Trainer Tuesday: Socialization & Household Fears

Every Tuesday we will be working with certified dog trainer Lisa from The Noble Hound, Dog Training and Obedience to answer your dog training questions. If you have a question about your pooch, whether it be leash manners, house training, getting along with other animals or anything in between, email us at info@dreamrescue.ca and we will pick a few questions each week to answer.

Maria McMurray asks, “Greetings Lisa, Have almost one year old Theo, pibble. He grew up with our two other ten yr old Lhasa Shitzu mixes. They’re ok together. Took Theo to training which did not focus on socializing (the idea was to focus on the trainer) and he did fine. We live out in the country so he doesn’t get to see many other dogs, except… Our neighbor has three schnauzers who immediately begin barking as soon as they come outside, or see us in our yard through their window. Neighbors actually say the dogs bark less since we moved in, I think it’s because the owners take them in more often since we moved in because they know they really do bark a lot. Regardless, the three barkers seem to get Theo quite worked up, sometimes even to the point of him attacking our other two dogs, then our three go back to normal. But…over time it appears that now Theo has come to dislike any other dog (other than ours). He used to be fine going for walks and coming across other dogs, very interested but not really aggressive. Now, since the barkers, he seems to want to attack any dog we pass by. We’re nervous about trying to socialize him because we don’t know how to start. We had taken him to play dates with other dogs prior to the barkers and things were very normal. But he seems to hit the “red zone” around others. Help!”

Hi Maria,

Unfortunately, obedience class doesn’t prepare dogs for all real life situations. Obedience class is wonderful for helping dogs gain some impulse control around other dogs, it can help with things like confidence and socialization to an extent and it can help the handler gain better control of their dog; however, it doesn’t always prevent things like aggression or reactivity on walks. For dogs, obedience class is more predictable than real life and therefore your dog will probably feel a bit more comfortable in a class, since it’s the same place each week with the same dogs over and over again. On walks, life gets a bit less predictable and you will probably encounter other dogs who might cause your dog to feel uncomfortable or defensive. As a defense mechanism your dog is going to demonstrate behaviours such as barking, pulling hard on leash, lunging and so on to make the threat (other dog) go away. It is important to understand that when your  dog barks, lunges or growls at other dogs, that  he is doing so to make the other dog go away. Barking, lunging, growling and even biting are all “distance increasing” signals that dogs send out to other dogs, animals and people when they need space. These are desperate attempts for the dog to control his or her environment – kind of like a last resort.

When dogs meet each other, they do so in a very ritualistic manner. They greet each other at very specific distances and angles and they do a whole lot of talking with their body language. Sometimes that body language is so subtle that we don’t even notice it. Anyways, the problem is when dogs are on leash, we tend to mess up their ritual. We tug on leashes, we get too close to other dogs, we approach other dogs the wrong way (sometimes even in a threatening manner), we walk right towards other dogs or people when our dogs are suggesting they’d rather go the other way. As a result, our dogs display aggressive or defensive behaviours in attempt to control the situation. Little do we know that our dogs were stressed far before the aggressive reaction – we just didn’t notice.   

So, to help with leash aggression or frustration, we want to allow our dogs to see other dogs on walks, but at a distance that doesn’t cause them stress. Watch your dog’s body language and keep an eye out for things like:  your dog getting stiff or still, excessive pulling, ears back or really forward, tail high or low, lip licking, yawning, avoidance (sniffing, turning away, head turn), raised fur and so on. These things indicate that your dog is stressed and will likely react if the threat doesn’t go away. You want to avoid allowing your dog to get to a stressful state by letting your dog see the other dog from a distance and then turning around and going the other way (you can even cross the street or move in another direction). You can also give your dog a piece of food as soon as they see the other dog (counter conditioning). Going the opposite way is actually a reward for your dog. He or she will feel great relief and won’t be so agitated over time when he sees another dog on a walk. You’re essentially setting him up with good experiences which in effect are teaching him that nothing bad happens when you see another dog on the street. You’re also teaching him to cut off his behaviour at curiosity, rather than aggression (lunging and barking). You might think “isn’t this just avoiding the problem” and that is a very good question. What you want to do is get closer and closer to dogs over time, but do so at a pace where your dog is comfortable. Only get closer to other dogs once your dog is showing progress. So, you’re not avoiding, you’re just teaching your dog to cope more effectively and you’re building your dog’s tolerance to other dogs.

