Q: Help! My Jack Russell Terrier is only eight months old but he’s already out of control. I can’t seem to teach him anything or make him do what he’s told. Heck, I can’t even get his attention most of the time! He won’t come when he’s called and I can’t trust him off leash. I took him to obedience class once but that didn’t make any difference. The instructor gave up on him. I’m at the end of my rope – is there anything I can do?
A: The qualities that make terriers so appealing – courage, boldness and a fun-loving spirit – can also make them difficult to live with. Unlike most breeds, terriers were bred to work independently of people. Retrievers, for example, instinctively know how to retrieve but they expect their people to tell them when, how and what to retrieve. Terriers, on the other hand, were intended to roam their owners’ property on their own, seeking out and killing rats and assorted vermin. They were expected to work by themselves without human intervention and make their own decisions. Many terriers, in fact, don’t see people as their “masters” at all but as nuisances that are interfere with their fun!
Terrier authority Pam Bishop of the Fox Terrier Network says that Jack Russells are actually fairly easy to train but that training must be done differently than with other breeds. She stresses that terriers just want to have fun – literally! The pursuit of fun is their main goal in life. Anything that prevents them from having a good time becomes an obstacle to be overcome. Being very smart and curious, they are able to figure things out quickly and are easily bored by standard obedience classes.
Along with their sharp, inquisitive minds, terriers were bred to have exceptional courage and persistence. They don’t back down to anything and that includes their owners! Pam says that it’s next to impossible to make a terrier do something it doesn’t want to, another handicap to standard training methods. They also have a remarkable (and frustrating!) ability, because of their keen hunting instincts, to key in on something and tune out everything else around them, including their owners’ commands.
Pam recommends that, for best results, a terrier should be well-socialized before starting obedience class. Take your dog daily for walks on leash outside of his own yard and property. Let him see, hear, investigate and get used to new sights and sounds. Walks make constructive use of your terrier’s endless supply of energy, too.
To successfully train a terrier, Pam says, training must be fast-paced, fun, and designed to take advantage of the dog’s natural intelligence and curiosity. They catch on quickly and become bored with repetition. Pam suggests keeping training sessions very short and changing the exercises around. Terriers love not knowing what’s coming next! They like excitement and the mental challenge of figuring out what you want. If you make it too easy, they’ll find something more interesting to do.
Likewise, terriers become bored at standard obedience classes waiting around while other dogs work. They like to be the center of attention and want to be “on” all the time. Being naturally domineering creatures, they often challenge other dogs whom they think are stealing their attention.
Use food treats liberally - most terriers are highly food-motivated. Rather than correct the dog for mistakes (which simply makes terriers angry and more stubborn), use positive motivation by rewarding them generously for what
they’ve done right. For terriers, training -must- be fun or the dog will simply refuse to learn anything.
Pam reports that “clicker” training, a positive motivation method that inspires a dog to think, is quite successful with Jack Russells and other lively terriers. To find out more about clicker training, I recommend Karen Pryor’s book Don't Shoot the Dog : The New Art of Teaching and Training
Jack Russell owner Dean Williamson shares a few tips from his experience living with this breed as well as other terriers: Dean says that JRT’s are very pack-oriented and need a clear understanding of where they fit in their human family’s pecking order. Without firm rules to follow, they will put themselves in charge of your household. Crate training is essential to successfully living with a terrier, Dean says. Your JRT should sleep in his crate at night, not in your bed. At dinner time, it’s important that your family, and especially your children, finish their meal before the dog is fed.
If your dog begs or gets into mischief while the family eats, put him in his crate.
Both Dean and Pam remind owners that no matter how much training they do, their terriers will never be dependable off leash because of their deeply rooted hunting instincts and natural impulsiveness. Their instantaneous reaction to anything that looks like it should be chased or investigated causes them to completely forget their training. Instinct will always override their owners’ commands. Therefore, Pam says, a terrier owner should never depend on obedience training when the dog is in a potentially dangerous situation.
Dean stresses that active terriers need an exercise, play and obedience session every day to keep them manageable. He agrees with Pam that hitting or spanking a terrier just doesn’t work, it only makes them stubborn and aggressive. Instead, use psychology and remember their strongest motivation in life is to have fun – you must make it fun for them to do whatever it is you want!
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