Talking Pets: Teaching, training and learning with the pit crew

October 12, 2012 

Some of my proudest moments as a pet lover have come when someone has said, "Your dogs are so well-behaved."

I've always responded, "Thanks, but I'm no expert. They're just smart dogs."

It's always been my belief that if you teach a dog with patience and love, they will learn more quickly.

I'll never forget when Reba was just a puppy, and my ex was attempting to teach her to walk on a leash. She had been a street dog and knew nothing about collars or leashes.

We set off on a walk; I had Jethro and he had Reba. His training method was akin to throwing a kid in a pool and expecting them to swim. He was dragging poor Reba along, and she resisted so much that she slipped out of her collar and took off.

I said, "Let me try," and I went up into the neighbor's yard where Reba was watching us with a look of fear and disgust on her little pittie face.

I sat down on the ground and called her to me. She came and I gently told her it would be OK and that she would do fine. I slipped the collar and leash on her, and off we went ... slowly and gently.

She got it. Just like that, she got it.

So when Manatee County Animal Services told me they were starting a pit bull group, I said, "Sign me up!"

Since early August, a group of volunteers has been meeting on Wednesday evenings under the stately oaks at Animal Services headquarters in Palmetto.

Kerry Koppin, who works with K-9 Korral, is working with us. ("Dog trainer" is a misnomer; they don't train the dogs at all. They train people to teach the dogs good manners.)

Kerry is training us to teach these rambunctious pit bulls and pit mixes good manners so they will be more adoptable and ready to take the Canine Good Citizen test after they get adopted.

And boy, have I learned a lot. Yes, I've done pretty well teaching my dogs, but come to find out, I went about it the wrong way.

Here are a few things I've learned:

Down vs. off

When I've wanted to get my dogs to not jump on me, I've always said, "Down!" Or when I've wanted them to get off the bed or couch, I've said, "Get down."

Kerry has taught us the difference between "down" and "off."

If you want a dog to lay at your feet or by your side, that's when you teach them "down." Otherwise, it's "off."

No wonder my dogs were sometimes confused!

Stay vs. wait

A lot of people (me included) have taught their dogs to sit and then stay as they've walked away. We used to do this with Jethro and Reba and the boat ramp, and we could walk 20 or 30 feet down the beach and they would stay put.

And then we would call them to "come," and they would come running to us.

Now I know that was totally wrong.

You should never call a dog off a command to "stay." You want them to learn to stay put until you come back for them.

You also want them to be able to stay if you tell them that from a distance. It can save their life.

If your dog gets loose and runs across the street, you need to be able to stop them with a sit/stay until you go get them.

You certainly don't want them to sit/stay and then call them to you and have a car come around a corner and hit them.

I've also learned that I had this "stay vs. wait" half right.

I've always told my dogs to "wait" when I've opened the car door to let them out.

After I get the leashes on them, I make them wait some more, just 15 seconds or so.

They have learned not to jump out of the car until I've made sure it's safe and then said, "OK, come on."

Sit (no butts about it)

I've taught my dogs to sit the same way a lot of people have: by pushing on their butts to get that butt on the ground.

The problem with doing it this way is that the dog will associate the word "sit" with a butt push and will wait for it before they will sit.

Kerry taught us to take a treat (called the lure) and put it in front of the dog's nose, then raise it up so the dog's head follows the treat.

What happens then?

As their head goes up, their butt goes down, almost like magic. Except it's not magic, it's just smart training.

The Adopt-a-bulls

If you'd like to see how smart these shelter dogs have become and what good manners they are learning, be sure to join us Oct. 27 for the Coast to Coast Bully Walk. We'll be walking them around downtown Bradenton to help show the community what good dogs they are, and to help celebrate Pit Bull Awareness Day.

We just might be able to change your mind about these awesome dogs.

M.K. Means, Herald copy editor, can be reached at 941-745-7054.

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