Tag Archive: positive dog training methods


Is It a Health or a Behavior Issue?

Having been the foster “mom” of eleven dogs, I have encountered my share of behavior issues with them, as well as with my own dogs over the years. When a dog exhibits a behavior problem such as housetraining, aggression, anxiety or other issues, it is always a good idea to rule out a medical problem first. A health issue can masquerade as a behavior problem. And vice versa.

Housetraining issues are a great example. When dogs who have always been reliable with their house manners and then suddenly are having accidents, it is a good indication of something medical going on. The problem could be a urinary tract infection, kidney problems, or even food-related sensitivities. My female Poodle started to urinate in the house when I switched her food. Go figure! Housetraining accidents may also be a related to the onset of diabetes or Cushings disease. Does your dog drink a lot of water? Best to get a vet check.

Has your dog unexpectedly started showing aggression? Of course, aggression is very complicated to diagnose a root cause, however, a medical issue may very well be the source. If a dog is in pain or any discomfort, they are more likely to show it by trying to bite. Please, before blaming the dog for being “mean” and possibly giving up on him, have a vet check him out. I remember many years ago when I was doing temperament testing on dogs at a rescue organization, one dog growled at me when I handled him. Luckily, I noticed that he was having trouble standing on his back leg. The vet checked him and sure enough, he had arthritis. Once he was treated, the growling stopped. He was adopted and is an amazing dog.

But the issue can go the other way, what may look like a medical issue could very well be behavioral. One of my foster dogs was having a lot of housetraining accidents. I noticed that he was drinking water constantly. I tried restricting water and he became very upset, knocking over my water glass, licking the floor, in search of water. So I had him checked by a vet. All tests came out normal. I realized I was dealing with a possible obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Because I didn’t know this dog’s history, it was possible that he had been denied water at one time and now he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to get access to it. Who knows what else may have been going on in this poor dog’s life before he came to me? But I was glad that I had him checked by a vet. Now I knew that he was healthy and I could then decide on a treatment plan for his behavior.

So before you jump to any conclusions about your dog’s behavior, please be sure to have a vet check him out. The outcome may surprise you.

Top Posts

I find it very interesting to look at the statistics for my blog to see which posts are the most popular and what things people are searching for when they arrive at this blog. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to see that people are coming here to learn, and that I have been able to provide quality education and help. And hopefully have spared dogs from getting turned into shelters or rescues or even euthanasia due to behavior problems.

By far, my post Why Cesar Millan is Not a Whisperer has gotten the most hits.  I can see that quite a few people have searched on different phrases such as, “don’t use the Dog Whisperer’s methods” to arrive at this post. Maybe people are finally catching on that Cesar Millan is not the expert he claims to be and that he needs to stop using detrimental methods. Sadly, however, I recently spoke with a dog walker who says that lots of people like to use that terrible “tsst” that Millan advocates. My wish is that people will gradually learn why that can backfire.

And speaking of Millan and detrimental methods, the next most read post is Showing Dominance. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t find my blog by searching on, “how to pin my dog down” or “how to show dominance to my dog.” I hope that by reading this post, people realize that alpha rolls and pinning dogs down is no longer considered as acceptable training techniques. Being a good parent and benevolent leader is  by far the best way to teach dogs good behavior.

And tied for the third most popular post have been the training tips on submissive urination and attention seeking. Gosh, there must be a lot of dogs out there with these issues! Maybe these two problems are most misunderstood.  Or it could be that many dogs are coming from puppy mills with generic anxiety which cause attention seeking and submissive urination? I’d like to hear from you if you are one of these dog owners. Where did you get your dog?

Thanks for visiting and being an apostle for the animals!

Clicker Training for Dogs

Have you used clickers to train your dog? If done correctly, it is an amazingly effective and very humane method. But if the trainer or owner does not understand what they are doing or they do not do it correctly, clicker training can confuse the dog and will not get the desired results.

What is clicker training? It uses the principle of operant conditioning. An association is formed between a behavior and a consequence. An easy example is when you ask your dog to “sit” and you give him a treat. The dog then learns that when he sits (behavior) he gets a treat (consequence). Clicker training uses a clicker to tell the dog that he did the right thing. The clicker is a small plastic box with a metal strip that makes a sharp, clicking sound when pushed and released.  The sound of a clicker is very distinctive. It grabs the dog’s attention. When you pair the sound of a clicker with a reward, your dog will begin to associate the sound with something pleasant. A clicker allows the trainer to mark with great precision the behavior for which the dog is being reinforced.  Paired with something the animal finds very reinforcing, the clicker becomes a powerful tool for shaping behavior.  

