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!
In my last blog about walking puppies off leash (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/26/off-leash/ )I had a few comments on the Dogs in the Park Facebook page about how this made owners of reactive dogs cringe. One respondent said that my last blog was too nuanced for beginner trainers, and could lead to people letting their dogs off leash in places where they might encounter her large strong dog reactive dog. Let me just excerpt a couple of sentences from that blog to make certain that if you are reading about going off leash with your puppy you are clear about my intent
“The pinnacle of my relationship with my dogs is being able to take them off leash and walk with them anytime, anywhere. Being ABLE to do so is different from choosing to do so when it would not be in their best interest, but being able to do so is magic.”
In case people are not clear, being able to take my dogs off leash implies that I will take more into account than just removing the leash. Choosing to do so when it is dangerous is not my intent. There are a number of issues related to taking a puppy off leash, and the first of those issues is choosing to do so only when it is in your pup’s best interest.
“The more new places I can go, the better in my opinion, but I have to keep a bunch of things in mind. I don’t want to run into other dogs, especially dogs I don’t know. That could expose my puppy to diseases I don’t want him to catch, or to behaviours I don’t want him to experience. I also don’t want to run into the stools of unknown dogs because I want to protect my young pup from worms.”
Again, if you are unclear, I want you to steer clear of the dogs who might be reactive or who might carry diseases or who might be upset by your off leash puppy. If I don’t know your dog, I don’t let my youngster off leash. I am not as worried about what my pup might do to your dog in this case, but I am worried about what your dog might teach my puppy. If you have a reactive dog, I don’t want my puppy to learn anything from him, and so it is the responsibility of the dog owner to act in their dog’s best interest, which means not bringing my pup into a place where your dog might get upset and my pup might be frightened.
“I don’t want to run into predators either. Hawks and owls can easily take a young small puppy. Coyotes, wolves and bears are also a concern in some parts of Canada. Even foxes can be a problem and will take a small dog if they stumble across it. Water can be another natural hazard to be aware of. About four years ago in Guelph, a young pup was playing on the ice and fell in and drowned. Fast water, deep water, ice and hidden water are all things I keep in mind when I am taking my puppies out for their first excursions into the natural world.”
This advice could also include roads, cars, bikes, and anything else in the environment that could cause harm to my puppy. In the last blog I was very specific about the owner’s responsibility to keep their dog safe. Now I want to address that same issue with reactive dogs in mind.
When you live with a reactive dog, you have a huge responsibility to keep your dog below threshold. By keeping your dog below threshold, you are taking active steps to avoid situations where your dog is not going to go off and become reactive. If your dog is reactive to children, then please, don’t go to the local school yard or playground in the name of training your dog. This is neither fair to your dog or to the children you are exposing him to.
Allowing your dog to get triggered is not only unfair and unsafe to the public at large it is very unfair to your dog. As the owner of a reactive dog it is your job to prevent this from happening by choosing your walk locations both on and off leash carefully. The more often that your dog is triggered, the more he is going to behave this way. Image credit: fouroaks / 123RF Stock Photo
If your dog is reactive to other dogs, then taking him through a park where other dogs run is irresponsible, even if it is against the law for those dogs to be running there. If this sounds like I am condoning dog owners breaking the law let me assure you I am not. I would really like everyone to follow their local leash laws, but the fact is that people ARE letting their dogs run illegally and if you walk your reactive dog into that situation, then he is going to react. You are your dog’s advocate and he doesn’t know what the risks are when choosing your walking route.
In my opinion, off leash activities in natural areas are important not only for dogs but also for children. The child who has never set foot in a natural area is much poorer for the lack. As a former outdoor educator, I am keenly tuned in to what happens when we isolate ourselves from nature, and the results of children being isolated from nature are huge. This is also true for dogs. So what do you do when you have a reactive dog who is unable to get out to walk off leash in the natural world?
The first thing is to get out a map, or open up Google Earth and take a close look at your neighbourhood. What is the closest green area on the map? In many suburban environments, you will now find causeways between housing developments that allow water to run off naturally. These green spaces are often un-used and available to bring your reactive dog to for exercise and stimulation. The areas under hydro allowances are also often available. Then there areas of crown or state land that are open to the public but little used. When you look at Google Earth, you will find green in very unexpected places. One of the most common places that I find green in urban areas is abutting industrial basins.
Once you have looked at the map, go visit without your dog. Really. This is the important preplanning that you must do to avoid the puppies I am sending out to do normal off leash walking. When you go, spend time looking for evidence of other humans in the area. Yes, there are stray dogs and that is a risk, but you can often find areas in very urban settings where there is green space available to walk along, where few people go. You are looking for things like fresh litter (the semi decayed and crushed water bottle that is half covered in mud is not recent; the whole shiny chip bag that has been stepped upon is), footprints, bike tire prints, pawprints, and crushed vegetation. If you are finding a lot of fresh evidence mark that location as a possible, but not likely place. If you actually meet people there, then cross that location off the map. Visit several places, and if you find one where there is no evidence of people, you have scored a walking area. If you have found some places with some evidence of people walking there, visit a few times and see if you can determine when you can avoid people.
