Updated: Jul 18
In my rush to get all my thoughts on the page, and prepare my home for the onslaught of illegal fireworks, I did not finish my complete thoughts on this topic. I did not put forth my interpretation of "controlling" the dog (ugh, that term). My bad.
Here's how I view control (and what I emphasize with my clients):
Take Care of Your Dog's Physical, Mental and Emotional Needs
I addressed this in Part One. To recap:
Appropriate exercise: Be careful of the "a tired dog is a good dog" mentality. While dogs need a certain amount of exercise per day, physically wearing them out does not address behavior problems. Also, over-exercising a dog builds an athlete. The dog will require more and more exercise in order to meet their body's demands. Over-exercised dogs can become over-stimulated, reactive and unable to settle. Be especially careful with how much puppies - before their growth plates are closed - are exercised.
Mental Enrichment: Food puzzles, snufflemats, the opportunity to sniff. Dogs are intelligent, social creatures. Some were bred for very specific purposes, like herding sheep. Dogs that have very little mental challenge in their lives can become despondent and/or anxious. Some perform repetitive behaviors associated with stress. Animals in a constant state of stress are more susceptible to behavior issues and physical ailments. *
Train Your Dog and Manage the Environment
Train Your Dog to Fit Your Specific Needs: There are certain behaviors that I think all dogs should have on cue: stay, wait, come when called, leave it/drop it, default check in with owner. Anything else is a plus. I tell my clients that my job is to give them the dog they want. Make a list of of household rules, and then follow them with 100% consistency. Let's not try to turn out dogs into mindreaders.
Manage the Environment: I put this at the top of my list when working with "problem behaviors." Sometimes the best answer to "how do I keep my dog from getting into the trash can?" is to keep the trash can behind closed doors.
The Most Important Aspects: Give Your Dog the Right to Say NO, and Don't Put Your Dog in Situations they are not Ready, or Able, to Handle
My dogs are fully trained on all aspects of their husbandry: nail trims, body checks, oral medication and eye/ear drops, having their temperature taken and grooming. However, sometimes they will pull their paw away when I am trimming their nails and say, "Nope, not today." AND THAT IS FINE. It's not an emergency, they're not being defiant or stubborn or trying to be an Alpha dog, they just don't feel like having their nails done that day. No problem, I'll come back another day. The alternative is to hold them down and get the job done. This can damage the relationship between owner and pet and what does the dog learn? That their behavior has no affect on the outcomes. Dogs either shut down and take it, or learn to speak with their teeth.
If I could impart one bit of wisdom to all my clients it is: please stop putting your dog in situations they are not ready to handle. I use the baby and the swimming pool analogy: would you throw a baby in a swimming pool and then get upset that it's not swimming and yell SWIM in an angry tone so they "get it?" Of course not, yet we ask that of our dogs all the time. We practice a few recalls in the house for kibbles, and expect them to recall from a high speed pursuit of a bunny in a dog park. It's not fair to let a dog sink or swim when we haven't put in the work.
Train your dog, or hire a trainer. Train behaviors to fluency. Work with a variety of distractions in a wide range of environments.
On a Personal Note:
Both my dogs came to me with severe reactivity: one to other dogs, one to humans. I was so desperate to help them, I decided to go to dog training school (the rest is history) to learn everything I could about dogs, training, ethology, applied behavior analysis. Today I can walk both dogs, together, with little or no reactivity. In fact, a reactive event is now rare - perhaps two or three times a year, and it's always handler error.
This is what a "controlled" walk with my dogs looks like:
I take out the leashes and then sit (with wiggly butts) in front of me. Howard volunteers to put his head through his harness, Richard prefers a flat collar but I always say the word "Snap!" before snapping the buckle shut and give him a treat (he can be sound sensitive, especially to a popping noise so close to his ears). We stop at the gate to the driveway. My hand on the latch is a cue for both dogs to sit and wait for their release cue. I release them, then wait for both to turn and offer my eye contact (default check in) before walking.
The first few minutes of the walk are both dogs sniffing the bushes to see who has been by and what's going on in the neighborhood (think of it as doggie Facebook and Instagram). When they look ready, I cue them "Let's go!" and we take off. We'll repeat this a few times: stop to sniff, let's go. If they find some trash or food, I ask them to leave it and they do. Often they get a treat if it was a really big ask - a chicken wing, etc.
My neighborhood is full of reactive dogs behind fences. When dogs bark, both my dogs will check in with me. Sometimes this gets a treat, other times simply a "thanks for keeping me safe, guys" and we move on. There are a few specific triggers I am very mindful of. My neighbor has an elderly bulldog that went after Howard when we first moved into the neighborhood. If we see this dog on leash, I will ask both dogs to check in with me. Check in means run back to me and sit, keeping focus on me. 99% of the time there is no incident. In higher stress times (like, the day after a marathon of fireworks) I use food for Howard watching the dog calmly and checking in with me.
If the dogs are off leash, I will randomly recall them. This is the one behavior where I ALWAYS use food, and high value. This is the behavior that needs to be most fluent. I don't want sluggish recalls. I don't train an "emergency recall" because every recall needs as close to 100% fluency as I can get. Sometimes I will recall them, put on their leashes, take the leashes off and release them to play again. Be careful not to punish the recall.
Pet parents have the responsibility to keep the public safe from their dog, and keep their dogs safe. It's important to for pet owners to know the best way to manage their dogs, how to read their dog's body language to recognize stress and discomfort before it escalates to aggression. Meeting the needs of their animal, training that animal to co-exist in their household, giving their dog the voice to say no, and protecting their dog from situations they cannot handle are the pillars of our training programs.
Aren't completely sold and feel like you need more control over your dog? Think about this: we control every aspect of a dog's life: where they sleep, what they eat and how much, when they play, who they can play with and what toys, where they can and cannot go, when they are groomed and how, and complete control over their medical care and invasive body handling. We even control when and where they may go to the bathroom.
Relax, you got this. And, as I always say, there are hundreds of qualified professional dog trainers out there that stand ready to help you. Reach out!
We welcome all discussion and comments! Please leave them below and tell us your thoughts.
*While I am certain there are "dog specific" studies on this, I am taking this information from the many studies done with captive exotic animals. Specific references can be found in these books: Second Nature: Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals, Enriching Animal Lives, Beyond Squeaky Toys: Innovative ideas for eliminating problem behaviors and enriching the lives of dogs and cats, and Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals.