Walking With Your Dog And Loving It: A Teamwork Approach

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We are trapped. And so are our dogs. I have sympathy when a client speaks of their goal to walk with their dog without the need for a leash. Leashes are annoying and are a restriction to personal freedom. But there are good reasons to advise against this, apart from avoiding unpleasant encounters with the local animal control officer, who might just have a really bad day.

Maybe your dog is super friendly but other dogs may have a problem —which can quickly become your problem— in case your dog strolls over to say hello. Even seeing your dog being unrestrained could potentially cause other dogs, and people, serious distress.  And, no matter how alert you are and how well your dog listens to you, neither dog nor human are machines. Things can go wrong in the blink of an eye.

So, while there may be situations where taking off that dreaded leash has minimal risk, depending on location, time of day, your dog’s age, physical abilities and temperament, it’s still best to let your dog loose where it’s appropriate and leash up everywhere else.

Give Your Dog Freedom On- and Off-leash

Walk with your dog in nature
Walk with your dog in nature using a fixed-length long leash, so you can both have a good time.

Freedom from restraint is a matter of well-being and mental health, so give your dog plenty of opportunity to frolic freely at dog parks or wherever it is allowed and suitable for your dog.

If you are in an on-leash area with plenty of space, you could consider using a long leash, for example on nature hikes, in parks or in streets with wide sidewalks. Choose a leash of fixed length (3 – 5 metres is easy to handle, but make sure you check your local laws for restrictions of leash length) and stay away from retractable leashes. Always attach long leashes to the back of a comfortable harness to avoid forced somersaults or head jerks which can put an instant painful end to your outdoor adventure.

But doesn’t a longer leash mean “less control”? Yes, you have less physical control over your dog, but that is the point of learning to walk together: Less coercion, more voluntary cooperation. Walking your dog on a tight short leash for “better control” is a vicious cycle. The less freedom your dog has, the more they want to get away. Frustration grows and with it the urge to pull.

Learning to walk on a loose leash means the dog needs to have the freedom to make decisions. A short leash does not give them that freedom.

Instead of ‘Walking Your Dog’, Aim to Walk With Your Dog

It takes some practise to learn how to walk comfortably and without mishaps while being physically attached to another individual. Have you ever participated in a three-legged race? It’s not easy! This description from a website for kids activities hits the nail on the head : “Imagine the teamwork needed to get this one right?!” Yes, indeed.

A dog and human walking in harmony while tied together requires teamwork. Each has to pay attention to the other and make concessions. A still widely practised “training” approach—dogs being yanked into line to adopt the human pace—has nothing to do with harmony. It bulldozes the dog’s needs and nature and it demolishes their joy and their trust in humans. What may emerge from the rubble is hopelessness or hostility.

Instead of being the bully on the team, we can prove how clever we are. We need to figure out how to teach teamwork skills to a dog. Of course, the dog won’t understand the concept of teamwork. The first step in our quest for success is therefore that we accept, and frequently remind ourselves, that the dog isn’t stubborn or wilful or dominant when they pull on leash. They just try to get to wherever they want to go, and they happen to have a human hanging off their neck. What a nuisance.

Choose Equipment That is Safe and Comfortable

Speaking of necks, having anything around them can result in choking, injury and death, so it’s not a bad idea to look for alternatives. It seems there is a product for everything these days, no matter if we need it or not, so a good dose of scepticism is required to avoid useless or even harmful gadgets when you go shopping.

A well-fitted, comfortable body harness is a safe and suitable choice

Front-clip harness make walking with your dog easier
A well-fitted front-clip harness can make walking more confortable for you and your dog.

When purchasing and fitting a harness pay attention to freedom of movement and lack of “strangulating bits” which may cause pain or discomfort. If the dog has to walk like a shackled prisoner, because the chest strap hangs at their elbows, or like someone needing an urgent toilet break, because a belly strap pushes into their genital area, that’s not a clever solution. A snug, comfortable fit that doesn’t rub, pinch or squeeze means the dog can happily focus on working with you.

If your dog is like most dogs and generally walks at a faster pace than you, get a front-attachment (or front-clip) harness. You’ll get some immediate relief as the dog’s body is turned as they pull and therefore reduces the pulling force.

Attach a fixed-length leash that is long enough for your dog to sniff and explore freely but short enough to prevent them from getting too far away from you, e.g. 1.6 – 1.8 metres for regular sidewalks.

