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Help! My dog barks at everything!

In my last post, “My dog is driving me crazy!” I talked a little about barking, what might cause dogs to bark, and things you could do to stop them. In this post, I’m going to focus on dogs who bark inside the house.

Ceddie barks to encourage play in the house. Courtesy of Motoko Lewis

Turid Rugaas lists six different types of bark that are recognized, in her book “Barking, the Sound of a Language“: excitement, warning, fear, guarding, frustration, and learned, also known as demand barking. I would like to add that dogs and their people can share a very quiet personalized communication system of polite barking or soft “woofs” if you take the time to listen and respond to your dog’s polite requests.  If these requests are ignored, frustration may escalate into a full-blown barking frenzy. For instance, Annie will “woof” if she needs help finishing her kong, getting a cookie out from under the fridge, or needs one of us to let her inside from the deck or to take her outside to do her business.  Her “woof” always means something specific and important, so we pay attention and it has never escalated into a full-fledged bark.

Remember, first of all, that dogs communicate through body language AND barking. Therefore, if our dog is barking, we need to take the time to figure out why they are barking and what they are trying to communicate.  As with humans, dogs can get frustrated when we don’t respond, and bark louder. Gadgets such as the citronella bark collar (according to studies cited by John Bradshaw in “Dog Sense”), only work for a period of about a week.  Dogs quickly become habituated to the odor, and revert back to their old barking pattern if nothing else changes. They may also become habituated to shock bark collars and endure a higher and higher level of harmful shocks as their owners desperately try to quiet them.

Examples and training tips of how to handle routine barking inside the house:

  •  If your dog hears a dog barking down the road and responds in kind, you can acknowledge his barking with a “thank you!” (for alerting you) and “done” (for “you’re finished now”). 
  •  Distract him from the sound with a toy or a treat, but have him do a trick or two before you give it to him, otherwise he may think you are rewarding his barking.
  •  If he listens to the sound quietly, however, reward him with several treats one at a time while he listens, praising him for being quiet.  If he goes right back to barking, calmly put him in his crate, close the windows, turn on music, or move him to a different room where the sound is softer for ten minutes maximum to help him to calm down and allow his adrenalin levels to return to normal.   This is not a punishment.
  •  If your dog sees a deer, cat, dog or human through the window and barks:
  •  You could look at the individual with him, thank him for telling you about it, then lead him away with a treat placed in front of his nose.
  •  Ask him for a sit, down, or trick then reward him. If he wants to watch the individual, try to catch him BEFORE he barks, and treat him again and again while he is QUIET.
  •  Keep the blinds closed unless you are working with him.
  •  Shouting at our dogs to be quiet only adds fuel to their frenzy and proves to them that there is something worth barking at, since their person is joining in too.
  •  Ignoring them for doing their job of alerting us to a potential threat is disrespectful.
  •  Remain calm, firm, and unfrazzled.
Annie watches a deer with interest after Don reinforces her with several treats and praises her for being quiet.

Fear barking

There are also dogs who bark at sounds because they are afraid. Dogs’ ears are remarkably sensitive, and they can hear high frequencies that even those of us with the most acute hearing aren’t aware of. For an anxious dog, the world of technology inside the house and the ambient sound of traffic, construction, air traffic etc. from outside can be overwhelming. The more your dog is triggered by these noises, the more likely he’ll be to bark at things that scare him. Dogs who alert fearfully to all these sounds can drive us to distraction.

Training Tips for fear barking

Ceddie and Motoko work on their dance routine. This gives Ceddie mental stimulation, exercise, increases strength, balance, and coordination and increases his bond with Motoko. Photo courtesy of Eric Lewis.
  • Be sure your dog gets plenty of exercise and mental stimulation.
  • Analyze your environment for sounds that may bother him: the sound of the radio or television, the alert sounds of your smart phone, the beeps or noise of the dishwasher, dryer, or washing machine. Think about your heat pump and furnace fan, your computers, your iPad etc.  Think about how you can modify these sounds for him.
  • Have a safe place for him to retreat to–a cozy crate or quiet room where he can feel safe.
  • Monitor the sound of human voices in your home.  Keep children quiet while inside, and watch how your dog responds when you get into animated conversations with your partner. You may have to moderate your tone of voice while your dog builds confidence.
  • Play calming, classical music, or “Through a Dog’s Ear” to help to mask upsetting sounds and relax your dog.
  • Consider use of a ThunderShirt. Studies and surveys have shown it to be effective in decreasing anxiety in dogs when applied correctly.
  • Find a trainer who can help you to work with your dog, and to identify the triggers. A trainer can help to formulate a plan to desensitize him to the things that scare him.
  • Visit a veterinarian or holistic vet who can evaluate your dog for medication, or point you in the direction of calming supplements. Vera, our reactive German shepherd, was scared to death of garbage trucks on Friday mornings, and when her fear generalized to every morning of the week, only a combination of Prozac and Adaptil (a pheromone collar) helped to relieve her anxiety. 
  • If your dog is afraid of fireworks check out Victoria Stilwell’s post on fireworks.

