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Taming Murphy

Our parenting columnist shares tips and tricks for raising a family dog who hasn't learned the command "stay" yet.

Since we adopted our dog Murphy McBolt three weeks ago, he's run away seven times.

True to his name, his favorite trick is to bolt out of open doors at 99 miles an hour.

Apparently to him, the command "Stop!" means, "Go, Murphy! Head for the hills! Head for the cars! Head for the great big, blond Lab that's 20 times your size and looks hungry to eat you!"

To ensure his day isn't too boring, Murphy also enjoys digging his way under our backyard fence, then under the neighbor's fence, making his way to the cute little white Shitzu's house three doors down, his male hormones wagging.

We found out it takes about three months to schedule an appointment with Contra Costa County Animal Services Department to "fix" the problem. Meanwhile, Murphy could be doing his part to overpopulate the Earth.

I suspect our little Romeo could make his way across country this way if it were not for the cute little bone-shaped tag jingling below his collar, directing kindly neighbors to return him to our address.

Chasing Murphy, as I wrote about in this column before, has become a regular sport for our family, whipping us all into shape. We should be ready for Olympic trials by winter.

Meanwhile, my kids and I have becoming increasingly attached to Mr. McBolt, despite his rascally ways. So I've taken responsibility, as pack leader, to find solutions, not only for curbing his runaway tendencies, but also for teaching him to be more obedient in general.

For starters, we called around, and a friend recommended using either chicken wire or bricks to blockade the bottom of our backyard fence.

Lucky for us, my boyfriend Rob is something of a genius for fixing things.

Battening down the hatches took him just a few hours. We chose bricks over chicken wire since we happened to have extra pavers in the backyard.

Rob buried those around the perimeter of the fence, and so far it's worked like a charm

It's been a week now, and no more fence escapes, so that was good.

I thought teaching Murphy some obedience skills would be a good summer project for the kids, so we headed off to the Dougherty Station Community Library a few times recently and stocked up on dog training books and videos.

A kindly librarian there recommended a book called "Be the Pack Leader" by Cesar Millan, TV's "Dog Whisperer." (Interesting book, but note that the real nuggets don't come to the final chapter. So if you are as desperate for solutions as I was, skip to the end.)

My 9-year-old daughter picked out "Puppy care: a guide to loving and nurturing your pet," by Kim Dennis-Bryan. It offers good, very basic tips and pretty much just served to make her feel part of Operation Tame Murphy.

Here are a few things we've learned:

1. To get a dog to "sit" and "stay": Make sure you have a yummy, chewy, preferably fragrant treat. Dogs can be very obedient for the right treat.

2. To show you are the "pack leader": Make sure your dog sits and stays by the door while you walk out the door first. Likewise, when walking the dog, he should walk beside or a little behind you; never in front.

3. To calm down a high-energy dog: Exercise is key. Cesar Millan recommends an hour walk in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. I like to run Murphy while I ride my bike up the trail behind our house (out of traffic). When I can't run him, I ask the kids to do it, which is ideal, exercising both the kids and dog at once.

4. To discourage him from jumping on us: We've learned to turn our backs to him and tell him to "sit" until he calms down, then, once he's mellowed, we turn around and give him lots of praise and affection for being a good "listener."

I can't say Murphy can be called "obedient" yet, but he hasn't run away for a few weeks; he'll sit and stay for a good treat (provided there are no squirrel or lizards around to distract him); and the more we exercise him, the calmer he seems to be.

It's amazing how much exercise can help turn all of us into happy pups.

Funny thing is I've discovered that a lot of these dog training tips can be modified to help "train" the kids, as well.

Tune in next week for "Parenting Tricks My Dog Taught Me."

Woof.

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