I have been thinking for some time about what to write in my next blog post as I wanted to write something helpful. I have in the last couple of years, and personally myself experienced and been witness to a 'condition' in new puppy owners which seems to be becoming more prevalent, it is often referred to as 'Post Puppy Depression'. It is very similar in many ways to post natal depression and can really leave owners ready to rehome their new family members, they constantly question their decision to take on a puppy and whether they are doing right by the dog.
I feel there are many factors that accumulate to create a feeling of not doing enough, not doing the right thing, making bad choices etc. The general notion amongst the population is that puppies are these adorable bundles of fluff that likes to play and then wear themselves out and sleeping. The things most often considered the worst things with pups is the toilet training and chewing. If you're struggling with your puppy most people just say its a phase and it will pass, but what if you are having a particularly difficult time taking on the responsibility? What if you are the one solely responsible for training that pup, socialising it, caring for it.. it's a lot of pressure especially in the current climate with the dangerous dogs act. We are becoming more conscious of ensuring our puppies turn out to be well-adjusted and safe members of society. It is a huge job to take on, despite what a lot of people say and I feel this is often not addressed.
I personally went through a period of PPD about 10 years ago with my JRT. He wasn't interested in being trained, he was more interested in running off or chasing things. He liked to escape out of the back garden and my neighbours would bring him back after playing with him at or local playground. He would not toilet outside and I was constantly clearing up after him. He was noisy, disobedient, he embarrassed me at puppy classes by completely flunking. I seriously considered rehoming him as though I considered myself an experienced dog owner, he was my first puppy and I felt I was failing him. I remember crying in despair as I asked at the vets if they might be able to find someone willing to take him on. I despaired and really thought he'd be better off somewhere else. I am glad I persevered though as at around 14 months old he finally settled down and he is now one of the most obedient and sociable dogs I know.
It is hard though. When you see people out with their incredibly well-trained dogs and you look at yours at the end of the lead, tongue lolling out gasping because he won't walk nicely, or she barks at every dog and lunging, or refuses to listen to a command or jumps up at everyone and everything, and you think... why is their dog so well trained? what have I done wrong? You get other people telling you stories of their lovely bundles of fun who are behaving quite naturally nicely. The thing is.. it's actually quite normal to feel this way. There are many people who suffer PPD, who feel at their wits end, perhaps their puppy isn't as bad as yours, but still, it can be just as taxing. People are all different as are dogs, they all have personalities, natural traits, likes, dislikes, sometimes even odd quirks that make you cringe or scratch your head in confusion. We are all capable of making mistakes, even really experienced dog owners can do something unintentionally which they later need to correct. There is no magic trick to rearing a well behaved puppy. We have to adapt to them, find what motivates them, and keep working at it. Because we care so much that we are doing things right, this is why raising a puppy can be so emotionally draining. In worrying as much as we do, we don't realise what we ARE doing right, and it's up to us fellow dog owners, trainers etc to ensure that we let new puppy owners know they are not alone, it does pass and that we are there to help if they need it. We are supposed to be supporting a partnership to achieve their goals.
I've asked around and I am including an anonymous quote of someone who has dealt with PPD. I hope people can find it comforting that they are not alone
" I wanted to rescue a dog, I looked in rescue for a 2-3yr old dog and I fell in love with this beautiful Samoyed. I arranged to go and meet her, but there was bad news. She was pregnant. I couldn't have her. I was gutted, but I watched her progress online and when the puppies were born, I fell in love all over again with a chunky little bi eyed boy... But a puppy is such hard work and I have a dog at home that can be unpredictable with other dogs... yet still somehow this little bundle came home... I did all the right things, big puppy pen, careful introduction, right food, socialisation, puppy classes.. even so there would be times when this gorgeous furball was cuddled asleep on my lap that I would panic, or weep unconsolably... "what have I done? Am I the right home? Am I just selfish? what about the adult dogs I left behind, puppies always find families, but what about his Mom? What if he became dog aggressive, what if he grew too big/ he was such an enormous puppy. What if his unknown father was a complete terror?... if he got a sniffle I was convinced it was parvo (It wasn't it was a sniffle), if he threw up because he ate too fast, I would panic, he was choking... I had the vet on speed dial... He was so little, so fragile and depended on me for everything it was such crushing responsibility!... He's 18 months old now and a big chunky cuddly robust monster. Those sleepless panicky nights are behind me... I can't honestly say why he affected me so much. I have had other dogs, I have raised other puppies and none gave me the post puppy depressions like Dexter. Maybe it was timing, I had a lot of other stresses in my life at the time and I think I projected many of them to him. Whatever it was, it was horrible and I'm glad it has passed. He's a lovely dog, whatever I was doing, I did it just fine."
