Don’t Scold/Punish the Growl

The information presented is for general purposes. If your dog is showing aggression, please consult a reputable professional educated in the science of dog behaviour and communication. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers can help you find a skilled professional. 

When a dog growls, the dog is communicating a warning that a bite is coming if the situation isn’t changed in a way that makes the dog more comfortable. If you scold or punish the growl, you are in danger of teaching the dog to suppress this important warning sign, and as a result, can teach the dog to bite without warning. No one wants a dog that bites, and ABSOLUTELY no one wants a dog that bites without warning. 

What do you do instead?

Address the underlying cause of the growl.

There are two components to this:

  1. In the immediate situation where a dog has growled, pay attention to the context and remove the dog from the situation that is causing the dog to growl (or give the dog distance from the thing that is causing the dog to growl).
  2. For the next weeks/months, do training to address the underlying cause of the growl so that your dog does not feel the need to growl in future situations that are similar.

Addressing the underlying cause of the growl:

This is something that skilled dog trainer educated in the science of behaviour modification can help you with. Be very cautious of the information you find on TV shows, online, and from people at the dog park. You should also be cautious about dog trainers because the industry is unregulated and ANYONE can call oneself a dog trainer, even someone with no experience and no training. Buyer Beware.  But this is a topic for a different post.

Watch for early signs of stress before the dog growls

In general, dogs will give many early signs of stress before they resort to a growl. Learn to read these signs. NOTE: Some dogs have not learned to use these early signals (poor socialization experiences) or have learned that they don’t work for them (because they have been ignored).

to be continued

 

 

 

 

Dog Basics: A guide for a positive start

This is for general information purposes. Please consult your veterinarian and other pet professionals when making decisions regarding the health, safety, and wellbeing of your dog.

Dog trainers are often called in to help when little problems have become big problems — problems that could have been prevented or easily changed with early intervention and a little knowledge about how dogs learn.  If you have a dog or are planning to get a dog, this information is certainly not all you need to know, but it will get you started on the right track and help you and your dog have a happy, healthy relationship.

Effort was made to provide information that is based on current scientific research accepted by many reputable dog trainers from around the world.  Research on dog behaviour continues to expand and it’s essential to seek advice from professionals who keep themselves educated and open to new information.  Unfortunately many current trainers (including celebrity trainers) are using techniques based on inaccurate information and physical or psychological discomfort. Be careful about getting training advice from television shows because the purpose of these shows is to entertain rather than inform.

Stages of development

Genes determine the “building blocks” of a dog’s temperament but factors in the environment play a large role in shaping it.  Dogs go through stages of development that greatly affect their behaviour as an adult dog, and knowing a bit about these stages can help you raise a well-adjusted dog from puppyhood through adolescence and into adulthood.  If you are getting a dog from a breeder, you can ask important questions to find out if the puppies have been set up for “behavioural success” in later life. If you have an adult dog, knowing about these stages of development will help you understand possible causes of your dog’s behaviours and the most appropriate approach to take if you’re trying to modify these behaviours. For example, if your dog’s unruly behaviour is fear-based, you need to work on changing his feelings about his triggers before you can have much success with modifying these behaviours.  It’s important to note that the timeline for the developmental stages is not exact with every dog and different breeds mature at different rates.

One of the most important stages of development is the socialization period from 3 weeks to 12 weeks. It is at this stage where dogs learn how to react appropriately to other dogs, humans, and things in their environment, and it is essential that dogs have many positive experiences with new places, sounds, smells, and sights, keeping safety in mind (e.g. protecting from exposure to disease, physical injuries, etc.). At 12 weeks a dog’s socialization window begins to close rapidly, making it extremely difficult to introduce your puppy to new things.  A dog with poor socialization during his first 12 weeks can suffer from “neophobia” (a fear of new things) for his entire life.  Clear signs of aggression or fear in a puppy are red flags and should be addressed before the 12-week window begins to close.   Be sure to seek a reputable positive reinforcement trainer skilled in “dog friendly” behaviour modification techniques because using correction-based methods will likely result in making the problems worse.  Ignoring the problem is not a suitable option either as your puppy is unlikely to “grow out of it.”  Socialization during the first 12 weeks of a puppy’s life is critical, but it’s important to note that a dog still needs adequate and appropriate socialization for the rest of his life in order to maintain those skills and prevent de-socialization.

Another important stage of development dog owners need to be aware of has to do with fear periods: developmental periods that dogs go through where they fear new things.  This is a biological survival mechanism designed to teach an animal that there are things in the environment that can harm.  Some dogs show minimal changes in behaviours during this time while other dogs exhibit extreme behaviours. A sign that your dog is experiencing a fear period can include a fear of things he knows well and hasn’t been afraid of before (e.g. a pillow, the garbage can).  A fear of loud noises or things that move suddenly are not necessarily signs of a fear period; those are usually normal responses, but if your dog’s reaction to these things seems more extreme than usual, it can be a sign that your dog is in a fear period.

