Category Archives: Dog Training

Sighthounds Don’t Sit

 

Fact, or Fiction? The Simpsons' greyhound sits

The Simpsons' greyhound sits: Fact, or Fiction?

The main problem we’ve had with dog training is that so much of it starts with “Sit.”

  • Want your dog to learn “stay”? Have them sit. 
  • Want your dog to be calm at the door? “Sit.” 
  • Teaching your dog to pause before crossing the street? “Sit.”
C-Biscuit crashes the Greyhound Meet-up in Central Park. Do you see any sighthounds sitting?

C-Biscuit (top left) crashes the Greyhound Meet-up in Central Park. Do you see any sighthounds sitting?

“Sit” is so easy for most dogs, it was taught on the first day of C-Biscuit’s obedience class. All of the fluffy puppies threw their behinds on the floor (Comfy!) while our sleek whippet stood and looked at us confused. When we enticed her by moving a treat over her head so she had to scrunch down to get it, she just moved away from us – Get that thing out of my face, you crazy people!

Even the very experienced trainer had no luck getting Biski’s athletic bottom onto the hard gymnasium floor. Her diagnosis? “That’s okay. Sighthounds don’t sit.”

Her recommendation was to use “lie down” instead. That makes much more sense for low-fat sighthounds, who do lie down naturally. Of course, they lie down on something padded, not a bare floor. The trainer advised us to bring a towel or mat to class.

Want your sighthound to settle? Better bring padding - even to the top of a mountain. (Shira and C-Biscuit last summer on Giant Ledge.)

Got whippet? Bring padding - even to the top of a mountain. (Shira and C-Biscuit last summer atop Giant Ledge.)

The next week, while all of the other puppies sat eagerly on command, Bob and I rolled out Biski’s giraffe-print dog cushion for her to recline on. This is more like it, Biski thought as she lay down. The other dogs’ owners glanced over at us with disdain, Spoiled yuppy puppy! Hadn’t they heard? Sighthounds don’t sit!

“Lie down” is not nearly as versatile as “sit.” Because of the padding issue, it’ll work on the living room rug, but not next to my desk (wood floor), at the front door (wood floor), in the kitchen (ceramic tiles), on the street (please…), etc.

Mission Not Impossible, Just Unlikely: C-Biscuit (far right) will sit for treats.

Mission Not Impossible, Just Unlikely: C-Biscuit (far right) will sit for treats.

So we use “lie down” when we can, to settle the dogs and teach them patience, for example, but more or less we’ve just moved on without it.

Biski did eventually start sitting, once she saw it as “lying down half-way and getting the treat even sooner.” Our other two whippets? Forget it. But I find they will “stay” and “wait” while standing. That’s good enough.

As long as you’re communicating with your dogs, they know what’s expected and are under control, there’s no reason to get stuck on “Sit.” 

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Pack Mentality, and Problems

When we wanted to get a third dog, the breeder did warn us that a third “changes the dynamic – they become more of a pack.” We looked at little Picchu blinking her big, brown, homeless eyes at us and thought, “Pack problems? Naaahhh.”

Bob, Shira and the NYC Whippet Packette: Well-behaved, except when not

Bob, Shira and the NYC Whippet Packette: Well-behaved, except when not

Sure enough, with just C-Biscuit and Picchu, all was well. Biski has always been shy on the street, Picchu is much more social. We enjoyed going up to other dogs for a change, because Picchu made tons of friends. Even when a new dog lunges at Picchu and barks in her face – something that sends Biski flying backwards into our legs – she ignores it, sniffs, and miraculously the other dog turns friendly. Until we added Sesame.

Sesame, C-Biscuit and Picchu

Sesame, C-Biscuit and Picchu: the House Whippets hit the streets of Manhattan

Our boy Sesame isn’t the problem, exactly, because he’s the shyest of them all, and completely well-mannered. The problem is a pack mentality. Last week I came home and told Bob I’m done walking all three together. They’re too much of a handful, causing too many scenes.

Our social little Picchu is, unwittingly, the instigator. She sees another dog and thinks, “Playmate!” She perks up or jumps, or sometimes barks out of excitement, which Sesame reads as, “The pack is under attack!” Seemingly out of nowhere he lunges and WOOF-WOOFs. He’s not as delicate a little whippet as the girls, and his bark means business. That sets off Picchu, who goes from “I want to meet you!” to “I want to eat you!”

