Buster – Don’t Eat the Vet!

Biting, nipping, mouthing, growling, snapping.

You little alligator you!

What on earth is going on?

All of these behaviors are really just a dog being a dog. It is one of a dog’s ways of communicating with other dogs. Most of the time it means the dog is anxious, nervous and feeling that it is threatened.

Buster has found this works to give him the safe space he feels he needs.

In order to deal with this I am including him in some group work with different dogs from my pack. Unfortunately sometimes when we remove a dog from its siblings early in life we also remove a chunk of their education. So dogs coming through rescue who may have been somewhat isolated or purebred dogs who are removed from the litter at 7 or 8 weeks do not have some of the skills they need.

This is the first lesson of a progressive systematic desensitization program to help Buster cope calmly with touch, hugs, restraint, paw holding, nail clipping, grooming and more.

Here is a lesson by Professor Marcus the Pit Bull.

Buster – The Leash, Friend or Foe?

Learning his ABC’s

Q. Why do dogs pull on the leash? 

a) Because they don’t like feeling restrained?

b) Because they think they know where they are going?

c) Because they think that if they pull you they will get there faster?

d) Because they have learned that when they pull your arm is like elastic?

e) Because when they pull they get closer to where the interesting smells are?

f) So they get to where they want to be?

All of the above!

Leash, Friend or Foe?

Jaz the German Shepherd, proudly leash walking in a great “heel” position with her owner.

The leash is your friend.

It should feel like an umbilical cord hanging in the breeze connecting you and your loved one. You can communicate through the leash in ways that will amaze you.

Most people communicate through the leash as if they are dancing in the dark. They are doing the waltz and their dog is doing the mosh-pit special! Someone is going to get their toes trodden on. They have no idea. Train the dog so both he and you are dancing the same dance, it feels awesome!

Your goal.

The goal is to train your dog so that the leash is superfluous. The law says that you should leash your dog so that is nearly always a good idea. If you are using the leash for restraint, guidance or worst of all physical punishment then you failed to do the training necessary for success. Using the leash can be the cue for your dog to understand that calm, serene and attentive behavior is now expected.

Q. Why do dogs pull on the leash? 

A. Because they don’t like feeling restrained?

With most animals there is something called an opposition reflex, when you push them they push back, when you pull them back they brace and restrain and if they can they will pull forward.

How to train a dog to pull on a leash

That is how you teach a dog to pull on leash, put them in a harness and restrain them gently, you can observe the balance change, leaning forward slightly as their muscles tension. Gradually at first you will feel them pulling forwards, restrain them a little harder and they will pull a little harder. If you repeat this the dog will brace into a pulling posture and over a short period you can see that he will become stronger. Almost like the world strong man competitions where they are pulling trucks. When my Yellow Labrador, Teddy, (also known as Boss Dog) was younger he was a very powerful dog and could pull a Range Rover when he was in harness.

Leash Aggression

The other challenge, a not insignificant point, is that when the dog tensions into the leash or harness, that to another dog even hundreds of feet away, the posture they assume feels, on a primal level, predatorial and aggressive.

They are not seen to be calm and stable but have their weight forward of their balance point. Even subtle movements, fractions of an inch, are very apparent to dogs who are experts at reading body language and predicting what is going to happen next.

This is a survival mechanism honed over thousands of years, sometimes you are the predator, sometimes the prey. This sets up tension between the two dogs which escalates into postures and voice reactions and leads to “leash aggression” descriptions by the owners.

Owners frequently report that the dog is charming in an off leash scenario with almost all dogs and yet when he is on leash he turns into the Tasmanian Devil. What if the factor is not the leash, it is the owners tension in restraining the dog and causing this reactivity? Maybe?

Walking on a slack leash

Curiously, Restraining their dog on a leash is the way most people try to train their dog to walk on a slack leash. Interspersed with jerks on the leash, barking at the dog “Heel, HEEl, BUSTER HEEEL!” and copious amounts of swearing. Then in frustration spending hundreds of dollars in the pet store buying anything and sometimes everything that promises “no pull”!

