Well, it’s late March. Tomorrow is the first day of spring and it’s sleeting out so I guess we’re all feeling a little cranky. I know I am, so why not just go with it? Perhaps there are people out there who are getting bored with their own crankiness so as a public service I’m going to share mine. Maybe it will help someone else’s mood to know that they’re not alone in their crankiness.
Today’s pet peeve is called the dog socialization imperative. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy watching dogs play together as much as the next guy. As a dog trainer however, I frequently work with dog-aggressive dogs and their owners in public. A problem can arise when a well intentioned but somewhat oblivious third person let’s their dog tow them over to the dog I’m working with while cheerily asking if it’s okay if they say “Hi.” If they asked first while still at a distance this would give me a chance to say, “NO.” Certain individuals however, have decided that asking if it’s okay to say “Hi” is just a meaningless social nicety. They just assume the answer is going to be “Of course!” In this case however, not waiting for an answer can result in a real live dog fight and injured dogs.
Truth be told, I get a little annoyed even if the client’s dog isn’t dog aggressive because such an approach often sets up the poor student dog for an unnecessary failure. You see, when using distractions, we try to be sure that the student dog has a least a fifty percent chance of success. For example, when leaving a dog on a sit stay, I try to make sure that the dog is far enough away from the distraction that he has a good chance of successfully holding it to completion. Only a very, very well trained dog can hold a sit stay while another dog is trying to engage him in the canine version of “Hi, how are you.”
Part of what bothers me about this is that people who consistently let their dogs pull them over to greet other dogs instill in those dogs the expectation that they “ought” to be allowed to do this. Consequently their dogs often become increasingly strong and willful. After awhile the owner simply cannot control the dog in certain situations. If this sounds like your dog, we can help. We can teach you to train your dog to pass another dog who’s obviously trying to concentrate on behaving himself (or even one who isn’t) without getting your arm pulled out of its socket, which should make Spring all the more enjoyable when it finally gets here.
You may be familiar with Dr. Nicholas Dodman’s book The Dog Who Loved Too Much, which is full of interesting and entertaining stories of Dr. Dodman’s work with behavior problems in dogs. The title story is about a dog whose separation anxiety is exacerbated by her owner’s over-the-top sympathy.
This post is about a similar dynamic but one that manifests itself quite differently: namely that the dog starts thinking that he rules the household. By the time I get a phone call, the situation has often deteriorated into the dog being aggressive toward a family member or someone else. A woman who called me recently had been bitten twice quite seriously by her dog. When they first rescued their dog, he was jumpy and nervous and a dog that, at age two years had never been housebroken. Given his background all this was understandable, but over the ensuing month and a half, the situation deteriorated until finally, in desperation she called me.
Two ingredients seem always be present in these cases: one, a dog that has been abused, neglected or seriously ill and two, a very caring, sensitive owner— usually a woman. As rescuing dogs has become more popular, this problem has become more prevalent. What generally happens is that the owner is so sympathetic with the dog’s plight, that she becomes extremely solicitous of the dog. This then manifests itself in catering to the dog’s every whim and holding the dog responsible for practically nothing. As time goes by, the dog begins to think that he must be king because the people around him treat him as if they were his subjects. The dog will often bark excessively, pee and poop wherever he wants, and menace anyone who displeases him for any reason. I remember once kidding another client that her dog had started using his door bells as a general signal to call for room service, which was pretty much the case.
So what’s the remedy? We set down some basic rules of behavior, teach the dog that aggression will not be tolerated, and do the obedience training to a high standard of reliability. The woman with the bites called soon after our first meeting, elated by the change in her dog in just one day. I wish it were always that dramatic but it does make the point. Wanting to care for and feeling affection for our dogs are, after all, the reasons we have them in our lives. But it’s important that these feelings manifest themselves in a healthy way for the good of everyone involved, especially the dog.
I often tell clients and prospective clients, half kiddingly, that dogs are born knowing how to train people. What I mean is that dogs seem to have a built-in assumption that the things we do affect them and vice-versa: the basic cause/effect relationship. People often marvel that their dogs seem to know when they’re getting ready to go on vacation or even just for a ride in the car. The fact is that dogs can be uncannily good at reading us. If we become tense, tighten our grip on the leash, or even if our breathing changes, a dog will often pick up on our anxiety. Dogs sometimes even read us better than we read ourselves, which is why there are service dogs that can sense when their epileptic owners are about to have a seizure.
