I used to belong to the local gym, and I used to go every workday morning. It was a great start to the day. I would lift weights, and ride the exercise bike and swim and then have a hot tub and shower and get ready for work. I had friends at the gym who would share their lives with me, and I would share my life with them. Then we moved out to the country and the gym was really inconvenient to get to, and I was really busy, so I stopped going. I am not in the least bit surprised that my weight went up and my fitness went down. I used to be a gym rat, but not anymore, and frankly when you don’t go, you stop reaping the benefits.
Once…I was this fit. Not so much any more!
Dog training is like this. Coming to puppy school when your dogs are really young has become the norm, and we think this is terrific. In puppy class we teach people about recognizing when their dogs might be overwhelmed, when play is getting too rough and how to introduce your puppy to the family. We teach older puppies how to sit, lie down, come when called and stay out of the trash. Almost everyone in class meets someone who has a puppy who is a good play match for their dog, and they continue to stay connected with one another throughout their dog’s lives.
All too often though, we have families who tell us that they are “taking a break” from classes and training, and periodically we get a client who returns to us when their puppy has grown up into a four year old Dennis the Menace. Bad habits creep up, and the family works around them. The problems aren’t addressed, and then suddenly they are overwhelming. Maybe the dog has learned that coming when called is an optional behaviour that results in driving away from the dog park. Quite often the behaviour that brings people back to class is a dog who is pulling on leash. Hard. Every day. Quite often the client will say to me “but we went to puppy class”.
Puppy class is a great foundation. I really, sincerely do believe that every puppy deserves puppy class and I believe this so strongly that I am giving puppy classes away for free. If you do nothing else with your puppy, come to class before he is 12 weeks of age. Never the less, if you come to puppy class before twelve weeks, and you never come back, don’t be surprised if your dog’s skills and socialization decay and aren’t reliable.
This pup is learning that being caught by a child is a safe thing! This is one of the foundation skills that pups learn in puppy class, but you have to keep practicing in order to maintain the skills.
Building skills to begin with is like going to the gym. When I first went to the gym, I didn’t have any skills. I started out by doing weightlifting that started out small and built up. I started out lifting small weights, and built up to my top lifts of 200 lbs. I started out with short light aerobic work outs on the stationary bike and the eliptical machines. Each day I did similar routines that carefully built up my fitness. Each week the routines became more challenging and helped to increase my fitness level. I became stronger and more aerobically fit. Sadly, I have taken a break and I am not where I was at my peak of fitness.
If I wanted to get back into weight lifting and get back to my best ever bench press of 200 lbs, then I would need to establish a base line. What is the most I can lift now? I would bet that with my current tennis elbow and terribly out of shape body, that I would probably be able to lift somewhere between 60 and 70 lbs. That is a far cry from what I could lift when I was working out with weights every day! 60 to 70 lbs being my baseline, I would work out with weights that are less than that to build strength. I might lift 4 sets of ten reps of 40 lbs for a week, and then move up to that work out with 45 lbs. In dog training, when you have taken time off, you need to figure out what your dog’s baseline is when you start back at class and then work up from there. There is no point in starting at your dog’s best performance; that is not where he is.
If I had kept going to the gym instead of stopping and starting over the years, I might have exceeded my heaviest lift ever instead of getting flabby and out of shape. Things got in the way though, and my priorities shifted. I know this happens with our puppies too. When it happens though, we cannot be surprised when skills decay.
Not only do skills decay if you don’t practice, but so can socialization. Socialization is the process of carefully exposing a puppy to everyone and everything he will encounter as an adult. If you do this diligently, and then keep your dog in the backyard for the next four years, he will no longer be confident about the things that he encounters as he passes through life. Thus it is important to take advantage of the early window of time to start socialization, but throughout your dog’s life, you need to continue to keep him socialized. A large gap between initial socialization and ongoing socialization can create a problem where the dog is no longer confident about stimuli that he may once have been very tolerant about. If your dog has had a gap in exposure to the environment either due to illness or the vagaries of our busy lives, he may develop the kinds of problems we hope to avoid by doing socialization activities in the first place.
When we start training with puppies, we are not surprised that they don’t know much and we work at the easy things such as restraining yourself against snatching treats, and work up to the more complicated things like leash manners and coming away from play or food. When I am passing my students on their various obedience skills I often point out to them key exercises that they should practice throughout their dog’s lives. Some of the exercises that we do with the dogs form the foundations for other exercises and again there are similarities to exercising at the gym. I think of these exercises as the warm up stretches that we do before we work out. If you have been to class but now you cannot return for whatever reason, then you can maintain your dog’s skills by practicing some of the simple skills that you worked on early in your dog’s career. If you can do this, then taking a break from classes is not going to ruin the work you have done. I am stronger now than I was when I got my horse a year ago because I began lifting heavy feed bags and hay and other items involved in caring for my horses. I am not as strong as I was when I worked out every day, but I am stronger than I was.
This chocolate Newfoundlander practices his down stay in the presence of treats in our Levels Class. Continuing classes through adulthood keeps skills sharp and helps you to develop new skills as you go along!
I may go back to the gym at some point, but for right now, I exercise by caring for and riding my horse. My dogs come to classes regularly and we practice regularly both at home and in class. When I get my next pup, he will go to classes three to five times a week until he is about a year. At that point, I will likely ease up and go only once or twice a week to develop skills for competition or sport. My dogs go to classes for their whole lives, because I like the benefits of continuing classes over the long term; like the gym, classes yield benefits in other parts of my life. Not only do I have dogs who have current skills but I also have fun at class. There are people I see regularly who I enjoy talking with, and sharing experiences with. Come to think of it, I am missing the community I built at the gym. It might just be time to go back.
This is my blog on the mystery, mastery and amazement of muzzles. I love muzzles. Each one of my dogs has always had their own muzzle and when we go to the vet, we almost always have our own muzzle with us. In fact the last time I was at the emergency vet I didn’t have time to grab a muzzle and the vet was completely surprised. Do my dogs NEED the muzzles? To be completely honest, I don’t know. I would never ask my vet to find out the hard way! My veterinarian spent many years after high school amassing a huge amount of knowledge to be the best animal doctor he could be, and I don’t think it is the vet’s job to avoid being bitten; it is his job to give my dog the best medical care possible, and my part in the deal is to make his job as easy as possible.
