We live in a world where everything must be done now and no one ever takes the time to switch off. Our work is all-consuming and many of us also spend long hours commuting. Even when we are at home, we are on call via our computers and our mobiles, 24/7. Somehow, we convince ourselves the world will come to an end if we don’t get everything done and, as a result, many of us are actually making ourselves ill.
Sadly, this way of life is as equally stressful for our poor cats and dogs. A lack of mental and physical stimulation, coupled with long hours home alone and a family that is always in a rush, sooner or later creates a pet that is stressed out too. It is a sad fact that one reason why so many people end up seeking dog behaviourists for their dogs or even giving dogs up for rehoming because they cannot cope with them is because they, themselves, have created the problem through their own stressed out lifestyles.
In recent years, while we have been working to improve the conditions for wild animals kept in captivity by providing a richer environment and experiences for them in animal parks, things have become significantly worse for our pets, where cats are kept permanently indoors with nothing to do and dogs are left shut up alone at home for hours, transported everywhere in the back of cars and only offered rushed walks or quick games in local parks, where the aim is just to get the ‘duty’ of exercising the dog over and done with as quickly as possible in the allotted time slot. If this is the price of progress, maybe it is just a little too high?
When I was a kid, the cat spent his days climbing trees in the back garden or chasing mice under the laurel bushes. The dog spent the morning ‘helping’ Mum with the chores and, in the afternoon, they went for a long walk together across the fields, before walking to meet us kids from school, followed by a great romp together in the back garden before tea.
Too much rushing around helps no one. So, next time you are about to lose your cool because the cat has shredded the loo roll or, mobile phone glued to one ear, you are screaming at the dog to get back in the car because it’s time to go – stop, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Then ask yourself this: if you’ve allowed yourself to become that stressed, is it any wonder your poor pet is climbing the walls too?
Many thanks to all of you who took part in our recent poll about reactive dogs, the results of which were very interesting. The majority of those who voted felt that owners just allowing their dogs to run up to other dogs was the biggest contributor to an increase in reactive dogs. I think this result is great news because the more this message gets around, the more quickly we may be able to put a stop to what is undoubtedly one of the biggest causes of fights between dogs and even their humans. A simple code of conduct where owners automatically called their dogs back and put them on leads when first meeting other owners and dogs would, in my opinion, make a huge difference for the better for everyone.
Many of you also felt that nervous owners create nervous, reactive dogs, and that incorrect socialisation as puppies, a lack of proper regular exercise and even chemical additives in food and environment were major contributors too. I would totally agree with you on all these points and, as someone who knows only too well how harmful man-made chemicals can be for humans, I was very pleased that people are beginning to think about this with regards to their pets too.
I was also very pleased to see many of you selecting incorrect socialisation, because I am convinced that getting it wrong can actually sometimes do more harm than not doing it at all. Everyone now seems have got the message that early socialisation is essential, but so many seem to think this just means taking your puppy to the nearest park and leaving him to ‘play’ with any other dogs that might be around, while the owners stand around chatting.
Unfortunately, this can so easily end up with your pup learning all the wrong lessons, like just running straight up to any or all other dogs, regardless of how the other dog is responding. It also increases the chances of your pup being bullied and may even contribute to him becoming a bully himself as he gets bigger. If you pup was bred responsibly, his Mum will have already taught him the basics in dog/dog interaction. The last thing we want is to undo all her good work by encouraging him to behave badly in the local dog park!
I saw a tweet recently from someone claiming that the number of dogs whose owners describe them as ‘dog-reactive’ or even dog aggressive now seem to be almost the same as the number who get on fine with most other dogs they meet. I’m not sure if this is true or not but I do know that we seem to have more problems than ever before.
We’ve come up with a list of all the reasons/excuses we’ve seen given for why some dogs are ‘reactive’ and we’d really love to know what you think. Please select all that seem relevant to you:
Many of you probably watched the Channel 4 documentary – Dogs: Their Secret Lives – last Tuesday. How many of you, like me, were not actually very surprised at the large number of dogs in the study that were found to be less than totally comfortable with being ‘home alone’ day after day?
After all, unlike cats, dogs are social animals and would rarely be found living alone naturally. Also, unlike cats, dogs do not normally spend at least 16 out of every 24 hours sleeping so, for us to expect our dogs to sleep all night while we do, and then to sleep all day while we go out to work, is a little unrealistic!
There was some great advice on how to prevent and/or help dogs overcome separation anxiety, but I was amazed nothing was said about how much exercise these dogs were – or were not – getting before they were left alone. After all, a tired dog is much more likely to settle down to rest than one which is so full of pent up energy that he’s already bouncing off the walls before the owners are even out the door!
If the majority of the dogs in this study were only being left for 3-4 hours per day, I suspect they are actually among the luckier ones. I am pretty sure that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of dogs that are regularly left for 8 or more hours day after day, often with little more than a quick run down the garden or walk round the block before they are left. No wonder so many of our dogs are going stir crazy!
