A question we get a lot here at When Hounds Fly is “when can I start walking my dog off leash?” It seems like it’s a goal for a lot of people – almost like a sign their dog is well trained, to be able to walk around the city without a leash on. The answer we always give them? Never.
We know they mean well, and they’re eager about training their dogs, and training them well, and we love seeing that effort. But – for those of us living in Toronto (and all city folk) – never is the right answer.
Why is it so important to keep your dog on leash? Let’s break it down.
What are the potential downsides to having your dog on a leash?
None. Zip. Zilch. Your dog could care less; at least, assuming you’ve trained them to walk well on a leash.
What are the reasons to always have a leash on your dog?
Safety.You could have the best trained dog in the world, but you just never know. What if your wonderful, smart dog just one time takes off after a squirrel or a cat and gets hit by a car? Would you ever forgive yourself? What if a car backfires and scares your dog, and your dog runs away? It only takes one time, and no dog is perfect.
In respect of other dogs.One of the most common reasons we see clients for private lessons is because their dogs are leash reactive; ie. fearful, anxious, or aggressive towards other dogs while they are on leash. One of the biggest complaints these clients have is that people let their off-leash dogs run up to their on-leash dogs, saying, “don’t worry, my dog is friendly!” But the fact is, yours may be – but theirs isn’t. Theirs is scared or aggressive. And yours is at worst going to get injured (going back to the first point, safety) – potentially then developing their own fear or reactivity – or at best, will remain safe but set that reactive dog’s training that they’ve been working so hard on back.
In respect of other people.You love dogs. That’s great; we do too. But not everyone does. Some people are scared of dogs, or have allergies, or have religious/cultural beliefs that mean that they don’t want to interact with your dog. Letting your off leash dog charge up to them is incredibly insensitive.
Leaving leashes off in non-designated areas is just plain selfish. It might make you feel good and proud of how good your dog is, but your dog doesn’t care, and it is ultimately detrimental to everyone around you. Want our city to be more dog friendly? Be a good neighbour with your dog, and keep leashes on unless in off leash areas!
Just this month I was asked by two people (a fellow Karen Pryor Academy trainer, and a Toronto veterinarian) whether I do board and train or whether I had referrals for trainers that did.
My response to them was this:
“Most board and train facilities are terrible and rely on very harsh, physical punishment as their primary training tools. This includes choke chains, prong collars, and definitely shock collar training. This includes a number of popular board and trainers that operate in Toronto out of their homes.”
There are dozens of “dog trainers” operating in the GTA that train owner’s dogs without the owner present. And often enough, cases of abuse come to light. Two examples from recent history include:
Samantha Brown of Lead The Way Sam in Mississauga – Fined $2000 for causing distress to an animal
But in brief, in a mere 8 days of a board and train stay, there is clear visible evidence of:
Wounds to the neck area caused by either prong collar or shock collar (both tools were confirmed to be used)
Stress-induced colitis – White Socks did not eat for 7 days and was pooping blood
Starvation – In a mere 8 days he lost 4 lbs.
The owners pulled White Socks out on Day 8 of a 30 day stay and immediately sought veterinary care. Imagine what would have happened if he had remained for the entire 30 days…
For some reason, despite stories from 2010 and 2014 of cases such as those highlighted earlier, people continue to sign up their dogs for lengthy and costly board and train services. My intention in this blog post is to clearly argue why we do not support board and train services, nor offer them.
Board and Trainers Usually Rely on Harsh Physical Aversives
Board and Train services are popular amongst trainers that rely on shock collars and prong collars, because normal human beings that care about the welfare of animals would intervene and stop someone from using these tools on their beloved pet if they were there to bear witness. In a board and train facility, the training is done out of sight, so these trainers can inflict whatever level of aversive they feel necessary to get the job done. In the cases above, dogs suffer severe psychological and physical trauma. Dogs have even died in board and train facilities. Would you send your dog to a place like this where injury or death could occur?
Dog’s Do Not Generalize Well
If the training occurs on a barn or a house somewhere far away, the training done will not automatically translate back into your home, your property, and your neighbourhood. Therefore, the majority of the training should occur in the dog’s home and neighbourhood, which means the majority of the training needs to be done by the owner.
Behaviour Modification is a Lifestyle Change, Not a Procedure
Don’t like the fact your dog pulls on leash? If you walk your dog three times a day, it would only take a week or two of not reinforcing Loose-Leash Walking for all the board and train work to unravel. Your dog barks at strangers? Unless you continue to intervene and follow training protocols, any headway made in a few weeks of board and train will quickly dissipate.
This is why our focus as a dog training school is to teach owners how to train their dogs. It must become second nature to the owners how to reinforce desirable behaviour and become a lifestyle change for long-term behaviour change to occur. A couple of hours of “handover” training done at the end of a board and train is not enough to time for behaviour change in the owner to stick.
In Board and Train, The Dog’s Best Interest Comes Last
If I were taking $3000 from an owner and board and training a dog, I would feel immense pressure to “get the job done” and return a fixed dog. Unfortunately, dogs are not cars, and I cannot accurately predict how much time and effort is required to make improvement. If towards the end of a board and train session, I’ve failed to make good progress, I would feel pressured to rush and push the dog beyond what is appropriate, safe, or humane.
How long does it take to improve behaviour in a dog? The answer is, however long it takes. Board and train puts immense pressure on a trainer, sets expectations for the owner far too high, and the one who suffers for that is the dog.
