Enrichment. Brain Work. Self-Control
Yesterday I met Max, a twenty-one-month-old German Shepherd who was very pleased to see me. It’s a treat for me to go to a friendly GSD that shows neither aggression nor fear.
With the family having a couple of teenage sons, he has no doubt been used to plenty of comings and goings, probably why he’s so well socialised.
Recent problems however are arising when he encounters other dogs on walks. It is variable and he has dog friends.
Another problem is that he’s now ignoring the lady when she calls him.
After greeting me very calmly and politely, Max grew excited, and jumped up on me. This is usual.
At this point the lady would normally send him to lie down, repeatedly. Possibly also people may shout at him.
I worked on helping him to self-calm. With a clicker I helped him to work out for himself what was rewarding. He can learn to go and lie down when he’s politely greeted people, a behaviour incompatible with becoming increasingly excited and jumping on them.
I picked up two things from the first fifteen minutes. One, that he doesn’t take as much notice of the lady as he could. The other, that he finds self-control challenging.
Enrichment, a positive and up-beat approach along with getting and holding Max’ attention is the key.
Reacting to dogs and not coming back when called are merely symptoms. I see the root of the problems as Max receiving the wrong kind of input from his humans.
He needs more enrichment and brain work, less excitement and being told off. It’s unfair to stir him up (something teenage boys are naturally good at!) and then to get cross when he becomes over-excited.
The family has had a very difficult year and this is bound to have affected Max. Dogs pick up on our own mood whether it’s playful, excited or anxious and stressed.
I ask the boys to be mindful of the effect their own excited play with Max and joshing with each other around him actually has on their dog.
The stress/arousal/excitement chemicals will remain in his body possibly for days and add to those already there, causing fallout later and making self-control difficult. This is ‘trigger stacking‘. For his sake they should bear this in mind.
It’s unfair to wind him up with ‘fun’ and then to shout at him.
Enrichment and self-control.
A dog who has good self-control at home is more likely to be the same when out on walks. It’s the same if he pays them attention at home.
So, home is where the work starts.
Working for his food, hunting games and letting him work out for himself what works and what doesn’t will give the clever working dog some of the enrichment he needs. Somewhere I read this:
‘Insufficient enrichment is at the bottom of many unwanted behaviours, particularly in working dogs. Appropriate stimulation helps to alleviate stress. Too much stimulation and exercise increases it’.
‘Other dogs’ are bad news.
The more reactive Max becomes, the more anxious or cross his humans become. He wears a head halter which, when he rears up barking, can only cause discomfort or pain to his face and neck as the lady drags him.
He can only associate other dogs with increased human anxiety, scolding and the discomfort from the head halter.
The opposite should happen. Associations should all be positive. Max needs comfortable equipment. A decent harness with attachment on the chest as well as the back will give just as much safe control to the walker as a head halter whilst being a lot more comfortable for the dog. The dog will also feel less trapped.
The lady will work on enrichment at home, getting and holding Max’ attention. She will work on Max’ own self-control using a clicker. She will start to prepare a whistle for recall later when out.
Meanwhile they can use a long line for country walks. No more rehearsing the unwanted behaviour. When he sees a dog he will come back to the lady. Eventually he should be able to run freely off lead again just as he used to before he began to rush and bark at random other dogs.
With a change of emphasis to ‘positive’ and more healthy enrichment in his life, I feel sure that wonderful Max will be able to reach his full potential.