At Dogs in the Park, we have two mottos. The first is “It Depends..” It is on all of the staff uniforms to remind people that the answer to dog training questions are dependent upon many variables. The second is less commonly said, but almost all of my students will eventually hear me say “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. I was reminded of this by one of my staff the other day. She had been challenged by a colleague at school to train a dog to do a trick. The problem is that the trick required the dog to roll back onto his very arthritic and dysplastic hips. My staffer replied “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should,” and she is right. She COULD teach the dog to do the trick, but she shouldn’t because it will cause the dog more injury than not.
I have an exercise I used to do when I ran my fun-gility workshops. Fun-gility is informal agility. I would get out all the cavellettis (small light jumps for teaching dogs to take off and land smoothly; they are about four inches high), and place them as close together as they can go. There is about four inches between each jump. Then I ask all the humans to walk through the twelve or so jumps. People with really big feet slide their feet in sideways, and people with little feet slip in between the jumps toe first. One very athletic man in the last workshop danced through them like a ballerina on point, pronking up and down in the manner of a gazelle. Once everyone has walked through these, I challenge everyone to go through as fast as they can. The only person to every run through these successfully was the man I just mentioned-but he said afterwards it was really difficult and uncomfortable.
Next I spread the jumps out so that each is one of my foot lengths wide. Everyone expresses relief at the ease at which they can place their feet. When they run through though, they are once again frustrated by the lack of room to solve the problem of where to put their feet. Some people just take two jumps at once and then congratulate themselves on coming up with such a neat solution. At this point I ask them; “Would it be okay if your dog chose to do two jumps at once if that was easier for him?” Most folks who have been through the exercise reply that yes, it would be okay with them if the dog solved his problem that way. If I were to ask someone who is serious about agility though, the answer might be different-the person might decide that the dog must take each obstacle one at a time, regardless of how uncomfortable that might be for the dog. That brings back the statement of “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should”. Just because I can make the dog take jumps at an uncomfortable striding, doesn’t mean I should.
I come across this situation when I work with dogs with behaviour problems. I have had clients with dogs who are noise sensitive. I prefer to resolve problems like this by working below threshold, so that the dog is not being set off repeatedly. When the dog gets to relax a little, they often become bolder and more willing to accept some noises they weren’t previously. Recently, I was at a community event and I saw a little dog sitting terrified under her person’s chair. I approached the person and told her that I thought her dog was afraid of the noise of the crowd, and the owner replied that yes, she was, but the dog had to accept that this was part of life and must get over her fears, and so she was brought out to as many noisy events as possible. I bit my tongue but what I wanted to say was “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” When it is my client who is doing this though, I try and help them to understand that just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should!
I think we need to consider this carefully when we work with dogs and other animals. We CAN make a dog go out in public when he is afraid to do so, but should we? We CAN make a horse jump over a fence when he is physically uncomfortable, but should we? We CAN make a child stand up in front of a group of people and recite Evangeline…but should we? As trainers and teachers, we hold a very powerful position, and Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should applies to our jobs on a daily basis. Just because we can make a student take a risk we are comfortable with when training our own dogs doesn’t mean we should make our students do so too. Part of what we need to teach when helping people to train their dogs, is that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
Keeping “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” in mind when you are training your dog can really help you to do two things. The first thing it helps with planning your training. Many of us have asked our dogs to participate in sports they don’t really have the skills to succeed in. Often the dogs “fake it till they make it” and we feel like we are able to do the sport even if we haven’t trained for it. This is the classic case of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. Better by far to teach your dog to do the skills and then participate in the activity.
The second thing that “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” helps with is acknowledging what the dog is struggling with. If the dog is shy, let him leave when he has had enough. If the dog is bold, don’t put him in situations where he is going to take risks that are dangerous to his health and wellbeing. If the client lacks confidence, I don’t put them in situations where they are going not going to succeed. Setting up for success means a lot more than just setting up to get the right answer, it also means taking into account that sometimes, the dog cannot or the human cannot do something and allowing them not to do that thing, all the while balancing that they need to be challenged sufficiently to continue to move forward.
We are very fortunate in Guelph to have an excellent resource for physical rehab for dogs! Very often we hear people asking if they can use their home treadmill to exercise their dogs, and we always tell them that it is a bad idea. Dr. Liz Pask of Gilmour Road Veterinary Services has kindly shared her thoughts in this guest blog for us, explaining about the risks of using a human treadmill to exercise your dog! Thanks Dr. Pask!
Dog Treadmills VS. Human Treadmills – What’s the difference?
A common question is “Can I use my human treadmill for my dog?” In the majority of cases the answer is no. Here’s why:
– The human gait is shorter than the canine gait, which means the belt is usually too short for dogs. While your dog may be able to “fit” on the treadmill, they will not be able to use their bodies correctly, which can lead to injury.
