I was out giving lessons today when something happen that caused to stop and evaluate circumstances and why some things happen as they do. The circumstance I am referring to … a dog I had been giving lessons to attempted to bite me. I am always very aware of a dog’s attitude when I go in to “correct” so luckily it’s seldom that I get bit. The reason I felt compelled to contemplate this particular episode was this dog has a very good temperament. I suppose if I was working with a bad natured dog I wouldn’t have been surprised and therefore wouldn’t have set aside any time trying to understand the reasons behind it. Ultimately when actions don’t fit a pattern it will cause me to spend a substantial amount of time trying to comprehend motivation.
I spent a couple of days trying to sort through the “thought process” that would have made him inclined to snap at me. I have never been unfair in my discipline nor have I been extremely hard on him – mostly due to the fact he never needed it. After a great deal of thought and observations the final conclusion I came to was complicated with many twists and turns.
The first problem I had encountered with him was he didn’t have a “come when called” on him. I put him on a long line and worked on his coming (does this sound like another article I did about paying a trainer to teach basics) because while his owner was telling me “how good he was at coming” I watched him meander over to her when called in his own sweet time. His attitude was, “I will come when I feel like it, not when you tell me to”. This is a passive – aggressive attitude, in that you can make me come but I will be in control by coming so slow it is almost like I’m not coming. The owner wasn’t reading this, but I was and what I was reading was a major power struggle with the owner coming out second best without even realizing it. By using the long line and a “choke chain” when I said come and he walked he was jerked once hard and the command repeated. The correction was well timed but quite firm because he knew what “come” meant (he was not confused ), he was choosing to defy by coming slowly. So the stage was set by me … working on coming.
During this same time I was working with a stand on sheep and he was beginning to take advantage by taking steps after I had given the stand command. So to help correct his cheating I decided to make him lie down when he chose to ignore my stand command. I asked the owner if he knew a down command and was assured he not only knew it but was very responsive to it. I told him to down … he didn’t …. I repeated …. he didn’t …. I then corrected him with a jerk on the collar. He ran toward me (this is a “hot button” with me I hate a dog running toward me when I say down!) so I put pressure back on him and corrected him with a jerk and a down command. I was rewarded with a lunge forward and a snap of the teeth. The response from me was a BIG TIME correction (more like retaliatory attack from me) as I laid into him until he was running away from me. I can not tolerate a dog coming toward me in a threatening manner PERIOD! I asked the owner again if the dog understood the command “down” and was again reassured he completely understood it but she couldn’t explain why he was behaving in this manner.
I thought about the best way to handle this situation and decided it was time she worked the dog in order to illustrate to me what her idea of “down” was. Well surprise, the dog didn’t have a clue what the “down word” meant. She repeated the command at least five times and then finally pushed the dog down at which time the dog snapped at her. As I observed her working with the dog I was paying special interest in the interaction between her and the dog. I had noticed their relationship before and had always believed she just didn’t have a handle on the dog. However when I watched in more detail I realized she was giving so many conflicting signals she was literally driving the dog crazy. I understood she was not doing this on purpose but “doing it none the same”. This is crazy making for dogs (and people I might add!) when someone says one thing while they are doing just the opposite and then punishing you for things you didn’t do.
The dog snapped at me because he didn’t understand what I wanted and he felt I was being totally unfair. He understood my come correction and took it. Then I told him to down but he truly did not know what that meant so he tried to come to me but was again corrected and in his mind corrected for doing what he was told! This was when he said, “Hey wait a minute this is not fair”. I can’t repeat enough to novice people just because a dog comes after you have said it 10 times does NOT mean he knows what come means! The owner kept saying he knows what down means but he did not know until she said it 5 times and then pushed him down. The correction she was doing was not wrong, but she thought the dog knew something he didn’t and then corrected him for not knowing it.
It is our job as trainers to try to communicate to the dogs not the other way around. We need to change over to dog language because we are suppose to be the teachers and they the students. I think people mistakenly try to relate to dogs as they would relate to other people and it does not work. However I do think dogs have a sense of what is fair play and what is not. If you discipline a dog correctly so he understands what you want he will accept it and go on. If you continually discipline and he doesn’t know what he did wrong, he will resent it, and depending on his nature, try to retaliate. This is where the snapping comes from it’s when the dog feels he is being tormented and nothing he does will make the harassment stop. This attack was caused by the confusing interaction between this dog and its owner. She was saying lie down numerous times pulling on the lead just enough to hurt but not ever enough to correct. This meant over and over again he was being jerked and never knowing for what. He was not being difficult; he had never associated the down command with a physical action. So every time she jerked he did not understand what she wanted — it would be like someone walking by and yelling in a foreign language and slapping you when you didn’t comply. After awhile you either get mad and slap back or you duck and run every time you see someone. We have to communicate to the dog what the physical action we want is and then put a word to it. Just because we say a word does not mean the dog understands.