When we help owners and their dogs, sometimes we see immense improvements in just a week or two (of the owner working daily on their own). In other cases, it’s a process that lasts the entire dog’s life. To impose timeframes and expectations is in conflict with our code of ethics to have the animal’s best interests at heart.
Working With Owners is Reinforcing for Us!
Instructors at When Hounds Fly are dog people for sure – but we’re also into people. Coaching people to become excellent dog trainers, seeing their progress, and hearing firsthand of the improvements they see in their relationships with their dogs – thanks to their own hard work – that’s what motivates us to keep on working.
In summary – board and train? Don’t do it! Most positive reinforcement trainers don’t offer it as a service, for the reasons above. Let us teach you how to train your dog, and you’ll see how it’s not a chore – it’s actually a lot of fun!
P.S. – One exception to our board and train rule is at Canine Country Kennels in Barrie, their board and train is done by Katherine Ferger, who is a very experienced Karen Pryor Academy trainer. However, as mentioned in the article, for the benefits to stick, the owners have to learn how to be excellent clicker trainers at home as well.
If I know you’re good, you’ve gotten referrals from me.
I don’t travel far to see clients, and neither do the other trainers here. My general rule of thumb is, if I can’t bike there in 20 minutes from one of our locations, then it’s too far. I have my reasons – carbon footprint (I bike to most of my appointments), spending time helping people and their dogs (not stuck in traffic), amongst others.
As a result, over the last six years, I’ve maintained relationships with dog training professionals across the Toronto area, and this is why we refer people to dog trainers, behaviour consultants, and if appropriate, veterinary behaviourists in North York, Richmond Hill, Mississauga, and beyond.
By what they blog about, post on Facebook, and the education they have, I know they are good. That’s why I refer people to them.
Referrals Gone Wrong
Recently, I referred group class clients of ours to a dog trainer colleague who operates north of the 401 (beyond where we travel for in-home lessons). She provided private lessons in-home for a variety of things, including basic clicker training, and some help getting their dog to be less anxious in busy traffic using basic desensitization and counter-conditioning protocols. Our clients spoke highly of HER services.
I was, however, surprised to hear that when our mutual client’s dog had nipped a stranger entering the house, the colleague who I referred to them said it was beyond her level of expertise and comfort, and instead, referred to ANOTHER trainer with experience with “aggression” issues.
The OTHER trainer told the client that the reason why their dog nipped a stranger in the house is because he is coddled excessively.
… wait just a minute?
The Four Stages of Competence
Why did she (who I will call Dog Trainer Colleague Who Undersells Themselves), who actually HAS this knowledge, second-guess herself and question her own abilities?
Why did she pass off our client to such a Dog Trainer Charlatan? It takes only a small amount of knowledge around learning theory (specifically, associative learning in this case) to know that coddling does not contribute to a dog nipping a stranger in the house.
Why do these Dog Trainer Charlatans have such confidence to take on cases involving fear and aggression, when they are so ignorant of even undergraduate level psychology?
It’s because the more you know, the less you feel you know.
And the less you know, the more likely you are to feel like you know everything.
The Four Stages of Competence is a learning model developed in the 1970s that I frequently think about when learning any new skill. These are definitions both textbook but also with some of my own opinion added in. The stages are:
Unconscious Incompetence – The individual does not understand or know of something, or recognize there is any knowledge deficit. They are blissfully unaware of their own incompetence and as a result are grossly overconfident.
Conscious Incompetence – The individual does not understand something, but is conscious of the fact there is a knowledge and skill deficit. They are aware of their own incompetence and as a result, can self-assess what he or she is capable of doing, or not capable of doing.
Conscious Competence – The individual has acquired the knowledge and skill to perform the tasks in question, but it’s new, so it requires a lot of concentration. It needs to be broken down into small steps as executed, and as a result, not a lot of deviation, experimentation occurs when performing the task.
Unconscious Competence – Mastery achieved through thousands of hours of practice. Tasks can be done effortlessly and because of this, it’s possible for the individual to deviate, experiment, and innovate as they perform their craft.
Dog Trainer Charlatan – Has been stuck in Stage 1 for so long, they are blissfully unaware of the fact they are ignorant beyond belief, and BELIEVE they are qualified to help people with dogs with serious issues, and tell people so. They’re totally unaware they are unqualified and basically just making shit up and winging it.
Dog Trainer Colleague Who Undersells Themselves – Is really in Stage 3 or possibly Stage 4, but for whatever reason, is stuck on the self-doubt associated with Stage 2. They know their stuff, but is hesitant because of their mindset or perhaps lack of a support system.
This phenomenon (Underqualified people being overly confident in their ability / Qualified people being under-confident) is actually a *thing* – the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled persons mistakenly assess their ability to be much higher than it really is. The collary effect – highly skilled persons underestimate their relative competence.
What Does This Mean For Consumers?
If a dog owner has a serious issue on their hands (example: Dog has bitten neighbour, Level 3 bite, puncture) and they contact 5 dog trainers – I’d bet that 3 of these trainers will have sufficient qualifications and skills, and 2 of these trainers will be unskilled charlatans.
The odds of this dog owner ending up one of the unqualified 2 is very high.
The first 3 trainers are the most qualified, but because of their knowledge, they are thoughtful in their self-assessment and may be reluctant to take cases like this because they’ve yet to earn enough CEUs (Continuing Education Units) from seminars on people-directed aggression, or haven’t done their Level 3 workshop yet with Pat Miller, or would want to have an Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) supervising their consultation, but don’t have one in their network.
The last 2 charlatans are blissfully ignorant – they’ve watched all four seasons of The Dog Whisperer, had some feral dogs growing up and “tamed” them, and don’t know what they don’t even know.
