This morning, Tawny wandered out of the back yard through an open gate. It was closed when I checked. The landscapers scrambling around beoootifying my itsy yard must have opened it in between check and release. I saw movement out my side window that alerted me something was up.

Tawny got out.

Any of you who have a reactive dog know the gut punch those words can deliver. Tawny reacted to everything — people (worse with males), dogs, cats — with lunging, snapping, snarling etc. aka full display.

The male workers were right there. My stupid neighbors let their cats roam. Disaster???

Ahhhh, no. As I kicked off my slippers to head for the back, I saw Tawny walk up to a worker, tail wagging happily, and he bent over and stroked her on the head (previous snapping trigger). By the time I got to the back door, he had ushered her back into the yard and closed the gate. Tawny sniffed, squatted and peed, then saw me, wagged and looked like she was saying “Hey Ma, what are you doing out here?”

I smiled, I laughed, and I realized I had actually expected her to act that way. Because we have done our work. And it worked. Oh, what a feeling.
We have done our work. Have you?

This comes a little too late for me to call this a Christmas Wish, so instead I am labeling it a New Year’s Wish.

What is this Wish? Those of you who know me well may guess it’s that everyone finally stops blaming all dog problems on dominance issues (good guess — that one is always at or near the top).

However, I’m on a different soapbox at the moment, and this Wish comes courtesy of an ad in the coupon section of my local paper.

It features an adorable little girl facing a big fluffy dog, noses nearly touching. The girl’s hands are on the dog’s throat, her eyes are closed, and she looks like she is about to kiss him. The ad suggests this is a good way to celebrate the holidays with this member of the family.

So my Wish is this: I hope to never see another ad, photo or video like this.

I am not going to get into whether or not this dog is safe or comfortable in this particular photo (he doesn’t look happy, but not knowing what was going on when it was taken, I won’t comment further).

What I must get into is that this type of photo shows exactly what a child should NEVER EVER EVER do to a dog. This company is clearly ignorant of the potential disaster of the act itself and the irresponsibility of encouraging such behavior. I am going to contact them privately.

But I’ve also got to address this publicly and strongly so it reaches as many people as possible. This is an unsafe situation. Children should NEVER have their face that close to a dog’s. I don’t care if they’ve known the dog for 2 seconds or for all their lives. I don’t care if the dog is as sweet as honey and wouldn’t hurt a fly. NEVER. EVER. DO. THIS.

Here’s why:

1. Dogs are not robots, and any dog can have a bad day.

2. If kids are allowed to do that to their own dogs, they might think it’s okay to do it to all dogs. They will never learn the proper way to approach a dog.

The usual scenario

I’ve trained hundreds of dogs since 2004, and I have been in my share of homes where a dog has clocked a kid in the face, resulting in a bruise, scrape, tear or bite. The parents were shocked — shocked! — that their Sparky would do such a thing. And saddened to think they now may need to re-home Sparky (though who they think would take Sparky after he has bitten a kid in the face is beyond me).

The story I usually end up with involves one or more of these facts: the dog was “okay/fine” with baby until baby started crawling/walking; the dog has rarely/never been around a baby/toddler; the dog is “good” with older kids and/or adults so they assumed he’d be fine with baby/toddler; the baby/toddler was allowed to do anything to the dog; the baby/toddler was at times unsupervised with the dog; the dog is nervous/hyper; the dog was chewing his bone/sleeping/cornered when it happened; the baby/toddler stepped/fell on him; etc.

So in essence, the causes of the incident the adults never saw coming were 1) POGs never taught manners to their child or raised the tolerance level of their dog and 2) Dog took it as long as he could, waiting for help, then finally took care of it himself, in his own way.

If you ever have taken a basics group class from me, you would have attended one entire lesson devoted to this topic: how to prevent handling problems, and why the human-dog greeting sequence is inappropriate at just about every level from the dog’s perspective. In this lesson, you would have learned exactly how to approach these situations so you minimize your chances of having something bad happen.

If you had told me you were expecting or had a new baby, I would have sent you my Baby/Toddler Prep Sheet so you could put things in place immediately to avoid/fix problems like this.

Start creating a safe environment TODAY

You can and should make changes NOW to start reducing the chances of injury. The last thing anyone should do is allow/encourage kids to hug, kiss, stare at or otherwise bother a dog around the head. I don’t care how cute it looks. It’s not worth the risk! Stitches, skin grafts, blood, bruises and scars are not cute.

