This blog was originally posted to the now defunct Dog Dish Blog for Dog Utopia in April 2019
I dismissed my own dog from daycare today.
The puppy I am raising is a seven month old Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. He is smart, funny, vibrant and sweet. He is also intense, sensitive and very high drive.
His name is Biscuit and he has been living with me since he was nine weeks old. His first day of daycare was less than 24 hours after I brought him home. I have spent large amounts of time and energy teaching him to settle around other dogs, structuring mental stimulation and nap times and ensuring he gets a wide variety of activities. I limited his daycare days to maximum three days a week and took him for walks before he came to work with me. And for many months he did very well.
But he has still started to struggle. At seven months, he is hormonal and high strung. Puppies may act brash and bold, but their egos are still fragile.
One thing clients hear from us frequently is the term “arousal level”. What this refers to the physiological and psychological reactivity to stimuli. High arousal levels are where a dog is unable to contain themselves in response to stimuli. This can be seen in the puppy frantically jumping up on visitors, or the dog shrieking on the end of the leash at the sight of a squirrel.
As the daycare manager and as his full time guardian, I saw signs that Biscuit’s arousal levels were too high. He had a hard time taking a break from play. Even when he was alone, he paced, or tried to push through barriers to access me or the other dogs. He did not sleep.
We frequently have to speak to owners about their dog’s arousal levels, or their stress levels. Sometimes this means that their dog is not suited for daycare, either temporarily or permanently. Sometimes what we need is a better management and training program. Maybe the dog requires mental health care from a veterinarian.
Sometimes the dog simply does not thrive at daycare and the likelihood of this changing is slim.
Our goal is always for the dog to thrive at daycare. Not just cope. Not be kinda okay with it.
Right now, Biscuit is not thriving at daycare.
We do not want our dogs to practice hyper arousal. We get good at what we practice. The more the physiological and psychological state is experienced, the stronger those neural pathways become. It is important to avoid having our dogs practice emotional states that we do not want them to have.
Right now, I am not able to manage Biscuit’s arousal level in daycare in a way that sets him up for future success.
So I’m in the same boat as many of our clients over the years. The dog I’m caring for isn’t suitable for daycare right now.
So what does that mean?
Well for me, it means I can’t take him to work with me. Which is kind of crummy, but hopefully in acting now I’ve prevented this being a permanent situation.
It means I’ll now get up an hour earlier so he can have more mental and physical stimulation before I go to work.
It means I have to commit to continuing to build his skills so he can become better settling around other dogs and disengaging from exciting things.
What it does not mean is that he is a bad dog, or that I am a bad guardian.
It doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a hard decision to make.
Now it is inconvenient to not bring him to work with me, just like it can be inconvenient from our clients.
But as his guardian, it is my job to do what is best for him. Right now that just means no daycare.
I don’t do well in clubs, at loud parties or in busy malls at Christmas time. If I was a dog, I would not be a daycare dog. So I empathize with the dogs who age out of daycare or who find their assessment too overwhelming or scary. I empathize with Biscuit, who is just not able to pull himself away from his friends, even though he is overwhelmed and tired.
Daycare can be an amazing tool for busy people and their dogs. It can help build independence for dogs with specific mental health needs, help dogs exercise their social skills in a safe environment and provide vital mental enrichment and social connection.
It can also create and exacerbate behavioural problems.
I chose to dismiss Biscuit from daycare because I love him.
We choose to not accept a dog to daycare, or to recommend they stop coming, because we love them too. Some daycares operate as warehouses for dogs, we choose not to.
If your dog isn’t a daycare dog, for right now or for always, please don’t feel bad.
Look into a force free dog walker, work your dog’s needs into your own exercise regime or start taking more classes or doing more activities with your dog. Take this opportunity to spend more time together and learn new skills with them.
Maybe Biscuit will be able to return to daycare in the future. Maybe he won’t. Either answer is okay.
We all want a happy, confident dog. Whether your dog is a patio buddy, a 6am soccer practice companion or your avid adventure copilot, you need them to feel safe and self assured.These five points are the key to build your dog's confidence.
Contact us today!
Why is loose leash walking so ridiculously annoying?
I don’t know about you but I hate being dragged along by a dog. Hate it.
And loose leash walking should be really simple, right? Just walk on a loose leash! Easy!
But nope, it’s a tricky behaviour. Unlike “sit” and “come”, it seems there are endless pitfalls to loose leash walking, and even otherwise well trained dogs frequently pull like freight trains.
Training a dog to walk on a loose leash is, like most things with dogs, a matter of rewarding what we do want and making what we don’t want ineffective. Except with loose leash walking we’re contending with two mitigating issues: accidentally rewarding the thing we don’t want, and competing with the excitement of the environment.
