Why does my dog…?

Feb 18, 2017 |

Each person asking this question sincerely believes their situation is so unique, that it requires if not the Nobel Prize and a mention in London Times, then at least a consultation with the top behaviourist or an individual session with a known trainer who will hopefully be able to understand where the problem is coming from and how to put it right. Self / Home study as an option is rarely taken considered I am not sure why, but, I guess, people just do not bother to move a finger unless they have a massive issue on their hands and the need to have it resolved on the spot is of a paramount importance.

We always wish that our trainees coming to the class looking for help would start telling their story beginning with: ‘I’ve done so much with my dog, but a few things do not seem to click into place…’ Usually the difficulty of prospective resolution takes us to the very beginning and having to build it up from that point to and well above the required level of response… Yes, I wish… but the reality tells us different.

Why do you think Hector attacks dogs when out and about with me or my husband? And then the assessment starts. How responsive is he to the owner’s voice? Not at all. How well motivated by food? Oh, he does not eat when out… OK, what is his level of obedience? Very good but struggles with Sit or Stay? Wow, let’s call it non-existent rather than great… Plays on a walk? Yes, very playful, you say? Let’s see. Toy – no reaction… And the said dog disappears in the distance to play his game of chase and growl with other dogs… OK, so this doesn’t work either… Well, you get the picture.

I would like to create a different story here just for the sake of the argument, and I am also hoping that this will help us to understand where things get wrong and what buttons we are going to press while re-building the “dog under good control” image.

Dogs as well as all other living creatures are born and built to survive. They all are programmed by a set of INSTINCTS offering them pre-recorded responses to this and that and what to do if… There are many of those : Maternity and paternity instincts, pack, sexual, and protective, hunting and chasing, Self-preservation, orientational and play ones, instincts responsible for searching and containment of food, getting it and protecting it, providing drinking water and telling them when to escape and how far, how to – eat, drink, breath, digest etc., building a den…. There are many others, but this story is not about them.

According to research dogs as companion animals have been improving humans’ lives for well over the past 20,000 years. Most of the physiological mechanisms locked within these comfort protectors / hunters and nurturers are about that old, and some much older – dogs inherited many behavioural threats  from their predecessors and those – from the ones before and so on. So knowing how to snap at the foreign body that threatens your lunch is an ancient skill; the desire to run off and pursue prey is centuries and thousands of years old; marking the house is too. Also barking when losing your pack (say, due to them going off to work) has existed in our hounds for generations. This is why dogs do these things. They have to abide by this pre-recorded and sharpened by lengthy evolutional survival behavioural program, and it is there not to be argued with. Do it or die. You ignore the noise of falling tree – say good-bye to the world and be squashed… Yes, dogs are jumpy (reactive) initially for good reasons – this is good for the evolutionary selection.

Hector the Irish Terrier, on the other hand, does not have a particular reason to do any of the above. He does not exist as a pet dog, but as a healthy and logical representative of his species. His personality is a reflection of what was (or rather not) put there by his nurturers, the owners. Nothing else. He sees the ball and he’s off. A car door open and he’s out. The predictable dog behavior of A DOG, not Hector the Irish Terrier. So why does he do all these? Because he’s a dog! Wild, un-influenced, free-to-roll dog whose man-made boundaries and socially acceptable (as per urban dog in 2012) acts of behaviour are just not there. Happy dog though – the pre-recorded guidance has worked wonders for the 16 months of his life! Perfect for him, and if I was coming back as a dog I would want to come back as Hector. See for yourself –  No effort required and maximum benefit – do whatever you want and all the boxes in your life are still ticked – he’s well and unconditionally loved! watered, fed, played with, accommodated, sheltered, maintained, entertained… Lucky little thing. I on the other hand, have to work for my living!

Living your daily life means learning. Consciously, or sub-consciously, the learning process continues whatever we do. The same applies for our dogs. They experience “Trial and Error” all the time – this either gets the dog something he/she wants or avoids him/her from doing something he/she doesn’t want to do. (Please compare this to the households where “anything goes” – whatever that pooch comes up with is tolerated and the outcome does not change as a result of it). There are exceptions, for instance, the state of an animal’s health (a medical condition or illness might well be responsible for the behavioural symptoms). But these are usually easy thing to rule out.

