Teenage dogs at the vet and how you can help them cope can be challenging at the best of times and vet visits can be daunting.
Dogs enter the teenage phase around 7 to 12 months and reach social maturity between 24 and 36 months. Smaller breeds and working dogs become teenagers earlier and mature earlier, too. Larger breeds and specifically gundogs, enter the teenage phase later and mature later.
The main thing we need to understand is that teenage dogs are not ‘difficult’ on purpose. Their brains are under construction and because the front part of the brain that is responsible for controlling emotions matures last, we see them reacting in seemingly irrational ways. This brain development is also responsible for their selective hearing, ‘forgotten’ training and getting spooked by random people and things during fear phases. This is normal and has physiological reasons. Knowing the physiological reason behind these challenges should make it easier for us to be patient and understanding of the hard time our teenage dogs are going through.
Vet visits are difficult part of life for most dogs and even more so for bouncy teenage dogs. But all dogs need to go to the vet when they are sick or injured and when they need their annual check-up or vaccination. It is extremely stressful for our dog (and us) if our dog is overly scared and becomes a shivering mess at the vet. It is normal for dogs to be a little stressed or apprehensive at the vet given the strange sights, smells and sounds – but if they are petrified on arrival it is heartbreaking to watch and it can be difficult for the vet to diagnose or provide treatment.
Luckily, we can do something about this with a lot of social visits when our dogs are puppies and teenagers. We need to take our young dogs to the vet regularly and start social vet visits early to prevent them from becoming fearful in this environment. I recommend social vet visits on a weekly basis for puppies and teenage dogs.
We start with just walking into the clinic, giving our dog a few treats and leaving again. We repeat this a few times until they appear to be enjoying going in. We then ask the nurses or receptionist to give them treats. If our dog has experience with getting on objects, we can ask them to get on the scale and give them a treat for doing so. Once they are relaxed, we can start going into the treatment rooms and meet the vet.
We need to make the vet visit as pleasant as possible by being generous with our treats and choosing procedures that are less invasive. There are more-and-more vets who offer a version of ‘fear free pets’ vet visits (check for these vets in your area). Additionally, a well-run puppy class at the vet of your choice can help to create a positive association, too.
There is also a ‘phenomenon’ that works in our favour, called latent inhibition. This means if our dog has had a lot of good experiences at the vet, one bad experience will not completely ruin it. They most likely will maintain a positive attitude despite the aversive procedure. But, we also need to be aware that there is ‘one event learning’ or ‘flashbulb memories’ and that despite all our best efforts one negative experience can ruin all of our hard work in creating positive associations. These ‘one event learning’ events are extremely difficult to overcome. So if we can we should try to avoid them and teaching the ‘head-rest’ as explained below can help with that.
Handy tips for the vet
Teaching our dogs to step onto the scales at the vet starts with a plank at home. This is the first step towards teaching them to step onto unusual things. We can use luring for this: hold a treat in front of their face and guide them onto the plank. If they are not comfortable with this, we might only ask for the front feet to begin with and then gradually ask them to put their hind feet on. The hand signal is pointing to the plank/scales, similar to go-to-mat. If they have a go-to-mat cue, putting a mat on the plank/scales to start with can help. Once they are comfortable stepping onto things, we can add a verbal cue with it, like step-on. We can also practice this on our walks by asking our dogs to step-on to different surfaces and mark and reinforce when they do. Once our dog understands the step-on cue at home and is comfortable at the vet, we can ask them to step-on to the vet scale. Keep it short in the beginning: we should lure them into stepping onto it, then allow them to step off. Then we can ask for them to stay there for a few seconds and gradually we can ask them to spend more time on the scale.
We teach our dog to rest their head in our hand or on a chair as a way to teach accepting touch from the vet or other health professional; it is their way of expressing consent. Throughout teaching head-rest, we must always be vigilant of our dog’s comfort, and respect that they can say ‘no’ and withdraw consent to be touched. This means they have more control over what happens to them. If they leave their head in our hand or on the chair, they are saying it is ok for the vet to proceed. If they take their head away, it means no and the vet needs to stop what they are doing. Using a chair or the hand is a personal preference, as both work the same. If using a chair, I recommend putting a towel on the chair so we can take the towel to the vet and they still understand the behaviour in a different context.
