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 Dog Behavior Library

Top Ten Mistakes Made by Dog Owners

We have all made mistakes with our dogs. But what if we had see them coming so we could have avoided them? Take a few minutes now and you may save years of future regret, as well as improve the relationship with your favorite canine. Here are my thoughts on the top ten mistakes made by dog owners.

The bottom line is if you don't trust the person, change vets, but once you have someone you trust, follow their recommendations.

Medical Mistakes

Mistake 1: Not completely following the veterinarian's advice.
Veterinarians recommend physical exams for all puppies, then annual or semi-annual check ups for adult dogs. Canines can't complain about physical discomforts like children can, so it is MORE important to get these annual exams done because they don't have verbal skills. There is an increasing realization in the veterinary community that physical exams alone may not be enough. Many veterinarians also routinely collect blood, urine and stool samples in addition to routine exams. This labwork is a "window inside the body" to find problems early, catching them before damage is done and making them easier to resolve. If all labwork is normal, the veterinarian now has baseline values that can be very helpful to compare with labwork done when the pet is ill.

Between exams, pet owners may notice symptoms, but delay taking the dog to the doctor in hopes that the problem will correct itself. If in doubt, here are two simple rules: Take the pet in if, A) a new symptom continues longer than 48 hours, or B) you can recognize a progressive worsening of signs in less than 12 hours.

The third common mistake regarding vet advice is trying to shortcut diagnostic procedures and treat only symptoms "to save money." Skipping a proper diagnosis obviously makes it less likely to get a complete cure. In addition, what is saved at initial testing is lost by increased number of visits and trial medications. Finally, it is usually necessary to come back and do the testing later anyway, when the previous symptomatic treatments have clouded the diagnosis, making everything more difficult.
The bottom line is if you don't trust the person, change vets, but once you have someone you trust, follow their recommendations.

Mistake 2: Overfeeding the pet resulting in obesity.
For many people, "Food = Love." One way pet owners give love, is by giving more and better tasting food. This is an example of "killing with kindness." Many pet food companies compete on taste instead of quality because pet owners tend to ignore obesity and buy what their pet "likes the most." This might be compared to feeding a child only what he "likes the most." Focusing on taste appeal instead of nutrition almost always spells trouble.
All animals have an "appetite control center" in the brain. It is located in the lower part of the brain next to the areas that control body temperature, heart rate and other body functions. Because of poor breeding, an animal may have a substandard appetite control center that does a poor job of regulating food intake. This is partially because animals evolved in a constant state of near starvation with an evolutionary dictum to stock up on food anytime it became available.

Those animals that do have well functioning appetite control centers routinely refuse to eat all the food provided. This animal's instinct is smarter than the owner who describes this pet as "finicky" and sets out trying different foods. If the owner can't find a pet food the pet will overeat, they often begin offering "people food." I remember one owner of an incredibly fat poodle. She was quite distraught when I suggested a dietary reduction, and exclaimed, "But Doctor, he is already so finicky he will only eat ice cream and steak!" In reality, the dog's internal systems were attempting to reduce weight by refusing additional food. The taste bud stimulus simply caused an override of the appetite control center.
Any dog that is obese will likely respond to a simple formula: No free choice food, increase exercise, and find a healthier but less tasty food and let the dog eat as little as it wants at each mealtime. If this doesn't work, veterinarians can prescribe diets that are extremely high in quality and low in calories to do the trick.

Mistake 3: Insufficient grooming.
Grooming is often underrated by novice dog owners. Experienced dog owners take pride in their dog's appearance, and pay attention to proper grooming. For our purposes, we can divide grooming into bathing, brushing, coat trimming, and nail care.
Every dog needs bathing as some point. One criteria is that the dog should be "huggable clean." If the dog is too dirty or smelly to hug, it's time for a bath. A good starting formula is to bathe a dog once a month; less often if brushing regularly, and more often if kept outside where the dog lays in dirt.

Inexpensive shampoos tend to have harsher ingredients, and can even cause skin problems. Follow your veterinarian's recommendation, or at least look for a high quality hypoallergenic dog shampoo that contains a coat conditioner.

