How’s your dog? Whether your family’s first pet, or a recent new addition, most dogs — like their human counterparts — come with a few quirks.
Depending on the nature of said “quirk,” behaviors run the gamut from amusing to stressful. And of course some can be really expensive. Behaviors like separation anxiety, chewing, and barking can make the otherwise wonderful experience of life with dog a challenge, and sometimes even untenable. Following is a how-to guide every dog parent needs but doesn’t always know where to find. Spot spoke with three experts in training and socialization who shared their best tips on the making of a good dog.
Dr. Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian, animal behaviorist and writer. To him, puppyhood is the most important time in a dog’s life, when the foundation for good behavior — and bad — is being set. Habits like aggression, fearfulness, indiscriminate soiling, chewing, barking and hyperactivity are the kinds of habits that lead to dogs being surrendered to shelters or banished to the backyard with heartbreaking frequency. Dunbar’s techniques encourage an “errorless management system,” so you don’t have to change a bad habit before encouraging a good one.
Set up the environment
“It’s really important that people learn how a puppy should be set up when they’re not at home,” says Dunbar. It may seem counterintuitive, but the more confinement you give a puppy in her first few weeks at home, the more freedom she will enjoy later. A puppy needs a long-term confinement area, one-third as wide as it is long, with a place to sleep at one end and a place to pee and poo at the other — with only a water bowl and chew toy stuffed with her regular kibble in between. “The puppy will play with the chew toy because it’s the only thing to play with,” Dunbar explains, “and that’s how he eats his breakfast. And when he needs to pee and poo he will go to the toilet area because it’s the farthest from his bedroom.”
When you are home, keep the puppy in a crate with only the chew toy inside. Even though you may be home, you can’t pay close enough attention to a puppy to prevent mistakes. “During the first few weeks at home, it’s really important that the puppy makes no mistakes,” says Dunbar. “If he pees in the wrong place one time it’s creating a precedent, and he’s going to pee there 10 more times.” Every hour on the hour take the puppy to his potty, praise him, and give him treats. “When you know he’s empty, he can have longer and longer play times with you,” says Dunbar. “And every time he chews on the carpet or the curtains redirect him to the chew toy.”
With success in the small confinement area, gradually increase the size of the puppy’s living area. “If the puppy goes one week without a mistake in the kitchen then he can be left in the kitchen and the downstairs hallway; then gradually expand his space until he has the whole run,” Dunbar says. “If he makes one mistake he goes back to the original confinement area.” This method helps puppies develop good chewing and potty habits, and you can be confident in leaving them alone after they have demonstrated success in small increments.
Dunbar’s single-most important piece of advice is to not feed your puppy from a bowl, and to give a piece of kibble whenever the puppy is being good. “Keep kibble in a container for people who come over to give him a treat,” he says. “Put it in the chew toy and every piece of food that comes out rewards him for not barking or chewing, and lying down calmly.”
“Socialization before 8 weeks of age is absolutely critical,” says Dunbar. Puppies need to see a lot of people and be handled by them, especially men. “If puppy owners haven’t done this by four or five months this puppy will just never be the same because shyness sets in,” says Dunbar. “It’s a massive quality of life issue, because if the dog is shy of people you put the dog away when people come over, and he’s never going to be walked and certainly not off leash. He gets de-socialized, and that leads to shyness and then aggression.” When people visit, allow them to give treats for any good behavior. “Lots of classical conditioning and socialization is the key,” says Dunbar. “So walk the dogs a lot, and every time a person walks by give the dog kibble.”
Dr. Dunbar strongly advises off-leash training programs when the time comes to teach your dog manners, which is whenever you’re ready for your puppy or dog to listen to you. “They need to learn off-leash control, which of course is what they need at home,” says Dunbar. “As soon as someone leaves the front door open you have to rely on having off-leash verbal control over the dog.”
Be prepared from the start
Nancy Yamin is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, owner of Mutts Better in Eugene, and a Certified Tellington TTouch Practitioner. . In her work as an in-home trainer, Yamin uses gentle touch and bodywork along with positive rewards to change behaviors. She too believes in setting a dog up for success and then rewarding correct behaviors.
When bringing your dog home for the first time, spend a couple of weeks focused on bonding. It takes a little time for a pooch to understand that this is her new “forever home,” especially if she’s been moved around shelters or foster homes a time or two. “People want to show their dog off to friends that first day, and it’s overwhelming,” says Yamin. “The dog has a new home, new person, new bed, new everything — and she needs to get used to that.”
Stop using stop words
One of the first things Yamin advises is to stop using words geared to stop bad behavior. “I don’t use the words ‘no,’ ‘down’ or ‘off,’ which are words that stop bad behavior,” she says. “I only use praise when they’re good. Start rewarding dogs for the great things they do because behavior that is rewarded will increase in frequency.”
For instance, when dogs bark for attention and get “No!” yelled at them, the barking is actually being rewarded, which increases the likelihood of . . . yep: more barking. “You walk in the door and your dog jumps on you and you say ‘No, no, down, off,’ but the minute you give that attention you reward that behavior. Yamin uses a “rewind” in cases like this. Go out and enter again, and reward your dog for sitting before he jumps. This pre-emptive reward method can be useful in encouraging other desired behaviors as well.
