Train the perfect mountain dog
February 25, 2014
When most mountain residents get a dog, they have a certain idea of what life with Rex (or around here, Rocky, Bode or Elway) will be like.
Owners probably imagine exploring trails, skiing and biking with their trusty canine right behind, protecting them against wily wilderness creatures, romping with other dogs in the park and joining them as a co-worker at a dog-friendly office. I know that's what I was thinking when we got Kona, a two-year-old Siberian husky.
What most dog owners don't bargain for is the amount of work and training that goes into creating the perfect mountain dog. I figured that out the first time Kona got into a brawl, and I was afraid that I was now the owner of a "bad dog."
We chatted with local dog whisperer Mark Ruark, of Mark Ruark Dog Training in Edwards, to talk about how to work with your pooch to make sure it's a good mountain citizen and not the terror of the slopes.
"Everyone wants to have the off-leash dog, for them to run loose in the mountains, but they've got to have manners," Ruark said. "They can't jump on people or charge other dogs. 'Come' is your main command to master, especially with the wildlife here."
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At a recent dog training class, Ruark asked the 15-or-so dog owners, "When your dog is off the leash and you say, 'Come,' how many of you have a dog that comes the first time?"
Most people looked sheepish, and a scant two owners raised their hands.
Kona lives in a neighborhood where the majority of dogs run off the leash. I used to think that was cute before I got a dog, but that quickly changed when Kona would go wild at the sight of another dog charging from 100 feet away, unrestricted by its owner. I'd be struggling to control Kona from my end as the other dog owner halfheartedly called their animal away, and maybe after four or five calls, the dog would back off of us. It begged the question, "Why isn't your dog on a leash?"
Needless to say, in the first days of bringing Kona home, I walked in fear of meeting other dogs.
Ruark suggests owning that "come" command before letting your dog run free. Start with the dog on the leash and get it to respond to their name, come to you, sit, touch your hand with their nose and look you in the eye. The point, he said, is to get your dog to pay attention to you when called, above any other distractions.
How do you do that? Ruark endorses a rewards-based method, using treats, attention or games — whatever motivates your dog — to reinforce the behavior. Slowly withdraw the reward over time until the dog responds to the command alone.
"How long this takes depends on personality and breed," he said. "You can wean off of the reward, but there still has to be a jackpot factor — there has to be a big treat once in awhile."
Plays well with others
Just like people, some dogs are more reactive and while others make friends immediately at the dog park. Around here, where dogs of all kinds abound, it's important to have a pooch that can safely play with others.
Besides the attention commands previously discussed, also learn to read your dog's body language to know the difference between friendly and aggressive.
Know that a wagging tail isn't always friendly. Instead, positive signals include "smiling," the whole body wagging and ears up. Negative signals include leaning back, a dropped tail, avoidance of eye contact, flattened ears, rigid stance, curling the lip and showing teeth.
To train a dog that will be friendly with people, start by setting boundaries. Believe it or not, many dogs may not respond well to anyone and everyone invading their space to pet them.
"We're the ones who blow it because we don't set boundaries," Ruark said. "Everyone wants to pet your dog, and we let them. You want the dog calm and sitting before you let anyone pet them. Also, I don't let everyone to pet my dog. Do you like everyone you meet? How can you expect your dog to?"
If you do pet someone else's dog, the best way isn't to rush in, bending over the dog. Instead, kneel down and let the dog approach you, offering it a closed fist and then an open palm to smell.
The multi-sport dog
Many Vail Valley dog owners want to exercise with their dog and not just on walks. Vets and trainers alike caution people who want to ski with their dogs. Veterinarian Steve Sheldon, of the Gypsum Animal Hospital, said the No. 1 injury he sees are dogs with cut heels or paws from getting too close to ski edges.
Your dog should learn the commands such as speed up, slow down, back or away before it starts shredding with you on the slopes.
To teach a dog to run alongside a bike, Ruark recommends a harness leash made by Ruffwear that goes around the rider's waist and has an elastic quality. That way, when your dog is learning not to pull, the rider won't get jerked off the bike.
He also points out — it's never too late to start training. Older dogs can keep learning, too.
"The National Geographic record for commands and words a dog knows is more than 1,000," Ruark said. "I have clients whose dogs are well into the 100s (of commands). You just have to keep up the consistency — they get it."
Vail Daily Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and firstname.lastname@example.org.