Dog Quest: The Calming Hug

We may have accidentally come one step closer to resolving Abby’s dog-reactivity issue. I’m not sure why exactly it works (theories abound), and I’ll be asking our trainers at the earliest opportunity, but here’s how I stumbled on it.

About a month or so ago, I took Abby for a walk, and the usual disasters happened: she’d see another dog, she’d growl and jump and bark and get herself into a state, and she’d do this even as I tried to take her off the path, get her to focus on me, give her treats and desensitise her. I’d had mixed results with this approach before, and figured that – like anyone with social anxiety – she was just having a bad day.

By the end of the walk, she was exhausted and obviously unhappy (in fact, she launched herself into the car as soon as we got the carpark; she just couldn’t get home and back to her Amos soon enough).

There’s a large pile of rocks on one side, opposite the lake and near a bridge on the way out of the park. About five or six people were sauntering along the bridge. I recognised them because I’d seen them on their way in. There was a professional photographer, and his assistant was carrying a very large reflector strapped to his back.

“Uh oh,” I thought, and sure enough, Abby began to take exception to this bizarre silhouette. I took her over to the big pile of rocks and, since it was a comfy space to sit, I sat down and prepared a handful of treats to distract her with.

I was very tired after the adrenaline of our “relaxing walk” together past every other dog in the five nearest suburbs (might as well have been), so instead of trying to just keep a loose hand on the harness and leash and showing her the treats, I pulled her into a bear hug. I generally try not to do this – I was always taught (a) that hugs aren’t necessarily comforting for dogs, (b) that “overcomforting” will lead to anxiety and (c) that it was better to let her decide not to react, and to reward that impulse control.

It turns out that all those things are true, but how true they are might vary relative to the level of anxiety and the age of the dog. Abby has always had a tendency to be very snuggly, so I tend to write off the “dogs don’t like hugs” when it comes to her. Amos will tolerate hugs, but prefers simply to lean or be leant on as an expression of affection, and I think he’s probably a more typical dog in this respect.

She calmed down a bit. Not all the way, mind you, but she stopped quivering so much. Her muscles were still quite hard, and I fed her a few treats, which helped relax her further. You can tell when Abby is trying not to react – she gives these strange huff sounds, rapid breathing, from her nose, as though she is hyperventilating or huffing paint.

Then the photographer’s assistant took the reflector off his back and put it down on the grass, and then as far as Abby was concerned he looked like a normal person again, and the danger had passed.

I didn’t make the connection at the time. I figured it was mostly the treats.

Today, we took her down to the same park – I had Husband and Amos with us as well this time. When the whole pack is together, she seems to feel a lot calmer, and I feel it can only be a positive experience to know that Amos has her back.

This time, she started to react to another dog as soon as I opened the back of the car. Instead of telling her off (firmly, not with a shout. Shouting never helps), I grabbed her muzzle. You have to be careful doing this, as the nose is pretty sensitive and you don’t actually want to cause pain – I just wanted to get her to look at me – but as soon as I exerted a bit of (very very gentle!) pressure on her muzzle, she started to just look at me. She was still stiff as a board, and making her little paint-huffing sound, but she was looking at me. Her eyes occasionally flicked over to the other dog she had seen walking past, but then flicked back.

“Good girl,” I crooned. “Good, gentle girl,” and other nonsense about how safe she was, and how gentle and calm she was, and as soon as the dog was out of sight, I pretty much just poured a handful of treats down her throat.

Happy dog. Wagging tail. Now we can start the walk.

I was thinking about this as we were walking, and as soon as we had to pass another dog, I took her way off the path as I normally would, but instead of just standing there trying to lure her attention onto me, I crouched down next to her and wrapped my left arm around her chest and shoulders, using my right hand to get at the treats.

I can’t properly put into words the difference in her behaviour – she didn’t even go stiff. She didn’t huff. She glanced at the other dog, but fixed on me, and that was before she even noticed I was reaching for the treat pouch (believe me, you can tell when she notices. She is a very food oriented dog).

Throughout the walk, I think I went through this sequence of behaviours about eight times. Husband and I swapped dogs a couple of times (he was walking Amos at the start), and he got to give it a go as well.