Unfortunately, sometimes there is an emergency and things need to be done before we can obtain our dog’s consent and condition the vet to be a non-scary place. There are different ways of dealing with this. If we are doing routine things like injections that are not very time-sensitive, I would stick to the training plan and just defer for a few days or a week and do a lot more training to get them ready. In an emergency situation there are medications that can help or sedation. Talk to your vet about what is appropriate to prevent a negative association between them and your dog.
To teach head-rest we use shaping, by breaking the behaviour down into small steps. The first step is look-at-hand/chair, which we mark and reinforce. Mark and reinforce means we either use a marker word like ‘yes’ (or clicker) to tell our dog they have done the right thing and then follow up with a treat (the reinforcer). Then we move on to approach-hand/chair (mark and reinforce), touch-hand/chair (mark and reinforce) and finally leave-chin-in-hand/chair (mark and reinforce). Once they understand that we want their head to rest in our hand or on the chair we add the verbal cue head-rest. Check our youtube channel for a step-by-step video on teaching head-rest.
Dogs, contrary to humans, do not have a negative preconception with the muzzle (although they can develop one with negative experiences). For them it is just another piece of equipment if introduced carefully. It is well worth training our dog on a muzzle because, in the case of an injury, it will make a vet visit much less stressful. If our dog is injured and in pain, even the most placid dog might bite and make treatment difficult or impossible. In these cases, the vet will use a muzzle to protect themselves. If our dog is used to the muzzle then we have one less stressor. If they are not, then the muzzle will make an already-stressful situation worse.
Muzzle training requires desensitising and counter-conditioning. We start by showing them the muzzle (mark and reinforce). We bring the muzzle a bit closer, they might look at it (mark and reinforce) or sniff it (mark and reinforce). Then we put a few treats in the muzzle and let them eat the treats. Eventually they will put their nose in it (mark and reinforce) and keep it there for longer (mark and reinforce). We then bring the strap behind their head (mark and reinforce), close the strap (mark and reinforce), and gradually build up the duration of it staying on. Every step is repeated and reinforced as many times as necessary so they don’t get stressed and it is a positive experience. For more information on muzzle training check out the Muzzle Up Project.
With early and ongoing social visits to the vet, teaching them the basics such as stepping onto a scale and a head rest to accept handling from the vet, visits should become less stressful for all, the humans, dogs and the vet. Muzzle training has many advantages and should be part of every dog’s training. If done properly it can be invaluable in medial and other emergencies. Most of all keep things positive and don’t rush it.
Is your dog jumping on you and your visitors, pulling like a freight train and does not come when called? Does she have selective hearing and forgotten all her training? Or does he dig up the yard, barks at every noise and anything that moves? Then you probably have a teenage dog! I call the barking and digging dogs the unemployed teenage dogs, who have now become self-employed in the security or excavation industry. Read mroe about teenage dogs below and book into a Goodog Teenage Course if you need some help with your dog.
Dogs enter the teenage phase around seven to eleven months and reach adulthood around 18 to 24 months. Smaller dogs become teenagers earlier than larger dogs and mature earlier, too. Some breeds mature late, for example the large gun dogs, while working dogs like Kelpies or Border Collies mature earlier, but there are always individual differences.
Is there really such a thing as a teenage dog? Science says so.
Until recently we did not talk about teenage dogs and there was limited science around that topic. However, it seems that what trainers have been saying for years is now being confirmed by solid science!
While we need science to confirm our own anecdotal evidence, for parents of human teenagers the parallels are clear! It looks too similar: the emotional response and over the top reactions to some stimuli, screaming for no obvious reason, trying to be independent and at the same time a strong need for being loved.
While there are countless articles and books on puppies, good information on teenage dogs is difficult to find. But all dogs (and humans) need to go through teenage phase to reach the stability of adulthood and often it is not pretty!
It is a difficult time because teenage dogs need a lot of mental and physical stimulation. But at the same time, they become easily scared because they are going through secondary fear phases. They also become more selective who they consider friends and who they will play with.
