Sunday, January 25, 2015

Five Common Themes We See In "Misbehaving" Dogs

This was a previous post, but still begs repeating!

At UC Davis’ Behavior Service, we see some common themes among our clients resulting in frustration. I thought it might be good to discuss some of the chief issues:

  1. My dog pulls! Undoubtedly this happens with many pets, but when we see that your pet is wearing a harness, we just smile and say “we can fix this”. Harnesses are made to teach dogs to pull – think of a sled dog. Use a gentle leader, via conditioning your pet to it first, and the problem for most pets is usually resolved.
  2. My dog doesn't respond to my commands! If I ask the owner to show me what they mean, then this often happens: “Juju sit. SIT. Sit, sit, sit! Come on now, I mean it!” Well, I’m sure that he knows you mean it, but he’s unsure if it’s from the first mention of the command or the fifteenth. Use the command ONCE and wait. Let your dog think. Reward him if he does obeys. If he refuses, tough luck, the cookie, toy or attention that was in the balance just walked away. He’ll get the clue that winning comes from listening.
  3. My dog digs, barks, and destroys the yard then I’m not at home! There are many causes for this type of behavior, but the first thing to rule out is easy – is your dog bored? If you were left in a sterile environment for 8 hours a day, wouldn't you get a little crazy? If pets aren't given activities, they will find their own source of amusement. Hide toys stuffed with treats for a treasure hunt. Frequently switch out toys so they aren't the same old, same old. Play or do training sessions with your dog for a period in the morning and evening – a tired dog is a less destructive dog.
  4. I don’t know why my Terrier tries to eat my hamster, my hound is hard to control off leash, my Schnauzer barks a lot and my Border Collie tries to herd me! Researching the characteristics of the dog breed you’re interested in before investing in ownership is a big help. While these characteristics aren't set in stone—some dogs will display them to a greater or lesser extent—knowing what you’re getting into can help inform you of the type of training you may need to provide to curb the behaviors that might drive you nuts later.
  5. My dog growls at people and it makes me mad! This may seem counter intuitive to some, but: don’t punish your dog for growling. Why? Because, as I've often heard Dr. Stelow say, “thank your dog for the warning and remove them from the situation.” A growl is a warning and, if you punish your pet, she may skip the growling and go straight to biting instead. Growling dogs often do so out of fear; don’t punish them since it simply cements the fear they feel. If you were afraid of spiders and I told you to hold one and just get over it – would that change your feelings? Examine the problem to learn what triggered it. Once the trigger is discovered you can desensitize and counter condition your pet. Scared pets can be made more confident and comfortable, and allow you to make a negative into something positive.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Little Dogs, Big Problems

When I worked in a small animal hospital, mad little dogs were likened to Piranha. Interestingly, small dog breeds are under-represented in the statistics for biting. It's a blessing the damage they cause is typically limited, but that’s not for lack of trying. Why are these micro dogs so intent on chomping? It’s because owners don’t listen to their pets’ pleas for respect.

As a tiny dog, people disregard your boundaries. I recently saw a Chihuahua who bit everyone in the household. Why you might ask? Because no one paid attention when he barked or growled.  He fell victim to kisses when he wasn't in the mood, carrying him when he'd rather of walk, and coddling when he was more than capable of going it on his own. Personally I’d find it frustrating too! Eventually he found the solution: I’ll bite and you’ll leave me alone – Hurray! It worked flawlessly, so biting became a daily default occurrence for all things he didn't like.  Needless to say, the owners became VERY concerned that the pet had turned into a meandering chainsaw and decided to seek help. Our first conversation was a lengthy explanation of how dogs are allowed to have a choice. The only time you HAVE TO pick your dog up is when there's a distinct danger to having the pet on the floor. Otherwise, the dog should have a choice to be picked up or not.

Affection isn't something all dogs want. It’s like being a kid, victimized by big sloppy smooches from distant Aunt Mable during a family reunion. You’re expected to let it happen out of civility, but inside you’re retching with aversion. Even if many dogs don’t dig this interaction, we still kiss our pet on the head, pet them whenever we want or hug them. All these actions are intimidating in dog terms, though humans are clueless to stiffening, the look away or lip licking while they’re receiving ”lovin’s”. Little dogs fall victim of this more often since strangers can’t be convinced not touch them. To this, I offer them my sympathies. Owners of large breeds often have people cross the street to avoid them. Conversely, small dogs have a gravitational pull which sucks in kids and adults alike. Even when warned, strangers (often self-proclaimed “dog people”) persist in attempts at approaching and then are strangely offended when they feel teeth on their appendages. How many of you would feel great about someone on the street walking over and suddenly kissing you on the cheek? I mean, really!

How do we avoid making small dogs big problems? The ideal would be to treat them like a 200 pound dog. Let them explore the world on their own four legs. You should keep in mind that a small dog isn't too dissimilar to a prey item with other animals, but as much as possible – keep them on the ground. Listen to them. Watch body language! At the very least, if your dog growls, he’s telling you he's uncomfortable. Don’t get mad - STOP! Analyze the situation to determine why the growling occurred and find a way to make it positive for both of you. Want to pick your pet up? Always let them know your intention (Let’s go up!) and if they stiffen, struggle or walk away –STOP. Offer treats or toys at the same time you pick your pet up. The positive emotional response will create a dog who LOVES to be moved about. Lastly, be your pet’s guardian. If a stranger wants to pet your dog, and either of you are concerned, offer for them to toss a treat instead! It’s a much better option and will create a favorable response to people approaching in general. Now, if my family only thought of doing that during visits with Aunt Mable…