Keys to a well-behaved companion

There is an old cartoon I often refer to when thinking about teaching dogs what we expect of them in a human household. Two dogs are meeting for the first time. The first dog says, “Hi, my name is Fido, what’s yours?” The second dog says, “My name is No-No Bad Dog!”

I can imagine some dogs think that’s their name, as they always seem to be getting scolded for some naughty behavior. While dogs are part of the family, they don’t come preinstalled with an understanding of how to behave in a human household. Left to their own devices, they’re going to behave, well, like dogs. They’ll chew on just about anything, eat anything that resembles food, jump on people to say hi, and use the carpet for a bathroom.

We owe it to our dogs to guide them, so they don’t get in trouble and we don’t spend our time running after them shouting “no-no!” There are three keys to helping our dogs become great companions; Prevention, Enrichment and Training.

Prevention means setting up the environment, so dogs can’t make mistakes. Use baby gates or close doors to restrict access to temptations like shoes, kid’s toys and yummy things on kitchen counters. Keep the trash out of reach. Limit access to a small area of the house at first and confine when you can’t supervise. Be strict early on, and as your dog becomes reliable, you can give him more freedom without worry.

Enrichment provides outlets for our dog’s natural behaviors and is critical for their well-being. Physical exercise should be geared toward a dog’s age, size and health. A five-pound chihuahua or an older dog with health issues might be happy with a nice leash walk around the neighborhood, while an eighty-pound young lab will need daily aerobic exercise.

Interactive games like fetch and tug burn energy, build a bond between you and your dog and
can be used as rewards in your obedience training.

Dogs love to scavenge, so why not make them work for their meals? Food dispensing toys extend meal times and engage your dog’s puzzle solving skills. There are a wide variety on the market, or you can fashion your own. Pour kibble into an empty plastic water bottle. Sprinkle treats in muffin tins and cover with tennis balls. Hide kibble under a throw rug, or blanket and let your dog search for it.

Letting dogs explore with their incredible noses is one of the most enriching activities we can provide. Give your dog a “sniffari” while on walks by letting him check out shrubs, trees and lampposts along the way. Hide kibble around the house for your dog to find or sprinkle it around the lawn and let him sniff out the food.

Some dogs love to dissect “prey”, so stock up on cheap toys from the local thrift store and let your dog destroy them (remove any bits first that might be easily swallowed or harmful). Don’t worry, if you consistently direct your dog to the toys he’s allowed to chew (and practice good management), he won’t learn to destroy the sofa cushions.

All dogs love to chew, and chewing inappropriate items is one of the biggest complaints most pet parents have. There are a variety of chew choices on the market, from bully sticks to marrow bones to antlers. Check with your veterinarian to learn about the safest choices.

Training goes hand in hand with good management and when using positive reward-based methods, provides enrichment too. Studies show dogs trained with reward-based methods learn better and don’t suffer from the stress and anxiety produced by aversive methods. Find the things your dog loves and use those as rewards in training (including food)!

Training a new behavior takes time. Be patient, consistent and reward often. Practice good management to prevent unwanted behaviors while you’re training a new one. Include legal outlets for your dog’s natural behaviors so he won’t learn to think his name is “No-No Bad Dog.”