This is an excellent site for working with a reactive dog. I can see if there are other people or dogs in the distance and take steps to avoid problems while allowing my dog the opportunity to walk in a very normal way. If I am concerned about my dog biting, I will muzzle him even if I don’t expect to meet anyone. Muzzling is more preplanning you can do to help your dog have a successful off leash experience. Preplanning is all about making sure that if it could go wrong, it doesn’t. I teach all dogs including non reactive dogs to wear a muzzle. In this case, Eco was wearing a muzzle because he was on our reactive dog walk where all the dogs wear muzzles as a safety precaution. I also teach a rock solid down at a distance so that I can put the brakes on if I need to do so. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
This link leads to the map of where I hold my reactive dog walks. http://tinyurl.com/jvpuy8e . Over the four years I have been walking there with dogs with behaviour problems I have never met a person or dog there, and yet it is right in a neighbourhood full of hundreds of people who could walk there if they wanted to do so. If you look at the “A” marked on the map, that is where Dogs in the Park is, so this is a short three minute walk from the training hall. I visited this location every Sunday for three weeks before moving my walk there; I wanted to be certain that I would not run into people with my crew of reactive dogs. Preplanning pays off.
Not only must you preplan where you are going to take your dog, but you must preplan what you are going to do. If you are the owner of a reactive dog, you have a responsibility to always attend to that dogs’ behaviour. If you are not able to attend to him at all times, then you may not be able to work with your dog off leash. While walking your reactive dog off leash, you need to be aware that on public property, anyone could show up at any time and you need to be aware of what is happening around you and be ready to call your dog back to you and leave if it is no longer in your dog’s best interest to have him off leash. Keep in mind this isn’t about your right to do this activity; this is all about your responsibility to YOUR dog. Being responsible to YOUR dog keeps my dog safe. This is not an activity to do with your kids, or when you have a head ache; this is an activity to do when you can give your whole attention to what you are doing.
This is our off leash reactive dog walk called the Good Dog Walk. All of the dogs have behaviour problems of one sort or another. Everyone is paying attention to the dogs in order to assure that we can prevent any problems from happening. If you are unable to attend to your dog, then don’t take him out! Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
If the area is not fenced and you think your dog might bolt, then dragging a long line is a great idea. 30 metres of long line dragging will allow you to catch your dog at any time, but allow the line to drag. Don’t try and hold onto it. Use a piece of bright tape to make off 10, 20 and 25 metres, so that you can see when your dog is getting far enough away that you should take action. Call first and if he does not come, step on the line. I like to call dogs when they are at about twenty metres and stop them by stepping on the line at 25 metres if they haven’t come. This teaches the dog not to stray, but doesn’t interfere with his normal and natural behaviour.
Long lines are great tools to help your dog to stay close to you while he is learning to work off leash. Notice that this dog is calm and under control? This is the behaviour you want before letting your dog go and explore. If your dog is straining at the leash and staring at things, then wait till he is calm and relaxed before starting out. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
Just what do I want the dog to do? Pretty much whatever he wants. If he wants to sniff around, let him. If he wants to lie in a puddle, allow that too. This may be the first time that your reactive dog can just choose to do what makes him happy. Most of the time when we are working with reactive dogs we are micromanaging what they are doing to avoid them going over threshold. You see another dog in the distance? You ask the reactive dog to look at you and not engage in the other dog, and then ask him to sit or lie down. Every action that your dog does may have been micromanaged, possibly for years. This level of micromanagement may keep your dog from going over threshold, but it sure doesn’t help him to be relaxed and confident and that is part of what being off leash gives us.
Although you want to have control over the situation, off leash walks should be an opportunity for your reactive dog to do things he wants to do; picking things up, sniffing and looking where he wants to look are all things that he cannot do when you are micromanaging a walk on a leash. Micromanagement makes reactivity worse, not better. If your reactive dog has dog friends, taking them for walks together is even better because your dog will learn through social facilitation what is safe and what is dangerous. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
The other thing that you must do is move. Your dog should get ahead of you, engage in the environment and then lag behind. You should encourage checking in, but you should also be checking what interests your dog. There is a huge difference between the conversation that you have when you have a reactive dog and you are orchestrating every little motion, and the conversation you have when you go over to look at the raccoon fur that is snagged on a branch that your dog has found. Developing a two way conversation with your reactive dog can go a long way to helping him to relax and enjoy himself. In my opinion, this is an essential step in success with a reactive dog.
In truly urban environments it can be very difficult to find a truly natural safe environment to explore with your dog. I have had good success with these dogs in taking them to places like blind alleys and allowing them to explore the local dumpster on a long line. The opportunity to be in a place where they are not going to be startled and be able to just smell things and explore things and toilet when they want to do so is essential to good mental health for all of us, and when we cannot get to a rural place, sometimes we have to compromise. Always we have to keep in mind our responsibility to keep our reactive dogs below threshold, not only because of the risk to others, but because every time that a reactive dog goes off, it is a penny in the bank account of anxiety and frustration, which only leads to more reactivity.
As a final word, I would like to mention that walking your reactive dog down the street on leash, through the triggers that will set him off is at best a fool’s errand that will never result in the relaxed companion you are aiming for. So where do you walk? If you have a vehicle, my best place for leash walking is a grocery store parking lot. You will see few other dogs, it is a large area where you can see people approaching and there are loads of places you can duck into in order to avoid triggers. Walking your reactive dog should be an exercise in developing confidence and relaxation for both you and your dog, and if you are constantly hyper vigilant to the things that might set your dog off, you are never going to teach him to accept his triggers; at best you are going to teach him to trust that you are his best early warning system. At worst you are going to teach him that hyper vigilance is the normal state of being.
