6 Well Intentioned Ways You're Ruining Your Dog
Despite all their good traits, sometimes dogs can be frustrating as hell. If you don't own a dog, and simply wind up at a friend's house with one, well, that's even worse because you can't swat somebody else's pooch. So it just keeps gnawing on your shoe laces, and you're powerless to stop it. Why do so many dogs act like assholes?
Look in the mirror. It turns out, pretty much everything you do when interacting with dogs, is wrong in some way.
Punishing it After You Discover Something it Destroyed/Pooped On
Most dog owners have walked into a room to find our favorite slippers chewed up. Or maybe it's a book, or a computer, depending on the dog. It's natural to take one look at the destroyed slippers/novel/Alienware workstation and start yelling over and over again that the guilty party is, in fact, a Bad Dog. Hopefully this makes you feel better, because that's all it does.
There are two problems here: First, dogs don't speak English (their biggest obstacle to U.S. citizenship) so the only way we can really communicate what we want is through associating behaviors with tangible rewards.
"It's simple LOGIC! Why ... won't ... you ... LISTEN?!"
The other problem is dogs have pretty much no memory at all. This is why they're smart enough to know to wait until you're gone to dig that half-eaten burger out of the trash, but not smart enough to clean up the evidence after the fact.
So if the rewards/punishments aren't immediate, don't bother. If they do a good thing (like sit on command) and you immediately give them a treat, they associate the sitting with the treat and are more inclined to do it next time around. If they do a bad thing (like try to fit a cat's head in their mouth) and you immediately give them a punishment (like playing an Insane Clown Posse song), they associate cat bullying with excruciating pain and are more likely to stop.
So how long is too long to wait to punish your dog? How about one second?
That's right; studies have shown that even half a second delay in punishing (or rewarding) a dog has a noticeable effect on how fast they learn. So when you get home two hours after he's butchered your finest gaming computer, that is as far gone from his mind as ancient Roman history. He thinks that you're yelling at him for running up to greet you when you get home.
"He knows what he did," you might say. "Just look at him, he looks guilty as hell!"
Dogs may or may not feel guilt, but when he's looking sad and bowed-over amongst the shreds of your favorite possessions, that's not what's going on. Dogs will do that when you yell at them whether they did anything wrong or not. All he knows is that you're angry for some mysterious reason, probably thinking you just fly into a rage for no reason like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. All he's saying is, "I like you better when you're not flying into an insane fury that makes no sense to me. Please try to restrain your crazy irrational emotions."
Yelling at an Aggressive/Barking Dog
Dogs bark at things a lot, sometimes to let you know that something's there, sometimes to let whatever it's barking at know that it's there and sometimes just because. Generally, unless there's a burglar, or you're trying to create some kind of dog choir, you don't want your dog to bark.
Naturally, you might just yell at him to shut the fuck up. After all, it works with babies, why not with dogs?
"There are NO burglars out there! That's a Peeping Tom you idiot!"
Well, the problem is that dogs barking excitedly or fearfully are kind of strung out, and getting them more stressed or excited will just make the barking worse. Whether he interprets your yelling as attention, or anger, or you joining in the barking, it won't encourage him to stop.
A couple of things that might work include ignoring him, distracting him with a game or teaching him to bark on command.
Or making him wear the lobster of shame.
That might seem counter-intuitive, but reward/punishment training, the only way to communicate with a dog about behavior (see first item), only works well when you're telling a dog to do something on cue. So if you train him to "speak" on command, you can then train him to stop when you say "no speak" (since he's got an idea of what behavior you're talking about), and so, in a roundabout way, you've also taught him "shut up."
Comforting it When it's Scared
Sometimes dogs are scared of really stupid things, like vacuum cleaners, thunderstorms, people with hats or real estate signs. You've probably already guessed that the tough guy drill sergeant approach isn't the best, where you insult your dog's manhood and call him a momma's boy, especially when the dog is female. But the polar opposite isn't much better.
Coddling a nervous dog and comforting it like a baby is pretty counterproductive as well, and also makes you look like a fool.
"Just a nip of brandy for courage, little one."
Once more, the fact that your dog only understands like four words of the language (usually his name, "outside" and "car ride") means all he is picking up is the weird tone of your voice. As one advice site says:
"But when you try and pet him, and calm him by saying (oh so sweetly), 'It's okay,' 'There's nothing to be afraid of,' 'Calm down, Honey,' etc., this 'comforting voice' just confirms in his mind that he does have a reason to be nervous, and this will make your already scared dog even more afraid. You are giving him extra attention during this stressful time and he perceives that as praise for his behavior and will continue in that behavior."
So, the dog will think, "Thunderstorms are serious business, even my owner is worried!" and elevate the threat to priority one.
