SIT, SIT, SIT!

Have you ever paused to consider what criteria you have for a “well-trained” dog? I have. As a dog trainer, I have had thousands of appointments with clients who tell me about how well-trained their dogs are, only to turn around and nag, beg, or cajole their dogs into obedience. I have had people insist that their dogs come when called 80% of the time or more, only to have the dog refuse to come when called even in the most distraction free zone we can find. Sit, sit, sit, no, Fluffy, SIT! is the litany for these people, only to have Fluffy sit and stare up at them in disbelief as though they are asking for the moon. Sitting is not difficult for most dogs to perform, but it sure seems difficult for many dogs to perform when asked in my presence.

Man with his dog
This is a great picture of a well trained dog. The dog and the man are leaning into one another, and they are obviously engaged with one another. I doubt that the dog just randomly sat on the middle of a bridge for a stranger, so that tells me he probably sat because he was asked, not because he was forced to or promised a cookie. He and the man are simply working together.

So what do I mean when I say “I have a well-trained dog”? I mean that I have a deep connection with the dog and we work together. Often the dog will perform for long duration in the absence of either treats or a threat. This means that in general, if I am out and about with my well-trained dog, and I need him to sit, he will sit on the first calm quiet and gentle request, and I don’t have to wave a treat in front of him, nor do I have to physically force him into position nor yank on a collar. I don’t have to loom, lean in or raise my voice. Furthermore, in the event that it is not a good idea from my dog’s perspective and he refuses, his refusal is understood to be reasonable from his point of view. Let’s parse all my conditions one at a time.
When I say that my dog will perform a behaviour on the first ask, and that I need only ask in a calm, quiet and gentle way I am thinking here about what it might look like when I ask someone to pass the salt. If we are sitting at dinner and I would like some salt, I might look at you, make eye contact, say your name and then calmly say “please pass the salt”. Pass the salt is generally a reasonable request at the dinner table, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort for you to respond and my expectation is that you will hear, attend to my request and just pass me the salt. In other words, not a big deal. So if I ask my dog to sit, and he is well-trained, I can just ask, and he will just sit.

Salting French fries in a bowl.
If we are eating at the same table and I ask you to pass the salt, I don’t usually need to raise my voice, threaten you, promise you a reward or loom over you. I can simply ask you to pass the salt. Well trained dogs are like this. It should be easy.

Let’s consider my “no treat” criteria. It is well understood that behaviours need to be reinforced in order to be built and maintained. The thing is that once a behaviour is very strong with a reinforcer of some sort, you need to randomize the reinforcement in order to maintain the behaviour. It is a bit like a slot machine compared to a pop machine. When you put a coin into a pop machine, you expect that a pop will be produced. You expect that this will happen every single time. This is different than a slot machine, where you are expected to put the coin in and pull the lever in order to get nothing! You might someday get something, if you are exceptionally lucky, but the chance of getting something big is really low. Sit as a behaviour works a little like this. Initially, when I am teaching a dog to sit, I am a pop machine. Every single time that the dog sits, I give him something he wants. At first this will be something like the pop machine. I am careful about two things at that stage. First is that I don’t show the dog what the reinforcer will be. Sometimes I use steak, or a special dog training sausage, or some cheese, or the chance to chase a ball or go through a door or get in a car, but I am not going to hang a piece of bacon off my hat in the hopes that the dog will perform based on a bribe. Bribes are technically reinforcers that are presented ahead of the behaviour and eventually, they will backfire on you. The dog will look for the reinforcer and measure if the offered item is worth what you are asking for.

Dog Waiting for Treat
Showing the dog a treat BEFORE you ask for the behaviour is called bribery. A well trained dog should not need to be bribed to perform a behaviour.

Once I am sure that the dog knows that the behaviour of sit will be rewarded, I pull a little switch on the dog. I ask for the sit and I “goof”. Before I do this, I have to be really, really sure that my dog both understands what I mean when I quietly and calmly and gently ask for the behaviour. I need to have practiced this behaviour with a guarantee of a reward in a wide variety of places. Once I am really sure, I pretend that I forgot the reward. I might move away, and then ask the dog to perform the behaviour again. If the dog is convinced that I am reliable and that I just goofed, he will offer the behaviour a second time and usually, he will offer it with more intensity and vigour. The second time I ask, I throw a party and give the dog something EXTRA special. I might even goof again and give him his reward twice. The key here is to make that second sit, more rewarding than he thought the first one would be. Then I go back to rewarding every sit for a bit and then I “goof” again. I keep doing this until the times I goof are no big deal. Then I start goofing a little more often. I keep doing this until I have built a truly random level of goofs, but where the dog is still keen to do the behaviour. I am still randomizing what the reward is for the dog though. It is important that the dog is keen on the game. Eventually I have thinned things out so much that the dog is sitting for free more often than he is being paid but when he is paid he gets something really special.
A well-trained dog does not need a threat in order to work. One of the saddest trends I see from time to time in the training world is the idea that you have to deepen your voice and increase the volume in order to get the dog to do as he is asked. If you need to do this in order to get your dog to behave as you wish, you are not on the same team as your dog. Does this mean I have never raised my voice to my dog? Of course not; if the stakes are high, and his life is at risk, then yes, I would raise my voice and insist, but if I think I have to do this all the time, what does that say about my relationship with my dog? Not anything terribly pleasant! If you find yourself doing this, you should probably go back to reinforcing absolutely every sit.
Along with a threatening voice comes this issue of physically pushing the dog into a behaviour, or yanking on the leash to make the behaviour happen. When I am training a dog there are a few limited instances of when I might choose to use a physical penalty with a dog but in each case that is to stop a behaviour altogether, not when I need to make him start to do something. If a dog were eating something that could cause him harm such as a rock, I might grab him by the collar for instance, and try to startle the dog out of the behaviour, but I don’t use it to try and initiate a behaviour. Most of the time, when a dog is asked to do a behaviour, such as sit, and he refuses, if you jerk on his neck with the leash, you are just going to teach him to guess what you want. He isn’t going to know what you want. The most common effect of that sort of training is a dog who is slow because they are concerned that they are going to get hurt, even just a little bit, and they are afraid to act.

