Old Dog, New Tricks: How to Transform Your Difficult Dog into a Model Pet
Photo: Christopher T. Martin
It's easy to see why Megan Wargula spoiled her two border terriers: They're adorable! O steps in to help transform these neighborhood nuisances into model pets.Reader Name: Megan Wargula
Profession: Marketing manager and stationery entrepreneur
Family: Husband Michael Harbin, 39
Hometown: Woodstock, Georgia
"You know when you see spoiled-rotten kids, and you think, 'Who raised them to act this way?'" says Megan Wargula when dog trainer Victoria Stilwell arrives at Wargula's home. "That's our dogs." Her two border terriers, Finlay, 6, and Riley, 3 (above), seem eager to prove her point. Finlay yaps and paws the kitchen cabinet in search of food, while Riley, distracted by a squirrel in the backyard, unleashes a deafening howl. Wargula scolds them halfheartedly and apologizes.
It wasn't always this way. She and her husband, Michael Harbin, got Finlay as a puppy. If they overlooked any misbehavior, it was only because he was so darn cute! But when they added Riley to the family, the 15-pound dogs egged each other on, becoming rowdy and noisy, and snapping at other pets in the neighborhood. Then last Thanksgiving at Wargula's parents' house, Riley jumped up onto Wargula's lap during dinner, splashing scalding gravy onto her arm. The incident sparked a family argument, and her normally canine-loving parents asked Wargula to leave the dogs at home in the future.
"We've got a mess on our hands," Wargula admits. Stilwell, star of Animal Planet's It's Me or the Dog, agrees—but explains that her strategy focuses on bringing the humans into line, not the canines. "Owners often get angry with their dogs for conduct they've encouraged," she says. After listening to Wargula's complaints and observing the dogs for only a few minutes, Stilwell can see three main problem areas:
Bad Behavior #1: Relentless whining and barking. Says Wargula: "If they see a squirrel or a lizard in the backyard, it's mayhem!"
Wargula's mistake: Regularly letting the dogs out when they see a critter they want to chase rather than ignoring the bad behavior. "Unfortunately, this has taught them, When I bark, I get to go out," says Stilwell.
The solution: "From now on, the only thing that will get them what they want is quiet," Stilwell instructs. "If you have to endure 30 minutes of barking, use earplugs! Wait for that silence, and it will come." Stilwell cautions that a burst of frenzied barking might precede this promised silence, as the dogs express their frustration. "That's how you'll know it's working," she says.
Bad Behavior #2: Terrorizing other dogs, particularly the neighbors' golden retriever.
Wargula's mistake: Taking the dogs on fewer walks to avoid the problem rather than dealing with it directly.
The solution: "They're terriers!" says Stilwell. "They need an outlet for their energy." Because their behavior is worse when they're together, she prescribes an hour a day of individual walks until the dogs learn to be civil; only then can Wargula walk them jointly. Next, Stilwell addresses the aggression. She takes Riley for a walk and instructs Wargula to borrow the neighbors' golden retriever and walk her down the opposite side of the street. Sure enough, Riley yelps and pulls at the leash when she sees the larger dog. Immediately, Stilwell turns Riley around and leads her back toward Wargula's house. When the dog stops barking, she pivots and resumes the walk. After several repetitions, Riley figures out that barking will get her nowhere, and she passes the retriever without incident.
One more bad behavior solved, plus Stilwell's 4 tips for raising a well-behaved dog