The sad truth of the matter is, based on the cognitive biases of all 5 trainers, it’s likely this dog is going to end up with the least qualified person available to help it. Those that are good enough believe they aren’t good enough, and those that are unqualified think they are qualified.
Charlatans Take Any Dog, All Cases, No Challenge Too Great!
If you are that dog training professional that has invested the time and actually understands concepts like desensitization, associative learning, and abides by frameworks such as Dr. Susan Friedman’s Humane Hierarchy, I’m writing this for YOU.
I respect you may have limits to the types of cases you take on, but you need to understand what happens when you say no.
The consumer (and their dogs) end up with unqualified hacks that employ harsh aversives, flooding, and just downright crappy behaviour modification. In the most frightening cases, they believe they are qualified to help dogs with cognitive and neurological disorders. Here are some examples of their expertise in action:
Over-threshold exposures, many leash corrections (mild but ineffective aversives), flooding (dog forced to stay in area until it is physically exhausted)
Fearful dogs forced outside, any option to flee removed. Flooding and learned helplessness. Sensitization is likely to occur, including new stimulus (children walking on the street may now exhibit a fear response)
Aggressive dogs subjected to triggers at full intensity, then hit with very severe aversives. Aggressive displays suppressed, now strangers get to pet the dog (and get bit in the face since all warning signs have been punished). This trainer may know how to title a dog in Schutzhund, but he has a lot to learn about behaviour modification.
If Not You, Then Who?
If we do not step up and help dogs with fear, anxiety, and aggression issues, dogs with these issues end up with these people. The misguided belief that you need to use aversives to stop aggressive behavior will build momentum, since the only people that end up taking these cases only know how to use flooding and aversives.
Please take a moment to reflect on your own knowledge and skill. Even if you are less experienced, your advice is unlikely to cause harm, whereas the dogs suffering under the hand of these charlatans can end up much worse. Look for mentors, organizations, and your own alumni groups where you can get help when you are stuck, and don’t be afraid to be stuck and get help – it’s the only way you’ll grow.
If you are reading this because you own a dog with a serious problem and you’re looking for a professional to help, I hope this article was helpful as well. For you, I have some videos of what I consider good behaviour modification below.
Andre Yeu, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP
Examples of Good Behaviour Modification:
Systematic Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning to change a dog’s emotional response to scooters.
Protocol for Relaxation for Fearful Dogs- Using classical conditioning to condition calm feelings on a mat, and bringing that mat to progressively difficult scenarios while remaining under threshold (desensitization/counter-conditioning)
Nail Trims – Using clicker training (operant conditioning, R+ quadrant) to shape a willing nail-trim from this dog that formerly had to be tackled and held wearing leather gauntlets because he bit people trying to cut his nails. All while under threshold.
Dog Reactivity – Engage-Disengage, using clicker training (operant conditioning, R+ quadrant) to train an incompatible behaviour to lunge, pull, and bite other dogs. All while under threshold.
Bringing home a new puppy is a big event and it’s your job to raise them to be confident and successful in the world. Having helped over 3000 dogs (and their owners) since 2010, we’ve been asked a lot of questions from new puppy owners over the years.
Here are answers to the top 5 questions we’re asked:
How do I teach my puppy to eliminate outside?
When your puppy eliminates outside, throw a party! Wait until they’ve finished (so you don’t distract them), praise them, pet them, and give them a treat. Take your puppy outside often – every two hours to start. In addition, take them outside after any of these events:
If you can’t supervise your puppy directly, confine them so your puppy can’t wander throughout your home and have accidents. If your puppy does have an accident, stay calm, wait for them to finish and take them outside to ensure they don’t have to go anymore.
Do not punish your puppy! Punishing your puppy for accidents will scare them from eliminating while you are watching, which includes outdoors.
What do I do if my puppy cries when left alone?
You should avoid rushing back to your puppy if they cry when left alone, but it’s better to go slowly so they don’t cry at all. Get your puppy used to being alone by confining them briefly when you are still at home so they are calm while being physically separated from you.
Create a “safe place” for your puppy like a crate, exercise pen, or baby-gated area of your home
Put them in their safe place with something good to eat like a kong with wet food or a favourite chew item.
Once they’re busy with their item, try short departures from them. Answer emails, put on the laundry, or other chores around the house to help build your puppy’s confidence at being separated from you. These short departures set them up to succeed when you actually leave the house.
Ouch! How do I get my puppy to stop biting me?
When your puppy is in a biting mood, redirect them to appropriate items to bite (plush toys, tug ropes, bones, chews, etc). You can teach your puppy to bite less by saying “Ouch!” when they bite too hard. If they are too excited, you may need to calm them down with some quiet time in their safe space. Lastly, never play games where you deliberately encourage your puppy to bite
your hands. It’s normal for puppies to nip, and later, as their puppy teeth fall out, they will stop nipping altogether.
How do I teach my puppy to walk nicely on a leash?
Praise and treat your puppy whenever they are walking nicely with you. Puppies need to be taught
how to walk on a leash and may frequently refuse to move. If your puppy tends to freeze, return to their side and encourage them to come with you instead of pulling them along. You may also pick them up, walk a few steps, and put them down again. Most puppies improve quickly.
When should I start training my puppy?
Right away! It’s much easier to teach your puppy good manners and establish good habits now, rather than having to correct unwanted behaviour later. Also, puppies have a crucial socialization period between 8 – 16 weeks of age where they need to experience new people, places, things, and other dogs. Enroll in a puppy socialization class that offers a safe, controlled environment where the focus is on careful socialization and play.
