Photo by Andy Didorosi
People love to tell me how lucky I am to have a good dog like Wiley. But they’re dead wrong—there was no luck involved. Wiley’s good behavior and good temperament are products of four years of hard work, nothing else. The more people who understand this, the more people there will be who have "good" dogs too.
Take what happened yesterday. Strolling down a street in Los Angeles on our way to dinner at a nice restaurant, Wiley, my girlfriend, and I came across a neighbor walking her black Lab. Upon sighting us, the lady immediately snatched her dog by the neck and dragged him into a yard.
“He can be aggressive,” she explained sheepishly.
No shit, lady. If you violently throttle your dog every time you see another one coming, he’s not going to be calm and confident when any dog approaches. By doing that, you’re teaching your dog that other dogs are something to be afraid of.
This is L.A., so the yard was all of four feet wide. As we walked past, Wiley calmly sauntered over, sniffed her dog’s butt, and then continued on his way up the sidewalk.
“You’re lucky,” she said, both hands firmly locked around her confused dog’s neck. I just shook my head and kept walking.
So, how do you get lucky, too?
A Good Dog Is a Socialized Dog
A big reason Wiley is calm around other dogs, kids, loud motorcycles, gunfire, parties, and you name it is because I put a lot of effort into exposing him to those things during the critical first few weeks after he came home. And because I continue to allow him to explore those circumstances on his own terms.
A puppy’s most sensitive period to learn about the outside world starts at about three weeks of age and continues until 16 or 20 weeks. During this time, it’s critical to deliberately seek out new experiences and allow your dog to grow comfortable with them. Take your dog for walks, find some kids to play with it, take it for rides in your car, expose it to loud noises. Take your dog out in the world and find new stuff to see, smell, hear, and feel. The more stuff your dog can experience, the wider the array of situation will be where it will feel comfortable.
I wanted Wiley to join me outdoors as often as possible. So I took him on his first camping trip when he was 11 weeks old. There, he joined us off-leash on a short hike, where he was allowed to try climbing wet, slippery boulders by himself and jump into the pool underneath a waterfall when I slipped and fell in. Now he’s as comfortable off-leash in the mountains as he is sleeping in bed at home. I also wanted Wiley to be comfortable in social settings. So, when we accidentally found ourselves at a metal concert when he was 16 weeks old, I carried him inside and held him in my arms until he fell asleep. Now he naps on the couch when we throw parties at home.
What if you rescue an adult dog, or at least one older than 20 weeks? I’d argue that doing so is both noble and a great way to get a dog that’ll require less time and effort. Training will just require more patience. With an older dog, who already has a history of experiences, socialization isn’t going to be so easy. Where, with a puppy, it’s good enough just to throw them at some children and enjoy the ensuing cuteness, socializing an older dog has to be a more deliberate process of managing experiences.
Let’s keep up that example of a dog being calm, confident, and gentle with kids. If you have an older dog who’s not, you’d start by introducing that dog to an environment with kids in a manner that won’t be overwhelming. Maybe you stop by a friend’s barbecue for a short while. Keep the dog on-leash, ask the kids not to pet Fido, and reward your dog with a bite of a burger when it’s being chill. Don’t stress out your dog by popping its leash and panicking every time little Johnny gets within ten feet. Just keep an eye on it and set a good example. Create similar experiences regularly, and you will see progress.
With consistency and patience, you’ll create that calm, confident, gentle dog you always wanted. And all for the sum total of bringing your dog along to barbecues and other social events.
Need a little help going down the socialization path? For new dog owners or those who’ve adopted a dog with significant issues, then a professional trainer can show you what to do, how to do it, and the best ways to keep everyone safe as you do. Achieving a calm, confident dog that you don’t have to worry about is money well spent.
A Good Dog Is a Well-Trained Dog
Wiley’s built like a pit bull—85 pounds of pure muscle. As a strong, confident leader among dogs, he’s always had an issue with pulling. I dealt with that a long time ago by encouraging him to walk right by my side, with slack in his leash, through the usual praise-and-reward program. But he’d only do that for me. The second someone else grabbed his leash, he’d pull them off their feet.
That was a tricky training issue to address, since by its very nature it needed to take place without my presence or involvement. I tried getting the friends who walk him regularly to understand that dog training is incredibly simple but requires consistency and patience over time. But I wasn’t able to make progress until I started dating a fellow dog person. Virginia understood the system and is good about reinforcing it whenever she walks Wiley. She shows him what’s expected, then rewards him with praise and affection for doing it. Now Wiley walks right next to her, on a slack leash, more than half the time. It’s slow progress, but it’s something. I’m sure he’ll eventually be as good with her as he is with me.