By the end of the walk, she was completely calm in a hug. The only exception was if I didn’t notice the approaching dog quickly enough and she started to react before I could get her into a bearhug and get the treats out. We still managed to avoid a full-blown tantrum, even though she was huffing and stiff.

It seemed as though, as long as I could prevent the physical reaction, she couldn’t get herself into a state. If I stopped the spiral before it started, she was able to focus on me instead of the other dogs going past. Maybe it wasn’t about “overcomforting”, but about trust; we were always there to take care of her when other dogs went past. The reason that overcomforting is a problem is that it teaches the dog that there really is something to be scared of. It’s best to avoid it in puppies and very young dogs; in those situations, ignoring irrational fears can be better, and they can take their cue from you. If you’re not reacting, obviously it’s not a big deal.

I can see that this rationale might not work if the dog is already absolutely convinced that the stimulus is completely terrifying. In that case, my ignoring the stimulus and the reaction to it might seem like I’m not paying attention, and if I’m not paying attention, I can’t protect her. Also, maybe I’m not very good at ignoring the stimulus – maybe, in spite of my best efforts, I tense up when other dogs approach, and that teaches her that it really is scary.

There’s a lot that might be going on here. Maybe it’s a mixture of things. Maybe all I can do is teach her that, yes, I will give her bear hugs when other dogs go past. Maybe over time she’ll learn that, if nothing terrible happened then, it won’t happen later. Maybe she’ll begin to disconnect the association she has made: she associates other dogs with her own panic, so if I can prevent the panic, all she will be left with is the initial stimulus, and it may not be that bad.

It’s not perfect. It’s obviously not a workable solution for dog training, and it’s not possible to really implement it when there’s a dog a certain distance ahead of you on the path and she can see them (she just keeps watching them. She can’t seem to stop).

It does, however, remind me of something. It reminds me of how babies are calmed by being swaddled, and how some autistic people find weighted blankets very comforting, and oh wait, it reminds me of this particular product, which I had always viewed with some skepticism.

So I will talk to our trainers, and see what they think. I am very tempted to try a Thundershirt to see if it can stand in for a bearhug.

If you have any ideas, thoughts, or experiences with these dog issues, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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ADDENDUM: One thing I forgot to mention is that, on this walk, every single person we encountered, whether they had a dog or a small child, was very supportive of us trying to train our dogs. There was no snubbing, no muttered comments about aggressive dogs, just encouragement and praise and interest. In fact, one mother was very happy to have us go past with our dogs in a heel so she could show her toddler how well the “big doggies” were behaving. This meant that we were a lot more relaxed, because we didn’t have to worry about what other people were doing; we could just focus on our dogs. We thanked everyone for their encouragement. I think it really made a difference in the body language that Amos and Abby were reading from us.

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DOG QUEST: Rescue dog ten month review, and what do you do with a reactive dog?

(spoiler: you give her cuddles)

It’s now been about ten months since we adopted Abby-dog, so I’ve decided it’s time to reflect on how it’s all going. This is a long post. There’s a lot to be said.

Two dogs

I always kind of wanted to have two dogs, but the main impetus behind the decision was the fact that Amos was bored during the long periods of time we couldn’t spend playing with him, walking him or training him. We had puzzle toys that could keep him occupied when he was inside with us (the treat ball!), but there was nothing that could really be used outside (we live on a property with a distinct slope, post-and-wire fencing, and a creek at the bottom on the other side of the fence. Anything that rolls has a high probability of ending up in the creek).

That is, to be honest, often the life of a dog. When their people aren’t around, they get bored. It’s a bit easier for dogs in their twilight years who are happy to sleep all day, but for younger dogs it’s a near-universal cross to bear.

This is the reason that many people get a second dog. “They can keep each other company,” we say happily, but some people go further and decide that for this reason, two dogs will be less work than one.

No. No, no and hell no. Two dogs are, in many ways, more than twice as much work as one dog. This shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Two dogs may love to play and leap and bound and entertain one another while their owners are away, but when you get home, you are the big attraction.

