When Toby took his toy spaniel Bella out for a late night walk before bed, he hadn’t expected Buster, the neighbour’s old Shepherd mix, to bolt out of his backyard to greet them. Though Buster meant well, Bella was nonetheless badly shaken. Toby scooped Bella up and consoled her, then locked Buster back up in his yard and headed home.
Two people made mistakes that night. Buster’s guardian should certainly have properly secured his side gate. But the other mistake made isn’t so clear to most of us. By immediately scooping Bella up and consoling her, Toby reinforced Bella’s fear, and helped solidify her growing dread of other dogs.
Avoiding common dog handling errors can make the all difference in the world to a dog’s life. By setting up the home properly and abiding by a few time-tested principles, you can prevent disharmony and ensure a loving partnership that benefits all.
The following ten bad owner habits are common errors pet behaviourists often see while diagnosing problem behaviours in a troubled pet home. By understanding why these habits are problematic and following the advice given on how to adjust your approach, you’ll take a huge step in making your dog’s life a better one.
1. Physical punishment
Physical punishment creates anxiety in a dog and almost always increases the chances of future misbehaviours. It reduces the reliability of your dog’s training, increases the chances of fear aggression or destructiveness, and can even ruin a dog’s housetraining.
The only time you should ever strike a dog is in self-defense. Otherwise, use praise and reward to positively shape behaviours, and employ your tone, body posture, eye contact, and leash control to discourage bad behaviours as they are happening.
2. Allowing too much independence too early on
We often expect too much of our dogs too soon. This happens most often with housetraining; we achieve rudimentary success with a young dog and then give him the run of the home, including areas with little supervision from adults. If the dog has a series of mishaps and there’s no one around to catch him in the act, the behaviour can become self-reinforcing.
The same goes for obedience. For instance, if you’ve mastered the recall in your backyard, and expect it to be just as sharp at a local park, you’ve probably got a surprise in store. With all that distraction present, it’s unlikely your dog will come to you. This effectively teaches him not to come. Many of us push a dog too quickly into off-leash behaviours, sometimes resulting in a lost or injured pet.
As a responsible dog guardian, you should be absolutely sure of the reliability of a behaviour before moving on. Just because a five-month old-puppy has gone two weeks without an accident doesn’t mean he’s earned the right to wander the home freely. If he is not in sight or in a yard, then he should be in a crate, or contained in some manner so as to avoid wandering, which can lead to housetraining accidents or destructive behaviour. Regarding off-leash behaviours, you must “proof” them first, with increasing levels of distraction, before taking them out in public. Avoid going off-leash until you achieve perfect success on a long lead to ensure consistency and safety.
3. Giving unearned praise
If you reward your dog for sitting, she will quickly learn to sit on command. But if she plops her head into your lap and you respond by petting her, what have you taught her? You didn’t ask her to do anything; she simply came over. What it does teach her is how to slowly, methodically train you. The same goes for a dog who jumps up on people or play bites; if you don’t respond to it, it is interpreted as defacto praise, and the bad behaviour is thereby reinforced. Ignoring a bad behaviour is the same as condoning it.
Practice a quid pro quo relationship with your dog. If you want to give her a treat, ask her to sit, lie down, or shake, then give it to her. Once you get her to understand that everything is earned, she will become a less pushy, more responsive, better-mannered dog.
The aforementioned story of Toby and Bella exemplifies this bad habit. Dogs think in concrete, not abstract terms; as such, if something bad happens to your pet and you immediately respond to her with nurturing concern, she will interpret your actions as praise for her behaviour. Consoling a dog immediately after a trauma will only teach her that showing fear or loss of confidence will invite attention from you.
Instead of consoling your frightened dog, opt for calmly redirecting the dog out of the situation. If she gets scared of a garbage truck, quickly walk her out of the area then distract her with a quick obedience session. A quick “sit” or “shake” will break her fear fixation and get her thinking again instead of languishing in a reactive mindset.
Overweight dogs live shorter lives, have added stress on their musculoskeletal, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems, and stand a higher chance of developing diabetes or liver problems. Heat tolerance and stamina go down, as does tolerance to anesthetics. And they more often develop digestive issues such as bloat, diarrhea, constipation, or flatulence. Behaviourally, overweight dogs are more prone to begging and food aggression problems.
