Teenage angst – how to live with an adolescent dog!

Adolescence is HARD!!   As our puppies mature and start to look more like adults, we expect adult behaviour from them. But anyone who has been a teenager, or who has lived with one, knows that its a difficult time, you’re still developing physically and psychologically and these expectations can be unrealistic for humans and dogs.

Trainers and owners focus on those crucial weeks and months of puppyhood, instilling basic training, good manners and establishing a lifelong relationship with our pups.  Less research has been done in adolescent dogs, but we know that dogs are most likely to be relinquished at this stage, often due to behavioural problems.

It’s often the time when owners report to us that their dog has started barking, attention seeking, running off and not listening to cues, over-reacting to other dogs and people and generally being very frustrating and annoying to live with!

These problems do need addressing – we can’t just assume they will ‘grow out of it’.  This is the time when they need calm and patient guidance more than ever.  Crucially, they are not trying to be dominant.  They are just being teenagers!

So how can we help them? (and ourselves)

  • Expectation Management: Help your dog by managing their expectations – be clear about what they can and can’t do. Don’t sometimes let them jump on you and sometimes tell them off – unless you have a very clear and consistent cue for when they are and aren’t allowed to do it.
  • Walk on By: Teach them to be calm and happy NOT interacting with people and other dogs.   Do this using rewards that are as or more valuable than saying hello, to reduce frustration.
  • Together Time: Continue to build your relationship through shared activities.  Training doesn’t have to be dull, repetitive or frustrating.   Have fun with your dog.
  • Safe spot: Give your dog a safe haven in the home, a secure base where they can be undisturbed.  This is particularly crucial if you have a busy household, children or other pets, or through any household routine disruptions.   Make sure some of the safe haven (bed, blanket, crate or other valued items) are portable for taking your dog visiting or on holiday.
  • Respect what your dog is saying: Learn to read dog and recognise when your dog wants to avoid something or move away.  Help them out.

 

 

 

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Habits for Hounds

What do habits have to do with dog behaviour?

Over recent years there has been an increasing interest in the role that habits form in our behaviour and how we can change our bad habits to good.

Charles Duhigg’s book ‘The Power of Habit’ is one example but many more have been published, alongside books that tell us how to improve our willpower and self-control (e.g. Tierney and Baumeister ‘Willpower’)

Much of our day to day behavour is habitual.  We simply wouldn’t have time to get through the day if we made decisions about everything, decision-making is tiring!  So we rely on habit to make life easier for ourselves.

Habits are the result of many small decisions made over time.  They are built, not created overnight.  So the power to break them also lies in the ability to make different small, daily decisions – they are rarely the result of overnight transformation.

While unwanted behaviour in our dogs may often start because of their emotional response to something, quite often it may get practised over and over again so that in the end it becomes habitual.

That is not to say that the original emotion isn’t relevant anymore, but it becomes less so, as the habit ‘eases’ the dog into behaving that way without thinking ‘I’m doing this because I’m scared/frustrated/happy’ etc.   They just do it because that is what they always do in that situation.

James Clear, in ‘Transform your habits’ says “The most common mistake that people make is setting their sights on an event, a transformation, an overnight success they want to achieve – rather than focusing on their habits and routines.”

Just so with our dogs – we need to focus on changing those daily habits and routines in order to change their behaviour.

Habit formation and maintenance

Habits follows a pattern, well-known to dog trainers; that of:

Cue – Routine – Reward

When a response to a particular cue becomes routine – a habit has been formed.

Habits make life easier for you and your dog – as long as they are the right habits!

 

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Rules for Training

Some rules for training from ‘The Clicked Retrieve’ by Lana Mitchell

  1. Keep training sessions short and frequent
  2. Only introduce a cue after the behaviour exists.
  3. Allow your dog to learn on his own by experiencing which behaviours get rewarded and which are not.
  4. Start by rewarding for accuracy then raise criteria in small increments by adding the 3 D’s – distance duration and distraction
  5. Remain quiet when training to let the dog concentrate
  6. Remain calm – don’t get frustrated and lower criteria if training isn’t progressing.
  7. When your dog gets it – move ahead.
  8. End on a good note
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The “4 I’s” Framework: Core Motives

What motivates our dogs?  Four core motives have been identified that guide decision making in social dilemmas (Fiske, 2009).  These have been applied in environmental conservation but can equally apply to understanding motivations in dogs.

