The bond between canine and human is built on a power imbalance. We
are in control of food, shelter and all other resources that the dog needs. Human’s are in a unique position to define the relationship according our values and ideals. We tell stories about dogs and interpret dog’s behaviour through the human behavioural lens. Think of Lassie!
This power imbalance is part of the frame of reference for how we process information relating to the capacities and motivations of the dog. If, for example, we see our dog is a 'dumb animal' we may feel comfortable using aversives and training our dogs to follow our commands. They exist to serve after all. However, if we see our dog as a family member we may overfeed them to show our love. How we relate to our dogs is largely defined by our frame of reference and not not our dogs.
Many dog owners buy or adopt a dog because (they envisage) that it meets their own needs to do so, otherwise they would not do so. We'd get a cat or have a holiday instead. Often though we aren't particularly aware of the needs we have that we expect our dog to meet, be it for companionable walks, sofa cuddles or as our family. This means that our frame of reference is often more implicit than explicit.
One of the pivotal aspects of that frame of reference is that the ‘owner’ has acquired what is legally a possession with an insurable replacement value. In becoming the dog's 'owner' we take a small step towards defining a dog as lacking in sentience or their own agency.
Some vets and trainers may refer to you as the dog's guardian as a way of acknowledging the dog's rights to choice and fulfillment. Dog's have their own version of Adrian Maslow's (perhaps outdated) Hierarchy of Needs and these needs extend far beyond the purely physiological. Linda Michael's has published a Dog's Heirarchy of Needs here https://www.intodogs.org/resources/hierarchy-of-needs/#page-content. I'd also thoroughly recommend Marc Bekoff's "When Elephants Weep" for a change of frame of reference!
By having a clearer and more accurate frame of reference we are able to develop a more reciprocal relationship with our dogs in which they can actively and fully participate.
In the past I've mainly worked face to face and hands on with dogs and their owners. If you'd have asked me a couple of months ago I certainly would not have predicted this huge change to working online.
What is a crate and how to set it up
A crate is an indoor kennel which gives your dog a place of their own. They are often sold as metal or part metal/part plastic cage over which you can drape heavy blankets to create a den for your dog. There are also more solid plastic ones available which double as a carrying device for transportation. A quiet room or area towards the back of the house is ideal, out of direct sunlight but with natural light and ventilation too. Often a utility area works well. This crate is your dog’s bedroom so you should provide them with soft blankets for nesting, fresh water for drinking and a range of toys too. You’ll also need to make sure that you keep the children and/or other pets away. This is your dog's sanctuary.
Giving your dog their own space can help them to feel safe. Dogs who suffer from anxiety often do better if they have a small safe space of their own rather than access to the whole house which can lead to them fixating at what they see out of windows or trailing around behind you all over the house. Worse still when you go out your dog may patrol the house and wait anxiously for you to return. If your dog falls asleep in their crate on a regular basis they will gradually learn to relax more and more quickly when they are in their crate. Puppies who sleep in a crate are often easier to house-train and are less likely to get into bad habits chewing on furniture or shoes. Finally, remember that if your dog ever has to go into kennels, boarding or for a stay at the vets they may well be confined to a crate so it is well worth ensuring that they are used to the experience well before they have to go.
Is it cruel?
A lot of people instinctively feel that a crate is like a prison. I would not want to live in a crate. It would be a prison.
However, I do sleep a bed in a bedroom. Every night. I don’t randomly fall asleep by the front door or on the stairs. Once I’ve gone to bed, I stay there all night. In one room, without a huge amount of space. I can’t even do any stretches or yoga in there, but I can walk around two sides of the bed and I can have a glass of water by the bed. I don’t routinely patrol the house at night because I’d wake the children and dogs.
