I used to belong to the local gym, and I used to go every workday morning. It was a great start to the day. I would lift weights, and ride the exercise bike and swim and then have a hot tub and shower and get ready for work. I had friends at the gym who would share their lives with me, and I would share my life with them. Then we moved out to the country and the gym was really inconvenient to get to, and I was really busy, so I stopped going. I am not in the least bit surprised that my weight went up and my fitness went down. I used to be a gym rat, but not anymore, and frankly when you don’t go, you stop reaping the benefits.
Once…I was this fit. Not so much any more!
Dog training is like this. Coming to puppy school when your dogs are really young has become the norm, and we think this is terrific. In puppy class we teach people about recognizing when their dogs might be overwhelmed, when play is getting too rough and how to introduce your puppy to the family. We teach older puppies how to sit, lie down, come when called and stay out of the trash. Almost everyone in class meets someone who has a puppy who is a good play match for their dog, and they continue to stay connected with one another throughout their dog’s lives.
All too often though, we have families who tell us that they are “taking a break” from classes and training, and periodically we get a client who returns to us when their puppy has grown up into a four year old Dennis the Menace. Bad habits creep up, and the family works around them. The problems aren’t addressed, and then suddenly they are overwhelming. Maybe the dog has learned that coming when called is an optional behaviour that results in driving away from the dog park. Quite often the behaviour that brings people back to class is a dog who is pulling on leash. Hard. Every day. Quite often the client will say to me “but we went to puppy class”.
Puppy class is a great foundation. I really, sincerely do believe that every puppy deserves puppy class and I believe this so strongly that I am giving puppy classes away for free. If you do nothing else with your puppy, come to class before he is 12 weeks of age. Never the less, if you come to puppy class before twelve weeks, and you never come back, don’t be surprised if your dog’s skills and socialization decay and aren’t reliable.
This pup is learning that being caught by a child is a safe thing! This is one of the foundation skills that pups learn in puppy class, but you have to keep practicing in order to maintain the skills.
Building skills to begin with is like going to the gym. When I first went to the gym, I didn’t have any skills. I started out by doing weightlifting that started out small and built up. I started out lifting small weights, and built up to my top lifts of 200 lbs. I started out with short light aerobic work outs on the stationary bike and the eliptical machines. Each day I did similar routines that carefully built up my fitness. Each week the routines became more challenging and helped to increase my fitness level. I became stronger and more aerobically fit. Sadly, I have taken a break and I am not where I was at my peak of fitness.
If I wanted to get back into weight lifting and get back to my best ever bench press of 200 lbs, then I would need to establish a base line. What is the most I can lift now? I would bet that with my current tennis elbow and terribly out of shape body, that I would probably be able to lift somewhere between 60 and 70 lbs. That is a far cry from what I could lift when I was working out with weights every day! 60 to 70 lbs being my baseline, I would work out with weights that are less than that to build strength. I might lift 4 sets of ten reps of 40 lbs for a week, and then move up to that work out with 45 lbs. In dog training, when you have taken time off, you need to figure out what your dog’s baseline is when you start back at class and then work up from there. There is no point in starting at your dog’s best performance; that is not where he is.
If I had kept going to the gym instead of stopping and starting over the years, I might have exceeded my heaviest lift ever instead of getting flabby and out of shape. Things got in the way though, and my priorities shifted. I know this happens with our puppies too. When it happens though, we cannot be surprised when skills decay.
Not only do skills decay if you don’t practice, but so can socialization. Socialization is the process of carefully exposing a puppy to everyone and everything he will encounter as an adult. If you do this diligently, and then keep your dog in the backyard for the next four years, he will no longer be confident about the things that he encounters as he passes through life. Thus it is important to take advantage of the early window of time to start socialization, but throughout your dog’s life, you need to continue to keep him socialized. A large gap between initial socialization and ongoing socialization can create a problem where the dog is no longer confident about stimuli that he may once have been very tolerant about. If your dog has had a gap in exposure to the environment either due to illness or the vagaries of our busy lives, he may develop the kinds of problems we hope to avoid by doing socialization activities in the first place.
When we start training with puppies, we are not surprised that they don’t know much and we work at the easy things such as restraining yourself against snatching treats, and work up to the more complicated things like leash manners and coming away from play or food. When I am passing my students on their various obedience skills I often point out to them key exercises that they should practice throughout their dog’s lives. Some of the exercises that we do with the dogs form the foundations for other exercises and again there are similarities to exercising at the gym. I think of these exercises as the warm up stretches that we do before we work out. If you have been to class but now you cannot return for whatever reason, then you can maintain your dog’s skills by practicing some of the simple skills that you worked on early in your dog’s career. If you can do this, then taking a break from classes is not going to ruin the work you have done. I am stronger now than I was when I got my horse a year ago because I began lifting heavy feed bags and hay and other items involved in caring for my horses. I am not as strong as I was when I worked out every day, but I am stronger than I was.
This chocolate Newfoundlander practices his down stay in the presence of treats in our Levels Class. Continuing classes through adulthood keeps skills sharp and helps you to develop new skills as you go along!
I may go back to the gym at some point, but for right now, I exercise by caring for and riding my horse. My dogs come to classes regularly and we practice regularly both at home and in class. When I get my next pup, he will go to classes three to five times a week until he is about a year. At that point, I will likely ease up and go only once or twice a week to develop skills for competition or sport. My dogs go to classes for their whole lives, because I like the benefits of continuing classes over the long term; like the gym, classes yield benefits in other parts of my life. Not only do I have dogs who have current skills but I also have fun at class. There are people I see regularly who I enjoy talking with, and sharing experiences with. Come to think of it, I am missing the community I built at the gym. It might just be time to go back.
