The Old Trainer: Critical to keep dog focused

July 21, 2012 

Dear Old Trainer: My 2½-year-old German shepherd, Ali, is calm and gentle with our family and pets. He learned "sit" easily, and goes into his kennel on command. He behaves on walks most of the time, but sometimes, we never know when, he barks and lunges at people and dogs we meet on the walk. He weighs 85 pounds and I weigh only 120, so it is hard to control him. Your advice is always so encouraging. Please help. -- Carolyn, Irvine

A: It is tricky to evaluate the cause of aggression without seeing Ali, but your statement that he is gentle with family and behaves most of the time indicates that the problem is concentration, not aggression.

Concentration is a problem with all young males. They are bursting with energy and their idea of fun is doing just what they feel like at the moment. Ali has never heard of Meatloaf, but he agrees with his lyrics, "I never felt so fine, I never felt so good."

He thinks he is trained, but instead of concentrating on what you want he follows any whim that pops into his mind. The solution is to continue to train him.

Training never ends. Adopt the attitude of John Belushi in "Animal House" when he says, "it's not over 'till we say it's over." Work on the basics every day.

Start by teaching the "hold" command. While walking Ali, say "hold" and pull the leash just hard enough to make him stop. If he stops for even an instant, praise and pet him, then tell him "go." Repeat the process every 20 feet for 10 repetitions. Walk a few hundred yards, then do another 10. Pet and praise him each time he stops and keep him in "hold" until you give the order to proceed.

Use the "sit" command as part of the training. Stop every 50 yards, make him sit and tell him, "Look at me." He must focus all his attention on you. If he glances sideways move his head back until he is looking at you, then pet him and proceed with your walk.

Use these two commands as part of every walk. Watch his ears and body language as you approach other people. If his attention is not 100 percent on you, give him the commands and force him to concentrate on you. Make sure he looks only at you. If he tries to look at anything else tap his neck and say "look at me."

Work on both commands in your yard as well. Dogs learn faster when there are no outside stimuli distracting them.

Be relentless. The secret is to interrupt his thought pattern the instant his attention starts to drift, and to do it so many times that listening for your orders becomes a habit.

Remember, the important part of the training is the love you show Ali after he obeys the command.

Jack Haskins writes as The Old Trainer. A trainer for more than 30 years, he has rescued, trained and placed more than 2,000 dogs.

Send questions to theoldtrainer 711@yahoo.com.

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