About a month ago, I had an accident where I nearly amputated my thumb. I was trying to medicate my horse’s eye and she was tethered to a wall, and she panicked. In the melee that ensued, the clip on the end of the tether ricocheted off my thumb, split it wide open almost to the bone and tore 2/3rds of my thumbnail right off. Needless to say this has been an incredibly painful injury and has negatively impacted my ability to do a number of things. The problem is that post injury, in spite of all the pain, there really isn’t much that the doctor can or should do. After getting it stitched up and getting a prescription for antibiotics, we just have to wait and see what will happen. Once in a while though, something funky happens that is a bit worrisome, which leads to the title of today’s blog. I was sitting in a meeting the other day looking worriedly at my thumb when one of my colleagues said to me “what’s wrong?” “My thumb is changing” I replied. And it had; it was painful and the scar had begun to swell. It wasn’t significantly different, but it hurt more than it has and it was different enough that I was concerned. “I am not sure if I should bother the doctor with this though” I said, still looking intently at the very slight swelling. “Well” replied my colleague, “if your arm turns black and falls off, you should definitely call the doctor”. What can you say to that? It really reflects how people treat problems though!
We see this all the time when it comes to behaviour problems. I have worked with families who have lived with a behaviour problem for many years, allowing and sometimes supporting the problem to continue, because the problem doesn’t feel serious enough to address. Usually in such cases there is some single event that makes the behaviour problem relevant enough to get help, but by the time that happens, often the problem is so deeply entrenched that it is a lot of work to resolve. Often, if the family had come for help early on, there would have been some simple solutions to carry out. When behaviour problems are allowed to persist, they don’t usually get better all on their own. Most of the time, behaviour problems just get worse and worse as the dog practices the undesired behaviour successfully.
So when is a problem bad enough to seek help for? This is the conundrum I face with my thumb. It is always somewhat painful, so I am aware of the problem most of the time. Never the less, as my vet would tell me “it is a long way from the heart”, meaning that the discomfort caused by the healing injury just isn’t something that the doctor can do much about. In fact, this time, I did go see the doctor and she looked at it and said that she was glad that I had come in, but that it was healing nicely and that there was nothing that we could do; the swelling was likely due to scar tissue forming. Just like my doctor, I am always glad to speak to people about behaviour problems; they may not be serious, however, they could be, and I can usually tell after speaking with my clients if there is a simple fix, or if we need to engage in a full blown behaviour modification program.
Some of the time, what appears to be a small problem to my clients appears to be a great big problem to me. This means that I may be delivering bad news to my clients, and that can be tough for everyone. If you have a problem, ask someone who knows. A Certified Professional Dog Trainer will know, and so will a Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant. The lady in the park who has always had dogs may have an idea, but like my colleague who suggested that if my arm turned black and fell off, I should go to the doctor, the lady in the park really isn’t qualified to give you an opinion on how serious a behaviour problem might be.
All of this begs the question of when is a behaviour problem a problem, and that really isn’t an easy question to answer. I have sat through numerous professional conferences where researchers have told us that people don’t try and resolve their dog’s behaviour problems until the behaviour directly impacts the people! I also know from personal experience that many people don’t address their dog’s behaviour problems when they don’t know that the problem exists. What do I mean by that? If you think that a behaviour is normal for a dog, but it isn’t, then it is a problem, but you won’t seek help. I have for instance had clients whose dogs have still been having regular toileting accidents indoors at the age of four years. This is definitely not normal, but the clients I am thinking of didn’t realize that dogs should be house trained by about 17 weeks of age; they had been waiting for some magic to kick in that would somehow or another resolve the problem!
From my point of view, if any behaviour is not normal for a dog, then it is definitely a problem. By normal I mean behaviours that are outside of what dogs in general do. Behaviours in this category include things like spinning, chasing lights or shadows, licking the wrists, barbering the fur, licking walls, getting “stuck” and staring at things. Dangerous behaviours are similar; if the dog is chasing cars or jumping out of windows, then the behaviour is a problem for the dog even if it isn’t for the humans who live with the dog. Some problem behaviours may pose health risks to the dog, such as eating feces or non food items such as rocks. It is not fair to the dog to not address these problems, but when the humans who live with the dog don’t consider them problems it can be a hard sell to convince them to work to resolve the issue. In the video below, the Australian Shepherd is showing a behaviour that some people consider funny. I would consider this behaviour to be a problem, and if the family waits to get help, it will become so entrenched that it may not be possible to resolve.
Any behaviour that negatively impacts the life of the family should also be considered a problem behaviour. Even when the behaviour is a fairly normal behaviour for the dog, if it interferes with the family’s enjoyment of life, then that would count as a problem behaviour. This category of behaviours includes things such as jumping up on guests, and getting into the garbage. Unruly behaviour can create so much chaos for families that living with the dog becomes very frustrating for everyone concerned. Although it may take work to overcome these behaviours, usually it is less effort to work on the behaviours than it is to live with the problem.
Once in a while the family may feel that a behaviour is a problem when it isn’t. Inguinal checking, self grooming and humping inanimate objects are behaviours that people often ask us about, and unless the behaviour is happening to excess, I am likely to just tell you that the behaviour is normal and something that dogs just do. I don’t mind being asked, however, unless these behaviours happen all the time, there is really no reason to interrupt the dog; in fact with inguinal checking and self grooming, stopping the behaviour interferes with the dog staying clean and healthy.
Finally, we come to the group of behaviours that everyone can recognize as problematic; things like aggression, and separation anxiety. These behaviours are more than a nuisance, and most folks recognize that and seek help. In some respects, these are the easiest of situations to deal with because the problems are obvious and the people recognize that the problems exist.
The take away here is that if you have any doubt about your dog’s behaviour, ask us or ask another credentialed trainer! We are trained to recognize when the problem is a problem, and when the problem is not, and we have the skills to help you when the problem really is a problem. Usually, the sooner you start to address a behaviour problem, the easier it is to resolve. You don’t have to wait till your arm turns black and falls off to call the doctor!