Brushing and combing removes dead hair, and spreads the natural oil, "sebum" over the coat resulting in a glossy coat. Skin disease often affects sebum production resulting in either underproduction and a dry scaly coat, or overproduction and an oily greasy coat. Both these symptoms indicate a visit to the veterinarian. Possibilities include skin parasites, nutritional problems or allergies among other problems. Gentle stroking with a comb or a brush can also be a bonding experience with a dog. Don't do it in a hurry where you might pull out tangled hair. Take the time to gently untangle, or cut out tangles. Try for daily brushing, but the minimum is once a week.

Some short haired breeds never need coat trimming. Many breeds have continuously growing hair (like people) that require trimming every 4-6 weeks. People very bonded to their pet often schedule a pet bath and minor trim every 2 weeks just to keep the coat as huggable as possible.

Nail care is simple in most dogs. Exercise the dog daily until you can't hear the nails "tapping" the floor when the dog walks. Once the nails have grown out, it is more difficult because the nail's central fleshy tissue known as the "quick" grows out to nourish the longer nail. In some cases, the veterinarian will trim back the nails and quick very short under anesthesia. Combine this radical nail trim with an exercise lifestyle change to keep the nails short after healing takes place. A compromise strategy is to trim the nails while the pet is awake, but this is harder than it sounds. It is very easy to accidentally trim the nail too short, clipping the flesh of the quick that easily bleeds and is quite painful. Any dog will then begin to resist nail trims. Many people have their veterinarian or groomer handle this task. The best solution is exercise.

Behavioral Mistakes

Mistake 4: Not properly socializing the puppy
Socialization of a 2 to 5 month old puppy is becoming more and more recognized as a key factor in optimizing bonding, and preventing behavior problems throughout life. Socialization might be described as, "civilizing" a dog. It means carefully introducing the dog to friendly healthy dogs, people, cats and other species. Each new time the puppy successfully meets a new being, the skill of "getting along with others" is strengthened. Each new greeting should be supervised to praise positive interactions, prevent negative experiences, and interrupt and redirect inappropriate interactions like barking, aggressing and mounting.

It is very common for a person to notice their dog being aggressive toward new people or other dogs beginning after 2 years of age. This aggression was probably preventable by early socialization, but by 2 years of age the "puppy socialization class" opportunity was missed, and now it is either permanent social isolation from new dogs and people, or an intense residual socialization protocol by an experienced trainer.
Another human rookie mistake is allowing the puppy up on furniture, then later punishing the adult dog for doing the same thing. Dogs will learn almost any house rule, if people can just be consistent. Another social mistake is allowing the puppy to jump up during greetings. The greeting for the puppy should be exactly the same as for the adult dog; SIT to be greeted!

Still another social interaction mistake is tolerating "play biting" which may lead to serious biting as an adult dog. The correct response to play biting is to suddenly yelp as if hurt. It should be sudden enough and loud enough to startle the dog. Praise gentle play and gradually discourage all tooth on skin contact once it is all gentle.

Mistake 5: Not kennel training the dog
Providing a dog with its very own portable kennel is a kind and caring thing to do. Dogs evolved from wolves, so they have an instinct to have a "den" of their own. You may notice your dog going under the table or desk to rest. They are trying to find a den.

A portable kennel can have many functions. It can be their dining room because they are fed there - especially if food aggressive. It can be their playroom where they have access to only approved chew toys. It can be their "safe room" if they are afraid of children or new people. It can be their magic carpet to travel safely with you in the car or plane. Most importantly, it is simply their very own place they can go any time they are feeling stressed.

Mistake 6: Spoiling the dog
Some people feel that although they wouldn't spoil their kids, with the dog they get to satisfy that human inherent desire to give generously to loved ones. However good it feels at the time, the dog almost always pays the penalty. If a person gives the dog everything it wants, many dogs develop negative habits. If the dog misunderstands its role and begins trying to control humans and desired resources, canine frustration can often lead to aggression.

Spoiling the dog by giving food from the table not only creates obesity, but also dental disease, spoiled appetite, and begging. Allowing a dog to be unruly with guests (jumping up, pawing, mounting, crotch sniffing, etc.) makes it unpleasant to have the dog around new people, and prevents the dog from having some great canine social experiences. A simple solution for most canine unruly behavior is to interrupt (not punish) it immediately to prevent a bad habit from developing, and temporarily insist the dog sit to receive all human touch and attention.

