I WENT TO THE GYM ONCE

Originally posted May 2013

I used to belong to the local gym, and I used to go every workday morning.  It was a great start to the day.  I would lift weights, and ride the exercise bike and swim and then have a hot tub and shower and get ready for work.  I had friends at the gym who would share their lives with me, and I would share my life with them.  Then we moved out to the country and the gym was really inconvenient to get to, and I was really busy, so I stopped going.  I am not in the least bit surprised that my weight went up and my fitness went down.  I used to be a gym rat, but not anymore, and frankly when you don’t go, you stop reaping the benefits.

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Once…I was this fit.  Not so much any more!

Dog training is like this.  Coming to puppy school when your dogs are really young has become the norm, and we think this is terrific.  In puppy class we teach people about recognizing when their dogs might be overwhelmed, when play is getting too rough and how to introduce your puppy to the family.  We teach older puppies how to sit, lie down, come when called and stay out of the trash.  Almost everyone in class meets someone who has a puppy who is a good play match for their dog, and they continue to stay connected with one another throughout their dog’s lives.

All too often though, we have families who tell us that they are “taking a break” from classes and training, and periodically we get a client who returns to us when their puppy has grown up into a four year old Dennis the Menace.  Bad habits creep up, and the family works around them.  The problems aren’t addressed, and then suddenly they are overwhelming.   Maybe the dog has learned that coming when called is an optional behaviour that results in driving away from the dog park.  Quite often the behaviour that brings people back to class is a dog who is pulling on leash.  Hard.  Every day.  Quite often the client will say to me “but we went to puppy class”.

Puppy class is a great foundation.  I really, sincerely do believe that every puppy deserves puppy class and I believe this so strongly that I am giving puppy classes away for free.  If you do nothing else with your puppy, come to class before he is 12 weeks of age.  Never the less, if you come to puppy class before twelve weeks, and you never come back, don’t be surprised if your dog’s skills and socialization decay and aren’t reliable.

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This pup is learning that being caught by a child is a safe thing!  This is one of the foundation skills that pups learn in puppy class, but you have to keep practicing in order to maintain the skills.

Building skills to begin with is like going to the gym.  When I first went to the gym, I didn’t have any skills.  I started out by doing weightlifting that started out small and built up.  I started out lifting small weights, and built up to my top lifts of 200 lbs.  I started out with short light aerobic work outs on the stationary bike and the eliptical machines.  Each day I did similar routines that carefully built up my fitness.  Each week the routines became more challenging and helped to increase my fitness level.  I became stronger and more aerobically fit.  Sadly, I have taken a break and I am not where I was at my peak of fitness.

If I wanted to get back into weight lifting and get back to my best ever bench press of 200 lbs, then I would need to establish a base line.  What is the most I can lift now?  I would bet that with my current tennis elbow and terribly out of shape body, that I would probably be able to lift somewhere between 60 and 70 lbs.  That is a far cry from what I could lift when I was working out with weights every day!  60 to 70 lbs being my baseline, I would work out with weights that are less than that to build strength.  I might lift 4 sets of ten reps of 40 lbs for a week, and then move up to that work out with 45 lbs.  In dog training, when you have taken time off, you need to figure out what your dog’s baseline is when you start back at class and then work up from there.  There is no point in starting at your dog’s best performance; that is not where he is.

If I had kept going to the gym instead of stopping and starting over the years, I might have exceeded my heaviest lift ever instead of getting flabby and out of shape.  Things got in the way though, and my priorities shifted.  I know this happens with our puppies too.  When it happens though, we cannot be surprised when skills decay.

Not only do skills decay if you don’t practice, but so can socialization.  Socialization is the process of carefully exposing a puppy to everyone and everything he will encounter as an adult.  If you do this diligently, and then keep your dog in the backyard for the next four years, he will no longer be confident about the things that he encounters as he passes through life.  Thus it is important to take advantage of the early window of time to start socialization, but throughout your dog’s life, you need to continue to keep him socialized.  A large gap between initial socialization and ongoing socialization can create a problem where the dog is no longer confident about stimuli that he may once have been very tolerant about.  If your dog has had a gap in exposure to the environment either due to illness or the vagaries of our busy lives, he may develop the kinds of problems we hope to avoid by doing socialization activities in the first place.

When we start training with puppies, we are not surprised that they don’t know much and we work at the easy things such as restraining yourself against snatching treats, and work up to the more complicated things like leash manners and coming away from play or food.  When I am passing my students on their various obedience skills I often point out to them key exercises that they should practice throughout their dog’s lives.  Some of the exercises that we do with the dogs form the foundations for other exercises and again there are similarities to exercising at the gym.  I think of these exercises as the warm up stretches that we do before we work out.  If you have been to class but now you cannot return for whatever reason, then you can maintain your dog’s skills by practicing some of the simple skills that you worked on early in your dog’s career.  If you can do this, then taking a break from classes is not going to ruin the work you have done.  I am stronger now than I was when I got my horse a year ago because I began lifting heavy feed bags and hay and other items involved in caring for my horses.  I am not as strong as I was when I worked out every day, but I am stronger than I was.

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This chocolate Newfoundlander practices his down stay in the presence of treats in our Levels Class.  Continuing classes through adulthood keeps skills sharp and helps you to develop new skills as you go along!

I may go back to the gym at some point, but for right now, I exercise by caring for and riding my horse.  My dogs come to classes regularly and we practice regularly both at home and in class.  When I get my next pup, he will go to classes three to five times a week until he is about a year.  At that point, I will likely ease up and go only once or twice a week to develop skills for competition or sport.  My dogs go to classes for their whole lives, because I like the benefits of continuing classes over the long term; like the gym, classes yield benefits in other parts of my life.  Not only do I have dogs who have current skills but I also have fun at class.  There are people I see regularly who I enjoy talking with, and sharing experiences with.  Come to think of it, I am missing the community I built at the gym.  It might just be time to go back.

I WENT TO THE GYM ONCE

DOG PEOPLE AND NON DOG PEOPLE

Originally written in 2015

I received a rather weird post to my business Facebook page, from a man in another city imploring me to teach my students to follow the city by laws.  His rant was full of frustration and anger.  He was SO frustrated that he complained to just about the only person who could not help him.  There is definitely a divide between the dog owning and the non dog owning community.  The only thing that both communities seem to agree upon is that they are fed up.

On the one hand are those who own dogs and who have to move through the public with those dogs.  Very few of us want to cause discomfort to the people who live near us, but sometimes things happen.  If you get caught away from home without a bag and your dog leaves a mess, there is little you can do.  My kingdom for bag stations and garbage cans on every street corner!  Dogs are dogs though, and they do things that we wish they would not, at least from time to time.  Beyond toileting in public, dogs do other things that non dog people may find uncomfortable or unfriendly.  They bark, lunge, pull on leash, whine, leave footprints, jump up and sometimes get into or onto things many folks wish they would not.

Non dog owners sometimes cause problems for dog owners too.  I have been yelled at, charged, had a bicycle try and run my dog over, had rocks thrown at me and experienced some pretty awful behaviour from the people I meet-and I have a very well behaved dog!  It seems like if I go out in public and my dog does not appear to be unpleasant or unfriendly, then I become a target for every non dog owner’s frustration, or the target for every child who wants to touch my dog.