Why Choose When Hounds Fly?
Start ANY time – We accept new students at any time, so you can start socializing your new puppy right away.
Flexible Schedules – Puppy Socialization classes are scheduled multiple days and times a week – mix and match classes for greater flexibility.
Convenient Locations – Puppy Socialization classes are held at our Dundas West, Pape Village, and North Toronto locations.
Outstanding Training and Effective Results – Our method (clicker training) is safe for all family members, strengthens (not damages) your relationship with your dog, and is scientifically proven to be the most effective.
Top Instructors – All instructors are Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partners, or have their CPDT-KA designation.
About When Hounds Fly Puppy Socialization Classes:
This class is for prepared puppy owners that planned ahead and understand that the critical socialization period of a puppy is between 8 to 16 weeks. They know that during this developmental period, carefully implemented socialization experiences towards people, other dogs, and the sights and sounds of urban living will significantly reduce the likelihood of fear, anxiety, and aggression issues arising later in life. These owners understand that prior to complete vaccination, their puppy needs to have a rich socialization history and that a well-run puppy socialization class is a key component of that. This class is designed for these owners and their puppies.
Each class will consist of three components – 1) Structured, supervised, and healthy socialization opportunities, both on and off-leash for the puppies in the classroom 2) Weekly socialization topics and best-practice advice and practical exercises 3) Very basic clicker training exercises.
We are strong advocates of rescuing dogs. Some argue that older rescue dogs come with more issues than getting a new puppy, but in our experience, most rescue dogs are friendly, easily trainable, and can quickly become excellent companions.
A common question we are asked is, “What should I do once my rescue dog comes home?”
Here are five recommendations for new rescue dog owners.
Keep it quiet: We know that getting a new dog is exciting and you want to show them off to everyone you know, but it’s crucial for your new dog to have a quiet first week. They are adapting to a new environment, new schedule, new everything – that’s already a lot of stress. They don’t need to be overwhelmed by extra stressors, such as dozens of visitors there to see them, or to be taken to a dozen new places within the first few days of being with you.
Create a “Safe Place”: Make sure your home is ready for your new dog by putting away potential destructive chewing items like shoes, and socks on the floor. Remove accessible food from the counter to prevent counter surfing. Ensure your dog has a safe place to hang out in, whether it’s a crate, an exercise pen, or an area of the house closed off by baby gates. You can put their toys there, have a bed ready, and make sure it’s dog proofed for when they need to be confined.
Practice short departures: Some people will take time off work or bring their dog home on a weekend when they have lots of time to dedicate to their transition, but remember your dog needs to get used to being alone because for many the work week is coming! While it’s good to have some flexibility when your new dog arrives, don’t spend every hour by their side. Give them a meal in a food dispensing toy or freeze some wet food/peanut butter in a kong and while they’re engaged with it, step out for a couple of minutes, do a short errand, or go for a run. Get them used to departures as a time of relaxation associated with a high value food reward.
Set them up to succeed: Instead of trying to test your dog’s skills by putting them in situations they may not be ready for, work on reinforcing the behaviours you want to see in your dog. For example, instead of taking your dog off leash to see what their recall is like (and have them run away), try them on a long line (20 to 30 foot leash) and reward them for returning to you. Work up to off leash activity. Don’t take chances with your dog’s behaviour as they are still new to you.
Implement safety protocols: Many new rescue dogs are lost and never found again within days of adoption – they slip their collars and bolt, jump over a low gate, or squeeze through a front door and bolt. Make sure your dog’s collar is fit appropriately (only 2 fingers should fit in between the collar and their neck) and their harness is fit equally as snug. Review the safety of your yard and monitor their time there – dogs can dig out, or squeeze through small gaps. Crate or leash your new dog if you need to answer your front door.
Once your dog has settled in and is used to your routine, you can start to be able to predict how they will respond in situations and really get to know your new dog. Once that’s happened, you should sign them up for a group class to improve their manners and to develop a bond with your new addition.
Perhaps you know the house on your street where as soon as you walk by, you are greeted by a frantic and not-so-friendly sounding bark and bump on a glass window?
Oh look, there’s that dog – he always barks at us when we walk by this house.
Many owners think that letting their dog stare out the window is a way to let their dog “enjoy” the view while they are left home alone and that it’s a form of relaxation. After all, we love sitting on our porches in the summer and letting the world pass us by, right?
Unfortunately, allowing your dog to stare out windows when unsupervised is potentially a very harmful activity, and in a relatively short amount of time, can cause your dog to bark and lunge aggressively at dogs and people on the street. It also prevents them from resting – they are always hyper vigilant for very long durations, every day, and unable to truly relax and de-stress.
Typically, a well-socialized and friendly dog is given access to their new window ledge in his new home (or sometimes even access to a window in a lower-storey condo). He sees a dog being walked on the street, and gets excited because he want to go visit the dog to socialize. But, he can’t! He’s stuck behind glass. He feels disappointed and also frustrated.
Every single day, he sits at the window, and classical conditioning is occurring. The sight of people walking by causes excitement, and then frustration at the fact he is stuck behind a glass window. Soon, instead of being happy to see a dog and person on the street, he immediately feels frustrated and eventually angry. This is called barrier frustration.
A lot of times, this conditioned emotional response to people and dogs on the street generalizes to not just when inside, but also when outside on a leash walk. Now, the dog that barks and lunges at things behind the window also does this when outside on leash walks.
