We have very busy dogs. The breed standard for Belgian Shepherds describes them as “Always in motion when not under command” or words to that effect. All of our Belgians have been eager and enthusiastic performers whether we were training with them or just playing. They are active, engaged, and very inquisitive dogs. One of the things we Belgian owners often say is that “Belgians only have two speeds – Full Blast and Off!”
The real trick is getting to that “Off!” state when we want them to and not when they decide they have had enough. You see, one of the things Belgians were bred for was endurance. They can tirelessly run the perimeter of a field to guard their flock for an entire day, vigilantly scanning for potential threats. So one of the things that we have built into our training with our dogs is an “Off Switch” of sorts.
The Zen of not doing
We use Mark & Reward training with our dogs. We prefer to teach them the behaviours we want them to do rather than having to frequently interrupt or reprimand unwanted behaviours. It’s a proactive rather than reactive approach. But this brings up an interesting challenge. So much of positive, rewards based training involves rewarding dogs for what they do. It can be tricky teaching them that it is worth not doing things as well.
One of the first things we teach all of our dogs is to “Leave it!” It’s a simple cue to back away from what ever it is you wanted to investigate. Teaching “Leave it!” couldn’t be simpler. We begin by showing the dog that we have a treat in our hand. Then, closing the hand into a fist, we put the hand within reach of the dog. The dog will immediately sniff and poke at the hand to try and get the treat. In response we do… precisely nothing.
We call this approach “Zen Leave It” training. The key is to wait until the dog gives up trying to get the treat. Only then do we open the hand and give them the treat. That’s where the “Zen” comes in – “In order to get the treat, you must give up the treat.” It is remarkable how quickly a dog will learn that mugging your hand is not productive and simply waiting is the key to unlock the goodies. Once my dog begins to back off and look at me, I add the cue “Leave it!” and we have established the beginning of “not doing” as the behaviour that earns the reward.
Leave it, drop it
Once we have established the “Leave it” with the closed fist, it is an easy progression to more challenging scenarios. We move to an open hand with the treat (I close my fist if my dog tries to cheat a bit) and even to placing a treat on the floor (I cover it with my foot if my dog tries to cheat at this). But this idea of “not doing” doesn’t stop at the “Leave it” cue. There are more and different ways in which we want our dogs to “switch off.”
Most dogs love a good game of “Tug” but that game seems to be one of the most misunderstood in the dog world. Some people believe that “Tug” will create an aggressive dog, one that seeks to have control and that it is a bad game to play. We have found exactly the opposite. The same “Zen” approach applies to our games of “Tug” with our dogs. If they want to play tug, they must learn to “Drop it!” or the game is over.
Teaching “Drop it!” looks the same as “Leave it!” We tug on the toy with our dog and at some point we go still, either holding the toy or letting go of it entirely. It is important not to put any resistive force on the toy (that would be tugging, after all). My dog will briefly look confused at first but as soon as they let go of the toy, it is offered to them again and the game begins again. At the start, it is my stillness that signals the “drop it” but, like the “Leave it!” game, as soon as the dog begins responding to this physical cue, I can put a verbal cue on the behaviour and Voila! we have a “Drop it!” behaviour.
The Off switch
Once I have helped my dogs understand the value of “leaving” and “dropping” things, it is easy to expand this to more general and useful things. The “Stay” behaviour that every dog owner wants with their dog is just a version of “Leave it!” that involves the whole body and not moving. We also teach our dogs the cue “Enough!” which means “what ever you are doing right now, please stop doing it.” It is useful in all kinds of scenarios, particularly when they are doing recreational barking (you know, barking at nothing just to hear themselves).
But there is another aspect of this kind of training that often gets overlooked. Our youngest dog, Rizzo, is a keen learner and will eagerly work as long as there are rewards available. So much so that my wife discovered a problem when he was quite young. We try to keep our training sessions short so we don’t over work our dogs but when my wife ended her sessions with Rizzo, he would frequently keep offering behaviours to earn more rewards. That could have turned into a problem with Rizzo pestering us until he got more rewards.
My wife quickly figured out that it was time to install an “Off switch” on her training sessions. In much the same way that we train “Leave it” and “Drop it”, she trained the cue “All done!” to let Rizzo know that the rewards were finished and that no amount of offering behaviours was going to work after that point. “All done!” helped Rizzo understand that training time was over and that it was time to rest or move on to other activities.
Zen for living
Whether it is signalling “All done” after training or “In your home” when settling my dog in her crate for a road trip, the concept of “not doing” has helped me provide structure in my life with my dogs. Having the various cues to indicate that “nothing is happening right now, chill out” avoids a lot of unnecessary conflict. My dogs are just looking for some activity and entertainment and it’s up to me to help them understand when that is and is not appropriate.
I received a call a few months ago from a dear friend who is also a dog trainer. She works in rescue and fosters dogs who are on the way to new homes. My friend was distraught that her latest foster came with a peculiar problem. Apparently his previous owners had diligently clicker trained the little guy but had surrendered him for marking on things in the house. Unfortunately, it turned out that this dog was a pathological pester-monkey that would constantly bring you toys, bark, run around – anything to get some attention from his activity. My friend was at a loss as to how to handle this.
I smiled on the other end of the phone. “You have to install an ‘Off switch'” I told her. I went on to help her create a plan that would establish some clear cues to help her foster dog understand when it was play time and when it was not, when it was training time and when it was not, and just to generally indicate when nothing was happening. A big part of this program was the Zen of not responding to his antics. The other part was being absolutely clear about when it was “game on” and when it was “game off.” Over the course of about a week, this tornado of a foster dog settled in and became one of the group. I understand he is in a new home and that his new owners are totally in love with the little guy.
It’s easy to over look the little things like telling our dogs when it’s time to rest. This can be especially true for proactive trainers who get so much joy from all of the things we can teach our dogs to do. Teaching them when not to do things is not just important from a management standpoint, it can also reduce frustration in our dogs and create better relationships.
And isn’t that a good thing? Sometimes less truly is more!
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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