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Book Review
So Your Dog's Not Lassie,
by Betty Fisher & Suzanne Delzio

Review by: Kate Connick, Sept. 2002

Subtitled, "Tips for Training Difficult Dogs and Independent Breeds," this enjoyable little paperback book offers not only hope and encouragement but good practical training advice for anyone who has a less than dying-to-please pup on the end of her leash.

Betty Fisher, a bulldog aficionado, many years ago found herself forced to modify common training methods when she discovered that conventional approaches simply weren't working with her bulldog. Her journey led her to realize and accept that some dogs really are harder to train than others. This book examines the reasons why a dog might be hard to train and offers ideas for overcoming problems. Most importantly, it validates the owner of a harder-to-train dog by confirming that while the challenges they face in training are very real, they are not their fault nor their dog's - nor are they insurmountable. If for no other reason than to inspire a dog owner to persist with training, this book is worth the purchase price.

Although Fisher & Delzio broadly identify hound, non-sporting, and terrier breeds as the classic examples of harder to train dogs, they examine the traits which may make any dog a challenge to train. The traits they focus on are: independence, dominance, intelligence, determination, extremes of high or low energy, prey drive, and touch insensitivity. The authors do a nice job of explaining what these qualities are and how they can interfere with training. They also explain the silver-lining of each of these traits.

The authors readily acknowledge that harder to train dogs present a double-edged sword. Clearly the authors enjoy these tough-nut dogs, as they explain that harder to train dogs were created for the very intelligence, independence, and decision-making abilities that interfere with training. By obedience training these dogs, "Essentially we're pleading, 'Why can't you be more like your sporting/herding cousin?'" The entire message of the book can be summed up in the following passage:

"All of our dogs are not Lassie, thank heavens. If you bought this book, you too probably like dogs who have a mind of their own. However, while we admire our clever or bold dog, we also want to take him places, introduce him to new friends, and even show him. These goals are attainable."

In general terms, the authors' approach to training first accepts the fundamental nature of the difficult dog, then acts by, "... keep(ing) negatives to a minimum and maximiz(ing) the positives in the form of fun, novelty, treats, praise, and attention." True pragmatists, they assert, "Food has magical powers over our independent dogs. Make your life easier: use it." They stress the need to reward behavior and make things fun and interesting for the dog, but they are not afraid of correcting inappropriate behavior. Based on a lure-reward foundation, I would nevertheless call their approach balanced and realistic. An entire chapter is devoted to conveying one's leadership status to the dog, and the importance of being a competent leader and maintaining a dog's attention is stressed throughout.

The authors call their approach positive training, and indeed they do discourage unnecessary or overzealous corrections, particularly physical ones. That being said, the heart of what they mean by positive isn't "all reward and nothing but reward." When possible, they issue a command that can be rewarded rather than correcting the dog for misbehavior. They reward small approximations of desired behavior. They reward heavily and tangibly. They avoid boring or alienating a dog through excessive repetition or heavy-handedness. Yet they are not afraid to offer a correction when appropriate. They sensibly assert, "Correcting your dog's negative behavior won't crush him; it will clarify your expectations... Correction meted or in a calm, rational way, is meant to teach the dog." This is what I mean by their sensibility and balance.

Happily, the authors have a very readable, down-to-Earth writing style and a very apparent sense of humor. One cannot help but relate to their descriptions and explanations. As a Scottie owner, I smiled as they assert, "... when you give your independent dog a command, it is not imperative to his mental health that he carry it out." They write in a spirit of comaraderie, having "been there" and made mistakes of their own along the way. The authors use their own dogs and experiences as a reference point throughout, creating a warm, conversational, casual tone.

When they warn that corrections might not be effective in a particular circumstance, they don't do it from a position of moral superiority as do too many books nowadays. It comes from their experience. They warn, for example, that physical corrections might inspire passive resistance in the independent or low energy dog, might overstimulate the high energy dog, and might not even be noticed by the touch-insensitive or highly determined dog. And yet they never really say that any method of training is wrong, per se; they merely present what has and hasn't worked for them. Their presentation is palatable and convincing in large part due to their humility.

The book's scope is limited, which is not necessarily a disadvantage. Nonetheless, a pet owner looking to form their dog into a well-behaved companion might long for more discussion of house manners and typical behavior problems and find the sections that explore directed jumping and other competition issues to be a bit esoteric.

Much of the actual training content of the book can be applicable to either home life or the competition obedience ring, although there is an undeniable an emphasis on the latter. Chapters focus on such things as establishing and maintaining leadership, cultivating attention, using body language effectively, as well as on specific commands like sit, stay, heel, etc. An attempt is made to troubleshoot along the way, with specific remarks about various types of harder to train dogs. There are even a few simple dog-treat recipes thrown in. The overall effect works well, giving the reader the feeling that the authors' have a sense of perspective and are able to alter their approach to suit the needs of a particular dog.

Their style of training, while balanced, is decidedly dependent upon food, and they admit that, "In most poorly motivated dogs, food can never be eliminated as a training tool..." The authors are at peace with that, but certainly that assertion can open their approach to criticism. One could nit-pick other details of their technique, but the net effect is that of a solid little training manual.

This is a book that I routinely recommend... even for folks who do own Lassie-type breeds. It is an encouraging, casual, light-hearted book with good ideas and a reasonable outlook. If you own a dog with a mind of his own, this book may be very useful to you. If you're inspired by positive, motivational approaches to training but turned off by psychobabble and pretentiousness, you too will enjoy this book. Even if you don't train this way, the book won't really tell you you're wrong; it simply presents what has worked well for the authors, and you may stumble on something intriguing. This is one of those books that is an enjoyable read and seemingly offers something for everyone.

So Your Dog's Not Lassie by Betty Fisher & Suzanne Delzio.
Published by Harper Collins, 1998. ISBN: 0062734571

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