I barked up the wrong tree

If I had a tail, I would have returned home from the dog park this week with it tucked firmly between my legs. Let me share the lessons learned from an awfully awkward encounter with you.

I was exercising Zac by throwing a stick for him in a quiet part of the park, taking advantage of a break in the rain. Soon I was joined by a lady with an older German Shepherd Dog and then a man with a beautiful red Border Collie, which for the purpose of this story we’ll call, say, Rover. I closely monitored Zac’s body language because he can be dog reactive but all was well – the GSD was just standing at a distance more interested in the ball she was carrying and Rover, while, attempting some herding behaviour around Zac, kept a good distance and Zac was relaxed while he lay down chewing on his stick.

The lady and man struck up a conversation behind me, talking about their dogs while I kept throwing the stick and keeping an eye on my dog’s body language.

The man was saying things like: “I tried to take him to agility but he was badly behaved and would run off into the creek”; “I could tell he wasn’t really wanted there”; “he can be quite unmanageable” and “he is intimidated by some other dogs, particularly large females”. It went on and on all the while him not taking any action to monitor his dog or protect it in any way from the others that had joined us by then including a large, female Labrador and a Jack Russell.

I then also noticed that while this dog was watching Zac, his mouth was open. Not in a hot, panting way, but in a fixed angle and within a minute I saw him yawn three times – a sure sign in body language that the dog is stressed or uncomfortable.

With the owner still banging on about the dog and this is the point – it was all about the dog and the mistakes he was making – I felt myself walking over. I just couldn’t help myself.

“Your dog’s body language is showing to me that he is stressed around other dogs,” I said. The man agreed with me, repeating what he’d told the other person that he’s intimidated by older females. I then launched into my view that he should bring treats to the park, cut out dinner and make the calorie intake at the park around him doing good recalls and being rewarded for calm around other dogs. Take responsibility for his dog’s wellbeing in other words.

But before I could finish and step off my soap box, a whirling dervlish of teeth and growls broke out at the side of the park. The Jack Russell had clearly not kept his distance from Zac and entered his uncomfortable proximity zone, tried to jump on him or tried to take his stick. Either way, Zac had reacted.

I rapidly made chase after Zac, only after a few attempts managing to grab him and put him back on lead. There was a lot of teeth baring and growling, most of it hot air but not pretty or pleasant to hear or see.

Let me be clear here. This was my fault. I had taken my eyes off Zac when I was responsible for being in control of him when he was off lead, the condition of using off lead parks. While he’d been calm around the other dogs because they didn’t come into his personal space, while I’d been delivering my sermon about good behaviour I didn’t notice that the variables around my own dog’s calm had changed. The Jack Russell had broken into Zac’s personal space bubble.

Oh dog trainer heal thyself.

The life lessons I was reminded about the hard way from this experience:

  • Don’t offer advice, no matter how well intended, unless it’s asked for.
  • Remember to weed thy own patch before tending to those of others.
  • Don’t make any assumptions about anything while your dog is off lead.
  • And lastly, always love your dog, no matter how much they embarrass you!

Why punishment could be deadly

A Pedadoggy reader gave me the loan of a really great book that was produced after the devastating 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand, called Quake Dogs. The heart-warming photos and stories cover the inspirational working dogs that tirelessly sniffed the rubble to try to find survivors, as well as the many pets, most of who were home alone at the time, when the earth rumbled, shook and tore open.

These dogs were lucky to escape with their lives but almost all have been left with psychological scars that remain with them from that day.

I was very troubled about one story however. It wasn’t the earthquake that very nearly killed this dog, but poor advice from a dog trainer. Prior to the first quake in 2010, a one-year old collie called Adam “had severe separation anxiety disorder and would chew everything available when Dan (the owner) left him. He chewed CDs, the stairwell, the carpet and an entire couch. Nothing Dan did seemed to stop Adam’s behaviour, so he asked a dog trainer for advice.”

Great call by the owner – get an expert in to help. But check out what the trainer recommended for a dog that clearly needed support. “The trainer told Dan that while he was physically looking after the dogs (Adam and Tara) very well, he was treating them like children instead of dogs.”

The advice allegedly given was for him to eat before his dogs, enter doorways before them and to keep them behind them on their leads when out walking. Unfortunately typical advice for someone following outdated methods of dog training that advocate for dominance and punishment.

The near-fatal call, however, was: “Most importantly, Tara and Adam were absolutely not, to sleep on Dan’s bed or even in his room.”

It’s reported in the story that the owner went to bed that night, only allowing Tara into the room and closing the door on poor Adam. Just after 4am that morning the house began to shake. When Dan finally managed to shout for Adam in the dark after the shaking stopped, the dog didn’t come. A bookshelf had fallen over blocking the stairs and as the owner started having visions of the dog being crushed underneath, Adam finally came to him. Poor pup, can you imagine, he was probably petrified. Apparently the dog now sleeps in the room again and has stopped chewing the furniture.

You’ll see that I often refer to the unintended consequences, of which there will always be some, of punishment of any type. This example very nearly took a dog’s life. Without knowing the history of the dog and owner, I can’t comment on exactly what I would have recommended. However, shutting the dog out and walking through doorways first would not feature on my list of advice.

That’s why I advocate for positive because a different approach to helping Adam, I am certain, would have had a far better outcome for his physical and mental health and wellbeing in the longer term.

Just because you get advice doesn’t mean it’s always good. Ask for and choose positive.



Quotes taken from and attributed to: Quake Dogs, Random House, 2013. All proceeds to HUHA Rescuing dogs around New Zealand.


