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.

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

Beware of the Behaviour Chains

Isn’t it frustrating, we try to train your dog not to jump up but it gets worse? It is the ‘behaviour chain syndrome’.

Sitting pretty
Sitting pretty

We train behaviour chains all the time, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by mistake. Behaviour chains can be great and useful or useless, ineffective or even dangerous.

There are lot of behaviour chains that are useful, like a ‘go to mat’ cue, ‘come when called and let me touch your collar’, a formal recall or retrieve in obedience. We often train these using back chaining.

This simply means we teach the last behaviour first and make it very rewarding. The last behaviour then becomes a reinforcer for the one that precedes it. This can be an invaluable tool.

The ‘go to mat’ cue is taught by starting with being on the mat. This calm behaviour is rewarded heavily with chews such as pigs’ ears or roo tails. When the dog loves being on the mat, we start sending to the mat, staying very close, and then gradually increase the distance. Very quickly we are able to send the dog from further and further away to her mat or bed. Once this is reliably on cue (a success rate of about 80 %), we can start introducing distractions, including the door bell and visitors. Wouldn’t it be nice if your dog calmly went to her bed chewing her favourite treat when visitors arrive? The perfect dog! If you want to be fancy you can actually transfer the cue from your verbal ‘go to mat’ to the door bell. How impressive would that be? To do this, ring the door bell, immediately followed by the verbal cue, reinforce and repeat. Once the door bell becomes the cue, we then can omit our verbal cue.

On the other hand we tend to train behaviour chains by mistake when dealing with unwanted behaviours.

A classic example for this is a dog who jumps up. The dog jumps up, we ask for a sit, the dog sits and gets a treat. The dog learns to jump up, then sit, and get a reward. That kind of approach will not decrease the jumping but most likely make it worse. You are teaching a behaviour chain: “jump – sit – get treat’. The dog will not learn to sit without jumping.

A similar scenario is loose leash walking. This goes along the lines: The dog pulls on the leash, the owner stops, asks the dog to come back into position, dog comes back, gets treat, forges ahead; owner stops, asks the dog to come back into position, dog comes back, gets treat, forges ahead, etc etc. This will never teach the dog to walk on a loose leash! It teaches the dog to pull, come back into position and then pull again. All we are teaching is a yo-yo action.

In both instances the dog performs the unwanted behaviour first, then the one we want (and we think we are rewarding it) but we cannot get rid of the unwanted one!

The solution is to teach the behaviour you want first by using a lure and practice in different environments and reward generously; making sure the dog ‘understands’ the cue in a lot of different contexts and situations. We need a long and generous history of reinforcement for the wanted behaviour. We then have to manage carefully and set the dog up for success.

 

Going back to the jumping up: First we teach the sit in many different environments and reward generously, then and only then we go back to the context where the dog is likely to jump and get READY! If the dog approaches, we ask for a sit BEFORE she jumps and reward.

If the dog jumped up, we take a deep breath (yes we made a mistake) wait for a sit and reward. We do not cue the sit. The dog needs to find out what gets her the treat. But do not yell or push the dog down, this just might be the game the dog was waiting for. If we manage carefully we should get a reliable sit for greeting very quickly.

For loose leash walking, we use a similar set up. First teach the position, start with the traditional ‘heel position’. Dogs find that easier than just a loose leash. Get the dog to do a step, reward, then two, three, four steps. Start in a very low distraction environment like your back yard.  It is important to have a very high reinforcement rate but at the same time increase the number of steps until you reward very quickly. Once the dog gets it, gradually introduce distractions. When the dog walks nicely in that position we can start to relax criterion and eventually will have a dog who nicely walks on a loose leash.

Loose leash walking!
Loose leash walking!

Another common ineffective behaviour chain is to ask for a sit when the dog comes back, especially in the early training stages. This is not an effective way of teaching a reliable recall. In pet dog training most owners just want the dog to come back but it seems many are having trouble teaching it and most dogs find the environment much more rewarding than the owner. One reason is the notion that the dog has to sit when he comes back. I have seen many dogs happily running to the owner, only to be told to sit. And many dogs then seem to say: Not with me! And run off and in the future avoid coming back.

Coming back should be taught in such a way that the dog comes running really fast towards the owner, close enough for the owner to touch the collar and later hold it. This has two benefits, we know we can get our hands on the dog and in the case of an emergency hang on to them.  We first teach the collar touch and then move away gradually and rewarding for a fast approach. This is a behaviour chain for reliable recalls with some added safety.

Full speed recall
Full speed recall

Asking for a sit in the early stages of training might work at home and in low distractive environments but outside of that we need much more value for the coming back. If we ask for a sit in we might inadvertently poison the come cue!

There is nothing wrong with behaviour chains but make sure you are teaching the right ones.

 

First posted by Pet Professional Guild.

Dogs and Children

I recently shared some training tips with  Bupa Pet Insurance​. I mainly talked about the interaction between dogs and children.

Recent research indicates that while children will recognize an angry dog they have difficulties recognizing when a dog is scared.

Children are very likely to get bitten by their own family dog. However, if both dogs and children are taught to respect each other life becomes much easier.

That said, children and dogs have to be supervised actively at all times and children and dogs should never be left unsupervised.

Puppies and children
Puppies and children

You can find some training advice here Expert Advice

One of the main problem areas are sleeping spaces and around food. Like in most cases, prevention is much better than cure.

Children have to learn to leave a dog in his bed or crate alone and respect their personal space. We used to say let sleeping dogs lie and this is still true!

While it is helpful to teach the dog a solid leave it cue it is even more important, especially with puppies, to exchange. They need to learn that we are not just taking things away but in most cases they are getting something better. So if your puppy has taken off with a sock (as long as it is not an emergency) calmly get a treat and ask the dog to exchange for the treat you are offering. Try not to chase, this might just be the game the puppy had been waiting for.

It also pays to do the food bowl exercises a couple of times a week. While dogs deserve to eat in peace, they also need to be safe around the food bowl. Put half of the dry food in the food bowl and while the dog is eating, calmly add more food (dry food and a few treats). Very quickly the dog will learn that your hands coming to the food bowl bring more and better stuff. She will learn that hands are a good thing and not bad news. Your dog should start to look forward to hands and people coming near her when she is eating.

It is also beneficial to encourage positive interaction between children and dogs. A great way is to encourage trick training, fetch or hide and seek and discourage rough housing or chasing games.