New clients will often ask me if I offer agility classes, or other specialty training classes. I don’t offer them for a variety of reasons, including that I don’t have the staff or facility for it. But the primary reason is because the vast majority of dogs will never pursue canine activities such as agility or search and rescue work, but will spend their lives as family dogs. Moreover, if you can’t succeed at being the family dog, you will not be pursuing any extra curricular activities.
So what does it mean to be a family dog? I define it using this example:
I live in a small village in central Ohio. We have a local ice cream parlor called Whit’s and everyone in our village of ~2700 likes to walk to Whit’s on a summer evening to get ice cream and hang out on the wide sidewalk visiting with friends and neighbors. Kids play, bikes glide by, and dogs wait patiently for their puppy sundaes. Norman Rockwell would be proud!
In the midst of this idyllic scenario, owners are asking their dogs to walk to town (nicely, without pulling), and negotiate adults, kids, bikes, other dogs, fallen ice cream, trash cans, trees, tables and chairs on the sidewalk, aromas from the restaurants, outdoor seating for several restaurants, strollers, scooters, runners, etc., without misbehaving, and often without rewards for this amazing skill set.
The skills necessary for a family dog to succeed in public with his owners are amazing, but remarkably achievable, with positive reinforcement family dog training. In my classes and private lessons, I focus on a couple of objectives that are likely to give you the well mannered dog you desire. First and foremost, I focus on teaching your dog to check in with you. A dog who looks at you is more likely to follow instructions than a dog who is watching a squirrel, or focused on a child eating an ice cream cone. Think of it this way, if you have a teenager who is busy texting, how likely is she to hear what you are saying? I estimate you have a 2-3% chance of her hearing and responding correctly to your request while she is focused on the phone. If, however, she looks up from the phone, your chances for comprehension increase to 30-40%, if you’re lucky. Unfortunately, compliance hovers at a shaky 5 % at best.**
Therefore, I work with owners to develop several ways in which they can get their dogs to turn from distractions and check in. One thing I have written about is the class rule: If another dog barks, your dog gets a treat. This is an excellent way to teach your dog that checking in with you is a great idea. If the sound of another dog barking becomes a cue for your dog to look at you, then you will have a much better chance of preventing him from joining in the bark fest, and of keeping his attention when other distractions arise.
The other major objective is impulse control, which is, in essence, the heart of all training. Impulse control starts with sit. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of sit! This is why I use Dr. Sopia Yin’s Learn to Earn Program, wherein sit is equal to please. Anything your pup wants must be preceded by a sit. For example, in order for the dinner bowl to be put on the floor, your dog must be sitting. If he breaks the sit before the bowl is placed, then the bowl does get put down. It took my gluttonous Bernese Mountain dog about 3 attempts to put the bowl down for him to learn to hold his sit. Teaching your dog that sit is the key to all things wonderful, will also help him to learn that sit should be his default behavior. Then, when he is unsure of what is expected of him, he will likely sit and wait for further instructions.
Family dogs are not just the bread and butter of my business, they are the canines I love best. To see a family dog walking happily alongside his people, waiting patiently for his puppy sundae, or leaning contentedly against the leg of the person he adores, is pure joy for me, and the reason I have geared my training, blogging, and podcasting to helping families love living with dogs.
*See also: Love the dog you’re with
**I have no idea if these numbers concerning texting teenagers are accurate. They are my estimations and are used simply to illustrate the point that attention is essential to effective communication between individuals, whether you are the same or different species. I will leave it to the reader to define species in this context…
As a positive reinforcement trainer I use a lot of food, especially in the beginning of training, to reward a dog for doing the right thing. Food, in general, is an easy and efficient way to let your dog know that he was on target with the desired behavior and for most dogs, it isn’t something we need to teach them to like. Depending on the circumstances and what we are working on, I will use the dog’s food (if we are in a low distraction situation) or higher value treats if the situation is more demanding or distracting to the dog and I need something to keep and hold his attention. I will eventually reduce the amount of food I use, and switch to other forms of reinforcement, but when teaching a new skill or working under unusual circumstances, I rely on tasty morsels to reward my dog.
If you want to reduce the amount of food rewards you use, the first thing to remember is that it is important to reward your dog every time he does something you ask him to do or that you appreciate him doing. If you want a behavior to increase in frequency or stay strong, it’s important that your dog understand that this behavior is worth his effort. You can begin to reduce the amount of food by combining it with other reinforcements. This is particularly handy when you reach into your bait bag and discover you only have a small handful of treats left. If I need to reward my dog for a particularly good performance and I have just a few morsels (or I want to reduce food rewards), I will pet, praise, play, and strategically throw in a couple of pieces of food. I find that dogs respond very well to 20-30 seconds of wonderfulness that includes all the things that they enjoy: your attention and affection, play, and a snack.
