5 Mistakes Every Dog Owner Makes (An Insider's Perspective)
In the entire world, only one species has thrown in with the human race: dogs. They fight in our wars, police our streets, and even live in our Whitest of Houses. But the average dog owner is weighed down by a lot of bullshit myths and terrible habits brought on by decades of people misunderstanding their pets.
My name is Mischa Oldman. I train dogs for a living, and you don't know as much about your best friend as you'd like to think ...
Punishing a Dog Just Confuses Him
It's fine that you're not an expert in dog training, but if you own a dog, you're going to wind up saddled with the task by default. And here's where I see most people screw it up: You punish the dog when he does something wrong.
I'll never understand why people say "bad dog" in the one situation where "son of a bitch" is completely appropriate.
See, the larger problem is that most dog owners are inconsistent with their training -- sometimes they use the threat of punishment to get the dog to do what they want, sometimes they reward him, and sometimes they ignore the behavior because they don't feel like dealing with it at the time. The problem is that it leads to a dog with no freaking idea what to expect from his owner. At any given minute, you could be Treat Guy, Nothing Guy, or Asshole Who Chokes Him With a Leash.
You want to be Treat Guy. Science backs me up on this -- reward training helps dogs learn, and punishment makes them more likely to misbehave.
And pizza training helps dogs render whole rooms unfit for human habitation.
It makes sense. Imagine you met an alien, one way smarter than you. Not some bumpy-headed Star Trek alien either -- a 30-foot slug with arms and 63 pairs of eyes. Since you're a reasonably smart creature yourself, you'd be able to recognize a few of its gestures and expressions. But any sort of fruitful communication would be an uphill battle. You'd need to devote every ounce of your attention, empathy, and resourcefulness to cobbling together some mutual understanding. Now, imagine trying to do that while someone chokes the shit out of you with metal spikes.
Fuck, imagine trying to do any complex mental task with that happening to your throat -- only the most disciplined/kinky of kids could possibly pass algebra under those conditions. Yet somehow people think choke chains are a useful tool for dogs. The reality is simple: Hurting your dog during training just causes him to associate "pain" with "you." Humans can put punishment in context ("I put mayonnaise in dad's shampoo and mom paddled my ass raw"), but dogs have associative memories. Screaming like a lunatic doesn't cause your dog to think "Holy shit, I'd better stop pooping on his bed." It makes him think "Holy shit, this person is crazy."
"She must be angry at the duvet for being so coarse on my butthole."
That's why dogs learn best with positive reinforcement -- if you're always the good guy, your dogs will want to do stuff for you. It's not just that rewards make the dogs better pets; it's that they make them learn better. But doing it this way also takes patience. You have to watch and reward good behaviors when they happen, rather than just react in rage when the dog does something you don't like. But hey, that's why you're the human in the relationship, right?
And while we're on the subject ...
Talking to Your Dog Just Confuses Him Even More
It's perfectly natural to talk to your dog. We all love spilling dark secrets to our dogs about hidden obsessions, racist thoughts, and our least socially acceptable fetishes. Capable of neither judgment nor calling the police, canines are a perfect bathroom wall for the truck stop graffiti of our minds. But keep that shit to yourself while you're training them. It only messes with their little doggy brains.
Despite being a German shepherd, he speaks only Austrian.
Dogs can come to understand some words, obviously -- they know their names, and they can learn what "sit" means. But we tend to wildly overestimate their vocabularies. And using a bunch of new words with your dog while teaching him commands is a surefire way to screw him up. To understand why, try doing long division while a Japanese man shouts at your ear.
And yes, you can actually train your dog without using a single word. Dogs use their noses for everything, right from the moment they're born. So for instance, if you want your dog to learn to sit, hold a treat in front of his nose. Now bring it up over his head and watch his butt drop on its own. Once your dog starts to figure this out, but before the grim specter of canine obesity sets in, you start cutting down on the treats. Sight is the second sense a young puppy starts to use. Before long, the motion of your hand will be enough to make him sit. You can do the whole thing without uttering a single word.
Except the inevitable "dawwwww..."
