Quick Fix Not Long-Term

Cocker Spaniel gets very excited and reactive to dogs on walksCocker Spaniel Henry is a gentle and friendly dog, well-trained and not overly demanding nor too excitable……..at home.

Outside he’s on a mission. A joint mission of sniffing and looking out for other dogs.

If he picks up the trail of dogs that have recently passed his way, particularly dogs he doesn’t like (and he has a very good memory), he will hop, jump and lunge all over the place, very fired up. He barks on the way to the car and he barks when he gets out.

There are dogs that he likes and dogs that he doesn’t like, particularly when he’s on lead.

I watched the lady leave the house with him. Well trained, he sat nicely at the door. Then, as soon as the door opened the dog launched himself out, towing the lady behind him. He dragged her to the nearest bit of grass.

It’s strange how his indoor persona is so different to how he is outside. This must be because at home he feels safe.

The lady enriches his life in many ways, with plenty of scenting and hunting games both before she goes to work and when she gets home. She dedicates time each day to his training and play.

However, she can do nothing about his noisy reactivity to other dogs when they are out apart from resorting to an aversive gadget to shut him down.

Henry does have plenty of doggy friends, but he also has his enemies. Historically not all his interactions with other dogs have been good ones.

He was taken to training classes for a while. In my mind and, from personal experience before I knew better, ‘traditional’ puppy classes can be where many dogs are introduced to the notion that not all other dogs are friendly. These classes can be noisy with too many dogs in an enclosed place.  If a dog barks or ‘misbehaves’, always due to stress, he may be sprayed with water or intimidated in some other way.

One of the worst exercises is, dog on lead, to weave in and out of other owners and dogs and each time two dogs so much as look at each other or touch noses, both owners shout LEAVE IT.  What sort of negative associations does that give to the dogs? In modern dog training the dogs would be praised and rewarded when near another dog.

It’s not a big leap from this to using ‘quick fix’ devices like a citronella anti-bark collar (a smell dogs hate) to stop a dog barking at other dogs.

The big attraction of this is that, in the moment, it works. The dog stops barking.

However, the fear or frustration that will be causing the dog to bark at other dogs isn’t addressed at all. The very opposite in fact. The emotion will be getting worse every time the dog associates the other dog with an extremely unpleasant aversive.

Because Henry is fine with certain dogs, the lady will need to vary her own responses according to Henry’s own reactions.  If he shows little reactivity she need do nothing apart from calmly feeding him to reinforce him feeling good near a dog.

If he looks like reacting, then she needs to put more distance between them – quickly.  Eventually, Henry should see another dog and look immediately at the lady, thinking ‘A Dog? Good. Food!’. To get Henry to this stage will take a long time and hundreds of ‘safe’ encounters backed up with positive reinforcement, and the previous damage needs to be undone.  At the end of the day Henry will have positive emotions around other dogs. He won’t feel the need to react.  This, unlike suppression, is a real result.

Henry is very much worse on lead, so a longer loose lead on a comfortable harness is essential so he has more of a feeling of freedom.

The people who do best with their dog-reactive dogs are those who take things slowly and over time teach their dogs to associate other dogs with good stuff.  Allowing uncontrolled encounters meanwhile will merely set things back.

Four weeks later: ‘Thank you so much for your help and support. I really feel that we are making some headway now in this short time and I’m more confident. Henry’s dog walker has seen an improvement too, so that is also encouraging!’

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Henry, which is why I don’t share all the exact details of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. 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).

Gun Dog Training or Force-Free?

Whilst harsh training methods may well Rufuswork in the moment, there is usually future fallout of some sort.

I may well get some people’s backs up, but here goes!

Dogs that are specifically trained and used as gun dogs are to my mind, a commodity. These dogs are trained specifically to do a job, they are often kept alone out in kennels and some have never seen the inside of a house. Usually they are very ‘obedient’ – possibly they dare not be otherwise.

(Please note that there are becoming more and more exceptions to this sweeping statement as gradually some gun dog breeders and schools are beginning to catch up with modern training methods).

There is no argument that many working dogs are a lot more fulfilled than those family pets who may be either left alone all day or over-spoilt. Many working dogs are trained positively and are treated as valued members of a family or at least have a close relationship with their handler. Assistance dogs and sniffer dogs come to mind in particular.

I have a gun dog breeding and training business near to me with probably around twenty dogs and in fact I got my cocker spaniel from there (that’s another story).  I saw first hand the dogs’ environment. Most of the dogs seemed submissive in general and a bit fearful of me when I stood by their caged areas. There were no bouncy, friendly welcomes that one might have expected from Labradors and Spaniels.

I was given a demo of the skills of three 4-6 month old dogs and they were certainly very obedient and were 100% focussed on the man even at that age. To be fair, they seemed to enjoy what they were doing but I guess their life didn’t hold a lot else by way of interaction with humans.

