Dog training and behaviour is a fascinating and complex subject, constantly combining both science and ‘art’. A good trainer learns to use both knowledge and instinct, and should be proud of the fact. However, even when presented with the most ingrained and difficult behaviour problems, sometimes the simplest interventions can have the greatest impact.
The Baby Gate
Ah, the wonders of the baby gate! Does anyone apart from dog owners buy these? Baby gates are wonderful because they allow access, whilst offering a physical barrier to give safety or simply restriction. Baby gates may be slightly annoying for humans because they often require a masters degree in engineering and design to be able to work out how to unlatch them, but the advantages completely outweigh this. Using a physical barrier like a child gate means that you can still see, talk to and touch your dog, but you can keep him in one place until you decide otherwise. On the whole, dogs seem to respect the effect of the mental barrier that a baby gate imposes, just as much as the physical side. In many instances where I have recommended their use, we have known that the dog in question could easily scale the gate if he chose, but he never has. Interestingly, lots of dogs that become used to their presence also opt to keep behind the invisible barrier even once they are removed!
Baby gates don’t have to be for life – they really can be for Christmas! If you have the whole family arriving for a holiday period and know that supervising your dog is going to be an issue, just putting up a baby gate can mean the difference between a stressful season and a calm one.
Using a baby gate at a strategic point can prevent your dog from rushing out of the front door, even while you unload the supermarket shopping or greet visitors. It can separate your dog from children when you are not there to supervise (and can keep the kids out of the way of the dog too!). Baby gates are invaluable for controlled introductions between two dogs, older dogs and puppies and dogs and cats. They are also perfect for simply keeping your dog in one room or area in order to facilitate house training or to prevent over-attachment problems in re-homed dogs. Frankly, there are so many uses for a baby gate, every home should have one!
It’s so simple that we often overlook it. Although off-lead training is important, there are simply hundreds of occasions where keeping your dog on a lead is essential for preventing upset and simply controlling your dog. Think of putting a lead on and we automatically think of taking the dog out. However, using a lead in the house can be a practical way of preventing cat chasing, teaching your dog to settle down or to greet visitors politely. Ideally, the lead should be used as a bridge to psychological contact and control, not be relied on as a purely physical restraint. Your dog should learn to respond to the lightest touch on the lead and regard it as a prelude to a reward, not a punishment. One of my personal bug bears is that people yank on the lead, in the vain hope that re-arranging the dog’s neck will lead to better control. Of course, all that happens is that the dog resents being tugged and pulled in this way and tries to give his owner an even wider berth than before.
If your dog believes that the lead is a signal to act like a demented Tigger, the time is right to teach him otherwise. Producing the lead and then putting it away again repeatedly will start the process, then attaching it and taking it off over and over again without reaction will consolidate it. Using a light house line (a long piece of string tied to his collar) can work well too if getting it on and off is a problem.
All dogs should have a Kong addiction. A wonderful chew toy, the Kong toy is a joy for dogs and a sanity saver for humans. A hollow rubber pyramid, it bounces off in different directions and allows the dog to play by mouthing, chewing and chasing. As it is hollow, you can fill it with delicious foods, and as your dog chews on the toy, he is rewarded by small pieces falling out. The toy is made from natural rubber, making it safe even if he chews pieces off, and it is soft enough not to damage furnishings if your dog throws it around while you are out. The Kong comes in many different sizes and for different life stages – with a softer version for puppies.
There have got to be 101 things a dog can’t be doing if he’s chewing a Kong – digging in your garden, barking at the neighbour’s cat, chewing your new three piece suite. They’re marvellous for bored dogs, frustrated dogs and dogs that need distracting, even when you are at home. However, you do need to convince your dog that it’s more exciting to chew a lump of rather smelly rubber than the carpet and it’s important to get him addicted to the Kong while you are at home rather than expecting him to chew it only when you leave.
Out of fashion, I know, but touching and handling your dog has got to make a come-back! Of course, the difference this time around is that touching your dog should always be associated with pleasure, not confrontation dressed up as dog training. Hands should not push and pull to coerce a dog into the sit position or to pull his legs from under him to make him lie down – there are far more effective and intelligent ways to train – but should be there as soothing praise and to reassure. Dogs need to cope with being handled all over and the fact that sometimes we have to do unpleasant things to them, such as ear cleaning or giving eye drops. Making sure that your dog loves your touch at all other times is your insurance policy against aggression when these things occasionally occur.