Tag Archive: training your dog

Myths of Dog Behavior

In my years of working with clients and their dogs, and at shelters and rescues, I have heard quite a few statements about dog behavior that many people believe to be true. Here are my top six myths and the facts:

1.  “The dog did it out of spite.”

Oh, how many times I’ve heard this when a dog has housetraining issues or have chewed something! In reality, dogs are not spiteful creatures. There are other reasons for the behaviors such as inadequate housetraining, separation anxiety, or other stresses. Dogs seek pleasure and avoid pain, just as we do. More analysis of the situation is necessary to determine exactly why the dog acted that way. Usually, spiteful really equates to “scared” and even “bored” in the dog’s mind.

2. You should always go through the door first to show the dog who is boss.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that the dominance theory is nonsense. Dogs don’t need bosses, they need benevolent leadership and good parenting. When you force yourself through the door before your dog, a power struggle is certain to ensue. Instead, have the dog wait calmly at the door until you give the instruction to go ahead. It’s perfectly fine to allow your dog to go through the dog first as long you tell him to!

3. Feeding human food to dogs makes them beg.

Dogs beg because they have learned that they will get food from you. It doesn’t matter what kind of food you are feeding them! Dogs think in pictures (thank you, Temple Grandin!). If they see you giving them food when you are sitting at the table or somewhere else, they quickly learn that this is where they can get food. They associate that picture with getting good things. My dog, Gizzy, is fed small pieces of vegetables when I am preparing my salad at the counter. So he knows to stand by my side when I’m at that position, regardless if I am making a salad or washing the dishes! A better option is to always feed your dog from his bowl. If you want to give him human food, place it in his bowl and never feed from anywhere else. That way, he knows that his food always comes from that place.

4. When dogs hump, it’s a sexual behavior.

Let’s hope that your dog is spayed and neutered! With the huge problem of pet overpopulation and the killings in shelters, there is very little reason for any pet to be unaltered. Most humping behavior stops once the dog is altered. 

An altered pet may hump another dog or a person due to anxiety or an attempt to establish social ranking. You’ll often see an insecure dog try to hump another dog. Anxiety is usually at the root of humping behavior. Yelling at the dog to stop only increases the anxiety. Instead, divert the dog’s attention to something else – play and exercise is best to eliminate the anxiety hormones streaming through the dog’s body.

5. A dog who acts scared or tries to bite was abused.

I hear this constantly!  People assume that a dog who acts scared or flinches when someone tries to pet him has been hit by a person. While in some cases that may be true, many times it is because the dog has not been socialized with people. Our society likes to pamper and spoil our dogs. Many people get dogs as puppies and never allow the dogs outside of the house. Some dogs have never been exposed to children, dogs who live with only women may be fearful of men, etc. Get your puppies out and expose them to the world!

6. A dog who leans up against you is being dominant.

Eek, dominant, there’s that word again.  A dog’s behavior should not be assessed based on one action. Other behaviors and body language need to be considered. Many dogs like the affections of humans and love to be close to us. That does not make them “dominant.” They may be attention seekers.  I’ve met so many Pit Bulls who are “leaners” and are not at all aggressive or “dominant.”  They’re sweet and affectionate. If you are looking to see if a dog has a strong personality, assess other factors too. Does he look away when you look him directly in the eye? Are his ears and tail perked up? Will he allow you to stroke him down the back or hug him?  Dominance is not a character trait but an action within the context of situations.

How about you? Do you hear people say things about dog behavior that you know are just wrong?


Showing Dominance?

No topic in the world of dog behavior is more controversial and misunderstood as the concept of dominance. It’s a complicated subject and not always easy to explain, observe and interpret. There are two perspectives on dominance: The human’s and the dog’s. This post will focus on the human interaction with the dog and I’ll tackle the dog’s side of the debate in a future post.

WordPress, the host of this blog, shows me the search phrases that people have entered to bring them here. It amazes me how many times this phrase appears: How to show dominance to a dog. Sounds like a lot of people didn’t get the memo – you don’t show dominance to a dog! In my post on February 21, 2011, I explained how the dominance theory was inaccurately developed and proliferated.

