Adding Some Structure to Help a Dog Learn to Relax and Listen to Her Guardians

By: David Codr

Published Date: September 3, 2015


Matilda is five-year-old Black lab mix in Van Nuys who doesn’t listen to her family members, barks a lot and jumps up on guests when they arrive.

It only took a few moments to see that Matilda was stressed out and a little insecure. She barked a considerable amount to disagree with me when I blocked her from jumping up on me at the door. When a dog jumps up on a human who is arriving, they are attempting to claim that person as their property or communicate that the human is entering their domain.

After realizing that I wasn’t going to let her get behind or jump up on me, she moved next to her primary guardian and continuously barked at me. I ignored her and gave the dog a few moments to settle down. When she finally did, she moved clear behind the chair her primary guardian was sitting in.

Prior to moving behind the chair, each time that Matilda barked at me her guardian reached over and petted the dog while telling her everything was ok. But when you provide a dog with attention or affection when they are in an excited or unbalanced state, they interpret that as the human agreeing with what the dog is doing at the time. As a result, the humans had been reinforcing the exact behavior they were trying to stop.

Communication for this session was interesting as the family are Spanish speakers who have some English and my Spanish is extremely rusty. So if you hear some badly annunciated Spanish narration from me, lo siento!

I explained to the guardian how important it will be for the humans to restrain themselves from petting the dog when barking at new guests or any other unbalanced state. I recommended that instead they redirect the dog’s attention with a sit or lay down command then only reward the dog if it complies.

I call this petting with a purpose and it goes a long way towards redefining the proper leader follower dynamic. By petting the dog or giving it attention for things we want it to do, we can help condition the dog to engage in those behaviors more often as they are the actions that get them attention or rewards.

Unfortunately the family had done so much petting for no reason that Matilda needed work with basic obedience. They couldn’t even get the dog to sit on command. Some of this was likely due to my presence, but sit is about as remedial as it gets.

I went through a number of different techniques and exercises but with little success. The dog was so insecure around me that I couldn’t directly work with her, instead I attempted to coach the members of the family through them.

After about ten minutes, I decided to change over to a simple recall exercise so that we could harness the benefits of positive reinforcement through an even simpler movement.

I strongly suggested that the members of the family practice the sit exercise as well as the recall every day until she does either one the first time she is asked.

If the dog doesn’t think or know how to follow simple commands from her family, they have zero chance of getting her to listen under more challenging situations like when guests arrive. Not only will mastering these exercises help the family better lead the dog, it wil improve the dog’s self esteem.

Just like human beings, dogs get a sense of pride or accomplishment when they learn a new skill. Learning how to follow simple commands and getting rewarded for doing so will deepen the dog’s respect for her guardians.

Another great exercise that can enhance or change the leader follower dynamic is the walk. When I asked the guardian how often they walk Matilda she laughed. She said the dog pulled so much that she had difficulty controlling her as she pulled as far ahead as she could.

When dogs are walking in a group, the dog that is in front is the leader. Most dogs will instinctively try to assume this position. In of itself, this is no big deal. But when you have a dog that thinks its in charge and is also insecure, that can lead to a myriad of problems.

I pulled out a Martingale collar and showed the family how to apply the special twist of the leash to get the dog to stop pulling. I took the leash first so I could demonstrate how to lead the dog and correct it when it got out of position.

At first Matilda was a little uncomfortable; probably partly to due with the new leash position and partially due to me being the one walking her. While she was a little uncomfortable, she did every well with the Martingale collar for me. She only needed 2-3 minor corrections before he stopped trying to pull ahead.

I gave the leash to her primary guardian and coached her up as she walked the dog. At first her reaction to the dog moving too far ahead were late and as a result the corrections weren’t as effective. Additionally she stopped walking and kept the leash tight after applying a correction.

