The Old Trainer: Canine psychology, will power needed to break bad habits

Dear Old Trainer: Shadow, my 3-year-old lab-German shepherd mix, knows sit, stay and come, and is great on the leash most of the time. But now and then, if something catches his interest, he just takes off. I am an athlete, but he’s too strong for me. What should I do?

– Janice, San Francisco

Dear Janice: You don’t control a dog the size of Shadow with strength, you control him using canine psychology and will power.

Arnold Rothstein – gambler, bootlegger, and the World Series fixer – once advised his protégée, Lucky Luciano, to “never allow your principles to stand in the way of your self interest.”

Shadow agrees with that theory. He remembers the principles he was taught, but ignores them when it suits his interest. All dogs do it if they can get away with it. Humans too, for that matter.

When a dog develops a bad habit, your job, as pack leader, is to break the bad habit and replace it with a good one – obeying orders from you. The secret is to interrupt his thought process the instant bad behavior occurs, then praise him when he refocuses his attention on you.

Start the training in a place with few distractions. Carry a rolled-up newspaper. Give the order to sit and tell him “look at me.” He is not allowed to even glance at anything else. Direct his head with your hand if you need to.

If he looks away, whack your leg with the paper, touch him on the neck with your fingers, and say, “Look at me.” Do it every time he looks away. If his attention strays, take him out of the sit position, scold him, move him a few feet and repeat the exercise. The object is to teach him to look at you and ignore the mailman, that bird in the sky, and the cat across the street.

When he looks at you for five seconds, pet him and brag on him and give him a 10-second break for love and play. Do 10 reps each session and do five sessions a day.

Be relentless. Show Shadow his only option is to obey. Be as tough as the warden in “The Shawshank Redemption,” but each time he does it right, praise him and love on him. Labs and German shepherds love to learn, so relax and make a game of it. If you have a good time, Shadow will too.

This is a life-and-death matter – same as teaching a child to stay out of the street – so be firm and he will learn fast.

Test him by putting the leash on him and taking a walk. Have your newspaper handy. At the first sign he is losing concentration, interrupt him with the sit command and go through the exercise. Don’t take one step unless you get the response you want. If he doesn’t focus on you, take him back to the training area and resume training, beginning with “sit” and “look at me.”

This tactic works with any bad habit. Interrupt the bad behavior with training the instant it happens, every time it happens, and you will soon be able to refocus Shadow’s attention with just a word.