Dog training is simple, but it's not easy! Time, patience and consistency are the keys to a well trained dog. In deciding what to train, the possibilities are endless, but some behaviors may be more useful than others. In this three part series, we examine six key behaviors that, when mastered, help make for a harmonious relationship between dog and owner. In part one, we explored the art of proper recreational chewing and the ability to quickly get your dog's attention using his name. Today we look at the important skill of being alone as well as why it's beneficial to develop play skills in your dog.
How to be Alone – Dogs are extremely social animals; it’s a huge part of what makes them wonderful companions for humans. We want to spend as much time as possible with our canine friends, but it’s important that they also learn how to be alone. Being alone isn’t a skill that comes naturally to dogs.
Teach your puppy or adult dog to be relaxed and confident when crated, x-penned or behind a baby gate while away from the rest of the family. Practice often for short periods of time in the beginning, gradually extending the amount of time your dog spends by himself. Leave him with something interesting to do – like work to extract his breakfast from a Buster Cube or similar food puzzle toy. Return periodically to reward (calm praise, petting and a treat) quiet, relaxed behavior, and remember never to let him out if he’s making a fuss. If your dog launches into a full blown panic attack when left alone, contact a qualified trainer or applied animal behaviorist who can help you create and implement a systematic desensitization and classical conditioning program.
If you’re lucky enough to work from home, be sure to set aside time to orchestrate “alone time” for your dog. Your goal is for your dog to not only understand that it’s okay to be alone, but that it’s okay to be separated from YOU, even when you’re home. Many dogs quickly learn to relax when their owners leave for work in the morning, but struggle with being apart from them when the family is home. Teaching your dog to accept all types of alone time allows you to use confined physical separation as a means of management in training – for example, choosing to crate your dog while the family eats dinner in order to prevent him from learning to beg or jump up and steal food from the kids.
Separation and alone time is especially important in multiple dog households. Dogs will quickly develop strong bonds with their fellow canine companions. When left unchecked, the bond can become so tight that the absence of one dog creates extreme stress for the other. It’s important to teach your individual dogs that they can be confident, well-adjusted individuals with or without their canine companions. Help achieve this by giving them some physical and visual apart time during the day and by walking them separately at least three days a week. When walking dogs one at a time, leave the “home alone dog” with a wonderful consolation prize such as peanut butter filled KONG toy. Make your departure and return low-key and uneventful, no matter what reaction you get from your dog.
Your goal is to create dogs who, when it’s not their turn to leave for the walk, may look a bit disappointed, but who don’t fall apart under stress while you’re gone. You may think this is a small thing, but it goes a long way toward preparing dogs for the difficult-to-think-about bigger picture: Fast-forward 10+ years and you lose a dog. Dogs who have never been taught to exist independent of their canine house mates have a much more difficult time adjusting to the loss. Teach this important life-lesson early to avoid unnecessary stress later in life.
“There is clearly a social benefit resulting from play between dogs and their humans. One of the reasons dogs hold their lofty position as Man’s (or Woman’s) Best Friend, is that they share our joy of playing. While most species romp and play as juveniles, dogs and humans are among the few who continue to play enthusiastically into old age.”
No wonder humans are such fans of dogs. As McConnell points out, we’re both basically modern day Peter Pans!
There are lots of games to play with your dog, and really, with a little creativity and a good attitude, anything you do with your dog (yes, anything – even training!) can (and should!) be a game. Tug games and retrieve games top my list of important games to teach dogs.
Tug Games -- I LOVE tugging with my dogs! When I first met my Golden Retriever, Quiz, at the airport, he was a tiny, 8-week-old puppy. The very first thing I did after giving him a chance to go potty was to play a short game of tug with a small braided fleece toy. “Welcome to California, little puppy! I’m your new mom. Look how much fun we’re having!”
In my opinion and experience, there are many benefits to playing tug games. When played with a few important rules, tug games are great for building focus around distractions, teaching "give" and demonstrating self-control. To help make the game enjoyable for all involved, as well as a positive learning experience for the dog, keep the following points in mind:
Play the game with a reasonably sized toy. Your toy should have enough space for your hand at one end, the dog’s mouth at the other and a lot of “neutral ground” in between. This is important for implementing the second important point:
Teach your dog that teeth on clothing or skin immediately turns off the game. Dogs can learn to have impeccable aim if we expect it. Many people think that tooth-to-hand/clothing contact is accidental the part of the dog. Sometimes? Sure. Accidents happen. More likely however, the contact was intentional on the part of the dog in his effort to take the game to the next level of excitement. Watch dogs when they play. The more exciting the game becomes, the more likely you are to see play-biting. It’s often used as the canine equivalent of someone saying, “OK… BRING IT!” on the ball court!
