At Dogs in the Park, we have two mottos. The first is “It Depends..” It is on all of the staff uniforms to remind people that the answer to dog training questions are dependent upon many variables. The second is less commonly said, but almost all of my students will eventually hear me say “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. I was reminded of this by one of my staff the other day. She had been challenged by a colleague at school to train a dog to do a trick. The problem is that the trick required the dog to roll back onto his very arthritic and dysplastic hips. My staffer replied “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should,” and she is right. She COULD teach the dog to do the trick, but she shouldn’t because it will cause the dog more injury than not.
I have an exercise I used to do when I ran my fun-gility workshops. Fun-gility is informal agility. I would get out all the cavellettis (small light jumps for teaching dogs to take off and land smoothly; they are about four inches high), and place them as close together as they can go. There is about four inches between each jump. Then I ask all the humans to walk through the twelve or so jumps. People with really big feet slide their feet in sideways, and people with little feet slip in between the jumps toe first. One very athletic man in the last workshop danced through them like a ballerina on point, pronking up and down in the manner of a gazelle. Once everyone has walked through these, I challenge everyone to go through as fast as they can. The only person to every run through these successfully was the man I just mentioned-but he said afterwards it was really difficult and uncomfortable.
Next I spread the jumps out so that each is one of my foot lengths wide. Everyone expresses relief at the ease at which they can place their feet. When they run through though, they are once again frustrated by the lack of room to solve the problem of where to put their feet. Some people just take two jumps at once and then congratulate themselves on coming up with such a neat solution. At this point I ask them; “Would it be okay if your dog chose to do two jumps at once if that was easier for him?” Most folks who have been through the exercise reply that yes, it would be okay with them if the dog solved his problem that way. If I were to ask someone who is serious about agility though, the answer might be different-the person might decide that the dog must take each obstacle one at a time, regardless of how uncomfortable that might be for the dog. That brings back the statement of “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should”. Just because I can make the dog take jumps at an uncomfortable striding, doesn’t mean I should.
I come across this situation when I work with dogs with behaviour problems. I have had clients with dogs who are noise sensitive. I prefer to resolve problems like this by working below threshold, so that the dog is not being set off repeatedly. When the dog gets to relax a little, they often become bolder and more willing to accept some noises they weren’t previously. Recently, I was at a community event and I saw a little dog sitting terrified under her person’s chair. I approached the person and told her that I thought her dog was afraid of the noise of the crowd, and the owner replied that yes, she was, but the dog had to accept that this was part of life and must get over her fears, and so she was brought out to as many noisy events as possible. I bit my tongue but what I wanted to say was “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” When it is my client who is doing this though, I try and help them to understand that just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should!
I think we need to consider this carefully when we work with dogs and other animals. We CAN make a dog go out in public when he is afraid to do so, but should we? We CAN make a horse jump over a fence when he is physically uncomfortable, but should we? We CAN make a child stand up in front of a group of people and recite Evangeline…but should we? As trainers and teachers, we hold a very powerful position, and Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should applies to our jobs on a daily basis. Just because we can make a student take a risk we are comfortable with when training our own dogs doesn’t mean we should make our students do so too. Part of what we need to teach when helping people to train their dogs, is that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
Keeping “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” in mind when you are training your dog can really help you to do two things. The first thing it helps with planning your training. Many of us have asked our dogs to participate in sports they don’t really have the skills to succeed in. Often the dogs “fake it till they make it” and we feel like we are able to do the sport even if we haven’t trained for it. This is the classic case of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. Better by far to teach your dog to do the skills and then participate in the activity.
The second thing that “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” helps with is acknowledging what the dog is struggling with. If the dog is shy, let him leave when he has had enough. If the dog is bold, don’t put him in situations where he is going to take risks that are dangerous to his health and wellbeing. If the client lacks confidence, I don’t put them in situations where they are going not going to succeed. Setting up for success means a lot more than just setting up to get the right answer, it also means taking into account that sometimes, the dog cannot or the human cannot do something and allowing them not to do that thing, all the while balancing that they need to be challenged sufficiently to continue to move forward.
Recently a number of Good Dog clients have started my program after having gotten only so far with obedience classes with us or other schools, and there seems to be a trend in why their training is not working for them. Micromanagement is how we describe what is happening when people tell the dog about every single thing that they are supposed to do. They often have a spectacular leave it, but only when they tell the dog. The dog will wait nicely at the door, but bolt on through if you haven’t specified that this is one of the times that the dog must wait. The dog is more than willing to get off or stay off furniture if he is told, but in the absence of information, he is right up there and on the couch.
Humans are a species that gather information verbally. We listen to details like “don’t get on the couch” and store that information for later use. If we are told “don’t get on the couch” every time we go to get on the couch, most of us store that information and don’t do that behaviour. Dogs are a little different. Although dogs readily learn “if I get on the couch in the presence of the human I will be told to get off” they don’t seem to generalize that information to “never get on the couch”. I suspect that this is a reflection of a few things, including how we train them.
