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Dog Obedience Training

General Issues

Question

What is the leading cause of death in dogs?

-Harriette from Marblehead

Response

Dogs, like humans, are beset by any number of diseases and many of their illnesses are similar to those we humans experience. Just as for humans, cancer is among the leading causes of death in dogs.

As for the leading cause of death, we would agree with Dr. Ian Dunbar, a veterinarian and internationally known animal behaviorist, that the number one cause of death among dogs is "bad behavior"!!

A dog's bad behavior often leads to one of two deadly consequences:

  1. The owner abandons the dog because owning him or her is no longer fun or because the dog has committed a serious offense, such as biting or excessive barking. What usually follows is euthanasia because there are so many abandoned dogs and so few adopters. And ill-mannered dogs are much harder to place.
  2. The dog dies as a result of disobedience, e.g. bolting out the door of the house or the car, running across a busy street, and getting hit by a car.

Question

We just got a dog and so we have been reading lots of books about training. There seems to be varying opinions about treats and how to use them. What do you recommend for training rewards.

-Anchi from Lynn

Response

Throughout our careers, we have successfully trained pups, and have taught owners to train their pups, without the use of treats. So much basic training can be accomplished without our becoming walking delicatessens and without putting our dogs at risk of becoming overweight (which can lead to some serious consequences).

We are not totally averse to food treats. Random treating for a particularly food-driven dog may be advantageous. Random treating because we owners take such joy in feeding our beloved pets is fine.

However, rewards, in the form of praise, playtime, special toys and the like can be equally effective in training.

Additionally, if treats are not relied on for rewarding every daily behavior, then they become much more effective tools when stubborn behavioral problems arise and need to be solved.


Question

At what age should I start training my dog? The breeder said to start her at six months, but my neighbor has a twelve-week-old and has already started obedience classes.

Response

The short answer is that "training" (more on this later) should begin as soon as you get your puppy; that would be anywhere from eight weeks of age on up. Most behaviorists and trainers today would agree on this.

Now for the long answer. Traditional wisdom had it that a dog's "training" shouldn't begin until the age of six months. Reasons for this varied: early training might break a dog's spirit; would be ineffective because a puppy's concentration span was limited; would expose a young pup, who was not yet completely immunized, to other dogs. And for some, the bottom line was, "Give the puppy a break and let her have her puppyhood."

"Training" usually meant serious training, i.e. for the competition ring. The notion of breaking a dog's spirit stemmed from the heavy-handed way that dogs used to be trained. But more and more these days, training, whether for competition or for pet obedience, is based on positive reinforcement and non-confrontational methods. As for the inoculation issue, most experts agree that the chance of damage being done by exposure to other puppies is far outweighed by the positive effects during the first six months of monitored social interaction and learned "puppy etiquette." And, because of the nature of training a pet dog, not a competitor, the need for concentration is more on the owner at first than on the pet.

Pet dog training is different from formal competition training (breed, obedience, field trials and the like). Its main goal is to foster your dog's peaceful coexistence with the members of your household. This means that you and those in your household learn how to successfully housebreak your pet; how to teach her that human body parts do not belong in her mouth; how to gain her cooperation when, for example, she is called to come because a Mac truck is barreling down the street and another dog across the street is vying for her attention; how to convince her that jumping on people or pulling things off counters is not acceptable;. Notice that it is you, the caregiver, not your pup who has need of training.

In fact, people have the misconception that it is their dogs that are being trained in class, when in actuality it is the humans who are receiving an education. An effective class will present a framework, a consistent and effective plan of action for communicating the rules of the household to your puppy, for gaining her cooperation, and for meeting the challenges of the various stages of a maturing pet.

And whether you realize it or not, your pup probably began training you as soon as she walked into your home! I'd suggest you sign up for a class today!


Question

How do you feel about choke chains? Our breeder recommended that we use one, but my wife hates using it. Are there any effective equivalents?

-Stan from Medford

Response

Choke chains, or slip collars, have indeed been the staple of dog training for decades. However, research has shown that dogs regularly restrained with this type of collar experience trauma and injury to the larynx. Besides that, we think we could prove, if we could do the research, that owners that use choke chains experience a lengthening of the arms, which could be a bit of a problem, especially if they hold the leash with the same arm all the time!! Most owners feel so bad as their pets strain at the lead, choking and coughing, that they try to compensate. Hence, the arm-lengthening phenomenon.