Head halters can offer a breakthrough in high risk situations

If your dog’s strength and impulsivity puts you at risk, despite a well-fitted front-clip harness, a head halter might just safe you from faceplanting. It can also prevent offence and injury to other people and animals, for example if your dog is super friendly or super aggressive.

Please take the time to condition your dog to the head halter and consider working with a force-free trainer who is experienced with head halters. That way you avoid the risk of causing injury or discomfort to the dog. As with a body harness, you don’t want the dog to be preoccupied with the equipment, so comfort is crucial.

How to Go About Walking With Your Dog

Keep it positive

Teamwork is about making concessions to achieve a goal that works for all. However, don’t bank on your dog’s selflessness or cooperation—or any other perceived human virtue—but embrace the cold hard reality of why animals do the things they do:  Because they gain something that is of value to them or they avoid something that is detrimental to them.

I’m not in the business of training an animal with things they want to avoid because that’s how we ended up yanking, choking and shocking our dogs and then having to deal with the emotional and behavioural fallout. I want dogs to be happy.

This is why I recommend training with positive reinforcement. The dog’s reinforcement is nice food and access to other things they desire, and your reinforcement is that you don’t get your arm ripped off. Sounds fair to me.

Know where you are and know where you’re headed

Practise walking with your dog in quiet locations first
Walk with your dog in locations where you can both succeed and have a good time.

Before you start, take a moment to assess your ultimate goal. If you are hoping to take your dog to the Sunday morning farmers’ market or have them join you for a puppuccino at the local cafe, walking on leash may not be the first goal you have to address. If your dog is overcome with anxiety in busy environments teeming with people, dogs and other things that scare them, deal with this first. And, realise that your dog may never be a candidate for these sorts of activities.

Walking on a loose leash doesn’t need to be any more than what it says. Your dog doesn’t have to walk behind or beside you, they don’t have to walk only left or only right, they most certainly don’t have to heel. Your goal, surely, is to walk with your dog in a way you can both enjoy.

To get there, an assessment of your dog’s and your own skills is in order. How badly does your dog pull and how have you responded to it in the past?

You may have inadvertently reinforced pulling—potentially for months or years—simply by following your dog who is following their nose and dragging you along in the process. Remember, if it works, your dog keeps doing it. If you can train yourself to immediately stop every time your dog rushes ahead, great, but it is rarely a good strategy on its own. Your dog is likely to experience a lot of confusion and frustration unless you practice loose leash walking with positive reinforcement first.

Start with lots of small treats at high frequency and knock out the competition

The ideal incentive to get our dog’s cooperation is food. Quality and quantity matter so be prepared to liberally dish out the good stuff. How frequently you give a treat—the rate of reinforcement—entirely depends on your dog. They set their own pay rate.

Lots of small morsels of something yummy, given at high frequency, can teach your dog in no time that “staying within range (of the leash)” is a worthwhile activity. If the dog seems “distracted” , looking for other things to do instead of focussing on you, your food reinforcement isn’t sufficient. Either you don’t pay often or well enough, your dog isn’t hungry, or you are working in an environment that has too many competing things going on.

Whatever food you use to motivate your dog to walk with you, it has to be high enough in quantity and quality to knock out the competition.

It makes sense then to start with no competition, i.e. just you and your dog at home, and with a bag of treats your dog is willing to work for. And that first exercise of “walking together in close proximity” can even be done without a leash.

Take your time to build your skills and protect your training

Walk with your dog in busy streets only when you are both ready
Walking with your dog on a busy street is an advanced skill. Only tackle it when you are both ready.

It’s easy to destroy something in an instant but building something requires planning and patience. Good skills take time to develop. If walking your dog on leash is something you are dreading right now—despite using a front-clip harness or even a head halter—it may be better to pack your dog in the car and drive them to the dog park, rather than walking there. If this isn’t an option, spend a little time to drain some of your dog’s energy by playing fetch or tug before you go for a walk.

Celebrate intermediate steps. Practise at home before taking on the big wide world outside where everything seems to be hellbent on throwing you and your dog off course. Once you do venture outside, turn short periods of your on-leash walks into training sessions rather than frustrating your dog and yourself by asking for too much too soon. Train on your way home from the dog park rather than setting your dog the impossible task of strolling towards the dog park. Train in quiet environments first before you run the gauntlet of people, other dogs, garbage trucks, possum poo, cats and whatever else the neighbourhood puts on display.

