Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about handling a rambunctious dog. Part two will discuss using treats to reinforce meet-and-greet rules while on a walk.
People tend to think that a dog trainer’s dog is perfect. Dog owners who see trainers walking their dogs around town might think, “I wish my dog would be well-behaved like that one.” The reality is that many of us have dogs that are challenging, but trainers have the skills and take the time to train them. Over-the-top dogs require a lot of supervision, management and constant and consistent training. My 6-year-old English bull terrier, Stuart, is such a dog.
My clients and students have heard me say many times that I have learned more training and management skills from Stuart than from most other dogs I have had in my lifetime. Sometimes, a challenging dog is a blessing and presents an opportunity for personal growth.
Stuart is a magnet for attention. People are drawn to his unusual looks and his charisma. Everyone wants to pet him. Early on, when people approached me on the street, it was a struggle to keep him from leaping into their faces or trying to rip their clothes with his teeth in order to say “hi.”
Stuart’s idea of spreading joy was too much to handle. Every day, I witnessed the over-the-top arousal of a 60-pound, adolescent dog. I had to learn not to take his wild, lunging and barking behavior personally. When he started to ramp up, I taught him what to do rather than disciplining him and trying to shut down the joy in his attitude.
The first thing I taught him was to look at me. Then, I taught him to sit. Finally, I taught him to touch his nose to my hand (a targeting skill). I first practiced these basic skills at home. When I was certain he understood what I wanted, we began to work outside. Rather than going out for a leisurely stroll with him, I had to be constantly aware of his arousal level and pay attention to the proximity of every person and dog that we would pass.
As part of our community-awareness program, I put a red bandana on Stuart every time we go to town. This signals to passers-by that he needs space. I still spend a lot of time explaining to people who rush into his space what the bandana means.
I don’t take Stuart to dog parks and turn him loose — his play style is rambunctious, and he tends slam other dogs — because I don’t think every dog needs to run loose at a park to be happy. Stuart has a repertoire of interactive tricks that he performs including “fire drill: stop, drop and roll,” spiking a volleyball back to me and covering himself with a blanket. He also fetches all of the shoes and newspapers in the house. He often reminds me to stop what I’m doing and play with him. He’s a very busy and very smart dog.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training with more than 25 years of experience.