Talking Pets: Getting your dog to make an investment ... in himself

March 15, 2013 

It doesn't really matter how many pets you've had, or how long you've had them, there is always something you can learn.

Take my dogs and me, for instance. People were always telling me how good they were. I gave the dogs a lot of the credit, because they were all smart.

Muddy the shepherd-Lab was a gentle giant who was 4 when we got him and he came with manners he had already been taught.

Jethro the hound was 11 months old when he moved in, but he knew how to sit, stay, and sit up and beg. He was so smart that I never could break him of that last "talent."

Reba was only 6 months old when she came to live with me, and she had been a street dog so she needed to learn all

sorts of stuff, even wearing a collar and a leash. But she was smart, too, and was a quick study.

Ella was 9 months old when she was rescued from awful conditions, and she's had to overcome a lot of fears to learn some manners. But what's helped her is not only being smart, but having had Reba to help teach her.

Arlo is not yet 2 years old, and when he moved in, the head of the rescue group that sponsored him told me, "I don't say this about many dogs, but he's highly intelligent." So I envisioned him learning quickly and joining the roster of well-behaved dogs who have joined our pack.

Boy, did I have a lot to learn.

Arlo is rowdy, rude and hard-headed.

He can climb and leap a 6-foot fence. He has not yet learned not to jump on me, despite my efforts to teach him "off."

He is obsessed with squirrels to the point I have to monitor his every move while he's outside lest he start eyeing the fence.

He will bark and whine while we're on the porch and the doggie door is closed off so I can have a little "me time" to read the paper or talk on the phone.

On the other hand, he has learned to sit like a champ, and sits while waiting for me to open a door. He has learned "watch me." He has mastered "come."

He's pretty good at "stay," although his attention span won't allow him to keep it very long.

So I've been asking myself: What is different about him, and why is it so hard to get through to him?

I knew from the start that he is not the dogs that have come before him, but realizing that and learning to deal with the frustrations I did not have before have been a challenge.

I have come to understand that one of the differences about him is simply this: He is not a calm dog.

The dogs that came before him did not need much correction to learn their manners, because they didn't drive me crazy like he can.

He's like a child with attention deficit disorder and that's an entirely new thing for me.

So when I saw an article in my Facebook feed that started out talking about a woman whose dog would not look her in the eye, it tugged at me.

The gist of the article was this: The woman's husband was a disciplinarian who took control and used a lot of corrective measures in training the dog. She was the opposite and was at a loss as to how to connect with the dog while being careful not to undermine her husband's "authority."

The trainer quoted in the article gave her some advice that I've found most helpful:

Get the dog to make an investment in learning the behavior.

I totally agree with reward training, and I've learned a lot working with the pit crew at Animal Services. For instance, I've learned that some dogs are just not food motivated, and may be more compliant if you use toys as the reward.

But I've never really thought about it this way, getting the dog to make an investment in doing the right thing, and it's changed the way I'm approaching Arlo.

For instance, when it's time for him to put on his collar and harness in the morning, he has a hard time sitting for me to get him dressed.

Before, I would tell him to sit and when he would run off through the house, I would just stay there and wait for him to come back and try again. I wouldn't call to him, I would just wait there.

Sometimes it took three or four times for him to calm down enough for me to dress him.

Now, I give him two chances (everybody deserves a second chance), and that's it. Then I go to the kitchen and fix my coffee.

After that, we go back to the bedroom where his collar and harness are waiting for him. "Still not ready to sit? OK, I'll go get the paper now."

Then it starts to sink in with him: "Sit and get dressed, and I get to go outside. Keep running around like a crazy dog and she will just find something else to do."

The first few days went like that, but now, he's sitting on that second chance. He's getting it. He's beginning to realize that it's in his best interest (the investment) to do what I ask.

Someday soon, he'll do it the first time. I hope that day comes soon, because even though he's rowdy and ill-mannered, Arlo is also sweet, loving and smart, and I love him, warts and all.

M.K. Means, Herald copy editor, can be reached at 941-745-7054 or followed on Twitter @Bradentonpets.

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