Many years ago, I used to watch with equal parts awe and envy as a local dog owner would take his dogs for an outing. Despite having more dogs than the two we were constantly trying to herd, this fellow seemed to have little problem moving his dogs from the house to the car to the park for a walk and back. At the time my mind boggled at the prospect of how much time he must have to spend training his dogs to get that kind of cooperation.
Fast forward to this past year when we were watching two dogs for a cousin who was under the weather. With our two dogs that made four dogs we were dealing with on a daily basis. Instead of the frenzy of dogs we used to experience, things went along very smoothly. No ruckus at meal times, no problems getting dogs out to do their business, even outings were worry-free and fun for everyone. It was a stark contrast to that utter chaos we were dealing with twenty some years ago with only our own two dogs. And that was just to get out of the house to go for a short walk!
You might wonder what made such an incredible improvement in our situation these many years later. It would be great if I could tell you it was some magical training secret; a simple trick that could cure all your dog behaviour problems. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, the answer is more simple than that. We just manage our dogs differently now.
Train it or manage it
When we made our transition from our former force-based training ways to a more modern approach using positive reinforcement and behavioural science, we developed a simple rule for ourselves as trainers: If we encounter a behaviour in our dogs that we didn’t like, we must train an acceptable alternative or manage the situation so that there is no opportunity for the unwanted behaviour to happen. Put even more simply, train it or manage it!
In many cases we actually used both training and management to resolve an unwanted behaviour. Let me give you an example. Nearly all puppies (and many dogs!) will try to bolt out of an open door to see what fascinating adventures they can discover. This is a problem behaviour for us because we live in an area where our dogs could easily run out onto the road where there is the danger of being hit by a car. We clearly needed to train our dogs to wait at open doorways. It sounds easy enough but there are lots of ways it could go wrong in a hurry.
The best way to teach a dog not to bolt out of a doorway is to simply not allow them to rush out without permission. But that process is going to take several trials and rewards before the dog catches on to the concept. And here’s the problem; the dog has to go outside to do their business! It’s just not acceptable to keep the dog indoors until he learns to leave politely. This is where management comes in and I have lots of options for managing the situation.
Early on in the process, I can put a leash on my dog and do a little work on the doorway behaviour and them take her out on leash without fear of her running off into traffic. Another approach would be to use fencing or baby gates to provide a narrow pathway into our fenced backyard, this way if my dog does manage to bolt, she is not in danger and all that is lost is a training opportunity and not the dog. There are many ways to use management to advantage when working on behaviours.
Sometimes it’s not about changing the environment as much as it is about changing how we respond to our dog in given circumstances. In the example I gave above, many people will try to block or corner the dog if they are trying to get out the door. Often this can evolve into a game of “block-me-if-you-can” with the dog developing more inventive ways to escape. In these cases I have to ask, why didn’t the owner manage the situation so that they didn’t have to play goalie to keep the dog from running out?
In my experience, dog owners are ever hopeful creatures. I know my wife and I certainly were many years ago. You stand in front of that door, hand poised to open it, wondering if this is the time your dog “gets it” and finally waits patiently. You roll the dice. And more often than not you are disappointed. But worse than that, our dog has learned that getting outside is a matter of speed and cunning. Getting outside is the reward and our failure to manage the situation has just reinforced the very behaviour we are trying to change.
We changed our approach to situations like this. Instead of hoping to get the behaviour we wanted, my wife and I started approaching training situations with an eye toward managing the environment or the dog or both to be sure that if we could not reward the behaviour we wanted, at least our dog would not be rewarded for the behaviour we didn’t want. It didn’t take a lot of effort, just some planning and some thinking things through. We very quickly found that all kinds of situations can be set up to help our dogs do the things we way we would like until we could get the training in place.
While many management techniques will help while training is happening, there will be some situations that may always need to be managed. One example is that our older dog, Tiramisu, gets upset when other dogs crowd into her space. This can make letting the dogs outside tricky. When our younger dog Rizzo was a puppy, he didn’t have much respect for Tira’s space and would try to rush out past her with unfortunate consequences. While Rizzo is much better about Tira’s space these days, we have found that it is just easier for everyone if we monitor and manage our dogs so that they exit the house one at a time. It’s a management technique that keeps other problems from happening and so we just do things that way.
Another example is that we ask guests not to knock and just walk into our home when we are having parties or get-togethers. We have noticed over the years that our dogs bark in response to a knock at the door. When guests arrive and just walk in, they are greeted with quiet curiosity. And yet, when a package arrives with a knock on the door, we are alerted by barking dogs if we are out in the yard or busy working. Management gets us the best of both worlds.
If a dog gets over excited and jumps up on guests, why not put them in another room until you have greeted the guest yourself? Do you have trouble getting your dog to recall when at the park and you let them off leash? Why not use a 30-foot long line instead of a leash. It’s far easier to step on a trailing line than catch the dog. Does your dog constantly bother you at the dinner table? Why not put them in another room with a chew bone while you eat? You might be surprised how many of your “problem” situations can be solved with a little planning and re-arrangement.
Instead of thinking in terms of preventing the behaviours you don’t like, think instead of things you could do to change the situation so that those behaviours never occur at all. If you find that your dog jumps up on you when you are standing still while on a leash walk, why not step on the leash so they can’t jump up? Wouldn’t that be better than yelling, “No! Off! Stop it! NO!” over and over? Trust me, after a few failed attempts to jump up on a shortened leash, your dog will stop trying. Then you can praise her and tell her what a great dog she is for being calm and waiting. Management and training, fancy that! And no one has to get yelled at.
A great side benefit of using management techniques is that it lowers the frustration for both the humans and the dogs. It’s much more likely that you will get angry with your dog for bolting out the door if she runs into the road. You fear for her safety so it’s natural that you will be upset but she won’t really understand that. Using good management to reduce unwanted behaviour will put your mind at ease and you will find that you can more easily focus on teaching your dog the behaviours you want instead of being upset and angry about the behaviours you don’t want.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
Photo credits –
Escape artist- BecauseUAreHere 2008 From Flickr