I received a rather weird post to my business Facebook page, from a man in another city imploring me to teach my students to follow the city by laws. His rant was full of frustration and anger. He was SO frustrated that he complained to just about the only person who could not help him. There is definitely a divide between the dog owning and the non dog owning community. The only thing that both communities seem to agree upon is that they are fed up.
On the one hand are those who own dogs and who have to move through the public with those dogs. Very few of us want to cause discomfort to the people who live near us, but sometimes things happen. If you get caught away from home without a bag and your dog leaves a mess, there is little you can do. My kingdom for bag stations and garbage cans on every street corner! Dogs are dogs though, and they do things that we wish they would not, at least from time to time. Beyond toileting in public, dogs do other things that non dog people may find uncomfortable or unfriendly. They bark, lunge, pull on leash, whine, leave footprints, jump up and sometimes get into or onto things many folks wish they would not.
Non dog owners sometimes cause problems for dog owners too. I have been yelled at, charged, had a bicycle try and run my dog over, had rocks thrown at me and experienced some pretty awful behaviour from the people I meet-and I have a very well behaved dog! It seems like if I go out in public and my dog does not appear to be unpleasant or unfriendly, then I become a target for every non dog owner’s frustration, or the target for every child who wants to touch my dog.
A part of the problem is that as a society, we seem to have forgotten a few golden rules. First and foremost, we seem to have forgotten that we should try and not interfere with the enjoyment of other people of the public places we go to. Being physically present with a dog does not constitute a hardship in and of itself. Neither does being in public without a dog. If we could all remember that everyone, dogs too, need a bit of space that would help. Acknowledge one another and say hello. When I am walking my dog and a skate board comes up behind me, I may not hear that; call out and I will give you more space. Common courtesy of acknowledging one another and helping each other seems to have fallen away when it comes to the interactions between dogs and the public at large.
Toiletting is perhaps the biggest issue I see. If your dog toilets in public; clean it up! I have been caught short without a bag from time to time, it happens to all dog owners-but it shouldn’t happen every single time you go out. It shouldn’t even happen once a week. If you are a non dog owner, and see that I am scrounging for a bag (I have even gone into trash cans looking for them!) and you have one…I will not be offended if you offer it to me. And dog owners; if you are offered a bag, take it with some grace. It is not the responsibility of the non dog walking public to carry bags, but believe me, it isn’t a horrid idea to help one another out!
Another common pet peeve between the dog owning and non dog owning public is a dog who should be wearing a leash but who is not. Not only is it illegal in most places, but frankly it is incredibly dangerous in most places. All a dog has to do is make one small mistake and walk into traffic and he is dead. As a professional dog trainer I often have a cheapo extra leash with me. I have given out dozens of them to people over the years. If you own a dog, he needs a collar and leash and if I offer you one, please USE IT! Yes, I regularly run my dogs off leash in places where they are safe from traffic but in town, regardless of how good my dog is, I use a leash and collar. Last Friday, as I was leaving for Montreal, I arrived at the train station in Kitchener and there was a large Boxer, loose in the station (yes, inside!) without a leash or collar. I travel with an older service dog; my first duty is to protect my dog. Luckily I had help; John stood up and stood between me and the other dog-not only was this situation dangerous to the loose dog, but it was incredibly unfair to me and my dog as there was nowhere for us to go to escape him should he want to greet us.
As I mentioned earlier, I have had some horrendous experiences with the general public when I have been out with dogs. One of my earliest experiences with socializing a puppy involved going out to a park and sitting on a bench to watch people go by. There was a bench across the street from me, so I walked my young puppy over. An older man was sitting on the bench at one end, so I went to the other end with my puppy. Without a word, he reached over with his cane and very deliberately struck my dog across the nose, and then began to berate me for bring a dirty animal to the park. Why? I still don’t know. Perhaps he had been frightened by a dog, but that is unacceptable behaviour and it certainly interfered with my right to enjoy the neighbourhood I lived in.
Humans are a social species. We are meant to live in groups. Everyone has the right to enjoy their neighbourhood. What I think most people miss is the right to enjoy something is accompanied by the responsibility to protect one another when out in society. That is part of being a member of a social species; we all contribute to the greater success of one another when we are part of a neighbourhood. This means that both dog owners and non dog owners need to work together to get it right and stop interfering with one another.
The people who own dogs who are the least likely to cause problems for one another are those who are already proactive about their dog’s behaviour. The people who come to puppy classes and training classes are not generally the ones who are causing problems by letting their dogs run loose. They are taking action to prevent problems by educating their dogs about acceptable and not acceptable behaviours. In our classes we teach a wide variety of things including toileting on cue which means that we can tell our dogs when and where they can go. We teach leash manners which means that the dogs who come to our classes are learning now to walk politely beside their people. We teach the cued take it which means that our dogs are not the ones who are loose and scoffing food off the sidewalk or out of your hands.
The people who don’t have dogs who are the least likely to run into trouble with dogs are those who understand a few things about dogs. Just like most people don’t like to be hugged by strangers, most dogs don’t want you to touch them either. Dogs are descended from predators and if you tease a dog and then run, they will likely chase you. If you threaten a dog, no matter how nice the dog is, he is going to defend himself. Most interactions between dogs and humans are really, really benign-most dogs are not going to do anything to you if they are running free without interference. If you happen across an unaccompanied loose dog, catching him is not a great idea; call your local humane society but don’t try and catch the dog. Catching dogs puts them in a position where they are vulnerable; and dogs who feel vulnerable may bite. Beyond that, you don’t know the health status of a strange dog. Dogs can and do carry parasites, fungal infections and diseases that we can get. Leave catching strange dogs to the pros, especially if you don’t know much about dogs in general.