Also important is that the adults get better at reading dog body language so you know when there could be trouble brewing. (Hint: If the dog looks uncomfortable, s/he probably is uncomfortable.) If you see uncomfortable or hear a growl, immediately direct your dog away with a bright Come, Leave it, Move, etc. DO NOT use a sharp tone, punish or correct your dog — this is not the time to fix it (if you do, you will make the problem worse!!). This is the time for safety, so if the dog doesn’t respond, calmly walk toward him/her and gently shoo him/her away. Then call in a kind trainer/Dog Life Skills Instructor to help you fix it.

For a proper way for toddlers to interact with dogs, and also how to prepare your dog if you have a baby on the way or in your arms, download my Baby Prep Sheet.

For more information on how to read dog body language, get my ebooklet Read Body Language!

Have a safe day!
++++++++++++

“If our goal is a happier, more peaceful world in the future, only education will bring change.” — The Dalai Lama

Don’t tell me you don’t have time to teach your dog how to behave! If you have five minutes to spare, you have time to help your dog learn DogLife Skills (aka “training” which is such a yesterday word).

I am a big fan of short, fun sessions with lots of repetitions and lots of rewards; it leaves everyone feeling great and wanting more! Is there any better way to get your dog to love doing things for you?
Weave them into your day whenever you have a few minutes (while microwaving something, waiting for a phone call, commercial breaks, etc.).

Still unsure? Here’s a short list to get you thinking:

WHAT YOU CAN DO IN FIVE MINUTES

• Practice sits, downs, waits, comes, or just about any other behavior

• Conduct a rapid-fire workout: randomly call out instructions (sit, come, etc.) in a playful excited tone, and as soon as your dog does it, call out another. Rain treats down after three in a row, then do another rapid sequence. See how many in a row he can follow. If he gets lost, laugh and start again!

• Five one-minute stays, two two-minute stays, or one five-minute stay

• Socialize by introducing one new object, sound or being (human or otherwise) to your dog or pup in the proper way (i.e. let him sniff/investigate; praise forward movement, not retreats; if he’s freaked out move him away till he calms; stay by him in a relaxed stance to comfort and calm).

• Pick up and put down your dog’s leash over and over so you can get him to calm down before a walk (and by the way, it would really help if you stop saying “Want to go for a WALK?? HUH??” which is what’s jacking him up in the first place!).

• Let your dog munch on some of his dinner, held in your hand, while you gently handle ears, touch feet, etc. When food is gone stop touching.

• Sprinkle treats around your dog when he is eating at his food bowl, and when he is chewing a bone or other chewie. Do it as you walk by: call him name cheerfully, sprinkle, keep walking. Hear a growl? Don’t sprinkle — walk away, wait a minute, walk back BUT stay farther away this time. No growl? Go ahead and sprinkle treats. That’s the distance to work for now. 

• Give your dog one more potty opportunity before bedtime.

• Do a Follow Me jog through your house. Wave a treat at your dog, say LET’S GO and take off! When your dog catches up to you, say GOOD and drop a treat. As he grabs it, take off again, saying LET’S GO etc. Great walking practice AND great exercise!

• Charge up a marker word (eg GOOD/YES/YEP/YAY) to start communicating simply and efficiently. (How? EASY: Say word, treat; say word, treat; say word, treat; repeat, repeat!)

• See, mark vocally (GOOD/YES/YEP/YAY) and reward as many behaviors as you can (including “doing nothing” — aka being good).

• When frustration bubbles up, give yourself a time out so you can cool off and not bring anger into the teaching process.

• Let your dog calm down and try again.

• Let yourself calm down and try again.

There’s lots lots lots more you can do — What can you add to this list?

And hey — if you can do all these things and more in five minutes, think of what you could accomplish in 10 minutes!!

Don’t have time to teach, huh? Think again! You’re done reading, now get going. Time’s a-wasting!

Whether you are teaching your dog new behaviors or trying to fix problems, your positive/rewards-based trainer will often say to ignore the behaviors you don’t want.

While this makes sense for some things — barking at you for attention, for example — many other behaviors will be unaffected by ignoring and can cause many a frustrated POG to conclude positive methods don’t work, and the only way s/he can get the desired result is to resort to correction and punishment.

