Canine Behavior/Terrier pup behavior problems
Earlier this year, we adopted a puppy from a rescue group. The puppy was about 3 months of age, and she is now about 7 months and most definitely appears to be a terrier mix, strongly resembling a rat terrier. She was a very aggressive biter in play and we have been able to curb that quite a bit – though not completely stop it, and we have been working with her on basic obedience commands (sit, stay, come) and on leash walking. I use treats and praise for the obedience commands and to encourage a loose leash while walking. We don’t let her sleep with us. She eats and sleeps in her own crate, and we do not share our food with her. I taught her to go “back” when I enter a door so she lets me go first, so there has been some progress.
However, some significant problem behaviors persist no matter what we do. Among the most troubling are:
She grabs something she knows she shouldn’t have (like a shoe or sock, etc.) and runs from us. (We try to keep everything out of reach but she’s a very sneaky girl.) We try to not engage in a chase and command her to “drop it.” She complies some of the time, but it is clear she would rather keep up the game and have her own way, and it is often a struggle to retrieve the item from her. We advance toward her when it looks like she is going to be still, but then she runs again much of the time.
She still jumps up and nips at our younger daughter (six years old) with her teeth as if she recognizes that this child is the smallest and most vulnerable… someone to be alpha over.
She obeys commands only when it suits her. For example, she has escaped into the front yard on a few occasions and will not respond to any commands at all. Likewise, she broke her collar in pursuit of another dog and wouldn’t listen to me at all. At other times, she is just more interested in something else.
She also stands up on her back legs to get at things on the kitchen table, which is infuriating. I try to keep things away from the edge and the chairs pushed in, but this is still not a satisfactory solution.
I understand that terriers are terribly obstinate, and I have worked very hard at being alpha over her. I think she recognizes it sometimes, and when I am stern enough with her, she has started to get into a submissive posture. However, it’s clear she still is in a power struggle with us. I’m afraid of proceeding in the wrong direction much longer. Please help with any suggestions you might have. Thank you.
Thank you for your question. It sounds like you have your hands full with a rambunctious adolescent dog and a young daughter. It can be a lot to manage and it's easy for things to feel as though they've gotten out of hand a bit.
Before I go into some specific training exercises, I want to speak to an overarching theme in your question. If you read through your question, it sounds as though you believe that your dog is trying to be in charge of the house or take over. That's a lot of power you're giving to a dog. I want to reassure you that no matter the behavior you're seeing from this dog, it is not anywhere on this dog's radar to try to be in charge. The whole concept of 'alpha' is extremely misunderstood and has very little to do with any interactions that domestic dogs have - with each other, let alone with you. But the most important thing to remember when it comes to the concept of 'alpha' and 'dominance' is that it is a relationship dynamic between two individuals of the same species. There is no circumstance where your dog is trying to dominate any human member of your family. And even if it were possible to have an inter-species dominance relationship - you as the human, would be alpha by default as you control all access to food, toys, love, affection, play, outside, inside car rides, treats, etc, etc. I bring this up at the start only because it will benefit your process of helping your dog be better behaved if you can let go of the notion that she's trying to take charge of the house and instead look at it simply from the perspective that she has not yet learned what the rules are.
Most of what you describe is very normal dog behavior, and it takes patience and consistency on the part of the humans to teach the dog what is and is not allowed in your home.
I have a rat terrier mix as well. I remember well the days of puppy bites and the time when I had between 15-18 open lacerations on EACH hand due to over zealous puppy play bites. I started wearing bicycle gloves when playing just to protect my hands while teaching my puppy about a soft mouth. Now his mouth is super soft and he wrestles me all the time, never causing any damage with his teeth.
You said that your girl steals things and then plays keep-away from you. This is a truly favorite game for most dogs and she's found a way to engage you in this game. Every time you try to approach her while she's got her 'found' object, you are reinforcing that this is a great way to get you to play her favorite game. It sounds like you're doing a great job on the management front by keeping most items up and out of reach. But you are human, and none of us can be perfect 100% of the time.
