When I’m ready to bring a new puppy into my home, one of the characteristics I look for is a “full on” personality and a desire to go hard all the time. This is because I do agility with my dogs and the more “up” they are, the more suited to agility they tend to be. Unfortunately there are plenty of people out there wanting a nice calm pet who inadvertently end up with a highly charged dog that they have no idea how to control and this can ultimately turn their lives into a misery.
For me, training high drive dogs is a fun and exciting adventure. These dogs meet the world head on and will give anything a go however, in order to get the best out of them, I really need to understand how to best deal with them.
The biggest mistake I see people make is that they try to impose control onto the dog. When I’m teaching at the agility club, I see loads of people with out-of-control dogs looking for help. The owners spend most of their time waving food in front of the dog hoping that the dog does what they want and yanking on the lead to a point where they are actually begging their dog to behave. For the most part, the dogs simply continue doing whatever it was that they were doing completely ignoring their owners’ desperate pleas.
This may sound weird but the most effective way to control an out-of-control dog is to put the responsibility to behave back onto the dog. Begging only serves to put you in a situation where the dog will respond only if you have something to bribe it with.
I’m currently training my fourteen month old Papillon for agility and her idea of a great time is chasing border collies. Agility training can be quite difficult as there are fast running border collies everywhere. Over a period of time I have been working with her to overcome this by giving her a choice. She can be silly and get nothing or be calm, sit quietly and earn reinforcement by way of food rewards from me.
To try this yourself, start with your dog on a lead. That way you have control and your dog can’t run off. Grab the rewards you are going to use making sure that they are rewards that the dog actually wants. Try and use something like barbecue sausage or cheese, particularly if the dog rarely gets them. Either put the treats in your pocket or put the food container on a kitchen bench and stand next to it. Don’t have the food in your hand.
Now it’s time for you to be patient. Without telling your dog to do anything stand there and wait for him to do something useful. If your dog is jumping around you can simply wait for your dog to stand calmly with you and then reward. If he is standing there looking at you, wait for him to sit then reward. The most important thing is that he chooses to do this himself not because you were telling him to do it. You must be ready to give the reward as soon as he is doing whatever it is that you wanted him to.
When he gets the idea at home you can try taking him somewhere with more distractions. The object of the exercise is to get your dog to offer you something good without being asked to “earn” the reward. Dogs will always try harder when they have to work for something.
When I’m working with my Papillon, I won’t tell her to stop leaping around, I stand and wait for her to come and sit next to me before rewarding her. As she’s on lead she can’t actually chase the dogs doing agility so I literally place myself close to where the dogs are training and wait for her to make the correct decision. As soon as she realises that the silly stuff isn’t going to get her what she wants she will quietly come and sit with me to earn the reward.
Introduce higher levels of distraction gradually. By exposing a dog who gets very over excited to something he’s not ready for, it will most likely fail. Start off with the dog a long way away from the distraction slowly working closer once your control has increased.
Karen Phillips is the owner and trainer of Riot, the beautiful border collie that is the Better Pets and Gardens mascot. Karen has had immense experience and success with her border collies as well as little Cassie, the very fast papillon, and is currently involved as a trainer with the Agility Club of WA. Karen is also a regular expert on our Facebook page every Monday night.