The first thing that this reflects is that dogs don’t have language in the same way we do. Yes, they have communication, where they are able to send units of information to another individual who can receive and interpret them accurately. Think about the last time you saw two dogs interacting; if one dog wanted to play, how can he convey that information to the other dog? Dogs have a whole lot of gestural communication including (but not limited to!) play bows, play faces, head tilts, paw lifts and tail wags. The receiving dog will either accept the invitation, and a play session will start (full of rich gestures that convey all sorts of information between the players) or turn it down and we can tell which choice the recipient made based on the behaviours we see. None of this information conveys anything like “later on, when you go home, please don’t touch my toys that I left behind the couch”. Canine communication is immediate. It happens in the moment and it pertains to the moment. Even wolf communication involved in hunting runs more along the lines of “let’s go hunting”, “okay”, “I hear caribou over this way”, “I will flank the herd”. The last guess may in fact be more than they actually convey in their gestures, but it makes for a better story to illustrate the point!
Next we should consider that when we train our dogs we teach them to attend to what happens next. Sit when I am making you dinner? Then I put your dinner within your reach to eat. Jump up on me? Then you can have a quick trip to your crate. Harass the other dog while he is trying to rest? Then you can have a turn out in the yard on your own. Lie down nicely in front of the cookie cupboard? Then you can have a cookie. On and on, both formally and informally we teach our dogs to pay attention to immediate outcomes. Practically this is the most efficient way to teach dogs what they should and should not do.
Dogs do learn what your habits are of course, but most often those habits come with predictable immediate outcomes. Dogs learn for instance that every day at 3pm the school bus passes by and the kids arrive home and when the kids arrive home, you almost always get to play ball. Some dogs will anticipate this sort of activity by bringing the ball to the children as they come in the door. This most likely evolves when the ball is handy and the kids are available and the dog puts two and two together, not because the dogs are preplanning the equipment needed to make the activity work better. Over time and with repetition, dogs can develop sophisticated routines that look like preplanning but there is little concrete evidence that dogs are preplanning in the way that we do.
So what does this have to do with the Queen? Or my brother in law? Or my students who are struggling with micromanagement? Simply this. If you were invited to the UK to visit the Queen, you would have a meeting with a very nice person who would explain what was going to happen, what you were supposed to do and what you were not permitted to do. When you arrived at the Queen’s “house” (castle, palace or what have you), there would most likely be a nice person to point you in the right direction and prompt your every step. Stand here. Turn that way when I signal you that her Majesty is coming. When you first see Her Majesty do this. When you are greeted say that. When she turns away from you, do this. If she hands you something take it like this. Don’t touch her. Don’t initiate conversation. Answer in this way. Every little detail is preplanned and organized so that you know exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it. And if you goof, then it is most likely that someone will help you out and make a suggestion about what you should do instead.
This is how many of my clients treat their dogs. The client behaves like the Queen’s protocol officer! They walk up to a door and say “sit”. Dutifully, the dog sits. They open the door and the dog, not getting another immediate prompt drags them through the door and into the training hall. There is a dropped treat in front of the dog, and the client says “leave it” so the dog quite politely does, but when there is a treat the person doesn’t notice, the dog snarfs it up before the client even has a chance to do anything! How often I have been greeted by an otherwise normal human being chanting “be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice” as though saying these two words fast enough and for long enough will ensure that the dog will “be nice”. Invariably the human effort at being the protocol officer fails and the dog greets me by launching himself at me like a canine cannonball.
I would argue that if you were taking your dog to somewhere truly different and out of the ordinary, you might want to be the protocol officer. So if you have to take your dog to say a ballet recital, you might possibly want to play protocol officer. But UNLESS you are asking your dog to do something truly difficult, such as meeting a world leader, your dog needs to be able to just fit in. This is where visiting my brother-in-law comes in.
My brother-in-law is a nice guy. He likes to sit out on his front porch with a cup of coffee and the newspaper on a Sunday morning. He likes to go cycling. He is pretty approachable, and will invite you in for a beer if you walk by on a Saturday afternoon while he is puttering in the garage. He doesn’t own a crown, or a thrown, and he doesn’t care if you turn your back on him when you are in his presence. He goes to work Monday to Friday, he enjoys his family, he is the master of the bar-b-que. In short, he is a pretty laid back typical Canadian guy. And if you visit him, there is no protocol officer to tell you where to stand, what to do or not do, how to dress and what to say. No one will micromanage your behaviour when you visit my brother-in-law.
This doesn’t mean that there are not expectations for your behaviour while in my brother-in-law’s home. He would prefer you didn’t break his stuff, and please don’t eat all his food all at once. Please don’t take his things away when you leave, and please do take off your shoes when you come in the house. The thing is that his expectations for your behaviour are common enough that you don’t need someone to explain what to do at every step.