I know a lot of trainers who insist on only teaching obedience classes with clickers but I have found that many people cannot master the clicker. It’s tricky.  Here are a few pros and cons of clicker training:

Pros:

1. When used properly, a clicker tells the dog precisely that he did the right behavior. Therefore, timing is imperative when training with a clicker. The trainer must click at the exact instant that the dog performs the desired behavior. A click can be delivered much quicker than a treat or a “good dog.”

2. The sound of the clicker is distinctive and eliminates ambiguity for the dog. When the dog hears the sound of the click, he knows that he is being rewarded. Humans’ voices, on the other hand, can be loaded with uncertainty. Our tone or volume can be confusing to dogs.

3. Clicker training is an excellent way to train dogs who participate in sports such as agility. Because timing is so critical when training, a clicker is invaluable with shaping a dog’s behavior.

Cons:

1. One of the biggest problems with clicker training is the lack of understanding of why and how to use the clicker. I recently met a novice trainer who didn’t know that the clicker needed to be “charged,” that is, before any training can begin, the dog must learn an association of something good when he hears a click. After all, the sound of the click by itself is meaningless. “Charging” the clicker involves simply clicking and immediately giving the dog a high value treat. Click and treat, click and treat. Do this about 20-30 times. The dog is sure to learn that whenever he hears the click, it’s a good thing!

2. The other issue with lack of knowledge of clicker training is timing. If the click is not delivered at the exact instant that the dog performs the desired behavior, then you may be reinforcing a different behavior.

3. Some people think that the clicker is used to gain the dog’s attention. I’ve seen people clicking when dogs bark and clicking when dogs aren’t paying attention. This is not clicker training.

4. The use of clickers in group training classes can be confusing for dogs. If you have 6-10 people in a class and everyone is clicking, the dogs may not know which click is meant for him.

5. Many people find that they cannot handle a leash, treats and a clicker in their hands. It can be too much to juggle.

6. In my work with puppy mill dogs, some of them are afraid of the noise of the clicker. Instead of it being rewarding, it creates fear.

From the above list, it appears that there are more cons than pros for clicker training. Don’t let that dissuade you!  Try it. Once you learn how to do it properly, you may never want to train dogs any other way.

This is the fourth of five posts about dog barking. It really is a complex problem, not easily corrected with just a tip or two. It needs to be understood in the context that it occurs because the reason for your dog’s bark can be very different – and so should the solution. 

There’s a veterinarian who writes a pet column in my local newspaper and she has a blanket solution to barking – squirt the dog with a spray bottle.  Ack!!  Not only is this no way to treat your best friend, this punishment technique teaches the dog nothing and may in fact cause the dog to become fearful.  In today’s post, I will focus entirely on territorial barking when dogs are outside – and positive ways to stop it.

As I said in my first post on barking, the dogs who are behind fences, physical or electric, can easily develop the habit of barking at anyone or anything that passes by. This type of barking is self-rewarding because the object they are barking at often is walking by the property and will eventually disappear down the street. In the dog’s mind, he is thinking, “I bark to get them to go away…and they do!” Once a dog has established this pattern, it can be very difficult to reverse it. It will take time, patience and a lot of management. When I say management, I mean being with the dog at all times to either ensure that you catch your dog in the act of barking so that you can work with him, or being there to ensure that the dog never starts to bark in the first place.

The number one criterion for stopping territorial barking is consistency. While you are in this training period, never, ever allow your dog to be outside without someone there who will work with him. I can’t say this enough: You will want to be there to catch your dog in the act of the behavior. If you don’t, your dog will always be presented with the temptation to bark. I can hear many people who are reading this say, “My dog loves to be outside, so please don’t tell me that I need to bring him in!”  While this may be true, please consider that if your dog is doing something that you or your neighbors do not like (barking), focused training is required. Think of it this way: If your dog was having housetraining issues, you certainly wouldn’t leave him unattended in the house and expect him to learn without guidance. Same thing applies to outside barking.

