Flora, my mixed-breed rescue dog, looks more and more like a mini-Golden Retriever every day. I doubt there is such a breed, but if there is, she's one. The day she arrived, straight off a plane from the U.S. Virgin Islands, her training started. Some think a young puppy can't or shouldn't be trained but did you know that puppies absorb knowledge and learn new behaviors every day? I love Flora; she is a family member, and I've learned that careful training can go a long way to transforming a nipping, wiggly puppy into a happy, well-mannered dog.
Flora was born on the streets of St. Croix, where it's summer all year, and some dogs roam freely, breeding prolifically. The St. Croix Animal Welfare Center collects the strays, provides veterinarian care, neuters or spays them, and puts them up for adoption. Flora was one of their clients. I found her online, and a friend put 8-pound Flora in a pet carrier that fits under the plane seat and brought her to the States.
One habit she and all puppies had was jumping up on people. While it might seem cute to have an 8-pound puppy jumping up on an adult, it's not so cute when she jumps on a toddler, knocking the child down. Biting, another common puppy trait is even worse. Those first days I had bloody hands and sore fingers from her sharp, little puppy teeth. The jumping and biting had to stop, but first, I had to teach Flora I was the pack leader and to be obeyed.
I suppose one approach would have been to sit her down, explain our different roles and ask for her cooperation. Of course, that's silly, but too often, humans think that dogs should have an inborn understanding of spoken words. We allow our Airbnb guests to bring dogs with them to Miles Smith Farm, and one time an untrained rescue dog escaped. The excited dog ran through the yard as his owner yelled his name over and over. For 10 minutes, the dog ignored his owner, who called "Thomas! Thomas!" repeatedly. Thomas was eventually captured with the lure of a food treat.
My theory is that if a dog does not obey on the first try, stop calling him. Dogs love to hear their names, so if he's doing something wrong, like running away, calling his name only encourages him to keep doing what he's doing.
To get perfect obedience, I had to convince Flora I'm "top dog." Training started with the door. In a dog's mind, the first one out of the den is the leader. Whenever we left the house, made her wait; I went first. Even on rainy days, in my slippers and bathrobe, I would step outside first. As soon as she followed, my point was made, and I could step back inside.
Leash walking provides another opportunity to communicate dominance. When a human and a dog are tethered to each other by a leash, the one in front is the leader. At eight months old, Flora is still not reliably walking behind; it's a work in progress. When we get it right, when she walks slightly behind me on a loose leash, my heart leaps with joy and pride. At those times, I don't have to reward her with a treat or a pat on the head. Dogs are perceptive, almost telepathic, so I'm sure she senses my happiness.
Another sign of leadership is setting the tone. I get over it quickly after she knocks down a child or chases our ducks. Dwelling on it is counterproductive. She wouldn't understand my annoyance because dogs only know the now. And that goes double for trying to overcompensate for her tough times on the streets of St. Croix. Even the worst-treated dog will forget his abuse if you do.
I also provide all her food. That's another leader-of-the-pack move.
I'll share more with you next week, but meanwhile, I'd love to hear about any dog-training successes you'd like to report. My address is beef@milessmithfarm.
Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm, in Loudon, N.H., where she raises and sells beef, pork, lamb, eggs and other local products.