Friday, March 7, 2014

Why Has My Dog Changed???

Well I’ll start off this blog entry by apologizing for the very long delay in entries. 2013 went out like a lion with a number of personal emergencies. Luckily life has settled down a bit and I have time to write more dog training entries!

Today I want to discuss why a dog’s behavior would change. I often see dogs around age 2 to 4. The owners will describe a change in the dog’s behavior towards other dogs and/or people. They are often confused about what happened and will attempt to pinpoint the change to one circumstance.



So what’s really going on? How can a seemingly friendly dog suddenly not like other dogs? Or a well-mannered happy go lucky pooch just start to blow off anyone he/she doesn’t know already? What has happened?

Well simply put sometimes once a dog completes adolescence they are less playful and happy go lucky just like humans. Sometimes they’ve spent the first few years of life being bullied or mishandled and they’ve had enough. More often than not there is no single occurrence that has led to this change.

This change can be a shock to the owners of any dog. And sometimes there’s not much you can do about it. Let’s talk about it from the dog’s point of view. As a puppy Ms. Golden Retrieve was very friendly. She adored playing with all types of other dogs. She went to the dog park every day and sometimes to doggy daycare too. She would play and play and play. Sometimes she played so much she would get sore. Now she’s 3 years old and her hips hurt sometimes, she still goes to dog daycare and has adolescent dogs bouncing off her and biting her ears. She wants a break. Last night at the dog park a young, large male jumped on her and hurt her hips which made her cry out. So the next time she sees a young dog bee lining her way she shows her teeth. What she’s trying to say “hey there youngster, give me some space”.

This dog is not aggressive. She’s getting slightly older, she’s less playful and she has an undiagnosed medical issue. Her behavior has changed. So what should her family do?

- Get a vet examine and if possible visit an Osteopath or Physio as well. This will rule out lameness issues. Anytime your dog’s behavior changes drastically you need to rule out medical causes. Dogs can’t tell you that they are sore and will often hide it.

- Respect that your dog might not want young dogs bouncing off of her anymore. Find play solutions with appropriate friends for your dog’s play style. If necessary STOP going to the dog park and daycare. Instead take her for leisurely hikes where she can sniff and run around without fear of being knocked over.

- Take your dog to environment where dog interaction is more controlled. A Rally Obedience class where all the dogs are in control and having fun bonding with their owners is a great option. 

That’s just one example of what I see on a daily basis working with clients. All of our dogs are different and as they mature they will change. They are not puppies forever (for better and worse). And please remember behavior changes should not be ignored as they can be a symptom of anxiety or illness.



Tuesday, June 18, 2013

When the worst happens...


This past weekend a good friend and fellow positive dog trainer Charlotte of Diamond Dogs was out walking her rescued Doberman pinscher with her family in Kananaskis. Her dog isn’t an ordinary dog either; his name is Aspen and he had a really hard start in life. Aspen came from a breeder who crops ears. He was placed in a home where he suffered severe neglect including malnutrition and the tissue around his ears died. Aspen came into rescue underweight and missing both his outer ear tissue. He also missed out on crucial socialization and training due to this neglect. His story is unfortunately a common one however he had the good fortune of finding a one in a million home where he was nurtured back to health, trained and socialized.

(Aspen when he first came into rescue as a puppy with no ears and very thin)
 
For Charlotte he is not only her pet and companion but also a key member of her dog training team. Aspen helps fearful and reactive dogs find confidence and relax. His temperament is wonderful and she had worked hard to develop these skills in him.

She takes him everywhere so an on leash hike in the back country is a regular event. You can hike with your dogs in Kananaskis but they have to be on leash by law. Hikers are also advised to carry bear spray, make lots of noise and watch out for wildlife. Charlotte was fully prepared and took all the necessary supplies to keep herself, family and dog safe on what should have been an enjoyable trip out in nature.
 
(Aspen after training and at a much better weight)
 
As they were hiking they spotted two extremely large off leash dogs. The dogs were running towards them so Charlotte called out to the woman walking them to put them on leash. Unfortunately she could not call her dogs back and had no control over them. The dogs attacked Aspen. Charlotte tried using hiking poles to hit the dogs and make them let go. Another family member used the bear spray on the dogs. The attack was so vicious that one of the dogs was sprayed three times before he let go. Aspen had done nothing to provoke this attack and even offered calming signals to these dogs to avoid a conflict. Aspen is not a fighter.  

