Shakira is 4-years-old, and waiting for you.
Shakira is 4-years-old, and waiting for you.

If you want the dog of your dreams, get a grown-up dog

Puppies. They sure are cute. But one major reason people get a puppy is completely mistaken.

I said it once. You might have said it. You have friends who have said it. "I want a puppy so I can raise it to be exactly the dog I want."

It’s not our fault we think it’s possible to raise the perfect dog. The publishing industry has been working overtime to make us think so. If you go to the category "dog training" at in March 2013, the first book on the list is Cesar Millan’s How To Raise The Perfect Dog. Other titles include Sophia Yin’s Perfect Puppy In 7 Days, Sam Walker’s How To Raise the Perfect Puppy, Paul Silas’s Raising The Perfect Puppy ... you get the idea. These authors represent many different philosophies of dog training but there’s one thing they all seem to agree on: if you raise a puppy right, you get a perfect dog.

I believed this until I got a puppy. I got a puppy because I wanted the perfect dog. I bought books whose philosophies I trusted and I did everything right. Socializing, loving, boundaries, everything.

I love my dog. He’s a better-behaved, happier dog because I did all those things. But he’s not a perfect dog. He’s sweet and nervous and jumpy and kind, great with other dogs and skeptical about new people. He turned out to be ... himself.

The "person" check

Nowadays, I use a little reality check when someone makes a claim about dogs: if I put "person" in the sentence in place of "dog," would it make sense? This doesn’t always work, of course, but it’s often helpful. "All dogs of X breed are (aggressive, smart, sweet)" makes no more sense than "All Irish people are (whatever)." "All dogs want dominance" makes no more sense than "All people want dominance." And "How to raise the perfect dog" makes no more sense than "How to raise the perfect child."

Don’t get me wrong. The early development of both dogs and children is very important. There are better ways and worse ways to raise both dogs and children, a…

There are many reasons why a dog might react badly to being greeted by a person or another dog.
There are many reasons why a dog might react badly to being greeted by a person or another dog.

Tie a yellow ribbon 'round that shy dog's leash

Do you know about the Yellow Ribbon? If we spread the word about it, we could help a lot of dogs.

Some dogs are fine when people and other dogs walk, or run, up to them. Some dogs are fine ... as long as they’re left alone. The "Yellow Dog Project" is an effort to help those dogs.

There are many reasons why a dog might react badly to being greeted by a person or another dog. She might be recovering from illness or surgery. She might just be shy. Perhaps most important, she might be in training to feel more comfortable with people, dogs, or both. She might have taken weeks to progress to a point where she’s calm when a stranger is 20 feet away.

If you or your dog walk up to her, even though you only want to say hello, she (and the person she’s with) might have to do all that work over again.

If you’ve had a dog like this, you know reactivity can be heartbreaking and even dangerous. A dog who is reactive to people or dogs on-leash puts others and herself in danger – but is often a true best friend, loving and calm, at home.

A protocol like Behavior Adjustment Training, or similar approaches to building confidence, can make a huge difference for dogs like this, but they take time, and space. This training works by finding the dog’s "threshold" – the distance you need from the scary thing so your dog can pay attention to you without freaking out – and working from that point, gradually building the dog’s confidence so the distance gets smaller.

Your success depends on controlling how far away the scary things are. So when you hear "Don’t worry, he’s friendly," or "Don’t worry, dogs love me," your blood runs cold. When people and dogs run up to your dog, the distance is suddenly zero. At best, you lose ground, and at worst, someone is hurt. If someone is hurt, a dog could be punished. Or killed.

Enter the Yellow Ribbon. The idea is simple. From their website: "If you see a dog with a yellow ribbon or something yellow on the leash, this is a…

Adorable Toby, at our Ozaukee campus and in the picture, would love some positive training at your house.
Adorable Toby, at our Ozaukee campus and in the picture, would love some positive training at your house.

Positive training works, negative training doesn't; tell your friends

Sometimes new ideas spread quickly. Sometimes they take forever. Here’s one I’d like to speed up.

For decades, the accepted approach to training dogs was "dominance theory." Dog trainers told us that if we didn’t dominate our dogs, they would dominate us. The way to teach them to sit, stay and everything else we need them to do was, we were told, to jerk hard on the leash, using a collar that hurt them when we did it; to roll them over or growl at them; to frighten them with loud noises; to force them to endure scary situations; and so on.

Many, many professional trainers still use techniques like this. You even see some of them on TV.

Let’s stop. Negative training doesn’t work for most people; it always makes dogs sad and often makes behavior worse; and it ruins the friendship that was the reason you got a dog in the first place.

Harsh training doesn’t work

Research is mounting on this. A 2008 study of dogs being trained for the Belgian military found that the more harsh methods were used, the worse the dog performed. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found in 2009 that aggressive training methods actually caused aggressive reactions. And once you’ve seen it go wrong in a dog, you’ll just know it. I’ll never forget a trainer in the early 1990s cuffing my big terrier repeatedly under the chin while she stared coldly into his eyes. No wonder he growled. It was a long time before I learned enough to understand that she was wrong (and mean) and my dog was right.

Dominance is more of a human thing

Why doesn’t harsh training work? Because the whole "dominance theory" thing is wrong, at least the simplistic version that harsh training is based on.

Dogs come from wolves, old-style trainers tells us, so they must want a pack leader like wolves – even though dogs don’t act like wolves in lots of other ways, and even wolves don’t fight for dominance the way most people imagine they do. The whole wolf/dog/dominance idea seems to ma…