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Thursday, February 10, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: "Surviving Your Dog's Adolescence: A Positive Training Program"

Before I begin, a quick update on Leader Dog Mike!  A trainer named Mike (!) from Leader Dogs for the Blind is bringing LD Mike to his handler tomorrow.  I was lucky to be contacted by Wayne and he is anxious to partner with LD Mike (I love typing that:  LD).  LD Mike will be Wayne's third Leader Dog.  If any of you are interested in following the continuing story of LD Mike, check out Wayne's new blog at:  Congratulations, Wayne!  We might be just as excited as you are!

Surviving Your Dog's Adolescence: A Positive Training Program

-by Carol Lea Benjamin
1993, Macmillan General Reference, New York, NY 
 ISBN: 0-87605-742-3

Carol Lea Benjamin's book, Surviving Your Dog's Adolescence: A Positive Training Program, is one book among many on a recommended reading list in my Leader Dogs for the Blind puppy-manual.  What better title to select just as FLD Gus hits the six-month-old mark?  I've been looking for signs of his approaching adolescence.

When FLD Gus retreats from the open van door and refuses to get out when I take him to the grocery store, is it because he is testing me?  Or is he just reluctant to leap down into the salty slush of the parking lot?  When FLD Gus balks as I attempt to put on his blue "Puppy Being Trained for Leader Dogs for the Blind" working jacket, is it because he doesn't want to "work?"  Or did I whack him in the face too many times with my shoulder purse as I bent over him to clip the buckle?

In my experience, when puppies hit their hormonal hurricane, it's as if the whirlwind erases everything they've ever learned; at the same time it suddenly occurs to them that maybe, just maybe, they DON'T have to do what I ask them to do.  I have strategies for dealing with this adolescent behavior (see my post from August 17, 2010, "Help, My Puppy is a Teenager!"), but I was interested in reading about Benjamin's approach.

Carol Lea is a long-time dog trainer and writer.  She's written several other books on dog behavior and has written a column ("Dog Trainer's Diary") for the American Kennel Club's Gazette since 1979.
The dog you want does not just happen all by itself.  You must build the dog of your dreams, slowly, carefully, with knowledge of dog behavior and training techniques, intelligent planning and an inexhaustible sense of humor.  (Page 25)

In her book, Surviving Your Dog's Adolescence: A Positive Training Program, Benjamin answers many puppy-owners' calls for help at that dreaded time called "adolescence."  She places no blame for this behavioral "brattiness" other than the "canine unemployment" that our puppies deal with today. Problems occur because exuberant young dogs are unable to use up their abundant energy; in the past, juvenile dogs were just too busy surviving to cause trouble.  (Interesting that Benjamin considers negative human adolescent behaviors to be the result of similar leisure time!)

The four sections in Benjamin's book are well organized, instructive, and frequently amusing.  She uses photographs to illustrate training techniques for specific commands.

Benjamin leads the reader through a basic grounding in the human/canine relationship--it's all about ATTITUDE.  She believes that the most important lesson she can impart to her reader is than an adolescent dog NEEDS LEADERSHIP.  She advocates a traditional, "natural" training approach based on the way dogs "treat each other."  She warns that luring with food or treat training is great for "performance," but does not impart adequate respect.
Traditional training, which assumes intelligence on the part of both the teacher and the student, works.   It works on puppies, on adolescents, on adults--even those dogs who have been abused.  So use it with confidence.  This trainer will not have to apologize in midstream and send you off to find another style of dog training because the methods taught in this program are truly positive, positive, meaning clear, precise, sure, unequivocal.  (Page 35)

Benjamin details case studies in adolescent behaviors and follows with a list of eight "Dog Laws" as illustrations that, as she puts it, "your dog is not a little person in fur."  These "Laws of Nature from a Dog's Point of View" are worth the price of this book in themselves!

Equally valuable is Benjamin's "Trainer's Dozen," a list of 13 practical exercises designed to build leadership with your canine companion.  She also includes information about proper training equipment (like a short leather leash), and the qualities of a successful trainer (time, patience, sense of humor, and commitment).

I am familiar with many of Benjamin's "Trainer's Dozen," such as the use of body language, how to praise and correct appropriately, and reviewing basic obedience commands to reinforce good behavior.  Others are new to me, adding additional "tools" to my training toolbox; a couple of others are surprising.

In the first case, for instance, I was interested in Benjamin's training technique for what she terms an "emergency down" and how to use this command to keep your dog safe and respectful by obeying "without thinking."  A great tool!  Another unexpected exercise was her description of a "nose hug" to calm wildness--cupping your dog's muzzle with your hand, imitating a dominant dog's greeting of a subordinate.  I cup my dog's nose regularly, without knowing this!

