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Training a Shelter Dog
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Some folks prefer purebreds, others delight in mixed breeds, but dogs of all shapes, and sizes, breeds and mixes can be adopted from animal shelters. And, with a little help from their friends, including some positive training and maybe a bit of problem-solving, most shelter-adopted dogs can become wonderfully loyal, loving companions.
Shelter Dog — Assume Damage?
Does adopting a dog from a shelter automatically mean you'll be dealing with major behavioral issues? No, not necessarily. In fact, many dogs land in shelters for reasons quite unrelated to their behavior. Sue Sternberg, president of Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption, a privately run shelter in rural Accord, N.Y., reports that her shelter receives more dogs because of overpopulation and owners ignorance and financial problems than behavioral problems. Sternberg says of the dogs at her rural shelter, "Most of these dogs and pups have no behavioral or temperament issues whatsoever." She notes that wonderful dogs can be found at shelters, particularly shelters with temperament evaluation and training programs.
In urban areas, in contrast, owner-related causes for relinquishment — divorce, allergies, moving, lack of time — are common as well, but behavioral issues are also fairly common. This may be a result of denser populations and stricter laws, which make canine misbehavior a bit more noticeable.
Becky Schultz, coordinator of animal training at the Animal Humane Society in Minneapolis, Minn., the fourth largest shelter in the United States, sees many dogs in need of education and socialization. Schultz says, "We receive about 20,000 animals per year, so it's a busy place. Believe it or not, the main behavioral reason for surrender of dogs is [lack of] housetraining. We also see a number of problems relating to lack of basic training, like general unruliness, dogs not coming when called and destructiveness in under-stimulated dogs. Although these dogs surely need training, most have normal temperaments and are perfectly capable of learning better manners."
Attitudes Can Help or Hinder<
Sternberg points out that just because a dog is adopted, rescued or found doesn't automatically mean it's a problem dog. She says, "I think the most common problems with any adopted dogs come more from the perspective of new owners believing adopted dogs are somehow more damaged, abused or challenging than the dog purchased from a breeder as a pup."
Sternberg notes that some people delay the start of training for their shelter-adopted dogs, thinking that the dogs will first need time to heal emotional scars. This is a common mistake, and it doesn't help a bit. "It's really not good for your budding relationship to think of your adopted dog as damaged goods. Make sure you don't feel sorry for your new dog or dwell on its possible past," says Sternberg. The dog doesn't dwell on its past, only the present. We might wisely take a lesson from our dogs on this point.
Dogs from shelters are not inherently problematic — there are good dogs and troubled dogs in shelters, just as there are on the outside. It's not fair to a shelter-adopted dog to lower your expectations of its potential. Just love it and train it and be in the present with it. "A dog lives in the moment, and moves forward from every interaction," says Sternberg. Even if a dog has been abused, it matters not. Move forward with each dog and don't fuss over its past — the dog doesn't.
Shelter dogs have training needs similar to those of most other dogs: consistency, early and continual training, unambiguity and positivity. Sternberg says, "Typical training issues for shelter dogs are leash-pulling and jumping up. Even as a professional trainer, I would have to say those are the most common problems my own dogs have, too."
As should dogs from any source, it's important for the shelter-adopted dog to start learning the rules of its new home right away. Sternberg notes that a dog deserves to have clear limits and guidance and to have positive training from the beginning, which involves establishing rules and routines prior to the new dog's arrival. "Rules should be determined before a dog enters the household," she says, noting that dogs do best with consistent rules, confident owners and training that's positive and fun.
Sternberg also emphasizes that training should begin as soon as you adopt the dog. It's not all that important what you teach first; just get started. She advises, "Immediately start teaching your new dog anything — sit, come, its name. To help the dog learn what it's supposed to do, give it rewarding attention for behaviors you like, such as settling down, not jumping and chewing its own toys instead of your belongings."
The sooner you start teaching your dog, the faster the bond between you will strengthen. Schultz notes that positive training helps the relationship get off on the right foot. She also counsels owners to enroll dogs in a reward-based training class as soon as possible.
