By Dr. Sophia Yin
Traditionally, dog classes focus on basic exercises like training dogs to sit, lie down, stand, come, and heel on command. While these may be important tasks for dogs to learn, dog training can and should include a more global approach. For instance, the dog may know how to sit or to walk next to their owner in class, but if they haven’t learned to actually focus on their owner, they won’t be able to perform these behaviors in the presence of every-day distractions. Furthermore, positive reinforcement classes often give adequate rewards for desired behavior, but without also training the dog that focusing on the human is the ONLY way the dog will get what he wants, the dogs may behave only when they see there’s food or they happen to be extremely hungry. So, classes should also focus on helping dog and owner to understand that unwanted behaviors don’t work, only polite behavior earns rewards.
In our dog classes, we use the Learn to Earn Program to help train leadership and communication skills in humans and impulse control in dogs. Through games and exercises, owners learn how to make good behavior fun so that even in highly distracting situations their dogs look to them for guidance and permission.
Dogs Learn to Say Please by Sitting and Look to the Owners for Guidance
In our classes, training focuses around teaching dogs to first “say please” for everything they want by sitting politely without being told and looking to their owner for permission. That way, instead of being pushy or whiny and just taking whatever they want, the dogs learn to ask their owners for permission and look to their humans for guidance. Here’s Charlie demonstrating in the 6th week of the beginning class. This exercise can be used by owners to keep their dogs focused on them when there are distractions such as other dogs, kids, toys, squirrels, or skateboards going by. Most dogs are doing this exercise well at home within a day or two and in the more distracting class environment by the end of the first or second class.
Here’s the progression for teaching dogs to sit automatically for food and for making sit fun. When we teach this behavior we work on exercises that help the owners focus on the various aspects of the exercise. We break exercises down into segments that help train owners to 1) deliver the treat quickly and all the way to the dog’s mouth, 2) deliver the treat with the right timing, 3) deliver with correct body posture, 4) move their body quickly enough and just the right distance to keep the dog focused and having fun. Subtle difference in posture and how the owners move will make a world of difference in the dog’s response.
To train dogs to control their excitement and emotions in all situations owners must consistently practice the “say please by sitting” in all situations where dogs should be polite. Here, this owner trains her children to pet Ryder only when he’s sitting. If you have a puppy or full grown dog who likes to jump it’s a good idea to teach him that jumping causes you to remove your attention by standing as still as a pole whereas sitting leads to the petting and praise he wants. (See Perfect Puppy in 7 Days for step-by-step photoillustrated instructions).
Note that this puppy does not particularly like being hugged by the kids. It’s important to make sure this puppy gets lots of treats when the kids are smothering them like this so that the puppy learns to associate this type of handling with good things. It’s also important to make sure the kids limit this type of interaction so that they do not go beyond the dog’s tolerance limit and that they learn more appropriate ways of showing affection. Make sure kids never greet other people’s dogs this way. (See How Kids Should and Should Not Interact with Dogs and Body Language of Fear in Dogs)
Progressing to Come When Called
Through the Learn to Earn exercises, dogs learn it’s fun to sit and focus on their owners and they do so consistently because they’ve also learned that other behaviors don’t work to get what they want. Now it’s easy to extend the sit games into a fantastic come when called. Our goal is to make this racing after the owner and sitting swiftly in front as fun as chasing after a squirrel or fence fighting with the neighbor dog because these are common cases where the come when called will come in handy. Once the dog reaches the owners, the owners should reward the dog and randomly engage the dog in continued fun interactive behavior so the dog learns to continue staying interested and focused after she reaches the owner.
Add Attention While Walking
We can also extend attention to walks. We start with frequent treats for good attention. As the good behavior becomes a habit, we increase the interval between treats as quickly as possible. We also systematically increase the distractions.
In our class, we use all of the attention exercises—various sit exercises, come when called, and a variety of focused walking games, and apply them to everyday situations. For instance, we practice the situation where dogs must pass by other dogs when on walks; we simulate the situation where owners want to have a conversation with other people on walks; and we show owners how to let their dog greet other dogs safely and call them out of trouble when the body language of one or both dogs shows that trouble may be brewing.
Throughout the course, we continually introduce exercises that help owners realize that it’s not just about giving treats, it’s about moving in ways and at speeds that make the training fun. Always keep in mind, that dogs like MTV, not Masterpiece Theater. If you take to long to decide on the next step and have gaps where you can’t decide what to do, the dog’s attention will drift to away from you. Here are some dog class participants practicing their treat speed.
All dogs need to see their veterinarian at least once a year, but those who are the best-behaved get the best care. It’s difficult to examine and care for dogs who won’t hold still for examination or who try to bite the hospital staff. In class, we work on some handling and counter-conditioning exercises to train dogs to behave for handling procedures. Here we are working on getting this dog used to having his toe nails trimmed. Usually, his owners have to bring him to the groomer or vet where he struggles.
For some dogs, a gentle leader head collar can help speed up the training because it helps redirect the dog’s attention back to the owners. We recommend that owners train their dogs to enjoy wearing this head collar before they try to use it on the dog (We use the same process as training a dog to love their muzzle). For a thorough demonstration, refer to the video in chapter 18 of Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats.
With this type of approach in dog class, the class becomes about teaching a handful of core exercises that teach the dog that focusing on you and behaving politely are fun. Variations of the same exercises are added based on the needs of the individuals in the class. These core exercises and their variations can be used in many types of situations to keep your dog out of trouble and to perform more appropriate replacement behaviors instead. So, rather than approaching the problem of cat distractions, bike distractions, and other distractions like they are separate problems with completely different solutions, we teach solutions that can be used across many situations. Overall, we feel our global approach allows the dog-human teams to improve at an incredibly fast rate and provides a structured way for humans and their dogs to really enjoy each other’s company.