Sweet jesus the pain -- help my dog stop scratching
November 9, 2007 2:56 PM   Subscribe

How do I stop a 2 year old Old English Sheepdog from scratching us all to death?

We've had our huuuuuge Old English Sheepdog for about 6 months. She's always done this to some extent or another but lately, it's ridiculous. She doesn't jump on people (unless they're on the couch, but that's cool with us), but she likes to put her paws up and scratch the everloving shit out of my legs, my husband's legs, my housemates' legs. She's otherwise an incredibly awesome dog, and it's clear she's doing this out of affection, not anger. The local training classes all use choke chains, which we are not cool with for various reasons, so those are a no go.

The scratching hurts so much that it's basically impossible not to pay it attention. I'm not a Buddhist monk or something, I can't deal with my legs being bruised all to hell while I stay totally silent.

Turning around and crossing arms was something we tried for a while, but she was PERSISTENT and it was literally a matter of giving in or having black and blue bruises on our entire back calves (yes, she will scratch the back of your legs, too, sometimes getting right into the crook of your knees, which is awesomely painful. We're all at a loss as to what to do, and my legs hate hate hate me. HELP. I do not want to be angry at the dog. I like the dog. I know the dog likes me. But it's very hard to keep being nice to something that hurts you every time it sees you.
posted by InnocentBystander to Pets & Animals (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Give her something else to do- if she's in a down/stay out of scratching range, that would keep her from doing it. Teach her a bunch of tricks to keep her occupied but still getting attention from you.

How much exercise does she get? It's amazing how many annoying doggie traits can be eliminated or at least vastly improved by a thorough daily walking routine.
posted by ambrosia at 3:01 PM on November 9, 2007

Response by poster: She goes on a long, long walk (hour-ish) once a day and a shorter one at night. We're worried these issues may get worse when it's -30 degrees out (thanks, Minnesota weather) since she hates going out in inclement weather.

We can get her to do a down/stay, but this is something that's literally every time she sees a person after having been out of their visual range for any time at all. "HI BRAND NEW PERSON! I WOULD LIKE TO SCRATCH YOU BOUNCEBOUNCESCRATCH" doesn't give you much time to react, and of course, it'd be hard to get her to be distracted all the time when we have guests who don't know the routine (especially my mother, who has diabetes and whom I haven't invited to my home specifically because I worry the dog could injure her). Is there a way to get her to understand which behavior isn't acceptable so that we could get her to stop, rather than just distracting?
posted by InnocentBystander at 3:05 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Your dog is young, it will take years for it to relax.

A sheepdog? it needs something to DO, like herd sheep.
posted by Max Power at 3:19 PM on November 9, 2007

Your dog is being a brat and doesn't realize it. What would you do if your kid though it was okay to stomp on your toes every time they wanted some attention? You need to teach her it's bad behavior.

The most important thing to do is to not give her affection when she does this. Push her away, put her in a kennel, or whatever, but never give in to her, or it will reinforce her behavior. She needs to associate scratching people with something unpleasant, the exact opposite of the reaction she gets now. Turning around and ignoring her while she continues to scratch you is no solution, as you've already noticed. If she's annoying you, sure, ignore her as long as you want, but if she's causing you pain, she needs to understand that, which requires a much sharper reaction from you.

Choke chains are always bad (for various reasons), but physical discomfort is nature's way of teaching animals they are doing something wrong. If your dog decided that chewing on her mother's ear was a good way to get her attention, you can be damn sure she'd get swatted or nipped for it. Swatting the dog is not a good idea, particularly with adult animals, but find some way of causing her discomfort when she does this - sternly and loudly tell her "NO!", spray her with water, make a noise that scares or surprises her (rocks in a tin can, for example), chain or lock her up for half an hour away from people, etc. I'm sure you know what she doesn't like - use it to let her know what she's doing is wrong.
posted by chundo at 3:40 PM on November 9, 2007

This is learned. Stop giving her attention when she does it. Yelp, and jump back and don't let her near you. Scratching at you should do the opposite of what she wants.
posted by cmiller at 3:51 PM on November 9, 2007

Your dog is scratching the crap out of you and others and you're worried about hurting its feelings?

