KIDS AND DOGS

Originally posted July 2013, updated and edited

When I was about twelve, I wanted to teach the family dog some tricks.  The process of connecting with an animal and imparting information fascinated me as much then as it does now.  We had a dog in our family named Thurber, and she was my constant companion, and I wanted to do more.  My aunt had a titled Golden Retriever, and I was mesmerized by the work they did together.  I asked my aunt how she trained her dog and she suggested that I use a chain collar to tell the dog when not to do something and a piece of food to tell the dog when she had done something right.  That was all the coaching I ever remember getting, but it made a big impact on me.  I taught that dog many tricks; most of them involving jumping over or climbing onto things.

As an obedience instructor today, I have a lot of parents asking him about getting their children involved with dog training.  Indeed, dog training and children can go hand in hand, but it is the unusual and rare child who is as interested in it as I was.  Most kids are looking for some early successes and don’t persevere through the early stages where the dog doesn’t know what is happening and neither does the child.  This can be even more difficult when the child and the dog are in a classroom full of adults and other dogs.  The pressure to succeed can often result in frustration for the parents, the kids and the dog.

Little girl playing with dog at home
This girl and her dog are probably just “fooling around” with some treats and tricks. In order to achieve this kind of relationship, the dog has to have great manners, and understand the training process, as does the child. With some careful set up and planning we can make this happen. Once the dog and the child both have some basics, this is what happens; the kid and the dog start to play with training. That is really how I achieved the magic I had with my dog Thurber when I was a kid.

How can we make this more successful for the kids?  For a while we ran a family class which was a levels class just for families and their kids.  Sadly, not enough families could come out to make this worth carrying on with.  We would go along nicely with four or five families in class for eight or twelve weeks and then it would dwindle and get taken over by families who wanted their dogs to meet and like children but who weren’t bringing children to class.  Certainly there are schools who run classes specifically for children but there aren’t too many of them.

As an animal trainer who also works with horses, I think we can learn something from what we do in the horse world.  It is accepted that it is not a good idea for an untrained, inexperienced young rider to be mounted on an untrained, inexperienced young horse.  Instead, we prize those rare ponies who are well suited to teaching youngsters to be confident around and on horses.  We start the kids in lessons where the pony knows what to do and the kids can learn from a horse who already knows the work.  When the kids are proficient on a well schooled calm and older pony, we give them a more challenging mount or more difficult work on the same horse.  When they master that, we give them a bigger horse, and bigger challenges.  By the time a child is about twelve, he can if he has been taught carefully and properly begin schooling younger horses and by the time a child is about fourteen he can begin to teach young horses to be ridden.

15340398 - very young girl riding on pony
This child is being set up for a successful riding experience by pairing her with a safe pony and supervision (she is on a long line to help her to successfully control the pony).  She is wearing the appropriate safety equipment.  The pony is the right size for her and he is calm and well behaved.  We aren’t asking her to control a large unruly and untrained horse.  Ideally, this is what we would do when we pair a child with a dog in an obedience class!  Image credit: davetroesh / 123RF Stock Photo

This is how I recommend that we help youngsters to work with our family dogs.  When mom or dad starts the training, and teaches the dog the skills and then helps the child to master the skill with the dog who already knows what to do, then the dog and the child can develop skills together.  When the child has mastered the basics, then moving forward to more complex and interesting work makes for a more successful experience for both the dog and the child.

In practice what that means in our classes is coming to class and learning to click and treat effectively.  Then take the skill of clicking and treating home to your kids and help them to master that part.  Even very young children can be successful with you clicking and they treating.  By working WITH your kids where you click and they treat does a lot of things.  It teaches the dog that the click predicts the treat.  It helps with your timing.  It involves the children with you and the dog in an activity.  Later you can change roles and let your kids click while you treat.

When you have mastered clicking to mark the behaviour you want, you can teach your dog to do a lot of different things; sit, down and come when called are really easy and useful behaviours to teach your dog so that your kids can participate in training.  When your dog will sit when you say “sit” and you can click when sit happens, you can integrate into your training.  You can start out by demonstrating the behaviour with your dog to your children.  Once your child understands the activities that you want your dog to do, then you can play a variety of games with the behaviours your dog knows.  Get your child to say “sit” when your dog sits, you click and your child can give the treat.  This teaches your dog to follow directions from your child (very important!) and you mark when both the kid and the dog get the right answer.  When your dog is following the direction from your child, you can start giving your child the clicker and you cue the behaviour for the dog.  This gives you a chance to coach the timing of the click so that your child clicks at the right moment.  When your child has had a chance at the cueing, the clicking and the treating separately, then they can start working on all three at once.  I like getting kids to do five of the same behaviour in a row, before we start working on second and third behaviours.

Once the kids get the hang of the process with behaviours that the dog knows, then I like playing a game of call and response; I tell the kid what behaviours to use, and they ask for the behaviour from the dog and click and treat.  When the dog and child are successful with five or six different behaviours in a row, then the kids are ready to start teaching new behaviours.  The dog should by this time understand ten or twelve behaviours, so the dog understands the process of learning.  It is really important that the kids understand that they are marking the right answer for the dog before they start trying to shape new behaviours with the dog.

I have a dozen or so throw away behaviours that I use to help people to learn to shape.  Throw away behaviours are behaviours that don’t really matter a lot to me; tricks are throw aways, and if the dog doesn’t learn them exactly right it is not a big deal.  Throw away behaviours are not the sorts of behaviours that the dog’s life depends upon, like come when called or lie down and stay.  Lying down with your head on your paws is a great throw away behaviour for kids to play with.  The child cues the dog to lie down, and then instead of clicking we just give the dog a treat; the click ends the behaviour, and we want the dog to stay lying down.  Then your child can wait till your dog drops his head towards his paws, and click at that moment and then treat.  If your child is sitting in front of your dog while he is lying down, then your dog will likely keep lying down.  Help your child to offer the treat low between the dog’s feet to help your dog to continue lying down, and if he gets up, then help your child to recue your dog to lie down and then help your kid to continue to click only when your dog drops his head down to his paws.

Notice here that the parent needs to spend a lot of time training, supporting and coaching in order to make this successful for both the dog and the child.  Training, supporting, and coaching set up your dog and your child to be successful and start to work independently.  You cannot do this for either your dog or your child, but without input they are likely going to flounder especially in a busy classroom.  Once your child has trained a few throw away behaviours or tricks with coaching, then it is time for the parent to step back, and supervise but not do it for the team.  These first steps of training independently need to be successful to keep both your child and your dog engaged.  It is also important to recognize that there is no imperative to work for a whole hour in a class-if your child and your dog are comfortable working for ten minutes and then they need a break, then let them take a break; it is not worthwhile to keep them working when they are no longer interested.

