What is the purpose of a real dog?

Why are we getting dogs when we try to prevent them from doing what dogs normally do more often than not and if we find a lot of things real dogs do inappropriate or even offensive?

Sometimes it seems we consider a lot of the things a dog does as gross, dirty, annoying, or done on purpose to make the humans feel bad. 

Rolling in something smelly?

Yes puppies mouth, soil the house, don’t want to be alone, eat everything in sight, run away, roll in smelly stuff, chase moving things, growl, smell other dogs bums and bite or mouth. They are dogs and that is what they do, even a pugle or an oodle. Despite being called designer dogs they are still dogs. And don’t be fooled by the cute name, chances that these puppies were bred in a puppy mill environment are high. This means these dogs come (in addition to normal dog behavior) with their own set of even more problematic issues.

Labeling normal dog behaviors like barking, digging, jumping up, chasing, growling and many more ‘abnormal’ is one of the problems we see more often in our classes and consultation. It is not the dog who has a problem but the owner who has unrealistic expectations or got fooled by the cute puppy pictures on social media and the glorification of puppy hood. 

Doing what puppies do!

Our expectations are extremely high, we expect them to fit in with our busy schedule, be active when we want them to be, calm on our terms, eat when we are ready, play when we feel like it and go to the coffee shop because we think it is fun –  the dogs mostly think it is rather boring.

We also seem to forget what the needs of a ‘normal’ dog are. We deprive them of puppy play because we neither have the time nor the inclination to make an effort. Play has its purpose and is important for a well balanced dog. It matters and if someone tells you it does not you might want to consider their agenda. Puppy play is not  provided because there are too many puppies in the puppy pre-school class, the space is too small, or there is a lack of knowledge of body language and skills to manage puppy play.  Dogs and certainly puppies do want to associate and spend some time with their own species and I do think it is necessary for their well-being.

I agree that the dog park is fraught with danger and not suitable for every dog, but most dogs love to have some canine friends. If the dog is not suitable for the dog park, then this can be provided with a group of canine friends they meet on a regular basis, a good day care or dog walker matching appropriate dogs. To have a dog spending most of their life in the backyard and on the leash does not cater to their needs. They need to run, sniff, play, work and have some fun.

We also expect them to behave like ‘fury humans’, dress them up (I am not talking about a coat when it is cold or bucketing down) but dressing up for no other reason than to entertain us.

We get them as companions but leave them home alone for the best part of the day and when we come home expect them to be calm. Dogs are social animals and need company, they are not made to be home alone all day every day. They also need to stretch their legs and run, especially teenage dogs. However, they spend most of their days inside, the yard or on the leash.

We control every move they make, they are told what to eat, when to sleep, where to walk with no choice in any thing that is important to them. 

Having fun

Is the only purpose of a dog to ‘serve’ us? To muddle the waters even more we read books or see films like “A Dog’s Purpose# which portraits dogs as these selfless, altruistic, ‘do-good’ beings whose only purpose is to help us humans. While I will not go into the controversy surrounding the film and I only read the book, the way this unfolded could be an indication of a rather selfish and human centric approach to how dogs are treated. Or as this review says, the purpose of a dog is to entertain or else we will use force.

There are many reasons why we add a dog to our family: they are very cute, we crave company, it is good for our health, the neighbors just got one, we want a running companion, the children have been wanting one forever, to name a few. But rarely do we consider what we can give this dog to lead a fulfilled live.

Dogs are not selfless or altruistic they do whatever works. While we can be pretty sure that they do love us, they are not saving others, winning competitions, being great companions, behave at the coffee shop just because they love us but because there is something in it for them. This can be BBQ chicken, cheese, hot dogs, a ball, cuddles or whatever else makes them tick.

But even so what they can do for us should not be the only questions. I think we should redefine our relationship with our dogs and see it from their perspective, too. To have a happy, well adjusted dog we need to provide suitable outlets for being a dog. This means create time and places for them to meet and interact with other dogs (assuming they like dogs), give them choices on where to go, what to eat and where to rest. Let them dig at least in some parts of the yard, occasionally sniff other dogs’ rear end, have the ‘zoomies’ and give them lots of things to chew.