We all know how to train a puppy. You say their name, you give them a treat. You call them, they come, you give them a treat. They sit when they’re told, you give them a treat. You do that for a few months, and you have a dog that knows simple commands. But a lot of us are guilty of failing to continue that process as our dogs mature. An ongoing program of training not only keeps your dog stimulated, but it can also help them keep up with you as your life changes. A little over a year ago, I bought a giant, lifted Land Rover. Lifting Wiley into it is a pain the ass, so in that year, I’ve taught him that “load up” means he should jump up into his designated seat. Now he knows that, and I get to cruise around with an awesome dog poking his head out the window of an awesome truck, without a sore back.
Dogs also need ongoing training to adapt to changes in their own lives. A while back, my friends Ty and Rachel adopted a problematic little coyote-shiba inu mix. She’d been through multiple foster homes and had never benefited from an experienced, patient owner and was a little troublemaker as a result. Her favorite trick? Encouraging Sansho, their Karelian bear dog, to pursue his baser instincts and chase animals through the mountains for miles and miles. Karelians are fiercely independent and athletic dogs, but Ty had raised Sansho to be a perfect adventure partner. This new behavior threatened to derail his ability to bring his dog along outdoors, so Ty had to do something about it. The solution? Garmin GPS tracking and training collars for both dogs. A few months later, both dogs were ideal partners on the trail.
Never had a dog before? Struggling with a particular training problem? Again, a few sessions with a professional trainer can be hugely positive for both you and your dog. The trainer will show you the ropes so you can continue the lifelong process yourself.
A Good Dog Is an Exhausted Dog
A few months ago, my friend Evan asked if I could help some friends of his with their dog. They were first-time dog owners and had adopted a shiba inu puppy. Their issue? They just couldn’t figure out what command would make her be calm and behave.
A hunting breed, shiba inus have tons of energy. And like any dog, they can get mischievous if they’re frustrated. Add the fact that puppies are even more energetic, and that my friends were inexperienced owners, and you have a recipe for a troublesome relationship—or what’s mistakenly called “a bad dog.”
Luckily, I knew exactly how to get the dog to behave. The secret? An exhausted dog is a happy dog. They just needed to take her hiking twice a day, and they’d have the adorable, trainable shiba inu of their dreams.
All dogs need exercise, but the amount changes with age. When a puppy first comes home, the formula I used was 15 minutes of out-of-the-house activity, twice a day, adding five minutes for each month. Since your puppy comes home at two months, that means at four months old, you’re giving your dog 25 minutes of exercise twice a day. That quickly evolved into Wiley and I doing a 90-minute hike once every day and him accompanying me throughout my daily activities and errands. Four years in, that still gives me a dog that’s healthy and satisfied.
Exercise is a big reason why Wiley’s always invited to meetings, restaurants, dates, and camping trips. It’s a big reason why he’s a calm, confident, and happy dog. It’s good for me, too.
A Good Dog Is a Dog That Trusts You
Like any relationship, your relationship with your dog is built on trust. Dogs understand the concept of fairness, can read your emotions, and depend on you for virtually everything. Develop a good relationship with your dog, and you’ll be able to rely on it, too.
One of the reasons Ty and I are friends is that we’re both guys who aren’t complete without our dogs. They go everywhere with us, they’re a big part of our identity, and our relationship with them defines our own personalities. Ty says his best advice for new dog owners is to allow your dog to try new things on its own. “Don’t be overprotective,” he says. “And don’t assume that just because a dog can’t handle a situation the first time, he shouldn’t be exposed to it again.”
Ty and his wife now have four dogs and a newborn human. You can follow their misadventures through the Instagram photos you see here.
Commands help you interact with your dog but shouldn’t define every aspect of their behavior. Dogs need to learn what they’re capable of, express their curiosity, and develop their own personality. Use commands to provide some direction, but give your dog the latitude to make decisions on its own.
The prototypical example of trust between dog and owner is food. Your dog knows you provide food and trusts you not to let it starve. But the trust you can develop goes much deeper. Wiley and Sansho love joining us on outdoor adventures. And they know that they can trust Ty or me to carry or pass them up and down rocks if a section of trail is impassable for them. It might suck momentarily, but they know that more miles of trail, more squirrels to chase, and more campfire hangs are in their immediate future if they trust us to do something that scares them for a few minutes.
I trust Wiley to chose the right behavior around other dogs. He’s free to greet them, play with them, or ignore them as he chooses. Because he knows he’s trusted, and because I’m calm and confident as he interacts, he’s sees his interactions with other dogs as a positive thing. That, combined with everything else described here, is the reason he’s not aggressive.
A Good Dog Is a Lifelong Process
I didn’t stop exercising Wiley when he became an adult. I didn’t stop training or socializing him, either. I don’t forget to feed him, or neglect the quality of his food, or leave him at home when I go do fun things. Every single day since he came home a little over four years ago, I’ve devoted time and effort to him. Wiley is as important a part of my life as my job, family, or friends.
What makes him a good dog in people’s minds isn’t the product of some genetic lottery—it’s not luck. What they’re seeing is the product of hard work, good leadership, and unwavering devotion. I say this not to discourage you but to illustrate that anyone can do this with any dog.
There is no such thing as a good dog, only a good dog owner.