In this post, I’d like to talk about something I call recovery time. It’s a huge concept to understand if you’re dealing with anxiety, aggression, or fear.
Let’s dig deep into this. A dog’s nervous system controls its ability to process stress. Fear, anxiety, and aggression all come from a place of stress. Your dog’s nervous system dictates how well he or she will press that stress. A strong nervous system can handle a lot of stress, while a weak one can only handle stress for a shorter period of time.
The nervous system is also a lot like the muscular system. If you want it to grow, you need to stress it! If I want my biceps to get bigger, I do curls and give it proper rest. That will make my bicep not only grow in size, but also grow in the ability to lift more weight for a longer period of time. That’s just how it works.
The same thing happens when you’re dealing with anxiety and stress. I’ll use the example of a doorbell, which causes many dogs pressure and stress. The doorbell response is actually a competing blend of emotions and feelings. At its core, the dog is often excited because someone new is around. There’s also fear because an unknown person is entering the house and a territorial pressure to defend the house. Overall, the situation is stressful.
That’s why so many dogs get aggressive, jump all over the place, or dart out the door. How do we get rid of these negative behaviors? By stressing them in a different direction. Put a dog bed twenty feet away from the door and tell the dog to sit on it every time the doorbell rings. Give the dog a strategy for coping with the stress. At first, the dog won’t want to do this—he’ll prefer to jump, bark, bite, or run away. But by using proper correction and motivation, you can get your dog to go there.
Just because the dog sits on the bed, however, doesn’t mean that he’s recovered. Many dogs will sit down, but keep barking . That’s because he’s still feeling the emotions that lead to negative behavior—fear, territorial anxiety, aggression—but if he’s been trained well, he’ll stay put. A lot of dogs will recover ten minutes later. Their bodies will be calm, they’ll stop freaking out, and they’ll be ready to greet someone.
After a handful of repetitions, ten minutes will turn into nine. Nine will turn into eight, and eight into seven, until the dog recovers immediately. That’s the goal: to have the dog recover within seconds.
Compare this to bicep curls. Maybe you start with twenty pounds, and once your muscles recover you can manage twenty-five. Maybe you can only run a mile in seventeen minutes but keep stressing yourself, and soon seventeen becomes twelve or even six. Recovery times get lower over time.
If your dog used to take your dog ten minutes to recover and now takes thirty-eight seconds, that’s literally the nervous system getting stronger. It’s now able to handle more, do more, and be more. That’s how stress can be positive.
A lot of dog trainers and vets will tell you to avoid stress and make sure that everything is rainbows and butterflies. But that’s not the real world. Your dog is going to feel stress. But you, as the owner, can harness that stress and create growth.
If your doctor told you to get stronger but told you not to lift weights because it would make you sore, you’d think they were being ridiculous. No door would ever say that. Unfortunately, many professionals say similar things about your dog’s brain. “Don’t stress the mind,” they say. “It’ll break.”
Of course, you can damage your bicep by curling too much weight or having bad form. You can also damage your dog by using stress. When done correctly, however, stress can help your dog push through challenges quickly and become much happier.
Track your dog’s recovery time, no matter what behavior you’re trying to reform. Push your dog to get better, and they’ll thank you!
This is a PSA post. Right now I’d like to encourage you to see the world through your dog’s eyes, and to approach and treat all dogs accordingly.
I have plenty of clients with dogs that are big and cute. Some of these dogs also, unfortunately, have aggression issues. Frequently the owner will be walking their dog on the street and have to deal with a difficult situation: a neighbor sees the dog, lights up with a smile, and runs across the road to get in the dog’s face and say hello.
Do you ever do this? If so, don’t take offense, but please do spend a moment thinking about why you feel the need to do this. Surely you’ve met dogs before. Surely if this dog passes you by, nothing in your life will change and you will go on having a great day. What do you get out of this? What is to be gained by touching every dog you see?
Because for all dogs—not only aggressive dogs—this experience is absolutely terrifying! Some dogs welcome it, but even those dogs eventually learn that they’re supposed to greet people with huge levels of excitement and energy. Some people feel the need to touch, acknowledge, and even approach every single dog they see, and this just isn’t a fun way for dogs to live. They’re just minding their own business and feeling safe, and then someone gets on their level and puts their hands everywhere. For a solid majority of dogs, this is a nightmare.
Please view all the dogs you come across from this perspective. And if you’re an owner, recognize that this problems compounds when we don’t stick up for our dogs and stop people from doing things to them. The only reason we don’t do this is embarrassment. We don’t want to scold others or tell them “no.” As people, we generally want to get along. But because of that desire, we don’t do anything about this problem, and as a result our dogs get scared and nervous or even develop aggressive habits.
