Training Your Newly Adopted Dog

My first attempt at full joint legal and physical custody . . . of a dog.

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I have had a number of dogs, but Otto is actually the very first dog that I’ve gotten as a co-owner. A former boyfriend paid the $40 or $50 that a Bodega, California, sheep rancher wanted for my heart/soul dog, Rupert, way back in 1989, but the puppy was a birthday present for me; Rupe was always my dog. He stuck close by my side through the breakup of that relationship and the next few, too. When Brian (the man who later became my husband) came on the scene, he and Rupert formed a bond, but still, Rupe was mine.

Otto

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Later, a summer of dog-sitting my sister Sue’s long-haired Chihuahua, Mokie, turned into a several-year stay. Mokie has since gone on to live with my sister Pam, who won’t ever give him up; Brian was more than happy when I did so. He tolerated Mokie, but never fully embraced the idea of a yappy little house-dog, no matter how smart and cute.

So, while Brian and I have shared a home since 1996, we have never truly shared full ownership of a dog, like we do now. I selected Otto from a shelter, but Brian was the one who gave the signal that it was time for us to get a dog. When Brian and I got married, I kept my own last name, but Brian wanted to be sure that Otto took his surname, and even made sure the dog’s full name (“Otto Maddock”) was engraved on his ID tag. And Brian has been a real champ about sharing dog-care duties with me.

This is all good news, and I’m happy – I really am. I love my husband, I love our dog, I love that all three of us spend a lot of time taking walks and runs and hikes and drives together. I love the fact that Brian and Otto interact a lot – all on their own. And I really enjoy that Brian and I frequently discuss Otto’s behavior, and compare notes on how to best teach Otto to be a well-behaved member of the family, with full indoor and outdoor privileges. But it’s not all sweetness; it’s not all easy.

Battle of the sexes?
I’m just going to come out and say it: Guys do things differently. I know that’s sexist. Not all guys are alike. But my guy is. Brian respects my knowledge about dogs and dog training, and he often solicits my opinion about how we should deal with some naughty Otto behavior or another. But sometimes he just wings it – in a very guy way.

For example, way back in July, when Otto had been with us for only two weeks, Brian decided to take Otto for a bike ride. He wasn’t going far, just six blocks or so to drop off the bike at a repair shop for a tune-up, and then he walked Otto home. Never mind the fact that I was working hard to teach Otto polite leash walking skills, and didn’t want him to practice pulling or running ahead. Forget about the fact that Otto was still shy and mildly anxious about meeting strangers, and that I wanted to make certain that all of his social encounters were positive, and all of his outings were carefully controlled to keep them fear-free.

If Brian had asked me what I thought about him taking Otto with him, running alongside his bicycle to the bike shop, I would have been adamant: no way, not yet! And I’m sure that’s why Brian didn’t ask what I thought, he just did it.

It was over before I even knew they were gone. I heard the front gate clang, and there they were, apparently back from a little walk. Brian fed Otto a treat as he unsnapped the leash and turned the dog loose in the yard. Otto happily trotted over to his water to drink and then to greet me, tail wagging and eyes dancing. “Where’d you go?” I asked Brian. He answered casually, “We just took a little bike ride. And then I dropped my bike at the shop for a tune-up.”

I’m sure I gaped. And then caught myself. This was not just my dog; Otto is ours. Of course Brian has every right to take the dog out without consulting me. So I tried to modulate my worried inquiries. I really wanted to say, “Darn it, I hope you didn’t hurt him or scare him. And if you set back his training or socialization, I’m going to have a fit!” But what I actually said was, “How did it go? Was he okay?”

Brian and I have been married long enough that he knows exactly what I wasn’t saying; he could probably read my real thoughts as if they were printed on my forehead.

“It went fine!” said Brian. “Otto didn’t really get it at first, he was nervous about the bike, but I went slow and he caught on fine. I only ran over him once!”

This last thing was not true; it’s part of Brian’s humor. It’s also how he catches me mentally flat-footed about a dozen times a day. I know I’m overprotective of the dog and I know I tend to take things too literally. But you would think I would catch on at some point.

