I spent an interesting afternoon in the veterinarian’s office this week. As I sat there in the waiting room, I could hear one of the clients in the hallway shouting commands at his dog, accompanied by the sound of toenails scraping the floor and lots of panting. I didn’t need to see what was happening to know what was going on. The man was trying to get his dog on the scales and he was hollering, “Get up on there, now. What’s the matter with you, Buck? Hold still!”
I imagined that Buck was probably a large Labrador or a Shepherd mix of some sort. I got the feeling that he was an outside dog, never having learned the manners that would allow him to occupy the house, close to his family. I wondered about what kind of life Buck had. My thoughts were interrupted with more admonitions from Buck’s owner. “Stop that! You know better than that! Now, behave!”
When they called me in, I took my dog Karli into the hallway and was led to the scales. Like most Border Collies, Karli would prefer to do everything at “light speed,” but she controlled herself and minded her manners. Karli lost her hearing about a year ago, but even without commands, she saw the scale, jumped on it, and held perfectly still while the Vet Tech recorded her weight. In the exam room, she waited quietly. I told her she was being good, but she couldn’t hear me.
Through the door, I could hear more toenails and panting, and the man yelling at Buck. “Settle down! You know better than that! I’ll smack you if you don’t cut that out!” He sounded like he was trying to reason with a cantankerous child. Buck was oblivious to his every word.
The doctor came in to look at Karli and she got onto the table when I pointed to it. She held still for the exam and when the doctor left, she went back to sitting quietly, looking at me. I thought to myself, this dog can’t hear a word I say, and yet she does everything I ask with just gestures. Loud commands or threats would fall on deaf ears. And then there’s poor Buck in the hallway, who, last I heard from his shouting owner, was going to get “zapped” (whatever that means), if he didn’t stop his foolishness, because he “knew better.”
I looked at Karli and was so happy that I had trained her to behave properly. She made me very proud. I realized that she was such a joy to own because of the bond we had together, and because I had trained her to pay attention to me and obey “unspoken rules” of good behavior. I was thankful that I had taken the time to teach her to control herself, so that I didn’t have to. I felt sorry for poor out-of-control Buck, dragging his embarrassed owner to the car.
The truth is Buck didn’t “know better.” Dogs are never deliberately bad. People who think this are making excuses for their dog’s lack of training. I hoped that Buck’s owner would not lose patience with his dog. Most dogs end up in the shelters because of behavior problems. Buck just needed to learn some basic control. His owner’s refusal to accept responsibility for his dog’s lack of obedience makes me think that Buck might end up as another “statistic,” with a one-way trip to the pound.
If you were in the vet’s office last week and you think I am describing your visit, it probably wasn’t you. The vet sees owners and dogs like this every day of the week. The perfectly behaved ones are the exceptions. But they don’t have to be. It is so amazingly simple to teach your dog a few basic manners. Here’s something easy to start with.
Everyone has to feed his or her dog each day, and so everyone has an opportunity to teach the very important lesson: sit for your supper. Items required are one food dish with the dog’s daily portion in it, one hungry dog and patience.
With the food bowl in your hand, ask your dog to sit. If your dog does not know how to sit, then don’t ask ¬you might as well be talking to a deaf dog. For those of you who just ignored the last sentence (or, like Buck’s owner, you think your dog knows the word “sit”), don’t say it more than once (if you have to say it more than once, your dog does not know how to sit on request). Just hold the bowl above your dog’s head (if he’s already off the floor, this won’t work – wait until he calms down – he’ll sit eventually). When the dog sits, start to lower the food to the ground. When the dog goes for the food, you lift it back up again. In other words, if the butt is down, the food keeps lowering to the floor. If the butt goes up, the food comes up. The dog will get the message that he controls the outcome by not trying to get the food. When he is able to sit long enough for you to lower the bowl, set it down, and stand up straight, then you can say, “Okay,” and let him have the food. Try this for a few weeks and see if it doesn’t make your dog more attentive to you (you’re not his valet – you’re his leader). This small accomplishment can be the first step in helping your dog be the companion you are proud to own!