The first critical fear period begins around 12 weeks and the second at around 6 months, sometimes called a “soft” period.  Some breeds will experience a third fear period at around 12-14 months.  The fear periods can last from around a week to several months in some cases, depending on the dog’s experiences during the fear periods and how the owner responds. If a dog experiences something extremely stressful during a fear period, it can cause a lifetime fear of whatever thing the dog associates with the experience.  For example, if a dog is spayed/neutered during a fear period that dog may have a lifetime fear of vet clinics, people in lab coats, or a smell or sound associated with the experience.  This is also another reason why dog parks should be avoided during a fear period: you have little control over dog-dog interactions and a negative experience with an aggressive or rowdy dog could cause a lifetime fear for your dog.

Socialization: Tips for doing it right

It’s important that a puppy is well socialized when he is under 12 weeks and that his social skills are maintained throughout his life.  This means numerous opportunities to experience new places, people, and animals, but these opportunities need to be POSITIVE experiences for the dog.  When life happens and things don’t go as planned, it’s important to know how to respond to try to minimize the damage a negative experience can cause.

It’s essential that you respond appropriately when your puppy shows fear because your response can make things worse.  There is much to know and it’s best to consult a reputable professional, but there are some key things to remember to get you started. Allow your dog keep the distance he wants and let him approach at his own pace; to help things along you can try to build positive associations with the “scary thing” by pairing it with something your dog loves (e.g. food, toys, play).  Avoid picking up your dog unless he is extremely distressed or if his safety is in doubt (e.g. the dog approaching is out of control or much larger) because many dogs dislike being picked up and doing so could add to their stress.  If you have to pick up your dog, try not to remain in the same spot but move away from the “scary thing.” When it’s safe, try setting your dog down again to see if he’s more comfortable at that new distance.

Sometimes fear-based behaviours can look like aggression and many experts estimate that 90% of aggressive behaviours are due to fear.  Many dog owners have made the mistake of trying to correct fear-based behaviours with punishment, often making the fear worse and the resulting behaviours more extreme. (See “The Problems with Punishment.”)

One of the best things you can do is learn to read your dog’s early stress signals so you can intervene early to help ensure a positive experience (or at least keep the experience from becoming overly traumatic).   Some of the early signals are very subtle and can be overlooked as meaningless, such as nose licks, ground sniffs, and yawning.  There are many different signs to look for, and each dog will have his favourites, so be very observant and learn to read your dog’s signals. (You can find more information on some common stress signals at https://oberhund.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/reading-your-dog-2/)

Socialization efforts often compete with the need to protect a puppy’s immune health because the socialization window closes before a puppy has had a full set of vaccinations.  With new vaccines and some precautions, many experts believe that it is safe to provide some early socialization opportunities such as a well-run puppy class (starting as early as 7-8 weeks as long as the puppy has had his first set of shots at least 7 days prior to the first day of class). For more information about balancing socialization needs and health needs, check out the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position statement on puppy socialization. If you decide not to bring your puppy to a puppy class until he’s had a complete set of shots, there are other socialization options you should try.  Many positive reinforcement trainers will offer at-home private puppy classes and reputable trainers can show you how to socialize your puppy safely.

Some cautions you should keep in mind when socializing your dog (puppy, adolescent, or adult) have to do with dog parks and poorly run doggie daycares. As well as the risk of illness from dogs of unknown health, dog parks and poorly run doggie daycares lack proper supervision and often contain aggressive dogs and very rude dogs. A bad experience or two can create problems for your dog that can last a lifetime, and you definitely don’t want to take a puppy or adolescent dog to a place where negative experiences are likely to happen.

Things can also go very wrong when you allow your dog to meet another dog while walking on a leash.  Disease and parasites aside, there are serious behavioural problems that can result. Firstly, a leash prevents a dog from getting distance from a scary thing, and when he is unable to get away from it, his only other option is to fight (or put on a good show with distance-increasing behaviours like lunging, barking, growling).  Secondly, walking on a leash prevents dogs from using their polite greeting behaviours and restricts their natural movements, often resulting in negative, aggressive interactions.  Thirdly, many owners make the mistake of letting overly excited dogs meet, thereby reinforcing low-impulse control behaviours (e.g. pulling, lunging, and vocalizing) with a high value reinforcement (e.g. greeting another dog) and run the risk of sensitizing the dog to future encounters. Each time the dog sees another dog he will likely become even more excited and his behaviours will increase in intensity.  Well-meaning people who say “Oh, just let them meet and they’ll settle down” are helping to make things worse.  If someone insists on approaching you to let her dog meet your dog, even after you’ve asked her not to, walk the other way and tell her your dog is contagious. Ringworm, dog lice, kennel cough – take your pick.

