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Teach social skills early to help your dog co-exist with others

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March 5th, 2019 12:00 AM

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Jill Showalter

Nothing ruins dinner at your favorite restaurant like the kid at the nearby table who spent the entire meal screaming and throwing his food on the floor. Granted, anyone with children can tell you that sometimes, children have bad days. No one expects them to be perfect angels at all times. But people do expect that they at least try to behave in public and, more importantly, were taught how to do so by their parents.

Bringing your dog to public places isn't much different. When you see a family enjoying a meal at a sidewalk cafe with a dog that's been relaxing quietly under the table the entire meal, you're no doubt looking at parents and dog owners who've taught everyone in their household how to act when in public. Part of being a responsible dog owner is knowing that your dog has to behave in public and making sure you put in the work to make it happen.

Behavior begins at home

If you adopt a dog who has been through some rough times, you may notice some anxious behaviors, but for the most part, young dogs are a blank canvas. Their fear of loud noises, people and individual objects may be natural at first, but that apprehension usually becomes learned behavior if it's reinforced by the dog's owners.

If you want your dog to accompany you at outdoor events, he'll need to get used to loud noises. Consider that puppies aren't scared by fireworks. But if you react to their first encounter with fireworks by putting him in the basement and coddling him until the neighborhood kids run out of M-80s, you will have started a pattern that treats loud noises as bad things. Instead of learning to accept the various sounds of outdoor activities, your dog will hide under the bed each time the decibels reach blender-level status. Instead of letting them be afraid, talk them through rough nights by keeping them nearby and talking them through it.

The same approach works with people and dogs. If you yell at them every time they bark at the mail carrier, they'll learn that your friendly postal worker is someone to be feared. And if you keep them away from other dogs when they're young, you're not helping them develop the necessary social skills they'll need to behave anywhere other than your backyard. Introduce them to new dogs on neutral turf and keep an eye on their behavior. Make sure they're safe but allow them the time and space to get to know other dogs. It's always a good idea to give them some time with other dogs as well, as long as they're under the watchful eye of others. The dog park can be an excellent place for interactions with other dogs, but you don't always know how other dogs—and their owners—will behave. It's never a bad idea to drop off your four-legged friend at a daycare for dogs so they can interact with others in a safe, controlled space. Still, even if you do everything right, there's a chance that your dog may not always want to play well with others. You'll need to respect their hesitation if they don't want to play with the kids who live next door or the dogs across the street. In some cases, your dog may not want to share his time with others. If he heads to his crate for a little me-time after spending 30 minutes getting his ears crushed by your nephew, give him his space.

Walk the walk

One of the best ways to teach your dog how to behave is to take her for walks when she's young.

If you're a first-time dog owner or you're raising a new puppy, walking a dog can be intimidating once you head off the solitary sidewalk of your block. But if you aren't taking your dog to parks and trails where there are more dogs—and people—you're missing out on the opportunity to train her to handle future public encounters. A take-charge approach can ensure that those first walks help teach your dog if you establish patterns and make your dog comfortable. But comfort doesn't mean your dog take control. If you want to enjoy your walks, your dog needs to work with you, not against you. Here are a few ways to establish a stable, walking demeanor that your dog will continue to use as she gets older.

Put your dog on a leash: The sidewalk on your block or the path through the park aren't the places for a free-walking dog. You're just asking for conflicts with neighbors or other dog owners since you don't know when your dog is going to take off running after a squirrel or encounter a dog who isn't as friendly as the owner claims.

Take a pass on the extendable leash: They might seem like they give your dog more room to roam, but really, they take away your control. You can't pull back on a 20-foot leash if something happens. A nine-foot leash is best because you can control your dog while he or she still feels independent.

Teach your dog to heel: Your dog should walk alongside you with his shoulders at your legs. Try it out in your yard and up and down your block. It may seem obvious but it's a trained behavior and it will pay off for years.

Trust your dog's instincts: Watch her behavior around other people and other dogs and react to any outward signs of annoyance or aggression.

A well-behaved dog, like a well-behaved child, helps make everything easier for everyone. If you begin early and are consistent, your dog will know how to handle whatever life outside the house can throw his way. Whether it's a walk in the park, lunch at a sidewalk cafe or a visit to a friend's house, a social dog can be a great companion.

Jill Showalter owns Yuppie Puppy and Doggie Day Play in Oak Park. She has personally tended to more than 100,000 dogs since 2007 and has shared stories and advice with numerous dog owners.

 

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