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Dr. Nicholas Dodman on Dog Behavior and New Training Techniques

Bark: I know that one of the big problems in training comes up in animal shelters, where some training is given to the dogs to make them more adoptable. Patience and non-aversive training are wonderful, but what can shelters workers do to make the animals adoptable, quickly?

Dodman: You could train fairly fast with clickers. In my office I use a clicker and food treats. I can have a dog at the beginning of a one-hour session without the faintest idea of what a clicker is, but at the end of the hour I do a click and he’ll immediately come and sit for a food treat. They can learn what the clicker means fairly quickly. But in terms of rehabilitation of a dog in a shelter, I don’t think that taking a dog that has gone through the kinds of unfortunate experiences that cause it to arrive in a shelter and then putting a choke chain and popping it a couple of times is going to sort it out. With a lot of the dogs I have seen in the behavior clinic, the relationship with the owner has broken down. Many of these dogs have been to training. They are top of the class. They are very smart. But they are willful or dysfunctional. They have problems that way, and these are the kinds of things that bring animals to shelters. You have dogs that are either relatively normal but untrained, or they are fearful, needing more confidence building. If you put a choke chain on a dog like that, you are going to drive it back in the middle of last week.

It all has to do with communication, too, it’s not about having your dog respond like a little soldier to commands. It is just clear communication. I tell people to just imagine if they were in downtown Shanghai: everyone speaks Chinese and they don’t have the faintest idea of what is going on. That’s a pretty stressful situation to be in. But if someone comes up with just a few basic words—like restaurant, bathroom, transportation—just a few words sprinkled in, that could really mean something and could help with de-stressing the situation. I see communication as being one of the three Rs of rehabilitation for a dog that has gone off the rails. The other two Rs are exercise and appropriate diet. I call that the Reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic of dog rehabilitation. If you are dog, you pronounce that with a rrruhrrr.

Bark: What do you think is the single most important preventative measure people can take to help avoid behavior problems in their pets?

Dodman: That’s a difficult question, because there are several factors, such as exercise, diet, communication, suitable restraints and fenced-in yards and perhaps providing a crate, even if you don’t ever shut the door. Put as the one single thing? Probably it would be to provide leadership. The dog is a territorial animal and when he moves into your territory, he’ll try to take it over; if you feed him, he might keep you on because you are feeding him. So it is very important to provide clear leadership in a non-confrontational way.

I think that dogs and children are a very similar. For example, there was a study done by a master’s degree graduate student at Tufts. She took dogs on the basis of puppy temperament testing who were likely to become a bit extroverted, a little dominant. And she said three simple things to their owners—she had two groups so she did it all scientifically—one group of owners were told, “Have a nice day,” and the other group was told, “Number one, make your puppy sit in order to get fed; number two, make your little puppy sit to get food treats; and, number three, provide the puppy with a crate. (You don’t have to put the dog in there twenty-three hours a day, you can even leave the door open. Make it a safe place for the dog to go to.)” With these three measures none of the dogs in the second group became dominant or gave the owners any trouble. Nearly all the dogs in the first group turned out to be dominant and got into the territorial mode of guarding their property and possessions within their territory.

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