Another way to reduce the amount of food you use is to use it intermittently when reinforcing routine behaviors. If your dog really knows sit, then you don’t need to reinforce with food every time she plunks her bottom on the ground. A “Good Girl!” or scratch under the ear is probably sufficient, most of the time, to reward a sit. However, giving her a treat on occasion will help to keep the behavior strong as she never knows when the treat is coming and it just might be this time! (Think in terms of being a Vegas slot machine. Sometimes you get nothing, sometimes it’s a little, and every once in awhile, it’s a jackpot!) If, however, you ask her to do something routine (such as a sit) in a completely new and exciting environment (such as the entrance to the dog park), it will be much harder for her to comply. Let her know that you appreciate the effort she has put into doing this in a difficult situation by rewarding her with something really meaningful to her.
What do you do, however, when your dog is not food motivated, or is on a restricted diet? In a recent blog I discussed three things to experiment with to determine what is motivating to your dog. I have also written about making a list of 5 things your dog loves that you can use to reward your dog. But, how exactly do you use these things to reward your dog?
Let’s imagine that you are in the back yard and your dog heads over to the fence to bark at the neighbor’s kids. You call him, he stops, looks at you, looks at the fence, and decides to come to you. This tough decision needs to be rewarded in some way! If you have a toy, reward his come with a game of tug, fetch, or chase-me-to-get-the-toy. If you don’t have a toy readily available, then spend a full 30 seconds petting him, scratching his favorite spot, and telling him what a brilliant boy he was!
You can also use play as a way to teach a new behavior. I have a dog who is not particularly food motivated but LOVES to play. To teach her to sit between tosses of the ball I use two tennis balls when we play fetch. I toss the first one and when she brings it back, I show her the second ball. When she drops the first one and sits, the second one is immediately thrown. Off she flies and I pick up the first ball, and the cycle continues. I am using what she loves to do to get her to practice the impulse control (i.e.: sit) that I want from her.
I had a client whose dog had some very unusual dietary restrictions so treats were not an option. Bailey loved squeaky toys, however, so the owner bought several and kept them in a box in the closet with his leash. When walk time came, she would get one of the toys out of the box and tuck it in a pocket or bait bag. When Bailey got overly excited about something on his walk she would say his name, and squeak the toy. Bailey would turn and look at her, and she would give him the toy to hold. This calmed him and he would trot along with his Zen-inducing toy in his mouth until he relaxed enough to drop it. Susan would pick it up, tuck it away, and repeat the process as needed. At the end of the walk, the toy was put back in the box so that it remained special.
Figuring out what your dog loves, what motivates him to check in with you, and what holds his attention, will help you to know how best to creatively reward those behaviors that make you say, “What a good dog!”
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!
When introducing my clients to positive reinforcement training in general, and clicker training in particular, I tell them that it’s important to reward the behavior you want in your dog and ignore or re-direct undesirable behavior. After all, behavior that is rewarded will increase in frequency, while behavior that is ignored will decrease.
I also explain that rewards (or punishments) are always defined by the recipient, not the one doling them out. What may seem a reward to you, may not be all that reinforcing to your dog. One good way to tell if your dog really isn’t interested in your idea of a reinforcement is if he turns his head, walks away, or otherwise disengages from you. He is clearly telling you that this is not his cup of tea. For example, many people will greet or reward their dogs by patting them on the head, thinking that their dog loves petting. And, they are surprised when their dog moves away from them as they approach head on. The dog may well love being petted, but this is not petting, this is thunking your dog on the skull, and most dogs do not care for it.* Therefore, it is not a reward, but a punishment for Fido, and will not encourage him to come to you.
Rewards, by their very nature, should make your training easier. Ken Ramirez, the Head Trainer at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago states that if training a new behavior is taking longer than you think it should, is harder for the animal than it ought to be, or otherwise is not progressing as well as you think appropriate: Look at your reinforcers (rewards). They probably are not rewarding enough to motivate the animal to work for it. Make sure you are using things your dog actually loves, not what you think he loves!
