How to train your dream dog | Dog Days of Summer | Indy Week
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Thinking you've found the perfect dog (click, treat) is only the beginning

How to train your dream dog 

Thinking you've found the perfect dog (click, treat) is only the beginning

My loyal, altruistic, gentle German shepherd of nearly eight years lay dying in our kitchen. As the sodium pentobarbital was injected to stop an already failing heart in a badly failing body, as tears were rolling down my face, and I was soothingly telling him everything was fine, a small portion of my broken heart was set aside. For the next one. The healthy one. The one who would-- with my wise guidance--become an obedience champion in the ring and a mellow companion at home. The ideal dog.

Silly dog people. That's why, after waiting an entire year after my shepherd's death, after researching and driving to Ohio to visit the perfect breeder and her bevy of perfect dogs, after getting on their waiting list, after driving to and from Ohio with 14 pounds of warm puppy flesh in tow, I was crying inconsolably in my husband's arms.

My dream dog was whining in a low voice, methodically chewing through an inadequate and expensive fabric show crate. He wanted to continue his evening--spent with his eyes whirling in those cartoon spirals, hackles raised, frantically biting and running around the living room. My arms were covered with welts and a few choice deep-blue puncture wounds. I looked like a junkie. Nine weeks old, he first tried to attack, then tried to hump, our hapless Irish setter who stood there growling and drooling in distress, staring at me mournfully as he bounced off her. The blank slate was already hardwired testosterone. Where was the smart, sensitive, adaptive pup the breeder had described?

"But I don't like him," I wailed above his whines, as my febrile mind constructed a future filled with visions of a German shepherd roaring through my life like Cujo.

And my sweet husband firmly and kindly said exactly the wrong thing.

"We'll just return him," he said.

My wailing redoubled. He now claims he simply used shock therapy to snap me out of my post-pupdom depression.

The next day, I grimly took my cheap little plastic-and-metal clicker in hand, strapped on my bait bag, and put on my saccharine, high-pitched, happy voice. The little bastard.

Gooood Doog. Click, treat.

Be gentle. Gooood gentle. Click. Treat.

Puppy lick. Ouch! Puupppy lick. Goood puppy lick. Click. Treat.

If you want to live with a dog, fully live with a dog, that means training him. That's not just because obedient dogs are easier to live with and the Cujo nightmares recede; it's also because it makes you smarter and more perceptive. Unless you work with your dog as a partner, you'll never even start to understand her. I don't fully understand our adopted Irish setter, for instance. That's because I never completely committed to training her. That's my fault and my loss. The more you train dogs, the more time you spend with them, the more you realize that their obedience is less about obedience and more about teamwork. That concentrated time you spend working with your dog, trying to understand what makes him tick and not just pulling him around on a leash or distractedly watching him take a dump every morning and evening, is invaluable. It's also fun.

So, coming up are six simple and enormously complex rules, which I repeatedly forget and consistently repeat to myself. Yes, I do lose my temper and do the wrong thing, or get tired and take a break from my own regimen. But I also know when I lose my temper, I'm not teaching the dog a darned thing. These rules are valid whether you're bringing home a 9-week-old puppy, adopting an older dog, or just deciding that you're going to take another crack at your relationship with your old dog, which seems stuck in bad-habit-land--yours and hers. These are rules that have morphed since I started raising dogs. Military-style coercive training, firm shakedowns and choke collars are out. Clicking and feeding a chain of liver treats and cooing "good dog" is in. Score one for dolphin trainers. It works. Mostly.

Train yourself first by understanding what a dog is: not a human.

Dogs and puppies, with a few rare exceptions, don't do things to be bad. They don't do things for complex revenge. They do them because they're dogs. Leaping at the glass door and barking at the wind. Chewing on you, mounting canine members in the household, mouthing everything you leave on the floor, including chair and table legs. Pulling hard on the leash. Especially for puppies, their ability to explore and control the world is centered in their mouth and nose.

If you obey the obvious principle that puppies are not doing things to be bad, then you have to accept the next principle: It's not fair to punish puppies--or adopted dogs for that matter --when they don't know what your silly rules are. That goes for mouthing, for jumping on people, for peeing on the floor, for barking like maniacs. Dogs do things because those are the things that dogs would do out in the world. Sometimes, they do really bad things because they are nervous, or bored, or scared. So be realistic. It's going to take time.