As my previous posts about barking discussed, the idea is to keep your dog’s excitement level down – never allow the adrenaline to surge. Keeping that in mind, I suggest you try some exercises with your dog by enlisting a friend to help you. Bring your dog outside on a leash and have some high value treats (canned chicken, cheese bits, cut up hot dogs, etc.) readily available but don’t let your dog know you have food. Or, if your dog is toy-motivated, put his favorite toy in your pocket (again, without your dog seeing it). Now, have your friend slowly begin to walk past your property. At the very instance that your dog sees your friend, begin to feed your dog or give him his toy. The idea is to ensure your dog does not get excited and start barking when he sees your friend.

If your dog stays calm and does not bark, calmly praise him and motion for your friend to walk out of sight. Stop feeding or playing with your dog once your friend is out of sight.  This maneuver is counter-conditioning at its best.  We want your dog to think that “great things happen” when someone walks past your property.

If your dog gets excited and wants to bark, remember, do not scold or call attention to the behavior.  Instead, take him inside. His privilege of being outside is denied.

Practice this exercise over and over until your friend can walk past your property without your dog barking. (Yes, I know, it’s tough!  But all habits are tough to break, as we humans know who try to quit smoking, drinking or improve our diets.) I suggest you do these exercises in short sessions so that your dog does not simply get accustomed to seeing your friend walk back and forth and get bored with the exercise. Try doing it a few times a week – provided you have a really good friend who can help.  And you can ramp up the stimulus by having your friend walk by with a dog! Continue doing the counter-conditioning technique described above.

Once your dog seems to be getting the hang of it, you can attach the “Watch” command that was discussed in the June 21 post.

I fully realize that I make it sound simple. It’s not. That’s why trainers are paid to come to people’s homes. If you have a problem barker, I strongly suggest you enlist the help of a qualified trainer (who only uses positive methods- please). Any trainer who suggests anything like water sprays, smacks on the nose, or other punishment techniques has not fully learned and understood dog behavior and learning principles. And I sincerely hope that you will invest the time in training instead of taking a shortcut by using a bark collar or other punishment technique. 

The next and final post on barking will focus on fear barking and play barking.

Food – one of life’s great pleasures, for humans and animals. Our bodies need food to give us fuel and nutrition to keep us alive. But sometimes the desire for food develops into unhealthy patterns. Some humans may overeat or binge on the wrong types of foods.  Although dogs cannot overeat unless we give them access to too much food, they can develop another abnormal eating behavior – food aggression – when dogs growl, lunge or try to bite you if you take their food while eating, attempt to pet them or for some severe cases, when you enter the room if food is present.

Food aggression in dogs is very serious business. If you have a food-aggressive dog, chances are you just leave your dog alone when he is eating.  You’ve told your children and visitors not to bother the dog.  Food aggression may occur not only around the dog’s food bowl, however. What happens if your child drops a piece of food on the floor and your dog grabs it as your child tries to pick it up?  Or your dog is outside and encounters someone with food who drops it on the ground.  Aggression can occur with any foodstuff, and can be even more pronounced with bones, rawhide chews, pig ears, etc.  In most animal shelters, dogs with food aggression are euthanized because of the potential risk to adopters who may not be able to cope with this very dangerous problem.

Why it is that some dogs protect their food and others don’t?  Food aggression can be an inherited trait. And sometimes it can be a result of conditions when the dog was a puppy. Some dog breeders free-feed puppies, causing them to contend for food. If you’ve ever seen a dog who pushes his head into the bowl and practically inhales the food with one gulp, then you’re probably looking at a dog who had to fight for his share. Some dogs from puppy mills can have food aggression due to the conditions at the mills. They are most certainly free-fed, and probably not enough food.

Food aggression can be made worse by the way the dog’s owner responds to the dog.  I’ve worked with people who get angry and indignant with the dog when he growls at them, claiming that they should be able to take the dog’s food at any time. So they proceed to “test” the dog by taking the food while the dog is eating. And often a good scolding and even physical punishment follows. This tactic will make matters worse, simply because the dog’s fears that someone will remove his food have been confirmed. And the scolding/punishment reinforces this fear. Some trainers and Internet advice sites say that the owners must be “the alpha” and control the food by taking it away from the dog at any time.  Nonsense. That approach will get you bitten, not resolve the problem. NEVER remove the dog’s bowl from him while he’s eating!

