Head of the class

Q. I have a few dogs including a Chihuahua. “Jasper” is different from the rest of them. Now, I don’t believe in training a dog except for housebreaking, but one day when I was playing with Jasper he started to pick up hand signals without me teaching them to him. None of my other dogs will follow basic commands – sit, stay, etc. – but Jasper knows all of them. Do you know how he learned all of these tricks? Can a dog just pick something up? – Morgan M., Orange, Conn.

A.  Dogs pick up a tremendous amount of information from us, usually without us realizing it. If we display bad habits around them – allowing them to jump up on strangers, or losing our temper when they get playful – then they will quickly pick up on and exploit those habits. I’ll bet even the dumbest dog in your household knows how to push your buttons to get what he wants. It’s instinctive; it’s one of the things dogs do best.

Now, Jasper is probably one of the smartest dogs in your house. Maybe not the smartest – the dog that has figured out he can ignore your commands without consequence and then demonstrated that to the other dogs is the smartest dog in your house right now – but Jasper is pretty darn smart. And eager to please. And he sees you as his pack leader, the one he needs to please in order to get food and comfort (something that a small dog in a house full of pooches is worried about). So you have an instant advantage in training Jasper. He can and should learn more advanced commands.

But do not ignore your other dogs’ training, either. One of those dogs sees himself as the pack leader right now. Figure out which one it is, and establish yourself as the head of the pack – this includes restarting basic obedience and enforcing “house rules” with all your dogs.

Originally published August 25, 2008.

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