Monthly Archives: April 2013

Is it really disobedience?

It was our seventh rally run of the day. Layla and I waited patiently at the start line, her eyes bright as she gazed up at me. When the judge gave us the okay to start, we began the course, my dog’s tail keeping time with the beat of my feet.

Photo by Robin Sallie

Photo by Robin Sallie


When we hit the third sign, I asked Layla to stay in a sit as I left her, and she popped into a stand. I asked again, and she went into a down. We circled away from the sign, then came back and she held her sit-stay as I walked away.

I had already noticed that Layla was striding short in her right rear leg earlier in the day, especially when she first came out of her crate. I had a friend watch one of our runs, and she noticed the same thing. She also wondered whether Layla’s left hip could be sore.

It was clear that Layla wanted to keep working. We had two runs left, both in our favorite class, Level 3. Not knowing whether she was sore from an old neck injury or something new, I decided to scratch those runs.

Because of our history and relationship, it was very clear to me that my dog wasn’t disobeying in the ring, but rather communicating. Sadly, this is not always the case, and I see many dogs who are corrected for “disobedience” when they are really trying to tell something to their people.

Remember, your dog cannot tell you where or why it hurts. He can’t choose which sports or activities he participates in. That’s on you, and it’s on you to make sure that your dog both enjoys and can physically do anything you ask of him.

If you use any compulsive training, you need to ask yourself very seriously whether pain or discomfort could be contributing to your dog’s behavior before you correct him. If you use motivational training, you better be damn sure that your dog isn’t hurting himself in his efforts to earn whatever reward he loves so much. Much like Layla will push through pain for the joy of working with me in rally obedience (and for the lamb lung she gets to eat after she’s done!), many dogs will ignore their physical discomfort in order to get a treat, toy, play session, or other valued reward.

Physical limitations can cause a whole host of problems that masquerade as behavior or training issues. Two of my rally students have discovered that their large dogs had hip issues after I pressed them to see their vet. One of these dogs would sit more slowly and reluctantly the longer he worked, and the other tended to “puppy sit” to one side rather than sitting straight. Had we approached either of these issues as a training problem and started drilling sits, we would have been causing unnecessary pain to these lovely, willing dogs. Putting these wonderful dogs into conflict by asking them to do something that was uncomfortable over and over would have been cruel, but knowing that they could have pain issues allows us to focus on working with them in such a way that we build their muscles and make the tasks we wish them to complete doable for their physical limitations.

Outside of the sports community, many behavior problems are caused by pain. Recently, I worked with clients whose elderly dog had begun growling at their toddler. The dog was clearly in conflict, eager to interact with the child but concerned about being hurt. The child would crawl on the dog, and he would turn away, lick his lips, and eventually growl. Once the parents took their dog to the vet for pain medication and started providing him with a safe place to get away from the toddler when he was sore, he stopped growling. He wasn’t aggressive, just arthritic. Growling was the only way he could communicate how very much it hurt him when the toddler climbed onto his inflamed joints.

When I consult with pet or performance dog owners, I frequently ask that they see their vet before further appointments. A cracked tooth, thyroid disorder, ear infection, or back pain can and will cause changes to behavior, and all the training in the world will do nothing if the physical problem isn’t addressed. I see a much greater number of allergies or GI issues with my anxious and reactive dog clients than with the dogs I see in regular training classes (and if you’re a researcher who could help quantify this, please contact me – I’d love to work with you!). Physical stress causes behavior changes: just think of the last time you were sick or hurt.

We need to be our dogs’ advocates. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt. Dogs are rarely lazy or disobedient or stubborn, but are frequently unmotivated, unable, or unsure about the task in front of them. Don’t be afraid to seek a second or even third opinion, either. Many of my own and clients’ dogs have been diagnosed only after seeing a specialist or sports vet who had more experience with the problem. Vets are only human, and no vet will get every diagnosis right every time. If you think something’s going on with your dog, keep pushing until you get an answer. You’d want those you love to do the same for you.

Have you ever had a physical problem masquerade as a behavior or training issue? How did you discover what was truly driving your dog’s “problem” behavior? Please share your stories in the comments below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Craig O'neal

Photo by Craig O’neal

“Dance first, think later–
it’s the natural order.”

– Mexican saying

Practice Makes Perfect: Managing Your Dog’s Reactivity

Last week, we discussed what reactivity is and isn’t. This week, let’s talk about what to do if your dog displays reactive behaviors.

First, remember that practice makes perfect. This old adage applies to behaviors you train your dog to do, but have you ever considered how it applies to unwanted behavior? Simply put, the more your dog engages in any behavior, whether you approve of that behavior or not, the better your dog will get at performing that behavior.

