Behaviour problems? Behaviour solutions!
Behaviour problems? Behaviour solutions.
By Ross McCarthy
Some dog training or behavioural issues are more common than others. The good news is that in most cases they can be resolved relatively easily. Well, to be more accurate, resolved with knowledge and effort. As issues they may appear fairly minor. If, for example, a dog is beautifully behaved but, for example, pulls on the lead many people would consider it not such a big deal.
However, it is a big deal! It can be distressing to both the parties involved, ruining walks, causing health issues and impacting both human and canine alike.
The important thing to remember is that an obedient dog is innate. Canine evolution did not create dogs that walk on slack leads, stop barking on command, come the moment they are called or greet guests in a subdued manner. To achieve these results requires training. The benefits of training are huge. It makes life easier and altogether more pleasant for the dog. No more conflict. No more being told off. Greater freedom. Praise. It makes like easier and more pleasant for the human for more or less the same reasons. In short, training = happiness.
Before I start offering practical tips a general point. Dog training has two main components. First, there is the taught/learnt exercise. Second, there is the dog’s motivation to respond. There can be a tendency to focus on the first – the action orientated side of things. But, actually, the second is every bit, if not more important. If you want to teach your dog to behave in a certain way – a way that is not natural for the dog – he or she needs to be willing and eager to learn. Whether this is the case will be determined by one factor and one factor alone: your shared relationship. If you have a relationship that includes love, trust, respect and – crucially – communication, then training will be 1000% easier. If you don’t, then building such a relationship must be your starting point.
Pulling on the lead
Ok, so why do dogs pull? Most often the answer is that they have not been taught to do anything else. You see, dogs in general don’t have a great deal to do all day and so there are certain ‘highlights’ – one of which, obviously, is a walk. Dogs naturally react to pressure by pulling against it. The more pressure ¬– even pain – the more they pull. They simply don’t understand that by relaxing the pressure will stop. You used to see it a lot when check chains were allowed… the more the chain dug into their necks, the more the dogs would pull. The dogs were trying to flee from the discomfort. If you have a dog that pulls and you have a good relationship (see above) then solving the problem should be easy. With adult dogs, you need to find the best motivator – perhaps a toy, food, praise or a stroking. With most training I tend to condition the dog to the action that I require before adding the command. There is no point heading off for a walk reciting the word ‘Heel!’ endlessly, if you dog has no idea what that is! Begin in the garden or quiet area – even in the house. Hold the lead in one hand (always the same side to begin with) and the food or toy or whatever in the other. Walk in circles or figures of eight and throw in some turns and about turns. When the dog is in the position that you want, give the toy or release the food. You can hold the toy or food in a position that ensures the dog is initially focussed on the motivator and thus control the position of the dog. Repeat over a short period of time – before your dog loses interest. Once your dog appears to be making the link that walking by your side is what is bringing about the reward and offers that behaviour, then you can start to link the command to it of ‘Heel’ or ‘Close’ or whatever you like. Get the dog to walk initially for a few seconds before rewarding and extend gradually until you are rewarding after a few minutes and so on. Repeat this until you have a reliable response in quiet locations before employing the same technique on your walks. In the short term a Gencon Head-collar may be a useful aid when your dog is particularly excited whilst you are retraining.
Barking is a complex area. There are many, many reasons why dogs bark. Excessive barking when you are not present and/or when the dog is alone is generally a result of anxiety. That needs to be addressed with the help of a Canine Behaviour Consultant. In fact, barking is often a symptom of something else and so the first step to finding a cure is to be completely sure why your dog is barking in the first place. Some dogs bark for attention, others for territorial reasons, a third group because they don’t like pigeons, planes, hoovers, unknown callers and so forth. Dogs do bark – not rocket science, I know, but they bark and should be able to bark – it is a natural behaviour that dogs should be allowed to express. However, there is a limit. Living in a rural property, it may be nice to have a dog that barks regularly at every sound. Living in a city, not so much – your neighbours will soon inform you when the barking is excessive. Personally speaking, I like my dogs to bark at the door and to bark at strange external noises. However, I also like to have an off switch so that they are quiet on command. Most normal, balanced content dogs do not generally bark to excess – although there are some breeds and individuals that are more predisposed to vocalisations than others – Chihuahua’s, Spitz, German Shepherd’s all spring to mind – mainly alert dogs/guarding breeds – there is a blueprint in their genes. If you have a problem with excessive barking from your dog – assess the reason – if it is not caused by anxiety but for attention or territorial reasons, then I have a number of suggestions. Begin by assessing whether your dog is adequately stimulated. Does he or she have sufficient physical and mental activity? Are the walks long enough? Do they have toys that interest them? Sufficient company? Tired dogs tend to be good dogs and there are lots you can do to tire your best friend. Next, have a look at the breed antecedents and see if their origin has anything to do with barking excessively. Consider making changes to the environment. For example, if you have a sofa in front of the window and your dog sits on there looking out – make the changes needed to stop him. It can be useful to teach a ‘speak’ and ‘quiet’ command so that the dog can clearly understand what you require – teaching the speak with many dogs is not an issue, but it is the quiet that you need to focus on – too much practicing of the ‘speak’ can fuel the noise rather than reduce it. Ensure that your dog starts to learn that barking is not the way to get what it wants – if your dog barks to be let out, ignore them and then release them for being quiet – silence earns the rewards – not the barking. For those very determined barkers, John Fisher’s Dog Training Discs can be effective as long as you seek professional assistance.
