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Doggie Boot Camp: Reform School For Dogs

Awakening the kindly drill sergeant in you to address behaviour problems

By: Steve Duno

Last Updated:

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Illustration Tomasin Cuthbert

They dealt with Freddy’s barking problem by closing the drapes, and his housetraining predicament by using pee pads and installing a doggie door. Freddy’s furniture chewing was stopped by removing the chairs, sofa, and coffee table from the living room. His nipping during pedicures got passed off to the groomer. Then came his digging and running away, followed by growling whenever dishes or toys were touched. Freddy’s bad behaviours began to leak out of every crack, and his owners had finally run out of quick fixes.

Of the thousands of dogs I have worked with, only a handful were what I’d call “perfect,” or without behavioural flaw. The rest, though lovable, have had niggling shortcomings that, if anything, defined who they were and made them all the more fascinating. Usually their shortcomings were curable or manageable, and taken in stride by the owners. But when a dog’s issues begin to mount and overwhelm its owner’s ability to cope, a comprehensive new strategy is often needed to save the owner’s sanity and, sometimes, the dog’s life.

Think of it as a “doggie boot camp,” whereby the dog’s issues, rather than being addressed piecemeal, are instead dealt with farther up the behavioural stream. More often than not, bad behaviours are symptomatic of a larger issue; one related to the dog’s self-perception, its environment and history, and the way it is treated by its owners.


Ruining a Good Thing

The sweetest dog in the world can turn into a nightmare through neglect, abuse, spoiling, fear, coddling, humanizing, or other detrimental inputs. Fail to teach your dog properly, or neglect its needs, and watch a multitude of misbehaviours pop up. Trying to cure these “a la carte” instead of addressing the root causes is, well, much like bailing out a boat with a drill.


Starting Over

Once a dog has learned to be a problem, the best way to diminish the symptoms and get your dog back onto an even keel is to back up the clock, so to speak, or “reboot” the dog. It’s not training; it’s retraining. The good news is that most dogs, because of their adaptable nature, can and do respond to “boot camp” well, and even become enamoured of the new template.


Owners of dogs with multiple issues often think they do not have the skills or time to modify them. In some cases, particularly with profound aggression or serious phobic disorders, they might be right, and should seek out the help of a trained behaviourist. But with regard to a dog who is simply “leaking from the cracks,” so to speak—with misbehaviour due to incorrect owner cues, or from a lack of structure or training—most owners can modify this type of assertive dog on their own. Yes, you can be your dog’s very own benevolent drill sergeant, and run a successful doggie boot camp.


Owners, Too

As many of your dog’s issues are owner-generated, the boot camp mentality must apply to you as well. Without a change in your own behaviour, expectations, and attitude, your dog will end up with a dishonourable discharge. Before attempting a “reboot” of your misbehaving pooch, be sure to do your own reboot, by embracing these basic owner preconditions:


• Commit to changing your dog’s behaviour, and realize that it will take longer than it does on television.

• Know that your dog is a dog, not a surrogate child. Instead of trying to turn her into a proxy person, turn yourself into a proxy dog.

• Consider the difference between reacting to your dog’s behaviour, and initiating your dog’s behaviour.

• Commit to rules and a steadfast routine, no matter what.

• Accept that your dog can and must understand consequences. No trust fund babies here.

• Don’t fear resistance from your dog. All dogs naturally resist changes in routine, however beneficial, so be steadfast.

• Understand the difference between distraction, which only delays bad behaviour, and true rehabilitation, which replaces bad behaviour. Though a mannerly dog may want to do one thing, it chooses to do another because that is what you want her to do. This is the essence of authentic training.

• Commit to providing your dog with regular training each day, as well as ample socialization, exercise, and environmental enrichment. No dog gets better by staying home alone for ten hours a day.

Once you have embraced the above owner reforms, it’s time to commit to a solid ten weeks of loving, regimented change. Anything less won’t stick in your dog’s head.


Back to Basics

Attention and privilege must no longer be free for the taking. This can be difficult for some owners to accept, as giving gratis attention to a dog can often be therapeutic. But for a pushy, misbehaving pooch, there can be no more free lunch. This new quid pro quo attitude teaches that whatever she desires must come from you, and be earned by her. As you would with a puppy or untrained dog, apply these fundamental rules to your pet:


• Mete out access to spaces, toys, and attention, as these define privilege and rank. You decide what (or who) she gets to play with and where she goes. If she is behaving, reward. If not, hold off.

• If your dog isn’t being supervised by you or another person, she should be restricted to a crate, dog run, or some other area where she can’t get into trouble. When her behaviour improves, she can earn back her independence.

• To reboot your position as CEO, work on leadership. Teach “wait” at doors and on rugs. Feed her after you, discourage begging, demand a courteous walk, work the “off” command, and practice basic obedience drills several times each day. Make training sessions fast and upbeat, and quit as soon as you make progress. Also, practice an attitude of calm indifference—instead of yelling, praise quietly, without excess “backslapping.” And, like yelling, frenetic baby talk is also never helpful!

• Exercise her, but avoid tug-o-war or chase games, which teach her to vie with you. While walking her, consider it your walk, not hers. You decide when to stop or start.

• You should manage social interactions, not her.

• If her housetraining is faulty, crate train her. Pee pads only teach that it’s okay to pee inside, so forget them.

• Use a short leash in the home to reinforce behaviours. Also, work a long-lead recall every day to teach “Come here,” the hardest command to master. Teach her to perform down/stays in the home and tether her indoors if need be for short periods, with you there, to teach self-control and focus. Down/stays and supervised tethering teach her that she doesn’t always need to control everyone else’s business.

• Be keenly observant of your dog to cut off impending bad behaviours at the pass.

• Develop a positive “cult of personality” with your dog. If she thinks you are an influential rock star, she’ll want to please you. Be confident—even haughty. Stoking her desire to please is the key to good behaviour.

• Distrust the power of treats. Though good for initiating behaviours, they can soon outstrip you as the prime motivating force, and create a pushy cookie monster. Praise, and the cult of personality should become the bulwarks of your authority. Lastly, forget “ignoring” as a solution to problems. The idea that a dog will stop doing something if she doesn’t receive attention for it is just not true. For example, with regard to jumping on people, turning away from a jumping dog is interpreted by the dog as a submissive response, exactly what a assertive dog wants to happen. The next person who walks into the home will get jumped on. Ignoring bad behaviours does nothing to address the root cause of the digression, namely that the dog is expressing a pushy, undisciplined attitude. Deal with that and you’ll solve bad behaviours.


The Magic of Routine

Once you begin to make headway, you must maintain the routine. Dogs respect and crave it, so don’t disappoint. Schedule feedings, walks, training, play time—make her anticipate what’s coming. That anticipation will act as a positive motivator and a tool for focus. Dogs who never look forward to anything, or who initiate all actions, become taciturn over time; they brood, and in doing so court bad behaviour. By being predictable and reliable, you will help your rebooted dog anticipate each day.

After sticking to the boot camp mentality for ten weeks, back off a bit; give her more autonomy and see what happens. But never surrender your new-found rock star status; keep expecting her to earn your attention and love. Keep training, managing, and leading. If you do, your dog should graduate boot camp with flying colours and become all that she’s always wanted to be.

Last Updated:

By: Steve Duno
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