Maximize Fido's Training

By Korin Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006; M03

It's the moment every new dog owner dreads. Fido has shed his adorable first weeks of puppyhood and is moments away from being declared a doggie disaster. Your household is in crisis. The couch? Shredded. Shoes? In bits. Carpet? Umm . . . not smelling so hot these days. It's time to consult the experts on how to raise a safe, lovable and fiasco-free pooch -- before you lose your mind.

GET OVER THE GUILT

The decision to bring in a professional to help get a dog under control can be a bitter pill for some owners to swallow. Montessori teacher and D.C. resident Celina Phillips, 27, was overwhelmed when Bronx, her Rottweiler mix, wasn't so cooperative on a leash.

"I felt a little like, 'Why can't I just manage it?' I'm an animal science major," she says. Phillips taught Bronx to sit and lie down, but his size was too much for her on walks and he didn't get along very well with Chloe, her 8-year-old Labrador mix. Phillips eventually brought in a trainer, Rachel Jones, of K-9 Divine, a Washington dog obedience school. "I needed to just humble myself," Phillips recalls. Once Bronx was socialized with Chloe, he moved on to a group class for basic obedience lessons and is now thriving.

Many dog owners feel as if they've failed in some way if they can't manage their dogs on their own, says Gerilyn J. Bielakiewicz, author of "The Only Dog Training Book You'll Ever Need" (Adams, $7.95) and owner of Boston-based dog training facility Canine University.

"I think every person needs professional guidance," she says. "Even professional trainers take their dogs to classes." Instruction -- whether from a book, one-on-one trainer or group class -- is a great way to counsel not only the dog, but the owner as well.

"It's like hiring a plumber," says Association of Pet Dog Trainers board member Melissa Bussey. "Training is a mechanical skill. You shouldn't feel guilty that you don't know how to fix pipes."

FORM A BATTLE PLAN

Dog experts, agree: It's never too late to train your dog. A 4-month-old puppy is less set in its ways than an old hound, but dogs are lifelong learners. Ask yourself what expectations you have for training and think about what kind of dog you have.

Lawyer David Latz, 34, of Arlington, realized about a month after rescuing his German shepherd, Balto, from the pound that his new best friend was becoming dangerous. "No one had ever worked with him before," Latz says.

When Balto bit a biker on the foot, Latz was at the end of his rope: "It got to the point where I was worried if I couldn't get him under control that he would have to be euthanized." Now, more than a year later, Balto is an obedient and "fabulous" dog thanks to small group classes with Woodbine trainer Wesley Jenson.

Most experts recommend solo training for aggressive dogs, but if your pup is just stubborn, a group class might be the way to go. Bussey notes that instructional books or DVDs are a good option for dog owners on a tight budget. She recommends "The Culture Clash" by Jean Donaldson (James & Kenneth Publishers, $17.95), "Don't Shoot the Dog!" by Karen Pryor (Bantam, $15) and the "Click & Treat" video by Gary Wilkes ( http://www.clickandtreat.com/Products/products.html , $49.95).

CHOOSE A TRAINER

Once you've decided on a method, it's time to find a trainer. Contact an instructor and request to observe a class or solo session. "If they're not going to let you observe, I'd be wary and ask why," Bussey says.

It's important to feel supported by the trainer, not criticized, Bielakiewicz adds. "I've been to many places as a client and felt like they were going to yell at me or that my dog was going to make me look like a fool. That's awful. You can't control everything that a living thing does."

Phillips shopped around before deciding on her trainer and was surprised at the fees she was quoted. "There are some people who are animal behaviorists that are $300 an hour," she says. Turns out, she was able to find someone less expensive.

To find a trainer in the area, talk to other dog owners or visit the Association of Pet Dog Trainers Web site ( http://www.apdt.com/ ). If your dog has behavioral problems, the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants' Web site ( http://www.iaabc.org/ ) also has a search feature.

FOLLOW UP

"Most of the better schools or trainers will give you a homework sheet," Bielakiewicz says. The work doesn't stop when training sessions are over, and it's important for all family members to know what the dog has learned so that he doesn't become a selective listener.

Latz is still taking Balto to classes every weekend and works with him frequently, but says his dog has advanced to off-leash obedience. "I think he's spectacular now," he says. "I'd do anything in the world for my dog."

Phillips says she sees a huge difference in Bronx post-training: "Now he's kind of my well-behaved, really big puppy, when before he was just the dog I got from the pound." A good obedience experience has the potential to do wonders for your dog -- so what are you waiting for? Trust us, your couch will thank you.

Start With These Training Tips

Melissa Bussey of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers passed along a few tips to jump-start your pooch's training before you bring in an expert.

· Commands: These should be short, mean only one thing and not be easily confused with other cues. Don't use "down" to mean "lie down." And say "off" instead of "get your paws off that."

· Rewards: Praise is great, but nothing beats food to a dog. Use a pea-sized portion of a soft and smelly treat, plus a short verbal praise ("yes" or "good") to mark the moment when your dog does something correct.

· The Name Game: Fido needs to learn how to pay attention to you (and learn his name, if he's a puppy). Start by saying your dog's name and rewarding him when he looks at you. Work in a distraction-free area at first, and gradually increase the level of difficulty by practicing while on walks or at the dog park.

· Sit: For this basic obedience skill, Bussey recommends either capturing (rewarding your pup when the behavior happens naturally) or luring (using a treat to lure a dog into the sitting position). The instant your dog's rear hits the floor, use the word "sit" to mark the behavior and give him verbal praise. K.M.

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