Reading Your Dog’s Behavior
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You can’t train every dog the same way and expect to get consistently good results. You can’t send them away somewhere and expect them to be “fixed”, nor can you put them in a group class and expect that your dog’s personal issues will be resolved properly. High quality dog training is about communication. Dog training isn’t about doing things TO your dog, it is doing things WITH your dog. And that means you have to GET TO KNOW YOUR DOG and YOU HAVE TO READ YOUR DOG.
I call myself a trainer and behaviorist because I’m not just concerned about what the dog does, but how the dog feels about what it is doing. So, when I am working with a dog, I am not just teaching the dog a bunch of commands. I am getting to know the dog and the family, and I am ready, at a moment’s notice, to change tactics if I things aren’t going along properly.
In some cases, I am unraveling what some other trainer has done to a dog. I worked with quite a few dogs last year that had been maltreated by previous trainers. In almost every case, these dogs had been trained with too much force, and without developing a relationship with the dog or dealing with what was going on in the family. Now, it might seem to you that I would be against the use of corrections as a result, but that isn’t the case. There is a place for proper leadership. Many of the worst cases were dogs that were sent to those facilities where you send your dog away for training. Almost every facility of this type straps an electric collar on EVERY dog they train. It’s cheap (for them) to train many dogs at once, fast, and easy. They finish the “obedience” work in a couple of weeks or just a few days. The problem is the dogs they wreck because there isn’t anything positive or fair about it for the dogs. They look like zombies in obedience when they come home, and sometimes they still don’t obey.
You can wreck a dog using a leash and a collar just as easily as if you had used and electric collar. I have a friend whose dog was harmed by harsh leash training. The dog just shut down. I have seen a lot of that. I have nothing against using proper corrections, but HOW and WHY you apply them makes all the difference. I met one couple that was using a fireplace poker to manage and correct their dog. Of course, the dog eventually bit the husband! That wasn’t training, that was abuse.
Corrections have to be fair and rational. Just because a dog doesn’t do what you say, or bites someone, DOESN’T mean the dog knows better and deserves a correction. Sometimes the proper response is to deal with the situation using treats, toys or praise. I heard a local radio “celebrity” trainer suggest a “time out” as a correction for a fear-biting dog. She then went on to say that the reason the dog was biting guests in the posterior as they walked out the door was because the dog was “angry because they were leaving.” I was flabbergasted. All of that was pure poppycock. That was a phony diagnosis and her solution WOULD NOT solve fear biting. This person shouldn’t even be giving out advice! When your dog needs training, you want to work with someone that knows how to read your dog, can prescribe proper training techniques, and remedies for behavioral problems.
For every correction, even in the home, I try to make it a point to give the dog something positive in exchange when the dog does get it right. The harder I work a problem, the more positive reinforcement I provide to deal with my demands, and to point the way to success for the dog. Some dogs lack sufficient desire for treats, toys and praise, therefore, I will go so far as to put the dog on, what I call, a working diet. I will have the owner feed the dog 1/2 of its ration in the food bowl, and the dog has to earn the other half each day. The dog should be conditioned to like and want to do the work. Otherwise, training will cause the dog to go into avoidance or even defiance, make the dog sulk, want to avoid from the handler, and not obey off leash. You have to know your dog and what motivates him or her to get the best results.
You can also wreck a dog by spoiling it. That’s what happened to the sire of a friend’s dog. The previous owners raised him without any training, manners, rules or respect. He got to the point where he couldn’t be controlled. One day, the owner decided to correct him. The dog attacked and hospitalized him for 3 weeks. This good dog was poorly led. I sometimes see timid people get these big protection dogs, they let the dogs get out of control, and then blame the dog when it eventually bites someone. There is a difference between spoiling and loving your dog, and many people can’t tell the difference. They don’t know their dogs and haven’t learned to read or lead their dogs.
Some people are so concerned about being nice to their dogs, that they don’t see that there is a serious problem going on, and won’t take the “tough love” steps necessary to fix the problem (meaning taking leadership, managing and training their dogs). I have to remind myself sometimes that even when people put up objections to what I am saying, they wouldn’t have come to me if there wasn’t a problem. It is not my job to endanger the public. I have to be blunt with people about their irresponsible management and training. I’ve seen people who allow their dangerous dogs to menace friends, family and the public. They take their dangerous dogs into public places, don’t manage their dog at the front door, and even allow children to pet their dogs, just so they can keep up the appearance that their dogs are safe. These people refuse to be realistic about their dogs, observe what their dogs are feeling, and take extra precautions to protect others.