Neither do I encourage my children to wander round the house and fall asleep wherever they see fit. They sleep in a bed in their own room and have a bed-time after which they are expected to be quiet. If you have children you may also have realised that ‘sending them to their rooms’ for some dreadful misdemeanour stops being any sort of punishment as they become adolescents. Instead, for them, it is a relief to go to their own space and they start to go there of their own volition if you have visitors with whom they have nothing in common.
A crate should fulfil a similar purpose for our dogs and it is not a replacement for walks, access to novel environments, access to lots of smells, socialising, games and training. It is just a place for them to sleep and for them to go to for safety and when we have visitors that do not concern them. It is a natural instinct for dogs to fall asleep in small and cozy confined spaces.
How to ‘train’ the crate
In order for your dog to want to be in their crate you need to build lots of positive associations to being there. You can feed them in their crate and make sure that any chews or treats magically appear in their crate rather than coming from you. You can play with them in or near their crates, fetching a toy from the crate or running through a tunnel into their crate or searching for treats hidden in the crate, snuffle mats are great for this. They can learn to sit and lay down in the crate too. To start with just leave the door open and then as they get comfortable being there you can practice opening and closing the door of the crate. As you work on building the length of time you can close the door you need to give them a food dispensing toy or a snuffle mat to keep them occupied. When they are happy being in the crate for half an hour with you in sight then you can start to go out of sight. The RSPCA has a great factsheet on this, they recommend that adult dogs with a good association with their crates should not be confined to their crate for more than three hours.
Most people assume that having dogs in the bedroom is bad for the dogs as well as for us.
The fear is that the dogs will develop 'pack hierarchy' problems and try to dominate us. For us it isn't just the dog hairs and the stolen socks, but the potential sleep disruption. Yet the reality is that many of us do let the dogs in the bedroom, so what are the real issues?
According to a study by the Mayo Clinic in 2017 "sleeping with dogs helps some people sleep better ─ no matter if they’re snoozing with a small schnauzer or dozing with a Great Dane. There is one caveat, however, don’t let your canines crawl under the covers with you. The sleep benefit extends only to having dogs in your bedroom ─ not in your bed. According to the study, adults who snuggled up to their pups in bed sacrificed quality sleep."
It stands to reason, to me at least, that especially when you first bring a puppy home at just 8 weeks of age, that like all mammals it would sleep as part of the family group and to leave a puppy in a crate to cry all night feels unacceptable for good reasons. It wasn't so long ago that we were encourage to leaved our human babies to 'cry it out' and that if we spared the rod we'd spoil the child.
But many dog experts support the idea that dogs need to 'know their place' and should not be allowed upstairs or in the bedrooms as it can lead to dogs developing 'dominance' and other behaviour problems. This is an interesting area and would warrant further study. There may well be a correlation between the two but I'm not sure we can say that one causes the other.
Dogs have been artificially selected over tens of thousands of years specifically for their abilities to work with us. They have great social skills and now live in mixed species human-dog families. They value their time with us which is often at a premium because of our modern world of work. But compared to their wolf-like ancestors and their closest cousins, the modern wolf, they have lost some of their reasoning and cognitive skills. In fact, the relationship between a dog and a human is very similar to the relationship between a parent and a two year old child. Dogs depends on us to provide leadership, set boundaries and solve problems. We don't let our dogs decide how much to eat and how much free run they should have when off the lead. They need us to keep them safe.
So, when it comes to sleeping arrangements, if our dog is suffering with anxiety or other behaviour problems we may well want to provide them with their own safe space. Somewhere quiet in the house, partly shaded, cool, with lots of toys and soft blankets for nesting. We probably do want to make sure that our dogs build a strong positive association to this 'safe place' by feeding them and playing with them in that safe place. Indoor crates are ideal for this, especially if you have a quiet place in a utility room for instance. Our dogs may even benefit from having a bed time and understanding that when we set that boundary, that we mean it. If our dogs believe in the boundaries we set, it helps them to feel safe and for an anxious dog it is essential that they know that we are sorting things out and that they can relax.