Commonly Micromanaged Behaviours and Their Alternatives
Common Micromanagement Strategy
Dog snatches any edible item within reach
Teach the dog to leave things on cue and tell the dog to leave it
Teach the dog that he must automatically leave any edible items he finds UNLESS you tell him to take it
Dog jumps on guests
Teach the dog to cease jumping up on cue and tell the dog to stop jumping
Teach the dog that a guest approaching means that he should sit or lie down
Dog bolts out the door
Teach the dog to sit on cue and tell the dog to sit when you see the door opening
Teach the dog that an opening door means that he should sit
Dog is more engaged with other dogs or people when he sees them than he is with the handler
Teach the dog to make eye contact on cue and ask for eye contact
Teach the dog to make eye contact with you and then look at the dog or person he wants to greet and then re engage with you
Dog barks at passersby
Teach the dog to “hush” on cue and then tell the dog to “hush” when he is barking
Teach the dog that passersby do not need to be barked at
Dog chases the cat in the house
Teach the dog a solid leave it on cue and then tell the dog to leave it when he is chasing the cat
Teach the dog that chasing the cat is not permitted at all, ever
Dog grabs the toy before you can throw it
Teach the dog to leave it on cue and then tell the dog not to touch the toy until you have thrown it
Teach the dog that you will throw the toy when he is calm and not touching you, or even when he is sitting and making eye contact
The problem I see with many of the dogs who come through my door at the training hall is that the human partner in the team seems to think that day to day interactions need to be handled like a visit to the Queen. I see people telling their dogs to sit at the door all the time. And to leave the treats that are within reach. And not to jump on people as they approach. The problem with this strategy is that if you aren’t there to micromanage the dog, the dog will do just as he pleases. If you don’t tell him to sit at the door, he might barge right on through. And if you don’t tell him to leave the treats on the floor, he will just dart out to take them. If you don’t prevent him from jumping on guests, then he will greet impolitely and possibly with disastrous consequences! None of this is what the human wants, but the only solution they have tried is to remind, remind, remind, remind and then remind again.
What if instead of reminding we took what we know about how dogs use information and taught them an expected behaviour. What if we taught the dog that the door itself was the prompt to sit and wait? Or if instead of teaching your dog to leave a treat when told, we just taught him to keep his nose out of treats that you haven’t told him belong to him? What if we taught him that a person reaching out to say hi means that he should sit or lie down? What if we looked at training as if we were preparing someone from a different country to visit my brother-in-law?
Turning the training paradigm around so that we are no longer teaching the dog to do as he is told, but instead to know what the conventions are is a very easy way to resolve a lot of problems. To do this, you must spend some time thinking about how to accomplish making the trigger to the behaviour the cue to the alternate behaviour, and some of the time it means providing a consequence such as going to your crate or losing a turn at play to stop the undesired behaviour. It usually takes a little longer, but in the end, you have an adult dog who knows what to do, when to do it and doesn’t need a protocol officer to micromanage all of his behaviours!
For anyone who has been in my classroom, you likely have realized that I am not going to ever be a supermodel. Aside from being 40 years too old, and the wrong body type, I just don’t care about clothing, hair and make up enough to bother. Incidentally, if you are curious, it is Sue writing, not John, but he probably would not be a super model either. Aside from being the wrong gender, and the wrong body type, he really just doesn’t care enough about clothing, hair or make up to bother either. Which brings me to a thought about our dogs. How many of our dogs are being asked to do jobs they just don’t care about?
Training is the way that we acquire skills and it doesn’t matter if you are a human, a dog or a dolphin, skills are important. In theory I have the skills needed to be a supermodel; I can walk, and wear clothes and if pressed, I can sit around while someone plays with my hair and puts make up on me. Maybe I don’t have the fine tuned strut that a model needs, but I can wear clothing, and I can walk, so what is preventing me from being a super model? Opportunity? Nope. I just don’t have the patience for the work! I would need a great deal of training and incentive to do that and you would have a very hard time convincing me that the work is relevant to my wellbeing.
So what about our dogs? You will hear me say over and over again that trained dogs get to do more, and that we should be willing to teach our dogs to do different things, so why not take up whatever sport the handler wishes? Recently, one of our instructors came to me to let me know that she had pulled out of one of our advanced classes, not because she and her dog were not learning things but rather because her dog was not enjoying the work. “My dog is doing this to please me, but she doesn’t actually like it” was the message I got. And good for the handler in recognizing that.
There are behaviours that I want every dog of mine to learn, regardless of how they feel about it; coming when called, not dragging me down the street, allowing the vet to examine them and lying down and staying for instance. These are the skills that allow our dogs to live successfully with us, but they are not their job. Have you thought about what your dog’s job might be? Many of us come to obedience classes because that is what we are supposed to do with our dogs, and then slot them into the jobs we want them to do without much more thought than that.
The problem with this is that many of our dogs are not actually interested in doing the work we wish them to do. As a behaviour consultant this is a daily frustration, as the Good Dog students probably all know. Consider what happens when we breed a dog to herd sheep 8 hours a day, and we expect that he is going to enjoy sitting on the couch day in and day out without any exercise. What might happen? Might that dog begin to engage in behaviours such as racing around the house and barking at traffic going by?
Many of my students want their dogs to participate in sports such as rally or agility and for most dogs, they really get into that. Some dogs don’t though. Some dogs prefer things like nosework, or tracking. When we put together our advanced classes, some of our students try and take as many of them as they can, and while we encourage everyone to give each class a try, it is really important to stay tuned in to your dog to discover which of these classes make you both happy.
All this preamble is probably bringing you to the point of asking yourself what to do if your dog doesn’t want to do the one thing that is really important to you? What do you do when you love agility and your dog just doesn’t like it? Or maybe the only thing that matters to you to do with your dog is hiking and your dog just doesn’t like to go out in anything other than the ideal weather?