– Even if you have a little dog who can fully extend on a human treadmill, human treadmills often don’t go slow enough for their little legs.
– Canine treadmills have many safety features built in with your dog in mind. Human treadmills often have gaps next to the belt, or raised caps at the end where paws and nails can be caught. Canine treadmills will have side rails to keep your pet safely on the treadmill; many human treadmills do not have side rails or they are at an inappropriate height.
– The control panel on a human treadmill is not located in an easily accessible area, making it difficult to adjust speed or stop quickly in case of an emergency.
The two brands that we recommend people explore if they are looking into a treadmill are DogTread or the dogPACER. We do not recommend the use of carpet treadmills.
Whether at home or at an outside facility, dry or underwater, always make the treadmill is appropriate and safe for your dog.
For all your canine and feline conditioning and rehabilitation medicine needs, or if you have questions about the above article, feel free to contact us:
Over the past six weeks, I have worked with a number of families with dogs who have finally put down their paws and said “Enough! I don’t like that anymore.” In each case, the families were astounded that their previously kind and calm dog snapped. I hear things like “he always let the kids do that before” and “he never minded when I did that until now”. And in every single case, these dogs have been asked to tolerate things that I would not expect the dog to like.
In one case, the dog snarled at a child in the home when the child bounced off the couch, on to a foot stool, and the over the dog, and finally onto the chair beside him. It turned out that this bouncing game had been going on with the child for an extended period of time and the dog had not protested the first ten or eleven times she did this. The parents were astounded when the dog finally snarled! I asked the parents if they wanted their child to behave this way in the house. “No” they admitted, but they were still upset that the dog had reacted the way that he had.
I think back to my own childhood and the rules we lived by. Running and bouncing in the house was not allowed. Tormenting animals meant that we would get hurt and if we were scratched, bitten or knocked over by the dog, the first question was “what did you do to the dog?” I am constantly amazed that the attitude has shifted from “what did you do” to “why did the dog respond”. It seems that in the face of tolerant dogs, people have forgotten that some of the time, the behaviour we see in dogs is the result not of a flaw in the dog, but of what we ask the dog to put up with.
When you live with a tolerant dog, you can come to forget that the dog has very real feelings about what happens to him. One of the things that I constantly hear is how important having animals in our lives is because it teaches us empathy and to consider the needs of others. When we live with tolerant dogs, we may actually learn that we can push harder than we should because these dogs will put up with behaviour that we should not expect them to put up with.
I regularly see tolerant dogs being asked to put up with highly aroused children or dogs racing around, with the expectation that the dog in question will remain calm and collected while this is happening. If I had a nickel for every student who said to me that they arrive in the dog park only to have their dog lose his marbles I would be moderately wealthy. I often wonder if folks remember being six and arriving at the park and remaining calm and relaxed while watching the other children running around and playing tag!
Although I require my dogs to show self control before letting them off leash to play with other dogs, I don’t expect that they would do so without help from me. Self control is a learned behaviour, not a naturally existing one. If you want your dog to exhibit self control you need to keep in mind two things; first-what have you taught him about self control, and second-how much excitement is he being exposed to while being asked to exhibit this self control.
If you take your dog to the dog park, and you are 100 meters away from the dogs who are playing and your dog spies the active exciting play, it is reasonable that most dogs can disengage from the fun they see and attend to you, even if they haven’t had much training. Stand and wait till you get spontaneous attention, and then take your dog off leash and join the fun! You will be teaching your dog that self control is the key to getting to participate in the fun. Take that same dog into the middle of the game and hope for that same level of tolerance, and you are going to find that you have a highly excited monster on your hands. Just don’t! You can eventually do that if you practice diligently and increase the difficulty very slowly, but it isn’t something that will just happen
This lesson applies to racing children too. For the most part, I don’t want my dogs to run with kids. I have large physical dogs who think nothing of hip checking one another, or grabbing each other by the neck while they run and race. When there are children running around, I put my dogs in their crates, or if I have taught them to, I ask them to lie down and stay. They are tolerant, but it is not worth the risk to the children to expect that they would not hip check a child with whom they were running. It would most likely be a completely benign event, but 50kg of running dog can flatten a toddler or even a primary school aged child. That is not fun for anyone. And if the child charged my dog, I would not be surprised if my dog grabbed the child; why wouldn’t he? Charging is a rude and dangerous behaviour, and my dog doesn’t want or need to get hurt; he will quite likely protect himself. If I have put my dog in a down stay while children run, then I have made an agreement with my dog that I will prevent children from disturbing him and I am very strict about how close I allow play to come to my dogs.
It should be remembered tolerant tiny dogs can easily get in trouble too! I have seen dogs tripped upon, stepped on and inadvertently kicked when they are walked through crowds. When they are resting, people often pick them up resulting in dogs who learn never tot relax in the presence of people they don’t know and trust. Tiny dogs are often not terribly tolerant in part because they never get a chance to be. You can help these dogs by being aware of what they are doing, and what happens to them.
