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Archive for August, 2010

It’s me, not the dog

Friday, August 6th, 2010

It’s me, not the dog

Often when I arrive to see a client for the first time, they have done a certain amount of research on dog training already, and have developed this idea that their dog’s problems are entirely the fault of the humans in the family. Although much of the behaviour techniques that I implement are really modifications for the owner, and simply need to be followed by the dog, as owners we cannot entirely blame ourselves (in most cases). Breed traits play a certain role, such as terriers who bark too much, hounds who make fools of themselves and their owners when they see another dog on the street, retrievers who won’t come when they’re called, etc. There is also the obvious fact that we are a different species altogether from our dogs, and a deep understanding of translating our communication to dog language, and vice versa, is ultimately left to professionals like myself, and if you love the work as I do, the art of that translation is perfected over a lifetime.

However, sometimes it is blatantly obvious that we are communicating the wrong things to our dogs, and that yes, our communication skills are resulting in inappropriate, embarrassing or even harmful behaviours. I, and many in my field, could probably write an entire university text on the subject, but after witnessing a miscommunication that resulted in my own dog being bitten at the dog park yesterday, I was spurred to write at least a tidbit on the subject. I often find myself parked on a bench outside of leash free areas watching dogs interact and communicate, and give myself a headache wondering about the lack of communication from the owners of these dogs. In this case, Toby and I were beginning a walk in what I consider a ‘safer’ leash free – a 55 acre section of a provincial park where we can walk in, unclip and walk through field and forest, stopping momentarily while Toby shares sniffs with another dog, I say hello to the owner, and we move along. No groupings of Starbucks hugging owners snickering about the newbie to the group that night, no gang ups of dogs in the corner unattended. Plus a great walk for me and some variety for Toby’s nose as he flies by.

We were about 5 minutes in, and I could see another owner approaching with 2 smaller dogs, terrier mixes of some sort (keep in mind as I tell this story the sound of a 25 pound terrier when he barks – short, sharp and repetitive) and given that it’s a leash free park, we make the assumption that these dogs are safe, socialized and ready to have a quick sniff and romp with Toby. One of the terriers wasn’t really interested and kept to himself, which Toby respectfully acknowledged and didn’t approach him. The second dog stood out in front of his owner with a curious but not threatening stance (even if I’m wrong about the dog’s posturing from a distance, Toby, being a dog, reads the language accurately), and Toby approaches playfully to say hello. At this moment, it becomes apparent that this dog may have been ‘stand-offish’ in the past (as we are about to find out why) and his owner immediately comes in from behind him and literally barks to her dog “no no no no no!!!”, followed by some firm, square shouldered steps forward to stand beside her dog. After this, of no surprise to me, the dog became aggressive and jumped up to bite Toby in the face. Luckily for all of us, Toby’s solid 80 pounds realized this would be an unfair fight and he just ran the other way.

LESSONS TO BE LEARNED:

1. Do NOT take your dog to a leash free park if you think/know he is aggressive. It’s going to worsen the problem, it’s going to be harmful to other users of the park, and it is to the detriment of the park and the breed that dog represents. Leashing your aggressive dog in a leash free is not the answer either; often aggression is worsened when the dog is restrained, and it is extremely likely that an unleashed dog will still approach your leashed dog, and a fight ensues with you attached to it.
2. Watch your mouth! In this particular case, it was clear that the owner actually told her dog to respond aggressively. Her dog translated her words and actions into canine communication – “no no no no no” repeated in a short and sharp manner (as a terrier does when he barks) and the upright, stiff motion forward to align with her dog said unequivocally “Fight”! In the seconds that preceded this, it was impossible to know if this dog would have sniffed mine and moved on, or offered a growl or eye contact that would have told Toby to move along, but he was overridden by his owner and literally instructed to respond in the same way she did.

Your dog is always watching and listening to what you say, which is surprisingly the opposite of what most owners believe of their dogs. How often have you or a friend said “my dog never listens to me”? Either they are listening and you are sending the wrong message, or they stopped listening because the messages you’ve been giving have been misplaced or unclear. I frequently see owners, and even trainers, using force and correction when trying to get a dog to respond more appropriately to a situation, such as children or other dogs. The child or dog approaches, your dog responds with excitement or even an aggressive lunge, and we respond with “No!” and “Bad!” and a firm snap on the leash (which in these cases is often attached to a choke or pinch collar), and to everyone’s surprise, the dog seems to get worse, not better! That’s because in most cases, we haven’t addressed the initial issue, such as is the dog happy and just doesn’t know what to do in these cases? Is he afraid and trying to communicate to the oncoming two or four legged friend that he doesn’t want to interact? Or is he even responding inappropriately because he’s trying to protect you? These questions need to be answered before we begin to bark at and physically restrain our dogs, giving them no option but to increase the veracity with which they react. We are often telling them instead “Here comes another dog, you’re in trouble! Or “lets yell and carry on and get really physical about this!” instead of redirecting or rewarding our dog for behaviours we do want in these instances.

So, while we are trying to improve and change our dog’s behaviour, it’s very important to scrutinize and correct our own behaviour when communicating and listening to our dogs. One of the simplest and most common mistakes I see is an owner whose dog won’t come when called; owner calls dog by name, no reaction. Owner reaches and bends forward in the dogs direction, calls dog by name. Owner gets frustrated and yells dog’s name. Owner turns around, walks inside the house and the dog inevitably comes in. In dog language, here is what we did wrong; we called the dog’s name, he looked at us, but we didn’t tell him to do anything, so he goes back to what he’s doing. We leaned forward in a play bow (watch your dog play with another dog, and note how many times he puts his front paws stretched out with his bum in the air – indicating play to the other dog) and call the dog’s name, but don’t follow with a play activity, so the dog again goes back to what he’s doing, wondering why we think going inside the boring old house would be a good game to play. We yell at the dog, and he wonders why he should come to someone who is clearly going to get even more angry once he arrives. We turn around and walk into the house, the dog sees this as a chance to play chase, his favourite game, and he follows us inside. Had we walked outside, called the dog by name followed by a command he already knows (‘come’ or ‘here’) and associates with positive results, turned our body sideways to him and walked back inside, he will likely follow you the first time. Particularly once he knows how easy this game will be and has repeated it successfully several times (to which you will be so happy with him the game gets even more fun because it ends with affection or a treat).

Get to know your dog, and try to see yourself and your words through his eyes. Try some new techniques, and repeat them a few times until he figures out what the results are for him, and that this time, he doesn’t need to psychoanalyze and second guess what you’re trying to say to him – that now it really does make sense. You’ll have a happier dog, and your relationship will be stronger, less frustrating, less embarrassing and most importantly, less harmful. And really, don’t we all have dogs because we love the relationships we have with them?

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