Dog Training: Teaching Abstract Concepts

Prince and Storm

In my profession as a dog trainer, I am often called upon to teach dogs the basics of obedience.  Clients voice their desire to have a dog that will sit politely when asked.  Oh how wonderful it would be if Fluffy firmly planted his little puppy butt on the ground and didn’t move, even if hot dogs rained from the sky or meatballs rolled down the sidewalk in front of him.  Or perhaps they want a dog that will lay down quickly and stay in position while they go about doing tasks and perhaps move to another state (it’s ok Fluffy…we’ll send a postcard).

While it’s both wonderful and useful to teach a dog these concepts, I wonder if many owners ever think about the fact that they can teach their dogs more abstract behaviors.  Things which could be even more useful than the “basics” in maintaining a peaceful home and well-balanced relationships within that home.  As I most often come across these, the examples I will use here include teaching calm behavior and teaching polite behavior with other dogs in the home.  However, there are many other behaviors that can be encouraged or discouraged with reinforcement, or lack thereof.  Motivation.  Experimentation (yes, that’s right…if you want a “thinking dog,” encourage him to explore).  Even  submissiveness.

So onto calm behavior.  Have you ever been in the midst of a puppy that is just as cute as it can be, yet a bit overzealous?  “Hey!” “You!” “Pet me, pet me, pet me, pet me, throw my ball, let me bite your foot, pet me, pet me….”  Pretty soon you realize, despite the cuteness factor, that things have gotten a little overwhelming.  Oftentimes, when this scenario takes place, the puppy gets lots of attention for being demanding.  That attention comes in both positive and negative forms; we either engage with it or reprimand it for bad behavior.  Surprise!  A reprimand is often still a form of worthwhile attention for dogs, and so the puppy may continue to work for your pointing finger and stern glance, no matter how menacing you try to be.  What should be happening, instead, is the puppy should be getting attention when it is exhibiting calm behavior.  We can either ignore the puppy and wait it out, or even put the puppy up for some time out in order to let it calm down.  This way the puppy can have every chance to be rewarded for good behavior.  Teaching an alternate behavior besides jumping around and misbehaving is also a good strategy (this is where the good old sit command comes in handy).

Speaking of misbehaving, it’s not rare for me to enter a multi-dog household and be amongst dogs that just aren’t very polite to one another.  I walk in, and immediately there is a gleam in the dogs’ eyes that says, “Oooh!  She is going to pet us!”  Shortly thereafter, the little dog is knocked out of the way, whilst the medium-sized dog pins himself to my left leg.  The largest dog then hops on the medium-sized dog in order to create a crevice in which he will fit so that he has the prime spot at my left leg.  The soundtrack to all of this is composed of howling, growling and snorting (in A minor).  What’s a girl to do?  Well, first of all, no one gets petted in this state.  Again, waiting for everyone to be calm and quiet is much better than shouting greetings above the cacophony and (yes, this is what happens), showering attention on the dog which tries the hardest to displace all of his canine companions to get to you.  I often find that if I enter a home and wait a few minutes or engage with a pet owner during a short conversation, the thrill subsides and overzealous dogs can be easier to handle.  Sit on command is again a good alternative, as it keeps dogs from intermingling and romping with each other to compete for attention.  If dogs end up on top of each other, I discourage it and give petting and praise once everyone has all paws on the ground.  Here is another neat trick:  I remain calm in order to foster a calm atmosphere.

It’s certainly beneficial to send dogs to obedience class. However, I challenge you to spend just as much time teaching your dog how to be polite, calm, and many other things which will allow your pup to feel more at ease and bring more balance to your home.  Unless, of course, it starts raining hot dogs.

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