FOOD

Dogs love food.  Well, mostly dogs love food.  Food is such a contentious issue.  People don’t always like to use food in training, and often even when people do use food, they either don’t use it effectively or they struggle with a dog who doesn’t want to take treats.  In the training hall we often see people making all sorts of food errors, so it is time to write a blog about how to use food.

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Most dogs really love food and spend a lot of time thinking about it. When food isn’t working in training, there are often things we can do to help!

The first issue we see is the “switcheroo”.  The switcheroo happens when a dog hits early adolescence and growth slows down.  Most families get a young puppy and are astounded at how many calories that little perpetual motion machine can suck back.  Let’s say that a pup is 3kg when he comes home, and he is eating one scoop of dog food in total each day.  Within 6 weeks that puppy is now 10kg, and eating three scoops of dog food each day!  Skip forward another two months and the puppy is 20kg and eating five scoops a day, and then 8 weeks more and he is 30kg and eating 7 scoops a day.  This brings our pupster to about 7 and a half months of age and all of a sudden Fido stops eating.  In a panic, the average family goes out and spends a pile of money on a different bag of dog food and Fido resumes eating.  A week or so later, Fido goes on strike again, and the family spends more money on a third brand of food.  Fido resumes eating and two weeks later goes on strike.  At about this point, Fido who should be 35kg is a solid 40kg, and has become a picky eater, and the client tells me in class that Fido won’t work for food.

So what is really happening in the “switcheroo”?  Often what is happening is that Fido has stopped growing and doesn’t need 7 scoops of dog food!  When you change dog foods, novelty will get Fido to eat again, but he doesn’t really need all the extra calories, so a week or two later, he self limits his food and you worry that he isn’t eating enough.  You switch again and the novelty entices him to eat for a bit and then he hits another point where the calories are just too much and he stops eating again. 

So what happens to food training when the old “switcheroo” is at play?  Often the dog stops wanting to work for food because he is already getting far too many calories in his bowl.  The first thing that I do is check with the family to make sure that there is nothing going on that would indicate the need for a vet visit.  I do a quick visual inspection of the dog and feel his ribs to see what his body score is.  The easy way to tell what your dog’s body score is would be to first feel your dog’s ribs and then find the part of your hand that is most similar to your dog’s ribs.  Use the pictures below to determine if your dog is overweight.  If your dog is overweight, but everything else is normal; he is drinking and exercising and toileting normally, then the first thing I would do would be to feed a bit less food in his bowl.  Dogs love to eat, but they are also usually really good at self regulating when they get overweight and then they get fussy about the treats they want for training.

Usually with an adolescent dog who has had several different foods because he has become picky, we see his appetite normalize and his willingness to work for regular food return when we remove some of the calories from the bowl.  This is the easiest situation to resolve when it comes to food and training.  Once you figure out how much your dog should be eating, take the total amount for the day and divide it by three.  Feed 1/3 at breakfast, 1/3 at dinner and save 1/3 for training class.  Let’s look at my German Shepherd Eco as an example. 

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There are so many options when it comes to feeding your dog and it can be tempting to just change foods if your dog is not eating reliably. If your dog is already eating a quality diet, consider trying decreasing the quantity of food that you are putting in the bowl before changing the diet. If your dog is not on a good diet or if they have a medical issue, you should talk to your vet before changing your dog’s diet.

When I got Eco at 7 and a half weeks of age he ate a whopping 2/3 cup of kibble each day.  Total.  By the time he was 12 weeks he was eating 1 ½ cups, and at 16 weeks he was eating 2 ½ cups.  His intake steadily increased over the weeks and months until at 7 months he was about 40kg and was eating a total of 12 cups a day divided into four meals, and he was a lean, mean fast moving doggy machine.  I remember thinking at this age that I sure hoped he would slow down soon as I was going to go broke feeding this dog!  Predictably at about 8 months he started to skip a meal.  That meant that all of a sudden, he went from eating 12 cups a day reliably to eating 9.  Whew!  That was cheaper!  I started to feed three meals a day, but instead of feeding three cups per meal, I fed 2 cups per day and kept 3 cups aside for training.  At about ten months of age, Eco started to pretty reliably skip one of his three meals each day, so I took another three cups of food out of his daily ration, which brought us down to a much more reasonable 6 cups per day, and divided that into three, making 2 cups per serving, Eco went to two regular meals and two cups set aside for school.  By the time Eco was four he was normally eating about 4 cups of food a day, and just got a few treats in class.  Mostly in class at four, he would work for play.

The next thing I have seen in class is the dog who will only work for ultra high value treats.  A number of things can be at play there.  The first of them is that when the dog is very stressed or overwhelmed, he cannot eat.  This should not be a surprise; the same happens to people too.  Consider what it might be like to be in a car accident and then have someone offer you a nice dinner.  Most of us would find that situation too stressful to allow us to enjoy eating.  The same thing can happen when the dog is extremely excited, and that is also true for us.  Most of us don’t feel like eating when we are engaged in something like riding a rollercoaster.

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Both of these ladies are really excited. One of them is happy about her excitement and the other lady is a little more concerned. Neither of these ladies would probably want to eat a sandwich if I were to offer them one, because when you are really excited, you are not really interested in food!

Other things can contribute to dogs only wanting to take high value treats too.  When your dog comes to class overweight, they are going to be really picky about what they will take as treats.  Similarly, if he comes to class right after eating a large meal, he will be willing to take dessert class treats, but not lower value treats.  One thing that people often try is to completely deprive their dogs before class.  This can backfire too; often dogs who have been deprived enough can be so deeply focused on any food at all that they cannot even think.  It is far better to feed more sensibly, and come to class with a dog who is neither overweight nor completely deprived. 

