Adding Rules and Structure to Help Zinnia and Wilbur Adopt New Behaviors

By: David Codr

Published Date: November 11, 2015

Zinnia and Wilbur

Zinnia (left) is a one-year-old St. Bernard who sometimes growls if another dog comes near her food or items she thinks are hers, doesn’t respect her guardian’s personal space and pulls on the leash. Her room mate Wilber is a eleven-year-old Boxer mix who doesn’t always play well with other dogs.

I noticed that the dog was petted and given attention any time she came near her guardians, this is likely the reason for her continual intrusion into the personal space of any humans in her home. I also discovered that her guardians didn’t really have any rules in place to help her understand what was and was not involved.

These are pretty common issues with my clients. Fortunately the solutions are fairly easy to apply.

The first thing I suggested was to have her guardians pet their dogs with a purpose. Instead of petting the dog for being close or pawing for attention, I suggested that they give the dog a sit or down command then only provide attention or affection when the dog obeys. This is probably one of the simplest things a dog guardian can do to help their dog see and respect them as an authority figure.

To help Zinnia learn to keep a respectable distance from her guardians and their guests, I showed them how to use body language and non verbal communication cues to disagree with her intrusion and define their personal space.

It will take a little time and prompt disagreement when Zinnia gets too close before she starts to respect the space around her guardians or their guests. Just like it is with humans, old habits die hard.

To further help Zinnia get into the habit of not intruding into the personal space of her guardians and guests, I showed her guardian how to use positive reinforcement to condition the dog to use a dog bed a few feet away in the living room.

Both dogs took to the new dog bed routine very easily. I always love seeing the wheels click for a dog when a human starts communicating and interacting with the dog in away it understands.

Next I showed Zinnia’s guardians how to add the special twist to the leash for a Martingale collar to help them have more control over her.

Due to her size, power and inclination to go where she pleased, this tool by itself won’t be enough. They will need to have impeccable timing when she gets out of position; immediately disagreeing and then redirecting her back into position. Timing is everything when it comes to communicating, rewarding or correcting dogs. A second too soon or late and the dog doesn’t put the correction and violation together.

As we practiced, Zinnia’s responsiveness seemed to get better. Stopping and practicing asking Zinnia to sit and stay at the gate is a small but important part of the walking ritual. But as we practiced, Zinnia stopped trying to move ahead on her own.

Being such a large dog, it didn’t take Zinnia long to get all tuckered out. So it should only take a short 10-20 minute walk a day to help her burn excess energy. Doing so will help reduce and eventually eliminate a few other unwanted behaviors like chewing the carpet and furniture.

After going back inside, I noticed Wilbur targeting a cat that had wandered into the yard while we were inside the house. Because he sometimes reacted to these sort of sightings from other animals, I showed his guardian how to redirect his attention using an “Eyes” technique.

By the end of the session, both dogs were obeying faster and looking to their guardians for direction and leadership. Adding some regular daily exercise for Zinnia will help, but I also suggested that the guardians teach both dogs a few new tricks and command to further develop the leader follower dynamic they want.

But based on how fast both dogs absorbed the new lessons and techniques, Im expecting an outstanding progress report in the near future.

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