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Tips for Interacting with Fearful Dogs

Many shelter and rescue dogs are fearful. Our tendency for these dogs is to encourage them to get closer and sometimes lure them with food. However, this approach does nothing to alleviate the dog’s fear and can often exacerbate it.

When in the presence of a fearful dog, follow these tips instead:

1. Let the dog come to you. If your dog is frightened, she must be allowed to decide whether or not to approach. Don’t restrain your dog and force her to accept contact from others. Remember the “fight or flight” response; if you take away the opportunity for flight, your dog’s choices are limited.

2. Turn to the side. Facing a dog directly is more confrontational than keeping your body turned partially or completely to the side; even turning your head to the side will make a frightened dog feel less anxious.

3. No staring, please ! A direct stare is a threat in the animal kingdom (and on New York City subways!). It is perfectly fine to look at your dog; just soften your expression and don’t “hard stare” directly into her eyes. Do not allow children to put their faces near your dog’s face or to stare into her eyes.

4. Don’t hover. Leaning over a dog can cause the dog to become afraid and possibly defensive. The one time I was bitten while working in a Los Angeles city animal shelter happened when I went to return an adorable, fluffy white dog to her pen. While placing her on the ground, I inadvertently reached over her equally adorable little pen mate who jumped up and bit me in the face.

5. Pet appropriately. Approaching dogs by patting them on the head is ill-advised. Envision the interaction from the dog’s point of view; a palm approaching from above can be alarming. Demonstrate with kids to teach them how to pet dogs properly. The child plays the role of the dog; tell the child that you will pet him in two different ways, and he is to tell me which is nicer. First, reach your hand slowly toward the child’s cheek and stroke it, smiling and softly saying, “Good dog!” Next, bring your hand brusquely palm-down over the child’s head repeatedly, while loudly saying, “Good dog, good dog!” Kids almost invariably like the first method better. If dogs could answer for themselves, nine out of ten dogs would vote for the first method as well! It’s not that dogs should never be petted on top of the head, but that head-patting (or petting over the dog’s shoulders, back, or rump) should not be used as an initial approach. It is wiser to make a fist, hold it under the dog’s nose to allow her to sniff, then pet the dog on the chest, moving gradually to the sides of the face and other body parts, assuming the dog is comfortable. Likewise, a hand moving in quickly to grab for a dog’s collar is more potentially fear-inducing than a hand moving slowly to a dog’s chest, scratching it, then moving up to take hold of the collar.

6. Stoop, don’t swoop. Small dogs in particular are often swooped down upon when people want to pick them up. Fast, direct, overhead movements are much more frightening than slow, indirect ones. To lift a small dog, crouch down, pet the dog for a moment, then gently slip your hands under her belly and chest, and lift.

7. Watch your smile. While humans interpret a smile as friendly, a dog might not be as fond of seeing your pearly whites. A show of teeth is, after all, a threat in the animal kingdom. Smile at canines with a closed mouth.

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How to Have a Better Behaved Dog

We all want wonderfully behaved dogs, but it doesn’t happen on its own just because we wish it. It takes time and effort to create the kind of dog and relationship you want. Here are some basic principles that can help you have a better behaved dog.

• Have realistic expectations about your dog. No matter how good your dog is, things will get peed on, chewed or scratched/dug up. Barking / meowing, door dashing and/or pulling on the leash can happen with even the best animal. Accept the fact that dogs are living beings and not china dolls to sit in the corner. If you have a dog, some time during his/her life, you will loose something of value.
• To change behavior you have to be patient and persistent. Change will not happen over night. Sometimes it can take weeks or months to change behavior. The more time you spend and the more often you work with your dog the quicker the change. Despite what some books say, most puppies can’t be housetrained in 7 days.
• Recognize and meet your dog’s behavioral needs. Dogs have needs for exercise, social contact with people and other animals and mental stimulation. Problem-solving toys, can provide mental stimulation. Games such as ‘find the hidden object’ and events such as agility can provide all three.
• Make it easy for your dog to do the right thing. Arrange the environment so that the behavior you want is easily produced. The more often desirable behavior happens the stronger it becomes. For example, minimize distractions when you’re trying to teach your dog something new. Put scratching posts where they are easy for your cat to find and use.
• Make it difficult for your dog to do the wrong thing. Arrange the environment so it is hard for your dog to make mistakes. The more often unwanted behavior happens the harder it is to change. Close the blinds to keep your dog from barking at those that pass by. Scoop out your cats’ litter boxes every day.
• Realize that animals don’t do things out of spite, for revenge or just to make your life miserable. They do what works – that is, what meets their behavioral needs, gets them rewards or allows them to escape or avoid bad things. They sometimes do some things because they are ill. Dogs counter surf because they occasionally hit the jackpot of a sandwich or chicken leg. Cats sometimes pee out of the box because they are sick even when they don’t act sick.

