DOG QUEST: Crate-training

Both of my dogs are crate-trained.

A lot of people are very uncomfortable with the concept of crate training: the image of a dog kept in a box just large enough for them to turn around in is upsetting on a visceral level, so it makes sense. I’ll admit that I was extremely hesitant about the idea at first, so I thought I’d share why I turned around on it.

Before we picked the puppy who would become Amos, I decided I should read up on general dog owning, training and maintenance, since I hadn’t actually lived with dogs since I was twelve and I was a bit vague on the details. Also, I presumed that there had been some change to better practice, given the march of scientific progress and discovery, and I didn’t want to use some outdated training technique that had since been shown to be ineffective. There’s a lot of “common sense” guidelines out there, and I’m sure that by now we all know that there’s no such thing as “common sense”, and a lot of it seems to tie in with anthropomorphism, i.e., projecting human psychological traits onto animals.

[one example of “common sense” is the outdated idea that you should rubby a puppy’s nose in their pee while telling them off, so they link the two ideas and learn not to pee inside. This does not work. All you end up with is a traumatised, confused puppy that now smells like its own pee and is getting told off for reasons it does not understand]

Three of three Rottweiler-specific books, chock full with other excellent advice, strongly recommended the use of the crate and made an excellent case.

Two vets recommended it (I asked when we took the cats in).

The breeder recommended it.

Eventually, and after we’d already made the decision, our trainers recommended it.

I was on the fence about the idea even after the books, the vets and the breeder; I was leaning towards it given the weight of the advice, but I still had trouble with the image of a puppy in a cage. And yet, at some point the puppy would need to be unattended, and the yard and deck we were living with were not entirely puppy friendly.

[As an aside here, an eight- or nine-week old puppy is like a demonic cross between a toddler and a slightly advanced small child. They get into everything. They know what they want, they have basic mobility, and they can get up a pretty good speed, but far too often the limbs do not go where puppy expects or wants them to go, and the puppy tumbles. Like kids, puppies do tend to bounce… most of the time. Also like kids, an unfortunate fall from a deck of sufficient height or an ungainly plummet down the stairs could lead to really severe injuries. Our deck was high enough to raise concerns. We eventually worked out a way to make it puppy safe (it involved some tarp and some temporary fencing), and ultimately didn’t even need that anymore as Amos outgrew the worst of his puppy klutziness.]

I had the bright idea of a compromise: we’d get a puppy playpen. That way we could put it in an open space, with his puppy toys, while we did necessary human things like dishes, and vacuuming, and occasionally leaving the house.

Brilliant plan. Brilliant.

There was just one problem. When we brought the tiny puppy home (see picture provided), he hated the playpen. Hated it. Now, when you confine a small needy puppy who has been taken away from his mother and his littermates and his human friends (the breeders and their kids), and then leave his immediate line of sight, you are bound to get some crying. Serious crying. Wailing. Howling. Attempts to climb to freedom. Panic. Abandonment by the pack. Doom. DOOM AND DESPAIR. HOWWOWOWOWOWL.

It tugs at the heartstrings. The advice, as heartless as it may sound, is to ignore it. The puppy learns over time that you will always come back (and that you are more likely to come back when puppy is being quiet and not making the horrible, horrible noise). You are reliable. Puppy is not being abandoned. Puppy is safe!

Unfortunately, puppy takes a while to get this idea.

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The day we brought him home. LOOK AT HIS TINY LITTLE FACE.

So, after cuddling the small sleepy puppy after his long drive, and playing with him a little, I put him in his playpen with a towel and a chew toy. I expected wails and howls of despair. I expected that we would have to wait it out.

I did not expect it to continue for three hours while he batted the walls of the playpen until they started to slide around on the kitchen floor.

I was exhausted. I’d just come back from a conference, I’d driven for a three hour round trip to pick up the puppy, and it was the first day of my period (necessitating vast amounts of sleep). I couldn’t watch the puppy constantly, and Husband had to work.

It was clear to me that puppy needed to know where I was, and that he wasn’t alone, and given how much he’d been through that day and the fact that he was essentially still a baby, I decided that was fair. The playpen wouldn’t fit properly in the lounge room though, so I grabbed a cardboard box (we’d only moved into the house a month prior so there were plenty of boxes around), weighted it down with dive weights (small tablets of lead always come in handy), folded up a towel in the bottom, added a small chew toy, and placed the box next to the couch where I intended to have my nap until the progesterone cut me some slack.

I then deployed puppy into his temporary home.

The first box was a bit of a wash. He just climbed up and put his paws on the side (see picture) to look around. The box began to wobble a bit.

