Correcting puppy and dog behavior

I have been training people to teach their dogs to be well mannered for a few years now. I have been teaching myself even longer. But it is always amazing how simple it is for a dog to teach another dog how to behave.

I have a puppy class I’m currently teaching at The Water Bowl. I brought Hermes tonight to show the class what they can shoot for, what is possible. Hermes is a great dog. Very self possessed but still funny and playful. Smart as a whip and very willing to work for me. He always makes me look good and when he bucks my authority it is usually either a helpful teaching moment or a message that I’m asking him to do something I shouldn’t be asking him to do. So, I brought him and as soon as the wiggly, overexcited, and uninhibited puppy, Abby, came in I knew we’d have a “teachable moment.” Abby is old enough to know better. Her family is tired of her antics. In a baby pup her behavior would be considered cute but she is big now and so it is just plain rude. We all are seeking ways to help her understand what parts of her behavior are unacceptable. Hermes did what her family has been trying to do for 2 months in less than 2 minutes. Abby understood him completely.

It always fascinates me to watch interactions between well mannered adult dogs and brazen puppies because it is a lesson in how to communicate with a dog. With dogs, there is no beating around the bush, there is no double speak, there is no passive aggressiveness, nor is there really overt aggressiveness. In fact, the exchange, although often loud and abrupt, appears to be devoid of emotion. There is just intensity – matching and slightly surpassing the intensity of the “misbehavior”, and duration – usually holding the “correction” much much longer than humans ever do. What Hermes did was give Abby a hard look, a warning growl and a clear message with his body that he was to be respected. When she didn’t and got all squirmy and squirrely he positioned his body over her, barked three sharp and very loud firm barks right into her face as she instantaneously slipped onto her back. He held her on her back with his energy, he never touched her once, and kept her there for a good solid 15 to 20 seconds, staring directly at her. Twenty seconds seems short, but time it yourself, it is rather long for that sort of thing. During that entire time he didn’t move a muscle and neither did she. A whole lot was communicated in that 20 seconds. After he felt satisfied that she understood, he walked away. His body posture loosened up then and he was done. She slowly rose to her feet and was a much more subdued, much more respectful pup after that.

Some of my “trainees” come to see me and say, “I need Hermes to put __ in her place!” And it does help the pup to have Hermes tell them clearly what is expected of them…but WE need to learn how to communicate that clearly, and our dogs need to show us that complete respect. While I do NOT advocate getting on all fours and barking at your dog to communicate, we need to make sure our communication has these three components: 1) It needs to be without emotion. 2) It must match and surpass the intensity of the misbehavior and 3) it must be held 3 times as long as you’d ordinarily sustain a correction.

For example – a minor infraction, like pushing past me on the stairs will get a loud “HEY!” from me and a firm look that I hold for 5 solid seconds. I also usually tell the dog to “get back!” and make them go back upstairs and then say “ok, let’s go” quietly and let them rejoin me at the bottom of the stairs. A more serious misbehavior, like Lollie attacking Hermes because she feels like she deserves all my attention, gets a louder and firmer voice command “LEAVE IT!” with a posture command “OVER!” (which is her command for “lay on your side and give me submission” a great command to teach dog aggressive dogs!) I then stand over her with my arms on my hips and give her a hard look that I hold for a good 30 seconds. I will walk away from her and expect her to hold that position for any length of time from 5 -30 minutes, depending on the severity of the “attack.” This is a great solution for us and works beautifully. Mike has a much harder time keeping emotion out of it – her attacks scare him and so he reacts with anger. This usually just adds to the out of control feeling of the situation and often ends with him feeling badly about his yelling or behavior. It is scary dealing with a dog who is acting aggressive but it is so important to train yourself to see what is happening and react to what is happening, not to what you are feeling about what is happening…but that is a topic for another post. For the run of the mill infraction, just be aware of your emotions and try to keep them out of it.

Once you understand how to communicate your disapproval to your dog in a language they understand you will be amazed at how successful you are in correcting that behavior. I feel so bad for dogs sometimes, trying so hard to figure us out while we give such inaccurate, ineffective, confusing messages. If you have an opportunity to observe two dogs interacting, watch them closely – you will learn a lot.

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