Giving the Dog Choice

They will be giving Joey more choiceGiving a fearful dog choice

Joey, the four-year-old Collie Labrador mix, came over from Ireland at a year old. Isn’t he gorgeous.

Over the past three years his family has done great things with him. A lot of the general day to day stuff I usually recommend they do already. He is very well trained and regularly goes to agility which he loves.

The one downside to ‘training’ can be that the humans are making the choice for the dog by using a command to guide his actions. It’s not necessarily the answer where fear-based reactions are concerned. A command is no substitute for the dog learning how to make the right choice in response to a situation for himself. A command is unlikely to address what the dog is feeling inside – fear. The dog will only make the right choice if he’s given the ‘tools’.

Joey’s problems are quite clearly all to do with his need to feel safe.

The two times he reacted worst of all were at the vet, trapped in the room, held down by three people while he had his injection and when he was cornered in a small place by a child. In each case he was robbed of all choice. His reasonable warnings and requests had been ignored so, to him, he had no choice but to react ‘aggressively’.

(Where vet procedures are concerned, with techniques worked on over time a dog’s choices can be part of the process. See how Chirag Patel does it using clicker).

Clicker training is ‘choice training’ and is unbeatable where giving an animal freedom of choice is concerned. Joey caught on almost immediately.

 

The walk starts way before leaving the house.

Joey’s fearfulness is causing problems when they go for walks and encounter people, particularly men, and other dogs. He’s also scared of unusual things in different places.

He gets very excited before they start out, jumping about, crying and howling. They try to get him to sit at the door for his lead to go on. What happens back at home is the start of the walk and they are not even out of the door yet. Before anything happens he has a choice. It’s simple. When he’s still and quiet, they can leave. There is no rush – people can wait. Until he is calm and quiet they go nowhere. It’s his choice.

Because of his pulling he wears a head harness. This prevents pulling. He has no choice. With a front-fastening Perfect Fit harness he will soon be walking beside them through choice.

So, Instead of starting his walk in a wild state and in considerable discomfort, feeling restricted, already he should feel more calm and free – in a much better state of mind for encountering people and dogs.

When he spots a dog he should also be given choice. At a distance where he’s happy, they can pair the other dog with something Joey loves. He loves his ball. He can have a choice whether to hold, catch or chase his ball or whether to react to the dog. By keeping sufficient distance we set him up so it’s in effect Hobson’s Choice!

Which brings me to ball-throwing (again!). Constant ball chasing is not necessary when the dog has an hour in the fields to do doggy things. Why fire him up with a ball? They can give the ball much more value by no longer spending most of the walks chucking it to a ball-obsessed dog. By starving Joey of the ball they will have a potent tool for counter-conditioning.

An approaching man may make Joey uneasy. By allowing Joey to choose, they can let him decide how much space he wants to make. One way of doing this is to watch him carefully and reward him for any sign of avoiding trouble by breaking contact – looking away, looking at his human, sniffing, scratching, yawning – and to reward him for making the right choice by increasing the distance from what scares him. Thus choosing avoidance rather than barking gets the prize – more distance and safety, a game of ball perhaps or food.

If Joey knows it’s his choice how near he goes to something or somebody, it’s certain that over time he will choose to go nearer.

I am sure that when Joey knows he has a choice as to how close he goes and with scary things paired with great things – balls and special food – he will gain greatly in confidence.

 

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Joey. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good, particularly where fear or aggression is concerned, as the case needs to be assessed correctly which it’s hard for someone to do with insufficient experience and living too closely to their own situation. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page)

Excited Dog in his New Home

Excited Bodie taking a rest

Taking a rest

An excited young dog.

After the last four cases, here was a dog who was really pleased to see me!

Beautiful friendly, bouncy, happy and playful Bodie was found by the roadside in November. Since then he has been in kennels and now, for the past week, he’s been in his new home. It’s no surprise that with all the change he can be too excitable – particularly as the younger adults in the family may also be so excited to have him that in their enthusiasm they are winding him up further.

They have been told Bodie is about two years old, but he seems a lot younger to me. He is quite a mix with certainly some collie. The picture doesn’t do justice to his happy nature and athletic build.

His issues are all due to over-stimulation, sensory overload and lack of self control. It’s understandable as in effect he’s been released from prison. He jumps up relentlessly whether one is sitting or standing, he pulls on the lead as he’s bombarded with the smells and noises outside and he will bark non-stop at the sight of another animal. He barks should he even hear another dog. They reckon his time alone in kennels surrounded by other barking dogs may have something to do with this.

It’s fair to guess that Bodie is a dog that had been loved and very well-socialised with people but maybe not so much with other dogs. It’s also a good bet that he’s had a lot of freedom, unrestricted by a leash. How he came to be left by the roadside is anyone’s guess. He’s a gem.

 

Bodie’s time in kennels can be used to their advantage.

Two things are certain. During his time in the kennels he had limited exercise. During his time in kennels he was used to being shut away by himself. Both these things can actually be used to their advantage if not left too late.

When his jumping up became too much and I couldn’t both work on him and talk with them, they shut him in the conservatory for a break a couple of times. He didn’t complain and immediately lay down on the chair, accustomed to being put away.

For the next few weeks I feel they should continue to put him by himself for short periods when he gets too much so that he never develops issues with with being left alone, issues that are hard to deal with later on.

The other point is, having almost certainly been let out or given a walk for only a short time each day, Bodie doesn’t expect lots of exercise. It’s very likely from his behaviour that in his previous life he had been left to do his own thing. As he’s not used to his day revolving around walks, it means that they can teach him to walk nicely and get him desensitised to the outside world gradually with lots of very short sessions.

The gentleman had taken him for three quite long walks in one day the other day to calm him, and in fact, despite of all that exercise (or because of it), Bodie had come home more hyped up than when he left.

Sarah Reusche makes a good case for how exercise and excitement can sometimes be too much of a good thing.

As is so often the case with their new rescue dogs, people in their efforts to get things right actually do too much too soon.

So, without feeling guilty, they can work on loose lead technique around the house and garden, simply standing still outside, working on distance dogs or barking, advancing to walking around outside the neighbouring houses and so on – gradually building it up. When they have time they can pop him in the car and take him to somewhere open and let him explore on a long line.

The more short outings he has, the less excited he will be and the less overwhelming the outside world will become.

The whole family will need to do their bit to help him to become less excited. Instead of vigorous play and encouraging jumping about, they can teach him some self-control by giving him what he wants in a calm fashion when his feet are on the the floor. Understandably and like many girls, the young adult daughter wants lots of cuddles, unable to see otherwise the point of having a dog. That will come if they take it easy now.

With a clicker it was amazing just how soon Bodie got the message and stopped jumping all over me. He first worked it out that sitting worked and then he took it further by lying down as well. It was obviously the first time the clever dog had ever had a clicker used with him. He was really using his brain.

There was no telling him what to do or what not to do – he was working it out for himself.

If they all take their time now and don’t push it, they will be rewarded with a wonderful family pet.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Bodie. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly which it’s hard for someone to do with insufficient experience and living too closely to their own situation. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page)