There are many good resources you can consult for more information on how to socialize your dog.  The APDT has an excellent free webinar called Socializing Your Puppy Right, and Dogwise.com is a great resource for books from reputable trainers with titles you may be able to find at your local pet store, bookstore, or library.

Training Basics

 In every interaction you have with your dog you are teaching something. Are you teaching that barking gets him what he wants, nipping keeps the game going, and “chase the dog” is a really fun game?  Has your dog learned that pulling on the leash makes you stop walking, and coming when called means good things happen and does not always signal the end of the fun? Knowing some simple principles about how dogs learn can be extremely useful in teaching your dog the things you want him to learn.

Dogs learn a lot by trial and error: they do the behaviour and if they like the consequences, they are likely to do the behaviour again; if they don’t like the consequences, they are less likely to do it again.  To help a dog learn the “right” behaviours (the ones we like) we can reinforce desired behaviours with consequences the dog likes such as food, praise, attention, play, toys, access to outside, a chance to sniff the interesting spot on the grass, etc.  We can also help them learn that the “wrong” behaviours have consequences they don’t like such as nothing interesting happens, no one pays attention, the game ends, or they get farther from the interesting spot on the grass. By reinforcing “good” behaviours and ignoring or removing the reinforcement for “bad” behaviours, a dog will quickly learn to prefer the good behaviours and the bad behaviours will fade away.  However, there are some cases when unwanted behaviours can’t be ignored and need to be managed immediately, and this is where you may need some reputable advice.  Turning on the TV for the latest celebrity trainer isn’t the best choice. There are some great resources at the library, online, and in the community, but there are also some not-so-great ones.  Just because the information looks new, doesn’t mean it is.  There are many books being published (and shows being produced) that use outdated information, so try to choose reputable resources. (See Helpful Resources)

It’s important that a dog has a set of skills to help it function happily in our world, and some are essential to a dog’s life.  Housetraining problems and separation anxiety are two of the most common reasons dogs are surrendered to shelters, so get help with these problems when they are minor because they will be more difficult to correct the longer they are allowed to go on.  The APDT website has some free webinars that cover these two issues as well as other important training and behaviour topics.

Because some unwanted behaviours are emotionally-based, you need to find a reputable trainer who is experienced with positive reinforcement methods and knows how to use counter conditioning and desensitization properly. The emotions behind the problem behaviours need to be addressed before “training” (operant conditioning) because emotions guide behaviour.   This is particularly important when you are trying to deal with fear and aggression.  Private at-home consults by a reputable trainer can be very helpful and many trainers offer these services.

Dog classes can be a fun way to help you to teach your dog important skills, and there are many options that cater to varied abilities and interests; however, a group class can be a highly stimulating environment and hinder a dog’s ability to learn (and frustrate you).  Some dogs experience extreme distress in such environments, and forcing them to remain in such an environment will often sensitize the dog even more, making the behaviours worse.  For these dogs, a private class or a group class effectively designed for dogs with over-reactive behaviours are options to consider.

Is Your Dog Dominant?

Dominance is a highly misunderstood term and research over the past two decades has revealed much about dominance theory.  For a bit of clarity about dominance and leadership and why this is important for understanding interactions between humans and dogs, have a look at the APDT position statement on Dominance and Dog Training  as well as the AVSAB position statement on Dominance.

The Problems with Punishment

A discussion of punishment in the context of dog training requires some clarification.  In this discussion, punishment will refer specifically to “positive punishment” rather than “negative punishment.”  Professional trainers and those familiar with the science of operant conditioning will know that “positive punishment” refers to adding something immediately after the behaviour to reduce the likelihood that the behaviour will occur again, and “negative punishment” refers to removing something immediately after the behaviour to reduce the likelihood that the behaviour will happen again. (Think of addition and subtraction rather than good and bad.) For example, consider a dog jumping up on guests: yelling “Get Down!” is positive punishment; taking away your attention when he jumps up is negative punishment.  The opposite of punishment is “reinforcement”: doing something immediately after the behaviour in order to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will occur again.  “Positive reinforcement” is adding something after the behaviour in order to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will happen again, and “negative reinforcment” is removing something after the behaviour in order to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will happen again.

Punishment relies on physical or psychological discomfort to reduce behaviours. Punishment can work (sometimes) but it often doesn’t and it usually causes more problems than the behaviours it was being used to reduce in the first place.  Punishment is difficult to use effectively because in order for it to reduce a behaviour, the timing has to be perfect, the intensity has to be “just the right amount”, and it must happen every time the unwanted behaviour happens.  Even if it’s done correctly, it still can result in undesirable consequences such as a reduced ability to learn, injuries, increased aggression, house soiling, submissive urination, over-reactivity, and destructive behaviours (including self mutilation as a stress response).  Punishment also tends to damage relationships rather than strengthen them.

