Teaching Parameters

Life is all about balance. We want our dogs to be free to investigate the environment, but we don’t want them to pull us along through the mud. We want our dogs to be free to make their own behavioural choices, but we don’t want them to make choices that are injurious to them. We want to walk our dogs off lead, but we want them to come back when we call.

I’m a fairly laissez-faire guardian. I don’t micromanage my dogs and I’m too lazy to do obedience with them. Plus, I can’t see the point of drilling my dog to gaze at me as we walk as if I’m the hottest star on the planet. My cocker would do that for 5km if I had an accidental pig’s ear in my pocket, and after the first kilometre, it gets a big tedious to be honest. Plus, I’m walking them for them not for me. I would like to go eat cake and drink coffee. So if I’m out on a walk, this is my dog’s time. I don’t care for them heeling for 5km in the hopes of pork products. I want them to enjoy their walk and be dogs.

Yet the truth is that it’s never been possible for dogs to live in the human sphere without rules. If Lidy didn’t have rules (and doors, gates, fences and leads) she’d have run into the cow field opposite and either been kicked to death in her efforts to bring down a prize beef bull, or been shot by the farmer. If Heston didn’t have rules, he’d have died of starvation in the forest after spending his life chasing creatures and investigating. I don’t think it would have crossed his tiny mind to even go rooting in dustbins or eating the creatures he found even if he was very hungry.

Even street dogs and feral dogs, those who live in spaces between the human world and the wild world, are bound by rules. You don’t chase traffic, you don’t harass humans and you don’t harass other animals. Strict penalties, including the death penalty if you do.

It’s a balance for those of us who live with a dog – trying to find that magical world between a ‘full’ life for a dog and a life limited to one of sentient cuddly toy.

The truth is, though, when many of us give our dogs liberty, they don’t know how to cope with it. Just yesterday, we had a run-in with an off-lead dog who couldn’t cope with his liberty and charged up to us in a completely inappropriate way. And when we deprive them of their liberty, we’re faced with the need to teach them to walk nicely on lead, to accept being enclosed all day and to accept the frustrations of not being able to fulfill their most basic urges.

Some dogs struggle with achieving balance and when given liberty, make choices that put themselves or other individuals into harm.

One of the responsibilities, then, of entering into a relationship with a dog is to manage the balance between giving them freedom and helping them cope with restriction. Our lives with dogs are all about that balance. If we do the former, we have happy, fulfilled dogs. If we do the latter, we have dogs who cope with the frustrations that come along with living with humans.

What we need to do, then, is teach them how to cope with frustration and how to make good choices.

This is much easier with a puppy, of course. We can habituate them to small amounts of frustration, of not being able to get what they want immediately. We can inoculate them against the stresses of frustration by very, very gradually putting them in situations where patience, settling and calm are rewarded. We can teach them how to cope when alone. We can help them cope with frustrations of not being able to get to us or not being able to access play or petting or food when they want it. We teach them that all good things come to those who wait.

There are many ways you can teach dogs to wait. It doesn’t have to be painful. Most of this is basic manners: don’t mug me for your bowl; don’t jump up on me for affection; don’t charge my legs as you run out of the door; don’t paw me or nudge me because you want me to stroke you. We can teach our dogs nice ways to ask politely – I always teach my dogs that they can have as much petting as they like if they rest their chin on me. It beats being clawed to death. My dogs know that if they wait patiently, they’ll always get what they want. And I never ask them to wait patiently if they’re too young or I haven’t taught them how yet. No mugging is an absolute basic starting point:

You can also do ‘slow treat’. Once you’ve mastered ‘no mugging’, you can use slow treats to help your dog cope with their impulse to grab.

I love Deb Jones and I love this slow treat procedure. It’s been an absolute Godsend for so many other dogs. I used it with a big, grabby malinois x GSD who was reactive to other dogs. ‘Slow treats’ was his favourite thing to do with me other than getting aggressive with on-lead dogs around him. Some dogs – particularly the confident ones I find – like this focus game and it helps build up that concept of good things coming to those who wait. Shy dogs find it tougher, so you can start at the elbow. It’s a really good game as a prerequisite to ‘watch’.

Some trainers don’t like teaching dogs to watch or asking them to check in with us, but if you see something they’ve not seen yet that would end in a battle, if your aim is distraction, it can be a useful tool. I used it on Thursday when a deer stood stock still in the path ahead of us for a good couple of minutes trying to decide if we were a threat. I prefer nose down to the ground for real distraction, and many dogs find it hard to keep visual focus for a long time, but it’s a useful tool that has its place. Lidy really struggled with this game at first. No surprises there. The big surprise was that in starting it, lots of her other impulsive behaviours lessened without teaching. Lidy likes leaping on things in bushes. Leaping on things in bushes seemed to be massively reduced through playing the ‘slow treats’ game, and I often use it to calm her if she gets a little manic. Not being impulsive is a learned skill: dogs aren’t born with it. That’s especially true for certain breeds hardwired for dopamine fixes.

This is another Deb Jones one, and most of you will be already doing things like waiting for your dog to chill out before going to their bowl. Don’t overlook this skill though: it’s important for what comes later.

So you’ve done ‘no mugging’, you’ve done ‘slow treats’, you’ve done ‘zen bowl’… you can then start ‘chuck the cheese’ for dogs who are very chase-oriented. Tony Cruse’s activity is great to build up from the slower activities you’ve already done. You don’t need to do with with a collar hold – you can also put a bit of pressure on their chest.

Deb Jones also teaches ‘Get it!’, as do I.

