Category Archives: Behaviorist

Are aggressive dogs the fault of the owner?

They say dogs are a reflection of their owners. But when unwanted aggression becomes a big issue, can we place the entirety of blame on the dogs owners?

“Is it all the owners fault their dog is aggressive?”

First, let’s define “aggressive dog” as a dog who displays aggressive behavior with intent to bite or do harm to a person or animal.

I would not say it’s “always” the humans who have created the issue. Sometimes it is true, sometimes it’s not. There are many cases where a dog begins to show unwanted behavior, and it is not handled properly by the dog owners. They may not know what to do, or fail to get help. Or they may inadvertently be encouraging the unwanted behavior. There are some people who could virtually make a Pug into an aggressive monster (through permissiveness, mixed signals, and being a poor handler themselves), but not always. Most dog owners we work with do acknowledge that they have made some failure or some mistake in handling of their dog, which has led to worsening problems. I appreciate that they do not want to blame the dog, but recognize they are part of the problem, too. Because if they are part of the problem, they will be part of the solution.
There are cases where you could take the biting dog out of the equation and replace it with a number of other more “average” dogs, and the owners would’ve had no problems. Sometimes it is the dog. They got a dog who is a handful. I meet the dog, and I say “WOAH, that is a lot of dog.” Some dogs are just more challenging, and require more time and training than others. Maybe the dog has a lot of drive, power, or maybe has a lot of “edge” to it. Not everyone is equipped to own a more aggressive type of dog. Just like not every parent would be equipped to handle a child with a behavioral disorder. On the other hand, some dog owners choose a higher-intensity dog with more aggression to it, and they don’t mind. It’s when they are not equipped to own the dog they have issues. A strong dog often needs a strong owner who can be consistent and prepared to work out any issues. But some who are not equipped for it get a dog who is predisposed to have certain traits, and they raise it very typically, socialize it, and do their best with what they know. But it still turns out how it turns out. This is because a dogs personality is not “all how you raise it.” You wouldn’t be surprised if you got a terrier that lived to chase down critters, or a hunting dog who followed his nose, or a German Shepherd who was protective of his home. Dogs behavior is strongly influenced by genetics and instinct, as well as early rearing, training, and various experiences. So often a dog turns out with behaviors that are in accordance with its genetic programming. Especially if human owners don’t nip problematic behavior in the bud at once, the first time it rears its head. Many genetic behaviors can be tempered, re-directed, or controlled through training. That’s the work we do every day. But if not immediately addressed properly, aggression issues always get worse.
Sometimes people make uneducated decisions. A lot of times, actually. I had a client who wanted an easy-going family dog, and purchased a Cane Corso, a large powerful dog breed. They chose this breed because they had a friend with one, and that Corso was very social, chill, and almost lazy. But that was just one dog. They decided to search for a breeder, and they found an ad online for Cane Corso puppies for sale. They did not meet the dogs parents first, ask the breeder for references, or research the dogs breeding and lineage. As their new dog matured, he became suspicious of people, and was skittish and reactive, despite attempts to socialize him. He was also strong and difficult to control as he grew. One day when a stranger bent over to pet him, he reacted negatively and lashed out. He bit them in the face, sending them to the hospital for stitches. His owners decided not to give up on him and to seek guidance from a professional trainer. He was young enough to greatly improve with intensive training, and had owners who were committed and did all the follow-up lessons. So in this case, they were able to keep their dog and successfully modify his behavior. Every case is different. Sometimes a dog is genetically cut out to be nervy and sharp, or even unstable. Sometimes they’re normal stable dogs with an edge. Even good dogs do “dog things,” including protecting their territory, and this can often lead to a bite incident. A dog with little guidance can’t tell the difference between a “bad guy” he is supposed to bark at or bite, and Bob the neighbor who comes to the back door to say hi.  This is why dogs who have protective behavior have to be not only trained, but supervised and properly contained, such as a securely fenced yard. To sum it up, a dog who bites may be genetically unstable, or may be totally normal, it depends. Either way, the owners are going to have to change how they handle the dog. They will need to gain obedience control, respect, and learn to read their dog. To resolve behavior issues, they will need to change the way they live with the dog, and zero in on what behaviors they are reinforcing or allowing to continue.

