Fixing Real Life Behavior Problems

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

The key to changing unwanted behavior is pretty straight forward. We teach other behavior to replace the stuff we don’t want to see anymore (e.g. we teach standing on all four paws when we want to see less jumping up on people). The truth is, in training sessions this is pretty easy and we get quick results. But, what about real life? What do we do to make sure our good results show up outside of training sessions?

First, make training look like real life. Will you have a treat bag on all the time in real life? No. Okay, slip a couple treats in your pocket and ditch the bag for now. Will you always be sitting, standing, on the floor, or in a particular room in real life? No. Okay, train in various positions and in various rooms. Create a picture of what real life with your dog looks like and train for that.

Then, make real life look like training. Teach your dog throughout your daily life with him.

IMG_9994Use your cues. Bring your training cues into everyday situations. This is the stuff you worked so hard to teach your dog in training sessions, behaviors on cue. Now we are putting that to use in the real world with our dogs. Most of my clients learn “mat”, “touch” (hand target), “come,” “sit,” “down” and other cues. Use those as needed. You taught them – why not benefit from them? Your dog will quickly learn these cues work for him in many different parts of his life. Reinforce generously.

Notice your dog. This is hard for some of us. We are used to cueing behavior (above). But, we are not as used to noticing when our dog is doing something right on his own. Let’s work on that. We want our dogs to self-regulate. We want them making the right choices without having to be told. Look for him doing that – notice it. Reinforce good choices every time you see them. (Reinforcement is an investment in his making more good choices in the future).

Reinforce creatively. Food works. We all know that. So, yes, use food. And, let’s also think of other things our dogs will work for. Play comes to mind. Praise? Meh. But, praise with a big smile followed by play, or food, or a walk, or access to other dogs – that’s pure gold. Mix it up. Always reinforce behavior you want to see more of, whether you cued it or whether your dog offered it on his own. But, make the type of reinforcement you offer a surprise. Good surprises reinforce good behavior.

I often talk about creating a culture of learning and teaching. That’s really what this is. We are making our life with our dogs a nonstop exchange of good for good. We are helping our dog choose good behavior. We are there to support that behavior with good things for dogs. Old fashioned training was a top-down sort of thing. This is a back and forth exchange – communication between two species. Cool stuff. Magical moments that – all put together – make up real life.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in helping families with dogs who have challenging behavior problems.

Fireworks Safety for Dogs

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Most dogs are at least mildly afraid of the sound of fireworks. Some are more frightened. A few are downright terrified. No matter where your dog falls on the scale. It’s important to help your dog stay calm and keep him safe.

1. Staying Put. Make sure your dog doesn’t bolt off in terror when the fireworks start popping. July 4th is the single biggest day for dogs going missing (and being found as strays). Some dogs literally can’t find their way home because the run so far in fear. It’s best to make sure your dog is safely confined inside your home (not in the back yard). And keep his collar with current tags on him just in case.

2. Block the Sound. Many dogs do well in an interior downstairs room with carpet. This blunts the sounds from outside. Add some white noise like a fan or music, and you may be good to go. Include your dog’s bed and a nice chew toy or stuffed Kong toy for added comfort. Make sure your dog has peed and pooped before the big fireworks get going. If you need to take him out later, do so on-leash for added safety.

DSC000173. Calm from within. Some dogs are inconsolable when it comes to the sound of fireworks. These are also the dogs who often have thunder phobia, too. Your vet can prescribe short acting anti anxiety medication that can definitely help. My dog, Stewie, takes medication for thunderstorms and fireworks. It has no side effects and it helps him a great deal.

Do not take your dog to a fourth of July party or fireworks display with the idea of “getting him used to it.” I’ll be blunt here. It won’t help. In fact it will likely make the problem worse. Better to enjoy the day with your fellow humans – and let your dog chill out as best he can.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in rehabilitating aggressive dogs and dogs with issues related to fear.

