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How to Read Your Dog's Signals

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Duster tears up a shoe the minute you jump in the minivan. George flashes around the house like a high-speed Energizer Bunny from dawn to dusk. Max hides out in a quiet back room, slumped on his bed. If these dogs could talk, Duster might say, "I'm a wreck when you leave!" George might beg for a long romp at the park; Max might say that he's bored to tears.

But since dogs can't talk, it's up to us to decode the clues we see in their behavior and attitude. "Simply understanding the temperament of your dog's breed tells you a lot," says Joel Silverman, veteran trainer and author of "What Color is Your Dog?". Read up, for instance, and you'll quickly learn that a Great Dane has to be coaxed out for a walk, while a Border Collie is ready for outing number two the second you get home from the first one. The rest comes from paying close attention and knowing how to interpret what you see. Here are some key clues.

Lack of exercise. Keeping your dog well-exercised heads off a host of behavioral issues, from jumping up to bolting out open doors. As a general rule, puppies need exercise in short spurts of 10 to 15 minutes, at least three times a day, says Victoria Stilwell, dog trainer and host of Animal Planet's "It's Me or the Dog." Adult dogs need one to two hours a day, total. Even busy families can make time to exercise the dog by sharing the load at different times through the day, notes Cesar Millan in "A Member of the Family." In his example, the teenager walks Sparky for 10 minutes before school, mom handles a longer mid-morning walk, the two younger children take Sparky to the park for a game of Frisbee after school, and dad takes Sparky out once more before bed.

Boredom. Dogs get bored just like people. "This is a problem particularly for dogs like Labradors, terriers, and shepherds that are bred to be working animals, but spend hours hanging about our homes," says Stilwell. The solution -- in addition to making sure they get plenty of exercise -- is to stimulate their brains. Teach them new tricks. Practice agility skills such as jumping or weaving through poles. Play Frisbee, fetch, and hide-and-seek with a treat or toy. Mix it up to keep their attention and interest.

Anxiety. As pack animals, dogs are social creatures, so signs of stress often crop up when a dog is left at home alone. Anxious behavior may start small, such as a little pacing or whining, but may quickly escalate into endless barking, chewing, and other destructive behavior. Exercising your dog before she is left alone is a big help, but it's also important to give her a safe haven. "Crating your dog from the start gives your dog a comforting place where he likes to be and the smaller space inhibits pacing," says Silverman. To help your dog connect the crate with good things, put a treat and favorite toys inside. Start with short periods inside, then gradually extend them as your dog gets used to the space.

With these insights to your pup, you're on your way to honing your canine detective skills and making his life -- and your family's -- smoother and happier.

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