Blogs with book recommendations
I have posted blogs on various toys, books, foods, and management and training aids that I like, but I decided that this week I would write about things I have encountered lately, or that I have re-discovered, that I would recommend.
I have mentioned The Education of Will, by Patricia McConnell previously, but I wanted to recommend it to anyone who has experienced trauma, or has a dog who was traumatized. Her compelling memoir sheds realistic light on how pervasive trauma can be and how challenging it is to overcome. But, mostly it is a tale of hope and compassion and well worth the read.
The book I am currently reading is The Dawn of the Dog, The Genesis of a Natural Species, by Janice Koler-Matznick. It is a well researched look at the origin of dogs. She takes on the status quo ideas of domestication and challenges them with reasons why dogs are not just sub-species of wolves. I have not finished the book, but I am impressed by her extensive research and, I am becoming increasingly convinced that man did not create dog, but, as one reviewer put it: “dog existed as a unique, naturally evolved species distinct from today’s wolves long before any association with humans.”* For anyone curious about the origin of dog, and who wants an eminently readable book, I highly recommend it.
Dean Koonz is a prolific author and often includes dogs in his books. I found an old copy of Dragon Tears and really enjoyed the role of the golden retriever mix in this book. He has delightful insight into the mind of dogs and how they see/smell and interpret the world. He also wrote an endearing (tissue alert!) book about his dog Trixie called A Big Little Life that I loved and find myself reflecting on years after I read it.
For those interested in the world of dog shows, I found tucked in the back of one of my shelves, Dog Eat Dog, by Jane and Michael Stern. Published in 1997, it is a bit dated, but the essence of dog shows and what it takes to have a champion remains true. It’s a quick read and has a good index of dog show terms. For a really entertaining look at the world of dog shows, nothing beats Best in Show, directed by Christopher Guest and starring a delightful potpourri of Hollywood actors.
Uncommon Goods has a wonderful line of “Bad Dog” products. My favorites are the tumblers, especially the Bad Dog Tumblers, and the Bad Dog Best in Show Tumblers. They also have free, downloadable Bad Dog Birthday cards. The images are a fun and are an all too real portrayal of our canine companions at their best…or worse!
The current treat of choice for my dogs is lamb lung. High in protein, low in fat, they are easy to break into small pieces and are a great addition to any Kong! I buy them in the 12-oz, headed-out-on-the-Oregon-trail size, though they are also available in a more reasonable 5-oz size. They are not wet or gooey (I think they are dehydrated), but they since they break into small pieces they are great for training treats and I have yet to find a dog that doesn’t adore them.
And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our podcast, Your Family Dog, featuring Colleen Pelar and me talking about all things canine. Our goal is to help families love living with dogs. Colleen’s gentle humor, compassion, and deep knowledge of dogs makes every episode a learning experience for me, and I hope for you as well. We cover a broad range of topics, from behavior problems, to dog sports, caring for your elderly dog, making happy dogs happier, managing vet visits, literary dogs, and so much more! With over 40 episodes, there is a topic of interest for every dog lover. Find us on iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher. If you like us, please leave us a review. And, if you have a question or comment, please let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call and leave a message at 614-349-1661.
*Dr. Michael Fox, from the back cover of the book.
This year has been a challenge for me and my family as we lost 2 dogs to cancer and one dog to a seizure disorder. I wasn’t sure my heart could take any more sorrow and I was a bit hesitant to risk it on another dog, as Bingley was my canine soulmate. But, if I have learned anything, it’s that loving a dog with everything you have makes it nearly impossible to live without one, and it is that love of a great dog which propels you forward into another canine experiment.
So meet Zuzu, my newest pooch. She, like Bingley, is a flat-coated retriever, and true to her breed, is one of the happiest dogs on the planet. At 16 months she is a teenager who is unlikely to grow out of her teenage enthusiasm anytime soon. Channeling her inexhaustible energy into constructive activities and teaching her to focus on the task at hand are my immediate goals for her. To do this, I have decided to enlist the aid of a book I recently discovered: Fun & Games for a Smarter Dog, 50 Great Brain Games to Engage your Dog, by Sophie Collins.
