Thursday, June 24, 2010

Common Puppy Problems (And How to Fix Them)

A couple friends of mine have recently added new puppies to the family, so this post is for them. Just some of the most common roadblocks new puppy owners encounter, and how to get past them in a positive way.

House Training

Probably THE number one question when it comes to new puppy ownership: "How do I convince my puppy to potty outside?" You'd think a lot of it was common sense, right? Not necessarily. There are a few approaches I usually offer, because not every puppy is going to be comfortable learning the same way.

Scheduling: Pretty self explanatory here. Set your puppy up on a potty schedule, and stick to it. At first, you're going to be making trips outside every hour. With young (2-5 months), or small-breed puppies, their bladders just aren't big enough to hold much at one time, and so potty trips need to be made frequently. There are also certain times when accidents are more likely: shortly after eating and drinking, after hard play, and as soon as a puppy wakes up from a nap. Be sure to take your puppy out at these times, as well as immediately before bed, immediately when you wake up in the morning, and immediately upon returning home after being out. It's a lot easier to prevent an accident than it is to clean one up (and getting the puppy out as often as possible sets him or her up for success).

Crate Training: This can be used as a house training tool if done correctly. Dogs don't enjoy standing around in their messes any more than we humans would, and whenever possible avoid toileting in their sleeping areas. When crate training, size is an important factor. A puppy should have only enough room to stand up, turn all the way around, and lay down comfortably. If the crate is too big, puppy can be tempted to turn one corner into a potty and sleep comfortably at the other end. If the crate is too small, obviously it will be an unpleasant place to spend very much time. Crates are best used in conjunction with scheduling- in the event that your puppy doesn't potty on one of your scheduled trips, you can crate him or her for 10-15 minutes, and then try another trip outside. This will prevent the common complaint of "But I just had her outside! And then I brought her back in and she peed on the floor!".

Tethering: Some puppy owners who are having trouble sending the message using the other methods can try this one. Put a leash on your puppy and then attach the other end of the leash to your belt loop (or some other convenient part of your body or clothing). This will ensure that puppy is at your side all the time (and not finding a place to potty in another room). It will also make it more likely that you'll see the imminent signs of needing to go out- whimpering, circling a small space, and "half-sits" for example. And if you do miss these signs, you'll be able to quickly pick the puppy up and take her outside after catching her "in the act".

The thing to remember when using ANY house training method is to reward the good and ignore the bad. When puppy does what you ask, and goes to potty outside, act like he or she just cured cancer. Tons of praise, treats, and attention. When an accident happens, clean it up and move on. Never punish a puppy for having an accident (yeah, some people still think hitting them with newspaper or rubbing their noses in the mess is an appropriate reaction...). They won't understand what they did was wrong, and you may end up making your puppy afraid to potty in front of you (even outdoors).

*A note on paper training. I don't like it. It's very confusing to the dog, who has no idea why sometimes he's allowed to potty inside and sometimes he's not. It can also be confusing as to why some paper is okay, but peeing on the copy of your thesis you left on the sofa isn't alright. In the beginning, a puppy has no concept of "inside" or "outside", and all paper training does is send mixed signals and change rules in the middle of the game.


If house training is the biggest "how to" question, chewing is the biggest complaint. Puppies explore with their mouths, and just about anything is fair game in their minds. If it's within reach, it'll probably get tooth marks in it sooner or later. But there are some things owners can do to save their favourite pair of expensive pumps from the wrath of puppy teeth.

The two most common causes of inappropriate household destruction are boredom and lack of exercise (okay, this is probably the ONLY thing Cesar and I are going to agree on). Lack of exercise is the easy fix- give the puppy more. If one walk around the block isn't making your puppy tired enough, you've got to up the amount. Make it two, and throw in an hour of fetch in the yard. A tired puppy is a good puppy, and a sleeping puppy isn't going to be able to rip the sofa cushion to shreds. If possible, take your dog for a walk before you leave it alone for any period of time.