A muzzle has even saved one of my dog’s lives once. When Bear was about 14 he got sick; he was so sick that we booked an appointment to euthanize him. We took him into the vet’s office and the vet needed to listen to his heart. The key to getting a good listen to a dog’s heart is to prevent him from panting, and when dogs are distressed, they often pant heavily. After about ten minutes of trying to hold Bear’s mouth shut, and he getting more and more wound up, the vet said “I am sorry, but I cannot hear your dog’s heart today but I don’t think we need to put him to sleep. If only I could hear his heart, I could help him. I asked why we didn’t just put a muzzle on him and the vet’s jaw dropped. He thought that since I was a dog trainer, I would be very offended if he suggested that. Just the opposite. I pulled Bear’s muzzle out of my pocket and put it on. He stopped panting and in fact relaxed a bit because we were doing something he was familiar with. His heart was healthy and we were able to get a simple blood test that told us that he had Lyme disease. With treatment, he lived another 18 months.
The fact is that although my dogs are all trained to accept all sorts of handling and frightening situations, if they are really truly and deeply afraid or in pain, they might bite. Muzzles prevent bites, plain and simple. My vet is an intelligent, well educated professional and his job is to help my dog to stay healthy, and to resolve health problems when my dog gets sick. My vet’s job is not to put himself at risk of getting bitten.
I regularly work with dogs with serious behaviour problems including aggression. I have had more than one student come to class with a dangerously aggressive dog who has already injured someone and be reluctant to muzzle their dog. More than once a client has said to me “you are the dog trainer, don’t you know how to handle the dog without a muzzle?” The expectation seems to be that I have some magic that will protect me when handling a dangerous dog. I am good, but I am not magic!
When I worked a service dog, I often had to travel. When I was on an airplane or a train, I always carried a cloth groomer’s muzzle in my briefcase. More than once my briefcase was searched and the agent would find the muzzle and ask me what it was for. In the event of an accident where I needed to be evacuated, I wanted to be prepared that I could muzzle my dog if transport might be difficult. I always try and plan for every contingency possible and one of those contingencies is that I might need to be carried out of an airplane on a stretcher, and my dog might need to be lifted up by someone he didn’t know. A muzzle makes that much safer for the rescuer, which makes it much more likely that my dog would be saved in an emergency.
So how do I get my dogs accustomed to muzzles? I start early for sure! When my puppies are very young, I will sometimes feed them out of a coffee cup to teach them that they can take treats out of a confined space. Then I move on to yoghurt containers as they grow, and smear peanut butter or some other soft gooey food item on the bottom. When my dogs start seeing a yoghurt container as an opportunity to get their faces into something yummy, I cut a small hole in the bottom of the yoghurt container, and duct tape an elastic to make a head strap on the wide mouth. I smear something in the bottom, and when the puppy is licking away, I slip the elastic strap over his head. The elastic should be fairly loose to start with. And then it is a quick step to shoving treats in the front of the muzzle. Puppies think this sort of a handling game is lots of fun. If the puppy fusses about the elastic or the yoghurt container, I just don’t pop the head strap over his head until the pup is really confident about the whole thing, and try again in a few days.
Once the puppy, or sometimes the older dog, is happy about having the loose elastic strap around his head, and is not bothering the yoghurt container, then I switch to a regular muzzle. My favourite brand of muzzle is still the jafco (https://www.jafcomuzzles.com/ ), but I also use a groomer’s muzzle for training; they are easier to carry in my pocket and they are the type of muzzle that the veterinarian will likely have. I put the muzzle on loosely, and feed through the front. I keep doing this until the puppy or dog is happy about the procedure. From there it is fairly easy to get a puppy to accept the head strap being tightened. In my experience, dogs accept the jafco very easily, and once I can tighten the head strap, I make sure that my dog has lots of chances to engage in fun activities such as playing with friends while wearing his muzzle.
Once my dogs understand how to wear a muzzle and once they are relaxed and happy about going for a walk while wearing one, the key is to keep that skill fluent. You have to practice regularly. In my house, we sometimes have happy muzzle day on Mondays. Happy muzzle day is the day that you get to play muzzle games, or go for an off leash walk, or play with your friends while wearing your muzzle.
Muzzles are a little bit like shoes for babies. Babies don’t like wearing shoes. They don’t enjoy having their feet confined. Dogs and puppies don’t like having their faces confined either! If you take the time to properly train your dog to wear a muzzle, then your dog is not going to fuss when he needs to do so. Additionally, puppies who are taught to wear a muzzle properly rarely mind wearing a head halter unless you put a lot of pressure on the leash when using the head halter. That is a topic for a whole other blog though!
Humans are social animals. For reasons that hit deep into the DNA of our species we are set up to live together in groups and to trade favours in order to get along better. Trading favours is one way to describe an evolutionary concept called reciprocal altruism. In other words, you scratch my back and I will scratch yours, and presumably, mutual back scratching will improve the likelihood that each of us will survive long enough to pass along our genes. One of the most important ways that we have to trade favours is to warn one another of dangers, especially if they are avoidable.
Would you call out? Would you help? If you knew a train was coming, would that impact your choice of response? Would you be angry if someone tried to help? Think about it. As an adult coming across a child playing on railroad tracks, if I saw this, I would say something, especially if I knew that a train might come along.
In the past two weeks, I have three times been accused of interfering, being judgemental and being an expert without empathy. Maybe that is a sign that people are beginning to read my blog. Maybe I am just rude; not my intent, but I would allow for that as a possibility. Maybe people know that they are doing things that are not a terribly good idea. And what have I alerted on that is so horrible? I have told people when their dogs were showing signs of stress in images.
The point has been made that the images are but a moment in time, and this is entirely true. When a camera takes an image, it is taking a picture of that one instant in time. Have a look at the image below, and think about what you see. Is the child happy? Or sad? In the moment, there is a definite emotional event happening. Believe it or not showing an image of a child who is sad in the moment does not mean that child has a terrible life; it means that at one instant in time, the child was unhappy and a picture was taken.
Would you send your kid to basketball camp, if this were the type of image that was used in advertizing the camp? Do you think your child would be interested in going to basketball camp so that he or she could feel this way too? Image credit: duplass / 123RF Stock Photo
Now let’s think about advertizing. If you were looking for a child’s dance class, would you want to take your child there if all the images of the children in the advertizing literature were crying? This is a situation I face when I cruise through the websites of some of my competition. I see page after page of accurately working dogs who universally look unhappy. I see long series of pictures of classes full of dogs showing whale eye, pinned ears, head drops and occasionally a snarl.
I also face this day in and day out when I see family pictures of my non dog training friend’s and their dogs. I see children hugging dogs, and people putting dogs in awkward positions, and the dogs are clearly showing signs of discomfort and distress. In fact, a lot of the images I see are not just dogs who look sad, but dogs who are in the early sequence of getting ready to bite.
