Understanding dogs

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Important things to consider when bringing a new dog home

As a dog trainer, I handle quite a few cases that could have been avoided if people had taken just a bit more time to make sure they were truly ready to bring a dog into their lives. People need to honestly evaluate their own lifestyle and pick the dog that is best suited for them, rather than the cutest puppy they happen to see one day.

This process can save you and your new dog heartbreak and pain. Returning a dog is very hard on them. Yet another bump in the rocky road to his or her forever home, making it harder to once again trust that humans will someday provide that stable loving home.

If you are considering adopting or buying a dog, please take the time to consider the following:

  1. How much time will you realistically have in the first couple of weeks to a month after adoption, to spend with your dog? Settling in and bonding takes time. Adopting a dog right before you start a new job is not a good idea.  Taking time off from your current job, or getting a dog while you are in between jobs for a month is a better situation for you and your new dog.
  2. Have you ever had a dog before? If you have not, asking the shelter or rescue to help you find a dog appropriate for a first time owner would be a good idea. Note, this is not breed specific! While breeds can have certain characteristics, individual dogs within each breed have distinct personalities. Plus dogs in shelters or rescues may be already experiencing difficulties usually caused by their previous situations. Some of these challenges are easy to help a dog with, and others will take a more experienced dog owner.
  3. Do you have children?  Are you willing to teach your children the correct way to interact with a dog? (Politely and with respect!) Do you think that a dog is a “toy” for your kids? (In which case, please do not get a live dog. Get them a stuffed one!)  Will you be able to supervise your children and their friends AT ALL TIMES when they are interacting with the dog?  Will you require that your children help take care of the dog if appropriate?  Be sure to tell the adoption or rescue organization that you have children and ask which dogs they know FROM  EXPERIENCE  would be appropriate with children.
  4. Are you looking for a specific breed of dog? Why? Do you have personal experience with the breed? Do you just think that kind of dog “looks cool”?  Again, each dog has an individual personality, but also breeds can have characteristics such as pointers need a tremendous amount of exercise daily, northern breeds can be independent and herding breeds need a lot of mental stimulation and exercise. Smaller breeds are not “toys”! They are DOGS! They tend to get over handled and start to bite and snap to try to tell people to respect them as a dog, not a toy. Learn about the breed characteristics and also, within that breed, get advice from the rescue or shelter about which individual dog would be appropriate for your situation.
  5. Do you have other dogs already? Why do you want another dog? Do you want a new dog to make your other dog behave better? (This usually does not happen. Dog behavior depends mostly on their humans, and if your dog is misbehaving, look to yourself and get your dog trained. It is not the new dog’s job to train your current dog. It is your job.). Do you think your dog wants a “friend”. (Sometimes this happens, but often your current dog may or may not want another dog in the house.)
  6. Did you have the best dog in the world that just past away?  Yes, it is great to get another canine companion. But realize that this will be a new individual and you will have a new and different relationship.
  7. Do you have roommates? Do your roommates have dogs?  This will involve making sure your roommates are ok with a new dog, and that their dog will tolerate a new dog.
  8. Do you have the appropriate living situation for your new dog? Some dogs are fine in an apartment or condo while others need a yard.  Do you have a fenced yard? How high? All of this matters when selecting a dog.

Bringing a new dog home is a wonderful experience full of hope and dreams of a life together. Set up for success. Be patient, Do your homework. Be willing to honestly search your soul and realistically look at your lifestyle. Find that right dog that is out there waiting for you.

Becoming your own dog’s Whisperer

I often here the phrase “dog whisperer”. What does that really mean? Usually people refer to someone as a “dog whisperer” or “horse whisperer” because that person seems to have a special way with connecting to animals.  But is this some inborn trait or is it something that can be learned? Personally I believe it not only can be learned but must be learned.  It is important to understand our dogs’ perception of the world, to understand how to relate to them and how they learn, so we may be their teachers and friends. We need to have confidence in our deep bond with our own dogs and in their desire to be our best friend.

During the 10,000 or more years of our dogs as our working partners, companions and friends, dominance struggles  between dogs and humans have not played a role.  Working partnerships and mutual respect have forged this unique relationship over the centuries. These partnerships have been built between individuals and their dogs.

