I work with dogs with behaviour problems every day. Some of the dogs I work with have bitten people. Some of them have attacked other dogs. Some of them leap at passersby when walking on leash. I see dogs with separation anxiety, with inappropriate elimination issues, who chase lights and shadows and who snap at invisible flies. I see dogs who don’t sleep and who eat things they ought not, and who do a wide variety of very strange behaviours. Over the years I have seen dogs who charge and lunge, who bite, who target the other dogs in the house, who have lunged at me, who have knocked me over, who have targeted another dog in my classroom and who have lost control over their bladders when I have looked at them. There is a really important thing to know about my job. I know what misbehaviour looks like. I don’t need to see your dog show misbehaviour in order to help you. You may wonder why.
The very first thing to know is that triggering the behaviour problem you are experiencing is not good for your dog. It is not in your dog’s best interest for me to see your dog misbehave. If your dog has a serious behaviour problem, every time he practices that behaviour, the behaviour becomes stronger, and that is not what I want when I am helping a family. There is a medical analogy that I like to use to help people to understand. Suppose that you had a broken leg. Every time you go to the doctor for a check up on your leg, would you expect your doctor to ask you to do something that would further injure your leg? Would you agree to jump up and down on your broken leg ten or eleven times to see how much it hurts? Would you expect your leg to ever actually heal properly if you keep re-injuring it?
Every time that you set your dog up to exhibit the undesired behaviour you have come to work on with me, you are re-injuring your dog. I don’t want your dog to get worse! I want your dog to get better. I look at resolving behaviour problems by starting from the point of doing no harm. I don’t want to make matters worse. If seeing your dog misbehaving were helpful, I would be in favour of allowing your dog make as many mistakes as possible but it doesn’t help. It really, really doesn’t help.
The next reason I don’t need to see your dog misbehave is that it often isn’t safe for me, for you, for your dog or for the dogs and people who are around you. If your dog is aggressive towards other dogs, it is really risky for other dogs for your dog to practice that behaviour. It is not safe for me if your dog is practicing being aggressive towards me! If your dog is aggressive towards me, and I have to do something to protect myself, your dog could be hurt. I don’t want to hurt your dog; that is not my job!
The final and perhaps the most important reason to avoid triggering a problem behaviour is that I likely already know what it looks like. I have seen some very wild and woolly behaviour. I have seen a dog with seizure induced aggression; I don’t need to ever see that again. It was extremely dangerous to me and I don’t think the dog was having much fun either. I have seen various types of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and that is so hard for the dog to endure. I have seen in person more fear aggressive dogs, defensively aggressive dogs, and confidently aggressive dogs than I care to count. I have seen dog to dog aggression and twice, I have seen dog fights so severe that both dogs nearly died. I have seen play, I have seen affiliative behaviour, I have seen fearful urination and defecation, I have seen leash aggression and I have seen resource guarding. After twenty five years of working with dogs with behaviour problems I have seen more problem behaviour than most pet owners will see in a lifetime. I don’t need to see most of this again, but if there is some reason for me to see a problem behaviour, I want to see it on video, retrospectively. For the very most part I don’t want to see the problem behaviour if I can avoid it.
This probably leaves many readers wondering how I can help if I don’t see the problem behaviour. First off, I want to know what the problem behaviour is, so I ask lots and lots of questions about the problem behaviour. Most people can tell me what I need to know after I ask the right questions to frame the problem. Once I have an idea of what the problem is, I need to know more details to start to help solve the problem. How much does the dog sleep? What does he eat? Is there something that happens right before the problem appears? Has the dog caused any injuries? How much exercise does the dog get and what kind of exercise is it? Who does the dog live with? Who does the dog play with? How is the dog’s health? Does the dog have any pain related issues? When I know about as many of the contributing factors as I can find, I can start to formulate a plan to help the dog and their family.
The first thing I will do after taking a history from family members is develop a management plan to avoid the problem. As with my example of a broken leg, for a period of time, I don’t want the dog to be re-injured by being triggered by the things that disturb him. I think of your dog having an episode of bad behaviour as being like re-injuring a broken bone. If you do it often enough, you are going to create a permanent and potentially worse problem. If nothing else, your relationship with your dog is not going to be as good as it could be.
Management in behavioural terms simply means setting up a successful environment. This can be very straightforward to do sometimes, but often it can be tricky. When you are talking about a dog who is afraid of men in hats, you can usually avoid men in hats for a period of time while you work on the problem. This is much trickier when you cannot tell what triggers the undesired behaviour, and that is where I am often really helpful to my clients. I have years of experience coming up with unique and creative ways to prevent exposing your dog to the things that set him off.
When we are talking about problems such as house soiling, I often have a few cards up my sleeve that you may not have thought of; it isn’t just common sense even though simple solutions are often what works. Often, coming in with experience and fresh eyes can help me to develop a plan to meet your dog’s needs even though you may have already thought up a number of solutions of your own and yet still, I don’t need to see your dog making the error to help.
The next thing I want to do is to determine what is driving or motivating the problem behaviour. If your dog is toileting in the house, but only does it on days when he or she is asked to stay home alone for ten hours at a time, then what is motivating him is a full bladder. If you get someone to come in and toilet your dog half way through the day, then he won’t have a full bladder and won’t soil in the house. That is a simple example of the kind of problem solving I help my clients with.
Some situations are more complex though. I have worked with dogs who are afraid of a myriad of things in their environments and the first step we have to take is to teach the dog that he is safe within his own environment. Once I have done that, we can start to expand his success puddle from within the house and yard to the street, the neighbourhood and then beyond. Sometimes the motivator behind the behaviour is medical; then I need to work with my client’s veterinarian to resolve the motivation. Sometimes it is hard to tell what the motivation is, and then I get to work like a detective solving a mystery to figure out how to help.
The final step in the work I do is to help you to teach your dogs the skills they need to succeed in their new reality. When we aren’t triggering the dog over and over again, and when we change what motivates the undesired behaviour, the next step is to examine what skills the dog needs to successfully navigate the situations that used to be a problem. Sometimes when I work with aggressive dogs the aggression is triggered by a specific triggers (such as men in hats) and it is motivated by fear (perhaps a man in a hat startled the dog when he was a puppy) and when we overcome those two components, we need to teach the dog what he should do instead of being aggressive.
By now you may be thinking “gee, your work sounds pretty straightforward” and to be completely honest you are not wrong, but I still hold the card of experience. I know how to evaluate the situation and what questions I need to ask to find out what the problem might be. I can recognize when the motivation that is driving the problem might be medical instead of behavioural. I know where to start when we attack the problem you have come to see me about. And I know what skills to teach your dog to give him tools to use in his tool box. I also know that although it might be flashy, your dog’s life is not a TV show, so I don’t need to see him exhibit the undesired behaviour!
Imagine for a moment that you were commissioning an architect to build you a house. You want a very special house; one that will allow you to do some very special things. Imagine for a moment all the things that YOU want for your house. In my house, I would like a big woodstove, and a kitchen with great counter space, and new appliances, and an indoor/outdoor swimming pool within a greenhouse with big sliding windows so that in the summer we could have the air flow through but in the winter we could take advantage of passive solar. I want a VERY fancy house.
Now, given what I want in my house, it is going to need electricity. Imagine for a moment, that my architect, who has come highly recommended by all my friends, who has built lovely houses before, has decided that he will not work with electricians. Or electrical engineers. Or anyone in the electrical industry. And he won’t read the legal code that electricians must adhere to when they do their work. He has his own ideas about electricity and in his architectural drawings, he is going to lay out the electrical system HE wants, regardless of what might be accepted in the industry. Now, granted he has added some improvements to the way things normally work, but in other buildings that he has been involved with, there have always been hang ups during construction while the building inspector goes through and makes all the changes to what this architect has indicated on the drawings-because the architect, while he may think his methods are better, is actually doing something that a lot of dog behaviour consultants, veterinarians and trainers do that we ought not do. He is practicing outside of his area of competence.
Architects need to know some things about electricity, electrical set ups, and the electrical code. Architects have to follow guidelines when making building plans. But architects are not electricians. And here is a piece of news. I am a dog behaviour consultant. In fact, I am a Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant. I did not go to school to become a veterinarian. Or even a vet tech. I know enough about dog health to tell you when you need to go to the vet, and I know enough about dog biology and health to be able to carry on a very informed discussion with a veterinarian about a dog in our care. Here is the thing: I need an invite from the client to do so.
If I hired an architect to build a house for me, I would insist that the various professionals that I hired were able to work together. The architect needs to be able to work with the engineers, the contractors, my lawyer, and my accountant. The other professionals need to be able to work together too. The day of the one stop jack of all trades professional is gone. The same is true of the people who help you with your dog’s behaviour; they need to get along in the sandbox with your vet, your daycare, you dog walker, your groomer and your breeder. We don’t need to go out for dinner together, but we DO need to find a way to work with one another, recognizing one another’s strengths and specialties and consulting one another opening. Your vet did not study behaviour in school and likely has not trained as many dogs as I have. Your daycare is unlikely to have given very many dogs haircuts and your groomer should not be drawing blood and doing bloodwork on your dog. We each know something about the work that the other does, and we can each contribute something to your dog’s wellbeing in the other places that your dog is going, but we each have a specialty and we need to respect one another’s specializations.
So when you are working with a professional for the improvement of your dog’s quality of life, put the professionals you use in touch with one another. And beware that those who are not playing nice in the sandbox with one another may not be able to help you in every way possible. The best outcomes for dogs happen when we are all on the same team.
Several years ago, on an email list, a woman mailed in talking about how her dog had nearly died because it had climbed up a five foot tall book case and stolen some pain meds and eaten them. She was on a rant about how important it was to keep things under lock and key and how you just never knew what a dog might get into. I was the lone voice saying that she had bigger problems than the immediate veterinary emergency. Her problem, whether she recognizes it or not, is that her dogs lack impulse control.
About 60% of the dogs I see with behaviour problems have impulse control issues. They steal things off of tables and counters, they eat the pockets out of clothing, they bolt out the door, they pull on the leash-generally, what they have learned in their lives is that if they want to have something, they ought to pull harder, jump higher, try harder, act faster and they can get what they want.
One of the problems is that dogs don’t have a good sense of safe and dangerous when it comes to the important things in modern life. They don’t understand that pills could kill them, that certain mushrooms in the yard could be toxic, that chocolate at the least will cause gastric upset and at the worst will cause death. They don’t know that jumping over the wall that prevents us from falling over the cliff could be a disaster, they don’t know that running into traffic is dangerous; they just don’t understand.