After months or even years of this conditioning – the frustration builds up to a point where some dogs, if allowed to rush out the front door left ajar, will run out and actually bite someone walking by. After tens of thousands of people and dogs walking by, the frustration has transformed into serious aggression. This is also called “chain rage”, where dogs on tie outs in suburban and rural property become highly aggressive due to years of barrier frustration.
To avoid this problem, never allow your dog to have unsupervised access to look out windows, or even in the yard through fences. Don’t leave your dog in the yard all day while you’re at work. Instead, restrict access when they’re unsupervised through window coverings, privacy film, crating/confinement, or simply preventing access to the room these windows are in. When you’re with your dog by the window or yard, and they notice people and dogs walking by your property, mark and reinforce them with food, play, and praise, for calmly noticing passerbys, so you help train behavior and condition positive associations with passerbys.
Saturday Afternoon, 3:00PM, Trinity Bellwoods Dog Bowl
This weekend I caught up with a couple that had taken group classes in the summer. Their roughly two year old rescue lab mix had been doing great. Right after adoption, leash pulling was their major problem, and they were proud (and I was pleasantly surprised!) that just six months later, the dog walked on a loose leash, even on the way to the dog park, and all they did to create that was click then treat for walking on a loose leash (They were able to totally fade out food reinforcement for leash walking very quickly they remarked).
They hired me for a private lesson because they observed and their dog walker observed that their dog was being rude with other dogs at the dog park. First, lots of mounting and humping. Second, chasing down and harassing dogs that were nervous or had “given up”. Third, grappling other dogs by their collars during wrestling.
Our appointment was for 3pm on Saturday afternoon, and after meeting at the school, we walked towards Trinity Bellwoods to enter the dog bowl – the official off-leash area for dogs in the park, so I could observe their dog’s behaviour and offer suggestions on what to do to improve it.
We started off by having her to some basic exercises (sit, down, offering attention, etc.) and then we released her to go play.
She found a Golden Retriever and proceeded to wrestle, and very quickly mounted and humped him. “Too bad!” I said, as I went to get her, moved her away by her harness, and leashed her up. Timeout time.
We tried again in a minute, and this time she ran into the mix of dogs at the park. Within a few seconds, a Doberman, German Shepherd, and Rottie mix started chasing her. It was starting to look ugly. She ran and ran, and eventually came to a halt, and offered appeasement signals (c-shaped spine, head low, whale eye, pinned ears) and the pack of three dogs wouldn’t let up. I ran into the group and physically shielded her from all three, and the owner of the Doberman saw me do this and proceeded to collect his dog. The remaining two dogs moved on by themselves. Their owners were absent.
I moved with my clients’ to the other side of the bowl and we let her go again. This time, she found a slightly smaller mixed breed dog and started giving chase. She was now chasing down a dog and making him feel uncomfortable! The same appeasement signals were being offered. We jumped in and quickly timed out our dog. What a hypocrite, we all thought!
Off in the distance, the three dogs that were bullying my clients’ dog were doing it to somebody else’s dog, but this time, no one was intervening. We had enough distance so I wasn’t concerned about my clients’ dog’s well being. But somebody’s dog was not very happy.
On the way out, our clients’ dog went to visit the German Shepherd. He told her off, hard, just because she entered his space. She got the hint and we moved on. Another dog went to visit the German Shepherd, and he got told off. I quickly realized that the Shepherd was resource guarding his owners. Yet they had brought their resource guarding dog and were just sitting around the dog bowl thinking nothing of it.
THIS is What Goes On?
I don’t go to these parks with my own dogs. I forget what goes on in places like this. Enclosed spaces devoid of anything interesting where too many dogs hang out – understimulated by the environment, but overaroused by other dogs. Too many people think that these dogs are playing and having fun. They were not. There was serious bullying and overarousal going on.
Today at lunch something connected. I get a lot of aggression cases where clients report that their dog was “well socialized” and spent a lot of time at the dog park. What I came to realize is all the owners with their dogs at the dog bowl that day were there because they really think that’s what the definition of dog socialization is, and that’s what dog play looks like.
If you took the average dog and had them stay in a poisoned environment like that for any length of time for weeks or months, I would be surprised if that dog did not develop an aggression problem. All that happens is dogs get bullied, these dogs learn that other dogs can be dangerous or threatening, my owners don’t help me at all, and the only way to get relief is to fight for it.
THIS is Normal
This is a video from a nearby park of two dogs meeting. One is trying a bit too hard. (OK, mine, the Beagle). The other dog offers some calming signals (head turn, look away, lay down) to communicate some discomfort. For the most part the Beagle backs off and the video ends with him reciprocating a head turn. After that the two just went off and did their own thing.
This is a video of Rachael taking a group of dogs out for a hike. This would be a great example of an alternative to being taken to a concrete, paved dog run.
THIS is NOT Healthy – But Sadly Normal at Dog Parks
In this above video by Sue Sternberg, you can see a small dog doing appeasement gestures and clearly asking for help. Owner intervention is required immediately. If I owned the little dog I would body-block him and even just pick him up and immediately leave the park. If this dog is repeatedly taken to the dog park and experiences this, I have no doubt he will develop a serious dog aggression problem very quickly.
“Oh, but that’s how dogs play”
“My dog likes playing rough”
“Your dog needs to toughen up!”
“Let them work it out.”
Too commonly heard at places like the dog bowl. All wrong. That’s why I don’t go to places like that anymore, especially when it is busy.