The best approach is to teach your dog that great things happen when you come near your dog while eating. Choose a food that your dog loves but rarely receives – canned chicken, cheese, steak, liver bites. If you can safely come near your dog when he’s eating, casually drop the food on the floor next to your dog’s bowl so that he sees it. Continue this practice every time that your dog is eating. He needs to begin associating your presence with the great food.  If your dog is so highly food aggressive that you cannot get near him, pick a time when your dog is not eating, take an empty bowl and set it on the floor near your dog. Drop the high value food in it. The idea is for your dog to get the picture of you near his bowl in a non-threatening manner giving him good stuff.

Or try a different technique: hand-feeding.  Remove the dog’s bowl from the equation altogether and give your dog his food in small handfuls from your hand. If that is successful, graduate to placing the empty bowl on the floor and adding a couple of food nuggets in the bowl at a time and allow your dog to eat them. Continue until you have given your dog his entire meal. Praise, praise, praise if your dog acts appropriately!  Yes, it’s completely time consuming but well worth the effort. (If he freezes, growls or tries to bite during any of these exercises, discontinue and consult a behavior consultant ASAP.)  

These methods can improve the behavior and even extinguish it, but it takes time, patience and consistency.  This post gives a few suggestions and is not intended to be a thorough guide to working with dogs with food aggression. It’s best to consult a qualified behavior consultant if your dog’s issues are severe.

Cuts to the Quick

For all of my disgust with people who abuse animals, you would think that I wouldn’t have done it. But I did.  There’s blood everywhere. The rug, the kitchen floor, a trail to the counter where the dog treats are stashed. A forensics dream come true. I suppose it’s happened to almost every dog owner – the ones who brave to trim their dogs’ nails, that is.

Yes, I cut one of my dog’s toenails too close that it bled. Not just a little – a lot. Everywhere.  It looks like I killed him. The nail won’t stop bleeding and I don’t have styptic powder in the house because I’ve never needed it. I’ve always been so careful! 

My dog Gizzy is a 13-year-old big, fluffy Golden Retriever who shuffles and stumbles when he walks due to arthritis and advancing weakness. As a result, some of his toenails are worn down from scraping the pavement.  But a few of them are not. And Gizzy has a lot of fur between his toes, making it more difficult to see the nail. It just takes a little nick to made a lot of blood.

Gizzy was such a trooper. He didn’t cry, he didn’t even run from me. Most of us know that just one cut of the quick can forever make a dog fearful of future nail trims. Thankfully, my guy has been trained to associate nail trims with getting chicken jerky when we are through. Thus, the trail of blood from the living room to the kitchen counter! When I jumped up to grab a tissue to stop the bleeding, he thought that we were finished and he made a beeline for the treats despite my requests for him to “stay, stay!”

I learned several lessons from this scenario of dog abuse: 1) always keep styptic powder on hand, 2) don’t take for granted  that all nails need to be trimmed equally, 3) always do nail trims in the kitchen, 4) trim the fur around the nails to better see them, and 5) be thankful that I have learned that counter-conditioning works. My Gizzy did not freak out when I cut his nail too close because I taught him to associate great things (chicken jerky) with getting his nails trimmed. He isn’t scarred forever because of my boo-boo. Thank goodness!

I like to recommend that any time you or your veterinarian or groomer trims your dogs nails that they use the counter-conditioning technique that I described in my article, Grappling With Grooming. It can ensure that your dog will not freak out during nail trims.

Does your dog act like a sled dog when you walk?  If so, then you are always going where he wants to go and probably getting your shoulder pulled out of its socket.  What’s the view like from behind when your dog is the leader?  Not so good, huh? When you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes!