Intact dogs and bitches have become a hot topic around Dogs in the Park lately. An awful lot of the young ladies seem to have come into season all at once this past summer, and we are getting a whole lot of questions! A few weeks ago, one of our regulars came into class and I could see that she was most likely in heat. I pointed this out to the human learner, and she looked disappointed, and said “we are so close to Level 3. I guess we will have to pass it when we get back.” “Back from where?” I asked. The human thought that we would not want her young bitch in class because she was in heat! Nothing could be further from the truth. As most of our “new to living with an intact dog” students do, this family had a lot of questions, and this has prompted me to write about living with, training and coping with an intact animal.
Let’s start with the boys, because in many ways, the boys are a more straightforward situation. The correct term for a male dog is a dog, just like the correct term for an intact female dog is bitch. If you read dog in this blog you know we are talking about a male dog and if you read bitch, we are talking about a female dog. If a dog is neutered, altered or “fixed”, that means that a veterinarian has surgically removed the testicles. Even in a late neuter, they don’t remove the scrotum; they just remove the testicles. If he is intact, that means that the dog still has his testicles.
A very few male dogs have had vasectomies. Usually there is a reason for the owner of the dog to choose to have a vasectomy. I had a dog that we chose to have this done for. He was a huge military lines German Shepherd dog named Eco, and he had one testicle retained inside his body. This happens from time to time, but due to the work we wanted him to do, we wanted to make sure that he would be as physically strong as possible, and to develop as normal a skeleton as he could, so we didn’t want to neuter him. Also, we had read that intact male dogs have a better sense of smell (the jury is out on this fact; we are not sure if this is true or not, but there is enough evidence pointing to this that we decided we wanted to keep the remaining testicle). Due to the fact that Eco had retained one testicle and we knew that is a strongly heritable trait, we didn’t want him to be bred, so we opted to ask our veterinarian to do a vasectomy. For us this was a very good choice, but it did mean that although he could not sire puppies, he behaved in every other way as an intact male would.
Intact males are able to breed, and they will be much more interested in the girls when they are in heat than are neutered males, but in general, living with a well trained intact male is no different than living with a well trained neutered male. Notice that I have qualified this with well trained. D’fer was my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and he was trained to do work as my service dog. He was also intact. As is true with almost all Chessies, he was an intense, passionate guy, with an opinion on nearly everything. We were well matched in that regard! I have about 5 foundation behaviours that I feel are essential to success for dogs who live with me. The first of these is the cued take it. As I like to say, the dog controls the dog! You can read more about my thoughts on this at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/11/12/the-dog-controls-the-dog/ . Other behaviours include the one hour down stay and automatically sitting at the door. The cued take it is important for intact dogs because that is what they must do when they meet a reproductively available member of the opposite sex, and that was the behaviour that mattered the most the very first time that D’fer met a female dog in heat.
I remember that we were at a tracking seminar, and another participant had brought a dog with her that she intended to have bred by a dog she was going to meet on her way home. This is not an unusual situation in the professional dog world; when we have a promising bitch, we may take her to meet a complimentary dog when she is in heat. She was behind a gate in the owner’s trailer, and as we walked by, D’fer suddenly stopped as though he had walked into a brick wall. He could obviously smell that she was in heat, and he was VERY interested! Because we had done the foundation work necessary to create the level of cued take it that I want, he did not pull or strain towards her; he stepped back and waited politely, until I told him not this time and we moved on. The owner of the bitch in heat was much relieved, as she really did not need a litter of Basset Hound Chesapeake Bay Retriever puppies!
There is a myth out there that if you have an intact male, he is going to be absolutely uncontrollable when he meets a female dog in heat. While this may be true in the case of an untrained dog who has been encouraged to misbehave and grab whatever he wants, this is completely untrue for a well trained dog. I feel that if you have an intact male, you have a responsibility to your dog and to the rest of society to make sure that your boy is well mannered and well trained so that he does not wander or impregnate dogs he should not. This means investing time in the first 8 to 10 months teaching your dog that grabbing whatever he wants is not acceptable, and that he must come when called regardless of what is going on around him.
Another common myth about intact males is that they are all aggressive, and that they will fight any other male dog that they meet. This just isn’t true! Intermale aggression may happen, but it is far from the universal phenomenon that people often assume that it is. I remember more than once having people explain to me that of course service dogs could not be intact because they would get into fights. I was always amused when I asked them to look more closely at my dog and have them discover that they had been sitting right beside an intact male! If you have ever seen a group of beach dogs in the Caribbean, or on a dump in a third world country, then you observed first hand that intact males can and DO co-exist peacefully. The deal is pretty simple. In the wild, males are not crowded into situations where they are going to argue a whole lot; and when conflict does arise, aggression is not usually the first choice in resolution. Aggression is only the best choice for an individual when that individual is fairly sure that he will win. This means that the male who is weaker, slower or less certain is most likely going to choose to retreat or otherwise acquiesce. The stronger, faster or more confident dog doesn’t feel the need to assert himself, and thus, he doesn’t pick unnecessary fights. Fights are really only a good idea when the outcome is uncertain; when both members of the conflict are pretty equally matched. This is not to say that aggression between males in the wild never happens; it means that aggression is relatively rare. So why is it that people think that intermale aggression is so common?