Special thanks to Ceddie, Annie, Motoko and Don for being such wonderful models.  Ceddie is a true clown and actor. I considered him “almost unadoptable” as “Banjo” when working with him at WHS, but my friends, Motoko and Eric, have turned him into a delightful, clever, happy, dapper almost-gentleman.

“My dog is driving me crazy!”

I have certainly had this thought more than once, be it based on our well-trained, well-socialized golden retrievers or collies, or our wild-child German shepherd rescue, Vera.  The thing is, dogs are a different species from us. They perceive the world based on senses far more acute than ours, and respond to genetic impulses that are ingrained in their DNA and their beings–to chase, to sniff, to guard, to herd are a few we are all familiar with. They have different ways of coping with the stressors of daily life–loneliness, boredom, overstimulation, fear, frustration. They find pleasure in behaviors we label destructive. When we  are unhappy or stressed, we might chew our fingernails or call a friend to vent. Our dogs, however, may lick  their wrists until they bleed, relieve themselves on the living-room carpet, jump on us and tear our clothes with their teeth or claws in desperation–or execute any one of a multitude of other behaviors we don’t understand.  Dogs can also garner great satisfaction from barking, digging, dissecting toys and beds, jumping up to greet us, scratching holes in the carpet, playing “keep away” with our favorite shoes, or eating excrement–things that make us tear out our hair.
Ceddie with slipper
My godson, Ceddie, plays keep-away with slipper. Photo by Motoko Lewis
When we make the commitment to live with a dog, we need to understand on a very deep level that dogs are not TRYING to drive us crazy.  They don’t scheme to make us angry.  There is always a reason that they act the way they do. Dogs are much more than furry balls of behavior. They are thoughtful, aware, emotional beings who go through life trying to cope in the best way possible with a very complex environment. And they are dependent on humans,  a species far different from themselves–a species that might stare at them, reach out to them, scream or shout, or approach them directly–all things that are simple human behaviors but at odds with polite canine social interaction. It can sometimes get to be a bit much for even the best of dogs! That said, even though I understand all this, even though I’m quite fluent in canine body language and have a good grasp on canine behavior, my dogs can still, at times, drive me crazy! They may be acting out just because it feels good and is therefore self-rewarding. Or they may want to play with me as I’ve ignored them for the past hour or have been gone all day–and still don’t want to interact with them, not just yet. They may be frustrated, or need to go out. They may be responding to the dog barking down the street or the chronic, irritating, or scary sounds of construction next door. Or they may just be anxious because my behavior is unusual as I pack to go on a trip. They are always trying, just as we are, to get the things they need and want, to understand and have some control in their environment, and to communicate with us in the best way possible. It is up to us as their closest companions to figure out what is going on.

How do I make him stop?

The premise that drives all the behavior training I do is this: I analyze the situation carefully to figure out what is causing the dog to behave the way he does, and then manipulate the environment or change the dog’s focus or position in a way that will make the behavior, even the earliest evidence of the behavior, stop–before it happens. This can take a lot of mental energy and creativity on the part of the trainer, but if a plan is well thought out and applied consistently, this will solve, or at least significantly improve the problem. The complexity and effectiveness of the plan and the time it takes to actually change the behavior depends on the behavior in question, the genetics and background of the dog, and the consistency of training. This is where hiring a talented, skilled, experienced trainer comes in–someone who can help you to figure out what is causing the problem and work out effective steps to modify it.
Ceddie pulls Dob-dob's tail
Ceddie harasses his older sister, Dob-dob. Photo by Eric Lewis. Rarely, it will be a quick fix as it was with Annie tearing up her sister’s bed (see below), but it may take months or longer to change as with reactivity. In all cases, though, it is a compromise between the dog and the human, paying close attention to the needs and limitations of what’s fair to the dog and acceptable to the human. Remember, the dog is an individual too, and he comes with some very strong, hard-wired instincts.

Training Tips and examples of how to apply this concept:

Annie looking down meadow
We chose to buy a cover for our new couch for Annie after Vera died. She is much easier on the furniture.
Example: getting on the couch: Vera, our German shepherd, loved to jump on the couch to look out at the meadow behind our house. She eventually shredded the back of the couch with her long nails, and we replaced it with a new, more expensive couch. But how could we change this highly rewarding behavior and keep her off it? Although it was emotionally hard to to deprive her of her beloved perch, we blocked her access to it with ex-pens and baby gates for six months so that she NEVER had the opportunity to jump up. When the six months were up, we removed the barriers, only when we were there to watch her. She  tried to get up on the couch once the first day. We firmly ordered her to stop just as she approached it, then enthusiastically rewarded her with treats and praise when she backed off. After that she never tried it again, even when there were deer in the meadow. Training Tip: Behaviors that are intermittently reinforced will be much harder to break than those that are consistently reinforced. So by ALWAYS allowing Vera up on the couch for the first few years we had her, then NEVER letting her up on the new couch, the outcome was much more successful than if we had let her up on the couch sometimes and not at other times throughout the process–both before and after we made the change.
Example of a more complicated problem–dog barking non-stop in car:  The barking started the moment one of my clients picked up the car keys, and it continued until they arrived at their destination, sometimes hours later. I had the
dog car rabies
Dog unhappy about being in car.
couple start by randomly picking up the car keys.  As soon as the man touched the keys, his wife would feed the dog a number of high-value treats and vice versa until the dog relaxed and looked at his person with expectation when the keys were touched, then picked up, then held.  I had them continue this desensitization procedure, step-by-step, until the dog could jump quietly into the car for a few seconds, eat one treat after another, and then jump out again without uttering a sound.Next, I had them sit in the car with him, and feed and stroke and praise him. When he was relaxed with that, I had them drive the length of the driveway and back. Eventually, they were able to drive with a quiet, happy dog.  Done slowly and correctly, the dog never barks throughout this type of training.  It took about eight weeks for this particular dog to become comfortable with short car rides. The dog could not go out in the car (unless he was being trained) for the entire program of desensitization, or the process would not have worked. You would not want to compromise your hard work by taking your dog to a distasteful destination such as the vet or groomers until he felt rock-solid in the car and had had many, many positive experiences. As you can see, the process was complicated and had many steps.  This is where the support and expertise of a good trainer can help tremendously.
  • Training Tip: When desensitizing a dog to something they find scary, they must not be exposed to the trigger without careful planning, or their progress will be set back. This can take a lot of mental effort on the trainer’s part.  It takes a long time to change a dog’s emotional response to things that scare him. Obedience training can help to give him skills that can be used during desensitization, but they don’t work on the dog’s emotional response to the things that scare him. If you have a reactive dog, hire a trainer to help you.Annie in V's crate
  • Example–destroying a dog bed: When Annie went into her sister’s crate and tore up Vera’s foam bed, we decided to close the crate door and prevent Annie from accessing the bed–except that then Vera didn’t have access to her sacred space. We also kept leaving the kennel door open accidentally, thereby intermittently reinforcing Annie by sometimes allowing her to tear up the foam, and sometimes not. It was an easy fix in the end. By wrapping the foam in a sheet, the texture of the bed was changed enough that Annie left it alone and lost interest in V’s crate. It would not have been this easy for all puppies. We never gave Annie this type of bed. Vera was very particular in what beds she’d accept, and foam with a mat on top was what she wanted. Period.
  • Training tip: Dogs barking outside: Dogs can bark outside in response to many things.  Read Turid Ruggas’s book “Barking, the Sound of a Language” to help you decide the type of bark your dog is using.
    • Your dog might want to come inside.  Honor this request.  If you’d rather he didn’t bark to ask to come in, teach him to sit (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hH4NcodzEAo), and reward him by opening the door for him. If you choose to have him sit, you need to understand that unless there’s a window in the door and you’re actually in the room, you won’t know when he’s asking to come in unless he makes a noise. Be fair.  It’s all about communication.
    • He may be bored. Ask yourself if he’s been exercised that day–and how much. Has he had any quality time with you? Is there anything for him to do out there by himself.
      animal dog pet dangerous
      Over aroused dog, barking.
    • Dogs shouldn’t be left outside unattended any time–especially while you’re at work. They can feel vulnerable, exposed, over-stimulated by traffic, pedestrians, or dogs in the neighborhood, or bored. They may find it hard to relax and sleep. Being inside in a safe place with lots of chew toys to enjoy after a good morning walk will help them to have a quiet day.
    • Are his physical needs being met? He may need water or shade or he may be cold. Listen to what he’s telling you.
    • He may be talking to the other dogs in the neighborhood. If you want him to stop barking, bring him inside.
    • Remember, barking dogs are hard on the neighbors, especially at night and can cause major conflicts.  Barking for prolonged periods may be against the law in your area.
    • Bark shock collars are not a fair option for dogs. They shut down normal, healthy communication and leave your dog feeling helpless. Your dog’s barking may be replaced by a worse behavior that’s more difficult to change and more destructive than what you’re already dealing with.
  • There are hundreds of behaviors that dogs can exhibit triggered by different situations and emotions. If you have any that you’d like me to discuss, please contact me and I’ll try to address it on my blog.
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Kids and small dogs at dog parks

child and puppy wiht flowers
The ideal time to socialize a dog to children is under the age of 16 weeks. These two look happy and relaxed together.

We have a fantasy from “Lassie” and other movies that kids and dogs go together. Small kids, babies, big kids…they are all depicted as being special companions to dogs.