All dogs need to learn to walk nicely by your side without pulling ahead or dragging behind.  Your dog should be looking to you for direction.  Many dogs are able to comply but so many others have such a natural instinct to hunt or are so excited to be walking that they pull constantly, even when they have been trained to heel.  There are several ways to deal with this behavior.  First, you need to have your dog outfitted with the proper equipment.  A regular flat collar, a martingale, a metal choke collar or a prong collar are ineffective for major pullers.  These only cause the dog to choke and cough, and may damage the dog’s throat.  Instead, there are several collars or harnesses which you should consider:

  • Head halters such as the Gentle Leader.  These collars fit over the dog’s nose somewhat like a horse’s halter and the leash attaches to the nose loop.  When the dog pulls, the nose loop pulls the dog’s head to the side which stops the dog from pulling. These collars are very effective for most pullers, but some dogs have trouble adjusting to the feeling of the loop over their noses. The proper fitting and introduction of the collar to the dog is critical to the success of its use. And for some dogs, like my Gizzy, the head halters are ineffective. In fact, Gizzy pulled so hard that he crushed his tear duct in one eye from the loop compressing on his nose.
  • Body harnesses such as the Easy Walk.  These harnesses fit around the dog’s chest and back, and the leash attaches to the front of dog’s chest.  When the dog pulls, the harness tightens around the dog’s chest and stops the dog.  I have found these harnesses to be most effective, however, a small number of dogs experience chafing under the front legs and some can twist their bodies and escape from them. The old-style harness where the leash attaches on the top of the dog’s back are completely ineffective to stop a dog from pulling.
  • There are other types of devices that have been shown to be effective for some dogs: the Sporn (www.sporn.com) and the Weiss Walkie (www.emilyweiss.com) are two popular types of leashes and harnesses to try.

Additionally, the proper leash is an important ingredient for preventing pulling. If you really, really want your dog to stay close to you as you walk, always use a flat 4 foot or 6 foot leash instead of the retractable leash that gives your dog the ability to run 15 feet or more away from you, giving you less control over your dog.

Believe it or not, when you allow your dog to pull, you are unintentionally reinforcing the behavior. Your dog is getting his way.  And if you try to jerk him back, something called an opposition reflex kicks in: If you pull the dog, the dog pulls more.

Here are a few tactics to practice. First, pick a time when you can concentrate on working with your dog, obviously not when you are in a rush to go to work or take the kids to sports practice.  Designate a time of day when you can have a leisurely walk and can work with your dog uninterrupted.  Have your dog on a short leash and the appropriate type of collar as discussed above. Stand still with your dog by your side (traditionally, a dog heels to your left, but unless you are competing in shows with your dog, it does not matter to which side your dog walks). Start to walk slowly, keeping the leash tight.  If your dog starts to pull, change the direction you are walking.  If he resumes pulling, do another about-face and keep on walking.  Because you are keeping a tight leash, your dog has no choice but to follow you.  Your neighbors will watch you curiously as you zigzag up and down the street, but that’s okay!  Continue walking this way until your dog gets the idea that he must follow you. 

Another effective way to teach your dog not to pull is for you to stop walking when your dog pulls. Just stand there, don’t pull on him. Only begin walking again if he ceases straining. You are rewarding him for walking nicely by resuming the walk.  He will learn that pulling gets him nowhere.

With these tactics, your dog will eventually begin to realize that in order for him to have a walk, he must be watching you and not pulling.  Remember to praise your dog in a happy voice as he walks nicely by your side.  Your dog thrives on your happy praise and tells him when he is pleasing you.  Every time you or someone else walks your dog, you must practice the above strategies. 

I only covered a couple of ways to resolve leash pulling. Please consult with a qualified positive rewards trainer or behavior consultant if you’re still having problems.

In the last Dog Training Tip of the Week, I reviewed things to do to prevent your dog from becoming thunder phobic. So what do you do if your dog already has thunder phobia?  I wish there was an easy, straightforward and consistent solution.  There’s not.  The truth is that some dogs react well to some methods and other dogs have no reaction.  Plus, the severity of the dog’s reaction to storms will dictate the course of action.  

There are many theories as to why dogs become so phobic of thunder.  One theory suggests that the electricity in the air creates a static charge, making the dogs very uncomfortable.  Another theory indicates that the barometric pressure drops during a storm, and this too creates discomfort for some dogs.  Or it can quite simply be that the dog fears noise.  Regardless of the source, the idea behind most treatments requires lowering the dog’s anxiety and using counter-conditioning.  Counter-conditioning means to change the dog’s present negative association of bad things with thunder to a positive association.