If you can’t suspend on-leash walks in public until you and your dog are more advanced—i.e. if you can’t get your dog out and about for physical and mental enrichment another way—protect your training with discrimination cues. It will help your dog to distinguish between “training walks” and “free walks”. My go-to cues are mostly verbal cues (“walk”, “slow down”, “back”) for ““training mode” and sometimes a longer leash for “free walks”. Other cues could be attaching the leash to the back of the harness or the collar while you’re training and to use the front attachment of the harness at other times.

Accept your dog’s impulsiveness and stay on top of your own

Dogs walk faster than humans
Dogs walk faster than humans. If your dog rushes forward, stop and calmly encourage them back.

Whenever you feel a pang of anger or frustration, because your arm socket just suffered another violent jerk, stop and breathe. Taking a deep breath may not give you rosy thoughts, but it may buy you just enough time to avoid an impulsive, and potentially damaging, response. Now you can—with great wisdom and aplomb—help your ‘distracted’ team member back on track.

A smart technique to go from angry to astute is to observe your dog: Are they still straining at the end of the leash towards whatever got them so excited, seemingly oblivious of your presence or disapproval? Do they turn and look at you, quizzically and innocently, as if to ask: “Why are we stopping?”

That’s because they are oblivious and innocent. When I say ‘your dog hasn’t got a clue what you want from them’ I’m not doubting their intelligence. They just happen to do things differently from us because they are a different animal. Naturally, they do things that work for them.

Since we are the ones who request that dogs change their behaviour for our benefit, the ball is in our court. How do we marry our slow and even pace with our dog’s “trot & stop rhythm”? We do it by making concessions, such as frequently stopping and letting them sniff, and by making it worth their while to walk at a slower pace in between.

Observe and respond in a timely manner and facilitate success

Pay close attention to your dog so you don’t miss their little successes. You want to quickly give a treat whenever you see your dog make “good” decisions, even tiny ones. For example, your dog may voluntarily slow themselves down, if ever so briefly, before they get to the end of the leash. This may be the first sign that they have made an association between their own pace and the consequence of a tight leash which results in both of you coming to a stop.

Giving timely feedback is essential. Stop if your dog gets to the end of the leash. If there’s time, alert them to it (e.g. “slow down”) whenever they accelerate forward.  Reinforce with treats, praise, access to anything of interest and continuation of walking as long as your dog walks at a pace which keeps them in sync with you.

Watch what your dog pays attention to. Rather than waiting until they rush towards a tree, another dog, a person or anything else that needs to be attended to pronto, anticipate it. Use the person, dog or tree as a target and a reinforcer and get your dog to do something for you first. This can be a simple head turn to look at you, taking a step or two back, a brief wait or sit or—finally— to walk on a loose leash towards the target. You can even set up “walking towards a target” as a training exercise at home.

At all times, know what your dog is capable of in the current situation and be ready to reinforce whatever you can get from them. If it’s a 1-second head turn for a sprint to a tree, so be it. It’s a win. Most importantly, recognise when your dog is struggling with other issues and cannot focus on what you are trying to communicate. Anxiety is the biggest culprit and it is easily missed. Sensitivity to your dog’s emotions and how they perceive the world is your and your dog’s road to success.

Enjoy your walk with your dog.

Help your dog learn to walk with you with positive reinforcement and enjoy the process.

From Growly to Gracious: Teaching Your Dog to Let Go.

Minimalism is back in fashion. If you have been swept up by the latest decluttering movement, I do hope you stopped short of throwing out your dog’s toys. It sure feels good to let go of stuff, but do not expect your pooch to share your enthusiasm. Dogs do get attached to things. Some dogs get attached a lot.

Have you seen it in your dog? The body freeze when you approach, the hovering stance to shield the valued possession, the menacing glance from the corner of their eye. Did you think you could whisk that limp old bunny away from your dog, assuming it was worthless after having been thoroughly destuffed? Maybe your dog thought otherwise and—sensing your treachery as your fingers angled for the guarded treasure—promptly let out a growl?

Congratulations, if you have found liberation from hoarding by convincing yourself to let go of things. Your dog, however, will only become fiercer in their guarding with each of your attempts to pry things from their jaws or paws. They don’t feel liberated. They feel robbed!

When Letting Go of Things No Longer Means Loss, Your Dog Has No Reason to Guard Them

Holding on to important stuff (primarily: food, mates, a place to rest), even defending—or guarding—them aggressively, helped our dogs’ ancestors to survive and make more wolf babies, so no surprise the trait is still around. But despite the genetic link, it is possible to teach your wolf-in-a-dog-skin to no longer guard the things they value.

