Gail Carruthers

Nancy and Lenny Koffman

Allowing our dogs to communicate appropriately

I was teaching a private lesson the other day and listening to my client talk about her experience with group classes at a very popular ‘positive only’ training facility.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe training our dogs with positive reinforcement and learning what motivates them is the way to go but there are, in my opinion limits on its effectiveness.  I also heard from her that in this training environment, dogs are not allowed to express themselves to communicate their feelings, unless of course they were only positive expressions.  We do not have the ability to explain and reason with our dogs.  Our forms of communication are different.  In the case of my client, it was time for some free play with the other dogs in the class.  My client has a small dog (under 20 lbs) and is a soft dog.  It has no aggression issues at all but it is wary of large dogs.  During play time this small dog was uncomfortable with the way another dog was coming into her space.  She raised a lip and maybe even gave a slight growl.  The owner was then informed her dog wasn’t suitable for off leash play and made to leash her dog.  What???  I totally disagree with this.  We need to allow our dogs to communicate to each other.  Dogs need to learn these signals from each other and we need to help them.  If the other dog did not read this message, the other dog’s owner or the trainer should have helped that dog learn the message.
If we suppress simple growling or lifting of a lip or something we deem inappropriate, what means do dogs have?  I’ll tell you, if we don’t allow our dogs to give warning signs of discomfort what they will resort to is going straight to a bite without the warning.  Not something we want and not something we should encourage.  Not everything in life is positive and we all need to learn to balance the positive with the negative, including dogs.  Let’s not suppress that ability.
The other thing dogs need to learn to deal with is pressure.  The world is full of pressure and we have to remember introducing dogs to appropriate levels of pressure is a good thing.  Avoiding uncomfortable situations is not always possible.  Sometimes we need leash pressure to help dogs.  Sometimes we need to teach spacial pressure to give appropriate boundaries.  We do this so that so dogs are comfortable in different settings.  Dogs learn very well with positive reinforcement.  We want to teach dogs behaviours utilizing positive reinforcement for sure, but what do we do when they don’t do what is asked of them, when they blow us off.  What do we do when the alternate behaviour we taught them, ie. sit instead of jump up to get that reward doesn’t work.  We have to offer a consequence to that behaviour to get that change.  The consequence has to be meaningful because sometimes the reward of blowing off a command is greater than the consequence.  Sometimes we just need to end a behaviour…sometimes it’s for the dogs safety and sometimes it is for our sanity.  Some dogs love to dig.  If they are engaged in a behaviour that they love they likely aren’t going to be very tuned in to you to listen.  If removing them from the situation repeatedly doesn’t work and each time they go back outside they go back to digging up your garden what are you to do?  Being realistic you aren’t going to leash up your dog and go out with them every time you go out into your fenced yard.  Besides, that is not fun for the dog either.  They need a meaningful consequence.   Just like some of us.  We won’t change behaviours even if we know they are wrong unless there is a consequence.  If we are in our cars and we speed, we know it is wrong but it gets us where we want to go faster.  If we are stopped and only ever got warnings we would not have an incentive to change our behaviour because there is no meaningful consequence.  If we got a hefty fine or two we’d likely slow down.
In summary, let’s let our dogs communicate appropriately, both positively and negatively and let’s teach them what we want from them clearly and concisely.  They will appreciate the clarity.

Scaredy Dog: Spotting & Treating Separation Anxiety

Do you know a dog who when home alone, exhibits any of these behaviours:

  • Barks, whines or howls?
  • Pees or defecates, despite being house-trained?
  • Scratches at doors or windows, or tries to dig under fences or gates?
  • Salivates excessively?
  • Voraciously chews furniture, door frames and other objects?

If so, and especially if this behaviour starts soon after the owner leaves, then the dog might suffer from separation anxiety.

You can also see signs of separation anxiety when the owner is home. A suffering dog may:

  • Follow her owner from room to room;
  • Greet in a way that seems frantic or overly effusive;
  • Act anxious, excited or depressed as her owner prepares to leave the house.
  • One or more of these traits suggests that the dog suffers from separation anxiety.