A major weakness of punishment-based methods and equipment is the suppression of behaviours, which is especially dangerous when the behaviours are fear-based (e.g. growling, barking, lunging).  Owners think everything is fine but the dog is merely suppressing his warning signals and the result is a dog that bites without warning.  Rather than punishing signs of stress, a more effective approach is to address the causes of the stress and those behaviours will go away as the stress diminishes.

Many people use punishment without even realizing it, even trainers who claim to use “dog-friendly” methods. Pinch collars, choke chains, and citronella collars are all tools that use punishment.  Jerks on the leash, making a harsh sound, or prodding your dog with your foot or hand to reduce behaviours are also technically punishment. Some examples involve a higher intensity of physical or psychological discomfort than others, but they are all forms of punishment and are subject to the same problems.

Why is punishment used despite its proven drawbacks?  Trying other methods can sometimes require more time and skill, making punishment an easier choice for some people. As well, punishment can be reinforcing to the person using it due to a variable reinforcement schedule; in other words, it sometimes works so people keep using it in the hopes that it will work again.  A variable reinforcement schedule has a lot of power to maintain behaviours, as all casino operators know.

Because of the numerous problems with punishment, several reputable professional associations have policy statements specifying that punishment should be used rarely and only after other options have been attempted.  The Association of Professional Dog Trainers defines “dog-friendly training” as “training that utilizes primarily positive reinforcement; secondarily negative punishment, and only occasionally, rarely, and/or as a last resort includes positive punishment and/or negative reinforcement.” The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a four-page position statement outlining why punishment “should not be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems”; instead recommending that punishment be used only after a combination of other approaches have been unsuccessful, approaches that “focus on reinforcing desired behaviors, removing the reinforcer for inappropriate behaviors, and addressing the emotional state and environmental conditions driving the undesirable behavior.” The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, a well-recognized national organization, lists positive punishment as the last choice in its Hierarchy of Procedures for Humane and Effective Practices.

If a trainer recommends punishment-based equipment or methods as a first resort or without making much of an effort to try alternatives, that is a pretty good indicator that the trainer is not up-to-date with current research on effective training methods.

Helpful Resources:

Books:

Don’t Leave Me: step-by-step help for your dog’s separation anxiety (2010) by Nicole Wilde

I’ll Be Home Soon! How to prevent and treat separation anxiety (2000) by Patricia McConnell

The Power of Positive Dog Training, 2nd Edition (2008) by Pat Miller

Family Friendly Dog Training: a six week program for you and your dog (2007) by Patricia McConnell and Aimee Moore

When Pigs Fly: training success with impossible dogs (2007) by Jane Killion

Websites:

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (avsab.org)

Association of Professional Dog Trainers (apdt.com)

Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (ccpdt.org)

 

Let’s Go for a Walk!

Jen Berg and Frasier   

Who is the walk really for?

Is your dog enjoying the walk as much as you hope he is? Does your dog get to stop and sniff things or are you putting your need for a brisk, steady walk ahead of your dog’s need to stop and sniff things? If you are asking your dog to walk perfectly beside you the entire time, ask yourself A) why you are setting that as a rule and B) why your dog is complying with this rule.  Who decided there was a “correct” way for a dog to walk? Is your dog avoiding discomfort from a piece of equipment?  A walk is for exercise and training, sure, but it’s also for mental stimulation, social development, and bonding with you.

Here are some tips to help you turn the daily dog walk into a more pleasant experience for you and your dog.

Think about the walk from your dog’s perspective. Many years ago (before I got into the dog-training thing) I had the pleasure of walking a well-trained dog that stayed beside me with a loose leash the entire walk. We walked the neighbourhood for about an hour on a beautiful spring day and as I headed briskly up the driveway to the back door, I had a quick thought that I should check the mailbox at the front door and without thinking of the dog on my left side, I made a sharp left turn. I gave no intentional signal (no slowing down, no verbal cue, etc.) and there had been no sharp turns on the walk to prepare her for my sudden turn, yet the dog was able to maintain perfect heel position and get out of my way without me touching her at all. At first I was surprised and relieved she had managed to get out of my way when I had been so careless as to forget about her at my side before I made that very quick turn. But then I was sad: I realized that what I had thought was a nice walk in the neighbourhood for both of us was not so for her. She had been trained by someone else using corrections (choke collar and knee jabs for getting in the way), which for her, made the walk less about enjoyment and more about paying close attention to my movements and trying to avoid a correction.

Let the Dog Stop and Sniff!

Providing “sniffing time” is essential. Dogs see the world through their noses and not letting them stop and sniff is akin to taking a friend to an art gallery without letting him stop to look at anything, or dragging a child quickly through a carnival. This is not to say that you must be permissive and let your dog sniff every possible thing; it’s about finding a balance between your needs and your dog’s needs. Sue Ailsby in her book Training Levels uses the analogy of friends holding hands during a pleasant walk: when one wants to stop to look at something, the other stops and waits.