Suddenly, when you’re training two dogs, you have to deal with dogs that get in each others’ way when a command is given. You have two dogs to feed – and you need to keep them from interfering with one another (read: keep Abby from eating all Amos’s food. All hail the crate). You have two dogs who need veterinary care (who may infect or accidentally injure one another). You have two dogs to get into the car to go to training, and you have to have two handlers to deal with them once you get there (i.e., both Husband and I have to be in good condition for training). You have two dogs who wrestle inside (vale standing lamp, we miss you). You have two dogs who can’t be trusted with the treat ball because, if the other dog is around, the dog who has the treat ball will get ridiculously possessive (the treat ball is a solo toy only). You have two dogs to accommodate if you want to go on holiday, which is much harder than just the one, especially if one of your dogs is reactive (see below).

And, at least for a while, you have two dogs at very different stages of socialisation and training, which is more complex to manage than you might think.

I refuse to walk two dogs at a time: Abby is dog reactive, and the one time I tried it, she reacted to a small dog tied up outside the supermarket, and started pulling. That’s not so bad – she’s not as muscled as Amos and doesn’t really know how to use what she’s got – but then Amos decided that if Abby was acting up, there must be a good reason, and he should defend us all. Amos is very stocky, and knows exactly how to use what he’s got, so even with all the feet-planting in the world, I found myself being dragged inexorably by 75 kgs (165 lbs) of combined dog weight, and if a nice older man hadn’t consented to hold Abby for a minute (apparently he’d always had rotties, so he was quite charmed by their puppy antics) while I looped Amos to a pole, I would have gone A over T. Worse, I was terrified that one of them would run onto the road.

The whole situation was ill-considered and unsafe. They’d both been behaving so well on lead that I’d been lulled into a false sense of security. Never again, dear readers. Never again.

I honestly don’t know how so many people make it look so easy. I see a woman pushing a pram uphill with not one but two golden retrievers and I think, “That woman must be a genius. Or an Amazon. Or a WIZARD. Or those golden retrievers are angel dogs.” Then I look a bit closer, and one dog is trotting along happily and the other is getting relatively frequent corrections.

So, how’s it actually going with two dogs?

Surprisingly… not bad.

We’ve got them into a good routine. Oddly enough, I think Amos has been the one who has had to make the most difficult adjustments, and he has worked out a system for coping with some of the Abby-inspired irregularities (he is Clever). For example, when I go to let them in, I generally make them sit. Amos, who has been sitting before he comes inside for his whole life, would sit, and then get bowled over by Abby, who would sit. And then get excited. And bounce. And push in front of him. And sit again. And then get excited… So Amos has learned that when I open the back door, and wait expectantly, it’s best to back off. He backs away and waits politely next to the water bucket while I get Abby into a sit, let her in, wipe her off, and release her. Then he comes forward for his sit. I try not to give a command these days, because he can’t actually do what he’s told under those circumstances, and it’s not fair. If I wait long enough, Abby sits, and Amos backs away.

That’s great, because it means I can concentrate on Abby’s behaviour without interfering with Amos’s training – and if he didn’t have a good foundation before we got her, it would be quite the headache. Correcting one would be confusing for the other (that sometimes still happens, but Amos seems to respond to body language – eye contact, etc. – and works out when I’m scolding Abby and not him).

Abby usually trains with Husband and I train with Amos (although I did get to train with Abby once weekend because Amos was unwell, and Husband was wearing ugg boots… long story… and Abby is just super-cute when training. She dials everything up to 11). When I take Amos for a run, Husband walks Abby and concentrates on her basic loose-lead walking and heeling.

We’ve learned that both dogs are happier if they get a little bit of solo time with us.

So two dogs is much more work, but it’s very rewarding, and it’s working.

Abby on the left, doing her "Princess Flathead" impression, and Amos looking worried on the right.

Two dogs, no waiting! Abby on the left, doing her “Princess Flathead” impression, and Amos looking worried on the right.

Abby herself

Abby herself is a fascinating study in how a good nature can overcome crappy beginnings. In spite of the neglect she originally experienced, she still adores people, adores physical contact, and desperately wants to play all the time. Amos loves to play, but even when he was Abby’s age, he didn’t want to play as much as she does. If she’s not curled up on the couch next to you, snuggling with desperate needy canine love, she’s fetching various dog toys from around the house and bringing them to you, or trying to baff Amos in the face with them to make him play with her.