If our dogs are struggling with their behaviour and we are using them as our own comfort blankets and teddy bears we may be missing opportunities to help them. It's not that snuggling on the bed is 'wrong' but that your dog may get a huge amount more from a training session with you or a super enriching walk and a night in their own bed.
Why do dogs bark at the front door?
Your dog may be excited to greet visitors or alerting you that someone is arriving. They may have an urge to guard their home or they may be startled and afraid of an unexpected sound. Some dogs have just copied another dog in the family! This was the case with my youngest dog Lawrence who only just managed to hone this particular behaviour before my oldest dog, the barker in the family, sadly passed away. And we are just about managing the legacy behaviour but it’s taken a bit of strategy and patience!
Most dogs who bark at the door have learned that a knock or a door bell means something is going to happen for them e.g. greeting. If, every time the doorbell went absolutely nothing happened for them they would likely gradually habituate to this noise like most dogs habituate to everyday household noises like a toilet flush or a washing machine on spin. The problem is often that when they are puppies and we are anxious for them to meet lots of visitors, we end up teaching them that a doorbell means visitors or excitement or some sort of other stimulus for them.
What can you do about it?
The first thing is to double check what exactly is going on. Does your dog run towards the door in an excited, happy, frenzy or do they run away from it? Do they ‘trigger’ to the sound of a door bell, a door knock and keys in the door in the same way? What about if you play the sound of different doorbells on your phone? Do they carry on barking at visitors as they arrive? Is it all visitors? It's thoroughly worthwhile to get a bit of professional help at this stage ... sometimes its hard to really 'see' what is going on when it is your 'everyday'.
First things first, don’t yell or raise your voice. If you raise your voice you are setting the wrong example to you are dog: you are “joining in”! Your dog will think that they are on the right track with barking because their owner is also clearly anxious and getting loud.
Next, keep dog below their threshold of anxiety and reaction for 3 – 5 days before any training. This sounds hard but here are some ideas to manage the practicalities:
This last point is important. If your dog has access to the front door during the day at the moment, then it would be worth considering moving them toward the back of the house so they are less aware of post coming through the letter box and can’t see visitors arriving. Make sure your dog has their own ‘safe space’ to retreat to …. This is their space where they have their food and treats and toys. If you don’t have this at the moment feel free to message me, and see the video at the bottom of this blog.
Finally, you are going to need to stop inadvertently rewarding your dog for barking at the front door. In fact, for a while, it would be better if the front door, visitors and doorbells were simply something that did not involve them. All the training in the world won’t work if every so often they bark like crazy at the front door and then they are rewarded by the stimulus, sights, sounds, of visitors.
There are two very different aspects to the training we need to do here:
1.Training an alternative behaviour
I'd recommend training a down stay on their mat or bed. You’ll need a training plan and I’d thoroughly recommend getting a bit of support with this bit. You’ll need to spread the training out into very short fun sessions over a few weeks. For a down stay to help us with this issue you’re going to need to make sure that it’s ‘proofed’ against distractions and that it works at a distance and for some duration. These are all things you can practice at home. It’s better to add these aspects in separately first and keep your training super positive with lots of treats on their mat or bed when they hold their stay.
Here are some ideas to practice.
Distractions – try turning in a circle, bending down to tie your show or doing a star jumps near to them. Start moving slowly and give lots of rewards. See if you can walk around them. Try playing some interesting sound effects on your phone or dropping a toy near them while they are in a stay. Move on to rolling a toy passed them while they are in a stay. You might even add in the distraction of a doorbell noise on your phone or the sound of the door of the fridge being opened or moving their food bowls.
Distance – try moving away from them a short distance and return and give them a treat. Very gradually increase the distance that you move away until you are out of sight for a moment. You keep yo-yoing back in to give them a treat so its all fairly quick and fun. Work towards being out of sight for a minute or two.
