Category Archives: Management and care

Puppy Australian Shepherd X Collie with a toy

Have you taught your dog that its OK if you need to take food away from them? If not – here’s why you might want to!

I seem to be seeing a lot of posts which say ‘never take your dog’s food away ‘ ‘don’t grab things off your dog’ – but how is that equipping your dog for the ‘real world’? Where they might have found something edible (well, what the dog deems edible anyway!), but life threatening? Got hold of something that could kill them? Or is their life going to be so well managed for the next X number of years that will NEVER happen?

Can you guarantee someone, at some point in your dog’s life, is NOT going to move swiftly to try to take articles away from your dog? If a dog manages to get hold of some pills, goes to get hold of some food dropped on the kitchen floor or finds a rotting carcase on a walk – have you taught your dog to accept someone trying to take them off them? In case you aren’t the first person on the scene?

‘Real world’ training suggests to me we should aim to teach our dogs to be as fine as we can with the vagaries and unpredictability of human behaviour, because IME teaching ALL the humans they are ever going to meet in theit whole lives how to behave around dogs as safely and carefully as they should just isn’t going to happen.

We can teach our dogs to give up articles and food items easily enough (and yes, I’d be teaching that as well); but will everyone else know what cues you’ve taught the dog for them to do that? In an emergency, will they ask the dog calmly? Or might they panic a bit and move fast? If you have children, can they sometimes act like, well, children, and go to grab things from the dog? Visiting children – do they know not to pick up the dog’s food bowl or chew?

Collar grabs, taking food from their mouth, article grabs  – high on my list of things to teach a dog to associate with a positive outcome, in well planned strategic stages, as soon as possible so they are less likely to be taken by surprise, it be less likely to trigger aggressive, fearful or defensive behaviour, should it be needed to save their lives. Nothing to do with being a ‘pack leader’ or showing the dog who is boss – just sensible training, for the ‘real world’.

Reasons…and excuses

I was under no illusions at all that I was making excuses for my rubbish parking skills when I told the amused Sainsbury’s assistant ‘My new car – it’s too bloody long!!’ as I mowed down the cone I was supposed to stop in front of, as I reversed into the space so I could collect my ‘click and collect’ shopping. I sometimes joke similarly about my dog’s ‘floppy ears’ when she ignores a verbal cue to do something. I know, really, that it’s my poor judgement about a badly timed or insufficiently trained cue, not her ‘floppy ears’, that are the problem, but joking aside – with our dogs, it can matter.

The dog owner who says ‘My Mongolian Duckhound – they just have to chase ducks! It’s what they’re bred for!’ as an excuse for not having trained or managed the situation well enough to stop their dog pursuing the ducks on the local duck pond. The dog walker who says ‘My dog doesn’t like other dogs – that’s why he barks and lunges at them when other owners let their dogs get too close’. All too often Ignoring the role they had in putting the dog in the position that it felt the need to kick off; blaming other dog owners and their dogs.

The blame game

When do reasons become excuses? That I was having difficulty parking my new car was undoubtedly because it was a much longer vehicle than I was used to. I hadn’t learned how to reverse park it into narrow spaces or judge its length.  But that becomes an excuse when I am clearly laying some kind of responsibility on the car for the problem, or Sainsburys for putting the cone in the wrong place, not my lack of skill if I don’t plan on doing anything about it to change the outcome next time I have to reverse into a narrow space.   

Same as with dog training – blaming the dog for actions, when it’s our management and training skills that are lacking, is very common. It allows people to place the responsibility for unacceptable or ‘wrong’ behaviour on the dog, or on other people. But any experienced dog trainer knows that is silly. If a dog hasn’t learned (yet) to not chase ducks, then as the big-brained human it is our responsibility to aim to manage the dog so it isn’t in a position to chase ducks.  That the dog made a bad decision (as far as the owner and the ducks were concerned – the dog probably had a great time!) to chase ducks is down to handler error. That the Mongolian Duckhound is hard-wired to want to chase ducks may be a reason the dog decided to chase the ducks, but blaming the dog for doing it is making excuses for poor management skills, or lack of training, on the part of the owner. Not liking other dogs might be the reason a dog keeps kicking off at other dogs, but if it keeps happening, then it is just making excuses for not managing walks better. Blaming other dog owners, or the dog’s history, in an effort to seem less culpable is a very understandable human response to making mistakes.