84358253 - little girl training a corgi dog at the park
This is the sort of trick that little girls teach their dogs to do.  The dog has to learn somethings first; lie down and stay for instance.  If we help the dog to learn the behaviour and then teach the kids how to get the dogs to do what they know then the dog and the kids can both have a great experience!

Small successful steps lead to a long lasting bond between your dog and your child, but you also have to put the training in context.  This is true for adults in training classes too; “what is the point?” is always an important question to answer.  If you have been working on sit with your dog and your child, then make sure that you use that behaviour with your dog and your child in the context of their day to day activities.  You could for instance start getting your dog to sit before your child puts the dog’s breakfast down.  Or you could get your dog to sit before your child throws a ball or a Frisbee for your dog.  It is really important to make training relevant to both your dog and your child.

Often when parents ask if we include kids in class, they forget that we are dealing with three learners in class; the adult, the dog and the child.  Few training classes are really geared to meet the needs of a child learner, and dropping a child into an adult class is not fun for the child, the instructor or the dog.  We cannot expect the child to learn in the way that adults do, and when we pair the child up with a dog who doesn’t understand the work either, then the adult, the child and the dog go away frustrated.   It is better to teach your dog the behaviours you want him to learn and then repeat those behaviours in class with your kids.  You can step in if you need, but generally, if the dog knows the behaviour the kid can retrain that easily and successfully.

When parents work with the school and take the dog through the work before they take the child through the work with the dog who already knows what to do, this makes it much easier for everyone.  Communication between you and the instructor about your goals in bringing your dog and your child to class can really go a long way to being successful too.  As an instructor, I want to know about your training goals and be a part of your successes.  From time to time a child appears in my classes with their parents and the parent steps back too early, and the whole experiment falls apart.  Not only is the child turned off one of the most magical activities that I was blessed to experience in my childhood, but the adult and the dog are frustrated too!

And what about the child who takes a class and is successful?  When the child and the dog move through the world together and they come up with an idea together, they can explore that with a common understanding of how to communicate about what they each need.  Then the child gets what I got as a child.  A magic relationship with another being.  That is what I wish every child could get when they come through my classroom.

KIDS AND DOGS

TRAVEL AT THE SPEED OF DOG

Many years ago, I had two clients in class.  One very energetic bouncy happy lady had a very energetic bouncy happy border collie.  The other very quiet laidback low key lady had a very quiet laid back low key Malamute.  When it came time to teach the dogs to come when called, the very energetic bouncy happy lady handed me her dog’s leash, I held the dog by the collar and she jumped up and down and up and down and made squeaky enticing noises and ran away and called her dog.  Her very energetic very bouncy happy dog raced joyously to her and promptly bounced her to the ground where the two of them had a very energetic, very bouncy happy love fest.  Next, the very quiet laidback low key lady handed me her dog’s leash and I held her dog by the collar as she ambled slowly away and stopped half way to the end of our training field to tie her shoe lace.  She got up and slowly continued to the end of the field where she turned and calmly asked the dog to come.  I released the dog’s collar and he very slowly, very quietly and calmly ambled towards her, stopping once to sit down and scratch, and then to sniff and go pee, and then he wandered off towards the other dogs in the class waiting for their turn at the exercise.

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If I want to teach THIS dog to come to me without bouncing me to the ground, I will need to ask him to come in such a way that I don’t cause him to come so quickly that he cannot stop without hitting me. This is just one aspect of what I need to do in order to be successful when I am training a dog. Copyright: bigandt / 123RF Stock Photo

Week after week, I coached these two trainers on how to get better recalls.  Relax a bit I told the very energetic bouncy happy lady, and he won’t knock you over when he gets to you.  Get a little more excited and interesting for your dog I coached the quiet laidback low key lady, so that your dog is a little more excited to get to you.  The more I coached them, the more extreme each of these ladies seemed to get.  The very bouncy lady got bouncier, and the quiet lady got calmer and even more reserved.  One day in exacerbation, I had them trade dogs and each dog had a much better recall.  Of course over time, each of the handlers DID improve however the bouncy lady was still bouncy and the quiet lady was still quiet.  Luckily they each had dogs to suit their own temperaments!

This scenario really highlights something I see in my classes though.  We have to give the dogs what they need in order to learn.  We can only teach the dogs what they have the foundations to understand and we must present the material we want them to learn in such a way that they will be successful in their activities.  If we don’t we won’t be successful in our training.  In short, we have to travel at the speed of dog.

When I see dogs struggling in class I start out by asking myself if the dog has all the information he needs in order to learn the task.  If we are teaching a dog to go away from us for instance, and we start by asking the dog to move out 20 metres, and the dog doesn’t know how to go two metres away from us on cue, then we are very unlikely to be able to build a solid, happy and energetic go out.  We need to understand the mechanics of what we are working on (coming when called usually works better when the person is a longer not shorter distance from the dog for instance), what motivates the dog, and what the dog already knows in order to be successful.  I have taught the long distance go out a number of different ways, all depending on which dog I am working with.  The point is that I have to travel at the speed of dog in each and every instance. 

Another thing I need to consider when I am teaching dogs is what their own way is of moving through the world.  I tend to be a fairly intense, high energy handler.  I do best with confident, pushy dogs who enjoy my big personality, but as a professional dog trainer, I have to train calm quiet dogs, timid dogs, energetic silly dogs and dogs who just defy classification.  In other words I have to be flexible in the way that I interact with dogs. 

I also have to be flexible in my behaviour when I am teaching different exercises.  When I am teaching a dog to perform a self control exercise such as the down stay, it is better to start out by being low key and neutral.  When I want to teach a dog to come to me from a distance, it generally pays better to be a little bit exciting, unless of course you are working with a dog like my student had who was charging her and knocking her over. 

Another aspect to travelling at the speed of dog is the rate at which we give the dog information.  Ideally we want the dog to offer enough iterations of the behaviour that he can get sufficient rewards to tell him what it is that we want.  We have to set up the dog so that he gets the right answer quickly and efficiently and if he has not received a reward recently we cannot be surprised when he disengages from the activity and does his own thing. 

20862711 - mastiff is scratching behind his ear - copy space
This dog is engaged in his own activity, so you would need to be very aware of how much information you need to give him, how fast that information came, and not overusing his name to nag him. Copyright: chalabala / 123RF Stock Photo

Not only do we have to give the dog enough information to know when he is right, but we also have to give him cues in a timely manner.  I have watched many students say the dog’s name and then wait and wait and wait before giving the dog the cue to the behaviour that will earn a reward.  The only thing this achieves is a dog learning that in the training context, he should disregard his name!  If your dog is engaged, you likely don’t need to use his name at all.  You can learn more about how to effectively use your dog’s name at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/13/your-dogs-name-an-operating-manual/ .  Similar to this issue is when you have a dog who has performed a behaviour, and the handler delays the next cue for a very long time.  This leaves the dog hanging so that he doesn’t quite know what is coming up next, and if he is not eagerly engaged in the activity to begin with, he will just wander off to do his own thing.