This book is great on so many levels beginning with the introduction and a part on playing safely with your dog which includes a very important section on playing with children.* Take the time to read the section on play and training before you plunge into the individual games, as it will set you up to better use the games to your particular dog’s advantage and is a wonderful reminder that training and play can happily overlap. After all, “there’s no reason you can’t teach your dog by playing with him.” She also has sections on dog personalities, toys, and clicker training.** And, be sure to read the “About You, What You Need To Do” as it reminds us that we can be part of the problem when our dogs are not “getting it.” Subsequent chapters divide the games into categories: Basic Games, Bonding Games, Brain Games, Fitness Games, Figuring it out, and Getting Along.
She starts with the basics of Sit, Down, Wait, and Let’s Go (which you have likely taught your dog already, but perhaps used different names for these behaviors). She makes the point that, “It is better to make sure that your pet stays responsible and reacts promptly to key commands instead of moving on to other exercises at the expense of the basics.” So, she goes over these core behaviors in detail so that you can be sure that you are clearly communicating to your dog, and he clearly understands what is expected of him. This section is a good place to begin as it really does help you to pay attention to your words and your body language so you can more effectively communicate with your dog. Moreover, the rest of the games will be easier for you and your dog if you have figured out how to work with one another.
As you work through the various exercises in the book (and you can easily pick and choose those that are most appealing to you and your dog) she continues to provide clear instructions as well as explaining what he is learning and why this behavior is useful. Almost every game has a note that will enhance the learning experience or give you an extra challenge. When playing Hide-and-Seek with your dog she suggests that you, “Try hiding at different levels: going up a level, for example, perching on a bunk bed because dogs don’t automatically look above eye level when they’re searching for something but instead rely on their noses.”
In addition to Clicker Training, she also has sections explaining positive reinforcement training and the Dominance myth. Her easy to read and understand instructions, coupled with her explanations of the science of learning and play, will broaden and enhance your understanding of how dogs think and learn. But mostly, this wonderfully accessible book will convince you that playing with your dog is a great way to live, learn, and love together for a lifetime.
Above: Zuzu and I practice some fetch, sit, and give, 3 days after picking her up. Playing games is a great way to establish a strong bond with your new dog.
*Having kids play with dogs is great, but should never be done without the direct supervision of an adult. Colleen Pelar and I talk about Simple Games for Kids and Dogs in our podcast airing 12/20/16, and see my other blogs on kids and dogs: Forced Friendship and And Baby Makes Four.
** See also our podcast, Why Be Positive?
Dogs, like people, need regular exercise to keep their waistlines trim, reduce health problems, and moderate their behavior. For people, living the sedentary life can lead to a variety of health problems, including diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, colon and breast cancer, heart disease, dementia and more.* It is no different for our dogs (and cats). According to the Dog Nutrition Center:
[R]ecent findings by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), [show] more than 45 percent of dogs and 58 percent of cats can be classified as overweight or obese. A gain of even a pound or two of additional fat on some dogs and cats can place significant stress on the body.
Some of the conditions that can occur as a result of excess weight are:
- Exercise intolerance, decreased stamina
- Respiratory compromise (breathing difficulty)
- Heat intolerance
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Diabetes or insulin resistance
- Liver disease or dysfunction
- Osteoarthritis (lameness)
- Increased surgical/anesthetic risk
- Lowered immune system function
- Increased risk of developing malignant tumors (cancer)
If these things weren’t bad enough, “overweight dogs die at a younger age than those maintained at an optimum weight.” According to a study by WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, obesity can reduce the length of a dog’s lifespan by up to 10 months.** At particular risk are Labradors, Beagles, Shih Tzus, Goldens, and American Cocker Spaniels.
In addition to preventing obesity, regular aerobic activity has a myriad of other benefits. There is an adage among dog trainers that “a tired dog is a well-behaved dog.” Most dogs do not get enough physical exercise or mental stimulation so they get bored and restless (especially young dogs) and go looking for something to do. A well exercised dog is more likely to settle, sleep better and longer, and refrain from nuisance behaviors such as barking and destructive chewing.
Simply walking on a leash however, may not be enough exercise for some dogs, particularly among breeds who “are built to spend the entire day working outside with their owner, and they have the physical ability and energy required for constant thinking and moving for hours.” (From Decoding Your Dog, pg.179). Having your dog run and chase a ball or another dog, go running with you, go swimming, or take an agility class may provide him with the aerobic activity he needs to be a better behaved dog. Chapter 9 in Decoding Your Dog has tables of canine activities, sports, and jobs that you might consider for your pup.
