Sunday, August 28, 2011

Say What?

During a hotel stay last week, I ran into a very friendly employee who unfortunately spoke very little English. When she tried to talk to me, it made for a very brief but awkward exchange. She would say something that I didn't understand at all and I would look dumbfounded. She would repeat it and still I had no idea what she was talking about. It quickly became evident to me that I had no hope of figuring out what she was trying to communicate so I retreated into "smile and nod" mode. Dogs have to do this all the time! For them it's usually more of a "wag tail and walk away" situation, but it's the same concept.

 One of the most common reasons that your dog doesn't listen to you is that you aren't clear in what you are asking for. Your inconsistent body language, hand gestures and verbal tones all mix together into this fumbling mess that leaves your dog too frustrated to bother trying anymore. If he can't understand the words that are coming out of your mouth (yes, Rush Hour moment...) and he has no idea why your hands and arms are flailing about so ridiculously, he's going to move on to better things. And by "better things" I mean the patch of grass three inches left of your right shoe. Sniffing grass makes more sense than you do in this situation. Fido understands grass.

This example repeats itself on a loop during training classes. I believe part of this is because during a group class, it is easy to feel like you're "on the spot" and it only adds a little anxiety to the unclear communication that was already taking place. It usually manifests itself like this:

  • Dog Parent asks Fido to sit; something he has performed perfectly at home all week.
  • Fido is confused because he is not at home, he is in training class, and when at home, putting his butt on the floor was the thing he did in the living room when Dog Parent sat in the recliner to watch TV. with a bowl of chips (which would conveniently come his way if he had his rear planted). He never actually paid attention to the verbal command for "sit" because Dog Parent talks gibberish all the time and it didn't seem anymore important than anything else that Dog Parent rants about.
  • Embarrassed Dog Parent asks for "sit" again. Repeatedly. Over and over, all the while becoming more and more frustrated.
  • Fido's ears go back, he looks around, sniffs the ground and finally sits because there is nothing better to do while attached to the leash and the frustrated Dog Parent on the other end of it.
  • Dog Parent says, "Hallelujah!" and then goes on about how the dog does what he wants when he wants because he's stubborn.
  • Fido has learned nothing, because Dog Parent assumed that he knew what was being asked the entire time and only chose to wait until the end to perform the task. Therefore, no reward was given for the accidental sit and no clear signal was ever established.
A frustrated person is sometimes quick to conclude that the dog is being rebellious but this is not the case. Yes, there are definitely situations when a dog does know what is being asked but still doesn't perform. However, this is usually because the bar has been raised too high too soon. If the dog is faced with too many distractions too early in his training, it is likely that he won't respond to your cues appropriately. Under those circumstances, it's just a matter of "training up" to your dog being able to handle more distracting environments by starting small and gradually increasing difficulty (while using higher value treats/rewards). But if you're in a place that your dog is pretty familiar with and he's not responding (especially if you're teaching something brand new) you should first consider what types of signals you're throwing out.

Use hand signals. Dogs are very adept at watching us for physical cues, so this can work with us or against us. Stand up straight and confidently and deliver your hand signal clearly. Always use the same signal with the same command/cue and make sure the signal for one behavior isn't too similar to the signal for another. A fairly exaggerated motion can help. For example, the hand signal for "sit" usually starts with your palm down, then flipping it up as you lift your hand. Yes, that is much easier to show than it is to explain in words. That's probably how your dog feels about it too!

Consider whether or not your dog even knows the command. You may have to go back and "retrain" to improve consistency. If you're training something new, make sure that he's repeated the correct behavior multiple times before you even add a verbal cue or hand signal! If your dog doesn't know how to sit yet then he has absolutely no idea what "sit" means and until he does understand, it's just another sound that could confuse him. Use a treat to lure him into the proper position then immediately mark the correct behavior with a click, the word "Yes!" and a treat. Once he's performed this correctly several times you can add the verbal cue and a hand signal so that he associates them with the behavior that you desire.

Refrain from physical force. We naturally want to push the dog into position, scold the dog, or jerk the leash to punish him for his refusal to perform. These are just more forms of unclear, unfair communication. If he didn't understand what you wanted to begin with then he doesn't even know why you're punishing him. If he did understand but was too distracted to perform, then you're either going to end up with a dog that waits for these extreme reactions to perform the behavior in the future, or one that never really learns to behave at all during distracting situations. Those reactions might become part of the cue. A well trained dog is not one who requires a leash jerk or an evil tone of voice to pay attention to you. He offers his attention because in the past, it has been rewarding and because he can clearly understand you.