Dogs definitely have preferences, and there is a lot of value to knowing what your dogs prefers.  I have worked with dogs who do not like liver and making a dog take a treat he doesn’t want works against you as a trainer, even if it is a treat you want your dog to like or if it is a treat you think your dog will like.  I have also worked with dogs who like really unusual things like cooked squash, raw celery or blueberries.  When I have a dog with strong preferences, I often rank the treats.  When I know for instance that a dog likes liver best, and then rollover and then cheese and then bread and finally kibble.  I will sometimes take some time to teach the dog to take lower value treats.  Working in a low distraction environment I will offer the dog his lowest value item.  If he takes the treat, I reward him with the next value treat.  In this case, I will offer kibble.  If the dog takes a piece of kibble, then he gets a piece of bread.  I then offer the dog another piece of kibble.  Most dogs will look longingly at the bread.  Hold out.  If the dog takes the kibble, he gets another treat but THIS time, he gets the next level up; so I would feed him some cheese.  Next I will offer him another piece of kibble.  He will likely look out for another piece of cheese.  Hold out.  When he takes his kibble, he will get the next thing on his list; in this case the rollover.  Then offer more kibble again.  When the dog takes the kibble he gets his top value treat; in this case the liver.  I keep working with the dog offer kibble to get a better reward.  I keep working on this until the dog will willingly take a low value treat regardless of the situation, in the hopes of getting a better treat.

Perhaps the most common error I see in the training hall is reinforcing every single behaviour without any differential between good iterations and not so good iterations.  If you ask your dog to sit and he lies down, and you give him a treat because he did SOMETHING, anything, you are in fact teaching him that trying random behaviours is really valuable, but it doesn’t teach your dog that when you say sit, you mean sit, or when you say down, you mean down.  You can actually use treats very constructively to teach your dog the difference between a really, really valuable behaviour such as a fast, accurate sit, when you ask the first time, and a slow reluctant sloppy sit.  To teach the difference between a fast snappy sit and a slow casual sit, you can simply choose to reward the best sits to reward with the favourite treat, and then reward the sloppy undesired sits with a low value treat.  Dogs can learn really quickly that a good sit gets a good treat, and a poor sit gets a less preferred treat.

 

Dogs also need to learn about self control around food before you start training.  If your dog thinks that if he can see the treat, he can have the treat, then he is going to have a harder time learning to get the treats by doing something to earn them.  I like to start all training by teaching the dog to control himself around food (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/11/12/the-dog-controls-the-dog/ ).  Once your dog has learned not to snatch treats as soon as he sees them, you can start to use your treats much more effectively.

As with many tools, treats are a good servant but a poor master.  When used well, food is perhaps the best way that you can teach a dog.  When used poorly you can teach your dog all sorts of bad habits. 

FOOD

THE TOLERANT DOG

Over the past six weeks, I have worked with a number of families with dogs who have finally put down their paws and said “Enough!  I don’t like that anymore.”  In each case, the families were astounded that their previously kind and calm dog snapped.  I hear things like “he always let the kids do that before” and “he never minded when I did that until now”.  And in every single case, these dogs have been asked to tolerate things that I would not expect the dog to like.

In one case, the dog snarled at a child in the home when the child bounced off the couch, on to a foot stool, and the over the dog, and finally onto the chair beside him.  It turned out that this bouncing game had been going on with the child for an extended period of time and the dog had not protested the first ten or eleven times she did this.  The parents were astounded when the dog finally snarled!  I asked the parents if they wanted their child to behave this way in the house.  “No” they admitted, but they were still upset that the dog had reacted the way that he had.

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This interaction is calm right now; the dog obviously understands that he should not chase the children.  This dog is very tolerant!  As long as dad keeps track of the excitement level and intervenes before things get out of hand, this is likely quite a safe situation.

 

Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_stockbroker’>stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

I think back to my own childhood and the rules we lived by.  Running and bouncing in the house was not allowed.  Tormenting animals meant that we would get hurt and if we were scratched, bitten or knocked over by the dog, the first question was “what did you do to the dog?”  I am constantly amazed that the attitude has shifted from “what did you do” to “why did the dog respond”.  It seems that in the face of tolerant dogs, people have forgotten that some of the time, the behaviour we see in dogs is the result not of a flaw in the dog, but of what we ask the dog to put up with.

When you live with a tolerant dog, you can come to forget that the dog has very real feelings about what happens to him.  One of the things that I constantly hear is how important having animals in our lives is because it teaches us empathy and to consider the needs of others.  When we live with tolerant dogs, we may actually learn that we can push harder than we should because these dogs will put up with behaviour that we should not expect them to put up with.

I regularly see tolerant dogs being asked to put up with highly aroused children or dogs racing around, with the expectation that the dog in question will remain calm and collected while this is happening.  If I had a nickel for every student who said to me that they arrive in the dog park only to have their dog lose his marbles I would be moderately wealthy.  I often wonder if folks remember being six and arriving at the park and remaining calm and relaxed while watching the other children running around and playing tag!

Although I require my dogs to show self control before letting them off leash to play with other dogs, I don’t expect that they would do so without help from me.  Self control is a learned behaviour, not a naturally existing one.  If you want your dog to exhibit self control you need to keep in mind two things; first-what have you taught him about self control, and second-how much excitement is he being exposed to while being asked to exhibit this self control.

If you take your dog to the dog park, and you are 100 meters away from the dogs who are playing and your dog spies the active exciting play, it is reasonable that most dogs can disengage from the fun they see and attend to you, even if they haven’t had much training.  Stand and wait till you get spontaneous attention, and then take your dog off leash and join the fun!  You will be teaching your dog that self control is the key to getting to participate in the fun.  Take that same dog into the middle of the game and hope for that same level of tolerance, and you are going to find that you have a highly excited monster on your hands.  Just don’t!  You can eventually do that if you practice diligently and increase the difficulty very slowly, but it isn’t something that will just happen

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This dog is obviously interested in what is happening on this side of the fence, but he is not going to get into trouble by being asked to tolerate behaviour towards him that is inappropriate!

Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_irinafuks’>irinafuks / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

This lesson applies to racing children too.  For the most part, I don’t want my dogs to run with kids.  I have large physical dogs who think nothing of hip checking one another, or grabbing each other by the neck while they run and race.  When there are children running around, I put my dogs in their crates, or if I have taught them to, I ask them to lie down and stay.  They are tolerant, but it is not worth the risk to the children to expect that they would not hip check a child with whom they were running.  It would most likely be a completely benign event, but 50kg of running dog can flatten a toddler or even a primary school aged child.  That is not fun for anyone.  And if the child charged my dog, I would not be surprised if my dog grabbed the child; why wouldn’t he?  Charging is a rude and dangerous behaviour, and my dog doesn’t want or need to get hurt; he will quite likely protect himself.  If I have put my dog in a down stay while children run, then I have made an agreement with my dog that I will prevent children from disturbing him and I am very strict about how close I allow play to come to my dogs.