The prognosis for long-term success depends on the dog and the owners. Every cause and type of aggression is different. Remember that you are your dogs leader. He depends on your guidance to navigate the human world he is a part of. Set your dogs up for success.

Most bite incidents could have been avoided, had the following been kept in mind:
1) Know your dog, and protect your dog. You may imagine you need to protect others from your dog, and this is true, but your dog needs to be protected from making poor decisions, too. For example: If you have a protective or nippy dog, and a cable installer is coming over, put your dog in another room. You know your dog might act sketchy, and you know you might be distracted. It is not worth risking your dog making a poor decision. There is no benefit to leaving your dog loose in this scenario, but there is risk. Similarly, if you know your dog can be testy with the vet, use a muzzle. Condition them to wearing it ahead of time. There is no reason to take risks that have no benefits.
2) Train early, train often, and train properly. Don’t wait until your dog has bitten 5 people, get training as soon as you obtain your dog. Even if you adopted an adult rescue dog, begin setting appropriate habits and establishing yourself as the pack leader immediately. It’s not just the obedience commands, it’s learning how to communicate with your dog, and how to handle problems as they pop up. Not all training is equal! Taking a treat-based class at  PetSmart is not equivalent to real-world obedience skills taught by a professional training facility. Dogs need a large amount of positive reinforcement, but they also need discipline. A dog who has no discipline will end up insecure and will often become out of control and unpleasant to deal with. Dogs who have only discipline and no praise will become depressed and sometimes fearful. Dogs must learn what to do (good stuff), and what not to do (unwanted stuff). There has to be a balance. Common sense tells us that ignoring a bad behavior is often not significant enough to make it stop. There are several effective ways to stop bad behaviors: Physical correction or averse response to stop the behavior, take away the benefit of doing the behavior, reinforce incompatible behaviors, or prevent the behavior from happening.
3) Feel free to get a second opinion. When you have a dog who bites, everyone you know seems to have an opinion. Some will say it’s not the dogs fault, some will say the dog has a screw loose and should be put down, and some will say “try this” or “try that.” Take the advice with a grain of salt. Speak to your vet to rule out medical causes and get a full check-up, but know that most vets are not dog trainers and may have limited knowledge of dog behavior training. Some vets may have never even owned a dog. Get opinions from qualified trainers, but feel free to get a second or third opinion. Make sure the trainer has references of similar case and uses fair and humane methods.

 

-Jennifer

Housebreaking a dirty dog who eliminates inside their crate

Potty training a crate pooper can be very frustrating! A dog is not “supposed to” be comfortable going to the bathroom where they sleep. It is one of the reasons why dogs can be so easily adapted to our homes. But what if you have a dog who seems used to peeing and pooping on himself and lying in it?

I have had clients with dogs of all ages and from various situations who are “dirty dogs,” meaning they will not hold it in the crate and seem ok lying in their mess. Sometimes we can identify why they have lost that natural instinct to stay clean. Some have been raised in puppy mills where they were forced to be in filth, so they got used to it. Some lived outdoors or in a kennel run. Others were puppies from breeders who did not properly train the puppies to be clean. They may have just kept them all in a box together until 8 weeks old. It is actually the breeder who starts housebreaking, by setting up an area where the puppies can go potty separate from their sleeping area, and by routinely taking them outside as they get older (5 weeks+), whenever feasible. When I had puppies, my set up was a large plastic container (half an airline crate) lined with newspapers and filled with cedar bedding. The puppies took to it very quickly, keeping their sleeping and eating areas clean. I also tried a fake grass patch, but the cedar and newspaper was much more attractive. By 7 weeks, they were going potty outside. Not all dogs have gotten this good start, and some we have no history on. All we know is we are doing our best trying to housebreak them, we are crate training, taking them outside on a schedule, so why are they still having accidents inside the cage?