If you get too close and your dog reacts, there isn’t a whole lot you can do. That’s kinda like pulling a guy back at a bar fight. It’s too late. Your best bet is prevention and not putting your dog in stressful situations that give them no choice but to react.

I suggest contacting a professional dog trainer who is force-free (positive reinforcement) who can help guide you a bit in this area. Reactivity usually gets worse over time and it’s best to deal with it properly and effectively. Forcing a nervous or anxious dog towards another dog, person or thing, using things like pinch collars, choke chains, punishment and so on will definitely create more of a mess, so I always recommend taking the more gentle route when training dogs, especially aggressive ones.   

Maria Vokey asks, “Hi Lisa…our GSD Britta is just over 1 yr and she is scared of almost everything…from ceiling fans, vacuums, papers blowing in the wind, plants that move and of many friends/family that come to our home. She will bark and run away from what is making her nervous. With people, she does slowly approach them but as soon as they make a move she is startled and she runs away or starts barking at them. We did socialize her when she was young…brought her to many places and people but maybe we did not do it enough? Just wondering what we can do to help her overcome these fears? Thank you!”

Hi Maria, Good question. This is a very common issues that I see in dogs. The worst thing you can do is force her towards the things she is scared of. She’s going to need some systematic desensitization and counterconditioning. Systematic desensitization is getting closer and closer to the scary things over time (but only when the dog is ready to get closer) and the counterconditioning is paring something good (like really stinky and yummy treats) with the item that is causing stress (the fan, vacuum, human, etc). Here are a few steps to help your dog out:

1. Be at a safe distance from the item (scary thing).This means your dog is relaxed and not stressed. Just imagine if you’re scared of spiders. You will be more scared if the spider is right in front of you and you’ll feel relief as more distance is placed between you and the spider. So, with your dog, start at that distance where she isn’t scared of the item and slowly get closer over time. This is where the counterconditioning comes in. In order for your dog to get closer to the item without a reaction, we will countercondition (see step 2).

2. Have your dog look at the item and then reward her for doing so! I highly recommend using the same treat just for training (something your dog doesn’t get at any other time and something that your dog ABSOLUTELY LOVES). We are now pairing something good (the food reward) with the bad (the item) at a safe distance. This is teaching the dog that the item isn’t so bad afterall!

3. Each day get a little closer to the item and repeat (get the dog to look at the item and reward your dog for being so brave).

The key is to reward with the food a second after your dog looks at the item and to use the same tasty food reward each time. This will slowly build a positive association between the food and the scary item. In fact, your dog will want to start seeing these dreaded items over time because they equal such wonderful treats!

I highly recommend booking a session with a force free trainer to practice these techniques. They can be tricky and it’s best to do it right and to have someone there to answer any questions that might arise!

Trainer Tuesday: Calm Greetings, Jumping, Introducing Dog & Baby

Every Tuesday we will be working with our good friend, certified dog trainer Lisa from The Noble Hound, Dog Training and Obedience to answer your dog training questions. If you have a question about your pooch, whether it be leash manners, house training, getting along with other animals or anything in between, email us at info@dreamrescue.ca and we will pick a few questions each week to answer.

Cheryl asked, “What’s the best way to get your dog to stay calm when meeting people? I have a very large dog who doesn’t mean any harm but as soon as anybody so much as walks by us, he jumps up eager to meet. This is especially a problem with kids because of his size.”

Hi Cheryl,
This is a common behaviour in those happy-go-lucky dogs who want to love everyone and everything! The first thing you want to teach your dog while on walks is to not get excited in the event that a person comes into view. Right now, your dog sees a person and probably gets excited way before the human even gets close. Before your dog has a chance to get overly excited, cross the street or move in a different direction while also offering a food reward. This will teach the dog to “cut off” his level of excitement at an appropriate level. Over time, you will notice that your dog’s excitability level will lessen and you will actually be able to get closer and closer to humans on your walks without that immediate excited reaction that your dog is currently displaying. Once your dog is a bit more calm on walks have him sit and stay each time a person passes and reward him for waiting patiently. When you’re confident that your dog can control himself around humans, you can ask him to sit and stay while someone approaches him for a petting. If he bounces and jumps up, ask the person to walk away from the dog. Teach him that the only way he gets attention from humans is if all four feet stay on the ground.

