Sunday, January 23, 2011

Why Does Touching My Dog Make Him Hyper?

Here's the test: begin petting your dog with mid-range pressure. Does he/she do one of the following:
A) Solicit more petting by climbing on you
B) Roll over belly up, lick lips, yawn or look away
C) Energy increases and begins jumping off you
D) Moves Away
E) Some of all the above

Well then your dog probably has some touch sensitivity. Many dogs have touch sensitivity; far more often than people would think. 

So one of the things we practice in puppy class and beginner class is touching your dog while feeding him/her. Many people do this exercise once in class and then forget about it. They usually concentrate on stay or leave it or loose leash walking. While all those obedience skills are important they definitely don't outrank having a dog that not only accepts touch but enjoys it. 

If your dog enjoys touch you'll find him/her easier to praise/reward, spend time with, handle for grooming, handle for exams, handle in general, accept children who touch harder and inappropriately, and less likely to bite when in pain or taken  by surprise. All of those things are crucial for pet dogs. 

The good news is you can teach dogs of all ages to enjoy touch more than they already do. Take their breakfast or dinner and use it to teach handling. Get your dog eating out of your hand at a reasonable pace and then add touch. Make sure the dog continues to eat. The moment he/she stops eating take your hand off their body. Start with gentle touch using the back of your hand and then work up to pressure and specific handling (think picking up paws). As long as the dog continues to eat then continue to handle. 

This is what we would call Classic Conditioning to teach an animal to accept something they might not like. You combine their food (basic necessity) with a small level of something new or not enjoyable and then slowly increase over time. If you were handle then feed you wouldn't get the same result. 

Try this exercise a few times a week for several months and watch the changes in your dog. Once your dog accepts touch readily you can start to combine it with a down stay or sit stay. Remember that if your dog has a history of aggression related to touch then you need to seek out a Veterinarian to rule out medical issues and an experienced, positive reinforcement trainer to help you out.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ouch! Why Puppies Bite and What To Do About It

The most common concern I hear about from new puppy owners is "biting". So I thought I would take a moment to explain what this biting is and what to do about it.

Biting (often called Mouthing) in puppies under 6 months is a very normal behaviour. When worked on correctly it should disappear by around 4-5 months and sometimes a little later in retriever breeds and terriers. Why do they do it? Well puppies are trying to learn how to use their mouths. Imagine a two year old child and all the grabbing, hitting and pinching they do as they learn to manipulate objects in their hands. It's the same thing. 

It's really important for puppies to learn to use their mouths correctly because as adult dogs we can't have mistakes. Our dogs need to know how much pressure to apply, what they are allowed to put their mouth on and what they aren't. This is one of the reasons many trainers don't recommend playing tug of war with puppies (although I personally think it's alright with the right rules in place). 

The rule in my house is no teeth on skin but everyone has their own variation of this. When a puppy begins to mouth me and it hurts I let out a high pitch "ouch" and stand up/walk away. This teaches the puppy that by hurting me he makes go away and the behaviour is anti-social. The majority of normal puppies will want your attention and not drive you away.

Another successful tactic is to give your puppy an appropriate chew object. Great toys include stuff animals without stuffing, kongs/hard rubber toys, ropes and chew sticks (antlers, bully sticks, etc). Sometimes you don't have anything handy so instead try asking your puppy for a "sit" or a "hand target/touch" and get them working. 

A great way to teach puppies how to use their mouths is by letting them play with other puppies and accepting adult dogs. There's also an argument for keeping puppies with their mother and siblings longer. Having your puppy stay with a good breeder until 10-12 weeks of age can help with mouthing issues. You just want to make sure they're being socialized at the same time. No one wins if the puppy is just locked up in a pen all day.

There is no one size fits all answer and it is something that goes away with age (if you haven't encouraged it). It's important to remember not to hurt your puppy as you don't want to make him/her afraid to have their mouth handled. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

The New Foster Kid: Bailey

Miss Bailey arrived at my home yesterday evening and has started to settle in. She is a 7 year old Yorkie mix and has had a hard life. Bailey is reportedly from a Puppy Mill and after being retired as a breeding dog she has been unable to find a suitable home. She has been placed twice and neither home worked out. Her first adoptive owner moved after having her for a few short years while her second home had a small child and a cat that were unsuitable for her shy personality. Her second family decided to get help as she clearly needed a new family. 

So Bailey has joined my pack and I for some rehabilitation before moving on to her forever home. Her next adopters will be carefully screened to make sure they will be a permanent and exceptional home for this tiny little girl. 

