17 Mar Learning to Sit and Stay

We took Mason, our American Bulldog, to obedience training this morning. Although he’s eager to please, he has his challenges. The thing about dogs is that they need a lot of structure. In the absence of stucture (discipline), dogs get anxious and try to take charge. They’ll take charge of you, if you let them. You’ve seen dog owners who let this happen: those who believe their dogs can do no wrong and have no idea how to control their out-of-control beast. Their dogs may leap upon you, eat your lunch, and pee on your shoe — all while the owner, thirty yards away, calls sweetly: “Now, now, Fido, be a good boy.”

Dog experts tell know that your dog will be most relaxed — and in control — when you show him that you’re the boss. Dogs are followers: they want to be part of the pack. They want to follow the leader – you. That’s why you’re not supposed to let your dog bolt out the door ahead of you. Or snatch the treat from your hand. Or leap up to get at his bowl of chow.

We are now training Mason to wait for permission to do all the things his doggy impulses push him to do. For example, he gets so excited to go outside, he can hardly stand still for me to put on his leash. He leaps and nods and bucks and squirms, he’s so excited. One day when he bucked as I was putting on his leash, his big blocky head hit me square on the nose and nearly knocked me out. I saw stars and got a nose bleed. Now, I will not put on his leash unless he sits and waits for me to finish. It’s really touching to see how he battles his enthusiasm. And it takes a few minutes because I will not complete the task (of leashing him) until he stays still. The heartening thing is that he has learned to do this.

Effective dog training means that the owners need training too. Jill and I are being schooled to be vigilant: when teaching Mason, we can’t laugh at his silliness (dogs know that laughter is an encouragement); we can’t apologize for making demands of our dog or give him a break when things get hard (humans are such wimps about being disciplined); and we have to be consistent — no exceptions. The stakes are high because a big dog like Mason has a lot of impulses that could get him into trouble. American bulldogs were bred to be guardians. If left to his own devices, that will be his default mode.

I have decided that owning such a dog is kind of like owning a sports car. You’ve got to know how it runs and what it needs to run best. This afternoon, we’ll take Mason for a test drive on the city sidewalks, where there will be lots of distractions and almost more excitement than his young heart can hold.

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