Being responsible for your new best friend’s behaviour can be a little daunting. Many rescues come from settled backgrounds suffering a change of circumstances, others may have had a tougher draw in life. All will have had a period of stress while in kennels at the rescue centre and have a period of adjustment to settle into their new situation. Some may take a little extra training to help them be good canine citizens. Here are a few hints and tips to help you along the way.
Being the Pack Leader – Building Trust, Respect and Obedience
It goes without saying that you will want to shower your dog with love and affection. Building trust is vital, but that alone won’t create a happy fulfilled obedient canine friend. Its important to remember that dogs aren’t human human beings. Dogs communicate and operate socially in a very different way to humans and have a strong need for clear social structures to feel happy about their place in life.
Giving of food is an important ritual in a dog’s pack or family and will be one way of forming lasting bonds and building trust. Likewise shared pack walks are key in relationship building of the new pack or family.
A key thing to remember is the old adage that a dog is the wolf in your living room. Like wolves, domestic dogs are very much pack animals and their behaviour is strongly influenced by their position in the pack hierarchy, with the pack following the direction of a single pack leader.
Put simply, to enjoy full respect and love from your pet, you need to be the calm assertive leader in the pack. If on the other hand your pet thinks he’s the top dog in your household, he’s likely to try to influence and control your behaviour and so will be less obedient and well behaved and may exhibit undesirable or dominant behaviour if he doesn’t get his way.
Tips for being an effective leader in your pack:
- Adopt a calm, positive assertive approach to life and relationships, these are leadership traits that a dog will gladly follow naturally. Basically the more emotionally well balanced you are the more well balanced and relaxed he will feel too!
- When your new pal arrives, don’t let him dive into his new home excitedly ahead of you to explore his new home at will,take care that you invite him into each room separately after you have entered it first.
- Start as you mean to go on: Establish a set of “ground rules” and boundaries on day one and stick to them religiously. eg he’s not allowed on the bed, or is only allowed on the sofa when invited. Varying rules, even if meant as a treat will confuse him and cause uncertainty – the last thing he needs when trying to fit in and settle in with his new pack.
- Maintain your rules consistently and ensure that all other members of your household do the same. Dogs don’t understand the idea of holidays or special occasions.
- Dogs are highly sensitive and pick up on emotions easily. A dog is a mirror of your state of mind, so if your dog is not responding positively, ask yourself if you are frustrated, anxious wound up or having a low patch, take a break and revisit the exercise when you have a good frame of mind.
- Eat first before feeding your dog – in the wild pack animals will eat in order of their position in the pack heirarchy
- Don’t let your dog “own” anything too possessively – if he likes playing with toys structure the play and include training on dropping and giving back items. Let him have them during play time and put them away after
- Don’t let your dog get overly possessive about food or territorial about an area, if he shows a strong preference for one end of the sofa, make him sit the other side for a change
- Ensure your dog is calm before you leave the house for a walk, he will behave better on the lead. If he’s dragging you out the door, he thinks he’s walking you!
- When you return to your dog its natural to want to fuss him but in dog language this is actually typical behaviour of a junior excited pack member not the leader. Instead walk in and past your dog without looking or speaking and wait for him to greet you calmly and respectfully. Then give him the affection as a reward.
Training your Dog
Here are some more general tips for training your dog. There is a vast array of different training techniques and methods out there all many of which vary greatly. Every dog is unique and what works well with one may not be effective with another. Do invest some time in reading up on training and consider trying out your local dog obedience classes:
- Ensure your dog gets enough exercise, pent up energy leads to mischief, anxiety or destructive behaviour. A lot of young high energy dogs end up in rescue homes because of previous owners failing to do this. A good exercise regime to meet your dog’s age and breed needs will avoid a lot of problems before they even start.
- Feed your dog high grade dog food and avoid products with artificial colours in (they have the same negative effects on dogs as they do on kids!)
- Your dog will be most receptive to training when you are in a calm assertive state of mind
- Your dog will be most responsive to training after he has spent pent up energy on a walk.
- Always say a command once only, then make him follow through, eg say sit once clearly then put him firmly into the sitting position
- Observe your dog’s body language carefully and learn to spot when he is obedient and attentive and to spot the early signs of impending naughtiness or disobedience
- Make training sessions short fun and frequent so neither of you get bored.
- A lead should be a communication tool and hang slackly and loose not taut. Try using short sharp tugs to indicate your request to walk to heel but allow the line to go slack then allow him to come into line with you. He needs to make the move for the training to be succeeding.
