Household Rules for the High Drive Dog

I often hear people tell me that they just want their “dogs to be dogs”, doing what they want when they want to. But while most cats may be perfectly well-adjusted without ever being given tasks to do while getting whatever they want when they want it, dogs do not fare so well in such settings.

In their wilder days, dogs’ ancestors lived in packs with complex social structures and numerous rules of social etiquette and behavior. Today, they live in our homes, as members of human families. Over the years, we have bred them for specific jobs, and today’s working dog wants some kind of direction from us so that they may know how to be a good dog. And unfortunately, without some kind of structure in their lives, dogs can run amuck, confused as to what their “responsibilities” within the household really are.

Mancha waits politely at the door

Following are some rules to help your high drive dog to be a polite member of your family:

  • Wait at all doorways – while common lore suggests that this may help dogs understand their rank, there is a much more important reason for this rule, and that is safety. A dog that waits at doorways is far less likely to bolt out into the street, or to rush visitors outside on a porch, causing you problems with friends or delivery personnel, or your mail carrier.
  • Go to your Place – this wonderful cue is ideal for keeping your dog out from underfoot when you have other things to get done. It can also be used to help your guests to feel more comfortable in your home, and so you don’t have to compete with your dog for their attention.
  • Get off the furniture – While it may be easiest not to allow him on furniture at all, if you do allow it, make certain he’ll move over when asked. An “off” cue is vital here. The easiest way to teach this is to say your cue (“off”) and then lure your dog off the furniture and to the floor, rewarding when he is off. If your dog guards the space he is in, seek professional assistance with this, as simply forcing a growling dog off of furniture could prove dangerous.
  • Work for everything – This not only establishes the habit of responding to your cues, it also adds value to your commands; when you ask your dog to do something, good things happen, therefore it behooves him to respond appropriately. Work could simply be a “sit” and “wait” for food or a “down” prior to being petted or let out into the yard.  This is a sort of “please and thank you” for a dog.

Most likely, you will have more rules for your dog, such as not jumping on counters and not begging for food at the table.  Remember that, like children, dogs need rules in order not to cause trouble.  If you are having difficulty enforcing rules, contact your local trainer for assistance before things get out of control.

Stubborn or insufficiently motivated?

Or is your dog actually uncomfortable?

In my work with high-energy dogs, I teach a lot of dog sports, with a strong emphasis in focus work. I stress the importance of teaching dogs to focus on their owners instead of the exciting world around them. Yet many people misunderstand what is focus, and more importantly, what is motivation.

Noted competition dog trainer, Denise Fenzi teaches courses specifically on the topic of training dogs to have high motivation for sports and work. She understands what drives dogs, and how to get them to focus. And she also notes that in many situations where a dog is not focused on his handler, there are often good reasons.

When anyone tells me that they have a “stubborn” dog, I am quick to say that their dog is probably just “insufficiently motivated”. This is really what is at the root of many training challenges, regardless of the methods that are being employed. It may be that the dog is more interested in something other than the handler, it could be that he is nervous or distracted due to an overly stimulating or new environment, or there could be other, more serious reasons such as fear, discomfort, or even pain, that may cause a dog not to respond to a handler’s cues.

Ready for the next cue!

In the most extreme example, I had a student with a lovely German Shepherd mix that bit a veterinarian who pushed down his behind for refusing to sit on cue because, she said, he was just being stubborn. After a switch to a different veterinarian, the owners learned that he had severe hip dysplasia. Thus, he was not being stubborn when refusing to sit on cue, but he was refusing because it actually hurt to sit!

With my own dogs, I keep a close eye on their comfort levels when we are training, or even just out and about. If, for example, I have asked one of them to“heel” and she spontaneously switches sides on me, rather than reprimanding and forcing her to go back to my left side, I instead look to my left and invariably find the object of her discomfort – often a large barking dog or frighteningly loud garbage truck or some such thing. By allowing my dog to switch sides, I am not only respecting her feelings (i.e. fear) but also giving her the option to take refuge behind me.

Respect for your dog is about recognizing that, often, a misbehaving dog is doing so due to misunderstanding or even discomfort rather than actual stubbornness. As world renowned trainer, Kay Laurence, insists, even jumping up on you could be a call for help or approval, and not just a rude plea for attention. My own dogs know not to jump up on me uninvited, yet I  will not reprimand them for jumping up on me when I recognize signs of stress..

So the next time your dog refuses to respond to your cue, rather than assuming him to be stubborn, consider what else may be going on. Then change your tactic; increase your motivator, change your cue, or give your dog a break if he needs it.

Has your dog taken over the house?

Incorporating a “Nothing In Life for Free” way of life

While the nature of most dogs is to please, I often hear of dogs who seem to do whatever they want, whenever they want. They respond perfectly to sit, down and come when treats are present, yet they appear to completely forget all of their training when there is no food or treats present. These dogs often demand attention and get it whenever they want. They get to go for walks when they ask, get to play tug or fetch whenever they ask, and easily get ear scratches just by setting their heads on someone’s lap. What does this all mean?