Duration – gradually increase the duration of the stay while they are next to you on their bed. If you are watching the TV or working you can put the bed by you and keep rewarding them with a treat between their paws on the bed every few seconds or minutes as they improve. Work towards a 5 minute calm stay.
This is often a tricky one to work with. For desensitisation to work we need to be able to control the amount of the stimulus of the door knock/bell so that we can start in a really small way. You need the sound of the doorbell or knock to be so quiet that although the dog may notice he or she doesn’t react. You may need to get creative. I’m directly working on this with my youngest dog and here are my tips:
It’s critical you start in such a small way that your dog is able to notice AND to stay relaxed. Repeat the stimulus 5 or 6 times and if they are able to do this you can give them a treat or a play with their toy. At your next session you can increase the level of the stimulus slightly.
Once you and your dog have a consistently good down stay on their mat or bed you can start to combine the desensitisation and the down stays by having pretend and then actual practice visitor sessions. You should be able to leave your dog in a down stay on the mat and go and ring the door bell yourself and come back and reward them before you move on to real visitors.
Remember that there is help available and this is just a phase that you and your dog are going through.
If your dog is pulling like a steam train it can make your morning walk stressful for you both. It certainly used to cross my mind that this wasn't how I imagined it would be when I first brought my beautiful puppy home! Often you may find you pull them back to you and that helps for a bit, but before you know it they are back at the end of the lead and there seems nothing you can do but be towed along.
Which of these seem right to you? My dog pulls on the lead because ....
There are lots of reasons that a dog may start pulling on the lead and it could be all of the above! Most mid-sized and larger dogs will naturally walk faster than most humans, so our poor dogs have to learn to walk more slowly! This may be a new and frustrating concept for some of them!
This is coupled with the practical issue that once your dog is ahead of you and the lead is loose they may forget where you are anyway.
Unfortunately, rushing ahead of the owner is often a "self-rewarding behaviour". Pulling towards another dog/lamp post/bit of litter means that they get there sooner. They pull and the owner steps forward. Any behaviour that is rewarding is likely to keep happening and this is where the problem really begins. Your dog starts to remember that this is a good strategy to use next time they are frustrated by your slower pace of walking and your dog is eager to get to a good smell ahead of them.
Isn't it uncomfortable for them? Yes it is! And it can cause permanent damage if they are pulling hard on a traditional collar. The problem is that they become habituated to any discomfort over time. Some breeds have a genetic predisposition to pulling and may actually enjoy it for its own sake, whilst others who are a little anxious may get comfort from knowing exactly where their owner is from the feeling of tension on the lead.
Luckily you can rest assured that you are not alone. I've certainly been there at various times with all three of my dogs!!! There are luckily lots and lots of ways we can change this behaviour which I will cover in my next post.
Why does my dog have separation anxiety?
Dogs are social animals and most dogs will find it stressful to be separated from their dog-human pack for extended periods. We may have to teach them how to cope.
Dogs with a lack of appropriate socialisation to being alone as puppies may find that they have a higher level of anxiety and are slower to adjust to time alone as adults. It may also be that some dogs develop separation anxiety as a result of a change such as a new baby or a move of house.
It's also worth thinking about you and your own feelings towards separation from your dog. Some owners find it stressful to leave their dogs and inadvertently communicate this to their dogs. Our dogs are super sensitive to our body language and even slight changes to our breathing rates and even pupil dilation! So if your are anxious your dog may well know it! If leaving the dog is difficult for you, it may be tempting to let the dog follow them from room to room when they are in the house so that the dog never learns how to separate calmly.
This is all a little bit different from the many dogs who are left home alone for extended periods, and for whom, when their owners are home the owners often have little energy to exercise, socialise or mentally stimulate their dog. Such dogs often suffer from chronic anxiety of which separation anxiety may be just one manifestation.
Dogs who are anxious when left alone can become destructive or develop toileting issues and gradually get confined to a smaller and smaller part of the house providing them with a gradually more and more boring, lonely and stressful existence.
