Early dog training saves grief, expense


December 14, 1991|By Gina Spadafori | Gina Spadafori,McClatchy News Service

Not too long ago there was an advertising campaign meant to stress the importance of preventive car care.

"You can pay me now," intoned a grim-faced mechanic, "or you can pay me later." The message was clear -- regular oil changes are cheaper and easier than replacing an engine.

The same principle applies when it comes to raising a dog: The time and money you put in early will save you grief and additional expense later.

It's a message too few people heed. One person I know went through an experience that was difficult, but not the least bit uncommon. I'm sharing his story in hopes that someone else will learn something from it.

"We're going on vacation and want to get a puppy when we get back," said my acquaintance more than a year ago.

I suggested he hold off until his next two-week vacation and spend the time getting the puppy off to a proper start. A two-week investment in a 7-week-old dog pays off handsomely, I explained, helping to teach an animal its place in the family and preparing it for the important lessons every good dog must learn.

"We're not going to waste our vacation time on that," he said. "And besides, we want a dog now."

So they got a puppy, one of the currently popular large breeds. "We want a dog for protection," said my acquaintance. "This dog will make a burglar think twice."

I told him an untrained dog could make a bigger mess of a home than most burglars could, and an aggressive dog could be a bigger threat to family safety than most muggers.

"This is going to be a big, strong and potentially aggressive dog," I told him. "Make sure you socialize him well and put him in a puppy-training class. You must shape his behavior now or he'll be a big problem later.And get a crate for house-training and 'destruction-reduction' -- it's faster, kinder and neater."

"He's so cute! I can't imagine any problems," he replied. "I don't have the time for a puppy class. I'll train him myself. And a crate costs too much -- he'll learn without it."

The puppy grew. He never managed to get completely house-trained, so he became a backyard dog. He was bored and lonely, so he started digging and chewing. His barking and howling were a neighborhood nuisance.

"He'll outgrow this phase, won't he?" asked my acquaintance, more annoyed than worried. Despite the problems, the family loved the dog. He was great with the children -- as long as they didn't try to take food away from him. His favorite game was tug-of-war; he always won.

Since my acquaintance hadn't bothered to read up on puppy-raising, he didn't know that tug-of-war teaches dogs to challenge authority. Or that dogs who push children around make dangerous pets.

The dog was a little more than 1 year old and 80 well-muscled pounds when my acquaintance took him to the vet's for a checkup. The ride was miserable, but the waiting-room scene was worse -- the dog lunged viciously at the other pets. The receptionist banished them to the car until it was their turn, and later the vet strongly suggested an obedience class. Reluctantly, my acquaintance agreed.

But the trainer threw them out of their first class, considering the dogtoo much of a risk to the others. She suggested private training -- several hundred dollars' worth.

That was a few months ago; today, thanks to the training, the family has an entirely different dog. He no longer growls when the children approach his food dish, and although he'll never be "cured" enough to play with other dogs, he knows better than to raise his lip at them. He sleeps inside now and the neighbors are happy. The destructive chewing has stopped.

The dog is lucky, it must be noted. His problems were not his fault, but many dogs have paid with their lives in similar cases. My acquaintance took a wrong turn every time save the last, but at least he kept trying.

The way he did it, getting the dog of his dreams cost him months and months of anger and anxiety and several months more of hard work undoing the bad habits he could have prevented. The dog destroyed plenty, from the picnic table he reduced to toothpicks, to 10 feet of siding stripped from the house to dozens of uprooted shrubs. The trainer ended up with hundreds of dollars, instead of less than $100 for puppy and follow-up obedience classes.

Total cost for raising a dog the wrong way: a couple of thousand dollars.

If the dog had bitten someone -- and he was definitely heading in that direction -- it would have been even more expensive. Someone would have been hurt, and the dog might have been destroyed.

How much better it would have been to invest time early on, along with a crate for house-training and destruction-control, a couple of group classes -- especially the puppy class -- and a few good training books.

Total cost for raising a dog the right way: a couple of hundred dollars.

As the man says: You can pay now, or you can pay later.

Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278

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