Training Your Dog to use a Ramp

As our dogs get older, they can begin to lose some of their mobility and have trouble with stairs or jumping up into cars.  In my own case, my nearly twelve-year-old collie has developed severe arthritis in her lower back and hips and is no longer able to hop into my SUV and climb up on the back seat.  We’re addressing her age-related health issues with medication and physical therapy, but we still need a pain-free way to transport her to the places that she needs to go.

The solution for short trips around town was to place her in the SUV’s rear cargo area rather than the rear seat.   For her comfort, and to spare us the need to vacuum her fur out of the car every week, I put down a canvas sheet with an old wool blanket on top of it.  With the back seat folded down, this gives her a comfortable place to lie down with familiar scents and protects our vehicle.  Which left the issue of how to get her into the vehicle.  I’m a large individual myself and have no difficulty in lifting and carrying a 65-pound dog, but the same isn’t true for my spouse.   Therefore, we decided that it was time for our old girl to start using a ramp.

Some dogs are very accepting of new experiences and will take to using a ramp very easily.  They’ll see the ramp, say “Challenge accepted!” and will scamper right up it.  However, there are a lot of others who will be apprehensive about using it.  So, when planning to implement the use of a ramp for a geriatric dog, keep in mind that she is already uncomfortable and is losing strength and mobility; she is becoming unsure of her footing and will be nervous about walking up a narrow surface that is suspended in the air.  There are things you can do to make it easier for your dog.

Selecting the right ramp is very important.  They come in different sizes and lengths and a made of a variety of materials.  I have some suggestions for picking the right one:  First, it must be of a size and weight that can be managed by anyone who handles the dog and drives the vehicle that will be used to transport her.  Second, the walking surface should be composed of a non-slip surface that won’t be torn by a dog’s claws.  Avoid any fabric coverings that can become loosened or ripped.  Third, the ramp should be wide enough for your dog to walk on it with a fairly normal gait and posture.  Lastly, when fully extended, it must be long enough that it securely overlaps the bed of your vehicle and has a gentle slope to the ground – I recommend that it be less than the 35-degree angle commonly used for residential stairs.

The next issue is helping your dog to use the ramp.  As I indicated earlier, older dogs are likely to be reluctant to start using one.  They can experience a certain amount of discomfort when they’re walking or using stares and are losing some of the mobility they had in their younger days.  They’re also likely to be apprehensive about walking up a ramp with empty air on either side of them.  So, start slowly and let your dog become accustomed to using a ramp.

Begin with laying the ramp flat on level ground, folded or collapsed to its smallest dimensions, with the walking surface on top.  In the illustrations, I used a telescoping ramp that I had slid closed.  Put your dog on leash and walk him on it, with encouragement and treats, so that he becomes used to walking on the ramp’s surface.  Do this several times a day with only a few repetitions in each session.  Once he’s comfortable walking on it, repeat this process with the ramp opened to its full extension but still lying flat in the same location.  Again, take it slow.  Have several sessions each day with only a few repetitions each time.  Keep in mind that your goal is to have your dog comfortable with walking on the ramp, there’s no reason to rush him.

Once he is comfortable walking on the ramp when it is laid on a flat surface, you begin to get him familiar with walking on the ramp when it is suspended in the air on a small incline.  The objective is to help him learn to trust the ramp when he is walking above ground level.  Find an outdoor location where you can put the ramp on a small incline, such as the front stoop of a house or a small set of steps.  Just make sure that this spot is stable and the ramp won’t shift under the dog while he’s using it.  Then put on his leash and walk him to the bottom of the ramp.  Shorten your grip on the leash so that he can walk easily but you can prevent him from falling off either side.  Give him a verbal cue, such as “Up!” and walk him up the ramp, staying close to him and using treats and praise as incentives.  Once he’s at the top, turn him around and give him another verbal cue, and repeat the process as he goes down.  Repeat this only a couple of times.  You want the duration of these sessions short in case he has any anxiety about using the ramp, so that his nervousness doesn’t build while you’re training him.  Repeat these short sessions a couple of times a day until he willingly goes up and down the ramp.

At this point, you’re ready to use the ramp to get him in the car.  Repeat the same familiar process of using the ramp when you take him into the car:  Shorten your hold on the leash, stay beside him and use the same incentives and verbal cues.  And continue with short sessions several times a day.  He may balk at first, and you may find that he is nervous or hurries up and down the ramp.  But with repetition and positive reinforcement, he’ll get accustomed to using it.

Behavior Modification for Shelter Dogs

As a Canine Behavior Consultant, I encounter a lot of obstacles in developing and implementing behavior modification plans for dogs that are housed in shelters and rescues.  When I’m working with an individual in a home environment, I can develop a detailed plan with a schedule, incremental steps, instructions for consistently tracking the problem behavior(s), etc., all of which contribute to tracking the dog’s (and the owners’) progress.  However, a shelter is a completely different environment with a combination of busy staff and volunteers:  The dogs are under constant noise and stress, the staff generally works in shifts, the volunteers are dedicated, but are on sight inconsistently and have varying levels of expertise.  All of these factors combine to make it extremely difficult to implement a consistent plan or track results.

In the past, I’ve posted articles about the shelter dogs that I’ve worked with on an individual basis[i], and how I have involved shelter personnel in these treatments[ii], but these single cases are far outnumbered by the dogs with mild-to-moderate behavioral problems that we routinely encounter.  I’ve been looking for a way to have more people involved in helping dogs by reducing their anxiety or reduce the issues that are getting in the way of adoption.

