By Victoria Baker
Owner, Furever Behavior
Sally brings home a dog from the shelter and, being a responsible pet parent, Sally enrolls in basic dog obedience. Sally practices a bit at home and during class. Rex has learned how to sit, lay down, stay and come on cue in class and at home, so Sally decides it’s time to take Rex on a field trip to the Fraser Softball Fields. Rex LOVES other dogs and is so excited to see all the people and dogs that he totally ignores Sally while getting out of the car and Rex drags Sally on-leash to the pond. Sally unleashes Rex to play and he jumps all over every person who looks at him and body slams into any dog who gets in his path, despite Sally continually yelling, “REX, NO! REX, SIT! REX, COME!”
When it’s time to leave, Sally says “REX, COME! REX, LET’S GO, HERE!.” Embarrassed that her dog is totally ignoring her and in desperation, Sally corners him and screams “REX!!” As if surprised to see and hear Sally, Rex looks up. Sally repeats “COME!” and Rex happily wiggles his butt up to her, and Sally snatches his collar, clips on the leash and drags him back to the car. Sally exclaims to observers, “He is trained; he did great in obedience class. He knows what to do; he’s just stubborn and won’t do it.”
Does this sound familiar? First, let’s talk about the problems:
- Asking for Behaviors that Really are NOT Trained:
Introducing a behavior and putting it on cue is the easy part of training. Generalizing (training in a variety of places) and proofing (training in more and more distracting environments) are the tricky parts. For most dog owners, practice only happens at home. To say your dog is trained because he knows SIT in your living room, driveway or dog class does not mean the dog can sit at the park with people, kids and other dogs running around.Here is an example in human terms. Your 9-year-old son just learned long division. You take him on a trip to Disney World, get him hyped up on sugar, and just as you are about to go into the Star Wars Spaceship ride, you whip out a sheet of paper with a long division problem and ask him to do it right then and there. Does he do it? Can he do it? And even if you do get him to do it (through all the complaining, whining, and fighting), you’ve probably poisoned the fun of the ride and you’ve certainly affected his future desire to do long division. Sally just asked Rex to do long division and Rex doesn’t understand what she is saying because he has never learned long division at the ball fields and pond.Is Rex being stubborn? No! He just isn’t trained to come and sit in that environment. From the example above, there is no clear communication to the dog what he should have been doing. From the moment they pulled into the parking lot, the dog was not given any concrete information about what was expected of him. Rex is allowed to practice and get real-life rewards for all kinds of bad behaviors as he jumps on people and dogs. Sally gives every cue imaginable to get Rex to COME, but Rex doesn’t speak English. Even if Rex does know COME and SIT, now that he’s heard these cues over and over with no consequence for success or failure, he is probably going to start to ignore SIT in the living room and definitely pull harder on that leash.
- Rewarding the Wrong Behavior:
Pulling really hard on the leash got rewarded by Sally walking faster towards the pond and all the fun. All that pulling also got rewarded when the leash was finally unclipped and Rex was allowed to run off and PLAY! Ignoring her cues to COME and SIT were rewarded with longer play time and jumping and body slamming into other dogs was rewarded because heck…, it’s just fun. Dogs get really good at what they practice, and with no leash, Sally was letting him practice and get rewarded for all that jumping and ignoring.
- Punishing the Good Behavior:
When Rex finally did come to Sally, he was punished by being leashed up and dragged back to the car, making it very likely next time coming will take even longer and the ignoring will be stronger.
|Behavior||Consequence||The Way Rex Sees It||What Rex Learns|
|Rex pulling hard on the leash||Sally walked faster toward the pond and all the fun||REWARD – BIG TIME||Pulling hard on the leash gets me to the fun faster — YAY|
|Rex pulling hard on the leash||Sally unclipped the leash and Rex was allowed to run off and PLAY||REWARD – BIG TIME||Pulling hard on the leash gets the leash removed — WOOHOO|
|Rex ignored Sally’s cues to come and sit||Rex got longer play time||REWARD||Ignoring Sally’s cues to come and sit gives me longer play time — YAY|
|Rex jumping on people and body slamming into other dogs||Rex had a blast jumping on people and body slamming into other dogs||REWARD||Jumping on people and body slamming into other dogs is SO MUCH FUN|
|Rex wiggled up to Sally when she yelled COME||Rex was leashed and dragged back to the car||PUNISHMENT||Going back to Sally when she yells COME means play time is over – NOT GONNA DO THAT AGAIN|
How do we go about fixing the out-of-control dog who is unintentionally trained for less than wonderful behaviors?
Teach the dog what you want in the same context where it is expected. In this case you train Loose Leash Walking, COME, and SIT at the park with other dogs, people and kids. Reward all correct choices with food until the behaviors become muscle memory. The more you reinforce in the beginning, the less you will need to reinforce later as all that reinforcement makes YOU the real reward.
- Start in a non-distracting environment and train each behavior.
- Train the same behaviors at the park with no distractions other than an empty environment – an empty park.
- Train the same behaviors at the park with people.
- Train the same behaviors at the park with people and kids.
- Train the same behaviors at the park with people, kids and dogs.
Control the reinforcement to reward the right behaviors. This starts from the moment you pull into the parking lot. He can’t get out of the car until he is calm and focused on you; the reward is getting out. Once out of the car and leashed, reward him for walking next to you. Later the reward is being released to play, even if it’s play on a long line. At first, practice recall on a long-line away from all the distractions. Reward heavily for responding: He does not get reward if he chooses not to come. When he does come to you, reward him with praise and food and release him to play again.
Remove reinforcement for the bad behaviors. Rex dragged Sally all the way to the pond. The harder he pulled the faster she moved. If, on the other hand, Sally stopped moving every time Rex pulled on the leash, and instead rewarded (provided feedback) while he was walking nicely next to her, Rex would have two avenues of feedback. Walking next to Sally consistently gets a treat and she keeps walking. Ignoring Sally and pulling means stop. With repetition, Rex will choose to walk nicely next to Sally in order to get to the pond. If he doesn’t, he goes back in the car.
Do not let the dog practice the behaviors you don’t want. In the beginning this is done through management until you have the correct behaviors trained, proofed and generalized. This means using leashes, long-lines and consistency. You cannot control a dog who is off-leash. Until you have reliability on a long line, the dog shouldn’t be off-line. It’s simple — if he never practices jumping on a stranger, he won’t think to do it in the first place.
I’m not saying never let your dog have some doggie fun before he is fully trained. Just don’t expect him to COME and SIT when he is not fully trained. Let him loose in a place where he can’t bother anyone and go get him when you are done. No need to say a word — those words do more harm than good!
Victoria Baker with Furever Behavior Dog Training, provides gentle, modern, science-based training for dogs and their people in the Grand County area. You may contact her at email@example.com.