Show Dog Skills for Any Mutt

Whether Champion Blackjack Porpoises’ Ship Zin UDX III is under the bright lights at a dog show or visiting sick kids in the hospital, Dr. Gail Clark knows she can count on the Portuguese water dog to behave well.

Ship, as the 5-year-old dog is affectionately known, handles crowds, other dogs and unfamiliar situations with ease, says Dr. Clark, Ph.D., a dog behaviorist in Fort Collins, Colo., who offers training for both household dogs and classes for potential show dogs like Ship and their owners.

“He’s fabulous,” Dr. Clark says of her dog Ship. “I bred and raised him. Without a doubt, if he hadn’t had this training, he couldn’t go into schools and hospitals. He’s just a great dog overall. He’s a pleasure to take to shows.”

Ship behaves so well, no doubt, because he is showered with affection and attention, regularly exercises and eats a balanced, nutritious diet. But the secret to the way show dogs like Ship respond to both their handlers and situations with strangers lies in their training. Although you might not need your dog to trot enthusiastically beside you under the careful scrutiny of a panel of judges, you can put lessons from dog show experts to work with your furry pal.

Our dog show experts say you can apply their expertise in these areas:

Show dogs must keep their cool among hundreds of their own kind, not to mention unfamiliar people. The value of early socialization can’t be overestimated, says Dr. Clark.

However, make sure your dog or puppy is in a controlled situation, say both Dr. Clark and Pat Malan, a West Virginia-based breeder of giant schnauzers who also shows dogs and offers handling instruction. For instance, dog parks can be unpredictable places where your dog might be jumped and frightened by other dogs, say these experts. Be cautious even when it comes to free play during a puppy class, they caution.

A traditional obedience class is a good place to get your pal accustomed to other dogs and humans, says Dr. Clark. Your calm reassurance will go a long way toward helping your dog handle the unfamiliar, Malan adds. “The owner needs to be calm,” she explains. “Basically the message you’re going to send is, ‘All is well.’”

Stacking, aka Standing Still
We’re amazed to watch dogs “stacked” at shows so that judges can evaluate the animals’ appearance and behavior. The dogs are placed in position by their handlers and then hold the positions without moving. But does this have any value when it comes to your tail-wagging buddy? Certainly, say our experts.

After all, wouldn’t it be easier to manage your dog at the veterinarian’s office or during a grooming visit if you could get your pal to stand still? Simply placing a new collar around your dog’s neck is a snap if you know the secrets of the show dog.

You can practice by placing your dog on a bath mat on the counter at home, if your dog’s size makes it practical, says KT McKee, a British Columbia show dog breeder and trainer. That’s great practice for the veterinarian’s exam table. Place your hand under your dog’s head to get it to stay, and don’t pet your pooch. Offer a treat as your dog stays in place. Remember: Your goal isn’t to show off your dog’s perfect position, but to instead have it remain cooperatively still for a while.

Handling an Exam
It helps to think like a dog when you’re training a show dog or a household pal, say dog show trainers. Imagine how canines will perceive noises, other dogs and crowds. But it doesn’t hurt to think like a human, either. Imagine a stranger at a party coming up to you and touching you without your invitation, says Dr. Clark. That slight moment of fear and surprise multiplies for dogs that don’t understand why they’re being handled.

When her dog shied a bit once a judge wanted to exam the pup’s private parts, Dr. Clark told the judge he needed to offer her dog a kiss first. In other words, says Dr. Clark, make sure your dog is “properly introduced” to someone who wants to touch your pal. “Anytime a dog is touched without an invitation from the dog, it’s negative,” she explains.

Place your hand lightly in your dog’s collar. Let it become familiar with the person, then offer a food treat when someone touches or examines your dog. Your dog will learn to associate the touch with something positive.

It might be the most impressive scene at dog shows: Dog after dog runs smartly alongside the handlers. There are a couple of keys to accomplishing a modified version of this behavior with your dog, say the experts. First, Dr. Clark begins by teaching her dogs with her hand on a lead right near their heads. “My hand is probably an inch from the neck of the dog.”

Remember the phrase “short leash?” It’s applicable here. Practice with a short lead, walking your dog back and forth in a confined area. Reward your pet every time it follows you in an appropriate, well-behaved manner. Gradually move to larger areas and allow a bit more leash. If you teach your dog these gaiting techniques, you’ll have an easier time on crowded sidewalks or other places where there’s not much room to negotiate.

Think about your collar selection too, says McKee. Harness-type collars and collars low on a dog’s neck can trigger a pulling instinct, she says. Use a collar at the base of the head.

