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Cesar Millan: How to help your pup learn

The “Dog Whisperer” shares tips for the most natural way to train your four-legged friends, which can prevent problems with them later in life. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Cesar Millan, the Emmy-nominated star of "Dog Whisperer" and best-selling author, decided to raise four puppies of different breeds — a pit bull (Junior), a Labrador retriever (Blizzard), an English bulldog (Mr. President) and a miniature schnauzer (Angel) — and share his experiences with readers to illustrate how using the core principles of dog psychology and raising puppies as naturally as possible will prevent problems and issues with your dog later in life. In this excerpt, Millan shares the basics of conditioning your pet.

Chapter six: Connecting, communicating and conditioning
How your dog learns
A mother squirrel and her baby spent all day on a walkway of the UCLA campus, repeating over and over the same apparently fruitless task — trying to get the baby squirrel to jump up and over an approximately four-foot-high wall. Such exercises in life learning are everyday occurrences in the animal world, but this particular incident was captured on videotape by some fascinated university student, who uploaded it onto YouTube, and it received an amazing 500,000 hits!

When I saw the short piece, I was happy to learn that it was reaching so many people. To me, this simple amateur video illustrates exactly what I want my readers to take away from this book about how animals learn — and how we can help, not hinder, their natural processes. In the video, the mother squirrel is showing the baby squirrel what it looks like to jump to the top of the wall, teaching by example. The mother squirrel seems to have an endless supply of patience as she demonstrates her graceful moves over and over again. The baby squirrel finally gets up the gumption to try it a few times himself, but he makes it only partway before falling.

At this point, the concerned UCLA students watching this unfolding drama decide to get involved. They move a backpack up against the part of the wall that the squirrel is attempting to scale. At first, the squirrel flees the strange object, but after a few minutes, it returns and figures out that the backpack could make a good ladder. The squirrel climbs up the backpack, but the object isn’t quite high enough to leverage the baby animal to the top. Another student comes on the scene with a couple of large sandbags; stacked together, they are taller than the backpack. Again, the tiny rodent flees the scene. This time, his mother comes down and escorts him back to the wall for another try. She leaps up and waits just above the sandbags. Then, encouraging with silence and energy, she watches her baby climb up the sandbag, make a last heroic hurdle, and finally succeed in scaling that daunting concrete wall.

My first thought after watching that video was “What if that had been a mother dog and a puppy?” I have no doubt whatsoever that the same concerned students would have simply picked the puppy up and put her on the grass above the wall. They might even have comforted her, petting and cooing as they did so. Then they would’ve gone on their way, confident that they had “rescued” a helpless animal, while the puppy actually might have missed a learning experience that could one day save its life. The truth is, in most situations, animals — even juvenile animals — are anything but helpless. Animals are smart, resourceful, and all about survival. What we humans interpret as “rescuing” can actually be blocking a puppy from her natural process of learning and growing and mastering a new environment. In the UCLA squirrel video, the animal in question was saved from this fate because of its wildness. The students approached and dealt with a wild squirrel very differently than they would have a domestic puppy or kitten. And what they did with the squirrel turned out to be exactly the right thing to do! They helped the animal, not by rescuing it, but by working in partnership with it, giving it direction but not stepping in and solving its problem. A partnership between human and animal is exactly how we need to approach first connecting and communicating with, and finally, conditioning (or “training”) our puppies.

Connecting: Relationship is everything
It was my original ambition in life to grow up and become the best dog trainer in the world, and I have trained many dogs in my life — to perform tricks, to answer to commands, as well as to work as security dogs. Soon after I arrived in America, however, I observed that traditional “training” — meaning sit, stay, come, heel, or answering to other commands— was not solving the problem of an epidemic of unstable dogs. What those dogs needed was for their owners to stop humanizing them, to reclaim a leadership role in their lives, and to fulfill all their primal needs — the needs of animal, dog, and breed, in that order.

But as you have already learned, a puppy’s mother starts “dog training” from the earliest days of her pups’ lives. Her training is not done with a high, squeaky, overexcited voice, commands, or bribery by treats; it is done in silence, using energy — a much more powerful tool of communication. “When I have a litter, they are learning from the moment they are born. They learn from their mother, their siblings, and from me handling them,” says my friend Martin Deeley, executive director of the International Association of Canine Professionals and an acclaimed breeder and trainer of gun dogs.

When an owner picks up a puppy for the first time, the pup is already beginning to learn from the owner. The ride home in the car is a lesson. The meeting of the family is a lesson. Dogs are learning twenty-four hours a day. Even when asked to relax and do nothing, they are learning to do this and be patient. Everything we do with a pup from the moment we get that pup is a learning experience.

So we actually start “dog training” the moment we get a pup, and in fact we should start teaching ourselves how to behave and how to establish all the good habits before we even get the pup.

A mother dog’s “training” is also done through connecting. She has a real relationship with her pups, expressed through constant calm assertive leadership. This is why I advise all puppy owners to think “connection,” then “communication,” before they think “training” or “conditioning.” Learn to converse with your dog the way another dog speaks to her — using energy, body language, and eye contact — before you ask her to master the intricacies of any human syntax. Your conversations will have much deeper meaning for your dog that way, and you will be sharing a true connection. Connection is the language of energy; it is the cornerstone of the lifelong bond between you and your dog. Connect and fulfill first, then move on to conditioning.

Cesar's fulfillment formula
Every dog and puppy needs . . .

