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12-28-2008 The Lessons Of Marley

This was first published in Huffington Post

There are two powerful teaching opportunities in the new movie "Marley & Me" and the film gets a PhD in one and flunks the other. Read this if you want to bring kids or if you have an incorrigible dog, but -- spoiler alert -- the ending is in the next paragraph.

This is a film about death, not dogs. There is a graphic lesson for youngsters, and if yours can handle the Marley's prolonged demise, then bring them, but be prepared to do some explaining before and after. A Dad behind me had to carry his sobbing little girl out while he looked dumbfounded.

Alas, the movie fails to deliver the other important message: There is nothing cute about a destructive, disobedient, ill mannered dog. Marley's owner, John Grogan, labels him "the world's worst dog" because he chews everything, runs amok, and poops in the wrong places. What fun! Grogan was lucky Marley didn't kill himself. And constantly yelling at a dog is abuse.

As I write this, an eight month old Yellow Labrador who could be Marley's twin is at my feet. She belongs to Leader Dogs for the Blind in Michigan. We got her at 7 weeks of age, and on May 12 my wife and I will return her to Leader Dogs where she will attend finishing school. When she is about 17 months old, if she is among the 50% who pass, she will go out and drag a blind person around just like the four other dogs we have raised for them.

So far Sunshine has only gnawed on one piece of furniture, and by the time she was five months old she came when called, walked gently at my side, and had stopped jumping on people. We're still working on her desire to parade around with a sock in her mouth. She is a very happy puppy. We have simply given her rules and a safe, structured, playful environment. The same thing you give to children. And it didn't take a lot of time and effort.

If you have a Marley, here are 10 tips that can keep your best friend from getting squashed in the street, from trampling the children, from destroying your divan, and from putting muddy paw prints on your guests' dresses. You, your dog, and your friends will all be happier.

1) Learn to speak dog. Give your Marley hugs and praise in happy tones when he does something right. He will do anything for love. If he nips you when playing, let out a pained yelp: Ay-yi-yi-yiiiiii! He doesn't want to hurt you. If your dog does something really really bad grab him by both cheeks, put your nose right against his, and in your growliest voice tell him how unacceptable his behavior is. But you've got to catch him in the act. He won't know what you're complaining about 10 minutes later. Never hit your dog. It messes their minds up.

2) Obedience schools work. They don't train dogs, they train humans. Marley was so unruly he is expelled from school. That rarely happens, especially if you have a good trainer and if you do your homework. And you can teach old dogs new tricks. They love to learn and obedience is a fun game. Being yelled at or yanked on is not fun.

3) Remember, you are smarter than your dog. Prove it by reading a good book about how dogs think. Try "How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend" by The Monks of New Skete.

4) Dogs are descendants of wolves. Your household is his pack, and if Marley thinks he is leader of the pack, you've got problems. All the humans in your house must teach Marley his place in the pecking order. Last. That means you need to decide the rules and never break them. If Marley isn't allowed on the couch, even if he has a broken leg, he cannot be on the couch.

5) Get a crate and learn how to use it. Puppies love their crates. It is their special refuge. It is not cruel unless you keep them there too long or if you use it for punishment. Crates are also a great way to house train because most dogs will not foul their beds. But remember, puppies need to go out every hour or two and adult dogs need a lot of exercise.

6) No food from the table. Not too much food. Keep the treats to a minimum. After 15 minutes, if he hasn't finished eating, pick up the bowl.

7) Always walk on a leash and walk with him at your side. Don't let him drag you and never let him touch other pedestrians.

8) Keep him safe in the car. You can get a seat belt or a crate, or make him lie down on the floor. The safest place in the car is the passenger side floor. A dog standing on the back seat is a missile waiting to be launched. A dog in the driver's lap can bring death to both.

9) Unless you have a pure-bred show dog, spay or neuter your dog. It may calm him down a bit, but more importantly, it will mean fewer sad, unwanted, hungry, homeless dogs that have to be killed in shelters.

10) And always pick up his poop.

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