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Question: My dog has just turned 8 months and life is a Gong show. He's forgotten all his manners and jumps on me and everyone else. He is chewing things, stealing things and runs away. I got him from a breeder who has specialized in therapy and service dogs for many years. With my disabilities, I am having problems managing this behavior. What can I do?
Answer: First of all, this is a great question! And a common one. I love that you recognize it is the behavior, not the dog that you are having trouble with! Behavior can be changed!
Unfortunately, even the calmest puppies specifically bred for service dog work go through adolescence. It is a period of fast growth, lack of impulse control and venturing confidence. Hormones are usually the driving factor behind it. In some situations you might also see fear appear. This is normal.
What you don't want to do is have your dog spayed or neutered without due consideration of the risks. Those hormones are important to regulate growth. If removed too early, negative health effects may occur (cancers, CCL rupture etc) and shorten your dog's working life.
Here is an article summarizing a study done by AKC on early Spay and Neuter.
University of Davis, in California did a long term study on Golden Retrievers found that spaying and neutering affected the health in a negative way.
Here is one vet's opinion on early spay and neuter for sports dogs. While service dogs aren't sport dogs, many of the same stressors apply.
Goldens, Labs and German Shepherds, according to the research, seem to have a high risk for health complications of early spay and neuter. This doesn't mean you can't spay or neuter, but it does mean you need to consider when to do it. Waiting until the dog is physically and structurally mature can help.
Here are 11 things you CAN do to help your big-bodied but still puppy-brained adolescent develop into that ideal service dog you hoped for. The post is divided into 3 parts.
- Recognize Signs of Stress and Arousal
Learning to read your dog's stress level in different situations and arousal level is important. Stress can be both distress (bad stress) and eustress (good stress). Both trigger the hormones that are detrimental to the dog if they occur at high levels over the long-term.
Join the Facebook Observation Skills group to learn to see the behaviors that indicate stress. The Dog Decoder is also a great App to start learning dog behavior.
- Quality Food
Since food is a building block of all life, ensure that your dog is eating the best you can afford. Choose ones with no additives (coloring, taste), no salt, medium levels of protein (20-26% in kibble) and fat (no higher than 10-15%) for normal growth. Consider grain free, home-cooked or a raw diet as options if you can't find what you are looking for. Even just adding some fresh real food (vegetables, meat) to the kibble can help improve the quality.
Here's a link that describes not only what is in dog food, but also how each is made and other important information.
- Enough Sleep
Since your pup is growing so quickly, getting plenty of quiet uninterrupted sleep is important at this stage. Think of how much teenage kids sleep. Dogs are no different. They need about 18-20 hours sleep per day. They are up for an hour or two a day, but nap for long periods each day. As an adult, he will spend most of his time resting, waiting for you. You might as well get him accustomed to that habit now.
Often an over-tired puppy is a wound up pup. Place him in a quiet room if you have a noisy house or confine him in an Xpen (Exercise pen) or cosy crate and give him time to calm. Turn on the radio to classical music or play an I-Calm product or sound recording of a E-book.
Dog beds invite a nap. Have several around the room.
Place doorless crates in several key locations if that is what you or he prefers.
A neck or chest massage can help him start relaxing if he is over-tired.
Once he has learned to be quiet, phase out the music and massage and add distractions back in stages.
- Outlet for Chewing
As puppies jaws develop, they need to chew. Long after their adult teeth are in at 6 months, they still chew. Puppies also chew to relieve stress. Make sure he has plenty of different size, shapes, textures and materials to choose from. You may need to encourage him to chew his toys. Nylabone and Kong products, homemade braided toys and natural chews like chicken backs, and mammal ribs are great edible chew items. A whole carrot may be a nice treat as well. Avoid processed leather skins and chew toys (especially anything from China), cooked bones and weight-bearing bones. Pick the toys up and play with them with your dog to get him started, then let him continue on. Keep your retrieve training objects up out of reach and only bring them out for training.