The owner of the off leash dogs only had 1 leash with her and was unable to contain the dogs even after the attack had stopped. She did leave her information however that’s little consolation to a family that has been traumatized by seeing their dog attacked. Poor Aspen has a long road ahead of him that included surgery to have a drain put in and stitches. He will also need at minimum months of rehab for physiological damage. He’s a young dog and is quite sensitive; only time will tell if he will be able to work again.
 
(Aspen's injuries)
 
This attack devastated this family and their dog as well as the countless dogs that Aspen could have helped. And the worst part is that this isn’t an isolated case that rarely happens. Dog attacks occur regularly. I’m not trying to scare anyone as I love dogs and want them to be immersed in our society but this comes with work. Good dog owners will keep their pets on leash in on leash areas and will maintain control in off leash areas. They should have adequate equipment to control their dogs at all times. Aggressive dogs should never be off leash even in the back country where you think you might be alone. Large breed dogs come with the added responsibility of knowing what you can handle. Owners should never take out two large dogs that weigh more than them and have aggressive tendencies and even really nice, easy going dogs should be able to be contained at all times. It is the owner’s responsibility to ensure safety. All dogs should have training that allows the owner to recall them back and remove them from an unsafe scene.

Rules to live by:

1.      Train your dog well (not just a 6 week course and he sort of listens sometimes)
2.      Keep everyone safe by having appropriate equipment for your dog
3.      Do not take aggressive animals off leash even if they are muzzled
4.      Only take a dog that you can handle and remember that walking more than one dog at a time is a challenge
5.      Always carry safety equipment whether it is bear spray or an air horn with you

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Choosing a dog training class to meet your goals

As a professional dog trainer I try to offer a variety of options to my clients. Let’s discuss what works, what doesn’t and how to get the best results for your family.

Dog training is a skill that most people don’t have. Professional trainers have spent thousands of dollars and years of their lives learning this art and science so it’s important to consult a professional.

Now you’ve managed to find a number of positive reinforcement and experienced professionals to choose from. In the Calgary area there are so many. Now what class should you take?

Well truth be told there’s no perfect answer for this. You have to take a look at a few factors:

  1. Can your family commit to a weekly time/day for at least 6 weeks? Most group classes require participants to come every week for that period of time. Missing a class makes it very hard for you to get the full understanding of basic skills.
  2. Does your dog handler suffer from any disabilities that would make a class environment overwhelming or hard? (examples would be anxiety, hear impairment, etc).
  3. Is there someone to watch the kids and a person to handle the dog? Most group classes need at least 2 adults to accommodate children being there. Don’t try to watch the kids and train your dog. It rarely works out for the dog or yourself.
  4. Does your dog suffer from fear, aggression, hyper activity? A private training session should always be your first step.
  5. How old is your dog? Some young puppies do a lot better with training at home and going to puppy play classes to socialize. A combination can work wonders.
  6. How much experience do you have when it comes to dogs? If you have questions about everything than a private training session can bring you the answer you need. Most instructors have a limited ability to cover material outside of the curriculum in a group environment.

Those are just a few factors that can impact your success with training your dog. Let’s look at the options:

Indoor group class
 
Russ practicing heeling at a rally practice indoors.

This is the route that the majority of families choose for dogs or puppies without severe behavior concerns. It can be an excellent way to train your dog but you must practice outside of class times. You need to make sure you set aside 10-20 minutes daily to practice (minimum). It’s also a good idea to find out the size of a group class beforehand; 6 dogs is a good amount but more than that can be overwhelming for a beginner and the instructor will have limited time for questions. Indoor group classes can also limit how well your dog listens to you outside or at home. This is where the practice everywhere mantra needs to play in. Be strict with yourself and take your dog out and about to practice what you’re learning in class. It’s important to note that even professional trainers won’t have a perfect dog after only 6 weeks in a group class. Training is a lifelong commitment and many families need more than 1 set of classes.

Outdoor group class
 
Outdoor class at the C Train station.

This option works great for families who love to be outside with their dogs and have the patience to handle distraction training. I recommend taking an indoor class first OR having a few private sessions under your belt. The exception to this is that many puppies (4 months and under) can do exceptionally well outside as they are still very owner focused at that age. Make sure your dog is up to date on vaccines before you start. Considerations for group classes outdoor include checking class size and making sure you have time to practice.

I offer an outdoor group class that has two times a week and is run on a drop in style. This can work well for people on shift work, vacation plans, and need some flexibility. The commitment to practice is still required though.

In Home Training or Private Training
 
Two awesome jack russels who have enjoyed private training with Where's Your Sit.