It also means to have realistic expectations, a dog who just spent hours home alone does not want to be calm and cuddle when you get home, most likely he wants to play, run and go out. As in any relationship it goes both ways and a dog is not an accessory! Make sure you have the time for a dog before you get that cute puppy. Dogs are great companion but we need to give something back and treat them as real dogs.

Maybe the purpose of a dog is being a dog?

Being a dog

Expectations, Disappointment and Opportunities

When we get a new puppy, as a first time or an experienced dog owner or as a competitor in a dog sport, we have certain expectations. We hope for the perfect companion or the perfect agility dog.

Mum and puppies

Depending on our level of experience we try to make sure we get it right.

We might research first the breeds, then the breeders, look for the best puppy pre-school and best teenage dog classes, join a club or train with our ‘doggie’ friends. However, regardless of how well we are prepared, sometimes it just does not go to plan and turn out the way we expected or hoped it would.

A first time dog owner may have bought the puppy at a pet shop and the puppy started showing signs of being overly fearful already at puppy pre school but no one picked it up. Maybe because the class had too many puppies attending, the instructor was inexperienced, not qualified or just did not see it. The pup now starts to be increasingly fearful, cannot be left alone and is very slow to pick up training.

An experienced owner did all the research, got the puppy from a responsible breeder, attended a good puppy pre school but when reaching teenage hood the dog starts to be more and more spooked by seemingly normal things.

Or a well meaning owner adopted a dog from the local shelter, during the trial period the dog seemed ok if a little bit shy but now after a few weeks he shows reactivity towards other dogs or strangers.

A successful agility competitor got a high drive dog from an experienced breeder but the dog is too highly aroused and despite the best efforts does not succeed in competition and cannot cope with these highly distractive environments.

Out and about

While a lot of these problems can be overcome with early and appropriate interventions some dogs will never be the dog we hoped for. Despite a lot of work the dog remains reactive on leash when surprised or at close proximity, has a hard time to cope with being left alone or an agility trial environment is just too much for them to perform.

If a dog does not live up to the expectations depending on the owner and the owner’s situation the dog might end up in the shelter and their prospects are rather bleak. In Australia alone 180’000 cats and dogs are euthanized annually, a lot of them for behavioural reasons at a very young age.

On a side note, a lot of dogs end up in shelters for completely normal juvenile behaviours, just because there was not enough socialization and training or the owner was not ready for the work involved in brining up a well adjusted dog. Or the trainers were not able to normalize the dog’s behaviour and put it into perspective.

On the other hand there are owners who embark on a life changing journey with their challenging pup or rescue dog.

Accepting limitations

After an initial period of denial when owners still try taking their reactive dog to the coffee shop or dog park or hope their puppy might ‘grow out of it’ they start realizing that this is probably not the right way to go. There might be a feeling of guilt because after trying to figure out what had gone wrong they were confronted by the fact that their dog came from a puppy mill or a backyard breeder and they feel guilty for not realizing earlier what kind of problems this could cause. Or they were so overwhelmed that they were looking for a quick fix using outdated training methods based on pain, coercion, force and fear which made the problem worse.

They might even feel depressed or lonely as no one seems to understand what they are going through; especially owners who have really bonded with their dog and giving up on them is not an option. They also might feel alienated from the ‘normal’ dog owning population who seem to think a dog who is reactive on the leash, cannot go to the dog park or coffee shop is the ‘fault’ of the owner at the other end of the leash.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel as the owners adjust and seek qualified help for their dog, come to terms with some of the restrictions such as not going to the dog park and will find new ways of enjoying life with their challenging dog. They might go to a class that caters for their special needs dog and meet other dog owners who are going through the same experience. They might also find suitable options such as nose work or trick training for their dog to participate.

Some owners find an interest in challenging dogs or dogs at shelters and start volunteering to help these less fortunate dogs to become more adoptable.

And some might embark on a learning journey and ‘end up’ as dog trainers. Many professional dog trainers, including me, started out with a dog who did not live up to the expectations. Thanks to my challenging dog I found my vocation and a new career.

