Creating a Well-Mannered, Happy Dog
Lisa Kerley BSc, KPA-CTP
Dog Days Daycare
So your new four-footed family member has been home for a few weeks. The initial excitement is over and the reality of how much you need to teach him may be setting in. How are you possibly going to fit it in to your already busy schedule? People often focus on just one thing, such as housetraining or obedience, to make things more manageable. And what about all that conflicting advice on TV, the Internet and from well-meaning people? Even if you do have a game plan, it’s easy to get waylaid trying to sort through the overwhelming variety of information.
What can you do?
There are a few things to consider that can have a huge impact on creating a well-mannered, happy dog – and they don’t take a lot of time.
Whether you are actively training or not, your dog is always learning. Even outside your specific training sessions, he is learning there are consequences to his actions and developing associations with things in the environment. This is happening all the time. And you have the CHOICE to make your dog’s interactions with the world (and with you), positive and productive ones, or not.
But don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to be working on something every moment. Most of us are goal-oriented, and as there seems to be so little time to get things done, we can get caught up in getting results. Often in our haste we lose track of what’s actually happening with the little one at the other end of the leash. This can impact vital aspects of a dog’s learning.
Take, as an example, having your dog meet people. Depending on how you do it, it can have a number of different outcomes. If your only concern is getting your dog to sit, you may not be paying attention to what he’s taking away from the experience. Is the equipment you are using creating discomfort or concern? How about your handling or your demeanor? Is your dog at all concerned or unsure during the interaction?
By being aware of the quality of the experience, you can help create positive associations and build confidence in your dog. This will help to create a connection as well as build trust in you. In the situation above, we want the dog to walk away feeling great about meeting new people and feeling that you kept him safe and comfortable. And you can still help him learn to sit as part of the process!
Sadly, because of the way the situations are handled, this is often not the case. It is just as easy to create negative associations, damage the dog’s trust in us and slow down their learning. HOW things happen is just as, and often, more important than WHAT is happening.
Keeping it Positive
Keeping all your dog’s experiences positive may seem a daunting task, but really it’s not. You just need to keep a few points in mind:
Is the interaction helping to create a stronger bond?
The quality of your interaction and the type of feedback you provide your dog will impact the relationship you have. What you do and how you respond to him will either be building trust and connection and thereby strengthening the relationship, or not. This is especially important when your dog is concerned about something. How your dog responds to you in the future, including whether he looks to you for direction or chooses to give you attention is impacted by the relationship you are fostering.
Is the experience helping to build confidence?
How you set up interactions and experiences can build your dog’s confidence or damage it. Just as all socialization is not good, quality plays a part in this as well. You can set your dog up for success by focusing on what you like and make the right choice easier for him. Doing well feels just as good to your dog as it does for you!
When coming across new things, allow the dog to proceed as he feels comfortable, rather than making him interact. Give him space so he can find a comfortable distance when checking things out.
Is your dog learning something useful from the experience?
It’s easy to only react to situations and have your dog go through them with no benefit from the experience. By giving an unskilled dog too many options or conversely, micro-managing him all the time, he will not be learning the skills and lessons you are hoping for. As mentioned above, set your dog up for success!
With a bit of care and attention you can prevent your dog from leaving with a bad feeling that can affect future interactions. Rather than just taking it for granted that things are OK for your dog, it’s worth it to actively create positive associations by pairing daily experiences with things he enjoys – a treat, a kind word or an enjoyable activity.
Another important consideration is the equipment you choose and how you use it. Just as you can damage trust and confidence, you can also create negative associations to seemingly unrelated stuff in the time it takes for a single collar jerk or spray from a correction can. Even something as benign as a gentle push on the bum can be unpleasant for some dogs. Although this may seem a bit extreme, consider how you feel when someone stands too close, for example. It’s not really that big a deal, but it can be unpleasant and leave you looking for an escape route the next time that person appears. By simply removing these aversives, you will greatly improve the quality of your dog’s experiences.
All the considerations above can be enhanced by learning to watch and assess your dog’s emotional state and watching for signs of stress or discomfort. Understanding body language and what it means is an invaluable skill. Like us, every dog is different in the way they experience and feel about things. Watching body language will allow you to judge, moment to moment, how your dog is feeling and in turn, whether things are good, or need to be adjusted in some way.
These concepts apply to everything you do with your dog – when you’re just hanging out; playing; on a walk; encountering something for the first time. You are continually being presented with opportunities to strengthen your relationship, and build your dog’s confidence and skills. So keep these points in mind the next time you are together, no matter what you are doing. This attention and awareness will be invaluable in helping him have a happy, comfortable life.
If you have a young puppy, there are some things in his learning that cannot be omitted or put off, such as providing a well-thought out, positive socializing program. This part of your young pup’s learning is time-sensitive, and should not be delayed.
If you do notice something that you don’t know how to deal with, don’t delay in getting some good help, hoping it will get better with time. Seek the assistance of an experienced, force-free professional.
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