The art of management in dog training, article by Canis bonus. November 2016
Author: Laure-Anne Visele. Illustration credits at the end of the post
About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague
I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.
I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (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.
Dog training’s sensible little brother: management
For some dark and unknown reason, I cannot get my clients excited about the dirty M-word: Management. The second I broach the management topic, their eyes glaze over.
I am guessing it has something to do with the fact that the name is not exactly grabby – nor descriptive, come to think of it.
But first things first: the title was inspired by something dog training communicator Nando Brown always says: ‘there’s a time for training and a time for management’
Let me explain what it means in dog training: pre-empting and managing problem situations to stop the habit from becoming more entrenched – and to keep everyone safe. You do this either in parallel with training (the equivalent of palliative care coupled with therapy), or on its own (palliative care alone). It means keeping the dog out of trouble.
When I draft training plans for my clients, management is an integral part of it. That’s when I see that look in their face. The “Doctor, it hurts when I touch here.” replied with “Then don’t touch here” look.
It can seem like a cop-out, I agree. I can see the person’s face thinking: “How much did I pay for this expert advice? I could have come up with that myself. That’s not solving anything”
The thing is, it is solving a lot: it is like treating a drug addict. You start by removing the trigger. Training has no chance to work unless it is coupled by its less glamorous brother Management.
Management as dog behaviour First Aid
I wish I could tell you that you can stop accommodate for your dog’s behaviour problems the second I walk into your living room. But that would be a lie. As you start the training process, there will be an interim period where you’ll have to be even MORE mindful of keeping the dog out of trouble.
This interim period can last from a few days to the dog’s life-time, depending on the problem. Quick fixes are rare in this line of work, particularly for me as I am a third-line consultant (behaviour therapists, trainers and vets refer to me, so I get the cases that have resisted first-line therapy).
The idea of first aid is that we “stop the bleeding”. Remember my definition of Management? We at least stop the dog from developing an even more profound habit (the bleeding) and we keep every one safe. First Aid.
Allowing the dog to practice the bad habit during a behaviour modification project is like playing “one step forward three steps backwards.” It’s an all-round bad idea: it’s bad for you and it’s bad for my success rates (yup, applied behaviourists also have KPI’s).
Management won’t give your dog stellar coping skills – that’s what the behaviour modification part is for – but it will also stop the dog’s current coping strategies from getting even more extreme, and even harder to reverse.
So when I come to someone’s house, the first point of order is to find ways to keep the dog from practicing being an idiot. Allow me to make a striking analogy in human psychiatry: it’s like leaving a sharp object at the disposal of a self-harm patient; or letting an anorexic girl visit ‘diet faster’ forums. The road to recovery will be bumpy, and the patient will be tempted to fall back during tough times. The last thing you want, for the prognosis – and to avoid further injury – is to give the patient opportunities to engage in their destructive coping strategy.
Example management tools in dog training
Management tools can be anything: food-dispensing toys, leashes, baby gates, muzzles or plain old distraction.
Take my own dog. He is on Prednisone and, sadly, will be life-long (he has a terminal liver disease). This is making him restless at certain times of the day. Instead of letting him drive us up the wall with his pacing and whining, I give him his bone to chew just before his witching hour. It hasn’t solved the problem, but it takes the edge off and it stops this from becoming a vicious circle – and ruining my evenings.
You also have the doorbell routine for exuberant greeters. Stick a note on your door saying you’ll be a minute because you’re putting the dog away. Then each time the doorbell goes, let that become a signal for the dog that you’re about to send him to his ‘room’ (e.g. in the kitchen, behind a baby gate) with a bunch of treats tossed on the ground to keep him distracted from mauling your guests as they come in (I share tons of ‘slow-cooking’ suggestions here if you’re after ideas that will keep your dog busy). We’ll be working on training this in parallel, but when your guests are visiting, I would argue, is NOT a good time for training. You’ll be stressed, irritated and distracted. You want to pay attention to the guests, not the dog. So we’ll teach the dog to greet guests like a gentleman but in the mean time, don’t let the dog practice appalling manners between sessions.
We also advise management to puppy owners at our dog training school (OhMyDog, Den Haag), exhorting them to ‘puppy-proof’ their house as the parents of any toddler would. It beats (ineffectively) shouting ‘no’ every two minutes because the dog has, again, gotten hold of your favourite shoes. Just tidy your shoes away, for the love of Dog, and keep anything remotely chewable away from these shark teeth if you’re not actively supervising.
So when does the dog get trained?
The idea is NOT to solely rely on management. If you crate the dog each time the doorbell goes, the dog never gets to learn to greet people politely. You’ll need to be disciplined enough to invest at least some time in training in a real-life problem situation, even if you have smooth management strategies in place.
When you’re in a situation when you’re having to say ‘no’ again and again, it’s a sign the dog has not been trained to cope with this situation. That’s the time to ask yourself this question: “Is this a time for training, or a time for management?”
A time for training is a time when you can control the situation (including the guests, the other dog, whatever is setting your dog off). You could, for example, go through your training protocol with a few of your guests if they don’t mind. If the guest is the queen of England (or your mother-in-law, of if you’re having your kid’s birthday party), it’s a time for management. Same for the infamous “It’s OK, I’m good with dogs” guests who never do as you ask.
Management in dog training: pick your battles
The idea of management boils down to picking your battles. You want to keep yourself sane by not having to micromanage the dog’s every move (Training) all the time, but you still need a healthy training:management ratio to get a well-behaved dog. The more Training sessions you can organise, the quicker you’ll stop needing Management.
Tip: There’s no law against inviting your friends over to play ‘stimulus guests’ and role-play the doorbell routine with them, even if it’s just for two minutes. I understand paying them in wine for their time is a winning strategy.
Like many things in dog behaviour, Management is a balancing act that you’ll learn to finely tune.
- Cadaceus: With thanks to Neff Conner. Downloaded from Flickr on 10 Sep 2016. License: CC BY 2.0 [No modification made]
- First aid kit: With thanks to DLG Images. Downloaded from Flickr on 10 Sep 2016. License: CC BY 2.0 [No modification made]
- Shouting: With thanks to Clker Free Vector Images 3736. Downloaded from Pixabay on 10 Sep 2016. License: CC0 public domain [No modification made]
- Tight rope: Artist = John Doyle. Downloaded from Wikipedia on 10 Sep 2016. License: PD Art [No modification made]