A DOG is not just for Christmas. Every December, welfare organisations and animal professionals take it upon themselves to send out yet again the same message. A message they most likely tire of saying but something they know is a very important. Why? Because there are still many people out there who think a cute little puppy dressed in a red bow tie is the perfect festive gift for a loved one. The reality is of course that while a dog is not just for Christmas, it is also not just for the spring, or just for summer walks along the beach, or even for autumn strolls around the reservoir. A dog truly is for life – come rain or shine.
If you have been thinking of getting a puppy – whether it is for a Christmas gift or something you have been planning for a while – you should be asking yourself a number of questions before you make that call to the breeder. After answering these key questions you should have a much better idea as to how suited you, and your lifestyle is, to being a dog owner. If you are not suited and are not prepared to change your lifestyle, then you should ask yourself how fair it would be on any new pup entering your life.
You might now be thinking about what those questions are. Training methods might have moved on a lot since you last had a dog or you might be looking to be a first time owner and therefore have no idea what the future entails. So here are five questions you should ask yourself and a quick guide to the reasons why.
1) Why do you want a dog?
It might seem like the obvious question and many people might overlook it when making their decision. It is number one for a reason – it is the first question you should ask yourself.
Do you want a puppy because they look cute and cuddly? Do you want a puppy because your sister’s friend has one and everyone is in love with it and you want that too? Do you want one because your children keep asking all the time and you want them to stop? Do you want to rescue a dog because it looks sad in the rescue centre or shelter from the picture you have seen on Facebook? Or do you want one because your lifestyle lends yourself to having a puppy, because you want to put the time into training it, because you want to feel rewarded when you see it develop and because you would like the companionship?
There are many reasons people cite for wanting a puppy or rescue dog but wanting one for the wrong reasons could land you in an awkward situation going forward. Dogs are not a fashion accessory so saying you purely want one because they look cute and everyone will be in love with it is not enough. You could get one that looks like a teddy bear as a puppy but is a working dog breed cross, which needs a lot of exercise and mental stimulation to keep it feeling fulfilled. It’s not going to stay like a teddy bear forever. Many people also make the mistake of getting one because their children want one and keep asking, but if you know you’re lifestyle is not suited to a dog, don’t give in unless you’re prepared to change it. The ‘sad face’ of a rescue dog in a shelter is also a reason many people decide to bring one home without really thinking about it. Re-homing rescues is a fantastic idea if you have the lifestyle for a dog, but many need the same amount of training as a puppy, some have behaviour challenges and all need to have exercise and mental stimulation just like any dog. Are you ready and equipped for that?
Getting a dog is a massive family decision – make sure you are not taking a pup home on some misguided belief that it will be easy.
2) Have you got enough time for a dog?
I’ve mentioned lifestyle as a key factor for your decision to get a dog and this comes hand-in-hand with time. Put simply, if you cannot make enough time to give a dog what it needs then please don’t take one home. As above, every dog needs exercise and mental stimulation and depending on breed and personality, some need more than others. Many people who home a puppy or rescue will consider the time they will need to walk the dog but tend to underestimate the time they will need to train it. Our canine friends are quick learners, they are incredibly clever and we can teach them to do so many things from detecting drugs to firearms to being of assistance to people with disabilities. However, you’re not going to be able to click your fingers and suddenly your pup is toilet trained. You can’t expect your dog to learn overnight the rules of the home and what is and isn’t acceptable. You have to put hours and hours of time in to teach and train your dog. To expect them to know without putting that time in would be unfair.
3) Can you afford it?
So you know you are getting a pup for the right reasons and you have prepared yourself to dedicate hours of time to raise a fulfilled and trained pup. Now you need to ask yourself whether you can afford it. What do you need to pay for? Well, food is the obvious one and the cost of this can range depending on what diet your dog is on and how much food it needs depending on its size. You will also need to factor in treats and toys. Be prepared to pay around £50 to £100 a month on food alone.
You will also need to consider the cost of parasite treatment – something that is very important in maintaining good health for you pup. Again this depends on size, weight and brand, but to give you an idea it can be around £50 for three months’ worth of treatment.
