A Bassett Learns to Follow and a St Bernard Learns to Listen

By: David Codr

Published Date: December 3, 2015

Tino and Bertha

Valentino (left) is a four-year-old Bassett Hound who is jealous and possessive of the family’s father. Bertha is a seven-month-old St Bernard puppy who likes to jump up on people, shows no respect for personal space and likes to get on the furniture.

This is quite an unusual pairing of dogs. Valentino, who’s guardians refer to him as Tino, alerted my arrival with a constant territorial-howling bark while the puppy wiggled, jumped and got over excited.

I took my time entering as I wanted to see if I could get Tino to relax and calm down on his own. However, after a few minutes his guardians informed me that he would likely continue to bark and howl at me for the duration of my visit so I placed him on a leash.

As soon as I secured the leash over Tino’s head, his barking stopped completely. I immediately placed the end of the leash on the floor and stood on it. Once I did so, Tino repeatedly try to pull away from me. This is often the case with a dog who wants to bark in disagreement but do so at a distance.

My goal was to block him from engaging in this behavior and force him to develop a new way of interacting with an unknown guest. I took care not to try to pet, talk or interact with him in any way. I wanted to make sure he didn’t see me as a threat and so I needed to wait for him to become calm and comfortable on his own. It took a minute or two, but eventually Tino settled down and lay down at my feet.

Now that Tino was relaxed, I turned my attention to Bertha who continually tried to invade my personal space and jump up on me. After only two corrections, Bertha obliged my request and moved away.

But she didnt stop in her quest for attention. She moved over to her guardian and sat on her foot while pressing her back up against the guardian’s shins. It was easy to see why the dog did this. As soon as the dog came within an arms reach, the guardian reached over and started to pet her without even thinking about it.

I pointed this out to the guardian and then asked them a few questions about the dog’s day-to-day life so I could determine what sort of structure was in place.

Because both dogs had become completely comfortable demanding attention from their guardians and the guardians complied when they did, the dogs were under the impression that they were on equal authority levels with the humans in the home.

I have found one of the easiest ways to change this is to have the guardians define their personal space while also practicing what I call, Petting With a Purpose. By asking the dog to sit, come or lay down before providing it with attention or affection, the guardians can very easily change the dogs unwanted actions into desired behaviors.

It will take a conscious effort so I suggested that the members of the family come up with a watch-word to use whenever they notice another member of the family petting a dog without asking the dog to earn it first.

If the family members make an effort to pet the dogs this way for a week or two, it will quickly become a habit that they don’t even think about any longer. Once that’s the case, they will constantly reinforce the leader follower dynamic that they are looking for each time they put the dog. This is one of the easiest and most beneficial habits a dog guardian can get into.

As we were wrapping up this discussion, Bertha started to try to get the family’s father to pay attention to her. A big part of the reason for this behavior was that the family’s father freely admitted that he loved engaging with the dogs this way and had no problem with them jumping up on him that way. While there’s never anything wrong with petting a dog, allowing a dog to jump up on you whenever it wants shows a lack of respect for the guardian’s authority. It also tells the dog that the behavior (jumping up) is desired and rewarded. This causes many dogs to adopt the behavior with other people.

I was a little bit concerned by the father’s response when I pointed this out to him. He had repeatedly told me that he was flagrantly in favor of over loving the dogs. I tried to use this opportunity to point out that although his daughters seemed very well behaved, he still had rules boundaries and structure in place for them. There is a big difference between not loving an animal and letting it do anything it wants to do. Just like humans dogs need clear rules, boundaries and structure to understand where the lines and boundaries are. When dogs lack these boundaries and structure, just like humans, they can become petulant when they don’t get their way.

To help the guardians better communicate what they do and do not want from their dogs, I demonstrated a leadership exercise I developed a few years ago. I conduct this exercise with most of my clients as it helps the client’s practice using nonverbal communication cues and helps the dogs learn to look to the guardians for guidance and direction.