Finally, what do people feel about the idea of selectively breeding dogs that are better able to cope with being left for hours? On the face of it, that sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? After all, no one likes to think of their poor dog pacing and howling for hours on end so, if anything can be done to breed dogs that are less anxious generally, that has to be a good thing, right? Then I got to thinking that surely one of the things we love about our dogs is how much they seem to love being with us too? Is it possible that, if we were to deliberately breed for dogs that didn’t mind being left alone, we might actually eventually lose part of what makes a dog a dog? After all, if you want a pet that really doesn’t mind whether you have to go out to work all day or not, you can always get a cat!
Autism in humans is recognised as a developmental disability that normally becomes apparent during the first two years of a child’s life and affects how that child communicates with, and relates to, other people, as well as how he/she makes sense of the world.
Although those with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some are able to live relatively independent lives while others may have accompanying learning disabilities as well as experiencing over or under-sensitivity to sound, touch, taste, smell, light and colours. The cause or causes of autism are still open to debate, with both genetic and environmental factors suspected of contributing.
The question as to whether or not dogs can suffer from autism has still to be fully answered. While it is not thought that a dog can become autistic, some do suspect a puppy whose parent(s) have been exposed to various toxins, including excess vaccines, could be born with the condition.
The main symptoms of canine autism might include:
- Dysfunctional interaction with other dogs and/or humans.
- Restricted behaviour including avoiding new activities.
- Repetitive actions. Dogs with autism may prefer to stick to a routine.
- Apathy and lack of activity even if the breed is a high energy dog.
- Bizarre ‘organising’ of toys and objects according to size or colour etc.
Typically, symptoms of autism would be present from early puppyhood and the puppy may not interact properly with the rest of his siblings or parents. A puppy suffering from autism may also show lack of interest in food and/or games.
If you suspect that your dog may be autistic you should discuss his condition with your vet in order to rule out any other possible causes for his behaviour. It will be important to try and keep to a routine as any changes are likely to create additional stress. Even simple things like moving furniture around in your home or taking a different route on a walk may trigger insecurity or panic. You should also ensure your dog has his own quiet place – eg a crate – where he can feel comfortable and safe at all times and make sure everyone around him gives him the space he needs, as well as avoiding direct eye contact if that upsets him.
Positive reinforcement is a good thing and all punishment is wrong, right? Eh, well no, positive punishment is out, but negative punishment is OK. In fact, negative punishment goes hand in hand with positive reinforcement, but not with negative reinforcement. Confused? Who isn’t?
Many years ago when I trained as a teacher I remember being taught that all these terms are part of what is known as operant conditioning, which is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments and is nothing new. In fact operant conditioning was first described in the 1950′s by a psychologist called B.F. Skinner.
So what is all the hype about? Well, in simple terms, positive means to add something and negative means to take something away. So, for example:
- Giving a dog praise, food, or even a game, for doing something we want is positive reinforcement.
- Using a deterrent such as a leash pop or a verbal command eg ‘no’ when a dog does something we don’t want is positive punishment.
- Turning our back and ignoring a dog that is jumping up is negative punishment because we are taking away our attention/affection until he stops the unwanted behaviour.
- Removing something the dog doesn’t like once he complies with your request is negative reinforcement. For example, using physical manipulation to make a dog sit by putting pressure on his rear end, which is removed as soon as he does so.
Actually, I think it’s a pity these expressions have become so commonplace in the dog training world because, apart from totally confusing some people, they also serve to fuel endless debates between opposing camps and methodologies, with one side seen as too soft and bribing their dogs with treats (the so-called PR+ group) and the other seen as over-punitive or even cruel (the so-called pack leader group).
It’s not like we really need to know these terms either is it? After all, before we buy our kids a treat for doing well on a test, or nag them until they tidy their bedrooms, we don’t have to stop and think if we are using positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement, do we? In theory, we’d probably all say we prefer rewards to punishments but, in practice, most of us have probably used all these techniques at one time or another, depending on the circumstances.
Of course, so far as our dogs are concerned, any action on our part – positive or negative – also needs to be immediate. A child might understand he’s getting an ice cream because he scored 10 out of 10 on a spelling test last week, but a dog will not associate a new toy with the fact he came back when he was called in the park yesterday or that he’s been shut out in the garden as a punishment for chewing up your best shoe while you were shopping!
Currently, schools tend to focus almost exclusively on positive reinforcement so, if a child is misbehaving, the other children will be rewarded with praise, gold stars etc in the hope the ‘naughty’ child will want to receive those positive things too and therefore ‘fall into line’. I know some teachers who worry that this just encourages a ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude and who would prefer a more balanced approach. All in all, I find I have to agree with them. Too much of anything is usually a mistake and a balanced, well-adjusted child, or dog, is more likely to result from a calm and balanced approach. At times, we all have to do things that we don’t want to, just because ‘those are the rules’. Why should this be any different for our kids, or our dogs?