Three of my neighbors have adopted dogs recently, and I've noticed they could use some guidance on how to handle their new pets.
First, rescuing is an important act of social heroism! The world is better, and pain is lessened when you offer a pet your home and family. If you adopt or rescue an animal—a bunny, cat, or dog—you have done a great thing, provided you have thought through pet ownership and looked at this as a process with a long-term goal.
On the other hand, after a few weeks or months, it may be time to find out how to stop making some of these common mistakes.
A close friend invited me to join her dog walk. (She asked to remain anonymous —as did my other examples.) On our way out of her house, the dog led the way.
1. Don't let your dog lead the way. Have the dog sit and stay, while you go outside first. It sets the tone for good leadership. Exits and entrances are key to establishing who is in charge.
The rest of the walk was more of the same: the dog led the way. The dog pulled on the leash, the dog chose where and what to do, and the dog pushed her towards every squirrel and pulled on the leash.
Yesterday, on a nearby street, I saw a very cool dog. I was excited—as I always am—to see a friendly and perky animal. The owner was someone I'd seen around the neighborhood. I asked about his dog, and he said it was newly adopted, great dog, but he pulls.
I watched the two of them walk away. Yep, he pulls.
2. Dogs pull. It's an instinct and intrinsically rewarding for them. Let them pull, and they will. The key to making a leash a source of your leadership is to learn to not need it so much.
Begin the walk on a sit-stay. Wait until the dog looks up at you. Then start the walk. Don't let the dog's enthusiasm guide the way. You decide. The dog will be just as enthusiastic if you lead the way, decide when to stop, when to start, etc. In fact, your newly adopted dog doesn't just want a home—she wants a leader so she can relax and let go. If you're not in charge, she has to be. And doesn't this poor animal deserve a break?
Be a leader, and give your dog some time off.
Today, in the Walter Reed parking lot, I saw an old friend, newly married. He was walking two mutts, cute. One ran up to me and sniffed, wagging, loving our encounter. The other backed up, bared his teeth, and snarled. I bent down to be less threatening, but the dog lunged for me and attacked my leg.
My friend lifted his dog into his arms, petted it, and praised the poor thing to calm him down:
"It's okay, it's okay, you're okay..."
3. Don't pet and praise your dog for aggression. Yes, the dog was afraid. Yes, the dog was exhibiting a natural reaction to perceived threat. No, don't pick the dog up and reassure it.
By reassuring an aggressive dog, you reinforce the barking, snarling, and biting from a fear-based aggressive animal. In a year, this dog will be a candidate for Cesar Milan's show. If the dog respected my friend's leadership, he could have relaxed and enjoyed my visit, trusting in the great vibes between my friend and me.
What should he (or you) do instead with a fear-based aggressive animal? Be firm, but gentle, and train the animal to trust you.
A) Limit its freedoms, giving it a little freedom at a time. It will show the dog you are allowing him into your world, not being guided by him into that poor creature's frightening world haunted by the past abuses.
B) Feed it by hand for a while, as long as it takes to build confidence and trust in you.
C) Make the dog stop and sit on walks. Have it follow your guidance and leadership, and praise and give treats for THAT!
D) When the dog does its compulsive barking and snarling, tell it to stop it. Tell it firmly and curtly. The moment it shuts up and looks to you in surprise praise him for not barking or snarling. Offer a quick treat. WHen it returns to snarling at the stranger, tell it firmly and curtly to stop it. When it looks to you in confusion, give it praise and treat. Treat him as fast as possible. The timing of rewarding or disapproving of behavior is critical.
My friend's words: "He is so cuddly and loving at home..." He said this as he held the creature, stroking it gently and reassuring him with calming phrases. The dog was somewhat relieved. But how has it learned to ask for love? It got it by snarling, barking, and attacking my leg. That's no way to ask for love. Ask any happily married person you know.
What's worse? Sometime in the next year or two, they will have a guest to their home, and this dog will bite that guest. They will act surprised and probably offer one of many excuses for the behavior, instead of teaching the dog—starting now—that this is unacceptable.
Don't make excuses for an animal who bites your friends. Don't praise it. Don't pet it for doing that. You aren't being a kind, sensitive person for nurturing a troubled creature with a troubled past. You are reinforcing a dog for the wrong behavior, and it confuses the dog on how it should act to get your love.
Love is good. But there is nothing loving about cuddling a creature who attacks innocent bystanders. Your dog's fear will NOT be lessened by rewarding the aggression.