Is Your Dog Ready for Santa Photos?

The silly season is upon us and, if you are anything like us, you will be seeing all those cute Christmas costumes for dogs in the shops and wondering what your significant other would say if you bought them. But have you stopped to wonder what your dog (or cat) thinks?

DSC_0995
Wilbur says “I’d better get paid for this!” – Photo by Irresistible Desires

With Christmas just around the corner, we are bracing for the onslaught of “cute” and “funny” photos and videos on social media, showing humans laughing and having fun, while their pets try to cope with the hats, antlers, outfits, and strangers dressed in Santa costumes that are making them feel uncomfortable. Most people aren’t stressing their pets out on purpose, they just haven’t learned to notice the stress signals their dog uses to express discomfort. These stress signals can include repeated lip licking, yawning, panting, freezing/standing stiff/refusing to move, leaning away/avoidance, low ears or tail, and looking away.

It would be too easy for us to say “just don’t dress your pet up”, and where’s the fun in that? If you are inclined to get into the holiday spirit with your pet, why not spend a few minutes doing some training so they can enjoy the festive photo shoot too?

For hats and antlers, you can encourage your dog to put his head through the band for a treat. He should be free to move out of the head piece after he takes the treat. Practice a few times in a row, and you should notice that your dog is choosing to put his head through the band before you even ask, because he knows it will pay off! You can build duration (so you can get your photo) by feeding a few treats in a row while he is wearing the head piece, gradually increasing the time between treats. If he tries to swat the hat off, you’ve left it on too long! Try increasing the rate you are delivering treats at.

 

Costumes/t-shirts can feel more restrictive, and many dogs are uncomfortable wearing them. If your dog freezes and looks unhappy (refer to list of stress signals above), don’t persist with putting the costume on! If your dog is more relaxed about wearing clothes, then encourage him to put his head through the neck hole using a couple of treats, and then ask him to offer his paw (“shake”, if he knows that trick) so you can finish with the leg holes. Offer him plenty of treats while he’s dressed up, and don’t leave him dressed for long (unless the temperature outside/inside is cool, and he enjoys wearing coats/jackets/t-shirts).

Santa photos can be the biggest challenge of all for some dogs – what could be scarier than a stranger wearing bizarre clothes and grossly invading your personal space?! If you take your dog to a “Santa Paws” event, watch him carefully for signs of stress, and don’t persist if he is unhappy. Take treats, so you can reward your dog for approaching Santa, sitting still for the camera, and settling in line while waiting their turn. If possible, opt to hold your dog on your own lap while sitting next to Santa, or have your dog sit on the ground (or seat if they are comfortable to do so) in front of, or beside, Santa rather than on his lap. You could even ask Santa to give your dog a couple of his favourite treats!

DSC_8908
Wilbur rocking the Christmas spirit in a low-stress way! – Photos by Irresistible Desires

If your dog sees you with the costumes and races the other way, don’t despair – there are some other ideas for getting great Christmas photos without worrying your furry friend! You can ask him to sit or lie down with some Christmas lights in the background, or decorations scattered around, or you could opt for a simple (but adorable) Christmas bow tie or bandanna attached to their collar. There is also the magic of Photoshop, where you are only limited by your imagination (and skill with the software).

Don’t have fun at the expense of your dog (or cat) this Christmas! If you think reindeer costumes are adorable, then take the time to train your dog to LOVE getting dressed up too. A cute photo is not worth stressing your dog out.

 

Advertisements

Your Dog’s Fear Is No Joke

There is no denying that sometimes our canine companions appear to be afraid of some rather strange things. Many things that cause our dogs to startle, flee, or growl can seem trivial to us, such as images or videos of other dogs, their reflection in a mirror, statues, balloons, kites, costumes, etc. For some dogs any novel item, particularly one that moves or makes noise, can be scary. It is easy to laugh when our dog jumps or growls at something silly, but is that the most helpful thing we can do to calm our friend?

Many of us spend so much time with our dogs that we think of them as part of the family. We talk to them, play with them, and care for them. It’s no wonder we sometimes expect them to understand the same things we do! But, by laughing at your dog’s fearful behaviour, putting them in a situation you know will startle them, or trying to take them up to their “bogeyman” to show them it’s ok, we are failing to acknowledge what is really going on. Your dog is scared. He doesn’t know that the object or situation isn’t dangerous, and he certainly isn’t “in on the joke” if you have set him up.