- Appropriate Exercise
Puppies that are over-exercised can contribute to out of control behavior. All exercise should be voluntary until his bone plates have closed at 18 months. This means avoiding repeated walking or running on hard surfaces, jumping under elbow height. It is important to let the dog determine how far and fast he will walk, assuming it's slower, not faster than you. Forced marches beside a wheel chair for long periods are not suitable. The type of exercise is also important. Throwing a ball repeatedly many times a week creates a dog that is adrenaline charged (and risks cruciate ligament tears). Long line walks on the beach or in a field are better. Hikes with frequent sniff and rest stops are great too. Swimming is great for a muscle and cardio workout.
As a general rule: walking builds muscle, running builds cardiovascular stamina.
The Puppy Culture Exercise Chart is a useful guide for different ages and gives ideas different types of exercise for each stage of life.
Here is an article that explains what can happen if the dog gets too much exercise of the wrong kind and duration.Click here for Part 2!
Hip Dysplasia (HD) is the worry of every service dog handler. New research and some anecdotal information has recently come to light to help prevent it. Puppies are not born with it but most dogs start showing signs of HD by 18 months if they are going to develop it.
Until recently, the biggest cause thought to predict HD in dogs was genetics. It is important to see the hip scores of both parents as that is proof that the breeder has tested the adult dogs for it. Without testing the adults (2 years old and up), there is no way to know their hip scores and what genes they will pass on to their pups. Scores are fair, good and excellent for healthy hips. Affected hips are rated as mild, moderate or severe.
Breeders and researchers are now discovering that the environment in different life stages plays a much bigger role than once throught. This is a good thing since it gives handlers the choice to create environments that will minimize the possibility of HD in their SD candidates as well as help them choose adult dogs with miminal risk of HD.
Shape and Surface of Litter Box
Anedotal evidence suggests that HD can start developing when the pup is still with the litter.
Norwich Terrier breeder Magda Chiarella has suggested that the shape and surface of whelping box may be important. She observed that HD is non-existent in wild canids. She postulates that is due to the bowl shape of the den they grow up in that keeps the pups in a smaller space as well as the ground surface that gives the pups traction. She even did some experiments on a few litters to see how providing traction in the form of rubberbacked rugs on the floor of the litter box could help the pups start to use ther toes from the first few days to nurse, rather than put weight on their knees on slick surfaces that many breeders provide in the litter box.
Click here for the link
Exercising on Varied Natural Surfaces for the first 3 mos
Randi Krontveit's research suggests that fast growth of large breeds during puppy stage may actually not contribute to HD in adult dogs as previously thought. He also found that " that daily exercise outdoors in gently undulating terrain up until the age of three months is very helpful in preventing hip dysplasia in the large breeds he studied." Comparatively, he also found that pups who did steps or stairs on a daily basis had an increased risk of HD. So, pups who played and exercised in natural outdoor environments on varied terrains had overall a lower chance of HD than pups who used man-made environments. After three months of age, there were no benefits to natural surfaces. He recommends "that genetically prone pups should be exercised regularly to strengthen musculature, but extensive jumping/stair use, etcetera should be avoided until growth is completed (at approximately 12 months)."
Click here for the link
Here's another version of his study with contact info
Maintain a Good Weight
Keeping a dog overweight has long been known to contribute to general health issues including HD. Keeping a dog slim (so you can just feel a thick layer of fat on his ribs with a single finger tip) reduces the workload on joints, heart etc.
Avoid Repetitive Jumping or Running
until the bone plates have closed. For small breeds this is about a year. For medium dogs it is about 18 months and larger breeds may be as long as 30 months. Jumping (agility, frisbee, skipping) and running (using a treadmill, jogging with the dog, or dog running beside a bicycle) puts an unnatural strain on the joints and increases the chances of injury. Especially avoid hard surfaces for exercise. Long flights of stairs should be avoided for games like retrieving as well. More repetitive motion that can be very hard on the joints.
Neutering a Dog Before Physical Maturity
also appears to increase the incidence of HD as well as has many other health risks.
Click here for the study
Testing Your Dog
Have your service dog's hips tested at 2 years of age to make sure s/he does not have this debilitating disease. If s/he does, speak with a qualified orthopedic veterinarian to decide if it will play a role in retiring your dog. Purebred and mixed breed dogs can be tested and scored.
OFA Orthopedic Foundation for Animals
If your dog has mild dysplasia, all is not lost. Many dogs go undetected as long as they get regular moderate and varied exercise that builds and maintains the muscle needed to support the hip (and other) joints. Some supplements may help. Talk to your orthopedic vet.
