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?
On October 15th Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services addressed an issue that has been of concern to me for a long time: dogs who really shouldn’t be therapy dogs. Not every dog can be molded into a dog who relishes visits with children, Alzheimer’s patients, or nursing home residents. As much as I admire someone’s desire to give light and joy to those individuals, very few dogs really have the right temperament to do this work, and those that do may well have institutions they do not like, types of people who make them uncomfortable, or days they just don’t feel like doing the job.
Or, it could be that your therapy dog is ready to retire. Our Golden Retriever, Hudson, was the dog I used for Bite Prevention workshops in schools. When he was about 7, I was invited to a first grade class to talk about dog safety. One of the things I did in these visits, was have the kids hide a stuffed Kong in the classroom and then let Huddy find it. He never failed to retrieve it and then settle down amongst the children to clean out the Kong. On this day, the kids hid the Kong, Hudson got it, and promptly walked away from the kids to settle under a desk to eat his treat. I knew right then that it was Hudson’s last day as a classroom dog because he was telling me quite clearly that he no longer enjoyed the situation, but was only tolerating it. Therapy dogs need to love their work, not just put up with it.
As Reisner puts it so very well:
Many of us see therapy work as a desirable goal, where we and our dogs can work as partners to help others less fortunate than we are. But it’s not typically our dogs’ choice to do this work; some of them just aren’t meant to do so.
Socialization, training and even ‘testing’ don’t guarantee that a particular dog will do well in an institutional or hospital setting, and with children or elderly people. Very elderly people may be stiff and fragile, or may not be able to follow instructions. Children can be impulsive, loud, and can crowd dogs. Any institution is crowded with equipment, noises, staff and smells that can intimidate dogs.
My beloved red Aussie, Zev, was Therapy Dog International certified, well socialized to a variety of human sizes, shapes and abilities and very easy-going. Neither of us was prepared when, in a nursing home, a woman with Alzheimer’s approached him very slowly, and with a direct stare, while he was in a small room visiting with someone else. Understandably, he growled; I almost growled myself. That was the day he retired from therapy work, much to his relief. And there have been dogs presented for behavior consultations because of fearful behavior in such environments.
Every therapy setting is unique, as are the temperaments of individual dogs. It pays to think twice before putting a dog in a setting that neither you nor the dog can control. Consider your dog’s temperament and, most important, his attitude and posturing in the therapy setting. Protect him from situations that might trigger fear and, if needed, be willing to walk out for his sake.
If your dog is sketchy or the setting is challenging, remember that you can choose to spend weekend afternoons visiting a nursing home and enriching the lives of its residents without your dog, while he stays home working on a frozen food-filled Kong.
Finding the right dog to do therapy work is a major challenge, especially with rescue dogs whose backgrounds and socialization maybe murky at best. That might lead you to think that purebred dogs are the answer. Not necessarily. Even well-socialized pure bred dogs, raised from puppyhood to be comfortable with a variety of people, may not have the temperament for this line of work. Challenging situations might trigger discomfort and reactivity that would put him and others at risk. This is why it is imperative to pay close attention to the signals your dog is giving you that may indicate that he is unhappy and would prefer to be doing something else. If your dog does rise to the challenge of being a therapy dog, congratulations! But, don’t feel bad if he doesn’t, just allow him to spread joy in his particular fashion.
It’s time, once again, for a hodgepodge of items that I have recently encountered. These tidbits are related by four components: 1) I like them, 2) they are all about positive approaches to training and interacting with your dog, 3) Reisner Vet likes them and, 4) I was not smart enough to write them first.
The first is the Freedom Harness Exchange Program.
The Harness Exchange Program is an advocacy program of Biggies Bullies that promotes the use of force-free pet equipment. We are asking pet guardians o swap out their choke, prong, and shock collars for a free harness! We want all pets and their parents to experience the huge advantages and long-lasting effectiveness of force-free training and pet care. When you mail us your choke, prong, or shock collar we will send you a free Freedom No Pull Harness. -Biggies Bullies Website.