It should be remembered tolerant tiny dogs can easily get in trouble too!  I have seen dogs tripped upon, stepped on and inadvertently kicked when they are walked through crowds.  When they are resting, people often pick them up resulting in dogs who learn never tot relax in the presence of people they don’t know and trust.  Tiny dogs are often not terribly tolerant in part because they never get a chance to be.  You can help these dogs by being aware of what they are doing, and what happens to them.

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This sort of interaction can make it hard for a tiny dog to remain tolerant.  The dog doesn’t have a choice about interacting because he is being held with all four feet off the ground and he is really being good about the fact that he is being dangled.

Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_morganka’>morganka / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Dog bites are rare, but they do happen.  One of the things we can do to help prevent dog bites is to ensure that the people around our dogs treat our dogs with respect and dignity.  We can set and enforce boundaries with those who interact with our dogs and help our dogs to move through the world in peace.  When a dog is tolerant, he will often put up with things that he should not have to, but we can help.  When I am in public with my dogs I am really clear about the things that I allow to happen to them.  I don’t let strangers just touch them, or scare them or get in their space.  I don’t allow children to play with my dogs like they are inanimate toys.  My dogs are really tolerant of a wide variety of bad behaviour in humans, but I do my very best to help my dogs stay tolerant by not making them put up with bad behaviour towards them.  I would encourage everyone to do the same.

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THE TOLERANT DOG

A TIRED PUPPY IS A HAPPY PUPPY…OR IS HE?

Originally published April 2013

One of the platitudes we hear over and over and over again in dog training is that a tired puppy is a happy puppy.  When I think about being tired, I think about that feeling of having lots to do and not enough time to get it done, of deadlines, of the desire to do more but the inability to do so.  Or I think about the end of a work out, where I just want a shower and to be left alone.  I don’t think about tired when I think about content.

Don’t get me wrong.  Exercise is an important component of good health for both us and our dogs.  Reasonable amounts of exercise that is.  Yesterday I took my horse out to exercise her and she was very full of herself.  We went to a new area to her, and I got out my longe line and asked her to walk in a circle around me.  This is a very common way of exercising horses and my mare is very familiar with it.  In a new place though she was very spooky and nervous and when a truck rumbled by and blew its horn she took off.  She galloped around me for a solid ten minutes, and that was before we even got really organized.  After her spook, I worked her in the other direction so that she would not get stiff on one side, and then I walked her for about twenty minutes to make sure she would be properly cooled out.  With horses we have to be very careful about keeping them properly limbered and properly warmed up and cooled out and when a spook like this happens we often end up exercising a horse more than we would prefer.  At the end of her work out, Kayak was very tired.

Today when I brought Kayak out for her daily work out, she was very subdued.  She was loose and moving well, but she was obviously tired out from yesterday’s work-out.  Today I worked her very lightly because although a tired horse can be an easier to handle horse, a tired horse is also a horse more prone to injuries.  This is true of all athletes, horse, human and yes, dog.

Often when I talk to people about the behaviour problems they are having, an interesting pattern has developed for the dog.  As a young pup, the people would see the puppy get the zoomies and thinking that their puppy needed an extra walk, they would take the puppy out for progressively longer walks.  Very quickly, the zoomies move out of the realm of an emotional response to being over tired to an operant way to get more walks.  It takes very little time for a dog to learn that racing around results in a walk.

As the puppy grows, so does his stamina and then next thing that often happens is that the puppy develops a lot of stamina.  A young Australian Shepherd is perfectly able to run hard for most of the day, regardless of the effect on his future health.  This is an active breed that was intended to move large numbers of sheep for hours on end.  The race between stamina and the amount of exercise that a young dog can absorb becomes a vicious circle where the human gives the dog exercise, and then the dog is naughty and the human gives the dog more exercise.  It is not just herding dogs like the Aussie either; I have seen this happen in spaniels, retrievers, and working breeds.  If your dog comes from a genetic background where he needed to be active, then the more exercise you give him, the more exercise he seems to need.  Furthermore, if you have been exercising your dog whenever he seems restless, you are inadvertently creating a dog who will need more and more and more exercise.

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Attempting to exercise a dog into fatigue who was bred to do this for ten hours a day is an exercise in frustration for families, but likely also for their dogs.  Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_kitzcorner’>kitzcorner / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Often the next stop on the journey of exercise junkie is dog day care.  There are great dog day cares out there, where the dogs have structured days that include rest periods and down time, but a great many dog day cares are one revolving door of activity, activity, activity.  One of my clients came in after his dog was dismissed from daycare because he was aggressive to the other dogs.  The daycare would not permit a video to be made to determine what exactly was going on, however from what we can determine, the dog would arrive around 7 am and more and more dogs would arrive until about 10 in the morning.  As the dogs arrived they were permitted to race into the day care and plough into the play group.  From ten till about two in the afternoon, these dogs would be a more or less stable group, but any time they settled down to rest, a staffer would go out and get them moving.  At two in the afternoon, dogs would start going home.  By five when my client would pick up his dog, his dog was exhausted.  When we added this dog to our play group, it was really clear that he didn’t mind rough play at first, but over time, as he tired, he would begin to build a bigger and bigger space bubble around him.  By keeping his play sessions short and not permitting him to play when he was tired we resolved a good chunk of this dog’s problem.

The allure of the dog coming home tired is very attractive to many owners of young dogs, but if the day care doesn’t make sure that the dog gets down time and rest time, then you can be contributing to a dog becoming an exercise junkie.  This leaves us with two questions.  The first is “How much is enough” and the second is “When should you exercise the dog”?

The answer to how much is enough is completely dependent on how much you think you can live with.  If you cannot live with a dog who needs 5 hours of hard exercise a day, then don’t start building up your dog’s exercise tolerance to that level.  I have a colleague in Sudbury who is extremely active with her dogs; she does sledding and hiking and biking with her dogs, and she could live with dogs who are able to tolerate five hours a day of hard exercise.  This is not typical of my students though.  If you cannot tolerate this level of exercise, then don’t get your dog up to that exercise.

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When a dog starts exercising stressed, he is going to also be stressed during exercise at least for the first while.  Look at this guys’ rounded eyes, pulled back ears and pulled in tongue.

There is a minimum though; dogs do best with at least an hour a day of off leash hiking with their people.  Not all of us have the luxury of this, but that is likely the optimal for most dogs and it is doable for more folks, so as a middle of the road guide line, an hour a day off leash is a good amount of exercise.  When you cannot give your dog this, you can substitute things like walking (not bounding!) up and down stairs, training games that involve searching for specific items or treats or learning new tasks.