For this reason, it is important to teach your dog self control. Self control means several things. The first thing it means is “just because you can see it doesn’t mean it is yours”. Think about taking a four year old to a buffet table. Just because he can see that marvellous cake with all the sweet gooey icing doesn’t mean it is his. If mom and dad are the kind of parents who want their kids to grow up to be an acceptable member of society, they help the kid to choose self control over self indulgence. And this is what we are missing in our dogs.
Lately a lot of my novice students seem to feel that if there is something that the dog can see or sense that the dog wants, they are excused from insisting on good manners. This is akin to allowing the four year old at the buffet table to reach out and stick his fingers in that tempting icing, lick them and then repeat. Heck, the way some of my students approach this, they would be egging the child on. Go ahead sweetie…one little lick won’t hurt anything! Well it will. It will hurt that child’s chances of landing a job when he grows up, it will hurt his chances of finding a mate, it will hurt his chances of living a normal life.
Most recently, I experienced this in the company of my service dog. I had an appointment to be at a local business for a photo shoot, and there was a resident “puppy”. This puppy was somewhere between 6 and nine months old. My service dog does not love puppies, and when he is vested, his job is to take care of me, so we had arranged ahead of time to have the puppy off the premises. Needless to say, this did not work out; the dog was onsite when I arrived. I stood by the door looking through the window, and was waved in. I watched to see that the dog was removed from the room before coming in. Just as I got my coat off, the owner of the dog appeared with the dog in tow, vaguely guiding him by the collar. “He just needs to say hi,” she said. “NO!” I replied. “My dog doesn’t like puppies.” “It will just take a moment, he needs to say hello” she shot back. “NO!” I replied again; “this is a mistake. You cannot greet this dog, he is a working service dog”, I repeated, and stepped between her dog and mine. Still she persisted. “This isn’t about YOUR dog, MY dog needs to just sniff noses.” My dog was jacketed and I was in the middle of an anxiety attack to begin with, which didn’t help much, but honestly, why does she think that her dog MUST greet every dog he meets? (incidentally, a GREAT article to read about this is Suzanne Clothier’s “He just wants to say hi” http://flyingdogpress.com/content/view/42/97/ )
This attitude of allowing our dogs everything they want, when they want it and how they want it creates more behaviour problems than you might at first imagine. We don’t live in a canine utopia, where they can have every bone, chase every ball, greet every person and every dog they wish. Teaching your dog the basics of self control can be a life saving move. Teaching your dog to ask for things before grabbing them is the bare minimum for safety. Consider for instance the dog who has learned to control his impulse to eat everything within his reach. When your house guest arrives with a box of chocolates in her bag, your dog might sit and look longingly at the object of his desires, but he won’t tear apart the bag and the box, gorging himself on a sweet that might ultimately kill him.
The old saw “begin with the end in mind” is very true. When dogs are young, if we allow them to pull on leash, we are teaching them that later on, they can pull with impunity, and that means that they will be at risk of pulling whoever is on the end of the leash into traffic. It means that the dog will be at higher risk of neck, back and shoulder injuries. It means that you also will be at higher risk of neck, back and shoulder injuries. And it means that later on, you will have to retrain your dog to do something other than what you taught him to do as a youngster. The easiest way to teach a dog to keep the leash loose is to never let him move forward when it is tight. EVER. This means that when he is young and you are in a rush to get from here to there, carry him. This means that until he is really good at the exercise, don’t go more than a couple of hundred feet at a time on leash. And this means making it in his best interest to keep that leash loose. It also means that you need to know what a loose leash means. A loose leash is a leash that makes a “J” shape between the dog and the person. If it is straight, you are not giving the dog a chance to learn what a loose leash is.
Pulling is the tip of the iceberg though. Just because you have a dog doesn’t mean you should not be able to put a sandwich on the table. Far too often I see dogs who think that if they can reach it, it is theirs. Someone once sent me an email called rules of ownership for toddlers; it went something like this. If I have it, it’s mine. If I had it before and now you have it, it’s still mine. If I can see it, it’s mine. If you have it and I want it, it’s mine. And just like with toddlers, dogs often think this way. If we encourage this thinking by supporting it by allowing the dog to learn that anything he can reach is his, then we are going to create an adult dog who will climb book cases to get stuff that is not theirs. We are going to create a situation where the dog is difficult to live with, is pushy and obnoxious, and who will not leave things alone when he ought to. One of my students recently told me that she would rather avoid having anything dangerous in her house than train her dog to automatically leave things that were not his. This sounds good in theory, but on closer examination, we have a big problem. The problem is that the dog doesn’t just live in a safe little box. We take him out on the street where chocolates are dropped, and antifreeze is dripped and we have guests to our homes who leave avocado (toxic!) dip within reach, or drop raisins (also toxic) on the floor.
Teaching a dog to ask if he can have something is the easiest way to ensure that he doesn’t take things he shouldn’t. If you take a treat in your hand and hold it out to the dog, and then close your hand if he takes it before he asks, and only open the hand up when he backs off the treat, you start to teach the dog that snatching doesn’t work. If you make the dog wait for a moment or two, you start to teach him that good things come to those who wait. Instead of thinking about teaching dogs to leave it, think about teaching dogs that if they back off the treat, they can get what they want when you tell them to “take it”. Once you have this working nicely in your hand, you can then move on to getting your dog to sit before he gets the thing that he wants. In small steps you can use this method to teach him first not to snatch things out of your hand, and then not to snatch things out of the hands of others and then not to take things off of chairs or the floor and then not to take things off of tables or plates. In the end, you want the dog to not take anything that you have not indicated is his. It takes about four months to achieve fluency, but this is an exercise that can and will save your dog’s life. The day that I dropped ten migraine pills out of a bottle and onto the floor, my dog backed up two steps and made eye contact with me, was the day that I figured out that an automatic “leave it” wasn’t just a party trick, it was a life skill.
Many people understand the idea of teaching their dogs to sit before they give them a meal. A good idea in theory-but I have seen this backfire. When the dog is dependent upon the person to tell them to sit and to “stay…..staay…staaay….staaaaay”, and then the person says OKAY and the dog rushes the food bowl, what you are teaching is not self control, but to be impulsive on cue. Not a particularly good idea. You are in essence teaching the dog to have an explosive start, which would be great if you were doing agility, but not so good if you want your dog to learn to have good social manners in the house. Instead, you can try a tactic of making your dog’s dinner and wait for him to sit. When he sits, say take it and THEN put down the bowl. Don’t prompt him, don’t cue him; teach him an automatic please. Once you have a basic please, you can start working on duration between the food bowl going down and the release by starting to bend down to put the bowl down BEFORE you say take it. If the dog gets up before you release, pick up the bowl and start over. Work at it until making the meal becomes the cue to the dog to back off, and wait for as long as it takes for you to make the meal, dance the tango, make soup, and when your dog is relaxed, tell him to take his dinner. This is a bit like going to a formal meal where grace is said-the guy who digs in before the blessing is seen to be a glutton and a boor. If you teach your dog to wait till told, he will be practicing self control every day. Just make sure that you don’t release your dog until you can see that he is relaxed, or you will create impulsivity on cue.
Tonight I had an interesting class with some beginner students. Every time I went to help one particular student, her dog would disengage and pay more attention to me than to her. Her explanation was interesting; she claimed that I was somehow magically more interesting to her dog than she was. My efforts to explain that actually she had actually taught the dog that greeting on the dog’s terms was what was expected seemed to fall on deaf ears. Like the dog in the shop, this handler believed that her dog should greet everyone; after all, isn’t that what we teach in puppy class? That the dog should greet two to four hundred people in his first five months? Sure! Absolutely, your puppy should meet two to four hundred people in the first five months (or better yet, in the first four months), but we don’t mean to imply that the dog should be permitted to rush everyone he sees and interact at will. Like a young child, being taught to greet politely will pay off later in big ways. Imagine your teenager, applying for his first job, greeting his future boss with the kind of full body enthusiasm people seem to think is normal in dogs!
D’fer and Laurel show self control and loose leashes at the Royal Ontario Museum
Before your dog is 16 weeks old, socialization is the single most important priority in the dog’s life, but second to that, and for the rest of his life, impulse control is the next most important item on the agenda. My service dog, who I spoke about earlier in this article, is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever. D’fer is a passionate, intense dog, who knows what he wants and is willing to work hard to get it. These traits are important in a dog bred to fetch ducks in the Chesapeake Bay in November-he wouldn’t be much good as a retriever if he were to say “sorry, no, the water is too cold today” or even “I was going to come up the rocky bank, but that dense brush got in my way.” D’fer, I am proud to say, has learned that he can have his heart’s desire-anything he wants, if he just asks nicely, by backing off what he wants, and looking at me, and sitting. He has learned the most important lesson of all. The dog controls the dog. And I control everything else.
I own horses. I also own an electric fence. The idea is that the horses won’t leave and people and animals won’t come in and harass them. Sounds like a good idea in theory, but it doesn’t always work out. People come to the fence to “visit” the horses. And sometimes, they bring their dogs. Recently I lamented this fact on my Facebook page and a long discussion ensued. One of the posters talked about how she would use animals behind fences to socialize her puppy when she had the opportunity. Well meaning, this person just didn’t understand the whole issue.
When you have a puppy, you can say with fair certainty that he is going to be unpredictable. He is going to do things you wish he would not. He barks at the most inopportune moments. He pulls on his leash and sometimes he dashes forward only to backpedal vigorously. In short, the reaction a puppy gives is not always going to be constant or predictable. Ideally, you would set up multiple socialization opportunities for your dog to learn about the world around him in a safe way. And that is where my electric fence comes in.
Horses and other livestock are very different from dogs. First off, they are herd animals. They don’t like to be separated from their herd members. We have three horses so I will use them as examples. We use a highly visible, white rope that contains stainless steel wires to conduct electrical current to keep them in our pasture. We don’t have a lot of pasture so at this time of year, we rig up temporary paddocks around the house. The house is about 20 metres from the road and across the road is a hill. At the top of the hill is a public park. There is a tree line between us and the park and over the years we have had occasional visitors from the park to our property. Most folks recognize that this is private property and don’t come into our farm, but once in a while, we see people coming over to our land.
We had one very aggressive dog off leash on our land and his person said to us that they were taking as much care as they could because they were walking their dog where they didn’t expect to meet other dogs. I pointed out that I live here with a large van that says that I am a dog trainer and that meant that there would likely be dogs here. It is endlessly frustrating to have other people’s dogs on your property and worse still when owners feel entitled to run their dogs at large on your property.