She is, unsurprisingly for a rescue pup, very food motivated.

She is mostly very sociable with humans, with two exceptions:

  1. anyone wearing a high visibility vest (fluorescent orange or yellow). We don’t know why this is, but it doesn’t matter how tall or short someone is, or whether they are male or female, or any other characteristic – she seems to get honestly frightened when she sees them, and there is growling and barking, and hackles. My plan is to try and get hold of such an item so that I can slowly desensitise her by wearing it, but so far all I have is Husband’s cycling rain-jacket which is not the right shape, so I’m not sure it will work.
  1. Big guys. It doesn’t matter how a guy is big – he could be big in a buff, muscular, gymster sort of way, or he could be big in a tall, roundish, tubby sort of way – Abby does not discriminate in these matters. She doesn’t react with terror in the same way she reacts to high-vis vests, but she will take longer to warm up to such a person. She will back away. She might even bark. She’ll come back and sniff shoes, desperate for attention. Then she’ll remember OH NO THIS GUY IS HUGE and back away again, her tail between her legs. She’ll spend a lot of time in a little crouch, licking shoes and hands, with the tail down, before eventually she calms down and starts leaning on their legs. It can take a few encounters before she gets used to a Big Guy™, but now there are at least two we know of where she will immediately start sucking up to them the way she sucks up to everyone else.

In terms of Abby’s murky beginnings, there is one other behavioural quirk that causes problems, and it causes far more problems than the above two issues.

She is dog reactive.

Note: she is not fear defensive or aggressive. She is reactive. This is a very different thing, and I get very cross when people accuse my dog of being aggressive when she is throwing a tanty. Is she jumping around like an idiot and nearly pulling me over on lead? Yes. Is she barking and whining like a complete nutter? Yes.

Are her hackles up? Is she snarling? No.

Abby was not properly socialised with other dogs as a puppy; this is very clear. When she is off lead, all she wants to do with other dogs is sniff and play. She absolutely does not get a clue when another dog doesn’t want to play; she’ll keep trying, and get herself in trouble unless we take her our of the situation. Amos was the same at her age until he learned what I like to call “dog manners”, so I have hope that at least this part of her brain will re-wire as she grows up.

The problem is that she has had limited exposure to free play with dogs other than Amos and Lenny, so when a dog gets in her face (in some way we haven’t worked out yet), or steps on her tail, she cracks it. She snaps at them, and snarls, and loses her shit. She doesn’t bite or do damage, she just throws a tantrum. Would she do damage if she really lost her temper? It’s possible. She has the equipment.

Generally speaking, she won’t start a fight; but if another dog (usually a smaller dog) looks at her, and decides to growl to warn her off because she’s too big to play with, she takes this as an attack.

I think the difference is confidence, and experience. Amos has been snarled and growled at (again, nearly always by smaller dogs who look scared by him), and he just stands there, blinking, and eventually just sighs and turns away. He copes. He doesn’t feel threatened by the warn-offs, just – apparently – kind of bummed out. Sometimes he gets an alert look, a guard-stance, and gets between me and the other dog, but it’s a very calm maneuver, like an experienced bodyguard saying, “Just move along, mate. Don’t cause any more trouble, eh?”

Abby seems to feel genuinely threatened. Which is ironic, and makes it very sad that you can’t explain things to dogs, because it’s usually the other dog who felt threatened first.

This, however, is beside the point, because it’s not the usual state of affairs. The usual state of affairs is that the other dog isn’t scared of Abby, but is interested, and wants to sniff and lick and do the things that dogs do, and if Abby is off-lead (which is very rare around other dogs), she is delighted to participate (up until she feels threatened by another dog).

In the usual state of affairs, though, she is on lead. And she can’t participate. She can’t sniff and lick and play and roll about with the other dog, which is what she would love to do, and she gets frustrated, and her brain disappears into some sort of weird toddler tantrum, and she cracks it, and I think the toddler tantrum really is a good comparison, because there’s no aggression in it, no malice, just intense, poorly managed frustration. She jumps, she barks, she whines, she makes a huge goddamn fuss, and to people who don’t know dogs (or who – sigh – think that they do, but really don’t), it looks like she is winding up for an attack.