The page is filled with pictures of adorable “bully” breed dogs happily ensconced in their bright colored freedom harnesses. The beauty of any no-pull harness is that it works with your dog to stop pulling, rather than punish or hurt your dog for pulling. Choke chain collars can damage your dog’s thyroid, increase the pressure in his eyes (putting him at greater risk for glaucoma), and can cause damage to the trachea or esophagus. “Dogs walked on prongs are also constantly subjected to pain and discomfort, which creates fear, anxiety and aggression on walks.” (Biggies Bullies Website). Dogs corrected with shock collars may associate the pain and fear they experience with their owners and may respond by avoiding their owners, shutting down, or acting out aggressively.*
I have used the Freedom harness as well as other front buckling no pull harnesses and I highly recommend them. They are the most effective, however, when used in conjunction with positive reinforcement training to teach a dog loose leash walking. I think this is a great program and if you want to support it, click here to donate.
Another article that I came across came from my old standard Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services is dated June 6th and has a wonderful graphic by Lili Chin, titled Calm and Relaxed? or Shut Down? What I love about this is that it points out how important it is to understand dog body language so you know what your dog is actually telling you! Dogs who are subdued when meeting new people, places, things, or other dogs, may not be calm and relaxed, but rather shut down and scared. Understanding how your dog is interpreting the situation will give you the information you need to best help him.**
While scrolling through Lili Chin’s website I found some graphics that she produced for the Vet Behavior Team about stress signals in dogs. Going to their website, I found several handouts that clearly and precisely illustrate the signals that dogs use to communicate to us that they are upset, stressed, hyper-vigilante, or just plain scared. Even if you know your dog’s stress signals, I recommend that you take a look at these handouts as they will help you recognize stress signals in other dogs. Knowing what other dogs are “feeling” will help you to keep your dog safe. I plan on using these handouts with all my clients!
I have written about dogs and kids before, but recently I came across this website: Family Paws Family Education which I really like. It has a lot of useful information for parents, parents-to-be, trainers, and veterinarians to help kids and dogs live together in harmony. The resource page has plenty of links to other valuable resources (such as Living with Kids and Dogs , Colleen Pelar’s website) as well as some terrific handouts with nice graphics about Dog and Baby safety, Dog and Toddler safety, what is supervision (and isn’t! This is a particularly eye-opening handout). I recommend to parents that they post the relevant ones on the frig so they are a ready reminder of how to have your expanding household live together positively and safely.
**The article to which this graphic is attached is a detailed look at Cesar Milan and his television program concerning a Boston Terrier who attacked and killed pigs, and Mr. Milan’s approach to changing this behavior. I am no fan of Mr. Milan and the methods he employed here just about made me pass out and/or vomit. His outdated approach caused egregious harm to the health and mental well being of the dog as well as the pigs he employed. I cannot emphasize loud or long enough that bullying, hurting, or punishing your dog is not the humane, responsible way to change behavior, no matter how abhorrant that behavior may be. Every animal deserves to be cared for and handled with compassion and dignity. Period.
A few days ago, fellow trainer Mary Graham, posted an article by trainer Chad Culp on her Facebook page. I promptly shared a link to it on my business Facebook page. The article is titled Letting Dogs Meet: The Three Second Rule, and I think it is a terrific guideline for how to do an appropriate meet and greet for dogs who don’t know one another.*
The basic concept here is to have a short introduction that allows dogs to meet, without escalating into an unpleasant foray. Even a dog who is very easy going and “loves other dogs” will encounter canines that he is uncomfortable with, is not interested in meeting, or who are socially inept. This is where a 3 second meet and greet will allow you to decide if this is a dog with whom you and your pooch are comfortable.
He mentions that if you meet “a dog out in the world and you don’t feel comfortable with having your dog meet him, that’s ok.” I couldn’t agree more. Trust your gut, and politely excuse yourself from the situation before the rendezvous becomes a skirmish. (Tell the other person that you are in training mode and need to keep focused.)
He lists 10 bulleted points for the 3 Second rule and one that immediately caught my eye was:
Keep your eyes peeled and be fully present. (Don’t be texting while a dog meeting is taking place.) (Emphasis mine.)
If you want to keep you and your dog safe and happy, you have to pay attention to what is happening right then and know what your dog’s body language is telling you about his current comfort level. If your dog starts to stiffen, press his ears back, tuck his tail, or try to move away from the new dog, do not proceed with the meet and greet as he is telling you, in no uncertain terms, that this is not a good idea.**
He further adds:
Know your dog. If your dog has a history of biting or aggression, your situation is beyond the scope of this blog. Consult a dog training professional to help your dog with his particular needs.