I see this sort of image in my Facebook feed on a daily basis. This dog is helpless and unhappy and has begun to bite the child. Often the image is posted with a caption such as “Missy and her new puppy are bonding; aren’t they cute?” All I can think about is “If I don’t say something, this child is going to get hurt. I don’t want the child to get hurt.” Image credit: tonobalaguer / 123RF Stock Photo
When I talk to people about these pictures, they regularly tell me that the dog often looked like that and was perfectly happy and that the dog never hurt anyone. I am tired of telling people that they were darned lucky. All too often, I get first contact with a family after the dog has bitten and often after the dog has bitten a child. Here is a news flash; dogs don’t like being hugged or kissed. They really don’t. When you look at hundreds of images of dogs showing signs of stress and you know you are going to be talking to the families at some point down the road about behaviours that lead to biting, then it is incredibly frustrating to hear that you are being mean, unkind, thoughtless or misusing your education when you speak up. For me, to see an image of a child hugging a dog, while the dog is giving whale eye, is squinting, or has pinned ears is like looking at a picture of a kid running into traffic. It turns my stomach and makes my blood run cold. The reason that I get so upset about these images is not that I don’t want people to have great experiences with their pets; it is because if a bite comes and I didn’t speak out, I feel like I was complicit. It feels like I could have prevented a bite, if only people didn’t think I was attacking them.
Several of my colleagues have pointed out that I am willing to do unpleasant things to dogs from time to time in order to suppress or decrease behaviours, and that not everything we do to dogs is always wonderful and pleasant. My colleagues; you are right. The images I am talking about are moments in time, and they show the dogs in discomfort or distress for that moment. I am not saying that the dog is being abused, or that the dog’s welfare is at risk; I am saying that at that moment in time, the dog is uncomfortable. Sometimes the dog is showing me that he will bite and soon. When people use these pictures to show their best work, it is a sad situation. When people knowlingly put their dogs into this sort of a situation, and then take a picture of that situation, it is not fair to the dog.
So here is my problem. I see the situation. I comment. Inevitably, someone takes offence that I have an opinion. Sometimes they get angry. Usually they are upset. Should I comment? I feel compelled to comment for so many reasons. Like the Lorax, I speak for a creature who cannot speak for himself. When I am working as a behaviour consultant, I advocate for the dog within the family. Often when people can see the discomfort they can change what they do, and the dog’s overall welfare improves. Not only that but the safety of the family improves. When it works, I feel like I am contributing in a positive way to society. When it doesn’t I feel outcaste and like a failure. When I cannot reach the client or the family or the community and a bite happens, I feel even worse.
Don’t get me wrong; this is not all about me, but on the other hand it is. As a society we have grown so far away from our agrarian roots that we often don’t recognize the signs of stress in our dogs. When we recognize them, we often dismiss them as unimportant. We put ourselves and our dogs into situations that are unpleasant and often dangerous. We have both high and low expectations of ourselves and we translate those expectations on our dogs. We expect that life will be hard and we put up with that. We expect that our dogs will tolerate discomfort and put up with that too. How is this about me? It is about me because I have been trained to recognize the signs of stress in dogs. Once you know what you are looking for, it is really hard not to do something when you see the signs.
When I point out a dog in distress this is not a judgement about you or who you are, or your family or your value to society or if you have a nice dog or a not nice dog. This is not a judgement about the choices you made. I assume, correctly more often than not, that you don’t see the signs of stress because you don’t have the training I do. This isn’t a bad thing, it is just a thing. When I point out that a dog is in distress, and I tell you about it, to me it is like telling you your shoelace is undone. I want to participate in the co-operative behaviour of a society and protect you so that if I am in danger and you know about it, you will tell me. For me, this is no more judgemental than “I noticed that you didn’t turn off the stove when you left the kitchen; shall I go check and turn it off so we don’t burn down the house?”
This blog is a bit of a rant, and I am aware of that. I don’t often write about how my job impacts my life, but it does. When I go to a family picnic and I see a dog being harassed by the kids, the picnic is no longer any fun for me because I know that the dog is uncomfortable and that the only way he can avoid the discomfort is to warn and then bite those who are causing discomfort. If I say something, then I risk that you will think that I am judging you and ruin your day. If I don’t say something then I risk that I will be sitting in yet another appointment with a friend or a family member and have to explain to them why their dog bit their child. Some of the time, not saying something results in the dog behaving so dangerously that the family chooses to kill the dog. For me, the stakes are very high, and the last thing I want to do is share in the heartbreak of yet another family who got a dog because they love dogs, and end up afraid of dogs because mishandling led to a tragedy.
Every year at this time, I start preparing my clients for the holiday season, and every year, I come up against the same thing; families want to include their dogs, but they often have very unrealistic ideas about what their dogs should be doing with their families. People want their dogs to be part of gift opening activities, however, they don’t want the dogs to take every gift from under the tree and tear it apart. People want their dogs to be around during the holiday feast, but they don’t want him to beg at the table. And families like to include dogs in greeting the guests at the front door. The problem is that everyone has this idea that it is somehow or another going to all work out, without ever preparing their dog for the big day. Incidentally, I see this in families who want to include their dogs in their weddings, funerals (yes, I had a client who wanted her dog to go to her late husband’s funeral, and called up to ask my advice on how to best include him!), birthdays and other family events.
I like to include my dogs in most of my activities too, and so people are often surprised that they may come to visit me and never see my dogs. I am actually more likely to bring a dog to visit you than you are to see one of my dogs when you come to visit me. I feel like saying that the reason for this is that I am a control freak, and that would not be untrue but there is a lot more to it than that. It starts from the point that I really want my dogs to be successful. I really, really want them to be successful. Yes, they goof, but the vast majority of time, after people have met my dogs they say things like “wow, I wish my dogs behaved as well as that!”
The way that my dogs get such a stellar reputation is simply that I train them to do what I want them to do and then I plan interactions to compliment what they know. All my dogs know how to do a one hour down stay by the time they are 6 months, so if I have to take them somewhere, I can depend on them to lie down and stay for at least an hour. This means that I can start taking them quiet places to visit for up to an hour at a time so long as their other needs for food, water, exercise and social contact have been met. This can be a lot of fun. I can go out with a friend for coffee somewhere, or I can go to someone’s home, or they can come to visit me. In this way I teach my young dogs that there is an expectation about the down stay no matter where it happens. The thing about this is that I don’t take my pups out with people who are going to upset my training plans. I only take them places where I know they will be supported and successful in what I want them to learn. If you are the type of guest who is going to tease my dog out of her down stay and into play, then she can rest in her crate while I am visiting with you. If you have kids who might be too quick or too much fun for a puppy to resist joining in the fun with, then she can rest in her crate, where she won’t learn bad habits right off the bat.
