Category Archives: Labrador Character Traits

Are Labradors really “physically insensitive”?

When I first started this blog I went looking through all the different resources I had collected in my journey so far, books, internet articles, websites that I had book-marked. I included a excerpt from one that talks about Labrador’s being “physically insensitive”. I’m beginning to think that this could very well be used as a cop-out and is potentially dangerous in the wrong hands. The statement in it’s entirety was the following:

The reasons that Labradors give the impression of being hard-headed is because they are physically insensitive.

My change of thought has come from being more observant of the subtle insights my dogs offer every day. In taking the time to appreciate quite time just watching them play I’ve noticed that even a whisper of disturbance across Nutmegs fur sends her spinning to investigate. We have a tree the over hangs the driveway where they play that is shedding the tiniest of yellow flowers. When they happen to land on her she notices immediately. If she has laid down for a while and one stays on her as she gets up to move she’s quick to notice and turn to investigate before shaking it off.

How can this obvious keen perception be called “physically insensitive”. It seems to me that something else is going on when it comes to Labradors. It is a bit more plausible to me that Labradors, not to mention any dedicated and determined dog, when given a task will go through “hell and high water” to complete the task for a well loved owner. Dogs will also offer this determination for something of their own interest, ie. a squirrel, bird, favorite ball, favorite treat, etc. In light of this I believe that our obligation is to offer something of greater reward to them.

When they are yanking and pulling at the leash about to rip our arm out of the socket – is there a word, a command, a request we can make that can turn off that impulse? Have you taken the time to condition them so completely to know that what you have is better? Can we turn the determination and dedication they focus on the squirrel back on us at our request? This I know will not be something that happens over night. And some breeds of dogs will be more challenging than others. But can it be done? Yes, I believe it can. And taking the short cut with harsher more physically painful measures is a dangerous tight rope dance that I personally don’t want to walk anymore.

Working on “Calm”

Since reading Suzanne Clothier’s book on teaching your dog “Self Control” I’ve really been working on reinforcing a “calm” state with the dogs. I was about to say especially – Shelby, but realized that was not fair. In being more observant lately I have noticed that although Nutmeg does not whine or show her general state so obviously she is often just as wound or agitated. She’ll play the submissive card overly easy, or she’ll sit perfectly still but her muscles will be twitching hard from her shoulders to her back legs. Although more subtle this still represents a more “reactive” state.

To redirect them or help to calm them I have been using “the ignore” a lot. This morning though it didn’t seem to help so I sent them outside and played fetch with them. We then came inside and tried again.

I suppose I should mention what we were trying to do in the first place. It was breakfast time, as always they had run to their bed in the kitchen and dropped into “down stays” waiting for me to serve up their food and “release” them to eat. Now some of you may be thinking – well of course they’re excited and anxious, it’s time to eat. My thought was this. If I want to foster “calm” than rewarding their over reactive state, with something as huge as breakfast, would not have been ideal.

My efforts payed off! It was dog class today and the ride over had far less whining to suffer through. There class went much better than last week. Shelby was completely focused on my husband and Nutmeg was completely keyed into my commands as well.

It’s amazing how perceptive dogs are!! I’ve also become more aware of subtle changes in them and this has proved invaluable. To those of you with “reactive dogs” my challenge to you – that I challenge myself with every day – is to see them more as “highly perceptive dogs” and realize that they are only mirroring you!!

Choosing the right command: “Drop” vs. “Give”

When it comes to teaching your dog the command words you will live with every day it’s important to consider the situations that you will use the words for.

As many of you have experienced, puppy’s go through an “orally fixated phase” just like children only it’s called the “chewing phase”. Everything goes in their mouth during this time and rarely comes out the same it entered. In the case of personal belongings this can be quite distressing. There was a time when every other word out of my mouth was “DROP IT!!” “Drop it” often required at first my immediately following it up with prying open their mouth to dig out the item I had no intention of them consuming. When we FINALLY! moved past this stage, and started really playing games especially fetch and retrieve games, “drop it” didn’t keep the mood playful.

I soon realized we needed another word, one that fit the context of play time, not one that had a more corrective over tone to it. That’s when “give” became part of their vocabulary, it was a request that meant I want to keep playing with you so you need to let go so I can throw your toy again. The benefit has been noticeable. “Give” lights a gleam in their eyes as they quickly drop the ball and make a head start dash for the next throw. When I say “drop it” Shelby will actively work on spitting out what is in his mouth. I just love it when I see him honoring my request so directly.

Dogs are amazing! They really teach you the value of saying exactly what you mean. Don’t think a dog will just read your mind. Although they may seem telepathic at times, they will love and honor your requests all the more if you are clear and direct in your communications. Avoiding confusion with the commands we give our dogs will very likely save their lives if a situation – God Forbid – should ever occur that requires precise immediate obedience. Especailly when there is no time for them to be second guessing, “what do they really mean”?