If you are worried about your dog’s behaviour, and especially if it goes beyond playing keep away and maybe a little growl here and there, I strongly recommend you work with a competent trainer. Not the type that tells you to be more of a “boss”, but someone who actually understands the process of desensitisation & counterconditioning. Someone who knows that positive reinforcement is the method of choice for the modern dog trainer, not overpowering and intimidation. They will assist you with a step-by-step protocol until your dog no longer feels worried about losing things of value.

For less serious cases there is another pathway which you can pursue. It involves teaching your dog to release things from their jaws on cue (e.g. “drop it”, “give”) and to refrain from picking something up (“leave it”). Both are very useful behaviours for any dog and are also a good add-on to the more stringent protocol for serious guarding cases. If you are diligent in your training, the desensitisation & counterconditioning required to change your dog’s guarding behaviour will come along for the ride.

Learning a behaviour with positive reinforcement has the very convenient side-effect of creating positive emotions in your dog: Emotions not only associated with the learned behaviour, but also the context of the learning experience and the person involved—you!

If your dog is a guarder, you want them to learn that relinquishing or forgoing a prized possession no longer equates to loss. To achieve that, you have to make it worth their while and return their temporary “sacrifice” with interest, i.e. a big fat—usually edible—bonus.

Sebastian, the Golden Retriever, is very attached to his penguin, but he is even more attached to tennis balls and sticks.

“Leave & Let Go”: Two Behaviours for the Goal of Trust

If you have one of those dogs who love to chase a tennis ball but are reluctant to let go of it, you have already witnessed the conflict that is tormenting your dog: They love it when you throw the ball, but they won’t give it to you. And, if you try to pick it up, they’ll beat you to it!

Some people opt for the easy solution of carrying two tennis balls. That’s fine, if the dog actually drops a ball to chase another. And, if they don’t learn to stuff two or more balls into their mouth, including one they pinched from another dog, and run off. Managing your dog’s guarding behaviour can be a workable solution, but it doesn’t help your dog one bit with resolving their emotional conflict.

To get your dog to willingly spit out whatever they hold in their jaws, you need your dog to trust you. Trust simply means that your dog has learned that good things come from you, if they let go. During “let go” training, they not only get the surrendered treasure back, but they get a sizable bonus on top of it. It’s a bit like spending $20 on a lottery ticket and then winning a holiday for two in Bali. Not bad, hey?

Your dog thinks so too. Or more precisely: dogs understand value. However, to let go of 20 bucks is not as easy for some as it is for others. If $20 aka a tennis ball is too much for your dog to part with, then a ¢50 rubber duck may be your starting point. Of course, the value of the item is not what you spent at the shops, but the value your dog attaches to it. To another dog your dog’s ¢50 rubber duck may be a treasure worth fighting tooth and nail for.

A Game of Tug: The Perfect Start for Learning to Let Go

Tug is a fun and high energy game. And, it is a good opportunity to teach your dog to let go of something. Here is how I do it:

As you play the game, randomly—but not too often (you want to have a fun game with your dog after all)—say your let go cue (e.g. “let go”, “give”, “drop it”, whatever you like) in a cheerful voice. Then, immediately put both hands over as much of the tug toy as you can and quickly pull it between your knees (so you can clamp it tight). Hold completely still until you feel your dog’s jaws soften their grip (it will happen eventually, just wait silently and do not move; do not repeat your cue). Praise your dog and—as soon as the toy is released—resume the game.

It is a good idea to also teach a “take it” cue or similar. Restart the game after giving the cue, but only if your dog does not lunge at the toy in your hand. One second of being patient is enough to begin with. That way your dog learns not to rip toys or other items out of human hands without invitation.

There are other, less physical ways to teach letting go, for example offering a treat after you say the cue. I prefer the above version, precisely because it is physical and because it keeps the game going. The tug game itself is the dog’s reinforcement for releasing the toy. However, each case warrants its own variation and fine-tuning, so decide what works best for you and your dog.

Coco, the French Bulldog, is learning to let go of the tug toy.

Over several games, you should notice that the dog starts releasing the toy faster and faster once they hear the cue. You can then start practising with other non- or lowly-guarded items, e.g. the ¢50 rubber duck. Gradually work your way from holding the item in your hand to letting your dog have possession of it before you give the cue. Reinforce the dog for letting go with a super yummy treat or throw the item (or another item), if that’s what your dog prefers, or both.

