I was working with a client recently who has a young, clever dog who is a real extrovert. The owner had got me in to work on some lead skills and talk about how to manage her dog’s endless enthusiasm. She was very clear that she loves her dog’s personality and didn’t want a robot for a pet. She simply needed a way of approaching distracting environments so her dog wasn’t a problem for people or dogs who might find her a little too friendly (I’d love it if all owners were that conscientious!). They were a pleasure to work with and had a great relationship so both picked things up quickly. The owner reflected at one point that she’s been guilty of ‘over-correcting’ her dog. These kinds of realisations are so crucial to building successful relationships with animals.
Overcorrecting is when we adjust or react too strongly to offset a perceived error or problem. In dog training our reactions are frequently out of proportion to what our dogs are actually doing. They can also rob a dog of learning opportunities – if we don’t allow them to time to switch on their (very capable) brains, they never get a chance to work things out on their own. Open and trusting communication is the basis of any great relationship, and working with dogs isn’t any different. ‘Training’ can be approached a lot more like a conversation, rather than a series of orders. This difference can be subtle, but transformative.
A common example:
Your dog gets a bit hysterical when people visit, jumping up on them and barking. You respond by telling them off, pulling them away and insisting they sit or stay on their bed. You’re controlling parts of the behaviour through commands, but your dog feels exactly the same – people still make them excited and anxious.
So what’s an alternative? What is your dog actually telling you? A more conversational approach might involve:
Change it up
Meet guests outside with your dog on lead and go for a short walk before you all enter the house together. That way your dog knows what’s happening and it breaks the cycle of reinforced and habitual behaviour.
Manage the people
Ask guests not to interact with your dog when it’s so hyped up and make sure you do the same. Hysteria around people often stems from people being waaay too excited around dogs – picking up, touching and talking to them in that high-pitched ‘eeeek a cute thing!’ way. Let your dog figure out that attention is easier to obtain and less intense when they’re calmer.
Help them manage their own emotions
Licking and chewing is a stress buster for dogs. Make sure they have options to engage in this behaviour when they need to. Animal based chews, stuffed Kongs and parcels are all great things to have readily available. One of my dogs would often go straight to his toy basket and grab a tasty chew when people came over. He’d learnt to manage his own excitement and anxiety levels, rather than relying on me to give him instructions.
Give them time
It’s normal for dogs to react to the world around them in a dog way. Sometimes all they need is a little patience. Rather than rushing in and trying to control them, let them check things out, act a little silly maybe, and settle themselves down. Our interference often makes things more difficult for them. If they’re a bit wound up about a guest and also having to contend with our ‘Off! Down! On your bed! Come here!’, it becomes overwhelming for them. Set a clear and calm example instead.
The way we interact with dogs and allow them to interact with their environment can reflect how confident we are about their decision-making, and how confident they are about ours. Dogs that are perceived as badly behaved or ‘trying to take control’ are more often just dogs that aren’t sure what we’re asking of them, or don’t feel particularly safe around us. Before jumping in with a command or interruption, hold back and watch those canine cogs in action. You might be pleasantly surprised!