Please read and enjoy this very educational article on how to work with your puppy to teach bite inhibition–written by Kristen Seymour, linked from Pupbox.com.
Bite inhibition is an extremely important skill for puppies to learn, and they must learn it before their jaws reach adult strength. They learn this skill through biting–other puppies and dogs, and us. Puppies and dogs will teach the puppy through yelps, avoidance, and maternal correction until the puppy learns to temper his bite pressure. We can teach them by following the steps outlined below:
In my last blog, “Dog Attacks”, I promised to share some ideas that might help you protect your dog from potential dog attacks. First, however, I want to give you some information about why any dog might want to attack a perfectly happy, well-socialized dog.
Fear drives aggression in dogs 95% of the time. Genetics, lack of socialization before the age of 12-16 weeks, or an attack or scare from another dog (particularly if the injured dog was between 7 and 9, or 18 and 24 months when the attack occurred) could be at the core of the problem. However, it is important to realize that any dog will bite if put in the right situation.
If a dog is already fearful, the approach of a happy, well-socialized dog can be terrifying. These fearful dogs have the choice of freezing, attacking, or running away, and dogs who are on leash don’t have the option of escape–they can only freeze, attack, or hide behind their owners. Even if they are off leash, fearful dogs might feel that offense is more effective than defense, offense being a strategy that dogs learn quickly. It makes the scary thing back off, and they are rewarded by this.
Another thing that owners of happy, healthy, well socialized dogs should realize is that no one (with the exception of the rare trainer out looking for a challenge), purposefully adopts a dog who is aggressive. They fall in love, then the behaviors unfold or develop, often between the ages of two and three years as the dog matures socially. This certainly happened with our girl, Vera.
The owners of the dog with dog-aggressive behaviors are then saddled with a choice: to work with the dog continuously for years, re-home the dog (and who would willingly adopt a dog with a bite history) or take the dog to a shelter where he would risk euthanasia. If the owners lie about the dog’s history when they relinquish the dog (which certainly happens), the dog will end up injuring another dog (or human if the bite is redirected).
Having an aggressive dog is like living with a loaded gun. At first, owners are in full-blown denial and make extensive excuses for the dog. Then it slowly dawns on them that they need help and they start the slow process of discovering the dog’s triggers and how to keep him safe.
The process is long and arduous as the dog’s freedoms are slowly relinquished to a point where the dog feels safe enough to live a relaxed life, and the owners feel safe enough to comfortably live with the dog. These owners are often stressed for years as they struggle through this quagmire–they want to give their dog a quality of life that makes life worth living, but are challenged to keep their dog feeling protected from friendly dogs, (remember, the aggression is fear-driven), and keeping other dogs safe as well.
My novel, “Finding Vera” tells the story of our experience with our wonderful reactive German shepherd, Vera (with a few embellishments to make it a better novel).
Tips and suggestions to protect your dog from potential attacks:
When walking your dog on leash, don’t allow your dog to greet other dogs. As I mentioned above, dogs are limited in their responses when on leash and tend to be more likely to aggress or act out. Check out the video on how to pass another dog on leash safely. I have been lax about this with Annie, but since Milo’s attack have decided to adhere to this advice unless Annie has already established a friendship with the other dog.
Follow leash laws. People walk their dogs in on-leash areas for a reason. There is nothing more upsetting than to have your on-leash, anxious, reactive, rambunctious, or injured dog approached by an energetic, friendly dog (or to be accosted by a loose dog if you don’t like dogs or are unable or unwilling to deal with their exuberance). At the very least, the leashed dog will feel threatened, out of control, or overstimulated because he is handcuffed in his response to the loose dog. If the leashed dog is under-socialized, he may feel the need to attack because he is confined. Also, even a well-behaved off-leash dog will often take advantage of his freedom to harass the tethered dog.
If you walk your dog off leash in on-leash areas when no one is around, realize that you could could be ticketed. Be sure your dog has a strong recall (will return to you at least 80% when you call him), and leash him up as soon as you see a person or dog in the distance.
Keep your dog on leash and under control in your neighborhood. Over the years, I’ve had clients whose dogs were killed by cars because they were loose in an unfenced yard, even while under supervision. Also, many of my reactive dog clients have been accosted by loose dogs in their neighborhoods. A fight between your loose, friendly dog and a leashed aggressive dog can end badly, both for the dogs and the handler. Redirected bites onto the handler are not uncommon when trying to separate dogs in a fight.