You may admire my dog, but please, don’t just walk up and touch him. I happen to live with three very easy going, happy, friendly dogs, but not every dog accompanied by a person is a happy easy dog. Many dogs need space for a variety of reasons. You would never walk up to a total stranger and hug them, and no matter how much you may admire my dog, he is not an object to be fondled. If you would like to meet a dog you have seen, ask the person who is accompanying that dog. If you have been invited to greet a dog, greet him verbally first and see if he approaches for pats! Don’t just touch him randomly.
And dog owners; don’t put your dog up as a toy or object to be handled and touched. Dogs have thousands of years of living with us and they live rich emotional and cognitive lives. Requiring a dog to be touched who doesn’t want to be touched is unfair. Ask your dog by giving him permission to greet-don’t just let people touch your dog as though he didn’t care. Your dog cares deeply and deserves the chance to be touched on his terms. If your dog is telling you he is uncomfortable about being touched, then don’t force the issue. So many dog bites could be prevented if only the dog was permitted to leave when he was uncomfortable.
There are some conventions I would like people to understand about dog parks too; many problems could be avoided easily if we were to just all play by the same rules. First and foremost, don’t encourage on leash greetings. Very few handlers know how to leash handle in a way that is sufficiently sophisticated that they are going to avoid issues when their dogs meet on leash. Tight leashes create an agonistic posture in dogs, and when your dog is approaching another dog in a way that looks threatening, that is how dog fights start. Further to that, the dogs cannot leave, so if they want out of the greeting, they don’t have many choices. Finally, on leash greetings tend to be protracted, like a handshake that goes on much, much too long. There is no better way to annoy a potential friend than shaking their hand for too long. Handshakes and dog greetings should operate on a count of one, two, three and we are done. Off leash, most dogs do this. On leash, with the people gabbing and not paying attention, greetings go on and on and on and everyone seems surprised when a snarl breaks out.
If your dog is off leash, and you encounter another dog who is on leash, for heaven’s sake, leash up! The other dog cannot greet properly and he is captive to whatever the loose dog decides to do. It is our responsibility as reasonable dog owners to make other people’s lives just a little easier. Yes, I know we have all dropped the leash, had the fence fail, had the door open and yes, if you are the one holding the leash, you have to take action to prevent a blow up, but really, if you have a dog running loose, even in an off leash zone, please leash up when you encounter a loose dog.
Finally, if you are riding a bike or a board, please take care to give some space to dogs. Not all dogs will chase a fast moving target, but if a dog begins to follow you, stop and put your bike or board between you and the dog. In the event that the dog is unfriendly, you can protect yourself by keeping your bike or board between you and the dog. In the event that the dog has strayed you are giving the owner a fighting chance of catching up and putting his dog on leash. If on the other hand you are a dog owner whose dog has followed or chased someone on a bike, please, please, please go get your dog and leash him up. Joggers can also stop to help dog owners catch their dogs. It is very easy to be self righteous and say that the dog ought not chase, but that isn’t going to get you anything if you lead the dog so far from home that the owner cannot intervene and in the event that the dog is unfriendly, continuing on your way won’t prevent a bite. If the dog is growling; he is asking for space. If he is barking and chasing, he may just be having a great time, but he may not either. Friendly behaviour in dogs is usually inefficient and involves a lot of vertical movement and curved approaches. Encouraging the dog to chase does not help either; you can get a dog so highly aroused that he slips from friendly movement to more dangerous flat, straight line motion, making him more not less dangerous. The faster you go, the more likely it is that this will happen, and given that dogs are fully capable of running at 20km/h or more, it is unlikely you will be able to get going fast enough that you can avoid a dog by outrunning them even on a really fast bike.
The bottom line and the take away message is that we all share the same space and it sure would be nice if we started to work together to get along instead of working against each other and creating problems that did not exist already. And to the city of Toronto; I just passed through your down town core. It would be a lot easier to clean up after dogs if there were a few more places to put the waste. Just a suggestion to help start meeting the needs of the frustrated man who started me thinking about this!
Humans are social animals. For reasons that hit deep into the DNA of our species we are set up to live together in groups and to trade favours in order to get along better. Trading favours is one way to describe an evolutionary concept called reciprocal altruism. In other words, you scratch my back and I will scratch yours, and presumably, mutual back scratching will improve the likelihood that each of us will survive long enough to pass along our genes. One of the most important ways that we have to trade favours is to warn one another of dangers, especially if they are avoidable.
Would you call out? Would you help? If you knew a train was coming, would that impact your choice of response? Would you be angry if someone tried to help? Think about it. As an adult coming across a child playing on railroad tracks, if I saw this, I would say something, especially if I knew that a train might come along.
In the past two weeks, I have three times been accused of interfering, being judgemental and being an expert without empathy. Maybe that is a sign that people are beginning to read my blog. Maybe I am just rude; not my intent, but I would allow for that as a possibility. Maybe people know that they are doing things that are not a terribly good idea. And what have I alerted on that is so horrible? I have told people when their dogs were showing signs of stress in images.
The point has been made that the images are but a moment in time, and this is entirely true. When a camera takes an image, it is taking a picture of that one instant in time. Have a look at the image below, and think about what you see. Is the child happy? Or sad? In the moment, there is a definite emotional event happening. Believe it or not showing an image of a child who is sad in the moment does not mean that child has a terrible life; it means that at one instant in time, the child was unhappy and a picture was taken.