The first thing I like to do is to is to try and figure out why the dog doesn’t want to engage in the behaviour. I once had a client who purchased a husky to go and run with him. As it turned out, we happened to have a very hot summer when he was just the right age to start running at about 18 months. The husky learned very quickly that running gear meant that he was going to become hot and uncomfortable. The husky was no dummy! He learned that running was uncomfortable so he didn’t like running.. He LOVED to run, but not with the owner or on leash. The only thing we had to do to change the activity was to choose running times when the weather was cooler. By taking the dog’s comfort into account, we were able to teach him to like the activity. As the old saying goes, if I had a nickel for every dog who was uncomfortable in the desired activity, I would be a whole lot richer!
Sometimes the dog is behaviourally unsuited to the work that the owner wants to do. Recently I saw a post on a hunting list I follow. The person on the list wanted a dog to go duck hunting with, but his wife wanted a German Shepherd. The person asking the question wanted to know how good German Shepherds might be at duck hunting. As it happened, I once had a German Shepherd who was pretty decent at fetching ducks. He enjoyed it and he was technically good at it, but there were a few problems. Firstly, he got a LOT of water in his ears. There is a really good reason why retrievers ALL have dropped ears! Secondly, once he was wet, it took a long time for him to dry off and if I had asked him to retrieve in the late fall when goose hunting usually happens, he would have gotten very wet and cold and likely he would not have thought that retrieving was quite that much fun. Even though he was good at retrieving, including in water, he much preferred to do tracking.
Sometimes something happens during training that makes the activity you want to do more difficult for your dog. If you keep changing your mind about the behaviours you want when preparing do to an activity, the activity itself can become very frustrated. I did this to one of my dogs early in my obedience career. I kept changing how I was approaching training with this particular dog, and ended up just confusing the dog. The dog got to the point where she was confused, annoyed and frustrated and just really didn’t enjoy obedience competitions. I had a coach who noticed that I was creating frustration and we were able to work through it however, if I had persisted I might have eventually caused much more damage to the relationship I had with that dog. We went on to have a great relationship once I straightened out my training program.
If an activity with a dog is really important to you, consider that BEFORE you get the dog and choose a dog who is going to start out with an aptitude and an interest in that activity. There is a reason that we usually choose hounds for trailing, and herding dogs for rounding up sheep. These dogs have been bred for a long time to do that work, and allowing the dogs to do what they were bred to do helps a lot.
If you already have a dog and he doesn’t like doing the activity, you may want to either do less of the activity, or stop doing it altogether. If you have a dog who does a lot of things they really like, and you only ask the dog to do something you like that the dog doesn’t some dogs might be willing to “play the game” to humour you if you don’t ask him to do the activity too often. The key is take your canine partner into consideration, and like the trainer at our facility, choose activities that both you and your dog will enjoy.
Dogs love food. Well, mostly dogs love food. Food is such a contentious issue. People don’t always like to use food in training, and often even when people do use food, they either don’t use it effectively or they struggle with a dog who doesn’t want to take treats. In the training hall we often see people making all sorts of food errors, so it is time to write a blog about how to use food.
The first issue we see is the “switcheroo”. The switcheroo happens when a dog hits early adolescence and growth slows down. Most families get a young puppy and are astounded at how many calories that little perpetual motion machine can suck back. Let’s say that a pup is 3kg when he comes home, and he is eating one scoop of dog food in total each day. Within 6 weeks that puppy is now 10kg, and eating three scoops of dog food each day! Skip forward another two months and the puppy is 20kg and eating five scoops a day, and then 8 weeks more and he is 30kg and eating 7 scoops a day. This brings our pupster to about 7 and a half months of age and all of a sudden Fido stops eating. In a panic, the average family goes out and spends a pile of money on a different bag of dog food and Fido resumes eating. A week or so later, Fido goes on strike again, and the family spends more money on a third brand of food. Fido resumes eating and two weeks later goes on strike. At about this point, Fido who should be 35kg is a solid 40kg, and has become a picky eater, and the client tells me in class that Fido won’t work for food.
So what is really happening in the “switcheroo”? Often what is happening is that Fido has stopped growing and doesn’t need 7 scoops of dog food! When you change dog foods, novelty will get Fido to eat again, but he doesn’t really need all the extra calories, so a week or two later, he self limits his food and you worry that he isn’t eating enough. You switch again and the novelty entices him to eat for a bit and then he hits another point where the calories are just too much and he stops eating again.
So what happens to food training when the old “switcheroo” is at play? Often the dog stops wanting to work for food because he is already getting far too many calories in his bowl. The first thing that I do is check with the family to make sure that there is nothing going on that would indicate the need for a vet visit. I do a quick visual inspection of the dog and feel his ribs to see what his body score is. The easy way to tell what your dog’s body score is would be to first feel your dog’s ribs and then find the part of your hand that is most similar to your dog’s ribs. Use the pictures below to determine if your dog is overweight. If your dog is overweight, but everything else is normal; he is drinking and exercising and toileting normally, then the first thing I would do would be to feed a bit less food in his bowl. Dogs love to eat, but they are also usually really good at self regulating when they get overweight and then they get fussy about the treats they want for training.
Usually with an adolescent dog who has had several different foods because he has become picky, we see his appetite normalize and his willingness to work for regular food return when we remove some of the calories from the bowl. This is the easiest situation to resolve when it comes to food and training. Once you figure out how much your dog should be eating, take the total amount for the day and divide it by three. Feed 1/3 at breakfast, 1/3 at dinner and save 1/3 for training class. Let’s look at my German Shepherd Eco as an example.
