What insurmountable problem are you having with your dog? Is it poor leash work? Unstable physical boundaries? Maybe your dog is a resource guarder, or harasses your guests for attention every time they come through the door. It might be incessant vocalization, or growling and lunging at other dogs, inanimate objects, men, or some other trigger point. Take a moment and write it down, and then put it aside for a moment while I tell you a story.
I certainly never thought I'd become a dog trainer. I definitely did not imagine myself working with some of the toughest behaviors in the canine world. And yet, at 38, I have found myself doing the best work of my lifetime. How did I get here? Well, it all started with a dog named Indy.
Indy came into my life 11 years ago part and parcel of my now ex-partner. Indy was his dog, and the pair of them were inseparable. Despite this connection, when left on his own, Indy's destructive capacities were mind-boggling. A restaurant manager at the time, I came home on one particular evening to find my refrigerator door removed from its hinges. Indy had happily helped himself to the contents, and as though the carnage of the scene weren't enough, the gas and bowel movements that followed over the next few days were enough to send everyone for a city block running in the other direction. Another instance saw Indy destroy a queen sized mattress. He has removed cabinetry, chewed through doors, taken apart doorframes, and even harmed himself. No crate could hold him without terrible damage to his teeth, nails and feet (as a result of trying anything to get out), and the only management recourse we knew at the time was never to leave him on his own.
There really was no other choice. I loved this dog. I had to learn how to help him. And this started my long journey and years of study into canine behavior modification. At the time, I didn't realize it would lead me to a career in the field. I just wanted the madness to end. Anything to make the chaos of the situation less, well, chaotic. I hated it. The constant worry. The cabin fever of feeling like I could never leave the house. And more than anything else, I could not stand to see Indy's suffering. I had do something.
And if you ask me today about that time with Indy and how I feel about it, you'd know probably just from the look on my face that I have nothing but gratitude towards that very special dog.
The lessons of patience, the importance of really knowing the animal with which you live and work, understanding modalities of behavior modification and their fallouts, all of this I learned because of Indy. What I didn't know at the time and can see as clear as the light of day today is that those difficult, seemingly impossible experiences with that dog were one of the most significant blessings of my life. By changing my response to the situation from frustration, emotionality, and despair, into first acceptance, then discipline, and a steady application of what I was learning to this dog who worked with me through every bump along the way, I arrived at the place I belonged. Able and ready to do the work I was meant to do. Meeting the people I am here to help understand their dogs, the problems they face, and how to work through them.
All of this is to say, if you're having difficulties with your dog's behavior and you feel like all is lost, remember my story. And know that more often than not, what stands in the way becomes the way. Let these impediments to action with your dog advance your next action to achieve your goals together.
The truth is, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Our time with our dogs is short. By leaning into the problems you want to change through learning and compassion, you may find you not only change your dog's life for the better, but like me, yours will change as well.
the price of dog training
If you ever looked at a dog trainer's prices and thought, "Whoah, that's a lot!", this blog is for you. If you're a dog trainer who isn't sure how to provide accurate and fair pricing to your clients, this blog is also for you. And if you're just curious about the subject, read on!
To begin with, I'd like to say that if you're not reacting with some surprise at the cost of a dog trainer, you should probably run.
Good, effective dog training and behavior modification involves an investment of time, teaching expertise, and the ability to communicate well with two very different species: humans, and dogs. Considerations of the dog's environment, health, history, and the human connection in every case we're presented with must be taken in account. An understanding of neurochemistry, a finger constantly on the pulse of new information in the fields of canine physiology and training methodology, a thorough understanding of handling equipment, and the willingness to adapt and change our approach in an instant when warranted - this is what the best of us will provide. This kind of dog training is extremely effective, provides the quickest route (without sacrificing quality) to the end goal, and it's cost reflects the scope of the work involved.
The worst of us will ofter "quick fixes". These are easy approaches, easily replicated and potentially effective in the very short term with often disastrous long term consequences. Dogs are ripped from their homes to be trained in hidden environments. We see household pets placed under tremendous physical and mental pressure and asked to cope with unfamiliar stimuli and shocked, pinned, or otherwise forced into compliance. The methods used by these "quick and cheap" trainers and their organizations lie entirely outside the realm of science, humane treatment, and any semblance of a well-informed training program, and they are never 'good'.
Somewhere in the middle are dog trainers whose work is very affordable, but too limited in scope to effect the behavioral change needed (such as when we are dealing with fearful dogs). Training in this way takes a great deal of trial, error, and time. The combination invariably reflects a lack of experience, and those of us in this arena are best utilized in the arenas of trick training and manding behaviors, where the stakes are not quite as high as when attempting to improve the life of a reactive or aggressive dog.
In fact, there's a diagram I really like called the "Triangle of Life" and in it's simplest form, it's very easy to understand. The triangle gives you three options, but you can only select two, and I daresay it's a good way to consider any one thing you are inclined to invest your time or money in.
To summarize, if something is fast and cheap, it will not be good. If something is good and fast, it will not be cheap. And if something is good and cheap, it will not be fast. This could not be any more applicable to the world of dog training and behavior modification. Decide on the kind of results you want, and choose your dog trainer accordingly.
All of this is to say, if you're interested in getting quality results as quickly as you can using the best possible methods, information, and equipment available, you can bet the work won't be cheap.
The best rarely is.
And when it comes to dog training, it's very difficult to undo the 'bad' we do to our dogs by going with the fast and the cheap, while ignoring the good. What's more, if we spend too much time with behaviors we don't want by going with the good and cheap options, those behaviors become harder and harder to change. This is because of something called habituation.
Habituation is about habits. And as any ex-smoker will tell you habits can be really hard to break, and that's with our tremendous brain power and force of will. Try to imagine the journey a dog habituated to maladaptive behaviors has to take to unlearn a habit.
Your dog's behavior is important, and the window in which to address those poor behaviors that just do not fit in his or her environment, while ever-present (until the day your dog dies - make no mistake, it is never too late to teach an old dog new tricks) gets smaller all the time. As a result, the work of identifying, isolating, and changing behavior can become even more difficult.
Because choosing a dog trainer and/or behaviorist is a very serious decision affecting the well being of your entire household in a significant way, consider your choices carefully and do what makes the most sense from all three perspectives: cost, quality, and time. In this way, you can't go wrong.
Your dog has a lizard's brain
In fact, we all do. Known as the amygdala, it consists of an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain's medial temporal lobe. This part of the brain plays a key role in the processsing of emotions, and when we're working with dogs who are overreactive, it is this part of the brain we as dog trainers are contending with.
The amygdala is hungry, selfish, horny, and when stimulated, more often than not, produces feelings of fear. Critical for survival in the wild, the role of the amygdala modulates our reactions to events that warn us of imminent danger. What we also know is that the amygdala also informs our reactions to events like the presence of sexual partners, rivals, children in distress, and food. (And now you know a big part of why positive reinforcement trainers love to work with food - it's neuroscience!)
This is where we, as science based dog trainers working with reactive dogs, live and operate. To help a reactive dog become less reactive and better in control of his or her own emotions, we must quiet down the lizard brain and get our dogs working with their limbic system. If we can get our dog's lizard brain's to quiet down, we can start to effect the change in associative behavior we need. But how do we get the amygdala to just shut up?