Travelling at the speed of dog requires us as trainers to be aware of a number of variables and factor them all in when we are working with our dogs.  If the dog we are working with tends to be excitable, we need to tone down.  If that same dog needs to perform that behaviour with exuberance, then we can bring our own enthusiasm up a bit and help them to express the appropriate amount of energy for the given activity.  We need to avoid overwhelming the dog with too much or too little information.  Developing the ability to juggle all these factors can feel very overwhelming for many of us, however then they are all in balance, the dog travels along through the training game along side of us and learns effectively and efficiently. 

TRAVEL AT THE SPEED OF DOG

HOW IS YOUR TURKISH COMING?

 

I think that starting with full disclosure is a really important thing for this blog.  Let me be clear; I don’t speak Turkish.  I have never taken a class in the Turkish language, and I have very few friends who come from Turkey.  Actually, I currently have no friends who come from Turkey.  If you were to ask me to pass the salt in Turkish, I would not have a clue.  If you are really curious about how to say “Please pass the salt” in Turkish, you can listen to that here https://tinyurl.com/yd8wn9nb .  Let’s be honest though, no matter how loud, or how slowly, or how clearly you say “Lütfen tuzu geç” to me, I am not likely to know that salt is what you want.

31211502 - cup of coffee with dry dates on metal oriental tray
I would love to have a meal in Turkey, with figs and dates and served on a lovely silver tea set, but I could not ask for the salt, because I don’t speak Turkish! Copyright: tashka2000 / 123RF Stock Photo

If we were in Turkey, and at dinner, and someone at the table said to me “Lütfen tuzu geç” and pointed at the salt, I would likely guess correctly that salt was what the other person wanted, but I still would not speak Turkish, and if the Turkish speaker asked me the same thing out of context, I would have no idea what they were talking about.  I think this is often what dogs go through when we talk to them.

Dogs are amazing at their ability to pick up information.  My dogs all know what I mean when I say “Dog in a box” (our cue for getting into their crates), or “hup” (our cue for getting in the car) or “two paws” (our cue for dogs coming onto our laps to cuddle), and I never really trained those things; they learned the cues in context and then over time generalized the behaviours to a bunch of new scenarios.  They picked up the lingo so to speak, just as I might if I spent enough time at Turkish dinner tables to hear “Lütfen tuzu geç” often enough that I could pick it out of conversation.

My dogs also know all the regular obedience cues such as sit, down, stay, here, heel, let’s go, over, tunnel and piddle; I taught my dogs those cues very carefully and they have long histories of being rewarded for the correct behaviour when they do as they are asked, and I have carefully taught them what the sound “sit” means so they know what I am talking about.

I see the Turkish language problem occurring when people have incompletely taught a behaviour and they assume that because their dogs understand what to do in one context that the dog will know what to do in every context.  Similar to my example of learning to pass the salt when asked at the table and then not recognizing the words when taken out of context, many dogs are simply confused when they are asked to do something that doesn’t fit with their experience.

59856127 - a naughty dog is pulling on his leash and almost falling into a lake
This young dog has no clue about what the owner wants him to do, even though the context should be apparent to him; he has probably been on a leash before and he is wearing a front attachment harness, so likely some training has already happened. Simply yelling heel or saying heeeeeel in a slow drawn out manner is not going to make matters clear to him. Slowing down and reviewing what the dog does know, and what he needs to learn helps a lot more! Copyright: loganban / 123RF Stock Photo

Perhaps the most common behaviour I see this with is the recall, or come when called behaviour.  When you call a dog to come, you likely have an internal picture of what you want.  You call out “Fido come” and you want Fido to drop whatever he is doing and come racing towards you.  Often when clients ask for help with the recall, they cannot tell me how they taught the dog to come when called in the first place.  If the training session was too dim for you to remember how you taught that behaviour, likely it was not a very meaningful experience for your dog either.  Think back to teaching your dog to come when called.  What steps did you take?  Where were you when to taught your dog to do this behaviour?  How rewarding was it for your dog to do the behaviour?  If you cannot remember, then maybe, you are speaking Turkish to your non Turkish speaking dog!

Another problem that can occur with misunderstood cues is simply that you over structured the learning so that the dog learned the words, but only in the context of what you were doing.  So many of my students taught their dogs to stay and then to come out of the stay when called.  This is perhaps the most confusing way for a dog to learn the recall, and has nothing to do with leaving the rotting dead fish your dog wants to roll in in order to come racing towards you when you call; this is akin to teaching me to pass the salt by describing the chemical formula by which you would concoct salt in a laboratory.  Sodium Cloride is the chemical name for table salt and you can make it very simply by taking Sodium hydroxide and Hydrochloric acid and mixing them together as they do in this video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erWTsWut7Vc .  Knowing how to make table salt in the lab just isn’t useful when you are sitting at dinner and it really doesn’t help you to learn Turkish any faster!  Staying is a behaviour that requires the dog to inhibit his desire to move, and the recall is a behaviour that requires the dog activate his body and move towards you; these diametrically opposed behaviours can be very confusing when initially paired together, and just don’t have anything to do with leaving something the dog wants (an activation type activity) and coming towards you (another activation type activity that is the opposite of heading towards what the dog wants!).

When you are teaching your dog behaviours like the recall, it is important to help him out by making it as simple and clear as possible.  When teaching my dogs to come when called, I have someone hold my dog and I run away so that the dog wants to come towards me; I reward him for doing the right thing that he would likely have done anyhow.  This is much like holding up a shaker of salt and shaking some salt into my hand and offering that to you while saying “Tuz” two or three times.  I am making it really easy for you to understand that the word for salt in Turkish is Tuz.  Then when you encounter salt elsewhere, you have a chance of recognizing that object as “Tuz”.

When your dog is having trouble understanding what you are asking of him, ask yourself if you have made the meaning clear for your dog, or if you have assumed that he has just picked up the information from conversation.  If you are not sure, then go back and explain it again, simply, with rewards for the behaviour you are hoping for.  Don’t get louder, or repeat yourself, speak slowly, because it doesn’t matter how slowly or loudly you speak in Turkish, I still won’t understand what you are saying.

HOW IS YOUR TURKISH COMING?

THE RACEHORSE DOWN STAY

 

 

30671328 - horses and jockeys leaving starting gate at york races
If your dog looks like one of these horses at the end of his down stay, you may want to think about what you are training and how you have achieved that. Many dogs we see think that lie down and stay means get ready to bolt at the end of that exercise. We want our dogs to see the down stay as an opportunity to relax.  30671328 – horses and jockeys leaving starting gate at york races

 

Can your dog lie down and relax when you ask him to?  I don’t mean does he lie down and relax of his own accord when you and he are just hanging out, but if you needed to pay at the veterinarian’s front desk, could you ask him to lie down and relax so that your hands were free to slide your card and enter your PIN?  You have likely taught your dog to lie down and stay, so why is it that so few dogs I see can do this without behaving like a racehorse in the starting gate?  You know what this looks like; the owner asks the dog to lie down and stay and he lies down, often on his chest with his haunches coiled underneath him ready to spring up and race off.  He may even be shivering in anticipation.