When I realized that Zorbas was never going to be the Agility dog I hoped for and after an initial time of denial and grief I started my education to understand what was going on. He came from a backyard breeder, he did a bad puppy class and at that point I did not know what proper socialization is or how to desensitize and counter condition. In time we both adjusted, we now have a deep bond and at almost 14 years of age he is enjoying retirement. I do not say it was easy but if I only ever had ‘nice’ dogs like Shellbe who is doing well in Agility and Rally O and easy to live with I could not relate to what owners of dogs who do not live up to their expectations are going through. Shellbe is fun and exciting but Zorbas taught me much more for the better or the worse.

Love them for what they are

The only regret I am having is that I did not know then what I do now. I think I could have made a difference.

First published for the Pet Professional Guild.

Is calm really just another behaviour?

What is the most difficult thing to teach our dogs? Coming back or a great recall? While I do agree that this is a difficult behaviour, I do think teaching calm is much more difficult.

Calm mum – calm puppies

Being calm is not the same as a cued ‘sit stay’ or ‘down stay’. Without becoming too airy fairy: Calm is also not just the absence of arousal, heightened state of alert or stress.

For dogs calm means that they are content, happy, and relaxed. They are able to lie on their bed and watch the world go by without barking at every noise or every thing that moves. Calm is a state of mind.

It is normal for puppies to only have two speeds: One is go, go, go and then they crash and go to sleep. For very young puppies calm is not really on the agenda, but we can (and should) start teaching relaxation at a young age. Like everything else it has be age specific and for puppies a few minutes of a relaxing massage or a two second ‘sit stay’ might be all we can expect.

I meet a lot of dogs who are bored out of their minds at home in the backyard or dogs who spend most of their day alone. They either develop separation distress related behaviours such as vocalization, escape or destructive behaviours or over attachment and attention seeking behaviours as soon as the owner is home. For dogs who have no job and not enough company calm is an impossible state of mind

We get dogs as companions and then leave them home alone all day and when we come home we want them to be calm. For most dogs this is too big of an ask!

There are a lot of different ways to provide incentive and an environment that promotes calm.  There are also a lot of different protocols to teach calm. In my opinion it is best to use a holistic approach.

Firstly and probably most important, we have to provide adequate outlets for their energy and cater to their social need for companionship. They need physical exercise, brain stimulation and company. If these needs are not met we cannot expect them to be calm.

At the coffee shop!

A lot of dogs love to go out for a walk twice a day. This is not just for physical exercise but also to keep them socially well adjusted. Socialization, like everything else, requires practice. If they are not exposed to new things in a positive way and on an ongoing basis their social skills will deteriorate very quickly. However, too much physical exercise, especially high arousal activities like the dog park or incessant ball chasing, just increase excitement and high arousal levels.

While most dog owners are aware of their dogs physical exercise needs,   they sometimes do not provide adequate mental stimulation. Many dogs, especially working breeds are ‘run into the ground’ every day, spend a lot of time at the dog park but they are never calm or relaxed. They are in a heightened state of alert and arousal at all times because they do not get enough down time and mental exercise.

For their mental exercise provide a few short but fun training sessions every day. Try teaching them a new trick like closing the door and use at least some of their food for enrichment.

Dogs are social animals, they are not made for being left alone for extended periods of time. I do understand that most of us have to work and leave their dogs home alone. Most dogs cope with that if they are not left for excessive periods of time. However, and I repeat myself, if you work full time, have a busy social life and three children under the age of six years, a puppy or dog might not fit your lifestyle unless you are prepared to make some major changes. Crating your dog while you are at work is not an option. Crate time, especially during the day, should be limited to a maximum of a couple of hours. If you are absent most of the day, look into a good day care, dog walkers or swop time with neighbors.

At daycare pic Maxine www.caninekindergarten.com.au

Once we have catered to their mental and physical needs we can start teaching behaviours that lead to calm.

Teach a go to mat and relax: This can start out as a ‘drop stay’ exercise, in the beginning facilitate with a chew. The dog learns to happily chew on the bed and relax.

