Putting puppy in its place
Hard lessons from 'dog whisperers' make life easier
Kim Gray
Calgary Herald

Dog trainers Tracey Nielson and Joe Scorgie teach young Thumper to mind his manners. Columnist Kim Gray looks on at what she describes as a startling experience...
CREDIT: Leah Hennel, Calgary Herald
Dog trainers Tracey Nielson and Joe Scorgie teach young Thumper to mind his manners. Columnist Kim Gray looks on at what she describes as a startling experience...
...A younger Thumper tugs on a shoestring.
CREDIT: Leah Hennel, Calgary Herald
...A younger Thumper tugs on a shoestring.
Dog trainer Tracie Nielson works with Kim Gray's dog Thumper.
CREDIT: Leah Hennel, Calgary Herald
Dog trainer Tracie Nielson works with Kim Gray's dog Thumper.

I am standing in the kitchen with my back turned to the dog trainers I've invited into my home. My eyes are tearing up and I'm seriously embarrassed. Mostly, I'm distressed.

Trainers from Calgary's Clever Canines have come to help me get our family's new puppy on track. Tracey Nielson and her assistant Joe Scorgie are teaching Thumper, our three-month-old English springer spaniel, not to dash out the front door.

They tried to prepare me, telling me I might be disturbed by what I saw, but I was startled nonetheless. I actually yelped loudly and involuntarily, threw my hands over my mouth and fled to another room because I couldn't bear watching.

Essentially, the front door is opened. The puppy predictably dives towards the entrance and the door is swiftly shut. Not all the way, which of course could really harm him, and not violently. Rather, firmly -- enough to clip the dog on the nose and make him think twice about doing it again.

Of course, there's a squeal or two but I'm informed that the effect is more alarming than it is painful. Hearing him cry out is what sends me bolting to the kitchen. At the time, it's all I can do not to ask the trainers to leave the premises.

Afterward, the door is fanned quickly back and forth, making the pup even more wary of trying to escape again.

For all the discomfort I experienced observing this technique, I am astonished at how fast this important lesson is learned. Minutes later, Thumper won't go near the open door. In fact, he won't go through the door unless I go first and invite him to follow. His chances of racing outside onto the street in front of a car -- and being injured or killed -- have been dramatically reduced.

Despite the emotional trauma, I feel significant relief.

To back up a little: Thumper came to us in early December when he was seven weeks old. I wrote a column at the time raving about our new addition and confessing I'd become one of those cloying and annoying dog owners within 24 hours after his arrival. (Scorgie recalls reading this naive take on puppy ownership and thinking, "I wonder when she's going to call us?")

Frankly, as much as we love the little guy and even though he's a ton of fun, Thumper had developed some bratty behaviours. He jumped up on people when they came to the door. He whined for attention. He'd play with us but he'd nip us incessantly with his razor-sharp baby teeth.

Aside from our hands, everything that carried an animal scent had chew-toy potential. A caribou skin carpet. Leather gloves. Sheepskin boots. A feather boa that he shredded - leaving him with a mouthful of long black feathers stuck between his teeth and poking out from his velvety snout.

We started calling him Fang, instead of Thumper. At first, my family of four was amused. What a strong personality we thought. What character! His intensity was impressive. But then his biting, however unintentional and innocent (after all, he is just a puppy), started to break skin. His nibbles were never delivered maliciously. But he obviously felt this behaviour was acceptable.

I'll always remember the moment when I picked up the phone and dialed for help. (I first called Brad Pattison, the Calgary-based host of Slice Network's reality TV show The End of My Leash. But Pattison was in Cuba and unavailable. I then inquired at Unleashed, a Calgary dog store, which highly recommended Clever Canines.)

Anyway, if you could have seen me make the call you would have laughed. My upper lip, shiny with Polysporin, was swollen with four small puncture wounds. (I had lain down on the floor beside Thumper to give him a hug.)

My children, 9 and 6, who are mostly thrilled about their new pet, were becoming uneasy in their own home. I found myself piggybacking my youngest around the house so he wouldn't worry about losing his toes to a roughhousing pup.

Then a trip to the vet for a vaccine confirmed we had a seriously determined dog who, with training, had the potential to be an amazing pet. Without proper guidance, though, he could become a problem.

Nielson and Scorgie inform me that when Thumper left his mother and litter mates, he left a world where he was disciplined regularly. A canine code kept him on the straight and narrow, correcting him when necessary.

After moving in with us and all of our human tendencies to spoil puppies (hard not to do -- they're so damned adorable) and attempts to meet what we perceived his needs to be, Thumper was getting confused.

"Primates like us show affection with kisses and hugs. If a dog comes over to you and sits on your foot, it's not a hug. It's him basically saying 'I own, control and dominate you,'" explains Nielson. "You'll see this in the park. Dogs will lean into another dog to show dominance. It's all about social status."

In other words, Thumper is a good dog that has simply been trying to figure out his social status in our family, just as wolves do in the wild with their pack. He's been looking for boundaries and rules and discipline -- not baby talk (this tone is a sign of submissiveness) or an endless supply of heart-shaped treats and stuffies to chew on.

Thumper needed to know where he stood in his new pack. In other words, he'd been trying to order me around, which isn't acceptable.

"Always ask yourself this. Is what he doing demanding or bossy? If yes, then don't respond to him. You should initiate and terminate playtime and affection. Right now, he's looking at you as if he has you in his hip pocket," says Nielson who explains that in a proper wolf pack, the leader or alpha will determine when the rest of the pack gets to rest, eat or play.

What's more, I'm told, few dogs aspire to be leaders. They're quite happy to be followers. What they need, in essence, is to know their place and then all is right with their world.

"There are five ways to fulfil a dog. He needs leadership, exercise, rules (which include structure, boundaries and corrections), good nutrition and affection. In that order," says Nielson whose favourite dog resource books include Cesar's Way by Cesar Milan (host of National Geographic's Dog Whisperer series) and the Monks of New Skete's The Art of Raising a Puppy.

"You've got to remember that dogs are survival creatures, not rational ones."

Four days later and Thumper is well on his way to becoming a calmer, more obedient dog. He is tied to my waist for at least an hour a day and his job is to simply shadow me and look to me for direction. I go up the stairs before him, out the door before him and my family always eats dinner before he does.

If he jumps up on me, I push him back down quickly and forcefully like his mother would have -- my right hand parallel to the floor and my elbow locked. If he bites, there's a loud yelp from me (apparently I'm not bad at it) or two-fingered sharp rap across the hard part of his snout.

Frankly, he's happier now. He doesn't have free reign of the house. He's not permitted upstairs or downstairs, on furniture or in the dishwasher. He's definitely not allowed on the kitchen table, where I discovered him last night, licking pork chops off a dinner plate. That necessitated a serious correction.

Leadership, according to Nielson, is what makes a dog feel loved.

"If everyone in your family is on the same page, you'll be much closer to the dog you want within the next two to three weeks," she continues. "If you establish yourself as the leader of the pack, your dog will do anything to please you."

Of course, my dad, visiting from Kelowna, thinks we're all nuts. Wolf packs? Alpha dogs? Play dates for puppies? (Socialization is very important, don't you know? I plan to call a local company, Dawg Tired, to organize some outings for Thumper so he can run with a pack.)

What are we teaching his "grand-dog?" asks my father, rolling his eyes. Manners, I respond -- well aware of how ridiculous all this must sound to his generation.

Later, the phone rings. It's Brad Pattison. He's back from Cuba and plans to stop by to check in with us. When he comes, he agrees Thumper has a particular tenacity about him.

"The key," says the well-known television personality, "is to never let him win. Just like with kids. They'll test you and test you. You can't give in."

If given the right direction, says Pattison, if we remember that Thumper is an animal first and then a pet, our new puppy will be our family's best friend.

Did I think getting a puppy would be so much work? Not in my wildest dreams. Do I have regrets? One glance at the furball -- a puppy who I recently described as "pure joy" -- and I can honestly say, none at all.

Kim Gray is a journalist and mother of two. She welcomes your feedback and your story ideas at modernfamily@theherald.canwest.com

© The Calgary Herald 2008