There are likely a number of answers to this. In the wild, we don’t prevent the little squabbles from happening and those little squabbles help the individuals to understand which dog is stronger and which dog doesn’t have a chance of winning a fight. Wild dogs have more choices to retreat too. And in the wild the intact males usually live in groups where the social structure is relatively stable with few individuals moving in or out at once. Compare this to the situation of your average pet dog! If he protests to another dog that he doesn’t like being that close, he will likely be chastised by a well meaning person. This means that the dog never gets to explain to the other dog what he does or does not like. I am not suggesting that permitting your dogs to squabble incessantly is a good idea, but they do need to be able to communicate their preferences! Next, our homes are set up to store our books, computers and clothing; they are not set up to allow dogs to retreat from one another easily. When I did home visits, one of the things I always looked at was if the dogs had a reasonable second way to retreat from conflict. Rarely did I find this already in existence! Next we often ask our dogs to accept a huge number of new dogs into their environment; we ask them to get along with every dog at the dog park, and then tolerate guest dogs to the home, not to mention all sorts of new people who have differing ideas about what acceptable behaviour might be. If you add into the mix the sexual tension of two males who are of similar strength, speed and agility and breeding females, fights will happen. Nevertheless, many intact dogs can and do learn to live peacefully together. I just would not suggest taking them out to the dog park and hoping for the best.
Neutering will not usually resolve aggressive behaviours in dogs, however there are exceptions to this. If you have two intact males, and they are starting to get scrappy, neutering ONE of them may help. The key is which one? This is an it depends sort of question and you should work with a behaviour professional to decide which dog should be neutered. Neutering both dogs likely won’t solve your problem. If you have a particularly social and studly adolescent dog, he may be the target of aggression from other dogs who are intolerant of his shenanigans, and some of the time, neutering may resolve this. The only two behavioural benefits that have been concretely demonstrated have been marking and neutering, and in both cases, the studies did not control for the effect of training. In my experience of living with a handful of intact males, and having trained several dozen more, I would suggest that training can overcome many of the issues that are often attributed to being intact.
So how do you live successfully with an intact male? Here are my top six suggestions.
1. START TRAINING EARLY
I want my intact males in training to learn to toilet on cue (avoiding the marking issue entirely if you make sure they understand how to completely empty their bladders and make all walks contingent on producing urine quickly and completely), to ask politely for every thing they want (cued take its), to come when called (even in the face of heavy distractions) and to lie down and stay for up to an hour at a time when asked.
2.GET SERIOUS ABOUT SOCIALIZATION
We talk about S.E.E.ing your puppy at Dogs in the Park. This acronym stands for systematic environmental enrichment and what it means is making sure your intact male dog has seen literally hundreds of other people, dogs, animals, floors, vehicles, and experiences, and furthermore that these exposures have all been done sub threshold. This means having your dog relaxed at all times when exposing him to all these things. I find that it is easiest to do this with the help of an organized puppy class, however, this is not always possible. When it isn’t, make sure that you have a plan for how you are going to expose your pup to everything.
3.TEACH YOUR MALE DOG THAT LEARNING AND WORK HAPPENS EVEN IN THE PRESENCE OF A BITCH IN HEAT
This is where group classes that include intact bitches are invaluable. If you cannot find a class that includes bitches and even bitches in heat, get yourself into the confirmation world; half the dogs at every dog show are female and many of them will be in heat. Teach your boys that they still have to perform even if there is a particularly attractive girl around.
4.KEEP YOUR DOG WELL EXERCISED
If your male dog is under exercised he is going to have ants in his pants and be unable to exercise his best self control. Properly exercised means opportunities to run and run hard, on a daily basis for a young dog (use your judgement; pups under six months should not be forced to exercise the way that an adult dog will), as well as opportunities to engage with you in directed aerobic activities. Fetch is good, however, it can become an activity that will excite your dog and create stress. Better are activities such as agility, treibball, herding, or tracking. All these activities teach your dog to engage with you while he is excited.
5.INCORPORATE SELF CONTROL AS A DAILY ROUTINE INSTEAD OF AS A CUED BEHAVIOUR
Too often I see male dogs who think that they can have anything they want if they are just fast enough about taking it. I want my boys to think that they can have anything they want if only they ask. I have written about this extensively all through this blog; if the door opens, I want my dogs to go about their day without rushing the doors. This often surprises guests because they have to invite my dogs to go outside. My dogs also have to be invited to start dinner, to get on furniture and to get in the car. Self control is just part of polite manners in our house. On the other hand, our dogs have a huge toy basket of freebies; things they can take any time they want.
6.BE SENSIBLE ABOUT WHAT YOU ASK OF YOUR MALE DOGS
The last time I shared a hotel room with someone for a dogshow, she had an intact bitch. Her bitch was not in season, so I was not worried about my intact male. Nevertheless, he slept in a crate that night. If she had wanted to share a room and bring her intact male, I would have declined to share a room. I don’t ask my boys to accept every dog I know in our home, I don’t take my intact males to the dog park and when I have a bitch in heat in class with my intact males, I don’t ask them to work at distance off leash unless I am really certain that both I and the handler of the bitch have perfect control over our dogs. When I have intact males in my classroom, I am careful about when I ask them to work beside a bitch in heat; I certainly don’t ask them to do this when they are relatively new to training. Setting my boys up for success is a huge responsibility, and it is what I spend most of my time doing.
As a final word about keeping an intact male, if your dog impregnates an intact bitch, keep in mind that you are responsible for half the costs and work of the litter. If you are going to keep an intact male, it is your job to make sure he is well enough trained and contained to ensure that an unplanned pregnancy is unlikely.
Coming up next…the girls! Please be patient; this blog was delayed by an injury to my thumb which meant that all my typing has been of the hunt and peck variety for the past three weeks! I am still pretty slow on the keyboard, but I am doing my best!
If you are reading this, it is more likely that you are a dog owner or trainer, than a professional soccer player. You might be an athlete, but you are unlikely to be in the top 10% of physical fitness of all humans on the planet. You might be, but it is unlikely. I want you to just take a moment and evaluate your own level of fitness. Are you a typical North American, fit enough to run for the bus, or run for mayor, but not really a marathon runner? Are you a weekend warrior, who plays hard on the weekends, but sits at your desk all week long? Are you a gym rat, making it out to the gym at least 3 days a week? Or are you amongst the elite athletes who seriously exercise each and every day, come what may, even on vacation? Unless you are an honest member of this last group, I am betting that dropping you into the middle of a professional soccer game, 90 minutes of aerobic intensity, would not be much fun!