You might overlook the importance of ‘Get it!’

Jane Ardern of Waggawuffins and Smart Dog makes the very valid point that we don’t want our dogs to get most things in the universe. If we teach ‘Leave it!’ on its own, then all we’re doing is setting ourselves up for a lifetime of ‘Leave it…. Leave it…. Leave it… Leave it….’

Isn’t it better, she says, if we teach ‘Get it!’

Honestly, I think dogs need both. When you understand ‘Get it!’ and ‘Leave it!’ then you have parameters… what’s out of bounds and what’s allowed. Along with ‘Wait!’, you’re teaching your dog what to get, what to leave and what to leave for a little while if they’ve got impulse control. I’d be remiss if I didn’t put Susan Garrett’s It’s Yer Choice in here.

You can, of course, make it as complex as you wish then. Instead of asking for their name or a sit, you can ask for any other behaviour. If you want to practise heeling around a pile of biscuits or toys, that’s your choice. Fill the space between the exciting thing going on the floor and you saying ‘Get it!’ with whatever your dog can manage. You can shape progressively more challenging behaviours and longer periods between the placement and the ‘Get it!’ You can clearly play this with toys as well.

Leslie McDevitt uses a flirt pole with her dogs in Pattern Games, and Kristen Crestejo uses one here too.

Of course, many of these things are seen as typically obedience-based or manners-based. But for dogs who do not make good choices under pressure, like Lidy, then learning to stop and voluntarily control your behaviour is a much higher-order brain skill. I find that with a lot of these impulse control games, the dogs are learning to space out what they want to do with actually doing it so that you can add direction or so that they can make better choices. It’s a core element of gundog training and works heavily on the Premack Principle. Premack basically pairs up a behaviour the dog would do less with one they would do more of. Make the favoured behaviour a consequence of the less favoured behaviour. Sit, and you get to run. Wait, and you get to chase.

Once your dog has control over themselves and they’re coping better with frustration, you can then add in something I refer to as ‘Mother, May I?’

When I was a small thing, I did a lot of those activities that get your parents some time alone. We also spent an inordinate amount of time out on the street playing with everyone else in the neighbourhood to the extent that I’m surprised I’m not entirely feral.

One of the games we played in Brownies and out on the street was one called ‘Mother, May I?’

Basically, one person plays Mother. They stand about 10 or 20 metres away from the rest of the kids. The aim is to get to Mother. You think of a way to get closer to her, like hopping, and say, ‘Mother, May I take five hops forward?’

Mother may say yes. She may say no. If you don’t ask nicely (Mother, May I?) you go back to the beginning.

Basically, it’s a permission game. Ask nicely. I may say yes, I may say no.

This is another really easy one to do with dogs.

Position a lot of interesting items around your garden when your dog is not present, or use an empty field or pathway. Make sure there is plenty of space between the items, and include stinky things as well as food. Put your dog on a lead, preferably using a long line where you’ve given the dog 2m or so of the 10. If they try to pull forward, stop dead. Your dog may then choose to do something else, like come back. In that case, you can let the lead out and say your marker word like ‘Get it!’. Whatever your dog offers may be the basis of a really nice ‘Mother, May I?’ request. Some dogs look back. That’s fine. You can use ‘Get it!’ if you want to shape and build that behaviour. Some dogs come back. That’s fine too. Some dogs slack off. Lidy sits. Ideally, what you want is some engagement with you. You’re the one with the lead. I’ve been shaping eye contact from Lidy. Sitting for permission to go chase cows doesn’t cut it for me.

At first, you can navigate the course with ‘Get it!’ cues. Then you can add in ‘Leave it!’ cues (you don’t get to get it at all) and ‘Wait!’ cues (you can have it in a second).

What you have are parameters and a dog who knows to ask if they can go forward and that lunging does not work. Technically, you’re replacing lunging with a ‘Mother May I?’

Dogs who have frustration issues will find this insanely hard. That’s why you absolutely have to start with the simple stuff like ‘no mugging’ and to make sure they’re really good at waiting and leaving items. You can also add in other cues like ‘Go Sniff’.

Using these isn’t a matter of a robotic military drill on a walk…

‘Heel… Leave it… Heel… Wait… Heel… Get it… Heel… Go sniff…’

You’re not a helicopter parent micromanaging their every behaviour.

What happens though is impulsivity slacks off. It is not rewarded in any of these games. Patience is rewarded. Waiting is rewarded. Checking in is rewarded.

The other day, a bird flew out of a hedge right near Lidy’s head. Did she leap on it? No. Did I have to say ‘Leave it!’. No. She moved forward as if to leap on it … and then she stopped. She didn’t sit and look at me as if I am a cruel beast for not letting her try to chomp birds. She just went back to what she was doing. The bird didn’t set off her primitive ‘leap on it now!’ brain circuitry. Well, it did a little. Then her fully exercised self-control and thought muscle kicked in. No point chasing a bird who has gone. The moment was over.

What you find with impulse control activities is that your dog is building up some space between thinking and action in order for training to kick in. They’re also learning to defer to you if they don’t make good decisions. For those of us trying to break superstitious behaviours where the dog impulsively barks or lunges and we can’t make headway because we can’t break the link between the thing appearing and our dog lunging, impulse control often gives us the wiggle room. This is so important for dogs who are impulsively aggressive or reactive. The big, slow neocortex can kick in and take over with its ability to rationalise and to control voluntary movements, rather than the zippy limbic system and reptilian bits of the brain making impulsive decisions first.

If you want to move from impulsive actions to a zen calm, teaching your dog about parameters is essential.