Touch Me Not

Michael Baugh CPDT-KSA, CDBC

It’s one of the most uncomfortable things for us trainers to say to a client.  I am always looking for the kindest and most tactful way to say it.  “I don’t think your dog really enjoys being patted on the head like that.”  It’s tough because the thing is, we humans love to pat and pet and paw on our dogs.

Ethologist and Author Patricia McConnell PhD was one of the first to shine the light on this basic disconnect between humans and dogs.   We humans are primates.  Our social interactions are played out primarily with our arms and hands.  Dogs are canines and they are notably lacking arms and hands.  Their social interactions are played out with their whole bodies, but primarily with their mouths.  So, it’s no surprise then to find new puppy owners bloodied on their limbs and digits baffled over why their young bundles of teeth keep biting them.  It’s also no surprise to see a dog duck away when their person reaches out to pat their head.

Here’s the rub (literally and figuratively).  Even when we know better, we humans keep on keeping on.  We don’t get it, even when we get it.  Case in point: that picture of me and Stella over there.  My face says, I love this dog.  Her face says, I don’t care just get me out of here.  I knew better but I just couldn’t stop myself.  Facebook and Google are littered with videos and pictures like this one, and worse.  People hugging dogs who clearly are uncomfortable.  Children draped over dogs who are at best tolerating the interaction.  We can’t help ourselves.  Almost daily we’re highlighting the difference between our species, photographing it, and publishing it for the world to see.

Sometimes I chuckle at myself when I forget and reach for Stella’s head for a nice pat.   She, of course, ducks away and I apologize.  The laugh is on me.  I knew better and couldn’t help myself.  Dogs tend to not like hands reaching for them; especially hands belonging to someone they don’t know too well.  Some dogs are more sensitive than others (Stella knows me well and still doesn’t care for that kind of greeting).  We forget because quite often we greet each other, including strangers, with an extended hand.  We call it shaking hands.  If we know each other even a little bit better, or if we’re in Europe, we might hug.  Hugs to dogs are very alien and offensive.  Dogs who drape their heads over another dog’s withers (shoulder area) often get in fights.  So do dogs who full-on mount another dog (sort of like hugging).

People who reach for the wrong dog get bitten too.  Sometimes the results are serious.  Children, unfortunately get bitten most frequently.  They’re the ones most likely to hug or even try to ride a dog.  It pains me to know some parents don’t know better and actually encourage this.  They grab the camera and log on to Facebook.  I cringe.  At least one dog related fatality this year involved a baby pulling himself up on a dog.  Those cases are rare and extreme.  It’s easy to blame the dog or the parents.  The truth though is that we all need to learn better ways to interact with dogs;  we trainers especially need to take the lead on this – teach – learn – teach again.  No one who loves their child and loves their dog wants things to go badly.  But it happens.

This doesn’t mean dogs don’t like to be touched.  Most do.  When I’m thinking correctly, I let dogs approach me first.   If the dog appears fearful, I’ll turn sideways to the dog, and I might bend at the knees to get down to his level.  I don’t reach into the dog’s space or make direct eye contact, the way you might do when you’re greeting a person at a business meeting.  If the dog approaches, I pet him on the chest or on the cheek by his ears.  Watch to see how he reacts.  If he backs away, I stop.  Of course, the overwhelming majority of dogs will love this.  Many will be exuberant and jump for joy (that’s another issue altogether).  Children are always supervised.  In Stella’s case, because she is particularly sensitive, interactions with kids are structured and brief.

Trainer educator Jean Donaldson got it right in The Culture ClashWe want our dogs to be like dogs the in the movies.  She calls them Disney Dogs.  They are cute and always nice, with human sensibilities and manners.  That, of course, is a myth.  Dogs have their own ways, their own sensibilities, and they are nonetheless still cute and nice.  I think they are more so.  Nearly perfect in fact.  I should remember that when I see a dear client looming over her dog and reaching out.  “Your dog is wonderful, and so are you.  Let me show you how he likes to greet people.  He’s so cute.

“Wait, I’ll get the camera.”

High Rise Potty Training

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

Dear Michael;

I just got a little furry baby from the rescue in my area. She is a mix of who knows what, cute and cuddly with curly fur. I live in a high rise apartment building and am starting to use puppy pads for training. I know there will be times when I cannot be there to take her out. How would you suggest I use puppy pads and crate training together? We are just starting and already unsure as to how to get the message across.
Thank you, Jess
Dear Jess,

Great questions!  Potty training a puppy is a pretty straight forward process, regardless of where you want the puppy to “go.”  Most dogs seek out absorbent surfaces, like grass.  Unfortunately some seek out carpet as well.  The potty pads are absorbent too, which is good news.  I can tell you, they are most effective if used in an area with hard flooring.  Don’t put them in a carpeted area.  If you want to train your dog to use the potty pads some or most of the time in your apartment, then lead her to the pad right after letting her out of her crate.  As soon as she’s done doing her business, praise and treat her.  Repeat this process often and she will learn the pad is the preferred indoor potty area.

