There are always good & bad things that come from Hollywood dog movies. The good? A better appreciation and understanding of why dogs are so awesome. The bad? People running out to puppy mills stores to get a dog without thinking it through and the onslaught of Chihuahuas or Dalmations at the shelters a few months later.
So after the huge success of the movie Marley & Me, I thought it was important to discuss the ramifications it would have on the public. And then I came across this great article at the Kentucky Humane Society website written by Ursa Marr, that cut through the fog and laid out it arguments clearly. I’m very honored that they are letting me repost the article here.
So please read it and tell us what your thoughts are on the matter. I think it’s very important that these discussions take place, before and after, every dog movie. Because believe me, after the success of Beverly Hill’s Chihuahua and Marley & Me, there will be a huge amount of dog movies coming out in the next few years. That’s just how Hollywood works.
Marley & You
I haven’t seen the Marley & Me movie yet, but as a dog owner and trainer, I’m pretty sure there’s a law that requires me to do so. I read the book when it was first published, and while it was entertaining, it was also cringe inducing. As I took in stories of Marley wreaking general havoc on the Grogan household, I couldn’t help but think – he’s acting like a normal Lab puppy! Why don’t they get some help?
No one brings home a puppy thinking that it’s going to be a perfect angel from the start. But many people are unprepared for the challenges of raising a new puppy, and have unrealistic expectations for their pup’s behavior. When the puppy begins displaying normal behaviors like chewing, digging, barking, nipping, and house soiling, all of a sudden the furry bundle of joy isn’t so cute anymore! Frustrated owners are far more likely to re-home a dog or surrender him to a shelter — the fact is, each year hundreds of thousands of “Marleys” are turned into shelters or even euthanized for the very same behavior problems that seemed so humorous in the book. So, what is a pet owner to do when they’re at their wit’s end?
The answer is behavior training. Puppies are born knowing how to behave like puppies. Some of these behaviors we like, and some we don’t. But our dogs don’t know that. There is no innate doggie sense that tells them we don’t like having our feet nipped, our chairs gnawed on, or our rugs soiled. They are just doing what puppies do, and if they don’t learn appropriate behaviors, they’ll continue doing it into adulthood.
It’s our responsibility to teach them what we want in a clear, humane and patient manner. The good news is, you don’t have to use fear, pain, or force to train your dog – no need to hit them, yell at them, or use training collars that cause pain or discomfort. I wouldn’t want to be taught that way, would you? Positive reinforcement training is effective, easy, and fun for both you AND your dog. If only the Grogans had called in a good positive reinforcement trainer early on, they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble!
Click here to download a great handout from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. It details some key points on refining unruly dogs so I won’t reinvent the wheel here. But I would like to add a few things I feel are important:
1. Dogs Don’t Speak English. Just because you say “no!” once, or a thousand times, does not mean your dog understands it. “No” what? What happens when they hear “no”? If “no” is followed by a reliable (meaning it happens EVERY time) consequence, such as a time-out, it can be a successful behavior interrupter. Otherwise, it’s Greek to your dog, who may think you’re just barking at him. It’s also important to remember that dogs are far more visual than auditory. You may think your dog knows the word “sit”, but again, just because you think it does not make it so. You need to make sure your dog truly understands the word and isn’t cueing off of your body language instead. I knew my dogs had learned the word “down” when I had them in the back of my CR-V and asked them to “down” while I was backing out of a parking space so I could see through the rear window. They all dropped into a down on cue, and since I was facing the other direction I could be sure they weren’t just responding to visual signals! This level of reliability can be achieved through regular practice.
2. Dogs Don’t Get Even. As humans, we tend to frame things in our own terms, even when dealing with other species. I often hear students and clients tell me “he peed in the house/chewed up my pillow/trashed the living room because he was mad at me for leaving!” While it may make us feel better to rationalize behavior in this way, it’s crucial to understand that dogs don’t do things out of spite. Dogs are very emotionally honest creatures and act in the moment, without “planning ahead”. This means that a dog peeing on your carpet is not thinking of you coming home in six hours, finding the urine, and getting angry. He’s probably thinking “I can’t hold it any longer!” or “I’m nervous and I can’t control myself!” If a dog is behaving inappropriately, whether it’s in your presence or absence, there’s a behavioral issue that needs to be addressed. It could be boredom, anxiety, or frustration. But, accusing the dog of being spiteful or vengeful accomplishes nothing and will only obscure the real problem behind the behaviors.
3. Dogs Don’t Amuse Themselves. Well, okay. Dogs DO amuse themselves – maybe this one should say “Dogs Don’t Amuse Themselves Appropriately.” It is our responsibility as owners to keep our dogs busy and occupied. Dogs who live as pets are essentially unemployed – they were bred to do a job, but how many of us actually herd sheep, drive sleds or hunt foxes? What that means is that your dog has not only extra energy, but an innate urge, an instinctual drive to do things like run, chew, dig, and chase. If we don’t provide them with proper outlets for these urges, they will make their own fun. Dogs who “landscape” their owners’ yards, eat the furniture, bark incessantly at the doors and windows, maul people with overly friendly greetings, and so on need an outlet for all their energy. That’s where owners come in – by providing exercise, plenty of appropriate and engaging toys, and of course – behavior training!
Many behavior problems are not simple ones – if you think your dog has separation anxiety, or if your dog acts aggressively towards people (you included!) or other dogs, you are going to have to put more time and effort into training than you would just teaching basic commands. But it can happen – and everyday we see “problem” dogs who learn to behave appropriately when their owners commit to training! While Marley’s story ended with him remaining in his happy home for the rest of his life, many dogs are not so fortunate. Don’t let yours be one of them. Start training your dog now – it’s never too late, and never too early.
Ursa Marr, CPDT
Community Behavior Manager
Kentucky Humane Society