Shira and the NYC House Whippets on a field trip to Woodstock

Shira and the NYC House Whippets on a field trip to Woodstock

Even that would be manageable if it weren’t for wallflower Biski springing to life. Whereas alone she would avoid conflict at all costs, with Picchu and Sesame out front, she’s happy to provide back-up: rrrRRROOUROOUROOU!

Three well-behaved whippets turn into a barking, snarling, three-whip-power lunging machine, while other dog owners scurry away and I become that woman who doesn’t have any control over her rude dogs. I have been frustrated at those people for years – Control your dog! – so I know exactly how bad this is.

Bob and the Whippet Packette: Three is a handful, but not too many

Bob and the Whippet Packette: Three is a handful, but not too many

Bob and I started to anticipate trouble, took the dogs to the curb, and stood body blocking them from a passing dog. This worked – they wouldn’t bark or lunge – but you wouldn’t believe how bad some dog owners are at reading body language that unquestionably says, “Stay away. Our dogs do not want to say hi.” Several times, they let pooches on illegally long leashes prance right up to our Packette, setting them off. Then, of course, we’re the bad guys.

FF_cover09web200_306_However, no cause for alarm. I ordered the booklet Feisty Fido: Help for the Leash-Reactive Dog from trainer Patricia McConnell. We love her training resources, and have several of her books and videos. She says that leash-lunging is a very common problem and that it is not difficult to solve.

Our first training exercise is to work with each dog individually on the “watch” command, so the dogs look at us rather than an approaching dog. That means no more group walks for a while. But it’ll be worth it once our pack is back under control. Hopefully in time to model their matching fall outerwear.

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Whippet Stick-Up: Passive Aggressive Dogs

Some dogs are aggressive; ours are passive-aggressive. Without a nip or a yip, they manage to get everything handed to them: designer clothes, comfy beds, hot meals and homemade treats. And long walks…and stuffed squirrels…with squeakers.

Machu Picchu, our littlest whippet, has certainly learned to kill by cuteness. Like many a Real Housewife, this Real House Whippet gets anything she wants by just showing up and looking good.

Bob, Picchu, Biski & Sesame on a field trip to Piermont, N.Y.

Bob & our whippets on a field trip to Piermont. Sesame: on cement. Biski: on cement. Picchu: on daddy's lap.

C-Biscuit, however, has mastered “the look.” It’s innocent yet demanding, passive aggression at its best. Or worst, depending on whether or not you like this sort of “whipulation.” We certainly prefer it to the uncreative and unsophisticated yap! yap! yap! yap! method of pocket dogs.

Bob frequently translates for C-Biscuit: "I'm tired, thin and hungry. And I have no money."

Bob frequently translates for C-Biscuit: "I'm tired, thin and hungry. And I have no money." (Sesame, nice try, but you are an amateur.)

 

With a strategic shiver, C-Biscuit has gotten my own shirt off my back, and onto hers

With a strategic shiver, C-Biscuit has gotten the shirt off my back, and onto hers

Does the phrase “do nothing, accomplish everything” come from Zen Buddhism, or the Real House Whippets’ Passive-Aggressive Handbook? 

C-Biscuit demonstrates that phrases like "my side" "your side" "wrong way" and "off limits" have no place in a Real House Whippet's vocabulary

Without moving a muscle, C-Biscuit teaches us that phrases like "that's my side" "wrong way" and "off" have no meaning to a Real House Whippet.

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Affordable Dog Training

The only thing better than sharing life with a dog is enjoying a dog who is responsive and well-behaved.

Even the Simpsons took Santa's Little Helper to Obedience Class

Even the Simpsons took Santa's Little Helper to Obedience Class

We wouldn’t expect children to learn how to behave without any guidance, and neither will dogs learn on autopilot. Last year when we got C-Biscuit, we enrolled in an 8-week basic obedience class from Follow My Lead. We thought it was the responsible thing to do and a good bonding experience. (Plus it’s required to take agility, which is what we really want to try.) 

The class cost $375, though. Training is an excellent investment, but we didn’t learn anything magical in class. The techniques are freely available in books, videos, and on TV. 