In fact, it's better if you do -- I actually ban the word "sit" from my classes until the dogs are at the point of mastering the above method. "Sit" is only three letters to us, but to a dog it's the freaking Bible in Sanskrit. If you start jabbering at your pup before he's mastered the trick, he'll associate that word with "confusion," not the act of planting his ass on the ground.
And once again, science agrees: Saying new words while you train dogs slows down their learning. It's just not the way they're used to doing it -- that's the key difference between a real dog and, say, a cartoon dog.
There are other key differences, but they mostly involve nipples and orifices.
Fancy Dog Food Is Purely for Your Benefit
So you obviously want the best for your dog, or else you wouldn't be reading this. And as such, every week or two you lurch through the pet aisle and, even though money is tight, you know that instead of the $4 bag of kibble, you have to buy that tiny $11 bag of medicinal kibble. It's loaded with glucosamine to fight off arthritis and multivitamins to ward away ... dog scurvy, or something. Plus, the ingredients list reads like your last Thanksgiving: dried cranberries, turkey, sweet potatoes -- how'd they turn all that into a hard little pebble, anyway?
The Large Hadron Collider?
Well, I've got some good news for you: That expensive dog food is almost always bullshit. You can walk away from the rich-people-dog aisle without guilt. Glucosamine has either very little benefit or absolutely none at all, depending on which study you read. The same is true with multivitamins, fish oil, lysine, and a whole host of other additives. The few that are beneficial usually show up in such small doses that they might as well be homeopathic. And the vitamins that do appear in high doses, like calcium, can actually give your dog goddamn rickets.
Oh, and you see how they have food for adult dogs and separate food for seniors? Well, I do orientations for new dog owners with puppies, and the point I try to drive home is that good food is just good food. A healthy meal for me now would have been a healthy meal for me as a teenager and will still be a healthy meal for me as an old man. Barring some sort of allergy, all that matters is making sure your dog eats good food. All that fancy food for your "aging" or "senior" mutt? According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials, there is no distinction made between the needs of a senior dog and an adult dog. It's up to the manufacturer to include whatever he wants in that "senior" mix, which probably means a ton of ground Sizzler coupons as "roughage."
These are actually made of ground bones*! (*from wharf rats)
And since all dogs are members of the same damn species, there's no reason to believe your "large breed" food is any more appropriate for your schnauzer than that special schnauzer mix.
As for all of the other healthy-sounding ingredients that would be right at home on your own plate, scientists haven't done enough research yet to establish any strong link between human nutrition and dog nutrition. But so far there is zero evidence to suggest that healthy human foods like cranberries and almonds have any benefit to our furry companions.
"Of course dogs need guava. Now hold that near one of the vats and let's call this a day."
In fact, there's no reason to believe your cat's food wouldn't suit Mr. Stinkynose just fine: The first five ingredients in a bag of food for either species are pretty much the same (and anything after "sodium" on that ingredient list might as well not be in there at all -- some dude at the factory just waved a bag of saffron near the kibble-cauldron so they could add that sucker to the label and charge an extra $3.50).
That's Not How You Use a Leash
You're out on the town, walking your best friend, when a cat sprints across the road with a raw steak strapped to its back. Your dog pulls to go after it and, eager to stop his bad behavior, you pull back. Congratulations: You've just provoked a war between that dog and the socket of your arm, and nothing more. To us, yanking on a dog's leash sends the message "stop doing that," but then we're confused as to why 10 straight years of this doesn't make the dog any better at using a leash.
"Leash studies" is the doctorate of the canine world.
I've watched hundreds of people do this with their dogs, and every single time I see the dog's eyes fill with a sense of exasperation. "Ah, shit, we're doing this again." When you yank on the leash, you aren't training your dog to focus or stop tugging. You're teaching him that leashes suck and make his neck hurt.
So first off, always keep the leash the same length -- they have those retractable ones, but if you vary the length, the dog will just get confused. You leave the dog with 4 feet one day and 3 the next, so he will go for that extra foot he had yesterday. In other words, he just gets used to pulling, all the time.
And hey, some dogs are into bondage.
So then you pull back, and he pulls harder the other direction. He isn't being a dick -- pulling on a dog's leash triggers his opposition reflex, basically training him to do the exact opposite of what you want. If someone pushes you, you're going to push back, if only so you can remain standing.
