Is Your Dog’s Behavior All Your Fault?

December 19, 2020

I recently had a phone conversation with a potential client that nearly caused me to explode. Fair warning, if you don’t want to read the rantings of a disgruntled dog trainer, save yourself and click on by. 

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve been conducting virtual (Zoom) training sessions. In my opinion, this type of consult works well for some things and is not as appropriate for others. If I feel that an issue requires an in-person trainer, I will refer the person to one of my local colleagues who are still seeing clients. And so, after receiving an email from a woman who recently adopted a 5-year-old pit bull that is reactive toward other dogs and is now beginning to be reactive toward her partner, I called to find out more. She sounded like a lovely woman who truly loves the dog and wants to do what’s best for him. But she was very distraught after having read articles online from a self-proclaimed celebrity dog trainer who had plenty of advice. The gist of it was that the dog’s behavior was entirely the owner’s fault. In this case, the dog-dog aggression, the aggression toward people, all of it could be laid at the new owner’s feet because she was “babying the dog”. 

The owner described the dog, who she’d had for only a month, as being anxious and insecure. He was afraid of men, uncertain in a variety of situations, clingy with her, and actually afraid of other dogs, hence the fear-based reactivity. The advice on the website (again, this was not a personal consult, but general advice meant for anyone reading) had been to ignore the dog completely. Ignore the dog! This poor dog, who had been given up to the shelter after the two other dogs in the home had been beating up on him, who had luckily found his way into a loving home, now seemed, as she said, “very sad” that he was suddenly being ignored by the one person he had bonded with and trusted. I listened silently, feeling more and more angry on behalf of the dog. How would you feel if your significant other suddenly started ignoring you for no reason you could fathom? Would it make you feel less anxious? Would it take away your unwanted behaviors, or would it make them worse due to increased distress? And do you have any idea how hard it is to bite your tongue while steam is coming out of your ears? 

Combined with the role of genetics, this dog is five years old and has had five years’ worth of experiences that have contributed to shaping his behavior. Unless the woman was seriously mistreating him, I don’t see how his current behavior is her fault. And let’s say she is “babying” the dog a bit. So what? This poor woman felt so guilty that she had allegedly caused the behavior issues that she was nearly in tears when I explained that it was not her fault. Hell, I “baby” my dogs in some ways and they surely aren’t threatening people because of it. What is with these trainers whose entire philosophy is to blame the owner? I’m not saying that owners can’t contribute to a dog’s problems. Of course they can. An owner can certainly make a behavior problem worse, and yes, in some cases even cause one. But to say that every dog’s behavior issue is caused by the owner, that the person simply needs to be a stronger leader, teach the dog his place, or the like brings to mind Abraham Maslow’s quote, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” If, as a trainer, you come up with the same reason for every dog’s issues and give the same advice to all owners to solve it, it’s time to get yourself some new tools. As for the woman, she was incredibly relieved to hear that she didn’t have to ignore her dog, and in fact, she gave him some affection while we were talking. She said he seemed extremely happy for it, and I could hear the change in her voice as well. I referred her to a local trainer, and am hoping this kind woman and her dog can get on track and have a long and happy life together. 
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Enforced Togetherness: Love the One You’re With?

May 22, 2020

85 heads together mouthing editEnforced togetherness brought on by stay-at-home orders has been a double-edged sword. I worry about things like how many dogs are going to have separation anxiety issues when people start going back to work. But beyond that, while some families have enjoyed spending increased time together, others are not quite so thrilled. In the latter category are homes with dogs who don’t get along. I’m not talking about dogs who want to seriously injure each other and can’t be allowed in the same space; I mean dogs who cohabitate but are likely to get into fights now and then and perhaps even get snarky with each other on a regular basis.

Dogs pick up on our emotions, and it’s not a stretch to say that most of us have been pretty stressed out these last few months. Add that to an already tentative dog-dog relationship and  the possibility of fewer or less far-reaching outings resulting in less exercise and mental stimulation, and you’ve got a recipe for amplified behavior issues. Whereas one dog might have normally tolerated what he perceives as rude behavior from another or been willing to back down when warned off, his buffer of tolerance may have worn thin. That increased tension can lead to more skirmishes and fights.

Although behavior modification should, of course, be part of the solution, constant daily management is critical. That means knowing your dogs and what will trigger them. For example, my own dogs are known to get snarky with each other in certain situations. This morning, as I went about preparing their food, I reminded Sierra that she needed to stand outside the dog door and wait. Bodhi stays inside with me because apparently, if he’s separated by more than two feet from food that’s being prepared, he might burst into flames. Happily, food was prepared and peace reigned in the kingdom. But the point is, Sierra knows the routine and goes to her place on her own almost all the time, but this time, had I not been paying attention and she’d moved too close to Bodhi, a fight might have broken out.

