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).

See Teaching a Dog that Pulling Doesn’t Work.

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.

See Teaching a Dog that Pulling Doesn’t Work.

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. 

 

Training Tip: House Soiling and Separation Anxiety

If a dog urinates/defecates in the house when left alone, it might not be a “house training” issue, but it might be caused by anxiety/distress at being left alone (isolation anxiety) or being away from a particular person or the family (separation anxiety). (For this discussion, “separation anxiety” will include isolation anxiety and separation anxiety.) “House Training” is about teaching the dog how to hold its bladder/bowels, where it is appropriate to potty (e.g. outside), and how to signal to the humans in the home to be let outside to potty. Addressing separation anxiety is about teaching the dog how to be comfortable being left alone.

Below is an excerpt from an article I published a few years back. The information has proved very helpful for many clients over the years. There are also some resources listed at the end that you may find helpful.

Separation Anxiety can be a very difficult problem to address. If you require one-on-one professional help, please contact me for a private consult. 

Separation Anxiety

There is a big difference between a dog that chews up the furniture out of boredom and one that does it because of separation anxiety. Exercise, mental stimulation, restricting the dog’s area when alone (perhaps in a cozy crate), and providing enough chew items are some things that can help keep the bored dog from chewing the furniture. These things may provide some distraction for the dog with mild separation anxiety, but the approach to working through this disorder is much more complex. One of the hardest things for people to accept is that a dog with separation anxiety is not “being bad” or “getting revenge.”

Dogs are social creatures and learning how to be alone can be a difficult thing for some dogs. Some dogs are anxious about being left alone and some are anxious about being separated from a particular person with whom they’ve bonded strongly. When working on a plan to address this problem, it’s important to know if the dog suffers from one or the other (or both). Often there are simple things dog owners can do (and avoid) to help reduce mild separation anxiety or even prevent the problem in the first place. Separation Anxiety is something that usually gets worse if it’s not addressed early or properly, so if your dog is showing signs of distress when left alone, it’s best not to ignore it. There’s a very good chance that the dog will not “get over it” but instead will become more sensitized to being left alone.

Unfortunately, many people let the problem become extreme before they get help, and sometimes they get some bad advice that makes the problem worse. (Separation Anxiety is not a ‘dominance thing’ and cannot be “punished away” and letting a dog cry it out can make things worse.) Sometimes the problem becomes so severe that the owners who love these dogs dearly have no choice but to euthanize or surrender the dog. Dr. Ian Dunbar ranks this problem as one of the top reasons why people give up their dogs to shelters. Finding the right home for a rescue dog with separation anxiety is a difficult task, and sometimes people are not aware of the problem (or the extent of the problem) when they adopt the dog.

Having even a bit of knowledge about what to do and what to avoid can make a big difference. If your dog has mild separation anxiety or if you want to prevent this from becoming a problem, have a look at the following tips and resources. If you have a dog with moderate to severe separation anxiety, you may wish to consult a reputable professional for help, but be sure to find a professional that understands behaviour modifcation and specifically how to use desensitization and counter conditioning effectively.

Quick tips:

Take the emotions out of your departures and arrivals. Communicate to your dog on an emotional level that your arrivals and departures are “no big deal.”

If your dog is excited to see you when you arrive, wait until your dog is calm before giving your dog attention; avoid direct eye contact, touching your dog, or talking to your dog until your dog is fairly relaxed. You can let him out to pee and that sort of stuff, but limit your attention. When your dog is calm, pick a special chair or place to deliver your greeting; you’ll likely notice that he begins to wait for you there for the greeting. When you do greet him, try to keep it rather low-key and not too intense, even though you may have really, really missed him when you were gone.

Try to avoid having very exciting things happen too soon after your arrival. Sometimes the anticipation of a super fun thing (e.g. a walk) can get your dog worked up. You want to avoid stirring up emotions too close to your departures/arrivals.

Some mild to moderate physical and mental exercise an hour or so before you leave can help some dogs with separation anxiety. However, the exercise should not over-stimulate your dog, but instead meet some of her physical and mental needs and encourage a more relaxed state. Playing intense games like fetch or tug can cause some dogs to become too stressed, so figure out what works for your dog.

