Wednesday, February 24, 2021

When Your Dog Chases Cars

 I belong to several dog groups across social media platforms and many of those groups have members with collies or other herding dog breeds.  At least once a week, someone posts a story of their dog chasing cars, motorcycles, bicycles, skateboards, or joggers. Chasing cars and motorcycles is dangerous not just for dogs, but for drivers swerving to miss those dogs.  And dogs who chase bicycles, scooters, and runners are not just a nuisance; they are risky to those who are simply trying to go about their business. Over the 30 years I've been in practice, I've had more than one client whose dog was struck by a moving car when the dog went to chase after it (happened with dogs both on and off leash), and multiple clients whose dogs have knocked people off of their bikes and skateboards, and a few who've bitten runners and cyclists as well. Throwing up your hands and saying that nothing can be done because they are herding dogs and that's just what they do is not acceptable, nor safe.  Plus, this isn't just a "herding dog problem."  Lots of dogs chase things they shouldn't, posing a danger to themselves, their owners, and the public at large.

Dogs, by design, chase moving targets.  Their ancestors were alert to movement in the environment as that movement could mean potential prey for them to catch and eat, or that they could be prey for another animal! Just because chasing something that moves IS a dog thing, doesn't mean that you can't redirect that natural behavior to more appropriate outlets.  Dogs who love to chase birds, squirrels, and bunnies will likely enjoy chasing games with a flirt pole.  I've had a couple of clients scoff at this suggestion saying that playing with a flirt pole with their dog will just make their dogs more efficient chasers and that's just rubbish.  Dogs are going to chase moving targets regardless of whether you address the behavior or not.  Better that you acknowledge that drive and give them an outlet for it so that when you do have to correct and redirect them away from inappropriate chasing, they'll not become overly frustrated. This applies to herding dogs too.  Giving them an outlet for their natural inclinations is good for them; learning to herd chickens, goats, sheep, etc. is challenging for their minds and bodies and isn't just about chasing moving targets.  It's about learning to use their bodies and the amount of pressure they apply by how close they are to those other animals, to get them to move in a certain direction.  Learning to herd is a thinking dog's sport and one which requires practice for the handler as well as the dog.  Ozzie is a much better herding dog than I am a herding dog handler!  

Okay, so you've given your dog an outlet for their enthusiasm for the chase.  Now, how do you get them to stop chasing everything else?  First off, if you have a dog who chases cars, don't let them off leash in an area that isn't fenced and where they can take off after a vehicle.  I know that seems obvious, but the number of times someone has told me their dog chases cars only to follow up with the fact that the dog is regularly off leash where there are cars, is mind-boggling. Second, begin working with them at home and in your yard where you are able to control what they see and hear.  Depending on how good your dog is at "leave it," you may need to do this exercise with them on leash first.  Get their attention and toss something away from you.  When they begin to move to go get it, tell them "leave it," and hold your hand out with an obvious treat.  If they are on leash, you can put a small amount of pressure on the leash when you say "leave it," to ensure that they turn toward you and away from the object.  You will want to use really desirable rewards for this exercise so that your dog, even if he loves fetch, is more interested in listening to you than picking up the object.  Once you are able to toss any object and call your dog away from pursuing it, you are ready to work out in the real world.

Regardless of what your dog chases, you are likely to see or hear those things in a busy park setting.  Start on a day, or time of day, when the park is less populated (or when there are likely to be fewer cars going by, for example) and at a fair distance from the road.  For most chasers, if you are 30 feet or more away, they are alert, but less likely to bolt off.  Work with your leashed dog on some very basic commands like sit, down, touch, look at me, and go sniff.  When they alert to a car/bike/scooter, say "leave it," and put a little pressure on their leash as you say their name.  When they glance your way, happily say "YES!" and give them that high value treat you gave them at home when you taught this behavior.  Remain at that distance for several training sessions until your dog is relaxed about cars/bikes/scooters going by, and perhaps even ignores them in favor of sniffing or working with you on other behaviors.  Over a period of sessions, you will move closer and closer to the street/sidewalk where the objects your dog chases can be found.  Don't move closer too quickly or your dog will simply bolt before you can redirect them.  And don't make the mistake of pushing them too hard or too long in a single session.  Keep your training sessions short and frequent (10 minutes a day is a great way to start).  Do try to do a session with your dog every day; doing this reinforces all of those attentive basic behaviors as well as working on the problem of chasing inappropriate objects. 

