Once hunters and protectors, today's dogs have been promoted to family members. here's how to choose, train and love a dog
Stacey C. Rivera
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00
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"The first thing in training a dog is to educate and train the owner to have the ability to communicate with a dog and then, at the same time, create leadership. Dogs like to follow a leader," Dibra explains. Dogs are descendants of wolves; the tenants of pack behavior are scripted into their DNA. Dogs look for an alpha, or leader; they like the comfort of a "den"; they chew and sniff in a constant search for calcium; and they may perceive certain benign human actions and sounds as threatening and instinctively respond. If you understand and anticipate your dog's behavior and body language, you can stop aggressive or destructive behavior before it starts.
Understanding a dog's body language is key. Dogs communicate through their ears and tail as much as through vocalization. If a dog approaches with his body stiff and his tail and ears up, he is exhibiting a signal of dominance and you should approach with caution. If you approach a dog whose ears and tails are down, he is afraid, and you should approach him in a way that makes him feel safe, or he might snap at you.
"All of these signals are important ways that dogs talk to each other. We always want a dog to listen to us," says Dibra. "Why can't we listen to what they say to us? When training a dog, you have to think like a dog."
The biggest mistake people make when training their dog is to give it mixed messages. Owners have to set limits, but they are often afraid to because they don't want to be cruel. Some of the training techniques that humans perceive as cruel, such as crating, are actually comforts to a dog. "The crate is like a den, so it is part of the innate genetic makeup of the dog," Dibra explains. "That should be used as a tool to help housebreaking and to also overcome destructive behavior when they go through the teething stages.
"A lot of people don't understand the collar principle. The best equipment is a chain collar that you can put through a loop, like a slip collar. If you do the collar the right way, in the shape of the letter P, when you pull or release the chain it doesn't hurt. It also has a click sound which lets you know if something is out of synch." When executing this technique the wrong way, it is possible to give the dog trachea stress. Some smaller dogs are predisposed to this problem, so a nylon buckle or soft leather collar can be used. Dibra suggests using a harness only when it is medically necessary. "The harness is cute, but you can never train the dog because he has control."
Problems like separation anxiety, mouthing (play biting) and pulling can be controlled by establishing yourself as alpha and remaining consistent. "Mouthing is a natural way for dogs to show affection; it is like kissing. But it can get out of hand and people need to draw the line," Dibra says. Owners inadvertently teach their dogs bad behavior by being inconsistent. If it is sometimes acceptable for your dog to jump up to you to receive a treat but sometimes not, a dog will not be able to discern the appropriate time and adopt jumping on you and others as an acceptable behavior. Most people pet a dog while telling it no, Dibra says, which is a mixed message because the dog feels the positive reinforcement of the touch while you are attempting to enforce discipline.
Certain actions that people make will trigger a dog's protective instinct, leading to aggressive behavior. Different dogs respond to sounds differently and they will genetically interpret certain vocal tones as growls. In dog speak, dogs challenge each other by such vocalization. Another mistake people make is when first encountering a new dog, they bend down to eye level with the dog (which some dogs, such as Akitas, interpret as a challenge) and then quickly stand upright, which other dogs may take as an invitation to jump up as well. In these cases, the dog will take its cue from its alpha and react according to your positive or negative response. "The more you train a dog, the more they trust you and stop bad behavior," Dibra says.
"When a dog is really trained right and you understand dog speak, you will have these moments when you and your dog are totally in synch and it is almost as if you are talking to the dog through telepathy, because the dog is picking up on your body language and vice versa," Dibra adds. Alexander Pope mused in the eighteenth century that "histories are more full of examples of the fidelity of dogs than of friends." In the twenty-first century, a wise and unknown poet paraphrased Pope into bumper sticker-ese: "The more people I meet, the more I like my dog."
The emotional benefits of owning a dog are obvious when you talk to a dog owner. Moreover, a multitude of studies show that animal companionship benefits the infirm and the elderly and reduces stress. Dogs are even becoming a regular sight in the workplace. "There is lots of evidence of animals reducing stress and generally creating a happier, psychologically healthier environment," says Andrea Reisman of the Petopia office in San Francisco, where employee dogs roam free. "For us [having dogs in the office] actually creates an environment that is turbo-charged in terms of pace, because the animals really create a backdrop of calm and warmth."
Dogs can also foster a sense of community among owners. In dog parks, in chat rooms and at competitive shows, dog owners never tire of discussing their beloved companions with one another. "If you walk past any dog park, you'll see the dogs playing and the people talking to each other," Reisman says. "If you listen to the conversations, people don't know each other's names, they know the dogs' names. They refer to each other as Rex's owner or Buffy's father. Dog owners really want to talk to each other." According to the AKC's Roberts, it is no different on the show circuit where "a real close-knit family" develops between people whose only association is that they compete at the same shows.
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