To get your dog to go from crazy to calm, it is also important to provide him with mental stimulation as well as physical exercise. Figuring out the right intelligence toy as well as the right amount of exercise may require some experimentation on your part and will change with the age of your dog. (For suggestions, check out my blogs on intelligence toys.) As you find toys and games that Bowser loves, keep them interesting by picking them up after a play session. Limited access keeps them special.
One way to keep toys interesting, as well as provide some fun for both of you, is to play hide and seek with them. This was one of my dog Bingley’s favorite games and a great rainy day activity. Start by teaching your dog to sit and stay in front of you. When he can hold a stay for 10 seconds or longer, take one of his toys (be sure he sees and sniffs the toy so he know which one he is seeking) and put it behind your legs. Ask him to “Go find it!” When he gets it, make a big deal about it, give him a treat (so he releases the toy), and ask him to sit and stay again. After a round or two of this, next walk a few feet away, put the toy behind your legs and ask him to find it again. As he gets the idea of staying until told to “Go Find it,” begin to make it harder. For example, I have an island in my kitchen so I would put Bing in a sit-stay on one side of the island, walk to the other side, put the toy down, walk back to him and tell him to go find it. As your dog gets better at waiting to be released venture farther afield and get creative where you hide it. I would put the toy behind doors, under sofas or pillows, in a basket, on the stairs, etc., until it got to to the point that I could hide the toy anywhere in my house and he would seek it out.
You should find that this game is both physical as well as mental as he will run all around the house looking for his treasure. This might not be enough physical activity for an adolescent Weimaraner, but it might be for a small or elderly dog, and it certainly is plenty of mental stimulation for any age of dog.
Whatever you choose to do with your dog, remember that you’ll both feel better when you take the initiative to get involved and active with him everyday.
** An article on PetMd stated: “A recent analysis of veterinary records revealed that dogs under 20 pounds had an average lifespan of 11 years while those over 90 pounds typically lived for only 8 years. Medium and large dogs fell in the middle at around 11 years.” Therefore, depending on the life expectancy, obesity may take anywhere from 7.6 to 10.4% off of your dog’s lifespan. [If your dog is expected to live 8 years (96 months) and his obesity takes 10 months off his life, that’s a 10.4% reduction in his lifespan. If your dog’s expected life span is 11 years (132 months), and he loses 10 months due to obesity, his life span is reduced 7.6%]
***For specific instructions for getting your dog to go from crazy to calm, see: “Fun”nel of Activity!
From that first introduction to the clicker, we have used it with all of our dogs. Though each dog is unique in his personality, interests and skill level, each one has responded with gusto to the clicker and to positive reinforcement training. When we had Buckley, Bingley, and Hudson, and I would pull out the clicker, all of them would get excited and start throwing behaviors at me to see what would elicit a click. Buckley would immediately sit, Hudson would start “petting” Bingley, who would back up, spin, bow, whatever! They knew that something would bring a click and a treat and they were eager to figure out what it was. Bingley was so enthusiastic about training when he was younger that he would find a clicker and come to my office holding it between his front teeth. When I turned and looked, he would click it and run down the hall, instigating a grand game of chase. Apparently clicker training works on people too!
For me, the value of the clicker for training (or in the absence of a clicker, accurately marking the behavior with a distinctive word or phrase such as “Yessss!” or “Good Dog!!”) cannot be overstated. Clickers allow you to be very precise in marking desired behaviors. For example, If your dog is easily excited, use your clicker to click for a calm moment (even if it is only for an instant) and immediately give him a tasty morsel. The dog will soon figure out that calm gets him everything, noisy gets him nothing. The more you consistently reward good behavior (even if it is a flash in the pan!) the more you will see it. Likewise, if your dog regularly behaves well (sitting quietly or lying down peacefully, for example), mark the behavior (Click! or “Good dog!”) and reward, reward, reward, so that you are sure to see more of it!
See this blog and more on reward based training at the Companion Animal Psychology Blog Party!
