Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Puppy boot camp: A solution when good dogs go bad

Liam the pug looking up
Even this wee guy can get willful.
When I feel sick, upset or stressed out, my pug dog is my go-to therapist. Whether I'm sitting quietly and petting his silky ears, or I'm watching him run around the living room at top speed with an expression of sheer joy on his face, Liam is sure to help lift my low mood. Unfortunately, he *is* a dog, and if my bleak feelings stay in place for a bit too long, his inner dictator comes out and he makes a grab at power.

Naturalistic writers are quick to suggest that dogs like stable packs, just as wolves do, and a sick human at the top of the pack causes distress for the rest of the group, forcing one underling to take charge and put things back in order. I'm not so sure that Liam channels his wolf when I am a little under the weather for a day or two, but like most dogs, he is quick to take advantage of the situation. My normally obedient dog "forgets" his commands, terrorizes the other pets and begins to pull on the leash while we're on walks. This is mild dictatorship only because I tend to move fast when I see it happening.

Dogs seem to like to win a series of tiny challenges, allowing them to build up their confidence and power one small step at a time. Forcing a dog to lose some of these battles can stop an emerging problem from escalating. For Liam, this means entering Puppy Boot Camp, and the rules are pretty strict:
  1. Liam must sit before all open doors and let me walk through them first.
  2. Liam must let me go up or down the stairs before he can do the same. 
  3. Liam must sleep on the floor, in his bed.
  4. Liam must be invited to sit on my lap while I'm on the couch. 
  5. Liam must not pull on the leash, or he'll have an enforced 1-minute "sit" break. (This can make walks take an eternity.) 
  6. Liam must sit and wait for 1 minute before eating the food in his bowl. 
  7. Liam must do a trick before I will throw the ball. 
All of these little draconian rules are designed to reinforce that I am in charge and I am the top of the pack. After a few days of this, Liam usually gets the picture and he's once again a cheerful and obedient little guy, but it doesn't work on all dogs. My Boston terrier, for example, needed about a week's worth of Puppy Boot Camp before he would cede control to me, and he would sometimes escalate his power grab in the early days. Small refusals to follow commands would suddenly erupt into growling sessions. Thankfully, Liam doesn't seem to want to be in control all that much, and a few gentle reminders of the order of things seems to do the trick.

From time to time, people ask me how to get a handle on a dog's poor behavior, and when I start to outline some of these steps, people look at me as though I was some kind of horrible dog abuser. It's hard not to find that reaction a little amusing. Dogs really LIKE to know who is in charge, and they only act up with willfulness when they think the humans aren't doing a good enough job of controlling the world they live in. By taking control, we're doing dogs a favor and allowing them to be just dogs, not Protectors Of All Things. It's really the nicest thing a person can do.