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It’s Just Dog Training #1: Can’t catch me!

Posted by Misa Martin, CPDT-KA on 5/19/2015
It’s Just Dog Training #1: Can’t catch me!

Jambo in flight, Winter 2015

Having a new puppy myself these past few months has been an eye-opening education for me (isn't it always?) At three months, my Jambo was a wiggly, social and affectionate pup "right out of the box" - leaping into everyone's arms for cuddles. She also ran circles around my two older dogs in the backyard and quickly learned to find her own fun in the far corners of the yard, especially when it was time to come inside. Her recalls were fantastic - as long as I didn't have her leash in my hand. It was time for me to do some training! I needed to put a small arsenal of training games in place that would help Jambo to race right to me, no matter what - and I really wanted to get a clue about what it was that Jambo thought was weird or scary about being leashed up, if anything. So, I started with learning about her associations with her leash and harness and doing some basic counter conditioning with the "Gotcha Collar!" game.


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Gotcha Collar! plus a scrumptious treat teaches dogs to associate a collar grab with great rewards!

It's essential to teach every young pup that human handling means Very Good Things for Dogs. In class, I ask my students to name situations in which their dogs must be handled - and the list is always longer than they think. The neighbor who narrowly captures your dog dashing out a door, or into the street; a regular vet visit that involves drawing blood and/or a nail trim; that bath you've been meaning to give your dog . . . In each of these examples, we want our dogs to be easy to handle and comfortable about the whole process! In my puppy classes, I introduce “Gotcha Collar!” by having the students condition handling by feeding their pups as they handle collars, ears, toes, and tails. We move on to low-key Vet Tech hugs and fun, fun restrained Recalls - and the pups and students learn a great foundation for a lifetime of low-stress handling.

Step 1: Stick your head through your harness, get a reward.

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I wait for Jambo to stick her head through her harness before presenting the reward.

Jambo definitely enjoyed our morning walks and learning leash-walking skills with me. However, each time I picked up her harness and leash to get ready to go out the door, she began hiding under the table! Though our good start of playing the Gotcha Collar! game had become a reliable predictor of treats and fun for Jambo, I wasn’t done with this stage of the process. The next step of Gotcha for us became “Ease of handling while putting on a harness, or coat, or ThunderShirt, or sweater.” I had neglected this follow-up step.

The best help I've found for this stage of the process is Jean Donaldson's Conditioning an Emotional Response video. Jean's guidance in this video has helped so many people teach their dogs to look forward to the appearance of a harness. I followed Jean Donaldson's lead and used the same procedures with Jambo and her harness and got great results! If there was any question in my little dog’s mind regarding her harness (and being put into it), that went away. An ideal response here would be that your dog perks up and approaches you when the harness (or muzzle, or T-shirt etc) comes out and that your dog will voluntarily stick her head through the opening too. Remember : it is always the dog’s choice. Forcing the issue will nearly always move your progress back several steps!


To Begin:
    1. Play the Gotcha collar! game as a first step. If your dog has been fearful or cautious about scenarios involving human hands descending down upon him from on high, this first stage is the time to remedy that. Choose an environment in which your dog will be successful, and don’t stint on the treats!
    2. “Oh goody, my harness!” - as per Jean Donaldson’s video, we’re taking this one step at a time. Is your dog happily predicting the start of good stuff when her harness appears? Next, is your dog staying with you, poking her head through the harness for a "Yes!" and treat? What about the harness buckle - when you reach around to clip it, do you still have a happy dog?
    3. Present the same training questions in different places. If all goes well, play these "Oh goody, my harness!" games in locations where you’ve had a challenge. For me, this is right in front of the gate that leads to my back yard. Jambo was avoiding interactions with me there as I would always leash her up and end the fun in that spot! Instead, it’s far more productive to build a history of positive interactions with your dog in a specific place.

Back to the concept of reliable predictors for a moment. Our dogs are invested in keeping the good stuff going and will perform behaviors to that end. I used the Recall games that I taught Jambo to show her the value of coming when I call her. In hindsight, it was easy to teach her to come away from playing with a doggie friend for a great reward from me - I was able to arrange these training sessions with a little help from a friend so that she was very likely to be successful repeatedly. Thus, those games and hearing her name called were a reliable predictor for great rewards! However, I had not paid close attention to my pup’s associations with me holding her leash and harness while calling her, and as a result I spent many long minutes this winter waiting for her to come to me.