I’ve had people come over telling me they have an obedience title on their dog. However when turned loose on sheep the dog doesn’t even know its name much less to come when called! Why? Many times it’s because the dog was programmed and if he wasn’t next to the handler the word down meant nothing. Some dogs only know how to sit or down when commands are given in a precise sequence. If you tell them to down and they are not standing next to you they genuinely don’t understand what you are trying to communicate to them. The physical action they have associated with that command is lying down when next to the handler. Before the letters come pouring in I am not saying all obedience people don’t have a handle on their dog, I am saying I have worked with a number of obedience dogs and many are programmed to only do things in a certain order. It’s not just obedience training as you can incur the same thing with herding. I have seen dogs on their home ground run wide and gather the entire pasture but when taken away from home run straight toward the sheep. These dogs are programmed to work an area. They are not thinking and don’t have a true understanding of what they are doing.
This is one reason a “trial” gives you a well-founded idea of a dog’s ability. Although the course (fetch & drive panels, etc.) tend to stay the same the dog doesn’t know every inch of the trial field as he does his home ground. This means he has to think and listen because each and every time it’s a new situation. Since he’s not on ground he knows and can’t rely on repetitive actions, he now has to look and think in order to find his sheep. This comes full circle right back to our not communicating to the dog what we want. You have to allow the dog to understand what you want in all situations and circumstances. You can’t assume he understands until he has done it consistently a number of times. The owner’s correct comment to my question would have been the old “he does at home”. In other words, I have never tried it in this circumstance (i.e. while he is trying to head sheep at full tilt) so I’m not sure. However, part, and I might add a large part, of the problem was she would never admit he didn’t know his down. Although it took her at least a half a dozen times to make him lie down it never dawned on her that she and her dog were not speaking the same language.
I want to give Novices an example of what I am saying. Let’s say you have been working on your down and think your dog has it “down pat”. You then need to try saying “down” when he’s not standing next to you but in the same vicinity where you were working on the down next to you. Then try it when he is not looking at you ideally he will be involved in something else when you say “down”. I think you will then realize it means something completely different to him than it did when he was next to you. The usual scenario is he will start to walk toward you because this makes sense to him – considering his comfort zone for “down” is in context to being next to you. You have to remember that is where he was all the other times he was downed. You can’t allow this, so you need to put pressure on him by walking toward him and saying in a gruff voice repeat, “I said down!” The amount of pressure needed will depend on the dog. Notice I did not just stand there and repeat the command letting him run to me. Instead I went toward him to let him begin to get the idea of “down”, not “down next to me”!
You can’t assume he is disobeying at this point, but you still don’t just let it happen … you correct him, but not too harshly because at this point he is still not sure of what you want. After you have worked on this awhile and he has figured out that down means to lie down wherever he is, you move on to the next step. You need to change locations so he’s not in a familiar area and will be inclined to be engrossed in his new surroundings. You wait until he is preoccupied with something else up to the point of being on a dead run …. playing or whatever. Then you will give your lie down in a voice he can hear, but not a gruff voice. If he doesn’t respond to you then you change the tone of your voice and go after him with your “what do you think you are doing!” It’s not what you say, but it’s the tone that lets him know you are not pleased. When he stops whatever he was doing you repeat the down. If he obeys then change your posture and your tone of voice. If he doesn’t down then you need to go to him to correct him and make him lie down with a gruff voice and a “listen” or whatever command you use to correct with. Again it’s a matter of doing it every time and changing your attitude to let him know what pleases you and what does not. If you don’t let him know what you want then you forfeit the right to get upset when he does not respond to a command.
I spend a lot of time trying to understand why I have problems with dogs. I don’t just immediately assume it must be the dog’s fault. I run things through my mind trying to understand what could have triggered the dog’s actions and what my part in it was. I tell my students if you have more than one dog with the same problem the common denominator is you so look at yourself and figure out what you might be doing to cause this problem.
I have seen so many dogs I have in for training “get over” their problem only to regain it after they go home. This alone will tell you most behavior problems are dual-fold and it is the combination of owner and dog that you have to deal with. I find it much easier to understand and deal with the dog than I do the owners. Dogs don’t tend to get as defensive as their owners so you don’t have as much to deal with. A lot of people seem to think if their dog has a problem the best way to deal with it is never admit it and it will go away. This of course will solve nothing and in the end only make things worse. I am a firm believer in confronting whatever the issues are and solving it before it gets any worse. Dog owners need to stop thinking in the terms of blame and address the fact that they and their dog are not perfect. If they will change their attitude enough to realize everyone has faults they can make it something positive to work on.