Listen to this on audio file.
Recently there has been a real push to use flat body harnesses in training loose leash walking. Many people wonder why since harnesses are typically considered to cause pulling.
1. First, the harness itself does not cause pulling, it is the two of you pulling against each other that does.
Wearing a leash is unnatural for dogs as it is for humans. A dog must learn that is more rewarding to stay near a person and move with him than exploring on his own. That takes patience and careful attention to the distraction level on the person's part and liberal use of reinforcers (food, toys, attention, real life reinforcers etc.) It's worth taking the time to train it without using a leash first.
A well fit flat harness allows the dog to move normally and freely. It is used only as a device to keep the dog safe, like a seat belt, rather than as a training tool. If a dog does stop short, the pressure of the straps is spread over a wide area (rather than concentrated on a narrow strip on the neck) and all areas have either muscle or bone that protect the organs so injury is much less likely.
Unfortunately, all 'no-pull' harnesses can injure the dog in different ways depending on their design. Those that are not long enough chaff the dog's skin typically behind the front legs, others tighten around the chest with leash pressure, still others sit across the shoulders to limit proper motion or tighten across the chest to change the dog's gait. All of these can cause health issues on a dog and are punitive in nature. Dr. Chris Zinc, an expert in dog sport mechanics, has done research on this. "In a limited gait analysis study, Dr. Zink observed that dogs wearing no-pull, front clip harnesses bore less weight on their front legs than they normally would – even when the harness wasn’t attached to a leash! In addition, the dogs bore less weight on the leg that was on the far side of where the person walked, even when there was no leash attached; when the dog had a leash attached, it was more significant. This suggests to her that the dog was reacting to the presence of the harness against the leg by pushing harder against it. In all cases, the gait of the front limbs was altered whenever the harness was on." Whole Dog Journal July, 2013
The best harnesses allow the dog to move freely. They have a Y joint that should fit over the breast bone. They have a chest ring or back ring or ideally, both. This gives you the option of clipping the leash to either or both locations at the same time to provide the dog with more information. Two that I have had success with are the Balance harness and the Perfect Fit Harness. The Perfect Fit is a padded version that fits long bodies and protects short-haired dogs or dogs with thin skin. (I am not affiliated with nor do I sell either harness.)
2. May Cause Unwanted Health Effects
The second and main reason for not using a collar (flat collar, rolled collar, choke chain, limited slip, prong, Martindale etc) is that they may cause many unwanted health effects on a dog.
The neck area where a collar sits on a dog is a very important region of the body. There are glands, lymph nodes, blood vessels, nerves, trachea, and more. All of them are exposed and not outwardly protected by bone, muscle or fat. Any pressure on the neck whether from sudden sharp jerks or even gentle ongoing pulling can negatively impact these areas. Other unwanted impacts include misaligned spine (from being pulled to one side) and long-term structural issues. Andres Hallgren of Sweden in a study found that 252 dogs had misaligned spines, and 65% of those had behavior problems. In addition, 78% of the dogs labeled hyperactive or aggressive had spine issues. The dogs in the study were volunteered by their owners and considered well cared for (not abused dogs). Source: Paul Owens "The Dog Whisperer: A Compassionate, Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training")
Have a look at the brochure showing the biology of a dog's neck created by Els Vidts FreeDogz.com. Potential Collar Damage brochure It shows the potential health impacts on a dog from being pulled on a collar. Els is a student of Turid Rugaas.
Where Did the Idea for Using Collars Come From?
If we look historically at why dogs wear collars, it probably seemed like the best way to control them. A thin rope tied around the neck was a quick and easy. Unfortunately, that was looking at the tool from the human side of the leash and didn't consider the best interests of the health of the dog. It's time to ask questions and change our choices in the present! Collars today, now that we know better, should be used only for tags.
I personally have had three dogs that we know were adversely affected by wearing flat collars attached to a leash. One ended up with spondylosis in his neck which caused a very painful pinched nerve (took 30 days to heal and stop his screaming in pain when he moved his neck awake or asleep despite pain medication). He also had trouble manipulating his tongue to eat and we ended up euthanizing him since he lost so much weight. He was 13yo and otherwise in prime health. My current dog Jessie adopted as a 7mo pup coughed and gagged when any small amount of pressure was applied to her neck (trachea damage). We immediately switched to a flat walking harness. Once in a while, she still gags when the harness is not sitting correctly and she gets pulled. Her early damage was permanent. The third had a collar attached to a long line while the owners rode their horse. Her spine was out of alignment. I have also had several clients who have had collar-induced health issues. These are not isolated events and combined, do suggest we should re-examine if collars are the best choice for dogs when walking on a leash.
Note: the harnesses talked about here are not service dog harnesses. They are flat walking harnesses for everyday use. They may be worn underneath a service dog vest or alone. Stiff mobility and bracing harnesses and other related harnesses need to be fitted correctly to prevent unwanted wear and tear on your service dog's body. Height of handle, stiffness of the harness and other features are important to minimize structural stress on your service dog.
If you would like to learn how to teach your dog to walk on a loose leash, have a look at my classes listed in the catalogue. My harnesses classes are for dogs who dislike wearing them (even to the point of shutting down) or who pull hard in times of high excitement. Registration and classes start the first wednesday of each month.
Listen to the audio file.
One of the fastest growing areas of service dogs are those being trained for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Anxiety or Panic Attacks. They are typically called Psychiatric service dogs. Most people associate PTSD with veterans, but it happens to a wide variety of people of a wide age range. People who have been raped, people who have been traumatized by their families as children, people who have lived with people with addictions (alcoholic, prescription or street drugs, gamblers, sex addicts etc.), people who have seen atrocious things done to other people or animals. Sadly PTSD affects a wide range of people from those with low education income to highly educated high income. No part of society is exempt.
My most recent video is dedicated to anyone who has suffered a traumatic event that affects their life and would like to train a service dog for others or their own dog to either alert them to an oncoming anxiety attack, or interrupt one as it is happening or interrupt them when they are doing harm to themselves as a result of the pain they are feeling.
Note: Before starting the process of training your own service dog for PTSD or anxiety, first make sure you have a dog that is suitable for these types of tasks. The dog must have a solid temperament, have excellent physical health, and be emotionally resilient. Both confidence and sensitivity are important characteristics as well. Ideally, start with an adult dog 18 months or older that has been raised in an emotionally stable (functional) environment so the dog has that normal baseline to draw from when interacting with you. Choose a dog that has an exercise level that matches yours. Allow your dog to be a dog before starting to train the tasks. 18 months would be the ideal age to start training.
You, the owner-trainer and handler, must be stable in your condition. If your condition is not stable, there is a real risk you will negatively and permanently affect your dog's ability to learn to help you and function in public since all of his needs may not be met. You need a team of many people to help you access resources, take care of and train your dog to become a functional helper. Talk to your health care professionals and a local trainer to see if they think you have the necessary skills, boundaries and abilities to train your own dog. It is not a project to start on a whim.
Your dog needs to be a dog first, family member second and service dog third.
If you meet these requirements, check out our self-paced online anxiety task class as well as our foundation another classes.
Registration and classes start the first Wednesday of each month. https://www.servicedogtraininginstitute.ca/course-catalogue
Toys and games can be a very useful tools to help train a service dog. Different kinds of toys can be used for different functions.
There are two kinds of toys: active toys are objects that allow interaction between you and your dog. Tug toys, balls, toys with squeakers fit this definition. Passive toys that your dog can play calmly with by herself like a food-filled rubber toy that doesn't roll around, chew bones or stuffed toys can be useful when conditioning calmer behaviours like a settle or stay on your mat.
Active Toys and Games
Active toys and games can be used to motivate a dog for behaviors that require a higher energy level (like tugging doors open) and for alternating with behaviors that are stationary after they have been trained. They are useful to release stress and give the dog a break when taken outdoors between periods of work. It helps when indoors if the toy can be controlled by you. So a ball on a rope or a brings attached to the dogs harness is ideal. The toy will not be able to mover so the dog won't go chasing down a slippery hallway to get it in public. In general, during the training phase for behaviours and tasks, active toys are best used at home or in the training rooms and outdoors. Once the dog dog has the desired enthusiasm and can do the behaviour or task, then you can train them in public without the use of toys.
