Training is easier when the dog is a blank slate

A most extraordinary and interesting thing happened to me earlier this week, which has never happened to me before.
I was given as a Birthday Present.
Now tell me. What was the first image, thought or impression that entered your mind when you read that? There are an infinite number of possibilities. But your response probably had something to do with your present mood and any and all past associations you have about “a person” (or more specifically a man, or a veterinarian, or an animal behaviorist…), about “a birthday present,” and about how these two things might somehow fuse into one. In other words, one thought plus one thought equals one thought.
And, now, after you have processed that idea, what your mind conjures up about the statement, “I was given as a Birthday Present,” may very well be something completely different.
Enough mind games. Enough suspense. A lovely and very thoughtful woman, who is a regular reader of this column, got her husband a handsome looking medium to large sized mixed breed male dog from a shelter for Christmas. Shortly thereafter, she contacted me. They thought the dog was 3/4 Rhodesian Ridgeback, and she said it had several problems that she would like fixed to round this dog out as a wonderful companion for her husband.
So she scheduled an appointment. It just so happened that her husband’s birthday was January 9th. And so she surprised him with my coming for a visit on his birthday.
The dog, Shadow, turned out to be a very spirited but even-tempered dog. His mix appeared to me to be mostly lab, part German shepherd, with perhaps some Chesapeake Bay retriever. It was apparent that this very good-looking dog had no previous training, which in many regards was wonderful. This dog was like a clean slate. He had no significant fears or hangups, no marked aggressive tendencies, and he loved to interact with people. What he needed was subtle guidance.
The problems he presented with were the following:
Pulling on lead.
Jumping up on people.
Begging at the table.
Running off if given the opportunity.… and … food disappearing.
For Shadow’s pulling, his owner was having some recent success by running the leash under the dog’s armpit from the collar. I was a bit concerned that if he pulled too suddenly, he might do some damage to the nerves and vessels that run through this anatomical region. So, we tried a head collar on Shadow which works wonders to stop most dogs from pulling. Shadow, however, stubbornly refused to accept it, not unlike a horse fighting a bit for the first time.
So instead, I showed Shadow’s master how to recognize and anticipate this dog’s preliminary responses to exciting external stimuli, and how to exert appropriate control before Shadow reached a level of excitement where he became out of control. The way a given command is delivered, can have marked differences in the way an animal responds to that command. Tone and sharpness (or gentleness) of the sound, in combination with what your eyes and your body posture are saying to your dog can have tremendous impact when you are trying to convey a clear message that your dog will understand. Here visual demonstrations are worth a thousand words.
Jumping up on people and things can be addressed through a wide array of means. Shadow’s owner felt most comfortable with a conservative approach. So that’s what we took. The word “OFF,” when timed and delivered appropriately, can be a highly effective and respected jump stopper. The word “SETTLE,” when introduced properly, can work even more nicely by preventing the unwanted behavior before it has commenced. Without any hand/arm movement, raising a knee to meet (non-forcefully) the chest of the jumping dog, can for many dogs be a good physical deterrent.
As Shadow only begs from his master’s live-in mother, who is the only one who feeds him from the table, a few changes in routine were in order. This feeding ritual was one which the mother enjoyed immensely. It provided her with a calm/quiet means to stroke and enjoy the presence of this warm-blooded creature. Rules to go into effect included: Brief scheduled feeding of healthy snacks by mother to dog in room other than the dining room. During meals, the dog would remain on a comfortable carpeted area, within sight of the table but out of the room. Any efforts to approach the table by this dog could be deterred by his master’s use of appropriate eye contact.
Space and time can have the unwanted effect of limiting the flow of information… and as we’re out of it, I look forward to sharing more with you next time.

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