Sticking with health matters, you then have to consider veterinary bills. You’ll have to get your pup vaccinated and vets recommend yearly boosters. Will you want your pup neutered? If so, that comes at a cost too. What if your dog is ill and needs scans and treatment? Then your bill can run into the hundreds and if not thousands if they are not insured. It is strongly recommended that you get insurance for your dog and while that will avoid large bills down the line, it is yet another monthly cost. How much you pay again depends on breed and how much you wish to be insured for.
Grooming and training are other costs you might like to factor in. Will the breed you get need to be regularly groomed? How much would it be to have your dog groomed and do you wish to join a puppy class or get in a trainer to help? Do your research and find out how much all elements will cost and make sure you can afford it before you jump into making that decision.
4) What is your house set-up like?
This is another important factor to consider. When I say set-up, I mean the structure of your home as well as family dynamic. It is wise to look at the size of your home before you decide on getting a dog then what breed. Can you accommodate a dog? Where will it sleep? How big is your garden? Is your garden secure? Do you need to do work to your home and garden before the dog arrives? They are all questions that you need to answer first. Work to make your garden secure could come at yet another cost and larger dogs need a lot of space.
Family dynamic is important because it can affect the personality of your pup and its training. Do you live in a busy, stressful household? Do you have young children and if so, are they old enough to understand training? A busy, stressful household could result in a busy, stressful dog so make sure those in your family are prepared for a new addition. Young children can struggle to understand why you are training the dog to do something and can sometimes teach your dog to do something you would rather they not do. Are your children old enough to understand and if not, would it be better to wait until they are older before you bring a dog home?
5) What breed is best for you?
If you have read the first four questions and you are content with your decision to take a puppy or rescue home, then the next thing you need to consider is what breed is best for you. There are now so many breeds and it is important that you do your research before deciding what one to get. Things to consider include: What was the breed originally bred to do? How much exercise do they need, how big do they grow, what kind of coat do they have and what breed traits do they have? The breed of dog you get needs to match your lifestyle. If it doesn’t, you could end up with a frustrated dog developing unwanted behaviours.
Some breeds need more exercise and mental stimulation than others and many breeds have been bred to work all day. If you’re at work for long hours and only want to spend an hour or two a day walking and training your dog then a Border Collie is not going to be the breed for you. Poodle crosses are now becoming more and more popular as people think they are an easy choice. But do not underestimate the poodle. They are intelligent dogs and they also need to use their brains. If you are unsure as to what breed to get, ask a professional, they will be happy to help.
If you follow my guide and make sure you do your research, it will help you be as prepared as you can be before taking your pup or rescue home.
Training a dog is not easy. It’s hard work and at times can be frustrating and tiring. We’ve all been there – trying to get your pup to stop chasing the cat, stealing slippers from the shoe rack or jumping up at visitors to your house. Sometimes we say to ourselves ‘will they ever stop and understand’? Well the answer is yes, they will, but only if you’re in control of your own emotions, persevere and arm yourself with some key characteristics and approaches. No species learns well in a stressed environment, not even dogs.
What do I mean when I say key characteristics? Well, I mean:
All the skills and commands I teach are based on a hands-off approach, focusing on positive reinforcement techniques. And one of the first things I tell owners is that when training dogs, we need to be patient. Dogs are a different species, something we shouldn’t ever forget. They learn through reinforcement and they need to be shown what the right way to behave is and what is not acceptable. Training is about teaching those things – not bullying them into it. Some dogs take longer to learn than others but with all dogs we need to give them time - that is why patience is key.
Remaining calm and in control of your own emotions is vital because getting stressed will only make the dog or puppy stressed. The same goes for frustration. A dog will pick up on human emotions – they will know when you are sad, happy, anxious, stressed or frustrated. For example, my dog can’t watch a football match because those in the room are stressed and tense. He just can’t handle all those emotions in a short space of time. Therefore he barks, having no idea what is going on. The biggest tip any trainer can tell an owner is to keep calm. If you find yourself getting stressed, frustrated or angry, remove yourself from the situation and take five.
