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Archive for April, 2014

My Dog just doesn’t listen to me!

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

“My dog just doesn’t listen to me” must be the most commonly used phrase in the history of dog ownership. We all go through it – in fact, even I’m going through it right now with my dog, who’s in need of a little spring training catch up. Typically, there are only a few reasons why this is occurring, and I can assure you it has nothing to do with who is alpha (a theory long since debunked by scientific evidence).

First and foremost, dogs will ‘not listen’ because they just don’t know the rules. I usually see this in the form of a dog who’s owner doesn’t necessarily attribute it to the dog not responding to cues, but to the dog just not knowing all on his own what he is and is not allowed to do. For example, the dog who climbs up in the lap of the visiting trainer; obviously, I like dogs, and their close proximity to me doesn’t bother me in the least, nor does their climbing up on me lead me to believe that they have an inherent behaviour problem as a result. But, I always ask the owner if the dog is allowed to do this, and more often than not, the answer is a shrug or hands up in the air in defeat, followed by “I wish he wouldn’t, but he does it anyway”. If you have very few visitors, or if all your visitors love your dog and you’re ok with him climbing up on them, then it’s ok if he climbs up on them. If you have a lot of visitors, some of whom may not like this, or any other reasons why you don’t want your dog climbing up on visitors, that’s ok too. But you need to decide what the rule is, because if you don’t know, how can your dog know? Whenever I consult in situations where the main complaint is general obedience, I always ask the whole family to get together and make a list of rules for the dog, which everyone is expected to follow, and which are clear and final. Dogs are highly intelligent, sentient beings who are certainly capable of understanding complexities in rules, but if we don’t understand those rules ourselves, our dog won’t either, and the end result is frustration on both parts.

The list is also helpful in identifying what your dog’s vocabulary is. Knowing his name and the word ‘no’ isn’t enough to adequately communicate to your dog what you want him to do in the moment. Imagine this scenario: Your name is Suzie, and you are sitting on the couch in your living room quietly reading a book. Your husband Dave walks in and suddenly starts repeating your name, growing in emphasis with each repetition. Eventually you’re going say “What?”, and he simply responds with “No. Suzie, no. Suuuzzziiieee, NO!!! SUZIE!!!”. Unfortunately, you have no idea what he wants, until you start doing things to see if it stops the pestering. Is it the book you’re reading? Is it the expression on your face? Is it the fact you’re in the living room? Finally, Dave blurts out “you’re sitting on my suit jacket and getting it all wrinkled!”. Had he walked in and told you this in the outset, all the confusion and strange interaction, and eventual frustration for both parties could have been solved. The same thing happens to your dog when you are repeating his name, saying no, and so on, without any clear communication as to what exactly he’s doing wrong and what you want him to do about it. So, the next time your dog jumps on the counter to lick the night’s roast beef dinner, you can use words such as “Max, Leave it! Off! Good boy!!”, and he will understand, follow through, and no one will end up frustrated.

On occasion, though, you can say these words to your dog and absolutely nothing happens. One of the reasons for this is that your dog doesn’t know the word to begin with. As a species so heavily reliant on verbal communication, we tend to forget that our dogs don’t speak any English, and cannot immediately understand the meaning of a word that they’ve never been taught before. Imagine someone instructing you over the phone on how to prepare a meal you’ve never made in your life without using a single word in English (assuming your only language is English) – it would impossible. This is how dogs feel when we speak words at them without any prior training on what physical response we expect the dog to perform. Most dogs will begin offering behaviours in hopes that your ever increasing volume and proximity to them will stop if they hit the right movement, and every once in a while they guess right. However, most of the time, they need to be taught the meaning of the word with a more basic, step by step approach (think about how you taught your puppy to lie down for the first time). Once you’ve made your list of words you think your dog knows, test them. Set him up in such a way that you need to use the word, such as Leave it: Stand at the kitchen counter pretending to prepare food while your dog looks on. Accidentally drop an appropriate and small piece of food on the floor (like a piece of cheese or meat) and if your dog approaches it, say Leave it. If he does, have a treat ready and praise him!!! If he doesn’t, it’s possible that he doesn’t understand the words, or that he hasn’t been trained that level of advancement. This doesn’t mean your dog is purposefully disobedient, it just means he doesn’t understand, and that you need to go back to some training basics.

