Adding Some Rules and Structure to Help a California Dog Learn to Relax

By: David Codr

Published Date: January 30, 2015

Sonny (Silverlake CA)

Sonny is a one year old German Shepherd / Carolina Dog mix who lives in Silverlake, California. Sonny’s owner asked me to help her stop his jumping up on people, pulling on the leash, barking and getting so excited he had difficulty controlling himself.

When I arrived for the session, I could instantly see that Sonny was anxious. He barked in an alerting fashion while darting towards and away from me once I got inside the front door. I gave him no direct eye contact and ignored him as I introduced myself to one of his owners.

I prefer to give a dog an opportunity to stop barking on their own but Sonny showed no signs of stopping anything soon so I gave his owner a leash and asked him to put it on. As soon as Sonny saw the leash, he walked away into the kitchen and his owner followed behind him.

As soon as she put the leash on Sonny, he stopped his barking and his energy level dropped a bit. I took the leash and dropped it on the ground so I could step on it about a foot away from his head. I left Sonny just enough room to stand or sit, then continued to ignore him as I explained what I was doing to his owner. He attempted to pull away for a moment, then sat down on my right.

I waited a moment then slowly slid my foot towards Sonny to take the tension off the leash. A minute after that, Sonny laid down on the floor and was calmer still. Once I was sure he was relaxed, I slowly took my foot of the leash making sure to not let Sonny know he was free.

I suggested that his owner apply this same technique any time he started to get so excited he couldn’t control himself. Allowing a dog to pace back and forth can allow them to get more worked up. Pulling a dog away by the collar or leash can often intensify the reaction as the dog is now trying to break free and react to the guest.

But placing the dog on the leash and standing on it gives you the ability to give a dog a “time out.” When in this time out, no one is allowed to interact with the dog until it settles down completely. If this technique is applied consistently as soon as the dog starts to get over excited, we can help communicate that the behavior is not allowed. In time, the dog learns to control himself to avoid this consequence from being applied. Any time you can get a dog to restrain or control itself, you are helping it practice a skill that can assist it in many situations.

After a moment Sonny got up and slowly started to walk away. At this point I had not petted or interacted with him other than standing on the leash. After walking about 10 feet away, Sonny remembered that he was not accustomed to my presence and scooted to the far side of the room.

I wanted to give Sonny time to acclimate to the new dynamic and come to me when he was more comfortable so I went over some new ways for his owners to communicate with him in a non verbal fashion. I also introduced the set of escalating consequences I like to apply when a dog does not respect his owner’s commands or corrections.

While we were discussing these new communication methods, Sonny started to creep over to me with his nostrils flaring. This was the greeting I wanted so I made an effort to stay still and continue the conversation with a calm consistent tone of voice. Sonny got closer and closer until he was only an inch away from my leg. Fortunately I had just come from another behavior session, so Sonny was picking up on the scent of my last client’s dog.

Only after Sonny had sniffed me, walked away then returned did I attempt to interact with him. I pulled out a high value meat treat and extended my arm to my side with the treat in my open palm. Sonny saw it, but started to move away as he was clearly still suspicious about me. I kept my hand still and let him come over to take the treat in his own time. By allowing Sonny to work up the nerve to come claim this treat, I was helping him to learn a new way of meeting guests at his home.

Once Sonny retrieved a few treats, I introduced a simple recall exercise to help instill even more confidence into the dog. At first we had to call Sonny repeatedly to get his attention. But by using a hand movement that triggered his curiosity, it didn’t take long before Sonny was coming constantly to whomever called him.

It was clear that Sonny considered himself equal to his owners and this was a big part of the reason he did not listen when his owners attempted to disagree with any unwanted actions and behaviors. To help change this perception I introduced a leadership exercise that involves placing a high value meat treat on the floor and communicating that Sonny was to leave it alone.

In addition to changing the leadership dynamic between dog and owner, this exercise helps the dog practice self restraint and increases their ability to focus. These skills will help boost Sonny’s confidence while also improving his overall behavior and interaction with humans.

