Last week I was shopping for clothes in a department store. As I browsed through the racks I heard a low growl then a high-pitched bark.
Not expecting to hear these sounds in a clothing store, I scanned the area and saw a chihuahua staring at me from a small shopping cart. The woman pushing the cart was clearly embarrassed and hushed the small dog. In these situations, I typically just smile and walk away. However, this time I decided to share that I was a dog trainer and behavior consultant. As the woman and I made out introductions I found out that the growling chihuahua was only 4 months old. Then the question came, “Can you give me any tips for potty training?” My response surprised the woman when I stated“Although potty training is important, the growling is far more concerning.”I briefly explained that the growling is fear based but could eventually lead to biting. We only spoke for a few minutes but our conversation made me contemplate how people often misunderstand training priorities.
It is not uncommon for people to make training a priority over the social-emotional health of their dogs.
When I hold my puppy classes, the priority is introducing the puppies to novel objects, people and other puppies. Although we also practice basic behaviors like sit, down and come, the emphasis is on the socialization. If a shy or fearful puppy is not exposed to a variety of people, places and things when they are young, they may react by barking, growling or biting (this is a “fight” response to the fear). It won’t matter if they have a perfect sit or down, the fear can lead to unwanted behaviors.
Another situation I commonly encounter is the dog that pulls on leash. In some cases, these dogs just don’t understand the “heeling” behavior you desire. In other situations, the dogs may be overly excited when on a walk. Alternately, dogs will sometimes pull because they are scared when they are on the walk (this is a “flight” response to the fear). Before we can help a scared dog go on a walk, we must first focus on decreasing the fear then teach the dog how to “heel”. For many of these dogs, we will discontinue the walks until the fear or anxiety is managed.
“When a person is drowning it is not the time to teach him to swim” is one of my favorite quotes from Between Parent and Teenager, by Haim Ginott. If a person is drowning, we first remove them from the water and make sure they are safe. Then we would give them swim lessons, at their level or readiness (they may need to overcome the fear of water after nearly drowning). After overcoming the fear and taking the lessons, they would be able to swim. Dogs deserve the same respect.
Shannon has been a pet lover all her life and a dog trainer for over 20 years. She has spent her life observing, caring for and training animals of all kinds. She has worked in the Bird Department at Marine World Africa USA, and worked as a handler and trainer for an African Serval Cat at Safari West, a private zoo in Santa Rosa, California. She has participated in behavior studies including observations of bald eagles and addax antelope through the San Francisco Zoo and Safari West. Her education includes a Biology Degree, specializing in Zoology from Sonoma State.
She is a "Registered Veterinary Technician," a "Certified Professional Dog Trainer" (Knowledge Assessed), a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, a member of the "Association of Pet Dog Trainers" and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Shannon is currently serving as President for the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. Shannon's dog training philosophy revolves around force-free, positive reinforcement, however, her ultimate goal is for healthy happy relationship between pets and their people. Diet, exercise, environment and training all play a significant role in achieving this goal. Shannon is currently the owner of Ventura Pet Wellness and Dog Training Center in Ventura, CA where she works with anxious and fearful dogs privately as well as teaching agility classes (Venturapetwellness.com). Shannon has also started a training website called Truly Force Free Animal Training.