She is not. She honestly wants to play, or at least investigate. Does it mean she wouldn’t crack it later at the dog if they crossed some invisible line? No, sadly, it doesn’t mean that. As I said, she easily feels threatened by other dogs, and we haven’t worked out what her trigger is (I think going anywhere near her tail-tip – crooked and deformed as it is – might be part of it. It seems a bit more fragile and sore and sensitive than Amos’s more standard pointy tail tip). She has happily played for hours with Amos and Lenny without cracking it, though (she cracked it at Lenny once; he – understandably – cracked it first, because these two big rottweilers were charging around in his yard, stealing his bones; but all was forgiven in about thirty seconds and she kept trying to lick him and suck up… poor little Lenny), and apparently at the kennel she was fine with free play with other dogs most of the time. They couldn’t find her trigger either. And yet she has, to all reports, never bitten, never done any damage; it’s all an explosive tornado of snapping and snarling and “get away get away get away!”

I feel I need to add here (in case any meatspace visitors are made nervous by these revelations) that Abby has never, ever reacted to humans the way she does to dogs. I can wiggle the tail, poke her in the eye (not that I do it for fun, mind you), syringe her ears, take her food away, and all her favourite toys, and accidentally step on her foot, and the most she’ll do is give you sad-puppy-eyes, and maybe yelp. When friends come to visit, she is equally tolerant of them. Even when she is scared of the Big Guys™, the most that happens is a little growly whine. While she has not been well socialised with humans, she clearly has much more experience with them than with other dogs. Where humans are concerned, she is ridiculously sweet-natured. She just wants to cuddle and lick and play, all day. She has no invisible line when it comes to human interactions – only when it comes to other dogs.

As you can imagine, this causes some problems.

What can be done with the dog-reactive dog?

Firstly, neutral socialisation training.

Our training company is a big proponent of neutral socialisation. There is no free-form, off-lead doggy play. Dogs are not allowed or encouraged to interact with one another. This is a good thing; you don’t want your dog to get stupidly excited when they see another dog if you’re out for a walk. You don’t want them thinking, “I know what other dogs are for! They are for playing!” You want them to be thinking, “Oh, another dog. Seems nice enough. Whatever.” The minute your dog starts getting super excited about other dogs, they switch off, and they stop paying attention to you.

They must always pay attention to you when you ask it.

This might sound terribly narcissistic, but as I’ve explained previously, dogs live in a human world, full of dangers for them, and the way that they navigate it safely is by listening to their humans. You need to be able to call a dog away from a busy highway, a poisonous snake, or even vulnerable native wildlife (because I do not want to be the person whose dog killed the ringtail possum. Brushtail possums, I can live with, but not ringtails). These are high level distractions, and in all honesty I’m not working at that level yet with my dogs, but we’ll get there.

We took Amos to a dog park when he was a puppy, and I honestly regret that. He is getting better at resisting distraction, and now I can actually see that he is dividing his attention between me and the other dog (which is an acceptable compromise; of course, I want him to be aware of his environment!), but it has taken time and maturity to get past his learned response of “Other dog! PLAY!” I also now know that it is amazingly risky to take a puppy to a dog park. If they get attacked, that leads to trauma, and then you can end up with a fear-defensive dog, through no fault of their own. There’s often no reason to expect an attack, either. It is so easy for these things to go wrong.

But people love the dog parks, and for the most part, their dogs look so very happy that it’s difficult to let go of the idea. Is the only answer really to never let your dog play with other dogs?

Of course not! That would be very sad for everybody!

I think the idea of “puppy play dates” is a good one. You have a known, familiar, safe dog that comes to visit (or you go to them), and that is how your dog can get fun dog-on-dog interactions, and learn dog manners (very important!), in a controlled and safe environment, without them learning that every dog they meet out in the wider world is a potential friend (or enemy). In this sense I think Lenny has been very good in helping Abby learn that she has to be gentle when playing, because if she is not gentle, he either snarls at her, or high tails it off the property (he’s a kelpie. She’s not catching up with him until he is good and ready to deal with her, and to his vast credit, he usually gives her another chance. Occasionally he is just overwhelmed and done for the day, and that is quite fair. Our dogs are very intense).

