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Let your dog know who’s the boss

Cesar Millan, who has been called the "Dog Whisperer" for his ability to understand dogs and why they do what they do, offers tips taken from the animal world to help owners let their pets know who is in charge.
/ Source: TODAY

Identifying instabilityHow do you know that your dog is unstable? If you are like the majority of my clients, you just know. Your dog gets aggressive with other dogs on walks and at the dog parks. Or howls for hours when you leave the house. Or compulsively runs away.

All this is puzzling to you, because the family dog from your childhood was perfect — or that is the way that you remember him.

In the amber glow of your memory, your beloved Blackie was mellow, obedient, and content to stay in the background. He was naturally social, and always got along with strange people and dogs. He fetched and returned the tennis ball, walked beside you to school, and never peed in the house.

So why does your current dog dig up your garden? Why does he hide under the table when the garbage truck drives by? What in the world is up with him when he manically spins in circles when he gets excited?

Of course, like most of my clients with unstable dogs, you simply accept that your dog was born with something missing — or has some sort of mental disorder. Or, if your dog was adopted from a rescue organization, you create a story — that he had such a traumatic experience in his past placements that he will never be able to forget the terrible abuse he suffered during those dark, lonely years before he met you. So of course, he will never be stable, and you should not complain, but instead, remain tolerant and feel really sorry for him when he pees all over your sofa whenever you turn the television on. How could you criticize him when he bites anyone who comes near his food dish, knowing what he’s been through in his short but traumatic life? You decide you have to pay the price to live with an unstable dog, because of everything that happened to him before. You owe it to him.

They’re all great dogs
The truth about dogs is, they don’t feel bad about the past. They don’t dwell on their bad memories. We are the only species that does that. Dogs live in the moment. If they feel safe and secure in the moment, then any past conditioned behavior can be reconditioned, provided we give our time, our patience — and our consistency. Dogs move on — often, very quickly. They — like everything else of Mother Nature — naturally want to return to balance. Too often, it is we, the humans, who are unknowingly preventing that balance from occurring.

We are human beings and one of the most beautiful things about our species is that we have empathy. When someone — including an animal —who we care about is in distress, we feel bad for them. We hurt when they hurt. But in the animal world, hurt is a weak energy. Feeling sorry is a weak energy. The kindest thing we can do for our animals who have suffered in the past is to help them move forward into the present. In short, that uncontrollable, neurotic monster you are living with is just waiting for you to help guide him on the way to becoming one of the world’s greatest dogs!

Marley & MeJohn Grogan’s book Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog hit the best-seller list in November of 2005 and, as of this writing, is still in the top ten. It’s easy to see why — this fun-to-read, touching tale of a lovable but out-of-control family Labrador, Marley, could easily be the life story of many of my clients' dogs. Marley is usually destructive, rarely obedient, sometimes obsessive, and always unpredictable. He’s even described on the book jacket as wondrously neurotic. To me, joining the words wondrous and neurotic is part of the reason that there are so many unstable dogs in America. Many people who love their dogs think that their pets’ unhealthy issues are just “personality quirks.” When author Grogan first published his tribute to the recently deceased Marley in the Philadelphia Inquirer, he initially thought that his former companion was one of a kind — “the world’s worst dog.” He was soon flooded with letters and e-mails informing him that he was actually just one member of a giant “Bad Dog Club.”

“My in-box resembled a television talk show,” Grogan writes, “‘Bad Dogs and the People Who Love Them,’ with the willing victims lining up to proudly brag not about how wonderful their dogs were but about just how awful.” Like many of my clients, however, all these well-meaning dog lovers may not understand that their dog isn’t happy being “awful.”

I was thrilled last year when the wonderful Grogan family actually became my clients. Through my National Geographic channel series, Dog Whisperer, they contacted me andinvited me to their home in Pennsylvania to help them with Gracie, their current dog. Also a gorgeous yellow lab, Gracie had a very different issue than Marley (which I’ll get to in chapter 4). But as different as the two dogs were, Gracie and Marley’s problems were both caused by the same human issues — lack of leadership.

When I finally met John Grogan and his wife, Jenny, Marley’s story made more sense to me. They are highly intelligent, compassionate people who see the world through the eyes of talented journalists. They observe, analyze, and describe, but they don’t interfere or try to change. They assumed they were stuck with Marley the way he was — that, in the words of John’s father, Marley just “had a screw loose.” Indeed, as the Grogans laughingly said to me, if it hadn’t been for Marley’s quirks, there wouldn’t have been a wonderful book for so many people to identify with, and to bring tears to so many people’s eyes.