Notice how I said to reward the dog if he Leaves it? This is the final reason why many dogs appear not to listen – because their behaviours have no positive consequences. This is also why many households will say that one spouse can get a response from a dog while the other cannot. I see this most commonly with busy mothers, and this has nothing to do with being the fairer sex, having a higher voice, being smaller, being nicer etc. The dog’s insubordination has to do with the fact that busy Mom normally has her attention in more than one place, and will ask the dog to do something, but before he does it or before she can praise him for doing it, she’s off to break up the fight over the Barbie that the twins are having in the living room. Compare that to the spouse who may not be required to attend to many things at one time within the home, and can give a cue, see it performed, and reward it. In this case, the dog will begin to ignore Mom because there is never a reason to pay attention to her. This is my issue with my own dog, as the spring season is so incredibly busy that when we’re together, if I ask him to do something and he doesn’t do it, I’m rarely following through. Spring training will simply involve taking a couple of extra seconds to ask him to perform a behaviour, waiting to be sure he does it, and then offering a food reward (they are fastest and most effective in his case) immediately, at which point I can go back to my other tasks. Within a few days, I’ll see my regular, responsive Toby back again, and won’t be frustrated with his return to Toby the Terror!

Make a list, check the list with your dog for accuracy in performance, and reinforce the behaviours on the list, and you’ll soon find a much more well behaved dog!

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Eight Things All Dogs Owners Should Know About Dog Ownership!

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

1. Puppy classes are mandatory!
I regularly receive emails from clients who want to do in-home training with their puppy, but I always decline. My professional ethics prohibit me from denying a puppy access to puppy classes, which while they teach the basics of training, aren’t necessarily a learning mecca for you as the owner – they are for the puppy, and his ability to develop normal social skills. Given that I specialize in aggression and anxiety in adolescent and adult dogs, I can assure you that skipping puppy class (even if you’ve raised ten dogs before this one) is one of the biggest mistakes you could make in raising your puppy. They need to learn body language, play styles, and especially bite inhibition, which teaches the puppy how much pressure they can apply with their mouths without causing harm to their counterparts. Learning this with puppy teeth, and with a wide variety of breeds of similar age, is much safer and easier than trying to teach this to an adult dog – particularly with other adult dogs who may respond aggressively if bitten too hard. Despite my strong feelings about nutrition, vaccines, force free training and rescue, if I could only ever shout one piece of advice from the rooftops, it would be “take your puppy to puppy class!”. My personal favourites in the GTA are Dealing with Dogs, Who’s Walking Who, Whatta Pup! and All About Dogs.

2. No is a bad word
Several years ago there was a survey done in the US that revealed that the majority of dogs think their name is “No”! Owning a dog of any age is bound to put you in positions to want to say ‘no’ often, I won’t deny you that! The problem with No is it’s inherent lack of direction – we’re asking a dog to stop…something…and do what instead? Picture this from the dog’s point of view: He’s lifting his body, extending his paws, landing on the counter, reaching his face forward to sniff the apple pie, and “No!” gets yelled across the kitchen by his owner. Now, is the No for being in the kitchen, for putting his paws on the counter, or for sniffing the pie? In our minds, No is for something the dog is about to do – eating the pie. But dogs can’t understand anticipatory commands, or “I know what you’re thinking and don’t you dare do it” commands. They’re also left to figure out what the No is applicable to, and for the most part, can’t figure it out, which is why in twenty minutes, they’re going to sniff that pie again! But if we give our dogs a vocabulary, and a redirection, we are communicating much more effectively with them. If we’ve taught them ‘Leave it’, (meaning “don’t put your mouth on that”), the dog understands that they are not to put their mouth on the pie, followed by “Off” (meaning “take your paws off whatever they are on”), followed by “Go play” (meaning “go get a toy and run around with it” or some version of that), we’ve effectively told our dogs exactly what we want from them, and given them an appropriate activity to do instead, which reinforces the likliehood that they’ll understand and follow through with the previous two cues again in the future if needed, and we’ve given them an activity that is counter-intuitive to jumping on the counter for the pie. This reduces so much frustration for both parties, and most importantly, leaves you with an intact and delicious apple pie!