Truth is, you can ignore countersurfing all day long and you won’t stop it because the reward for it is usually not attention, but rather getting some good stuff off the counter. (I say usually — I had a doodle in group class who had actually figured out a great way to get his POG’s attention was to jump on the empty counter. Every time he did that, the POG would rush into the kitchen shouting “Hey!” The dog would get down immediately, but would go right back up when the POG left the room. Dang smart doodles!)
There are many other examples like countersurfing where the dog’s payoff is not attention, thereby rendering ignoring useless in most cases.

What I usually tell clients is ignore the behavior BUT ALSO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Well, that certainly makes no sense on the surface, does it? You can’t do something and not do something at the same time.

That’s not what I mean. But that’s often what my clients hear. And that may point to the real problem here: The word “ignore” is a poor choice to use when describing for our clients what we need them to do.

So I am calling myself out–time to step up, take responsibility and fix it!

Introducing: Low Energy Interruptions (LEI)
Before I went to the dogs, I spent close to 20 years in the writing, editing and publishing fields. Not surprisingly, I am very fussy about word choice. (See my Words Matter! document for suggestions on how to replace out-of-date training vocabulary.) So I am prepared to take a swing at redefining the “ignore” method of behavior modification.

In most cases, what I am really talking about is not ignoring the unwanted behaviors but rather interrupting them — with as little energy as possible. Pair that action with rewarding the desired behaviors with a lot of energy, and the dog now has clear communication: the desired behavior benefits the dog more, and the pragmatic dog will choose that behavior over the one that benefits him less.

Most of us tend to ignore our dogs when they are behaving themselves, but then give tons of attention whenever we see a “bad” behavior — we talk, yell, snap the leash, grab the collar, etc. (i.e. gasoline, meet match). This is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing! (My book, Reverse Dog Training, grew out of this observation.) We need to reverse course completely — emphasis on “right” behavior, well rewarded — to get the results we want.

I want to replace “ignore” with Low Energy Interruption (LEI). I believe it better conveys the idea that you do need to do something, but that something needs to be minimal. A minor course correction, if you will, on the way to the behavior that will be clearly more desirable for the dog because of the difference in energy (reward/benefit) it produces.

Example time! #1 Jumping
I have dealt with a LOT of jumping, including that of my own dog, a pogo-stick bouncer as well as a pile-driver (36 pounds launched right at my chest) who hasn’t jumped on anyone for a very long time (she’s been with me since 2004 and stopped jumping altogether within the first year).

I always start by telling clients what doesn’t work — coincidentally all the things people think will work — including saying “No,” “Off” or “Down”; asking for a Sit after a jump; turning your back; or any rough stuff like pushing, kneeing, stepping on leash, etc.

Invariably, the client asks, “What do I do then, just ignore it?”

While the best situation is preventing the jumping altogether so it extinguishes, for most POGs it’s not realistic because they are not watching their dogs constantly, so mistakes and “bad” behavior will happen. And since we humans tend to be reactive rather than proactive, we often will react without even thinking, whether we intend to or not. Reacting in a big way will confuse the dog and cause him to try it again, so we need a different reaction. A small one.

Enter LEI. This is how I do it:
1- Dog jumps.
2- I look up and away (think snobby), and take one step forward/toward the jump (LEI).
3- I wait to see if the dog gets down. If not, I help him by rotating a hip slightly to slide him off but maintain my position (LEI). Note I DO NOT turn away.
4- Dog gets down.
5- I look at him and say “Hi, buddy! How are you? Are you a good dog?”
6- Usually, the dog jumps again at that point.
7- Repeat steps 2-5 till he doesn’t jump when I talk to him. Then:
8- Immediately say GOOD and squat/bend down to his level to love on him for making the right choice.

(If he starts to get jumpy at this point, simply go back to step 2.)

Using this technique allows the dog to clearly see the difference in payoff to him between jumping and not jumping. Obviously, “four on the floor” (all feet on the ground) is the better choice, i.e. the one he should want to repeat, because it gets him tons of what he wants (attention).

This can work even for attention-seeking situations where you could ignore the dog, like barking. Barking drives me nuts, and usually it goes on way too long, well beyond my maximum patience level. I want to interrupt that barking so I can create and reward quiet. Yelling uses too much energy and gets us so frustrated that if he does finally shut up we can’t reward him because we don’t even want to see him at that moment!

Example Time! #2 Barking
Before I give you this one, I must state that barking is a complicated issue because there are many reasons why dogs bark! Ask yourself “What is he getting out of it?” before deciding how to deal with it.

