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`Learning the hard way’

Carol Price is a canine behaviourist, dog trainer, journalist and author who states-

They always say that experience is the best teacher – and this is as true with dogs as with anything else. ‘The more we know and learn about dogs, the more future pain, or disappointment, we can often save ourselves.’ So in the hope that they will also prove of value to others here are 10 of the most important lessons I’ve learned about dogs.

Lesson 1: Life as a pet isn’t easy for dogs
Life with human beings as social companions can put immense psychological stress and pressure on dogs. They are constantly forced into scenarios – such as lengthy confinement, noisy/crowded environments, living with people/dogs who make them feel stressed or threatened – that in more natural or non–captive circumstances they would do their best to avoid. Much about pet life for dogs is counter-intuitive – as in, it goes completely against their normal instincts or expectations as a species. The end result can be chronic frustration, anxiety, and stress, which so often lies at the heart of many modern problem behaviours in dogs.

The better you prepare a dog for pet life, with appropriate early socialisation, training, and guidance, and with consideration given to his mental well-being at all times, the happier and more problem-free he will always be. And every single day your dog should experience at least one hour of unfettered joy and exhilaration – tail up, running free, sniffing, jumping, exploring open country –of a kind that makes him glad to be alive and living with you.

Lesson 2: Dogs need leadership and guidance
Dogs need strong leadership and consistent guidance from owners throughout their lives. Without it, they can experience perpetual anxiety, insecurity, and confusion. They can also become increasingly more defiant and manipulative in their behaviour.

Every day I see neurotic, aggressive, exceptionally demanding, and disobedient dogs who have only become this way through no one taking better charge of their behaviour, or setting firmer limits on what they can and can’t do. Similarly, the need to consistently reward and reinforce good behaviour in dogs so frequently gets overlooked.

With dogs, you have to get the balance right between being strong enough to inspire their trust, respect, and cooperation, but not so overly oppressive that you crush their self-confidence and self belief. You must also constantly give them the feeling that they are choosing, for themselves, to cooperate with you, as opposed to being endlessly pressurised, intimidated, or nagged into compliance.

The more dogs you own, the more vital it is that they all view you as a superior force who holds everything together in their lives and always knows what to do. It can take time, effort, and often quite steely resolve to earn true respect from dogs. But you always know when you’ve got it, from the way they behave.

Lesson 3: A dog can only be as good as his genes
Genes will dictate which way your dog’s brain works as much as they will his physical appearance. Everything from how a dog eats and barks to how trainable he is, and the whole way he perceives and reacts to the world around him, will have some genetic component.

The stronger the genetic components driving a dog’s problem behaviour, the harder he’ll become to manage, train, or just live with on a day-to-day basis. An ‘easy’ dog, on the other hand – such as one with a naturally more biddable and trusting temperament – can be successfully owned by just about anyone.

People who have always had genetically ‘easy’ dogs are never prepared for the shock of owning one who is very differently inclined. Owners, in the main, are also just too forgiving of breeders who don’t take the issue of sound genetic temperament in their dogs seriously enough.

Time and again, I will see breeders blame owners for behavioural problems in their dogs that are principally genetic in origin. Good handling and training techniques can greatly modify the problems of dogs with less sound genetic natures, but they will always be more difficult to own.

Lesson 4: When loyalty is really learned helplessness
What is commonly prized as a loyal dog is often one suffering from ‘learned helplessness’ instead. This psychological syndrome can be suffered by people as well as dogs, and describes the state of mind of an individual who has lost all sense of control over their own lives, as a result of persistent captivity and/or psychological/physical domination by others.

People who get taken hostage, and then become totally compliant with their captors, or those who feel unable to leave abusive relationships, are typical examples of learned helplessness in humans.

As owners we have to recognise how readily the state of learned helplessness can develop in dogs and be exploited, allowing us to subject them to deprivations or abuses no truly free, or free-thinking, animal would tolerate without some attempt at retaliation or escape.

We must better understand the mental price many dogs pay for living in captivity with us and always look for ways to keep them psychologically healthier.

Lesson 5: Never let a dog become over-dependent on you
The most common reason why dogs suffer distress when left alone is because they have become emotionally over-dependent on their owner. Basically, the dog comes to associate his whole survival with his owner’s presence, and when this is then abruptly removed he psychologically falls to pieces. This is not a healthy state for the dog.

Owners so often do not see the link between the way they indulge their dog when they are at home – flooding him with attention and giving him access to themselves and all household areas – and the emotional tsunami that erupts in his mind when this heady fix is then suddenly withdrawn and they leave him.

