Archive for the ‘Behavioral Issues’ Category

Using a Muzzle   2 comments

Muzzles can be a necessity for any dog at some point in their life. As Katalin over at Special Paws Blog recently illustrated, even the most well-trained, lovable dog can run into a situation where a muzzle is needed! In her case, her dog had surgery, and she had been warned that the physical therapy can be painful, causing some dogs to snap or bite to let you know you’re hurting them. Because of this, the therapist requested that dogs wear muzzles while undergoing therapy. For a dog not used to wearing a muzzle, having one on can be a cause for a lot of anxiety, and would make the physical therapy scary when it didn’t need to be. The same is true for an injured dog who is terrified and in pain. If he is not used to it, putting a muzzle on him can amplify that fear a large amount. Training your dog to wear a muzzle, even if you see no immediate need, will help prevent stress in your dog if he ends up in a situation like these and needs to.

Then there are dogs who have bitten in the past in response to certain triggers. When working to counter condition your dog (teach her that the trigger is not stressful and thus no longer causes her to feel the need to bite) you may want her to wear a muzzle so that if you miss a warning sign she’s giving you no one is injured. This is especially important if you need to enlist the help of other people in counter-conditioning your dog. For example, if your dog will bite when her paws are handled, you will need to teach her to accept not only you handling her paws, but other people. While you may be willing to risk a bite, you don’t want to assume that your helpers will, as well.

In situations such as these, a muzzle can be a good tool. Read that again, because it is important. A muzzle is a tool. It is not a solution to a dog’s biting, it is a tool you can use while teaching her to not feel the need to bite, or that you can use in a short term situation when your dog is in pain and is likely to not have good control of herself. If you are working with a biting dog, it can help ensure everyone involved is safe. However, while this article is only about training your dog to accept a muzzle, recognize that it is only a useful tool either in short-term situations or when paired with appropriate training for the underlying biting behavior.

So you’ve decided that you want to teach your dog to accept a muzzle, either because you see an immediate need, or just for the possibility of needing it in the future. How do you ensure that your dog not only doesn’t find a muzzle stressful, but that he actually enjoys wearing it? I’ll go through the whole process, but be sure to break up your training in to 5 or 10 minute sessions, so the training stays fun and stress-free!

Introduce the muzzle to him slowly, and let him choose how quickly he will put it on. Get out the muzzle, and a bag of tasty treats. Now offer your dog a treat so that he has to stick his nose towards the muzzle to get it. Don’t go too quickly! How close your dog has to put his nose will be determined by his comfort level. Remember, the goal of this training is that your dog does not find the muzzle stressful. If you push him too quickly, even with food around, the muzzle will be associated with stress in his mind. Once your dog is eagerly looking to the muzzle, waiting for the next treat to appear, move the treat so it is a little further into the muzzle. Now your dog will have to put his nose either closer to or farther into the muzzle to get the treat (depending where you started). This may cause a little hesitation, but it shouldn’t cause him to balk. Ideally, your dog will be so happy with the game you’re playing that he won’t mind moving his nose an extra half-inch into the muzzle at all! If he balks or seems to get stressed, make the game easier. Put the treat back to where it was, or even further away, for a few repetitions, until he is having fun again. Slowly increase how far into the muzzle your dog has to put his nose to get the food.

If you move slowly enough, you should get to the point where your dog is happily jamming his nose all the way into the muzzle to get the offered treat. Once you hit this point, stop showing him the treat. Hold out the muzzle and see what he does. If he makes a move to put his nose in it at all, say “Yes!” in a happy tone, and offer him the treat inside the muzzle again. This way you are teaching him that you’re playing the same game, but that the muzzle itself is a cue to put his nose in and get rewarded, not the treat. This will allow you to muzzle him even if you don’t have any treats on you in an emergency. Repeat this game until you can offer the muzzle, and he will eagerly stick his nose all the way inside and wait for his treat.

