I have a dog named Norma.
Norma is a cockapoo. We’ve had here for four years. Generally speaking, Norma is a delight. She sleeps on the end of the bed, loves having her back scratched, relishes eating an occasional dollop of peanut butter off a spoon.
And yet, sometimes Norma pisses us off. She pees on the carpet. She drops a little brown nugget. She hears a noise and goes crazy. We talk to her, beg her, plead with her, offer her long walks on the beach and sweet tickets to the Mandy Moore concert. But, no, she just keeps on keeping on.
Enter: Lisa Edwards.
The author of A Dog Named Boo: How One Dog and One Woman Rescued Each Other—and the Lives They Transformed Along the Way, Edwards is regarded as one of the nation’s top positive reinforcement dog trainers. She also has set up various Animal Assisted Therapy Programs, and is a certified dog behavior consultant.
Here, Lisa talks dos and don’t of animal training; why pooches are seeking love (not abuse); why the affection of an animal is pure bliss; why she would never accept Justin Bieber tickets or shoot Tim Tebow.
Bow wow wow yippie yo yippie yay—Lisa Edwards, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Lisa, I’m gonna start with a weird question. I’m always puzzled/amazed how humans tend to assign human emotions and feelings and personalities to animals. We look at our dogs and cats and think, “He’s really sad right now” or “Barney sure is depressed these days,” when truth is the dog’s probably thinking, “woof!” Am I off here? I mean, do dogs really feel and emote the way we think they do? Can we relate to them on human terms, and them to us? Or is this all in our imagination?
LISA EDWARDS: This is not a weird question—it is a pretty common one and a very confusing one.
In reality dogs and humans have pretty much the same emotional range for basic emotions—fear, sadness, joy, worry, and general stress, etc. We as humans like to pat ourselves on the back for being special in the animal world and in many ways we are, but in the realm of emotions we are only more complicated and duplicitous.
Dogs do not lie about their emotions and generally the emotions we see in them are pretty straightforward. In my book, “A Dog Named Boo,” we see Boo afraid of the truck and so stressed by being out and about that he couldn’t even eat a yummy treat. If I had not acknowledged his emotions and just treated him as stubborn we would have not succeeded or even worse I would have made Boo more afraid and anti-social.
So—yes they do feel sad, fearful, depressed, happy, worried, or just overwhelmed and stressed. Where we go wrong is assigning human motives and/or characterizations to them. Understanding that a dog is growling and barking because they are afraid helps us to help them. However, characterizing the dog as being dominant because they are barking or growling does not help us help them but instead presupposes a motivation that is based on political and social motives that do not fit the model of the ethology of the dog (in simple terms—this is the over-complicated anthropomorphic assumption that does not help).
J.P.: As a parent, I often look at other parents and think, “What the hell are you doing?” A kid’s screaming his head off while mommy’s talking on the phone; or a kid’s eating chalk or walking around with a power cord, etc. Do you feel the same with other dog owners? Do you look at the way people handle their pets on day-to-day basis and think, “Ugh, what the hell?”
L.E.: I do have to turn away at times when I see someone popping a dog or worse for something like just wanting to sniff on a walk. Unless folks have paid me for my services as a trainer I know they don’t want to hear from me so I keep quiet.
I do get the opposite—for example I have a client whose contractor keeps telling her to not do as I have advised her to do and just do what he would do. In the world of dog training, very often once folks have had a dog they feel they are very much experts.
I will however, say something if I see a dog put in danger or harms way.
J.P.: How did you get here? What I mean is, what was your path to canine training? Were you brought up with dogs? Are you from a family of trainers?
L.E.: My path to dog training can only be described as kicking and screaming. I wanted to be a writer, an artist, a filmmaker, etc., and never had any intention of having dogs in my life. In “A Dog Named Boo” I describe how the Universe had other plans for me and brought me a roommate who brought me my first dog—Atticus. Atticus taught me what dogs could do for a person, then brought me Dante. Dante brought me to dog training and Animal Assisted Therapy and eventually to Boo. As I started working with dogs it turned out I had a “knack.” And while all my other dreams were falling around me this notion of dog training was staring me in the face so finally I said, “Okay to the Universe,” and started my dog-training career.
The way to go from starting out in this business to excelling is to learn/observe, learn/observe, learn/observe while you practice, practice, and practice …
It also helps to really love what you are doing and at the end of the day I couldn’t imagine not having dogs in my life or working with them.
J.P.: What is it about dogs that you love? I mean, I love my dog—she’s cute and fluffy and she licks my ankles. But you obviously have taken that love to a deeper level. Can you please explain the passion? What do you see that others, perhaps, don’t?
