Is Your Dog Training You?

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Someone once said, “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result, is the definition of insanity”.  While that brings a smile to us and seems to true, have we thought about the flip side?  If we continue to repeat our actions over and over again we should be able to count on the result.

In fact, we might even say that this applies to the general thinking when it comes to dog training.  If we repeatedly give a biscuit to our dogs for sitting when asked, we should be able to count on the result.  This reward Vs no reward concept is widely used in dog training.  

However, have you ever stopped to consider that this method is the one used by our dogs to teach us what they want?  We are not the only clever ones in the scenario, in fact I think that dogs do a great job at teaching their humans and seem to get the upper hand in many homes.

I can start with my own little terrier, Levi.  Levi came to me as a re-homed dog when she was close to one year of age.  She was a bundle of energy and at age 13 hasn’t slowed down much.  She is clever and has the art of manipulation down.  She was quick to catch on to any trick and soon got her CD from Nambr.  Her main issue was coming when she was called out in the park.  It was my goal to give her some freedom, so it was important that she had a reliable recall.  She taught me that putting a biscuit into my pocket before heading out the park wasn’t the end of the world.  She was rewarded hundreds of times over a few months for running like the wind towards me when she heard her name.  She was the talk of the park because her recall was fast and reliable.

Over time I noticed Levi running further and further away.  She would always come when called but her roaming distance seemed to increase daily.  After observing her, a light bulb went off in my head.  If she was close by, she wasn’t called to come and if she was not called, she didn’t get a tasty morsel upon returning.  She had trained me very well.  She knew that if she went a distance that made me uncomfortable, she would be called back and receive her treat.  Our new program started immediately.  

Instead of calling her back, I gave her treats and attention for being close.  I would occasionally drop a treat out of my pocket when she was in close range, and hadn’t been called.  I stopped calling her back and started a new plan.  As soon as she went too far, I would walk the opposite direction.  I knew her, and knew she had her eye on me at all times.  Remember, she had been training me and was the one previously in control.  If she ran back to catch up, there was no reward.  The only reward was for being close to me.  That did the trick and while she still has a fantastic recall, she now chooses to stick around.

Our dogs are clever.  There is no TV for them, they don’t go to see a play, and they don’t play scrabble with the other dogs.  They spend their days observing us.

There are many ways that our dogs train us.  Attention seeking is huge in dogs, and when they want our attention, they get it.  Imagine sitting at the computer and your dog is bumping your arm, bumping your arm, bumping your arm.  Eventually you pay attention.  We might think that the dog has to go outside but generally that is not the case. Dogs that continue to bark at us, in order for us to speak to them, have us well trained.  Of course, if we ignore these behaviors, they will soon disappear and your dog will learn that he is not the winner.

How about the dog that barks at the door to go out?  Is that real or is he just calling you to the door to see some activity.  I’m sure if our dogs could speak to each other they would say “check out how fast I can get my people to run towards the door” each time they barked. That is what the situation has evolved into.  In many cases, it has become a game for the dogs.  We should get up and let them out initially, but if it starts to happen every hour, you know you are in trouble. Yes, they might have to go out, and it takes an observant dog parent to decipher their own dogs language and know it is for a true toilet break, but keep in mind that they might just want to see a scurry of activity and get some attention.  

There are even bells you can attach to your door for your dog to ring if he wants to go outside!  Can you imagine?  Now there are dogs that wont come when we call them, but if they call us by bell ringing, we come at the speed of lightening, and they get a reward for it.  To think of it makes me smile.   Doesn’t it make more sense for you, the leader, to oversee all resources and rewards.  Surely if you take your dog outside on a frequent basis, on your schedule, he should be fine.  After all, the bells won’t work if you are not home.

There are even some dogs that are so smart that a turn of the head will get them what they want.  They will sit beside their people and do the head tilt, and who can resist a scratch of the ears when they see that.  Very clever.  Of course, there is really no harm in this, but it is interesting to see our dogs mind at work.

Dogs also train us when we are training them.  As we teach them to walk nicely beside us when going for a walk, you notice that the walk will continue even if they pull.  They wait for the 2 or 3 sit command.  Sit, sit, sit and finally a response.  They are even clever enough to roll on their backs for a belly rub right in the middle of a training exercise.  And who can resist them?  

There are many examples of dogs training people.  Many dogs simply don’t want to follow the rules and want to wiggle out of them.  Dogs that are asked to do something numerous times and are finally left alone by their people, have learned that if you ignore your people they will eventually let you off the hook.  It is during this time that you need to be consistent and when you ask them to do something (sit, down, get off the counter) you need to follow up.  This is the primary way dogs learn that we mean what we say.  No muss or fuss, no yelling and upset, just follow through.  I’m sure my dogs often communicate to each other and if they could speak they would say to the newest member of our family “you might as well do it now because she will insist on it”.  Consistency now will save you time, and frustration, in the future.

The other day I was sitting having coffee with a friend who recently acquired a 7-year-old husky mix.  It has been many years since they have shared their home with a dog, and this dog has stolen their hearts.  There are many stories of Juno, and how clever he is and I have to agree.  He is a lovely dog that had lived a sheltered life, and is now getting the attention that he deserves.  The other day Juno came over and pushed at my friend’s arm in a very determined way.  They were savvy enough to not just give him a pat, but to get up to see what he wanted.  He immediately ran to the back door and once outside, promptly tossed up his dinner.  His communication with his owner paid off…for both of them.

Who’s the smart one now?