At this point you can start to fasten the muzzle. Up until now you have simply been holding it out and letting him put his nose in, but if you were to let go it would either fall off or be easily pawed off. You are just going to add to the rules of the same game you have been playing all along that your dog loves. Offer the muzzle and let him eagerly stick his nose in, but don’t treat him yet. Instead reach out, grab the straps, fasten them, and give the treat. As soon as he takes the treat unfasten the strap and take off the muzzle. Once the muzzle is off ignore your dog for a few seconds, and repeat the procedure. Note: If you are using a cloth or mesh muzzle which holds your dog’s mouth closed, he may not be able to take a treat, or even lick some baby food off a spoon. If that is the case, put on the muzzle, and give him a different reward. Pet him, cuddle him, give praise, run with him (see the safety note below), do something that your dog loves that doesn’t involve opening his mouth. Once the muzzle is off ignore him for a few seconds, as above. This teaches your dog that having the muzzle fastened means that the good things are coming. Once it comes off life is not bad, but it’s a lot less exciting and fun! At first you may not be able to fasten the muzzle all the way. That’s fine. Remember: the goal is to keep your dog happy! If at any time his tail tucks or he acts upset, slow down and go back a few steps. This should be an enjoyable process! If he starts to get unhappy when you go to fasten the muzzle, start by just reaching out and touching the strap while his nose is in the muzzle and then rewarding him, slowly building up to fastening it. There is no step too small to take in your progress!

As your dog accepts the muzzle being fastened, leave it on for longer and longer periods of time. Keep the rule that while it is on, good things are happening, once it comes off, all the good things stop. No congratulating your dog for doing so well after you take it off! That will teach her that the muzzle coming off is desirable, and she will not like having it on. Instead, congratulate her while it is on. That’s the hard part, after all! Slowly build up the amount of time your dog will happily wear the muzzle, always taking it off before she gets stressed. Once she is happily wearing it for more time than you would need to work on desensitizing her to her trigger (having her paws handled in the above example) you can start counter-conditioning her trigger safely, with her muzzle on and adding no stress. If you’re training it for a rainy day, build up until she will happily wear it for at least 10 minutes. Remember to practice with the muzzle occasionally so your skills stay sharp, though once she likes it the rewards can go down in value and frequency.

Congratulations, you now have a dog who gets excited when he sees the muzzle come out, and can’t wait to get his nose into it! Whether you need it right now, or might in the future, you can add one more check to your list of mastered skills.

Safety Note
Never leave a dog unsupervised wearing a cloth or mesh muzzle which holds their mouth shut. Also never leave it on for longer than about 20 minutes, especially in warm weather. While wearing a cloth or mesh muzzle a dog cannot pant or drink, which can be dangerous for long periods of time, especially in warm weather. This is the main reason I typically prefer a basket muzzle of either wire or plastic, which completely encases your dog’s mouth but does not hold it shut. Another reason is that with a cloth or mesh muzzle while a dog cannot bite, he can pinch since there is typically some give in it. This can still be painful!

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Enjoying the Walk   1 comment

All dogs, no matter what their size, need exercise. Walks can be a great way to not only physically exercise your dog  (and yourself!), but to mentally exercise him through all of the sniffing, exploring and experiencing he does. However, when your dog pulls on the leash, walks quickly cease to be fun. When they’re no longer fun, we tend to take our dogs out less frequently…leading to them getting more excited when they do get out…leading to them pulling harder…leading to us walking them less frequently…and so on, until our dogs almost never go out for the exercise they need. Pretty soon other behavioral problems start to occur due to the excess mental and physical energy, things like barking, digging, chewing, hyper-active behavior, door dashing, and the list goes on. So how can we teach our dogs to stop pulling?

First, think about why your dog pulls. It’s not to annoy you, it’s because they want to GO and see that leaf, and that bush, and what just moved?, and lets keep going, and there’s so much to see we better go or we’ll miss it!, and ooooooh, another dog!! Our dogs pull because it works: when they pull, they get to go where they want. Now, the person on the other end of the leash may be yelling and swearing at them while they go there, but that does not come close to outweighing the coolness of everything around them. Even if a dog is receiving leash corrections, or wearing a prong or pinch collar, often his brain is so consumed with taking in everything around him, and the pain or discomfort just doesn’t penetrate. Combine this overstimulation and automatic reward of moving forward with a natural instinct to pull against pressure, and it becomes clear why our dogs pull!