If your dog chases bikes, scooters, skateboards, or runners, you can enlist the help of friends to work on this problem.  Again, working at a safe distance, have your friend bike/skate/jog by you and your dog, ignoring you both. Gradually over time, work closer and closer to your friend's location.  You may need to reward your helpful friends for these sessions as well!

Finally, if your dog resists all of this and is unable in real world situations to be redirected from inappropriate chasing, then it is up to you to protect them from those situations that can trigger the behavior. This means keeping them on leash and walking them at off peak times and in off peak locations where they are least likely to encounter whatever it is that they like to chase.  You will want to continue to practice the above outlined exercises as your dog's behavior can still improve over time with persistence and patience on your part.  You just don't want the behavior to continue without addressing it as it will not get better on it's own, nor is it safe to just ignore a dog who chases inappropriate objects.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Westley loved his first herding lesson and is much looking forward to doing it again once this pandemic is over with.  He's good about not chasing things he shouldn't, but that doesn't make it any less important to give him an outlet for his natural herding instinct.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Truth About Leashes

 I have recently started another round of outdoor, socially distanced, puppy classes.  I enjoy teaching these classes because I love working with puppies and their owners, helping them to get off to a great start.  I always ask people at the first class meeting what they most hope to learn in the class as that gives me a better idea of how I want to focus each of the hours we spend together.  For this group, more than half of the class had issues/questions/concerns/frustrations around leash walking and on-leash behavior.  This post is for them, and for any of you with similar concerns.

First off, walking nicely on leash does not necessarily come easily to most dogs.  While most dog owners have this preconceived, pie-in-the-sky notion of blissfully walking their dog, side-by-side, in reality this is rarely how it goes.  Puppies do not come pre-programmed to love wearing a leash and collar.  Most scratch and fuss with their collar and resist putting the leash on.  Once the leash is on, many fight it, digging in, dragging their feet, trying to bite the leash. Or just sitting down and refusing to move.  This is all normal behavior.  The whole point of using a leash is to keep your dog safe.  You know that, and I know that.  But dogs think you are trying to control them and keep them away from fun things. And for many dogs, leash walking is a total nightmare as the dog is pulling constantly and racing back and forth trying to sniff everything while the human is vigorously trying to shorten the leash, reel the dog in, and keep them from sniffing all of the time.  It looks like a battle of the wills!  In order to (eventually) have a pleasant, well-behaved walking companion, you have to begin with that puppy you just put a collar and leash on, desensitizing her to wearing both.  Break out the treats and reward NOT scratching at the collar and being able walk around, dragging the leash behind her.  Don't pick up the leash and try to hold it until your puppy can successfully navigate dragging the leash around without fussing. Once you do pick up the leash, just follow your puppy around with it on, saying their name and giving them treats for glancing your way when they hear their name.  Walk your puppies indoors before moving outdoors where there are lots of distractions. A young puppy truly can get all of the walking exercise they need walking around on a leash indoors and in their backyard!

When you do move on to walking your puppy outside in your neighborhood, don't set them up to fail.  You still need to carry treats with you and you don't want to set a time or distance goal for your walks.  Better to have walked one block nicely than 10 blocks miserably.  The focus of your walks should be on exploring and safe sniffing, not on a rigorous heel.  I'm not suggesting that you let your pup drag you from one sniff spot to another. On the contrary, moving from one sniff to the next should be joyfully controlled, that is at a speed that suits you and your puppy.  Don't let them drag you; change direction, stop and ask them to sit, etc. until they can pay attention, then resume walking briskly to the next sniff spot.  And for those puppies who spend the majority of their walk sitting or standing and just assessing their surroundings, that's okay too.  Don't drag them along and try to force them to walk.  Let them be; some puppies need to assess their surroundings quite a bit before they feel comfortable dropping their heads down and their attention away from what is going on around them. 

Yes, I know puppies like to sniff and then pick up and potentially eat some of the stuff they find on their walks.  This is why you bring treats with you for trading/distraction AND why you should be working daily on drop it/leave it at home (see last week's blog post for details). For those puppies who simply cannot walk without picking up everything they find, go back to walking them in your house and yard where you can better control what they find on the ground AND you can work on leave it/drop it in the context of on-leash walking there.