‘Stuff happens’

Human frailty means I am probably as guilty as the next person in sometimes exclaiming “B***** dog!!”, as it legs it over the horizon, but I do know, in my heart of hearts, that my emotional response isn’t the slightest bit helpful, or fair on the dog, and must aim to try harder next time to not let it happen.

Does it matter? Maybe not, but if the owner continues to blame the dog, other dog owners, the ducks for moving too fast, or the rest of the world for just being there (like that pesky cone in the Sainsbury’s car park), without actually doing any training, or changing how things are managed, so things are less likely to go wrong again could lead to disastrous consequences. Avoiding taking responsibility for the dog’s unwanted behaviour rarely does the dog any favours.

Of course we all misjudge things from time to time and management might fail (and random ‘stuff’ happens) – but let’s not blame the dog (or others) when it does. It’s important to try and identify reasons why dogs do or don’t do things. But it’s also important to do something about those reasons if the consequences are unwanted or likely to be potentially harmful.   

So I can see I shall have to spend some time and out some effort onto retraining reverse parking in narrow spaces before I mow down some hapless pedestrian, since should that happen, the excuse that my car is too long probably won’t stand up in a court of law!

Stranger danger

I remember the day I went out with a client with a lungy barky GSD – at the training stage of ‘dealing with random stuff on walks’. At one point a large truck pulled up and a man got out clearly intent on talking to us, so while the handler did her ‘move the dog away to create a bit more distance and move behind mum’ strategy, I ran interference – the man was just asking directions. Which I gave him. Dog and handler doing really well on their own behind me. No lunging or barking. Almost relaxed owner.  As our accidental helper was about to go back to the truck I felt I had to ask – ‘do you know about dogs?’ because he hadn’t looked at the dog and owner at all. Not once. SO unusual. It turned out he had been a dog handler in the RAF and knew exactly how NOT to (as well as how to no doubt!) turn the dog into a whirling dervish monster dog. Turned a random encounter into a great positive training opportunity for which I thanked him.  

But how often can you rely on random strangers out on walks behaving in such a way to help you and your dog? IME hardly ever. They let their dogs come too close. They let their off lead dogs run over to us. They try to stroke and fuss our dogs – especially if they are cute puppies. Ask them to stop and they don’t. None of them mean harm. They love dogs just as we do. But every experienced dog owner can relate tales of how well meaning, but (but let’s be frank here!) ignorant people seem to mess things up for them. It’s a very human thing to want to hug and touch and make contact physically. It’s what most people do.

People will come up with loads of things to try and prevent those episodes happening. “My dog has mange” “Let me try and hug you to show you how unpleasant it is to be groped by a stranger”. I once had occasion to say clearly and deliberately to one person “my dog has bitten people for doing exactly what you are doing now. Please take your hand away”. Yet that person persisted in stroking her. It was a testament to Poppy’s progress that I was able to bring her away before she bit one more person for touching her in a way she deemed offensive! Calling out to people in the park “please call your dog away” as their dog runs over to say hello, rarely has a dog magically understanding the recall cue the owner might already be trying, in vain. That’s assuming they are trying. But many an owner could be genuinely mystified as to why a complete (possibly quite mad!) stranger is telling them to call their dog. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try these things. But IME we are so often left frustrated, angry or upset by what appears to be the thoughtless behaviour of these random strangers.

Being your dog’s advocate?