Instead of “being dominant” over dogs which is all-too-often misinterpreted as showing physical force, dog behavior experts have learned that being a leader is preferable. What’s the difference?

The dominance theory recommends using something called an alpha roll or a dominance down to control a dog and show the dog who is boss. People who still advocate the dominance methods say to pin a dog down if the dog growls, gets over-excited, tries to bite or just about any time that the dog needs to behave. I once worked with a family who had a Golden Retriever. The husband regularly alpha-rolled the dog and this sweet-natured pup grew into a highly stressed and fearful dog, especially around the husband. No wonder.

Other dominance techniques use force as well: Ensure that the human always goes through doors first and on walks, the dog must stay by the person’s side or walk behind. A power struggle is usually the result of both of these techniques.

Being a leader is preferable to showing dominance because no force is used. Force can harm the dog’s psyche and damage the bond between human and dog.  And it can often make behavior issues worse.

Leadership is kinder, gentler, more effective and most aligned with how dogs really think. Dogs respect a leader who is calm, in control and does not need to resort to physical displays. Just as humans. Watch our most respected leaders and see that they are calm and in control. We certainly don’t like bullies and neither do dogs!

Being a dog’s leader is simply about controlling the dog’s resources. A resource is anything that a dog wants: Food, treats, toys, affection, access to furniture/the bed, going in/out of doors, going up/down steps, going out for walks, and anything else that the dog desires. As a leader, the human must ask the dog to either sit or wait before getting a resource. That’s it!

Let’s use an example to compare leadership to dominance techniques. Your dog wants to go out the door and gets very excited. The dominance theory recommends that the person goes through the door first which can turn into a physical battle of wills with the dog. Instead, showing leadership and controlling the resources would have you asking the dog to sit and wait calmly before getting the privilege to go out. The human doesn’t need to go first. Once the dog learns that he gets nothing without being calm and good, there is no power struggle. The dog can relax and not worry about getting forced to do anything and best of all, the dog is not in charge. With humans who are leaders, dogs feel less anxious and are less prone to behavior issues.

Try it, you and your dog will like it!

Boom! Oooo! Aaaah! Yes, that’s our reaction to spectacular fireworks, but your dog may have a different response. “Yipe!” is more like it. With the Fourth of July approaching, this weekend stacks up as the most dangerous for pets, believe it or not. Animal shelters always see a rise in strays because so many dogs will dash out the door or escape from the yard in an attempt to get away from the offending noise.  Here are a few things to consider to keep your dog (and your cat too!) safe if you know that your neighborhood will be hosting fireworks.

First of all, if you and your family are going somewhere to watch fireworks, please keep your dog at home. When I was a novice dog owner, I made the terrible mistake that so many people make – I took my dog with me to watch fireworks.  I thought, “Hey, this is a fun family event, why not let the dog share in the fun?” Wrong!  She shook so badly that I had to take her home after just a few minutes. So please, keep your dogs at home! And inside. Ensure that all of your doors and windows are closed and locked. Yes, windows too. Some dogs have been known to jump through the window screen in an attempt to get out.

If you already know that your dog has a noise phobia, take preventative measures. Administer a sedative from your veterinarian a couple of hours prior to the fireworks event. If you wait until your dog is already in a nervous state, it may be too late for the sedative to work.  You also may want to read my post about overcoming thunder phobia. The same techniques apply to fireworks as well.

If you haven’t seen any reaction from your dog to fireworks, congratulations!  You’re so lucky. But don’t take for granted that your dog may not acquire this fear at some point.  As dogs age, some become more sensitive to the noise. Take the same precautions as above by ensuring that your dog is safely in the house. You may even want to give your dog some melatonin or Benadryl which will make the dog sleepy. Consult your veterinarian for dosages for your dog’s size.  Or try Rescue Remedy, a flower essence which has been known to help some dogs overcome stress, or Composure, an herbal tonic.

