Why We Train Our Dogs and A Bit About My Dog.
Unless you’re planning on taking your dog to crufts to perform heel work to music the chances are no one goes to training classes to teach their dog to weave in and out their legs, just to be able to weave in and out of your legs! They go and do these things because this is what forms a relationship with your dog. Your dog learns from these classes that good things happen when he listens to you. Treats magically fall from the air and when he does everything right the rewards just keep flowing. Who wouldn’t enjoy that! The owners are then able to form and shape their dogs behaviour however they wish, in whatever situation they wish because the dog has not only learned to do as he is told but most importantly, he WANTS to do what you say. He makes the conscious decisions to do these behaviours on command or to even not do certain behaviours because you harnessed the power of the reward. From here you can only keep building on this, moulding behaviours through repetition and reshaping behaviours that you don’t like him doing through redirection so that ultimately you end up with the dream dog and not only that but the dream dog that hasn’t been forced against his will to do any of it, but who is more than happy to comply, if not does so with huge enthusiasm.
When I first brought my dog, Loki home, he was 7 months old and I was his third owner. No one could handle his insane amount of energy and because of this pent up energy he was reaping uncontrollable havoc. I witnessed his previous owners first hand hitting him as a way to calm him down. It was at this point I knew I had to take him. I had to help him.
He came home with me and for the first week everything seemed to be going well. The problems started when I would go to leave the house, I’d reach for the door handle and he started to jump up and bite my arms. And I don’t mean like a nip or play mouthing, he was full on biting, leaving black bruises and teeth marks in my skin. It then progressed to pretty much any time of the day, the second I’d stand up from the sofa or move about the house, he was constantly trying to attack my arms. And it hurt really badly. I was scared of him at this point, I couldn’t understand why he was doing this, I’d give him no reason to want to hurt me, I’d never even shouted at him or done anything to induce this kind of reaction. It then continued to develop, out on his walks he’d suddenly start jumping up and latching on to my arms as we were walking, the more I’d try to stop him the more frenzied he’d get. People would walk past me with judgemental looks of horror slapped on their faces and I got every dog owners opinion on how to deal with it. But nothing they suggested worked.
I sat a home, feeling completely alone and lost. I just wanted to love him and he wouldn’t let me. The frequency of his biting stepped up to maximum. I cried and I cried, feeling completely at a loss, I had no idea how to stop it. That week we also found out my partner had cancer. The world stopped turning, life halted, everything was a mess. Life was a mess. I was a mess. My partner began chemotherapy and we were told that he couldn’t be exposed to any kind of infection at this time. It would literally kill him. Chemotherapy destroys your immune system so everything had to be done to prevent any chance of infection happening. We had a dog that was biting us, occasionally breaking the skin. He gave me an ultimatum. Get rid of the dog or he would have to leave, for the sake of his own life. My heart felt like it had been ripped from my body. I loved my partner more that life itself but I also loved my monster of a dog, even if the feeling wasn’t mutual. I knew deep down this wasn’t who he really was, I knew that he was only behaving like this because of his past.
I began to research and read and attend dog training classes. It became my whole life, I was like sponge soaking in absolutely every morsel of information. Every spare minute I had, I was deep in a book or watching videos. I began to test out these methods, learning what worked and what didn’t. It really was trial and error at this point. I took him to dog trainers, all of which were baffled by him. I contacted his previous owners who refused to take him back and denied having any part in his behaviour. I rang shelters begging for their help, just to be told he could be put on a 7 month waiting list and that he’d probably end up being put to sleep anyway because of their 3 bites and your out policy. This fuelled me even more to fix him. Because that’s what he was, he was broken. His previous owners locked him in a room all day every day with no stimulation, all he could do was chew his plastic bed as a coping mechanism. He toileted in a flagged back yard, never seeing the outside world, never interacting with other dogs, or people. His energy was so built up he was like an explosion every time they came home from work, they’d beat him and then put him back into confinement as a punishment for behaving the way he did. Loki didn’t know how to be a dog. Everything was over stimulating to him.
I soon realised that he was trying to control me with his mouth, to stop me from leaving but then doing this to get my attention too. I can’t imagine he had much positive attention in his 7 months on this earth and so every time I verbally praised him he’d almost somersault and attach his teeth to my arm as a response. I guess in his mind every time I stood up from the sofa he lived in fear that I was going to abandon him to someone else, take him somewhere to leave him forever, or even stand up and hurt him. He’d only ever known being passed from one person to the next and it was like he knew he had a good thing here with us and his reaction to not wanting to leave was to bite me because it insighted a reaction from me, my attention would immediately be brought from whatever it was I was about to do, onto the dog clinging onto my arm by his teeth. All he’d ever wanted in his life was a bit of attention and all it seemed all he’d ever had was in form of being shouted at and beaten. It was all he knew.
