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Lessons from Langston: Opinions and E-Collars


(Todd Langston)

The pronged collar – a chain with a set of links pointing toward the neck – gets a lot of negative publicity because it can hurt a dog when used incorrectly. I often hear people condemn this device without ever having used it, meaning their ideas are based completely on opinion. For Mason and I, this tool has helped us save the lives of several fear aggressive dogs.

At its core, the collar is a simple device, based on a simple philosophy. When a dog misbehaves, we jerk the leash, making the chain tighten, which applies pressure to specific points on a dog’s neck. According to Cesar Millan in Be the Pack Leader, this misunderstood tool is one of the most “organic” devices on the market for controlling canines. The prong’s nip mimics animal behavior, and most dogs respond to it almost instantly. Every mother in nature – from bears to wolves – nips her young to show displeasure, not hard enough to break skin but hard enough to cause a reaction, a way of getting their attention. Basically, all a prong collar does is communicate to dogs in their own language.

Not surprisingly, I can be just as much of an opinionated a-hole as the next person. For years, I had the same negative impression about shock collars a.k.a. e-collars that many of my neighbors do about the pronged version. Luckily, I met Todd Langston, a dog behaviorist, who not only told me I was being a hypocrite, but schooled me on the benefits of e-collars. Needless to say, I wish I’d known Todd when we were fostering that maniac Bentley because I would have slapped on e-collar on him in a second. For this Lesson from Langston, our exchange about shock collars:

Melissa: We fostered a fear aggressive dog last year that we couldn’t break for anything. My husband I both got bit. Now, the woman that adopted him uses a shock collar.

TL: Do you see that as a bad thing?

Melissa: I don’t like shock collars.

TL: Have you ever used one?

Melissa: Yes, years ago on a fear aggressive German shepherd.

TL: If you’re calling it a shock collar, then there’s a there’s a good chance you weren’t using it correctly. There are a lot of ways to use that tool. E-collars are a brilliant device but it shouldn’t be sold to people that don’t know how to use it. It shouldn’t be sold in pet stores. Don’t sell that tool short. That tool has a very emotional history. It’s misused so it gets a very bad rap. Just like a prong collar does, but the people that have those opinions are often times just providing an opinion. And they don’t understand how it works.

If I could show you how to properly use the e-collar, you might possibly question why every dog owner doesn’t use one. You can use that tool more efficiently than you can use food. And you can use that tool with food together and it becomes the most beautiful tool that exists on the planet. But it’s not for everybody and it’s not for every dog. Not every situation needs it. Any human that lacks the ability to control their dog but is willing to put in the time and effort to learn a way, can take that tool and become the supreme pack leader without using corrections. It’s not going to replace effort. And that’s the problem; it’s been used as a moneymaker. You get a lot of trainers that say give me your dog for ten days and I’ll charge you $1500.00. I’ll make your dog sit and stay and be perfect. I don’t agree with that. I don’t appreciate that particular method. But if you understand dog behavior and psychology, then the [e-collar] is the best tool that exists and the least accepted.

Rosie’s Improving: Update 5

rose sup(Rosie)

Over the past two days I’ve walked our big galoot of a foster dog Rosie twelve miles. I know that’s a little excessive, but the weather has been so beautiful – 70’s and sunny – that I haven’t been able to stay indoors. Besides, I gained ten pounds over this long dreary winter so I have a lot of motivation to keep moving.

I don’t know if it’s the warmer temperatures or if Rosie is actually maturing, but she has suddenly started doing a hundred times better on the leash. She’s actually manageable in a pack.

After two days of acting civilized on a leash, I decided to give her a big test this morning and took her to the Springfield Greenway. There were nine dogs and three humans (Mason, Nancy, and I) in our walking posse. Normally, particularly in a pack, Rosie fights to retain the lead the whole time, yanking so hard sometimes I have to hand her off to Mason. Today, Rosie may have pulled for the first quarter mile but after that, she was easy to handle. I’m afraid to say this for fear of being jinxed, but she was actually a pleasure to walk.