Taking a young dog out for daily exercise when they startle at the sight of a man wearing a fluoro vest, do not come when called, and start fighting at the dog park is challenging.
More obedience training or a ‘tougher’ approach will not solve the problem. Obedience training is great to address the problems like pulling on the leash and ignoring the calls to come back, but to be successful we need to have some foundations in place BEFORE we start training the mentioned obedience behaviours.
The first thing we need to remind ourselves is that they are not being ‘difficult’ on purpose or stubborn, defiant or stupid. The different parts of their brain are developing at a different pace and are not communicating properly with each other.
Because of this, they are having difficulties making good and calm decisions.
Prerequisites for successful training are a good relationship, an open line of communication and trust!
Another prerequisite for success is that we have catered to their physical, mental and social needs. I see too many humans and their teenage dogs who are frustrate because they try to train without these foundations and it is all downhill from there.
The relationship matters!
We all know that good relationships are no coincidence and we also know that good relationships are a lot of work.
Traditionally, our relationship with dogs was defined by control, dominance and coercion. We used commands and choice was an unknown concept. For humans, an unhealthy relationship is defined as one that is based on power and control and not equality and respect. I think it is time to treat and respect our dogs as friends!
A good relationship means we need time (and a lot of it) to spend together. Humans are often surprised when I say that we need two to three hours of quality time with our teenage dogs daily. That is not counting the time they spend with us on the couch in front of the TV. But the time on the couch is also important because being together allows for bonding. This is one of the reasons dogs need to have access to our living areas and not spend their time outside in the backyard.
Quality time should consist of leisurely outings, play, going to the coffee shop, a run at the park, games, teaching tricks or a bush walk. Things both humans and dogs enjoy.
Giving them a bit more choice like different sleeping places, occasionally letting them decide which way we walk (as long as it is safe) or let them choose between chicken or beef for dinner is beneficial for their mental wellbeing and good for the relationship.
Communication is the key – Do not wait until they scream!
Dogs do not speak our language but they are experts in body language. It is therefore important that we understand what they are saying. Most humans will realise when our dog gets really upset and scared. Dog aggression is often caused by fear. But if we listen (or more accurately watch carefully) they do not need to scream and shout or lash out! We need to watch for early stress signs of stress to avoid full blown outbursts.
The early stress signs have a lot of different names but I like calling them displacement behaviours because that describes what we see; normal behaviours displayed out of context. The most common ones are:
Dogs will lick their lips when we hold a treat in front of their nose, yawn when tired, shake off when wet, turn their head if someone enters the room and sniff if there is an interesting smell. But if they do any of these when on a walk and a dog or a child on a scooter approaches, then it pays to pay attention and increase distance.
We need to help them to cope in a situation they find challenging. Asking them to sit will either not work because they are too stressed to do it or they simply cannot hear us because they are focused on the other dog or the child.
Giving them more space will set them up for success. It will also increase trust in us because we have helped them to cope with this situation.
Teaching them the basics such as ‘look at me’, hand touch and a few simple tricks with positive reinforcement methods will help with our relationship and mutual understanding.
Keeping them busy with daily enrichment will calm things down.
Catering to their needs means that, in addition to the ‘traditional’ walk and a good run, we should take them out for ‘sniffaris’ where they can sniff and explore at their leisure.
✔️ social enrichment (contact with others) ✔️ occupation (giving them a job such as a dog sport) ✔️ sensory (sights, music, scents e.g. canine sensory garden) ✔️ nutritional (such as foraging) ✔️ physical enrichment(toys, physical features in the yard).
This will help addressing the barking and digging!
We have given our unemployed teenage dog a proper job and they are not bored out of their minds. This will help them to be calm when home alone, but also improve focus when training and they will be more relaxed when out and about.
Once we understand and trust each other and we have catered to their needs, training will be much easier!
My favourite ‘obedience’ behaviour for teenage dogs: Doggy-Zen:
Doggy-Zen it is more than just an obedience behaviour. This is not a cued behaviour, but rather a relaxation exercise. Like us, our teenage dogs need to learn to de-stress and calm their mind. Anyone who has done yoga or meditation knows that calming the mind is not easy and dogs are no different. Once they are stressed or just excited it is difficult to calm down.