1. Slow down. Instead of charging our dogs into every scary new interaction or situation, we need to slow things right down. Take our time getting out the door. Engage with our dog's higher reasoning long before anything frightening is on the radar. Control of this nature takes time, patience, and forethought, particularly with a dog that is used to charging out the door, but it can and should be achieved with every dog.
2. Get space. Not all dogs need to be interacting with everything they encounter. My Cocker Spaniel Gus, for example, has a real fear of unusual things left out on the street. One great example is the pair of us walking at around 9pm last fall, and just down the street someone had left a sink on the curb. About 30 feet from the thing Gus comes to a dead stop and stares at me. Confused, I tried to encourage him along. The only way he was going to proceed was to do a big wide arc around the sink - he had no interest at all in engaging with this inanimate, shadowy object in the distance. I had a choice here: I could have dragged him past it at my convenience, and paid no attention to a fearful reaction based on no real or present danger, but what would be the point? To add to his terror? To save me a few extra steps?
Acknowledging your dog's fear allows you to moderate the response, keep it from becoming a full blown panic attack, and going forward, gives you the opportunity to do some conditioning work to change the reaction. But it doesn't have to happen all at once. What's the rush, anyway?
3. Get some help. Sometimes we're so close to our dogs it can be hard to see the forest from the trees in terms of their behavior. Identifying what triggers emotional overreaction in our dogs is not an easy task, particularly when those triggers are numerous and the fear response incomprehensible to us in those particular situations. Figuring out how to manage an ever-changing environment to ensure your reactive dog has the space he or she needs can be challenging. Knowing how to systemically and humanely that underlying fear requires a number of interrelated approaches applied according to schedules and intervals of reinforcement that can be, particularly at first, difficult to apply consistently. Finding someone who specializes in helping fear reactive dogs to support and teach you how to do this work will allow you and your dog to have a much happier, calmer, and more enjoyable life together.
4. Get educated. If your dog trainer isn't imparting these handling principles to you, and teaching you how to apply what they do in an everyday way, find a new one who will. There is nothing mysterious in dog training. We are not magical, dog-speaking animal whisperers to whom the secrets of everything dog have been imparted. We are specialists, and the best of us do this work with a hope that what we know and have learned to apply to our clients becomes common knowledge. So that no dog has to suffer in fear without help any longer than absolutely necessary.
Working with reactive dogs
I thought quite a bit about this blog before writing it. Working with reactive dogs is my specialty as a dog trainer, and while the work isn't easy or quick it is, by far, the most rewarding work I've ever done. So what constitutes the framework surrounding what we do when brought in to work with a reactive dog? Well, it looks a lot like this:
1. It's often slow-going. And when I say slow, I mean incrementally slow. Reactivity is habitual, can be difficult to pin down (in terms of first causes), and is often informed by fear. Identifying what is provoking the reactivity, the environments in which it is most deeply habituated, getting a handle on the behavioral and medical history of the dog, what motivates the dog, and what management methods have been used before, are all critical components of this process. And not necessarily in that order!
2. It's a lot like working with a person who has panic attacks. When a human has a panic attack, reasoning and rationality goes out the window. There is no explaining to the panicked person that the danger they perceive is not an immediate threat, that they are safe with us, and that their reaction is disproportiate to the issue at hand. All we can do is hang in there, wait for the panic to pass, and then start to address the underlying cause. The method by which we manage reactive dogs in action is very similar.
3. No immediate response on our parts to the episode of panic will change or stop it. What we can do is prepare for the next spell which will, invariably, appear at some point in the future. It might follow close on the heels of the previous reactive spell, or not appear for some time. Much of this is inextricably linked to what we do in the interim.
4. It has a great deal to do with a pair of hormones: cortisol, and adrenaline. Having, at minimum, a baseline understanding of how these work in the body is critical to helping reactive dogs recover from its mental and physical fallout. Cortisol levels alone take up to 72 hours to return to normal and its over-production is often activated by stress. Adrenaline, on the other hand, is a much swifter 10-20 minutes, and is what informs the fight-or-flight response. The role of these hormones starts to make sense when you think about the behavior of your reactive dog.
5. Every dog's reactivity looks a little different. Some dogs bark uncontrollably, some lunge and growl. Some jump in the air, others still spin around in circles. Some dogs are excitable in their reactivity, some are positively terrified. Canine body language provides the clues we need to determine what's informing the response, and it is our job to read those cues while the dog is sub-threshold. That is to say, we have to catch these physical cues often within a second or two of their presentation and a) get our client dog to a safe (non-reactive) distance, or b) capture their full attention (at those times when there's just nowhere to go) until the reactive trigger has passed.
6. Reactivity does not have to be forever. Reactivity can be addressed, and when it's done with appropriate canine handling and scientific behavior modification principles, we can make a massive contribution in relieving our dogs from this terribly uncomfortable, certainly unpleasant, and socially maladaptive state of body and mind. Embarking on this journey may be the most important work you do with your dog. You may even find you have a real knack for it (like I did), and that not only does it change your dog's life, but like me, it changes yours as well.
Have you ever wondered what the cause of your dog's fear might be, and how you can help him overcome those fears? This blog is designed to help you identify fear in your dog, what to look our for that might be causing fear, and what to do when faced with something that makes your dog afraid.
This issue is often misunderstood among dog owners because the way dogs express fear (reactivity to include, but not limited to: growling, lunging, barking, staring, piloerection (raised hackles), pulling, or alternatively, cowering, running, and hiding) is often termed "bad behavior." These expressions do not make your dog a "bad dog", they're just the only way they know how to express how they're feeling in a fearful situation.
Left to cope on their own, these behaviors in your dog can become habits. As we well know, habits are really tough to break! The stresses of living in a human environment can be extremely stressful for our dogs, particularly when they just don't have the tools to cope. So, what can we do to help?
The first piece to this puzzle is learning to see the world through your dog's eyes. We want to become kind, benevolent leaders in their world who respond appropriately to their fear. Remember, emotions cannot be reinforced. Consoling your fearful dog is OKAY. When your dog is reacting out of fear, you can think of it a lot like a panic attack we humans might have. The dog is incapable of processing information normally, and therefore trying to train our dogs during these times of panic is simply impossible.
Our best course of action is to desensitize a dog to that which he or she fears. Desensitization is all about gradually and incrementally exposing our dogs to what they fear in a controlled way. We want to expose our dogs at a very low level of engagement (read: before they react) and slowly, over time, increase the level of intensity. By pairing what the dog fears with something they love, we can help him or her overcome these fears. Depending on how long the fear has been left unattended, the desensitization process can take weeks, months, or even years. The goal here is to change the underlying emotional response to that which the dog fears from panic and dread to positive anticipation.
When searching for the right trainer to help you desensitize your dog, you're looking for the following things:
1. A trainer that uses positive rewards.
2. A trainer that uses science-based training methods.
3. A trainer that is proficient in canine body language.
4. A trainer that specializes in helping fearful dogs.
If you can find these things in your trainer, you're on a great track. Move forward, tackle these issues with positivity and hope, and you and your dog will be well on your way to changing those fears for good!