Jumping up can vary from a mild annoyance to something quite dangerous. A Yorkshire Terrier jumping up at you can be quite nice – saving you from having to bend down so far to stroke him! A boisterous Labrador or Great Dane can cause you some damage. In an ideal world, we would start from the outset ensuring that the dog would only get attention when four feet are on the ground. Thus, never learning to jump. However, many dogs have already learnt the plentiful rewards that jumping up can bring – namely a huge amount of attention from all concerned. Many dogs naturally wish to get closer to our faces. Again, we need to look at the rewards that the dog gets and begin to remove those. If your dog is jumping up at you and your family members, the quickest and easiest way to stop the action is for you all to CONSISTENTLY ignore the dog unless it has four feet on the ground – no exceptions. Anything that is not rewarding stops and so as long as you follow the rules, the dog will quickly understand that jumping up is not rewarding – siting, standing or lying down is what will get them attention. If it is other people that your dog is jumping up at in the home, it can be very beneficial to use a Hook Reward system. Before you let your guests in put your dog on a lead and hook the other end to a suitable object – maybe even a hook. Give them something to do. A Kong with a treat in it or a bone, for example. Then welcome your guests and settle them down wherever you plan to sit. After ten minutes, when everything is calm, release the dog. If necessary, keep him or her on the lead. Ask your guests only to give your dog attention if he or she has all four paws firmly on terra firma! If your dog is jumping up at people outside of the house, that can be very serious indeed and regardless of your dog’s well-meaning attentions there are frightening legal implications to having a dog out of control in public. I begin by teaching the dog when on lead that people are not to be approached – this is generally achieved by training the dog that being around people is normal and not a big event. If people show an interest in stroking the dog, I tend to ignore them – the more repetition the dog has of people wanting to give him attention, the more he will come to expect it as a norm. Working on a recall is of course essential in order that you are in complete control. Again, in severe cases you may need to look at using dog training discs to stop the action in consultation with a canine behaviour practitioner.
This is arguably one of the most serious problems. Having a dog that will not recall is dangerous for so many reasons. Approaching aggressive dogs, approaching children and people who do not wish to be approached, chasing footballs in the park, chasing other animals, crossing roads and all manner of other potentially hazardous situations. Lack of recall can be infuriating, frightening and at the least, very embarrassing. So, why don’t dogs come when they are called? The simple answer is because they have not been trained to. Many dog lovers make the classic error of allowing their puppies to believe that when off the lead they, the dog, is in charge. What happens is that the dog runs off and despite being called does not return despite being called. Let this happen a few times, and the dog believes that it is perfectly acceptable. If a dog does not return to your call at all times you will need to start a structured recall training plan. Contrary to popular belief using a treat to reward your dog for returning to you is not the total sum of recall training. When dogs get a chance to fulfil the intrinsic behavioural drives of scenting or pursuit, standing there with a little bit of something tasty and a whistle is just not going to cut it for the majority of dogs. You should go back to basics with the dog – one of the most effective methods is the long line recall plan. Yes, you can still use the food and or the toy to reward the dog upon return, but you will also be able to compel the dog to return to you. For example, if your dog is sniffing a tree, you can call him, if he prefers to stay by the tree sniffing, you can simply pick up the line and niggle the collar and once the dog starts to come to you, praise and reward upon arrival. With repetition we start to remove the element of choice. Each time you call, your dog has no choice so begins to respond more rapidly. I would keep the line on the dog (as thin as possible so there is not a vast weight to drag around) for about six months, you should find rapidly that you are not picking the line up at all and at that point, I would start to cut chunks off the end of the line until you end up with nothing – rather than simply remove the line in order that the dog does not associate the removal of the line with a revert to initial behaviour.
Just remember – the more control you have over your dog, the more freedom he will enjoy!
Ross McCarthy can be contacted via email@example.com