How to keep your dogs calm

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When you have two dogs, particularly when you raise them from puppies, it’s a monumental task to have them bond well with you and see you as someone to look up to as leader.

If the pups aren’t separated frequently throughout the day and trained separately, they will bond and see the human(s) as secondary in importance. This program of teaching Gili and Talia to pay attention to you, and then translate that new talent to walking, is exactly what the three of you need – you’ll see a real improvement in your relationship in general, which is a pretty great side effect!

I suggest crating or putting one of the dogs in the yard with some really great toys and treats, such as four or five stuffed Kongs (see my “How to Stuff a Kong” handout), while you train the other. If you consistently give the dog you’re not working with some wonderful treats, she will look forward to her time apart from the other, which is an important thing all by itself.

Now you can get started with attention training. You can switch dogs after you’ve had time to rest; just remember where each girl is in her training, and be consistent with each one rather than trying to get both to the same level at the same time. You may find it easier to work with one dog per day, with at least half-hour intervals between short, successful sessions. Either way is fine.

Here’s how to teach Gili and Talia to pay attention to you. Let’s start with Gili as an example.

First, get Gili used to the word “Yes!” being a very positive thing. Get a handful of small treats and sit on a chair near her. She’ll sniff your hand, then look at you for a moment like, “Well?” That’s the moment you say “Yes!” very enthusiastically, while giving her a small treat or a piece of her regular kibble if it’s meal time. Timing is critical with this – her eye contact should immediately be met with “Yes!” and a treat.

Now start moving your hand holding the treats around slowly – say “Yes!” and give Gili a treat every time she looks at you. Keep the training session short – just a few minutes. When you’re done with your first session with Gili, let Talia back into the house.

During Gili’s next training session, about a half-hour later, raise your criteria for getting the treat a bit. Now she must maintain eye contact with you for just a while longer than in the first session before she gets the treat. Continue to say “Yes!” the millisecond Gili looks at you. Be sure to smile at her during eye contact, then give her the treat reward. Continue these sessions throughout the day, giving Gili about a half hour to hour between each session.

When you’re getting nice, lengthy attention from Gili, it’s time to put her on leash and walk her around the house very briefly. Be really animated, say her name in a very upbeat and enthusiastic way, and immediately reward her. You’re getting her in the habit of actually paying attention to you when she’s on leash.

At this point the distraction is minimal, but of course being outside is much more distracting. It’s very important to work at this part slowly. First work on successful, short sessions indoors and then outside in the backyard before you try a brief walk just a few houselengths down your block. These walks need to be with just one dog at this point. Remember that you need to be even more interesting than the environment, which is a monumental task, so use your voice and frequent small treats along with tons of praise for good behavior and eye contact.

As you are walking, you must be the one making the decisions by immediately employing your attention-training routine when you first see or hear a person and/or dog approaching. You need to catch Gili before she starts her old routine; get her attention now! The closer the person or dog approaches, the more animated, fun and fast you need to be with Gili to get and keep her attention as the distraction passes. This will ultimately condition her to glance at you for direction at the first sign of any distraction – even a dog.

The ultimate goal is for the girls to look at you when anybody approaches, so continue working with each dog separately until you feel you are truly connected to them by more than their leashes. When you decide to begin working with the girls together, start over with the training! Just follow all the previous steps, and please be patient knowing that their old behaviors will pop up more readily when they’re together. Even though both dogs have made tremendous progress so far, it will take you longer to move on to the next levels of training when you’re working with both Gili and Talia together; it’s the dynamics of dogdom. So expect a bit of rebellion and old behaviors to pop up initially, but as any good leader does, be patient, consistent and fair.

After a few months, you’ll be used to communicating with both girls all the time during your walks, which is ideal. You’ll start to see them glance at you (a new thing!) briefly; it’s crucial you acknowledge this intentional attempt to interact with you by saying, “Yes!” and then immediately giving them a treat. If you don’t catch and acknowledge their first attempts at non-prompted interaction, they’ll stop trying. If any dog is just put on a leash and taken for a walk with no interaction with the owner, the owner isn’t really seen as the decision maker in the relationship. Add another dog to the mix, and you are destined to be an irrelevant leash holder! Their focus must readily and frequently turn to you to prevent the aggressive, loud, leash-pulling behaviors you don’t want.

If at any point in your training you start to feel stressed or upset, simply stop, take the dog or dogs off leash and take a break. You’re laying the groundwork to be the decision maker in your relationship with them, and to do so, they need to know their rascally behavior won’t unravel you.

If you feel you’d benefit from working with a trainer, a great place to find one is the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). The goal of the organization is to teach people the many benefits of using positive, gentle, motivational techniques in dog training. Just go to the Trainer Search page and type your zip code. A list of trainers in your area will display (there are many near you). I suggest you call at least three or four before deciding who to go with.