Where is my cookie?

First, it’s important to remember that dogs have evolved with us over centuries – some say thousands of years – working cooperatively with us. In the past, dogs served humans by helping to hunt, herd, fetch, and warn of danger. While there are service and assistance dogs in action today, most family dogs don’t have “jobs” in the traditional sense. As a result, they are often left without direction, and with very little respect for leadership. This can lead to problems, particularly in high energy and intelligent dogs.

Fortunately, the solution to these pushy and disobedient dogs is not difficult – in fact, even a schoolchild can do it! (Supervised of course!) The best way to convince a dog that you are worth respecting and obeying is to employ a program that is commonly called “Nothing In Life For Free” or NILFF. Much like the rules that we set for children – such as no video games until your homework is finished, or no TV until you’ve taken out the trash – the demanding pooch must do for us before we do for him. Does he want his ear scratched? He must first sit, then down, then sit – OK, now pet him! Does he want to go outside for a walk? First he must sit and shake a paw – now we’ll go outside. And don’t forget to make him work for his meals as well as any petting or affection. Additionally, if you regularly play games such as tug or fetch with your dog, use these as opportunities to train as well. In between throws of a ball or Frisbee, ask for a sit/down/sit, or a spin or some other trick then throw again. If you play tug, intersperse the game with drop it cues and ask for sits or other behaviors before resuming the game.

In addition to adding more interest and mental stimulation to everyday games and tasks, incorporating NILFF with your pooch will reinforce in him the habit of responding to your cues. Then, when a command is of particular importance, such as a recall near a busy street, you’ll be much more likely to gain compliance. And when you are trying to relax and watch a movie or get some work done, he can learn to be less pushy and demanding of your attention.

Now, if the problems with your pup are related to aggression or anxiety, of course you should contact a professional trainer or behavior counselor. However, if it’s just about better obedience, think about incorporating NILFF into your routine. Although it may seem like a lot of work, you’ll find that it easily fits into your schedule. And remember that it’s not about the commands specifically, but about teaching the dog that he’s not the one calling all the shots – you are!

The Dogs of Summer

I know that, technically, summer started a few weeks ago, but I tend to start thinking “summer” right around Independence Day. Personally, I love the warm weather as well as the extra time off that we often get, but I know that not everyone appreciates it as I do. In particular, we all have to be vigilant in taking care of our dogs’ needs as the mercury begins to rise.

Unlike humans, who sweat easily, dogs cool themselves from a couple of primary locations: their mouths via panting, and the pads of their feet.  Due to this limited cooling system, dogs tend to overheat more easily than humans.  Moreover, the “brachycephalic” dogs – those with pushed in snouts such as boxers, pugs and bulldogs – can overheat even faster.  According to Dr. Nancy Kay, symptoms of heatstroke can include “increased heart rate, labored breathing, weakness, collapse, purplish gum color, and even seizures and coma.” So, how can you keep your dog cool during the warm summer months?

Buzz enjoys a Giants’ baseball game

The most important thing is water.  Drinking water should be plentiful and fresh every day. Additionally, placing a wading pool in a convenient location can offer respite to the overheated pooch.  Often, simply standing in the water will cool him down considerably.  With smaller dogs, be certain that the water is easy to get in and out of, and that it’s not so deep that your dog cannot lie down in it while still keeping his head up.

Cooling treats are also a good idea to help a warm dog cool down. Kongs stuffed with frozen treats, or even just with soaked, frozen kibble, can be fun and refreshing. Another alternative is to make “fun ice”, with water or chicken broth frozen and filled with your dog’s favorite treats and toys. This can provide plenty of mental stimulation as well as thirst-quenching entertainment on a hot afternoon.

This idea was shared by “Spice of Life”

Shade is also vital.  Be sure that your dog has access to cool and shady areas when you are away. Often times, dog houses set in sunny areas can become unbearably hot inside, so be certain to offer additional shade if this is the case. Ideal shady spots should be open and airy, to allow for air circulation as well as respite from the direct sun.

Finally, remember that even on a relatively cool day the temperature inside of a car can climb to staggering heat in a very short while. If you will not be able to take your dog with you out of the car, it is usually best to leave him at home for a particular outing.  When you do take him, be sure to take drinking water along for him as well as for the family.  Dehydration can increase the likelihood of a dog overheating.  On particularly hot days, consider bringing a spray bottle to wet him down and keep him cooler throughout the day. The best places to wet a warm dog are the belly and pads of the feet. Avoid wetting the top of a dark colored dog, as this can actually cause it to overheat by locking in the heat.

Dogs are our family friends and companions. Summer is a great time to spend more time with them as the days become longer and we participate in more outdoor activities. Remaining aware of the temperature and its effects on your pooch will assure that your dog remains comfortable and healthy at every outing and throughout the summer.