Now that we have the fences up and the horses are out, it seems like we have created a magnet for every person who passes by to come up to our fence. People have been approaching my fence all week to look at the horses, and by and large the people who approach the horses know little or nothing about the horses or what they are doing. I feel a little bit like I have become a public museum for the travelling public; come, see the horses behind the fence. Put your arms through the electric fence ropes and touch them.
I have very friendly horses. They are very tolerant of poor handling, mistakes by people and my dogs. The thing is, they are still horses. They are still herd animals. And they don’t like strange dogs. When you are socializing your puppy, and you see horses behind a fence, do not use them as an opportunity to socialize your dog to horses. First and foremost, you don’t know my horses. You don’t know if my horses are friendly. And if you don’t know horses you don’t have the skills to recognize when they are nervous or stressed.
As herd animals, groups of horses behave in ways that may appear friendly to the uninitiated. In the case of my three mares, if there is a stranger at the fence, two of them will graze and one of them will approach the fence and stand there with her head up. Many people interpret this as friendly behaviour. It is not! It is the horse guarding the herd. If the stranger becomes dangerous, the guarding mare will bolt and the other horses will cease grazing and follow her lead. Often the guarding horse will go right up to the fence and she may even extend her nose to sniff the people. She is attempting to find out if she knows you; horses have a terrific sense of smell and often they will identify people by smell if they are not sure.
This is Kayak guarding the herd. Ten minutes before I took this picture, I watched as the whole herd spooked when a truck rumbled by. They came back and Kayak stood guard between the source of danger and the other horses. Without the information that I just gave you, she might appear to be a friendly horse, standing close to the fence.
If you bring a puppy to my fence and my mare approaches your pup and sniffs him, and if he does something unpleasant to her, there is a pretty good chance that she will behave defensively; it looks like a good greeting, but there are some big problems. The first is that the horses are unknown to the dog handler. This means that the dog’s handler has no idea if the horses are friendly or not, or if they have had exposure to dogs or not, or if they are dangerous or not. The second is that there is no one handling the horse. This means that you are depending on an animal you don’t know to be friendly. And then there is the whole issue of the electric fence between you and the horse. You are hoping your puppy will learn to tolerate horses. If he ducks his head under the fence, and then raises it, he is going to get hit by that fence, and that fence really, really hurts. He will scream and bolt and your effort at teaching him about horses will result in a dog who is afraid not comfortable around horses.
Furthermore, if you spook the horses you contribute to the horses being more difficult to handle. Let’s just suppose for a moment that the horse you are attempting to meet is a spooky timid horse. She looks friendly, but she is in fact guarding the herd. Your dog gets hit by the fence and squeals and bolts. Twenty minutes later, the rider, unsuspecting that the horse had a bad experience comes out to the field to catch her horse. The horse is difficult to handle and the rider is thrown. Cause and effect can be a tricky thing. You would likely never choose to cause a horse to throw its rider, but if you spook a horse then that is the effect you may have put into play, and it is an effect that really is not fair to the horse or rider.
This is exactly the sort of interaction that can go badly wrong for the horse, and sometimes for the dog too. This dog is not relaxed about the horse and if he suddenly lunges (notice the prong collar? This tells me that the handler knows that something might go wrong!) the horse might spook or he could even strike or bite the dog. Image credit: kyolshin / 123RF Stock Photo
Too often I hear people talking about farms and farming and farm animals in a way that is very different from the reality I experience. Just last week a client of mine asked me if I thought there might be a farmer who would take her very reactive, aggressive, under socialized dog who grew up in the city. I wonder what she thinks farmers DO all day. Let me clue you in. A farm is a business. Its business is to grow crops and animals for the use of people. I have yet to hear anyone hope that some machine shop owner would be willing to take their problem dog, but there is a perception that a farmer will. As a farmer, I don’t have time to rehab your dog. I am not here to provide your dog with socialization opportunities. I have two horses of my own and a horse who lives here and contributes to some of the costs of maintaining the farm. If that third horse is spooked by your puppy and gets hurt bolting away, then I will have to take time out of my busy day to nurse that horse back to health. That will mean less time for me to ride my own horse and less time to do chores around my farm. My farm, small as it is, is a business and I don’t have time to add fixing the problems that the public creates and still make a viable living off it.
If you really want to socialize your dog to the sight of horses I have no problem with you standing at a significant distance and classically conditioning your dog to my horses. That is fine. But don’t approach the fence. If it is really important to you that your dog meets a horse, you need to arrange that with a horse owner who can control the horse so that you and your puppy are safe and that the horse is safe too. The same goes for other livestock. By all means teach your dog to not bark at horses, sheep, cattle and goats from a distance, but don’t enter a herd or a flock that is not yours. When you do this, you interfere with those animals’ ability to graze peacefully and safely, and you interfere with the farmer’s ability to make a living.
Socialization of puppies is crucial for their success. We know that if a puppy hasn’t seen something by the time it is 20 weeks old, there is a risk that they won’t tolerate that something terribly well as an adult. What isn’t fair is socializing them to animals or children that are unattended and who don’t have a guardian to ensure their safety during the activity. Doing this is unfair to the animal you are trying to socialize but also the target of your socialization, and that defeats the purpose.
About once a month, someone from outside of the training school calls me up asking how to become a professional dog trainer. About twice a year, these folks are nice animal lovers who don’t own dogs! In the spirit of helpfulness, I would like to talk about how to become a professional dog trainer. It really isn’t any harder to become a professional dog trainer than it is to become a professional anything else. You need a solid education in the field along with some experience, and where necessary, you need to write qualifying exams. For example, if a doctor got the sort of call I get from a very nice person who wanted to become a doctor that I get, I imagine that the conversation might go something like this:
“Hello, this is Dr. Mike.”
“Hello Dr. Mike, this is Sally and I would like to be a doctor. What can you suggest that I do to achieve this goal?”
“Well, let’s start with volunteer experience. Have you volunteered at a hospital or in a doctor’s office?”
“No, I want to be a doctor now. I don’t want to volunteer.” Or alternatively, “Oh, I would love to volunteer in your office, doing examinations and surgery!”
This is the sort of conversation I have with people who want to be professional dog trainers. They want to start where I finished up! I have to admit that I started out as a dog training instructor the wrong way round, but back in the day, when I started teaching, there were few options other than the way that I started. I started out by purchasing a dog and spending two years learning how to train her. After that, I borrowed two dogs from a room mate and took them to classes. I showed all three dogs in matches and trials. A few years later, I got a second dog and trained him. Then when my boyfriend at the time had a dog who was aggressive, I worked with that dog and started a little training club for me and my friends. After a year of volunteer coordinating, I charged a small fee to join our classes. I taught this way for the next seven or eight years and then I opened Dogs in the Park as a school. By that time, I had read thousands of articles, participated on a wide variety of internet chats and BBS’s, and had read hundreds of books on the subject, as well as attending workshops and seminars to learn more of my craft. Once the school was opened, I went back to university and took some upper year behaviour courses. Then I wrote and passed the Certified Pet Dog Trainer exam (now the Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed exam, through the Counsel for the Certification of Professional Dog Training-www.ccpdt.org) and was grandfathered into the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants as a clinical member. This is not how I would recommend that you go about it now!
The first thing I would suggest that you do if you want to become a dog trainer is get a good feel for what the job is. There are two basic types of dog trainers-those of us who take dogs in to board, known widely as pro-trainers, and those of us who are actually teaching people as training instructors. Figure out which job interests you. There are spaces available for each type of professional, but what you want to do is going to dictate how you go about developing your craft. Pro-trainers tend to have a specialization such as working with gun dogs, or protection or detection dogs. Instructors tend to have a solid base of pet owners to work with and then a few clients in the upper levels of a particular discipline. A very small number of people train medical service dogs-the demand for these dogs is very high, and thus they are very, very expensive to purchase, but the overhead for the trainers is also very high and you will find that if you want to go into this field, you need to have a very extensive knowledge of disabilities and disability related issues on top of your training and teaching experience. Explore the field carefully before you decide what you want to do, because if you do end up in this field, you will work long hours and many days without days off to make it work.
Next, train a dog through to a minimum standard. I don’t mean teach a dog to sit after you have asked him three times, or after you have waved a steak under his nose or when you have physically forced him to do it. Train a dog through a title, where a third party has looked at your dog, and has determined that your dog knows all the things he must know to pass a test. If herding is your sport this means training a dog to the upper levels in that sport and passing at least a Herding Intermediate test, not passing the Herding Instinct Certificate. The same is true of obedience (you should be able to train a dog through Companion Excellent at least!), retrieving (Master Hunter) and Agility (Agility Excellent). If competitive sports just isn’t your thing, then train a Service Dog from puppyhood to placement, train a Search and Rescue Dog and work that dog. If you haven’t done work with a dog to the extent that you have taught him to do tasks and done them with him, then you aren’t a dog trainer, plain and simple. You should try and get out to three to five events per year where you can strut your stuff with your dog, and if you can get out once a month, so much the better.
At some point, you will need to start to get experience with a variety of dogs and in front of groups of classes. If you are someone who describes yourself as someone who prefers the company of animals to that of people, you may want to rethink working as a professional in the field of dog training. If you are intimidated by job interviews, then working as a pro-trainer for individual dog owners is not for you-because every dog you train comes with an owner who should and often will grill you about your credentials, the dogs you have trained and the titles those dogs have earned. If you don’t love people to the core of your being and if you aren’t willing to bend and flex and change how you do things on a day to day basis, then training service dogs probably isn’t for you either-your clients in this case will need your very best efforts at understanding how they learn, and figuring out how to make things work for them. Service dog training is the ultimate in customer service, and the stakes are high-do your job wrong or poorly and instead of contributing to someone’s quality of life, you will decrease it. If standing in front of a group and explaining concepts and activities and making abstract ideas into the concrete doesn’t thrill you, then reconsider being a training instructor. So with all those caveats, where can you start to get some experience?
Borrow dogs. There are loads of dogs in your life who would benefit from training and at this stage you don’t need to take them to classes. Keep training notes and get commitment from the owners to allow you to work for a specified period of time. At this point in the process, there is little to be gained from fixing behaviour problems. Learn to teach skills before tackling behaviour modification, which is a whole field unto itself. If you are so inclined, work with shelter dogs-but beware that you will be limited in what you can teach them due to time constraints and the limitations that shelters put on volunteers who are learning to train. You cannot learn to teach a dog to come from two hundred metres if you are not allowed to take the dog off leash, or to leave the facility. Some rescues may allow you to do this, but they are not all that common. The time to work with dogs in rescue and shelters is when you know enough to be effective quickly. It is important to respect the dogs in rescue and not use them as guinea pigs for your learning. When I hear about people using shelter dogs to practice basic training skills when they don’t have any background, I think that we are chipping coins into a pot of disrespect and disposal-this dog is a throw away item, and can be assigned to whatever person who comes along. Go and spend time with these dogs by all means-but don’t learn your trade on the backs of the disadvantaged.