The down stay is perhaps the single behaviour I could absolutely not live without.  I can use a harness or head halter if I have to walk an unruly dog, so I don’t really need to teach my dogs to walk on a nice leash, and if they have a solid down stay that I can call upon from anywhere I can use that as brakes instead of a recall, but without the down stay I don’t think I could make it through my day.  I use my down stay ALL the time.  Let me give some examples!

We have horses.  When they lived on the farm with us, I would often take Eco out to feed and water the horses.  As a predator around prey species, it was easy for him to get them running when they first met him.  All he had to do was rush to the gate and slip into the paddock and the horses would bolt to the other side of the paddock.  This is a great way to teach a dog to chase horses because horses running away is fun for dogs.  This is also a great way to teach horses to stay away from me, as I am always accompanied by a dog.  But wait!  Eco had a stellar down stay.  We would leave the house and he would cavort around looking for a toy and when he realized we were heading to the horse paddock, he would start to race.  I would call out “down” and he would drop.  I would call out “stay” and he would stay, allowing me to get to the gate ahead of him.  Then I would call him closer and ask him to down and stay again, and do my chores.  In this way, he never learned to chase horses and the horses learned that he was safe.  Eventually we were able to walk amongst our tiny herd without the horses bolting and without Eco trying to get them to run.  Easy peasy!

Or consider this; when I am serving dinner to guests at the table, Friday thinks that helping would be a good idea.  She is curious and likes having guests over for dinner.  This past holiday season we had a dinner guest who brought her dog who ALSO likes to help serve dinner if you let him.  Now we have two friendly dogs in the house, who like to play with one another and who like to follow when you move from the kitchen to the dining room.  I asked both dogs to lie down and stay while I served dinner and then asked them to continue to stay while we ate.  Both dogs eventually fell asleep because both dogs understand that a down stay is not going to result in an opportunity to race out of the down stay and into play right away.

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Eco and Friday do a down stay together here. We often use a down stay when we have two dogs in a tight space. In our bedroom there isn’t a lot of room for dogs and people to move around so this is a good way to keep the dogs out from underfoot when making the bed or tidying up. Notice that both dogs have their heads down because they are relaxed and resting.

So how do we achieve this?  Yes, I am a very good trainer, and so is John and so is our dinner guest, but this isn’t magic.  This is the result of understanding some of the mechanics of the target behaviour and then teaching those to the dog.  The first thing to understand is that with young dogs we never ever teach them that the down stay is going to result in a big explosive release.  I see this over and over again, especially in dogs who are competing in agility and obedience.  The handler asks for a down and stay and then at the end, they release the dog and the dog bounces up and the handler throws a party.  It doesn’t take long for that dog to start to anticipate that the return of the handler is going to result in a great big hurrah and bounce, and his body needs to get ready to do that.  Internally, this means that the dog learns to raise his heart rate and tense his muscles when he thinks that he is going to get up.  If instead we teach the dog that he is always going to do something calm and quiet after the down stay, the dog never learns to tense up and get his heart going when the down stay is over.  My goal is to teach all my dogs, and especially my young dogs to come out of their down stay calmly and quietly and in a relaxed manner.

The next aspect to understand is that when we teach the down stay, we should not teach the down stay incrementally.  Teaching the dog that if they do a one second down stay they will be released sets them up to be really excited about the release at the two second mark.  When I was learning to train dogs, this was how we did it.  We mastered one second and moved on to two seconds.  Then three, five, 7, 10, 15 and so on.  By the time we had reached the pinnacle of the three minute down stay that we needed for the novice obedience test we usually had a classroom full of lunatic dogs all waiting like horses in the starting gate to leap up and race forward and play.  When I think about training this way, compared to how I approach it now, I smile in recollection of the antics that often ensued and I cringe in remembrance of all the machinations we engaged in to enforce that three minute down stay.  The perception was that asking the dog to lie down and stay for three minutes was incredibly difficult!

Consider the physical demands of this behaviour.  I want the dog to lie down, and chill out.  Relax.  Not chew a bone, just wait patiently.  Perhaps the world we live in today discourages us from seeing this as the easiest thing in the world to do; waiting rooms have television sets and magazines to keep us amused.  And heaven forbid that we might have to wait without amusement for 20 seconds while in line at the store; there are screens and visual activities to keep us occupied there too.  At home, how many of us have a television or the radio turned on from the moment we wake till the instant we drop off to sleep?  How many of us have something happening in the room while we sleep?  And what do we do about these distractions and busy makers?  We pay to attend yoga classes or get a massage!  This past year, I spent two weeks out in the bush, alone.  When I came back, I visited the home a good friend who has two active kids.  The day after I came out of the bush was Canada day, and she had invited family over.  The house was super busy, so I decamped to the front porch to sit.  One of the kids came out eventually and asked what I was doing.  “Sitting” I replied.  “Sitting and doing what?” she asked.  “Just sitting.”  Over the months since I was in the bush, I have lost that simple act of sitting and just being, but it is there in me, ready to reactivate when I choose to take the time and slow down a bit.

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When I am out in the bush, I do a lot of sitting. Just sitting. I don’t have to eat, or drink or read or draw because I am relaxed and enjoying the environment I am in. I am just sitting. A long down stay teaches our dogs that they can “just sit”. They don’t need a bone or a kong, or an activity all the time; they can relax and enjoy the environment they are in.

Our dogs are generally much better at just sitting than we are.  As I write, Friday is lying on the floor in front of our wood stove.  Her head is up, and she sometimes orients on me or John, or on something she hears, but generally, she is just…sitting.  Incidentally, sitting doesn’t necessarily mean being in the sitting position, it means being relaxed and content with your thoughts.  I have just finished my deer hunt for the year, when I go out in the bush for days on end and sit and wait for the deer to come in.  This year the deer didn’t come, but I got to see many, many wild animals, just sitting.  A chipmunk came and sat on my boot for about ten minutes.  Just sitting and watching the world.  When I shifted he was able to just move off, but while I was still, he was still too.  I saw rabbits doing this and one spectacular afternoon a young bald eagle.  Just sitting is a very natural activity that most mammals engage in for a good chunk of their day.  Asking a dog to lie down and stay for three minutes should not be that difficult.

So what changed for my dogs?  Why can they do the three minute down stay without distress now, when so many dogs struggle with this?  Very simply because I START with a one hour down stay.  When an 8 week old pup comes into my home, he learns sit, down and the cued take it in the first week.  We work on meeting new people and other dogs, and handling and his name, but we don’t work on a lot else.  Then at between 9 and 10 weeks, my puppies do their very first one hour down stay.  Here is what it looks like.