Kids and dogs can get along well:

  • IF the dog has been raised with kids through the first 16 weeks of life or has at least been socialized intensively with kids during that period. If not, dogs are often scared of kids, or at least wary of them. There are hundreds of “funny” or “adorable” photos and videos on the internet of kids interacting with dogs that make my stomach roil–the dog’s body language is filled with distress–the next second could erupt with a bite to the child and consequent punishment, isolation, or euthanasia for the dog. Dogs usually communicate when they are being pushed too far, but unless the parent can direct the child to respect their signals, we can predict that the dog will be forced to react physically i.e. a growl, snap, or bite.
boy and dog
The boy is having a great time, but the dog isn’t–his mouth is closed, face tense, eyes wide,  and brow furrowed.

IF the socialized dog and child are carefully monitored while together and the guardians know what stress signs to watch for in the dog. A dog that is just tolerant of children is not the same as a dog who loves children, and should not be forced to spend with them. How do you tell if your dog is happy with kids or not? Eileen Anderson has a fabulous website with excellent photos of canine body language you can view.

Children at dog parks

So, if you consider the above information, think about kids at a dog park:

  • You don’t know the dogs at the park.
  • You don’t know how much socialization they’ve had with children.
  • One dog may be anxious about the way your child runs, jumps, waves his arms, shouts, or plays with his toy.  Children’s movements are erratic and unpredictable. Kids smell different, they are small, their voices are high.
  • Another dog may be outright afraid of children and express this fear through aggression to which a child might scream and run, further terrifying the dog and triggering prey drive in other dogs.
  • Small children can get injured easily if dogs in full play bump into them.
  • If a child were to get in the middle of a squabble between dogs, he could be bitten inadvertently.

Even if your child has successfully gone to dog parks many times, it is always a big risk. Children do get bitten by dogs.

Small dogs at dog parks

Below you see two dogs–Annie~50 lbs and Lucy~25 lbs.  They have different play styles and although they are figuring things out, there are behaviors present that bear watching.

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Lucy (small dog) is pestering Annie (collie). You can see Annie licking, her mouth is closed, and in the video she turns away again and again. She isn’t happy with this style of play.
lucy annie still3
Annie wants to chase Lucy, and finally sees her chance. Lucy runs away at full speed. Annie chases with an intensity I haven’t seen with larger dogs–no bouncing, just a low, fast, charge, hackles up. Lucy is intimidated. Her tail comes down and she tries to hide, then takes off again.
lucy annie still2
Lucy wheels around and stops Annie in her tracks and control is back with Lucy. They pause, sniff the ground.
lucy annie still1
Then they play bow to each other in a shared communication of “it’s all in play”.  For part of the play, however, they were very aroused and intense. There were behaviors present I hadn’t seen with Annie when she played with larger dogs. Think about how things could evolve with dogs who didn’t know each other and where their size differential was much greater.

Small dogs love to play, just like big dogs. However, small dogs risk injury at dog parks with big dogs:

  • They can be seen as prey to the larger dog (a 25 pound differential between dogs is seen as the vague cut off point wherein a dog may view a smaller, running dog as prey).
  • Have you seen dogs playing with a stuffed toy or rope toy?  How they shake their heads and growl, toss their toy, grab it and shake, and toss again?  Our wonderful Vera LOVED to do this with toys, but when she charged and grabbed a juvenile raccoon and treated it the same way, I realized she was just practicing her prey sequence with her toys. It gave me a chill. Small dogs can be treated in the same way by larger dogs, who are not being aggressive in the general sense of the word, they are just following a survival sequence in their genetic makeup.
  • The high, anxious sounds that a small dog makes when stressed or frightened can trigger prey-drive in larger dogs which, depending on the pursuing dog, could end with the smaller dog being run over, or badly mauled.
  • The small dog could be run over, or stepped on inadvertently.

Tips

  • Leave children at home if you decide to take the risk of going to the dog park. See my blog on “Dog Parks? Why not?”
  • Learn canine body language.  It will help immensely with your understanding of your dog and how he’s feeling.
  • Find a “small dog” dog park for your little dog.  Some dog parks have fenced areas marked specifically for small dogs.
  • Find other people with small dogs who would like to play together in a safe place.  Check with your vet, pet stores, and local trainers for ways to get involved in small-dog play groups.  Talk to people on trails.  I’ve met many people on trails who were overjoyed to share contact information to get Annie together with their dogs to play.
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Dog parks vs off-leash trails

Since before we lost Vera (of Finding Vera), I have tormented myself with the safety of our “next dog”.  Annie is our “next dog”. I know too much now to be complacent and trusting of dogs, or the decisions of their people.  On the other hand, I’ve asked myself if one should limit the experience of a child or dog because of parental fears–I’m sure parents struggle with this question worldwide.

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Finally allowed to run off leash!