Training dogs of war
This dog is obviously afraid of something and the most likely thing is a physical prompt of some sort.  Why do I say that he looks afraid?  His ears are pinned and his face is tense and his feet are clenched.  His back is roached too!  This is not a well trained dog.

Another type of threat I see is looming over or leaning over the dog, and repeating the request in a louder or more demanding voice. Again, if you have to do this, you really need to go back to the beginning and start over. A well-trained dog doesn’t need you to loom over him or raise your voice. When this happens I often think of a scene from The Addams Family movie where the little girl, Wednesday, asks her uncle to pass that salt. Her mother, Morticia, sweetly prompts her, saying “Wednesday, what do we say?” and of course most of us think “please?” but Wednesday turns to her uncle, raises her voice and demands “NOW!” If you need to demand compliance from your dog, he doesn’t know the behaviour sufficiently well in order to be successful often enough to actually be well-trained.
To me the final stage of having a well-trained dog is to have a dog who has the possibility of refusing a behaviour when it is not a good idea for him to do that. This implies that if I ask for something reasonable, such as sit, if the dog refuses there is likely a pretty good reason for that. When I have a young puppy who seems to know sit refuse to sit, I find that the pup often needs to toilet. Sitting with a full bladder or bowel is uncomfortable. Forcing the puppy to sit under these circumstances is unkind and can interrupt house training. If I have a middle-aged dog who is very reliable on sit, and I ask for it and he doesn’t comply, I watch him move, because often the root cause is pain. Sometimes though, when an adult dog won’t sit, he may have another reason not to do as I ask. He may be afraid and feel vulnerable, or he may not want to sit down on something that is uncomfortable. I had one dog refuse to do a down stay, his strongest behaviour of all, because I left him on a bee’s nest. He stood up, moved three feet, and lay back down. I was really upset until I realized where I had left him. Sadly, this was during an obedience competition and he lost our class! I cannot get upset at a dog who had the sense to move himself before he got stung by bees. Luckily I had enough trust in him to trust that he would not behave randomly, and he had enough trust in me to change his position and keep himself from harm. I know of dogs who would have taken the stings of a nest of bees instead of moving because they had been punished severely enough for moving that bees were not a bad enough pain! I have also met trainers who were really proud of the fact that their dogs had been willing to take that pain instead of moving. That does not speak well to the depth of the relationship that the person has with the dog, and that is unfortunate. At the end of the day, I value my relationship with my dog more than I value instant and perfect obedience.

Dog on the woodem bench
A well trained dog should be willing to perform the trained behaviour anywhere, anytime, under many different circumstances. This dog is wet, and the bench is likely not very comfortable to sit on, but he is willing to sit and stay for the picture.

As a final point, not included above, I feel that a well-trained dog should know more than just one behaviour and he should be able to perform those behaviours in a wide variety of situations and circumstances. Being able to perform them in only one place or under only one circumstance does not reflect good training. It should not matter to the dog if you ask him for a behaviour while you are standing in front of him, or beside him, or on the landing of your deck, or if you are sitting in a chair. He should understand the behaviours in a wide variety of situations, and of course that means practicing, from the beginning, everything your dog is being trained to do.
So when I think about a well-trained dog, I am not thinking about a little canine robot, but I am also not thinking of a dog who is completely on his own agenda either. I am looking for evidence that the dog and handler are working together, in partnership, as a team. I am looking for evidence that the human is helping the dog without luring or bribing the dog. I am looking for evidence that the dog is thinking things through and not performing the behaviour solely to get the reward or to avoid some harsh penalty. That is what I mean by a well-trained dog.

SIT, SIT, SIT!

YOU SHOULD!

Recently we had the family of one of our Good Dogs give a lecture to us about how they collected data while they trained their dog.  In their presentation they brought up the issue of what they thought they “should” do with their dog, and it reminded us of all the things that our clients do that they are told they “should” do, but for which there may be no real need. How many of us hear a little voice in the back of our head telling us what we “should” do? Should you really do those things?