If you have come this far with your own education, it is time to invest (yes, that means spending money!) on some more formal education. All the way along, you need to participate in on line discussion groups, read blogs like this one, and borrow or buy books, but at this point you need to get serious. You need to spend the money to go to seminars, to get books and training equipment and sometimes to take university or college courses. The investment in time and effort and money will only pay dividends, even if you walk away from the seminar thinking “well, there is something I won’t do”. When attending seminars, I strongly urge students to NOT take their dogs at least at first. Go to the seminars, listen, take notes, record if you are allowed to do so, but leave Fido at home. Why you might ask? Simply because Fido is not there to learn; you are, and he is not likely trained to spend eight hours in a day hanging out at a seminar. From the standpoint of a dog, these activities are BORING! If you really want to give it a shot, book a private session (yes, more investment!) with the speaker after the event. Clicker Expo is on my list of must see events for all trainers at least once, and preferably twice. Beyond twice, I don’t think there is much to be gained. Suzanne Clothier seminars are good too, and so is her book. Ian Dunbar is entertaining and worth the price of admission at least once. Beyond these three, there is such an incredible amount of information out there that it is worth researching other speakers and considering them. You should plan on attending three to five weekend seminars a year for the first five years of your career. Minimum. If you can get to one a month, that is even better.
If you are starting to think that this sounds like about as much work as a university degree, you are right. It is about the same amount of time, effort and money to do a three year degree program as it is to learn to be a professional dog trainer. And at this point in the process I am describing you haven’t made a nickel to show for your efforts! You should however have a broad network of professionals who have helped you, who are willing to continue to help you and who can give you suggestions about where you might like to end up. This is the time to use that network to find a placement for your “co-op” so to speak. You need to find someone who is willing to mentor you through assisting in classes or assisting in protraining dogs in a given discipline. THIS is the part that I missed, and it is really the most important thing you can do. When my students had problems that I didn’t know how to solve, I didn’t have a mentor to turn to (I do now, by the way!). You may be fortunate enough to have two or more mentors or a school you have attended to help you get even more exposure and experience. By this time you should probably also be looking at your second dog; and you should be very picky about what you are looking for in that dog. That dog should be your business card and your thesis paper all rolled up in one. That particular dog should help you to move from the point of being a student to the point of being a professional. Look for characteristics that will help you, not challenge you; because you want to be able to train that dog to the extent that you can bring him to a job interview and count on him to show off what you can do. (tip; keep notes and video of everything you do in choosing, training and developing this dog! You never know when you may be asked if this is REALLY your work!)
You should plan on being an assistant for one to three years depending upon how much time you have to do this, on how good you are, on how much education you have and on the mentor you have. Your goal should be to be doing elements of the end job as you gain competency. Some people will get to that point quickly and some people will take longer. You need a mentor who is willing to coach you and give you challenging things to do and teach and you need to devote the time to making that worth your mentor’s time. If retrieving is your discipline, that means volunteering to chuck ducks in the cold and mud for hours at a time, in odd hours and in your spare time. If you are hoping to become a training instructor, expect to sweep the training hall, hold leashes and check off enrolment forms. If you are hoping to become a service dog trainer, expect to spend a lot of your time cleaning kennels, walking dogs and helping set up training scenarios. This phase involves a lot of grunt work and some of it unpleasant but in my opinion it is an important phase of development. I learned more about horses from the time I spent cleaning stables than I ever did during my riding lessons, and the same is true of dogs and the dog industry.
Around about this time, you need to start considering what sort of certification is going to be most helpful to you as a trainer. The Certificate of Professional Dog Training (www.ccpdt.org) is a really good bet; it has the advantage of being administered like a board examination, and there is no single course or career path to take to get there. The path described above will help you a lot, with the caveat that you will need to get actual teaching time on the ground under your belt if you want to take that. Different disciplines may have other opportunities too. Because you will be attending the University of You-you get to figure out what is going to benefit you the most. Follow this path, and in three to five years, you too can become a professional dog trainer.
The tabloid type expose of the underbelly of the world of purebred dogs would have you believe that every purebred dog is going to die of a horrid disease or be subjected to the whims of vanity of the well heeled owners who purchase these dogs. As with the “Baby born to two headed woman” type of headline, there is usually more to the story than meets the eye. Yes, there are well heeled owners who are purchasing dogs who will match the sofa and yes, there are people who will dispose of a wonderful, valuable animal just because it no longer suits them. There are also thousands upon thousands, perhaps even millions of people who are devoted to breeding healthy examples of their breed.
The progenitor of the purebred dog is a smallish, motley character called a village dog. The village dog is usually a smooth coated dog between fifteen and forty five pounds. This is the pariah dog, the dingo, the village dog still found on the streets in remote towns today. This is the dog who like the raccoon in North America, often makes a better living by scavenging our leavings than he might by actually hunting on his own. He may be any colour, and he often has spots. His ears will be somewhat floppy, or even tulip shaped (not actually tulip shaped, but in truth, with strongly cupped cartilage and smallish pointed flopping flaps), his tail will often curve upward, perhaps even extending over his back.
The village dog is indeed much less likely to suffer from the genetic conditions that strike down many of his purebred relations. He will never suffer from the breathing and eye problems that plague the short nosed or brachiocephalic breeds. Hip dysplasia will not likely strike these dogs; they are structurally efficient animals. Skin rashes, allergies and gastro intestinal problems are unlikely to hit these dogs. They are usually free from heart problems and progressive retinal atrophy. The village dog, being much closer in type to the ancestral dog, is often calm in the house, active out of doors, a careful eater, and may be aloof from strangers and other dogs.
The village dog is the way he is because he evolved to follow us around, and live in our shadow. The village dog is the way he is because evolution culled and indeed continues to cull members of his tribe who cannot keep up to our niche. Village dogs were once the most common dogs in the world. They evolved to be efficient in following us, efficient scavengers, efficient at avoiding getting close enough to get into trouble. Historically, the life of a village dog would have necessitated being picky enough about his food that he would avoid eating things that would make him sick, but voracious enough that he would be willing to eat a wide range of things. He would need to be tolerant of the person throwing out the remains of their dinner or the night’s slop jar, but not so friendly that he would be injured by an intolerant person kicking his ribs. He would need to be agile enough to thwart efforts to keep him out of the garbage. His sight and his hearing would need to be acute enough to tell him when trouble was coming. Village dogs without these traits could not make an efficient living. Simply put, village dogs come from hardy stock.
We don’t see many village dogs in North America. When dogs are found in our urban dumps, we trap them, we “rescue” them, we shoot them and we poison them. We don’t let them hang out at the dump, eating refuse. We don’t allow them to live stray in our cities, and when a family of them arrives, efforts are made to prevent them from being successful. If a family of village dogs is hanging out near a farm, they need to be very shy in order to survive; farmers are well within their rights to shoot a dog who might be a threat to their livestock. They are here though, just not common.
The common myth of the purebred dog holds that it is the progenitor of the mixed breed. Not entirely so! In fact, the purebred is the result of selection from the progenitor dog; the village dog. First came the livestock guardians, and then the hunting dogs, and eventually, the wide range of breeds we have today. Generally dogs are divided up into one of seven groups. The sporting dogs are those dogs who are used to hunt game with a gun. The terriers are those dogs used to kill vermin. The hounds track and trail with eyes and nose and lead the hunter to the quarry. Some of them do make kills, but this is the exception not the rule. The toy breed dogs are the dogs bred as pocket companions, sometimes used to attract fleas from their person, or perhaps to keep the person warm in the winter. The herding dogs gather flocks of sheep, goats and cattle and move them from place to place. The working dogs do things like pull carts and sleds, guard and go to war. And then there is the miscellaneous group of all the dogs who otherwise defy classification such as the Bichon Frise and the Dalmation.
Purebred dogs got to be purebred because humans used the talents of their ancestors in particular ways. Within any population, there are individuals who will be better suited to one task than another will. If you lived in a village with village dogs, and a particular dog followed you around, you might feed him. If his talents as a tracker made you more successful as a hunter, you would feed him more, making it more likely that he would pass along his genes. If you gave the most talented of his pups to your son, who was also a hunter, you would be making the first tentative steps towards becoming a geneticist and creating a breed. If in your family, fathers often gave the best pup from their best hunting dog to their sons, it would not take long for a pure breed to develop through artificial selection. The “best” hunting dog is fed the most and will have the most pups. The “best” hunting dog may not be successful as a hunter at all; he is just the best at helping you to be a better hunter.
Suppose for a moment that the hunting dogs in your family all had a black coat and a white bib, with long floppy ears, and a broad head, a long, square muzzle and large nares. Suppose that your dog could find game more effectively than any other dogs in your village, and suppose that your dog had pale brown eyes. You might breed this dog to every other female dog in the village regardless of her talents. And yellow eyes might begin to show up more commonly in the dogs in your village. Now suppose that yellow eyes happen to be common in dogs who also have a heart problem. As a hunter in a village, you wouldn’t have the tools to determine if your dog has a heart condition. If your dog dies when he is five by falling off a cliff, you wouldn’t know that he had passed on a heart murmur because it had never caused him any significant problem. You would not even necessarily make any connection between your favourite hunting dog and the fact that the dogs in your village tend to die before they are ten years old; young for a village type dog. You would in effect have created a closed gene pool.
Closed gene pools, where only particular members of a species get to interbreed tend to show the problems they carry more prominently than do open gene pools. Thus, we see more Labrador Retrievers with Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) than we might see in any given population of village dogs; the village dog gene pool is open and the Lab gene pool is closed. Because the numbers of individuals that carry the gene for PRA is greater in general within the Lab population, more PRA will show up in Labradors. If you counted all the dogs in the world, and included Labs in that count, and screened all of them for PRA, the overall incidence of PRA would not be higher because of the higher prevalence in Labs; that effect would be offset by some other closed gene pool that did not have an especially high incidence of PRA.
