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Behaviourist's corner

How to boost your dog’s person-friendly skills

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Anti-social behaviour can really limit your day-to-day lifestyle with your dog, but you can help him to be a more sociable canine companion. APBC clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar gives advice on how to boost your dog’s social skills so you can both feel more relaxed and ready to have fun.

Is your dog shy, anxious or tricky to handle when he comes into contact with other people or dogs? Even the most socially adept dog can slip into habits that leave you cringing at those disapproving looks from other dog owners in the park or feeling awkward when you have visitors.

Of course, some dogs and breeds are naturally friendlier and more adventurous than others. But socialisation and assimilation with a wide range of experiences and environments during your dog’s early training will help him to be more adaptable, confident and relaxed, even when out of his familiar territory. Checking out a puppy training guide can refresh your memory on the essential socialisation steps. Most dogs learn quite quickly, but training an older dog to improve their people skills can take longer as their memory may be less sharp.

If going to the park is tricky

After you’ve put lots of hard work into your dog training techniques it’s stressful when he starts acting-up off the lead, barking at people and even showing apparent aggression towards other dogs. A sudden spate of antisocial behaviour can be a reaction to a traumatic event or experience. Maybe he’s been attacked by another dog, so he’s bound to be wary and on his guard.

Younger dogs, typically in their adolescent period of around six to eight months, are keen to explore the world and can seem to forget all their early training, becoming unresponsive and boisterous. Older dogs may be experiencing stiff joints and find it painful to play with other dogs. This could lead to a fear of other dogs as they associate them with pain.

Top tips

  • If your canine is on a tight lead, this may well be exacerbating his antisocial behaviour. If he barks and pulls at his lead, it could be through frustration at wanting to go for a run, and possibly not because he’s being aggressive.
  • Try using a line that’s around 10-15m long attached to a body harness. This will give him the freedom to interact with other dogs and run around, while you still have control. This can be particularly useful with adolescent dogs until you gain confidence again in his recall response.
  • Keep a supply of treats in your pockets to reward good behaviour, and suggest that regular dog walkers in the park give him a treat when he behaves well around them and their dogs, so he’s pleased to see them.

When visitors call and it’s chaos

Everyone is usually excited when visitors come to the door, but if your dog goes over the top by barking and jumping up, others might not be so pleased to see him. Help him to learn to be calm by calling him into another room or placing him behind a dog gate when visitors first arrive at the door. Reward him if he obeys your command to follow you, and only let him out once everything has settled down and he’s calm. If he jumps up at you or your visitors, try not to shout, but ignore him until all four feet are on the ground and then praise him and ask your guests to give him a stroke if they are comfortable to do so.

Top tips

  • If you’re worried that he may be snappy or stressed, or there are children in the house that he’s not accustomed to, bring him into the room on a lead and get him to sit close by you, asking visitors to keep their distance.
  • Praise and reward him for sitting still and calm.
  • If they’re willing, ask your visitor to gently throw him a treat from a distance when your dog is calm. This will help your dog to feel sociable.

To make travelling with your dog easier

Dogs can easily make fearful or bad associations, so think back to what may have made them reluctant to travel. Did he have a trip in the car when he was feeling unwell, a fright from the sudden noise of a horn on a bus, or did someone tread on his tail on the train? A bad experience can make him not want to repeat it.

A crate covered with a blanket, containing a familiar-smelling comfy bed, is the calmest and safest way for a dog to travel during a car journey. The crate also prevents your dog hurling himself at the car window and barking. If he’s fearful of getting into the car, try throwing his ball, toy or treats into it when parked at home, so he can get used to jumping in and out and associates this with fun.

Top tips

  • Take brief trips on public transport to start with, keeping your dog on a short but loose lead and close to you. Small dogs often feel safer and more confident if carried in your arms or in a dog carrier. Being on the ground surrounded by lots of people’s legs and feet can be frightening.
  • Set off armed with treats for good relaxed behaviour on buses and trains, and try to make sure the end destination is somewhere exciting, like the park.
  • Try not to let strangers come up to him if he’s stressed as that will increase his anxiety – but if he’s relaxed, his admirers could give him a treat. Keep your eyes on your dog’s body language. If he’s tense, or showing other anxious signs like licking his lips or turning his head away, ask people to not lean over him or stroke him. Explain these signs to non-dog owners, so they can be familiar with your dog’s moods.
  • Some dogs just can’t cope confined to busy and noisy public transport. If your dog is clearly distressed, only travel at quiet times or consider using a dog-friendly taxi instead.

If you have any worries about your dog’s behaviour, speak to your vet about obtaining a referral to a professional behaviourist for expert and individual help for your specific situation.

Keep a progress report

Starting a progress report before going to the vet can be really useful. It can help you work out why your dog may be acting in an unsociable way. You can then take swift action to bring his social confidence up to scratch. Keep a record of when the problems occur to help identify any triggers and patterns to his behaviour. It’s not easy to accurately remember his behaviour from a couple of weeks ago, so a progress diary is a great resource to have.

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