Moreover, keep in mind that what you are offering may not be reinforcing enough for the particular circumstances. Using your dog’s food at home (where it isn’t so distracting) and giving several pieces in a row as reward when they do something wonderful, may be a perfect acceptable reinforcement for their behavior. But, if your dog is consistently distracted in new situations, ask yourself, “What’s in the bait bag?” Is this really rewarding to him, or do I just think it is? When you are outside and have to compete with pee-mail and other canine delights, bring a good assortment of small, soft, and stinky treats so he has a good reason to stay checked in with you. Quantity, quality, and variety is the spice of life for dogs, just as it is for people, and is the key to keeping Fido focused and eager to learn.
Determining what is motivating to your dog may also take some experimentation and creative thinking, and may include activities and toys as well as food. For example, I know that Bingley will do anything for access to a game of fetch**, and he adores banana bread (He even knocked Buckley, 50 pounds larger than him, out of the way to get a piece). My grand-dog Tex, adores roasted asparagus, carrots, and car rides. Make a list of five things your dog loves and post it on the refrigerator as a reminder of what is rewarding to your pup. Add things to it as you discover what makes your dog’s tail wave like a flag on the 4th of July.
You may find, as I do, that using a lot of food when beginning to train your dog (or when teaching a new behavior to your dog), is the easiest and most effective method of rewarding the right response.*** The time does come (sooner than you might think!) when you can reduce the amount of food and add in other reinforcers, such as toys, access to other dogs, car rides, etc., so that food becomes only one of many ways to reward your dog. This is one reason why I encourage you to keep a list of what your dog loves, so you can be creative in your rewards and more interesting to your pup.
Rewards and clicker training go hand in hand, so next time we explore how to use these rewards to get your dog to be the best behaved pup he can be.
*Ask yourself, how would you feel if someone charged up to you and thunk, thunk, thunked you on the top of the head? At best, dogs tolerate this behavior, and many dogs really loathe it. If you want to pet your dog, scratch him behind the ears, rub his shoulders or withers, approaching from the side, and I bet he will move into you rather than away from you.
** One winter we were walking the dogs at a local park and Bingley ran up to me holding something that looked, at a distance, like a frisbee. I’d brought tennis balls, not frisbees this day, so as he approached I looked closely at what he was holding and realized he had a half a frozen groundhog in his mouth. I had no intention of getting into a tug of war with him over the front end of a rodent, but I knew he loved his tennis balls and would likely relinquish the frozen furball for a game of fetch. I took out a ball, held it up and said, “Look at what I have Bingy! Do you want this? Huh? Do you?” That got his attention and as soon as he dropped the groundhog I threw his ball as hard as I could. He zoomed off, I picked up the rodent, tossed it to my husband (who threw it into the woods) and we ran off to meet him before he came back and looked for his frigid friend. Knowing what he loved, helped me to easily resolve a situation that had the potential to be very unpleasant.
***Food is easy, precise and it will build your relationship with your dog. (And, if you think about it, don’t we build relationships that way as well? “Let’s go out for coffee?” “Lunch anyone?”). I do add other rewards, but to learn to reinforce correctly, food is the easiest tool. And, by heavily reinforcing the dog in the beginning I am front end loading the training so that the dog will be more engaged in the process and understand quickly what is desirable behavior.
Superstitious behaviors can happen in relationship to you and your dog and the cues you give him for particular behaviors. Dogs may think that a behavior is only “legit” if mom does “that one thing.” This can handicap your training because your dog may learn “oh man, ‘sit’ is only legitimate if I’m right in front of mom and she has her hands next to her stomach. Any other time she says that word, it’s not a real situation to sit.” To avoid this phenomenon, I encourage owners to practice their cues in different places, positions, times, and scenarios. That way your dog won’t begin to look for the “is this a legit request?” sign, and will merely attach the word to the desired behavior. Therefore, when working on sit, down, come, name-your-favorite-behavior-here, do it in a variety of ways, and in a variety of places. For example, to see if your dog really knows sit*, see if you can complete this challenge:
Why is it important that your dog understand that a command means a particular behavior no matter the circumstances? In the case of Bingley’s peanut butter superstition, nothing bad is going to happen to him if he continues to ritually lick his leg until breakfast is served. But it doesn’t take much to imagine a scenario where it would be critical for your dog to respond, immediately, to your command to sit, down, stop, or back up.** What if your dog is chasing a squirrel and is headed towards the street? Or, you are on one side of the street and your dog, on the other side, desperately wants to get to you? Or you are at the dog park and realize one of the fences is down and Fido sees a deer just ahead? This is not the time for your dog to think that your cue is not legitimate because you are not doing that one thing that makes it a real command.
