Book Reviews: Dog Training

In honor of THIS DOG’s unleashed tour of the neighborhood yesterday, I thought I’d share about my recent tour of dog training books and resources. I’m proud to say that my response to yesterday’s adventure (sprint after escaped dog to recapture her by whatever means necessary, even if it means looking like a complete idiot in front of all my neighbors) was pure instinct. Just call me The Dog Chaser.

For training and behavior issues that come up in normal life, however, my instincts needed some extra guidance. As a rescue, THIS DOG has fears and responses I can only partly decode.  For example, she is scared of the baby gate we use to block the stairs, and terrified of hoses and lawn sprinklers.  She did not know how to walk on a leash (other than to pull like a sled dog) or go up stairs (everything is flat where she comes from).  And yet someone tried to train her, because if you raise your hand up to your ear, she’ll look at you, think about it for a minute, then sit.

The best news is that after two months, THIS DOG  has made TREMENDOUS progress. Dogs are really adaptable. It’s taken a lot of time, and many reminders that Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Here, in order of helpfulness, are some resources I’ve explored:

9780307381675Be The Pack Leader by Cesar Millan.

All things Cesar Millan, to tell the truth.  His perspective on leadership is genius, and gave me “a ha” moments that went far beyond dog training. (For example, “Human beings are the only animal that will follow an unstable leader.” What is wrong with us that this is true???) His stuff is the single most helpful resource I’ve found.

I know that some of his techniques are controversial, like flipping a dog on its back to show dominance. We didn’t need to do this (I’m not sure I could pull it off if we had needed to, given Bergie’s size) so I offer no opinion. But there is so much more to what he offers.  Two things were most helpful from his teaching that I think apply to lots of dogs, regardless of breed and/or temperament:

1. Not interacting with THIS DOG while she’s in an excited, hyper state.

I am amazed by how quickly Bergie calms down when I ignore her hyper wagging/whining/pushing, etc. I just stand up, look away, and fold my arms.  In 1-5 seconds, she calms down. It’s unbelievable. It’s set me free from that thing I used to do where I’d just say the same command over and over again (“Sit. Sit! SIT!” or “Stay. Stay! I said STAY!”) expecting my dog to finally get the memo and decide to obey. That was embarrassing, and pointless. Most dogs don’t magically become obedient when they’re in spaz mode.  It’s been a relief to just ignore all that wiggling and whining, and see how quickly it stops when it’s unsuccessful. Bergie knows that she has to be calm for anything good to happen – affection, putting her leash on, coming outside, food. It’s miraculous.

2. Taking THIS DOG on lots (and lots) of walks.

Before reading this book, I never thought about walking my dog as anything other than exercise and a chance for her to do her business.  Cesar calls the walk a bonding experience, a chance to “migrate” together and show your dog how you want her to behave when your “pack” travels. It sounds a bit ridiculous. But Bergie was at least 10lbs overweight when she came to us, so lots of walking was already part of the plan. Cesar’s suggestions helped infuse those walks with extra purpose.  It’s taken 2 months, but the difference is unbelievable.  At first, she pulled constantly, chased every cat and rabbit we saw, and went ballistic if another dog was anywhere on the same block. Slowly, she learned to walk beside me, and I learned to keep her there.  I had significant pain from strained arm muscles for at least a month, but that’s gone now.  She would still LOVE to catch a cat or a bunny, but the majority of the time will pass by if I see it in time to say, “Leave it!” in a low voice.  She’ll never be one of those calm dogs walking beside me off-leash (A running joke among Great Pyrenees owners:  Q: What do you call a Great Pyrenees off-leash? A: Gone.) But now she’s a great dog ON leash, which makes walking her so much fun, especially now that the weather is gorgeous. It’s not easy. We do at least 4 walks a day. But the upside is how much progress she’s made. It’s reminding me of how the work of dog ownership is very front-loaded: how you handle the first year goes a long way toward the dog you’ll have in the years that follow.

All to say: In my experience, Cesar Millan’s books are time well spent to make the most of your dog training research.

FC9781118509296Another book I liked is Secrets of a Dog Trainer: Positive Problem Solving for a Well-Behaved Dog.  I appreciated the author’s straightforward approach, her admission that some things are continual “works in progress” with different dogs, and that parts of training are a real challenge in terms of patience & perseverance.

A strength of this book is how it sets up different scenarios and then describes three possible outcomes for each, along with with various behavior challenges.  There were lots of helpful tips here. This book is a valuable addition to the TBR pile of anyone training a dog.


9781416593980In contrast to these two helpful resources, a third book I tried was simply ridiculous. In The Loved Dog: The Playful, Nonagressive Way To Teach Your Dog Good Behavior, the author describes herself as “a life coach for dogs” (I remember seeing her years ago on Oprah, when the show was very coach-centric). Her teaching is based on making your dog’s life nothing but fun, fun, fun, on the belief that if your dog associates obedience with having fun, it will be responsive and well-behaved. I’m all for my dog loving life, and it would be fabulous it if this sort of thing worked. Alas, this doesn’t work any better with dogs as it does with people.  I could practically see THIS DOG laughing at me as I tried to play these “games” to teach her what I wanted/didn’t want her to do. Mostly, these suggestions left her all exited and hyper.  In the author’s defense, these techniques might work a Golden Retriever, or a very mellow lab devoted to pleasing its person. But very few dogs need a life coach. (And that, my friends, could be the silliest sentence I’ve written in the long history of this blog…)