The second question of when to exercise your dog is an interesting one.  If you exercise your dog at the same time each and every day, you will create a situation where your dog anticipates exercise and becomes difficult to handle because of that.  As the moment of exercise approaches, the dog becomes increasingly aroused and excited.  If you then exercise your dog he will learn that being excited and aroused predicts a walk.  When nothing else is going on, he will behave in an excited manner and then you will eventually respond by giving him that walk.  Although you may be planning your walk at a specific time, your dog may begin to think that his excitement is what produces the walk instead of the other way around.

On the other hand, if you walk your dog more or less randomly, he will begin to tune into your subtle cues that a walk is coming and you have exactly the same issue that you might in the event that you walk your dog at the same time every day.  Putting down your reading glasses and picking up your phone means that you are going to go for that greatly anticipated walk.

To avoid these common walk problems, there are a few things to do.  First, understand that puppies under 12 weeks who zoom around like small jets are probably tired and need a nap, not another walk.  When you see this behaviour, call your pup, put him in his crate with a kong or other appropriate chew and let him be for a while.  After twelve weeks you can start to give your puppy more exercise and start to build towards a level of stamina you can live with, while meeting his minimum needs for exercise.  If you have an older dog who has the pre-walk fidgets, use that as an indicator that you need to crate him till he settles down too.  When the dog is settled, you can take him out if appropriate.  We find that most young dogs conk out pretty quickly and take a nap.  Older dogs can learn that being silly and excited in the crate does not open the door.

Once you have broken the cycle of being excited and aroused before the walk, establish a routine before your walk.  Start out by teaching your dog to lie down.  Lying down is a calm and controlled position.  When your dog is down, feed him treats, one by one and then work on being able to move around the room, while he stays.  If he breaks the stay, just re-cue him and work with him on staying in a down position for ten minutes.  At about the ten minute point (sometimes 9, sometimes 10, or even 11 minutes), call your dog out of the down position and go get ready for your walk.  Work up to being able to get ready for the walk while your dog is down.  If he gets tense or excited (you will notice ears and eyes perking up), then keep working on the stay, continuously feeding as you move things around and get ready to go.  When your dog is relaxed, actually calm, that is when walks will start.

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This dog is ready to go for a walk.  He is calm and he is showing us that his face and body are relaxed.

If you work on this regularly and reliably, then what you will get is a dog who is calm before walks.  If you only walk your dog when he is aroused and excited then you are only going to have a dog who is aroused and excited, and that is not much fun to live with.  A tired dog is a tired dog.  A calm dog is usually a happy dog.

A TIRED PUPPY IS A HAPPY PUPPY…OR IS HE?

Normal

Originally Posted Sunday, October 30, 2011

I am very fortunate to see a good many dogs in my day to day life, but not all of them are normal.  There is for instance, my own very intense, military lines German Shepherd.  Nice guy.  Not really normal.  Or my Chessie.  Another nice guy.  Also not normal.  I have an intern with me these days; nice lady, with a very normal Keshond.  In fact he is pretty much the only normal dog I know at the moment.  I also have a six month old lab and a four month old German Shepherd in the house who aren’t normal either.

All of the “not normal” dogs I have really ARE normal, in the context of what I do.  Eco, my GSD, works his behind off for me doing sport.  He would be equally happy as a police or military dog.  He would be a menace as a house pet.  D’fer, my chessie works hard taking care of me as a service dog.  Similar to Eco, he would not make a very good pet.  He is altogether too intense and active to make a good house dog.  Unless you would like to know when you are anxious, and when you should take your meds and when you should get up in the morning.  These dogs have responsibilities, and they thrive on their work.

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Eco is not really normal. He is a little more than 48kg of love of life and how many bad guys can I chase. He is not “normal” in that he has been bred for an extreme form of work. In my house he is really happy but he would be unlikely to be happy in most pet owner’s homes because he is such an extremely active, interested, keen and excited dog who really likes to work. Photo copyright Sue Alexander 2010

Widget the six month old lab is a service dog in training.  He does pretty intense training on a day to day basis, and he is also doing public access training regularly.  He is a pretty responsible guy all things considered.  He might make a good pet for someone who desires to have brains and enough energy to run a nuclear submarine in one loving package of chocolate Labrador.  Friday is also a service dog in training; she is 16 weeks old and keeps us on our toes.  She has just started doing public access visits too.  I don’t think she would be happy as a pet though; just not enough structure or training or exercise for her taste.

All my dogs are pretty far off of normal.  That is just fine for me as I know that each has strengths and weaknesses, and I play to their strengths and avoid their weaknesses.  That does not always work out for my clients.  My clients in the Good Dog program come to me with dogs who are not normal too; often though, the people they live with don’t recognize that their version of not normal needs some special handling.  One of the most important questions that I ask myself as a behaviour consultant is “Where would this dog be “normal”.  Today I met a sweet little dog who would be very normal as an only dog on a quiet mountain farm where she did not have to meet anyone new, or any new dogs, or climb any stairs.  Preferably in an open concept house.  The dog currently lives in a busy two story home in the middle of town.  My job is to make the compromises so that this dog can find a peaceful way to live in an environment that is alien to what he would like to live in.

In my mid twenties I worked for the federal government.  I was an agriculture inspector.  I was not a very good agriculture inspector and I didn’t like the work.  In fact I hated the job, and in that job I was extremely NOT normal.  I ended up on stress leave and when I got back, the federal government did me a huge favour.  They fired me.  They decided that I was just not the right person for that job.  I feel very lucky that they fired me; I didn’t want to do the job, I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t know enough about myself at that point to do something other than that job.  I felt stuck, like I didn’t have any choices.

For many of the dogs I meet, they grow up understanding one reality, and end up plonked down into another.  They may have the genetics to do one job, and be stuck in another.  When we look at what “normal” is for a particular dog, we can often figure out what compromises we can make to make the situation “normal” for that dog.  Unlike me, they are unlikely to get fired and end up in a better situation.  When we start to look at what would be “normal” for our abnormal dogs, we start to be able to find middle ground where we can start from.