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The flash is a little bit unkind, but this is one of many photos of Amos in his first attempted crate.

With a sigh, and cradling my lower abdomen, I got a larger box, transferred dive weights, towel, chew toy and puppy to it, and put it back next to the couch. He couldn’t climb up the side of this one, and he couldn’t see me from it (which was why I’d chosen the smaller box in the first place).

He curled up and went to sleep.

Right there.

In moments.

Back to the crate situation: I’d read that dogs can be trained to like crates because crates are essentially dens. They are small safe places – much the same reason that cats like boxes (documented Internet reality). Not all dogs will adjust to a crate (I’m presuming past traumatic experiences with confinement or claustrophobia), but most deal with it quite happily.

Amos had just told me, in his own way, that he didn’t want a playpen. Yet he seemed perfectly happy in his box.

So I went to Petbarn the next day and bought the largest crate we could find, with a movable wall so we could make the space bigger as he grew. Crate training has the advantage of speeding up toilet training as well; dogs won’t crap or pee where they sleep if they can possibly avoid it, so if they sleep in a small space, they’ll hold it as long as they can, and whine when they need to be let out.

Puppies physically can’t hold it in for very long, so this meant I got woken up by a little puppy whine once or twice a night to take him outside (in his tiny puppy collar on a tiny puppy lead – see picture) and wait for him to do all his business, at which point he would get lots of praise and a couple of treats, and then we would go back inside and put him back in his crate until morning.

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Tiny Amos on his lead. He has no idea what is expected of him, except that I won’t let him play, and I won’t take him back inside. The traumas of toilet training, because honestly, I want to go back inside myself, but I can’t until he takes a crap. CRAP, DOG. JUST CRAP.

[Another aside: I was writing up my thesis at the time, and Husband had a couple of days a week that he could work from home while I went in to do some paid lab work, so we had the enviable situation where Amos was not left home alone for more than about an hour until he was six months old. This also sped up toilet training considerably, since it meant that he could be taken outside whenever it seemed like he might need to go. There were still lots of accidents, but he seemed to learn pretty well]

Crate training meant that we could avoid wholesale destruction of our property overnight, since puppies chew.

Puppies chew when they are bored, or happy, or playful, or sleepy, or, incidentally, breathing. This is a truism of puppies. They can be taught to chew only their chew toys, and not, say, tables (or people), but it takes a while – time, patience, repetition. In the meantime, while we did a “puppy check!” every night before bed (removing loose cables, glasses, and pretty much any loose object from the lounge room where he was confined), there are things you can’t move, and in addition, a puppy won’t whine to go outside to pee if he is perfectly capable of finding a nice corner of loungeroom to wee on.

So for a long time, Amos slept in his crate at night. He was occasionally put in his crate if we were too tired or busy to watch him, but for the most part it was a sleeping place or a resting place. Over time, we noticed that he seemed to be chewing things less, and was very comfortable with the notion that toileting was an outside activity, so we left the door of his crate open overnight.

He still quite often slept in the crate, but now he sometimes slept on the couch.

When we moved to our current house, we had him sleep in the crate for a while just until we were sure he was comfortable with the new place (and that he understood that toilet business was also an outside activity at the new place). Then we eventually just took the crate away, folded it up, and put it in the carport.

Enter Abby.

Abby came to us decidedly not toilet trained (much to our surprise, since she was eight or nine months old). She also had some separation anxiety (this was not surprising, since she was a rescue dog). Her foster carer had already started crate-training her, so we had that advantage.

Abby still sleeps in the crate overnight (see picture). We don’t entirely trust her not to pee in the lounge room, but it’s not just that. We don’t trust her not to steal objects off the coffee table (or graphic novels off the sideboard) to chew, but it’s not just that either. It’s largely because we have a sneaking suspicion that she will try to play with Amos throughout the night.

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Abby sleeping in her crate. I had to take a photo, because who sleeps in that position, seriously?
(note: shaved area and stitches due to recent desexing)

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“I just woke up and you’re taking photos of me sleeping. DUDE THAT’S CREEPY.”

Firstly, puppy play between two rottweilers is not restful, and I need sleep. Secondly, Amos probably won’t want to play (he likes his naps), and he will express this refusal in a way that is also not restful. Abby doesn’t get a clue at this stage (Amos used to be the same, so we’re reasonably confident she’ll grow out of it). She’ll just keep trying to play with him, and then disaster will ensue (in the form of growling and whining and thumping and Abby getting her ear chewed).

We sometimes put Abby in the crate at mealtimes (we’re letting her out more and more because she can’t learn how to behave around human food if she’s never around it), and sometimes when she just won’t settle and stop playing with Amos in the evening (inside time is quiet time, dammit).