Have you heard about the “Nature v Nurture” argument? Luckily for us (and for the dogs, but they do tend to deny it) there is a mechanism able to override instincts and adapt the animal to the environment without endangering its’ existence. These are called reflexes. They are not there when the dogs are born but they are formed the moment we let our guard off and let the natural responses “slide” – these are Learnt Behaviours. No dog knows how to chase joggers at birth. But dogs chase fast-moving objects or any moving objects, if no other motion is observed. Do it once, do it twice – and there you are – You have a sprinter-dog taking down park strollers just for the sake of it. The dogs doing it look happy – and even this is pre-deposited there… They are satisfying the instincts feeding on that satisfaction. So when we say that some reflexes are not helpful, this only goes for us, not the dogs.

But the helpful ones may mean the difference between a good dog / pleasant society member and the mayhem of a mutt ruining everyone’s pleasure.

So let’s talk about this for a moment. Have you ever tried to throw a ball when out on your morning stroll through the park, but tell your dog to NOT chase it? Just to check it – can we compete with the in-bred tendencies? You haven’t, or you can’t? Either way, you have to, and you have to do it well and polish it up to the point when you can put the dog on a “pause-mode” at any time you want, any environment and everywhere. You don’t have to be doing it all the time, but you need to be able to stop it when you wish and at that very second. How do we do it? Oh, that’s the whole another subject. Easy, usually, if you brainstorm it before you start practicing. Approach it from a few different directions and practice. Proof it afterwards and enjoy your loyal companion that you can trust off lead. Wouldn’t that be nice!

Now you are saying that you can do it after a week of homework? Great, keep it up! Have you taught your dog to not chase balls? Not just that. You battled a huge issue of delivering a message to that Dog Instincts Ministry on how to stop and control temptations on a cue from outside, your cue. Life is full of attractive targets – objects, smells, creatures. But we need to agree on one thing with our beloved pooch: you are not going to get everything you see! Plain and simple. So when your dog chases squirrels in the woods, throwing a ball and hoping to tire it out is not going to offer you a solution; maybe, if you are lucky, perhaps just a temporary relief. You will be strengthening and reinforcing that instinct and giving that dog more and more physical power to cope with the task. But drop a chunk of sausage and call your dog off it on a single command- and you win – you become the guiding voice in your dog’s head, not the voodoo spirits telling it “kill, kill, kill”.

Would you manage the walk through the tunnel of cheese bits with your dog to heel (loose lead of course, or no lead as a requirement)? Once again, you will not just be teaching your pet to Heel in different circumstances, but also to choose your guidance in other situations as dogs Generalize. Look it up. This is our savior, as due to this mechanism, and this one only, you can have your dog learning to listen and do what they hear. There is no way in the world you can socialize your dog with absolutely every creature / object / situation in the book, but once you’ve done your first 5-10 experiences and come out the winner, your dog will assume, that the next one down the line of these experiments will have to end up with the same outcome. Try it. There are bright dogs that connect this after just two-three exposures, and some need tons of variable repetitive reinforcement. But it happens.

Need more ideas to try out? Here! -Dog is put in a stay; you place a slice of salami in front of it, walk away and call it passed the distraction. -Lay your dog down and feed another animal all around it from hand and floor without your trainee getting up (this helps also to influence the relationship with other dogs!). -You heel your dog while kicking a tennis ball in front of you as you go. -Try to “bowl” a dog treat towards the dog’s front paws in a Sit position without it eating it, the nearer the better. Plus make some stuff up – you can never over-train your pet. And don’t you ever forget to reward / praise your dog for being right. However small that progress is – it is a success, so be generous and just, and only then raise the bar.

And please finish with this one: You lay the dog down, and slowly moving that “don’t touch” kibble nearer and nearer to its’ nose end up, position two of them, one on each paw of the patiently waiting dog. This is the cutest (and easiest) skill to teach, and you will immediately be named the greatest trainer amongst all your friends watching this party trick.

Please accept that things do not remain the same. Nothing stays still, and behavioural balance, brain activity and sharpness of responses changes with time. So do not ignore the maintenance procedure that needs to be brought in from time to time.

Feeling like you’ve done the “proofing”? Go out into the busy park / club / dog competition and show off! Enjoy it and you two will make a great team not just keeping safe, but demonstrating to the world that DOGS HAVE BRAINS, and those little boxes are hugely effective, once you help your dogs to wake them up. Your dog’s thinking is a beautiful process, and watching it is the biggest pleasure of having a dog.


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