Last night, Abe had his first training class. It’s a six-week program for dogs to learn basic obedience with a positive approach. Because Abe is already pretty solid on obedience, I decided to do it to solidify his commands in new, distracting environments. There are about 6-8 dogs in my class, and most are pretty young (puppy class graduates, around a year old). We worked on several things last night:
- Name recognition
- Look at me
- Targeting (touch nose to end of stick or hand)
- Sit, with only verbal cue
- Sit, with only hand gesture
- Down, with only verbal cue
- Down, with only hand gesture
Abe is 100% proficient in all of these things at home except for targeting (about 75%) and only has occasional trouble laying down in distracted environments. I don’t typically ask for a down in situations where he may feel uncomfortable or excited; I haven’t run into a situation where a sit, something he does in every situation no matter what, is not sufficient. In class, he showed just as much proficiency in these commands as at home! He was obviously a little nervous and distracted by the new surroundings and new, boisterous dogs, but he did so incredibly well.
Here’s a little bit of a breakdown of the commands and how he did with each:
- Name recognition
This one is simple: you say the dog’s name, and the dog should immediately whip its head around to look at you. This is used to get the dog’s attention before giving a command, or to distract the dog from something he’s focused on and shouldn’t be. At first, we click and treat any head turn at the name, and slowly work up to the instant-attention we’re looking for. Abe is already at the point where he whips his head around to find me when I say “Abey,” pretty much regardless of what he’s doing. Interesting point… I introduce him to other people and talk about him as “Abe,” but I call him “Abey” when I’m talking to him directly. I do this to make his name keep its meaning. If I’m casually talking about him to someone, and I keep calling him Abey without actually asking for his attention, he will learn that he doesn’t always have to look at me when I say his name. As far as he knows, his name is Abey, not Abe. “Abe” means nothing to him, and that’s how I want it. At home and in class, his name recognition is 99% solid.
- Look at me
This is similar to the name recognition but slightly different. The dog should frequently “check in” with you by making eye contact, and eventually, a cue like “look,” “watch,” or “eyes” can be added to ask for eye contact. Abe already knows that his name means “stop what you’re doing and look at me,” so I’m just continuing with that. At this point I don’t see a need to differentiate his name from the “look at me” command, since I’m already taking steps to make sure he never learns to tune out his name (which is why the cues are differentiated, mostly). Because he’s got a lot of Border Collie in him, which are known for their unrelenting stare, Abe has no problem with eye contact. He often sits around the house and just stares contentedly at my family members. He isn’t fixated, nervous, or agitated… He’s just looking. Again, since this cue is combined with his name, he’s 99% proficient at home and in class.
In this exercise, the dog is presented with an object (a long dowel rod, a hand, etc) and is rewarded for touching his nose to the object. Because of dogs’ innate curiosity and desire to explore everything with their mouths, this is usually fairly easy. We started with a long bamboo stick with the end wrapped in tape as an extension of our arm. This is useful for nervous dogs to start out with since you don’t have to lean over the dog to reach down toward them. I’ve already done this with Abe at home, and I’ve always used my hand, so I didn’t use the stick. I get down on his level to reduce the possibility of intimidating him by leaning over him and present my hand for him to touch. I’m in the process of adding the verbal cue, which you only do when the dog is performing the action reliably. This cue is good for several applications, like teaching loose leash walking and training a dog to ring a bell when it has to go out to potty (something I can’t do with Abe… he’d ring the bell constantly because he LOVES to be outside). Another use of the “touch” command is to make a game of it. If the dog is nervous and can’t relax enough to sit or lay down, you can play the “bump game,” which allows the dog to stay standing, move around, and focus on something other than what is making him nervous. I taught this to Abe to make meeting strangers easier. He’s wary of new people, but if they can play the bump game with him, that will make the introduction easier. He’s about 75% solid on targeting, and I’m adding the verbal cue now.
- Sit, with separate verbal cue and hand gesture
Next, the instructor had us ask for a sit using only the verbal cue, and then just the hand gesture, to see which cue the dog responds best to. Most dogs do better with a visual cue than a verbal one. Abe has been taught an automatic sit, meaning that if we’re walking and stop, he sits. Every time. Most of the time I don’t even have to ask him, especially if we’re in “training mode.” He will sit 100% of the time, without fail, in any circumstance, with either the verbal cue or hand gesture. This is his one cue that I could bet money on that he would perform. The instructor asked if anyone had enough confidence in the dog’s sit that we could walk to the center of the training barn, put down $5, and KNOW the dog would sit when asked the first time. I can with Abe. Not a huge accomplishment, in the grand scheme of things, but still!
- Down, with separate verbal cue and hand gesture
We repeated the exercise with down. Again, most dogs do better with the visual cue than the verbal one. Abe’s down is pretty solid, but he’s picky about the surface he lies down on. He won’t lie down on the tile floor at home (I don’t blame him and don’t ask him to), and he was hesitant to lie down on the rubber matted floor of the training barn. I brought a towel with me (we’re teaching the “place” cue next week) and he would lie down on that with absolutely no hesitation. He does equally well with the verbal cue and the hand gesture. Not solid enough yet that I could bet money on it in any situation, but that’s okay.