Boredom can be the tricky one to take care of. Have options. Just like a child, a puppy is going to get bored of playing with the same toys eventually. The more appropriate things puppy has to play with and chew on, the less likely it will be for him or her to find something inappropriate. And make the toys he or she DOES have super awesome. Toys filled with food are both rewarding and stimulating- puppy has to use brain power to figure out how to get the food out of the toy, and is rewarded for chewing something appropriate. Eventually, though, the food is going to run out, or the puppy will get frustrated with trying and seek out something else to do.

This is where management comes in. Part of puppy-proofing a home (or area where the puppy is allowed) involves removing anything that might make a tempting chew toy. Granted, that's difficult with things like chair legs or sofa cushions or cords that are impossible or really darn inconvenient to remove from an area. They do make products, like Bitter Apple, that you can spray onto furniture to make it less appealing to puppy mouths.

And this is another situation where crate training comes in handy. A puppy in a crate can't reach the new slippers to chew on them, and will otherwise be kept out of trouble when the owners aren't at home (or are for whatever reason unable to supervise their puppy's play).


This is probably the most misunderstood aspect of puppy ownership. I hear pretty often "Why is my puppy biting me!?". But there's a major difference between mouthing and biting. Mouthing is totally normal puppy behavior. Remember how I said that puppies explore everything with their mouths? This extends to people too (and other puppies, and momma dog, and the cat, and so on). Mouthing is an important behavior, because it teaches puppies something called "bite inhibition". That is, a puppy learns to control the strength of her bite through mouthing.

If you've ever seen a group of puppies playing, there's usually a lot of rough and tumble, and a lot of nipping at each other's ears, tails, necks, and legs. Well, when puppies are taken away from the litter, and move into a house with humans, this play behavior continues- after all, it's the only way puppy has learned how to play with another living being so far. Owners often find themselves subjected to puppy mouthing- and sometimes those sharp little needle teeth hurt!

Rather than stop the puppy from mouthing altogether, it's important to continue the education he or she got in the litter, and teach them instead what's okay, and what's too hard. Stopping the mouthing completely will only lead to a grown-up dog with absolutely NO idea how much strength it has in its jaws (and that's a lot, by the way). A dog that has been allowed to mouth, but has been taught that it hurts is far less likely to do major damage if it ever does bite in the future.

To teach a dog that mouthing hurts, an owner needs to react as another puppy would. That is, yelp whenever teeth touch skin. A short, loud, high-pitched sound is usually enough to get the message across that what puppy is doing hurts (it's also advised that you offer something different to chew on). Some puppies respond perfectly well to this vocal sound alone, are happy to redirect their mouthing to a toy, and are more careful with your fingers the next time around. Other puppies think that noise was JUST like their squeaky hot dog and try to make you do it again.

If you've got a persistent nipper who just doesn't seem to get the "Ouch" message, the next step is to take away your attention. If puppy is on your lap, immediately place him on the floor and ignore him (if he's already on the floor, just ignore him). Stand up and cross your arms (so he's not tempted to jump back into your lap). Don't speak to him, don't make eye contact, and don't touch him- any of those things, even in a negative sense (like saying "No" or pushing him away), still give him the attention he's after. Wait for a couple of minutes, and if the puppy is acting appropriately (standing or sitting calmly), praise him and resume play, petting, brushing, whatever it was you were doing. For puppies that REALLY don't get the message, and start to mouth your pants legs, ankles, or feet instead, you may need to "ignore harder". Walk away, go into another room, and shut the door. Wait 5-10 minutes, and then come back out. Puppy will soon realize that mouthing means the end of the game and the end of your attention, and is far more likely to treat your fingers with more respect as long as you're consistent.

Jumping Up

Another common problem, and another one that arises because of the language barrier between puppy and human. When puppies great their mother, they jump up on her in an attempt to lick her lower jaw. This display is called an appeasement gesture- a puppy's way of saying "Hi mom! I'm not interested in being rough or playing, just saying hello!". So when puppy comes home to his or her human family, this is the sort of greeting he or she believes is totally normal. But most humans don't WANT to be jumped all over and have their faces licked, so it's up to us to teach puppy a different way of saying "hello".