Dogs usually love their positive reinforcement trainers and that's one of the perks of the job. Dog Parents often wonder why a dog is listening to me but won't listen to them. It is simple. I am clear in my communication, patient when they aren't quite getting it yet, and rewarding when they do get it right. Interacting with me is pretty easy. Can you say the same for yourself? Your dog doesn't have it out for you, he just needs to be trained. Real training involves communication. There are no magic tricks or secret weapons involved. Real training is not browbeating a dog into submission because you're afraid he's trying to rule the world. It is about learning how to "speak" to him on the appropriate level.

None of this is to say that dogs are not intelligent creatures or that they can't pick up on our everyday words. It is no secret that they are very smart. When you grab the leash, your dog probably knows that it's time for a walk. He certainly knows what the food dish is for and that the door bell means visitors. All of these things involve a very clear signal (leash, food dish, sound of the bell) and a very clear reward (walk, food!!, visitors). Those scenarios really sum up how a dog thinks and should be considered any time you are training with or interacting with your pet. Be an educated dog parent and you will create an educated dog.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Lesson in Giving!

Our nation's shelters need our help and what a simple way to do it!

Pedigree is donating 20 pounds of dog food to shelter dogs for each blog post that spreads the word. I can't pass up such an easy way to make a difference in the lives of creatures who deserve it so much! You should share this as well!

Want to help in other ways? Have your pet spayed or neutered! Volunteer your time! Take a donation! So many people cringe at the thought of the local kill shelter and say things such as "I couldn't do that job." Well, our shelter workers don't like to do it either. They don't want to do it. But there are not enough homes for all the animals that need them and far too many people allowing their pets to breed when they shouldn't.
"Shelter dogs aren't broken. They've simply experienced more life than other dogs. If they were human, we would call them wise. They would be the ones with tales to tell and stories to write. The ones dealt a bad hand who responded with courage. Don't pity a shelter dog. Adopt one. And be proud to have their greatness by your side."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Perfect Dog

Many people have a favorite breed of dog or a few that they find intriguing. Maybe it's a type that you grew up with or just one that you think simply looks amazing. With so many different breeds (and extremely unique mutts!) the choices are endless. A lot of different things can influence our decision on which dog to bring into our home but one thing is for certain: you never know exactly what you're going to end up with! How do you ensure that you're choosing a dog who will fit in? How do you prevent future problems that could threaten your ability to keep the dog that you've already chosen? Most of what I try to teach through this blog will help with all of that, but today I do want to focus specifically on making good choices as well as learning to live with (and enjoy!) the choices you've already made.While dogs do not live nearly long enough, they are a pretty hefty commitment. Part of enjoying the experience is taking the time to learn everything you can so that you can continue to gain an understanding of why dogs do some of the crazy things that they do. Here are some important things to keep in mind in case you are looking to bring home a new dog (or need some tips for one you've already acquired).

Smaller dogs aren't always less energetic/easier!
If you're a renter like myself, it will probably serve you better to choose a small breed or breed mix simply because landlords heavily favor them in many areas. However, just because a dog is ten pounds doesn't mean it is going to require fewer walks or less exercise than one that is eighty pounds. In some cases, this can be quite the opposite! For instance, a terrier breed is probably going to require more physical and mental stimulation than a giant breed such as a mastiff. The mastiff would take up more space, of course, but the tenacious terrier is almost hard-wired to get into things because it was generally bred to hunt vermin. That tenacity and zest for life means that the terrier will usually want to spend less time vegging out on the couch than a much larger breed. Without proper stimulation, any dog can become destructive or noisy regardless of size, but this is even more true when you have a breed (or individual) of the "always on the go" variety. So, if your heart is set on a larger dog (I tend to favor them myself, so I understand) and you can find a landlord who has the sense to know that size does not dictate level of destruction , go for it. A good breed to consider in such a situation might be a rescue greyhound. These dogs tend to only require the usual walks and a good short run to keep them happy each day. However, they are not built to handle stairs so keep this in consideration if you are interested in the breed and do plenty of research!