The chance to stop and sniff something can be used as reinforcement for a loose leash. Put “Go Sniff” on command and get there together on a loose leash. Congratulations! You are now even more awesome in your dog’s eyes because you are the source of something your dog loves.

It’s important to note that dogs often sniff when they are stressed and when they are signaling to another dog that they are not a threat. If your dog wants to stop and sniff, let him, as long as it’s safe. If you’re worried about time, then walk for time (not distance) and head for home at halftime. If approaching dogs tend to cause your dog to react poorly, try this before your dog has a chance to react: toss some treats on the ground for your dog to sniff and find or guide your dog to something that is sure to have some good scents (e.g. fire hydrant, tree trunk, fence edge). Remember to consider your dog’s health: be sure you can see the area he’s sniffing so he’s not likely to ingest dangerous items, and if your dog’s immune system is weak, avoid letting him sniff places where dogs of unknown health may have urinated/defecated.

Comfort and Safety

Consider the types of injuries that can occur in the neck area from pulling and jerking on the leash, such as spinal injuries, pinched nerves, thyroid damage, eye and ear problems due to restricted blood flow, and interference with the nerves in the front legs, and a collapsed trachea. It’s essential that you take the pressure off this area.

Many dogs have problems with impulse control and over-reactive behaviours, making walks very difficult. Some people turn to pinch, choke, slip, or shock collars for their promise of an instant fix. Sometimes they can be an “instant fix” but they don’t address the underlying cause of the pulling behaviour, and these collars often cause behavioural or physical problems.

If you’d like to transition away from using these collars, one step is learning how to walk a dog without the leash/collar tightening. (See “Walking on a Loose Leash” and “Addressing Reactivity” below and, if needed, consult a trainer skilled in the exclusive use of positive reinforcement training.) Buckle collars or limited slip collars do not cause choking or pinching so your dog shouldn’t have the associated anxiety he would with a pinch, shock, slip, or choke collar, but if your dog is a puller, he’s still putting pressure on the sensitive neck area. (NOTE: Head halters put no pressure on the neck area, but for some dogs who find them aversive they can cause some anxiety, and there is the risk of injuries from leash jerks.)

Properly fitted harnesses take pressure off the neck and spine and are the most comfortable choice (as long as they are not the type that are designed to cause discomfort when the dog pulls). Contrary to a popular myth, harnesses (even back clip ones) don’t teach a dog to pull.  Harnesses make it more comfortable for the dog if he does pull, but the harness doesn’t “teach” the dog to pull. Letting a dog pull where he wants to go teaches a dog to pull, regardless what type of collar or harness he wears. If there is a risk that your dog will slip out of the harness, be sure to get a safety clip that attaches the harness to the collar.

Walking on a Loose Leash

No one likes to walk a dog that pulls on the leash, but that doesn’t mean the dog has to walk precisely by your side. The formal heel position isn’t necessary for a relaxed, everyday walk, and for a dog who pulls, setting such high standards at the beginning is likely asking too much of the dog. I suggest lowering the criteria to merely requiring the dog maintain a loose leash and then improve skills from there if you wish.

NOTE: retractable leashes are not safe. It is very difficult to quickly pull your dog close. Many people let dogs on these leashes get too close to other dogs, causing fights, tangled leashes, and rope burns or cuts. (If the dog is heavy enough and the leash is narrow enough, it can sever a finger.) When a dog hits the end, the sudden stop can cause physical and emotional trauma. As well, these leashes are difficult to hang onto when the dog pulls suddenly, and many dogs have been known to run away from the scary handle banging along the ground behind them.

It’s essential that you rethink the purpose of the leash. It’s a tether, not a towrope; a safety line, not a fishing line. Try to avoid pulling unless you absolutely have to, such as to get your dog away from something for safety reasons or get him away from the trigger causing him to lose his mind. If you merely want to direct your dog to move beside you or to come towards you, use other means: coax with your voice, take a step or two backwards, use a piece of food or toy to lure the dog where you want him to be (fading the lure later), teach your dog to follow your hand, etc. Break the habit of directing your dog’s movements by using the leash and teach him how it feels to move about on a loose leash.

It’s also important to understand why dogs pull when on leash. Humans are slow and boring on walks and the dog has learned that pulling gets him closer to exciting things more quickly. Because of this, the most important rule you must teach your dog is this: he gets to go where he wants to go only when the leash is loose. Remember this always. If you let him pull sometimes, then you are reinforcing the pulling behaviour like a slot machine that pays out intermittently.  Try using praise, food, or toys to reinforce him for being beside you, starting with a high rate of reinforcement then gradually reducing the rate as he improves. Talk to your dog to keep his attention for short periods of time, do some training exercises to help regain his focus, and use the environment to reinforce loose leash walking (e.g. let your dog get to an interesting spot on a loose leash). A lot of pullers have problems with over-reactivity, so you will likely have to address this first (see below). Consult a skilled positive reinforcement trainer to help learn how to reward your dog for doing the right thing rather than how to punish him for doing the wrong thing.

