Teaching the foundation agility class to puppies at the Agility Club of WA always provides me with some great questions on how to deal with problem puppy behaviours. A lot of people end up at agility class with their young dogs because they are over the top, crazy exuberant which means that they get up to some really full on mischief!
Some problems I’ve had lately have been things like chasing vacuum cleaners, “assisting” with loading dish washers, barking for attention, pulling the clothes off the washing line and chewing up things they shouldn’t be. All pretty annoying things that can be tricky to stop and which often get worse the more the dog get the opportunity to engage in them. So how do we stop problem behaviours from happening?
The answer lies not in how to stop it but rather replacing the problem behaviour with something else. More importantly we want to teach our dogs to do something that is completely incompatible with the thing that we don’t want them to do. Which basically means it is impossible for them to engage in the undesired behaviour while doing the alternate behaviour that you have taught. For example, if my dog is lying calmly on his bed chewing on a bone, he cannot also be chasing the vacuum cleaner or getting in my way when I’m loading and unloading the dish washer. This makes it the perfect behaviour to train a dog to do and use in these types of situations.
The first thing to do is teach the dog to get on a dog bed and stay there. I love teaching this as I can do it while I’m sitting in front of the TV on my favourite lounge!
To get started, put the dog’s bed on the floor next to where you are sitting. Call your dog over and when it steps onto the bed reward it, ideally with food. To progress, encourage the dog to get onto the bed when you’ve told it to and continually drop food on the bed to reward it for being on it. Once it gets the idea that being on the dog bed is great, give a release word such as “OK” or “break” and throw a piece of food a few metres away for the dog to go and get. It is likely that on going to get that food, when the dog returns it will get straight back onto the dog bed. If it does, reward multiple times for doing so and repeat with the release word followed by throwing food for the dog to go and get.
What this is doing is building value for your dog being on the dog bed and showing it that you want it to stay there until it gets released. If the dog gets off before you give permission, it misses out on the reward and you simply try again. I would continue with this and aim to have a training session every day for five or ten minutes for a few weeks, slowly increasing the length of time you ask the dog to stay on the bed and introducing distractions such as you getting up and walking away then coming back to reward if the dog is still correct.
Don’t worry about confusion if the dog uses the bed at other times. I only insist that they stay on the bed until released if I have specifically asked the dog to get on the bed in the first place. If the dog chooses to get on it when you haven’t actually asked when it’s in the house there is no need to make it stay on it and then have to release it. Although I would still reward and make a fuss of the dog if it does choose to lie on the bed at other times to let him know that it’s a great thing to do.
When your dog is happily getting on the bed when you’ve asked and it is staying there until released, you can start to introduce a bigger distraction. If it’s the vacuum cleaner that it goes mad for, introduce it slowly. For example, tell your dog to go and lie on the bed then go to get the vacuum cleaner out. If the dog stays, reward him. If the dog gets off, take it back to the bed. Never scold your dog for making a mistake. Making mistakes is part of learning and shows that the dog is still figuring this new game out. Let its choice of staying mean it earns a reward, if the dog gets up and leaves, it gets taken back and misses out on the opportunity to earn a reward.
Work up to the point that you can turn the vacuum on and the dog stays on his bed, continually rewarding for correct choices. If you work at this enough and provide your dog with a huge amount of rewards for being on the bed when you are vacuuming you will find that the dog will start to take itself to the bed when you get the vacuum cleaner out.
Dogs learn by association so, just as your dog may run to the same spot every night where it knows it gets dinner, the same applies to this situation provided you are very generous with your rewards, you are consistent with your training and the dog understands what it is that you want.
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 dogs, all border collies except for 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.