I’ve also asked myself how dog parks are different from off-leash trails. After all, in both situations the dogs are free to do more or less what they please.  And in both situations, dogs need to be well-socialized to be comfortable and successful.

I am cagey of dog parks for the reasons cited in my last blog, “Dog Parks? Why not?” However, for the past seven years I’ve literally itched to have a dog who could run like the wind on the expansive field of the Sudden Valley dog park, cavorting with her friends, laughing, dancing, doing all the things that dogs do. So we took Annie there– twice–and Don took videos. Annie had a blast!

Annie having the time of her life at the dog park.
Annie having the time of her life with her friends.

However, I’ve spoken to two separate neighbors whose dogs have had bad dog-park experiences within the past week. I’ve read my “Dog Parks” post over a time or two, and now I ponder the wisdom of taking Annie there again. I don’t want her to get physically hurt…or become fearful of dogs.  After our experience with Vera, that would be devastating.

Annie on trail
Annie practicing recall.

There are good and bad things about off-leash trails.  Unlike the dog park, you can’t always see who’s approaching, and there’s no guarantee that the approaching dogs will be friendly. The direct face-to-face greeting is a potential problem for dogs if the trail is narrow. However, the good thing about trails is that the dogs are not crowded together for an extensive period of time.  They can choose to interact–or not. Our goldens, Lola and Sascha, would choose to just arc around the dogs they’d approach on a trail and continue on. But even if the dogs choose to play, it is often only a group of two to three dogs playing for a very short period and they move on before they tire of the social interaction, or become physically exhausted from the intense activity of play.  Watching Annie play at the dog park, I noticed that she started to tire toward the end of the session, and began to get irritable.  This doesn’t seem to happen on trails.

So which scenario is best?

It depends on the culture of the dog park or the culture of the trail, your dog’s temperament and level of socialization, your mood that day, your dog’s mood that day, and who is at the dog park at any given moment. In other words, there is no “right” answer.

Training tips to help keep your dog safe:

  • Read “Dog Parks? Why not?”  There are several tips at the bottom of the blog on how to navigate dog parks more safely with a well-socialized dog, and there are tips throughout the article on how to tell if your dog is appropriate for the dog park–or not.
  • Learn canine body language so you can evaluate the approaching dog. Are the dogs exchanging calming signals? Are they relaxed? Are they approaching each other at an angle? Being polite? Rapid, direct approaches with direct eye contact is considered by dogs to be rude and confrontational.
  • Only walk dogs off leash on trails that are designated “off leash”.
  • On-leash trails are fair game to dogs who may not care for other dogs and, being hampered by a leash, these dogs will often be reactive, or at least very intimidated by your dog. There is nothing more terrifying for the handler of a leashed, fearful dog than to be approached by a loose, friendly dog. A fight could ensue where your dog gets hurt.  Also, many people don’t like being jumped upon or even sniffed by strange dogs. I’m a “dog person” through and through, and even I dislike being jumped on by exuberant dogs.
  • Approach each walk as a training walk. If your dog is clicker trained, use the clicker. Treat your dog every time your dog looks back at you, waits for you, or returns to you. Use high value treats (chicken, steak, apple etc–whatever your dog LOVES), but put treats away when you encounter another dog.
Annie check back
Annie checks back with me on the trail.  I would praise (or click) and treat her.

Praise both dogs for appropriate dog encounters calmly, tell them what good dogs they are. Have an excellent recall (“come”)–even when a dog is approaching or there are deer or wildlife near by.  Practice every walk, rewarding with HIGH value treats when they come to you. NEVER correct your dog for “eventually” coming to you, no matter how frustrated you are.  It just means your dog isn’t ready to be off leash yet and your recall needs more work in distracting environments. For the best recall ever, check out “Recallers” by Susan Garrett. Teach your dog to sit behind you on cue, so you can protect your dog from any strange dog you don’t trust. Practice it at home with few distractions, then on the street, then on trails and in more stimulating settings. Reward your dog for doing this correctly. If you’re unfamiliar with a trail, be cautious. Keep your dog close (the further away your dog is, the less likely he is to respond to you), or leashed. Always do your very best to keep your dog safe.

Dog parks: Why not?

In a perfect world…

In a perfect world, dog parks would be the most wonderful places in the world to pass time—well-socialized dogs cavorting with each other, the rough and tumble and chase of all different breeds and sizes, peaceful pauses peppering play.  No one would fight over toys, no one would feel overwhelmed or get overstimulated, and guardians would be alert to their dogs at every moment, astutely watching and understanding the fluid body language of their own animal, ready to stop conflicts before they even got started. 

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Three dogs at a dog park take a break from play…an appropriate way to calm arousal levels. Communal sniffing is a wonderful way for them to bond.

However, the reality is often much different. Dog parks are typically places where guardians bring their dogs to exercise and play, but they are often not well supervised. The dogs are free to romp and play on their own with little regard for their safety, while guardians chat and socialize with each other, or engage with their smart phones.