So if there is one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that there is no point in relying on random strangers to change their behaviour to accommodate you and your dog. Being assertive and practiced at “being your dog’s advocate” in telling people to stop doing what they are doing can work. For sure. Always worth trying. But all too often unless you are prepared to be pretty rude to some people either in what you say, or what you do, and risk losing their willingness to help you in the future, as well as cause offence, you probably need to work on changing you and your dog’s behaviour rather than rely on changing their’s. If you aren’t very good at being assertive and start to sound worried and anxious in your attempts, you might well make your dog more anxious. Sound at all aggressive – ditto. But not only that – if it has come to the point where you and the other person are close enough to have that conversation, it’s probably already too late. They will have already stretched their hand out. They might already be cuddling your puppy. They have probably already made eye contact with your dog. Their dog is probably already trying to make “friends” with yours even more intimately.

Have a plan

So have a training plan to deal with ‘random strangers’. A strategy. It might be as simple as making sure you can easily turn and move away before the intruder- human or canine – gets too close so the situation doesn’t arise in the first place. It might be teaching your dog to move behind you. Your dog being up close and personal to you, with you acting as physical barrier, is likely to stop most humans in their tracks.

You could enlist the help of friends by asking them to role-play being a “random stranger”. Practice saying phrases like “Please don’t touch my dog” in a firm tone of voice, whilst rewarding the dog for moving behind you, for instance. Practice taking a step away, more or less subtly as the situation dictates, as the stranger moves closer.

Random strangers and their dogs can be a menace. They aren’t friends or training buddies who can be instructed in what they should do, or not do, to aid your cause. Accept it. 🙂 IME it’s much easier, and usually less stressful, to change how you and your dog behave than trying to change theirs. IME it’s much easier to train and manage a single dog than train or manage an entire population of random strangers.

Follow the leader?

One of the things a lot of trainers used to insist owners taught their dogs was to make sure they – the owner – went through doorways first. It was believed that it supported the owner’s position as ‘pack leader’ and showed the dog who was in charge by leading the way. Like much advice associated with outdated ideas about how to deal with ‘dominant’ dogs, it has fallen out of favour and doesn’t seem to be taught much these days.  But is that wise or sensible? I say not.

However much I’ve tweaked and adapted my class content over the years ‘dog following owner though doorways’ has always stayed in there, somewhere. And I teach it to every dog I own. Yes, really. For many people it conjures up pictures of ‘pack leaders’.  Dogs being subservient to the human in charge. But in my book it’s just plain sensible for the dog to learn to tuck itself behind the owner, and let them deal with whatever may be out there first. It is also an excellent way for a dog to learn self-control.

Many years ago I used to teach classes in a hall which had a stage where people sat waiting for their class to start. An owner with a large RottieX arrived, dog out ahead of him at the end of the lead. The dog went through the door onto the stage – but something made the door swing shut on the lead. So the owner was one side – dog the other. What the owner couldn’t see, and didn’t, was there was a child on the stage just the other side of that door. As the dog bounced though the door, he jumped at the child and grabbed his arm. Fortunately, playfully, and without doing any damage. But by the time the owner had opened the door, the dog had let go, and the owner was blissfully unaware what had happened until he was told. Disaster was averted – but only just.

What I took from seeing that near miss was that from a safety point of view, the dog mustn’t be the one to discover what is on the other side of any door first. It’s simply too late, and potentially dangerous, to let the dog go through and then discover there’s a hazard on the other side. He will have already kicked off at the dog that is just outside, or started to chase the cat sitting on the step or grabbed the child waving its arms about excitedly. The harm will have been done. Shutting stable doors and all that.  

In the context of reactive dogs it is even more important.   Nothing puts more dread in my heart than seeing an over-aroused dog appear in a doorway before the owner is visible! Seeing them drag their owners ahead at stiles, doorways and gates, around blind corners – especially front doors or into a dog training hall – you just know it won’t take much to send that dog spiraling upwards and kicking off before the owner is even aware there is another dog around.  

It’s not a ‘teach the dog a sit stay and then give him permission to charge through ahead of you’ obedience exercise (although it can be helpful to teach the dog go though ahead on some kind of cue), it’s an exercise where the dog, as a default, learns to drop back behind the owner in order to negotiate narrow spaces. Where someone – either the dog or the handler – has to go first. And if needs be, pausing in that doorway first, so the environment can be checked out first. That it’s safe to proceed. No lurking cats, passing dogs or children. Nothing to do with being a ‘pack leader’, just plain sensible.