We get up in the morning and I take the puppy outside to toilet.  Then we come into the kitchen and I get out the pup’s breakfast and pour myself a cup of coffee.  Then I sit down on the floor and ask the pup to lie down.  As long as the puppy stays lying down, I feed him his breakfast one kibble at a time.  If you feed a homemade diet, you would just feed a little bit of food at a time; with the rule being very, very simple.  If you are lying down, I will hand you food.  If you are standing up or sitting, you get nothing.  I don’t keep reminding the puppy; I just wait.  The first time we may not work for a whole 60 minutes; I have to judge things on if the pup needs to toilet again, but usually we work for between 45 and 60 minutes.  Puppy kibble is great for this because it is smaller so there are more bites which makes for more training.  After three or four days of this, my pups are pretty clear that lying down pays BIG, so they lie down a lot more often.

After a few weeks of this, I usually add a tether; I teach all my adolescent and adult dogs the same behaviour, but I use a tether for a couple of reasons.  The first reason is that an adult dog might choose to get up and leave and I want to limit his choices.  The second reason is that most dogs are going to have to be tethered at some point in their lives and I want to make sure that they can do this while relaxed.

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Here a dog is learning to do an on tether down stay in class. Most dogs are going to find themselves tethered at some point and for an adult dog, it is easier to teach the down stay when they are on tether, so I make sure that my dogs understand how to be tethered safely.

Once the dog understands that lying down is going to keep me delivering treats, I start to move around; one step feed, two steps, feed and so on, until I can move out of sight.  Then I add more distractions; dropping napkin or tea towel for instance.  Then I make it more difficult; I want the dogs to look at distractions as a clue that they should settle in and relax for the duration, because you never know what Sue will present.  What you do know is that if you get up, the floor show will stop and so will the treats.

Over the course of my pup’s first year, they will do a daily down stay until I can do anything and they will remain in place.  Of course, along the way, I thin out the reinforcement, and with an adult dog who is very experienced, I will sometimes use activity as the reward for the down stay but ONLY if the dog is relaxed.  If the dog is at all tense or distressed, I make the game easier and feed more often but don’t stop training the behaviour.

The down stay is probably the most important activity that I have to teach my young dogs, and it is the most important behaviour I use day to day with my dogs.  Doing housework?  The dogs are in a down stay!  Watching a movie?  Down stay!  Dinner guests?  Down stay.  Bringing in the groceries?  Down stay.  Planting flowers in the garden?  Down stay.  Grooming the horses?  Down stay.  Playing frisbee?  You got it!  Down stay!  I use the down stay everywhere, every day.  And for my dogs it is the clue that they should settle in and relax because it is likely going to go on for at least twenty minutes.  When I only need a short down stay, they are relaxed because they don’t start out with the idea that they are going to get up at any moment and race around.  And when I do release my dogs from the down stay with nothing planned to do next, most of the time my dogs will take a big stretch as they would when waking form a nap and then they walk off.  Racing is for racehorses.  Down stay is for just sitting!

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Friday “just sitting” by the woodstove while I write. We didn’t ask her to do this but because she has learned to do a one hour down stay, she will choose to just lie down and relax with us when we are working.
THE RACEHORSE DOWN STAY

CRYING AT A FUNERAL

FIRST published April 2013

Imagine for a moment that a good friend has died.  Someone you love dearly and you are close to, someone you could call at two in the morning and they would come give you gas money to get home if your wallet was stolen.  Someone who has shared moments and hours and even days with you.  Someone you love.  In the days following your friend’s passing, you pull up pictures on your phone, and you fill the vase she gave you with flowers from your garden, and you grieve.  Sometimes, you cry.

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How do you feel when you go to a funeral?  Do your emotions influence your behaviour?  Don’t you think that your dog’s emotions might influence his?  Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_kzenon’>kzenon / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

A few days later, you go to the funeral home to say your public goodbyes.  There is a casket and dozens of baskets of flowers, and a picture of you and your friend, nestled in amongst so many other good warm memories shared by the community who shared your friend’s life.  You are sad and there is an empty part inside of you where you used to hold your friend, and it feels like the memories aren’t enough to fill that hole.  When your friend’s sister gets up to share the eulogy, she mentions you, and you start to cry.

Imagine now, that the person who is sitting beside you in the funeral home looks at you and says “Just stop it.  I HATE crying.  Don’t.”  How does that make you feel?  Sit on this reflection for a moment.  How does that make you feel?  Do you feel good about the person sitting beside you?  Do you want to share tea and sandwiches after the service with this person?  Do you want to trust your memories of your friend with this person?

Let’s rewind one paragraph now and imagine that the person beside you quietly and calmly reaches into their bag and pulls out a hankie and gently gives it to you.  You reach for the hankie, and he offers you his hand to hold.  With one hand, you wipe your eyes and with the other you hold hands with your friend.  Deeply sad, you lean in and your seat mate puts his arm around you and holds you close.  Assuming this is someone who knows you well enough for physical contact to be appropriate, how do you feel now?

I have seen hundreds of dogs in our training hall.  Many of these dogs are happy, but there are a ton of dogs who come through our doors who are traumatized and fearful, and who are expressing their feelings with growls, snaps, snarls, whining and recently one poor dog who shivered and shook for an entire hour while I took a history.  The thing that amazes me, day in and day out, is that these dogs keep hoping that the people they live with will see that they need help, and offer them the equivalent of a hankie and a hug.

It is well known in behaviour consulting circles that owners take a long time to seek help for their dogs.  One of the biggest reasons for this is that if the behaviour problem isn’t a problem for the owner, there isn’t a lot of impetus to get help.  The dog cannot dial the phone and call for help, and neither can he send me an email to describe his problems.  Often the dog has been doing everything short of biting in order to get attention, but they aren’t being heard.

When people come into my training hall, they often tell me how difficult it is to live with a dog who is barking, lunging, growling, snarling, pulling, and chasing.  I am often told about methods that have been tried to stop the undesired behaviour.  These people really care about their dogs, but they often don’t understand that the behaviour the dogs are exhibiting means.  The fact is that dogs don’t act randomly.  Behaviour is always functional on some level.  Consider what it might be like to behave truly randomly.  If you were to randomly stop reading this paragraph, and get up out of your chair and twirl around the room and go outside and come back in and jump as high in the air as you are able and roll on the ground and pick up a pen and turn on and off your computer, how would that feel?

