In the last year, I have faced two perspective-transformations. First, I needed to realize that my older dog and I would both be happier if I stopped taking her with me on "adventures" because I assumed that she would be happiest if she was with me all of the time. In reality, she is happiest when we go for a short walk and she can sniff all of the things, and her hips don't get sore from over-exertion. Next, I needed to consider that my younger dog would not be able to "live her best life" if I focussed on her recall issues - what I needed was to focus on her recall solutions. While very different in nature, these experiences made me realize the importance that our expectations for what life with our dogs should look like gets in the way of how to achieve that life.
When we get a dog, we have an idea of what we want from that dog. The cost, time and commitment that they require are all in exchange for companionship, protection, a means to a healthier lifestyle, et cetera. With my first dog, I endowed her with the responsibility of being my companion and social aid while travelling and exploring the USA and Canada. What I soon learned, and what all prospective dog owners should consider before getting a dog, was that her breed traits, history and physical limitations would not support that kind of lifestyle. It was time to shift my perspective. While I had thought that vagrancy and exposure would be the perfect life for a girl and her dog, it turned out that the life we needed to aim for was one of consistency.
"My dog is a jerk, he bullies other dogs and plays aggressively" is something that I have both heard and experienced first hand. Dogs who weren't thoroughly socialized, combined with breed traits and training methods used by their handlers, can become inappropriate greeters or players and - depending on how this is handled - can become aggressive to other dogs. "My dog is a jerk" however, is not a perspective that is going to solve the embarassment you might feel at the dog park, the fear that other dog owners may feel, or your dog's insecurities around other dogs. Insecurities? You might ask. Here's the first perspective shift: instead of labelling the behaviour you are seeing (anthropomorphizing it, too), consider the reasoning behind the behaviour. It's probably a mystery to you - if only your dog could talk! Well, your dog probably has been talking to you since he was a little puppy, you just didn't know how to listen. Just like people, a lot of the time, over-aroused behaviour characterized by stiff body, raised hackles, high flagging tail, etc, can often be labelled as "aggressive" but come from a place of insecurity, fear or pain.
"My dog is terrible on leash, he just sits and stares at things and won't come, I practically have to drag him home". This is one of many problems that people who have not taken the time to leash-train their dogs come across. As humans, we think it would be intuitive: don't want to be tugged around? Then walk when I walk and don't go further than your 6-foot allowance! For dogs, though, who operate on reinforcement-based learning a lot of the time, that smell at the fire hydrant, dog across the street, or even just walking at a certain pace, is way more reinforcing than the mere sensation of a loose leash. We need to make it more worth their while to hang out near us than to jerk us every which way or sit down and refuse to go home. However, since we are so stuck on the idea that dogs need a certain number of minutes of walking per day, we get caught up in walking as far as possible and throw the leash training out the window. Here's the perspective change: instead of thinking your dog needs 2 hours of exercise per day, use that time to engage with them in training them to walk on a loose leash, and then play a tug or recall game in the house to tire them out both physically and mentally.
This is my favourite one - it's short, but it's something I have to remind myself of all. The. Time.
"How come every other dog I see is friendly and well behaved around other dogs?" This is for all you reactive dog owners out there. The answer, and the perspective shift is: you are only seeing the friendly, well-behaved dogs. The other ones are in training programs working up to being well-behaved, or they are avoiding interactions that will get them excited.
We have so many opportunities to judge, blame and criticize our dogs' behaviour. That means that we have the same number of opportunities to shift our perspectives and see potential to improvement or change in their behaviour. A dog that demand barks is a dog that might need more mental stimulation, your aggressive dog could be afraid or in pain, your daily hikes in off-leash areas could be triggering leash reactivity. If you are concerned about your dog's behaviour, if you feel like you have run into a road block or that you have "tried everything" to no avail, I highly recommend talking to a professional in dog training and behaviour.
In my house, crate training is vital to my peace of mind. My younger rescue dog has a destructive tendency, and not only am I keenly aware that the more she is allowed to practice this habit, the more she will be reinforced by it, but I am scared she will get into something that will cause her harm. When I first adopted her, I had another dog in the house who was not friendly with other dogs, so they needed to be separated when unsupervised. In a small apartment, I did this by putting them in their own little homes (crates) when I needed to be out of the house. This ended up working out great because my little rescue dog took to her crate wonderfully! I was lucky this time. However, as I will expand upon, not all dogs are that easy and sometimes you come across unexpected setbacks.
