Does this sound like the situation in your house? If the front door is open, your dog bolts through it. If you leave some food on the counter for 5 seconds, you dog jumps up and eats it. If you open the car door to get your dog out, he tries to jump out onto a busy street. Unless you constantly reprimand your dog (“No!”) or frantically try to grab him he does not behave as well as you would like.
You can change those behaviors! It’s Your Choice (IYC), a phrase coined by noted trainer Susan Garrett, is about controlling the consequences of your dog’s choices rather than trying to control the dog. We start small and teach the dog she or he always has a choice. If your dog chooses correctly when working with you, good consequences will follow (the chance for reinforcement). If the dog makes an inappropriate choice, the consequences will be clear (no reinforcement). But the consequences will never be a function of you trying to coach or intimidate your dog in any way. In the end we teach the dog self control rather then imposed control.
A dog with self control has learned to have impulse control when in stimulating environments. Rather than leave you to chase the squirrel, steal a toy, or investigate every crumb that may be on the ground, the dog will play your game knowing rewards will be earned contingent upon following your rules. The It’s Your Choice game starts out teaching your dog to make easy decisions when faced with a chance to steal rewards. Building upon successes, you can grow this game into any form of distraction training you can imagine.
Eventually your dog’s impulse control becomes so brilliant, you can trust her or him unsupervised with a roast on the kitchen counter within reach, or not to grab the chicken bones found on the street or in the trash. The dog will learn to want to make the right choice. This is self control and does not require your eagle eye scouting every training horizon for distractions that may cause your dog to leave you in search of alternate rewards.
Choosing correctly earns the dog the reinforcement and teaches a strong foundation for self control. The dog learns to control himself. If an incorrect choice is made we control the reinforcement (not the dog); we prevent access to the reinforcement if the dog makes an incorrect choice.
For example, if your dog is sitting at the door (a good choice) and he gets up as the door opens (a poor choice), the reinforcement goes away. What is the reinforcement? It’s the chance to go out the door. How do we remove the reinforcement for this bad choice? It’s simply that the door closes. Your dog quickly learns that in order to exit the door, the butt needs to stay planted on the ground. There is no need to keep telling the dog what to do such as “stay” or “no” when he tries to go out the door. The consequence of his actions teaches him very clearly.
Here’s a video illustrating a simple way to start teaching your dog good impulse control. This is Bryn, a 9 week old puppy. Notice how she works through her desire to get the treats out of my hand.
These are the rules to follow when playing the IYC game.
Don’t move your hand (unless the pawing or chewing on your hand are painful);
Give your dog a treat out of your hand only if he is not moving toward your hand and is patiently waiting (reinforcing the good behavior you are building);
Quickly close your hand (removing access to reinforcment) as a consequence of your dog moving toward it.
Try to stay silent and give your dog a chance to think about the consequences of his choices. The time to speak is to cue your dog to get the treat when you reward him for making good choices (using”get it” for example).
Now go and try this with your dog and start building a strong foundation of self control!
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:
The benefits of play in puppies can’t be over emphasized.
Physical and mental exercise
Teaching boundaries and rules
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.
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.!)
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;
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);
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!