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This is a Keeshund. In Canada, they are pretty happy and normal. In the southern United States, they are not terrifically normal! Copyright: isselee / 123RF Stock Photo

Where we can make the biggest difference in the lives of dogs is to think about what “normal” looks like in your life before you choose your dog.  Does your normal include a lot of people?  Because if it does, then no matter how much you like that guarding breed, his “normal” isn’t going to be the same as yours.  If your normal includes lots of hunting and fishing and camping, and you love the look of a greyhound, you and the greyhound are going to each have to make some serious adjustments to make that work out.  The greyhound is not going to enjoy river rafting even if you do get a life jacket on him.  And you are not going to enjoy hanging out indoors when it gets cold and rainy.  Your normal is the best place to start when you are thinking about what kind of a dog is going to fit into your life.

My intern’s Keshond is an interesting example of normal.  He is normal at the moment.  In Canada.  In the fall.  At home, in the southern United States, he really is not normal.  There, for nine months out of 12, he is not normal.  He is hot and uncomfortable in that incredible coat.  In order to live there, his people keep the air conditioning turned down as low as they can tolerate it and they walk him only at night.  And interestingly, her most recent dog is not a Keshond.

Normal

RATED R

Originally posted Sunday, May 19, 2013

My dad had a method of rating movies. G movies were good. PG movies were pretty good. R movies were Rotten. XR movies were extra rotten. And when it comes to dog behaviour one of the behaviours people often struggle with are the R rated behaviours; any sexual behaviour and especially humping. Humping seems to be the equivalent of a full frontal nudity scene in a movie; it is at that point where people seem to reliably exhibit one of two reactions; utter fascination or total revulsion. I will warn you now, that if you are squeamish and you don’t want to read about sexual behaviour in dogs, the time to stop reading is right now, because this blog is all about….humping.

Let’s start at the start with the fact that humping is a normal behaviour. Some dogs seem to do more of it than others and some dogs don’t seem to do it at all. Dogs who do it, do it regardless of if they are intact or neutered, male or female. It has nothing to do with dominance. The target can be an object, another dog or a human. Or the cat. And pet owners seem to be endlessly fascinated by it, talking about it, observing it, describing it and ascribing motives to it.

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Humping is a normal behaviour and it doesn’t matter how big or small the humper is, or the humpee!

Dominance is the term used to describe the hierarchy between two or more individuals of the same species when there is a limited resources. I have observed dogs humping in a very wide variety of contexts and I have yet to see a dog use humping to gain access over a resource. You could argue that the humper has control over the humpee, but in my experience, if the humpee doesn’t want to be humped they have very clear ways of explaining that to the humper. If the humper doesn’t listen, then other dogs will often come in to the rescue of the unwilling recipient. Not always, but often. Just this weekend, we are boarding a neutered male who spends much of his time trying to hump our intact bitch Friday. She is due to come into heat in about three months, so he isn’t trying to breed her, although neutered males will breed a bitch in heat. Furthermore, there is an intact male turned out with the neutered male and Friday, and he just doesn’t care that much. Friday will sometimes stand and allow him to hump, and the intact male will sometimes sniff the two of them if they are standing still, but most of the time, Friday uses a different tactic to keep this neutered male from bothering her. She likes to trot just fast enough to keep lover boy on his toes; just when he thinks he can get up on his hind legs, she darts out of his way. Yes, she is a flirt. Today at about three in the afternoon, she must have had enough, because she started running really fast whenever he approached, and when he tried to mount her while she was getting a drink, she turned around and pinned him to the ground. She was really clear when she was done playing the hump me game.

So consider this. The humper got nothing. Friday got a lot of exercise, but she is a very fit, young athletic dog and she wasn’t showing any signs of stress through the 36 hours or so (not continuously; she had turns in the house, and in her crate and out with her normal buddy) that the guest dog spent trying to hump her. When she had enough she explained very clearly to this dog that the game was over and interestingly, he respected that and stopped humping her. The intact male, the smallest of the three dogs didn’t care that the neutered male was humping the intact bitch, and he spent most of the time outside hunting grasshoppers and looking at the horses through the fence and sometimes playing tag with Friday and trying to get her to speed up enough to chase him. How could this be dominance, when the definition of dominance requires that there is some gain for the winner? Could it be that this interaction might possibly have simply been play? That is what I suspect it was. And often that is what I think we see; humping as a normal part of play.

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Here a spayed bitch is humping an intact bitch who is tugging with a neutered male.  This is a completely normal behaviour.  The intact bitch’s ears are pinned not because she is stressed but because she is using her jaw, head and neck muscles to tug with the neutered male.

 

Puppies may start showing this behaviour as early as 4 weeks in the litter. If mom is involved with the litter she will often teach the puppy what is an appropriate amount of humping, who and what they can hump. If the pups have been separated from their dam too early, some pups get to hump without interruption, and they can carry this behaviour further than we might like them to. If your pup is humping and in a puppy class, his classmates will help him to learn who, when and where he can hump, provided they are permitted to do so, and the humans support the humpee if he or she is asking for the humper to stop. A simple delta signal, or warning that says to change behaviour or face the music can help a lot. We say ‘that’s enough” if we feel a youngster is over doing the humping. If he stops and does something else, we allow him to continue playing. If he continues to hump in spite of the recipient asking him to stop and in spite of our warning signal, we say “too bad” and pick the pup up until he settles down and then we return him to play. In general though, the pups do a pretty good job of teaching one another when they should and should not be humping one another.

We often see this behaviour in the context of dogs who are very conflicted and aroused. When they are stressed and uncertain about what to do, we may see dogs humping one another, us or their toys. One of the easiest things to do about this is to address the underlying stresses that the dog is experiencing. This is a prime example of a situation where you really want to take care to use non confrontational training; if the dog is aroused and conflicted, then confronting the dog with an unpleasant consequence is only going to increase, not decrease the stress.

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Here is a humper who is clearly conflicted in some way; his facial expression is not relaxed and his humping is likely a response to just not being sure what to do.  Contrast his expression to that of the humpee who is fairly relaxed in his facial expression.  Photo credit:  Paul Shelbourne, Urban Dog.