Put yourself in your dog’s, erm, paws

If they could choose, this is what I believe most dogs’ perfect day would look like:

  • Roam the bush or park freely, sniffing at everything that takes their fancy with no boundaries.
  • Chase the annoying cat from next door and put it in its place for good. No questions asked.
  • Hunt down and catch a rabbit and eat it fresh, crunching into the bones and not sharing with anyone.
  • Take a wizz on the new flowerbed that the council has just planted, just because they can.
  • Enthusiastically greet every human they meet by jumping up and bowling them over so they can be licked repeatedly in the face.

Yet… we expect a lot from our dogs in 2014. They need to guard and keep our homes safe, but not bark when home alone. They need to have personality and be cute, but they may not jump up on people or chase children. They may not be fussy or ungrateful about the food we choose to feed them, but may not scavenge from the kitchen bin or beg at the dining room table.

So many conflicting rules! And then there’s the matter that they neither speak English nor understand the social constructs of the society we live in.

So next time you ask your dog to sit contentedly next to you for an hour at a café while you catch up with friends over a cappuccino, calmly greet visitors at the door or walk on a loose lead while ignoring the multitude of smells that are wafting through their nostrils and other more exciting options for them, think about what they are sacrificing to be your companion animal.

I don’t think we give our dogs enough credit for what they are giving up to be called “good” or “nice”. Or reward them enough when they do.

Just saying.

Good advice did come for free

Click. Click. Click click. This was the background soundtrack when Pedadoggy had the pleasure of attending ‘The Modern Pet Dog’ seminar in Narrabeen last night. The furry clients of Canine Kindergarten had been dispatched off to their homes and a seminar set up replaced the usual array of dog toys and beds.

The range of topics, focusing on positive approaches and outcomes, covered the typical questions people have about how to get the best out of their companion dogs.

Here’s are the highlights of what was covered.

Amy Smith – Sound Proof Puppy Training

Amy has launched a new app that helps puppies build a tolerance to all the types of noises they’ll come across in their lives and to be calm and confident around these. There’s a large range of sounds on the app that you can play on your device of choice. The tool can also help for older dogs with existing fears.

Amy’s top tips:

  • Start playing the sounds at a low volume while the dog is doing something it enjoys, such as playing or eating.
  • Build up their ability to tolerate the sound slowly and over a few sessions (remembering how sensitive their hearing is) by gradually increasing the volume over time. You’re looking for a dog that is calm when the sound is played, in the video of puppies being played the sound of a thunderstorm, they acted like they didn’t even notice it was there.

Barbara Hodel – Goodog Positive Dog Training

Barbara’s view on socialisation is that “just because we can doesn’t mean we should”. We expect dogs to just slot into our lives without either giving them the tools they need to cope or considering whether they actually want to go to places, which can be quite stressful, such as dog parks.

barbara presentationBarbara’s top tips:

  • Whether you have a puppy or an older dog, make every new experience a good experience (though if you do have a puppy you should be ensuring it meets at least 100 people by the time it turns 12 weeks old and taking it out with you wherever possible). Reward for calm and do this ongoing, no matter how old your dog is.
  • Tricks are a great way to show dogs that experiencing new things have good outcomes for them.
  • Any type of punishment is quickly generalised to whatever was happening at the time and those impacts take a long time to get rid of. Therefore always choose to reward for good behaviour or ignore or interrupt what you don’t want and ask for something you do, then reward that instead.

Louise Colombari – Pittwater Animal Hospital

With her experience as a vet nurse and dog trainer, Louise was well placed to talk to us about children and dogs. She named all the good reasons why it’s great to grow up with pets, for example kids being more physically active when they have a dog. However, she gave the sobering statistic that 10,440 people a year present to emergency rooms in Australian hospitals from dog bite injuries, of which children 0-9 years are most at risk, with the highest rate of dog-related injury those aged 0-4 years. We need to educate adults, kids and dogs.

Louise’s top tips on what we need to teach kids:

  • When dogs are eating or sleeping, do not interrupt / approach or play near the dog
  • Dogs don’t like getting hugs and kisses. If you must kiss a dog, kiss your hand then rub it down the dog from collar to tail.
  • Same goes for pats on the head. Don’t approach front on and pat from collar to tail.
  • Never approach a dog that does not have an owner. Always ask an owner if you may pat their dog.
  • If kids are standing up and feeling threatened by a dog, teach them to be a tree by standing still, folding their hands under their arms and looking to the sky. If on the ground, be a rock by tucking in their hands and face and rolling into a tight ball. The dog will think they are boring (versus when running and screaming) and leave them alone.

Louise showed us some great videos for kids (how to kiss a dog / I speak doggie) that helps them learn how to be appropriate and safe with dogs. Check it out at: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCM4owl0Ugnc2Vi1XdIpyejg

Maxine Fernandez – Canine Kindergarten

The free clickers we were given created the soundtrack to Maxine’s talk on how to use clickers effectively in training.

Maxine’s top tips for clicker success:

  • Before you start, make sure you “charge” the clicker first – click, treat, click, treat 10 times, so the dog associates something positive with the sound of the clicker.
  • It’s good for both teaching new behaviours and sharpening up old ones.
  • The clicker exists as an event marker – tells them immediately that what they did in that precise moment was right and that the reward is coming (whether that be food or a toy).

It was great to see such high calibre trainers who have a passion for the positive approach share their knowledge for free with the community. This was the first in an ongoing series of events that are planned. If you are interesting in finding out more or attending future events, please get in touch with Barbara at http://www.goodog.com.au