We hear a lot about dog socialisation, and it really is essential. A well-socialised dog has a much better quality of life as they can go to many places, including coffee shops, off-leash beaches and even on holiday, without causing trouble to their owners, other people or other dogs.
Dogs who are accustomed to a wide variety of people, dogs and environments will also recover quickly if something scares them. They can deal more easily with new situations and stimuli. I was recently featured in a blog article titled ‘Socialise Safely with Other Pets and Pet Lovers’ for leading pet care company Advantage. Make sure to read it for more information about the benefits of socialising with your dog and how to do so effectively. The topic of dog socialisation is a really important one for all dog owners and I was glad to be asked to participate! Some dog owners may not realise that some circumstances are better for socialising your dog than others.
Start at the beginning (not at the dog park)
Dog parks and off-leash areas are not the best places to start to socialise your dog. These are challenging environments, even for socialised dogs, and require all interaction between dogs to be carefully supervised. My thoughts on the dog park? Check this link. Initially, your dog should be introduced to other dogs at a puppy pre-school or day care where interactions are well-managed and the dogs are set up for success. You should also continue to socialise your dog at a good teenage dog class. Well-run day care centres with qualified staff can also make a huge difference to the successful socialisation of your dog.
Enroll them in structured activities
Another great way to meet other dogs and their owners is through taking up a dog sport such as Agility, Rally Obedience or Fly Ball. Many dogs really enjoy these activities. They have the added advantage of strengthening the bond between you and your pet – dogs and owners who have fun together stay together!
At Goodog, we recommend puppy pre schools that allow for off leash interaction, teenage dog classes for ongoing socialisation, as well as well day care centres with qualified staff. Taking up a hobby in the form of the above-mentioned dog sports can make all the difference to the owner-dog relationship.
We provide classes for every life stage of dogs: puppy pre school, teenage dog training classes, rescue dog training, workshops for recalls, loose leash walking and trick training, Agility and Rally O. We also do in-home consultations for problem behaviours. Dogs and owners who have fun together stay together – contact us to find out more.
As trainers we sometimes talk about ‘owner compliance’ or maybe more accurately the lack of it. Part of our job as dog trainers is to find ways to motivate owners to make changes to the lives of their dogs. Often this means they also need to change the way they do things. To change the dog’s behaviour we need to change the owners’ behaviour first. Change is hard and we humans need good reasons to initiate change.
I recently saw a client with a dog who showed signs of separation distress and after the initial assessment we went through the ins and outs of a behaviour modification process to help the dog remain calm when left alone. Separation distress is a challenging condition and the associated behaviour change program requires a lot of effort from the owners. In some cases the dog cannot be left alone at all until some behaviour modification has been implemented successfully and some cases need medication.
In this case I suggested trying the recommended behaviour modification for two weeks and if we did not see marked improvement consulting a veterinarian behaviourist to discuss medication. Despite being in contact with the owners, ‘thanks’ to social media I saw the dog come up on another trainer’s page. Some trainers might know that sinking feeling when that happens, especially if the other trainer uses a different approach.
The reason why I am mentioning this is that this experience made me think about why as dog trainers we sometimes have trouble initiating change with our human clients.
It might have to do with our main focus being the dog and the behaviour modification that has to be done with the dog rather than the behaviour modification for the owner.
Despite being called dog trainers we spend a lot of time talking to people and trying to change their way of doing things and maybe, in addition to our knowledge of dog behaviour, we might need to focus more on our communication skills with humans.
I discussed the case I mentioned with my counsellor and she recommended looking into ‘motivational interviewing’. She also pointed out that most people will go for ‘a quick fix’ if one is offered and asked how I was going with the exercises my physio therapist gave me? That brought the point home. Despite my best intentions my exercise were not really going very well and I was looking into alternative options that promised a quicker result. It is human to do so. It also helped me to understand why my clients had sought a different approach that seemed easier and required less change from their side.
Instead of asking for ‘compliance’ we might have to find ways for our clients to take ownership.