Phil Romans

Photo by Phil Romans

This means that one of the very first things you need to do if your dog is displaying reactive behavior is to figure out how to prevent that behavior from occurring. If you spend 30 minutes a day training your dog (which is a lot more time than most people do!), but your dog spends 8 hours every day barking at people and other dogs walking past your window while you’re at work, consider which behavior your dog is polishing up more. No matter how hard you train, you’re not going to be able to make much progress, because every day your dog undoes all of your hard work.

Preventing your dog from practicing reactive behavior can be as simple as blocking access to certain rooms, having him ride in a covered crate in your car, or walking him at less busy times of day. Sometimes, though, the answer is less clear. At first, it may seem hopeless to manage all of the situations where he tends to be reactive. This is where creativity comes into play.

When Dobby started barking out the window at passers-by, I had a hard time keeping him away from my windows. I rent a small house with a very open floor plan, which meant that I couldn’t just block access to the front of the house. Closing the blinds didn’t work either, since he just pushed them aside. Covering the windows with cardboard or dark construction paper would have solved the problem, but I wasn’t keen on the idea because I like to let lots of natural light into my house. My solution? I covered the windows with waxed paper, which prevented Dobby from looking out but still let all of that wonderful sunlight in. As Dobby’s training progressed, I was slowly able to remove one sheet of waxed paper at a time.

Being creative may mean changing your dog’s exercise routine, toileting him on leash instead of letting him run out into your fenced yard, purchasing some additional management tools like ex-pens, Calming Caps, crates, or a Gentle Leader, or no longer taking him to the dog park. Regardless of what it means for your dog, the more you can prevent him from engaging in unwanted behaviors, the faster your training will go.

Management is the first step in solving reactivity, but management alone is not enough for most dogs. Next week we’ll discuss training for reactive dogs. In the meantime, which management tools and tricks have you found the most helpful for your reactive dog? Please share your tips and stories in the comments section below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Julie Falk

Photo by Julie Falk

“The assumption that force and coercion free training doesn’t work for all dogs is like assuming that ice skates don’t work because you keep falling down.”

Debbie Jacobs

What is reactivity?

As a young dog, Layla would frequently erupt in frenzied barking on walks. The target of her barking varied: other dogs, children, creepy gnome statues in yards, or an unexpected noise could all trigger her noisy reaction. Once she started barking, it was difficult to calm her. She had a hard time focusing and responded reluctantly to redirection. Sometimes I would just have to drag her away, still barking for all she was worth and lunging at the end of her leash.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

While it comes in many different forms, reactivity is a common behavior problem that many people encounter at some point in their dogs’ lives. Simply put, reactivity can be defined as an overreaction to external stimuli. Dogs may be reactive to people, dogs, other animals, noises, motion, or any combination of the above. Some dogs are very specifically reactive, only responding to certain things (men with baseball caps; large, black dogs; skateboards) while some seem to react to anything. This overreaction can manifest as hyperexcitability, barking, whining, lunging, mouthing, pacing, panting, difficulty responding to well-known cues, difficulty calming down, hypervigilance, or any combination of the above.

Many of the behaviors that mark reactivity are also normal canine behaviors in certain contexts. The defining factor is whether the dog’s behavior is warranted in that situation or whether the dog is overreacting. It’s normal behavior for a dog to bark once or twice if they are startled by a loud and unusual noise. It’s abnormal for that same dog to bark frantically for ten minutes at a stretch every time the wind causes a tree branch to brush up against the house. It’s normal for your adolescent dog to get a little wiggly and excited when he spies a new dog while out walking. It’s abnormal for him to scream and lunge at the end of his leash every time he sees a new dog.

If you’re not sure whether your dog’s behavior is reactive or not, it’s worthwhile to consult with a professional. Reactivity can be motivated by overexcitement, frustration, anxiety, fear, protectiveness, defensiveness, or neurochemical imbalances. Regardless of its motivation, reactive behavior is treated with similar methods (barring a neurochemical imbalance, which requires medication alongside training). It’s important not to punish your dog for reactivity, as this will only increase your dog’s emotional arousal and ultimately may make the problem worse. Instead, work with your dog to teach him new ways to communicate his excitement, frustration, or anxiety, and help him learn how to control himself in the face of triggers.

Next week we will discuss how to work with most reactive dogs. In the meantime, please share your dog’s story in the comments below. Is your dog reactive? When did this behavior develop, and why do you think it happened? What have you found the most helpful to resolve your dog’s reactivity?

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Gabe

Photo by Gabe

“Let’s have a revolution and let our dogs be dogs. Let them be our faithful companions, acknowledge and welcome the fact they have thoughts, feelings and express themselves, just as we do.”  – The Truth about Wolves and Dogs

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by praline3001 on flickr.

Photo by praline3001 on flickr.

“We have a choice in how we communicate with all beings. We can choose to be on the defensive, or we can choose to proactively find things we CAN reinforce, and do so enthusiastically.”

– Debi Davis