Recently we had the family of one of our Good Dogs give a lecture to us about how they collected data while they trained their dog. In their presentation they brought up the issue of what they thought they “should” do with their dog, and it reminded us of all the things that our clients do that they are told they “should” do, but for which there may be no real need. How many of us hear a little voice in the back of our head telling us what we “should” do? Should you really do those things?
Many people think that they “should” walk their dogs around their neighbourhoods every day. Should you? Does your dog actually like walking around the block? Most dogs find leash walking very frustrating. We don’t walk at the right speed for dogs, and most dogs don’t want to walk past everything they see. It is very difficult to get enough exercise for your average dog just by leash walking, so that means that you aren’t doing much more than providing a place for your dog to toilet by taking him for a leash walk through the neighbourhood.
If you are actually committed to taking your dog for a neighbourhood walk, you may want to take him for a sniff instead of a walk. To teach him the activity, grab a handful of treats and go out and hide them along your route. You are only going to have to do that once or twice, so don’t worry, this isn’t going to mean a second walk for you. Get your dog on leash, take him outside and point out all the treats you have stashed. The key to this activity is that it is something you do with your dog jointly. It is not you mindlessly walking down the street with your dog sniffing to his heart’s content. A good sniff walk involves you pointing out the things that are important to both of you. When you are pointing out the treats, he is rewarded for following your directions and gets the hang of the activity. Once your dog understands that you are pointing out interesting things, you can start pointing out things other than treats. Try and look for things that would be interesting for a dog to sniff, like the vertical surfaces where another dog may have left some “pee mail”. When you tune into what your dog is interested in, walks become a whole different experience for both of you.
How about the idea that dogs “should” stop and sit at every corner? This is one I see people struggle with all the time. I suspect this tradition came from the early days of guide dog work, back in the 1920s when some guide dogs were taught to stop and sit so that the blind person knew where the corner was. There are many different ways that guide dogs signal their person now, but should your pet dog stop and sit? Is it useful? Often it isn’t. I don’t teach this to my own dogs. Most people do this in the hope that if their dog is ever loose, he won’t run across a street, but most dogs don’t make the connection between coming up to the corner on leash and off leash as being the same thing. There are other ways that we can teach the dog to stop at the edge of a street, but those are complex beyond the scope of this blog.
Should your dog sleep in bed with you? Studies show that 60% or more of dogs in North America do! Dogs have likely been sleeping with us for millennia. We have used them as living hot water bottles, for company and to warn us of danger. If you like to sleep with your dog, go ahead. Unless your dog is dangerous to you in bed (I did have one client whose dog attacked them while they were sleeping!), then if you like it, go ahead. There is no reason not to do that.
How about “should you eat before your dog?” In my life that would often be very inconvenient! Often Friday will eat at 5 in the afternoon at work between classes but John and I don’t eat until 9:30 or 10 when we get home from work. I think some folks think that the dog eating after they do means that they should only feed the dog after they eat, but in our home, that is often inconvenient. Usually one of us will feed the dog or dogs, and the other of us will prepare the meal. When it doesn’t work out that way, our dogs will lie down while we are eating and patiently wait their turn. This takes training but it is reflective of how we live with one another. We value being polite to one another in our home, and that includes the dogs, so when it is not your turn to do something, then you wait politely until it is.
How about “You should always go through the door first?” This one is a particular pet peeve of mine. Often, I want the dogs to go out the door first so that I can see what they are up to, and so that they don’t trip me by rushing up behind me and knocking into me. When I am getting ready to leave, I will often ask the dogs to go out first, but if there is a reason for me to go first, then I just ask them to wait. I do the same thing when I go up or down the stairs, especially if I am carrying something; I decide who goes first and who waits till I am at the top or bottom as may be the case, in the interest of safety.
I love the “shoulds”. Should you? Should you never? Always good questions. How about if instead of thinking in terms of “should, you think in terms of “what do you need?” or “how will this work for me?” Should you exercise your dog every day? Does he need it? If he is a healthy, adolescent dog, I would argue that yes, he needs to be exercised every single day. But if he is an adolescent dog who is recovering from hip or knee surgery he may not need to be exercised at all! If he is an elderly dog exercise may cause him harm. If he is an adult dog and has had heartworm disease, exercise may kill him. When your friends and neighbours start saying “you should exercise that dog” and exercising him is not in his best interest, “should” gets bolstered by guilt. And then guilt pushes you into second guessing, and then you get stuck between what you “should” do and what everyone else wants you to do. Many years ago, I had a client who had a 7 month old husky. The dog was in desperate need of exercise, but the man had been in a car accident when the dog was only 5 months old. My client had a trach tube, and thus could not go out in our cold winter weather. The vet told him that he “should” exercise the dog. I went in and helped this nice man meet his dog’s need for exercise by doing stretches, slow stair walking, searches in the house, and puppy push ups. Was it ideal? No, but it was what was the most appropriate for my client. Never the less, the neighbours left him a nasty note in his mailbox one day when the dog howled while he was out, accusing him of not exercising his dog. Should gets in the way of a lot of things, including being aware of what you actually need, or what you can actually do.
There are a few things that I think every dog family “should” do. You should get good preventive veterinary care for your dogs. You should see who your dog actually is and what he actually needs so that you can actually meet his needs. You should make sure that he is properly socialized as a puppy so that he can have the best life possible. You should keep your dog up to date on his shots. You should give your dog an education so that he can cope with the world he lives within. My list of shoulds are things that lead to better overall health and welfare for your dog and your life instead of a list of rules to follow in the hopes that your dog will fit into someone else’s mould of what living with a dog is intended to look like. Many of the “shoulds” come to us from police, military and service dog training where the dogs have very specific roles and what is interesting is that these rules may have been accurate for a period of time long ago, but are no longer useful for our current lives.
When you are living with a dog, look at what works for you and your dog. Look at what fills your needs. And leave should for another dog family; “should” does not need to govern your or your dog’s life.
People often talk about their dogs being reactive, but what does this mean? What does it look like? We throw around terms such as reactive, proactive, responsive and so on as though everyone should just “know” what that means, but often we don’t stop to think about what it really means to have a dog who is “reactive” and what we should do about it.