HOW TO FIX IT

Determine what the problem is:

  1. He isn’t going potty when outside.
  2. He is stressing and working himself up to defecating in the crate.
  3. The crate is too big, so he is using half as a bathroom and sleeping in the other half. Or possibly the crate contains bedding the dog is urinating on and it’s soaking it up.
  4. He doesn’t care about being dirty. Where as most dogs will hold it (within reason) until they are given opportunity outside, this dog will eliminate as soon as the slightest feeling strikes him.
  5. Medical issue. Parasites such as worms or Giardia. Appearance of worms or soft stool may or may not be present. UTI and bladder infections can cause a dog to urinate inside the house or more frequently than usual.
  6. Diet issue. Overfeeding the “good stuff.”
    Or feeding cheap.
    Fillers in cheap food can cause a mass quantity of waste. Food sensitivities can cause issues.

Determine your corresponding solutions:

  1. If he is not going potty outside in the proper place, it’s only obvious that he will end up going inside or in the crate. There can be different reasons why  a dog will not go outside. Some are not used to being on a leash, and may feel like they need to wander around more freely. Some have been scolded so much for pottying inside that they have associated pottying in front of their owner with being yelled at. Some are too distracted or nervous outside– they are just squirrely. Others are just not in the habit, and need to be taught. The first step is getting some occurrences of the dog pottying outside so you can set a new routine and reward and praise for it.  We teach dogs to eliminate on command, like service dogs. You will take the dog to the same area every time, give your verbal cue “go potty,” and walk around a small area until the dog goes. Praise sniffing and allow the leash to be slack and the dog to trail around in front of you. You may want to use a longer leash, such as a Flexi Lead. Yes, I know trainers hate Flexi Leads, but they are great for potty breaking a dog. The second you attach that long leash, he will know this is a cue and it’s potty time. After he goes, you may switch back to your regular 6′ leather obedience lead. For urination, you can begin by adding some water to the dogs food so they are taking in a bit more water than usual. They will soon have to pee, and you will be ready to get them outside and to the potty area. For pooping, if a dog will not poop right away, there is an old dog show trick: matching a dog. In the dog show ring, any dog who urinates or defecates will be an automatic disqualification, therefore, it is imperative that they be “emptied out” ahead of time. You take a match (or a q-tip is ok for a quite large dog) and put it about half-way into their rectum. This will pretty quickly stimulate them to go. A regular (unlit, obviously) paper match or two is fine. Lift the tail up and get them in there about half-way, then wait. Use your cue “go potty” or whatever your potty cue is. Now be ready to praise your dog!
    Tools you will need: regular paper matches, Flexi Lead extendable leash, treats for a reward
  2. Stress can cause any animal to eliminate where they would not normally do so. If your dog has other signs of anxiety, such as barking excessively in the crate, drooling, or trying to escape, you need to fix the anxiety issues. Every dog should be taught to calmly accept confinement when their owner puts them in a cage and leaves for a period of time. Your dog may be in a stressful environment, or he may have separation anxiety.
  3. When crate training a puppy or new dog, the point of a crate is that it’s the dogs personal area and is to be kept clean as a resting space. If the crate is huge, some dogs will designate half as a bathroom and half as their sleeping quarters. This is why many wire crates come with a divider panel, so you can adjust the crate as the puppy grows, keeping it just large enough for him to turn around and lie down comfortably. His back and head should not touch the top when standing up. Your dogs cage should not be like a condo! Get a smaller crate, or use a divider panel. You also do not need tons of bedding. Unless you have a senior dog or a very large breed who spends a lot of time crated, dogs do not need bedding in their crates. Bedding is for comfort, but it can also be a hazard for young dogs who can shred and eat it, causing intestinal obstructions and requiring lifesaving emergency surgery. It can also be a problem for a dog who is being crate trained if they urinate on the bedding and it is all soaked up so they do not mind doing it again. Try eliminating the fluffy bedding, at least for now.
  4. The dirty dog… This can be one of the more difficult fixes, and can depend on the dog. I have fixed several dirty dogs. Some of them just need a new habit. Almost all of them need a lot of time and observation, so you can take them out often. Most accidents will occur when they are left alone and crated. You may not realize the dog is under stress when you’re gone and is moving around or pacing or spinning in the crate, so it’s good to observe this. Also eliminate medical and diet (numbers 5 and 6). A dog who is calm and at rest will be much more likely to hold it. You may need to consult an experienced trainer and try a few things to find a solution:
    A new setup. If a dog has really never had to hold it before, the muscles will not be there for that. When I had brand new rescue dogs I was fostering, they were adult kennel dogs who lived in indoor-outdoor runs. Never in a house or crate. So they had never had to hold it before. They did have some accidents in the crate, but after 2 weeks they were perfect. Any time they have an accident, they need a bath and everything needs to be cleaned well. They obviously have to go out often, and especially soon after they eat or drink. But what if you have a job? Not everyone can be home to take a dog out every 2 hours! For some people, an outdoor dog run works. But not everyone has a yard, and not everyone with a yard can leave their dog outside alone. Some dogs will need an exercise pen, or x-pen, attached (use zip ties or clips) to a crate inside. This way they can sleep in the crate and get out into the x-pen if they have to use the toilet. Your “toilet” will depend on the dog. For a small dog, a litter box with newspapers is fine, for a large dog, half an airline crate or a small kiddie pool filled with mulch or woodchips (buy a few bags at the garden store) will be the best. This is all to encourage the dogs natural instinct to have a separate living and potty area.
    Umbilical cording. This is a method in which the dog will be will you all the time. You will have a leash on them and it will always be either in your hand, or tied to something close to you. I will tie a dogs leash to the chair I’m sitting on, or sit on the leash. Most dogs will follow me around and lie down quietly when I am busy. This way, the dog will not have any accidents inside. They will be under your watchful eye all the time, and be taken outside on a schedule. This is a great method but it does require you to be home a lot and have a dog with you often. If you need to do other chores around the house, you can tie (tether) the dog to something stable while you are in the same room doing something else. But they are never to be out of your sight or alone in the crate.
    Are there dogs who can never be reliably housebroken? Yes. I believe there are a very small number of dogs who will never have the instinct to be clean and learn to “hold it” and just cannot be reliably housebroken. I feel for the vast majority of dogs, it can be taught, it just takes patience and having the right approach. I can do customized troubleshooting for clients on this issue.
  5. Medical issues can cause dogs to have soft stool or diarrhea, and they are unable to hold it for very long. Your dog can have a parasite like giardia which causes them to lose control of their bowels. Giardia can flare up and then go dormant, so many people think it’s just intermittent upset stomach when in fact it’s a parasite. Get a fecal test for both worms and giardia. Your dog can have worms without any visible evidence in his stool. There are other medical causes that may be linked to excessive urination. Diabetes, cushings disease, kidney problems, etc. can all lead to excessive thirst and urination. Dogs with urinary tract infections or bladder infections do not have a way to tell us they are in pain. UTI’s are most often noticed when dogs begin peeing in the house or peeing more often than usual. A urinalysis should be completed to rule out any medical causes. Talk to your vet.
  6. One of the common issues I see with dogs who poop in their crate is that they are pooping way too often to begin with. I often ask people “How often does your dog go number two?” If they say “Three, four times a day…” I know something is off. I will ask what they are feeding, and it’s either 1) Too much of the good stuff, or 2) The cheap stuff with fillers. They may say they are feeding a super-premium high quality grain-free diet. Great. But how much? Overfeeding a dog will cause it to just crap everything out, and crap constantly. The body can only absorb so much at one time. Do NOT follow the recommendations on a bag of dog food! They are almost always inflated. I had a client feeding their 6-month old Lab 6 cups of high-calorie puppy food a day! That is insane. No wonder he is crapping 24/7, that is way more food than any dog, short of a working sled dog or Great Dane, should need. You want to feed the least amount that your dog will still maintain a good healthy muscle mass and weight on. It’s also appropriate to feed for the activity-level. If I sit in my office all day I am not going to need as much of a dinner as if I spent the day working strenuously outdoors.
    I commonly hear “that food (insert brand) was just too rich for my dog, it gave him soft stool.” Well no, you probably just fed too much of it. There is no such thing as “too rich,” dogs are meat eating predators. Their diet should be almost all animal ingredients– not plant, and high in protein and fat. When you switch to a high quality concentrated dry kibble, you do not need to feed as much as one that contains things like rice and other cereal grains.
    If you are feeding the cheap stuff with fillers, you are paying for what is essentially a big bag of cereal grains and corn. What little protein and meat that’s in the cheap food is not highly digestible (it’s the nasty bits that are unfit for Spam), so expect a lot of waste, and frequently. Foods like Purina Puppy Chow, Beneful, Alpo, Pedigree, etc. are low quality and produce a lot of waste. The best diets are grain-free and do not contain by-products. You may have to try a few foods before finding some your dog does well on. This is totally normal. I highly recommend adding probiotics to your dogs food, and switching proteins and varieties about once a month. Mix the foods together for a few days, but always switch so your dogs system can handle a variety of proteins.
    I have seen many dogs improve with their housebreaking issues when put on a raw food diet. Dogs on raw diets will have drastically less waste, and will typically defecate only once a day, maybe twice. There are many resources out there on raw diet, including pre-made foods you can buy in stores and order online, and books about how to buy your own raw diet from a meat supplier.
    Tools you will need: A high-quality grain-free kibble or raw diet. Probiotics. A measured scoop for monitoring food.