This type of behaviour can be upsetting for dog owners. Not only could their homes get trashed, but there’s the constant worry they feel at their pets’ distress.

Learned Behaviour Vs. True Separation Anxiety

Before continuing, I should point out that a dog exhibiting such symptoms may not be suffering from true separation anxiety. That’s right; although it may appear like anxiety, it’s actually just bad behaviour that’s been learned.

By this, I mean a dog has been conditioned to act out, hoping for attention or reward. The pet has learned that by behaving in this way, she can get a reaction of some kind from her owner.

How to judge if it’s really just bad behaviour? Ask yourself if your dog may just be bored while you’re gone. Are they getting enough exercise, do they have the opportunity to socialize with other people and dogs. Do you have a really high energy breed that needs to release all that energy? Perhaps it would be a good idea to enroll in a class like fly-ball or agility. A tired dog is a lot less likely to display undesirable behaviour.

So in cases such as this, a dog isn’t suffering anxiety. Rather, she’s misbehaving, and so needs proper discipline and training to “unlearn” the bad behaviour.

So Why Does a Dog Feel Separation Anxiety?

To be clear, a dog exhibiting signs of anxiety isn’t trying to punish his owner for leaving him alone. It’s really a form of panic–sometimes mild, sometimes more severe. His anxiety is his response to feeling insecure, uncertain or unsafe. So a dog that’s truly anxious, rather than only misbehaving, is under stress of some kind.

One or more factors could lie at the root of his stress. A few of the more commons reasons:

  • Being left alone for the first time;
  • A traumatic experience;
  • A change in routine or structure;
  • Loss of family member or other pet.
  • Diet
  • A genetic predisposition

Of course not every dog who has experienced one of these situations will become anxious. Just like people, dogs react and are affected differently depending upon their personalities and upbringing.

What Won’t Solve Your Dog’s Anxiety

Another dog: A new companion likely won’t help either. Separation from you, rather than being alone, is usually what triggers her anxiety.

Punishment: Punishing your dog won’t help and could make things worse. Remember her behaviour isn’t done to get back at you for being left alone; it’s an uncontrollable response to fear or uncertainty.

Radio/TV noise: Leaving the radio or television on won’t help.

Obedience training: Formal training is important for many reasons, but not as a solution to separation anxiety. As noted above, disobedience or lack of training doesn’t cause true separation anxiety. (Although a dog that has learned to trust your leadership will also have learned to lie down and stay which can be calming for them)

Comfort and affection: Although this may work for humans and make you feel better, it reinforces the belief in your dog there is something to be worried about.

Ways to Treat Minor Separation Anxiety

  • Leave something that smells like you, such as an article of clothing, for your dog.
  • Establish a safety cue—a word or action that you use every time you leave that tells your dog you’ll be back.
  • When you come home or leave the house, don’t make a big deal of it. So for example, try ignoring your dog after arriving home. After waiting a few minutes, calmly pet her.
  • If you are like me and would prefer not to use drugs, try a more holistic approach and try a change of diet, the use of lavender collars, thunder shirts or other natural calming remedies.

Dealing With More Severe Anxiety

  • Use the sit-stay and down-stay commands, providing positive reinforcement, to help him learn to remain calm in one place while you’re in another room.
  • To limit the destruction your dog can cause, establish a safe place in your home. Ideally, the room will have a window, toys to play with and other distractions to keep Fido occupied. Believe it or not, the smell of dirty laundry can be calming, so consider leaving the hamper in the room as well!
  • Some dogs like the safety and security of being in a crate. While you are away, they can relax and feel they don’t have to “take care” of the house. They aren’t left to pace, bark at everything passing by outside or be destructive. However, some dogs with severe anxiety can hurt themselves trying to get out of their crate. If this is the case, a crate is not recommended.
  • Take your dog to a doggie day care facility when you have to be away.
  • Ask your veterinarian about anti-anxiety drugs. The right medication shouldn’t sedate your dog, just reduce overall anxiety. This consideration should be last on your list in my opinion.