Positive reinforcement trainers often tell owners that the way in which they interact with their dogs is the key to successful training and, that being consistent with their training and predictable with rules for good behavior, will get the quickest, most reliable response from their dogs. After all, if everyone works with Fido in the same way, he will quickly learn what the rules are and what is expected of him.
Consistency, however, does not mean that you have to adhere to an inflexible routine. It has more to do with how you interact with your dog, than with imposing strict order. For instance, I feed the dogs twice daily, but I don’t want them to harass me about it. So, meals are served sometime between 6 and 10 AM, and 6 and 10 PM. This way they know they will be fed, but they don’t know precisely when, so they don’t bother me endlessly about it. In other words, the dogs have learned that just because they anticipate something happening doesn’t mean it has to happen at that moment. This consistent, yet flexible, routine helps reduce household stress by allowing for the ebb and flow of life.
Predictability is another important part of establishing consistency with your pup, but once again, this does not imply that you have to be rigid or inflexible in dealing with your miscreant. For example, if your dog tends to jump up on people I recommend the following approach:
a) First, when he jumps on you, turn your back on him and walk away thereby denying him what he seeks: your attention.
c) When guests come over, or when you are out on a walk and someone approaches, step on his leash so that he can stand or sit, but not jump.
d) Then, once again, when he has 4 on the floor, or is sitting nicely to greet the visitor, reward, reward, reward!
This approach works best when you consistently apply the rules, but it doesn’t mean that you have to do exactly the same thing every time he jumps. You might find that turning your back is enough to prevent jumping and only occasionally have to step on the leash when you are on a walk. Perhaps putting a leash on him at home when someone comes to the door is enough to prevent jumping, or maybe all your silly retriever needs to not jump is to hold his favorite toy. Being flexible with your response allows you to adapt to the situation at hand, while also being consistent and predictable. Your consistency/predictability in this situation lies in:
1) keeping your expectations the same (i.e.: 4 on the floor);
2) behaving in a predictable way (jumping is never acceptable and will be addressed) and;
3) providing him with what he needs to be successful in any given situation by rewarding desirable behavior and ignoring/preventing undesirable behavior.
Behaving in a consistent way with your dog will lower stress for you and your dog, help Fido to understand what is expected of him, and teach him that certain behaviors bring particular consequences (I jump, Mom ignores me. If I keep all 4 paws on the ground, Mom pays attention to me.). Allowing for some flexibility in your reaction to any given situation, provides you with a variety of ways to address the issue while maintaining order and predictability for your dog.
This is the lament I often hear from new clients whose dog “refuses” to sit or lie down in class. I do not think they are lying to me. I’m sure that their dog’s behavior is close to perfection at home. But, we are not at home in their kitchen, we are in a new building, with new scents, sights, sounds, flooring, dogs, treats, etc. It’s novel, it’s different, it might just be wonderful, but it is, without a doubt, stressful. And, behavior deteriorates under stress.
For example, imagine that you love singing and have practiced your favorite song throughout the day as you move through your routine. You might have hummed it in the grocery store, sang it loud during your morning commute, or cooed it while you made dinner. As many times as you have “rehearsed” it, you have not sung it out loud, in a new place in front of several people you do not know.
Now, imagine you walk into the gym for step class and your teacher asks you to sing in front of everyone, right now! She might even give you a free class if you sing immediately. Can you do it? If you can, is it as smooth and flawless as it is in your car? Probably not. You may be able to sing it, but I would bet you feel a certain amount of pressure or stress. So does your dog when you demand he Sit! Down! Come! in class, or anywhere that is foreign to him or he is uncomfortable, uncertain, or even excited.
Does this mean that you can never ask (and therefore expect) your dog to sit/down/stay etc., anywhere but in front of you by the refrigerator? No, it does not. But it does mean that you need to:
Recognize when it might be stressful or difficult for Rex to perform. New places, new dogs, new people, a walk, a new or crowded sidewalk, a fire truck, rain, high winds, spilled ice cream, all kinds of things can be exciting, distracting, or stressful for your dog. If you ask him to sit and he doesn’t, it might not be “stubbornness.” It could be that he really, truly can’t do it because it is just too hard right now. You can get him to be more responsive under a wider variety of circumstances by doing the following:
Practice desired behaviors in a variety of places, with various distractions so that, for instance, Rex learns that “Sit!” means he puts his bottom on the ground. I encourage my students to practice new behaviors (such as sit or down) in places with few distractions (such as the kitchen) and then practice in all the rooms in the house where your dog is allowed. When Rex is reliably sitting in low distraction areas, add some challenges. Go outside to the least distracting place near your house (e.g. the driveway, back patio, front porch) and practice sitting there. Don’t expect Rex to plunk down his bottom as quickly as he does inside. Ask him to sit and then wait (count to 5) and let him process the request. Do not repeat the command! Give him a chance to figure out what is expected of him. When he does sit, say “Good dog!” and give him a treat. Repeat this 5-10 times (moving a bit if needed to get his bottom back off the ground).
