“Once they get to know us, dogs forgive us for being such poor talkers,” said Dr. Carl Oguss, PhD, of East Hawaii Dog Psychology Center. “The person is not communicating in a way the dog understands.”
Speaking to about 20 people and six dogs at the Waikoloa Neighborhood Watch meeting last Wednesday, Nov. 20, Oguss explained that most common “dog problems” are actually “people problems,” generally solvable with improved and consistent communication.
“If I’m a dog and I start jumping around and barking and my owner stars jumping and barking back at me, I’m thinking ‘Wow, this is great—we’re both on the same page,’” said Oguss. Oguss said that barking is a dog’s natural way of communicating, and that dogs bark for different reasons, including boredom.
“A bored dog can find almost anything provocative,” he said.
Neighborhood Watch coordinator Skip Hickey invited Oguss to talk about common situations and offer solutions to issues like barking. A recent change to the dog barking law says that a “noisy dog” is one that, without provocation, barks continuously for 10 minutes, or barks intermittently for 20 minutes within a 30-minute period. Dog owners may be subject to fines and/or mandatory training, and risk having their dog “evicted” from the property.
Oguss has been featured in The Wall Street Journal for his dog-training skills, although he started out working with horses. He learned “horse whispering” techniques as a student of Culver Military Academy, home of the famous Black Horse Troop, the U.S. Cavalry’s last mounted unit. After a bike accident prohibited him from riding, Oguss started working solely with dogs. Harvard educated with a doctorate in (human) developmental psychology, he now provides training for dogs and owners through Hawaii’s court system. He also teaches a free dog training class in Hilo’s Queen Liliuokalani Park every Sunday, 2-4 p.m.
Among other projects, Oguss is proposing to bring a cancer detection dog training program to inmates at Kulani Prison. New, exciting research has shown that dogs’ keen sense of smell can actually detect cancers in people. Training prisoners to train these dogs could provide them with a strong incentive and lucrative job skill upon release.
With people and dogs, Oguss focuses on communication. Understanding how dogs think and the drives that motivate them can help handlers communicate better. Owners can do things that make a dog more likely to repeat desirable behaviors through reinforcement; owners can also do things that make a dog less likely to repeat undesirable behaviors through mild punishment.
“Your acting skill gets that dog to change,” said Oguss, “and your consistency.” Using the example of a mother dog weaning her pups, Oguss said that she will play “angry mom” if the puppies nurse too aggressively, training them with a snarl and occasional nip.
“That is as violent as the mother ever gets,” said Oguss. Her gestures, sounds and strong expressions of disapproval teach the five-week-old puppies to modify their behavior.
“You can teach any dog to do almost anything,” he said. He encourages people to think carefully before taking on a pet dog, and to always consider rescue animals first.
“Nothing enriches life more than real love,” said Oguss. “With people that can be hard to get, but it’s the kind of thing you get with dogs.”
Waikoloa Neighborhood Watch meets monthly on the third Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at Ho’oko Street Park, near the school. For more information, contact Skip Hickey, Oldhickdog2@gmail.com, or call 781-424-1630. For more information on Oguss’ free dog training class in Hilo’s Queen Liliuokalani Park every Sunday, 2-4 p.m., call 933-9763.