Treating separation anxiety takes patience. Stick with it! If you are starting out with a new puppy, you may be able to avoid dealing with separation anxiety by exhibiting strong leadership and instilling a sense of confidence in your dog by treating him how he likes to be treated….as a dog!

If your dog suffers from anxiety, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us should you need advice or support.

How to Give Puppy a Head Start

Do you have a new puppy, or are you thinking of bringing one home? Do you know someone who recently welcomed a new pet to the family?

The first six months of any puppy’s life are critical. At this early age, every impression, positive and negative, will influence the kind of dog your little one will become.

So it’s important that you give your puppy as many positive impressions as possible while limiting negative ones.

This doesn’t mean sheltering your pet from every challenge, and it certainly doesn’t mean neglecting to be firm and fair when needed. But to give puppy a head start, you need to continually provide her with new experiences that prepare her for the rest of her life.

Welcome Home, Fido!

You’ve just brought that furry little bundle of joy home for the first time. It’s very exciting, but also a stressful time for you. It’s even more so for puppy.

Your job is to make him feel as welcome as possible. What can you do?

  • Introduce puppy to her outdoor space, including the place where she’ll learn to relieve herself.
  • Set up the crate in a high traffic area. Being around people, he’ll feel safe and secure, making him easier to train.
  • Establish boundaries as early as possible. For example, if you won’t want her on the couch as an adult, don’t allow her on the couch as a puppy.
  • If you have kids at home, get them as involved as much as possible with their new family member and teach them to properly interact with your puppy.
  • You want to provide your puppy with a well balanced diet.  Nutrition plays a big role in their health and behaviour.  Consult a knowledgeable person in your favourite pet store.  You may also want to check this website:

Don’t Raise a Wallflower

Your puppy needs a social life! So introduce her to as many new friends as possible–both four-legged and two-legged.

By interacting with different dogs, your new pet will learn to be comfortable with any breed, size or age. And by meeting people of different ages, appearance, and ethnic backgrounds, she’ll be less likely to make strange.  And by meeting them I don’t mean physical interactions.

So how can you increase your puppy’s circle of friends?

  • Go for walks when foot traffic in your neighbourhood is at its busiest. This way, you’re more likely to encounter different people and pets.  This does not mean that you should allow your pup to meet and interact with all the people and pets.  Definitely do not allow them to pull you to meet them.  Start early to advocate for your dog by strictly controlling interactions you allow.
  • Consider joining a play group where you and your pet can drop by to meet other dogs and their owners.  Supervised play is the best.  Perhaps a well run dog daycare is your best bet.
  • Also consider puppy classes. These are a great way to meet other dogs and learn more about what to expect with your puppy . A good start time would be anywhere from 8 – 16 weeks.

Meet the Vet

Hopefully, your new puppy won’t be spending much time at the vet, but of course you’ll be taking him there for an initial checkup a day or two after bringing him home. Find a vet that shares your philosophy on raising a healthy dog, and one you’re comfortable with.

Meeting the vet should be a positive experience, so a thorough check up with lots of touching and petting is a great way to start what could be a lifelong relationship.

Two Key Ingredients for Raising the Best Puppy Around

Above all, there are two things you can provide to give your puppy a step up: patience and consistency.

Remember, like a toddler, your puppy is experiencing many new things for the first time. All this can be overwhelming and confusing.

So be patient. Recognize that he needs to explore, learn and make mistakes. And be consistent. You’re the leader, so it’s your responsibility to ensure puppy learns. Repetition and routine will help your pet gain confidence, feel comfortable, understand, and thrive.  Restrict freedom in the house to when you can closely monitor puppy’s movements.  This sets him up for success rather than failure.

Other Things to Help Puppy

  • Take him for car rides.
  • Crate train
  • Structure, routine and boundaries
  • Interact with other kinds of animals.
  • Play appropriate games for his age.
  • Choose the best food you can afford (read the labels).
  • Watch for signs of needing to go out to relieve himself (sniffing the floor and/or turning in circles) and bring him out, accidents shouldn’t be punished.
  • Learning new things should always be a positive experience.