Your hound dog, the black one with the white bib might go on to become the progenitor of the White Bibbed Black-Hound and over generations become emblematic of the type of dog found in your area. From time to time, a stray might appear in your area from another area, and add his or her genes to the loosely defined “breed” of your region. As trade and commerce become more sophisticated, White Bibbed Black Hounds (WBBH) might be heard of and sought in other districts. Around 1850, breed organizations began to form in a manner recognizable by us today. Consider the WBBH; perhaps in the 1850’s the descendents of your original foundation sire might number in the hundreds. A small, fairly stable population, of black dogs with white bibs, not terribly long lived, with light brown eyes, wicked at finding the small game that has evolved into the hallmark dish of your region. Ten villagers get together and form the WBBH hunt club for the promotion and preservation of this special dog. They decide that they will write down all the names of all the known WBBH’s, and from then on, only dogs whose names are on the list or who descend from dogs whose names are on the list will be considered to be “true” White Bibbed Black Hounds. A standard description is written, outlining how tall these dogs should be, how heavy they should be and what makings, ear shape and tail set are considered optimal. Now, the loosely described dog of your region has a registry and a closed gene pool. They are no different than they were yesterday. They now just cannot be considered to be WBBHs unless they are registered with this group.
Initially, nothing will change for this breed of dog. But without the occasional influx of genetic material, there will be no new variation available to offset any problems that crop up. Now, instead of culling dogs that don’t hunt, all of the registered dogs will be kept and many of them will be bred regardless of their hunting ability. Where once the criteria for breeding was solely functional, now the criteria are determined by the written standard. That these dogs were black with white bibs was incidental to the fact that they were good hunters. Now, being a good hunter is incidental to having a black coat and the right amount of white bib. Traits will begin to drift. Light coloured eyes, once described as characteristic of the breed will soon become defining of the breed, along with that old heart defect that came along for the genetic ride. Over time, the ability to hunt will be so rarely used as the criteria for breeding that it will erode and disappear. Eventually the White Bibbed Black Hound will become a large goofy dog, typical of your region, lumped in with the other hounds, but not particularly known as a good hunter. He may however become some graduate student’s gravy train to academic success when that heart murmur is found to be linked to light eyes, and the breed club can argue about trying to breed the heart murmur out, if having light eyes is the defining characteristic of the breed or if they need worry about this at all.
So village dogs evolved into purebreds, but where do the mixed breeds come from? In North America, there has been a long standing battle between the perception of status associated with having a purebred dog, and the salt of the earth mongrel dog. With the known mixed breed dog, you can have the best of both worlds. Breeding a Cocker Spaniel to a Miniature Poodle will give you a smallish dog, likely friendly with most people, likely fairly biddable and likely with a coat you can clip off or leave long and groom as you like. What you won’t get is a dog who is any healthier than his parent were.
Genetics is not like mixing paint. If you mix yellow and blue paint, you get green; an intermediate between the two originating colours. If you mix a Poodle and a Cocker Spaniel, you will not get a dog who is midway between both parent breeds. You will get puppies with a variety of traits; some intermediate and some more like the Poodle and some more like the Cocker Spaniel. And if either of the parents had genetic problems, those problems will be passed along; you won’t necessarily get a moderating effect from the non affected parent.
Taking the Cocker Spaniel and Poodle mix as an example, consider that epilepsy is a fairly common problem in Poodles. If the parent who is a Poodle has a genetic form of epilepsy, he will pass that along to some of his offspring. Lets suppose that fifty percent of his off spring will get epilepsy. If the Cocker Spaniel parent is free from epilepsy, that won’t dilute the effect of the Poodle’s genes. 50% of the puppies will get epilepsy and 50% won’t. It won’t mean that 100% of the pups will get a watered down version of epilepsy.
Several years ago, I got a call from a family who had a mixed breed dog who had terrible problems with resource guarding, being handled and going to the vet. The family had spent over seventeen thousand dollars (Canadian) on their dog’s health over the five years they had him. He was a Shit-zu/English Bulldog cross.
The family had wanted a purebred Bulldog as this is the dog that the father had grown up with. In phoning around to breeders they were being grilled by breeders who wanted to know so many things about the family; how many children did they have and how many did they want? How many other pets lived in their home? Did they live in a house or an apartment? How much time would they spend training the dog and how much exercise would he get? Kyle and Melissa, my clients, felt they were being hassled, not that the breeders were screening for the best possible home for a puppy.
After speaking with several breeders they happened upon someone who wasn’t harassing them, but who did tell them that she was breeding her Bulldog bitch that very week. She invited them to her tidy home in the country where they met Kisses, a sweet and friendly Bulldog bitch. She had a shining white coat with a brindle patch over her left eye, and random brindle markings all over her body. Kisses wanted nothing more than to sit at your feet, leaning on your leg and look adoringly up into your face. Kyle fell in love instantly, immediately connecting Kisses affectionate behaviour to the behaviour of the Bulldogs he had lived with as a child. The lady gushed over how wonderful Kisses was and how expensive she had been; four thousand dollars for this dog, she informed my clients. My clients were a little taken aback at the number, but Kisses was obviously a wonderful dog.
Kisses owner began to tell them about the problems associated with Bulldogs. As a brachiocephalic breed, Bulldogs are prone to heat exhaustion-Kisses had been in to the vet for that very reason earlier that year when she had been running around the yard and fell over, unconscious. “Two days in intensive care at the Ontario Veterinary College hospital” cooed the lady. “Nothing is too good for Kisses.” “Many Bulldogs have to have eye surgery for a condition called Cherry Eye” she went on. “Kisses had to have that in both eyes”, she said. And after she had her puppies, the owner was going to get a special operation to help alleviate her snorting; she has an elongated soft palate, and it flops around in the back of her throat, making it hard to breathe. “I want to breed her first, though”, the owner said.
My clients, sitting looking at Kisses were becoming more alarmed by the moment. This didn’t sound like a healthy dog to them. She oozed charm, but maybe Kisses wasn’t what they were looking for. As they began to make noises about this, Kisses owner got up and opened the back door. In swaggered an over sized Shih tzu. “I know that Kisses has a few problems” said the lady. “And I know that mixed breed dogs are healthier than are purebreds. For that reason, I am going to breed Snuffles here to Kisses. You can have all the things you like in a Bulldog without the health problems.” Kisses owner went into a long discussion of how Snuffles would mitigate all the problems that Kisses had. Snuffles stood in the room about ten feet away from Kisses, and stared hard at my clients. He looked alert, but rigid. Energetic, but restrained. The best part was that the lady would only charge my clients $1800.00 for the puppy.
My clients looked at Kisses and pulled out their cheque book. This puppy would be a lot less expensive than a purebred, and they thought they would be avoiding all the health problems of a purebred too. Four months later, they picked up Sneakers and brought her home. A couple of days after arriving home, they took Sneakers to the vet for her check up. The vet listened to her heart, and looked at her eyes and down her throat. “Well, you know that all the brachiocephalic dogs have breathing issues” sighed the vet. “Yes”, my clients agreed; they knew that when they chose a Bulldog. “I suspect it will be sooner rather than later that we will have to do surgery to remove some of the tissue associated with her soft palate” said the vet. “She has an awful lot of tissue down there, which will make breathing hard for her. You are going to have to be very careful in hot weather to keep her from exercising to exhaustion or she will end up in the hospital.”
It was less than a month later that they ended up exactly where the vet had predicted. It was not a terribly hot day, and Sneakers had recently learned to chase a Frisbee. Kyle took her out in the yard to play and after six or eight throws she refused to chase. He took her in the house, and went back to his desk. Ten minutes later, Melissa came upon Sneakers, collapsed on the floor with her tongue protruding, semi conscious. They did not make the connection between the exercise, the warm day and the collapse; they thought that Sneakers had been poisoned. At the Ontario Veterinary College, they figured out very quickly that Sneakers had over heated when they took her temperature. Sneakers was a very sick dog, and spent four worrisome days in intensive care. While there, the surgeons had a good look down her throat and recommended that she have surgery to remove the excess tissue in her soft palate as soon as possible.
Three weeks later, barely five months old, Sneakers had the first of seven surgeries she would have in her first year. She had the tissue removed from her soft palate and then had her nares enlarged; the holes where air goes in the nose were just not big enough for her to breathe normally. She had three separate operations for cherry eye and entropion, and then she had another operation to remove some of the excess skin on her face as she was getting chronic infections in her nose wrinkles that were interfering with her eyes.
By the time I was called, Sneakers was not a very pleasant dog to be around. She had hip dysplasia, requiring her to take Metacam on a daily basis for the pain. She had gastric issues, necessitating a special expensive diet. She had had several surgeries beyond the ones she had as a youngster to correct knee issues and to remove a sock she ate that got stuck in her intestinal tract. She had allergies and lived on Vanectyl-P for nine months out of twelve. And on top of that she guarded any stolen items she could lay her paws on, and would not allow her Kyle or Melissa to touch her anywhere other than on the top of her head. Kyle and Melissa kept Sneakers strictly separated from their children, a four year old girl and a two year old boy for fear that Sneakers would either inadvertently knock them over or intentionally bite them while guarding a stolen item. Sneakers was nothing like the Bulldogs of Kyle’s childhood!
When I arrived, I was faced with a stocky, wire haired, ginger coloured dog who barked at the door and then stood back about ten feet and stared hard at me. On questioning, it turned out this was something she did with all new people. Sneakers was suspicious of new people and I was warned that she would bite me if I pressed her. I sat in the living room and took a history, learning all about the many medical issues and surgeries that Sneakers had been through. Aside from the fact that Sneakers had a plethora of health issues causing her to protest being handled, she also had a serious resource guarding issue.
Resource guarding is the condition that exists when an animal has an item and guards others against theft. This is a normal behaviour in the context of ensuring that you get to keep your food if you are making your living as a hunter or a scavenger. This normal behaviour can create huge problems though if you are trying to live with a dog in your home. Sneakers would not let anyone near her dish when she was eating, near her bed if she was resting or near any toy she had claimed. She was especially aggressive when she had something like a tissue that she has stolen. Importantly, resource guarding is a trait often seen in lines and families.
Admittedly, some of Sneaker’s behaviour problems could have been mitigated with early puppyhood training. Resource guarding in particular is a behaviour that responds well to training. Over time, Sneakers learned to allow the adults in the home to take things from her and to add things to her food bowl. Although training was carried out with the children, safety measures were set in place to prevent the children from interrupting Sneakers with toys or food. Sneakers never had the flexibility of behaviour that would allow her family to completely relax in the protocols or training that we developed.
Sneakers temperament is the sum of her genetics, her early puppy experiences and the environment she currently lives within. Snuffles, her father, was a tense little dog; stand offish with strangers and not friendly. This could be due to not being introduced enough people as a puppy himself, but there was likely something that he passed along to Sneakers. Sneakers mother, typical of Bulldogs had a lot of health problems. Here is a live case of genetics not working like mixing paint.