There are other things you can do to help set your dog up for success. Let him burn off some energy first with a moderate play/training session. Practice loose leash walking in the house and then in your yard before trying it out in the neighbourhood. Begin asking for self control the moment you pick up the leash, and require it before continuing with each stage of the walk (e.g. leashing up, opening the door, out the door). Walk back and forth over the same area to make it less exciting, and walk for time rather than distance so you won’t be tempted to rush and let your dog pull; you’ll notice your dog will get further in the same amount of time, and your dog will figure out that he gets to see and smell more things the better he walks.

Addressing Reactivity

Most over-reactive behaviours are due to fear or frustration. (If pinch, slip, choke, or shock collars are being used, it is likely the dog has reactivity issues — either prior to the collar use or as a result of its use.) Walking with a loose leash is essential in this case because a tight leash adds tension, so give your dog enough length to make a choice. If the dog knows how to walk on a loose leash in a low-distraction environment (e.g. in the house, in the yard) and is making the leash tight on a walk, then that is a clear indication that dog is over his threshold. Treat the tight leash as information about your dog’s level of arousal and move him to a less intense environment so he can make better choices. Choose locations and times that limit your dog’s exposure to triggers, and if you need to, drive to a different location to avoid your stressful neighbourhood.

Addressing over-reactive behaviours requires systematic desensitization and counter conditioning, not leash corrections and equipment to punish or suppress behaviours. Some trainers offer classes for dogs that are over-reactive to other dogs, but these classes might sensitize your dog further if there isn’t the space that your dog needs, if there are too many dogs, or if the trainer doesn’t have the expertise. A dog with reactivity problems needs enough distance from the trigger in order to be aware of it but not anxious, otherwise he will become more sensitized to the trigger.

(The information provided is an overview and is for general information; please consult a professional who uses only force-free training methods.)

Training Puppies

The three most important things your puppy needs to learn are:

  1. The world is a safe place.
  2. It’s okay to be alone sometimes.
  3. Where the potty area is and how to hold it.

These are in order of importance.

Teaching a puppy that its world is a safe place is top priority because there is a short window of opportunity to teach this. Before the age of 12 to 16 weeks, a puppy is more accepting of new experiences and the sights, sounds, smells that come a long with each experience. After 16 weeks, a dog becomes less accepting of new things and will be cautious and uncertain at first. Sometimes this can go really wrong and cause severe behaviours through adolescence and into adulthood.

Separation anxiety (and the unwanted behaviours that come along with it) is a complex problem that is very difficult to change once it becomes moderate to severe. Puppies are not designed to enjoy being alone, but it is a skill they will need (sometimes very quickly upon arriving to a new home). The unwanted behaviours associated with separation anxiety are in the top reasons why dogs are surrendered to dog rescues and animal shelters.

Housetraining is also one of the top reasons people give up their dogs. Training this successfully is a lot of work at the beginning but it’s worth it because it saves you a lot of work later. Going potty is a “self-reinforcing” behaviour (it feels good to the puppy to relieve the discomfort of a full bladder or full bowels), so it’s essential that you start early to teach a puppy that it’s more reinforcing to potty in the right area.

There is much more to training a puppy, but the three listed are the most important for raising a happy, confident, well-mannered puppy.

Training Tip: My Dog Won’t Walk Nicely Unless Wearing a Prong/Pinch Collar

NOTE: In no way is this article promoting the use of the prong/pinch collar. The purpose of this article is to help dog owners (and perhaps even some dog trainers) transition away from using a prong/pinch collar. There are very good reasons why not to use a prong/pinch collar, but that topic will be addressed in a separate article. 

A prong/pinch collar is promoted as a “training” collar to reduce pulling on the leash, but a common problem is that many dogs require the continued use of the collar in order to maintain the behaviour (almost like a person who still requires “training wheels” in order to remain upright while pedalling a bicycle).*  The dog that seems to require the continued use of the prong/pinch collar has learned A) to show enough impulse control to the point where the discomfort from the prong/pinch collar is tolerable, and B) that “pulling works” when not wearing the prong/pinch collar.

Quitting the Prong/Pinch Collar “Cold Turkey”

Switch to a comfortable harness (to take pressure of the dog’s neck) and train your dog that “pulling doesn’t work” and that good things happen when your dog maintains a loose leash.  Some harnesses (e.g. Ruffwear Vest Harness) have a leash attachment at the chest, which can help give you more control if the dog is a strong puller (the dog’s pulling force causes his/her body to turn to the side and eventually towards you when he pulls hard enough).

Weaning your dog from requiring the prong/pinch collar

You will need a comfortable harness or a flat collar in addition to your dog’s current prong/pinch collar.  The harness or flat collar should not be designed to squeeze the dog when the dog pulls; you are trying to move away from using coercion to stop a behaviour.

