Correcting Your Dog

The Other End of the Leash

In my experience people usually get physical with their dogs when the dogs do something "wrong." Most of my clients who hit or shook their dogs honestly didn't know what else to do. It's no good to tell people not to get rough with their dogs and then give them no alternative, so here's an alternative that works for almost all dogs and almost all people.

If your dog is doing something that you don't want her to do, your job is to do two things. First, stop her from doing what she's doing by startling her. You don't have to hurt her or terrorize her, just interrupt her by making a noise that evokes what is called the mammalian startle response. If you slap the wall or the table, drop a paperback book, or toss an empty pop can with a few pennies in it on the floor, she should momentarily look up to see what the noise was about. Like lightning, you're going to take advantage of her attention and redirect it onto doing what you want her to do. Say, for example, that your eight-month-old Labrador is chewing on the coffee table. Your job is to interrupt that behavior and instantly redirect her to doing something appropriate, like gnawing on the chew toy that you spent a fortune on last night. Say "No" in a low, quiet voice and immediately make a sound to startle her. In the microsecond that she looks up, say "Good girl" to praise her for stopping what she was doing, smooch or click your tongue to keep her attention on you, and then redirect her attention to something more appropriate.

The key is to be prepared to take advantage of that half a second (or less) of attention that you?re going to get when she looks up. It won't last long, and most beginners lose the moment by staring back at their dog while deciding what to do next. Their dogs figure that there's nothing interesting going on, so why not go back to chewing on the table leg? Be ready to act the microsecond that your dog looks up, and you'll find this working like a charm. It sounds simple, but as with all dog training, it takes some practice, because the timing of your responses needs to be in sync with your dog's behavior. Work on responding to your dog's actions as quickly as you can. Even if your timing isn't Olympian yet, you're going to be way ahead of the game if you remember the basics: interrupt the problem behavior and immediately redirect it to something else.

However, if your dog is absolutely committed to what she's doing-say, barking out the window at the neighbor's mutt who loves to taunt her-then there's probably no sound you can make that's going to get her attention. In cases like that, give up trying to get louder and louder from across the room and go over closer to her. I like to lure dogs away from contexts like that with a treat held right up to their nose, like luring a donkey with a carrot, and then ask them to do something else when they're away from all the excitement. In some cases dogs are so excited that it helps to quietly put their leash on and use that and food lures to help them move away from the focus of their attention. Then ask your dog to "Sit pretty" or "Go get your big ball" or "Go upstairs and wake up" (fill in the name of that other person in the house who always lets you get up to take the dog out). Once she learns that your voice is a predictor of something even more fun than what she's doing, you can drop out the food lure as your dog improves.

These suggestions are not substitutes for a complete dog training manual or good video, or better yet, a good dog training class where you'll have a coach to help you out. But if you can get into the habit of interrupting your dog from doing what you don't want and simply redirecting him to what you do want him to do, both you and your dog will be much happier. It seems very human to stay fixated on the negative: "No!" seems to come out of our mouths as easily as breathing. But saying no doesn't teach a dog what to do, and it keeps the attention focused on it and nothing else. If I said, "Stop thinking about red. Now, I mean it, don't think about red!" how easy would it be? But if I said, "Don't think about red; think about blue-beautiful, cool blue. Think blue!" wouldn't it be easier to stop thinking about . . . What was that other color again? There are an infinite number of things that your dog can do wrong but only a few that he can do right. Why don't you make life easy and teach your dog what right is rather than continually saying no to yet one more thing that is wrong?

So when your dog is doing something wrong, say "No" quietly, use another sound to startle him to get his attention, and then redirect him on to doing something that he should be doing. Don't think about physically punishing him; think about teaching him. Replace the hot, red aggression of old-fashioned dog training with the calm, cool benevolence of sky blue. It's a lovely color.

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Patricia McConnell Ph.D., is an adjunct assistant professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. Her company, Dog's Best Friend Ltd., specializes in family dog training and treating aggression in dogs.

Excerpted from The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.
Copyright 2002 by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.
Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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