Recently, a reader sent me a question about a “moody” little dog that she adopted from an animal shelter. Apparently, when he’s sitting on the sofa with the family, the dog growls when anyone else moves. Because shelter dogs are often extremely insecure about their place in the family “pack,” I suggested that maybe the dog was “testing” the owner to see her reaction. Dogs who have been adopted often have a lot of issues, so they require structure in their lives.
The best way to provide that structure is to turn it around so that you, the dog’s owner, are in charge. It’s often referred to as the “learn to earn” or “nothing in life is free” program. Basically, the dog doesn’t get to do anything unless you say so.
The main thing is to teach your dog to sit and then make him sit for everything. He has to sit before being allowed up on the sofa, sit before getting into the bed, sit before eating, sit before being petted, and so forth. The key is to have a release word as well. For example, at our house, our dogs have been taught to sit until I say the word “okay.” As I’ve noted before, “okay” isn’t necessarily the best release word, because it comes up in conversation a lot more than you might think. (I know because every time I say “okay” four sets of canine eyes look over at me expectantly.) So many people opt to use a different word like “free” instead.
The point of the release word is to let the dog know when to stop sitting. After all, you aren’t in control if the dog gets to decide when to get up, so it’s actually an extremely important aspect of the training. For example, suppose the dog wants to get up on the sofa. You’d tell the dog to sit, then after a few seconds, say “okay” to give him permission to jump up. If he growls, tell him “off.” Then if he wants to get back up, he has to go through the sitting thing again.
Yes, it may sound somewhat boring making your dog sit all the time (and it is, especially at first), but it speaks volumes to the dog. Little dogs can be incredibly domineering, so it can be easy to cave and say, “oh you’re so cute, never mind.” Try to resist that urge! A 10-pound canine should not be in charge of your household.
Over time, as the dog gets better about knowing who is boss, you can sort of relax on the whole program a bit. My dogs are older now, but as soon as they start becoming pushy or snotty again, I re-institute the “sitting” program, so they regain a clue. Then everything is fine.
Of course, some problems are too complicated to tackle yourself. If the little dog’s growling were to turn into aggression and he actually threatens to bite, it’s time to consult a behaviorist.