Humane Handling: think before you leap
As dog lovers we know we should treat our pets with affection. But sometimes the patience can wear thin, and it’s hard to figure out how to use positive
methods to eliminate undesirable behavior.
This is where more than simple love is required; we need to plan and prepare. For this post, I’ll give examples from my own forty years with dogs to give
you a flavor for thinking out of the training box.
When I was a student with my first apartment, Tammy, a girlfriend was paper-training a puppy. I was working on a research project and had papers spread
out all over my living-room floor when she visited with the pup. The little guy was so happy to see all that paper; he raced to the middle of the room
and began piddling everywhere!
My heart broke when Tammy grabbed him up and began to spank the poor little pet. He had no idea he had done the wrong thing, and in my opinion she should
have taught him to do his business outside in the first place!
But we humans are terribly inconsistent, and this makes a dog fearful for life. Consistency is the best way to communicate, and if you think about the
behavior you do want instead of the behavior you dislike, you are way ahead in the training game.
Years later, I became a dedicated rescue volunteer. Visit our organization at
When we fostered big, goofy Evo, he weighed over a hundred pounds and he wanted to hump everything and everyone. Everyone, that is except small children.
He absolutely loved little kids. They could climb on him, ride him, pull his fur and it just made him wag even more. If he was near a little kid he automatically
So many of our potential adopters have children but we are always short of dogs who are completely trustworthy around toddlers.
Evo would be perfect for a young family if only he got a bit of training first.
Using a hands-free leash, I kept Evo tethered to me throughout the day. We did housework, cooked dinner, answered email, read books, knitted and of course,
with his leash off played in the yard with our other dogs.
Each time Evo humped, he was pushed away and ignored. Each time he walked with me sedately or sat quietly he was petted and praised. The longer he stayed
quiet the more he was fussed over.
It took Evo a whole two days to stop humping but he quickly learned the behavior was unacceptable, without us ever having to punish. He also stopped pulling
on leash and loved snuggling close to us.
Such is the power of rewards. The reward isn’t chosen by you; it’s whatever the dog likes. It’s most often food, but not always.
Boston, my fourth guide dog just loved to bark. He vocalized when he was happy, he vocalized when he saw a buddy and his big, friendly woof would reverberate
around the building where I worked like thunder. I had to rush him outside for bark breaks on many an occasion.
So we set about teaching him to whisper. If any of his barks was softer than a previous bow-wow, we’d pop a treat in his mouth and tell him good boy. Each
day we turned down the volume a bit more, rewarding for quieter and then even quieter vocalizations.
Barking is self-rewarding, but soon enough Boston found whispering self-rewarding too. He’d trot along in his guide harness, happily whispering to himself.
It was incredibly endearing!
Teaching a dog to lie down is as simple as sitting with him in a quiet place like a bathroom with a good book. As the dog flies around in search of entertainment,
you ignore him. When he finally tires and collapses to the floor, lots of praise and possibly a juicy bone can appear. Teaching a dog to stay off the sofa
is equally easy. Simply reward for not being on the sofa in the first place. While this is being learned, close the door to the room with the off-limits
Maple had been confined to the backyard because she tipped over the trash. When we fostered her, I simply put several heavy bricks in the trash can under
the trash bags. The first time she was able to tip over the can, the bricks tumbling out were enough punishment to last a lifetime. Though this wasn’t
a completely positive method of handling the behavior it was warranted as Maple could have eaten something poisonous. A solution that worked for a sneakier
dog was to sprinkle harmless but hot tabasco sauce on several paper towels and leave them peeking out of the can. Again planning ahead prevented a disaster
and now Maple’s family simply keeps a few bricks at the bottom of the garbage to remind Maple that it could happen again.
Charlie had always been stuffed in to a crate for punishment. But then his family would relent when he cried, let him out and discover he’d gotten in to
trouble again. So I needed him to learn that quietly settling in a crate for naptime and when his future human family slept at night wasn’t such a big
deal after all. I’d wait until I had accumulated chores in the bedroom and lock Charlie and an open crate in with me. I’d occasionally drop pieces of
cooked chicken in to the open crate while I put away clean laundry and went about tidying up. When I noticed Charlie in the crate, I’d close and lock the
door. He’d whine, but I’d ignore him, dropping in a treat only when he stopped squeaking.
Then I’d open the crate door and go about my routine.
Repeating this process, Charlie learned that he’d get locked in the crate sometimes and at other times its door would stay open. He learned to go in there
by himself when he needed to calm down. Self-control is just as important for a dog as it is for a small child to learn, but the dog needs opportunities
to practice, and yes to fail at self-control.
Maxwell, my current guide dog would bolt out an open door, and because he was often leading in harness he was used to going first.
To fix this problem, I made him sit on leash at an open door, and if he started lunging through, I’d quietly close the door and back up and make him lie
down for a bit. He soon learned nothing was gained from lunging and now sits quietly until he’s told it’s time to go.
Jupiter was seven months of unadoptable energy when we agreed to foster him. In his first half-hour on our patio he had pulled down all my hanging plants,
though their pots were five feet above the concrete. He launched himself at everyone, play-biting their faces. He was super friendly but nobody had taught
him how to properly interact, as he’d spent his life chained in a backyard.
First, after cleaning up the spilled plant debris I tethered him to a post, something he was already quite used to. When I approached him as soon as he
started to jump, I backed away. Eventually, he’d tired himself out and when I was able to stand beside and pet him I offered lots of food coupled with
Three days later, Jupiter, who had now gotten the nickname of Jumpiter, was now lying quietly under our desks while we worked on our computers. Occasionally
he’d leap up and start bouncing and mouthing again. Then we’d quietly lock him in another room for a ten-minute time-out. The reward for getting attention
and being with people was to avoid jumping and biting.
Of course Jupiter also got plenty of chances to burn off energy playing roughly with our large dogs, and we slowly taught him how to play fetch and tug
in ways that humans prefer.
Jupiter was adopted the following month by a retired couple who were both runners. He would get a four-mile run on the beach every morning. But the story
didn’t end there.
Seven years later, one of my rescue volunteers saw an old man on crutches slowly limping up that same beach. By his side, off leash and matching him step
for step and occasionally providing support was a gorgeous male golden. When my volunteer stopped to pet the gentle dog, she learned that this was our
Jupiter, and that her owner had recently sprained an ankle. The owner had gone on to trial in obedience with Jupiter, a dog who had been surrendered because
he was considered unmanageable.
*** Deborah Armstrong works as the alternate media specialist for De Anza college in Cupertino, CA. She’s handled guide dogs for nearly four decades and
fostered dogs with a lot less training for almost as many years. She edits the newsletter for NorCal golden retriever rescue.
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