It really is all about establishing routines. The “hot spots” where fights are likely to break out are things like food being present, guarding of other types of valuable resources, excitement at the front door (how many amazon deliveries have you had lately?), access to locations like the couch or bed, or access to attention and petting. The better you know your dogs, the more carefully you pay attention to their body language and interactions, the easier it is to manage situations in order to keep the peace. (Speaking of which, if you need help, check out my book Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home.) It’s those times when we’re not thinking or not paying attention, combined with increased stress, that it’s all too easy for things to go awry. It’s not always easy, but all of this enforced togetherness can actually be an opportunity to create new routines and strengthen our relationships with our dogs as well as their relationships with each other.
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Standing Up For Your Dog

February 20, 2020

owner caressing gently her dogIf asked, we’d all say that of course we would stand up for our dogs; we’d do just about anything to keep them safe, healthy, and happy. But the reality is that situations arise where, due to social pressures and other factors, we don’t speak out when we should. For example, I cannot tell you how many training clients I’ve heard say things like, “The vet was really rough with Bella. I could tell she was scared. The vet slammed her on her back and held her down, and Bella became even more afraid.” Having worked at a vet’s office, I understand that some restraint and firm handling is necessary for certain treatments. But some vets are simply better than others about reading canine body language and working with dogs instead of using brute force to achieve their medical objectives. Unfortunately, very few owners will stand up to a veterinarian to voice their concerns.

I’ve also seen situations where an owner stands by as a professional trainer works with their dog in a way that concerns them. The dog may be in obvious distress because the trainer is being very rough with the dog while saying things like, “You have to show him who’s boss.” The owner is clearly distraught but stands silently by watching as the trainer uses excessive force to get the dog to do what he wants, not daring to intercede.

In both of these situations, part of the issue is that the person in charge is an authority figure. We are conditioned from a young age to respect authority figures, which can, unfortunately, make it challenging to speak up. Women in particular are taught to be polite and not make a fuss. (Gavin DeBecker’s excellent book The Gift of Fear illustrates how this conditioning can put women in harm’s way.) But it’s not just authority figures; sometimes it’s simple peer pressure. When I adopted my girl Sierra from a rural shelter, I was told she’d been there four times previously. I soon discovered that not only did she have a serious case of separation anxiety, but she could run like the wind. The latter wasn’t surprising for a husky mix, and I only let her run free in safe, enclosed areas. But a group of owners I’d encounter early mornings at my local park regularly let their dogs run free in the surrounding hillsides, and they invited us to join them. I politely refused, saying I hadn’t had Sierra very long and didn’t yet feel comfortable allowing her off leash. They kept at it, eventually moving from encouraging invitations to asking why I was so adamant about not letting her off leash. “Oh, come on, It’ll be fine” was their constant refrain. Well, maybe it would have been fine and maybe not. I did like the people and it would have been fun to join in, but I knew my own dog’s behavior better than they did and knew what could happen. Peer pressure or not, I wasn’t going to take that chance. It actually took the better part of a year until I felt comfortable letting Sierra off leash, and I don’t honestly care who thinks that’s a long time. Nowadays I can let her loose without worrying, as she has a solid recall and we have a very close relationship. But who knows what would have happened had I given in early on?

Peer pressure is constantly at work at dog parks as well. I don’t personally frequent them, but I have seen many times where dogs who are playing display warning signals in their body language and vocalizations. The owner of a dog will turn to the one who expresses concern and will say, “Don’t worry, they’ll work it out.” Maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but if you’re the person whose dog is in potential danger, it’s up to you to say you don’t feel comfortable, or better yet, just say, “Have a nice day!” as you take your dog and leave. If people think you’re overly careful, so what? A little social pressure is nothing compared to a serious injury to your dog. And remember too that not all injuries are physical; a dog who is attacked or traumatized by other dogs might well develop fear-based reactivity toward other dogs. I’ve seen it happen way too many times, and it’s much harder to fix than to prevent.

The bottom line is, even if someone is in a position of authority or has a string of letters after their name, it doesn’t mean that they know your dog like you do. You know that little voice inside that tells you when something is not right? That is the voice you should be listening to, not anyone else’s. You know your dog best, and you know when he’s uncomfortable or is in potential danger. We can’t keep our dogs from every stress in this world, and some things, like medical care, are necessary. But beyond that, we must be the ones who speak up for our dogs, be their best friends and their lifelong advocates.
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So You Think You Want a Husky?