TV dogs are well-trained and well-edited!
Behind every Lassie is a slew of other Lassies, ready to fill in when needed; sometimes because one is better or more reliable at performing a particular task than another. And behind all of those Lassies is a film crew, a director, a trainer, etc. Every dog you see on television, whether the content of the show is meant to be fact or fiction, has been trained and/or edited so that it can be portrayed a certain way in a certain amount of minutes for your viewing pleasure. This can lead to a very distorted perception of dogs from any number of breeds, backgrounds, or training programs. What you see on TV is almost never what you get. That said, a collie might be a fantastic choice for you. I am very fond of the herding group of dogs in general (those bred to herd livestock) and they are often very easy to train for people who take the time to train them properly. However, herding breeds do need quite a bit of physical stimulation and, even more importantly, plenty of mental stimulation. Your collie isn't likely to sit out in the yard patiently waiting for someone to fall into a well so that she can spring into action. If left to her own devices, she may sooner find more destructive ways to entertain herself.

Are we training for obedience or a triathlon?
People with active lifestyles who want a jogging buddy are often drawn to breeds with higher energy and greater stamina, such as dalmations, huskies, or border collies. This is generally a very good idea and can mean a great match. On the other hand, there are a few ways in which this can go very wrong. Focusing purely on a dog's physical needs can lead to the creation of a very athletic and unruly dog. When you take an athlete and continuously up his workout, you create an even better athlete with even more energy and stamina. This is fine if you're able to keep up, but if you end up allowing your dog to become accustomed to an exercise routine that you can't sustain, everyone eventually loses out. If you're seeking an active breed as a hiking or jogging buddy, make sure to focus on a consistent routine involving both physical and mental stimulation. The last thing that you want is a super athletic dog with absolutely no house manners. Besides, you're going to need something to do on those days when the weather isn't allowing the usual outdoor activities. You might be surprised at just how tired a dog can get after even a short training session.

Be willing to work...
No matter what type of dog you choose, you're going to run into some facets of its personality that you never saw coming. Maybe your situation will be more like mine with fate ultimately deciding what dogs come into your life? Maybe you already have your heart set on a specific type of dog? If you're interested in a particular breed, try to meet as many of them as you can and connect with current owners of the breed. Seek out responsible pet owners who are active in their dog's training and who treat him/her as a member of the family.

If you're looking at rescuing a dog you may have a great advantage in that you can often learn a lot about an individual dog from its caretakers. As I've mentioned here before, it can be a great idea to consult with a rescue that has a foster program. You will be able to communicate with someone who knows how a particular dog behaves in a typical home environment.

Define "perfect."
The perfect dog is the one that you take into your family, embrace, train, and love. It comes from an educated and patient human being who understands that dogs are individuals and have complex needs. It doesn't have to be pure-bred and certainly doesn't need to act like a robot. Dogs have distinct personalities, quirks, and sometimes faults that make them who they are. While we don't have the luxury of editing a real canine we do get to have them complete with blooper reels and outtakes. Personally, those are usually my favorite parts! :)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"I just want my dog to stop pulling..."

When it comes to teaching your dog not to pull on the leash I have heard it all and you probably have too. "Be a tree!!" they say. "Don't let them walk in front of you!!" they say. "Get a choke chain/prong collar!!" they say. You know what I say? Let's step back and examine this issue from the inside out to learn why it's such a huge problem. Then we can choose what action to take next. This is probably going to get long and I apologize for that, but most articles settle for glossing over what I find to be a very complex and common problem. Just as I tell my students in class, I want you to come away from this with a true understanding of how it works (or why it doesn't).

First and foremost, why do dogs pull? Well, generally it's because they want to get to something (or somewhere or someone) and they want to do so quickly. Another way to look at it is that they aren't so much pulling as they are heading toward something interesting and then being held back by the leash. During most of a dog's day he can simply walk or run to where he wants to go. Now, just when he wants to go forward the most (because it's gotten more interesting), he's got what feels like a ton of bricks dragging behind him.That sensation of being held back only encourages him to pull forward even harder and the result is a very sore set of muscles for the human on the other end of the leash. What's worse, is that any time a pulling dog is allowed to move forward, he is also being reinforced to continue doing just that. Our challenge is to end this cycle.