“Yes,” you may say, “so what?”  The problem is that dogs, like people, have different needs, different play styles, different degrees of socialization, and different levels of tolerance. And they need to be socialized with other dogs (and children of all ages, men, women, goats, cats, horses etc.) before the age of sixteen weeks in order to be entirely comfortable with whomever it is they are interacting.  If a dog feels threatened, he needs to make a split-second decision to either run away, calm the other dog through appropriate body language, or aggress. The decision-making process is complicated and depends on multiple factors—the current situation, the dog’s past experience in similar circumstances, what challenges the dog has encountered in the past twenty-four hours, and his history of socialization, to name a few.

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Annie studies white dog–he’s playful, but BIG and boisterous. She is confident: her stance is solid, her tail  up, her mouth open, ears back but not pinned.
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Annie is overwhelmed even though the white dog is not being aggressive. She copes by slipping out from under him and running away.  Her run, though, is playful and confident, not fearful.
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Annie recovers nicely and when she finishes her run, greets the white dog at a 30 degree angle. No hard feelings.

Dogs who are not socialized with other dogs as puppies are often fearful around others of their species and will do whatever they can to protect themselves if they feel threatened. They also have teeth—lots of them. If, in addition, they did not learn how to inhibit their bite as puppies, they can cause a severe amount of damage in seconds. Dog fights often erupt in a blink of an eye, and unless we understand canine body language, we will miss the warning signs. Dogs are not the only ones who can be badly injured in dog fights—humans can also sustain significant injuries from redirected bites—sometimes by their own dog—when attempting to break up the fight. Dogs who start fights are not bad dogs—they are just dogs who are unfairly put in situations they can’t handle.

You have two things to think about when you consider visiting a dog park:

1.) “How well do I know my own dog?”

2.) “How well do I know the other dogs and their people in the park?”

The answer to the second question is usually, if not always: “Not very well.” Even if you go to the park with a group of friends, you can never predict who will show up. An under-socialized dog with a distracted, unconcerned owner is a recipe for trouble. 

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Annie is surrounded. She only knows 1 of the 3 dogs. Her style is to find an escape, run away, then rejoin the group.  But what if she needed to protect herself? Dogs have to think fast and react appropriately.

Here are some things to think about: 

  • If your dog is “OK most of the time”, he does not belong at the dogs park. Why? Because you already know there are situations that make him feel overwhelmed and insecure, forcing him to protect himself. Don’t place him back into those situations where he could injure or be injured by another dog. Also, in that environment, he is most likely too stressed to enjoy himself, so why even consider it?
  • If you take your dog to the dog park because you’ve been told he “needs more socialization”, the dog park is a bad place to do it. At some point, often sooner rather than later, he will encounter a situation that frightens him and he will be forced to act. If he gets into a tussle, one bad experience could be enough to cause ongoing dog-directed aggression. Once aggression has worked for him, he’s more likely to depend on it in future encounters.
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Annie is bumped from behind, fairly hard, by this puppy. She is startled, and not happy about it. She whips around, faces him, then dances off.

If you have just adopted your dog and want to take him to the dog park for fun, don’t do it. First of all, you have no idea how your dog will respond in that environment. And even if your new dog has reasonable socialization skills, he’ll be stressed from the recent changes in his life and will be more likely to be defensive. And again, dogs at the dog park are often poorly supervised, and may or may not have good socialization skills. Even if your dog joins in play initially, he could feel threatened or get overstimulated as play escalates, and a fight could be triggered when he panics.  If your dog guards his toys, he should definitely not go to the dog park. He may steal toys and aggress at anyone who tries to reclaim them—humans included. And if you take toys with you for him to play with, he will most likely challenge any dog trying to play with him.

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The puppy grabs a stick.  Annie also likes sticks–a lot. But she leaves him to play with it. If she took it away from the puppy, that would probably be okay.  But what if it was a mature, resource-guarding dog?

Do not even consider taking your small dog to dog parks unless there is a small-dog enclosure. The prey drive of larger dogs can turn your dog into a very vulnerable target.  Muzzles have no place in a dog park.  Muzzles will make your dog feel even more vulnerable, and if/when a dog aggresses at him due to his defensive body language, he will have no way to defend himself.  Leashing your dog at a dog park will prevent him from running away from situations he’s uncomfortable with and will inhibit his ability to express himself, making him more vulnerable and fearful. Also, off-leash dogs will recognize his vulnerability and may take advantage of him, exacerbating the situation even more. If you know you have a well-socialized dog, I would still think long and hard about the wisdom of going to a dog park for the reasons I have discussed above: you don’t know the other dogs who frequent the park or their people.