February 8, 2020

Close-up shot of a husky dog's blue eyesI’ve been involved in wolf, wolfdog and dog rescue for something like 30 years. I’ve volunteered for and have been employed by L.A. city shelters. I’ve worked for a respected rescue group. In addition to being a professional trainer and behavior specialist, I now volunteer at an L.A. County shelter. I share all of this to let you know that I’ve seen a lot in the dog world over the years. But never in all of that time have I seen anything like the flood of huskies that is now pouring in to California shelters and rescues.

When a breed is popularized through film or television, unfortunate things happen. People get the Disneyesque version of the breed in their minds. Remember 101 Dalmatians? Think about all the unwanted Dals that ended up in shelters when people found out their dog was not Pongo. Or how about the Taco Bell Chihuahua, and all those oh-so-cute Chihuahuas who were purchased, given up, and left saying, “Yo quiero…a permanent home.” Add one part over-breeding and two parts lack of education and, well, now it’s happening with Siberian huskies. I believe the trend can be attributed in large part to the huge popularity of Game of Thrones. I personally never watched the show, but I do believe the “direwolves” were the catalyst for many people wanting wolfy-looking dogs.

The unfortunate part is that huskies, a breed I know well and love, are not only not direwolves, they’re not even typical dogs in the sense of what most people expect when they get a dog. Hence all the poor huskies that are now sitting in shelters and rescues. Unfortunately, people often see only the beauty of the breed. And huskies are beautiful; the gorgeous, thick coat (which, by the way, will shed constantly and also decorate your home twice a year when the undercoat is blown), the masked-looking eyes that are sometimes a startling blue, and yes, the resemblance to wolves. And huskies are intelligent, affectionate yet independent dogs who normally get along well with other big dogs. But what many people don’t see is that the breed comes with a specific set of needs and issues.

If you’re considering getting a husky, consider this:

1. Huskies are escape artists. They’ll jump over fences and dig under. (Burying a skirting of chain link along the fence line can help prevent dig-outs.) As far as fence height, some huskies will remain inside five foot fencing, but my recommendation is six feet or higher. Some owners even add lean-ins—those angled arms you see at zoos—at the top. Adding lean-ins to our already high fencing was the first thing we did when we adopted my girl Sierra, a husky mix who had been at a County shelter no less than four times before we adopted her. Oh, and getting back to your yard, if it’s a beautiful, pristine oasis with lovely flowers that you don’t want dug up or destroyed, this may not be the breed for you.

2. Huskies have a strong prey drive. More than a few have been surrendered to shelters because they chased or killed the family cat, or killed chickens or other small animals. Unfortunately, some have also attacked or killed a smaller family dog. Not all huskies have this strong of a prey drive, and some do coexist with smaller breed dogs. But personally, if I had chickens, a cat, or a small dog, I would not bring a husky into the home. Why take the chance?

3. Huskies need lots of exercise. And I don’t mean a 15-minute potty walk twice a day. I mean exercise; daily runs, hikes, or at least long walks. We used to do “urban mushing” with our dogs (a husky mix and a malamute mix), where, using special equipment, they pulled one of us on a scooter. In colder climates, people do actual mushing or carting with their huskies. Again, these dogs need serious exercise. If you’re an active, outdoorsy type, great! A husky may just be the perfect companion for you. If you’d rather sit on the couch and watch Game of Thrones reruns, maybe not so much.

4. Huskies can be very destructive when left alone. If you’re planning to leave an unexercised husky in an apartment and go off to work, you should also plan to come home to a space that has been completely redecorated in the Doggy Demolition motif.

5. Huskies don’t bark much, so they don’t make good watchdogs, but they do howl. Will this be a potential problem with your neighbors?

6. Huskies can be challenging to train to off-leash reliability. I tell you this not only as an owner but as a long-time trainer. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it will likely take a lot more work, as many will run off and will chase squirrels and other prey rather than coming back on command.

You might think, given all of these warnings, that I’m trying to dissuade you from adopting a husky. I’m not. I’m just trying to prevent more from ending up in shelters or rescues. Again, huskies are beautiful, affectionate, intelligent, companions. It’s because I love this breed that I implore you to consider whether a husky is really the right dog for you. If you do decide to get one, consider adopting. Shelters and rescues are filled with huskies of all ages, victims of a lack of knowledge on the part of previous owners. And consider an adult dog. What you see with an adult is what you get as far as temperament; it’s not going to develop into something different as the dog grows. And, you’d be saving a life.