Some dogs never see the inside of a crate, but the more we bring dogs into the city and into our lives as family members, the more we are seeing a need for dogs to have their own safe space, one that they can’t get out of and others can’t get into. Even a dog that never needs to be crated at home and never goes on a plane might end up in a crate at the vet’s office someday. It is one of the many things that all young dogs should be trained to understand and enjoy, as it is also one of the many things that takes them time to fully accept. The sooner you start crate training, the sooner you will have a dog that goes in willingly and happily, but it takes time.
Recently, my dog went from running to her crate every time she heard the food bag or saw a peanut butter kong, to cowering and running away when I asked her to “go to her crate”. I don’t know what brought this on, I can only assume that something scary happened last time she was confined (maybe a loud noise or a crash), but I do know that I basically had to start from square one, after over a year of model crate behaviour. So I am going through the motions, refreshing myself on the ins and outs of crate training!
First, I want you to put yourself in your dog’s shoes. I trust my parents, but if my mom told me to go in the closet, I would probably be suspicious. If she told me to go in the closet, dropped a donut on the ground and shut the door, I might like the donut, but I would still be suspicious. If she did all of the above, and then left me in there with the light off for 10 minutes, I probably wouldn’t go in next time – donut or no donut.
Don’t let your dog’s crate become a dark, boring closet that they dread. It should be more like their bedroom – their space to go relax, eat some food, veg out, take a nap. In order for them to get to a point where they see it like this rather than a cage keeping them from all of the fun stuff they could be doing (like, in my dog’s case, eating ANOTHER pen), follow some simple steps, take it slow and keep your goals humble.
Keep the door open and, if it has a removeable lid, take that off.
Put in a comfy bed and a blanket or cover so it can be washed (no one likes a dirty bed!)
Throw some kibble in the crate, or near it if the dog is leary. If they are already suspicious of the crate, I assume they have had a negative experience with small spaces and you can already expect to increase your timeline.Let the dog go in and out as they please. When in, they get kibble. It’s a great place! When they are comfortable going in and out, upgrade to some peanut butter in a kong, but it must remain in the crate.
When they are comfortable lying in their crate for longer periods of time with no door/lid, introduce those. Do not put the lid on while the dog is lying down, this could scare them. The door opening and closing could also be scary, so employ basic conditioning to make sure your dog is comfortable with the movement of the door.
As long as your dog isn’t bounding out of the crate as soon as you open the door, continue to increase the amount of time the door is closed for.
Throw in absences once your dog can be in the crate with the door closed for more than a minute. Go get a cup of water, come back, go out the front door, come back. It’s no use having a crate trained dog if they develop separation or confinement anxiety.
Take lots of breaks and don’t do this all in one day.
There are lots of reasons why your dog might have a setback or react differently than you would expect. It’s very important to never force or trick your dog into going into the crate. It might be a good bandaid solution for when you are in a hurry, but you can undo all of your training in that one instance. Remember to watch your dog’s body language as you train – are they straining with their back legs out of the crate to try to get that far piece of kibble? Do they lower their head or raise a paw when you go near the crate to begin training? Any signs of discomfort probably mean that you should slow down your progress or take a step back. You can also increase the value of your reinforcer!
I am an advocate for happy, relaxed dogs. Most dogs can be happy and relaxed and in a crate, it just takes time and the right method of training. Without these ingredients, a crate becomes a cage. Keep your dog happy by paying attention to what they are communicating with you and, when in doubt, ask a professional.
My Dog Bites! Help!
Despite knowing that dogs use their mouths to communicate, as weapons of defense and offense, and in play, people are often surprised and disappointed when a dog bites. When I first got my German Shepherd, I was told that the breed is naturally mouthy, and it wasn’t until months later that I learned that there’s a difference between having a “mouthy” dog and letting her leave scratch marks all over my lower legs. Later, when I got my street dog from Mexico, I learned that there’s yet another difference between have a reactive dog and a dog that redirects and bites whatever flesh it comes into contact to (again, my poor legs!). The mouth is a very important part of dog-dog communication, but it doesn’t have to be a part of human-dog communication, especially if we are watching for the signs that predict a dog might end up biting.
There are different classifications of biting. When dogs play with each other, often times we can see a lot of nipping and grabbing. Sometimes, that nipping can turn into one of the dogs being “told off” by another for taking things too far or not acknowledging that the other dog didn’t want to play anymore. This mouthing behaviour is always accompanied by a variety of body language and often verbal signals. By paying attention to all of the parts of canine communication, a keen human observer can decode what dogs are “saying” to one another.
