If you visit the Pembroke Pines Dog Park in South Florida on any given Saturday afternoon, you'll find a cornucopia of dog breeds, from purebred German Shepherds and Shih Tzus to those born to mixed parents.
In the middle of the pack you'll find Charley, a gentle black Lab with eyes to die for. Charley and his human, Sara Parker, are frequent visitors to the park. When a dog comes in, he assumes the head-up, tail-wagging position and turns to look at Parker.
In a moment of magic connection, Charley waits for Parker's slight nod and only then moves to greet the new visitor.
"Less than six months ago, he would have run up to that dog and wrestled it to the ground the minute it was inside the gate," Parker said. "Let's just say Charley was a bit over-affectionate, and once he saw someone he wanted, he went for it!"
Rethink Your Actions
What's the training secret to Charley's newfound discipline?
"I learned that I was the one who needed training," Parker said.
Cesar Millan creates the same type of magic on every episode of "The Dog Whisperer," a popular weekly show airing on The National Geographic Channel.
Millan's catch phrase, "I rehabilitate dogs and train people," is the foundation of his training philosophy. People are so keen on giving their dogs love and affection, he said, that they don't establish a leadership role, thereby leaving the dogs in control.
Dawn Hanna, owner of Oh Behave Dog Training, agrees. "The biggest obstacle to training an older dog is its history with the owner," she said. Training begins with showing the dog who's the boss. Affection should be earned. But most dog owners make the mistake of giving love and affection too freely.
"I assert myself from the moment I walk in the door," Hanna said. "The dog quickly learns that the only way to get treats or affection from me is by earning it with appropriate behavior."
A dog's needs are different than human needs. "Dogs need exercise first, followed by boundaries, discipline and consistency," Hanna said. Affection is last on the list. "This is a hard concept for peoples to grasp, but if you really love your pet, you will give her what she needs, not what you need.
"Millan echoes these sentiments. Three words greet visitors to his Web site: Exercise, Discipline, Affection. Dogs are pack animals. Millan encourages owners to "be a pack leader!"
"Dog people are the most unselfish people I know," Hanna said. "Educating them is the key to helping them help their dogs. As adults, we don't give kids everything in Toys "R" Us just because they want more stuff. Dog parenting is just as important."
Help Them Learn To Obey
The first step for owners who have let their dogs take control is to rebuild credibility. They must also be consistent when enforcing rules.
"If action A leads to consequence B, it should do so all the time," Hanna said. Otherwise, you'll end up with a very confused dog. Knowing what not to do is also important. Training is supposed to be fun, so if you begin to feel frustrated or angry, discontinue the training session.
"Rehabilitating a dog is not about 'fixing' it," Millan said. "It's about you, the owner, creating the intention for what you want, not what you're feeling. Dogs pick up on feelings of fear, doubt or worry and will move to fill them by attempting to become dominant."
Since consistency is the key to changing a dog's behavior, teaching an old dog new tricks should be a family affair. Hanna suggested that training your dog is a great opportunity to teach compassion and patience to your children. By teaching them how to gently discipline your dog, give commands and handle leashes and collars safely, they learn to understand what parenting is all about.
There are dozens of books, videos and Web sites available to help owners who want to train their dogs properly. A professional trainer can help lay the foundation and teach you methods that you can continue on your own. To find a trainer, contact your veterinarian or favorite pet store.
Group training classes are an extremely affordable choice that will reap priceless rewards. Most pet stores offer a menu of training and obedience classes for puppies to adult dogs.
Don't Lose Hope
"There's no magic wand or fairy dust to change your dog's behavior," Hanna said. "The power to change a dog is within the owner. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. Owners have to change their behavior to make a difference in their dog's behavior.
"Whether you choose to go it alone or work with a professional trainer, time and consistency are the keys to success.
"Dogs just want to be dogs. They want to live a balanced life," Hanna said. "They are very resilient and will eventually go with the flow. It's the humans who need training."