Teaching a Shepherd Mix That He’s Not the Pool’s Lifeguard

By: David Codr

Published Date: September 25, 2015


Bailey is a eight-year-old Shepherd mix in Pasadena who gets over excited and panics when the family’s preteen daughters get into the pool.

I noticed immediately that the dog showed little respect for the girls personal space. His guardian told me that he often will snatch food right out of her hand and if any is left on a table so I showed her how to disagree with the dog when he got too close to her when she has any food.

By practicing this exercise when the guardians can devote their attention to the dog, Bailey will be less likely to try to engage in this snapping behavior when they aren’t looking.

Now, because the dog does not see the girls as having more authority over him, its probable that he thinks that one of his jobs is to protect them. This perception needs to be changed in order for the dog to learn that its inappropriate to behave in this guarding manner.

I went over a few new non verbal communication methods and escalating consequences to use when the dog does something wrong like get too close when they are eating. By communicating with the dog in its native language, we make it much easier to understand what we are asking from it.

To help the family members use these non verbal cues, I walked them through a leadership exercise I developed a long time ago. In addition to teaching the dog to restrain and control itself, it allows the humans to practice their timing and technique.

Once it was clear that Bailey understood how to play the game, I had his guardian practice the exercise herself. She had a few false starts, but on the third try she nailed it.

While this exercise will help the dog practice restraining himself when he sees something he would normally react to, it also helps the dog see the person conducting it as a leader.

Now that the dog had repeated the exercise a number of times successfully with different handlers, it was time for the girls to run through it on their own.

Now I cheated the first few times we practiced the exercise by standing behind the youngest daughter. I wanted to lend some of my authority to give her a jump start and ensure that the dog completed the exercise successfully. On the third repetition, I moved to the other side of the room so she could run through it solo.

Practicing and mastering these exercises and techniques will help change the dog’s perception of his place in the family. Once he sees the girls as authority figures, he will stop trying to take their food or control their actions.

I wanted to see how Bailey reacted to the girls jumping into the pool so we had them suit up and meet us outside.

The girls told me that Bailey usually started barking once they started counting down to jump in so I asked them to do just that. As you can see, the girls getting into the pool triggered an intense reaction from Bailey.

I had the girls get out then placed Bailey on a leash so that I could attempt to correct him the instant he started to react. Timing is everything with dog behavior. Its impressive that you disagree the instant the dog starts to react.

But after a few attempts at correcting him this way, it was clear that he was far too keyed up. Even when he wasn’t reacting, he was anticipating the girls jumping into the pool in an extremely anxious state of mind.

I tried a few different ways of distracting and disagreeing with his behavior with limited success. Finally I moved even further away from the pool and placed him in my version of a doggy time out.

When I am dealing with a dog who is in an excited or anxious state of mind, I always make sure to stop and wait for the dog to return to a calm and balanced state of mind before continuing.

Once he settled down a bit, I had the mother take the leash and we tried a few different methods of disagreeing with Bailey’s excited behavior. But instead of blocking the dog from the behavior, the guardian ended up in a tug of war.

I always want the dog to do the work. Instead of physically restraining or correcting the dog with the leash this way, I needed to come up with a way to empower the guardian with a non physical way to block the dog from reacting.

Because the dog responded so well to the Leadership exercise, I decided to use the sliding glass doors as a natural barrier to level the playing field. Bailey is far too good an athlete for the human’s to defeat in the open. But by collapsing the playing area by closing the sliding doors almost completely, the guardian was finally able to control the situation and prevent Bailey from reacting.

Using the glass door as the barricade had a secondary benefit; the ability of the dog to see the children getting into the pool.  In order to stop this behavior for good, the dog will need to practice being around the girls when they go into the pool while not racing around getting all worked up. Practicing this exercise this way will give the dog the ability to do just that.

By the end of the session, Bailey was calmer, following his guardians leads and moving around them in a more respectful manner. It will be very important that all the members of the family practice the leadership exercise every day while making it more challenging. The more they practice this exercise, the less the dog will think he needs to protect them.

And the more the guardian practice blocking Bailey through the sliding glass doors, the less reactive he will be until he loses interest and lays down or walks away. This two part strategy will take a little time and practice, but if the family commits for the next week or two, Bailey’s days as a self proclaimed life guard will be over.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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