Becoming Dog People

When our ranch dog passed away last autumn, we knew it was inevitable that we would have to adopt another dog. There was some reluctance involved in this since we were uncertain how to train a new dog to interact with our cats, but were also intimidated by the prospect of adopting and raising a puppy. Well, when we discovered the deer had noticed our lack of canine intervention and decided to eat most of our shrubs, and we had to chase off two coyotes by shooting into the air, we decided it was time to bring a new dog into our lives.

Promptly, puppy ads started showing up in our classifieds and we went to see a litter. We decided to adopt a docile black Labrador Border Collie mix, whom we have bestowed with the name “Barnabas,” after Father Tim’s dog in the Mitford book series. Our puppy is not old enough to come home with us just yet, but in the meantime, wanting to be the best dog owners of all time, we decided to get some professional help. You see, our last ten or so ranch dogs were not all that great. We assumed their constant behavior problems, which ranged from aggression toward strangers to chasing steers, were just that we had chosen “bad dogs.” Recent discoveries, however, have forced us to the realization that the dogs were not to blame; their owners were. In our defense, we really knew nothing about dogs, but this time we do, and hopefully Barnabas will benefit from having a “pack” that is confident in establishing boundaries.

Around Christmas, I had a lovely lunch with a young woman who told me she had trained her high-energy dog to use the treadmill in the morning, so he would not be hyper-active when she got home from work. When I expressed astonishment at this level of training, she encouraged me to read one of Cesar Millan’s books. I did not think about it again until recent dog discussions came up in the office, then ran to the library to get one of his books, and the first season of his series, Dog Whisperer. The entire family got hooked and there for awhile were obsessively watching four episodes a night, we were so fascinated to see how Cesar could come into a household and “cure” dogs of their aggression, obsessive compulsive disorder, incessant barking, and other issues. While we have learned an enormous amount about dogs and training within a short amount of time, what we discovered first is that there are no bad dogs, just bad owners. Sometimes the worst owner is actually the kindest owner, someone who pampers and spoils their dog and never demands any obedience from them. Like a parent who never disciplines a child, the “spoiled” pet becomes a brat and starts acting out. Most of us kind-hearted humans (including me, which may explain why I have a psychotic house cat) do not want to risk hurting our dog’s feelings by demanding submission, but Cesar informs us up front that dogs are not humans. They will not “hate us” for being the “pack leader.” In fact, dogs are not happy when they are the pack leader in a house full of humans; they are happiest in a calm, structured environment of exercise, boundaries, and affection.

Exercise: I discovered allowing a dog to run around in the backyard is not exercise. The best form of exercise is an interaction between you and your dog, with you as the leader. Even country dogs need walked on a leash at least once a day. They should walk to your side and slightly behind you, with only a little slack on the lead. Allowing a dog to go first or choose where you walk is granting them authority over you, enabling them to be “pack leader” and dictate the rules (having the dog be the “pack leader” is the cause of 99% of all behavior problems).

Working dogs, if not employed with regular jobs, need a “job” to make them happy—it can be as simple as putting a dog pack on the back of your German Shepherd and entrusting him with carrying the water bottles. Having a “job” makes more intense breeds happier, as well as adds a little more weight to downgrade their energy level. (A well-exercised dog is not a bored dog, and lacks the energy to wreck havoc.) The highest energy level dogs either need to be working or trained on a treadmill.

Boundaries: Dogs need to know what is and what is not appropriate, and establishing patterns of behavior is important from the start (but any problems can be corrected later on). They are like humans in the sense that having rules makes them feel safe. Having you be the pack leader also removes an immense amount of stress from their lives, since they do not have to fight to retain “top dog status.” Calm submissive dogs are not aggressive, because you are the boss. Cesar proves this with his pack of over 50 dogs at his rehabilitation center. From Pitt Bulls to German Shepherds and Terriers, all these formerly problematic dogs now live together in perfect harmony because he is “pack leader” and tolerates no misbehavior. Cesar does not encourage yelling at dogs, or even using many vocal commands, since dogs respond best to our energy. Being calm and in a dominant state of mind establishes your role as a pack leader (there is not just one in the case of humans—every family member should be in authority over the dog, and consistent in the training process).

Affection: should be given as a reward for good behavior and in response to a calm, submissive state of mind. Our instinct is to comfort fearful animals but a dog sees this as affirmation for his fear. Never pet your dog to calm him down, either—he will then associate being excited with receiving your affection and affirmation. Reward them when they are being good, but not when fearful, nervous, agitated, or excited.

We recently have begun to wonder if what we discovered about dog behavior is not in many ways similar to human behavior. Sometimes, we reward bad behavior with attention, effectively training other people how to elicit an empathetic response. It is also possible that we could learn to discern our “hot buttons” and, just as Cesar redirects the attention of a dog who is about to escalate into an unwanted behavior, learn to head off our own negative reactions before they escalate.

I’m no longer nervous about Barnabas being a good dog, since this time around his owners know how to make him happiest, by establishing that he is not the “pack leader.” I suspect learning to discipline ourselves in order to remain leaders will also teach us something valuable, too. ♥

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