3. An apple a day keeps the doctor away!
However, the apples in that pie really are good for your dog. They are packed with vitamins and fibre, and gently rub against the teeth when they chew them. Feeding your dog a healthy diet is an integral part of not only a balanced behaviour, but ensuring a long and healthy life. What to feed your dog should be a thoughtful, well researched decision that places more importance on quality of ingredients than cost, within the parameters of what you can afford of course. I say this because of things I’ve heard over the years that simply make me wonder why a person owns a dog if they consider him such a burden, such as this conversation overheard at a big box store: “Well, the Beneful isn’t on sale this week, so the dog will have to go on half rations until it’s on sale again. I’m not paying full price for this!”. Choosing a healthy diet does help to offset other costs of dog ownership, such as veterinary care, but primarily, it keeps the one you love with you longer, and quite frankly, they deserve the best!

4. It won’t just go away on it’s own
Addressing behaviour concerns is important, particularly if they involve dangerous aspects (such as food guarding), or if they consistently result in you being frustrated with your dog, which can damage your relationship with your dog, as well likely increase the number of frustration behaviours on the part of your dog because they just don’t understand what to do to please you. Statements such as: “He’s only a year old, he’ll grow out of chewing electrical cords”, or “She’s still young, she’ll stop biting the kids soon”, or “He’ll get used to the new baby eventually, he’s just jealous right now” can all lead to a dog who develops more serious behavioural issues, who eventually harms himself, or who eventually harms another person. Behaviours such as these do NOT get better without intervention, and the lack of intervention often results in the high percentage of re-homing of dogs between the ages of 1 and 2 years (the teenage phase). When you take on the responsibility of a dog, you take on the responsibility of making him safe, both to himself and his social circle & family, as well as doing all you can do to prevent problem behaviours from beginning or continuing so that you can both leave in harmony together.

5. Financial responsibility
We can do all we can to keep our dogs healthy and safe, but dogs are living beings, and health issues happen. Lots of owners spend tens of thousands of dollars on healthcare for their sick dogs – but most owners just can’t. In many circumstances, surgeries that cost thousands can’t be done due to the dog’s age, health condition, or the owner’s financial restraints, but these health issues can be managed and the dog made comfortable through medication and other therapies, often at a much more manageable cost. Pet care credit cards are now available, along with a plethora of pet insurance plans. For some, simply putting some money aside in a TFSA account for emergencies is a viable option. In any case, you are obliged by being this dog’s care giver to provide at least enough veterinary support that your dog doesn’t suffer, and however you spin it, that costs money. In unfortunate circumstances, some owners are forced to surrender their dogs to rescue in order to provide the care needed, and while it can be heartbreaking to give up your dog under duress, it can be the kindest thing you can do for your dog. Being prepared for such events is a consideration that must be made before buying or adopting a dog, and financial consideration is as important as knowing you can provide a roof over a dog’s head, have the time to train and exercise him, and be able to give him a safe and loving environment. It can be hard to hear, but being able to meet a minimum of care is an absolute requirement in dog ownership.

