I see clients and their dogs for many different problems, from a lack of basic recall, unruly behaviour in the home, to dog aggression and aggression to people including the owners. The problems are many and varied but just about all of them have one thing in common. A lack of basic leadership shown by owners to their dogs.
Dogs in the wild live in hierarchical groups. Each dog has his or her rank within the pack according to their abilities and temperament. This system keeps the pack harmonious with everyone working to their strengths and understanding their position. Domestic dogs are obviously not the same as wild dogs but neither have they evolved into a completely different species. Dogs are pack animals and need leadership within their pack to allow them to be balanced and confident. This does not exclude the human pack of the companion dog. Dogs have been with humans for at least fifteen thousand years and they have successfully integrated into our lives by being brilliant observers of us and interpreters of our needs. We, by comparison have understood very little indeed about the nature of a dog and one of our greatest shortcomings is believing that unconditional love is the key to a balanced confident canine. I wonder how many of us who have had children, chose unconditional love as a suitable upbringing without the balance of discipline and acceptable bounds of behaviour? Not many I hope. As with our children, dogs are all different and require differing amounts of love and leadership. Certain breeds require more boundaries and others can cope with much less and accept us as their leaders regardless of what we do. Even with the most challenging dogs, I am not advocating banning affection, merely suggesting that affection is earned through training. Want to cuddle your dog? Ask for a sit first, it is that simple.
Ironically, if we fail to lead our dogs, they see little option but to attempt to do the job themselves and even the smartest canine is going to struggle with running a modern home! The result is always the same, an anxious, stressed, depressed or worse still aggressive dog. We are quite literally killing our relationships with our dogs by smothering them with affection.
I am not advocating that all dogs are immediately banished from the furniture and relegated to the kitchen – far from it, my own pack are extremely partial to a sofa or an armchair. However, when I need a seat, I get one. I find it tragic that I constantly visit distraught clients with anxious or unruly dogs that they simply do not understand. A caring, intelligent client recently asked me to “give her the key to her dog” I did so and she is delighted. The answer? Stop allowing the dog to dictate the pace of life – that is your job. None of this is rocket science, we do not allow our children to rampage around life doing as they please – why do we do it with our dogs, It most definitely does not enrich their lives, or ours.
The answer is training and consistent boundaries that allow our dogs to grow confident in the knowledge that they can rely on us. We make life happen around them, they know the rules and can get back to the simple pleasures of being a dog. Dogs love routine and a structured existence.
Also, in the case of the dominant dog who by it’s very nature feels it should rule the roost, it is absolutely imperative that we begin training as early as possible and do not give in to the desire to lavish attention and affection on it. To the dog this simply renders the owner low ranking, therefore it can do as it pleases which can quickly involve the use of teeth. The truly dominant dog must learn to work for all praise and through leadership understand that it is ranked below the owner. Few dogs are born truly dominant but those that are, unless handled correctly, can soon make the connection between running the show and using their teeth to enforce their position.
Regardless of symptoms, nearly all my cases boil down to a lack of leadership. Our dogs will not respect us if we do not behave in a way that merits that respect. Too often companion dogs are seen as cuddly toys to make us feel good, when in fact they are loyal and intelligent animals that we are privileged to share our lives with.
Nervous Dogs And Training
Recently I was working with clients and a rescue collie with the usual issues : Wheel chasing, barking in the car, barking at the front door etc. My clients were experienced owners, caring and intelligent about the amount of work their new dog would need to stop making all their lives more than a little trying. Misty, after a second, prolonged stay in the rescue centre had gone home with them a month before they came to see me for some help. She was never going to be an easy proposition and I remember feeling mightily grateful that they had taken her on when they did. Prior to her departure, her new Mum, knowing that Misty had a list of situations that made her panic asked me how best to deal with her nervousness. I replied that they should ignore all the fearful reactions and carry on regardless, since Misty would look to them for guidance in her new life as to what was and was not, a threat.