There are a few dogs we have met who appear to have a sign tattooed to their hind ends that say the canine equivalent of “hump me, I’m Irish”. Like the human kiss me tee shirts, these don’t seem to be worn by the more confident outgoing dogs. We used to have a dog who boarded with us several times a year and no matter who we put him out with, or walked him with, he would get humped. The only reason he wasn’t humped in our living room is that we have a strict “take it outside” rule for humping that all of our resident dogs completely understand. This dog didn’t seem to mind, and in fact, when other dogs didn’t hump him, he would often throw his hind end into their faces. One of my assistants hypothesized that this may have been his particular way of asking other dogs to play with him. Whatever the reason, he didn’t seem to mind, and we didn’t interfere. This dog never had trouble working with any of the other dogs, including those who had humped him when loose together.

Dogs don’t just hump one another; they also hump things. About ten years ago, a veterinarian I worked with asked me to visit one of her patients in his home. At 9:00pm every evening, just after the kids went to bed, the dog was suspected of having seizures. Video cameras were much less common then, so she asked if I could drop by and observe for her and tell her what I saw. The dog lived in my neighbourhood and I was happy to oblige. I arrived at about 8:30 and the couple greeted me at the door. The kids were at a neighbour’s and we had the opportunity to watch this dog in action. The dog was a two year old neutered male maltese. I asked a bunch of questions and it turned out that this dog had a very extensive ritual that he went through before the “event”.

At 8:45, he would begin to pace and pant. He would get gradually more and more excited, and then he would start jumping against the cupboard door where one particular special toy was kept. I asked what would happen if they didn’t get the toy out. He became dangerously aggressive towards whomever was nearest. Dominance? Nope, they aren’t the same species. Let’s call this what it is; dangerous, obnoxious, rude behaviour that had been put on a reinforcement schedule. In other words, the family had taught the dog that by being aggressive he could get his toy.

At about five minutes to nine, the couple opened the door, got out a stuffed bear and gave it to the dog. The dog grabbed the toy and ran to the living room couch, jumped up and began to hump away like crazy. The husband started to get quite upset; “see”, he asked? “See, he is having a seizure!” Gently I tried to explain to them that the dog was masturbating and was very good at it. The husband turned beet red and the wife began to laugh. She was nearly hysterical with her laughter. I was left trying to “normalize” the information I had to share about normal behaviour in neutered males, but the more I explained the more the woman laughed, with tears eventually rolling down her cheeks.

About seven minutes after he started, the dog was finished and he relaxed, jumped off the couch and went to lie down in his bed and we were able to talk again. The husband was still fairly tense, but the wife kept breaking into giggles. What was so funny? Well, it turns out that at Christmas the past year, her uncle had a video camera and had taken film which he was showing around his seniors home in Florida, with the residents baffled at what the fluffy little white dog was doing to his bear.

In dozens if not hundreds of species, animal behaviourists have observed masturbating in both males and females. Kagaroos? Yes. Horses? Yes. Bonobos? It is pretty much the single most common behaviour they show, both in captivity and in the wild. And yes, domestic dogs masturbate. The solution I suggested and the family chose to take up was to do some obedience training at about twenty minutes to nine in the evening each night and then give the bear to the dog in a quiet private room. As a friend of mine told her five year old daughter-“that is something special we do by ourselves with the door closed.” As a side note, discussing this with the family it turned out that they were so afraid that the bear might be lost or damaged that they had gone to the petstore and found out where the bear was made, and special ordered twenty of them. Yes, they had a dresser drawer full of maltese terrier sized masturbation pillows.

I remember going to a John Rogerson seminar several years ago where he described collecting all the male police dogs each week in a large canine program he worked with. The image baffled the mind; ten young men and their German Shepherds, every Thursday afternoon sounds implausible, but that is what he claimed they did to prevent the dogs from spending time and energy humping things they ought not, or spending time in their crates masturbating instead of resting. I am not sure how well that worked, but according to John Rogerson, this was standard practice in this particular program.

I have also worked with bitches, both intact and spayed who have humped items as diverse as their owners, the arm of the living room couch, pillows, laundry and on one interesting case, a specific log in the yard. I have had clients who have put the behaviour on cue and brought it out as a party trick, not realizing what they have trained the dog to do. This behaviour is normal, and in my opinion the best thing to do when it happens is to redirect the dog onto an appropriate item in an appropriate place. It is important to understand that this behaviour is inherently self rewarding, and if you spend a lot of time trying to stop the dog from doing it, the dog is going to become difficult to handle. In the words of the Beatles…Let it be.

My exception to interrupting this behaviour is when the target of the dog’s affection is a non canine animal. When the target is the family cat or a child, then I intervene, immediately, with “that’s enough/too bad”. When the target is an able bodied adult, I teach them how to do this effectively. Combining this tactic with controlling arousal and opportunities to hump more appropriate opportunities usually resolves this problem very quickly.

There is some evidence that neutering before sexual maturity may decrease humping and I have seen this happen, but it doesn’t happen without behaviour modification support. Without boundaries and rules, whether imposed by people or by other dogs, the neutered dog is going to continue, for the same reason that masturbating occurs in every other species; because it feels good.

RATED R

THE SHOE IN THE CEILING

John, The Puppy Guy was not always The Puppy Guy. In fact, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, he spent an interminable amount of time on the corporate customer service desk for a large investment house. And not surprisingly, they wanted their phone jockeys to behave in very specific ways. John mostly just wanted a job in his field, and the paycheque. When the company and the employee have different goals, hilarity can ensue.

 

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Working on the telephone desk of a big corporation is a complex task that could be broken down into component elements, but often isn’t!  Image credit: auremar / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Let’s call the company Big Bank and Investing. BB & I hired a consulting team to come in and figure out what criteria they wanted the people answering the phones to use in order to keep their customers happy. They narrowed it down to a few relevant things. First was that the customer service rep was supposed to address the client by name four times in each call. Second, they were to ensure that each client was asked if they wanted their account information updated. Thirdly, they wanted the phones answered within the first two rings, so that the clients never had to wait to talk to someone. Finally, they wanted their reps to thank the customer for calling BB & I. The consulting company chose measurable, repeatable criteria, which is always a good idea when you want to change behaviours. They forgot a few minor details however.

 

The first of the details they forgot was that the clients were calling a discount brokerage desk. This meant that individuals were sitting by their computers waiting for the markets to move and then hitting the speed dial button to talk to John or any of a hundred other guys just like him. The phone calls would go something like this:

Hello, this is BB & I, and you are speaking with John. Who is calling please?

This is MikeBRaddock24352345234-L, I need to sell 700 of GoGolfing at 42.

Thank you Mike. Before we continue Mike, I see that you only have 600 of GoGolfing and GoGolfing is selling for 38, Mike. Mike, shall I put that trade through for you at 38, Mike?