Dog bites are rare, but they do happen. One of the things we can do to help prevent dog bites is to ensure that the people around our dogs treat our dogs with respect and dignity. We can set and enforce boundaries with those who interact with our dogs and help our dogs to move through the world in peace. When a dog is tolerant, he will often put up with things that he should not have to, but we can help. When I am in public with my dogs I am really clear about the things that I allow to happen to them. I don’t let strangers just touch them, or scare them or get in their space. I don’t allow children to play with my dogs like they are inanimate toys. My dogs are really tolerant of a wide variety of bad behaviour in humans, but I do my very best to help my dogs stay tolerant by not making them put up with bad behaviour towards them. I would encourage everyone to do the same.
One of the platitudes we hear over and over and over again in dog training is that a tired puppy is a happy puppy. When I think about being tired, I think about that feeling of having lots to do and not enough time to get it done, of deadlines, of the desire to do more but the inability to do so. Or I think about the end of a work out, where I just want a shower and to be left alone. I don’t think about tired when I think about content.
Don’t get me wrong. Exercise is an important component of good health for both us and our dogs. Reasonable amounts of exercise that is. Yesterday I took my horse out to exercise her and she was very full of herself. We went to a new area to her, and I got out my longe line and asked her to walk in a circle around me. This is a very common way of exercising horses and my mare is very familiar with it. In a new place though she was very spooky and nervous and when a truck rumbled by and blew its horn she took off. She galloped around me for a solid ten minutes, and that was before we even got really organized. After her spook, I worked her in the other direction so that she would not get stiff on one side, and then I walked her for about twenty minutes to make sure she would be properly cooled out. With horses we have to be very careful about keeping them properly limbered and properly warmed up and cooled out and when a spook like this happens we often end up exercising a horse more than we would prefer. At the end of her work out, Kayak was very tired.
Today when I brought Kayak out for her daily work out, she was very subdued. She was loose and moving well, but she was obviously tired out from yesterday’s work-out. Today I worked her very lightly because although a tired horse can be an easier to handle horse, a tired horse is also a horse more prone to injuries. This is true of all athletes, horse, human and yes, dog.
Often when I talk to people about the behaviour problems they are having, an interesting pattern has developed for the dog. As a young pup, the people would see the puppy get the zoomies and thinking that their puppy needed an extra walk, they would take the puppy out for progressively longer walks. Very quickly, the zoomies move out of the realm of an emotional response to being over tired to an operant way to get more walks. It takes very little time for a dog to learn that racing around results in a walk.
As the puppy grows, so does his stamina and then next thing that often happens is that the puppy develops a lot of stamina. A young Australian Shepherd is perfectly able to run hard for most of the day, regardless of the effect on his future health. This is an active breed that was intended to move large numbers of sheep for hours on end. The race between stamina and the amount of exercise that a young dog can absorb becomes a vicious circle where the human gives the dog exercise, and then the dog is naughty and the human gives the dog more exercise. It is not just herding dogs like the Aussie either; I have seen this happen in spaniels, retrievers, and working breeds. If your dog comes from a genetic background where he needed to be active, then the more exercise you give him, the more exercise he seems to need. Furthermore, if you have been exercising your dog whenever he seems restless, you are inadvertently creating a dog who will need more and more and more exercise.
Attempting to exercise a dog into fatigue who was bred to do this for ten hours a day is an exercise in frustration for families, but likely also for their dogs. Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_kitzcorner’>kitzcorner / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Often the next stop on the journey of exercise junkie is dog day care. There are great dog day cares out there, where the dogs have structured days that include rest periods and down time, but a great many dog day cares are one revolving door of activity, activity, activity. One of my clients came in after his dog was dismissed from daycare because he was aggressive to the other dogs. The daycare would not permit a video to be made to determine what exactly was going on, however from what we can determine, the dog would arrive around 7 am and more and more dogs would arrive until about 10 in the morning. As the dogs arrived they were permitted to race into the day care and plough into the play group. From ten till about two in the afternoon, these dogs would be a more or less stable group, but any time they settled down to rest, a staffer would go out and get them moving. At two in the afternoon, dogs would start going home. By five when my client would pick up his dog, his dog was exhausted. When we added this dog to our play group, it was really clear that he didn’t mind rough play at first, but over time, as he tired, he would begin to build a bigger and bigger space bubble around him. By keeping his play sessions short and not permitting him to play when he was tired we resolved a good chunk of this dog’s problem.
The allure of the dog coming home tired is very attractive to many owners of young dogs, but if the day care doesn’t make sure that the dog gets down time and rest time, then you can be contributing to a dog becoming an exercise junkie. This leaves us with two questions. The first is “How much is enough” and the second is “When should you exercise the dog”?
