Well Socialized? No, Well Traumatized

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.

THIS is what an unhappy dog looks like. The Ridgeback is being a jerk.
She looked just like the Beagle in this picture. Owner intervention required ASAP!(Photo courtesy of Paivi Reijonen)

 

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.

Excuses, Excuses

“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!)

We’re Thinking About Getting A Puppy.. Any Advice?

5 Weeks Old at Petsmart

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.

 

Why Care?

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).

5 Weeks Old at Petsmart
5 Weeks Old at Petsmart

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?

 

No Guarantees

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.

Good Behaviour Depends on Good Health

Finnegan Beagle

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”:

House of Health

When the foundation and pillars falter, behaviour falters.

Recent Examples

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.

 

[/quote]

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.

Finnegan Beagle
Finnegan the Beagle two years ago in puppy class. Suddenly growling and crusty just because his back hurt. Now he’s back to being the dog loving Beagle he always was.

Additional Resources

Sabine Contreras, Better Dog Care

Christine Ford, Oh My Dog

Emily Fisher has a longer post about this very same topic with her own dog, Elsie

Jean Dodds Hemopet – Blood Testing

Managing and Treating Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety

What is Separation Anxiety?

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)
  • Vomiting
  • 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:

  • Sweaty paws
  • Glazed eyes
  • Panting
  • Excessive pacing

 

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.

 

Treating Separation Anxiety

  • Confirm that your dog actually has separation anxiety. An expert’s eye can help you figure out whether your dog is really suffering from this, or is perhaps just slightly anxious in a new home environment, or is bired
  • Suspend Absences – If confirmed, then to treat the problem, the straightest line is the suspension of absences. This will require planning, forethought, resources (both time and money), and ideally a support system of people
  • Implement Confinement Training and 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).

Learn More:

We have a 90 minute recording of a livestreamed webinar where we go over in detail the Separation Anxiety treatment protocol and answer many commonly asked questions. If you’d like to get access to this, click here and fill in the form and we’ll send you a link to view the webinar.

 

Get Help From Us!

We offer consultations to anyone, anywhere via videoconference. Separation Anxiety is a behaviour problem that does not require us at all for hands-on training, instead, we will coach you and help you design and implement your training plan. We’ll also watch live and recorded footage of your sessions to help you as you progress. Click here to learn more about our Separation Anxiety consultation services.

 

Further resources to help:

Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs by Malena Demartini-Price

Don’t Leave Me by Nicole Wilde

I’ll Be Home Soon by Patricia McConnell

What Training Goldfish Teaches You About Dogs

Clicker Training Goldfish

What does teaching a Goldfish tricks have to do with dog training?

There are a lot of lessons to be learned about behaviour and operant conditioning by going through the work of teaching a common goldfish to swim through a small hoop or chase a plastic straw.

  1. A dog has a considerably larger brain than a fish.  Every dog, therefore, should have enough grey matter to amaze his or her owners.
  2. You cannot use a choke, prong, or shock collar on a fish.  You cannot hit a fish either.  So the trainer needs to use his or her grey matter to figure out how to make this work.
  3. Even a goldfish can be trained without lures.  Notice when the food is presented to the fish?  After the event marker (penlight), and after the behavior is performed.  This fish KNOWS what the meaning of that little plastic hoop is.  It KNOWS that it is following a plastic red straw.  It is not mindlessly chasing food dangled by its nose (figuratively speaking, of course).
  4. Your dog is considerably more forgiving on the timing of the click and food delivery that most fish are.

Enjoy the video!

Dog Begs for Food at Dinner Table – How to address this without punishment

Dog Not Begging at Dinner Table

Why is this dog sitting in the corner, not begging for food?

Dog Not Begging at Dinner Table
Dog Not Begging at Dinner Table

Why is Petey sitting patiently with his butt pressed against the wall in the corner, while my father enjoys his lunch and tea? Because of the effective use of operant conditioning (positive reinforcement quadrant only).

Dogs are scavengers by nature. Dogs came into being as scavengers of the refuse of human civilization. So, can we blame them for instinctively begging for food at the dinner table? It is a natural, instinctive behaviour that is in their genetic makeup.