Passive toys can be used to teach the dog to entertain herself (add duration) while in a settle. They can help calm a dog down or self-soothe after an active behaviour or task such as finding a helper, actively detecting a scent or walking quickly for a long distance. The activity of chewing and licking helps most dogs calm down.
It is important that you carefully choose which games to pair with which behaviors and situations. For example, rough or rousing toy play, tossing treats or hide and seek is not appropriate in a retail store (unless you are training your dog to find a person as a task).
Pairing Active Games with Calm Games
How you use the active toys and games is important. When pairing active toys and games with calm activities make sure the active games come first. Always end on a calm activity. This ensures classical conditioning is working in your favour to teach the dog to calm down after activity. This order prevents inadvertently conditioning your dog to be hyped when doing the calm behavior. The anticipation of toy or game after a settled behaviour for example, causes the dog to be ready to play during the calm period. This can cause whining, muscle tightness and other undesired behaviours while waiting for the play to happen.
You can use the choice of toy you use to help your dog understand that some environments require calm behavior while others can be playful. Outdoors use active toys and play, and indoors, especially in quiet places, use passive toys. If your dog is resting under your chair at work, or settling for long periods at school, taking frequent breaks to do active play outside is a great use of it.
Some people only use play at home if their dog is easily aroused during active games. Others avoid uses toys while the dog is vested and at work.
Active toy play and games is also great for building a bond with a dog that loves activity.
What Are the Standard Behaviors and Cues for a Service Dog?
I find it fascinating that I often get asked this question and many similar to it. People assume there are standard verbal cues and hand signals for behaviors that service dogs and assistance dogs do. I also find it interesting that they believe there is a standard approach to training.
There is No Standardization!
Most people are shocked to find that there is no standardization at all. Each organization, school or business has their own way of training and their own behaviors they teach and signals they commonly use. They may also use a specific set for a specific kind of service dog. It's what is familiar to them and what has worked in the past. Given that they often deal in larger numbers of dogs and have several staff, it is more efficient to have a common set of behaviors and cues all dogs are taught. Since owner-trained dogs breeds vary widely, there will even be differences in how different sized dogs carry out a behavior. A small dog might jump on the handler's head while they are sleeping if their blood sugar drops too low where a larger dog might nose nudge their neck to wake them up for example.
While there are some basic cues that all service dogs need, they are not all the same since the dog and handlers needs are all different. For example a person with mobility issues may prefer to use verbal cue "Here" to recall their service dog since they may have limited control of their hands for hand signals. For someone who has trouble speaking, extending a hand for a nose target can recall or reposition the dog. Each team has their own special abilities and focus.
Examples of Cues
A cue to a dog is just an event that triggers a known behavior. It can be something in the environment (a door open button), a body cue (person turning their head in a certain direction), hand signal (a lifted hand) or a spoken word. What that word or signal might be is up to what will work for the person the dog. Any cue can be taught to mean any behavior. Bringing a toy can be an alert for a diabetic low. A fist can be sit. Even lifting a symbol drawn on a laminated page can cue a dog to lay down.
If you are training your own service dog, you can choose what makes sense to you and is non-disruptive to the public when the dog is working. If you are training an assistance dog for someone else, you can help them to choose cues and behaviors that make sense to them.
Using Atypical Cues
Some people actually choose non-typical verbal cues or use a different language to prevent other people from distracting their dog. This may not work though as dogs usually respond to tone and take a guess when they don't understand the cue itself. It is better just to proof for extreme distractions.
The only caveat to keep in mind when choosing behaviors and cues, is that at some point your dog may need to be handled by other people if you are incapacitated (emergency personnel, family or friends). This puts your dog at risk if she doesn't understand or do what an "average" person handling a dog expects. The dog needs to either be trained to do behaviors by default (someone holding the leash means the dog walks on a loose leash or the person sitting down cues the dog to lay down and wait) or common verbal and hand cues need to be used at least for really common behaviors. Given the wide variety of training approaches out there, and if your dog 'refuses' to do a given cue (or command), and what the potential human reaction might be, it is wise to keep that in mind.
Wondering what behaviors are the foundation for service dog? Find out in my new class "Foundation Skills Level 1-3" (for both dog and human).
If you want to learn how to train a service dog like a professional, these classes will give you a great foundation!
Donna Hill B.Sc. B.Ed.
Founder/ Head Instructor