If You Don't Want Your Dog to Bite You, Don't Be an A**Hole to Him!

06/27/2010
by Jess Rollins

"Don't be an a**hole to your dog if you don't want him to bite you." - Renowned dog behaviorist, Dr. Ian Dunbar

I have a confession to make. As a pro dog trainer for the last 10 years (and a reward-based one at that!), I have only just recently learned the wise Dr. Dunbar's lesson. I have discovered that there are certainly some aspects of my behavior toward my dog that I have not examined, which are rather unenlightened and perhaps a tad "a**holish".

Here's how I learned that lesson: I have a 5-year-old chihuahua mix named Ollie who is a sweet, loving and compliant dog. Ollie is the kind of dog that I would have confidently said "would never bite me" (although, as a trainer I know that any dog can be pushed to bite). For years, I have been telling Ollie to "look out" when I want him to get out of my way. "Look out", really means something like: "I am going to sit on you if you don't move." Ollie's choices when I said "look out" were to move or be sat on, and there was no reward in it for him except for avoiding being crushed. I had never noticed anything amiss from doing this or really gave it any thought at all. In fact, I thought I was being rather nice by warning him that doom was impending!

One fine day, I was straightening the bed covers that Ollie was lying on and told OIlie to "look out", as I needed to yank the covers out from under his drowsy body in order to complete my neatening. He looked at me a little strangely, and I said "look out" again and started moving the covers. Ollie growled and lightly bit my hand. (He put his mouth on my hand without making any mark.) I told him sternly to "go" (which is a behavior that he knows) and then I gave him a time out in the office for me to think about what had just happened and calm myself down.

It really hurts emotionally when your dog bites or growls at you. It can feel like your trusted confidant has just betrayed you. And that is how I felt for awhile, but then as I thought more about it, I was able to look at it from Ollie's perspective, which probably was something like this: Ollie: "I'm relaxed and comfortable on the bed, not bothering anyone and Jess comes in here and announces that she is about to attack me. I'm sick of it and I'm going to let her know!" [freeze-stare followed by growl and light bite]

I futher realized that I can't remember ever rewarding poor Ollie for getting out of my way when I said "look out". The "look out" cue seems to be some kind of a vestige of an alpha mind-set in me, as in: "This is my space, lowly dog, and you must move out of it because I am the boss of you, or else!"

The good news is that because of our long and positive history together, this problem has been easy to fix. I simply have been saying "look out" and giving Ollie a reward when he moves out of the way. Eventually, I will only need to reward him for moving when I say "look out" every so often. I am also, (when I think of it), using his other cue to move which is "go", which he is fine with since I have taught him that using rewards.

I have also been taking a hard look at other things that I do in his life that are "do this or else" and changing that into "please" and "thank you" to avoid him needing to tell me off again.

I have Ollie's "misbehavior" to thank for shaking me up a bit and helping me to see him as a fellow creature with his own needs, wants and feelings and not just "my dog".

Happy Training!

~Jess

Jess Rollins, Owner and Dog Trainer
Pet Expertise

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