But before we do that, we have to take into account that your typical dog walk is a veritable dog training gauntlet due to the infinite amount of possible distractions and situations you may run into. These variables make an average walk a true test of how far your dog has come with his/her training. Here is a short list of Dog Walk Variables that can quickly throw a monkey wrench into any evening stroll:

  • Other dogs
  • Small animals (cats, birds, "SQUIRREL!!")
  • Other people (especially children)
  • New/strange sounds
  • Food/trash on the ground
  • Any patch of grass or ground where another dog/animal has been
  • Pretty much everything if you're in a park or brand new place
Expecting your dog to stop pulling on the leash is a lot more involved than it sounds. You are also expecting him to exhibit an extremely high level of self control around the things that interest him most. This is not a simple cue such as "sit" and will take much longer to train. It is important to remain realistic, otherwise the frustration will quickly lead to giving up all together. Here are some critical points to get you on the right track to having a pleasant walk:

Know what you actually want out of your dog.
Loose leash walking (LLW) does not require that your dog walk strictly beside you. That type of walking is called "heeling." Considering how difficult it can be just to achieve a dog who doesn't pull, it's usually best to focus on heeling once your dog has mastered loose leash walking*.

It is also unnecessary to prevent your dog from walking in front of you. This outdated suggestion is based on the myth that the leader of a wolf pack stays in the front. That idea has been proven both untrue and ridiculous (walking in line behind each other is not really conducive to hunting, playing, or generally being a wolf). Allowing your dog in front of you is perfectly fine and does not adversely affect your relationship with him/her. Wasting time trying to keep your dog behind you will make it much more difficult to train her to walk nicely on a leash.

*I do strongly encourage you to reward your dog any time that she steps into the "heel" position beside you even on accident. This will make heel training much easier later on.

Be the most interesting thing to your dog during a walk. You have to become a contender against the sights, the smells, and the squirrels. (Focusing on being a good "leader" is not going to work. Generally, even in a pack a dog doesn't get reprimanded for sniffing a patch of grass.) It won't happen in one day (especially since you've probably been a mere afterthought to your dog for quite some time now when it comes to being on a walk together) but it will happen if you put forth some effort. Reserve the tastiest of treats and the best of moods for your walk. Keep it upbeat and happy at all times!

Mark all desirable behavior. If you aren't familiar with using a marker such as a clicker or the word "yes" then definitely do some research. The short explanation is that a marker tells your dog when he/she has done something that you like. Markers send a very clear signal to the dog that we like the behavior and that it will result in a reward. When you pair a marker with a treat (by clicking or saying "yes!!" then immediately treating the dog) you create that association. It is critical that you mark a desired behavior the instant it happens and then immediately follow that up with a treat. Frequently mark eye contact/focus and walking beside you any time your dog performs these behaviors naturally. This will encourage her to perform them more often until it just becomes routine. Never use your marker word ("Yes!") or the sound of the clicker without a treat. These are powerful forms of communication and you don't want to render them useless.

Allow for some exploration. Treats aren't the only reward that you can offer your dog. If he really wants to go sniff something and you can first get his attention and slack in the leash, tell him "Go sniff!" and let him do so for a little bit. This should be a fun walk for both of you, not military training. Life rewards such a sniffing or a quick play session with a friendly dog that you encounter can show your dog that listening to you doesn't mean he can't actually be a dog anymore. And keeping this in mind will help keep things in perspective for you. Let go of all those training myths and pay attention to how dog brains really work.