In retrospect, Sneakers health and behaviour problems could have been entirely avoided if Kisses and Snuffles had not been bred. Breeding an English Bulldog to a Shih tzu was asking for trouble. Like Bulldogs, the Shih tzu is prone to cherry eye, excess tissue in the soft palate and stenotic or small nares. Shih tzu have back problems and luxating patellas, and Bulldogs have hip problems. By the time I saw Sneakers, instead of avoiding health issues, she had suffered from many of those of the Bulldog as well as some relating to the Shih tzu.
Careful breeding, breeding that takes into account that the offspring are going to have to live with the genes they inherit is the least we owe to our dogs. Choosing dogs that come from healthy stock is entirely possible and reflects the least that our dogs deserve. Choosing a dog who is ill, committing to their veterinary care and supporting the industry of selling these dogs should appall puppy buyers. Puppy buyers need to be willing to ask the hard questions; there future dog deserves not only the best of food and the best of care during their lives, but also the best genetic potential BEFORE they are born.
Purebred dogs are not the only good dogs available. There are many, many dogs of unknown or random heritage available. The key to finding the dog who is healthy, from healthy parents is to find people who are breeding dog on purpose. The whole point of the dog show industry was originally to put dogs on display so that breeders could choose the best and most optimal mate for the dog he or she had. Placing the dogs in rank order in theory gives the savvy breeder information about which dog is closest to the breed standard. Breeding the dog closest to the breed standard is probably a good idea; it is the dog who is most like the breed ought to be. With dogs of unknown breed, it means that the person in charge of breeding that dog has greater responsibility when it comes to choosing which dog is bred to which.
German Shepherd Dogs are my breed of choice. I have lived with a half dozen or so and known scores more. When I am choosing a puppy, I first choose a breeder. The breeder I chose most recently, Robin Winter of Narnia Kennels breeds dogs that are frequently used in police and military work. She imports beautiful, fit and healthy dogs from Europe to improve her stock and she has a well developed breeding plan for her kennel, stretching generations back and projecting generations out.
What impresses me most about Robin’s dogs are that they can all pass what I call the four foot fence test. The four foot fence test refers to the dog being able to do the work that he is bred to do. A German Shepherd ought to be able to easily navigate a four foot fence. Few will be able to grab air over top; most of them will use the top rail to push off, but four feet should be no problem for a healthy German Shepherd. My dog’s father, a dog named Val was competing in Schutzhund at the age of nine. Schutzhund involves being able to navigate a six foot A frame and jump a one metre jump without touching the top rail. His mother was only three, but she too could do this work. German Shepherds were bred to work in three disciplines; obedience, tracking and protection. Eco’s parents were both titled in all three disciplines. This demonstrates that they are trainable and willing to work with people, and that they have an ability to solve problems. This is another “four foot fence” that Eco’s parents cleared. And it is no surprise that Eco is able to navigate a four foot fence, he is highly trainable, he solves problems and he likes working with people.
Every breed has a “four foot fence”. In fact, every non-breed has a four foot fence. The village dog’s four foot fence would be to negotiate the complex life of a village; he would need to be able to find food, to avoid being kicked by intolerant people, and to be confident enough to approach people emptying their garbage. If the dog cannot do this, he is not a village dog.
When looking for a purpose bred breedless dog, you can choose what your four foot fence will be. You can choose if you want an athletic partner to run and race with. You can choose if you want a small lap dog who will be calm and quiet in the house. You can choose whatever you want. The key to finding the parents of a breedless dog is going to mean a lot more looking around than if you chose a purebred dog; there are few if any organizations that will be devoted to your choice. If you are looking for a German Shepherd or a Labrador, you will be able to find dozens if not hundred of clubs that can help you to find the pup of your dreams. If your four foot fence requires that your dog be breedless, you are going to have to do the leg work to find a breeder that will fill your needs of being caring and careful of the dogs they produce. But your dog deserves to have parents that can clear your four foot fence.
I have always had dogs, and I have always trained them, even when I was a young child. I remember building jumps in my back yard over thirty years ago, and teaching our dog to go over them. My initial motivation to train the family dog was informed by my desire to own a horse and ride it, and given the unlikelihood of that event, I taught my dog to do many “horsey” things. I taught her to stand in cross ties between two trees while I groomed her, I made her a halter (long before the advent of the halti and the gentle leader and all of the successive off spring of that nature), and I taught her to jump over hurdles. No tricks for me! Just practical horsemanship for my dog. Along the way, this patient mixed breed dog, Thurber, accompanied me through childhood and adolescence, spending hours walking the local woods with me, and generally teaching me what it means to be a friend.
Skip forward to my current present and you will see me sharing a lot of what Thurber taught me with my students at Dogs in the Park. In between, I did spend a lot of time working with horses in my teens and twenties. Some of what I taught Thurber was right on the money, and some of it was a little far out there. When I amalgamate what I learned in the barns with what I know about dogs, I see more and more clearly that we are losing touch with some important lessons from the horse world that would make living with our dogs much easier and more straightforward.
I well remember as a teen learning to ride that safety came above everything else in a barn. Barns are places with large animals, equipment and tools that can all hurt you. Safety is the first item on the list when working around horses, and honestly, this should be the first thing on the list when handling dogs.
Consider for a moment how we handle horses. If you are taking a horse out of a stall, you stand by the door and wait for the horse to attend to you. Stepping into a horse’s stall and surprising him is a recipe for getting kicked or run over. How many of us walk up to our dogs’ crates and just open the door? If we did this with horses, we would have a loose horse, who might run you over, kick someone or get out on the road. We insist on horses standing nicely to be groomed, allowing us to handle all parts of their bodies and following nicely on a halter. So let’s make rule number one in the Horsemanship for Dog Owners:
Insist on good manners at all times.
With perseverance, this will prevent a lot more dogs from jumping out of cars, bolting out of the front door, or lunging out of the crate, jumping on people and pulling them down the road. Establish the rules and then follow them always, and make sure that you insist on good manners.
One of the first things I was taught about handling horses was to make them aware of where I was at all times, because if they are startled they might bolt, kick or strike you. Knowing where I am relative to the horse and where the horse is relative to me can prevent a lot of accidents. I often see people handling their dogs without any concern for where the dog is or what he is doing and that can lead to a lot of big problems. When you don’t know what your dog is facing and he doesn’t know where you are looking, you are open to a lot of opportunity for your dog to get into trouble. The second rule I am going to propose for Horsemanship for dogs is:
Be aware of where your dog is and make him aware of where you are at all times.
Face it, you and your dog are a team, and when you are not aware of where you are relative to one another at all times, your dog can get into trouble and you won’t even know it. When you are aware of where your dog is, and what he is looking at, you can catch a lot of the oopsies that happen when a dog is at loose ends. The dog whose person doesn’t know what he is doing or where he is, is the same dog who is getting into the trash, lunging at the other dog at the dog show and eating the kid’s ice cream cone as they wander by.
When I was learning to ride, we were taught to be aware of our horse’s fears, abilities and training. There was an old mare that every kid rode for a while at the first barn I rode at. She was reliable, confident and knew all the work that the kids needed to learn. She was never going to go beyond the on farm schooling shows, but she was responsible for teaching a whole lot of children to love horses and riding. How often do we see dog handlers doing this? In my classes, I have seen timid dogs forced to face their fears, and under prepared dogs asked to do tasks they haven’t been trained to do. As an instructor, I am always on the lookout for opportunities to help people to understand what their dogs are ready and able to do. My third rule for Horsemanship for Dog Owners is:
Prepare for everything you want your dog to do before you ask him to do it!
This should clean up a whole lot of stress and agony for everyone who works a dog, and also for those of you who keep dogs as pets. If you haven’t taught your dog to do something and if you haven’t prepared him, and if he is afraid…don’t ask him to do it!
Another thing that is very important in a barn is to keep track of which horse is where. There are combinations that just don’t work in a barn and if you put the wrong horses out together, you can end up with a pack of trouble. Some horses can go out with any other horse, but others can only go out with those particular individuals that he or she knows well. This can extend even to which horses should be stabled next to one another. Why is it that we think that every dog is going to like to be turned loose with every other dog? My fourth rule for Horsemanship for Dog Owners is:
Choose your dog’s friends carefully.
Young puppies will benefit from this and so will the wallflowers, the shy dogs, the bullies and the people who are attached to these individuals. If you are conscientious about choosing who interacts with your dog, both human and canine, you will have a lot more success with his social interactions, and he will be a lot less likely to get himself into difficulty.
Most of what I learned as “horsemanship” can be summed up as common sense. Sadly, common sense does not seem to be that common when we are talking about how we handle our dogs. Too often the problems we have with dogs can be simplified down to poor manners, inattention, unpreparedness and choosing the wrong friends. If we can overcome these simple issues, life with dogs is going to be much easier for everyone.
Doors seem to be high voltage issues for so many people with dogs. You answer the door, and your puppy bolts through and greets whomever is on the other side. You want to pop out to the driveway and hand something to your neighbour who is passing by and the door doesn’t latch and your dog is now running down the street and out of control. Your sister comes to dinner, and not realizing that dogs don’t know about doors stands with the front door propped open so that she can call her kids in from play. Doors are contentious issues for dog owners. Several times a year, clients contact us to tell us that their dogs have bolted out the door and been hit on the road, so for me, this is a very important issue.
Only rarely do I post the steps that I use to teach a behaviour, but today I am going to make an exception. I have had a look around at what other trainers are offering and I have my own thoughts about door manners, so I will say that this blog is about the parts I think are important, not what everyone else does. When I am training I always keep in mind what I want to end up with. My criteria is simple; when faced with a door to the outside of a building, I want my dogs to know that they should never leave without permission. What does that look like? That means that if I am having my furnace fixed and the repair technician leaves the door open while he grabs his toolbox, my dog isn’t going to inadvertently get out of the house. An open door does not mean that you are necessarily going out. I want my dogs to understand that an open door and a closed door are the same thing; stay in the house unless invited out. There is an important part to this whole behaviour. The key is that what the person does at the door is NOT important. This means that if the door opens of its own accord, the dog’s behaviour should be the same.
To start with, I want to make the door really relevant to my dog. I want my dog to understand that an opening door is important, but it doesn’t mean that we are going through. I start at home, by my front door and I work with the dog OFF LEASH. I don’t want to have to fade anything I don’t want or need to fade. When working on this in classes, the dogs are on leash, but at home, I practice without the leash. What I do is walk up to the door, drop treats and walk away. I do this many times in a row without ever touching the door itself. This step is very simple; I walk up, drop treats and then leave, without ever saying anything to my dog.