One way to help curb this behavior is to provide a favorite toy for her that you can play Tug and Keep-Away with. You can try bringing the toy out regularly (at least daily) and offer her the game - toss the toy and then when she retrieves it, start a game of "I'm gonna get you!" while you pretend to chase her around. Now you're telling her what item will get the game she's after and you're happily engaging in that game with her. And if you have the toy put away except for when you are playing, then you are choosing when to start the game. You also have the option of leaving that favorite toy available for her, and when you see her grab it and move away from you a little, take that cue that she wants to play and then engage in the game with her. It's totally fine for you to tell her "not now" or "in a little while." But it's also OK to allow your dog to tell you when she'd like to play, and if you're available to give her 2 minutes (or 20), then go ahead and take her invitation and play with her. The bonus of that is that it's a toy she's allowed to have. So if you only have 2 minutes to chase her around the house, you can stop and walk away whenever you need and it's totally fine if she still has her toy. She can chew on it or play with it or leave it alone once you've stopped playing.
But by making a special toy available to her and making it clear that you'll play her favorite game when she has that, then we can curb her trying to start the game with your stuff. The key to making the transition is to first get ahead of the game. By this, I mean, you need to start the game with her a bunch of times over the course of a week or so with the toy you want her to use. During this time you'll need to be extra vigilant that all your family stuff is up out of reach so that she's more inclined to go after her own toy. Make a happy fuss every time she chooses her toy and make a point of engaging in the game with her so she learns that it's absolutely successful as a mechanism to get you to play. This is true for the whole family (though your daughter should be supervised). Every time you engage with the toy label it. Give it a name that the whole family can remember and refer to the toy every time you are engaging with it with the dog. This will teach the dog the name of the toy.
Then, after about 2 weeks of over the top playing with her with her toy, if she gets something of yours, tell her something like, "If you want to play, you'll need to get your _____". If she's learned the name of the toy, then she will be more likely to drop the forbidden item and go retrieve the toy. Make sure you praise her and play with her when she does this.
If she doesn't drop your stuff to get the toy, then you should go get the toy and invite her to play with it. Once she is ready to engage with the proper toy, she'll drop the item she shouldn't have. Leave the item where it is and play with her. When you can sneak over and get the item while still engaging with the right toy, do so. We are teaching her that play happens when she presents you with the correct item for play. So when she approaches with the right item, there should be a party of praise and play and affection. And if she approaches with the wrong item, there should be a simple re-direct to the correct item. Don't chase her down; rather show her the item you're willing to play with and run away from her. Get her to chase you and when she's nearby, tease her a little with the toy and wait for her to drop your item so she can engage with the toy - and then play with her with the toy.
Another of your major concerns is that she's mostly obedient to your commands in the house, but is not responsive when you're out in the world. I know it sometimes feels like she's being defiant because she's so good at those skills in the home. But dogs need practice in different environments and with growing distractions in order to generalize skills to different environments as well as to increased distractions. Doing well in the house and expecting the same performance in the face of a strange dog out on the street is sort of like teaching your daughter to count to 100 and then asking her to do calculus, without first teaching her to add, subtract, multiply, divide, do algebra or geometry... In other words, it's skipping a bunch of steps. That doesn't mean she can't do the skills. It just means that you'll need to pull out the really awesome food treats and practice in the front yard when there's no distraction until she's doing the skills just as well as in the house, then practice at a local park when there's nobody around, as well as at your local bank branch, in the local hardware store, etc, etc when there's nobody around and after giving her a chance to investigate the new environment. Then begin again in those places, but when there's a person or dog a block away and build up her ability to respond to you as those distractions get closer and closer or more intense (louder, more people/dogs at a time, etc).
So, in the situations you described when she's outside in the front yard or when she sees another dog - it's not that she's choosing to ignore you. It's quite literally that she's so over stimulated that she actually can't process what you're saying. But, with practice in those environments and building up her ability to respond with very small distractions, building to bigger distractions, you'll see her responsiveness improve.
Regarding her table surfing - this is a two-fold process. You'll need to first address the management part, which means that along with never leaving food items unattended on the table, she must not have unsupervised access to the table area. For this to be most effective, you'll need to use baby gates or other barriers so that your pup simply cannot get into the room where the table is unless you're there with her. Then, when you are present, work on a basic "Off" command to teach her to get off the furniture. We do this by luring her.
Example: She's got her paws on the chair and is working to get up to the table. Tell her, "____, Off." and then hold a treat near her nose and lure her to the floor. Once she's on the floor, praise her and give her the treat. After the first half dozen times, you'll stop giving her the treat immediately after she's gotten down. Instead, you'll wait 30 seconds - in other words, she needs to be all-four-on-the-floor for 30 seconds before she gets the treat. Then you can build that to 45 seconds, 1 minute, 90 seconds, and finally to 2 minutes. Our aim with that increased delay between getting off and getting praised/rewarded is the process of avoiding teaching her a behavior chain. A behavior chain is when the dog learns to do Behavior A followed by Behavior B (and sometimes C and D) in order to earn a reward. If getting off the furniture is followed too quickly by getting the treat, then we risk teaching her "Paws on the chair followed by paws back to the floor earns treats." We want to teach her that paws on the floor (without first getting on the chair) is what earns treats. So initially we praise/treat immediately so she understands she's done the behavior you want (all four on the floor), but very quickly we begin to build in duration for paws on the floor so that we separate paws on the chair from paws on the floor.