When clients call us for help with their dogs they have a problem and often some kind of crisis brought it to a head on. This might be the neighbours complaining about the barking, the dog has bitten another dog or a person or it took them two hours to get the dog back at the off leash area. They are aware that they need to change something but somehow they just cannot get it started and seem ambivalent. It seems all our reasoning, logic, pointing out the consequences or behaving as ‘the expert’ does not work.
Owner compliance is just not there. This might be the crux, when we talk about owner compliance we assume that the owner has to comply with our recommendations but it just does not get the results we hope for. We might be well meaning but telling our clients what to do can build resistance.
I started looking into ‘motivational interviewing’ and while I do not say we need to become motivational interviewing experts using some of its techniques might help our clients to get motivated for change.
In the case I described earlier, I probably ‘lost’ my clients when I started explaining the process of desensitizing and counter conditioning. My clients were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task and might have concluded that the status quo after all might be easier to maintain then thechange.
Before embarking on the dog’s behaviour change I could have discussed the benefits and costs of ‘just living with it’ and the benefits and costs of embarking on this process. This helps to understand the situation better and can emphasize the benefits of change.
These clients cannot go out without being worried because the dog vocalizes and neighbours complain on a regular basis. This is highly stressful for the dog and the owners. If the dog was able to spend some time on his own the owner could have a social life again. It also shows that the cost of ‘living with it’ is high and not feasible in the long term.
I could have asked a scaling question, meaning that the client rates on a scale of one to ten how important it is for them to change right now. This gives me an indication on how big the ‘burden of suffering’ is and depending on this design a behaviour modification program that matches their level of motivation for change. I also should have listened more to the ifs and buts.
There was nothing wrong with giving advice but maybe I should have phrased it as a suggestion or encouragement rather than ‘expert advice’ expecting compliance.
In the meantime I have started changing my approach and have talked to the clients again, this time discussing the benefits and costs of ‘living with it’ and how much it means to them to have a social life again. We also have engaged a veterinary behaviourist and I am hopefully second time round we will be able to make better progress.
I am not expecting miracles but changing my behaviour has helped changing my clients’ behaviour and therefore has helped making changes for the dog.
On a personal level I have stopped talking about ‘owner compliance’ but will expand my knowledge of ‘motivational interviewing’ and change my approach to hopefully being more successful in helping my clients. But change is tough even if I see the benefits!
 I find having regular sessions with a counsellor is very helpful for debriefing and invaluable for my own wellbeing. Dog training can be a challenging job and burnout or compassion fatigue can part of it for some of us.
 The spirit of MI can be translated into five central principles summarized by the acronym DEARS:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 . 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.
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.”
A large number of dogs are surrendered to shelters each year. One study puts the figure at a staggering 20 % . The numbers of cats and dogs euthanized in Australia is equally staggering 180’000 (population of 22 million) and other countries are no better.
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.
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!
I got told a couple of times lately: Shellbe (my German Shorthaired Pointer who I compete in Agility with) really covered you there!
It was in competition or training when I made a mistake and Shellbe did everything she possibly could to make up for it. And she did! Isn’t that what friends are for?
I hear it more often in Agility circles but it probably happens in other competitive sports as well: I am getting my next performance dog! I have to say this makes me cringe.
What does it mean, getting a performance dog? Does it mean the main aspect of the relationship will be the chosen sport? What happens if that does not work out? What does the dog do the rest of the time? Even ‘performance dogs’ only train and compete part time. There are probably 22 hours left in a day where they are ‘just’ pets. Since when have our egos become so big that it is not enough to have fun in Agility or Rally and get the occasional qualification card or even win? But that it needs to be perfect every time, even for the ones who do not train for perfection.
To be honest sometimes I am a bit disillusioned with competitive dog sports. Most of us are doing this as a hobby and not for living. Our dogs did not ask to be there and do Agility, Rally or Obedience. We make them do it! It is our job to make it fun and if we cannot make if fun I think we should have a break or at least take a deep breath.