Amos is not good at teaching “be gentle”. He has no inclination to be gentle with Abby and the reverse is also true. They play rough.

But back to training: the great thing about a dog training school that practices neutral socialisation is that your dog learns to be around other dogs without losing their mind. This is very hard for Abby, and sometimes she has to be taken a bit away from the main group to find her working distance (i.e., where she can be close enough to the other dogs to benefit from the exposure but far enough that she doesn’t melt her brain), but the more we go, the better she gets (lately we have not gone to training much, due to an outbreak of kennel cough in our household that I would prefer not to spread around. Apparently the vaccine is not perfect). If our timetable worked for it, I would take her twice a week just for that alone.

What else can be done?

Desensitisation. I am a big fan of desensitisation, i.e., where you expose your dog very gently and lightly to the stimulus that causes the reaction, and then you get them to look at you – pay attention to you – and you give them treats. The more they look at you, and not the stimulus, the more treats and praise they get (or playing. For some dogs, a quick game of tug is better than a treat. This will never be true for Abby). It can take some time to find the right working distance – not too close, and not too far – but it’s worth it. Desensitisation helps if it is applied consistently and frequently. I’ve used it with Amos to get him more comfortable with horses, teeth cleaning and claw clipping (that last one has not been super effective, but probably because I don’t do it very much. It is just so traumatic for everybody!).

The usual disclaimers apply: I am not an animal behaviourist or a qualified dog trainer, and while I have seen this tactic work on genuinely traumatised dogs, perhaps it doesn’t work for all of them. It cannot hurt, however.

Do not give them treats or rewards if they are staring at the other dog. They must be paying attention to you for this to work. The only exclusion would be if the other dog is making a fuss and throwing a tanty, and your dog is keeping an eye on them, but has deliberately chosen not to respond. Then they get a reward. I have definitely rewarded Amos for this, especially when his body language indicates that he wants to react and make a fuss, but he is restraining himself even while the other dog is carrying on as though the world is ending. Deliberate impulse control is hard for dogs, but it is such an important skill to learn, and should be praised and rewarded whenever it manifests.

Other than neutral socialisation and desensitisation (and to be honest, the former is a subcategory of the latter), I am not entirely sure what is to be done for the reactive dog. Consult a professional trainer, for sure. We’ve asked ours, and this is how they’ve responded.

The other thing to note is that these are not magical solutions. Rewiring a dog’s instinctive response – however they acquired that instinct, through genuine trauma or simply poor socialisation – is a slow process. It takes time, patience, and consistency. We’re good with the first two but haven’t always been great with that last one.

Conclusion

In summary, Abby’s reactivity is an issue for us. It makes it more stressful to take her for a walk, to take her to dog friendly cafes, and to take her to even the most tolerant of kennels (they are happy to take care of her, but not during busy periods, i.e., over Xmas. We’re having to leave her with a different place over the break; they’re also good but the environment is not nearly as nice, and they won’t have time to monitor her, so she won’t get the controlled socialisation she would get at the other place; she’ll only have play time with Amos, and that’s it).

Do I regret getting her?

Not for a second. I am not sure I have ever met a dog that was so extraordinarily sweet-natured towards humans, so desperate and determined to form bonds and be loved, and even though this is an expression of separation anxiety, it is a bit heart-melting. She is a genuine darling.

She is very clever (Rotties usually are); she’s a problem solver and a quick learner and she has, dare I say it, street smarts (that have made life a bit more complicated in terms of keeping her contained, I confess, but it’s impressive what she can figure out).

The time we spend with our dogs is varied. There’s inside cuddle-time; there’s outside be-followed-around-and-“helped” yard work time (Abby is very helpful, especially if Husband is carting around pieces of bark for a burn-off… dangling pieces of bark…); there’s go-to-a-café-time (and sometimes she is fine, particularly at our favourite café where the owners are her personal friends. I think that makes her feel a bit safer, so she will watch another dog and whine a bit, but usually won’t make a fuss there); there’s training-time, there’s tug rope time, and there’s walking-time. The dog reactivity issue makes up a very small percentage of the time we spend with Abby.