So what can we do about it?
Firstly, have a careful look at what is actually happening. Is your dog anxious about you leaving the room or the house? For 1 minute or 10 minutes? Is it anyone leaving or just the last person leaving? Having a clear benchmark helps you know if you are making progress.
You may need to change things up at home. You can manage the dog’s environment by ensuring the dog has a safe, quiet, appropriate place to sleep when left home alone such as a utility room with a bed or crate. I would make sure that the dog has access to fresh water, soft blankets, natural light and fresh air. Some dogs enjoy having a shaded crate to relax in during the day. I would also introduce the use of temporary stairgates so the dog doesn’t follow the owner everywhere at home but can still see the owner if they are in a different room. Make these separations reward for the dog by giving them something to enjoy as you leave and avoid giving lots of attention or treats on your return.
I would also recommend introducing a program of enrichment and ensure that the dog is getting plenty of appropriate exercise and stimulation. Many dogs are chronically under stimulated in their human families. Enrichment will not only help build the dogs confidence and reduce boredom but will also help the dog feel genuinely tired when they are left alone.
Try to develop a selection of special toys, food puzzles and food dispensing toys to help the dog to settle when they are home alone. Your dog should only have these when you decide and not have access to them the whole time. If they enjoy chewing this can keep them busy so freezing their usual kibble (pre-soaked) in a kong toy may bring them an hour or two of fun time alone. This classically conditions a positive connection between being alone and feeling good. You can start this when you are in the house but not in the same room as the dog for the first few days. If the dog is very anxious at this stage, you may have to only be out of sight for short periods.
When your dog is capable of being left in a different part of the house for an hour then I would start to desensitise the dog to you leaving the house. You can perform leaving activities such as picking the car keys up or putting on shoes but not leaving the house a few times each day to desensitise the dog to these pre-leaving activities. Teach the dog to go to their bed, special part of the house or to go to their crate for a treat or other positive reinforcement. Reward them again, give them their special toys and leave alone for less than the time it takes them to get anxious. This could be just 5 minutes/day to start with but increasing to twice a day and then 3 times/day. You could then increase this to 15 minutes and build up from there, but each time making sure that the dog has the same routine when the dog is left.
It's a good idea to change your own personal schedules around when you start this so that the dog is not left home alone for 3 -5 days before this training is started and during this process. We want to avoid triggering their high stress responses because these stress hormones take longer than you think to subside.
Also remember not to punish any lapses, instead to see a 'lapse' as an attempt to progress too quickly. Remember not to greet your pet when as soon as you return home in too much of an enthusiastic and high energy way. The immediate return of the owners needs to be less rewarding rather than more rewarding than the dogs special toys which he gets when he is home alone.
Finally, remember to get a bit of professional help at the start of this process. It can save a huge amount of time and worry too :)
Unwanted behaviours in dogs can include house soiling, excessive scent marking, roaming, separation anxiety, chronic stress, impulsivity, reactivity, aggression or even learned helpless and lethargy. These issues are often coupled with training difficulties which can leave the poor owner with … well chronic stress too!
These difficult behaviours can have many origins. Sometimes they can be medical or psychological or behavioural so it can be important to understand what causing the issue so that we can best help change things. Sometimes a small change to underlying factors can make all the difference.
Unwanted behaviours in dogs - How hormones make a simple difference
Hormones and neurotransmitters, which are important for behaviour, are made from substances in the body but some must be gained from the dog’s diet. Imbalances in these neurotransmitters can cause potential difficulties in teaching a new behaviour. So, the dog’s diet can make a difference. It’s one of those underlying factors. Additives can make a difference as can protein content, and these days there is a lot of talk about raw feeding too. But diet is not the only factor….
