Do you have a dog whose goal in life is to chase all the squirrels and bunnies in the neighborhood? A dog who can find even the smallest piece of food on the ground? Perhaps you have a dog who acts as if his mission in life is to greet every person he sees. Do you have a dog whose vertical leap is as impressive as that of Derrick Rose? A dog whose energy and endurance is that of a marathon runner? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, chances are you have what trainers call a “drivey” dog—a dog with a strong prey drive. You probably have found yourself overwhelmed at times from providing your dog with proper exercise, so as an alternative you have chosen doggie daycare to tire your dog out. Sending your dog to daycare is a choice that can start out great but—without proper preparation—can get your dog into trouble.
When we think of doggie daycare, we imagine our dogs playing, wrestling, and chasing all day with his best friends. We imagine picking them up from daycare and getting a nice, calm, friendly greeting before heading home. After a rough day at work, all we want to do is cook a fast meal, check our emails and social media, perhaps catch up with some shows, all while our dogs rest on their beds. Thanks to doggie daycare, we are able to enjoy our evenings while our pups sleep.
When we have a dog who is friendly with other dogs and people, we usually don’t think about the possibility of our dogs instigating or getting involved in fights, jumping on or biting the daycare staff, fence fighting, or chasing and biting other dogs. Sure, we have seen our dogs get excited at the dog park and when people come into our home, but nothing that would have caused us to be alarmed. So why the difference?
For some, not going to doggie daycare means more problems: your neighbors might complain about your dog barking while you’re at work, or your dog’s excessive energy will increase behavior problems (destructive chewing, separation anxiety, pulling on the leash, or jumping on people), or you might have to hire a dog walker or leave work repeatedly to walk your dog. When you are busy and live in the city, sometimes doggie daycare is your only option for exercise. The truth is, doggie daycare is not for every dog, and if we want to them have a great experience, we must train them to handle the environment—or we run the risk of it doing more harm than good.
As a trainer for a large doggie daycare in the city, I often come across very confused and concerned owners who have just been informed of their dog’s behavioral problems in daycare. As the owner of a Miniature Australian Shepherd who was informed that my dog, Lilu, was displaying concerning behaviors in daycare, I am able to relate to this situation and connect with many of my clients. Lilu went through a tough “teenage” phase that almost got her expelled from daycare. As an adolescent, her instinctual behaviors were not just blossoming but coming on strong and she could not control them. For example, she would chase anything that moved, and she nipped at heels. She had a sudden interest in squirrels, bunnies and any other small animal that moved. In fact, she wanted to chase and nip any moving object, including mops, brooms and vacuum cleaners. This is not uncommon with dogs that were bred specifically to work and perform; and Lilu just happened to come from a family full of champion Miniature Australian Shepherds. She was, literally, born to run—and chase, and herd, and nip.
Are you thinking, “How does this apply to daycare? Daycares don’t have bunnies, squirrels or vacuum cleaners, right?”
Well, Lilu was embracing her innate “superpowers” a little too much in different environments. While in the city, she was able to feel the movement of bikes, cars, running children, and squirrels. Her instincts and senses started running wild in daycare faster than anyone expected: the higher energy level in a playroom full of dogs made for an especially intense response and rapid escalation. You bet the herding breed in her was responding. She was chasing and nipping dogs that were playing fetch and she was becoming reactive at the gate as she saw the smaller dogs in the adjacent play lot running. Since she could not chase them, she was displaying her frustration by biting the barrier—and to top it off, she was jumping at the gate every time a person passed by.
It’s one thing to see one stimulus at a time, and something else entirely to be surrounded by numerous stimuli all at once. You might have a dog who greets friends excitedly at the door but quickly calms down once your friend gets settled. In daycare, you constantly have excitement going on. There is no time for your dog to calm down, so when staff walk past or approach, your dog might greet them with more intensity than you see at home—they might jump, bark, or even nip out of excitement. Having Lilu in daycare was a good option for me, so I wanted to make it work, yet I was also content with the possibility that it might not be good for her. When I got the note about Lilu’s behavior, I was glad the staff brought it to my attention. I didn’t take it personally, nor did I get angry. As a trainer, I simply went into problem-solving mode. I understood exactly that was happening: Lilu was dealing with an unbalanced state of mind due to all the stimulation.