Would you send your kid to basketball camp, if this were the type of image that was used in advertizing the camp? Do you think your child would be interested in going to basketball camp so that he or she could feel this way too? Image credit: duplass / 123RF Stock Photo
Now let’s think about advertizing. If you were looking for a child’s dance class, would you want to take your child there if all the images of the children in the advertizing literature were crying? This is a situation I face when I cruise through the websites of some of my competition. I see page after page of accurately working dogs who universally look unhappy. I see long series of pictures of classes full of dogs showing whale eye, pinned ears, head drops and occasionally a snarl.
I also face this day in and day out when I see family pictures of my non dog training friend’s and their dogs. I see children hugging dogs, and people putting dogs in awkward positions, and the dogs are clearly showing signs of discomfort and distress. In fact, a lot of the images I see are not just dogs who look sad, but dogs who are in the early sequence of getting ready to bite.
I see this sort of image in my Facebook feed on a daily basis. This dog is helpless and unhappy and has begun to bite the child. Often the image is posted with a caption such as “Missy and her new puppy are bonding; aren’t they cute?” All I can think about is “If I don’t say something, this child is going to get hurt. I don’t want the child to get hurt.” Image credit: tonobalaguer / 123RF Stock Photo
When I talk to people about these pictures, they regularly tell me that the dog often looked like that and was perfectly happy and that the dog never hurt anyone. I am tired of telling people that they were darned lucky. All too often, I get first contact with a family after the dog has bitten and often after the dog has bitten a child. Here is a news flash; dogs don’t like being hugged or kissed. They really don’t. When you look at hundreds of images of dogs showing signs of stress and you know you are going to be talking to the families at some point down the road about behaviours that lead to biting, then it is incredibly frustrating to hear that you are being mean, unkind, thoughtless or misusing your education when you speak up. For me, to see an image of a child hugging a dog, while the dog is giving whale eye, is squinting, or has pinned ears is like looking at a picture of a kid running into traffic. It turns my stomach and makes my blood run cold. The reason that I get so upset about these images is not that I don’t want people to have great experiences with their pets; it is because if a bite comes and I didn’t speak out, I feel like I was complicit. It feels like I could have prevented a bite, if only people didn’t think I was attacking them.
Several of my colleagues have pointed out that I am willing to do unpleasant things to dogs from time to time in order to suppress or decrease behaviours, and that not everything we do to dogs is always wonderful and pleasant. My colleagues; you are right. The images I am talking about are moments in time, and they show the dogs in discomfort or distress for that moment. I am not saying that the dog is being abused, or that the dog’s welfare is at risk; I am saying that at that moment in time, the dog is uncomfortable. Sometimes the dog is showing me that he will bite and soon. When people use these pictures to show their best work, it is a sad situation. When people knowlingly put their dogs into this sort of a situation, and then take a picture of that situation, it is not fair to the dog.
So here is my problem. I see the situation. I comment. Inevitably, someone takes offence that I have an opinion. Sometimes they get angry. Usually they are upset. Should I comment? I feel compelled to comment for so many reasons. Like the Lorax, I speak for a creature who cannot speak for himself. When I am working as a behaviour consultant, I advocate for the dog within the family. Often when people can see the discomfort they can change what they do, and the dog’s overall welfare improves. Not only that but the safety of the family improves. When it works, I feel like I am contributing in a positive way to society. When it doesn’t I feel outcaste and like a failure. When I cannot reach the client or the family or the community and a bite happens, I feel even worse.
Don’t get me wrong; this is not all about me, but on the other hand it is. As a society we have grown so far away from our agrarian roots that we often don’t recognize the signs of stress in our dogs. When we recognize them, we often dismiss them as unimportant. We put ourselves and our dogs into situations that are unpleasant and often dangerous. We have both high and low expectations of ourselves and we translate those expectations on our dogs. We expect that life will be hard and we put up with that. We expect that our dogs will tolerate discomfort and put up with that too. How is this about me? It is about me because I have been trained to recognize the signs of stress in dogs. Once you know what you are looking for, it is really hard not to do something when you see the signs.
When I point out a dog in distress this is not a judgement about you or who you are, or your family or your value to society or if you have a nice dog or a not nice dog. This is not a judgement about the choices you made. I assume, correctly more often than not, that you don’t see the signs of stress because you don’t have the training I do. This isn’t a bad thing, it is just a thing. When I point out that a dog is in distress, and I tell you about it, to me it is like telling you your shoelace is undone. I want to participate in the co-operative behaviour of a society and protect you so that if I am in danger and you know about it, you will tell me. For me, this is no more judgemental than “I noticed that you didn’t turn off the stove when you left the kitchen; shall I go check and turn it off so we don’t burn down the house?”
This blog is a bit of a rant, and I am aware of that. I don’t often write about how my job impacts my life, but it does. When I go to a family picnic and I see a dog being harassed by the kids, the picnic is no longer any fun for me because I know that the dog is uncomfortable and that the only way he can avoid the discomfort is to warn and then bite those who are causing discomfort. If I say something, then I risk that you will think that I am judging you and ruin your day. If I don’t say something then I risk that I will be sitting in yet another appointment with a friend or a family member and have to explain to them why their dog bit their child. Some of the time, not saying something results in the dog behaving so dangerously that the family chooses to kill the dog. For me, the stakes are very high, and the last thing I want to do is share in the heartbreak of yet another family who got a dog because they love dogs, and end up afraid of dogs because mishandling led to a tragedy.