Doomed to failure?

Ya think?

Here is a clip of Buster on his first loose leash walking training session, the goal is for him to be able to do this in places of high distraction, reliably.

At the moment I set him up for success as much as I can so that I can find the correct behavior, add a verbal label when he is actually doing the correct behavior and reward him. You will hear a click at the end as he managed to do several strides consecutively, positioned well and attending to me on a slack leash. This click is to mark the correct behavior and is attached to a reward that will arrive shortly.

You will notice I am wearing a waist-leash, in fact I have one leash that fits exactly around my waist and his normal leash attached to that. Look for the action, it is a game, Buster loves games, I am the center of his attention for a lot of the time here. This is very early in his training but you can see he has potential to extend the duration of this behavior without once using the leash or collar for anything other than stopping him running off into the road or after a squirrel. (He is only five months old!)

Buster – Equipment choices and the role of exercise in effective dog training

Buster is safe, relaxed, content and in the shade. He is protected from people who want to invade his personal space and pet him. Almost like being in a crate or den. He can be easily restrained but is not being restrained. (Note the slack leash) Down stay works in a cafe, restaurant or at a friend’s house. In the house or on the patio. Safe, not invading people’s personal space by jumping up or begging for food. Good Boy, Buster!

So now I have Buster in a safe environment (see Buster – setting up for success)

What equipment do I need to take him through kindergarten?

Buy the store – not!

I have decided not to give you a list of stuff to go out and buy, over the next few weeks I will introduce equipment that will help and support our goal of having Buster be the best dog he can be and explain as I am going along what, why and how to use each one. You can then choose whether you focus on that particular behavior and think the equipment will help you achieve your goal. Bear in mind that I am an acknowledged equipment junkie and have, over a period of many years, literally bought every new piece of equipment with every promise of making life easier, the dog smarter, and taking away my clients pain in the most effective way possible. I have come to the conclusion after spending thousands of dollars that if you learn the basic principles of how dogs learn and you apply them diligently you will get the results you deserve. All you really need is a leash, a collar and a piece of rope (and even those are not absolutely essential if you are stuck shipwrecked on a desert island with a dog). All the rest is profit for the pet stores.

Profit is not a dirty word. It makes the world go around. When I spend money in a pet store and they make a profit they stay in business, provide better service, they add stock, something that I might really need will be on the shelf instead of having to order it. They are happy, I like being around happy people. They employ people, employment is good, it gives people a sense of purpose and then they have money to spend as well. This is why I like to spend in the local stores, the currency stays in the neighborhood and we all profit from that in the end. It is healthy for the community.

If you really think that the right way to teach your dog not to pull on the leash is to tie his elbows together with some kind of harness for the rest of his life then I don’t think you will be reading this blog trying to learn something new.

Regardless of what the all night channel tells you!

Those six-pack abs for guys, those overnight wrinkle reducing creams for ladies, or vice versa, are hallucinations!

There are no short cuts, magic leashes, magic collars or magic sprays or lotions.

Here is a clue, train the dog to walk on a slack leash! Then you don’t even need a leash!

Learning is faster and easier for everyone, human and dog, when you reduce anxiety.

The first few days I am going to take Buster out in public and evaluate his performance, his behaviors and his personality. I am not going to correct him at all. I don’t want to be part of the problem. It would be totally unfair to be trying to correct him for doing something that comes naturally, or that he has already learned, when I have not taught him what it is I do want him to do. I watch him very closely all the time, looking for subtle clues and not so subtle clues that will give me accurate information about his wants and needs. This evaluation gives me the structure and detail for his training program to address his sensitivities. Each dog is different. The basic training of tricks is simple but unless I address his individual emotional stressors he will never be all he can be. The anxiety would also make the training harder, slower and certainly more stressful than necessary. This would cause frustration and tension for both of us, but more importantly it would rely on my presence ( my authority, skill and experience) for him to perform the behaviors and would not transfer easily to his family. That is not learning what we want him to learn. I hate it when that happens, learning is faster and easier for everyone, human and dog, when you reduce anxiety. I truly would like to (metaphorically) tattoo that on your forehead so you see it every morning in the mirror. (Did I say that out loud? 🙂 )

Before I take Buster out for training in public I let him play and wrestle and “get his kinks out” so that he is not wound up like a top when we leave the house.