When I got Eco at 7 and a half weeks of age he ate a whopping 2/3 cup of kibble each day. Total. By the time he was 12 weeks he was eating 1 ½ cups, and at 16 weeks he was eating 2 ½ cups. His intake steadily increased over the weeks and months until at 7 months he was about 40kg and was eating a total of 12 cups a day divided into four meals, and he was a lean, mean fast moving doggy machine. I remember thinking at this age that I sure hoped he would slow down soon as I was going to go broke feeding this dog! Predictably at about 8 months he started to skip a meal. That meant that all of a sudden, he went from eating 12 cups a day reliably to eating 9. Whew! That was cheaper! I started to feed three meals a day, but instead of feeding three cups per meal, I fed 2 cups per day and kept 3 cups aside for training. At about ten months of age, Eco started to pretty reliably skip one of his three meals each day, so I took another three cups of food out of his daily ration, which brought us down to a much more reasonable 6 cups per day, and divided that into three, making 2 cups per serving, Eco went to two regular meals and two cups set aside for school. By the time Eco was four he was normally eating about 4 cups of food a day, and just got a few treats in class. Mostly in class at four, he would work for play.
The next thing I have seen in class is the dog who will only work for ultra high value treats. A number of things can be at play there. The first of them is that when the dog is very stressed or overwhelmed, he cannot eat. This should not be a surprise; the same happens to people too. Consider what it might be like to be in a car accident and then have someone offer you a nice dinner. Most of us would find that situation too stressful to allow us to enjoy eating. The same thing can happen when the dog is extremely excited, and that is also true for us. Most of us don’t feel like eating when we are engaged in something like riding a rollercoaster.
Other things can contribute to dogs only wanting to take high value treats too. When your dog comes to class overweight, they are going to be really picky about what they will take as treats. Similarly, if he comes to class right after eating a large meal, he will be willing to take dessert class treats, but not lower value treats. One thing that people often try is to completely deprive their dogs before class. This can backfire too; often dogs who have been deprived enough can be so deeply focused on any food at all that they cannot even think. It is far better to feed more sensibly, and come to class with a dog who is neither overweight nor completely deprived.
Dogs definitely have preferences, and there is a lot of value to knowing what your dogs prefers. I have worked with dogs who do not like liver and making a dog take a treat he doesn’t want works against you as a trainer, even if it is a treat you want your dog to like or if it is a treat you think your dog will like. I have also worked with dogs who like really unusual things like cooked squash, raw celery or blueberries. When I have a dog with strong preferences, I often rank the treats. When I know for instance that a dog likes liver best, and then rollover and then cheese and then bread and finally kibble. I will sometimes take some time to teach the dog to take lower value treats. Working in a low distraction environment I will offer the dog his lowest value item. If he takes the treat, I reward him with the next value treat. In this case, I will offer kibble. If the dog takes a piece of kibble, then he gets a piece of bread. I then offer the dog another piece of kibble. Most dogs will look longingly at the bread. Hold out. If the dog takes the kibble, he gets another treat but THIS time, he gets the next level up; so I would feed him some cheese. Next I will offer him another piece of kibble. He will likely look out for another piece of cheese. Hold out. When he takes his kibble, he will get the next thing on his list; in this case the rollover. Then offer more kibble again. When the dog takes the kibble he gets his top value treat; in this case the liver. I keep working with the dog offer kibble to get a better reward. I keep working on this until the dog will willingly take a low value treat regardless of the situation, in the hopes of getting a better treat.
Perhaps the most common error I see in the training hall is reinforcing every single behaviour without any differential between good iterations and not so good iterations. If you ask your dog to sit and he lies down, and you give him a treat because he did SOMETHING, anything, you are in fact teaching him that trying random behaviours is really valuable, but it doesn’t teach your dog that when you say sit, you mean sit, or when you say down, you mean down. You can actually use treats very constructively to teach your dog the difference between a really, really valuable behaviour such as a fast, accurate sit, when you ask the first time, and a slow reluctant sloppy sit. To teach the difference between a fast snappy sit and a slow casual sit, you can simply choose to reward the best sits to reward with the favourite treat, and then reward the sloppy undesired sits with a low value treat. Dogs can learn really quickly that a good sit gets a good treat, and a poor sit gets a less preferred treat.
Dogs also need to learn about self control around food before you start training. If your dog thinks that if he can see the treat, he can have the treat, then he is going to have a harder time learning to get the treats by doing something to earn them. I like to start all training by teaching the dog to control himself around food (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/11/12/the-dog-controls-the-dog/ ). Once your dog has learned not to snatch treats as soon as he sees them, you can start to use your treats much more effectively.
As with many tools, treats are a good servant but a poor master. When used well, food is perhaps the best way that you can teach a dog. When used poorly you can teach your dog all sorts of bad habits.
One plus one is 2, but two ones are 11.I remember being fascinated by this fact when I was about six.When I was in my early twenties and doing the family budgeting for myself and my first husband I learned that this mathematical truism has practical applications.Each of us alone needed a certain amount of money to survive but together, somehow or another pooling our assets and renting only one apartment felt like it didn’t work out as a more frugal alternative.There seemed to be so many things that we needed that I hadn’t felt the need for as a single person.Even simple things that seemed like they would cost less if we were buying for two often resulted in buying two brands of the same product.Two CAN live as cheaply as eleven.