Many people think that they “should” walk their dogs around their neighbourhoods every day. Should you? Does your dog actually like walking around the block? Most dogs find leash walking very frustrating. We don’t walk at the right speed for dogs, and most dogs don’t want to walk past everything they see. It is very difficult to get enough exercise for your average dog just by leash walking, so that means that you aren’t doing much more than providing a place for your dog to toilet by taking him for a leash walk through the neighbourhood.

If you are actually committed to taking your dog for a neighbourhood walk, you may want to take him for a sniff instead of a walk. To teach him the activity, grab a handful of treats and go out and hide them along your route. You are only going to have to do that once or twice, so don’t worry, this isn’t going to mean a second walk for you. Get your dog on leash, take him outside and point out all the treats you have stashed. The key to this activity is that it is something you do with your dog jointly. It is not you mindlessly walking down the street with your dog sniffing to his heart’s content. A good sniff walk involves you pointing out the things that are important to both of you. When you are pointing out the treats, he is rewarded for following your directions and gets the hang of the activity. Once your dog understands that you are pointing out interesting things, you can start pointing out things other than treats. Try and look for things that would be interesting for a dog to sniff, like the vertical surfaces where another dog may have left some “pee mail”. When you tune into what your dog is interested in, walks become a whole different experience for both of you.

Tagesanbruch
This is what it looks like when I approach a corner with my dogs! If we need to wait as this person does for the oncoming car to pass, then it fine with me if my dog chooses to stand.

How about the idea that dogs “should” stop and sit at every corner? This is one I see people struggle with all the time. I suspect this tradition came from the early days of guide dog work, back in the 1920s when some guide dogs were taught to stop and sit so that the blind person knew where the corner was. There are many different ways that guide dogs signal their person now, but should your pet dog stop and sit? Is it useful? Often it isn’t. I don’t teach this to my own dogs. Most people do this in the hope that if their dog is ever loose, he won’t run across a street, but most dogs don’t make the connection between coming up to the corner on leash and off leash as being the same thing. There are other ways that we can teach the dog to stop at the edge of a street, but those are complex beyond the scope of this blog.

Should your dog sleep in bed with you? Studies show that 60% or more of dogs in North America do! Dogs have likely been sleeping with us for millennia. We have used them as living hot water bottles, for company and to warn us of danger. If you like to sleep with your dog, go ahead. Unless your dog is dangerous to you in bed (I did have one client whose dog attacked them while they were sleeping!), then if you like it, go ahead. There is no reason not to do that.

Spending time together
If this makes your family happy, why wouldn’t you have your dog in bed with you? Only once have I recommended not having the dog in bed with my clients. That dog had night terrors and would attack in his sleep. Otherwise, go ahead if it makes you happy.

How about “should you eat before your dog?” In my life that would often be very inconvenient! Often Friday will eat at 5 in the afternoon at work between classes but John and I don’t eat until 9:30 or 10 when we get home from work. I think some folks think that the dog eating after they do means that they should only feed the dog after they eat, but in our home, that is often inconvenient. Usually one of us will feed the dog or dogs, and the other of us will prepare the meal. When it doesn’t work out that way, our dogs will lie down while we are eating and patiently wait their turn. This takes training but it is reflective of how we live with one another. We value being polite to one another in our home, and that includes the dogs, so when it is not your turn to do something, then you wait politely until it is.

How about “You should always go through the door first?” This one is a particular pet peeve of mine. Often, I want the dogs to go out the door first so that I can see what they are up to, and so that they don’t trip me by rushing up behind me and knocking into me. When I am getting ready to leave, I will often ask the dogs to go out first, but if there is a reason for me to go first, then I just ask them to wait. I do the same thing when I go up or down the stairs, especially if I am carrying something; I decide who goes first and who waits till I am at the top or bottom as may be the case, in the interest of safety.

Girl and dog going down the stairs
It is physically difficult for dogs to go up or down stairs at the same speed we do, so generally, in the house, I will send my dogs up or down ahead of me or ask them to wait so that I can avoid tripping on them. Should you do this? It depends! Would that work for you?

I love the “shoulds”. Should you? Should you never? Always good questions. How about if instead of thinking in terms of “should, you think in terms of “what do you need?” or “how will this work for me?” Should you exercise your dog every day? Does he need it? If he is a healthy, adolescent dog, I would argue that yes, he needs to be exercised every single day. But if he is an adolescent dog who is recovering from hip or knee surgery he may not need to be exercised at all! If he is an elderly dog exercise may cause him harm. If he is an adult dog and has had heartworm disease, exercise may kill him. When your friends and neighbours start saying “you should exercise that dog” and exercising him is not in his best interest, “should” gets bolstered by guilt. And then guilt pushes you into second guessing, and then you get stuck between what you “should” do and what everyone else wants you to do. Many years ago, I had a client who had a 7 month old husky. The dog was in desperate need of exercise, but the man had been in a car accident when the dog was only 5 months old. My client had a trach tube, and thus could not go out in our cold winter weather. The vet told him that he “should” exercise the dog. I went in and helped this nice man meet his dog’s need for exercise by doing stretches, slow stair walking, searches in the house, and puppy push ups. Was it ideal? No, but it was what was the most appropriate for my client. Never the less, the neighbours left him a nasty note in his mailbox one day when the dog howled while he was out, accusing him of not exercising his dog. Should gets in the way of a lot of things, including being aware of what you actually need, or what you can actually do.

There are a few things that I think every dog family “should” do. You should get good preventive veterinary care for your dogs. You should see who your dog actually is and what he actually needs so that you can actually meet his needs. You should make sure that he is properly socialized as a puppy so that he can have the best life possible. You should keep your dog up to date on his shots. You should give your dog an education so that he can cope with the world he lives within. My list of shoulds are things that lead to better overall health and welfare for your dog and your life instead of a list of rules to follow in the hopes that your dog will fit into someone else’s mould of what living with a dog is intended to look like. Many of the “shoulds” come to us from police, military and service dog training where the dogs have very specific roles and what is interesting is that these rules may have been accurate for a period of time long ago, but are no longer useful for our current lives.

When you are living with a dog, look at what works for you and your dog. Look at what fills your needs. And leave should for another dog family; “should” does not need to govern your or your dog’s life.

 

YOU SHOULD!

OFF!

By far the most commonly misused cue that I see in pet dogs is the cue “off”. I teach my dogs the cue “off” but I use it very differently than most folks do. I teach it as the opposite of “on” as in “get on the chair”. Or the couch. Or the bed. Or the hay bale. Or the groomer’s table. Then I use “off” to tell the dog to get off of whatever I have asked him to get on. When I have a dog who is struggling with guarding spaces, this is probably the first behaviour I teach; get on the couch, click/treat, get off the couch, click/treat. That is how I use “on” and “off”.

The problem that I observe is that most people use “off” to do something called “counter cuing”. Counter cuing is when the dog chooses to do a behaviour and you cue him to do a different behaviour. The idea is that the dog goofed, and made the wrong choice and you are helping him out. This works well in the human world after all. If you are in the airport and you choose the line that will lead you to priority boarding someone will come along and help you out. If you are supposed to be in business class, you erred in your choice, and they will tell you. If you are in the priority boarding line because you should be there, then they will tell you that too. So when a dog jumps up to greet a guest, most pet owners cue the dog “off”, treating the behaviour the same way an airline employee would treat a traveller in the wrong line.

International airport Platov, registration desks. Rostov on Don, Russia - December 12, 2017
When we get in the wrong line at the airport we appreciate the information that we should be in another line. If we keep going to the same airport, and keep getting told to go to the other line we will learn to select the correct line eventually. Dog’s won’t learn that about jumping up because they get a big reward for making the wrong choice.

There is an important difference between the dog who jumps up and the traveller in the wrong line. Usually, the dog who is jumping up is expected to never jump up. The traveller could conceivably be in the priority access line some time. This difference may not seem terrible, but when you put it in the context of learning it can make life really difficult for the dog. Many dogs learn very quickly that “off” doesn’t mean “never”. “Off” means “not this time”. Here is how that works.

When you are teaching dogs a cue, the cue says “do this behaviour and you will earn a reward”. Most people when they are teaching a dog to not jump up, teach the dog that when they stop jumping up, they will get attention, and most dogs who are greeting by jumping up enjoy attention. So what happens is that the dog jumps up, the owner says “off” and the dog gets off and the owner pays attention to him. This creates a sequence that we refer to in dog training as a behaviour chain. I like to think of it as a game where we each take a turn, and at the end there is a reward for the dog. This behaviour chain looks like this:

BEHAVIOUR CHAIN

It doesn’t take long for a smart dog to figure out that jumping up starts the game of you telling him what to do so that he can do it and you can give him attention. The problem is that MOST of the time we don’t want the dog to jump up at all! Because the chain is heavily reinforced each and every time it occurs, the dog thinks that jumping up is the desired behaviour.

So what to do? To begin with, understand that you can spend your dog’s whole life explaining to him that the priority seating line is not for him, and he is never ever going to get the memo. As long as he eventually gets attention for jumping up to begin with, he is going to think that when flying “air trainer” you line up in the priority access line, then you wait till you are told to move to business class and then you get boarded! Starting out by understanding that the dog thinks that jumping up is a required step. Once you understand that, you can start to make changes to change the outcome. Training is a series of steps that starts with our understanding of what is going on and progresses to us changing our behaviour in order to change our dog’s behaviour.

Before I progress on to outlining a few of the ways that I use to teach keeping four paws on the floor, let me add that there is an element that contributes to the problem. Excitement. When a dog is excited he may not remember what the process is. He may forget temporarily what the protocol is, so even when he knows what you want him to do, he has to over ride the temptation to get his face closer to our face when he is greeting. This is really important to understand along the way to success because he may not initially be successful when he is highly aroused.

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This dog is typical of a dog who has been told to get “off”. He is very good at jumping up, and will likely stay there until told otherwise. He thinks this is how he is supposed to greet! I am betting that the man who is being greeted would prefer that he didn’t have to go through the routine of telling the dog what to do!

My first go to change in my behaviour to change jumping up is to just stand there. I am not ignoring the dog however; I am attending closely to what is happening. The dog approaches and jumps up and I turn into a statue. When the dog jumps off me (which he eventually has to do because dogs don’t have terrific balance when on their hind legs), then I pay a LOT of attention to him. It takes very little time with a young puppy to learn that jumping up just doesn’t pay well, and the time spent standing up against me decreases very quickly. Eventually, especially with a young dog, they just don’t bother jumping up; having four on the floor just pays better.

With older, committed jumping greeters, I will usually start by standing quietly until the dog gets off on his own, however in the event that the dog has had a very long history of jumping up, I may need a plan B. In this case I get out my clicker, and as he approaches me, I click and toss the treat BEHIND the dog. This teaches the dog that there is very little to gain from charging at me and knocking me over. It is usually a quick study in the dog approaching at a more sensible speed. At that point I can start offering the treat low and then greeting the dog with all four feet on the floor.

If neither of those tactics work, I have a third strategy I use. The technical description for that strategy is “response cost”. Every time the dog jumps up, I quietly and calmly say “too bad” and put the dog in a crate, behind a gate or out of the room I am in. Most dogs quickly learn that if they jump up they lose all access to me, and if greeting is what drives the behaviour, they have lost the one thing that matters. Their response has cost them something they wanted. My dogs all learn that the cue “too bad” means they are going to lose something they want.

You should notice that in all three strategies, I don’t say anything to the dog about getting “off”. In fact the only time I say anything is if I am going to indicate to the dog that he has lost his turn. Only once he is doing what I want do I start to communicate with him again. I don’t end up with a dog thinking that I actually want him to jump up; he is clear that jumping up either gets him nothing or a trip to his crate or another room. Changing my behaviour results in changing the dog’s behaviour.

I should mention that I see the “off” issue when dogs get on furniture or counters too. The same principles apply. If you say “off” you are really saying “go ahead and get on or jump up until told otherwise” and that just isn’t a very efficient way to train your dog!

OFF!

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR DOG BRINGS YOU A DEAD SKUNK

Originally posted April 2013

Once upon a time, D’fer was a puppy.  He was a very happy go lucky, plucky, out of the box kind of puppy.  And he is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.  D’fer’s breeder told me that she felt that chessies are more playful than many other retrievers and in the absence of legal “stuff to do” they will make up their own games.  This has proven true over Deef’s whole life.

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D’fer was a very plucky puppy!

At about nine months, my beloved dog came with me on a walk with about a dozen of my clients.  I had just started to do some serious retrieves with him, and he was working hard on “bring to hand”.  We had been working mostly with retrieving bumpers, those black and white plastic things that float, but I had given him a duck to fetch and he was doing really, really well with it.  I was a very happy dog trainer on that fateful spring day.

I remember the weather well, and how I was dressed.  I was wearing my spring windbreaker, along with a pair of leather gloves.  It was a very lucky thing that I had gloves on because D’fer chose that day to try something brand spanking new related to retrieving.  He brought me a dead skunk, at the state of decomposition where it is still recognizably a skunk, but it was past bloated and gross.  Partially dehydrated, and in one piece, Deef recognized this as “a valuable item to bring to your person”.  Which he did.  The $5000 question is…”What do you do when your dog brings you a dead skunk?”

If you are wearing gloves, you take it, and then cue your dog to your left side and you throw it and send him for the skunk again.  My students were to say the least, gobsmacked.  This was NOT what they had thought I would do!  I am not sure what they were expecting, but throwing the skunk was not on the list of things they had in mind.  D’fer on the other hand was VERY impressed.  Great game.  We played fetch about six times, and then I put the skunk and my gloves in a thorn tree and carried on my walk.

There are layers of lessons in this particular five thousand dollar question.  The first layer is “if you want your dog to be a working duck retriever, when he brings you dead stuff, find a way to make it worth his while.”  I didn’t want D’fer to decide that next time, he should hide his find and maybe roll in it.  Yes, the skunk smelt bad and yes, so did D’fer, but frankly I was going to have to bathe him anyhow, so why not capitalize on his “I brought you dead stuff” behaviour?  For the cost of one pair of leather gloves, I solidified in Deef’s mind that fetching dead stuff was just exactly what I wanted.

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An activity that D’fer found interesting.  I didn’t need to get in with him to share his joy in the activity.

In fact the next time he brought me something dead, a ground hog, I used it as a heel while carrying exercise and had him drop it and do seek backs with it.  After twenty minutes or so of THAT game, we heeled out to the deadstock pit that we kept for chickens, and I had him drop it in and then do a sit stay while we buried the groundhog.  After the ground hog burial, I got out a Frisbee and threw it in the swamp for him for another ten minutes.

The next layer to learn is that retrieving and in fact most of the things I teach my dogs to do are not behaviours in isolation.  They are behaviours that are part of activities that we do jointly that have meaning for both of us.  D’fer is my service dog.  Airports, grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and city buses are not in general fun for the dog.  In fact, there is a whole lot of boring involved with the work that Deef does as a service dog, and there is not a whole lot of inherent reinforcement for doing what I need him to do.  Hours and hours and hours of heeling just isn’t fun and heeling makes up the lion’s share of what D’fer does as a service dog.  In order to make this something that he is willing to do, that he offers on a regular basis even when he doesn’t have to,

I think of the work we do together as needing meaning to both of us.  Deef has activities that he loves to do, and I integrate them into my day on a regular basis.  Deef loves meeting people he knows.  When we meet, I always make sure he gets a chance to say hi.  As a result, D’fer recognizes airports we land at, and he knows exactly who he is looking for.  When we land in New York he is looking for Cissy and Woody.  When we land in Cleveland, he is looking for Linda and Brent.  When we land at home in Toronto, he is looking for John.  The day we landed in New York and were picked up by Dennis, he was pleased to see his friend Dennis, but he was disgusted that Cissy and Woody were not there and he didn’t straighten up until we got to their house.  He travels to New York to visit Cissy and Woody, not Dennis, even though he really likes Dennis.

Making my work meaningful to my service dog has shifted my perspective on training a lot.  I recognize that D’fer’s motive for doing what we do is different than mine, but he isn’t just doing it because I reinforced him for doing it.  It has meaning in and of itself for him.  Like fetching the skunk, my motive was to get a reliable retrieve of anything, anytime and anywhere.  Deef’s motive was to play a game he likes.  Distilling this down to I reinforce behaviours I like is valuable in terms of understanding the training cycle and the process of developing behaviours, but it is simplistic in its evaluation of the overall life that D’fer and I share.  Recognizing that my dog has a different motivation than I do allows me to look for things that he might be interested in and sharing those activities with him.

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This is an activity that both D’fer and I enjoy! Looking for activities that are meaningful to both you and your dog is really important!

Having a relationship with a dog can be impersonal, like the kind of relationship you have with the guy who pumps your gas, or it can be deeply meaningful like the kind of relationship that you have with your spouse or it can be anything in between.  When all of your interactions are transactions the way that you have financial connection with the guy who pumps your gas, then you are missing the possibilities and potential for so much more.  When you recognize that your dog may have different motivations than you do and may have something of value to share with you, you deepen the meaning of your relationship with your dog, and you gain so much more.

Sharing in your dog’s interests, freely and with an open heart means accepting and understand something about the core of dogginess.  It means accepting that a skunk may be a great prize even if you don’t like it yourself.  It means that some of the time, you may have a dog who smells bad or who has done things that you find disgusting.  But it also means that when your dog shares things with you, you have a chance to expand your experiences, and often in a very good way.

There was the time for instance when I was staying at a friend’s house with D’fer.  I was packing to leave the next morning and Deef was at loose ends.  We have done recreational SAR with D’fer and it is perhaps the game he loves best.  At home, if I am working around the yard and he is loose, he will often come with a stick or a toy and sit beside me and “ask” me to throw it.  If I am able I often do.  If I am not able to do that, then I will just tell him not now, maybe later.  In the yard, when he is told not now, he will often go and carefully place the item some distance away from me.  Then he will come back and get back into heel position; the position that he starts in during SAR.  One day when he did this, I cued him to search, and search he did.  He had placed the item, but he likes games, and I observed him racing all over the farm.  He looked in the woodpile and he looked around the flower beds and he looked in the trash pile and he looked in the horse paddocks.  He checked both under and on top of the lawn chairs and the bar-b-que.  And then he finally after about five minutes went to where he had put the item and “found”.

The night I was packing to leave, D’fer came and brought me a toy and I told him that I couldn’t play then, but may be later.  He took his toy and disappeared into the hallway.  A moment later, he came back and sat in heel position.  I cued him to search.  He looked in my eyes with complete disgust.  He really was appalled.  He went to his bed and lay down and sighed.  A minute later, he came back and asked again.  Not taking the hint the first time, I sent him to search again.  He made a leap forward like he normally does on a search and then sat back down and looked at me.  Curious, I stepped forward and looked out of my room.  The toy was on the floor.  I went to the toy, and picked it up and Deef joined me doing a chessie joy dance.  Then he took the toy and shook it and bounded up and down the hall for a moment.  I went back to my packing.

A few minutes later, he came back without the toy and sat again beside me and made eye contact.  This time, I thought I knew the game, so I went out my door and looked in the hallway.  No toy.  I looked in the adjacent bedroom.  No toy.  I looked in the bathroom; there it was.  This time, Deef didn’t join me in my find.  He sat in the hall and watched me search.  He did what I normally do on a search.  I watch what he does.  When I found the toy I made a big deal out of it and brought it to him and THEN he did the chessie happy dance.

The third time he hid the toy, he hid it in the adjacent bedroom and he tightened up his criteria for what he wanted me to do.  The third time I found the toy and he looked disappointed.  By tuning in to him, and sharing in his game I got more out of the whole experience.  I learned that he wanted me to do something more, but I wasn’t sure what it was.  I put down the toy and he sat.  We stayed that way for perhaps a minute and then Deef did something I find quite remarkable.  He showed me what he wanted.  He sniffed the book shelf.  He looked under the bed.  He looked under the night table.  He sniffed the dresser.  And then he looked at the toy and sat back down.  So I followed suit.  I looked carefully at the bookshelf.  I looked under the bed.  I opened the closet.  I looked up high and I looked down low.  And then I “found” the toy.

We played this game seven or eight times.  Being willing to follow D’fer’s lead and play his game was an incredibly rewarding experience.  Deef has offered this game from time to time since, but not often.  I never would have had this opportunity if I had distilled the sum of our relationship down to behaviours I had reinforced and made stronger.  If I had not always looked for the deeper meaning in the work that we did together, I would have missed this experience altogether.  I would have short changed myself and I believe I would have short changed D’fer too.

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Traveling by public transit is pretty borng for a service dog, but sometimes it takes you to places that are really interesting for both you and your dog!

The story of the skunk in many ways epitomizes what I try and share with my students.  Yes, by all means, understand reinforcement theory and understand how learning works and teach your dog lots and lots and lots of behaviours.  More than that though seek opportunities to include your dog in your life, and share with him what you do, and then be willing to let him share with you what is important to him.  If you do this, if you are diligent in this, then when you ask your dog to do things that are difficult or boring, that may not have meaning to him, your dog will begin to look for the meaning in what you are doing together.  Not everything that your dog wants to do is yucky or disgusting; often it is the mundane. When I was touring Wall Street, D’fer caught a scent and tracked someone on concrete for over ten blocks.  By being willing to follow him, I was taken into a deli I never would have visited, I went into and immediately left a very seedy bar, and I stopped at a mailbox that would not have caught my interest.  When we got to the park on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, I was treated to the sight of boats and ferries and birds and all sorts of magic that I would have failed to notice in my effort to get the most out of visiting the financial district of New York.  By being willing to share what D’fer felt was important, when he asked for a swim in the ocean, he was willing to accept not now as a legitimate answer to his question and he was willing to continue on our journey together.  All in all there is no greater gift than a partner who will share his skunk, and all of the Atlantic Ocean with you.  My relationship with my dog is truly magic.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR DOG BRINGS YOU A DEAD SKUNK

THE BARE NAKED DOG

Originally posted April 2013

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Bare Naked And Beautiful!  Photo: Melanie Wooley

Recently a competing dog training school posted pictures of their graduating class to their Facebook page.   The album featured six smiling families with their dogs in a sit and a graduation certificate and individual brags beside picture.  On five out of the six dogs, they were obviously wearing prong collars.  Interesting.  Two of the six dogs showed clear signs of distress and one dog appeared to be really frightened.  All the people were wearing big smiles and the instructor made a point that he was graduating six well trained dogs.  Hmmm.  Why do six well trained dogs all need prong collars?  And why do well trained dogs look so stressed?  Could it be that the people feel that their dogs are under control by virtue of the equipment that they wear?

Jumping back twenty years or so, I remember when the leash laws first came into Guelph.  There was a lot of publicity about dogs being leashed on a leash that was no more than two metres in length and being under control without a lot of information about what exactly under control meant.  One fine summer day, I was out in the park in a legitimate off leash area with my dog off leash.  Being a dog trainer, I was doing what I am prone to doing; I was training my dog.  I left him on a sit stay, and walked about 50 metres away.  A woman came along with her two kids and stopped dead and then began to scream at me to get my dog under control.  Fifty metres away, my dog sat panting and looking around, and this woman continued her tirade about dangerous dogs.  My leash was around my shoulders as it usually is, and my dog was relaxed and I was really confused.  At first I protested that my dog WAS under control.  This seemed to rev the woman up even more.  After several minutes of this, I called my dog and she and the children began to shriek.  My dog came and I leashed up and the woman finally relaxed a tiny amount and told me that the new law required my dog to be under control.  I had an aha moment.  By under control, she meant ON LEASH.  Under control means something entirely different to me.

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This puppy is off leash, outdoors and running, but he is STILL under control. His intense focused look is just what we expect to see in a puppy learning to come when called!

When I first started to offer dog training classes I mostly had my students using the traditional chain slip collar that we now understand can cause a lot of injuries.  I don’t use them any longer and don’t allow them on my training grounds.  The risk of injury to my students’ dogs is just too high, and I think that they really gave us a false sense of what it meant to be under control.  When control is entirely reliant on stopping bad behaviours from happening, then we aren’t actually teaching dogs to have self control; we are teaching them that if they do things we don’t want, they will get hurt.  Again, I have to reflect that as a society we have a funny way of thinking about “control”.  We spent most of our time teaching the dogs what they could not do and how badly we could hurt them if they stepped out of line.

In my introduction to dog training class, I had an activity that I did with one of my own dogs.  I dressed him up in every piece of dog training equipment I owned.  I put on a halter and a harness, a chain collar, a flat buckle collar, a martingale, a dog coat and a prong on him.  I would put him through his paces and one by one take all the equipment off.  I would point out to my audience that my dog was happy to work bare naked.  I did a lot of work with that dog and it was wonderful exciting happy work, even though I started him on a pain based system.  What I learned with that particular dog is that it is not the equipment.  It is the relationship.  Control doesn’t depend upon the collar, it is reliant on the relationship.

Relationship is what really creates a dog under control.  At Dogs in the Park, we start all of our dogs on flat buckle collars and two metre leashes, and we do the first few classes with the dogs tethered to the wall.  We recognize that we are not starting with dogs who have self control or even owner directed control.  We work towards getting the dogs off the wall as quickly as we can.  We want the dogs to be successful and the people to be successful too, so we take out the variable in the equation of the dog making the wrong choice.  We tether and work on SELF control.

Dog with ill eyes pulling leash walking at winter park
I am much more concerned about this on leash dog than I would be about the off leash puppy above. Everything about this dog tells me that he doesn’t want to be with the person on the end of the leash and that he is pretty intent on getting to where he wants to go. Being in control has nothing to do with the equipment the dog is wearing and everything to do with the amount of education that dog has, the relationship he has to the person he is working with and the situation that the people have put him into.

My dog out in the park was demonstrating self control.  He was controlling his impulse to go and run up and say hi to the kids.  He was controlling his impulse to go to the river to swim.  He was controlling his impulse to lie down.  My dog was in control of himself and he was doing what I wanted him to do; he was minding his manners and staying where I had left him.  This is the level of self control that is easy to live with.  I didn’t have to worry about this dog pulling people over; he wouldn’t dream of pulling on leash.  I didn’t have to worry about him leaving either; he knew that staying was the game at the moment.  In training, that is the goal.  A well trained dog is a dog who is happy and confident and who will mind his manners, even if he is bare naked.

Getting from the point of being tethered to the wall and learning to not take treats and to not knock people over when they come in to greet to being able to be left on a sit stay or a down stay at fifty metres does not need to be painful for the dog, but it is an important step in developing self control.  It should in fact be fun for everyone.  At home, you should be doing most of your training off leash.  The leash is a great tool but it is only a tool and it is not about great training.  It is what we use when we must, not what actually teaches the dog to do something.  What actually teaches the dog to do things is not the equipment he wears or the words that you say, but the direct outcomes of his own behaviour.

The key to getting from point A, the dog who is out of control to point B the dog who will do distance stays while his person is being screamed at is a process of steps.  Seeing the pictures of the graduating class of the other school reminded me of how important steps and stages are.  At the very beginning, I have to acknowledge that the dog does not understand what I want.  If pain is the tool we choose to explain this to the dog, then we need to be able to set the dog up to learn quickly and efficiently that there is a way to avoid pain.  The pain should be minimal and rare and the dog should understand how to not get hurt.  In the old days when I was first learning to train we would do set ups where we would set the dog up to fail so that he could learn that he would be hurt if he made the wrong choice.  I realize now, especially when I look at pictures and video from those days that my dog was often concerned about being right and worried that she would get hurt.  The picture of the graduation class brought home some pretty strong memories for me, some of which I am not entirely proud of.

Now when I look at the journey from point A to point B, I ask myself if the dog is relaxed and happy.  If the dog is relaxed, then I know that he understands what I want him to do.  I look not only at if the dog can do the skill, but also if the dog is comfortable about it.  If the dog is not comfortable I reassess what I am asking him to do.  When we start a dog in training at Dogs in the Park, they start on the wall and we ask the question; “are you comfortable enough to take treats?”  If the answer is yes, then we ask “are you comfortable enough to click and treat?”  If the answer to that is yes, then we ask “are you comfortable enough to refrain from taking treats when you should not?” and if the answer is yes, we ask the question “are you comfortable enough to offer behaviours?”  If we get a no, then we work with the client to determine what we need to do to make the dog feel safe and comfortable enough to work in our classroom.  We ask the dog.

Training is not just about skills acquisition.  It is also about the emotional state of the dog, and the relationship that the dog has with you.  When a dog feels confident about you and the work you are doing, he is eager and keen to try new things.  He doesn’t look worried or concerned.  He doesn’t look like something might go wrong at any moment.  When a dog feels confident about what he is doing he is willing to engage in things with you, and that is what partnership is about.  It is not just about skills acquisition at all; it is about everything that the dog is thinking about and experiencing including how the dog is working with you.

So I come full circle back to the graduation pictures that my competitor posted.  The people look thrilled and proud.  Half the dogs look relaxed.  The instructor describes his clients and their dogs as well trained dogs and people.  But three of the six dogs look unhappy and at least five of the six dogs are wearing devices that operate on pain.  None of the dogs is looking at his person as though that person was interesting or cool.  This is where we started at Dogs in the Park.  I am really glad we moved on to where we are now.  The pictures I post of my clients don’t show a whole lot of graduations.  We don’t graduate dogs anymore.  We celebrate when they achieve levels.  And we see a lot more happy and a lot fewer stressed dogs.  I am really proud of what we are doing here, and I hope my students are just as proud of themselves; our dogs learn skills and they also learn about partnership and relationship and trust.  And when you dog trusts that you have his back, he will do nearly anything for you.  One step at a time, towards a goal that is meaningful for both of you.  I am so glad my competition posted their pictures.  Sometimes I just need some confirmation that I am heading in the right direction.

THE BARE NAKED DOG

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

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.

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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