Ask the Dogfather : Drydocked Boston Terrier

Photo by Jamie Stringfellow

Tom Shelby, dog trainer to MV and NYC celebrities (and their dogs), answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels the owners of a Boston Terrier who refuses to swim, and Pancho, who is too overprotective of his family.

Dear Dogfather,

Can my 8-year-old Boston Terrier ever be trained to swim? He gets his paws wet, but he looks surprised and offended if a wavelet comes along and smacks him. Since I love to swim myself, and the Island has so many wonderful beaches — not to mention that we live a few short blocks from The Inkwell in Oak Bluffs — I just wish he were less of a wuss about the water! Also, when I take a dip, he barks at me as if I were turning into a monster of the deep.

— Drydocked by my dog

Dear Drydocked,

Every summer as a dog trainer I had a bunch of appointments which required my showing up with my bathing suit; the goal being to teach the dog where the steps to exit the pool are. Unfortunately many dogs drown in backyard pools because they can’t pull themselves out of the pool, and don’t know about the steps. So there I am getting paid to go swimming in some celebrity’s beautiful pool, and oh yes, at the same time teaching the dog where the steps are. Did I mention I love my job? Once, I was called to go to Fire Island to teach a Newfoundland to swim, which seemed crazy to me at the time because Newfies are the best swimming dogs in the world. Newton, the Newfie, was clearly terrified of the pool and he would have died of old age before entering the water for any kind of treat. So with hot dog pieces secured to my waist, and a harness and 20 foot leash on Newton, I literally dragged the 135-pound dog into the pool, barely avoided being shredded by his nails as he tried to scramble up my body, and slowly started walking around the pool. His attitude transformation was fast, going from “I can do this!” to “I think I like this” to “This is great!”

I warned the owners; nonetheless, I got the call a week later. “We’re tired of constantly having to dry a huge, hairy, soaking wet dog before he comes into the house. How do we keep him out of the pool?”

As for Mr. Boston Terrier (BT), I’d suggest Sengekontacket pond, across the road from State Beach. Not only no waves, not even wavelets; it gets deep very gradually, and it’s warmer than the open ocean. BT gets no people food, with the exception being when he goes swimming. Have the tiny pieces of meat in a little plastic bag attached to you and carry him into the water and then turn and face the shore, and gently lower him into the water. Talk to him with positive tones telling him how much fun he’s having as you two slowly head to shore. As soon as he’s not swimming anymore and walking in the water offer him pieces of the meat.

He’ll be more relaxed if when you lower him in the water you get down to his level with just your head above the water. There’s a good likelihood he’ll try to climb up your body scratching you in the process, so avoid that by calmly turning him away.

I had to go through the same thing with my two Dobermans, who like BT are also not water dogs — no webbed feet. It’s like us swimming with our hands balled into fists. Nonetheless they can swim fine once they get the hang of it. Most water dogs also have long tails which help by acting as rudders.

If his antics once you lower him in the water seem funny, don’t laugh at him; rather, laugh with him telling him you’re both having fun. If he likes to chase and retrieve a ball or stick or toy, try using that once he’s somewhat acclimated to the water. Remember, he’ll be more amenable to the whole water thing if you’re in the water with him.

As for his barking when you’re in the water and he’s not, it’s quite common. I’ve had many training appointments where I had to stop the dog from circling the pool barking like crazy when people were swimming. Actually, the dogs are frantic for your safety, and one of the best solutions is getting them swimming with you.

Good luck,

The Dogfather

Dear Dogfather,

My dog Pancho is very protective of his family. He is normally well behaved around strangers, but if he feels that his family is in danger, he gets aggressive. Once, when my oldest son (whom Pancho is not used to) was home from college, he started play-wrestling with his younger brother. Pancho got scared my youngest son was actually being hurt, and came up and nipped my oldest son. It wasn’t a serious bite, but it did draw blood — and it scared us all. I think it’s great that Pancho wants to protect us, but I’m worried he can’t tell the difference between real danger and play. How can I break him of this habit before someone gets seriously hurt?

Dear Edgy in Edgartown,

Boy! Have I seen a lot of “edgy” dog owners in the last several decades. I remember how edgy the film star was about his two pugs possibly urinating on his $30,000 white dining room carpet. Or the Park Ave patron very edgy about his Lab puppy chewing on his expensive antique chair legs. But when it comes to aggression, edgy easily blossoms into fear.

There are about seven different types of aggression, depending on how you define it. Your dog who wouldn’t dream of biting you breaks a leg and bites you when you pick it up to take it to the vet. That’s pain aggression. Or the same dog get attacked by another dog and bites you severely when you try to break up the fight. That’s redirected, or displacement aggression. Lots of dogs being trained for police work “wash out” because of displacement aggression presented during training. They bite the handler in frustration if they can’t get the “acting bad” guy. When a dog bites the couch next to him because he can’t get the deer or rabbit he sees through the bay window, he’s a displacement biter.

All dogs contain aggression within. It’s a matter of thresholds and intensity. Push the right button, and how quickly does the dog aggress, what’s it’s threshold? And just as important, what’s the intensity and endurance of the presented aggression. The Lab who chases a ball is actually presenting predatory aggression. It’s why the puppy chases the blowing leaf: the leaf represents prey and the dog gives chase. That’s why the last thing you want to do if a dog is threatening you is run!

Edgy, it would help to know in this case the size and age of Pancho. Is he the size of a four-year-old, 80-pound shepherd or an 8-month-old chihuahua? Precisely what I would suggest depends on your answers to several questions I’d ask, if I could.

Many dogs get easily excitable — call it a low threshold for getting unstrung. These are dogs you don’t want to play wrestle with because they escalate the play too fast and too hard. My Doberman Michelle played like a soft teddy bear and my Doberman Mikey got too rough way too fast, so we didn’t play rough with him.

Put simply, Pancho needs to be trained and desensitized. Desensitized to loud noises and kids at play and rough-housing. This is done with success building on success. If your dog is afraid of the sound of sirens and you live in Manhattan you have one of three choices. Move to the top of a mountain in rural Georgia where you’ll probably never hear a siren, or ignore the dog’s panic and ensuing behavior, or, desensitize him to the sound of sirens. Buy a noise CD that has the sound of sirens and play it softly( loud enough so that the dog registers the sound but softly enough so that the dog can handle it) and give him small pieces of meat as he listens to the sirens. With success building on success slowly ratchet up the sound level to the point where Bowser not only tolerates wailing sirens, but actually likes it because it’s the only time he get people food.

Pancho first needs to be taught to come reliably, to stay and to “leave it,” it being whatever you want him to leave alone — in this case kids rough-housing. He then needs to be desensitized to kids play acting rough-housing, with success building on success. A tip on getting dogs to come reliably — 15 to 20 times a day, when Pancho doesn’t expect it, call him to come using the same command. The first four times he gets a treat after he arrives. After that he gets the treat intermittently. Intermittency is the strongest way to condition an animal. His attitude will become, maybe there’s a treat, I better go check it out.

As for the “stay” and “leave it”, you’ll probably need some help from a pro.

Good luck,

The Dogfather