14 Tips From New York’s Most Musical Dog Trainer

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Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Elisabeth Weiss didn’t know who Lou Reed was when she went to the apartment he shared with Laurie Anderson in 2010 to teach keyboard to their dying rat terrier, Lolabelle — and give their beloved dog a reason to live a little longer. Since then, though, she’s trained the canine companions of many a monied New Yorker, including Jann Wenner’s Wheaton terrier, Max, and Julian Schnabel’s rescue dog, Buddy. Her style is a version of “positive reinforcement training,” as opposed to the harsher, punishment-based “compulsion training” favored by Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan. How does it work? Jada Yuan spent a day making house calls with Weiss for a piece in this week’s magazine and picked up some handy tips for training dogs with kindness along the way.

1. Put a leash on indoors. It calms down restless dogs slightly. “It means, 'I’m watching you. You can’t just go all over the place,'” says Weiss. “It’s more practical to give them very few choices and then expand from there.”

2. If you catch your dog peeing in the house, don’t yell at him. “That tells the dog, ‘Pee when I’m gone,’” says Weiss. “So people find the pee and poop behind the couch when they come back.” Instead, ignore peeing in the house and make it almost impossible for the dog to make a "mistake" by supervising closely (or crating when you're not around) and heavily rewarding peeing or pooping in the right place.

3. Accept that some things are just doggie nature. When I asked Weiss how we could have stopped my high school dog, Zoey, from getting into the garbage whenever we left the house, she said, simply, “Put the trash away.”

4. Strategically refrain from petting. It’s hard because puppies are adorable, but touching your dog when he jumps on you encourages that behavior, and he’ll still do it when he’s 120 pounds, even if you’ve stopped thinking it’s so cute.

5. Lavish attention on calm dogs. Weiss says the hardest thing to teach humans “is to reward a dog when the dog is doing nothing or being good.”

6. Treats are your friend. Dogs hate being bent over, so the best way to get one to heel and be comfortable with a "scary" position of someone tall towering over him is to get him to associate physical closeness with a treat, instead of a threat. Eventually, though, food rewards should become intermittent or else they become bribes. Sub in games, petting, or activities the dog really loves.

7. Try a clicker, a very cheap tool available at most pet stores; Weiss uses a clicker for nonverbal encouragement in training. “It means, 'You’re on the right track,' or 'This is what I want,'” she says. Click to bridge time between a behavior and a reward, or at the exact moment when the dog does something that pleases you. (Weiss has tried this on humans, too, and discovered that if she clicked when her girlfriends sat down, the next time she clicked they’d do the same thing because they were successful at it the first time.)

8. Food grazing is bad. Leaving a bowl of food out for your dog to graze on whenever he likes can create behavioral issues. Make him earn his food by sitting and staying and he’ll appreciate it, which can have a positive domino effect. A dog who earns his food regularly may stop being aggressive with other dogs because his owner is acting more like the grown-up in the relationship and he’ll look to her for protection, rather than thinking he has to be her protector.

9. Respect your dog’s ability to think. Here’s how to get your dog to sit and stay without saying a word: Fill a plate full of food and hold it at chest level. Wait for your dog to sit (this may take forever). Lower the plate. If he rushes forward, lift the plate up until he sits again. A trainable dog will start to understand what you want. Repeat until he sits and stays.

10. Try not to nag. This kind of training requires patience on the part of humans, but if you ask the dog to sit and he’s not getting it, you just say it once and have to wait until he does. Otherwise, says Weiss, “It becomes like, ‘Sit, sit, sit, sit.’ When is he supposed to sit? On the 20th sit?”

11. Make walks more of a mental activity. Try the sit-stay technique to get your dog to sit and wait for you to open the door (the opening of the door is the reward). Bring treats. Make him walk on one side, and walk erratically so he has to follow you.

12. Have realistic expectations. Practice those erratic walking patterns inside before you try to make them happen outside with a million distractions. The point is to build up the dog’s self-confidence, says Weiss.

13. Retire that pinch collar. Weiss thinks it’s a “very aversive training tool. Without explaining what you really want, the dog gets pinched. So you’re underestimating the dog’s capacity to not pull on the leash. You’re also hurting the dog.”

14. A KONG toy filled with beef tripe works wonders. Give your dog a challenging activity, like trying to extract food out of a tiny hole or trying to find a treat in a puzzle, to keep him occupied while you’re out of the house. “I think it’s really important for city dogs to have activities that they can do inside so they don’t get bored, because most of the nuisance behaviors that they exhibit are based on boredom,” says Weiss. “A lot of people with small dogs think, Oh, I can keep him inside. He’ll pee on a pad. It’s like having a fish, sort of. And to me it’s like saying, ‘You’re short. You never have to learn how to read.’”