Spirit Ridge K9 Training & Rescue


During the years that I have spent training dogs and handlers, I have heard numerous statements that have made me cringe.  Everyone is an "expert" when it comes to training dogs and, one of the hardest things I found when I was trying to navigate through fact and fiction, was to determine just where one ended and the other one started.

In this segment, I will try and go through some of the outrageous statements I have heard that are based on myth (sometimes facts that are twisted into myths) and have their origins in human emotions and hearsay and not proper experience and observation.  This is by no means an exhaustive list and I intend to update this segment as I come across new ones.

As always, my primary objective is to help new and experienced handlers make a proper 'connection' with their K9 companions as well as avoid mistakes that can injure their relationship with their dogs.

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Jim Tsitanidis
K9 Trainer & Behavioural Consultant
Spirit Ridge K9 Training & Rescue

        “Using a Dog Crate is Inhumane and Dogs Hate it Anyway”

FALSE!  Dogs are, by nature, den animals. When properly introduced to a crate, most dogs love it, and they will often go into their crates on their own to sleep. Of course, no dog should be left in the crate so long that it must soil the crate. It's a wonderful tool to use for housetraining, but puppies under the age of four months are not physically able to go for more than three or four hours without going to the bathroom.

As your dog gets older, a crate can continue to be useful in a variety of circumstances.  In my household, I could not imagine a day without the use of our dog crates.  At the time this article was written, we had five dogs living in our house.  Each has its own crate and each dog knows and recognizes it as “its own” den.  The dog crates are used for instances where:

1.                  We know we will be gone for a few hours and want to separate our dogs for their own safety as well as to avoid unwanted behaviour and destruction that pack mentality can bring about.  Not all dogs need to be crated when we are away – but we know the perennial ‘instigators’ and it is usually the younger more active dogs.

2.                  When any of our dogs is ‘under the weather’, or recovering from a veterinary procedure, or just plain tired from vigorous exercise, we automatically let them go into their crate for a rest.  It helps them re-charge their batteries as well as keeps the other dogs from bothering them when they are resting.

3.                  It goes without saying that at night time, if they are not already in their crate, they gladly go in to sleep.  It is, after all, their den and they have learned to be comfortable in it!

4.                  Occasionally, the crates are used for a ‘time out’ – when a dog or two are just too wound up and are causing mayhem in the house – or they are just being ‘bad’.  It is then that they are ushered to their crate and put in there for an hour or two with no further attention paid to them.  Remember two very important factors here: a) a dog crate must not always be used as a punishment – if that happens then dogs will learn to hate the crate and associate it with bad things.  Handlers must initially use the crate as a good place to build the ‘den’ instinct.  b) dogs are social animals – especially when they have learned to be part of a ‘pack’ – as in any muti-dog household.  Separation from the pack is punishment enough for them – so no scolding is necessary on the way in and no jubilant handler behaviour is required on the way out.  Just have an ‘as a matter of fact’ attitude when using the crate in this matter.

5.                  I cannot begin to count how many times I hear clients say the can’t stand their dog(s) jumping up on visitors when they arrive, or the antics their dog(s) go through – whether it be barking, growling or whatever.  If you are not prepared to condition your dog to do something (like go to their ‘place’ and stay there when visitors arrive and until you release them) then why not use the crate as a safe place for the dog and visitors when the latter come knocking at your door?  It certainly addresses many of the problems and avoids the habituation of behavioural issues related to visitors.

When introducing a dog (young or older) to a dog crate – care must be taken to do this in gradual increments of time and to make this a very pleasant experience.  Throwing a dog in a crate for a first time, slamming the door and leaving ‘Rover’ in their for hours on end will lead to other behavioural problems related to boredom and social isolation.  This, however, is a topic of an article in itself that I hope to be able to post on my website in the future.

“A Tail-Wagging Dog is always a Friendly Dog!”

FALSE!  Tail wagging is only one of many signals a dog gives it is approaching in a friendly manner.  Frequently the way in which the dog wags its tail sends a signal of impending aggression.  Quick and furious horizontal wagging can indicate stress, posturing and a possible attack – I liken this to the rattlesnake warning before an attack.  Long, sweeping, circular tail wagging usually means the opposite.  There are also additional clues that might signal impending aggression – the position of the ears, hair standing up along the back (hackles) of the dog and of course the posture of the body, growling sounds etc.  It is important for handlers to realize that, a wagging tail does not always mean a friendly dog!

            “Don’t Worry, My Dog Is Friendly!”

FALSE, FALSE, FALSE!  Dogs can be very friendly on their own and within their pack.  Two very friendly but unfamiliar with each other dogs, can get into a scrap in a heartbeat and for no apparent reason.  This is why I STRONGLY recommend all my clients and friends avoid ‘leash free’ dog parks.  I believe that these parks ought to be banned and should never have been introduced in the first place.  Most handlers taking their dogs to such leash free parks are inexperienced and clueless of what makes their dogs 'tick’.  Two clueless handlers getting together and having a chat over a coffee, cigarette or snack while their dogs run off lead in a park is a prescription for disaster.  If you do nothing else, PLEASE avoid these parks like the plague. For one, your dogs do NOT need to socialize with other dogs once they are outside the socializing period in their puppyhood – usually after 6 months of age.  The only real socialization your dog needs is the socialization that comes from its pack leader and/or other dogs and humans in the pack (family).  Furthermore, handlers that frequent leash free dog parks have no off lead control over their dogs (how many times have we seen a handler calling, begging, cajoling their dogs to return to them with no success?).  Dogs out of control, running and escalating in their play can easily lead to uncontrolled aggression – not to mention that all dogs are not in perfect health to begin with.  It is a big mistake to visit leash-free parks and avoiding them will keep you and your dog out of trouble and possibly away from expensive veterinary bills and legal battles.  We should all take a hint from the Europeans who think such parks are nonsense and do not promote or have them!