The subject of this post is a critical one to me, and is likely to raise the ire of some who disagree with its content. Placing guilt, blame, or pointing a finger is not of interest here, though those of us whose methodologies it touches upon may feel that way. There are a number of very real dangers in the dog training world, and I'm not talking about tainted food, diseases, or the various contraptions or apparatus' that populate the field.
They are ideas.
These ideas are not based in the scientific research or study of canine behavior. They are not based on carefully collected observations, or hypotheses tested over many years and documented.
These are the ideas that we, as humans, somehow innately know how a dog should be treated in all situations and circumstances. That we have the answers to questions far outside our realm of experience or field of expertise. Any time we are faced with a training methodology that does not rely firmly and heavily on scientific principles of behavior and reinforcement, we should be asking the question, "Why?"
"Why does this work?"
"How do we know it works for a dog in this context/environment?"
"How do we quantify, or track, our dog's aptitude with this particular methodology, to ensure we are seeing a change in the behaviors we do not want, and an increase in the behaviors we do?"
Allow me to be clear. Any trainer possessing a dogmatic, fixed belief that their methodology is the only one that works, in the absence of scientific proof (read: data) to back it up, should be second guessed. The fallout from untried, untested, and unproofed training processes can result in lifelong challenges for any dog, no matter their breed, upbringing, and temperament. If you think rationally, and apply simple logic, it becomes clear that any approach to training dogs not supported by well tested evidence that said methodology is effective may not only result in new, unwanted behaviors, but may in fact make these behaviors worse.
Without a scientific foundation, any training path should be heavily questioned as to its effectiveness and how long it takes to reach any level of reliability whatsoever. I'm going to bet that in most instances, reliability cannot be realized without using a scientific approach and some dogs will show no progress at all until appropriate research and study is taken into the methodologies appropriate to canine learning.
"Well," you might be asking at this point. "How can I make sure my trainer or behaviorist is using principles well founded in scientific research?"
It's not that hard, actually. You can ask questions like:
"How will we measure my dog's training progress?"
"Do you have any training statistics regarding the dogs you've trained in the past who have shown significant improvement?"
You see, quantifying and qualifying our work may be the most important thing a dog trainer does for the dogs in their care. Not only does it allow us to perfect the methodologies we've learned through our studies, but it allows us to share our findings with other dog trainers in an unbiased, objective, and logical way. A dog trainer that does not evaluate their own work can expect little or no improvement in their own processes, let alone the improvement of the dogs they're charged with. The majority of dog trainers will not provide an unbiased gauge for their own work. Why? Probably a few reasons. The first being that it's much more hard work to track our observations, the efficacy of our work on the canines we train, and then modify our methodologies to ensure a better standard of training as we progress through our careers. Secondly, it may mean that the dog trainer in question might have to reconsider the manner in which they train, when they're already so good at promoting their own work that they have many people believing that it doesn't get any better. Ever.
Many well meaning dog owners have been convinced by these silver tongued trainers that their methods will transform their dog for life, no matter how unpleasant, or fun, the training may be. And when the training doesn't stick, they can't explain why. This is what evaluation allows for most importantly of all - the ability to identify and nail down what's going wrong, and then work to change it into something going right. The consequences of well reasoned, scientific dog training are immediate and powerful.
This is not an issue that should be pushed under the rug. Ensure your dog trainer can not only back up his or her claims of behavior formation and change with good research before taking their advice. Being open-minded is a wonderful thing, but not without a healthy dose of skepticism, analysis, and groundwork. After all, your dog's life may be at stake.
Shy & Over reactive dogs
Many of us have, or know, a shy or over reactive dog. These dogs are aroused by certain events, or 'triggers' in their environments, and we often call them anxious dogs. These dogs experience states of high, prolonged anxiety that shows itself behaviorally in any number of ways. Some of the things we may witness are: lack of focus, spinning, panting, shaking, jumping up, snapping at the air, barking, growling, whining, an inability to eat or disinterest in food, and still more. These are all symptomatic of a dog's anxiety.
As a dog owner, understanding that anxiety is at the root of these behaviors is important in helping to teach your dog that the fear he or she is experiencing isn't necessary, and that they can depend on you, via a solid bond of trust, to handle all of the strange and unexpected things the world has to offer.
While we love them, shy or over reactive dogs can be difficult to live with. It may be only a single trigger your dog has to contend with, or there may be several. In order to change the reaction, first one must identify precisely what the trigger is and then change the dog's emotional response to the trigger. There is a right way to do this, and a wrong way.
Behavior modification is absolutely the way to go for your anxious or over reactive dog. It begins with careful observation of your dog's behavior and body language, and then analysis of this behavior to determine best practices for behavior modification going forward. First, the trigger or stimulus that precedes the reaction needs to be reduced (and in some cases, eliminated) to a degree that gives no response from the dog. This allows us to 'get in there' and recondition the emotional reaction to the trigger, and in time, recondition the dog to offer some appropriate behaviors. And it is important to note here: if your trainer/handler offers you a 'solution' to your shy/reactive dog's behaviors that involves fear, force, or pain, decline their services. These approaches will result in one, if not both of the following: a dog that has shut down completely due to fear of punishment and is, in essence, a powder keg waiting to explode, or a dog that is even more reactive as a baseline than when you began.
If you have a shy or over reactive dog, enlist the help of a handler who can help you develop the observational and anticipatory skills needed to guide your dog into healthy, appropriate emotional responses to life's daily challenges.
scenting games: Fun for your dog
There are many ways to keep your dog happy, stimulated, and enriched in day-to-day life. One of the most fun is through scenting games. Dogs naturally love to scent. Believe it or not, some dogs use not only their wet noses but also their ears to track a scent. Your dog smells literally thousands of times better than you or I. For comparison, dogs have about 50 smell receptors, while us humans only have one!
Scenting games are a wonderful way to keep your dog's desire to sniff engaged. In this blog, I'm going to go over a fun scenting game you can play with your dog.
The Game: Find it
1. To begin, do one of the following: either have someone hold your dog's leash, tether your dog to something sturdy, or simply put your dog in a sit-stay.
2. Show your dog you have something she likes. Place the item on the ground in front of the dog far enough away that she will have to move to get it. Walk back to the dog and take hold of the leash.
3. Your dog will immediately start to pull toward the item she wants. The moment she stops, say "Find it!" and release the leash. When your dog gets the item, say "yes!", praise your dog, and play with her.
4. Repeat this exercise, each time placing the item a little farther away. This game has multiple benefits as you can probably already tell: increasing the length of the sit-stay, teaching self-control, and eventually, as your distance increases, changing the search from a visual one to a scent-based one.
The trick with this game is to never let your dog get the item if he breaks from the stay. Always ask him to sit and stay a moment before permitting him to get the item. Be sure not to move too fast with this one. If your dog is unable to find the item, move closer to it yourself, but don't give the game away. Allowing your dog to find the item on his own will help build self-confidence. Be sure to let him win this one!
how to prepare for your new dog: a guide for all life stages And what the other blogs won't tell you
If you're thinking about adopting a dog, whether a puppy, adolescent, adult, or elder dog, there are a number of resources you want to have at your disposal to ensure the process runs as smoothly, safely, and successfully as possible.