Oh, the first few minutes might be a thrill, especially if you are a soccer fan. But a whole game would likely be exhausting, overwhelming and possibly frightening. Those guys run REALLY fast! And if you run into one of them, you are likely going to be flattened. And if you have a coach on the side lines encouraging you to play harder throughout the whole game, you are likely going to feel really pressured.
Maybe a soccer practice would be more fun for you. But wait! Being immersed in a group of highly fit, world class athletes who know their work can be pretty overwhelming too. Especially if they are all familiar with one another, know what the other guy will do and already have all their social pecking orders worked out.
This I think is often what occurs to the dogs that get tossed into unstructured play groups, especially in confined areas as you might find in the typical daycare. If you have ten dogs who are already involved with the group, and you add in number 11, the eleventh dog is not really likely to be successful. Dog number 11 will have to be equally fit and socially savvy to make the cut right away. If the eleventh dog is intolerant of other dogs being rude, he is going to pick fights. If he is the kind of dog who harasses other dogs in an effort to get them to play his games, he is going to struggle. If the eleventh dog is either more or less fit than the rest of the group he is either going to tire and get frustrated, or he is going to harass the other dogs in an effort to get them to play his games.
Sometimes play groups have a human who can make matters either better or worse. If the human is very savvy about play, they can intervene and pull out the trouble makers and help them to self modulate. Sometimes interventions back fire though, especially if the human thinks they need to pin the dog to the ground to make the point. Pulling a dog who is causing trouble out should be gentle and allow the dog to decrease his arousal and then re-integrate. Pinning the dog may work, or it may create collar shyness in the dog, who then learns to dart away from the people running the group. Other times, the humans can make matters worse by doing things like throwing objects and creating competition between members of the group, or encouraging shy dogs to get in over their heads.
There is almost nothing I enjoy more than watching dogs play. I love to see them cavort and interact, and large groups are much more fun than small ones, however, there are some caveats about this; firstly, I prefer to have mostly trained dogs that I can control with a solid off leash down, even when things get really active. When we have this sort of a group, I like to hike with the dogs. When dogs and people walk together, we see a lot more normal chasing and then running together sort of interactions. We don’t see the puppy wrestling that people enjoy, but for the most part our dogs are not puppies either. When a puppy is integrated into an established group of dogs who are hiking, it doesn’t matter so much if there are fitter or less fit individuals because the fitter dogs have space to run farther. And the harassment we see in an unstructured group in a confined area doesn’t happen either, because the dogs can get away from that if they aren’t having fun. If the overall arousal of the group gets too high, we can ask the trained dogs to lie down and that solves about 90% of the problems we see.
You may be thinking to yourself “but what about daycare groups” or “but I want to send my dog to a crate free boarding facility”. As with many things there are good alternatives and less good choices out there. Before sending your dog to such an activity, spend a few hours there watching how the staff interact with the dogs. Here are some of the issues we think you should consider:
Are dogs turned loose in an enclosure without supervision?
If the group is a long term group of stable individuals, this may work out. When we think long term, we think of groups that might live in a family. When we had 5 or more dogs who lived with us for six months or more, they might get turned into the yard together alone, but only if they were really familiar with one another and polite together when we were supervising. We didn’t just add a dog to our family and hope for the best. The dogs had to show us first that they were safe to be together outside unattended. When dogs are turned loose without supervision and the group changes every day or even every few hours, there is a high potential for things to turn out badly. We don’t recommend sending your dog to a facility where the dogs are not supervised by people who know what they are doing.
Is there only one person on site?
This is one of the worse ideas we see on a regular basis. When a facility is run by one individual, what is the plan for the dogs in the event of an emergency? People often don’t think of the worst case scenario, and the fact is that something CAN and might go wrong. Years ago, when we did board training, I was alone at home with our three dogs and a guest dog. The guest dog had an anaphylactic reaction and stopped breathing. Luckily, the three resident dogs could stay home loose together without an issue and I was able to carry the lifeless dog to the car and get him to the vet in time to save his life. If I had had more dogs or dogs who could not be left home and loose together, the guest dog might have died.
If you are paying to send your dog to a day care or other play group type of activity, you should be sure that there is more than one person on site, especially when there are many dogs who don’t know one another. There is no hard and fast rule for how many dogs should be there for each staffer, but we know of facilities that have 25 or more dogs on site and only one staffer available. This is dangerous for the staff and for your dog!
Does the facility have a plan for what to do if a dog fight breaks out?
You may be thinking to yourself “surely they would not accept an aggressive dog” however, a fight can break out with even the nicest, easiest going dogs. I saw a fight break out one time in a dog park when one dog caught a tooth in the collar of another dog, and then both dogs panicked and started to scream. A third dog jumped in when the screaming started. The third dog was not caught on anything, but it was really difficult to get these three dogs separated because you could not tell exactly what was going on. Two of the dogs had to get stitches, and one of those dogs ended up staying in the veterinary hospital for several days.
Any place where dogs are being left loose together should at least have a can of compressed air or citronella to break up scuffles and they should also have break sticks and a catch pole available. Staff should also be trained to use these tools.
What does the facility look like?
