Monday, July 11, 2011

When Your Dog Growls, Say Thank You

Say what? Yep, you read that correctly. Most people are probably asking, But why would you say thank you for showing aggression?

First, it’s not necessarily aggression that your dog is expressing. Second, he’s telling you he’s either stressed, anxious, or just uncomfortable. Lastly, he doesn’t want to bite; otherwise, he’d do just that and not give you the warning signals.

Dogs communicate beautifully, we just don’t understand or usually see the first 10 signals they give us. Then they are left with no choice but to bite because we’ve ignored these very important cues earlier in the interaction.

It’s very rare for a dog not to give warning signals prior to the bite or fight. I’ve seen it happen and believe me you want your dog to growl, air snap, stiffen and all the other signs that he’s stressed. It gives you time to react. There was no history of the first year of this dog’s life. So, somewhere along the way he was either 1) reprimanded/punished for the growls and snapping, 2) it didn’t work and he was forced to fight anyways, or 3) he just didn’t learn it from lack of socialization as a puppy. I had literally less than 2 seconds to respond before he attacked another dog. Luckily we had already muzzled him because of previous encounters.

Now, I’m not saying let your dog growl to no end. My point is if he growls, calmly remove him from the situation. Find out what it was that caused the stress and work towards building positive reactions under threshold. Then slowly (VERY slowly!) build up his confidence to handle the situation without stress.

Growling is somewhere in the middle of warning signals (sometimes called calming signals because that’s what the dog is really trying to do). Beforehand, he would have given much subtler cues, such as his eyes may have widened and thus seeing the whites. After the growl is the air snapping. Again, this is meant to say I don’t want to bite, but push me further and I might do just that. The air snaps might be followed by a bite, but barely contacting the skin (another warning). Or, it might be followed by complete quiet and stiffening of the body. This is the dangerous one, if you don’t act by removing your dog quickly from this situation, he will definitely bite. 

OK, so they're not exactly fighting (don't have any photos of that). The middle dog is having the time of his life being picked on by his older sisters.

Yelling can be the worst thing you could do in this circumstance. Yelling is like barking to dog and it just makes the situation more intense and stressful. You want to redirect your dog to something positive and regain his front brain thinking.

I call it happy talk, but see if you can redirect by high-pitched chatter. Something along the lines of Who wants a treat? Oh, look there’s the cookie jar. Use words that your dog will recognize and will cause him to think and thus, react differently.

A couple of times a year there’s a little tension between our 2 females. I can tell from experience that if someone yelled, there was a 100% chance it would escalate to a fight. If someone got up suddenly and talked in a high-pitched voice, WooHoo! Who wants a treat? Then clapped and said Yeah! All of the sudden the girls would be running to the treat jar. We would make them do something (e.g., sit, down, shake) and then give a treat. Whew, fight was diverted.

So, if your dog is communicating that he’s stressed, remove him from the environment or make the environment less stressful. Then you can work towards building his confidence for later encounters.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Walking Your Dog: The Basics

Walking your dog nicely is probably the most popular reason that people enroll their dogs in basic obedience classes. They love the idea of walking with their dog. It’s great exercise and an opportunity to socialize with others. But after several sessions of getting pulled around constantly, the leash gets retired. Or, for those who have to walk their dog for potty breaks, it’s a chore that one must get through.

So, why do dogs pull? First, you have to understand dogs a bit. They repeat a behavior because it’s safe or rewarding; they don’t repeat a behavior because it’s dangerous and penalizing. When your dog pulls, he gets to move forward…bingo! reward. What if you stop? Don’t say a word (any attention is good attention to your dog) and be still. See what your dog does. Does he look at you as if to say, Hey, Let’s go? If he comes back to you, move forward. Every time the leash slackens, you move forward. Every time the leash is taut, you stop.

What about leash pops? Some may call them corrections, but a correction is something that corrects. Leash pops don’t correct, they just annoy dogs at best and hurt at worst. If I pulled your arm to come with me, would you naturally come with me? Probably not. We have an opposition reflex. So do dogs! If you pull them with the leash, they are hardwired to move in the opposite direction, not the direction of the pulling. It boils down to being a survival skill; getting away from the attacker who’s doing the pulling.

Besides why would I WANT to be by your side if you keep yanking and pulling me? How enticing is that? Make it safe and rewarding for your dog to be by you; not that your dog is near you because of fear of being jerked. And frankly, when I walk my dogs, for the most part I don’t care if they are glued to my side, in front of me or behind me. As long as the leash is loose, then it’s all good.

When you start your new walking ritual, start small and build upon successful steps. This begins with getting the leash on your dog when he’s calm. If he’s not, just wait. He’ll learn that when he’s calm the leash is attached and you will move forward. If he’s not calm, everything stops. Do not be tempted to tell him No, Stop It or other words you may use. You also need to remain calm. :-) Remember this is new to your dog; he’s built a habit that needs to develop into a different habit.

Once he’s calm with getting the leash on, proceed to the door. The moment the high excitement comes back, stop. Next step, open the door. Just because the door is open doesn’t mean that you HAVE to go through it. Wait it out. If it’s just too much excitement for your dog, close the door and walk away.

The first few days you may not even get out of your driveway. That’s okay. This is something new to both of you. If you walk a mile of constant stress, it’s not very enjoyable for either of you. But if you spend 20 minutes a day building upon successful baby steps, then in a month you may get to walk that mile of carefree strutting. A month or so is not very long when you consider the investment of being able to nicely walk your dog for years to come.