The only other time I’ll put Abby in the crate is if I’m taking Amos out and Husband isn’t home. She still tends to howl and get upset if she’s left at home alone without Amos (amused neighbours have reported to us and wondered if perhaps there was a very upset wolf living at our house…?). Husband came home once after taking Amos to a café to find that Abby had somehow forced her way in through the back door in search of us and had left a trail of minor destruction in her wake. I’m worried that I’ll come home and find she’s gone looking for us outside – our fences are moderately secure, but if she was super determined she could find a way around the problem.

Leaving her at home alone could make her super determined.

I do have hopes that one day, we’ll be able to start leaving the door of the crate open, and she won’t pee, destroy things, or hassle Amos overnight, and we’ll come out in the morning to find her on the couch opposite Amos. This is not that day, but it will probably happen.

In the meantime, the crate is her safe haven, and a way to give Amos a break from her insistent demands to wrestle. We feed her there (which means that sometimes she just runs straight into her crate and sits down when she wants food. It’s kind of adorable). She sleeps there and pushes her crate mat up into a lump to use as a pillow. Amos sleeps mostly on his couch, or on the kitchen floor if it’s a bit too warm.

I’ve only talked about why we crate train and not how crate training is done, so to finish off I’ll just make a few points.

  1. A crate should not be a place where a dog or puppy spends most of their time because you decide you don’t have time to deal with them. That’s not fair. If you occasionally need a break and can’t put the rambunctious pup outside for some reason, that is fair enough, and the pup will cope, but most will not tolerate living in their crate, and they shouldn’t have to. Abby is only in the crate at night for the most part, and she spends a lot of time playing outside or hanging out with us inside during the day.
  2. The crate should never, ever be used as punishment. If it’s ever going to be a safe space, you need to avoid negative associations. Punishment is obviously super negative.
  3. On that note, good things happen in the crate. Lure them in with treats (don’t close the door at first, just let them wander in and out). Give them more treats when they’re in there. Feed them in there. Put chew toys in there (with peanut butter on them, perhaps). Make the crate a happy place as much as possible. Amos had a scare once (he was twelve weeks old and had an altercation with a wine rack. Long story) and he spent the rest of the night moving from my foot to the crate, back to my foot, back to the crate – because those were happy, comforting places.
  4. Understand that even with all this, for the first few nights a dog or pup spends in a crate, there will be some howling (until they learn that they get let out every morning and given pats and cuddles and playing).

So ultimately I hope this makes it more clear why we crate train, why it’s becoming a more popular option, and why it isn’t horrible cruelty to animals. A great deal of thought and research went into this decision, and it’s worked out very well for us.

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“Male cats have… what?” or “How I learned about ‘Sex and all that stuff’”

This is the story of how I learned where babies come from. I find this story highly entertaining, but that could just be my slightly eccentric sense of humour.

I learned – or at least, I began to have strong suspicions about the process – at the hairdresser. Not from the hairdresser, you understand, but in the actual salon.

I was six years old, and I was waiting for a haircut. I was sitting with my mum in the little waiting area, surrounded by the clip of scissors and the smell of conditioner, and I was bored, drumming my feet against the benches. “Read a magazine,” my mother suggested, being well aware by this time that handing me reading material was the easiest way to keep me occupied. I don’t remember if she chose the magazine or if I simply rifled through the pile myself, but to those concerned about handing a small girl a women’s magazine, don’t worry; my mother was well aware that I had no interest in reading about anything she would find objectionable (at six, anyway).

There were two pet magazines. One was something like “Catmopolitan” and the other one was “Dogue”. Obviously they were set up as joke spoofs of popular fashion mags, but they were about pet health. Given that we had a dog, I found dogs boring at the time, and was fascinated by cats (which we didn’t have and were never allowed to have, due to the quite reasonable concern that Baron might eat any cats that turned up on our property), so I picked up Catmopolitan (or whatever it was) and turned to where I always began any magazine reading: the letters page.

I was six. I liked the letters page because the letters are short, and often tell stories.

In the pet magazines, the letters were written from the perspective of the pet, and one was about why female cats scream during sex.

What’s this sex business? I wondered, a bit concerned about how the girl kitties were obviously scared or in pain. So I read further.

“Male cats have barbs on their penis…” the reply to the letter began.

They have what on their what!? I frowned briefly. I knew what penises were. I’d seen my brother’s in the bath. They looked pretty smooth. Alright, cats were different. That was reasonable.

“…withdrawn from the vagina…”

Wait, what? Withdraw? From? What was it doing in the vagina in the first place?! WHAT THE HELL ARE THE KITTIES DOING?

