Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Summer Fun and Training Games

Splish-Splash, we had a blast. Literally, cause we vacationed on Cape Breton Island this summer. In case you don’t know, Cape Breton, according to the Travel and Leisure Magazine, is the number one island in North America, and third in the world right behind Santorini in Greece, and Bali. Lucky us, we live only a 3-hour car trip away and can visit anytime we want. The mag’s accolades reminded us that we should, and decided to book a chalet at the Cabot Shores Wilderness Resort – and we were wowed. Our Red Chalet had ocean view and access, location allowed day-tripping in every direction, their seafood chowder was the best I ever had, and it gets better yet: Cabot Shores is dog friendly. Really dog friendly, not just dog accommodating, and that is priority for us because we never travel without our canine sidekick Will. Even the owners’ dog Cosmo was dog friendly.
Time flies when it’s good is an old adage, and now we’re back, summer is over, and I am hard at work like most people. But unlike many, I don’t perceive the daily trot as a drag. I’ll let you in on a secret: I love work more than vacation, and wish it could be like that for everyone. Humans have choices, and the power to at least aim for daily happiness. Dogs don’t. Their welfare is at our mercy, and therefore it is our duty to make choices that make their life rewarding, purposeful, and free of fear and anxiety. How to train is a big part of that, and I am not just talking about cute tricks, but obedience commands. Things that every dog should know.
I said it before and say it again: positive is not permissive. I like an obedient dog as much as the next person, but force and stern structure is against my nature, so when a friend introduced me to an “Obedience & Games” class in the late 90s I was hooked, and so was Davie, and I embraced playful methods ever since.
Coming when called was perhaps the first behavior taught in a fun way on a large scale. Logically, because it is crucial that a dog reliably returns on command, and that is most likely to happen when he actually wants to do that. Today, fun reliable recall classes are super popular and have sprouted up everywhere.
Next in importance are polite leash manners. Not pulling towards something the dog wants to investigate, just like returning to his person when there’s something interesting out there, isn’t natural. That is why it needs to be taught, and just like the recall, walking on a loose leash is also most reliable if the pooch actually wants to be next to his person. Make yourself attractive by changing directions often and abruptly, and playfully pitch your voice and clap your hands to entice your dog to follow. When he’s caught up and is happily attentive, reinforce - ideally with continuation of the game. Your dog will quickly learn that the best place to be is no more than 3-4 feet away from you.
In my world, communication doesn’t come through a leash in form of a correction, but through the person. By using voice and body, the pooch learns to pay attention to the owner, instead of relying on the leash. Once mastered, you’ll get the same desirable behavior on and off, because neither you, nor your dog, are leash dependent. Plus, the dog doesn’t form a negative association to it, and so it never triggers anxiety and resistance. That is especially important if your dog is a tad nervous about certain stimuli in the environment already. If he is worried about the “dangerous” man or child, and doesn’t trust the leash on top of that, chances are much higher that he will freak out and react in panic. Compare that to a dog where the leash is perceived as neutral, or better yet the cue for feeling safe and having controlled fun.
A game that forces you to get, and keep, your dog’s attention with verbal and hands-off non-verbal communication is balancing a golf ball on a spoon in your leash hand. Of course, the slightest tug causes the ball to bounce off. When that happened in class, it typically incited minor chaos cause every dog wanted to chase, which embarrassed the person who started it all by using the leash for communication, and she learned quickly to use her voice and body instead. At home, you can set up your own obstacle course to navigate, or booby trap our walking area with delightful distractions, for example with a ham sandwich.
Dog trainers are in reality teachers for humans. Think about it, a trainer typically sees the pooch an hour a week over the span of 8 weeks, the average course length. That means he is with the trainer for 8 hours and his person for 1.344, cause the person is also present during the 8 hours training class. Your guess who should do the educating. The owner just needs to know how.
One aspect that people have difficulty comprehending and remembering is that dogs, especially rookies, are context specific, which means that they perform an action only the way they learned it. To hone that in, I played “speed-sit” in my beginner class.
Sit is often the first position a dog learns, and is typically taught with the pooch sitting facing the person. As soon as I was certain that all dogs got it and connected the verbal command with butt on the ground, I asked the owners to see how many repetitions they could pack in a 2-minute span. So, the person gave the command, dog sat, and the moment he did person walked a couple of steps backwards, which naturally got the pooch up again, to be commanded right away back into a sit, and so on. As an incentive, there was a treat to be had for the winning sitter’s human, except I rarely got to hand it over because most people concentrated so intensely on winning that they forgot to count. Which was fine, because I didn’t really care how many times a dog sat in 2 minutes. What I was after was to teach that even if a dog hears the same word many times in a row, and correctly performs the corresponding behavior, he doesn’t necessarily understand the meaning of the word. To demonstrate that, right after the speed-sit was over I took each dog’s leash, asked the owner to turn around so that the dog was facing her back, and command the pooch once more into a sit. To everyone’s surprise, most dogs didn’t - because they knew sit in only one context: facing the person. Lesson learned: If you want your dog to listen to you anytime, anywhere and when you change positions, you need to teach it.

While many folks regret that summer is over for another year, the good times continue for me and Will. And it can be the same for you, or at least for your dog. That reliable obedience doesn’t have to be a struggle is an easy choice to make. And command games don’t have to be reserved for group classes. You can have fun everyday and anywhere. It sharpens your dog’s command responses, and strengthens your relationship with one another. Teaching tricks is good, and some trainers use that to liven up the class, but imagine if your dog would love doing behaviors that matter most in day-to-day life as much as performing tricks; if he’d enjoy being on the leash more than being off. It’s the canine equivalent of me loving work more than vacation. Your reward: a reliably obedient, and at the same time happy to be with you, pawed companion.

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