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Odd Doggy Behaviors

You love your dog Chippy, right? He’s your best friend, your constant companion, always happy to see you. And he’s probably well behaved in general. But he has one or two very strange behaviors and you’re wondering whether you should be worried about it. First of all, you are not alone. Many dogs have unusual or quirky behaviors. Most are nothing to be concerned about, but others may indicate a physical or psychological problem.

Weird or Actually Normal?
Just because it seems weird to you, does not mean that Chippy’s habit is abnormal. Some things that dogs do that we humans would not are normal for them. This would include butt sniffing, licking another dog’s mouth, sticking his head out of the window in a moving car, or circling several times before settling in for a nap.
• Sniffing another dog’s butt is a greeting in the canine world. When Chippy does this, he is getting crucial information about that dog. You should not stop him from doing it. Doing it to you and your guests is another story. It is okay to train him not to sniff human’s crotches.
• Licking another dog’s jowls is a way of showing submission. If Chippy does this, you know he’s not the alpha dog.
• The head in the window is simple: good smells!
• Circling before a nap can be chalked up to evolution. It is a remnant from their days of living in the wild. Dogs and wolves would circle before lying down to flatten grass for more comfort and to check for any potential dangers like a nearby snake before going to sleep.

Not So Normal?
If Chippy is exhibiting any of the “normal” dog behaviors, there is nothing to worry about. Others may not be so normal, but still may not be anything to ruffle your feathers over.
• He is scratching himself…a lot. If you have been careful about fleas and you bathe him regularly, Chippy may have a skin condition or an allergy. A quick trip to the vet for a skin test should get you an answer and help him stop.
• Licking or nibbling. If Chippy seems to enjoy licking people a little too much or nibbles on your guests’ fingers or ears, it is not a huge concern. It may be annoying, but some simple training techniques should stop the behavior.
• Chewing, chewing, and more chewing! When Chippy chews on and destroys your shoes during the day while you are at work, he is sending you a very clear message. He’s bored out of his mind! He needs a dog walker to break up his day, some more interesting toys to play with, or more exercise before you head off for work and as soon as you get home.

Any behavior that is unusual or annoying to you, but isn’t causing anyone harm is not a big deal. Work with a trainer to help change the behavior or consult with a behaviorist to find out what Chippy is trying to tell you.

When to Worry?
If Chippy’s behavior changes suddenly or drastically or becomes compulsive, you could have a problem on your hands. It is absolutely not normal for him to develop a weird behavior out of the blue. If he has always nibbled your ears when you cuddle on the couch, that’s ok. If he suddenly takes an interest in licking your ears and can’t seem to get enough of them, that is not ok. Get him to the vet as soon as possible and have him checked out for any underlying physical problems. Your vet can also tell you if the behavior is likely to be from psychological issues and can refer you to a specialist.

Try not to judge Chippy. He’s a dog, not a human and dogs sometimes do weird things. Take care of him, provide him with everything he needs, and get him some proper training and you and Chippy can enjoy life together, odd habits and all.

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Pick Your Perfect Trainer

Unless your little buddy Ben was born a model of perfect canine behavior, chances are you will need a dog trainer. It’s best not to simply point your finger at a listing in the phone book or choose the trainer at the top of your Google search. There are plenty of great trainers out there, but also plenty of bad ones. If you want the best for little Ben and you, take the time to make a proper choice.

When choosing a dog trainer, you will need to consider several things. Some of the aspects of a trainer that you will be looking at will be personalized for you and Ben. But, there are also some traits in a trainer that everyone should be looking out for.

Training Techniques
There are a lot of different techniques that dog trainers can use to work with dogs. Before you pick a trainer for your little guy, be sure you understand what those are. There is plenty of controversy, debate, and discussion to go along with all the different training methods. Education yourself so that you can choose a trainer whose style matches what you want for Ben.

Dog trainers are often certified by a training or behavioral organization. There are many different such organizations that promote and use different certification requirements, instruction, and training techniques. You will have to do your homework here as well to decide if certification is important to you and if so, which organization best represents what you are looking for in a trainer.

Sometimes the best recommendation for a trainer is a set of good references. In fact, never hire a trainer unless they can provide some of these. A certification is not necessarily needed to be a great trainer. If you can talk to previous clients who sing the praises of the trainer you are considering, that bodes very well for you and Ben.

