Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Conditioning for a Socially Acceptable Canine Citizen

Every new pet visit I have is met with hugs, kisses, greetings, salutations, snuggles, and a long long list of questions.

The first appointment sets the stage for every visit to come. If your pet is happy with us, if we can figure out a way to make the appointment fun, engaging, informative and supportive then we have succeeded on every level.

My hope, as your vet, is that you will always feel comfortable understanding all of the aspects of your pets care, and if you are ever unsure that you will know we are a safe and supportive place to seek out the answers to your questions.

It's not a small task for a first appointment; to win your heart and your trust. Especially in light of the great deal of ground there is to cover.

At the clinic we use written literature, magnets, email, business cards, props, and anything else we can think of to provide you with all of the tools to raise a happy healthy pet. But we aren't trying to keep just your pet happy we are also trying to keep our clients happy. Behavioral problems are one of the biggest reasons pets are surrendered to shelters.

All vets develop their sixth sense by observation, practice and hard learned lessons. We listen very carefully for the hidden clues, the subtle innuendos and the first hint at a sign of the dreaded "behavioral issue(s)" territory. Most behavior issues stem from lack of socialization, appropriate conditioning and positive reinforcement.

I saw the following list in a past issue of Dogfancy. The article was specifically addressing socialization. I often group socialization and conditioning together because it is hard to teach one without the other and your pet needs to learn both. I ALWAYS recommend addressing both through only one method; positive reinforcement.

At the clinic we provide our new pet clients with many "How-To" instructions and advice. I say 'pet' here, but in almost all cases I am really targeting the puppies. I am conditioning myself to say 'pet' because a few weeks ago I was reviewing the How-To list with a client who had just adopted her first dog (ever). I reviewed all of the How-To's and told her that I would write them all down so that she, (and now you), could have an online reference to review. (I thought it was a brilliant idea!) She could have a review sheet at her finger tips to help reinforce the litany of information that I had just dumped on her, and I would have a ready reference for the public! (Pure genius!) At her next appointment we started to review the how-to topics that we had discussed at the previous visit. We had discussed all of the puppy basics like housebreaking, leash walking, training, and puppy vet visits. When I asked her "how the house breaking was going?" she reluctantly said that "she was about 50% housebroken." When I asked her if she "had reviewed all of the how-to's I had written up and posted?" she replied assertively, "No, they were for puppies, Tinkerbelle is a one year old." (Not so genius am I?)

I smiled and paused. "Well, I know that she isn't a puppy, but she has never been housebroken so we have to train her to become housebroken. (I thought that the title "How to Housebreak Your Puppy" was pretty self-explanatory. Silly me for being so specific). Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Well, I am conditioning this old dog to say 'pet' and not "puppy'. I call every dog a puppy, who uses 'Miss', Madam' or 'Ma'am' anymore? (I'm not that old!). There is no such thing as too late to start, nor is the old adage about "teaching an old dog new tricks" true.

Here is Dogfancy's list of items that dog parents should use to help expose their pup to in order to help them develop into a socially responsible pup:
  • All types of people
  • Bags
  • Balloons
  • Bikes and motorcycles
  • Cars, trucks, and buses
  • Children of different ages
  • Crowds
  • Delivery people
  • Grooming equipment
  • Other dogs and puppies
  • People in uniform
  • People using walkers or wheelchairs
  • Sand
  • Shallow water
  • Strollers
  • Thunder
  • Umbrellas
  • Vacuum cleaners
Here's what I would add;

The foundation of  this advice is for you to understand and acknowledge your expectations for both you AND your companion. 

I seriously doubt many (or any of my readers) are raising guard dogs, or personal protection pups. Therefore, I am only providing advice for raising a dog that you DO want to like other people. Your best bet to raising a pup that loves other people and is happy in the world we all live in is to carry your pup with you everywhere that you (safely) can. Through this one simple act your pup will bond to you, trust you, and learn to deal with the same world that you and I do. Now, this piece of advice comes with a list a few important caveats.. (Listed at the end, care of the marginally pessimistic, overly schooled by lessons learned the hard way, veterinarian).

The single best way to address the world and all of the scary unknowns it envelops is to get out there and immerse yourself smartly in it.

If you brush your teeth in the morning then you should be brushing theirs to. When you feed yourself on a daily schedule you feed your pet (twice a day for dogs, three times for humans)  on another daily schedule. Exercise is a daily requirement  for all living beings. Sitting in parked cars is not safe for anyone. If you can't bring your pet to the store they stay home.

I follow my own advice. My pups come to work with me everyday. It is a daily conditioning to be a friend to all human beings. It is also a daily training exercise in tolerating other cats and dogs. Hard as it is for my bossy pittie-bull pup Charleston to be the unprejudiced jovial friend that his brother the beagle Jekyll is, he still 5 years later attempts to incite quarrels with most larger dogs. It is who he is. I know that I have to keep him on a short leash and remind him daily to accept others and not be a bully. I therefore do not take him into large crowds of dogs where I can not watch him adequately. He is comfortable around other dogs, but I must always give a conscious effort to slowly introduce him to new dogs. We provide him exercise daily but don't bring him to the Pet Expos, the dog parks, or the Petsmarts. If I could carry him in a bag I might..(he is 50 pounds), but I  cannot, so he stays out of situations that are not appropriate for him. I know my dogs because I understand them. I know that Jekyll will always see the world through rose colored glasses. He will always love every person he meets, and he will never refuse candy from a stranger. I keep him close because he cannot see the world for the dangers it holds. Charleston wears his heart on his sleeve. A tiny scold will break his heart, but he is also the kid who steals other children's milk money behind the lockers. He is a brat and a bully to other dogs. If he meets another dog who wants in on the action he will pop a cheap shot if your back is turned. But around people he is a love. I am never going to change the beings that they are. It would not be fair to ask them to change the fabric of their soul. But I am responsible for them so I watch them closely and introduce them to the world we live in cautiously and optimistically. I'm their parent if I don't believe in them who will?