Teaching your dog “Wait” vs. “Stay”

One of the most valuable things I have learned in the past 16 months in raising two Labradors is the importance of teaching my dogs self control.

Suzanne Clothier has a great short booklet on the subject called: “Understanding & Teaching Self Control“. The training tips and advice in this booklet are a great resource and well worth the read. She sums up the importance simply:

“self control . . . leaves more of his mind available for learning and thinking instead of just reacting.”

© Copyright 1996 Suzanne Clothier

One of the things I have found is that teaching both a “wait” and a “stay” as separate distinct commands helps with every day routines. As you can imagine with my Labradors, when the water hose comes out they get excited, Shelby in particular. This spring and summer with more free time I began expanding my garden so the hose was out a lot more. Teaching Shelby a solid “leave it”, then a “wait” was well worth it. If all went well and I didn’t have to drag him inside he got his reward at the end and the fun began. They both love to jump at the water as I play keep away. When it’s hot I let him run right at it and chomp and mouth at the rushing stream. In their excitement they tear around the yard and than back to the water again. It’s a great “life reward” and their ability to wait has gotten much better. The command “wait” lets us remote open the gate and drive the car into the driveway. They are eager to great us and I don’t want to discourage that, but I also do not want them to rush at the car. “Wait” lets them know that they can come out but remain close to the house until we stop the car and close the gate. Then with a cheerful”release” they rush to the car door eager for us to get out. It is amazing to see how the skills carry over from situation to situation. They just seem to get it!! Proof again that a little time and solid training will go a long way to make life with dogs a real joy.

“Stay” on the other hand has allowed me to progress them to being off leash at our local park. I specifically choose quite and empty park times, or right at dusk when we gather with other dogs, to let them play off leash. In the mid morning when the field is clear I know that if another dog is walking the perimeter with it’s owner I can put my dogs in a “down stay” and they know they can not move till I say so. This has especially been beneficial if a young child has wanted to come say “hi” to the dogs. I know that a “down stay” will hold my dogs allowing the child to approach without being intimidated as well as allowing the child to have a positive experience. “Stay” also has allowed me to anchor my dogs and leave them to approach someone who does not care to be close to dogs. It gives me the ability to respect others and be a responsible dog owning member of the community. It also gives me freedom to go places with my dogs because there are rules and they know what those rules are.

Great training tips:

When I started with basic obedience I figured we’d do an Obedience I & II and that was it; that I wouldn’t need anything else. How hard could it be? They were dogs, weren’t all dogs basically “good” dogs naturally? The answer is, “yes they are”, but 6 months ago we both needed to learn how to communicate and understand each other better. My dogs needed to know where the boundaries were in their world. They didn’t teach to this depth in the first class I enrolled in. But now, 6 months the wiser with our new trainer the answer is, “yes of course with the proper training, dogs will always be “good” seemingly naturally.”

“Bark Busters” – BUSTED!!

This was my personal experience . . .

When I first realized I was headed down the wrong path as the dogs entered adolescence I started to look for another trainer. Someone who understood specifically what we were going through and had real solutions. Our holistic vet recommended a “Bark Busters” trainer. I’m sure the trainer had been doing the rounds and left brochures at the office. The vet asked me to let him know how things went. The first referral he had made had gone well but he wanted to know how things went for us. So I gave the trainer a call.

I had to leave a message as no one answered, but my call was returned that very evening. The trainer was very understanding and took the time to ask what I felt were very relevant questions. He was empathetic and compassionate. Then we discussed the details. He said that he started with at least a 2 hour session where he primarily educates his clients on the psychology of dog behavior and what motivates dogs to do what they do. He than said he does (to my best recollection) ~5 sessions with the dogs. For this he charges $500 per dog, but since we had two dogs he was only going to charge us $800. Oh, but wait, there was a life time guarantee!!

All my relief in finding a trainer that understood went out the window. Was he insane!! I understood that we needed to change our approach, that our dogs needed to practice new behaviours, that we needed to practice better handling skills. How was that going to happen in the limited time he was saying he would actually be working with us? I felt caught between a rock and a hard place, I love my dogs and wanted things to change, this guy had taken the time to talk to me, he was saying he could help. But, huge gulp, how much was it worth to me?

My intuition said keep looking, get over your guilt, buck up and find something that rings true for you. Feeling guilty is not a good place to start any commitment!!.

That’s when we found Trish. So far we have spent $600 in classes. But here’s the difference, $600 payed for two separate 6 week long classes; 12 – 1 hour classes for both dogs or 24 hours between the two. It also included another 6 week long class just for Shelby; 6 hours. In all, that is 30 hours that have included other dogs, and distractions, not to mention the ongoing support of Trish over the course of the past 5 months. This actually will take us through the end of October. That’s 7 months of support and training progression through some of the more challenging developmental stages in raising a dog, especially Labradors.