INFORMATION (Understanding)

Dogs (as do humans) have ‘a fundamental need to understand their environment to predict what will happen in case of uncertainties’ (Van Vugt, 2009).  Understanding their environment and the actions of humans around them is important for dogs.  Predictability and the availability of coping strategies when things are unpredictable, is important to reduce anxiety about what will happen next.

IDENTITY (Belonging)

Dogs are a social species and the native habitat of the domestic dog is alongside and with humans.  Dogs form strong bonds and even attachment relationships with humans and with oher dogs and species with whom they live.  In that sense, dogs identify with their family group, it gives them a sense of belonging, which affects their behaviour towards those within, and outside, the group.

INSTITUTION (Trusting)

Dogs need human guides and leaders that they can trust to look after their best interests. We owe it to them to be fair, respectful and clear.  Any rules imposed must reflect the dog’s interest as well as our own and others.  Trust must be given freely, it cannot be demanded.

INCENTIVES (Self-enhancing)

We all want to seek rewards and avoid punishment.  Incentives can work to motivate dogs with the following considerations.

  1. Take individual differences into account: dogs are different and what one dog considers an incentive, the next might not.
  2.  An incentive that fulfils other core motives simultaneously is most likely to be successful.  So a reward that enhances feelings of trust, belonging and understanding will work better than an isolated ‘appetitive stimulus’.
  3. Incentives may not work if the undermine other core needs.  So an incentive that undermines trust or does not increase understanding, may not motivate.

 

Background:Van Vugt (2009) applied the “4 I’s” framework in identifying the four key components of successful strategies for environmental resource management.  The four components: Information, Identity, Institution and Incentives correspond to four core motives for decision making in social dilemmas.  They can also be applied as a framework to understand what motivates our dogs.

References:

Fiske, S. T. (2009). Social beings: Core motives in social psychology. John Wiley & Sons.

Van Vugt, M. (2009). Averting the tragedy of the commons: Using social psychological science to protect the environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(3), 169-173.

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Aggression in Dogs

There are many different promoted ‘methods’ or ‘recipes’ for treating aggression in dogs.  All sound techniques are grounded in the scientific principles of learning theory (classical conditioning and operant conditioning) and will take into account physical, physiological and ethological principles as well as reflect the ethical stance and moral viewpoint of the trainer/behaviourist.

Aggression can be defined as ‘intent to do harm’ but that is not what we normally see – in fact signals that appear aggressive are intended to repel the perceived threat and reduce the need to do harm.

The 4 primary ways of dealing with aggression are through consequences, association, access and brain chemistry.

Operant conditioning changes the consequences of showing behaviour.

Calm looking, move away, recall, stay in one place while something passes are all examples of alternative behaviours that can be trained.

Classical counterconditioning alters the association with the object, person or situation that now provokes aggression.  The dog learns to associate good feelings with the presence of the thing , without unwanted interactions with it.

Observation, timing (of reinforcement and feedback), sequence of execution and managing the animal at the right level of arousal are all important.

Management to prevent or limit access to the aggression-provoking thing is an essential part of most behaviour plans to treat aggression

And medication or dietary change can sometimes be used to alter brain chemistry and help animals learn and be calmer.

 

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The process of behaviour change

Behaviour change is not a single event but a process.  Perhaps it can be thought of as a series of observable events but underneath it is continuous and constant – even in between and after we have stopped deliberate and targetted behaviour modification.

Sometimes just one or two small changes in the way you interact with your dog or in their daily routine or lifestyle will change your dog’s behaviour considerably.

For other more complex or long-standing behaviour problems – or where there are multiple issues with your dog’s behaviour that are causing problems for you , your dog or others that your dog comes into contact with – then you will need to commit yourself to the process of behaviour change with your dog.

Because after all, changing our dog’s behaviour starts with changing our own behaviour.

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Leading through communication

“When a leader understands the power of communication, each interaction can become intentional and always respectful regardless of the reason. Respectful communication is achieved by maintaining a ‘heart at peace’ and seeing the other as a person.”

(Source unknown: from Choice Dynamic International management course notes)

Every interaction is an opportunity to lead and influence.

Trust and mutual respect can be shown through thoughtful communication.

These are what builds relationships.

Recognise, appreciate and reinforce what matters.

Build confidence and stimulate new ideas.

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