“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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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.