And a light dawned.

Wait a minute. I have a vagina (it’s true, it’s all true). Human girls have them. Human boys have penises. If this works for cats – since they also have those parts – then it probably also applies to humans.

Is that what sex is?

I think anyone watching would have seen the little girl with the long red pigtails blink a few times, close the magazine, and stare at the wall for a few seconds. At that point I was called for my haircut, and I set the matter aside for a while, returning to it later when my small child brain was otherwise undistracted.

So. Sex. Why would people do that?

I’m actually not sure when I made the connection between sex and babies, but the notion filled a reasonable gap before “Babies grow in a mummy’s tummy”. It wasn’t confirmed, I just strongly suspected that there was a connection there. Maybe if I’d kept reading the cat magazine, it would have talked about kittens.

A few months later, I stayed over at a friend’s house, and, giggling, she pulled out “Where Did I Come From?”, the book with pictures of happy cartoon naked parents that has enlightened and, most likely, horrified, millions of puzzled children.

When, about four or five years later, friends would pull this book out in the library and declare how gross it was when the penis went into the vagina, I couldn’t help but think they’d obviously been surprised by this piece of information. I hadn’t been. I’d been smug. When I leafed through the book at age six (possibly seven by then, I’m a bit vague on the details), and I got to the part that would later be declared gross by ten- and eleven-year olds, I thought Aha! I knew it! I KNEW IT! PEOPLE ARE JUST LIKE CATS.

The rest was merely detail.

I should at this point state that zero information on this issue was provided by my parents. I think my mother had this vague notion that I’d ask, eventually (discounting my general preference to finding everything out for myself and being a bratty little know-it-all), or that she’d tell me before I started having periods and thinking that I was haemorrhaging.

In fact, my brother was my best source of information, since he had precisely zero hang ups about what kids were and were not supposed to know (being only three years older than me) and he seemed to have access to a great deal more knowledge about these things (being a whole three years older than me).

I still remember when he tried to explain the circumcision joke, when I was ten. Around a table with another family, all of whose children were older than me, someone – I don’t recall who – told the joke about the Irish circumciser (apologies to any Irish people who might read this and want to indulge in a brief facepalm).

He slipped and got the sac.

A few glasses of wine having been consumed at this point by the adults in the party, everyone burst out laughing. The sixteen year old girl, the thirteen year old boy, my fourteen year old brother, all four parents, laughing.

I sat there looking cross. “I don’t get it,” I announced.

This just made them laugh harder. Heads were rested on hands, and on the table. Sides were clutched. I was surrounded by highly entertained individuals, and I still had no idea what a circumciser was or what was so funny about him losing his job.

The subject was eventually changed (I suspect, based on later evidence, by my mother).

In the car as we were leaving the restaurant, I refused to let it go. Like a dog with a bone (see what I did there? Oh yes), I said, “I still don’t get that joke.”

My brother, sitting next to me, snickered, turned to me and began to explain. “You see, a man’s penis-“

“Ben.” My mother’s voice had a distinct warning tone.

“-isn’t just a tube-“

Ben.”

“It’s got-“

BEN. STOP IT.”

At age fourteen, he was, like myself, still subject to the dastardly changes of parental tyranny and censorship; I didn’t get any answers that night. I can’t remember when I did find out what various words meant (it wasn’t long – months, perhaps), and then reflected triumphantly on the joke, concluded that it was pretty funny, and moved on. I’m not sure why my mother thought I’d find this traumatising.

This all came to a head (heh) when I was twelve and, some time in the middle of a sunny Saturday, my mother called me into the bedroom. I remember it was sunny because she had the curtains drawn in her room and the sun was slanting through the skylight behind me in the main atrium of the house which made her room look all the more dark and foreboding.

I was now just old enough to be properly embarrassed by discussing anything of this nature with my mother – if she’d brought it up two or three years earlier, it might have been acceptable – so when she said, “It’s time you learned about sex,” I immediately was horrified at how awful this conversation was going to be for everyone involved.

I immediately cut her off. “It’s okay. I already know.”

There was silence for a moment. “Know… what?”

“About sex. Babies. That stuff. I know it.”

Her lips thinned. “How do you know?”

With appropriate just-barely-pre-adolescent condescension, I said impatiently, “I read a book.”

“What book?” she demanded.

I wasn’t about to tell her it was “Where Did I Come From?” That didn’t sound very cool. “Just a book,” I said, waving it off. I nearly added, “And a magazine about cats” but decided that explaining the details would just prolong this hellish experience and it was best to keep the story simple.

“When did you read this? Where did you get it?”