Maria asked, “How can we stop our German Shepherd (1yr) from jumping on us? This mostly happens when she gets excited when we come home or sometimes when we are not paying attention to her….thank you!”

Hi Maria,
That’s a great question! The key is to provide absolutely no attention to a jumping dog. This includes: talking or yelling, eye contact or physical touch. Believe it or not, even yelling “NO” or “OFF” can be rewarding for an excited dog. Sometimes when a dog is extra excited they have a hard time deciphering between an angry human and a human who is having a good ol’ time. Plus, if you’re yelling at a dog, they know that they’re definitely getting your attention! The absolute worst thing you can do is push the dog down or away. This says to the dog “let’s play”. When dogs play they often do so with their front paws and in an exaggerated way (similar to the movements of a human pushing a dog down or away). So, when we start moving our arms in attempt to push a dog down, they think it means Let’s Play!

Your best bet is to turn your back to the dog and if he continues to jump up then walk away. If he follows you keep walking away and go into another room and shut the door for a few seconds. When you come back out make sure to reward the dog for any calm behaviours (with affection or treats); however if the dog persists and jumps up some more, go back into the room for a few more seconds and come back out again. Repeat over and over until the dog realizes that each time he jumps up, he loses a friend. Remember, you don’t need to say anything during this exercise (I wouldn’t even make eye contact with the dog). Less is better in this situation.

Bad habits are hard to break, so be patient and persistent. Your dog will soon learn that jumping up really doesn’t get him far in life. Oh…and make sure that all members of the household and any guests who visit follow these rules. Once the dog catches on and instead of jumping up, starts to offer things like sits and other calm behaviours you can reward with some affection and/or treats! The key is to reward the good and ignore the bad. Good luck!

Trista asked, “What is the best way to introduce our pooch to the new baby when he comes home?”

Hi Trista,
Bring a baby home for the first time is a very exciting and beautiful moment! However, our dogs sometimes don’t share our exact feelings when it comes to a new addition. Some dogs can become quiet stressed out while other dogs don’t seem to care about the new little person in the least bit. Dogs can also be fearful of infants and might bark or growl when the baby gets too close. In cases where the dog is having a hard time adjusting, it’s important for the family to contact a certified dog trainer or behaviorist.

Before the baby is even born, I suggest bringing out one baby item every few days or so for the dog to inspect and get used to. Things like swings and strollers that move, toys that make sounds and bigger items such as baby chairs and cribs can be scary for some dogs, so let the dog investigate these items slowly over time and reward for bravery! Expose your dog to the smaller items such as diapers, bottles, blankets and ¬soothers as well. You can use basic obedience such as drop, give and leave it to teach your dog that these items don’t belong in his mouth. The key is to help your dog build positive associations with the baby items in advance, so that your dog isn’t bombarded and overwhelmed with both a new baby and all of the things that come with.

You can even get your dog used to the sounds that babies make before you bring the baby home from the hospital. You can YouTube “baby sounds” and play them at a level that doesn’t cause your dog any stress. Reward the dog for remaining calm and each day increase the volume just slightly, while continuing to reward the dog for being calm. Over time this will help your dog associate baby sounds with good things (praise and food reward) and will help to desensitize your dog to the various sounds that your baby will be making.

Different dogs react differently towards babies. Regardless, you need to set boundaries for the dog once the baby is actually home. Allow the dog to come up to the baby only when he is calm and reward him with food and affection for doing so. Teach the dog to give you space when you’re nursing, feeding or tending to the baby – this is where basic obedience comes into play. You can send your dog to his bed, give him some commands such as sit/stay or down/stay or occupy your dog with a Kong or another toy while you’re busy with the baby.

Absolutely, make sure that the dog still feels like a part of the family. Now that it’s beautiful outside, include your dog on your family walks with the baby. Doggy daycare is also a good option for hyper or excitable dogs – not only will this drain your dog’s energy but will also keep him stimulated and satisfied. In general, dogs and babies can successfully and happily co-exist, but allow your dog a period of time to adjust and prepare him for the arrival of the little one by introducing him to “baby things” and sounds. Setting boundaries is also very important. Make sure to teach your dog what is acceptable and what is not and be consistent when doing so.

Stay tuned every Tuesday where we will be answering more of your training questions!