Ask the Dogfather: Tucker troubles, and a whole lot of barking going on

Tucker. —Photo by Kimberly Burke

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the Dogfather counsels the owners of a troubled Tucker and a pair of noisy pooches.

Dear Dogfather,

Some questions about our dog, Tucker, a 2-year-old Chihuahua mix rescue from St. Thomas. I’ve had him for almost two months.

1. We thought Tucker just liked to shred paper when he was left alone, but sometimes when we are “ignoring” him he’ll look for paper.  Why does he do this? Luckily he does not shred or chew anything else. Just curious.

2. I’ve had Tucker for almost two months now, and we started training immediately. However, it seems like sometimes he hasn’t learned a thing, but  other times he’s pretty well behaved. I know training is a constant thing, but why does it seem like he hasn’t learned anything at all?

3. Tucker likes to “nibble” with his teeth when playing. He doesn’t bite hard, although sometimes he will when having fun. How do I stop him from doing this?

Take care,


Dear Kim,

I don’t think you can name a household item that a vet hasn’t taken out of a dog’s stomach. About half of my training appointments had to do with some kind of real behavioral issue, and destructive chewing is pretty high on the list. Many dogs have real preferences. I remember a Redbone Coonhound that just loved to spend an afternoon devouring a good book from the owner’s library. Then there are the finicky wood eaters — just chair legs for one particular Lab I got to know pretty well. More than once the hapless owner went to sit down only to have the chair collapse as though the leg had been sawed through as a slapstick joke. Some of the wood eaters were strictly into door and floor moldings.

The cloth eaters were killers. Imagine coming home to your four-piece sectional couch with three of the sections half shredded, along with the love seat. Carpets, yum! Let’s not overlook the plastic-eating gourmets. Anybody not have any plastic in their house?

I know a Golden Retriever, also named Tucker, who was perfect in every way, except for the two operations he needed to remove his owner’s stockings, which were completely tangled in his intestines.

Well, Kim, your Tucker seems to like paper. Why paper? Dogs being creatures of habit, it very well could be happenstance. The first thing he got into and perhaps liked the sound or feel of was probably the crunch of the paper. Or maybe it was the taste or smell of the glue on an envelope. Many dogs prefer negative attention to no attention. It gets you to stop ignoring him when he grabs paper, doesn’t it? Tempting him with paper when you’re around and enforcing the “leave it” command, then substituting with dog toys and praise, should work well with Tucker.

So, sometimes Tucker acts as though he hasn’t learned a thing when you know he has. I have three kids who were all taught right from wrong. Does that mean they always did right? Countless times I’ve said to people, “I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is your dog is real smart,  and the bad news is your dog is real smart — and not cooperative.” Dogs are not computers that we can program. Tucker may be off-leash looking at the sexy Jack Russell walking by when you call him to come, and he knows what come means, and he makes a decision. “In a minute, Mom, just gotta check out this Jack!” Dogs play “No speaka Inglish,” are manipulative, and get away with what they can just as often as people. Especially when they’re young. You’re right about consistency, it’s really important, and time is on your side here. He will want to please you more as he matures and deepens his relationship with you.

As for nibbling on your hands, teeth and flesh are no-noes. If his teeth are on your hand, don’t pull your hand away; rather, with your other hand, twist his collar tight and give him a bit of discomfort as you snarl “No teeth!” The second he takes his teeth off your hand, release the collar and praise him lightly. Just make sure he feels a modicum of discomfort every time his teeth touch flesh, with the irritation stopping when he stops. Better yet, every time he gets mouthy, shove a toy in his mouth and never let him get used to having his teeth on you.

Stay consistent, and Tucker will become a well-mannered gentleman.

Good luck,

The Dogfather