Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dog Training the Human

First published in The Oxford Journal on February 29, 2012, by Sara Mattinson

When I told my husband that I was going to enrol the puppy in an obedience class, he looked at me as if I’d suddenly sprouted another head. 
“Why would you want to spend money on obedience classes?” he asked.
And that’s when the city girl and the country boy locked horns. To him, training a puppy means putting her outside to figure things out as she goes then correcting whatever she’s done wrong. For me, a dog must understand half a dozen basic commands or cues in order to be a properly trained dog: Sit, Wait, Stay, Watch, Off, and Come. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received about dogs (but it applies to so many other aspects of life) is “Start as you mean to go on” so obedience classes are a proactive way to prevent unwanted behaviour from developing in the first place. 
When I asked my friend Jane for her opinion, she wanted to know if the classes were about training or socialization. 
“Both,” I answered but after thinking about it for a bit, I amended. “Training for me and socialization for her.”
When it comes to training, I’m the one who needs the classes. Jane also has a puppy and watching my friend interact with both dogs during our walks together, I recognized immediately who Jane is: she is the alpha dog. Jane gives off that unmistakable energy of “I’m in charge. Aren’t you just the cutest? Don’t mess with me,” that dogs not only respond to but respect. 
The only reason I get respect is because of a pocket full of peanut butter flavoured treats. My energy needs a boost of confidence and I get that from hanging out with people who have a natural affinity for working with dogs. They remind me that every moment with a dog is a training moment; Jane says walking through the woods is the most important time for a dog to have perfect recall, meaning I can’t be thinking about columns when we’re walking, I have to pay attention to the pup.
At the same time, though, it’s essential that my puppy be exposed to as many dogs and people and places as possible in order to make her confident and calm in the world. It’s one thing to teach her to be a country dog (ride on a four-wheeler, not chase the chickens, know the boundaries of our two-acre yard) but it’s another thing to take her into town or to the vet or on a trip and have her comfortable with vastly different boundaries. 
Living in the country limits opportunities to socialize a dog, and that’s where obedience classes come in handy. Teach me how to make my dog to be fully prepared to participate in the world beyond our homestead. Socialize her so that she can go on trips, in a walk-a-thon, to a nursing home or hospital and be relaxed and good mannered. 
A well-behaved dog is a welcomed dog.
Good manners are never more important then when a truck pulls into the driveway. A dog must  know it can never, ever jump up on the side of a vehicle because several long, deep toenail scratches down the driver’s door of a brand new  truck is the kind of bad behaviour that can put a friendship in the dog house. 

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