This was no doubt due to past experiences walking the dog. But most dogs will constantly pull against a tense leash, so if you pull the whole time, a tug-of-war is what you will get. By stopping when she corrected the dog, she stopped the flow of the walk itself.

Each time she corrected and held her arm up, I pointed it out to the guardian who got a little better at it as we walked along. She continued to stop each time she corrected the dog, but the pauses were shorter and shorter as we practiced. Im hoping that once the guardian feels more comfortable with the technique that she will be able to relax her arm and keep walking each time she provides the dog a correction.

The other members of the family had accompanied us on the walk so I had all of them take turns with the leash so that I could give them feedback and corrections.

As we practiced, you could see Matilda growing more comfortable with the collar and leash and adhering to the lead of their handlers. Its going to talk time and practice, but the more the family members walk the dog this way, the deeper its respect for them will grow.

While working with the dog on the leash, I noticed she was much more compliant, listened better and didn’t seem as anxious. I suggested that in the future the family place the dog on a leash inside when she gets too excited or doesn’t listen.

For some dogs, being on a leash helps them feel and identify as being in a follower position. That was clearly the case here so I advised them to use that tool when necessary. I also cautioned them to be sure to supervise the dog when it was leashed but no one was holding the leash itself. We want to be sure the dog doesn’t get the leash caught on something and injure herself.

To help Matilda stop jumping up and barking at arriving visitors, I showed her family how to claim the front doorway to the house. Matilda had gotten into the habit of racing ahead of her guardians to the door. This was due to excitement and the dog’s perception that security was her job.

In the wild, security is often handled by the lead dog. And when a dog thinks its defending its group or turn, they are very “in the moment.” When a dog is in this state of mind, its hard for them to control themselves and even harder for the human to disagree or stop the dog.

By claiming the door area and asking the dog to move behind us before we answer the door, we can help the dog see that the humans are the authority figure and have the situation under control.

I had a member of the family go outside and play the part of a guest so I could show them how to claim the space around the door. It only took me two corrections to get Matilda back, but once again, her insecurities were impacting things so we repeated the exercise with the primary guardian answering the door herself.

While the dog responded ok, the guardian wasn’t moving deliberately enough to get the proper response from the dog. She also stopped short many times instead of continuing her marching at the dog until it moved away. This is why the dog kept trying to go around her.

We repeated the exercise again and this time the guardian was more deliberate in her movements and had more success in getting the dog to move away.

However after correcting the dog or making it move away, the guardian continued moving or did not keep her chest pointed squarely at the dog. Standing up and facing a dog is the most authoritative position a human can be in. This translates to “I mean business.”

Because she didn’t keep her shoulders facing the dog, it kept trying to move forward or around her. And because she didn’t pause or wait for the dog to stop before she resumed moving, the dog snuck right past her.

We repeated the exercise again and this time the guardian started to put it all together. She kept her chest facing the dog and as a result you could see the dog looking up at her for cues and to respond to her commands or corrections.

When the dog tried to move past, the guardian reacted with good timing to defeat the dog’s move. She also stopped and observed the dogs actions before moving again herself. As a result, the guardian was able to keep Matilda away from the door as she answered it and let her guest into the home.

Claiming the door this way will be extremely important in Matilda’s rehabilitation. The distance from the door will help the dog stop from getting too excited. Deferring to her guardian’s lead and letting them handle security is another way to help stop the dog’s unwanted actions or behaviors.

Matilda Crashed

By the end of the session, Matilda was exhausted. We had probably made her use her brain more than she had ever done before. Dogs are naturally reactive creatures and usually don’t stop to think about things, they just act. But each of the techniques and exercises we practiced today asked the dog do stop and think before acting. Development of this skill will go a long ways in the rehabilitation of the dog.

The more Matilda sees the humans as being in the leadership position the less reactive she will be. Petting for a reason, walking the dog at a heel, claiming the door and mastering basic obedience will all have a positive and cumulative effect on eliminating Matilda’s unwanted behaviors.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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