Yes go ahead.

Now, Mike, is there anything I can do for you?

  1. Thanks..

Before you go Mike, can I check your account details and make certain that we have your correct contact information?

No. Thanks. Bye.

Thank you for calling BB & I Mike.

Except that Mike would have hung up on you before you said good bye. And if you didn’t finish saying Thank you for calling BB & I to dead air, then you got a poor rating on that particular call. This was really depressing for the customer service reps, and in fact led to a suppression of the desired thanking behaviour. Not only that, Mike was annoyed because he talked to you fourteen times a day, every day and he was sick and tired of being asked to update his account. Some of the stories John told were quite funny about the responses they got to their queries about contact information. About the fourth time you are asked the same question in a given day, you start getting annoyed and you start giving smart ass answers, such as “Yes, please, update that I am in the den now instead of the office.” Or sometimes they would string along a rep in order to not change their address but to keep an agent on the line so they could make another trade without having to call back. And sometimes they would keep you on the line for a long time.

 

Not surprisingly, moral was not great amongst the employees, so the office management team was constantly challenged to come up with incentive activities. One such activity went like this. Each employee had four calls randomly selected each week to be evaluated by the management team. If you hit all the criteria that were laid out, you got the chance to kick a soccer ball into a net from a set distance. If you got the ball in the net (keeping in mind that everyone is in business attire), you got your name put in a box for a monthly draw to get a day off work. One day, John got all the criteria right, on all four calls and his manager proudly walked over to his desk, with the soccer ball under his arm. With great ceremony, he offered the ball to John.

 

“No thanks,” John replied, “I just want to answer my phone, and go home at the end of the day.” The manager was dismayed.  “You earned this”, he said.  “I don’t want it”, John replied.  “You are not being a team player”, the manager replied.  “I really don’t want to do this”, John came back.  “I will write you up in your permanent file if you don’t kick the ball”, the manager pressed. So John stood up and took the ball and removed his suit jacket. He carefully placed the ball on the floor. He took two steps back. And he HOOFED the ball into the goal. And his shoe….flew up and lodged in a ceiling tile.

 

Two days later a VP of the company came and toured the department and for some unknown reason, the soccer game disappeared forever. I have always thought that the shoe in the ceiling tile is a wonderful example of some of the things we ask our dogs to do, for rewards they don’t want and the problems that ensue when the trainer and the trainee are not on the same page.

 

So what can dog trainers learn from this anecdote? Let’s start with reward programs. As humans we are inundated with ineffective reward programs. What was wrong with this part reflects the poor understanding that almost everyone has about rewards and how they affect behaviour. The fact is, from a behaviour analysis perspective, rewards don’t change behaviour, because they are not necessarily linked to the behaviour. In order to for a behaviour to increase, it must be reinforced, which is the outcome of an effective reward. We may USE rewards to reinforce behaviour, but we can also use rewards at difference times than the behaviour. A reward in short is something we want, but not necessarily something that will reinforce a behaviour. This subtle difference becomes important when you look at how people use rewards. You can think of rewards as the tool that CAN or MIGHT use to reinforce behaviour, but you may also misuse the tool and inadvertently reinforce behaviours you are not interested in having.

 

The reward that was being offered was a day off. The behavioural criteria were the number of times that the rep said the client’s name, checking for updated information, that the phone was answered in a timely manner and saying the company name when thanking the client for calling. The reward would be delivered at a MUCH later date than the behaviour, and in fact, behaviour needs to be reinforced at the time it occurs in order to assure that it will increase. Not only that, but the reward was not actually contingent on the behavioural criteria; the reward was contingent on your name being pulled from a hat, and your name getting into the hat was contingent on your soccer ball getting into the goal, and the soccer ball getting into the goal was contingent on your ability to kick accurately over a given distance as well having carried out all four of the behavioural criteria four times in a random sample of your work. Getting a day off would be a relief, but not a reinforcement!

 

I had a client at one time who decided that her dog would only get the exercise he needed if he was well behaved until four pm that day. Any transgression would result in a lack of a walk. Lack of exercise made her dog quite unsettled and uncomfortable; he was a border collie who was bred to be very active. The frequency of this dog’s walks decreased bit by bit until he was spending most of his day being destructive in the client’s home. When the reward comes much later than the behaviour, or when the contingencies are unclear to the learner, as in the situation John found himself within, or that the border collie experienced, you will never make progress with teaching the behaviours you want.

 

Let’s consider too that kicking a soccer ball in a suit and tie was uncomfortable for John. The reinforcement would need to be pretty immediate and very valuable to get him to do the task reliably. John in a suit and tie is a sight to see and dignity is something that he demonstrated when he wore his dress clothes. Kicking a soccer ball in the office just isn’t dignified. How often do we ask our dogs to do things that they might feel is undignified? Treat on the nose trick? Some dogs like it, but more do not. The reinforcer may be immediate and valuable, but an awful lot of dogs just don’t like doing it and demonstrate their dislike in a manner not unlike what John tried to do; they avoid the situation if they can. In John’s case, the act of kicking a soccer ball in the office was probably the opposite of reinforcing; it was embarrassing and upsetting and likely decreased the likelihood of his doing what his manager wanted in the first place. If using the client’s name less frequently would avoid soccer ball kicking, John and many other employees probably would intentionally stop using the client’s name. When we ask the dogs to do things they don’t want to do, no matter how pleasant the outcome, many dogs just won’t do it.

 

I know that the promise of behaviourism is that we can get dogs to do anything they are physically capable of doing through manipulation of reinforcers. This is a case of just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Really. We don’t need to train everything we are able to teach a dog. Dogs have preferences and trainers should learn about those preferences and train within them. I am not saying that dogs should not have to learn to do behaviours that keep them safe, like not pulling on leash, but honestly, we don’t need to train our dogs to do things they don’t enjoy just to amuse ourselves. What does this mean to you and your dog? This means knowing what your dog likes and doesn’t like, what he is physically and mentally comfortable doing. Ask yourself if the behaviour is both necessary and kind. If you have a dog who hates water, there is little point in training him as a hunting retriever; that is un necessary and unkind. If that same dog lives on an island and has to take a boat to and from the mainland, teaching him HOW to swim and keeping up with that skill is necessary to keep him safe in the event of a mishap, even though it may be uncomfortable and to a certain extent, unkind.

