Thursday, 26 March 2015

When dogs go bad - Part II A.K.A. A very important behavioural Blog

This blog follows on from: When dogs go bad - who's driving who mad?.

A while ago a lady – I’ll call her Sue - rang me about her German Shepherd Dog, Trudy, who she said she loved but was ruining her life.
German Shepherd Dog - a loyal companion FILE PHOTO

I listened to Sue’s story for over 30 minutes and felt a bit like an Agony Aunt. She said Trudy constantly pestered her for attention and never ‘gave her any peace’. She added Trudy ‘demanded’ to be played with by bringing an endless stream of toys and balls and dropping them at her feet.

She said if she tied Trudy up away from her (or her guests) Trudy would whine and bark incessantly. But most of her friends no longer visited as they found Trudy’s behaviour too intimidating.

But let’s change the situation. Let’s imagine a toddler who constantly threw tantrums. Do you blame the child? Most people would say it is the fault of the parents for not instilling acceptable behaviours.

So it is with our dogs. It is pointless blaming the animal for simply being frustrated, confused, and having not other ways to express their lack of stimulation – physical and mental – other than through destructive or OCD behaviours.

It turned out Trudy was getting almost no exercise linked to the fact on walks she was a nightmare – pulling on the lead, lunging at other dogs and attacking the fences of those in their gardens and so on.  

Here was precisely the situation I blogged about last time.  In this case we have a GSD, a terrific and intelligent breed but that can tend towards being highly strung, hardly even walking and no free runnng – so nothing like adequate exercise. A recipe for disaster.

It was when Sue volunteered she had engaged the services of THREE different trainers but ‘none of them had worked’,  that alarm bells rang. Three training approaches immediately said more about Sue’s lack of determination to follow through with what needed to be done rather than 100% of advice being wrong.

My sense was Sue expected each trainer would have a magic bullet to turn Trudy around. Training dogs is straightforward when started young and done right. But with a 5 year old dog now with ingrained habits, rehabilitation was going to take time.

Hearing the despair in Sue’s voice I felt I had to give it a go. Maybe this time she would act and have the necessary stickability to help Trudy become a happy and balanced fur pal….

During my visit I found Trudy to be as Sue described and I did various exercises, one to calm her. Sue was amazed that Trudy settled to such an extent we were able to have a conversation with her on her bed and not barking!

After my visit I thought Sue would appreciate some notes so she could take in what we had discussed. Here is my detailed follow-up email:

Hi Sue

Good to meet you and Trudy today and thank you for the information you supplied and for your openness about the situation.

Everyone knows how to lose weight – eat less and exercise more. However, knowing that doesn’t make dieting easy. A dog that has been allowed to get into bad habits is going to take time to turn around and it is vital you realise this will not happen in a few days. It will take time and patience on your part.

This is why I gave you guidelines. You also know how strict I was about your role.
You cannot expect Trudy to improve unless you change the way you handle her because:

'If you always do what you’ve always done you will always get what you always got'.

It is essential to be consistent. Example, if a dog is allowed on the couch one day and then told ‘No’ the next, how do they know what is Ok one day is wrong the next? Contradictions leave dogs confused which creates anxiety.


Trudy constantly seeks your attention. Whilst you do need to give her attention,  from now on it must be on your terms. This means give her attention when you decide .

If she brings you a toy or ball – i.e. when she ‘demands’ attention (barking, pacing, bringing you a ball) ignore her. You must not give in to keep her quiet. If you do all you are doing is confirming to her that she is in control.

Quietly pick up the toy/ball and put it away. You saw when I put the ball she kept bringing to you out of sight that helped immensely. (You might need to use a water spray to get her to leave you alone if she is very stubborn).

If she wants to play and you have ignored her, after some time when she settles and is quiet, as a reward you can go to her and you ‘invite’ her to have a short play. This way it is you who instigates play, not her. Then after a short time you stop the game (put the ball or toy away) and she is required to settle again.

You are going to have to use ‘Time Out’ on occasions, tethering to show her she cannot constantly follow you. As she gets anxious when she cannot see you, put her tethered somewhere where she can keep an eye on you. You then go about your business and ignore her. Every so often AND ONLY WHEN SHE IS TOTALLY CALM, which means quiet and not panting, then go to her and praise her quietly with a soothing voice. Sometimes go with a treat, sometimes just your voice, plus touch her. Then leave her again.

If she is being ‘good’  i.e. quiet, do not ignore her for ages and ages. It is not a case of ‘leave them when they’re quiet’ – this is a mistake.  With a dog we need to reward a calm state so the dog learns the more it is calm the more rewards it gets. Rewards include food treats but -  AND THIS IS IMPORTANT, a big reward for her will be ATTENTION from you. Attention from you is key for your dog.

You give her positive attention by going over to Trudy for a ‘commune’. Do not stand and bend over. Instead, crouch down to be at her level. Talk to her and touch her. In humans we would call this behaviour giving  ‘Positive strokes’ or giving ‘Quality Time’.
There were some contradictions in what you said to me. Example, you said you feel Trudy pressures you for attention ‘all the time’. This in turn leads you to feeling resentful and not wanting to give her attention. Then you said “I don’t want to completely ignore her” !

Let me stress once more - you are not going to ignore her. What you are going to ignore are the ‘wrong’ behaviours – those when she is instigating demands which lead her to think she is in control.

It is key to give attention – but I stress, again, on your terms . If our dog (and actually humans too) feel totally ignored that is when they will play up.  Dogs/humans would rather have negative attention (example ‘shut up!’ ‘be quiet!’) than no attention at all. 
From now on when you give Trudy attention it must be on your terms and then - at the right time; the right kind; and in the right way; so:-
The right time -  when she’s being good i.e. calm.  
The right kind - positive use of voice + treats (sometimes just voice)
The right way  - down to her level and touch to re-inforce as you talk to her
Even Trudy can’t be anxious the whole time, so you need to be alert and on the watch for when she is in a calm state. It is then you go to her and reward her with attention as above.

Remember, you need to be doing the above often. And you cannot do it for just a couple of days. You need to be devoting time to do this as much as is reasonably possible between now and when I next come. 

Be strict with visitors. They must do as you need them to, namely ignoring her when they arrive and come in. Also they should be prepared for her to jump up. If she does they saying nothing but turn their back. 
For your dog to be happy and stable they must not be the ones giving them permission to do things, They are far happier when their human is in control which relieves them of responsibilities, worries and relieves their anxiety.

GSDs are often quite highly strung and they are inclined to get anxious. Only you can help her to be calm by showing her through attention at the right time what calm is. You are doing this to change negative conditioning into positive conditioning.

Stick with it - you have a great deal to gain, a happy dog and harmony in the house. The people you live with should be involved so you present a united front. They must not undo the training you're going to put in place.
It is totally unrealistic to expect her to lay around calmly all day and wait for a few minutes of play here and there. She must have regular exercise. Being such a big dog she needs at absolute minimum 45 mins and ideally an hour per day.

By the way, if she is asleep do not, of course, wake her up to praise her! Let sleeping dogs lie in that case:-)  Finally,  never leave her tethered if you go out.

 My best, Maralyn

1 comment:

  1. Hi readers, Just to say that in the above Blog I wrote about the importance of being consistent. I gave the example in my email to Sue of letting a dog on the sofa one day and saying 'No!' the next - leaving a dog confused. To be clear, with a dog such as Trudy there is no way I would be allowing her on the sofa (or bed!). Many dogs are allowed to do this, but it is not advised unless a dog really knows it place and that sofa or bed is a special reward that only you allow. Maralyn


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