Another leash issue that came up in class was wanting to know what to do about the social butterfly puppy, you know, the one who wants to race up and greet every other dog on walks.  I'm definitely a party-pooper about on leash greetings. I just don't think it's a good idea to let dogs on leash greet one another.  And if you start when your puppy is young and first on leash, never letting them socialize while leashed, they may show interest in other dogs, but they won't be over the top every time they see one as they've never had success meeting other dogs that way.  Even in pre-COVID classes, I never let the puppies interact on leash, keeping owners apart, standing on their puppy's leash.  The puppies did all their interacting unencumbered by leashes. Dogs greeting each other on leash appear strained.  Their faces are distorted, they are pulling on leash, often gasping for air, and dragging their owners behind them.  When they get to one another, it is face-to-face, not face to butt as normal dog greetings would be if there weren't leashes involved. Those face-to-face strained greetings can often result in dogs tangling themselves up in the leashes and then panicking when they are all caught up.  When you drop the leashes to untangle them, you have now put your dog at risk for taking off, dragging the leash behind them.  Better to just acknowledge those other folks out walking their dogs with a friendly "Hello!" and move on with your walk.  That way, your puppy sees you being friendly, but learns that you aren't stopping for more than that.  And definitely walk away from those people hollering "My dog is friendly!" as more often than not, that isn't the case and your puppy doesn't need to have that fear-inducing memory burned into her consciousness and associated with on-leash walking.

Finally, there are a couple of older puppies in the class who are very anxious on leash already.  One had a bad experience with an on-leash greeting and the other is rather timid and fearful naturally.  The pup who had the bad experience barks ferociously at any dog passing by her when on leash; off leash, she plays quite appropriately.  The timid puppy is timid off leash as well, but does pick and choose who to interact with based on their energy level.  When she's on leash, however, any passing dog is assumed to be an enemy and she will growl and snap.  Thankfully, when we walk on leash in class, social distancing is in place and no dog/dog greetings happen.  Hopefully through repeated exposures to this type of on leash walking will help these two pups to relax, focus more on sniffing at the treats dropped by their owners, and respond favorably to the loosened leashes and less anxious owners they call their own. Interestingly enough, when I took each of these puppy's leashes and walked them myself, I saw much less of the anxious behavior.  Why?  Because I wasn't cuing the them to react by shortening their leash, talking in an anxious voice, etc. Instead, I put the focus on me and the treats in my hand pointing out great sniffs to be had and other things to look at in the environment.  The puppies were still alert and were definitely still anxious, but much less so with that on-leash experience than with what they were used to doing with their owners.  We definitely have a lot more work to do on leash in class for everyone to feel confident and successful!

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me. 

Jessica loose leash walking Westley on a trail when he was just 9 months old!

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Leave It, Drop It, and the Art of Teaching Your Dog to Give it Up!

 I started meeting with a client a few weeks ago who has a delightfully goofy, big fluffball of an adolescent dog.  This dog isn't even a year old and is already close to 100 lbs.  He is one of the smartest dogs I've had the pleasure of working with in quite a while.  And he's also one of the spookiest.  What do I mean by spooky? I mean that anything new causes him to jump back (literally!), give a big "WOOF," and then avoid the person/area near the scary thing.  While we jokingly refer to him as a big chicken, this is a big problem.  If he gets startled or spooked on a walk, he could drag his owner for blocks!

We started working on this problem in the comfort (and control!) of the owner's backyard.  I brought all the spooky stuff with me: boxes with things inside that rattle, crunchy water bottles, and a Pringles chip canister with chip crumbs inside.  My client's dog was even freaked out about the bag I carried these items into the yard in!  I barely brought out the Pringles can and he jumped a foot in the air and backed away, woofing and eyeing me with suspicion.  I laid all of the items on the ground and waited for the dog to work up his courage.  When he approached tentatively, we cheered him on.  He got brave, stretching to sniff the items, and we rewarded him.  Within about 5 minutes, he was actively walking around through the items, not caring if they were rattled, tipped over, etc.  He even pawed the Pringles can on his own!  Now that he was brave enough to explore the items, we entered a whole new phase of training, teaching leave it and drop it.  Why?  Because now that he wasn't scared of the items I'd brought, he figured he could take off with them and destroy them!