Other things you can do: Play the television or radio loud enough to mask the noise, do some training or play some games with your dog, and most of all act as if there is nothing to be concerned about. As we know, our dogs are masters at reading our emotions.

Enjoy the Fourth, knowing that your best friend is safe and happy!

What if people told you to shut up every time you tried to speak?  As you run up to a friend you haven’t seen in a while and exclaim, “I’m so happy to see …,” your friend shouts, “Quiet!” Doesn’t feel so good, huh?  Well, that’s what we do so frequently to our dogs when they bark. Barking is a natural behavior for dogs and it’s very unfair to ask them never to bark. Our job as dog-parents is to teach them when it is appropriate to “speak” and when to stay quiet, no different than guiding a child who is just discovering his voice.

We frequently are the perpetrators in teaching our dogs to bark and making it worse.  I recently watched a 4-week-old litter of nine puppies and the alpha male whimpered persistently for attention. His whimpering escalated to the cutest little puppy bark I’d ever heard. I also watched the natural human reaction as my friend picked up and coddled him, thinking that he would stop once he received attention. Not!  It made him worse – the behavior was reinforced and no doubt this puppy will grow up to be an attention-seeking barker.

My first dog would bark when she saw a car going down our sleepy street, and she went into a frenzy when our next-door neighbor turned into their driveway.  But I was a novice dog person back in 1988 and I encouraged her. I would run to the window when I saw my neighbors coming home and shout their names. My dog would come running, sounding the alarm. Very quickly, my dog would come on command when I called my neighbor’s names excitedly.  She barked out the window even though nobody was there. I thought it was funny and made it a game.  Her barking at anything out the window was fine because we lived in a quiet country setting. However, when I moved to an apartment a few years later, her barking was not so funny. We had a lot of activity around us and her barking brought complaints.

Barking is a complex problem and not easy to correct.  Sadly, for that reason and because many people don’t want to bother investing time into training their dogs, several punishment-based collars have been invented.  Shock collars, citronella collars and collars that emit a tone can be purchased.  I found a very distressing web site that claims to help people stop nuisance barking.  They sell these kinds of collars and advocate methods such as shouting “NO!!!” when the dog barks and spritzing him in the face with a water bottle and even smacking him on the nose with two fingers.  Ack!!  I not only don’t advocate any of these methods, I abhor them and the people who sell, recommend and utilize them. Talk about destroying the trust in your relationship with your dog

Dogs bark for various reasons and to address the problem, we need to break it down into situations. Not all barks are the same.  Before we can address how to stop barking, the source needs to be understood. Here are a few general categories of barking.

Excited or Alert or Fear Barking: Many dogs bark when they hear noises, see people or other animals. I don’t know of very many dogs who will not bark when they see someone out the window or hear the doorbell or knock on the door. This barking is often driven by cortisol and adrenaline which are emitted as the result of the classic “fight or flight” response. Or the dog could simply be excited to see someone, which also creates an adrenaline response.

Territorial 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!” 

Attention Seeking: I covered this often-annoying habit that some dogs have of barking to get attention in a post on May 2.  See that post for solutions.

Boredom and Separation Anxiety: In my post on separation anxiety, I discussed how it is a sad fact that so many of our dogs have to be left alone for hours every day due to our busy lifestyles. They don’t get the exercise and mental stimulation required to keep them happy and bark-free.

Play Barking: Some dogs express their delight by barking. And we humans can inadvertently reinforce this habit when we laugh at them and encourage the behavior. Unless the barking annoys you too much, I would hate to squelch your dog’s happiness by trying to eliminate the barking during play.  This is a tough one to tackle!

In my next couple of training tip posts, I will discuss methods – all positive! – to help extinguish nuisance barking. Woof!

Nothing is more complicated for a pet behavior consultant and trainer than dogs who exhibit signs of stress when they are left alone. By the time we are consulted, the owner is often ready to give the dog away. I’ve worked with some extreme cases where the dogs had literally torn down their houses. Ripped doorframes, chewed molding, destroyed window screens, holes dug in the drywall, rugs in shreds. Destructiveness is just one symptom of separation anxiety in dogs. Other signs are excessive barking, inappropriate elimination, drooling, and pacing.