Dogs are many things, but spiteful is not one of them. They do not plan ahead to get back at you for leaving to go to work, nor do they artfully wait until you are out the door to exact revenge upon your carpet or door molding. Dogs, as Jean Donaldson puts it in Culture Clash, think in terms of safe vs dangerous rather than good vs evil or moral vs immoral. Since they are motivated to keep themselves safe and out of danger, it is very important to help them understand what safe is and to feel as comfortable as possible, especially when first introducing them to your family.*
With this in mind, I try to help clients understand what their dog needs to be successful in their home, by helping them see the world from their dog’s point of view. Not only is the canine perspective on the world a lot lower to the ground, it is from a different species with a less convoluted brain and no language skills (think in terms of Frat boys and you get the picture…).
I found a wonderful article** by Irith Bloom, the Director of Training at The Sophisticated Dog in Los Angeles about understanding the canine perspective. In one section, she does a superb job of describing what it must be like for a newly adopted dog who is anxious and worried about being left, and how we humans mis-interpret the actions of the dog. What we perceive of as acting guilty for wrongdoing, the dog sees as appeasement gestures to try and get his people to stop being angry. Sadly, this cycle of misunderstanding behavior inevitably sets up both humans and canines for failure:
One classic example of how canine instincts and poor communication can have devastating results is the all too common story of the rescue dog who has been placed in a new home and has a touch of separation anxiety due to several recent transitions. When the dog finds himself left alone in the house, he panics, urinates, and scratches at the door. While it’s dangerous to anthropomorphize, it’s reasonable to assume the dog is stressed at being isolated from his new-found family, and he may even “think”—in some canine way—that the family will never return now that they have left.
The family comes back at the end of the day to find their home a mess. They yell at the dog, who throws all his best calming signals at the family in an effort to placate them, and becomes even more anxious about the situation in his new home. At some point, the family leaves again, and the anxious dog engages in more destructive behavior. Day after day, this pattern continues. The family is sure that the dog knows he’s being bad while they are out, since he “acts so guilty” when they come home. This makes them yell at him even more.
Unfortunately, they don’t understand that the dog does not associate the family’s current anger with actions he took hours earlier, and that his behavior has nothing to do with guilt. The dog has learned that when the family comes home, scolding ensues, so he throws calming signals at the family in an effort to avert it. He doesn’t understand why his calming signals aren’t working, or what exactly is causing his family to be so angry. This makes him more and more anxious, so he becomes increasingly destructive. In the end, the dog’s fear of permanent separation from his family is realized, when the family, at their wits’ end, drops the dog off at the local shelter.
So what’s an owner to do? If your dog is having behavioral issues*** such as: destructiveness, barking, whining, house training problems, lunging or snarling at other dogs or people, or trembles at the sight of anything new then, first, understand that your dog is not doing this to hurt or spite you. He is likely fearful and needs some help to overcome his difficulties. Please contact a positive reinforcement trainer**** who can help you to better understand what your dog is trying to communicate and how you can better communicate to him that life is good and safe.
*This is why it is so important to properly socialize your puppy, so that he understands that kids, bikes, lawn mowers, vacuums, sidewalks, men with beards, wagons, snow blowers, teenage boys with iPods, golden retrievers, scooters, steps, etc are all safe things! See my blog: Why your puppy should be a social butterfly and Bringing home your new best friend.
**This essay was a contribution to the Dogwise John Fisher Essay Scholarship (sponsored by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers).
*** I have written several blogs on behavioral issues. See Behavior or “What the heck?” for a variety of blogs on behavior. For specific puppy issues see: This is not the dog I wanted, and Fearful puppies, biting adults, an unhappy alliance.
