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Marley & You

(Today, ohmidog! kicks off a new feature, a monthly column on dog training and behavior, written by Lauren Bond and Carolyn Stromer of B-More Charming School for Dogs. To keep up with their reports, click on the Behave! tab on the right side rail.)

I’m sure that by now just about every dog person has seen the movie “Marley and Me.” We laughed, we cried, then we cried some more.

Some experienced dog owners, and trainers like ourselves, have even offered our two cents about Marley’s upbringing, saying that his owners were irresponsible, that if we owned a dog like that we would most certainly have put him in his place. We wouldn’t have allowed our couch to be eaten, or our drapes to be torn down, or our gold necklace to go in one end of the dog and come out of the other.

But the truth is we have all been there.

We’ve all been first-time dog owners, overwhelmed, unsure where to turn. Some of us, even by our third or fourth dog, remain that way.

Why won’t he get off of the furniture? Why do my shoes, hairbrush, wallet, cell phone, (insert object of choice here) always wind up in his mouth? Why can’t I come home, just once, to the trash can being upright, untouched, with all of the trash still inside? How come my “NO’S!” and “STOP ITS!” only lead to a game of catch-me-if-you-can? Is it really too much to ask of man’s best friend that he just be calm, listen to what I tell him and lay quietly at my feet waiting for further instructions?

To be completely honest … yes, it is.

Think back to the day you brought your first puppy home. He didn’t come with an instruction manual. Maybe, at best, the shelter gave you a brochure, or some information on his vaccine record and what kind of food and toys he liked. But there was nothing on how to influence his behavior, no foolproof tips for getting him to stop jumping all over guests when they walk through the front door. Or teaching him to walk nicely on leash. Or keeping him from chewing up your new Blackberry.

You might have tried staying one step ahead by reading up on dog behavior before you brought him home. There’s a ton of conventional wisdom out there, books galore, dog magazines and an entire Animal Network. How could you go wrong?

Easily.

Each book and television trainer, it seems, says something different – sometimes completely different — from the other. One might tell you to scold your dog when he pees in the house while another says to ignore it, and praise him when you catch him going potty outside. As a result, you’re confused, and so is your dog.

There are only two things that you need to keep in mind to avoid the pitfalls and problems that overwhelmed Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston.

First and foremost, dogs need to be enriched on a daily basis. They need mental and physical stimulation. If you don’t keep their minds and bodies active they will do it themselves and in their small, limited environment (your house) it will usually mean chewing, marking or steeling your possessions. A dog needs more than a walk around the block each day. They need to see new sites, smell new smells and meet new people, dogs and children. If you keep your dog’s mind and body stimulated and enriched you are well on your way to having a peaceful household.

Secondly, you need to train him, and not just to sit and stay. Training gives you and your dog a way to communicate with each other. It is developing a common language that you can both use. Dogs don’t speak English. Think about it, if you are always yelling “no” at your dog are you really communicating with him? Is he learning?

Dogs must learn what it is that you want – not just what you don’t want. A dog can learn that, instead of jumping on your guests to get attention, if he sits and waits your guests will come to him. He can learn that instead of pulling you down the block he must walk nicely by your side in order to keep moving forward. Training is about teaching your dog what to do in order to get the things that he wants (things like your attention, dinner, a tasty treat.) Training teaches the dog to make the right decisions.

There are many trainers out there, with many different methods for training a dog. It is up to you to find a trainer who uses methods you’re comfortable with. You need to find a trainer who is willing to listen to you, understands how your family works and who will come up with a plan that fits your lifestyle. A good trainer will try to fit the plan to you, not you to the plan.

The mistake that was made with Marley – at least as portrayed in the movie — was that Marley’s owners gave up after their first trainer didn’t work ou. They did what many people do — assume that you have the world’s worst dog and he is untrainable.

Dog training works, if you find the right trainer – one whose methods you agree with, whose suggestions makes sense, and whose expectations you find reasonable. Training mistakes are never the dog’s fault. They are always the trainer’s (and owner’s.) Clearly the trainer that Marley’s owners picked was wrong, not just for Marley but for his owners as well.

None of us, even a novice dog owner, need end up with a dog like Marley. You just need to pay attention to your dog’s wants and needs. Motivation is the key to getting behaviors you like. Have your dog work for what he wants in ways that don’t offend you or your guests. Mix that with a good exercise regime and plenty of mental stimulation and you will find that your shoes are still in your closet, your cell phone doesn’t have slobber all over it and you haven’t had to replace the cushions on your couch in quite some time.

Comments

Comment from Mary Schmidt
Time January 19, 2009 at 11:58 am

Looking forward to all the posts in this series.

Here’s my plug for secondhand dogs: I’ve adopted two “rescue” dogs in my life, and both came to me perfectly house-broken. Since both dogs were beyond puppy teething when I met them, I never had to deal with wholesale puppy destruction. My current dog Amie has the ability to chew up any “indestructible” toy from PetsMart, but she leaves my stuff alone. I think the basic obedience class we took together taught me smarter ways of communicating with Amie, with getting her attention (treats and praise work for everyone, don’t they?). Amie learned the phrase, “Not a toy” quite easily.

At this point, I think the little bite marks on the TV remote are kind of cute.

For many people, especially people who work outside the home most of the day, an adult dog is a better candidate for adoption. (In the book, John Grogan and his wife weren’t home enough to care for puppy Marley, in my opinion.) Shelters are too full of great candidates for adoption. I hope this series will offer advice for re-homing adult shelter dogs.

Comment from Anne-n-Spencer
Time January 19, 2009 at 10:43 pm

I can’t help laughing at your choice of photographs, since we’re the humans of a middle-aged recycled Beagle who still manages to look just like that when he knows he’s done something we don’t like. He does pretty well, all things considered. The one command I’ve never been able to teach him is “drop it!” or “leave it!” Somehow we haven’t made the connection on that one. On some issues, we’ve capitulated; for example, the trash is in a place where he can’t get to it. Some (sit, stay, heel, come here) aren’t negotiable, and he complies–though not always happily. He is a great friend and companion, and we feel pretty good about that because his manners needed some polish when he first arrived. I’ll be looking forward to the monthly information.

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