Bailey makes a great case study for anyone who owns a shy, timid dog. Her story is sadly altogether common. She missed out on early socialization as a puppy when the people responsible for her kept her locked in a cage. She is therefore terrified of most things: kids, strangers, loud noises and lacks key social skills that would allow her to interact comfortably with other dogs (rather than avoiding them). 

The Plan: give Bailey a much needed confidence boost and help her learn new skills that will allow her to be successful with her next family.

How are we going to do that? 

The first step is to allow Bailey to settle in and adjust to the new environment. This might take some time, but once she realizes she's safe and my dogs won't bother her, life will get a little easier for her. I help new dogs settle in by setting up a regular daily schedule so she can expect when meals will be, when exercise will happen, when nap time/bed time are and other regular activities. Structure is crucial for anxiety ridden dogs (and good for all dogs). Setting up a structure will also allow us to house train Bailey.

We will also consider a DAP collar and a Thunder shirt for Bailey depending on how she does over the first week. She will also get a vet check up to make sure she has no medical issues that could be affecting her mental state. 

Step number two will involve some confidence building. We will begin to work on "hand targeting" which will encourage Bailey to come to my partner and I. We'll be using cheese as a reinforcer for this and a clicker to mark the behaviour. Video to follow

Bailey will also begin attending a group training class at Where's Your Sit. My partner Douglas has been kind enough to volunteer his time as her handler. We selected a class with dogs all under 20lbs in size. This was done on purpose. Bailey will be introduced to larger dogs but only ones who have already attended obedience classes so that they don't scare her further. My own pack includes 2 medium size dogs that she has already met. 

 The goal of a group class for her will not be obedience skills. If we expected her to learn sit, down, stay, heel , etc. we would be disappointed. Bailey is going to work on being in the room while the other dogs learn. She will get to meet people and dogs in the class when she is ready. The new environment will be her challenge in this case. Once she's comfortable we can practice the skills she's learning at home like the hand target. She will not be expected to learn anything new in class. When she's more confident we can explore classes for training but this time it's about socialization to a new environment, people and dogs.

Bailey's progress will be posted on the blog and our website. Feel free to ask questions! Also note that we are interviewing potential adopters for Bailey. She will be available to the right new home once she has finished the beginning stage of confidence boosting. Her new family will receive both group and private training lessons through Where's Your Sit as part of her adoption package.

Bailey's Page

Saturday, January 1, 2011

One of my Favourite Training Tools

Since Loose Leash Walking seems to be a major struggle for most dog owners I wanted to take some time and introduce one of my favourite dog walking products: the Gentle Leader. It's fairly well known but I still come across quite a number of frustrated owners who haven't heard of it. 

The Gentle Leader works in a similar way to a horse halter/head collar. It fits over the mouth and snaps behind the ears. Dogs can eat, drink and play with it on. It does get mistaken for a muzzle sometimes but don't be fooled; dogs can definitely still bite with it on! 

The purpose of the Gentle Leader is to take away the dog's ability to pull. Although no training tool will solve pulling all by itself this one comes the closest. In my opinion it works better than harnesses, choke collars, shock collars or prong collars and is of course humane. I find it works best for medium to large breed dogs such as Australian Shepherds, Labradors, Malamutes, etc. For the smaller dogs I generally recommend a Sensation Harness or an Easy Walk Harness but you can use Gentle Leaders on the small ones too. 

The down side to head collars in general is that some dogs simply don't like to wear them (picture your puppy at 8 weeks with his/her first collar and they flail around). You need to start off slow by putting it on, feeding a few treats and then taking it off right away. I recommend doing this a few times and leaving it on just a bit longer each time. After a few days try a walk.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if you have previously used a type of correction collar: martingale, prong or choke chain then you need to be very careful about not "correcting" with the Gentle Leader. You don't want to throw your dog's spine out of wack and it's not meant to be jerked about in a harmful manner. On the bright side if you have damaged your dog's throat by using a correction collar than a Gentle Leader will be safer and more comfortable for your dog to wear. 

I've used a Gentle Leader for 3 out of 4 of my own dogs: Russ, Tank and Marco while training them to walk on leash. Tank still likes to wear his. Make sure to combine a Gentle Leader with training (using treats to reinforce heel position, direction changes to keep your dog interested and not moving forward when he/she pulls). 

Where's Your Sit runs a special program just for Loose Leash Walking for those of you in the Calgary area struggling with this issue on your otherwise well behaved dog.