After talking to the instructor after class, I’m not sure that I’m going to continue taking him to the class. After looking at the list of thing we’ll be working on and commands we will be teaching the dogs in class, I realize that he already knows 90% of the list. The remaining 10% includes “leave it,” which I know how to teach but haven’t had a need yet. There hasn’t been anything I couldn’t call him off of with his name yet, and he’s not food motivated enough to counter-surf or snatch up dropped food faster than I can tell him no. Instead of the class, I would do one-on-one lessons with the trainer to work on things that we don’t cover in the class. The social atmosphere of the class is useful, but I could accomplish that by taking him to the dog park and staying outside the fence to work on commands. I’m still thinking about it.
Another thing I’ve been working on outside of class is recall. I want (NEED) to be able to have Abe off-leash when around the house and barn. If I’m outside feeding the horses, riding, washing the truck, etc, I can’t always have him on a leash tethered to me. I can tie him out to a tree on a long line, and I’ve done that, but it’s not my favorite thing to do. When he’s tied out, he just sits down and watches whatever I’m doing. He doesn’t explore or walk around when he’s on the tether, no matter how long the line is (mine is 25ft). Not a huge deal, but I take him with me so he can get some exercise! If I wanted him to just sit around, I’d leave him in the house!
Teaching recall is simple in principle but difficult in execution. You want the dog to think that coming to you is more fun than anything else he could be doing elsewhere. That requires an understanding of what motivates the dog. Food, toys, play, praise? What really turns the dog into a wiggly mess, with his eyes locked on you?
Abe isn’t very food motivated. I struggle getting him to eat all of his daily ration; he gets half dry food and half wet food, and I have to soak his dry food to turn it the consistency of wet food for him to eat it. He will not eat dry food on its own except for a bite here or there if I leave it out all day for him, no matter how many different kinds I’ve tried (post on his daily nutrition stuff coming soon). He gets hand-fed his daily ration during our nightly training sessions, and he tends to eat better that way, but he still won’t eat food if he’s in any way distracted. I’ve recently discovered that shredded chicken is a big pup-pleaser, so that’s what I use for environments with distractions. He also isn’t toy motivated. At all. He has no idea what to do with toys. I could toss him a tennis ball and it would smack him between the eyes. I’m trying to get my friend’s dogs to teach him what toys are… My dream has always been to play fetch in a big open field with my dog. If he never gets there, it’s no big deal, but I can dream. One thing that works really well is physical touch as praise. A lot of dogs aren’t, but he’s a very touchy-feely dog. He always has to be touching me, and he’ll flop over for a belly rub if I walk up to him (not in submission, legitimately for a belly rub). I use this to my advantage. If I don’t have treats on me, I can use a playful, excited snuggle as a reward for doing something right. An energetic shoulder-scratch and a big “what a good boy!” works even when he doesn’t want to take food. I’m careful not to make him feel confined or boxed in when I give him this praise, and he usually leans into me for more!
So, when working on recall, start small and easy. No distractions, short leash, good food rewards. Work up from there. There are lots of videos online, so I’m not going to go into it here. Abe is at the point where I can trust him off-leash as long as I keep him close to me in places with low distraction. If I let him wander far, the likelihood of me being able to get his attention to bring him back decreases. In the front yard, in the house, and around the barn while I’m feeding the horses, he’s good to be off-leash. I call him back extremely often to check in before sending him off again. In the front yard, I put a 25′ poly long line on his harness. The line is super lightweight, so he doesn’t really feel it, and if he ignores my recall cue, I can step on the line and reel him in. At the barn, I don’t want to risk him tangling himself in the horses’ legs with a long line, so I clip a 5′ strand of baling twine on his harness instead. It drags just far enough behind him for me to snag if needed but not long enough to get in the way. He stays close to me at the barn and mills around looking for mice or sits outside the fence and watches.
Last night I couldn’t find his leash to take him out to potty. I use a 25′ retractable leash for potty breaks, and this is the ONLY time I use it. Retractable leashes, or Flexi leads, can be pretty dangerous. The cord is small and can cut skin in the right circumstances, it’s hard to reel a dog in if needed, and if you drop it, the handle will chase the dog! I use it for potty breaks because I have a large deck outside of my basement, and I stand on the deck while he goes potty. The retractable leash makes it easier for me to keep the line from tangling, and it also works well for teaching him the difference between a strictly-potty outing and a play outing. If he goes out the back door on a retractable leash, it’s a potty trip, and he’s expected to go quickly and come back in. If he goes out the front door on a regular leash or longline, it’s playtime. Anyway, I couldn’t find his potty leash last night, so I decided to give him a chance without a leash. His routine is really well established, so I thought I’d try it. He knew it was a potty trip, so he didn’t try to run around the front of the house for play, but he did roam quite a bit in back of the house before pottying. He got a little far from me, and it was dark, so I walked out toward him and called him in. He’s not quite ready for off-leash potty trips, I don’t think.
I apologize for the long post. More updates coming soon!