Teach impulse control: Typical exercises for this are look at me, hand target, wait, or lie down. The one I like most is ‘Doggie Zen’ (sorry I really cannot remember where I got it from) but for me it works like this: You ask your dog to sit, show the dog the treat, hold your hand with the treat at arm length away from your eyes at eye level and wait until the dog takes the eyes off the treat and looks at you. You have to be quiet. If your dog jumps up calmly put your hand with the treat behind your back and start again. Once you get eye contact, click or say yes and reward. In the beginning you reward for every glance! That is not a cued behaviour but a relaxation exercise.

Capture calm: Interestingly most owners miss their dog’s calm behaviour. A typical scenario is the dog calm on her bed and getting ignored. However, as soon as she gets up there is a reaction from the owners. By mistake the getting up is rewarded while calm is ignored. This tells the dog being calm is not worth doing. We need to change our approach and capture calm. While this is not training per se, it should be a major part of our relaxation protocol. When you see your dog in a relaxed state of mind calmly with a low, gentle voice tell him he is a good dog. Do not use treats, do not move towards him. Otherwise he might go right back into working mode. Dogs do no come pre programmed to know what we want, so we have to let them know.

A gentle massage or listening to music such as Through a Dog’s Ear are other ways of promoting calm and relaxation.

Lazy afternoon at home

In my opinion calm is more than just a behaviour and while we can and should teach preliminary behaviours such as ‘go to mat’, ‘doggie Zen’, ‘wait’, ‘pay attention’ or ‘lie down’ calm is a state of mind. Our dogs can only reach this state of mind if their physical, mental and social needs are met and if they live in an environment that promotes calmness

It is a bit like focus, which is a state of mind that cannot be reached with training of attention cues such as look at me or touch only but depends on the relationship and connection we have with our dogs. But this is a topic for another blog!

 

First published by the Pet Professional Guild.

Living with a teenage dog – They are not giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time.

Most new dog owners find puppy hood challenging but at least they are getting the support of a puppy class as these classes have become main stream. There is also the novelty and the children, who desperately wanted a puppy, are still on board. But once the cute pup turns into an adolescent delinquent, things start to fall apart. Stopping a puppy’s education with a puppy pre school is a bit like thinking kindergarten will get your child into university. It takes a lot more to help the cute puppy to develop in a well adjusted canine citizen than a puppy pre school.

Yes puppies are too cute!

 

Owners seem ill prepared for the challenges of a teen-aged dog: The emotional response and over the top reaction to some stimuli, forgotten training, increased exercise requirements, need for more mental stimulation, ongoing socialisation and training take owners by surprise.

 

The dogs don’t do it on purpose but their brain, to put it casually, is still under construction. We have to be aware that they are not giving us a hard time but they are having a hard time.

Like in humans, part of the cortex matures at different rates. The more basic functions mature first where as the parts in the brain responsible for controlling impulse or planning mature later [1]. Emotional responses, especially the urgency and intensity of the emotional reaction are affected during this time. Hormonal changes are another factor, even in neuter dogs.

The dog is also figuring out his place in your family and the wider community. This has nothing to do with pack.

Growing up.

The young dogs now spend more and more time at home in the backyard because they are too boisterous to walk and often refuse to come back at the off leash dog park. They also have gotten into a few run-ins with other dogs. They have become unemployed and will soon be self-employed, meaning they dig up the backyard, eat the pool lights and bark at anything that moves. It is downhill from there and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

We do not take them out anymore, their social skills deteriorate even more and their world becomes very small. They meet the same people and dogs over and over again and if they go out, it is the same old same old. They stop interacting with new people or dogs and they ‘forget’ how to deal with new situations or might get scared. Scared dogs are dogs who react inappropriately or show aggression towards unknown dogs or people.

This pattern can be fatal! Behavioural problems seem to be the number one reason for euthanasia of a dog of any age “it is still the largest cause of death of puppies under one year of age. Indeed, the average age of dogs in Australia, and world wide, is estimated to be around 3.5 years, which is well below their potential biological age.”[2]

A large number of dogs are surrendered to shelters each year. One study puts the figure at a staggering 20 % [3]. The numbers of cats and dogs euthanized in Australia is equally staggering 180’000 (population of 22 million) and other countries are no better[4].