The other major skill you will want to teach her in this situation is a Station or Mat behavior. This is where you teach her to go to a specific spot and lie down. It can be a bed or mat that's in the same room as the table, or it can be just outside that room, but still within view. Work first on a "Go To" command so that she learns to go to that location on cue. Then work on a Down/Stay in that location. You can build duration and make the mat a super fantastic place to be by using something like a Kong stuffed with her dinner (frozen makes it last longer, but she'll need practice at easy kongs first before you can build her an advanced one). Ideally you will tether the Kong to the area. You do this by buying a length of unbleached, natural cotton rope that will fit through the small end of the Kong. Tie a short knot in one end of the rope and pass the rope through the Kong so it comes out the small hole. Then fill the Kong and tie the exposed end of the rope to something sturdy. If you have a heavy piece of furniture, you can use that. Or if you want her to use her crate as her Go To spot, you can tie it so the Kong is inside the crate. Or you can use an eye-bolt that is screwed into a stud near the base board. Whatever attachment you choose, there should be between 10-24 inches of leeway so that she can reposition herself and the Kong while she's working on it. Once you've got this setup, you can use this at meal times to engage her so that she's not trying to beg from the table while you're in the space.
By consistently denying her unsupervised access, we prevent her from practicing the undesired behavior. By setting her up for success with some obedience training (Off and Go to Mat/Bed/Crate) we help her learn where she should be in that space. By providing something awesome to engage her when she's in the right place, we dramatically increase her likelihood of making that location her default choice of place to be in that room.
Below are some videos for how to teach your dog to use a Kong, in case she's not yet experienced with that. The third video is mine and also lists some ingredient options that you can use as soft binder to help hold kibble and other food bits together (necessary if you're going to freeze the Kongs for longer activity).
Kong for Beginners
One Way to Load a Kong
My dogs enjoying their Kongs (the little white one is my rat terrier mix)
Finally, she continues to jump up on your daughter. The best method to address this is to teach her what you would prefer her to do. when dogs jump up, it's almost always out of a desire to greet us. When there is nipping involved (not biting, but front teeth contact), it's usually an effort to solicit a game as they would do with another dog. Of course, it's not OK for her to use her teeth on your daughter, but she hasn't yet been taught what behavior you would prefer.
So, for this, I would encourage teaching her to Sit-to-Say-Please. If you praise and reward her every time she offers a Sit without being asked, she will begin to Sit as a default behavior whenever she wants something. It doesn't always have to be food as reward. It can be sweet talk, petting, starting a game, inviting her into your lap or up on the couch for love and cuddles, going outside, coming back inside... anything that she would find rewarding at that moment.
So, first we teach her to Sit on cue and praise and pay (food treats) at a super high rate of frequency (ask for and reward Sits a dozen times per day at least). Then, when she offers a sit without first being asked, tell her "Oh that's a beautiful Sit. You're such a good dog" and give her a kibble* or play with her or offer a kiss (if she likes kisses on her head), or any other things he really loves. My dogs offer random Sits all the time. If I'm busy or not prepared to play with them, I still acknowledge their Sit with a sweet voice and love in my eyes. I just tell them what an awesome choice that is and how much I love them for making such good choices. But when they were young, it was treats or play or love or other things they liked pretty much every time so that the Sit would become a default behavior.
The other half of this is teaching her that Sit is the way to get your daughter to engage. If the dog is approaching your daughter, tell the dot to Sit and have your daughter take 1 or 2 steps further away from the dog so the dog has a chance to register the request and respond. If she Sits, there should be tons of praise and high value reward given by your daughter.
NOTE: Tons of praise does not mean high-pitched, squealing love - which is our natural response. But that tone/pitch will get her riled up. Instead, it should be quiet and model the level of the energy you wan the dog to have at that time. There's a time and place for high energy, but approaching your daughter should be a little more controlled. So, quiet praise.
If she jumps up after being asked to Sit when approaching your daughter, have your daughter turn her back and take three steps away and stop. Ask for the Sit again. Repeat until the dog does the behavior and then have your daughter turn to face the dog, praise and give a treat.