Feed your dog only what he needs to maintain his ideal weight. If your dog has been overweight for a while, odds are you won’t be able to tell what is normal, so rely on your veterinarian to set that guideline. Then it’s simply a matter of adjusting food and treat intake on a weekly schedule. Weigh him every Sunday, and keep a chart. If he gains a pound, reduce food by 10 percent for a week then weigh again. If he loses a pound, keep doing what you are doing.
6. Repeating commands
People often ask their dogs to “sit, sit, sit, sit.” Finally, after multiple requests, the dog slowly sits. The “sit” command, instead of being a fast, one-word request, becomes a ten-second, whiny, repetitive plea. Dogs in effect learn to wait until you’ve said it multiple times before they respond.
Once you are sure your dog understands a command, ask once, and only once. If she disobeys, say “No,” (yes, you can say “no” to your dog), walk her around on leash for a few seconds, then step close, look her in the eye, and repeat the command. If she responds, praise and reward. If not, again say, “No,” then repeat. Once you get a positive response, praise and quit. In this way, you will teach her to respond the first time, something that might one day save her life.
7. Disciplining your dog after the fact
Dogs live in the moment. If your dog tears up a shirt at 2 pm, then takes a nap until you arrive at 5 pm, the shirt-tearing party is over and completely forgotten. So when you come in and confront him, he doesn’t think, “Oh heck, I shouldn’t have done that.” He thinks, “Whenever she comes through that door, I’m going to get yelled at.”
Unless you catch your dog in the act, do not reprimand. He will associate your anger with whatever is happening at that moment—you walking through the door, the kitchen light going on—whatever makes sense to him. If you do catch him in the act, you can intervene, but only if your dog is at that moment engaged in the unwanted behaviour.
8. Inconsistent rules
Rules and routine are vital to harmony in the dog home, so we enforce them, consistently. But if other members of the family allow your dog to jump up, bark, or play bite, then mixed signals begin to confuse your dog, leading to stress and confrontation.
Every member of the household old enough to have authority over your dog must abide by the same rules. Everyone must make her wait at the door, sit to greet, stay off the sofa, and walk nicely. Keeping consistent rules will make for a calmer pet, so have that family meeting and let everyone know!
9. Skimping on exercise and enrichment
Sometimes life gets in the way of us spending enough time with our dogs. But without regular activity, your dog will become restless, leading to possible misbehaviours. And she’ll gain weight and lose muscle tone, which will affect her health.
If you have fallen into the trap of not exercising your dog’s body or mind, it’s time to make a resolution to change. Begin by taking her for a walk each day, on which she will sample sights and smells and get her muscles moving again. Or schedule a daily ten-minute session with a ball or Frisbee. Once each week, get her to a dog park. And to stimulate her mind, teach her a new trick each month. If you do, she’ll be happier, healthier, and better behaved.
10. Failing to dog-proof your property
Even people with well-trained adult dogs often fail to properly “dog proof” their properties, resulting in destruction, and in thousands of dogs annually escaping or being fatally poisoned. These incidences can be avoided simply by making sure your home and property are safe for your dog.
Search your home for anything that might be potentially harmful. Cleaners, paints, thinners, anti-freeze, oils, bottle caps, chocolates, raisins—whatever could harm a dog should be removed to a secure area. Even toxic houseplants such as dieffenbachia and various cacti should be located where a dog cannot get to them (see the ASPCA’s poison control page for a full list of toxins). Hide wiring under carpets or moldings and fit childproof locks on cupboards. Keep doors and windows secured. And keep the dog food inaccessible, so that your Mastiff won’t eat her weight in kibble and end up at the hospital.
Inside, pick up all clothes, leather objects, remote controls, books—anything a young chewer might want to gnaw on. Replace these with veterinarian-approved chew toys and rotate these every few days to keep her interested.
Outside, make sure your fence is sturdy, with no holes. If necessary, lay concrete pavers along the edge of your fence, to stop diggers from going under. As you did indoors, remove all toxic garden plants.
Good Habits Win the Day
By turning bad habits into good ones, you will prevent misbehaviours, ease boredom, and create a safer, happier home for everyone. Remember, you can create harmony and good times just by taking precautions and by treating your dog consistently with the foresight and authority only you have. If you do, it’ll be smooth sailing, and an enjoyable time for all.
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