If you still think that dog parks are an option for you, here are some safety tips to consider: 

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  • Check the park carefully before you unload your dog from the car. Avoid groups of rough-playing dogs, dogs who look stiff or uncomfortable, and dogs whose owners are uninvolved. You want to see dogs who have loose, bouncy, easy body movement, dogs who play in a give and take fashion, and dogs who pause often in their play. The owners should be present, but relaxed. Avoid dogs whose owners hover and say things like “Be nice, Fido”.
  • Look for dogs that have a play style similar to your dog’s. 
  • Be sure your dog has a very strong recall and will come back to you reliably, even in play. 
  • Be sure you understand canine body language. Dogs have a language that is fluid, complicated and ongoing. By learning to read dogs at the park and understanding what they are saying, you can often intervene by calling your dog back to you if play starts to escalate. 
  • Consider other options for dog play that are safer: get together with friends and their dogs, dogs you know have been well socialized as puppies or who have a history of positive, safe interactions with other dogs. Scuffles may still erupt, but if everyone is paying attention and has a good recall on their dog, and if the dogs are well socialized, the chance of injury is extremely low. Well-socialized dogs with good bite inhibition will be careful not to injure each other, even in excited play.

To leash or not to leash…

With experience comes caution…

When we first got dogs in the mid-80s, it never occurred to us to leash our dogs in the parks of Seattle. After all, our dogs needed exercise. Sascha and Klea (our golden and collie), were somehow naturally perfect trail dogs–Klea stayed close by on the trail, and Sascha, wild athlete that she was, would turn on a dime and race back to us when called. Sascha would even carry her own leash when she absolutely needed to be tethered, and would stay in heel position, her swagger reflecting her pride. It was just who she was–responsive and completely reliable.

Then came Tess and Lola. In spite of years of training, Tess, our second collie, was wild and independent, and Lola, six months younger, was insane on trails.  Hiking in the mountains with her was a liability because of her tendency to tear through the woods and to leap without anticipating the landing. I remember holding my breath while watching her leap and fly across the boulders of a landslide on the way to Lake Ann. So after that, we left her at home when we went to the mountains. Our reluctance to have the two girls with us at all times, however, was still driven by their behavior, not by potential conflicts with people and other dogs.

Vera goes swimming
We kept Vera and everyone else safe by choosing carefully when and where we walked her, and by keeping her on leash.

Then we adopted Vera (of Finding Vera), and for the first time realized that there really was the risk of encountering dangerous dogs out in the community. To protect herself, Vera would threaten to attack any dog who got close.  We didn’t see this side of her right away.  For weeks after her adoption, she was difficult, but seemed to do well both on leash, and off-leash on logging roads and off-leash trails. Then things went south. After she injured her favorite sister in a fight, we realized that her threats were not empty, and we never allowed her to run off leash again. We became skilled at intervening if an off-leash dog approached, but every loose-dog event risked injury to us, the other dog, and our beloved Vera. We replaced her off-leash romps with training and games, and she lived out her life content in spite of her restrictions.

Annie in her "kinky boot" after surgery.
Annie in her “kinky boot” before her surgery.

What now?

Now we have Annie, an eighteen-month-old collie, who has finally recovered from a surgically rebuilt joint (right hock). For the six years since Tess and Lola died, I have worried about this moment of decision–to keep her leashed, or to let her off. I now know there are dogs out there like Vera who have owners who are either naive, or in denial.  These are dogs who will attack another dog when they feel overwhelmed, and the infraction could be as small as a “look”, or simply existing on the same planet. On the other hand, I itch to let Annie run free; watching her run and play with other dogs makes me feel like I am flying.

In the past few weeks we made our decision. After months of practicing recalls and walking miles of trails with her on leash, we unclipped her.  We sent her to daycare to learn how to cope with groups of dogs, had friends’ trail-savvy dogs guide her on designated off-leash trails. We used high-value treats (chicken and steak) to reward her for recalls.  And then, with a leap of faith we set her free.

Finally allowed to run off leash!

Training Tips

  1. Practice, practice, practice recall with your dog before you take your dog off-leash. Take classes, work on recall in different environments, begin by calling your dog at a short distance, then gradually add distance on a long line. Don’t advance unless your dog is successful 80% of the time.
  2. Always carry high-value treats to reward your dog for coming back to you.
  3. If your dog is a rescue, don’t take him off-leash until you have a good, strong relationship. This will take at least a few months. Err on the side of caution.  A lost dog is a terrible thing.
  4. Once you are comfortable walking your dog off leash, adhere to the rules of the trail you are on.  Many people walk their dogs on on-leash trails because it’s their only choice. They simply can’t frequent dog parks or off-leash trails. Respect their limitations.  They are just trying to keep everyone safe.
  5. Don’t let your attention wander from your dog. No cell phones. Things can go wrong very quickly with dogs if you aren’t aware of their body language. Without knowing the dog who’s approaching, how do you know what’s about to happen if you aren’t reading their signals?
  6. Some people are fearful of dogs and deserve space.  They may have been bitten in the past.  I was bitten by a small dog a few years ago–at least 5 times in as many seconds. Now my ankles tingle whenever I’m approached by a small, barking, lunging, dog. And I am passionate about dogs. What about people who don’t even like dogs?
  7. Even if you are on an off-leash trail, leash your dog if you approach someone who looks uncomfortable, or notice that someone leashes their dog at a distance from you.
  8. If someone asks you to leash your dog, PLEASE don’t argue. Chances are, they are trying to protect your dog as much as theirs.  And they may know more than you do about what might be about to transpire.