Every year at this time, I start preparing my clients for the holiday season, and every year, I come up against the same thing; families want to include their dogs, but they often have very unrealistic ideas about what their dogs should be doing with their families. People want their dogs to be part of gift opening activities, however, they don’t want the dogs to take every gift from under the tree and tear it apart. People want their dogs to be around during the holiday feast, but they don’t want him to beg at the table. And families like to include dogs in greeting the guests at the front door. The problem is that everyone has this idea that it is somehow or another going to all work out, without ever preparing their dog for the big day. Incidentally, I see this in families who want to include their dogs in their weddings, funerals (yes, I had a client who wanted her dog to go to her late husband’s funeral, and called up to ask my advice on how to best include him!), birthdays and other family events.
I like to include my dogs in most of my activities too, and so people are often surprised that they may come to visit me and never see my dogs. I am actually more likely to bring a dog to visit you than you are to see one of my dogs when you come to visit me. I feel like saying that the reason for this is that I am a control freak, and that would not be untrue but there is a lot more to it than that. It starts from the point that I really want my dogs to be successful. I really, really want them to be successful. Yes, they goof, but the vast majority of time, after people have met my dogs they say things like “wow, I wish my dogs behaved as well as that!”
The way that my dogs get such a stellar reputation is simply that I train them to do what I want them to do and then I plan interactions to compliment what they know. All my dogs know how to do a one hour down stay by the time they are 6 months, so if I have to take them somewhere, I can depend on them to lie down and stay for at least an hour. This means that I can start taking them quiet places to visit for up to an hour at a time so long as their other needs for food, water, exercise and social contact have been met. This can be a lot of fun. I can go out with a friend for coffee somewhere, or I can go to someone’s home, or they can come to visit me. In this way I teach my young dogs that there is an expectation about the down stay no matter where it happens. The thing about this is that I don’t take my pups out with people who are going to upset my training plans. I only take them places where I know they will be supported and successful in what I want them to learn. If you are the type of guest who is going to tease my dog out of her down stay and into play, then she can rest in her crate while I am visiting with you. If you have kids who might be too quick or too much fun for a puppy to resist joining in the fun with, then she can rest in her crate, where she won’t learn bad habits right off the bat.
With my older dogs, who know the drill, I will have them out while you visit, if I am confident that you are the kind of guest who knows how to mind their manners around my dogs. I expect that my dogs are going to mind their manners around my guests, but by extension, I expect that my guests will mind their manners around my dogs. When I am visiting with you, you are the person I am interested in, so I want to be able to spend my time focusing on you! I don’t need to spend all my time pleading with my guests so that they are not getting my dogs unnecessarily excited, and I don’t want to spend my time with you chastising my dogs if they goof and forget their manners. So unless and until I am very certain that my dogs cannot be tempted out of their down stays, it is most likely that they won’t be coming out of their crates or the yard if you are at my house for a short visit.
If you are visiting for more than an hour or so, I usually make some time for an activity that everyone is going to enjoy with my dogs. If I have a new adult dog in my home, who doesn’t know the rules and doesn’t have the training to participate, you still won’t meet that dog. It isn’t fair to the dog to be asked to behave himself when he doesn’t understand the rules. If people are up for it, we can go for an off leash walk around the farm at a time that works out for the rest of our day. If people don’t want to go for a walk, we sometimes go out for a game of fetch, one dog at a time. In the event that people don’t want to go outside, then I will bring the dogs out one at a time, to do some tricks and maybe play some scent games. What I do with my dogs and you will depend upon who you are, what your experiences are with my dog or dogs, and what the activity is for the day.
So how do you include your dog in the holidays while also making sure that your dog is going to be successful? As always, it depends. If I am expecting your family to my home in the mid afternoon, to stay for two nights, and participate in two formal meals, brunch, gift giving and the normal hubbub that comes along with a houseful of people who don’t normally live there, I am going to give some thought to how to set up for success. If I am going to visit you, the process is analogous, as I will outline below.
When I am expecting guests, I always make certain that my dogs get a really good run before you are expected to arrive. For my dogs that usually means getting them out and off leash, preferably in a group of other dogs. This is fairly easy for me; we live in the country, in a place where we have over forty trails to choose from and we know a lot of dog families so getting real exercise is not terrifically difficult for me. If I am going to go visit someone, I always look for a walking trail on the way where I can stop for at least 40 minutes to run my dog or dogs. I want to start out a guest experience, either as a host or as a guest with a dog who is not full of beans and silliness.
Once I get that out of the way, when I get home, I make sure that I have a good supply of toys pre-stuffed to give my dogs in their crates. Stuffing Kongs properly means knowing your dog very well, and understanding how they work on toys. With naïve dogs, I will just put kibble and chunks of treats such as liver, sausage or cheese loosely in the Kong. I will put the whole thing upside down in a coffee mug so things don’t fall out while stored. With more experienced dogs, I will do the same thing, but add a plug made from sausage or cheese. Locally we can get a product called Rollover (https://rolloverpetfood.com/product/beef-dog-food/ ) that works very well to plug a kong. There are many brands the world over of this type of product. With dogs who are really good at this, I will use Rollover to lock in the kibble on multiple levels; I will alternate a layer of kibble with a layer of rollover until the Kong is completely stuffed. Kongs stuffed in this way can be dropped, thrown, or bounced and they won’t spontaneously empty. For the truly serious Kong chewer, I will freeze these to make emptying them really difficult. Although I mention Kongs here, there are now a wide variety of toys available to stuff. Just make sure that you can blow through the toy so that you don’t create a vapour lock that can suck your dog’s tongue into the toy. You can find my blog on safe toys at https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/safe-toys/ .
Once I have a well exercised dog, and a pile of stuffed toys ready, then I am ready to entertain you. If I am travelling, I bring the toys with me. Regardless of if I am answering the door or ringing the doorbell, that initial excitement is not part of my dog’s lives because they are in crates when it happens. Usually they don’t have a Kong at this point. If I am arriving at your house, my dogs are in their crates in the vehicle, and if you are arriving at my home, my dogs are usually crated for about a half an hour before you arrive.
