Observation skills are essential to understanding the messages that we are bombarded with throughout the day. Our busy lives leave little time for reflection and we tend to be reactive rather than proactive. As humans, we consider ourselves to be the superior race; as dog owners we look after our pets and treat them as one of the family.
As a dog behaviourist and trainer, I use my observation skills to solve problem dog behaviour presented by exasperated owners, whose dearest companion’s habits have gone beyond the realms of acceptability. Take, for example, Bill, a five-year- old chocolate Labrador who pulls his devoted owner, Karen, when out on walks together. The mere mention of the word “walk” fires Bill into behaviour that would suggest he is high on a diet full of e-numbers. Clip the lead on and he’s out of the door almost before it has opened and Karen is propelled along the road at a speed nearer to a sprint than the intended pleasant walk. I am sure that we all know what it’s like to be pulled along by a dog that could pull the chariot of Zeus singlehanded. chariot of Zeus
Upon my arrival I was greeted by Karen and Bill and invited to sit on the ample sofa. After Bill had completed his “welcome” routine, he sat on my feet and relaxed his ample frame against me. I nudged him away. The pleasantries over, it was down to business and I worked through my extensive list of questions that Karen was happy to answer. Pulling on the lead was the main problem presented, but the probing questions revealed that there were several other areas of Bill’s behaviour that Karen seemed unhappy with.
Jumping up, nudging visitors whilst they are eating, barging past and going through doorways first, not to mention Bill’s generally stubborn, wilful attitude when told to do things he doesn’t want to. Now, don’t get me wrong, Bill is a friendly dog and wags his tail a lot, especially when engaged in activities that he enjoys – like eating, sniffing and playing ball. Bill likes to play tug and wrestle on the floor with Karen’s partner, John, who says he always wins, but when he relaxes on the sofa, Bill will climb on top of John and just stand towering over him.
Bill is seldom left alone and tends to follow John around the home as he moves from room to room. Bill sleeps outside the bedroom door upstairs, but when John gets up, Bill needs a firm prompt to move him and even more encouragement to get him to go downstairs. If Karen is up first, she steps over Bill, simply because he won’t move even when she tries to be firm with him. Each morning, Bill is let outdoors to make himself comfortable and then tucks into a dish of brightly coloured kibble food that is waiting for him when he comes back in. By this time, John’s tea is brewing and Bill settles down to digest his food.
So, the main problem is pulling on the lead and Karen is at the end of her tether (pardon the pun!), because she feels like she has been ten rounds with Mike Tyson when she returns home after a walk with Bill. She is exhausted; has not enjoyed the walk and has reached the point where going out with Bill is not a pleasant experience. The next step, she admits, will be not taking him out at all.
This is a snapshot of a typical behavioural visit; the dog’s owners identify one problem, i.e. pulling on the lead, that needs to be fixed so that all will be well in their relationship. They love their dog to bits but have not taken a step back to see the bigger picture that reveals there are many more, perhaps minor, clues as to why their dog doesn’t behave as they would like – as my questioning often reveals.
It is quite clear that Bill is a dominant dog, because he is allowed to be. The “what’s in it for me?” ethos is obvious in this case. Bill will do as he is told when it suits him, but not when he thinks otherwise. Many owners have dogs that are demanding, pushy, headstrong, wilful or just plain stubborn. Some owners who are happy to allow this behaviour to endure, put it down to “breed characteristics”. But, when there is balance between owner and dog the bond is strong and the relationship is happy.
Recognising the problems that contribute towards the main one presented here, that is, pulling on the lead, is the starting point for resolving the issue. Dominance is often linked to aggression, but many dominant dogs are not aggressive, they just are allowed to have their own way. They don’t work to a set of rules and have not been taught manners, so they work to their own agendas. The lines of communication between owner and dog are blurred; unlike the relationship between a parent and a child, we can’t explain and reason with dogs. They live for the moment, which suggests that dominant dogs assume the role of decision-maker, simply because their owners have not. This is in contrast to wild animals whose priority is survival and the dominant (usually) male of the species ensures by decisive action that each member of the group acquiesces and knows their position. They are unlikely to challenge decisions and together they live in relative harmony.
Bill understands basic commands, although, like many dogs, he has never been to training classes. I suggested to Karen that we go out for a walk with Bill, but would put in place a new set of rules to stop him getting over excited at the prospect. So, Karen told Bill to “sit” and “stay” whilst she put her boots on and got his lead out. He was fidgeting to get up and was shocked when, as I prompted, Karen corrected him with a sharp verbal command – he stayed put! The lead was clipped on calmly and Bill was told to “stay” near the front door whilst Karen first went through then he was told “heel” and “sit” when outside on the doorstep before being allowed through the front gate – after Karen, of course. Bill was perplexed at first; I took the lead and just as he was thinking about pulling, I corrected him and he walked next to me on a loose lead.
There are many trees and lampposts that Bill visits on each walk to sniff and scent mark. To avoid him taking control during our walk, a short distance from the home, I allowed him a brief sniff and he marked a tree. This was his opportunity to make himself comfortable for the rest of the walk and he took it! I allowed him no further opportunities to sniff until we came to a small green and told him to “be quick” and led him on immediately he had finished his investigations and scent marking. He walked calmly on a loose lead next to me, so now that Karen had seen the demonstration and it was her turn. She had clearly watched intently, because Bill walked next to her just as he had with me. Karen was amazed and delighted. On the few occasions during our hour-long walk when Bill wanted to stop, he was prompted with the lead to walk on, which he did whilst wagging his tail, clearly enjoying a relaxed outing.
As we approached Karen’s home, Bill was told to “sit” and “stay” whilst she went through the gate, then again as we entered the home. Bill had to sit whilst the lead was taken off and was not released until Karen had put her boots away.
I stressed the importance of making decisions and impressing upon Bill that they were not up for negotiation. Sit means sit; stay means stay. Dominant dogs have usually learned their behaviour without being corrected or taught house rules. When repetitive behaviour is rewarded, this becomes the rule. There is no equality in dog society, the leader defines the rules – lead or be led. The choice is ours as owners. Any dog that knows its position within the household will be calmer, happier and more contented; it is when there are grey areas that challenges emerge and tensions rise.
So, before I left I suggested that Karen and John re-train Bill to move immediately when told; resist reacting to his demands and to treat him as their dog. The final piece of advice was to feed a natural diet – pretty coloured dog food may appeal to us aesthetically, but can stimulate hyperactivity and be the trigger for displays of unwanted dominant behaviour.
Checking on progress recently, Karen said that all the rules that had been put in place were working well and Bill does not pull on the lead now. He has even stopped sniffing throughout his walk, which makes it a pleasant, rewarding experience for them both.
Written by Sue Gilmore
This article appeared in Dogs Monthly magazine in summer 2013