The price may still seam high in some of your estimation, but it’s been more than worth it. Trish rarely has more than 10 dogs in each class, the last two have been more around 7. The activities we do build on the basic obedience we already had but with a fun and games twist, all the while learning important skills. Like I’ve said before you need to observe a trainer conducting a class before you decide to work with that trainer. It has to be right for you. I didn’t know any better when we started in a class of 20. Perhaps for most dogs this is the perfect set up and they will do fine, unfortunately this was not the case for us. Perhaps paying $500 for a week with a “Bark Busters” trainer is more to your liking. Personally it feels like a real sham to me when faced with the reality that shaping a dogs behavior takes time. Their are no quick fixes, no free lunch, and anyone who says that they have the quick Magic Pill should be – BUSTED!!

Why positive reinforcement works

Trust me when I say I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. The biggest one I made as the puppies hit adolescence was thinking for a second that negative reinforcement would get me anywhere. Now in hindsight it seems almost absurd to think that getting a negative from me could ever compete with the reward they were getting from what they chose to do.

Dogs are driven by their senses and from 5 months to at least 11 months their curiosity seems to be on hyper-drive. If I had just realized one simple thing sooner I could have avoided a lot of needless frustration. I had to offer them something that was of an equal or greater reward if I wanted them to do what I wanted. If that didn’t work then the world needed to come to a complete stop until they refocused back on me. That may mean coming to a complete stop and ignoring a excited barking fit set off by a squirrel or bird, stepping on a leash to prevent jumping and giving them no eye or face contact until they stopped. The key then is to immediately reward when they refocus. Sometimes the “life reward” of just continuing the walk is enough. Luckily there are very few labs that are not food driven so a favorite treat was the perfect reward when I finally got my act together.

There was a period there that I felt that all the birds and squirrels had gotten together and conspired against me just to test my patience. Shelby could just go into fits. Of course it didn’t help that I thought at first that a yank on the collar was going to teach him to ignore it. It was like adding fuel to the fire and each time it was worse. The more I yanked the more intense his excitement was. Looking back now I can’t believe I didn’t get it sooner. I had to let go of trying to control him and switch to only rewarding the behavior I wanted. I didn’t realize that although yanking on his collar was a negative it was a reaction and he learned to cause chaos almost over night. It took just over a month of this stupidity on my part before I knew there had to be a better way. I absolutely knew that I didn’t have the answers. Thank God for Trish (see previous post)!! Everything we did in her class had a bigger everyday life application. Every skill learned in her class had a more valuable purpose out of class.

Why does positive reinforcement work . . . ? – because negative doesn’t!!!

These last two weeks I have received the sweetest gift of a reward for all my reformed efforts. I can now walk with both dogs at my side (or at least within a 3 foot radius) out to the middle of the park to the group of dogs we meet with every night. And the kicker is that I can do this all off leash on voice command. With a steady reminder that they must stay with me until they are “released” we make it 100′-150′. This sure beats being dragged by two dogs on leash with my hand turning blue under the strain. No, all our walks are not perfect and walks around the neighborhood still have a lot of work to be done, but it has still been a huge reward for me.

Then there’s my sweet girl Nutmeg who has helped me keep the faith. She and I can walk the neighborhood where ever I want to go completely off leash and purely on voice command. She can run errands with me to the neighbors and will hold a perfect down stay at the steps to the front porch while she waits for me. Trust me she could throw a fit as good as her brother, sometimes even better. Whether it’s just that she’s a “girl” and just gets it quicker or just has a different temperament than her brother, she has always been easier all around. The ironic things is that over the last couple months Shelby and I have established a tighter bond in that he anchors well to me when we’re at the park even with other dogs around. He has taught me a lot, not only about training dogs but about myself and life in general. That is always a good thing!!

Great online finds . . .

The Lab through a Lover’s Eyes:
What It’s Like to Live With a Field Trial Champion
[excerpt]

The reasons that Labradors give the impression of being hard-headed is because they are physically insensitive. We have bred the Labrador to go through ice and briars where no man would go to retrieve a duck, so you can’t easily hurt them, which in a way, is why they’re a good dog to have around kids. People put a leash and buckle collar on them and try to keep them from pulling and when that Labrador doesn’t even notice, people say, “look at the stubborn dog.” I would say, “No, that’s not a stubborn dog, he’s just physically insensitive.” I don’t think that they are emotionally insensitive. If you’re willing to train in a way that says to the Labrador, “Hey, I’m here, I intend to be a part of your world.” I have found that Labradors will turn around and say‚‘Well, glad to meet you, what would you like me to do for you’?”