A few months ago, I found an article in the IAABC Journal describing a program that the Singapore SPCA had implemented to help volunteers train and rehabilitate shelter dogs.[iii]    This program is very impressive; it provides volunteers with training and forms them into teams to work with individual dogs by targeting specific behaviors with low level training and games.  Although my shelter lacks the resources to put together a program as comprehensive as the one described in the article (like every other shelter, we are emerging from the pandemic with a reduced volunteer cadre and are working hard to rebuild this vital component of shelter operations) it seemed to me that we could implement something on a smaller scale for our “problem” dogs.

Recognizing that there was no way I could implement a formal behavior modification program, I began experimenting with ways to draft plans that:

  • Identify dogs with specific behavior problems that interfere with successful adoption.
  • List specific games or training steps intended to address those behaviors.
  • Provide detailed instructions on how to implement those games or training elements.
  • Provide some form of feedback on the effectiveness of these steps.

Teaching a correct “heal” as a means to encourage the dog to stop pulling when on leash

My goal is to include relatively inexperienced people with a set of consistent steps towards resolving our dogs’ behavior issues, that can be easily implemented.  In the case of our shelter, this is aided by having a formal training program for volunteers and having the volunteers organized in grades according to their level of experience and training.  The dogs are also placed in corresponding groups, according to their assessed difficulty of handling (volunteers are not allowed to handle dogs with bite histories or indications of aggression).  This assessment is based on their behavior during quarantine and upon the histories that are provided during intake into the shelter.  The challenge is to identify helpful activities that an inexperienced person can implement during a walk or play session. 

 The program we’ve established follows these steps:

  • An individual dog’s behavior issues are identified, along with the events that trigger the behavior(s) (antecedents) and the events that typically follow it (cons
  • equences).  This is typically anecdotal reporting from shelter staff and volunteers.
  • The shelter behavior team performs an assessment of the dog’s behavior, verifying and baselining those reports. Once the behavior is baselined for severity and its triggering events are identified, the behavior team confers and develops a set of games or training activities for the staff and volunteers to use when handling the dog.
  • The behavior staff also drafts clear instructions on implementing these treatments, the use of reinforcers, etc., for staff and volunteers to follow during walks, play time or other opportunities to implement the treatment plans.
  • These activities and instructions are published in an online chat forum used by shelter personnel. Paper copies are posted in the cubby holes used to store the individual dogs’ leash and harness.
  • Staff and volunteers provide feedback via the chat forum.
  • The behavior team performs reassessments on a regular basis.

Formal metrics are not being kept at this time, due to the varied personnel who are implementing the behavior management activities and our current inability to regularly schedule treatment sessions.  Hopefully, as more volunteers go through the shelter’s onboarding and training process, we will be able to migrate to a more formal behavior modification program for dogs with serious issues.

I’d appreciate feedback from any other shelters that have implemented low-level behavior modification programs using volunteers.  It would be great to compare notes.

 

[i] Shelter dogs with extreme anxieties | The Animal Nerd

[ii] Toby | The Animal Nerd

[iii] One Dog at a Time: Enriching the Emotional Lives of Shelter Dogs | The IAABC JOURNAL

Critical Skills Dogs Need: Coming when called

As discussed in an earlier post[i], there are several skills that dogs and owners must learn in order to live safely in our cities and towns.  The first key survival skill to teach a dog is to come when called.  This is needed when your dog is off leash and is getting himself into some sort of trouble, when you need him to come inside the house, when he’s annoying the neighbors, when you’re ready to leave the dog park, when someone leaves the gate open, etc.  It will help you to avoid emergency trips to the veterinarian, wildlife encounters or visits from your local animal control officers.

Ideally, the dog should know his or her name.  This is an important component of all training, simply because its an attention getter.  Calling a dog by his name lets him know that he should stop what he is doing and pay attention to you.[ii]  Unfortunately, this isn’t something that can be effectively taught in a shelter environment, where I work with most of my canine friends, simply because we don’t have the dogs long enough and because most owners will change their pets’ names upon adoption.  So, we have to concentrate on teaching “come”.

The first step is to have the dog in a controlled area, such as a fenced yard or large room, that is large enough for him to have some distance from you without being out of sight or earshot.  You can put a long line on him to keep him from going too far away, if needed.

The next step is to make the dog want to approach you.  There are a lot of things you can do, depending on the dogs’ preferences.  Remember, the key thing is to have him enjoy being with you.  The most important aspect of this is to never, ever, punish your dog after calling him to you.  Never do anything to make him associate “come”, or being called to you, with any negative action on your part[iii].  This must be all positive training.  So do something that makes him run up to you:  bounce his favorite ball, show him a high value treat, get all excited and goofy, or run away so he’ll chase you.  It really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as the dog happily runs up to you.  While he’s doing so, clearly say “Come”.  And then reward him when he gets to you, with a treat, toy or whatever you used as an incentive.

He’ll learn fairly quickly that “come” means good things happen when you call him to join you.  Once he’s gotten that message, you can gradually reduce the stimulus that you’d been using, and gradually change the reward to simple praise and a show of affection.  You can also add begin to add distractions, such as changing the environment that is used for training, scattering toys around, having other dogs nearby, etc.

Keep the training sessions short, just a few minutes at a time several times each day.  This will keep him interested and provide all the reinforcement that he needs to develop and retain this skill.