Here is one real-life example of how I used LEI for barking:

A rescued adult beagle mix was carrying on loudly and relentlessly at the feet of his POG at every feeding until the bowl was on the ground. This soft-spoken woman got so frustrated she would scream at the dog thusly: “SHUUUUUT UUUUUUP!” Since I was standing there in her kitchen, this obviously was not working. I asked if I could try dealing with it my way, and 10 minutes later, he was quiet during the feeding prep.

Here are the steps I followed in this case (NOTE: every dog is different, and there are many small adjustments that can be made here to more effectively communicate with each dog):
1- Put bowl and food on counter. (Have some food already in the bowl.)
2- Dog starts barking.
3- Look up and away, silently count to 10.
4- Dog keeps barking.
5- Make a slight, quick LEI movement (in this case, I turned my head and upper body one way, then the other, took about a second)
6- Dog stops barking for a second to figure out what I’m doing.
7- IMMEDIATELY SAY ‘GOOD’ AND HAND HIM A PIECE OF FOOD.
8- Dog starts barking.
9- Look up and away, silently count to 15.
10- If dog pauses for even a second, IMMEDIATELY SAY ‘GOOD’ AND HAND HIM A PIECE OF FOOD. If not, repeat steps 5-9 until he starts pausing on his own. Then:
11- When he is quiet, say GOOD and pick up the bowl.
12- If he stays quiet, keep saying GOOD and lower the bowl towards the floor. EVERY TIME HE BARKS, PUT THE BOWL BACK ON THE COUNTER AND LOOK AWAY TILL HE STOPS.
13- Repeat 11 and 12 until you have the bowl on the floor.
14- Repeat, repeat, repeat! until he is quiet from start to finish.

Because there was such a clear difference between benefit for barking (no food) and quiet (here comes food!) PLUS it had the assistance of an LEI (to limit frustration and barking time), the change came quickly. Over time, the support would be peeled away so the end result would be the normal procedure of pouring the food and placing it on the floor while the dog quietly watches.

I hope this new term and its explanation helps POGs everywhere to fix problems quickly, with minimal frustration and maximum joy!

My new client had obviously had a tiring day with her rescue dog. We had been working on some reactivity issues with visitors, and unfortunately Thanksgiving got in the way of our teaching plan. While the day wasn’t a failure, both POG and dog tried hard but also made mistakes throughout the day. By the time her relatives left, my client was burnt to a crisp.

She emailed a report to me, and she ended with a question: “…have you ever worked with a family who isn’t able to turn this behavior around?”
I knew this was a bad-day/exhaustion-based question, so I gave her my usual responses (yes, but: rarely; you didn’t fail, nothing bad happened so something good happened; this is expected; you did fine; she did fine; you can do it; back to work!). My answer satisfied her; in fact, she reported she had since had a great session with her dog. We were back on track.

Yet, for some reason, her question niggled at me. Of course, I had clients who couldn’t reach their goals for their dog. The reasons varied from life changes to “I am afraid she’ll hurt someone.” The common thread comes down to the POG being physically and/or emotionally unable to continue. Essentially, they give up.

It happens to all of us, DLSIs/trainers and POGs alike: We get that challenging dog, and/or we have a spectacularly bad day, and/or a series of bad days/events, and we run out of coping juice. We go into meltdown mode, selecting from the despair menu of crumpled crying, primal screaming, boisterous swearing, redirected anger, manic cleaning and/or yard work, and extreme self-doubt (that’s my list anyway). Generally, after a while, we pick ourselves up, shake ourselves off and get back to work.

But not always. And that got me to wondering: What if I had given up? 

The Tawny Test

My darling girl Tawny was a challenging dog. And that is putting it mildly. She had a lot of issss-ues, if you will, and she was stuck with someone who had her own issss-ues plus, unfortunately, a similar personality–quick-reacting, impatient, intolerant. We were gasoline and a match. Bad combo! Add in the fact that I was wet behind the ears as a trainer, just starting out and with a lot to learn about what “dog training” really was, and oh my, what a recipe for disaster. 

In my group glasses, I would hold up a piece of paper with stuff written on both sides. This was Tawny’s “bad dog” list–all the behaviors we had fixed, from jumping and digging to separation anxiety and reactivity (“aggression”). I stated I had to write it down so I wouldn’t forget any of it because the problems were all gone, but emphasized that it didn’t happen overnight.