“WHAT?!”
“I’m kidding!” Brian laughed. “Otto was fine. We went really slowly. And I brought him into the store with me – I didn’t leave him tied outside; I know you don’t approve of that. I gave him a bunch of treats along the way and we walked back. He’s fine!”

Different parenting styles
Okay, so it’s never as bad as I think it is. As a point of fact, Otto accompanies us on a lot of bike rides now: on-leash in town and off-leash on trails. In both situations, he’s well-mannered and just brilliant.

And Brian does listen to my endless lectures about positive training and behavior modification. He’s seen me have a lot of success with dogs in the past; he sees it working with Otto.

But I also know that in his heart of hearts he thinks that I make things harder than they need to be. I’m sure he thinks that living with a dog should be simpler, and that I needlessly anticipate problems and overanalyze minute bits of Otto’s behavior. You don’t have to read a hundred books on dog training to own a dog! The problem is, I have read a hundred dog-training books. I’m hyper-aware of all the ways we can screw up the dog, make him fearful, and undermine his training and his confidence.

And it’s always something with this guy! He wants the dog to do guy things, like ride in the back of the truck. He opens our front gate to enable Otto to chase a feral cat (who lives under the abandoned house on the corner) across the street and back to that abandoned house. When they hike in our local wilderness areas, he lets Otto chase any jackrabbit that they happen to come across. He often gives Otto his plate after dinner so the dog can lick it clean. When he sees Otto doing something he doesn’t approve of, he is apt to bellow, “Otto! No!” I, of course, have issues with all of those things!

Recently, the three of us took an off-leash hike. Suddenly I noticed that Otto had stopped for a third time in a few hundred yards to pee. One of the things I have really enjoyed about walks with Otto is that he hardly ever urine-marks; he’s usually fixated on moving on and moving out, getting some serious mileage on the trail. And excessive urine-marking is one of my dog-walking pet peeves; I really like walking fast and hate being pulled to a halt every 50 feet. So I kept walking and called Otto, giving him a treat when he caught up to my side. And I said to Brian, “When you walk Otto on leash, please don’t let him stop to sniff and pee whenever he wants to ‘mark’ something.”

“Huh,” said Brian. “But that’s what we do!” Meaning himself and the dog and all the world’s male citizens, I suppose. “Brian! Come on!” I insisted. “I really don’t want him to turn into one of those dogs who stops constantly, and pees on every other tree we walk by.”

“What’s the point of taking the dog for a walk if he can’t smell stuff and pee on things?” Brian argued. “That’s what dogs like to do! It’s natural! You’re going to take all the fun out of going for walks!”

I argued back. “He can do all of that stuff when we’re in a place like this, and he’s off-leash. But when he’s on-leash, I want him to pay attention to me, not the bushes, and walk without dragging me all over the place. He still has plenty of opportunities to have fun!”

I’ll spare you the rest. Suffice to say we have different ideas about dogs and dog training, and even though I am the editor of The Whole Dog Journal, since we are equal partners in owning this dog, I don’t always get my way.

You’d think I’d be used to working out our dog-care and -training differences, since we have kids and we have spent more than a decade co-parenting. Ah, but our kids pre-date our relationship, and I’m here to tell you that there is a difference between parenting a child of your own, and one who isn’t yours and doesn’t live with you full-time. We take a respectful back seat when it comes to major decisions concerning each other’s kids, letting the biological parent call the shots. But Otto is, in effect, our first child together. And somehow this means we have a lot of arguing to do!

My son is going to be 17 years old soon, which means that long before I ever read dog books, I read books full of parenting advice. I read – and learned – that all parents have different ways of caring for their babies and children, and that all styles of loving, safe guidance are valid and important for the kids’ development. A protective new mom might be worried about turning over her precious baby to her partner, for what might even seem like less-effective care, but it’s best if each parent learns and uses his or her own special way with the infant. I know all this stuff. That doesn’t make it any easier to share my dog!