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"Jambo, here!" I've had fun building value for my dogs' recalls.

    1. Practice your Recall or "Come when Called" behavior. Ideally, Recall practice with your dog focuses on how much fun it is for your dog to chase you (not the other way around!)
    2. It’s a mistake to encourage avoidance behaviors by chasing after your dog. Trust me, your dog will always be faster - also, nobody likes to be cornered.
    3. Practice good habits that maintain what you train, even when you think you aren't training. Avoid calling your dog's name to scold them or to express your frustration with him; avoid calling dogs to you in order to scold or punish them. Beware of building any reliable predictor of an unpleasant association for your dog.

Good times
My person + the ballie = good times!

Other strategies to try:
  • A visual cue such as a mat or other target for your dog. (The behavior of targeting is taught to animals living in zoos to get them to move from point A to point B without stress, usually with a target stick presented for the animal to touch.) If you’ve ever trained a dog to “go to your mat” then you’re aware that this becomes a very powerful behavior. Could you use your trained “Go to your mat” behavior in a problematic area to change your dog’s association?
  • Another form of Targeting behavior: 2 Paws On The FitDisc, pictured below. Taught the same way as "Go to your mat", just with more variations (2 paws on, back paws on, etc.) The bottom line : it's a targeting behavior that you're generally near while the dog is doing it.
Two paws on a disc
  • I have taught Jambo a trick that underscores the concept of “Lots of reinforcement for coming within grabbable range!” - she will place her 2 front paws on my knee when I give her the cue to do so. (“Jambo, hop up!”) This is a behavior that’s appropriate for a Chihuahua mix, but not so much for a larger dog.


For those of you who do not wish to encourage jumping up, teach a hand target behavior. For this behavior, Jambo targets (touches) my hand with her nose and gets a reward. You may substitute an object, such as a chip clip or ball on a stick.


Another example of a targeting behavior.
  • Premack it. Of all the training strategies that I've mentioned in this article, the Premack Principle has been the most rewarding change-maker for me and my dogs. I will purposely set up a training situation to show my dog: to get what you want, you must first do what I want.

The Premack Principle

Jambo’s greatest reward is to be allowed to go say HI! to a person; in order to get that reward, she now needs to touch her nose to my hand, an easy behavior that Jambo was proficient with before we began this new twist on training. The Premack Principle shows us that a behavior of lower value to Jambo (the nose touch) is reinforced by a very high value reward (“Go Say HI!!!”) I myself am not above exploiting the science of behavior to get what I want. Here’s the setup : My dog is on a leash and I can tell the person assisting me to “be boring” for a sec so that Jambo is able to perform a hand target. The reward? An explosive RUN over to the person and a chance to greet. Yes, Jambo was not always immediately successful. Backing up a few steps from the distraction and asking again for a nose touch solved this. This was our warm-up; to continue, Jambo and I needed to apply the Premack Principle to the activity of being leashed up. Once again my very good-natured friends (and students!) were roped into helping us out. Harness on = more fabulous meet and greets.

I hope that this article helps you in planning strategies that you and your dog enjoy. Don’t forget clicker trainer Melissa Alexander’s wise words: “Don’t get so focused on the result that you forget to enjoy the journey.” I've enjoyed learning more about my new dog as she and I work through this issue.

Next time, we’ll hear from several positive trainers as I ask them the question : “What’s a training tip you've been sharing lately?”

Good boy, Auggie!


About the author

Misa Martin is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Years of attending agility seminars, workshops, seminars and camps with her first dog led to the beginning of her professional dog training career as a PetSmart Trainer in 2008. In addition to joining Port Chester Obedience Training Club's Family Manners program, Misa is a staff trainer at the Mount Vernon Humane Society, active with Pets Alive Westchester as a group class instructor and consultant for training and behavior issues, and a volunteer for the Walden Humane Society's education program. Misa owns Hudson Valley Dog Trainer, providing reward-based training to private clients. Through her knowledge, experience, and sense of humor, Misa encourages students to approach dog training as a team effort, where students learn as much from their dogs as dogs learn from their "parents," making training fun for humans and dogs alike! Misa can be reached at [email protected]

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