In fact, it was often a slow, hard slog for both of us as we worked to understand each other and learned how to communicate. I was slower on the uptake most of the time, and amazingly Tawny for some reason was very tolerant of my flailings and failings then. And still is, I might add. There were times when I blew it, she blew it, and we both blew it. There were times when something would work for awhile and then suddenly stop working. There were times when I questioned whether I should even have a dog, much less try to teach one anything.

But each time, after the ceremonial wailing and rending of garments, in fairly short order, I slid back into the driver’s seat and eased back onto the course. It was unthinkable to me to do anything else. Tawny was depending on me to sort this out with her. Had I given up, I would have let her down, and also let down all the other dogs who needed my help. I would have let myself down too. I couldn’t let that happen. Quite simply, failure was not an option. 

What I didn’t know then but know now is that arduous, tortuous journey produced marvelous, far-reaching results. I have the dog I always wanted–safe, reliable, well-mannered, a joy most of the time–an achievement I could barely have imagined at the beginning. Even more unimaginable is how much she changed me, pushing me to be a better trainer, better POG, and better human being. Had I not kept trying, neither of us would be the beings we are now. We both hung in there, and today we both are reaping the rewards. 

This is especially meaningful to me now, because I am in a personal situation that allows me little time to manage anything in my life, especially an ill-behaved dog. But she is performing majestically, and I thank her every day for it.

Learning resilience

In trainer circles, we talk about the resilience of dogs, how some bounce back better than others. My dog taught me how to be resilient, and I will be forever grateful I didn’t give up on her, or me. I judge no one who makes a different decision. This is simply my story. I hope it helps someone else struggling to hang on in a bad moment.

More help can be found on my Trained With Kindness (TWiKi) site (“Frustration Emergency?“) [http://www.trainedwithkindness.com/take-action-now-heres-how/frustration-emergency-read-now/] and my CP-HIP site (Problem-Solving Formula e-booklet on my Store page). [http://cp-hipdogs.com/train/shop/]

Recently, I read an article in my local paper that my state, Ohio, is number two for dog bite insurance claims (“Ohio 2nd in insurance claims for dog bites,” The Plain Dealer, 9/5/15). It included a list of breeds insurers shy away from which is full of the usual suspects, ranging from #1 “pit bull” (which is not a breed but a description) to #10 Siberian Husky. 

Having had a biting dog for 17 years, now living with a reformed snapping dog, plus having dealt with a lot of biters, fighters and snappers over the past 12 years as a DogLife Skills Instructor (aka “trainer”), I have a few pointed comments about this statistic. 

There is absolutely no excuse for this. When a dog bites, we parent/owner/guardians (POGs) have failed. I get a lot of weird looks when I tell people that, when their dogs bite, they should apologize to the dog for putting him in such a bad position. He either felt it was acceptable or necessary to bite, and I never want a dog to think that. 

However, this is exactly what we often inadvertently teach our dogs, that under certain circumstances, they can, should, or must bite. How does this happen? 

POGs fail dogs by:

• Ignoring or minimizing the behavior, assuming the dog will “grow out of it.” To paraphrase a wise trainer whose name I have forgotten (please ID yourself and I will amend this post), dogs don’t grow out of aggression, they grow into aggression.

• Not educating themselves about how dogs think, learn and express themselves. There is a lot of old, outdated, completely wrong and very harmful information out there (e.g. the dominance thing, a wagging tail means a happy dog, he knows it’s wrong but does it anyway) that current research shows should be jettisoned for good. Using this stuff can escalate the behavior.

• Assuming the way to train is to strongly correct “bad” behaviors when they happen instead of concentrating on prevention, management and giving them “right” behaviors that are well rewarded. Behaviors fade away when they are not practiced, so allowing the “bad” behaviors to happen and then attempting to walk them back can actually encourage the dog to repeat the behaviors (if you are still trying to get rid of jumping, having tried “everything,” you are a victim of this thinking). This assumption makes biters even more dangerous.

• Assuming all trainers are the same. Sadly, it is the wild West out there for POGs looking for help. Anyone can put up a trainer shingle! There are people out there who have trained exactly one dog — their own — and believe that gives them the chops to do it for others. Others have trained for years but have stopped learning and are using old, outdated harmful methods. There is no national certification for trainers. Terms are tossed around like confetti; an alphabet’s worth of letters trail some names. None of it guarantees they can help you or know what they are doing. (Note: Vets, groomers, daycare providers, petsitters, etc. are usually not trainers. Unless they are, do NOT ask them for training advice! But do ask them for a referral.)

