Tag Archives: dog behavior problems

From the Couch’s Potatoes

I am a confirmed couch potato! I like nothing better than curling up on the sofa with a quilt, a book and a cup of something hot by my elbow.  Can’t say I’m exactly PROUD of preferring a life with little physical activity, but I’m definitely NOT ashamed of being an introvert who needs privacy at home to recharge my batteries!  For some reason, I always thought that recharging was best done from a reclining position on the couch!

For years as an adult I’d lived with cats, who approve and support the introvert lifestyle — as long as THEIR introvert is properly trained as warm-blooded furniture! Not that I didn’t LOVE dogs and want one, but my job was in the theatre and that means long hours away from home. Two cats can keep each other company and be happy to snuggle with their human when she finally drags in, but a dog or even two dogs — not so much!

Finally, I adopted Kita, in spite of the scheduling issues because I realized that my aging body needed motivation to pry it off the couch cushions! I couldn’t keep to a walking schedule all on my own, but would have to get moving in order to exercise my puppy! And it worked! Though I had to re-arrange schedules at the theater and come home between activities, Kita got a good 45 minutes of exercise in the morning (even in the dead of Winter when that meant setting forth  in the dark before dawn) and 45 minutes to an hour every evening. And the couch potato did, too!

At least the evening “walk” always started out as aerobic, but in my neighborhood, EVERYBODY took their dog to the park after work. It wasn’t unusual for the humans to stand around socializing and let their dogs frisk about, socializing on their own. The neighbors encouraged me to let Kita off leash so she could have fun with the other dogs and I couldn’t resist!  Yep, Kita had fun, but after she organized and lead break-away adventures in the woods a couple of times, they stopped suggesting that!  (Kita was far more independent than most 6-9 month old puppies and still doesn’t have a rock-solid recall because of that trait.  But that’s another subject.)  Still, she got a good measure of movement, and compared to the pre-Kita days, I’d added quite a bit of activity to my day!  Until Kita was over a year old, it was no problem getting her enough walks and play-dates to keep in shape.  Then we moved.

Foolishly, I thought that we’d get MORE activity in a semi-rural area. It wasn’t until we were all unpacked that I realized a couple of things — out here there are no sidewalks or streetlights.  In addition, the road we live on may be only two-lanes, but is one of the only connecting roads between two communities and a college, so I don’t feel safe walking on the shoulder even in daylight.  With the leash-laws (by township ordinance, even CATS have to be on-leash) and Kita’s Recall being iffy, I couldn’t safely bend the rules and let her romp in the wild land behind our house even if I was scrambling around with her.  We have 2/3 of an acre fenced in behind the house, but a dog doesn’t exercise herself.  And even if she did, that doesn’t exercise ME!

This is where I started to really envy those folks with high-fetch-drive dogs.  Romping and throwing ball or Frisbee with Kita would have gone a long way to keeping us both off the couch.  After a year or so of intermittent walks at parks we had to drive to.  Short walks along the same “safe” backstreet. Running around our yard which got to be a more than a bit boring without the ball-or-Frisbee component, I broke down and adopted a companion animal for Kita – Rilka.  (It’s her picture I use as my blog avatar!)

That solved the dog’s exercise requirements — for about a year.  The girls would play and chase each other around the small barn, and we’d all walk a couple of times a week, so with yard-work I was doing OK, too.  Then, as these things happen, the girls played less, and we walked less, too.  It all happened so gradually that I didn’t recognize the increasingly frequent doggie break-outs as the symptom of what they were – two still young, lively dogs weren’t getting enough exercise!

By break-outs, I mean literally and figuratively!  The girls would break out their own fun with “boredom” chewing, garbage exploration and digging inside and outside the house.  On the literal side, Rilka was an escape artist and Kita no slouch, neither.  They took many, many opportunities to slip under the chain link, or enlarge a gopher hole under the privacy fence, or punch out a screen in a window, to get out and chase furry critters all over the area. (I wanted smart dogs and they are – they thought of ways to break out faster than I could think of what they might be thinking of!)  Considering how busy the street out front is, it was fairly miraculous that they stayed safe – except for tapeworm from eating little furry creatures, scratches, burrs, and Kita blowing a knee – for nearly 4 years.  But it eventually killed Rilka who was hit by a car.

They say hind-sight is always 20-20. I now see that I let my “couch potato” inclinations take over and — not to put too fine a point on it –neglected my dogs and myself.  Even if I found our only safe walking route boring, the dogs didn’t – the smells were always new and interesting.  There was always time, and walking in the pre-light before dawn always revealed wonderful wildlife.  No, I just failed to do the duty I got a dog to force myself into in the first place.

Since then  DRAMA DOG TRAINING activities — boarding, daycare and classes – are making sure both Kita and I keep moving,  Even though she’s now, at 9 years, considered a “senior,” Kita plays more and more with the client doggies!  If we don’t have dogs that exercise each other, Kita and I take one dog at a time for walks, so we’re doing pretty good there, too!

And it’s kind of amazing that I’ve discovered even an introvert’s batteries get recharged all the better with a little physical activity!  After a good walk, I’m more creative, relaxed and refreshed that if I sat down with a book and cup of tea!  The benefits to me are great, but to my dog, they can’t even be measured. It’s my job to keep us from “couch-potato-hood” and I wish I’d lived up to my responsibilities in time so that my sweet Rilka might still be here with us.  But I can point to myself as a bad example and assure clients that exercise DOES make a huge difference in a dog’s behavior and “bad” habits as well as her health — and theirs!

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Darkest before the Dawn

One of the trickiest issues in dog training is how to get rid of bad habits — behaviors the dog has been doing for a while.  Most of the time, it isn’t that difficult to isolate the problem or plan a strategy to deal with it.  That’s usually pretty simple.  Not EASY, but not complicated.  What makes the whole process more than a lot of owners can deal with is that dogs don’t give up on bad habits without a fight.

Say Butch is used to family members slipping him tidbits at the dinner table.  The family decides that he’s getting too fat and agree to stop “table treating.”  But Butch doesn’t get the memo.  So, he tries what’s always worked in the past.

He’s had the family well-trained and usually, the ole sad-puppy eyes does the trick.  The family holds out against this.  Rather than give up, Butch just moves to DEFCON 2 — nudging elbows.  Still the family, reminding each other, manage to ignore him.  By now, 5-10 minutes has gone by and Butch is going to pull out all the stops.  He barks, and paws at elbows.  The barks get louder and the pace of the pawing picks up!  It’s annoying and because they’re feeling guilty anyway, somebody gives in and slips him a goodie.  And in doing that, they’ve made sure that Butch will do more and for longer at the next meal.

What the family doesn’t realize is that the “ramping up” of Butch’s demands is a signal that he was close to giving up.  The psychological term is EXTINCTION BURST.  Things get worse before they get better; it’s always darkest before the dawn of new behavior.  This happens with humans, too.  The 2-year-old’s tantrum gets louder and louder and louder, but if he’s ignored, he’ll hit a wall where it’s just not worth the trouble and the tantrum will quickly taper off.

Unfortunately, “giving in” — a very natural thing to do as the Extinction Burst is never pleasant to endure — is the worst thing we can do.  In fact, it teaches the dog (or 2-year-old) that he just has to keep going LONGER and LOUDER to get what he wants.  If we aren’t 100% consistent with ignoring the bad behavior, we just reinforce it even more.

“Oh come on,” I hear you say, “Isn’t 95% good enough?”  Well, the way our brains work, no it isn’t!  Psychologists have done studies that prove INTERMITTENT reward is the strongest goad to continuing behavior.  Think of all those folks in casinos putting money into slot machines.  It’s not because they ALWAYS get a payback.  No, it’s BECAUSE the next time MIGHT be the time they hit the JACKPOT!

I’m not saying that ignoring is the solution for every behavior problem.  I’m not even saying that it will always work in my doggie and toddler examples above. There are a lot of other factors.  Is the extinction burst behavior dangerous to anyone?  Is the perp winding himself up into an emotional fugue where the behavior passes beyond his conscious control?  So, it’s best to consult a professional to help evaluate the situation and create a treatment plan.

My point is that dealing with established behaviors is going to involve an INCREASE in that behavior and only by steadfastly working through the darkness  — with no faltering — will we be able to bring better behavior to light.

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Do Dogs Resemble Their Owners?

dogs look like people

There’s an old story that Winston Churchill, with his pugnacious glare and jowly face, greatly resembled his pet bulldog.  Love that story, and ole Winston certainly looked like a two-legged bulldog, didn’t he?  Unfortunately, that is just a story.  Though some member-or-other of his family did own a bulldog, Mr. Churchill’s own personal pet was a poodle.

Maybe the Prime Minister and his poodle are the exception that proves the rule?  We certainly have all noticed how many people do resemble the family dog.  I don’t know if the illustrations in the picture here are the real owners with their pets; I suspect these are staged shots.  However, there has been some research on this subject.  The studies show a greater-than-chance correlation between owner of dogs with upstanding vs. hanging-down ears and owners who wear their hair shorter-than or pulled behind their ears vs. hanging down over them!  Though I could site many examples of how owners and dogs resemble each other physically, what I really notice is how often dogs resemble their owners in temperament!   

Scientists mostly agree these days that personality is influenced by both nature and nurture.  Obviously, some puppies are shy and others outgoing right from day one, so your pet has some “pre-programming.”  However, most dog trainers will tell you that what the owner feels travels “right down the leash” and creates a similar state in their dog.  So, a nervous dog will most often have a nervous owner.

Dogs really do imitate their owners in this way.  Dogs are very good at adapting to circumstances and looking to people for cues of how to behave.  Though dogs and wolves share practically the same DNA and wolves have better problem-solving skills, studies show dogs far outpace wolves in any test which involves reading humans and working with them.  In fact, dogs are the ONLY animal capable of something that seems very simple to us:  following a pointing finger.   Wolves can’t.  Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, can’t!  But the domestic dog has been selectively bred for some 40,000 years plus to be our best friends and follow our cues. 

So, whether we bring a puppy or an adult dog into the family, this is a new situation — a new “pack” — for the dog.  The dog will look to the humans as the established member(s) of the pack for clues of how to behave; what is dangerous, what is good, what is frightening, etc. We don’t have to say anything. Dogs can hear the human heartbeat speed up and respiration quicken.  They can smell the biological changes in our bodies that come with anger and fear.  So, it isn’t really surprising that a dog living in a household of humans who are “on edge” all the time will learn to view the world as full of suspicious things and situations and be nervous, too!

So, does that mean I think my dog Kita “caught” all her neuroses (she’s afraid of the refrigerator, and thunder), suspicions (she assumes anyone new is up to no good), and anxieties (she can’t bear to be left alone for long) from me?  No, I don’t hold myself responsible for ALL of her hangups;  she came with a lot of them full-blown!  However, before Kita came into my life, I wouldn’t have said I was a nervous, suspicious or anxious person.  Watching how my reactions make Kita’s natural tendencies worse, I have identified that I need to consciously relax and be calm to help her.  Just taking deep, slow breaths helps both of us.  So does deliberately speaking in a low-pitched, low-volume, slow manner.  Whenever I see Kita getting out of control, I realize that my own control is slipping and know I need to stop reacting and start being pro-actively calm.  Dogs may not be our furry twins, but they are furry mirrors!

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Don’t Play That Game

If you could poll dogs on this, I think the number one, favorite game of all time for all breeds, and the vast majority of individual dogs would be — KEEP AWAY!  It’s a great game!    A dog can play it with one, or multiple playmates.  It can be played inside or outside; with or without a toy.  And even HUMANS play it — all the time!

Of course, when we’re “playing” we’re not always having as much fun as our dogs!  It usually goes something like this:  Fido proudly gallops out into the middle of your party dragging a bra, or loudly-colored pair of dirty briefs.  You are understandably embarrassed and your one thought is to get that item away from Fido ASAP!  So, you order him to “Drop it!”  Fido is delighted!  He’s gotten your attention, and drops into a play-bow in return, perhaps growling a bit, certainly wagging his tail.  You move towards him speaking sternly.  “Oh joy!” thinks Fido, “She’s getting into the game,” and he takes off.  After much chasing around furniture and all around the house, you decide that you’ve embarrassed yourself enough and let Fido have his prize.  Fido is beside himself with glee!  He’s gotten a rousing session of is favorite game — and gets to chew on his prize!  What more could any dog ask?

Whether it’s this scenario or what you intended to be a game of FETCH or trying to put the dog’s leash on, dogs love to play KEEP AWAY and will seize any opportunity to turn any situation to into that game.  A dog will do this for two reasons, 1) it’s his favorite! and 2) he can!  We’re letting the dogs dictate the game we play — or even IF we’re playing!  

It’s fairly simple — notice I dont’ say EASY — to prevent this.  We just have to remove the “fun-factor!”  If he’s not having a good time, a dog won’t continue wasting the effort.  In almost all situations, the prescription is simply — DON’T ENGAGE IN THE CHASE!   

In the scenario above, once Fido has trotted out the embarrassing item, your face is red, so just turn your back on the dog and walk away.  99% of the time, the dog will follow.  Still IGNORE him.  If you don’t really care about the item and don’t mind if it’s chewed, that’s all you have to do — and get your guests to do the same!  (If you won’t play, Fido will try everyone else!)  If that’s your brand-new silk bra, then turn the game into TRADE ME?

The TRADE ME? game involves just getting something else the dog really values.  For some dogs it’s a treat for others a squeaky toy.  Hold it up enticingly.  99% of the time, the dog will drop the verboten item in anticipation of getting the new one.  I always ask for a SIT or some other command before treating so the dog doesn’t get the idea that he can blackmail you for treats by draggin’ out underwear.  And I make sure that the verboten item is in MY hand before the dog gets the treat!

It really is simple.  What is difficult is not letting our “chase” buttons get pushed!  That is really the hard part because dogs are experts at pushing those buttons.  After all, this is their favorite game and they are the experts at strategy!

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