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The First Rule in Good Dog Training

Use your eyes to listen and your posture to talk.

My daughter has favorite dolls. Favorite shoes. A BFF. My son has one toy truck that stands out above every other (nearly identical) vehicle in his miniature fleet and cannot imagine a cookie without chocolate chips. So it seems completely reasonable to them that I would have a favorite child.

I tell them that I love my daughter the yellowest and I love my son the bluest. In other words, there is no way to compare. I love that my 3-year-old son is a do-it-himselfer and that my 8-year-old daughter prefers to consult me on most decisions; two very different kids that tug at my heart in very different ways.

Both are utterly special and monumentally lovable just as they are. Yes, the do-it-himselfer can create quite a scene when he's not allowed to put every item on the grocery belt, and my girl can eat up quite a lot of time on a busy morning bringing in various combinations of shoes, socks, tee shirts and shorts, but still. Unique and lovable, those two.

In my recent puppy and dog graduating classes, I used this analogy to launch my commencement speech and it's good advice, I think, for everyone. In short, your dog will be your dog. Yes, training can modify his habits and shape your interactions, but it cannot change his personality or demeanor. Training is not a way to control your dog, it is a way to communicate with him and to communicate effectively, you must use your ears and eyes twice as often as your mouth. It's my tried-and-true 2:1 dog (and kid) training ratio. 

This week I trained some wonderful dogs and each one supported my premise. There was Bravo, a Pit Bull rescued from deplorably unlivable conditions where he was often isolated and always neglected. His lack of socialization and care did not affect his ability to trust his adoptive "parents" and other familiar humans but he was left with a lingering distrust of dogs who stared at or charged him. I explained to his owners that Bravo felt threatened when other dogs approached and his aggressive reaction was fear-induced self-defense.

Often, when other dog owners approach, desperately trying to hold their overly excited and/or poorly trained dogs, their dog’s resulting posture looks quite aggressive, regardless of their dog’s demeanor. Bravo, who would simply like to be ignored by strangers (dogs and humans alike) reacts to this inappropriate encroachment by lashing out … again in self-defense.

Is Bravo a “fight-dog” as one of their neighbors claims? Noooooo! That’s breed discrimination. Bravo is simply a well trained dog who prefers his personal space and is terrified when strangers rush into it. I can relate, can you?

To help reduce Bravo's defensiveness, I taught his family a series of words (aka “commands”) to instill structure and self-control. The clients quickly worked to master the critical lessons necessary to earn the respect and camaraderie of Bravo.

The top two? The “toe rule,” used during leash walks states that human toes must be in front of dog toes. The "no stare dictum," which requires that Bravo not stare at other people or dogs when out for a stroll with his family.

Why are these rules both affective and necessary? Both behaviors -- dragging and staring -- put your dog in control of the situation. A dog who leads his owners is taking them for a walk, thus making all directional and reactive decisions. Even friendly dogs who drag their owners and invade the personal space of other dogs or people can seem hostile to an otherwise calm and civilized dog. Thus, humans must lead dogs —toes in front—when walking into public spaces. 

Similarly, staring is a socially unacceptable behavior in dogs. Staring can be a precursor to trouble, scaring nervous dogs into a panicked and often aggressive reaction. And the dog who reacts aggressively, even if the reaction is fear-induced, is blamed for the resulting scene.

Note here that if you, your dog, or your child is being stared at by a dog, remove yourself from this dog’s presence calmly but quickly. A  staring dog is not referencing their owner for direction and is either frightened, overly excited or aggressive.

I had two more interesting cases this week, one involving a two-dog household and the other a pair of newly rescued older dogs: one blind and the other deaf! As is often the case when my fingers are just warming up, I have run out of space. Tune in next week and share your thoughts please!

Lori May 27, 2012 at 11:58 AM
Great article Sarah. Love the pic of Moo!
Steve Marcus May 27, 2012 at 02:33 PM
I adopted a wonderful puppy who did great with his training,but walking on a leash is taking some time,but I see major improvement.Excellent article.
Sarah Hodgson May 28, 2012 at 06:45 PM
Thanks for reading it!

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