At Schultzs shelter they encourage new owners to enroll in training school within 30 days, offering them a discount for doing so. Having new owners in class allows Schultz and other shelter staff to help ease the dog's transition into its new home. She says, "Positive training teaches dogs appropriate ways to get what they want and helps build a strong bond with the new owner. We can check in with them at least weekly that way to make sure everything is going okay." The training classes allow Schultz to help owners resolve any problems with the new dog before things get out of hand.
All dogs, no matter what their age or background, need to know what pleases and what displeases the people in their homes. They learn this most readily when appropriate behavior choices are consistently rewarded, the theory behind positive training. The more good (rewarded) behaviors your dog learns, the less inclined it will be to engage in bad (unrewarded) behaviors. Make it your goal to catch your dog being good as often as possible. You'll soon find your dog offering more and more rewardable behavior.
Says Sternberg, "Rewards for desired behaviors should be generous, and intense and unrelenting." Anything your dog really likes can be used as rewards. This includes treats, of course, but food isn't the only good reward. Dogs also like games, toys, belly rubs and lots of other things. Figure out what your dog likes and start thinking of all those as potential rewards.
Two types of positive training — lure/reward and clicker methods — work well and can be used together.
With a lure/reward method, you guide your dog into position (sit, lie down, stay) by using a treat or toy as a lure. When the dog follows the lure into the proper position, it earns a treat or toy as a reward. For example, raising a treat slightly above your dog's nose encourages a sitting position; lowering the treat slowly to the floor encourages the dog to lie down.
With the clicker method, you'll make a sound to mark the instant the dog does what you want, then reward it with a treat or toy. Simple behaviors (like sit or lie down) can be quickly trained this way, but one great advantage of clicker training is that you can split complicated behaviors into smaller mini-steps, rewarding each step until your dog performs without hesitation. Once your dog learns the mini-steps, you can link them together in a sequence to produce the more complex goal behavior.
Lure and clicker methods work well together. Encourage the behavior by luring your dog, then clicking and rewarding it the instant the behavior occurs. The click informs your dog precisely which behavior earned the reward. Dogs quickly discover they can make you click by doing certain behaviors and will start offering those without being asked, hoping for a click and reward.
To prevent dependence on lures, however, phase them out as soon as possible. After your dog follows the lure several times, make the same hand motion, but without holding a treat. (Hold the treat out of sight in your other hand.) When you dog follows the motion of your empty hand, quickly drop the treat into that hand and reward the dog. This lets your dog know it can earn rewards whether or not it sees them.
Lure and clicker methods can be used together. The handler initially lures the dog to encourage desired behavior, then marks it by sounding the clicker at the precise moment the behavior occurs. This lets the dog know the instant it's done right, and it's then immediately given a reward.
Practice training each new skill in different settings with gradually increasing distractions. Your dog will learn it should do as it's been taught regardless of the situation.
Training works best when blended into the context of daily life. When your dog asks for something — food, play, whatever — ask it to do something first, then reward by granting its request.
Treat rewards should be tasty but small, so you can reward many times without overfeeding your dog. High-quality dry dog food makes good training treats because it's wholesome and the right size. Supercharge dry kibble by keeping some in a jar overnight with more highly flavored treats. The resulting trail mix will generate more interest than plain kibble.
Teach your dog to pay attention when you ask. Other training won't work if your dog hasn't mastered this command, so teach it first.
- Show a treat, then say an attention cue word that you will use consistently (the dog's name or a word like "look" or "watch") and raise the treat to the outer corner of your eye.
- Click and treat when your dog's eyes follow the motion of the treat to your eyes.
- Repeat this step about 10 times.
- Palm a treat so the dog can't see it.
- Say the attention word and point to the corner of your eye with your finger.
- Your dog's gaze should follow the motion; click and treat when it does.
- If your dog doesn't follow the motion, lure with treats several times, then try again.
- Repeat until the dog follows the motion of your finger quickly, then go to Step 3.
- Hide both hands behind your back.
- Say the attention word once and wait for the dog to glance up. (Don't repeat cue, just wait and watch.)
- Give your dog a moment to puzzle out this new element. Most will look for your hands and then, not seeing them, glance questioningly at your face. Click and treat.
- From then on, use only the verbal cue.