So what are the qualities of a “whisperer”? First would be someone who is quiet, calm relaxed and happy around dogs.  It is someone who accepts a dog for who he/she is with an open mind. This doesn’t mean a dog gets to do anything it wants to, but you do always need to start with understanding a dog’s basic personality traits. Are they naturally reserved or outgoing? Sensitive or carefree? Protective? Loyal?  A one person dog or a dog who loves everyone? Speed demon or couch potato (or both?). Needs space or loves a crowd? What are things that this dog loves? What motivates them?

Other  “whisperer” qualities would be someone who takes the time to observe dogs and how they are relating to their surroundings.  Is the dog relaxed and confident?  Or wary, anxious, or defensive?  Is the dog showing normal instincts such as chasing, digging, barking, smelling, exploring? Are these behaviors appropriate to the environment the dog is in? Do any of these behaviors put the dog in an unsafe situation (ie, chasing cars), or cause annoyances (barking dogs with neighbors?) What are things in the dog’s surrounding physical and social environment that could be causing their behavior? What are past experiences a dog has had that may be causing the current behavior?  What are biological causes (instincts or health related issues)?

A “whisperer” will also ask how does the dog’s human currently train their dog? Do they see themselves as a friend, parent and teacher or do they think they need to be an “alpha”? Do they just not know anything about dogs or dog training? Do they use confrontational, harsh or aversive methods or do they use positive reinforcement? How is their timing in responding to a behavior? How much about modern training techniques does this person understand? Where are they learning about dogs and dog training?  Which canine television shows do they watch?

Another area for observation would be are there other dogs around? How does the dog relate to them? Are there things that the dogs could perceive as resources that could create conflict? Does a dog understand and use proper body language with other dogs and have good dog manners?

A “whisperer”, then,  starts with quiet observation. It’s as though they were silently asking the dog to tell them about his/her life and listening without judgement. The “prescription for change” is based upon each dog’s individual situation. Often it is changing something in the dog’s surroundings and lifestyle…including asking the human part of the equation to change as well. It may be helping a dog to gain more confidence or changing how a dog feels about something he/she may find frightening.  It also requires education about how dog’s learn and perceive, and a willingness to accept that how dogs perceive the world is very different from how humans perceive it. Everything I have mentioned so far is something every person is capable of doing if they are motivated, patient and willing to learn.

Training a dog is not a mystery.  It’s pretty straight forward.  It has nothing to do with some mystical “alpha in the sky”. Personally I am concerned that many people like the “alpha” idea because it gives them justification for what is really a harsh and physical expression of frustration on their part with their dog.  However, it is important to note that research is showing that confrontational training based on the incorrect and outdated “alpha” model creates more aggression in dogs and increases the chance of owners getting bitten by their own dogs.  The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has recently issued a statement about it’s concern on the resurgence of dominance theory. More importantly, the “alpha” style of confrontational training wreaks havoc on the deep and rewarding relationship people actually want to have with their dogs. If your dog is your best friend, why do you need to pick a fight with them by rolling them over?  If you are frustrated with your dog’s behavior or with a training situation, give yourself a time out and count to 10. Then think of a simpler and different approach to the situation.  Ask yourself, “what am I doing that my dog is not getting? How can I change the way I am teaching them?

So what is training? It is getting your dog’s attention; establishing reasonable boundaries and being consistent about them; finding both established and creative ways to teach your dog what it is you want him/her to do. It almost always involves breaking things down into smaller tasks with are easy to achieve and rewarding success. If you progress too quickly and leave your dog behind (evidenced by your dog is just “not getting it” or relapses into an undesirable behavior), its time to back up a few steps and fill in the blanks.  This takes time.  It takes patience. It is effective! Behavioral science demonstrates that training using positive reinforcement techniques is both effective and long lasting…plus these techniques strengthen the relationship you have with your dog.

So, yes, you are your own dog’s whisperer. You NEED to be your own dog’s whisperer.

Keep an open mind, learn as much as you can, be calm, be patient, and enjoy a deep and rewarding relationship with your dog as you work through life together.