To some the reason may seem obvious, but there are two different meanings to the word co-operation :
I am specifically using the first definition when it comes to name selection. I have talked so many times before about working together, building a relationship and bond with your dog, both heading towards the same goal. Ultimately that co-operation will lead to the 2nd definition within your dog and this is where assistance dogs get well recognised and we all know that when you have an assistance dog it is often referred to as a 'partnership'. This is ultimately what we all should be aiming for with our dogs, a long lasting rewarding relationship built on co-operation and trust and respect.
This is why I use only non-confrontational training techniques and techniques which rely on the dogs innate nature to achieve the results we are after. A dog will not 'perform' a task if he is not happy or she feels scared, you will not have a well-rounded dog if you do not trust them and respect them as with people, you need to earn their trust and respect by understanding their needs and personalities and working with them. I hope this gives some better explanation as to why I have chosen this particular name for my business. I feel that the 'co-operation' part of our relationship with our dogs often gets left out, because it's not just the dogs that should be doing the work, but us as their trainers should be doing all we can to be the best we can be for our canine friends.
There is plenty of information online about dealing with various behaviour problems, I'm going to add my own ideas now.
Separation Anxiety is one of the most common behavioural 'issues' expressed within the domestic dog. But Why? This goes back to their deliberate and selected breeding to work with us, to enjoy our company and treat us almost as one of their own. Some recent novel experiments using fMRI scanners have begun to show the extent of this with exploring emotion in dogs and recognition of various sounds including the human voice (http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2014/06/06/dog-human-brain-response.aspx?x_cid=20140606_lead_facebookpets) . The fact dogs respond to these is unique in the animal kingdom except for with humans, we are also capable of recognising the difference between dogs vocalisations, even if we do not live with dogs (http://www.wired.com/2011/06/dog-bark-origins/). This mutual understanding has developed over thousands of years of cohabiting.
So if dogs have been bred to understand and want to be with people, it is safe to assume that separation anxiety is perfectly justified. With the neotinization of dogs to stay in a continued 'puppy-like' state, we can expect them to feel more comfortable and at ease in our presence. So how can we combat that sense of loneliness when a dog is well.. alone?
As with most socialisation and adjusting to human life, there is a lot of desensitisation going on when dealing with separation anxiety. The idea is to get a dog who is not anxious and can in fact be happy with his or her own company. This usually starts from puppy hood, though due to the start many dogs get, this necessary training is often left out and a large proportion of rescue dogs will have separation anxiety to some degree and can be made worse if over-attachment is allowed in the initial introductory stages. So one of the key things we need to remember is ' giving the dog the confidence to be left alone'.
So what are the basics in teaching a dog to be happy when left alone? Well we make it a positive and safe experience for them. This means while you are gone you want things to occupy your dog, toys, safe chewy things such as a nylabone or stuffed kong or a buster cube filled with treats that the dog has to work for. I do not recommend rawhide treats unsupervised, as dogs can swallow them in large chunks which can block the gut. Not good. If you have a dog with known separation anxiety, some things they can chew without you being too worried about it, such as old boxes with any tape or staples removed. Old blankets from a charity shop are great while your dog learns to be alone as they are cheap and it matters less if they get chewed or ripped. I do not recommend soft beds as these can get pulled apart, fluff everywhere which can get eaten by explorative puppies. Ideally introducing a large crate in which the dog can stand, lie down and move around with ease is ideal, though they should not be confined to one all day as this is unfair. Crate training would need to be introduced as well. If you have a dog that gets easily disturbed by noises outside, putting on the TV or radio is ideal. Classical music is best as it has been shown to have a calming effect on the dog (http://blogs.discovery.com/daily_treat/2012/11/can-classical-music-calm-stressed-dogs-study-says-yes.html). This would need to be loud enough to dull noises from outside which can stress the dog, but obviously not loud enough to disturb any neighbours. And lastly slowly introducing your dog to being left for longer periods of time. Even a puppy can be left for 10 mins and have this slowly increased as long as it is in a safe environment. With some dogs showing extreme anxiety, just removing yourself from the room for a few seconds then returning while the dog is calm and then slowly increasing this to a few minutes etc will help. Remember to always make the experience of being alone a good one.
