Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Living with Dogs - Part 2: "The Toddler-Canine Connection"

In my last post, I mentioned that most dogs have the moral reckoning of a 2 or 3 year old child.  We'll look more at what that comparison means for you and your dog in this post...

For the first 20 years of my dog training career, I tried desperately to get dog owners to stop seeing their dogs as "little people in fur and fangs..."

..and for the last few years I've been desperately trying to do the exact opposite!

Why the change in my training message?

Well, the more I see of dogs and humans, the more I am convinced that the reason dogs have been domesticated for so long is because of the similarities in social structure that they share with humans and our families.

By example, within a human family, there are general social rules and roles that each member plays - from who's in charge of paying the bills, to who gets to pick what's for dinner and so on.

The same is true for dogs living in a group together.  These social rules may be slightly different from family to family, and who plays what role can change some with varying ages, etc., but generally the rules and roles themselves don't change.

So, whether we want to see our dog as living in our 'pack' or just as living as part of our human family, there are some things we need to consider:

  • Most dogs have the moral decision-making skills and self control of a 2 year old human child.  
  • Most dogs also have the problem solving skills of a 4 or 5 year old child (they can figure things out almost as well as a kindergarten student!)

You read that right - here is some science behind the statements made above:

So...when we live with dogs, we are pretty much living with furry toddlers...strange little creatures with their own wills, strong emotions, lots of affection to give, lots of tantrums to throw, good days and bad days, not much self control, and lots of interest in getting their very own way.  All my clients with children can relate to this!

But unlike our human children, these furry 'canine toddlers' can also deliver a bite with about 320 pounds of pressure per square inch  in those powerful jaws.

Fortunately, most dogs really do want to be part of the family, and are very careful about not using those fangs.  But after 25 years of dog training, I am seeing a sharp increase in the number of aggression cases I evaluate each year.

Is this because we really have that many more aggressive dogs running around, or is it that we are doing something different in the way we live with dogs than we used to?

Maybe it's a bit of both.

This all points back to my first post in this series, about the differences in how most dog trainers live with their dogs vs. how most pet owners live with theirs.

Trainers (including myself) throw around terms like "dogs need discipline," "dogs need structure," and "dogs need boundaries," etc., but we don't always clearly define what that looks like for our clients.

Likewise, if I had a nickel for every dog whose owners are convinced their dog is "dominant," I'd be a very rich woman indeed.  And again, "dominance" is a word that gets bandied about, with no clear definitions - even among professionals!

To make matters even worse for the dogs, often our society sees the concepts of structure, discipline, dominance and boundaries in a negative way.   Because of this, owners shy away from clear communication with their pets - leading to confusion on the dog's part and frustration for the owners.

What can we do?

To start, go back to the analogy of your dog as a toddler - when we begin to see our dogs in this way, it becomes clear just how much help from us they need to get by in the world.

We don't expect our children to raise themselves.  We set guidelines and boundaries about everything from bedtime, to eating their veggies, to how to play nicely with other kids .  We give guidance about homework, social skills, and how to behave in public.  (Or we should!)

All of this takes self discipline on the parents' part. If you doubt this, try disappointing a 2 year old child who really wants something like another piece of cake or a new's hard!

In fact, it might actually feel easier in the moment to give in to the child.  But as any good parent knows, giving in to the tantrum in the moment can lead to all sorts of trouble in the future.

The same is true with our dogs,  They need us to guide them and parent them through the pitfalls of our hectic, confusing human world.

And we must remember - while the human toddler will grow up and gain more and better communication skills, acquire stronger morals and self discipline...

...the dog remains a toddler.

I hope that message is not a negative or disappointing one to dog owners.  I hope that through this series of posts on living with dogs, we all gain a better understanding of how to truly meet our dogs' needs, which in turn will lead to happier dogs and happier humans.

Jennifer Hime is the a canine behavior consultant and lead trainer and owner of Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO.  She can be contacted through her website at

Monday, February 9, 2015

Living with Dogs - Part One: Is your dog thriving or just surviving?

In recent weeks, the trainers of Front Range K9 and Denver Dog Dynamics have been kicking around an interesting thought:

"Why don't professional dog trainers' dogs have the same problems our client dogs have?"