If you’re interested, please visit your local shelter, especially city and county shelters where the dogs are in danger of being euthanized if they’re not adopted. You can also search on Petfinder, Pet Harbor, Instagram, Facebook, and many other places online to find huskies that are available through private owners or rescues. If you’ve got the right containment and home situation, you might even consider fostering for a rescue group, which would allow you to “test-drive” the dog and make an informed decision on whether to adopt. In any case, howls of thanks to you for reading. Please help to spread the word and to educate others about this very special breed.
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Startle…and Attack?

January 16, 2020

Lustiger LabradorDogs have an instinctive startle reflex, just like humans do. Upon hearing a loud noise or being touched when not expecting it, most of us, human or canine, will startle. It’s a good thing we do, because that automatic response keeps us safe from predators and other dangers. The startle reflex is often put to use in traditional temperament tests where, for example, a ring of keys is dropped near a litter of puppies. All the pups naturally startle, but some will run and hide while others will recover quickly. This test is meant to gauge the pups’ confidence level.

Although a startle reflex is a good thing, some dogs when startled don’t simply jump or flinch. Instead, they display what might be perceived as aggressive behavior. For example, some well-meaning owners have kissed their sleeping dog on the head, only to be bitten in the face. This reaction on the part of the dog is simply that—an instinctive reaction and one that, if there were something to truly be feared, would protect the dog. I imagine that just like people, some dogs run or cower when startled, while others lash out. This is not the same thing as aggression, although that’s how it often gets labeled.

A dog snapping at something that startles him at close range is understandable. But my girl Sierra does something different; she doesn’t snap at my husband or me, but if a sudden noise across the room startles her—for example, the popping of a champagne cork—she’ll race directly to it and snarl at it. (This does not impress the champagne, which goes right on bubbling.) The more unfortunate scenario at our house is when both dogs are lying on their beds, which are next to each other, and Sierra is startled by someone dropping something like the television remote. Her immediate response is to jump up and attack Bodhi! Poor Bodhi, who’s normally asleep at the time, never fights back and there’s never any actual damage. Although Sierra is all bluster, and the redirected defensive reaction to being startled is understandable, it’s still disturbing. She’ll do the same thing indoors or out if she and Bodhi happen to be standing close to each other when something startles her. Because it happens so infrequently and is so instinctive, and because there’s no way to completely control every environment, we manage the situation by body blocking Sierra when necessary and minimizing known triggers.

In the case of dogs who startle awake and snap at their owners who have petted or kissed them, one solution is to wake the dog before approaching by clapping hands, stamping feet, or calling the dog’s name. Behavior modification could be attempted, with the goal of the dog becoming conditioned that being awakened is a good thing. (Here’s a step by step protocol from the Dogtime website.) The success of this type of conditioning will vary from dog to dog. I do still find Sierra’s behavior of running at things that startle her or redirecting her take-the-offense reaction very interesting. Do any of you have a dog who displays this kind of behavior? What have you done to manage or work with it? I’m curious to hear!
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Holiday Hazards You Might Not Have Considered

December 23, 2019

Labrador mit Weihnachtsmütze
Here we are again in late December buying gifts, planning family visits, and hopefully taking some time off work. The holidays are meant to be filled with love and good cheer, but for most of us, they can also be pretty stressful. That goes double if you’re the owner of a dog who isn’t comfortable around people, and you’re expecting a houseful. And it’s not just unfamiliar people that can be an issue for dogs around the holidays; there are foods that aren’t normally around, or at least not in such proliferation, along with other seasonal dangers. So hey, what better way to celebrate the holidays than discussing things that can stress or kill your dog?

First, visitors. If you have a dog who’s comfortable with unfamiliar people, great! But even then, regulate how much excitement he’s getting, especially around small children, as dogs can become overstimulated (as can kids). Accidents can easily happen when kids get knocked down or mouthed, even if it’s done in a happy way. And kids can behave in a less than gentle manner around dogs. Give your dog periodic decompression breaks where he can chill out in another room with a favorite chew bone or a stuffed Kong, and some nice, calm music (soft, classical music is best).

If you have a dog who’s not comfortable around new people, that decompression scenario may need to happen a lot more often. Play the calming music or provide some white noise (like a fan or those sound devices that encourage sleep) to screen out voices. If you can get your dog out for walks or to play in the yard, that will help to relieve some of his stress, as will spending time in the decompression area with him. Besides, you might both need it! And, speaking of visitors, be sure their suitcases and belongings are kept away from your dog. This is not just to protect the belongings, but to protect your dog; people often carry things like medications when they travel.