We’re not certain why some dogs freak out when left alone but others take it in stride. From my experience, most dogs who have separation anxiety have “parents” who spoil them and allow the dog to be the leader. While some dogs are confident and well-balanced enough to handle the leadership role, other dogs are not so eager to have that responsibility on their furry shoulders. Dogs who are more insecure should not be given the leadership role. It makes them much more anxious. One theory is that when an insecure dog is in charge and his “parents” leave him, he gets nervous because he cannot see them in order to tell them what to do!  Makes sense. So many dogs follow their people around relentlessly in order to keep an eye on them, not because they love us so much. It’s because they are in control.

Separation anxiety involves not just treating the dog but also the relationship of the dog with the family; therefore, there are no quick tips that I can convey here to help resolve the problem. Every relationship is unique. But one easy step to follow applies to our relationship with every dog in our care: The humans must be the leaders. It relieves the dog of the pressure of being in charge and avoids many potential behavior problems.

A good leader is kind and fair – no force is involved. Remember, you will never hear me advise someone to alpha roll (a.k.a., dominance down, restrain or pin the dog down) because that is NOT how to show leadership. A good leader never loses control by using physical means but instead controls the resources for the dog. What’s a resource? Anything that the dog wants:  Food, treats, affection, toys, play, walks, getting on the furniture, going outside, etc. Some trainers call this method “Nothing in Life is Free,” meaning that the dog must “work” for what he wants.  So, for example, when you feed your dog, ask him to “sit” and wait calmly for you to place his bowl on the floor. Or if your dog has a habit of asking you to play by dropping balls at your feet or nudging your hand for petting (see Dog Training Tip – Attention Seeking), just get your dog to sit or give paw or some other action that shows your dog that you are the one calling the shots.

All of my dogs have liked to rush the door when it’s walk time. Instead of me allowing them to push out the door, I ask them to back up several feet and “stay.” They know that cannot go for a walk unless they follow this rule. If they break the stay and rush the door, I simply walk away. They very quickly learned that they do not get what they want unless they follow my rules.  It’s kind and benevolent.

It’s pretty remarkable how quickly dogs respond to their humans taking over as the leaders. I once worked with a client whose black Lab was so obnoxious with following her around, barking for attention and freaking out when in his crate that she was ready to find a new home for him.  Literally within three days of my visit and advising the entire family to consistently be the leaders, the dog’s behavior changed.  He relaxed, stopped barking, no longer felt the need to follow them around and was easier to train to go into his crate.

Some dogs with separation anxiety may require medications to help them. As with human psychological disorders, a combination of drug therapy and behavior modification can work well.

Why I Have Baaaaad Dogs

From the moment I met Gizzy on November 16, 2002, my life has been about bad boys. Three to be exact, all Golden Retrievers. And who knows how many more there will be in the future. I love them. They’ve been the loves of my life despite all of their foibles, and the very best teachers as a result. 

Prior to adopting Giz, I had Caper for almost 14 years. She was a very typically sweet, smart Golden Retriever. She was perfect. But as my career of working with animals was developing, so was my need to experience first-hand what it was like to live with and try to rehabilitate a dog with behavior problems.  Oh boy, that was Gizzy!  

I hadn’t intended to adopt Gizzy. I was going to be his foster mom. Caper had just passed away and I was depressed and lonely. I needed a dog in my life.  I was told by the rescue group in Quakertown, PA that he was “not good with children” and that I would be the perfect foster home for him because I had no children.  Great, I could definitely deal with that!  I travelled an hour and a half to meet Gizzy (his name was Gizmo at the time). He came bounding out of the grooming room, jumping and kissing in a tornado of blonde fur. He took my breath away, he was so beautiful and friendly – and he looked almost exactly like Caper, except the face. Same coloring, same long white feathering down the legs and tail.  How could I just foster this dog? He was mine forever; I signed the adoption papers on the spot.

