Sunday, April 12, 2009

The First Puppy

Much interest has been devoted to the Obama's dog. What would they choose, especially with a child who has allergies. Malia, age 10, and Sasha, age 7 were promised a puppy. Much was made of "hypoallergenic" breeds. One television dog trainer enthused, on one of those syndicated celebrity TV programs, that they should get one. Well, here's a news flash: there's no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog. There are breeds with hair, not fur, and those are often a better choice but I fervently hope the child was exposed to the dog before the breed was selected. Rescue people hoped for a shelter pet; others hoped for a purebred. They took sides as if they would have any impact on a personal decision being made by novice dog owners, let alone the President's family.

It was finally announced that the Obama family's dog, named Bo, would arrive 2 days after Easter, a 6-month-old Portuguese Water Dog, a gift from MA Senator Ted Kennedy who owns 3 Porties. Bo had been returned to the breeder. Kennedy is an experienced dog owner. I've often said that having a Portuguese Water Dog as your first dog is like having a Lamborghini as your first car. The breed is very active, intelligent and was bred to dive into the water and set the nets for the fishermen in Portugal. This means that they work independently. And they have a sense of humor, sometimes with the owner as the butt of the canine joke.

The dog is supposedly being trained. My question: by whom and in what manner?

Since everyone else seems to be throwing in their two cents' worth, here is what I would do. I'm at least as qualified as the next person and, perhaps, more so since I am a Certified Animal Behavior Consultant. I'd rather see the family start off right than have to deal with behavior problems in the future. I would tell this to any new dog owner.

First, the name is, in my opinion, a mistake. Bo sounds like No. No is not a word I like to use. I prefer an interrupter like "UH!" but first time dog owners aren't very likely to remember that and are more likely to tell the dog, "No!" and then call "Bo" later and wonder why he's not coming very happily after awhile. A dog should be called to you in a happy tone and never punished after you've called him. He needs to learn that coming to you is always a positive experience, that he is safe and loved. This can help to save his life if he gets loose and needs to be called back to you. He should be microchipped with the microchip registered so he can be correctly identified if he escapes and is found and scanned for a chip. With all of the Obamas' security details it doesn't seem as likely as for the average family.

I recommend that all members of the family get involved in training, each of them given a clicker and some very tiny tasty treats, like miniscule pieces of chicken or turkey or cheese. To "load" or "charge" the clicker, click and treat several times in a row. This teaches the dog that click means treat. Then, the first thing you train him to do is something you must decide in advance because it becomes the default behavior. There are many options but for the family pet, I personally prefer Sit. When you're walking your dog and stop to speak to someone, if he doesn't know what to do, your dog will sit. Click and treat for the Sit but don't use the word until the dog is doing it reliably half a dozen times and then add the word. For a dog who isn't food motivated, a favorite toy, or praise may be the right motivator for your dog.

Stay, Come, Down, Wait, Drop It, are all necessary for a dog to learn and each can be easily taught with operant conditioning (clicker training). It's easy, it's fast - only a few very short training sessions each day, each in a different place so the dog learns he doesn't think he only does each thing in one place.

Housetraining is best accomplished with crate training and he must be taken to his pre-chosen elimination spot each time and praised lavishly as soon as he begins to eliminate.

Is there more to be said? Of course! That's why my colleagues and I have written books.

Every dog is a special dog whether the dog belongs to the President of the United States or the homeless person who will leave anything but his pet. No choke collars, no prong collars. You don't need them! A flat buckle collar is all you really need. For a small dog, or any dog, a harness is great because it doesn't put any pressure on the trachea.

Building the human-animal bond is all-important and there are things to remember: aggression begets aggression; if you are using harsh training methods of the past you will be dealing with fallout later and that fallout is sometimes dangerous.

Having a dog is a wonderful way for the Obama girls to have someone special in their lives, out of the spotlight. They can learn a great deal from operant conditioning because positive reinforcement works with people as well as dogs. But in the end it is the parents who bear full responsibility for the care, feeding and training of their dog, for getting that complete and balanced high-quality food, veterinary care, etc., with the girls taking on age-appropriate, supervised responsibilities for their new family member. And the girls are at the right age for a dog.

I wish the First Family and their new dog well, just as I wish everyone well with their new canine family addition. I hope this works out because Bo has already been through one home. I hope the experience is a good one for Bo and his new family. As the AKC says, "A Dog is for Life." I wish them a long, happy life together.