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USA Dog Behavior Blog

Should you give your dog a command only one time?

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© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

The question as to whether or not you should repeat a command to a dog is one I am asked all of the time. Put a group of dog trainers together and ask them this question and you won’t get 100% agreement.

For this article I will use the word “command”, but dog behavior consultants and specialists almost exclusively use the word “cue” for a number of reasons.

"…experienced and competent dog trainers know there are times when you don’t repeat a command, and times when you should."

Positive dog trainers (i.e., those who avoid punishing dogs and use positive reinforcement such as treats, play and affection to train) tend to feel that a repeated command is not the end of the world. Those dog trainers who use aversive methods (e.g., choke collars, prong collars, shock collars, leash “corrections”) lean toward the you-only-say-it-once rule.

For the record, the most well-known and respected dog behaviorist in the world, Dr. Ian Dunbar, is completely okay with repeating commands multiple times in some situations.

After working with thousands of dogs and dog owners, I can tell you that the reality lies somewhere in-between the two extremes of you-say-it-only-once and repeating-commands-is-okay schools of thought. Experienced and competent dog trainers know there are times when you don’t repeat a command, and times when you should. There is no monolithic rule.

When should you repeat and when should you not? Below is a checklist that will help you train your dog in a way that will increase human-dog communication and therefore reduce repeated commands.

If dogs mess up a command, at a minimum, don’t reward them for the miscommunication between dog and human.  Withhold the reward and start over again.

Don’t use commands at all until dogs have some idea what you are asking them to do. If you start saying “sit” before dogs have any idea what you are trying to teach, they might think “sit” means to just look at you. And by the way, your dog doesn’t understand what “sit” means before you lure or shape that behavior first.

When dogs are first learning a command, it is essential that they look at you. If your dog is making eye contact with you, the probability of compliance skyrockets.

When first teaching your dog a command, be sure to control distractions. Distracted dogs are much harder to teach new commands. Dog training experts like to say there are three primary variables involved in training dogs: distance, distraction and duration. How far can the handler be from the dog and still get compliance? Will the dog comply with the command when in a highly distracting environment? Finally, how long will the dog comply with the command (e.g., stay)?

When dogs are learning they need a few seconds sometimes in order to figure out what you’re trying to teach them. By just waiting two to three seconds (literally) after giving a command, the chance of compliance will increase dramatically. Say it once, take a breath and give the dog a chance to comply.

Using a pleasant voice with dogs can dramatically increase compliance. Dogs like higher pitched commands that inflect up at the end of the word. Would you want to work with someone who yelled commands at you?

Don’t be afraid to give dogs a reward each and every time they comply with a command when they are first learning something. You can always fade out the rewards over time. Humans work for rewards and so do our dogs. How many more times would you show up at work if they stopped your paycheck?

Use these ideas to create better communication between your dog and you during training. This will reduce the need for repeated cues and make training more fun for both of you.

The Story of Patches, the Dog That Was Spanked

                                           Patches

                                         Patches

© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

Things had changed for Patches (not his real name) by the time I saw him. But let me start at the beginning.

Patches is an All American dog of many breeds it seems – and he is beautiful. The original owner had to surrender Patches to a rescue organization because of her failing health. She could no longer take care of Patches. To say she was sad about this separation would be a significant understatement.

"Things were spiraling out of control."

The rescue organization quickly put Patches in a good foster home while they searched to find him a forever home. The foster family loved Patches so much they considered adopting him, but they already had four other dogs and felt they couldn’t realistically add another dog to their family.

He was with the foster family for less than a month before a handsome couple adopted him. We’ll call them Mark and Rebecca (not their real names). The rescue organization did all of the background checks required. Everything seemed great. Everyone was excited.

Three days after taking Patches home, Rebecca called the rescue organization saying that Patches was beginning to act aggressively toward Mark. When Mark would get near Patches he would growl, show his teeth and stiffen up. Mark and Rebecca were very upset about this but said they would work on it.

Mark found a dog trainer who said she could help get Patches’ aggression quickly under control. Mark told the dog trainer in their initial phone conversation that Patches was just not fitting into their home. Right from the beginning he had urinated in the den and jumped up on a visitor. Mark said he had harshly spanked Patches for both of those infractions but it didn’t seem to do any good. In fact, his urination in the house had picked up – especially when Mark was around.

Mark was at his wits end; the more he spanked the worse the behaviors seemed to get. And lately Patches had been acting increasingly aggressive to Mark. Things were spiraling out of control.

The dog trainer finally showed up for her first appointment armed with a shock collar and a clear understanding of what it means “to be alpha” to a dog. She was confident she could get these behaviors under control very rapidly. She showed Mark how to use the shock collar any time he saw something he didn’t like in Patches – especially the aggression.