With my older dogs, who know the drill, I will have them out while you visit, if I am confident that you are the kind of guest who knows how to mind their manners around my dogs. I expect that my dogs are going to mind their manners around my guests, but by extension, I expect that my guests will mind their manners around my dogs. When I am visiting with you, you are the person I am interested in, so I want to be able to spend my time focusing on you! I don’t need to spend all my time pleading with my guests so that they are not getting my dogs unnecessarily excited, and I don’t want to spend my time with you chastising my dogs if they goof and forget their manners. So unless and until I am very certain that my dogs cannot be tempted out of their down stays, it is most likely that they won’t be coming out of their crates or the yard if you are at my house for a short visit.
If you are visiting for more than an hour or so, I usually make some time for an activity that everyone is going to enjoy with my dogs. If I have a new adult dog in my home, who doesn’t know the rules and doesn’t have the training to participate, you still won’t meet that dog. It isn’t fair to the dog to be asked to behave himself when he doesn’t understand the rules. If people are up for it, we can go for an off leash walk around the farm at a time that works out for the rest of our day. If people don’t want to go for a walk, we sometimes go out for a game of fetch, one dog at a time. In the event that people don’t want to go outside, then I will bring the dogs out one at a time, to do some tricks and maybe play some scent games. What I do with my dogs and you will depend upon who you are, what your experiences are with my dog or dogs, and what the activity is for the day.
So how do you include your dog in the holidays while also making sure that your dog is going to be successful? As always, it depends. If I am expecting your family to my home in the mid afternoon, to stay for two nights, and participate in two formal meals, brunch, gift giving and the normal hubbub that comes along with a houseful of people who don’t normally live there, I am going to give some thought to how to set up for success. If I am going to visit you, the process is analogous, as I will outline below.
When I am expecting guests, I always make certain that my dogs get a really good run before you are expected to arrive. For my dogs that usually means getting them out and off leash, preferably in a group of other dogs. This is fairly easy for me; we live in the country, in a place where we have over forty trails to choose from and we know a lot of dog families so getting real exercise is not terrifically difficult for me. If I am going to go visit someone, I always look for a walking trail on the way where I can stop for at least 40 minutes to run my dog or dogs. I want to start out a guest experience, either as a host or as a guest with a dog who is not full of beans and silliness.
Once I get that out of the way, when I get home, I make sure that I have a good supply of toys pre-stuffed to give my dogs in their crates. Stuffing Kongs properly means knowing your dog very well, and understanding how they work on toys. With naïve dogs, I will just put kibble and chunks of treats such as liver, sausage or cheese loosely in the Kong. I will put the whole thing upside down in a coffee mug so things don’t fall out while stored. With more experienced dogs, I will do the same thing, but add a plug made from sausage or cheese. Locally we can get a product called Rollover (https://rolloverpetfood.com/product/beef-dog-food/ ) that works very well to plug a kong. There are many brands the world over of this type of product. With dogs who are really good at this, I will use Rollover to lock in the kibble on multiple levels; I will alternate a layer of kibble with a layer of rollover until the Kong is completely stuffed. Kongs stuffed in this way can be dropped, thrown, or bounced and they won’t spontaneously empty. For the truly serious Kong chewer, I will freeze these to make emptying them really difficult. Although I mention Kongs here, there are now a wide variety of toys available to stuff. Just make sure that you can blow through the toy so that you don’t create a vapour lock that can suck your dog’s tongue into the toy. You can find my blog on safe toys at https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/safe-toys/ .
Once I have a well exercised dog, and a pile of stuffed toys ready, then I am ready to entertain you. If I am travelling, I bring the toys with me. Regardless of if I am answering the door or ringing the doorbell, that initial excitement is not part of my dog’s lives because they are in crates when it happens. Usually they don’t have a Kong at this point. If I am arriving at your house, my dogs are in their crates in the vehicle, and if you are arriving at my home, my dogs are usually crated for about a half an hour before you arrive.
You may be wondering why I do it this way. When dogs are permitted to greet every single guest every single time, they never learn to do that politely. Imagine for a moment if your closest friend greeted you the way most dogs greet people at the door. Imagine how you might feel for instance if your dad or your uncle were to rush the door yelling and hooting and hollering, and then leapt up at you and tackled you to the ground. Even if the intent was benign, you would not be pleased. When my dogs are well enough trained to lie quietly and approach gently, they can greet people at the door. I use behaviours such as the one hour down stay (https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/the-racehorse-down-stay/ ) proofed against doors to teach my dogs what to do but I don’t allow my dogs to just greet. Usually when I am visiting for two nights, I have a pile of things to bring in and I leave my dogs in their crates in the vehicle until I am ready to bring the rest of my things in.
Often if you are visiting me, I will have coffee waiting, and we can sit down to visit a little, and this is when I like to bring my dogs out. My dogs understand that people sitting around drinking coffee means that they should find a place to settle. If I have a young or naïve dog, I will often bring him in on leash, and have treats available so that I can reward him for calm and quiet behaviour. Once you and the dogs have had a chance to meet quietly, either by you going to them to give them treats, or they coming and sitting beside you to get a treat, then they are free to go about their day. People have often commented when they stay with me about how my dog’s “excited” greeting is very low key. They are obviously pleased to meet you, however they are not whining, jumping up or knocking you over.
If I am visiting, I usually bring yellow mats for my dogs (dogs see yellow and blue, so I want something that they will recognize as their own) and they do a down stay once we are in the house. When I am visiting, my dogs are not allowed to move freely through your house without permission. They don’t know the rules of your house, and I don’t want them to be in your way. When I move from one place to another in the house, they follow me, either because they have been taught to do that, or because they are on leash.
There is an exception to these rules for my dogs. If you know my dogs really well, and you know how I want you to interact with my dogs, then I may allow them to meet you at the door. Friday has a young friend who visits a few times a year, and when she comes to visit, Friday will circle her and smile, and she will bend over and tickle Friday all over. They are delightful to watch because their behaviour is highly reciprocal. I contrast this with most greetings is a dog who is so excited and who has no idea about what is expected, and a human who spends most of her effort fighting off the affections of the dog. This is not a healthy greeting, and it doesn’t reflect what I expect of my dogs or of my guests.
Once the guest/host greeting phase is over, my dogs are usually fairly settled and behave towards my guests as they would towards John and me; they are happy and relaxed, but they don’t spend all their time overwhelming people with their exuberance. If at any time they are struggling with what I believe is appropriate and healthy interactions, I will take them back to their crates, give them a stuffed toy to keep them amused, and then go back to visiting.
