Teaching a Pair of Dogs They Aren’t In Charge to Stop Their Anxiety

By: David Codr

Published Date: September 12, 2015

Daisy and Chloe

For this session I worked with Daisy (left) and Chloe, a six-year-old Rat Terrier Chihuahua mix who is nervous and anxious, especially during thunderstorms and fireworks.

After chatting with the guardians and observing the dogs for a few moments, it was easy to see that the dogs thought that they were equal to or had more authority than their guardians. They listened when they wanted, sat at a higher level than the humans and did pretty much as they pleased like climbing on top of the humans.

But the dogs didn’t just climb on top of the humans for fun; they were attempting to display their ownership over them by competing with one another. Because the dogs had no real rules or structure, they assumed that there was no real authority figure in place and both nominated themselves.

The dogs arrived at this conclusion due to the humans applying love and affection in an attempt to show the dogs that they were good guardians.  While unconditional love is revered by humans, its generally seen as weakness by dogs.

To start chaining the leader follower dynamic, I recommended a number of rules and structure to start adding to the dog’s daily lives. One of these was to make the furniture off limits so the dogs saw a literal distinction between the humans and themselves.

To help the dogs with this transition, I showed their guardians how to condition the dogs to start using the dog beds they rarely used.

While competition between dogs for the authority position isn’t beneficial to creating a stable pack of dogs, it can be effective when used in other situations.

Because the dogs were given love and affection simply for being there, the reward really didn’t motivate the dogs. Just like anything else, too much of something can result in taking it for granted.

To help the dogs start responding better to the humans commands and corrections, I suggested they start petting their dogs for a reason. By asking the dog to sit or lay down, then petting it after doing so, we can help motivate the dog to start engaging in desired activities rather than those the dogs want.

I also showed the guardians how to harness the power of competition to entice the dogs to respond quicker. Instead of pulling out two treats, I suggested that they only start giving one to the winner. Once the dogs realize there is no prize for second place, they become motivated to get there first.

After running through the recall exercise I went over some new ways to communicate with the dogs as well as way to get the dogs to start to stop and control themselves. While its easy to physically control dogs this small, they don’t learn anything if we do it for them so you end up having to do it for the dogs every time.

I prefer to make exercises out of the daily activities that get the dogs over excited. This way we can stop the over excitement that gets dogs into trouble while fixing their own behavior issues and building up skills that will help the dogs better control themselves.

In this case, guests knocking at the door caused both dogs to get excited, over bark and charge the entryway to the house. When the family’s son got home from school, I asked him to step outside and play the part of an arriving guest.

As soon as the dogs heard his knocking, they started barking while racing to the door. I got up and walked over to the door casually, then showed the guardians how to claim the area around the door and communicate to the dogs that they needed to stay back and let me handle it. It only took a handful of corrections before both dogs moved away and stayed back while I opened the door.

We reset the exercise to practice again, but this time I had one of the dog’s guardians open the door on their own.

This time the dogs didn’t bark at all. Daisy even stayed in her dog bed until the door was opened before venturing over. Once the door was open, the guardian lost a little focus which caused the dogs to creep further towards the door than they should so she will need to practice the exercise a few more times to really follow through. Still, the change from the first to second repetition was pretty dramatic.

A big reason that Chloe was so anxious was that her guardians placed her in a leadership position, but then did not act like a follower. As any parent knows, being responsive for another can creates stress. But when the children don’t obey and get into trouble, the stress level goes up.

The more the dogs see themselves as followers, the less stress they will feel as these responsibilities get transferred to the guardians. Once this process is complete, she should be able to relax and go back to being a dog.

By the time we finished the session, the dogs were much calmer, were obeying their guardians commands and heeding their corrections the first time. They were even minding the new rules such as staying off the furniture on their own. It will take a few weeks of consistent enforcement of the new rules and boundaries, but once that structure is in place, most of the dog;s unwanted behaviors should stop on their own.

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