Most dog owners would agree that their dogs are part of the family. Our loyal, four-legged friends have a way of carving a special place in our hearts. However, one fundamental fact of dog ownership sometimes forgotten is that no one can expect a dog to behave and respond like a human would. Dogs need [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Bringing up doggy


Most dog owners would agree that their dogs are part of the family. Our loyal, four-legged friends have a way of carving a special place in our hearts. However, one fundamental fact of dog ownership sometimes forgotten is that no one can expect a dog to behave and respond like a human would. Dogs need special training and care to ensure that their needs are looked after, say Ashwini Aiyar and Melissa Stephen who have made a career of caring for dogs.

Ashwini, Melissa and their pack. Pix by Anuradha Bandara

Ashwini and Melissa specialise in the training of aggressive dogs and also run general training programmes for dogs because they believe that every dog must be trained properly to avoid behavioural issues.

Ashwini Aiyar started Sri Lanka’s first dog hotel in 2010. A pet relocation specialist capable of assisting with incoming and outgoing relocations, she is certified by the Cambridge Institute of Canine Behaviour and Training in the UK. Melissa Stephen gained her experience in Australia and is purely self taught, having started as a professional dog walker. Neither Ashwini not Melissa aspired to become a Canine Specialist but their previous work with dogs, coupled with their passion for the subject, led them to pursue studies in it. They relish a challenge and believe that training a dog who is considered to be ‘un-trainable’ is one of the most rewarding parts of their job.

Focusing on a dog’s individual temperament and gauging how they respond to humans and other dogs is a more effective approach than assuming that a dog will behave a certain way based on their breed – an approach which they believe that every dog owner should adopt, they say.

A few common misconceptions hinder a dog’s training, they find. Melissa says one of the most basic facts about dogs is that dogs learn from experience. “As soon as your dog does something, your immediate reaction is what determine if they will repeat that action,” she says. This means that when a dog jumps up and wreaks havoc to get your attention – if your first response is to pet the dog to calm him down, you might be unwittingly condoning his behaviour. Melissa advises dog owners to respond calmly and wait for the dog to calm down before giving them any attention. This would make them understand that unruly behaviour is not tolerated and doesn’t yield positive results, she says.

Ashwini emphasised the fact that dogs should not be allowed to bite anyone – humans or dogs. If your dog bites other people, it could bite you. But with proper training you could ensure that the problem isn’t repeated. Ashwini feels that the practice of euthanising dogs as soon as they bite someone is both cruel and unnecessary.

“Euthanasia is a last resort and should only be used when there is neurological damage to the dog’s brain,” she says. One thing which could potentially increase chances of neurological damage is the practice of selling puppies before they are eight weeks old. A puppy wouldn’t have been socialised properly by then and this could lead to destructive behaviour. Puppies need to be separated from their mothers after eight weeks and never before, she stresses.

So how do Ashwini and Melissa conduct their training programmes for aggressive dogs? “We correct their behaviour at the facility by figuring out what triggers their aggression, exposing them to these triggers gradually and then making them understand that their triggers are not reasons to be stressed or scared,” says Ashwini. Aggression is caused by a dog’s fear of a certain behaviour, person or action and can therefore be addressed by removing the fear the dogs associates with it.

Their own dogs also help out with the training and Ashwini and Melissa feel that a well trained dog works wonders for an unruly or untrained dog. Melissa’s dog Major – an American Staffordshire Bull Terrier (a.k.a. a Pitbull)would be the first to reach out to a new dog (or human) and helps introduce them to everyone else. Tinkerbell, a Dalmatian, is also the mother of four of Ashwini’s other dogs and is the peacekeeper of the pack. Batta is the father – a Ridgeback and Boxer cross, Batta is excellent with people and children, and usually helps people get over their fear of ‘big dogs’. Offspring Lena, Diesel and Spartacus are very good at curbing aggressive tendencies of the dogs being trained. The fourth offspring, the gentle Manali is the mediator if any conflicts should occur. Together, Melissa and Ashwini’s dogs form a tight pack. They accept any new members into their midst and help train them. Both Melissa and Ashwini attest to the fact that their dogs take their training responsibilities very seriously – if they scold a dog, their dogs do too!

So what advice do Melissa and Ashwini have for dog owners? “Look at dog ownership as a long term commitment. If you are having a child, you would look into what your child needs. If you’re having a dog, you need to do the same thing. They also need love, exercise and companionship,” stresses Ashwini. Hitting dogs and punishing them in cruel ways is unnecessary and ineffective. Exercising your dog daily is vital for their wellbeing, Melissa says as lack of exercise is known to lead to aggression and other behavioural issues.

Ashwini and Melissa can be contacted through their facebook pages ‘dogladyshouse’ and ‘Dog TimeSL’ respectively. Their facility is located in Malabe. Boarding includes guided socialisation, photo updates and Skype chats, while relocation includes behavioural advice before and after a relocation and getting the dog ready to live in a foreign environment.

Their training programmes include Puppy Obedience School -a programme on two weekends beginning in March for dogs who are up to two years old, which costs Rs. 30,000. For adult dogs they conduct programmes for the correction of severe behavioural issues, including aggression, extreme fear, destructive behaviour, and general unruliness which costs Rs. 150,000 for a 4-6 week programme.

Five do’s and don’ts for dog ownership
1. Exercise your dog daily. Most dog breeds are bred to work and thus get very bored when lacking mental and physical exercise. Daily 15-20 minute mental exercise and a 45 min walk are expected of every dog owner.
2. Provide companionship for your dog. Dogs are pack animals and socialisation with other dogs is a vital component of achieving a happy pet
3. Teach your dog to live in your environment. Incorporate structure and discipline into your daily routine by means of feeding, playing and training rituals. If necessary invest in a trainer or research how dogs think and learn online.
4. There is no such thing as too much affection, but make sure you only give affection at the right time. Do not reward barking, whining or jumping up, but instead only give affection when your dog is in a calm state of mind.
5. Take your responsibility seriously. Having a dog is at least a ten-year commitment. Do not get one unless you are willing to do whatever it takes to have a well balanced pet.
1. Buy or adopt a dog without researching if it is the right decision for you. Take time to learn about different breeds and what their care entails. Also make sure you do not bring a pup home until they are at least 8 weeks of age.
2. Cage or tie your dog all day. It is cruel to expect your dog to live its whole life locked away.
3. Use physical force to correct your dog. Hitting a dog does nothing but instil fear.
4. Do not think your dog is a strangely shaped, cuter human. Dogs have different needs and perceive the world differently to us.
5. Be it veterinarians, trainers or boarding kennels, make sure you choose the right one – not just the one closest to you or the most convenient. Ask around for recommendations and take care to ensure that everyone who interacts with your dog is going to treat it as you do.

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