And give your dog a sense of purpose, McKee says. She trains her dogs by having them carry weight-appropriate backpacks weighted with a few cans and her bottle of water. “I stop, take out my bottle of water and take a drink, then carry on, stop, take out my bottle,” she says. “The dog is providing a service.” If your dog is serving you on that walk, your pal is more likely to stay in tune with your commands.                                                         

The real trick to having your dog take its cues from show dog training comes down to you, however. “Most people don’t have the patience,” says Dr. Clark. “It takes patience, and it takes consistency.” With both, you and your dog will be strutting away proudly just as Ship the champion Portuguese water dog does when he’s in and out of the spotlight.

Rehabilitate Your Reactive Dog

When 27-year-old Jodi Carp of Royal Oak, Mich., moved in with a friend and his German shepherd, she was happy to help out by walking the big boy. Her roommate, however, told her that his dog, Guinness, tended to be overprotective of women walkers. “Just hold his leash tight when men are walking toward you on the street,” her new roommate instructed. No problem, she thought.

Following this directive, Carp pulled the leash as men walked toward them on the sidewalks of her neighborhood and Guinness summarily lunged, barked and pulled with each approach, his behavior ratcheting up a notch if another dog was in the vicinity. Over time, Jodi herself became increasingly tense on these walks and was horrified -- though not altogether surprised -- when Guinness finally went at someone with his teeth, nipping their 82-year-old neighbor’s wrist with his sharp fangs. At this point, Carp decided her dog-walking days were done. She remembers, “I felt awful about the incident, and I didn’t want to risk something even worse happening while I was out with Guinness.”

According to Sandy Case, a certified pet dog trainer and co-owner and training director of Positively Canine in Oklahoma City, Carp and her roommate simply needed some training on how to care for their reactive dog. “They were basically doing everything wrong, and with a little instruction, they could have prevented a lot of their difficulties,” says Case.

What Is a Reactive Dog?
Reactive dogs aren’t hard to spot. Outdoors, such canines will lunge at people or dogs that get too close. They usually also bark loudly, growl forebodingly and may even bite anyone foolish enough to get close. In the home, the reactive dog can appear threatening to visitors as it jumps, barks and stares. Reactive dogs tend to stress out their owners as they try to keep visitors and passersby safe from their intimidating, if loveable, best friend.

Some breeds are more prone to reactivity. Terriers tend to respond excitedly to other dogs, for example, while herding dogs, like shepherds, are innately reactive toward movement, such as joggers. Any dog, though, can become reactive if it feels its safety and security are threatened. “The majority of reactive behavior is fear-based,” explains Case. “If a dog is confident, it doesn’t need to do these things.”

Understanding the Reactive Dog
Human misunderstanding of canine social norms is responsible for a large percentage of reactive behavior. Case says, “Dogs have greeting rituals, and they don’t involve walking up to another dog. For dogs, that isn’t polite. Once we’ve got them on their leash and are dragging them toward another dog to say hello, we’re setting them up for what might be a bad reaction.”

Canine caretakers also fail to identify their dog’s own pre-reactive behaviors. “Dogs are peaceful animals,” says Case. “They don’t want conflict. When they begin to feel tense, such as when they’re around another dog, they engage in self-soothing behaviors like looking away, sniffing and yawning, to let themselves and the other dog know things are okay.”

If these initial calming behaviors fail, the dog may stare or growl. While owners tend to tense up and correct dogs for growling, they should really only take the growl as a signal that it’s time to soothe their pooch. “Growling is communication,” says Case. “Make your dog comfortable rather than punishing it for expressing itself. You can do this by simply staying calm yourself and walking it away from the situation.”

Staying calm yourself is key: Tightening the leash and tensing up is one of the most frequent mistakes made by dog companions like Carp. Explains Case: “Dogs should be confident that we will handle things for them. They react because they feel they’re out there on their own. If they see their person is confident and proactive instead of reactive, they’ll feel a lot better. Its person needs to be a good leader.”

How to Manage a Reactive Dog
If your dog is reactive, Case recommends the following five steps:

1. Buy a harness Any tightening of a leash is restrictive to a dog’s airway, which will only heighten its anxiety. A harness removes the possibility of pressure on the neck, and also helps to rebalance a dog that’s lunging forward.

2. Have a plan Knowing what you will do (e.g., turn and walk away, keeping the dog moving) when your furry friend responds to perceived threats will allow you to remain calm. Part of the plan should involve reminding yourself to relax.