When you’re being accosted (that might sound harsh, but to your dog there’s no difference between getting mugged and receiving this attention from a friendly neighbor), there’s real fear in your dog’s mind. This is a scary situation—and their owner obviously isn’t doing anything about it. This is the reason why so many dogs take matters into their own hands.
Is it weird to tell someone “no”? Absolutely not! If I’m riding my bike and someone tries to touch it, it isn’t rude to ask them to stop. If you have your baby in a stroller and someone keeps getting in its face, it’s not rude to say “no.” There’s nothing rude about asking people not to touch your dog either. I don’t mind being a little bit blunt. I’ll just say “Stop it, get away from my dog!” Other people aren’t comfortable being so blunt, but that’s okay. Just say your dog is “in training” or “working,” or that “you’ll get syphilis if you touch him.” Use any excuse you can!
Whatever you decide to say, you’ve simply got to start sticking up for our dog. Many of the dogs that I work with have so many issues because no one ever took their side. No one ever played the role of their big brother and told other people to leave them alone. Be that big brother for your dog. He’ll thank you for it!
In this short post, I’d like to talk specifically to people who treat their dogs as if they’re kids. Now, I love both my dogs and my kids. Sometimes even I feel that I love my dogs as much as my kids. But even if you do, there has to be a distinction drawn between them. The reason? Knives.
Sounds cryptic, but let me explain: your kids don’t walk around with knives, ready and willing to stab other kids with them at any given moment, with the instinct to pull out the knife if they’re afraid. Your dog, on the other hand, has knives in its mouth. Thousands of years of evolution has given your dogs literal daggers and the strength to do damage with them. Some small dogs can’t do a ton of damage, but probably every dog can break skin. Many dogs can go far beyond that, putting people in the hospital or even killing them.
Now, a child might be physically able to grab a knife and put it into somebody, but that’s not a component of most kids’ personalities. My eleven year old daughter picks on her little sisters. They push, fight, pull hair, and get into scuffles. This rough-and-tumble physicality is within our kids, but the desire to kill and maim just isn’t. But even inside your sweet, fluffy puppy, there’s an instinct that says: “If push comes to shove, pull out your knife and stab somebody.”
For some dogs, this urge is deep in the recesses, and for others it’s much closer to the surface. As an owner, however, you must acknowledge that it exists. If you do, there are some decisions you’re forced to make. You probably don’t leave your kids alone with a dog that’s running around with knives in its mouth. I’ve had both dogs and kids for a long time, and as much as I trust my dogs I’m still careful about that relationship.
When you understand this concept, you also think differently about how guests interact with your dogs. Guests don’t need to take liberties with your dogs, bend over them, wrestle them, and make them nervous and terrified. I don’t allow my guests to do that to my dogs.
When you understand this, greetings on the street become different too. You realize that the dog that’s coming toward you on the end of its leash is out of control, even if the owner says “Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” That dog has knives inside its mouth, and your dog has knives inside its mouth. They don’t need to meet when the dog is acting foolish and its owner is clueless.
When you understand that your dog is an animal with traits that can cause damage, these situations go differently. Not only that, but you also look at training differently. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to people whose dogs have behaved aggressively and bitten people, but they continue to say he’s a “good dog.” Here’s a news flash: every dog that shows aggression is probably a good dog 90% of the time. But that doesn’t matter, because that 5% of the time when he gets aggressive will cause you a big problem unless you get it under control. It’s critical that you do get it under control.
When you understand that you don’t have a fluffy child that wouldn’t hurt a fly, but an animal with a knife mouth, you have to do things differently. If you don’t understand those things, you might go your whole dog-owning life without a problem—or you might find yourself in the position as a lot of my clients, with a dog who’s aggressive or anxious and using those “knives” in an inappropriate way. Your dog isn’t a furry little kid. It’s an amazing animal that needs to be treated with sense and respect.
In this post, I’d like to share a few of my thoughts about dominance. There is a preconception out there among dog trainers that dominance doesn’t exist, founded on the idea that dogs aren’t actually pack animals (which may or may not be true). This idea has gained a lot of traction during the last few years.
This morning I was out walking my dog Chip and Sword, the Belgian malamute I’m training as a protection dog. Out there, watching these two dogs, I’m reminded of the lessons dogs can teach us about dominance and how they can apply them to ourselves. Chocolate Chip and Sword are both fantastic dogs, and Chip is a feisty little girl, but Sword is a lot more powerful. He’s in training for protection, he’s strong, and when he bites he’s ferocious.