So get your house in order and train yourself before you ever start training the dog. Dogs are easy to house train, for instance, if you're trained. Take them outside a lot to pee. Solo just had the first accident he's had in a month and a half, right in front of his master trainer, just as I was writing this. It was hot outside, he'd been drinking lots of water, he has a puppy bladder. I didn't even say "No!" to him... I opened the door, let him finish outside, and then hit myself over the head with a rolled-up N&O. My bad, my bad. If you can't watch them like a hawk, or need to be gone from the house, put them in a wire crate. Close doors to rooms that beckon with junk. Pick up your underwear. Don't work 10 hours a day, come home, and expect sweetness and calm. Pay attention to your dog. Then, once you're a bit better trained, you can start training the dog.

Realize that puppies are not dogs. Adopted dogs are not adult dogs.

Puppies and adopted dogs are nature--you add the nurture. Up to a point. Remember that puppies and dogs are--to some degree--what they are. You need to love the ones you're with. You're not required to always like them, and you should hate some of their behaviors and work to alter them. Our flighty, adopted, squirrel-and-bird obsessed Irish setter will simply never be fully trustworthy off lead near the busy street we live on. When she's outside, she's on a Flexi. And she probably will never fully conquer her fear of some men. Early childhood is as important in pups as it is in humans. On the other hand, she is playful, kind--and beautiful enough that she soothes our eyes even when she inflames our obedience tic.

Solo, the baby German shepherd, is a hard-driving, self-confident, complicated male who loves people. But he was the only pup in his litter, and his early exposure was to mature and tolerant adult shepherds who put up with his snottiness. So he's like most baby bullies--cowardly right beneath the bravado. He's fearful, but it looks a whole lot like obnoxious. He can sit and stare peaceably at a calm, leashed Akita. But uncontrolled dogs? This can lead to a sudden transformation from cuddly puppy to fierce barking and growling that makes him look and sound--well--rather like Cujo. Peace-loving people with their mellow, fat Lab mixes look and frown. I cringe. One soigne woman at the farmers' market told him fastidiously, over the top of her sunglasses, to put his hackles down. Sure.

I'd love to leave him at home at those moments, but that would defeat the purpose. And while he will probably always have strong opinions about other dogs, he can be taught to not act on those opinions. He's learning the word "Settle." It's pretty firm, it's not negotiable, but the moment he achieves a modicum of calm and holds it for eight seconds, he gets a treat. Crushing him is not going to fix the problem; it's simply going to ruin what makes him wonderful and will confirm his fear reaction.

Do I sound like an overly tolerant mother? Perhaps. Does it get results? Absolutely. Does it spoil? Not when you do it during that long stage when dogs or puppies are trying to figure out why you seem to think there's a significant difference between a stick and a table leg, or why they can't express their rapture at seeing you up and moving in the morning by grabbing your arm with the only arm-grabber they have.

Use your happy, indoor voice. Get his attention before you issue a command. And put a word on everything.

Did you get the tone above? Good puppy! Always the high, happy tone of voice. Research shows that dogs respond to it, and listen to it. You don't have to fake a falsetto or sound like an idiot. But experiment. See what tone your dog responds to--and I'll guarantee it's a higher octave. But don't even bother issuing a command unless you have his attention first--high octave or not. That's why you call his name first. Wait for the head to swing your way. That's why the first thing obedience trainers teach is "Watch me." Everything else follows from that. If he's watching your mouth and eyes, he's also capable of listening. Parents know this trick instinctively. What makes him watch? Treats, of course. Or a toy. And find a word or phrase for everything your dog does that you like, and use that word. Be consistent. If you want your dog to go upstairs on command, don't say "Bedroom" sometimes and "Upstairs" other times. Name the toys and name the behaviors--and use those names. Want to go for a walk? Want to go for a ride?

But be fair. Dogs don't learn things immediately. They may impress you by doing something correctly the third time, but that doesn't mean they know it. It can take hundreds of repetitions before a command is truly understood. So repeat commands until they know them before you insist that they sit perfectly every time, or that they ford the raging river to rescue Timmy. And yes, there is a "NO" command in the lexicon to be used on occasion: Lenny Bruce called it the Jewish seagull, although he wasn't referring to dog training--a loud, nasal, "ehnnhh" in the back of the throat.

Socialize, socialize, socialize--inside and outside the house.