Many years ago, a dog of mine was killed while in the care of a veterinarian when the tech opened a crate door and the dog got out of the clinic. The clinic had a habit of leaving all the clinic doors open to air out the facility at the end of the day. Every door between the kennel room and the street was wide open and my dog left and was struck in the road and killed. As the owner of a dog training facility, my building is fitted with doors and gates and we include door safety training in our obedience program. Too often I have seen images of day cares on the net where the dogs could easily get over a short flimsy gate, or where the gate doesn’t close completely. If the gate cannot contain your dog, don’t leave your dog there!
How are groups separated and sorted?
Puppies are baby dogs! Any dog under 16 weeks can probably be turned loose in a group of other puppies the same age with very little risk. After 16 weeks though, there are definite age related issues that dogs face. Adolescent dogs can be pushy and bully younger, smaller or weaker dogs; it is the nature of adolescents to do that. Adolescents may also harass adults in the hope of getting them to play. It is best if dogs are sorted behaviourally. Puppies under 16 weeks can be left in fairly unstructured areas (you will see that they spend an awful lot of time sleeping if you do this though!). Young adolescents should be sorted by speed, playfulness and tolerance into groups that allow them to enjoy one another. There are definite play types; dogs who ramble and roam are not going to enjoy chasing one another much. Dogs who race and chase don’t enjoy those who wrestle so much. And adult dogs may not play so much as they did when they were puppies or adolescents. Geriatric dogs should not be left in a group of young fast dogs either; it just isn’t fair!
You may be asking at this point if I think that there is any place for day cares. I do, but you have to choose carefully. Know the staff. Know what their protocols are for trouble shooting. Be aware of their plans. Get to know the staff and the people you will be asking to care for your dog. And don’t be afraid to just skip the daycare and go for a hike; consider what it might be like from your dog’s point of view to be in the set up you are considering. It is very possible that it would be a lot like getting dropped into the middle of a pro soccer game and although you would come home tired, you likely would not come home very happy.
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.
Most of the dogs I work with live with serious anxiety and or aggression issues. Interestingly, I also live with a serious anxiety disorder. My anxiety manifests as panic, and I have a list of triggers as long as my arm. I am afraid of driving as a passenger in a car. I am afraid of teenaged girls. I am afraid of high schools. I am afraid of phoning people I don’t know. I am afraid of some crowds. I am afraid of going to Downtown Toronto. Conversely, I am NOT afraid of public speaking, sharing my vulnerabilities, taking an unpopular stand, standing up for the rights of the weak, intervening in a fist fight, or aggressive dogs. But when my anxiety is high, I reach for my old familiar strategy of panic. Like many of the dogs I work with, I have things I am anxious about and things I am not, but also like the dogs I work with, I am a one trick pony when I get triggered.
One of the things that I have had to learn to do in order to cope with my mental health issues is to find new ways of behaving in the face of my triggers. One thing I do is to use a service dog to provide me with more space. Sometimes I hold internal discussions with myself to calm myself, or I can take medication, and sometimes I call a friend to talk me down. The thing is, when I first started experiencing anxiety, I only had one trick; stand there and go through a panic attack with its dizziness, the increased heart rate and the shortness of breath.
This is similar to the situation for many of the dogs I see. When faced with their trigger, they only have one trick; it might be barking and lunging, or growling or showing snarl face or something else, but essentially, it is their one trick. When the trick they have for dealing with an issue is to charge and bite, this can be a very dangerous situation, and the key then is to teach the dog more “tricks”.
Now this sounds simple and it is, but there is a catch. When your arousal is high, and you are disoriented, you are always going to go back to the default behaviour that has either worked best or worked most frequently. If what has worked best or most frequently is dangerous, then as trainers we have to teach the dog to find alternate answers. This is where environmental enrichment and trick training become essential for working with difficult dogs. When we do effective environmental enrichment, and we teach a wide variety of behaviours, what we are really doing is teaching the dog to come up with new answers to old problems.
Environmental enrichment is the practice of increasing the diversity of the environment that an animal lives within. The goal is to improve the dog’s quality of life, but at the same time, we can also use environmental enrichment to help teach the dog to solve problems in different ways. Simple strategies such as putting your dog’s dinner in a paper bag and teaching your dog to find different ways to open the bag to get his dinner can help the dog to learn new ways of thinking, and new ways of thinking are what solving behaviour problems are all about. Once you have moved away from free food in a food bowl to paper bags, changing the picture again is important; we don’t want to teach the dog ONE new strategy-we want to teach the dog to problem solve.
Staying with the mealtime strategies, you can then move to a rolling tricky treat ball- (http://www.omegapaw.com/products/tricky-treat-ball.html) -which requires the dog to figure out how to roll an item to get the treats to fall out. Once he has mastered this type of toy, there are new alternatives; Kong (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQDJkW46BBk) makes one that wobbles, but doesn’t roll, requiring the dog to learn to persist in trying new strategies. Hollow rubber toys that hold biscuits but allow them to roll to the bottom help dogs to learn completely new strategies for getting food, and once your dog has mastered these, you dog is no longer a one trick food pony.
Learning to consider more than one solution to a problem can also be addressed operantly through training. Dogs who are anxious can be difficult to train, because the training process itself involves elements of failure, and failure contributes to confusion and anxiety. Confidence develops when the learner is allowed to have as many successful experiences after expressing some form of effort. Building successes can be a bit of a trick, and part of being successful as a trainer is allowing the dog many, many opportunities to guess right, when the stakes aren’t high and the arousal isn’t high either. Errorless learning happens when the dog is able to be reinforced for almost everything he does, because the scenario is set up so that he doesn’t make mistakes. There is a trick to making this work though; you must avoid just randomly reinforcing everything the dog does. You still only reinforce the thing that you are training. Errorless training can be as simple as hiding a toy in the same place every day, and then progressively moving the toy step by step away from where it was originally; you set the dog up to learn to go to that place and begin to look for the toy. For this to be errorless, you need to begin by showing the dog that you are placing the toy, and then place the toy in the same place later when the dog is not engaging in the toy. Over time you control two variables to teach the dog to look for the toy; if he is watching you place it, and how far from the original place the toy is left.