In saying their dogs are used as a commodity, I absolutely don’t include people who have family dogs that happen to take them to gun dog training classes because of their breed, like the owners of Rufus and of Bramble who I went to a few months ago. These conscientious dog owners do so because they believe it is the best for their dog on account of what he’s bred for.

A couple of years ago at Crufts there was a gun dog display of dogs trained to do gun dog things using positive reinforcement and it was a joy to watch these enthusiastic dogs – dogs that weren’t afraid of making mistakes. It proved it’s possible.

Rufus began with normal puppy classes. He met lots of people and lots of dogs – and became a happy and confident adolescent.  He then went to gun dog training for a year.

I don’t believe it’s purely coincidence that now, over a year since they stopped the classes, Rufus has become an increasingly nervous dog. The family members who attended the classes with him try to maintain the ‘firm’ approach and the other person lacks the same sort consistency and discipline, resulting in confusing mixed messages for the dog.

It’s like Rufus is waiting to be told what to do – external control. He doesn’t have much self-control.

Dogs that are trained to think for themselves using clicker or other positive reinforcement methods aren’t afraid to make mistakes. They become inventive and try different ways of getting their rewards and making us happy because they know they won’t be scolded or punished if they happen to get it wrong. The key to teaching a dog is not about making them do what we want, but making them WANT to do what we want.

It’s a big step for Rufus, now nearly four years old, to start thinking for himself. With clicker a ‘formally’ trained dog can take a long time to ‘get it’ before experiencing the fun of experimenting with what will bring results and what will not. If Rufus’ family persist they will eventually get a breakthrough. Then the possiblities of what he can learn for himself are boundless.

Gone now is the punishing and uncomfortable slip lead – like a choke chain, what can possibly be the purpose of this as opposed to a normal collar and lead, or a harness, apart from causing discomfort if a dog pulls?

We took turns to walk Rufus around outside on a harness with long lead clipped to the chest and he walked beside us like a different dog, round in circles, back and forth – a dream. If he wanted to stop for a sniff, why not?

In this comfortable state of mind, he is much more likely to be chilled when encountering unknown dogs or if a moped buzzes past.

Rufus is at the dawn of a new life, and his family will now work in unison to give him back his old confidence.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Rufus, which is why I don’t go into all exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dogs (see my Get Help page).

Attacking the TV

Much of the time Westie Snoopy is an obedient, relaxed and happy little doI have been to mansions to help with dogs and I have been to tiny flats. Yesterday I went to a houseboat on a marina.  I couldn’t believe how spacious it was, like walking through a little door into another world.

I met a beautiful little Westie called Snoopy (a female Snoopy!). She is 21 months old.

The couple  have never had a dog before. They carefully researched dog ownership and have done a very good job. Sometimes circumstances can work against us. Snoopy’s start in life wasn’t ideal in that she had no socialisation until about nine weeks old, and when she eventually went to puppy classes she was so scared she disrupted the class with her yelping vocalisings that they had to give up. This was not a good first encounter with other dogs, and will have been to do with how the class was handled, too much noise, and too many dogs including some whose own behaviour will have been scary to a tiny Westie puppy.

Now Snoopy is wary and reactive to many dogs, and recently went for a dog that jumped up at her gentleman owner – she may have been protecting him. She can be a bit scared of people as well. She makes her screaming vocalisations at certain things like the sound of the venetian blinds being raised or the window opening. One of the reasons I was called was her reaction to animals on TV. She barks, lunges and snarls and is so stressed and hyped up that she may even, uncharacteristically, go for them if they take her collar to remove her. This makes peaceful evenings watching telly rather difficult! Besides, it builds up Snoopy’s stress levels and it’s a vicious circle. Stressed by barking, she is more ready to bark.

Much of the time Snoopy is an obedient, relaxed and happy little dog. She is given sensible rules and boundaries. It is only on the protection front that she seems not to quite trust her owners and thinks she needs to do the job herself, so leadership needs tightening up. She needs to be shown that it’s not her job to worry about animals on TV, nor other dogs on walks. This means the couple will need to ‘think dog’. A good leader/parent would protect the pack/family and never lead them into trouble. So, on walks, a different strategy needs to be used around other dogs. The walk itself needs to be a calmer and more comfortable affair. Pulling frantically on lead must be so uncomfortable for her little neck that she will already be in a heightened state when she meets a dog.

Her frantic TV behaviour needs a patient and consistent approach, again – ‘thinking dog’. Why is she doing this? What would a kind and wise leader do in her eyes?

In every other respect Snoopy is the perfect dog for life on a boat.

I can help you, too, with these problems or any other that you may be having with your dog.

Young Labrador ‘Won’t Listen’.

Two Golden Labradors lying togetherTwo beautiful Golden Labradors. Roxy nearly six months old and Lola is four.