My next tip – keep focused on what you are trying to achieve. What is it you’re exactly trying to teach your dog? If you’re unsure as to what you want to achieve, how can your dog know what it is you want him to do? With each cue or skill, you have to be consistent. I said earlier, dogs learn through reinforcement but for something to be reinforced, it has to be consistent. You can’t teach your dog to walk nicely on the lead by then letting him pull you to everything he wants to go and sniff and say hello to. He’ll walk nicely on the lead if you are consistent with your approach each time he tries to pull – stopping and changing direction. Reinforcement also works the other way and is why some dogs get so confused. Breaking a house rule once or twice might seem like a nice treat for your dog but in reality you’re just confusing them. Example? Feeding your dog at the table during meal times. Do it once and your dog has learned that hanging around the table gets a reward, do it twice then he’s expecting it again and again. It’s unfair to then chastise your dog for something you have previously reinforced – even if you have done it without thinking.
Being firm but fair is not about shouting at your dog when he has done something wrong and giving the ‘odd treat’ by breaking house rules when he’s been good or looks cute. It’s deciding on what the house rules are, teaching your dog the rules in a positive way and then sticking by them. You’re being firm by setting the boundaries and being fair by not moving the goal posts.
A dog owner and handler needs to have understanding and kindness if they are to succeed. A positive, can do, and confident attitude will also help while always setting your dog up to succeed – not to fail. Don’t jump into something too complicated straight away, build it up and give your dog time to learn. Also, if you know they are likely to do something unwanted in the house, try not to give them the option to do it. A good example is if you know they are partial to stealing shoes, don’t leave shoes in their reach.
My final tip - be prepared to learn yourself and admit when you might have got something wrong. No one is perfect and we’ve all been there when we have realised that we have been accidentally reinforcing something or that we could have better dealt with a certain situation. The best thing to do is learn from it and move on. Owning and training a dog really will teach you a raft of life skills – it’s not easy and you’re more than likely doing really well!
Imagine being a child, taken away from your family by a huge giant and put into a new home with new surroundings.
There are other giants there but none of them speak your language.
And, to make matters worse, they don’t even communicate in the same way so you have no idea what they are trying to tell you.
They are shoving a biscuit in your face and throwing their arms about, what do they want you to do?
You jump up, thinking that might be what they are asking for, but they get angry, frustrated and then they smack you hard on the nose.
What did you do wrong?
This is the reality for a young puppy, taken home by its new owner for the first time - especially if their new companions are not willing to give them the time and patience that all young pups need. They do not speak the same language as us and they do not communicate in the same way, so why do we expect them to be able to know exactly what we want them to do?
When writing an article for the Guernsey Press in 2016 on dog training, I wanted to find a way to summarise just how confusing life can be for a pup or an older dog. Of course, none of us really know what goes on in those hugely intelligent brains of theirs, however, we do know that they don’t come readily prepared with an English language setting button, or indeed any other human language button. So why do we see it as fair to use physical punishment?
When we talk about punishment there are two types – positive punishment and negative punishment. These terms are quite confusing but, essentially, positive punishment is the act of adding an aversive stimulus during punishment – the stimuli being unpleasant and therefore induces a change in behaviour. Negative punishment is the act of taking something away that the subject wants to act as a punishment i.e a time out, which removes attention. A physical punishment is a positive punishment.
The use of punishment in dog training or behaviourism is subject to much debate and there are parties that believe strongly in favour of positive punishment and others who believe in only using reward and positive reinforcement methods. It has been an area that I have taken great interest in and after studying the matter at length in recent years, it is one of the main reasons that I wanted to become a behaviourist. I do feel strongly against the use of positive punishment and, in particular, physical corrections. There are a number of reasons why I have this belief, for which I will explain, but primarily it is because I am concerned about the welfare of the dogs that live within our society.
While positive punishment is a natural part of dogs’ behaviour towards others, we need to remind ourselves that we are a different species. As I have already pointed out, we do not speak the same language and we do not communicate in the same way. Only those who have studied canine communication have an understanding how the species communicates but we can never be truly certain as dogs do not speak and they cannot tell us how they are feeling.