Sometimes, it just takes longer to reap the benefits of consistent training. Just like humans dogs mature at different rates. I’ll admit there were times over the past six months when I wanted to give up on Rosie – just declare her un-trainable on a leash and wipe my hands of it. I’m really glad I didn’t.

Meadow’s Bad Hair Day(s)

Mead and ball(Meadow, pre-haircut)

I know my favorite canine philosopher Cesar Millan would say that I’m projecting human feelings onto my dog, but Meadow was not happy about her haircut for at least three days. She normally wears her hair long and flowing, but after a skunk sprayed her, we had to shave it off.

Her moping started as soon as we picked her up from the “salon.” We had brought two other dogs, Tony and Adriana, along for the ride, and she greeted them both with an uncharacteristic growl. She didn’t play in the mosh pit for several days nor would she sleep in our bed.

The other dogs weren’t sure about her new haircut either. The morning after we had her fur shaved Meadow stood up on the couch, and Adriana started snarling at her as though she didn’t recognize her. Like who’s the new chick?

Things finally turned around on Friday. Meadow, still brooding about her short fur, trotted beside me under a drizzling sky as we walked down the bluff towards the trails in our backyard. At that point, it’d been pouring for twenty-four straight hours, so by mid morning on Friday our normally dry creek had more water flowing through it than it had all winter. I’d say two feet of rushing water, enough to make crossing sloppy but not enough to stop us. We’ve had a lot of precipitation in Middle Tennessee over the past month, and sunshine has seemed nonexistent.

Meadow hopped into a deeper portion – maybe three feet – created by the jagged edges of the limestone rocks lining the creek bed like a dragon’s spine. And suddenly, as though a switch had flipped, she stopped sulking and started acting like the fun-loving Meadow we all know and love. In fact, I couldn’t get her out of the creek. The water splashing on her nearly naked body must have felt like a shower after a five-day camping trip, because she leaped and sprinted, diving her face under, then licking at the drops that sprayed off her muzzle. I realized she’s probably never felt water so close to her skin before, and that she must be a skinny dipper at heart. In order to celebrate her newly discovered hobby, everyday this weekend I’ve taken her down back and let her romp.

I don’t know whether I was projecting human emotions onto Meadow about her bad hair-day mood or not. But I do know that when she gets wet, even with her fur sheared she still smells like skunk. I’m not even joking. This is one of those patience things isn’t it? Like I just have to wait it out?

Silvio Dante: Update Two


I haven’t written a lot about Silvio Dante a.k.a Sil because to be honest, he’s not the most interesting fellow around. Besides his cartoonish looks and goofy mannerisms, he doesn’t exhibit a lot of personality. I admit all this with affection and gratitude, because even though he’s only eight months old, he’s been an abnormally easy foster dog, which leads me to believe he’ll act the same in his new home. I have high hopes for his future.

His biggest fault is a nipping “tic” that he does when he sees strange dogs on the greenway. It’s not an aggressive bite, but nonetheless, it’s a terrible way to make new friends. Besides, it could be dangerous; Sil’s a decent-sized dog, almost sixty pounds, and Mason’s shin has gotten nicked a few times trying to correct his behavior. The problem is that Sil doesn’t growl or bark or show any physical sign of anger or fear before he nips, but walks with his drooping face in it’s hallmark mope right up to the strange dog, then he’ll clamp on to his new friend’s paw or tail. It’s really weird, and probably all goes back to lack of socialization during his early formative weeks. After all, he spent the first eight months of his life alone in a kennel. Mace and I act calm, correct his behavior, and move forward, hoping with enough exposure to stimuli under positive circumstances, he’ll start to understand his behavior is unacceptable or pointless.