Important points to remember when teaching your dog to let go:

Never rip the item out of your dog’s jaws

If your dog doesn’t let go on cue, leave them alone and practise more with lower value items first. Also, adjust your hand position (and eventually your distance to the dog) to make it easier or harder for the dog to surrender the item (holding and touching the item with your hand is easier; being further away is harder).

avoid using a “commanding” voice when you give the cue

Dog training is not about threatening your dog with your tone of voice. It’s about building an association between the cue, the dog’s behaviour and what follows (in this case: reinforcement by resuming play or giving a treat). And, dog training is about consistent repetitions of carefully defined steps.

Use fabulous food for reinforcement

Food is still widely underused in dog training, and that although it is the easiest, most convenient and efficient reinforcement there is. It works for all dogs, because all dogs have to eat. Please don’t be one of those people who deprive their dogs of tasty food. Be generous and your dog will be happier and enthusiastically take part in whatever training task you give them.

Coco, the French Bulldog, is able to let go of a tasty chew stick.

Refrain and You Will Gain: Teach Your Dog the Value of Not Approaching or Touching Something

It would be an odd thing, if a dog snubbed freely available food within their reach. I’d assume they must have just eaten a massive meal (that wouldn’t be reason enough for many dogs, though!) or they are sick, stressed or anxious. Or, they have been asked to leave it alone.

Your dog can learn not to approach something, if—just like letting go—you make it worth their while. After you’ve taught them not to touch food, you can extend it to anything you want your dog to stay away from: The glass jar you just smashed on the floor, a person doing Tai Chi at the local park, even the cat next door.

Again, it is important to proceed in steps that allow the dog to succeed. Repeatedly placing food on the floor in front of the dog and saying “Leave it” may not be the best start, if your dog keeps going for it. Not only do they hear a cue over and over again, without forming an association with the behaviour of “leaving it” (which erodes the cue), but you risk frustrating your dog because you keep putting food in front of them but don’t let them have it.

Additionally, if you make it so hard for the dog that they keep “failing”, you may get frustrated too and blame the dog rather than your training approach. Before you know it, you are back to using a stern voice, or worse, and make your dog and yourself even more stressed. And that’s no longer positive reinforcement training. It’s not really training at all.

So, start easy. Avoid using the cue until your dog has learned the behaviour of “leaving it”. The protocol I follow (which I learned at The Academy for Dog Trainers) starts with food in a closed hand and reinforces the dog for a mere 1-second of not trying to get to the food. Just one second of impulse control and the dog gets the food. It sets your dog up for success and keeps them happy and engaged.

Charley, the Beaglier, leaving food in hand
Charley, the Beaglier, has learned the “leave it” cue and knows that her patience will pay off.

Have a Go, Take Your Time, Have Fun

If you are keen on DIY and your dog’s aggressive behaviour is not severe, give it a go. Even then, you may find consulting with a good dog trainer can point you in the right direction and save you some time.

Most importantly: Have a plan, i.e. a breakdown of how you are going to teach your dog the desired behaviours, take it one step at a time and have fun. Celebrate intermediate successes and generously reward your dog—and yourself!—for the effort.

Finally, here is Sebastian. He became more and more possessive over his tennis balls during adolescence. Although his growling was mostly directed at other dogs, he also grabbed the ball and ran whenever a human tried to pick it up. After a couple of weeks teaching “give” and “leave it”, going to the off-leash park has become a lot more fun again.

Sebastian, the Golden Retriever, tends to guard his tennis balls from other dogs, but also from humans. After “give” and “leave it” training he is well on his way to become less possessive.

Help! My Dog Won’t Use the Dog Door

Dog doors offer a great convenience to fur parents to give their pooches access to outdoor spaces such as yards or balconies. Who wants to accompany their post-puppy-stage companion to the toilet spot every time nature calls, especially at night time? Depending on their age and health, it can also be rather inconvenient for your dog to hold it in. Some bodily organs have limited patience and no regard for convenience. So, if you come home or wake up to a mess, please never blame your furry friend.

Identify the Culprit Behind Your Dog’s House Soiling

When your dog soils the house, there can be a range of reasons. What is certainly not the reason for leaving unpleasant surprises on your beds or carpets is any sort of intentional depositing, for example out of ‘revenge’. Sometimes our brains are too complicated for their own good and spin a story where there is nothing but a simple cause and effect.