Anecdotal evidence suggests that dogs are most likely surrendered when they reach social maturity around 2 years of age and often earlier.

 

Do’s and don’ts

Do keep socialising. While early socialisation is important it does not stop with puppy pre school. Teenage dogs need to be socialising on an ongoing basis. They need to meet new people and dogs, go to new places and have new and positive experiences on an ongoing basis. Attending a well run class for teenage dogs will help with ongoing socialisation, you will get support and realise just how normal your teenage dog is.

Keep socializing.

Don’t run them into the ground. A lot of owners try to solve the problem by literally ‘running them into the ground’ on a daily basis. However, they are just creating an athlete. The dog is now so fit that they cannot get them tired anymore or worse the dog is physically exhausted but the brain cannot settle.

 

Do find a balance between mental and physical stimulation. Teach them something new on an ongoing basis, such as tricks or a brush up on obedience sills. Use part of their food for enrichment in food dispensing toys, recycle plastic bottles, pizza boxes, paper rolls etc. Or if so inclined start a dog sport: Agility, Rally O, Nose Work, or Fly Ball.

 

Don’t just show them who is boss. Some owners think they have to show them who is boss and start using aversive or punishment based methods.

 

Do keep educating them. A classic is the couch. The dog is on the couch. The owner first ask the dog to get off, then the owner commands the dog to get off and then resorts to pulling the dog off, the dog growls or even snaps. Often this is the beginning of the end for that relationship. Firstly, the dog is not on the couch because he plans on taking over the household and then the world. The dog is on the couch because it is the most comfortable place and he has not been taught to go to his mat.

 

Do choose your battles wisely. It is well document that the use of force can cause aggression. If you do not want your dog on the couch then teach them to go to their bed instead and reward. Also make sure that the whole family is enforcing the same rules. If some family members allow the dog on the couch and some don’t it will be really hard to understand. If it happens, go into training mode, get a treat and lure the dog onto his bed and reward. This should be your approach for all problems. The dog does the wrong thing because of a lack of training not because he is ‘bad’, ‘dominant’ or ‘will-full’. One more tip if you are not prepared to enforce (in a positive way) what you are asking for, don’t ask!

 

Do reward the effort. Despite all the bravado they are showing, they are really insecure. Make sure you acknowledge the effort and show them that you love them. We used to say “Nothing in life is for free” but in reality “Plenty in life is free”. You might find Kathy Sdao’s e-book Plenty in Life is Free helpful. Especially the part about 50 treats a day. It basically means reward all the good things your dog does with either treats, praise or interaction.

 

Do let them make choices if safe and possible. A lot of dogs are not going to the off leash park anymore because they got into altercations with other dogs. If no one was hurt, your dog is not aggressive, he just needs more socialisation. Start by teaching a really reliable recall, then manage the environment by pairing them with suitable play mates. If you have done a puppy pre school that allows for off leash interaction you will know how good play looks. It should ebb and flow, roles are reversed, there are pauses, invitations to play are frequent (play bow, eye flashing, lifted paws etc). If it gets too rough, call your dog, ask for a sit, calm things down and restart. If your dog shows aggression get professional help.

 

The good thing about teenage dogs is that this phase does not go for years. With the right attitude, additional socialisation, training and a good sense of humour if may only last for a few months. You still might have relapses later but hopefully not as bad and not as long.

 

Most important: stay connected, show them that you love them, keep socialising and train your dog!

 

First published Australian Dog Lovers

[1] http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-teen-brain-still-under-construction/index.shtml

[2] http://www.ava.com.au/sites/default/files/AVA_website/pdfs/NSW_Division/VETS%20%2B%20NURSES%20COMBINED%20-%20Kersti%20Seksel%20-%20Canine%20Cognitive%20Dysfunction.pdf

[3] http://www.vetwest.com.au/pet-library/socialisation-essential-for-puppies

[4] http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/not-a-dogs-chance-campaigners-zero-in-20110917-1kfal.html