As a puppy, Lola was taken to puppy classes so is the better ‘trained’ of the two, but she is nervous. Roxy is a lot more confident and is already trying to dominate Lola. She can be pushy, jump up and be generally annoying as a puppy entering adolescence can be! They may tell her to stop jumping up, to sit, to go away when they are eating, or to come back when she is off lead, but she won’t ‘listen’.

The real problems are out on walks. Both dogs pull – Roxy especially. Her recall is very unreliable as is that of many a pup and possibly they are expecting too much here. Whilst some dogs come back willingly from the word go, with many dogs recall has to be worked on for a long time before the dog can be reliably trusted to come back if there is something else she would rather be doing, like chasing cats or going after other dogs.

What is bringing matters to a head is Roxy’s behaviour when she sees other dogs.  She will run up to them barking, backed up by Lola who has begun to snap and growl at them – something she never used to do before Roxy came. It seems to be getting worse. I am wondering whether Roxy thinks she is protecting Lola, while Lola thinks she is protecting Roxy! Either way, the person with them is not relevant as decision-maker and protector.

Whilst Roxy and Lola get on very well, it seems that having Roxy hasn’t been altogether easy for Lola. Already sensitive, she now has become protective of her. For her to try to keep Roxy in check is an impossible task. I am worried that as Roxy grows older, more determined and dominant, and that if the owners don’t give stronger leadership, there could be trouble between the two dogs.

Walking needs to be brought back to basics. The dogs need to be walking calmly on loose leads without the need for checking – which often simply isn’t achieved by traditional training methods – Lola is proof of that.  When they encounter other dogs, they need to keep calm and rely on the person walking them to make the decisions.  When off lead, the owners may feel that the dogs should come back when they are called, but in these situations they simply are not sufficiently relevant. We lack relevance when we are at our dogs’ beck and call and touch them every time they come near us. If our time and attention is readily on tap and never has to be earned, it lacks value.

The humans need to earn that relevance throughout all aspects of their life with their dogs – and then the dogs, Roxy in particular, will start to ‘listen’.

I can help you, too, with these problems or any other that you may be having with your dog.

Shar Pei Friendly but then Bites

Sharp Pei Harry may bit if touched on top of his headHenry is a confused fifteen-month-old Shar Pei.

He has been loved and indulged by everyone in the family, but recently has become increasingly snappy and unpredictable. The problem seems to have come to a head when his family moved house a short while ago, grandad moved in and older daughters moved out. His new house gives him a lot more uncontrolled outside space and freedom.

Always a vocal dog, it is hard to tell the difference between his natural snoring type noises due to his physique and growling. I think he has been given the benefit of the doubt for too long and what has been put down as friendly vocalising is actually growling. He will go over to someone for a fuss, and after a minute’s petting, suddenly bite. He seems to indiscriminately bite family and strangers alike if a hand goes over his head.

They think there has been no warning, but with the usual doggy facial features, mouth and eyes lost in folds of skin, it’s hard to see what he’s thinking. This puts Henry at a big disadvantage. I believe he is now biting because he has learnt that warning is useless – his warnings are always ignored. Imagine how frustrating this must be for him. I’m sure to start with he will have tried facial warnings, but these won’t have been visible. Then he will have growled ‘out of the blue’ so far as his humans are concerned, and they have taken it to be friendly vocalising.  All his warnings saying ‘leave me alone’ or ‘get out of my space’  ignored, it seems reasonable from his point of view for him now to go directly to the next level with no preamble – biting. This then makes the person angry, which scares and confuses Henry – because in his mind what he did was entirely reasonable.

Another possibility is, because of his hidden eyes, he can’t see a hand approaching from above, so this intensifies a dislike of being touched on the top of his head or body.

From when he was a puppy members of his family alternated between fussing him, ‘training’ him with repeated commands, and playing the sort of games that have encouraged him to do the very things they now don’t like – growling through tug games, physical play encouraging use of mouth, teeth and growls and playing chasing feet games.

Although he has been to puppy classes and understands commands, giving a dog commands doesn’t make a leader. In fact, a dog like this will choose to ignore them much of the time unless they are repeated over and over, and then it can end in either the owner giving up and not carrying through, or in defiance and confrontation. A lead dog certainly doesn’t give verbal commands! Confrontation and punishment in response to growling or snapping will only make things escalate.

The question is, what DO you do?

How should they be reacting to growling and biting, and how will they avoid it happening altogether by winning Henry’s respect through changes in their own behaviour? This is what we are now working on. Unless in pain, a dog won’t growl or snap at someone he respects and, just as important, treats him with respect too, which means being respectful of the dog’s own comfort zone. This isn’t about love, it’s about leadership – dog ‘parenting’.

NB. Always with any sudden changes in behaviour the dog should first be checked over by a vet to make sure he’s not ill or in pain.

I can help you, too, with these problems or any other that you may be having with your dog.