Dogs are transported to trials all over the place and then spend 7 hours in their crates to just come out for their runs. Fairly predictably they cannot concentrate, run out of the ring or get marched off the start line because they broke the start line-stay. The dog is frustrated, the handler is frustrated and it goes downhill from there.
Or a dog barks or lunges at another dog at a competition, leashes are jerked, dogs are yelled at. This is a highly stressful environment for dogs and handlers and we all suffer from trigger stacking.
This scenario goes along the lines: The first run was bad because there was another dog too close to the ring, someone left a toy or food pouch on the ground, then a competitor yelled at a dog in close vicinity, it is really hot and windy and flies everywhere. Around lunch time the dog has had it and reacts to lots of stimuli he would normally cope with but not any more.
The same goes for the handler, the judge made her wait, the steward got the numbers wrong and then just when they lined up at the start the timing gear fails or a dog runs into the ring. The handler who normally copes with this has had it. Trigger stacking for the handler, too.
I personally think we are well-advised in dog sports to remain within the first four levels. Level one is ‘Distant Antecedents’ which deals with medical, nutrition and physical environment, for dogs these would mean adequate exercise and food as well as mental stimulation. I do think most handlers in dog sports are really on the case there and are doing an amazing job.
The second level are immediate antecedents which are environmental settings, motivation and cues for a specific behaviour. Are long car rides and extensive crating at competitions really in the best interest of the dog?
Level thre is positive reinforcement which delivers a reinforcer for the correct response. If the behaviour falls apart in competition this could be an indication that the reinforcement history is not long or strong enough. The last acceptable level is ‘Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior – reinforce an acceptable replacement behavior and remove the maintaining reinforcer for the problem behavior.’ We all know how difficult this is in a competition. Our reinforcers are often weak (praise, the next obstacle) and it is extremely difficult to find a non aversive way to let the dog know when a mistake was made.
Common problems like the dog leaving the ring, missing a contact or breaking the start line stay are often met with the dog being removed from the ring. If you remove the dog from the ring you are using negative punishment (we take away the possibility of a reinforcer) and we are already beyond level four of intrusiveness. Is this really the best and most ethical approach to these problems? I do not think so. We should really look at other things, training level, time spent in crate, reinforcement history, nervousness of the handler and the dog, to name just a few.
If you use even more aversive tools like startling the dog or throwing something at the dog, which was recently recommended for a dog who picks up toys in Rally. While this might be effective (which I doubt), there is no place for positive punishment in dog sports. The dog might stop picking up the toys but most likely he will be stressed and not enjoy the sport anymore. For the record, there is no place for this in any ethical dog training. Effectiveness is not enough to justify certain tools. As frustrating as it might be, we have to go back to relationship building, distraction training, better and more precise reinforcement delivery, again to name just a few.
Sometimes it also helps to just have a break from it all. Do other things with your dog, try a new sport or just have a bit of a holiday.
Another often seen situation is a disappointed/frustrated handlers and the dog knows. Disappointment, frustration, tears, anger have no place when competing with your dog. Do not get me wrong I am occasionally disappointed, we all are, it is a human reaction. But the dog does not need to know. I know myself and I make sure my dog does not have any bad experiences in a trial environment ever. Every single time we come out of the ring she gets a jackpot and spends at least 20 to 30 second eating it. She gets this regardless of the result. This gives me time to recoup if it went wrong and she does not realize that I am disappointed. If you get disappointed, try to find a procedure so your dog does not realize it.
Here a few things that could make it easier and more enjoyable (obviously apart from proper training):
Relax. We are not competing for sheep stations (at least not here in Australia).
Try to bring back the fun. Most of us started a sport because it looked like fun and it was, but then it all got a bit too competitive.
Be realistic, if you train once a week you will most likely not win.
Compete against your personal best not the others. If you are, like me, no spring chicken anymore, the younger competitors will probably run faster!