To begin with, let’s understand that every animal will and should startle at some things. For some animals like my chessie, D’fer, a jet plane taking off is nothing to really bother with, and when he has been close by, this is nothing he is concerned about in the least. He is the least reactive animal in my life at the moment.
My horse Kayak on the other hand startles at many things. Somethings she startles at are predictable. She does not like motorcycles zipping by us; and when she startles, she will jump sideways and sidestep and sometimes buck a little bit. Somethings she startles at are not at all predictable. Rocks. Large rocks startle Kayak. The thing about rocks is that they don’t run around and jump out and say “boo”. They are rocks. But if she is walking calmly down a trail and she encounters a rock, she will often stop suddenly and stand still and if it is a particularly large rock she is prone to backing away from it. The rock is on the horizon, and everything is going well until we reach about ten metres. Ten metres from a large rock and she will sometimes startle.
Kayak doesn’t startle as much as some of the dogs I work with. I was working with a dog today who over the course of an hour habituated to the room, the dogs barking in the next room, the toy dog on the floor and then he noticed my hat! Yikes! Hats probably eat dogs, or at least that is how he was behaving. He didn’t just startle either, he shivered and he barked and he stared. The dogs like this are dogs who baffle their owners because it can feel like he is busy acquiring new fears on the fly. What I think often happens to these dogs is that they are so overwhelmed that as they become less aroused and overwhelmed, they start to notice more and more things to worry about. Some of these dogs are highly visually reactive. Some are highly sensitive to sounds. I am betting that there are a number of dogs who are sensitive to smells, and I know that a lot of these dogs are also very sensitive to touch.
While I wouldn’t describe D’fer as reactive, he will notice things in his environment. And although Kayak notices more things in her environment I wouldn’t call her reactive either. Some of the dogs in my classes though absolutely ARE reactive; I would describe a dog who barks at leaves falling as reactive and when they don’t bounce back readily, I would consider them highly reactive. All this brings me to “what is the anatomy of reactivity”.
The first part of a reaction is before the reaction occurs, when the dog is calm. With dogs who are stable and confident, this calm behaviour is when they look at the world and they are able to make accurate predictions about what is coming up. Are all of the stimuli in the environment predictable? Can they explore things that might be surprising? Calm, confident dogs use this time to evaluate what they are seeing and what is happening around them, while reactive dogs might use this time to worry about things they don’t understand. It is like they are always on a slow boil, anticipating bad things coming up. Reactive dogs use this space between startling events to worry and think about the dangers inherent in the environment. Most dogs fall somewhere in the middle; they don’t spend all of their time worrying about things that might go wrong, but they also don’t hang out not worrying at all either.
Once a stimulus has occurred that might be concerning, then you have one of two situations. Either the dog is not at all worried about it and remains calm, or you have a reaction of some sort. In the most extreme situations, you have a dog who barks and carries on and ascribes to the idea of “when in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout”. The alternate side to this is the dog who experiences fear and shuts down. The stimulus is frightening but his tactic is to shut down and go into that part of his brain that is related to self protection. He may become quiet and unresponsive. The common element to either of these reactions is that the dog is unable to follow a simple cue like sit or lie down. When a reactive dog is presented with a stimulus and you ask him casually to do a behaviour he knows really, really well, if he is unable to do it the behaviour right away, then regardless of his apparent level of concern, he is over his threshold.
Once a dog has reacted, then the next thing to look at is what he does after the stimulus has been removed. Does he immediately return to a calm state? When you startle my mare Kayak, she is pretty quick to settle down; in less than five seconds she is usually back to her calm state. D’fer is pretty unflappable and rarely startles, but if he is startled, he comes back to a calm state pretty much as soon as he recognizes whatever startled him. Along the continuum of dogs I see on a daily basis we get everything from dogs who settle back down immediately to dogs who take hours or even days to really recover from even a mild surprise.
When working with dogs with behaviour problems it is essential that we are responsive to situations instead of being reactive. The first step in success if having a plan. Being proactive means preplanning everything that you have control over. Do you know what is on the other side of the closed door? If not, can you check before you take your dog through it? Do you know what the dog you see in the distance is likely to do when he greets your dog? If not, can you avoid meeting him? Do you know that the person you are handing your leash to will take as much care as you do in handling your dog? If you don’t, can you ensure that you are not putting your dog into a situation where he might be at risk?
Being proactive actually means more than just preplanning. It means always thinking about the possibilities without terrifying yourself. It means taking reasonable care to avoid situations where your dog might go over the threshold and be triggered into a reactive state, and thinking about what your actions will cause in the environment around you. It means being observant and figuring out what you can do to keep your dog’s wellbeing in the forefront. Often it means doing things differently than you might otherwise do.
I learned about being proactive as most of us do; the hard way. I had a dog named Crow, a German Shepherd who had never been off the cow farm he had been born onto until he was 7 months of age. Crow was not extremely timid, but he also wasn’t overtly confident, and he was quite reactive. He did have some quirks that were very difficult to live with. He had a total fear of new flooring. Crow would walk calmly and confidently on cement floors, grass and asphalt. When I first brought him home, he trotted into my cement floored porch, and over the threshold into the kitchen where the floor was linoleum and promptly back peddled with all his might. I carried him in and put him onto the hardwood floor and he stood stock still for about ten minutes before he dropped his head and sniffed it. We had to repeat the ordeal to get him back out again. It took Crow a solid two weeks to decide that my home with hardwood, linoleum and two different types of carpet would not eat him. It was really sad and if I knew then what I know now, I would have approached the situation very differently.
Trains didn’t phase Crow, but people in long coats, people on bicycles and people playing musical instruments would send him into fits of barking. Tractors, heavy machinery, cows, elk and deer were not a problem. The shiny police motorcycle that was parked at an agricultural fair was terrifying. The officer in a helmet was not a problem. Over time, I was able to title Crow in Novice Obedience, but we could only show out of doors. After the first indoor show I entered required him to walk over a parquet floor to get to the shiny tiled floor of the fair building it was held in, I didn’t feel I could ever do that to him again. I did show him at the National German Shepherd Specialty mind you; they hold it on a concrete pad in a hockey arena and they bring in sod to cover the ground.
