We have a saying in our home, “Train it or manage it.” When it comes to dealing with our dog’s behaviour, it seems there are really only two choices. We can either train our dogs to do things in a way that we like or we can manage their situation so that they don’t have the opportunity to do things we don’t. It’s a practical decision. If the training necessary to control a certain behaviour in our dogs is more work than changing the situation, we just arrange things differently. Sometimes it even becomes a combination of both approaches – manage the situation until we can get the training in place.
Many times dog owners will wait until they take their dog to obedience classes or “doggy manners” classes to begin teaching their dogs “Sit” and “Come” and “Stay.” Obedience and group classes are great for teaching your dog how to work with you in highly distracting environments. Instructors can help you refine your training skills so you can be a better communicator with your dog. But there is a lot of learning that can go on at home if you take a little time to plan. We start with a lot of little things very early on with our new dogs.
Our dogs will need to get used to the accessories we will use to manage them throughout their lives. For some, this will be a collar and clip on leash and for others it may be a head-halter style collar. Others may use a harness with their dog. The important thing is to make that piece of equipment something the dog is eager to get into and makes them comfortable. A little time spent rewarding them can make all the difference.
We reward our dogs with a treat each time we put on or take off their collar or leash. In the beginning, we do no more than that – put it on, reward, take it off, reward. We do this 4 or 5 times twice each day and in a few days, just the sight of the collar or leash will bring our puppy running to get into it. But the work doesn’t stop there.
We teach our dogs the “collar grab” game. It’s simple. We just grab the puppy gently by the collar, reward with a treat, and release. There are going to be times when I will need to get hold of my dog’s collar to control her. Wouldn’t it be useful if I made that into something she enjoys? After a week or so of being rewarded for having her collar grabbed, my dog won’t flinch or duck away when I reach for her collar. And that makes life a lot easier and safer. Rewarding your dog for being picked up or being held by you is also very useful. It’s never too late to start training these useful behaviours even if your dog is a rescue or older dog!
On The Move
We enjoy getting out for walks and outings with friends. There’s more good stuff to train for when we are out and about. Many owners teach “heel” position so that their dog walks beside them but it’s not something we focus on. Instead, we frequently call our dog’s name or using the cue “Look!” to get eye contact and reward them for that. It’s a way of building in a mechanism for getting our dog’s attention.
Being out on walks is an excellent place to practice our “Come” behaviour as well. My dog doesn’t need to be 40 or 50 feet away to practice this behaviour. I can call her to me from the end of her 8 foot leash, it’s the same concept. Practicing this way gives me complete control of my dog and I have literally dozens of opportunities to call her back safely on every walk.
We teach our dogs two other verbal cues for walking with us. While on a walk, I will periodically slow my pace and say “Easy.” I will then reward my dog when they slow down and tune into me to see what’s happening next. This provides a good intermediate step between “Come” and letting my dog walk freely. The other cue we teach is “Let’s go.” Dogs like to sniff and this is a way to let my dog know I’m moving on. When I’m ready to go, I simply say “Let’s go” and start to walk. If my dog chooses not to come with me, she will get a gentle tug from the leash as I walk away. It doesn’t take many occurrences of this before my dog learns that “Let’s go” means “time ot move or you’re gonna get dragged!” It’s not punishment, it’s infomation. I don’t yank on my dog, I just start moving away at an easy pace without stopping. Once we teach it, we always use “Let’s Go” so our dogs are never surprised or dragged along with us when we move on.
Here, There, and Everywhere
There are lots of things to teach our dogs inside the house too. We have found that teaching our dogs a few useful behaviours can save a lot of fuss when we need to move them around the house. One of the simplest tricks we teach involves placing some bells on the door to the backyard. While house training our puppies, we ring the bells each time we go out. In a very short time my puppy learns to ring them herself if she needs to be let out. We reward the dog for ringing the bells and then let them out. This makes the job of knowing when to let our dogs out much easier!
Frequently we have our dogs hop up on a chair or the bed or the picnic table out back to brush them or cut their nails. It makes grooming a heck of a lot easier when you don’t have to get on the floor with them. So we teach them “Up!” to get up onto something (including getting into the car!) and “Off!” when we want them to get down from something. Again, they are rewarded for complying when we are first teaching the behaviours. Getting on or off is never a punishment. This makes moving dogs on or off the couch or bed or even the back seat of the car much easier.
For moving our dogs from place to place, we teach our dogs with a combination of hand signals and verbal cues. Something we do from when our puppies are quite young it each them to enter doorways and rooms ahead of us. We simply wave a hand toward the entrance and say “In” and reward them once through the doorway. This is a very useful behaviour to teach when our dogs are young. No one wants to be jumped on or blocked while carrying a snack or drink from one room to another!
One of the most useful things we teach our dogs is to backup, literally walk backwards away from us. This comes in handy in lots of different situations. If I’m carrying something from one room to another, I can just say “back!” and my dog will take a few steps back out of my way. It’s also useful in keeping curious noses away from plates of food. It has even come in handy at dog agility trials where I have left my dog at the start line only to see that she has crept forward a few feet. A simple “back” command and I can reposition her without having to go back to her!
All of these basic behaviours for moving around and working with our dogs form a foundation for helping us communicate. We use these behaviours in combinations to help us in our everyday activities with our dogs. It’s a stream of communication that helps them feel comfortable about what’s happening. What is important is that we teach the dog and reward them for their cooperation before we find ourselves in hard to manage situations.
Interestingly, it isn’t that we have different expectations for our current dogs. We expected just as much of dogs we had before we used positive training. It’s just that now we are being proactive and teaching them useful behaviours that we will use for a lifetime. Believe me when I tell you that it works out much better than the frustration we used to experience trying to wrangle our mostly confused and sometimes apprehensive dogs from one situation to another.
Take a look at your life with your dogs. I’m sure you’ve already trained them to work with you in a number of interesting ways but are there other things you could work at? Are there simple behaviours, like holding still for putting leashes on, that you could reinforce more regularly? A little time teaching has made our life with our dogs so much easier. We have found that life provides lots of opportunities for training practical behaviours we use every day!
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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