The reason your dog urinates and defecates in the house is typically one or more of the following:

  • A medical condition
  • Lack of house training
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of facilitation

The most simple explanation could be a medical condition, especially if your dog’s house training breaks down all of a sudden, so a visit to the vet is a good start. 

Apart from physical ailments, mental or emotional problems can also play a role. Separation anxiety is commonly behind a loss of bladder or bowel control as are other forms of anxiety, stress and fear. Identify what your dog is distressed about—ideally with the help of a behaviour vet or animal trainer with proven expertise in behaviour—and, most importantly, stop any sort of punitive handling and training.

A rather common cause for house soiling is incomplete house training, so go back to basics. There is no magic bullet to teach your dog not to wee or poo in the house. It comes down to management, supervision and reinforcement.

Then there is the matter of access to the preferred toilet spot. Putting a dog door in for the dog to go out whenever they please seems like a great idea but your dog has to think so too.

Anything new you introduce into your dog’s life is best accompanied by yummy treats so the dog immediately forms a positive association with it. Nevertheless, some dogs may need further help to actually use the dog door without your assistance.

Here are some common factors that can affect your dog’s love or hate of the dog door.

size of the dog door

Make sure your dog can easily fit through the door rather than having to  squeeze their body through. Security may be a concern, in case you have a large dog, although having a large dog may also be a good burglar deterrent. On the other hand, I have had to squeeze my body through a dog door more than once to get entry to a house, so it certainly has its advantages, if you lose your house keys.

design of the dog door

There are a range of designs that can affect your dog’s liking of the door. Hard or soft plastic, see-through or opaque, round or rectangular. Consider how hard your dog has to push or how high they have to lift their paws to get through. Do your research, read reviews or, even better, test different doors before shopping.

location of the dog door

You may not have a lot of choices of where to place the dog door depending on the design of your home. Most commonly, dog doors are installed in backdoors or windows. But where exactly is the door leading to? If it rains, does the dog have to step out into the wet or is the outside space covered? Is it shady on hot summer days or does the pavement heat up so much that it feels like stepping on hot coals? What else could prevent your dog from stepping through the door? Maybe the neighbours kids’ trampoline is right next to the fence and your dog fears the jumping kids. Or maybe the neighbour’s dog goes berserk whenever your dog uses the dog door. Lots to think about.

ease of entry and exit

The location of the door may create additional obstacles for your dog to get in or out. I knew a Schnauzer who refused to step outside through the dog door but had no problem coming in. As it turned out, the step down from the dog door, which was built into the laundry door, was simply too high. The dog had trouble to physically bridge the height and she might have also hurt herself in previous attempts in doing so. Adding a little platform between the door threshold and the courtyard, so the dog could step outside without having to resort to acrobatics, solved the problem in this case.

bad experiences

An unfortunate encounter with the dog door, especially on first use, can easily create dog door dread. For this reason, I highly recommend introducing your dog to the door with a bag of yummy treats. With you on one side of the door and the dog on the other, encourage your dog to step through—initially holding the door open, if necessary—and then pay her with a treat and praise her for her bravery. Repeat this until the dog shows no hesitation when stepping through the door. Lots of positive experiences provide an ideal buffer against possible future mishaps.

If your dog does have a bad experience, such as getting stuck in the door or getting a fright by an external event, say a thunder clap, while going through the door, first consider the previous points and possibly make some changes to the dog door. Next, rebuild your dog’s confidence by teaching her, step by step, that the dog door means wonderful things, i.e. super tasty snacks.

general anxiety

Some dogs are generally afraid of novel things or lack the confidence to explore. The procedure to make your dog use the dog door is the same as after a bad experiences (tasty snacks!) but, if your dog has problems with more than just the dog door, I strongly suggest a consult with a behaviour vet. Living with anxiety is no fun for anyone!

Case Study: Willow, the Worried Whippet

During a recent house-and dog-sit with a pair of Whippets, I helped one of them overcome her dog door anxiety. Apparently, her fear of using the door arose after she was hit in the face by the flap when she tried to follow her brother through the door. The door in question was of round design with a hard-plastic flap, firmly held in place by magnets.

After the incident, Willow would only use the door, if the flap was held open. My initial advice was to temporarily replace the flap with a plastic sheet or fly screen and then gradually reintroduce the hard flap.

A simpler solution may have been to replace the door with a larger version and a soft-plastic flap. However, more assistance is usually required to rebuild confidence after a bad experience.