Here’s what we’re finding most helpful for do-it-yourself dog training with C-Biscuit and Machu Picchu:

 

mcconnell bookFamily Friendly Dog Training: A Six-Week Program for You and Your Dog by Patricia McConnell, a dog behaviorist and trainer. This 100-page, $15 booklet follows the same progression as the $375 class we took, walking you through the basics of teaching a dog’s name, Sit, Come, Stay, Leave It, etc. She’s very clear, and includes a lot of tips about how dogs learn and communicate that help you become a better trainer – and pet parent. 

 

Victoria Stilwell, host of "It's Me or the Dog" on Animal Planet

Victoria Stilwell of "It's Me or the Dog"

“It’s Me or the Dog” show on the Animal Planet channel: Trainer Victoria Stilwell is creative and uses positive techniques. Unlike the “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan, who is all about showing dogs who’s in charge, Stilwell liberally uses treats and games to give dogs guidance. Watching the show should give you lots of ideas about ways to train your own dog. We find the “body block” especially helpful, and her sharp “Ot!” (rather than yelling “Noooo!”). As with Cesar, she emphasizes daily EXERCISE as a basis for good behavior and the dog’s happiness.

 

US-bookcoverWe also really like her book, “It’s Me or the Dog: How to Have the Perfect Pet,” which is my new favorite primer on dog care for new dog owners. It’s written in short, easily-digestible nuggets, with lots of bullet points and photos. Training doesn’t go beyond the very basics, but is a place to start.

 

 

feeling outnumbered“Feeling Outnumbered? How to manage and enjoy your multi-dog household,” also from Patricia McConnell. This is both a booklet ($10) and DVD ($30) that explains training techniques for more than one dog. I invested in the video, which features McConnell demonstrating the exercises with various dogs in her own home. Once I saw her stand in front of an open door and release her 3 dogs calmly one by one by saying their names, I was determined to get this kind of order with Biski and Picchu!

If you’re not going to take a class, I think it’s helpful to watch trainers in action either on TV or video, especially since body language and tone are important. Netflix and public libraries both stock training videos, although I can’t vouch for which ones. I think this is a very appropriate area in which to splurge. 

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Letting a Sighthound Off-Leash

The main thing I heard about sighthounds when I got a whippet was, Do not let them off-leash! Because of their chase instinct, they can bolt. I assumed this meant that for the rest of our together lives, C-Biscuit (and later Sesame) would be tethered securely to our sides. Or, rarely, let loose on a fenced field.

Bob and Biski

Bob and C-Biscuit: Multi-day hiking trip, never letting go of the leash!

We did umpteen hikes last year, including scaling Giant Ledge with heavy backpacks on, with Biski on no more than a 6-foot leash (we abhor flexi-leads). We even lived in fear of letting go of the leash. Every time Bob and I handed off the leash between us, we would both hold it in our clenched fists while confirming, “Okay, YOU HAVE IT?”  

When I say "heavy packs," you didn't think I meant OURS? (Don't worry - she's only carrying snack packs of M&Ms!)

By "heavy backpacks," you didn't think I meant OURS? (Don't worry, she's only carrying M&Ms!)

A dog can, and eventually will, get away. When he does, you want to know you still have some control over him and some confidence about his returning. As the football folks say about players partying after a touchdown, “When you get to the endzone, try to act like you’ve been there before.” You don’t want your dog waiting years to get free, then bolting when he finally does. It pays to build some experience and trust regarding being off-leash.

We heard about our friend Grace letting her two whippets off-leash. Off-leash? we marveled. How? I’ve since learned that plenty of whippets and greyhounds romp off-leash – and come back reliably. I think training a dog to be off-leash, in safe circumstances, is a great exercise for us (peace of mind, convenience), for them (freedom and fun!) and for the bond between dog and owner (trust = love).