Sure, it can be a pain--especially in the beginning. It's exhausting. If it's not, you're not paying attention to your dog. You're probably drinking wine and arguing about Fahrenheit 9/11. If you have guests who absolutely hate dogs, you can put them away. The dogs, not the guests, silly. Or maybe you should rethink your invitations. But the more you put the dog away when there are guests, the more she'll be unbearable around guests. The more you put them in the back yard, the more they'll become back-yard dogs. A leash is not just for the outdoors. Use it indoors to encourage control and good manners. A crate is not just for when you're out of the house--it can be used judiciously when behavior gets a bit wild. The dog can go in the crate, and you can sit and talk and watch him play with himself. Dog Reality TV. A dog should not have unfettered access to every guest all the time.

Want them to be better at home? Take them out. A lot. Throw them in the car. Two of you going to Home Depot, Whole Foods, Costco? Take the dog. Send the other person in to do the shopping. Sit the dog in front of the sliding doors with you. Do not tie them up and leave. Have people pet him and pet him and pet him. Give people treats to give to the dog--if he sits properly and doesn't take fingers along with the treat. Goooood gentle. Tell children that quiet and calm is the key to doggie friendship--not leaping and screaming like banshees. That's for a later lesson--add chaos slowly. Do not allow certain people full access. Your puppy is not everyone's playground. I have chastised grown men who bring their ham hands down with the words "I've trained shepherds; let me show you. ...;" I have told obdurate women whose overly large and enthusiastic critters "just want to play": "Please. Move the dog away from the puppy. Now." On the other hand, I was crying openly after a big tough guy stopped to play with Solo, who thought this was one fine man and bit him quite gently, and then licked right behind the bite. He told me about his own shepherd, tears coming from beneath his mirror sunglasses. His wife died in bed while he was on the road. The dog was lying next to her when they found her body.

Don't be cheap with treats or toys. Think of your dog as a Teamster and pay accordingly.

Did the dog grab the remote? What a smart guy. He knows how to get your attention. Don't chase him screaming--that makes it the chase game. Immediately find a treat or a toy--some dogs work for food, some for toys, some for both. Make that much more interesting. If he brings the remote to get the treat or toy, or just drops it, praise him madly, to the skies. Gooood dog! Gooood fetch! Gooood drop! Your new Mephisto? Make it a handful of treats. If you're panicked about piranha tooth damage, throw the treats on the floor, and as he drops the shoe to go scrabbling after them, tell him Goooood dog! Goooood drop! Then smack yourself for having left your good shoes on the floor. Solo will now abandon a bad behavior before I can even react--grabbing a shoe, looking at me, dropping it instantly, and coming over for a treat. I'm trainable. You want him in the crate? Throw a couple of kibbles in the crate. "Get in the crate!" Goood dog. Sit? A treat above the head. Down? A treat closed in your hand down between his legs only provided once a full down really occurs.

Be quick, be competent, reward the exact behavior or don't bother rewarding it at all. That's why clicker training has become so popular--those mechanical crickets that give a nice little "pop" when you press them. They tell the dog what exact behavior earned him that bit of chicken. And don't stop handing out treats once you think your dog "gets" it. That's really unfair. He obeys instantly and joyfully--and you stop paying him? Dogs shouldn't have to work just for love. Humans don't. Ultimately, you won't have to reward him with food each and every time. Just don't take his happy obedience for granted.

Finally, remember to reward the dog that doesn't bark in the nighttime.

When a dog is lying quietly, don't ignore that. That's not nothing. That's good behavior. Go over, give that dog a treat, and tell him"Good quiet" or "Good settle." It's better to reward the dog for not barking than scream at him for barking. So take the time to first identify for yourself, and then reward, behaviors that you love--not barking, not jumping, lying there like a rug while you're eating dinner or watching Prime Suspect. Treat those behaviors as significantly as you treat more active behaviors, like running eagerly to great you. If he's starting to jump on you, find a term that's specifically for NOT jumping on you, and reward that behavior--before the feet start to come off the ground onto your nice clothes. I call not jumping "Four on the Floor." When he doesn't jump on a guest, I give him a treat, and say, "Goooood Four on the Floor."

That's it. The Six Rules. Easy. And little Solo? At 4 1/2 months old, he no longer whines in the nighttime. He sometimes doesn't bark at other dogs--even when they bark at him. He only rarely tries to hump the Irish setter when he's in an ebullient mood. But he can put his shark nose to the ground outside and find my husband on command. He can balance kibbles on his toes until given permission to inhale them. It'll probably be a few years before he's mellow and wise. But he ain't Cujo. He's my dog.

  • Thinking you've found the perfect dog (click, treat) is only the beginning

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