It's continuing to scratch you out of ignorance that it is doing something wrong. It has no idea that its hurting you because you haven't demonstrated that it is. Crossing your arms and turning around doesn't communicate to a dog that you want a behavior to stop.

If it scratches you, you should be yelling "No" at it very loudly and physically preventing it from scratching you. You should make it clear physically and verbally that you don't want the behavior to continue by expressing your anger at it for its behavior. If you don't do that, it's never going to get a clue about what it's doing wrong.

If it's still doing this after you've actually yelled at it and physically thrust it to the ground, then you have an actual behavior problem. Right now you just have a communication problem.
posted by 517 at 3:57 PM on November 9, 2007

Dogs repeat behaviour that's worked for them in the past, and stop behaviour that doesn't work for them. The problem is that your dog wants attention of any kind, and this behaviour gets her that attention. You need to start keeping a leash on her and standing on it to physically prevent her from jumping up as a short-term measure.

As a long term measure: if your dog isn't in regular weekly obedience classes, she should be, plus you should be spending at least 15 minutes with her daily working on obedience. Training and exercise are the key to solving almost every behaviour issue with dogs, and 99.9% of the time with a problem like this, the real issue is that you have (inadvertently) trained her to repeat this behaviour, you need someone to teach you how to train your dog so that you can learn how to train appropriate behaviours and eliminate inappropriate ones.

Also: herding breeds are dogs bred to work hard all day, using their minds and bodies, your dog is bored and needs a job to do (agility, obedience, something physical and mental). An hour's walk a day plus a shorter walk is clearly not enough, especially not in terms of mental exercise, get a clicker training book and start shaping behaviours with her, get her brain engaged, get her working WITH you, and you'll be surprised at how much else starts working out better.
posted by biscotti at 4:17 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Akso: yelling and shoving is not how you train an excited, attention-hungry dog to relax and stop jumping on you, it's pretty much the opposite of what you want to do.
posted by biscotti at 4:19 PM on November 9, 2007

Try time out. Every time she starts scratching, she gets put in his kennel or alone in another room for 5 minutes. No talking to her or looking at her, just grab her by the collar and put her in the kennel. When she's released from the kennel and starts scratching again, back in the kennel. Over and over until she finally realizes that scratching you deprives her of your attention, which is what she's trying to get by scratching you.
posted by happyturtle at 4:23 PM on November 9, 2007

Echoing Chundo: Try keeping a spray bottle around, and spritz the dog when she starts to do it. This won't hurt her, but it'll probably be annoying. The idea is to associate something negative with the behavior you want to discourage.

I agree the dog probably wants a lot of exercise or stimulation as well.
posted by stonefruit at 4:27 PM on November 9, 2007

Training is the key, but while you are doing that, some things that might help; keep it's claws trimmed short. Walks on concrete will help blunt the edges of freshly cut claws and make it far less painful to get jumped on.

You may also want to look into something like Soft Paws. It's designed to protect hardwood floors, but works nicely at keeping your skin safe as well.
posted by quin at 5:41 PM on November 9, 2007

Response by poster: Training right now is less of an option than you'd think. The nearest non-choke-chain training occurs over 100 (yes, 100) miles from here. This is, needless to say, not cool. We agree that training is the best option. As college students, we have money to pay for training but not enough to pay for training and going halfway across the state to get it.

I did not know soft paws came in dog sizes!

We will also look at taking her back to her kennel and possibly the water gun solution. Stay tuned for such posts as "so now my dog thinks the kennel is a treat" and "my dog has learned to operate a super soaker."
posted by InnocentBystander at 6:00 PM on November 9, 2007

A dog that size being physically aggressive to a kid could get you in a LOT of trouble so you need to get contorl over her asap. I'd second the spray bottle (or glass of water that you up-end over her head) when she scratches. Combined with a loud "NO!!! WTF??" and she will get the idea that she is being socailly unacceptable pretty quickly.