The first stage of this process is finding your new forever friend. This is a process that should be undertaken with great care and concern for not only your own welfare as a new dog parent, but also the welfare of your dog. Be sure to thoroughly research the breeder, rescue, or individual with the dog you want to adopt.
If you're obtaining your new dog from a breeder or individual, be sure the breeding lines are sound, and that the dog is in good health. You'll also want to be sure that the conditions in which the dog is being raised are up to par. Be very careful as regards the language to any adoption contract you plan to sign (read the fine print!), and make sure you're comfortable with all terms and conditions contained therein. One particular contractual obligation that is becoming more and more common with household breeders is the right to breed your dog after adoption for a specified period of time.
If you're adopting your dog from a rescue organization at any life stage, be certain that the organization in question is employing force-free, humane handling methods with their rescued dogs. It is becoming more and more evident (and the science backs it up) that aversive handling methods (aka Cesar Milan, with protocols like pinning, rick-rolling, earthquaking, hitting, kicking and shouting in order to get obedience from dogs who may be traumatized in some way) and the use of aversive handling tools (pinch or prong collars, choke chains, etc) result in a massive uptick in the likelihood of human-directed reactive (aggressive) behaviors. Make sure you know how your rescue organization of choice is handling the dogs in their care. It could mean the difference between a happy, healthy, well-adjusted homelife with your new dog, and a dog who is shut down or severely reactive to humans or other dogs.
Having a solid understanding of the history of the dog you're adopting; where he's from, what he's experienced, and the types of traumas (if any) he's endured, will allow you to set yourself up with the support systems you need well in advance of adoption. Does the dog suffer from anxious behaviors related to alone-time? Hyperactivity or a need for near-constant stimulation? Has the dog been well-socialized? Questions like these will determine what you need to ensure a successful relationship going forward (scoping out a great doggy daycare or walking service, finding a humane dog trainer, a force-free groomer, etc) long before the dog enters your home.
Equipped with the information I've outlined above, you can then take a look at budgetary considerations. Can you afford an extensive fear-free protocol for your traumatized rescue? Are you aware of the behavioral changes a dog in heat, male or female, undergoes, and how other dogs around them may or may not react? Are you prepared to meet the medical needs of your new dog with a solid insurance plan? Are you willing to invest in the equipment you require to ensure sound management of your canine companion?
If you can answer yes to these questions, you're more than ready to welcome a dog at any life stage into your home, and into your life. With good preparation, forethought, and planning, the experience is bound to be one of the most rewarding you will ever experience.
By Guest Writer and All Dogs Dog Walker, Merita Kligerman
The dog park can be a fun and vibrant place for dogs and humans alike. It provides our dogs with opportunities to socialize with other dogs and people, and get lots of exercise via running and play. But in order to maintain a fun and safe environment, it is imperative that dog owners follow some basic yet crucial rules when bringing their dogs to the dog park.
Pay Attention to Your Dog(s). The enclosed space of a dog park and the presence of other dog owners may give you a false sense of security when you’re there with your furry friend. You may find yourself distracted by your phone or an engaging conversation with a fellow dog owner, but it is critical that you keep an eye on your dog and her interactions with other dogs and people. It takes a split second for a playful situation between dogs to turn into a frightening interaction. A dog may be triggered by a behavior they see as a threat—prolonged eye contact with another dog, for example—or the instinct to protect a toy or treat, which might result in warning behaviour, or even an altercation. Actively watching your dog can help ensure friendly and respectful canine play.
Listen and Communicate. I have come across numerous dog owners who come into a dog park already wearing earphones or earbuds. This is a potentially dangerous situation because it means they will not be able to receive crucial information from other dog owners. It is absolutely essential that open and clear communication exist between dog park patrons in order to relay information regarding a dog’s triggers, sensitivity to specific breeds, personality traits, reactivity to certain people, pre-existing injuries or sensitivitiess, and so on. Having this essential information from other dog owners can help you and your dog avoid potentially dangerous situations. And don’t be afraid to ask questions of other dog owners regarding their dogs. The more you know, the better your experience in the dog park will be.
Pick Up After Your Dog. So simple yet so necessary. If you are distracted and don’t see it happen, or if you choose to ignore it, you will be called out by other dog owners. There is no escape from this responsibility in the dog park. Just do it. It makes for a more pleasant experience for all dog park attendees, both human and canine.
Undoubtedly, going to the dog park can be a joyful and active experience for both you and your dog. Friendships develop, hilarious moments take place, and you can bring your dog home tired and happy after a number of play sessions with other dogs. But it’s up to us as dog owners to ensure that we are aware of what’s happening in the dog park, that we communicate with one another clearly and effectively, and that we all participate in maintaining a clean and healthy space.
How to teach a polite mouth
We all know that dog that just about takes our fingers off every time we offer her a treat. We can feel those sharp teeth and we can see the barely contained excitement at the prospect of something yummy. Instead of enduring this time after time, you can teach your dog to accept treats from you in a calm, controlled, polite manner.
Start with a pouch full of stinky, yummy treats, and a hungry dog.
Step One: Put your dog in a 'sit'. Position your hand above her head with a treat between your fingers or in your palm. Be careful not to drop it! Slowly drop it down close to your dog's mouth. If your dog attempts to reach, jump, snap, or move in any way to grab the food out of your hand, immediately remove your hand up and over the dog's head.
The idea here is to wait until your dog's mouth is closed and her body position is relaxed and not in motion (up or forward) before delivering the treat.
As you repeat Step One above, the rapid movement of your hand will instruct your dog that the only way to get the treat is through calm patience. As your dog becomes proficient with this, you can thing bring your hand to your dog's mouth from different positions and on different angles. If you find your dog is just too aroused to do Step One well, use lower-value treats, along the lines of her every day kibble, for example.
Step Two: Add the training of a soft mouth to this exercise. Place the treat in your closed hand and offer it to your dog, letting her sniff, smell, and nose at it. When the dog begins to mouth, nudge, and push at your hand, say "OW!" and freeze your hand in position with the treat still held inside your closed fist. When your dog moves back from your hand or licks it gently, say "Good. Take it." and open your hand, palm facing up.
Repeat the above until your dog stops mouthing, biting, and pushing at your hand. Repeat every day over 14 days to practice and proof. This exercise is wonderful for training your dog to have polite manners when food is around and potentially accessible. Consistency is key here: do not allow your dog to have treat unless they are taken politely and with control. This will ensure good behavior around children, adults, the elderly, and anyone who just might be around with some food in hand.
Dogs greeting new guests at the door is a common household complaint. The truth is, your dog's excitement isn't a case of disobedience, he just doesn't know how to properly do it. The advice I'm going to give here is appropriate for dogs who are happy and over-stimulated at the door. My next blog post on the subject will touch on unhappy, fearful dogs at the door who are poorly conditioned to unfamiliar humans.