Now that we understand their motivation, what is the best way to stop them from pulling? Take away their motivation: don’t let them move forward while they are pulling. From now on, whenever your dog is on the leash it is her job to keep the leash loose. When you are walking your dog, the instant you feel tension in the leash beyond what you have decided is acceptable, plant your feet and do not move. Do not call to your dog, do not jerk on the leash, just wait and feel. Eventually, when your dog is not getting rewarded by moving forward, and all of the stimulants around her aren’t changing and staying exciting, she’ll look back at you as if to say, “Well aren’t we going to go?” When she does this the leash will slacken, you can tell her good, and move forward. You may only take one step before there is tension in the leash again, so again, you will plant your feet and wait. Pay close attention to what you can feel through the leash; often you can’t see your dog shift visibly, but she does shift enough that the tension in the leash is relieved. Once you feel there is no more tension in the leash, say, “Good!” and move forward. By making the rule about when your dog gets to move forward based on how the leash feels rather than where your dog is relative to you, you can train your dog to keep the leash loose no matter how much slack you’ve given her. By not speaking to her to encourage her to loosen the leash she learns that she has to keep the leash slack all the time, not just when you ask her to.

At first this is a very frustrating process. You may be standing on the street for 3 straight minutes, waiting for your dog to relax enough to even try to figure out how to move forward again. It may take you 30 minutes to get down your driveway. If at all possible, use walks for training and exercise your dog in other ways; at off leash parks, playing fetch in the backyard, swimming, whatever works; until they have learned the rules. This will help you get less frustrated about how long it is taking you to go down the block, because there’s no need to go down the block! The purpose of the walk is to move any distance without tension, not to cover a certain amount of ground. Depending on how long your dog has been pulling and being automatically rewarded for it, it may take your dog one day to figure out the new rules, or it may take several weeks. Most dogs will start to figure out that when you stop they need to shift back pretty quickly, but it can still take a long time until they are reliably keeping the leash slack so you don’t have to stop. If you are consistent, however, you will end up with a dog who is a pleasure to walk not only at your side, but ranging in front of you, or even 10 or more feet out.

To encourage your dog to walk nicely, it can help to carry a clicker and treats on your walks. Whenever your dog is in an especially good position, or has stayed on a slack leash for a long time (a “long time” will vary dog to dog and by how far in the process they are), click and give him a treat right by your hip (the best place for him to be, no tension there!). This will reinforce that when he walks nicely not only does he get the reward of going forward, he will sometimes get extra treats and to keep going forward! (It can also be helpful to have a clicker and treats on a walk in case you run into a situation where you want focus, a distracting situation your dog does well in, or if you want to practice cues outside your house.)

What if you can’t physically stop your dog because he’s more powerful than you? Try the product that is often called “power steering for dogs”: a head collar. A head collar has two loops which connect beneath the chin. One loop goes from below the jaw to right behind the ears, and the other loop goes around the dogs nose and sits high up on the muzzle, near the eyes. The leash attaches where the two loops connect under the chin. A head collar is not a muzzle; dogs still have an almost full range of mouth movement and are able to take treats, pant, drink, bark, bite, and even vomit if need be. Some dogs cannot hold a tennis ball, because that requires their mouth to open very wide. A head collar works on the same principal a halter does on a horse. Can you imagine leading a horse by a rope thrown around its neck? Unless you had a very well trained animal, you would have a hard time taking the horse anywhere. Attach the rope to a halter, however, and you can control the horse (which is a much larger animal than any dog). By leading the head, you can lead the whole animal. Please remember: You should never give a leash correction to a dog wearing a head collar. You have so much control over their head and neck you can cause serious neck damage if you jerk on them. If you are careful, however, this is a perfectly safe and non-painful product. Introduce the head collar slowly. Ask your dog to put their nose through the nose-loop by holding a treat on the other side, so they can choose how fast they want that contact. Slowly start to buckle the second loop while they’re eating, and leaving it buckled for longer periods of time. Some dogs have a hard time adjusting to the head collar, but almost all dogs will. I like to compare wearing a head collar to wearing glasses. If you’ve ever worn glasses you probably remember that when you first put them on you were acutely aware of them being there every minute. But after a few days, you forgot they were even there! If introduced correctly, most dogs will react the same way, and even if they don’t they’ll certainly put up with it to get to go on a walk! Some of the major brands of head collars are:

Halti
and
Gentle Leader.

There are many brands of head collars, each with some slight differences from the others, but they all work on the same principle.

Another tool that is often useful in reducing pulling is a no-pull harness. There are many types of these, as they can work by swinging the dog’s body around or causing slight discomfort in various ways when the dog pulls. A no-pull harness will give you less control than a head collar, but for dogs with short noses or dogs who do not pull too strongly, a no-pull harness can make a difference. For a summary of different training aids for pulling, including the various types of no-pull harnesses, see this table.

Walks should be a time you and your dog can enjoy together. It is important, especially if you have a larger or more active breed, that your dog gets out for a walk every day. Almost any of your dog’s bad behaviors can be improved simply by exercising him sufficiently. The good news is, with the right tools and the right training, your dog can walk nicely on a leash!

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Growling is Good!   6 comments

Let’s look at a typical scene:

A dog owner is walking her dog through the park. Another person walks by and suddenly, her well-behaved angel starts growling and baring his teeth at the person, with his hackles up and his body tense. The embarrassed owner scolds her dog and corrects him with a jerk on the leash, and apologizes to the other person. They continue, giving each other a wide berth, and finish their walks.

This type of thing has happened to most dog owners at least once, and usually, they have no idea why their dog is doing it. It is embarrassing, it makes a person feels like a bad owner, she’s afraid for the reputation her dog will get, and she just wants her dog to stop growling! The sentiment is common, and the desire to “correct” the dog until they stop is strong.

However, let’s consider the alternative:

A dog owner is walking her dog through the park. Another person approaches and her dog walks silently by her side. All of a sudden, as the other person is passing by, her dog lunges and latches his jaws onto the person’s arm. Shocked at the vicious attack with no warning, the owner apologizes profusely, and now may be stuck not only with doctors’ bills, but with having to surrender her “dangerous dog” to be euthanized.

As embarrassing as it can be to have your dog growl, it has a purpose. Your dog is telling you that he is uncomfortable. He is communicating in a positive, safe way that he feels something is wrong, and giving you as his leader the chance to protect him from it by getting him away. It is far better that your dog give you this warning than that he keep his fear inside until it gets so big it comes out as a bite.

When uncomfortable or scared, dogs have two main responses: fight or flight. If for any reason he feels that flight is unavailable to him; he is on a leash, he is in an enclosed space, running has not worked before; he will feel he has no choice but to resort to fight. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a dog is not growling because he is mean, he is growling because he is scared and he’s desperately hoping that if he tells whatever is scaring him to back off he won’t have to fight it off. However, if pushed, and if he feels he has no other choice, a dog will fight to get rid of something that is scaring him.

Why is it we are embarrassed when our dog growls? Because we know that when a dog growls it is often a precursor to a bite. That precursor, though, is very important! Without the opportunity to give warning, to let you and anyone else know that something is scaring him, to growl, the dog has no steps left before biting. And then the attack is a complete shock.

When dealing with a dog who growls, you do not want to teach your dog not to growl. You want to teach your dog to not feel like he needs to growl. If a dog feels like he needs to growl, but doesn’t due to training, all of the stress and feelings that lead up to a bite are still there, and the dog will still bite if pushed. This not only doesn’t help prevent dog bites, it makes them worse by giving you no warning they are coming. If, instead, you work with your dog and teach him to not feel the need to growl, by showing him that whatever he is scared of is not a threat and actually can be a source of good things, then the bite will not come.