The dogs underlying biology can make a difference too. A dog with an excess of dopamine can be impulsive and reactive, however, a decline in dopamine can reduce the reinforcing effect of a tasty treat. Serotonin is responsible for regulating mood and a decline in serotonin has been linked to impulsive behaviour and increased aggression which may make extend time taken to acquire a new behaviour. A trainer may experience difficulty in teaching a new behaviour if the dog is suffering from low levels of dopamine and/or serotonin.
Now, although these imbalances could be medical, they may also occur if the dog is lacking in exercise, if it has been given an inappropriate diet, if it has been given insufficient freedom to routinely express normal behaviour, has insufficient sleep or is kept isolated from long periods of time. So it is really important that your dog’s basic needs are met well before we start training new behaviours.
Chronic stress can cause problems with hormone levels too. Adrenaline and cortisol are released at times of stress. They help the body ready itself for fight or flight, it withdraws blood from the surface of skin and many internal organism resulting in an increase in blood flow to the muscles. The response is designed to be a temporary change. A dog that is stressed or afraid during training is likely to be experiencing high levels of both hormones which will impair memory retrieval and recent evidence further indicates that stress may hamper the updating of memories in the light of new information. A dog in such a state is also likely to be more reactive. Use of punishment during training, even at a low level, likely to increase adrenaline and ongoing use, especially if the dog does not understand how to change the use of punishers is likely to increase cortisol. It can help to ensure your dog can avoid his or her stress triggers for a few days before any training takes place, but if you are worried, talk to a qualified behaviourist if you are concerned about chronic stress.
Unwanted behaviours in dogs - what about genetic differences?
Why is it that one puppy may be more emotionally reactive than one of his siblings even if they have been brought up together with the same experiences. There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system – one which fires the dog up and one which calms the dog down. It is these, the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, which work together but as opposing forces to keep the dog in balance. The parasympathetic branch works to calm the dog and bring it back into balance whereas the sympathetic branch fires the dog up ready for action by increasing the heart rate, inhibiting digestion and increasing breathing. The two systems strive to achieve, balance, homeostasis.
So, coming back to our question, some dogs can be genetically pre-disposed to be more parasympathetically influenced (calmer) or sympathetically influenced (prone to emotional reactivity and biological stress). Two puppies brought up together are likely to have genetic differences which would account for differences in reactivity because of such differences in their autonomic nervous system.
Unwanted behaviours in dogs - Neurological Diseases
Neurological diseases are diseases of the brain, spine or nerves and includes tumours, cervical disease and canine dementia. Symptoms such as seizures, tremors, difficulty with balance and paralysis are common. However, neurological diseases may also manifest a wide range of symptoms such as circling, fly-biting hallucination, or just a changed mental state or changes in behaviour such as suddenly stopping responding to simple commands like “sit” or “heel” . The precise behaviour change presented will depend upon the neurological site impacted by the disease or lesion.
It probably seems obvious that damage to the spine, for instance, may cause a dog to lose control over its bladder and bowels. What may not be so obvious is that lesions in the cerebellum by cause a head tilt to develop or incoordination of the limbs, lesions in the mid brain may cause balance and body awareness problems, whereas lesions in the cerebral cortex can have more overtly behavioural impacts such as lack of recognition of the owner, difficulty training, compulsive pacing, circling, difficulty with perception, hysterical running, star gazing, aggression and changes in feeding and breeding behaviours.
When behaviour patterns change in this way an underlying neurological reason should first be ruled out. This is because any behaviour may have a wide range of possible causes both medical and psychological. Some behaviours may have both a medical and psychological component, for example, head tilting may indicate an ear infection, a brain tumour, or that the owners laugh and pet the dog when the dog exhibits the behaviour. So if you are worried, then a thorough veterinary check should be performed before any behaviour modification or training is attempted.
Unwanted behaviours in dogs - how can training interact with the dogs biology?
Dog training often uses some combination of punishing the bad (shouting, water sprays, choke chains) and rewarding the good (treats, praise and toys). Fear and punishment impact on the brain through the amygdala, ‘the fear centre’, and ‘freeze or fight’ pathways. In contrast, positive rewards involve the cortex as well as other brain structures and opiate and dopaminergic systems and not the amygdala.