“At [friend]’s house. When I was seven. Or six. I can’t remember.”

“At [friend’s] house,” she repeated heavily, as though she’d been given some horribly difficult news, much in the same way she might have said “A cancerous lesion.”

I wasn’t quite sure how I was expected to respond. After some careful thought I tried what I thought was a safe option.

“Yes?”

“That’s it then,” she said flatly.

Oh, thank God. “Yes.” We’re just… ace here. This can stop now. I’m going to leave.

“I’ve failed as a mother.” This was delivered in a shaky voice, in martyred tones. To properly understand how it appeared to me, imagine a teenage girl with the back of her hand held to her forehead. It’s hard to be a drama queen in a darkened room at the age of forty over avoiding an awkward conversation because your daughter reads everything that turns up in a twenty foot radius, but she managed.

“Um. No? I’m… going to go now…” I think I was supposed to be comforting her? Or something? This was never my strong suit as a kid.

I’m aware that this story does not paint my mother in a positive light. To be fair to her, she did come around to the idea that I liked to know things in my own time (as soon as possible) and in my own way (reading). About an hour later, after she had calmed down from this terrible shock, she came to my room and said, “Would you like me to buy you a book?”

Yes,” I said fervently.

When she purchased What’s Happening To Me?, I tried to look grateful (I’d already read it on the same night I’d read Where Did I Come From?) but she was not fooled. She came back later on with an actual novel-length book that entirely lacked cartoons, which was far more what I was willing to read (It was Everygirl, if anyone’s curious).

This gave me the power to answer most of my own questions on these topics, and I have to admit that if I’d had the internet when any of these issues had been raised, I would have got my answers that much sooner.

There’s no real moral to these stories. The only take-home message I would offer would be that, if you’re determined that you want to be the one to tell your kids about the birds, the bees, and inappropriate circumcision jokes – if you think that being the source of this information is really quite crucial to your parenting-fu –  you need to get in early. Your kid may be precocious. Alternatively, they may not be precocious – they might just know a precocious kid who shares information freely. When one figures it out, they’ll tell the others (and they may actually have the wrong information. I know a kid who thought pregnancy happened after anal sex).

Also, try to get it sorted before they’re old enough to be direly embarrassed by the whole thing. It’s alright, you’ll get heaps of chances to embarrass them when the condom conversation comes up.

The Dog Kid Combo: What to teach kids about dogs

 Teaching your kid to be dog-safe: A How-To Guide

Amos was tied up outside at my father’s place, because people were present who were scared of dogs. Our policy then is to put him on a long rope and spend a lot of time with him so he gets plenty of interaction. This way he gets to roam around and sniff my dad’s fascinating garden, but people who are scared of dogs have a clearly delineated dog-free space. Everyone wins.

Two of the kids had met Amos before, when he was hot and tired and therefore quite well behaved, so they were comfortable with him. This was a win. The problem was that the next morning, he was full of vim and vigour and wanted to play. The kids made a game of running past him and getting out of reach before he caught them. Now, Amos did quite well by all reports. He bounced a bit, but he didn’t jump. He bounced a bit more, but didn’t chase. The kids ran past laughing, obviously playing. He play-bowed and barked. And eventually he just cracked, caught up with the four year old, and jumped up and put his gigantic lion paws on her shoulders.

Cue wailing and crying from an understandably overwhelmed child, who had to have it explained to her that dog paws are rough, and no, he didn’t bite you.

Meanwhile I was also thinking (while being embarrassed for my dog), Who doesn’t teach their kid not to run around dogs? Really?

I mentioned this out loud around a friend who, while fond of my dogs, is not a dog person herself, and she gave me a quizzical look and said that she herself had not had any idea about that.

Fair play, I thought. So here’s a list for kid-dog behaviour, and of course this goes for adults as well.

  1. Don’t run around dogs unless you want to be chased.

Maybe you want to run away from the dog because you’re scared? Don’t. Running activates prey drive. This is very deep instinctive behaviour for them – try to avoid switching it on.

If you know the dog and you can trust it’s all a good fun game and they won’t lose their minds, feel free to run. I like to run and jog with my dogs. They get excited, and it’s a good engagement exercise because they know just how excited they’re allowed to get. Bouncing and running after me, when I’m encouraging them, is great! Jumping up on me is bad. Mouthing is super dooper bad (Abby did this once or twice, was corrected, and has not done it again since. It is a risk when dogs get really excited and have not been trained out of the behaviour. It’s just play, but really can’t be allowed). But running is fine. Now, returning to the anecdote above: the problem with the kids running is that they were laughing and squealing and generally having a fantastic time – which, to a dog who is a bit oversocialised (like Amos), is pretty much an invitation to play. He felt he was getting invited to play, and even though I think he suspected he shouldn’t be jumping (due to lifelong training in DO NOT JUMP!), he caved.