If our dog is too excited or too worried to engage with you, play with you or take food then your dog can’t learn how to walk on a loose leash at that moment, in that environment. I know it sucks, but that's just unfortunately just the way brains work.
Also unfortunate is the fact that equipment can’t train our dog for us. Any variety of training collar, harness, halter, whatever doo-hicky is currently on the market, they will not train your dog.
Some tools, like hands free leashes and well designed harnesses, can help facilitate more consistent feedback for the dog and make training easier, but they do not actually change behaviour by themselves.
Training your dog to walk on a loose leash is a practice. And it doesn’t have to be horribly boring or combative. It works best when we take a holistic approach, teaching calm behaviour around distractions, stimulus control around doors and gates, and making sure the dog is getting enough balanced exercise. A dog who can’t control her emotions around exciting things like dogs or bikes cannot walk on a loose leash, just like a dog who desperately needs to run and stretch his legs.
I don’t say this to discourage you.
Once we understand loose leash walking as the complex behaviour it is, we can prevent all that annoyingly messy training. Frustration (both from the person and from the dog) is the enemy of good training. Understanding and clarity are the enemy of frustration.
So if you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall, take a breath.
Ask yourself what is working, and what is not.
Take heart in the fact that this behaviour is HARD. Everyone has to work at it.
As always, proactively reward what you like.
Prevent what you don’t like from being rewarded.
And don’t try to push through frustration!
If you’re struggling with loose leash walking, don’t hesitate to reach out!
Help is here if you need it.
Let me tell you a story
When I was a kid, we did Dog Stuff a LOT.
I did junior handling, our dogs were working therapy dogs, we raised puppies, travelled to visit breeders and handlers and I basically just absorbed as much as I could.
And I was so sure I didn’t want to work with dogs.
As much as I loved them, I had seen too much of the underbelly of the pet industry, and I wanted no part of it.
I realize now what I saw was burnout.
Dogs being treated as objects, trotted from grooming table to ring, from ring to kennel, from kennel to van. Their autonomy disregarded.
I saw incredible violence, and the shocking desensitization of many pet professionals to the harm being done to dogs all around them.
I saw poverty as well. Techs, groomers, rescue workers working for criminally low wages, despite their expertise and skill.
I struggled to imagine being able to live my life steeped in dogs without succumbing to burnout, making poverty wages or becoming numb to the welfare of my pets. As a child abuse survivor, I wasn’t going to put myself in a position to be a perpetrator.
So I left. I stopped training. I moved away (and impulse bought a cat) (not recommended)
I thought I’d had a pet dog, maybe train some tricks.
As I’m sure you can tell, that didn’t exactly work out.
I missed dogs, and almost just as much I missed dog people. I missed nerding out about behaviour and breeding and health.
So I bought a dog as a university graduation present to myself (also not recommended)
But how did we get from buying an ill-advised puppy to doing the exact opposite of what I’d always said and being a professional trainer? What changed?
Well, like many things, the spark of change was desperation.
I had this godawful boss. I hated this job *so much* and so I started just applying to literally anywhere I possibly could. What were skills I had? Well, I knew dogs. So I applied for dog jobs.
And thats when I found Megan at Dog Utopia.
Finally, here were the dog people I had always wanted to know! Kind, generous, interested in science and who had unwaveringly high standards of care.
Through her I met vets, dog trainers, groomers, pet store workers, dog walkers and more, who loved each dog, who protected them and treated them with respect and care.
I started dipping my feet back into the dog sport world, and visiting my breeder friends more often.
And because I was now able to curate the people I spent time with, things just sort of snowballed. Before I knew what had happened, I was training full time. Funny how things just slide into place like that sometimes.
But I’ll never forget those formative lessons. I learned so many valuable things and had so many incredible experiences throughout those years, but for a long time they were overshadowed by the bad. It wasn’t until I was able to find my community of caring dog people, who battle burnout with connection and who prioritise the quality of care above all else, that I was able to really absorb those good lessons. And then I was able to share them with all of you.
We have a real problem with burnout and low wages in the pet industry. It’s causing undue harm both to the dogs and to the people.
So curate your dog community.
Find those people who love the dogs, and who show their love with compassion and care and science based solutions.
What to do about a stubborn dog?
If you peeked into the average trainer’s inbox, or took a look at dog training forums and message boards, you’ll see the word “stubborn” a LOT.
💬“This breed is so stubborn”
💬“He’s just a stubborn guy!”
💬“My dog is being stubborn and not coming when called!”
Part of being a good trainer is reading between the lines and asking good questions to ascertain just what the owner believes about their dog.
Stubborn, like “soft”, “obedient” and “trainable” are all subjective labels, and they can mean very different things to different people. So let's clarify terms.
A quick google search gives us these definitions:
🗯“having or showing dogged determination not to change one's attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so.”
🗯“difficult to handle, manage, or treat.”