Put the harness or flat collar on the dog and the prong/pinch collar. Instead of clipping the leash to the prong/pinch collar, clip it to the flat collar or the harness.

Does your dog walk the same way he/she would if the leash were clipped to the prong/pinch collar?

If so, then try going for walks several more times this way (with the prong/pinch collar on the dog but the leash attached to the harness or the flat collar). Be sure to loosen the prong/pinch collar gradually each day so there is no pressure from this collar at all.

In addition to this, you will want to teach your dog that “pulling doesn’t work.” Begin teaching this inside the house and then in the yard before trying it in an exciting environment. When your dog is consistently “walking nicely” for a week or so without you having to attach the leash to the prong/pinch collar, you can try a walk with just the harness or flat collar.

You will also want to build a very positive emotional response to the harness or flat collar by pairing it with lots of fun, food, play, etc. — to develop a positive emotional response to help compete with the negative emotional response that the dog may have towards the prong/pinch collar. If the positive emotional response to the harness or flat collar is stronger than the negative emotional response to the prong/pinch collar, it can help change your dog’s emotional state while wearing the prong/pinch collar and the harness or flat collar together.

Does your dog pulls the same way he/she would without the prong/pinch collar?

You could try quitting the pinch collar “cold turkey”, but if you don’t want to (for various reasons), you can modify the instructions for Teaching a Dog that Pulling Doesn’t Work. You could continue to use the prong/pinch collar, but pay very close attention to even a minor bit of pressure the dog puts on the leash. Teach your dog that even the barest bit of tension makes you stop. Combine this with training your dog to walk beside you using food, which you would start in the house and yard off leash first. You may also want to address the underlying emotional causes of why your dog is pulling. Your dog may be distressed, frustrated, or overstimulated by the outside environment. Addressing these emotions can do wonders for improving behaviours. But that is a topic for another day.

*Except in this analogy, the training wheels would have prongs that poke into the rider’s body to reduce the wobbling behaviour, in effect coercing the rider to stay upright to avoid the discomfort. 

 

Dog Training Tip: Loose Leash Walking

Dogs need to learn how to walk on a leash. This sounds obvious, but think about it: walking beside the human at a steady pace in a direct line (usually a straight line) is not a normal way of walking for a dog. If you watch off-leash dogs walking with a friend (doggie or other) they move in curves, and romp, and stop and sniff, and romp to the next spot, and race ahead or lag behind and then catch up.  The point I’m trying to make is to have patience with your dog, break this difficult task into steps that your dog can learn (from easy to hard), and try to find a balance between your needs/wants and your dog’s needs/wants. Is the walk mostly for the dog? For you? Or for both of you?

NOTE: there is the misconception that there is a “proper way” for a dog to walk on a leash. Well, if you are competing in a dog show or dog sport, then yes, there are specific rules to how the dog should walk. But for casual dog walks, you can decide what the rules are. It doesn’t matter if the dog walks on your right or left side (unless you have a good reason why you prefer one side to the other). It doesn’t matter if the dog walks beside you or in front of you or behind you, either. Unless you have a good reason why you prefer one position. I like to have dogs walk ahead of me because then I can keep an eye on them (what they are sniffing and what they might be trying to consume along the way), but there are some parts of a walk where I like the dog beside me (to keep the dog out of the way of something or closer to me for safety).

To let the dog sniff or not sniff? Well, that’s your choice. I like to let the dog stop and sniff (as long as it’s safe for the dog to do so). Dogs see the world through their noses; not being able to stop and sniff seems unfair or a set up for frustration — like taking a child to the fair but not letting the child go on any rides or play any games. As well, sniffing can be very calming  for dogs — they are gathering information about their environment and their “thinking brain” is being stimulated. A 15 minute walk with lots of sniffing can calm a dog as much as a 30 minute non-sniff walk that focuses on physical exercise. I like to plan dog walks by using TIME rather than DISTANCE. If it’s a 30 minute walk, I let the dog sniff as long as he/she wants (again, as long as it’s safe) and I make sure to head back at the 15 minute mark. Sometimes I’ll encourage the dog to disengage with the sniffing and move along, but if I have no where I have to be, I’m usually happy to let the dog sniff as much as the dog wants.

But there are rules on a walk. I want the walk enjoyable for both of us.

I don’t allow a dog to pull me. I teach the dog that pulling doesn’t work to get where he/she wants to go. When the dog pulls on the leash, I stop. I wait until the dog makes the leash loose, then we proceed. Sometimes after waiting a bit, if the dog isn’t self-correcting, I’ll offer some guidance: I might prompt the dog to step towards me by patting my leg, making a kiss noise, turning my body in the direction I want the dog to move, or even starting to walk in the opposite direction (not a sharp jerk on the leash, but a gentle and increasing pressure on the leash that the dog must then follow).