**** The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) offers a trainer search by zipcode, and I do behavior consults as well as training. Please call if you have any concerns about your dog’s behavior, 740-587-0429
Jean Donalson’s book The Culture Clash is one that I recommend to people who want to know more about the nature of the human-canine bond and how dogs struggle to understand a world so very different from their own. Ms. Donaldson is quite adept at presenting the canine point of view as well as bringing humans up short for their inept behavior concerning their dogs. The Whole Dog Journal sends me regular emails with tidbits about dogs, oftentimes referencing experts and their books. Here is a recent one about changing behavior in dogs from The Culture Clash:
People are terribly mystified by any change in their dog’s behavior and go on a lot with the “why? WHY?” as though there should never be any variability whatsoever in this living organism’s behavior. Training regressions are a frequent occurrence and no big deal. It is so important to remember that behavior is always in flux, constantly subjected to whatever contingencies there are in the environment as well as being influenced by unknown internal events. In the case of behavior problems, there are three main reasons for behavior that had seemed to be “fixed” to break down again:
- Undertraining: the behavior was never that strong in the first place
- Contingency change: the behavior extinguished or another one was trained by the owner or environment
- Failure to generalize: the behavior falls apart in a new location or context
A “contingency change” example: Inadvertent New Rules
A contingency change might look like the following. The dog has learned that it’s safe and often reinforcing to urinate in the yard and dangerous in most places he has tried in the house and so a fairly solid yard habit is in place. The owner has become upset about the yellowing of grass from dog urine and has decided to limit the dog to eliminating in one corner of the yard. The owner takes the dog on leash at elimination times for a couple of weeks, always going to one corner and praising the dog for urinating. The first couple of times the dog goes out off leash, she urinates in the wrong area. The owner punishes the dog. On the third day, the dog will no[t] urinate in the yard. The owners sees this and takes the dog for a walk. The dog has a very full bladder and finally urinates and is praised by the owner. The owner likes the idea of the dog urinating on the walk rather than in the yard and starts taking the dog around the block to eliminate, which is successful and keeps the yard urine-free.
A few months later, the owner is in a rush to prepare for guests arriving so lets the dog into the yard to pee while finishing the cooking. The dog does not urinate in the yard and comes back in full. When the guests arrive, the owner puts the dog on leash to calm one of the visitors who is afraid of dogs. The dog urinates on the Persian rug. The owner thinks the dog sensed that one of the guests didn’t like her and urinated to demonstrate her resentment. In fact, the dog has learned to urinate when on leash only, based on the new contingencies inadvertently set up by the owner. Dogs aren’t into big agendas. They just need to know where and when it’s safe to pee.
I like this example because it shows: 1) how easily we can misinterpret our dogs’ motivations, making them much more complex than they really are; and 2) if our dogs are now making mistakes, perhaps we need to consider what we have changed in their routine or if we have inadvertently taught them to do exactly what we don’t want them to do!
Another book which speaks to the bond between people and dogs, and the importance of understanding that what we do on our end of the leash directly impacts the behavior of the creature on the other end of the leash, is Dr. Patricia McConnell’s book The Other End of the Leash. Dr. McConnell is an Applied Animal Behaviorist who deals with serious canine behavior problems on a daily basis. She is also, however, a dog trainer, breeder, competitor in dog herding trials, and a dog owner who understands just “how easy it is for us humans to miscommunicate to our dogs.” Her clear and approachable writing style makes this compendium of personal and professional experience translate into terms that help people to better appreciate and communicate with their particular canines and, moreover, to love the dog they actually have. As she so eloquently states:
Perhaps one of the kindest things that you can do for your dog is to understand that, just like us humans, every dog has both a unique nature and a bevy of characteristics that he shares with others and that this bedrock foundation of “personality” is influenced each second by internal and external factors that impinge upon him throughout the day. Every dog is indeed special, and he deserves a human who gives him permission to be who he is, whether it’s sweet and shy or bold and cocky.” (The Other End of the Leash, pg. 207)
By understanding that our dogs don’t have ulterior motives, that they have distinct personalities and preferences, and that they are watching us for clues to how this world works, The Culture Clash and The Other End of the Leash help us not only to enjoy our dogs more, but to be the best possible advocates for the goofy, wonderful canines that populate our lives.
Any trainer worth her weight in dog hair will tell you that recognizing your dog’s stress signals is critical to insuring that it is not overwhelmed by current events. I have written columns about recognizing the most common stress signals,* but the question today is: What are some of the most common holiday situations that can drive even the most easy going of dogs to dismay and distraction?**
Colleen Pelar, trainer and author (Living with Kids and Dogs, Puppy Training for Kids), describes doggie stress*** as part of a continuum of behavior:
Nobody is happy all the time. We each have our good moments and our bad moments. It’s important to remember that dogs do too. Rather than look at dog behavior as simply aggressive or nonaggressive, it’s far better to see it as a continuum ranging from Enjoyment to Tolerance to Enough Already (and back again).
