Article by The Hague dog trainer Laure-Anne Visele about road-proofing your dog training exercises, published in October 2016
Illustration credits at the end of the post. Names and identifying features have been changed to protect the dog handler’s privacy
About the author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague
I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.
I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).
If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.
From star dog training student to coffee table thief
One of our star students, Jack, a young Corgi, grabbed the limelight in class again. His owner, was beaming with bride as she showed off his perfect Leave it. A whisper was enough for him to effortlessly walk past a ginormous pile of chicken treats. After the usual round of congratulations, and the other students’ envious looks, Jennifer looked coy. She shared with us that at home Jack was, well, actually, aherm, a horrendous thief.
“It’s got to the point that I am too embarrassed to put food out when I have friends over. The second I turn my back, he’s raiding the coffee table. He’s even snatched a biscuit out of a friend’s hand the other day. All I do now is watch him, and shout ‘No!’ when he tries again. He seems to ignore this more and more too.”
The secret: less dog training, more dog proofing
Jack’s owner had put her finger on one a classic dog training fail: dog does great at school, and terribly at home. Why is that?
The answer is ‘proofing’ – punking the dog into confusing real-life and dog training. In other words, closing the gap between practice and a real-life.
Jack the dog was no fool
In drilling the perfect Leave it, Jack’s owner did not fool him whatsoever. She stood in front of him perfectly still, hand on the clicker and treat pouch at the ready, looking at his every move. When she was entertaining guests, on the other hand… It was a totally different scenario; one where, Jack probably thinks, the Leave it exercise does not apply.
- When entertaining, Jacks’ owner had NEVER (not once) rewarded him for leaving the food alone on the coffee table – unlike the carefully timed rewards during the Leave it exercise;
- Jack’s owner had never once practised the Leave it with visitors in the room.
- When she is entertaining, Jack’s owner regularly gets up, turns her back, and doesn’t particularly pay attention to him. She definitely doesn’t stand in front of him, holding her breath.
- Jack’s owner had never practiced the leave it with human food on the coffee table: just a(n impressive!) pile of doggie goodies on the floor.
Clearly – not – the – same – scenario.
Fake it until the dog can make it
So what’s the solution?
- Pretend you’re not looking at him when you practice – fiddling with your phone works wonders.
- When you’ve practised a few times, hide your treat pouch and drop that clicker (use a clicker word instead).
- Practice with a friend over, with real biscuits, with music on, pretend to be playing cards, you name it. Do whatever it is you would do when you are entertaining.
You want to see the sort of surreal situations I re-enact when I am working with a client. My interns will testify there’s never a boring day at work when we role-play! We’ve even invented whole new card games in the process.
I don’t have time to train my dog when I’m entertaining
No one does.
Want to save yourself a lot of headaches? Remember this dog training mantra:
There is a time for training and a time for management
Repeat after me: There is a time for management, and there is a time for training.
If you clearly don’t have the time or focus to train in a given situation, then pro-actively keep the dog out of trouble (i.e. the management part). It beats the stress of shouting ‘no’ all the time, and it stops him from practising unwanted behaviour.
So there’s a time for training, a time for management, but there is never a time for wishful thinking.
- Manage the dog: e.g. in his crate, in another room, behind a baby gate, sending him to his basket, on the leash, giving a food-dispensing toy or a chew-bone, you name it. Just keep him out of your hair right this minute.
- Take a couple of minutes to turn it into a short training moment if your guests are game, then go back to management when it’s getting impractical.
Say ‘No’ again and again in an ineffective display of toughness in the vague hope that it may – please oh pretty please with sugar on top – work this time.
So I’m not allowed to say ‘No’ to my dog?
If it works, be my guest. For the less persistent dogs – I wish mine was one of them – a stern ‘No’ will do the trick for the whole evening. But if your dog is as pig-headed as mine (or Jack), you’ll need a lot of shouting and no one is going to be having a good time. Well the dog might: he will have learnt to ignore the shouting, and become more sneaky as a pick-pocket.
I get that you feel pressured into doing something when the dog is misbehaving – I’ve been there, believe me. But if you know that you’re only shouting for the benefit of your guests, and that it has become totally ineffective, it’s time to consider training in the real-life situation, instead of getting annoyed.
Dog proofing: take it on the road
The basic formula is this: once the dog masters the basics of an exercise, practice it in the real-life problem situation or it will be useless.
Who cares that your dog passed his or her dog training exam with flying colours if you can’t even have friends over? You want a family dog, not a circus dog, right?
Time to dust off that improv hat, my good people. Let’s set up training scenarios that look like real-life, and let’s train in real-life moments. Let’s punk these dogs into confusing real-life and training.
- Half-eaten bread: Artist/photographer: Pat (Cletch) Williams. Downloaded on 27 Aug 2016. No modifications made. License: CC BY 2.0.
- Dogs playing poker: Artist/photographer: Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. Downloaded on 27 Aug 2016. No modifications made. License: Public Domain.
- No: Artist/photographer: Horia Varlan. Downloaded on 27 Aug 2016. No modifications made. License: CC BY 2.0.