• Assuming some dog breeds are more likely to bite, have stronger bites, and/or should be allowed to bite under certain circumstances. I will be extra careful with my words here. Some breeds have certain tendencies that could make them more likely to bite under certain circumstances. Most of the dogs on that insurers list fall into that category: these dogs tend to be smart and sensitive; they process quickly, and react quickly and often strongly. But these are only tendencies that may never/don’t have to ever develop in your dog. No dog should be allowed/encouraged to bite a human, even in play. Between dogs, I discourage roughhousing/wrestling (it so easily can erupt into a fight), preferring instead object-oriented play (i.e. a toy is always used so they grab the toy instead of each other). My exception to this rule is the dog who has not learned how to inhibit his bite (e.g. a dog who left the litter too soon sometimes bites hard all the time), so some contact is necessary at first to teach him that valuable self-control.

Oh, and no dog’s bite is substantially stronger than any other, and there is no special “locking” bite out there. “Pits” are terriers, which tend to grab and shake prey. 

• Getting dogs for the wrong reasons. Some people want “tough-looking” dogs so they can feel tough. (The irony here is that many of these tough-looking dogs are actually big mooshpits inside.) Others want a dog “for protection.” I cannot say this strongly enough — you never want your companion animal to be trained as a protection or guard dog. They are taught to attack, and they are not perfect, which means there could be a catastrophic mistake. Not worth the risk. Most dogs will bark if someone they don’t know comes into the house, and come to your assistance if you cry out. If yours doesn’t, get a security system. It’s cheaper than a lawsuit. 

Professionals fail dogs by:

• Clinging to old, outdated, completely wrong and very harmful information that current research shows should be jettisoned for good. One of the biggest responsibilities we have as professionals is to continue our education so we have all the best tools at hand when trying to help a dog. Just because it works for you doesn’t mean it’s the best solution. The end does NOT justify the means.

• Assuming the way to train is to strongly correct “bad” behaviors when they happen instead of concentrating on prevention, management and giving them “right” behaviors that are well rewarded. (See above.)

• Giving POGs the how but not the why. “Do this and this” fixes one problem. “She’s doing it because” fixes many problems. If you don’t know why, you should find out why before you get into how.

HOW TO TURN FAILURE INTO SUCCESS

Turn failure into success by:

Changing your perspective. I often find it helpful to explain a dog’s behavior by making a comparison to humans. If this dog were a child, how would you handle this situation? If you wouldn’t do it to a human, you shouldn’t do it to a dog.

Learning to read body language, and by that I mean going beyond hair up or snarling. Find out the subtle signals that will tell you your dog needs help before there is any outward display. There are some super books and videos out there (check out my Recommended Reading [http://cp-hipdogs.com/train/resources/recommended-reading/] page for some), or you could schedule a single session with an experienced pro who can read your dog for you (I always do this in my first session; the more the POG sees, the better the result). 

Socializing your dog properly. The well-socialized dog understands his environment, isn’t scared of it, and knows how to act in it. To accomplish that, she needs help from us. That means not only exposure to a lot of different situations, but proper exposure (i.e. not just taking her places so she can “get used to it,” because that may never happen!). Read more about socialization in my book, Reverse Dog Training: A Fresh Perspective for Solving Common Problems.

Searching for a trainer who will help you change your dog’s behavior using the latest science-based methods, not perpetuate old, intimidation-based techniques. See my article How to Choose the Right Trainer for more pointers.

Never saying never! I searched for years before finding the solutions for me and my dogs. My 17-year-old boy died before I found the right stuff. Yet, because of him, I am a trainer, my current girl (still developing at the ripe old age of at least 12) has become the dog I always wanted, and I get to help other dogs and POGs experience the same joyful success. If I had given up, I would not be in this great situation now, doing work I love. Sooo worth it.

Lowering the number of dog-bite claims depends upon the actions of the humans, not the dogs. Let’s get on with it.

Warning: I am jumping onto my soapbox with both feet!!

If I were made queen for a day, one thing at the top of my to-do list — besides beheading any critics — would be to forbid anyone from ever establishing any routines for their dogs other than those for teaching a specific behavior.