Sit: Raise a treat slightly above your dog's head. As it reaches up for it, it will sit. Click and treat. (If you raise the treat too quickly or too high, your dog may jump instead of sitting. Try luring lower and more slowly.) Use this trick whenever your dog wants something — first have it sit, then give it what it asked for.
- Start with the dog sitting. Slowly lower a treat, allowing your dog to nibble on it on the way down. If your dog lies down, click and treat.
- If it follows only partway or stands, try again, but lower the treat slowly and click and treat at the lowest point dog will go.
- Each time lure farther down before clicking and treating.
- When your dog lies down all the way, click and throw a party by giving several treats.
- Concealing a treat between your thumb and forefinger, straighten your other fingers so your hand is as open as possible. Lower the hand with the concealed treat.
- When your dog follows, click and treat.
- Eliminate the lure. Signal with an open palm and bring out the treat as a reward only after your dog lies down.
Come or Here: Pick a time when your dog is already coming toward you and say come or here. Playfully back away several steps. Click as your dog begins to approach and treat when it reaches you. Do this 10 times a day at random moments.
Stay: Have your dog either sit or lie down while you feed it 10 treats as fast as it will eat them. Then feed 10 more, but delay a second between treats. Gradually increase the delay. When your dog will wait five seconds between treats, introduce the following voice and hand cues for stay.
Hold your open palm toward the dog in a traffic stop gesture. Show your hand for only a second, then take it away. As you signal, also say "stay" in a calm voice.
Pause, then treat. Gradually wait longer between delivering the cue and the reward. When the delay between treats reaches 10 seconds, gradually add distance and distractions.
Loose-Leash Walking: Clip the leash to your dog's collar, say, "lets go," and start to walk. If your dog races ahead, stop as the leash goes taut. Stand still until your dog stops pulling, then proceed again. If pulling continues more than three seconds after you stop, slowly back up.
When the dog notices it's losing ground, it will turn and look at you, loosening the leash. Click, praise and start forward again. For most dogs, being allowed to walk forward is reward enough; some will even refuse treats in their eagerness to go ahead. Some dogs prefer a treat and walking forward. Be sure to reward your dog with something it actually wants.
Polite walking takes practice and repetition. Your dog will eventually realize that pulling activates your brakes, not your accelerator. Note: if your dog's strength outmatches yours or it pulls so hard it gasps, talk to a trainer about a head collar. This dog-sized version of a horse halter works by passive restraint and leverage, not pain or force, to gently turn the dogs head to the side when it pulls. Although the collar is painless and safe, some dogs take a while to accept wearing one.
Patience: Teach patience at feeding time. Put your dog's dinner in its bowl, then, instead of serving it, leave the bowl on the counter and go sit down. Ignore the dog for 10 minutes. After that, get up, call your dog and give it dinner.
This strategy is also useful for other highly charged events, like a walk or ride. Get everything ready, put on your walking shoes or grab your car keys, pick up your dogs leash, then sit down and read for 10 or 15 minutes. After that, tell your dog "Okay, lets go," and take it on the outing you promised. Your dog will learn that all things happen in their own time and will develop patience.
Politeness to guests: For good manners with visitors, teach your dog to sit or lie on a mat near the door when people arrive. Involve guests in the training process, having them ignore your dog when it's pushy and pet or give treats when it's polite.
Preventing food guarding: Some dogs are possessive of food and may growl or snap if they fear losing it. Your dog needs to understand that having people around while it's eating is a good thing. The following techniques teach that people are food-bringers, not food-takers.
- Feed your dog some of its dinner by hand each day. (Have all household members do this.)
- Feed only half of the dog's ration, then pick up the empty bowl, add the second helping and serve.
- Talk quietly and gently stroke your dog while it's eating, and then drop a few goodies into its bowl.
- Take away the bowl while your dog's eating, add delicious goodies and give it right back.
The vast majority of adopted shelter dogs have pretty much the same issues related to lack of training that any dog might have. The cure for lack of training? That's an easy one: Training! Schultz says, "Teaching to walk nicely on leash, sit politely for greeting, and what's legal to chew and what they should avoid is important to all dogs. Most shelter dogs just needed somebody to spend the time teaching them appropriate behavior." Now yours is lucky — it has you.
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