Then we got home and I gradually uncovered his true personality. He was not Caper, that’s for sure. (Lesson number one from Gizzy: Never adopt a dog to replace your deceased dog based on looks.  They will be entirely different personalities!)  In addition to being bad with children, I discovered that Gizzy was violently reactive to other dogs. Like a stealth bomber, he would let them approach and as soon as the dog got into his face, he attacked. Ferociously. Wow. They didn’t tell me about this… Okay, I can deal with this. I learned all about working with dog aggression in school and had worked with clients on the issue.

Next came the bones. Gizzy growled at me one night when I tried to take his bone from him. Hmm, they didn’t tell me about this either. And finally, he growled at me when I tried to move him off of the sofa. As it turned out, my new dog had just about every behavior issue imaginable! Oh yes, he was also afraid of thunderstorms, a problem that grew into a full-blown phobia. I guess I got what I wished for when I said I wanted a dog to show me what my clients go through.  Little did I dream that it would be wrapped up in one doggie package!

In our 8 ½ years together, I have learned more from working with him and understand exactly what my clients are dealing with when they call me for help with their dogs. I am completely empathetic. Now that he’s an old man of 13 years, his behavior problems are all but gone.

In 2004, along came Donner, the old stray who had been at the rescue’s shelter for 9 months. Besides being older, he had a limp and a major nipping problem. He was on the verge of getting put down when I stepped in and adopted him. When Donner got excited, he liked to hump you then chomp down hard on your arm, leg, rear end – whatever was in his reach. He was pretty obnoxious. And I still have the scar on my arm to prove it. But I loved him dearly. And I learned a great deal from him about how to deal with his kind of behavior problem, especially the benefits of keeping a dog calm.

Donner only lived for 20 months after I adopted him, succumbing to a tumor on his heart in May, 2006. As he was slipping away from me, I wrote the story, The Old Dog Nobody Wanted, published in the book Pets Across America.

A year later Archie arrived, my joyfully amusing 9-year-old with the stumpy wagging tail. He was a happy, loving dog – until you touched his feet. He turned into the Incredible Hulk, a snarling, snapping changeling. He was inspiration in writing my article, Grappling With Grooming. Archie taught me the benefits of counter-conditioning dogs to tolerate something that they had previously hated. In the 2 ½ years that we were together, he learned that wiping feet and nail trims were not so bad.

My three bad boys. I will love them dearly forever. What they have taught me cannot be underestimated. I admit I often long for a sweet creature like my Caper, a dog without behavior problems who is easy to live with. But for someone like me, with the training and knowledge to help dogs who maybe cannot live with others, I’m the perfect home and will greet more with open arms in the future. Bad dogs are the best teachers!  Thanks boys!

It’s so, so cute when they are puppies.  The nose nudge, an occasional paw smacking your arm, the look of love, the undivided attention to you – the one they love. So irresistible and appealing to our need to be loved. But when they grow up, so annoying! Some dogs learn at a very young age that if they ask to be petted by barking or nose-nudging or any other clever means, they will get attention. And they will never stop. That wonderful feeling of being loved turns to annoyance just as quickly.

I’ve met quite a few dogs through my behavior consulting business who have caused their owners to reach the breaking point. They simply could not stand the constant neediness of their dogs.  And I had to be the one to inform these people that they actually created the problem. When their dogs asked to be petted, they petted them. Yes, it sounds reasonable but it’s so easy to create a behavior issue when the dog is placed in the position of leadership.  And how is this leadership? Simply put, when the dog asks to be petted and gets petted, the dog has trained his person. The dog is in charge. 

I’ve said it so many times – the smartest dogs can often be the worst-behaved.  They quickly learn how to get what they want. When you combine an insecure dog with a very soft-hearted human, you get an attention-seeking dog. Attention-seeking is also very difficult to eliminate if you do not understand how a dog thinks. Most people will try to stop their dog’s insistent need to be petted by giving in to them.  But they do not realize that giving in rewards and reinforces the behavior.  The dog knows that if they bark or nudge, they will eventually get attention.