Random behaviour is rare.  When people behave truly randomly, it is usually an indication of something being wrong with them.  When I took animal behaviour in university, the professor talked about an animated Bugs Bunny toy he did an experiment with.  He set the toy off a thousand times, and recorded the “behaviour” of the toy.  He found that 30% of the time, the toy gave a predictable “What’s up Doc”, and then there were nine other phrases that he uttered on a variable schedule.  It turned out that the chip that ran this toy was set on pretty tight parameters, which gave a specific number of repetitions within a thousand repetitions.  Ironically, we know that there are two things about this toy that keep kids playing with it and drive parents nuts.  From the kid’s perspective, they keep triggering the toy to get the rare and uncommon response.  From the parent’s perspective they have to put up with ‘What’s up Doc” 300 out of every thousand repetitions.  This random behaviour is annoying and frustrating beyond the interest of animal behaviour professors who want to figure out how often a behaviour happens, and the kid who really wants to hear Bugs say something truly novel.

The other thing about random behaviour is that it is out of context; like the Bugs toy, the last response doesn’t predict the next response.  Living with someone who is truly random would be really annoying.  Living with a dog who is truly random would also be really annoying.  Most of the dogs we meet and live with are actually very predictable.  There is an easy little experiment that helps us to understand this.  Spend a half an hour watching your dog.  Watching Eco right now now, sleeping on the floor beside me, I can sample every minute and say what he is doing and what he is going to do.  When I get up out of my chair, he will lift his head and if I leave the room he will wake up completely and follow me.  When I sit back down at my computer, he will wander around the room and check out the water bowl, the toy box and the window in the door and then he will lie down again and go back to sleep.  He is very predictable and that is part of what allows me to change his behaviour.  His behaviour is not random and it never happens in isolation from his environment.

Knowing this, and understanding that dogs are deeply emotional animals, allows us to modify problem behaviours quite easily, but there is one more piece to the puzzle.  Skills are under the direct control of the outcomes.  Eco standing up and following me happens because he likes the outcome of being with me.  Eco barking at the door happens when he is startled and alarmed.  The barking doesn’t happen because of the outcome but rather because of the input, and the input is emotional.  Could I change the barking behaviour through the application of pain?  Sure.  But it wouldn’t change how Eco felt about people coming to the door, so treating this as a skill might be more like being at a funeral and being told sternly to stop crying.  I could also change the behaviour by getting him below threshold and pairing the situation with something pleasant.  The difference being how well I understand what is going into the behaviour to begin with.

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Giving treats to your dog can sometimes serve to increase behaviours, but often it can serve a different purpose. When your dog is concerned about something, you can give him a bunch of freebies, and he will relax and feel good about the thing he was worried about. This dog may be learning that having his picture taken is a safe and fun activity to do. The sit may be happening incidentally; the important part to know is that he will be relaxed and happy about having his picture taken. Copyright: limonzest / 123RF Stock Photo

A question that is often asked is if feeding the bark will make more barking.  Let’s go back to the funeral example.  Which would make you cry more; someone who was supportive and brought you a cup of tea and sandwiches, or someone who told you to quit it?  When barking is emotionally based (which is more often than not), then removing and feeding is going to help the dog to regain his composure and improve his behaviour.  When you do this often enough, you develop in the dog a pattern of barking and then seeking you out.  When this happens, the dog is moving out of the emotional state and into the operant state, or the state where he can control his behaviour.  Much like at a funeral, if I can get the person who is crying to have a cup of tea, they are often able to calm down and reflect more effectively, and then they can chat comfortably, often about the very thing they may be upset about.

A common tactic when dealing with dogs who are emotional is to give them something else to do.  If a dog reacts to something in his environment, then in theory, if he is busy, he won’t be worried about that thing.  There are two problems with this tactic.  The first of them is that if the dog is upset enough, then he is not going to be terribly compliant.  In these situations people start to get pushy and demanding about their dog’s behaviour and it is for exactly this reason that many people turn to aversives in their training; they are asking more than the dog is ready to give them in a given circumstance.  For instance, making a dog look you in the eyes so that he stops looking for the frightening things that can creep up on him will only make things worse; he may stop looking but he won’t stop worrying.  In this particular case, you rob the dog of the ability to try behaviours other than the undesired one because he is glued on the new behaviour of looking at you, and while he is looking at you, there is always the risk that his trigger will surprise him out of the corner of his eye.  This is the second issue with this tactic; you may have compliance, but the dog is still worrying about what might come out and surprise him.

When I was out and about this weekend, I met a woman who told me that her friend had been to every other trainer in town.  She told me that this woman was ruining her dog by feeding it when the dog is clearly misbehaving.  The popular thought is that if we use food, we can only use it as a reinforcer to get more of a particular behaviour.  When you put this into the context of a funeral, and what you would do if someone was upset, it becomes really clear that much behaviour is motivated by emotion and that being clear with your learner does not only mean reinforcing, or punishing behaviours or putting them on extinction.  Sometimes, perhaps even often, it means addressing the underlying emotions before even thinking about the behaviours at all.

CRYING AT A FUNERAL

BUT SHE IS BORED!

In North America, and likely in other parts of the developed world, we belong to the TV generation. If we don’t achieve a major milestone before the next commercial, then we don’t think we are successful, and we don’t think that we should continue along the route that we are already taking. In behaviour modification and training, slow and steady is almost always the key to success, and that doesn’t happen in the twelve and a half minutes that happen between network commercials. Perhaps if real dog training happened on network TV, people would have a better idea of what happens when you work on training with an animal. Wouldn’t that be a reality show? Four months of weekly installments on a puppy making great strides from time to time, interspersed with long periods of careful development of behaviours that form the foundation for more complex work.

 

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If this is the attitude you bring to your training sessions, your dog won’t be very interersted in what you are doing. Dogs are very emotional creatures and they notice if we are not paying attention or engaging in the task at hand. Attitude in training is very much a case of you get what you give! Copyright: fserega / 123RF Stock Photo

I have a couple of students in class at the moment who tell me that their dogs are bored. Let’s look at what it means to be bored. According to Wikipedia “Boredom has been defined by C. D. Fisher, in terms of its central psychological processes: “an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boredom). There is more to it than that, and the boredom article goes on to discuss types of boredom and how they impact learning. Often what I notice in training is that the dog, in theory the learner, is not bored, but the trainer may be bored. Sometimes the dogs who are described as bored are independent and don’t really have buy in to the trainer’s agenda. So what can be done to better engage the trainer and the learner in the process, so that neither one of them experiences this unpleasant, transient affective state?

 

To start with, define what you want. If you want your dog to be interested in what you want her to do, you have to know what it is you want. If you have a dog who is mostly interested in doing his own thing, happy to turn his back on you, and engage with the universe as it interests him, then you are going to need to consider if what you really want is a dog who will engage with you. If you don’t then training is going to be a lot more challenging, because you are going to be in a battling economy of what is more valuable; me and the training process or every other thing in the environment. Attempting to train by being more interesting than dirt is hard work. Engagement with you is going to be rewarding for both you and the dog if you do it right. Consider playing your dog’s game for a moment.