Watch people and dogs carefully in off-leash areas and read their body language. If the dog looks tense and is not giving out calming signals as he approaches (such as looking away, sniffing the ground, licking his lips, yawning, or doing a play bow), or if the human looks tense and worried, take your dog off the trail, stand in front of him, and block him. You can feed your dog treats, talk to him, or hook a finger through his collar or harness to maintain control while the dog passes.
Don’t walk your dog on leash in an off-leash area. As I said above, off-leash dogs might take advantage of his vulnerability. Likewise, if you see a leashed dog approaching in an off leash area, leash your dog and steer clear–there is probably a reason the dog is leashed. It isn’t a good time to get into an argument with the owner.
Practice “check backs” with your dog so that he doesn’t run off when on the trail. Mark any eye contact with a word such as “yes” (or click) and treat him when he returns to you. You will find that your dog starts to check back often and will be more responsive when you call him back.
Carry a small air horn to keep loose dogs at bay. One small blast will often stop loose dogs in their tracks. A second short blast has always worked for us. The air horn works at a great distance to keep both well-socialized dogs and reactive dogs safe without sensitizing them to shouting (yelling at the dog, or shouting at the owner to call their dog rarely works anyway). Don and I wouldn’t go out of the house without one when we had Vera. The dog the horn was aimed at would stop, eye us with curiosity, then choose to change direction. They never looked scared.
To desensitize your dog to the sound of the horn:
Have a second person beep the horn at a distance of 50-100 feet, pointing the horn away from your dog, then feed him several high-value treats.
Always be careful to point the horn AWAY from your dog.
Repeat no more than 3 times in a day, decreasing the distance the horn is from your dog by no more than 5 feet at a time.
Only decrease the distance between the horn and your dog if the dog is relaxed and anticipating the treats.
If your dog is scared, stop using the horn that day, and follow the session with treats and a favorite game.
The next day, double the distance between the horn and your dog and try again.
A couple of days ago, Milo, the sweet collie pup in my last blog, and Annie’s great friend, was attacked by a bulldog at the end of his own driveway. Milo was on leash with his dad, having just played with some neighborhood kids in the snow–it was his first experience with snow, ever. Milo’s parents are attentive, careful, and have spent months training and socializing Milo: Milo was on a leash, under control.
The dog who attacked Milo was a large bulldog, also on leash. The problem was that the owner took out both of his big, powerful dogs on leash at the same time in the snow. The bulldogs pulled the man right up to Milo, and with no apparent warning or vocalization, one of them bit Milo hard on the shoulder and didn’t let go. Chaos ensued, and Milo sustained several deep puncture wounds, one requiring a drain.
Another unfortunate thing about this situation is that it was not the first time this dog had attacked and injured another dog, unprovoked. The owner knew his dog could potentially attack another dog, yet still allowed it to happen. As I said in my previous blog about denial and aggression in dogs, denial is a powerful thing.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Two weeks ago, Belle, a friend’s 13 year old dog was attacked by two large, off-leash dogs while on a walk with her dad. Belle was on leash and under control. Her back leg was badly punctured and subsequently became infected. Thankfully, she is feeling better after a course of antibiotics. The dog’s owner denied the attack, but was cited for having his dogs off leash and given a $250.00 fine.
Another friend’s chihuahua was attacked at a local dog park a few years ago. After the dog’s owner assured my friend that the dog was safe, he grabbed Zina in his jaws and shook her. The dog was large, and caused Zina extensive abdominal damage. One of her legs was so badly injured it had to be amputated. The owner initially took responsibility but had no money. She was 26 and unemployed. Whatcom Humane Society issued a potentially dangerous dog designation and the owner became hostile. Sue paid the bill. $7,000.
In spite of the damage they can cause, I have a very soft place in my heart for reactive and aggressive dogs. 95% of the time, dogs are aggressive because they are afraid–offense is the best defense. For six years, as a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, I worked exclusively with dogs who had fear aggression. My goal was to help owners build their dogs’ confidence, thus reducing the dogs’ fear and reactivity, and to teach owners how to handle their dogs in a safe and responsible manner. I even spent four years writing the novel, “Finding Vera”, in an attempt to give people a sense of what life might be like from the perspective of these special-needs dogs.
But no matter how much you love these dogs, being responsible for dogs who have issues with aggression is absolutely essential. If you aren’t responsible, the unthinkable can and will happen…puppies, dogs, cats, children, and adults are all potential victims if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and only you can minimize the chance of the “wrong time” ever occurring.
