DEAR DIDI: My standard poodle and I have taken several obedience classes and he excels at it. He is always the star pupil and it is a joy to watch him in class. However, it is NOT a joy to live with him! He has approximately 38 commands under his belt but he only seems to know them when we are in class. At home, he is rude. He jumps on kitchen counters, steals things, nudges our hands constantly and barks for no reason. My husband is at a loss and so is our trainer. We keep taking more and more classes trying to find the key. Are we crazy? Any words of wisdom for us? – Poodle Mom
DEAR POODLE MOM: Congratulations on all the hard work in obedience classes. This is to be commended! There are, however, two sides to the coin when raising four legged children. Obedience and Manners. They are not the same and I frequently encounter dogs that have one or the other, but not both. It will help to define “obedience” so that everyone is on the same page.
Obedience is basically a term that modern dog owners interpret as commanding and being mean. It is unfortunate that some people do approach their dogs with a master/slave mentality but the word “obedience” does not describe that attitude. Obedience describes the process of teaching our dogs to perform specific actions in response to a verbal sound. In other words, “sit” indicates to the dog that we want him to put his rear end on the ground. As you have discovered through your classes, there are stages to learning these verbal cues (formerly referred to as “commands”). Dogs frequently do well in group classes because you are focused, have treats and it is fun to perform. They even begin to associate the facility in which you train as a place to perform and have fun. As you pull into the parking lot your dog probably already knows what is coming and mentally prepares. Dogs tend to be very situation oriented so it can be very difficult to translate obedience lessons over to daily living at home.
The other side of the coin is Manners. I use this term to describe respect, focus and decorum. Human children may do well in school but might be rude and disrespectful at home. The same can be said for our dogs. It can be difficult for trainers to impart the knowledge necessary to make sure that you are sending the right messages at home so that your dog understands and develops respect. Since we can’t sit them down and discuss the issue the way we would with a human kid, we must model the correct behaviors and show them. This is where the art of dog training comes in. One must have a repertoire of tactics, philosophies and fully understand body language signals. Not just be able to read your dog’s body language but recognize what you are communicating with your own movements. Every dog is a unique individual. One method does not fit all. Behaviorists specialize in bridging the communication gap between humans and dogs. Teaching your poodle to have manners and respect in the household is a completely different thing than teaching him to sit, come, stay.
So the good news is, you are not crazy! And those lovely 38 commands will help when teaching Manners. If you live between Salida and Galt, email me and we will schedule a free consultation in your home. I will collect the behavioral and medical background I would need to formulate a plan for you. If you don’t live within my training zone try to find referrals to a behavior consultant or highly respected balanced dog trainer that does in-home training.
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Didi’s Dogs. To ask your dog behavior question, email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.