The answer to how much is enough is completely dependent on how much you think you can live with. If you cannot live with a dog who needs 5 hours of hard exercise a day, then don’t start building up your dog’s exercise tolerance to that level. I have a colleague in Sudbury who is extremely active with her dogs; she does sledding and hiking and biking with her dogs, and she could live with dogs who are able to tolerate five hours a day of hard exercise. This is not typical of my students though. If you cannot tolerate this level of exercise, then don’t get your dog up to that exercise.
When a dog starts exercising stressed, he is going to also be stressed during exercise at least for the first while. Look at this guys’ rounded eyes, pulled back ears and pulled in tongue.
There is a minimum though; dogs do best with at least an hour a day of off leash hiking with their people. Not all of us have the luxury of this, but that is likely the optimal for most dogs and it is doable for more folks, so as a middle of the road guide line, an hour a day off leash is a good amount of exercise. When you cannot give your dog this, you can substitute things like walking (not bounding!) up and down stairs, training games that involve searching for specific items or treats or learning new tasks.
The second question of when to exercise your dog is an interesting one. If you exercise your dog at the same time each and every day, you will create a situation where your dog anticipates exercise and becomes difficult to handle because of that. As the moment of exercise approaches, the dog becomes increasingly aroused and excited. If you then exercise your dog he will learn that being excited and aroused predicts a walk. When nothing else is going on, he will behave in an excited manner and then you will eventually respond by giving him that walk. Although you may be planning your walk at a specific time, your dog may begin to think that his excitement is what produces the walk instead of the other way around.
On the other hand, if you walk your dog more or less randomly, he will begin to tune into your subtle cues that a walk is coming and you have exactly the same issue that you might in the event that you walk your dog at the same time every day. Putting down your reading glasses and picking up your phone means that you are going to go for that greatly anticipated walk.
To avoid these common walk problems, there are a few things to do. First, understand that puppies under 12 weeks who zoom around like small jets are probably tired and need a nap, not another walk. When you see this behaviour, call your pup, put him in his crate with a kong or other appropriate chew and let him be for a while. After twelve weeks you can start to give your puppy more exercise and start to build towards a level of stamina you can live with, while meeting his minimum needs for exercise. If you have an older dog who has the pre-walk fidgets, use that as an indicator that you need to crate him till he settles down too. When the dog is settled, you can take him out if appropriate. We find that most young dogs conk out pretty quickly and take a nap. Older dogs can learn that being silly and excited in the crate does not open the door.
Once you have broken the cycle of being excited and aroused before the walk, establish a routine before your walk. Start out by teaching your dog to lie down. Lying down is a calm and controlled position. When your dog is down, feed him treats, one by one and then work on being able to move around the room, while he stays. If he breaks the stay, just re-cue him and work with him on staying in a down position for ten minutes. At about the ten minute point (sometimes 9, sometimes 10, or even 11 minutes), call your dog out of the down position and go get ready for your walk. Work up to being able to get ready for the walk while your dog is down. If he gets tense or excited (you will notice ears and eyes perking up), then keep working on the stay, continuously feeding as you move things around and get ready to go. When your dog is relaxed, actually calm, that is when walks will start.
This dog is ready to go for a walk. He is calm and he is showing us that his face and body are relaxed.
If you work on this regularly and reliably, then what you will get is a dog who is calm before walks. If you only walk your dog when he is aroused and excited then you are only going to have a dog who is aroused and excited, and that is not much fun to live with. A tired dog is a tired dog. A calm dog is usually a happy dog.
I work with dogs with behaviour problems every day. Some of the dogs I work with have bitten people. Some of them have attacked other dogs. Some of them leap at passersby when walking on leash. I see dogs with separation anxiety, with inappropriate elimination issues, who chase lights and shadows and who snap at invisible flies. I see dogs who don’t sleep and who eat things they ought not, and who do a wide variety of very strange behaviours. Over the years I have seen dogs who charge and lunge, who bite, who target the other dogs in the house, who have lunged at me, who have knocked me over, who have targeted another dog in my classroom and who have lost control over their bladders when I have looked at them. There is a really important thing to know about my job. I know what misbehaviour looks like. I don’t need to see your dog show misbehaviour in order to help you. You may wonder why.
The very first thing to know is that triggering the behaviour problem you are experiencing is not good for your dog. It is not in your dog’s best interest for me to see your dog misbehave. If your dog has a serious behaviour problem, every time he practices that behaviour, the behaviour becomes stronger, and that is not what I want when I am helping a family. There is a medical analogy that I like to use to help people to understand. Suppose that you had a broken leg. Every time you go to the doctor for a check up on your leg, would you expect your doctor to ask you to do something that would further injure your leg? Would you agree to jump up and down on your broken leg ten or eleven times to see how much it hurts? Would you expect your leg to ever actually heal properly if you keep re-injuring it?
