Changing How a Cockapoo Feels About His Guardian’s Grandson

By: David Codr

Published Date: January 13, 2016


Geno is a two-year-old Cockapoo who is growling and showing some aggressive behavior toward the families one-year-old grandson.

When I first arrived to the session, I was pleasantly surprised by the dog’s energy and behavior; he was excited to see me but not out of control.

However as I chatted with his guardian right inside the front door to the home, Geno attempted to jump up and claim me a few times. The second time I corrected him, he emitted a low growl and barked to communicate that he disagreed with my correction. This was my first indicator that the dog thought of himself as having the same authority as the humans he lives with.

Dog’s thrive on having a clear-cut social hierarchy, knowing where they fall into place in the group. Over the years I have found that many of my clients mistakenly give the dog the wrong impression as to its status or rank in the pack. I want a dog to identify as being a follower, like a child to a parent. And just like all parents need to do, your interaction can impact and influence their behavior.

Whenever you pet a dog, whatever it is doing at the time that you pet it is what you are reinforcing. If a dog jumps up on you and you pet it, you are conditioning (rewarding) the dog to jump up on you in the future. This becomes their way of asking for you to pet them.

After I sat down with his guardians, Gino came over to give me a good sniff. After checking me out, he wandered back to sit in his usual place on the floor between his guardians. I wanted to start interacting and working with the dog so I called him over and placed him on a leash to block him from returning to his position between his guardians across the room.

In the course of our discussion, his guardians mentioned that the dog had a tendency to get over-excited when playing with their son’s dog. I used this opportunity to show them how they can use the leash to give their dog a timeout whenever his energy level gets too high or play becomes too rough.

By consistently giving the dog a time out this way whenever he plays too rough or gets too excited, he will quickly learn that that behavior is not acceptable. It will be important for his guardians to immediately apply this consequence at the right time. When it comes to correcting a dog, timing is everything. Therefore as soon as the dog passes the energy threshold his guardians have set, they need to immediately place him on the leash.

As soon as I took the leash off of Geno, he immediately returned to his favorite place on the floor between his guardians. Later in the session I would learn that it is this location that is the cause of Gino’s most concerning behavioral problem.

Knowing that the guardians will need to better communicate what they don’t want from their dog, I went over some non verbal communication cues using body language and movement.

I came up with these nonverbal consequences after careful observation of how dogs communicate and interact with one another. Because these movements mimic how dogs communicate with one another, they instantly “get it” when humans use them.

If Geno’s guardians make a concerted effort to use these nonverbal communication methods over the course of the next week or two, it will become second nature to them. Once that is the case, they will be able to communicate with their dog much more effectively – without saying a word.

Earlier in the session I had noticed that Geno liked to be leaning up against his guardians or right up in their personal space. Just like humans have boundaries of appropriateness when touching or interacting with one another, it’s helpful for a dog to have a healthy respect for humans personal space. This is even more important in this particular situation because the guardians have a one-year-old grandson will be a frequent visitor to the home.

I wanted to show Geno’s guardians how they can use the escalating consequences to communicate that they want a small cushion of personal space unless he is invited to come closer.

For many dogs, getting right next to the humans they live with is no big deal. But anytime you’re dealing with a toddler and a dog that is showing aggression or aggressive behavior, it’s always better to create some limits, distance and structure.

In this case it was easy to identify why Geno was accustomed to getting right up in his guardians business; every time that he did they immediately reached over and started to stroke or pet him. Over time the guardians had essentially trained the dog that the best way to ask for attention from them was to lean against or invade their personal space.

To remedy the situation, I went over a technique that I’ve developed called Petting with a purpose.

By consistently asking the dog to do something before providing it with attention or affection, it won’t take long for Geno to start engaging in these desired actions instead of invading everyone’s personal space or jumping up on them.

At this point in the session, I was about to go over a simple recall exercise when I discovered that Gino was possessive over the location that he liked to sit in.

As soon as he got to the area and I pulled out a treat, he started to growl and even nipped and lunged at me a few times. I reorientated myself around the room and try to couple different call and approach methods before I determined that it was actually the dog being possessive over an area by the couch next to where his guardians normally sit.

It’s not unusual for a dog to become possessive over objects or people. A less common possessive behavior is to be possessive over a specific location, and that was the case for Geno.

I worked with him on this issue for a couple of minutes, primarily to determine how intense his reaction and aggression was. Fortunately in Geno’s case, his displays I saw were intended to be a warning only.

Still when you have a toddler in the home, it’s never a good idea for a dog to have a person, item or location that they are possessive of. In some cases, a structured rehabilitation method needs to be applied. But because Geno’s aggression was at such a low intensity and inconsistent, I decided to simply block him from returning to the area.

Before resuming the exercise I originally started with, I advised the guardians to alert me if the dog continued to be possessive of this particular location. If that is the case, then it will be prudent for us to schedule a second session to exclusively rehabilitate the dog from being possessive of that spot.

A very successful technique to apply to dogs who are possessive or aggressive is to redirect their attention so I decided to show them how they can train him to go to his dog bed on command.

I suggested that the guardians practice asking Gino to go to the dog bed several times a day when there are no guests around. We want the dog to practice this technique until it immediately goes over to the dog bed on command any time any human asks it too. This will allow the guardians to redirect the dog and move him away from their grandchild at any time.

Another command that will be helpful for the guardians is to be able to get the dog to recall on command consistently. While Geno did come to his guardians most of the time, it was more a case of doing so when the dog felt like it.

I spent the next few minutes showing at Geno’s guardians a hand motion and position to entice the dog to recall each time they called him

When we originally booked the session, we had arranged for the guardian’s daughter and grandchild to arrive near the end so that we could practice putting the new techniques and exercises into practical application.

One of the scenarios that gets Geno excited is the arrival of guests at the door. When his guardians daughter arrived with their grandson, I showed them how to claim the area around the door before opening it.

Generally speaking, the closer a dog is to something it’s reacting to, the more intense it’s reaction. By asking the dog to stay behind a line several feet away from the door, we can help him practice some self-control while also lessening the intensity of the new arrival.

Geno did so well at this exercise that I had one of his guardians go outside and play the part of a guest so that his other guardian could practice claiming the door himself.

It shouldn’t take more than a handful of practices before Geno adopts this new distance from the door behavior anytime there is a knock or someone rings the doorbell.

With the grandchild now in the house, I wanted to show Geno’s guardians how to communicate to the dog that it needed to keep a respectful distance as well as what appropriate interactions would be.

Anytime you have a dog that is disagreeing with the sounds or movements of a young child, it’s obviously something to be concerned about. In this case it’s likely that Gino considered the arrival of the baby as an unwelcome visitor that he did not approve of. Because the dog considered himself to have equal status or authority as the humans, he felt it was OK for him to disagree with the toddler whenever he did anything the dog did not approve of.

By incorporating clear rules, boundaries and structure in Geno’s day-to-day life, his guardians will help the dog start to see himself as being in more of a follower position. Once the dog has completed this self perception transformation, it will seem inappropriate for the dog to growl when the child does something he doesn’t like or disagrees with as he will see the child as having more status than he does.

I also showed the guardians and grandson’s mother a few tricks that utilized positive reinforcement. They can practice these positive reinforcing exercises when the dog i calm and relaxed to help the dog develop a positive association with the child.

Once Gino’s guardians condition him to see himself as being a follower position, and they practice positive associations with the child, he should start to actually look forward to the arrival of the grandson, regardless of any sounds he makes.

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