You may be wondering why I do it this way. When dogs are permitted to greet every single guest every single time, they never learn to do that politely. Imagine for a moment if your closest friend greeted you the way most dogs greet people at the door. Imagine how you might feel for instance if your dad or your uncle were to rush the door yelling and hooting and hollering, and then leapt up at you and tackled you to the ground. Even if the intent was benign, you would not be pleased. When my dogs are well enough trained to lie quietly and approach gently, they can greet people at the door. I use behaviours such as the one hour down stay (https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/the-racehorse-down-stay/ ) proofed against doors to teach my dogs what to do but I don’t allow my dogs to just greet. Usually when I am visiting for two nights, I have a pile of things to bring in and I leave my dogs in their crates in the vehicle until I am ready to bring the rest of my things in.
Often if you are visiting me, I will have coffee waiting, and we can sit down to visit a little, and this is when I like to bring my dogs out. My dogs understand that people sitting around drinking coffee means that they should find a place to settle. If I have a young or naïve dog, I will often bring him in on leash, and have treats available so that I can reward him for calm and quiet behaviour. Once you and the dogs have had a chance to meet quietly, either by you going to them to give them treats, or they coming and sitting beside you to get a treat, then they are free to go about their day. People have often commented when they stay with me about how my dog’s “excited” greeting is very low key. They are obviously pleased to meet you, however they are not whining, jumping up or knocking you over.
If I am visiting, I usually bring yellow mats for my dogs (dogs see yellow and blue, so I want something that they will recognize as their own) and they do a down stay once we are in the house. When I am visiting, my dogs are not allowed to move freely through your house without permission. They don’t know the rules of your house, and I don’t want them to be in your way. When I move from one place to another in the house, they follow me, either because they have been taught to do that, or because they are on leash.
There is an exception to these rules for my dogs. If you know my dogs really well, and you know how I want you to interact with my dogs, then I may allow them to meet you at the door. Friday has a young friend who visits a few times a year, and when she comes to visit, Friday will circle her and smile, and she will bend over and tickle Friday all over. They are delightful to watch because their behaviour is highly reciprocal. I contrast this with most greetings is a dog who is so excited and who has no idea about what is expected, and a human who spends most of her effort fighting off the affections of the dog. This is not a healthy greeting, and it doesn’t reflect what I expect of my dogs or of my guests.
Once the guest/host greeting phase is over, my dogs are usually fairly settled and behave towards my guests as they would towards John and me; they are happy and relaxed, but they don’t spend all their time overwhelming people with their exuberance. If at any time they are struggling with what I believe is appropriate and healthy interactions, I will take them back to their crates, give them a stuffed toy to keep them amused, and then go back to visiting.
At meals, my dogs will either be in their crates with their dinners, or lying quietly behind my chair. I don’t want my dogs to learn to bother people who are eating, and I don’t want either my host or my guest to teach my dog bad manners by rewarding behaviours that I don’t like, so most often my dogs are crated through dinner. Given that holiday feasts are often accompanied by candles and multiple courses that have to be served and cleared away, this makes things easier for everyone. My dogs love their crates, so this is easy for us. I feed all meals at home in crates so that I can see who is eating, and who is not, and so that I can ensure that with multiple dogs, no one eats anyone else’s food.
Often holiday visits include gifts exchanges. If I have a dog who is really savvy about guests, I will have them do a down stay as part of the activity, however if they are not, then they spend that time in their crates. It is a short period of time in my dog’s life, but it can make such a difference in the memories that are created at the holidays. Consider for instance if someone has spent a lot of time and effort planning a special gift for another person and the dog completely overshadows the experience. You want the gift giver and recipient to remember the exchange, not how the dog jumped into the picture and stole the show, or worse how the dog destroyed the gift itself because he didn’t know how to keep his paws to himself.
In between meals and gifts, I still need to meet my dog’s needs for food, training and exercise. Often this is an opportunity to include family members in activities where they can more actively interact with my dogs. When this is not possible, I may do a few tricks here and there. This serves to give the dog a role in the gathering, and also to give people who may not know my dogs to interact with them in a way that I can control. It is a win/win when the dog has a role and is appreciated for himself.
All of this requires planning and training, and certainly it is not how everyone experiences holidays with their dogs. I wrote this blog after a Facebook exchange with a colleague who was lamenting her experiences visiting with her dog. A number of trainers chimed in with their horror stories of visiting with dogs, and I mentioned that when I had guests, often my dogs would stay in their crates. We were all surprised to find out how many of us crated our dogs when guests arrived, and how few of our non-professional trainer friends did not. I often see posts on social media saying things like “the dog lives here, you don’t” along with a laundry list of poor behaviours that I should expect when visiting that person’s home. When I visit, I am not coming to be drooled on, sat, on, pestered, or hassled into play. Yes, my dogs live here. No, I don’t expect them to make visiting me a chore.
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.
I have been seeing a lot of people lately engaging in what I would refer to as stunts. One of these stunts is sometimes marketed as “reality” training, where dogs are left on a down stay outside of a store while the owner goes in. The dogs are unattended and un-tethered. These dogs are really clear that a down stay is a down stay is a down stay, but let’s think about this. Is this really a good idea? I have dogs who could do this if I asked them to do so, and in fact, I have done this in times past. Learn and grow I always say. I learned and I grew, and now, I don’t do it unless there is an emergency. I cannot think what that emergency might be, but I will never say never. I will just say that I would have to be pretty convinced that an out of sight, public down stay might be necessary.