 

If your dog is standing on the end of the leash gazing longingly out at the wall opposite you, yearning for the opportunity to explore it, then DO THAT. If you want your dog to engage with you, then engage with her. If you are all about training on your terms only, then you can try something else, but if you want your dog to engage with you on your agenda then at some point you need to meet her half way. Once you start engaging with your dog on his or her own terms, it is much easier to start to get your dog to engage with you. Engaging with your dog can be as simple as opening a bag of dog treats and helping your dog to explore that. Open the bag as you might for a young child. Look in. Offer it to the dog to look in. Before he can shove his whole head in to take everything, pull it away, reach in and get a treat out to share with him. If you use a bag of cheezies, you can give him one and then have one yourself. Sharing is a big part of engaging with your dog.

 

Once you and your dog are engaged with one another, then teaching skills is much easier. If you want to teach your dog to walk on a leash without dragging you along, you can take your dog on leash to a location where you have control over the stuff she wants. Then wait. If you are engaged with your dog, you will notice subtle shifts and changes in how she experiences the world. If she is standing there longing for the wall, wait. Now it is your turn. If you disengage from attending to your dog, then you won’t catch that moment when she turns to you and asks you what you are doing. She is only going to ask once, so if you miss that chance to share your treats with your dog the moment that she tries to engage the tiniest bit with you, then that chance is gone and the next time she offers to attend to you, she is going to offer you less not more attention. If you catch her asking to join in your game you can offer her something that you both find interesting.

 

What I observe time and again is that trainers don’t remain engaged long enough to actually get the engagement they want from their dogs. Beginner trainers often stand with their backs to their dogs, looking around at anything other than the dog they have come to train. If you cannot attend to your dog long enough to catch her when she attends to you, then why would you think that your dog will have any more attention than you do? If you cannot give your dog more than thirty seconds to disengage from whatever has caught her eye, then why would your dog stay engaged in what interests you, especially if it is difficult or needs a lot of concentration, as leash walking does?

 

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Training should be a two way street. This trainer is taking advantage of her pup’s interest in the toy to establish a relationship so that later on when she asks the pup to do something she wants to do, the puppy will be more likely to share her game! Copyright: toonartist / 123RF Stock Photo

Dogs are not automatons. They think, they breathe, they have interests of their own and they have their own agendas. We also have our own interests, drives and desires. Often, in order to have a dog, the dog ends up having to accommodate our interests more than we accommodate what they need. The dog’s priorities are her own, and if we are not going to share in what she is interested in, then why do we think she will share in what we are interested in? Most often we choose to get the dog, instead of the dog choosing to live with us, so if the dog is bored, especially in training class it is up to us to determine what she is interested in and use that as part of the training process.

 

 

BUT SHE IS BORED!

THE DOG CONTROLS THE DOG

Originally posted December 2010

Puppy Hardy learned at a very young age that just because something was offered, didn't mean he got to snatch it.  He also learned that he didn't have to hear "Leave it" to indicate it wasn't his to begin with.  He was about 3 months old in this picture.  Self control should start very early!
Puppy Hardy learned at a very young age that just because something was offered, didn’t mean he got to snatch it. He also learned that he didn’t have to hear “Leave it” to indicate it wasn’t his to begin with. He was about 3 months old in this picture. Self control should start very early!

Several years ago, on an email list, a woman mailed in talking about how her dog had nearly died because it had climbed up a five foot tall book case and stolen some pain meds and eaten them.  She was on a rant about how important it was to keep things under lock and key and how you just never knew what a dog might get into.  I was the lone voice saying that she had bigger problems than the immediate veterinary emergency.  Her problem, whether she recognizes it or not, is that her dogs lack impulse control.

About 60% of the dogs I see with behaviour problems have impulse control issues.  They steal things off of tables and counters, they eat the pockets out of clothing, they bolt out the door, they pull on the leash-generally, what they have learned in their lives is that if they want to have something, they ought to pull harder, jump higher, try harder, act faster and they can get what they want.

One of the problems is that dogs don’t have a good sense of safe and dangerous when it comes to the important things in modern life.  They don’t understand that pills could kill them, that certain mushrooms in the yard could be toxic, that chocolate at the least will cause gastric upset and at the worst will cause death.  They don’t know that jumping over the wall that prevents us from falling over the cliff could be a disaster, they don’t know that running into traffic is dangerous; they just don’t understand.

For this reason, it is important to teach your dog self control.  Self control means several things.  The first thing it means is “just because you can see it doesn’t mean it is yours”.  Think about taking a four year old to a buffet table.  Just because he can see that marvellous cake with all the sweet gooey icing doesn’t mean it is his.  If mom and dad are the kind of parents who want their kids to grow up to be an acceptable member of society, they help the kid to choose self control over self indulgence.  And this is what we are missing in our dogs.

Teaching your puppies to control themselves and not snatch food from your hand will pay big dividends later in life.
Teaching your puppies to control themselves and not snatch food from your hand will pay big dividends later in life.

Lately a lot of my novice students seem to feel that if there is something that the dog can see or sense that the dog wants, they are excused from insisting on good manners.  This is akin to allowing the four year old at the buffet table to reach out and stick his fingers in that tempting icing, lick them and then repeat.  Heck, the way some of my students approach this, they would be egging the child on.   Go ahead sweetie…one little lick won’t hurt anything!  Well it will.  It will hurt that child’s chances of landing a job when he grows up, it will hurt his chances of finding a mate, it will hurt his chances of living a normal life.

Most recently, I experienced this in the company of my service dog.  I had an appointment to be at a local business for a photo shoot, and there was a resident “puppy”.  This puppy was somewhere between 6 and nine months old.  My service dog does not love puppies, and when he is vested, his job is to take care of me, so we had arranged ahead of time to have the puppy off the premises.  Needless to say, this did not work out; the dog was onsite when I arrived.  I stood by the door looking through the window, and was waved in.  I watched to see that the dog was removed from the room before coming in.  Just as I got my coat off, the owner of the dog appeared with the dog in tow, vaguely guiding him by the collar.  “He just needs to say hi,” she said.  “NO!” I replied.  “My dog doesn’t like puppies.”  “It will just take a moment, he needs to say hello” she shot back.  “NO!”  I replied again; “this is a mistake.  You cannot greet this dog, he is a working service dog”, I repeated, and stepped between her dog and mine.  Still she persisted.  “This isn’t about YOUR dog, MY dog needs to just sniff noses.”  My dog was jacketed and I was in the middle of an anxiety attack to begin with, which didn’t help much, but honestly, why does she think that her dog MUST greet every dog he meets?  (incidentally, a GREAT article to read about this is Suzanne Clothier’s “He just wants to say hi”  http://flyingdogpress.com/content/view/42/97/  )

This attitude of allowing our dogs everything they want, when they want it and how they want it creates more behaviour problems than you might at first imagine.  We don’t live in a canine utopia, where they can have every bone, chase every ball, greet every person and every dog they wish.  Teaching your dog the basics of self control can be a life saving move.  Teaching your dog to ask for things before grabbing them is the bare minimum for safety.  Consider for instance the dog who has learned to control his impulse to eat everything within his reach.  When your house guest arrives with a box of chocolates in her bag, your dog might sit and look longingly at the object of his desires, but he won’t tear apart the bag and the box, gorging himself on a sweet that might ultimately kill him.