The same is true of raising puppies.Raising one puppy takes a certain amount of time, effort and cost.It seems like you could only be doubling the effort if you get two dogs, right?Plus they will keep one another occupied when you have other things to take your attention, like your children, your spouse, your home, your car or your job, right?If only it were that simple.
I have lived in a multidog household for most of the past twenty years.John and I usually each have one dog of our own, and sometimes one or the other of us will have a second dog who is significantly older or younger.Realistically though, we try and space them out to a new dog every three to four years.We are coming up to the time when we will be considering adding a new addition in the next year or so.At various times for various reasons we have raised two dogs at the same time.
When Eco was a puppy, we were raising a service dog candidate; a standard poodle.They were merry friends who spent a lot of time bouncing around with one another.The poodle was about a month older than Eco and for the first six months or so, he ran the roost.He was faster, stronger and more developed.And then Eco overtook his speed, strength and agility, not to mention that Eco cared a lot more about who got things first, who ran the fastest and who controlled access to resources such as me.
When the poodle puppy came home, we enrolled him in puppy classes (all of our pups go to puppy classes, both our own and those of other schools).When Eco came home four weeks later, we enrolled him in different classes.Why not put both pups in the same class you might think.There are two reasons for not putting both pups in one class.The first is that the older puppy needed to start sooner than Eco.And the second is that jockeying for position that I mentioned above; in a class setting we might have had to restrain one pup while the other played in order to avoid the inevitable ganging up that can happen of these two closely aligned friends against all the other pups in the class!So already, even though John and I were raising two pups and there were two of us, and we both went to both sets of classes, we didn’t double up on the enrolment and put both puppies in the same class.
Then there is the whole issue of equipment; surely with two pups, we could get by with a little less equipment, right?Not so much.Even with a month between the two puppies, we needed full sets of collars and harnesses, leashes, bowls, crates and beds to accommodate both puppies.Furthermore, we had to pay for vet visits twice as often, and usually we find it is better to bring dogs separately to the vet; there is less confusion and we can focus with the vet on each dog as an individual.That means that not only did we have to pay for two veterinary appointments, we chose to attend the vet together, with each puppy on a different day.Considering that our vet is a fifteen-minute drive from home, that means that we had to allocate about an hour for each vet visit for each of us, and pay for an hour’s worth of gas in total to get both dogs to the vet.In a busy family with a company, that was really quite tough!
We had to allocate time to train each dog separately and again, we tried to make sure that each of us got in a training session each day with each dog.We also made time to walk each of the dogs separately each day.That made for more time into this project.John and I like to teach our dogs to trail walk, and for the most part we did that together, so we could cut down some of the doubling up on that front, but honestly we didn’t save much time, and the time that Eco (the BLACK German Shepherd) to Yarrow (the snow white Standard Poodle) swamp walking, we really wondered why we had any dogs at all!
Two baths.Two grooms.Two classes, two vet visits, two sets of everything.And eleven times the mess!We have found that when we compare raising one versus two puppies at a time, having pups one at a time allows us to get to know the puppies better and creates so much less chaos in our lives that when we can, we don’t try and raise 11 puppies at once!
If I had a nickel for every time that someone said to me “Danish GutterHund, and you know they are like potato chips, you can’t just stop at one” I would be a moderately wealthy behaviour consultant. When I first got involved with dogs almost everyone I knew only had one dog, or maybe a dog and a cat and very few people had multi dog families. Now multiples seems to be more and more common. We had a family join us recently who have FIVE dogs and had just gotten another puppy. Increasingly I am being asked for help integrating the newest puppy into a multidog household.
I have lived with more than one dog for most of the past twenty years because when John and I moved in together, he had a dog and I had a dog. When his dog died, we had a brief period where we only had one dog, but we have almost always had two, and often had three or more dogs living full time with us. When we were raising service dog puppies, we integrated a new puppy into our home at least once a year, so we have this down to a bit of a science.
To start with decide on what the rules are. This is a good idea even if you are preparing for your first dog. It is much easier to teach your puppy what you want him to do if you have spent a little time ahead of time working out what the rules are going to be. In our house, dogs are not permitted on furniture, they are not permitted to rough house indoors, they are expected to sit before doors open and they can touch their toys but nothing else in our very messy house. When the resident animals know the rules, then it is much easier for the new animals to learn the rules.
From time to time I meet a very unruly adolescent dog and the owners tell me that in the past they had older resident dogs teach the youngster the ropes and they expected the current older dog to pass along the rules of the house to a puppy. While the adult dogs are helpful in modelling good behaviour in your home, they cannot be responsible for teaching the puppy what is expected. The older dogs and other pets don’t have thumbs and cannot open doors, operate the car or control any of the fun stuff that comes to young dogs who are well behaved.
When we bring a puppy home, he spends his first two months or until he outgrows our puppy crate in our kitchen. We live in a 160 year old farm house, and our kitchen has a door directly to the outside, making this a great place to toilet train puppies. We work strange hours and we tend to be up at about 8 in the morning and the first thing we do is clip a leash on the puppy and take him outside to toilet. Then he comes in and stays with us as we do our morning routines of making coffee, hitting the bathroom, cleaning teeth and so on. When we have the early morning basics underway, we hand feed the puppy a meal, usually as part of a training session. The adult dogs eat in their crates separately.
