Former police dog-handler Geoff Bowers specialises in training problem dogs.
This article is an excerpt from our May 7, 2016 cover story on why we need to stop romanticising dogs and how to train a happy pet.
1. Puppies need to experience young children as early and often as possible to get used to them. Dogs unfamiliar with the unpredictable, noisy ways of infants and primary school-aged children may interpret them as threatening, equate them with other dogs or even mistake them for prey.
Dog trainer Geoff Bowers says the rule with children and dogs is the child is always right. “It doesn’t matter what the child did to the dog – if it tried to stick its fingers in the dog’s eye – as far as the dog or puppy is concerned, it’s the one that gets disciplined. Growling is not okay. Biting, obviously, is not okay. Sure, the child needs to learn how to treat animals, but you correct the child away from the dog so the dog understands that it is below the child in the pack order. It’s the one that got told off.”
This extends to prohibiting the dog from touching children’s toys. Dogs can also grow possessive of their own toys, so establishing from puppyhood that the family, including the children, have dominion over the dogs’ toys as well can see off future reactive trouble.
2. Never let dogs spend time in the front yard, even if it’s securely fenced. This is a common recipe for a wound-up, hyper-vigilant and bitey dog. Putting a dog in front of the house tells it it’s expected to guard. Everything. In its mind, the property and all the space it can see is its responsibility. Anyone walking along the street, animal or human – to some dogs even a vehicle – is a potential threat. At the least it will nuisance-bark at all-comers. In time, it may bite a stray hand over the fence or a visitor. The behaviour is endlessly perpetuated and escalating. A pedestrian comes along, the dog barks, the pedestrian goes away. In the dog’s mind, that’s a result. Even allowing a dog to look out the front window perpetuates this anxious, guarding behaviour. The dog needs to have the opposite message: stand down, relax, it’s not your job to guard.
3. Never leave a dog chained up. It’s not just cruel, but also practically a guaranteed way of training an attack dog. People with insecure properties who need/want to leave the dog outside for any length of time should invest in a crate or a secure run. Bowers says even tethering a dog outside a shop for a short time is risky.
“Again it’s flight, fight or freeze, and a chained dog has not a lot of options. It can’t get away, so it will feel threatened.” Habitually chained dogs become hyper-anxious because they know the only way they can deal with threat is attack. In contrast, a dog that’s confined to a crate feels secure. “People say, oh it’s cruel to cage an animal, but for a dog this is a very safe place. It’s not that different to us. Where do we sleep? Out in the open? No, we feel more secure in our bedrooms, in our beds. It’s the same with dogs.” Bowers is even relaxed about dogs spending longish periods crated. It calms them, and if their human family is out, they relax and snooze the day away.
4. Never get a puppy if you can’t meet and interact with its parents first. This should be obvious, but usually the adorable little fur baby in the pet shop or the litter on Trade Me is irresistible, and people get their family pet with no access to vital information about its lineage. Stafford says it’s important to ask the dog’s breeder if you can play with the sire and dam so you can assess their temperament.
5. Dogs bred by show-ring breeders are generally a safer bet. Breeders get a lot of bad press for the extreme and often cruel physiological traits that can be bred into dogs, but one thing they are careful not to do is breed iffy-tempered dogs.
“That’s because, if your dog can’t stay calm in the show ring, or it bites the judge, it’s all over. Your dog is disqualified,” Stafford says. Breeding and showing dogs is expensive, so breeders strive to eliminate bad temperament from bloodlines.
6. Keep a close eye on a dog’s health. Bowers says it’s likely a lot of bites, especially from previously well-behaved dogs, were because the dog was in pain. Dogs can be stoic about injuries, so a pinched nerve or slipped disc might go undetected. “Then someone touches the dog in a place where it hurts and it will react.”
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