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.
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.
- 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!
- “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?
- 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.
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.