When discussing our own dogs, trainers talk about drive and motivation, or reinforcement schedules and how to build a better mousetrap.  We hotly debate the four learning quadrants, whose technique of reward delivery is better, etc., etc.

But we rarely are troubled by the dog who is dumping the trash, peeing all over the house, chewing our shoes, guarding the sofa, or is at risk of biting the neighbor's child.

Why is this?

There could be quite a few reasons for this, of course.

One reason could be that pet owners don't have all the same information or experience that dog trainers have.  (If they did, dog trainers wouldn't have jobs!)

Another reason could be that dog owners don't always have the best physical training skills - their timing of rewards and corrections, and their consistency (or lack thereof) can make training a struggle for them, and for their dogs...

...not to mention frustrating the heck out of their dog trainers!

(I can't believe she just said that out loud!)

Yet experience shows us that both humans and dogs are very capable of learning new skills, and that consistency and practice does improve the skills of both.

So why, even after taking training classes and often improving their training skills greatly, do some owners still report problems that dog trainers almost never experience in their own dogs?

Does the general public just have 'bad dogs'?   Are they just bad dog owners/trainers?  I don't think so.  But what's the big secret dog trainers know that owners don't?

The missing puzzle piece lies in the way the most dog owners live with dogs - as opposed to the way most dog trainers live with dogs.

All of the dog trainers I know live with their dogs in a much different way than average pet owners live with theirs.

Whether trainers have a single dog, or a horde like I do, they all follow tenants of leadership and guidance that most pet owners just don't (or won't).

It all comes back to basics:

During our first meeting with most dog owners at the training facility, we talk about the 3 F's:
  • Food
  • Freedom
  • Furniture (or where the dog sleeps)

In upcoming posts, I'll be going into a lot more detail about the 3 F's, but suffice it to say that these 3 things are seen as valuable resources by all dogs on some level (and by most humans, too, if you think about it).

And demonstrating and maintaining control of those valuable resources - throughout the life of the dog - is something that comes naturally to dog trainers.

Dog trainers don't view feeding schedules, kennel/crate time, or sending our dogs to their own beds when we want the whole couch to stretch out on as 'punishment.'

And neither should dog owners see it that way.

Dog trainers also don't view the reinforcement of these activities, guidelines, and rules as temporary.

When do you stop parenting a child?  Most parents who are worth their weight in gold will tell you "Never."

When do you stop communicating with your child?  Never.  We guide and teach our children for their entire lives.

This ongoing communication and education and guidance is part of what defines us as pack animals -  kinda like dogs!

Why, then, do so many dog owners look forward to the day when "training is over, and the dog can just be a good dog."

The dog is a good dog because you never stop teaching it, guiding it, and communicating with it!

There is no magic date when you can stop being the responsible one in the relationship, because the dog has suddenly turned into something you are no longer responsible for.  It is, after all, a dog.

And even the very brightest of dogs still have the moral reckoning of about a 2 or 3 year old child.

Really - would you want a child totally in charge of it's own life - or yours?

I'll admit it.  I've gotten lax recently about really making a big deal out of owner responsibility and the dog's need for guidance.  It's no fun telling 200 or 300 new people a year that the way they are living with their dogs is a big part of what is causing the dogs' problems.

Owners so often see 'the rules' as a negative.  But I am on a mission to change that.

It's time for dog owners to recognize that lifetime commitment to a dog is not just about feeding and housing them.

It's not just about taking a few training classes and calling it good.

It's also not just about buying the most expensive toys, bedding, and food and thinking throwing money at the problems will help.

It's about taking responsibility for a life and a mind that needs our guidance; in fact - a mind and spirit that is not as equipped to deal with our world as we are.

And now - for the BIG SECRET that all dog trainers know:

When a human does embrace all parts of dog ownership - from spoiling them rotten with all the best toys and food, to setting and maintaining clear guidelines on how to survive in a truly crazy, confusing human world - something amazing happens.

Dogs thrive.

Jennifer Hime is the a canine behavior consultant and lead trainer and owner of Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO.  She can be contacted through her website at