I still look at her from time to time and think, “I can’t believe someone didn’t want her. I can’t believe they didn’t love her enough to take care of her. She’s just so extraordinarily lovable.” It’s inconceivable to me that anyone would neglect a dog so much (she was so thin when we met her! And that was after our awesome foster carer had been carefully feeding her up!), but what is truly staggering is how well Abby’s nature has overcome it. A few hiccups here and there are nothing compared to what neglect and abuse can do to a dog’s ability to trust and feel safe.

Nothing, it turns out, can keep our girl down.

DOG QUEST: Amos’s protective drive

Usual disclaimers apply here – I’m not going to delve deeply into canine behavioural psychology because, at this point, it is beyond my ken. There are some really good questions around territoriality and protectiveness, and I’m not much for answering those decisively, although I would love to know more.

This is about Amos, and some general perceptions of dog behaviour, and a bit of a brag, because I’m biased, and Amos is my bud.

Our first anecdote begins one bright Saturday morning when my father drove out to our place to help us with some yard work (this was before we adopted Abby). This is an ongoing project, ever since a fifty-metre-plus mountain ash with delusions of glory launched itself into our yard over a year ago and smacked down perfectly parallel to the fence line. Dad came around with his trailer and a tale of woe.

This is not unusual, and it’s a family trait. We love us some tales of woe.

Since the tree had crushed our original fence, gate and retaining wall, we’ve had some “temporary” pool-safety fencing up to prevent Amos from wandering the countryside. So Dad and I stood next to this fence as he shared his tale of woe. On the other side of the fence, Amos stood, wagging his tail and gazing happily up at us (Amos adores my father).

Now, this was a tale of betrayal and crappy friendship and a few thousand dollars lost between ex-friends, and my father gets very animated when telling a story.

This, too, is a family trait. Why simply tell a story with one’s lips when one can throw in waving hands and puffed out chests and facial grimaces? This is not merely a story, people. This is theatre, and that is our noble way.

He was very angry about what had happened, and, being Dad, he kind of got in my face, while shouting about it.

Let’s be clear – my dad wasn’t threatening me at all, and I was well aware of that, but I am not good around overt displays of anger or temper. I tend to freeze up a little, and twitch back.

“WOOF.”

Dad stopped mid-rant, mouth open. I frowned. As one we turned our heads towards Amos. He was standing in a very alert position, staring at my father. Now, Amos will bark to invite play, so I checked his body language – nope, this wasn’t a play bark. It wasn’t a full-on aggressive bark, either. “What?” I asked the dog (who, naturally, did not reply). “Nothing to worry about here. Everything’s okay.” I stroked him on the head and under the jaw and he relaxed, his tail wagging happily again.

I turned back to Dad. “Resume story,” I said, knowing the value of delivering a good rant.

Dad continued in his rant, and again, he got in my face.

WOOF.

And again, we turned to look at Amos.

The light dawned. “Ah. Dad, he thinks you’re yelling at me.”

“Oh!” Dad relaxed at once, and came over to give Amos some petting and love, and he backed off the story a bit, and all was well.

Now, I don’t know if Amos was responding to Dad’s aggressive body language (and it was very intimidating body language, particularly if you don’t know my dad), or my instinctive twitchiness in the face of anger, or possibly the combination of the two, but I’ll be honest: I think his reaction was excellent, and I’ll tell you why.

Dogs are attuned to human body language. It’s the only way they know to communicate with us. Every piece of information is crucial. I wouldn’t be entirely happy if my dog was so clueless that they couldn’t pick up on this sort of thing – it would probably be harder to communicate with them. I wouldn’t necessarily want a dog to become desensitised to it either, because that would indicate that displays of anger or temper are commonplace, and that’s not an ideal situation for anyone.

On the other hand, a dog that is overly protective – one that goes from zero to a hundred without warning – is really not desirable either. If a dog doesn’t let anyone they haven’t met get near you, that’s a problem, not just from a practical standpoint (having to put the dog away every time you have guests is frustrating. We sometimes have to do that, but admittedly that’s because of excessive social enthusiasm, not territoriality), but because it suggests that your dog thinks you can’t take care of yourself.