So, while I had the pleasure to stay with the Whippets, I spent a few minutes daily on behaviour building and counter-conditioning.

Breaking the Behaviour Down Into Manageable Steps

The first step was to get Willow to push the door open just a little with her nose. With me on the other side of the door and a piece of chicken held right at the bottom of the flap, she eventually managed to push—albeit quite awkwardly at first: pushing with her teeth!— and quickly snatch the treat before pulling her head back again.

Next, I had to prevent her from pulling back straight away, so I quickly fed another piece of chicken after the first one and so on. The goal was to get Willow comfortable with the feeling of the dog door resting on her head or neck for a few seconds.

Very quickly this seemed rather easy for Willow, so now was the time to move the food lure out of sight and encourage her verbally to push her head through the door before I reinforced her with a treat. The intention was to break the reliance on the food lure.

The next step was getting a leg through. This turned out to  be a rather interesting looking affair. Despite her small stature and spindly legs, it took Willow some trial and error before she figured out where and how to place her legs. Initially, I offered assistance by holding the door up and then slowly lowering it onto her back.

After managing to get her front legs through and collecting a few pieces of chicken with the flap resting on her back, Willow still tried to escape the scary door with a quick forward hop. It would have been disastrous, if she had pulled back at this stage and rammed the door into her spine, so keeping the forward motion going with treats was essential.  

By moving myself away from the door very gradually and feeding repeatedly as I did so, I eventually managed to convert her panicky hop into a more graceful step-through.

Repetition and Continued Reinforcement

From there I kept repeating a full step-through with lots of verbal encouragement and reinforcement with chicken to grow Willow’s confidence and comfort with the door. The chicken, or other food reinforcement, was now only delivered once she had mastered the entry or exit on her own. I also celebrated each success with plenty of praise.

I had transitioned from food lure directly at the door to reinforcement delivered at a distance from the door after a successful exit or entry. Now I needed her to be able to do it without me.

First, I increased my distance from the door and eventually walked out of sight, still using lots of verbal encouragement. I also used Willow’s brother as a draw card: I would go outside with him, closing the back door behind us and leaving Willow inside. I then made a point of first feeding him outside, then playing with him with lots of hullabaloo, and moving further and further away from the door. Willow, not wanting to be left behind, conquered her dog door dread faster and faster to join the party.

When my house- and dog-sitting time with the Whippets came to an end, Willow was able to go through the dog door without my presence and without encouragement or food offers. She had not yet managed to leave the house at night on her own when nature called, but I left with the confidence that continued practise and repetition, including at night time, would soon have her soar over that final hurdle.

And now I have learned that her humans have decided to install a bigger dog door with a soft flap! :)

Top 5 Dog Behaviour Myths – 2019 Edition

Q: My dog does [ insert favourite “misbehaviour” here ]. Is she trying to be dominant?
A: See last question.

Q: My dog does what he wants. He doesn’t respect me. How can I become a better leader?
A: See last question.

Q: How can I maintain a pack-hierarchy in my multi-dog household, so everyone knows their place?
A: See last question.

Q: Why use treats? Shouldn’t my dog just do what I want because I say so?
A: See last question.

Q: If I don’t punish my dog when he behaves aggressively, doesn’t that mean he’ll do it again?
A: See last question.

Q: My dog’s behaviour is a problem for me. What can I do about this?
A: Finally, you’re asking the right question.

Your dog is a sub-species (Canis lupus familiaris) of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and belongs to the family of Canidae and the order of Carnivora.

I’m not telling you this to boast about my knowledge of taxonomy (anyone can Google this), but because we really do need frequent reminders that our dogs are not human. I’m quite sure, having a bear or a gorilla in the house wouldn’t require repeated reality checks, but with dogs we seem to habitually forget what they really are.

Your dog is a dog and will always behave like a dog, no matter how much you wish it were otherwise. Behaving like a typical member of one’s own species should not be a punishable offence.

Now, I’d assume that bringing a dog into your home meant you were looking for a companion. Dogs are really good at that. But because they are still dogs, we usually need to take some action to make sure they don’t wreck the furniture, kill the cat, alienate our friends, offend the neighbours and attract lawsuits.

If you have recently adopted a puppy, you need the same superhuman patience as new parents. And you have the unnerving responsibility to protect and nurture a new life.