Jekyll and Charleston
This whole surge in falsifying identities and 'service dog' vest adornment so that people can take their pets on planes, in restaurants and in hotel rooms is as ripe for disaster as it is ripe for abuse. Your pets don't need to sit next to you in the restaurant begging for a steak that isn't appropriate for them anyway. Leaving your dog in a car for any period of time, so that you can perform any menial task is just life-threatening and unnecessary. Don't do it. I'm sure no one does it on purpose; kill their pet via hyperthermia, but yet it happens every single year. Your pet is yours to protect, to provide for, and to be responsible for. You are a parent. Guide them, love them, and create a loving enriching environment with the intent of them being able to survive and thrive without you. They are not your identity, your reason, nor your crutch. They are their own person in the world that is not always kind, not always accepting, and not always shared with you.

I am also a doctor. I know disease lurks in the places of congregating canines. My pets are current on vaccines, protected against parasites, and not kept with the general population of my patients. I often work 12 hours a day which is too long for them to be left alone. They are no longer invited to our summer parties where one year my beagle ate her weight in Italian sausages which almost killed her. At another summer party Charleston caught the fish on the end of the fishing pole. Thankfully there were 4 vets (of course all female) present to sedate him and remove his fish hook while the husbands stood by weak kneed and useless.
Pepper, Peanutty, and Bella
There is little value in playing the blame game, but, the responsibility clause is as follows;
There is not one dog bite, dog attack, dog fight, or behavior issue that was not preventable nor came with a long list of predicating clues.

The first time there is an indication of a problem is the time to seek help. Start with your vet. There will be more issues in the future and you are probably (yes, unknowingly and inadvertently) contributing to the problem.

Your efforts to reduce the triggers, avoid the altercation scenarios and adjust your lifestyle to avoid another incident are ALL CONTRIBUTING AND REINFORCING THE PROBLEM.

You get out what you put in. A very simple equation that fits. If you can provide consistent affection, direction, and parenting you can raise a socially responsible companion. It is your duty as a parent, and the reward is well worth the time and effort invested.

Lack of socialization at the earliest age, or first opportunity, is the beginning of a lifetime of behavioral social, and, often also, medical issues.

Oh, and lastly build a strong support system around them. Pet sitters, groomers, grandparents, siblings, and your vet. It will serve you both well for the lifetime of wonderful memories ahead.

Life is good.
If you have a pet question, or pet experience/advice that you think might benefit others please join us on Pawbly is a place to support, encourage, and strengthen the bonds between us human and our companions. 

If you would like to visit me at the clinic stop by Jarrettsville Vet, in Harford County Maryland. Or, find me on Twitter @FreePetAdvice.


  1. "There is not one dog bite, dog attack, dog fight, or behavior issue that was not preventable nor came with a long list of predicating clues" - Thank you, thank you, thank you for this statement! I've run a private breed specific rescue out of my home for many years and my husband is a retired ACO so we've seen more dog behavior (good and bad) than the average person.

    Nothing makes me more upset than having to hear about the "Sudden Attack" by the family dog or how "X" breed is so unpredictable. It may have been sudden or unpredictable to you, Mr. Clueless Owner, but anyone paying even the slighest amount of attention saw it coming a mile away. Yet it is always, without fail, the dog who pays the price.

    1. Hello,
      Many thanks for reading and for including your thoughts. As the mom of a pittie I to know the terrible stigma, importance of parenting and providing good information to society in the hopes of eradicating the unjustifiable fear and prejudice. Please never stop helping/fostering/ and being a beacon of help and hope for those who need us most. I do think that through the hard work and help of people like you that we can remove the fear barriers that have been built by the poor pet husbandry of a few bad apples.
      Thank you for all that you do!

  2. I might add: Don't hold your pet back by saying "he had a bad experience/is a rescue/etc". Every day is a new day and an opportunity to lead with confidence and make progress. Empower your pet, or child, for that matter:)

    1. Hello,
      Excellent point! I know that many parents start to alter their behavior in an effort to protect their pet and inadvertently end up reinforcing the problem and defeating the whole purpose of conditioning their pet to respond appropriately to situations.. soo frustrating! This is why I always recommend people bring in an unbiased professional expert to see the situation with fresh eyes and understand why things are occurring, how you are participating in them, and how to resolve (not avoid) them. Protecting your pet is sometimes hurting them and often setting them up for disaster down the road.
      Thank you for adding that, please keep posting your thoughts it is so helpful to have other peoples perspectives and experience.

  3. So well stated, there are so many dogs that have been punished or abandoned because humans just don't understand. Thank you for this post!