We can also see this kind of behaviour when playing with our own dogs. If you don’t typically use toys when wresting or rough-housing with your dog, you might notice that they like to bite and nip when excited, or that they even just bite you for attention. While this is natural and normal for dog-dog relationships, it’s not always appropriate in dog-human relationships. Even if you don’t mind the rough play and the teeth, you can’t easily teach your dog that it’s okay with you but not with your aunt or your neighbour’s children. Since it’s not necessary to involve biting in your play, I would advise to cut it out entirely. This is easily doable as long as it’s consistent. Dogs find biting FUN – I mean, it’s play! So you can do a couple of things to prevent biting:
1) Have a toy handy! Instead of playing with your hand or your body, encourage rough housing with a stuffed animal or a tug toy. Turning this into a game of drop it, wait, take it, makes it even more enriching for your dog! Including a little impulse control and high-low arousal is really good practice for excitable dogs.2) If your dog starts using their mouth, end play immediately. Biting should not equal a good time. The more you reduce this association, the less likely they are to continue using their mouth on you to elicit further play. Some dogs are persistent and will follow you if you get up, so it’s a good idea to have an alternative activity for them to engage in, such as going to their mat or even just going for a walk to get some of that energy out.
3) Know your dog’s over-excitement level and work below it. This means that you can play until they are a little excited, and then switch to a more calm activity or give them something else to do. If you have been paying attention to the arousal level that usually goes along with biting, you should be able to predict when to stop playing.
The great thing about play biting is that it’s totally possible to scale it down or eliminate it completely with the right training regimen. Aggressive biting, on the other hand, is a trickier subject. The word “aggressive” when it comes to dogs is a vague notion due to misuse and mislabelling. For the sake of this article, I would like to consider any bite that is delivered due to a perceived threat or frustration to be “aggressive”. For example, as I stated earlier, my reactive younger dog can become very frustrated on leash if not managed properly, and has turned around and bitten me due to this. Other examples include a dog attacking another dog for coming onto their property or a dog biting someone trying to clip their nails. Some dogs have what we call “bite inhibition”, which means that they are apt at biting without causing injury. My little dog doesn’t have this, so I need to be extra careful when she feels threatened or frustrated.
It is important to note that, while it is always considered a “bite” when a dog puts their mouth on another animal, it is not always an injury. A bite can mangle an arm or it can barely leave saliva, but it is still a bite. While some people might think that a bite that doesn’t cause harm doesn’t count, it is actually really important to take into account the mental scarring of the animal being attacked and the root cause behind the dog doing the attacking, to prevent it from happening again. Dog bites are almost always preventable, and here I will list some of the ways we can ensure that:
1) Some dogs are on leash for a reason. Just because your dog is “friendly” doesn’t mean that all other dogs are. In fact, the best way to turn a friendly dog into an unfriendly one is to allow them to be accosted by an off-leash dog. The on leash dog isn’t able to greet the other dog properly, and can’t exit the situation if they want to, which can trigger the flight, fight or freeze reflex. If you have your dog off-leash, make sure that they are trained to stay away from on leash dogs and have an excellent recall. 2) Advocate for your dog. Not all dogs love strangers coming up to them! And when they tolerate it, they probably won’t be stoked to get a pat on the head. I would love to see dog etiquette become more in the favor of the dog, where they are the ones in charge of who they meet. Let the dog come to you!
3) Have an excellent recall. Especially around other dogs. If you are planning to let your dog off-leash, use as many opportunities as you can to perfect that recall. Dog play can turn into a dog fight in two seconds or less. If you can read the body language of the dogs and get your dog back to you before anything happens, you’re saving everybody and yourself a lot of trouble. Not to mention, there are some strange people on the trails – one time I ran into a man who wanted to karate chop and kick at any dog that came near him! I was terrified one of my off leash dogs would feel (appropriately) threatened by him and potentially bite him, and I felt so relieved that their recall was good enough to get them out of the situation.
4) READ THE SIGNS. Dogs will let you know if they are uncomfortable! Ignore or punish the signs and you will end up with a biting dog. Many of the stories we hear about children getting bit by dogs end up being those stories because nobody listened when the dog said no. Signs that tell you when a dog is uncomfortable and wants space: lip licking, side-eye, turning their head away, yawning. Signs that a dog needs space NOW: teeth baring, growling. Please listen to your dog and don’t take their tolerance for granted.
5) Buy a muzzle. While this won’t deal with the behavioural issue itself, it will prevent any harm until you feel that you have the behaviour under control. It is really vital that muzzle-users condition their dog to like the muzzle, or else you’ll have an even more frustrated dog. This needs to be done slowly and very positively, but is worthwhile!