Just like begging which we covered in the Dog Training Tip of the Week on January 24, once the dog learns that their behavior results in the response that they want from their humans, the dogs will continue doing it.

Attention seeking behavior is very, very difficult to eliminate. It takes a great deal of consistency and persistence. My advice often seems cold-hearted to some owners but it‘s very necessary in order to restore the relationship.

Attention seeking can be stopped if the owner withdraws attention to the dog when the dog asks for it. Simple, huh? Not really. Most people will get annoyed and frustrated with their dogs when they are constantly pestering them. The people will yell at the dog and push them away, as well as other corrections. Well, that’s the problem with corrections. You are still giving attention to the dog – which rewards the behavior.  Behaviors are rewarded when the dog receives attention, regardless if the attention is intended to be praise or punishment.  The dog only sees it as attention. So the dog continues to attention seek.

Ignoring the dog when he asks for attention is the first step in extinguishing the behavior. The other step requires that you reverse the relationship. Instead of your dog asking for your attention, you need to be calling the shots. You initiate the petting instead of your dog.  And if your dog seeks attention, first ignore him, then have your dog sit or do some other activity. By doing this, then you are in charge, not your dog.

 So the next time your dog nudges you for attention and you can’t stand it anymore, here’s what you do:

–          Completely ignore your dog. Do not talk to him or touch him.

–          Stand up and walk away if necessary.

–          After ignoring your dog for a few seconds, call him to you.  Ask him to sit or do something else. Then you can pet him.

As with most behavior modification plans for your dog, everyone who interacts with him must adhere to the rules. It’s not only unsuccessful but confusing to the dog if someone allows the dog to attention seek. Consistency is the language of dog!

Puppy teeth. Little needles that pierce your fingers when they chomp down. Puppies are inquisitive creatures and explore their worlds with smell and taste. Everything goes into their mouths. If they are not guided at a young age, puppies will continue to use their mouths and teeth inappropriately.

In an ideal world, puppies stay with their moms and littermates until they are at least 8 weeks old. Those weeks are a pivotal behavior classroom where pups learn good manners. If a pup bites his littermate too hard, the littermate will yelp and run away. “I’m not playing with you anymore!” the pup seems to say. So the offending pup learns that if he bites too hard, he no longer has friends to play with.

But many puppies are being denied this critical period of education: Puppy mill-bred dogs are usually removed from their moms and littermates at about 4 weeks to be shipped to pet stores. And some backyards breeders, especially of Pit Bulls, allow pups to leave too soon.

Puppies who have not learned bite inhibition will grow up to be mouthy adults and be quite difficult to live with. I know, I adopted one. His name was Donner and I wrote a story about him called The Old Dog Nobody Wanted, published in the book, Pets Across America.  Donner, a handsome red Golden Retriever, was no pup.  He was about 9 years old when I adopted him.  He became very grabby when he was overexcited.  I still have a scar on my arm as a memento. As I explained in his story, I tried several different methods advocated by various dog “experts” to validate what I already knew to be the proper means to extinguish the behavior. Just to see how Donner reacted to these dumb methods, I did the “alpha roll” otherwise called “dominance down” to get Donner to calm down, as well as holding him by the jowls. These methods didn’t work, as predicted. They only jacked him up more and he grabbed harder. Okay, Donner, stop laughing. He knew that these methods don’t teach dogs not to grab!  Here’s a list of other things not to do:

–          Never use your hands to correct the dog/pup when he nips. I’ve heard of trainers telling people to either clamp the dog’s mouth shut or chuck the dog under the chin with your fist. These actions will cause your dog to fear your hands by associating them with punishment. You also may make the nipping worse or cause your dog become more aggressive with the biting.

–          Never scream at the dog and don’t tell him “No!” As discussed in my post on February 6, 2011, “No” teaches them nothing.

–          Never use force to try to calm the dog, as explained above.

