Tips on how to raise a well-behaved dog
I am not a dog trainer, behaviourist, dog whisperer or any type of dog shrink guru. If I were any of the above, it would mean I would have to mainly train people who under-train their dogs, which is one of the hardest things to do.
Instead, my plan is to share what I have learned about dog behaviour in the course of 30 years of being a veterinarian and how it can help you raise the dog of your dreams. I had one and miss him very much.
The first dog I lived with was our family dachshund Gerda Von Strassenhoff. If you are wondering about her “surname,” I agree it is weird, but it is part of what European breeders did and possibly still do. They give dogs last names, and the stranger, the better. Gerda simply came with “Von Strassenhoff”. (BTW my team insisted they use this picture, so here you go, me with hair 48 years ago!)
In fact, I don't think she saw herself as a dog, nor did my father. She was our fourth sibling and, unofficially, my dad’s favourite child. Besides that, she was bitchy, moody, bit us often, and was jealous of anyone who came close to my dad, her God!
Skai was my second dog, and he was “a dreamboat.” Perhaps he came to me as a reward for all the abuse I had to put up with from Gerda. He was smart, sensitive, caring, empathetic, gentle and happy.
But even Skai was not perfect from the beginning. When I picked him up at a farm nearby in Vancouver, the farmer warned me he could be aggressive and that I should not take him. I can see how he had the potential to become a crazy, hyper, out of his mind, border collie with a short temper, but he wasn’t. He truly was “a dreamboat” of a dog.
What was the trick? How did Skai become a dream dog?
I was lucky to meet Kathy Gibson, a now-retired behaviourist who taught me how to become Skai’s best friend. She brought to my attention the most common mistakes that can draw the line between your dog becoming a canine angel or a canine “pain in a butt.” Here are some of them:
Mistake #1 Unintentionally rewarding bad behaviour
What do you do when your dog comes with a toy, wanting to play when you are busy? Most people's instinct is to stop what we are doing, grab the toy, and throw it to please our pooch.
The trouble is that every time we respond, we are reinforcing a habitual loop in our dog’s brain. We reward our dog's behaviour by doing what he or she wants us to do, which leads to the repetition of such behaviour. This is how some people become their dogs' full-time slaves.
I have heard many dog owners say: “But he is so cute.” or “How can I resist those eyes?" However, most people have a life to live and a job to attend, and will eventually try to break a bad habit. Unfortunately, habits are easier to form than “delete,” and if we stop cold turkey, most dogs become frustrated and unhappy.
I have had a few opportunities in my life to look after hyper, toy-obsessed, and demanding dogs, who expect me to be their servant the way their “parents” were. When I refused to give in to their demands they would have a temper tantrum barking, yelling, whining, nudging, and pushing.
The good news is that one can change such behaviour with gentle and kind, but strict, boundaries the same way a kind and loving, but firm, teacher does. Here is what you can do:
IGNORE THE BEHAVIOUR
This technique may sometimes work, but if you have an obsessive border collie or a lab, their addiction may be likened to a coffee addict waiting in front of a coffee shop that is closed due to a power outage. They will not settle down until they get their fix.
GIVE YOUR DOG A TIMEOUT
A crate can be a very effective way of calming an anxious or “busy” dog, especially if you start using it from an early age. Dogs are naturally inclined to like “denning,” and being in a crate often makes them calmer and somewhat relieved from their own “craziness.” Unlike people, I could not help myself in making this remark; dogs love directions, and they like their “leaders” telling them what to do. That is how a pack works.
Instead of displaying your emotions or talking to your dog when it misbehaves, just calmly move it into the crate. If your dog puts the brakes on, backing up usually works well.
Mistake #2 Using the words "no,", "off," and other words with a negative connotation
Imagine you are on holidays with your extended family and you want to reach for your favourite dessert. As you are reaching out to put it on the plate, your relative rushes in and yells at you, "No!".
How would you feel? I confess I would use a juicy word of some sort! The word "no" has a negative charge and energy that every dog perceives that way. No matter how well-meant a NO is, it is hard to make it positive.
If your dog is about to get in trouble by grabbing the chicken roast off your kitchen counter, if you are right there, reach out as calmly as possible, pull him back and perhaps attach a shock absorbing leash to a harness and prevent an accident from happening, without negativity.
Later on, you can practice setting boundaries with your dog by putting something tasty on the counter and making sure the dog does not cross into the “forbidden” zone.
I remember a situation when I dog-sat our friend's hunting dog, and he wanted to “catch” our cat. It took at least an hour to discourage him, standing between him and our cat, pushing him off calmly every time he wanted to cross. Every time he would back off and stay, I would reward him with a treat. Eventually, he accepted my request, and that was it.
The most important thing in such an exercise is to be calm and non-compromising. There are also occasions when such an exercise is not possible. In such situations, a crate or a harness and leash are a reasonable compromise.
Mistake #3 Having high expectations and putting your dog through more than he or she can handle
Once again, Skai, when it comes to being on the leash, Skai was a dreamboat, but teaching him healing and being responsive came with mistakes that I even now regret.
When Skai was about 4 months old, he was pretty good on leash, but I made a poor judgement call, thinking he was more “mature and reliable” than he really was. At one point, we were walking on a narrow sidewalk. He got distracted and stepped into the street.
I panicked as there was a car approaching, and this was the only time I yelled at him. It took years for me to undo the damage, and it was a big lesson for me to see how sensitive and impressionable dogs are.
Mistake #4 Jerking on the collar to correct unwanted behaviour
For as long as I have been around dogs and dog lovers, I have seen people trying to justify leash/collar “corrections.”
