April 18, 2009

Carol Reiter: Everybody learns in dog class

For more than 15 years, I have taught obedience classes for our local kennel club.

It's been a lot of fun, and a lot of work. Thank goodness I have two helpers who are younger and much more agile than I am, or I would never be able to teach those classes.

In those 15 years, I have seen a lot of people, and a lot of dogs, come through the classes. Every type of dog, from highly pedigreed canines to adoptees from the local animal shelter, have come down to the park on weekday evenings to learn some good manners.

I have learned a lot from those classes held on the cool green grass of Applegate Park. I think that I have probably learned as much, if not more, than most of the people who brought their dogs to us to help them train.

Most people's problems can be broken down into three distinct areas. They really aren't training problems, they are more people problems. I think that if more people made sure that these three things were done, there wouldn't be so many badly-behaved dogs out there.

First, and what I consider probably the most important thing that you can do for your dog, is this: Give it exercise.

I know, that sounds so elementary, but you wouldn't believe the number of people who come to class with a dog that is bursting at the seams, just wanting to run and play and be a dog.

The majority of dogs that come through class are young, and many are big dogs, breeds that require a lot of exercise. When I see an out-of-control dog I ask the owner how much exercise the dog gets.

The standard answer? "He has a big backyard to play in."

Not good enough. Most dogs don't exercise themselves, they need you to help them out. Play ball, take them for a long walk, whatever it takes. My sister always says that a tired dog is a good dog, and that is so, so true. If more dogs got more exercise, I would probably be out of a training job.

The second thing, and also very important, is to socialize your dog. Too many times dogs come to class cowering and afraid, and it's obvious that they have never been away from home, except maybe to go to the veterinarian.

Socializing a dog means getting them around as many people as possible, and taking them as many places as possible. When you go to the pet store, take your dog with you. Make sure that your young dog gets to meet as many people as possible, especially children. Dogs that don't like children usually haven't been around them very much, and that can be solved by making sure that kids are part of the dog's puppyhood.

When Jan was a puppy, she went everywhere with us. My friend took her to work, Jan went to dog training classes with us, and we made many trips to feed stores and pet stores with the little freckle-faced dog. She spent a lot of time with my friend's young son, and learned that kids are pretty cool.

And now, Jan can go anywhere off leash and she has perfect manners. She isn't afraid of people, or children, and other dogs are just a big yawn to her.

The third thing that people need to do with their dogs is to use a crate. A lot of people think that crates are only for housebreaking, but they can be used for much more than that.

For my dogs, their crate is their own little space. I think that sometimes dogs just need some time to themselves, without interacting with the other dogs in the family, or even the family members themselves.

It was hard for me to sell Peg on the usefulness of a crate. The little dog thought that crates were torture devices, made to keep cute little border collies from racing around the house and jumping on sinks.

But once Peg realized that going in the crate meant that she got a treat, and she wasn't going to be trapped in there for hours, she decided that crates were pretty cool.

Now when Peg comes in the house, she heads right for her crate. She sits at the crate door, and waits for her treat. If I don't come to close the door to the crate right away, Peg just lays down and waits. That crate is a safe place for her, and it's all hers. No other dogs can get in her crate, and she loves it.

If every dog owner did these three things -- made sure their dog got a lot of exercise, socialized it, and used a crate -- my job would be a whole bunch easier.

And a lot of dogs would be a true member of the family, the way they are supposed to be, and they wouldn't end up at the shelter, looking for a new home.

Most bad dogs aren't inherently bad, it's not their fault. Instead, the fault lies at the other end of the leash. So don't blame your dog for its bad behavior, take a look at yourself first. You might be surprised.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or

Related content