Absolutely. Whether this has been a long standing problem or a recent development, if your dog is irritable with other canines, then don’t force an interaction when he is clearly not in the mood, frightened, or testy. This will exaccerbate, not solve the problem. Find a positive reinforcement trainer, behaviorist, or vet who can help you develop or enhance your dog’s social skills.
*Mr. Culp also points out that this is good standard procedure even for dogs who do know one another. Why? Because it gives owners a chance to evaluate how their dogs are feeling at that particular moment and whether or not this is a good day for a play date.
**I have written a lot about stress signals and dog body language. For a refresher on what your dog is telling you see: Stress Signals
Nota been: 4/28/16. The Granville Farmer’s market opens for the 2016 season on May 7, so I thought it appropriate to resurrect this blog for the opening bell to help your dog enjoy the market as much as you do.
Granville’s Saturday farmer’s market is in full swing and will continue through October. It is a great place to get anything from peaches to perennials, wax beans to beeswax soap, and bacon to bread. It’s also common to see people strolling with their favorite canine down the middle of the market, paying no attention to what is happening at knee level or below.
First of all, it’s hot. The pavement radiates the summer heat and the temperature 18-24 inches above the ground is going to be the hottest. Test the pavement by placing the back of your hand on it for 5 seconds. If you can’t keep your hand there, it’s too hot for canine paws as well. But, moreover, think about how you feel when you’re hot. Are you always tolerant, kind, desiring of another chance to sit on the hot ground and wait for someone while they stop, yet again, to talk? Thinking about it in this way, our dogs are remarkably tolerant of our dithering about.
Distractions also abound, visually, orally, audibly, and especially aromatically. Walking down the center of the market is like running a gauntlet. Simmering beef entices us to the right; a beautiful bouquet strikes our fancy so we veer left; then back again for salsa, soap, or cinnamon buns. Meanwhile, Rover has just gotten a whiff of dog bones (at the front of a booth, RIGHT AT NOSE LEVEL!!!), seen a cute spaniel 15 feet away, or snarfed up a dropped piece of cheese, and would really like to further investigate any/all of these enticing diversions. And what do we do when he balks? We scold him for not listening, and pull him along to our next encounter where he will continue to be challenged and we will continue to demand that he be perfectly behaved.
Another significant challenge for Fifi is space.* Dogs, like people, have clear personal space. Think about the person you have just met who is a “space invader” and gets so close to you that you can smell the coffee on his breath. Are you comfortable? Do you try to put some distance between you and Mr. Mocha? What do you do if there is no room to move away, do you get a bit forward? Tell the person to back off? Try to get around him somehow?
Now, imagine if you are an affable Golden retriever who, in general, likes people and other dogs. You are at the market with your favorite person, and have been there for a half hour or so. It has been very exciting: lots of smells, a bit loud, it’s starting to get hot, you really would like to get a bone and go home, people have been petting and touching you from all sides, (without properly introducing themselves), and now there is a child in a stroller RIGHT next to you with icing all over his hands and face. Your beloved person is busy choosing beans, and holding your leash tight so that you don’t clean-up the sugar-frosted toddler. So you are in a bit of an excited or aroused state. Nothing bad per se, but you’re definitely more sensitive to the surroundings. Now, into this mix comes a dog who is socially awkward and comes right up to your face, head on, and immediately tries to put his head or paws over your shoulders. You have never met this pup, he’s kinda rude, and he’s starting to get awfully familiar! You try to back away, to give yourself a bit of distance from this space invader, but there is no place for you to go. What’s a dog to do?
If the Golden, who really wants to resolve this peacefully, has no other option, he may snarl or snap at the offending dog. This will cause his owner to scold him, jerk him away, and/or swat his behind, and say, “Bad Rover! I’m so sorry! He generally really likes other dogs!” And, I would bet $1000 that the owner of the dog who was inappropriate in his greeting will say (in a hurt or put out tone of voice), “He was just trying to say ‘Hi!'” Yes, perhaps he was. But, unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding his awkward greeting did not lend themselves to a bonhomie outcome.
All this seems to me to be incredibly unfair to Fido, primarily because we are not telling him clearly what is expected of him, only that what he is currently doing, once we actually pay attention to him, is wrong. So, what do I expect an owner to do? Here are some simple rules to make the farmer’s market a happy experience for all involved:
1) Check the temperature, especially if you are headed out later in the morning. If you find it sweltering, so does your pup. Leave Fido home with a tasty Kong to keep him occupied while you wander around the market. Or, if you need to bring him, pack some water for him, and keep him in the shade as much as possible.