As I said, I am not a trainer; however, as a vet, I have seen the severe impact on the health of dogs. The neck harbours some of the most sensitive and important structures of the body. It is a pathway for major blood vessels and cranial nerves, and it protects the spine that governs the movement of the extremities and the rest of the body.
Collars also press on the region where the thyroid gland is seated, and any tug, pull, tightening, or jerk in the region injures the fine and sensitive thyroid and predisposes dogs to hypothyroidism.
I could write pages on the emotional impact of “collar corrections” on dogs. In recent years, there have been many articles and studies conducted confirming that, on the emotional level, animals are not much different from us. Keeping this in mind, I would like you to imagine the following situation: You are in your favourite neighbourhood, and you would like to explore a few shops and galleries and sit down with a friend for a coffee or lunch.
Instead, your friend holds a leash that is attached to a collar you are wearing. Every time you go somewhere else, your friend jerks on the leash and does it over and over. How would it feel? This is exactly how dogs feel.
Neck injuries are a serious problem, and leash corrections are one of the primary causes. These injuries are sometimes unrecognized by many guardians or veterinarians, which can lead to serious health consequences. Subscribe below to get links to important articles on this topic:
Mistake #5 Using an electronic shock collar
Since you have read #4, you can likely imagine the emotional impact that shock collars have on dogs. Some people argue that a shock collar is the only way to keep their dogs safe, but for a large majority of dogs, this is a false belief ingrained into people's minds by trainers and marketers of e-collars.
From the physical health point of view, sending an artificially generated current through the body makes dogs nervous, neurotic, and generally more difficult. The canine body is a very finely tuned system, for which proper functioning depends greatly on subtle electric impulses and flow. Logically, adding another current disturbs the impulse flow, but the full impact of the repeated electric shocks is still not fully known.
If you have been using an e-collar, the purpose of this message is not to blame you or to point fingers but rather to bring you to a level of awareness that will hopefully make you change your mind. There are other effective ways to make your dog behave and to create a strong, lasting bond and trust.
Mistake #6 Trying to tire a dog out by playing fetch or frisbee
There are many dogs that are naturally busy and active, especially when they are young. People often mistakenly believe that they can tire their dogs out by going to the park and chucking a ball or frisbee. At first glance, this would make sense; however, if your dog likes to play fetch often, you will most likely come to agree that such dogs are hyper and restless, and their obsession kind of takes over their mind.
Having lived with a border collie for 16 years, I observed this tendency in Skai early on. The more I played fetch, the more he wanted and didn’t know when to stop. Working breeds especially are genetically programmed to forget about their physical body and work, work, work.
Unfortunately, there is a limit to what the body can handle, and obsessive fetching leads to injury, premature aging, loss of mobility, and a shortened lifespan.
If you live with a ball-obsessed dog, try playing ball only in certain spots during walks, and ensure your dog gets enough moderate walks and exercise on trails through hiking and walking. If your dog does not want to stop and bugs you to throw the ball, just calmly put him/her on the leash and walk for a bit, then release again. Repeat this as many times as needed to stop the “nagging” behaviour. It will eventually work.
I have heard some people object that they want to make their dogs happy and that it is impossible to stop. Trust me, I have seen all the above. Reprogramming your dog’s old habits takes time, but it is very doable.
Mistake #7 Giving treats when a dog misbehaves to calm him or her down
The seventh mistake is very common in the following situations: when dogs are scared or afraid of other people, when dogs bark out of fear, or when they do not come when called and are eventually caught.
I could list many other behaviours, and perhaps, it may make more sense to outline when to be cautious of making such a mistake in general. Whenever your dog misbehaves or acts in a way you do not like, do not give him/her a treat.
Instead, reward behaviour that you want to promote and reinforce it. A good example is a recall. If you are calling your dog and he comes after the first call, give him a healthy treat. I am not saying that treats are the only way to make your dog behave; clicker training, for example, is another good method.
However, I have not seen dogs being spoiled by treating them for good behaviour. Once a good habitual loop is established, they will behave without getting treats and patting, and a happy word will work, too.
Mistake #8 Repeating a particular command or request multiple times
Do you have the experience of calling your dog over and over without him/her coming when asked? Or does your dog keep moving when asked to stay still?
This behaviour is one of the most common issues dog lovers have with their dogs and, sadly, one of the most life-threatening ones too.
A dog that does not come or stay when asked is much more likely to be hit by a car or injured in general. Repeating the command makes it less effective as dogs become “immune to it” and learn to ignore it.
Skai had perfect recall after I learned a very simple trick from Kathy Gibson, my trainer. Did you notice I didn’t say Skai’s trainer? She trained me to train commands inside our house in calm and quiet conditions first. The “come” command can be trained from a distance of a few feet, and if your dog comes, reward that response with a treat. After the recall is reliable, venture to the outdoors and increase the challenge by going to busier places.
If your dog does not come after the first call, simply ask him to stay or signal him to sit, and go and get him. If he starts playing games with you and runs away every time you reach out, you will have to practice the commands to wait or stay inside the house first.
I did this with Skai by using a doorway. I was on one side and Skai on the other. Every time he tried to cross to the other side, I would gently push him back by the palm of my hand with the same gesture that a police officer uses to stop a car.
Calmly repeat this until your dog stops trying to cross the boundary and give him a treat. Repeat this five times every day and then increase the distance using hand and voice commands.
As I said at the beginning of this article, I am not an official trainer but a vet who spent 30 years around dogs. I am also very grateful that I could spend 16 amazing years with one of the most well-behaved dogs I have ever met. The simple suggestions that I made here can make a huge difference to the health and happiness of your dog. I also know that a happy dog makes a happy human!
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© Dr. Peter Dobias, DVM