Summing it up:

  1. Never ever use a punisher for coming. Do not call him to you when you are angry or feel that you need to correct his behavior.  The training must always have a positive reinforcer.
  2. Figure out what he would value (treats, play, chasing you) and use that as the reinforcement for coming. Offer that to him as a reward.
  3. Once he reliably comes when called, you can reduce the reinforcer and substitute praise and affection.
  4. When he reliably comes to you when you call him, you can add in distractions such as other locations, or the presence of other people and dogs.

Although it isn’t a survival skill, it may help to add a “sit” command when he comes to you, to avoid having him jump up excitedly or do some other undesirable behavior.  Adding a “sit” enables you to keep him under control while leashing him up for a walk, for taking him home from the park, etc.  More on that later.

 

[i] Dog training – the most important things to teach them. | The Animal Nerd

[ii] Meyers, H.  (April 13, 2021) How to Teach Your Dog Their Name.  AKC.  Retrieved from https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/how-to-teach-dog-name/

[iii] Miller, P.  (2008) The Power of Positive Dog Training.  Indianapolis, IN.  Wiley

Dog training – the most important things to teach them.

Working with shelter dogs, my primary concern is to help make them adoptable.  This means addressing three areas of concern:  First, to reduce the stress and anxiety they feel just by being in the shelter environment.   Second, to address any behavioral issues they have that are obstacles to a successful adoption.  And, third, to teach them the skills they need to live in our urban or suburban world.  This post is about that third aspect.

Although it is vitally important for dogs to know, and respond to, their individual names; In my limited view there is no point in teaching shelter dogs their names.  We have the dog for limited periods of time and many adoptive owners decide to give their dogs a different name than the one they were assigned in the shelter.  When working with the pups, I concentrate on using positive interactions and responses, to reinforce positive interactions with shelter staff and volunteers.  This is a two-way street:  The more the dog enjoys being with shelter personnel, the more they’ll enjoy being with him, and more readily he will accept potential adopters.

When getting a dog ready for adoption, I concentrate on four life skills that dogs will need:  Come when called, Stay, Drop it and Leave it.  These are the things that can save the dog’s life.

Come when called:  This is the basic tool that owners need to get their dogs out of dangerous situations.  If a dog is investigating an animal that is in the backyard, getting too close to a lawnmower are power tools, getting too close to a pot on a hot stovetop or simply annoying the neighbors, a solid “come” command will get him out of that situation and back to the owner’s side.  It doesn’t need to be pretty or polished like we see in an obedience contest, but the owner must reliably be able to make the dog return to his personal control.

Stay:  This tool will help the owner to keep the dog from chasing animals or darting into a busy street.  Dogs need to know when to put on the brakes and freeze, and to remain in that same spot until they’re told to move.

Drop it:  Owners need to be able to tell their dogs to drop dangerous objects, and let go of inappropriate toys and other animals.  This will keep them from harming themselves, poisoning themselves, or harming other creatures.

Leave it:  Dog owners need to be able to tell their dogs to not grab, eat or pick up any particular item.  This will prevent them from injuring themselves or other animals they encounter.

In following posts, I’ll discuss techniques for teaching these skills.

Trigger Stacking – How to keep your dog from getting overwhelmed and overloaded.

You probably already know what trigger stacking is.  If you’ve ever seen a small child have a melt-down at an event or a party, or seen a co-worker go ballistic over a seemingly small incident, you’ve already seen and understood what it is.  Trigger stacking is the cumulative stress and excitement that results from a consecutive series of events[i].  It becomes a problem when that person’s accumulated stress reaches a level at which he is overloaded and goes ballistic.

The same thing happens with dogs.  Like us, they encounter a certain amount of stress in the course of their day and probably get excited about a few things, and their level of general arousal builds. Then, probably at the most inconvenient time, they encounter that “one last straw”, their excitement level exceeds their behavioral threshold, and they lose all self-control.  This doesn’t have to be the result of adverse or negative experiences; their overall arousal level can just as likely result from a series of very positive experiences. This has been touched on in previous posts on problem behaviors (Excited Biting / Arousal Biting | The Animal Nerd  ), and their causes.

For example, I worked with a shelter dog recently who had a very difficult time with triggers getting stacked. “Cal” is a people-friendly pit mix who had a tendency to become over-excited when being handled by volunteers or staff.  When he became so aroused that he went over his behavioral threshold he would start frantically trying to grab and tug anything that the volunteer was wearing, including shoelaces, pants cuffs, gloves, sleeves, hoodie drawstrings, etc.   Simply standing up and not responding didn’t work, as he would keep grabbing anything on the handler was wearing.  Walking him was not possible, as he would continually grab for the leash or his handler.  I should note that there was nothing aggressive or fearful in his behavior, he was just excited past his ability to interact with this handler and listen to commands.  However, there was legitimate concern that this tendency to go over the top would result in him losing his bite inhibition.  And, even if it didn’t escalate further, this over-excited behavior was a potential hindrance to getting him adopted.

So, why was this happening to a friendly and playful dog?  Consider his environment:  He was in a shelter – an environment filled with unfamilia

r and stressed-out dogs, unfamiliar smells and sounds, strange people, etc.  Strange humans would approach him and stare at him from outside the door and windows of his run.  Often, when the shelter staff entered his run, it was to give him food.  And handlers would often give him treats to occupy him while he was being harnessed and leashed up.  So, he was constantly in a stressed and excited state; when a handler entered his run to take him for a walk or play session, that would be the final trigger that sent him over his behavioral threshold.  So, what to do?

