I am often asked about the subject of leadership, because it does seem to be a current ‘buzz word’ at present. So, I would like to address some of the areas that may help if you are experiencing any difficulties with your dog.
My work is at the more pressurised end of what might be termed as dog training and people come to me when things are at a low ebb, having tried everything else. This is normally called behavioural work and I come across all sorts of job descriptions, anything from ‘dog behaviourist’ to ‘dog listener’ or ‘dog whisperer’. I don’t claim to be any of the above; call me what you like, but I do it every day, have a passion for my work and strive for excellence in all I do.
So, to dogs. I recall working with a chocolate Labrador not so long ago, which decided to ensconce itself against the dishwasher (dirty plates and food scraps!) that was at the far end of a narrow kitchen. Not initially aware of how much he prided himself on this secure location, I approached and calmly slipped a hand under his collar to remove him…at which point he gave a low guttural growl as if to say “you move me one more inch and I’ll have you”. The look in his eyes confirmed the growl and I decided that to move away was prudent. I soon returned with a slip lead and he walked away without aggression. We put in place some new rules to show him what was available to him in terms of movement about the home and prevented access to the kitchen later on. He is now doing well with a caring family.
The vast majority of dogs are just great, BUT they require from you leadership, consistency within the family and the best start possible in early life. What do I mean by these words exactly? Well, it’s impossible for me to go into depth for every aspect of dog training and problem resolution here, because it would turn into a book, but I would like to expand a little more…
Leadership is an on-going (birth to death even) approach that will protect, guide and reassure any dog. There is not a single thing that you do to show leadership, but a combination of setting reasonable boundaries for a dog that allows it to relax and enjoy a calm life as a part of your family. Some of the components to develop good positive leadership would include…
Classes can be good, but in my experience I see too many dogs that have been through the classes and found everything too stressful. Too many barking anxious dogs, anxious owners over-correcting and over issuing of commands. Too much food on the floor and generally a little bit chaotic.
This is not what we want our young dogs to experience in terms of relating to other dogs at an early age. Too stressful. As I say, classes can be good, but I urge you to check them out before hand and to even stop if your dog (or you) finds it all too much. Meeting well-balanced dogs in an open-air environment free from these pressures will be far better. A few hours with a respected local trainer in your local parks and streets would be far more valuable as it’s geared towards real life situations.
Managing your dog
By this I mean things you can do in the home in particular to ensure your dog is being watched (more the younger the dog is…a little like children) to ensure his actions are acceptable whilst in your home. A very young dog that has complete freedom to go where it likes (inside or out) is heading for trouble. As the dog matures and it gains your trust, you can then allow him more liberty. Too many owners start off the other way round and then have to work to pull things back. I see the first two years as crucial in shaping a dog’s behaviour and maintaining boundaries is essential. With slower maturing breeds you may need to add twelve months to that!
Another area to maintain with any dog in the early years is ensuring that your dog is well mannered. Again, just like children, once you have a foundation of well-mannered behaviour, you can begin to enjoy what life has to offer more, because you know you can enter into almost any situation and come out the other side with your nerves in tact, your head held high. Aspects to address to ensure your dog is respectful and calm in the home and outside:
- Calm homecomings – reward calm behaviour, not over excitability. Sit = Hello
- Feeding manners – feed a good brand of food, a ‘Wait’ prior to allowing the dog to eat and respect around you when you are eating.
- Sleep and rest areas – allow the dog on furniture only on your say so and ensure that the dog sleeps away from you to encourage an independent dog.
- Doorways – calm and respectful leaving of the home at doorways and re entry. Train a simple ‘Sit and Wait’ for example. The same goes for car entry/exit.
- Heelwork – an essential component to ensure the dog is exercising self-control and following you. Head and body harnesses should only be seen as a stepping-stone to walking on a relaxed lead and broad fixed collar. Seek one to one guidance if you are struggling with this aspect.
The recall – suffice to say that a dog that does not recall is a worry to you as an owner and a potential nuisance to other walkers when outside. Worst-case scenario is that your dog causes an accident on a public road. Poor recall can also lead to an exuberant dog getting embroiled with other dogs in conflict…possibly leading your own dog becoming reactive to others as time passes. Not wishing to place a negative slant on everything, but I see it so often, so I am keen to address things on a preventative level where possible.
Exercise – a well-exercised dog is a relaxed dog and a relaxed dog is far less likely to spend that same energy on being destructive, dominant or indulging in any other unwanted behaviours. Work on finding the right level of exercise for your dog’s breed and age. This alone can save you a great deal of trouble.
This means that you are doing your best within the family at all times to ensure that you are all singing from the same song sheet. Children will need constant supervision and gentle guidance to begin with (age depending) to ensure that they too are doing their bit to show calm behaviour with the dog. Consistency between the man and woman in the home can be harder to achieve at times, as both can have their own ideas on how something should be dealt with. Suffice to say, that it is worthwhile to sit down early on and agree the way things are going to be done around the areas I describe under “good manners” for example; this needs to be extended across the dog’s routine.
With a rescue dog, much of this early training time may have passed already and you will be working with this in mind. However, should you obtain a puppy at 8 weeks of age, then you have a huge responsibility to go out of your way to socialise your dog. This single-minded approach can in itself take away most future problems, as you will be removing the element of risk of developing fear. Even though you dog may not receive the ‘all clear’ to mix with other dogs after it’s injections at about 12 weeks, it is essential that you are creative in introducing your dog to as many things as possible (dogs included!) to make them seem normal and acceptable right from day one in your care. This period closes down at approximately 16 weeks of age; so you can see that you only have a couple of months to go about this process. It doesn’t close completely, so intend to maintain positive meetings with all sorts for the first two years at least.
Prior to the ‘all clear’ of the second injection, you can allow the dog to mix with other calm, healthy dogs in friends’ and neighbours’ gardens for example. Keep your pup on a lead or long line to allow intervention if needed. To avoid this can be a mistake, as you will then only have approximately 4 weeks to socialise your new dog, this is simply not enough for some. Introduce as much variety as possible: Dogs and people of all ages, shapes and sizes etc.
Some keywords for you to consider: Dogs, people, cars, buses, livestock, pubs, towns, traffic, your local vet…simply drop in for a pleasant hello and leave again!
I am well aware that it’s easy to talk theory and that no single article or book will resolve the concerns you may be experiencing. It’s not unusual for me to visit a home and to see they have a number of popular books, they watch all the programmes (not always a good thing!) and they have done their level best to resolve things on their own. What can often make a difference is a trained eye can that see what particularly need addressing and to work with what we have in front of us. Dogs have a super ability to change and adapt in a very short space of time; this often leaves me both touched and impressed.
There is help available out there folks, you just need to make a number of phone calls, ask some direct questions to find out how the trainer works and handles dogs, then to make a well balanced decision that will benefit both you and the dog. I hope this article prompts some thoughts in you regarding leadership in particular, because all dogs require this as a foundation to leading a balanced life.
This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Nick Jones, for the CFBA, the CIDBT and their students of Dog Behaviour & Training