At meals, my dogs will either be in their crates with their dinners, or lying quietly behind my chair. I don’t want my dogs to learn to bother people who are eating, and I don’t want either my host or my guest to teach my dog bad manners by rewarding behaviours that I don’t like, so most often my dogs are crated through dinner. Given that holiday feasts are often accompanied by candles and multiple courses that have to be served and cleared away, this makes things easier for everyone. My dogs love their crates, so this is easy for us. I feed all meals at home in crates so that I can see who is eating, and who is not, and so that I can ensure that with multiple dogs, no one eats anyone else’s food.
Often holiday visits include gifts exchanges. If I have a dog who is really savvy about guests, I will have them do a down stay as part of the activity, however if they are not, then they spend that time in their crates. It is a short period of time in my dog’s life, but it can make such a difference in the memories that are created at the holidays. Consider for instance if someone has spent a lot of time and effort planning a special gift for another person and the dog completely overshadows the experience. You want the gift giver and recipient to remember the exchange, not how the dog jumped into the picture and stole the show, or worse how the dog destroyed the gift itself because he didn’t know how to keep his paws to himself.
In between meals and gifts, I still need to meet my dog’s needs for food, training and exercise. Often this is an opportunity to include family members in activities where they can more actively interact with my dogs. When this is not possible, I may do a few tricks here and there. This serves to give the dog a role in the gathering, and also to give people who may not know my dogs to interact with them in a way that I can control. It is a win/win when the dog has a role and is appreciated for himself.
All of this requires planning and training, and certainly it is not how everyone experiences holidays with their dogs. I wrote this blog after a Facebook exchange with a colleague who was lamenting her experiences visiting with her dog. A number of trainers chimed in with their horror stories of visiting with dogs, and I mentioned that when I had guests, often my dogs would stay in their crates. We were all surprised to find out how many of us crated our dogs when guests arrived, and how few of our non-professional trainer friends did not. I often see posts on social media saying things like “the dog lives here, you don’t” along with a laundry list of poor behaviours that I should expect when visiting that person’s home. When I visit, I am not coming to be drooled on, sat, on, pestered, or hassled into play. Yes, my dogs live here. No, I don’t expect them to make visiting me a chore.
For those of you who know me well, you likely know that I don’t really enjoy repetitious drilling. I am pretty sure that most of our animal learners don’t either. I had a riding coach who once told me “you got the move right, why are you practicing what you already know?” and I think she had a good point. Once you have mastered the behaviour, what exactly is the point of practicing it over and over and over again until it becomes stale and boring for your animal learner?
For me, this is one of the real challenges to training young puppies. The early skills that you have to teach puppies are important in order to build a solid training history, but once my puppy has a solid grasp on them, I want to move on. I DO train my puppies of course, and I encourage others to spend the time with their young naïve dogs teaching them the foundation skills that they will need too, but it is not my most fun training time. If I could just install sit, down, touch, go to mat, stay, come when called and you control the click as a little program without doing the work I probably would so that I could get on with the stuff that is more fun.
Here is the problem with dogs who have been in training for a few months. Most dogs get to the point where the foundation behaviours are known and they aren’t much fun for the dog any more! Sit? Got it. Not worth the kibble any more! This sequence is not an uncommon sight in my classrooms. The dog has learned the behaviour, and the owner then asks for that behaviour over and over and over again. The dog knows how to do it, and he has gotten to the point where asking for it, drilling it and repeating it leads the dog to start to mentally ask “what’s the point?” I will point out that he is not articulating that in words, but from what I can see an awful lot of dogs don’t want to keep practicing things just because you want them to do it. At this point in training one of two things needs to happen. Either the trainer needs to start to move the training along, or the trainer needs to start to apply the behaviour to something that makes sense to the dog! Both strategies are useful.
So let’s look at sit. If you have a young dog who knows how to sit, you can start to make that more challenging to the dog right away. It isn’t difficult. I like to make a mental list of all the places I have asked my puppy to do this. In the kitchen? Yup. The living room? Yup. The bathroom? Oooohhh! That one is trickier! I keep adding rooms until my dog is able to sit in any room in the house. Then I start to add in places outside. Front yard, back yard, on the porch, the driveway, the sidewalk, the park. When I run out of places, I add in objects. Can you sit on a mat? A cushion? That one is tricky! A boulder? A stump? A wall? A bale of hay or straw? In a puddle? The technical term for this process is generalizing. I am generalizing the dog’s ability to perform the behaviour to a wide variety of places and contexts. You can think of this as the Green Eggs and Ham of dog training.
There are other ways of generalizing too. Can your pup dog the same behaviour no matter who asks for it? When your dog is able to follow your directions in a number of venues, will he follow it for your brother? Your daughter? Your best friend? Your trainer? I am looking to train every cue such that my dog will follow that cue anytime, anywhere, for anyone, and that means getting very specific about what I am teaching. I cannot expect my dog to follow the instructions if he doesn’t know them and if he hasn’t had the chance to follow a cue in new places and with other people, I cannot expect him to be successful.
Still though, these are just foundational behaviours, and after practicing sit here, there and everywhere, my dog is going to start asking that all important question “what’s the point?” Why should he sit? What if he doesn’t want to? What if it isn’t worth a piece of kibble? I am willing to do many things, but some of the time, I just don’t feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if you offer me money or some other incentive to do it. the caveat is that if I think there is a good reason to do something, I will do that boring little thing, often for no reward. This is the important point to remember when our dogs hit that point where they have mastered the foundation behaviours but those behaviours don’t have context. When there is no point to doing the task, the dog may begin to refuse to play the game.
So how do we give context to behaviours? Simply put, we stop rewarding them with food, play or touch. We start to put the behaviour into other activities. Most dogs willingly sit for dinner; that is part of the ritual and routine for many dogs, so it makes sense to them to just do it. In fact, you can really annoy some dogs by offering them a treat before you put down the bowl. The reward for the behaviour is to get to eat dinner, however most of the time, the dog is just thinking about what the routine might be for getting to the meal. The same goes for dogs who are required to sit before doors open, or who have to sit before they get their leashes on. The sit just fits into the routine, and it has meaning to the dog.
We can go one better than that though. We can start making games for ourselves with our dogs that involve the foundation behaviours that get so boring so quickly. Using sit as our example again, we can start asking our dog to sit before we do things together, such as fetch, search or find me (or even better, find someone else!). The sit becomes embedded in other activities and gains meaning as part of other fun activities. Now the dog has a reason to perform the behaviour and that makes the behaviour itself much more meaningful to the dog.