🗯“tenaciously unwilling or marked by tenacious unwillingness to yield”
The first thing that jumps out at me is this: “especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so”
⁉️What is more likely; that your dog fully understands why you want him to come when he’s called, and is choosing not to come because “screw you you’re not my real mom”, or that he doesn’t have the skills and history of reinforcement to choose to leave the wonderful world of squirrel smells?
You didn’t sit down and have a reasoned discussion with your dog about why coming when you’re called is important for his safety. I mean I think my dog is pretty darn smart, but he’s not THAT smart.
The other part that jumps out is “tenacious unwillingness to yield”.
Yield to what? Their owner’s will?
What kind of relationship is that?
I don’t want my dogs to yield to me! I want them to enjoy working with me and I want to help them build strong patterns of behaviour that are safe and rewarding for them.
All behaviour is driven by reinforcement. This means that behaviours are repeated because they were reinforced. In the dog training world, this most frequently means food, but it can be a lot more nuanced than that.
Have you ever been ghosted? Pretty soon you stop texting that person, because the reinforcement of a reply has stopped. The behaviour has extinguished.
Some dogs have been bred for hundreds of years to work closely and cooperatively with their people. This is why goldens are so… well, goldeny. They find that working relationship rewarding. They find treats rewarding. They find head scritches rewarding. They like games that we like, like fetch.
Other breeds were not. Maybe they were bred to guard, or hunt independently. Maybe exploring the outside world and accessing smells and hunting opportunities are more valuable to them than a cookie.
Maybe the puppy wasn’t lucky enough to be born into the home of a responsible breeder who utilizes a science based puppy raising program like Puppy Culture, and hasn’t yet built strong positive associations with interacting with people.
Maybe the dog is scared and really needs to keep an eye on the environment right now!
Again, all behaviour is driven by reinforcement. So if I call my dog, and he just stands there sniffing the tree, what is driving THAT behaviour? Maybe someone dropped a french fry there, or maybe a pretty girl peed there recently.
Maybe I haven’t let him sniff enough lately and he really needs to get some sniffy time in.
Almost always, so-called stubborn dogs are dogs who are simply more less motivated to access treats and praise than the average pet golden. Frequently they are overwhelmed by their environment or have other mitigating factors like fear of being handled.
The good news is that while “stubborn” is a character flaw, the rest is just behaviour and learning history.
We can’t fix character flaws, but we can change behaviour.
If you have a hard to motivate dog, you don’t have to go it alone!
Contact us for a free consult, and take the first step to a cooperative, enjoyable relationship with your dog!!
Let me tell you a story.
I grew up in a bit of a dog bubble. My introduction to dogs was through my grandmother, an international judge and accomplished breeder. Her dogs were versatile sport dogs, able to hunt all day on friday and win in the show ring on saturday. They traveled all over, sleeping in hotels and performing under really difficult conditions. These incredibly fit, confident, happy dogs were the norm for me. In short, I was incredibly sheltered and privileged when it came to dogs.
Then I got a job at a doggie daycare and got plunged face first into the pet world.
One thing was an immediate shock, and I’ve never gotten over it.
There is an anxiety epidemic in pet dogs!
Those first few months at the daycare it felt like every second dog was on the brink of nervous collapse. I had never seen anything like it.
A havanese hyperventilating on a corner.
A pug hiding under a blanket.
A weimaraner pacing the gate, whining and whining.
I couldn’t figure it out. What was happening?
It turns out, it’s complicated. (Isn’t it always?)
Honestly I really demonized pet owners there for a while. I had no idea how it was possible for this to happen, and that lack of understanding left me with no explanation other than "people bad".
But I learned more about the realities of where people got their dogs, and the results of poor early puppy raising and genetics.
I learned about what I like to call The Other Epidemic; boredom.
And I learned that a distressing amount of people either are unable or unwilling to recognize their dog’s emotional distress.
This is all very concerning stuff.
We can all empathize with these dogs, especially those of use with anxiety or trauma.
But what can we do?
I know my immediate impulse of yelling “OH MY GOD” really doesn’t help.
Over the years at the daycare we tried a number of different approaches.
I’ll be honest, it was hard. We failed a lot.
It was emotionally draining, and through trial and error, with a lot of tears and sleepless nights (your pet care professionals do have anxiety dreams about your dogs, just an fyi), we came to a surprisingly simple conclusion.
Here’s what works; build relationships with people and spread the dog nerdiness.
The cool thing about this is it isn’t just something that dog trainers can do. Anyone who cares about dogs can do some really serious animal welfare work. If you’re here you’re already probably doing it without realizing.
That was the lesson I needed to learn. Most people are doing their best, but we, as a culture, have a long way to go before every dog has the life they deserve.
So build relationships with people and call them in. Teach by example.
We’re all dog nerds here.