The kind of pre-planning and proactive thinking I had to learn to do with Crow was not just a day to day thing; it was also a minute to minute thing. When I walked out of my house every day, I had to think about the weather (would there be people in long coats that I would need to be aware of?), and the time of year (would we encounter a parked motorcycle?) and the time of day (would the diverse group of university students who lived in the apartment building across the street be going to the bus, wearing a variety of coats and hats?), but I also had to think about the larger picture too. Did I really want to continue training Crow in Obedience when there were so many variables that I could not control when we showed?
Even though I learned to be very proactive with Crow, I could still from time to time run into huge issues. Things might be going along just fine and then a sudden environmental change, or “something that Crow considered different and difficult” might appear and startle him. I realize now that when I am faced with a dog or dogs who are reactive I have a mental check list that I run through that helps me a lot with helping my dog when this sort of a situation arises.
The first thing I ask myself is “Am I safe?” I learned this in every first aid class I ever took. If I am not safe, then I cannot help and I am better to get out of the way. Recently, I was in a situation where my three horses were behaving unpredictably. The weather was really bad, there was ice falling off the trees and the horses were frightened. Frightened horses tend to bolt and although none of my horses would intend to hurt me, three horses running in a small paddock are not safe for the people. I was in the paddock with them when I realized I was not safe. Recognizing that I was in a dangerous situation, I chose to leave the horses. Yes, they were at risk, but I couldn’t help them if I got hurt, so I got out.
Once I got to safety, I could think about what to do to help. The second step I go through when I am working with reactive animals is to ask if they are safe. In the situation above the horses definitely were not safe, and going back into their paddock was not a good idea. I thought about things for a moment and decided to get a bucket of grain and the horses’ halters and I leaned over the gate in the shelter they have access to, and I was able to catch two of them and tie them to a wall. Once I was safe, I could make sure the horses were safe.
Once two of the three horses were confined, the third horse stopped running around in the ice and the rain and the wind. Then I put a riding helmet on so I wouldn’t get hurt by falling ice (keeping myself safe), and went around the paddock to another gate(avoiding getting the first two horses excited) and caught the third horse. I was able to safely catch the third horse. Once all the horses were safe, I was able to think about the next step.
The third step is to ask myself if there is something in the environment that I can change. Our shelter is small and the two horses I had tied in there would share it once there was room to do so. I took the third horse and put her in the barn. Then I went back around to where the first two horses were and let them loose so that they were safe for the night.
Only once I had determined that I was safe, that the animals were safe, and that I had changed the environment to make it as safe for the horses as possible could I begin to address the behaviour of these frightened animals. When everyone was safe, I spent some time with the most frightened of the horses (the one I put indoors for the evening), grooming her and soothing her.
For clarity, the steps are as follows:
Ask myself “Am I safe?” If I am not, get myself to safety.
Ask myself if my animal is safe. If he is not, address that issue next.
Check to see if there is any way to make a change in the environment to make it safer for the animal.
Address the behavioural needs of the animal.
So let me run through a possible situation. You are out in the park with your dog on leash. Your dog is reactive to other dogs and you see a loose dog on the horizon. He is still at a distance, but he is running towards you and your dog. What can you do?
Are you safe? At the moment you notice the dog, yes. This means without doing anything else you can go to the next step.
Is your dog safe? At the moment, yes. If he knows how to lie down between your feet, now is a time when you might ask him to do this so that he will stay safe.
What can you change in the environment? If your dog will do a reliable down stay, you can put yourself between him and the dog. You could throw hands full of treats at the approaching dog. You could call out and see if an owner will appear. You can even yell at the dog “You come here you bad, bad, bad dog!” Many dogs will run away if they have heard that line in the context of being punished! Once the dog has either left or been caught or been scared off our an owner has appeared, you can go to the final step.
Address your dog’s behaviour. If he is lying down calmly because you have drilled him on this sort of situation, you can probably give him a pile of treats and then continue on your way. If he is upset, you may need to stop and do some massage, or it could be that the best thing you can do for your reactive dog is get him home to a safe, quiet crate.
Living with dogs and other animals who are reactive can be really, really challenging. It can be extremely difficult to predict where the next motorcycle is going to come from, or where the next giant dog is going to come from, or where the next falling leaf will occur. With good proactive handling and a plan, you can often decrease or minimize the unpleasant consequences that occur when frightening things happen. The more you can decrease the impact of the unpredictable situations, the easier it is to implement a successful classical conditioning program.
Recently a competing dog training school posted pictures of their graduating class to their Facebook page. The album featured six smiling families with their dogs in a sit and a graduation certificate and individual brags beside picture. On five out of the six dogs, they were obviously wearing prong collars. Interesting. Two of the six dogs showed clear signs of distress and one dog appeared to be really frightened. All the people were wearing big smiles and the instructor made a point that he was graduating six well trained dogs. Hmmm. Why do six well trained dogs all need prong collars? And why do well trained dogs look so stressed? Could it be that the people feel that their dogs are under control by virtue of the equipment that they wear?
Jumping back twenty years or so, I remember when the leash laws first came into Guelph. There was a lot of publicity about dogs being leashed on a leash that was no more than two metres in length and being under control without a lot of information about what exactly under control meant. One fine summer day, I was out in the park in a legitimate off leash area with my dog off leash. Being a dog trainer, I was doing what I am prone to doing; I was training my dog. I left him on a sit stay, and walked about 50 metres away. A woman came along with her two kids and stopped dead and then began to scream at me to get my dog under control. Fifty metres away, my dog sat panting and looking around, and this woman continued her tirade about dangerous dogs. My leash was around my shoulders as it usually is, and my dog was relaxed and I was really confused. At first I protested that my dog WAS under control. This seemed to rev the woman up even more. After several minutes of this, I called my dog and she and the children began to shriek. My dog came and I leashed up and the woman finally relaxed a tiny amount and told me that the new law required my dog to be under control. I had an aha moment. By under control, she meant ON LEASH. Under control means something entirely different to me.