The critical thing to remember is: when our dogs move from enjoyment to tolerance, they are asking for help. It is our obligation to help them get back to enjoying the happenings so that they do not have to take the situation into their own paws and say, “Enough! I have had enough already!!”
Her enlightening photo gallery of dogs and kids presents situations that most people do not recognize as trying for their dogs. The holidays provide many such stressful opportunities. I encourage everyone to ask: How many times do I put my dog into a position where he is uncomfortable and simply tolerating the situation?
One common stressful scenario is staged photo shoots. Everyone wants the photo of the children and the dog all snuggly and happy for the holidays. Look at image #21 of 32 in Colleen’s gallery. This attempt at making the dog part of the photo op results in a dog who is not happy, but only tolerating the situation. A great example of how quickly a dog can move from comfortable to tolerant is the sequence of #24-25. In 24, the dog is happy to be with his children because he has sufficient space around his head. But in #25, the children have turned towards him and are crowding his head. He has moved to tolerance.
Think carefully about how you arrange the family photos. If your dog goes from open mouthed to close mouthed, wiggly to barely moving, looking at you to avoiding eye contact, he is telling you that this is not comfortable for him. Your best bet is to give him more space, especially around his head and face. Also give him several tasty treats throughout the photo session and have someone dedicated to be his private treat dispenser so that he has one person to focus on. If there are loud children, sudden movements, or other distractions that un-nerve your dog, give him a treat every time a kid shouts, runs, or otherwise acts in an erratic fashion.
Another situation that can stress a dog is Christmas morning, when we plunge “into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.” (Gene Shepherd, A Christmas Story). The opening of presents, the piles of paper, ribbons, and box tops, the squeals of delight and the wanton disregard for the normal canine routine can unsettle your dog. To help Rover better cope with the chaos, make sure he gets outside first thing, and is given a tasty stuffed Kong to work on while the presents are opened. Make the Kong the night (or two) before and freeze it so it is readily available and long lasting. I have several stuffed Kongs at the ready so my guys have something to do besides helping the grandkids open their treasure trove.
A third situation to keep in mind is the constant stream of people who the dog sees but once or twice a year. Many dogs revel in the flow of humanity through their abode, but for others, this is the height of stress and anxiety. In my blog Make Your Holidays Merrier I suggest two strategies for your dog to meet and greet guests:
Tip #3: Manage your meet and greets! Two strategies can be employed here:
1 Fido meets people as they come in, then retires to happy spot; or
2 Have Fido outside or in a crate. Then when your guests are settled, Fido comes out for a meet and greet, goes potty, and then settles down with a tasty kong.
And remember: your dog doesn’t have to meet everyone who comes to the house. If Fifi feels overwhelmed, put her in her happy place and let her choose when to re-join the festivities. That way, everyone’s Christmas is merry and bright.
**To help your dog manage the holidays see: “Make Your Holidays Merrier!” http://www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com/photos.html
***Check out Colleen’s stress signal list at: http://www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com/stress.html.
Your dog lunges at passing dogs, snaps at approaching people, or growls when you least expect it. Maybe you think your dog is unpredictable – sometimes she’s okay with a person or another dog, sometimes she isn’t.
What you do know is that you don’t trust her to behave in a civilized manner, and want to do something about it. Can you? The answer is, maybe.
-Trish King, Director Behavior and Training, Marin Humane Society (http://www.positivelytrained.com/edu_resources/Difficult_Dog.pdf)
When your dog behaves in an unpredictable, difficult, or aggressive way it can make you feel as if you are being betrayed by your best friend. So, what do you do when your dog displays behaviors that make you uncomfortable at best, and scared of her at the worst?
First of all, don’t ignore it, and don’t make excuses for it. You know your dog better than anyone else, so if something is off with your dog, get some help before the problem escalates to the point of being completely unmanageable, especially if your dog has a sudden onset of bad behavior for no apparent reason. A good place to start is with your veterinarian. For example, if your dog suddenly starts house soiling, have him checked for a urinary tract infection (UTI). Or, if your elderly dog starts pacing and knocking things over, especially when you are gone, don’t assume this dog has suddenly developed Separation Anxiety. It could be that your best buddy has developed vision or hearing problems or perhaps is showing signs of Canine Cognitive Disorder Syndrome (another symptom of which is house soiling). Detailed observations of his behavior will help your vet to diagnose the problem and get your pup the relief he needs. Moreover, the sooner you take care of a physical problem the less likely it will develop a lasting behavioral component as well.