After running through the exercise with Bertha a few times I coached all the members of the family through it until they got the same results.

Bertha acted in a fairly typical way for a puppy. At first she was gung ho, then as we continued practicing she became a little bit more cautious and reserved. This is fairly normal as the exercise does require the dog to exhibit some self-restraint and recognize the authority of the human. However as we practiced, you could see Bertha’s confidence increase as her knowledge of the exercise did.

Tito was a different story altogether. Where Bertha quickly demurred to me as an authority figure, Tino challenged very aggressively; barking, lunging and biting at my feet.

It took him several minutes to complete the exercise the first time I ran through it with him. While I would not classify him as an aggressive dog, he was very challenging to authority. This is no doubt the result of the lack of structure and rules in the house combined with the energetic petting-attention and lack of boundaries from the family’s father.

We kept at it, but Tino continue to challenge me very aggressively so I swapped in the members of his family so they could practice the exercise with him too. Being an outsider was certainly influencing his behavior so I thought removing myself from the equation would help him. It did a bit, but I was concerned to see Tino challenge the mother and daughters very similar to the way he did with myself at first. But near the end, Tino started to get it and started giving up quicker and quicker to them with less protesting.

Once each dog starts to lay down right away (Within 30 seconds), then the humans can start increasing the length of time the dog has to wait after laying down before the human gives permission to get the treat.

It will be extremely important that all of the members of the family practice this leadership exercise daily with both dogs (separately) until the dogs are able to restrain themselves for a good 15 minutes. By gradually increasing the amount of time that we ask the dogs to wait before they are given permission to retrieve the reward, we can help the dogs develop self restraint.

This ability to self restrain is important to both dogs for different reasons. Bertha is only half of her full-grown size and so conditioning her to be respectful of their authority and personal space now will pay huge dividends for the rest of her life. Based on the confrontational nature that Tino exhibited, I could very easily see him transitioning from nipping to biting unless a change in the perception of his authority takes place.

Now that they were equipped with new ways of communicating and disagreeing with unwanted behaviors from the dogs, I had one of the families daughters go outside to play the part of a guest so I could coach the family’s mother through claiming the doorway when guests arrive.

I suggested that the members of the family call or text one another when they were on their way home so that they can take turns practicing this new door answering ritual. For most dogs it only requires 10 to 12 practices before they adopt a new more subdued follower behavior when guests arrive at the door. With enough practice, the barking will stop and the dogs will remain behind the boundary line on their own.

We finished up the session with a structured feeding exercise. Because dogs place a great deal of importance in the order in which they eat, having the guardians eat first and then control the dog’s access to food after they finish will really go along ways towards helping build up more respect for the guardians as authority figures.

By the end of the session Bertha was showing considerable improvement; not consistently invading the space of all the humans, less nudging for attention and following their commands quicker. Because her sit and lay down command responses were so inconsistent, the Petting with a Purpose will really pay big dividends with her.

My real concerns following the session gravitated towards the father and the conversation we had in the kitchen after we completed feeding the dogs. He repeatedly referenced how much time things take and how busy his life is.

I’m hoping that after reflecting on the write up and our session itself the father will realize that a lot of the things that we went over are simple changes in interactions and behaviors that take very little time or effort to incorporate. Using the nonverbal communication cues, defining their personal space and petting the dogs with the purpose should become second nature to them within a week or two of practice.

The good news is both dogs showed a responsiveness that indicates that they are open to change. It will most likely be easier for Bertha because she is at such a formative stage in her life.

Because Tino has been at this for a while he’s going to be a little bit more stubborn. His breed will even help him in this regard, LOL. However I have yet to run into any dog that doesn’t change its behavior once it clearly understands what it’s guardians want from them. Now that Bertha and Tino’s guardians know how to communicate this to their dogs, I’m optimistic that their behavior will take a turn for the better and stay on course for the rest of their lives.

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