Here is a short clip of Buster and Jumping Jack Flash having a little work out. Jack is teaching Buster that he is not as important as he used to think, demoting him by gently controlling the play. Humphrey and Ted are parenting, they are the playground supervisors, there to see fair play.

Buster – Setting up for success in the home

Buster is at an age where he thinks he is pretty important, and the next few months he is going to push boundaries.

Wait there quietly, I just need to pop in to the bakery.

It is NOT personal!

It is just what dogs do.

Up to now everyone adores him and caters to his every whim. When he jumps up or nips “he is just being a puppy”. The adult dog ( 12 years old and with epilepsy) in the home as well as the family forgive him for almost anything. However at about five and a half months this stops being cute and starts being a royal pain in the a***. People often become increasingly frustrated as the dog gets bigger and “he’s not just a puppy, he’s a big dog now”.

A lot of dogs don’t make it to their first birthday before they end up in the shelter.

So if you have a dog from a shelter who is, shall we say, between nine months old and eighteen months old then there is a good chance the owners gave up on him for one or more of the behaviors I mentioned in my last post (Buster goes to school).

Just being a dog.

First Things First

The first thing I will do when he arrives in my home is restrict his access to things that might get him into trouble.

So whatever the problem:

Management prevents accidents

“Use management to prevent repetition of the unwanted behavior”

This does not mean that you have to restrict him for life! It means that in order to prevent the behavior becoming a lifetime habit, he has to stop practicing! Then you find a way of training an alternative.

So here is an example:

A pug that I know loves to go into the bathroom whenever the door is inadvertently left ajar and take the tissues out of the waste basket. I will call them tissues because this is a family show, but use your imagination. The owners wanted to know if I would just train him not to do that. Sure, we can do that. But, here’s a thought, why not pop down to Target and get a waste bin with a closing lid on it? Alternatively how about putting self closing hinges on the bathroom door so it always closes automatically. Or a door frame gate? That is management. Set him up for success. That way instead of being rewarded by your attention when he pulls out the tissues and shreds them around the house and you chase after him barking (you know you sound as if you are barking right?) you get to praise and reward him for lazing on his dog bed chewing on an appropriate chew toy.

Safety First

So before Buster arrived I installed a couple of Dog Gates across the doorways into the kitchen, separating the home into smaller manageable areas where he can be closely supervised. For smaller puppies it is really worth setting up a large wire crate and a den style crate inside, because it has a tray style floor and keeps the puppies safe and the mess somewhat contained.

Magic and Grk in the kitchen. A large pen with a roof keeps them safe if I want to go to the grocery store. The smaller crate inside gives them a snuggly space where they feel protected if they are anxious or feeling overwhelmed by the family and the family room or just want to sleep. Their hidey-hole. The door on the small crate is open during the day. The door on the large pen is open while I am present and supervising. They have free run of the kitchen while I am present so that I can praise and reward appropriate behavior and alert them to inappropriate behavior. (Counter-surfing or chewing the linoleum, for example)

The position of the crates in the photograph is deliberate, the dogs feel more content in a corner of a room in preference to an open space or the center of the room.

The goal is total freedom, the fastest and most effective way to get there is carefully structured supervision, education and attention.

Do not give the new dog the run of the house. It is a recipe for disaster!

It is impossible to supervise the dog when you can’t see him so you will spend your time “finding evidence” which is very frustrating and impossible to go back and correct or educate.

