Someone referred me to a Facebook page where a dog trainer was advising a woman with an aggressive and dominant puppy to piss in the dog’s food to curb his aggression.
It might sound extreme, he said, but it’s just a dog, it’s what they understand.
Even by the shallow standards of social media, this was a first for me. God bless vets, I thought. I’ve never known a dog who would understand that.
If the dog won’t eat the food, he added, just let him go hungry, he said, he will eventually give in.
In so doing, he would become more submissive. This, of course, is why I get snippy about social media vets who dispense lots of advice, but little wisdom. All morning, I thought of those poor dogs trying to eat urine-soaked food. Maybe the trainer should try it, so he can be less aggressive to dogs.
I get my advice from vets, they went to school for six years, owe tons of loan money, and invariably love animals – why else would you do it?
The peeing advice just seemed plain stupid to me, as well as cruel. To treat a dog like that is to surrender your authority, not establish it, and make the dog even more fearful, confused, and defensive.
That is the failure to train, not training.
Training is, at heart, a spiritual experience, not only about obedience or domination.
It is about establishing a healthy and clear and loving communication with a dog. Training is the language you use to talk to the dog and help him, or her understand how to live in an alien world.
Training is how our world makes sense to the dog, and gives him or her away to navigate it. I always remember that a good dog is a dog that doesn’t behave like a dog, and a bad dog is a dog that does behave like a dog. It isn’t easy for them.
I see my role as a dog owner as being about leadership and stewardship; I am the leader of the pack, not the boss of the dog, or the toughest dog. There’s a big difference.
There is a substantial mental proponent to asserting authority over a dog.
First, you have to mean it and project conviction and authority. That’s when I visualize, I picture what it is I want to happen.
Dogs are master readers of human emotions; if you think of your dog as abused and piteous and too fragile to be made to behave, you are doomed from the start.
If you think you can frighten or bully the dog into behaving (or piss your way to dominance), you have also set yourself up to fail.
I establish my leadership in many ways without pissing on their kibble.
Food is essential to dogs; it is the pathway to talking with them.
Before I put the food bowl down, I ask my dogs to sit and stay and wait. I do not ever let them rush out of the door ahead of me. I ask them to sit and stay until I release them with the command “okay” or “let’s go.”
One command is better, but I use two or three. They obey them all.
In general, I assert leadership by asking for something before the dogs get anything – a ride, a walk, a treat. My dogs get nothing for free; they are rewarded for everything they do that I ask them to do (I use small and healthy treats for reinforcement.)
Half the time, I don’t offer treats, I mix it up to keep them focused. Gifts become less frequent as the dogs mature.
I do not allow rough playing or barking or ball chasing in the house.
Dogs exist in part to please us, they will become the dogs we need if we let them.
If any of my dogs get excited, I toss a marrow bone into the crate and let them cool down. They love to go in their crates; there is always something good waiting for them.
But I need for my office and house to be peaceful, it is where I work.
Crates are an essential training tool, especially for excitable or aroused dogs; they are another way of asserting gentle and indirect – but enforced – authority. I am serious about commands.
I never give a command I can’t enforce, and when I give it, I don’t quit until the dog does it.
Commands have to mean something, or the dog will become what I call a “multiple choice dog,” they choose which commands they want to obey. It’s hard to go back and change that.
I use treats the way seal trainers do in aquariums – the constant promise of reward until the behavior becomes so rote treats become less necessary or not necessary at all.
I always try to give my dogs a chance to succeed, not fail, and although I frequently lose my temper and shout, I am mostly gentle and consistent.
My dogs know I love them and won’t hurt them, they don’t pay much attention to my outbursts, as when they eat donkey or sheep droppings.
Like Maria, they are not unduly moved by my moods.
But I need to be self-aware. Before any commands, I stop and think. Am I calm? Clear? Patient? Training out not to be tense or angry. I don’t need to tell the dog I am the boss, like any good leader, I just need to be clear and consistent.
If I’m in a bad mood, I don’t train my dogs.
Dogs hate confusion and uncertainty; they are renowned creatures of habit, they don’t want any trouble, they just want to eat, sleep, run, sniff, and know what is expected of them. They are creatures of habit, lovers of tradition. They will happily do the same thing at the same time every day of their lives, providing they get what they need – food, exercise, work, and love.