How would a traditional, force and correction based trainer handle a dog that mugs you while you’re eating? Probably through the use of aversives (stuff that the dog does not like) which can include verbal correction (ennnn! noooo!!), physical correction (stepping on the dogs toes, hitting the dog in the face, choking it with a collar), or remote correction (spray bottle in the face, citronella collar, shock collar).

Depending on how food motivated the dog is, or how scary the aversive is to the dog, the behaviour may end, and it may end quickly. But at what cost to your relationship with your dog? And what has the dog learned? That humans at dining tables are dangerous.

So, how does a positive reinforcement trainer teach a dog to not beg at the dining table?

Firstly, I never fed Petey when he was begging at the dinner table. You do it once, or twice, and you have created a very powerful history of reinforcement for rewarding the dog’s persistence at bothering you while eating. If you suddenly stop feeding from the dinner table, you’ll find the dog is even more motivated now to bug you. “Hey, hellloooo. I am here again. Why aren’t you feeding me like you normally do? HELLLLOOO. What’s wrong with you? You fed me here last time. HEY!!! YOU!!!”.

So, after a few days after rescuing him, he realized that jumping on me, or sitting next to me, while I was at the dining table produced no results. That approach, in Petey’s mind, was a broken down dead end.

If you want a nuisance behaviour to end, you must, as a humane trainer, think of a specific replacement behaviour that the dog can do that is acceptable. If you just want the dog to “stop doing this, and stop doing that”, you are asking for an off-switch on your dog – which can be accomplished by just shooting it with a gun (hence the title for Karen Pryor’s seminal book “Don’t Shoot the Dog!”). In this case, I wanted Petey to sit in the farthest corner of any room that we were eating in and patiently wait.

Operant conditioning states that behaviours that are rewarded will be repeated with increasing likelihood. So, I simply kept a small handful of kibble at the dining table whenever we eat. When I spotted Petey heading towards the farther corner of the room, I clicked and tossed a kibble to Petey. After a few meals he came to learn that sitting the corner was the most likely place for him to be rewarded.

Next, after the behaviour was established, I began shaping for duration. I just kept my watch at the table. I found that Petey would sit still for about 3 minutes before breaking his sit, so I began only clicking and treating if he held his position for 3 minutes and 30 seconds. Then 4 minutes, then 5. At this point we can pretty much have an entire meal start to finish with Petey’s butt glued to the wall.

This whole process only took a couple of weeks, and we have prevented a common “nuisance” behaviour from developing into a pattern with a strong reinforcement history. Instead, Petey loves shoving his butt into corners now!

Resource Guarding – Dog growls to protect his bone

How do you safely take a toy or bone away from a dog?

Does your dog exhibit aggressive behavior when he has a bone or toy? This issue is called Resource Guarding and if not addressed, can escalate into dangerous behaviors like biting.

From an evolutionary standpoint, dogs developed this behavior for obvious reasons. If a dog didn’t protect high value objects like meaty bones from theft, it would starve, pure and simple!

In practical terms, that toy, bone, or high valued object is rewarding to the dog, and having it taken away is an undesired outcome.

Forcing the dog physically to give up the toy will cause this problem to escalate, up to and including severe biting. So how can we address it safely?

As a positive reinforcement dog trainer, you must make the behavior of giving up the toy or bone a rewarding behavior. This is commonly done by trading objects with the dog with food – after all, the dog can’t guard a toy while simultaneously taking food from your hand.

Furthermore, if every time a toy or bone is given up and it’s put away, there’s no incentive for the dog to ever give up the toy, so its important to trade for food, and then return the toy to the dog. This creates a win-win situation where there’s no downside at all to giving up the highly valued object.

If you trade for food, and return the toy enough times, you’ll find your dog actually looks forward to releasing the toy as you approach. Its at this time we can put the behavior on cue with “Out” or “Drop It”.

If your dog has developed a serious case of resource guarding, where he starts growling and even biting as you approach, it is absolutely critical that you get professional help with this work as the risk of eliciting a dog bite is very high.