Let’s fast-forward three months to when I first met Patches – or what was left of him. Mark and Rebecca had returned Patches to the rescue organization. He was urinating any time any human approached him. He never walked standing tall any longer and he was always cowering. The trembling in his rear legs never stopped.

Any time dogs are brought into a new home it’s common for them to have some behavior issues that need to be properly addressed such as housetraining and attention-getting behaviors (e.g., jumping on people). These and other unwanted behaviors are normal and can easily be remedied by teaching dogs what we want them to do.

Unfortunately, I see dogs like Patches all too often, and I see them after a lot of damage has been done. A normal happy dog is brought into a home where every unwanted behavior is addressed with punishment. In Mark and Rebecca’s home the punishment was spanking. Spanking is a particularly destructive type of dog-owner interaction because dogs have no idea why the owner is hitting them. They’re not able to make the connection between their “crime” and the punishment. They just learn to be afraid.

When dogs are afraid they frequently use aggression to keep the scary thing (i.e., Mark) away.  It starts a very bad death spiral within the household.

This situation is exacerbated by the plethora of “dog trainers” who masquerade as knowledgeable experts.  Using a shock collar (or any kind of punishment for that matter) to treat fear behaviors demonstrates gross incompetence on the part of a “dog trainer”.  The whole concept of “being alpha” is so outdated and unscientific that it’s embarrassing when I hear someone who should know better say it out loud.

How is Patches doing today? I wish I could say he was 100%. He’s not. He’s back in a loving foster home that, with my assistance, is working to build his confidence back so he can hopefully once again be adoptable. Dogs are resilient and at one time Patches was a happy loving dog – let’s pray that he can get back there again.

For further reading:

7 Things you Must do When you Rescue a Dog
Pretenders Who Claim to Treat Aggressive Dogs, Buyer Beware
Don’t do to Your Dog What Some People do to Their Children
3 Words I Wish Dog Owners and Dog Trainers Wouldn’t Use

Have you owned your once-in-a-lifetime dog yet?

                              Fred

                            Fred

© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

There are things in life you have to experience to understand. Your first love. A first child. Your once-in-a-lifetime dog.

If you have to ask, “What’s a once-in-a-lifetime dog?” you haven’t had one yet. And, by the way, you only get one. The Dog Gods deem it so.

"If the Dog Gods feel you are worthy, you will get your once-in-a-lifetime dog too."

I’ve already had my once-in-a-lifetime dog. His name was Fred and he was a rescue. Like almost all German shepherd dogs, he was most likely born in a puppy mill.

Despite being a puppy mill dog and a rescue dog, he was magnificent. He had a heart the size of Ohio and was supremely confident. There’s a funny thing about confidence in dogs, the more confident they are, the less aggressive they are. Dogs are aggressive to things they fear in order to scare them away. No fear means no need for aggression. It’s counter intuitive and ironic.

Fred had just the right mix of neediness versus aloofness. I always knew that he loved me and wanted to be with me, but at the same time he wasn’t always in my face annoying me. He was easy to live with for this reason.

An attribute of once-in-a-lifetime dogs is that you aren’t the only one who sees the greatness in your dog. One of the most telling comments that made this point was when someone met Fred and said to his wife that he wanted to get a German shepherd. His wife responded, “You don’t want a German shepherd; you want Fred. There’s only one.” Even though he’s been gone for years now, people who knew him still reminisce about him.

As is true with almost all German shepherd dogs, he had significant breed related health issues late in life thanks to puppy mill breeding. Dogs are stoic and rarely show pain, but when Fred started whining in pain in the middle of the night, I knew his days were short.

He was in so much pain at that point that he would growl anytime anyone got near him. If he was touched, it made the pain much worse. Anyone, that is, except me. I was allowed to get as close to him as I wanted and even touch him gently. No growling. His final gift to me.

A trusted veterinarian called me one day in the late summer and said, “Scott, it’s time. We’ve done everything we can do for Fred. He is in very severe pain and can’t walk any longer; it’s no longer fair to him to have to deal with his pain.”

Fred is at the Rainbow Bridge right now waiting for me. I pray that there really is a Rainbow Bridge and that the Dog Gods will see fit to reunite me with that noble boy.

I miss him so much. Fred taught me about being a better man and how to better help others with their dogs.

If the Dog Gods feel you are worthy, you will get your once-in-a-lifetime dog too. Maybe you’ve already had yours. Maybe you have yours right now.

One thing is certain, when you get your once-in-a-lifetime dog, you’ll know it.

Can Dogs Get Depressed?

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© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

Dog owners sometimes notice their dog appears sad or listless and wonder if dogs can get depressed in the same way that humans get depressed.

The short answer to this question is “yes”. Dogs can get depressed in ways that are similar to human depression. While dogs appear to share many of the same symptoms with humans, we can’t know exactly what’s going on with them because we can’t ask them. It is frequently diagnosed by exclusion. In other words, all other possible reasons for the behavior are excluded until the only plausible explanation is canine depression.