You can kill the joy of the sit if it is the only behaviour you integrate this way however. If you only embed the sit, it is a little like playing scrabble where you only get four letters, a, e, s, and t. There are a very limited number of words you can spell with those four letters and if you try and play scrabble with these four letters, it is going to be a tedious and boring game. You might choose to play that way at first in order to teach someone the concept of the game, however in the end, you will get tired of the limits set upon you by having so few letters to use. As your dog gains more behaviours, you can start to play the same games with more “letters” or behaviours. Now, instead of only having sit to insert into your activities, you can make the required behaviour a surprise. You start making dinner for your dog, and before putting it down, you ask your dog to lie down, or sit, or touch your hand with his nose. When your dog gives you the behaviour you ask for, you can give him his dinner. In this way, behaviours become letters in the infinite game of training scrabble.
You can in fact extend this game into more and more complex activities that become meaningful for you and your dog. At Dogs in the Park, we run a games class each week for the dogs who have passed the foundation behaviours needed in order to play. We play things such as musical chairs (integrating leash manners, sits and downs into an activity), leap frog (go to mat) and recall relays (coming when called over and through distractions). By participating in group activities where the behaviours are applied instead of just drilled dogs become more willing and eager to perform those behaviours that have become stale and boring when you just drill them.
It is important to note that advanced behaviours can suffer the same fate as those foundational ones; drill the agility tunnel or the perfect front in obedience for too long and your previously enthusiastic dog will start to ask “what’s the point?” Once your dog asks that question about behaviours you have worked hard to polish, it doesn’t take long for an advanced dog to start asking that same question about more mundane behaviours too.
When I was about twelve, I wanted to teach the family dog some tricks. The process of connecting with an animal and imparting information fascinated me as much then as it does now. We had a dog in our family named Thurber, and she was my constant companion, and I wanted to do more. My aunt had a titled Golden Retriever, and I was mesmerized by the work they did together. I asked my aunt how she trained her dog and she suggested that I use a chain collar to tell the dog when not to do something and a piece of food to tell the dog when she had done something right. That was all the coaching I ever remember getting, but it made a big impact on me. I taught that dog many tricks; most of them involving jumping over or climbing onto things.
As an obedience instructor today, I have a lot of parents asking him about getting their children involved with dog training. Indeed, dog training and children can go hand in hand, but it is the unusual and rare child who is as interested in it as I was. Most kids are looking for some early successes and don’t persevere through the early stages where the dog doesn’t know what is happening and neither does the child. This can be even more difficult when the child and the dog are in a classroom full of adults and other dogs. The pressure to succeed can often result in frustration for the parents, the kids and the dog.
We LOVE to include children in our classes, and it works best when the adults help to tailor the activities so that the children and the dogs are successful, such as at this socialization party. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
How can we make this more successful for the kids? For a while we ran a family class which was a levels class just for families and their kids. Sadly, not enough families could come out to make this worth carrying on with. We would go along nicely with four or five families in class for eight or twelve weeks and then it would dwindle and get taken over by families who wanted their dogs to meet and like children but who weren’t bringing children to class. Certainly there are schools who run classes specifically for children but there aren’t too many of them.
As an animal trainer who also works with horses, I think we can learn something from what we do in the horse world. It is accepted that it is not a good idea for an untrained, inexperienced young rider to be mounted on an untrained, inexperienced young horse. Instead, we prize those rare ponies who are well suited to teaching youngsters to be confident around and on horses. We start the kids in lessons where the pony knows what to do and the kids can learn from a horse who already knows the work. When the kids are proficient on a well schooled calm and older pony, we give them a more challenging mount or more difficult work on the same horse. When they master that, we give them a bigger horse, and bigger challenges. By the time a child is about twelve, he can if he has been taught carefully and properly begin schooling younger horses and by the time a child is about fourteen he can begin to teach young horses to be ridden.
This child is being set up for a successful riding experience by pairing her with a safe pony and supervision (she is on a long line to help her to successfully control the pony). She is wearing the appropriate safety equipment. The pony is the right size for her and he is calm and well behaved. We aren’t asking her to control a large unruly and untrained horse. Ideally, this is what we would do when we pair a child with a dog in an obedience class! Image credit: davetroesh / 123RF Stock Photo
This is how I recommend that we help youngsters to work with our family dogs. When mom or dad starts the training, and teaches the dog the skills and then helps the child to master the skill with the dog who already knows what to do, then the dog and the child can develop skills together. When the child has mastered the basics, then moving forward to more complex and interesting work makes for a more successful experience for both the dog and the child.
In practice what that means in our classes is coming to class and learning to click and treat effectively. Then take the skill of clicking and treating home to your kids and help them to master that part. Even very young children can be successful with you clicking and they treating. By working WITH your kids where you click and they treat does a lot of things. It teaches the dog that the click predicts the treat. It helps with your timing. It involves the children with you and the dog in an activity. Later you can change roles and let your kids click while you treat.
When you have mastered clicking to mark the behaviour you want, you can teach your dog to do a lot of different things; sit, down and come when called are really easy and useful behaviours to teach your dog so that your kids can participate in training. When your dog will sit when you say “sit” and you can click when sit happens, you can integrate into your training. You can start out by demonstrating the behaviour with your dog to your children. Once your child understands the activities that you want your dog to do, then you can play a variety of games with the behaviours your dog knows. Get your child to say “sit” when your dog sits, you click and your child can give the treat. This teaches your dog to follow directions from your child (very important!) and you mark when both the kid and the dog get the right answer. When your dog is following the direction from your child, you can start giving your child the clicker and you cue the behaviour for the dog. This gives you a chance to coach the timing of the click so that your child clicks at the right moment. When your child has had a chance at the cueing, the clicking and the treating separately, then they can start working on all three at once. I like getting kids to do five of the same behaviour in a row, before we start working on second and third behaviours.
Once the kids get the hang of the process with behaviours that the dog knows, then I like playing a game of call and response; I tell the kid what behaviours to use, and they ask for the behaviour from the dog and click and treat. When the dog and child are successful with five or six different behaviours in a row, then the kids are ready to start teaching new behaviours. The dog should by this time understand ten or twelve behaviours, so the dog understands the process of learning. It is really important that the kids understand that they are marking the right answer for the dog before they start trying to shape new behaviours with the dog.
I have a dozen or so throw away behaviours that I use to help people to learn to shape. Throw away behaviours are behaviours that don’t really matter a lot to me; tricks are throw aways, and if the dog doesn’t learn them exactly right it is not a big deal. Throw away behaviours are not the sorts of behaviours that the dog’s life depends upon, like come when called or lie down and stay. Lying down with your head on your paws is a great throw away behaviour for kids to play with. The child cues the dog to lie down, and then instead of clicking we just give the dog a treat; the click ends the behaviour, and we want the dog to stay lying down. Then your child can wait till your dog drops his head towards his paws, and click at that moment and then treat. If your child is sitting in front of your dog while he is lying down, then your dog will likely keep lying down. Help your child to offer the treat low between the dog’s feet to help your dog to continue lying down, and if he gets up, then help your child to recue your dog to lie down and then help your kid to continue to click only when your dog drops his head down to his paws.
Notice here that the parent needs to spend a lot of time training, supporting and coaching in order to make this successful for both the dog and the child. Training, supporting, and coaching set up your dog and your child to be successful and start to work independently. You cannot do this for either your dog or your child, but without input they are likely going to flounder especially in a busy classroom. Once your child has trained a few throw away behaviours or tricks with coaching, then it is time for the parent to step back, and supervise but not do it for the team. These first steps of training independently need to be successful to keep both your child and your dog engaged. It is also important to recognize that there is no imperative to work for a whole hour in a class-if your child and your dog are comfortable working for ten minutes and then they need a break, then let them take a break; it is not worthwhile to keep them working when they are no longer interested.
This is the sort of trick that little girls teach their dogs to do. The dog has to learn somethings first; lie down and stay for instance. If we help the dog to learn the behaviour and then teach the kids how to get the dogs to do what they know then the dog and the kids can both have a great experience!
Small successful steps lead to a long lasting bond between your dog and your child, but you also have to put the training in context. This is true for adults in training classes too; “what is the point?” is always an important question to answer. If you have been working on sit with your dog and your child, then make sure that you use that behaviour with your dog and your child in the context of their day to day activities. You could for instance start getting your dog to sit before your child puts the dog’s breakfast down. Or you could get your dog to sit before your child throws a ball or a Frisbee for your dog. It is really important to make training relevant to both your dog and your child.
Often when parents ask if we include kids in class, they forget that we are dealing with three learners in class; the adult, the dog and the child. Few training classes are really geared to meet the needs of a child learner, and dropping a child into an adult class is not fun for the child, the instructor or the dog. We cannot expect the child to learn in the way that adults do, and when we pair the child up with a dog who doesn’t understand the work either, then the adult, the child and the dog go away frustrated.
When parents work with the school and take the dog through the work before they take the child through the work with the dog who already knows what to do, this makes it much easier for everyone. Communication between you and the instructor about your goals in bringing your dog and your child to class can really go a long way to being successful too. As an instructor, I want to know about your training goals and be a part of your successes. From time to time a child appears in my classes with their parents and the parent steps back too early, and the whole experiment falls apart. Not only is the child turned off one of the most magical activities that I was blessed to experience in my childhood, but the adult and the dog are frustrated too!
And what about the child who takes a class and is successful? When the child and the dog move through the world together and they come up with an idea together, they can explore that with a common understanding of how to communicate about what they each need. Then the child gets what I got as a child. A magic relationship with another being. That is what I wish every child could get when they come through my classroom.
In my last blog about walking puppies off leash (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/26/off-leash/ )I had a few comments on the Dogs in the Park Facebook page about how this made owners of reactive dogs cringe. One respondent said that my last blog was too nuanced for beginner trainers, and could lead to people letting their dogs off leash in places where they might encounter her large strong dog reactive dog. Let me just excerpt a couple of sentences from that blog to make certain that if you are reading about going off leash with your puppy you are clear about my intent
“The pinnacle of my relationship with my dogs is being able to take them off leash and walk with them anytime, anywhere. Being ABLE to do so is different from choosing to do so when it would not be in their best interest, but being able to do so is magic.”
In case people are not clear, being able to take my dogs off leash implies that I will take more into account than just removing the leash. Choosing to do so when it is dangerous is not my intent. There are a number of issues related to taking a puppy off leash, and the first of those issues is choosing to do so only when it is in your pup’s best interest.
“The more new places I can go, the better in my opinion, but I have to keep a bunch of things in mind. I don’t want to run into other dogs, especially dogs I don’t know. That could expose my puppy to diseases I don’t want him to catch, or to behaviours I don’t want him to experience. I also don’t want to run into the stools of unknown dogs because I want to protect my young pup from worms.”
Again, if you are unclear, I want you to steer clear of the dogs who might be reactive or who might carry diseases or who might be upset by your off leash puppy. If I don’t know your dog, I don’t let my youngster off leash. I am not as worried about what my pup might do to your dog in this case, but I am worried about what your dog might teach my puppy. If you have a reactive dog, I don’t want my puppy to learn anything from him, and so it is the responsibility of the dog owner to act in their dog’s best interest, which means not bringing my pup into a place where your dog might get upset and my pup might be frightened.
“I don’t want to run into predators either. Hawks and owls can easily take a young small puppy. Coyotes, wolves and bears are also a concern in some parts of Canada. Even foxes can be a problem and will take a small dog if they stumble across it. Water can be another natural hazard to be aware of. About four years ago in Guelph, a young pup was playing on the ice and fell in and drowned. Fast water, deep water, ice and hidden water are all things I keep in mind when I am taking my puppies out for their first excursions into the natural world.”
This advice could also include roads, cars, bikes, and anything else in the environment that could cause harm to my puppy. In the last blog I was very specific about the owner’s responsibility to keep their dog safe. Now I want to address that same issue with reactive dogs in mind.
When you live with a reactive dog, you have a huge responsibility to keep your dog below threshold. By keeping your dog below threshold, you are taking active steps to avoid situations where your dog is not going to go off and become reactive. If your dog is reactive to children, then please, don’t go to the local school yard or playground in the name of training your dog. This is neither fair to your dog or to the children you are exposing him to.
Allowing your dog to get triggered is not only unfair and unsafe to the public at large it is very unfair to your dog. As the owner of a reactive dog it is your job to prevent this from happening by choosing your walk locations both on and off leash carefully. The more often that your dog is triggered, the more he is going to behave this way. Image credit: fouroaks / 123RF Stock Photo
If your dog is reactive to other dogs, then taking him through a park where other dogs run is irresponsible, even if it is against the law for those dogs to be running there. If this sounds like I am condoning dog owners breaking the law let me assure you I am not. I would really like everyone to follow their local leash laws, but the fact is that people ARE letting their dogs run illegally and if you walk your reactive dog into that situation, then he is going to react. You are your dog’s advocate and he doesn’t know what the risks are when choosing your walking route.
In my opinion, off leash activities in natural areas are important not only for dogs but also for children. The child who has never set foot in a natural area is much poorer for the lack. As a former outdoor educator, I am keenly tuned in to what happens when we isolate ourselves from nature, and the results of children being isolated from nature are huge. This is also true for dogs. So what do you do when you have a reactive dog who is unable to get out to walk off leash in the natural world?
The first thing is to get out a map, or open up Google Earth and take a close look at your neighbourhood. What is the closest green area on the map? In many suburban environments, you will now find causeways between housing developments that allow water to run off naturally. These green spaces are often un-used and available to bring your reactive dog to for exercise and stimulation. The areas under hydro allowances are also often available. Then there areas of crown or state land that are open to the public but little used. When you look at Google Earth, you will find green in very unexpected places. One of the most common places that I find green in urban areas is abutting industrial basins.