Owners often misinterpret the signals their dogs are displaying, particularly if they have never learned about canine communication. They anthropomorphise their pets and believe they are feeling ‘guilty’ for being naughty or ’jealous’ if they are being ignored. Again, we do not know that dogs are capable of feeling these human emotions as there is no evidence to suggest that they have the presence of mind to do so. In comparison, a dog can communicate with another dog – they speak the same language, they recognise fear, they recognise pain and they have been taught that all important bite-inhibition. If one is doing something wrong and they use positive punishment, what they have done to deserve the punishment will be communicated to them. A dog practicing it on another dog knows how much force to use and is rarely full on aggressive. Humans do not have that same ability – we cannot inform a puppy as to why he is having a positive punishment hand-touch because he is play biting and we do not know how hard or soft to do it.
It is my belief that by carrying out physical corrections, which are classed as positive punishments, with your hands, the dog can learn to associate your hands with negative connotations. If you are causing pain and fear when you are carrying them out, the dog will view your hands to be a threat. Welfare organisations have experience of this. A dog has gone stray and they are trying to catch it, they get so close and when they reach out with their hands to take the dog gently by the collar, it backs away. Veterinary practices will also witness it too. A vet or nurse will try and help a dog in pain and they have to use their hands. Due to hands being used as a positive punisher previously, hands are seen as a threat, the dog is in pain, it is fearful, it is nervous of their hands and so it might then growl or even try and bite the professional.
Another reason why I do not believe in punishment is that physical force is often carried out as an outlet for the owners’ own frustration. Physical and positive corrections can be used inappropriately by non-professionals and provide an excuse for the owner to up the physicality in the future for anything they see as the dog being ‘naughty’. The punishments can get more severe and could be used when the dog is behaving in a certain way because of another reason such as he is actually unwell or frustrated as its exercise and mental needs are not being met. If professionals advocate the use of these methods in their books and television programmes, unqualified and general dog owners will use them and it is, put simply, dangerous. Anthropomorphism also plays a part here. Any owner that believes their dog is capable of feeling emotions such as ‘guilt’ or ‘jealously’ will not think twice about smacking their dog on the nose if they have read one of Ceser Millan’s books – or indeed any other behaviourist who practices these methods.
This belief if backed up by Karen Pryor’s work. In her book ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’, she describes how punishment is humanity’s favourite method of dealing with unwanted behaviours. She makes the point that if one punishment does not work, a human will look to escalate the punishment and there is no end to it. Pryor’s point is a valid on. Leaving physicality aside for a minute, if we tell an owner that it is okay to shout at their dog if they disagree with a behaviour, the noise might work the first time as the dog is scared. The second time, it does not have the same effect and slowly the dog learns to ignore it. What does the owner do? They shout louder and louder and louder until they are literally screaming at their dog – the punishment is escalating. If we therefore tell them that a positive punishment such as a hand-touch is acceptable, what happens the second time it does not work? The hand-touch gets harder. If it continues to stop working the force will increase until the human is smacking and hitting the dog harder and harder and then that becomes abuse and a welfare issue. Of course, this is an extreme case but proves the point that positive punishment can be dangerous if used in the wrong hands and escalates. For me, the risk of this happening is too great.
In his book ‘In Defence of Dogs’, John Bradshaw supports the point that in the wrong hands, physical punishment can be dangerous. He questions how we know that the dog can associate the punishment with the unwanted behaviour. The answer is we do not. Bradshaw also highlights that while it might stop the behaviour in the instant it can cause relationship problems between the dog and the owner. It is unsurprising that a dog smacked harshly by its owner will be less likely to return to the owner when they are running free.
Physicality and punishment causes pain and fear. We know that it increases stress hormones and we know that a stressed dog can be difficult to live with. Aggression can also breed aggression. Punishment can also lead to a dog to fear something in the vicinity that it has occurred and therefore it can learn to be aggressive towards that something.
I am yet to see a physically punished dog give up the unwanted behaviour entirely. I have seen friends-of-friends positively punish their dogs for behaviours generated through the dogs frustration and boredom because they are not getting the right amount of exercise or mental stimulation and I have seen dogs been punished for not doing anything wrong, for example, the dog who takes a while to go back to their owner but then eventually does. Owners need to be patient and they cannot use positive punishment as an outlet for their own frustration. We know dogs learn better through reward. And there is usually an alternative to positive punishment - it might take longer but with patience and time it is easily achieved and is longer-lasting.
So what do we do if we have a dog with a serious unwanted behaviour or a serious problem? We apply common sense and use control and management methods. To use positive punishment carries too great a risk.