When you feel tension on the leash, stop and get your dog's attention. Don't overdo this one. This is what many trainers will call "be a tree!" and involves immediately stopping as soon as you feel your dog pulling on the leash. After calling his name, regaining his attention, and treating him, you can move forward. Lather, rinse, repeat. It is not a bad technique but if you spend too much time standing in one place without getting any focus from your dog it means that there are enough interesting sights, smells, and/or sounds (remember all those variables?) around for him to not really care that you're not moving forward anymore. If he's able to amuse himself even while you're busy being a tree, this technique won't be very effective. This is especially common with smaller dogs, who take up so little space that even while standing still, have a lot left to sniff at. My suggestion is that if you can't regain your dog's attention after just a couple of seconds, tell him "Let's go!" and enthusiastically change direction. Use a higher tone of voice and quicker rhythm in your speech to pique your dog's interest in you. If he changes direction with you (and especially if he does so with eye contact) mark and treat the behavior! If he doesn't immediately walk with you, just keep moving. Do not pop or jerk the leash! We don't want leash jerks to be the cue for a nice relaxed walk. If listening to you becomes associated with unpleasant hostility you might create a much larger problem in the long run (such as leash reactivity, general insecurity, and much longer training time for new behaviors in the future). The purpose of continuing your movement forward is to teach your dog that after you say "Let's go!" you're definitely going to go. Too many people spend way too much time standing there repeating their dog's name as he nonchalantly sniffs a patch of grass or fire hydrant. Doing so is only teaching your dog to ignore his name. If he's already sniffing a hydrant then he's already being actively reinforced to ignore the desperate pleas that have become his name. In that situation, it's best to just tell him "Let's go" and walk away. He MUST learn that:
  1. Eye contact and general focus are rewarding! Walking beside the human (while not yet strictly required) is rewarding! NOT pulling on the leash is rewarding!
  2. Pulling on the leash is not rewarding; it just causes that crazy human to turn around and gets annoying.
Don't get overzealous. Practice in your living room, yard, and neighborhood before taking the show on the road. Think about the dog walk variables discussed earlier before planning out your next walk. Take your dog to a place where you feel you will actually be able to achieve some quality practice time. Do everything you can to increase those GOOD practices and decrease the bad, frustrating ones. Dogs learn by repetition so we must take as many variables under control as we can to create situations where the appropriate behaviors are the ones being repeated. If you have to limit your practice walks to one block of your neighborhood in order to get positive results, then so be it. After your dog has mastered that, you can expand the range of your walks.

Use the right tools! During actual practice sessions, your best bet is a flat buckle collar and run-of-the-mill nylon leash. For dogs just learning, it can actually help to use a longer six foot leash as opposed for four feet or shorter. Six feet allows the dog more space for that exploration time discussed earlier and makes it much easier for you to give the dog plenty of opportunity to "get it right." When he's doing really well and provided the area is safe for this, extend your arm to allow for even more room to explore, then excitedly call him back to you and offer a reward.

Try to resist using a retractable leash for these exercises. It is much harder for both you and your dog to determine how much tension is in the leash as these products use tension to operate.

What about choke chains, prong collars, and harnesses? There are probably going to be very distracting places that you really want to take your dog before he is fully trained and that is understandable. In fact, socialization is one of the most critical aspects of having a well-adjusted dog so we must find ways to limit the chances of your dog practicing bad habits in places where it's not so feasible to practice our training. If you're about to take your dog into a situation that you know is far above his training level, then a walking tool can be a very good idea. I do not consider choke chains or prong collars to be effective or safe options. I strongly prefer special harnesses that allow the leash to be clipped to the front (rather than on the back) or even head halters when fitted appropriately. Normal, everyday harnesses that clip on the back do little to nothing to prevent or limit pulling. In my experience, they also provide a higher degree of mobility for the dog which makes it a little tougher for the owner to keep him from zig-zagging all over the place during a walk.

This is a subject that I could go on about even more than I already, but I feel I've covered enough for you to get an understanding of the challenge at hand. What we often perceive as something very simple ("I just want my dog stop pulling on the leash") usually involves very complex training. Most people start addressing the problem with leash jerks and end up settling for one of the training tools that I mentioned. I have wandered down that very same path using those very same tools and techniques and can tell you where it ends. Ultimately, if you want to truly correct this behavior, you have to be willing to take the steps required to communicate clearly, effectively, and fairly.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Are Puppies "Moldable?"

My sweet, innocent, little Pupperface.
Long before they learn to perfect the art of defying physics in your living room, puppies fine-tune their ability to manipulate and swindle the human race. Face it, these four legged beasts with their tiny little needle teeth can be downright evil. But they are also so irresistibly cute!!! Just the thought of a bunch of puppies with their puppy breath (you either love it or hate it) and their roly poly little tummies just makes me want to squeal with happiness. I openly admit that I'm not ever going to be the first person to volunteer to hold your human infant but if you have a puppy around me, I'm on top of it things. In fact, I may have to advocate for a Puppy Room at my work to help reduce the job stress. Who wouldn't benefit from a room with dozens and dozens of puppies ripe for cuddling? Ok, maybe the allergy sufferers wouldn't be quite as thrilled...

And here I am again, brainwashed by the mere thought of puppies! We all know why we like them, but it often takes living with one again to remember why they are actually little evil-doers in disguise. Do you really want a puppy or would something a little less terroristic be a better idea? It really depends on the person, the situation, and of course, the puppy. So, read on to get a general idea of what to think about before you allow the persuasive powers of a puppy to abruptly make up your mind for you. Acquiring a living creature on pure impulse almost never turns out well!

