This Is Most Important Skill To Teach Your Dog

It’s fun when your dog is reliable and well-trained enough to go anywhere with you, even off-leash. The other day I was at the beach and there were several dogs playing. I could tell that an owner was getting frustrated as he called his large breed dog over and over with no greater success each time he yelled. The dog continued to play with the other dogs and completely ignored her owner. Why? Probably because there was no strong built up history for the dog coming when called and being rewarded, so the dog figured, “why listen when I’m having so much fun here?” Or perhaps the dog listens great at home but the owner was expecting his dog to respond under very new and difficult conditions, something for which the dog was not trained.

Should the owner punish the dog when he finally gets him? Well, I think he should pick up a rolled newspaper and hit himself in the head for asking the dog to work above her level by placing her in a situation that she was not trained for! Coming  from off-leash play at the beach is graduate school or PhD level training. (And punishing your dog is a great way to get her to NOT come to you in the future.)

Last week I was walking my three high energy dogs off leash around our quiet neighborhood. All of a sudden a rabbit popped up and my Australian Shepherd mix, Runi took out after it. I let her have some fun for a moment and then called her. She returned to me immediately.  I rewarded her with a tossed tennis ball, one of her favorite activities. You know what? If I didn’t know she would respond, I would not be walking her off leash! That behavior took lots of time, patience and reinforcement to achieve; it did not happen overnight, but I’m so glad that I can trust my dogs.

I got a very quick video; sorry for the bad technique! You can see the rabbit running across her path; this was after she had chased it  up the street and then it turned and ran in my direction. When I called Runi she came immediately. Check it out.

Want your dog to come when you call? Check out my 5 tips.

Tip #1: Follow the 5 rules of recall

 If you adhere to some important training principles, you can begin to build up a solid foundation.

1. Never call your dog for anything unpleasant. Including nail clipping, bathing, or having his leash clipped on to go home from the beach or park. In short, anything that might give him pause the next time you call him. And even if it seems like it took forever for him to finally come to you, don’t punish him; it will make him think twice about repeating that behavior.

2.  Never call your dog if you are not sure he will come. All recalls should be successful recalls. Work at your dog’s level: If he has a kindergarten-level recall, don’t give him a graduate assignment like being called away from a fleeing rabbit. Here’s one way to test if you want to call your dog. Will you bet $50 that he will come when you call? If not, don’t do it. Instead go and get him.

3. If you call your dog and he doesn’t come, you must make it happen. Run over to him and put a treat in front of his nose, backing up as you get his attention so he follows you. Or clap your hands, make funny noises, or run the other way.  Do anything that will work. Then don’t set him up to fail again.

4. Never repeat the command. Resist the urge to call over and over and over. It only teaches your dog to tune out the command. Call once and, if necessary, use rule #3: Make the recall happen.

5. Fabulous rewards get fabulous recalls. If you want your dog to stop whatever interesting doggie thing he is doing and come running to you, make it worth his while. Use extra yummy treats—no dry biscuits here!—or a well-thrown ball, if that is your dog’s fancy. This is not the time to be stingy!

Tip #2: Reinforcement is key.

Reinforcement increases behavior so use the one that is meaningful to your dog and reinforce desirable behavior every time. For a difficult distraction use the best reinforcement and consider giving more of it to reward your dog (such as hand a treat to your dog every second for 10 seconds to pay your dog for a great behavior). Find the reinforcement that is meaningful to your dog whether food, toy, or other. This may vary depending upon the situation.

You have voice, body and food lures to get your dog to come. Another key is learning how to pay your dog. Lots of distractions compete for dog’s focus.

 Tip #3: Distractions & Timing

Smells and movement trigger a dog’s interest. Social dogs will be attracted to people or other dogs. Every dog is different. Anticipate what will be challenging for your dog: squirrels, rabbits, lizards. Plan to work at your dog’s level for that situation and distraction.

It’s easier to call your dog when you’re a few feet away from him than 50 feet; and it’s easier when the distraction is farther away. Timing is important too. The longer your dog interacts with or becomes focused on the distraction, the harder the recall becomes. Call quickly and before your dog gets too close or too invested in the distraction. The more difficult the recall, the bigger the reward should be, both in quality and quantity.