I once saw a lady standing outside with her dog, this beautiful German shepherd, while our training class was on break. The dog started barking at some passing dog or cat or invisible ghost demon, and the lady shouted at him to shut up. He didn't, because very few German shepherds speak fluent English. So this lady grabbed her side of the leash in both hands and yanked so damn hard that the dog's front legs lifted off the ground. He stopped barking, but not because her throttling had taught him the error of his ways. Try this experiment at home: The next time someone talks to you, choke the shit out of them for like five seconds. Did they shut up? Of course they did. That's what happens when you treat someone's trachea like a stress ball.
Above: not your golden retriever, ideally.
But that's a knee-jerk reaction with dog owners -- you've got this leash in your hand, so it becomes a catch-all tool to control, move, and punish the animal. But the goal is to get to a place where you don't have to do that. You love your dog, you don't want to have to choke the poor thing every time it gets excited about something. The alternative, again, takes patience, and a pocket full of treats.
Remember, you have an enormous advantage here, you being the human and the dog being the dog, which is that the dog has an incredibly short attention span. If he starts barking or pulling like the German shepherd up there, distract him. Turn him around and walk him the other way -- once he breaks eye contact, he loses his meager doggy ability to focus attention on the thing that had enthralled him seconds ago.
Yet another striking similarity between dogs and amphetamine addicts.
Then make him pay attention to you. Give him a command, tell him to sit, whatever -- dogs can't multitask. If he's paying attention to you, he's not paying attention to that food/dog/squirrel/naked man whose frostbitten dong looks like a sausage link/whatever.
If you want to make the behavior stop in the long term, you have to patiently, over time, train the dog that paying attention to you = good, under all circumstances. Throw him a treat just for randomly making eye contact. Boom -- your dog now wants to pay attention to you more. Soon you won't have to ask for it; your dog will just check in to see if you want something. And the next time you're walking him, if he pulls -- even if it's in the direction you want to go -- stop. Don't yank back, just stay where you are and hold firm. When he stops pulling, walk to where he wants to go and give him treats and praise for not tugging on the leash.
The spoils of victory are yours, Mr. Tibbles.
Again, it takes patience -- it can take a long time for this training to sink in, especially if your dog isn't a puppy. But come on. Is a few weeks of being diligent really so terrible that you'd rather just choke an animal that loves you instead?
But that brings us to the larger point ...
You're Giving Up on Training Too Quickly -- Patience Is Everything
The reason dog owners are so tempted to give up on breaking habits or teaching new ones is that it seems to take them so long to get it, often regressing or forgetting their training totally at random. Here's where it again helps to understand how a dog's brain works.
"Princess Stinkyface just can't seem to enter a ballroom without losing her tiara."
Let's say you've just spent two hours teaching your dog how to stay. Congratulations! You've taught your pet to perform a trick in exactly one room of the house. See, dogs may have kickass associative memories, but they can't generalize for shit. It makes sense when you consider how much less often your dog gets out of the house than you do.
In your mind, he knows how to stay because you two totally locked that shit down in the living room last week. There were treats, face licks, ear scratches, and general celebration. Maybe you guys even shared a beer. It was touching. But your dog remembers things a little differently. To him, that trick is inextricably tied to that room. So when you're out at the park the next day and he's bombarded with asses to sniff and small animals to murder, you shouting "stay" won't have much of an impact. There were no delicious squirrels running around the living room. Clearly you don't want him to let those cheeky bastards go unmurdered.
And if you do, then you aren't the human he fell in love with.
If you want a dog that can stay when you need him to stay, you have to train him in a bunch of different places. It shouldn't take very long each successive time -- the dog already knows how to sit, so you're just reinforcing that it's a thing you do at home and in this new place. Taking your dog to the beach? Start your walk by going through a few basic commands and handing out treats. Training your dog to carry cash to strippers? Make sure you practice your routine at the club before your favorite dancer gets on stage. Also? Kudos to you for finding a strip club that allows pets.
It takes time, and repetition, and consistency. Think of it like potty training for a baby. Yeah, it takes a while. But once you get it right, there's a whole lot of shit you never have to deal with again.
Mischa Oldman trains the hell out of some dogs. Robert Evans writes the hell out of some articles, and you can reach him here to share your story.
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