When I first started to offer dog training classes I mostly had my students using the traditional chain slip collar that we now understand can cause a lot of injuries. I don’t use them any longer and don’t allow them on my training grounds. The risk of injury to my students’ dogs is just too high, and I think that they really gave us a false sense of what it meant to be under control. When control is entirely reliant on stopping bad behaviours from happening, then we aren’t actually teaching dogs to have self control; we are teaching them that if they do things we don’t want, they will get hurt. Again, I have to reflect that as a society we have a funny way of thinking about “control”. We spent most of our time teaching the dogs what they could not do and how badly we could hurt them if they stepped out of line.
In my introduction to dog training class, I had an activity that I did with one of my own dogs. I dressed him up in every piece of dog training equipment I owned. I put on a halter and a harness, a chain collar, a flat buckle collar, a martingale, a dog coat and a prong on him. I would put him through his paces and one by one take all the equipment off. I would point out to my audience that my dog was happy to work bare naked. I did a lot of work with that dog and it was wonderful exciting happy work, even though I started him on a pain based system. What I learned with that particular dog is that it is not the equipment. It is the relationship. Control doesn’t depend upon the collar, it is reliant on the relationship.
Relationship is what really creates a dog under control. At Dogs in the Park, we start all of our dogs on flat buckle collars and two metre leashes, and we do the first few classes with the dogs tethered to the wall. We recognize that we are not starting with dogs who have self control or even owner directed control. We work towards getting the dogs off the wall as quickly as we can. We want the dogs to be successful and the people to be successful too, so we take out the variable in the equation of the dog making the wrong choice. We tether and work on SELF control.
My dog out in the park was demonstrating self control. He was controlling his impulse to go and run up and say hi to the kids. He was controlling his impulse to go to the river to swim. He was controlling his impulse to lie down. My dog was in control of himself and he was doing what I wanted him to do; he was minding his manners and staying where I had left him. This is the level of self control that is easy to live with. I didn’t have to worry about this dog pulling people over; he wouldn’t dream of pulling on leash. I didn’t have to worry about him leaving either; he knew that staying was the game at the moment. In training, that is the goal. A well trained dog is a dog who is happy and confident and who will mind his manners, even if he is bare naked.
Getting from the point of being tethered to the wall and learning to not take treats and to not knock people over when they come in to greet to being able to be left on a sit stay or a down stay at fifty metres does not need to be painful for the dog, but it is an important step in developing self control. It should in fact be fun for everyone. At home, you should be doing most of your training off leash. The leash is a great tool but it is only a tool and it is not about great training. It is what we use when we must, not what actually teaches the dog to do something. What actually teaches the dog to do things is not the equipment he wears or the words that you say, but the direct outcomes of his own behaviour.
The key to getting from point A, the dog who is out of control to point B the dog who will do distance stays while his person is being screamed at is a process of steps. Seeing the pictures of the graduating class of the other school reminded me of how important steps and stages are. At the very beginning, I have to acknowledge that the dog does not understand what I want. If pain is the tool we choose to explain this to the dog, then we need to be able to set the dog up to learn quickly and efficiently that there is a way to avoid pain. The pain should be minimal and rare and the dog should understand how to not get hurt. In the old days when I was first learning to train we would do set ups where we would set the dog up to fail so that he could learn that he would be hurt if he made the wrong choice. I realize now, especially when I look at pictures and video from those days that my dog was often concerned about being right and worried that she would get hurt. The picture of the graduation class brought home some pretty strong memories for me, some of which I am not entirely proud of.
Now when I look at the journey from point A to point B, I ask myself if the dog is relaxed and happy. If the dog is relaxed, then I know that he understands what I want him to do. I look not only at if the dog can do the skill, but also if the dog is comfortable about it. If the dog is not comfortable I reassess what I am asking him to do. When we start a dog in training at Dogs in the Park, they start on the wall and we ask the question; “are you comfortable enough to take treats?” If the answer is yes, then we ask “are you comfortable enough to click and treat?” If the answer to that is yes, then we ask “are you comfortable enough to refrain from taking treats when you should not?” and if the answer is yes, we ask the question “are you comfortable enough to offer behaviours?” If we get a no, then we work with the client to determine what we need to do to make the dog feel safe and comfortable enough to work in our classroom. We ask the dog.
Training is not just about skills acquisition. It is also about the emotional state of the dog, and the relationship that the dog has with you. When a dog feels confident about you and the work you are doing, he is eager and keen to try new things. He doesn’t look worried or concerned. He doesn’t look like something might go wrong at any moment. When a dog feels confident about what he is doing he is willing to engage in things with you, and that is what partnership is about. It is not just about skills acquisition at all; it is about everything that the dog is thinking about and experiencing including how the dog is working with you.
So I come full circle back to the graduation pictures that my competitor posted. The people look thrilled and proud. Half the dogs look relaxed. The instructor describes his clients and their dogs as well trained dogs and people. But three of the six dogs look unhappy and at least five of the six dogs are wearing devices that operate on pain. None of the dogs is looking at his person as though that person was interesting or cool. This is where we started at Dogs in the Park. I am really glad we moved on to where we are now. The pictures I post of my clients don’t show a whole lot of graduations. We don’t graduate dogs anymore. We celebrate when they achieve levels. And we see a lot more happy and a lot fewer stressed dogs. I am really proud of what we are doing here, and I hope my students are just as proud of themselves; our dogs learn skills and they also learn about partnership and relationship and trust. And when you dog trusts that you have his back, he will do nearly anything for you. One step at a time, towards a goal that is meaningful for both of you. I am so glad my competition posted their pictures. Sometimes I just need some confirmation that I am heading in the right direction.
Andrew is a nice guy who has been training with Dogs in the Park for the past couple of months. Andrew has a wife(P) and a daughter (B) and a dog (Henry) and of course he has a Mom. Andrew’s mom is terrific. Really she is! She comes over and helps P to clean the house once a week. She babysits so that Andrew and P can have an evening out (and B can have ice cream for dinner and they can blow bubbles in the livingroom). She brings homemade cookies, and takes the family on outings they couldn’t necessarily do without the help of a grandma to co-ordinate the logistics, and she is sensitive to not overstaying her welcome.