Every time that you set your dog up to exhibit the undesired behaviour you have come to work on with me, you are re-injuring your dog. I don’t want your dog to get worse! I want your dog to get better. I look at resolving behaviour problems by starting from the point of doing no harm. I don’t want to make matters worse. If seeing your dog misbehaving were helpful, I would be in favour of allowing your dog make as many mistakes as possible but it doesn’t help. It really, really doesn’t help.
The next reason I don’t need to see your dog misbehave is that it often isn’t safe for me, for you, for your dog or for the dogs and people who are around you. If your dog is aggressive towards other dogs, it is really risky for other dogs for your dog to practice that behaviour. It is not safe for me if your dog is practicing being aggressive towards me! If your dog is aggressive towards me, and I have to do something to protect myself, your dog could be hurt. I don’t want to hurt your dog; that is not my job!
The final and perhaps the most important reason to avoid triggering a problem behaviour is that I likely already know what it looks like. I have seen some very wild and woolly behaviour. I have seen a dog with seizure induced aggression; I don’t need to ever see that again. It was extremely dangerous to me and I don’t think the dog was having much fun either. I have seen various types of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and that is so hard for the dog to endure. I have seen in person more fear aggressive dogs, defensively aggressive dogs, and confidently aggressive dogs than I care to count. I have seen dog to dog aggression and twice, I have seen dog fights so severe that both dogs nearly died. I have seen play, I have seen affiliative behaviour, I have seen fearful urination and defecation, I have seen leash aggression and I have seen resource guarding. After twenty five years of working with dogs with behaviour problems I have seen more problem behaviour than most pet owners will see in a lifetime. I don’t need to see most of this again, but if there is some reason for me to see a problem behaviour, I want to see it on video, retrospectively. For the very most part I don’t want to see the problem behaviour if I can avoid it.
This probably leaves many readers wondering how I can help if I don’t see the problem behaviour. First off, I want to know what the problem behaviour is, so I ask lots and lots of questions about the problem behaviour. Most people can tell me what I need to know after I ask the right questions to frame the problem. Once I have an idea of what the problem is, I need to know more details to start to help solve the problem. How much does the dog sleep? What does he eat? Is there something that happens right before the problem appears? Has the dog caused any injuries? How much exercise does the dog get and what kind of exercise is it? Who does the dog live with? Who does the dog play with? How is the dog’s health? Does the dog have any pain related issues? When I know about as many of the contributing factors as I can find, I can start to formulate a plan to help the dog and their family.
The first thing I will do after taking a history from family members is develop a management plan to avoid the problem. As with my example of a broken leg, for a period of time, I don’t want the dog to be re-injured by being triggered by the things that disturb him. I think of your dog having an episode of bad behaviour as being like re-injuring a broken bone. If you do it often enough, you are going to create a permanent and potentially worse problem. If nothing else, your relationship with your dog is not going to be as good as it could be.
Management in behavioural terms simply means setting up a successful environment. This can be very straightforward to do sometimes, but often it can be tricky. When you are talking about a dog who is afraid of men in hats, you can usually avoid men in hats for a period of time while you work on the problem. This is much trickier when you cannot tell what triggers the undesired behaviour, and that is where I am often really helpful to my clients. I have years of experience coming up with unique and creative ways to prevent exposing your dog to the things that set him off.
When we are talking about problems such as house soiling, I often have a few cards up my sleeve that you may not have thought of; it isn’t just common sense even though simple solutions are often what works. Often, coming in with experience and fresh eyes can help me to develop a plan to meet your dog’s needs even though you may have already thought up a number of solutions of your own and yet still, I don’t need to see your dog making the error to help.
The next thing I want to do is to determine what is driving or motivating the problem behaviour. If your dog is toileting in the house, but only does it on days when he or she is asked to stay home alone for ten hours at a time, then what is motivating him is a full bladder. If you get someone to come in and toilet your dog half way through the day, then he won’t have a full bladder and won’t soil in the house. That is a simple example of the kind of problem solving I help my clients with.
Some situations are more complex though. I have worked with dogs who are afraid of a myriad of things in their environments and the first step we have to take is to teach the dog that he is safe within his own environment. Once I have done that, we can start to expand his success puddle from within the house and yard to the street, the neighbourhood and then beyond. Sometimes the motivator behind the behaviour is medical; then I need to work with my client’s veterinarian to resolve the motivation. Sometimes it is hard to tell what the motivation is, and then I get to work like a detective solving a mystery to figure out how to help.
