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Dog Discussions: Who follows who?

Roseann Deluca
Cold Creek Dog Training

(10/2013) In our last article we started to talk about pack leadership or as we call it now "canine" leadership. We discussed in depth the importance of how to feed your dog and how to ignore him properly when needed. Ignoring is a form of communication; think of how you feel when your dog ignores you. Sounds "odd" doesnít it that ignoring is communication!

You have probably heard the expression "donít let your dog go out the door first". Thatís a common thought in dog training and behavior modification. The concept of "going first" is so important in all aspects of life with your dog not just around doorways but all aspect of your relationship with your dog. To understand some of the philosophy of how your dog thinks, think about, who ever gets in the lead controls the outcome of the event. Think about all those times your dog is at the end of the leash and pulls you where he wants to go and you willingly follow him to that bush to sniff or rushing up to see a person. Even in these simple examples, he is leading the way and you are following. The doorway carries huge significance to a dog. A leader will always go first to see whatís out there and protect the pack, send the pack to hunt, or retreat in fear.

The leader sets the tone of what happens on the other side of the door. Think about that time your dog darted out the doorway and ran off to chase that rabbit, you had to follow behind and get him back, the situation was in his control not yours. To manage the door properly, you will open it, look out, see if the coast is clear - then tell your dog "go ahead" or some similar command to release him out of the door. Donít worry about obedience commands at this point just use your body to control him and block the doorway space. In most cases your dog initially will be too excited in going out to obey obedience commands. (Remember the articles on getting and keeping your dogs attention and the importance of the ability to "get" that attention when you need it) The best scenario is to take a moment and even put your dog on a leash at the door if necessary, use some treats to help him relax and just stand there calmly as you open the door. He should be able to stand or sit with the leash relaxed, then release him with a command such as "go ahead" or step out of the door with him. The same goes for coming back inside for those dogs that are just as crazy to get back inside as to go outside. The important thing is for dog to be relaxed and calm. There are many places to implement this. Stairways are a really important place to have control so your dog doesnít knock you down or trip you, either coming up or going down! Being in charge at the vehicle door is important so he doesnít dart out before you get the leash on him.

Another really important aspect of understanding the psychology of your dog is understanding the complex relationship of how your emotions affect each other. We have a saying ... "The attitude goes down the leash". Dogs look to the leader in times of danger or stress and will follow the leaders cue. Donít comfort or baby, pet or sooth when the dog is afraid anxious or unsettled. This will make him be more afraid and promote the exact thing you are trying to avoid. Remember behavior you pay attention to by rewarding even with attention is repeated. If you are confident and nonchalant he will be also be relaxed. As people with a nurturing nature, many times we inadvertently promote the exact thing we are trying to help. I always tell people, any time you want to utter the phrase "it's OK, it's all right" STOP! Donít do it! Think about what you can do to take your dogs mind away from the situation he is in. Replace or ignore the behavior. Play, do some attention work with high value treats, do some obedience, take a brisk walk, anything to get his mind some place else. The dog should worry only when the pack leader worries. This is especially hard for us as humans since we want to nurture and comfort something we love when it is stressed or even for minor injuries. But this sends the wrong signal to the animal.

This thought of "not babying" is especially important to me this time of year as we all re-live the memories of 9/11. We worked there in the first 9 days of the tragedy as urban search and rescue, canine search specialists for FEMA. I am often asked- did my dog get depressed at the WTC? No she didn't. I worked really hard to keep my emotions in check and my head "clear" while I was working the dog. Dogs donít perceive situations like we do, but the DO feed off the emotions of others, especially their owners with whom they have a close relationship. So some dogs did get depressed but not from the situation, but from reading the emotions of their owners. And just like people many dogs are more sensitive to. I worked very hard to keep any emotions in check while we were searching for survivors. Every firefighter my dog found with joy and excitement that was working below the surface was a "find" for her. I will never forget a young firefighter emerging from working way below the surface, so dirty and covered with debris you could only see the "whites of his eyes". My dog was barking and barking at him and he was so excited! He said - "Hey lady !!! your dog found someone !!" he was so excited..... and she did- she found him. The workers were the only live people we found.

The reverse side of the emotional tie is the example of the relationship of a therapy dog and patients (or any person in need). Think about the comfort and calmness a dog brings to the most stressful of situations. Dogs are now being used in many aspects as service dogs to help people with significant anxieties cope with day to day aspects of life. Hopefully we can really appreciate how much our emotions are linked to our dogs emotions and vice versa.

It is a challenge to implement this new thought process of canine understanding in the beginning, but with consistency it will become second nature to you and your family. The hardest part for us as humans is these things are not comfortable human nature but dog nature! You should be able to see some immediate results with some things but like all training itís an ever-evolving process. Its ongoing, understanding of how to live with your dog. Its also important to know that if you give up the "techniques" in canine leadership when the dog has ďreformedĒ; he will slip back into his old ways if you go back to your old ways.

Read other articles by Roseann Deluca