Get your pet parenting Formula just right!
Dog parenting should be fun, not just for the pet parent but definitely for the dog as well. You may be surprised to learn that this is also true for service dogs. Dogs are little different to us and we all learn best when the learning is conducted in a fun and interesting way.David Davies
I like to use formulas for everything. This is because I forget easily, so with simple formulas I find it very easy to structure things I do. This works well with dog training as the one thing dogs as a species need from us is consistency. This word crops up repeatedly with me as it is probably the biggest area where we as a species fall short and let our good friend the dog down badly!
How we live with our dogs on a daily basis severely affects how they behave. Here’s a formula for maintaining a contented dog is:
Activity – Provide and instigate all physical and mental stimulation. By you the pet parent providing these things (for the most part, not another dog!), it causes the dog to look to you for fun and entertainment. It also exercises the dog, so she is satisfied and sleeps and rests when not actually doing anything. She will be calm and will also eat her meals better, if normally a poor eater. Make life an adventure – with new things to learn all the time and you being the teacher!
Bond – The above leads to a better relationship between the dog and her human counterpart. In case of more than one dog, this interaction will help the dogs to look to the human rather than the other dogs. The correct relationship is also maintained by establishing the status of humans and dogs. Do not allow the dogs to steer the humans, but rather the other way around, particularly if the dog is naturally a pushy individual.
Control – This is not only control over the dog who is obviously a must, but also self control, ensuring we humans are consistent in what we do when it comes to the dogs. Consistency is probably one of the prime things to remember when it comes to working with animals, but unquestionably with regard to dogs.
Diet – Correct, consistent use of diet can make all the difference with canine issues. Consider the time of day to feed. It needs to be at least one hour after exercise and never prior to exercise to prevent medical issues, especially bloat! It can be used as a reinforcer to help establish required behaviour. In other words, the dog earns her food. For example, the reluctant returnee will soon scurry back if she realises her meal follows returning to her per parent and home. At meal times, feed only a small portion of the daily intake and use the remainder for rewards to reinforce and not lure the dog. Although luring is ok in early stages when showing a dog what is required from it. Vary what your dog gets to eat. Would you like to be on the same diet for the remainder of your life?
Environment – A dog must have off territory exercise. If not, she may become territorial and possibly aggressive. She may also be inadequately socialised as a result. Remember off territory means somewhere different. Your dog doesn’t care that you don’t own the area she patrols. If she walks, pees and marks there regularly, then she thinks she owns it! Marking or peeing, especially with un-neutered males is property marking. Each time something else masks your dog’s signature with his own, then your dog has to scratch out this rivals mark and re scent with his own.
Fun – Ensure your dog’s life is full of fun provided by you and that she is free from fear and frustration which underpin almost all forms of aggression! And please – you the pet parent provide this fun and not another dog! If you want your dog to look to you, YOU HAVE to be her provider.
Groom – Your dog DAILY. This is a daily health check. Your dog ‘should’ love the contact. If she doesn’t, you have a lot of work to do on the relationship between you and your dog! With a new dog who struggles when groomed, the sheer fact you are holding her and carry on with the grooming teaches the dog she can’t pull you around and that she needs to stay when you say. This is all conducted without confrontation and made enjoyable for the dog. Two of my rescued dogs (Terriers) hated being groomed when I took them on, one actively would bite. Now they compete to get on the grooming table first. One of these Terriers was rewarded for not chasing my hens by carrying his grooming kit around the hen run and grooming him periodically near the hens. He now walks about with them like they are his sisters. In fact, I wish I hadn’t done it because he now no longer sees the need to chase off the rabbits which are taking over my land!
A well-trained dog is a delight for all pet parents.
Here’s a formula for training…just right
Attention – Gain your dog’s focus. You can’t expect a dog to do something if she isn’t looking at you first. I use the dog’s name for this. Teach the dog this by using her name in a different tone to when you are simply having a chat with her. The moment she looks at you, reward her with a valued commodity, such as affection, toy, food or treat. Use a variety of treats – not just whatever comes to hand at the time, and make sure it is what your dog wants!
Cue – Select a word and or a non-verbal signal to tell the dog or cue the dog as to what you want her to do.
Guidance – At first the dog will not have a clue what you want from her. Show and guide her using a lead, lure with food, position with your hand, anything, but show her what to do and say the command.
Reward – Have the reward ready to go. A dog needs to know that what she just did is the reason the reward came along. This must be done as soon as possible. Reward before the dog does anything else. She will associate this pleasant incentive with the very last thing she did. Mistakes here are how people ruin training, for example, they call the dog to them, she returns as directed, then they make her sit and then reward the dog. The dog associates sitting with the reward. No wonder the recall doesn’t improve, but the sit is usually brilliant! Worse, the stubborn dog is punished once she does return; she then associates returning with unpleasantness, so becomes slow to return, until she just simply doesn’t return home at all! When administering the reward, also mark the moment with sound or word. I say “Good”, but you can use any word; it is only a sound, so long as it’s simple and consistent. A device used by Skinner in the 1960s called a Clicker is wonderful here if used properly. If you do this successfully, the sound or marker will tell the dog the precise moment she performs correctly. You can then follow up with the reward.
