Modifying Your Dog

This isn’t about anything heinous, I swear: this is about language and dogs.

I’ve mentioned that Peach is a soft-natured dog. She is very docile, sweet, easily reprimanded, easily redirected. Alongside these positive qualities, she is also easily frustrated, easily scared, and requires reassurance to be comfortable in new situations.

When I walk Peach, and meet a new person, I let them know, “She’s shy!” One word, and suddenly, their demeanour towards my puppy changes. It goes from a robust, rambunctious greeting, to a much quieter one. Most people kneel down, reach out, and make small noises, either soft or high-pitched. The kneeling and soft noises are attractive to Peach, but she is still nervous by body orientation (Normally towards her) and the reaching out.

When I haven’t told people she is shy, they tend to lean over or forward, and make louder noises. Very threatening, when you’re less than a foot tall!

I noticed that the language was what changed people’s reaction towards her, thereby opening her up to more positive encounters with new people. I know if I said, “She’s scared,” or, “She’s nervous,” people would take that in a different way. Fear and nervousness are considered negative, and most people consider themselves positive: there’s no reason to be scared of me! They want to “fix” the fearfulness, and in doing so, often over-compensate and push a pup over-threshold.

People have their own vocabulary to associate with dogs. My in-laws’ Pomeranian, Gypsy, is reactive. She enjoys hearing her own voice, and dislikes strange animals. Many people consider her aggressive, when in reality, she wants nothing at all to do with other animals and is simply telling them to go away. If they approach, she has a little fit trying to escape from them. She isn’t fearful, per se, and definitely not aggressive. But people will approach, apply a label (If they do not understand what “reactivity” is) and then suggest “fixes” for the behaviour. If she’s aggressive, she needs to be dominated; if she’s afraid, she needs to meet other dogs. Neither thing would help Gypsy.

You’ll also see this when you tell someone the breed of dog you own. Today, a very nice lady told me Pomeranians are only good with children if raised with them. Jasper, my first Pom, never got that memo! He met his first child at over a year old, about the same age as the child in question, and proceeded to love the snot out of him. Pit bull dogs are vicious, labs are loyal, German shepherds are protective, Border collies are smart.

We use a lot of words to describe our dogs, and sometimes, the words make all the difference in perception of the dog itself. Even in training. Evaluate your language… And see what can be modified to be more positive.

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Might as well be walkin’ in the snow

"Agh! It's got me!"

I’ve been meaning to do this one for a while, but today I actually remembered to whip out my cell phone on a walk (Something I never do: I’m walking my dog to walk my dog, not to play on my phone) and snap some pictures of Peach. For the past two weeks, Peach has been taking longer and longer walks, and being asked to accept more novel experiences while on them. At first, there was a whole lot of cajoling, bribing, and tugging to get her to walk along behind me ten feet away from the house.

Then, we started to cross the road and walk ten feet away instead- this, coincidentally, always lead us past an outside dog who is dog-reactive to large dogs, but generally accepting of small ones, so Peach was able to get some no-pressure experience with interacting with dogs, just by walking past her and looking at her.

"What's over there?"

Next, we walked up the road a whole block, and turned back. This lead to us being able to walk around the block, and this morning, we went for a longer walk of about 20 minutes around the neighbourhood. This one was hard for Peach, because it was the first time she was asked to walk on a busy road, and there were many cars and trucks driving past that made her nervous. Whenever Peach gets to the point of happily walking ahead of me, I change things up. Life is filled with novel experiences, and I want her to know that a walk will never be the same twice.

"More ducks!"

So this afternoon, I decided she needed a good, long walk, so we went up our street, and crossed the busy road, and crossed through a quiet neighbourhood with dogs barking indoors. Peach got her first taste of ducks. Our town has lots of ducks, geese, and seagulls, and a small group of ducks was hanging out near the entrance to the bike path. Peach was amazed when they quacked and flew away. More, she wanted more! She was so excited to get onto the bike path and see even more ducks, and the water, and the rocks. It was quiet, and there weren’t other people. She was in her element.

Frankly, being a rather a-social person, so was I. I love a good trail walk or quiet city hike, alone with my thoughts and my dog. It was very refreshing to be able to take a dog for a long walk like that, as my male Pom had had health issues that precluded him from having a good time on a long walk, and my female was reactive to everything under the sun and could never enjoy a walk without having twelve meltdowns.

"It's all water out there?"

We were even able to cross over the floating bridge, which Peach bravely peed on and peered into the water over. Once we had crossed it, I saw behind us a woman approaching with her standard Poodle. We continued on, and her and her long-legged dog passed us quickly. Peach was happy to walk alongside the Poodle- about 10 feet separated them- and watch him. It was exciting to her to have company on the walk, that she did not directly have to interact with. I think I may be putting too much stock into solid introductory socialisation with other dogs. Peach is very happy to share space with them, but she wants her own safety bubble, as well.

"Look, I thound a theather!"

Our walk ended after we left the bike path and went back up the busy street. By now, Peach was a Master of the Walk, and she was strutting along like she owned everything. A nice lady bent to say hello, and Peach charmed her by licking her fingers and hiding under my coat. She is the kind of pup who needs lots of reassurance, but is happy to enjoy life and the world around her once she has it. We passed all manner of person and loud car, and finally came to our door, where Peach took a final piddle before she came inside to have a snack, and a nap.

Myself, and my 4 pound puppy, were out on our walk in the snow for an hour. She’s a regular itty-witty snow dog.

“Bad dog!”

"Who, me?"

Could that sweet face do a single bad thing? Of course. She’s a dog, and what humans consider bad, dogs consider normal parts of society, culture, and growth. Canine culture includes many things humans aren’t fond of: barking, digging, guarding. It’s how the human interprets and corrects the behaviour that makes the good dogs. There are no bad dogs, only bad trainers.

Tonight, Peach was very excited. It was raining and snowing out and she wanted to take a third walk in twenty minutes to run in the slush. I had the genius idea to take her Kong, and fill it with peanut butter to distract her. Of course! Give an excited, frustrated puppy her favourite exciting thing! It was a dumb move, but I at the time, I thought a distraction was a great idea. I was wrong.

Within a few minutes, peanut butter-loving Astrid was trying to share the puppy’s Kong with her. The cat meant no harm, and often actually shies from sharing food with others, but Peach was already in a state of heightened arousal, and the cat sniffing at her Kong was just too much. She growled, barked, and chased Astrid a few inches away from her Kong, and then went back to it.

We interrupted her, and I quickly formed a plan of attack. Kong, kitty, and pup were taken into the kitchen. I tried to recreate the scene to no avail: now that Peach had let off some steam, she wasn’t inclined to tell her feline friend off. Nothing I or Astrid did caused Peach to react. In fact, Peach backed off of her Kong at one point and let Astrid have a go at it. I wanted to know precisely what had created the moment, to avoid it in the future. I posed the cat. I played with the Kong. I had the cat play with the Kong. Nothing!

So I began to “rough up” Peach. I admit, I played dirty. I ruffled her feathers and poked her and took the Kong straight out of her mouth without warning. These are things I am generally not wont to do, nor things that the cats would ever do. It took about five minutes of me shaking and fluffing her for her to react, and it was nothing more than a growl. “Hey, STOP it!” she was saying. I immediately stopped what I was doing with my hands on her, and told her, “No, thank you.”

Within a moment, she got her Kong back. Next time, it took me specifically ruffling her head to have her react, and it was turning her head towards my hand with an open mouth, as if we were playing. I repeated my freeze-frame and she made a pitiful sound. Again, “No, thank you.” And she had her Kong back. I was unable to get her to growl again with her Kong or with peanut butter at all, although she did repeat the growl with a different treat about a half an hour into our experiment, mostly because she dropped a piece and was unable to reach it while I ruffled her.

It was all frustration. Frustration at being unable to let out steam outside, frustration at the cat trying to take her thing, frustration at being ruffled while trying to snack, frustration at being unable to reach her snack.

So I took some training treats and began to rough her up, and she got a treat for each ruffling, getting rougher and rougher. Then I’d ruffle her while she was still snacking. She became accustomed to the ruffling and sat back when I had no more treats. By then, it had been so long, she had to go out again to have a pee and play in the snow. Ultimately, Peach got everything she wanted, and more, but we both learned something.

Peach learned that growling is a good communication tool- it gets people to stop doing uncomfortable things- but also that she has less need to do it than she thinks. I learned that being a soft-natured dog doesn’t necessarily make Peach a pushover. It means that her threshold for rough handling and frustration is lower than a harder dog, and so she’ll need to be managed to make sure she learns to retreat before she reaches critical status.

I’ll be repeating further desensitisation exercises with her over the next few weeks, getting her used to rougher handling than she’ll normally experience in our home, as well as some frustration tolerance, so she can back away when something happens that she doesn’t like.

Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go right now!

Peach is steadily on her way to earning her “Master of the Outdoors!” achievement. She is a rather good girl, house-training-wise, especially considering she has every ability and opportunity to wander into a quiet corner and piddle where we’ll never find it. Instead, she is predictable. She stops to drink and snack about twice a day, between her two large meals, poops about twice a day, and pees at least six times. She is taken out first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and either after a long nap, before or after we leave, or if she just asks.

How does Peach ask to go outside and tame the great, snowy Canadian wilds? With music.

Poochie Bells

To the left, you’ll see some Poochie Bells. Poochie Bells are not a new idea, but they’re one great and functional take on it. When I was a kid, our dog had a bell, and she rang the bell to let us know she wanted to go outside. My last two dogs never really caught on to the idea. The male had a health issue that caused him to be unable to control his bladder, so he didn’t really have the option of asking us, and the female thought the bells were just a thing to get our attention in general.

I don’t actually have any Poochie Bells (Though I would like some!) but I do have some jingle-bells on a string, attached to my front door. I showed Peach they were there, had her ring them for a few treats, and left it at that. I figured she would someday ring them by accident while playing, and learn that her action had a positive consequence. Boy, was she quick on the uptake!

About ten days after the bells went up, Peach used them. I wasn’t home, but my boyfriend was, and he said she rang the bell, and went outside, and peed. She then proceeded to ring the bell three more times last night. And today, she continued her ring-a-dingling. She does it with a purpose. She rings the bell loudly, then sits oriented towards the door and looks back at us. She has a purpose: to pee. She has a tool to tell us she has to pee. And she will use it.

Puppy’s Rules of Twelve

When I wrote my post Training a Puppy in 12 Easy Steps!, I’d forgotten that it is as easy as 12 steps. They’re called the Puppy Rules of 12.

By the time a puppy is 12 weeks old, they should have met 12 people, 12 other animals, played with 12 objects, eaten 12 things, walked on 12 surfaces, heard 12 strange sounds… Basically anything they may encounter in life should be multiplied by 12. It’s an excellent way to approach training and socialising a puppy, without overwhelming dog or owner. I’ve heard others claim a puppy should meet 100 people and 100 dogs by 3 months, which can be so much, so fast. Overwhelming a dog sets them up for failure; overwhelming their person sets the dog up for failure.

Peach is 11 weeks old tomorrow. I have tried to count up her 12s. She has met 11 people, though not interacted significantly with about half of them. She has met 5 other animals. She has been on many substrates, played with many toys (Trust me!) and eaten many things (Again, just take my word for it.) She has also heard many sounds: strange video games sounds, shouting, music, loud trucks, bells… Peach is well on the way to meeting her quota.

And as each day passes by, she grows a little bolder. Today she went on a longer walk and wasn’t scared as much, and was easier to calm. She also passed a dog and did not become shy; when she passed a reactive dog, she became fixated, but not scared. She let my boyfriend’s mother pet her today, and accepted a treat of delicious cheese from her. Peach is also learning a quick sit, general manners, and a new trick.

Remember, it’s not about stuffing as much experience as you can into your puppy or socialising dog: it’s about the quality of the encounters they make.

Training a Puppy in 12 Easy Steps!

Sometimes, I wish there was a book, or a secret handshake, something that would let me in and tell me all the secrets of raising the Perfect Dog. You know. Your neighbours had one when you were a kid. Maybe he was a Lab, or a Golden retriever, or a toy poodle. He was the dog who would lay out on the unfenced front yard for hours, only getting up to greet his master when he came home from work, and his children when they got off the bus.

The Perfect Dog doesn’t bark excessively, only when burglars are about. He doesn’t chew or mark on the furniture, or chase cats, or bite the mailman. He requires no crate-training or finagling to be left at home unsupervised. He can be trusted with infants, teenagers, and your elderly grandmother. He is calm, stately, a little gray around the muzzle, and wise. You know you can trust him with anything.

I know everybody thinks back to that Perfect Dog they knew, and wonders how the heck those people did it. Nowadays, if your puppy isn’t in every pre-K puppy class, doing six sports, and telling you via sign language that he has to urinate, he’s going to end up one of those crazy dogs that jumps on everyone, pulls your arm off on a walk, and happily disintegrates your furniture with his teeth.

I’ve yet to find the secret, and I read everything about dogs all day long. If I had more shelf space, I’d have more dog books. Unfortunately, I haven’t found the secret to the Perfect Dog… But I think I may be close.

My dogs have all had various levels of formal and informal, home and class training. It’s taken a lot of time, but I think I have part of the formula for the Perfect Dog figured out: it’s life. Dogs who live in crates most of the day to avoid house-training accidents, who are constantly leashed to their owners to prevent chewing accidents, or who are stuffed into several overwhelming classes at once, don’t learn to be dogs. They don’t learn the invaluable social things they need to learn when they have freedom. I’m not saying let your dog run loose and wild, but easing up can do wonders.

My second Pom had a super strict house-training schedule, and wasn’t actually off of umbilical until she was five months old. That’s three months lost, learning how to live in a house. I decided to go the extreme opposite with Peach, and she has not been on umbilical for over a week. She has a bed-time, and goes out every hour or two depending on her activity level, but that’s it. Peach has lots of freedom. And for it? I have a dog who, today, for the first time ever in my dog-owning life, went and whined at the door to be let out to potty. I have a dog who understands her name out of the context of “look, and receive a treat”, and a dog who will navigate doors, feet, and comes when called, simply because she understands how humans interact with space better than her predecessors do.

Peach is enjoying life as a puppy. And because I am vigilant, I don’t have to worry about having an un-housetrained, unholy monster of a crazy dog. To help myself get the Perfect Dog, I gave myself tools. A second part of the formula is the human… I’m still working on that part.