Of kids and dogs

Sadly, the number of dog bites reported in the United States is growing at a fast pace.  Most of these bites occur occur in children ages 3 to 5 and many of the bites are given to the dog’s owner.  There are  a variety of contributing factors to this disturbing trend: busier schedules and less supervision of kids and dogs; misconceptions of dogs; lack of understanding of dog behavior and dog language; a trend in our social norms to not respect human or dog personal space and privacy; less places for people to walk and exercise their dogs that are not crowded. While it is important to understand the underlying factors of the increasing bite rates, there are some important and practical  things we can do to educate both children and adults about how to approach and interact with dogs safely.

When kids and dogs are together, supervision is absolutely essential! And I am not just talking about the dog! Kids are active. They are often running chaotically and not always aware of their surroundings and space.  They are loud. They have unpredictable movements and actions.  None of this works well for dogs. Dogs like calm, predictable movements and events. Just like people, dogs appreciate being invited into another person or dog’s space with politeness rather than having a stranger run up to them and grab their ears or head. Honestly, how many of us would put up with a total stranger doing that to us or to our children?  Dogs also need the opportunity to say “no thank  you” and have that respected.

A great pattern to teach kids with any dog, is to ask the DOG.  Yup, I said, ask the DOG.  Here is how it works.  A child first stops a least 6 feet (a leash length) away from a dog and owner. The child asks the owner, “May I ask your DOG if I can pet it?”  If the owner says yes, the child backs ups, puts their hands down on their knees and invites the dog to come to them.  If a dog refuses, everyone MUST respect that. Owners should not push their dogs to accept this invitation and children need to accept the dog’s answer. This is different from just asking the owner “May I pet your dog?’, the owner says yes and the child rushes into the dog’s face.  In the later scenario, no one asked the dog.

Children need to also be taught to be calm around dogs.  The analogy of red light/yellow light/green light is a good one to use here. When a child is running, it will often trigger a dog’s chase instinct.  We teach children that green light is running, and a dog will chase them. We don’t want this.  Yellow light is walking calmly. Yellow light is what should be used around dogs. Red light works to stop a child before they run into a dog or stop a child at a safe distance before asking the DOG if they may pet him/her.

“Be a Tree” is also a great exercise to teach children when they are approached by a dog they do not know…or a dog that seems a little too rambunctious, or even threatening. Running will only likely make the dog chase and get the dog aroused.  Instead, experts recommend to teach children to “be a tree”, standing very still with arms folded  (“bring your branches in”) and looking at their feet (“watch your roots grow”) when an unknown dog or overly excited dog comes up to them.

Infants and toddlers MUST be supervised at all times with dogs period! Even the family dog. Often a dog will have been part of a family long before children were born. They were used to a different pace of life and probably received more attention and exercise before the kids arrived.  So in this scenario we are dealing with a huge change in lifestyle for a dog, which is probably confusing, and again, no one asked the dog.

This is a good time for adults to learn and understand dog body language. It is crucial to recognize the signs and cues dogs are giving to say if they are afraid, feeling trapped and crowded, anxious, nervous, frustrated, etc. Teaching children to recognize when a dog is saying “I am scared”, “I am anxious”, “I feel trapped” is also incredibly valuable. We need to teach children to recognize and respect the signals dogs are giving.  Bites rarely come “out of the blue”.  In most cases, the dogs have been trying to communicate their fear and anxiety for quite a while and the bite is only the last resort.

When a dog leaves a situation, let them. Give dogs an escape route. Give them a quiet secluded place to go to get away from toddlers. Be ready to intervene when a dog shows the slightest indication of anxiety or fear.

Also be aware that pain from injury or arthritis can change a way a dog behaves.  The old gentle family dog may react to the pain of a child unintentionally jumping on his/her arthritic hips. The dog may react from pain and snap or bite at a child. Again, supervision is the key.

