May 16, 2009

Dog Training on a Limited Budget

While spending time in Wildwood Preserve today at an event for Planned Pethood, I came across the pictured Great Dane. The dog's face is buried in a plate of pancakes and sausage, courtesy of his owner, who is also enjoying a tasty breakfast in the park.

In actuality, this dog appeared to be well trained and appropriately behaved, and my inclusion of this picture is not meant to suggest otherwise. Even the most dedicated and well-intentioned of dog owners spoil their dogs from time to time, but experienced owners are able to communicate to their dogs the special nature of moments like eating pancakes in the park.

A blog reader posed an interesting question today:
From your blog, I know you work with shelter animals, so I was hoping you could provide some advice.... We have a puppy who rivals Marley in the book, not the movie. He is shorter and has broad shoulders and is completely out of control. Not having 300 dollars to drop on training him, I could use some help in figuring out where to take him ... Any suggestions on training? Any dog training videos worth it?
Given the weak state of the economy, many people are likely experiencing the same difficulties balancing their needs to better train their dogs with the financial constraints of a limited budget. It is my experience that a well-trained dog is a happier dog, since it knows the expectations and wants to please its owner, the pack leader.

Here then are a few low-cost suggestions to help folks inexpensively train their dogs. I am far from an expert trainer, and I admittedly spoil my dogs sometimes, but I have learned a few things after owning and fostering over 50 dogs. Feel free to add any other suggestions (or to bash me as a blithering imbecile) in the comments section.

1. Squirt bottle: Get one of those plastic bottles and fill it with water. When the dog is engaging in an undesirable behavior (jumping, excessive barking, or whatever) squirt him in the face with a firm "no" or other reinforcing sounds (I use a sort of aspirated "AH!", almost like the German "ACH!" to reprimand). Several of my formerly rambunctious dogs now cease and desist merely with the mention of the water bottle, as in: "Do you want me to get the water bottle?" Two of my dogs immediately stop what they are doing whenever they hear these dreaded words.

2. Poke in the haunches: This is useful for distracting a dog from a fight or some other activity in front of him. Once you have distracted the dog, you can re-focus him on more important activities. However, make sure this is a gentle poke and not something that will hurt the dog. I never recommend beating, striking, or hitting a dog as a training method, since they need to see the human hand as a source of earned affection and dinner.

3. Knee to the chest: It sounds cruel, but dogs who jump can quickly be cured of this annoying behavior by moving your knee in front as they jump. Ideally, you want the dog to sort of jump into the knee (natural consequence), as opposed to some sort of violent, martial arts, sternum-crushing move on your part (physical punishment). Ultimately, though, the dog needs to learn that the pack leader (you) will not tolerate being jumped on.

4. Coins in a Coke can: This worked well with a Lab we once owned. When the dog would engage in undesirable behaviors, a shake of the can with coins in it and a firm "No" worked pretty well. The sound of the coins is apparently a sonic irritant to many pooches; however, I do not recommend squirt bottles AND coin cans simultaneously. Perhaps save the Coke can for a particularly annoying behavior, such as rushing at the door when people come in.

5. Assert authority: Until the dog respects you as the leader, he will behave only when it suits him. Make him sit for his food, as opposed to simply dishing it out. If he gets aggressive with toys, take them away until he learns that you control when he gets to play, especially if the dog snarls or gets possessive of toys. Any time that you make the dog sit still for a few moments while waiting for something he wants, you reinforce the notion that you are in control, not him.

6. Short leash: Going for walks is an excellent way to establish authority. Keep the leash as short as possible to make the dog walk slightly behind you. This reinforces that you are in charge, and you only give him more leash when he acts appropriately (no lunging or pulling). As soon as he starts to pull or lunge, shorten the leash.