For many of my clients private training delivers the best results. It’s flexible, can accommodate families and moves at your own pace. In home training also allows serious behavior problems like aggression or fear to be addressed. It’s down side is that it is definitely pricier.

The benefits are huge as the trainer is focused only on you and your dog’s needs and goals. You’ll learn what’s relevant for your lifestyle and move through the steps at your dog’s pace instead of rushing through it in just six weeks.

Some dogs benefit from having both in home and group classes. The combination of both allows your dog and you to learn the skills first and then practice around other dogs.

Board and Train
 
This little Goldendoodle had both private, in home training and some pet sitting where she polished up her skills.

This is the option where you send your dog away for a period of time and in theory he comes home completely trained for you. Board and train can work in certain circumstances but to be honest it’s less than ideal. It works well for people who cannot develop the mechanical skills necessary to train a dog (in home training can be a solution for this though). It rarely works for people who are simply “too busy” as your dog will return home and the routine of daily training will be gone.  Your dog would definitely need to be gone for an extended period of time and you need to commit a good amount of time and follow up with the trainer and your dog to ensure a smooth transition. A better option for be for the trainer to come you several times a week and train your dog while you are there watching and learning.

Which option for you?

Well truth be told there isn’t a magic formula. The best behaved dogs belong to owners who are committed to training them and spend time learning about their dog. When I’m working with my own dogs I follow this line of though:

  • What’s currently available for group classes (types of classes, times, length, instructors). If there’s a class that will benefit my dog and I can fit it in then I attend. An example of this would be when Marco was a puppy I didn’t need to take him to class to learn how to train him but I did want him to be exposed to a class environment. I enrolled us both in a Canine Good Neighbour class with a trainer I admired. This allowed him to practice his obedience in a new place.
  • What does my dog need? When I adopted Remi she was really scared so a busy group class would be overwhelming for her. Luckily enough I could take care of the in home training myself. In addition to working on confidence boosting at home I also found a small sized fearful dog class for her to attend. The combination of these efforts worked great.
  • What would I like to achieve? When Marco was a puppy I knew I wanted him to compete in dog sports. My goals were Rally Obedience and Agility. Because these goals were important to me I selected group classes that would advance that desire such as Canine Good Neighbour, Formal Obedience, Intro to Agility, etc. If you want your dog to participate in dog sports than research what’s available for puppies or young dogs in the beginner level. If your goals include having your dog do volunteer work with you than at bare minimum you need a beginner obedience class followed up by a Canine Good Neighbour class.
  • How can I practice in as many places as possible? My dogs take classes with numerous trainers in Calgary. WHY? Because it exposes us both to new places and new ideas. I highly recommend expanding your practice base outside of just 1 building.
Hopefully this will help you explore your class options. Another way to check things out is to call or email the trainer you’d like to work with, explain your goals and ask their opinions. Trainers should always be open to letting you watch them teach a class or giving you references.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Protect Your Dog

In recent months my Aussie Marco has had a hard time being at the dog park. His herding drive seems to have increased dramatically and he assumes new dogs are his for the chasing. Marco’s style of chase includes lunging over the top of a dog and also nipping at their back paws and legs. While he is not overtly aggressive and causing visible injuries it is inappropriate behavior and scares the other dog. I’ve been working diligently with him so that he can learn to play again. Strangely enough this behavior for Marco is linked only to the dog park and usually large breed dogs. If I introduce him at home he is appropriate. He also use to have some of the best dog social skills I had ever seen so I was fairly certain with time, patience and lots of training he would overcome this.

 
 (Marco at a Rally Obedience trial which helps fine tune obedience skills)
 

Luckily Marco’s play skills have come back but I take some preventative measures. Marco needs to keep focused on me in a sit or down or moving heel when a dog is approaching. He is not allowed to charge them. If the dog seems like a “target” he would usually try to herd then he cannot go play until he has truly calmed down and preformed a nice curving greeting.
 
A few weeks ago we were practicing at Southland when a large retriever approached. Marco has a hard time with retrievers so he was waiting in his down stay while my other dogs went over to say hi. The dog hung out with them and we had no issues. When the couple who owned the retriever came over the lady asked why Marco couldn’t play. I said because he tries to herd larger dogs and we’re working on this behavior issue. She promptly said I don’t mind if they play rough. This took me back in all honesty. My response was that I did mind and that her dog could get hurt. She didn’t seem to think anything bad could happen from my slightly smaller dog tackling hers.

Needless to say Marco didn’t get to play with that dog. He was an older guy who had interactively positively with everyone else and didn’t need a maniac Aussie hanging off his back. He also never approached Marco on his own for a sniff greeting so I took that to mean that he didn’t want to meet Marco.

What I learned from this is that most people don’t understand what appropriate play is. And this isn’t the first time this has happened with Marco. A gentleman with an Airedale had the same response. I find this disconcerting. Marco looks pretty innocent by nature. He is a mostly white dog with startling blue eyes. He is around 45lbs and fluffy. He can get away with murder except I’m not fooled. I’m attempting to do two things by working with him at the park. The first is restoring appropriate social skills and the second is keeping everyone else’s dog safe. I don’t understand why the owner of the dog at risk would be alright with Marco hurting them.
 


You need to protect your dog. This means if you see a dog coming that looks like trouble then go the other way. By trouble I mean: out of control, distance increasing barking (those barks that make you want to back up), snapping, crazy chasing or roughhousing, mounting and other undesirable behavior. This has nothing to do with breed for the record but the individual dog. I also check out the owners… are they paying attention, interacting with their dog, pausing to reward at times, etc. If they aren’t then I am out of there or my dogs are in stays with me. I’m responsible for their wellbeing because they can’t be. Just like if you have your kids at the playground you need to pay attention and would stop another child from hurting them. Dog parks are unruly places that really need a bylaw officer presence but don’t seem to have it. So take some responsibility and do right by your dog. Rough play with a stranger dog is never okay. Two dogs that know each other well can have a slightly more aggressive style and still be able to calm themselves down (within reason) but a strange dog will not have that relationship with your dog.

Pay attention to your dog and keep him/her safe. It’s your job as your dog’s guardian.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

History and purpose are essential to understanding your dog

This entry has been a long time coming since I routinely have this discussion with my clients. Sometimes when your dog is being bad (aka displaying a behavior that you find intolerable) it’s because they’ve been hardwired for it through selective breeding or natural evolution. When adding a dog to your family you need to consider what dog was meant to do because it will have a great impact on whether this is the right dog for you.

I’m going to use two examples of very different dogs to illustrate why background is important and what impact it will have on your life with your dog.

The first breed I want to talk about is the Australian Shepherd. I picked them for a few reasons including that I own an Aussie with some less than desirable characteristics and in recent months I’ve had a number of clients have similar issues with their Aussies who are from different breeders.

I’m going to be honest I love Aussies and always have. I think they are gorgeous, smart and athletic. I’ve owned two of them and enjoyed them both. Marco still lives with me and he’s been one of the best dogs I’ve ever had the chance to share my life with. But there have been LOTS of challenges even though Aussies are known as highly trainable.


 

Common problems in Australian Shepherds are related to a very high herding instinct as well as being weary or nervous of strangers, sounds and other animals. This isn’t to say that all Aussies have these issues (even Marco doesn’t have all of these issues) but they are common and this is why.

I went to the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) for a breed description and background. In my opinion is the most reliable source of information on this breed which is why I’m referencing them and not one of the kennel clubs. ASCA states that:
 
The Australian Shepherd is intelligent, primarily a working dog of strong herding and guardian instincts. He is an exceptional companion. He is versatile and easily trained, performing his assigned tasks with great style and enthusiasm. He is reserved with strangers but does not exhibit shyness. Although an aggressive, authoritative worker, viciousness toward people or animals is intolerable (ASCA Link).

What does this mean when considering whether you should own this dog? Well in plain terms it means that your dog is going to be fairly high energy, he will like to round things up using his bark and mouth as well as protect people, other pets and his home from intruders. This can translate to disaster for some families. It also means that you can train this dog to do lots of different jobs and in fact you should engage his brain as he is a worker not a couch potato.

Now there are exceptions to any rule and like I said before your dog might not demonstrate all of these characteristics. But you need to know that breeders are working very hard to maintain this standard and they should.

Australian Shepherds are highly challenging in an urban environment. I think most do best when given lots of room to run and less traffic (which in their mind triggers a need to guard).

Some examples of why these things are hard to live with:
  • Marco and many other Aussies will bark or begin to guard when people, cars or animals walk by your home. If you live on a busy street this can drive you crazy as the bark is fairly loud and startles people. Solution in my home: close the blinds during high traffic periods. In the country you just wouldn’t have to deal with this or you would have limited traffic and you’d like to be alerted. Your dog is hardwired for this behavior.
  • Marco likes to round up dogs he doesn’t know and sometimes grab them. He never hurts them or causes injury. If one of my other dogs is nervous than he is more likely to do this behavior as it changes from herding to guarding. Solution: strong obedience and limited interaction with strange dogs at park. Marco gets along great with dogs he’s introduced to.
  • Marco’s play styles have always been rough and tumble. He plays great with other Aussies and many other dogs. However when playing chase he likes to tackle (most Aussies do). This isn’t acceptable with all other dogs as they might be small, in danger of being injured or intolerant of aggressive play. Solution: select Marco’s friends carefully and interrupt him when he goes into overdrive so to speak.

I’m pointing these things out since Marco (just like my other dogs) is awesome but not everyone is aware that all dogs have certain behaviours that are undesirable. Understanding the why is important to choosing a solution that will help solve the issues. Clearly I can’t let Marco run wild, barking hysterically and tackling other dogs. But I do understand that this happens because he was breed to be a working Aussie.

 

My second example is Reserve Dogs or Semi-Feral Dogs. Many rescues in Calgary are committed to helping these dogs and I support their efforts. Many of these dogs come into rescue injured and sick. They need our help. However they are not great pets for every family and come with some challenges based on their background. While not a breed they are in fact survivors and different from most family pets.

Adoption has become a very popular way to acquire a dog in recent years. I support adoption and have had many dogs through that channel. But when you’re choosing to bring home a dog from a reserve or another country like Mexico where they run free you need to be aware of what type of dog you are getting. This will alleviate disappointment and help you train your dog.

Dogs who have had to survive with limited human assistance are great scavengers. This makes sense as in order to breed they have to eat and no one is feeding them. This can be a serious challenge in a family home. You need to keep your counters free and clear as well as potentially lock cupboards that contain food including your garbage. These dogs are tenacious as they are used to needing to search for food in order to live. This behavior tends to continue even if you’re feeding your dog the most awesome food and making sure he/she has a full belly. This behavior can also make walks a challenge as your dog will search for garbage and food. Many owners find this very frustrating and it is in fact something you will need to spend a great deal of time training away. Even puppies who did not survive on their own will have a strong instinct for this.

Another concern has been a lack of affiliation with the people they live with. While many of these dogs really enjoy their new life they can have bonding concerns. This is problematic as it makes recall or walking your dog off leash difficult as well as training in general. Bonding with a dog that lived most of his life as a stray takes great time, patience and reinforcement. It’s a wonderful experience if you have the time to do so. If you have small children this can be extraordinarily difficult.

Sometimes bonding with the family comes easily to these dogs but a strong fear of strangers is prevalent. This can result in bites, excessive barking or simply being terrified and hiding. Once again it’s something many dogs can overcome but you need to commit a great deal of time to working on this concern. Many of my clients spend a year working on introducing their dog to new people. Fearful dogs need lots of time, space and slow training to gain confidence. This is a natural behavior that would have protected your dog in his previous home.

Semi-Feral or Reserve dogs can have very different relationships with other dogs. Some of these guys prefer dogs to humans and are happiest when in a pack. This translates relatively well to most pet homes. On the other side many of them have awful dog skills. This is a serious concern that most often results in these dogs being given away repeatedly. Even if you do not own another dog you will run into other dogs on walks (either off leash or on leash or off leash when they should be on leash). If your dog has dog aggression then you’ll be spending a great deal of time working on obedience, will most likely need a muzzle and will quite possibly never be able to walk your dog off leash. This behavior is a direct result of what worked best for your dog or your dog’s parents when they were living on their own.

While these behavior problems are not confined to semi-feral or reserve dogs they are highly prevalent. It’s important to ask yourself if you can take on this challenge. It’s very unfair to a dog who’s had hard beginning to be rehomed.

So those are my two examples and I could do more. Each breed of dog (and mixes of breeds) have certain characteristics that make them challenging. There isn’t truly a breed of dog that is more difficult than another despite what people say. All dogs require training, time and understanding. It’s very important for owners to understanding what they are getting into.

When considering your next dog please ask yourself the following:
  • Where does my dog come from and how will that impact his behavior?
  • What was my dog breed or evolved to do and how will that impact his behavior?
  •  What’s my dog’s personality and how will that impact his behavior?
  • What’s my dog’s own history (if known) and how will that impact his behavior?

Do you see what I’m getting at? You need to consider what type of dog you are bringing into your home. And remember just because your first dog was a super awesome Aussie doesn’t mean your second Aussie will be the same. Just like people all dogs have individual personalities but their history can help you predict certain behaviors and train preventatively.