While we humans have trained dogs to work for us as long as there have been dogs, what we think of as formal dog training is largely a modern development, with techniques drawn from the military.
The Armed Forces don't have companionship high on their list of priorities when training soldiers, be they of a canine or human variety. The military needs to produce members of a fighting team as quickly, efficiently and reliably as possible. The dog training ideas that come from such a mind-set have a lot to do with "breaking" an animal to serve and with training through force.
But what if you're not trying to train a sentry dog or a drug-sniffing dog? What if you just want a sweet family pet with good manners? Do you have to put your pet through traditional training based on military-style techniques? The answer these days is increasingly "no."
Dog training has changed more in the last 10 years than in the 100 that came before it. An increasing number of trainers now put the emphasis on reward-based techniques, and on solving behavior problems by preventing them through proper socialization and by structuring a pup's environment from day one to make doing the right thing the only option.
One of the most exciting developments in dog training in recent years has been the widespread use of a little piece of plastic and metal known as a clicker, a children's toy that makes a clicking sound when the metal part is bent. The clicker first became used in training dolphins and whales at marine parks, and is now common in other kinds of animal training as well.
Why the change? Consider the challenges of training an animal like a dolphin. You can't put a collar and leash on him, and he's too big and slippery to force him into doing what you want to do. So trainers had to come up with a way to communicate, to shape behavior in a nonphysical way. Applying the science of operant conditioning, what they came up with was using a clicker.
Clicker training starts by associating the sound of the clicker with the reward: Fish in the case of dolphins, a dog treat for a canine pupil. Soon the animal understands that the sound of the clicker -- which is easier to time properly than is verbal praise -- means they did right and that they've earned a reward.
In the reverse of the way traditional training works, a behavior is shaped through positive reinforcement first, and then the command (a verbal cue or hand signal) is linked. The dog learns that sitting will get him a click and a reward -- in other words, that the behavior will be reinforced -- and then learns that what he's doing is called "sit." Once that connection is made, he'll perform the behavior when he hears the command.
You can teach a dog most anything with a clicker and a pocketful of treats, and without getting physical. Best of all, clicker training is fun and slightly addictive when you start seeing the results.
I've simplified matters for the sake of space, of course, but clicker training is pretty easy to learn with a couple of lessons. How to get started? Find a trainer in your area who offers classes in clicker training, or buy a book on the subject. The best selection of books on this innovation in training technique can be found through Dogwise, on the Web at www.dogwise.com, or 1-800-776-2665.
As someone who has been training dogs for years and writing about training for almost as long, I'm delighted to see techniques expand beyond those of traditional dog training, and also to watch an increasing number of people open their hearts and minds to new ways of helping our dogs achieve their potential. The payoff is grand, for dogs and people alike.
PETS ON THE WEB
Pets gone wild are considered a nuisance by some and an environmental threat by others. But even knowing this, I find myself rooting for the survival of creatures that any environmental purist would tell you should be exterminated. I'm certainly not alone in my view, as evidenced by The Wild Parrots of San Francisco's Telegraph Hill Web site (www.wildparrots.com).
The site celebrates one of two flocks of San Francisco parrots who are thriving on their own, long after escaping from the cages they once knew as home. There are lots of great details on these birds, along with pictures and historical information. I check on this site at least every couple of months and always end up believing the time was well-spent.
If you've ever fantasized about deducting your pets as dependants on your income tax -- and what pet lover hasn't? -- you'd best take away a lesson from the seriously hot water that a tax consultant got into recently. According to the Associated Press, Donald Fletcher suggested at his seminars that it was acceptable to deduct the cost of keeping a cat as a rodent-control expense, and a dog as a security system. The IRS thought differently, and a jury agreed, convicting him of conspiracy. I guess that means I should stop thinking about deducting my pets as a medical expense, even though they do go a long way toward helping me maintain my sanity.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: When Eve the Chihuahua came to our house as a stray, she would eat little nibbles, leave the bowl and then eat a little bit more later. After having her food stolen by our dogs, Eve began to finish her bowl all at once.
Now that we've found her a permanent home, she eats all of her food and then takes the other dog's food as well. This bothers the new family (not to mention Eve's new housemate, a Pomeranian), and it's allowed Eve to become a bit chubby. Is there a way to get Eve back to her cat-like snacking behavior? -- E.O., via e-mail
A: Eve is obviously very bright to have made such a rapid adjustment in the interest of her own survival. I doubt she'll find her way back to nibbling, though.
I'd recommend feeding the dogs separately, once in the morning and once in the late afternoon or evening, and picking up the dishes after 20 minutes to prevent Eve from finishing the other dog's dinner.
No, it's not fair to the other dog, who has been happily munching along in his own pick-a-little style. But when families expand, we all have to make adjustments. That's what my mother told me when both of my younger brothers were born, and she was right. If the dishes are picked up at a set time and no snacking is allowed between meals, the Pomeranian will soon figure out that he needs to eat his meal promptly.
Q: A while back you mentioned growing catnip. Is it really safe to let my cat have all the catnip he wants? -- G.W., via e-mail
A: Put this worry aside. Since our cats don't need to stay alert on the job, pay the bills, get the kids to school or operate heavy machinery, they can afford to be blissed out all the time. So if your cat likes catnip, indulge him to his little heart's content.
By the way, there's a chance your cat won't be affected at all by the stuff. Not all cats like catnip; the ability to appreciate the herb is genetically programmed into some cats but not others. Kittens under the age of 3 months are also unaffected.
Plant some catnip and see for yourself which camp your cat falls into. I recommend keeping the plant away from your cat until it's well-established, though, because some kitties are so crazy for catnip that they'll pull seedlings out by the roots. Once you've got a good-sized plant, offer your cat fresh sprigs, rub the leaves on scratching posts or cat trees, or stuff them into toys.
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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