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Calm And Confident: Training Your Dog (And Yourself)

A dog waits for a treat during a heat wave in Romania on Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019.
Vadim Ghirda
What's involved in training a dog? "Vermont Edition" discusses creating a link with your dog to maintain confidence during stressful times. Pictured, a dog waits for a treat during a heat wave in Romania on Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019.

It's easy to spot a well-trained dog. Maybe the pup is well-behaved in a large group of people or other dogs. Perhaps the pooch can sit, shake and roll over on command. But what's involved in training your pet that molds a calm, confident and well-behaved dog? We're talking about dog training and dog psychology with two Vermont dog trainers. 

Jeff Scarpino, co-owner and trainer at Off The Beaten Trail training and canine facility in Newark, helps us understand dog psychology and behavior, and important training techniques for trainers and dogs alike.

And Jo Meilleur, owner and trainer at Apex Vermont Dog Training in South Burlington, talks about matching goals for your dog with your family and your lifestyle, and creating a link between owner and animal to promote confidence and avoid panic during stressful situations.

Listen to the podcast audio above; find few excerpts from the program below:

Dog Psych 101

Meilleur: “I think a lot of things that people don’t think about when it comes to their dogs are what really motivates them and what really is enticing to them — to, like, light them up and be excited about what they’re doing. A lot of dogs aren’t super excited about strict obedience; sometimes they’re really excited about playing and/or chasing a toy or really using some sort of food motivator. We use a lot of different toys and/or food to actually motivate a dog, to get them out of any type of weird panic or fear kind of reaction, in order to get them to start playing and really open up to being in the different environments.”

Scarpino: “You need that motivation and you need to figure out how to use that motivation to curb towards the behaviors that you want to see. So a lot of times what I bump into is people are giving out, you know, their affection, their time so much that it almost dilutes one of your most powerful tools. And so when you start to use it towards what you want to curb your dog into doing, you become more effective and your communication becomes better. So a lot of times what you end up having to do is making sure that you have spent enough time developing that communication so it’s very effective with you and your dog.”

Scarpino also recommends Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make Us Human: “One of the things that she talks about in there is the two main systems that drive behavior: you’re going to have what’s called a ‘seeking system’ and what’s called a ‘panic system.’ …

“Dogs that are stuck in the panic system … basically run on adrenaline and cortisol all day long — that’s what fuels their behavior. So as you start to combat anxiety and stuff like this, you have to be increasing and changing the way that the dog’s brain works. And a lot of times I do this through games.”

Communication With Dogs

Scarpino: “I have a mentor that she always said a phrase [which] is: ‘you get what you pet.’ And so this is something that I really like to pass along to my clients, and really what it means is whatever you’re giving attention to, you’re reinforcing in that moment. So if in an example you’re giving more attention to the behavior that you don’t want to see, you can be reinforcing it.”

Meilleur: “They totally do talk, you know, with their bodies. So if they stiffen up, that’s something to really be on alert for with other dogs. Also where their tail is actually workable. A lot of people think that their tail, if it’s high and wagging, that it’s OK — sometimes it’s really not. Sometimes it’s a mid-set tail that’s wagging and slowly, like that’s the kind of dog you really want to be approaching or having to be approached … If you’re petting something that’s super excitable and that tail’s super high and really, really wagging tightly, then you’re rewarding that but you are also can be rewarding a dog that might be insecure.”

According to Scarpino, there are likely "a lot of low-level signals" coming from the dog that humans just don't realize.

Scarpino: "One of the toughest things about dogs is that they are constantly communicating, and humans aren’t always paying attention."

When using words to communicate with your dog, is raising your voice worthwhile? Meilleur says no.

Meilleur: “If you start screaming and yelling and putting that kind of energy, sometimes dogs actually think you’re playing with them and they get really excited about it and they think it’s a huge game. So it’s way more important to, you know, keep yourself calm and ... replace that negative behavior with, you know, sending them to a placemat or sending them to their bed or their crate and giving them a different thing to practice.”

OK, So You Want To Get A Dog...

A golden retriever puppy laying down with tongue out
Credit Ken Griffiths / iStock
When getting a dog, trainer Jeff Scarpino advises that you "spend more time there than you think you might need" with the animal before making a decision.

Some advice from Scarpino about getting a new dog:

  1. “Match your energy level more than anything. … Look at what your lifestyle is like and then try to find the breeds that are going to match that.”
  2. “Whether you’re going to a litter of puppies or whether you’re going to rescue a dog, spend more time there than you think you might need.”

That additional time, Scarpino said, will help give you more behavioral insight about the dog and its personality.
Meilleur: “When you’re going to a rescue, I think what’s really important is how much downtime that dog has had. ... They really need that downtime so they can decompress for their temperments but also decompress for their health. Sometimes, unfortunately, they’re coming in with really sick illnesses.”

Taking The Time To Train

Meilleur: “When you want a super solid, positive behavior, consistency and reliability and the amount of times, the amount of reps that you get that are successful with the dog, is going to be really really what’s going to propel your training. So if you’re hoping that your dog’s going to walk on a loose leash and you only do it once a week, then it’s probably not going to stick with them. They’re probably going to lose that skill.”

Scarpino: “I personally like to do smaller training sessions. I usually leave my sessions to about 20 minutes. If it’s a very intensive session, I typically find that the dog can get a little exhausted from it. … I typically train for about 20 or 30 minutes in each of my sessions, and then I give adequate downtime afterwards for self-calming.”

P.S. Dogs need ZZzzs

A listener question about a constantly barking puppy got us talking about the amount of sleep dogs need, and how inadequate rest can manifest in less than ideal ways.

Meilleur: “A lot of times puppies are super overtired. A lot of people don’t think about that — they think they want to really tire their dogs out, and what they’re doing is feeding a lot of that energy. And just like a small human being, puppies really need a lot of down time. So you want to really look at how much down time that that puppy is actually getting. And if it’s overtired, that’s when you’re going to start seeing the negative behaviors: you’re going to see a lot of mouthing, you’re going to see a lot of barking, a lot of zoomies.”

A couple suggestions from Meilleur in this instance include “giving them some good crate time” in addition to providing “an interactive toy.”

Scarpino: “Most dogs, I mean they really want to hit about 12 hours of rest during the day — so this does not even include the nighttime. They want to have more sleep than you’re probably aware of. When dogs don’t sleep enough, they basically become fueled by adrenaline, so they kind of get stuck in fight-or-flight all day long. The more that they rest, the more the brain is learning self-calming which is a nice combattant for a lot of these behaviors.”

Broadcast live on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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