That may seem like excessive interpretation (and anthropomorphism), but bear with me: essentially, you want your dog to trust you to take care of them, not the other way around. In other words, it’s nice that Amos has my back, but clearly he follows my judgment when I declare things to be “safe” or otherwise. This means that if I don’t overreact to storms and earthquakes, he probably won’t either (note: lots of dogs are scared of storms and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your reaction – but your reaction can make it worse). If I react with warm enthusiasm to a visitor, that tells Amos that the visitor is safe.

If he were getting protective, even from people that I obviously like, that would indicate that he wasn’t trusting my judgment, and I need my dog to trust me.

I have another example. Last year, I had surgery. It was relatively minor surgery, but it did involve an open wound that took a while to heal, and Amos could smell that I wasn’t at my best. He didn’t get over-protective, but he did become a little bit more of a velcro-dog than he would normally be.

One day, a few days after I got out of the hospital, I stepped out on the back deck to find that Lenny, the kelpie from next door, had come to visit. Lenny is a sweetheart and a charmer, with an ant-eater style tongue that attacks you like a friendly, sloppy ninja, so I was delighted to see him. He galloped over to me for a pat.

Amos body-blocked him. He didn’t growl. He didn’t snap. He just ensured that Lenny could not get close to me, and after that, he actually gently herded Lenny over to the other end of the deck, and then came back to me, looking very pleased with himself.

It’s true that when Amos and Lenny (or Amos and Abby, or any combination of the three) are in the presence of any of their favourite humans, they get possessive and a bit jealous. No! I want all the pats! You can’t have any! And they will body block, and wriggle, and bounce, but there’s a very obvious no-hard-feelings about all the body language involved. I’ve never seen them herd each other before.

“Aw,” I said to Amos, “That’s sweet. But I want to pat Lenny.” So I put Amos in a drop, and walked over to Lenny, who was looking quite forlorn-

-and then I went back to Amos, and put him back in his drop-

-and-

Okay. It took a few tries to get past Amos’s instinctive conviction that Lenny shouldn’t be too close when I was vulnerable, but we got there. Amos held his drop, with a desperate look in his eyes, and I petted Lenny and told him he was very cute, and then I released Amos and petted them both, and the moment seemed to pass.

While I felt quite loved, herding away a smaller dog that we know well bordered a little bit on over-protective for me. He did it gently, with no overt displays of aggression, but it was an unnecessary level of caution. So, I decided that I had to demonstrate to Amos that I get to make all the decisions about patting other dogs, even when I’m sick and have an open surgical wound, and we did this in a controlled setting.

My favourite story, though, is a bit more ridiculous. It takes place the day after we brought little Amos-puppy home. He was nine weeks old and a bit under five kilos.

For nearly the first 24 hours that we had Amos, he interacted almost exclusively with me. Husband was working from home that day and things had apparently gone a bit pear-shaped, so he was very busy. I’d picked up Amos from the breeder and brought him home, talking to him the whole time and petting him at red lights. I’d put his box next to my side of the bed that first night, and slept with my arm dangling in it so he could lick me and get petted when he felt uncertain (just for the first night, I didn’t want to create a pattern). There was a very quick bonding process.

The evening of the second Amos-day, I was still very tired and not feeling at my best. Husband was stressed out about work, and we had what passes for a fight when two people are very grumpy but too tired to get excessively worked up. I was lying on the couch, and little Amos was sprawled on the carpet having a snooze.

Voices were raised. Tempers frayed.

Then, the adorable puppy growl: “rrrrrrrrrrRUFF.”

Little puppy Amos had woken up, and positioned himself closer to me, glaring at Husband.

We both melted immediately, and the fight was over. Husband held out his hand for Amos to lick, and all was forgiven. So, it was established early on that Amos is not a fan of raised voices in the home, or cross voices, and I’m not entirely sure that was a protective urge (he was just a baby, after all) so much as his own personal discomfort with the vibe of the room.

Still, I like to say, “Amos doesn’t like it when people yell at me.” And that works out well, because I don’t like it either.

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.

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.