Recognize Oncoming Disasters When You See Them
This is why I cringe a little when I hear of my clients’ taking their puppies to the dog park. I hope they have learned what we have taught them in puppy class, so they can identify what is good play and what is bullying. I also hope that they don’t unlearn due to the off-repeated mantras that well-intentioned but really uneducated owners parrot at dog parks. This Saturday afternoon at the dog bowl was a mess. Recognize a disaster in the making when you see it and keep your dog safe. Socialize, don’t traumatize your dog.
(Updated – Nov 19: A couple of commenters with a good eye did point out that the original video I used from puppy class wasn’t the best example. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WehLVdUPHpc – Things pointed out were tail tucked, trying to climb into person’s legs etc. for relief. So I am switching it out for another video that is a better example, I hope. The Springer and Beagle were good friends by the end of class and in future socialization classes though, so don’t worry about her!)
A couple of months ago I got an email from friends saying they had been thinking about it, and they wanted to get a puppy. They wanted some tips and also some feedback. They recently found a breeder that was selling Golden Doodles (Golden Retriever/Poodle crosses) online and they had went to visit the breeder to see the puppies. Here’s what they said they saw:
The litter of puppies was living in a shed in the backyard. It was clean but separate from the house
There were two unsold 6 month old puppies on the premises and they were CRAZY
They could take the puppies home right away if they wanted.
They had the good sense not to make an impulse decision, so instead they went home and emailed and asked what I thought.
I broke it to them and said they had basically visited a back yard breeder/puppy mill operation.
Sorry To Break It To You, But…
If you bought your puppy online with a credit card from a web site that sounds like “perfectpuppies.com” or “buyapuppyonline.com”, you probably got a puppy mill puppy.
If you bought your puppy from the window of a pet store, you definitely got a puppy mill puppy.
If you answered an advertisement on Kijiji, you got a back yard breeder puppy.
If you didn’t have to actually apply and go through a selection process to get your puppy.. well anyways you get the idea.
Other than the animal rights aspects of this (see horrible puppy mill video here) why should anyone care? These backyard bred puppies weren’t abused at all. They were just raised by people who got two dogs together and made a litter. We’ll get them at 8 weeks old and do a great job at socializing them and training them, and live happily ever after, right?
What Happens Before 8 Weeks Matters a Ton
Grisha Stewart, her in book, Behavior Adjustment Training, talks about her own dog, Peanut. She rescued Peanut from the shelter at ten weeks old. Peanut ended up being severely dog and people reactive. How could this be? She was a professional dog trainer, and she took him to two six-week puppy classes and two six-week adolescent dog classes. She used systematic desensitization and classical counter-conditioning to try to help Peanut get over his fears. The problems began before Peanut was even born.
Genetics: Peanut’s mother was so fear-aggressive, the shelter had to euthanize her.
Chemical Stress in Utero: Peanut’s mother lived in presumably not-so-nice conditions when Peanut was in-utero – this stress affects the development of all the puppies she was carrying.
Environmental Stress: From eight weeks to ten weeks, during a critical developmental period where puppies start becoming aware of danger, his entire litter was exposed to a building full of fearful dogs, and he was also neutered at eight weeks old. Not a place or a procedure for a young puppy to learn the world is safe and wonderful.
Basically, much of how your puppy will turn out is determined before you even take your puppy home. Therefore, where you get your puppy matters a ton.
(FYI, Peanut is a therapy dog now. But it took her jedi-like skills to make it happen and in doing so, she created an entire protocol for helping dogs get over fear.)
Find the Right Breeder, Get the Right Puppy
When you have determined what breed you want and what is appropriate for you (a whole separate topic), start looking for a breeder and think about all the things that Peanut had against him.
Genetics – What were the parents like? Are they health tested? Are they therapy dogs/CGN titled? Sport titles?
In-Utero Stress – What kind of environment does the bitch live in? (Imagine what it must be like to go through the gestation period inside a filthy, uncomfortable puppy mill with dozens of other barking dogs, or be in an uncomfortable backyard shed, isolated from social contact)
Environment from birth to 8 weeks – What kind of environment do the puppies live in as their eyes open, ears start hearing, and they start learning about the world? What are they being socialized to, and how are they being socialized? Or are they living in a back yard shed, where they will have never seen anything other than the four walls of the room?
Responsible breeders also take measures to reduce pet overpopulation. This can be done by offering to take back the dog at any stage of its life (it puts the onus on the breeder to select appropriate homes for each puppy) and possibly through a spay/neuter clause in the contract.
Early Socialization Starts Before 8 Weeks
Two years ago I hosted a Puppy Socialization Party for a 7-week old litter of Icelandic Sheepdogs from Solhundur Icelandic Sheepdogs. Prior to leaving the litter to go to their forever homes, these dogs have been on car rides, to a dog training school, met dozens of people (house visitors to their house, as well as people out and about) and had even had some beginner clicker training.
This past winter break, Rachael and I were invited to go to a Puppy Socialization Party at Van Wijn Tuin Dutch Shepherds. In this video you can see the puppies live inside a home environment, where they are exposed to a variety of surfaces, meet a variety of people (including one child this evening), have all sorts of cameras with flashes point at them, and have these strange house visitors even feed them to start building positive associations with strangers.
Responsible breeders have to put in so much more effort than their kijiji/puppy mill counterparts. Consider the amount of work to be done… it is literally a full time job for months for one person to properly raise a litter of puppies in a textbook fashion. This socialization has to even include being taken off property to other places (in a safe fashion, taking into consideration risks of disease).
These puppies will have been exposed to almost all of the items of Dr. Sophia Yin’s Socialization Checklist before they have even left the litter. How lucky are these guys vs. their backyard breeder counterparts?