I am on my soapbox today because I just spent a considerable amount of time with yet another client who is mystified as to why her new puppy, who was fine at first with going into the crate when she left, suddenly is freaking out about this process. She described to me the routine she carefully followed every time, right down to the puppy “lullabye” CD she put on for her, then asked if there was anything else she could do. Imagine her stunned silence when I said yes, definitely: Dump the routine. NOW!

“Everyone” had told her that routines are good for dogs. (Everyone except a trainer, I hope. Why does everyone think they are dog training experts just because they have a dog? I have a car, but I don’t for one moment think I am a mechanic. But I digress.)

I explained why I said it, then gave her suggestions about how to bust up the routine and work on what really needed to be done, which is to teach her pup to be okay by herself and to self-amuse so she is not dependent on interaction with a human all the time.

What’s wrong with routines?
There are many old beliefs that undermine your relationship with your dog, creating training challenges and missteps. The dominance myth takes the top prize — don’t get me started — but the second-place award in my view goes to the benign-sounding, but truly insidious and slyly damaging, “routines.”

What’s wrong with routines, you ask? After all, humans love routines. We take great comfort in our rituals, plus they help us to remember stuff, like locking our doors and not leaving our coffee cup on the roof of our cars.

But, to state the obvious, dogs are not humans. And they do not see routines the same way we do. For example, you may be shocked to learn routines are a huge contributing factor to separation anxiety. Here’s why:

Human thinks: I’ll do everything in the same order so my dog knows what to expect in the morning, so he’ll be okay with my leaving.

Dog thinks: Oh no, he’s doing all those things that end up with him leaving me! No, no! Don’t go!! I can’t take it!!

When you create a routine, the dog knows exactly what is going to happen. If he doesn’t like what happens, he is going to have a bad reaction to the routine. He doesn’t want you to leave, he wants to be with you. So with every step in the process, he gets more and more nervous. By the time you pick up your keys, he’s a basket case. Let the crate escape, peeing, pooping, chewing and curtain shredding begin!

This very same type of pattern, if used to teach a behavior like a sit/down or pottying outside, is how you get your dog to reliably respond when you ask him to do something: Just like he is sure you are leaving in the prior example — bad for him — he is sure a good thing will happen once his butt hits the floor or he pees in the back yard. The key difference is, once the pattern is established, we start to change it so we can progress — wean off treats, do behavior longer, ignore distractions, etc. In other words, this is not a routine but rather a progressive exercise. It changes, and the dog adjust to the changes, improving his response. In trainerspeak, this is called proofing or generalizing.

When you do the same things in the same way, your dog then expects that same pattern every time, along with the same result. Even when it’s a good thing — you pick up the leash, he’s going for a walk! — if the routine gets altered somehow, he will not handle it well. Put the leash back down without taking him out, and what happens? He might start pacing and panting, going over to the door and back to you as if to say Hey! Why aren’t we going? We always go when you pick up the leash!

(I cannot tell you how many clients tell me they have never used the leash for anything other than walks. I often ask them to leash up inside for work on specific issues, and it gets messy real quick because the dog lathers up when the routine is changed.)

Routines are rigid patterns that can create rigid dogs — they don’t bend, they break. They are incapable of flexibility, become beside themselves when presented with it, and can become quite insistent about returning to the usual pattern. A common example would be the dog who tells YOU when it’s time for dinner or for bed. A less-common example would be the dog who lays across your feet, and if you try to move, growls and snaps.

Create a ‘whatever’ dog who is calm and confident
Breaking up routines allows you to develop a “whatever” dog, the go-with-the-flow pup who adjusts to whatever is going on around him. (“Going with you? Staying home? Eating now? Eating later? Whatever!”) It’s actually a critical part of socialization, but one that is often missed by humans. Socialization is showing the dog the world so he is not afraid of it and knows how to act in it. A well-socialized dog is calmer, more confident, and very much a “whatever” dog.

This is so important that I am getting up on this soapbox and shouting, trying to get everyone’s attention: STOP WITH THE ROUTINES ALREADY!!! Your dog will be happier, and so will you.

So, to recap:

— Routines are BAD!

— Break up your routines to help your dog become a “whatever” dog.

— To teach specific behaviors, use progressive repetitions, slowly changing one detail at a time to help them generalize the behavior (e.g. Sit is the same no matter where I ask for it).

Need more help? Ask a professional — but be sure to ask them if they think routines are good or bad. If they say good, keep looking!

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