Once you have looked at the map, go visit without your dog. Really. This is the important preplanning that you must do to avoid the puppies I am sending out to do normal off leash walking. When you go, spend time looking for evidence of other humans in the area. Yes, there are stray dogs and that is a risk, but you can often find areas in very urban settings where there is green space available to walk along, where few people go. You are looking for things like fresh litter (the semi decayed and crushed water bottle that is half covered in mud is not recent; the whole shiny chip bag that has been stepped upon is), footprints, bike tire prints, pawprints, and crushed vegetation. If you are finding a lot of fresh evidence mark that location as a possible, but not likely place. If you actually meet people there, then cross that location off the map. Visit several places, and if you find one where there is no evidence of people, you have scored a walking area. If you have found some places with some evidence of people walking there, visit a few times and see if you can determine when you can avoid people.
This is an excellent site for working with a reactive dog. I can see if there are other people or dogs in the distance and take steps to avoid problems while allowing my dog the opportunity to walk in a very normal way. If I am concerned about my dog biting, I will muzzle him even if I don’t expect to meet anyone. Muzzling is more preplanning you can do to help your dog have a successful off leash experience. Preplanning is all about making sure that if it could go wrong, it doesn’t. I teach all dogs including non reactive dogs to wear a muzzle. In this case, Eco was wearing a muzzle because he was on our reactive dog walk where all the dogs wear muzzles as a safety precaution. I also teach a rock solid down at a distance so that I can put the brakes on if I need to do so. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
This link leads to the map of where I hold my reactive dog walks. http://tinyurl.com/jvpuy8e . Over the four years I have been walking there with dogs with behaviour problems I have never met a person or dog there, and yet it is right in a neighbourhood full of hundreds of people who could walk there if they wanted to do so. If you look at the “A” marked on the map, that is where Dogs in the Park is, so this is a short three minute walk from the training hall. I visited this location every Sunday for three weeks before moving my walk there; I wanted to be certain that I would not run into people with my crew of reactive dogs. Preplanning pays off.
Not only must you preplan where you are going to take your dog, but you must preplan what you are going to do. If you are the owner of a reactive dog, you have a responsibility to always attend to that dogs’ behaviour. If you are not able to attend to him at all times, then you may not be able to work with your dog off leash. While walking your reactive dog off leash, you need to be aware that on public property, anyone could show up at any time and you need to be aware of what is happening around you and be ready to call your dog back to you and leave if it is no longer in your dog’s best interest to have him off leash. Keep in mind this isn’t about your right to do this activity; this is all about your responsibility to YOUR dog. Being responsible to YOUR dog keeps my dog safe. This is not an activity to do with your kids, or when you have a head ache; this is an activity to do when you can give your whole attention to what you are doing.
This is our off leash reactive dog walk called the Good Dog Walk. All of the dogs have behaviour problems of one sort or another. Everyone is paying attention to the dogs in order to assure that we can prevent any problems from happening. If you are unable to attend to your dog, then don’t take him out! Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
If the area is not fenced and you think your dog might bolt, then dragging a long line is a great idea. 30 metres of long line dragging will allow you to catch your dog at any time, but allow the line to drag. Don’t try and hold onto it. Use a piece of bright tape to make off 10, 20 and 25 metres, so that you can see when your dog is getting far enough away that you should take action. Call first and if he does not come, step on the line. I like to call dogs when they are at about twenty metres and stop them by stepping on the line at 25 metres if they haven’t come. This teaches the dog not to stray, but doesn’t interfere with his normal and natural behaviour.
Long lines are great tools to help your dog to stay close to you while he is learning to work off leash. Notice that this dog is calm and under control? This is the behaviour you want before letting your dog go and explore. If your dog is straining at the leash and staring at things, then wait till he is calm and relaxed before starting out. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
Just what do I want the dog to do? Pretty much whatever he wants. If he wants to sniff around, let him. If he wants to lie in a puddle, allow that too. This may be the first time that your reactive dog can just choose to do what makes him happy. Most of the time when we are working with reactive dogs we are micromanaging what they are doing to avoid them going over threshold. You see another dog in the distance? You ask the reactive dog to look at you and not engage in the other dog, and then ask him to sit or lie down. Every action that your dog does may have been micromanaged, possibly for years. This level of micromanagement may keep your dog from going over threshold, but it sure doesn’t help him to be relaxed and confident and that is part of what being off leash gives us.
Although you want to have control over the situation, off leash walks should be an opportunity for your reactive dog to do things he wants to do; picking things up, sniffing and looking where he wants to look are all things that he cannot do when you are micromanaging a walk on a leash. Micromanagement makes reactivity worse, not better. If your reactive dog has dog friends, taking them for walks together is even better because your dog will learn through social facilitation what is safe and what is dangerous. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
The other thing that you must do is move. Your dog should get ahead of you, engage in the environment and then lag behind. You should encourage checking in, but you should also be checking what interests your dog. There is a huge difference between the conversation that you have when you have a reactive dog and you are orchestrating every little motion, and the conversation you have when you go over to look at the raccoon fur that is snagged on a branch that your dog has found. Developing a two way conversation with your reactive dog can go a long way to helping him to relax and enjoy himself. In my opinion, this is an essential step in success with a reactive dog.
In truly urban environments it can be very difficult to find a truly natural safe environment to explore with your dog. I have had good success with these dogs in taking them to places like blind alleys and allowing them to explore the local dumpster on a long line. The opportunity to be in a place where they are not going to be startled and be able to just smell things and explore things and toilet when they want to do so is essential to good mental health for all of us, and when we cannot get to a rural place, sometimes we have to compromise. Always we have to keep in mind our responsibility to keep our reactive dogs below threshold, not only because of the risk to others, but because every time that a reactive dog goes off, it is a penny in the bank account of anxiety and frustration, which only leads to more reactivity.
As a final word, I would like to mention that walking your reactive dog down the street on leash, through the triggers that will set him off is at best a fool’s errand that will never result in the relaxed companion you are aiming for. So where do you walk? If you have a vehicle, my best place for leash walking is a grocery store parking lot. You will see few other dogs, it is a large area where you can see people approaching and there are loads of places you can duck into in order to avoid triggers. Walking your reactive dog should be an exercise in developing confidence and relaxation for both you and your dog, and if you are constantly hyper vigilant to the things that might set your dog off, you are never going to teach him to accept his triggers; at best you are going to teach him to trust that you are his best early warning system. At worst you are going to teach him that hyper vigilance is the normal state of being.