If your dog injures another dog:
Do not take it lightly. Dogs are powerful creatures with a bite force of up to 400 lbs per square inch and they can bite up to 6 times per second. If they are not well socialized before the age of 12-16 weeks, they may never acquire the social skills to be comfortable around other dogs, and may not learn how to control their bite adequately.
The injured dog might need to spend hours in the emergency clinic, need anesthesia, sutures, IV’s or drains, take antibiotics, require major surgery, and need to be crated and/or in an elizabethan collar for days or weeks depending on the extent of the injuries. In the worst case scenario, the victim may lose limbs or die.
The vet bills could be outrageous, and if you are a responsible owner, you will pay them without question.
The injured dog might be fearful of other dogs for the rest of his life. It is not unusual for one episode of intense fear to be permanently imprinted in the dog’s brain. This fear will often turn into aggression in an attempt to keep other dogs away.
The owners of the injured dog will also be traumatized emotionally–if not for life, for a very long time. Their sense of trust in other dogs will wane, and they may keep their dog away from other dogs completely, contributing to behavior issues in a previously well-socialized dog.
You or the owner of the victim could be badly bitten breaking up the fight. This does not happen infrequently.
Your dog could also be injured if a fight ensues.
Depending on where you live, you could run into legal problems–your dog could be declared a “dangerous dog” and, among other things, be required to wear a muzzle when leaving the house.
The owners of the injured dog might sue. If a child is injured, the legal repercussions could be devastating.
There might be pressure to euthanize your dog— legal pressure, peer pressure from the owner of the injured dog, or from your own sense of guilt.
You will not view your dog in the same way again. The damage he caused will affect your relationship, if not forever, for quite some time.
What can you do?
Get help from a professional dog trainer with experience in aggression training. Be sure to find someone who has a positive approach to working with your dog, and who does not use punishment-style techniques. Training that uses punishment and harsh corrections will only aggravate your dog’s behavior and irreversibly damage your relationship with him.
Keep your dog at distance from other dogs where he feels safe–that means if your dog stiffens, barks or lunges, you are too close. For some dogs, this can be 100 yards or more.
Do not take your dog off leash or to places where other dogs may run loose.
Do not take your dog to the dog park to “socialize him”.
If your dog has bitten another dog before, do not allow him to approach strange dogs, even if he acts like he wants to. Your dog might be interested in approaching, but once too close, fear takes over and he will lunge, bark, or bite (remember, 95% of aggression in dogs is fear based).
Only walk one dog at a time. It is impossible to control two or more dogs at once–even if they are small.
There is never a safe time to take chances. Once you let down your guard, bad things happen.
Always wear sturdy footwear. It is easy to trip, slip, or fall when things go south. Even in summer, wear protective footwear. Dogs’ toenails can be brutal on your sandaled feet.
Four days after the incident, Milo has his drain out. Although he needs to be kept quiet for another week or so, he is returning to normal. He was excited to see other dogs at the vet when he went in for his recheck.
The owners of the bulldogs were very remorseful and paid the vet bills in full. I am hoping they don’t stop there, and will get the help they need for their dog.
My next blog will discuss steps you can take to protect your well-socialized dog.
Photos courtesy of Laurie Potter, Sue Schmidt, and Debby Ayers.
For most of the past thirty years we have lived with two or three dogs. There have been periods when we only had one, usually when we were in transition after we’d lost a treasured companion. However, after we lost two of our three dogs only weeks apart, we were forced to keep Vera, our wonderful German shepherd, as an only dog for seven years, because of her issues with aggression with other dogs.
Having one dog came with a blessing.
Having only one dog came with a blessing. For the first time, we were the center of our dog’s world. We could spend as much quality time with her as we liked, and as a dog trainer, I could work with her daily on new skills. We played together and trained twice a day, every day. Both my husband and I bonded with her in a way that we hadn’t been able to when we had multiple dogs.
That said, our dogs have always been the center of our lives. One of our favorite forms of entertainment was to watch our girls play in our living room, and observe their interactions and communication as they made their way through our lives. When we walked them together, they would cavort together, engaging in a way that only familiar dogs can.