Whatever the reason, dogs should be taught to keep their teeth to themselves during tug games. The instant his teeth make contact, simply say, “Too bad,” and turn your back as you completely disengage from your dog. If you happen to have possession of the toy at the time, protect it so your dog can’t mug you for it and walk away. If the dog is attached to the toy at the moment of inappropriate contact, just let go. It may seem that he’s “won” by getting to keep the toy, but fear not: the game is nowhere near as fun without your help. After all, it takes *two* to tug! Resume the game after several seconds. No need to be angry, yell at your dog or hold a grudge. It’s simple cause and effect. Teeth on skin or clothing makes the game stop. Period. Consistency matters. The game must stop every time, with every player, whether or not the contact was uncomfortable.
While playing, keep an eye on your dog’s excitement level. The more excited he gets, the harder it is to practice good manners. Help him keep his head by interspersing bits of simple self-control with sit, down or his favorite trick. Tug for several seconds, ask him to drop the toy and hide it behind your back, then ask for a sit. His reward for sitting is your willingness to resume the tug game! If your dog is reluctant to drop the toy, practice trading for a treat and work toward weaning off the food as your dog begins to understand the word “give” or “drop it.” Not only should your dog learn to let go when you ask, he should also learn to be patient and not mug you for the toy. As he’s sitting, if he tries to jump up and snatch the toy before you officially start or re-start the game, use your body to block his attempt and ask him to sit once again. Help remind your dog that compliance earns wonderful things.
Dog Trainer Tip: Remember that your attention to something helps make it more valuable. Try designating a couple of your dog’s favorite toys as special training toys. Keep them in a hard-to-reach place like on top of the refrigerator. Just like with the Nylabones, inspect the toy regularly in view of your dog, sometimes pretending to offer it to him but withdrawing it as he starts to show interest. When he shows real interest, put the toy away. Treating the tug toy like Forbidden Fruit can help build his desire for it when you decide it’s time to play.
Retrieve – Retrieve games are about sharing. While some breeds are naturally more inclined to want to retrieve, most dogs can develop the skill over time. The following tricks can help build or strengthen your dog’s retrieve:
Before throwing the toy, make sure your dog appears interested in it. Jolly him up with the toy, teasing him just a little bit. When he’s actively trying to get the toy, give it a toss. Make sure he sees you throw it. If he runs out and picks up the toy, cheer him on and back away as you casually call him to you. “Good boy…. C’mon… bring it…. Good boy!” works well. Don’t just stand there. Back up or even run away from your dog to encourage him to move toward you. If he drops the toy while en route, dash out there and pick it up yourself, coveting it a bit. Tease him a little and throw it again when he’s interested. When he brings you the toy, DON’T REACH FOR IT. Let him enjoy it for several seconds while you pet and praise him. We want him to think that it’s always best to be next to you when he has something wonderful. Help him think he’s super clever for having retrieved the toy. “Ohmygosh… what do you haaaaave? Ohhhhhh! You have a tooooy!” (Have I mentioned that the best dog trainers probably don’t embarrass easily?)
After several seconds, if he hasn’t dropped the toy on his own, work your “drop it” or “give,” and repeat the process if your dog is excited about the game. For willing retrievers, I like to ask for a “sit” or “down” before each throw – just another way to reinforce that my dog and I are a team and we must both do things to keep each other happy. Always be sure to end the game before your dog loses interest. For newer retrievers, that may be after just one or two throws in the beginning. Quit while you’re ahead and leave him wanting more!
Dog Trainer Tips: Never let a tossed toy lie unattended. As soon as your dog seems to lose interest, run out there, pick up the toy and play with it yourself. Don’t let him think the toy is worth ignoring. Remember that your attention to the toy can make it valuable.
If your dog likes to tour the yard with the toy but is reluctant to bring it back to you, try playing on leash. Keep your throws short and help gently guide your dog back to you. Once he’s there, DON’T REACH FOR THE TOY. He’s likely become resistant to bringing it to you because he doesn’t want to give it up. Let him hold it while you pet and praise him.
If you have trouble finding a toy your dog is interested in enough to want to run after, tightly tie some treats in a bandanna or look for a squeaky toy with a Velcro squeaker pouch
. Make sure the dog cannot get to the food on his own. Start by just barely tossing the food-stuffed toy on the ground. When your dog picks it up or even just mouths it a little, excitedly open it up for him and feed a treat. The idea is for the dog to learn that he needs your thumbs in order to gain access to the food. Gradually toss the toy farther away as his skill level increases. When he gets good at it, try transitioning to a modified tennis ball. Cut a slit into a tennis ball, insert a few treats and squeeze open the slit to release the food when he brings it back.
Next time, in the final installment, we'll take an in-depth look at the potentially life-saving skill of coming when called, along with the staple of any training program, the sit. Until then, please go out and play with your dog. You'll be glad you did, and your dog will love you for it!