Do other things with your dog, ‘normal’ walks, play, trick training, go to the coffee shop or just hang out.
If you get very nervous and suffer from peer pressure, I can assure you, if you are competing for fun and as a hobby, in most cases only your friends are watching you or maybe not event them. The wider community really does not care, again relax.
Keep it fun, celebrate the good ones, learn from the mistakes and if it went really pear-shape, forget about it.
Enjoy your dog for what they are and not what you want them to be.
It might be a coincident but over the last few weeks I have met a lot of dogs who are reactive on leash. They bark, lunge, whine and pull towards other dogs on walks. Some will aggress if given a chance and hurt another dog.
Leash reactivity presents in at least two forms, dogs who are reactive on leash but fine off leash and dogs who are reactive and do not get on with other dogs off leash either.
Despite the behavior looking very similar, the motivation is completely different. For dogs who do not want to interact it is a distance increasing behavior. The behavior dogs show who are generally fine with other dogs is a distance decreasing behavior. These dogs are very frustrated by the fact that they are not able/allowed to approach the other dog.
I recently met a dog who was just adopted into a family. She barked and lunged as soon as she saw another dog. There was no information available if she was ok off leash but the owners were not too keen to try as her on-leash displays looked rather scary. A first session on leash was not giving much away as the other (normally neutral) dog was not too sure about her either. This dog clearly had a communication problem. But something just did not add up and I started looking for a potential playmate. It turned out she was social but just had inappropriate manners on leash. Even for professionals it is not always clear if the behavior is distance increasing or decreasing which makes it really important to test our assumption before developing a treatment plan.
This blog focuses on dogs just like her, fine off leash but react on leash.
There are a lot contributing factors that make social dogs behave like ‘I am going to kill you’ when on leash. It might be a learnt behavior; the dog has figured out if he behaves like Cujo he will eventually be able to meet, much to the horror of the other dog. Or limited escape routes make the dog feel scared or trapped by the leash and they are not able to display appropriate body language. Barrier frustration is a build up in frustration because they are prevented from accessing the other dog and interact.
Most of these problems are caused by a misunderstanding of what dog to dog or better puppy to puppy socializations means.
Puppy to puppy socialization should facilitate three different skill sets: There are times for having a fun play with other dogs, times to just relax in the presence of other dogs and sometimes it is just a quick say hello and keep moving. All three skills should be taught in puppy pre-school.
It should be made clear from the very beginning that there is no interaction if on leash, even for cute puppies. On leash interaction or play gives the puppy the wrong information. However, as puppies love to play they also should have the opportunity to play with other puppies off leash.
Once the puppy is a bit older and walks on a leash the main contributing factor is that we make our dogs meet every other dog they see in the street (and very often head on). Yes it might be cute while the puppy is still very young but once the ‘puppy license’ has expired there will be trouble as older dogs will not put up with out of control teenage dogs in their face.
We assume this to be socialization and a proper way of meeting dogs. It is not! If dogs meet unrestraint by leashes they will do the ‘bum sniff’, use circular motion or meet sidewise. A head on approach is confrontational. To make things worse we will reprimand a dog who is a bit unsure about other dogs and wants to get away or growls. This will quickly escalate and the dog might find meeting other dogs on leash scary.
These dogs have to learn that they cannot interact with every single dog they meet. But how do we teach this?
As with most problems prevention is much better than cure. A puppy pre school that caters to the three skill sets (fun play, relaxed company, quick hellos) can make a huge difference to how the dog will behave as an adult.
All these behaviors will have to be taught out of context (meaning with no other dogs nearby), once they are on cue we then start far away from other dogs so the dog remains under threshold at all times. We then very gradually decrease distance and eventually will be able to walk calmly past other dogs.
But we also need to cater for their social needs, meaning appropriate interaction and socialization with other dogs. This can either be a well run play group or day care or a good off leash area.
Isn’t it frustrating, we try to train your dog not to jump up but it gets worse? It is the ‘behaviour chain syndrome’.
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.
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.
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.
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.