Building A Better Dog: Tools & Techniques
Most dogs fit right in. They are raised and trained without much fuss, and become happy pets and comfortable companions. These are the ones whose owners are knowledgeable or fortunate enough to select the right breed and the right puppy for their life style and, are experienced enough to teach the dog what it needs to know. However, many dogs and their owners are not so fortunate.
Behavior problems are the source of much physical and emotional expense to many dogs and their owners. They are the principal reason that dogs are surrendered to shelters. It is no fun to live with a dog that is aggressive, soils in the house, becomes hysterical or destructive when left alone, or is just generally uncontrollable. But, we love them and will, more often than not, choose to compromise and live with the problem rather than part with our pet.
The good news is, that whether you own a puppy or an adult dog, you can do a lot to prevent the development of behavior problems or, solve those you may already have. It is a simple process of using the tools of education, management, leadership and appropriate training techniques.
Learning to build a better dog takes knowledge and skill, just like any other job. Recent studies in the field of animal behavior and training have given us an enormous amount of new information about why our dogs do what they do. We no longer have to depend on our "best guess" based on observing just a few dogs, or any of the "instant experts" who are always handing out advice via the latest infomercial or in the park. There are plenty of good, current books available.
Every owner needs to know what their dog was bred to do. Most breeds were originally developed to do a particular job and have temperaments that make them suitable for this work. Bringing a high energy herding or hunting dog into a home where people have little time for training can spell disaster. Expecting protection from a poodle or a golden retriever may be very unrealistic. All dogs can bite, bark, jump, chew, dig, herd, chase and ignore you. Some breeds are just more apt to engage in certain of these behaviors than others!
Every new puppy owner needs to know how critically important it is to socialize a young pup with other pups or friendly dogs, and to take them to lots of new places to meet all kinds of people. Failure to do so can create a dog that is fearful and aggressive toward other dogs and people.
Developing the temperament that your dog comes with requires knowing about breed characteristics and, even more importantly, what constitutes normal behavior for any dog.
Occasionally Fido gets a bit stressed when you leave for work and relieves himself on your bedpost. Management: close the bedroom door.
Sometimes he tips over the kitchen waste can and has a grand time littering. Management: put the waste can out of his reach.
He is a dog with exquisite taste, loves your rare roast beef, and chews only your best shoes and your child's prized keepsake dolls. Management: keep things picked up, and put away, out of reach.
Now and then he will sneak up the steps when no one is looking and soil that special spot on the oriental rug. Management: put a gate at the entrance to the steps.
Seem simple? It is!! What prevents people from taking these easy management steps, is an expectation that the dog "shouldn't" do these things because he really "knows" that they are wrong. We wouldn't think of not managing the environment of a toddler until he was old enough to understand right from wrong and safe from unsafe. Frequently, however, we expect the dog to understand these things, even though he is an amoral, totally opportunistic animal who doesn't speak English, has different survival needs and perceives the world through somewhat different sensory systems.
Management tools include collars, leashes, muzzles, halters, head collars, fencing, gates, doors, kennels and crates. The latter can be used to keep a dog out of harm's way when you cannot watch him. He can be trained to feel that this is his special place, where he always has his favorite chew toy, dinner or treat. It is far easier on the dog to be confined for short periods than to be punished for doing something he didn't know he wasn't supposed to do.
Of course, the ultimate management tool is training, so confinement and control devices can be done away with. Management is the only fair way to control problems until the situation can be changed or the dog trained to behave appropriately.
Dogs are very social pack animals. They are hard wired to either lead or be led. When we bring them into our homes, we become their pack. Generally, they have an amazing capacity to remain tolerant and loving while living in a culture with foreign values, rules that make no sense, no independence, no capacity to comprehend the communication and, often, isolated from any meaningful interaction with their own species.
A human in a similar setting would want be cared for, kept safe, protected from making mistakes and gradually taught a means of communication that could bridge the differences. Leadership can do this for your dog.
In a dog pack, leadership is provided by the alpha animals and rarely requires any display of dominance, which is the principle leadership tool of the top canine. Humans have other leadership abilities so there should never be any need for any physical dominance. Instead, we can, without confrontation or violence, physically manage the dog and his environment to keep him safe and out of trouble. If we clearly understand what constitutes normal canine behavior and communication, we can act accordingly and, respectfully, treat the dog like a dog.
Expecting a dog to be well behaved because he "loves" us or, believing that he can feel guilty, spiteful, sad, mad or remorseful, is asking him to feel and act as if he were human. It just isn't possible and it is truly unfair to ask him to be in charge of life in a human household. When he can tie your shoes, use the bathroom and fix his own meals - maybe. Until then, be clear and 100% consistent with a few simple rules; provide him with good nutrition, grooming, veterinary care, adequate exercise and time with playmates; and, give him a job to do by teaching him to respond to simple obedience commands for which he is rewarded with treats, games, petting or praise. It is very much like parenting a small child only a whole lot easier!
All training is about reinforcement. Behavior that is reinforced will increase in frequency, duration, and intensity, whether you want it to or not. Dogs are learning every minute they are awake. Intentionally or unintentionally, we either reinforce behavior or the behavior reinforces itself. Unintentional reinforcement accounts for many problems we have with our dogs. For example, let's say that your dog barks when the postman puts mail in the door slot. Then he leaves. The barking behavior worked! It has been reinforced. But that bad mailman keeps coming back. The dog barks louder and longer. He leaves again. The barking behavior is reinforced repeatedly. You begin to be bothered by the increase in barking and how vicious your dog sounds, so you decide to introduce the dog to the postman. You hold him by the collar and open the door but he continues to lunge and bark furiously. In an effort to calm the dog, you stroke him and say soothingly, "hey, it's ok Fido, it's just the postman". The dog, having no idea what you are saying, is now reinforced by being petted, and told by your tone of voice, "good boy, I like it when you do that!". Instead, if you change the reinforcement by leaving a box of dog cookies outside and asking the mailman to slip one through the slot with the mail (and make that the only one the dog gets each day until the behavior changes), the dog may begin to perceive the arrival of the mailman as meaning good things for the dog.
Just as reinforced behavior will increase, behavior that is not reinforced will tend to decrease and finally, go away. Let's take jumping up for instance. First, both leadership and management would dictate that when you come home, you do not reinforce the dog by greeting him in an excited fashion. Ignore him for five minutes or so and when he calms down, quietly pet and praise him. Second, understand that your response to his jumping up by pushing him away and yelling, "get down, stop it, etc.", is generally perceived by the dog as an invitation to continue. If your dog is too out of control to ignore, just snap on a leash and either put him in a down/stay or confine him until he calms down. Then reward the calm behavior.
Begin training his greeting behavior to consist of always sitting for praise and petting. Ask him to sit whenever, wherever he approaches you or anyone else and do not give him any reinforcement unless he does. If he is never rewarded for jumping up (leadership and management) and continually reinforced for sitting when he greets people (training), that is just what he will do.
Use every incident of bad behavior as a message that tells you what more appropriate behavior you should be teaching your dog. It is no longer necessary to train a dog with negative reinforcement, i.e., Collar and leash corrections. There is a better, more effective way. Training with positive reinforcement while providing leadership and good management will give you a happy working relationship with your dog. Instead of having to be constantly corrected for bad behavior, he will be busy giving you behaviors that pay off in treats, games and, most importantly, your praise and approval.