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Trainer Puts Focus on the Owner, not the Problem Pooch

By Fred Dickey

Originally published November 19, 2012


I am not a bad person, not mostly. So why does this dog I buy Pedigree for treat me like a mutt? She’s an uppity, runty, 7-year-old beagle. I’m the one who suggested that breed to my wife, having been led to believe that beagles sleep all the time. They don’t.

I named the dog Moxie because it captured her personality, plus it’s the only Yiddish I know that isn’t a cuss word. I should have chosen a cuss word. Moxie is a smart dog, but she hides it from me. She can roll over, play dead, shake hands and turn in circles for a treat. For a piece of meat, she could probably recite 20 lines of Homer in the original Greek. That’s only for my wife. For me? Well, that’s what this is about.

I’m indifferent to playing dead or jumping through hoops. All I ask of Moxie is that she come when called, stay when commanded, stop barking, and do not jump on guests. Reasonable, I think, but she doesn’t. She toys with me. When I give her a command — plea? — I get this look either of “Make it worth my while” or, “You’ve got to be kidding.” The only punishment I can think of is making her go a month without her flea preventive, but I’m not sure that would be her punishment. As a hound, she’s also the prisoner of her nose. If a spaniel a block away has a gas attack, she wants an intimate sniff.

The worst thing Moxie does is hump the leg of humans, mainly our guests, and also the rear end of other dogs who don’t seem to like it either. I’m told that to a spayed female, humping is an attempt at dominance. Does that make her a dog dominatrix? Yep.

I’ve tried guilt therapy to cause her to mend her ways. I tell her, “You have no friends, no dogs ever come over to play, you won’t learn to fetch the newspaper from the driveway like Hector down the street, all because you have a bratty attitude.” But it does no good.

I know she resents my efforts to prevent her from killing rabbits and ground squirrels. In my opinion, both are just as cute, and neither humps my leg.

So, I want to achieve some behavior modification, bearing in mind the “Old dogs new tricks” warning. Moxie is not that old, but she thinks old. This is going to be a high mountain to climb.

I love the runt, but she’s got issues, as the therapists say. I decide to seek the advice of a trainer. I go to the Internet and come up with Karma Dog Training in San Diego, thinking perhaps with a name like that they might have a Buddhist angle to this thing. Maybe I can chant this cur into shaping up. I connect with Aimee Burton, a bubbly woman who is the training director. The first team.

Aimee sizes me up as the bigger challenge, not Moxie. “You have to realize that dogs communicate through body language, and only repeat behaviors that are rewarding to them. However, humans, not knowing any better, reward all the wrong behaviors. If a dog barks to be fed, and you rush to do it, you’re rewarding bad behavior. Wait until the dog calms down, then feed it.”

She says a dog’s world revolves around resources: food, water, affection. So, if a dog finds it can get what it wants by barking or pawing at an owner, then that’s what it’ll do. They’re opportunistic animals.

“If a dog jumps up on you, and you say, ‘No, no, get down,’ you have to stop and think: Why is she jumping up? Well, she’s trying to get to your face to greet you. She’s not being a bad dog, she’s just being a dog, and that’s her way of getting your attention, and when you respond, she’s getting it. The better solution would be to turn your back and walk away.”

And if a guest comes to the door, maybe someone with vulnerable, exposed legs? “In that case, hold the dog on a leash or behind a baby gate until it settles down.”

Another common problem she cites is pulling on a leash. “If you let the dog pull you, why should he stop? It’s working. So, you deny the dog what he wants to do until he stops pulling.” Aimee is a believer in the head-halter, which puts pressure on the top of the dog’s nose so the dog is controlling the pressure, and the pressure relents only when he stops pulling.

Aimee makes it a point to teach people to not humanize their dog. “People tell me, ‘I come home, and he’s chewed up the couch; he knows he did bad.’ Well, sorry, but he doesn’t. He senses your anger, but he doesn’t know why. Dogs live in the moment. If the dog has his mouth on your furniture, and you say, ‘No, no, no,’ he does gets that.”

I ask if dogs want to please their masters. She chuckled. “In the ‘Wonderful World of Disney,’ they make it look like they do, but no, dogs don’t. Dogs do what is rewarding for them. Do they love us? Absolutely. Would they do something unpleasant to themselves to make us happy? I very much doubt it.” She might get arguments from 12-year-olds over that, but not from me. I’ve already proved my ignorance.

As I think about it, who can blame Moxie and those of her species for taking care of number one? They’re utterly dependent on the most capricious, violent, erratic mammals on the planet. A dog never does anything illogical or without purpose, so, how must it interpret our weird ways?

Aimee tells me the average dog with minimal training can recognize about 25 to 30 words, but it can increase 10-fold with expert coaching. That’s only a few less than a couple people I know; more, if you eliminate profanities. I also ask Aimee if she were going to the shelter searching for a dog, what would be her guidelines.

“I would avoid dogs that stay in the very back of the cage and won’t come up to interact, dogs that are very stiff. A dog that doesn’t approach is fearful. You want a loose, happy-go-lucky, wiggly dog.

“Some dogs are leery of men. There are two reasons: One, they’ve had a bad experience; two, men have an intimidating, deeper voice and are larger. Dogs don’t like to be loomed over. Also, dogs can smell the testosterone, and they instinctively know that can be threatening.”

She says it’s common for a dog to bond to one person in a family over others. It’s often the person to whom they have first exposure, the person who walks or feeds them, or the one who makes them feel the most comfortable or confident.

Frequently, a family that often leaves the dog alone buys a second dog for company. But that must be done carefully, she says. A second dog must be compatible. You might have an older golden retriever that just wants to take it easy, and you bring home a boxer puppy that wants to romp and play and nip. The retriever might tolerate the puppy, but certainly won’t like him.

Aimee is just getting started, but I have to end because I’m out of space (nothing new), and I didn’t even get to the humping. However, thanks to her, I now have a better sense of how to get control over my dog. I have to practice consistency, calmness ... and “Get off my leg, damnit!”

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at

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