A part of the problem is that as a society, we seem to have forgotten a few golden rules.  First and foremost, we seem to have forgotten that we should try and not interfere with the enjoyment of other people of the public places we go to.  Being physically present with a dog does not constitute a hardship in and of itself.  Neither does being in public without a dog.  If we could all remember that everyone, dogs too, need a bit of space that would help.  Acknowledge one another and say hello.  When I am walking my dog and a skate board comes up behind me, I may not hear that; call out and I will give you more space.  Common courtesy of acknowledging one another and helping each other seems to have fallen away when it comes to the interactions between dogs and the public at large.

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If you are walking your dog in a public space, carry a bag. Heck carry two! Or more. And if someone offers you a bag be gracious about accepting it! it would be terrific if posts like this were found more widely, because everyone gets caught short once in a while, but you should not be caught short every time you walk your dog!

Toiletting is perhaps the biggest issue I see.  If your dog toilets in public; clean it up!  I have been caught short without a bag from time to time, it happens to all dog owners-but it shouldn’t happen every single time you go out.  It shouldn’t even happen once a week.  If you are a non dog owner, and see that I am scrounging for a bag (I have even gone into trash cans looking for them!) and you have one…I will not be offended if you offer it to me.  And dog owners; if you are offered a bag, take it with some grace.  It is not the responsibility of the non dog walking public to carry bags, but believe me, it isn’t a horrid idea to help one another out!

Another common pet peeve between the dog owning and non dog owning public is a dog who should be wearing a leash but who is not.  Not only is it illegal in most places, but frankly it is incredibly dangerous in most places.  All a dog has to do is make one small mistake and walk into traffic and he is dead.  As a professional dog trainer I often have a cheapo extra leash with me.  I have given out dozens of them to people over the years.  If you own a dog, he needs a collar and leash and if I offer you one, please USE IT!  Yes, I regularly run my dogs off leash in places where they are safe from traffic but in town, regardless of how good my dog is, I use a leash and collar.  Last Friday, as I was leaving for Montreal, I arrived at the train station in Kitchener and there was a large Boxer, loose in the station (yes, inside!) without a leash or collar.  I travel with an older service dog; my first duty is to protect my dog.  Luckily I had help; John stood up and stood between me and the other dog-not only was this situation dangerous to the loose dog, but it was incredibly unfair to me and my dog as there was nowhere for us to go to escape him should he want to greet us.

As I mentioned earlier, I have had some horrendous experiences with the general public when I have been out with dogs.  One of my earliest experiences with socializing a puppy involved going out to a park and sitting on a bench to watch people go by.  There was a bench across the street from me, so I walked my young puppy over.  An older man was sitting on the bench at one end, so I went to the other end with my puppy.  Without a word, he reached over with his cane and very deliberately struck my dog across the nose, and then began to berate me for bring a dirty animal to the park.  Why?  I still don’t know.  Perhaps he had been frightened by a dog, but that is unacceptable behaviour and it certainly interfered with my right to enjoy the neighbourhood I lived in.

Humans are a social species.  We are meant to live in groups.  Everyone has the right to enjoy their neighbourhood.  What I think most people miss is the right to enjoy something is accompanied by the responsibility to protect one another when out in society.  That is part of being a member of a social species; we all contribute to the greater success of one another when we are part of a neighbourhood.  This means that both dog owners and non dog owners need to work together to get it right and stop interfering with one another.

The people who own dogs who are the least likely to cause problems for one another are those who are already proactive about their dog’s behaviour.  The people who come to puppy classes and training classes are not generally the ones who are causing problems by letting their dogs run loose.  They are taking action to prevent problems by educating their dogs about acceptable and not acceptable behaviours.  In our classes we teach a wide variety of things including toileting on cue which means that we can tell our dogs when and where they can go.  We teach leash manners which means that the dogs who come to our classes are learning now to walk politely beside their people.  We teach the cued take it which means that our dogs are not the ones who are loose and scoffing food off the sidewalk or out of your hands.

The people who don’t have dogs who are the least likely to run into trouble with dogs are those who understand a few things about dogs.  Just like most people don’t like to be hugged by strangers, most dogs don’t want you to touch them either.  Dogs are descended from predators and if you tease a dog and then run, they will likely chase you.  If you threaten a dog, no matter how nice the dog is, he is going to defend himself.  Most interactions between dogs and humans are really, really benign-most dogs are not going to do anything to you if they are running free without interference.  If you happen across an unaccompanied loose dog, catching him is not a great idea; call your local humane society but don’t try and catch the dog.  Catching dogs puts them in a position where they are vulnerable; and dogs who feel vulnerable may bite.  Beyond that, you don’t know the health status of a strange dog.  Dogs can and do carry parasites, fungal infections and diseases that we can get.  Leave catching strange dogs to the pros, especially if you don’t know much about dogs in general.

You may admire my dog, but please, don’t just walk up and touch him.  I happen to live with three very easy going, happy, friendly dogs, but not every dog accompanied by a person is a happy easy dog.  Many dogs need space for a variety of reasons.  You would never walk up to a total stranger and hug them, and no matter how much you may admire my dog, he is not an object to be fondled.  If you would like to meet a dog you have seen, ask the person who is accompanying that dog.  If you have been invited to greet a dog, greet him verbally first and see if he approaches for pats!  Don’t just touch him randomly.

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When I am hiking, and I meet a child, I usually prefer he doesn’t come over and greet my dog. At least in this case, the dog is on a leash (it is hard to see but it is there) and the child is being supervised by an adult, but I always wonder if the child is actually meeting the dog or if he is just touching him because he thinks he ought to. If you look at this image, the child is not really engaged with the dog! Dogs should not be treated like stuffed animals, to be mauled by anyone who wants to touch them.

And dog owners; don’t put your dog up as a toy or object to be handled and touched.  Dogs have thousands of years of living with us and they live rich emotional and cognitive lives.  Requiring a dog to be touched who doesn’t want to be touched is unfair.  Ask your dog by giving him permission to greet-don’t just let people touch your dog as though he didn’t care.  Your dog cares deeply and deserves the chance to be touched on his terms.  If your dog is telling you he is uncomfortable about being touched, then don’t force the issue.  So many dog bites could be prevented if only the dog was permitted to leave when he was uncomfortable.

There are some conventions I would like people to understand about dog parks too; many problems could be avoided easily if we were to just all play by the same rules.  First and foremost, don’t encourage on leash greetings.  Very few handlers know how to leash handle in a way that is sufficiently sophisticated that they are going to avoid issues when their dogs meet on leash.  Tight leashes create an agonistic posture in dogs, and when your dog is approaching another dog in a way that looks threatening, that is how dog fights start.  Further to that, the dogs cannot leave, so if they want out of the greeting, they don’t have many choices.  Finally, on leash greetings tend to be protracted, like a handshake that goes on much, much too long.  There is no better way to annoy a potential friend than shaking their hand for too long.  Handshakes and dog greetings should operate on a count of one, two, three and we are done.  Off leash, most dogs do this.  On leash, with the people gabbing and not paying attention, greetings go on and on and on and everyone seems surprised when a snarl breaks out.