Teaching an appropriate greeting is a lot like teaching puppy not to mouth too hard. If puppy jumps up, ignore him. A lot of owners are tempted to try and push the puppy off, but A) this is still a form of attention and B) puppy might jump even MORE as he or she tries to apologize for doing something wrong (not knowing that it was jumping in the first place that was wrong). The better method is to simply "be a tree". Just like with mouthing, stand still with your arms crossed, not even looking at the puppy.

But here's where timing is important. The SECOND the puppy stops jumping up, and has all four feet on the floor, praise him for doing the right thing. Once you begin to associate keeping feet on the ground with praise, you can increase the time between when puppy stops jumping and when you give him attention, and even start to alter the behavior to something more specific (for example, only offering attention when he sits, and not offering attention for standing, even if the feet stay on the ground).

Jumping can be tricky, just because new people probably won't realize your rules. It's pretty tempting to pet a puppy that jumps up, especially when they're small and cute. Be sure to talk to any approaching person and tell them not to pet the puppy until he or she is calm, so that they can offer the same sort of consistency while training. In no time, puppy will be sitting politely and waiting to be petted instead of jumping all over everyone.

Remember that puppies are only babies. They don't speak English, and they can't choose "right" from "wrong". Dogs understand "Do" far better than they understand "Don't", so always show your puppy what you DO want, instead of yelling or punishing for something you DON'T want. Set your puppy up for success and take failures in stride, and you'll both be happier for it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Things I Hate, Part 1

This installment: The Term "Alpha Dog"

Once upon a time, way back in the day, there was a zoo that had a wolf pack. "I will use this pack to study wolf behavior!" said a man*. And so he watched them, and after watching them went on his way and wrote a book about what he saw and how they acted. And then some other folks came along and said "Hey...dogs are a lot like wolves, aren't they? Let's just assume this wolf behavior study will translate to dogs. I'll bet there's a lot of good stuff in there."*

Okay, so what's wrong with that? Some guy wants to study wolves, and he does, big deal. And domestic dogs DID descend from wolves, right? Well, there are a few problems. One, and most glaringly, is that this is not a natural grouping of wolves. Back in the day, it was common practice to capture wild animals and stick them in zoos, and that's what happened with the wolf pack. Only they didn't capture an entire wild pack- they caught individuals, and stuck them into a small enclosed space together. Ever watch The Real World? Know what happens when a bunch of unrelated animals gets stuck together and none of them are allowed to leave? Yeah...something like that.

So what was observed in this captive group of unrelated individuals was a sort of pecking order, with constant conflict and a lot of aggression. And thus the idea that a wolf pack is led by the strongest individual, or Alpha, who then has to fight to keep his position as the head honcho was born. And then it was adopted into the dog training world because people thought they were pretty much the same thing.

Wanna know what really happens?

Wolf packs are a lot more like nuclear human families than hierarchical dictatorships. A male and a female come together, mate, and produce offspring. The juveniles stay with their parents for between two and three years, and then go off to find mates of their own (and thus begin their own packs, usually on adjoining territory). At any one time, a wolf pack is usually comprised of two to three litters of pups, each learning from mom and dad how to survive. Submission is offered willingly, and violence towards packmates is seldom seen. Interestingly, these new observations were made by the same person who had written the first captive wolf study. Nice to know that some people can still admit they were totally wrong.

The term Alpha, as it applies to wolves, means "the pair that mate"...when it's used at all. It doesn't mean "the strongest". It doesn't mean "the most aggressive". It doesn't mean "the one who eats and goes through doors first". Modern wolf researchers have tried to stop using the term because of all the misconception surrounding it. Unfortunately, dog trainers and the general public are a little slow to get the memo.