Now we move from the stressful to the truly dangerous. Back when I worked at a vet’s office, each year after the holidays we would receive reports from the emergency clinic about our clients’ dogs who had ingested things they shouldn’t have. Know what the number one item was? Sees Candies. I assume it’s because they were the most popular boxed chocolates back then, and may well still be. People would receive them as gifts and unwittingly leave them in their dogs’ reach. Chocolate contains theobromine as well as caffeine. Theobromine is the predominant toxin in chocolate, but dogs can’t metabolize it or caffeine. In general, dark chocolate has the most of these substances, followed by milk chocolate and then white chocolate. Signs of chocolate poisoning are vomiting, diarrhea, agitation, and hyperactivity.

While we’re on the subject, here’s one you domestic types might not have considered: unbaked bread dough. A dog’s stomach will metabolize yeast into ethanol and carbon dioxide, which can cause bloat. Then there are grapes and raisins, like the ones found in holiday fruitcakes, which can cause kidney failure.  And there’s the artificial sweetener xylitol. While many owners know about typical hazards, I find some are not aware of xylitol, which is used to sweeten some brands of peanut butter, among other things. So if you’re using peanut butter to stuff a Kong or in any way giving it to your dog, read the ingredients to be sure your brand is xylitol-free. Signs of xylitol poisoning are vomiting, loss of coordination, seizures, and in severe cases, liver failure. Oh, and this last one shouldn’t have to be mentioned, but keep all alcohol out of your dog’s reach as well. Alcohol is often found not only in liquid form, but in holiday items like rum cake, for example. If you feel your dog might have been poisoned by any of these items, get him to your vet or an emergency vet immediately. There are also various pet poison helplines you can call; some are free and some charge a fee. Research them in advance and keep the phone numbers handy. Here’s one to get you started: the ASPCA’s poison control hotline is 888-426-4435.

Other holiday-related hazards include mistletoe (in large enough quantities, the berries can be fatal) and Holly. Tinsel is also very dangerous if ingested, as it can easily wrap around intestines or ball up in the stomach. If you have a Christmas tree, ornaments should be placed high up where your dog can’t reach, as the shards can be fatal if ingested. I’m not a vet and cannot offer medical advice, but I will share that I have heard of owners feeding bread after this has happened in order to help the pieces move through the dog’s system safely. Consult your vet in advance and keep whatever is recommended on hand. Getting back to the tree, the plug should be placed out of the way. If that’s not possible, either tape it down or run it through protective casing such as PVC pipe.

Well, wasn’t that cheery? Sorry to be the Harbinger of Christmas Doom! But if it saves one dog’s life it’s worth it, and besides, these are all things that are good to keep in mind and to help educate others. So please spread the word. Thanks for reading, and I wish you and your family, both four-footed and two, a very happy holiday!
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It’s Not Your Dog!

September 13, 2019
Dog shelter for homeless animals and people

Just this week, I’ve run across no fewer than three separate situations in which someone had found a dog and was considering what to do with it. One person was concerned with how well the dog was getting along with her own dog and how the relationship would work out long-term; another wanted to know if anyone was interested in adopting the dog she’d just found, or whether a rescue group might take him; and the third was holding on to the dog while the family decided if they wanted to keep him. Although all of those people were well-meaning, it has to be said: It’s not your dog!

It’s a noble thing to rescue a dog. Taking a dog off the streets can prevent him from being hit by a car, being attacked by other dogs or wild animals, or slowly starving to death. But none of that takes into account the fact that the dog might actually belong to someone. An owner or even an entire family might be heartbroken, relentlessly driving the streets day after day looking for their dog, wondering what’s become of him and imagining the worst. They may be searching their local shelter, which is where most owners look; but they’ll have no luck, because he isn’t there.

Any found dog should be scanned for a microchip. Most veterinary clinics have a scanner and will be happy to help. But even if no chip is found, that doesn’t mean there’s no owner; it just means the dog hasn’t been chipped or, as happens in some cases, the chip has migrated, making it difficult to find. Likewise, a lack of ID tags could mean the tags got snagged on a fence or bushes as the dog went by, and were pulled off. Even a collar could get caught on something or slipped out of, especially if it wasn’t fitted tightly enough. (If there is a collar, check for a phone number printed directly on it. I almost missed this on a stray dog I rescued recently.) A lack of microchip, tags, or collar still does not mean there is no owner. Another common no-owner assumption occurs when a dog not only has no identifying information, but looks bedraggled. Surely the poor dog has been neglected or dumped, right? Wrong! While that could be the case, very often a dog has been on the streets for some time, resulting in a dirty, unkempt appearance.