Trainer or Behaviorist?
A dog trainer and a dog behaviorist is not the same thing. But, beware. Many trainers use behaviorist or behavior specialist to describe themselves and it may not be true. A behaviorist is someone with specialized, advanced training, such as a graduate degree in animal behavior. A good trainer can correct a lot of bad behaviors, but only a specialist can really diagnose and treat serious behavior issues. You need to decide which Ben needs. Does he have a few annoying habits or does he have some deep-seated emotional issues?

Specialized Training
If you are just looking to get some basic manners for Ben, there are lots of trainers who will be able to help you. If you are thinking about challenging him a bit more and maybe seeing how talented he is, you will want to find a trainer who has experience with more specialized training. Perhaps Ben is destined to become an obedience expert, a star agility dog, or a caring service dog. Ask your potential trainer if they have experience with any of these specialties.

Will the Trainer Train You?
This may be the most important question you ask during your trainer interviews. Having a trainer teach Ben to sit, come, and stay is utterly useless if they don’t teach you how to command and instruct him as well. A good dog trainer trains owners as much as, if not more so than the dog. If a trainer insists on doing lessons without you, a big old red flag has been raised. Walk away.

Training Ben should be a positive experience for the both of you. You want a happy, well-behaved dog, and he wants nothing more than to please you. With the right trainer that works for and with the both of you, you will be able to achieve obedience bliss together.

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How To Handle a Fearful Dog

Brutus, a Labrador retriever, is considered a large dog. He’s a handsome creature, young and vital, but you notice whenever a thunderstorm coasts into town that Brutus is nowhere to be seen, and when you do find him he is a huddled, trembling mass. Angie is a shelter rescue and suffered an abusive past in a puppy mill. She is terrified of absolutely everything including her new owners, the outdoors and other dogs. She bolts when she sees another dog or a person approaches her; she barks at anyone outside the house. These two examples of fearful dogs are not terribly uncommon but they can be frustrating and even daunting to inexperienced owners. Fortunately, they are fixable conditions requiring patience, a calm demeanor and a pocket full of tasty treats.

What You Absolutely Must Not Do
Your friend is about to deliver her first child and she is terrified. The epidural is on its way but as with many aspects of childbirth there are risks in having the spinal injection. You lovingly take her hand, hold it tight and proceed to tell her she is right to be afraid, that the epidural that can take away her pain can also cause her paralysis if she moves while they administer it. Then, you gently tell her, she can look forward to never being able to hold or hug her baby. Yes, she should be scared; she should be very, very scared. You smile at her in comfort. While these fears are true and founded, is this the right time to encourage her terror? Absolutely not. So it is with coddling and comforting Brutus when he is trembling in fear at a loud thunderstorm.

Fear is natural in all animals but debilitating fear is not something we prize as human beings and it is not something we tend to encourage. In fact, we do quite a bit to get over our fears and say inspiring things to others to help them get over theirs. We act strong and fearless for the sake of the fearful that they might have a role model, someone to draw strength from: we puff out our chests, raise our chins, square our shoulders and make light of the danger or the source of terror. We do these things to help others but we rarely perform this way for a frightened dog that really needs to see it. They look to their humans for an example on how to behave when they are scared and if they get a weak demonstration of baby talk and pawing, they will associate their fearful behavior with receiving attention and continue the cycle. What they need is assurance from your body language; they need to see you are not afraid. Many people call this calm energy but whatever you like to label it, show it to your dog when things like storms, firecrackers and other loud noises frighten him. Brutus will draw his strength from yours and try to follow his leader’s example.

What You Can Do
With dogs a cool head is the main thing. Do not punish fear but do not encourage it. Many dogs will not take treats or eat when they are trembling in horror, so do not force it or yell at them when they refuse to eat. If Brutus has a safe place, let him go there and ride out the storm. It can very difficult for a concerned human parent not to comfort his dog so if you must do something, simply sit near him and show that you are not bothered by what is bothering him. If Brutus allows it you can take his mind off the storm or source of agitation by distracting him with games or commands. He may not be attentive during these moments so don’t take it personally if he does not play along.

In extreme cases like Angie where everything is a fear, you may need to engage in what is call cognitive therapy among humans and desensitization with dogs. Essentially they are the same thing, which is a psychological therapy method that introduces the source of the fear repeatedly until the impact of the source diminishes. With a canine who cannot associate the act specifically with something that is trying to help them, it may take a good deal of time and patience. Each trigger object or situation will have to be dealt with separately and it is started by showing the object to the dog at a distance, praising her for staying calm and giving her a treat, then bringing the object just a little bit closer and repeating the praise. If she does not respond to the treat and praise but shows only fear, then you have pushed her too far and you will have to start over again.