Instead of yelling at him or coddling him, most dog trainers suggest trying to create an atmosphere of normalcy by calmly playing a game you usually play together (like Call of Duty or something we guess).
If it's a person he's afraid of, give the person a friendly greeting or otherwise distract the dog. Also make sure that the dog isn't trying to warn you that the person is a Terminator.
Scolding it For Peeing on the Floor
Dogs pee for a lot of reasons, such as because they can. They also pee to mark territory, because they just have to go, and sometimes because they have low self-esteem. Yes, sometimes dogs pee as a way of saying, "You're the boss! I'm a nobody!"
Dog experts call it submissive urination. It's like when your boss is giving you orders, and then you say, "Yes sir, right away sir," and then you pee on the floor. Or maybe things work differently at your office.
Anyway, it's easy to think the dog is just being a dick who wants to ruin your carpet, and your natural reaction is to yell at him. That's like you at the office being in the middle of saying, "Yes sir, of course sir," to your boss, and he interrupts you with an angry, "YOU SIMPLETON! YOU ABSOLUTE MORON!" Your natural reaction is to just pile on the bootlicking ("Sorry sir, I'm such an idiot, sir."), just like your dog's natural reaction is to pee on the floor some more to show you how totally in charge you are.
"You're the man! Here, have some urine. Please don't hurt me."
Dogs that pee on the floor for other reasons need to be dealt with differently, but dogs that are peeing submissively (the cowering is usually a clue) need special treatment. Believe it or not, you need to build up your dog's confidence. Leaning down over him, talking loudly or looking him in the eye make him feel like a peon, so you need to make him feel like a champ by sitting down at his level and avoiding eye contact. When you first get home, you might even want to ignore him for a while until he's calm enough to take a greeting. You can also play "Eye of the Tiger" and point at him.
But don't yell at him. He's only peeing to show you he's the most worthless, harmless dog in the world. Yelling just feeds his little martyr complex.
Giving it a Bone
Dogs have been gnawing at bones for thousands of years, mostly without incident. Then again, we used to poop in our own drinking water and we don't really seem married to that tradition anymore.
It turns out bones can mess up a dog in a lot of weird ways that people may not notice. The FDA says you shouldn't give bones to your dog and, according to their cheerful top 10 list of reasons, bones can break dogs' teeth, cut up their mouth or tongue if splintered, cut up their insides with bone fragments or cause them to bleed out the ass.
Rawhide chews have their problems too, but they at least are designed to be eaten by your dog (despite what the creationist diatribe in the movie All Dogs Go to Heaven might tell you, the same can not be said for bones). No chew treat is perfect, but bully sticks, or pizzles are digestible and one of the safer ones out there. Also, they appear to be made out of bull penises, so they make an interesting conversation piece.
Buying an Expensive Dog
If you wind up in the market for a dog, you'll have the chance to spend "could have bought a nice plasma TV instead" money on a purebred of some kind. But you should spare no expense getting the highest quality dog possible, right?
Actually, purebreeding is pretty controversial in the dog world. Breed standards put out by organizations like the American Kennel Club lay out precise specifications for each breed. But as animal interaction expert James Serpell points out, the standards are almost completely physical, with only vague terms describing behavior. Some of the standards aren't even physically good for the dogs. Serpell says almost all purebred bulldogs have to be delivered by C-section because people kept breeding the dogs for bigger and bigger heads while they still have the same tiny hips.
The other problem is inbreeding. There's only a limited pool of "perfect" dogs in a breed, and soon enough everyone is everyone's cousin, like European royalty. Also like European royalty, genetic defects start to become more prominent, to the point that every breed has a set of genetic defects it's known for and which conscientious breeders try to watch out for.
Many breeders care a lot about their dogs and make breeding selections based on their dogs' temperament and welfare instead of just trying to make the perfect specimen for display or for sale. But dog breeding is not dissimilar to the fashion industry. The standards and trends that determine pricing are set by a bunch of weird people who care about genetically unrealistic standards that the average dog owner couldn't give less of a shit about.
This leads to a weird counter intuitive dog purchasing landscape where your best bet at getting a happy, healthy dog costs about 1/20th of one that will likely cost you thousands in vet bills, or a drive to the weird farmer who doesn't ask questions and doesn't judge, depending on how compassionate you are.
Some people feel we should eliminate the practice of pure breeding altogether, but as long as greed exists that's unlikely to happen. Still, the next time you're deciding what breed to choose, keep in mind that your best bet at a happy, healthy dog may be to choose "damned if we know." Take a trip to the pound to rescue one that is the mixed up spawn of as much unholy breed-mixing as possible. The more pit bulls that jumped the fence in a poodle owner's back yard up the genetic line, the better.
Granted, if everyone gave up on pure breeds that would mean an end to corgis...
...but it would also mean an end to Chinese Cresteds.
So we're torn on this one.
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