Sometimes seemly meaningless problems later manifest into bigger problems in other areas. For example, owners can incorrectly handle bratty puppy behaviors, and the result is a serious problem with the adult. I am convinced that many of the dog bites on the couch, near a food bowl, or on a bed, are a result of prior battles with the dog when it was a puppy. The couch, bowl or bed was made an issue, unreasonable force and threat were used, and now these situations are threatening to the dog. So, one day, someone comes up and sits on the couch, stands near the bowl, or tries to shoo the dog off the bed, the dog feels threatened and bites.
This isn’t always the case. Some dogs are possessive, and will guard things. But, most of the biting dogs I see are really wimps: sensitive and very mild dogs. Most aren’t jerks or high in drive, but instead easily feel threatened. They don’t have nerves of steel, they can’t handle their owner’s rough handling and temper tantrums, and they eventually bite out of self defense.
Many people don’t know their dogs or read them very well. A dog can only take just so much threat before a defensive/ aggressive or fear biting response sets in over that situation. It is even worse with puppies, because one day the pup becomes an adult and stops being submissive, and the adolescent or adult dog bites instead of submits. You can’t continually threaten a puppy and expect that the adult won’t start biting people, including family members. Oftentimes I see households where the rules are unfairly enforced: the wife has one set of rules for the dog, the husband another, and the kids another, so the dog gets a lot of unfair corrections, which makes the dog worried and more unsure. The dog starts seeing that certain situations cause him to be hurt, so he grows up and starts defending himself.
Some people encourage certain defensive behaviors, thinking it is funny or wanting to make their dog into a “guard dog”, then when the dog grows up it is no longer cute or controllable. I worked with a pit bull last year that was purposely taunted, and “sicced” on people, as a puppy. You guessed it. It became a biter and seriously hurt some people. That’s why I advise most people not to tease or play aggressive games with their dogs, including wrestling and tug of war because a rare few will taunt and hurt the dog, making it defensive/ aggressive or a fear biter. There is a way to play tug of war properly, and I play it with all my dogs, but it is best to have someone show you how.
Most people won’t fully describe to me how unfair they (or their kids) have been to their dogs: chasing, cornering, grabbing, poking, teasing, forcing, beating, jerking, mistreating, and threatening them. But, you can’t fool the dog trainer! I eventually figure it out. The dog “tells” me. I puzzle it out. These dogs now feel threatened in those situations that were issues when they were puppies (nipping, getting on furniture, getting into garbage, jumping up on people, etc.), only now I am hired to deal with a fear biting or defensive/ aggressive dog. I have to explain to the owners that they weren’t reading what was happening to their dogs through this kind of abusive treatment.
I also see problems with how owners manage interactions with strangers. Some people leave it to strangers or guests to correct their dogs for them. That’s unfair to the dog, since these people aren’t part of the “pack.” I have explained to more than one client that they must not let strangers correct their dogs. It can provoke a serious biting incident. They are putting their dogs in situations that they can’t be expected to handle without biting. Some get offended. But, my rule is People Safety First. I’m not going to keep quiet when I see something as dangerous as this going on. They aren’t reading the situation the way the dog does.
Some people don’t like hearing any bad news. Breeders get a thing called “kennel blindness.” They start to believe their own sales pitches, and come to believe that their dogs can do no wrong, and even worse cover up known issues in their lines. They don’t read the temperamental characteristics of their dogs properly, so they breed dogs that shouldn’t have been bred at all. I have had more than one conversation with a breeder that blamed everyone else as to why one of his or her dogs turned out to be a biter. The real problem was that they had temperament problems in their lines, but they ignored it, or even worse, thought that they were breeding good “guard” dogs. What they really were breeding were sorry bags of raw nerves predisposed to feel threatened in situations that normal dogs can handle. Part of the reason they don’t want to hear this is because it would mean that they would have to start their breeding program all over again from scratch and admit they were wrong and responsible for the biting incidents.
One of the worst parts of my job is telling people that the reason their dog is vicious is because of the dog’s poor breeding. No matter what they do, no matter what I do, the dog is going to remain vicious. It is a fear biter and it is going to hurt someone. In fact, one of the worst bites I ever had was from a 3 month old puppy last year. Poor breeding. The breeder should have been able to read what was going on in her lines, and seen what was going on in that puppy before she sold it to my client.
Responsible and loving dog ownership is more than just teaching a dog a bunch of commands. It is about knowing and reading the dog, communicating with the dog, and letting the dog communicate back to you. It is about setting rules, establishing a proper relationship, minimizing fears, protecting the dog from the negative influences of life, monitoring how the dog is doing in various situations, and managing your human family in a healthy manner. It is also about making the dog’s life fun, enjoyable and non-threatening. It is about being just as concerned about what the dog does as about how the dog feels about what it does. It’s about communication. There are going to be a lot of “holiday puppies” sold this month. The difference between success and failure will be whether the owners get to know their dogs and read them properly. Let’s hope they do.