The final step in the work I do is to help you to teach your dogs the skills they need to succeed in their new reality. When we aren’t triggering the dog over and over again, and when we change what motivates the undesired behaviour, the next step is to examine what skills the dog needs to successfully navigate the situations that used to be a problem. Sometimes when I work with aggressive dogs the aggression is triggered by a specific triggers (such as men in hats) and it is motivated by fear (perhaps a man in a hat startled the dog when he was a puppy) and when we overcome those two components, we need to teach the dog what he should do instead of being aggressive.
By now you may be thinking “gee, your work sounds pretty straightforward” and to be completely honest you are not wrong, but I still hold the card of experience. I know how to evaluate the situation and what questions I need to ask to find out what the problem might be. I can recognize when the motivation that is driving the problem might be medical instead of behavioural. I know where to start when we attack the problem you have come to see me about. And I know what skills to teach your dog to give him tools to use in his tool box. I also know that although it might be flashy, your dog’s life is not a TV show, so I don’t need to see him exhibit the undesired behaviour!
I have always had dogs, and I have always trained them, even when I was a young child. I remember building jumps in my back yard over thirty years ago, and teaching our dog to go over them. My initial motivation to train the family dog was informed by my desire to own a horse and ride it, and given the unlikelihood of that event, I taught my dog to do many “horsey” things. I taught her to stand in cross ties between two trees while I groomed her, I made her a halter (long before the advent of the halti and the gentle leader and all of the successive off spring of that nature), and I taught her to jump over hurdles. No tricks for me! Just practical horsemanship for my dog. Along the way, this patient mixed breed dog, Thurber, accompanied me through childhood and adolescence, spending hours walking the local woods with me, and generally teaching me what it means to be a friend.
Skip forward to my current present and you will see me sharing a lot of what Thurber taught me with my students at Dogs in the Park. In between, I did spend a lot of time working with horses in my teens and twenties. Some of what I taught Thurber was right on the money, and some of it was a little far out there. When I amalgamate what I learned in the barns with what I know about dogs, I see more and more clearly that we are losing touch with some important lessons from the horse world that would make living with our dogs much easier and more straightforward.
I well remember as a teen learning to ride that safety came above everything else in a barn. Barns are places with large animals, equipment and tools that can all hurt you. Safety is the first item on the list when working around horses, and honestly, this should be the first thing on the list when handling dogs.
Consider for a moment how we handle horses. If you are taking a horse out of a stall, you stand by the door and wait for the horse to attend to you. Stepping into a horse’s stall and surprising him is a recipe for getting kicked or run over. How many of us walk up to our dogs’ crates and just open the door? If we did this with horses, we would have a loose horse, who might run you over, kick someone or get out on the road. We insist on horses standing nicely to be groomed, allowing us to handle all parts of their bodies and following nicely on a halter. So let’s make rule number one in the Horsemanship for Dog Owners:
Insist on good manners at all times.
With perseverance, this will prevent a lot more dogs from jumping out of cars, bolting out of the front door, or lunging out of the crate, jumping on people and pulling them down the road. Establish the rules and then follow them always, and make sure that you insist on good manners.
One of the first things I was taught about handling horses was to make them aware of where I was at all times, because if they are startled they might bolt, kick or strike you. Knowing where I am relative to the horse and where the horse is relative to me can prevent a lot of accidents. I often see people handling their dogs without any concern for where the dog is or what he is doing and that can lead to a lot of big problems. When you don’t know what your dog is facing and he doesn’t know where you are looking, you are open to a lot of opportunity for your dog to get into trouble. The second rule I am going to propose for Horsemanship for dogs is:
Be aware of where your dog is and make him aware of where you are at all times.
Face it, you and your dog are a team, and when you are not aware of where you are relative to one another at all times, your dog can get into trouble and you won’t even know it. When you are aware of where your dog is, and what he is looking at, you can catch a lot of the oopsies that happen when a dog is at loose ends. The dog whose person doesn’t know what he is doing or where he is, is the same dog who is getting into the trash, lunging at the other dog at the dog show and eating the kid’s ice cream cone as they wander by.
When I was learning to ride, we were taught to be aware of our horse’s fears, abilities and training. There was an old mare that every kid rode for a while at the first barn I rode at. She was reliable, confident and knew all the work that the kids needed to learn. She was never going to go beyond the on farm schooling shows, but she was responsible for teaching a whole lot of children to love horses and riding. How often do we see dog handlers doing this? In my classes, I have seen timid dogs forced to face their fears, and under prepared dogs asked to do tasks they haven’t been trained to do. As an instructor, I am always on the lookout for opportunities to help people to understand what their dogs are ready and able to do. My third rule for Horsemanship for Dog Owners is:
Prepare for everything you want your dog to do before you ask him to do it!
This should clean up a whole lot of stress and agony for everyone who works a dog, and also for those of you who keep dogs as pets. If you haven’t taught your dog to do something and if you haven’t prepared him, and if he is afraid…don’t ask him to do it!