I sometimes will also carry bits of yummy food to reinforce the dog for walking beside me. I might be walking along and have a piece of food in my hand as my arm hangs by my side. The dog generally smells the food when walking beside me (I might have to lure the dog to my side a few times until the dog learns that there might be food in my hand). I will also use the yummy food on occasion to reward the dog for a “voluntary check in.”  A “voluntary check in” is basically the dog looks at my face without me prompting him/her. I’ll praise and treat to encourage the dog to do more of this behaviour that I like. At first I may have to prompt the dog to look at me (e.g. say the dog’s name or make a novel noise to get the dog’s attention) and then praise/treat for that behaviour. But after a while the dog learns that this behaviour is rewarded — often at first, then intermittently later on.

What if the dog is too aroused on the walk to “behave”?

Emotions drive a lot of behaviours. Your dog’s behaviours are mostly guided by the emotional state. If your dog’s nervous system is over-aroused, then there is very little chance of your dog learning any new behaviours and the behaviours they currently know will begin to fail.

Learn to read your dog’s subtle stress signals and then control your dog’s access to the environment so that your dog can control him/herself.

Read that again. Don’t try to control your dog. Instead, control your dog’s access to the environment so the dog can use self-control. Start before you leave the house/yard. Wait for the dog to sit before you put the leash on. Wait for your dog to sit before you open the door. Wait for your dog to sit before you step away from the door. You can use bits of food to reinforce this if you need to, but generally, if the dog wants you to put the leash on, open the door, start the walk, then you can use these things as rewards for the sit.

Walk in stages. Don’t proceed to the next stage of the walk unless the dog is showing self-control. Spend a little time in the zone you are in (e.g. sniffing the lawn, the bush at the end of the driveway, etc.). Turn around and go back to a previous zone if your dog is getting over-aroused (e.g. the dog is pulling more frequently or more strongly). If you walk back and forth along the sidewalk or path, your dog is still getting the same number of steps, but the area is becoming less exciting and your dog will calm itself and you can then begin to extend into new zones with new things to sniff.

Many dogs have become SENSITIZED to going for walks. They have learned that the walks are extremely stimulating (exciting, scary, startling, etc.) and they learn to anticipate the extreme experiences before they even leave the house for the next walk. Only by lowering the intensity of the experience of the walk can be begin to condition the dog — to DE-sensitize the dog to walks.

Practicing the loose leash walking skills in the home and yard will also help the dog transfer these skills on a walk. Don’t expect your dog to learn a new skill in an environment that is too exciting. It’s like trying to teach a kid math in Disneyland.

 

Dog Training Tip: What is a Reinforcement

To successfully train a dog, it’s essential that you understand what a reinforcement is and how to effectively use it to train a behaviour.
A REINFORCEMENT causes a behaviour to be more likely to happen again in the future.
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT is when you add something and this causes a behaviour to be more likely to be repeated. For example, you praise and treat when your dog is walking beside you. Your dog learns that his behaviour can make good things happen. (NOTE: NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT is when you remove something and this causes a behaviour to be more likely to be repeated. For example, you remove the pressure on the pinch collar when the dog is walking beside you.  Your dog learns that his behaviour can make bad things stop. A force-free trainer focuses on using positive reinforcement.)
The dog decides what is a reinforcer in that situation, not you. You may enjoy patting your dog on the head when he comes to you when you call, but dogs generally don’t like this, so if you do this, you will actually be punishing the behaviour you are trying to reinforce. Maybe your dog sometimes enjoys petting, but in some situations, the dog may not like it. 
The reinforcer needs to be delivered immediately after the behaviour (e.g within 2 to 3 seconds), otherwise the dog will not understand what behaviour you are trying to reinforce. For example, if you call your dog to you and she comes to you, but then you ask for a sit before you give the dog the treat, she will likely understand that the treat was for the sit and not for coming when called. Later, you can add sit into the mix as part of the routine you want to train, but for early training, give a treat for the recall. You can give a second treat for the sit.
Using a marker signal can help signal to your dog that the behaviour was correct and that a reinforcement is coming. This is helpful if your dog is working at a distance or if there will be another reason for a delay in delivering the reinforcer.  This signal can be a word (e.g. “Yes!”) or a sound (e.g a click) or even a visual cue.
Beware of unintentionally punishing a behaviour. Petting the dog in a way that the dog doesn’t like is a common example. Another is getting angry at your dog for coming to you: perhaps you called several times before your dog came to you; perhaps you are upset because your dog ran out the door or across the busy street; in these cases, if you scold your dog after he comes to you, then you are making it less likely he will come to you in the future. Another way people accidentally punish the recall cue is calling your dog for something the dog isn’t going to like such as a nail trim, perhaps, or the end of the fun such as leaving the dog park or coming inside the house. Practice calling your dog in a fun situation, give the dog a little treat, and immediately send your dog back out to enjoy the fun. This way, when it’s time to leave the dog park or come inside the house, your dog will be more likely to come when called because “come” won’t always mean that the fun will end.