There is just one small problem. Andrew’s mom doesn’t actually understand dogs. And Henry struggles with anxiety. I guess that actually makes two problems, neither of which would be nearly as large a problem as the two issues coming together is. When you have someone in your life who just doesn’t understand dogs and you have an anxious dog, things can go haywire pretty fast. In fact, almost every family with a dog has someone who plays the role of “Andrew’s mom”.
Andrew’s mom is the person in your dog’s life who behaves in such a way that your dog just cannot succeed. Often the person who plays the role of Andrew’s mom really, deeply and passionately cares about dogs in general, and often about your dog in specific. In the case of Andrew’s mom, she really loves to love on Henry. Henry does not love being loved on quite THAT much. He appears to feel confined when Andrew’s mom tries to hug him, and that can cause him to tremble in fear. The harder he trembles, the more that Andrew’s mom will try and get him into her lap, to hug him, to hold him, to stroke him and even to kiss his muzzle. Andrew’s mom is in fact the reason that Andrew brought Henry to our school. One afternoon, Andrew’s mom came over and cornered Henry in the livingroom. B. was down for her nap, and Andrew’s mom was in need of some cuddling, so Henry was it. Henry had been resting and made the error of looking Andrew’s mom in the eye when he woke up. She came over, loomed over his dog bed, crouched down, and then gathered him up in her arms for a big “grandma hug”. Henry, being sort of sleepy, and not really happy about hugs to begin with, had finally had enough. He squirmed to get out of the hug and when that didn’t work, air snapped four or five times just to the left of Andrew’s mom’s ear. Needless to say, pandemonium ensued. Andrew’s mom screeched, Henry bolted for the back room where he liked to hide during thunderstorms and P yelled at Henry. B woke up and began to cry, and Henry lost control of his bladder.
When the dust settled, P called Andrew and Andrew called me and I got the family (minus Andrew’s mom and B) in for an appointment. When Andrew and P relayed what happened, I could see where everything fell apart for Henry, and the bite was not unexpected. Did I say “bite”? Yes. In the business we consider this to be a bite, albeit a very inhibited bite. A number of factors stacked up to create a circumstance where a bite was very likely. Henry was resting and relaxed. Then he saw Andrew’s mom. Andrew’s mom was the first stressful thing, or trigger that he noticed. Then Andrew’s mom came closer to Henry than he was comfortable with; that was the second trigger. I would lay good money that if I had a video of Henry in that moment, I would have seen some warning signs that would have told me that Henry was uncomfortable, but even if she noticed the signs, Andrew’s mom did not listen to his cues to tell her that he was uncomfortable. Not being heard could be another trigger for Henry. When Andrew’s mom loomed over Henry on his bed, that is a third trigger. When she reached for him and hugged him, that was a fourth trigger. When Henry tried to wiggle away but could not get loose, that would be a fifth trigger. Five or possibly six triggers was more than enough to elicit a bite! The video below gives you more details about trigger stacking.
In fact, Henry pulled his punches and did not do any damage to Andrew’s mom. Henry could have landed a serious bite causing her significant harm, but instead he air snapped near her face and then retreated. When he was hiding in his safe place, he was so distressed that he lost control over his bladder. Andrew’s mom felt really bad, and her response a day later was telling; she interpreted his losing control over his bladder as him being submissive and regretful of his bites, and so she ramped up her attention on Henry. In fact losing control over his bladder most likely happened because of his extreme fear.
Almost every dog with behaviour problems that I work with has an “Andrew’s mom” in his or her life. These people are usually kind, thoughtful and caring people, who just don’t understand the whole situation. I have seen many extreme forms of “Andrew’s mom”, from an uncle who allowed a very aggressive dog out of her kennel and into a holiday party of thirty guests, where she mauled someone, to the toddler who follows the dog everywhere all day long and never lets the dog rest. As a behaviour consultant Andrew’s mom is so frustrating! What we need are strategies to address the people in our lives who intentionally or otherwise subvert our efforts at helping our anxious, aggressive, reactive or fearful dogs.
One of the easiest strategies I have for guests is to hand them a cup of tea on a saucer with a cookie on it before bringing the dog into the room. I don’t have to tell the guest to ignore the dog because they cannot interact with the dog while holding a full cup of tea on a saucer. As soon as you say “don’t pay attention to the dog” your guest will inevitably look at the dog and often that sets Andrew’s mom up to interact in ways that are not productive.
Another strategy I have had great success with when working with dogs and kids is to have a structured activity such as hide and seek to play. The game goes like this. The dog starts out in his crate and the kids get to hide something that would be of value to the dog. You have to teach the dog the game first, but if you have a dog who will search for things, then it is easy to implement the game. The kids get a set amount of time to hide the item, and then they have to sit at a table or stay in a room that the dog cannot get to while the dog does the search. When the dog brings back the item, he waits in his crate while the kids hide the items again. The kids don’t end up being Andrew’s mom because they have to wait their turn while the dog is loose, and the dog is confined while they hide the item. This can work very well for kids up to about the age of 7.
While walking dogs on leash, almost everyone you encounter has the potential to be Andrew’s mom. Almost all of us have heard variations on “dogs like me” or “I don’t mind if he misbehaves” and it can be very difficult to fend off these well-meaning strangers. One of the easiest ways I have to keep people’s hands to themselves is to muzzle your dog. Often a muzzled dog gets to walk through the streets undisturbed where an unmuzzled dog seems to be a target for every person passing by.
Alternatively, I have simply said to people “I am in a terrible rush, sorry, I cannot stop to talk” and walked right on by. Some people just won’t take no for an answer though, but breaking into a run and hurrying on by can actually help. I have also sometimes been successful with telling people that my dog is ill and we have to rush home and get his medication. Keeping the conversation flowing is not the goal though; you have to say your piece and then move on.