This in a nutshell is the essence of training a dog. In it’s simplest terms, training is teaching a dog to do tricks and respond to commands in expectation of a reward, for exhibiting learnt behaviours that do not come naturally to them. Of course, there are hugely beneficial reasons why we train our dogs, which we are in danger of seeing as the whole point of the exercise. Having a dog that comes back reliably when called is essential in our busy, dangerous world. Having a dog that sits, rather than jumps up at visiting guests is undoubtedly a plus. However, I think many of us miss the real point behind training – the basis upon what every successful canine / human relationship is built – leadership. Dogs by nature either lead or are led and in our world the only successful formula is that they are led by us. I was reminded of this important message when I was working with Misty. She was initially very agitated, straining on her lead to get back to her Mum and paying me little or no attention. However, when I picked up the pace from a walk to a trot, Misty followed me and forgot her anxieties, concentrating only on my voice and the next instruction. Every time she glanced back at Mum and Dad fearfully, I issued another instruction and lavished praise on her for obeying it. Gradually her focus, moved to and stayed with me. Once again I was reminded of just how many problems are solved through confident, kind leadership from owners.
As I was explaining this new found calm attitude in their dog to Misty’s owners, we began to discuss ways they could build up her trust in them through training exercises. There are several, simple daily routines that can be practised in the home with nervous dogs that build up their faith in your ability to keep them safe. Of course, training produces reliable behaviour in the outside world, but it also is an invaluable way of relaying this simple message to your dog : Yes, I am in charge and no, you do not need to look after yourself, or me in my world, that is my job. In this way, you provide a nervous dog with a lifeline of leadership which is reinforced daily and lets your dog, often to their great relief, begin to relax and do dog things, like eat and roll in stuff you wish they wouldnt! Never underestimate the value of training, it is the backbone of your relationship with your dog. It teaches them confidence in your abilities and gives you a way of communicating with them, that makes sense to both of you.
I was discussing the way forward with Misty’s Mum and Dad when I mentioned agility. Misty is a collie, highly active and very bright. Agility is a great way to get her to forget her anxieties, have fun with her, whilst reinforcing your role as benign leader and using up her energy. Misty’s Dad mentioned that he had watched agility on TV and didnt want his dog to do tricks for his own amusement. I have a huge amount of sympathy with this view and have always had a horror of hugely competitive owners who are in it to win, and will change dogs to get that next rosette. This to me is not why we have dogs in our lives. However, I have recently bought my first set of agility equipment, solely for the amusement of my dogs – they LOVE it! and there is not a rosette in sight. This is the essence of training your nervous dog. They thrive on taking direction from you, you are both engaged in the process and they cannot worry about anything but the next challenge in the circuit. Training is not just about teaching your dogs to behave in a certain way, it is about convincing them that you are worthy of their trust, can show them how to behave in your world and are able to keep them safe. They can then begin to relax and enjoy their life with you.
For dogs like Misty, who have had a poor early life and do not know how to function with confidence in the world, we can provide a way forward, structure and boundaries through training, that they can rely on. Nervous dogs cannot deal with uncertainty in their owners, since it is the basis of their own problems. Training helps us to give them a blue print of reactions for difficult situations. On the other hand, if we react to their distress with sympathy or worse, reprimand, we are reinforcing their insecurities and confirming their fears. When we provide alternative behaviour to panic and fear, our dogs move forward with us out of the fear zone and into a confident life they understand and can rely on.
Training brings confidence for nervous dogs and their owners.
I am working with a dog called Blossom at the moment who is fearfully of humans, dogs and life in general. Blossom had been living with us for a couple of months when I decided to take her away on a two day seminar with me. The hotel welcomed dogs, the dog sitter at home had enough to deal with and I wanted to see how she coped with this her worst nightmare, the unfamiliar. As a matter of course I teach all my dogs to sit and wait at doorways until I invite them through. This prevents me getting crushed in the stampede and reinforces for them my position of authority. It also proved a godsend when Blossom put the anchors on at the hotel reception and refused point blank to enter so scary a place! I walked her away from the door, back to it and immediately asked for a sit and wait. She was so busy waiting to be invited through the door that she failed to panic and walked straight in. This is the perfect example of how training empowers owner and dogs to overcome obstacles and move forward to confident living.
Finally, of course, like humans, all dogs are different and their innate temperament, along with early life experiences will determine their character. Not all dogs are nervous, few dogs are dominant and many are plain old good time mutts who enjoy living with us and never worry about a thing. However, if the balance of your relationship with your dog appears out of kilter and you need an effective method to allay their fears, the way to attain equilibrium is benign and consistent leadership through training.