When a dog growls, do not punish him/her. Growling is a clear sign that the dog wants some space. Growls need to be respected.  Punishing a growl or suppressing it will not change the emotions that caused a dog to growl. The dog will still feel afraid, trapped, threatened. But if they are taught to suppress one of their main forms of communication, then they will just go straight to bite. Remember, the emotions are still there. Suppressing growls does not suppress the emotions behind them. When a dog growls, children should leave the dog alone and parents should intervene and get toddlers and children out of the way. If necessary, consulting a qualified dog trainer or behavior consultant to figure out why the dog is growling might be a good idea.

I strongly suggest using a training program based on non-force and positive reinforcement. Studies are showing that training methods based on confrontation (such as dominance theory/alpha role) and inflicting pain (such as shock or choke collars) actually increase the likelihood of a dog bite. Dominance models have been shown to be based upon flawed interpretations of flawed observations, rather than good behavioral science. Unfortunately these dominance based ideas have become popular myth promoted by TV shows that say “don’t try this with your dog at home”.  Hmmmm, why not? Because you could get bit that’s why!

The dominance myth also has serious implications when it comes to kids and dogs. Teaching a child to confront a dog is dangerous.  Some training methods actually teach children to go up to a strange dog, growl and bite them to show them who is “alpha”. As a certified professional dog trainer I cannot express sufficiently how deeply disturbing and dangerous I find this!

Kids and dogs CAN go together with good supervision and education. Dogs enrich the lives of children and are often truly a child’s best friend. We are seeing also the benefit of dogs as therapy dogs both for children with illness and children struggling to read. Together, with supervision and education, we can make the world a better and safer place for kids and dogs.


What I”m trying to say….

In honor of the Liam J Perk Foundation’s fundraiser this coming Sunday, I thought I would quickly go though some basics of dog body language.

When a dog is saying ” I’m happy and relaxed”, he or she usually looks likes this:
-total body position relaxed; relaxed hips, free movement, relaxed face
-open relaxed panting mouth
-tail at a neutral position (not too high or tucked between legs….unless that position is breed specific like high on a husky or tucked low on a greyhound)
Even if a dog looks relaxed, if you don’t know this dog, you should always ask the owner if it is ok to pet them. It is especially important that kids ALWAYS ask permission from a dog’s owner before they pet them. If an owner says no, that needs to be respected as well. Just like people, not all dogs want someone to come grab their head. Just like people, most dogs do NOT want a total stranger to come grab their head.

When a dog is saying ” I am alert and interested in something” they look like this:
-tail high and starting to curve over the back
-body erect with some tension
-focused stare
-ears erected or moved forward.
-mouth closed
At this point, a dog is alert. This doesn’t mean they will be aggressive, but it is a good sign they are alerted and interested in something, and perhaps you need to pay attention to what they are interested in. Also, this is not a dog that wants to be bothered, especially by children. Its a good idea to keep kids away from a dog that is alert and focused on something.

When a dog is saying” I am uncomfortable and anxious” they look like this:
– heavy panting
-stressed face
-stiff body
-tail low and between legs
-ears back or flat against head
-rolling eyes
-yawning (note, this is situation specific. True, dogs yawn when they are tired. They also yawn as a “calming signal” if they are in a stressful situation)
-showing normal behaviors that are out of context such as sniffing around in an unfocused manner, scratching if they are not itchy, biting at their own paws or other body parts, licking their nose or jaw when food is not present, shaking like they are wet when they are not wet. The key to this is to note that these behaviors are out of context.

When a dog is saying “I am really uncomfortable and anxious” they:
-get up and leave a situation (it is always important that dogs have an escape route they can use so they do not feel trapped)
-try to hide
-turn their head away
-bark and retreat
Growls are important and should be respected in dogs. A growling dog is saying “please give me my space”. It is important to NEVER punish a dog for growling. Their growl is a warning. Suppressing a growl will not change how a dog feels about the situation or decrease a dog’s stress. It will only make a dog that does not give a warning, does not growl and goes directly to bite.
Respect growls.
Teach children to recognize when a dog is anxious and uncomfortable.
Teach children to leave a dog in this state alone.
Teach children to never corner a dog in a place it cannot escape.
Teach children never to tease a dog.

These are some of the basic signs that a dog is either relaxed or uncomfortable.
Dogs try to tell us. Let’s try to listen and teach our children to listen and respect.