Another thing that is very important in a barn is to keep track of which horse is where. There are combinations that just don’t work in a barn and if you put the wrong horses out together, you can end up with a pack of trouble. Some horses can go out with any other horse, but others can only go out with those particular individuals that he or she knows well. This can extend even to which horses should be stabled next to one another. Why is it that we think that every dog is going to like to be turned loose with every other dog? My fourth rule for Horsemanship for Dog Owners is:
Choose your dog’s friends carefully.
Young puppies will benefit from this and so will the wallflowers, the shy dogs, the bullies and the people who are attached to these individuals. If you are conscientious about choosing who interacts with your dog, both human and canine, you will have a lot more success with his social interactions, and he will be a lot less likely to get himself into difficulty.
Most of what I learned as “horsemanship” can be summed up as common sense. Sadly, common sense does not seem to be that common when we are talking about how we handle our dogs. Too often the problems we have with dogs can be simplified down to poor manners, inattention, unpreparedness and choosing the wrong friends. If we can overcome these simple issues, life with dogs is going to be much easier for everyone.
Doors seem to be high voltage issues for so many people with dogs. You answer the door, and your puppy bolts through and greets whomever is on the other side. You want to pop out to the driveway and hand something to your neighbour who is passing by and the door doesn’t latch and your dog is now running down the street and out of control. Your sister comes to dinner, and not realizing that dogs don’t know about doors stands with the front door propped open so that she can call her kids in from play. Doors are contentious issues for dog owners. Several times a year, clients contact us to tell us that their dogs have bolted out the door and been hit on the road, so for me, this is a very important issue.
Only rarely do I post the steps that I use to teach a behaviour, but today I am going to make an exception. I have had a look around at what other trainers are offering and I have my own thoughts about door manners, so I will say that this blog is about the parts I think are important, not what everyone else does. When I am training I always keep in mind what I want to end up with. My criteria is simple; when faced with a door to the outside of a building, I want my dogs to know that they should never leave without permission. What does that look like? That means that if I am having my furnace fixed and the repair technician leaves the door open while he grabs his toolbox, my dog isn’t going to inadvertently get out of the house. An open door does not mean that you are necessarily going out. I want my dogs to understand that an open door and a closed door are the same thing; stay in the house unless invited out. There is an important part to this whole behaviour. The key is that what the person does at the door is NOT important. This means that if the door opens of its own accord, the dog’s behaviour should be the same.
To start with, I want to make the door really relevant to my dog. I want my dog to understand that an opening door is important, but it doesn’t mean that we are going through. I start at home, by my front door and I work with the dog OFF LEASH. I don’t want to have to fade anything I don’t want or need to fade. When working on this in classes, the dogs are on leash, but at home, I practice without the leash. What I do is walk up to the door, drop treats and walk away. I do this many times in a row without ever touching the door itself. This step is very simple; I walk up, drop treats and then leave, without ever saying anything to my dog.
The next step is to drop the treats, open the door and close the door and then walk away again. I want my dogs to be very sure that I have developed an obsession with approaching, dropping treats and then opening and closing the door. So far, you will notice that we have not gone through the door. During this stage of training I only go through the door with my dog in the event that my dog is on leash. I want my dog to be really, really aware of how different it is to go through the door compared to having the door open and have nothing to do with him.
I continue to practice with my dogs, dropping treats, opening the door and then at some point when they are really convinced that the door opening and closing has NOTHING what so ever to do with bolting through the door, I drop the treats as normal and open the door and go through and close the door myself. I come right back in and drop treats as I close the door and pass the dog. I am working really hard at this point to make staying inside the more rewarding behaviour. If my dog shows the slightest interest in going out the door, I return to an earlier stage and work at that until we are ready to open the door without the dog showing any interest in going through it.
Once I can walk in and out of a door without my dog showing interest, then I work at the next step of the game. For this I usually have to put my dog’s leash on to keep him safe if he goofs, but I don’t want to use it for anything more than a safety line. I start as before, approaching the door and then dropping treats. I open the door and call my dog to go through ahead of, with or behind me. I want to practice all three situations, as they may be relevant to me at various times in my dog’s life. Let me explain. If I am staying with someone who has a backyard, I may wish to send my dog out ahead of me or by himself, so it is important to be able to send him ahead. We may be going in or out of a vet clinic so we may need to go through a door together. And if I am unsure of what is ahead of me, I may ask my dog to fall back and behind me and wait until I have gone through the door first. Regardless of which position I have put my dog in as I go through the door, I stop and drop treats just after the door. I want my dog to pause at the door. I don’t want him to think that just because he has gone through the door that there isn’t more to do. The whole goal is to get him to use the door as a signal or cue to slow down and not bolt.
