trust me again. She knew I had hurt her, and she didn’t know why, therefore, she wasn’t sure when it would happen again. It was not correction, it was pain without purpose. She still won’t sit in the passenger seat when I close the door. Dogs are smart and have good memories. Timing is everything.

For example: For Nala to know that chasing deer is a bad idea, I need to be with her (wearing a shock collar) in a field where there is a deer waiting to be chased. She needs to start chasing that deer. I need to say, “come.” She needs to ignore that command, and THEN she needs to feel a zap. Ideally this will stop her, get her attention, get her to obey the command, return to me, and receive praise for that return. Situations like this usually require some type of invention and planning. It takes time, patience, and a willingness to be trained yourself. The very definition of what it takes to train a dog.

But what if I don’t do this? What if Nala takes off after the next deer and get hung in a fence, and can’t find her, and, well, you know. Or what if she chases a squirrel into a busy street? A bird onto a frozen pond? Maybe a little hurt is needed to avoid something much worse.

Should everyone own a shock collar? GOD no! In fact, most dog owners shouldn’t have shock collars (an many dogs don’t need them). In addition, stupid people shouldn’t use shock collars. But then, most stupid people don’t know they’re stupid. That’s an issue. But is that any reason to throw out the puppy with the bath water?


Smarty Paws


In 1982 National Public Television released a series that would go on to win four emmys, Nature: Animal Minds. The series is 186 minutes of attempt to answer two questions, “Are animals intelligent?” and “Do animals have emotions?”

Of course those of us who have pets, and love them, and are not animal hoarders, don’t see these as questions. They are givens. We know for a fact pets are intelligent. A dog can learn to lie down and stay, a cat can learn to come when the treat bag is shaken and use a litter box (my father even claims to have taught one specific cat to sit). And as far as emotions, most of us have witnessed a frightened or happy pet, and those who have not have at least seen one of the countless nature shows that involve animals playing in the wild or running crazy-eyed from a predator. But among the nerdy science people and Ph.D.s of the world, these questions are more, well, questionable. The reason? Intelligence isn’t just learning a behavior (which makes me wonder why I spent all those years memorizing facts in school and regurgitating them on tests).

According to the Webster Dictionary, intelligence is “the ability to learn or understand or deal with new or trying situations […] the skilled use of reason […] the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly.“ Now those who have any experience with science, scientists, or just analytically minded people, know that it is not that simple. Or is it?

First, for example, considering reason, or logic, I can conclude that Nala is intelligent because broke out of her crate. Logically, she figures she can do it again, and, indeed, she was right until I used my own logic to figure out how she was escaping. However, some of the experts on this PBS special, such as Dr. Evan McPhail, an animal intelligence expert (or at least someone available and willing to be interviewed for this show) claims that most of what dogs do is by trial and error in conjunction with natural instincts. They try out a few things and when they get rewarded, the connection clicks and they understand what is needed, or what works. This, by definition, is not thinking abstractly, and, therefore, not considered a high level intelligence. It is learning, but not much more than that. But pets were only a small part of this series.

For example, some Chimpanzees studied had the ability to use tools. Remember the definition? This means they manipulate their environment and are thinking abstractly, they come up with a plan and are able to carry out that plan. The trial and error is happening in their capable ape-brains. I realize that this is no real shocker. Most people are aware of the intelligence of primates, we have seen Jane Goodall (also part of the series) sitting in the jungle and speaking lowly into a camera. But this wasn’t always common knowledge. In fact, we are living in a rather new world regarding animal awareness (that is our awareness of animals).

Animal Minds was aired over 30 years ago, 1982, a time of big hair, wide shoulders, and small animal rights. It was this decade that gave birth to some of the most prominent animal rights organizations, such as PETA, FARM, and IDA. It was also a time of movement towards education rather than acts of defiance (breaking in to laboratories and freeing all the animals, for example – how very 60’s) (Pipe). Hence the birth of this series. So really, if one were transported back to the early ‘80’s this would have been very much a cutting edge theory. “You mean my dog might have opened the gate himself?” “That raven can actually learn to steal fish off a fisherman’s line?”

It’s true, a large part of the population has moved on. We understand that our pets, and most other animals that haven’t managed to escape our everyday, over-worked, over-caffeinated awareness, are pretty smart, however you want to define it. But the idea or question of emotion seems to exist on a different plane.

Learning to perform a trick or even perform a task that ensures survival is one thing, but happiness, guilt, shame and depression are something else and bring with them a new set of responsibilities.

The series provided proof of some of these emotions: a dog with separation anxiety (I know plenty about that one), an orangutan that showed the same signs of shame as a human child after it gave the wrong answer to a question, a bird who showed joy when it tricked the family dog into running outside…. repeatedly, a depressed Chimpanzee, an elephant running its trunk up and down the bones of a lost family member, and the list goes on. Most pet owners have seen evidence of some of these emotions. Gilt is a big one for Nala. But this goes beyond pets. If animals have this wide range of emotion, if they feel depressed or afraid, we may have to make some real changes to be considered morally sound.

Now I’m not getting radical here. I’m not saying that we all need to become vegans tomorrow. I’m as guilty of shoving red meat down my gullet as most Midwesterners, I love eggs in the morning, and, to be honest, people have been hunting and killing animals since the first hairy caveman sharpened a stick. But maybe there needs to be more thought into where our food comes from. At least the wild boar killed with the stick was free-range, living its life until it walked into the wrong pasture. Today things are quite different.

In 2005 the average Iowa Hog confinement housed up to 1,500 tightly packed hogs (Schrum, 2005).  According to Fox News, a video in a company in CA showed workers shocking, kicking and shoving debilitated cattle with forklifts. Chickens are shoved into cages to produce eggs, after their beaks have been cut off, of course, so they won’t peck each other or themselves to death due to the stress. Key word there is stress. Evidence of emotion anyone?

Not all animals in the food industry are in abusive situations, of course, (although some are) but those that are not in a FDA regulated organic or free-range situation are certainly not anywhere near their natural environment, able to engage in their natural habits and entertain their instincts. If these animals have emotion, and I think there is more than enough evidence that they do, we are cruel, inhumane.

Animal Minds aired 30 years ago, and we have come quite a ways regarding how we view animals and ourselves in relationship to them, but although this series has aged, it is just as relevant as ever.

There is a still a lot to learn and even more to change.

Pipe, S. Ph.D. (2011). Animal rights and Animal Welfare. Ways to give. Retrieved from

Schrum, Christine. (2005). Hog confinement health risks.  The Iowa Source. Retrived from