After the puppy eats his breakfast, we go outside again to toilet and sometimes if the weather is good to have some outdoor exploring and play time. We live rurally which means that there are lots and lots of outdoor rules to learn too. We want our pups to like our horses, but we don’t want them to harass the horses. We have electric fencing and eventually pups learn that they mustn’t touch that or they will get hurt. We also live near a busy highway so we have boundary training to do so that the dogs learn never to go across our driveway towards the unsafe road. If the weather doesn’t co operate we will play with the pups in the kitchen. We have a system that helps us to teach puppies what to do. We have a giant puppy toy box filled with everything a puppy could possibly want to play with. The pup is permitted free access to the toy box when he is loose. We also have dozens of shoes and boots and other household items that just hang out on the floor of our kitchen. When a puppy interacts with an item that is permitted he gets to keep playing. When he touches an item he may not we call out a warning signal; “that’s enough”. If the puppy stops immediately he gets to continue. If he continues to touch the forbidden items, then we say “too bad” and put him in his crate for a short period of time. After a few minutes, the puppy comes out and gets to try again..
Baby D’fer explores the adult dog water bowl. It was raised because we had an elderly dog who had difficulty dropping his head to drink. Notice that I am right beside him actively supervising what he is doing. Supervision is key to success with young dogs.
You may notice that so far I have not mentioned having the adult dogs interacting with the puppy. After the pup has had his morning play time, I allow the adult dogs up and the pup can see the adults through the crate and they can get to know him without being harassed by him. In our current home we have three adult dogs. One of our dogs, Eco is a great dog for interacting with puppies. He sets boundaries and shows them cool things. He gets time through the day to interact in a supervised way with the pups. Another of our dogs does not like puppies at all and he never gets to interact with them. Our third dog has not yet had a chance to help raise pups because she has so far been too young, but I am better that she will be terrific with them. Through the day, we provide opportunities for the puppy to interact with the adults in supervised structured ways, but we don’t just let the puppy loose with the adults without guidelines.
D’fer meets Bear for the first time. Notice that John is right in the middle of things. Bear didn’t like puppies and John allowed him to escape through his legs and kept his hand on D’fer so that he could not follow. When an adult dog tries to avoid a puppy, we support the adult dog; the puppy can learn some manners before he is required to put up with D’fer loose in the house. D’fer and Bear went on to become fast friends as D’fer matured into adulthood.
If you are integrating a puppy into a home with a cat, you can use the “That’s enough, too bad” system for harassing the cat or cats. I don’t expect puppies to cuddle up with cats until the are much older, so my early introductions are all about being polite to the cat and not playing roughly and setting a boundary and guidelines about what is and what is not acceptable behaviour related to the cat. You must decide ahead of time what you want this relationship to look like and if you have a cat who objects strongly to the dog, you must put the needs of the cat front and centre. Cats usually cope quite well if they have space to go and avoid the dog. Cat ladders, baby gates and hiding spots for the cat help a lot with the cat’s ability to relax in the company of the dog.
Most of my pups quickly learn that after breakfast is a time to chill out and relax, to settle and to rest. The busiest part of the day doesn’t come till late afternoon. After a morning nap, we repeat our early morning routine at noon, training through the puppy’s lunch. Adult dogs are in a different room when we train the puppy. With young pups, we teach a lot of self control activities such as the automatic leave it, waiting for the food bowl to drop and not touching it till told to, waiting at doors and not rushing through them, creating puppies who are mannerly and self controlled. Most of our pups also master sit, down, touch, come when called and go to mat by the time they are about sixteen weeks of age. After lunch, we may take the youngster out for a walk with one adult dog. We have found that walking a puppy in the company of multiple adult dogs is risky; adults get to running and racing and it would be a small thing for the puppy to be tripped on or trampled.
Puppies need naps, just like children do! When you cannot supervise, or if your puppy is tired or if you are between play times, a crate is a perfect place for a puppy to rest.
Our pups go back down for a nap in the afternoon and at about four pm we move our activities to the training hall. When we are at the training hall our pups are always crated in our kennel area where they can be safely contained and kept out of trouble. Our pups usually get into a class at least once a day, and this is where they have their third meal. By having our dogs at the training hall we are able to get them out to pee on a regular basis and they learn that there are behavioural expectations at work.
As our puppies learn the ropes, they get more time out of their crates and doing things and gradually they spend more time both in the house and outside with our adult dogs. When the pups go through periods of testing the boundaries, we back up and give them fewer freedoms. We really feel it is important not to allow our puppies out of our sight until they are about sixteen weeks of age. At that point they start getting more house time as long as they are not making mistakes such as getting on furniture, stealing items that don’t belong to them or playing roughly in the house. At about sixteen weeks, we start adding pups into play groups in our yard. We are fortunate to have a yard attached to our farm house and with multiple dogs we find that it is important to give each dog some time with us alone. This time each day means that the dogs are more bonded to us than to one another, which makes training easier. In our house, adolescent and adult dogs get time in the yard with one another, and time in the house with us, both alone and with the other dogs.