Tip #4: Work at Your Dog’s Level

come-when-called
This drive and enthusiasm is such a joy to watch

Don’t put your dog in situations that he or she is not ready for. If your dog won’t come to you when she’s running loose on the beach, don’t let her loose at the beach. Figure out what is reinforcing the undesirable behavior and remove it. (For example, if she gets reinforced by playing with other dogs on the beach and ignores you, don’t allow her access to that reinforcement.) Build up your recall success, staying at each level in each different environment until you are near 100% successful. Then add more difficulty. Having problems? Make the exercise easier to gain success.

 Tip #5: Thinking Ahead

Eventually you want to trust your dog. Practice in these areas with a long line to give the illusion of freedom but maintain training control. When she is reliable on the long line, graduate to her dragging her regular leash so you can grab hold of it if things get too challenging. Take steps slowly always working at her level so she stays successful.

In this video, my dogs are in a down-stay and I call them one at a time (which you can’t hear in the video. I call using the dog’s name and the cue, for example, “Zander, come”. When they get to me they get praised and then I toss them a ball, a very high-value reinforcer for them. If I had not built up this solid foundation of stay and come, I would not be doing this in an unsecured area off leash. 

Training Tips: If your dog does not have a reliable stay, have someone hold him or her. Use a long leash to keep your dog safe if not practicing in a fenced, secure area.

Now get out there and practice, patiently build your dog’s skills, and have fun!

Puppy Playtime!

It’s healthy & important, but there are things to watch for to keep it fun for your pup.

What is cuter than puppies playing? Nothing! It brings a smile to the face to watch a bunch of furballs jumping around, mock fighting, and having fun. That is until one puppy is not having a good time. Luckily, in most cases, no harm, no foul and they quickly resume the fun. But what about when the puppy who got scared goes and hides. Should you push him back to play or let him be? It’s important to support your puppy’s emotional needs. When he is ready he will return, and if he is not, let him participate in his own good time. When we allow puppies to build their trust, their confidence will grow.

Play is important, especially in early puppyhood. Puppies are the most emotionally flexible until the age of 16 weeks, and the good experiences your puppy has now will help him grow up feeling safe and empowered. This is a critical socialization period . After that it gets harder, it takes longer, and your dog may never fully get the hang of feeling comfortable in the world and around other dogs (and other experiences).

My vet/breeder said to wait until my puppy has all of his shots

Early puppyhood is a critical time for socialization and learning. This time will set the stage for the rest of your puppy’s life. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance to show your puppy how to confidently relate to other puppies, unfamiliar people, and strange sights, sounds, and events. It is crucial that this developmental stage is used wisely! Luckily, the vast majority of modern veterinarians and breeders understand that puppies don’t just have medical needs, but behavioral needs as well and will instruct you to begin a properly run puppy training and socialization class as early as possible. Here are some resources for you:

Letter from noted veterinary behaviorist and Director Emeritus of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the University of Minnesota

Read the position paper on puppy socialization and vaccinations from the American Animal Society of Animal Behavior.

The benefits of play in puppies can’t be over emphasized.

  • Physical and mental exercise
  • Socialization
  • Teaching boundaries and rules
  • Emotional control
  • Bite inhibition- puppies with little or no bite inhibition tend to bite more vigorously and harder than normal. If they don’t learn it as puppies, their bite as an adult will inflict much more serious damage.
  • Teaching new skills

What is a Consent Test?

Sometimes a puppy in a group has a particularly aggressive play style and does not understand how to play appropriately. Most of the other puppies run from this over assertive puppy. Or this puppy always appears to be pinning another dog beneath it. It is necessary to intervene early with these puppies who are either over aroused or just have poor play skills. Make their play sessions brief, pair them with an adult with good play skills, redirect to toys, and teach an on-off (arouse/settle) switch. To see if one puppy is truly bullying another, use the “consent test”. Hold the tough guy briefly away from the other pup. If the other puppy comes back at the more assertive dog to continue the play, then it is safe to let them play again and it should not be considered bullying. If the other puppy runs off or hides, then  he or she was probably being bullied, or the top dog had a play style that was too assertive for the bottom dog.

consent test
Is the dog on the bottom having fun? Do a consent test to find out. Gently pull off the top pup; if the other puppy comes back for more, release for more play.