But let us not forget straight forward simple meaningful love and affection. This is important as it is one of the most underrated aspects of training in our time.
How dogs learn?
Dogs learn to do something by trial and error, once they realise what they did led to a pleasant result – they will do it again. Conversely they learn not to do something if it results in something unpleasant, however, if they try something several times and it consistently leads to no reward then they will eventually stop trying. This is often a much better way of stopping behaviour that we don’t like rather than looking at ways to punish a dog. For example, dog steals the mail when it drops through the letterbox. A remedy might be to put up a mesh cage to catch the post. Dog can’t get to mail, therefore finds the whole process unrewarding and in time it may well stop trying to take the mail. Remember the more successful repetitions we make of something we are learning the more proficient we will become at doing it, so to with the dog. Each time it does something which leads it to a reward the better it gets at it until the behaviour becomes habit and is difficult to eradicate. Great for teaching that which we want, not so good if it is something we don’t want.
Training a dog can be so easy and such fun, I am referring here to straightforward training and not complicated behavioural issues for which appropriate advice should be sought. Here are some examples of things we can do to entertain our dog whilst having fun. The advantage of these examples is the fact that the dog and pet parent are receiving physical as well as mental activity. The dog is also learning useful things to do at the same time. In many of these examples, food can be substituted for toys and vice versa. However, there is no substitute for the joy of an emotional connection between dog and handler. Be genuinely happy with your dog or show genuine disapproval at appropriate times.
Say your dog’s name in an animated pitch and each time she looks at you feed her food or give a game with a cherished toy. Keep this simple and short in duration. (You should start the game and you should end it whilst your dog still wants more.)
In a safe environment allow your dog to begin sniffing a smell, call the dog’s name and run or move rapidly away from it calling in an excited tone. When the dog returns to you, reward with treat or toy/game. A tuggy game is good here as it conditions the dog to come to you rather than simply chase by you. If using a toy, always reclaim this resource after the short fun activity. The dog will know you have this in your possession and will want it again. Control the resource, control the game, and control the dog (words borrowed and adapted from my friend and colleague, behaviourist John Rogerson). The above game can be adapted easily for use by several family members calling the dog from one to the other. I call this The Round Robin Recall.
By undertaking these things (you are only limited by your own imagination) your dog will view you as fun, entertaining, spontaneous, and more interesting than anything else. You can then apply these examples in situations you encounter. For example, your dog goes to examine something disgusting. Instead of screaming and shouting, why not try the fun recall. This will also be of use when your dog becomes distracted by another dog or well meaning person when you are in a hurry. Anything really when you want your dog to return to you quickly without fuss.
Train dog to walk along side or follow you
Try walking briskly, each time your dog looks up at you or does something you particularly like say ‘Good dog’ and reward it that second. If the dog runs ahead of you, turn and move in the opposite direction, when the dog comes after you, play and praise. Make the play worthwhile this is what will cause the dog to want to be with you.
Hide objects of value to your dog in various places and encourage the dog to sniff them out. Hide and have your dog search for you using scent.
Tracking or seek-back game
Walk across a grass field with your dog on leash, place an item of value to the dog on the ground and continue to walk sliding your feet as if on skis thus creating a line of scent. After a few meters turn and encourage your dog to sniff her way along where you slid your feet to the location of the reward. As stated you are limited only by your own imagination.
A word on play/reward
I see many, many clients who just don’t know how or are too inhibited to openly and extrovertly interact with their dog. When I say play to reward and thus reinforce behaviour you want repeating by your dog I mean play! You must make the dog view you are pleased with it and make it view you as fun. Dropping food or a toy benignly or patting it on the head saying in a monotone voice ‘Good dog’ will not suffice. Get down on your knees with your dog and have it chase a toy that you pass from hand to hand, or around your body. Use an excited voice to build interest and excitement in your dog (unless the dog is over excitable).
I often find I have to give guidance on simply being an extrovert and having fun oneself prior to helping the pet parents train their dog. I cannot over emphasise the relevance of voice intonation, and quick stimulating movement when working with and motivating a dog. She will get her energy from you. This is a binary thing; you must give some input also!
Above all – love and have fun with your dog!
(David Davies is director, David Davies Dog Training (www.daviddaviesdogtraining.com) and CFBA (practitioner)-GoDT (master trainer)-BIPDT–DTIA-BPSCA, Darlington, County Durham, England, UK).