Distraction works well in these cases too, where a command to sit (or teaching sit) with the trigger object in the background helps the dog to associate the fear item with positive praise and treats until they expect something good whenever they are exposed to the trigger object. This is not as easy as it sounds and will require vast patience, endless praise and a lot of treats. It also demands that the human be calm, show no anger at having to start over and can keep a firm tone without shouting. If you cannot perform these functions, you may consider working with a dog behaviorist. Also, do not be afraid to administer some medication to help calm the dog down in the form of acepromazine tranquilizer, which can be dispensed by your veterinarian. This is a good idea for severe cases of terror such as before a thunderstorm.

Do not give up on your dog, she can be taught to rethink her fears and associate such negative experiences with positive attributes. Animals have self-confidence issues too and may need to have their confidence rebuilt or strengthened. Either way, dogs look to their humans for guidance and as examples of how to react to a situation. Every correction takes time; commit yourself to that and Angie will respond in kind… eventually.

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How To Deal With a Fearful or Timid Dog

Does Gracie avoid stepping on sewer grates? Does Raquel jump out of her own skin when you rattle a plastic bag? Is a car backfiring down the block enough to transform Charlie into a glazed and drooling mess? Certain sights, sounds, and even smells may terrify the fearful dog, creating real suffering for dog and owner. While fear of thunder and fireworks are among the more common sound phobias, many different experiences can scare the fur off a scaredy-dog. Are you lost, at your wit’s end and in need of solutions? Read on!

Training Suggestions
Accentuate the positives. To train your dog into being brave and confident, be prepared to praise, praise, praise! Use an exposure-desensitization method in which you expose the dog to a very small dose of the fearful item and then praise and offer treats. For example, walk your dog on her leash near the sewer grate, but far away enough so that the dog is mildly uncomfortable but not panicked. If she manages to pass the grate without showing fear (no stopping, backing up, whining or barking), then offer big praise. Use both verbal praise and give her an enthusiastic head scratch. Repeat the exposure, walking her past again without trying to go any closer and again, if she doesn’t react, offer big praise. If she does react, you are too close. Allow her to have more space between the scary item and her feet. Over a week or two of repeated successful exposures, slowly move closer to the scary object. Always praise the lack of a reaction. If the dog reacts with fear – in other words, shows signs of regression - back up your training until the dog is only mildly uncomfortable. Do a few more repeats at that level before trying to inch closer again.

Believe it or not, many dogs are frightened of plastic bags. They can blow in the wind, moving in erratic or unpredictable ways, and they make crinkly noises. For some dogs, that’s enough! Begin your training out of this fear slowly, by petting and praising Porter while you slowly pull a plastic bag out of a coat pocket or from up your sleeve. That’s it, just minimal exposure with maximum praise. After a few successes at this level of challenge, crinkle the bag a little as you set it down. Again, offer the dog big praise for tolerating this without freaking out. Once some small success has been achieved, you can start to do things like hiding a treat in the bag, or slip the bag over your hand and pet Porter with it. Always back off if your dog seems stressed. For most dogs, the scariest thing you can do with a plastic bag is to shake it out to open it up. Save that for last, and take your time, making sure that just plain being near the bag is tolerated before you start swinging it around or snapping it open.

Some dogs get frightened in situations where there is a lot of noise, stimulation and people (a crowded farmer’s market, for example). In these cases, you want Percy to focus on you, since you are his person and if you are calm and happy, he will eventually trust that he can be too. Again, walk him in the general area, and praise him like crazy when he doesn’t react to the other people. If this is too difficult either logistically or emotionally, then set up a training exercise with friends or acquaintances where just a few people loiter and mill around in your backyard or driveway, ignoring the dog but scaring him simply by being there. Then walk the dog near the people, praising like crazy for any lack of reactions on his part.

Choices in Training Methods
Some people prefer to use clickers or food treats when praising their brave dogs. These methods work well too. In fact, some dogs are less motivated by verbal praise or a pat on the head, but will do anything for a tasty morsel. Use high value treats, such as cheese, chicken, or other strongly flavored rich items that you can hold easily and dole out quickly. Then use the treats to keep Patches focusing on you and distracted from the scary situation. Use verbal praise along with the treats, and see how it goes. You may be able to wean her off the treats after a few exposures.