"He Knows what he Did - I Can See It in His Body Language"

FALSE (unless you caught your dog in the act!).  I hear this so often, it makes me ill.  The scenario goes something like this: The handler comes home from a very busy and hectic day at work.  She opens the door only to find that her dog has chewed her favourite book, rug, stereo speakers (insert any favourite object here) to shreds.  She screams at her dog, his ears go down as he slinks away.  The handler then proceeds to discipline the dog for something that might have happened two, three hours ago.  This is pointless.  First of all, if you do not catch "Rover" in the act and within 20-30 seconds, he will not know why he is being disciplined.  This is an undisputed fact and the sooner handlers understand this, the sooner they can avoid inflicting pointless punishment on their dog.  All they are accomplishing is injuring the relationship they have been building with their dog.  The behaviour these handlers talk about (the lowered ears, avoiding look, slinking away) is a reaction to the handler's tone of voice, anger (that they 'smell' and hear) and general posture.  In cases where this type of situation is repeated every time the handler comes home (in the cases of destructive puppies/dogs), "Rover" habituates to expect this type of greeting and will always slink away in fear and avoidance trying to avoid their master's anger - even if they have been perfectly good throughout the day.

In cases where your dog may have bouts of destruction while you are away, seriously consider crate training and providing your dog with enough stuffed toys that might keep him occupied and stimulated throughout your absence.

"He Gets Plenty of Exercise - He's Outside in his Run All Day Long"

FALSE!  If you have ever paid close attention to your dog, most of the time "Rover" will initially occupy himself for a few minutes when first let out and then lay down usually in complete boredom.  He can be outside for hours but he will get very little exercise when there is no stimulation.  Stimulation can come from a variety of sources (prey drive - if he sees fast moving animals such as squirrels -  and tries to chase them, or from you throwing a ball or other toy in a game of fetch or even from playing with another dog in his pack).  Usually, dogs that are left outside with no stimulation eventually lay down and sleep all day out of boredom.  Then, when you come home thinking that he must be tired by now, you are in for a surprise!

"She's Protective of Me, that's Why She Attacked the Dog that Came Up to Us"

TRUE AND FALSE! The origins of dog on dog aggression can be complex and rooted in a variety of reasons.  It is generally true, however, that handlers that are 'weak' and have shown little or no leadership with their dogs will fuel these aggressive tendencies.  The dog may feel a need to 'protect' only because the dog feels that it is its job as an "alpha wolf" to protect its human handler.  Dogs in this position also tend to 'drag' their handlers out for a walk, show food/toy possessiveness, sleep on beds and couches at will and generally behave more like roommates in the house rather than subordinates to the handlers.  As I am fond of telling my clients "unless your dog also pays a part of the mortgage, this is unacceptable behaviour in the house!".

"I am Against Using Treats to Train Him Because then all He does Is Look For the Treats"

FALSE!  The premise of this belief has its origins in the misunderstanding of the purpose of food rewards.  To make my point, I usually begin by posing a simple question to my clients: "Would you ask a plumber to prepare your leaking pipes without the use of his wrench?  or Would you ask your groomer to groom your dog without a brush?" 

It is silly to limit ourselves from the use of a very powerful tool in K9 training - particularly if your dog is food motivated.  Unfortunately, inexperienced handlers often say this because they misunderstand the proper use of food rewards.  In puppy training, a food reward is very powerful in showing the puppy the required behaviour - in other words "luring" the puppy into performing a "sit" or a "down".  Once the required behaviour is taught, the food becomes a reward (and a powerful one at that) for performing the required behaviour.  Initially, the reward is given 100% of the time - so, each time the puppy goes down on command, it gets a treat.  Then, slowly, the handler varies the frequency with which the puppy is rewarded - every other time, or 1 in 3, or 1 in 4, back to every time etc.  The puppy never knows if this is going to be the time it gets the food reward so it is inclined to perform the command each time it receives it.  In a  sense, the puppy habituates to performing the obedience command.  Eventually, food rewards can be completely phased out in favour of lavish praise, petting etc for performing the behaviour. 

Now comes the best part! After the food is phased out as a reward, it can begin to be used as a distraction.  Your dog is asked to go "down" and you begin "proofing" his down by placing a treat a few feet away in front of him.  If he breaks the down in favour of getting the treat, you make sure he does not get it as this would be a reward for breaking the command.

So, it is clear that a food reward can allow handlers to first teach a behaviour, then reward it and finally proof the behaviour.  A very powerful and, indeed, misunderstood tool that should not be overlooked!