Building greater emotional self-sufficiency in a dog involves two important factors. The first is to get your dog used to being separated from you, for lengthy periods, while you’re still at home – using a stairgate to separate him if necessary. The second is to give your dog far more self-confidence and self belief. Constantly give him problems – such as search and scent tasks – he has to solve by himself, with his own brain, initiative, and senses.

Lesson 6: Aggression is normal in dogs
Humans, who can be pretty aggressive creatures themselves, often enter a state of high panic when their dog shows any kind of similarly assertive or self-protective behaviour. One snap, snarl, or growl towards another person or dog and suddenly they think they own some freakish monster.

Aggression in dogs, as in people, is actually a perfectly normal response to specific environmental challenges, be these real or perceived. It only becomes a problem when it is used too easily and readily by a dog, or used in an inappropriate way in an equally inappropriate context. When this happens we have to train dogs not to use aggression in specific contexts and just as importantly, condition them to believe that non-aggressive behaviour in these situations will always be more rewarding instead.

As long as a dog is getting some sort of reward from aggression, he won’t stop being aggressive.

Lesson 7: Sometimes you just have to be tough
There are many things you can achieve with positive reinforcement training techniques. They can be highly effective in motivating dogs to do specific tasks or competition exercises, and in steadily building up the confidence of dogs who are wary or worried about specific experiences.

At other times, however – and particularly with challenging, aggressive, or stressed-out dogs – you have to know when to stop trying to appease or bribe them out of bad behaviour with food and adopt a far more authoritative approach instead; calmly but firmly making it clear that the behaviour in question is inappropriate, undesirable, and will no longer be rewarding for them.

It is easy to reinforce the wrong behaviour, or state of mind, in a dog with food; people do it all the time through poor timing or reading of their dog. (And contrary to popular belief, eating food is not necessarily a sign that a dog is feeling more confident or relaxed; many dogs will still blindly gobble down treats when they are extremely anxious or stressed).

Ultimately, I’ve found that the most common reason why dogs abandon more seriously ‘bad’ behaviour is not in exchange for treats, but because they keep trying it and it keeps failing to deliver them with the rewards they desire.

Lesson 8: Don’t fight fire with fire
When dogs become extremely agitated, frustrated, excited, or anxious, it can be very common for people to try to stop this with similarly heightened energy from themselves – screaming, shouting, physical hitting, or violent tugging on a dog’s collar or lead. Or they may actively try to soothe or cajole the dog into calmer behaviour.

All this does is add fuel to the flames of your dog’s acute mental over-arousal; potentially making it 10 times worse.

Understand that the more agitated you dog is, the calmer you always have to be. Keep cool, say nothing, do nothing, and stand your ground instead. This way you act as a buffer that blocks and absorbs all your dog’s surplus energy, and he’ll return to a calmer state far more quickly.

Lesson 9: Spotting a true ‘dog expert’
Over the years I’ve studied and observed the work of countless ‘dog experts’. I know now that how you judge a true dog expert isn’t through what they say, but what they achieve – the consistent quality of the results they get when dealing with a range of different dogs or breeds.

To me a true dog expert is always someone who has owned and worked with dogs for many, many years and is clearly totally at ease in their company. It’s impossible to really understand dogs until you have spent much of your life living intimately with them and observing their daily interactions, body language, and methods of communication.

True dog experts will know all the important science of dogs, but won’t try to blind you with it. They will use behaviour theory as a tool to illicit practical solutions, not as a substitute for them. They tend to be modest but passionate people.

There own dogs, of course, will always be superbly behaved.

Lesson 10: Never get complacent about dogs
Finally, one of the hardest but best lessons I’ve learned is to never get complacent about dogs and their behaviour, or imagine that you can always predict what they are going to do.

With experience comes better anticipation and judgement, but still every animal’s mind is a unique place, driven by its own specific logic system.

It takes time, patience, and perseverance to unlock dogs’ problems and find answers to them, and when you can’t see any truly viable solutions then you have to be honest about it. No one, ultimately, will thank you for giving them false hope.

Dogs, for me, remain one of the most incredible species on earth; adaptable, obliging, intelligent, and heroically tolerant of our human failings. I am sure they still have so much more to teach me, but learning it is never going to be dull.

This article is reproduced with courtesy of Your Dog Magazine – Britain’s best selling dog magazine www.yourdog.co.uk