Cal and his therapy tug toy.  By giving him an approved outlet, he could control his mouthy impulses.

First, I recognized that I couldn’t do much about his baseline stress level from simply being in a shelter environment.  So, I concentrated on reducing the stimuli that accompanied being taken out of his run.  I began by making sure that I had his harness ready to go before I even started, so that I wouldn’t be fiddling with it while in the run with him.  Upon entering the run, I didn’t face him directly or remain standing – I turned sideways and knelt down.  I gave him a durable tug toy to mouth and shake – satisfying his grabbing impulse and giving him an appropriate alternative to a handler’s clothing.  Lastly, throughout this interaction I moved slowly and I did not use any treats or use excited “baby talk”.  I petted him on his sides, chest and under his chin, and spoke to him in a calm and friendly tone.  By doing all this, I was able to help him manage his excitement level:  He accepted the tug toy and acted in a friendly and excited manner – accepting pets and signaling that he wanted more contact.  He was still excited, and was practically vibrating like a guitar string, but he never went over his behavioral threshold.  Harnessing him and leashing him up was much easier and, by allowing him to carry the toy during a walk provided an outlet for his impulse to grab and tug.  After a while he began dropping the toy in order to investigate smells and relieve himself, then coming back and reclaiming it with decreasing excitement during the course of the walk.  When the shelter volunteers adopted this treatment, he was able to control himself while being handled.

 

Cal was just one example that illustrates how we can reduce the triggers that can accumulate and lead an already-excited dog to lose control of himself.

First:  Be mindful of the dog’s stress and excitement level.  Before any interaction with him, watch his body language for signs that he is stressed[ii].  Get an idea as to how much more excitement he can handle.

Second:  Check your own emotional state.  Are you calm, relaxed and operating in the moment, or are you focused on aggravations and frustrations that you’ve encountered during the day?  If so, you are contributing to his stress level.  Dogs use us for social referencing and will read your expressions and body language to determine your mood and respond to it[iii].  If you’re acting angry or stressed, he will be on edge as well.

Third:  There’s no hurry.  Take your time when you’re interacting with an excited dog.

Fourth:  Be mindful of your own body language.  Don’t engage in a staring contest, approach him directly or bend over him.  Stand, sit or kneel sideways to him at first without looking in his eyes.  Don’t reach over him when leashing or harnessing him.

Fourth:  Be mindful of his body language.  He will give you signals as to how you are making him feel.  If he starts giving calming signals such as yawning, lip-licking, etc., then stop what you’re doing.  You’re freaking him out.  Let him decide when to approach you[iv]

Fifth:  Don’t add any stimuli that aren’t necessary.  Don’t act excitedly, give treats or give commands that aren’t needed.   Don’t prompt him for behaviors that he has been given rewards for performing.  Just let him calm himself down.

Lastly:  Monitor his behavior the whole time that you’re working with him.  If you are walking him and he stops, freezes and focuses on a person or another dog, then calmly walk in front of him, block that distraction with your body and take him in another direction.  Make his time with your interesting and provide enrichment that let him bring down his excitement level.

Once he’s calm and relaxed, you can start adding toys and playtime, or engage in some training.  But sometimes, the best thing you can for a dog is to just relax with him and help him to bring down his stress level[v].

 

[i] McMullen, D. (nd). “He Never Does That.  Positively.  Retrieved from “He Never Does That!” | Victoria Stilwell Positively

[ii] Center for Shelter Dogs.  (nd). Dog Communication and Body Language.  Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.  Retrieved from https://centerforshelterdogs.tufts.edu/dog-behavior/dog-communication-and-body-language/

[iii] Merola, I. et al, (2012).  Dog’s Social Referencing Towards Owners and Strangers.  PLoS One 7 (10). doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0047653

[iv] Rugaas.T.  (2006).  On Talking Terms with Dogs:  Calming Signals, 2nd Ed.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

[v] McGowan, R.T.S. et al (2018). Can You Spare 15 Minutes?  The Measurable Positive Impact of a 15-Minute Petting Session on Shelter Dog Well-Being.  Applied Animal Behavior Science 203 (2018).  42-54

House training your new dog.  Part one:  Adult dogs

When you bring your new dog home, you can be certain of one thing:  There will be messes in your home.   Your home is a new environment for him and he doesn’t know the rules.  So, he will probably mark places that have interesting odors and he may relieve himself in places that look appropriate to him.  He will also be stressed and somewhat anxious, which may cause him to pee.   This is very common and is a normal part of dog adoption.

If you are lucky, you a bringing home a dog that has had house training to some extent.  If so, all that is necessary for you to do will be to show him the approved outdoor areas for him to relieve himself.  But, in all cases, the best thing for you to do is to assume that he is completely untrained and implement training from scratch.  Don’t assume that your new pet will understand your home and routine from day one.  If he’s from a shelter he is coming from a place where it was perfectly okay to relieve himself in his run.  And in any case, helping him with this one skill will help him to quickly adjust to living with you and will begin to establish your relationship with him.

Here’s how to get your new dog off to a good start.  We’re going to begin by assuming that you do not have any other dogs in the house.  We’re also going to assume that your new dog is an adult and not a puppy.

First, start him off right.  When you take him home for the first time, do not bring him indoors immediately.  Take him for a walk around your property and around your neighborhood and give him a lot of positive reinforcement when he relieves himself.  Praise and pets all around.