Whenever I let these two out in the backyard, however, Chip wants to dominate Sword. She’ll growl and bite his neck. If he lies down, she’ll stand on top of him. Her posture is domineering in nature: she’ll puff up her chest and try to push against him. This isn’t true just with Sword. Chip will behave this way with every other dog, so I need to carefully guide how she plays. She always wants to own the conversation.
When I hear people saying that dominance isn’t real, I always think of Chip. Why does she stand over Sword to make sure he doesn’t move? Why does she growl and push him around? Why will she shove him out of her way to get a toy? Why would she do these things if dominance doesn’t exist?
I think that people come to deny the existence of dominance because they’ve erroneously interpreted data. Research says that if you’re brutal and physically dominant with your dog, you’ll make them afraid. The prevailing mindset has therefore moved away from teaching dominance. But that’s not the way to go. Dominance exists. You, as the owner and human, don’t need to capitalize on it by being dominant over your dog. You don’t need to growl on your dog, put it on its back, or be bossy—but you do need to be a leader.
Notice how I’ve made a distinction there, because being dominant and being a leader are two very different things. I try to think of myself as the leader of my company, but I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being dominant toward my employees. Leadership is simply guidelines and expectations that you follow through on. It doesn’t require bossiness, talking in a deep voice, or being physically tough. All it requires is deciding what the rules are, outlining your expectations, and following through on them.
Dominance does exist, but you shouldn’t worry about it. You don’t need to be dominant toward your dog! You just need to be a good leader.
I opened up my email today and saw a question from a person looking for advice. “My dog is six months old and he’s starting to get aggressive. Do you think he’ll grow out of it?” My very frank response was “No, he’ll probably grow into it.” My experience suggests that he’ll start to do it more frequently.
Dogs do grow out of problems, but very rarely. It’s more likely for them to grow into problems. The reason is very simple, and you don’t need to be a behaviorist to figure it out. Dogs behave in certain ways because they enjoy them and get some satisfaction out of them. In reality, all dog—and even human—behavior is based on one of two motivations: getting pleasure or avoiding pain. Frequently the two overlap: we do things because they make us feel good and help us avoid a painful alternative. But those are the only reasons why living creatures do things.
Sometimes people attribute counterproductive behaviors to other reasons, but in the end it’s all about these two. Take a human behavior like cutting yourself. In the end, even that is about pleasure and pain at its root. Perhaps the pain that you avoid through cutting is greater than the pain you get from it. Perhaps the pleasure that’s gained through cutting is greater than the pain they feel. I use this as an extreme example, because oftentimes people attribute their dog’s bad behaviors (like lunging or biting) to false causes because “he doesn’t look like he likes it.” Well, he is either enjoying himself or avoiding something worse. All behavior boils down to that.
When we understand this truth about behavior, we understand that “growing out of” a behavior is unlikely. Today, the dog is engaging in a behavior to get pleasure or avoid pain. Tomorrow, and the next day, that strategy will still work. Why would a dog ever grow out of a behavior? The only reason a dog ever could is when it ceases to be pleasurable or no longer helps avoid pain. Occasionally this comes from age, as in cases when a dog grows less hyper as they get older. In reality, they just get less pleasure from acting goofy because they aren’t puppies any more.
When we’re talking about deviant behavior like aggression, however, dogs engage in these behaviors for a very specific reason. Growing older won’t encourage a dog to stop biting, jumping, or being aggressive. The only way to get rid of these behaviors is to train your dog. Don’t assume that he’ll grow out of it! It’s up to you to help your dog overcome this problem.
In this post, I’d like to talk about the role that exercise plays in making sure your dog is well-trained. This stems from a question that I’ve received a lot over the years, thanks to a certain dog trainer named Cesar Milan.
Now, I’m not going to claim that I know much about Cesar Milan. Don’t think poorly of me, but I don’t really like dog TV! I don’t watch the big Thanksgiving dog show, I don’t watch dog training TV shows, and I’m not really even interested in movies where dogs are main characters. So I could probably say that I’ve seen five or six Cesar Milan episodes over the years, and I don’t really have any criticism. What I saw was a man who seems very naturally talented with dogs, and those who know him also speak highly of him. No bad opinions here—but
I believe that Milan talks a lot about exercising your dog. In one of his shows that I saw, he was dealing with an aggressive dog. He threw on some rollerblades and took the dog through the town, and an hour or two later the dog was tired out. Now, I don’t believe for a second that this is the core of his training. But I do think that after watching him, some people have picked out the idea of “exercise” as the most important thing.
As an example, people often bring aggressive dogs to me and say: “We tried what Cesar Milan said. We put a backpack on him and did a ton of exercise, but he’s still aggressive.” My guess is that Cesar is doing a lot more than just that, but people sometimes think that exercise is a substitute for training. It’s not.