Vary the order of the ‘clues’ your dog has picked up that signal you are leaving. Do some of these things on days when you aren’t going anywhere (e.g. pick up your keys and sit and watch TV; wear your work shoes for an hour at home on a day off).

Crate training your dog can be very helpful. Teach your dog to LOVE being in his crate; have him spend time in there when you are home, too, so he doesn’t associate it with you leaving. Feed him his meals in his crate. Give him super yummy treats that he gets ONLY when he’s in his crate. If your dog has already learned to dislike his crate, you’ll have a tougher job. Contact a professional who understands behaviour modifcation, positive reinforcement, and specifically how to use desensitization and counter conditioning effectively.

To help take the “sting” out of your departures, you can keep your dog occupied with a long-term treat such as a bully stick, a meaty bone, or a Kong-type toy that is stuffed with little bits of yummy things. If you want to make a Kong-type toy last longer, layer it with yummy bits and canned dog food or peanut butter and then freeze it. Be sure he has lots of positive experiences in his crate with these items when you are home so he doesn’t begin to associate these things with being left alone.

 

Helpful Resources:

 

Free webinar on Separation Anxiety

Books:
I’ll Be Home Soon! How to prevent and treat separation anxiety by Patricia B. McConnell (2000)
Don’t Leave Me! Step-by-step help for your dog’s separation anxiety by Nicole Wilde (2010)

 

 

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.

For more tips, have a look at this article

Over-reactive Dog Behaviours

The information provided here only touches the surface of the subject.  If your dog has severe reactivity problems, please consult the services of a professional who uses positive-reinforcement methods rather than compulsion training (verbal “psst’s” or physical corrections and/or aversive equipment such as pinch collars, choke collars, shock collars, slip collars).  Compulsion-based methods attempt to suppress the over-reactive behaviours which often results in an escalation of unwanted behaviours and new unwanted behaviours.

What is over-reactivity?

Over-reactivity can be defined as an over-the-top emotional response to common stimuli in the dog’s environment at a normal intensity (“normal” referring to the distance, exposure time, and behaviour of the stimuli).   These stimuli are commonly referred to as “triggers” because they trigger a response in the dog.  Some dogs are over-reactive to a small number of triggers (other dogs, kids on skateboards, the mail carrier) but some dogs seem to overreact to nearly everything (sounds, movement, new objects, things that are out of place).  In most cases the behaviours are due to frustration or fear, even if the dog is lunging and barking aggressively.  In the case of fear-based over-reactivity, these aggressive displays are often used as a way for the dog to provoke a response in the “new thing” to determine if it’s a threat or not or to make the “scary thing” go away.

What can cause over-reactivity?

Genetics play a significant role in determining a dog’s temperament, and it’s important to note that a dog can only progress as far as his inherited “nature” will allow.  What happens to a dog after he’s born will also have a huge influence on his temperament, especially socialization, training, and diet.  (Illness can also be a factor, so be sure to consult your vet if you suspect this may be the case.)

Poor socialization (deficits and “bad” experiences) during the first few months of a puppy’s life can lead to over-reactivity.  Puppyhood is when the dog learns what to expect in his environment, and if a puppy isn’t exposed in a positive way to the sights, sounds, and smells he is expected to encounter in his daily life, chances are he will have problems with over-reactivity.  The puppy then enters adolescence, a stage of development where his instinct is to be very cautious about new things. (During this time it’s common for dogs to experience “fear periods” where they seem particularly sensitive, often showing increased sensitivity to sounds and movement.) Extremely negative experiences, especially if they happen during a fear period, can also create a fear of something that lasts the dog’s lifetime. Even if a dog is well socialized during puppyhood, there is the risk of de-socialization if the dog is no longer exposed to new things, becoming overreactive to the environment outside of their yards.

