This Week(s) in Photos: What I've Learned From Raising a (Blue Heeler Border Collie Mix) Dog

What an insane month it’s been. It feels like a year since we got Piper in all of the good ways (overwhelming whirlwind of love) and some of the bad (sacrificing sleep, downtime and eating well, stress etc).

Piper has wedged herself into our lives in the best way possible, and I now can’t imagine my life without her. She’s already doubled in size (from 6lb to 12lb) and, according to many weight calculators (because yes, I’m now that crazy person) we predict she’ll double once more into her full-grown size (approximately 24lb). This was her the day we got her compared to a few days ago:

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I have never raised a dog, let alone owned a dog, and I picked a winner (I’m being mostly sarcastic in jest). But in fact, Australian Cattle Dogs are one of the hardest breeds to train, but on the flip side, if trained well, one of the greatest breeds you can own. I am absolutely no expert on the topic whatsoever, but I’ve been asked on Instagram by a few people to share some of my tips and tricks for raising such a breed, and dog in general. I was hesitant, but after consulting a professional to confirm that our particular training-style is what right for her, I’ve decided to share what I’ve learned about raising my Blue Heeler, Border Collie mix. It may not be right for every dog, but this has been our experience:

Consistency, Consistency, Consistency

When you’re a kid and you pretend to be sick to get out of going to school, you know somewhere in your five-year-old brain that there’s a massive chance you could get called on your sh!t. You may be young and naive, but you’re still clever and intelligent, so if you think there’s even the slightest chance you’ll get away with it, you’ll try. This goes for dogs just the same.

With Piper (and I imagine any dog) consistency is absolutely the key to successful training. Piper is smart, so if she knows she can get away with something even once out of every 20 times, she will keep trying. The key with Piper for training any kind of behavior was to never let her get away with anything we didn’t want her to do, no mater how tired or lazy or “nice” we’re feeling. If you punish something once, you have to be prepared to punish it forever–and with the same discipline each time. And that goes for the positive things too: If your dog doesn’t beg and you want to keep that up, praise them just the same.

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Segue: These few shots of Piper were taken the night we got her. (No idea why I thought showering and leaving my wet hair down would be a good idea. Again, lesson learned: don’t bother trying to stay clean and un-bit the first week or so. Be prepared to not have as much time on your hands for taking care of yourself.)

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Nip Biting in the Bud

As you can see, I desperately need new socks, and Piper helped speed up that process by biting even more holes in them. “Maybe she’s doing me a favor,” I thought, but biting (even when secretly wanted on my worn socks) is something you have to nip in the bud, pun intended. It’s easy to allow it when they’re puppies and their teeth are small enough that it’s cute, but allowing it now will make it harder to break the habit when they get older. And no one wants an adult dog that bites people.

To nix biting, again, consistency is key. After reading about it online, I had to laugh at how many forums just recommended a) a loud and firm “no” b) giving them a treat to distract them or c) acting like a dog would by yelping and walking away. A and B were not happening. She’s a dominant female and laughed in the face of a firm no for training, and the treats just condition her to learn that she gets a treat when she bites. In my opinion, that’s very silly and counter-intuitive. And yelping and walking away only led her to want to attack more. This won’t be the reaction of all breeds, and this technique may actually work for most dogs, but Australian Cattle Dogs (ACDs for short) are bred to herd cattle, so anytime we tried walking away and yelping, she thought she was doing a good job of steering us around. Piper would actually keep biting and following us in an attempt to herd us further. For her, our departing behavior just reinforced her dominance as pack leader.

The only thing that has worked for us specifically with an extremely dominant, intelligent female on our hands, has been a “scruffing” or “jowling” which involves grabbing and holding them up (so they’re still on their hind legs) by the neck scruff or extra skin on their cheeks and calmly disciplining. We hold her like this until she “submit”, which means she goes limp and stop fighting us. It’s not about being rough or hurting them (in fact, it doesn’t hurt them at all.) Their mother and other dogs do this to each other naturally all the time to let another dog know they’ve crossed the line. What happens when you do this is that they’re forced to focus on you, make eye contact and this helps them realize that you are the one in charge, not them. I don’t know about all dogs, but ACDs need to be firmly disciplined in this way or they will become the head of the household.