Methods of lowering the dog’s anxiety are many: 

  • Anxiety Wrap, Thundershirts or tight t-shirts – Studies have shown that some dogs experience a lowering in their anxiety if they are hugged securely.  Several garments have been invented with this theory in mind.  The Anxiety Wrap is worn around the dog’s torso. It fits very snugly and may simulate the action of being hugged.  The Thundershirt works in a similar fashion. Instead of buying either of these, some dogs respond to a tight t-shirt worn similarly around the torso.
  • Static cape – Although I have never heard of any dogs who have benefited from this garment, the static cape is a garment worn around the dog’s shoulders and back (just like a cape) and has been purported to reduce the static charge affecting the dog during a storm.
  • DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) –When dogs nurse their pups, they emit a pheromone which is comforting to the puppies.  There is a product on the market called DAP which is a synthetic version of this pheromone.  First available as a plug-in unit (like an air freshener), it also comes in a spray version and as a collar worn around the dog’s neck.  Many dogs have shown improvement in their reactions to thunder when this product is used. 
  • Lavender, essential oils and flower essences – Many people believe that these products have calming effects on dogs.  Although no scientific evidence exists to prove it, there is no harm in trying them.  The results may be very subtle yet effective.
  • Massage and T-touch – Gentle and slow stroking helps to relax dogs.  If your dog’s reaction to thunder is not severe, he may enjoy a relaxing massage at the beginning of a storm to help keep him from getting more agitated.  However, a dog who reacts severely to storms will not be able to settle down for a massage.  I once visited a new client to give his dog a massage.  In the distance, the dog could hear thunder but I could not.  This poor dog would not lie down for me and nothing I did settled him. It wasn’t long until I heard the thunder myself and realized this dog was not in any mood to be massaged.

Dogs with more severe thunder phobia will need counter-conditioning and possibly medication:

  • Counter-conditioning – A thunder phobic dog has developed an association of something bad with thunder.  He is “conditioned” to react with fear.  The objective of counter-conditioning is to teach the dog to associate good things with thunder.  A common approach is to play a CD with thunder sounds, very softly at first, as you feed the dog high quality treats.  The idea is hopefully the dog will then develop a new conditioned response to the thunder – to look for high quality treats when he hears the thunder. 
  • Medication – Sedatives are usually the last resort when a dog is severely affected by thunder. Many vets still prescribe acepromazine (ACE) which is administered at the first signs of a storm.  This is a very powerful tranquilizer that zonks out the dog after about an hour.  Unfortunately, the storm can come and go before the medication takes effect, and often times, the owners are not home when the storm hits to be able to administer it to the dog anyway.  Additionally, research has shown that dogs who are given ACE become more thunder phobic.  The presumption is that ACE causes the dog to be out of control.  This lack of control during a fearful event creates an even more conditioned fear response.  More and more veterinarians are now prescribing Xanax instead of ACE.  Consult your veterinarian for medication recommendations. 

Best yet, a combination of treatments are now being explored.  The use of medication, DAP, the Anxiety Wrap or Thundershirt and any other relaxing activity during counter-conditioning can create a package of a positive conditioned response to storms.  This is how it works:

When there is no storm present, light a lavender candle, plug in the DAP unit (or spray the DAP), dress the dog in the Anxiety Wrap/Thundershirt (or a tight t-shirt) and do some massage.  Play the CD with the thunder sounds as you give the dog very high quality treats that he usually does not have (canned chicken, string cheese, liver bites).  The idea is that the dog will form an association of the lavender candle, the wrap/t-shirt, a massage, and great treats with thunder.  So when a real storm approaches, you can do the same routine (if you are home) and the dog will feel better. 

Resolving phobias is tricky business.  Ensure you proceed slowly and consult with a professional before attempting any counter-conditioning.  All of these methods require a huge consistent commitment to work with the dog.  It’s worth it, if it keeps your dog with you and makes him happier.

It’s still March and my town has already experienced two evenings with thunder booms. Having lived with a severely thunder-phobic dog for the last 8 ½ years, I completely sympathize with people who also have dogs who quiver, drool and freak out with approaching dark clouds and the first raindrop. I originally wrote an article in 2007 for the Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue’s newsletter called April Showers Bring…Thunderstorms and it has subsequently been reprinted in Our Havanese magazine. I have updated it for this blog, and will divide it into two posts as it’s a lot of information for one post. 