A happy, overstimulated dog is hugely social with everyone he encounters. The moment the doorbell rings or someone knocks at the door, this dog is racing over, barking away, and bouncing about. Often times, in the midst of this, a frantic owner is trying to get ahold of the dog by the collar and hold him back from the door and the arriving guest. The new arrival then makes a huge commotion over the dog, with high-pitched voices, petting, and overall exuberance. No amount of scolding, yelling, or physical withholding can contain this dog who is soon labelled 'hyperactive'.
In this scenario, the behavior from both the owner and the visitor in fact reinforces the dog's behavior, in terms of owner restraint and attention from the new visitor. What's important to understand here is that in this over-excited, aroused state, the dog's limbic system (or emotional, "hind" brain) is active. When the limbic system is at work, the cortex, (or analytical brain) is unable to take over. It is a biological mechanism that your dog is unable to control.
What we as dog owners must do, then, is to set up scenarios in which the dog can rehearse instead the behaviors that you do want. Place your dog on leash, and a rug or dog-bed approximately six feet from the door. Place treats on the outside of the door, and arm yourself with a pouch full of them as well. They should be highly valuable to your pooch. Enlist the help of an adult your dog knows well and likes.
Step One: As the guest enters (with a treat in hand), stand back on the rug or bed with your dog firmly on leash. This is to ensure your dog cannot jump up. Stay calm, even if your dog isn't. Have the guest approach one step at a time until she can deliver the treat to your dog (but ONLY if your dog is still in a sitting position). Once this happens successfully, praise your dog and retreat into the rest of the house.
Remember, practice makes perfect. As you do this exercise again and again, it will become boring to your dog, and his excitement will wane and then disappear as he learns exactly how he is expected to behave when this particular visitor comes to the door. This is precisely what we want. Once Step One is firmly rehearsed with your dog, repeat and practice with different guests at different times, and let your dog amaze you at what he is capable of!
For those of us that want to ensure our dogs are well socialized throughout the puppy years and into adulthood, knowing how dogs politely greet one another is important information. It helps us keep our dogs safe, secure, and happy when faced with the unknown. So how do we know when our dogs are greeting one another in a healthy way?
In this blog, I'm going to go over some various dog-to-dog greetings, what they look like, and what is behind the physical information our dogs are giving us when engaging in good greeting behavior.
Take a look at the two dogs in the center of the attached picture. The ears are drawn back and relaxed. The lips are long in the muzzle of both dogs. And the eyes are partially closed (squinting). Their tails are waving gently to and fro, and not held straight up in the air or down between their back legs - they're at a sort of half-way position. You'll notice (and this is important) that the dogs are not directly in front of one another. Instead, they are slightly off-side to ensure there is no misinterpretation of this particular greeting between them. The paw lift on the dog to the right is also indicative of a friendly hello!
This sideways greeting is both polite and friendly. Everything here is as it should be. The dogs are not in a face-to-face or head-on position. The eyes are narrow, and they are not staring one another down. The tails (though quite short) appear relaed. Ears are low and relaxed, as are the jaws on both dogs. There is no tension in body, face, or movement. This wonderful body language indicates that neither dog is threatened by the other and represents a healthy, happy same-species greeting.
The picture to the left is something a little different. Notice the rounded back on the smaller dog, and the face-to-face greeting between them both. The smaller dog has tail tucked between the legs, indicating insecurity about the larger dog whose posture is much more direct. Chances are this scenario won't result in any reactivity from the smaller dog, but it is quite obviously not comfortable with the situation. Also notice the position of the leash on the small dog, up and over its head. The dog has no room to move, or anywhere to go. This lack of autonomy can also be part and partial to the discomfort the small dog feels.
There's no getting around it. Having a solid understanding of the body language our dogs use to communicate with one another and with us is a critical aspect of being a good dog owner. Ensuring our dogs not be overwhelmed by the social situations they find themselves in, and not forcing them to engage in activities they are clearly uncomfortable with, are important to the development of a well-rounded, secure animal. Watch your dog, listen to the cues he is giving you. You may find that your dog tells you more than you ever realized, while never saying a single word.
A dog in a stalking posture is an amazing thing to watch. Indicating a dog in predator-mode (and yes, all dogs are predators in some sense), what each dog does after the stalk is unique and individual. Stalking has a few physical and behavioral components that I'm going to outline below, so you know when to recognize stalking in your dog. Keep in mind, stalking can be used for hunting and for play.
Once your dog has chosen his target, you may see one or all of the following:
The Point. Your dog becomes perfectly still and focuses his eyes on the target. The head is up, the tail is up, and often a paw is lifted as well. Pointing will usually happen at the outset of a stalk, and some dogs don't point at all. This is an upright position. Look for prolonged stillness here before your dog goes into motion. This is usually the first indication of stalking behavior about to begin.
The Approach-Stalk. The pace is slow, deliberate, and measured. Every step is carefully calculated and gingerly alighted upon. The body is held close to the ground, and the head is low and level with the body. For some dogs who are particularly dramatic about it, it will appear as if they are crawling along the earth.
The Motionless Stalk. The dog freezes in place. The head and tail are down, and the ears are up and rotated forward. The body is often low to the ground, even so far as the belly is brushing along the earth.
Once in stalking mode, your dog is likely to move through these three positions until he is close enough to take a charge at the object of his focus. Key here is to keep an eye on your dog's mouth when engaged in stalking behavior. Is it open or closed? In a "soft stalk", the mouth is usually open and relaxed. The closer the dog gets to the "prey", the more the mouth will close. It may or may not open again at the end of the stalking sequence just before the dog grabs his prey. You can determine if your dog is more "serious" about the stalk if the tail is quite low. If the tail is high, your dog is indicating some playfulness and lightheartedness.
Stalking is a natural, normal behavior for dogs. Learning how to recognize it before and as it is happening lends us a deeper understanding of what stimulates and interests our dogs. This knowledge can only lead to us being better educated, better prepared dog owners and handlers.
Scratching. It may be the most common thing we see our dogs do, an entirely innocuous, normal behavior, right? Absolutely. Scratching is an innate to our canine companions. But does it go deeper than just having an itch?
You bet it does. Scratching is done by dogs for all sorts of reasons. I'm going to discuss a few of these today, in hopes that by the end of this blog, you have a better understanding of what your dog is communicating by scratching in certain situations.
Scratching as Displacement.
Sometimes, when a dog is feeling nervous, they will try to 'displace' that anxiety through scratching. Perhaps they have a camera pointed at them (which can often make a dog feel nervous), or they're in a new environment. Whatever the reason, one of the ways dogs show their anxiety is through scratching. You know your dog is scratching as a displacement behavior when you see "funny ears" (ears pointing in different directions), and when the orientation of your dog's eyes and nose are not directed at the cause of the concern (for example, the camera).
Scratching as a Calming Signal.
Sometimes scratching can indicate a dog that is displaying what we call a "calming signal." Often seen in the presence of some sort of conflict, scratching used as a calming signal communicates to other dogs, animals, and people that the scratching dog is not a threat. In fact, it demonstrates a dog that is non-confrontational, uninterested in being involved in any conflict, and intending to stay that way. Here again we see some "funny" ears, and a body orientation that is turned away from whatever is causing the scratching dog concern.