There was a time, about 30 years ago, when this Alpha Dog theory was all the rage. It was THE way to train. People were using Alpha Rolls (flipping the dog onto its back and pinning it until it stops struggling) left and right, jerking dogs around with choke chains, and explaining this, that, and the other thing as the dog trying to be Dominant- to usurp the human's position as the head of the household and make himself (or herself) the Alpha. There are some trainers out there who took those theories and methods, ran with them, and never looked back (or forward, for that matter).

Since that time, a lot of time and effort has gone into studying the domestic dog, its social behavior, and its learning style. And what has come out of all that research is that this whole Dominance Alpha theory is pretty misguided. There are a few reasons for that.

One, dogs aren't wolves. They might look similar in some cases, but hundreds of years of selective breeding and evolution separate dogs from wolves. Dogs are about as similar to wolves, socially speaking, as humans are to chimpanzees. That is to say- not very. As trainer Ian Dunbar once said, "Looking to wolves for dog training guidance is like looking to chimpanzees for child-rearing advice."

Two, we humans aren't dogs. I know, pretty obvious, right? Despite being animals, dogs are pretty smart. They're fully aware that we're not a big, two-legged Mexican Hairless. Most dog communication is non-verbal, through posture and position of the ears and tail. Well, a human might be able to mimic a posture to some extent, but we're lacking in the ears and tail department. So right off the bat, our ability to "communicate like a dog" is very limited. A dog will never perceive a human as another dog no matter how much "acting like a dog" one does. And the thing about dominance is that it doesn't translate between species. A dog isn't out to dominate a human any more than it is to dominate a squirrel or bird that happened to wander into its yard.

Three, as mentioned previously, in wolves (and dogs), there is MUCH more emphasis on submission than on "dominance". The adults in a wolf pack rarely use force because there's no reason to. Like human parents, they are secure in their knowledge that their offspring are not out to overthrow them. They don't need to bully their young into submission- respect for the parent and teacher is there naturally. In a wolf pack, where teamwork and cooperation are vital to hunting and therefore survival, a constant struggle for who's in charge would waste valuable time and energy. Instead, there is an emphasis on peace-keeping through submission. If there's only one deer leg and two wolves want it, the more submissive wolf (generally younger) will willingly give it up without a fight. It's worth noting that there has never been a documented case of a wolf forcefully Alpha Rolling another wolf- when a wolf (or dog) shows its belly, it's a willing gesture of submission.

Four (and connected to the last point), aggressive displays are reserved for individuals who are insecure in their position. Using the wolf pack example again (I know, I'm using that a lot after saying that dogs aren't wolves), wolves in the middle do occasionally squabble over a particular resource or to assert themselves over a sibling. The leaders, though, don't need to get involved with the squabbling because they're confident in their place as the leaders (also worth noting that the youngest generation don't quarrel with their elders either). So what does it say when an owner feels the need to physically assert themselves over their dogs? That they're not confident in their position as a leader, and that they see the dog as A) an equal and B) a threat to them.

Which leads to reason five: By trying to establish themselves as "Alpha", owners begin a cycle of conflict that is completely unnecessary. By giving the message that they're insecure in their leadership, they miscommunicate that there IS no leader- and so the dog begins to act accordingly, ignoring commands and engaging in other behaviors some trainers are quick to label "Dominance". That, of course, leads the human owner to go to harsher extremes to "be the Alpha", and the cycle continues. A leader secure in his or her leadership doesn't NEED to constantly reaffirm it.

Six, dogs really aren't out to usurp our position as head of the household. What on earth would they do when they got there? Their lack of thumbs alone would surely be a detriment to getting their own food. Humans control all of the vital resources of the house- food, water, and attention- and therefore are ALREADY the leaders. It's just that in many cases, the owners don't know that, or don't know how to use those resources to their advantage. See point five.