1. Exercise — in the form of a minimum of two structured walks with a pack leader, twice a day

2. Discipline — clearly communicated and consistently enforced rules, boundaries, and limitations

3. Affection — in the form of physical affection, praise, treats, and playtime

... and in that order! Though you may be adopting a puppy in order to give it love, the reality is that puppies need a lot more than love to keep them balanced. A good pack leader shows love by fulfilling the dog in all three areas — in the right order. This fulfillment formula works throughout the entire life of your dog.

Leash training
When it comes to bonding with your puppy, once again you have Mother Nature on your side, since from birth to eight months, your puppy is programmed to always follow her leader. Once the natural mother is out of the picture, you become the puppy’s default pack leader, and if you direct her with the same calm-assertive energy that she’s been accustomed to since birth, your puppy will automatically follow you whenever you wander away. It’s as if there were a built-in invisible leash between you and her. Still, when your puppy is with you in the public, human world, an invisible leash is not enough. There are far too many distractions and dangers out there. Once she enters adolescence, she is going to want to range far and wide. You need to leash-train her from a very early age, in such a way that the leash is barely noticeable and has only positive connotations for the puppy. Done right, leash training strengthens the connection between you and your puppy. It becomes a physical cord through which your energy travels to her, and vice versa.

Many conscientious breeders will begin the leash training for you. Brooke Walker already had Angel well on his way by the time he came home with me, at eight weeks. Brooke starts the process by putting little paper bands on their necks right about the time they are starting to walk. She initially does this for identification purposes — that’s how I first met Angel, when he was simply Mr. Green, next to his brother, Mr. Blue, and sister, Ms. Pink. “Since my puppies rarely leave home before three months, I usually start introducing them to the leash at about eight or nine weeks. Just five minutes, twice a day. I’ll do short little stints with a treat held close to their nose to encourage them to move forward. I like to compare it to when you introduce a child to swimming and you keep moving backward from them so that they have to take one more stroke to reach you.”

Brooke’s method of leash training is right in line with my own philosophy of being a partner instead of a dictator when it comes to your dog’s learning. I recommend letting a puppy drag around a very short leash for quick intervals while she’s playing — supervised at all times, of course — just so she can get accustomed to the unnatural feeling of having something around her neck, while still experiencing the fun and freedom of play. Remember, we as humans are used to getting up every morning and putting foreign objects like clothes, shoes, and jewelry on our bodies, but to a dog, leash, harness, booties, or sweater are just that — completely foreign. Conditioning is the process of making the unnatural feel natural. T

rainers who work with wild or exotic animals — for instance, big cats that perform in magic acts — always start conditioning their animals to leashes and collars as young as possible. The younger a puppy is when she gets used to the feeling of a leash, the more normal the sensation will be for her. As for the tools themselves, I am a big proponent of less is more when it comes to a puppy’s leash. In fact, with all the puppies I’ve been raising for this book, my simple 35¢ nylon leash slipped over the pup’s head and held high up on the neck for control has been my number one tool. I am a fan also of “show leashes” — slim-cut, pure leather leashes with a loop at the end that are used in dog shows. They are short, lightweight, and allow a maximum of control with a minimum of tension. If you want to introduce a Halti or gentle leader to your puppy, the correct time to do it is between four and six months of age.

Never use a prong collar or other advanced training tool on a puppy under six months of age, but if your powerful-breed puppy is still exhibiting signs of overexcitement or lunging as she enters her adolescence, consult a professional to help you decide on the appropriate tool to help manage the problem. By preventing any behavioral issues now, in puppyhood, I hope you will be so in tune with your dog that there will be no need for advanced tools or extra help down the line. But if you need help, make sure to reach out before the problems escalate out of control.

And always remember that it’s not the tool itself — it’s the energy behind the tool that matters! Your energy passes through the leash directly to your dog, so if you are uncomfortable in any way with the training tool you are using, your dog will sense it — and react accordingly.

Another important detail of leash training is that you must always let the puppy come to the tool, never force the tool on the puppy. The first few times, this may take patience. Make a loop that’s about one and a half times wider than your puppy’s head. Then hold it in front of you and let her sniff it. You can spray it with an organic scent or palm a treat on the other side of the loop. Let the pup examine the tool and feel comfortable with it. Lightly touch it to her forehead and nose.

Once the puppy seems relaxed and curious about the tool, hold the treat on the other side and let her put her head through the loop to reach the treat. Then gently tighten the tool. If your puppy is still relaxed, provide a reward — petting, praise, or a treat. The adventure of the walk that goes along with the leash is the biggest reward, giving the leash a positive association. That’s why so many dog owners report that their dogs get excited whenever they see the owners going for the leash — the association of the good times that the leash represents. After a few times repeating this ritual, you may be able to hold the loop of your leash out in front of your puppy and watch her put her head through on her own. If your puppy is wearing a collar and you are simply attaching a leash to the top of it, never chase the puppy around when it’s time for a walk. Once again, let the puppy come to you. Using the tried-and-true formula of nose-eyes-ears, engage your puppy’s nose and make sure she’s standing or sitting still while you fasten the leash to the collar. Stay relaxed and quiet; keep the image of your pup’s calm, confident canine mother in mind. And keep your energy positive. Taking a puppy for a walk should be one of life’s most joyful experiences!

Puppies have very short attention spans, so when they are young, keep the time on the leash short and sweet — no more than five to ten minutes at first — and fill that time with fun, pleasant surprises, and rewards. When the shorter sessions become easy, gradually lengthen them. This way you’ll leave your puppy wanting more each time. She’ll actually come to crave the experience of the leash because it will come to represent adventure, exercise, praise, and, most important of all, bonding with you, her pack leader.

Excerpted from “How to Raise the Perfect Dog” by Cesar Millan. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Harmony Books, a division of Random House.