If your dog is off leash, and you encounter another dog who is on leash, for heaven’s sake, leash up!  The other dog cannot greet properly and he is captive to whatever the loose dog decides to do.  It is our responsibility as reasonable dog owners to make other people’s lives just a little easier.  Yes, I know we have all dropped the leash, had the fence fail, had the door open and yes, if you are the one holding the leash, you have to take action to prevent a blow up, but really, if you have a dog running loose, even in an off leash zone, please leash up when you encounter a loose dog.

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This is the sort of tricky situation that can go wrong really quickly. When someone turns up in the dog park with a dog on leash, call your dog and leash up. Don’t both getting angry that there is a dog on leash spoiling the fun; you don’t know why he is leashed up! It may well be that the on leash dog was having a great time playing and got injured and is leashed up to protect him from being more badly hurt. Someday that could be your dog. It is a common courtesy to leash up in the presence of another dog when the other dog is on leash.

Finally, if you are riding a bike or a board, please take care to give some space to dogs.  Not all dogs will chase a fast moving target, but if a dog begins to follow you, stop and put your bike or board between you and the dog.  In the event that the dog is unfriendly, you can protect yourself by keeping your bike or board between you and the dog.  In the event that the dog has strayed you are giving the owner a fighting chance of catching up and putting his dog on leash.  If on the other hand you are a dog owner whose dog has followed or chased someone on a bike, please, please, please go get your dog and leash him up.  Joggers can also stop to help dog owners catch their dogs.  It is very easy to be self righteous and say that the dog ought not chase, but that isn’t going to get you anything if you lead the dog so far from home that the owner cannot intervene and in the event that the dog is unfriendly, continuing on your way won’t prevent a bite.  If the dog is growling; he is asking for space.  If he is barking and chasing, he may just be having a great time, but he may not either.  Friendly behaviour in dogs is usually inefficient and involves a lot of vertical movement and curved approaches.  Encouraging the dog to chase does not help either; you can get a dog so highly aroused that he slips from friendly movement to more dangerous flat, straight line motion, making him more not less dangerous.  The faster you go, the more likely it is that this will happen, and given that dogs are fully capable of running at 20km/h or more, it is unlikely you will be able to get going fast enough that you can avoid a dog by outrunning them even on a really fast bike.

The bottom line and the take away message is that we all share the same space and it sure would be nice if we started to work together to get along instead of working against each other and creating problems that did not exist already.  And to the city of Toronto; I just passed through your down town core.  It would be a lot easier to clean up after dogs if there were a few more places to put the waste.  Just a suggestion to help start meeting the needs of the frustrated man who started me thinking about this!

 

DOG PEOPLE AND NON DOG PEOPLE

JUDGEMENT CALL

Originally posted June 2013

Humans are social animals.  For reasons that hit deep into the DNA of our species we are set up to live together in groups and to trade favours in order to get along better.  Trading favours is one way to describe an evolutionary concept called reciprocal altruism.  In other words, you scratch my back and I will scratch yours, and presumably, mutual back scratching will improve the likelihood that each of us will survive long enough to pass along our genes.  One of the most important ways that we have to trade favours is to warn one another of dangers, especially if they are avoidable.

What would you do if you observed the following:

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Image credit: waldru / 123RF Stock Photo

Would you call out?  Would you help?  If you knew a train was coming, would that impact your choice of response?  Would you be angry if someone tried to help?  Think about it.  As an adult coming across a child playing on railroad tracks, if I saw this, I would say something, especially if I knew that a train might come along.

In the past two weeks, I have three times been accused of interfering, being judgemental and being an expert without empathy.  Maybe that is a sign that people are beginning to read my blog.  Maybe I am just rude; not my intent, but I would allow for that as a possibility.  Maybe people know that they are doing things that are not a terribly good idea.  And what have I alerted on that is so horrible?  I have told people when their dogs were showing signs of stress in images.

The point has been made that the images are but a moment in time, and this is entirely true.  When a camera takes an image, it is taking a picture of that one instant in time.  Have a look at the image below, and think about what you see.  Is the child happy?  Or sad?  In the moment, there is a definite emotional event happening.  Believe it or not showing an image of a child who is sad in the moment does not mean that child has a terrible life; it means that at one instant in time, the child was unhappy and a picture was taken.

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Would you send your kid to basketball camp, if this were the type of image that was used in advertizing the camp?  Do you think your child would be interested in going to basketball camp so that he or she could feel this way too?  Image credit: duplass / 123RF Stock Photo

Now let’s think about advertizing.  If you were looking for a child’s dance class, would you want to take your child there if all the images of the children in the advertizing literature were crying?  This is a situation I face when I cruise through the websites of some of my competition.  I see page after page of accurately working dogs who universally look unhappy.  I see long series of pictures of classes full of dogs showing whale eye, pinned ears, head drops and occasionally a snarl.

I also face this day in and day out when I see family pictures of my non dog training friend’s and their dogs.  I see children hugging dogs, and people putting dogs in awkward positions, and the dogs are clearly showing signs of discomfort and distress.  In fact, a lot of the images I see are not just dogs who look sad, but dogs who are in the early sequence of getting ready to bite.

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I see this sort of image in my Facebook feed on a daily basis.  This dog is helpless and unhappy and has begun to bite the child.  Often the image is posted with a caption such as “Missy and her new puppy are bonding; aren’t they cute?”  All I can think about is “If I don’t say something, this child is going to get hurt.  I don’t want the child to get hurt.”  Image credit: tonobalaguer / 123RF Stock Photo

When I talk to people about these pictures, they regularly tell me that the dog often looked like that and was perfectly happy and that the dog never hurt anyone.  I am tired of telling people that they were darned lucky.  All too often, I get first contact with a family after the dog has bitten and often after the dog has bitten a child.  Here is a news flash; dogs don’t like being hugged or kissed.  They really don’t.  When you look at hundreds of images of dogs showing signs of stress and you know you are going to be talking to the families at some point down the road about behaviours that lead to biting, then it is incredibly frustrating to hear that you are being mean, unkind, thoughtless or misusing your education when you speak up.  For me, to see an image of a child hugging a dog, while the dog is giving whale eye, is squinting, or has pinned ears is like looking at a picture of a kid running into traffic.  It turns my stomach and makes my blood run cold.  The reason that I get so upset about these images is not that I don’t want people to have great experiences with their pets; it is because if a bite comes and I didn’t speak out, I feel like I was complicit.  It feels like I could have prevented a bite, if only people didn’t think I was attacking them.

Several of my colleagues have pointed out that I am willing to do unpleasant things to dogs from time to time in order to suppress or decrease behaviours, and that not everything we do to dogs is always wonderful and pleasant.  My colleagues; you are right.  The images I am talking about are moments in time, and they show the dogs in discomfort or distress for that moment.  I am not saying that the dog is being abused, or that the dog’s welfare is at risk; I am saying that at that moment in time, the dog is uncomfortable.  Sometimes the dog is showing me that he will bite and soon.  When people use these pictures to show their best work, it is a sad situation.  When people knowlingly put their dogs into this sort of a situation, and then take a picture of that situation, it is not fair to the dog.