In the movie Man of Steel, Clark Kent has a flashback to his younger self. He finds himself listening to his classroom teacher when he is interrupted by his vision. What started out as a normal sense transforms into x-ray vision followed by a heightened sense of sound; he grows sensitive to the ticking of the clock and the drumming of a classmates’ fingers on the desktop. Frightened and overwhelmed by this, he tries to escape by running out of the classroom and hiding in a hallway closet. Even in the closet, he is still able to see his classmates and hear their criticism, and refuses to come out. Clark’s mom quickly comes to his rescue. She asks him to open the door. Refusing to do so, she asks him, “How can I help you if you won’t let me in?” A teary Clark answers, “The world is too big, Mom.” His mom responds, “Then make it small.” She helps him do so by having him focus on something simple and basic: her voice. Once he does this, his senses come back to normal and he is able to come out of the closet.
This scene reminds me so much of Lilu and all my clients’ prey-driven dogs who live in cities or come to daycare. With no one there to help them concentrate and no way to go hide in a closet, many of these dogs have no option but to respond to everything that surrounds them. Dogs have far more acute senses than we do and some types of dogs were bred to respond to certain stimuli such as movement. While in daycare, dogs are surrounded with a high level of stimulation without many breaks. When they are responding with intensity, I think it’s their way of telling us their world is too big.
As Lilu’s owner and trainer, I had to help her learn to control her instincts; to build self- and impulse control. My goal then and now is to help her make her world smaller. Since I started early, there were not many triggers; they were primarily happening at doggie daycare. That makes sense, since that’s where she was spending a lot of time. It is also the most highly stimulating environment in her life, and although I work in the same building, I’m not in the play lot with her—so my ability to redirect and coach her is zero. Part of Lilu’s training included a reduction of days and hours in daycare with an increase of quieter, calmer days. This allowed her to recover from all the stimulation and get herself back into a normal state of balance. In the meantime, I trained Lilu to channel her instincts in Frisbee and agility. These are two great sports to teach her to master her need to chase and run while still being attentive. We played brain games that helped her build her tolerance and control her impulses while allowing her to be responsive to cues even when overly aroused. This training enabled me to decrease her reactions, increase her operant state around constant stimuli, and give the daycare staff tools to guide her.
You’ll notice I taught Lilu what I wanted her to do, rather than punishing her for the behaviors I didn’t want. Punishing Lilu for being an Aussie might have “eliminated” the unwanted behaviors in my presence—mostly because she would be too scared to do anything. Don’t mistake this for your dog’s instincts just—poof! —disappearing. Stay away from using tools such as prong collars or shock collars to attempt to undo your dog’s natural prey drive. It’s not an effective method for training. What do you think is going to happen when you drop off your dog at daycare and leave? When you take the prong or shock collar off and your dog is no longer controlled by fear and is surrounded by a large amount of stumuli? Going back to the Man of Steel, do you think Clark’s mom would have gotten him out of the closet by yelling at him and screaming, “No!”? Would that have taught young Clark self-control?
If you find yourself in a similar situation, find the root of the problem. Talk to your trainer or daycare supervisors without getting defensive. Get the information you need in order to take proper action. Most commonly, the root of the problem is your dog’s inability to control his adrenaline in a highly stimulating environment. This might be because your dog has high prey drive, not enough impulse-control training, is young, or simply is very sensitive.
Lilu continues to be in daycare for shorter periods. Her behaviors are still present at times, but have reduced significantly in intensity. She is rarely given “timeouts” due to her behavior, mainly because her training has meant that the staff can generally redirect her. The more surprising thing I recently discovered is that she actually plays more with other dogs now. Having less to worry about has allowed her to actually enjoy the beauty of daycare: other four-legged friends. I can’t keep her away from stimuli (and I wouldn’t want to), so I had to teach her to control her instincts herself.
Dogs were not bred live in environments that are stimulating non-stop for hours (and neither were we!). Dogs need our help for that. Clark’s mom gave him the tools he needed to regain his composure because, at the end of the day, she wasn’t always going to be around. Makes you wonder: If Clark Kent never mastered his senses and had not been able to leave the classroom, would the outcome have been the same? Would he have been expelled from school? Would he have grown up to become Superman, or would he have become a frightened adult who either fights to get away or refuses to leave a safe, quiet area?
Training and teaching these “drivey” dogs self control allows for their natural gifts to emerge. Dogs with a high prey drive might have a tough time in over-stimulating environments but excel in training, agility, Frisbee, hunting, scent work, dock diving and many other dog sports. While initially they might be hard to handle and require a lot of impulse control, having a “Clark Kent dog” can surely be amazing!
Last month, Lilu had her first Agility trial. She took a couple of 1st and 2nd places with 7 qualifications.