Yes, my dogs come from some of the finest field trial champion breeding lines but they are our pets and companions not hunting or trial dogs. And with simply a consistent exercise routine and basic training they are the best companions anyone could want. Of all the breeds of dogs Labradors offer the greatest challenge for the greatest reward. They are constantly learning which is what makes them such great members of the family. Labradors are some of the most emotionally intuitive dogs because of their love to please.
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Get The Facts: What’s Really in Pet Food
Animal Protection Institute
[excerpt]

What most consumers don’t know is that the pet food industry is an extension of the human food and agriculture industries. Pet food provides a market for slaughterhouse offal, grains considered “unfit for human consumption” and similar waste products to be turned into profit. This waste includes intestines, udders, esophagi, and possibly diseased and cancerous animal parts.

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Safety Tips and Smart Ideas:
[excerpt]

  • It is good practice to always have your dogs earn their treats and food. Teach your pet commands such as come, sit and down, then give a command for the dog to obey before you provide the meal or treat. Dogs like the opportunity to show that they understand their people and enjoy interaction that leads to rewards and praise. Other advantages of teaching dogs to take food only upon your command: your pet will be less likely to try to steal food, ingest unauthorized substances indoors or outdoors, or accept treats from strangers.

You can also teach your dog to “go to your place” before getting fed, which is especially helpful for dogs prone to begging at kitchen counters and dinner tables.

  • “Go to your place” is an extremely useful command when you’re cooking, cleaning or engaged in any activity in which the dog’s interference could lead to distraction and injury. You can designate a place, say, in the far corner of the kitchen or family room, and place a mat or dog bed there. Teach your dog to associate that place with a special word, such as “place,” “spot” or “bed.” Then, using positive reinforcement, incorporating praise and small treats as rewards, teach him to “go to your place.” This gives the dog something good and acceptable that he can do.

I didn’t realize where I had read this great tip – “go to your place” before getting fed – until I started going back through some of my bookmarks to share on the blog. This tip in particular with a two dog household has been invaluable. Some of the ideas expressed here I don’t completely agree with but the information is still worth reviewing.
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Where to hike with your dog: (Northern California Area)
[excerpt]

Bay Area Hiker was created to fully explore the diverse and wonderful spectrum of hiking in the San Francisco bay area. This is a work in progress, so if you want to share your thoughts about any hikes that are not yet featured, drop me a line.
Featured hikes will range geographically from around Robert Louis Stevenson State Park to the north, to Mount Diablo in the east bay, Henry Cowell State Park to the southwest, and Henry Coe State Park to the southeast.

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The Vinegar Institute
With so many commercial cleaning product out there that are not safe or less than ideal for a household with pets I began using vinegar for cleaning my kitchen floors. I use a 1:1 vinegar:water and it works beautifully on my linoleum. Check out the webiste for more ideas.
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Adolescence: The Teenage Dog from
[THE CANINE BEHAVIOR SERIES]
[excerpt]

  • If you got your dog as a puppy and provided good training, you have an advantage when adolescence arrives but your work is not done. The adolescent dog needs training experiences that the puppy was not ready for. The adolescent dog has questions that didn’t occur to the puppy.
  • Best of all, the adolescent dog is ready to begin to bond with you in a whole new way, to form a real bond. Puppies “love everybody,” and if you have a puppy who hates everyone but you, beware! That puppy is not likely to have a good adult temperament.
  • Adolescent dogs are ready to make distinctions about the world and the people and other dogs in it. You become an important person in this dog’s life, a beloved partner, if you earn it. This is the time that good leadership with your dog, including good management, good handling and good training, begin to really show results. This is when your dog becomes your dog by the dog’s choice.
  • Stay in training classes with your adolescent dog until at least a year of age. Many dogs will need training classes longer. Attend training class with your dog each week and practice the class homework every day. Apply the training in all possible situations so that it becomes integrated into your life with your dog, keeping communication clear between the two of you. Working with a private trainer is a reasonable alternative to classes, provided you and your dog also work in controlled situations around other dogs as you would in a class.
  • Be patient with your dog. Don’t interpret your dog’s error during a training session as deliberate defiance. The dog needs to ask questions, and you will be wisest to answer those questions kindly as well as consistently. The dog won’t be any better trained because you get mad in the process.
  • As a matter of fact, training done in a playful tone is more effective than getting mad, because this is the most receptive state of mind for learning—and that goes for your brain as well as the dog’s! Have fun when training, and make it fun for the dog, too. Hold the line on the limits of behavior because the dog needs this from you. But don’t fault the dog for having questions. That’s the nature of an adolescent.

Some of the suggestions in the article may seem general, but there are really some great specific suggestions. For instance, with two dogs I knew that the first year was going to include training. I just didn’t realize at first how valuable training would be.

Start early, the day they come home, progress to indoor puppy class by at least 3 months, and stick with training well into 18 months especially those of us who have big dogs.