When I am able to walk up to the door and my dog anticipates that I will drop treats, open the door and walk through and he anticipates that I will drop treats, I start reversing the order of the activity. I walk up to the door and open it first and then drop treats. At this point I go back to working on just one side of the door at a time. I want my dog to notice that the door is opening and that the opening door doesn’t predict going through; it predicts dropping treats. When I can count to five and my dog neither leaves nor looks out the door, I know that I am ready to drop treats, step through the door, and then step back in and drop more treats.
If you have persevered this far, you must be beginning to think that I am unusually detail orientated and patient. I might be detail oriented, but really, I am not that patient. I just keep doing this when I have a few moments here and there until I see the results I want. This is a case where I am not paying the dog to pay attention to what I tell him to do, I am teaching the dog to be aware of what is happening around him, and the more intense I am about the dog attending to me, the less successful I will be in terms of training the desired behaviour.
When I am able to step out and back in and my dog doesn’t even think about going out the door I will begin calling him through the door again. Notice that my criteria here don’t include my dog sitting; rather I am interested at this point in creating a situation where my dog will wait patiently for the door to open and then close and not bolt through. Soon I will add in the sit, but it is an automatic sit, not a cued sit. To do this, I approach the door and reach out to touch the door handle. At this point I stop and wait and wait and wait. At some point, the dog is going to ask himself why I am stuck, and what he might be able to do to get me unstuck to move on with the procedure of open the door and dropping the treats. I want touching the door handle to be the cue that the dog uses to tell him to sit. When eventually he tries sitting (and with most dogs, if I have done the background work, it takes less than two minutes the first time!), I drop treats and open the door. I keep repeating this over and over and over again until my reaching for the door handle causes him to sit. During training I will wait as long as it takes, but I won’t move on until the sit is both automatic and quick.
When my dog has started to figure out that reaching for the door will only be followed by treats if he is sitting, I want to speed that up significantly. To do this, I mentally count while I am waiting for the sit for five repetitions. Suppose I was working with a dog who took a count of 15 the first time, 12 the second time, 16 the third time 4 the fourth time and 11 the fifth time. From this data, I can notice that the dog is taking far longer to sit than I want, and I have a rough estimate of how long the dog takes on average. I am going to disregard the 4 count sit because although it is closer to what I am looking for, it happens too rarely to impact what I am working on in the moment. Using the 4 numbers that are pretty close together, I can figure out that I want to only reinforce sits that take less than a count of thirteen. With this in mind, I will approach the door and put my hand on the handle and then start to count. If I get to thirteen without a sit, I walk away. If my dog sits before I get to thirteen, I drop my treats as before. When my dog is reliably sitting at less than a count of thirteen, then I will drop my number a bit; let’s just say that I will start walking away if my count reaches eleven. I keep dropping this number until my dog will sit at a count of three. Three is a reasonable number to live with, and at that point I can move to the next step.
Once my dog is reliably sitting when I approach the door and I can open the door and he will stay sitting while I drop treats, it is time to start to lengthen the amount of time that he waits before I treat. I like to build up to at least three and preferably five minutes. I continue to ask him to walk through the door with me from time to time, dropping treats on the outside of the door too. The door itself should be a very strong cue about behaviour, and the desired behaviour is not “run out the door and hope for the best”!
At the point where my dog will hold a five minute sit stay while I stand in the door, I start to introduce guests to the picture, and I decrease the rewards. I truly want this to become an automatic behaviour that my dog just does without my input. I want my dog to see the open door as an important piece of information; don’t go through unless told, regardless of who opens the door, who or what is on the other side and what rewards are available. If I am outside the house, I will sometimes open the front door and drop treats inside so that the reward for the door behaviour remains strong regardless of when the door opens, who is opening it or what is happening outside.
Notice that at no point do I tell the dog what to do. Never. Not once! If I tell the dog to sit or stay or prompt the dog or correct him for moving then I am the thing stopping him from bolting out the door. Successful door manners rely upon the behaviour occurring even in my absence.
Below is a video I made outlining the steps I take to teach a dog to stay inside when a door opens. I used my elderly Chesapeake D’fer to demo this behaviour. D’fer knew this behaviour really well as a much younger dog, but doesn’t get to practice it much because he is quite arthritic and no longer gets up when people come or go. You will notice that D’fer takes a long time to sit and at one point struggles to get in the house. I did not follow the sequence to the end because he was becoming uncomfortable and his comfort was more important than doing a demonstration.
I will add in here that for my own dogs there are exceptions to the door rules. When I am working with or training a service dog, I teach them to give me eye contact through every door, but to keep moving. I do this so that we can pass smoothly in and out of buildings when I am out and about. In general though, for pet dogs, the door itself should be the cue to tell the dog what to do. Imagine now what life might be like for your dog if you could throw open your front door and your dog would not run out. Would it make your dog’s life safer? I think so, and I hope that this blog will help prevent door bolting accidents.