In life (and shopping) we are led to believe that we get what we pay for – we expect that the more we pay, the better the product or service. In regards to Dog Trainers, that may or may not be the case! However, it is VERY true when applied to the actual act of training your dog.
The more mystical minded of you may have also heard of the concept that the universe provides more of what we focus on. Now, I don’t wish to get into a debate about the truth or fallacy of that belief with regards to life in general, but it sure does hold true with dogs.
These two observations are linked. Let me explain:
The Usual Scenario
Put yourself in your dog’s paws for a moment. Perhaps you are out to work most of the day, leaving your dog alone and probably a bit bored. When you get home how do you think your dog feels? What do you think they may want? The obvious answers are “they’re bored” and they want “attention”, “fun”, or “interaction” in whatever manner you provide.
So, you spend time with your dog; go for a walk, play some games, maybe do some training or whatever your habit may be. So far, so good. However, if you have a young, active dog, there is a fair chance that you will have only skimmed the surface of their energy reserves!
Let’s say you give your dog an hour’s walk and some one-on-one time before you have to start cooking the evening meal. Your dog is given their meal in a bowl and then ignored while you get busy. They settle down with a chew toy and you breathe a sigh of relief and get on with the cooking.
5 minutes later you see your dog trying to pinch the kid’s toys. You stop what you’re doing, interrupt and scold your dog, remove the toy, and go back to your chores. They go back to their mat and lie down; watching you very carefully.
2 minutes later the dog is barking out the window at the neighbour’s cat. You yell at the dog and pull the curtains. He settles back down; you go back to your cooking. Within seconds he’s into something else! It’s the waste paper bin – used tissues are now strewn across the floor and you’re getting seriously hacked off.
Your dog is a constant pain! Telling him off and correcting him isn’t working. Every-time you turn your back to do something he’s into more mischief!
Sound familiar? Why does this sort of thing happen SO often? Well, here’s the kicker:
YOU are maintaining it!!!!!
The Laws of Learning Bite You in the Bum
Yep, you. Go back to those first two statements I made at the beginning of this article. ‘You get what you pay for” and “you get more of what you focus on”.
Think about it: if the only behaviour you notice is ‘bad behaviour’ – and you ignore settled, appropriate behaviour, what are you teaching your dog? You’re teaching them that the only way to get your attention is to ‘get into mischief’.
For most dogs any attention is good attention. Pinching toys, raiding bins, barking out of windows – all behaviours that are fun in their own right but, not only that, they get YOUR attention as well! And remember, to a bored young dog, attention from you is VERY valuable. You are effectively paying for these behaviours by giving your attention. Aagghh!
Obviously, these behaviours aren’t the sort of things we want our dogs doing so what can you do about it? I like to take a multi-pronged approach.
1) Provide other, acceptable ways for your dog to burn energy.
Give your dog ways to amuse himself while you’re busy. Instead of feeding in a bowl, use a variety of different ‘enrichment’ strategies so he has to work for his dinner. Some simple but effective options might be:
- Scatter his kibble over the lawn for him to forage out.
- Put his kibble into a pop bottle or treat ball for him to knock around and empty.
- Stuff wet or sticky food into a Kong or similar toy.
- Have him earn his dinner by doing some training.
- Use the time (and his dinner) to teach him to settle on a bed or mat. This is called ‘station training’ and is used extensively in zoos to manage animals’ behaviour during routine procedures or if multiple animals are being fed/trained at once within one exhibit. It’s very effective and the animals love it!
2) Manage the situation
If you can’t provide enough entertainment while you’re busy, prevent your dog finding mischief (and hence getting rewarded for it when you have to intervene) by either crating, penning, tethering or station training him. I like to provide a long lasting tasty chewy item whenever I use management like this to prevent even more boredom – leading to a vicious cycle.
3) Make a point of looking for behaviours you like!
So often we ignore the dog when they are behaving quietly, calmly or just not being a nuisance. This is a huge mistake. If you like what your dog is doing, acknowledge it with quiet praise, calm petting or even a quietly given treat or two. You will be amazed at how quickly you can change your dog’s behaviour just by shifting what you focus on and where you put your ‘money’.
Focus on What You Want, Prevent What You Don’t
This approach, coupled with good management, has allowed me to bring up multiple high-energy breed pups and turn them into well behaved, chilled adults that can settle down and relax when necessary. It doesn’t happen overnight but it does happen. You just have to focus on what you want, pay for it and prevent what you don’t want. Once good habits are established you will find your dog is far less likely to spend his time trying to find ways to get what he wants – you!
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