The next step is to drop the treats, open the door and close the door and then walk away again. I want my dogs to be very sure that I have developed an obsession with approaching, dropping treats and then opening and closing the door. So far, you will notice that we have not gone through the door. During this stage of training I only go through the door with my dog in the event that my dog is on leash. I want my dog to be really, really aware of how different it is to go through the door compared to having the door open and have nothing to do with him.
I continue to practice with my dogs, dropping treats, opening the door and then at some point when they are really convinced that the door opening and closing has NOTHING what so ever to do with bolting through the door, I drop the treats as normal and open the door and go through and close the door myself. I come right back in and drop treats as I close the door and pass the dog. I am working really hard at this point to make staying inside the more rewarding behaviour. If my dog shows the slightest interest in going out the door, I return to an earlier stage and work at that until we are ready to open the door without the dog showing any interest in going through it.
Once I can walk in and out of a door without my dog showing interest, then I work at the next step of the game. For this I usually have to put my dog’s leash on to keep him safe if he goofs, but I don’t want to use it for anything more than a safety line. I start as before, approaching the door and then dropping treats. I open the door and call my dog to go through ahead of, with or behind me. I want to practice all three situations, as they may be relevant to me at various times in my dog’s life. Let me explain. If I am staying with someone who has a backyard, I may wish to send my dog out ahead of me or by himself, so it is important to be able to send him ahead. We may be going in or out of a vet clinic so we may need to go through a door together. And if I am unsure of what is ahead of me, I may ask my dog to fall back and behind me and wait until I have gone through the door first. Regardless of which position I have put my dog in as I go through the door, I stop and drop treats just after the door. I want my dog to pause at the door. I don’t want him to think that just because he has gone through the door that there isn’t more to do. The whole goal is to get him to use the door as a signal or cue to slow down and not bolt.
When I am able to walk up to the door and my dog anticipates that I will drop treats, open the door and walk through and he anticipates that I will drop treats, I start reversing the order of the activity. I walk up to the door and open it first and then drop treats. At this point I go back to working on just one side of the door at a time. I want my dog to notice that the door is opening and that the opening door doesn’t predict going through; it predicts dropping treats. When I can count to five and my dog neither leaves nor looks out the door, I know that I am ready to drop treats, step through the door, and then step back in and drop more treats.
If you have persevered this far, you must be beginning to think that I am unusually detail orientated and patient. I might be detail oriented, but really, I am not that patient. I just keep doing this when I have a few moments here and there until I see the results I want. This is a case where I am not paying the dog to pay attention to what I tell him to do, I am teaching the dog to be aware of what is happening around him, and the more intense I am about the dog attending to me, the less successful I will be in terms of training the desired behaviour.
When I am able to step out and back in and my dog doesn’t even think about going out the door I will begin calling him through the door again. Notice that my criteria here don’t include my dog sitting; rather I am interested at this point in creating a situation where my dog will wait patiently for the door to open and then close and not bolt through. Soon I will add in the sit, but it is an automatic sit, not a cued sit. To do this, I approach the door and reach out to touch the door handle. At this point I stop and wait and wait and wait. At some point, the dog is going to ask himself why I am stuck, and what he might be able to do to get me unstuck to move on with the procedure of open the door and dropping the treats. I want touching the door handle to be the cue that the dog uses to tell him to sit. When eventually he tries sitting (and with most dogs, if I have done the background work, it takes less than two minutes the first time!), I drop treats and open the door. I keep repeating this over and over and over again until my reaching for the door handle causes him to sit. During training I will wait as long as it takes, but I won’t move on until the sit is both automatic and quick.
When my dog has started to figure out that reaching for the door will only be followed by treats if he is sitting, I want to speed that up significantly. To do this, I mentally count while I am waiting for the sit for five repetitions. Suppose I was working with a dog who took a count of 15 the first time, 12 the second time, 16 the third time 4 the fourth time and 11 the fifth time. From this data, I can notice that the dog is taking far longer to sit than I want, and I have a rough estimate of how long the dog takes on average. I am going to disregard the 4 count sit because although it is closer to what I am looking for, it happens too rarely to impact what I am working on in the moment. Using the 4 numbers that are pretty close together, I can figure out that I want to only reinforce sits that take less than a count of thirteen. With this in mind, I will approach the door and put my hand on the handle and then start to count. If I get to thirteen without a sit, I walk away. If my dog sits before I get to thirteen, I drop my treats as before. When my dog is reliably sitting at less than a count of thirteen, then I will drop my number a bit; let’s just say that I will start walking away if my count reaches eleven. I keep dropping this number until my dog will sit at a count of three. Three is a reasonable number to live with, and at that point I can move to the next step.
Once my dog is reliably sitting when I approach the door and I can open the door and he will stay sitting while I drop treats, it is time to start to lengthen the amount of time that he waits before I treat. I like to build up to at least three and preferably five minutes. I continue to ask him to walk through the door with me from time to time, dropping treats on the outside of the door too. The door itself should be a very strong cue about behaviour, and the desired behaviour is not “run out the door and hope for the best”!
At the point where my dog will hold a five minute sit stay while I stand in the door, I start to introduce guests to the picture, and I decrease the rewards. I truly want this to become an automatic behaviour that my dog just does without my input. I want my dog to see the open door as an important piece of information; don’t go through unless told, regardless of who opens the door, who or what is on the other side and what rewards are available. If I am outside the house, I will sometimes open the front door and drop treats inside so that the reward for the door behaviour remains strong regardless of when the door opens, who is opening it or what is happening outside.
Notice that at no point do I tell the dog what to do. Never. Not once! If I tell the dog to sit or stay or prompt the dog or correct him for moving then I am the thing stopping him from bolting out the door. Successful door manners rely upon the behaviour occurring even in my absence.
Below is a video I made outlining the steps I take to teach a dog to stay inside when a door opens. I used my elderly Chesapeake D’fer to demo this behaviour. D’fer knew this behaviour really well as a much younger dog, but doesn’t get to practice it much because he is quite arthritic and no longer gets up when people come or go. You will notice that D’fer takes a long time to sit and at one point struggles to get in the house. I did not follow the sequence to the end because he was becoming uncomfortable and his comfort was more important than doing a demonstration.
I will add in here that for my own dogs there are exceptions to the door rules. When I am working with or training a service dog, I teach them to give me eye contact through every door, but to keep moving. I do this so that we can pass smoothly in and out of buildings when I am out and about. In general though, for pet dogs, the door itself should be the cue to tell the dog what to do. Imagine now what life might be like for your dog if you could throw open your front door and your dog would not run out. Would it make your dog’s life safer? I think so, and I hope that this blog will help prevent door bolting accidents.
I specialize in working with “difficult dogs”. Dogs who bark a lot. Or who lunge and bite. Or who dig up the garden, or chase cats, or toilet in the house. I work with families who have dogs that most people would find difficult to live with. I also work with dogs who are anxious and fearful, or who really don’t have very good self control or resilience. The dogs that people describe as stubborn or stupid or willful or having their own mind. Over and over again, I hear people who say “I wanted a difficult dog” and I wonder “Why?”
I also live with dogs that many folks would consider difficult to live with. D’fer, my Chesapeake has ideas about how things should work. And like Captain Picard on Star Trek, he often approaches situations as if to say “make it so”. He is my service dog. One day, sitting in a restaurant, while I was talking to my dinner companion, he started to make eyes at the people at the next table. At first it appeared that the other diners were staring at me. Then he stood up, nudged my elbow and looked at the other table and then back at me and then back at them. Clearly there was no work for him to do at the moment and he was making it clear to me that he would prefer to go see what might be up at the next table. He didn’t just leave though; he checked in first.
D’fer at a hotel. D’fer has very specific traits that make him good at his job, but that might make him difficult to live with as a family pet.
Why is this difficult to live with? Consider that D’fer was expressing a very complex concept. He was bored with being at dinner and would prefer to do something else, but he is also relatively polite and asked first. The complexity of understanding that there was a social convention, and that he couldn’t just leave (a pretty formal restaurant, incidentally) is pretty advanced understanding, beyond what many toddlers would understand. The fact that he asked was a reflection of many years of relationship and mutual understanding about how things worked. Imagine what mayhem might have ensued had he not understood the convention to ask first. Imagine what things might have been like if he had been the kind of dog who bided his time till you weren’t paying attention and then bolted into the kitchen of the fancy restaurant and helped himself to the prep table. What Deef did was very DIFFICULT. And in the wrong paws he would be difficult to live with.
Three times this week clients have said to me “I wanted a difficult dog”. They all have rescues with various problems. You can insert your choice of problem-aggression, pica, bolting, disobedience, resource guarding, separation anxiety, it doesn’t matter. The clients wanted “difficult dogs”. I wonder why.
I have a complex dog who is able to do difficult things. He is able to get onto an airplane, follow directions, and slither under a seat to rest beside a dog he met once before (Thanks Air Canada…actually when two service dogs are booked on the same flight, don’t seat them in the same seat if they aren’t booked together; we made it work, but less experienced handlers might not have!) and relax into a very difficult and complex situation. He would be difficult if he were in the hands of someone who had not channeled his brilliance. I wonder, when the clients I see say “I want a difficult dog” do they really mean, “I want a dog who has the potential to do difficult things.” D’fer would not have been able to do any of the difficult things he can do if we first had to work on him learning to be alone. Or if we first had to work on him not biting people or panicking when the furnace turns on. We would not have been able to do what we have done had we first had to overcome all the obstacles that my clients are working on.
I challenge people who ask if they want a difficult dog to consider if what they really want is a dog with the potential to do difficult things. When I think of all the incredible things that D’fer has done, I am filled with joy at what we have achieved together. When I think of all the goals we worked on together and all the challenges we faced, I am proud of the team that we form together. When I compare that relationship to the one I had with the dog who lived with me for six years who was afraid of floors, who was afraid of new people, who was afraid of new places and who never really overcame his fears to the extent that he was able to step out with the confidence that D’fer steps out with every day, I realize and recognize that the second relationship, although it was full of many wonderful things was not full of the same sort of wonderful that the relationship that I have with D’fer is full of. I really think that every dog and person deserve the kind of relationship that I have with Deef. One that is full of challenges but not danger. Full of greatness without fear. My other dog was special, but D’fer and I have surpassed anything that I had ever dreamed of together.