However, I was surprised at Benjamin's advice not to pet a dog under its chin.  She says this mimics the response of the subordinate dog to the "alpha"--licking the dominant dog under the chin.  Benjamin also recommends teaching your dog to give you its paw, which she describes as a submissive gesture.  I always thought the opposite, that placing a paw on you is similar to jumping up, trying to "take up your space."

Benjamin asserts that it is imperative to KNOW YOUR DOG.  Know more about your dog than what time he gets up in the morning, or what shoe he will likely chew.  She urges her reader to study breed AND personality types, and recommends specific training approaches for each type.  For example, a "smart" dog is easily bored--be "smarter" and change routines, don't go over and over the same commands, mix things up, take the dog to a different location to train.  A "dumb" dog on the other hand, needs patience--take things slowly.

When I helped my trainer-friend Katie run classes for obedience trainers, our mantra was LEARN TO READ THE DOG.  Benjamin advises, "pay attention."

Benjamin lets her reader in on "trade secrets."  What does a professional trainer do to be successful?
  • She plans and sets short and long-term goals.
  • She takes notes about how well each training session contributes to meeting these goals.
  • She takes the time to establish leadership.
  • She works on one "problem" at a time.
What does a professional trainer advise her client to do with an adolescent dog?
  • Tire out your dog. (Ah, a familiar phrase!  "A Tired Puppy is a Good Puppy"--my TIP from April 6, 2010.)
  • Teach and reward with play.
  • Learn from your dog.
  • Study your breed standards.
  • Be creative.
  • When you are frustrated and feeling angry, reestablish a warm relationship by petting your dog with warmed hands!
  • Don't roughhouse with your dog.

I think it was Cesar Milan who stated, "There are no bad dogs, just bad owners."  Benjamin states this a bit more gently in Surviving Your Dog's Adolescence.  A well-behaved dog is the result of what kind of owner you ARE, rather than what you DO.

Once you have garnered your dog's true respect, many of the problems you previously fretted over will begin to abate and his behavior will fall into line.  (Page 133)

If your adolescent dog exhibits any of the negative behaviors discussed in Benjamin's earlier case studies, she provides a list of behavior changes that YOU must do to "take charge."  Things like "no free treats," long down-stays, incorporating training into everyday situations (making your dog SIT before meals, for example), keeping your dog off the furniture.  I chuckled to myself when she described "constructive exercise" as a long walk, not "being tied to a tree in your yard."  My trainer-friend Katie often explained that thinking your dog exercises by running around in the backyard is like  taking your kid to "Chucky Cheese"--they get wound-up-like-a-cranky-two-year-old tired, not tired out and calm!

Fortunately, Benjamin offers practical strategies to correct these behavior problems.  You should read this book if any of these words fit your dog:  barky, bossy, crazy, destructive, thief, manipulative, fearful, shy, fussy eater, no self-control, mounting, selective hearing, to name a few.  (If you think your dog is truly "aggressive," Benjamin suggests you find professional help.)

Benjamin's discussion about "stress whining" caught my eye.  My nine-year-old lab/mix (maybe whippet/greyhound/terrier?) Gypsy, is a very nervous dog.  I sometimes call her my "whiner-rhymer!"  According to Benjamin, "Stress whining is an unconscious activity."

The first step in correcting Gypsy's unconscious whining is to make her aware of what she is doing.  Once she is conscious of her whining, I can work on getting her to stop whining.  It was interesting to learn from Benjamin that this whining behavior is common in dogs that "were bred for really tough work and are not getting the opportunity to do it" (page 184).  That sounds like my Gypsy!

Benjamin emphasizes that building your "dream dog" is about establishing the proper relationship between you and your canine companion.  As she says, a dog isn't just a piece of furniture.  We have as much to learn from our dogs as they have to learn from us.  The loyalty and love we get from a happy, adjusted dog is worth the time, effort, and commitment it takes to do as Benjamin suggests.  It is a "lifetime project."  Embrace the exuberance of your adolescent dog and HAVE FUN!

Benjamin's book, Surviving Your Dog's Adolescence: A Positive Training Program, reinforces my own beliefs about dealing with an adolescent dog.  In the human/dog relationship, it is imperative that we humans remember that we are smarter than our canines (if we educate ourselves about canine-behavior and training techniques), and it is OUR responsibility to give them mental and physical exercise, and proper leadership.  Too often, our puppies train US.

When FLD Gus begins his "wild and crazy guy" imitation (ok, I'm telling my age--who remembers Steve Martin's character on "Saturday Night Live?"), I now have a few extra tricks of my own to help him through his hormonal hurricane...thanks to Carol Lea Benjamin!


  1. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Anyway, I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

    1. Thank you Dog Bark Collar! I hope I post again soon, too. :)