Kathy Santo, author of Dog Sense, has trained dogs for both home and competition. She sees more than 100 dogs each week at her obedience school.
In this column I want to address (and maybe put to rest forever!) the dog-training myths that I'm asked about on a daily basis.
PUPPIES CAN'T BE TRAINED UNTIL THEY'RE 6 MONTHS OLD
Fact: Wrong! At 6 months, dogs are at the height of their adolescence (think teenagers). This guarantees a bit more resistance even in the sweetest-tempered dogs. They can't help it-it's a stage. That's not to say that you can't train adolescent dogs-of course you can. But young puppies 8 weeks and older are walking stomachs (will train for food), who love to follow you (heeling), run after you (come when called), and think you're the best thing ever. If you're lucky enough to have a puppy at this stage, get training immediately!
Not sure where to start? The first thing that I teach is the "name game." Have a friend hold your puppy while seated on the floor in either an enclosed outdoor or confined indoor area. The puppy should be wearing a puppy collar and a light 4-to-6 foot leash so that if he chooses to dash away you can still catch him. Next, show your puppy that you have a very yummy, extra-special, something that he never gets except in training treat. Let him have a little nibble. Then walk a few feet away and sit on the ground, facing the puppy. In an excited voice, start calling the puppy's name, inciting the puppy to struggle out of the holder's arms and into yours! When your puppy gets to you, feed him his treat, holding it against and in the center of your body-this teaches him to come close to you, which is very convenient when you need to attach a leash to his collar! When your puppy masters the game, move ahead to longer distances and new locations and soon you'll have a puppy who will leap tall buildings in a single bound to come to you when he hears his name.
THE BEST TRAINING COLLAR IS A CHOKE COLLAR
Fact: The best training collar is the one that works for your dog! There are so many different types on the market-buckle collars, martingale collars, head halters, body halters that don't allow your dog to pull, just to name a few. If your dog is a heavy-duty puller, a choke collar may not work-have you noticed how many dogs are dragging their owners around even while wearing a choke chain? The dogs wheeze, gag, choke-and still pull. The bottom line is dogs should start training on a nylon or leather buckle collar, but if more leverage is needed, seek the advice of a professional dog trainer.
MY DOG IS NOT SMART. WE OFFERED HIM STEAK AND TOLD HM TO SIT, BUT HE WOULDN'T
Fact (and deep sigh): OK, so steak is great. Dogs love steak. Unless of course they don't. Maybe your dog loves cheese. Maybe he loves toys or roughhousing and not food. The problem here is either that he doesn't understand the command or he doesn't care for steak. I think the problem is that you don't understand who your dog is, which makes it very hard to get a training relationship going Look, if you hated pasta, and your boss said that if you hit a certain number of new clients this month, he would give you a $3,000 gourmet basket filled with the finest pasta and sauces from all over the world, would that be a great motivator to you? In order for your boss to motivate you, he has to know you. In order for you to motivate your dog, you have to know him. It's that simple.
To make it even easier, how about this: Dogs can be motivated for training by food, toys, or play (either with toys or without). If your dog isn't motivated by any of the above, try upgrading the food to something really yummy that he never gets unless you're having "special time" together (a.k.a. training time). Or maybe have a toy that you reserve for the same purpose. Know thy dog's preferences and the keys to the obedience kingdom will be thine.
YOU CAN'T TEACH AN OLD DOG
This is not true! Every year, dogs of all ages are brought to animal shelters all across the United States. When they're adopted by new families, they have to learn new house manners, new eating schedules, and in some cases, new names. I've personally retrained many shelter dogs and older dogs, and I can tell you that there is no reason you can't teach a healthy "old dog" new tricks.
Does your older dog run when he hears come? And does he run away from you? If so, read on, I have a gigantic pearl of dog trainer wisdom to bestow upon you: It's much easier to teach that dog to come if you start from scratch and use a new command. If he could talk, he would say come meant run the other way, or that it's an "optional" command, and both of those are tough misconceptions to change your dog's mind about. Better to teach a new command, such as here or front or whatever you want, but teach it well-be consistent and don't skip steps like you did last time, when you taught the come command because we saw how well that worked! If you teach it correctly, he will come!
DOG TRAINING IS SO HARD!
Wrong! Although it would certainly ensure my guru status to have everyone need me to come to their house in order for their dogs to be trained, I'm here to tell you that you can do this! Really. If you know who your dog is, you'll know how to motivate him, how long to make the sessions, and how to advance through basic training into off-leash, no-treats-necessary (except for your praise and hugs and kisses!) obedience commands. It's not magic and it doesn't require a Mensa membership. You need commitment, consistency, and a good training program, and the rest will follow. Still not convinced that your dog can be trained? Every day, thousands of dogs are safely leading their blind owners through city traffic, alerting their sleeping hearing-impaired owners that the smoke alarm is going of, and searching for human life at the bottom of piles of rubble. If those dogs can do that, then your dog can learn to come when he's called. Case closed