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Behaviour

YOU CAN'T TEACH AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS !

But you can! Training your pup and changing your adult dog's behaviour is possible and not as difficult as most people think. "The Dog Listener" by Jan Fennell is a marvellous book about communicating with and understanding dogs and should be read by every dog owner whether they have just acquired their first puppy or are the longtime owners of numerous dogs.

For those who dont feel up to reading the whole book the general ideas are relatively straight forward but often the complete opposite to what many dog owners (and vets) have commonly believed.

Firstly, no matter how intelligent we think our dogs are, they can never learn our language. We must learn to understand theirs. This is explained in detail in the book as being based on the wolf pack interactions and a few relevant examples will be discussed in this article. The basic principle is that dogs are instinctively pack animals and even if there is only one dog in the family, he will try to establish leadership of his pack. It is our job to make sure that the dog is NOT THE LEADER.

There are four key times when leadership is established and these occur on a daily basis so we must give consistent signals to the dog at each of these key times. They are as follows;

1. REUNIONS - After a separation from your dog even if it is only a matter of minutes, many dogs will bark, jump up on you or behave in an undesirable manner. This is the dog trying to establish leadership. This behavior should be ignored. The dog should not be acknowledged or spoken to while it is carrying on like this. It should not be touched except to be gently pushed aside if it blocks the way. Eye contact should be avoided, turn your back if necessary.

Eventually, if you persist, the dog will give up and turn away. This may be a matter of minutes or in an older dog it could be much longer before he accepts that you are not interested. After the dog has given up and retreats he should be completely ignored for a further five minutes with not even eye contact being made. Then resume eye contact and quietly call the dog to you, rewarding him with a small food treat. Stroke the dog’s head and neck. If the dog resumes its barking, jumping or other undesirable behaviour the whole ignoring process should be repeated, this time leaving the dog for an hour before calling him. Eventually you have a dog which welcomes you with no fuss, quietly trotting beside you or sitting waiting to be acknowledged by you, "the leader".

2. DANGER - In most dogs’ lives the greatest danger they see will be the arrival of a visitor. Many dogs do ten laps of the room, barking madly, growling or even being openly aggressive to visitors and totally ignoring your commands to be quiet, stay or whatever else owners expect dogs to do at this time of mortal danger! Ask anyone who is involved with home deliveries about their experiences and you realise what a common problem this is. It is a natural reaction for a dog to alert us to a visitor and most owners expect this from their dog. However, if this dog has been allowed to think that he is the leader of the household, he is also going to feel that he must protect his charges from this intruder and the last thing he wants to do is listen to you telling him to be quiet.

The first thing to do when the dog jumps up barking is to acknowledge it with a quiet thank you to the dog. Then there are a couple of options:
a) Allow the dog to come to the door (on a lead if necessary) and tell the visitor to ignore it, not even to make eye contact, or
b) Thank the dog and then put it another room so that it doesn't meet the visitor. Do not shout at the dog as this only increases its anxiety and confirms that there is a dangerous situation. Stay quiet and calm.

3. WALKS - In dog language "walk" = "hunt" and every hunt must have a leader! Some home preparation should be done before taking the dog for a walk, otherwise the dog will be taking you for a walk! If you have already established leadership in the reunion situation you should already have a dog that comes to you happily when called. Extend this to training the dog to sit when it comes before getting its treat. If the dog goes crazy when it sees the lead, don’t put it on. Wait until it settles, comes and sits. If it won’t do this put away the lead and try again later or even the next day. Eventually it will learn that that you are in charge of the walk and dogs are clever so most cop on quickly. All you have to do is be calm and patient. When you finally put the lead on (inside the house to begin with) always pass through the door in front of the dog, even if this means you open the door, slip through first and close the dog in momentarily to achieve this. If the dog pulls on the lead don't pull back, but just stop walking and wait. When it stops pulling and allows the lead to go slack, proceed. When it pulls again - stop again. At first you may not cover much distance but dogs are intelligent and will quickly learn. All you have to do is be consistent and calm . Very soon you will have a dog that walks happily without pulling.

4. FEEDING TIME - In the wolf pack the leader (alpha male and female) always eat first. When they finish other members may eat. So don’t fe ed the dog first. An easy way around this is to prepare the dog's food in its bowl placed on the table or similar high surface. Place a plate on top of it with crackers, chips or other small snack and all members of the family who are present should be seen by the dog to eat from this before the dog gets his food. Then he should be given his bowl and allowed to eat in peace.

Food should not be available to the dog throughout the day - only leaders have free access to food. Treats should only be given as a reward for good behaviour.

So why shouldn't the dog be the leader? The main reason is that the leader of the pack must protect the others. Many dogs cannot deal with this without being aggressive to outsiders or even to you, their owner, if you try to tell him what to do. This is because the dog is actually afraid and this is known as nervous aggression – the dog doesn’t know how it’s meant to deal with all the responsibility. This can be avoided by giving all the signals to let the dog know that you are actually in charge and that he is not responsible for protecting you.

Some dogs develop separation anxiety when the owner goes out of sight because they feel they can no longer look after him/her. If you can relieve this dog of his leadership role he will relax and allow you to make the decisions. A dog which ha s received signals from his owner that the dog is in charge will ignore owner commands and may become aggressive if the owner persists in trying to boss him.

Dogs that have already been assuming leadership can be changed by consistent signals as previously described. Leadership is not permanent and every time you and your dog are reunited he will be asking "Who is in charge here? Is it still me or is it still you?" With dogs that have been in charge for a long time it may take longer t o get them to accept that the "top dog" role is yours and you have to more persistent. A truly nasty aggressive dog may always have those tendencies and probably won't be improved by this method. Dogs with a cruisey nature, like a lot of Labradors, may never question that you are the boss, especially once they have grown-up and become used to the routines in your home.

This is just an introduction to this subject and if you are interested in learning more read the book!


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