Manners and More

Lisa Kerley BSc KPA-CTP

One of the first things most people consider doing when they have a new dog is enrolling in an obedience class. If a class isn’t an option, a private trainer is often brought in to teach obedience in the home. Obedience seems to be the first thing on many people’s minds when it comes to training their dogs.

Teaching your dog to do some specific things when asked has obvious value. Obedience on its own however, does not provide the average dog with the skills they need to be ‘well-behaved’ day-to-day. We routinely have new dogs come to our facility that are already obedience graduates. Although they can perform their trained behaviours when asked, sadly, many of these same dogs are easily excited and unmanageable when not being directed. Even dogs from advanced classes often aren’t calm or settled unless they are put into a ‘down stay’ or  they can’t politely meet a person without being told to ‘sit’ or are corrected in some way.

So what skills are our dogs often missing in regular obedience training?

For Puppies

Young puppies are in a critical phase of development and have special requirements for their learning. Studies indicate that delaying socialization can have serious consequences on a dog’s entire life. Safe socializing can and must begin as soon as a puppy comes home and needs to be the focus of their early education. And just in case you were under the impression – socialization does not mean playing with other dogs. But that’s a whole other topic…

Vital lessons include developing a gentle mouth, acquiring good social skills and getting used to all the different sights and sounds that are part of the world a family dog will live in. By the time a pup arrives home at 8 weeks of age, the critical period to learn these things is already half over. Spending time on these critical skills while a puppy is still in this phase of development, will make the lessons (and other training) much easier and both parent and pup will have fun doing it. These pups will be set up for success by creating a more relaxed adolescent who already has some great skills started. It is not possible to make up for a lack of attention to these early lessons later. Many are time-sensitive, and once the critical early learning phase has passed, so has the opportunity.

For Every Dog

How to get things they want

For many dogs, the excitement of something they love is just too much, and they lose control. Depending on the dog, it may be a passerby or their favourite toy that sets them off.  Parents often react to unruly behaviour with demands or corrections in an attempt to get them to behave.

Our dogs learn instead that polite behaviours work to get things that matter to them. Not only does this help the dog learn to be polite, but they will also learn to do it by default without having to be micro-managed (constantly told what to do). And we don’t want to always have to remind our dogs to be gentle or polite, do we?

Helping one’s dog learn that they have choices is a novel approach for many people.  Waiting for polite stuff from our dogs, specifically waiting for them to offer it, can be tough. It’s hard for people not to just tell the dog what to do. The value in this style of training is that it teaches the dog what TO do by showing them the behaviours that will work to get them the things they want. No hints or corrections are needed – these will actually weaken the dog’s ability to offer the desired behaviour! And the polite behaviours we make ‘work’, will have a great reinforcement history and start to feel good to do, in and of themselves. So cool!

So how does it actually work? Simple. All you need to do is decide which behaviours you like. Let’s pick ‘sit’ as an example. It’s a great all–around behaviour. Start practicing this with any items your dog wants – toys, chews, dinner. Show them you have that thing they want, but don’t give it to them right away. Keep it out of reach. Stay calm and quiet, and wait. What do they do? If they do anything you don’t like – jump, bark, or paw – withhold the item. Don’t instruct your dog. Wait for them to offer the behaviour you like (sit, for example). Praise and offer the item as soon as they sit.

Bonus point of this method:

Not only will you be teaching your dog how to get things they want by offering calm, polite behaviour, you will also be training “in real time” by reinforcing sit with real life rewards.

Paying Attention

Having a dog pay attention or check in with us is a behaviour that traditional trainers often have to spend a lot of time on, as it can be challenging when there are distractions present. In our “wait for what you like” approach, young dogs are regularly being reinforced for checking in when things they get excited about are around – things that are distracting. They have learned that being involved with us is part of their success. They want us to notice the great behaviour they are offering, to reap the reward.

Bonus point of this method:

Being able to focus and work through distractions is one of the biggest challenges in proofing or making training reliable. In essence, we are turning distractions into meaningful real life rewards.

Building Self-Control

There are even more benefits in waiting for polite behaviour. As if we need more! Dogs will develop impulse control, learn to manage themselves and deal with frustration, and build patience. These are skills that do not develop when a dog is always micro-managed. Dogs that have too much freedom and have free access to things that matter to them miss the chance too. These skills are sadly missing in many dogs these days. Helping a dog learn these skills can take some time, so patience and consistency is required. It will be worth it, as they can truly change the way a dog behaves and how they handle day-to-day life.

Bonus point of this method:

Once dogs are outside the home, many get over-excited by the big, stimulating world around them.  A dog that is already learning the value of being calm and thinking about what is happening will be much better-equipped to deal with things in the real world.

An extra word about real-life rewards:

An obvious example of something your dog loves that you can provide is food, but there are so many more at your disposal. A chance to play a favourite game; getting let out into the yard; getting the leash on for a walk; being let out of their  crate. The sky’s the limit. You have lots of opportunities each day to help your dog practice.

So if you have a young puppy, don’t wait to start socializing. A puppy’s brain is set up to learn certain things that it can’t later on. Please don’t delay!

Hopefully the benefits of this “wait for what you like” approach are enticing enough that you’ll want to give it a try. And as for obedience, with the skills your dog will already have, teaching obedience will be a breeze!