Second, you can use a crate to help with feeding.  Feed him in the crate with the door closed and keep him inside for a few minutes after he eats.  Once he’s done, take him outside to an area that you want him to use and stay with him until he relieves himself.  Again, give him a lot of praise when he does it.   FYI:  I strongly recommend feeding your dog twice daily on a set schedule, and that you pick up the bowl with any uneaten food after 20 minutes.  Free feeding your dog will make it difficult for you to establish a schedule with him.

Third, a dog does not want to pee or poop in the places that he eats or sleeps.  You can take advantage of this by limiting the area that he is allowed to have access to in the house.  Start with a crate, and gradually expand his living space with pens or baby gates, giving him more room and access as his training firms up.  It might be helpful to keep him on leash indoors at first.

Fourth, take him on walks and establish a routine for doing so.  Extended exercise and walking has the natural effect of encouraging bowel movements, and exposing him to outdoor spaces will encourage him to pee in interesting places.  As always, praise him and give him positive reinforcement whenever he relieves himself outdoors.

Fifth, when he has accidents in the house, do not – repeat not – punish him.  Don’t react to them at all if you can avoid it.  Simply clean the up pee or poop immediately and take steps to remove any residual scent.  There are two products on the market that are very good scent removers:  Resolve™ and Nature’s Miracle™ (I don’t endorse commercial products, but these both work).  Removing the scent is critical, as he will tend to reuse areas.

Lastly, as he learns that he needs to go outside, he will develop behaviors that will let you know when he needs to go.  Learn his body language so you can tell when he’s feeling the need to go, and to understand when he’s telling you that you need to take him outside.

The key thing to remember is that you are teaching him to relieve himself in places that you want him to use.  He wants to have go-to places and he wants to have a routine; its up to you to tell him what they are going to be.

If you are adding your dog to a family that has an existing, house-trained, dog then your job gets a little easier.  And a little more complicated.  I strongly recommend that you put the existing dog through a refresher course while you’re training the new dog.  There is a good possibility that the presence of the new dog might cause your current one to regress in this area.

For one thing, the new dog will be leaving new scents throughout your house.  Your current dog may feel a need to mark areas where he detects them.   This is normal dog behavior and shouldn’t come as a surprise.  You can also take advantage of this by having them go in your yard or on walks together, because the new dog will tend to use areas where your existing pup as left his own scent markers.  By praising the new dog when he does this, you are reinforcing a completely natural behavior.  By training them together, you are not only establishing a routine for your new dog, but you are also socializing them with each other.  Start this at step one (above), by having both dogs go on the initial walk around your neighborhood and property when you first bring the new one home.  This gives the new guy a good start and provides a way to introduce the dogs on neutral territory.

Also, if there is an existing dog in the house, this increases the need to establish a feeding schedule and walking/potty schedule.   If you leave full dog bowls around the place so that they can just eat when they’re hungry, you are making it difficult to determine which dog is eating most of the food.  And you are also increasing the likelihood of conflict between them as they guard their food bowls.  Feed the new dog in his crate at first, and take them both outside for after meal walks.  After all, you’re going to be picking up twice the poop now, you’ll appreciate having it on a schedule.

For some tips on how you should dispose of that dog waste, please visit Disposing of dog poo in a safe and eco-friendly manner | The Animal Nerd.

Additional reading:

Carson, L. L.  (2015).  Housetraining 101.  In Horwitz, D., Ciribassi, J. and Dale S. Decoding Your Dog. (pp 76 – 82).  Boston, MA.  Mariner

Hoffman, H. (June 30, 2020).  How to Potty Train a Puppy or Adult Dog.  PetMed.  Retrieved from How to Potty Train a Dog: Potty Training Tips for Puppies and Adult Dogs | PetMD

Miller, P.  (2008).  The Power of Positive Dog Training, 2nd Ed.  Hoboken, NJ.  Wiley.

Naito, K.  (2018), BKLN Manners.  Mount Joy, PA.  Fox Chapel

Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Three

In my earlier post ( Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Two | The Animal Nerd) I went through my recommended process for leashing a dog and taking him out of his run with the minimum excitement and drama.  Today, I’d like to talk about working with him outdoors.

First, before taking the dog out of his run, you should find out whether the shelter staff has drafted and implemented a training or behavior modification plan for that dog, and what it entails.  It may not be a formal document and behavior log, and you might find it to be as simple as asking whether they have any particular instructions for that dog.  As always, if you don’t feel comfortable working with that plan, find another dog to work with on that day.

Before taking the dog outside, ask the shelter staff what his day has already been like.  Did he have a vet visit?  Has he already had some play time?  Has he been seen by potential adopters?  If he’s already had a big day, it might be best to just take him outside and let him sit quietly in a nice quiet spot and relax.

Once he’s leashed and you have good control over him, take him directly outside.  The dog has been cooped up and will need to relieve himself – that’s a little bit of stress that you can help him with immediately.  Hint – always have a few poop bags in your pocket when you’re at the shelter.  Don’t try to do any training for the first few minutes, until he’s had a chance to work off his initial excitement.  If your shelter has an outdoor off-leash pen, you might take him to it so he can work off any “zoomies” that he might have from being cooped up, or you can provide him some enrichment by playing with him – that’s one reason that I favor cargo pants, you can always have a tennis ball handy.