Kids may need to be reminded that, if they decide they want to play chasey with a safe dog, they should not complain about getting caught. The caveat here is that Amos is perfectly safe when it comes to biting, aggression, etc. etc. That’s not a concern. Him bowling over a kid in excitement? That’s a concern. He’s 40 kgs. I would just prefer kids not run around him unless I am there to reinforce good behaviour.

  1. Do not lean over a dog.

Most people are taller than most dogs, but I would even tell a kid not to do this. It’s an instinctive human behaviour so we do have to think about it. When we want to pat a dog, we bend forward over them. As far as the dog is concerned, we are looming. I’ve had people who are experienced dog owners make this mistake with Abby, and since she can be a bit anxious, that’s very confronting for her. She shrinks away. If you want to pat a dog and you’re just too tall, kneel. Sit down next to them. It’s harder on the knees, but it’s easier on the dog.

(I should mention that I can lean over my dogs if I have to – they know me well and I am completely unthreatening to them – but don’t lean over a dog you don’t know well).

  1. While we’re on the subject – don’t reach for the head.

This is a big no-no. I’ve been guilty of it with my own dogs if I’m not thinking. Do not reach forward and down to pat a dog on the head. To understand why, imagine someone twice your height is doing that to you – reaching forward and down, their gigantic hand outstretched and casting a shadow over your eyes – kind of intimidating? Maybe a bit threatening? Yeah. Don’t do that. In fact, don’t pat dogs on the head at all.

A pat is basically a tap or a little slap – doing it on the head is just weird. Stroking the head is fine. Maybe around behind the ears or under the jaw – Amos loves being scratched under the jaw, and often he does like being scratched on the top of his head, but when I want to do this I bring my hand up under the jaw and over his ears, or pass it forward from back over his neck. I don’t reach down in front of his face. If I do that, he often shies his head away and just gives me a look as if to say, “Wtf are you doing?”

  1. A wagging tail does not always mean a dog is friendly.

A wagging tail just means a dog is interested in interaction. There’s good interaction and bad interaction and the act of wagging the tail does not state which one it is going to be. Take that as you will.

  1. Don’t give a dog commands if you don’t know the dog.

Different dogs will respond to different tones of voice, depending on how they have been trained. Here’s an anecdote (I do love them): when my brother and I were kids, another family brought a rottie bitch around so that Max, our in-his-prime-at-the-time male rottie, could play stud (which as a side note resulted in a surreal situation where a bunch of people were standing around watching with avid interest as two dogs humped in the carport). Meg, our own rottie bitch, was locked up in the garage so she couldn’t attempt to defend her territory from that woman (she was not pleased about the interloper). While our parents were discussing the plans (and prior to any humping between dogs), brother and I decided to play with the New Dog. She was very well behaved. When we said “sit”, she sat. Then we said “drop”, and she barked at us. Brother and I jumped backwards about six feet and tried again. Then she barked at us again. Eek!

It turns out that the tone of voice we used to say “drop” to our dogs was the same tone that the visiting dog’s owners used to say “speak.” We thought she was just getting cross!

I wonder if people who natively speak tonal languages have a better time with this. I’ve had people try to get Amos to sit in ways that are honestly ridiculous, ranging from a long drawn out “Siiiiiiiiiiiiit” that goes up in an ascending scale like an operatic aria, to “sitsitsitsitsit!” to holding out a hand and raising a single index finger (maybe the signal they use with their dog?). Amos just looks at them, panting happily, a big doggy grin on his face. He has no idea what they are saying to him. As near as he can tell: “The new friendly people are making noises at me! This is fantastic! I like new friendly people!”

This is why I’m always happy to tell friends and kids how to command my dog and which nonverbal signals to use to reinforce the command if dog is a bit confused (nonverbal is easier for dogs).

Dogs don’t speak English. It might be best not to even think of commands as words, but simply significant noises (signifiers, for the semioticians among you), meaning that every aspect of the noise is important, because dogs don’t know otherwise.I’ve had people try to give him commands that I’ve never taught him (as an embarrassing aside, to get Amos to essentially get out of your face, a disgruntled “Amos, bugger off!” in a long-suffering tone of voice with particular Australian emphasis will usually work. That… wasn’t on purpose). The closest universal is that most dogs, at least to varying extents, have been taught “No” or “Leave.”