When we’re back home at the Farnival, Sil rarely shows emotion, only getting excited when he’s wrestling with his buddies Thelma and Meadow in the backyard, which Mace and I have started calling “the mosh pit.” Watching the three medium-sized dogs wrestle, there’s no doubt that Sil is low man in the pack, but he takes his rank in stride, seemingly happy just to flounce around on his paddle-paws, trying to keep up with everybody’s favorite playmate, Meadow. Meadow’s nickname has become “my girl,” because anyone – human or animal – who meets her loves her and wants to claim her as their own. Nancy and Mason will even verbally spar over who gets to hold her leash when we all walk together.

On Tuesday night, I had planned on taking Silvio for an introduction, but couldn’t go because spring allergies besieged me, and I sat in bed, listening to The Sopranos with a washcloth over my eyes and tissues plugging both nostrils, as my sinuses drained like busted water pipes. It was not attractive. I finally relented yesterday, went to a doctor, and he put me on a steroid spray. Good luck to me.

Thankfully, Mason was home this week and took Silvio for his introduction to his potentially new family at the Sudden Service gas station five miles down the road. Mason reported that they were a young couple; the husband works for the military, and the wife runs the household. They saw Silvio’s picture on Petfinders.com and fell in love. The only problem is that they won’t be assigned their new home on the Fort Campbell Military Base for three weeks, and until then they are camped out in a hotel.

By all accounts, the introduction was a success, and the family plans to adopt Silvio as soon as they get their new digs. I wish I could have been there because the couple explained to Mason the restrictions concerning dogs living on a military base, and the few rules that my husband remembered were vague but interesting, like how Great Pyrenees (!!), Rottweilers, and Pit Bulls weren’t allowed anywhere on the perimeter, and all pets had to be micro-chipped. I’d love to know more. If anyone out there has a military friend with a dog, please have them write to us here at thefarnival@gmail.com.

Thelma: The Dogs Come First by Melissa

DSC_0242(Meadow, Silvio, and Thelma)

A few years ago, before I began volunteering for an animal advocacy group in the rural south, I went out to lunch with a few friends. One of them had recently adopted a dog and complained about how much red tape was involved, saying the agency wanted a hundred bucks, three references, and a phone call from his landlord, okaying animals on the premises. At the time of the lunch, I agreed with him, wondering why agencies meant to help animals were making it so difficult to find homes.

But after fostering fourteen dogs in eight months for I Could Have Been Adopted, (ICHBA), I completely understand why animal welfare groups make people “jump through hoops” to adopt one of their animals, and not only do I agree with the demanding process I think one of the best things about volunteering for ICHBA is that we are such a small agency, we can be pickier than most.

We follow a six-step protocol for adoptions:

Step One: People find our adoptable dogs on Petfinders.com and email inquiries to Donna, ICHBA’s founder and administrator.

Step Two: Donna responds to the email, asking the interested party to call her. Donna is the kind of person that can read someone from a phone conversation, and she’s not afraid to ask personal questions either.

Step Three: If their conversation is positive, Donna sends them an application, requiring references and the name of their veterinarian, which they fill out, sign and send back, agreeing that if the adoption fails then the adopter must call us before dropping the dog off at the pound or worse.

Step Four: If the application checks out, Donna gives me their phone number, and I let the family know the good, the bad, and the ugly about the dog they are interested in adopting. Honesty about the dog’s personality is a core principle of Donna’s organization. If they bite from fear or aggression, chew socks or furniture, have accidents, cry in their crates, dig holes, excessively whine, are food obsessive, etc, Donna wants the family to know before they adopt the dog not after.

Step Five: If both parties are okay with the information, then we set up a meet and greet, and ICHBA brings the dog to the families homes to check the suitability of the living conditions for an animal. Sometimes, the family asks to be introduced to the dog before we visit their home, and in most cases, we accommodate.

Step Six: And finally, if everyone is satisfied, the dog stays with the family and ICHBA gets an eighty-dollar check, which includes the price of vaccinations plus spaying and neutering costs, and I get a happy story and a few great pictures for this blog 🙂

One of the reasons ICHBA is selective about finding the right family for the right dog is because we have a return policy for the lifetime of the dog, meaning if at any time it doesn’t work out, we’ll take the dog back as soon as there is space in our foster network.

