Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Catch Me!

It was subtle. It was just a toss of her head, a slight movement away from rather than towards the collar. It was a delayed response to my picking up collar and lead which hung on the gate which usually meant we were done playing and walking in the woods and it was time to go inside. Melissa always came running when she saw collar and lead. But this time Melissa was not following me. She had stopped to sniff something in the snow. I waited, and she caught up with me. I took her collar and lead off the gate and went to put it on her. Melissa moved away to sniff something else…or was she sniffing? I caught her glancing at me. She was avoiding the collar. Our walks had become predictable; she knew when fun times in the woods were coming to an end. It was time for her to go back inside to her x-pen while I showered and got ready to start the day. Being outside was so much more fun than being indoors.

Picture this scenario: You are ready to leave the house; you need to get your dog inside from the yard. You enter the yard; your dog sees you and moves in the other direction. You say his name and he ignores you. He glances over his shoulder at you when you repeat his name, and he moves further away. You move closer, he runs in circles just out of your reach. The ‘catch me’ game begins. You call your dog’s name over and over again getting louder at each repetition of his name. You get more frustrated because you are now late for work or an appointment. Your dog is having fun playing a game with you.

NO, your dog is not being dominant or trying to be ‘alpha’ over you. Those are old-fashioned terms no longer used by trainers….trainers using the most up-to date training methods based on scientific evidence. No need to reprimand your dog, or be forceful. Look at the two points of view.

From your point of view: You are on schedule, you go to bring the dog inside. You open the back door, but he stays at the far end of the yard looking at you. You call his name, he ignores you. You move towards him, but he stays just out of reach so you can’t grab his collar. You’re thinking ‘Why won’t the dog just listen?’ You return to the house for a biscuit to entice him to come indoors. It works…this time. But over the next several weeks you notice it is taking longer and longer for him to come to you, even after you have switched from a mere dog biscuit to last night’s left over chicken. He may grab the treat and run, he knows from past experiences you are going to take a hold of his collar if he hangs around too long.

From the dog’s point of view: You enter the yard at a certain time of the day; 5 minutes before you leave for work. Your presence at that time means he has to stop playing and come indoors. You may put him in a crate for safety reasons but he never has been comfortable in a crate. So not only does he have to stop playing in the yard, but also has to face the crate….and possibly long hours while you are away. Why would he want to come to you? He backs off; you continue to come forward…a chase game begins. Dogs like being the chaser and the one being chased if it is in play. He play bows inviting you to play some more. You are joining in this game by moving towards him. What began as simple avoidance of ending his playtime outdoors has now become a game that you have joined. This is fun for him!! Not so for you.

What to do? I first increased Melissa’s exercise. I got up 15 to 20 minutes earlier each morning so she could have more time to run in the woods. I wanted her tired, worn out, and ready to take a nap. We then began reviewing some basic skills and learning some new ones.

I began with the collar and lead. If you keep a collar on your dog at all times then you can use just the lead. Melissa runs in a double fenced area in our yard so I feel comfortable taking her collar off. I used Melissa’s daily rations for this exercise. I showed her a piece of food through the opening in the collar and while she moved forward to get the food I slipped the collar over her head. In the house there was no problem, she associated the collar/lead to mean she was going out doors. I practiced at all times of the day, not only when we were going out doors. I practiced when Melissa was resting, when Melissa was playing with a toy, when Melissa was playing with another dog. She began to eagerly move towards me when she saw her collar/lead.

We then practiced outdoors a few feet from the door. At this point you could use two collars…..one stays on, hooked to the leash, the other is the one that is taken on and off. Many repetitions, collar on collar off. Melissa really liked this game. She got a reward, reinforcement, a treat each time she put her head into the collar.

Next was to take our training sessions out to the woods where the Catch Me game was taking on the beginning stages. We practiced before meal times. I was the provider of all good things….Melissa was hungry; I was more reinforcing then a run in the woods I had part of her meal in my pocket! She was eager to have her collar and lead be put back on. We practiced many reps, and then I allowed Melissa to go play. I tossed a ball, we played tug, Melissa stayed close by, and she followed me as we made our way thru the paths. The sight of the collar and lead had Melissa moving to me each and every time. Sometimes I put the collar/lead on Melissa, fed her some of her food for a reward, let her off lead and then allowed her to go play. We played tug and fetch some more. I then gradually moved towards the gate. Each time Melissa saw collar and lead she came running.

Sometimes I put collar and lead on, opened the gate, we would begin our walk up the driveway, but then go in the opposite direction…back to the play yard in the woods. And I allowed Melissa to once again go play. I was mixing things up, I was unpredictable. Melissa was no longer anticipating that just because I had put on her collar and lead that play time was over.

Sometimes we had a short training session in the driveway before we headed back to the play yard. Melissa looks forward to our training sessions. Although the skills may differ, she has fun interacting with me. Sometimes we even made it all the way into the house, Melissa would get a handful of different yummy treats (remember I am trying to be unpredictable) and then we would go back outdoors again. I was engaging Melissa’s mind, another way to tire out your dog.

Did this all take extra time? It sure did, but not much maybe 5 to 10 minutes for each practice session, plus extra time to run, a total of maybe a half hour each morning. Melissa is 5 and a half months old; I am setting her up for good habits and associations for life. Thirty minutes now, developing a relationship built on trust and understanding that would last a life time was well worth the effort.

Next I had to set up Melissa’s indoor time to be more interesting. I had become lax in giving M something really good to do while in her x-pen while I was gone from the house. From Melissa’s viewpoint it was boring to be confined indoors. After making sure she was well exercised outdoors I set about to making indoor time more fun and interesting for her. I rotated toys. I made her interactive toys a bit harder, but also more enticing. Instead of cream cheese or peanut butter which I had used for the last few weeks (how boring and predictable could I be?) I began stuffing her Twist and Treat with some cubed cheese or chicken. I also went back to feeding the remainder of her meals we had not used outdoors for training to stuff Kongs and hollowed out marrow bones. I took a trip to a butcher and got huge knuckle bones for Melissa to work on while she was home alone in her ex-pen. Thinking back on the past 3 to 4 weeks, I had set up Melissa’s time alone indoors to become very BORING. No wonder playing outdoors was so much fun!

By observing the first subtle signs of that head toss away from her collar and watching her extend playtime a bit longer outdoors, I was able to set up Melissa’s environment so she did not learn the game of Catch Me. Collar and lead became associated with sometime great, not a signal that playtime ends each time they were in sight. Indoors was set up so Melissa looked forward to relaxing in her ex-pen and playing with different toys and bones.

As a young puppy, Melissa may slide back in some of her skills from time to time. Even adult dogs can regress but it is always something in their environment that is more reinforcing to them, then we humans have become. When that happens I stand back and see it from the dog’s point of view. I then set up our daily routine and training sessions for success.

1 comment:

  1. A really interesting post that makes a lot of sense. Thank you.