(read more on All Things Dog Blog)

Getting Jumped

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC

We teach our dogs to jump on us. I hope that comes as no surprise. Watch how we interact with dogs, especially puppies. They run to new people with boundless excitement and jump up to greet them. We love it, right? Puppies are small and adorable. We bend down to pet them, chat them up with a little baby talk and sometimes even pick them up so they can kiss our faces. Puppies learn from almost day-one that the best way to get the ultimate human interactive experience is to, you guessed it, jump on them.

Apollo at 11 weeks (sitting politely)

It hardly seems fair that about 5 months into the process we decide to change the rules on them. But of course that’s exactly what we do. Adolescent puppies can be big and awkward. We may not have learned to trim their nails yet, so those are sharp enough to hurt us. Our puppy still runs with that boundless energy but he’s faster and stronger. Now that cute puppy just seems rude to us. But watch what people do even with older puppies. The dog jumps. We still pet. I’ve seen it hundreds of times. Even if we don’t like the dog’s jumping we still seem compelled to reward it with petting.

Stop. If we’re going to change the rules on our adolescent dog let’s at least be clear about it. No more petting for jumping. Let’s decide from now on the dog now gets nothing at all if there’s an accidental jumping episode: no touching, no talking, no nothin’. And be careful. There’s a trap here. Even punishment counts at interaction. Yelling at your dog for jumping or grabbing his paws or kneeing his chest are all reactions to his jumping (the latter can cause serious injury). Your dog is jumping to seek attention and sure enough you’re giving it to him. Stop.

Read on because this is only one part of the plan. And it’s the hardest part. Cutting off reinforcement for bad behavior (above) is not the same as ignoring bad behavior. Please remember that. We’re actually paying very close attention to solving this problem. Admittedly, it is very hard to let a dog figure out on his own that jumping doesn’t work. As a trainer I have no problem putting on my jeans and an old t-shirt and letting a 6-month old Golden Retriever jump on my until she figures out I’m not responding to that behavior (it usually takes less than 5 minutes). But I also know you may not have the patience for it. Turning your back on the dog helps. Leaving the room helps. Patiently waiting with your arms folded and your gaze averted to the ceiling helps. You’ve heard all these solutions but they are only part of the plan.

We’ve taught our dogs how to greet us the wrong way. Certainly we can teach them the right way. I love few things more than the sight of an energetic dog running towards a person full speed and then sliding into a sit. I guarantee you every basic obedience class in town teaches this (it’s called a recall – but most of us call it “coming when called”). The preferred method of teaching recall with a sit involves treating the behavior. That’s because behavior followed by positive reinforcement gets stronger (remember how much petting made your dog jump more?). So, treat and praise to your heart’s content. You dog will get really good at coming when called and sitting.

We’ve left a bit of room for error here and I want to tidy that up. A lot of dogs will sit for us, get a treat or a pet and then jump on us. I guess jumping must feel really good. Or maybe they can’t contain themselves. No matter, there is the simple solution of behavior management here. Let your dog drag his leash around the house (I prefer a simple 6 foot leash). Make sure you only do this when you can supervise him. Definitely do it when guests are coming over. Now imagine that cute 6 month old Golden Retriever bolting up for you and sitting nicely. While you praise, pet or treat her, deftly step on that leash at the same time. If you hit the leash somewhere in the middle she won’t have much room to jump up on you even if she tries. The leash will stop her a few inches into that jump. It’s even easier to do with a visitor since you’ll have the leash in hand to start. Letting your guest greet the dog while you step on the leash gives your dog a chance to learn how to do it right. Of course dogs who are shuttled away to a crate or taken on a walk when guests come over do not suffer. But they also don’t learn how to greet properly either.

Okay, let’s review this stuff.
1. Stop reinforcing jumping: no petting, talking or even reacting in a punishing way. Turning your back or passively waiting for the jumping behavior to extinguish can work but it takes heroic patience. (See step 3).
2. Teach the right way for your dog to greet: always come when called and sit for pets, praise and treats (there are tons of reward-based trainers in town who teach this).
3. Finally, management: block jumping behavior by stepping on the leash. This helps prevent your dog from successfully practicing jumping on people.

I can already hear some keyboards clicking away with a response to this blog. Yes, I know you or you neighbor or your Uncle Ralph slapped a choke collar on and solved the jumping problem faster than lightning by whipping the dog into shape. Cool. I don’t teach that method for a number of reasons. But debating force-based training versus reward-based is not really what this blog is about.

That said, I invite you all to share your experiences. Better yet, post a picture of you and your dog. Few things in life are as nice as a picture of a person and a dog in happy times. They’re not with us that long. So, live it up.