Exercise should be a supplement, a component of fixing problems. Sometimes it can be a bigger component than others. I’ve sometimes dealt with destructive dogs whose main need was better exercise. I also remember a client of mine whose two dogs fought in the home. We got them completely over that habit, but once winter came the owner called and said they were fighting again. Sure enough, they weren’t getting enough exercise. In some cases, exercise is a critical component for success. You can do ten other things, but without exercise you won’t get anywhere.
But I still believe that you can’t rely on exercise as a tool. Here’s what happens if you do: you get sick for a few days, or something big happens at work, and you can’t get the dog out properly. The “responsible” answer to this problem is just to say that no matter what happens in your life, you should get your dog out. But life happens, and you can’t always do things perfectly with your dog. That’s how I tend to think of exercise: an accent to proper training. We must train well enough that we don’t rely on exercise.
Someone referenced the rollerblading episode of Cesar Milan to me once, and I had to wonder who has two hours every day to exercise their dog. Of course that would be cool, but I live in Utah and there’s snow on the ground for a lot of the year. No one’s going rollerblading! Two hours of exercise a day isn’t feasible. Victoria Sitwell also did a episode with a Boxer who was being destructive in the backyard. Even after she got up to two hours a day of exercise, the dog was still destructive and she prescribed even more. I was shocked. Getting your dog to be well-behaved shouldn’t be a full-time job.
Except in some rare cases, we should never look at exercise as the fundamental component of a training regimen. Instead, think of it as the whipped cream on top of your training pancakes. It’s great to have, but if you run out it’s okay. Training, training, training—and exercise as a supplement!
Today, I spent some time in my backyard with my dog Chocolate Chip and a Belgian Malamute who’s staying at my house to be trained as a personal protection dog. Needless to say, there was a lot of growling involved. So I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about growling and what it means.
To be honest, I don’t have all the answers. When I was a much younger trainer, I was under the impression that all growling was bad. It preceded a bite, or signaled dominance, or meant that the dog was grumpy. Growling could mean a lot of things, and none of them were good!
And then I got my old dog Rocco. As he was growing up, I came to see a different perspective. Rocco was a Rottweiler, and like most of his breed he was very growly. He used growling as a means of communication. Now I have Chocolate Chip, who growls a lot during rough play. Having Rocco and observing other dogs showed me that growling isn’t always a bad thing. It can be an inappropriate behavior —for instance, if you try to pet a dog but even in those cases it’s valuable because it can tell you that the dog doesn’t feel comfortable.
Not all growling is the same, and sometimes it’s just how dogs communicate. There’s a lot of growling during play, not all of which is necessarily a sign of dominance. It can be a precursor to aggression, in which case you want to get to the root of the problem so you can solve it rather than just correcting the growl. And then, of course, there are plenty of dog breeds (like Huskies and Malamutes) that naturally make goofy, growl-like sounds. A whole host of sounds might come out of a dog’s mouth, not all of which are inappropriate
If your dog growls, barks, or vocalizes toward you in another way, then get to know what it means! Watch videos and talk to professionals. A lot of people think that a dog that growls must be aggressive, but more than likely the growling might be a sign of play or fear. Until you understand what’s happening, there’s no way to know.
Don’t take a growl at face value! Understand it for what it is: communication, from your dog to you.
Today I want to tell you a humorous story that wasn’t very humorous at the time it was happening. (I told this story in my newsletter, so if you read that, this will be a repeat showing!)
I flew back to Georgia last Thursday to buy some service and protection dogs for my clients. The trip was planned with very short notice. Now, I’m a planner who likes to plan things with as much notice as is possible, partially because I’m a big guy who likes to sit in an aisle or window seat. What I never, ever want is the middle seat.
But on the way back from Georgia, the plane was entirely full and there were no open aisles or windows. I had no choice but to book a middle seat. I was willing to pay some decent money to upgrade to first class just so I wouldn’t need to sit in the middle, but it happened anyway. The whole way down the walkway I was saying to myself, “Please let these be very small people, so we’re not bumping elbows.” Sure enough, I get to my row and it was two other big dudes, one in the aisle and one at the window.
I sat down in the middle and turned to one of the other guys, and asked him how tall he was. He looked at me angrily and said, “Six foot four.” Obviously the airlines don’t do a great job of keeping tall people in different areas. This guy was pretty angry and huge—and I even saw a military backpack under his seat. So I squeezed into the middle as much as I could, trying not to bug this dude. I didn’t want to get beaten up.