Its also worth noting that over-attachment often coincides with separation anxiety, and teaching your dog to be away from you when you are in the house, such as lying quietly on their bed with a toy or chew, not being allowed to follow you from room to room can be a good way to improve confidence and help prevent the symptoms either worsening or even becoming present. It is important to remember that a dog should not be left more than 4 hours on their own, 6 at a push if you have an older dog who does not become anxious, though having someone to check in on the dog is a good idea. If you work it is a good idea to employ a dog walker or sitter who can come in regularly and interact with your dog, either in play,just keeping him company or taking her for a nice walk to break up her day. There are also various services where you can drop your dog off with a professional dog sitter while you work meaning they rarely have to be alone. There is the option of kennels also. So those are some basic bits of advice. Hopefully they may help in some way if this is a problem. Have fun with your dog!
When we talk about canine learning theory, what we are really talking about is how a dogs mind works in order for it to learn, and how we use this information as handlers to develop an efficient way of communicating with our dogs based on mutual understanding.
Dogs are born with a variety of innate behaviours which can be modified to suit our needs and we can even use those natural instincts to devise ways to motivate a dog to perform a certain task. Such as the desire to find food can be used to train a search and rescue exercise. The techniques used for this are known as classical and operant conditioning, made famous by an experiment by Pavlov and behaviourists such as BF Skinner. These scientists have helped us gain significant knowledge on how many animals learn. There is also the natural form of social learning.
What is Classical conditioning?
This is about making associations between stimuli, as Pavlov demonstrated by ringing a bell each time a group of dogs received their dinner. Eventually just ringing the bell made the dogs salivate expectantly for their dinner. This similar technique is utilised during clicker training where the clicker is associated with food and eventually the food can be phased out and the clicker used as a replacement.
What is Operant conditioning?
This is repeating an action or behaviour which consistently receives a reward. This is often used to create a ‘chaining’ effect where multiple behaviours are successively joined together to perform a complicated task, such as teaching a retrieve. The dog is rewarded for getting the toy. The dog is rewarded for returning with the toy. The dog is rewarded for giving the toy back. Eventually the entire chain can become self-rewarding or if it is rewarded with some form of praise or treat from a handler for performing the task successfully. This is also known as ‘shaping’.
What is Social learning?
This is learning from other dogs, handlers and other animals in the dog’s environment. A common example is bite inhibition and appropriate greeting and play behaviours. These are learnt through play as a young pup and via the young dog’s mother. Most of the typical canine behaviour we see is primarily learnt through time spent with mum and litter mates hence why this time is so important. It is further reinforced through social interaction with other dogs in the new environment.
What is positive reinforcement?
This is using a reward for performing an action, thus further encouraging the action to be performed again. It can be self-reinforcing or we can reinforce a desired behaviour as handlers. Though this form of learning is the most effective when dealing in behaviour modification, it can also backfire. Examples of positive reinforcement are a dog receiving praise reward from a handler for performing a ‘down’ or a dog gaining food for each time it counter surfs.
What is Extinction?
This is a behaviour ceasing to be performed due to it no longer being rewarding. For example, when a handler fails to reward a ‘sit’ even infrequently, the dog sees no reason to continue to perform the action. Or as with the counter surfing example before, if the food is removed, eventually the behaviour is no longer self-rewarding and will extinguish.
Personally I prefer to use as little equipment as possible, maybe some nice tasty treats, a toy or my voice when it comes to training. However this doesn't always work, especially if the early work wasn't quite put in properly, perhaps through bad advice or lack of time.
We had new members to our class recently with a very persistent puller. On the first lesson it was obvious this young 9 month old dog had learned that pulling was an ok thing to do because he was a very strong dog and could get away with it. This wasn't going to end well though with one of the owners pregnant and needing him under better control before the baby arrives. First lesson we tried all the usual techniques, keeping a treat by the nose and rewarding for a few steps at heel, stopping if the dog pulled in front and guiding him back to the owners side. However it was clear we needed something that could help move things along a little faster.