Look, I understand the hesitation to bring a found dog to a shelter. No one wants to think of a dog being in a loud, frightening, unfamiliar place. Contracting illness is another concern (although the most common, kennel cough, is easily treated with antibiotics). But the most common fear is that the dog will be immediately euthanized. While it’s true that in some areas shelters do have high euthanasia rates, there are laws requiring them to hold a dog for a prescribed period (for example, five days) to give owners time to find their lost pet. If you’ve found a dog and are interested in adopting or fostering until a home or rescue can be found, you can fill out a CTA (Commit to Adopt), which gives you first dibs should the owners not show. And, by the way, the shelter should be the one nearest where the dog was found, as driving the dog to a “nicer” shelter in another area would likely prevent the owner from finding their dog.

If the shelter has a book of Found Dog flyers, leave one there. While the dog is at the shelter during the holding period, take steps to find the owners. Flyers should be posted all over the area where the dog was found. A flyer with a photo should be faxed to area vets and groomers and given to postal and delivery workers, as they may recognize the dog. The flyer should also be posted on social media sites. Most cities and even neighborhoods now have local Facebook groups for lost and found dogs. The digital communities Nextdoor and Ring should be posted to as well. Be sure to include a photo in online posts. Also, most newspapers will allow free Found Dog ads. If someone calls, you can let them know the dog is at the shelter. If you intend to hold on to the dog for a few days before bringing him to the shelter (although you really shouldn’t), be sure, whether in a flyer or ad, to withhold some identifying information such as markings or collar design so that whoever calls must supply it. Unfortunately, there are people who will try to take advantage of an opportunity for a free dog.

Again, no one wants to bring a dog to a shelter, but it is the dog’s best chance at being reunited with his family. Many shelters have an excellent group of volunteers who network with rescues and do everything they can to find dogs homes, so even if the owners don’t show up, many dogs still have a good chance at adoption. And, if no one claims the dog and you do want to keep it, you can rest easy knowing you did everything to find the owner before giving the dog a forever loving home.
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Dog Parks: Merriment or Mayhem?

August 29, 2019

Group of dogs at park smelling each other.
In my last blog, I described a fight that took place at my local dog park. Since then, I’ve witnessed an even more violent attack where two dogs belonging to one man latched on to another dog and literally tried to pull the poor dog apart. I’ll save you the trauma of the details. The dog lived, but it was horrific and is something that will stay with me for a long time to come. No doubt it will stay with that poor dog as well.

Most owners consider dog parks fun places to let their dog play with others while they socialize as well. Dogs, like us, are social creatures, and it can be fun for them to romp  and make new friends. But ask any professional trainer whether dog parks are a good idea, and we’ll advise you against ever attending one. Why? Are we killjoys? Worrywarts? Over-the-top protective of our and our clients’ dogs? Nope. We just know too much and have seen too much. We’re all too aware that when a dog is attacked, even if no grave physical injury results, there is damage in the form of serious emotional distress. That’s bad enough in and of itself, but it can also result in the dog becoming fearful of or fear-reactive toward other dogs. That can happen even if a dog isn’t attacked but is simply bullied, which happens constantly at dog parks. Imagine the cumulative and lifelong impact, especially on a young puppy.

I don’t have kids but I if I did, I can’t imagine I’d let them play with a group of assorted marauding kids of all ages and temperaments, especially without checking things out first. And yet that’s exactly what happens when someone blindly enters a typical dog park. More often than not, dogs run toward the newcomer, surrounding the dog, sniffing, jumping on, humping, or snapping at him. Welcome to the park! Even if there’s no overtly aggressive behavior, that forced attention can be overwhelming and some dogs don’t do well with it. There are also many dogs who, once inside, don’t find the experience fun at all. I’ve seen dogs hide behind their owners or climb or jump on their person repeatedly in distress, only to be told to go play. And I’ve seen many dogs who repeatedly target other dogs and bully them or get into fights over and over and yet are never reprimanded, because their owners aren’t watching, don’t realize what’s going on, or don’t care.