I knew what I had to do. I drew up a plan. His main issue was how excited he got, as soon as he got excited he would start to bite. His excitement could be from positive things such as playing games he loved or doing training exercises with a high value treat. It would trigger a frenzy within him, causing him to suddenly start running laps in a small space (zoomies) and launching himself at me full speed, teeth hurtling in my direction like a trained German Shepherd about to take down a criminal. But his excitement levels could also be triggered by things like raising my voice or if my partner hugged me or made any kind of contact with me. He would immediately jump into action, bark at us frantically and even try and get physically between us.
So I took him to the park 2-3 times a day. I taught him games that would burn his physical and mental energy. I learnt that these brain games were often more effective at tiring him than running around for an hour. His favourite game was and still is ‘find it’. You throw his ball when he isn’t looking and send him out to find it, he’s that good at it now that I only pretend to throw it because otherwise he finds it straight away! He then has to use his nose to find the ball. Dogs noses are unbelievably good at tracking scents and doing this for just 10 minutes absolutely exhausts them. A tired dog really is a happy dog! Once he was nice and tired I then started his obedience training at home. He was so bright that he picked everything up in less than 3 repetitions. He learnt to work to a clicker and would perform all of his tricks for me in quick succession without me even asking because it made me laugh and he always got rewarded for that! Teaching a dog tricks isn’t to actually have them be able to do tricks as such, although it makes a great party piece.
The purpose of it is to get your dog listening to you and get him wanting to work for you. Your dog will never listen to you or do what you want in or out of the house if you don’t have a foundation put into place. When I speak to owners with pesky pooch problems, they often say that they don’t want to teach their dog to spin or roll over and it isn’t something that they want their dog to learn. But its these owners that are really missing the point. You will never be able to teach your dog to stop doing whatever problem behaviour he’s doing if you don’t start with the basics.
Because food rewards were often a trigger for Loki putting his mouth on me, I knew that it wouldn’t really be possible to use this as a way of teaching him to stop doing this. So instead I used a method called negative punishment. This isn’t as menacing as it sounds, it basically means to ‘take away’ something the dog deems as good or desirable as way of reducing the occurrence of particular behaviour. So like with a child you might take their favourite toy away as punishment for being naughty or even your attention, so is the same for a dog. So to stop Loki putting his mouth on me I took my attention away from him whenever he would do this behaviour. I’d either fold my arms, walk away and close the door behind me without saying a word or looking at him, or I’d calmly and gently lead him by his collar into the kitchen and onto his bed for a “time out”, making sure not to talk to him, look at him or have any emotional reaction, then walk away and close the door.
Initially he would throw little temper tantrums but they always subsided after a few minutes and once he was calm and settled on his bed I would let him back into the room with me and I’d make a fuss of him. I repeated this process for a few weeks, it really didn’t take long and as time went on they lessened more and more to the point where I’d gone from him biting me 50 times a day, to him doing it once a week if that. After just a couple of months he had stopped completely. He was making the conscious decision not to bite me, and not because he lived In fear that I would hurt him or that something bad would happen but from the mindset that he got to spend more time with me which is all he ever wanted. The key to training dogs is to find the thing they love the most and use it to your advantage. For Loki it was my attention, for other dogs it could be a favourite toy or food. Find that thing out and you can really change the game. Every once in a while he’d forget himself, the rapture of excitement taking him over and he’d revert to putting his mouth on me, only this time I’d catch him before he’d put any pressure on my arm by making a sharp noise like an ‘ah!’, he then rather than press his teeth into me, would swap to giving me a lick. HALLALUIA! He would then be rewarded like he’d won the lottery. We’d cracked it. Today, I can wrestle with him, put my arms in his mouth and he keeps his jaw relaxed at all times, he instead has taken to licking me and giving me kisses, and that’s all I ever wanted.
All in all it took me about 6 months to get to this point. My partner could see the improvements we were making and I’m eternally grateful to him for not packing his bags and leaving. My partner finished his treatments and is officially out of remission and cancer free. Its 6 years later, Loki is 7 years old. He is the dream dog and was from the moment we cracked it. I always knew he was in there, the kindest, most loving friend I could ask for. He’s like my protector, my constant companion, my shoulder to cry on. Through him I gained a world of knowledge, I learnt not only basic training that all dog owners should know, but I learnt how to read dogs, how to train in a kind way so not to make a dogs behaviour worse, to train in a way a dog understands, not through the fear of making the wrong choice, but because he wants to work for me, he chooses to work for me and he enjoys it, bringing us closer together. I understand now why dogs react or behave in the ways they do and if we can get over our need to dominate and control but work as a partnership that’s when we really see improvements.