Does my dog need “obedience” or “behavior modification”?

In my business I work with a large number of clients who contact our trainers because of specific behavioral problems. They often don’t see the link between obedience training and a well-behaved dog. Training is not just about concrete commands (I mean, who cares if your dog can do a fancy heel and tricks if he’s attacking other dogs). But there is much more value in obedience than a dog who “looks” behaved. Obedience and dog training in general is training of the dogs mind, giving them skills, and teaching them to make appropriate choices. We often say obedience training gives your dog a “job.” That “job” is following your direction. Imagine the confidence and security your dog will feel when he knows what’s expected of him!

I often use analogies with children, not because I equate a dog with a child, but because it’s easy for people to understand and relate to. Imagine raising a child…
Some of the traits you would hope to see in school-aged children:

  • Follows direction
  • Respects the authority of adults
  • Gets along well with others
  • Stays on task
  • Behaves appropriately for the situation, i.e. is quiet when required (in class), and plays when is appropriate (in recess)
  • Drive and desire for learning
  • Confident yet respectful of others

All of the above traits are also qualities we would like to see in a dog. These qualities begin in the home, but they are further instilled in a school environment, where children are taught order, self-discipline, and respect for adults. Just like a child, a dogs desire to learn should be encouraged. Our training encourages dogs to put in more effort, and we reward them for the efforts they give us. A task well done is praised, which builds work ethic in the dog. It builds the desire to do right.

School is not just about the actual academics. In school, we learned algebra, reading, history, etc. but we also learned important social lessons: how to behave, how to sit quietly and listen, how to follow direction. We were not given a choice to attend our classes, we were required to attend. In the evening at home, it was not “Would you rather do your homework, or would you rather go play outside?” It was required that we do our homework, and then we could go play outside. Playing outside was the positive reinforcement for completing a task that we would otherwise probably not choose to do. If we did not comply, pressure was put upon us. Mom would put her hands on her hips, stand squarely at us and command “Sit down and do it, now.” And if we still did not comply, privileges were taken away. We knew mom wouldn’t cave, because she never did. So we did not bother with protesting– it got us no results. We did our homework the first time, every time, and got to play outside or watch tv the rest of the evening.

“We knew mom wouldn’t cave, because she never did. So we did not bother with protesting– it got us no results.”

Your dog is the same way. To a child’s young mind, and a dogs ever-young mind, instant gratification is very attractive. The world is full of interesting and fun things. We all want our dogs focus at times when we need it, so you need to be interesting and fun, but also worthy of respect and able to function as a leader. Obedience training is not just about the tangible actions, no more than school is just about learning facts and figures. Virtually nobody calls a trainer to say “You know, the problem with my dog is he just doesn’t do a good sit-stay.” They call because something is bothering them, or bothering their dog. An insecure, troubled dog often lacks leadership and really we must remember, they are dogs. They have to be taught what’s ok and what’s not ok, and in a manner that is clear to them. That’s where a trainer, someone who “speaks dog,” gets a phone call.

Virtually nobody calls a trainer to say “You know, the problem with my dog is he just doesn’t do a good sit-stay.”