Now, I’m aware that there are some dog parks that are different. There are private parks that charge a membership fee, screen members, and have employees monitoring the action. I have no problem with those, assuming the monitors are knowledgeable and responsible and the operation is well run. Other parks are public but are so large that much of the tension is averted. Lastly, some people visit dog parks at such off hours that they barely encounter other dogs. These are not the scenarios I’m talking about. The vast majority of public dog parks, at least in the U.S., are not private, huge, or sparsely populated. Instead, it’s a free for all, with owners who range from being responsible and knowledgeable about dog body language and behavior to people who have absolutely no clue and/or just don’t care. Common sense is, unfortunately, anything but common. Given these facts, is it really worth it to expose your dog to others who could injure him physically or emotionally, along with possibly causing a lifelong fear of or reactivity toward other dogs? (There is also the chance of exposing him to disease as well, especially if he’s a young pup.) As trainers and behavior specialists, we are called in to address fear and aggression problems after the damage has been done. Behavior modification is time-consuming, can be challenging, and is an expense for the owner. Just imagine if, instead of exposing your dog to random dogs who might or might not play nicely or even be friendly, you set play dates for your dog as you would with a child. You meet, you screen, you arrange times, you monitor. Or, you find a well-run doggy daycare where everyone can be safe and happy.

I realize that some of you will read this and think I’m being overly cautious. Maybe you take your dog to crowded, unsupervised parks and have never had an unpleasant incident. You monitor your dog carefully and know your stuff. That goes a long way, but you can’t ever fully control the behavior of others, canine or human. You’ve been lucky so far. An acquaintance I had warned against dog parks early on when she got her pup recently relayed a story of how the pup was almost killed by another dog, and how she wished she’d heeded my advice. Sure, it’s all fine…until it’s not. And when it’s not, it may be too late. Please, please, please avoid typical public dog parks. As a trainer and behavior specialist, I would much rather have less business due to there being fewer traumatized dogs in the world. Our dogs give us their trust and unconditional love. Isn’t protecting them the least we can do?
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The Most Dangerous Breed

August 7, 2019

Danger sign in : beware of the dog - naughty dog - guard dogA man and his German shepherd were alone in the dog park one early morning when another man with three dogs appeared. The three were overly aroused and snarking at each other in the airlock. As soon as the group entered the park, the shepherd ran up to them. The largest of the three, a malinois, immediately attacked the shepherd. It was noisy. It was horrific. It was terrible to see. Fortunately, the shepherd’s owner had the wisdom to pull the attacker away, rather than grabbing his own dog. The malinois’ owner then restrained his dog by the handle on the dog’s body harness. I shouted at the shepherd’s owner to grab his dog as well. Instead, he called his dog to him. The shepherd did not listen, and began walking back toward the malinois. Once again, I urged the man to get his dog on a leash. Instead, he called the shepherd to him. Again, the dog did not listen and this time, he approached the malinois, who pulled free of his owner and once again attacked the shepherd. This time the malinois’ two housemate dogs joined in. Now there were three dogs attacking the poor shepherd, who is not a dog that fights back.

Between the two men, they got the dogs separated and away from each other, although both parties remained in the park. The shepherd was limping badly, not able to put any weight at all on one of his back legs. Since my dogs and I were in the empty, enclosed small dog side of the park, I left my dogs to walk over and see if I could help. By this time the shepherd was on the ground, lying on his side. A few people I normally encounter during weekday morning walks were passing by. I stopped them and asked the owner of a Lab if he could stand by in case the shepherd needed to be carried back to his car. Instead, the Lab owner walked into the park to inspect the shepherd himself. While he was examining the dog, I told the shepherd’s owner the dog should be taken to a vet. But the Lab owner stood up and pronounced, “He’s fine. He doesn’t need to be taken in.” Good thing this man’s a veterinarian. Oh wait, he’s not. (He is, however, the same man who once, upon hearing that my dogs were on leash in a high-brush, rattlesnake-infested area because I was concerned about rattlesnakes, said, “You worry too much.” Yep, that’s me.) The shepherd was finally standing again and as he left, his owner called to the man with the three dogs that he’d see him the next day. These men are normally both in the dog park on the weekends at the same time, and although this is the second time their dogs have fought, they planned to allow them back together again the very next day. What could go wrong?

Have I mentioned that this same malinois has attacked at least four other dogs that I know of? It’s true that he does get along with many dogs, but then…well, there are some he just doesn’t. Interestingly, I was chatting recently with the woman who cuts my hair when something about this man and his dogs came up. She said, “Oh, I know him! His malinois attacked my puppy!” According to her, this very same dog had attacked her six-month-old labradoodle to the point that the mal had the pup’s entire head in his mouth. When it happened, she said, the man had sauntered over and in a baby voice said, “Oh look, he’s playing with the puppy.” Seriously.

You might be wondering if I’m going to say malinois are the most dangerous breed. I’m not. They’re certainly serious, driven dogs, but they are not the most dangerous. Nor are German shepherds. The most dangerous breed is, hands down, the Irresponsible Owner. If you run into one, you can certainly attempt to reason with them, and I give you kudos for trying. But don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work. This particularly breed is unlikely to be swayed by logic or even experience. Often seen allowing their dogs to participate in unsafe activities, members of this breed may also appear to have gone completely deaf and blind in instances where their dogs are bullying others. They’re also the ones yelling, “He’s friendly!” after you shout to please call the dog, who is off-leash and making a beeline for your own dogs. In a perfect world, members of this breed would walk around wearing shirts that say, “Don’t worry, it will all be fine!” so they could be instantly identified. If you encounter this dangerous breed, beware! The best course of action is to avoid, avoid, avoid, and do whatever you need to in order to keep your own dogs safe.
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Helping Hyper Dogs: Sometimes Less is More

June 20, 2019

Dog agility: terrier jumping and flying highYou don’t always get the dog you were expecting. Just ask my training client Melissa, who envisioned a Lab puppy like the one her neighbor has; a sweet, reasonably calm, focused dog. In fact, her now six-month-old pup is the polar opposite of the show-lines-bred dog who lives down the hall. Not only is Hailey from field-bred lines, meaning she’s got plenty of energy and drive and needs a job to do, but even for a dog typical of those genetics, she is over-the-top excitable, and prone to incessant jumping and hard mouthing on Melissa and her boyfriend, visitors, and yes, even the trainer. When I say over the top, I am comparing Hailey to the many jumping, mouthing dogs I’ve helped over the years. When Melissa and her boyfriend come home after a long day of work (Hailey goes to work with Melissa), thanks to Hailey’s behavior, they can’t relax. The thing is, Hailey is actually very sweet, affectionate, and intelligent. She just has an alarming excess of very scattered energy, and what I see as a serious need to learn how to focus and relax. Fortunately, Melissa is a lovely, dedicated woman who is willing to do whatever it takes to help her rowdy teenager.

At our first training session we’d discussed Hailey’s basic needs, including longer walks than the very short ones that were being given. Melissa also started taking Hailey to a nearby park where she could chase a ball and burn off some energy. But when they got back to their townhome, Hailey would be even more stimulated, even after the initial adrenalin rush had subsided. Even more intense jumping and hard mouthing ensued. I explained how stress chemicals that are released along with adrenalin can remain in a dog’s system even for days, and prescribed long, calm walks instead (with running-type exercise every fourth day instead), along with puzzle toys and other types of mental stimulation. Still, those things alone were not going to solve the problem.

I arrived at our next session armed with a clicker and treats. I do not normally use an actual clicker in clicker training (I normally say, “Yes!” as a verbal marker instead), but I had a strong intuition that it could be helpful in Hailey’s case. I explained how a click marks the second a dog is doing what we want, and how it predicts an immediate reward. (Why else would a dog care if we click?) I conditioned Hailey that a click meant a treat was coming, and we were off! In no time at all, Hailey became intently focused on this great new game. I shaped the behavior of her going to her bed and laying down. Melissa proved to be an excellent student as well, with stellar timing on her clicks. Soon we had Hailey not only going to her bed and lying down, but we’d also captured a head on the floor with sad eyes looking up. This will morph into a trick cued by, “Are you sad?” which gave us both a laugh. The best part was, Melissa and I were able to stand in her living room and have an actual conversation, periodically rewarding Hailey for good behavior, without being jumped on or mouthed. I believe that might have been the first time Hailey was that calm for that length of time since she came into the home. We also clicked for four paws on the floor to greet visitors, which went extremely well. Melissa was so happy she hugged me, and I left feeling happy that I could help them both. I know Melissa will continue to work with Hailey, and things will continue to improve.

Of course, clicker training was only part of the overall plan, which is too long to go into here, but it was an important aspect. I wanted to share this story because so many times, we believe the solution for a dog who has over the top energy is simply to provide more exercise. Or even worse, in the case of trainers who use harsh punishment, to punish the problematic behavior, thereby stressing the dog even more and never solving the underlying problem. Sometimes the answer is simply to help the dog, using small, incremental steps, to learn to relax. Once the dog is more relaxed, many of the troublesome behaviors clear up on their own because the underlying anxiety has been addressed. And, with relaxation comes an environment in which learning can take place. It’s true that exercise is a basic need for dogs and very often owners don’t provide enough of it. But for some dogs, it’s worthwhile to take the time to teach relaxation and focus. Sometimes less really is more.
Subscribe above to be notified of new postings. Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and blog can be found at You can find Nicole on Facebook and Twitter. Nicole also runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in Santa Clarita, CA.