So here is my problem.  I see the situation.  I comment.  Inevitably, someone takes offence that I have an opinion.  Sometimes they get angry.  Usually they are upset.  Should I comment?  I feel compelled to comment for so many reasons.  Like the Lorax, I speak for a creature who cannot speak for himself.  When I am working as a behaviour consultant, I advocate for the dog within the family.  Often when people can see the discomfort they can change what they do, and the dog’s overall welfare improves.  Not only that but the safety of the family improves.  When it works, I feel like I am contributing in a positive way to society.  When it doesn’t I feel outcaste and like a failure.  When I cannot reach the client or the family or the community and a bite happens, I feel even worse.

Don’t get me wrong; this is not all about me, but on the other hand it is.  As a society we have grown so far away from our agrarian roots that we often don’t recognize the signs of stress in our dogs.  When we recognize them, we often dismiss them as unimportant.  We put ourselves and our dogs into situations that are unpleasant and often dangerous.  We have both high and low expectations of ourselves and we translate those expectations on our dogs.  We expect that life will be hard and we put up with that.  We expect that our dogs will tolerate discomfort and put up with that too.  How is this about me?  It is about me because I have been trained to recognize the signs of stress in dogs.  Once you know what you are looking for, it is really hard not to do something when you see the signs.

When I point out a dog in distress this is not a judgement about you or who you are, or your family or your value to society or if you have a nice dog or a not nice dog.  This is not a judgement about the choices you made.  I assume, correctly more often than not, that you don’t see the signs of stress because you don’t have the training I do.  This isn’t a bad thing, it is just a thing.  When I point out that a dog is in distress, and I tell you about it, to me it is like telling you your shoelace is undone.  I want to participate in the co-operative behaviour of a society and protect you so that if I am in danger and you know about it, you will tell me.  For me, this is no more judgemental than “I noticed that you didn’t turn off the stove when you left the kitchen; shall I go check and turn it off so we don’t burn down the house?”

This blog is a bit of a rant, and I am aware of that.  I don’t often write about how my job impacts my life, but it does.  When I go to a family picnic and I see a dog being harassed by the kids, the picnic is no longer any fun for me because I know that the dog is uncomfortable and that the only way he can avoid the discomfort is to warn and then bite those who are causing discomfort.  If I say something, then I risk that you will think that I am judging you and ruin your day.  If I don’t say something then I risk that I will be sitting in yet another appointment with a friend or a family member and have to explain to them why their dog bit their child.  Some of the time, not saying something results in the dog behaving so dangerously that the family chooses to kill the dog.  For me, the stakes are very high, and the last thing I want to do is share in the heartbreak of yet another family who got a dog because they love dogs, and end up afraid of dogs because mishandling led to a tragedy.

JUDGEMENT CALL

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Every year at this time, I start preparing my clients for the holiday season, and every year, I come up against the same thing; families want to include their dogs, but they often have very unrealistic ideas about what their dogs should be doing with their families.  People want their dogs to be part of gift opening activities, however, they don’t want the dogs to take every gift from under the tree and tear it apart.  People want their dogs to be around during the holiday feast, but they don’t want him to beg at the table.  And families like to include dogs in greeting the guests at the front door.  The problem is that everyone has this idea that it is somehow or another going to all work out, without ever preparing their dog for the big day.  Incidentally, I see this in families who want to include their dogs in their weddings, funerals (yes, I had a client who wanted her dog to go to her late husband’s funeral, and called up to ask my advice on how to best include him!), birthdays and other family events.

I like to include my dogs in most of my activities too, and so people are often surprised that they may come to visit me and never see my dogs.  I am actually more likely to bring a dog to visit you than you are to see one of my dogs when you come to visit me.  I feel like saying that the reason for this is that I am a control freak, and that would not be untrue but there is a lot more to it than that.  It starts from the point that I really want my dogs to be successful.  I really, really want them to be successful.  Yes, they goof, but the vast majority of time, after people have met my dogs they say things like “wow, I wish my dogs behaved as well as that!”

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Including your dog when visiting is an art that includes actually training the dog. This dog has been taught to sit and stay in a relaxed way with his family, showing that the family has prepared the dog for a group portrait.

The way that my dogs get such a stellar reputation is simply that I train them to do what I want them to do and then I plan interactions to compliment what they know.  All my dogs know how to do a one hour down stay by the time they are 6 months, so if I have to take them somewhere, I can depend on them to lie down and stay for at least an hour.  This means that I can start taking them quiet places to visit for up to an hour at a time so long as their other needs for food, water, exercise and social contact have been met.  This can be a lot of fun.  I can go out with a friend for coffee somewhere, or I can go to someone’s home, or they can come to visit me.  In this way I teach my young dogs that there is an expectation about the down stay no matter where it happens.  The thing about this is that I don’t take my pups out with people who are going to upset my training plans.  I only take them places where I know they will be supported and successful in what I want them to learn.  If you are the type of guest who is going to tease my dog out of her down stay and into play, then she can rest in her crate while I am visiting with you.  If you have kids who might be too quick or too much fun for a puppy to resist joining in the fun with, then she can rest in her crate, where she won’t learn bad habits right off the bat.

With my older dogs, who know the drill, I will have them out while you visit, if I am confident that you are the kind of guest who knows how to mind their manners around my dogs.  I expect that my dogs are going to mind their manners around my guests, but by extension, I expect that my guests will mind their manners around my dogs.  When I am visiting with you, you are the person I am interested in, so I want to be able to spend my time focusing on you!  I don’t need to spend all my time pleading with my guests so that they are not getting my dogs unnecessarily excited, and I don’t want to spend my time with you chastising my dogs if they goof and forget their manners.  So unless and until I am very certain that my dogs cannot be tempted out of their down stays, it is most likely that they won’t be coming out of their crates or the yard if you are at my house for a short visit.

If you are visiting for more than an hour or so, I usually make some time for an activity that everyone is going to enjoy with my dogs.  If I have a new adult dog in my home, who doesn’t know the rules and doesn’t have the training to participate, you still won’t meet that dog.  It isn’t fair to the dog to be asked to behave himself when he doesn’t understand the rules.  If people are up for it, we can go for an off leash walk around the farm at a time that works out for the rest of our day.  If people don’t want to go for a walk, we sometimes go out for a game of fetch, one dog at a time.  In the event that people don’t want to go outside, then I will bring the dogs out one at a time, to do some tricks and maybe play some scent games.  What I do with my dogs and you will depend upon who you are, what your experiences are with my dog or dogs, and what the activity is for the day.

So how do you include your dog in the holidays while also making sure that your dog is going to be successful?  As always, it depends.  If I am expecting your family to my home in the mid afternoon, to stay for two nights, and participate in two formal meals, brunch, gift giving and the normal hubbub that comes along with a houseful of people who don’t normally live there, I am going to give some thought to how to set up for success.  If I am going to visit you, the process is analogous, as I will outline below.