2) Be aware of what is going on around the dog at his level. For example, if someone (or some dog) is lurching towards your pooch and he backs up to give himself some more room, step in-between the approaching person/beast and your dog so that he is protected from being overwhelmed. Body blocking is a great way to protect your dog’s personal space.
3) Know your dog’s body language** so that you can intervene before something happens. Remember that your dog is probably in an excited state and therefore, will be more likely to overreact. If you can recognize when your dog is on edge, you can make sure that he has plenty of space, especially around his head, and room to move away from any agitation.
4) If your dog is nervous or uncertain about crowds of people or other dogs, walk him around the market rather than through the gauntlet. I have made this suggestion to a variety of my clients whose dogs have social or spacial issues. The goal here is to get your dog use to being in public, around other dogs, and/or an abundance of distractions without overwhelming him and setting him up for an unsociable encounter, aggressive display, or full-blown panic attack.
5) Keep it short and reward often. Reduce your dog’s stress by keeping your visit to the market short and sweet, and include a lot of rewards for being a good dog. Take some biscuits in your pocket and distribute them liberally as you walk through the market. This will keep Fido focused on you and much happier about the constant busyness around him.
I want both you and your dog to have fun outings together. By paying attention to what’s going on at knee level or below you are setting both of you up for a happy and successful morning at one of Granville’s summer institutions*Further information on canine personal space:
Dog Bit Prevention 2013 by Patricia McConnell
Helping an Anxious Dog by Jessica Miller
**I have written several blogs on canine body language here are a few:
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.
As I was preparing for this week’s blog, I found several articles that I thought were interesting and insightful. This first one is about the emotional states of older dogs and how they may not show it, but they need the comfort and support of their caregivers as much as young dogs, and perhaps even more. Their signals may be subtle, (lip-licking, panting, avoiding eye contact), but strange situations or people may give them pause and they depend on their people to help them in stressful situations.
The next article contained a terrific chart of “30 Positive Reinforcement Training Tips for Your Pet.” Like the above article, Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services posted the link to this chart on its Facebook page. This chart has a straight forward explanation of how positive reinforcement works, and how you can easily incorporate it into your training. For example, something often advocate is summed up nicely in tips #4, 5, and 6:
4. Keep any commands short and uncomplicated.
5. Don’t say the command word more than once. They will learn the sooner they obey, the sooner they’ll get the treat.
6. Always use the same word for the same action.
Reisner made this comment with which I also agree: “Two thoughts I would add: For #25 – no need to completely phase out food; it continues to be the best (intermittent) reinforcer for many dogs. And #30 – don’t massage paws unless you’re quite sure your dog enjoys it.”
The third thing I wanted to share was a puppy socialization chart that I found at doggiedrawings.net. This poster is a great summary of what you should (and shouldn’t) do when exposing your pup to new things. As I mentioned in previous posts, properly socializing your puppy is your best insurance policy for a well adjusted adult dog. I especially love the paragraph at the bottom of the poster, and it bears repeating (a lot…):
Remember: EXPOSURE alone isn’t socialization!
If your dog isn’t having a great time you could do more harm than good. Dogs don’t just “get over” issues by themselves, so if your dog is shy, worried, or overly excited, leave the situation and work with a professional who can help both of you. If your dog is having a blast and is happy and comfortable, you’re doing a great job of socializing him!
A common problem with puppies is general mouthiness, but when an owner is trying to clip the puppy’s leash onto its collar it can go beyond annoying to infuriating . The typical response seems to be to tell the puppy “NO!” and try to get it to settle by sheer force of will and a stern voice. I have not found that this is the most successful method and it generally results in a frustrated owner and a non-compliant dog.
So, what’s an owner to do? The answer is surprisingly simple actually! Use treats to get the the dog to look at you, then lure him into a down and place the treats between his paws as you clip the leash either on or off. If the dog will not do a down, then simply put the treats between his front paws and as he leans down to eat them, snap on the leash. You can use a small handful of kibble as the treats, but I find that adding in a few really yummy treats helps to motivate the pup to be still. Here is a wonderful little video illustrating this technique:
One last hint for leash mouthiness, if your dog is toy motivated, give him a stuffed toy or ball to hold while you snap on the leash. It is really, really hard to hang onto Mr. Bear and bite your leash at the same time.
