Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Leader of the pack

Getting control of your dog a matter of confidence, calm

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My 11-month-old puppy Bijou, a Neapolitan/English mastiff cross, weighs 112 pounds.

A giant puppy, she eats a shocking amount of food, she steps on my feet multiple times a day and is adorable and sweet.

Not so adorable or sweet was when she would pull so hard during walks my shoulder ached or she'd lunge at passing dogs and people. Most people who got lunged at looked pretty sour about it. I don't blame them.

Few things look as stupid as dog owners who don't know how to control their dogs. Other people or animals end up in harm's way and the dog in question is not good company for anyone.

I have been down this path before, and I know where it leads. Nowhere good.

With my last dog, Angus, a great family dog who died in November 2011 at age nine, never in his whole life did I find that peaceful place where we could walk among other dogs.

I know that peaceful place is in my head. What I needed to know was how to get there.

Watching renowned dog behaviour specialist Cesar Millan on the Dog Whisperer television program, I could see I needed to be rehabilitated, not my dog. I needed confidence and to take my place as pack leader. But how?

Earlier this month I met Debbi McArthur of PrairieBurn K9 Academy. McArthur was one of just 20 people worldwide selected last May to attend Millan's Dog Psychology Center in Santa Clarita, Calif., to take his intensive Training Cesar's Way program. She brought home her knowledge to share with everyone.

"All I want to do is help families enjoy their dogs, for your dog to respect people in your house, have your dog not jump all over people and not drag you down the street," McArthur said. "If you want obedience, we can do that, too, but you need a good foundation of respect. Once you have that foundation, obedience is easy."

McArthur held her first Dog Behaviour Solutions workshop over two days with four-hour sessions earlier this month. There were 10 dogs in our class, a motley crew to be sure.

My mastiff was joined by two pugs, a Saint Bernard, an American Eskimo, a couple of lab crosses and other mixed breeds. Cash, McArthur's German shepherd, was also there as a calming influence and example, like Millan's dog Junior.

McArthur talked to us about the importance of being calm to create a positive energy. She showed us how to build respect between ourselves and our dogs by establishing ourselves as pack leaders. No treats were used, just body movements, words and repetition.

We walked our dogs in a large "pack," with McArthur herself walking four or five dogs among us, using slip leads -- thin nylon leashes that slip over the dogs head and can be easily tightened or loosened as you walk.

Ramsay, a high-energy Catahoula dog in our class, was close to being deemed unadoptable due to behaviour issues. The two year old lived most of his life in the care of the Portage Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) after his two previous owners had given up on him. When PAWS officials asked McArthur to help, she took Ramsay home to her Longburn German Shepherds "pack."

After living and training with McArthur's pack for a few weeks, Ramsay went back to PAWS. He was adopted on Aug. 21 by Kelly Unrau, 20, and Mike Dyck, 26, of Headingley who then took Ramsay to McArthur's workshop. Now Ramsay will even lie on a mat during supper.

"Debbi's program has been like a miracle. He used to pull so hard on the leash he'd be up on his back legs and drag me everywhere. Now, with the slip lead, he just walks along with us," Unrau said. "We're ecstatic. It feels great to know that he had it rough before but now he's comfortable, I think he knows he's home."

We learned simple things make a big difference, such as relaxed leash-walking, getting dogs to lie on a mat, giving commands in low tones and the respect factor involved when we, as pack leaders, go first through a door and have the dog follow on command.

A big part is letting go of the "what if" fear. Give the dog a relaxed leash when she's walking nicely, a quick pop to correct and then relaxed leash again. My Bijou quickly learned no pulling was rewarded with a loose leash so she could lumber along beside me.

Keeping the leash always so tight was like a Bermuda Triangle of dog-walking disaster. The tighter I held the leash, the more stress both Bijou and I felt and the more Bijou would pull, thinking she needed to defend.

You have to mentally break that cycle.

"Right now, we're doing this," McArthur said, when we would start our pack walk. "Whatever you are worried about, you'll handle it if it happens. Right now, we're doing this. We're just walking."

So simple and obvious: relax, be calm and positive.

After McArthur's program, I had the confidence to take my mastiff and our Rottweiler out for our own pack walks.

During our first one, another dog began to bark somewhere in the distance and both of my dogs pulled in that direction.

"No," I said, with a correction with the leash and then back to a loose leash. It took a few times but then, as McArthur said, we were doing this now.

We were just walking.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2013 D5


Updated on Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 8:47 AM CDT: adds photos

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