Otto Exercising

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Back to school
Here is another thing that I know a lot about, but am not necessarily good at: dog training!

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve read a ton of great dog-training books. And I can’t tell you how many hundreds of hours I’ve spent in dog training classes, dog sports events, and dog parks combined. I’m usually carrying a camera, and I have taken tens of thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – of photos of dogs and people with dogs. I’ve developed a really good eye for canine behavior, and a solid ability to accurately predict what a dog is going to do next. In training classes, I can often spot and “diagnose” a dog/human communication problem before the handler realizes that he’s got one, and even make a good guess at what the class instructor will tell the handler to do to correct the problem.

But taking a class as a participant is another matter! It turns out that no matter how much you know, you still have to practice the actual skill of dog training in order to have much success with it. (Of course, I’ve heard dozens of trainers say that, but now I’m really getting it!)

Practice, not just knowledge, is necessary because you have to develop and improve your timing; the quicker and more accurately you can “mark” the behavior you want your dog to repeat, the faster he’ll learn how to do it on cue. You have to practice the physical skills of retrieving treats (from your bait bag or pocket or wherever) and delivering them to your dog in a manner and location that doesn’t draw him out of the position you are trying to reward him for attaining.

You have to practice in order for your hands to learn to be conscious of the leash, and not unwittingly rise in the air, floating like magic until the leash is unaccountably taut again, through no fault of your dog. It even takes practice to learn to walk again! That is, to walk with your hands low and leash loose, while watching your dog carefully, occasionally reinforcing him for being in the right zone by your side, and steering him to where you want to go without the leash, using only your clear, confident body language.

Believe me, these things don’t just happen; they have to be practiced and practiced. And that practice has to happen at home and in front of an instructor who can bring your attention to all the ways you are doing something that prevents your dog from getting what the heck you are trying to teach him. Sometimes it’s simple. “Try giving the cue again, but this time, take your hand out of the bait bag before you give him the cue,” my trainer said to me one night. I had to look down. Well, shoot! How did my hand get in the bait bag? I had no memory of that. Of course Otto will have a hard time concentrating on the signal from my right hand if my left hand is busily indicating “Here’s another delicious hot dog, coming right up!”

Learning good timing and coordination is no small matter with a dog who has learned “the shaping game” so well. After he receives a click and treat for something twice, Otto almost always “gets” what it is that he did that earned the treat, and he delivers it again, pow! On the night when we first tried nose-targeting in class, he had successfully touched the target stick with his nose three times in a row, and then I got sloppy and clicked too soon. I was listening to the trainer talk to someone else, and as Otto leaned his nose toward the target, I inadvertently clicked at the exact moment he took the end of the target stick into his mouth. Well, there’s nothing for it; if you click, you have to give a treat. The click (or other reward marker, such as a verbal “Yes!”) is supposed to always predict a treat. I waited a full minute before I held out the target again, but Otto is a dogged dog, and he knew just what to do; he immediately mouthed the stick again.

Fortunately, because he is so good at shaping, it was easy enough to undo the damage. I simply didn’t click or give him a treat when he took the stick in his mouth, and instead gently pulled it away, paused a moment, and then presented it to him again. After the third time that he took the stick and failed to get a click, he tried a nose-touch again. Whew! Click and a bunch of treats! And just like that we are back on track.

I laugh and laugh at myself in class; I just can’t believe how dopey and uncoordinated I am in class sometimes. My trainer, Sarah Richardson (shameless plug: The Canine Connection in Chico, California, thecanineconnection.com), is a great sport and she laughs with me as I fumble with the leash, the treats, the clicker, and the dog.

I also laugh at the looks on Otto’s very comical and expressive face as he offers various behaviors, figuring out which position or motion will make me give him a treat. He doesn’t seem to be offended by my laughter; I think he knows it’s all in fun, taking a new language class together.

Nancy Kerns is Editor of Whole Dog Journal. She (and her husband) adopted Otto from a shelter on June 13, 2008.

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