Whatever you do, don’t force the dog to release the object. This only teaches the dog that he was right to guard the item in the first place, and will increase the severity of the guarding and increase the severity of his aggression response. He’ll progress from guarding looks and body language to growling, and ultimately may resort to biting to protect the object.

Start early with your puppy to practice trading. If your adult dog is growling or biting, get help right away with a trainer or behaviourist that uses positive reinforcement to teach the dog that giving up toys is a fun and rewarding game.

Reliable Recall at the Offleash Dog Park

How to train your dog not to run away from you at the park!

Second to learning how to walk nicely on leash, new dog owners’ second most requested call for help is a reliable recall while off leash. In Toronto, the unfortunate thing is most dog owners are inadvertently training to teach their dogs to run away from them!

What do knowledgeable dog owners do differently to train their dogs to stay nearby and come when called?

Shower your dog with attention and rewards when he’s near – Reward your dog for staying near you by rewarding with food (the morning dog park run is a great place to feed your dog breakfast) and fun games (tug of war, fetch, wrestling, hide and seek). Too many dog owners go to the dog park and stand in a circle talking to other dog owners, paying no attention to their dogs. They’re too focused on their coffee or chatting with owners and are about as interesting as rock to their dogs. Can you blame a dog for getting bored and wandering off?

Don’t let your dog loose focus on you for too long – By staying engaged with your dog at the park by playing with him, it’ll keep him from getting locked onto an interesting scent or chasing a squirrel – you’ll be able to interrupt and redirect with more fun and games. Dog owners that ignore their dogs often discover their dog is almost near the dog park exit are too late – any they end up rewarding the dog for leaving the park by calling their name (finally) and chasing them down – the attention earned for running out of the park is often the only form of reward that these poor dogs get! Their owners are rewarding them for leaving the park grounds by ignoring them when they’re near and paying attention when they leave.

Don’t let your dog off leash until he’s ready – A new puppy should be trained to return to handler every time he goes to the park. Keep the puppy’s leash dragging so in case he decides to bolt, you can catch him (and prevent the puppy from being rewarded for ignoring the owner). Off leash rights are something a dog should earn through consistent focus and recall exercises at home and in the yard. You might not take away the leash dragging until after a few months of daily off leash work.

No matter what your dog did right before, if he comes back to you, reward and praise lavishly. Punishment damages the trust a dog has and gives them a reason to second guess ever returning to you. Dogs that are trained punishment free never have to think twice about what’s waiting when he gets back to his handler.

Remember, reliable off-leash recall is a behavior that requires daily, consistent work, and its reliability changes dynamically based on the degree of distraction in the environment. Be patient and aim to be the most interesting thing at the dog park for your dog, every day.

Why has my dog started getting into fights at the dog park?

Is he dominant? NO…

Why has my dog, who used to love other dogs, started to get into fights at the dog park? Is he dominant?

Dominant? Usually not. Few dogs are born wanting to get into fights. Fighting behaviour is evolutionary suicide. So why has my dog started barking, lunging, and biting other dogs at the park?

There could be many reasons –

He’s not feeling well. Dogs are very stoic and hide discomfort very well. Make sure he’s been recently vetted and isn’t suffering from pain ordominant aggressive dog illness. If he is ill, dealing with the medical condition can often make the behavioral issue go away.

He’s been punished by or around dogs – One of the dangers of using punishment training (leash corrections) is that the punishment is often paired near or around other dogs (leash corrections for looking at dogs, “training” classes where leash corrections are done around other dogs in class). This can also happen at dog daycares/dog walking services that use punishment (spray bottles, physical corrections, bark collars, etc.). Pulling while on leash can also cause this (the dog sees a dog on the street, gets excited, pulls towards it, and experiences neck pain and frustration – in a dog’s mind, the other dog is causing the pain).