The old saw “begin with the end in mind” is very true.  When dogs are young, if we allow them to pull on leash, we are teaching them that later on, they can pull with impunity, and that means that they will be at risk of pulling whoever is on the end of the leash into traffic.  It means that the dog will be at higher risk of neck, back and shoulder injuries.  It means that you also will be at higher risk of neck, back and shoulder injuries.  And it means that later on, you will have to retrain your dog to do something other than what you taught him to do as a youngster.  The easiest way to teach a dog to keep the leash loose is to never let him move forward when it is tight.  EVER.  This means that when he is young and you are in a rush to get from here to there, carry him.  This means that until he is really good at the exercise, don’t go more than a couple of hundred feet at a time on leash.  And this means making it in his best interest to keep that leash loose.  It also means that you need to know what a loose leash means.  A loose leash is a leash that makes a “J” shape between the dog and the person.  If it is straight, you are not giving the dog a chance to learn what a loose leash is.

Pulling is the tip of the iceberg though.  Just because you have a dog doesn’t mean you should not be able to put a sandwich on the table.  Far too often I see dogs who think that if they can reach it, it is theirs.  Someone once sent me an email called rules of ownership for toddlers; it went something like this.  If I have it, it’s mine.  If I had it before and now you have it, it’s still mine.  If I can see it, it’s mine.  If you have it and I want it, it’s mine.  And just like with toddlers, dogs often think this way.  If we encourage this thinking by supporting it by allowing the dog to learn that anything he can reach is his, then we are going to create an adult dog who will climb book cases to get stuff that is not theirs.  We are going to create a situation where the dog is difficult to live with, is pushy and obnoxious, and who will not leave things alone when he ought to.  One of my students recently told me that she would rather avoid having anything dangerous in her house than train her dog to automatically leave things that were not his.  This sounds good in theory, but on closer examination, we have a big problem.  The problem is that the dog doesn’t just live in a safe little box.  We take him out on the street where chocolates are dropped, and antifreeze is dripped and we have guests to our homes who leave avocado (toxic!) dip within reach, or drop raisins (also toxic) on the floor.

Teaching a dog to ask if he can have something is the easiest way to ensure that he doesn’t take things he shouldn’t.  If you take a treat in your hand and hold it out to the dog, and then close your hand if he takes it before he asks, and only open the hand up when he backs off the treat, you start to teach the dog that snatching doesn’t work.  If you make the dog wait for a moment or two, you start to teach him that good things come to those who wait.  Instead of thinking about teaching dogs to leave it, think about teaching dogs that if they back off the treat, they can get what they want when you tell them to “take it”.  Once you have this working nicely in your hand, you can then move on to getting your dog to sit before he gets the thing that he wants.  In small steps you can use this method to teach him first not to snatch things out of your hand, and then not to snatch things out of the hands of others and then not to take things off of chairs or the floor and then not to take things off of tables or plates.  In the end, you want the dog to not take anything that you have not indicated is his.  It takes about four months to achieve fluency, but this is an exercise that can and will save your dog’s life.  The day that I dropped ten migraine pills out of a bottle and onto the floor, my dog backed up two steps and made eye contact with me, was the day that I figured out that an automatic “leave it” wasn’t just a party trick, it was a life skill.

Many people understand the idea of teaching their dogs to sit before they give them a meal.  A good idea in theory-but I have seen this backfire.  When the dog is dependent upon the person to tell them to sit and to “stay…..staay…staaay….staaaaay”, and then the person says OKAY and the dog rushes the food bowl, what you are teaching is not self control, but to be impulsive on cue.  Not a particularly good idea.  You are in essence teaching the dog to have an explosive start, which would be great if you were doing agility, but not so good if you want your dog to learn to have good social manners in the house.  Instead, you can try a tactic of making your dog’s dinner and wait for him to sit.  When he sits, say take it and THEN put down the bowl.  Don’t prompt him, don’t cue him; teach him an automatic please.  Once you have a basic please, you can start working on duration between the food bowl going down and the release by starting to bend down to put the bowl down BEFORE you say take it.  If the dog gets up before you release, pick up the bowl and start over.  Work at it until making the meal becomes the cue to the dog to back off, and wait for as long as it takes for you to make the meal, dance the tango, make soup, and when your dog is relaxed, tell him to take his dinner.  This is a bit like going to a formal meal where grace is said-the guy who digs in before the blessing is seen to be a glutton and a boor.  If you teach your dog to wait till told, he will be practicing self control every day.  Just make sure that you don’t release your dog until you can see that he is relaxed, or you will create impulsivity on cue.

Tonight I had an interesting class with some beginner students.  Every time I went to help one particular student, her dog would disengage and pay more attention to me than to her.  Her explanation was interesting; she claimed that I was somehow magically more interesting to her dog than she was.  My efforts to explain that actually she had actually taught the dog that greeting on the dog’s terms was what was expected seemed to fall on deaf ears.  Like the dog in the shop, this handler believed that her dog should greet everyone; after all, isn’t that what we teach in puppy class?  That the dog should greet two to four hundred people in his first five months?  Sure!  Absolutely, your puppy should meet two to four hundred people in the first five months (or better yet, in the first four months), but we don’t mean to imply that the dog should be permitted to rush everyone he sees and interact at will.  Like a young child, being taught to greet politely will pay off later in big ways.  Imagine your teenager, applying for his first job, greeting his future boss with the kind of full body enthusiasm people seem to think is normal in dogs!

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D’fer and Laurel show self control and loose leashes at the Royal Ontario Museum

Before your dog is 16 weeks old, socialization is the single most important priority in the dog’s life, but second to that, and for the rest of his life, impulse control is the next most important item on the agenda.  My service dog, who I spoke about earlier in this article, is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.  D’fer is a passionate, intense dog, who knows what he wants and is willing to work hard to get it.  These traits are important in a dog bred to fetch ducks in the Chesapeake Bay in November-he wouldn’t be much good as a retriever if he were to say “sorry, no, the water is too cold today” or even “I was going to come up the rocky bank, but that dense brush got in my way.”  D’fer, I am proud to say, has learned that he can have his heart’s desire-anything he wants, if he just asks nicely, by backing off what he wants, and looking at me, and sitting.  He has learned the most important lesson of all.  The dog controls the dog.  And I control everything else.

THE DOG CONTROLS THE DOG