(And, just for the record, UTIs can also cause problems with puppy house training. If your house training is not going well with a puppy, despite doing all the things your positive reinforcement trainer has suggested you do*, then have your puppy tested for a urinary tract infection (UTI) to rule out an organic cause to the problem.)
Another thing to consider when you have a sudden onset of cranky or aggressive behavior in your dog is whether or not your dog is in pain. My dog developed arthritis in his right elbow at the age of 2 and getting the pain under control helped to restore his happy nature. One thing I ask of owners whose dogs have behavior changes that seem to come on quickly or with our a clear reason, is to get the dog into the vet for a thorough physical exam to rule out any organic causes for the behavior changes (such as joint/spinal pain, allergies, ear infections, or other underlying causes of irritation, pain, or inflammation). You don’t want to jump into an extensive behavior modification program that can be time consuming, costly, and difficult to implement consistently by all members of the of the family, if it isn’t needed.
There are many reasons other than physical problems which can cause your dog to demonstrate aggressive behavior. A few things to consider are:
- Fear: is the most common cause of aggression in dogs. Dogs that are cautious as puppies may learn that aggressive behavior is the best way to keep scary things at bay.
- Trauma: “One of the more common causes of fear-based aggression is a traumatic episode in early life… The younger the dog is when the trauma occurs, the more lasting the imprint of the event. Often, the dog learns not to trust dogs, people… or even you, since you have been unable to keep her safe.” – Trish King
- Frustration: Dogs who lunge, growl, bark, etc., at the end of the leash, at a fence, or on a tie out are frustrated and may be fearful as well. They have learned that aggressive displays will scare away that which frustrates them.
If you see signs of aggression developing, especially in a puppy, don’t wait it out hoping that he will grow out of it. (See my blog, This is not the dog I wanted… http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=1386). A common adage among trainers is, “Dogs grow into aggression, not out of it.” The longer you wait to address a problem, the more difficult it will be to resolve and your chances for success will diminish. Don’t hesitate to call me and together we can move towards a solution.
* See my blogs on house training: To pee or not to pee…inside: http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=2710, and Housetraining: how do I get Sparky to tell me he needs to go out? http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=1730
The following clicker home management program will help you teach your dog that you are the leader; you can do this without frightening or threatening him. The program establishes a balanced handler/dog relationship, and teaches your dog to trust and respect you without you requiring what you prove your dominance over the dog. Most dogs are less stressed when they leave the decision-making responsibilities to their handlers…Your dog must learn to trust your judgement, allowing you to make decisions for him (pg 17).
She suggests that you implement one or two of the ten principles every week or so, depending on how well your dog progresses with each of the steps. What I like about the 10 principles is that they are great foundational behaviors for any dog and, if followed, will help to insure that your dog is a happy and well mannered member of the family. I have written my own columns on similar themes
and have provided links to those blog posts. Her 10 basic principles are:
- Teach your dog to say “Please.” (http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=2455)
- Catch your dog being good.
- Calm gets you everything, noisy gets you nothing.
- Excuse Me!
- You begin the play, you end the play
- Your dog’s mind needs as much exercise as his body. (http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=1687)
- A room of his own. (http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=2089)
- If you give me that, I will give you this. (http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=2238)
- Limit your dog’s access to his toys.
- The bowl is the cue to eat.
**All quotes are from Click to Calm, so I will end quotes with the page number in parenthesis.
My good friend and fellow dog trainer, Colleen Pelar often quips, “Dog trainers are wonderful, but they are not normal.” She means that the way in which we treat our dogs is not, in general, the way the average dog owner relates to his or her canine. For example, my dog Bingley loves whole wheat pancakes and I will go out of my way to find his very favorite pancake mix. Another trainer not only serves pancakes to her dog, but makes them into fun shapes for him. All of this is to say that we trainers think a lot about what we do, and how it impacts our furry friends.