Teaching leave it and drop it are probably two of the most important behaviors you can teach a dog.  Starting early with your puppies is key, but even adolescent dogs like my client's can be taught the value in these two behaviors.  And if you adopt an adult dog, it is certainly still worth teaching. You can start with your puppy and a couple of favorite toys. Hand them a toy.  When they take it, give the command "drop it," placing your hand out for the toy as you simultaneously hand them the other toy. Once they are readily trading toys with you this way, you can try teaching them to leave a toy when asked.  Place a toy at your feet.  When your puppy approaches, say "leave it." The moment they look up from the toy like, "Why can't I have my toy?!" give them a treat.  If you have to, put your foot over the toy on the floor when you say "leave it" to get your pup to look up and away from it. Work on dropping toys, asking your pup to leave it, and then rewarding the moment they look away from the dropped toy.  When you can do this successfully with toys, you are ready to move on to other objects like shoes, remotes, keys, socks, etc., basically anything your dog might want to pick up.  When they move toward the object, tell them "leave it," and be ready to reward them when they do. If they test you and pick it up, that's okay, you are just going to ask them to "drop it," and do the trade for something else.  What you don't want to do is chase your dog to get something from them, get into a tugging match, or basically make it some kind of game. I've known more than one dog who swallowed an inedible object when he was being chased to give it back! 

You can even practice these behaviors with food!  Start with an empty paper plate and a few treats. Put the treats on the plate on a low table or even the floor, if you think you are ready for that step.  When your dog approaches the plate, tell them "leave it," and be ready to reward them with something from your hand the second they look away from the plate.  Gradually try moving away from the plate and/or turning your back.  Again, ask your dog to "leave it," and be ready to reward them.  If they grab the treats or the plate simply say something like "Oops!" or "Phooey!" or "Game Over" and walk away with the treat in your hand and ignore your dog for a couple of minutes.  You are teaching your dog that this was indeed a game and as with any game, there are rules.  After the time out, you can go back and try again.  With practice, your dog can reach a "master level" on this game.  My border collie mix, Shadow, was a master.  I could leave a plate of food, even something like steak which she loved, on a low coffee table and leave the room for hours, if I wanted to eat cold food!  When I'd return to the room, she'd be casually watching the plate from across the room, but it would be untouched.  Even though I'd adopted her as a young adult dog, I began teaching these behaviors right from the start, and she loved learning.  And she loved the chicken she got for success with the task.

Leave it and drop it are valuable on your walks as well. Being able to redirect your dog away from things on the ground by saying "leave it" and/or having them drop what they've picked up and trade for something better means less panic on walks that your dog will consume something dangerous. 

So, back to my client and his at first spooky and now brave and bold adolescent thief:  I made a big show of taking the bag of chicken out of my pocket and having a yummy bite myself that the dog could see.  I wish I'd had a camera to capture the look on that dog's face.  It was priceless.  Basically it was a, "HUH?!  What did you just eat?!" He dropped the Pringles can and trotted over to me, right through all the other tantalizing objects on the ground.  I asked him to sit and stay and went to retrieve the canister.  When I returned, I put the canister on the ground.  When he leaned toward it, I said "leave it" and his head popped up.  Now, HE got the chicken.   Even when I kicked that can across the yard, he wanted to chase it, but he trotted right over when I said "leave it," and earned more chicken.  My client was stunned as he was pretty sure the dog would value the novel item more than the food, but he was wrong.  This is a smart dog; it wasn't just about the novel item and the chicken. It was about the game; learning the rules of the game, figuring them out, and then winning!  

Spend some time working on leave it and drop it with your dogs this week, even if they already know these behaviors.  Make the game harder, practice with distractions, etc. but do work on it.  Any behavior you want to see happen successfully again needs to be practiced and rewarded.  

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Ozzie and Desi showing off their tandem "leave it" with a yummy scone! 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

My, What Big (Sharp!) Teeth You Have!

 I currently have the pleasure of working with several new puppy owners.  Questions often come up about biting/mouthing/nipping, with these new puppy owners trying to determine if they do indeed own puppies or baby sharks! Puppy teeth are sharp for a reason; if your pup were being raised in the wild as its ancestors were, it would need those needle sharp teeth to tear up the food being brought back by her mother and father, since puppy jaws are not as strong as those of an adult dog.  It is also the case that parent dogs teach pups how to hunt and those sharp teeth being buried in a prey item allow a pup to know if the prey item is still alive or not!  I'm not implying that puppies view their owners as prey or something to eat.  On the contrary, puppies need to be taught that humans aren't for biting!  Bite inhibition is a process that is started by a puppy's mother and siblings if the puppies remain together for those first 18 weeks of life.  Given that most puppy owners acquire their pups sometime between 8 and 12 weeks of age (and some as early as 6 or 7 weeks), however, means that much of the teaching of bite inhibition to a puppy falls on the new owners. So how do you teach this?