Using play as a training reward

Puppy (and dog!) play is valuable and can be used in training as a reward, but it is important not to allow the release of the puppy back to play until he or she is calm and mannerly. Insist upon fair play to prevent play from escalating to high arousal and then aggression. Be sure that there are frequent pauses in play to avoid over arousal; know when to allow them to work it out and when not. Bites should be inhibited and directed to the legs and lower body, with short mouthing to the neck and head area. Batting, brief pounces and pauses are all parts of good play. We suggest interrupting puppy play every minute or less to briefly get your puppy’s attention back to you for brief moments. At  those these times, expect your puppy to focus on you and follow simple cues; be sure to reinforce your wonderful pup with high value treats. Then again reinforce your puppy’s calm, attentive behavior by releasing back to play. This also teaches them that coming to you from play does not mean it’s over. (If play ends each time you call your puppy, you will find your puppy not wanting to come to you.!)

Gotcha! 

collar grab- Sly crop
This dog is leaning away from the hand that is reaching for him. He is showing additional signs of stress including the raised paw, ears pulled back, and the furrowed brow. He needs lots of positive gotchas!

Teach your puppy a collar grab. Simply start by touching the collar with one hand and then giving your puppy a treat with the other. Work up to grabbing the collar, and while still holding it, deliver the treat. Your hand should remain on the collar as you give the treat, then release and repeat a few times. (If your pup is really shying away from the hand, back off on the intensity and nearness of the grab until your dog show no reaction or is actually happy to see the hand nearing him.) Do several session throughout the day, choosing different locations within the house or yard. Do 10-15 collar grabs per session, breaking it up into several collar grabs (always with reward), then play, then several more. It’s great to add in a collar grab when you call your dog to you. Call, grab, reward. Once your puppy is happy with your hand coming at his collar, you can use the collar grab to help you call him out of play.

Know when to interrupt dog play

There are specific signs that indicate that play between dogs should be interrupted, including:

  • Dog is showing signs of distress;
  • Excessive mounting and other challenges; however you should not get too excited over the mounting behavior, it’s just that sometimes other dogs don’t like it. Mounting can indicate anxiety or over stimulation;
  • Excessive vertical play;
  • Excessive vocalization including throaty growls (most good play is actually pretty quiet);
  • No interruptions or pauses in play (leading to high arousal);
  • When one dog is avoiding the situation; watch for head or body’s turned away from the other dog;
  • When one dog is attempting to diffuse the session;
  • When competing for a resource such as a toy or treat;
  • Pinning;
  • Tandem sneezing (which indicates stress);
  • Continued orientation to the other dog’s neck or throat;
  • Body slamming or other hard physical contact;
  • Grabbing/biting with head shaking;
  • Full mouth biting;
  • Hackles are raised (piloerection);
  • Snarling;
  • When the body language of a dog shows that he or she is afraid, including ears back, mouth closed, tail down or tucked, lip licking, and trying to get away. Intervene immediately.

In this video taken at Ideal Puppy Training & Socialization class at Lucky Dog there are some nice examples of play. The yellow lab/great Pyrenees mix, Riley, is inviting play using play bows (front feet down and hind end in the air). Harley, the Akita, has nice soft body language in response. In the other puppy play group, you can see that Cody, the yellow lab pup, is unsure of the interactions and comes in for a quick sniff before retreating. He also does a lip lick, which is often a sign of stress, or an appeasement signal (“I mean you no harm”). The instructor is giving frequent breaks from play and having the owners do collar grabs before releasing back to play. This was on class one. In future classes the puppies will be asked to give attention or listen to obedience cues before being reinforced with more play.

What about dog parks?

Choose you puppy’s play group carefully to set your puppy up for success. If you do not know the play style of the other dog(s), proceed with caution. I do not recommend taking a puppy to a dog park (that’s an entire blog post in itself!). That can be a recipe for disaster. One traumatic event with an adult dog with poor socialization skills can convince your puppy that other dog are unsafe and not to be trusted. This can potentially set your dog’s emotional development into a tailspin that is not easily changed.  But once you have found some perfect playmates, or a good, well-run group, enjoy the fun!