  1. Don’t jump or pick up interesting things – like kids, or pets.

I didn’t know this one from the dogs I grew up with; I learned this one by picking up the cats around Amos. After consulting with trainers: yes, this is very common and instinctive behaviour. If your kid is freaking out a bit about an excitable dog, if at all possible or practical, remove kid from the situation with their feet firmly on the ground (obviously not practical with pre-walkers), as understandably tempting as it may be to sweep them up safely into your arms. The minute you pick up the kidlet, the dog will jump (or rather, he’ll feel the strong urge to jump).

I’ve had Amos do this and it’s so frustrating; up until that point he was doing so well and I was just about to tell him how good he was being and get him to come with me so I could give him a treat and then he jumps up and licks the dangling feet of the small child and now I can’t reward him because that behaviour is not cool. Poor Amos, poor worried parent, poor confused kidlet, and poor frustrated dog owner. Our neighbour picked up her kelpie pup when he felt overwhelmed by Amos – instant jumping. Picking up the cat – instant jumping. Regarding the cat, there has now mostly been enough repetition (after two years!) for Amos to not jump if I pick up a cat in front of him (Abby still goes nutballs).

Most dogs will do this. It’s a thing.

  1. Most important of all: if you want to pat a strange dog, always always ask the owner for permission first!

Most adults are pretty good about this, and many do teach their kids this, but sometimes excitement gets the better of them. Back when Amos was about nine months old, a very drunk man stumbled out of a local pub out into a formerly deserted country road and proceeded to get in Amos’s face with his hands and give him big pats on the head and pull his ears (thinking he was being a super dog guy), all before I could pick up my jaw and say “Uh, please don’t touch my dog…” (I just couldn’t believe it was happening). Amos is very laid back and will put up with wrangling of this kind even if his body language is saying he hates it (I may have taught him that sometimes I have to wrangle him, and sometimes the vet has to wrangle him, and if he puts up with it he gets treats), but if this happened with a fear defensive dog, it could have been really ugly. This would have been completely unfair to a fear defensive dog (this is through no fault of their own that they are like this) and their owner who might have been trying to walk their dog safely on a deserted country road.

A lot of the examples here refer to my own dogs, and will highlight my own shortcomings as a dog trainer, and that’s something I have to wear; but I also do think it’s important that more parents, particularly if they’re not dog people themselves, get the chance to teach their kids how to be safe around dogs (it also helps us train our dogs in good behaviour if we set them up to “win”). My friend was absolutely right; there’s no reason to just assume people will know these things if they haven’t grown up with dogs themselves. It’s not common sense. There is no such thing.

It’s dog sense, which is a different thing entirely.

Amos and Small Child

Amos with his four year old amiga the day before he put his paws on her shoulders and freaked her out. He was being so well behaved on this day, because he was around the kids for hours (and the kids weren’t running)!

P.S. As a guide to dog sense, I really feel I need to recommend “The Other End of the Leash” by Patricia McConnell. It is an excellent book and is absolutely worth a read, full of fantastic doggy anecdotes and information about dog body language.

The Dog Kid Combo: Why our dogs are nuts around kids

Kids and dogs, dogs and kids

My dogs don’t know how to behave around kids.

Many kids don’t know how to behave around dogs.

These are problems with solutions, but let’s investigate the former to begin with.

Clarity, Consistency and Repetition

I’m going to write about dog training, and since there is such a thing as a professionally trained and accredited dog trainer (we take our dogs to sessions with one such establishment), I feel it’s important to say that I’m not one. I’m going to convey some of the things that they taught me, and as all the authors say, any mistakes are my own.

There are three basic principles to teaching a dog behaviour:

Clarity:

  1. Be clear in what you want from your dog. For example, if I teach Abby to drop, and I decide I’m happy with her just flopped on the floor (at this point in her training, and since I’m often wrangling two dogs, that is where my standard is), I can’t tell her off for not being in a perfect “sphinx” position. Further, if I decide later on to up my standards, I can’t correct her or tell her off for not having her perfect “sphinx” position. That’s not at all fair and will just confuse her. I just have to slowly shift her position and reward her more in the new position. So, clarity in your goals.
  2. Be clear in your commands, both verbal and nonverbal. I’m a bit shit at this. My vocal commands are reasonably consistent, and I find if I keep my tone level in most commands I get a better result. I try to only ramp up my tone into an excited or “ascending” pitch if I want to get the dog riled up, as in recall or loose-lead walking, getting the dog to focus on me. But my nonverbal commands-! My gestures can be so amazingly wishy-washy that it can take ages for one of my long-suffering dogs to work out which bit of my body language they’re supposed to be paying attention to.
  3. Which leads me to another thing. When I raise my eyebrows at Amos, he often sits, because that’s what I used to do when he was a puppy if he didn’t sit the first time I told him to. If I stand there with my arms folded, Abby sits, because that’s what I do if she jumps up at me, and she’s learned that if I’m ignoring her and keeping my arms out of reach, then sitting will usually get me to give her praise. So all your body language when you’re giving a command matters.

