By Cesar Millan
It’s time to answer some more fan questions this week. I wish I could answer them all, of course, but that’s impossible. I did pick three questions that are typical of the kind of things that people ask me all the time, though, so that my responses should apply to a lot of different situations.
Here we go…
The first question is from Patti Boness Leonard, via Facebook. She asked, “You say that dogs should become aware of their surroundings by scent first. The problem is my Major never stops with the nose… it is always going. When I walk him he is more focused on sniffing the ground and I just can’t seem to get him to focus primarily on me. Any suggestions?”
Patti: The first step here is to redirect your dog by keeping his nose away from the ground. To do that, you’re going to need to shorten up the leash to keep his head up, and correct him with a quick tug on the leash when he tries to sniff. Yes, he will get to sniff the ground on walks, but only when you allow him to, and only for as long as you let him. The idea is that sniffing will become his reward for walking properly next to you, with his head up.
You can also use one scent to redirect from another by keeping something with an odor your dog finds interesting in or on your hand — a dog treat, or scented oil, like lavender or vanilla. If you’re having difficulty getting Major to stop sniffing and hold his head up, use that scent to get his attention and bring it to you.
The next question, also via Facebook, is from Dawn Rippel: “I have a female white pit bull mix (maybe bird dog) that is deaf, approximately a year and a half old. She is so sweet, but so rambunctious. Any suggestions as far as training tips? She already has some bad habits, chewing being one. My daughter rescued her from an abusive owner, but she is almost too much to handle for the both of us, being females. She is very strong. She sometimes nips and gets way too excited. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks Cesar, you are the best!”
Dawn: One of the most wonderful things about dogs is that the word “handicap” means nothing to them. If a dog is deaf or blind, or is missing a leg or two, they don’t focus on what they don’t have. They carry on with what they do have. A deaf dog is just as trainable as a hearing dog. You, the human, just have to focus on a dog’s sense of smell and sight instead.
This means that you will have to use body language and energy instead of your voice to communicate with your dog. But that’s actually a wonderful thing, because that’s how dogs communicate with each other in the first place.
Dog chewing is a topic covered in depth on my website, but I do want to point out one telling phrase in your question: “But she is almost too much to handle for the both of us, being females.” This assumption on your part is preparing for failure by making an excuse. “Oh, I can’t do this, my dog is too strong.” It also sells your entire gender short. A lot of the best dog trainers I know are women.
In the dog world, it isn’t necessarily size or strength that determines the leader; it’s attitude and energy. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of examples of the tiny Chihuahua with a big mouth who bosses around all the bigger dogs. I’ve also seen very small humans easily control a very large pack of dogs.
Something I like to tell people when they’re adopting is this: “You don’t always get the dog you want, but you always get the dog you need.” Your dog’s deafness is actually a great opportunity for you and your daughter both to learn how dogs think. By taking away your ability to use your intellect by communicating with words, you’re going to have to learn to use your instinct by communicating with your body language and energy.
This in turn will help you both learn how to be calm and assertive, and that change in your behavior will be reflected by a calmer, less rambunctious dog. And, of course, don’t forget to give her lots and lots of exercise via long walks. This will help reduce her excitement level as well.
The final question is from Brea Kaiuwailani, who emailed me: “I have an 18 month old unaltered St Bernard who has become very territorial/aggressive over the last few weeks. This dog is like my child and I do not want to have to give him up. Three days ago, my husband tossed me my keys as I was getting ready to leave. The keys fell to the ground, my dog was standing next to me, and when I went to reach for the keys he snapped and bit my arm. He has never shown any signs of aggression in the past. My husband wants to have him euthanized but I do not believe in killing a dog because of an accident. He hasn’t eaten since the incident.”
Brea: Before I discuss the aggression, I want to point out the most important clue, which is that your dog hasn’t eaten since the incident. (I’ll assume you meant your dog, and not your husband!)
While it can be easy to assume that this is because your dog is emotionally upset about the bite, it isn’t. Your dog has already forgotten about it. So my first bit of advice to you is to get your dog to the vet as soon as possible and find out whether there are any physical causes. Loss of appetite is a frequent sign that a dog is sick.
Often, if a dog is in pain, it will try to hide it. However, a sudden movement that startles the dog, or an unexpected touch, can trigger the pain, and the dog’s natural instinct is to make the thing that hurts go away. In any case, whenever a dog suddenly acts in a very uncharacteristic way, look for physical causes first.
You also say that your dog is unaltered. When you go to the vet, you should get him neutered as well. This will greatly reduce any aggressive tendencies and help him live a longer, happier life.
Now, if your vet rules out any physical issues, you need to look at exactly what happened and how before your dog bit. To you and your husband, it was just a set of keys that he threw and you missed — but what did it mean to your dog? Something flying through the air, a sudden unexpected clatter right next to him, somebody suddenly moved toward him. Any one of these things (or all of them together) could have caused an instinctive fear reaction.
Understandably, you both have trust issues with your dog right now. However, I can assure you that a reaction like his was not random. The other thing to look at is what was happening between you and your husband right before the bite. What was the energy level in the house? Were you both in a happy, playful mood, or were either of you anxious or edgy? Is the key-tossing typical in your house, or was this the first time? Remember, your dog isn’t living in a vacuum. The bite was a response to something. You and your husband both need to do the detective work to figure out what that something was.
* * *
Thanks for your questions, everyone. Come back for more answers in future and, as always, stay calm and in the moment!