Rather than laughing and forcing your dog to approach or stay close to something he is scared of, allow him to move away to a distance he feels safe. For some dogs being able to review the situation from a distance will be enough to discover that the object that startled them isn’t scary at all. Other dogs might require some help.

giantsnail
Giving Wilbur distance allowed him to watch the giant motorised snail and decide it was safe

When Wilbur was approximately 6 months old he began to startle and growl at statues. This included garden gnomes, animal-shaped garden ornaments, and artistic sculptures in public places. Are statues safe? Yes! Of course they are! Are they scary? To Wilbur they were. Rather than drag him up to a statue that he was trying to move away from, we started to play a game. I’ve seen this game called “look at that” or “touch the goblin”, and it simply involves rewarding your dog each time they look at or approach something they find spooky. We played this game with the scary sea turtle statue at The Strand (Townsville). After we had retreated to a distance where Wilbur was no longer growling at the statue, i began to mark (“yes”) and reward (with pieces of chicken) each time Wilbur glanced at the statue to make sure it hadn’t moved. Pretty quickly he clicked onto the fact that looking at the statue was making good things happen, and he started to take longer peeks, and then took one step, two steps, etc until he was walking all around the statue and sniffing it all over. By turning the situation into a game, Wilbur conquered his initial fear within a minute or so.

statue2
After a game of “touch the goblin” Wilbur was happy to investigate and sit beside the sea turtle statue

Why didn’t i just take him up to the statue to show him it was safe? It’s simple, fear doesn’t work that way! I know plenty of people who are scared of snakes. On the other hand i love them. If i was to plonk a snake on one of my snake-phobic friends they would freak out, regardless of if i was telling them “it’s ok, he won’t bite”. Chances are they would lose all trust in me and be forever suspicious that i might put them in another scary situation! That’s not what we want for our dogs. We want to be the giver of all good things, the person they can look to when they are unsure, and the person who will help them feel safe.

A quick look on social media shows us that many dog owners fail to consider their dogs when posting and viewing “funny” videos. Before you hit “like” or upload the video of your dog jumping in fright at a dancing teddy bear, stop and consider how that experience was for the dog. Dogs don’t act! If they are behaving like they are scared then they are scared. They may recover quickly from being startled, or their fear may be prolonged, but either way that is not the role we should aim to have in our dog’s life.

statue1
Thanks to force-free training methods, Wilbur is no longer worried about statues we find on walks

Next time something spooks your dog, put down the camera and find ways to help your dog feel more confident. If they are fearful of a range of different things in a number of situations, or if their fear is persistent or severe, then you may need some help from a trainer or vet behaviourist to assist you and your dog on the way to a fear-free life.

When to seek help with a training problem?

I’m sure most trainers will agree with me in saying that it is easier to prevent a problem that treat one. With pets this would mean setting the animals in our homes up for success in a human environment, teaching them the behaviours they will need to live happily with us. Sadly we often expect that our pets will just know what we want, and we wait for them to make a mistake before getting worried.

So what about a pet that is already displaying annoying or unwanted behaviours? When is it enough of a problem to seek the help of a trainer or veterinarian? In my work as a vet nurse I often hear people joking, commenting, or even complaining about the latest string of bad behaviour their pet is displaying. It’s often something minor, like the dog barking at guests, and they’re not asking for advice or a solution – they’re just sharing.

anxiety dog trainer

Minor problems, either left untreated or approached in the wrong way, often become major problems over time. That dog that used to just bark at guests? If his owners had of considered that the dog was wary or anxious they could have sought help to change his feelings with people visiting from wary to positive. Instead they scolded him for barking and tried to bring him over to meet new people and get used to them. His anxiety increases, and he starts growling and snapping instead.

It is always easier to address a training or behaviour problem sooner rather than later, and i’m not talking about easier for the trainer or veterinarian you’ve hired to help! You will ultimately be the one following the training program and putting in the time to resolve the problem. Minor problems are usually less challenging for the animals to overcome as well. It’s just all-round easier!

Practice makes perfect – if you notice your pet doing something you’re not entirely happy with, then don’t let him practice it! Look for a force-free training solution, and if you’re not sure how to start then seek help from a professional.

Why “shut down” is different to well-trained

With the reign of popular dominance/punishment-based trainers on television and in book stores, force-free trainers are faced with the challenge of educating people on the differences between having a “shut down” pet and a well-trained one.

When you use punishment-based methods in animal training, what you are essentially doing is suppressing behaviour. You are saying “no, don’t do that…not that either…or that”. The result for many pets trained this way is that they simply “shut down” and stop offering behaviour. These pets lose interest in their surroundings. If they don’t interact with their world, then they won’t get punished. They withdraw into themselves.

Dog TrainingUnfortunately, many people, in the absence of the problem behaviours, see their pet as “cured”. Does it matter that their pet is now a shadow of its former self if they are no longer having to put up with annoying problem behaviours?

For anyone who has experienced the delight of training with positive reinforcement the answer is obvious, of course it matters! Our pets, whether they are dogs, cats, birds, or any other species, rely on us – we influence their whole world. When they eat, play, exercise, and rest are all largely controlled by our decisions. We should be committed to enriching their lives in our care, which means providing them with plenty of opportunities to behave and act on their environment in a meaningful way. We can do this through positive reinforcement.

Rather than punish our pets for behaving in ways that annoy us, we can take a moment to plan and set their environment up to encourage good behaviours. We can purposefully train them to do behaviours we like, and motivate them with things they like so that they actually want to listen when we ask. And we can provide them with physical and mental stimulation so that when our lives call us away (to work, or social activities) our pets can rest happily in our absence. This is a well-trained pet!

Positive dog trainingIt’s time that we pet owners take a modern, force-free approach to pet training and ownership. If our pets are misbehaving we should see it as a training problem, not a pet problem. Training is our responsibility, and we should approach it with our pets welfare as the number one priority!