Rescued! Bringing home your shelter dog.

Rescuing a dog

beagle-in shelter

Rescuing a dog is a wonderful thing. It fills us with hope and pride and a determination that we can give this dog a better life.  A good life. And we can. What we mustn’t lose sight of is that it’s not all about us.  It has to be about the dog and what the dog understands and needs, or our two-way relationship can break down.

When dogs are brought to a new home, they can be overwhelmed. Depending on the history of the dog (which is often unknown), they may never have been inside a house, never seen stairs, never lived with another dog–or never lived without a canine companion. They may have lived with a large family, or with a single person. They may have been a stray or abused, coddled or neglected.

running-dog-dogpark for blog

Whatever their situation, past and present, they need time to adjust and be introduced back into the world in increments. When we bring a dog home from a shelter or foster home, we want to share our new family member with our friends, show our dog his new freedom, our favorite places, take him to the dog park, introduce him to friends’ dogs, to our extended families. Right away. Before we even know our new dog.  Before we even speak their language. 

But dogs are complex creatures. They have a whole world that is theirs. They may be bold or sensitive. There are things they like and things they don’t like. Things that fill them with fear, with pleasure, with joy, with trepidation. They may not like to be touched except on the chest or the face–and only at certain times. They may be so stressed that they can’t eat. They may be overwhelmed by the size of the space they suddenly inhabit and have no idea how to interact with the furniture, the resident cat, or their new canine sibling. They may have never seen a child before, or a bicycle or a skateboard. And yet we expect them to be grateful and adaptable and to settle in as if they know they are home. For them, it may be just one more stop in their turbulent lives.

adorable animal ball beautiful
Photo by Joshua Ku00f6ller on Pexels.com

Training Tips:

  • Take it slowly.
  • Limit their space with baby gates initially so they have a small, safe area where they can feel comfortable and protected.
  • Wait till they are relaxed with family members before introducing them to your extended family and friends.
  • Introduce dogs carefully from the first meeting and separate your new dog from resident cats and dogs until they have had a time to adjust to the sounds and scents of their new siblings. Go SLOWLY.  It’s much harder to fix relationships than to start off on the right foot.
  • Praise and reward what they are doing RIGHT.  Don’t take anything for granted. Dogs don’t automatically know what they are doing well. For example, praise any good interactions between the dogs in your home, reward with a treat and praise for not lunging and barking at cars, for walking politely past strangers, for not getting on the furniture, for being calm, for not putting their paws on the counter, for taking treats gently–all things that we might have taken for granted with our last dog–you can’t take for granted with a new dog. If your dog does something inappropriate, redirect him with a cookie or a toy and engage him in appropriate behavior and praise.
  •  Don’t shout at him–ever. Be firm, kind, and patient.
  • Understand that every move your dog makes, every expression on his face, the tension in his body, the twitch of an ear, the position of his tail, is communication.  It is not random. It means something.
  • To begin to understand Canine Body Language, immediately print out a couple of copies of this poster on canine body language.  Place one on your fridge and one on your coffee table, maybe a third in your bathroom or bedroom. A marvelous book on Canine Body Language is Brenda Aloff’s book “Canine Body Language“.  It has literally hundreds of photographs of dogs with interpretations of what they are communicating. A wonderful website on Canine body language is http://eileenanddogs.com/dog-body-language/.  The thing is, as humans, we might understand gross canine posturing–hackles, growling, snapping, and play bow, but we misunderstand so much more–such as the tail wag, the value of the growl, variations in posture, the ear position etc.  Learn Canine Body Language and you’ll enrich your relationship with your dog a hundred fold.
  • Don’t let him off leash too soon. Wait until you have a solid recall and strong relationship with your dog. A timid dog may stick to you like glue, but he could just as easily panic and flee. A bold dog or a dog driven by his nose, may take the opportunity to explore, then panic and not find his way back to you. A lost dog is a terrible thing to experience for both you and your dog.
tan dog lying on green grass field
Photo by joenibraw on Pexels.com

Avoid the dog park. Read my blog on dog parks.  Finding Vera, my novel about our very difficult, but ultimately wonderful rescue, is packed with canine body language in action, issues that can arise from adopting a troubled rescue dog, and how we worked through them. The more issues you can prevent in a rescue dog, the better–the problem being that you’ll never know what you prevented with your careful observation and intervention.  Believe me, it’s worth the work!