Scratching as Negotiation
Sometimes scratching can be used by dogs that are in close proximity to one another. When an approaching dog invades the personal space of another dog, the dog being approached scratches. This is what we call a negotiation signal, and informs the approaching dog that they have entered a zone of personal space. Negotiation signals are all about safe communication of boundaries between canines. When we start to understand how to read these cues ourselves, we gain a better understanding of how our dogs communicate with one another, and with us. Dogs are often remarkably transparent about what they are feeling and thinking - if only we know how to look and listen to what they are telling us.
For good self control in dogs, there are few exercises that beat a rock-solid "Leave It." Here's how we do it.
To prepare, have two treats ready. One that your dog really loves, and one that maybe your dog receives every day, like their kibble. That's all we need for this one.
Step One: Hold the high value (smelly, stinky, and yummy) treat in your left hand. Hold the lower value treat (kibble) in your right. Hold both hands behind your back. Offer your right hand (the hand with the lower value treat) to your dog, keeping the kibble inside your fist so that the dog cannot get it. The moment your dog moves her head away from the treat, say "Leave It!" and bring your left hand from behind your back (this is the smelly, stinky, yummy one) and open your palm. Let your dog have this treat while saying, "Take it".
Step Two: Repeat step one until your dog readily moves her head back from your right hand (the hand with the kibble) and waits to engage with you until the left hand (the hand with the stinky, smelly treat) appears. To help proof the work into a solid "leave it", switch which hand holds which treat and repeat the steps above.
Step Three: Put the higher value treat in your treat pouch or pocket and hold the kibble in one or the other of your hands. Do steps one and two as outlined above, but bring the valuable treat out of your pocket. What this does is create a distraction for your dog, ensuring that they can recognize and perform the cue even in the presence of something very reinforcing (valuable).
Practice this exercise a few times each day and you will have a great start to the "Leave it" command with your furry friend.
When good dogs bite
It's a lot more common than you might think. Dogs that bite are reported every day: to dog trainers, in hopes of some kind of solution or guarantee that this terror will never happen again; to city authorities by owners of dogs or humans at the receiving end of a dog bite event; and to loved ones, when an owner has to explain why their dog is no longer a part of the family.
Dog bite events can be as heartbreaking as they are concerning. These wonderful companions of ours are known for their friendliness, their loyalty, their love, and their tremendous abilities, both cognitive and physical. The reality is that, in addition to all of these traits, dogs are also capable of causing tremendous harm, both to other animals, and to the humans they co-exist with. They can be territorial, reactive, and possess a formidable set of teeth and jaws. They are also designed, at the genetic level, to have a "bite-or-flight" response to extremely unpleasant stimuli - even when the nature or cause of that stimuli is not readily apparent, or comprehensible, to us.
If we are going to live with these animals, it is important that we have a fundamental understanding of how they operate. For dogs, biting is a form of communication. It says any one or a number of; "I am not comfortable with this. This has gone too far. I do not accept these conditions. Give me space."
As dogs are incapable of understanding, on a cognitive level, that biting a human or another animal is unacceptable. What's more, punishing a dog for biting with aggression or threatening behaviors increase the likelihood of the dog biting again. This cannot be overstated. And the reaction can be unpredictable, meaning that the dog may bite a known or unknown entity at an entirely unpredictable time.
Only when we truly accept that biting is a natural function of the simple virtue of being a dog can we start to understand how to reduce a dog's propensity to bite. This requires a kind of humility on our parts. Seeing and respecting our dogs for what they are ultimately capable of does not come easily or naturally to us. We want to anticipate only the best, when this attitude is often not realistic when faced with the fundamental capabilities of a dog. Instead, let us prepare the tools and skills we need to condition and recondition our dogs to accept that which causes them distress.
What's more, let us do this work alongside our dogs in a preventative sense whenever we can, as a part of the contract of care we entered into the day we adopted our dogs. This contract is lifelong. Our dogs know it, and they honor it. Can we?
Last month I had the experience of working with my first Komondor, and I have become absolutely fascinated with the character of this breed of dog. On a superficial level, these are those dogs that when well groomed, look like giant moving mop heads. What lies beneath this striking appearance is an extremely unique, intelligent dog that captures both the heart and the imagination.
The Komondor, or Hungarian Sheepdog, is a big, powerful, stoic creature with an expert ability to guard flocks. As loyal as they are tough, the Komondor makes for a superb guard dog and loves nothing more than to take care of the family for which they live and breathe. They are affectionate, intensely loyal,
A sharp and independent thinker, the Komondor was raised and bred to ascertain threats to the flocks under his charge - with little training necessary. As working stock, this dog is more often than not quite matted and shaggy, allowing them to blend in with the sheep they guards. The groomed coat of a Komondor, on the other hand, takes the appearance of long, white cords, making them a pleasantly striking, unusual dog to look at.
While appearing bulky and ponderous, the Komondor is in fact extremely quick and agile, capable of reacting with sudden bursts of remarkable speed. Due to their protective nature, the Komondor requires thorough socialization at an early stage and throughout life, in terms of humans and other dogs/animals.
The Komondor is known for their loud, booming bark. In close settings, like apartments, particularly where there is a great deal of activity, training is usually needed to ensure less frequent, softer vocalizations.
If it sounds like the Komondor is a lot of dog for the average household, you're not at all wrong. With the right combination of having a job to do, the appropriate amount of physical and mental stimulation, appropriate and regular socialization, and good grooming practices, the Komondor is a wonderful animal companion. Tempered by a healthy dose of respect for their size and guardian temperament, and in the right environment, the Komondor is an excellent animal companion.
For the next and final method of teaching your dog to walk well on a loose leash, we're going to use a variation on the "Start/Stop" method outlined in my very first blog on the subject http://www.alldogstoronto.com/the-all-dogs-blog/leash-work-part-one-how-to-walk-without-pulling.
Protocol #3: Go Together
Continue to walk your dog while the leash is nice and slack. Stop whenever it goes taut. If your dog stops at the end of the leash and waits for you to catch up, turning her head to look your way, be sure to give her a big reward. Immediately start walking again.
The next time your dog stops and waits for you to catch up, the moment she is by your side, be sure to immediately praise and treat her for a job well done. This is exactly the positioning you want. Your dog will learn that by staying close to your side she will get not only extended walks, but also a tasty food treat. That's about as straightforward as it gets!
The next two protocols I'm going to talk about require that you begin, and have a thorough understanding, of my first blog on the subject of leashwork here: http://www.alldogstoronto.com/the-all-dogs-blog/leash-work-part-one-how-to-walk-without-pulling
Protocol #2: The Turnabout
With this protocol, be sure to practice the Start/Stop method, except this time we're going to add a surprise. Perhaps, during your walk together, your dog stops to investigate something smelly in the grass alongside the sidewalk or trail you're walking along, and you walk ahead a little distance. At this point, quickly and inconspicuously get a treat ready. Once he catches up with you, and before he passes you completely, quickly put the treat in front of your dog's nose and lure him around to walk in the opposite direction with you. This will allow you to put the dog at your side - precisely where you want him, and the moment you do, release the treat!
