Behavior problems are the No. 1 reason animals are turned over to shelters, and the leading cause of death for dogs under 3 years of age...

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Behavior problems are the No. 1 reason animals are turned over to shelters, and the leading cause of death for dogs under 3 years of age.

The good news is that almost all these problems are preventable. Spending a little bit of time and effort today is relatively painless. And it can avert a sometimes sad, always difficult and usually expensive problem later.

Here are seven simple rules to observe if you want a dog that is a pleasure to live with:

Rule 1: Start early. Every Wednesday night, the puppies take over Dog Days Dog Training in Vancouver, Wash. There is equipment to play on, new friends to make during structured playtime, basic commands to learn and plenty of potty breaks.

“It’s important to get a puppy socialized in a safe, controlled environment,” explains Julie Wilcoxson, co-owner of Dog Days and trainer of the puppy kindergarten class. Puppies grow into calmer adult dogs if they’re exposed to noises, people of all ages and other dogs while they are still young.

In a good kindergarten class, the dogs have supervised play with other puppies that match up well for their size and temperament. They learn simple commands and learn to be still in their owners’ arms.

While socialization is important, it’s also vital to use common sense with puppies that are still getting their vaccinations. Don’t take puppies to places such as public parks where unvaccinated dogs are likely to be. Look for safe, clean environments where careful owners take their dogs.

Your veterinarian may be able to recommend a good puppy kindergarten class. Another place to look for puppy kindergarten and other dog training is the Web site of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers:

Rule 2: If you didn’t start early, train your dog now. One study showed one of the biggest differences between dogs that are given to shelters and those that aren’t was obedience classes. Dogs that know such simple skills as sit, come and walking on a leash are better companions than those that don’t. And dogs can learn at any age.

Rule 3: Exercise your dog. Barking, jumping and constantly nagging his owner to play ball are signs that a dog isn’t getting the exercise it needs. A tired dog is a good dog.

Walking your dog is a good start. Dogs bond with the people who walk them, and it’s great for both of you. For most dogs, all it takes is a pleasant daily walk to feel calm and bonded.

For other dogs, a long walk is just a warmup. Siberian huskies and border collies were bred to run hours a day. Riding your bicycle with your dog, playing fetch or taking your dog to doggie day care can all be alternatives for these high-energy dogs. Don’t let size fool you: Many little breeds, such as Jack Russell terriers and even some tiny papillons, may need more exercise than large dogs.

Exercise needs generally decline with age, but not always. Some dogs crave a high level of physical activity their whole lives.

Rule 4: Make your dog earn his dinner. Feeding your dog two meals a day — and making him work for his food when you feed him — may transform your dog. Ask him to do a simple command (such as “sit”) that he knows well before you put the bowl down. Wait patiently until he does what you ask before you feed him.

Ask your dog to do a command before giving treats, too, and even before petting him. If your dog doesn’t do what you ask, just turn away and don’t give the treat or the petting. Soon, your dog will do the simple command when you ask.

This is a gentle, calm way to show your dog that you are the kind and benevolent leader. You may be stunned at how much closer your relationship with your dog becomes just from this change.

Rule 5: Teach your dog impulse control. Lots of dogs know “sit” or “come” but become wild and crazy when something exciting happens. The star of the obedience class may jump on guests when they arrive at your door.

“A dog that has good impulse control learns that being polite is what gets him what he wants,” says Suzanne Malick, training director for Pup-A-Razzi in Beaverton, Ore.

She recommends selecting a behavior that comes naturally to the dog, such as sitting or lying down, and rewarding the behavior every time the dog does it. That behavior becomes a way for the dog to communicate back to you. When he wants something, he’ll begin to offer the default behavior — and you’ll have a dog that is calm, rather than excited, when he’s hoping for something fun.

Rule 6: Deal with little problems before they become big problems. If you have a puppy, don’t allow him to do anything now that you won’t allow when he’s full size. If you don’t want a 70-pound adult dog jumping up and licking at you, don’t let the 7-pound puppy do it.

Deal with irritating habits when they start, before they progress to dangerous behaviors over time. For most dogs, ignoring the bad behavior and rewarding the good behavior quickly shapes a happy, well-behaved dog.

Rule 7: Ask for help if you need it. Even in the best families, sometimes there are troubled kids. The same thing happens with dogs. If your dog is aggressive or has other behavior you don’t know how to deal with, ask for help now. The longer a dog practices bad behavior, the harder it is to change. Talk with your veterinarian about whether your dog might need a referral to medical intervention by a behavior specialist.