3. Be familiar with the signals When dogs begin to become uncomfortable, they may lick, yawn and sniff. As they get tense, they may exhibit changes in posture, such as becoming more upright, tucking their lower body backward or stiffening up. Staring is usually the last move before a more intense reaction. If you can get your dog out of a situation before the stare, you will nip the problem in the bud.

4. Retrain your dog Walk away from the tense situation to a comfortable distance, keeping the object of the dog’s discomfort in sight. Get your dog to glance at the other dog or person before it gets to the point of staring, and then give it a treat. Soon the dog will begin checking back with you when it sees things that make it tense. 

5. Enlist help If you can’t handle the problem on your own, find a good trainer or behaviorist to work with. “A professional can observe your dog and possibly see a lot more about what it’s doing,” says Case.

With some time, effort and training, you can turn your reactive dog into a companion that any roommate would feel comfortable taking for a stroll around the block.

Get Connected With Your Dog

When Victoria Craig adopted her dog Weaver, the 18-month-old, black-and-white border collie had already developed a host of obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Highly reactive with zero impulse control, Weaver would go into a spinning frenzy whenever something as seemingly insignificant as a person walking across a room disrupted his usual routine.

On the positive side, it was clear Weaver was a smart, sensitive and loving dog. “I thought he was gorgeous and could see such potential in him,” says Craig, who lives in River Glade, New Brunswick, Canada. “But he hardly noticed me at all, even when I was trying my best to interact with him. He refused my treats and looked away each time I tried to talk to him.” Traditional training methods produced some results, but it was professional dog trainer Brenda Aloff’s Get Connected training philosophy that put Craig and her collie on the path to developing a strong and stable relationship.

The Get Connected Philosophy
Aloff’s training method, which is detailed in her book Get Connected With Your Dog: Emphasizing the Relationship While Training Your Dog (Dogwise Publishing 2008), promotes improved communication. “Get Connected is a program I developed to help humans understand dogs and help dogs understand their humans,” explains Aloff. “Better communication, mutual understanding and clear interactions always enhance a relationship, and this is what Get Connected is all about.”

Tapping Into the Magic Switch
Getting connected helps you find what Aloff refers to as the “magic switch.” This is a doggie state of awareness that’s at the heart of why canines do what they do, according to Aloff. When Weaver goes from calm to manic in a nanosecond, it is just reacting instinctively. Dogs in this mental state are so hyped up, they can’t think as they normally would. They are not in a state of mind to learn or comprehend anything, even a relatively simple command, such as “Come,” “Stay” or “No barking.”

When dogs are in a more conscious frame of mind, and not merely acting on instinct, they can learn. Understanding the different emotional states, and which one your dog is in at any given moment, is an important part of getting connected. Grasping this concept improves your awareness of your dog, and an improved awareness can help you teach your dog how to switch from an aroused state to thinking and responding logically. Doing so, however, requires a mini-primer on the basic ins and outs of canine communication.

Decoding Canine Body Language
Dogs are savvy communicators and rely heavily upon body language to tell you what they are thinking and feeling. The placement of your dog’s head, ears, eyes and tail will tell you if it is relaxed, stressed, frightened, curious, eager to play or getting ready to bite. Here are a few common cues you are likely to see your dog displaying:

  • If its ears are up, its eyes are bright, and its tail is wagging, this usually means “I’m happy” or “Come on -- let’s play.”
  • If its ears are back, its lips are curled, and its tail is down, it usually indicates anger, fear, or stress. The dog is likely saying, “Stay back and leave me alone,” or, “Pull on my tail one more time and you’ll be sorry.”
  • If your dog is sniffing the ground, it could just be exploring an enticing smell or looking for a place to relieve itself, but dogs also sniff the ground when they are worried or ill at ease, explains Aloff. A dog that’s doing this may be telling another approaching dog, “I see you. Calm down. I’m minding my own business. I don’t want any trouble.”
  • Panting, yawning or drooling can sometimes indicate stress that, depending on your dog’s temperament, can be triggered by unfamiliar surroundings, isolation, crowds, strange or loud noises, other animals or your demeanor. 

Mind Your Own Body Language
Dogs have the uncanny ability to zero in on your body language, too. What you say verbally, and what your body language says visually, can send conflicting messages to your dog. The slightest shift in your breathing can tell your dog if you are nervous, happy, angry or worried. How your dog behaves is a direct reflection of what your body language tells it. By projecting a calm demeanor -- controlling your breathing, body posture, tone of voice -- you can calm your frightened or nervous dog. In the dog’s mind, it is thinking, “My owner is calm. She has everything under control. I do not need to worry.” On the other hand, if you are anxious or apprehensive, your nervous dog will sense this, and it will become even more nervous.

