C'mon, Pooch, Get With the Program

By ANNA BAHNEY
Published: February 23, 2006
IT took the success of "Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World's Worst Dog" by John Grogan, which has bounded to the top of best-seller lists, to expose a secret not easily given up by dog owners. Their dogs are often bad dogs.

Marley the cover boy.
Review: 'Marley & Me,' by John Grogan
M. Scott Brauer for The New York Times
Liz Dimmitt and her Chihuahua, Gypsy, at an obedience class.
 
"I held my dog up as the world's worst dog," Mr. Grogan said. "But I've heard from hundreds and hundreds of people who can match my story point for point."
Marley — the indelible rascal of a yellow Labrador retriever that placed himself at the core of Mr. Grogan's family despite always seeming to have some household object in his jaws or heading down his gullet — has so resonated with readers that Mr. Grogan has received thousands of "that darned dog" letters, e-mail messages and comments at his Web site, www.marleyandme.com. The letters express relief at finding others with misbehaving dogs and challenge Marley's claim as "world's worst."
Dog experts have noticed other signs of a growing concern over bad behavior by dogs, despite all the gourmet biscuits, educational toys and $70 dog sweaters lavished on them. (Perhaps because of that treatment, others argue.) Enrollment in obedience classes is escalating, veterinarians are seeing an increasing demand for help with behavior problems, and ratings for "Dog Whisperer," the National Geographic Channel's dog-behavior program, are rising. Figuring out how to make the dog mind, it seems, has become a national obsession.
The problem, some dog experts suspect, is not that there are more bad dogs, only more demanding owners. People expect their dogs to cooperate with their busier lives — to behave at cocktail parties, at real estate open houses and in cafes and shops — and to respect their better-appointed homes. And in a culture that values achievement and excellence, they readily assume that dogs value the same things, especially when there are obstacle courses to master and social graces to display.
Some dog experts wonder whether the focus on behavior is the best thing for the dog or just the latest form of self-help for people: with their furniture, their clothes and their cooking skills already up to snuff, the only way to make their lives better now is by improving the dog.
"This is the generation that invented the gifted and talented kid," said Jon Katz, the author of books on the human-dog relationship, "so now you have the gifted and talented dog."
Mr. Katz, who has written "Katz on Dogs: A Commonsense Guide to Training and Living With Dogs" (Villard, 2005) and "The New Work of Dogs" (Villard, 2003), which discusses the changing role of dogs from outdoor protectors and retrievers to indoor nurturers and soul mates, said there has been an explosion in the number of companion animals, almost a fivefold increase since the 1960's.
This increase, combined with many other social changes, Mr. Katz said, has brought about a revolution in the relationship between people and dogs. Dogs are now expected to play the role of the best friend, confidant or child, who can be taken everywhere, including the mall and a friend's house. "Dogs are a blank canvas," Mr. Katz said. "You can paint anything you want on them."
Chris Hoffman and Ann Shih put Senshi, their American bulldog, through basic dog training, twice. Then, to socialize Senshi, they took her everywhere they could: shopping, the library, cafes. And the better socialized the dog became, the less they left her at home.
Mr. Hoffman, who works in Internet marketing in San Francisco, said Senshi is a bigger part of his life than the dogs of his childhood, dogs that would spend a lot of time in the backyard. "We don't have a backyard, but if we did, she wouldn't spend much time there," he said. "She's more a part of our family."
Annie Teillon and her husband, Geoff, who live in Manhattan, found that formal training was vital for their two dogs — a Lab and a golden retriever — because they are so large and strong. "I live in an apartment with my two dogs," Ms. Teillon said, "and it is necessary for them to be very well behaved."
The number of obedience classes nationwide is not known, in part because dog training is often an informal arrangement, ranging from one-time classes in a schoolyard to intensive home visits from doggy gurus. But many trainers say waiting lists for their classes are growing.
Andrea Arden, a dog trainer in Manhattan, and her staff give 18 dog training classes a week: 10 for puppies and 8 for adult dogs. Last Thursday morning Ms. Arden put a notice up on her Web site announcing three new agility classes, which train dogs to run obstacle courses by following commands like run, jump and weave. Since these are advanced courses and cost $350 for six weeks, she expected it would take weeks to fill the sessions, but they were fully subscribed in two hours. Later in the day she added another class, and it too was quickly booked.
Annette Rauch, a research assistant professor at the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine of Tufts University in North Grafton, Mass., cited a survey of new pet owners that showed 75 percent wanted counseling on behavior, and 85 percent said they intended to participate in a training course. "Over the past few decades there has been a larger push to train vets in behavior," she said. Behavior problems, she noted, are the leading reason people give their pets away.
"As we've seen an increase in the popularity of large breeds of dogs," Dr. Rauch said, "we've seen an increase in the number of behavior problems."
By far the most popular dog in the country for the last 16 years has been the Labrador retriever, which had 137,867 American Kennel Club registrations last year, more than twice as many as the second most popular dog, the golden retriever, which had 48,509.
Large dogs like these need more exercise than many owners realize. And if they don't get enough, they may chew the furniture or become aggressive.
Ms. Arden said small dogs present a different kind of trouble, which she calls small dog syndrome. Many owners (especially those who think of themselves as parents) treat their Yorkies and Chihuahuas like babies, she explained, and this leads to spoiling. Owners often fail to discipline small dogs when they relieve themselves on the carpet, for example. "Because it was just a couple of drops, owners wipe it up and say, 'Oh he just didn't want to go outside and get his little feet all wet,' " Ms. Arden said. If it was a Lab, she added, the owners wouldn't say the same.
The lack of discipline can lead to aggressive snapping, biting, barking and chewing, Ms. Arden said.
Pet owners tend to respond to bad behavior in two ways, said Prof. Nicholas Dodman, the director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings: by getting rid of the dog or by taking extreme measures to improve the behavior immediately.
Dr. Dodman cautioned owners to be patient, to maintain realistic expectations and to aim to control their dogs without shouting or violence.
Methods of training vary, but most favor rewards for good behavior over punishment for bad. Cesar Millan, who runs a dog psychology center in Los Angeles and is in his second season as the host of "Dog Whisperer," calls for asserting dominance, so that the dog learns that the owner is the leader. Mr. Millan preaches that dogs need exercise, discipline and affection, in that order. He aims, he said, to create a balanced dog, but has drawn criticism for techniques like pinning a dog down or jerking on its leash.
Dr. Dodman said: "My college thinks it is a travesty. We've written to National Geographic Channel and told them they have put dog training back 20 years."
Mr. Millan's response: "Some people don't like me. I know I'm doing good."
Teoti Anderson, a dog trainer in Lexington, S.C., and the president of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, said owners often avoid obedience classes for fear that their dogs will not measure up to the others.
"They are so focused on their own dog acting like an idiot," she said, "they don't notice everyone else is doing the same thing."
Dog owners take consolation from Mr. Grogan's book. "I am the spiritual leader of the bad dog owners of America," he said. "I can't give people tips on how to be a better owner, but I can give them support that they are not alone."

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