L.E.: Gratitude. My first dog—Atticus taught me and gave me what I had not received as a child—unconditional love and patience and support. The dogs in my life showed me the great gift that dogs can give someone in need and that is why I went into Animal Assisted Therapy. While doing this work with Dante and then Boo, I got to see just how many gift giving dogs are out there. The many stories I recount in “A Dog Named Boo” are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the people dogs have saved as pets, service dogs, therapy dogs, working k9 dogs, etc. The fact that they continue to give to humans when we have not always acquitted ourselves with the same level of compassion speaks volumes about the nature of Canis lupus familiaris.
J.P.: I’m guessing, in your long career with dogs, you’ve had to sit by and watch as a beloved animal if put to sleep. I’m wondering what the experience is like. A. How do you reach the ultimate decision? B. What does the experience entail? C. How would you describe the actual emotions of the moment? And do you think the dog has any remote idea what’s happening?
L.E.: Atticus, gave us a great gift when he passed on his own—he saved us the very difficult decision. However, Dante seemed to be unwilling to let go even though his body was riddled with cancer, and he had undergone a couple of strokes. Toward the end every step he took exhausted him but he still seemed to be driven to take one more. We made the decision to let him pass without the long painful struggle against that which was eating him alive. In the epilogue of “A Dog Named Boo” I touch on this just a little and describe how we were lucky enough to have a veterinarian friend who came to the house to help him pass and other good friends who came over to be with us for this. We put Dante’s favorite pillow in his favorite spot in the backyard on a sun filled warm fall day. My husband and I sat with him and held him as he was injected. He seemed to fight the sedative but eventually laid his head down and passed slowly as we sat with him. I am so blessed that I could be with both Atticus as he passed naturally and with Dante as we helped him pass.
This is a point of some disagreement with pet owners; but it has to be faced almost as a belief and not a hard and fast rule. We all have to make the final decision as to how this animal who has been so loyal and loving will leave this earth and for Dante we chose to make it painless and with love. It was many months of asking ourselves what his quality of life was and when every step was clearly exhausting and painful for him we knew the quality of life was almost gone and we needed to make the choice to let him go. It is one of the hardest decisions I have ever made.
I have no clue as to what Dante was thinking at that moment. He had been put under anesthesia before so perhaps he felt this was the same, or maybe he knew it was time. We can’t even know if humans realize all the time that they are passing so there is no way to know what our dogs know either.
J.P.: What’s your greatest moment in training? Your lowest?
L.E.: My greatest moment was the day I reached down to pet a dog who was rubbing up against my leg—as I realized it was Dixie confidently showing me affection I remembered the months of work it took to just get her to take the treats I could only toss to her from a distance that made her feel comfortable. She was one of the most fearfully aggressive dogs I had ever worked with at the time, and here she was out and about around strangers, other dogs and snuggling up to me for affection. Her owners had worked hard and diligently with her and given her a new lease on life.
My lowest moment was the day I stopped class to ask a handler to stop hitting her dog in class and knew at that moment this extremely smart and social dog would have no chance in her hands and even less chance in a shelter. And while he no longer gets hit on a regular basis and has made progress on his resource guarding he still lives his life in a shelter/sanctuary, hoping one day he will find an understanding human who can work with him. Sometimes as hard as we try we can only do so much.
J.P.: I’m gonna ask the question thousands of readers would love to know: My dog (as with so many dogs) occasionally pees on the rug and, sometimes, poops on the floor. Is there a fail-safe way to make this stop?
L.E.: In reality the only time we should have potty-mistakes are when our dogs are ill or we have left them alone for too long and in both cases they simply cannot do anything but eliminate as needed. Solid potty training is a well-conditioned behavior and should be one of the most reliable behaviors in a dog’s repertoire. If any dog is having pee or pooping mistakes the first step is to be sure they are feeling well—test them for UTI (urinary tract infection), kidney function and intestinal issues. Once these have been ruled out and there are still potty mistakes it is back to square one potty training which has to include management, outings with cue words for both pee and pooping so you know they have done everything they needed to; and rewards as the last drop hits the ground or the last plop hits the ground (too often folks wait and reward their dog for coming inside—good if you want to reward coming inside but not so effective for potty training). The rule of thumb is 30 consecutive days without a potty mistake and your dog is potty trained. If your dog is older and has a history of potty mistakes I take that 30 and triple it.
J.P.: When I was younger I knew someone who buried her dog in a velvet-lined coffin after a lengthy funeral. This struck me as, well, insane. Do you find most people in your field are of this ilk? Like, do you have to be dog crazed (for lack of a better phrase) to be a trainer?