Is the dog under control? Yes. The dog understands that he must not move. In the world of protection work for instance, the goal is to train to this level and the dog understands that if he moves, bad things will happen. This looks like a great idea and it is a wonderful piece of theater. I remember revelling in my earlier days as a trainer, doing stunts like this. Then I grew a little bit and I started to realize that doing this is pretty darned disrespectful of my dog. The dog may be under control, but there is no plan “B” for what will happen if the dog is startled or spooked out of his stay. What will happen to the dog if he is stung by a bee, spooks and runs into the street? What might happen is that the dog could be hit by a car. Worse, someone might swerve to miss the dog, and hit a child. Control is not the only element that should be taken into consideration.
I am seeing other stunts around town too. Today I saw a small dog being led around the downtown core by a toddler who was maybe three or four years old. Cute? Yes. Safe? No. The child doesn’t understand the risks of leading the dog and the dog doesn’t understand traffic and if the dog spooks and runs into traffic, then not only is the dog dead, but so is the kid. This is a stunt, and mom may have thought that she was amusing both the kid and the dog, but it just wasn’t a good idea.
And then there are the dogs I am seeing off leash, with joggers and cyclists in the city. These dogs are really the victims of stunts, because they are often being run through traffic. As a runner in traffic, you are at risk but at least your body is usually taller than the hoods of most cars. Your dog is not, and if the driver doesn’t realize that there is a dog loose in traffic, then he is are real risk for being hit by a vehicle.
Not all stunts are set up on purpose. A colleague of mine lives on a corner lot in a beautiful neighbourhood. She has a service dog who is completely reliable. One day, the dog was let out to toilet and the family went back in the house for a few moments. A couple of minutes later, they looked out and the dog was out of sight. They called and she reappeared and came in the house. Not a big deal, until you find out that a neighbour observed a car slow down and someone get out and try and coax the dog out of her own yard and into a car. When you cannot observe your dog directly, you are depending that everyone around you is kind and honest and not intending to do harm to your dog, and sadly, that just isn’t the case some of the time.
Another stunt I regularly see happens in barns with horses. I am a recreational rider, and I often see dogs in barns, off leash, just doing their thing. On the surface, this doesn’t look like a stunt, but in a dog who doesn’t live with horses, and horses who don’t live with the dog, this sort of stunt can result in danger to both the horse and the dog. Worse, if you are mounted and coming back into the barn yard and your horse is faced with a loose dog she doesn’t know, you risk that the horse will spook, the rider may fall and the dog may get injured by the horse, or the horse by the dog. No one wins in this sort of a situation.
If this was my pony and your dog, I would be really annoyed. Even when the horses and the dogs know one another, supervision makes for safer interactions. Image credit: virgonira / 123RF Stock Photo
Every day I see stunts around me in the name of training. Doing an off leash heeling routine in a public square away from traffic is one thing, but doing the same thing through traffic is another. Doing a sit stay by a statue (something I have been doing with D’fer for many years) when I am right there is relatively safe; leaving that dog at the statue while I go out of sight is grand standing and doesn’t respect my dog.
When you have a dog in modern society, you have to take into account a number of really important things. The dog is incapable of understanding the risks of the environment he lives in. A hundred and fifty years ago, putting your dog out to toilet was not a big deal. Horses could hurt a dog, but there were many more horses and the dogs learned early how to behave around them. Dogs who didn’t learn, learned the ultimate lesson and were killed. It was a slower time and there were fewer people interested in stealing or harming a dog. You knew more of your neighbours and people didn’t show up randomly in your neighbourhood as often as we see now.
So what can you do in public with your dog? In traffic, please keep your dog on a leash. Walking your dog off leash just isn’t safe and it is a stunt that could cost your dog his life. If you need to go into a store, tie your dog and ask him to stay. Yes, my dog CAN stay out of sight for a very long time (I once left a dog on a down stay in the training room to answer a phone call and came back forty minutes later to find him snoozing on the floor where I left him!), but I have no need to risk my dog’s life to prove that fact. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. If you want to take a picture of your dog in public, by all means use your stay to the level you have trained it, but don’t leave the vicinity and hope for the best.
In an urban environment where traffic and dogs and people share space, a leash is a must no matter how well your dog is trained. Image credit: vvoennyy / 123RF Stock Photo
If you want to introduce your dog to horses, make sure that one person is controlling the horse and one person is controlling the dog while you train your dog to do things that are safe around your horse. If your dog is frightened of your horse, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you want to spend time with your dog and your horse together, orchestrate what you want them both to be doing. When I am grooming my horse if my dogs are around, I will put out a mat or send the dog to a bale of hay to lie down while I am grooming. If I am riding, I will have a spot for my dog to do a down stay in the event that I am in an arena or riding ring where it is safe for my dog to be. If I want my dog to heel with me, I will teach both my horse and my dog to work together instead of hoping that they will both figure it out.
The bottom line is that we are responsible for both what happens because of our dogs and what happens to our dogs and it doesn’t matter if we are there to observe the activity or not. If you leave your dog on a down stay out of sight and a child comes up and teases your dog and your dog bites the child, you are responsible. If you are crossing the street and your dog is off leash and he darts between the cars and is hit, that is also your responsibility. An important lesson to consider is that it need not be your fault in order to be your responsibility.
I feel like “Fair is not Equal” has begin to replace “It depends” as my motto at work these days. I have a number of cases these days where people want to give perfectly equal treatment to two dogs in the house. On the surface of it, the idea of treating everyone the same way seems like a good idea; after all you would not want to be excluded from a party because you are the only woman, or the only tall person, or the only dog trainer in a group! That would not be fair at all. The problem is that when you try and give equal treatment to two people with very different needs.
