Tell me if you've ever met a dog like this: A large, strong breed dog, that is social with people, that also happens to have sudden and intense episodes of manic play where they jump and bite at your clothing or arms. It's play, but it feels borderline aggressive. Dogs that exhibit this type of behavior are usually characterized by their strength and tenacity. Owners typically say that when they're calm, they're actually quite snugly. But when the dog exhibits one of these outbursts the owner is usually left feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, angry and in some cases... scared. In the aftermath of one of these episodes, people are left with long red welts, bruises and the occasional swollen lip.
This is different from typical jumping that occurs during greetings. While an excited greeter can still be frustrating, at least the behavior is predictable: it happens when family, friends or acquaintances walks through the front door and usually stops after about 5 or 10 minutes. The behavior that we're discussing in this post usually catches the owner off guard. The root of the problem is more complicated than it might first appear, the jumping typically occurs when dog becomes over-stimulated (fearful, anxious, aroused) by the environment or by changes in the environment. The dog can go from 0 to 60 in less than a second, and it takes substantially longer for the dog to "come back down" to calm.
I've found a few commonalities in dogs that exhibit this type of behavior:
- These dogs usually spend a significant amount of time "cooped up." Meaning, they spend more than 4 hours in a kennel or crate during the day. Owners usually feel that this is necessitated by the fact that these same dogs are usually impulsive counter-surfers, and if the counters are cleared they will search for something else "to do" when left alone - chew on the couch, raid the garbage, pull threads from your rug.
- Their outside time is usually filled with high stimulation activity. To counter-balance the amount of time that they spend in-active, the owner might try to "tire the dog out" with long games of fetch, day care or dog park. In essence, these dogs are conditioned to become "adrenaline junkies." They are accustomed to an "all or nothing" approach to living life, they have not spent a significant amount of time learning how to settle in high stimulation settings, and high arousal play is not well regulated.
- It's common for owners to feel that these dogs need a firm hand. When a dog acts out of line they usually try to roll the dog to their side, give the dog a hard stare, knee the dog in the chest. They might even try using a shock collar, throw chain or shaker can. A dog that is already on an adrenaline high is likely to respond to these challenges (intimidation or pain) by attempting to "match" the person's combative approach. Remember, these dogs are usually the tenacious type: they have that "when the going get tough, the tough get going" mentality. An aversive approach can, in some cases, suppress the behavior for a short period of time. But like a covered pot of boiling water, there is a limited amount of time before the dog blows their lid.
HERE ARE 6 TRAINING TIPS FOR IMPULSIVE PLAYERS:
Training Tip #1: These dogs need problems to solve. Food puzzles are great, but it's even better if the problem solving becomes a bonding activity between you and your dog. Train them to a high level of fluency on calming behaviors (for example, settling on a training mat or dog bed, sitting or lying down on a variety of surfaces or heeling by your side). Start in a low stress, low distraction environment. Once your dog looks like an obedience super star in your house or backyard, gradually build up to more challenging environments. Remember that learning is an on-going process, there is always room for growth.
Question: What if my dog would rather jump and bite than engage in training for food?
Training Tip #2: Use your dog's breakfast and dinner for training. Animals spend the majority of their day working to acquire food. Even we spend the majority of our time working to put food on the table. It's how we use the majority of our mental and physical energy. Our domesticated dogs are given free meals. Sometimes we ask them to sit (or for some other trick) before meal time but that takes up the smallest fraction of their total energy. The excess mental and physical energy fuels the most common behavioral issues. If you want to do a better job of utilizing your dog's brain power you should get rid of your dog's food bowl, and start making them work for their food in training sessions. Your dog will thank you, and your relationship will flourish in ways you never thought possible.
Note: You should still opt for higher value (meaty) reinforcement whenever you're challenging your dog to learn a new behavior, or generalize a learned behavior to new distractions or environments.
Training Tip #3: This jumping/mouthing behavior is the result of a mis-directed effort to "play." Some of these dogs find playing with their toys to be less interesting/stimulating than jumping and mouthing at their owner's arm. Other dogs have no clue what to do with a dog toy, they've never learned how to play. We need to teach them. I personally have found that teaching dogs to play tug (click here for a video regarding rules of play for tug) with well outlined rules can be a very constructive way of teaching dogs to issue more impulse control, think through high arousal and learn to become more in tune to their owner's facial expressions and body language. However, many owners feel uncomfortable playing tug because it feels too similar to the very behavior that they're trying to un-train. If this is the case, you can also teach your dog to play structured games of fetch. Some dogs are natural retrievers, some are not. A good trainer can shape and build drive for this type of game if they effectively break down the sequence.
Training Tip #4: Instead of taking this type of dog to daycares or dog parks (where they are likely practicing unregulated, high arousal play) take your dog for hikes. The sights and scents of nature is great therapy. It can help recondition your dog to slow down. It's physical exercise that generally promotes a calm state of mind, and it's good for you too.
Training Tip #5: Consider conditioning your dog to a head halter or a muzzle. While the dog's intention may not be to cause injury, these outbursts can be dangerous and should be managed intelligently. A head halter or muzzle can add additional peace of mind when you're trying to proof or generalize their training in the presence of friends, family, young children, dogs or in high stimulation environments. When head halters and muzzles are properly conditioned they should not create additional stress, frustration or anxiety. A dog that paws incessantly at their halter or muzzle is not properly conditioned to wearing it.
Training Tip #6: Contact a trainer to help create and implement a solid training plan. If you live in San Diego you can go to sandiegodogtrainers.org, if you live elsewhere in the United States you can go to ccpdt.com to find a certified trainer in your area, and if you live abroad you can find a qualified trainer at imdt.uk.com
Written by Alyssa Lapinel of Legends Dog Training. Legends Dog Training is based in San Diego, California and offers group classes by Mt. Woodson (border between Poway and Ramona), private lessons and skype consultations. Go to www.legendsdogtraining.com to learn more about training services.