L.E.: I’m not sure this is a factor of being in the animal field, but more a factor of what level of emotional need this person had to celebrate her animal’s life or more to the point a life that was meaningful to her. Each of us wants our final wishes to be followed as per our own beliefs. Her desire to burry her dog in a fancy coffin may seem as odd to some as one man’s desire to have some of his own ashes scattered over Wriggly Field in Chicago.
It may be helpful to think of dog trainers as one would think of teachers, social workers, psychologists, etc. We work in the field of learning and behavior, it is just that our subjects have four legs and tend to be furry. In the end, one does not have to be dog crazed to work in this field but it probably helps.
J.P.: Your book, “A Dog Named Boo,” chronicles the relationship between you and a dog, Boo. How did you come to write a book? Did you find the experience as absolutely torturous as I do?
L.E.: The book idea was brought to me by an author who had done an article on Boo and me for Parade Magazine. Thinking this was a lark – I went with it and found myself doing the primary writing and hoping for a good editor/book doctor to keep me on track. With the help of Joel Derfner (said book doctor) who kept me from writing the Boo equivalent of “War and Peace” I was able to tackle the project with a cathartic approach on some levels and a celebratory approach on others.
J.P.: We always hear about the evils of buying dogs from pet stores. Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it. Do you agree? And, if so, what’s the problem?
L.E.: The biggest issue with buying dogs from pet stores is that it supports an industry that has a dubious (at best) approach to the welfare of our dogs. From the conditions at most puppy mills (the primary source of dogs in pet stores); to the conditions at most pet stores; to the serious lack of good early socialization for puppies in these stores from seven weeks to four months we have to conclude that there are much better and more humane ways for puppies to come into this world and into our lives.
There are shelters with puppies, rescue organizations that cater to specific breeds with puppies and young dogs, there are older dogs who find themselves needing a new home for reasons not of their own making and there are responsible breeders who do not over-breed or push puppies into inappropriate homes.
That said, we all have to follow our hearts and a dog who needs a home is a dog who needs a home wherever you find that dog. Everyone should look first to shelters, rescue orgs, and breeders before the pet store.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LISA EDWARDS:
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, please tell: Not really.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Snoopy, Snoop Dogg, Marmaduke, Rin Tin Tin, Goofy, Celine Dion, Lassie, Benji, Underdog, Scooby Doo, Panera Bread, Kwanza, Potato Soup, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Underdog, Rin Tin Tin, Scooby Doo, Goofy, Marmaduke, Lassie, Benji, Panera Bread, Snoop Dogg, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kwanza, Potato soup.
• Five reasons someone should make Mahopac his/her next vacation spot?: Lake Mahopac is pretty nice as is Lake Kirk, but beyond that I don’t think it is much of a vacation spot …
• Would you rather hang out and party with Brad Pitt or Spuds MacKenzie?: I’m not really a party girl so I am guessing I’d have to say Spuds MacKenzie since I know with a few liver treats I could keep him happy and occupied.
• A person comes along and offers you $100 million for your pets—and promises to take great care of them. You take the deal?: I’m fairly cynical so wouldn’t believe them on any level.
• I have a normal, run-of-the-mill cockapoo. If I gave you four months, could you train her to poop on the toilet?: This falls into the category of trick – so ultimately we have to ask trick questions: 1. Is there an element in here the dog will do fairly naturally? 2. Why have the dog do it? and … 3. Are there any pitfalls to training the dog to do this, like missing the toilet (I don’t want to clean that up), etc.? So while the ultimate answer might be yes we probably could train this, the real question is would this dog have fun doing this and would it be worth it for us humans?
• What are the biggest B.S. myths about dogs?: Alpha and dominance. We have constructed the myth that alpha means to be forceful or stern with our dogs, yet this has nothing to do with actual alpha status and behavior in wild canids. Additionally we pre-suppose that too many of a dog’s unwanted behaviors are to dominate us. This is something we cannot extrapolate from their behavior. We can observe they want something and will push to achieve it—we all do that—but that doesn’t mean we are all trying to dominate the individuals we love the most. In the end if these traits are truly common in our dogs why would you want a dog around?
Dogs are a lot like small children who want what they want when they want it and we are the adults who have to gently teach them how to achieve their goals while living happily in a social environment without force or presuppositions of tyrannical intent.
• Would you rather eat a week’s worth of daily newspapers or spend a month listening to a continuous looping of Meat Loaf’s “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”?: Meat Loaf has to be the winner here. While it would drive me insane, it would probably not have lasting health effects. But it really was a tough decision.
• Justin Bieber’s coming to Putnam County for a free concert? How many tickets you want?: Does a negative number count?
• If you’re an NFL team in need of a quarterback, do you give Tim Tebow a shot?: As much as I hate football why would I want to shoot a man I don’t know?