One of the most common reasons that people choose a puppy over an older dog is that they feel a puppy is going to be easier to "mold" into the adult dog that they want. There is some truth to that line of thinking. Puppies go through a lot of developmental changes that you can definitely have major influence over and this can go a very long way to ending up with a well adjusted dog. However, most people do not take many (or any!) of the steps involved in making those positive influences in their puppy's life. Socialization and consistent training are usually the areas where people slack off the most. And by "socialization" I don't mean having your dog occasionally play with the neighbor's dogs or raising your dog around an older dog that you have. Proper socialization involves setting a goal for your dog to meet 100 different new dogs before the first four months of its life. It also involves exposing your dog to as many positive experiences in new places and with new and different types of people as you can. Improper socialization can lead to a dog who becomes fearful or reactive to different types of people, places, or things.

Personally, I prefer my dogs with their spirits left intact.
Another mistake that I see people make when raising their puppies is focusing too much on punishment. This is a quick way to take an otherwise happy-go-lucky, confident animal and turn it into one that is insecure and unwilling to embrace new things. It is much harder to train a dog who has gotten used to getting in trouble when he gets things wrong than it is to train one who has gotten used to being rewarded for getting things right. Focus on what you want and rewarding that and leave the anger and frustration behind when your puppy does something wrong. And for the love of all things holy, don't get so wrapped up trying to be "alpha" that you forget how dogs actually think about things. Fido didn't chew on your shoe because he wants to take over the world, I promise. A good leader (or "alpha," if you are dead set on using that terminology) puts their shoes away and doesn't have to worry about this. Dogs were bred to naturally look to humans for guidance and they will if you are clear in your communication to them (this is not just my opinion, it is a scientific fact). You are their leader from the start and a sure-fire way to ruin this and create an ongoing circle of mis-communication is to start browbeating your dog into your human idea of "submission." That's where aggressive dogs come from; I've been there and it's a sad place where there are not enough happy endings. If you build a trusting relationship and actually take the time to teach your dog how to behave appropriately, he is going to listen to you. No, he's not going to be a robot that is perfectly obedient in all situations (if you want that, you should get a robot), but he will continue to seek YOU for guidance rather than feel like he has to communicate in extreme ways such as snapping or growling. Personally, I prefer my dogs with their spirits intact. They trust me and listen to me. They know that they don't have to bite or be aggressive in order to communicate with me. And in situations when they're being more hard-headed, I have the education and experience to know exactly what's going on. Because of this, I know how to "fix" the problem. There will be more on that particular subject in future blogs, I'm sure.
Puppies can come from fosters too! Obi's foster saved
him from possibly being euthanized due to having one
blind eye. I am thankful to his foster mom and the
friend who led us to her every day!

My point is that yes, you do have a great amount of influence over how a puppy grows up, but you still don't know what exactly what you're going to get at the end of the ordeal, especially if you can't accommodate for what is required to prevent a puppy from developing behavioral issues. Raising a puppy properly involves a lot of time, patience, and education that many people just don't have. The education can be acquired but time and other resources are a little harder to manipulate. And even if all of those things fall into place, your puppy is going to have its own distinct personality that will present its own set of challenges for you. There is no way around that; we call it Nature vs. Nuture.

The alternative is to adopt an adult dog that has already grown into its personality. This is not a perfectly predictable situation either, but if you adopt from a reputable shelter or rescue, you can come out with the deal of a lifetime. When you're looking for something very specific as far as personality goes, I'd suggest finding a dog that is being fostered in someone's home. Foster dog parents take care of the dog as if it was their own until a new permanent family comes along, making space for another foster dog to be taken in. A dog's foster parent is going to have a very good idea about how the dog behaves in a typical home situation.

Another thing to consider is that adult dogs can be trained just as well as puppies. Dogs can learn new "tricks" at any age. Unfortunately, humans are a little tougher to train. Once they get an idea into their head of how things work it can be like pulling teeth to convince them otherwise. If a person comes into one of my classes thinking that their dog wants world domination, it can take the full six weeks or more to convince them that there are real reasons behind potty training problems or reactivity. Meanwhile, in that same amount of time the dog has usually learned half a dozen new behaviors that will help fix her issues if only the owner can just get over his own bad habits and hangups.