But once we got Vera, our special needs rescue GSD, it was much more complicated. We had to monitor the three girls constantly for signs of stress or conflict. The thing was, they really loved each other, and yet fights, bad ones, still broke out due to misunderstandings–only rarely, but enough to keep us stressed and on our toes 24/7. Because of those fights, and because of the daily stress, we opted to keep Vera as an only dog once her sisters died, for the rest of her life–well, almost, until we adopted Annie. For six years she prowled her kingdom as the queen bee. And we all loved it. Finally, Vera didn’t need to be on guard regarding the canine politics of her two beloved sisters, and she was able to relax–not every dog benefits from, nor do they want to live with other dogs.
The queen bee!
Now we are at another crossroads. We have Annie, a 22 month old, playful collie girl, and we recently pet-sat a 7 month old blue-merle collie pup, Milo. They adore each other. They wrestle, they play, they chase. They don’t resource guard or get snarky with each other. Annie has endless patience with Milo’s annoying puppiness. We take photo after photo of our girl having the time of her life. How can we not get another dog?
Things to consider:
Make a list of pros and cons taking into account your lifestyle, the cost of a dog, the space you have and your commitment to having another dog in your life.
If dogs are well suited to one another, they can form deep bonds that last their lifetimes.
Their love for one another can help with the guilt of going to work or leaving on vacation, because they always have their companion with them. It may alleviate separation anxiety when you leave.
They can exercise each other when they are young.
They can teach each other good habits (and bad).
They can be great entertainment for you.
You see the whole of your dog for who they are in a way that you can’t when you have only one dog. And certainly, the dogs experience life in a way they can’t as an only child.
Dogs are expensive. Vet bills are expensive. Insurance is expensive. Everything is doubled with a second dog.
A second (or third) dog is a huge time commitment. Yes, they might entertain each other, but they also need to be taught good manners and groomed regularly depending on their coat. And then there’s teeth brushing…
Both dogs need regular exercise, which is fine if you can walk them together. But what if you can’t? What if one of them lunges and barks at everything, and the other joins in just for fun? Or learns the bad behavior too? Or they insist on playing together and you get hopelessly tangled in leashes as I did with Annie and Milo? What if you can’t take them to the dog park because they don’t like other dogs, or they guard sticks or balls or other dogs’ toys and you need to remove all toys from your floor.
Dogs don’t tend to exercise themselves, especially once they are adults, and if they don’t get the exercise they need, they gain weight, become stressed and possibly unmanageable.
Annie had to be under control at all times with Vera.
A second dog might not get along well with your first dog, or may only just tolerate him, so that you need to keep them separated part of the time, and exercise and play with them separately. Annie (our collie pup), had to be under control at all times with 14 year old Vera so she wouldn’t accidentally offend or injure Vera who might have bitten the puppy in defense. It was a lot of work!
A second dog may not help with separation anxiety.
It seems like dogs learn each other’s bad habits, not always the good things.
There might be more barking.
Transporting them can be expensive–can two crates fit in your current car?
Getting litter-mates will often lead to the puppies bonding to each other rather than to you–unless you put an exceptional amount of work into training, exercising, and playing with them separately. Even getting a second unrelated puppy or dog can lead to this phenomenon. Tessie, our collie, was 8 months old when we got Lola at 8 weeks. It took us a year to realize that Lola had only bonded with Tess–she really didn’t care much about us at all. It took a concerted effort on our part to turn this around.
In conclusion, the choice is a personal preference.
It does help, however, to be aware of what you are getting into before adding another dog to your family–to make a conscious decision based on thoughtful consideration rather than a spur-of-the-moment emotional one.
My next blog will talk about how to choose a second dog if you decide to get one, and ways to maintain a high quality of life for an only dog. For now, Don and I are going to stick with our one and only collie-girl, Annie.
Helping our older dogs through their senior years is one of the greatest joys we can experience in dog parenting. It’s important to remember that dogs aren’t concerned about their age. We are. They experience the process of aging without judgement or despair. However, because we can anticipate the complications of aging, we can monitor their health and activities and help them age in the best way possible.
Tips for senior dogs
Every dog ages at their own rate depending on breed and size. But regular exercise, while ensuring that they maintain a healthy weight helps to keep them fit and happy.
Senior dogs should be evaluated by the vet twice a year–or any time you notice a change in behavior or new symptoms. Many conditions that dogs experience in their later years are completely treatable or manageable, but the earlier a symptom is evaluated, the more likely that treatment will be successful. It’s important to keep in mind that the passage of time is different for us than it is for dogs, and that a month in a dog’s life is a significant amount of time.