That’s the catch, isn’t it? We don’t want to change our dogs because they make us laugh, or feel unconditionally loved, or needed. But very often we don’t put ourselves into the position of how the dog feels. When a dog has a fear, or an obsession, or any of the many other problems I am called in to solve, most of the time we’re not talking about a “personality quirk.” We’re talking about an unfulfilled and sometimes an unhappy dog.

After I finished wiping the tears from my eyes and put down Grogan’s book, the first thing that came to my mind was that Marley was perfectly capable of being that “great dog,” all the time! In the book, John’s wife Jenny goes through postpartum depression after the birth of their second son and, overwhelmed with the frustration of caring for two babies and a dog that destroys furniture on a daily basis, she finally breaks down and orders the uncontrollable Lab out of the house for good. Previously, Marley had been kicked out of obedience class, but John knows that if he can’t get the dog to follow some basic commands and learn not to jump up on people who come to the house this time around, he’s going to lose his best friend. So John actually did it.

With grim determination, John buckled down, worked really hard to become a serious “pack leader,” and finally helped Marley to graduate from obedience class at last — even though he was seventh in an obedience class with eight dogs in it. With the help of a friend, John breaks Marley of his habit of tackling people who come to their front door. The point is, John was a pack leader when he absolutely needed to be — and Marley was perfectly capable of being an obedient dog.

Together the two of them rallied to the challenge and did what needed to be done in order to keep the pack together. In my reading of the book, however, once Jenny recovered from her depression and things mellowed out at home, John stopped following through in his leadership. So Marley only went so far in learning how to obey household rules, boundaries, and limitations.

John and Jenny also had an advantage that many people who adopt older dogs or shelter dogs don’t have — the opportunity to condition Marley to be a well-behaved dog from puppyhood. Again, seeing their dog as journalists — in a detached way — they failed to interfere with what they assumed was Marley’s natural development. They observed all his antics with wonder and good humor. Plus, he was so darn cute!

The endearing photograph on the cover of the book says it all — the curiously cocked head, the pleading brown eyes, how could anyone with a heart ever want to correct or give discipline to that adorable, floppy-eared pup? John and Jenny made the well-meaning but common mistake of believing that Marley’s destructive antics as a puppy were evidence of his developing personality, his “spirit.” When you study dogs in nature — from wolves to wild dogs to domestic dogs that raise each other, like some farm dogs do — you will witness discipline and order instilled in their lives from their very first days as puppies. You’ll also see the elder canids putting up with an awful lot from the pups — instead ... will allow the little ones to crawl on them, tug on them, even nip.

They won’t deny their innate playfulness, however they set definite limits on it. When playtime is over, the elder dog lets the pups know it right away — by nosing them to the ground with a gentle bite or lifting them up by their scruffs, if necessary. Sometimes, only a growl will get their point across. The older dog always follows through and the pups always back off. If danger is imminent, the elders manage to get the pups immediately herded together and inside the safety of the den in the blink of an eye — to the envy of any kindergarten teacher out there who daily tries to get a pack of five-year-old kids to come back into class from the playground!

The point is, the pups get the message very, very quickly that they must follow the rules of the pack. At no point in time is their playful “spirit” ever diminished, but they do come to understand early on in life that there is a time and a place for everything. Mother Nature has no trouble setting limits in a firm but loving way. But when it comes to cute puppies (and often, our own cute kids), most people just can’t bear to set them on the road to good behavior — especially when their antics provide such memorably humorous moments. But when those pups reach 100 pounds, the fun and games that used to seem cute suddenly become destructive and sometimes dangerous.

John and Jenny had a wonderful companion in Marley. They accomplished trust, love, and loyalty with him. What they didn’t accomplish was respect, however, and respect is an essential ingredient in the structure of any healthy pack. When the students don’t respect the teacher, a school class doesn’t learn. A military unit cannot function at its best when the soldiers do not respect their commander. Parents cannot properly guide their children if the kids do not respect them. In the same way, your dog will not feel safe and calm and stable if she does not respect you as pack leader.

Excerpted from “Be the Pack Leader” by Cesar Millan and Melissa Jo Peltier. Copyright 2007 Cesar Millan and Melissa Jo Peltier. Reprinted by permission of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from the publisher.