Lazy Man's Dog Training: Six Weeks of Chaos

Bow Head

I’m a lazy dog trainer, but I think that actually helps me in my work.  Many dog trainers have trouble identifying with seemingly unmotivated owners looking for a quick fix.  I don’t have that problem.  I was that guy.  I always loved dogs, but training used to turn me off.  I never thought that I’d take an obedience class, let alone teach them.  Then I adopted a catahoula as my first dog of my own.  The bills for replacing my roommates’ chewed up possessions started piling up.  Desperate, I reluctantly signed up for my first obedience class.  I didn’t finish.  Only months later did I get serious about applying what I learned, and only because I had to.  My dog learned to be very obedient, but I still saw training as a necessary evil; the price of being able to take my dog places. 

That all changed when I got involved in fostering shy dogs and learned about gentler methods, but I can still easily put myself in the place of people who want a well-behaved dog without much effort.  I keep the memory of my young clueless self fresh, and I work to teach classes that he would have enjoyed.  Fortunately, training a dog in the basics is both fun and pretty easy.  After 6 weeks with Chaos, I’m more convinced of that than ever.          

In 6 weeks, Chaos has learned sit, down, and high five to the point of near 100% reliability for a verbal command.  His sit/stay is solid enough that I can usually use it to keep him out of trouble when I cook or work with another dog.  I can walk circles around him, wave a toy, step over him, toss food on the floor, or jump up and down while he holds a stay.  He can only do 7 or 8 minutes without my undivided attention, but I’m pleased with that.  He knows touch (but only for my hand), roll over for a hand signal but not a verbal, and leave-it with decent reliability.  His recall and name recognition had been perfect, but have suffered a bit in the last 2 weeks.  That’s a story for another post.     

The best part of all this has been that there’s no real work involved.  I don’t set aside time to train.  I just hang out with my dog, rewarding behaviors I want and preventing undesirable behaviors from paying off.  As Chaos follows me around, I ask him for behaviors.  If he tries to do something I don’t want, I interrupt him (ideally with an obedience command).  I might focus on training for a 5 full minutes when I teach something new or work through a problem, but otherwise it’s 15 seconds here or 2 minutes there.  I probably call him a couple of hundred times a day.  The same is true of sit.  We probably do 30-50 reps of roll over, high five, down, touch, and leave-it.  We probably do even fewer stays that that.  I do all of this, however, just being with my dog.  In the 15 minutes that I’ve been writing this, he’s done 5 or 6 sits, been called away from trying to go into another room, been called out of play with a boarding dog 3 times, and is now on a stay and looking sleepy.  I did all of that while being productive in another area.

Always having treats accessible without making them obvious makes all this work.  I never pull treats out right before training, and I certainly never have them in my hands.  Both practices get you a “show me the money” dog who only listens when he sees the treats.   I want Chaos’ impression to be that I can make treats appear anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether he’s noticed them.  When I start to fade the treats – as I have with sit, down, high five, and recalls – it’s no problem because their presence was never part of the training context.  I can’t overemphasize how important this is when training a green dog – especially if the owner is lazy or really busy.  If you always have access to treats, then you’re always prepared to train.  If you’re always prepared to train, it stops being a chore and becomes part of how you interact with your dog.  That’s what training is all about:  finding ways to better enjoy your dog’s company. 

I always harp on the practical everyday benefits of the bedrock commands - come, sit, stay, and leave-it - with my students.  Practicing them should make your life easier, not busier.  If I’m carrying a basket of laundry, for example, and Chaos attempts to raid the nearby cat food, I just use my leave-it, then a sit/stay.  I have treats on a nearby shelf, so I’m prepared for the training.  Once I put the basket down I can treat the stay, put the laundry in, treat the stay again, take clothes out of the dryer, treat the stay again, release my dog and praise him.  If I then need to fold the laundry, I can put him on another stay and reward while I’m doing that.  I can do this sort of exercise when I’m cooking, writing, making phone calls, or whenever I like. 

The alternative to training in my laundry scenario would be to yell at my dog and confine him away from the cat food.  Sure that might shorten laundry time from 6 minutes to 5, but it costs me 6 minutes of training.  The first time I did this, it probably took a bit longer.  My 5 minute task probably took 10 minutes, but I still got in 10 minutes of training and laundry at the same time instead of 5 minutes of laundry and a “train the dog” task looming over me on my to-do list. 

The time we spend with our dogs is full of opportunities like this, but we tend to squander them by reacting instead of taking charge.  We yell at our dogs instead of using a command.  We chase them around instead of practicing recalls.  We restrain them instead of practicing “sit” or “leave-it.”  I’m not saying that you should always train instead of manage.  When you don’t have time to train around a situation, go ahead and manage it, but make a mental note to leave a couple extra minutes to train around it next time.

I get lots of reps in because my dog is with me most of the time, but the principles apply for everyone.  Manage your environment to prevent bad behavior from paying off.  Teach the basic skills of sit, down, come, stay, and leave-it.  Have treats accessible but not obvious all over the house.  Use commands both to solve problems and to have fun with your dog.  As your dog progresses, you’ll do less management and need fewer treats until you have a truly well-trained dog.