Teaching Harper Some Basic Obedience

By: David Codr

Published Date: August 25, 2015


Harper is a six-month-old Shih tzu / Lhasa Apso mix who has accidents in the house, doesn’t listen well and is afraid to go down the stairs.

Harper was curious, but cautious around me so I ignored her at first as I discussed the situation with her guardian. After a few minutes, Harper came over to investigate me a bit. I observed her but continued to ignore her as I could see she was a little twitchy.

A quick twitch energy is common for smaller dogs as they are prey to many larger animals and Harper is about as small as you can get. Id guess she is about 4 pounds max. While this twitchiness is common, it is also something a guardian can help the dog with. The more secure a dog is about its peers and surroundings, the more relaxed and confident it will be.

I suggested some rules and boundaries to add to Harper’s day to day to help her see and identify her guardian as being in a position of authority. If a dog is confident in its leader, it can relax and leave many responsibilities to them.

While going over some new non verbal forms of communication with her guardian, I learned that the dog didn’t know any commands yet. I started it out simple; teaching the dog to sit by using a hand motion followed by a high value treat as a reinforcer.

It only took three minutes before Harper was sitting down right away and only a minute or two longer to get her to sit with a verbal command. I suggested that her guardian practice placing her into a sit and try to pet her whenever she sees the dog sit on its own.

The more often a dog gets a reward or attention, the more often they will recreate that behavior to get more attention. So by petting your dog as soon as it does something you like, then repeating the command word, even if the dog did it on its own), we can help it understand what it can do to make us happy.

Once the dog had mastered the sit, we transitioned into a simple recall exercise.

I used a variation of the hand movement I used to get the dog into a sitting position after recalling it. I always try to have a dog finish an action in a sitting position as its a more respectful and subordinate body posture. This is one of the small things you can do to help your dog see and identify as being in a follower position.

While we were working on the recall, her guardian and I discussed kenneling versus cordoning off part of a room with a portable fencing she had. The fencing had a gate that was a little high for Harper to cross so I pulled out the kennel and fencing to work on it. To start out I wanted to see how the dog felt about the kennel so I tosses a treat inside. Harper was having none of it.

Harper’s guardian mentioned that the dog usually went into the kennel without issue so I used the portable fencing and ran through an exercise that uses positive reinforcers each time the dog goes into the kennel.

Changing Harper’s Perception of the Kennel

It took some patience and a lot of treats before Harper final went into the kennel on her own. I suggested that her guardian practice the same exercise and other ways to help the dog have a better perception of the kennel.

Now that we had built up the dog’s confidence by learning some basic obedience, she was ready to tackle the next issue; her fear of the stairs.

Most of this issue is due to the dog’s small stature. This is perfectly logical as each step was taller than she was. When some humans look over an edge, they can get vertigo and little dogs can experience the same thing.

But just like human beings, dogs can learn to overcome their fears. Fortunately I have worked with a number of dogs with this problem and learned an important lesson; often one fear can override another. In this case, the dog’s fear of the stairs can be overcome by the perceived fear if the human going away.

But by itself, that fear is not usually strong enough to help a dog ascend or resend a full flight of stairs. To the dog, its just too daunting. So I put the dog in a position to succeed by placing it most of the way down the stairs.

At first little Harper was cautious, but she did make her way to the edge of the step without any coaxing. This is sometimes harder for the human than the dog as we want to help the dog or motivate it to move faster. But when helping an animal overcome a fear, giving them time and space to do it on their own is extremely important.

When a dog learns a new skill or solves a problem on their own, they get a sense of pride or accomplishment in the process. When we do everything for the dog or try to connect the dots by pointing everything out, we rob them of the confidence that comes from this boost to their self esteem.

Once Harper got to the bottom of the stairs, we practiced the exercise again, but this time leaving the dog close to the middle of the stairs. This time, Harper moved faster. He previous successful experience helped her gain some confidence. We practiced a few more times until the dog was going up and down the stairs without any real hesitation.

As a puppy, Harper is still finding her way. But you could see a little extra bounce to her step and head held a little higher by the end of the session. Mastering these new basic commands and overcoming her fear of the stairs will lead to more confidence which should lesson the twitchiness a bit. I advised her guardian to get her as much exposure to new people, dogs and places as possible over the next six months. The more practice and exposure the dog has to new situations and people, the netter adjusted she will be for the rest of her life.


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This post was written by: David Codr

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