Analyzing Your Dog’s Personality
Figuring out your dog’s individual personality will help you to improve the human-canine relationship by fostering a better understanding between yourself and your dog. Is your pet pushy, bossy, cheeky, nervous, anxious, bold, confident, dominant or aggressive? “If I am sweet and overly tolerant with a strong, assertive dog, he will take advantage of me,” explains Aloff. “If I come on too strong with a timid dog, I will frighten him.” Either way, misjudging your dog’s personality can interfere with the learning process.

Be Consistent With Expectations
Dogs can’t understand the rules if the rules keep changing. If your dog is allowed on the couch every day of the week and then gets yelled at when he jumps on the couch with dirty feet, this is an unrealistic expectation that confuses your dog and derails the human-canine relationship. He doesn’t know that having dirty feet should pose a problem.

With their own communication system, dogs learn differently than humans do. Aloff hopes owners can “close the gap between what they intend their dogs to learn and what the dog actually learns.” In doing so, it becomes much easier for you to integrate dog training into your daily routine. In return, your dog will be better-behaved and more likely to be included in your family and friends’ day-to-day activities. Owners are happy. Dogs are happy. Everyone wins, because a well-trained dog means the human-canine possibilities are endless.

Dog and Owner Success
Admittedly, results didn’t happen overnight for Craig and her hyped-up border collie. Success came through gradual steps over time. After several months, Weaver began to trust his new owner. He stopped biting. He began to relax and enjoy himself. There were numerous setbacks, but nearly three years after the manic border collie’s rescue, Craig and Weaver are competing and winning in agility competitions at a national level.

“Brenda’s Get Connected protocol changed our lives,” says Craig. “Weaver now enjoys being touched. He is more focused, less reactive, better able to concentrate and is a much happier dog. Looking back, I am amazed we have come this far. We are definitely more of a team now.”

Is Your Dog Becoming You?

What type of dog would a woman with curly hair most likely own: a Rottweiler or a poodle?

Chances are you chose the poodle. That people often resemble their dogs has been fodder over the ages for cartoonists, contests, and even the new board game called “Do You Look Like Your Dog?” by Briarpatch. A few years ago, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, proved a scientific basis for this belief, finding that judges correctly matched photos of purebred dogs with owners two out of three times.

Study author Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychology professor, argues that dog owners seek breeds that resemble them. “Evolutionarily we’ve adapted to take care of little, nonverbal creatures that resemble us -- in most cases, our children,” he says. “In many ways, pets capitalize on that desire. Many people have bonded with pets the way others have bonded with children.”

Researchers are now building upon the look-alike theory to examine if it carries over to personalities and behaviors. British psychology professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire has had nearly 2,500 pet owners fill out questionnaires about their personalities and those of their pets. He says on his website that pets and their owners get more and more alike over time -- just like married couples who tend to dress and look more similar as the years go by.

Nature versus Nurture
The question is: Do people select pups that act similar to them or do dogs and owners grow more similar over time? Experts say that it’s likely a bit of both.

People choose dog breeds that are compatible to them on various levels, from appearance to activeness, says Lynn Hoover, MSW, CDBC, founder of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and author of The Family in Dog Behavior Consulting (2006 Dogwise). “If the owner loves hiking, he will likely choose a dog that can keep up and enjoy long walks. On another level, if the human is by nature distant, independent, tough, dignified, they may admire and draw from a breed known for fierce independence, or (one that is) regal and dignified.”

When a dog spends all its time with you, those human behaviors, schedules, and tastes can rub off. “Dogs do pick up on our moods, preferences, anxieties and fears,” Hoover says. “And, the rubbing off goes both ways. Dogs arrive with their own temperaments and breed tendencies, their own fears and anxieties, and they influence owners with their worries or lack thereof.”

There are potential benefits and detriments to this. A bold and sociable dog could be good for an owner that has apprehensions about meeting new people, Hoover says. When strangers approach, the dog can signal the owner that greeting strangers can be fun by wagging its tail. However, a perfectly calm dog in the home of an anxious owner can become a basket case -- not knowing how to act, becoming alarmed at visitors, and ignoring commands because of a lack of follow through.

Pit Your Personality against Your Pup’s
To figure out whether you and your pet are two peas in a pod, answer the following questions about whether these traits apply to you, your dog, or both of you. Add up your score to see your diagnosis below.