Lifestyling Your Training
Integrate your confidence training into an all-around lifestyle approach. Be ready to turn any moment into a training opportunity. For example, when cooking dinner, let your dog smell the handle of the blender if she seems worried about the noise it made. Don’t shut the dogs in the bathroom while you vacuum, but let them try being nearby. Whenever you see that cocked head or tucked tail, offer your dog the opportunity to grow through their fear into brave and confident dogs.

A Few Don’ts
Don’t hit or in any other way punish a fearful dog for refusing to cooperate out of fear. It definitely won’t help and it might make matters worse.

Don’t laugh when your dog seems frightened, no matter how cute or funny it might appear to be. This could be misinterpreted as praise.

Don’t force the dog to do anything he or she is terrified of doing. Don’t drag a frightened dog over the sewer grate or shove a plastic bag in her face. Don’t throw the water-phobic dog into the pool.

Don’t get discouraged if the training goes slowly. Be patient and be positive, and your dog will respond eventually.

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Implementing the Nothing in Life is Free Training Approach

A well-behaved dog is a joy be around. Confident and calm, quiet and capable, when sweet little Rover knows what’s expected of him and understands that you call the shots. You can readily expect to enjoy his company without a constant battle over unwanted behaviors. Does this sound too good to be true? It might be time to try the “Nothing in Life is Free” (NILIF) approach.

What is the NILIF approach?
More of a life philosophy than a specific training technique or set of techniques, NILIF works from the perspective that helps your dog accept you as the leader and feel secure and confident in his or her position as pack member. Not unlike what some parents refer to as “Grandma’s Rule,” NILIF predicates all positive rewards on you, the pack leader, getting what you want first. In Spike’s case, Spikey-boy wants what you have: attention, food, treats or toys. You provide these things for Spike after he does what you want (e.g. sits before you place his food bowl down, or backs up before the door is opened).

Some more examples of how this philosophy looks in practice would include insisting that Spot sit still before his leash is put on to go outside, or that he lie down before receiving a belly rub. You as the pack leader are frequently giving commands, and Spot executes the command before receiving any “goodies” (praise, treats or even going outside).

How Do You Get Started?
First, teach Zoe a few basic commands such a sit, come and lie down. Use positive reinforcement (big praise, and/or small food treat) to reinforce the correct behavior. Second, stop giving away things your dog wants “for free.” What does that mean? Stop petting your dog “just because” or when he shoves his head under your hand. Don’t give treats “just because” or “for dessert.” Start to think in terms of these treats (praise, food treats or attention/affection) in terms of exchanges: Zoe gives me correct and appropriate behavior, and I give her something positive in return.

Soon, every interaction with your dog will offer opportunities for this kind of exchange. You want to play ball? Give me your paw first. You want a treat? Speak to me. You want to go outside? Sit still before I put your leash on. Lance will start to get it that you, the human in charge, receive what you want from him before he gets any goodies at all.

Remember, Rascal needs to understand the basic commands and be able to obey them before you initiate the NILIF approach. What is the key to making this work? Be consistent.

Special Circumstances:
Sometimes, situations develop where Jasper needs extra help getting his behavior together. Maybe he’s brand new to you and your household and has come from a very unstructured environment. Or maybe he’s just young, strong, full of himself and going through adolescent growing pains. Whatever the situation, a “pushy” dog can develop truly bad habits that can end up being annoying at best and dangerous at worst.

The NILIF approach in this circumstance gets a little more elaborate. Combining crate training with “tethering” can help rewire Jasper’s behavior. Crate training involves using a dog crate as a safe “time out:” a den-like refuge for Jasper where he stays when he is not tied to you. Yes, using this technique you actually tie ol’ Jasper to your waist using a fairly short leash, and insist that he go where you go, at your speed, on your whim. Tethering in this way helps convey to Jasper that you are in charge in a very intense and powerful way. Tethering is sometimes suggested for growling or biting behaviors, and in such cases is also combined with all the NILIF concepts outlined above.

These techniques are extensions of establishing the human owner as the alpha, but are best used with the help and guidance of a professional trainer to ensure that all discipline is just that: teaching, training, shaping and supporting positive behaviors without ever, even inadvertently, punishing with cruelty or harsh responses.

A well-trained dog does so much more than offer robotic correct responses to commands. A well-trained dog has the potential to bond with his or her owner in a profound and deeply satisfying way. For both dog and owner, there is no question: the investment in training is well worth it!