–          Believe it or not, some people actually get so frustrated with their dog’s nipping that they muzzle the dog, tie a cord around the dog’s mouth and I’ve even seen dogs with duct tape wrapped around their muzzles. I hope I don’t have to say “Don’t do this!”

The best ways to stop pups and adult dogs from using their teeth inappropriately employ the same dog psychology taken right from watching littermates at play. If your pup/dog nips you too hard, first try letting out a loud, high-pitched “Yip!” like a pup would do if bitten too hard. If your dog stops and looks at you, give him an enormous smile and a very soft, calm “Good dog!” It’s very important not to be too enthusiastic and loud with your praise because that may excite your dog again and the nipping may resume.

If the “Yip!” method does not work, try this: When your pup nips you, give him a toy or a bone, and again praise him softly when he takes the toy. (Remember that we always praise our dogs when they are doing good things!)

Finally, if your dog persists with nipping despite these two suggestions, simply stand up and silently walk away from your dog. That’s what littermates do. Your dog will learn that he loses the privilege of your attention if he nips you.

For any of these solutions to help, it is so important that you and everyone who interacts with your dog must be consistent and not allow the dog to nip by employing whichever of these suggestions are effective.

Tune into your dog’s behavior. Watch him and learn to see when he gets nippy. Is it when he is really wound up? If he is anything like my Donner, keeping him calm will “nip” the issue in the bud!

Getting your dog to come to you reliably and consistently can be one of the most challenging and frustrating things to teach your dog. Entire books are dedicated to this subject! It’s not easy and requires a lot of practice and consistency. I will tackle this topic in several posts. Today, let’s review what types of things we do that encourage dogs not to come to us.

When dogs are puppies, we have the opportunity to shape their behavior in order to get the very best behaved dog. Or…we can do things that will forever make your dog difficult. I see many people inadvertently discourage their puppies from coming to them by doing several things:

–          Because pups can be so wild and active, many people will call their pup to them and once the pup finally comes to them, they will grab the pup, mostly by the collar, and restrain the pup.

–          So many times, people will catch their pups doing something wrong and they will call the pup to them and scold the pup.

–          People who use crates to train their pups will call the pup to get him to go into the crate, usually against the pup’s will. The pup quickly learns that “come” means playtime is over and he can no longer have fun.

These incidences all create negative feelings because something bad happened when the pup came to his person. In the pup’s mind, he’s thinking, “I don’t want to come to you because I won’t like it!”

Back in the early 2000’s, I used an accountant for my business who had a very lovely Lab.  She was a sweetheart!  A very soft and loving dog. When we finished with our business meeting one day, the accountant and I went out into the yard to play Frisbee with the dog. She was a wonderful Frisbee girl!  Most of the time, she brought the Frisbee right back to us.  She knew that she would get her reward in another chance to catch it.  But one time when my accountant called to her, she didn’t come back to us and instead decided to sniff around.  He called to her again. After four tries she finally trotted up to us with tail wagging happily.  My accountant scolded her and hit her repeatedly on the rear. She was visibly upset and fearful. I was mortified. I tried to explain to him that if you hit your dog when she finally comes to you, she will never want to come to you again. In the dog’s mind, she’s thinking, “I come to him, I get scolded and hit.” Yes, I quickly changed accountants.

So, tip number one for training your dog to come to you: Make it an enormously happy and wonderful thing whenever your dog comes to you. Always, consistently. It’s obviously best to start as a puppy but any dog can be shown that coming to you is a good thing. After all, if a puppy mill survivor can learn to come to people, any dog can!

Why Cesar Millan Is Not a Whisperer

Facebook is such great fodder for my blog! Last week someone posted an article about Cesar Millan, a.k.a. the dog whisperer. It’s amazing how just the mention of his name creates controversy. Almost as much as Michael Vick!  You either love him or you wish he would go away. Yes, I was one of the people joining in the “conversation” about Millan.  Want to take a guess at where I stand?