Seven (and I think maybe this is the last one...for now) is that most behaviors that some trainers want to label "Dominance" have other causes. They have absolutely NOTHING to do with the dog trying to "gain status" over the owner. A puppy doesn't jump up because he wants to be your boss- it's vying for your attention. A dog doesn't pull on the leash because he has dreams of subjugating you- he just hasn't been taught to walk nicely. Just about everything has been explained by "Dominance" by some trainer or another- from housetraining troubles to a dog barking at a lightbulb. Yes that's right. A certain famous television "trainer" once said that a dog was barking at the bulb because he wanted to "dominate the light". If that doesn't sound utterly ridiculous to you, it really should.

The truth is, aggression begets aggression. In a recent study, 1/3 of all dogs responded to physical punishment (being hit, kicked, grabbed, or rolled) with an aggressive response (growl, snap, bite). Compare that with more positive training methods, which resulted in aggressive response in less than 1 in 200 dogs. By getting physical with a dog, the owner sends the message that such displays are completely acceptable. Which can be a problem when dealing with children or elderly individuals, who are unable to use physical force to "dominate" the dog.

So if we aren't dogs, and dogs aren't wolves, and wolves don't use force to communicate anyway...why do some people still insist on being the "Alpha"? Seeing as it's true meaning is "one of the breeding pair", I think I'd consider using a different word.

And that's why I hate the term Alpha Dog.



Thursday, May 6, 2010

Welcome to My Madness

Hello and welcome to my insane ramblings!

I thought I might start with a little bit of an introduction. Who I am, what I do, why I'm making a blog, what you readers can expect to find here, that sort of thing. I think I should start by saying that I'm not a professional writer of any sort. Which explains why sometimes I start sentences with "And" or "But", and why some sentences are just thought fragments that wandered away from me as I was typing.

As the title may suggest, this is a pet-related blog. I have a lot to say on that subject, and this seemed to be the best outlet for it. I'm going to try and touch on a little bit of everything, from training tips to care advice and everywhere in between. I'll warn you all ahead of time, I'm quite opinionated and not afraid to say (bluntly) why I feel the way I do on certain subjects. I do try to make an informed opinion, though. Most of the hands-on experience I have comes from a year and a half of work in an animal shelter. I wasn't there long in the overall scheme of things, but I got to work with a HUGE variety of dogs, cats, and rabbits. All sorts of breeds, temperaments, and behavioral issues, plus on-site vet and behavioral departments gave me a lot of experience in a short amount of time. I've also done a lot of reading into things like canine behavior, training methods, pet care, and some common medical issues (*Disclaimer* I am also not a vet, and so the writings here should not be used to make any diagnoses!)

Alright, so we've established already that I'm not a writer and I'm not a vet (or tech). What I am is a passionate pet owner, an aspiring dog trainer, and a rescue supporter who sometimes gets tired of seeing so much misinformation and misconception about pets and pet ownership. I'm sure anyone with a job in the pet industry knows what I'm talking about. For every amazing, awesome, informed, knowledgeable owner out there, there's another who has no business owning an animal. Ever. Seriously, it seems like some people aren't even *trying*.

So much of that is just not knowing any better. Believing what they see in the media, or on television, or doing things "how they've always done them", or trusting without question things a "professional" tells them. Don't believe everything you see on TV, kids! So while there will inevitably be a lot of ranting going on here, I'll try to make it *informative* ranting as often as possible, and maybe change some minds in the process. At the very least, I hope to provide some food for thought. If I can make life better for even one animal out there, I'll consider it a victory.

Finally, a little bit (more) about me. Right now, I manage a stable of 12 horses, and I'm laying the foundations for getting my certification in pet dog training through the CCPDT. I discovered my interest in animal behavior while working at the previously mentioned shelter, and my ideal job would be working with "problem" dogs who have trouble finding forever homes because of their issues. At home, I have a menagerie of my own. The current count is two mixed breed dogs, eight 'mutt' cats, two degus (think over-sized gerbils), and a horse (who doesn't live at my house).

Thanks for stopping by! Tune in next time for the first installment of my top Pet Peeves.