However, if the dog is new to the shelter or if you haven’t worked with him before, I wouldn’t include any off-leash time or play in the first couple of times that you take him out.  When I’m working with an unfamiliar dog, my practice is to take him for a long walk on the shelter grounds and let him have a good sniff around.  I don’t include any training or play, and I try to not correct anything he does – beyond removing him from any situation that raises his stress level or causes an over-reaction.  Remember, he’s new to you and doesn’t know you.  You want him to associate you with a pleasant, relaxing experience.  I also try to incorporate quiet time, in which I find a pleasant spot for him and me to just sit and relax.  Let him get used to the sights and smells of being outside and learn how to get comfortable.  This is an opportunity for you to observe him and learn his behavior cues and characteristics – What does he focus on?  At what distance does he react to other dogs?  What are the signs that he’s feeling tense?  How does he self-soothe and shed stress?  This knowledge is invaluable in socializing him.  And simply experiencing being outdoors provides a great deal of enrichment to him, engages his brain and helps his emotional state.

Once you’ve had him out a few times, and he knows you, then you should be able to incorporate some light training or play time – in a closed, controlled area.  Although, except for leash walking,  I recommend against trying to do any training while you’re outdoors – there are simply too many distractions.   When playing with the dog, especially for the first few times, carefully watch his excitement level.  A lot of shelter dogs have a tendency to become overexcited when they’re playing and can become difficult to handle.  I’ve had pitbulls suddenly become overexcited during play and decide that my sweatshirt would be an excellent tug toy.  For this reason, I strongly recommend that you leave their harness on during the play session, and leave the leash attached for the first couple of them.  If the dog becomes jumpy or mouthy, you can step on the leash and reduce his movement until he regains some self-control.

When you’re walking the dog, remember that he is not your dog and that you are not his buddy.  He really doesn’t know you.  He may decide to head in a particular direction that you don’t want to go.  In this case, simply plant yourself and wait him out.  After he stops pulling, you can simply say something like “Let’s go” and head in the direction that you want.  Or, he might stop and freeze, or pancake himself and refuse to move.  If either of these happen, do not get into a contest of wills or a tug-o-war with him.  You can kneel or crouch down and wait him out – give him the choice of either doing nothing or approaching you.  Or you can change direction and head off at an oblique angle to your original plan. This usually gets him to go along with you.  Don’t get frustrated or let your attitude show anything except that you’re having a relaxing good time.

At the end of the walk, he might not want to go back inside the shelter.  If this happens, try taking him back inside through a different door than his usual one.  This is also the time to use some very high-value treats to help him go back inside.  And always give him a few treats when he goes back inside his run – not only does this help him associate the end of the walk or play session with a positive reinforcer, but by scattering a few treats in his run you buy yourself a minute to take off his leash and/or harness, and get out the door while he’s distracted.  This reduces the drama associated with leaving him inside, and prevents him from door-dashing while you’re exiting.

That’s it for today.

Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Two

Let’s talk some more about the best practices for handling shelter dogs.  Specifically, taking them out of their runs.

Assuming that you’ve gone through your shelter’s orientation program and received the basic instructions on safety and dog handling, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the best way to go about your volunteer responsibilities.  Some of the things I’m discussing may not be required at your shelter, but I recommend doing them anyway, as long as they don’t directly contradict any of their procedures or requirements.

First, wear appropriate clothing – clothing that it wouldn’t bother you to get muddied or torn.  Long pants are the best option to protect your legs.  I prefer cargo pants, as the pockets offer places to stow treats, poop bags, cell phone, eyeglasses, etc.  Wear work shoes or boots, or athletic shoes that won’t slip on a wet floor and are easy to clean – keep in mind that from time to time you will step in something unpleasant.

Avoid wearing sunglasses when you’re working with a dog that doesn’t live with you.  Dogs read our facial expressions very well and are constantly checking in with us.  They want to see your eyes and can get nervous when you hide them.  And avoid wearing anything around your neck when you’re dealing with a dog that you don’t know, including lanyards or scarves.  The last thing you want is for a rambunctious or over-excited pup to turn that into a tug toy.

Second, wash or disinfect your hands before entering the shelter, and between visiting any dogs.  There are diseases that can be passed from dog to dog, and you do not want to be the way they’re transmitted.

Third, check in with the shelter staff before handling any dogs to make sure that there are no changes in the dogs’ status, their physical condition or if they have any medical or adopter appointments scheduled.   They should know what dogs you will be working with while you’re on site, and what activities you have planned for them.

In my last post, Volunteering at a shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part One. | The Animal Nerd, I talked about introducing yourself to a shelter dog.  Now, once you’ve sufficiently gained his trust, how do you get him leashed and out of his run?  First, watch him for a minute and see how he reacts to you being there.  What does his behavior and body language Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu) tell you?  If he approaches you quietly; shows a calm, friendly demeanor or offers you a toy then your job is easy:  Leash him up and have a nice quiet walk with him.  If he does anything other than that, then take it slow.  Remember these dogs are stressed and over stimulated just by being in the shelter.  And, to them, you’re just another stranger who’s coming into their space.

First and above all else, your job is to be a calming presence and to reduce the dogs’ anxiety and stress.  If the dog is showing signs of fear or anxiety then, for the first few times you visit him, you can just sit or kneel down, facing away from him at an oblique angle, and relax with him.  Toss a few tasty treats near him and in the space between you to see if he approaches you and takes them.  Don’t stare at him, just be a friend and talk quietly.  Then leave him alone for a while.  You can try again a half-hour later and try again.  Wait until he approaches you and allows you to touch him before attaching the leash to his collar or attempting to put on his harness.

