We may see golden retrievers and Labradors walking side by side with their owners, but I have come to accept and expect the size of the dog to be inversely correlated to its level of unmanageability on a leash. How many times have we all seen the chihuahua, Jack Russell, or miniature poodle gagging on the end of its choke-chain while practically pulling a full-grown adult? Simply put, the smaller the dog, the worse its manners.
Most small-dog owners seem to expect and accept this, as well, but as a fed-up small-dog owner, myself, I decided I could not live with the constant straining against the leash, barking fits, or the general spoiled-brat syndrome. Now, almost six months later, my partner and I are the slightly prouder owners of a reasonably sane and reliable poodle-bichon mix named Gigi.
Gigi is all of 20 pounds, but when I first met her I found that insanity might truly be contagious because I was starting to lose my mind next to such manic energy. This tyrant owned the house and our bed, biting me when I tried to move her. With a massive overhaul in expectations, however, we have seen a dramatic change in our dog’s behavior. Thank goodness.
These days, Gigi sits and waits for me to invite her to her food bowl, she recovers from vocal outbursts quickly, and she does not assault us when we walk in the front door. Well, not as much. She is no longer allowed on our bed and, best of all, she is learning to stay behind me when we go for our walks.
Walking Gigi has been a huge dilemma for me because I would get so tense with her 20 pounds trying to pull my 170 and doing a fairly good job. On the other hand, I knew that if she did not get out every day, the problem would only get worse. Hence, we have endured many leash battles and mutual irritation. That has improved beyond all hopes, though, and it can for you, too.
How? It all starts with the mindset.
First, ask yourself if you really want a well-behaved dog. It takes thorough consistency to re-train any dog, let alone the small breeds. For me, this undertaking has been like teaching a small child because I do not make exceptions to our new rules. If I did, all the work Gigi and I have done would disintegrate into wasted time.
Secondly, I had to realize that a dog’s mindset is all about hierarchy, respect, and immediate connections between its behavior and consequence. That means that I had to learn about what respect means in canine terms as well as seeing how a dog will not associate a delayed consequence with its original behavior. If the dog chases the cat and I do not correct her immediately, she will not understand what she did wrong. If Gigi pulls on the leash and I tolerate it sometimes and yank on her throat at other times, I send a mixed message that sets her up for failure.
I have to be consistent and committed to consistency. I cannot be lazy, and the dog is not allowed to ignore me. If I give a command that she does ignore the first time, I do not give up – I give a short, sharp command or go get her if she is not coming when I call.
Think of a dog’s brain like a train track, and when she is excited by the outburst of neighborhood dogs barking or the trash truck or innocent pedestrians, her attention is like a runaway train. The only way to correct the behavior is to derail it. This can include sharp noises to break through the heightened arousal state or physical correction. Either way, the dog cannot be reprimanded and then left to continue with bad manners. If we do not make sure she stops barking or comes when called or gets off the bed, we inoculate the dog against our voice and authority. We step down from our alpha positions.
In terms of respect, I have usurped the dog’s tyrannical rule by reclaiming the bed, banishing her to the living room during meal times so she cannot beg under the table, and not allowing her to walk in front of me. The bed is my territory and my partner and I both tell her to get down, and we find her on it less and less. The problem we run into is that my partner is not consistent and gives in at times, which means that I have more correcting to do when I get home.
As far as hierarchy, Gigi gets her food after the cat because that means she is lowest on the food chain in dog language. If I let the dog think she is dominant in any way, I could later end up with a bloody finger or a bitten cat. Think runaway train, yet again. Taming your dragon is all about prevention.
In addition, Gigi is not allowed to cross in front of me or pull ahead of me on a leash. That would never be tolerated in a dog pack, so I am the alpha dog in our pack. I could never get her to walk next to me without pulling, though, until I started stopping suddenly every time she tried to go ahead of me.
For almost two weeks, Gigi and I have been in intensive leash training, where we stop if she crosses an invisible line perpendicular with my toes and I tell her to back up and sit. At first, she would hit the end of the leash without my yanking on her collar, and we have had to stop many times.
Now, she automatically retreats behind me and sits if I do stop suddenly, and I try to consistently stop suddenly if she crosses that invisible line level with my feet. I want her to walk slightly behind my step with slack in the leash. If I feel any tension on the leash, I stop dead.
For our advanced coursework, I speed up and slow down, giving faint verbal cues if I need to. Any verbal cue I give needs to be consistent, brief, and harsh, such as a hiss or “ack!” Do not waste time asking politely or coddling – just get your point across. This is only fair to your dog because you give a clear message and firmly communicate your expectation of her the first time. The wonderful thing about a dog is that she usually wants to please you, and it is your job to tell her how.
The mindset change that helped me the most in the beginning was learning that a dog is going to be more high-strung, anxious, and bad-mannered when she is insecure. The dog will be more insecure if she thinks she is at the top of the food chain because that is like making a child responsible for a household. Gigi has calmed down past the point of recognition now that she knows where she stands in our family’s “pack”, and it helps her to know she is not responsible for our well-being. Just as we do not ask a child to take care of an adult, neither should we ask a dog to be in charge. Being clear in your leadership lets the dog relax just like firm boundaries make a child feel safer and more secure.
This change in leadership and consistency is beneficial for the whole family, letting your dog be the pet and you be the owner. You can tame the beast.