by Jeff Stallings
I realized recently that I find myself more often citing instances of poor dog behavior than good, although I suppose this is natural since my work is largely about training inappropriate behaviors away. So let me take this opportunity to recognize and commend all the really great dogs out there: Those dogs who walk calmly by their owners’ sides and wouldn’t dream of pulling like they’re running the Iditarod. The ones who come when called, don’t jump on strangers, patiently wait for their food and would never in a million years start a fight.
Kudos to you all! You’re all champions! Yes, indeed, you’re wonderful, committed and caring people. Wait a minute; wasn’t I extolling the virtues of well-behaved dogs?
It takes good, dedicated people to make good dogs. All those well-behaved mutts did not automatically know what’s expected of them. In fact, they entered this world blind and deaf, utterly dependent on their mothers for about eight weeks, then completely dependent on humans thereafter. It’s our responsibility as dog owners to mold those innocent, unknowing little puppies into super dogs.
Here’s what people need to understand before bringing a new dog into the family: It takes time and work (fun work, but work nonetheless) to train a dog. If you want an animal in your home that doesn’t take much effort, opt for a cat instead. If you’re getting a young puppy, plan on a couple of hours a day of direct interaction for the first month or so (and pretty much round-the-clock monitoring the rest of the time.) As the months go by, if you’re being diligent, consistent, persistent and fair, it all gets easier and easier.
Proper training takes time and the active participation of everyone in your household. Each interaction with your puppy or dog is a training opportunity. If you follow the “nothing is life is free” strategy, you’ll move the process along much faster. For instance, always have your dog sit or lie down or shake hands or perform any command in exchange for food, treats, a walk outside, and so forth. Have him sit and wait by the door until you are out before he can join you. This instills the mindset of answering commands all day long, not just during explicit training sessions.
Dogs learn by repetition and you must avoid getting upset or frustrated when they don’t understand what you’re asking of them right away. Dogs do not have the advanced frontal cortex we humans have to reason through a problem, nor do they possess verbal language. I am baffled by the oft-repeated scene of a person admonishing their dog in full sentences, as if their animal might actually understand English if only they repeat their demands more and louder.
When I was a kid I remember being told that you cannot start training a puppy until they are six months old. Nothing could be further from the truth: You can and must start training a puppy from the moment you pick them up, and then continue the training for the rest of their lives. Don’t make the mistake of assuming your dog just wants your affection and nothing else. No, in fact, dogs want to work for food, they want to use their brainpower as much as they want to use their bodies. Providing mental challenges and learning opportunities is as important as providing food and water. And, if approached sincerely and with the right amount of levity and humor, this on-going training is as rewarding for people as it is for dogs!
The most important thing you can provide for your dog is exercise, followed by direction and finally affection. Don’t assume that just giving your dog lots of love is satisfying her needs, because that simply is not true: All that affection is satisfying your needs and is likely creating rather than solving behavior issues. Give your dog at least an hour of exercise a day. Provide mental stimulation through training exercises and games. Then, when your dog is physically drained and mentally exhausted, by all means, give all the loving affection you want.