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Archives for April 2015

Common Pitfalls of Dog Owners/New Trainers

Today, I got an email from Sarah, one of my clients in Agawam. She said she was feeling a little defeated because her reactive dog, Guinness, was still growling at people on walks. A few months back we did a basic lesson package – which is five lessons over a course of two months. Assuming she practiced (which she did), we’re talking 5 hours of professional coaching and maybe 10 hours of self-practice. That’s a total of 15 hours. For a dog that is quite fearful and reactive to strangers, I can’t imagine only 15 hours being enough to turn that around. Have you ever changed a habit in such a short time?

Which brings me to today’s blog subject about the top pitfalls pet owners fall into.

  1. Unrealistic expectations. We are all animals so you should be able to relate to your dog in regards to breaking a habit or building up an alternate coping strategy. Have you ever switched from regular soda to diet? Given up dairy or sugar? Made a commitment to exercise daily? Decided to learn to love spiders even though you’re deathly afraid? It’s hard, right? It’s just as hard for your dog, folks. When you are asking him to like kids when he thinks they’re the horrifying or be around other dogs when he’s convinced they all want to kill him – you’re asking a lot! You need to be realistic about how much your dog can change and how fast he can change.
  1. Novice trainers training novice dogs. Only in the world of pet dog ownership exists this bizarre dynamic where it’s considered normal for a brand new trainer (dog owner) to train an untrained dog. If you had never ridden a horse, you wouldn’t start with a wild stallion. Nope, instead, you’d be started off on a mellow, well-trained horse. It makes sense that only experienced horse riders would work with an untrained horse, right? Yet, dog owners are tackling difficult, complex training problems with little to no support from a professional. And then, like Sarah, you’re feeling defeated and hopeless. Make life a little easier for yourself and invest in a good trainer. Have the trainer work directly with the dog as much as possible – they will get the job done much faster and (honestly) probably much better. Then, the trainer can teach you how to work with the [now] well-trained dog. It will feel so good for both of you!
  1. Trying to train the behavior in the moment. You cannot – I repeat – CANNOT train a new behavior while the dog is literally doing the old, familiar one. Dog owners are always trying to fix the problem right when it’s happening. That would be like saying you are going to train for a marathon… by running a marathon. So, Sarah is trying to fix her dog’s growling behavior on a walk and it’s not working. She needs to train a new behavior long before trying to have Guinness give up the old behavior (growling) for a new behavior. There is definitely a time and place to ask your dog to difficult things like stay focused on you when what he really desperately wants is to lunge and bark at another dog. But, that time is after you have given him a skill set he can use instead of lunging. When he is trained, then you can ask for him to offer the behavior you’d like to see in place of spazzing out. Does that make sense? You can’t ask a dog to do a behavior he doesn’t even know – especially when he’s not exactly thinking straight because he’s exploding over a trigger.

These pitfalls are common for a reason. It’s natural to respond to your dog’s behavior in the moment and to do what you can to change it. Dogs are usually pretty good about doing what you want for relatively little effort. So, I know it’s overwhelming and frustrating when suddenly there is a behavior you can’t seem to change. I hope I’ve shed some light on what’s happening and how to get out of where you’re stuck. Truly good dog training is a skill and an art like any trade. If your pipes burst, you might grab a DIY manual and tackle the project…or you might call a professional plumber. But, one thing is for sure, you wouldn’t feel defeated because you couldn’t fix the problem right away. You wouldn’t expect yourself to inherently know how to fix your pipes – seems almost absurd, right? Well, problem dog behavior is no different.

Time to stop writing and go do some training. Hope everyone is enjoying the spring weather! Get out there and have some fun with your dog today.

Who’s Sleeping in Your Bed Tonight?

My bed in 2012. Four on the bed, one in a crate.

My bed in 2012. Four on the bed, one in a crate.

One of my Vermont clients asked me about my thoughts on dogs on beds:

Have you written a blog article about dogs on beds vs crate training vs sleeping some place else in the house? Would love to hear your thoughts and reasons on any of the above”.

So, let’s talk about where the dog sleeps.

Sleeping on the bed is like many of the other “rules” that’s gotten caught up with the mythical and faulty logic of dominance theory. Your dog sleeping on the bed won’t make him think he’s boss. No specific behavior – going out the door first, walking in front of you, eating before you eat – sends your dog the message that he’s in charge. It is your dog doing things and you allowing those things to happen, which enforces the message that he’s in charge.