Once we got in the air, the person in front of this guy leaned his seat back a little bit. The big dude started flailing around and cursing. Every time I happened to brush up against him, he started cursing again. I had no idea what to do. Any sort of movement from anyone around seemed to immediately set this guy off. If we’d been anywhere else, I might have said something or just moved away—but I was stuck in a tin can for five more hours next to him! It was scary.
About half an hour into the flight he got up and stood next to the bathroom, which caused a bit of a ruckus. I think they eventually put him in one of the seats reserved for the crew, because he never came back and I know there wasn’t a single empty seat on that plane.
When I first sat down, however, this guy was really making me angry. He made me feel . I didn’t want to sit there any more than he—or anyone else around us—did, but I did it anyway. For some reason, though, he threw a tantrum.
But this made me think about a lot of the dogs I work with. As owners, it’s easy for us to assume that our dogs are just being jerks or doing stupid stuff for no reason. Oftentimes, however, we don’t realize what’s actually going on beneath the surface. We don’t see the challenges our dogs are dealing with.
Recognizing this helped me put my experience into perspective and not be so angry with the guy in the next seat. I realized that I had no idea what was happening in this man’s life. Maybe he’s had some awful things happen recently, or maybe he has an issue that makes human contact difficult for him. I can’t know about any of those things—so maybe I shouldn’t judge.
Likewise, when you see your dog throwing a tantrum or being aggressive, there’s something going on underneath. Dogs don’t wake up in the morning happy and perfect and then suddenly decide to flip out. They act that way for a reason. As owners, we have a responsibility to figure out that reason. I probably couldn’t have helped the guy sitting next to me on that plane, but it’s completely within our power to help our dogs.
In today’s podcast, I’d like to discuss how to help your dog get over fear and anxiety, and the other barriers that sometimes set them back.
Today, I was working with a great client who came in with some of her teenage kids. She told me that the dog we were working with was the first dog she had ever picked up. As a baby, she’d been around a dog once or twice, but was so allergic that she’d gone the next thirty years without interacting with dogs at all. This was actually the first dog she’d picked up in her entire life.
I was truly fascinated by that. I know not everyone comes from a dog family—in fact, I didn’t come from a dog family—and that not everyone wants to be around dogs. But to meet someone who hadn’t touched a dog in so many years seemed strange and unique to me. Because this client was so allergic and hadn’t been able to be around dogs, she had developed a fear of them. She was from an area that is very dog-friendly, so there were always dogs everywhere. That was scary for her. So she overcome this fear with her dog had been tough. Her puppy was sweet, but very nippy. That just fed her fear even more.
This owner has done a great job, and I think that her family is in good shape with this dog. But this interaction reminded me of the fear that we see in dogs, which typically comes from inappropriate exposure or lack of exposure. Most dogs are afraid of other dogs because they haven’t had enough exposure, or because they exposure they did have involved being bullied or beaten up. Often a dog is afraid of loud noises because they haven’t heard them frequently. Lack of good exposure causes these fears and anxieties to set in. From there, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the dog gets scared, so he runs away or barks and lunges, and then he doesn’t need to be afraid anymore. That’s how dogs learn to be fearful or aggressive. Dogs very rarely learn how to deal with fear and anxiety on their own. They need us to be a catalyst to help them work through this problems. There is a simple term that I use to discuss this issue: structured exposure.
A lot of people think that they should address their dog’s fears by forcing him to be around them. They take a dog that’s afraid of dogs to the park, a dog that’s afraid of kids to a play date, and so on. That’s exposure, but exposure by itself will usually set the dog backwards and make them more afraid of that thing. The dog didn’t have the tools to deal with their fear to begin with, and exposing him to more doesn’t magically give him those tools. Very rarely a dog will pop out of it through sheer adrenaline, but not often. It’s unlikely that your dog will develop those tools on his own.
It’s far better to expose your dog to the thing that he is afraid of in a structured way. That structure comes from two areas: the dog and the environment. The first thing you need is a good level of obedience in your dog, such that he will listen to you rather than his fear. You want obedience that will lead him to think, “I am afraid of people. That’s a person. But I’m respectful enough of your commands that I’m going to sit anyway.” This allows our dog to be under control, pay attention, and look to you for guidance.
On the other end, you also want the environment to be structured as well. If your dog is afraid of kids, then don’t let them manhandle your dog! Instead, set your dog up for success by showing the kids to stop and hold out their hands and let the dog sniff them. If you need structured exposure to other dogs, don’t go to the dog park. Go to your neighbor’s dog who is friendly and calm. You can build upon these first foundations later, but always remember that structured exposure is the key to properly socializing your dog and to getting rid of fear.