I am not bragging (much) but I have really well-trained dogs. Everywhere we go, people comment on how well they behave. This makes me proud, and it makes it fun to take them places, but my dogs didn’t come this way. I shaped their behavior with a lot of hard work.
In my opinion, training is necessary for all dogs, from Yorkies to Irish Wolfhounds, but I believe it is especially important for large dogs and vital for breeds like Rottweilers, American Pit Bull and American Staffordshire Terriers, Akitas, and other strong breeds that the public perceives as “dangerous.” So, I insist on owning well-mannered dogs and I don’t tolerate any bad behavior.
When people see my Rottweiler softly nuzzling a baby kitten or my boisterous Lab mix sitting quietly while a squirrel rustles in the leaves a few yards away, they are amazed. When I put my hands on a 9 week old puppy who is biting everyone and get him to stop biting me in 2 minutes or less, they are in awe. “How do you do that?” they wonder. So, here’s how I do it. Hold on: There is a bunch of background information you need first.
When I work with a new puppy in an exam room, the first thing I assess is his or her temperament. Is this a shy, nervous puppy, or a strong, outgoing one? Does this puppy want to pull away from me, avoid looking me in the eyes and try to lie as flat as possible, i.e., is he a submissive puppy? Or does he struggle in my hands, try to bite or paw at me, and do everything in his power to resist me, i.e., does he exhibit dominance? Once I “have his number,” I begin discussing ways for the owner to shape him or her into a better behaved puppy.
As an aside, “submission” and “dominance” aren’t the negatively charged judgments most people think they are. All dogs (and probably all people, for that matter) have elements of dominance and submission in their personalities. They are born with a certain level of each, and those elements are shaped and developed by their environment. First, the relationships between the puppies and with the mother dog are critical in bringing out each pup’s temperament. Early experiences are crucial when learning how to be a dog, which is why orphan puppies, hand-raised by people and without canine influence, are often mentally challenged.
By the time the pup is 8 or 9 weeks old, his core personality is formed. The next 2 months are the most important in terms of developing good manners in his relationships with people. This is not to say that you can’t train an adult dog or an older puppy, but you will have a much easier time if you take full advantage of this critical window of time, between 2 and 4 months of age.
We believe that all people are equal, that everyone should have a vote and no one person should dominate another. In our quest for equality, we sometimes try to make “people” of our dogs, giving them choices and allowing them to make their own decisions. This is unnatural for dogs, who are used to an ordered hierarchy, a tiered system where there is an obvious leader and the rest of the pack members each know their place within the group.
In animal societies where there is a pack or herd relationship, the pack leader or the dominant animal makes the decisions for the group – when it is time to feed or hunt, when it is time to move, what paths to take, and who is allowed to breed. Rule breakers are punished or ostracized, because failure to follow the rules jeopardizes the safety of the entire group. The pack leader can’t afford to have free-thinkers challenging his or her authority. It’s too risky. Pack members know this, and they are comforted by obeying the rules and following a strong leader.
When a dog has no clear-cut leader, he is placed in the stressful situation of trying to lead, making the decisions for his pack. If he is a dominant-type personality, he may enjoy this position too much, so much that he begins to growl when you want him off the couch or bite when you reach for his food. He has established himself as the pack leader and you are breaking his rules, so he is correcting you the same way he would correct a lower ranked pack member. He doesn’t love you any less, but he wants you to assume your proper place in his pack. Failure for you to follow the rules jeopardizes the pack and its safety. He is only trying to keep you safe.
When a dog has a respected, trustworthy leader, one who demonstrates clear-cut rules with fair, just consequences, he is comfortable and secure in his position. He doesn’t resent the pack leader and spend his days and nights planning a coup to take over. He relaxes, knowing his world is in order. He wants to please the leader, so he works to ingratiate himself by obeying the leader’s rules.
For me, the core, the basis, the integral part of dog training is establishing myself as the Mom dog, the pack leader, the dominant member of the relationship. This does not equal yelling, beatings, or punishment. It means that I use order and discipline to shape that dog’s innate personality into the best he or she can be, so as to fit into the unconventional pack I call my home.
Next: My rules for dog training.