I have an Australian Shepherd who is 15 months. My vet wants me to take him to dog parks but he still jumps up and head buts people. We aren’t supposed to have him on leash in the park so I am unsure how to properly train him for that environment. I am single and don’t have many contacts. I have asked the people I know to come and help me but they are very irregular on the attendance. I have reached out on nextdoor unsuccessfully. Any ideas?
Hard Headed Dog
First, I would like to help you determine the purpose of the head-butting behavior your dog is displaying. All behavior serves a purpose and we first need to determine its purpose to help change this behavior. In dog behavior, there is a behavior which is called muzzle punching. This is where a dog jumps up and punches a human in the face, usually the mouth or nose. Dogs can muzzle punch other dogs as well and it can have similar purpose.
Muzzle punching can be used as a way to get attention just like any behavior that a dog might perform which solicits a reaction from a human. In my experience, a muzzle punch makes me remove my attention but if a person were to start yelling at a dog that would still be attention to him.
We can tell the difference in the intent by looking at the corresponding body language of the dog and the strength behind the punch. If the dog is looking for attention, it would likely use less force behind the punch and there would be some playful body language preceding or following it.
If it is an attention getting behavior, can you teach the dog an alternative behavior to do to get attention? Auto sits can work well as an attention getting method. You would just feed a treat and give verbal praise when the dog offers a sit behavior without being asked.
It also seems to be a behavior very prevalent in herding breeds. My herding breed dog has a tendency to muzzle punch me in the back of my legs as she follows me around the house. It is at least better than nips to the back of the legs!
If a dog had been giving you a hard start and their body is very still and then they muzzle punch you, that is not a friendly intention. It can be deceiving because it can look like the dog is seeking attention by jumping up on you but they usually disengage and go do something else immediately after the punch.
The bottom line is that the dog should not be at an off-leash park around people at this point in time. If the dog is muzzle punching people, he may be uncomfortable around new people. He may just be acting like a herding dog or an excited adolescent. Either way he should not be practicing the behavior so dog parks are not a good idea.
Dog parks are in my opinion, very problematic. They sound in theory like a great idea but reality is a whole different thing. We envision dogs running around freely, smiling and laughing and a good time is had by all. Dogs are like humans in that they are individuals. They don’t all like playing with other dogs. Some like playing with dogs of certain types and personalities. Some dogs are jerks to other dogs and get fun out of bullying other dogs.
Humans really don’t know that much about dog body language. They often think dogs are playing when they are not. Dog can learn from a single bad experience with another dog so our goal should be to be sure that all parties involved are enjoying the interaction. If a dog is chasing the other dog, take the chasing dog away and see if the dog that was being chased comes back for more interaction. That can be a pretty good indicator if they are having fun. The problem is most people get very defensive about their dogs and respond with “He’s just playing” to pretty much everything you might have to say. We also can’t control people’s interactions with our dogs in public settings. We can’t get 100% compliance with strangers when we can’t even get it with people we know!
I am not sure why your vet feels your dog should go to dog parks but I can tell you that whatever it is you are trying to accomplish, can be done another way. You also cannot start training in the context of a dog park. A dog is going to be way too excited and distracted to be able to pay any attention in that circumstance.
Most likely, he is advising this for the energy burn of playing with other dogs. If the dog enjoys playing with other dogs, it is a great way to tire them out. There are some good dog daycares in the area that you can drop him off in the morning or do a half day and drop him off after lunch to get a few hours of play with well suited playmates. Be sure to ask how many dogs are in the playgroup and how they pair the dogs with other dogs. I am not a fan of dog daycare where there are more than a few dogs in a playgroup. It is too stressful to interact with many other dogs. Most dogs prefer to play with one other dog, not a giant pack of other dogs.
Some people like combining their own exercise with their dogs. Many dogs enjoy jogging next to their person or running alongside while the human rides a bike. The Walky Dog is my favorite bike attachment for attaching dogs to bikes. It is so much safer than just holding onto a leash. If the dog doesn’t want to run, the bike doesn’t move so there is not any forcing the dog to run.
If you don’t have a nice yard space, Sniffspot is a great new app where people rent out their backyards to other people that want to have a space to play with their dogs. You can find fenced in acreage to take your dog to play where you won’t find other people.
There are some different ways to exercise your dog inside if you are having trouble finding time or lacking the space to play outside. Tug with rules is a great way to exercise inside. Fetching down the stairs or down the hall can work for some dogs. If you have an indoor space, you can set up an obstacle course for the dog to run around. Nose work games where you hide scented items around the house are a great way to get your dog running around the house as well.
Remote trainers are a great way to exercise your dog inside the house. Place the trainer somewhere far from where you are sitting. It could be in a kennel, on a dog bed or just down the hall. When your dog comes to you calling them, press the button and they run back to the trainer for the treat and then run back to you and repeat.
It’s not just about exercising with a young energetic dog. We also have to work on training calmness. There are a few different relaxation protocols created by different trainers specifically for working with high-arousal dogs. Dr. Karen Overall, veterinary behaviorist has created a 15-day “Protocol for Relaxation,” available in her Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats, that helps dogs learn impulse control. Suzanne Clothier has her Really Real Relaxation Protocol and there are others you can try as well.
This exercise will also make it a lot easier to train better behavior in your dog. It is a lot easier to train a dog that has had his exercise needs met than one that is super hyped up and ready to go.
Consider taking him to a group class. In a group class setting, you can have controlled interactions with other people and dogs under the supervision of a trainer. It is a very valuable lesson to learn how to listen while in the presence of people and dogs. You will also have a lot of willing people to practice with and the trainer will be there to coach you along.
Stopping jumping behavior is problematic for most people because even if the owner doesn’t reinforce the behavior, other people often thwart training efforts by allowing the dog to jump on them. You can teach your dog to jump up on cue if you have people that like a dog to jump on them. I often try to train an automatic sit when people approach for jumping dogs.
I hope I have given you some helpful tips to help your dog get the exercise he needs while you work on his training. Good luck and happy training.
Until next time,
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