Up until we used the jowling technique, Piper didn’t want to show affection or receive it, she was aggressive with us and was a ball of anxiety. What we’ve learned since was that when dogs don’t have a strong leader, the pressure falls on them to lead, and that’s a lot of responsibility for a small pup to have on their shoulders. Sometimes puppy aggression can be born out of anxiety over having to step up. The first day we started using the jowling technique, showing her we’re in charge, she transformed immediately. She wanted to cuddle, be pet and even lied with us on the floor, snuggling into us. It was like night and day. She was probably sp relieved of the pressure and was able to just relax, knowing we would take care of her and not the other way around.

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Potty-training and Crate Training

We crate-trained Piper and continue to crate her overnight still, and likely will for months to come. A lot of people think crate-training is cruel, but dogs actually love their crates if used correctly. If they hate their crate, it’s likely the fault of the owner for using their crate as a time-out or punishment. It’s simple conditioning. If you treat their crate as their safe place, they’ll love it. It’s their bedroom, essentially, and when positivity reinforced with treats and praise anytime they enter the crate, they’ll learn to love their little space.

When choosing a crate, make sure it’s just large enough for them to lay down in, no bigger and no smaller. Dogs won’t poo or pee where they sleep, so anything larger than they can fit in will allow them to potty in one corner and get far enough away from it to sleep, which brings me to the point of using crate-training: to potty train your dog. Piper is now three months old and maybe has one accident inside per week, which is pretty good for her age.

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Stop Barking

Ignore it, remove the reason for barking (which is typically anxiety or excitement) or divert. There isn’t much more to say than that! The worst thing you can do for barking is reply. A dog doesn’t understand English, and you yelling back will make them think you’re just barking back. Don’t fight fire with fire. Ignore the barking if it’s out of boredom or seeking attention and they’ll eventually learn that it won’t get them what they want. If the barking is due to anxiety or excitement, try to anticipate it and divert to a treat before it happens. If you know they always bark when someone comes to the door, distract them with toys or get them to perform a trick for a treat while the action that typically leads to barking is happening. Never give them a treat while they’re barking, but if the barking has already begun, divert their attention with a treat (which will likely stop the barking) and get them to perform a simple trick such as sit or lay down in order to get it.

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These photos are of Piper playing with her cousin and best-friend Brady, a gorgeous Golden Retriever who’s the gentlest giant.

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Separation Anxiety

Anytime we leave the house, we crate Piper. We don’t throw her in right before we leave, or she’ll just learn to fear her crate. Rather, leading up to leaving her, we’ll play in and around her crate, put treats in her crate, and when she goes in willingly, we lock her in, and only once she seemed rested do we gently leave the house without acknowledging her in any way. This minimizes her anxiety.

All in all, don’t make leaving home or coming home a big deal. When you leave, don’t work them up by saying “bye” and being sad as you close the door. Try to sneak out whenever possible and don’t make eye-contact or speak to them while you leave. Same goes for coming home: When we enter our home from being away, we don’t acknowledge her for about 10 minutes. It’s hard not to want to just see and play with her, but it’s important she only be acknowledged and let out once she’s calm, and coming out means going straight to potty first! That teaches her that she’ll get what she wants eventually if she simply waits patiently. No amount of whining, barking or freaking out will get her what she wants. Which applies to sleeping too. Because we’ve adopted this attitude towards her crate, every night she willingly goes in her crate in the living room and we sleep through the whole night in our bedroom with the door closed. There’s never a peep out of her.

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All in all, I am not an expert by any means.

And Piper is the only dog I’ve ever raised or owned, so these rules may be irrelevant for other dogs. Each dog is different and needs to be trained accordingly, and always consult a professional if you’re having issues.