Once the amygdala has been exposed with a situation that has a fearful outcome, that imprint will remain for ever, albeit, it can be modified. Therefore, if punishment is to be used it must be closely linked to the inappropriate event and must mildly startle and not terrify the animal. As soon as the undesirable behaviour has stopped the desired behaviour should be cued and rewarded as quickly as possible.
There are two major risks though with punishment in training. First is the handler, especially if fairly new to training, will use too high a level of the punishment and/or fail to follow through in a timely manner with the cue and reward for the correct behaviour. Such use of aversives is likely to encode a fear response in the dog which may cause some undesired result i.e. the dog learns to be frightened of the handler or to refrain from chewing the furniture in the presence of the handler. An encoded fear response is likely to make limited impact on the behaviour under modification.
But I said there are two risks. The second and more worrying risk is the potential for abuse of power in the relationship. When a dog-human pair first start working together, it’s a very one-sided relationship with the owner calling all the shots. Coupled with this, dogs have a capacity to bond with their human in the same way as human infants bond with a parent. Now we have a huge imbalance of power and the more powerful of the pair is allowed to use fear and punishment to train, and if we aren’t very very careful they can use fear and punishment to vent their own frustration and stress. This can lead to the dog learning some undesirable lessons and developing further undesirable behaviours.
What’s the alternative?
The most successful behaviour modifications are positive and focus on a substitute behaviour that the animal enjoys. Behaviours that are reinforced are learned best if every time they occur they are rewarded, reinforcement can be praise, a tasty treat, or a game with the owner. Once the dog has learned a new behaviour it can be maintained if they are rewarded intermittently. But, when you start you’ll need to use a lot of treats, praise and play, and a jackpot reward can help learn a new behaviour more quickly. Contact me if you’d like to arrange a free 121 initial consultation or to find the training class that’s suitable for you.
Do you dream of be able to just go out on a relaxing walk with your dog? It can be really stressful for you and your dog if your dog reacts to every other dog that you pass. You may even start feeling stressed before you leave the house!
The first thing is to take a step back and have a think about exactly what the problem is, for instance whether it is all other dogs, dogs moving away or towards you, dogs at the park, on lead or off lead, male or female, large or small? How far away do they need to be for your dog to bark?
It's a good idea to write it down, and even to get someone to video it what happens. This all gives you a clearer starting point.
It's really important to keep your dog below their particular excitement or anxiety threshold from this point forward because no learning takes place if the dog is in the midst of a highly emotional barking response. If at all possible I would recommend ensuring that the dog is kept away from situations which would lead to the old behaviour so that it can no longer occur. The dog should be kept to calm walks only, avoiding other dogs and where this isn’t possible the dog should be given a complete break for 3 – 5 days before beginning to work on this behaviour to allow their anxiety levels and stress hormones to return to normal levels. If this fills you with horror because your dog would be climbing the curtains without their usual walk then please feel free to get in touch for ideas for support and ideas.
I would use Behaviour Adjustment Training and keeping the dog below the threshold let the dog see another but keeping them below their particular threshold so that they can learn to disengage on their own. I would use a loose long lead and a helper dog and handler for this. Starting at a distance with which the dog is comfortable which could be up to three times the distance at which he usually reacts. If the dog just walks straight towards the other dog slowly stop him. If the dog begins to show signs of stress or fixation recall them away and give them a treat; a good ability to read the dog’s body language is essential. A bit of professional help with reading body language as well as timing of treats can be invaluable here. If the dog is able to turn away easily and voluntarily from the trigger then allow the dog to continue to explore. This is a method of desensitising the dog to the particular stimulus.
