Although regular walks add both to a pet's life, many dogs stay home because their owners are unable to control them. It's a big and sometimes dangerous problem, but nothing training won't cure.
For most people, the best way to train a dog is in a class. A trainer can show you the proper techniques and help you apply them to your dog. But before you go, it is imperative that you start with the right equipment: a properly fitted training collar and a 6-foot leash.
Your dog should already be wearing a leather or nylon buckled collar with his license and ID tags. For the purposes of training, however, you're going to need a slip collar, commonly -- but incorrectly -- referred to as a "choke" collar. (If your dog's everyday collar is of the slip variety, change it to a buckled one right away. Nearly every veterinarian knows of a dog that choked to death after its slip collar caught on something -- even on the tooth of another dog in play.)
A training collar needs to be the right weight and length to be effective. In the most common chain versions, the links range from something like jewelry to heavy, wide varieties that wouldn't be too out of place on the winch of a Jeep. In general, the more substantial the dog, the more substantial the chain. The length shouldn't be much longer than the dog's regular collar -- 3 inches or so longer, less so for tiny dogs.
If you're not sure about sizing, visit a reputable pet-supply store and ask to have your dog fitted.
Do you really need such a collar? Isn't it a little . . . cruel? If your dog is well-behaved on a regular collar or harness, or if he's so small that his pulling isn't annoying, then the answer is probably no. But if your pet is out of control, then you need the collar.
I know of one person who switched her Rottweiler to a harness because he was choking himself while dragging her down the street. She thought she was being kind. Now when he sees something he wants, she has to throw herself to the ground or grab a tree to keep him from getting his way.
To put the slip collar on your dog, hold one of the rings between your thumb and forefinger and back the chain through it to form a loop. With your dog on your left side, slip the collar over the head in such a way that the moving end comes over the
dog's neck, through the ring and up, where it attaches to the leash.
If you put it on backward, with the moving end coming up from under the dog's neck, you will be choking your dog during training sessions and will not be able to get the job done. When the collar is properly on the dog, it releases quickly, allowing you to snap it to correct the dog and release it just as promptly. It's not the choking action of the chain, but the "zip, snap and release" that teaches your pet.
Once you have the right collar, choose a 6-foot leash made of cotton webbing, leather or nylon. Leashes come in widths of 1/4 -inch, 3/8 -inch, and 5/8 -inch. For most people, the 3/8 -inch width provides the best grip. Above all, don't buy a leash made of chain links or try to save money by fashioning your own out of a length of rope -- neither is easy to grip and both will shred your hands during training sessions.
Training is done with a loose leash. Put the loop over your right hand and get a firm grip just below it. From there, the leash should travel across the front of your body, through your left hand and to the dog's collar. Your left hand should be on the leash, but not gripping it.
Sit the dog on your left and step out, giving the command "heel." Use your left hand to manipulate the leash and collar -- zip, snap and release -- and correct the dog when he's too far ahead or behind. Praise him when he responds. To correct a charger, repeat the command "Heel" and do an immediate about-turn with a loose leash. Praise him when he changes his direction to match yours. Once the dog hits the end of the leash a couple of times, he'll learn to pay better attention to where you're going.
Under no condition should the dog choose the direction. Keep the leash loose and pick your own route -- right turns, left turns and about turns. When you change direction, repeat the "heel" command. When you stop, tell your dog once to "sit" and immediately make him do so.
Give each command once and only once, and correct your dog if he doesn't respond immediately. If you're doing things right, using the command when you change direction will soon be unnecessary -- your dog will walk at heel and will sit automatically when you stop.
Be fast and firm with your leash corrections -- zip, snap and release -- and generous with your praise. Keep at it and remember the payoff is big for you both: More freedom for your dog and no arm-wrenching sessions for you. It's well worth it.
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.