When some people meet me and I tell them that I’m a pet behavior consultant, they often say, “oh, like the dog whisperer.” And that makes me cringe. No, please don’t compare me to him. It’s an insult. Unlike Millan, I have extensively studied animal behavior, learning theory, and behavior modification. I have attended numerous seminars and read just about everything imaginable written by scientists and professionals. Conversely, Millan had no formal education; he learned from watching his farm dogs and from experiences as a groomer. He created his own methods – whatever worked for him, he used on all dogs regardless of if it was sound or not. Pleeeeeeease don’t compare me to him. 

He became famous when he trained Jada Pinkett Smith’s dogs and she then told Oprah about him.  And the rest is history, of course, because of the “Oprah effect.” I do not respect some of his methods nor do I believe that the “results” he shows are always for real. It’s a TV show; it’s edited and made to be spectacular. After all, Millan has to live up to his image as a wunderkind. But guess what, he’s not a whisperer.

Millan advocates the use of force which studies have shown is detrimental to the psyche of the dog and erodes the trust in the relationship. Force evokes fear.  Millan often tells people to hold the dog down to make it submit and to show the owner’s dominance. This method was derived from studies of wolves and contended that the highest ranking wolf would roll the other wolves and hold them down to show dominance.  Sadly, this study proliferated among dog trainers and many still hang onto this notion. What they don’t realize is that more studies were performed and this theory was debunked. But the trainers obviously didn’t get the message! If you remember, a book by the Monks of New Skete advocated this training technique.  But the monks have since come out with a statement that they now do not advocate forced submission. Their book is still on the bookshelves – minus the recant.

Some people contend that Millan is working with highly aggressive dogs and that he has to use these methods.  Really?  Well what do people think most dog trainers and behavior consultants are doing, just teaching dogs not to pee in the house? Trainers work with aggressive dogs constantly; it’s what we do. The dogs we work with are no different than those on Millan’s show.

My biggest complaint about Millan is how he uses that “tsst” sound and a poke at the dog to disrupt inappropriate behavior. People who are well-versed in animal behavior know that what he is doing is not advisable for several reasons:

1) If a dog is growling and you do a “tsst” and a poke, you might make the growling worse.

2) You may get the dog to stop the inappropriate behavior but it may be temporary. What you are in danger of doing is causing the dog to stop the growling, which is in fact a warning signal that he is upset, but the dog is still not happy. He may skip the growl and go right for a bite.

3) Calling attention to inappropriate behavior often rewards and reinforces the behavior.

4) You are not addressing the root cause of the dog’s inappropriate behavior which is often fear. When you’re afraid, would it help if someone were to poke you and say “tsst”?  Not likely.

Others who have studied and understand animal behavior know it’s more advisable to use counter-conditioning techniques instead of force to modify dogs’ behaviors. (See my last post on February 16.) But this technique takes time and that would be boring on a TV show. I guess the American public likes quick fixes, that’s why Millan is so popular – train your dog in 15 minutes!  Real life is not a TV show. Proper dog training techniques require time and dedication.

I think the biggest reason why I hold Millan in disdain is not just for the inappropriate methods but more because he has become so popular. Why can’t someone who knows more about animal behavior and promotes respectful and positive training methods be as popular?  It makes me sad that Millan’s fame proliferates poor training techniques and that so many unknowledgeable dog owners are buying into it, thus the arguments on Facebook. It’s always the people who are not so well-versed in animal behavior who like Millan and defend him and his techniques most vehemently.

In all fairness, he does a lot right and I need to credit him for that. I completely agree that people need to be the leaders. (But not through force.) He’s also right on when he talks about calm energy. Dogs are masters at reading our energy and feeding off of it. And finally, Millan is very correct when he says that dogs need exercise. Just like people!

I hope that this post does not appear to be “bashing” Millan; I’m simply stating my viewpoint as an educated behavior specialist in the same field. After all, if someone in your field of expertise was on TV showing people how to do your job, you would have an opinion too! My passion is advocating for the animals and if I see someone doing something that I believe is not in their best interest, I need to speak up.  You do too!