I have even had trouble with professionals being Andrew’s mom. At the vet’s office, I have often had to advocate for my dog when the vet or the tech want to proceed more quickly than my dog was ready for. Things are improving for sure, however, we still have times when the vet may not realize or recognize that my dog needs a little more time. When this happens, you sometimes have to be really clear with your vet that you need to travel at the speed of dog, and slow things down a little. Use common sense when negotiating this with your vet however; don’t do this if you are in the middle of a medical emergency.
I think it is important to recognize that Andrew’s mom is well meaning, but still set clear boundaries about what is happening with your dog. A good behaviour modification plan includes making sure that your dog has the time and space to process what is going on, and we cannot expect our dogs to become more tolerant if they keep getting triggered. Knowing what your dog’s triggers are and setting things up so that the people around your dog don’t set those triggers in motion are essential to the process of successfully training your dog.
**Please note*** Since writing this blog I have relicensed to hunt, which you may have seen reflected in some of my other writing.
I am a gun owner. As a gun owner in Canada, I have to follow certain rules, and in fact, I follow even more rules than I am required to follow because I really want to make sure that I never ever allow my gun to fall into a situation where it might be used to commit a crime or to cause harm to someone. I got my gun when I was pursuing a hunting license in order to be able to hunt food for myself. Now that I no longer hunt, a good argument could be made that I no longer need a gun, but I might go back to hunting at some point and at that time, I would need a gun again, so in the meantime, I am a responsible gun owner who stores her gun in a manner that prevents people from getting the pieces, putting them together and firing the weapon.
Guns must be kept in a secure lockable containment system. Dogs with aggression issues must also be kept safely to keep everyone from harm, including the dog. Image credit: michaklootwijk / 123RF Stock Photo
My approach to gun ownership is very much like the approach I take to living with my dogs. John and I live with three dogs, all of whom in various ways could create havoc if they were improperly managed. D’fer, our oldest is not terrific with puppies. Preventing him from harming puppies is pretty straightforward. No matter how much your puppy wants to meet my adult dog, I don’t allow that to happen. I keep him crated, behind a fence or on a leash when a puppy is around and this keeps puppies safe. Would he harm a puppy? Probably. I don’t want to find out, so I will never give him the chance. This means that there are a very limited number of people who are permitted to handle D’fer. I don’t just leave him with a friend, because I don’t want to risk that they might mis-understand or put him into a situation where he might make a mistake. Deef is my responsibility, and I take that responsibility very seriously.
Eco, my German Shepherd was bred for protection work and I did a certain amount of that with him. Although he has met children, he doesn’t know them very well and he is over 45 kg. Without trying, Eco could easily harm a child, just by running and bumping into one. For this reason, Eco is not a dog park dog. He is not permitted to run loose in public because I don’t want to risk that a child or even a small adult might be hurt if he ran into them. Once again, there are a limited list of people I would leave Eco with because I don’t want to put anyone at risk. If I left Eco with someone who didn’t clearly understand the risks of handling him, and the boundaries we have to be aware of, then I would not be behaving responsibly towards my dog or the public.
Friday knows more about kids than Eco does and she likes puppies, but she is also a large dog at about 30kg, and she is young and sometimes foolish. She is a dog I could leave with some folks, but not with everyone. Not everyone is set up to deal with a young, goofy adolescent dog. She is a good girl, but she is creative, thoughtful, agile, and sometimes a little too much for your average person to deal with.
Most of the work that I do is with dogs with serious behaviour problems. Some of these dogs are extremely dangerous. I have worked with dogs who have mutilated people and killed other dogs. Some of these dogs will never ever be completely safe in public and yet they live safely in people’s homes. How does that work? On our uniform sleeves we have the motto “It Depends…” The answer to how does that work is “It depends”. It depends on the problem, it depends on where the owner lives with the dog, it depends on what risks there are in the lifestyle of the owner and so on and so forth. The bottom line when living with a dog who is dangerous in one way or another is risk analysis.
When working with dogs who are dangerous, it is important first and foremost to look at the physical premises and determine what would make the most sense when living with a dog with a problem. A dog who is predatory towards chickens should not be asked to live loose on a farm with hens. That would just not be safe for the hens and we would be exposing the hens to a significant avoidable risk. That same dog might well be perfectly safe and content living in a city in an apartment, where hens are extremely rare. I would not necessarily trust such a dog with a parrot however.
I frequently get calls from families who wish to add a dog to their home when the resident dog or cat either doesn’t like other dogs, or has caused a significant injury to another animal. I have helped many people make this work, but one of the first things to think about is “is this a good idea?” If it is not a good idea, then no matter how much the family might want to add another dog, that doesn’t change the fact that it is a bad idea. A lot can be done by using crates and gates with care, and avoiding the problem, but if you have a resident animal that doesn’t like other animals, is it actually a caring move to add another animal to the home? I would suggest it might not be a kind thing to do. This falls under the category of just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
When a dog is dangerous to the public at large, it is our responsibility to protect the public. There are tons of ways to keep people safe, and if your dog has ever caused harm to someone in public, be it a human or another dog, you must keep everyone safe at all times. I would like to make it cool for dogs to wear muzzles in public. If a muzzle will keep people safe, then why shouldn’t your dog wear one? Keeping large boisterous dogs on leash can help a lot too. Walking in places where other people don’t walk can really help a lot. And finally, choosing your time to walk is important too. I had a client who got up at three in the morning for four years to walk his dog because that was the one time that he could pretty much guarantee that his dog aggressive dog would not harm anyone else’s dog because other dogs just weren’t out at that time.
Owning a dog who has already caused harm to the public is a huge responsibility. It is as big a responsibility as owning a gun, but because this is a thinking and feeling gun, we often forget that the dog can cause an enormous amount of damage. Knowing how much damage a dog can do, and understanding that a dog is a thinking and feeling being requires a healthy dose of awareness, and compassion, without tipping yourself over into paranoia or soft heartedness. When you live with dogs like this, you have to be entirely and dispassionately rational about what your dog is able to cope with, and what he should not be exposed to. It is easy when you love a dog and you live with him to forget that he may have caused an incredible amount of damage, especially if you have not seen the action. It is equally possible to become overly protective and never allow your dog to live a normal life at all. The middle road can sometimes be difficult to find, and it can also sometimes be difficult to follow once you have found it.