Slow is Fast

Introduce him slowly, when he is successful in the first area, gradually expand his area of freedom and his responsibility. The key word is gradually!  The goal is to set him up for success so that you can catch him doing right and praise and reward the behavior.

The purpose is not isolation or separation, that would be punishment. The purpose is for me to spend significant periods of time around Buster, but he is not the center of my attention 100% of the time. For example when I am writing this blog I want him present in the room so that he does not get into trouble out of my sight. He also learns that he can be calm as I am calm. He has structured time when he can play and have fun at my instigation and it is a good idea to do that before I ask for a calm “downtime”.

Dog Gates

There are a number Dog Gates available from pet stores but the most effective, strongest and least ugly I have found are at http://www.orvis.com. They have a wooden one which is wonderful:

Wood Door Frame Gate

My favorite doorway gate!


However if you have rabid chewers they also have a wrought iron one:

Wrought Iron Door Frame Gate

Alternative door frame gate


Buster goes to school


This is Buster, he is not a rescued dog. But I guarantee that he could be just the same as any rescued dog. He is 5 months old and because he is so young he has not had very much experience in the world. In another home he could easily have ended up in the shelter.

It does not really matter whether your rescued dog is 5 months or 5 years old. I know dogs 5 years old who have had the life experience of a five month old puppy. They are taken home, make mistakes and are gradually banished to the back yard and then ignored for most of the time.

Here is my plan. I am going to document a short term training plan where I am going to provide this dog with the Foundation Training that he requires to live happily at home. You may find there are some ideas and clues which will help you bring your newly adopted dog in to your home happily and safely.

Buster is a little shy with the general public and can consequently be a little timid around new people both out in the street and new people who arrive in the home. His fear has meant that he has started testing people by voice and body posture and starting to scare his family as he pushes harder and harder. He barks when his family bring friends around to the house and charges and has nipped at several people including children in the home. It is not unusual for a herding breed and I am sure that this will ring some bells for many people with rescued dogs. His family are disappointed that Buster is not Lassie yet, and the seven year old boy has been bitten a couple of times, and is now becoming fearful of Buster. There is a four year old, a seven year old and a nine year old child in the family and mom has her hands full. She has been exercising him for two hours a day on leash but dare not take him anywhere off leash that is not completely and securely fenced as his recall is non existent. His house training is improving but he is not trustworthy without constant supervision. He seems to just not get it. He stops squats and pees as if he just cant help it and once the flow is going interrupting it is almost impossible!

Fortunately they have the wisdom to get expert help and were referred to me by a previous client.

I have known people drop their dog off at the shelter for less.

Here is the thing, he is just a puppy. People get puppies because they are so cute, they look like Beanie Babies and the kids want one. Somehow forgetting to factor in the time, effort, commitment and knowledge it takes to raise one. However this dog could be any rescued dog ( or most family dogs, rescued or not) of any age. Not house-trained? Check. Barks and rushes at the UPS man? Check. Herds the young children and especially their friends when they come visiting? Check. Digs up the back yard? Tears out the irrigation? Check and Check. Chews childrens toys, baseball bats, baseball helmets, basketballs, bicycle tires, dads MG when it gets locked in the garage? Check. Pulls on leash? Check. Bites the hand that feeds it? Check! Bites the hand that doesn’t feed it? Check! Jumps up? Check!  Bites clothing? Check! Steals food off the counter? Check!

Just being a dog.

So here is what I do. I take Buster into my home. I give Buster a structure to his day. I work him with other dogs whose skills I am familiar with and they parent him and teach him some manners and social skills. I teach Buster what is ok and what is not ok. I give him a Basic Foundation in obedience training, with voice commands, hand signals and whistles. Then I take Buster back to the family and show them how to achieve the same thing at home. Following on from that Buster will come back to me for Advanced training and probably some Refresher Training when he comes to the cabin for Camp and his family go on vacation. Meanwhile I video and send updates to the owners so they can see what he is up to. The first session is two weeks residential. You can follow along here.