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when you hear the forecast that many dog owners dread – chance of thunderstorms.  People lose sleep and often time from their jobs in attempts to be with their dogs during storms.  Houses get destroyed when dogs frantically try to escape the noise.  I even heard of a dog who jumped out of a second story window in an attempt to find safety.  Consider yourself among the lucky ones if your dog does not completely freak out during a storm.  Even though your dog may not have problems now, many dogs develop thunder and noise phobias later in life.  Let’s first review how to ensure your dog does not become thunder-phobic.  Then we’ll take a look at what can be done to work with dogs who react fearfully during storms.

It only takes one incident for a dog to learn to fear thunder.  You may be in the middle of some particularly loud and house-shaking boomers when you dog’s ears go back and he runs under the bed.  Being human with the instinct to nurture, our first inclination is to tell the dog that everything’s okay.  We even hug the dog and comfort him like a child.  The problem with this approach is that dogs don’t think like humans. Telling a dog that “it’s okay” is not understood.  Dogs, instead, may read this comforting as a reinforcer for the behavior. In the dog’s mind, he’s thinking, “Hmm, I act scared and I get comforted which feels good.  So I’ll keep on acting scared in order to receive more comforting.”  A dog cannot reason that “it’s okay” means that the thunder will not harm him. Researchers are divided on this theory, however. Some believe that comforting a dog during a thunderstorm reinforces fear while others think that it’s cruel to ignore a dog who is reacting fearfully. 

I prefer not to comfort the dog but instead to redirect him to something fun and distracting if possible. But all dogs react differently. Some like to find a safe place to hide; others prefer to be close to their people. Most dogs have a place in their homes where they feel good.  If your dog gravitates to this area in a storm, allow your dog to go there undisturbed.  But if your dog does not seek a safe place and instead comes to you, act like nothing is wrong.  Try to engage him in play or distract him with his favorite treats.  Have him do sits, stays and other obedience commands that show your dog that you are in charge and in control of the situation.  Plus it also serves to distract you from the scary storm!  After all, we may have the tendency to react nervously ourselves during a bad storm. Our dogs pick up on our reactions. I have a friend who bakes cookies during a storm and her dog loves it!

 Next time, we will get into what to do if your dog is already thunder-phobic.

Dog Training Tip of the Week – No! No?

It amazes me how easily and quickly the word “no” comes out of our mouths. We commonly scold children, pets and each other with that ubiquitous word. Even though it’s so popular, it’s my least favorite word but not just because of its negativity. For pets, this word is meaningless. Dogs have no idea what “no” means. Simply by your tone of voice, they can tell that you’re not happy. That’s it. You’re not teaching your pet anything when you say “no.” When we do dog training, we teach the dog to associate an action with a word, such as “sit” means to put the butt on the ground and “come” means to walk towards you. How can you teach an association with “no”? You can’t because there is no action you can pair with it.

Saying “no” to your dog can have two different effects. First, it can frighten your dog if you’re yelling at him. And that’s no way to treat your dog or have a trusting relationship. Second, for many behaviors such as barking or begging, when you say “no,” you are delivering attention to your dog and reinforcing the behaviors you are trying to discourage. There are alternatives to saying “no.” If you want your dog not to steal food or grab something, we discussed using “leave it” in my post on January 14. If your dog is begging, see the post on January 24. And if your dog jumps, the post on January 5 addressed this issue.

I’ve witnessed many times when people inappropriately yell “no” to the dog when another more constructive course of action is desirable. A prime example is when a dog is barking or growling at something: another dog, a cat, a squirrel, a child, etc.  The dog already has a negative reaction to whatever it is he’s responding to. If you yell “no!” you are reinforcing in the dog’s mind that there really is something negative. You’ll make the problem even worse. I recently witnessed a shelter worker testing a dog to find out if he was aggressive to other dogs. When the dog barked at the other dog, the worker yanked on the dog’s leash and screamed, “No!!!”  That dog will now be more likely to repeat the behavior.

I tried several years ago to convey this concept to a woman in Nebraska who rescues puppy mill dogs. She said she screams “No!” when the dogs growl at one another to make them stop. I kindly recommended a different course of action, something that would not cause more negativity. Unfortunately, she disagreed. How sad that puppy mill survivors are getting yelled at. It will make their recovery time even longer or worse – they may never trust a human or may always growl at other dogs.

Instead of yelling “no” to stop a dog’s inappropriate behavior, try counter-conditioning. That will be our topic next time.