Holistic vets can also help to keep older dogs with chronic conditions comfortable by using herbs and supplements that Western vets are unfamiliar with.
Pet insurance can be priceless when caring for your older dog. It’s best to get pet insurance when your dog is younger, because preexisting conditions are not covered by pet insurance. There are many amazing diagnostics and treatments available for dogs now, but they can cost thousands.
Daily exercise is important to maintain muscle strength both to support joints, and to keep joints lubricated and flexible. However, exercise tolerance can change quickly. In general, shorter, more frequent walks or hikes are better for older dogs than long hikes. Long walks on pavement may may bother arthritic joints. Watch for things such as lagging behind you, limping, and pain and stiffness after a walk. Adjust their activity accordingly and take your long hikes alone if you have to. Forcing dogs to exercise beyond their comfort level will cause more harm than good, but avoiding exercise altogether is just as bad.
Swimming in a heated pool is a great way to exercise painful, arthritic joints and stretch and strengthen muscles all year round. The benefits will stay with your dog for days after the swim. We swam Tessie and Lola every other week for two years at Lap of Luxury in Lynden, and it made a huge difference to both of them. The benefit of one 30 minute swim would last for up to ten days.
Massage and gentle stretches can help to increase blood supply and maintain range of motion.
Older dogs have more difficulty managing their temperature, so be careful not to leave them out in the heat or cold for long. Vera always wanted to lie outside on the icy deck, even when she was 13 years old and very thin. We’d set the timer for 10 minutes, then bring her inside to warm up. She’d always ask to go out again.
Be sure your dog has a thick bed that doesn’t “bottom out” so he can be comfortable at night. If a dog’s appetite diminishes, he can, as Vera did, get very thin. We got Vera a new, beautiful bed when she was 12 years old, but the newness of it made her so anxious that she crawled on top of us in the night and tried to climb the wall behind our bed. I had to send it back. Oh well!
If your dog has difficulty climbing the stairs to bed, consider sleeping downstairs with him.
Watch for signs of pain when you groom or stroke your dog. Increased panting, licking or yawning, or looking at your hand when you touch certain areas, can be indicators of discomfort. Discuss with your vet or holistic vet.
If your dog’s appetite dulls, definitely have your dog assessed by the vet. Vera had cancer toward the end of her life, and her appetite was very fickle. I offered her a different food with each meal. The fridge was crowded with treats for her. I would feed her sometimes from one of our pottery bowls or plates, sometimes from my hand, sometimes from a spoon. I would try several different treats offered in several different ways, eventually up to six times a day to get her to eat just a little. Until her last couple of days, I was almost always successful.
Vera wouldn’t eat from her regular bowl, but when placed on one of our dinner dishes, she cleaned the plate!
Watch for signs of medication side effects such as dizziness, irritability, drowsiness or fatigue, anxiety, panting and pacing, even with medications your dog might have tolerated in the past. Tessie, our collie in Finding Vera, had a terrible time with tramadol and neurontin the last couple of months of her life, whereas she’d done very well with them for a couple of years before that.
Be motivated to give your dog mental enrichment and focused exercise daily. This keeps them mentally sharp and keeps their muscles limber and strong. It makes their lives worth living. If you’ve read “Finding Vera“, you know how limited Vera’s life was because of her anxiety which manifested as aggression. However, I was able to make up for her limitations right up until the day she died, by teaching her tricks and new skills, doing Nose Work, and allowing her choices within the scope of her limitations. Our play sessions were the highlight of her day.
ACTIVITIES TO MENTALLY STIMULATE YOUR DOG:
Buy a good book on dog tricks and learn them with your dog using lots of enthusiasm and easily digestible treats. Keep in mind that high-fat foods/ treats can predispose older dogs to pancreatitis (both Vera and Tess had pancreatitis at different times, and it’s a painful and potentially lethal illness).
Adding a new puppy or dog to your household is always a choice that will certainly provide enrichment for your older dog, butyour senior dog must be protected. Don’t depend on your older dog to correct your puppy. You can use ex-pens, baby gates, crates and tethering to accomplish this if you need to. Remember, older dogs may be grumpy and short-tempered so it’s in the best interest of the puppy or new dog in the household as well as your senior dog to keep them separated unless they are being carefully supervised–at least until they are very comfortable together and there is no friction in their relationship. We had to be extremely careful bringing Annie home to Vera. To find out how we did it, sign up for my newsletter.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.