What I want you to take away from this is that biting is normal. Dogs fight. Dogs play. Dogs need their mouths to communicate. But also – biting is preventable. Paying attention to the rest of your dog’s body and watching for signs of stress and excitement are key to making sure that you can remove them from a situation before they start using their mouths inappropriately. Using environmental management and instilling trust and a good working relationship between you and your dog is vital to preventing harm to other animals or even to them. And when in doubt, purchase a muzzle.
Do you know how to gain your dog's trust? Like humans, some dogs come with baggage, some dogs are sensitive, and some dogs don't show how they feel. All dogs, though, are capable of trusting, it's just a matter of how much you are willing to respect their boundaries.
Imagine you have a friend who listens to you, encourages vulnerability, and then uses the things you have told them as ammunition against your character whenever they are given the chance. After this happens a few times, you are probably not going to trust them with your confidence anymore. They never set out to lose your trust and probably don't know why you never talk to them anymore, but a fundamental behavioural contingency is at play here. You acted in a way that you consider "vulnerable" and they responded in a way that made you feel "not good". Result: trust lost.
We do this with our dogs all of the time, and it goes beyond luring them towards us only to throw a towel over their head or calling them inside only to shut the door behind them and ignore them. We should always be careful not to take advantage of our dogs' trust in situations like these, because we stand to lose it. These simple behavior contingencies are common and obvious - dog does what you would like it to do, and you should respond in a way that is reinforcing to your dog (best example being to give them a cookie saying "good dog!"). Of course, there are other ways to maintain this behavior, but we will discuss that in another topic heading.
The more subtle ways that we chip away at our dogs' trust happen when we aren't paying attention to their boundaries, thresholds, body language and preferences. Dog act according to what will be the most reinforcing and the least aversive - this might mean sleeping on the couch instead of in bed with you because you kick in your sleep. If you start paying attention to what your dog wants rather than making assumptions based on what you think is best for them, your bond with your dog will become deeper and more meaningful. That doesn't mean that they will be more likely to sit when you say sit, you still have to teach that. Trust is a relationship fundamental that most trainers don't talk about and most dogs don't demand.
I want you to start paying attention to what your dog wants, and why. If they cower when you bring the harness out, ask yourself what is causing this behaviour and work to change what you're doing or not doing. Start asking them where they want to be pet instead of pushing them over to their side to rub their belly without permission. You will start to learn your dog's preferences and they will start to learn that you are there for them, beyond being a treat dispenser and class-A cuddler.
I will give you an example. My dogs got in a fight the other day, resulting in my younger one being very timid around my older one. She was hesitant to enter a room that Sasha was already occupying and wouldn't go close to the food bag during meal time. Instead of coaxing her, telling her it was okay and that sasha wouldn't do anything ("COME Pancha, come on you'r FINE. Oh my...okay Pancha come on let's go! Ughhh fine I'll come get you"), I would help her. If she came downstairs, saw that Sasha was in the living room with me, she would choose to either go the other way, or ask me for help. "Asking for help" was simply looking at the living room and me. So, I would get up and go to her, making a safe space for her to enter the room. If she wanted to go the other way, though, I would not force her to do otherwise. Anyways, I thought, who was I to know whether or not Sasha looked comfortable with Pancha entering? A repeat of the other day's incident would cause a bigger rift between them. Without pushing her boundaries or imposing my goals onto her, eventually Pancha became comfortable moving freely about the house again.
What if you need your dog to do something, and they just don't want to do it? Sasha, my German Shepherd, doesn't resource guard. However, when I give her a nice big frozen marrow bone, I know that she won't be happy with the concept of losing the bone to me. Instead of taking advantage of knowing that she won't growl or snap at me when I take her bone away, I am prepared to make her a trade. After all, if I simply take the bone or call her away from it only to snatch it up, I could be stirring up a recipe for future resource guarding. If not that, then I am almost definitely shaking her trust in me. Next time I approach her she might respond with a whale eye and a lowered head, unsure of me. No, I will go to her, call her to me and offer her a treat. Without being sneaky, I will pick her bone up off of the ground and call her a very good dog for letting me take it away. It is a very good thing when she loses her bone, she gets treats and a fun human and the bone goes away until next time. Protocol when you are dealing with resource guarding is very different, and will be discussed in another blog.
This week, work on listening to your dog and responding appropriately. Life with a dog doesn't have to be about barking commands at one another, trying to get your way. Always set yourselves up for success, whether you are planning training sessions or you are just trying to live harmoniously with your canine companion.