The important counterpoint to the correction is to give her plenty of attention when she asks for it in an acceptable manner, like sitting nicely and making eye contact with you. Or bringing you a toy and making a play bow.

If this is your first dog, go to a trainer or work with an experienced friend. I don't like choke collars either but we use one of those pinch collars on our exuberant adult adopted dog and it works well. I tried it on my arm and it doesn't hurt much, just a pinchy feeling.
posted by fshgrl at 6:51 PM on November 9, 2007

There are several things you can do to deal with this problem.

Firstly, if she does this, step back and firmly say "NO." Tell her to sit, then reward her after a moment for sitting quietly. From time to time, call her to you, immediately tell her to sit just before she reaches you, and if she does, reward her. The objective is to link "come here" and "sit" into a single action.

One thing any dog owner should do is teach her "leave it!" and get it to the point where she will instantly drop or back off from whatever she's messing about with (an extremely good trick for dogs to know generally, especially in areas with snakes, skunks, cane toads, children with caninophobic parents, etc). You can then, together with husband and housemates, use "leave it!" to protect each other from the scratching post treatment.

You don't need to go out of your way to attend a dog training class; the idea of dog training classes, if taught well, is to teach you how to teach your dog any arbitrary behavior that's within a dog's capabilities. Anyone you know who has a well-behaved dog who they have taught a few "tricks" would be able to show you how it's done, but it's pretty simple: reward what you want the dog to do, immediately. (Clickers can help with this, by giving you a means to tell the dog the very second she does something good, that you approved of it, and that even though you might have to fish around in your pocket for a treat, the thing she did just before you clicked is what you're rewarding.) If you want the dog to do something complicated, break the action down into the simplest possible stages and reward each stage: (1) Come when called (should be well-reinforced already). (2) Run to a ball thrown as "Fetch" is shouted (praise). (3) Pick up the ball (praise). (4) Come here with the ball. (praise) (5) Drop the ball in front of me (food reward).

To train out a bad behavior, distract her with good behaviors. If she is strongly rewarded for sitting quietly in front of people, and punished ("No!") for jumping up, she'll start sitting quietly of her own accord after a few dozen (maybe a few hundred!) repetitions.

One of the better tricks to teach a jumper-up is "shake paws". It uses something the dog is already inclined to do, ie put her paws up, and stops her from jumping up on you. Engage your friends, preferably friends she doesn't know well, in this process - she should to be taught that the proper way to greet strangers is to walk up, sit quietly, and shake paws.

Another thing you can do, if she has the right sort of build (a bit questionable with sheepdogs, but maybe) is teach her to sit up high and stand up a little to reach a treat, so that she's supporting her own weight on her hind legs. The more practice she gets with this, the less weight she'll put on people she jumps up on, hence the less claws, mud etc. You might find this a good intermediate trick to teach her, if she's been very strongly reinforced into "jump up".
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:47 PM on November 9, 2007

What if you went to the training classes but used a nylon choke collar instead of a chain one? Would that make it more acceptable to you as a means of correcting your dog?
posted by happyturtle at 5:40 AM on November 10, 2007

There are many, many good DVDs you can get if classes aren't an option (use of a choke chain, whether it's nylon, chain or green cheese, is still an entirely different way of training a dog, and one that's becoming less and less common, thankfully, now that we know there are better ways). Even though this dog is not a puppy, you probably want to start with a puppy-level training DVD, to get your fundamentals properly trained.
posted by biscotti at 7:52 AM on November 10, 2007


Choke collars are never good. It's not the metal, it's the fact that dogs can "get used to it" and pull so hard that they crush their trachea. Never use a choke collar.

An alternative, if you feel physical correction is needed in on-leash situations, is a prong collar. The design is such that it causes less harm and more discomfort at the same time - there is a limited amount it can pinch, the pressure is evenly distributed around the collar, and it is designed to mimic a "bite" feeling, like they might get from their mother when they do something wrong (or at least that's the theory).

Of course many will argue that physical correction should never be used as a training tool, but I don't want to get into a "should I spank my kids?" argument here.
posted by chundo at 8:39 AM on November 10, 2007

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