I have found Doggy-Zen to be a good way of slowing things down for our dogs. For the Doggy-Zen exercise, we show our calm dog the treat (in our hand) and then extend our arm out fully to the right of our head (at eye level). We then wait until our dog takes their eyes off the treat and gives us eye contact.
We must not say anything. Once we get eye contact, we mark and reinforce (meaning either click or say yes and deliver a treat). In the beginning we mark and reinforce for every glance! But as our dogs improve, we wait longer and will reinforce only for extended eye contact. We aim for five to ten seconds.
Because this exercise is not cued our dog needs to figure out what gets them the treat. An excited dog has a hard time taking their eyes off the treat because the shortest way to the treat is looking at the hand with the treat.
However, in this case, that is not working. To get the treat they need to take their eyes off the treat and look at us.
When they are excited their brain is not processing information properly and they have poor impulse control which makes it difficult for them to figure it out. A typical teenage problem! But, once they calm down, they are able to take their eyes off the treat and look at us. We can literally watch them relax and often, they will take a deep breath, too.
We should practice this ‘meditation’ initially when they are calm, as this will help create a pathway in the brain that promotes relaxation. Once our dog understands this exercise, we can start practising in more ‘exciting’ environments. Because we have practised this relaxation exercise and have create new pathways in the brain, they can now do it even when they are excited.
The many benefits of Trick Training
Every dog should learn a few tricks: it is fun, improves our relationship with them and is a great way to keep our teenage dog’s brain busy. Another main reason for trick-training is that it improves our training technique.
We are often tense when we try to teach our dogs basic things like Sit or Lie-down. But, as soon as we teach tricks – for example Shake-paw, Spin, Weave-through-my-legs or Sit-pretty – we all lighten up, have fun andengage on a different level with our dogs.
Because us humans have changed our mind set – we are more engaging and start to have fun – the dogs pick up on this and become more engaged and are keener to work and play with their humans.
It also seems that when we realise that our own attitude and behaviour influences our dogs, we are more likely to have a positive attitude with the ‘boring’ but necessary obedience behaviours.
Like in any other relationship, as soon as we relax and have fun, everything works better! One of the easier tricks is Weave-through-my-legs. Our dog stands facing us. We reach through our legs and lure them between and around our left leg and then the right leg in a figure-eight.
Some dogs might find this a bit a scary and it helps if we teach them to go through our legs first by throwing a treat through our legs, behind us.
The only thing they need to do in the beginning is to run through our legs to get the treat. Most dogs will feel comfortable with this quickly.
Having a treat in each hand will help with the flow and our co-ordination. Once they have learnt the trick, it is often enough for us to stand with our legs apart and give the verbal cue weave and they will happily do it.
For more tricks and information on teenage dogs and how to understand and teach them check out the new “How to love and survive your teenage dog” book (publishing August 2020) – Print $29 plus postage and E-book $24, available for pre-order at www.goodog.com.au
In 2015 Barbara Hodel, the author of How to love and survive your teenage dog (published in 2020), completed her Diploma in Canine Behaviour Science and Technology at the Companion Animal Sciences Institute in Canada (http://casinstitute.com).
Barbara has been running her dog training business Goodog (www.goodog.com.au) on the Northern Beaches Sydney for over 14 years specialising in teenage dogs, offering classes and in home consultations for young dogs as well as workshops for typical teenage challenges such as recall and loose leash walking.
She has been involved in dog training for the last 20 years and has completed her Certificate IV in Companion Animal Services with the Delta Society in 2007 and is a professional member of the Delta Institute.
Barbara competes in the dog sport of Agility and Rally O with Shellbe (a German short-haired pointer) on Master level. Chillax, one of Shellbe’s puppies, competes in Rally O and got his Rally Novice title in October 2019. He is just starting out in Agility.
Barbara holds a Master’s Degree in Modern European History and Economics from the University of Berne (Switzerland) and a MBA (Master of Business Administration) from Southern Cross University Australia. In addition, Barbara has in-depth experience in adult education and training, having taught high school and university students in Berne, college students in Sydney, as well as middle and top management employees of a large public corporation in Switzerland.
