Behavior Modification, Body Language, Conformation classes, Dog Shows, Fearful Dogs, Owner Handlers, Positive Reinforcement, Training
“I can’t believe he hasn’t tried to bite you”
Over the years as a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant there has been a constant theme of comments that I have received and continue to receive in my work focusing on conformation. I have been told things like, “He never warms up to people as quickly as he has warmed up to you”, “No one has ever been able to take his leash and walk with him before”, “You are the only handler he hasn’t bitten”, “I can’t believe how good she is with you” and even, “I can’t believe he hasn’t tried to bite you”. My cases have ranged from everything from aggression to people, reactivity and aggression with other dogs, separation anxiety, anxiety ranging from mildly concerned to extremely fearful and I am happy to say I have never been bitten on the job. So, why is it that I, and many other professional behavior specialists, hear comments like this on the regular?
The reason, I believe, is two fold. First, I do my best to give the dogs I am working with constant feedback. In other words, when a dog is making a good choice I reinforce that. I let the dog know, in some way that I like what he is doing. I may reinforce with food, touch, play or attention. With dogs I know well I may simply smile and let them know I like what they are doing. When dogs do something I do not like, I do my best not to reinforce the behavior and I try to change the arrangement so that the dog can make a better choice. Another comment that I heard over the years were along the lines of, “he loves you, you are the cookie lady”, which I always silently took a little bit of offense to. It isn’t just the treats I used to reinforce the dogs, it is the fact that dogs appreciate information and feedback. They like to be right and they like to know when they are right.
The second reason is that when I work with a dog I am constantly observing their body language. What I see in their body language allows me to understand their emotional state. I say emotional state instead of “feeling” though the words really can be used interchangeably. I prefer to look at the body language and use the actual observable behavior I see to tell me whether I think the dog is relaxed, comfortable, happy, unsure, afraid or upset in some way. While these words are labels, they give me the information I need to know what to do next. Think of it like stoplights. The dog’s responses are a green light which means I can continue in the direction I am working with the dog or a red light which tells me it is not working for the animal.
Dogs and other animals appreciate clear information and reliable feedback. The reason that dogs seem comfortable with me is that I listen to what they are communicating. I ask questions with how I work with them and I receive answers by how they respond to what we are doing. There is little I love more in my work than when I see a dog’s fear dissipate as it realizes that they are being heard and listened to and that their limitations are being respected.
I was teaching a workshop the other day when I wanted to do a demonstration with a dog that has attended a few of my workshops. This very special guy is concerned with people and will bark and react when people look at him. At our first workshop together we worked with him and by the end of the workshop instead of barking at people looking at him, he was seeking out eye contact and then softly wagging his tail with relaxed eyes. The other day I asked if I could do a demonstration with him. His owner said yes and handed me his leash and I walked off with him and demonstrated a down and back with a profile free stack. When I handed him back to his owner she told me that she has never been able to hand his leash to anyone else before. After the workshop she asked if we could try it again. I took the leash and he happily trotted off with me and performed several of his tricks for me including sits, sit pretty and hand targets. To say we were emotional is an understatement. He didn’t come with me because I am some magical unicorn, he came with me because he has learned that he can rely on me to treat him respectfully, to listen to what he is attempting to communicate and to give him the feedback he needs to get it right. This is the greatest gift a dog can give me.
So, how do you give your dog the feedback he needs? How do you work with dogs in a way that makes them feel like you are safe and that you are worthy of their attention and cooperation? Here are some of my best suggestions based on my years of working with dogs of different breeds, ages, learning histories with various behavior issues.
- Learn about canine body language and how to read it. Every dog is different but there are many universal behaviors that signal stress, excitement, fear, joy, understanding and confusion. Study body language of dogs so that you can better observe and understand how the dog may be feeling.
- Be generous with feedback, especially what you like. Much of the time people tend to ignore what they like but are quick to point out what they don’t like. I try to do the opposite. I rarely, if ever leave bad reviews for a business, but make it a point to leave a positive one because the positive ones will reinforce what I like and appreciate. It is the same with dogs. If I like something a dog does I am going to let the dog know.
- Give the dog the benefit of the doubt. If the dog is not understanding something or behaving in a way you don’t like assume it is because he doesn’t have a better solution. He chose that option for a reason which means that he probably doesn’t know what to do instead. It is up to us, as the trainer to teach the dog what to do instead of what he is doing.
- Respect a dog’s boundaries and limitations. When working with fearful dogs I never swoop right in attempting to touch them. I spend my time building a rapport and getting to know the dog and what he is and isn’t comfortable with.
- Set the dog up for success. If you know a dog doesn’t feel comfortable getting his bite examined don’t take him to the dog show and ask 20 people to go over his bite! He has already communicated that he is not comfortable and asking people to do something you know he hates over and over is setting him up for failure.
- Take time for a proper introduction. Don’t assume that just because you are good with dogs that a dog you don’t know well should or will willingly do everything you ask.
- Keep in mind that more sensitive dogs will most likely be affected by all types of pressure including physical pressure, social pressure and spatial pressure. Even something as subtle as where you are distributing your weight or how your body is turned can affect a dog especially a sensitive one.
For more information on working with fearful or shy dogs please check out our online course From Shy to Showy.