It was my client’s third session, and we were just beginning to teach her eight month-old German Shepherd Dog to go into the ‘down’ position on command. Since this was the first exercise that we were directly asking the dog to DO something… the dog behaved a bit submissive and somewhat stressed.
Now, this isn’t altogether uncommon for a young dog that has been pampered all of it’s life and never actually MADE to DO anything because… Learning something new can be stressful! Especially when there are consequences attached to the decisions you make!
Of course, it’d be nice to think that learning something new should be just a bundle of positive experiences… and we always try to set the dog up for success… however, in order to make the learning process as quick and easily understood as possible (not to mention fair)… the dog must know when she’s doing something wrong as well as doing something right. But when the client called me five days after the session and told me that the dog was still laying down slowly and allegedly shaking from stress, I knew that something wasn’t right, because this is not how a normal dog should act.
So I started searching for clues. For starters, this type of behavior isn’t uncommon for dogs that have weak nerves, or are from a poor breeding. And it’s not uncommon for dogs that have been abused. But even in a worse case scenario, once the dog gets past the first introductory lesson to the ‘down’ command, and understands that you’re not trying to over-dominate him but rather just put him in the ‘down’ position, then they usually relax and start performing the exercise. Although my client’s dog may have slightly weak nerves, I had to look elsewhere for a reason.
So… I started thinking about what might be going on:
1.) The dog could be displaying this type of behavior because the owner is over-correcting the dog. But a cursory judgment of the owner, and knowing that this is a rather spoiled dog, I quickly discarded over-correction as being the reason for this behavior.
2.) Inconsistent corrections, and inappropriate timing. This could be a definite possiblity. If the owner is correcting the dog while the dog is going into the ‘down’ position… then the dog is going to end up getting confused and exhibiting signs of stress. The dog says, “Hey! I thought you wanted me to go into the ‘down’ position… but then you corrected me as I started to go??? Make up your mind!!! How do I win and get the praise??? Nothing you do makes sense, and I’m SO STRESSED!” Both of these issues could be contributing to the dog’s overly submissive and stressed behavior… but I didn’t think this was it.
I can read a dog, and an owner in such a way that I can tell if a certain stimulus is causing a behavior… and I didn’t feel that this reading of the situation was all-together accurate. I can’t explain it… I just felt that there was something more… something deeper… something more powerful… that would make such behavior linger with the dog for such a long period of time. And while I was thinking, the owner started telling me how she had problems leaving her older dog alone in the house, while she took the puppy out for training. And there was the answer… staring me right in the face.
The dog– still a young dog at just eight months of age– had formed a primary relationship with THE OTHER DOG… not with the owner! Why is this an important fact? Because the puppy sees her relationship with the other dog as being her PRIMARY RELATIONSHIP. And not her relationship with the owner! And what happens when you separate a subordinate dog (especially a puppy) from it’s pack leader and primary relationship??? The puppy will get stressed, especially when asked to make a decision and finds that her pack leader…
THE ONE who makes all of the decisions… the one who gives her security and confidence when she is stressed… IS NOT AROUND! This is a dysfunctional relationship between the owner and her dog! See, the dog should look to the owner for security, confidence and well-being. But in a dysfunctional dog/owner relationship, all the dog can think about is getting back to her pack leader– her primary relationship– where she is safe. In a healthy dog/owner relationship, when the owner trys to teach the dog a new command– even though the dog may get a bit stressed about whether he is doing the exercise correctly– he will try to do anything he can to initiate the owner’s praise. And when the dog gets it “right,” he’s thinking, “Yes! I’ve just pleased my pack leader… and now he loves me even more! I’m SOOO GREAT!”
But when the pack leader is the OTHER DOG in the house… all the dog can think about is getting home to be with his pack leader. He doesn’t care about pleasing the owner so much as he does getting out of any potentially stressful situation and returning to his security blanket… his alpha dog. So, what should the owner do? If she’s wise, she will: 1.) Start confining the dog to a crate.
2.) Start playing games and having fun with the dog.
3.) Continue training exercises with the dog.
4.) Discontinue free play time with the other dog.
(Many owners will state that the reason they bought a second dog was to keep the first dog company. My answer: “Hey! I don’t make the rules… I just read the dogs. If you want the dog to bond to you in a proper way, respect you, respond to you, and want to please you… you’re going to have to deal with the dog psychology.”)
5.) Re-establish the dog’s primary relationship with the owner. The dog should spend more time each day with the owner than any other animal.