FLD Mike and I attend Natalie's U10 (under 10-years-old) soccer game. Although this is only his second outdoors game, Mike knows the routine when he wears his "This Puppy is Being Raised for Leader Dogs for the Blind" jacket. He's working; he settles next to me, calm and relaxed. When the soccer ball rolls out of bounds toward us, he doesn't even flinch. At halftime, the team gathers around FLD Mike (whom they've adopted as their team "mascot") and he is in puppy-heaven.
"How do you get him to stay so well-behaved?" One mother asks me. "My cocker-spaniel is crazy! What I can't stand is how she jumps all over people when they come into the house. How can I stop her from doing that? And I can't even walk her; she pulls so hard only my husband can walk her. How do I get her to stop pulling? Can you train a dog that's four years old?"
"Well," I stammer. "Mike is extremely calm for a puppy." I'm sure she doesn't want to hear about the 1 1/2 hour walk I took with FLD Mike earlier in the day to wear off some of his testosterone-driven energy (he is 7 1/2 months old). Or the time I spend every day challenging his mind with obedience drills--"mat, sit, down, stay, come, give, take, ok." Or the effort it takes monitoring him so I can be consistent (and fair) with discipline. Instead, we talk about the characteristics of the cocker spaniel breed, a hunting-gun dog. Bystanders jump to the conclusion that this breed is difficult to train.
Like other frustrated dog-owners with whom I've worked providing in-home dog-obedience-training, this soccer-mom wants an easy "fix," as if I hold a magic wand and can put a "good-behavior" spell over her dog. But the biggest problem usually isn't the dog--it's how the humans in the household relate to the dog. People frequently make the mistake of interpreting canine-behavior in human terms.
"My dog jumps up on me because she's so happy I'm home!" (No, your dog jumps up to assert dominance over you.)
"My dog rushes past me out the door because she's so excited to take a walk!" (No, your dog doesn't sense leadership from you so she takes charge.)
"My dog rips apart pillows when we're gone because she's mad we left her." (No, your dog is an intelligent creature that likely doesn't get enough mental or physical stimulation; she gets into things because she has too much energy and is bored.)
"My dog loves me because she always leans on me, or jumps into my lap when I sit down." (No, your dog is claiming you by pushing into your space.)
What the soccer-mom doesn't want to hear is that the "fix" for her cocker spaniel's behavior involves her own behavior. While her four-year-old dog can be trained, years of learned ill-behavior will take alot more effort to change than if human leadership had been established early on.
PATTI'S TEN HUMAN BEHAVIORS THAT CAUSE "BAD DOG!"
10. Bending over to roughhouse with your dog when you come into the house and he or she is jumping all over you. (You should ignore your dog for 10 minutes. Turn away, or try pushing your body back into your dog's "space.")
9. Yelling at your dog to "stop barking!" (Dogs crave attention of ANY kind; barking back at your dog will likely "reward" that behavior and escalate the racket.)
8. Comforting your puppy like he or she is a small child whenever he or she gets scared. (Dogs have a survival instinct to "push past fear." Coddling them creates a nervous dog that might develop fear aggression; this human behavior reinforces fear instead of helping him or her to cope. For those of you with toddlers: have you noticed how they look to you for your reaction before they cry out?)
7. Punishing your dog long after the fact. (When you reprimand your dog after finding a potty-accident in the house, your dog does not understand what he or she did "wrong." All your dog knows is that you are angry and they can become fearful. We only have 1.5 seconds to correct a bad behavior after the act--or reinforce the behavior we want!)
6. Advising your children (and everyone else) to avoid your puppy when he or she is eating because the puppy growled. (The puppy is training YOU to stay away; this behavior can lead to food and toy aggression. Even at eight weeks a puppy can begin to learn to SIT and WAIT for his or her food.)
5. Yelling, "(insert your dog's name here) COME!" a gazillion times and expecting your dog to come. ("Come" is an off-leash command. Your dog must respect all commands on-leash before working off-leash. Never give a command you cannot enforce; give the command ONCE, then MAKE your dog do it!)
4. Never exposing your puppy to new places, things, and people, especially during the "critical" phase of 8 to 16 weeks of age. (An un-socialized puppy will grow into an anxious dog when confronted with new situations.)
3. Letting your puppy jump all over you to get to his or her food at mealtime. (Again, your puppy is controlling you. Feed your puppy after YOU eat; make him or her SIT and WAIT for the OK to eat. Your puppy should also learn to SIT and WAIT to be release from his or her crate, and to SIT and WAIT for you to pass through a door first.)
2. Thinking that the backyard gives your dog enough exercise. (Backyards are like taking a two-year-old child to Chucky Cheese--it's "party time." When the toddler get tired, doesn't crankiness set in? Real exercise also provides mental stimulation. Walking on a "loose-leash" keeps your dog's attention on YOU; practice changing speed, turning, and stopping to add a "sit" or a "down.")
1. Excusing puppy-nipping because "it's just a puppy thing; she will grow out of it!" (Puppies do NOT grow out of play-biting--they grow into biting! Consistent attention stops this unwanted behavior quickly.)
If you want to get a pet dog, take time to research breeds before choosing to make sure your puppy will fit with your lifestyle. Read as much as you can about training techniques. Seek help and advice from a professional trainer. If you don't want to commit to the time necessary to properly raise an eight-week-old puppy, consider adopting an older dog from organizations like Teacher's Pet. This non-profit helps "at-risk" youth train shelter dogs in basic obedience so the dogs are more adoptable. (Check out their latest adoptable dogs here.)
Raising a well-behaved dog is an important responsibility, even more so if you decide to become a puppy raiser for Leader Dogs for the Blind. Become your dog's leader, you'll be glad you did!