By: Peta Gay Railton
Dogs can be such gorgeous companions—lovely to come home to, fun to play with and a good reason to take a walk every day. As long as they are well-adjusted, relaxed and well-behaved, dogs are an absolute joy to have around. We might focus our attention on good dog behaviour, but it is the behaviour of their owners that is the real key.
Training dogs is absolutely not just a matter of rewarding good behaviour with treats. That could just as easily result in dog behaviour that is quite obnoxious—like the one that leapt onto my desk and devastated my keyboard recently. This dog could do flips, but he could not behave himself in a way that made him good to have around. He hadn’t been trained, he had been taught to do tricks.
Signs of anxiety in dog behaviour
Highly anxious dogs pant, lick their lips constantly and often yawn a lot, so if yours is doing all of that, it would be wise to seek professional help.
It is not necessary for a dog to be anxious as long as people start reinforcing good dog behaviour when the puppy is little. It is very much a case of the earlier the better, because it is much harder to train out annoying behaviour in a mature dog.
Yes, puppies are cute, but you still need to start as you mean to go on with them. If you pat your puppy and fuss over it every time it jumps up on you, and then strangers do the same thing, you will be reinforcing the idea that jumping up on you is okay. Understandably, the dog thinks it’s fun.
Next thing you have a grown-up dog with dirty paws jumping up on your white pants when you’re ready to go out. You’re not happy—but guess who trained it to do that?
How dogs learn to behave
Dogs learn by the kinds of responses they receive. If the response is good, they will repeat the behaviour. If it isn’t, or there is simply no response, there’s no point.
Many of the dogs I used to euthanise had become obnoxious as a result of people not taking enough care when they were raising them. Fortunately, rather than being euthanised, dogs are now re-homed from the pounds and there are a number of excellent re-homing agencies that do that.
The first thing I do as soon as I get a puppy home is teach it to sit. I don’t ask it to sit. I wait for it to sit, and reward it really quickly as soon as it sits down. Very soon, this puppy will be sitting for me every five seconds. Every time it does that, I reward it with some delicious roast chicken. While it may have the urge to jump up onto my lap, it learns that the reward in the form of a treat and a pat comes every time it sits. It does not get the reward when it does not keep its distance.
Can you teach an old dog?
Of course, the older they are, the harder it is to change a dog’s behaviour. A bit like humans. But it is not impossible. Obnoxious behaviour can certainly be corrected, but it takes a lot of patience and you need to know what you’re doing. Anxious behaviour is a lot harder to change when a dog is older.
For that reason, if someone is thinking of getting a dog, I recommend getting a puppy. A dog that someone else has discarded will be anxious and difficult. But a new puppy will grow up to be perfect.