Keeping Tabs on Tad

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC

I like to stay in close contact with my clients.  This is especially true for cases which involve bites, or even lunging and barking.  With my newest clients, Tiffany and her dog Tad, I’m using an online training journal.  Tiffany and I share the journal on Google Docs.  Daily, or at least every other day, she adds an update on her progress with Tad.  I respond with feedback, and sometimes notes on how we can make his behavior-change plan more efficient and more effective.

The journal really helps all of us involved.  It keeps Tiffany thinking about our training plan every day.  She observes Tad more keenly and works with him more regularly, because she knows I’m expecting journal updates.  The journal also helps Tiffany reflect on her own progress with Tad, because she has to take moment to stop and record her thoughts.  Writing in the journal is a planned “pause and take a deep breath” moment.

As a behavior consultant, I benefit a great deal from the online training journal.  There are several ways a behavior change plan can get slowed down or derailed altogether.  One is poor execution.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about beating up the client.  Tiffany, as an example, is an extremely committed and intelligent person.  However, two weeks will have passed before our next appointment (even a week would have been a long time).  Much of the material she learned to help Tad is detailed and technical.  Mistakes happen.  It’s better to catch those along the way than two weeks down the line.  The online journal is very helpful with that.  As her coach, I can help her catch execution errors within a matter of hours rather than weeks.  Of course, there are occasionally problems with the training plan itself.  If an issue comes up on the training journal highlighting an error I’ve made educating the client, I want to be able to fix that immediately.

Tad benefits the most.  Two species are learning new information at once throughout this process.   One of the tricky parts of behavior cases like this is that both the human and the dog are putting brand new skills into action as they are learning them.  That can set both the dog and the person up for some added stress and possible mistakes.  For Tad’s benefit, it’s a good idea to have at least two human brains collaborating on his behavior-change plan daily.  Again, that’s where the online journal plays a key role.

Of course the journal is not a replacement for regular phone and email check-ins.  I do those with my clients as well, and that includes Tiffany.  The journal is definitely a more-is-better addition to the client-coach relationship.  We have two learners from two species taking in brand new information.  Add to that, in some of these cases the stakes are pretty high.  I’d rather not leave anything to chance.  And if everything is going well, then excellent; checking in is still worthwhile.  If nothing else, the online journal is a great way to remind Tiffany and I that we are both involved in helping Tad and that neither of us is walking this path alone.

Play Biting Hurts Too

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

You don’t need a dog trainer to tell you this, but I will anyway.  Getting bitten by a dog hurts, and putting the word “play” or “puppy” in front of it doesn’t make it hurt any less.  It does, however, say a lot about the intention behind the bite.  We sometimes call that the function of the bite.  It’s basically what the dog is getting for his biting effort.  Knowing that can help us stop the problem.

Dogs who bite out of anger or fear usually get relief when they bite.  Whatever it was they were angry at or afraid of, goes away.  If they were upset by an activity (being groomed for instance), the bite stops the activity at least for a little while.  The function of biting is to stop something, or make something go away.  These can be tricky cases for behavior consultants because part of the solution is to help the dog like the thing or activity that currently makes him bite.  (More on that another time).

Dogs and puppies who bite while playing are trying to get something going.  They don’t want you to go away; and they don’t want an activity to end.  Instead, they want your attention, your full attention, now.  The function of biting is to start something, or get something.  It works too, doesn’t it?  We may spend hours ignoring our dog, but the minute he grabs hold of our pant leg look what happens.  He’s now the center of attention.  We stop everything to attend to our little shark.

By the time I get called in on these cases, the dog in question is usually pretty good at getting people’s attention by biting.  I like to look for what gets the dog started on his biting rampage.  Sometimes it’s just the site of a person.  Other times it’s a fun game that gets out of control.  I also like to look at what happens immediately after the dog bites.  Most of the time the dog gets a whole lot of attention.  Remember, even scolding is attention.  In either case, we’re actually teaching the dog to bite more.

What can we do about it?  The answer is, a lot.  First, steel up your nerves and take a deep breath.  Biting in general is very impersonal.  It’s just a behavior that yields a result.  We can influence what starts the biting.  If you know what activity gets your dog going, avoid it for the time being.  (Example: if wrestling with your dog gets him started on biting, stop that activity).  We also have control over many of the consequences of biting.  If your dog is biting for attention, withhold that attention.  I recommend taking the process a step further.  The opposite of attention isn’t ignoring; it’s ending social contact altogether.  Put the dog in his crate for a short time out.  He’ll learn quickly that his teeth don’t get him what he wants, which is you.

We can and should also teach our dog good manners, proactively.  We don’t want to spend our whole relationship with our dog reacting to his biting.  Instead, show him what really gets your attention.  In my household, sitting, attentive watching and coming when called get my attention every time.  Tricks do too.  I especially like it when my dog, Stella, rests her chin on my knee.  Too cute.  Shower your dog with attention for those good behaviors, and always be on the lookout for your dog doing something right.

(originally published in Houston Dog Blog)