One concept that has been around for awhile (and therefore discussed, dissected, and analyzed for just one week short of awhile) is NILIF or Nothing In Life Is Free.* The basic concept is: any thing that your dog wants must be preceded by something you want, most often a sit. If, for example, your dog wants to go outside, a sit at the door is a pre-requisite for opening the portal to paradise. Sit happens if you want me to place the dinner bowl on the floor for you, if you want a treat, etc. In this way, sit becomes the equivalent of “Please.”
Trainers use NILIF in a variety of situations and to greater and lesser degrees of conformity. Some trainers demand that everything from food to petting to play must be preceded by a sit. Others are more lenient and require that only certain behaviors require a sit. Personally, I am more of the lenient sort, and require sit at times when it makes my life easier. My dogs sit before meals, because I don’t like to be flattened by a 100 pound dog lunging for his last (in his mind anyway) meal. I also like sit at the door, sit on the scale at the vet’s office, and if you are a giant Bernese Mountain dog, sit should be your default behavior so you don’t scare or accidentally knock over the person you are convinced is “MY NEW BESTEST FRIEND IN THE WORLD AT LEAST FOR THIS MINUTE!”
I tend to be more stringent about NILIF when I am working with an overly confident dog who I think needs to learn some more self control and that he cannot get his way by being pushy. This sort of dog will have to sit for treats, petting, the door, getting his leash on, meeting new people, etc., at least at the beginning of training so that he learns to keep his enthusiasm, energy, and/or confidence in check and so that the owner feels as if he has a bit more control over the situation. As the owner and dog build a closer relationship and the dog understands that sit gets him all sorts of wonderful, the regime can be loosened.
I started to reflect more on NILIF after reading Kathy Sdao’s book, Plenty in life is Free (http://www.dogwise.com/itemdetails.cfm?ID=DTB1246). I have heard Ms Sdao talk on numerous occasions and have learned a great deal from her about training, reinforcement, and building relationships with our animals. She is a compassionate and experienced behaviorist and trainer and I have always walked away from her lectures feeling as if I were a better person as well as a better trainer. Her new book is challenging, insightful and got me to think about what I am doing as a trainer to enhance the wellbeing of both my human and animal clients. Ms Sdao advocates the idea of a partnership between dog and person and that clients can get the behavior they want out of their dogs by getting SMART:
-that is, that they practice “See, Mark And Reward Training.” Those three components- seeing good behavior, marking good behavior (often with a click or a “yes”) and rewarding good behavior – are the core competencies of successful trainers. (Plenty in life is Free, pg. 50)
This approach does leave room for talking, luring, prompting, etc, but they are not as important as watching your dog and rewarding the good stuff. This approach uses the “most fundamental law of behavior: consequences drive behavior.” (pg. 83). In other words, rewards matter. Rewarding desirable behavior will do more to change and improve your dog’s behavior than anything else you do, including playing at being alpha dog. “Effective trainers are reward junkies…They strive to be the source of dozens of things the dog finds satisfying: food, play, attention, affection, exercise, smells, praise, petting, freedom, comfort and more.” (pg. 84). Using effective and well timed rewards will increase the frequency of your dog’s good behaviors as well as build a relationship with him based on co-operation and trust.
I also think that SMART can be effectively combined with parts of NILIF. For example, if you want your dog to sit before you open the door, reward a lot of sits in a variety of situations so that sit becomes a go-to behavior for your dog. Then, when he wants to go out, pause and wait for the sit. As soon as Rover’s haunches hit the floor, the portcullis can be raised! In this way, you have Seen, Marked and Rewarded sits, and then allowed your dog to make the right decision to use this learned behavior to get what he wants.
Ms. Sdao’s book is easy to read, narrative in style, and filled with easy, practical tips that allow trainers and owners to effectively, efficiently, and compassionately train dogs and build relationships that are mutually beneficial and rewarding partnerships. I highly recommend it for anyone who has ever loved a dog, troublesome or perfect, unruly or agreeable, as it will enrich your life as well as your dog’s.
*NILIF= Nothing In Life Is Free; STILAF= Some Things in Life Are Free; PILIF= Plenty In Life Is Free; IAILF= Is Anything In Life Free; WBDTTAT= Who But Dog Trainers Think About This