Puppies need to play; it is a huge part of their learning and socialization experience. Dog playgroups can be very helpful for that. Adult dogs are usually practicing hunting and killing when they play. I throw balls and such once or twice a day and always outside.
I avoid dog playgroups. It’s a good way for dogs to get aroused, sick, or bitten, and an excellent opportunity to meet neurotic and over-protective pet owners.
Sorry. I know there are excellent playgroups. I just don’t like them or see the need for them, especially in the country. The ones I’ve seen in New York City tend to horrify me.
Since my dogs don’t eat or play or go outside without permission and are asked to sit, lie down, stay or wait five or six times a day, they come to see me as their leader. I am also the source of good things – food, rides, walks, treats.
I usually walk Zinnia and/or Fate in the woods once a day. That tires them out and gives them a chance to smell interesting things and eat revolting things and throw them up later.
We have lots of fun together, I am always overjoyed to see them, and they are delighted to see me.
When a dog is trained, he or she is calm and safe and proper training is perhaps the best way to bond with your dog, and for the two of you to understand and trust one another.
Once a year or so, when the dogs get crazy or loud, I do what I call “the bear,” I road and stand over them and act like a big bear. Their eyes go wide, and they look at each other. But I get the feeling I have established my authority.
This is what I do when a dog blows me off or ignores my command. Nothing, for several minutes. Then I try again.
If I am distracted or pressured, or very busy, I yell. That works do. But it should be rare. My dogs know me well enough to know I will never hurt them. Puppies sometimes are not that secure. Trust comes before training.
Stewardship is a different thing than leadership. The dog benefits from it but doesn’t need to be trained for it.
I am responsible for the dogs and their well being.
My job is to see that they are fed, loved, sheltered, and healthy, never in unnecessary pain. I am always their advocate; it is my job to see that their lives are not prolonged out of my selfishness or self-interest.
I see my life with my dogs as a contract.
I will take good care of them and show them how to live safely in the world and peacefully with us. My dogs have never chewed anything other than their toys, quickly become housebroken, are quiet in the house, and my office.
I don’t believe in unconditional love.
My love for dogs is not a given; it isn’t automatic. I have to earn their love; they need to earn mine. They have the right to be loved, fed, trained, exercised, and sheltered. To go to the vet when they are sick, and to eat healthy food recommended by my vet.
In return, I ask that they respect my time, my work, and our home. I ask that they do what I ask them to do, and I insist that they never harm a human or another dog. Those are conditions; my love is not unconditional.
A dog that harms other dogs or people cannot be my dog. When my very beloved border collie Orson bit three people in one day, one of them a child on the neck, my love turned to responsibility.
He could not function safely in the world. A platoon of doctors and me failed.
Dogs need time and space to be dogs.
They can be crazy and playful outside, but our house is a quiet working space, and mostly, they respect that. When they don’t, they get time in their crates to meditate and settle.
They appreciate their crates and often go into them to rest. Dogs are den animals; they love small and enclosed spaces.
People who think crates are cruel are depriving themselves and their dogs of a great way to settle, feel safe, and control training. Dogs in crates to not wreck property, get in fights, grab food off of counters.
If you think your dog is a small and vulnerable child, you will never have or know the pleasures of a well-trained animal, one with whom you can live in love and harmony.
So that’s my idea of leadership. Everyone does it differently. There is more than one way to do it. Every human is different; every dog is different; every environment is different; every litter experience is different; every house is different.
Unfortunately, there are so many inbred and poorly bred dogs circulating now, almost ever dog is a crapshoot. It is so important to choose carefully and not let anyone else tell you how to get a dog.
That is one reason I went to such lengths to find an exceptionally ethical and diligent breeder for Zinnia. Her excellent breeding shines through every day.
And I lucked out with Bud, a rescue dog from Arkansas, a loving and feisty character.
But I never tell anyone else how to get a dog, or that there is only one way to get a dog. What a useless excuse for advice. I write this piece because lunatics – like the one who pees in dog food – run amok online.
I insist on being my guru, I don’t need $30 books from Cesar Milan or want them.
I wish the same for you.