A Pair Of Wheaton Terriers Learn to Calm Down and Listen

Finn and Murphy

Four year-old Finn (left) was rescued from an abusive home and now lives with eleven-year-old Murphy. Their guardians called me in to help with Finn’s dog reactiveness, barking, fear of unknown men and tendency to get over excited on walks barking at everything.

Both dogs met me at the door excitedly and their guardian had warned me to be careful coming through the front door as Finn likes to bolt for freedom when given the chance.

I showed their guardians a technique that I developed to stop the dogs from jumping up on people when Finn jumped up on me. I had been keeping him in front and blocking him, but he eventually snuck one in. But immediately after I applied the technique, I could see it was working as the dog jumped up, but then paused and twisted he is body away form mine avoiding contact the next time he started to jump up.

While I was discussing the situation with their guardians, Finn climbed up on top of the ottoman / table in front of the couch as if it was a small hill. This probably illustrated the most clearly how Finn felt about the home; in his mind, it was his.

I suggested some simple rules that will help change Finn’s perception that he is top dog. This will be pretty important in his rehabilitation as he was so excitable he often lost control of his bladder, urinating when excited or scared. His guardians had him in a belly band due to the frequency of his accidents.

I suggested that they stop petting Finn when he was excited as it only reinforces the excited state. Instead I suggested they ask the dog to do something like sit or lay down before petting him. By petting the dog for engaging in an activity, we can help him learn to control himself and stay calmer while also reinforcing a desired action.

The more a dog is petted when it does (or immediately finished doing) something, the more likely they are to repeat that thing. By consciously only petting the dog when it does something the guardians like and want repeated, the dog quickly learns to engage in those actions more often.

Because arriving guests was one repeating activity that caused Finn to loose control of his bladder, I showed his guardians how to claim the door and take over the guest greeting ritual. I had one of his guardians play the part of a guest and ring the doorbell while knocking as much as humanly possible. It took a few corrections, but I was able to get the dogs to move away from the door and stay there as I answered it.

I had the guardian repeat the pretend arrival a few moments later but this time the other guardian answered the door on her own. At first she was slow and timid in her movements which resulted in the the dogs ignoring and literally walking around her.

But she stuck with it and within a few moments she was able to claim the doorway and get the dogs to stay back as she answered the door on her own.

She faltered a bit at the end but this exercise is more difficult to do than it looks. Now that she knows how to claim the space, she should continue to improve; reacting faster and not turning her back to the dogs until they are still or sitting down.

I wanted to make sure they could do it without my coaching, so I gave my iPhone to one of them so she could film her husband answering the door as I knocked.

I tried to simulate a more normal door arrival sound pattern, alternating between knocking and ringing the bell as a guest would do. While the dogs were more practiced at the exercise by this point, his quick reaction time and confident assertive movement made it look easy. It really only took him one real correction and the barking was far, far less than before.

Because of Finn’s reactivity to other dogs, I fitted him up with a Martingale collar and showed his guardians how to apply the special twist to the leash. The dogs were pretty calm when getting leashed up which was good, but they did try to move in front of their guardians once they neared the door.

After showing the guardians how to tell the dogs to stay next to them and not rush out the door when its opened, we headed out for a short walk. As usually the Martingale really influenced the dog and helped the guardians keep him in a heel position.

Even when a diesel truck rumbled past, Finn stayed calm and even refrained from barking and getting all riled up as he used to do. When a dog sees its humans have things under control and respects their authority, it isn’t as reactive to its surroundings. In Finn’s case, he barked and got upset when loud trucks drove by because he thought it was his block and the trucks were operating without his permission.

The exercises we did inside contributed to this new more relaxed behavior, but the real difference was the dog was already deferring to the humans as the authority figures. Now that the human was leading the walk, the dog wasn’t in charge of security and instead went back to being a dog.

By the time we finished the session, the dogs were much calmer and easier to direct. They were even observing the new rules without being told or corrected. I love how quickly dogs can change once their humans start telling them what they want and expect in a way the dog understands.

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