One factor often overlooked is diet.  Low quality or highly processed ingredients, heavy starch-based diets (i.e. kibble), additives, and gaps in nutrients can lead to behavioural problems in some dogs.  A healthy nervous system needs proper nutrition, and a weakened digestive system cannot properly digest food to get the nutrients the dog needs.  A damaged digestive system leads to food sensitivities, allergies, hormonal imbalances, etc., which can stress the entire body including the nervous system. As well, there is some evidence suggesting that the gut biome influences behaviour, and onea gut biome that is out of balance can adversely affect the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Current science is showing clear links between the nervous system and the digestive system (“the second brain” as some scientists are putting it).

Things you can do:

Reduce stress, provide mental stimulation and appropriate exercise and play, increase sleep and quiet time, improve diet, and work with a positive reinforcement trainer to help improve your dog’s ability to cope with things in the environment.  Do what you can to avoid isolating your dog because this can lead to an increase in reactivity.  But this doesn’t mean forcing your dog into situations he’s not ready for because this can reinforce and increase reactive behaviours.  Work slowly and systematically.

When discussing the behaviour modification for over-reactive dogs, it’s important to understand how essential it is to keep a dog under his threshold.  When a dog is over his threshold, it’s extremely difficult for him to learn new behaviours because his brain is in “reactive mode” rather than “thinking mode”, and each time he over-reacts to a trigger that behaviour is reinforced. To ensure you are able to keep your dog below his threshold, you need to be able to read his subtle signs of stress so you can intervene before he goes over his threshold. By the time he’s straining at the leash or vocalizing, it’s too late; he’s over his threshold.

It’s best to consult a professional trainer experienced in working with over-reactivity, especially severe cases, as this can be an involved and complex process.  Avoid any trainers who suggest forcing a dog to remain over his threshold to “let him work it out on his own”; these flooding techniques can overwhelm a dog – especially one with a sensitive nervous system already — and cause undesirable side effects.  Sometimes a dog will quiet down after a forced exposure and the humans think the dog is cured of his reactivity. This is not necessarily the case.  The dog may have exhausted his nervous system and temporarily “shut down”; he has not changed his mind about the trigger, but he may have changed his mind about you and how much he can trust you.  This dog may be more likely to bite without warning in the future, and this approach is likely to result in a more extreme reaction to the trigger in the future and/or a new, undesirable behaviour (i.e. regression in housetraining, aggression around food or toys, etc.).

Activities/Classes for over-reactive dogs:

Any class for over-reactive dogs should provide safe, controlled opportunities for reactive dogs to choose appropriate behaviours in the presence of the trigger.  It’s essential that the space be large enough for the dogs to have the distance they need to avoid sensitizing the dog further.  Some dogs need to be 100 feet away from another dog. If you are beginning to learn to read your dog and are working on giving your dog enough distance from “the trigger”, here is a good rule to follow: When you think your dog has enough distance — double it. There is a lot going inside your dog well before most humans ever notice the subtle signs of stress. By the time most humans see them (even trainers, and especially the trainers that are misinterpreting the signals), the dog is already anxious.

Dogs with over-reactive behaviours should be gently and systematically desensitized to their triggers while they remain below threshold, and if counter conditioning is a component of the training, the dog trainer needs an accurate understanding and skill level to implement it properly and train dog owners to do it, as well. And they need to understand when counter conditioning attempts may be interfering with the dog’s progress.

Anyone interested in taking a class for over-reactive dogs can contact Jennifer Berg CPDT-KA

 Testimonials

When Frasier and I moved off of our farm, his world got smaller. Gone were the days of running free through the cranberry bogs for our morning walks. In the city, he was confined to leash walks and he became increasingly frustrated and reactive to other dogs. If he saw a squirrel, he pulled so hard that I could barely stay on my feet. Walking him became a chore instead of the best part of my day. Then, we found Jennifer Berg. The training that she introduced us to has worked wonders. I can honestly say I enjoy walking my dog again!

~ Frasier’s “mom”

I’m thrilled with how quickly Lucy’s reactivity to other dogs has diminished!  And I remain impressed with Jennifer’s quick eye to point out the tiniest of stress reactions from Lucy. Many thanks for helping me become a more sensitive dog owner!

~ Nadine Baker