One of my mother’s favorite television shows is The Dog Whisperer, a National Geographic Channel program starring the dog behaviorist Cesar Millan and many ill-behaved pooches of all breeds. After watching the show with her for the second time, I rolled my eyes and said, “Mom, this isn’t about messed up dogs, it’s about messed up people!”
Okay, two shows does not a fair assessment make, but from what I could see, there are more than a few people out there encouraging poor habits in their dogs. There was a man who let his dog sleep on the sofa, but then was embarrassed when the Doberman refused to get down when guests visited. Or the dog that tore up newspaper and magazines in a frenzy, clearly finding its owner’s high-pitched, nervous reprimands as an overture for play. Most disturbing, was the woman who laughed nervously when her dog growled and nipped at her son! In too many cases, the dog was the one in control – not the person, much like a petulant toddler who wails and connives until getting his way.
While there are a few important, but simple, things to keep in mind when trying to train or retrain your dog, probably the most important thing to keep in mind is that you may have to retrain yourself first.
Assume the Leader-of-the-Pack Role
Dog trainers agree that the first thing to understand in establishing good habits in your dog is that dogs operate in a pack mentality. Descendents of wolves, they operate in a group and have one of two roles: leader or follower. In a human household, the human is the leader, the dog is the follower. No other arrangement will work in the long run. It’s your responsibility to be in control and provide clear guidance to your dog in a calm, non-threatening manner. We’ve all heard a person yell, “No! No! No!” at a barking dog, and we’ve all heard the dog continue to bark. And yet, the person doesn’t stop to think, “Hmmm, this isn’t working” People, it turns out, aren’t very good at retraining themselves.
Prepare Yourself to Spend Time Training
Having a dog means providing a certain level of time and energy to it, especially to provide much needed exercise. In its earliest weeks – even years – in your house, it takes especially focused time to teach the dog good behavior. As I consider whether my family will get another pooch when my dog Hannah passes away, I keep this in mind: Do I have the energy and attention it would require to train a new member of our pack? Last year, when I got my first cat, I was amazed by the way it came home, looked around, discovered its food and litter box and that was pretty much that. What about the nights of whining in the kitchen? The weeks of toilet training? The nipping and pulling on the leash? I’d done all of that with Hannah and the end result was a dog that understood the rules and has been a gentle companion for my kids and me. She’s a gem, but not by chance.
Nip Bad Behavior in the Bud … Now
Most dog trainers agree that a good human pack leader will actively discourage the following habits and replace them with those that follow:
• Don’t give your dog scraps directly from the table. If you want to treat your pooch to “human” food, put the food in her bowl so you don’t encourage table-begging.
• Excessive barking should not be tolerated; instead, figure out what’s making a dog bark and help your dog relearn its reaction to that person or event. Millan recommends using a consistent look, sound, or physical correction to stop the barking and waiting until your dog completely submits before you resume what you were doing before the barking began.
• Chewing on human belongings, such as shoes, magazines, or furniture will only lead to sorrow (something I learned when my puppy first destroyed a copy of my wedding tape and then my address book!); rather, dogs need their own toys for chewing. Teach your dog what you want her to chew by replacing the wrong chew toy (your shoes) with the right one (her toys). Praise her lavishly when she chews her toys.
• Pulling on the leash and other poor leash behavior should be corrected early on so that dogs and people can enjoy plenty of good exercise together. Every time your dog pulls the leash so there’s tension, try completely stopping and not moving. When your dog turns to look at you, praise her for paying attention to you. Don’t resume walking until there is no tension in the leash.
• Dogs should never be allowed to jump up on people at any time, especially when guests are entering your home. Teach your dog a new behavior that replaces jumping and reward him when he does that instead.
By: Jennifer New