Last month we focused on the third foundational concept of building connection with your dog; trust and negative space.
Now let’s put it to practice!
BEYOND TEACHING TRICKS
I mentioned briefly before that we’re doing away with the usual, familiar obedience cues such as sit, down, stay, etc. That’s somewhat uncomfortable, I know. But the reasoning behind doing so should now make some sense.
Historically, we’ve focused so heavily on teaching our dogs a few important behaviors, such as sit, that we’ve ignored all the time they’re not doing sit when we ask them to. When you think about the amount of time your dog is actually after you’ve asked, it’s a miniscule part of his day.
I now consider obedience cues such as sit, down, and stay, tricks as I would roll-over, play dead, or dance. They really are no different except in the word used and the classification as is historically dictated.
Only teaching a dog a few tricks creates an imbalanced and somewhat contrived basis for a relationship; the dog is only keen to the cue to behave knowing he’ll get some sort of reward for doing it but that he has to wait around for his owner to say it and that may be hours, if not days. In some homes, it’s never.
DOGS DISCRIMINATE (IN A GOOD WAY)
Meanwhile he spends the majority of his time in a home where his good behavior is unnoticed, his poor behavior is punished or ignored, and he remains disconnected from the people with whom he lives. Again, the relationship isn’t bad, necessarily, but it could be so fantastic with just a shift to connection.
In the first installment of this series, the task was to just sit and watch your dog. Learn what he actually likes to do, not what we’ve been conditioned to think he likes to do. You probably began to notice nuances, not just the obvious things like “eating” and “being petted.”
You may have learned things like that he follows you into the bathroom, he likes to chew his favorite thing when his favorite person comes home, he likes to bathe in the sunshine but only if the wind isn’t blowing, etc. Marvelous!
Now. Multiply that by 1000. That’s what he notices about you and his environment. Dogs are truly expert discriminators constantly filtering out things of no consequence from things that are important. They are capable of stringing together an astonishing number of indicators that might lead to a walk…or to you leaving. Let that stew for just a minute…seriously. Longer. Good.
Now. Imagine all the words you use all day long. Hundreds, thousands even. Isn’t it amazing he can hear “sit” from all that mess? If that doesn’t prove his excellence in discrimination, I don’t know what does. Same goes if your dog responds to hand signals.
And now, the first step in putting all this to use in training and behavior modification.
WORK OFF NATURAL CUES
We’re not going to pick hard, static, cues such as a word or even a distinct hand signal. It can be useful, for sure, in the obedience world but we have companion dogs and unless your living room contains an obedience platform or fence, or your kitchen a set of cones and cavaletti, it’s silly, really.
Instead, we’re going to keep it simple and work fluidly off the natural cues already the environment. Ooh, this excites me!
While connection can be applied to any training situation, I’ve chosen three common behavior complaints of the companion owner to focus on here: begging in the kitchen, rushing out the door, and coming when called.
Begging in the Kitchen
People express frustrations with their dog begging because “it’s annoying,” “he’s underfoot,” “I can’t leave the kitchen with food out or he’ll get it”, etc. All are legit and your dog neither has to be allowed to beg nor does he need to be constantly ordered to go away.
He sticks around and stares because there’s some sort of reinforcement in his past. He gets to choose what’s rewarding, not us. He might be rewarded by snatching fallen food in the past giving him hope there will be some again, he may simply like the company of family that gathers at mealtime, he may be waiting for a morsel to be thrown his way, etc. In any event, he’s learned that you plus food on the counter at X time = chance for that reward regardless of his behavior.
Let’s take advantage of that incredible awareness and change the rules.
- Choose a reasonable behavior that your dog can do while you’re preparing food. Seriously. Be reasonable. Something about being with you at this time is good for him so please don’t choose for him to disappear. That undermines the relationship. Instead, I recommend choosing a line on the floor over which he may not pass. In many homes this is the threshold to the kitchen. He can be with you, watch, hang out, as long as he doesn’t cross that line.
- Begin food prep. He will show up to his usual under-foot location. He’s hip to the predictable cues that naturally indicate this was going to happen; time of day, fridge, family arrival, etc.
- The very second his foot crosses that threshold, put down the utensils, push the food to the back of the counter, and walk out of the kitchen. Sit nearby and wait. Don’t say a word. He will be very confused. Excellent.
- The moment he walks out of the kitchen and crosses your threshold return to the task silently.
- Repeat. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
- If you are consistent, something amazing will happen. Soon, very soon, when you head to the kitchen to prep food, he will not cross that threshold. He may choose a safe distance, he may flop down elsewhere, he may not even come in. When he does this, be prepared to reward this leap!Keep a little bowl of delicious treats near your prep area. I keep small stainless air-tight jars around the house when I’m teaching something new. When he settles wherever his new spot is during food prep, throw him a morsel and congratulate him! This signals the other half of the equation; he’s learned what doesn’t work (him crossing the threshold), and the morsel and celebration close the learning loop and tell him he’s gotten it right.
This is a short video on my YouTube channel from many months ago of my own dog Leroy learning this technique.
It’s easy to see now that our contrived cues, “get out” or “go to bed” are fine, but unnecessary and require us to nag our dog. By just giving some space, trusting behavior, learning his set of favorite things, we can make him part of the home in a way that feeds connection.
Rushing the Door
A great number of dogs rush the door when it’s opened whether accompanied by their owner or not. This behavior is annoying at best and dangerous at worst. We could rely on “wait” or “stay” every time we open the door, but instead, let’s just change the rules again and ask our dog to be an active participant in the new set-up.
