The good dog guide


You've got a new dog, but how do you prevent it from taking over your household and running wild? One woman has the answer to bad doggie behaviour, writes Ita O'Kelly

WHEN Barack Obama promised his two daughters a puppy in his victory speech, most of us cooed at the thought of a playful puppy on the White House lawn. While many families regard the arrival of a puppy to the family as a wonderful addition, there are countless others who end up with dogs that bully them into submission, destroy the house and generally become a nuisance.

Mary Owens, dog lover and owner of Fircroft Canine Training Centre in Rathangan, has been training dogs with behaviour modification techniques for over 22 years and claims she hasn't failed with a dog yet. You need to train your dog to behave in much the same way as we train our children, she advises. The problems arise because we think from a human rather than a dog's perspective.

"Dogs have a pack mentality and it comes very naturally to them to manipulate you. In short, you need to teach the dog who is the boss in the house. If you allow your dog to sit on the armchair with you, that's fine. But if the dog then decides that he wants the chair all to himself and you end up sitting on a kitchen chair, well, the dog is now in charge."

Mary started running residential courses for dogs, with 12 days the optimum time to train a dog. She says that you can improve any dog's behavior, but training a puppy at around 16 weeks is the best time to start.

However, modifying your dog's behavior is not just a case of the owner picking up the animal after 12 days and hoping that all is sorted.

"We have found that the intensive residential training course works very well for both the dog and the family. Dogs learn very quickly in an atmosphere where there are no distractions and the family have a break from their pet which enables them to gain a good perspective."

During their stay in the purpose-built kennels, the dogs are filmed before, during and after their training, allowing the owners to see how progress is achieved. They are then given a DVD to help them continue training until it becomes second nature to the animal.

"We motivate our canine pupils through play and reward to want to learn and enjoy becoming model canine citizens. We do not believe in punishing any dog for getting things wrong. Shouting at a dog achieves nothing. We train the dog to get things right and to enjoy that sense of achievement."

Sitting in Mary's kitchen with the Aga blazing in the background, it is not hard to see that she is a lover of animals. There are various cats and dogs, but none of them is under any illusions whatsoever about who is the boss in this house. And not a single one of them would dare touch the bag of sausages that sits on the kitchen counter.

Ricky is an eight-month-old Beagle and a "graduate" of the residential training course in Fircroft who passed the sausage test with flying colours. Owner Eleanor McCarthy, from Rathgar in Dublin, says that Fircroft confirmed what she already knew - that Ricky was a domineering dog and a potential bully. She decided to go the residential route because she felt that as mother to Conor (4) and Katie (7) she didn't have the time to train the dog as well.

"We got Ricky in the summer when the children were off school, which in retrospect probably wasn't a great idea as it's a busy time. I grew up in the country where dogs were part and parcel of life but when you live in the city, with a typical city garden, having a dog is a very different thing. It also represents a huge amount of extra work."

ELEANOR SAYS that the children adore dogs and were agitating for a dog for a long time.

"I think it is good for a child to have a dog. It teaches them to think about others and it has certainly made television less popular. They both help to look after him. We decided on a Beagle because my husband Peter said he wanted a dog and not a rat. Beagles are known to be good with children."

Eleanor admits that it has been a steep learning curve. The chewed sound system wires and the large holes in the grass all point to a lively dog.

"When I picked Ricky up from Fircroft, he behaved perfectly. I was most impressed when he didn't even look in the direction of the frankfurters that they use as rewards. He is most definitely improved and much more settled. He is also much easier to manage on the lead."

Mary Owens cautions those who, like the Obamas, are considering a shelter dog. While it is a great thing to do, she says, sentimentality should have no role to play in selecting a dog.

"Make no mistake about it. A shelter dog is often a dog with problems. If you take one and find that you cannot manage it and have to return it to the shelter, then that is the worst thing for the dog."

It's a fair bet that whichever puppy the Obama household opts for, the dog trainers are already pitching for business. And it is highly unlikely that Mr "No Drama" Obama would entertain a mutt with no manners chewing up the Oval Office, no matter how much he loves his daughters.

Down boy Doggy dos and don'ts

Choose your puppy carefully from a recognised breeder who is a member of the Kennel Club. Don't choose the biggest in the litter as they are often the hardest to train - choose the middle-sized one.

Life is busy today so you need to set aside time for a dog in your life. Puppies learn through play. Dogs like company. If you are out all day, it may not be fair on your dog to be home alone.

Reward your dog with a little tasty treat like a small piece of sausage or affection or a game when they do as you wish.

Until the dog learns that you are the boss, he will do as he pleases, including barking excessively, stealing food, jumping up and pulling against the lead.

You must be consistent when you train your dog - practice makes perfect.

If your dog jumps up on people or children, train him by turning on your heel and walking away. Pet and praise him only when he has all four feet on the ground.

If you have had little or no success training your dog yourself, perhaps it is time to call in the professionals.