Can you imagine a parent placing a shock collar on their baby or pressing their little body to the ground until they stop crying? Pushing their face into their own poo because they had an accident during nappy change? How about yanking a toddler by a neck chain because they toddled in the “wrong” direction? Or maybe a bit of a whack under the chin or a knee in the chest or some yucky substance sprayed in their face? How else does that stubborn toddler learn to “behave”? How else are they going to respect you as their leader? And, if they are really rebellious, then we just strangle them until they faint or pummel them until they curl up in the corner. That’ll teach them.

We do all of these things to dogs—animals who are no more able to comprehend what we expect from them than a 1- or 2-year old child—and no one calls the cops.

No matter what age, breed or size your dog is, no matter what task you might assign to them, there is never any need or justification to make them fear you.

I know it is not the most brutal methods I have to steer you away from. You don’t want to hurt your dog. But I want to hold up a big warning sign that when you enter the dark foggy forest of dog training you have a high chance of doing a Hansel & Gretel. The advice you will mostly come across is drawn from last century myths and the avalanche of books that have been written spreading those myths. The language may have changed, and some methods are less overtly medieval in nature. But packaging a house of horror in gingerbread doesn’t make it any less dreadful or dangerous, just more insidious. Better to avoid the witch in the first place.

The risk of being conned does not only come from external sources. What about your own tendency to blame your dog for having human intentions? Stubborn, disobedient, naughty, rebellious, dominant—how many times have you thought your dog “misbehaves on purpose”? It is not their brains that give rise to those thoughts, it’s yours. Funnelling human thoughts into canid brains has only ever led to confusion, frustration and misery—on both sides of the relationship.

It may take a while to rid yourself of this, but you can safely drop the notion that you need to be the alpha dog or even a leader. Your dog is not going to usurp you. They are not lying in wait for you to drop your guard. Your dog is really just trying to figure out how they can get you to hand over some food or throw a ball or even just say a few nice words and scratch them behind the ears. That’s all they need to be happy.

Fortunately, more and more people who live and work with dogs are done with folk knowledge and “dog training gurus” and are turning to fear-free and cooperative teaching and learning. Please join us on this exciting journey. This is the future and it’s already here.

The science of animal learning and behaviour gives us all we need to create a functioning household of individuals, even if one or more of those individuals are not human.

With a puppy under around 16 weeks of age your biggest advantage is the chance of prevention. Put all your time and energy into giving your youngster a ton of positive experiences, so they feel safe in this world. Go overboard with teaching them that nothing bad comes from human hands, that all the people and animals and things around them are no threat to them. Handle them with care, like you would a baby, but let them explore the world—under your gentle guidance and armed with treats—like they were a toddler. You may safe your dog from a lifetime of anxiety and yourself from the fallout.

The positive experiences shouldn’t stop once your puppy has bumbled their way into adolescence and beyond.

There is a German saying which I’ve always liked: “Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus”. It literally means “how you shout into a forest is how it’ll resound back at you” (FYI: Dark, dense German forests often have echoes; or at least that’s what I remember from my childhood). Sometimes your actions not only result in a similar response back though, but an exaggerated one. So much for the advice to punish your dog’s aggressive behaviour. Good luck with that.

Squabbling between your canine house mates shouldn’t throw you into a leadership crisis either. Dogs generally sort out who has priority access to which resource and when—food, toys, beds and more—without your interference. However, if your mediation is required because the furries are at loggerheads, don’t go looking for a hierarchy and most certainly don’t “support” one, or you risk starting a fire where there was only a bit of smoke.

Relationships between individuals are more complex than a corporate company structure or a military hierarchy.

If one of your dogs gets a little too “intense” over a resource, teach them that no one is a threat to the things they value and that good things come to them when the other dog(s) in the household get access to those same valued resources.

Aggression is best prevented or reduced by not giving your dog a reason to be aggressive. Don’t threaten them, scold them and pester them but be a source of everything  good in your dog’s life. Good food, play and toys, companionship and cuddles—it’s what makes your dog happy and they’ll love you for it.

Use good food and play abundantly to reinforce your dog for all those things you want them to do.

Your dog’s behaviour will match the value they get out of doing it. So, provide value and build up your dog’s skills, and your own, step by step. Then show off in front of all those misery trainers and their miserable dogs. Enjoy the look on their faces when your dog comes bounding back to you from mid-chase across a wide open field with tongue lolling and eyes sparkling in anticipation of the ham and cheese sandwich in your pocket. Your dog will be the happiest dog in the world and you their happy human.