Before you start this exercise, please make sure that the space outside the door is secure either with a gate or other barrier so that when the dog is allowed to go out, he’s not free. You may also choose to do this exercise on a long-line keeping the end loop securely in your hand.
- Approach the door with your dog as though you’re headed out. Go slowly, and silently.
- When you put your hand on the knob, if he puts his nose on the door, remove your hand and put it to your side. Stand still. Watch him but don’t’ say anything and remain still.
- Be patient. He will look at you, I promise. When he does, immediately put your hand back on the knob. Say nothing.
- If he again shoves his nose to the door, remove your hand again and repeat step 2.
- Repeat. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
- After a few of these, he’ll look at you, you’ll put your hand on the knob, and he’ll keep looking at you! Yes! Open the door and pass through.
Each day you work this new approach to door rushing choose a slightly more complex version of him leaving the door. In other words, at first, he’ll just be able to take his nose off the crack and look at you. That may last a few days. But soon, he’ll be able to stay a step away. Eventually he’ll stay a step away and wait a second. Then two seconds, three, then five.
The contrived cue of “wait” or “stay” has now disappeared and been replaced with a function of the environment; the door with you present, and him. When those things are together, he will be rewarded with the door opening only if he backs off. The opposite will get him further away from a reward, in fact.
I love it so much I can hardly stand it!
Coming when Called
This behavior is more difficult than the other two and it deserves more patience and thought. But, since I’ve begun using this style of training with my clients and my own dogs, an amazing thing happens; dogs who benefit from a shift to connection in training actually want to be near their person more often without being asked and they are more trusting of the person’s choices when out and about. They are calm and observant.
By that, I mean, a dog who only comes when called because “come” is a cue (like a trick) and results in some sort of reward will have learned the value of coming or not coming after he’s told. He’ll weigh the benefit of what he may or may not get when he actually does come against whatever’s happening now; investigation, rolling in something stinky, following a scent, daydreaming, etc. He’s learned to work the system, and rightfully so.
The dog lucky enough to live with a person who’s shifted to a focus on connection is learning that his person is keen to his set of rewards and is using them more thoughtfully and with much greater relevance.
His owner still requires behavioral things of him, but he also gives behavioral allowances. Those allowances deposit cumulatively in the connection account, and when it’s time to actually ask for harder behavior, it’s more consistent, more readily given, and a greater level of performance can be achieved more organically.
Walking with regard, covered in a previous installment and in a video on my Facebook Page, “Walking with Regard, Truman”, sets a perfect foundation for a better recall. Start there.
You’ll see in this video, and by now have experienced in real life, that your dog is tipped off to movement by your body posture and direction long before you’ve given a verbal cue. Specifically, when you stop with him, you turn towards whatever it is he’s inspecting.
When it’s time to move on, you shift shoulders and body follows in the direction you’ll be heading. Leash gently lifts and all those subtleties together indicate to him that you both are moving on.
BALANCE DEPOSITS AND WITHDRAWALS
We’re going to use that with coming when called. This is also where we’re going to start considering the relationship an account subject to withdrawals and deposits. Withdrawals are when you ask your dog to do something he wouldn’t naturally do at a given moment, and deposits are when you are with him doing what he wants to do.
Before you start, choose a very easy and low-interest activity during his walk from which to ask him to come away. Perhaps a sniff spot he passes everyday and is used to.
Also, choose a noise, not a word. I use a short, succinct, clear whistle.
- When he gets to the sniff spot (or whatever low-interest activity you’ve chosen to start), give your whistle calmly and with no fanfare. Immediately turn your body as you would as if you were moving on. When he turns to look at you and/or move on with you, praise him with your voice enthusiastically and move on with vigor.
Rather than the formal recall you’re used to, where you stand, say “come” and your dog rushes to you (sometimes), this is a combined fluid movement with the whistle indicating it’s a little different than just the posture shift of turning your shoulders and body moving on. Like a tap on the shoulder, followed by a “let’s go!”
- Because you want to preserve the whistle/let’s go body movement for development into a more reliable come-when-called, use it sparingly on your walks as you train it up; three times a walk is plenty. Because the whistle/let’s go is an account withdrawal, make sure you’re still depositing into the connection account by letting your dog have what he needs on his walk, too.
- Slowly, over time, whistle/”let’s-go” him from more difficult things always remembering to use it sparingly and to restore the withdrawals with deposits. If you whistle him and he doesn’t follow, it’s too hard. Choose an easier step and pad that account with deposits.
The combined whistle with body turn and move is very powerful to the connected dog. With time and practice, it can become a reliable trust-based recall cue from strong stimuli. Do not misuse it. Instead, remember connection requires a balance in asking for behavior when necessary and useful and allowing your dog to be a dog when it’s not.
You’re well on your way now to the limitless benefits of a connection-based relationship with your dog. It’s been literally career-changing for me to shift to this method with my clients and my own dogs because of the peace it brings the companion dog household. It does away with the nagging, frustration, and that feeling of manipulation of which so many owners complain.
Through this method of lifestyle training with a focus on connection, I see families reach a new level of fulfillment with their dog. Families are happier, homes are more peaceful, and dogs’ lives are better.
It is a wonderful thing.
Cristine Dahl is the founder the Northwest School for Canine Studies and author of the acclaimed book, Good Dog 101 She holds a CTC from the San Francisco SPCA Academy as a distinguished graduate, has worked professionally with dogs for almost 20 years, and has a BS in Biological Science from with a focus on the mammalian mind and brain.
Cristine has been recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) for her work helping doctors better understand the circumstances affecting dog bites to children and she is an active participant in animal welfare efforts in the state of Washington.