Let’s say you do this perfectly – you find the best breeder that has litter after litter of champion show dogs, agility superstars, and therapy dogs with brilliant temperaments, and they raise the litter according to procedures such as the Puppy Prodigies Early Learning Program – and then you take the reigns and enroll in a high quality puppy socialization program and continue the process of careful socialization and training – all of this is no guarantee of the perfect dog.
Mother Nature can have a way of throwing you a curve ball. Casey Lomonaco, writer, and dog trainer/behaviour consultant extraordinare, did everything textbook with her puppy, Cuba, yet when he hit adolescence, he started exhibiting highly reactive behavior in very strange situations. You can read about her experience here: http://www.rewardingbehaviors.com/2012/10/06/voyage-with-cuba-the-next-leg/
Close to a Sure Thing: Adopt a Mature Dog
This is just my opinion, but I believe that if you want to maximize the chance that you’ll end up with a dog that fits your ideal lifestyle, the best way to do this is to rescue a mature adult dog. In particular, a foster-to-adopt arrangement would be ideal, since oftentimes, problem behaviors are suppressed until after the dog has been placed in a normal home environment. A four year old dog, confirmed to be good with children, is likely to remain good with children for the rest of his life. A three year old dog that sleeps at home calmly all day, is likely not to develop separation anxiety later in life. A two year old dog that loves tug, loves food, and loves training, would probably make a great project dog for dog sports.
That being said, even this is no guarantee, since fear and anxiety can be learned (my seven year old Petey, who is totally neutral towards dogs, could be attacked savagely by a dog tomorrow, and become dog aggressive because of it) or develop with age (changes in visual acuity, pains and discomfort, dementia, etc.) Many of my clients’ own dogs started off being good with all dogs, but due to repeated attacks or being charged by off-leash dogs, learned to become aggressive.
A Lifelong Commitment
Regardless of how you end up with your dog, you chose him, not the other way around. He didn’t ask to go home with you – it was your decision and yours alone. For that reason, you have an obligation to stick with them right till the end. And, if you care about the welfare of animals, and you don’t want puppy mills and backyard breeders to produce litters of fearful and aggressive dogs that end up in shelters, where you get your puppy is what makes the difference.
My friends ended up finding another Golden Doodle breeder. Some key differences – the litter was being raised in the family house, where they were exposed to people all day long, as well as the sights and sounds of a household. They were able to meet the parents. And, the puppy is doing great in puppy class – fearless, loves to play, self-regulates arousal, accepts handling and restraint, likes people, and is pretty easy to train. They have “normal” puppy challenges such as house training, inappropriate chewing, nipping etc. I hope that they never have to worry about fear, reactivity, and aggression problems. Otherwise they might have to become professional dog trainers to develop the skills to overcome them.
If you’ve hired one of us from When Hounds Fly to discuss behaviour problems (fear, anxiety, reactivity, aggression), you’ll remember that before we even talk about the behaviour problems, we spend time talking about the overall lifestyle of the dog.
The House of Good Health
Sabine Contreras of Better Dog Care (her business is in dog nutrition counselling) has a framework on her web site called “The House of Good Health”:
When the foundation and pillars falter, behaviour falters.
Just in the last two weeks alone, here are three anecdotal stories that support this common belief:
My own Beagle, Duke, we discovered, was suffering from some sort of skin problem. We noticed this due to flaking and itchiness. At the same time, his reactivity towards dogs increased. Once diagnosed and addressed, the skin flaking and itchiness subsided, and his reactivity to dogs decreased again to very low levels.
Another client’s dog, who withdrew from group classes due to dog aggression, worked with us via private lessons. The dog had ongoing gastrointestinal issues. We referred to Christine Ford of Oh My Dog and she prescribed a new home prepared diet. Within a short period of time of starting to just transition to the new diet, we received this email:
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Beau is doing much better, thanks for asking. We increased his new food to 15% a few days ago, so we are going to keep him on that amount for a few more days. His poops are still pretty good – he is pooping more often and each poop is pretty small, so we are making sure to take him out more often.
There was one question I wanted to run by you – has it been your experience that when dogs are eating a poor diet, that this can impact their behaviour? This may sound crazy, but we have noticed that with the supplements and the small portion of new food, Beau’s dog aggression has decreased a bit. We weren’t sure if this was due to all the training we have been doing, but we noticed the biggest difference when we started changing his diet.[/quote]
Another past student emailed saying that their dog had suddenly started growling and fighting with other dogs in his walking group. So much so, that the walkers had to crate and isolate this dog for safety. They were interested in training, but instead, I directed them to their vet. I didn’t hear back from them for a while and upon checking in, this is what they had to say:
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]
As you suggested we took him to the vet when he started acting grumpy to other dogs. The vet thought he might be having lower back pain. Finn was on painkillers for a few days and that seemed to do the trick. So all’s well that ends well.
Get Started Now
Is all undesired behaviour related to the foundations and pillars as Sabine calls them? No, of course not. However, before embarking on a journey of training and behaviour modification, it is irresponsible not to exhaust every avenue and leave no stone unturned on the foundations of diet, exercise, physical health, and environmental enrichment.
With health related issues, first consult your veterinarian. Tell them if your dog is having behaviour problems. They should be helpful and not hinder your attempts just to ensure your dog is in perfect health. Some veterinarians have out of date information regarding behaviour and will be resistant. If they are, that is a red flag, since any good behaviour modification program starts with an evaluation of health.
