November 24, 2007

On dogs

I've got a dog (that's her and me.... I'm the one in red.) Had three, two of which stayed with the ex when we split. Currently, I've only got Casey, my shepherd mix, but plan on taking in another two, maybe three, when I move back to Colorado and have enough space.

Casey is pretty well behaved. She's trained to obey, 100% of the time, and while I certainly don't profess to be an Ed Frawley or a Cesar Milan, I like to think I've got a pretty decent idea about dog training.

And it never ceases to amaze me how many people don't have a clue about dogs.

My co-workers, friends, neighbors, and strangers all see my dog and say some variant of the following: "I wish my dog would do that."

To which I usually reply "He will. Want me to show you?"

And they'll say something about "That's alright. Thanks anyway."


There are, in my view, four basic rules about dog training that apply to every house dog needing to be trained in basic obedience. Police dogs, protection dogs, Search and Rescue dogs, etc., are different. For those, these rules apply, but expanded training beyond the scope of this post is required.

Rule 1: The human is the boss. Period. Full stop.

This, on the face of it, sounds simple. But it's not. Being the boss -- or the "Alpha", if you prefer that term -- is a full time gig. You can't be the boss only during daily walks, or only when the dog is on a leash, or only when you have company visit. You have to bee the boss 100% of the time, all day, every day, Sundays, holidays, and points between. The boss is never angry. The boss never loses his temper or self confidence. There is nothing the boss can't handle. The boss never strikes his underlings. The boss is fair, treats everyone the same, and is consistent. The boss praises when the dog does well, and corrects (not hit, but correct) when the dog does wrong. The boss makes the decisions about when to walk, when to stop walking, when to eat, when to drink, when to pee, where to sleep, and all sorts of things. The boss is responsible for making sure that no harm comes to the rest of the group (pack.) The boss is a full time job, and it's not an easy job.

This is something you have to truly feel in your heart, believe in your head, and never entertain self-doubt. Dogs will notice that, and they naturally follow the leader. If you're not an effective leader, your dog will assume the role for you.

Rule 2: A tired dog is a happy dog, and a happy dog is easier to train.

Get your dog some exercise. Walks. Runs. Play fetch (in an enclosed area, of course.) Take out that old bicycle, ride down the street, and let your dog run/trot beside you. Buy a dog backpack, load it with 10-15% of the dog's weight, and make 'em carry it for a couple miles (hint: water bottles work well for this, as the dog will get thirsty and need cold water.) Use the same backpack, walk to the grocery store, and load it up with a few canned goods, then walk home. The exercise is good for you, too, in case you forgot. :) You can, with some web searching, find a body harness for the dog. Get one, some rope, and a Radio Flyer wagon. Let your dog pull the wagon with more groceries... or plants from the nursery.... or a case of beer... whatever. Yes, you'll get some odd looks at first, but it's a good conversation starter, helps you pick up chicks, saves gas money, and reduces pollution. Helps make friends, helps your love life, helps your pocketbook, and helps the environment all at once. Yahtzee!

But do SOMETHING to make your dog tired. Think of the way you feel after a good workout at the gym or a long hike in the woods. Tired, a bit spent, and a bit worn out, but emotionally refreshed. Now consider how you feel after missing that gym workout for a week: frustrated, antsy, and fidgety. It's the same for the dog: She's got a lot of energy to burn, and if you drain that energy, she'll be thankful for it. If you don't find a way to drain that energy, she will, usually involving what I like to call a "undesired furniture-tooth interface."

Dogs love having a job to do (this is ever so true for "working" dogs.... German Shepherds, Labs, Siberian Huskies, Boxers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and so forth,) and prefer to work to earn their keep. If your dog wants to work, why wouldn't you let him? (Teenage boys, on the contrary, never want to work, and must be forced to do so. At least that's what I've heard.)

Rule 3: Dogs don't have memories. They have habits.

What's the difference? You have habits. Some good, some bad. You probably sleep on the same side of the bed every night. In the morning, you do the routine of pour a cup of coffee, brush your teeth, take a shower, get dressed, catch the morning news, head to work about the same time, drive the same route, and so forth.

When you do this, you don't have to consciously think "Where are the coffee mugs?" or "Which toothbrush is mine?" You don't have to remember how to drive the car, which exit on the interstate is yours, or any such thing. It's just HABIT, not memory.

Dogs, like humans, develop habits by doing something over and over. Keeping that in mind, how does one encourage the right behavior and stop the unwanted behavior? Praise and corrections. A correction can be nothing more than a quick jerk of the leash, enough to tell the dog "That is unacceptable to me, the boss. Don't do it again." Praise can be a treat, a rub behind the ears, a "Good girl!", or just a smile and a good feeling about your dog.

Consider, if you will, the following hypothetical scenario: You're on vacation in some remote area of Kreblikistan, don't speak Kreblikistani, and during your day, you get arrested by the local police. They're speaking in loud, animated voices, waving their arms, and they look pissed. Would you know that you broke the law five hours ago when you crushed out a cigarette butt on the sidewalk? Or when you crossed the street between the corners? Or because you were driving and talking on a cell phone at the same time? Or because you're showing too much chest hair? How could you possibly know? How would that make you feel?

Dogs feel that way every time you try to correct them minutes/hours after the fact. For a dog to learn, you have to praise or correct within 2 seconds of the proper behavior. Any longer and it's too late. Think of it like this: You learn to not put your hand on a hot stove because the VERY INSTANT you do, it hurts. The lesson of the stove wouldn't be effective if you didn't feel the pain for a couple hours later. Same for a dog. The correction must be immediate. The praise must be immediate, too.

Rule 4: You must be more stubborn than the dog.

For some breeds, learning comes very quickly, and training takes very little time. Labs, German Shepherd Dogs, Border Collies, Golden Retrievers, and some others are all very intelligent. They may take a dozen repetitions, if that. Some dogs.... not so much. Bulldogs, Rottweilers, Siberian Huskies, Pugs, and a few others are.... well, dumb. Relatively speaking, anyway. They can still learn, but it takes longer.

Then, to reinforce the behavior, you must repeat the lesson. Over and over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over.

And over. Every time.

Want your dog to stop and sit at every street corner? Simple: When on your walks, every time you come to a corner, stop, make him sit, and then praise. Every time. Over and over again.

Takes time, yeah, but worth it. Develop those habits, correct when necessary, praise whenever possible, and you'll have a well behaved dog. But you have to be stubborn, and you have to keep it up, and you can't throw your hands up and say "Screw it" because the dog isn't doing the task properly.

Keep these rules in mind. You're the boss, your dog is happier when tired, your dog does not have a memory, and you must be more stubborn than your dog. Apply them to obedience training, and you'll find that your dog will start acting the way you want, rather than the way you don't.

Finally, a good book to pick up is "How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend" by the Monks of New Skete. The members of this monastary in New York state have dedicated themselves to learning how to develop a bond between man and dog, and they've put their life lessons in writing. I know of no other book that is so well suited to so many people for basic dog training and obedience instruction.

Cheers, and happy training!


Ambulance Driver said...

Excellent common-sense treatise on dog training!

PJ Geraghty said...

For what it's worth, much of this applies to kid training too. Mrs. Geraghty often hears "How do you get your kids to be so well-behaved?" Her usual (and accurate) answer is "You don't want to know."


Because it's too much work. Much easier to let the kids run roughshod over your life. Long-term, however, that has some serious consequences.

But she uses many (not all) of JB's dog training methods, and our kids are much better-behaved than the average cretins.