Pretty is as pretty does

Today some pictures of the cutest, fluffiest little dog needing a home strayed across my Facebook timeline. So many comments from people on how beautiful she was and how they’d so like to give her a home. She WAS beautiful too. But people were wanting to offer her a home purely on what she looked like? How crazy is that? OK, aesthetic appeal matters and I’d be lying if I didn’t say some dogs attract me visually more than others. But when offering a dog a home what it looks like surely is the least important thing to consider?

Poppy – pretty, but could also be pretty horrid!

Meet Poppy a collie I owned. Poppy was very pretty. I had people say ‘She bites? But she’s so pretty!’ as though prettiness excluded any desire to bite people! I knew her history – she was born and reared (presumably with minimal human input) on a Welsh puppy farm and ended up in a pet shop in South London/Surrey before she was 8 weeks old. That she was unsuited to a pet home in an urban area with first time dog owners who had no car to take her to parks or dog training classes, no experience or knowledge to make good decisions about her, let alone deal with the issues such a poorly bred and reared dog would inevitably bring, seemed not to bother the pet shop owner. He sold her to them anyway. It did not work out well.

By 9 months old she was probably going to be euthanised because she was scary, scared, stressed and aggressive. It was sheer chance she ended up with me and I was able to give her a home which I hope was more suited to her needs and give her less cause to want to bite people.

We see so many dogs these days ending up in homes where those dogs and puppies that have NO experience of a life in a home, with people in their lives, wanting to fuss and cuddle them, or take them on leads for walks and expect them to meet other dogs and people – experience a toally alien life – under circumstances they’d never choose for themselves. Up close and personal when that may be the very last thing they want or need. They may have been shut in sheds and barns or shelters with no experience of the lives they are now forced to lead.

That their rearing and experiences are so wrong on so many levels is indisputable. That many learn to cope over time – because they have to – does that mean we should put them through it without a lot of hard thinking first?

So what are the alternatives? That raises other questions and dilemmas for another blog. I guess if we had all the answers we’d not see these dogs struggling and we wouldn’t feel we had to make appeals for good homes based on how ‘pretty’ or superficially attractive a dog is.

Perils of dog care

Whilst allowing for some media exaggeration and all the reservations one might have about media reporting,  etc etc this article in the Daily Mail raises really important issues about dog care and dog walkers. As a ‘dog person’,  working with clients who use these kind of services, I get to hear tales which may or may not be true – and of course it would be irresponsible of me to willfully pass on rumours. 

I don’t know how we can warn people off the ones we wouldn’t trust though – only after a person has had a bad experience does it seem other people pitch in and say ‘it’s happened to me too’. But after the event – how helpful is that?

I guess the take home message is…ask around.  Get ‘references’ or recommendations of some sort at least. Check they have insurance. If the person is boarding your dog in their own home they have to be licensed by the LA. Check they are experienced and QUALIFIED (academically or practically) in at least some way in dog training or behaviour, especially if they are taking your dog for a walk. Just owning and “loving dogs since I was a child” says nothing about how competent they may be. So much harm can come from how multiple (or even single) dogs on walks are managed. Health and safety issues aside (and of course accidents and mishaps happen from time to time, so let’s not be too quick to judge errors of judgement or mistakes), “normal”, nice dogs can rapidly develop problems if they are mishandled or mismanaged. There’s a difference between ‘stuff’ happening, and ignorance or lack of empathy or care.