Depending on the practicalities of the situation for the particular owner and dog I would also consider counter conditioning or training an alternative behaviour, for instance, a calm ‘down stay’ which can the rewarded with lots of treats. Really this just means giving your dog something else to do and to concentrate on. Some dogs find it harder to bark in a down stay and find it fun having a job to do for their owner. This doesn’t solve the underlying problem but allows the owner to manage the behaviour (and their own anxiety) and keep the dog from reacting and becoming stressed. If this behaviour is performed every time that they see another dog then the dog (and owner) may begin to positively associate the sight and sound of another dog (at a safe distance) with lots of treats and attention. A down stay can feel quite vulnerable for the dog and potentially increase his stress levels so it should only be used after the Behaviour Adjustment Training has been used to help desensitise the dog.
It’s worth being aware that dogs who are reactive in this way may have underlying anxiety or other issues to consider, so a trip to a qualified behaviourist could be well worthwhile if only to rule out other issues at the outset. You may just learn one thing that tips the balance and leads to a hugely positive result. At a good consultation you might also learn how to meet other wider needs your dog has to help your dog be in a calm state before any behaviour modification training takes place. This may mean including other mental stimulation and exercise in the house and garden and away from other dogs.
It’s really important that you are able to stay calm too! It’s so easy to use lead tension and your own body language to let your dog know that you are really worried about the approaching dog! If you shout at the dog for barking, from the dog’s perspective you are just joining in with the barking and adding to the intensity!! Keep your body language loose and to turn slightly away from any approaching dog. If necessary, turn around and go back the other way! It might even help to invest in a yellow dog tabard or dog coat which states ‘MY DOG NEEDS SPACE’ to prevent other owners inadvertently creating further stress for the dog. I felt ashamed the first time I went out in one of these but I was just bowled over by how supportive other dog owners were.
This is just a phase you and your dog are going through. Take some time with it and get help if you need it. You will have your faithful companion with you for many years so it’s a thoroughly worthwhile investment in all your future calm and happy walks together.
Why do dogs bark on a walk?
Barking at dogs on a walk may be defensive, greeting or excitement.
Defensive barking, often combined with lunging at other dogs when on the lead may feel super embarrassing to you, but often this behaviour doesn’t start as aggression but more of a defensive behaviour.
In ‘dog language’ a dog that walks directly towards another dog is demonstrating poor dog communication and is likely to come off as over-confident and threatening. On this basis your dog feels quite justified in telling the approaching dog to mind his manners!
But what tends to happen is that this behaviour often becomes reinforced because when the barking is most intense the other dog starts moving away and the intensity and stress are relieved. This is operant conditioning at work! The dog learns that the stimulus of the other dog’s approach requires the response of barking in order for the other dog to move away and make the dog feel safe and calm again. Here begins your real barking problem!
This behaviour can then start to be generalised to dogs who are further away, not approaching or perhaps cats and humans too.
With all that barking and lunging it is also now likely that you are getting genuinely stressed by your dog and signalling your own stress levels to the dog and putting tension on the lead. This can compound the learning problems! It can classically condition a problem whereby tension on the lead puts the dog in to a hyper aroused state.
Remember, though, that there are lots of other reasons for barking on a walk. For instance, if it is occurring off lead it could be that the dog is warning other dogs away from themselves or from you too! This could be because of fear or anxiety caused poor socialisation with other dogs or other previous experiences for instance of being attacked by another dog. If you suspect these are the reasons I’d recommend getting some help from a professional.
It can also be greeting and excitement. Such barking tends to be higher in tone and is because the dog is very excited to meet another dog. It may be combined with frustration barking if the dog is on the lead and wants to greet the other dog.
Finally, some breeds and some individual dogs are naturally more inclined to bark than others and still others find barking enjoyable in itself so it becomes the rewarding consequence of a range of different stimuli.
It is often helpful to get help from a professional at the early stages of helping your dog with this behaviour. You need to be sure you've understood the problem and often a bit of coaching through the early stages helps too. You and your dog will be walking together for years so a bit of investment now is thoroughly worthwhile.