After going through the exercise a few times myself, I coached both his owners through it until they got the same results. I suggested that the practice this exercise a few times a day for the next week or two while gradually increasing the length of time Sonny waited while laying down before they gave him permission to take the treat.

Because Sonny is an energetic dog who also pulled not he leash, I wanted to work on his walking behavior. I asked his owner to get their leash so I could see what kind of reaction Sonny had. Often times when an owner starts to go through the motions or actions they do before heading out on a walk, the dog will start to get over excited in anticipation of the walk itself. This excitement usually builds on itself until the dog gets so worked up they will be almost unmanageable.

To prevent this from happening, I suggesters that his owners drop the leash or put it back the second that Sonny starts to get excited. Its inconvenient for the owners, but usually only for a few days if they apply the technique consistently. With some practice, Sonny will learn that he his owners will only proceed with the walk when he remains in a calm and balanced state of mind.

Because Sonny’s owner had told me that he pulled, lunged and jumped on walks, I fitted him up with a Martingale collar and added my special twist to the leash. I had his owner approach the door, then put Sonny into a sit before swinging the door wide open. Movement is a common trigger for dogs and often causes them to react which Sonny did by standing up and starting to move to the doorway.  I had his owner correct Sonny, return him to a sit then close the door to try again.

After a few resets, Sonny stayed in a sitting position as his owner swung the door wide open. I suggested that they repeat this exercise each time they leave their home until Sonny instinctively sits at the door waiting for permission from his owner before heading out. This simple exercise will go a long ways towards calming Sonny down and reinforcing that he should look to his owner for guidance.

Once outside I went over a few techniques and movements to help keep Sonny in a heel position as well as paying attention to his owners. Within a dozen paces or so, Sonny was walking calmly in the heel position next to his owner. After a while I had his other owner take the leash so I could give her some tips and pointers on leading Sonny through a structured walk.

Both of his owners commented on how much easier he was to handle. While the Martingale collar helped stop the pulling, waiting for Sonny to enter a calm relaxed state before leaving their home ensured that the walk was conducted with a similar zen and energy level.

Once we returned home, I showed his owner how to claim the door and calm Sonny down when a guest knocked on the door. One of his owner’s friends played the part of a guest so we could practice a new way of reacting to a knock on the door.

When Sonny heard the first knock, he started barking and bouncing around the room the way he has always done. I stood up and calmly walked over to the door. It important to not rush when a dog is barking and excited in this type of situation. Fast movement can increase the dog’s excitement and yelling at a barking dog is usually interpreted as agreeing with the dog’s barking.

Once I passed Sonny I turned so my back was to the door and I was facing the dog. Sonny was barking while standing directly in front of my focusing on the door. I made a sound to disagree with his barking then took a sudden and deliberate step towards the dog to move him away. As soon as I did this, Sonny stopped barking for a second and moved away. Once a few feet from the door, he started to bark again so I corrected him with my sound and waited for him to settle a bit before I placed my hand on the door knob.

When I giggled the door knob Sonny barked again but responded immediately when I corrected him. Once he was calmer and no longer barking, I opened the door. I asked Sonny’s owners how that greeting compared to his usual reaction and they informed me it was far less intense and ended much sooner.

Another friend went outside and knocked on the door a few minutes later for one of his owners to practice this new technique on their own. This time Sonny’s reaction to the knocking was far less intense and only required one correction to stop his barking. In fact he only barked twice this time. A big difference to the 50-75 barks he unleashed when I arrived for the session a few hours earlier. I suggested that his owners call or text each other when they are on their way home so they can practice this exercise until Sonny no longer over reacts when someone knocks at their door.

By the end of the session, Sonny seemed much more confident and centered. He was responding to his owner’s lead, commands and corrections immediately and had stopped moving away any time I moved.

Sonny is clearly a smart dog who wants to please his owners. They just weren’t communicating what they wanted in a way that he understood. Now that they are all on the same page, it shouldn’t take long before Sonny’s unwanted behaviors disappear altogether.

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This post was written by: David Codr