So what should you do if your dog does growl?

Immediately turn around and walk away from whatever your dog is growling at, staying calm. Give him the space he needs to settle down, and then continue on. Once he is settled, the danger of imminent bite is gone. While you are leaving, see if you can take note of what your dog was growling at. You will want to know this for later training.

Do NOT punish your dog for growling, verbally or physically. If you do this your dog will learn one of two things: that he shouldn’t growl and should go straight to biting, as discussed earlier, or that whatever he is growling at is even more scary than he thought. The way a dog’s brain works, he does not necessarily connect what he is feeling with what he is doing. Rather, he often connects what he is feeling with what he is seeing or sensing. So if a dog is staring at something that scares him and you correct him for growling, rather than thinking, “I growled, and so I felt pain. I should stop growling,” (a bad lesson anyway), he is likely to think, “I saw that thing, and I felt pain. That thing must be even scarier than I thought.” If your dog takes away the lesson that what he was growling at causes him pain, he is going to be even more nervous about it, and even more likely to bite next time he sees it.

Now that you know what caused the growl, you know what your dog is afraid of, and you can work on teaching him he doesn’t need to feel afraid and growl. At this point you may want to contact a professional trainer to help you work with your dog. Even when based in fear, growling is a serious problem which can lead to serious aggression, and if not properly treated could lead to your dog being taken away and even put down. The sooner you start effectively working on it, the easier it will be to correct. If however, you feel that you can work with your dog yourself, below is one general method which can be applied to most cases of fear-based aggression.

Invest in a clicker, a small hand-held device which, when depressed, makes a clicking sound. They are available for a dollar or two at most pet stores. You use it by teaching your dog that whenever he hears the sound of the click it means a treat is coming. To do this, click and then feed your dog a treat several times. Once he learns that the click means “treat coming,” the sound of the click signals that he did something right at the instant the click happened.

Take your dog to be near whatever it is that scared him, but stay far enough away that he is comfortable. Wait for him to look at what scared him. As soon as he looks, click. Hopefully your dog will look back at you for a treat, and if he does, praise him and give it to him! If not, hold the treat in front of his nose to get his attention, and then give it to him. If he is unable to take the treat that is a sign of a high level of stress, so move farther away from the scary object. This lesson is three-fold. First, it teaches your dog that when he looks at that thing he thinks is scary, something good happens. It can’t be that scary if every time he sees it he gets a treat! Second, it teaches him to check back in with you every time he sees that scary thing. If your dog’s natural instinct is to look at you, he is not getting stressed or upset, he is looking to you to tell him it’s OK and trusting you to make sure it is so. Third, it builds up the number of times your dog sees the scary thing without losing control. If your dog is in the habit of snarling or growling every time he sees something, then it becomes an automatic reaction, even if in that particular instance it wouldn’t be scary on its own. Building up repetitions where your dog has a reaction other than his automatic fearful one helps the fearful reaction to stop being automatic. Practice this clicking for looks, and if your dog picks up on it you may start clicking for looking back at you after glancing at the thing he finds scary, rather than looking at the thing itself.

Once your dog gets the idea of the game, start moving closer to the scary object slowly. You want your dog to stay far enough away that at any stage he does not feel so intimidated he loses control or starts growling. If this happens just move back farther and try again. Depending on how long your dog has been scared of the trigger it may take a long time to get very close at all to it without a reaction, but that is OK. Remember that every physical step closer is a big mental step for your dog, and celebrate it as such!

If at any point you feel that this training is not working, or that you cannot handle your dog’s growling alone, contact a professional trainer immediately. A professional trainer who uses positive methods can help you refine your skills on working with your dog using this or many other tactics, depending on the specific situation, and the cost of a trainer will be far less than the doctor, vet, or lawyer bills you could be stuck with if the problem isn’t gotten under control.

Remember: Growling is good! No dog is more dangerous than one who does not give warning before a bite. Work with your dog using positive methods to eliminate the cause of growling, rather than the growling itself, to ensure the safety of your dog, yourself, and everyone around you.

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