Dog Bite Prevention

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

None of us expects our dogs to bite. Even folks who have dogs who’ve bitten before are still sometimes surprised by their dog’s behavior. The reason is simple. Most dogs don’t bite, and those who do tend to do so infrequently and in very specific circumstances. We’ll get to that last part in a bit.

The best way to prevent bites from our own dogs is early intervention. No surprise there. Teaching young puppies important life skills and exposing them to the human world in thoughtful ways can prevent tons of problems, most notably aggression. Puppy classes for young pups (as young as 8 weeks) are an essential start.

StellaFaceAs your dog matures, the most important bite prevention skill humans should have is awareness. Notice your dog. Specifically, notice what frightens him or makes him uncomfortable. Fear fuels aggression. We can often prevent outbursts (and bites) by simply avoiding situations that scare our dogs. Otherwise, we can help our dogs around those situations. Ideally, we’ll help our dogs though the scary parts of life with some long-term training and behavior help.

Fear is the most common cause of bites, but it’s not the only one. Dogs in pain often bite people (we could argue that that’s fear of escalated pain, but I digress). Dogs who covet or guard food, objects, locations, and sometimes people can also bite (fear of losing those things? – Okay I’ll stop). Even in these cases, our job as dog guardians is still awareness. Avoiding, Working Around, and Working Through still apply. Be your dog’s advocate and help diffuse situations that frighten him.

Avoidance. This one is sometimes controversial. We humans are stuck on the idea of mastering our dogs and making them do things. As a result we have trainers who intentionally expose dogs to things that frighten them so they can show the dog who’s boss. Nonsense. If there’s something that upsets your dog and you can easily avoid it, do so. Keep the dog in another room, behind a solid door, or on a leash – away from the people he’s most likely to bite. That’s prevention.

Work Around. Many dogs can tolerate frightening situations if the scary thing (person) isn’t too close or too active. For short-term bite prevention, moving your dog away from the scary thing is always helpful (leash). Calming the environment (including our own human behavior) is also very helpful. Humans who don’t move, who avoid looking at the dog, and who don’t speak to the dog are doing great work. We teach children to stand like a tree: hold their feet still like roots, wrap their arms around themselves like branches, look down, and remain silent. They’re diffusing the situation and preventing a possible bite.

Work Through. This is training for longer-term bite prevention. We can teach dogs to behave better (not biting) in three ways:

  1. Teaching Tasks – This involves teaching your dog how to respond to situations that used to result in conflict, fear, or anxiety. It’s obedience training. But, some of the tasks are specifically designed to help dogs relax (resist the impulse to lash out). Note: the only way to successfully teach frightened and potentially aggressive dogs is with positive reinforcement training. Using physical punishment or intimidation will likely increase aggressive behavior.
  2. Teaching Confidence – This is about teaching your dog that situations (and people) that were frightening or upsetting are actually not so bad. Because we train with reward-based methods, your dog learns that whenever a new situation presents itself that we humans become joyful, praising and generous with food. This is called “classical conditioning,” and it occurs even as you teach tasks.
  3. Teaching your dog to make good choices (self control) – Our dogs should never be forced to “handle” or “get used to” a situation that is frightening or upsetting (see “Avoidance” and “Work Around” above). We can expose our dogs to situations in a calm setting and at a safe distance. In this way we give our dog the option to make good behavior choices on his own. Because we’ve taught him useful tasks and helped him learn to be less frightened, we are setting him up to make appropriate choices. Trainers of wild and exotic animals have known about the importance of choice in training for a long while. An educated and experienced dog trainer can help you better understand and apply it as well.

During training many dogs learn to wear a muzzle. Muzzles prevent bites by keeping the dog’s teeth away from human flesh. The Muzzle Up Project on Facebook is a great resource for us humans to learn about the use and importance of muzzles.

If your dog has already bitten someone, or many people, please see a veterinary behaviorist or behavior consultant. You can prevent future bites. This blog is a start, but it’s not enough. You’ll need more help. Fortunately, that help is available.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in aggression and other behavior related to fear in dogs.