Of clients we work with, there are three main categories:
-My dog just needs to learn “the basics”
-My dog has some annoying habits
-My dog has some concerning behavior issues

“The Basics” Dog
When people refer to “the basics,” I will usually assume they mean obedience training. To me, a dog with basic training can walk on a loose leash (no pulling), heel, come when called (around distractions), sit, down, stay, and has manners such as not jumping, barking, or taking things that aren’t theirs. The training instills a key component: self-control. That is all covered in a basic train, and I can almost guarantee you that with proper obedience training, the dog will be a model citizen. The “basics dog” has few ingrained bad habits, and no serious behavioral problems– and because he will get a good foundation, he has a much lower chance of developing any.
One of the common mistakes I see pet owners make is thinking that just any ol’ trainer will do, since it’s just basic stuff. So they go to PetCo or another big box retail store that isn’t a professional training facility, and they waste their time and money while feeling like they did training. In reality, they are lucky if their dogs learned a couple tricks for a treat, but they certainly won’t have any solid or useful obedience skills. Because we are experienced in higher levels of training, I believe we do a better job on the basics, too. If you wanted to learn tennis, you don’t need to hire Venus Williams, but you do need someone who knows 1) how to teach, 2) how to produce good results. Unfortunately, some trainers are more like a dude down the street who took a couple tennis classes and now thinks he’s good enough to advertise as an instructor.

“In reality, they are lucky if their dogs learned a couple tricks for a treat, but they certainly won’t have any solid or useful obedience skills.”

“Annoying Habits” Dog
This dog will probably be lacking in the basics, which is why he has bad habits. The owner may have already done some obedience training, lessons, or classes, but they did not work, either because the methods were not effective, the trainer was not experienced, or they were non-compliant students and did not follow-up with the training themselves. (When your trainer says you need to practice these new habits and routines every day… you need to practice every day. And because I assume you interact with your dog on some level every day, there is no excuse.) Some of the habits will be more ingrained. The “bad habits” dog may think his name is “No, No, Stop-That!”  The relationship between dog and human may have become strained, and people will often express to me “It’s just not fun anymore.” We may see things like barking, stealing food, mass destruction, chewing furniture, nipping, clawing, bolting away when off-leash, or persistent housebreaking trouble. Once the dog learns more positive and productive behaviors, he will not need to be naughty to get attention. Again, I can almost guarantee you that with proper obedience training, most, if not all of these issues will dissipate. For any remaining issues that are more persistent, we have specific creative solutions. The most fulfilling thing about problem-solving behavior is seeing the dog finally gain clarity. “Oh, this is how you want me to behave.” Once the dog is trained, everyone is happier and more content.

“The ‘Bad Habits’ dog may think his name is ‘No, No, Stop-That!”

“Concerning Issues” Dog
This may be a dog who has social issues, aggression, fear or anxiety, or has bitten a person or another dog. They may have already worked with other trainers or hired a veterinary behaviorist. We work with a good number of dogs with severe issues, and we are known for successful rehabilitation. Often the owners of dogs with behavior problems will specify to me “I am not worried about the obedience stuff, I really want to focus on the behavior problem.” I understand exactly what they mean, but that is a huge flaw in thinking. The goal of training is that they can handle their dog, control their dog, and that the dog makes better choices. Choices like “I have a bone I value greatly, but I am now comfortable with you coming near me and I trust the outcome,” or “I see that little yappy dog lunging at me on the sidewalk, and I kinda want to tell him off, but I am going to ignore him and move on because that produces better results for me.” But the problem is– if the dog does not listen to his owners over the small things (like an obedience command, spoken a single time), why should the dog listen to them over the big things (like not biting that random dude on the street)? You have to start somewhere. It is necessary that your dog obey you– the first time, every time. It is not your dogs job to be judge, jury and executioner of perceived “bad guys” on the street. It is not your dogs job to escape confinement that you put him in. He might think it’s his job to tear through the door to come find you when you’ve left, but we have to communicate to him that this behavior is not necessary.

“If the dog does not listen to his owners over the small things, why should the dog listen to them over the big things?”

In order to modify behavior, you need a clear line of communication. There is no magic wand. Despite what you may see on tv, your dogs issues cannot be magically fixed in a day, they cannot be fixed by being in a pack of dogs, or by pills from the vet. It takes changing the way you think, changing the way you interact, and changing the way you handle your dog. And yes, it takes obedience training.