There are so many effective, humane collars and harnesses on the market these days that we feel choke chains are unnecessary. Even the modified slip collar and the prong collar are less offensive and harmful. However, the two collars that we consistently recommend because they are especially humane and because our clients have found them particularly effective are the no-pull trainer by Four Paws Products, Ltd. and the gentle leader, the latter recommended by the ASPCA and vets and available only through trainers. In situations where all else fails and the owner's physical safety is being compromised, we have recommended the prong collar.

Remember, all of the above are merely training devices. You should be working with your dog so that he learns not to pull on lead. Eventually, you should only need a plain collar.

Stay Command

Question

My dog is fairly well trained, as long as I am totally focused on her. As soon as my attention is elsewhere, she does as she pleases. What exercises can I do to enhance my control?

-Troy from Nahant

Response

All of the stay exercises are excellent. Build up the amount of time that you can get your dog to stay. You can probably already get your dog to stay for 20 seconds or even more when you have her supper dish in your hands. You might want to slowly increase that stay time.

Increase the number of distractions your dog can handle while in a stay: bouncing balls or throwing her toys and making her wait to get them until you give her the release

Talking to someone, whether in person or on the phone, while your pet is in a sit or down stay is excellent practice. Often, as soon as we stop to talk or pick up the phone, our dogs will 'break' or release themselves from a stay, for example. Most dogs get distracted or mistakenly think the exercise is over when the owner turns his/her attention away from the dog.

You need to practice this in stages: with your dog in a stay, pick up the receiver, and then immediately hang it up; pick up the receiver, speak for a second or two, then hang up; then increase the speaking time. Gradually increase the amount of stay time and reinforce the stay with verbal and hand signals. If you see that your dog is at the threshold and ready to break her stay, give the release, so that you remain in control.

At each step, try making the exercise slightly more difficult. You can do this by averting your eyes from her for some periods of time. More difficulty can be added to the task by moving around as you speak.

DOG OWNERSHIP = RESPONSIBILITY

Come Command

Question

I trained my dog to come, using treats as incentive. Whenever I would call him to come and he would ignore me, I would wave a piece of cheese or hot dog at him and he would come running. Now, not only has he gained a lot of weight, but also he ignores me when he is not in the mood for a treat or when something else is more enticing!! And I am getting tired of being a walking delicatessen. Is there any way to get my dog to come without the use of treats?

Response

It sounds as if, in part, you have fallen prey to one of the most common mistakes in dog training.

This classic case of miscommunication is best illustrated in a cartoon I saw not long ago. An older dog is instructing a younger dog in the ways of the world. He tells the younger dog, "When you are outside, the humans will holler and scream for you. Just ignore them. If you wait long enough, pretty soon they will offer you a great treat." In this case, the dog is getting a reward for not coming.

Coming when called is usually a negative experience for a dog, i.e. it represents the lockup - on the leash, in the house, in the car, in the crate. It represents a loss-of-freedom, playtime-is-over kind of situation.

Often you will see dogs look around when called to come, as if they suspect that there is something fun just about to happen that their owner doesn't particularly want them to pursue (a cat, another dog, a squirrel). And after a while these distractions often become more tempting than any treat.

Conditioning your dog to come when called is a matter of lots of practice.

First begin indoors, either on lead or with a dragging lead. Call your dog by name and use the "Come Here" command, "here" meaning a spot directly in front of you and close enough that you can hold him. No pass-bys allowed!!

After telling your dog to "Come Here," give him a second or two to respond. If he does not come to you, give the command again and, this time, make it happen, gently but firmly with a slight tug on the lead.

DON'T reel or pull your dog in. Rather, repeat "here," each time shortening the leash by about 2 inches. Be sure to get him right to the spot you first indicated, i.e. directly in front of you and close enough that you can hold him.

Now comes the surprise: give your pet a hug and a "Good boy!" (a bit more effusively if you didn't have to make it happen) and then release him ("Okay!!") to go back to play.

"WOW!" says your pet, "This is great. They call me to come, I get lots of loving, then I get to go back to fun stuff. No lock up. No loss of freedom here!!"

Doing this many times throughout the day, at first indoors on and off lead progressing to outdoors on and off lead, will increase your chances of having your dog come to you at those times when it is absolutely necessary. You are conditioning your pet that coming when called is a positive experience.

And finally, for your pet, getting your attention and praise, often, can outweigh the need for treats.