Lower your expectations of Rex in new environments. If he doesn’t sit the first time you ask him to do so in a new environment, even after a count of 5, then make it easier for him. Put a treat right at his nose and slowly move your hand over his head to lure him into a sit. When his bottom hits the ground, give him the treat. Do this 1-3 more times, then try asking him to sit without putting the treat at his nose. Have him sit 5-10 more times in this spot before moving to a more distracting place such as the yard or sidewalk. Ask him to sit in this new spot, and once again, wait for him to respond. Do not expect him to sit as quickly as he just did on the driveway. This is a new spot and that makes it harder to perform on cue. Be patient and reward him when he does respond correctly. Once again, if he cannot comply with your request, then make it easier for him to respond, so that he builds confidence in difficult situations.
Understanding that behavior deteriorates under stress, lowering your expectations in a new or distracting situation, and being patient as he tries to comply, will help your dog succeed, boost his confidence and, perform this behavior in the future. It’s also what friends do for each other.
People often ask me, “How old does your dog have to be to start training?” Sometimes it is phrased as, “How soon can I start training my dog?” The answer, no matter how it is parsed, is: Every time you interact with your dog someone is getting trained, it might as well be the dog! Since learning is something that goes on all the time, use that knowledge to build your relationship with your dog and teach him to pay attention to what you want him to do.
In our house, training begins the day we bring home the new dog. We work on house-training, sit, down, come, etc. Rewarding for the desired canine response increases the chance that particular behavior will be repeated. Moreover, asking him to do something for me in order to get what he wants teaches the new pup self control and to focus on me for instruction.
For example, house training, is most effective when you reward the dog well for being successful. I take the pup outside on a leash to the part of the yard where I want him to do his duty and wait for him to perform the requisite function. Then, he gets a tasty treat and a chance to explore the yard off lead. Nothing fun happens until he goes potty, then all the fun starts. Thus, I have used the things he loves (treats, playing, sniffing) to reward what I want (appropriate elimination).
I will also use Sit! as a way for him to say please. The theory here is that your dog, like your children, grandchildren, spouse, or any other member of society, needs to be polite to get what he wants. Therefore, have him sit as a way of asking politely for whatever he desires. My dogs must sit before dinner is served, the door is opened to the back yard, or treats are dispensed. In this way, we gain a bit of self-control. As Nancy Kerns, the editor of The Whole Dog Journal, recently wrote:
My training goal for my dogs and my foster dogs is to teach them to control themselves. There is a lot that goes into it, but it starts with teaching them basic behaviors (such as come, sit, and off), and rewarding them for doing these behaviors in the face of greater and greater distractions. It also helps immensely to use a bevy of dog-management tools – around the house, baby gates and tethers are my favorites – to help them from being rewarded for the wrong behaviors while teaching them the new ones. (Emphasis mine.)
So, for example, for the dogs who rush the door and try to run out or jump on someone who is entering the house, I have a baby gate set up in the hall doorway, about 12 feet from the front door. I can rely on the gate to keep a dog from either practicing the rude behavior or forcing me to grab him and pull him back. The gate also sets him up for success; he clearly can’t reach the door, so he has, in essence, “stayed back” and I can reward him for this as a tiny first step toward a self-controlled greeting. I can ask him for a sit on the far side of the gate, and if he complies, several rewards. If he can hold the sit while a person enters and is greeting with some enthusiasm, jackpot! Eventually, he should have the idea and the gate can be taken down intermittently and ultimately for good.
If you are having a hard time getting Fido to sit for everything, start with asking for a quick sit before you open the door to let him into the back yard, or ask for a sit before you put on his leash.* Reward him the instant his bottom hits the ground and you will see sit happen a lot more often!
Classes and private lessons are also available for additional help with self-control. Give me a call 740-587-0429 and let’s get started!
*For more training tips see: Training or “Why,Why, WHY?”
1) I want my dog to stop jumping.
2) I want my dog to stop pulling on walks, and
3) I want my dog to come to me.
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: