One of the biggest problems that people seem to have with their dogs is social issues. Time and again I am asked why their dog seems to be aggressive towards others when he is on the leash, why he barks at buggies, and why he is a pain to walk.
First it’s important that I give you and explanation, to try and help you see why your dog behaves a certain way. The dog that barks at things, behaves brashly towards other dogs or bounces around yelping at something in particular has most often missed out on crucial socialization. He has learned, as a consequence, that these things are to be feared or has simply learned poor communication skills.
Most of the time your job in this situation is to teach relaxed behavior around the thing that has become the trigger for the unhelpful behaviour and it is easier than you think.
The Process*that leads to an out of control dog usually goes something like this;
1. The relaxed dog sees something that he fears, or that excites him. (The trigger)
2. His behaviour starts to change – often at this point the owner does not notice the small changes.
3. The trigger gets closer and the dog’s behaviour becomes out of control.
4. The dog becomes too excited to reign in and the entire occurrence is strengthening the habitual out of control behavior.
5. The dog’s well-being suffers and so does the relationship between you and your dog. Walks become problematic and stressful.
Does your dog have a particular problem? Is it other dogs, cats, passing cars, children or people on bikes? If he does, when do you react to the change in his behaviourand is it when the behavior is already out of control?
The good news is though, all you need to do in order to change any behaviour that responds to a trigger is to teach relaxation. You can do this by rewarding relaxation (with a click and treat) when the trigger is at distance and generally move closer to the problem, bit by bit, so that your dog learns that the trigger is associated with relaxed behaviour as opposed to being out of control.
The first behaviour that your dog will show when he becomes aware of a trigger is calming signals. This is the point that you must act, calming signals mean that the dog is uncomfortable in some way, in this case they mean that he is not relaxed because of the presence of the trigger. In this case move as far away as the dog needs to be in order to relax so that you can reward the relaxation.
Your job is to reward relaxed behavior when the trigger is present, whether you do this when you are ten paces from it or fifty paces away depends on how close your dog can be whilst staying relaxed. Gradually you can get closer to the trigger by rewarding relaxation as you go. If the dog’s behaviour begins to change then you have got too close too soon.
You can use your clicker, special toys, praise and attention to help your dog stay relaxed. It is also important that you don’t tense up because the dog will sense it and become worried by your reaction. You can even teach him to focus on you each step closer that you take to the trigger before releasing him and allowing him to explore the area around him whilst the source of his excitability is in the area.
This may take some time but you are building learning foundations that will modify your dog’s behaviour from within. So it’s something that can’t be rushed or masked, not if the dog is going to be truly happy.
Masking is the act of putting the dog into the situation yet threatening him or hurting him if he reacts to it. An improvement may be seen at the time because the collar/handler pushes the already stressed dog into mental shutdown but the behaviour has not been truly modified, just temporarily disabled.
To truly and kindly modify a behaviour you need to stay on number one of the process* above whist gradually moving your dog closer to whatever triggers the excitable behaviour, if you stray to step two then quickly increase the distance again. If you do this carefully you will eventually be able to get very close to a trigger and still have a nicely relaxed dog.
This week I would like you to choose something that makes your dog over excited and practice keeping him calm and relaxed in its presence. Use lots of treats to distract your dog into relaxation and remember to always adhere to the calming signals and increase the distance before your dog’s response to the trigger becomes out of control.
Let us know how you get on and remember that it is better to make strong firm progress over time than to rush your dog and risk him not learning at all. See you next week!
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Wednesday 3rd June 2015