On the other hand, he may be over stimulated and be racing around you, jumping and mouthing at the prospect of going outside.  He may even treat the leash, harness or your clothing like a tug toy.  Even if he responds to a “sit” command, he’ll be vibrating like a guitar string and will only be able to hold the sit for a few seconds.   In this case, the key for you is to not become excited or overwhelmed, and not escalate his arousal and excitement.  Don’t shout any commands or corrections and don’t get into a wrestling match trying to harness him up.  And don’t give him any reinforcement such as bribes for allowing you to harness him:  Remember, you want to lower his stress level and prepare him for life in a home.  Try waiting him out:  Simply stand with your hands, leash and harness out of his reach and do not react to him at all until he calms down enough for you to get him ready for his walk.  If that doesn’t work, stop and get someone to assist you by distracting him while you get him harnessed.  Once the harness is on and/or the leash is attached, you can reinforce him with treats or praise.  Over time, this will become routine for him, and his level of excitement will drop.

Lastly, if, when you approach the kennel, he shows any sign of defensive, territorial, or aggressive behavior (teeth showing, low growls, lunging, warning barks), then don’t enter.  This should be reported to the shelter staff, and they may want to evaluate his behavior before having him up for adoption.  On the other hand, it may only be a matter of having you introduced to the dog by a person he trusts.  In one case, I had the opportunity to handle a dog with sever anxiety issues.  The first time I walked up to the kennel, he had an extremely territorial reaction – it looked like he was auditioning for CUJO.  But when he saw me reaching for the door lock, his whole demeanor changed, and he accepted me as one of the good guys.   But it’s a matter of having the shelter staff and behaviorists involved.

In all cases, when leashing a shelter dog do not – repeat not – stand in front of them and bend over them.  To a dog, this is an extremely threatening posture and can provoke a fear-based reaction.  My preferred method is to put myself alongside the dog, facing in the same direction that he is and have all contact with him as low on his body as possible without ever reaching over his head.  Kneel down and make yourself as small as you can while still being able to stop and stand up easily if he becomes over-excited and you need to stop contact and give him a time-out.

Next, we’ll talk about behavior on walking and socialization.

Dog Pulling, Part 3 – When to consult a behaviorist

This dog is reacting to something that he and the owner encountered on their walk.

In my previous post on this subject, Dog Pulling – Its all in the leash | The Animal Nerd , I discussed methods of managing and training a dog who pulls on a leash habitually.   I also went into detail on the best way to harness and leash a pulling dog, to remain in control of the walk, and some methods on reducing the pull and training him to walk politely with a human handler.

But these methods aren’t guaranteed.   There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution and pulling isn’t due to one single cause.  The dog may pull because of a prey drive (Squirrel!!!) or be reacting to something that he sees or hears.  He may be pulling towards another dog, out of either excitement or fear.  The pulling may intensify due to his frustration at being restrained.  At some point, it may become necessary to call in a professional.

Most dog owners do not have the training and experience needed to identify the cause of a dog’s behavior or to correctly determine their dog’s emotional state.  I routinely hear accounts of dogs suddenly taking off or acting aggressively with no warning and taking their owners completely by surprise.  And I have no doubt that this is what the owners perceived.  However, the fact is that dogs are constantly communicating their emotions and excitement level; the owners in these cases just didn’t see the behavioral clues that the dogs were sending them.

So, when in doubt, seek help.  If you find that your dog is lunging towards other dogs, people, etc.; or if you are simply having continued trouble with his behavior on leash, its time to get a qualified professional to help.  And by qualified, I mean a canine behaviorist or behavior consultant who has been certified by either the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC,  International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (iaabc.org)) or the Certifying Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT, Certification for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants (ccpdt.org)).  By seeking professionals who are credentialed by these organizations, you will be getting help from people who are not only experienced but have demonstrated knowledge in canine behavior and – most importantly – abide by a strict standard of professional ethics Certification for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants (ccpdt.org).

When you’re hiring a behavior consultant, here’s what to look for:

  1. Look for someone who offers to carefully observe you and your dog prior to identifying the cause of the pulling behavior, and then tailors the treatment of that behavior to the cause and conditions under which it occurs. If he wants to start in with a leash training session without first observing and documenting or recording you and your dog’s behavior, you probably want someone else.
  2. Does he take the time to ask you what result you want, or what you would like the dog to do instead of pulling your arm off? It isn’t enough to make the dog stop doing something, you must teach him what to do instead.
  3. Does he offer to “board and train” your dog at his facility? If so, find someone else.  Your dog isn’t a car that can be dropped off with a mechanic when it acts up.  The whole point of the training is for you to learn how to interact with your dog.
  4. You want a trainer or behaviorist who will abide by LIMA (Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive) principles, Force-Free and/or Fear-Free behavioral methods. You want someone who can help you reduce your pup’s excitement and anxiety level, so he can enjoy a quiet walk with you.
  5. An ethical trainer will use the minimum equipment necessary to reduce the undesired pulling. The proper use of collars, leashes and harnesses was discussed in a previous post.  Any aversive training tools, such as electrical collars, slip leads or prong collars, should be used only as a last resort.   If the trainer mentions these aversive methods as a standard training tool, find someone else.
  6. Take the time to review the CCPDT standard of ethics (above) prior to interviewing a trainer or behaviorist.

I hope this was helpful.  As always, you can contact me with any questions at headnerd@animalnerd.com or in Facebook @animalnerd.

