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Solving dog problems

borzoi in yard

I noticed today that my dog, Lance, is doing exactly what I need him to do when a jogger or dog walker or horse rider goes by my fence. He will either bark and then look at me and wait for me to call him in or simply go to the kitchen door expecting a treat. We've been working on this for three years. And not just me and my dog but everyone in the house has been helping by encouraging and rewarding this behavior. In addition, my little dog, Quinten, has a rock solid recall. He even passed up an open can of cat food to get to me on cue in a test of my training. He is nine years old.

So at what point did my dogs become good? Because if I tell a dog owner that it'll take 3 years or 9 to train a dog, he will surely lose faith in my skills. It didn't take that long, of course. While I can't be sure when either of my boys mastered these skills, I do have some insight into why many dogs never do.

There are two ways to get to your training goals. The first is by living with your dog and being willing to follow through every time a behavior you don't want is offered. This takes a long time and often fails. Here's why.

  • By waiting for your dog to do the wrong thing you set up an opportunity for him to be punished, by you, which has long term negative affects on your relationship. You become untrustworthy and to be avoided if these are the most frequent interactions you have with your dog.
  • Your dog may be in a state of excitement when he is doing the wrong thing and that means he's not paying attention to you and not learning anything at all.
  • You may actually reward any behavior by rescuing your dog or teaching him you will fix it if he freaks out or putting your hands on him or engaging him at all. If this rewards him he will do this thing you don't like, much more often.
  • You won't be there every time the behavior occurs which means barking or chasing deer isn't bad. Doing it when you are around is the problem which means you are the issue, not the behavior.

The second method is to set up lessons that you can use to manage your dog's behavior and shape something more desirable.

  • Start with a classroom situation where you and a knowledgeable trainer control all the inputs. This allows you to make the right choice for your dog easier than doing the wrong thing. In some cases this will involve teaching a specific behavior (like targeting your hand) with the necessary duration, distance and distractions to have a rock solid response then, and only then, asking for that behavior BEFORE any misbehavior begins.
  • Gradually decreasing the distance from the triggers (bicycles, dogs, or horses) and the intensity of the triggers until your dog associates the triggers with the behavior and offers it every time will get the behavior you want when you need it.
  • This gets into some gray areas of training cues we'll discuss in a moment.

Sure you could just keep your dog away from children, horses, people, skateboards or whatever you believe is the problem only to find out that there will always be something that puts an untrained dog over the top.

The second method is faster but the first works just as well. In fact, the first is what most parents use. Rarely do we teach our toddlers to ask to touch each new object and then present electric sockets so they can ask and be told no and given a reward for walking away. This would work and it's faster than following the toddler around and intervening each and every time he reaches for a plug. But that's what we actually do. And sure enough by the time our child is three or seven, he doesn't reach for outlets anymore. The reason we don't have this kind of patience for our dogs is that they just don't live long enough to enjoy the payoff.

So, method two is what I recommend because it's only limited by your ability to invent set ups. There is one catch, though. Your dog has to care what you think. We've discussed this before as it relates to sight hounds because unlike poodles who will revel in your praise or retrievers who sell souls for bacon, a sight hound wants only freedom to chase things. If you are the key to the chase, you will have better luck with both method one and two.

You might also benefit from understanding how to tell when your dog is over the learning threshold and don't bother working with him if you miss the cut off. For example, if I plan a session in the front yard, practicing coming to me when passers by appear, I need to know a few things. Which passers by can Lance handle and is he afraid or territorial? This matters because if I see an off leash dog who MAY approach the fence, we go inside before Lance starts barking. Lance would not find a food reward of any value during a threat to his fenceline by another dog. However, since he's actually afraid of meeting strangers, he finds heading for the kitchen (and by the way a treat) to be desirable in the face of any human passers.

I mentioned a gray area related to cues. If you want your dog to come when you call and establish a cue or target for that behavior and proof it so that you can use it for difficult situations, problem solved. You'll be fine. But if you actually want your dog to perceive a stranger as a cue to come to you, that requires additional training steps. You may want to retain the come when call behavior. As long as you reward that cued response often and practice with distractions you'll be good.

If you want to also teach your dog to come to you at other cues you need to teach those specifically and reward them. These are two separate behaviors to a dog.

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