The symptoms of dog depression are similar to human depression. All of these symptoms would need to be chronic or protracted for a diagnosis of depression.

  • Withdrawn
  • Change in eating habits (i.e., more or less food consumption)
  • Change in sleeping habits (i.e., more, less or erratic sleep)
  • Inactive
  • Loss of interest in things normally enjoyed

Causes for canine depression can include, but are not limited to, any of the following.

  • Change of residence
  • Change of owner’s schedule (e.g., new work shift for owner)
  • Addition or elimination of a human in the residence
  • Addition or elimination of an animal (e.g., dog, cat, etc.) in the residence

Sometimes the loss of a dog or an owner in a household (the most frequent cause of canine depression) may appear to cause a dog to be depressed, but in actuality it is caused by the dog reacting to the grief of the human survivors and/or the lack of attention the dog is receiving since the loss.

Dogs can get a little down sometimes just like people do. Normally, they bounce back after a short period. However, when the symptoms persist for an extended period there is something else going on. A complete check with your veterinarian may be a good first step since many physical ailments can masquerade as depression. After a veterinarian check, your next step is to consult with an independently certified dog behavior consultant, behavior specialist or animal behaviorist.

A dog behavior consultant will assess the dog to ensure the issue is actually depression and then work with the owner to implement behavior modification and environmental changes. If the depression is significant enough, a behaviorist may work with your veterinarian to include behavioral medication as part of the overall treatment plan. The goal of most of the medications is to raise serotonin levels. Serotonin is the same neurotransmitter that is found in humans and plays a role in human depression too. 

The most common medications prescribed are SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil. Not surprisingly, these are some of the same medications used to treat human depression. There are some older tricyclic antidepressants such as Clomicalm and amitriptyline that are sometimes used but they generally are not as effective as the newer SSRI medications.

If you feel your dog may suffer from depression, seek help. Intervening early can make resolution much easier. Human depression can sometimes take years to fully resolve. If dog depression is treated early enough, it normally resolves in a much shorter time depending on the severity.

Why Your Dog Likes Some People and Not Others

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© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

You’ve noticed that your dog appears to like some people more than others. Even if your dog sometimes shows aggressive tendencies toward people, he or she might not be bothered with certain people. Why is this?

I’ve found there are four different ways that people interact with unfamiliar dogs. And how people relate to dogs that don’t know them makes all the difference in the world to dogs.

The Cynophobic (pronounced sign-oh-phobic) Person is the unfortunate human who is phobic of dogs. A phobia is an irrational fear of something. Granted, there are definitely some dogs where we need to use caution, but most dogs are pretty darn nice to be around.

Dogs are uncomfortable around Cynohpobic Persons because Cynophobic Persons stare at dogs too much, make awkward movements and appear stiff – all of these make dogs wary of the human. Most Cynophobic Persons try to avoid any contact or closeness to dogs and experience the following panic attack symptoms when they get too close:

  • Sense of terror
  • Racing heart
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Tingling in the hands and fingers
  • Feeling sweaty
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of control

The Indifferent Dog Person is the individual who couldn’t care less about dogs. He or she has never had one and doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. Doesn’t really hate ‘em, but doesn’t really love ‘em either.  These people, surprisingly, get along well with just about every dog they meet because they don’t threaten or annoy dogs. They simply don’t want to connect with dogs and, ironically, most dogs prefer that kind of interaction when people first meet them.

The Dog Lover Person is someone who absolutely loves dogs and wants to be around them as much as possible. They have several dogs of their own and frequently are involved in some kind of animal volunteer work.

But some Dog Lover Persons cannot understand why some dogs don’t really like them that much when they first meet them. The reason is, unlike the Indifferent Dog Person, they go overboard with attention when they first meet dogs. Their voice gets loud and high pitched, they move directly into the dog’s face and they start petting the dog on the top of the head – most dogs don’t like any of these things when first meeting a new human.

The problem gets compounded because the Dog Lover Person perceives that the dog is not responding to this attention so he or she escalates all of these annoying behaviors which only makes things worse. Many people in the pet industry, including some vet staffs and veterinarians, have difficulty meeting and interacting with some dogs precisely for this reason.

The Dog Knower Person truly loves dogs, but also understands them. Not only do Dog Knower Persons understand at least the basics of dog body language, but they also grasp the subtleties of meeting dogs that don’t know them. They know the five basic rules of initially greeting all dogs:

  • Don’t look
  • Don’t touch
  • Don’t talk
  • Don’t approach
  • Have a soft body

The Dog Knower Person knows that correctly greeting dogs is no mystery; it’s a discipline of entering their world in a way they respond to, not in a way that humans prefer.