Here’s an example. I had an elderly client who owned a Shih Tzu. The woman called me because the dog was not allowing her on the bed at night. At night, the dog would run into the bedroom and hop on the bed. When the woman tried to get into bed, the dog would snap, growl and bite until the woman retreated. She had been sleeping on her couch for over a month when she called me. Was this dog in charge? Absolutely. Was it because he was sleeping on the bed? No way. It was because he was controlling his owner’s behavior through aggression. Was he trying to control her? No. He is a dog. He was not conniving and conspiring ways to control things. He was in a pattern of practicing a behavior (guarding the bed from the owner), getting a result (owner retreated) which strengthened the behavior, thus the behavior got stronger. Both the dog and the owner were stressed out and unhappy [I’m happy to report the owner has been back in her bed for some years now].

A boarding dog and a resident dog napping in 2009

A boarding dog and a resident dog napping in 2009

When I talk to clients about what they should allow their dogs to do, I encourage them to think about what is respectful and what nurtures a healthy relationship between dog and owner. You don’t need arbitrary guidelines, you need things that are practically useful. Eating is a great example. It’s very common that my puppy owners tell me that their dog is barking and being obnoxious during dinner. I advise them to give the dog his dinner in a feeder toy like a Kong (frozen is even better) so the dog is happily occupied during dinner. The family is happy to not be barked at for the duration of the meal, dog is happy and, best of all, dog is practicing calm, appropriate behavior. These people love their dog and the relationship is positive. No where in this scenario do we need to think about who’s doing what first just because they heard from their uncle’s brother’s friend that you always have to eat before your dog.

So, when you are looking at any given behavior with your dog and wondering if it’s ok, ask yourself these questions:

  1. If the dog does this for the duration of his life, would it bother you?
  2. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress you out?
  3. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress out your dog?

If you answer NO to all three questions, then that behavior is probably ok. If you’re answering YES, then you need to do something to change the behavior (management, training, or both). It’s that simple. If you don’t know the answer to one of the questions, hire a professional to help you sort it out. Let’s run through a few examples.

A boarding dog and my heart dog, Kai, napping in 2009

A boarding dog and my heart dog, Kai, napping in 2009

My dog hogs the bed and I’m not getting sleep because of it.

  1. If the dog does this for the duration of his life, would it bother you? YES
  2. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress you out? YES
  3. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress out your dog? NO

Answer: Dog should not be sleeping on the bed. Crate-train, train to use a dog bed or shut the dog out of the room at night.

My dog growls at my other dogs when he’s on the bed.

  1. If the dog does this for the duration of his life, would it bother you? YES
  2. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress you out? YES
  3. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress out your dog? YES

Answer: Aggression is not okay. This dog can’t handle being on the bed and should be sleeping elsewhere. Training or conditioning could also be applied so that the dog is more tolerant of other dogs being in his space.

My dog snores in the bed.

  1. If the dog does this for the duration of his life, would it bother you? NO
  2. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress you out? NO
  3. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress out your dog? NO

Answer: Fine for the dog to sleep in the bed.

My dog keeps getting up during the night.

  1. If the dog does this for the duration of his life, would it bother you? NO
  2. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress you out? NO
  3. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress out your dog? YES
Couple Of Dogs And Owner

Under the cover dogs…the best!

Answer: This dog needs a better sense of containment. A lot of dogs that are immature, easily aroused or over-stimulated need some extra help with boundaries. So, although not directly related to sleeping on the bed, I’d recommend that this dog sleep in a crate. This is an example I wouldn’t expect a new dog owner to know, this is where having a trainer comes in helpful.

I’m focusing on bed questions, but you can apply this to almost any behavior – pulling on leash, jumping on visitors, barking out the window, snapping at people – whatever! Every family unit has norms about what is acceptable. My dogs sleep in the bed and I love it. They are also totally comfortable sleeping on the floor or in crates.

The point is that you need to look at your family system, your dog’s individual temperament and needs, and make thoughtful decisions about what is and is not permitted. From there, choose training plans that are easy to implement and maintain (or choose a trainer who can help you with this) and be consistent. You also want to be fair and kind to your dog. He is at the mercy of whatever you decide the rules are. So, just because you love wrestling and hugging your dog for hours on end doesn’t mean it’s not totally stressing him out. This is where that third question comes in handy. And, again, utilizing a trainer to help understand your dog can enhance your relationship like you wouldn’t believe.

To end, I’ll mention a video I got earlier today from a friend who’s pretty serious about dog training. A couple of months ago, he implemented a lot of changes (read: LOTS of rules) in his multi-dog house. Today, the baby gates came down and everyone was together for the first time. The video almost made me cry – everyone was so relaxed and happy together. Amazing!

So, where will your dog be sleeping tonight?