 

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This little guy doesn’t look thrilled about getting into the water; asking him to retrieve ducks would be completely un necessary and unkind, not to mention unrealistic.  Image credit: cynoclub / 123RF Stock Photo

 

The next thing to consider is the meaningfulness of the reward, the tool you use to increase the likelihood of the behaviour you want. In John’s case, the ultimate reward was a day off, something he wanted very much. The problem was that the reward was deeply buried in a complex and convoluted reward cycle that included an element of chance. Everything that happens between the time that you mark or identify the correct iteration of the target behaviour and the end reward is part of the reinforcement cycle. If you click and then walk your dog towards a treat station, both the walking and the treat station, as well as the treat itself are part of the reinforcement cycle. When the reinforcement cycles get too long, then the behaviour that you targeted gets lost in the process. If the ultimate reinforcer is something that the dog wants but the rest of the reinforcement cycle is onerous, then there are a good many learners who had the same reaction that John did; “thanks, no, I don’t need that badly enough.” Making John kick the soccer ball was like offering D’fer the chance to sleep in his crate overnight so that he can have a special breakfast in the morning; the reward is too far away, and the behaviour of sleeping in his crate is something that he doesn’t want to do in order to get it.

 

Finally let’s look at the target criteria. I have intentionally placed them out of sequence, because that is something that trainers often do. When you want your dog to come in straight on the recall and sit in front of you and wait till you tell him what to do next, and then you decide that sitting must be straight you cannot just tack that criterion onto the list willy nilly. When we are training, we have to suss out a single criterion, train that, and then suss out a second criterion and train that, and then put those two together. To make more complex behaviours we train each criterion individually, and then when we have achieved fluency we can put those behaviours together. If we get halfway through our process and then add something in the middle as an afterthought, the learner just gets frustrated. In John’s case they wanted the rep to say the client’s name four times, check for updated information, and say the company name when thanking the client for calling, and somewhere along the line someone added in the need to answer the phone within a specific number of rings. Instead of training each criterion as an individual behaviour, the managers tried to lump everything together and without actually reinforcing successful iterations of the target behaviour, they worked on all the behaviours at once. I see this problem so often in training classes that it is often amazing to me that the dogs get trained at all.

One of the most common places I see this is in teaching the recall. If pressed, the handler will state his target behaviour as the dog coming when called even if distracted. This is a really vague criteria, and it gets worse when the handler asks the dog to stay and then walks across a room with nothing between them and then calls the dog out of his stay, but only rewards the dog if he also sits when he arrives. I break coming when called into several discrete behaviours. I want the dog accept handling when he comes, so I teach a collar grab as a first step. Grab, feed and release; lather, rinse and repeat. When the dog is happy about being grabbed, we do a restrained recall where the dog is held back and the handler runs away and then stops and calls the dog. When the dog is good at that we put the two behaviours together; the collar grab AND the restrained recall. Then we do this with toys in between the handler and the person restraining the dog. Then we add people and dogs between the dog and the handler. Then we play a game where the dog is free and we call him and click and place a treat between our feet and move away while the dog is eating. Then we play a game where we click when the dog comes in close and then we throw the treat away to get the dog to move away from us. THEN we start calling the dog out of play. There really isn’t a link between coming when called in a distraction free environment and coming when called out of play. By working on each of the component elements of the come when called out of distractions and rewarding for the smallest successes, we reinforce the behaviour we want.

 

When you examine training programs it is tempting to use results as your only measure. From the perspective of the young managers who were trying to get better customer service, they thought they had a solid plan. They didn’t understand the difference between a reward (the tool) and a reinforcer (the effect), and they didn’t understand anything about the reinforcement cycle. They didn’t understand criteria, and the process of taking behaviours and deconstructing them into their component elements. In short, they didn’t really understand what they were doing. This is why we need to have instructors who really understand the process of training; so we can help our students to avoid the pitfalls of the shoe in the ceiling.

THE SHOE IN THE CEILING

I DON’T NEED TO SEE MISBEHAVIOUR

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.

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The coach probably won’t play this player until he is off crutches and completely healed. The same is true of a dog with a behaviour problem; we don’t want to re-injure your dog by triggering the problem over and over again. Copyright: ljupco / 123RF Stock Photo

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!

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If your dog bites me during a consult, I cannot help him. I am not wearing a bite suit to protect myself and if he bites me, I might hurt him protecting myself. It can be dangerous for me to see the problem behaviour. Copyright: mosheruzh / 123RF Stock Photo

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.

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2309147_s This dog is showing us all his teeth and his tongue is retracted deep into his mouth. I know what this looks like! I even know what is most likely motivating him; he is guarding his stick. I don’t need to see your dog do the same thing in order to understand what resource guarding looks like or to help you help your dog! Copyright: cynoclub / 123RF Stock Photo

Some situations are more complex though. I have worked with dogs who are afraid of a myriad of things in their environments and the first step we have to take is to teach the dog that he is safe within his own environment. Once I have done that, we can start to expand his success puddle from within the house and yard to the street, the neighbourhood and then beyond. Sometimes the motivator behind the behaviour is medical; then I need to work with my client’s veterinarian to resolve the motivation. Sometimes it is hard to tell what the motivation is, and then I get to work like a detective solving a mystery to figure out how to help.

The final step in the work I do is to help you to teach your dogs the skills they need to succeed in their new reality. When we aren’t triggering the dog over and over again, and when we change what motivates the undesired behaviour, the next step is to examine what skills the dog needs to successfully navigate the situations that used to be a problem. Sometimes when I work with aggressive dogs the aggression is triggered by a specific triggers (such as men in hats) and it is motivated by fear (perhaps a man in a hat startled the dog when he was a puppy) and when we overcome those two components, we need to teach the dog what he should do instead of being aggressive.

By now you may be thinking “gee, your work sounds pretty straightforward” and to be completely honest you are not wrong, but I still hold the card of experience. I know how to evaluate the situation and what questions I need to ask to find out what the problem might be. I can recognize when the motivation that is driving the problem might be medical instead of behavioural. I know where to start when we attack the problem you have come to see me about. And I know what skills to teach your dog to give him tools to use in his tool box.   I also know that although it might be flashy, your dog’s life is not a TV show, so I don’t need to see him exhibit the undesired behaviour!

I DON’T NEED TO SEE MISBEHAVIOUR