In the beginning, your dog is likely to try harder to jump up and get to your daughter. This is normal because up until now, jumping up has been successful in getting attention. Suddenly it's not going to work, and so she'll try harder to make it work. But, combined with praising and treating random sits that she offers without being asked will speed up the process of your dog trying alternative behaviors and offering a Sit as a different choice. When she offers a Sit to your daughter without being told to do it - have a jackpot party with her. Tons and tons of treats and praise and attention and affection (modeling the energy you want her to have, but not just a single "good job" and a single treat. It should be 20-30 seconds of sweet talk and a dozen or so treats so that we really drive home that THIS is the behavior you want her to do!)
*There are lots of treat deliveries during training. Use her regular kibble as treats whenever possible throughout the day and reduce her daily meal ration by the amount you're using for training. If she normally gets 1/3 cup morning and evening, give her half that amount in her bowl (1/6 cup) and keep the other half of her breakfast to use as training treats throughout the day. Ditto for dinner if you're doing training in the evenings. You'll also end up using high value treats during harder activities such as working outside with greater distractions, so reduce her total kibble ration for the day to accommodate the extra calories she's getting from the chicken or cheese or whatever you're using for high value treats. We don't want her to get fat as a result of training....
Now, all of this said, I think you would benefit from working with a local force-free/fear-free trainer who can guide you and tailor the lessons to your home and your dog. In this forum, all my advice is going to be fairly generic because I'm not there with you and your dog specifically.
You can search for a trainer at one of the following sites. Don't be afraid to ask questions. You want to work with someone who is focused on learning theory, positive reinforcement, force-free and fear-free techniques. They will use treats, toys, play and affection as rewards. They may or may not use a clicker (used to mark the behavior we want the dog to do more often). They will use either the dog's regular flat collar (the one where the tags go) or they'll use a body harness - usually a front-clip harness or a face collar.
Avoid working with people who use choke chains, prong/pinch collars, electronic collars. Avoid working with people who talk about balanced training, alpha, pack leader, as well as those who use physical force such as yanks/pops on the leash, pokes, jabs, kicks to the dog either in the neck or the ribs, avoid anyone who would scruff the dog, force her onto her back or side, growl at her, stare her down or otherwise challenge her. These people are not using science or our vast and growing knowledge of canine behavior. Instead they are basing their methods on outdated misrepresentations of what we used to believe wolf behavior was (that has all since been debunked)
Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT)
Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT)
Pet Professionals Guild (PPG)
Finally - and hopefully to lift some of the burden you may be feeling in trying to get it all right...
There is no right or wrong when it comes to dogs on furniture or sleeping in your bed or going through doors before or after you. Mutual respect and clarity of our expectations will create the strongest bond with your dog. When we are clear (from the dog's perspective) about what we want and expect when we are teaching them, and when we are consistent in those expectations, our dogs will comply with little protest. As example, both of my dogs (one is a rat terrier mix, the other is half Chow Chow), have unfettered access to the couch and both sleep on my bed. I nearly always ask my dogs to go through doorways before me because it's easier for me to follow them in and close the door, rather than for me to go in, then have to turn around - out of their way - and wait for them to come through so I can close the door. They nearly always eat before me in the evenings. But they are reliable in all of their basic commands and they have fantastic recalls (come) when we're out on walks in the woods - even calling off squirrels and rabbits. I've only ever used force-free/fear-free training methods with them. My previous dog was choke-chain trained. That was my cross-over dog where I learned there are better, gentler methods. The two I have now have only ever encountered the gentler methods and even with all of their privileges (couch, bed, through doors first), I've never felt that they were trying to be in charge in my home. They know who provides the good stuff and so they work with me. :-)
As I said, there is no right or wrong on that. If you prefer your dog to sleep in her crate and not be on the couch with you, if you prefer she wait for you to go through the door first, that's totally fine. I only bring it up because it's not required in order to have the behavior you're seeking and I would hate for you to spend time fretting that you've done something wrong if you invite her on the couch or direct her through the door first. You won't be undoing anything progress. It's more about creating routines in your interactions and being consistent with them, than it is about what the routine is - so long as you and your dog are both happy and comfortable.
I hope some of this proves helpful to you. Please feel free to follow up if I can be of further assistance.
Happy Holidays. Patience, practice and a good trainer in your area, and I bet you have all of these issues under control before you know it!
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
Masters Candidate - Animals and Public Policy (Animal Behavior)
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine