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Your dog is behaving inappropriately. It’s embarrassing, it’s frustrating, it makes you look like a bad dog mom or dad. You just want the whirling dervish at the end of your leash to stop and behave. So, you pop and pull and yell, “No!” You are trying punishment to fix the problem.
Punishment is defined as anything that decreases a behavior. Obviously, when your dog is barking and lunging and completely out of control, the logical thing to do is to try to decrease the behavior.
Here’s the problem. All that barking and lunging is communication from your dog. What exactly are you punishing? Are you punishing the behavior or the communication?
Punishment decreases communication. Dogs have a large spectrum of body language and vocalizations to communicate with each other and with people. Humans also have a large spectrum of body language and vocalizations to communicate. Unfortunately, the two don’t always translate correctly. While dogs do “correct” other dogs, there are degrees. Some of it is just vocal, body movements, touching, or combinations of the above. Bullying behavior is not “corrective,” but oppressive. (Is your dog a bully?) The problem is that humans cannot replicate that language. We don’t have the vocal capacity or body language to do what dogs do. We just don’t.
Punishment decreases vocalization. We need dogs to communicate, and that includes some of the scary noises. We need the growl that precedes the bite, otherwise, the dog will just go directly for the bite. We need to know what the growl means and why it happened and teach the dog that growling isn’t needed. We don’t want to decrease the growl, we need to change the emotion that made the growl.
What you’re punishing isn’t always apparent. Barking and lunging isn’t always aggression. Can you tell the difference between excited barking and lunging and “I want to hurt you,” barking and lunging? It’s difficult. If you are punishing barking and lunging, are you correcting the excitement or the behavior? If the dog wants to hurt whatever they’re lunging at, is it out of fear? If so, are you correcting the fear or the lunging? Or even worse, are you adding to the fear because now the scary thing comes with punishment?
Punishment only works when the punisher is present. This means that the dog may walk wonderfully on a certain collar, but once that collar is removed the behavior returns. If good behavior is contingent on equipment, what happens when the equipment is off? Punishment doesn’t teach the dog what to do, it teaches them what not to do. Imagine your boss telling you what not to do all day and refusing to telling you what you should be doing. More than likely you’d be sitting in a chair doing nothing. As long as it’s not the wrong thing, you’re okay, right? Except it’s mind numbingly boring. Your boss goes out to lunch, what do you do? The punisher is gone, so now you get to play, relax, and maybe even get some work done.
Punishment can backfire. Grabbing a dog’s muzzle to get them to stop barking can make them afraid of hands. What happens when you need to check teeth or your dog is choking and you need to get into the mouth, but the dog is afraid? Punishment has consequences.
Punishment isn’t always effective. I see a lot of dog owners jerking the leash and yelling at their dogs and the dog is still barking and lunging. If the punishment isn’t decreasing the behavior, then it’s not a good choice. These are the situations when the dog is considered “stubborn.” The dog is not listening to the owner, so the dog is being “vindictive.” What’s really happening is the owner isn’t recognizing that the method they are using is ineffective, (and sometimes the behavior is actually getting worse.) It’s not the dog’s fault the method isn’t working. The owner needs to recognize that a different method is needed.
So, if the punishing isn’t working, now what? The opposite of punishing is reinforcing or rewarding. Rewarding good behavior that you like teaches the dog what to do. Instead of barking and lunging, you’d probably like the dog to walk nicely at your side, right? Give the dog a treat, praise, pets, or a toy when they are walking where you’d like. If they’re barking and lunging at other dogs or strangers or trash cans, increase the distance to those things until they are walking where you’d like and reward again. Make a mental note how far away you had to move to get good behavior and start moving closer in small steps. Training your dog doesn’t need to be confusing and overwhelming, a good reinforcement trainer will help.
Photo Credit: Anton Novoselov http://www.flickr.com/photos/antonnovoselov/
A lot of my time is spent discussing how dogs should behave. Is barking good or bad or both? “How do I stop the bad barking, but still feel safe? After all, that’s why I got a dog in the first place,” is a frequent conundrum for dog owners. As a trainer, I’ve discovered that the gold standard for having a “trained” dog to have a dog that knows “sit,” “down,” and “stay.” These behaviors are considered “basic,” and most owners stop teaching new things once they’re learned. But…are these the things every dog should know? I think there is so much more. Here’s my list of what every dog should know:
Allowing a dog to own their own life is a difficult balance. Our modern world and pet laws make their world confining and regulated. They can never fully be free, the most loving thing we can give them is some flexibility.
Since skills are still the hallmark of a well behaved dog, here are my top 10 skills every dog should know:
What would you add to this list? Did I miss something every dog should know?
Television has ruined our expectations. Bad guys get caught in the 46 minutes between commercials, houses get torn down and rebuilt, animals get rescued and make a complete recovery, and dogs get amazingly “cured,” all in between selling us insurance, soda and toilet paper. If you’ve ever tried to do any of the above, you know it takes much longer. It’s not just the time to physically do the task, but there’s planning, purchasing, and clean up as well; and that’s if everything goes right! Imagine my surprise when I planned an hour to replace a broken window and wound up with 7 stitches in my thumb. Change is messy and it takes time.
When it comes to our dogs, there isn’t a magic pill to fix behavior problems. A dog trainer can’t take your dog and magically transform it into the perfect specimen of doggyness in 30 minutes, no matter what you see on TV. Part of the problem is we all had different visions of what the perfect dog is. Some people like dogs that jump because it makes them feel wanted, some like dogs that bark because it makes them feel safe, and some like dogs that just hang out and leave them alone. When someone goes to a trainer and says “I just want (fill in the blank) fixed,” that’s really not all they want, it’s just the most pressing issue in the whole owning a dog thing. There are probably more problems to be fixed, but there’s a top one that’s driving them nuts. The first expectation solution is to think big. What else do you want? After the problem is fixed, what else do you want to do with your dog?
There’s usually an underlying issue. Most dog problems are annoying symptoms of an underlying problem. Lunging and barking on leash is usually a symptom of fear or over-stimulation or aggression. Growling at people is usually fear based. Failing to learn to sit or down may actually be a medical issue. A good trainer wants to help with the real problem because once that gets better, so does everything else. Helping with the real problem may mean spending some time teaching the dog to learn to relax, or learn to trust, along with helping the human with their frustration and expectations.
Dealing with an underlying issue. As an example of dealing with an underlying issue, Olivia would attempt to bolt when she heard noises out on walks. The fear response wasn’t just to really loud noises like cars backfiring, but stepping on leaves and acorns, cars passing, and garage doors closing. This made walking frustrating with a dog pulling in all directions. Fixing the underlying issue meant giving Olivia a safe space to relax while she learned that noises aren’t so scary.
To clarify, it took months to get to the level of relaxation seen in the video. It took a solid plan, reading the dog to know when it was time to stop or take a step back or make things easier or try a new challenge, and lots and lots of patience. It also took the long view that a few months spent on dealing with the underlying issue meant a lifetime of success in other areas. Learning other skills will go faster. Trust has been built, so facing scary things together means the dog can look to the human for direction when she’s confused about what to do.
Frustration is the underlying issue. Just like on TV, most people wait until things are really bad before asking for help. We get frustrated, lose patience, and hit the point where we’ll do or try anything to get a problem fixed. Or, we’ve had some success with the problem, but it keeps coming back. Once we hit this point, we stomp and yell, jerk the leash, or decide throwing noisy things will stop the problem. Unfortunately, most of these natural frustration responses make the problems worse. If the real problem is fear, terrifying a dog into better behavior isn’t really going to work. The rational mind knows this, but the frustrated mind just needs the problem to stop. Take a breath and realize the problem probably isn’t as bad, or as often, as you imagine.
Where the real expectations should be. The real expectations shouldn’t be about how your dog behaves or how fast behavior gets better, but in the abilities of a trainer to help you. It may seem really weird to spend quite a lot of time working on relaxing on a mat, but check out Olivia’s progress above. Modern dog training works more with the underlying emotions than the visible behaviors. Along with relaxing, we also work with arousal, particularly in dog sports. It may seem weird to spend time teaching your dog to play with you, but the foundation of play will make learning sports skills go much faster.
We can all learn to relax and play. Getting past the expectation of, “My dog should know what to do and do it because I asked,” is actually the first step toward getting better behavior. At it’s core, modern dog training is about teaching both dogs and humans to play and relax, hopefully together. The ability to play is the highest sign of well-being. For the human, this requires letting go of frustrations and expectations of how our dog should be and see them for who they are. For the dog, this requires letting go of fear and uncertainty, and building trust and relaxation.
Play and relaxation are learned skills. Isn’t it time to let go of our expectations and just learn to relax and play? How do you relax and/ or play with your dog?