The dog days of summer are almost here. Balmy days and abundant sunshine beg for leisurely walks in the park, al fresco dining and browsing the farmers market. For many, these quintessential summer activities just wouldn't be complete without their canine companion by their side. Indeed, many local businesses and activities in the area are dog-friendly. But as any experienced dog owner will tell you, a well-behaved dog doesn't just happen overnight.
Nate Shephard is a professional dog trainer and owner of Rediscover Your Dog, a dog training and daycare facility in Springfield. He explained that a well-behaved dog is one that has been properly socialized so it can be calm and even-tempered in a wide range of environments.
"By socialized, I mean does your dog know how to engage in a social environment without interacting with every single person or dog that walks by?" asks Shephard. Establishing these boundaries will help your dog to remain neutral in a host of different situations so that you both can enjoy your time together.
The first step, Shephard says, is to know your dog. "Is your dog well-adjusted and neutral to various environments, or is your dog riddled with triggers? Is your dog pro-social with people outside of your circle, or do you have a dog that tends to be a little defensive and skittish? Or do you have a dog with a ton of prey drive that's going to be triggered by bikes and kids and squirrels and whatever might cross your path?"
When it comes to raising a dog with a calm, neutral temperament, Shephard advises owners to think of new environments like a swimming pool. "You can't throw them into the deep end before they learn to tolerate the shallow end. One of the first things we show people how to do is to stand on their dog's leash and just stay there until the dog lays down and relaxes, at which point he's rewarded. If the dog is allowed to constantly lean into their collar, they're going to remain spun up." Shephard emphasized that giving a dog time to observe and learn to relax in various environments is a cornerstone in building a well-balanced and happy pet. This means setting aside time to work on developing that neutrality.
There are a number of businesses in the area that welcome leashed dogs, including Capitol City Brewing Supply, Ace Hardware, Barnes & Noble and Lowe's, and are ideal places to work on training your dog to be calm. Remember to take it slow, perhaps just standing outside the store entrance until the dog settles. If dining out on the patio of a dog-friendly restaurant is your goal, start with training it to sit quietly next to you on a bench on the plaza downtown a few times.
It's important in these early stages that you minimize your own distractions so you can focus entirely on reinforcing neutrality. Many local bars and restaurants have dog-friendly patios, though it's wise to call ahead and let them know that you're planning to bring your pooch.
This process of slowly inoculating your pet to various stressors over the course of its life will allow it to be calmer generally, which is especially advantageous during summer thunderstorms and fireworks displays.
"If you coddle and insulate your dog from all things scary for 364 days a year, then July Fourth is a giant disaster," Shephard said, "but if the dog learns how to deal with small stressors over the course of its life, all the time and little by little, and they're exposed to many different sights and sounds and smells, then those sorts of events aren't nearly as big of an ordeal."
Ashley Meyer is a Springfield native and life-long dog lover. Her 1-year old Rhodesian mix, Disco, was adopted through W.I.L.D., a locally based rescue organization.