Puppies bite — and thank goodness they do. Puppy biting is a normal, natural, and necessary puppy behavior. Puppy play-biting is the means by which dogs develop bite inhibition and a soft mouth. The more your puppy bites and receives appropriate feedback, the safer his jaws will be in adulthood. It is the puppy that does not mouth and bite as a youngster whose adult bites are more likely to cause serious damage. (Ian Dunbar, DogStarDaily.com)
Here’s Dr. Dunbar talking about the importance of bite inhibition and allowing your puppy to use his mouth:
I do understand that excessive biting can be frustrating, so if you cannot get your puppy to inhibit his biting or if your puppy seems to be biting out of fear, seek out the help of a positive reinforcement trainer or a certified animal behaviorist so that you can nip that problem in the bud.
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
Play is an integral part of most dogs’ mental health and physical well being. Play is generally high energy and knowing what to look for in appropriate play helps you prevent your dog’s enthusiasm from getting out of hand.
Dogs’ play styles vary across breed, temperament, size, and experience, but some general observations or rules about play can be used to 1) distinguish it from the prey sequence from which it is derived, and 2) keep your dog safe and in the happy zone.
The first thing I point out to clients is that play is large, loose, lateral, and sometimes loud. Dogs’ movements are exaggerated and loosey-goosey as they solicit a friend to play. This lets the potential playmate know this is going to be fun and don’t take this too seriously. When in prey mode, animals tend to have small tightly controlled movements because they don’t want to let the object of their desire know where they are or that they are approaching. In play, dogs bounce back and forth in play bows, or lateral leaps, and may bark, whine, or play growl. When stalking prey, predators are focused, forward moving and quiet. You cannot catch a silly wabbit if you announce your intentions.
Play is also repetitive and self-regulating. When my dogs rev up in the back yard it generally starts with one of the retrievers giving a play bow. The other one stops, spays its front legs in an abbreviated play bow and off they zoom (with the Bernese Mt Dog in pursuit) around the shed, across the patio, around the holly bush through the day lilies and back again, and again, and again. (In fact, we specifically designed the backyard gardens with the dogs’ “flight paths” in mind. Though, apparently, this is not how most people landscape…). This repetitive pattern is a hallmark of play, whereas when pursuing dinner, you don’t generally get a second chance to capture the main entree, so most predators keep themselves tightly wound and let loose once in a quick burst of determination.
If you watch dogs playing, you should notice that they will play, play, play, stop, re-group, repeat. Dogs don’t want to spillover into aggression any more than we want them too, so they will naturally self-regulate in order to keep arousal at a fun level. Puppies learn a lot about this from their litter mates, but sometimes we have to help them learn how to keep themselves from being obnoxious with other dogs or people. When I host play groups, especially puppy play groups, I will help dogs learn to regulate by breaking up play anywhere from every 30 seconds to every 5-10 minutes depending on the intensity of the play, how quickly the dogs escalate their arousal level, and how comfortable all the dogs in the play group seem to be. If your dog or puppy quickly escalates to biting your pants, hands, or shoes at an uncomfortable level, try stopping play the first time his teeth hit your skin or clothes. Have him sit, give him a treat and let him calm down for 15-60 seconds (until he is relaxed enough to stop biting), and resume play.
Break play up as often as necessary to keep him below his biting threshold, and try re-directing his mouth from you to a toy. If you feel as if your puppy cannot play without drawing blood or it just isn’t fun, call a positive reinforcement trainer for some help. (The Association of Professional Dog Trainers has a trainer search page: https://apdt.com/trainer-search/ where you can search by zip code for a trainer close to you.)
Knowing what sort of play your dog prefers as well as how quickly he revs up will also help to keep play fun and rewarding for your canine. My dog Bingley loved his morning tug sessions with Hudson and chasing Huddy around the shed, but in general prefers to play ball with me over playing with other dogs (Or any available human with an arm, for that matter. He swears all repairmen are hired specifically to throw balls for him). It’s really okay that some dogs are not as interested in playing with other dogs as they are with their people. Think if it as good information to have about your dog that helps you keep him from being overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of other dogs. For example, when you go to a dog park take a bunch of tennis
balls and have your dog play ball with you while the other dogs romp and wrestle. (Extra tennis balls will help to keep all canine ball addicts happy, while allowing your dog to pursue his magic golden orb without interference).
I have a t-shirt that reads, “Life is short, play with your dog.” So bearing that in mind, find something you both enjoy and get large, loose, lateral, and a little bit loud.