Allowing the dog to pull on a leash instead of using a head halter may make it so unpleasant to walk the dog that it does not get the pleasure of exercise and "sniff excursions" into the neighborhood.

Mistake 7: Confusing the Dog
Normal canine social behavior is surprisingly compatible with human social behavior because we share many social patterns. However, there are also significant differences, and if we think of dogs as little furry people, it leads to confusion which breaks down the bond, and decreases the joy of companionship. For example, many people like to "share" their food, and mistakenly reward gradually more obnoxious begging behavior.
Punishing the dog when finding the garbage raided or the house soiled seems natural to people, but punishment after the fact simply confuses the dog and reduces its trust and respect for the person. The correct response is as follows: Don't let the dog see you clean up (pay attention to) the mess. Then make it impossible to access the garbage, or start over with a reward based house training program.

People commonly punish submissive gestures such as submissive urination or excessive licking. Since the dog was doing these things to reduce aggression, the aggressive punishment confuses the dog who tries harder by doing more submissive urination or licking. The correct response to submissive urination is to ignore the dog at greetings until it is calm enough to sit. If he is licking excessively, interrupt the licking by requesting a SIT, then give positive attention for the sitting, while avoiding the deft tongue.
Rough play like slapping, wrestling or play boxing is fun for some (usually male) humans. However, this confuses the dog to think that aggression toward people is ok, resulting in a dog more likely to become aggressive toward people later in life.

Humans often come home, find a mess and make the mistake of saying COME, then punishing the dog when he comes to the scene of the previous crime. The dog confuses the Instruction COME with the punishment, and stops coming when called.
Giving the dog what it wants after an objectionable behavior such as whining, barking or scratching at the door confuses the dog to think that this is what they should do to get to come inside. Then if it doesn't work, they escalate until they become punished for something they thought you wanted them to do.

Mistake 8: Trying to "soothe" fearful or aggressive behavior
People mistakenly think they are calming and comforting the dog with stroking and reassuring murmurs. This is normal human behavior toward another stressed human, but not appropriate toward a canine. This human response may be misinterpreted as praise, resulting in escalation of the behavior. A few past episodes of consoling are not harmful; it is the repeated habit that causes problems.

Fear and aggression are complicated behaviors with many causes, so if a pattern of this behavior can be identified, the appropriate step is to seek the help of a qualified behaviorist. Treatments for fear or aggression that help most stressed pets are, 1) ruling out any sub-clinical health problem, 2) increasing regular exercise and routine, and 3) daily reward based training.

Mistake 9: Wanting a "tough (protection) dog"
Protecting property, stock and people has always been one function of most dogs. It is genetically present, and will occur spontaneously in most adult canines under appropriate circumstances. Some people make the mistake of increasing this behavior by first selecting a dog with aggressive genetic tendencies, then preventing proper socialization, and finally by praising and encouraging aggression toward other people or dogs This tends to create a canine who is offensive instead of defensive. The only context where this is desired is in police or military dogs, who are under strict control.
A person who encourages canine aggression without going through the proper training and maintenance, usually ends up with an unintentionally injured person, a law suit, and a death sentence for the dog.

Mistake 10: Not giving sufficient exercise for the breed
There is a saying, "a tired dog is a good dog." Alternatively, a recurring finding in problem dogs is insufficient exercise. Dogs in their adolescent period of roughly 6 months through 2 years of age, need daily vigorous exercise - and only exercise "off the property" counts. One recommended formula is to walk the dog every day the equivalent of 1 city block for every 10 pounds of its body weight. Another positive form of exercise for dogs is chewing on an approved chew toy, because this exercises the jaw and mind.
Exercise is a natural stress reliever in both people and in dogs. Walking a dog daily is good for both body and mind. A person walking with a dog is more likely to meet and talk to neighbors which is good for human physical and mental health. Walked dogs also get intellectual simulation from meeting new dogs and people, and from sniffing along the way. Exercise and companionship are great examples of how people and dogs benefit each other.

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