 Asher, L., England, G., Sommerville, R. & Harvey, N. (2020). Teenage dogs? Evidence for adolescent-phase conflict behaviour and an association between attachment to humans and pubertal timing in the domestic dog, The Royal Society, Vol. 16, Issue. 5, pp. 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2020.0097
We hear a lot about dog socialisation, and it really is essential. So why is it important to socialise puppies and dog? 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 on holidays. Having fun and a fulfilling time with their humans. Socialisation is more than just interaction with other dogs, it is the interaction with new environments, sounds and experiences.
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. Depending on the age of the dog, there can be different reasons so socialise your dog, see below.
Puppies have what we call a finite socialisation period. What they have not seen by the time they are about 16 to 18 weeks old they might find scary. That is why we need to enrol them into a good puppy school as soon as they arrive in your home from 8 weeks and before they are 14 weeks old.
Once they are older than 14 weeks they are too old to socialise successfully and play off-leash with the other puppies in class. You might want to consider one of our classes for older dogs – a Teenage & Rescue Dog Training Course
Older and rescue dogs –Enrol them in structured activities
Enrol them into our dog training Course for Teenage and Rescue Dogs so you get all the help to settle them in, educate and socialise them in the most appropriate way using best practice and science-based methods.
Another great way to meet other dogs and their humans is through taking up a dog sport such as Agility. We offer Casual & Fun Agility classes for beginners. Many dogs really enjoy these activities. They have the added advantage of strengthening the bond between us and our dogs. Dogs and humans who have fun together stay together!
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. Here are my thoughts on the dog park as published in Australian Dog Lover. Initially, your dog should be introduced to other dogs at a puppy pre-school or daycare where interactions are well-managed by qualified trainers and the dogs are set up for success. You should also continue to socialise your dog at a good teenage dog class if they haven’t attended one as yet, or keep going back every year or two (Goodog offers a 50% discount for Teenage Graduates repeating a Teenage Course). Well-run daycare centres with qualified staff can also make a huge difference to the successful socialisation of your dog. Plus find a dog spot both you and your pup enjoys.
Why are we getting dogs when we try to prevent them from doing what dogs normally do more often than not. And why do 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 – yes even a puggles or an oodles. Despite being called designer dogs they are still dogs. And don’t be fooled by the cute name, chances are high that these puppies were bred in a puppy mill environment. This means these dogs come (in addition to normal dog behaviour)with their own set of even more problematic issues.
Labelling normal dog behaviours 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 human who has unrealistic expectations, or got fooled by 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 – dogs mostly think coffee shops are 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 time nor the inclination to make an effort.Play has its purpose and is important for a well balanced dog.Play matters and if someone tells you that play does not, you might want to consider their agenda. Puppy play is not provided in some preschools because the business books too many puppies into the class, or the space is too small, or there is a lack of knowledge of puppy 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. This is why Goodog limits the number of dogs in our courses, we consider the size of the space available versus the number of dogs, all my trainers are qualified and teach my lesson plan and we understand dog body language (yes dogs speak to us in other ways).
I agree that the dog park is fraught with danger and not suitable for every dog too, but most dogs love to have some canine friends. If the dog is not suitable for the dog park, then socialisation can be provided with a group of canine friends they meet on a regular basis, or 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 (plus 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 us, 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, they are good for our health,the neighbours 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 fulfilling life.
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, or behaving 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 question. 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 that we need 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 they want 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 euthanised 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 socialisation and training or the owner was not ready for the work involved in bringing up a well adjusted dog. Or the trainers were not able to normalise 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 realising 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 realising 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 realised 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 socialisation is or how to desensitise 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, or a 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 calm is 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 vocalisation, they escape, 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.
First, 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. Socialisation, like everything else, requires practice. If they are not exposed to new things in a positive way and in 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.
Second, 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 trade dog minding time with neighbours.
Once we have catered to their mental and physical needs we can start teaching behaviours that lead to calm. Such as:
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 them they are a good dog. Do not use treats, do not move towards them. Otherwise they 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.
Also, 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’, but depends on the relationship and connection we have with our dogs. And that is a topic for another blog!
Barbara Hodel – Goodog owner First published by the Pet Professional Guild.