If you're thinking this requires great timing, you're quite correct! As you continue walking together, if your dog stays in the heel position (shoulder in line with your thigh), be sure to double down on the praise and the treats as you move along. What you're going to find is that your dog, non-plussed about traversing the same old territory he just walked down a moment ago, won't be as eager to pull and explore ahead of you. What's more, your dog will begin to understand that you will both progress together on your walk if he doesn't pull ahead of you.
What's more, if you're consistent about it, your dog will also learn that staying by your side earns him tasty treats during his walk. That's a two-in-one deal, and I can't think of a better arrangement than that!
Ah, the ever-elusive loose leash walking dog. As dog owners, we dream of experiencing this. Our wonderful dogs, walking at a regular pace at our side, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds together in perfect harmony. And yet, unbridled pulling on walks remains one of the most common "problems" dog owners experience. The bigger the dog, the bigger the problem, particularly in terms of sore elbow joints and shoulders.
So how do we teach our dogs, big and small, to walk on a loose leash at our sides? In this blog, I'm going to cover three common methods to achieve this. Please note that the younger your dog is when you begin this work, the easier it is to train and to maintain going forward.
Protocol #1. Start/Stop Method
This one is pretty straightforward. Each and every time your dog pulls ahead and your leash becomes taut as a result, come to a complete stop. Your dog will immediately wonder what on earth is going on. How come we're not walking? He will probably sniff about, turn around to look at you, and may even give you a nice sit. Once you feel the leash go slack and you see your dog relax, begin to walk again. This allows your dog to explore his walking environment, and begins the process of communicating the relationship between a tight leash and a dead stop. Now, you may think that's as far as it goes. Not quite...
After 10-15 repetitions of the Start/Stop method mentioned above, you can trust that your dog is going to sort out what's happening. In fact, your dog is going to allow his shoulders and body to relax the moment he feels the leash go tight - and it is going to happen so fast that you won't have a chance to come to a full stop. At this moment it is critical that you reward your dog with praise and treats in an over-the-top manner. Be liberal with your recognition! The dog now believes that he is responsible for all of this wondrous praise - what a good boy!
If, however, you do not acknowledge your dog for this incredible cognitive accomplishment the split second it happens, the connection will be lost. Your dog will assume that he has confused his instructions and is likely to revert to the same old pulling behavior. The cue your dog is giving you here is subtle, and occurs before you visually see what's happening. It's an important distinction - for this method to work, you must rely on your sense of touch - your ability to feel the tightness of the leash go slack, as opposed being able to see it with your eyes.
Not an easy task, I promise you, but it can be done! With practice, a loose leash walking dog will be yours in no time at all.
Join me next week for part two of my loose leash walking series, and thanks for reading!
Caring for your senior dog
As standards and procedures of care for our pet dogs improve with an ever-increasing understanding of what our canine companions need to be happy and well, many of our dogs are living longer lives. It is not at all unusual to see a dog live well into his teens. How can we be sure to maintain a good quality of life for our dogs in their senior years?
One of the first really obvious signs of aging in our dogs is a general stiffness in the hips and joints. To help our dogs feel better, we want to make sure we're addressing their nutritional needs in this regard first and foremost. Supplements of fish oil can help bring back mobility for those dogs suffering from arthritis, or given as a safety measure to help prevent problems down the line. Coconut oil is another great alternative. If inflammation is at issue for an arthritic dog, glucosamine is a well-known, often-used treatment option that will not only protect the joints, but help to lubricate them as well.
Providing for the dental care of our beloved pets is often enough to make any pet owner wince a little bit. Not only can dental care be punishingly expensive at the veterinarian's office, dental problems left unchecked can cause a whole host of other health and behavioral issues to arise. These problems can include the heart, kidneys, liver, and brain. We can stay on top of our dog's dental hygience by providing regular brushing each and every day to help address any plaque and tartar build up. Some dog owners even swear by the teeth cleaning power of feeding raw bones. Whatever you do in regards the oral health of your canine companion, diligence is always the very best, and least expensive, policy of all.
Many dog owners find it challenging to provide for the exercise needs of their senior dog. When stiff joints, lethargy, and all around malaise take old of our furry friends, it can be difficult to know when it's time to encourage a little activity. Not all activity is appropriate for your senior dog, but you want to make sure you're not avoiding it altogether. Beware of high impact exercise like jumping and hiking. Extend your walking time instead, and keep it low-key. Prevent falls by providing non-slip grip mats in feeding areas, stairs, and slippery floors. If you like to take your dog on car rides, or your dog faces steep stairs coming to and from the house, a ramp is definitely a great investment.
Aging dogs have as much need for training and mental stimulation as young puppies. These kinds of challenges can add years to your senior dog's lifespan. Keeping the work challenging while being physically non-demanding can be tough! Consider snuffle mats and sniffing games with high value, low calorie treats. Puzzle toys can be a great investment at this time, but be sure to train your dog in how to use it to avoid any frustration. Even something as simple as giving your dog a new terrain to walk through on one of his regular walks can be enough to keep his brain firing with all the new sights, smells, and sounds.
Providing a high quality of care in the golden years of our pets lives is something all dog owners hope and aspire for. These kind, compassionate animals give us their all through their lives, from puppyhood and well into old age. Let's repay them the wonderful favor by ensuring we're prepared to provide them the standard of care they need at all stages of life, without reservation, resentment, or hesitation. By educating ourselves on senior care for our dogs with the same vigor we have for our puppies when they're fresh and new, we ensure a high standard of care for all of their days together. We know these selfless creatures surely have earned it after a lifetime of love and devotion.
We all show our dogs our affection. From hugs to kisses, from petting to play, we love to make sure our canine companions know how much we care about them. Our dogs tirelessly return this affection in their own particular ways. These behaviors are a natural method of communication between humans and dogs, however, the ways in which humans and dogs show one another their affection could not be any more different.
Affectionate behaviors that are particular to a species are known as "affiliative behaviors". Affiliative behaviors are any sort of behavior that is enacted with the intent of supporting or improving one's individual union with others or which is connected more so with a drive to build, upkeep, and improve close individual partnerships with others.
When it comes to affiliate behaviors that are canine-specific, you can bet that hugging, kissing, and cuddling are not among them. In fact, for many dogs, these gestures of affection can be annoying or threatening. You may see your dog duck away, or her ears flatten back. Another good indicator of a dog that is uncomfortable with human forms of affection is a stiffened body and wide, "whale" eyes.
Here are a few affectionate behaviors that you can rely on as indicators of just how much your dog treasures you.
1. Allogrooming. Regular licking rituals are common to many species of social animals, including dogs. If your dog is gently licking your hand, arm, leg, or face, it is because she wants you to know just how much she cares.
2. Play. If your dog is regularly bringing you her toys, offering you that all-too-tempting play bow, and in the case of my Cocker Spaniel Gus, standing by the back door and shifting his weight from foot to foot, your dog wants to play! This is one of the most common ways our dogs show us their affection.
3. Closeness. Does your dog follow you from room to room? Sleep at your feet when you're watching TV on the couch? Curl up on the bottom corner of your bed, just close enough to cover your feet? These, too, are all signs of just how much our dogs love us.
Remember this the next time you go to give your dog a big hug and she backs away from you with uncertainty, or you swoop in for a kiss and your dog leans dramatically in the other direction. It's not that they don't love you or want to be the object of your every affection. It's simply that they show it differently. Instead of that hug, grab a favorite toy and head out into the backyard with your furry friend. They'll get the message, loud and clear.
