Q: I just adopted a new dog and want to start things off on the right foot. What can my family do to ensure a smooth transition for our new pet?
A: Lulu and I have had our share of training issues, from mastering the down command to heeling during walks. Lulu may be 7 years old, but she’s still learning new skills every day. Whether you have a puppy or an older dog, it’s never too late to tackle basic commands.
I asked professional dog trainers to share the most prevalent behavior issues, along with solutions. Last week’s column featured their top five list. As you set goals and perhaps even a few resolutions for the coming year, they offer five more tips to overcome common behavior challenges in 2012.
Problem: The dog won’t come when called.
When you call your pooch, do you hear crickets rather than a tinkling collar? Dog trainer Sarah Wilson suggests that the whole family try an old-fashioned game of hide and seek. Be sure to offer plenty of praise when your pup finds each family member.
"'Come' is the command people practice the least,” says Wilson, founder of an online training forum called My Smart Puppy. Hide and seek keeps dogs mentally stimulated while altering the dynamics of your relationship. “It’s the dog’s job to keep up with you, not your job to keep up with the dog,” she says.
Use the “come” command before each meal, and make sure dogs sit before digging into that bowl of kibble. Wilson also likes to train pets using their favorite squeaky toy. Remove all other toys, say the “come” command, and then squeak the toy. Over time, your dog will understand that the command leads to wonderful treats. Just be sure to practice inside as well as outside, Wilson warns.
“If they won’t leave a biscuit on the ground, they won’t leave a squirrel outside the house,” she says. “Start with a treat, then the ball and work your way up.”
As you practice the “come” command, dog trainer Andrew Zbeeb of Frogs to Dogs in Atlanta suggests adding focus exercises to the mix. He likes to use high-value treats when challenging dogs outside. Invest in a long leash and get your dog’s attention before running backward while holding the treat.
“As we run backward, the dog follows,” he says. “Then we stop and say, ‘come.’ The dog learns it is running toward its handlers and being rewarded for doing so.”
Increase the distance over time and slowly encourage your dog to sit and stay after it approaches. Remember, training involves trial and error so be patient. Zbeeb warns against repeating commands, even when you get frustrated.
“Stop asking your dog 30 times to come,” he says. “They don’t know what it means and they don’t want to follow you, so you are wasting your breath. Teach them what it means to come. When they know what that means, you can teach the dog.”
Problem: Inappropriate interaction with kids.
Kids between the ages of 5 and 9 have the highest rate of dog bite injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While injuries related to dog bites have been decreasing in recent years, Wilson says parents should exercise caution when assigning dog-related tasks to the kids.
“If you can’t walk the dog easily and safely, don’t ask the child to do it,” she says. “If you can't feed the dog safely, don’t ask the child to do it.”
In a previous column, I offer advice to help dogs and kids peacefully coexist. Most trainers also encourage parents to bring kids to obedience classes. This reinforces everyone’s role in caring for a family pet. Wilson also stresses that kids follow the Golden Rule.
“Never allow the child to do to a dog what you wouldn’t allow them to do to a younger child; no chasing or pulling,” says Wilson. “Teach kids that a dog’s body language is quite a bit like ours. If they don’t look at you, is that friendly? No.”
She also tells kids to use caution when approaching dogs. If the dog ignores people, she says that means they are not interested in playing. Take it as a sign to leave them alone.
Even with training, some pets simply do not interact well around strange people or pets. To address potential etiquette issues that may arise during walks, a group of frustrated dog owners created a Facebook page called DINOS: Dogs in Need of Space. One Facebook fan handles unwanted advances by saying, “My dog just isn’t that into you.”
Problem: The dog is unruly around other pets.
Pay close attention to pets and watch for signs that they aren’t getting along. Wilson stresses that cats need plenty of escape routes so that they can move up and away from unruly dogs. It also helps to keep dogs on a leash when visiting a home with other pets. A previous column offers even more tools to help pets behave on a leash around houseguests. Sometimes young, four-legged guests can cause trouble. When an older dog growls at a puppy, Wilson corrects the puppy first.
“Usually the older dog is growling because it already said, ‘Leave me alone,’ and the pup didn’t,” she says. “Everyone has a right to their own space. Also, limit hard, fast play. The faster everyone is going, the bigger chance for injury.”
Problem: Separation anxiety.
Dog trainer and police officer Michael Upshur of Dogma Dog Care says several pet owners call seeking help with separation anxiety. Many of the cases involve small dogs (aka purse pooches) that become destructive because they so rarely spend time alone. To correct the issue, he tells pet owners to leave dogs alone for five minutes, return and offer praise. Increase the duration until your dog learns that it will be fine alone.
He also says owners should let dogs be dogs. Research the characteristics and temperament of your dog’s breed. For guidance, check out the American Kennel Club website, which lists detailed information on more than 150 breeds. If you have a mutt, talk to your veterinarian for guidance or focus on the breeds your dog resembles most. Upshur adds that mental and physical stimulation also help deter destructive behavior.
“A lot of people think walking is the only exercise a dog needs,” he says. “A dog needs to run, too. Let them get out and stretch their legs and you will have a very well-behaved dog.”
Problem: Leash aggression.
I’ve had my share of chiropractic adjustments due to Lulu tugging on the leash. When dogs pull on the leash, Upshur starts by correcting the owner.
“That dog is reading your body language,” he says. “If the owner pays attention to a stray dog, the dog will pay attention. The more tension you have, the more the dog goes into protection mode or flight mode.”
Upshur tells owners to walk with confidence and move away from distractions such as stray dogs or children playing. To build a dog’s confidence, he suggests exploring the entire neighborhood during walks. This helps your dog overcome any fear of car sounds and other distractions.
“The dog needs to know that the owner is not going to let anything happen,” he says. “Walk with confidence and don’t slow down.”
From now on, I’ll be channeling Beyonce’s alter ego, Sasha Fierce, during my walks with Lulu. All the best to you and your pooch.
— Morieka Johnson