  1. Is happy eating the same breakfast every day:
    1. me (1)
    2. my dog (2)
    3. both of us (3)
  2. Gets stressed when the mailman arrives with lots of bills:
    1. me (1)
    2. my dog (2)
    3. both of us (3)
  3. Understands when family members have no time to play:
    1. me (1)
    2. my dog (2)
    3. both of us (3)
  4. Doesn’t see Prozac as a panacea for life’s problems:
    1. me (1)
    2. my dog (2)
    3. both of us (3)
  5. Loves nothing better than to take a long walk on a sunny afternoon
    1. me (1)
    2. my dog (2)
    3. both of us (3)

What Your Answers Say
5-11 points: Dog/Owner Divide
How did you two wind up together? You and your pet are very different if you can honestly say that the traits and behaviors above are reflective more of you, rather than your dog, or vice versa. It may be that your pet personifies the characteristics of another person in your household -- a spouse, a parent, or even a child. Substitute “my spouse” (or mother or son) in place of “me” to see if your pup has paired off with someone else.

12-15 points: Separated at Birth You and your dog are a virtual set of cross-species twins. You have similar traits if you saw a lot of yourself and your pet in the questions above. It may be that you selected a certain dog breed that best matched your personality -- or your looks. Or it could be that Rover has just adapted to your schedule, your likes and dislikes and your temperament as the pup got to know and love you.

Don’t worry if you and your dog are different but still get along. “Dogs are simple,” Hoover says. “They are what they are and they react as they will and that’s the way they stay. Whatever they take on from owners, it happens fast, within their first few interactions with humans, and it quickly becomes habitual.”

Photo: Corbis Images

Amazing Stories of Lost and Found Dogs

In February, Alfredo Fulleda's mother let his dog, Pepito, outside in the yard along with the family's three other miniature dachshunds. The other three came back inside; Pepito did not. An 18-month-old dog, Pepito was lost for two days -- until a friend discovered an Internet posting about a dachshund found in their city.

"He was scared when I finally got to him," says Fulleda. "He had lost some weight, and the bottoms of his paws were chapped. He had walked over a mile and had crossed major intersections."

Pepito's saga of how a lost dog was found is repeated around the country each year. Consider, for example, JoJo of San Francisco.  

JoJo’s Lost and Found Story
JoJo's return to the Gaffney family in San Francisco underscores the need to make sure a dog has identification in case it gets lost -- or in JoJo's case, stolen. His family tied up the 5-year-old mixed breed dog in front of a supermarket, but when they came back, someone had taken JoJo, with the abduction caught on the store's security cameras.

Owner Nick Gaffney says the family plastered the neighborhood with "lost dog" posters, contacted dog walkers, hired a dog tracker and even a pet psychic, and had their story picked up by the local news. More than $800 and a week later, JoJo's implanted microchip saved the day. The dog was turned in to a nearby veterinarian who scanned the chip.

"If he wasn’t chipped, we never would have gotten him home," says Gaffney.

In addition to microchipping, other forms of pet identification are collars, tags and tattoos. "We think external collars and tags save more lives and prompt more returns than anything else," says John Snyder, vice president of the companion animal section of the Humane Society of the United States.

Preventive Lost Dog Measures
The best insurance policy against losing your dog is to make sure the dog doesn't get loose. Here are steps the HSUS recommends:

  • Keep dogs indoors, especially when you're not home
  • Teach your dog to walk on a leash
  • Fence your yard and padlock gates
  • Don't let your pet roam free or be visible from the street
  • Never leave pets in a car or outside a store to wait for you
  • Train your dogs to come when called

Network and Use the Internet
As the stories of Pepito and JoJo demonstrate, alerting a network of people in the community can help in the immediate aftermath of a disappearance. Here’s what you can do if your dog goes missing:

  • Put up fliers in your neighborhood with a recent photo of your dog
  • Use neighborhood email distribution lists to alert neighbors
  • Contact local animal shelters and dog rescue organizations
  • Tap into networks of dog walkers to spread the word
  • Use and to post information about lost or found dogs

"The sooner you can get the information out to animal welfare, the humane society and neighbors, the better your changes are at finding your dog," says Snyder.

The Internet helped lead Fulleda to Pepito. Fulleda had posted pictures of Pepito on his Facebook page along with a caption: "We need you to come home." High school friend Erin Mallon saw the posting and wanted to help. "It popped into my head to do an Internet search," she says. "I typed into a search engine 'found dachshund' and the name of their city." A link to the came up, where someone had already posted a note about a black dachshund seen in the area.

Fulleda believes that Pepito, who was unneutered, had wandered off in search of a female dog. He's now going to neuter Pepito and train him to stay in the yard.