Dog tearing up Christmas present
Gift giving is a large part of many traditions! If your dog does not already know how to automatically leave items that are not his, leaving him to his own devices during the holidays almost always results in a dog who gets into something he ought not. This may result in something funny, but it could also make someone who worked really hard on the perfect gift really upset, and rightly so! Managing expectations, using crates and leashes and teaching your dog what you expect of him is a better choice than allowing him to cause this sort of upset.

When I am expecting guests, I always make certain that my dogs get a really good run before you are expected to arrive.  For my dogs that usually means getting them out and off leash, preferably in a group of other dogs.  This is fairly easy for me; we live in the country, in a place where we have over forty trails to choose from and we know a lot of dog families so getting real exercise is not terrifically difficult for me.  If I am going to go visit someone, I always look for a walking trail on the way where I can stop for at least 40 minutes to run my dog or dogs.  I want to start out a guest experience, either as a host or as a guest with a dog who is not full of beans and silliness.

Once I get that out of the way, when I get home, I make sure that I have a good supply of toys pre-stuffed to give my dogs in their crates.  Stuffing Kongs properly means knowing your dog very well, and understanding how they work on toys.  With naïve dogs, I will just put kibble and chunks of treats such as liver, sausage or cheese loosely in the Kong.  I will put the whole thing upside down in a coffee mug so things don’t fall out while stored.  With more experienced dogs, I will do the same thing, but add a plug made from sausage or cheese.  Locally we can get a product called Rollover (https://rolloverpetfood.com/product/beef-dog-food/ ) that works very well to plug a kong.  There are many brands the world over of this type of product.  With dogs who are really good at this, I will use Rollover to lock in the kibble on multiple levels; I will alternate a layer of kibble with a layer of rollover until the Kong is completely stuffed.  Kongs stuffed in this way can be dropped, thrown, or bounced and they won’t spontaneously empty.  For the truly serious Kong chewer, I will freeze these to make emptying them really difficult.  Although I mention Kongs here, there are now a wide variety of toys available to stuff.  Just make sure that you can blow through the toy so that you don’t create a vapour lock that can suck your dog’s tongue into the toy.  You can find my blog on safe toys at https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/safe-toys/ .

Once I have a well exercised dog, and a pile of stuffed toys ready, then I am ready to entertain you.  If I am travelling, I bring the toys with me.  Regardless of if I am answering the door or ringing the doorbell, that initial excitement is not part of my dog’s lives because they are in crates when it happens.  Usually they don’t have a Kong at this point.  If I am arriving at your house, my dogs are in their crates in the vehicle, and if you are arriving at my home, my dogs are usually crated for about a half an hour before you arrive. 

You may be wondering why I do it this way.  When dogs are permitted to greet every single guest every single time, they never learn to do that politely.  Imagine for a moment if your closest friend greeted you the way most dogs greet people at the door.  Imagine how you might feel for instance if your dad or your uncle were to rush the door yelling and hooting and hollering, and then leapt up at you and tackled you to the ground.  Even if the intent was benign, you would not be pleased.  When my dogs are well enough trained to lie quietly and approach gently, they can greet people at the door.  I use behaviours such as the one hour down stay (https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/the-racehorse-down-stay/ ) proofed against doors to teach my dogs what to do but I don’t allow my dogs to just greet.  Usually when I am visiting for two nights, I have a pile of things to bring in and I leave my dogs in their crates in the vehicle until I am ready to bring the rest of my things in. 

Often if you are visiting me, I will have coffee waiting, and we can sit down to visit a little, and this is when I like to bring my dogs out.  My dogs understand that people sitting around drinking coffee means that they should find a place to settle.  If I have a young or naïve dog, I will often bring him in on leash, and have treats available so that I can reward him for calm and quiet behaviour.  Once you and the dogs have had a chance to meet quietly, either by you going to them to give them treats, or they coming and sitting beside you to get a treat, then they are free to go about their day.  People have often commented when they stay with me about how my dog’s “excited” greeting is very low key.  They are obviously pleased to meet you, however they are not whining, jumping up or knocking you over.

If I am visiting, I usually bring yellow mats for my dogs (dogs see yellow and blue, so I want something that they will recognize as their own) and they do a down stay once we are in the house.  When I am visiting, my dogs are not allowed to move freely through your house without permission.  They don’t know the rules of your house, and I don’t want them to be in your way.  When I move from one place to another in the house, they follow me, either because they have been taught to do that, or because they are on leash. 

Cute little Shiba Inu dog lying on doormat at home
Go lie on your mat is one of the essential behaviours that my dogs need to know to help them be successful guest dogs and host dogs. I look at my dog’s mat as his chair at the table. I can decide where he needs to lie, and make sure that everyone knows not to disturb him there. This includes your dog in your activities without creating the kind of chaos that can occur when he doesn’t know where he should be or what he should do.

There is an exception to these rules for my dogs.  If you know my dogs really well, and you know how I want you to interact with my dogs, then I may allow them to meet you at the door.  Friday has a young friend who visits a few times a year, and when she comes to visit, Friday will circle her and smile, and she will bend over and tickle Friday all over.  They are delightful to watch because their behaviour is highly reciprocal.  I contrast this with most greetings is a dog who is so excited and who has no idea about what is expected, and a human who spends most of her effort fighting off the affections of the dog.  This is not a healthy greeting, and it doesn’t reflect what I expect of my dogs or of my guests.

Once the guest/host greeting phase is over, my dogs are usually fairly settled and behave towards my guests as they would towards John and me; they are happy and relaxed, but they don’t spend all their time overwhelming people with their exuberance.  If at any time they are struggling with what I believe is appropriate and healthy interactions, I will take them back to their crates, give them a stuffed toy to keep them amused, and then go back to visiting.

At meals, my dogs will either be in their crates with their dinners, or lying quietly behind my chair.  I don’t want my dogs to learn to bother people who are eating, and I don’t want either my host or my guest to teach my dog bad manners by rewarding behaviours that I don’t like, so most often my dogs are crated through dinner.  Given that holiday feasts are often accompanied by candles and multiple courses that have to be served and cleared away, this makes things easier for everyone.  My dogs love their crates, so this is easy for us.  I feed all meals at home in crates so that I can see who is eating, and who is not, and so that I can ensure that with multiple dogs, no one eats anyone else’s food.

Often holiday visits include gifts exchanges.  If I have a dog who is really savvy about guests, I will have them do a down stay as part of the activity, however if they are not, then they spend that time in their crates.  It is a short period of time in my dog’s life, but it can make such a difference in the memories that are created at the holidays.  Consider for instance if someone has spent a lot of time and effort planning a special gift for another person and the dog completely overshadows the experience.  You want the gift giver and recipient to remember the exchange, not how the dog jumped into the picture and stole the show, or worse how the dog destroyed the gift itself because he didn’t know how to keep his paws to himself.