He’s been harassed by other dogs at the park – Look closely at the picture of the Beagle. Does he look happy? He’s doing everything he can to get away from the pushy Ridgeback. If the Ridgeback doesn’t stop, the owner of the Ridgeback doesn’t recall his dog, or the Beagle owner doesn’t leave, how long would it take before the Beagle decides to bark and lunge to send the Ridgeback away? How long would it take before the Beagle decides he hates the dog park, hates Ridgebacks, and hates all dogs? If the Beagle fights back, the Beagle owner collects his dog and leaves – reinforcing the very behavior of fighting back.

Photo courtesy of Päivi Reijonen – view the entire set on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30096200@N08/sets/72157623555143141/

 

But I heard socializing your dog is very important! It absolutely is… BUT…

Socializing your dog at the park is a good idea, but it requires careful monitoring of his body language and selection of play partners. Our puppy socialization class teaches owners how to watch for these warning signs and ensures your puppy associates nothing but good things with other dogs. Overly rough play and bullying can just teach your dog to dislike other dogs. Young puppies also tend to be picked on and bullied by other dogs, which can teach them to be fearful of dogs – exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish.

If your dog has already started exhibiting aggressive behaviours towards dogs, don’t delay and ask us for help. The longer you allow your dog to practice these behaviours  the stronger they become, and the harder it is to undo.

On-leash aggression towards dogs

A fear aggressive / reactive German Shepherd lunges at another dog

Why does my dog bark and lunge at other dogs on leash?

First, rest assured, you are not alone. This behavioral issue is so common that there are volumes of books specifically written about the subject. Dog trainers and behaviorists refer to this issue as “on-leash aggression” or “on-leash reactivity”. That being said, this is a serious issue that needs addressing as soon as possible – the longer you wait, and the more it happens, the harder it is to address. A reactive dog can bite other dogs and even bite dog owners nearby.

What is it?

A dog with on-leash reactivity often gets along marvelously with other dogs when off-leash at the park, or in the yard, or even in home. But the minute you put on a leash and go for a walk, he becomes interested, then agitated at the sight of a dog at a distance. As you get closer, he expresses the frustration by barking, howling, lunging, and even biting. He’s so fired up that calling his name, luring him with food, or even applying leash corrections does nothing.

A fear aggressive / reactive German Shepherd lunges at another dog
A fear aggressive / reactive German Shepherd lunges at another dog

Photo courtesy of Päivi Reijonen (dog trainer and behaviorist) – view the entire set on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30096200@N08/sets/72157623555143141/

 

What causes it?

Every dog is different, and it is difficult to figure out exactly why a specific dog develops this issue. Here are a few common reasons:

The dog never learned to walk loosely on leash, or focus on the handler when called. As a result, the dog is used to pulling around everywhere to investigate everything. The sight of a dog on the sidewalk is a novel distraction at first, so a puller struggles to go meet and sniff that other dog. Naturally, on-leash, and on the sidewalk, your dog doesn’t have the freedom to wander up and sniff every dog. The frustration of being unable to get to that interesting thing, compounded by the physical pain of the collar tension that occurs when pulling towards another dog is highly unpleasant. Soon, the dog associates the sight of another dog with feelings of frustration and pain, and very soon, through simple classical conditioning, the dog sees other dogs on the street as the reason for that feeling and pain. As it happens each and every time they see a dog on leash, the conditioning occurs very quickly.

The dog had learned to be fearful or dislike other dogs. This can occur if a dog has been harassed or attacked by another dog – sometimes it just takes one bad experience to make a dog fearful. This can also occur if a dog was not exposed to a wide variety of other friendly dogs while it was a puppy. In an off-leash setting, the dog has the option to flee. When a dog is on leash, we’ve taken away that option, so all that’s left is freeze, or fight. The on-leash reactive dog is barking and lunging to send the other dog away proactively.

The dog may be ill or injured. Dogs hide injury well, and perfectly well socialized dogs that suddenly start acting aggressively (in any context) may be hurt and vulnerable, and instinctively become more defensive. Make sure your dog is fully vetted to check for illness or injury.