When we have a baby and an older child, we often see people around us try and give equal treatment to both children. If grandma comes to visit and she brings a toy for the baby, then she will most likely bring a toy for the older child too. This sounds fair, right? If you have two dogs and you bring home one special chew bone, and give it to your favourite dog, the other dog is likely going to be pretty upset about missing out. This in fact is likely a quick way to a dog fight! When we try and make fair equal, we can actually get into trouble though.
Consider for instance what the older child might think if grandma arrived with two rattles both designed for a child of about 6 months of age. If the older child is two, he may or may not care, but if he is 5, he is going to care a lot. The same is very true of our dogs. If you have a puppy and a middle aged dog, the pup is going to be interested in very different things than is the middle aged dog. This is the situation that prompted my blog today.
I have a client who has a 7 year old retriever with degenerative disc disease. Her 7 year old has been her constant companion for his whole life and they have done all sorts of cool things together; from hiking in Northern Ontario to sports classes locally, and road trips across Canada, to quiet family dinners with her aging parents, my client has taken this dog on every possible dog adventure his heart could wish for. Now that he is suffering from back pain though, he isn’t allowed to do as many things as he used to do. The one thing that they still do together is sit on the floor with her head on her lap while she grades her high school student’s homework. Every night after dinner, she sits down with a pile of paper on one side, and her special buddy on the other. They have done this ritual for the past seven years, from September till June, at least five nights a week. Recently though, this client has been missing some of the training activities she did with her 7 year old, so she brought a new puppy into the family.
This particular lady wants to be fair to both dogs, but sometimes she gets fair confused with equal. The first way she got confused was when she signed her puppy up for puppy class. She felt guilty that her older dog wasn’t going to training too, so she signed him up for a class as well. The problem was that she didn’t have time to devote to two sets of classes, so some of the time she missed class with her older dog and then she felt bad about spending money on a class she didn’t attend. Not only that but her older dog was often stiff and painful after his class, which really wasn’t fair to him at all.
The next place she got confused was leash walking her puppy. Young pups don’t actually know how to walk on leash. When she brought her youngster out for a leash walk with her older dog, he just got all tangled up and annoying! No one was happy; not the lady, not the puppy and definitely not the older dog.
My client knew that puppies need to eat more often than do adult dogs, and she wanted to be fair, so when she fed the puppy, her adult dog always got a meal too. He got his normal two meals a day, plus a little extra at lunch time. Her adult dog gained a few pounds, and that was hard on his joints, which meant an extra trip for him to the vet, and extra medication for pain.
Perhaps the least fair thing that this nice lady did for her two dogs was let the puppy have free run of the house with her older dog. She just didn’t feel good about her puppy being in his crate much of the time. The puppy took to harassing the older dog, which resulted in a grouchy adult dog, and an overtired, overstimulated puppy. The last straw came when school started in September though; on her first day sitting on the floor grading papers with her nice sedate adult dog, her cup of tea and her whirling dervish of a puppy. Within minutes her neatly organized evening came apart at the seams with papers strewn all over the room, her adult dog snarling at the puppy, and a hot cup of tea all over the floor.
When we met, my client said to me “I don’t remember puppyhood being so much work with my older dog!” The thing to reflect on with a case such as this is that at the time she didn’t have another dog to compare to, so instead of trying to give her first dog exactly everything that she gave to another dog, she just gave him what he needed. Fair, is rarely if ever equal.
So how did we resolve this? We acknowledged that fair is not equal and she stopped trying to give everything to the puppy that she gave to her adult and vice versa. Her adult dog does not need an extra class or a daily extra meal. Her puppy does not need a leash walk, or freedom of the house just yet. Once we stopped doing things that weren’t good for each of the dogs, we could really look at what each dog needed.
In the first few months, puppies need a lot of extra attention, training and structure. It isn’t forever, but it is important. We stopped all leash walking and added in two ten minute training sessions each day. Instead of wrestling a young strong dog on leash around the block with one hand, while trying to encourage her older, sedate and slightly painful older dog to keep up, all the while trying to avoid the inevitable tangling of the leash, she returned to her fifteen minute strolls around the block with her old friend. Her young dog benefited from the extra training sessions and her older dog got the time and attention that he needed from his normal routine. Not equal, but fair.
To address the lunchtime habit, we moved the older dog’s walk from first thing in the morning to lunch time, so that the puppy could have quiet alone time in the house with her lunch, while the older dog got what he needed. This helped to take weight off sensibly, and avoided the issue of the older dog mooching around the pup’s food bowl. Fair is not equal but each dog can get what they need when their needs are properly addressed.
Finally, we addressed the issue of the pup having free run of the house with an ex-pen in the living room. This allowed my client to have time with both dogs in the room, but without trashing her student’s assignments, spilling tea or harassing the older dog. Over time she will be able to give the younger dog more and more freedom as long as she is minding her manners. These few changes took the household from equal but completely unfair to not equal, but much more fair.
I think it is easier to identify when fair is not equal when we are talking about medical issues. My client was really trying hard to make things both equal and fair, but each dog had different needs. When her older dog was sore from gaining weight and being too physical, she didn’t feel the need to bring the younger dog to the vet for medication; that obviously would be neither fair nor equal. Likewise, she did not feel that she needed to revaccinate her older dog; her older dog was not due for vaccines for another 18 months, so just her puppy got vaccinated. When it comes to medical issues, we are much more clear about fair and equal and we do what is fair. When it comes to the rest of our dog’s lives, we are much more muddled. We try and do the things that we do with one dog with both, even if it would not be fair. To be fair, we have to take in the needs of the individual instead of the activities that we do with one or the other dog.