I am all for taking time etc, however when you have a situation like this sometimes it is better to utilise a tool or piece of equipment which can help move things forward a little faster. I've never been a huge fan of harnesses on pullers because the dog can get more of it's weight into the shoulders and pull even harder. However there are now some rather nifty harnesses available which can help control pulling, especially if you have a dog who is either used to a harness or dislikes head collars, which was the case with this doggy.
So last week I took one of these 'tools' down to class with me. Fitted the boy up, and the change was almost instant. This did not mean he didn't pull, he still had his moments, but he was so much easier to walk that even his pregnant owner was able to safely walk him for part of the class. This was huge because the poor couple were getting anxious about his pulling even getting aching arms. The basics still need to be put in place, getting him to walk nicely next to them using positive reinforcement, but this training aid worked! They felt so much more confident seeing that he can walk nicely, and of course the handlers mind-set makes a big difference when it comes to training. So we have put an order in for them to have one of these harnesses of their own so that they can work with him effectively outside of classes and hopefully soon help him realise that walking with his handlers is much more comfortable than pulling at the end of a lead.
This is the link to the Easy Walk Harness which I can now thoroughly recommend having tried and tested it myself.
In my 'about' section I talk about the science of behaviour and the research that has gone into various methods of training with positive reinforcement being the most effective and least stressful of all training types. Personally I have never agreed with forcing an animal to do something it doesn't want to, but I am all for encouraging with the right motivators.
I have unfortunately in my time had to undo training which involved aversive and often negative techniques which had actually escalated various behaviour problems or even caused new ones. I have seen dogs being laid upon and forced into positions in which they feel uncomfortable lead to someone being nipped or growled at as the dogs attempts to let the handler know they are very unhappy. I can honestly say I have never seen positive reinforcement create such a negative response in dogs. I have however seen aversive techniques lead to disaster. Aversive training can increase the negative experiences for a dog meaning the dog will either try to get away from the situation, refuse to perform, or if they feel threatened.. become aggressive. Often aversive methods can be so intense that it can force a dog to shut down. We don't want shut down dogs, we want happy and content dogs enjoying life.
However there is one thing I have noticed about some positive advocates, and that is that they never correct a dog. In all the research involving positive reinforcement, there is always some sort of correction for the dog being used in an experiment, be it a simple 'no' or a short gentle tug on a lead to let the dog know that isn't the correct response. Some form of correction fitting for that dog. In dogs that have not had any correction there are often other problems arising, such as pushiness, resource guarding and inappropriate behaviours within the home such as aggression to the owners. It's not that positive doesn't work, it is simply a fact that a dog needs boundaries.
I talk about bonding with your dogs as a two way thing, its about respect, but in the friendly way, understanding what each other's limits are and either accepting them or coming to an acceptable compromise. This is where all dogs are different. What works for one, will not work for another.
So when I am working on behavioural problems, I will look at other parts of the home, see what boundaries there are and the personality of the dog/s in question. Is a dog allowed to sleep on the bed? If that dog becomes aggressive when it is on the bed, then it is likely wanting to be on that bed very much. So you need to find something it wants more, and teach it to respect that it is only allowed on the bed when you say so and teach it to get off when you ask. This is just one possible problem.
Obviously aggression is not acceptable and you don't want to inadvertently reward the aggression, so its about leaving time between the aggressive display to get it out of the dogs mind and instead reward the behaviour you want it to perform. Eventually the dog will realise that if it steps off the bed nicely when you ask, it will get a reward. This is where teaching the dog a 'no' or some sort of correction word is invaluable so it is aware that the behaviour it is performing is undesirable. Dogs naturally want to please their handlers. Obviously if you have a dog that thinks the bed is the best thing in the world and won't let you near it... it's probably best not to allow the dog access to the bed full-stop. Though this may be difficult for some people to come to terms with, there is always the option of giving the dog its own bed near your own if you want it to sleep upstairs.
The whole point of training and interacting with your dog is learning the nuances of it's personality, its needs, its wants, much in the same way you would cater to a human friend. They certainly deserve the same amount of respect. It's about understanding these things that will lead to the best relationship you can have with your dog.
Dog Trainer, animal lover, artist and photographer