 

What does not cause it:

Unfortunately, many “experts” are extremely misinformed about this and most other behavioral issues. Here are the most common and incorrect explanations they provide:

  • The dog is “dominant” and wants to fight every other dog.
  • Dogs have been selectively bred over many generations to avoid conflict – a species that is genetically predisposed to fighting tends to make itself extinct. Also, if the dog was a natural born fighter, he wouldn’t be an angel at the off leash dog park.
  • The dog doesn’t respect you as the “leader” or “alpha” or whatever and therefore is protecting you.
  • There is a behavioral issue called “resource guarding” where dogs guard their owners, but it is far more rare and typically occurs on or off-leash.
  • On-leash reactive dogs can be extremely well trained in obedience, and do everything their handler asks, and still lunge and bark.
  • You are not calm and assertive.
  • You could be totally oblivious to the fact there’s a dog approaching (and therefore relaxed) and the leash-reactive dog would still bark and lunge if they see the other dog first.

 

What training techniques should we avoid?

If you are advised to do any of the following, run far, far away from that trainer:

  • Leash corrections
    • The dog already fears and dislikes other dogs. Causing additional pain and discomfort whenever he sees another dog only compounds the feelings of frustration, fear, and hatred. The correction may suppress the behaviour  but the emotional attitude the dog has continues to slide into deeper frustration and hatred of dogs on leash. The dog has also not learned any desirable behaviour in its place (such as look at the handler).
  • Spray bottles or citronella collars
    • Many dogs fear spray bottles or citronella collars, so these “softer” aversives should not be used for the same reason. Conversely, many dogs do not care about getting water in the face, rendering them useless. In both cases, the dog has learned nothing.
  • Physical violence (yelling, hitting, poking, tapping, kicking, alpha-rolling, etc.)
    • You may suppress the behaviour (probably not) but you have also put yourself at severe risk of being bitten.
    • A dog learns that humans are dangerous, and hands are dangerous – you are creating a fear-biting dog.

What should you do about it?

Any behaviour issue that puts dogs and people at risk of injury is serious and is not something you should address on your own. This work requires you to have both knowledge of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and practical work to manage your dog and deliver food rewards all while walking your dog on leash. Get the help of a professional dog trainer or behaviourist that prescribes the following:

  • Manage the environment – do not allow your dog to rehearse the barking and lunging. This means maintaining distance from other dogs while on leash as you train.
  • Change the dog’s emotional attitude towards other dogs while on leash – This is best accomplished by feeding your dog high value food (cheese, hot dogs, steak, chicken) each and every time he sees a dog while on leash.
  • Focus on safety – a head halter, or in extreme cases, a basket muzzle, ensures that you, your dog, and other owners and dogs are safe while you do the work.
  • Train an incompatible behavior – If you train the dog to look at your face and lock on when a dog approaches, it now has something to do other than bark and lunge.

 

Compare and Contrast: Good Training vs Bad Training

The first video has Dr. Sophia Yin (www.askdryin.com) using a combination of operant conditioning and classical conditioning to teach a leash-reactive dog to tolerate and then eventually like other dogs. You know this dog is happy because of his body language.

The second video from a certain TV program shows the use of severe leash corrections as a punishment to suppress behavior. In this case, the aggressive dog looks at another dog – the person kicks the dog (2:56), triggering the dog to bite, and then proceeds to choke the dog till it nearly suffocates. The person is bitten and dogs subjected to this punishment will suffer neck, spinal, tracheal, and ocular damage. If the owners tried this they would likely require hundreds of stitches.

GOOD DOG TRAINING:

 

BAD DOG TRAINING:

 

Get Help!

We recorded a 90 minute live webinar called Leash Reactivity 101, where we go into much more depth. If you’d like to get access to it, click here and fill out the form and we’ll email you a link to view it.

 

Also, we are proud to offer our Behaviour Modification services to anyone, anywhere in the world via videoconference. Since March 2020 and the Covid-19 Pandemic, we have been seeing clients via videoconference and we’re been able to help people and their dogs regardless of where they’re located.  So even if you’re not based in Toronto, Canada, contact us to see if we can help you…

Click here to learn more about our Behaviour Modification services.