When you are looking for a dog and you want a challenge, I would suggest thinking about what you want in a different way. Difficult is a wide open idea that can lead you down roads you may or may not want to go. If your goal is to do public demos with your dog, consider what that might be like for a dog who doesn’t actually like crowds or loud noises. Yes, we can probably train the dog to accept these challenges, but why do we want to do that? There are lots of things that I am able to do but that I don’t enjoy doing. I can learn the task, and I can even have happy moments doing the task, but that isn’t the same as enjoying the job. Could it be that our egos get in the way? I think that sometimes they do.
When I think about my goals with my next puppy, I think about what D’fer and I have done together and what traits he has that make it possible for him to be so successful with me. To start with, he finds difficult situations amusing. If I am upset he maintains a professional level of detachment while he helps me to deal with my medical issues. We have trained for the event and when the event occurs, he steps up, does his job and moves along. He seems to think that is funny even. He is a great problem solver. When faced with a new task he loves the challenge of figuring out what to do. He is active enough to keep up to me for a whole day of work, but not so active that he cannot settle if that work day includes eight hours of lecture. My shopping list in a puppy includes all the things that made my current dog a success.
When I talk about breed and individual selection of dogs, I am often told that a person doesn’t want a dog for sport or service work so any dog will do. This is a little like saying that you want to get married and it doesn’t matter who you marry as long as they are human. Are you really sure you would enjoy being married to just anyone? If you are that easy going, then perhaps yes, just any dog would do. But the reality is that most of us have criteria for a life partner and also for the dogs who live with you.
Would you marry someone you didn’t know? Is it enough that they are both human beings? We need to do a better job of matching dogs up with what we need in our lives. Image credit: goodluz / 123RF Stock Photo
If you are looking for a family pet, you should be aware that this is perhaps one of the most difficult jobs for a dog. There are rules, but few clear “job expectations”. Imagine how hard it would be to do your job if there were rules to follow but no job description. That is in essence what we often expect of our family pets. They are not permitted on furniture or to help themselves to the garbage, but they don’t really have a job description. There is nothing to do each day; no tasks to accomplish each day, no chores to be done, and little structure beyond when food is delivered and when toileting opportunities or exercise arises.
Such a difficult situation requires a special individual and I think that we should be every bit as picky about the family dog we want as the working service dog, military dog or drug sniffing dog. Each of these dogs has traits that are important to their handlers and the family pet has perhaps the most difficult of all the job descriptions; the lack of one.
Family dogs need to be friendly and accepting of people, including strangers. It is not cool to have a dog who “guards the children”. Dogs who guard the children without the guidance of a handler who has control over the dog are dogs who end up biting the children’s friends, Aunt Mary and the UPS man. Dismissing unfriendly or aggressive behaviour in a family dog is foolhardy and dangerous. Dogs who guard without training are loose cannons, akin to loaded guns stored in the sugar jar. A trained guard dog will only guard when told to do so, and will stop guarding reliably when asked. When I do an evaluation of a dog who has been guarding a family member, invariably I find a dog who is not protecting the individual from harm but rather preventing a resource from being shared. When your dog treats you like a soup bone there is a big problem.
Family dogs also need to be tolerant of misbehaviour on the part of people. Police dogs are rarely asked to tolerate an unexpected hug or a tolerate a child playing with their food bowl and even though we know that these are dangerous behaviours, choosing a dog who will be tolerant of this is a tactic that will help to prevent undesired behaviour later on.
Family dogs usually live in neighbourhoods. These dogs should be very tolerant of other family dogs who live in neighbourhoods because they are likely going to encounter one another on a regular basis. D’fer is an incredible service dog, but chessies are not very tolerant of other dogs and they don’t often make great dog park dogs. For this reason, a dog like D’fer who is wonderful at his job as a service dog might not make as wonderful a family pet. When selecting a breed or type of dog to live with, understand that your dog is likely going to meet lots of other dogs in his life and choosing a breed that is known to be difficult with other dogs is not going to make being a family pet easier for your dog.
Family dogs need to be tolerant of environmental changes. If you have a busy active family, it is unlikely that your dog is going to stay at home all the time. People take their dogs camping and to the cottage, on road trips and to grandma’s house. If you have a real homebody of a dog, he is not going to like the changes that often occur in families when they take vacations or have days at the park or the beach. If you have a dog who is sensitive to noises, new environments, new people and new experiences, then he is not going to be happy with all this moving around. We can teach him, but it is easier for the dog and for the family if you start out with a dog who is tolerant of all these things.
This is an activity I would not encourage a child to engage in with a dog, but children and dogs do things we don’t expect. A great family dog needs to be able to tolerate an even enjoy these things. This dog looks very comfortable here, so even though I would not encourage the activity, it is a fairly safe thing for them to do. This is a great family dog! Image credit: nyul / 123RF Stock Photo
Family dogs should enjoy being handled. There is a difference between tolerating handling and enjoying it. If the dog isn’t enjoying being handled, then when your child goes over to pat him, he is likely going to be uncomfortable. Few people choose a dog in order to cause him discomfort, but when you have a dog who dislikes being handled, not only are vet visits more difficult but so are interactions such as your kids playing dress up or putting a blanket over the dog’s head. These are not activities that I suggest for dogs, but they are activities that children often engage in with the family dog.
When we choose a family dog, we need to take into account more than just how the dog looks or what breed of dog we may have had when we were growing up. I love my chessies, but I am not sure that they would be a great match for me in the family I grew up within. We had lots of dogs around us and chessies are very prone to resource guarding too. Some chessies make great family dogs, but not all of them, and when I think about life from the perspective of the dog, it doesn’t matter what I want him to be, or what I can train him to do, if he is ill suited to the work, then he is not going to be happy. Too many of my clients have had to completely rearrange their lives in the effort to meet the needs of their dogs, and this is not what we get dogs for either. When you are considering getting a more difficult dog, I think you may want to consider a bigger picture, and think about what you expect of this difficult dog. Not only is the wrong dog more difficult for you, it may be a lot more difficult for the dog. Consider that what you may want is not a more difficult dog but a dog who can do more difficult things.
This week I have been reflecting that my dogs have had the opportunity to do much, much more than most dogs do. One of my recent clients came for help to get her dog to stop lunging and barking at passersby while in the house, but she had no, zero, interest in teaching her dog to do anything else. She didn’t want one of those “fancy trick” dogs; she wanted her dog to be his authentic self, but without barking and lunging at passersby. She didn’t see the connection between the relationship that is built during training those tricks and the ability to cope with people passing the house.
The thing is that when you teach a dog to do “tricks “you are preparing your dog for things that might happen, for those passersby, for all of the weird and wonderful things that occur in the human world. When I am teaching a dog new behaviours, I am not just teaching him skills although that is an important part of the equation. I am also teaching my dog to be flexible in how he thinks and what we do together. Training is really a joint activity; I cannot train without the dog and the dog cannot train without me. This special relationship is what keeps me training-it is the foundation upon which everything else is based.
My ultimate goal with my own dogs is to be able to give them enough education to be comfortable in whatever situation I might need them to be in. In short this means that if I need my dogs to go to the emergency vet clinic where they have never ever been before, I want them to have enough experience and background to be able to confidently and happily go to the vet clinic without any hassle. I want them to know what is expected of them and how to do what I need them to do. I expect that they will not protest when the vet needs to look at their injury. I expect that they will tolerate the tech restraining them, even if she has long purple dreadlocks and is wearing a surgical mask.
Likewise, I don’t ask my dogs to do things I have not prepared them to do. I was at the Canada Day Celebration this year and watched one lady with a pair of stunning German Shorthaired Pointers. Both dogs were on prong collars and the woman’s bicep was HUGE. Why? Likely because she never ever allowed even an inch of slack in those dog’s leashes. She held them with their necks up high for over two hours, in the heat and when one of the dogs shied away from a frightening parade act, she strongly corrected both dogs. Neither dog was prepared for the event. It was sad to watch.
When I was partnered with a service dog, he had to be able to tolerate and even enjoy a lot of things that regular dogs don’t have to put up with. Stuck in security in the heat in the airport without water for two hours while they figure out what to do with a service dog? No problem. Came off a flight delayed five hours and need to toilet? He can pee on a sewer grate…No Problem! Walking through downtown Montreal and we encounter a brass band walking along and they honk us? NO PROBLEM! Why? Because we trained for such a wide variety of things that this was just one more thing for him to do.
Training for difficult events is my responsibility should I want to take my dog places. When I visited a friend in Ottawa with my service dog, we had a grand evening playing around the statues that surround Parliament Hill. D’fer was a great sport and tolerated and even enjoyed himself quite a bit, posing with bronze statues of all types. This kind of an activity is the sort of thing that I do to help my dogs to learn to accept strange circumstances, and it is a lot of fun for both of us.
Every week, the advanced students in our Levels Program meet in downtown Guelph near the splash pad in front of city hall. We practice down stays in public. We meet people. We greet people. We do tricks and leash walking and we sit down and socialize for a little while with one another. All around us we have children running and playing and the splash pad splashing and buses pulling up and stopping and one memorable time a large protest and a few hundred motorcycles. We practice what we have learned in class out in the wider world. These are dogs who will be able to do more.
There is a small issue to consider and if you don’t consider it, you will soon face a BIG issue. That is taking your dog out to do more when he is under or unprepared. Training of tricks like sit, come when called, look at me before we start doing things, lie down and wait while we set things up and even sit and stay while we take your picture are all tools that the dog needs in order to be successful at picnics, ball games and family gatherings. If you have not taken the time to teach your dog all that he needs to know and then taught him to do all those things in a variety of places, you are going to struggle with a dog who really doesn’t understand what to do.
Learning is an interesting phenomenon. As an experienced adult learner you likely feel like you can learn anything you need to know and apply it when needed regardless of the context. For a young child or for a dog, learning is not that simple. It is important that when you teach a dog a new trick you practice that trick in a number of different places and contexts. Just because your dog can sit in the kitchen doesn’t mean he will understand to do that on the edge of a fountain or in the park or even at school. With dogs we must teach dogs that they can use their skills in a variety of places.
The easiest thing to do is to start out by taking your dog to new places and feeding him. If he can take food, then try clicking and treating. If he can take treats after a click in a new place, then try asking for a simple behaviour. I call this going on a field trip; we go new places and practice what we have learned already. We learn to work together in the field as it were. Teaching a dog the rules of the game is not difficult but it is unfair to ask him to play if he doesn’t know what to do. Step by step, little by little, teaching your dog what to do and when and then practicing together in a variety of places and contexts can be a lot of fun, and at the end of the day, you will have a dog who is more able to connect with you in order to do fun stuff than you could ever believe. Those “fancy tricks” translate into a pretty cool relationship.