Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Dog Parks & Daycares.

You have to be careful what you put online, so I've battled whether I should post my thoughts on these two popular places where anyone can see it. However the truth is that my feelings on these places can impact a dog's behavior in a lot of ways and so I feel it necessary to let all dog people know about these places and why I don't think anyone should go to them--ever.

It's funny what time and experience will teach you. However I must chalk up a lot of my great knowledge to my mentor trainer, Lee Mannix of The Lee Mannix Center for Canine Behavior located in south Austin (read this front page article on him from the Austin American Statesmen). I still travel there often to get advice, tips and learn what I can. Working with and learning about dogs is a continual process, that's what makes them so fascinating. He taught me so much about dog behavior and what it takes to truly bond with and teach a dog the right way that I can't even thank him enough!

In my early days of dog training (I started in 1999) I was a true green dog, or novice. I could teach a dog a few things and I knew some about the science of dogs after the 4 month internship I had at the Animal Behavior Center of New York in Queens, NY the summer of 1999. However, I look back now and realize how little I did know.

I frequented the dog parks every weekend with my Great Dane. He's a remarkable dog, laid back, gets along with everyone and every dog. He is probably too nice if I think about it. He allows obnoxious puppies to grab his jowls and hang off of him, attempt to jump on his back and sniff is underside like he was a cow with an udder hanging down. He mostly stuck by me at the park and didn't care much about anyone else. I, of course, was one of those who thought I was doing a good job of "socializing" my dog by frequenting the park.

I continued to go to dog parks each month even after getting my second dog, Trevor, my Jack Russell. He too only cared mostly about me and would play ball all day and completely ignore all the other dogs. I liked that he could run off leash in a secure area and play for as long as he wanted. (Now I can do that at any park since I taught him a really good recall!)

After studying with Lee (his specialty is dog aggression, some of which is some nasty stuff!) I learned that dog parks and doggie daycare centers are good places to teach your dog to be dog aggressive and/or pick up really bad habits. . . . among other things. As Lee says, "You should be your dog's best friend, not dogs . . ." Which is true. This doesn't mean you shouldn't have other dogs or have your dogs around other dogs but there is a skill to doing it so that all dogs are doing things right!

First let's talk about socialization . . . you have to know that socialization is over after about 16 weeks of age. If you haven't "socialized" your dog by then you are just catching up after that.

Myth: Socializing a puppy means simply exposing him/her to many different things.
Fact: Exposure to a variety of experiences is important, but simply giving the puppy random and/or uncontrolled experiences may not teach the puppy what you want him to learn.

Myth: I should start socializing my puppy after he reaches 4-6 months old, after he's fully vaccinated.
Fact: Puppies go through their critical socialization period between the ages of 5 and 16 weeks. At about 16 weeks of age, a window closes in the puppy’s brain and many of his ideas about the world are set for life.

Myth: I can stop socializing my puppy after 12 weeks of age since the critical socialization period has ended.
Fact: Although the critical window has closed, puppies will continue to solidify their impressions at least until they are adults (at about 2 years of age) and -- to a certain extent -- throughout their lives.

Tips for Properly Socializing your Puppy
1) Introduce your puppy to as many people as possible, as long as those people are good influences and/or as long as you have influence over your puppy’s experience. For example, you do not want your puppy to learn to chase and nip at children (or become afraid of them), so do not leave him alone with children that will allow or encourage him to practice that behavior.

2) Introduce your puppy to other dogs that are good role models, and monitor your puppy’s interaction with other dogs. Puppies are highly impressionable, and they are very likely to imitate the behavior of the other dogs they meet. Always consider prospective play-mates and ask yourself if you want your puppy to end up behaving like that dog.

3) Introduce your puppy mostly to adult dogs. Leaving two puppies to play with one another and calling it good socialization is like leaving two 3 year olds together and calling it school. Puppies teach each other very little, except for how to behave in a wild and un-controlled manner and how to bully one another. Adults are the role models you want, if they are good dogs and you wish for your dog to pick up their behaviors.

4) Spend more time with your puppy than your puppy spends with other dogs. It’s very easy for puppies to relate to other dogs, of course, since they speak the same ‘language’. Human beings are the foreigners in a puppy’s life. If you want your puppy to develop a strong bond with you (and have training become much easier), you will have to make it clear that you are the friend, playmate, and source of resources, and those other dogs are just occasional visitors in his life.

5) Expose your puppy to a variety of noises, places, and experiences. If your puppy becomes frightened, do not console him! If your puppy is behaving in a frightened manner and you are talking to him, holding him, petting him, etc., he will perceive this as an affirmation that he is supposed to be scared and that he is behaving appropriately. This is how well-intentioned people create neurotic dogs.

6) Do not force your puppy to do something that is scaring him. Simply expose him to the situation, and do not make a big deal out of it. Examples: If your puppy is scared of having his nails trimmed, do not trim his nails for awhile. Instead, put match sticks beneath his feet and trim those instead. Give him a treat each time a match stick is trimmed. If your puppy is scared to swim, do not force him…simply go swimming yourself, or let him watch other dogs swimming. He is very likely to follow.

7) Try to expose your puppy to positive things, however, puppies will possibly act afraid of unknown, new things. Just allow the puppy to explore as long as it is safe without talking to the puppy or telling him it’s ‘okay’. If your puppy is frightened of something that is not harmful to him, expose him to that thing multiple times, until he is no longer frightened. Try to make each exposure as pleasant or as uneventful as possible. (Example: If your puppy is scared of a loud noise, expose him to that noise multiple times. Do not respond when he reacts; just go on as if nothing had happened. Remember, for dogs your reaction is often reinforcement.)