A "Paw"rental problem
I have more 'pet' names for Gus, my Cocker Spaniel, than I can count. He is my 'little wan', my 'sweet boy', the 'cutest of the cute' and just about every other endearing moniker you can think of. I love him so dearly I can't imagine my life without him, and frankly, I don't want to. He's my rock, my sweetheart, and I adore the very earth he walks upon.
Now, all that said, I want you to try to imagine this scenario for yourself. You walk into the house of a new acquaintance. You don't know each other well but a friend of a friend had a feeling y'all might get along. You're feeling positive about making this new acquaintance into a new friend. Amazing!
Suddenly, this person demands that you "Sit!". He even gives you a hand signal. When you don't, he asks it again. This time, it's more demanding. Tentatively, you sit down, unsure what to make of this behavior. Your "acquaintance" approaches you again. "Down!" He commands. You freeze. You're not going to lay down in his house. Is this guy kidding?
You're probably wondering what the heck I am getting at, and you can definitely imagine just how off-putting and confusing this scenario would be if you actually lived it. You're not a dog, you don't deserve or expect to be treated like one. Right?! Right.
And yet, here's the rub. We are doing this to our dogs every day.
"Camille, what the heck are you talking about?"
Very frankly, I'm talking about the infantalization, and humanization, of our pet dogs. Let's go back to our weird scenario with our new "acquaintance" to help me further illustrate what I'm trying to say here.
Imagine that you are actually moving in with this person. There are no other options for your living arrangements - you're a stranger in a strange land, and you have to make it work in this place if you want a good life for yourself. So you do it. You "sit" when he asks you to sit. You lay "down" when he asks you to lay down. It's weird, but heck - you're safe, you're warm, you're fed, and sometimes, when he's not asking you to do weird stuff, you may even feel a little at home. And yet, time and time again, you realize he's treating you like a dog. Even though that's not what you ARE. You're a human being - a living, breathing person, and this arrangement simply will not do.
After awhile, you begin to act out. You refuse to comply with this guy's demands and orders. You insist on being treated as the human being you are, and to your utter dismay, he persists with his weird demands. The situation cannot stand.
Here's where my very strange analogy has to end. Unlike dogs, we humans have a measure of autonomy that will allow us to extricate ourselves from a situation as bizarre as the one I describe above. And bizarre it is.
Guess who doesn't have that same choice?
When we decide to treat our dogs like infants in puppyhood and toddlers in adolescence and adulthood, providing for every want, giving in to every demand, and expecting a kind of reasonableness or rationality that an animal simply isn't capable of in return, we do these beautiful creatures an incredible disservice. As their behavior escalates to nearly unmanageable levels our of sheer confusion, we become angry, despondent, and desperate to figure out what went wrong. We ask ourselves:
"Is it genetic?"
"Did I just get the bad seed of the litter?"
"Clearly it's just a bad dog. That's just the way it is."
And much, much less frequently.. "Did I do something to cause this or that behavior?"
That latter question is the one we must be asking ourselves. It allows us to reflect on our treatment of our pets, bringing to the forefront questions surrounding the need to set good expectations and boundaries from the beginning of our time with our dogs right through to the end. We must take a hard, long look at whether or not we are giving our dogs the respect they deserve for the noble, brilliant animals they are, not for what we might desire them to be. And for all of our anthropomorphizing of dogs, we do them a terrible, terrible harm, because we never get to truly know them. Their quirks, their myriad personalities, what drives them, what turns them off - all of these important, essential qualities are lost in our desire to make them more human.
Do your dog a favor. Learn about him or her as a dog. Educate yourself on what dogs need, on how to set healthy boundaries in your relationship together, on nutrition, play, enrichment, and what constitutes a good life. In this way, you can ensure a long-lasting, loving, functional relationship for all the amazing years you have to come.
What do we mean when we talk about stimulus control in dogs? Well, in short, canine behaviors are under stimulus control when there is an increased possibility that the behavior (ie. barking, jumping, biting, nipping, etc) will occur as a result of a specific antecedent stimulus. But what does all of this actually mean? Let's use the example of a dog barking every time the doorbell rings. In order to understand how to interrupt and change any behavior under stimulus control, we have to understand what we're dealing with on a conceptual level.
First, a few definitions to get the ball rolling.
Behavior: the way in which an animal or person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus. Example: a dog barking (behavior) every time someone knocks on the door/rings a doorbell.
Okay, great. But what's a stimulus?
Stimulus: a thing that rouses energy or activity in someone or something: a spur or incentive. Example: the ring of the doorbell.
Makes sense, so far. What's an antecedent?
Antecedent: preceding in time or order; previous or preexisting. Example: the doorbell rings before the dog begins to bark.
When we put this all together, we begin to form a picture of what we mean by stimulus control in relation to behavior. In this case, it indicates that the presence of the antecedent stimulus (ie. the doorbell) results in an increased likelihood of a particular behavior (barking). The behavior (barking) is therefore under the control of the antecedent stimulus (doorbell).
Now it starts to come together. If you're wondering why you cannot for the life of you to get your dog to listen to you once he's started barking at the door, no matter how many times you tell him "Quiet!", you now understand why. It's because the barking is under the control of the doorbell, not you, and certainly not under the control of your dog. It has nothing to do with your dog being a 'jerk', being 'disobedient', or any other adjective you can think of. It means he's lost control.
And so what do we do when our dog has lost control?
1. Figure out what is controlling the behavior.
2. Identify the unwanted behavior itself.
3. Determine the existing consequence.
I'd like to get deeper into what I mean by "3". Points "1" and "2" are pretty straightforward, but what on earth do I mean by "3", consequences? Well, consequences can look like pretty much anything. Maybe you yell at the dog. Maybe you clap your hands together, or stomp your foot. Maybe you even grab your dog by his collar and haul him away from the door. Whatever your response is, that's the consequence.
With all of this in mind, here's where things get interesting. If we long to control our dogs in the presence of these stimuli, we must begin to talk about antecedent control.
Some forms of antecedent control remain outside a handler or pet owner's direct influence (e.g., genetic and biological factors such as breed-typical tendencies, inherited traits, and some behavioral thresholds). On the other hand, some instances of antecedent control are under the direct influence of the dog owner or handler. Let's use the doorbell as an example. The doorbell is both in and out of our control. If we're very clever, we can disable the doorbell to put it firmly under our control, disallowing the antecedent stimulus altogether. But as we know, that does nothing to change the behavior itself.
Better is if we lower the volume of the doorbell to a level at which the dog is non-reactive, desensitizing our canine companions to it's sound and frequency. In this way, we can build up the dog's tolerance to the doorbell, and all the while, classically condition our dog's to offer an alternative, incompatible behavior than the barking we all know and, in most cases, do not love!
It is only via the thorough analysis and understanding of our dog's behaviors that we can begin to modify them. By utilizing these three aspects of antecedent control with your dog, you can safely, effectively. and swiftly manage the behaviors you do not want. create the behaviors you do, and live happily and engaged with your canine companion for years to come.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.