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Dealing with a Latchkey Dog

By: Susan Rubinowitz

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Working parents have long worried about their latchkey children – the kids who fend for themselves while mom and dad are at work. Now, a newly recognized phenomenon – latchkey dogs – is raising issues and concerns of its own.

Too often, according to a new book, family dogs are being trapped in a cycle of solitary confinement during the day and overindulgence at night when their owners lavish them with attention to assuage their guilt.

``We are raising dogs that are all entitlement and no self-control,'' says Jodi Andersen, author of The Latchkey Dog (Harper-Collins).

Separation anxiety, aggression, obsessive-compulsive barking and destruction of property are increasingly common in dogs left alone for long periods or overindulged, according to Andersen, 42, who recounts numerous tales of struggling owners and troubled pets.

One Case Study

One case involved a Labrador retriever owner who is identified only as Michael. The Labrador began chewing Michael's clothes and his answering machine after he'd leave for the office. Michael reacted by presenting the dog with new toys, a move that only made matters worse.
Andersen sets out a program for instilling the self-discipline dogs need to regain their equilibrium with advice to dog owners, whether or not they have latchkey pets. For example, she stresses setting clear ground rules that establishes the pet owner as the alpha wolf. Domestic dogs are descendants from pack animals whose instincts tell them to follow the pack leader.

Andersen also outlines a system for "parenting'' a dog - teaching the animal to feel secure and confident that the owner will care for his practical and emotional needs. She walks the reader through the process of teaching simple commands and retraining a dog that's been treated too royally.

``Don't ever underestimate the power of a dog's mind,'' she advises. ``Whether instinctive or reactive, your dog's behavior is ultimately your responsibility. Being careful to send clear 'leadership' messages to your dog is not cruel – on the contrary, it's imperative to the animal's well-being,'' she writes.

It's not a question of shouting to get your point across or meting out punishment - far from it. Instead, she advises, never be cruel and always reward obedience with lavish praise and affection. Food and affection should be tied to the dog listening and following commands.

Andersen also says that setting rules can be as simple as teaching the dog to come to the kitchen and sit on command before he's served dinner; or to abide by the commands ``down, stay'' at the foot of your bed and wait for you to invite him up before he jumps onto the sheets. If the dog jumps onto the easy chair without your invitation, firmly correct him by saying ``off,'' and firmly but gently help him get all his paws on the ground.

Dogs Need Rituals

Such small but important rituals do a lot to instill a sense of order in a dog's perception of household life.

``A dog, even if he's not living on a farm, still must be a working part of the family. Dogs need a job," says Andersen, who lives in Northport, L.I., with her husband, two daughters and two dogs, a golden retriever and a mutt.

Andersen's book is replete with examples, from her pet-training practice, of how pet-owners have gone awry. One couple had no trouble with their 8-year-old Shetland sheepdog Kelly until their first child was born. Then Kelly began to approach the couple's bed every night and stare at them, whining until the bleary-eyed husband got up and fetched him a biscuit.

Why did Kelly do that? Andersen discovered that the father had been rewarding Kelly with a biscuit for keeping him company while he bottle-fed the newborn at night. And Kelly turned that routine into a nightly ritual, in effect forcing his human masters to dance to his tune.

Andersen said the dog quit the night performances after the couple followed her advice and let him howl through the night without responding to him. Kelly quickly stopped the operettas, and an increased exercise regimen, also ordered by Andersen, left him too tired to play such games.

Andersen also describes how one well-to-do woman virtually smothered her 2-year-old Pekingese Polo with attention. The woman refused to let Polo walk in the streets; instead, she carried him to the posh restaurants she frequented, feeding him as he sat in her lap. The dog's cuisine consisted of boiled chicken and brown rice for breakfast and steamed fish and brown rice for dinner. After a while, Polo suddenly lost interest in food and became snappy, biting the hand of the waiter that fed him.

The owner called in Andersen, pleading to know what else she could do to try to make her dog happy.

``Treat her like a dog,'' Andersen said.

``I don't think I can do it!'' the woman replied.

In the end, the pet owner consented to just a few changes. She agreed to force Polo to eat his gourmet meal from a bowl on the floor and to walk on the sidewalk instead of being carried like an infant.

Training Tips

For those willing to learn – or relearn – dog training, Andersen offers her most important training tenets:

  • Be a good teacher. Dogs don't grow out of bad habits, they grow into them.

  • Keep it simple. If your dog doesn't do what you say, he's probably confused about what you want.

  • Give your dog a job. Dogs are a working species; they thrive when they are working members of a family.

  • See the world through your dog's eyes. Communicate through the language of basic obedience.

  • Modify only behavior you witness. When you are around, recreate the inappropriate behavior, then modify it.

  • Look forward to mistakes. Mistakes are learning tools that let you know when your dog needs help.

  • Exercise your dog's brain as well as his body. The more your dog has to think about, the less restless his body will be.

  • Don't confuse indulgence with love. Overindulging your dog only confuses him about who's parenting whom.

  • Set physical and emotional limits with confidence. Clear operating rules set the stage for happy, high achieving dogs.

  • Trust your instincts. Dog parenting is not an exact science.

  • Dog parenting is not a phase; it's a way of life. Great dogs are the result of ongoing, good dog parenting.

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