Consistency:

This is about trying to keep rewards and corrections the same in multiple contexts. For example, if you’re not going to let your dog on the couch, then don’t let your dog on the couch (this is a famous example. Everyone uses this). If you decide you’re a bit lonely one night and you let the dog up to give you a cuddle, that’s fine. But then the next night, you tell the dog off for doing the exact same thing that got it cuddles and pats the night before. Alternatively, another member of the family has different rules. The dog gets confused and gets alternately rewarded and criticised for the same behaviour. Not only can they not figure out what they’re supposed to be doing with the couch, they probably start to get confused about rewards and corrections in general, and their family. If their family can’t be trusted to make their confusing doggy world a bit more consistent, then maybe anything goes. A lot of problem behaviour starts in this way. We’ve made mistakes like this with Amos (not the couch mistake. The “no dog on the couch” rule lasted less than 24 hours after I brought home a 9 week old puppy), and it takes time and patience and a lot of self-awareness to even work out where you were inconsistent – let alone correct it. Best to try to avoid the problem (although it’s so easy to make the mistake, because humans often forget that we don’t think the same way dogs do).

Repetition:

Now we come to the kicker. This is the absolute kick in the arse for our dogs-and-children problem. In a way dogs can be quite like people: it takes repetition to learn how to solve a problem, or to learn how to get the reward, avoid correction and generally be a praised and happy dog. You can’t get a dog to sit a few times in one session and decide that now they are going to remember that command and position forever.

Let’s revisit our opener: My dogs don’t know how to behave around kids. They get super-excited and will probably jump and definitely lick and for small children that’s super scary and they freak out. Often Amos will bark loudly, and even though he’s play-bowing (which means the bark is OH BOY OH BOY I’M SO EXCITED PLAY WITH ME SMALL CHILD OH BOY OH BOY, not I AM A VICIOUS CHILD EATING ROTTWEILER MWAHAHAHA), it sounds terrifying to children, and often parents as well.

Gosh! you say (a hypothetical you, not you personally). That’s terrible! Why haven’t you taught your dogs to behave around kids?

Because, I reply (with no doubt admirable patience, because as we all know I am an endlessly patient person. Stop laughing), I don’t have kids.

So what? asks hypothetical you, who either doesn’t have dogs, or has dogs who have always been relatively calm.

So, I say with heavy emphasis, Amos is very good at sitting before he comes inside, dropping to let me wipe his feet, rolling his hips when I say “back paws!” so I can do the back paws, not stealing food from the table, heeling when we go for a walk, and jumping for the tug rope without touching my skin. He is good at these things because he gets practice. Most of them are reinforced every day, just by living. Kids coming to visit happens maybe three times a year, so not only do we not get to reinforce not licking kids on the face or not bouncing and barking at kids, but in addition to that, kids coming to visit is super exciting.

If I have time, one small (relatively keen) child, and a very patient and laid back parent who is willing to help out, I can spend some time kid-proofing (one dog at a time). It’s actually not that tricky to do it. It’s the same principle as getting a dog to adjust to any new and interesting stimulus, getting them to switch their brain back on and behave themselves. It’s just that it happens once in a blue moon and by the time another kid visits, or we see kids running around playing at a café that we take the dogs out to, those lessons are pretty vague.

It’s also hard to be properly focused on training when half of you is panicking that a parent will think your dog is vicious and dangerous or that you are a terrible dog owner or any number of things. This is my problem and involves my own ego and insecurities and worries about representation (and being aware that for many people I’m the only rottweiler owner they are likely to meet, and wanting to represent that at least reasonably well), and I shouldn’t be making it into an issue for my dogs, but I find I spend time trying to explain that our dogs don’t get exposed to kids, so they are just a bit insane.

Since I’m spending time doing that, I am not being focused, let alone clear or concise, with my dogs, and therefore they don’t get to learn from the experience. That’s why it’s so good when someone brings a kid round and is willing to help me kid-proof a dog.

Also, Amos is two and Abby is one. They will calm down as they get older.

So. It is easy enough to train dogs to behave around kids, as long as there are kids around for them to learn with, and that is our stumbling block.

The other stumbling block is the next post.

Edit: I feel I should mention that, if kids are around for an extended period, eventually the dogs do calm down and start behaving with some semblance of manners. It just takes a while.