Diet can make a huge difference, so consider hiring someone like Sabine or Christine to help you formulate a home prepared diet. This is especially true if you have a dog with allergies or gastrointestinal issues.
Finally, hire a dog trainer/behaviour consultant who understands how to use humane, force-free methods to help with fear, anxiety, and aggression to get help with the training component of helping your dog out.
Separation anxiety is a condition in dogs where emotionally and physiologically, the dog becomes panic stricken when he’s apart from his owner or people in general. Typically it manifests itself when a dog is left home alone.
Behaviors that occur when a dog is suffering from separation anxiety:
Urination (a normally housebroken dog will soil within minutes of being left alone)
Self-mutilation (licking his/her own paws excessively till the fur is gone and the skin is raw)
Destroying objects (pillows, shoes, door trim, trying to eat the door)
Barking or howling
Some physiological signs include:
Why does it develop?
There are many reasons why a dog may develop separation anxiety. It has been observed that puppies that are transported by air cargo during puppyhood (specifically, around 8-11 weeks) have a higher likelihood of developing separation anxiety. It also develops when a dog never has the opportunity to practice being alone, especially when growing up as a puppy (for example, an owner who takes time off from work and is with the puppy 24/7 for weeks at a time). Major lifestyle changes such as a work-from-home person suddenly having to go to an office 9-5, or moving to a new home can also cause separation anxiety to appear later in life.
Regardless of the reason, it is a major reason why dogs end up in shelter (Dogs can bark and howl loudly – if they have separation anxiety, the owners get eviction notices).
Don’t confuse Separation Anxiety for Boredom
A dog that chews your shoes when you’re gone may just be bored and wanted to chew your shoe. Similarly, a dog that soils in the house when left alone may just not be housebroken – or you left them at home for longer than their bladder could handle. Look for sweaty paw prints, drool puddles, glazed eyes, etc. as signs that it is separation anxiety and not a general training issue. Recording your dog with a camera when you’re gone is a good way to tell.
Managing Separation Anxiety
Solving separation anxiety, after its developed, may take months or years. So you’ll need management strategies while you implement treatment strategies. Here are a few:
Confine the dog to a small room, leaving only chew toys and dog items in the room (kongs stuffed with food, hard, safe chew toys, etc.) This way he can’t eat your shoes or destuff a pillow. He may ignore the kongs when you’re gone (too panicked to touch them) but that will change over time.
Crate train your dog and create him when left alone – leave toys/chews inside. Again, this is about minimizing damage to the house and the dog when you’re gone.
Leave the dog with a friend when you’re gone.
Leave the dog at dog daycare if you need to be away for long durations.
Have a dogwalker come mid-day to give him a break – have the dogwalker return the dog to the crate or room and resupply with new kongs.
Use “natural” anti-anxiety products like Rescue Remedy in his water
Try a product like a Thundershirt
Consider using a DAP Diffuser in the small room (pheromones for calming anxious dogs)
Consider prescription anxiety drugs from your vet as a short term solution (to lower the anxiety to a level that treatment strategies become effective) – discuss this with your vet. In the case of severe separation anxiety, this may be the only way to start making inroads in addressing the problem.
Treating Separation Anxiety
Exercise the dog before departure (30-40 minutes, offleash, running – playing fetch, etc.) and then give them some time to rest and recover.
Leave home from different doors, wear different coats and shoes, don’t always get your wallet and keys in the same order – mix it up – sometimes put your coat on and go sit in the living room. You’re trying to randomize the predictors of departure so that anxiety doesn’t build up as you get ready to leave.
Feed your dog when you leave (i.e. give breakfast in a food dispensing toy such as a Kong Wobbler when you leave for work, and dinner when you go out for the night)
Leave stuffed kongs and other food toys in the crate or room your dog is left in.
Most importantly – practice PLANNED DEPARTURES
What is a Planned Departure?
A planned departure is leaving your home for a set amount of time strictly for the purposes of desensitizing your dog to being left alone. If you pack up and leave, you may find your dog is silent for 1 minute at first, then the barking or urination starts at 1:01. If that’s his threshold, you leave for 55 seconds, and then return. Repeat at 56 seconds, then 57, and slowly move your way up. Doing as many as you can sporadically through the day is the best way to do this.
Over days and weeks you’ll move from increments of seconds to minutes – over time your dog will be able to tolerate being alone and loose for longer and longer periods. Once you get up to about the 10 minute mark, it’s easy to integrate this practice to your daily life – 10 minutes is enough time to go to the corner store to pick up milk, or walk to the video store to return a movie, go to the bank ATM, etc. The more reasons to leave and come back the better.
After weeks and months of work, you’ll break the 60 minute mark – at that point you’ll be able to leave your dog alone to go to the gym, eat at a neighbourhood restaurant, etc. By that time your dog should be OK to be alone for 3+ hours at a time.
Just make sure the dog is well exercised, has been opportunities to relieve himself, and you’ve left lots of chew toys and stuffed kongs (and hidden your prized pair of shoes or other at risk objects) to set your dog up for success.
Use webcams and audio recording software to help you collect useful data about whether your dog’s anxiety is getting better over time.
It is important as you work up on your departure durations to avoid leaving the dog home alone for longer than they can handle. This may mean heavy reliance on dog daycares, friends, family, and a severe impact on your social life in the short-term.
Here’s a video of a beagle that suffers from Separation Anxiety. Notice that the dog ignores food that is left behind – he is too stressed to eat – a sign that he suffers from moderate to severe separation anxiety (mildly anxious dogs will still eat when left alone).