First off, it is important that your puppy DOES put her mouth on you and that you don't punish her outright for this behavior.  There is nothing to be learned there!  Instead, when you feel those little razorblades on your skin, let out a yelp (much as another puppy would do) and stop moving.  If you continue moving or try to pull away, you will find that your puppy grabs on harder.  If they don't automatically let go when you yelp, see if they can be redirected to a toy or other appropriate chewing item.  If they can, great!  Play with the toy and your puppy.  Realize too that puppies don't miss.  When they grab your hand instead of the toy, yelp, stop playing, and redirect them back to the toy.  If they miss the toy again, game over.  If your puppy isn't responding to the yelp and won't be redirected to a toy then it's time for a time out.  Either pick up your puppy and put them in their crate, x-pen, or another time out area OR remove yourself from where they are.  Either way, you are socially shunning your dog, demonstrating for them that while biting is okay, not stopping biting is not okay.  Putting your puppy in their crate or x-pen for a time out will not make those areas a negative. The only thing that will make those areas negative is if you physically or verbally punish your dog while putting them there. Simply saying "time out!" or nothing at all as you put them there and walking away will be sufficient to make your point.  A time out of 2-3 minutes is sufficient for a puppy.  What many puppy owners discover, however, is that their puppies nod off during the time out, which brings me to my next point: the importance of regularly scheduled naptimes for the control of biting.

Puppies need to nap a minimum of 4 times daily for about 2 hours per nap.  Your puppy may need 3 three hour naps, while a friend's puppy takes 5 two hour naps, but my point is the same. Without those regularly scheduled, predictable, naps in their crates or x-pens, puppies get over-tired and over-stimulated and completely lacking in self-control as the day wears on.  This is why so many puppies do the majority of their hard biting, not listening, and racing around the house like crazy dogs, in the evenings.  By the time 7 p.m. rolls around, your puppy is sleep deprived, excited to have everyone home, and completely unable to control her excitement (and her biting!).  Coincidentally, this is why so many housetraining accidents occur in the evening hours; those puppies are exhausted!

A lot of new puppy owners also tell me about the 50 toys they've purchased for their new pups and how their puppies don't care about those toys and prefer chewing on their owners, their owners' clothing, and the furniture.  There's an easy solution to this problem.  Pick up all of the toys and put them in a box/basket in a cupboard or closet.  Everyday, bring out 3-4 toys for your puppy, making sure you have made available a hard toy for teething, a softer toy for chewing, a squeaky toy for "killing," and perhaps a rope toy for tug or fetch.  When you put your pup to bed at night, pick up those toys and bring out different options the next day.  This makes the toys last longer, seem novel or new, and thus keep your puppy's interest longer.  Having age appropriate toys is key, as are having toys that are interactive or entertain your puppy on their own.  Toys that you can put their kibble in, or treats, are great as they exercise your puppy's  brain AND body, thus making him tired and want to nap!  And, again, well-rested puppies have better bite inhibition.

One final thought on biting. Sometimes puppies seem to single out one family member or the kids for the majority of their biting behavior.  This isn't simply because your kids are smaller.  It has a lot to do with the way you are having your puppy perceive your children.  If your kids are actively involved in the feeding, training, and care of your puppy, then your puppy is more likely to respect the fact that your kids are a source of good things. If the only thing your kids do with the puppy is play, then of course your puppy will view them simply as a playmate to be chewed on and chased.  Puppies need direction, structure, and rules just like kids do.  It's good for kids to learn about all that goes into the care and keeping of a puppy.  And it's great for a puppy to be able to share their home with kids as well.

If you have done all of these things and your puppy is still biting you or your kids, it's time to give me a call. We need to determine what is going on and if true aggression may actually be occurring. While it is rare to see outright aggression in young puppies, I do see it.  Often it shows up around resources like food bowls, beds, bones, and favorite resting areas.  Resource guarding can occur at any time and if you are caught off guard, a bite could occur that is outside the bounds of normal behavior for a puppy learning bite inhibition.  

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Don't let this sweet little face fool you. Ozzie was a total shark puppy at 8 weeks old and spent a lot of time in time outs when redirection didn't sufficiently stop his relentless mouthing and biting.  Suffice it to say, he got a lot of naps as a puppy, a judicious amount of time outs, tons of love for getting it right, and is a dog with terrific bite inhibition to this day.