7. Consistency and immediacy. Dogs thrive and behave best in routines and schedules, especially with meals and going outside. The same is true for discipline: you have to consistently reinforce the rules with dogs to get them to believe you mean business. Typically it takes a solid week or so for behaviors to become established, but it only takes one or two lapses by a wishy-washy owner to get a negative behavior entrenched again. If your rule is "no dogs on the couch," better stick to that 100%, because the one time you give in, the dog will take advantage of the lapse. Also, reprimands and praise need to happen within seconds of the associated behavior, or else the dog has no clue of why you react the way you do.

8. Use simple commands. Related to consistency is the idea that owners use the same simple words each time they want their dogs to behave in a certain way. Do not say "sit down" one time and then "cop a squat" the next, as this is confusing to the dog. Again: dogs are more relaxed when they understand what is expected of them, and most dogs really just want to please us. Keep it simple for them to do.

9. Watch videos. I became a fan of the Dog Whisperer after trying out some of Cesar Millan's techniques. While the show occasionally over-dramatizes situations and Cesar tends to highlight especially dimwitted owners (along with the problem pooches that result from these ill-informed people owning dogs), the man knows his dogs. Many public libraries have his tapes, and some video stores (including online video retailer Netflix) also stock Dog Whisperer. Remember: the biggest part of training is teaching the owner how to be responsible.

10. Praise good behavior. Dogs by nature want to please their owners, and owners need to remember that there are two sides to the behavioral coin. Phrases such as "good sit," "good boy," or my favorite: "good girl go potty outside" help reinforce what you want the dog to do, as opposed to the dog merely learning how to stay out of trouble.

11. Do not confuse love with being a pushover. Some owners are afraid they will hurt their dog's feelings by reprimanding them, but this is misguided and potentially dangerous. Dogs need us to look out for their best interests, and just like we do not toss car keys and whiskey bottles to teenagers, we should not let our dogs do as they please. Your dog will love you more when he looks up to you and trusts that you will protect him, and consistent discipline is your tool to build that trust.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mikey!

Carol said...

Mike - one of the best training tools we have ever invested in has been an appropriately sized crate.

We DO NOT use them as punishment, but do use them as a positive and safe alternative to becoming screaming lunatics. It allows the dog to have a 'safe' place that is his and his alone.

I also used a rolled newspaper which I will slap against my hand or on the corner of a table to distract the dog from undesirable acts.

As for jumping up on people - when a dog jumps up on me I simply step on their back feet (gently, mind you) and they get down. It's natural for them to retreat to see what has touched their feet. This works very well with Boxers and Labs - two of the most intelligent, yet hard headed, dogs in ithe world. LOL

Mad Jack said...

I'm reminded of my friend's dog, NoBuddyDown, also called NoBuddySit.

I'm a Cesar Millan fan as well and I've made his techniques work for me. One thing you have to remember is that you, the people, are the alpha dog at all times. When ever you are awake, you are pack leader. The other thing is that the dog really wants to do what the pack leader wants, but the dog doesn't understand what that thing is. Ergo, train the dog and remember that it's likely the dog is both smarter and has a much better nature than the vast majority of people you're likely to meet and be forced to interact with today.

dog containment systems said...

Hi... I would like share this with readers...

About ten years ago, there was a couple living behind me that had quite a few dogs. She was in a house behind the condo.

These dogs would bark any time of day and night relentlessly. I was not about to approach her, as she ran around the yard by herself acting like a raving lunatic.

There was a guy next door who was a musician and recorded between 6 and 7PM. At least he tried to record. Well, the dogs would ruin his recording every time. Finally he approached her and asked if she could kindly keep the dogs quiet just that one hour. She started her lunatic act cursing and screaming, which we took as a no. So every time they barked at night, we called the police. They would come, and before they would get there the barking had stopped. They must have had a police scanner. So nothing could be done. The association did nothing - I guess because they were not in our community. I heard that after I moved, my neighbor moved also. He even had to break his lease to get away from the barking and be able to record his music!

So in my case calling did not help, but hopefully it would help for you. I would try what it suggests in the article below also.