6. Keep him safe!
Acknowledging the safety concerns surrounding your dog is crucial; whether that’s keeping chocolate, medications, and other dangerous substances in high cupboards, or putting a seatbelt on him when he’s in a vehicle, dogs are like children in that they cannot make these decisions to keep themselves safe from harm, and they depend on us to be able to do this for them! Just yesterday, we walked through town with Toby, and passed a Beagle on the sidewalk. Just as we were passing, the Beagle, on a retractable leash, lunged out at Toby (who was continuing to walk past the dog), through my husband’s legs, growling and snapping and stopping just short of Toby’s legs. Thankfully, both Toby and I are experienced and capable of diffusing the situation quickly, but what if we hadn’t been? What if Toby was also reactive, and simply coming along well with training so long as he didn’t have to confront another dog? And now my 85lb dog is run up on by a clearly reactive little Beagle? This could quickly have gone very badly, and unfortunately, the Beagle’s owner did nothing to prevent or resolve the situation. What about the woman I witnessed running on the road last fall, going with traffic along a one way street at rush hour, with headphones on, texting on her phone, while her dog ran several feet from her on a retractable leash on the inside of the road, nearest traffic? He could easily have darted too much to the inside of the road, not seen the traffic coming behind him (and passing very close to him) and been hit by a car – all because his owner didn’t take into account any safety precautions on his behalf. Would it have been the dog’s fault if he’d been hit by a car? Or the person holding the ‘leash’? Taking responsibility for your dog’s safety is a matter of life or death, no matter how neurotic it may make you seem. People often comment to us in our building’s elevator about why we make Toby sit the whole time and not wiggle his way around the elevator saying hi to everyone – well, if you’ve seen the viral video about the dog who gets hung up on his leash when it gets caught in the elevator door, you’d know why. It’s because it keeps my dog safe, it keeps the old lady who gets on and doesn’t want to be jumped on, or the businessman who doesn’t want dog hair on his suit, safe and happy and tolerant of their canine neighbour. That’s my job, and I can’t expect my dog to do it when he doesn’t understand the dangers.

7. Give him things to do!
Boredom is probably the number one cause of annoyance or demand behaviours that I see. Dogs who dig, bark, pace, destroy things, never settle down, steal things, eat things – the list goes on – are normally just really bored! Dogs are sentient beings, and they are thinking, feeling, intelligent animals capable of detecting cancer in a single sniff, finding lost children in hundreds of miles of dense woods, telling a person when they are about to have a seizure, and helping a physically challenged person get through their day to day life. Yet many of our pet dogs spend months, if not years, never getting to really use their brains. Consider it this way; in an average day, a human gets to go to work, play a video game, watch tv, read a book, talk with friends, learn about a new subject, and make choices about when and how to do all of these things. Your dog gets to wait all day at home for you with nothing to do but watch out the window (“why does he bark at everything that goes by?”), has had the same toys since he was a puppy and now he’s 7 years old (“why is he chewing/eating/destroying my stuff when he has his own toys”), might get to go for a 30 minute leash walk around the same route he’s done for 7 years now (“why he is always sniffing every pole/pulling towards every dog/barking at everything?”), and then maybe lie down next to you and hope you decide to play with him (“why is he always pacing/barking at me/pawing at me/bringing me dead things?”), and for the lucky dogs, every couple of weeks they get to go to a leash free or a cottage and actually run/sniff/play like a dog. But where, in all of this, are they thinking? Where are they doing something new and interesting? Where are they learning, and entertaining themselves? If we don’t provide such enrichment for them, they seek it out themselves – and believe me, it’s rare that my goofy silly Boxer makes a mature decision about what to do to occupy his time! It’s my job to enrich his life, so we play games everyday, he gets a ton of work to release toys (like Kongs), he gets all kinds of different walks, both on and off leash, and I try to teach him a silly new trick each week, or at least put him through his known cues everyday for fun. I give him things to enrich his life so that he doesn’t have to find ways himself. In turn, he’s not inventing things to do on his own!

8. 2 pounds or 200 pounds – train your dog!
There is an age-old, rarely mentioned tension between big dog owners and small dog owners, which primarily stems from frustration by big dog owners that all have to manage the assumption that big dogs are inherently dangerous, and towards small dog owners that they don’t train their dogs – they just pick them up. The contention is that if a big dog behaved the way a small dog did, the assumptions about big dogs being dangerous would be true – we can’t just pick them up if they barking/lunging/growling, and we can’t just get a Barbie Band-Aid if they bite someone. In either sense, dogs need to be trained so that they can be safe, friendly, and mascots for their breed. Unfortunately for the small dog camp, picking up your dogs is a common ‘intervention’ when your dog is misbehaving, but it solves nothing. Unfortunately for the big dog camp, using aversive tools like prong collars or alpha theory simply moves to control the dog physically, but does nothing to change his behaviour in the future. In both cases, training is what creates a well-behaved dog, not just management, and it is incumbent upon all dog owners to train their dogs to be happy in social environments, to have manners, and to respond to the vocabulary we’ve given them. 2 pounds or 200 pounds, dogs are dogs, and they learn and think and feel the same ways, and are deserving of the same commitment to training.

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