The other issue to consider is that it is not only what YOU do with your dog but what others do too. Consider the situation where you have a dog who has seriously injured another dog in a dog park. Perhaps this happened when you weren’t with your dog. Perhaps this happened before your dog lived with you. If it happened at all, it is now your responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and this is where other people come into the equation. Perhaps you can take your dog to the dog park when no one is there. If you are able to see when other people show up, then you can leash up and leave. If you are unable to see people coming, then you cannot reasonably let your dog off leash to play. You cannot count on other people who don’t know your dog to take the kind of care that you do. Another alternative is to find dog friends who ARE safe with your dog and meet them together to keep his skills with other dogs fluent. All this falls apart though if you hand your dog over to a dog walker who doesn’t understand the risks. Or if someone comes to the park and as you are leashing up, unleashes their dog to come and molest your dog. When you cannot control who comes into contact with your dog, you really cannot take your dog into the situation.
One tragic incident happened to a client of mine many years ago. She knew her dog was not good with strangers, but it was her family’s year to host Christmas dinner. I suggested boarding her dog. Not keen on that idea, she chose instead to put her dog out in their outdoor kennel while her guests were there. An uncle, who had met the dog as a puppy decided he knew better than the owner and went out to the kennel and let the dog out. After playing with the dog for half an hour, he let the dog into the home, where she mauled one of the other guests. The owner appeared to be behaving responsibly, but she could not prevent her uncle from doing something that we knew would cause a problem. It isn’t always what the owner does, but what the people around the owner do that can cause havoc.
When you have guests, containing your dog at home may be a good idea if your dog has aggression issues, but often it is a better idea to send your dog to a professional boarding kennel where he can be safely cared for. Image credit: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo
There are lots of dangerous dogs living in communities, and when everyone is brutally realistic without being paranoid or soft hearted, we can make it work. When you own a dog who might be dangerous, it is your responsibility and no one else’s to protect society from harm caused by your dog. As members of society, when an owner tells us that a dog is not friendly, you are not helping in any way by insisting that you know better. You don’t. You have no idea what the history of the dog you meet is and if the owner or handler tells you that the dog is not safe or not comfortable with being touched, then don’t press your luck; it is not worth it in any way. Staying safe when working with dogs is like owning a gun. You don’t leave it out where people who don’t understand it might have access, and you don’t leave it in a place where someone who might use it to commit a crime might find it. With dogs with behaviour problems proactive handling, preplanning and organizing a plan B so that you can avoid problems is just common sense. Kind of like living with a gun.
I received a rather weird post to my business Facebook page, from a man in another city imploring me to teach my students to follow the city by laws. His rant was full of frustration and anger. He was SO frustrated that he complained to just about the only person who could not help him. There is definitely a divide between the dog owning and the non dog owning community. The only thing that both communities seem to agree upon is that they are fed up.
On the one hand are those who own dogs and who have to move through the public with those dogs. Very few of us want to cause discomfort to the people who live near us, but sometimes things happen. If you get caught away from home without a bag and your dog leaves a mess, there is little you can do. My kingdom for bag stations and garbage cans on every street corner! Dogs are dogs though, and they do things that we wish they would not, at least from time to time. Beyond toileting in public, dogs do other things that non dog people may find uncomfortable or unfriendly. They bark, lunge, pull on leash, whine, leave footprints, jump up and sometimes get into or onto things many folks wish they would not.
Non dog owners sometimes cause problems for dog owners too. I have been yelled at, charged, had a bicycle try and run my dog over, had rocks thrown at me and experienced some pretty awful behaviour from the people I meet-and I have a very well behaved dog! It seems like if I go out in public and my dog does not appear to be unpleasant or unfriendly, then I become a target for every non dog owner’s frustration, or the target for every child who wants to touch my dog.
A part of the problem is that as a society, we seem to have forgotten a few golden rules. First and foremost, we seem to have forgotten that we should try and not interfere with the enjoyment of other people of the public places we go to. Being physically present with a dog does not constitute a hardship in and of itself. Neither does being in public without a dog. If we could all remember that everyone, dogs too, need a bit of space that would help. Acknowledge one another and say hello. When I am walking my dog and a skate board comes up behind me, I may not hear that; call out and I will give you more space. Common courtesy of acknowledging one another and helping each other seems to have fallen away when it comes to the interactions between dogs and the public at large.
Toiletting is perhaps the biggest issue I see. If your dog toilets in public; clean it up! I have been caught short without a bag from time to time, it happens to all dog owners-but it shouldn’t happen every single time you go out. It shouldn’t even happen once a week. If you are a non dog owner, and see that I am scrounging for a bag (I have even gone into trash cans looking for them!) and you have one…I will not be offended if you offer it to me. And dog owners; if you are offered a bag, take it with some grace. It is not the responsibility of the non dog walking public to carry bags, but believe me, it isn’t a horrid idea to help one another out!
Another common pet peeve between the dog owning and non dog owning public is a dog who should be wearing a leash but who is not. Not only is it illegal in most places, but frankly it is incredibly dangerous in most places. All a dog has to do is make one small mistake and walk into traffic and he is dead. As a professional dog trainer I often have a cheapo extra leash with me. I have given out dozens of them to people over the years. If you own a dog, he needs a collar and leash and if I offer you one, please USE IT! Yes, I regularly run my dogs off leash in places where they are safe from traffic but in town, regardless of how good my dog is, I use a leash and collar. Last Friday, as I was leaving for Montreal, I arrived at the train station in Kitchener and there was a large Boxer, loose in the station (yes, inside!) without a leash or collar. I travel with an older service dog; my first duty is to protect my dog. Luckily I had help; John stood up and stood between me and the other dog-not only was this situation dangerous to the loose dog, but it was incredibly unfair to me and my dog as there was nowhere for us to go to escape him should he want to greet us.