In between meals and gifts, I still need to meet my dog’s needs for food, training and exercise.  Often this is an opportunity to include family members in activities where they can more actively interact with my dogs.  When this is not possible, I may do a few tricks here and there.  This serves to give the dog a role in the gathering, and also to give people who may not know my dogs to interact with them in a way that I can control.  It is a win/win when the dog has a role and is appreciated for himself.

Senior man practicing tricks with dog
Tricks can be a great way to include your dog in the holiday activities, and part of the fun is that you can break almost all the rules! Normally I would not encourage a dog to put his feet on the dinner table but in this case, being at the height of the high five recipient means that the old man doesn’t need to bend down to participate! Setting clear rules for your dog when teaching the trick makes this a safe and fun activity.

All of this requires planning and training, and certainly it is not how everyone experiences holidays with their dogs.  I wrote this blog after a Facebook exchange with a colleague who was lamenting her experiences visiting with her dog.  A number of trainers chimed in with their horror stories of visiting with dogs, and I mentioned that when I had guests, often my dogs would stay in their crates.  We were all surprised to find out how many of us crated our dogs when guests arrived, and how few of our non-professional trainer friends did not.  I often see posts on social media saying things like “the dog lives here, you don’t” along with a laundry list of poor behaviours that I should expect when visiting that person’s home.  When I visit, I am not coming to be drooled on, sat, on, pestered, or hassled into play.  Yes, my dogs live here.  No, I don’t expect them to make visiting me a chore.

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

WHO IS TRAINING WHOM

Originally published June 2013

I love training dogs.  I am a pretty good dog trainer too.  Dogs fascinate me.  I could watch dogs interact over and over and over and over again for hours.  I love horses just as much but have less experience with them, and I spend hours watching them, learning about them, observing them.  Horses are just as cool as dogs and different.  As a professional trainer, I get great amounts of joy from watching my dogs and interacting with them.  Training them provides a framework and a platform for communication with them and that is extremely cool.  I love the interplay of communication between me and the dog.

One of the most interesting things to observe in dogs is when they start turning the tables and training us.  Almost every dog who has been through a training class does this.  In its simplest forms, when the puppy starts to circle and look like he is going to toilet, then we rush to the door, he is training us to rush to the door and take him out.  Training happens when behaviour changes dues to consequences.  If you were sitting and reading a book, and the puppy’s behaviour causes you to jump up and open the door, then the puppy trained you to do something in response to what he is doing.  How does this work?  In short, in order to avoid an unpleasant outcome (cleaning up a bathroom mess), the person will jump up and let the puppy out to pee.  Over time, the puppy will refine his cue.  At first, in order to get the person to jump up and open the door the puppy has to actually toilet on the floor.  Next, the puppy has to look like he is going to toilet.  Then the puppy just has to look at the person in a particular way.  Pretty soon, the puppy just has to glance at the owner and lickety split, the owner jumps up and lets the puppy out.

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The magic “fill up my bowl look” that this dog has used to train his people to fill his bowl.  Image credit: logos / 123RF Stock Photo

In the scenario above, who is training who?  Is the person taking careful note and getting the puppy out to pee, or is the puppy teaching the person to jump up and open the door?  Is the puppy’s toileting behaviour being maintained by the reinforcement of an empty bladder or is the person’s behaviour being maintained by the lack of messes on the floor?  These questions reflect the more subtle nature of training.  When you influence the behaviour of another being, your behaviour is changed in turn.

Most of us want to train our dogs to do things like sit or lie down, or come when called, and it is fascinating to learn about the two way street of communication that really makes up training.  If the dog is motivated to teach you to give him treats it is pretty easy for him to get you to do that over and over again, by offering you a behaviour you like.  So you choose the behaviour that you will get in order to make you give a treat.  The dog chooses either to give you that behaviour or to not give you that behaviour, depending in part how much he wants the item you have on offer.

In a manner this is an economic relationship.  You have something to offer.  The dog has something to offer.  You can choose to trade or not.  If your dog offers you something you don’t want, you don’t have to play.  If you don’t have something the dog wants, he may choose not to offer you anything you might be interested in.

That is the simplest of explanations of what might happen during a training event.  When you do a lot of training, the dog starts to initiate more and more interactions.  About five years ago, I went to do a training session with a client in a hotel room.  I arrived with coffee and the client and I, who hadn’t seen one another in several months, sat down to chat.  At first the dog hung out with us.  Then she started to get jumpy.  Then she vocalized a bit.  I ignored the dog’s behaviour.  The clients ignored the behaviour.  And after about fifteen minutes, the dog I had come to work with walked away from us, entered her crate and faced the wall.  She faced the wall for about five minutes and then she came out and sat in front of me and made eye contact and looked meaningfully at her crate.  The dog was pretty clear that if I didn’t attend to her and start training right now, she would time me out a second time.  This is a dog who understands the training game really well and she applied the rules she understood to try and get me into her game.  What she did to me was absolutely the same as what I might do to a dog who was not attending to me; she took herself and her assets and removed them from me.  When she felt she had timed me out for a long enough time, she offered me another chance to play.

I am fortunate enough to have lived with enough dogs who understand the training game that I have been trained to do a number of very complex behaviours.  The other night, D’fer came up to bed with a hockey ball in his mouth.  He lay down halfway across the room from me and dropped the ball in front of himself.  He looked at me, and pushed the ball at me.  The ball rolled to me, and I caught it.  Deef looked at me and I rolled it back to him.  He mouthed it a bit and then placed it in front of himself and rolled it to me.  I picked it up and rolled it back at him.  We repeated this seven or eight times and then he carefully placed the ball on his bed, curled up around it and went to sleep.  I am pretty sure that D’fer feels that I need to be trained from time to time and he is diligent about training me.  I got to play with the ball as long as I was willing to roll it back to him.

D’fer has taught me all sorts of behaviours and when he thinks I am misbehaving, he is prone to timing me out by taking his toys and removing himself from the situation.  And he has a very sophisticated understanding of how training works.  Today he spent some time training a young woman about training.  He went to a leave it lab with a thirteen year old girl.  He understands the leave it behaviour.  He also understands young trainers.  And he enjoys playing with the variables in order to see what happens.  This amuses D’fer more than perhaps more than anything else in his life.

Knowing the rules of training makes D’fer an interesting dog to work with.  When his learner starts to lose interest in the task at hand, he becomes more animated and interesting to the learner.  When he is playing the training game with someone who is a novice at training, he may know the behaviour they are learning about, but he doesn’t always let the person know.  He will make mistakes that he knows won’t result in a reinforcer.  If the person isn’t getting the hang of things, he will give the person a “freebie” and do the behaviour perfectly to keep them in the game.  Then he will go back to a subpar behaviour to teach the person about how to train the behaviour.  An interesting dog to play with indeed.