Dog Pulling – Its all in the leash

As we discussed in the earlier post on this subject Dogs Pulling. How to enjoy a loose-leash walk with your dog. | The Animal Nerd, the first step in resolving the issue of a dog pulling on leash is for both of you to get out the door in a relaxed state of mind, without undue excitement.  At the risk of repeating myself, you can’t whip your dog into an excited frenzy and then expect him to behave politely on a walk.

The real fun begins once you and your buddy start your walk.  If you are looking for help in resolving a pulling issue, I can assume that the problem is already well established.  There are a few things to establish before beginning a treatment for pulling:

First:  First, is he just pulling because that’s what he does?  Is this just his normal response to being on leash, does he pull you towards something in particular?   If he just constantly pulls, or just pulling because he wants to get to the next interesting thing, this is a learned behavior.  He has learned that pulling gets him some reward or reinforcement for doing so.  He may be getting to where he wants to be, he may be getting attention and feedback from you, he may be enjoying taking you for a run.  In any case, he has learned that this is how he should act while on a walk. 

Step one: Hold the leash across the palm of your hand with the loop dangling from the top.

 

Before starting on having him relearn his leash manners, you need to have the right tools.

First of all, use a standard 6-foot leash, a martingale collar and a front-clip harness.  I prefer a leather leash, but canvas or any other strong fabric will work just as well.  The martingale collar has pieces:  a collar that fits over the dog’s head, and a circle of fabric that connects to the lead and gets drawn closed when the dog takes up the slack in the lead.  This is not a choke collar – when the fabric circle is drawn tight, it snugs up the collar to the dogs’ neck to prevent him from backing out of it without affecting his breathing.

With regard to the harness, for dogs with thicker coats, an Easy Walk Harness goes on very easily and works well.  For dogs with very short coats, like bully breeds, a Freedom Harness is a little more complicated to put on but has a closer fit with felt padding.  The key is to fit the harness correctly and snugly, so that you can put two fingers between any of the harness straps and the dog’s skin.  And the most important thing is to clip the lead to the front of the harness, on the dog’s chest.  I make a habit of connecting the lead to both the collar and the front ring of the harness, simply because they are both only as strong as the plastic clips used to fit them and to hold the harness straps in place.  By clipping the lead to both, if one of the clips should break, you still have control over the dog.

The key is to have the lead clipped to the dog’s chest.  This way, if he pulls on the lead, he finds himself pulled around to one side, towards you.  Never attach the lead to the back ring of the harness unless you are training him to pull something like a sled.  Many dogs have an oppositional reflex that leads them to pull forward whenever they feel a weight or pressures pulling them backwards.

How to hold the leash:   If you are holding the leash by its loop, or putting the loop around your risk, you are aiding and abetting his pull.   By holding the leash in that fashion, you are giving him all the leverage and allowing him to pull your arm out to its full length and pull you off balance.  The fact is, unless you have a truly giant dog, you are bigger and stronger and should not be pulled anywhere.

Step two: Bring the loop around the back of your hand and put your thumb through it.

 

 

When I’m teaching  leash manners, my favorite method of holding this leash is this:  Put the leash across the flat of my palm with the loop a couple of inches above the web between my thumb and forefinger and the rest of the leash trailing below the bottom of my hand.  Then bring the loop end around the back of my hand and back up from the bottom of my palm, putting the loop around my thumb.  This locks the leash in place so the dog can’t pull it away from me, and by having the lead trail out from the bottom of my fist I have all the leverage provided by my back and shoulder muscles.  Advantage, human.

Once you’ve established control over the dog’s ability to pull, the next step is to teach him that the real fun lies in staying near you and matching your pace.

The first exercise I use is to simply start with the basics.  Start small, in an area with few distractions, leash him up and calmly walk around, changing direction frequently.  Every time you change direction, prompt him by saying something like “This way!” or “With me!”  (I avoid using “Come!” or any other command that I use for other purposes).  And when he joins you in changing direction, reward him with a treat.  You can improve this exercise by making a small maze, using whatever is at hand:  chairs, folded tables, partitions, etc., and walking him through it, making random turns and prompting him.  The result is to teach him to watch you for signals as to where the two of you are going, and reinforce changing direction with you.

Another exercise is the “Lunging Drill”, which teaches him the radius of the leash, and reinforces staying with his handler.    Find an open area with a flat surface, fill up your treat bag with his favorite stuff, leash up your dog, and stand in the middle of that space.  Show him a treat and gently toss it outside the radius that he can reach while you’re holding the leash.  Stand still and let him try to get to it without correcting him or providing any feedback (be a tree).  When he stops straining at the leash, praise him and walk him towards the treat.  If he starts straining at the leash again, stop and stand still until he allows the leash to go slack again.  Then walk him to the treat.  Repeat the exercise until he stops straining for the treat and has learned that the best way to get to it is to stay with you.

Then simply close your hand around the leash, locking it in place. This provides stronger control over the dog.

These exercises should be done for short periods, only about 15 minutes at a time, two or three times a day.  Once he has the basic principles down pat, you can take the treat bag with you on your walks and incorporate the direction change game and the lunging game into your walk routine.   These simple exercises should increase his interaction and attention to you, and help in having him walk with better manners and without pulling or straining at the leash.

Keep in mind that walks are the high point of his day.  He experiences the world through his nose, let him stop and have some good sniffs without being rushed.  If he wants to stop and smell something interesting, let him have a few moments with it before prompting him to continue.  This will further reduce his excitement level and help him calmly move on to the next fascinating sniff.

In my next post, I’ll address dogs who pulling in reaction to something, which could be a person, another dog, a truck, etc.