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Consistency is the Key to Training

We all have our weaknesses: those soulful brown eyes pleading for just one morsel from your plate, the warm head on your lap while you tap away on computer, heavy with the weight of hope and expectation for a game of fetch or at the very least an ear scratch, or the more-empty-than-usual bed when a spouse is out of town that leads letting her sleep with you “just this once”.

Let’s face it, we love our dogs and sometimes that love, our need for connection, our and desire to give back some of the happiness they’ve given us causes us to cave in situations where we’d all be better served by sticking to our guns.

The thing is, dogs don’t do “exceptions”. Instead, they are constantly collecting and evaluating the feedback/consequences to their actions and if something they do works to get them something they really want, chances are they are going to try it again. Period.

If the “rules” you’ve outlined are occasionally (or routinely) broken, they really won’t be viewed as rules through a dog’s eyes. We may be able to comprehend the concept of special occasions but inconsistency in our responses causes confusion in a dog’s mind, sets them up to make mistakes, and causes us to become frustrated or angry because “he knows better”. Guess what? He doesn’t. He just knows that sometimes when he jumps up on the couch he gets to stay, and he hasn’t worked out quite yet why it’s okay with you sometimes and not others. And the occasional reprimand from you is worth it for even the possibility of one more evening curled up next to you in comfort rather than across the room on his bed.

So be clear and consistent when interacting with your dog, determine your house rules in advance, and then take the time to teach your dog what is expected of him rather than just punish him for mistakes (or for not following a rule he’s never been properly clued-in on in the first place).

Boundary training is an excellent place to start your new crystal clear communication. Not only does this make life easier when you are trying to come and go, but also it keeps dogs safe.

Teaching dogs to pause at thresholds rather than push past you and bum-rush the door is another great habit to teach your dog, and NOT because he may take over the world if he goes through the doorways before you. Rather, “Sit” as the default setting at doorways saves lives. It also gives you a marvelous opportunity to reinforce a polite sit and impulse control with a very powerful life reward – “let’s go for a walk”!

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Using Toys to Train Your Puppy

Playing regularly with your puppy will help you form a strong bond. The purpose of play is to develop skills that will be useful throughout their lives, such as impulse control. The more games you play with your puppy, the more he will consider you to be the most interesting thing in his world. Encouraging puppies to play with toys provides a good outlet for their physical and mental energies.

First we want to develop interest in the toy. Rather than just offer your puppy a new toy, take it out, play with it yourself, or play catch with another family member and act like you’re having fun. Then put the toy away. Repeat this until your puppy is chomping at the bit to join in the play. Keep the toy moving/wiggling along the ground. Build enthusiasm for play first, then put in controls like sit and wait later. Keep the games fun!!

Playing Tug is an excellent way to teach your puppy to Take it and Drop it Start by wiggling the toy along the floor to get your puppy excited. Let him get the toy and then gently tug for 2-3 seconds. Then say DROP IT, and put a treat to his nose. Praise him for dropping the toy and repeat the game. As your puppy gets better at the game, start asking him SIT before letting him get the toy and tell him TAKE IT. This helps him learn to wait patiently for the things he wants. Keep your tug sessions short so your puppy does not get over-stimulated.

Ideally, your puppy should have two sets of toys: toys that he can play with by himself and ‘interactive toys’ that he can only play with you. Keep the interactive toys put away so you initiate play and this keeps you and the toys interesting to your puppy.

You never want to grab something out of your dog’s mouth (unless its dangerous). This will only make your puppy want it more and want to keep away from you. You want to be able to approach your puppy and tell him DROP IT. Playing with toys is a great way to teach this since he gets the toy back.

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