It is also important to keep in mind that your adult dogs didn’t sign up for a puppy and they will need time alone with you. This is where having a crate in the kitchen where we spend the bulk of our time can be really helpful. We can have the adult dogs out with us, and the puppy can learn about the adults in a safe way, but the adults don’t have to put up with a rude puppy who might interrupt time with me. Puppies in our house also learn that it is not always their turn and that if they start to fuss in their crates then everyone will just leave the kitchen.
Bear was never impressed with having puppies around. Generally Crow (the German Shepherd) liked puppies, but he did not like change and the first few days home with a new pup were always difficult for him.
Integrating a new puppy into your home is really a matter of deciding what you want and teaching your puppy the rules. Young pups need lots of supervision and when we cannot give it to them, using a crate is a great way to keep your puppy safe. Not everyone has the luxury that we do of being available for our pups all day long, so sometimes we have to work around other constraints. Many families arrange to come home at lunch time to let their puppies out and then leave again for the afternoon while their pups nap. Sometimes a good strategy is to get a dog walker who can come in and let the pup out while you are away. Whatever your schedule is, working around keeping everyone relaxed and happy depends on knowing what you want ahead of time, and then implementing a plan to meet the needs of your household.
One of the important things that I do when I work with any dog is to include him in my daily routine. My dog isn’t just an inhabitant of my home; he is my partner in pretty much everything I do. This morning for instance, I included Eco in my ironing; I am working on a craft project that requires ironing, and so when I got the iron and ironing board out, I included Eco in the activity. How might that look? It probably doesn’t look very interesting, but when I opened the closet door, Eco poked his head in and then when I reached for the iron and board, I asked him to back up and he backed out of my way. While I was setting it all up, I asked him to lie down and pointed to where I wanted him to go. I didn’t ask him to stay so when I go out the fabric that I wanted to iron, he got up and took a look at what I had in my hand. When I asked him to go back and lie down, he did. After I was done ironing, I needed to get access to my craft table and he was in the way, so I was able to ask him to change his resting place to another point across the room. When I was done with that part of my project, I need to go downstairs to get some water for the steamer in the iron and I asked Eco to heel beside me down the stairs, which he did. We worked together to get the task done. Was it strictly necessary to have 48kg of black carnivore supervising my activities? Did he contribute? Not really. But we do things together and this morning I was ironing.
Sometimes I do things he likes; when I take my daily morning walk, for instance, I throw his feed pan. As a big strong dog, he needed a big strong toy and the thing that worked best for him was a rubber livestock feed pan. It makes a lousy frisbee but he likes it, and he will bring it to me and suggest that I throw it for him. On a good day I can throw it about 20 metres. He includes me in his games and activities because although he doesn’t need a great big primate to amuse him, it is part of how he and I relate.
The bottom line for me is that we share our activities with one another and we each bring skills to the table that the other can ask for and respond to. This is the gift that good reciprocal training gives to me. When Eco was a baby, I did more things that he found interesting than things that I found interesting with him. I spent many hours sitting on the floor playing tug and touch, fetch and search games. As we got to know one another, I began to teach him the words for the behaviours I wanted him to do. This in my opinion is the best kind of teaching to do with a puppy; I didn’t spend so much time at that age formally asking for or prompting sit or down, but sometimes in the course of our interactions, if he offered me a behaviour I was interested in keeping, I might respond by naming the behaviour and then playing a game that Eco wanted to play. It didn’t take long for him to figure out that the names for the behaviours corresponded to what he was doing and that if he did them when I asked, I might do something he would find enjoyable.
A sad tale for me is the story of so many dogs who are not really “one of the gang”. Many of these dogs are well loved and well cared for, but they are not yet partners with their people. The people and their dogs share space and activities in parallel instead of in partnership. The thing to understand about partnership is that it is a two way street, and deep partnership involves more than simply co-habitating and ensuring that your dog has enough to eat and drink. Deep partnership means that we should be aware of one another and respond to one another in a meaningful way. That is probably the biggest reason that I train my dog.
Dog training is the way that I develop a language to use when I am talking to my dog. I do a lot of informal training when I include my dog in my daily activities, but I also need to develop a language that we can share to do more complex things together. If I want to take my dog into the bush and go camping with me, I need him to be able to come when called, lie down and stay off leash, go around obstacles or over them as is necessary and I need him to connect with me so that if there is a challenge we can overcome it together. This is where teaching my dog in a formal setting can really jumpstart what we do together. Sometimes exercises in a class can seem disconnected from what we do informally, but if you start to look for opportunities to incorporate your formal training into your daily life, you not only improve your dog’s overall performance in those exercises, at the same time that you create a better bond with your dog.
If you go back to my ironing exercise, consider all the times when my formal training was integrated into that informal activity. The behaviours that I used during my ironing included backing up on cue, lying down, going to place, moving from one place to another place and heeling so he wouldn’t trip me on the stairs. These are all behaviours that I taught formally in obedience classes. I think that it is interesting that when I use behaviours in context I rarely need reinforcers to maintain them. If my canine partner thinks he is doing something important to both of us, he rarely asks to be paid to work, and I think this is an important clue to successful training. When your dog feels that they are an important part of what you are doing, they are often willing to participate in the activity, and if they have learned the skills to participate, reinforcement is rarely needed.