So, the answer to the subject of this blog is "Yes and No." You can have a huge impact on the type of dog your puppy becomes, but it just isn't in the cards of ethology for anyone or anything to be the one and only influence over another living creature. Furthermore, unless you become incredibly proactive about educating yourself on training and behavior, there are many ways in which your influence can unfortunately be detrimental to your pet. Communication is absolutely vital whether you have a new puppy or an older dog, and it doesn't happen without a solid understanding of how dogs think. Keep reading, learning, and asking why. As always, comments and questions are welcome. You may leave them here or send a quick email to: Also, don't forget to like the page on Facebook!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Screaming Child in the Grocery Store Syndrome"

We've all been there before. You're trying to get some shopping done when, all of a sudden, the distinct and shrill protests of a human child bring your entire experience to a grinding halt. Some kid in the store wants something and they obviously want that something yesterday. That kid might even belong to you. Either way, it's never a fun situation for anyone involved.

For anyone witnessing this dramatic event unfold, there is often a very common knee-jerk reaction to the tune of, "If that were my child I would give him something to cry about!!" It's natural. That type of thing tends to go right through a person, especially when it comes out of nowhere and we want it to stop right then and there. That is also the reason why many parents eventually give in and offer their child whatever he/she desires. Anything is better than subjecting themselves to the noise and embarrassment of a public tantrum!

Of course, this also means that the child will undoubtedly be repeating that performance next time around, and he'll likely be even quicker to do it. Many people don't stop to think about the fact that the reason the child is screaming and throwing a fit is that in the past, it has worked to his/her advantage.

This is the basis of many bad behaviors in dogs too. (Sorry to step on the toes of human parents who don't want their children compared to dogs, but I did mention in a previous post that this is about the psychology of all things smart... so really it's a compliment, right?)

The tricky part can be identifying the reinforcer when it comes to dogs. What is it that they want? What are you doing to accidentally encourage the bad behavior? If it's attention and you're yelling and screaming or pushing the dog away physically, that could be the problem. Even "negative" attention is better than no attention at all to many dogs. In fact, some dogs end up getting extremely excited/playful when you lose your cool. So, step one is to eliminate whatever is reinforcing your dog to continue the undesirable behavior. If he's a jumper and you usually raise your knee or push him away, put your hands behind you and actively ignore him until all four feet are on the floor. If you've got a dog who barks out of frustration or because he wants attention, make sure you never acknowledge him until he's quiet.

Obi thinks tantrums sound fun!
Another tricky aspect of this problem is that most dogs (or kids!) will exhibit what's known as an "extinction burst" before they finally give up on throwing a tantrum (barking/jumping/whatever it is your dog has learned to do in an attempt to get something he wants). In other words, it can easily get worse right before it gets better. If something has been working for you for quite some time and then suddenly stops, you're going to try extra hard to get it to work again. There are endless examples of this in our every day life so we can't really fault our dogs on this one. If my internet stopped working right now I'm pretty sure I wouldn't just say "oh well" and head for bed. I'd make at least some attempt to check the router and the modem. I'd probably even get pretty angry and frustrated before finally throwing in the towel. It doesn't take much reinforcement for intelligent creatures such as ourselves (and our pets) to repeat a behavior. Be honest. If Facebook crashed you'd probably try to refresh the page at least a few times (and for some of you us, several times a minute) before accepting that it was gone. That is a classic extinction burst.

Just as important as not giving in to bad behavior or tantrums is teaching your dog an acceptable way to get what he'd like to have. If he's jumping for attention, implement a strict "all four on the floor" rule. Actively ignore him unless he has all four feet on the ground. For dogs barking for attention, give tons of it for something that he naturally does quietly such as bringing a toy over to you or even just making eye contact (great for increasing focus as well). My human nephew learned from an early age that kindness and consideration goes a long way with me when we're in a store together. I've always rewarded him for being considerate and polite in those situations and as a result, have never had a problem. 

So, if you have a dog who has found a clever yet obnoxious method to get his way make sure to follow these steps:
  1. Identify what your dog actually wants, keeping in mind that it could be something you, as a human, perceive as undesirable.
  2. Never allow your dog to have the object (or action) of his desire if he is exhibiting undesirable behavior.
  3. Teach your dog an acceptable way to acquire what he wants.
Remember to be consistent and calm and you'll be surprised how quickly these rules can turn things around once you get past the initial extinction burst. Also, make sure everyone else in your household is on the same page so that no one is inadvertently undoing your training.