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Cooper teaching shaping.  He generally isn’t interested in treats.  He is mostly interested in engaging people and changing their behaviour.  His reinforcement seems to be the act of training itself.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

There is another dog I know who is interesting in a similar way.  Cooper, the Welsh Terrier who stayed with us for about two months last fall.  Cooper taught a number of veterinary students about shaping.  He really enjoyed it.  Seanna, his person, likes to Curl; that game of hurling rocks around, and sweeping ice for points.  Curling is a very social activity and Cooper often gets to go to the Curling Club with Seanna.  This past winter, Cooper figured out that the people who weren’t on the ice Curling, they could be engaged in the training game.  He will approach a person and offer them a trick.  If the person responds by giving him a treat, or engaging him in a game, he will stay with that person for quite awhile.  If the person pats him or says Good Boy, he moves on.  Over the course of the Curling season, Cooper taught most of the Curlers to give him treats when he did tricks.  Here is the interesting part; he isn’t particularly interested in the food.  He is interested in the game.  In my own kitchen I have sat down to hand feed Cooper and he disengages.  He isn’t interested in getting treats.  He is interested in the game.  By engaging in the game, you get the opportunity to engage with Cooper.

If you watch for this phenomenon, you will likely see this in your own dog.  Most dogs who live with people do this to a certain extent.  At its simplest form, the dog will teach you to open doors and fill water and food bowls.  At its most complex, it is a beautiful interplay of exchange of information and opportunity between you and your dog.  This level of engagement is a special gift, a connection and the possibility I hope for every day when I step into the classroom and help someone to teach their dog to sit.  Sit is more than just a behaviour we want to develop for the price of a couple of treats.   Sit is the opening move in a step by step journey of communication where behaviour changes in both directions.

WHO IS TRAINING WHOM

AN EDUCATED DOG GETS TO DO MORE

This week I have been reflecting that my dogs have had the opportunity to do much, much more than most dogs do.  One of my recent clients came for help to get her dog to stop lunging and barking at passersby while in the house, but she had no, zero, interest in teaching her dog to do anything else.  She didn’t want one of those “fancy trick” dogs; she wanted her dog to be his authentic self, but without barking and lunging at passersby.  She didn’t see the connection between the relationship that is built during training those tricks and the ability to cope with people passing the house.

The thing is that when you teach a dog to do “tricks “you are preparing your dog for things that might happen, for those passersby, for all of the weird and wonderful things that occur in the human world.  When I am teaching a dog new behaviours, I am not just teaching him skills although that is an important part of the equation.  I am also teaching my dog to be flexible in how he thinks and what we do together.  Training is really a joint activity; I cannot train without the dog and the dog cannot train without me.  This special relationship is what keeps me training-it is the foundation upon which everything else is based. 

My ultimate goal with my own dogs is to be able to give them enough education to be comfortable in whatever situation I might need them to be in.  In short this means that if I need my dogs to go to the emergency vet clinic where they have never ever been before, I want them to have enough experience and background to be able to confidently and happily go to the vet clinic without any hassle.  I want them to know what is expected of them and how to do what I need them to do.  I expect that they will not protest when the vet needs to look at their injury.  I expect that they will tolerate the tech restraining them, even if she has long purple dreadlocks and is wearing a surgical mask. 

Likewise, I don’t ask my dogs to do things I have not prepared them to do.  I was at the Canada Day Celebration this year and watched one lady with a pair of stunning German Shorthaired Pointers.  Both dogs were on prong collars and the woman’s bicep was HUGE.  Why?  Likely because she never ever allowed even an inch of slack in those dog’s leashes.  She held them with their necks up high for over two hours, in the heat and when one of the dogs shied away from a frightening parade act, she strongly corrected both dogs.  Neither dog was prepared for the event.  It was sad to watch.

When I was partnered with a service dog, he had to be able to tolerate and even enjoy a lot of things that regular dogs don’t have to put up with.  Stuck in security in the heat in the airport without water for two hours while they figure out what to do with a service dog? No problem.  Came off a flight delayed five hours and need to toilet?  He can pee on a sewer grate…No Problem!  Walking through downtown Montreal and we encounter a brass band walking along and they honk us?  NO PROBLEM!  Why?  Because we trained for such a wide variety of things that this was just one more thing for him to do.

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Look closely! This is one of my favourite pictures of D’fer with a statue. The giant spider is in Ottawa, and Deef is on a sit stay while we take the picture. How did we do that? Quite simply we taught him the skills necessary for sitting and staying no matter what else is happening! Photo credit: Melanie Woolley

Training for difficult events is my responsibility should I want to take my dog places.  When I visited a friend in Ottawa with my service dog, we had a grand evening playing around the statues that surround Parliament Hill.  D’fer was a great sport and tolerated and even enjoyed himself quite a bit, posing with bronze statues of all types.  This kind of an activity is the sort of thing that I do to help my dogs to learn to accept strange circumstances, and it is a lot of fun for both of us.

Every week through the summer, the advanced students in our Levels Program meet in downtown Guelph near the splash pad in front of city hall.  We practice down stays in public.  We meet people.  We greet people.  We do tricks and leash walking and we sit down and socialize for a little while with one another.  All around us we have children running and playing and the splash pad splashing and buses pulling up and stopping and one memorable time a large protest and a few hundred motorcycles.  We practice what we have learned in class out in the wider world.  These are dogs who will be able to do more.

There is a small issue to consider and if you don’t consider it, you will soon face a BIG issue.  That is taking your dog out to do more when he is under or unprepared.  Training of tricks like sit, come when called, look at me before we start doing things, lie down and wait while we set things up and even sit and stay while we take your picture are all tools that the dog needs in order to be successful at picnics, ball games and family gatherings.  If you have not taken the time to teach your dog all that he needs to know and then taught him to do all those things in a variety of places, you are going to struggle with a dog who really doesn’t understand what to do.

people with dog at the leash
This is the sort of close quarters situation where untrained dogs get into difficulty. Notice that both dogs are on very tight leashes, likely because their handlers know that there is a risk that they will become unruly. Training and handling your dog so that you don’t put him into this kind of a situation is the best way to make sure that he doesn’t get in trouble!

Learning is an interesting phenomenon.  As an experienced adult learner you likely feel like you can learn anything you need to know and apply it when needed regardless of the context.  For a young child or for a dog, learning is not that simple.  It is important that when you teach a dog a new trick you practice that trick in a number of different places and contexts.  Just because your dog can sit in the kitchen doesn’t mean he will understand to do that on the edge of a fountain or in the park or even at school.  With dogs we must teach dogs that they can use their skills in a variety of places. 

The easiest thing to do is to start out by taking your dog to new places and feeding him.  If he can take food, then try clicking and treating.  If he can take treats after a click in a new place, then try asking for a simple behaviour.  I call this going on a field trip; we go new places and practice what we have learned already.  We learn to work together in the field as it were.  Teaching a dog the rules of the game is not difficult but it is unfair to ask him to play if he doesn’t know what to do.  Step by step, little by little, teaching your dog what to do and when and then practicing together in a variety of places and contexts can be a lot of fun, and at the end of the day, you will have a dog who is more able to connect with you in order to do fun stuff than you could ever believe.  Those “fancy tricks” translate into a pretty cool relationship.

 

 

AN EDUCATED DOG GETS TO DO MORE

WHAT’S THE POINT?

For those of you who know me well, you likely know that I don’t really enjoy repetitious drilling.  I am pretty sure that most of our animal learners don’t either.  I had a riding coach who once told me “you got the move right, why are you practicing what you already know?” and I think she had a good point.  Once you have mastered the behaviour, what exactly is the point of practicing it over and over and over again until it becomes stale and boring for your animal learner?

For me, this is one of the real challenges to training young puppies.  The early skills that you have to teach puppies are important in order to build a solid training history, but once my puppy has a solid grasp on them, I want to move on.  I DO train my puppies of course, and I encourage others to spend the time with their young naïve dogs teaching them the foundation skills that they will need too, but it is not my most fun training time.  If I could just install sit, down, touch, go to mat, stay, come when called and you control the click as a little program without doing the work I probably would so that I could get on with the stuff that is more fun.

Miniature Poodle Puppy
Teaching a young dog that click means treat and that they can control the click is an important part of foundational training, but clicking and treating hundreds of times would be tedious and is unnecessary.

Here is the problem with dogs who have been in training for a few months.  Most dogs get to the point where the foundation behaviours are known and they aren’t much fun for the dog any more!  Sit?  Got it.  Not worth the kibble any more!  This sequence is not an uncommon sight in my classrooms.  The dog has learned the behaviour, and the owner then asks for that behaviour over and over and over again.  The dog knows how to do it, and he has gotten to the point where asking for it, drilling it and repeating it leads the dog to start to mentally ask “what’s the point?”  I will point out that he is not articulating that in words, but from what I can see an awful lot of dogs don’t want to keep practicing things just because you want them to do it.  At this point in training one of two things needs to happen.  Either the trainer needs to start to move the training along, or the trainer needs to start to apply the behaviour to something that makes sense to the dog!  Both strategies are useful.

So let’s look at sit.  If you have a young dog who knows how to sit, you can start to make that more challenging to the dog right away.  It isn’t difficult.  I like to make a mental list of all the places I have asked my puppy to do this.  In the kitchen?  Yup.  The living room?  Yup.  The bathroom?  Oooohhh!  That one is trickier!  I keep adding rooms until my dog is able to sit in any room in the house.  Then I start to add in places outside.  Front yard, back yard, on the porch, the driveway, the sidewalk, the park.  When I run out of places, I add in objects.  Can you sit on a mat?  A cushion?  That one is tricky!  A boulder? A stump?  A wall?  A bale of hay or straw? In a puddle?  The technical term for this process is generalizing.  I am generalizing the dog’s ability to perform the behaviour to a wide variety of places and contexts.  You can think of this as the Green Eggs and Ham of dog training. 

There are other ways of generalizing too.  Can your pup dog the same behaviour no matter who asks for it?  When your dog is able to follow your directions in a number of venues, will he follow it for your brother?  Your daughter?  Your best friend?  Your trainer?  I am looking to train every cue such that my dog will follow that cue anytime, anywhere, for anyone, and that means getting very specific about what I am teaching.  I cannot expect my dog to follow the instructions if he doesn’t know them and if he hasn’t had the chance to follow a cue in new places and with other people, I cannot expect him to be successful.

Still though, these are just foundational behaviours, and after practicing sit here, there and everywhere, my dog is going to start asking that all important question “what’s the point?”  Why should he sit?  What if he doesn’t want to?  What if it isn’t worth a piece of kibble?  I am willing to do many things, but some of the time, I just don’t feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if you offer me money or some other incentive to do it.  the caveat is that if I think there is a good reason to do something, I will do that boring little thing, often for no reward.  This is the important point to remember when our dogs hit that point where they have mastered the foundation behaviours but those behaviours don’t have context.  When there is no point to doing the task, the dog may begin to refuse to play the game.

So how do we give context to behaviours?  Simply put, we stop rewarding them with food, play or touch.  We start to put the behaviour into other activities.  Most dogs willingly sit for dinner; that is part of the ritual and routine for many dogs, so it makes sense to them to just do it.  In fact, you can really annoy some dogs by offering them a treat before you put down the bowl.  The reward for the behaviour is to get to eat dinner, however most of the time, the dog is just thinking about what the routine might be for getting to the meal.  The same goes for dogs who are required to sit before doors open, or who have to sit before they get their leashes on.  The sit just fits into the routine, and it has meaning to the dog. 

Dog at summer
Once your dog knows how to sit, you should start asking him to do that in a wide variety of places and conditions. Just because he can sit in the kitchen doesn’t mean that he will necessarily sit on the front lawn, in the park or at the vet’s. And just because he can sit on the floor doesn’t mean that he will sit on a mat, on a chair, on a stool or on a low wall. Generalizing the behaviour means that your dog will do the behaviour anywhere, anytime and no matter who asks him to do it!

We can go one better than that though.  We can start making games for ourselves with our dogs that involve the foundation behaviours that get so boring so quickly.  Using sit as our example again, we can start asking our dog to sit before we do things together, such as fetch, search or find me (or even better, find someone else!).  The sit becomes embedded in other activities and gains meaning as part of other fun activities.  Now the dog has a reason to perform the behaviour and that makes the behaviour itself much more meaningful to the dog. 

You can kill the joy of the sit if it is the only behaviour you integrate this way however.  If you only embed the sit, it is a little like playing scrabble where you only get four letters, a, e, s, and t.  There are a very limited number of words you can spell with those four letters and if you try and play scrabble with these four letters, it is going to be a tedious and boring game.  You might choose to play that way at first in order to teach someone the concept of the game, however in the end, you will get tired of the limits set upon you by having so few letters to use.  As your dog gains more behaviours, you can start to play the same games with more “letters” or behaviours.  Now, instead of only having sit to insert into your activities, you can make the required behaviour a surprise.  You start making dinner for your dog, and before putting it down, you ask your dog to lie down, or sit, or touch your hand with his nose.  When your dog gives you the behaviour you ask for, you can give him his dinner.  In this way, behaviours become letters in the infinite game of training scrabble.

Cute little Shiba Inu dog sitting on doormat at home
When there is context to a behaviour, dogs are more willing to do the behaviour. Many dogs know that if they sit by the door, it is quite likely that someone will open the door for them. Once the dog has the context for the behaviour you need not reinforce the behaviour with a treat; the door opening is certainly a reward, however, it is also part of the communication that we share with our dogs as part of the activity, and this is all part and parcel of having a well trained dog. When he understands the behaviour in context and the behaviour is part of the formula we don’t need to reward it every single time.

You can in fact extend this game into more and more complex activities that become meaningful for you and your dog.  At Dogs in the Park, we run a games class each week for the dogs who have passed the foundation behaviours needed in order to play.  We play things such as musical chairs (integrating leash manners, sits and downs into an activity), leap frog (go to mat) and recall relays (coming when called over and through distractions).  By participating in group activities where the behaviours are applied instead of just drilled dogs become more willing and eager to perform those behaviours that have become stale and boring when you just drill them. 

It is important to note that advanced behaviours can suffer the same fate as those foundational ones; drill the agility tunnel or the perfect front in obedience for too long and your previously enthusiastic dog will start to ask “what’s the point?”  Once your dog asks that question about behaviours you have worked hard to polish, it doesn’t take long for an advanced dog to start asking that same question about more mundane behaviours too.

WHAT’S THE POINT?