“People wait until their dog is in trouble with their behavior and then try to fix it,” says Yamin. “You want to catch them doing things right and reward them instead of catching them doing something wrong and giving them attention for that. Even if you are saying ‘no’ that’s still attention, which rewards and strengthens negative behavior.” When our dogs are being good, we tend to ignore them until they start barking, chewing, biting or whining. THEN we reprimand them. “That’s the opposite of what we should be doing,” says Yamin.
“Catch the dog being good and let them know what a genius they are!”
Meet basic needs first
Casey Newton with Portland’s Wonder Puppy teaches socialization techniques appropriate for dogs of all ages. “There are certain basic needs which we consider the ‘ingredients’ to making a good dog,” she says. First and foremost says Newton, give the dog a healthy diet and mental and physical exercise. “Eighty percent of behavior problems are due to lack of energy outlets,” she says. “Training can’t supplement for not meeting those first two basic needs.”
Follow that up with clear communication and reward-based training — your best behavior management tools to prevent unwanted habits. For example, Newton says, for immediate success, make sure the dog doesn’t get into the trashcan by putting a lid on it. Prevent them from jumping on guests by standing on their leash. “When we prevent what we don’t want success is immediate,” she says, “and we’re encouraging and rewarding the right behavior.”
The two top problems Newton observes with young dogs are insufficient training early on, and inconsistency. It’s ideal if everyone in the household can go to the same training class. Remember: you are the keeper of resources. The dog earns attention, food and playtime with good behavior.
Newton also suggests balancing the time you spend with your dog and the time you spend away. You may be frequently away from home working and the dog isn’t exercised enough and is alone a lot, and therefore isn’t getting the socialization it needs On the other hand, someone in the family may be home all the time and the dog is rarely left alone, which can lead to separation anxiety when he is. “Counteract this by having times when you are around and the dog is in his crate and ignored by you,” she advises.
Dog parks, playgroups & day care
Newton advises against taking a dog younger than six months to a dog park, and in general not going to one at all until you have completed a training course and established a strong relationship with your dog. She recommends first going to a trainer-led playgroup. Groups offered in the Portland area include Schroeder’s Den, and Sniff Dog and Stay Pet Hotels. Groups in the Willamette Valley include Willamette Humane in Salem. If you’re having trouble locating one, check with your local rescue, trainer, or humane society.
Another good idea, especially if you’re unable to locate a trainer-led group in your area, is to arm yourself with education. Newton recommends reading the book On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas, which explains the body language of dogs.
Newton says in playgroup situations, people sometimes think dogs are playing when they’re not. There should be a balance in the dog’s behavior: I chase you, you chase me; I’m on top, I’m on bottom. “But when it’s a one-way game, if there is no switching of positions,” she says, “that’s when problems arise. If there’s no balance then separate them.” You may have to step in and advocate for your dog, even when other dog owners say, “It’s OK, that’s just how they play,” or “let them work it out.”
Newton says the key to knowing if a playgroup is a positive experience for a dog is this: “Shy or timid dogs should be coming out of their shells. Dogs who are over-exuberant should be learning boundaries.” If not, something’s wrong.
Newton is equally selective about doggy daycare. Young dogs need a lot of down time because their bones are still developing, and too much mental stimulation can be disastrous. “If something bad happens it’s going to have a lasting effect,” she says. “Look for positive reinforcement and a lot of down time, and a trainer-approved facility.”
Dogs in the house
When your dog is meeting friends’ dogs for the first time, Newton recommends doing it outside the house and then bringing them inside on leash, with both dogs focused on mannerly behavior. Grab the leash if you need to. Separate them at meal times so there’s no competition. When the other dog comes in, give that dog some attention, and then give your dog equal attention. “So instead of the dog thinking, ‘they’re taking my attention away,’ they perceive your attention to the other dog as a precursor to giving some to them,” says Newton, “so they start to like that dog and it becomes a positive experience.”
Think from their end of the leash
If things go wrong, don’t worry. Give time outs and neutral redirects. “Give them time for their heart rate to drop and calm down,” says Newton. “Next time, introduce them at an easier level, not as long, not as intense. If you get upset it’s going to call negative attention to that dog. We have to think from their end of the leash. Just set them up for success and try again.”
ABOUT THE EXPERTS
Dr. Ian Dunbar
Dr. Dunbar presents Science-Based Dog Training (With Feeling) in Portland March 25-27 at the Doubletree Hotel. For tickets/info, call 800 784-5531 or visit jamesandkenneth.com/store/show/EPO-011.
Proprietor, Wonder Puppy, a full-service puppy school with certified dog trainers and supply store. Newton is currently establishing a program for trainer-led and certified doggy playgroups and daycare. 503-697-PUPS (7877) • wonder-puppy.com
Certified dog trainer and Tellington Ttouch Practitioner • 541-485-8001 • muttsbetter.com
Vanessa Salvia lives with her two kids, one very sweet, fluffy cat (named Fluffy), and a husband (also very sweet), in Eugene, Oregon. When not clickety-clacking on a computer, you can find her browsing the farmers markets or feeding ducks from her patio. A freelance writer for more than 10 years, Vanessa has written extensively about music and entertainment in the Northwest. As mom, wife and companion to countless animals over the years, she has vacuumed more than her share of pet fur.