How to Handle an Out-of-Control Dog
The young dog was jumping, mouthing hard, and bodyslamming. Reprimands made her behavior worse. How do you handle an out-of-control teen?
Today I’ll talk about a typical case – a composite of many of the dogs I see. Xena’s a wild and crazy adolescent, about 9 months old. And, man, has she stopped being cute. She jumps up into people’s faces and knocks their glasses off. If they push her away she bodyslams them and grabs their arms. Yelling doesn’t faze her one tiny bit. This dog is on the slippery slope to the animal shelter. Enter … me!
Why Not Just Punish the Behavior You Don’t Like?
Since yelling hadn’t worked, why not just punish Xena harder? Punishments can shut down problem behaviors -- but they don’t teach a dog what to do instead. Painful, scary, or startling methods can easily damage your dog’s trust in you. And he may misunderstand which behavior you’re punishing, or may associate the punishment with another person or animal who’s present. Finally, pain and fear have a nasty way of making both animals and people lash out. Xena’s guardians needed a better idea.
Prescription #1: Exercise a Dog Who’s Bouncing Off the Walls
With Xena, two big clues were her age -- 9 months old -- and her daily schedule. Her only exercise was 3 leash walks a day for 20 minutes each. A leash walk burns about as much energy as window-shopping at the mall – not enough to take the edge off any healthy dog her age. On top of that, Xena was a Black Lab mix. Black Labs are notoriously high-energy dogs, and Xena was climbing out of her skin. No way on earth could she learn patience, good manners, and self-control. Prescription Number 1: Get Xena at least a solid hour of aerobic exercise every day in a safe off-leash area. She needed to run, trot, and maybe play fetch. Morning exercise would be best, so that she’d start the day pleasantly tired and relaxed.
Still, Xena would be awake some of the time, looking for something to do. That’s what it means to be a young animal, whether you’ve got four legs or two. Xena’s behaviors -- mouthing, jumping, and trying to engage her people -- let us know loud and clear what she liked. It’s fine that dogs like to use their mouths; it’s fine that dogs like to move their bodies vigorously; it’s fine that dogs want attention from their humans. The trick is to find outlets for these desires that everybody can enjoy.
Prescription #2: Replace Human Chew Toys with Inanimate Objects
Exercise, Prescription Number 1, would meet Xena’s need to move.
Since she used people as chew toys, Prescription Number 2 was to teach her to deploy that sharky mouth elsewhere. No more bowl feeding for Xena! Now any food she didn’t earn during training came in food-dispensing toys such as the Kong and the Molecuball. Hollow toys were stuffed with a mix of half canned and half dry food and frozen overnight. The 30 seconds Xena used to spend eating breakfast and dinner stretched to 40 minutes, and afterward she often fell asleep.
Prescription #3: Reward Only Good Behavior with Attention
As for getting attention, Xena’s mouthing and jumping had worked well so far. True, that attention came in the form of reprimands and sometimes even shouting, but anything beat feeling bored and left out. Riled-up people could even be kind of exciting. That is exactly why reprimands didn’t work. Prescription Number 3: Xena’s guardians had to teach themselves to notice quiet, polite behavior, and choose those times to show Xena affection, toss her occasional treats, and invite her to go for a walk or play a game. Over time, Xena would learn to seek attention by lying down quietly near someone, for example, or resting her chin on his leg.
Prescription #4: Give Time-Outs
Many attention-seeking behaviors can be reduced or eliminated if we strictly ignore them. But jumping and mouthing are unpleasant, painful, and sometimes dangerous, especially to people who are small and frail. So, by itself, ignoring them won’t do. Prescription Number 4: From now on, Xena would get a 30-second time-out whenever she jumped on people or mouthed them. At home, she wore a short leash, maybe 2 feet long. Any mistake was marked with an “Oops!” and she was led to her time-out area. This could be her crate, another room, or a prepared spot where she could be tethered. During the time-out, Xena was completely ignored. Instead of gaining social interaction, her obnoxious attention-seeking got her briefly tossed from the party. The short leash made it possible to lead Xena to her time-out spot without grabbing her, and also helped thwart her attempts at keep-away.
Effective Time-Outs, and When Time-Outs Are a No-no
A few words about time-outs. First, a time-out must be delivered every single time the problem behavior happens. A behavior that still works occasionally will be very hard to get rid of.
Second, a time-out should be delivered in a mild, calm, pleasant way. The lost opportunity to socialize is plenty of punishment for a sociable dog. Third, even time-outs are unfair if you don’t teach your dog what behavior you do want in place of the behavior you’re trying to get rid of. Xena’s people taught her what they wanted by giving attention and other rewards for quiet, polite behavior. Fourth, if your dog seems upset or frightened by a time-out, rather than just disappointed, then time-outs are too harsh for her. Time-outs are also inappropriate for dogs with separation anxiety. A good trainer can help you find an alternative.
Prescription #5: Offer Mental Exercise
Xena had developed her problem behaviors partly because she was bored. We had to tire her big brain. Prescription Number 5 was fun, reward-based training -- at least 2 sessions a day, each about 5 minutes long. Xena needed to learn manners, so we focused on those first: polite greetings, waiting for permission to go through doors, lying quietly on a comfortable bed while dinner was prepared. I also encouraged her guardians to teach her tricks -- this helped keep the training mood light. Anyway, with the right attitude, all training is tricks.
Xena’s guardians followed my prescriptions to a T – oh, if I could only figure out how to train all my clients to do that! Within a couple of weeks, her mouthing and jumping had nearly disappeared. Two years later, she’s a happy grown-up dog and the apple of my clients’ eye. Once in a while she jumps up on someone, or forgets herself and tries to play tug with a sweater sleeve. Nobody’s perfect, not even a dog.
Aggression, separation anxiety, and other complex problems call for expert help. And sometimes problems that look simple at first glance are anything but. However, if your dog’s doing something you don’t like, a great starting point is to think over what she gets out of the behavior, or what need it might meet. Often, the best response will be to find an alternative you can live with, and teach her that instead.
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