As I mentioned earlier, I have had some horrendous experiences with the general public when I have been out with dogs. One of my earliest experiences with socializing a puppy involved going out to a park and sitting on a bench to watch people go by. There was a bench across the street from me, so I walked my young puppy over. An older man was sitting on the bench at one end, so I went to the other end with my puppy. Without a word, he reached over with his cane and very deliberately struck my dog across the nose, and then began to berate me for bring a dirty animal to the park. Why? I still don’t know. Perhaps he had been frightened by a dog, but that is unacceptable behaviour and it certainly interfered with my right to enjoy the neighbourhood I lived in.
Humans are a social species. We are meant to live in groups. Everyone has the right to enjoy their neighbourhood. What I think most people miss is the right to enjoy something is accompanied by the responsibility to protect one another when out in society. That is part of being a member of a social species; we all contribute to the greater success of one another when we are part of a neighbourhood. This means that both dog owners and non dog owners need to work together to get it right and stop interfering with one another.
The people who own dogs who are the least likely to cause problems for one another are those who are already proactive about their dog’s behaviour. The people who come to puppy classes and training classes are not generally the ones who are causing problems by letting their dogs run loose. They are taking action to prevent problems by educating their dogs about acceptable and not acceptable behaviours. In our classes we teach a wide variety of things including toileting on cue which means that we can tell our dogs when and where they can go. We teach leash manners which means that the dogs who come to our classes are learning now to walk politely beside their people. We teach the cued take it which means that our dogs are not the ones who are loose and scoffing food off the sidewalk or out of your hands.
The people who don’t have dogs who are the least likely to run into trouble with dogs are those who understand a few things about dogs. Just like most people don’t like to be hugged by strangers, most dogs don’t want you to touch them either. Dogs are descended from predators and if you tease a dog and then run, they will likely chase you. If you threaten a dog, no matter how nice the dog is, he is going to defend himself. Most interactions between dogs and humans are really, really benign-most dogs are not going to do anything to you if they are running free without interference. If you happen across an unaccompanied loose dog, catching him is not a great idea; call your local humane society but don’t try and catch the dog. Catching dogs puts them in a position where they are vulnerable; and dogs who feel vulnerable may bite. Beyond that, you don’t know the health status of a strange dog. Dogs can and do carry parasites, fungal infections and diseases that we can get. Leave catching strange dogs to the pros, especially if you don’t know much about dogs in general.
You may admire my dog, but please, don’t just walk up and touch him. I happen to live with three very easy going, happy, friendly dogs, but not every dog accompanied by a person is a happy easy dog. Many dogs need space for a variety of reasons. You would never walk up to a total stranger and hug them, and no matter how much you may admire my dog, he is not an object to be fondled. If you would like to meet a dog you have seen, ask the person who is accompanying that dog. If you have been invited to greet a dog, greet him verbally first and see if he approaches for pats! Don’t just touch him randomly.
And dog owners; don’t put your dog up as a toy or object to be handled and touched. Dogs have thousands of years of living with us and they live rich emotional and cognitive lives. Requiring a dog to be touched who doesn’t want to be touched is unfair. Ask your dog by giving him permission to greet-don’t just let people touch your dog as though he didn’t care. Your dog cares deeply and deserves the chance to be touched on his terms. If your dog is telling you he is uncomfortable about being touched, then don’t force the issue. So many dog bites could be prevented if only the dog was permitted to leave when he was uncomfortable.
There are some conventions I would like people to understand about dog parks too; many problems could be avoided easily if we were to just all play by the same rules. First and foremost, don’t encourage on leash greetings. Very few handlers know how to leash handle in a way that is sufficiently sophisticated that they are going to avoid issues when their dogs meet on leash. Tight leashes create an agonistic posture in dogs, and when your dog is approaching another dog in a way that looks threatening, that is how dog fights start. Further to that, the dogs cannot leave, so if they want out of the greeting, they don’t have many choices. Finally, on leash greetings tend to be protracted, like a handshake that goes on much, much too long. There is no better way to annoy a potential friend than shaking their hand for too long. Handshakes and dog greetings should operate on a count of one, two, three and we are done. Off leash, most dogs do this. On leash, with the people gabbing and not paying attention, greetings go on and on and on and everyone seems surprised when a snarl breaks out.
If your dog is off leash, and you encounter another dog who is on leash, for heaven’s sake, leash up! The other dog cannot greet properly and he is captive to whatever the loose dog decides to do. It is our responsibility as reasonable dog owners to make other people’s lives just a little easier. Yes, I know we have all dropped the leash, had the fence fail, had the door open and yes, if you are the one holding the leash, you have to take action to prevent a blow up, but really, if you have a dog running loose, even in an off leash zone, please leash up when you encounter a loose dog.
Finally, if you are riding a bike or a board, please take care to give some space to dogs. Not all dogs will chase a fast moving target, but if a dog begins to follow you, stop and put your bike or board between you and the dog. In the event that the dog is unfriendly, you can protect yourself by keeping your bike or board between you and the dog. In the event that the dog has strayed you are giving the owner a fighting chance of catching up and putting his dog on leash. If on the other hand you are a dog owner whose dog has followed or chased someone on a bike, please, please, please go get your dog and leash him up. Joggers can also stop to help dog owners catch their dogs. It is very easy to be self righteous and say that the dog ought not chase, but that isn’t going to get you anything if you lead the dog so far from home that the owner cannot intervene and in the event that the dog is unfriendly, continuing on your way won’t prevent a bite. If the dog is growling; he is asking for space. If he is barking and chasing, he may just be having a great time, but he may not either. Friendly behaviour in dogs is usually inefficient and involves a lot of vertical movement and curved approaches. Encouraging the dog to chase does not help either; you can get a dog so highly aroused that he slips from friendly movement to more dangerous flat, straight line motion, making him more not less dangerous. The faster you go, the more likely it is that this will happen, and given that dogs are fully capable of running at 20km/h or more, it is unlikely you will be able to get going fast enough that you can avoid a dog by outrunning them even on a really fast bike.
The bottom line and the take away message is that we all share the same space and it sure would be nice if we started to work together to get along instead of working against each other and creating problems that did not exist already. And to the city of Toronto; I just passed through your down town core. It would be a lot easier to clean up after dogs if there were a few more places to put the waste. Just a suggestion to help start meeting the needs of the frustrated man who started me thinking about this!
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.
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.