A guide to navigating the challenge and adventure of life with your dogs.

Mischief Managed

When I adopted my dog Merlin, I made a couple of rookie mistakes.

One: he was kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision; my life and home were not prepared to handle a six-month-old border collie. And two: I let him have free run of the house and yard way before he was ready- before he understood the rules of the house.

The result?

A bunch of chewed up valuables, torn up couch cushions, dog poop in the garden, and a yard that was beginning to look like the surface of the moon. Not to mention the nasty habit he developed of lunging at visitors.

This is all kind of embarrassing to admit, because as a trainer, I was supposed to know better. Eventually I shaped up and started working with him appropriately, but the damage was done. I am now fixing behavior problems that could have been completely prevented in the first place.

The moral of this story is this: Whether you’re adopting a new dog and you want to start off right, or you have a dog with behavioral problems that you’re trying to fix, the key to success is a good management program.

What is management?

Management is about keeping your dog under control and out of trouble at home, through the use of things like crates, baby gates and closed doors. It’s about preventing bad habits from forming, or, if Fido already has some bad habits, stopping them in their tracks. Merlin (er, I mean, “Fido”) can’t steal from the trash can or chew up the sofa if he’s never given unsupervised access to the trash can or the sofa, right?

Management is not training, but it is complementary to training; by preventing your dog from doing something wrong, you set him up for success for when you start training him how to behave.

Your mischief management system options:

Crate training – I did do this with Merlin, at least. Crate training should be the first thing you do when you bring a new dog home. A crate gives you a safe place to put your dog when you can’t supervise, like when you’re not home or when you’re sleeping. It’s also essential for housetraining. Dogs see their crates as their “bedrooms” and they don’t like to use their bedroom as their bathroom.

Put up baby gates – At our house, the dogs are not allowed in the front living room. I trained Merlin to stay out of this room by rewarding him for waiting at the entrance. This training would’ve gone much faster if I’d put up a baby gate at the entrance. I didn’t, and guess what happened? Merlin found that it was loads of fun to wait til no one was looking, sneak into the front room and wreak as much havoc as possible before getting caught. He quickly learned that the rewards for sneaking into the front room were greater than the rewards for staying out, setting my training plans back considerably.

You can use baby gates in two ways: to keep Fido out of off-limits areas like I did, or to keep him in a puppy-proofed area where you can supervise him.

Exercise pens – or “x-pens,” provide your dog a space that’s bigger than a crate, smaller than baby-gating-off an area. Useful if you have an open floor plan that makes baby gates impractical.

Tethering method no. 1 – Real high tech: put Fido on leash and tie the leash to something sturdy. This is a quick solution that shouldn’t be used for long periods of time, as Fido can get tangled up or start chewing up the leash.

Tethering method no . 2 – Put Fido on leash and tie the leash to your belt loop. You are now free to go about your day knowing exactly what Fido is doing at all times. Great for young puppies.

Close doors – Want Fido to stop drinking out of the toilet? Keep the bathroom door shut. Hey, no one said this stuff had to be complicated.

Outdoor kennels – Living in the backyard should not be a full time deal for your dog, and let me tell you, leaving a dog to his own devices out in the yard is the best way to guarantee he’ll get into trouble. But there will be times when Fido will have to hang out in the backyard by himself. So if you have anything out there that you don’t want him getting into, you might want to invest in a small kennel. They’re not cheap, but definitely worth their weight in saved sanity.

To summarize:

Management is not training. Instead, it can be used in combination with training to make the process easier, or, when you don’t have time to train, as temporary fix.

Got a new dog or puppy? Until he’s learned the rules and you are satisfied with his behavior, don’t let him have free run of the house.

Got a dog with behavior problems you’re trying to fix? Set him (and you!) up for success. Prevent him from engaging in his old bad habits through use of some or all of these management tools.