8) Take it slow. Don’t wait until your puppy is 5 months old but don’t dunk your puppy in things too much in the beginning. It is safe to take your puppy to as many places as possible for no more than 20-30 minutes at a time. Anything longer for a puppy under 4 months of age is very exhausting and could cause the puppy stress and then the whole situation will backfire. We usually recommend 3-4 times a week at 20 minutes each outing until the puppy is around 5 months and then you can increase it to 5 times a week for 30-45 minutes. After 6-7 months of age you can be the judge of your dog’s exposure, still maintaining that the experiences are positive and not over-exhausting. (Example: A 2-hour soccer game may be a great place to expose your puppy to kids but it can be overwhelming, work up to the soccer game!)

So what if my dog isn't a puppy any longer? Well then you need to start training and all other dogs are off limits! If you have a dog that is reactive to other dogs or has gotten into a scuffle of any caliber with another dog you have to stop letting your dog get around other dogs, period. This is where most of my clients have the difficulty. They can't do it or won't because it's difficult or they just don't understand why not.

Here is why: your dog doens't know how to act around other dogs so until you can work through that then you have to keep your dog away from other dogs and eliminate the possibility of your dog doing something it shouldn't or hurting another dog! Training has to start and keep going. If your dog only scuffles with a few other dogs and it's not all the time you still have to stop allowing your dog to be around other dogs. It's not logical. It's only setting your dog up to fail and causing your dog to become very good at being a punk (or really aggressive) toward other dogs.

Daycares are too many dogs in too tight of quarters where no one is proficient in body language or behavior so that they can run a daycare the way it should be run. A good daycare would have about 5 different play areas and only allow about 5 dogs tops in each area at a time, depending on the sizes and tempraments of the dogs. We have domesticated animals, they don't roam in packs. We don't own wolves. They don't need to be around a pack of dogs, it usually causes fights and tension.

Now that I know what I know I get deeply saddened when I walk by the horrid window at Petsmart and look at those dogs in there. You can pick out about 3 dogs that look like if they could talk they would say, "Gosh why am I here? I just want to be home!" The other dogs are bullying the other dogs around, rough-housing and prepping for aggression later. I can peg a dog that will most likely be aggressive in a matter of months if it hasn't shown some signs already. its' quite sad.

The worst part is that people don't want to listen. They think their dog has to "play" with other dogs. They think that their dog would rather be in daycare than at home all day. What you don't realize is that people assume that dogs want a companion, need a companion, want to be around other dogs, need to be around other dogs. This is not so. I can assure you that if my Jack Russell never saw another dog again and I was the only being in his life he'd be happy, happy, happy.

So what about those with dogs that do like other dogs? The dog owners with dogs that get along with everyone and play often with other dogs without any issues? Well can you put your dog in a group of other dogs and call him to you and he comes to you without yelling, "Fluffy! Treat! Fluffy! Come here, want to get in the car? . . . " If your dog can come to you in a crowd of other dogs then great you may just have some good dog buddies for your dog. But does your dog like you or dogs better? If your dog likes dogs better then your relationship and training isn't where it should be. Or if you're ok with that and have no issues with your dog then fine. But remember that when you are trying to call your dog in distractions or if your dog tugs at the leash to go "say hi" to another dog or won't do anything when around other dogs.

Also it only takes one incident to cause major damage to your dog. If your dog has anything happen to him in the park or daycare caused by another dog you could be looking at months of training to get your dog past it. Often dogs that get humped will panic and can view other dogs from then on as bad and react aggressively toward them. If one dog nips your dog in the face then you could have a dog that reacts if a dog gets too close. It only takes one incident.

Take my Border/Aussie, Noah. I had him at a class of mine when he was around 2 years old (he's now almost 5) and I tied him to a park bench while I showed the class some things. This was incredibly stupid of me. A lady walking by (not in our class) had her dog on a Flexi leash (I won't get started on those!) and for whatever reason the dog walked right up to Noah and snapped at his face. Noah has ever since become quite nasty if a dog is in his face or too close. He is easily put on gaurd and often what I call paranoid. If he "thinks" a dog is going to harm him he will immediately act aggressivly toward him. The dog may not be doing anything but posturing in a way that Noah perceives as threatening. He's having flashbacks, and so he reacts.

So does this mean one can't have more than one dog? Absolutely not. I have four dogs. None of them have ever even scuffled once. They all get along fine. They hang out without wrestling (never ever do they do this) or any rough play . . . which by the way is not healthy dog play. People see dogs rough house, use their mouths with each other in what seems to be play but it's sparring and one wrong step and your dog could easily become aggressive to other dogs.

It is imperative that you build a relationship with each of your dogs before allowing them to choose dogs over you. So much can go wrong if you don't.

Dog parks and dog daycare centers are places where dogs learn bad habits, sometimes horrible habits and also learn that dogs are more fun than humans. Humans use these places to satisfy their own needs, not their dog's. Your dog would love if you played with your dog once a week for 20 minutes at the park instead of tossing him to a group of unruly, drooly, humping dogs!

Join a fun class like agility or flyball and get heavily involved in your dog's training. There is so much you can do with your dog that builds your relationship that it's not a good excuse to go to a dog park or send your dog to daycare!

1 comment:

  1. Stacy, I learned something new! My two new dogs (littermates) play all the time and get pretty rough; I let them. I didn't realize this could potentially be a bad thing. although I do need to point out that they do this with each other only. They do not play that way with my other older dog Jiminy. they play with him but in a completely different way - he's laid down the law with them and they respect it.
    Interesting read! Thanks!