In most instances we receive a couple inquiries per dog, but in Thelma’s case we got a whole bevy of inquiries. I’m quickly learning that lab lovers are as loyal as the dogs they adopt, and after living with Thelma, a fifty-five pound, black lab mutt with a square head, squat body, and a keen intelligence, I understand why.

Last week I wrote about meeting John at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and by all indications, when I left downtown Nashville, it seemed like he would end up adopting Thelma. He had passed step four, plus he fell madly in love with our big galoot on first sight, wanting to set up a meet and greet as soon as possible. The one problem was he didn’t know his work schedule, and the day before he had had to cancel his introduction because he needed to stay late at the Hall of Fame.

The only reason why I wasn’t overjoyed about matching Thelma with John was his work schedule, which seemed to demand long hours and a flexible schedule, and I was afraid Thelma, an energetic six-month-old black Labrador, would end up in a crate for hours everyday. Not because John intended or wanted it that way, but he’s young, early-twenties, so he’s just starting out and can’t be choosy about his hours.

And Thelma has such potential. I mean she has flaws, besides her crude manners, including drooling, snoring, and farting, she leaps with her tank-like body at people she cares about, like everybody is Silvio and Meadow and wants to smack down in the backyard. No matter how many times we correct this behavior, she continues doing it. Plus, when we pass small, fluffy dogs on the greenway, the slack on the leash tightens and she makes an excited yipping sound, which in turn causes the innocent offender to yap back, and it always takes me a minute or two of incredibly hard-to-maintain-patience to calm her down, but she will calm down, which is the important part. She isn’t obsessed, just curious, and inordinately fond of little dogs.

I expressed my concerns about John’s work schedule to Donna, and she agreed that perhaps Thelma needed someone with more time on their hands, but she said calling John was going to be the hardest rejection she ever had to give someone.

I don’t envy Donna, a seventy-year-old do-gooder with a relentless dedication to her cause, the job of telling people no, and when I had asked her how she does it, she answered, “The dogs come first.”

It was that simple. And it had hit me how much easier it is to say no when asking myself what Thelma would want. Thelma couldn’t express her feelings, but I innately knew that being in a crate for nine hours a day wouldn’t make her happy. End of story. When I thought about homing these homeless animals by putting myself in the dog’s “shoes,” it almost seemed too good to be true, like a luxury I shouldn’t be able to enjoy. What would THE DOG want?

Donna said John was disappointed but understanding, claiming he had the same concerns about his job. I’ve never been around when Donna told a family no at the fifth step, the face-to-face meet and greet, but I know she’s had to do it in the past.

Anyway, a middle-aged couple, Dana and her husband, a farmer also named John (different than Hall of Fame John) were next in the long list of Thelma’s inquiries. They lived in Greenbrier, a town ten minutes away from ICHBA’s headquarters. My partner-in-crime Charlotte and I took Thelma to visit over the weekend, and they were wonderful! Dana is from Virginia and has rescued horses, training them with Parelli’s Natural Horsemanship. Have you ever read about it? If not, click here. It’s like Cesar Millan’s pack techniques applied to horses and herds.

Without any prodding whatsoever, Dana, who works from home, talked about the importance of earning an animal’s respect, which made my heart sing. And we even shared a bonding moment when we both expressed our shock and concern about the mistreatment of animals in rural Tennessee, which was so different than the agrarian but more northern towns where we had both grown up. She comes from Stratton, Virginia, and I grew up in Shickshinny, Pennsylvania.

I hate that Donna had to tell John no, but discovering Dana and her jovial husband was worth every ounce of guilt. In the end, it confirmed that we had made the right decision for Thelma. It also confirmed that making animal adoption “difficult” is worth it in the long run, simply because the dogs come first.