Why do so many of us end up with ill-behaved dogs? The mechanics of dog training aren't difficult, after all, and it's not as if there aren't a million books, videotapes, seminars and training classes available. And yet most people end up with a dog who's "sort of" trained -- not very trained at all, in other words.
So what's the problem? I've always felt it was a matter of attitude. How you approach dog training has a great deal to do with how much you're going to accomplish. View it not as horrid chore, but as an opportunity to strengthen the bond between you and your dog. You'll have a better chance at succeeding, and you'll both have a much better time.
Don't think of training as a "you vs. your dog" endeavor. Training is about teaching, showing your dog the things he needs to learn to be a member of human society. You need to approach the task with love and respect for your dog, both of which he will return in kind.
Training isn't about six Thursday nights at a group class in the park and you're done, forever. Learning and practice need to become part of your dog's life, and that means your dog needs to be part of your life. So bring him in! Let him sleep in your bedroom and practice his "sits" in the kitchen. The more opportunities for interaction and practice you have, the faster your dog will learn and the more reliably he will respond.
You need to be positive in your training. Who likes a boss who's always ready to pounce on every misdeed? You don't, and neither does your dog. Positive reinforcement is essential to your dog's learning process. If all you ever do is tell your dog "no," your relationship isn't going to be a very good one.
Praise is cheap -- free, in fact! -- so use it a lot. Use praise when your dog's trying to get it right. Use it more when your dog's succeeding. Use it when your dog's just paying attention to you, because it's all connected. Reward the small stuff and bigger things will follow. Be a fun person to be around, and your dog will love you for it.
And what about punishment? Here, too, people make some serious mistakes. Your dog needs -- craves -- structure in his life, and you need to provide it. But you also need to know how to respond when his pushes the limits, which he will. A correction should never be a release of anger, a clearing out of pent-up feelings by unloading them on the apparent cause of the problem, your dog. Instead, a correction is another way to communicate with your dog, to foster in him a clear understanding of his place in your human pack. As such, a proper correction is another way to strengthen the bond between you and your pet. "Punishment" could be as simple as the withholding of praise or using a distraction to stop the offending behavior and redirect your dog. Yelling at or hitting your pet isn't communication. It's abuse.
Are you being fair in what you ask of your dog? How would you feel about a boss who kept changing the names of your tasks or asked you to do two things at once? Or had different rules for different places and times? It would drive you nuts, wouldn't it? And yet, that's exactly what people do to their dogs all of the time. Once your dog knows a command, use it the same way each time and never change its meaning. Be clear and be consistent.
What do I mean by consistent? One example I hear all the time is when someone says "sit down" to a dog when he really means "sit." Now, you know that when someone says "sit down" to you, it's the same thing as "sit." But if you teach your dog "sit" as one behavior and "down" as another, you can understand why "sit down" is confusing. Which do you want? Sit? Or down? Same for saying "down" when you really mean "off." I was visiting someone once when her cocker spaniel jumped on the couch beside me. "Down!" commanded her owner, and the dog laid down beside me, wagging her tail proudly. "She's so willful," said the woman, who didn't realize the dog had in fact obeyed her perfectly.
Keep training, and don't be shy about getting help over the rough patches by finding a good trainer or behaviorist. Dog training succeeds by degrees and by creativity. You expand the length of time and the number of situations in which your dog will execute a command, and you look for new ways to use what he knows so you can continue to develop and strengthen the bond between you.
So build, a little bit at a time, celebrating every step along the way. Living is learning, and learning is good.
PETS ON THE WEB
Electronic postcards are great fun to send and receive, and more sites with them pop up every day. They're easy to use. Just go to the Web site, pick your card, then type in your message and the e-mail address of the recipient. The site will issue an e-mail that invites the recipient to pick up the card, and it's free. My current favorite e-card site is Action Cat (www.actioncat.com). The collection includes animated e-cards of cats (and a few dogs) using the computer, watching the stars, or, my favorite, unrolling tissue paper in the bathroom. The cards just make you smile, so share one!
Birds have a reputation as easy-to-care-for pets. And even though that might be true of small aviary birds such as finches, it's not true of those birds who need human interaction -- the parrots, from the tiniest budgie on up. Although these charmers are quite capable of entertaining themselves while you're off earning the bird food, they cannot abandoned for days at a time. How would you like to be left with food growing more stale by the minute, water forming a skin (or worse, if your bird poops in the water dish), and a toilet you cannot flush? Alone overnight is probably fine. But anything more than that, you should arrange for boarding or call a pet-sitter. Make sure your choice is someone who's comfortable with birds. Avian veterinarians and reputable bird shops are good choices for boarding; they're used to birds, after all. A pet-sitter who deals only in dogs and cats may find a large parrot intimidating, so be sure to ask how the sitter is with birds, and have her over for an introduction before you decide.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My male English mastiff has a skin problem. The vet told me that it is allergies. His skin gets these huge black spots that are reddish and scabby. His hair is falling out. He also scratches himself. I asked if change in diet would help, and the vet said "no." I am desperate for an answer. Are there veterinarians out there who specialize in skin problems? -- I.D., via e-mail
A: Yes, there are veterinary specialists who deal with skin problems. If your veterinarian hasn't been able to come up with something to help your dog, it may be time to get a dermatologist involved.
Dermatology specialists are veterinarians who undergo additional training and rigorous testing before they are certified by the American College of Veterinary Dermatology. Fewer than 100 veterinarians are certified in this specialty in the United States, Canada and Australia, so it might take some doing to find one. Your best bet, if your veterinarian cannot provide a referral, is to check with your closest school of veterinary medicine.
Another option is to have your veterinarian consult with the specialist on your behalf. Consulting has been done routinely by phone for years, and more recently online through vets-only services such as the Veterinary Information Network, which has specialists on staff for consultation by member veterinarians.
Discuss your concerns with your veterinarian, and push her to go further in getting help for your dog, whether through consultations or a referral to a specialist.
Q: Jack, the cat, has received wet cat food as well as dry for a year since he adopted me from the pound. I have been short on cash for these last two months, so I have just been giving him dry food. Jack, the cat, is eating regularly but is protesting -- I can see it in his eyes. He is also is taking up eating human food, which is new for him. I do not want this to continue. Is wet food the only option? -- C.T., via e-mail
A: How about a compromise? Offer dry food as his main ration, keeping it available constantly, and offer a small amount of canned every morning (or evening, if you prefer). A tablespoon or two will do, as a special treat.
Store unused canned food in the refrigerator, covered or wrapped, but bring it to room temperature before offering -- a quick zap in the microwave will do the trick. Warming food makes it smell better to your cat and decreases any tendency toward finickiness.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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