Years ago I wanted to find a local dog sitter – in case of emergencies mainly. One that came round for us all to meet each other – I let my (friendly) dogs be ‘naughty’ around her as she came in. Her response? To physically push them off and away with a (very) firm NO, and with a wagging finger ordering them to sit. When a couple of the small rescue dogs (German Spitz) didn’t, she just sounded more firm. Those 2 had never been taught a sit cue , and had had an abusive past. It had taken months for them to learn not to run away from visitors – but until I interrupted what was happening, this potential carer was prepared to carry on pushing them away, ordering them, with increasing firmness in her tone of voice, despite their obvious confusion. She didn’t get the job. Didn’t matter what other qualifications or recommendations she had (and she had plenty) – those few moments told me all I wanted to know. When push came to shove, her instinct was to order my dogs to do as she wanted and that she was prepared to escalate her forceful behaviour even when it was obvious (to anyone with any training or behaviour ‘nouse’)  the 2 littlies had no idea what was expected of them.  

One potential carer was prepared to escalate her forceful behaviour with little Winston

The one that did get the job didn’t try to stop them mobbing her. When the 2 littlies jumped up at her. she smiled, was friendly towards them, and fussed them. It showed me her first instincts with dogs that were behaving “badly”, although not ideal from a training/behaviour point of view, were kind and positive and would be less likely to do my dogs harm. OK, I couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t be horrid to them once out of my sight, but it did help inform my decision. As it turned out I only needed her the once, but it made me realise how tricky it is finding someone to trust to look after dogs.

I now have someone I trust implicitly for the odd occasion my dogs need someone to let them out in the garden, feed or walk them. These kind of stories make me realise just how lucky I am to have her.  Thanks Maxine. 🙂

Is your dog friendly and sociable? Please, please read this….

Sometimes I can be quite grumpy. This is one of those moments. I have news for the owners of friendly, sociable dogs …it’s not YOUR job to socialise mine or give me advice about how to train or manage my dog.

I am really pleased if you have friendly sociable dogs. We need more of them. Really. But the way to do it isn’t to just let yours go up mob-handed to grope and sniff and loom over other dogs that happen to visit “your” park. It isn’t your job to teach my dog how to put up with your dogs molesting them. If and when I want my dogs to be sociable and interact with yours I’ll let you (and them) know and I’ll check with you first if you are OK with it. Isn’t that simply good manners?

Why do I mind it happening? Well, sheer good manners aside about intruding unasked into other peoples’ space, I can’t know if your dogs are as friendly as you think they are. I can’t know your dog won’t guard the ball that is dropped at my dog’s feet. I can’t know that they have never ever attacked or barked at a dog in their lives. That they are always polite and friendly even if my dog objects to their attention.

And you can’t know if my dog is nervous. You can’t know if she or he has a history of being attacked by other dogs so can be defensive if they get into his face or stand over her with hackles up and tail rigid and wagging. You can’t know if she hurts if other dogs bowl her over by accident, so she gets worried when they get too close.

You can’t know if I have had a dog attacked by dogs that behave like yours, or I am worried I’ll get knocked over, so I too might be scared if I see a large dog (or worse a whole bunch!) come charging over to say hi. You can’t know that I mind my dog looking worried by your dogs.

I wonder if you know how many people cannot walk their dogs in “your” park, or sit in the park café peacefully minding their own business, because of the way you let your friendly off lead dog behave? How many dogs and owner are intimidated by them? How many dogs don’t get the opportunity to mooch about minding their own business in “your” park because their owners are too worried your dogs will intrude on them?

Please think twice before letting your dog or dogs go up to other dogs uninvited. I am pleased for you that they are friendly and you never have to worry about their behaviour, but that doesn’t mean I want my dog to be best mates with them. It doesn’t mean I don’t want my dog to have fun, or be friendly, I simply want it to be MINE and MY DOGS’S decision when thaty happens – not that of a random stranger who just happens to be in the same park as me. I wouldn’t want random strangers to come up and molest me – why should my dog have to put up with it?

So please don’t be offended if I ask you nicely to keep your dog away, or less nicely, if you have already let your dog upset mine, or interrupted what I am doing with my dog. If you care about the welfare of other dogs as much as your own, then you will not let it happen. Although, to be frank, whatever my reasons are for not wanting it to happen it’s none of your business. I shouldn’t have to explain or justify not wanting my dog to be pestered by yours. Ultimately who my dog socialises with (and when) ought to be my and my dog’s decision, not yours.

