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!

Did the dog get up on the wrong side of the bed?

Pedadoggy has been quiet this last week as I have been sick, cursed with a winter weather lurgy. All the sitting around and feeling sick reminded me of a story that took place in our house one morning some time ago before I’d studied dog behaviour and training.

“Hello Mopey Dog,” The Husband says to The Dog. “Are you cross today?”.

I look up from the couch. The Husband is crouched next to the dog’s bed, giving him a scratch in his fall-time favourite place – under his chin. Where usually Zac’s tail would be thumping its enthusiastic morning greeting, it twitches twice then lies still.

His eyes slowly track The Husband as he heads to the kitchen to put on the kettle, after which the littlebrown creature settles back down to sleep. Only the mention of the word “ball” gets him bouncing up and down and ready for some chasing action.

Later that morning Zac refuses to look at his breakfast and I find myself telling him that there are many other dogs in the world who would give both of their front fangs for a meal of imported, New Zealand green-lipped mussels and venison.

It’s only when I almost go sliding through a puddle of vomit at the front door that I realise I’ve missed some pretty obvious signs. Zac wasn’t cross. He wasn’t upset at something we’d said or done, or hadn’t done. He wasn’t feeling well. That was all.

It reminded me how easily we are tempted to overlay human emotion onto our dogs. How often do you hear people calling their dogs “stubborn” or “lazy” or “disobedient”?

The fancy word for this is ‘anthropomorphise’ – attributing human features to something. But what signs are we misinterpreting? Which ones are we missing entirely?

Dog body language is complex and much has been written on it. Us mere humans easily miss the cues dogs give, especially the more fleeting and subtle ones such as a flick away of the eyes or a quick lip lick when they are nervous. We incorrectly attribute how we would be feeling on their behaviours, or rather the ones we choose to notice.

Zac remains waggingly healthy (and I’m getting there) but the experience reminded me that we need to read between the lines, notice the signs and put our own humanity aside when interpreting our dogs’ more subtle non-verbal communication. And no, the dog did not get up on the wrong side of the bed.

Who, exactly, is being trained?

Going to “dog school” is a great step many people take in building closer relationships with their canine companions. They’re prepared to invest the time and money to make this happen, which benefits both the animal and the humans it shares life with.

As the thinking party in the human-canine relationship, it comes down to us to make the change we want to see in our dogs.

As the thinking party in the human-canine relationship, it comes down to us to make the change we want to see in our dogs.

We’ll explore on another day the type of things you need to consider when signing up for dog training – including the training tools used and experience of the person running the classes. What is greatly rewarding is to watch the relationship between the dog and its owner/s develop over the course of a few weeks as they come to class.

However, there’s still the view in some circles that dog school works similarly to the way we educate children. That you hand it over to a trainer who teaches the dog new, acceptable behaviours such as not chewing the lead while it’s walking, or jumping up when greeting new people – like children going to school to learn from their teacher and coming home knowing the alphabet. I recently had a conversation in a dog park with a lady who had sent her Bull Terrier to just such an outfit.

The dog went on a ‘training camp’ to a purpose-built facility in Sydney and returned home two weeks later with the verdict that it was no longer bouncing off control at the end of the lead and was able to provide focused attention when requested.

The lady told me that all was well on day one when the dog got back home, day two there was some regression and by the end of the week the dog was back to its old tricks of jumping up, not listening and other shenanigans.

She was disappointed and also upset that she had paid good money, for no result. I could tell she wanted to blame the dog for the outcome or that it was something to do with how it saw their relationship – that she wasn’t to be ‘respected’. So I asked her a simple question: “What did you learn while the dog was away being trained? What do you need to do differently to get a different outcome? She looked at me. Then the realisation dawned that she had not acquired any of the skills needed to help her dog learn what was acceptable and to make that behaviour more rewarding than, say, playing tug-of-war while on lead.

If there’s one thing that will foster a closer relationship between owners and their dogs and get better behavioural outcomes, then it’s this. Training a dog to have good manners only works if the humans also learn and make their own behavioural adjustments. Such as – not pushing down when the dog jumps up so that it doesn’t become a great game that in itself is rewarding for the dog. Rather asking for a ‘sit’ instead and rewarding that.

It’s not always the easiest option and takes patience, time and perseverance – but the result is getting the behavior consistently and the dog doesn’t get shouted at or have to be locked away when visitors come to the door. It means less negative energy invested or having to manage a problem rather than creating a long-term solution. Like life coach Anthony Robbins said: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” And as the thinking party in the human-canine relationship, it comes down to us to make the change we want to see”.