A bright coat and cowbell make it easier to track a wayward pup

A bright coat and cow bell make it easy to keep track of pups on the trail

Here are the steps we took, with Grace’s guidance, to letting C-Biscuit off-leash:

Bob demonstrates that a bag of treats acts as an invisible leash

Bob shows that a bag of treats acts as an invisible leash

Helpful equipment:

 

Step 1: Whistle training

Condition your dog to race towards you with relish when you blow a whistle. Use a treat that’s especially high-value, and make it obvious at first: When they are right next to you, blow the whistle (not hard! they can hear it), and treat them to a delicacy. Repeat this several times over a couple days. Then get the dog from the next room with the whistle, and gradually from farther away. Next, go to a fenced yard or field. When your dog is already running towards you, blow the whistle and give special treats. Don’t be stingy: Really deliver here, as this is the key to your dog doing what you ask in the future.

Release the hounds!

Release the hounds! C-Biscuit and Grace's two whippets in the vanguard.

Step 2: Go Hiking

Put the vest, tag collar, and for extra insurance a small cowbell on your dog and go to a trail where they can be off-leash. Make sure this trail is away from any road. If you have friends with dogs trained to be off-leash, all the better: Ask them to come with you. This triggers pack mentality and the dogs tend to stay together (as well as with you, who should be the leader of their pack). With or without company, a hike on a trail puts you and the dog in migration mode. That’s different than, say, a backyard or a dog park.

Picchu's first hike, staying on the leash

Picchu's first hike, on the leash. As you can see, Biski is hardly running away.

When you’re away from the parking area/road, let the dog off-leash. I had thought that if you let sighthounds off-leash, they would go tearing off into the wilderness at lightening speed, never to be seen again. Bob and I had Grace and her whippets, plus her cousin and his Sheltie, all well-trained, to break us in on our first off-leash experience. We couldn’t believe what happened: We unclasped the leash, and Biski kept trotting at our sides. Huh. Then she ranged a little more, with the other dogs, but never too far. We were amazed.

Continue the whistle-training on the trail: Toot, treat. Repeat. Be careful not to get nervous, whistle your dog back, and put the leash on. Teach them that whistle + return = treat + more freedom.

Not holding a leash frees me up to swing on wild vines!

Not holding a leash frees me up to swing on wild vines! (Note Biski is still underfoot.)

Step 3: Enjoy

Once your dog is used to being trusted off-leash, you can change venues and expect them to stick relatively close-by (again, always away from traffic). Always have the tag collar on and the whistle (and treats, ideally) ready.  

The way hiking was meant to be!

The way hiking was meant to be: Yeee-Haaaw!

Using this method, we took Machu Picchu off-leash almost right away, and she did great. Giving the pups some freedom to sniff & roam while hiking has been the best thing we’ve done with, and for, them. And if I accidentally drop the leash in the park, I won’t panic. 

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Housetraining an Adult Dog

The only issue we’ve had with Machu Picchu is she was not entirely housetrained. Her favorite place to go to the bathroom is the middle of the living room rug.

Picchu: "Biski, you're lying on my bathroom spot."

Picchu: "Biski, I've been waiting in line to use that bathroom spot..."

This is understandable, because this is at least her 6th home since January (counting her original owner, family #2, family #3, Whippet Rescue foster home, the breeder, and us). Both her environment and routine keep changing. Plus she isn’t used to big city noises, smells, traffic, and a constant stream of company on the sidewalk (“in the bathroom”).

Our mistake was not being as vigilant as we had been when we brought home C-Biscuit. Biski, too, refused to go to the bathroom on the street at first. We kept her in her crate and kept taking her out every hour or so until almost 24 hours later she finally went. She had a couple accidents in the house after that, but they were our fault for not knowing things like she has to go after taking a bath, even if she went right before the bath. In other words, she had to go and we didn’t know it and didn’t get her out in time.

With Picchu, it’s different. She just prefers the privacy of the rug, period. We walked her for an hour, figured she didn’t have to go, got home and – sssss, on the rug.

Once they go in the house once, the habit is 10x harder to break. (Although cleaning up with Nature’s Miracle really seems to help.) And she’s crafty about it: Even once we started closely monitoring her, the second we turned away, she went on the rug. I felt like my grandma when she explained driving her car off the road: “I just closed my eyes for a second!”  

Breaking this habit is all about eliminating any opportunity to go inside. Housetraining tips say to “limit your dog to one or two rooms of the house.” Well that’s where living in Manhattan comes in handy: I’ve been limited to two rooms for the past 10 years (when I moved up from one room). Continue reading

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