Grumpy person can now take a rest…:-)

Small dog syndrome?

We hear it a lot when small dogs show aggressive behaviour – its ‘small dog’ syndrome. But why do some dogs, simply on the grounds of size, earn a label for showing what in almost any other dog would simply be described as ‘aggressive’ behaviour?

I guess it doesn’t really matter though what it is labelled so long as its not forgotten that dogs are dogs – whatever their size. All dogs can show fear. They can all feel threatened. They can all get angry and frustrated. We know quite a lot about aggressive behaviour and we know a lot about what triggers it. Hands going to touch dogs near their food or bed, being physically corrected or punished, being handled in a way the dog is unwilling to accept, intruding into their ‘safe space’. are the most common.

Although the evidence is unclear if there is any direct relationship between aggressive behaviour and breed (but tends to suggest there isn’t), there is even less evidence that there is a relationship between aggressive behaviour and the size of the dog. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a relationship of course – it just means scientific studies haven’t identified it as existing. It might be that no one has asked that question, but it also be that because small dog bites are generally less damaging or threatening to people they get under-reported.

There is also no evidence to suggest that small dogs responses to bite provoking ‘stimuli” (as they are called in the trade) ie to the things that in general trigger dog bites is any different to larger dogs. Most, if not all, appear to reflect a dog being threatened in some way. Not just in the obvious ways of being scared – fight or flight stuff – but its ‘resources’ being under threat of being removed; its safety being put at risk

We have very little evidence about what works to reduce those emotions or change how dogs feel in those situations but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you’d rather take a ‘flight’ option and try and hide away somewhere (probably wisest if you are a tiny dog in a BIG peoples’ world) but can’t because you are being held, or are on a lead, or in a carrier – you are left with trying to look fierce and aggressive to get people to back off. But because, to be frank, small dogs are simply less scary than your average huge <insert type of a LARGE dog that most scares you>, you probably have to show – pro rata- a whole lot more of it to get it to work.
Add into the mix genetic tendencies towards being more vocal (not scientifically studied – but anecdotal evidence is pretty strong) and the ease with which small dogs can be picked up and carried, so reducing even less their ability to take up a ‘flight’ option, and you have a perfect recipe for making the large, scary world even more difficult to deal with that it might be for a large dog. I imagine if you are the size of a person’s foot you become very aware, very early on in life, that you have to act in some way to stay alive around peoples’ feet! It is not possible for a person to tread on and kill a Great Dane or a Labrador. It is with a tiny dog. Far, far too easy.

So maybe there is a ‘small dog syndrome’, but if there is its because we large people, make it so, because we are not heeding what our small dogs are telling us sometimes – that it can be a scary world out there inhabited by GIANTS. If dealing with the threatening or scary things in that world that means barking and shouting a lot, and showing aggressive behaviour to keep the giants away then that’s what we have to do. If we have to bite to stop people trying to touch us when we are being carried and trapped in our owner’s arms or handbag – then that’s what we have to do. All the reasons LARGE dogs have to bite are probably magnified at least tenfold in small dogs.

Wouldn’t it be better if we learned to keep them OUT of difficult situations instead of forcing them into them then? Teach them to welcome the approach of strangers? To teach them to feel positive about giants looming over them or going near them? Or putting out a hand that is as big as they are to touch them? That when we pick them up to keep them safe (which is perfectly reasonable when there are crowds of people about who might tread on and kill your dog – people just don’t see small dogs sometimes) we make sure they are safe and are not then molested by some passing stranger who wants to fuss the cute little dog?

Keeping small dogs safe by picking them up, having them on our laps or carrying them in bags to keep them from  being trampled underfoot is essential sometimes, but we do need to make sure we are not then taking away their right not to not be molested or ‘threatened’ by well meaning BFGs who want to stroke them or don’t notice when they are too close. We should respect their right to feel safe when they are on the ground and teach them to move away or ask to be picked up when they feel intimidated rather than leave them to fend for themselves and bite the ankles of the giants!