- Use the same words for the same command all the time, eg only use “down” to mean lie down or “off” not “get down off that bed you adorable rascal “
- Keep your dog calm, excited dogs (like children for that matter!) will jump around and be far less able to control themselves or pay attention to what you want
- Rewards don’t have to be food – they can be a ball game or verbal praise or just a quiet pat on the head
- Work out what motivates your dog – for some its ball play or favourite toys, for others its just food, food, food!
- Use reward and encouragement as incentives, but don’t bribe – if you reward him every single time you’ll end up with a fat, spoiled dog!
- If your dog just doesn’t “get it”, and you start to get angry or frustrated, take a break and try again another time, breaking the activity into smaller steps
If your dog misbehaves
- Always address the behaviour straight away,
- There’s no point telling your dog off if you return to find a shoe chewed. Its likely to be a symptom of separation anxiety or boredom.
- Correct the unwanted behaviour calmly with clear consistent instructions (“no”, “leave” etc)
- Shouting at a dog will never work. Wolves in the wild are quiet stealth hunters and communicate more with non verbal signals, energy, scent, body language, posture and eye contact.
- Your body language and visual signals from a calm assertive human in control is what will get your dog to pay attention.
- If your dog is ignoring you, think positive, puff up your chest stand tall and deliver your command in a more firm, confident, assertive manner.
- In delivering a command your energy and projection need to match or slightly exceed the state of the dog for it to pay attention. Your dog understands the tone more than the word, speaking in a soft gentle hushed tone is effective communication among humans but wont get your dog to listen!
- If you discover an accident some time after it happened don’t try to tackle it wait for the next time – he won’t understand what he did wrong and what behaviour not to do again
- Don’t avoid difficult situations, the problem area will only become entrenched and could worsen or intensify
- If a dog has anxieties with people or dogs enlist the support of the people involved, or get a friend to help re-enact the situation and address the worrisome behaviour
- Try distracting a dog by prodding his thigh or shoulder just enough to surprise him get him to look away from what is locking his gaze and regain his attention.
- If your dog is highly strung consider a change of diet to veterinary pure food – food additives in cheap supermarket dog food can be an underlying cause of behaviour problems. A diet a change can make a surprising amount of difference
- If your dog has gotten into a wound up state where it has lost its self control, become over-excited or is physically out of control then to calm him down, hold the dog at the loose scruff (this will not hurt it is a loose flap of skin where the mother used to carry them) and roll him onto his side on the ground and let him calm down. Do not let him get up until his state of mind has reverted to calmness and his body has physically relaxed and he is not trying to get up. Holding your hand fingers spread near his shoulder or neck ready to prod him with your index finger should deter him. Don’t forcibly hold him down which will keep him in a tense state. (Do not attempt this in a highly charged dog scuffle or other potentially aggressive situation until you are sure the situation is under control.)
- Do not praise the dog or stroke him until he is visibly relaxed and his mental state has changed, your dog’s breathing can be a good indicator.
- Learn to watch for the early signs of agitation or trouble (pricked ears, hackles, upright stance, eye to eye contact etc) to catch it before it escalates out of control and his behaviour kicks off. Also keep an eye out for your own level of tension (which could be a trigger for your dog) and act to calm yourself through breathing or other techniques
- If your dog takes a submission posture, eg crouching head down or rolled on his side with his belly and neck exposed you have made your point and he’s got the message.
- Don’t respond to a dog’s misbehaviour in a state of frustration or anger, the dog will feel your emotional state and not listen to you, you could even make the problem worse.
- Never Ever hit, hurt, kick to punish the dog for its mistakes – these actions are outbursts of your anger or frustration. Such actions constitute cruelty, may harm your dog and are completely ineffective.
- Your dog should love, admire, obey and respect you but never fear you.
Do not attempt to tackle signs of aggressive behaviour without seeking professional advice
More Serious Issues
- A small number of rescue dogs do come with a little more baggage and require a more patience and commitment than may appear at first sight. If you are finding it hard to train your dog or experiencing more serious problems seek help and advice early on.
- If your dog displays signs of aggression or serious neurotic behaviour contact the rescue home or a professional dog psychologist immediately and do not attempt to address the behaviour yourself without professional advice and support.
- If you feel very unable to cope with your dog’s behaviour problems contact your rescue home and discuss alternative options. Occasionally you don’t find the right dog for you first time and there is no shame in making the right decision for you both if its not working out – there will be another dog out there perfect for you whose needs you can meet.