As the dog becomes more confident about his looking, you can go to reward based training to help him to understand that risks are safe to take. This is where clicker training really can help a dog; the process of free shaping is invaluable to teach the dog to try new things. Games like 101 things to do with a box can help dogs to develop the skill of being creative; essentially, you click for any interaction with a specific object, and then you progress to clicking for variations on that original interaction. If your dog chooses to sniff the box for instance, you could click that. Then you could click for two sniffs. Then you can click for three sniffs, and then for a touch, and then two touches and so on. Each time, you offer the dog the opportunity to decide for himself, what his next behaviour will be. You don’t name the behaviour because there is really no end for an anxious dog; you want him to keep trying new things.
It is important to understand that free for all reinforcement will make anxiety worse. Many people have noticed that parental and teacher approval often backfires, and approval in the form of rewarding behaviour can backfire in dogs too. When support for the looser in a contest in the form of approval is offered, it can create conflict in the child. The child knows he has lost the game and hears from the teacher or parent that he has done a great job. Confidence is dependent upon success, but only on actual success. The power of success can be boosted by recognition, but approval for errors is very damaging. So if a dog is anxious, cuing and prompting and then rewarding behaviours can create a similar sort of conflict within the dog. He may be doing the actions you ask for, but his emotional state is still anxious. This is where classical conditioning can come in handy.
If you know what your dog’s triggers are, you can start to tease apart the criteria that he can and cannot cope with. If your dog is anxious about other dogs for instance, the first thing to do is to figure out how far away from the other dogs your dog has to be in order to be calm. Don’t mistake the absence of behaviour found in the shut down dog for calmness. Being shut down is the result of being overwhelmed, and being overwhelmed is unfair to a stressed animal. It is what I go through when I have to drive in a car with a reckless driver; I may not look stressed, but I certainly am. To get an idea of what it is like to be completely shut down think about what it might be like to be in a bank during a robbery. When a gunman shows up and threatens you, you don’t show your stress; the obvious person will be the target. When you are overwhelmed, you will behave as normally as you possibly can, and hope not to be noticed. When a dog is overwhelmed, he may appear normal but in fact be very upset. You have to look for the subtle signs, the sweaty paws, the rapid eye blink rate, the jerky movements, to tell you that your dog is over his ability to cope well. A very effective way to determine if your dog is close to or above threshold is to offer him treats. If he takes treats normally, ask if he can do a simple behaviour he knows well; if he can, he is not yet at threshold. If he takes treats roughly, he is really close to his threshold for tolerance. If he refuses the treats, he is likely over threshold. And if you find that he has an upset stomach or diarrhoea, you can be certain that he was far over threshold even if he wasn’t showing you other signs
You can also figure out other aspects of your dog’s triggers. If dogs seem to trigger your dog, is it all dogs? Is it only black or white dogs? Is it only small or large dogs? And if you can eliminate the dogs from your dog’s life that concern him, you can begin to present the dogs who are a problem at a low enough threshold that he can begin to integrate those dogs into his repertoire. The mechanics of classical conditioning are very simple-you present the stimulus (in this case a triggering dog) at a low enough intensity (either far enough away, or not moving or otherwise not triggering for your dog) and you pair that with the opportunity to do something he really, really likes. Most often food is used for classical conditioning because you don’t have to take it away from the dog, you don’t have to worry about it going missing, and you do have to feed your dog anyhow. If you have two dogs who live in the same house who don’t like one another, you can feed them separated by a barrier where they can see one another, but cannot interact. If the dogs begin to snarl or growl at each other, you are working too closely, and classical conditioning can only happen when the stimulus is presented at a low enough threshold that the dog isn’t already triggered.
I am often asked if comforting an anxious dog will make them more anxious. It won’t. Consider going to a funeral; mostly likely you were upset and possibly crying. Alleviating a bad emotion comes by decreasing stressors, by having support from loved ones and by being in an environment where you can express your emotions in safety. You won’t feel any better if the funeral director told you to hold it together, and act happy. There is no reason to believe that this is any different for dogs. If you have a dog who is anxious and upset by something, and seeks support and calm by getting into your lap, then let him. If he finds comfort by leaving, then allow him to go. Do what you can to alleviate anxiety in the short term, and you will teach your dog that you are trustworthy and that you will help him to determine the best and safest thing to do in a crunch.
I often see new trainers create conflict in their dogs by setting the dog up to fail, and then rewarding the dog’s effort. Some students are so keen to have their dog succeed that they reward EVERY behaviour that the dog offers. Rewarding every behaviour can be a good first step in a dog who is really shut down, when we want to teach the dog that offering behaviours is acceptable, but when you want to teach the dog a particular behaviour, waffling between reinforcing variety and reinforcing a particular behaviour, you end up confusing the dog, and this means that although you are “rewarding” the dog, you are creating confusion instead of success and that is the sort of thing that makes a one trick pony dog more uncertain and less successful. Another way that my students set their dogs up to fail is to recognize that the dog is over threshold and take him far into the territory of fear and anxiety. Or some of the time, they recognize that the dog is in distress and make the dog face his fears anyways. None of these tactics sets the dog up to learn more than their one trick in the face of danger. As trainers what we need to learn is to set our dog up to learn new tactics, using what we know about triggers, thresholds, operant and classical conditioning, and remembering what it feels like when we ourselves experience anxiety.