In fact, so prevalent is this characteristic of dogs—the innate expectation of a cause-and-effect relationship— that it is a basic assumption behind dog training. But what if that characteristic weren’t there? What if a dog had no expectation of any cogent, predictable relationship with her owner? What then?
About ten years ago I met Martha, who had adopted a three-year-old beagle with a very unusual past. The first years of Tess’s life had been spent as a brood bitch for a company that sells animals to research labs. Her minimal interaction with human beings had to do with her role as a producer of puppies. Her physical needs were attended to but most of her life was lived in a dog crate stacked against a wall with other dog crates and nothing more than a peephole from which to observe the world outside. Twice a week she was put into a somewhat larger area for ten minutes of “exercise.”
When Martha called, neither of us really knew what to do with this trembling canine, but it seemed logical to me that the first thing we needed was to establish (or reestablish) the dormant expectation in Tess that the things we did had a predictable and meaningful effect on her. We started the way I usually do, on a fifteen foot leash walking in a square and stopping briefly at each corner. Of course, every phase of the training took much more time than usual, but little by little Tess began to see that it mattered. As a result of her owner’s faith, patience, and persistence, Tess (now thirteen years old) as Martha says, “Almost passes for normal.” Thank God for the Marthas of this world and that I have had the blessing of working with so many of them.
I’d guess that most every dog owner asks himself or herself that question at some point. The answer depends primarily on your own temperament and on your dog’s temperament. Some people just know they’re going to need help from the start and others do pretty well on their own, unless they have a particularly challenging pet. I quite often get calls from rather frustrated sounding people saying something like, “I’ve had dogs all my life and never had a problem… until now.” I understand. I wasn’t born knowing how to train dogs either and I’m really grateful to Vicki Hearne for teaching me so much of what I know.
There is so much information available on the internet that you’d think you might be able to learn enough to do it yourself, and you might. The problem is, with so much information out there, some of it good and some not, how do you know whose advice to trust? How do you even know what’s possible? This is of key importance because if you’re not confident in what you are doing, you’ll probably be tentative in how you apply it. In turn, your dog will respond with skepticism, which will only make you more tentative. One of the advantages of using a trainer is that you can ask questions and discuss particular problems: problems that can sometimes be fairly unusual. This is something you can’t do with a book or a video. I begin every initial session with a new client by filling out my Information Form much like a doctor would (except of course, my form is way more interesting). By doing this, I get a clear picture of what’s going on with you and your dog, and you get to ask me whatever you want.
Some people (especially guys) feel like they ought to know how to train a dog and are a little sheepish about having to hire a pro but hey, even professional athletes have trainers and for a very good reason; it can be difficult to know when you’re doing something well or not. It’s much easier for someone who’s seen thousands of dogs and handlers and knows what to look for, what’s likely to work, and what isn’t.
Still not sure which way to go? Give me a call at (860) 673-4818 or contact me through this website and let’s talk.
In recent posts, I’ve written about four important tools in the dog trainer’s tool belt. They are: the dog’s ability to reason, association, repetition, and accuracy. Here are four more: consistency, coherence, timing, and incrementalism.
Consistency is often mentioned as an important element in child rearing and it is no less crucial in dog training. Consistency is the means by which dogs see patterns develop in our responses to them, and it is by these patterns that they come to understand what we are trying to communicate. Dogs learn by experience. If that experience is random, the result is a failure to learn. Being consistent can be difficult because it requires us to be disciplined— that is to be always aware that the way we interact with our dogs carries meaning for them whether we intend it or not.
Coherence and timing are closely related so let’s look at them together. Coherence simply means that our responses to our dogs need to be appropriate to what we are intending to teach them. Calling your dog to you and then punishing him for being slow about it is incoherent (and cruel) because it cannot produce the desired result. Timing is an important component of coherence because dogs live so much in the moment. When a dog is first learning to heel, he may only be in good heel position momentarily as he prances past you. If you’re a second and a half late with your praise you will be praising your dog for being out of position, thus making it harder for him to understand.
Last but not least is incrementalism. It can be a life saver with difficult or not so smart dogs because almost any exercise can be learned if broken into smaller bites (pun intended). Recently I had two different dogs that gave their owners some difficulty on the down exercise. They allowed themselves to be placed, but when we tried to get them to go down with just collar pressure, they stiffened their front legs and refused. Using incrementalism, both dogs learned to lie down reliably on command.
In my next post we will explore where our authority comes from. Bye ‘til then.